Authors: Murray Leinster
Tags: #Science Fiction
was three months and four landings away from Earth when it became necessary to change the fuel-ingot in her drive. It had been necessary twice before on this journey. It was routine. It was so normal an operation that only Howell, who owned the space-yacht and acted as skipper, and Ketch in the engine room, were involved. Howell’s part in it was simply to bring the yacht out of overdrive—the state of being in a self-created cocoon of stressed space in which the normal properties of space went haywire. The speed of light, for example, depended on the power of the unit that stretched the nothingness about the
. The increase of mass with velocity was reversed. When Howell threw the switch to end these conditions, the
would break out from the totally opaque and non-reflecting overdrive field. She would find herself somewhere in between-the-stars. It was extremely unlikely that there’d be a solar system within light-years.
That was all Howell had to do. Then Ketch, in the engine room, would unscrew the bolts of the fuel-chamber cover. He’d take out the eroded fuel-ingot, put it aside for later re-smelting, and put a new ingot in its place. He’d put the lid back on, re-tighten the bolts, and then the
could go on her way. Only the two persons did the whole thing. The others aboard paid no attention. Breen, whose speciality was botany, did not interrupt his concoction of a special festive dish to break the monotony of pre-prepared spacecraft rations. Karen, his daughter, was in the tiny control room with Howell. Ketch, of course, was in the engine room. His avocation was big game hunting, but he served as the
’s engineer. The yacht was too small to need intercoms between its compartments. Howell simply called, “Breakout coming!”
Karen didn’t answer. It wasn’t necessary. Her father put down the fluffy dessert he was blending and grunted acknowledgment. Ketch said, “Go ahead.” He stood beside the fuel-chamber. Howell threw the switch.
The acutely uncomfortable sensations of breakout hit them. The four aboard the yacht felt a momentary violent dizziness and a momentary violent nausea, and then a feeling of giddy, twisting fall. But it lasted less than a heartbeat. Then the vision-screens lighted, and all the stars of the galaxy shone in all their innumerable tints and brightnesses. The
was back in normal space in which a ship could not possibly travel faster than the speed of light and in which the nearest solar system might be a lifetime away.
Karen looked at the stars with wonder in her eyes. They were unfamiliar, of course. Except for four landings, the
had driven steadily for three months away from her home port, Earth. She had covered an improbable number of light-centuries of distance. All the star patterns seen from Earth had long since been lost. Only the Milky way remained recognizable among the features of the galaxy—and that seemed curiously askew.
There was the matter-of-fact clicking of the log camera, which photographed the cosmos at each breakout from overdrive for a suitable record of its journey. It happened that this particular breakout was farther from the First Solar System in this particular direction than any human ship had travelled before. But that wasn’t a distinction nowadays. Since the finding of those rubble-heaps which were considered to be the ruins of cities built by mankind’s progenitor’s, space travel went on with a casual confidence earlier times could not have imagined. There were no longer boasts of farthest-from-home journeys. Either somebody had broken the record before one could brag about it, or somebody very shortly would. The rubble-heaps that had been cities were proof, it was believed, that men had nothing to fear but other men.
So as the
lay still in emptiness, out of overdrive, Karen stared at the strange new stars, Howell lounged in the pilot’s chair, Karen’s father went back to his cookery, and Ketch unscrewed the bolts on the fuel-chamber lid. None of the four felt any anxiety. They had perfect confidence in the yacht. They had fuel and food to last almost indefinitely. They couldn’t imagine needing anything else. Ketch was equipped for big game hunting anywhere the
might happen to land. Breen was equipped with the tools of botany. Howell did not own a weapon, and of course Karen was unarmed. The
was wholly without any equipment for battle other than Ketch’s hunting rifles. But the rubble-heaps on four hundred different planets—the
had added two more in its last four landings—assured them that there was nothing in the galaxy to make a yacht need to be able to defend itself.
It was remarkable, if they’d realized it. It was appalling, if they’d thought about it. They could have reasoned quite logically to a conclusion that somewhere, in some direction and at some distance, they must run into some danger that the builders of the now-deserted cities hadn’t been able to counter. Because the cities now were rubble. But no danger ever had turned up, so they’d no faintest suspicion that such a thing was possible.
Ketch removed the last bolt from the fuel-chamber lid. He put aside the almost-used-up fuel-ingot. He put in a fresh one. He replaced the bolts. He began to screw down the lid. Karen’s father worked upon the foamy dessert that was to top off their next meal. He decorated it with delicately sculptured foliage—leaves of one of the eight food-plants found everywhere that rubble-cities were to be found. They were proof that the builders of those cities had carried their own food-plants from world to world as they settled them.
In the control room, Howell looked casually at the stars, and now and again out of habit looked at the instrument-board. One of the instrument-needles quivered very slightly. He didn’t happen to be looking at it. Presently, another. Then a wide-sensitivity receiver clicked loudly. It was an all-wave receiver and could give notice of beamed radiation through most of the electromagnetic spectrum. Radar and communicator-beams became audible as they arrived.
Such things were arriving now. Howell stared.
“Queer! ” he said. “That’s queer!”
Frowning, he began to flip switches, one after another. Beam-direction locators. A wave-form analyzer. A recorder.
“What’s the matter?” asked Karen.
“Something out there… I don’t know what. But it couldn’t be another ship! That’s unthinkable! It couldn’t be!”
Nevertheless, the instruments insisted that something was here in between-the-stars where only the
should in reason exist. The beam-direction locator swung to indicate a source of microwave radiation almost dead ahead. The waveform analyzer busily prepared a picture of a distinctly unusual wave-pattern. The recorder whined faintly, its tape storing human speech in the control room as well as all the data brought in by the yacht’s instrumentation.
Howell threw on the yacht’s radar. It took guidance from the beam-locator and flung its peculiar bat-like squeaks in the direction the locator pointed out. Echoes came back. They were audible, via loud-speaker, but they went to the radar-screen, too. A circle appeared on that screen. It shrank and shrank, and double circles appeared and shrank, and then triple ones. There was a blip. Then four circles appeared and shrank on the radar-screen and a second blip appeared. The circles expanded once more until the first blip reappeared. It held steady in position.
“There are two things out there!” said Howell, frowning. “Two of them! One’s about ten thousand miles away. The other’s nearer fifty thousand. What the devil—they’re almost stationary!”
That was not natural. The things themselves were extraordinary. There is much matter accumulated around suns and stars and solar systems. There are meteorites and cosmic-dust particles and cometary masses and shapeless objects up to the size of asteroids. But in between-the-stars there is emptiness. There are no things giving radar indications from ten and fifty thousand miles. There can be dark stars, but not masses of matter which by radar report are only feet or yards in size. Most particularly, there are no objects in between-the-stars which project microwave beams at yachts like the
On the other hand, it was the most firmly believed of all the dogmas of science that mankind had nothing to fear but itself. There had been an interstellar civilization once before. There were the ruins of its cities to prove it. It had ended. The same ruins proved that. But it was a human civilization. There couldn’t be a non-human race in the galaxy to constitute a danger to mankind. The lost race of the rubble-heap cities had exterminated all rivals before it grew old and weary and—so the most respected authorities said—committed suicide.
The beam-locator clicked again. Something new had been projected at the
. It was on the order of a radar-beam, but the analyzer made it out to be extraordinarily complex. It ceased. Howell threw the yacht’s electron telescope into circuit. The telescope-screen showed a pattern of stars, but with something indefinite in silhouette between them. He adjusted the controls. The object clarified. There was only starlight, and this was quite at the limit of the telescope’s pick-up power for such faint illumination. But the thing in the telescope field was obviously a spaceship of some sort. Yet it certainly hadn’t been made on any planet Howell knew.
He said sharply over his shoulder: “Ketch! Hurry up with the drive. There’s something out yonder I don’t like. We may need to get moving—and fast!”
He had cold chills running up and down his spine. The sensation was like what one might expect if one saw a ghost. Howell saw something and didn’t believe it—but still he saw it. There couldn’t be another civilized race! It wasn’t possible! For half a thousand years men had roamed the stars, and at first they were cautious and even timorous because the laws of probability said that pure chance must have produced more than one creature capable of civilization in the hundreds of millions of Earth-type worlds in the galaxy of the Milky way.
But there were none. There never had been even one intelligent race other than the human. The progenitors of modern mankind had possessed a civilization that present-day men hadn’t yet matched. They’d wiped out all possible rivals just as they’d destroyed all dangerous animals on the worlds they’d colonized. Modern man had inherited a galaxy made safe for humanity. He hadn’t inherited anything else, but this much seemed certain—and nothing contrary to it could be imagined!
But some ten thousand miles away there was an object which beamed complex microwaves at the
. It was shaped like an Earth-ecology slug. Now, suddenly, a faint whining sound came from it, and was picked up by the
’s detection apparatus. The whine was like that of a space-drive—the normal-space drive used for journeys between planets and for landings and liftings-off from worlds. It was slow, and quite useless outside a planetary system. But the drive used between suns was too fast to be practical for journeys of only light-hours or even days.
“That’s a drive,” said Howell. All unconsciously, his voice had gone grim. “It’s a ship, and it’s moving toward us! Ketch, can you hurry things up?”
Ketch swore. A spanner clattered on the engine room floor. He’d tried to hurry and his fingers became thumbs.
“These bolts have a lot of threads on them,” he said irritably. “I’m doing the best I can!”
Howell watched the radar-screen. Karen opened her lips to speak, and did not.
“It’s moving toward us,” Howell said tensely. “And it has plenty of acceleration!” He stirred restlessly. “I’ll feel better when we can drive!”
Karen’s father came to the control room door. He’d removed the apron he’d been wearing while, despite his eminence in the science of botany, he acted as ship’s cook for a small, private, and strictly amateur space-exploration expedition. Howell set the controls for a high-speed entry into overdrive the instant it was possible. Breen looked at him benignly.
Howell said again, “There’s something out there. It looks like a ship and acts like a ship. But it can’t be—unless it’s a non-human one.”
“Impossible!” said Breen confidently. “Let’s go over and look at it.”
“It’s coming to look at us,” said Howell.
Ketch said angrily from the engine room, “I crossed a thread. Four more bolts to go!”
Then there was silence. By all authoritative opinion, the thing that was happening, couldn’t be. The slug-shaped ship simply couldn’t have been made by men. Its radar—if it was only a radar—wouldn’t have had such a complex wave-form. But there were radar-scopes in existence which instead of returning only the news that something was a certain distance away, bearing such-and-such, gave information about the object’s size and shape and composition. It was expected to be very useful to meteor-miners, but the
wasn’t equipped with it. The slug-ship might have something of the sort, though, in which case it already knew much more about the
knew about it.