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   Chapter 21 No.21

Islands of Space By Jr. John W. Campbell Characters: 17505

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The party descended to the ground floor and walked out to the ship. They filed into the airlock, and in the power room they looked in amazement at the tiny machines that ran the ship. The long black cylinder of the main power unit for the molecular drive looked weak and futile compared to the bulky machines that ran their own ships. The power storage coils, with their fields of intense, dead blackness, interested the Physicist immensely.

The ship was a constant source of wonder to them all. They investigated the laboratory and then went up to the second floor. Morey and Fuller greeted them at the door, and each of the four Earthmen took a group around the ship, explaining as they went.

The library was a point of great interest, exceeded only by the control room. Arcot found some difficulty in taking care of all his visitors; there were only four chairs in the control room. The Three could sit down, but Arcot needed the fourth chair to pilot the ship. The rest of the party had to hold on as best they could, which was not too difficult for men of such physical strength; they were accustomed to high accelerations in their elevators.

Morey, Wade, and Fuller strapped themselves into the seats at the ray projectors at the sides and stern.

Arcot wanted to demonstrate the effectiveness of the ship's armament first, and then the maneuverability. He picked a barren hillside for the first demonstration. It was a great rocky cliff, high above the timber line, towering almost vertically a thousand feet above them.

Wade triggered his molecular projector, and a pale beam reached out toward the cliff. Instantly, the cliff leaped ten miles into the air, whining and roaring as it shot up through the atmosphere. Then it started to fall. Heated by its motion through the air, it struck the mountaintop as a mass of red hot rock which shattered into fragments with a terrific roar! The rocks rolled and bounced down the mountainside, their path traced by a line of steam clouds.

Then, at Arcot's order, the heat beams were all turned on the mountain at full power. In less than a minute, the peak began to melt, sending streamers of lava down the sides. The beams began to eat out a crater in the center, where the rock began to boil furiously under the terrific energy of the heat beams.

Then Arcot shut off the heat beams and turned on the molecular ray.

The molecules of the molten rock were traveling at high velocities-the heat was terrific. Arcot could see that the rock was boiling quite freely. When the molecular beam hit it, every one of those fast moving molecules shot upward together! With the roar of a meteor, it plunged toward space at five miles a second!

It had dropped to absolute zero when the beam hit it, but at that speed through the air, it didn't stay cold long! Arcot followed it up in the Ancient Mariner. It was going too slowly for him. The air had slowed it down and heated it up, so Arcot hit it with the molecular ray again, converting the heat back into velocity.

By the time they reached free space, Arcot had maneuvered the lump of rock into an orbit around the planet.

"Tharlano," he thought at the Astronomer, "your planet now has a new satellite!"

"So I perceive!" replied Tharlano. "Now that we are in space, can we use the instrument you told me of?"

Arcot established the ship in an orbit twenty thousand miles from the planet and led them back to the observatory, where Morey had already trained the telectroscope on the planet below. There wasn't much to see; the amplification showed only the rushing ground moving by so fast that the image blurred.

He turned it to Sator. It filled the screen as they increased the power, but all they could see was billowing clouds. Another poor subject.

Morey showed Tharlano, the Astronomer, how to use the controls, and he began to sweep the sky with the instrument, greatly pleased with its resolving ability and tremendous magnification.

The Military Leader of the Three pointed out that the Satorians still had a weapon that was reported deadly, and they were in imminent danger unless Arcot's inventions were applied at once. All the way back to Nansal, they spent the time discussing the problem in the Ancient Mariner's Library.

It was finally agreed that the necessary plans and blueprints were to be given to the Nansalians, who could start production at once. The biggest problem was in the supply of lux and relux, which, because of their vast energy-content, required the atomic converters of the Ancient Mariner to make them. The Earthmen agreed to supply the power and the necessary materials to begin operations.

When the ship landed, a meeting of the manufacturers was called. Fuller distributed prints of the microfilmed plans for the equipment that he had packed in the library, and the factory engineers worked from them to build the necessary equipment.

The days that followed were busy days for Earthmen and Nansalians alike.

The Nansalians were fearful of the consequences of the weapon that the Satorians were rumored to have. The results of their investigations through their agents had, so far, resulted only in the death of the secret service men. All that was known was exactly what the Satorians wanted them to know; the instrument was new, and it was deadly.

On the other hand, the Satorians were not entirely in the dark as to the progress of Nansal, as Arcot and Morey discovered one day.

After months of work designing and tooling up the Nansalian factories, making the tools to make the tools to make the war material needed, and training the engineers of Nansal all over the planet to produce the equipment needed, Arcot and Morey finally found time to take a few days off.

Tharlano had begun a systematic search of the known nebulae, comparing them with the photographs the Earthmen had given him, and looking for a galaxy with two satellite star clouds of exactly the right size and distance from the great spiral.

After months of work, he had finally picked one which filled the bill exactly! He invited Arcot and Morey to the observatory to confirm his findings.

The observatory was located on the barren peak of a great mountain more than nine miles high. It was almost the perfect place for an astronomical telescope. Here, well above the troposphere, the air was thin and always clear. The solid rock of the mountain was far from disturbing influences which might cause any vibration in the telescope.

The observatory was accessible only from a spaceship or air flyer, and, at that altitude, had to be pressurized and sealed against the thin, cold air outside. Within, the temperature was kept constant to a fraction of a degree to keep thermal expansion from throwing the mirror out of true.

Arcot and Morey, accompanied by Tharlano and Torlos, settled the Ancient Mariner to the landing field that had been blasted out of the rock of the towering mountain. They went over to the observatory and were at once admitted to the airlock.

The floor was of smoothed, solid rock, and in this, the great clock which timed and moved the telescope was set.

The entire observatory was, of course, surrounded by a magnetic shield, and it was necessary to make sure there were no enemy ships around before using the telescope, because the magnetic field affected the light rays passing through it.

The mirror for the huge reflecting telescope was nearly three hundred inches in diameter, and was powerful enough to spot a spaceship leaving Sator. Its military usefulness, however, was practically nil, since painting the ships black made them totally invisible.

There were half a dozen assistants with Tharlano at the observatory at all times, one of them in charge of the great file of plates that were kept on hand. Every plate made was printed in triplicate, to prevent their being destroyed in a raid. The original was kept at the observatory, and copies were sent to two of the largest cities on Nansal. It was from this file that Tharlano had gathered the data necessary to show Arcot his own galaxy.

Tharlano was proudly explaining the telescope to Arcot, realizing that the telectroscope was far better, but knowing that the Earthmen would appreciate this triumph of mechanical perfection. Arcot and Morey were both intensely interested in the discussion, while Torlos, slightly bored by a subject he knew next to nothing about, was examining the rest of the observatory.

Suddenly, he cried out in warning, and leaped a full thirty feet over the rock floor to gather Arcot and Morey in his great arms. There was a sharp, distinct snap of a pneumatic pistol, and the thud of a bullet. Arcot and Morey each felt Torlos jerk!

Quick as a flash, Torlos pushed the two men behind the great tube of the telescope. He leaped over it and across the room, and disappeared into the supply room. There was the noise of a scuffle, another crack from a pneumatic pistol, and the sudden crash and tinkle of broken glass.

Suddenly, the figure of a man described a wide arc as it flew out of the supply room and landed with a heavy crash on the floor. Instantly, Torlos leaped at him. There was a trickle of blood from his left shoulder, but he gripped the man in his giant arms, pinning him to the floor. The struggle was brief. Torlos simply squeezed the man's chest in his arms. There was the faint creak of metal, and the man's chest began to bend! In a moment, he was unconscious.

Torlos pulled a heavy leather belt off of the unconscious man and tied his arms with it, wrapping it many times around the wrists, and was picking the man up when Tharlano arrived, followed by Arcot and Morey. Torlos smiled broadly.

"This is one Satorian spy that won't report. I could have finished him when I got my hold on him, but I wanted to take him before the Council for questioning. He'll be all right; I just dented his chest a little."

"We owe our lives to you again, Torlos," Arcot told him gravely. "But you certainly risked your life; the bullet might well have penetrated your heart instead of striking a rib, as it seems to have done."

"Rib? What is a rib?" The thought concept seemed totally unfamiliar to Torlos.

Arcot looked at him oddly, then reached out and ran an exploratory hand over Torlos' chest. It was smooth and solid!

"Morey!" Arcot exclaimed. "These men have no ribs! Their chest is as solid as their skulls!"

"Then how do they breathe?" Morey asked.

"How do you breathe? I mean most of the time. You use your diaphragm and your abdominal muscles. These people do, too!"

Morey grinned. "No wonder Torlos jumped in front of that bullet! He didn't have as much to fear as we do-he had a built-in bullet proof vest! You'd have to shoot him in the abdomen to reach any vital organ."

Arcot turned back to Torlos. "Who is this man?"

"Undoubtedly a Satorian spy sent to murder you Earthmen. I saw the muzzle of his pistol as he was aiming and jumped in the way of the bullet. There is not much damage done."

"We'd better get back to the city," Arcot said. "Fuller and Wade might be in danger!"

They bundled the Satorian spy into the ship, where Morey tied him further with thin strands of lux cable no bigger than a piece of string.

Torlos looked at it and shook his head. "He will break that as soon as he awakens, without even knowing it. You forget the strength of our people." Morey smiled and wrapped the cord around Torlos' wrists.

Torlos looked amused and pulled. His smile vanished. He pulled harder. His huge muscles bulged and writhed in great ridges along his arms. The thin cord remained complacently undamaged. Torlos relaxed and grinned sheepishly.

"You win," he thought. "I'll make no more comments on the things I see you do."

They returned to the capital at once. Arcot shoved the speed up as high as he dared, for Torlos felt there might be some significance in the attempt to remove Arcot and Morey. Wade and Fuller had already been warned by radio, and had immediately retired to the Council Room of the Three. The members of the Investigation Board joined them to question the prisoner upon his arrival.

When they arrived, Arcot and Morey went in with Torlos, who was carrying the struggling, shackled spy over his shoulder.

The Earthmen watched while the expert interrogators of the Investigation Board questioned the prisoner. The philosophy of Norus did not permit torture, even for a vicious enemy, but the questioners were shrewd and ingenious in their methods. For hours, they took turns pounding questions at the prisoner, cajoling, threatening, and arguing.

They got nowhere. Solidly, the prisoner stuck by his guns. Why had he tried to shoot the Earthmen? He didn't know. What were his orders from Sator? Silence. What were Sator's plans? Silence. Did he know anything of the new weapon? A shrug of the shoulders.

Finally, Arcot spoke to the Chief Investigation Officer. "May I try my luck? I think I'm powerful enough to use a little combination of hypnosis and telepathy that will get the information out of him." The Investigator agreed to try it.

Arcot walked over as if to inspect the prisoner. For an instant, the man looked defiantly at Arcot. Arcot glared back. At the same time, his powerful mind reached out and began to work subtly within the prisoner's brain. Slowly, a helpless, blank expression came over the man's face as his eyes remained fixed on Arcot's own. The man was as helplessly bound mentally as the lux cable bound him physically.

For a full quarter of an hour, the two men, Earthmen and Satorian, stood locked in a frozen tableau, staring into each other's eyes. The onlookers waited in watchful silence.

Finally, Arcot turned and shook his head, as if to clear it. As he did so, the spy slumped forward in his chair, unconscious.

Arcot rubbed his own temples and spoke in English to Morey. "Some job! You'll have to tell them what I found out; my head is splitting! With a headache like this, I can't communicate.

"Torlos was right; they were trying to get rid of all four of us. We're the only ones who can operate the ship, and that ship is the only defense against them.

"He knows several other spies here in the city, and we can, I think, practically wipe out the Satorian spy system all over the planet with the information he gave me and what we can get from others we arrest.

"Unfortunately, he doesn't know anything about the new weapon; the higher-ups aren't telling anyone, not even their own men. I get the idea that only those on board the ships using it will know about it before the attack.

"An attack is planned, and very soon. He didn't know when. We can only lie in readiness and do everything we can to help these people with their work."

While Morey relayed this information to the Investigating Board and the Council, Wade was talking in low tones to Arcot.

"They had a lot of workmen bring twenty tons of lead wire on board this evening, and the distilled water tanks are full. The tanks are full of oxygen, and they gave us some synthetic food which we can eat.

"They have it all over us in the field of chemistry. They've found the secret of catalysis, and can actually synthesize any catalytic agent they want. They can make any possible reaction go in either direction at any rate they desire.

"They took a slice of flesh from my arm and analyzed it down to the last detail. From that, they were able to predict what sort of food we would need to eat. They can actually synthesize living things!

"I've tried the food they made, and it has a very good flavor. They guaranteed it would have all the necessary ingredients, right down to the smallest trace element!

"We're fully stocked for a long trip. The Three said it was their first consideration that we should be able to return to our homes."

"How about their armament?" Arcot asked. He was holding his head in his hands to ease the throbbing ache within it.

"Each city has a projector supplied by the regular power station on top of their central building. The molecular ray, of course; they still don't have enough power to run a heat beam.

"We didn't have time to make more than one for each city, but this one will give the Satorians a nasty time if they come near it. It works nicely through the magnetic screen, so it won't be necessary for them to lower the barrier to shoot."

Morey had finished telling the Council what Arcot had discovered from the prisoner, and the Councilmen were leaving one by one to go to their duties in preparing for the attack.

"I think we had best go back to the Ancient Mariner," Arcot said. "I need an aspirin and some sleep."

"Same here," agreed Fuller. "These men make me feel as though I were lazy. They work for forty or fifty hours and think nothing of it. Then they snooze for five hours and they're ready for another long stretch. I feel like a lounge lizard if I take six hours out of every twenty-four."

They asked Torlos to stand guard on the ship while they got some much needed sleep, and Torlos consented readily after getting the permission of the Supreme Three. The Earthmen were returned to their ship under heavy guard to prevent further attempts at assassination.

It was seven hours after they had gone to sleep that it came.

Through the ship came the low hum that rose quickly to a screeching call of danger-the warning! The city was under attack!

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