"What do you make of it?" Commander Jed Hargraves asked huskily.
Ron Val, busy at the telescope, was too excited to look up from the eye-piece.
"There are at least two planets circling Vega!" he said quickly. "There may b_ther planets farther out, but I can see two plainly. And Jed, the neares_lanet, the one we are approaching, has an atmosphere. The telescope reveals _lur that could only be caused by an atmosphere. And—Jed, this may seem s_mpossible you won't believe it—but I can see several large spots on th_urface that are almost certainly lakes. They are not big enough to be calle_ceans or seas. But I am almost positive they are lakes!"
According to the preconceptions of astronomers, formed before they had _hance to go see for themselves, solar systems were supposed to be rare birds.
Not every sun had a chance to give birth to planets. Not one sun in _housand, maybe not one in a million; maybe, with the exception of Sol, no_nother one in the whole universe.
And here the first sun approached by the Third Interstellar Expedition wa_ircled by planets!
The sight was enough to drive an astronomer insane.
Ron Val tore his eyes away from the telescope long enough to stare at Captai_argraves. "Air and water on this planet!" he gasped. "Jed, do you realiz_hat this may mean?"
Jed Hargraves grinned. His face was lean and brown, and the grin, spreadin_ver it, relaxed a little from the tension that had been present for months.
"Easy, old man," he said, clapping Ron Val on the shoulder. "There is nothin_o get so excited about."
"But a solar system—"
"We came from one."
"I know we did. But just the same, finding another will put our names in al_he books on astronomy. They aren't the commonest things in the universe, yo_now. And to find one of the planets of this new system with air an_ater—Jed, where there is air and water there may be life!"
"There probably is. Life, in some form, seems to be everywhere. Remember w_ound spores being kicked around by light waves in the deepest depths o_pace. And Pluto, in our own system, has mosses and lichens that th_iologists insist are alive. It won't be surprising if we find life ou_here." He gestured through the port at the world swimming through spac_oward them.
"I mean intelligent life," Ron Val corrected.
"Don't bet on it. The old boys had the idea they would find intelligent lif_n Mars, until they got there. Then they discovered that intelligent creature_ad once lived on the Red Planet. Cities, canals, and stuff. But the peopl_ho had built the cities and canals had died of starvation long before human_ot to Mars. So it isn't a good bet that we shall find intelligence here."
The astronomer's face drooped a little. But not for long. "That was true o_ars," he said. "But it isn't necessarily true here. And even if Mars wa_ead, Venus wasn't. Nor is Earth. If there is life on two of the planets o_ur own solar system, there may be life on one of the planets of Vega. Wh_ot?" he challenged.
"Hey, wait a minute," Hargraves answered. "I'm not trying to start a_rgument."
"If you mean why not an argument—"
"I mean, why not life here?"
"I don't know why not," Hargraves shrugged. "For that matter, I don't kno_why_ , either." He looked closely at Ron Val. "You ape! I believe you'r_oping we will find life here."
"Of course that's what I'm hoping," Ron Val answered quickly. "It would mean _ot to find people here. We could exchange experiences, learn a lot. I kno_t's probably too much to hope for." He broke off. "Jed, are we going to lan_ere?"
"Certainly we're going to land here!" Jed Hargraves said emphatically. "Why i_he hell do you think we've crossed thirty light years if we don't land on _orld when we find one? This is an exploring expedition—"
Hargraves saw that he had no listener. Ron Val had listened only long enoug_o learn what he wanted to know, then had dived back to his beloved telescop_o watch the world spiraling up through space toward them. That world meant _ot to Ron Val, the thrill of discovery, of exploring where a human foot ha_ever trod in all the history of the universe.
New lands in the sky! The Third Interstellar Expedition—third because tw_thers were winging out across space, one toward Sirius, the other towar_ygnus—was approaching land! The fact also meant something to Jed Hargraves, possibly a little less than it did to Ron Val because Hargraves had mor_esponsibilities. He was captain of the ship, commander of the expedition. I_as his duty to take the ship to Vega, and to bring it safely home.
Half of his task was done. Vega was bright in the sky ahead and the toug_ubble of steel and quartz that was the ship was dropping down to rest on on_f Vega's planets. Hargraves started to leave the nook that housed Ron Val an_is telescope.
The ship's loudspeaker system shouted with sudden sound.
"Jed! Jed Hargraves! Come to the bridge at once."
That was Red Nielson's voice. He was speaking from the control room in th_ose of the ship. Nielson sounded excited.
Hargraves pushed a button under the loudspeaker. The system was two-way, allowing for intercommunication.
"Hargraves speaking. What's wrong?"
"A ship is approaching. It is coming straight toward us."
"A ship! Are you out of your head? This is Vega."
"I don't give a damn if it's Brooklyn! I know a space ship when I see one. An_his is one. Either get up here and take command or tell me what you wan_one."
Discipline among the personnel of this expedition was so nearly perfect ther_as no need for it. Consequently there was none. Before leaving earth, skille_ental analysts had aided in the selection of this crew, and had welded i_ogether so artfully that it thought, acted, and functioned as a unit. Je_argraves was captain, but he had never heard the word spoken, and neve_anted to hear it. No one had ever put "sir" after his name. Nor had anyon_ver questioned an order, after it was given. Violent argument there might be, before an order was given, with Hargraves filtering the pros and cons throug_is rigidly logical mind, but the instant he reached a decision the argumen_topped. He was one of the crew, and the crew knew it. The crew was one wit_im, and he knew it.
He might question Nielson's facts, once, in surprise. But not twice. I_ielson said a ship was approaching, a ship _was_ approaching.
"I'm coming," Hargraves rapped into the mike. "Turn full power into th_efense screen. Warn the engine room to be ready for an emergency. Sound th_all to stations. And Red, hold us away from this planet."
Almost before he had finished speaking, a siren was wailing through the ship.
Although he had used the microphone in the nook that housed the telescope, Ro_al had been so interested in the world they were approaching that he had no_eard the captain's orders. He heard the siren.
"What is it, Jed?"
Hargraves didn't have time to explain. He was diving out the door and racin_oward the bridge in the nose of the ship. "Come on," he flung back over hi_houlder at Ron Val. "Your post is at the fore negatron."
Ron Val took one despairing glance at his telescope, then followed th_ommander.
As he ran toward the control room, Hargraves heard the ship begin to radiate _ew tempo of sound. The siren was dying into silence, its warning tas_inished. Other sounds were taking its place. From the engine room in th_tern was coming a spiteful hiss, like steam escaping under great pressur_rom a tiny vent valve. That was the twin atomics, loading up, building up th_nconceivable pressures they would feed to the Kruchek drivers. A sligh_umble went through the ship, a rumble seemingly radiated from every molecule, from every atom, in the vessel. It _was_ radiated from every molecule! Tha_umble came from the Kruchek drivers warping the ship in response to th_ontrols on the bridge. Bill Kruchek's going-faster-than-hell engines, engineers called them. A fellow by the name of Bill Kruchek had invented them.
When Bill Krucheck's going-faster-than-hell drivers dug their toes into th_attice of space and put brawny shoulders behind every molecule within th_ield they generated, a ship within that field went faster than light. Th_ruchek drivers, given the juice they needed in such tremendous quantities, took you from hell to yonder in a mighty hurry. They had been idling, driftin_he ship slowly in toward the planet. Now, in response to an impulse fro_ielson on the bridge, they grumbled, and hunching mighty shoulders for th_oad, prepared to hurl the ship away from the planet. Hargraves could feel th_essel surge in response to the speed. Then there was a distant thud, and h_ould feel the surge no longer. The anti-accelerators had been cut in, neutralizing the effect of inertia.
Shoving open a heavy door, Hargraves was in the control room. A glance showe_im Nielson on the bridge. Leaning over, his fingers on the bank of button_hat controlled the ship, he was peering through the heavy quartzit_bservation port at something approaching from the right. Beside him, on hi_ight, a man was standing ready at the radio panel. And to the left of th_ridge two men had already jerked the covers from the negatron and wer_tanding ready beside it.
Ron Val leaped past Hargraves, dived for a seat on the negatron. That was hi_ost. He had been chosen for it because of his familiarity with optica_nstruments. Along the top of the negatron was a sighting telescope. Ron Va_ooked once to see where the man on the bridge was looking, then his finger_lew to the adjusting levers of the telescope. The negatron swung around t_he right, centered on something there.
"Ready," Ron Val said, not taking his eyes from the 'scope.
"Hold your fire," Hargraves ordered.
He was on the bridge, standing beside Red Nielson. Off to the right he coul_ee the enemy ship. Odd that he should think of it as an enemy. It wasn't. I_as merely a strange ship. But there were relics in his mind, vague racia_emories, of the days when stranger and enemy were synonymous. The times whe_his was true were gone forever, but the thoughts remained.
"Shall we run for it?" Nielson questioned, his hands on the controls tha_ould turn full power into the drivers.
"No. If we run, they will think we have some reason for running. That might b_ll they would need to conclude we are up to no good. Is the defense screen o_ull power?"
"Yes." Nielson pushed the lever again to be sure. "I'm giving it all it wil_ake."
Hargraves could barely see the screen out there a half mile from the ship. I_as twinkling dimly as it swept up cosmic dust.[](footnotes.xml#footnote_1)
The oncoming ship had been a dot in the sky. Now it was a round ball.
"Try them on the radio," Hargraves said. "They probably won't understand u_ut at least they will know we're trying to communicate with them."
The ball had bobbled in its smooth flight. As though caught in the attractio_f a magnet it was coming straight toward them.
For an instant, Hargraves stared. Should he run or should he wait? He didn'_ant to run and he didn't want to fight. On the other hand, he did not want t_ake chances with the safety of the men under his command.
His mission was peaceful. Entirely so. But the ball was driving straigh_oward them. How big it was he could not estimate. It wasn't very big. Oddly, it presented a completely blank surface. No ports. And, so far as he coul_ell, there was no discharge from driving engines. The latter meant nothing.
Their own ship showed no discharge from the Kruchek drivers. But no ports—
It came so fast he couldn't see it come. The flash of light! It came from th_all. For the fractional part of a second, the defense screen twinkled wher_he flash of light hit it. But—the defense screen was not designed to tur_ight or any other form of radiation. The light came through. It wasn't light.
It carried a component of visible radiation but it wasn't light. The bea_truck the earth ship.
From the stern came a sudden scream of tortured metal. The ship rocked, careened, tried to spin on its axis. On the control panels, a dozen red light_lashed, winked off, winked on again. Heavy thuds echoed through the vessel.
Emergency compartments closing.
Hargraves hesitated no longer.
"Full speed ahead!" he shouted at Red Nielson.
"Ron Val. Fire!"
This was an attack. This was a savage, vicious attack, delivered withou_arning, with no attempt to parley. The ship had been hit. How badly it ha_een damaged he did not know. But unless the damage was too heavy they coul_utrun this ball, flash away from it faster than light, disappear in the sky, vanish. The ship had legs to run. There was no limit to her speed. She coul_o fast, then she could go faster.
Nielson looked up from the bank of buttons. His face was ashen. "She doesn'_espond, Jed. The drivers are off. The engine room is knocked out."
There was no rumble from Bill Kruchek's going-faster-than-hell engines. Th_iss of the atomics was still faintly audible. Short of annihilation, nothin_ould knock them out. Energy was being generated but it wasn't getting to th_rive. Leaping to the controls, Hargraves tried them himself.
They didn't respond.
"Engine room!" he shouted into the communication system.
There was no answer.
The ship began to yaw, to drop away toward the planet below them. The plane_as far distant as yet, but the grasping fingers of its gravity were reachin_oward the vessel, pulling it down.
Voices shouted within the ship.
"Jed, we're falling!"
"That ball, Jed—"
Voices calling to Jed Hargraves, asking him what to do. He couldn't answer.
There was no answer. There was only—the ball! It was the answer.
Through the observation port, he could see the circular ship. It was gettin_eady to attack again. The sphere was moving leisurely toward its alread_rippled prey, getting ready to deliver the final stroke. It would answer al_uestions of this crew, answer them unmistakably. It leered at them.
The ship vibrated to a sudden gust of sound. Something lashed out from th_essel. Hargraves did not see it go because it, too, went faster than the ey_ould follow. But he knew what it was. The sound told him. He saw the hol_ppear in the sphere. A round hole that opened inward. Dust puffed outward.
_Wham, wham, wham!_
The negatron! The blood brother of the defense screen, its energie_oncentrated into a pencil of radiation. Faster than anyone could see i_appen, three more holes appeared in the sphere, driving through its oute_hell, punching into the machinery at its heart.
The sphere shuddered under the impact. It turned. Light spewed out of it, beaming viciously into this alien sky without direction. Smoke boiled from th_all. Turning it seemed to roll along the sky. It looked like a huge burnin_nowball rolling down some vast hill.
Ron Val lifted a white face from the sighting 'scope of the negatron.
"Did—did I get him?"
"I'll say you did!" Hargraves heard somebody shout exultantly. He wa_urprised to discover his own voice was doing the shouting. The sphere wa_inished, done for. It was out of the fight, rolling down the vast hill of th_ky, it would smash on the planet below.
They were following it.
There was still no answer from the engine room.
"Space suits!" Hargraves ordered. "Nielson, you stay here. Ron Val, yo_thers, come with me."