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Skylark of Valeron
Day after day a spherical space ship of arenak tore through the illimitable reaches of the interstellar void. She had once been a war vessel of Osnome; now, rechristened the Violet, she was bearing two Tellurians and a Fenachrone—Dr. Marc C. DuQuesne of World Steel, “Baby Doll” Loring, his versatile and accomplished assistant, and the squat and monstrous engineer of the flagship Y427W—from the Green system toward the solar system of the Fenachrone. The mid-point of the stupendous flight had long since been passed; the Violet had long been braking down with a negative acceleration of five times the velocity of light.
Much to the surprise of both DuQuesne and Loring, their prisoner had not made the slightest move against them. He had thrown all the strength of his supernaturally powerful body and all the resources of his gigantic brain into the task of converting the atomic motors of the Violet into the space-annihilating drive of his own race. This drive, affecting alike as it does every atom of substance within the radius of action of the power bar, entirely nullifies the effect of acceleration, so that the passengers feel no motion whatever, even when the craft is accelerating at maximum.
The engineer had not shirked a single task, however arduous. And, once under way, he had nursed those motors along with every artifice known to his knowing clan; he had performed such prodigies of adjustment and tuning as to raise by a full two per cent their already inconceivable maximum acceleration. Nor was this all. After the first moment of rebellion, he did not even once attempt to bring to bear the almost irresistible hypnotic power of his eyes; the immense, cold, ruby-lighted projectors of mental energy which, both men knew, were awful weapons indeed. Nor did he even once protest against the attractors which were set upon his giant limbs.
Immaterial bands, these, whose slight force could not be felt unless the captor so willed. But let the prisoner make one false move, and those tiny beams of force would instantly become copper-driven rods of pure energy, hurling the luckless wight against the wall of the control room and holding him motionless there, in spite of the most terrific exertions of his mighty body.
DuQuesne lay at ease in his seat; or rather, scarcely touching the seat, he floated at ease in the air above it. His black brows were drawn together, his black eyes were hard as he studied frowningly the Fenachrone engineer. As usual, that worthy was half inside the power plant, coaxing those mighty engines to do even better than their prodigious best.
Feeling his companion’s eyes upon him, the doctor turned his inscrutable stare upon Loring, who had been studying his chief even as DuQuesne had been studying the outlander. Loring’s cherubic countenance was as pinkly innocent as ever, his guileless blue eyes as calm and untroubled; but DuQuesne, knowing the man as he did, perceived an almost imperceptible tension and knew that the killer also was worried.
“What’s the matter, Doll?” The saturnine scientist smiled mirthlessly. “Afraid I’m going to let that ape slip one over on us?”
“Not exactly.” Loring’s slight tenseness, however, disappeared. “It’s your party, and anything that’s all right with you tickles me half to death. I have known all along you knew that that bird there isn’t working under compulsion. You know as well as I do that nobody works that way because they’re made to. He’s working for himself, not for us, and I had just begun to wonder if you weren’t getting a little late in clamping down on him.”
“Not at all—there are good and sufficient reasons for this apparent delay. I am going to clamp down on him in exactly”—DuQuesne glanced at his wrist watch—“fourteen minutes. But you’re keen—you’ve got a brain that really works—maybe I’d better give you the whole picture.”
DuQuesne, approving thoroughly of his iron-nerved, cold-blooded assistant, voiced again the thought he had expressed once before, a few hours out from Earth; and Loring answered as he had then, in almost the same words—words which revealed truly the nature of the man:
“Just as you like. Usually I don’t want to know anything about anything, because what a man doesn’t know he can’t be accused of spilling. Out here, though, maybe I should know enough about things to act intelligently in case of a jam. But you’re the doctor—if you’d rather keep it under your hat, that’s all right with me, too. As I’ve said before, it’s your party.”
“Yes; he certainly is working for himself.” DuQuesne scowled blackly. “Or, rather, he thinks he is. You know I read his mind back there, while he was unconscious. I didn’t get all I wanted to, by any means—he woke up too soon—but I got a lot more than he thinks I did.
“They have detector zones, ’way out in space, all around their world, that nothing can get past without being spotted; and patrolling those zones there are scout ships, carrying armament to stagger the imagination. I intend to take over one of those patrol ships and by means of it to capture one of their first-class battleships. As a first step I’m going to hypnotize that ape and find out absolutely everything he knows. When I get done with him, he’ll do exactly what I tell him to, and nothing else.”
“Hypnotize him?” Curiosity was awakened in even Loring’s incurious mind at this unexpected development. “I didn’t know that was one of your specialties.”
“It wasn’t until recently, but the Fenachrone are all past masters, and I learned about it from his brain. Hypnosis is a wonderful science. The only drawback is that his mind is a lot stronger than mine. However, I have in my kit, among other things, a tube of something that will cut him down to my size.”
“Oh, I see—pentabarb.” With this hint, Loring’s agile mind grasped instantly the essentials of DuQuesne’s plan. “That’s why you had to wait so long, then, to take steps. Pentabarb kills in twenty-four hours, and he can’t help us steal the ship after he’s dead.”
“Right! One milligram, you know, will make a gibbering idiot out of any human being; but I imagine that it will take three or four times that much to soften him down to the point where I can work on him the way I want to. As I don’t know the effects of such heavy dosages, since he’s not really human, and since he must be alive when we go through their screens, I decided to give him the works exactly six hours before we are due to hit their outermost detector. That’s about all I can tell you right now; I’ll have to work out the details of seizing the ship after I have studied his brain more thoroughly.”
Precisely at the expiration of the fourteen allotted minutes, DuQuesne tightened the attractor beams, which had never been entirely released from their prisoner; thus pinning him helplessly, immovably, against the wall of the control room. He then filled a hypodermic syringe and moved the mechanical educator nearer the motionless, although violently struggling, creature. Then, avoiding carefully the baleful outpourings of those flame-shot volcanoes of hatred that were the eyes of the Fenachrone, he set the dials of the educator, placed the headsets, and drove home the needle’s hollow point. One milligram of the diabolical compound was absorbed, without appreciable lessening of the blazing defiance being hurled along the educator’s wires. One and one-half—two milligrams—three—four—five—
That inhumanly powerful mind at last began to weaken, but it became entirely quiescent only after the administration of the seventh milligram of that direly potent drug.
“Just as well that I allowed only six hours.” DuQuesne sighed in relief as he began to explore the labyrinthine intricacies of the frightful brain now open to his gaze. “I don’t see how any possible form of life can hold together long under seven milligrams of that stuff.”
He fell silent and for more than an hour he studied the brain of the engineer, concentrating upon the several small portions which contained knowledge of most immediate concern. Finally he removed the headsets.
“His plans were all made,” he informed Loring coldly, “and so are mine, now. Bring out two full outfits of clothing—one of yours and one of mine. Two guns, belts, and so on. Break out a bale of waste, the emergency candles, and all that sort of stuff you can find.”
DuQuesne turned to the Fenachrone, who stood utterly lax, and stared deep into those dull and expressionless eyes.
“You,” he directed crisply, “will build at once, as quickly as you can, two dummies which will look exactly like Loring and myself. They must be lifelike in every particular, with faces capable of expressing the emotions of surprise and of anger, and with right arms able to draw weapons upon a signal—my signal. Also upon signal their heads and bodies will turn, they will leap toward the center of the room, and they will make certain noises and utter certain words, the records of which I shall prepare. Go to it!”
“Don’t you need to control him through the headsets?” asked Loring curiously.
“I may have to control him in detail when we come to the really fine work, later on,” DuQuesne replied absently. “This is more or less in the nature of an experiment, to find out whether I have him thoroughly under control. During the last act he’ll have to do exactly what I shall have told him to do, without supervision, and I want to be absolutely certain that he will do it without a slip.”
“What’s the plan—or maybe it’s something that is none of my business?”
“No; you ought to know it, and I’ve got time to tell you about it now. Nothing material can possibly approach the planet of the Fenachrone without being seen, as it is completely surrounded by never less than two full-sphere detector screens; and to make assurance doubly sure our engineer there has installed a mechanism which, at the first touch of the outer screen, will shoot a warning along a tight communicator beam directly into the receiver of the nearest Fenachrone scout ship. As you already know, the smallest of those scouts can burn this ship out of the ether in less than a second.”
“That’s a cheerful picture. You still think we can get away?”
“I’m coming to that. We can’t possibly get through the detectors without being challenged, even if I tear out all his apparatus, so we’re going to use his whole plan, but for our benefit instead of his. Therefore his present hypnotic state and the dummies. When we touch that screen you and I are going to be hidden. The dummies will be in sole charge, and our prisoner will be playing the part I’ve laid out for him.
“The scout ship that he calls will come up to investigate. They will bring apparatus and attractors to bear to liberate the prisoner, and the dummies will try to fight. They will be blown up or burned to cinders almost instantly, and our little playmate will put on his space suit and be taken across to the capturing vessel. Once there, he will report to the commander.
“That officer will think the affair sufficiently serious to report it directly to headquarters. If he doesn’t, this ape here will insist upon reporting it to general headquarters himself. As soon as that report is in, we, working through our prisoner here, will proceed to wipe out the crew of the ship and take it over.”
“And do you think he’ll really do it?” Loring’s guileless face showed doubt, his tone was faintly skeptical.
“I know he’ll do it!” The chemist’s voice was hard. “He won’t take any active part—I’m not psychologist enough to know whether I could drive him that far, even drugged, against an unhypnotizable subconscious or not—but he’ll be carrying something along that will enable me to do it, easily and safely. But that’s about enough of this chin music—we’d better start doing something.”
While Loring brought spare clothing and weapons, and rummaged through the vessel in search of material suitable for the dummies’ fabrication, the Fenachrone engineer worked rapidly at his task. And not only did he work rapidly, he worked skillfully and artistically as well. This artistry should not be surprising, for to such a mentality as must necessarily be possessed by the chief engineer of a first-line vessel of the Fenachrone, the faithful reproduction of anything capable of movement was not a question of art—it was merely an elementary matter of line, form, and mechanism.
Cotton waste was molded into shape, reenforced, and wrapped in leather under pressure. To the bodies thus formed were attached the heads, cunningly constructed of masticated fiber, plastic, and wax. Tiny motors and many small pieces of apparatus were installed, and the completed effigies were dressed and armed.
DuQuesne’s keen eyes studied every detail of the startlingly lifelike, almost microscopically perfect, replicas of himself and his traveling companion.
“A good job,” he commented briefly.
“Good?” exclaimed Loring. “It’s perfect! Why, that dummy would fool my own wife, if I had one—it almost fools me!”
“At least, they’re good enough to pass a more critical test than any they are apt to get during this coming incident.”
Satisfied, DuQuesne turned from his scrutiny of the dummies and went to the closet in which had been stored the space suit of the captive. To the inside of its front protector flap he attached a small and inconspicuous flat-sided case. He then measured carefully, with a filar micrometer, the apparent diameter of the planet now looming so large beneath them.
“All right, Doll; our time’s getting short. Break out our suits and test them, will you, while I give the big boy his final instructions?”
Rapidly those commands flowed over the wires of the mechanical educator, from DuQuesne’s hard, keen brain into the now docile mind of the captive. The Earthly scientist explained to the Fenachrone, coldly, precisely, and in minute detail, exactly what he was to do and exactly what he was to say from the moment of encountering the detector screens of his native planet until after he had reported to his superior officers.
Then the two Terrestrials donned their own armor and made their way into an adjoining room, a small armory in which were hung several similar suits and which was a veritable arsenal of weapons.
“We’ll hang ourselves up on a couple of these hooks, like the rest of the suits,” DuQuesne explained. “This is the only part of the performance that may be even slightly risky, but there is no real danger that they will spot us. That fellow’s message to the scout ship will tell them that there are only two of us, and we’ll be out there with him, right in plain sight.
“If by any chance they should send a party aboard us they would probably not bother to search the Violet at all carefully, since they will already know that we haven’t got a thing worthy of attention; and they would of course suppose us to be empty space suits. Therefore keep your lens shields down, except perhaps for the merest crack to see through, and, above all, don’t move a millimeter, no matter what happens.”
“But how can you manipulate your controls without moving your hands?”
“I can’t; but my hands will not be in the sleeves, but inside the body of the suit—shut up! Hold everything—there’s the flash!”
The flying vessel had gone through the zone of feeble radiations which comprised the outer detector screen of the Fenachrone. But, though tenuous, that screen was highly efficient, and at its touch there burst into frenzied activity the communicator built by the captive to be actuated by that very impulse. It had been built during the long flight through space, and its builder had thought that its presence would be unnoticed and would remain unsuspected by the Terrestrials.
Now automatically put into action, it laid a beam to the nearest scout ship of the Fenachrone and into that vessel’s receptors it passed the entire story of the Violet and her occupants. But DuQuesne had not been caught napping. Reading the engineer’s brain and absorbing knowledge from it, he had installed a relay which would flash to his eyes an inconspicuous but unmistakable warning of the first touch of the screen of the enemy. The flash had come—they had penetrated the outer lines of the monstrous civilization of the dread and dreaded Fenachrone.
In the armory DuQuesne’s hands moved slightly inside his shielding armor, and out in the control room the dummy, that was also to all outward seeming DuQuesne, moved and spoke. It tightened the controls of the attractors, which had never been entirely released from their prisoner, thus again pinning the Fenachrone helplessly against the wall.
“Just to be sure you don’t try to start anything,” it explained coldly, in DuQuesne’s own voice and tone. “You have done well so far, but I’ll run things myself from now on, so that you can’t steer us into a trap. Now tell me exactly how to go about getting one of your vessels. After we get it I’ll see about letting you go.”
“Fools, you are too late!” the prisoner roared exultantly. “You would have been too late, even had you killed me out there in space and had fled at your utmost acceleration. Did you but know it you are as dead, even now—our patrol is upon you!”
The dummy that was DuQuesne whirled, snarling, and its automatic pistol and that of its fellow dummy were leaping out when an awful acceleration threw them flat upon the floor, a magnetic force snatched away their weapons, and a heat ray of prodigious power reduced the effigies to two small piles of gray ash. Immediately thereafter a beam of force from the patrolling cruiser neutralized the attractors bearing upon the captive and, after donning his space suit, he was transferred to the Fenachrone vessel.
Motionless inside his cubby, DuQuesne waited until the airlocks of the Fenachrone vessel had closed behind his erstwhile prisoner; waited until that luckless monster had told his story to Fenor, his emperor, and to Fenimol, his general in command; waited until the communicator circuit had been broken and the hypnotized, drugged, and already dying creature had turned as though to engage his fellows in conversation. Then only did the saturnine scientist act. His finger closed a circuit, and in the Fenachrone vessel, inside the front protector flap of the discarded space suit, the flat case fell apart noiselessly and from it there gushed forth volume upon volume of colorless and odorless, but intensely lethal, vapor.
“Just like killing goldfish in a bowl.” Callous, hard, and cold, DuQuesne exhibited no emotion whatever; neither pity for the vanquished foe nor elation at the perfect working out of his plans. “Just in case some of them might have been wearing suits for emergencies, I had some explosive copper ready to detonate, but this makes it much better—the explosion might have damaged something we want.”
And aboard the vessel of the Fenachrone, DuQuesne’s deadly gas diffused with extreme rapidity, and as it diffused, the hellish crew to the last man dropped in their tracks. They died not knowing what had happened to them; died with no thought of even attempting to send out an alarm; died not even knowing that they died.
“Can you open the airlocks of that scout ship from the outside, doctor?” asked Loring, as the two adventurers came out of the armory into the control room, where DuQuesne, by means of the attractors, began to bring the two vessels together.
“Yes. I know everything that the engineer of a first-class battleship knew. To him, one of these little scouts was almost beneath notice, but he did know that much about them—the outside controls of all Fenachrone ships work the same way.”
Under the urge of the attractors the two ships of space were soon door to door. DuQuesne set the mighty beams to lock the craft immovably together and both men stepped into the Violet’s airlock. Pumping back the air, DuQuesne opened the outer door, then opened both outer and inner doors of the scout.
As he opened the inner door the poisoned atmosphere of the vessel screamed out into space, and as soon as the frigid gale had subsided the raiders entered the control room of the enemy craft. Hardened and conscienceless killer though Loring was, the four bloated, ghastly objects that had once been men gave him momentary pause.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have let the air out so fast,” he suggested, tearing his gaze away from the grisly sight.
“The brains aren’t hurt, and that’s all I care about.” Unmoved, DuQuesne opened the air valves wide, and not until the roaring blast had scoured every trace of the noxious vapor from the whole ship did he close the airlock doors and allow the atmosphere to come again to normal pressure and temperature.
“Which ship are you going to use—theirs or our own?” asked Loring, as he began to remove his cumbersome armor.
“I don’t know yet. That depends largely upon what I find out from the brain of the lieutenant in charge of this patrol boat. There are two methods by which we can capture a battleship; one requiring the use of the Violet, the other the use of this scout. The information which I am about to acquire will enable me to determine which of the two plans entails the lesser amount of risk.
“There is a third method of procedure, of course; that is, to go back to Earth and duplicate one of their battleships ourselves, from the knowledge I shall have gained from their various brains concerning the apparatus, mechanisms, materials, and weapons of the Fenachrone. But that would take a long time and would be far from certain of success, because there would almost certainly be some essential facts that I would not have secured. Besides, I came out here to get one of their first-line space ships, and I intend to do it.”
With no sign of distaste DuQuesne coupled his brain to that of the dead lieutenant of the Fenachrone through the mechanical educator, and quite as casually as though he were merely giving Loring another lesson in Fenachrone matters did he begin systematically to explore the intricate convolutions of that fearsome brain. But after only ten minutes’ study he was interrupted by the brazen clang of the emergency alarm. He flipped off the power of the educator, discarded his headset, acknowledged the call, and watched the recorder as it rapped out its short, insistent message.
“Something is going on here that was not on my program,” he announced to the alert but quiescent Loring. “One should always be prepared for the unexpected, but this may run into something cataclysmic. The Fenachrone are being attacked from space, and all armed forces have been called into a defensive formation—Invasion Plan XB218, whatever that is. I’ll have to look it up in the code.”
The desk of the commanding officer was a low, heavily built cabinet of metal. DuQuesne strode over to it, operated rapidly the levers and dials of its combination lock, and took from one of the compartments the “Code”—a polygonal framework of engraved metal bars and sliders, resembling somewhat an Earthly multiplex squirrel-cage slide rule.
“X—B—Two—One—Eight.” Although DuQuesne had never before seen such an instrument, the knowledge taken from the brains of the dead officers rendered him perfectly familiar with it, and his long and powerful fingers set up the indicated defense plan as rapidly and as surely as those of any Fenachrone could have done it. He revolved the mechanism in his hands, studying every plane surface, scowling blackly in concentration.
“Munition plants—shall—so-and-so—We don’t care about that. Reserves—zones—ordnance—commissary—defensive screens . . . Oh, here we are! Scout ships. Instead of patrolling a certain volume of space, each scout ship takes up a fixed post just inside the outer detector zone. Twenty times as many on duty, too—enough so that they will be only about ten thousand miles apart—and each ship is to lock high-power detector screens and visiplate and recorder beams with all its neighbors.
“Also, there is to be a first-class battleship acting as mother ship, protector, and reserve for each twenty-five scouts. The nearest one is to be—Let’s see, from here that would be only about twenty thousand miles over that way and about a hundred thousand miles down.”
“Does that change your plans, chief?”
“Since my plans were not made, I cannot say that it does—it changes the background, however, and introduces an element of danger that did not previously exist. It makes it impossible to go out through the detector zone—but it was practically impossible before, and we have no intention of going out, anyway, until we possess a vessel powerful enough to go through any barrage they can lay down. On the other hand, there is bound to be a certain amount of confusion in placing so many vessels, and that fact will operate to make the capture of our battleship much easier than it would have been otherwise.”
“What danger exists that wasn’t there before?” demanded Loring.
“The danger that the whole planet may be blown up,” DuQuesne returned bluntly. “Any nation or race attacking from space would of course have atomic power, and any one with that power, could volatilize any planet by simply dropping a bomb on it from open space. They might want to colonize it, of course, in which case they wouldn’t destroy it, but it is always safest to plan for the worst possible contingencies.”
“How do you figure on doing us any good if the whole world explodes?” Loring lighted a cigarette, his hand steady and his face pinkly unruffled. “If she goes up, it looks as if we go out, like that—puff!” And he blew out the match.
“Not at all, Doll,” DuQuesne reassured him. “An atomic explosion starting on the surface and propagating downward would hardly develop enough power to drive anything material much, if any, faster than light, and no explosion wave, however violent, can exceed that velocity. The Violet, as you know, although not to be compared with even this scout as a fighter, has an acceleration of five times that, so that we could outrun the explosion in her. However, if we stay in our own ship, we shall certainly be found and blown out of space as soon as this defensive formation is completed.
“On the other hand, this ship carries full Fenachrone power of offense and defense, and we should be safe enough from detection in it, at least for as long a time as we shall need it. Since these small ships are designed for purely local scout work, though, they are comparatively slow and would certainly be destroyed in any such cosmic explosion as is manifestly a possibility. That possibility is very remote, it is true, but it should be taken into consideration.”
“So what? You’re talking yourself around a circle, right back to where you started from.”
“Only considering the thing from all angles.” DuQuesne was unruffled. “We have lots of time, since it will take them quite a while to perfect this formation. To finish the summing up—we want to use this vessel, but is it safe? It is. Why? Because the Fenachrone, having had atomic energy themselves for a long time, are thoroughly familiar with its possibilities and have undoubtedly perfected screens through which no such bomb could penetrate.
“Furthermore, we can install the highspeed drive in this ship in a few days—I gave you all the dope on it over the educator, you know—so that we’ll be safe, whatever happens. That’s the safest plan, and it will work. So you move the stores and our most necessary personal belongings in here while I’m figuring out an orbit for the Violet. We don’t want her anywhere near us, and yet we want her to be within reaching distance while we are piloting this scout ship of ours to the place where she is supposed to be in Plan XB218.”
“What are you going to do that for—to give them a chance to knock us off?”
“No. I need some time to study these brains, and it will take some time for that battleship mother ship of ours to get into her assigned position, where we can steal her most easily.” DuQuesne, however, did not at once remove his headset, but remained standing, where he was, silent and thoughtful.
“Uh-huh,” agreed Loring. “I’m thinking the same thing you are. Suppose that it is Seaton that’s got them all hot and bothered this way?”
“The thought has occurred to me several times, and I have considered it at length,” DuQuesne admitted at last. “However, I have concluded that it is not Seaton. For if it is, he must have a lot more stuff than I think he has. I do not believe that he can possibly have learned that much in the short time he has had to work in. I may be wrong, of course; but the immediately necessary steps toward the seizure of that battleship remain unchanged whether I am right or wrong; whether or not Seaton was the cause of this disturbance.”
The conversation definitely at an end, Loring again encased himself in his space suit and set to work. For hours he labored, silently and efficiently, at transferring enough of their Earthly possessions and stores to render possible an extended period of living aboard the vessel of the Fenachrone.
He had completed that task and was assembling the apparatus and equipment necessary for the rebuilding of the power plant before DuQuesne finished the long and complex computations involved in determining the direction and magnitude of the force required to give the Violet the exact trajectory he desired. The problem was finally solved and checked, however, and DuQuesne rose to his feet, closing his book of nine-place logarithms with a snap.
“All done with the Violet, Doll?” he asked, donning his armor.
“Fine! I’ll go aboard and push her off, after we do a little stage-setting here. Take that body there—I don’t need it any more, since he didn’t know much of anything, anyway—and toss it into the nose compartment. Then shut that bulkhead door, tight. I’m going to drill a couple of holes through there from the Violet before I give her the gun.”
“I see—going to make us look disabled, whether we are or not, huh?”
“Exactly! We’ve got to have a good excuse for our visirays being out of order. I can make reports all right on the communicator, and send and receive code messages and orders, but we certainly couldn’t stand a close-up inspection on a visiplate. Also, we’ve got to have some kind of an excuse for signaling to and approaching our mother battleship. We will have been hit and punctured by a meteorite. Pretty thin excuse, but it probably will serve for as long a time as we will need.”
After DuQuesne had made sure that the small compartment in the prow of the vessel contained nothing of use to them, the body of one of the Fenachrone was thrown carelessly into it, the air-tight bulkhead was closed and securely locked, and the chief marauder stepped into the airlock.
“As soon as I get her exactly on course and velocity, I’ll step out into space and you can pick me up,” he directed briefly, and was gone.
In the Violet’s engine room DuQuesne released the anchoring attractor beams and backed off to a few hundred yards’ distance. He spun a couple of wheels briefly, pressed a switch, and from the Violet’s heaviest needle-ray projector there flashed out against the prow of the scout patrol a pencil of incredibly condensed destruction.
Dunark, the crown prince of Kondal, had developed that stabbing ray as the culminating ultimate weapon of ten thousand years of Osnomian warfare: and, driven by even the comparatively feeble energies known to the denizens of the Green System before Seaton’s advent, no known substance had been able to resist for more than a moment its corrosively, annihilatingly poignant thrust.
And now this furious stiletto of pure energy, driven by the full power of four hundred pounds of disintegrating atomic copper, at this point-blank range, was hurled against the mere inch of transparent material which comprised the skin of the tiny cruiser. DuQuesne expected no opposition, for with a beam less potent by far he had consumed utterly a vessel built of arenak—arenak, that Osnomian synthetic which is five hundred times as strong, tough, and hard as Earth’s strongest, toughest, and hardest alloy steel.
Yet that annihilating needle of force struck that transparent surface and rebounded from it in scintillating torrents of fire. Struck and rebounded, struck and clung; boring in almost imperceptibly as its irresistible energy tore apart, electron by electron, the surprisingly obdurate substance of the cruiser’s wall. For that substance was the ultimate synthetic—the one limiting material possessing the utmost measure of strength, hardness, tenacity, and rigidity theoretically possible to any substance built up from the building blocks of ether-borne electrons. This substance, developed by the master scientists of the Fenachrone, was in fact identical with the Norlaminian synthetic metal, inoson, from which Rovol and his aids had constructed for Seaton his gigantic ship of space—Skylark Three.
For five long minutes DuQuesne held that terrific beam against the point of attack, then shut it off; for it had consumed less than half the thickness of the scout patrol’s outer skin. True, the focal area of the energy was an almost invisibly violet glare of incandescence, so intensely hot that the concentric shading off through blinding white, yellow, and bright-red heat brought the zone of dull red far down the side of the vessel; but that awful force had had practically no effect upon the spaceworthiness of the stanch little craft.
“No use, Loring!” DuQuesne spoke calmly into the transmitter inside his face-plate. True scientist that he was, he neither expressed nor felt anger or bafflement when an idea failed to work, but abandoned it promptly and completely, without rancor or repining. “No possible meteorite could puncture that shell. Stand by!”
He inspected the power meters briefly, made several readings through the filar micrometer of number six visiplate, and checked the vernier readings of the great circles of the gyroscopes against the figures in his notebook. Then, assured that the Violet was following precisely the predetermined course, he entered the airlock, waved a bloated arm at the watchful Loring, and coolly stepped off into space. The heavy outer door clanged shut behind him, and the globular ship of space rocketed onward; while DuQuesne fell with a sickening acceleration toward the mighty planet of the Fenachrone, so many thousands of miles below.
That fall did not long endure. Loring, now a space pilot second to none, had held his vessel even with the Violet; matching exactly her course, pace, and acceleration at a distance of barely a hundred feet. He had cut off all his power as DuQuesne’s right foot left the Osnomian vessel, and now falling man and plunging scout ship plummeted downward together at the same mad pace; the man drifting slowly toward the ship because of the slight energy of his step into space from the Violet’s side and beginning slowly to turn over as he fell. So good had been Loring’s spaceman-ship that the scout did not even roll; DuQuesne was still opposite her starboard airlock when Loring stood in its portal and tossed a space line to his superior. This line—a small, tightly stranded cable of fiber capable of retaining its strength and pliability in the heatless depths of space—snapped out and curled around DuQuesne’s bulging space suit.
“I thought you’d use an attractor, but this is probably better, at that,” DuQuesne commented, as he seized the line in a mailed fist.
“Yeah. I haven’t had much practice with them on delicate and accurate work. If I had missed you with this line I could have thrown it again; but if I missed this opening with you on a beam and shaved your suit off on this sharp edge, I figured it’d be just too bad.”
The two men again in the control room and the vessel once more leveled out in headlong flight, Loring broke the silence:
“That idea of being punctured by a meteorite didn’t pan out so heavy. How would it be to have one of the crew go space-crazy and wreck the boat from the inside? They do that sometimes, don’t they?”
“Yes, they do. That’s an idea—thanks. I’ll study up on the symptoms. I have a lot more studying to do, anyway—there’s a lot of stuff I haven’t got yet. This metal, for instance—we couldn’t possibly build a Fenachrone battleship on Earth. I had no idea that any possible substance could be as resistant as the shell of this ship is. Of course, there are many unexplored areas in these brains here, and quite a few high-class brains aboard our mother ship that I haven’t even seen yet. The secret of the composition of this metal must be in some of them.”
“Well, while you’re getting their stuff, I suppose I’d better fly at that job of rebuilding our drive. I’ll have time enough all right, you think?”
“Certain of it. I have learned that their system is ample. It’s automatic and foolproof. They have warning long before anything can possibly happen. They can, and do, spot trouble over a light-week away, so their plans allow one week to perfect their defenses. You can change the power plant over in three or four days, so we’re well in the clear on that. I may not be done with my studies by that time, but I shall have learned enough to take effective action. You work on the drive and keep house. I will study Fenachrone science and so on, answer calls, make reports, and arrange the details of what is to happen when we come within the volume of space assigned to our mother ship.”
Thus for days each man devoted himself to his task. Loring rebuilt the power plant of the short-ranging scout patrol into the terrific open-space drive of the first-line battleships and performed the simple routines of their Spartan house-keeping. DuQuesne cut himself short on sleep and spent every possible hour in transferring to his own brain every worth-while bit of knowledge which had been possessed by the commander and crew of the patrol ship which he had captured.
Periodically, however, he would close the sending circuit and report the position and progress of his vessel, precisely on time and observing strictly all the military minutiæ called for by the manual—the while watching appreciatively and with undisguised admiration the flawless execution of that stupendous plan of defense.
The change-over finished, Loring went in search of DuQuesne, whom he found performing a strenuous setting-up exercise. The scientist’s face was pale, haggard, and drawn.
“What’s the matter, chief?” Loring asked. “You look kind of peaked.”
“Peaked is good—I’m just about bushed. This thing of getting a hundred and ninety years of solid education in a few days would hardly come under the heading of light amusement. Are you done?”
“Done and checked—O.K.”
“Good! I am, too. It won’t take us long to get to our destination now; our mother ship should be just about at her post by this time.”
Now that the vessel was approaching the location assigned to it in the plan, and since DuQuesne had already taken from the brains of the dead Fenachrone all that he wanted of their knowledge, he threw their bodies into space and rayed them out of existence. The other corpse he left lying, a bloated and ghastly mass, in the forward compartment as he prepared to send in what was to be his last flight report to the office of the general in command of the plan of defense.
“His high-mightiness doesn’t know it, but that is the last call he is going to get from this unit,” DuQuesne remarked, leaving the sender and stepping over to the control board. “Now we can leave our prescribed course and go where we can do ourselves some good. First, we’ll find the Violet. I haven’t heard of her being spotted and destroyed as a menace to navigation, so we’ll look her up and start her off for home.”
“Why?” asked the henchman. “Thought we were all done with her.”
“We probably are, but if it should turn out that Seaton is back of all this excitement, our having her may save us a trip back to the Earth. Ah, there she is, right on schedule! I’ll bring her alongside and set her controls on a distance-squared decrement, so that when she gets out into free space she’ll have a constant velocity.”
“Think she’ll get out into free space through those screens?”
“They will detect her, of course, but when they see that she is an abandoned derelict and headed out of their system they’ll probably let her go. It will be no great loss, of course, if they do burn her.”
Thus it came about that the spherical cruiser of the void shot away from the then feeble gravitation of the vast but distant planet of the Fenachrone. Through the outer detector screens she tore. Searching beams explored her instantly and thoroughly; but since she was so evidently a deserted hulk and since the Fenachrone cared nothing now for impediments to navigation beyond their screens, she was not pursued.
On and on she sped, her automatic controls reducing her power in exact ratio to the square of the distance attained; on and on, her automatic deflecting detectors swinging her around suns and solar systems and back upon her original right line; on and on toward the Green System, the central system of this the First Galaxy—our own native island universe.
“Now we’ll get ready to take that battleship.”
DuQuesne turned to his aide as the Violet disappeared from their sight. “Your suggestion that one of the crew of this ship could have gone space-crazy was sound, and I have planned our approach to the mother ship on that basis.
“We must wear Fenachrone space suits for three reasons: First, because it is the only possible way to make us look even remotely like them, and we shall have to stand a casual inspection. Second, because it is general orders that all Fenachrone soldiers must wear suits while at their posts in space. Third, because we shall have lost most of our air. You can wear one of their suits without any difficulty—the surplus circumference will not trouble you very much. I, on the contrary, cannot even get into one, since they’re almost a foot too short.
“I must have a suit on, though, before we board the battleship; so I shall wear my own, with one of theirs over it—with the feet cut off so that I can get it on. Since I shall not be able to stand up or to move around without giving everything away because of my length, I’ll have to be unconscious and folded up so that my height will not be too apparent, and you will have to be the star performer during the first act.
“But this detailed instruction by word of mouth takes altogether too much time. Put on this headset and I’ll shoot you the whole scheme, together with whatever additional Fenachrone knowledge you will need to put the act across.”
A brief exchange of thoughts and of ideas followed. Then, every detail made clear, the two Terrestrials donned the space suits of the very short, but enormously wide and thick, monstrosities in semihuman form who were so bigotedly working toward their day of universal conquest.
DuQuesne picked up in his doubly mailed hands a massive bar of metal. “Ready, Doll? When I swing this we cross the Rubicon.”
“It’s all right by me. All or nothing—shoot the works!”
DuQuesne swung his mighty bludgeon aloft, and as it descended the telemental recorder sprang into a shower of shattered tubes, flying coils, and broken insulation. The visiray apparatus went next, followed in swift succession by the superficial air controls, the map cases, and practically everything else that was breakable; until it was clear to even the most casual observer that a madman had in truth wrought his frenzied will throughout the room. One final swing wrecked the controls of the airlocks, and the atmosphere within the vessel began to whistle out into the vacuum of space through the broken bleeder tubes.
“All right, Doll, do your stuff!” DuQuesne directed crisply, and threw himself headlong into a corner, falling into an inert, grotesque huddle.
Loring, now impersonating the dead commanding officer of the scout ship, sat down at the manual sender, which had not been seriously damaged, and in true Fenachrone fashion laid a beam to the mother ship.
“Scout ship K3296, Sublieutenant Grenimar commanding, sending emergency distress message,” he tapped out fluently. “Am not using telemental recorder, as required by regulations, because nearly all instruments wrecked. Private 244C14, on watch, suddenly seized with space insanity, smashed air valves, instruments, and controls. Opened lock and leaped out into space. I was awake and got into suit before my room lost pressure. My other man, 397B42, was unconscious when I reached him, but believe I got him into his suit soon enough so that his life can be saved by prompt aid. 244C14 of course dead, but I recovered his body as per general orders and am saving it so that brain lesions may be studied by College of Science. Repaired this manual sender and have ship under partial control. Am coming toward you, decelerating to stop in fifteen minutes. Suggest you handle this ship with beam when approach as I have no fine controls. Signing off—K3296.”
“Superdreadnought Z12Q, acknowledging emergency distress message of scout ship K3296,” came almost instant answer. “Will meet you and handle you as suggested. Signing off—Z12Q.”
Rapidly the two ships of space drew together; the patrol boat now stationary with respect to the planet, the huge battleship decelerating at maximum. Three enormous beams reached out and, held at prow, midsection, and stern, the tiny flier was drawn rapidly but carefully against the towering side of her mother ship. The double seals engaged and locked; the massive doors began to open.
Now came the most crucial point of DuQuesne’s whole scheme. For that warship carried a complement of nearly a hundred men, and ten or a dozen of them—the lock commander, surgeons and orderlies certainly, and possibly a corps of mechanics as well—would be massed in the airlock room behind those slowly opening barriers. But in that scheme’s very audacity lay its great strength—its almost complete assurance of success. For what Fenachrone, with the inborn consciousness of superiority that was his heritage, would even dream that two members of any alien race would have the sheer, brazen effrontery to dare to attack a full-manned Class Z superdreadnought, one of the most formidable structures that had ever lifted its stupendous mass into the ether?