E. E. "Doc" Smith
Published 2018 Caramna Corporation
In the Lifeboats
Worsel to the Rescue
The Passing of the Overlords
The Quarry Strikes Back
Kinnison Brings Home the Bacon
Kinnison Meets the Wheelmen
Nothing Serious at All
Judge, Jury, and Executioner
Mac is a Bone of Contention
The Second Line
Preparing for the Test
Tregonsee Turns Zwilnik
Kinnison Bores From Within
Dominating twice a hundred square miles of campus, parade–ground, Airport, and spaceport, a ninety–story edifice of chromium and glass sparkled dazzlingly in the bright sunlight of a June morning. This monumental pile was Wentworth Hall, in which the Tellurian candidates for the Lens of the Galactic Patrol live and move and have their being. One wing of its topmost floor seethed with tense activity, for that wing was the habitat of the lordly Five-Year Men, this was Graduation Day, and in a few minutes Class Five was due to report in Room A.
Room A, the private office of the Commandant himself, the dreadful lair into which an undergraduate was summoned only to disappear from the Hall and from the Cadet Corps, the portentous chamber into which each year the handful of graduates marched and from which they emerged, each man in some subtle fashion changed.
In their cubicles of steel the graduates scanned each other narrowly, making sure that no wrinkle or speck of dust marred the space–black and silver perfection of the dress uniform of the Patrol, that not even the tiniest spot of tarnish or dullness violated the glittering golden meteors upon their collars or the resplendently polished ray–pistols and other equipment at their belts. The microscopic mutual inspection over, the kit boxes were snapped shut and racked, and the embryonic Lensmen made their way out into the assembly hall.
In the wardroom Kimball Kinnison, Captain of the Class by virtue of graduating at its head, and his three lieutenants, Clifford Maitland, Raoul LaForge, and Widel Holmberg, had inspected each other minutely and were now simply awaiting, in ever-increasing tension, the zero minute.
"Now, fellows, remember that drop!" the young Captain jerked out. "We're dropping the shaft free, at higher velocity and in tighter formation than any class ever tried before. If anybody hashes the formation—our last show and with the whole Corps looking on…"
"Don't worry about the drop, Kim," advised Maitland. "All three platoons will take that like clockwork. What's got me all of a dither is what is really going to happen in Room A."
"Uh–huh!" exclaimed LaForge and Holmberg as one, and…"You can play that across the board for the whole Class," Kinnison agreed. "Well, we'll soon know—it's time to get going," and the four officers stepped out into the assembly hall, the Class springing to attention at their approach.
Kinnison, now all brisk Captain, stared along the mathematically exact lines and snapped.
"Class Five present in full, sir!" The sergeant–major touched a stud at his belt and all vast Wentworth Hall fairly trembled under the impact of an all– pervading, lilting, throbbing melody as the world's finest military band crashed into "Our Patrol."
"Squads left—March!" Although no possible human voice could have been heard in that gale of soul–stirring sound and although Kinnison's lips scarcely moved, his command was carried to the very bones of those for whom it was intended—and to no one else—by the tight–beam ultra–communicators strapped upon their chests.
In perfect alignment and cadence the little column marched down the hall. In their path yawned the shaft—a vertical pit some twenty feet square extending from main floor to roof of the Hall, more than a thousand sheer feet of unobstructed air, cleared now of all traffic by flaring red lights. Five left heels clicked sharply, simultaneously upon the lip of the stupendous abyss. Five right legs swept out into emptiness. Five right hands snapped to belts and five bodies, rigidly erect, arrowed downward at such an appalling velocity that to unpractised vision they simply vanished.
Six–tenths of a second later, precisely upon a beat of the stirring march, those ten heels struck the main floor of Wentworth Hall, but not with a click. Dropping with a velocity of almost two thousand feet per second though they were at the instant of impact, yet those five husky bodies came from full speed to an instantaneous, shockless, effortless halt at contact, for the drop had been made under complete neutralization of inertia—"free," in space parlance. Inertia restored, the march was resumed—or rather continued—in perfect time with the band. Five left feet swung out, and as the right toes left the floor the second rank, with only bare inches to spare, plunged down into the space its predecessor had occupied a moment before.
Rank after rank landed and marched away with machine-like precision. The dread door of Room A opened automatically at the approach of the cadets and closed behind them.
"Column right—March!" Kinnison commanded inaudibly, and the Class obeyed in clockwork perfection. "Column left—March! Squad right—March! Company—Halt! Salute!"
In company front, in a huge, square room devoid of furniture, the Class faced the Ogre—Lieutenant–Marshal Fritz von Hohendorff, Commandant of Cadets. Martinet, tyrant, dictator—he was known throughout the System as the embodiment of soullessness, and, insofar as he had ever been known to show emotion or feeling before any undergraduate, he seemed to glory in his repute of being the most pitilessly rigid disciplinarian that Earth had ever known. His thick, white hair was roached fiercely upward into a stiff pompadour. His left eye was artificial and his face bore dozens of tiny, threadlike scars, for not even the marvelous plastic surgery of that age could repair entirely the ravages of space–combat. Also, his right leg and left arm, although practically normal to all outward seeming, were in reality largely products of science and art instead of nature.
Kinnison faced, then, this reconstructed potentate, saluted crisply, and snapped. "Sir, Class Five reports to the Commandant." "Take your post, sir." The veteran saluted as punctiliously, and as he did so a semi–circular desk rose around him from the floor—a desk whose most striking feature was an intricate mechanism surrounding a splint–like form. "Number One, Kimball Kinnison!" von Hohendorff barked. "Front and center—March!…The oath, sir."
"Before the Omnipotent Witness I promise never to lower the standard of the Galactic Patrol," Kinnison said reverently, and, baring his arm, thrust it into the hollow form.
From a small container labelled "#1, Kimball Kinnison," the Commandant shook out what was apparently an ornament—a lenticular jewel fabricated of hundreds of tiny, dead–white gems. Taking it up with a pair of insulated forceps he touched it momentarily to the bronzed skin of the arm before him, and at that fleeting contact a flash as of many–colored fire swept over the stones. Satisfied, he dropped the jewel into a recess provided for it in the mechanism, which at once burst into activity.
The forearm was wrapped in thick insulation, molds and shields snapped into place, and there flared out an instantly–suppressed flash of brilliance intolerable. Then the molds fell apart, the insulation was removed, and there was revealed the LENS. Clasped to Kinnison's brawny wrist by a bracelet of imperishable, almost unbreakable, metal in which it was imbedded it shone in all its lambent splendor—no longer a whitely inert piece of jewelry, but a lenticular polychrome of writhing, almost fluid radiance which proclaimed to all observers in symbols of ever–changing flame that here was a Lensman of the GALACTIC PATROL.
In similar fashion each man of the Class was invested with the symbol of his rank. Then the stern–faced Commandant touched a button and from the bare metal floor there arose deeply–upholstered chairs, one for each graduate.
"Fall out," he commanded, then smiled almost boyishly—the first intimation any of the Class ever had that the hard–boiled old tyrant could smile—and went on in a strangely altered voice.
"Sit down men, and smoke up. We have an hour in which to talk things over, and now I can tell you what it is all about. Each of you will find his favorite refreshment in the arm of his chair.
"No, there's no catch to it," he continued in answer to amazedly doubtful stares, and lighted a huge black cigar of Venerian tobacco as he spoke. "You are Lensmen now. Of course you have yet to go through the formalities of Commencement, but they don't count. Each of you really graduated when his Lens came to life.
"We know your individual preferences, and each of you has his favorite weed, from Tilotson' s Pittsburgh stogies up to Snowden's Alsakanite cigarettes—even though Alsakan is just about as far away from here as a planet can be and still lie within the galaxy.
"We also know that you are all immune to the lure of noxious drugs. If you were not, you would not be here today. So smoke up and break up—ask any questions you care to, and I will try to answer them. Nothing is barred now this room is shielded against any spy–ray or communicator beam operable upon any known frequency."
There war a brief and rather uncomfortable silence, then Kinnison suggested, diffidently.
"Might it not be best, sir, to tell us all about it, from the ground up? I imagine that most of us are in too much of a daze to ask intelligent questions."
"Perhaps. While some of you undoubtedly have your suspicions, I will begin by telling you what is behind what you have been put through during the last five, yearn. Feel perfectly free to break in with questions at any time. You know that every year one million eighteen–year–old boys of Earth are chosen as cadets by competitive examinations. You know that during the first year, before any of them see Wentworth Hall, that number shrinks to less than fifty thousand. You know that by Graduation Day there are only approximately one hundred left in the class. Now I am allowed to tell you that you graduates are those who have come with flying colors through the most brutally rigid, the moat fiendishly thorough process of elimination that it has been possible to develop.
"Every than who can be made to reveal any real weakness is dropped. Most of these are dismissed from the Patrol. There are many splendid men, however, who, for some reason not involving moral turpitude, are not quite what a Lensman must be. These men make up our organization, from grease–monkeys up to the highest commissioned officers below the rank of Lensman. This explains what you already know—that the Galactic Patrol is the finest body of intelligent beings yet to serve under one banner.
"Of the million who started, you few are left. As must every being who has ever worn or who ever will wear the Lens, each of you has proven repeatedly, to the cold verge of death itself, that he is in every respect worthy to wear it. For instance, Kinnison here once had a highly adventurous interview with a lady of Aldebaran II and her friends. He did not know that we knew all about it, but we did Kinnison's very ears burned scarlet, but the Commandant went imperturbably on.
"So it was with Voelker and the hypnotist of Karalon, with LaForge and the bentlam–eaters, with Flewelling when the Ganymede–Venus thionite smugglers tried to bribe him with ten million in gold…
"Good Heavens, Commandant!" broke in one outraged youth. "Do you—did you—know everything that happened?"
"Not quite everything, perhaps, but it is my business to know enough. No man who can be cracked has ever worn, or ever will wear, the Lens. And none of you need be ashamed, for you have passed every test. Those who did not pass them were those who were dropped.
"Nor is it any disgrace to have been dismissed from the Cadet Corps. The million who started with you were the pick of the planet, yet we knew in advance that of that selected million scarcely one in ten thousand would measure up in every essential. Therefore it would be manifestly unfair to stigmatize the rest of them because they were not born with that extra something, that ultimate quality of fiber which does, and of necessity must, characterize the wearers of the Lens. For that reason not even the man himself knows why he was dismissed, and no one save those who wear the Lens knows why they were selected—and a Lensman does not talk.
"It is necessary to consider the history and background of the Patrol in order to bring out clearly the necessity for such care in the selection of its personnel. You are all familiar with it, but probably very few of you have thought of it in that connection. The Patrol is of course an outgrowth of the old Planetary Police systems, and, until its development, law enforcement always lagged behind law violation. Thus, in the old days following the invention of the automobile, state troopers could not cross state lines. Then when the National Police finally took charge, they could not follow the rocket– equipped criminals across the national boundaries.
"Still later, when interplanetary flight became a commonplace, the Planetary Police were at the same old disadvantage. They had no authority off their own worlds, while the public enemies flitted unhampered from planet to planet. And finally, with the invention of the inertialess drive and the consequent traffic between the worlds of many solar systems, crime became so rampant, so utterly uncontrollable, that it threatened the very foundations of Civilization. A man could perpetrate any crime imaginable without fear of consequences, for in an hour he could be so far away from the scene as to be completely beyond the reach of the law.
"And helping powerfully toward utter chaos were the new vices which were spreading from world to world, among others the taking of new and horrible drugs. Thionite, for instance, occurring only upon Trenco, a drug as much deadlier than heroin as that compound is than coffee, and which even now commands such a fabulous price than a man can carry a fortune in one hollow boot–heel.
"Thus the Triplanetary Patrol and the Galactic Patrol came into being. The first was a pitiful enough organization. It was handicapped from without by politics and politicians, and honey–combed from within by the usual small but utterly poisonous percentage of the unfit—grafters, corruptionists, bribe– takers, and out–and–out criminals. It was hampered by the fact that there was then no emblem or credential which could not be counterfeited—no one could tell with certainty that the man in uniform was a Patrolman and not a criminal in disguise.
"As everyone knows, Virgil Samms, then Head of the Triplanetary Patrol, became First Lensman Samms and founded our Galactic Patrol. The Lens, which, being proof against counterfeiting or even imitation, makes identification of Lensmen automatic and positive, was what made our Patrol possible. Having the Lens, it was easy to weed out the few unfit. Standards of entrance were raised ever higher, and when it had been proved beyond 'question that every Lensman was in fact incorruptible, the Galactic Council was given more and ever more authority. More and ever more solar systems, having developed Lensmen of their own, voted to join Civilization and sought representation on the Galactic Council, even though such a course meant giving up much of their systemic sovereignty.
"Now the power of the Council and its Patrol is practically absolute. Our armament and equipment are the ultimate, we can follow the law–breaker wherever he may go. Furthermore, any Lensman can commandeer any material or assistance, wherever and whenever required, upon any planet of any solar system adherent to Civilization, and the Lens is so respected throughout the galaxy that any wearer of it may be called upon at any time to be judge, jury, and executioner. Wherever he goes, upon, in, or through any land, water, air, or apace anywhere within the confines of our Island Universe, his word is LAW.
"That explains what you have been forced to undergo. The only excuse for its severity is that it produces results—no wearer of the Lens has ever disgraced it.
"Now as to the Lens itself. Like every one else, you have known of it ever since you could talk, but you know nothing of its origin or its nature. Now that you are Lensmen, I can tell you what little I know about it. Questions?"
"We have all wondered about the Lens, sir, of course," Maitland ventured. "The outlaws apparently keep up with us in science. I have always supposed that what science can build, science can duplicate. Surely more than one Lens has fallen into the hands of the outlaws?"
"If it had been a scientific invention or discovery it would have been duplicated long ago," the Commandant made surprising answer. "It is, however, not essentially scientific in nature. It is almost entirely philosophical, and was developed for us by the Arisians.
"Yes, each of you was sent to Arisia quite recently," von Hohendorff went on, as the newly commissioned officers stared, dumbfounded, at him and at each other. "What did you think of them, Murphy?"
"At first, sir, I thought that they were some new kind of dragon, but dragons with brains that you could actually feel. I was glad to get away, sir. They fairly gave me the creeps, even though I never did see one of them so much as move.
"They are a peculiar race," the Commandant went on. "Instead of being mankind's worst enemies, as is generally believed, they are the sine qua non of our Patrol and of Civilization. I cannot understand them, I do not know of anyone who can. They gave us the Lens, yet Lensmen must not reveal that fact to any others. They make a Lens to fit each candidate, yet no two candidates, apparently, have ever seen the same things there, nor is it believed that anyone has ever seen them as they really are. To all except Lensmen they seem to be completely anti–social, and even those who become Lensmen go to Arisia only once in their lives. They seem—although I caution you that this seeming may contain no more of reality than the physical shapes you thought you saw— to be supremely, indifferent to all material things.
"For more generations than you can understand they have devoted themselves to thinking, mainly of the essence of life. They say that they know scarcely anything fundamental concerning it, but even so they know more about it than does any other known race. While ordinarily they will have no intercourse whatever with outsiders, they did consent to help the Patrol, for the good of all intelligence.
"Thus, each being about to graduate into Lensmanship is sent to Arisia, where a Lens is built to match his individual life force. While no mind other than that of an Arisian can understand its operation, thinking of your Lens as being synchronized with, or in exact resonance with, your own vital principle or ego will give you a rough idea of it. The Lens is not really alive, as we understand the term. It is, however, endowed with a sort of pseudo–life, by virtue of which it gives off its strong, characteristically changing light as long as it is in metal–to–flesh circuit with the living mentality for which it was designed. Also by virtue of that pseudo–life, it acts as a telepath through which you may converse with other intelligences, even though they may possess no organs of speech or of hearing.
"The Lens cannot be removed by anyone except its wearer without dismemberment, it glows as long as its rightful owner wears it, it ceases to glow in the instant of its owner's death and disintegrates shortly thereafter. Also—and here is the thing that renders completely impossible the impersonation of a Lensman—not only does the Lens not glow if worn by an importer, but if a Lensman be taken alive and his Lens removed, that Lens kills in a apace of seconds any living being who attempts to wear it. As long as it glows—as long as it is in circuit with its living owner—it is harmless, but in the dark condition its pseudo–life interferes so strongly with any life to which it is not attuned that that life is destroyed forthwith."
A brief silence fell, during which the young men absorbed the stunning import of what their Commandant had been saying. More, there was striking into each young consciousness a realization of the stark heroism of the grand old Lensman before them, a man of such fiber that although physically incapacitated and long past the retirement age, he had conquered his human emotions sufficiently to accept deliberately his ogre's role because in that way he could best further the progress of his Patron.
"I have scarcely broken the ground," von Hohendorff continued. "I have merely given you an introduction to your new status. During the next few weeks, before you are assigned to duty, other officers will make clear to you the many things about which you are still in the dark. Our time is growing short, but we perhaps have time for one more question."
"Not a question, sir, but something more important," Kinnison spoke up. "I speak for the Class when I say that we have misjudged you grievously, and we wish to apologize. I thank you sincerely for the thought, although it is unnecessary. You could not have thought otherwise of me than as you did. It is not a pleasant task that we old men have, that of weeding out those who do not measure up. But We are too old for active duty in space—we no longer have the instantaneous nervous responses that are for that duty imperative—so we do what we can. However, the work has its brighter side, since each year there are about a hundred found worthy of the Lens. This, my one hour with the graduates, more than makes up for the year that precedes it, and the other oldsters have somewhat similar compensations."
"In conclusion, you are now able to understand what kind of mentalities fill our ranks. You know that any creature wearing the Lens is in every sense a Lensman, whether he be human or, hailing from some strange and distant planet, a monstrosity of a shape you have as yet not even imagined. Whatever his form, you may rest assured that he has been tested even as you have been, that he is as worthy of trust as are you yourselves. My last word is this—Lensmen die, but they do not fold up, individuals come and go, but the Galactic Patrol goes on!"
Then, again all martinet.
"Class Five, attention!" he barked. "Report upon the stage of the main auditorium!"
The Class, again a rigidly military unit, marched out of Room A and down the long corridor toward the great theater in which, before the massed Cadet Corps and a throng of civilians, they were formally to be graduated.
And as they marched along the graduates realized in what way the wearers of the Lens who emerged from Room A were different from the candidates who had entered. it such a short time before. They had gone in as boys, nervous, apprehensive, and still somewhat unsure of themselves, in spite of their survival through the five long years of grueling tests which now lay behind them They emerged from Room A as men, men knowing for the first time the real meaning of the physical and mental tortures they had undergone, men able to wield justly the vast powers whose scope and scale they could even now but dimly comprehend.
2. In Command
Barely a month after his graduation, even before he had entirely completed the postgraduate tours of duty mentioned by von Hohendorff, Kinnison was summoned to Prime Base by no less a personage than Port Admiral Haynes himself. There, in the Admiral's private aero, whose flaring lights cut a right–of–way through the swarming traffic, the novice and the veteran flew slowly over the vast establishment of the Base.
Shops and factories, city–like barracks, landing–fields stretching beyond the far horizon, flying craft ranging from tiny one–man helicopters through small and large scouts, patrol–ships and cruisers up to the immense, globular super dreadnaughts of space—all these were observed and commented upon. Finally the aero landed beside a long, comparatively low building—a structure heavily guarded, inside Base although it was—within which Kinnison saw a thing that fairly snatched away his breath.
A space–ship it was—but what a ship! In bulk it was vastly larger even than the super dreadnaughts of the Patrol, but, unlike them, it was in shape a perfect teardrop, streamlined to the ultimate possible degree.
"What do you think of her?" the Port Admiral asked.
'Think of her!" The young officer gulped twice before he attained coherence. "I can't put it in words, sir, but some day, if I live long enough and develop enough force, I hope to command a ship like that."
"Sooner than you think, Kinnison," Haynes told him, flatly. "You are in command of her beginning tomorrow morning"
"Huh? Me?" Kinnison exclaimed, but sobered quickly. "Oh, I see, sir. It takes ten years of proved accomplishment to rate command of a first–class vessel, and I have no rating at all. You have already intimated that this ship is experimental. There is, then, something about her that is new and untried, and so dangerous that you do not want to risk an experienced commander in her. I am to give her a work–out, and if I can bring her back in one piece I turn her over to her real captain. But that's all right with me, Port Admiral—thanks a lot for picking me out. What a chance—What a chance!" and Kinnison's eyes gleamed at the prospect of even a brief command of such a creation.
"Right—and wrong," the old Admiral made surprising answer. "It is true that she is new, untried, and dangerous, so much so that we are unwilling to give her to any of our present captains. No, she is not really new, either. Rather, her basic idea is so old that it has been abandoned for centuries. She uses explosives, of a type that cannot be tried out fully except in actual combat. Her primary weapon is what we have called the 'Q-gun'. The propellant is heptadetonite, the shell carries a charge of twenty metric tons of duodecaplylatomate."
'But, sir…" Kinnison began.
"Just a minute, I'll go into that later. While your premises were correct, your conclusion is not. You graduated Number One, and in every respect save experience you are as well qualified to command as is any captain of, the Fleet, and since the Brittania is such a radical departure from any conventional type, battle experience is not a prerequisite. Therefore if she holds together through one engagement she is yours for good. In other words, to make up for the possibility of having yourself scattered all over space, you have a chance to win that ten years' rating you mentioned a minute ago, all in one trip. Fair enough?"
"Fair? It's fine—wonderful! And thanks a…"
"Never mind the thanks until you get back. You were about to comment, I believe, upon the impossibility of using explosives against a free opponent?"
"It can't be impossible, of course, since the Brittania has been built. I just don't quite see how it could have been made effective."
"You lock to the pirate with tractors, screen to screen—about ten kilometers. You blast a hole through his screens to his wall–shield. The muzzle of the Q-gun mounts as annular multiplex projector which puts out a Q-type tube of force—Q47SM9, to be exact. As you can see from the type formula, this helix extends the gun–barrel from ship to ship and confines the propellent gases behind the projectile, where they belong. When the shell strikes the wall– shield of the pirate and detonates, something will have to give way, all the Brains agree that twenty tons of duodec, attaining a temperature of about forty million degrees absolute in less than one micro-second, simply cannot be confined.
"The tube and tractors, being pure force and computed for this particular combination of explosions, will hold, and our physicists have calculated that the ten-kilometer column of inert propellent gases will offer so much inertia and resistance that any possible wall–shield will have to go down. That is the point that cannot be tried out experimentally—it is quite within the bounds of possibility that the pirates may have been able to develop wall–screens as powerful as our Q-type helices, even though we have not.
"It should not be necessary to point out to you that if they have been able to develop a wall–shield that will stand up under those conditions, the back–blast through the breech of the Q-gun will blow the Brittania apart as though she were so much matchwood. That is only one of the chances—and perhaps not the greatest one—that you and your crew will have to take. They are all volunteers, by the way, and will get plenty of extra rating if they come through alive. Do you want the job?"
"You don't have to ask me that, Chief—you know I want it!"
"Of course, but I had to go through the formality of asking, sometime. But to get on with the discussion, this pirate situation is entirely out of control, as you already know. We don't even know whether Boskone is a reality, a figurehead, a symbol, or simply a figment of an old–time Lensman's imagination. But whoever or whatever Boskone really is, some being or some group of beings has perfected a mighty efficient organization of outlaws, so efficient that we haven't even been able to locate their main base.
"And you may as well know now a fact that is not yet public property— that even conveyed vessels are no longer safe. The pirates have developed ships of a new and extraordinary type, ships that are much faster than our heavy battleships, and yet vastly more heavily armed than our fast cruisers. Thus, they can outfight any Patrol vessel that can catch them, and can out–run anything of ours armed heavily enough to stand up against their beams."
"That accounts for the recent heavy losses," Kinnison mused.
"Yes," Haynes went on, grimly. "Ship after ship of our best has been blasted out of the ether, doomed before it pointed a beam, and more will be. We cannot force an engagement on our terms, we must fight them where and when they please.
"That is the present intolerable situation. We must learn what the pirates' new power–system is. Our scientists say that it may be anything, from cosmic– energy receptors and converters down to a controlled space–warp—whatever that may be. Anyway, they haven't been able to duplicate it, so it is up to us to find out what it is. The Brittania is the tool our engineers have designed to get that information. She is the fastest thing in space, developing at full blast an inert acceleration of ten gravities. Figure out for yourself what velocity that means free in open space!"
"You have just said that we can't have everything in one ship," Kinnison said, thoughtfully. "What did they sacrifice to get that speed?"
"All the conventional offensive armament," Haynes replied frankly. "She has no long–range beams at all, and only enough short–range stuff to help drive the Q-helix through the enemy's screens. Practically her only offense is the Q-gun. But she has plenty of defensive screens, she has speed enough to catch anything afloat, and she has the Q-gun, which we hope will be enough.
Now we'll go over the general plan of action. The engineers will go into all the technical details with you, during a test flight that will last as long as you like. When you and your crew are thoroughly familiar with every phase of her operation, bring the engineers back here to Base and go out on patrol.
"Somewhere in the galaxy you will find a pirate vessel of the new type. You lock to him, as I said before. You attach the Q-gun well forward, being sure that the point of attachment is far enough away from the power–rooms so that the essential mechanisms will not be destroyed. You board and storm— another revival of the technique of older time. Specialists in your crew, who will have done nothing much up to that time, will then find out what our scientists want to know. If at all possible they will send it in instantly via tight–beam communicator. If for any reason it should be impossible for them to communicate, the whole thing is again up to you."
The Port Admiral paused, his eyes boring into those of the younger man, then went on impressively.
"That information MUST get back to Base. If it does not, the Brittania is a failure, we will be back right where we started from, the slaughter of our men and the destruction of our ships will continue unchecked. As to how you are to do it we cannot give even general instructions. All I can say is that you have the most important assignment in the Universe today, and repeat—that information MUST GET BACK TO BASE. Now come aboard and meet your crew and the engineers."
Under the expert tutelage of the designers and builders of the Brittania Lieutenant Kinnison drove her hither and thither through the trackless wastes of the galaxy. Inert and free, under every possible degree of power he maneuvered her, attacking imaginary foes and actual meteorites with equal zeal. Maneuvered and attacked until he and his ship were one, until he reacted automatically to her slightest demand until he and every man of his eager and highly trained crew knew to the final volt and to the ultimate ampere her gargantuan capacity both to give it and to take it.
Then and only then did he return to Base, unload the engineers, and set out upon the quest. Trail after trail he followed, but all were cold. Alarm after alarm he answered, but always he arrived too late, arrived to find gutted merchantman and riddled Patrol vessel, with no life in either and with nothing to indicate in which direction the marauders might have gone.
"QBT! Calling QBT!" The Britannia's code call blared from the sealed–band speaker, and a string of numbers followed—the spatial coordinates of the luckless vessel's position.
Chief Pilot Henry Henderson punched the figures upon his locator, and in the "tank"—the enormous, minutely cubed model of the galaxy—there appeared a redly brilliant point of light. Kinnison rocketed out of his narrow bunk, digging sleep out of his eyes, and shot himself into place beside the pilot.
"Right in our laps!" he exulted. "Scarcely ten light–years away! Start scrambling the ether!" and as the vengeful cruiser darted toward the scene of depredation all space became filled with blast after blast of static interference through which, it was hoped, the pirate could not summon the help he was so soon to need.
But that howling static gave the pirate commander pause. Surely this was something new? Before him lay a richly laden freighter, its two convoying ships already practically out of action. A few more minutes and the prize would be his. Nevertheless he darted away, swept the ether with his detectors, saw the Britannia, and turned in headlong flight. For if this streamlined fighter was sufficiently convinced of its prowess to try to blanket the ether against hint, that information was something that Boskone would value far above one shipload of material wealth.
But the pirate craft was now upon the visiplates of the Britannia, and, entirely ignoring the crippled space–ships, Henderson flung his vessel after the other. Manipulating his incredibly complex controls purely by touch, the while staring into his plate not only with his eyes, but with every fiber of his being as well, he hurled his huge mount hither and thither in frantic leaps. After what seemed an age he snapped down a toggle switch and relaxed long enough to grin at Kinnison.
"Holding 'em?" the young commander demanded.
"Got 'em, Skipper," the pilot replied, positively. "It was touch and go for ninety seconds, but I've got a CRX tracer on him now at full pull. He cant put out enough jets to get away from that—I can hold him forever!"
"Fine work, Hen!" Kinnison strapped himself into his seat and donned his headset. "General call! Attention! Battle stations! By stations, report!"
"Station One, tractor beams—hot!"
"Station Two, repellors—hot!"
"Station Three, projector One—hot!"
Thus station after station of the warship of the void reported, until.
"Station Fifty–Eight, the Q-gun—hot!" Kinnison himself reported, then gave to the pilot the words which throughout the spaceways of the galaxy had come to mean complete readiness to face any emergency.
"Hot and tight, Hen—let's take 'em!"
The pilot shoved his blast–lever, already almost at maximum, clear out against its atop and hunched himself even more intently over his instruments, varying by infinitesimals the direction of the thrust that was driving the Britannia toward the enemy at the unimaginable velocity of ninety parsecs an hour—a velocity possible only to inertialess matter being urged through an almost perfect vacuum by a driving blast capable of lifting the stupendous normal tonnage of the immense sky–rover against a gravity ten times that of her native Earth.
Unimaginable? Completely so—the ship of the Galactic Patrol was hurling herself through space at a pace in comparison with which any speed that the mind can grasp would be the merest crawl, a pace to make light itself seem stationary.
Ordinary vision would have been useless, but the observers of that day used no antiquated optical systems. Their detector beams, converted into light only at their plates, were heterodyned upon and were carried by subetheral ultra–waves, vibrations residing far below the level of the ether and thus possessing a velocity and a range infinitely greater than those of any possible ether–borne wave.
Although stars moved across the visiplates in flaming, zig–zag lines of light as pursued and pursuer passed solar system after solar system in fantastic, light–years–long hops, yet Henderson kept his cruiser upon the pirate's tail and steadily cut down the distance between them. Soon a tractor beam licked out from the Patrol ship, touched the fleeing marauder lightly, and the two space– ships flashed toward each other.
Nor was the enemy unprepared for combat. One of the crack raiders of Boskone, master pirate of the known Universe, she had never before found difficulty in conquering any vessel fleet enough to catch her. Therefore, her commander made no attempt to cut the beans. Or rather, since the two inertialess vessels flashed together to repellor–zone contact in such a minute fraction of a second that any human action within that time was impossible, it would be more correct to say that the pirate captain changed his tactics instantly from those of flight to those of combat.
He thrust out tractor beams of his own, and from the already white–hot refractors throats of his projectors there raved out horribly potent beams of annihilation, beams of dreadful power which tore madly at the straining defensive screens of the Patrol ship. Screens flared vividly, radiating all the colors of the spectrum. Space itself seemed a rainbow gone mad, for there were being exerted there forces of a magnitude to stagger the imagination, forces to be yielded only by the atomic might from which they sprang, forces whose neutralization set up visible strains in the very fabric of the ether itself.
The young commander clenched his fists and swore a startled deep–space oath as red lights flashed and alarm bells clanged. His screens were leaking like sieves—practically down—needle after needle of force incredible stabbing at and through his wall–shield—four stations gone already and more going!
"Scrap the plan!" he yelled into his microphone. "Open everything to absolute top—short out all resistors—give 'em everything you can put through the bare bus–bars. Dalhousie, cut all your repellors, bung us right up to their zone. All you beamers, concentrate on Area Five. Break down those screens!' Kinnison was hunched rigidly over his panel, his voice came grittily through locked teeth. "Get through to that wallshield so I can use this Q-gun!"
Under the redoubled force of the Britannia's attack the defenses of the enemy began to fail. Kinnison's hands flew over his controls. A port opened in the Patrol–ship's armored side and an ugly snout protruded—the projector–ringed muzzle of a squat and monstrous cannon. From its projector bands there leaped out with the velocity of light a tube of quasi–solid force which was in effect a continuation of the gun's grim barrel, a tube which crashed through the weakened third screen of the enemy with a space-wracking shock and struck savagely, with writhing, twisting thrusts, at the second. Aided by the massed concentration of the Britannia's every battery of short–range beams, it went through. And through the first. Now it struck the very wall–shield of the outlaw—that impregnable screen which, designed to bear the brunt of any possible inert collision, had never been pierced or ruptured by any material substance, however applied.
To this inner defense the immaterial gun–barrel clung. Simultaneously the tractor beams, hitherto exerting only a few dynes of force, stiffened into unbreakable, inflexible rods of energy, binding the two ships of apace into one rigid system, each, relative to the other, immovable.
Then Kinnison's flying finger tip touched a button and the Q-gun spoke. From its sullen throat there erupted a huge torpedo. Slowly the giant projectile crept along, watched in awe and amazement by the officers of both vessels. For to those space-hardened veterans the velocity of light was a veritable crawl, and here was a thing that would require four or five whole seconds to cover a mere ten kilometers of distance.
But, although slow, this bomb weight prove dangerous, therefore the pirate commander threw his every resource into attempts to cut the tube of force, to blast away from the tractor beams, to explode the sluggish missile before it could reach his wall–shield. In vain, for the Britannia's every beam was set to protect the torpedo and the mighty rods of energy without whose grip the inertialess mass of the enemy vessel would offer no resistance whatever to the force of the proposed explosion.
Slowly, so slowly, as the age–long seconds crawled into eternity, there extended from Patrol ship almost to pirate wall a raging, white–hot pillar— the gases of combustion of the propellant heptadetonite—ahead of which there rushed the Q-gun's tremendous shell with its horridly destructive freight. What would happen? Could even the almost immeasurable force of that frightful charge of atomic explosive break down a wall–shield designed to withstand the cosmic assaults of meteoric missiles? And what would happen if that wall–screen held?
In spite of himself Kinnison's mind insisted upon painting the ghastly picture, the awful explosion, the pirate's screen still intact, the forward-rushing gases driven backward along the tube of force. The bare metal of the Q-gun's breech, he knew, was not and could not be re-enforced by the infinitely stronger, although immaterial shields of pure energy which protected the hull, and no conceivable substance, however resistant, could impede save momentarily the unimaginable forces about to be unleashed.
Nor would there be time to release the Q-tube after the explosion but before the Brittania's own destruction, for if the enemy's shield stayed up for even a fraction of a second the unthinkable pressure of the blast would propagate backward through the already densely compressed gases in the tube, would sweep away as though it were nothing the immensely thick metallic barrier of the gun– breech, and would wreak within the bowels of the Patrol vessel a destruction even more complete than that intended for the foe.
Nor were his men in better case. Each knew that this was the climactic instant of his existence, that life itself hung poised upon the issue of the next split second. Hurry it up! Snap into it! Will that crawling, creeping thing never strike?
Some prayed briefly, some swore bitterly, but prayers and curses were alike unconscious and had precisely the same meaning—each—each man, white of face and grim of jaw, clenched his hands and waited, tense and straining, for the impact.
3. In the Lifeboats
The missile struck, and in the instant of its striking the coldly brilliant stars were blotted from sight in a vast globe of intolerable flame. The pirate's shield had failed, and under the cataclysmic force of that horrific detonation the entire nose–section of the enemy vessel had flashed into incandescent vapor and had added itself to the rapidly expanding cloud of fire. As it expanded the cloud cooled. Its fierce glare subsided to a rosy glow, through which the stars again began to shine. It faded, cooled, darkened—revealing the crippled hulk of the pirate ship. She was still fighting, but ineffectually, now that all her heavy forward batteries were gone.
"Needlers, fire at will!" barked Kinnison, and even that feeble resistance was ended. Keen–eyed needle–ray men, working at spy–ray visiplates, bored hole after hole into the captive, seeking out and destroying the control–panels of the remaining beams and screens.
"Pull 'er up!" came the next order. The two ships of space flashed together, the yawning, blasted–open fore–end of the raider solidly against the Brittania's armored side. A great port opened.
"Now, Bus, it's all yours. Classification to six places, straight A's— they're human or approximately so. Board and storm!"
Back of that port there had been massed a hundred fighting men, dressed in full panoply of space armor, armed with the deadliest weapons known to the science of the age, and powered by the gigantic accumulators of their ship. At their head was Sergeant van Buskirk, six and a half feet of Dutch Valerian dynamite, who had fallen out of Valerian Cadet Corps only because of an innate inability to master the intricacies of higher mathematics. Now the attackers swept forward in a black–and–silver wave.
Four squatly massive semi–portable projectors crashed down upon their magnetic clamps and in the fierce ardor of their beams the thick bulkhead before them ran the gamut of the spectrum and puffed outward. Some score of defenders were revealed, likewise clad in armor, and battle again was joined. Explosive and solid bullets detonated against and ricocheted from that highly efficient armor, the beams of DeLameter hand–projectors splashed in torrents of man–made lightning off its protective fields of force. But that skirmish was soon over. The semi–portables, whose vast energies no ordinary personal armor could withstand, were brought up and clamped down, and in their holocaust of vibratory destruction all life vanished from the pirates' compartment.
"One more bulkhead and we're in their control room!" van Buskirk cried. Beam it down!" But when the beamers pressed their switches nothing happened. The pirates had managed to jury–rig a screen generator, and with it had cut the power–beams behind the invading forces. Also they had cut loop–holes in the bulkhead, through which in frantic haste they were trying to bring heavy projectors of their own into alignment. "Bring up the ferral paste," the sergeant commanded. "Get up as close to that wall as you can, so they can't blast us!"
The paste—successor to thermite—was brought up and the giant Dutchman troweled it on in furious swings, from floor up and around in a huge arc and back down to floor. He fired it, and simultaneously some of the enemy gunners managed to angle a projector sharply enough to reach the further ranks of the Patrolmen. Then mingled the flashing, scintillating, gassy glare of the thermite and the raving energy of the pirates' beam to make of that confined space a veritable inferno.
But the paste had done its work, and as the semi–circle of wall fell out the soldiers of the Lens leaped through the hole in the still–glowing wall to struggle hand-to-hand against the pirates, now making a desperate last stand. The semi–portables and other heavy ordnance powered from the Brittania were of course useless. Pistols were ineffective against the pirates' armor of hard alloy, hand–rays were equally impotent against its defensive shields. Now heavy hand–grenades began to rain down among the combatants, blowing Patrolmen and pirates alike to bits—for the outlaw chiefs cared nothing that they killed many of their own men if in so doing they could take toll of the Law. And worse, a crew of gunners was swiveling a mighty projector around upon its hastily– improvised mount to cover that sector of the compartment in which the policemen were most densely massed.
But the minions of the Law had one remaining weapon, carried expressly for this eventuality. The space–axe—a combination and sublimation of battle–axe, mace, bludgeon, and lumberman's picaroon, a massively needle–pointed implement of potentialities limited only by the physical strength and bodily agility of its wielder. Now all the men of the Britannia's storming party were Valerians, and therefore were big, hard, fast, and agile, and of them all their sergeant leader was the biggest, hardest, fastest, and most agile. When the space– tempered apex of that thirty–pound monstrosity, driven by the four–hundred–odd pounds of rawhide and whalebone that was his body, struck pirate armor that armor gave way. Nor did it matter whether or not that hellish beak of steel struck a vital part after crashing through the armor. Head or body, leg or arm, the net result was the same, a man does not fight effectively when he is breathing space in lieu of atmosphere.
Van Buskirk perceived the danger to his men in the slowly turning projector and for the first time called his chief. "Kim," he spoke in level tones into his microphone. "Blast that delta–ray, will you?…Or have they cut this beam, so you can't hear me?…Guess they have." "They've cut our communication," he informed his troopers then. "Keep them off me as much as you can and I'll attend to that delta–ray outfit myself."
Aided by the massed interference of his men he plunged toward the threatening mechanism, hewing to right and to left as he strode. Beside the temporary projector mount at last, he aimed a tremendous blow at the man at the delta ray controls, only to feel the axe flash instantaneously to its mark and strike it with a gentle push, and to see his Intended victim float effortless away from the blow. The pirate commander had played his last card, van Buskirk floundered, not only weightless, but inertialess as well!
But the huge Dutchman's mind, while not mathematical, was even faster than his muscles, and not for nothing had he spent arduous weeks in inertialess tests of strength and skill. Hooking feet and legs around a convenient wheel he seized the enemy operator and jammed his helmeted head down between the base of the mount and the long, heavy steel lever by means of which it was turned. Then, throwing every ounce of his wonderful body into the effort, he braced both feet against the projector's grim barrel and heaved. The helmet flew apart like an eggshell, blood and brains gushed out in nauseous blobs, but the delta–ray projector was so jammed that it would not soon again become a threat.
Then van Buskirk drew himself across the room toward the main control panel of the warship. Officer after officer he pushed aside, then reversed two double– throw switches, restoring gravity and inertia to the riddled cruiser.
In the meantime the tide of battle had continued in favor of the Patrol. Few survivors though there were of the black–and–silver force, of the pirates there were still fewer, fighting now a desperate and hopeless defensive. But in this combat quarter was not, could not be thought of, and Sergeant van Buskirk again waded into the fray. Four times more his horribly effective hybrid weapon descended like the hammer of Thor, cleaving and crushing its way through steel and flesh and bone. Then, striding to the control board, he manipulated switches and dials, then again spoke evenly to Kinnison.
"You can hear me now, can't you?…All mopped up—come and get the dope!"
The specialists, headed by Master Technician LaVerne Thorndyke, had been waiting strainingly for that word for minutes. Now they literally flew at their tasks, in furious haste, but following rigidly and in perfect coordination a prearranged schedule. Every control and lead, every busbar and immaterial beam of force was traced and checked. Instruments and machines were dismantled, sealed mechanisms were ruthlessly torn apart by jacks or sliced open with cutting beams. And everywhere, every thing and every movement was being photographed, charted, and diagrammed.