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Trapped in the depths of Halley’s Comet, the Futuremen battle fourth-dimensional monsters in a titanic struggle to save the system’s solar energy!
“The Comet Kings” was originally published in 1942. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher.
MILLIONS of miles out beyond Jupiter, the battered old space-freighter Arcturion plodded through the void.
“I’d just as soon walk to Uranus!” disgustedly exclaimed Norton, the young second mate. “I wish I’d got a berth on a passenger liner. They don’t spend weeks crawling along between planets.”
Brower, the veteran first mate, smiled tolerantly at the impatient young officer.
“You’ll get used to it,” he predicted. “Me, I kind of like it. It’s restful, plugging along day after day through these big empty spaces.”
“But nothing ever happens!” the younger man complained, “There’s never even a close brush with a meteor swarm. I can’t stand this deadly monotony.”
Ironically, it was at that moment that the catastrophe broke upon them.
The plodding, droning Arcturion suddenly seemed to go crazy in space. Its steelite hull plates screamed beneath the grasp of unearthly forces. The ship hurtled suddenly sideward in space, as though it had been gripped by a giant, invisible hand.
The sharp shock of that invisible grasp was so powerful that it nullified the Arcturion’s artificial gravitation. Young Norton felt himself hurled against the cabin wall, and his brain saw stars.
His last sensation was of mysterious and mighty forces sweeping the old freighter at undreamable speed through the void. Then he knew nothing at all.
That was only the first disappearance.
“But there aren’t any uncharted meteor swarms out in that sector of space, sir!”
The man who spoke was a Martian who wore the dark uniform of the Planet Patrol. He wore a captain’s insignia, too, for Tzan Thar was head of this Jovopolis Maintenance Division.
His red, solemn face was wrinkled with dismay and there was anxiety in his large-pupiled black eyes, as he protested to the Venusian superior officer who looked at him out of the square televisor screen.
“Don’t try to evade responsibility, Captain Thar!” snapped the higher officer. “You’re in charge of the Maintenance Division for that sector of space. You’ve been lax in your meteor-sweeping, and a score of ships have come to grief as a result.
“Twenty-three ships gone, since that old freighter Arcturion first disappeared! And every one of them vanished in that sector beyond Jupiter, and hasn’t reported since.”
“I can’t understand it any more than you can sir,” said the Martian captain. “We swept all lanes in that sector only a few weeks ago.”
“Then you missed plenty of meteors!” rapped his superior. “You get out there with every sweep you’ve got—and be fast about it! I want that sector cleaned up at once. And see if you can’t find the wreckage of those ships.”
The connection was broken. Tzan Thar turned and looked helplessly at his junior officers—lanky Earthmen, squat Jovians, bronzed Mercurians.
“You all heard him,” the Martian captain said worriedly. “You know we swept that sector thoroughly, that every space-lane was clear. But something’s drifted in that has been wrecking ships. We’ve got to get busy!”
Six broad-beamed, dumpy meteor-sweeps soon rose up through the thin sunlight of Jupiter, blasted their tortuous path out through the maze of moons, and then laid a course outward in space.
The six ships, built with steelite walls of massive strength, droned steadily out through the starry void. Their far-ranging spotter beams fanned space ahead. Wherever those beams encountered meteors or other debris, they would be reflected back to indicate the location. Then the sweeps would advance and destroy the meteors by concentrated atom-blasts.
BUT their spotter apparatus found no trace of meteors as they droned out along the space-lane. Captain Tzan Thar became deeply puzzled.
“I can’t figure it,” he admitted anxiously. “There are no meteors in this sector. There isn’t even any wreckage from all those vanished ships.”
His immediate superior, a young Mercurian, looked uneasy.
“It’s queer, all right—”
Cataclysm suddenly interrupted their discussion. A colossal, invisible hand seemed suddenly to seize their heavy ship. They were flung to the floor as that giant, unseen hand scooped up all six great meteor-sweeps.
Nor did the tragic disappearances cease.
“Fifty-two ships. Do you hear that—fifty-two ships! Freighters, liners tankers, even meteor-sweeps. This can’t go on!”
North Bonnet’s face was agitated as he paced to and fro in his office, on a high level of Earth’s Government Tower at New York. It was a comparatively small office, yet it was the very brain and nerve center of the far-flung Planet Patrol.
Halk Anders, commander of the Patrol, sat at his desk and said nothing. His bulldog face was stolidly grim as he hunched there, staring out through the window at the soaring towers and gleaming lights of this night-shrouded metropolis of the Solar System.
“Commander, something’s got to be done,” North Bonnet continued vehemently. “Those ships held thousands of people, millions of dollars’ worth of cargoes. Shipping companies, planetary officials, anxious relatives are all besieging the Government. You’ve got to send cruisers out there to stop these disasters!”
Halk Anders did not turn from his grim contemplation at the lights of New York, as he answered.
“We sent two Patrol cruisers into that sector to investigate weeks ago after our meteor-sweeps vanished.”
“You did,” Bonnet said hopefully. “What did they report?”
They didn’t report anything,” the commander replied. “They never came back—just disappeared like the others.”
The Government official was appalled.
“Patrol cruisers disappeared, too?”
“Yes. We kept it quiet because we didn’t want to add to the general alarm.”
“But what are we going to do about it?” Bonnel asked dismayedly.
“I’ve already done something,” the commander told him. “I sent out another cruiser to investigate. Two of my crack agents are aboard. You know them—old Marshal Ezra Gurney and Joan Randall.
“It may look queer, sending a girl,” he added quickly. “But Joan’s not only the smartest agent of our secret investigation division—she knows the space-ways better than most men. And as for Ezra Gurney—well, he knows the whole System like the back of his hand.”
“Have they found out anything yet?” Bonnel demanded eagerly.
Halk Antlers shrugged stolidly.
“I don’t know. They were to report by televisor today. I’ve been expecting their call any minute.”
But though the two men waited expectantly, it was not until four hours later that the televisor on the desk buzzed sharply. From it came the urgent voice of a headquarters switchboard man.
“Cruiser Ferronia calling, Commander. Agent Randall to speak to you.”
“Switch her on at once!” snapped Halk Anders.
IN THE square glass screen of the televisor appeared the vivid face of a dark, pretty girl. Joan Randall’s eyes were shadowed with anxiety as she spoke to them across the millions of miles of space.
“Ferronia reporting, Commander,” she said rapidly. “We’ve been cruising back and forth over the whole sector in which those ships vanished. And we’ve found nothing.”
“Nothing?” echoed Anders incredulously. “You mean—”
“I mean just that. There’s nothing here but empty space!” Joan Randall declared. “There’s not a meteor in this whole region big enough to wreck a ship. Furthermore, there’s no sign whatever of any wreckage of all those ships. It’s just as though space itself swallowed them up!”
The white head of an old man appeared over the girl’s shoulder. Marshal Ezra Gurney’s wrinkled face and faded blue eyes were bleak as he corroborated the girl’s report.
“It sounds cursed queer, but it’s so,” he told the commander. “This is the dangdest, most puzzlin’ mystery I ever—”
At that moment, something happened. It happened so swiftly that neither Commander Anders nor North Bonnel get more than a glimpse of it.
They saw something like a blaze of white across the televisor screen, instantly blotting out the suddenly alarmed faces of Joan and Ezra. And then the televisor had gone dark.
Anders jabbed its call-button.
“Joan! Ezra! What’s happened?”
There was no answer. Anders flung a switch and shot an order to the headquarters operator.
“Contact the Ferronia again at once!”
Ten minutes later, the switchboard division called back.
No success at all, sir. The Ferronia simply doesn’t answer.”
Anders slowly turned and looked at the Government official, and his bulldog face was heavier than ever.
“It happened to Joan and Ezra, right in front of our eyes,” he muttered. “Whatever struck at the other ships struck at theirs, too.”
Bonnel was appalled.
“But what was it? There was nothing but a blaze of force in the screen!”
Anders shook his leonine head helplessly.
“I can’t figure it. I thought I’d seen everything in space but this is something new, and dangerous.”
He rose to his feet.
“There is nothing to do but to send a full squadron of Patrol cruisers out there. And if they disappear, too—”
“There’ll be a panic that will cripple space travel in the whole System,” breathed Bonnel, his face pale. Then his eyes flashed.
“Commander, this mystery can’t be met by force. It’s a job for someone who can scientifically ferret out what is really happening. Someone who can use every resource of science to solve the riddle.”
Halk Anders understood this at once.
“You’re thinking of Captain Future?”
The official nodded emphatically.
“If anybody could crack this mystery, that scientific wizard and his Futuremen could.”
“Maybe so,” muttered the commander. “Future has plenty of tricks the rest of us don’t know. But if you call him in, will he come?”
“Will he come?” echoed North Bonnel. He strode toward the televisor. “Why, Ezra Gurney is one of his oldest friends, and as for Joan—you ought to know what Future thinks of her!”
“Will he come? He’ll split space itself getting here when he learns that Joan and Ezra are in danger!”
A SMALL, streamlined ship climbed from the barren, airless surface of the Moon, with rockets blazing white fire, it shot toward Earth.
Had there been any observer, he would have known at once that it was the ship of Captain Future and the Futuremen. For only those four famous adventurers lived upon the lifeless, forbidding satellite. Their underground laboratory-home beneath Tycho crater was the only habitation.
The little ship flew toward Earth at a speed no other craft could match, and which no ordinary pilot would have attempted. It screamed down through the darkness of the shadowed planet, toward the blazing pinnacles of New York. Like a swooping falcon, it came down to rest on the truncated tip of the looming Government Tower.
Down in Planet Patrol headquarters, North Bonnel was still restlessly pacing his office as Halk Anders sat grimly silent.
“If Future can’t solve this thing, nobody can!” Bonnel was saying jerkily. “And if ships keep on vanishing like that—”
A clear voice interrupted him:
“What’s this about vanishing ships? And what’s happened to Joan and Ezra?”
Bonnel and Halk Anders both spun around. A door had opened silently behind them. And in it were four figures.
“Captain Future!” exclaimed Bonnel. He breathed in gusty relief. “By heaven, I’m glad you and the Futuremen got here so quickly!”
Curt Newton ignored the warm greeting of these two old acquaintances as he strode into the office. His brows were knitted in a frown.
“You said in your call that Joan and Ezra were in trouble. What is it, Bonnel? And why didn’t you call me before?”
Captain Future—as the whole System called Curtis Newton—towered a full head above Bonnel. His tall, ranged figure, clad now in a gray zipper-suit, hinted of strength and speed. And the heavy proton pistol belted to his waist recalled that he was not only the famous Wizard Science, but also the most renowned fighting planeteer in the System.
Beneath Curt’s torchlike mop of red hair, his space-tanned handsome face and clear gray eyes now mirrored an urgent anxiety. He had few friends, but those few were very close to him. Marshal Ezra Gurney was one of the oldest. And even closer to his heart was the gay, gallant girl agent whose safety now was threatened.
“Where are Joan and Ezra?” he repeated.
“We don’t know,” Bonnel answered helplessly.
“What do you mean—you don’t know?” cried one of the Futuremen. “Devils of space, is this a joke?”
The three Futuremen who were Curt Newton’s faithful, lifelong comrades made a striking contrast to their tall, red-haired young leader. Otho, the one who had just spoken, was a lithe, white, rubbery-looking figure of a man, with a devil of fierce recklessness in his slant green eyes. He seemed almost an ordinary man, but was not. Otho had been created in a laboratory, long ago. He was a synthetic man, an android.
Grag, second of the Futuremen, was even more extraordinary. He was an intelligent robot—a giant metal figure towering seven feet high, with photoelectric eyes gleaming from the bulbous metal head that shielded his mechanical brain. Strongest of all beings vas Grag!
The third and strangest was Simon Wright, the Brain. He was just that—a living human brain, dwelling in a transparent metal case whose constantly repurified serums kept him alive. His glass lens-eyes were watching, his microphone ears listening, as he hung poised upon the pale beams of force by which he could move through the air at will.
“You must have some idea where Joan and Ezra are! Otho was exclaiming impatiently to Bonnet. “Or did you bring us all the way from the Moon just for a silly hoax?”
“Shut up, Otho,” Curt Newton ordered. His gray eyes bored into Bonnel’s face. “Tell us what happened.”
BONNEL told them, as briefly as he could. He told of the scores of slips that for weeks has mysteriously vanished in that sector beyond Jupiter, of the assigning of Joan Randall and old Marshal Gurney to investigate, and of the inexplicable interruption of their televisor call.
“The thing has me baffled, Captain Future,” confessed Halk Anders when Bonnel finished.
Curt’s eyes were hard. “We’re going out there at once and find out what did happen to them,” he said sharply. He turned toward the door. Otho’s slant green eyes flamed with excitement as he followed. And Grag, too, followed Captain Future silently. But the Brain’s metallic voice held them back. “Wait a moment, Curtis. I know you’re worried about Joan, but getting into too big a hurry won’t help us. We need to know more about this.”
Otho groaned exasperatedly. “Every time we’re in a devil of a hurry, Simon has to delay to plan things out.”
There was truth in the charge. The cold, almost emotionless mind of the Brain was always more careful in planning action than were the others. That was natural, for the Brain was the oldest of them all.
The Brain could look back across the years to the time before Curt Newton had been born. He had been an ordinary man, at that time. He had been Doctor Simon Wright, brilliant, aging scientist of a great Earth university, dying of an incurable ailment.
His body had died but his brain had lived on. His living brain had been surgically removed and implanted in the artificial metal serum-case which he still inhabited. That had been done by Roger Newton, his gifted young colleague in biological research.
Soon after that, threats to their scientific secrets had caused the Brain, Roger Newton and Newton’s bride to leave Earth in search of a safe refuge. They had found such a haven on the lifeless Moon, where they built an underground laboratory-home beneath the floor of Tycho crater.
In that strange home, Curt Newton had been born. And in it, the science of the two experimenters had created Otho, the android, and Grag, the robot.
Death had come to Roger Newton and his young wife, soon after that. The orphaned infant they had left had been adopted by the three strange beings, the Brain, the robot and the android. These three had faithfully reared the boy to brilliant manhood, giving him the unparalleled education that in time had made him an unsurpassed master of science.
Ever since Curt Newton had begun to use his great powers against the evil-doers of the System, his three former guardians had followed him as the Futuremen.
“Before we go out there,” the Brain was saying deliberately in his metallic voice, “I want all available data about the spaceships that disappeared. I want to know the route each ship was on, its date of departure, its approximate cruising speed, and about when it vanished.”
Captain Future’s gray eyes showed quick understanding.
“I see what you mean, Simon. By calculating the courses and speeds of the ships, we may be able to fix the approximate point in space where they vanished.”
Halk Anders gave rapid orders into an office interphone. The file of data requested by the Brain was soon brought to him.
“We’ll call you the moment we learn anything out there,” Curt called back earnestly from the door to the two officials. “Come on, Grag.”
THEY hurried up the little private stair to the landing deck atop Government Tower, Otho taking the steps three at a time, Grag’s metal limbs clanking, the Brain gliding silently at Curt Newton’s side.
Up there in the windy darkness atop the tower, the small ship of the Futuremen crowded the deck. The four boarded the Comet in a minute, the airlock door was slammed shut, the cyclotrons started, and Captain Future grasped the space-stick in the crowded little control room.
He sent the Comet climbing steeply up to the stars with a burst of white flame from its tail rocket tubes. It angled sharply above the glittering towers of New York to fling itself space-yard amid a roar of splitting atmosphere, as Curt’s foot pressed the cyc-pedal.
Presently they were out in clear space, Earth receding rapidly behind them as Curt Newton built up the speed of the Comet to fantastic velocity. Like a man-made meteor gone mad, the ship of the Futuremen hurtled outward. The bright speck of Jupiter gleamed ahead, a little to the right.
Far out to the left, well beyond the orbit of the monarch world, glowed the brilliant splendor of Halley’s Comet. The great comet was plunging Sunward again in its vast, seventy-five-year orbit. Its giant coma or head shone like a blazing world, the long tail streaming backward.
“The ships all disappeared in the quadrant ahead, between the orbits of Jupiter and Uranus,” Curt told Otho thoughtfully. “Since all space-lanes have been rerouted to give Halley’s comet a wide berth, it cuts down the area that we must search.”
There came a sudden booming cry of alarm from Grag, back in the main cabin.
“Someone has planted an atomic bomb on this ship!”
Springing up in alarm, Curt Newton slammed the switch of the automatic pilot and bounded back with Otho into the cabin. This main cabin of the Comet was more laboratory than living quarters. It was crowded with telescopic, spectroscopic, electrical and other apparatus. There was a table at its center over which the Brain had been poised, studying a mass of calculations.
Grag was standing, pointing his metal arm in alarm at a small, square black case in a corner. It exactly resembled a “live” atomic bomb.
“Don’t touch it, Chief—it may let go any minute!” the big robot cried. “Somebody must have put it in the ship while we were out.”
Captain Future moved swiftly toward the bomb, snatched it up and tore open the airlock door to throw the thing out. But the “bomb” suddenly writhed and changed form in his hands.
It changed with swift protean flow of outline, into a small, living animal. It was a doughy-looking little white beast, with big, solemn eyes that looked up innocently at Curt.
“It’s my pet, Oog!” cried Otho. He jumped forward in alarm. “Don’t throw him out!”
Curt disgustedly tossed the little animal to its master.
“It isn’t his fault,” Otho said protectively. “You know Oog loves to imitate anything he sees. That’s his nature.”
Oog was cuddling contentedly in his master’s arms. The little beast was a meteor-mimic, a species of asteroidal creature which had developed the art of protective coloration to great lengths. This species had the power of shifting its bodily cells to shape itself after any model, and completely controlled its own pigmentation. It could imitate anything.
“I don’t mind your keeping the little nuisance around in the Moon-laboratory, but I told you not to bring any pets in this ship,” Captain Future bawled out the android.
“Well, Grag brought along his pet, Eek, and so I thought I had a right to bring Oog,” Otho answered defensively.
CURT uttered an exasperated snort. “So we’ve got Eek along, too? Where is he, Grag?”
Reluctantly the great robot opened a cabinet and released another small animal, but one of a different species. It was a little gray, bearlike creature with beady black eyes and powerful jaws, now contentedly gnawing upon a small scrap of copper.
Eek, as Grag called this pet of his, was a moon-pup. He was a member of the strange species of moon-dogs that inhabited the airless satellite of Earth. These creatures did not breathe air or eat ordinary food, but nourished their strange tissues by devouring metal or metallic ores. They were strongly telepathic, that being one of their chief senses.
“Look at the beast—he’s chewed up half the copper instruments in that cabinet,” Curt said bitterly. “Why the devil did you bring him along?”
Grag shifted uncomfortably.
“Well, Chief, I had to do it. Eek can sense what people are thinking, you know, and he knew we were going and was upset about being left behind. He’s a sensitive little fellow.”
“Sensitive? That walking four-legged nuisance? All he knows is to eat up valuable metal and to sleep,” Curt said witheringly.
Simon Wright had paid no attention to the altercation over the pets. The Brain was too accustomed to such arguments to notice them. “Curtis, I want you to look at these figures,” he said.
Curt went over to the side of the Brain, who was poised uncannily upon his pale tractor-beams above the mass of calculations. The brain had been marking small crosses upon a space-chart that showed the quadrant between the orbits of Jupiter and Uranus, ahead of them.
“Each cross represents where one of the spaceships vanished, as nearly as I can figure it,” the Brain explained. Captain Future felt dismayed as he looked. The pattern of crosses was not focused around any one point. It extended in a long, strung-out oval, reaching almost from Uranus’ orbit to that of Jupiter.
“I can’t understand this,” Curt muttered puzzledly. “I thought the ships would all have disappeared in the same part of space, and that by going there we could find the key to the mystery. But since that isn’t so, it means we’ll have to search the whole vast quadrant for a clue.”
“I fear so, lad,” admitted the Brain. “And a search of such dimensions will take us weeks.”
Curt went discouragedly back to the pilot chair. Gloomily he stared into the enormous, star-specked void ahead of the flying ship. It yawned empty to the eye, except for the bright spark of Jupiter to the right, and the flaring glory of Halley’s Comet far out on the left ahead.