Sometimes, I know, I must seem a crotchety old man. “Old John Hanson,” they call me, and roll their eyes as though to say, “Of course, you have to forgive him on account of his age.”
But the joke isn’t always on me. Not infrequently I gain much amusement observing these cocky youngsters who strut in the blue-and-silver uniforms of the Service in which, until more or less recently, I bore the rank of Commander.
There is young Clippen, for instance, a nice, clean youngster; third officer, I believe, on the Caliobre, one of the newest ships of the Special Patrol Service. He drops in to see me as often as he has leave here at Base, to give me the latest news, and to coax a yarn, if he can, of the old days. He is courteous, respectful ... and yet just a shade condescending. The condescension of youth.
“Something new under the sun after all, sir,” he commented the other day. That, incidentally, is a saying of Earth, whence the larger part of the Service’s officer personnel has always been drawn. Something new under the sun! The saying probably dates back to an age long before man mastered space.
“Yes?” I leaned back more comfortably, happy, as always, to hear my native Earth tongue, and to speak it. The Universal language has its obvious advantages, but the speech of one’s fathers wings thought straightest to the mind. “What now?”
“Creatures of space!” announced Clippen importantly, in the fashion of one who brings surprising news. “‘Electites, ‘ they call them. Beings who live in space--things, anyway; I don’t know that you could call them beings.”
“Hm-m.” I looked past him, down a mighty corridor of dimming years. Creatures that lived in space ... I smiled in my beard. “Creatures perhaps twice the height of a man in their greatest dimension? In shape like a crescent, with blunted horns somewhat straightened near the tips, and drawn close together?” I spoke slowly, drawing from my store of memories. “A pale red in color, intangible and yet--”
“You’ve heard, sir!” said Clippen disappointedly to me. “My news is stale.”
“Yes, I’ve heard,” I nodded. “‘Electites, ‘ they call them, eh? That’s the work of our great scientific minds, I presume?”
“Er--yes. Undoubtedly.” Clippen started to wander restlessly around the room. He had a great respect for the laboratory men, with their white coats and their wise, solemn airs, and he disliked exceedingly to have me present my views regarding these much overrated gentlemen. I have always been a man of action, and pottering over coils and glass vials and pages of figures has always struck me as something not to be included in a man’s proper sphere of activity. “Well, I believe I’ll be shoving off, sir; just dropped in for a moment,” Clippen continued. “Thought perhaps you hadn’t heard of the news; it seems to be causing a great deal of discussion among the officers at Base.”
“Something new under the sun, eh?” I chuckled.
“Why, yes. You’ll agree to that, sir, surely?” I believe the lad was slightly nettled by my chuckle. No one likes to bear stale news.
“I’ll agree to that,” I said, smiling broadly now. “‘Tis easier than debating the matter, and an old man can’t hope to hold his own in argument with you quick-witted youngsters.”
“I’ve never noticed,” replied young Clippen rather acidly, “that you were particularly averse to argument, sir. Rather the reverse. But I must be moving on; we’re shoving off soon, I hear, and you know the routine here at Base.”
He saluted me, rather carelessly, I should say, and I returned the salute with the crispness with which the gesture was rendered in my day. When he was gone, I turned to my desk and began searching in that huge and capacious drawer in which were kept, helter-skelter, the dusty, faded, nondescript mementoes of a thousand adventures.
I found, at last, what I was seeking. No impressive thing, this: a bit of metal, irregular in shape, no larger than my palm, and three times the thickness. One side was smooth; the other was stained as by great heat, and deeply pitted as though it had been steeped in acid.
Silently, I turned the bit of metal over and over in my hands. I had begged hard for this souvenir; had obtained it only by passing my word its secret would never reach the Universe through me. But now ... now that seal of secrecy has been removed.
As I write this, slowly and thoughtfully, as an old man writes, relishing his words for the sake of the memories they bring before his eyes, a bit of metal holds against the vagrant breeze the filled pages of my script. A bit of metal, no larger than my palm, and perhaps three times the thickness. It is irregular in shape, and smooth on one side. The other side is eroded as though by acid.
Not an imposing thing, this ancient bit of metal, but to me one of my most precious possessions. It is, beyond doubt, the only fragment of my old ship, the Ertak, now in existence and identifiable.
And this story is the story of that pitted metal and the ship from which it came; one of the strangest stories in all my storehouse of memories of days when only the highways of the Universe had been charted, and breathless adventure awaited him who dared the unknown trails of the Special Patrol Service.
The Ertak, as I recall the details now, had just touched at Base upon the completion of a routine patrol--one of those monotonous, fruitless affairs which used to prey so upon Correy’s peace of mind. Correy was my first officer on the Ertak, and the keenest seeker after trouble I have ever known.
“The Chief presents his compliments and requests an immediate audience with Commander Hanson,” announced one of the brisk, little attaches of Base, before I’d had time to draw a second breath of fresh air.
I glanced at Correy, who was beside me, and winked. That is, I quickly drew down the lid of one eye--a peculiar little gesture common to Earth, which may mean any one of many things.
“Sounds like something’s in the wind,” I commented in a swift aside. “Better give ‘no leaves’ until I come back.”
“Right, sir!” chuckled Correy. “It’s about time.”
I made my way swiftly to the Chief’s private office, and was promptly admitted. He returned my salute crisply, and wasted no time in getting to the point.
“How’s your ship, Commander? Good condition?”
“What’s needed could be taken on in two hours.” In the Service, Earth time was an almost universal standard except in official documents.
“Good!” The Chief picked up a sheaf of papers, mostly standard charts and position reports, I judged, and frowned at them thoughtfully. “I’ve some work cut out for you, Commander.
“Two passenger ships have recently been reported lost in space. That wouldn’t be so alarming if both had not, when last reported, been in about the same position. Perhaps it is no more than a coincidence, but, with space travel still viewed with a certain doubt by so many, the Council feels something should be done to determine the cause of these two losses.
“Accordingly, all ships have been rerouted to avoid the area in which it is presumed these losses took place. The locations of the two ships, together with their routes and last reported positions, are given here. There will be no formal orders; you are to cruise until you have determined, and if possible, eliminated the danger, or until you are certain that no further danger exists.”
He slid the papers across his desk, and I picked them up.
“Yes, sir!” I said. “That will be all?”
“You understand your orders?”
“Very well. Good luck, Commander!”
I saluted and hurried out of the room, back to my impatient first officer.
“What’s up, sir?” he asked eagerly.
“Can’t say that I know, to be truthful about it. Perhaps nothing; perhaps a great deal. Give orders to take on all necessary supplies--in double-quick time. I’ve promised the Chief we’ll be ready to shove off in two hours. I’ll meet you in the navigating room, and give you all the information I have.”
Correy saluted and rushed away to give the necessary orders. Thoughtfully, I made my way through the narrow, ethon-lighted passageways to the navigating room, where Correy very shortly joined me.
Briefly, I repeated the Chief’s conversation, and we both bent over the charts and position reports.
“Hm-m!” Correy was lost in thought for a moment as he fixed the location in his mind. “Rather on the fringe of things. Almost anything could happen out there, sir. That would be on the old Belgrade route, would it not?”
“Yes. It’s still used, however, as you know, by some of the smaller, slower ships making many stops. Or was, until the recent order. Any guesses as to what we’ll find?”
“None, sir, except the obvious one.”
“There’s some bad swarms, now and then,” he said seriously. I knew he was thinking of one disastrous experience the Ertak had had ... and of scores of narrow escapes. “That would be the one likely explanation.”
“True. But those ships were old and slow, they could turn about and dodge more easily than a ship of the Ertak’s speed. At full space speed we’re practically helpless; can neither stop nor change our course in time to avoid an emergency.”
“Well, sir,” shrugged Correy, “our job’s to find the facts. I took the liberty of telling the men we were to be ready in an hour and a half. If we are, do we shove off immediately?”
“Just as soon as everything’s checked. I leave it to you to give the necessary orders. I know I can depend upon you to waste no time.”
“Right, sir,” said Correy, grinning like a schoolboy. “We’ll waste no time.”
In just a shade less than two hours after we had set down at Base, we were rising swiftly at maximum atmospheric speed, on our way to a little-traveled portion of the universe, where two ships, in rapid succession, had met an unknown fate.
“I wonder, sir, if you could come to the navigating room at once?” It was Kincaide’s voice, coming from the instrument in my stateroom.
“Immediately, Mr. Kincaide.” I asked no questions, for I knew my second officer’s cool-headed disposition. If something required my attention in the navigating room, in his opinion, it was something important. I threw on my uniform hurriedly and hastened to Kincaide’s side, wondering if at last our days of unrewarded searching were to bear fruit.
“Perhaps I called you needlessly, sir,” Kincaide greeted me apologetically, “but, considering the nature of our mission, I thought it best to have your opinion.” He motioned toward the two great navigating charts, operated by super-radio reflexes, set in the surface of the table before him.
In the center of each was the familiar red spark which represented the Ertak herself, and all around were the glowing points of greenish light which gave us, in terrestial terms, the locations of the various bodies to the right and left, above and below.
“See here, sir--and here?” Kincaide’s blunt, capable forefingers indicated spots on each of the charts. “Ever see anything like that before?”
I shook my head slowly. I had seen instantly the phenomena he had pointed out. Using again the most understandable terminology, to our right, and somewhat above us, nearer by far than any of the charted bodies, was something which registered on our charts, as a dim and formless haze of pinkish light.
“Now the television, sir,” said Kincaide gravely.
I bent over the huge, hooded disk, so unlike the brilliantly illuminated instruments of to-day, and studied the scene reflected there.
Centered in the field was a group of thousands of strange things, moving swiftly toward the ship. In shape they were not unlike crescents, with the horns blunted, and pushed inward, towards each other. They glowed with a reddish radiance which seemed to have its center in the thickest portion of the crescents--and, despite their appearance, they gave me, somehow, an uncanny impression that they were in some strange way, alive! While they remained in a more or less compact group, their relative positions changed from time to time, not aimlessly as would insensate bodies drifting thus through the black void of space, but with a sort of intelligent direction.
“What do you make of them, sir?” asked Kincaide, his eyes on may face. “Can you place them?”
“No,” I admitted, still staring with a fixed fascination at the strange scene in the television disk. “Perhaps this is what we’ve been searching for. Please call Mr. Correy and Mr. Hendricks, and ask them to report here immediately.”
Kincaide hastened to obey the order, while I watched the strange things in the field of the television disk, trying to ascertain their nature. They were not solid bodies, for even as I viewed them, one was superimposed upon another, and I could see the second quite distinctly through the substance of the first. Nor were they rigid, for now and again one of the crescent arms would move searchingly, almost like a thick, clumsy tentacle. There was something restless, hungry, in the movement of the sharp arms of the things, that sent a chill trickling down my spine.
Correy and Hendricks arrived together; their curiosity evident.
“I believe, gentlemen,” I said, “that we’re about to find out the reason why two ships already have disappeared in this vicinity. Look first at the charts, and then here.”
They bent, for a moment, over the charts, and then stared down into the television disk. Correy was first to speak.
“What are they?” he gasped. “Are they ... alive?”
“That is what we don’t know. I believe they are, after a fashion. And, if you’ll observe, they are headed directly towards us at a speed which must be at least as great as our own. Is that correct, Mr. Kincaide?”
Kincaide nodded, and began some hasty figuring, taking his readings from the finely ruled lines which divided the charts into little measured squares, and checking speeds with the chronometers set into the wall of the room.
“But I don’t understand the way in which they register on our navigating charts, sir,” said Hendricks slowly. Hendricks, my youthful third officer, had an inquiring, almost scientific mind. I have often said he was the closest approach to a scientist I have ever seen in the person of an action-loving man. “They’re a blur of light on the charts--all out of proportion to their actual size. They must be something more than material bodies, or less.”
“They’re coming towards us,” commented Correy grimly, still bent over the disk, “as though they knew what they were doing, and meant business.”
“Yes,” nodded Kincaide, picking up the paper upon which he had been figuring. “This is just a rule-of-thumb estimate, but if they continue on their present course at their present speed, and we do likewise, they’ll be upon us in about an hour and a quarter--less, if anything.”
“But I can’t understand their appearance in the charts,” muttered Hendricks doggedly, still turning that matter over in his mind. “Unless ... unless ... ah! I’ll venture I have it, sir! The charts are operated by super-radio reflexes; in others words, electrically. They would naturally be extremely sensitive to an electrical disturbance. Those things are electrical in nature. Highly so. That’s the reason for the flare of light on the charts.”
“Sounds logical,” said Correy immediately. “The point, as I see it, is not what they are, but what we’re to do about them. Do you believe, sir, that they are dangerous?”
“Let me ask you some questions to answer that one,” I suggested. “Two ships are reported lost in space--in this immediate vicinity. We come here to determine the cause of those losses. We find ourselves the evident objective of a horde of strange things which we cannot identify; which Mr. Hendricks, here, seems to have good reason to believe are somehow electrical in nature. Putting all these facts together, what is the most logical conclusion?”
“That these things caused the two lost ships to be reported missing in space!” said Hendricks.
I glanced at Kincaide, and he nodded gravely.
“And you, Mr. Correy?” I asked.
“I believe you’re, right, sir. They seem like such rather flimsy, harmless things, though, that the disintegrator rays will take care of without difficulty. Shall I order the ray operators to their stations, sir?”
“Do that, please. And take personal charge of the forward projectors, will you? Mr. Hendricks, will you command the after projectors? Mr. Kincaide and I will carry on here.”
“Shall we open upon them at will, or upon orders, sir?” asked Correy.
“Upon orders,” I said. “And you’ll get your orders as soon as they’re in range; I have a feeling we’re in for trouble.”
“I hope so, sir!” grinned Correy from the door.
Hendricks followed him silently, but I saw there was a deep, thoughtful frown between his brows.
“I think,” commented Kincaide quietly, “that Hendricks is likely to be more useful to us in this matter than Correy.”
I nodded, and bent over the television disk. The things were perceptibly nearer; the hurtling group nearly filled the disk, now.
There was something horribly eager, horribly malignant, in the way they shone, so palely red, and in the fashion in which their blunt tentacles reached out toward the Ertak.
I glanced up at the Earth clock on the wall.
“The next hour,” I said soberly, “cannot pass too quickly for me!”
We had decelerated steadily during the hour, but we were still above maximum atmospheric speed when at last I gave the order to open the invaders with disintegrator rays. They were close, but of course the rays are not as effective in space as when operating in a more favorable medium, and I wished to make sure of our prey.
I pressed the attention signal to Correy’s post, and he answered instantly.
“Ready, Mr. Correy?”
“Then commence action!”
Before I could repeat the command to Hendricks, I heard the deepening note of the atomic generators, and knew Correy had already begun operations.
Together, and silently, Kincaide and I bent over the television disk. We watched for a moment, and then, with one accord, lifted our heads and looked into each other’s eyes.
“No go, sir,” said Kincaide quietly.
I nodded. It was evident the disintegrator rays were useless here. When they struck into the horde of crescent-shaped things coming so hungrily toward us, the things changed from red to a sickly, yellowish pink, and seemed to writhe, as though in some discomfort, but that was all.
“Perhaps at closer range... ?” ventured Kincaide.
“I think not. If Mr. Hendricks is correct--and I believe he is--these things aren’t material; they’re not matter, as we comprehend the word. And so, they can’t be disintegrated.”
“Then, sir, how are to best them?”
“First, we’ll have to know more about them. For one thing, their mode of attack. We should know very soon. Please recall Mr. Hendricks, and then order all hands to their posts. We may be in for it.”
Hendricks came rushing in breathlessly.
“The rays are useless, sir,” he said. “They’ll be on us in a few minutes. Any further orders?”
“Not yet. Have you any ideas as to their mode of attack? What they can do to us?”
“No, sir. That is, no reasonable idea.”
“What’s your unreasonable theory, then, Mr. Hendricks?”
“I’d prefer, sir, to make further observation first,” he replied. “They’re close enough now, I think, to watch through the ports. Have I your permission to unshutter one of the ports?”
“Certainly, sir.” The Ertak, like all Special Patrol ships of the period, had but few ports, and these were kept heavily shuttered. Her hull was double; she was really two ships, one inside the other, the two skins being separated and braced by innumerable trusses. Between the outer and the inner skin the air pressure was kept about one half of normal, thus distributing the strain of the pressure equally between the two hulls.
In order to arrange for a port or an exit, it was necessary to bring these two skins close together at the desired point, and strengthen this weak point with many braces. As a further protection against an emergency--and a fighting ship must be prepared against all emergencies--the ports were all shuttered with massive doors of solid metal, hermetically fitted. I am explaining this so much in detail for the benefit of those not familiar with the ships of my day, and because this information is necessary that one may have a complete understanding of subsequent events.
Hendricks, upon receiving my permission, sprang to one of the two ports in the navigating room and unshuttered it.
“The lights, please?” he asked, over his shoulder. Kincaide nodded, and switched off the ethon tubes which illuminated the room. The three of us crowded around the recessed port.
The things were not only close: they were veritably upon us! Even as we looked, one of them swept by the port so close that, save for the thick crystal, one might have reached out into space and touched it.
The television disk had represented them very accurately. They were, in their greatest dimension, perhaps twice the height of a man, and at close range their reddish color was more brilliant than I had imagined; in the thickest portion of the crescent, which seemed to be the nucleus, the radiance of the thing was almost blinding.
It was obvious that they were not material bodies. There were no definite boundaries to their bodies; they faded off into nothingness in a sort of fringe, almost like a dim halo.
An attention signal sounded sharply, and Kincaide groped his way swiftly to answer it.
“It’s Correy, sir,” he said. “He reports his rays are utterly useless, and asks for further orders.”
“Tell him to cease action, and report here immediately.” I turned to Hendricks, staring out the port beside me. “Well, what do you make of them now?”
Before he could reply, Kincaide called out sharply.
“Come here, sir! The charts are out of commission. We’ve gone blind.”
It was true. The charts were no more than twin rectangles of lambent red flame, with a yellow spark glowing dimly in the center of each, the fine black lines ruled in the surface showing clearly against the wavering red fire.
“Mr. Hendricks!” I snapped. “Let’s have your theory--reasonable or otherwise.”
Hendricks, his face pressed at an angle against one side of the port, turned toward me, and swung the shutter into place. Kincaide snapped on the lights.
“It’s no longer a theory, sir,” he said in a choked, hushed voice, “although it’s still unreasonable. These things--are eating us!”
“Eating us?” Correy’s voice joined Kincaide’s and mine in the exclamation of amazement. He had just entered the navigating room in response to my order.
“Eroding us, absorbing us--whatever you want to call it. There’s one at work close enough to the port so that I could see it. It is feeding upon our hull as an electric arc feeds upon its electrodes!”
“Farewell Ertak!” said Correy grimly. “Anything the rays can’t lick--wins!”
“Not yet!” I contradicted him. “Kincaide, what’s the nearest body upon which we can set down?”
“N-127, sir,” he replied promptly. “Just logged her a few minutes ago.” He poured hastily through a dog-eared index. “Here it is: ‘N-127, atmosphere unbreathable; largely nitrogen, oxygen insufficient to support human life; no animal life reported; insects, large but reported non-poisonous; vegetation heroic in size, probably with edible fruits, although reports are incomplete on this score; water unfit for drinking purpose unless distilled; land area approximately--’”
“That’s enough,” I interrupted. “Mr. Correy, set a course for N-127 by the readings of the television instrument. Mr. Kincaide, accelerate to maximum space speed, and set us down on dry land as quickly as emergency speed can put us there. And you, Mr. Hendricks, please tell us all you know--or guess--about the enemy.”
Hendricks waited, moodily silent, until the ship was coming around on her course, picking up speed every instant. Kincaide had gradually increased the pull of the gravity pads to about twice normal, so that we found it barely possible to move about. The Ertak was an old-timer, but she could pick up speed when she had to that would have thrown us all headlong were it not for the artificial gravity anchorage of the pads.
“It’s all guess-work,” began Hendricks slowly, “so I hope you won’t place too much reliance in my theories, sir. I’ll just give you my line of reasoning, and you can evaluate it for yourself.
“These things are creatures of space. No form of life, as we know it, can live in space. Therefore, they are not material; they are not matter, like ourselves.
“From their effect upon the charts, we decided they were electrical in nature. Not made up of atoms and electrons, but of pure electrical energy in an unfamiliar form.
“Then, remembering that they exist in space, and concluding that they were the destroyers of the two ships we know of, I began wondering how they brought about the destruction--or at least, the disappearance--of these two ships. Life of any kind must have something to feed upon. To produce one kind of energy we must convert, apparently consume, some other kind of energy. Even our atomic generators slowly but surely eat up the metal in which is locked the power which makes this ship’s power possible.
“But, in space, what could these things feed upon? What--if not those troublesome bodies, meteorites? And meteorites, as we know, are largely metallic in composition. And ships are made of metal.
“Here are the only proofs, if proofs you can call them, that these are not wild ideas: first, the disintegrator rays, working upon an electrical principle, reacted upon but did not destroy these things, as might be expected from the meeting of two not dissimilar manifestations of energy; and the fact that I did, from the port, see one of these space-things, or part of one, flattened out upon the body of the Ertak, and feeding upon her skin, already roughened and pitted slightly from the thing’s hungry activities.”
Hendricks fell silent, staring down at the floor. He was only a youngster, and the significance of his remarks was as plain to him as it was to the rest of us. If these monsters from the void were truly feeding on the skin of our ship, vampire-like, it would not be long before it would be weakened; weakened to the danger point, weakened until we would explode in space like a gigantic bomb, to leave our fragments to whirl onward forever through the darkness and the silence of outer space.