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by E. E. Doc Smith
Copyright 1965 Edward E. "Doc" Smith.
This edition published by Reading Essentials.
All Rights Reserved.
“Back in 1963, ‘Doc’ E. E. Smith was named the
first member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame on
the basis of his Skylark and Lensman series of space
opera. This is his newest novel—all about a future
world in which all the creative energies of the West
have been turned to space. All the ingredients are
here—the Nameless One of the East, psionics, Communists,
conflict on Earth and in outer space, prophecy—well,
you name it. Those who dote on space
opera will like this one . . . its entertainment value
is well up there with the best.
“ ‘Doc’ Smith’s nomination to the Science Fiction
Hall of Fame was certainly no accident. By any
reckoning, he belongs with the pioneers of the form.
His novels are fast-paced, hard-hitting, filled with
action and dialogue, and the reader in search
of science-fiction entertainment will not mind stock
characters and traditional situations in the least as
he follows ‘Doc’ Smith through the galaxies and universes . . .”
Madison Capital Times
EDWARD E. “DOC” SMITH
The Zeta Field
Deston the Dowser
Organization of the Little Gem
Maynard Buys the Package
Project Engineer Byrd
The Battle of New York Spaceport
The General Strike
The University of Psionics
The Battle of New Russia
At time zero minus nine minutes First Officer Carlyle Deston, Chief Electronicist of the starliner Procyon, sat attentively at his board. He was five feet eight inches tall and weighed one hundred sixty two pounds. Just a little guy, as spacemen go. Although narrow-waisted and, for his heft, broad-shouldered, he was built for speed and maneuverability, not to handle freight.
Watching a hundred lights and half that many instruments; listening to four telephone circuits, two with each ear; hands flashing to toggles and buttons and knobs; he was completely informed as to the instant-by-instant condition of everything in his department during count-down. Everything had been and still was in condition GO.
Nevertheless, he was bothered; bothered as he had never been bothered before in all his three years of subspacing. He had always had hunches and they had always been right, but this one was utterly ridiculous. It wasn’t the ship or the trip—nothing was yelling “DANGER!” into his mind—it was something down in the Middle that was pulling at him like a cat tractor and it didn’t make sense. He never went down into passenger territory. He had no business there and flirting with vac-skulled girls was not his dish.
So he fought his hunch down and concentrated on his job. Lift-off was uneventful; so was the climb out to a safe distance from Earth. At time zero minus two seconds Deston poised a fingertip over the red button, but everything stayed in condition GO and immergence into subspace was perfectly normal. All the green lights except one went out; all the needles dropped to zero; all four phones went dead; all signals stopped. He plugged a jack into the socket under the remaining green light and said:
“Procyon One to Control Six. Flight eight four nine. Subspace radio test number one. How do you read me, Control Six?”
“Control Six to Procyon One. I read you ten and zero. How do you read me, Procyon One?”
“Ten and zero. Out.” The solitary green light went out and Deston unplugged.
Perfect signal and zero noise. That was that. From now until Emergence—unless some robot or computer called for help—he might as well be a passenger. He leaned back in his seat, lit a cigarette, and began really to study this wild hunch, that was getting worse all the time. It was all he could do to keep from calling his relief and going down there right then; but he couldn’t and wouldn’t do that. He was on until plus three hours. He couldn’t possibly explain any such break as that would be, so he stuck it out.
At time zero plus one hundred seventy nine minutes his relief appeared. “All black, Babe?” the newcomer asked.
“As the pit, Eddie. Take over. You’ve picked out your girl-friend for the trip, I suppose?”
While taking the bucket seat, Eddie said, “Not yet. I got sidetracked watching Bobby Warner . . .”
A wave of psychic force hit Deston’s mind hard enough almost to turn it inside out; but he clenched his teeth and held his pose.
“. . . and after seeing her just walk across the lounge once, all the other women looked like a dime’s worth of catmeat. Talk about poetry in motion!” Eddie rolled his eyes, made motions with his hands, and whistled expressively. “Oh, brother!”
“Okay, okay, don’t blow a fuse,” Deston said, in what he hoped was his usual tone and manner. “I know. You’ll love her undyingly—all this trip, maybe.”
“Huh? How dumb can you get? D’you think I’d even try to play footsie with Barbara Warner?”
“You play footsie with the pick of the passenger list, so who’s Barbara Warner, to daunt Don Juan Eddie Thompson, the Tomcat of Space?”
“I thought you knew some of the facts of life, Babe. She’s Warner’s only child, is all. Warner of WarnOil; the biggest in all space. Operates in every solar system known to man and never puts down a dry hole. All gushers that blow their rigs clear up into the stratosphere. Everybody wonders how come. The poop is, his wife’s an oil-witch, is why he lugs her around with him all the time. Why else would he?”
“Maybe he loves her. It happens, you know.”
“Huh? After twenty-some years of her? Comet-gas! Anyway, would you have the sublime gall to make a pass at WarnOil’s heiress, with more millions in her own sock than you’ve got dimes? If you ever made passes, I mean.”
“Uh-uh. Negative. For sure.”
“You nor me neither. But what a dish! Brother, what a lovely, luscious, toothsome dish!”
“Cheer up; you’ll be raving about another one tomorrow,” Deston said callously, turning away.
“I don’t know . . . maybe; but even if I do, she won’t be anything like her,” Eddie mourned, to the closing door.
Deston didn’t go to his cabin; didn’t take off his sidearm. He didn’t even think of it; the .41 automatic at his hip was as much a part of his uniform as his pants.
Entering the lounge, he did not have to look around. She was playing contract, and as eyes met eyes and she rose to her feet a shock-wave went through him that made him feel as though every hair he had was standing straight on end.
She was about five feet four. Her hair was a startlingly brilliant artificial yellow; her eyes a deep, cool blue. She could have made the Miss Western Hemisphere finals. Deston, however, did not notice any of these details—then.
“Excuse me, please,” she said to the other three at her table. “I must go now.” She tossed her cards down onto the table and walked straight toward him; eyes still holding eyes.
He backed hastily out into the corridor, and as the door closed behind her they went naturally and wordlessly into each other’s arms. Lips met lips in a kiss that lasted for a long time. It was not a passionate embrace—passion would come later—it was as though each of them, after endless years of bootless, fruitless longing, had come at long last home.
“Come with me, dear, where we can talk,” she said finally, eyeing with disfavor the half-dozen spectators; and, in her suite a few minutes later, Deston said:
“So this is why I had to come down into passenger territory. You came aboard at exactly zero seven forty three.”
“Uh-uh.” She shook her head. “A few minutes before that; that was when I read your name on the board. First Officer, Carlyle Deston. It simply unraveled me; I came completely unzipped. It’s wonderful that you’re so strongly psychic, too.”
“I don’t know about that,” he said, thoughtfully. “Psionics says that that the map is the territory, but all my training has been based on the axiom that it isn’t. I’ve had hunches all my life, but the signal doesn’t carry much information. Like hearing a siren while you’re driving a ground-car. You know you have to pull over and stop, but that’s all you know. It could be police, fire, ambulance—anything. Anybody with any psionic ability at all ought to do a lot better than that, I should think.”
“Not necessarily. You don’t want to believe it, so you’ve been fighting it; beating it down. So it has to force its way through whillions and skillions of ohms of resistance to get through to you at all. But I know you’re very strongly psychic, or you wouldn’t’ve come down here . . .” she giggled suddenly “. . . and you’d’ve jumped clear out into subspace when a perfectly strange girl attacked you. So . . . aren’t you going to ask me to marry you?”
“Of course I am.” He blushed hotly. “Will you? Right now?”
“You can’t without resigning, can you? They’d fire you?”
“What of it? I can get a good ground job.”
“But you wouldn’t like a ground job!”
“What of that, too. A man grows up. Between you and any job in the universe there’s no choice.”
“I knew you’d say that, Carl.” She hugged his elbow against her side. “I’d love to get married right now. . . .” She paused.
“Except for what?” he asked.
“I thought at first I’d tell my parents first—they’re aboard, you know—but I won’t. She’d scream and he’d roar and neither of them could make me change my mind, so we will do it right now.”
He looked at her questioningly; she shrugged and went on, “We aren’t what you could call a happy family. She’s been trying to make me marry an old goat of a prince and I finally told her to go roll her hoop—to get a divorce and marry the foul old beast herself. And he’s been pushing me to marry an oil-man—to consolidate two empires—that it makes me sick at the stomach just to look at! Last week he insisted on it and I blew an atomic bomb. I’d keep on finding oil and stuff for him, I said, but . . .” She broke off as Deston stiffened involuntarily.
“Oil?” he asked, too quietly. “You’re the oil-witch, then; not your mother. Besides having more megabucks in your own right than any. . . .”
“Don’t say it, dearest!” She seized both his hands in hers. “I know how you feel. I don’t like to let you ruin your career, either, but nothing can come between us now that we’ve found each other. So I’ll tell you this.” Her eyes looked steadily into his. “If it bothers you that much I’ll give every dollar I own to some foundation or other. I swear it.”
He laughed shamefacedly as he took her into his arms. “That’s knocking me for the well-known loop, sweetheart. I’ll live with it and like it.”
Then, to get away from that subject, he explored with knowing fingers the muscles of her arms and back. “You’re trained down as fine as I am and it’s my business to be—how come?”
“I majored in Phys. Ed. and I love it. And I’m a Newmartian, you know, so I teach a few courses. . . .”
“Newmartian? But I thought—aren’t the headquarters of all the big outfits, including WarnOil, on Tellus?”
“In a way. Management, yes, but very little property. Everything possible is owned on Newmars and we Warners have always lived there. The tax situation, you know.”
“I didn’t know; taxes don’t bother me much. But go ahead. You teach a few courses. In?”
“Oh, bars, trapeze, ground-and-lofty tumbling, acrobatics, aerialistics, highwire work, muscle-control, unarmed combat—all that sort of thing.”
“Ouch! So if you ever happen accidentally to get mad at me you’ll tie me up into a pretzel?”
She laughed. “A pleasant thought; but you know as well as I do that a good big man can take a good little one every time.”
“But I’m not big. I’m just a little squirt.”
“You outweigh me by forty pounds and I know just how good space officers have to be. You’re exactly the right size.”
“For the first time in my life I’m beginning to think so.” Laughing, he put his arm around her and led her up to a full-length mirror. “We’re a mighty well-matched pair . . . I like us immensely . . . well, shall we go see the chaplain? Or should we look for a priest—or maybe a rabbi?”
“We don’t know each other very well, do we? But we’ll have all the rest of our lives to learn unimportant details. The chaplain, please. Let’s go.”
They went; still talking. “You’ll live with me in the suite, won’t you?” she asked. “All the time you aren’t on duty?”
“I can’t imagine anything else.”
“Wonderful! Now I want to talk seriously for a minute. You’ll never need a job, nor any of my money, either. Not ever. The thought of dowsing never even entered your mind, did it?”
“Dowsing? Oh, witching stuff. Of course not.”
“Listen, darling. All the time I’ve been touching you I’ve been learning about you—and you’ve been learning about me.”
“Yes but . . .”
“No buts, buster. You actually have tremendous powers; ever so much greater than mine. All I can do is feel oil, water, coal, and gas. I’m no good at all on metals—I couldn’t feel gold if I were perched right on the ridgepole of Fort Knox. But if you’ll stop fighting that terrific power of yours and really use it I’m positive that you can dowse anything you want to. Even uranium.”
He didn’t believe it, and the argument went on until they reached the chaplain’s office. Then, of course, it was dropped automatically; and the next five days were deliciously, deliriously, ecstatically happy days for them both.
At the time of this chronicle starships were the safest means of transportation ever used by man; but there was, of course, an occasional accident. Worse than the accidents however—but fortunately much rarer—were the complete disappearances: starships from which no distress signal was ever received and of which no trace was ever found.
And on the Great Wheel of Fate the Procyon’s number came up.
In the middle of the night Carlyle Deston came instantaneously awake—deep down in his mind a huge, terribly silent voice was roaring “DANGER! DANGER! DANGER!” He did not take time to think or to reason: he grabbed Barbara around the waist and leaped out of bed with her.
“Trouble, Bobby! Get into your suit—quick!”
“But . . . but I’ve got to dress!”
“No time! Snap it up!” He stuffed her into her suit; leaped into his own. “Control!” he snapped into its microphone. “Disaster! Abandon Ship!”
The alarm bells clanged once; the big red lights flashed once; the sirens barely started to growl, then quit. The whole vast fabric of the ship shuddered as though it were being mauled by a thousand and impossibly gigantic hammers.
And out in the corridor: “Come on, girl, sprint!” He put his hand under her arm and urged her along.
She tried, but her best wasn’t good. “I’ve never been checked out on sprinting in space-suits, so you’d better . . .”
Everything went out. Lights, artificial gravity, air-circulation—everything.
“You’ve never been checked out on null-gee, either, so hang on and we’ll travel.”
“Where to?” she asked, hurtling through the air faster than she would have believed possible.
“Baby Two—Lifecraft Number Two, that is—my crash assignment. Good thing I was down here with you—I don’t think anybody’ll make it from the Top. Next turn left, then right. I’ll swing you.”
At the lifecraft he kicked a lever and a port swung open—to reveal a blaze of light and a startled gray-haired man who, half-floating in air, was hanging on to a fixture with both hands.
“What happened?” the man asked. “I didn’t know whether . . .”
“Wrecked. Null-gee and high radiation. I’ll have to put you in the safe for a while.” Deston shoved the oldster into a small room, gave him a line, and turned to Barbara. “My tell-tale reads twenty—pink—so we’ve got a few minutes. Wrap a leg around that lever there and I’ll see if I can find some passengers and toss ’em to you. Or is null-gee getting to you too much?”
“I’m pretty gulpy, but I can take it.”
“Good girl—you may have to take a lot of it.”
The first five doors he tried were locked. The sixth was not; but the couple inside the room were very gruesomely dead. So was everyone else he could find until he came to a room in which a man in a space-suit was floundering helplessly in the air. He glanced at his tell-tale. Thirty two. High red. Time to go.
In the lifecraft he closed the port, cut in the launcher, and slammed on a one-gravity drive away from the ship. Then he shucked Barbara out of her suit and shed his own. He unclamped a fire-extinguisher-like affair; opened the door of a tiny room. “In here!” He shut the door behind them. “Strip, quick!” He cradled the device and opened four valves.
Fast as he was, she was naked and ready for the gush of thick, creamy foam from the multiplex nozzle. “Oh, Dekon?” she asked. “I’ve read about it. I rub it in good, all over me?”
“That’s right. Short for ‘Decontaminant, Complete; Compound, Absorbant, and Chelating; Type DCQ.’ It takes care of radiation, but speed is of the essence. All over you is right.” He placed the foam-gun on the floor and went vigorously to work. “Eyes, too, yes. Everywhere. Just that. And swallow six gulps of it . . . that’s it. I slap a gob of it over your nose and mouth and you inhale once—hard and deep. One good one’s enough, but if it isn’t a good one you die of lung cancer, so I’ll have to knock you out and give it to you while you’re unconscious, and that isn’t good—complications. So make it good and deep?”
“Will do. Good and deep.” She emptied her lungs.
He put a headlock on her and slapped the Dekon on. She inhaled, hard and deep, and went into paroxysms of coughing. He held her in his arms until the worst of it was over; but she was still coughing hard when she pulled herself away from him.
“No need, sweetheart. The old man won’t need it—I got him into the safe in time—the other guy and I will work on each other. Lie down on the bunk there and take it easy for half an hour.”
Forty minutes later, while all four were still cleaning up the messes of foam, the chattering sender stopped sending and the communicator came on. Since everything about a starship is designed to fail safe, they were of course in normal space. On the screens many hundreds of stars blazed, in half the colors of the spectrum.
“Baby Three acknowledging,” the speaker said. “Jones and four—deconned—who’s calling and how’s your subspace communicator?”
“Baby Two, Deston and three. Mine’s dead, too. Thank God, Herc! With you to astrogate us maybe well make it. But how’d you get away? Not down from the Top, that’s for sure.”
Vision came on; a big, square-jawed, lean, tanned face appeared upon the screen. “We were in Baby Three already.”
“Oh.” Deston was quick on the uptake. “You, too?”
“That’s right. But the way the old man chewed you out, I knew he’d slap me in irons, so we hid out. We found three men before high red. I deconned Bun, then . . .”
“Bun?” Barbara exclaimed. “Bernice Burns? How wonderful!”
“Bobby!” The face of a silver-haired beauty appeared beside Jones’. “Am I glad you got away too!”
“Just a sec,” Deston said. “Data for rendezvous, Herc. . . . Hey! My watch stopped—so did the chron!”
“Here too,” Jones said. “So I’ll handle it on visual.”
“But it’s non-magnetic—and nothing can stop an atomichron!” Deston protested.
“But something did,” the gray-haired man said. “A priceless datum. Observations of fact have already invalidated twenty four of the thirty eight best theories of hyperspace. I take it that none of you were in direct contact with the metal of the ship at the time of disaster?”
“We weren’t,” Deston said. Then, to the younger stranger, “You? And identity, please.”
“I know that much. Henry Newman, crew chief normal space.”
“Your passengers, Herc?”
“Vincent Lopresto, financer, and his two bodyguards. They were sleeping in their suits. Grounders.”
“Just so,” the old man said. “Insulated, we acquired the charge very gradually. What did the bodies look like?”
Deston thought for a moment. “Almost as if they had exploded.”
“Precisely.” Gray-Hair beamed. “That eliminates all the others except three—Morton’s, Rothstein’s, and my own.”
“You’re a specialist in subspace, sir?”
“Oh, no, I’m not a specialist at all. I’m a dabbler; a . . .”
“In the College?” Deston asked, and the other nodded.
“With doctorates in everything from astronomy to zoology? I’m mighty glad you were using this lifecraft for an observatory when we got it, Doctor . . . ?”
“Adams. Andrew Adams. But I have only eight at the moment. Earned degrees, that is.”
“And you have a lot of apparatus in the hold?”
“Less than six tons. Just what I must have in order to . . .”
“Babe,” Jones’ voice broke in. “Got you figured. Power two, alpha eighteen, beta forty three. . . .”
Rendezvous with the Procyon’s hulk was made; both lifecrafts hung motionless relative to it. No other lifecraft had escaped. A conference was held. Weeks of work would be necessary to determine the ship’s condition. Hundreds of other tasks would have to be performed, and there were only nine survivors. Everyone would have to work, and work hard.
The two girls wanted to be together. So did the two officers; since, as long as they lived or until the Procyon made port, all responsibility rested: first, upon First Officer Carlyle Deston; and second, upon Second Officer Theodore Jones. Therefore Jones and Bernice came aboard Lifecraft Two and Deston asked Newman to go over to Lifecraft Three.
“Uh-uh, I like the scenery here a lot better.” Newman’s eyes raked Bernice’s five feet nine of scantily-clad sheer beauty from ankles to coiffure.
“As you were, Mister Jones!” Deston rasped, and Jones subsided. Deston went on, very quietly, “As crew chief, Newman, you know the law. I am in command.”
“You ain’t in command of me, pretty boy. Not out here where nobody has ever come back from. I make my own law—with this.” Newman patted his side pocket.
“Draw it, then, or crawl.” Deston’s face was coldly calm; his right hand still hung motionless at his side.
Newman glanced at the girls, both of whom were frozen; then at Jones, who smiled at him pityingly. “I . . . my . . . but yours is right where you can get at it,” he faltered.
“You should have thought of that sooner. I’m waiting, Newman.”
“Just wing him, Babe,” Jones said then. “He’s strong enough, except in the head. We may need his back.”
“Uh-uh. I’ll have to kill him sometime, so it might as well be now. Square between the eyes. A hundred bucks I’m two millimeters off dead center?”
Both girls gasped and stared at each other in horror; but Jones said calmly, without losing any part of his smile, “Not a dime; I’ve lost too much that way already,”—at which outrageous statement both girls realized what was going on and smiled in relief.
And Newman misinterpreted those smiles completely; especially Bernice’s. The words came hard, but he said them. “I crawl.”
“I crawl, sir.”
“Your first job will be to build some kind of a brute-force device to act as a clock. One more break will be your last. Flit.”
Newman flitted—fast—and Barbara, who had opened her mouth to say something, shut it. No, he would have killed the man; he would have had to. He still might have to. So she said, instead,
“Why’d you let him keep his pistol? The . . . the slime! And after you saved his life, too!”
“Typical of the type. One gun won’t make any difference.”
“But you can lock up all their guns, can’t you?”
“I’m afraid not. Lopresto’s a mobster, isn’t he, Herc?”
“If he’s a financier I’m an angel—complete with wings and halo. They’ll have guns hidden out all over the place.”
“Check. You and I’ll go over and . . .”
“And I,” Adams said. “I must tri-di everything, and do some autopsies, and . . .”
“Of course,” Deston agreed. “With a Big Brain along—oh, excuse that crack, please, Doctor Adams. It slipped out on me.”
Adams laughed. “In context, I regard that as the highest compliment I have ever received. In these circumstances you need not ‘Doctor’ me. ‘Adams’ will do very nicely.”
“I’m going to call you ‘Uncle Andy’,” Barbara said with a grin. “Now, Uncle Andy, in view of what you said, one of your eight doctorates is in medicine.”
“Are you any good at obstetrics?”
“In the present instance I feel perfectly safe in saying . . .”
“Wait a minute!” Deston snapped. “Bobby, you are not . . .”
“I am too! That is, I don’t suppose I am yet, but with him aboard I’m certainly going to. I want to, and if we don’t get back both Bun and I will have to. Castaways’ Code. So there!”
Deston started to say something, but Barbara forestalled him. “But for right now, it’s high time we all got some sleep.”
It was and they did; and next morning the three men wafted themselves across a few hundred yards of space to the crippled liner. Floodlights were rigged.
“What . . . a . . . mess.” Deston’s voice was low and wondering. “The Top especially . . . but the Middle and the Tail don’t look too bad.”
Inside, however, devastation had gone deep into the Middle. Walls, floors, and structural members were sheared and torn and twisted into shapes impossible to understand or explain. And, even worse, there were absences. In dozens of volumes, of as many sizes and of shapes incompatible with any three-dimensional geometry, every solid thing had simply vanished—vanished without leaving any clue whatever as to how or where it could possibly have gone.
It took four days to clean the ship of Dekon foam and to treat the hot spots that the automatics had missed. Four long days of heartbreaking labor in weightlessness and four too-short nights of sleep in the heavenly—to seven of them, at least—artificial gravity of the lifecraft. With the hulk deconned to zero (all ruptured radiators had of course been blown automatically at the time of catastrophe) Jones and Deston went over the engine rooms item by item.
The subspace drives were fused ruins. Enough normal-space gear was in working order, however, so that they could put on one gravity of drive, which was a vast relief to all. Then Jones began to jury-rig an astrogation set-up and Deston went to help Adams.
A few evenings later Adams said, “Well, that covers all the preliminary observations I am equipped to make. Thanks a lot for your help, Babe, I won’t bother you any more for a while.”
Deston grinned ruefully. “You’ll have to, Doc. I don’t mean the routine—clean-up, bodies, effects, and so on—Lopresto’s handling that. You’ve learned a lot of stuff that none of the rest of us can make head or tail of. That makes you the director; we’re only the cheap help.”
“I’ve learned scarcely anything yet; only that when we approach any planet we must do so with extreme—I might almost say fantastic—precautions.”
“Blasting at normal, it’ll be a mighty long time before we have to worry about that.”
“Not as long as you think, Babe,” Jones said. “We’re in toward the center of the galaxy somewhere; stars are a lot thicker here. It’s only about a third of a light-year to the nearest one. Point three five, I make it.”
“But what’s the chance of its having a Tellus-Type planet?”
“Oh, that isn’t necessary,” Adams said. “Any planet will, it is virtually certain, enable us to restore subspace communication.”
“It’ll still be a mighty long haul,” Deston said. “The shape the engines are in, I doubt if they’ll stand up under more than about one gee on a long pull. We can’t do much better than that anyway, because we’ve got no grav-control—the Q-converters are all shot and we can’t fix ’em.”
“We’ll travel at one gravity,” Barbara said. “Babies; remember?”
“I’ll figure it that way,” Deston said, and went to work with his slide-rule. A few minutes later he reported, “Neglecting the Einstein Effect, which is altogether too hairy for a slipstick, I make it about fourteen months. But since velocity at turnover will be crowding six-tenths of a light, that neglect makes it just a guess.”
“We’ll compute it tomorrow morning,” Jones said. “For your information, all, we’re heading for that star now.”
The tremendous Chaytor engines of the Procyon were again putting out their wonted torrents of power. The starship, now a mere spaceship, was on course at one gravity. The lifecraft were in their berths, but the five and the four still lived in them rather than in the vast and oppressive emptiness that the liner then was. And outside of working hours the two groups did not mix.
In Lifecraft Three, four men sat at two tables. Ferdy Blaine and Moose Mordan were playing cards for small stakes. Ferdy was of medium size, lithe and poised, built of rawhide and spring steel. Moose the Muscle was six feet five and weighed a good two sixty. The two at the other table had been planning for days. They had had many vitriolic arguments, but neither had made any motion toward his weapon.
“Play it my way and we’ve got it made, I tell you!” Newman pounded the table with his fist. “Seventy five megabucks if it’s a dime! Heavier loot than your second-string syndicate ever even thought of in one haul! I’m almost as good an astrogator as Jones is and a better engineer, and at practical electronics I’m just as good as Pretty Boy Deston is.”
“Oh, yeah?” Lopresto sneered. “How come you’re only a crew chief, then?”
“Only a crew chief!” Newman yelled. “D’ya think I’m dumb or something? Or don’t know where the big moola is at? Or ain’t in exactly the right spot to collect right and left? Or I ain’t got exactly the right connections? With Mister Big himself? You ain’t that dumb!”
“Dumb or not, before I make a move I’ve got to be sure that we can get back without ’em.”
“You can be damn sure. I got to get back myself, don’t I? But paste this in your hat—I get the big platinum blonde.”
“You can have her. Too big. The little yellow-head’s my dish.”
Newman sneered into Lopresto’s hard-held face. “But remember this, you small-time, chiseling punk. Rub me out after we kill them and you get nowhere. You’re dead. Chew on that awhile and you’ll know who’s boss.”
After just the right amount of holding back and objecting, Lopresto agreed. “You win, Newman, the way the cards lay. So all that’s left is—when? Tomorrow?”
“Not quite. Let ’em finish figuring course, time, distance, turnover—all that stuff. They can do it a lot faster and some better than I can. I’ll tell you when.”
“Okay, and I’ll give the signal. When I yell NOW we give ’em the business.”
Newman went to his cabin and the muscle called Moose said, “I don’t like that ape, boss. Before you gun him, let me work him over a little, huh?”
“We’ll let him think he’s top dog for a while yet; then you can have him.”
A few evenings later, in Lifecraft Two, Barbara said, “You’re worried, Babe, and everything’s going so smoothly. Why?”
“Too smoothly altogether. That’s why. Newman ought to be doing a slow burn and goldbricking all he dares, and he isn’t. And I wouldn’t trust Lopresto as far as I can throw a brick chimney by its smoke. I smell trouble. Shooting trouble.”
“But they couldn’t do anything without you two!” Bernice protested. “Could they, Ted, possibly?”
“They could, and I think they intend to. Being a crew chief, Newman is a jackleg engineer, a good practical ’troncist, and a rule-of-thumb astrogator, and we’re computing every element of the flight. And if he’s what I think he is . . .” Jones paused.
“Could be,” Deston said. “One of an organized ring of pirate-smugglers. But there isn’t enough plunder that they could get away with to make it pay.”
“No? Think again. Not plunder; salvage. With either of us alive, none. With both of us dead, can you guess within ten megabucks of how much they’ll collect?”
“Blockhead!” Deston slapped himself on the forehead. “And they aren’t planning on killing the girls until the last act.”
Both girls shrank visibly and Barbara said, “I see.”
Deston went on, “They know they’ll have to get both of us at once—the survivor would lock the ship in null-G and they’d be sitting ducks . . . and it won’t be until we’ve finished the computations. We very seldom work together. If we make it a point never to be together on duty . . .”
“And be sure to always have our talkies turned on,” Jones put in, grimly.
“Check. They’ll have to think up some reason for getting everybody together, which will be the tip-off. Blaine will probably draw on me . . .”
“And he’ll kill you,” Jones said, flatly. “You’re fast, I know, but he’s a professional—probably one of the fastest guns in all space.”
“Yes, but . . . I’ve got a . . . I mean I think I can . . .”
Bernice, smiling now, stopped Deston’s floundering. “Why don’t you fellows tell each other that you’re both very strongly psionic? Bobby and I let our back hair down long ago.”
“Oh—so you’ll have warning, too, Babe?” Jones asked.
“That’s right; but the girls can’t start packing pistols now.”
Bernice laughed. “I wouldn’t know how to shoot one if I did. I’ll throw things—I’m very good at that.”
Jones didn’t know his new wife very well yet, either. “What can you throw hard enough and straight enough to do any good?”
“Anything that weighs less than fifty pounds,” she replied, confidently. “In this case . . . chairs, I think. Flying chairs are really hard to cope with. I’ll start wearing a couple of knives in leg-sheaths, but I won’t throw ’em unless I absolutely have to. Who will I knock out with the first chair?”
“I’ll answer that,” Barbara said. “If it’s Blaine against Babe, it’ll be Lopresto against Herc. So you’ll throw your chair at that unspeakable oaf Newman.”
“I’d rather brain him than anyone else I know, but that would leave that gigantic gorilla to . . . in that case, Bobby, you’ll simply have to go armed.”
Barbara held out her hands. “I always do.”
“Against a man-mountain like him? You’re that good? Really?”
“Especially against a man-mountain like him. I’m that good. Really. And we should have a signal—an unusual word—so the first one of us to sense their intent yells ‘BRAHMS!’ Okay?”
That was okay, and the four went to bed.
Three days later, the intended victims allowed themselves to be inveigled into the lounge. All was peace and friendship—until suddenly a four-fold “BRAHMS!” rang out an instant ahead of Lopresto’s stentorian “NOW!”
It was all a very good thing that Deston had had warning for he was indeed competing out of his class. As it was, his bullet crashed through Blaine’s head, while the gunman’s went into the carpet. The other pistol duel wasn’t even close and Newman didn’t get to aim his gun at Adams at all.
Bernice, even while shrieking the battle-cry, leaped to her feet, hurled her chair, and reached for another; but one chair was enough. It knocked the half-drawn pistol from Newman’s hand and sent his body crashing to the floor, where Deston’s second bullet made it certain that he would stay there.
If Moose Mordan had had time to get set, he might have had a chance. His thought processes, however, were lamentably slow; and Barbara Deston was very, very fast. She reached him before he even realized that this pint-sized girl actually intended to hit him; thus his belly-muscles were still completely relaxed when her left fist sank half-forearm-deep into his solar plexus.
With an agonized “WHOOSH!” he began to double up, but she scarcely allowed him to bend. The fingers of her right hand, tightly bunched, were already boring savagely into a spot at the base of his neck. Then, left hand at his throat and right hand pulling hard at his belt, she put the totalized and concentrated power of her whole body behind the knee she drove into his groin.
That ended it. To make sure, however—or to keep Barbara from knowing that she had killed a man?—Deston and Jones each put a bullet through the falling head before it struck the floor.
Both girls flung themselves into their husbands’ arms.
“Oh, I killed him, Carl!” Barbara sobbed. “And the worst of it is, I really meant to! I never did anything like that before in . . .”
“You didn’t kill him, Barbara,” Adams said.
“Huh?” She raised her head from Deston’s shoulder; the contrast between streaming eyes and dawning relief was almost funny. “Why, I did too! I know I did!”
“By no means, my dear. Nor did Bernice kill Newman. Fists and knees and chairs do not kill instantly; bullets through the brain do. The autopsies will show, I’m quite certain, that these four men died instantly of gunshot wounds.”
With the gangsters out of the way, life aboardship settled down, but not into a routine. When two spacemen and two grounder girls are trying to do the work of a full crew, no routine is possible. Adams, much older than the others and working even longer hours, became haggard and thin.
“But this work is necessary, my dear children,” he informed the two girls when they remonstrated with him. “This material is all new. There are many extremely difficult problems involved and I have less than a year left to work on them. Less than one year, and it is a task for many men and all the resources of a research center.”
To the officers, however, he went into more detail. “Considering the enormous amounts of supplies carried; the scope, quantity, and quality of the devices employed; it is highly improbable that we are the first survivors of this type of catastrophe to set course for a planet.”
After some discussion, the officers agreed with him.
“While I can not as yet analyze or evaluate it, we are carrying an extremely heavy charge of an unknown nature; the residuum of a field of force which is possibly more or less analogous to the electromagnetic field. This residuum either is or is not dischargeable to an object of planetary mass. I am now virtually certain that it is; and I am of the opinion that its discharge is ordinarily of such violence as to destroy the starship carrying it.”
“Good God!” Deston exclaimed. “Oh—that was what you meant by ‘fantastic precautions’?”
“Any idea of what those precautions will have to be?”
“No. This is all so new . . . and I know so little . . . and am working with pitifully inadequate instrumentation . . . however, we have months of time yet, and if I am unable to derive a solution before arrival—I don’t mean a rigorous analysis, of course; merely a method of discharge having a probability of success of at least point nine—we will remain in orbit around that sun until I do.”
The Procyon bored on through space at one gravity of acceleration; and one gravity, maintained for months, builds up to an extremely high velocity. And, despite the Einstein Effect, that acceleration was maintained, for there was no lack of power. The Procyon’s uranium-driven Wesleys did not drive the ship, but only energized the Chaytor Effect engines that tapped the total energy of the universe.
Thus, in seven months of flight, the spaceship had probably attained a velocity of about six-tenths that of light. The men did not know the day or date or what their actual velocity was, since the brute-force machine that was their only clock could not be depended upon for either accuracy or uniformity. Also, and worse, there was of course no possibility of determining what, if anything, the Einstein Effect was doing to their time rate.
At the estimated midpoint of the flight the Procyon was turned end for end; and, a few days later, Barbara and Deston cornered Adams in his laboratory.
“Listen, you egregious clam!” she began. “I know that Bun and I both have been pregnant for at least eight months and we ought to be twice as big as we are. You’ve been studying us constantly with a hundred machines that nobody ever heard of before and all you’ve said is blah. Now, Uncle Andy, I want the truth. Are we in a lot of trouble?”
“Trouble?” Adams was amazed. “Of course not. None at all. Perfectly normal fetuses, both of them. Perfectly.”
“But for what age?” she demanded. “Four months, maybe?”
“But that’s the crux!” Adams enthused. “Fascinating; and indubitably supremely important. A key datum. If this zeta field is causing it, that gives me a tremendously powerful new tool, for certain time vectors in the generalized matrix become parameters. Thus certain determinants, notably the all-important delta-prime-sub-mu, become manipulable by . . . but you aren’t listening!”
“I’m listening, pops, but nothing is coming through. But I’m awfully glad I’m not going to give birth to a monster,” and she led Deston away. “Carl, have you got the foggiest idea of what he was talking about?”
“Not the foggiest—that was over my head like a cirrus cloud—but if you gals’ slowness in producing will help the old boy lick this thing I’m all for it, believe me.”
Months passed. Two perfect babies—Theodore Warner Deston and Barbara Bernice Jones—were born, four days apart, in perfectly normal fashion. Adams made out birth certificates which were unusual in only one respect; the times, dates, and places of the births were to be determined later.
A couple of weeks before arrival Adams rushed up to Deston and Jones. “I have it!” he shouted, and began to spout a torrent of higher—very much higher—mathematics.
“Hold it, Doc!” Deston protested. “I read you zero and ten. Can’t you delouse your signal?”
“W-e-l-l.” The scientist looked hurt, but did abandon the high math. “The discharge is catastrophic; energy of the order of magnitude of ten thousand average discharges of lightning. I do not know what it is, but it is virtually certain that we will be able to discharge it, not in the one tremendous blast of contact with the planet, but in successive decrements by the use of long, thin leads extending downward toward a high point of the planet.”
“Wire, you mean? What kind?”
“The material is unimportant except in that it should have sufficient tensile strength to support as many miles as possible of its own length.”
“We’ve got dozens of coils of hook-up wire,” Deston said, “but not too many miles and it’s soft stuff.”
Jones snapped his finger. “Graham wire!”
“Of course,” Deston agreed. “Hundreds of miles of it aboard. We’ll float the senser down on a Hotchkiss. . . .”
“Tear-out,” Jones objected.
“Bailey it—and spider the Bailey out to eighteen or twenty pads. We can cannibal the whole Middle for metal.”
“Sure. But surges—backlash. We’ll have to remote it.”
“No, problem there; servos all over the place. To Baby Two.”
“Would you mind delousing your signal?” Adams asked caustically.
“ ’Scuse, please, Doc. A guy does talk better in his own lingo, doesn’t he? Graham wire is used for re-wrapping the Grahams, you know.”
“No, I don’t know. What are Grahams?”
“Why, they’re the intermediates between the Wesleys and the Chaytors . . . okay, okay; Graham wire is one-point-three-millimeter-diameter ultra-high-tensile alloy wire. Used for re-enforcing hollow containers that have to stand terrific pressure.”
“Such wire is exactly what will be required. Note now that our bodies will have to be grounded very thoroughly to the metal of the ship.”
“You’re so right. We’ll wrap up to the eyeballs in silver mesh and run leads as big as my arm to the frame.”
They approached their target planet. It was twice as massive as Earth; its surface was rugged and jagged; its mountain ranges had sharp peaks over forty thousand feet high.
“There’s one more thing we must do,” Adams said. “This zeta field may very well be irreplaceable. We must therefore launch all the lifecraft except Number Two into separate orbits, so that a properly-staffed and properly-equipped force may study that field.”
It was done; and in a few hours the Procyon hung motionless, a thousand miles high, directly above an isolated and sharp mountain peak.
The Bailey boom, with its spider-web-like network of grounding cables and with a large pulley at its end, extended two hundred feet straight out from the Procyon’s side. A twenty-five-mile coil of Graham wire had been mounted on the remote-controlled Hotchkiss reel. The end of the wire had been run out over the pulley; a fifteen-pound weight, to act both as a “senser” and to keep the wire from fouling, had been attached; and the controls had been tested.