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   Chapter 5 No.5

Skylark Three By E. E. Smith Characters: 40805

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


First Blood

The next twelve hours dragged with terrible slowness. Sleep was impossible and eating was difficult, even though all knew that they would have need of the full measure of their strength. Seaton set up various combinations of switching devices connected to electrical timers, and spent hours trying, with all his marvelous quickness of muscular control, to cut shorter and ever shorter the time between the opening and the closing of the switch. At last he arranged a powerful electro-magnetic device so that one impulse would both open and close the switch, with an open period of one one-thousandth of a second. Only then was he satisfied.

"A thousandth is enough to give us a look around, due to persistence of vision; and it is short enough so that they won't see it unless they have a recording observer on us. Even if they still have rays on us, they can't possibly neutralize our screens in that short an exposure. All right, gang? We'll take five visiplates and cover the sphere. If any of you get a glimpse of him, mark the exact spot and outline on the glass. All set?"

He pressed the button. The stars flashed in the black void for an instant, then were again shut out.

"Here he is, Dick!" shrieked Margaret. "Right here-he covered almost half the visiplate!"

She outlined for him, as nearly as she could, the exact position of the object she had seen, and he calculated rapidly.

"Fine business!" he exulted. "He's within half a mile of us, three-quarters on-perfect! I thought he'd be so far away that I'd have to take photographs to locate him. He hasn't a single ray on us, either. That bird's goose is cooked right now, folks, unless every man on watch has his hand right on the controls of a generator and can get into action in less than a tenth of a second! Hang on, gang, I'm going to step on the gas!"

After making sure that everyone was fastened immovably in their seats he strapped himself in the pilot's seat, then set the bar toward the strange vessel and applied fully one-third of its full power. The Skylark, of course, did not move. Then, with bewildering rapidity, he went into action; face glued to the visiplate, hands moving faster than the eye could follow-the left closing and opening the switch controlling the zone of force, the right swinging the steering controls to all points of the sphere. The mighty vessel staggered this way and that, jerking and straining terribly as the zone was thrown on and off, lurching sickeningly about the central bearing as the gigantic power of the driving bar was exerted, now in one direction, now in another. After a second or two of this mad gyration, Seaton shut off the power. He then released the zone, after assuring himself that both inner and outer screens were operating at the highest possible rating.

"There, that'll hold 'em for a while, I guess. This battle was even shorter than the other one-and a lot more decisive. Let's turn on the flood-lights and see what the pieces look like."

The lights revealed that the zone of force had indeed sliced the enemy vessel into pieces. No fragment was large enough to be navigable or dangerous and each was sharply cut, as though sheared from its neighbor by some gigantic curved blade. Dorothy sobbed with relief in Seaton's arms as Crane, with one arm around his wife, grasped his hand.

"That was flawless, Dick. As an exhibition of perfect co-ordination and instantaneous timing under extreme physical difficulties, I have never seen its equal."

"You certainly saved all our lives," Margaret added.

"Only fifty-fifty, Peg," Seaton protested, and blushed vividly. "Mart did most of it, you know. I'd have gummed up everything back there if he had let me. Let's see what we can find out about them."

He touched the lever and the Skylark moved slowly toward the wreckage, the scattered fragments of which were beginning to move toward and around each other because of their mutual gravitational forces. Snapping on a searchlight, he swung its beam around, and as it settled upon one of the larger sections he saw a group of hooded figures; some of them upon the metal, others floating slowly toward it through space.

"Poor devils-they didn't have a chance," he remarked regretfully. "However, it was either they or we-look out! Sweet spirits of niter!"

He leaped back to the controls and the others were hurled bodily to the floor as he applied the power-for at a signal each of the hooded figures had leveled a tube and once more the outer screen had flamed into incandescence.

As the Skylark leaped away, Seaton focussed an attractor upon the one who had apparently signaled the attack. Rolling the vessel over in a short loop, so that the captive was hurled off into space upon the other side, he snatched the tube from the figure's grasp with one auxiliary attractor, and anchored head and limbs with others, so that the prisoner could scarcely move a muscle. Then, while Crane and the women scrambled up off the floor and hurried to the visiplates, Seaton cut in rays six, two-seven, and five-eight. Ray six, "the softener," was a band of frequencies extending from violet far up into the ultra-violet. When driven with sufficient power, this ray destroyed eyesight and nervous tissue, and its power increased still further, actually loosened the molecular structure of matter. Ray two-seven was operated in a range of frequencies far below the visible red. It was pure heat-under its action matter became hotter and hotter as long as it was applied, the upper limit being only the theoretical maximum of temperature. Ray five-eight was high-tension, high-frequency alternating current. Any conductor in its path behaved precisely as it would in the Ajax-Northrup induction furnace, which can boil platinum in ten seconds! These three rays composed the beam which Seaton directed upon the mass of metal from which the enemy had elected to continue the battle-and behind each ray, instead of the small energy at the command of its Osnomian inventor, were the untold millions of kilowatts developed by a one-hundred-pound bar of disintegrating copper!

* * *

There ensued a brief but appalling demonstration of the terrible effectiveness of those Osnomian weapons against anything not protected by ultra-powered ray screens. Metal and men-if men they were-literally vanished. One moment they were outlined starkly in the beam; there was a moment of searing, coruscating, blinding light-the next moment the beam bored on into the void, unimpeded. Nothing was visible save an occasional tiny flash, as some condensed or solidified droplet of the volatilized metal re-entered the path of that ravening beam.

"We'll see if there's any more of them loose," Seaton remarked, as he shut off the force and probed into the wreckage with a searchlight.

No sign of life or of activity was revealed, and the light was turned upon the captive. He was held motionless in the invisible grip of the attractors, at the point where the force of those peculiar magnets was exactly balanced by the outward thrust of the repellers. By manipulating the attractor holding it, Seaton brought the strange tubular weapon into the control-room through a small air-lock in the wall and examined it curiously, but did not touch it.

"I never heard of a hand-ray before, so I guess I won't play with it much until after I learn something about it."

"So you have taken a captive?" asked Margaret. "What are you going to do with him?"

"I'm going to drag him in here and read his mind. He's one of the officers of that ship, I believe, and I'm going to find out how to build one exactly like it. This old can is now as obsolete as a 1920 flivver, and I'm going to make us a later model. How about it, Mart, don't we want something really up-to-date if we're going to keep on space-hopping?"

"We certainty do. Those denizens seem to be particularly venomous, and we will not be safe unless we have the most powerful and most efficient space-ship possible. However, that fellow may be dangerous, even now-in fact, it is practically certain that he is."

"You chirped it, ace. I'd much rather touch a pound of dry nitrogen iodide. I've got him spread-eagled so that he can't destroy his brain until after we've read it, though, so there's no particular hurry about him. We'll leave him out there for a while, to waste his sweetness on the desert air. Let's all look around for the Kondal. I sure hope they didn't get her in that fracas."

They diffused the rays of eight giant searchlights into a vertical fan, and with it swept slowly through almost a semi-circle before anything was seen. Then there was revealed a cluster of cylindrical objects amid a mass of wreckage, which Crane recognized at once.

"The Kondal is gone, Dick. There is what is left of her, and most of her cargo of salt, in jute bags."

As he spoke, a series of green flashes played upon the bags, and Seaton yelled in relief.

"They got the ship all right, but Dunark and Sitar got away-they're still with their salt!"

The Skylark moved over to the wreck and Seaton, relinquishing the controls to Crane, donned a vacuum suit, entered the main air-lock and snapped on the motor which sealed off the lock, pumped the air into a pressure-tank, and opened the outside door. He threw a light line to the two figures and pushed himself lightly toward them. He then talked briefly to Dunark in the hand-language, and handed the end of the line to Sitar, who held it while the two men explored the fragments of the strange vessel, gathering up various things of interest as they came upon them.

Back in the control-room, Dunark and Sitar let their pressure decrease gradually to that of the terrestrial vessel and removed the face-plates from their helmets.

"Again, oh Karfedo of Earth, we thank you for our lives," Dunark began, gasping for breath, when Seaton leaped to the air-gauge with a quick apology.

"Never thought of the effect our atmospheric pressure would have on you two. We can stand yours all right, but you'd pretty nearly pass out on ours. There, that'll suit you better. Didn't you throw out your zone of force?"

"Yes, as soon as I saw that our screens were not going to hold." The Osnomians' labored breathing became normal as the air-pressure increased to a value only a little below that of the dense atmosphere of their native planet. "I then increased the power of the screens to the extreme limit and opened the zone for a moment to see how the screens would hold with the added power. That instant was enough. In that period a concentrated beam, such as I had no idea could ever be generated, went through the outer and inner screens as though they were not there, through the four-foot arenak of the hull, through the entire central installation, and through the hull on the other side. Sitar and I were wearing suits...."

"Say, Mart, that's one bet we overlooked. It's a good idea, too-those strangers wore them all the time as regular equipment, apparently. Next time we get into a jam, be sure we do it; they might come in handy. Excuse me, Dunark-go ahead."

"We had suits on, so as soon as the ray was shut off, which was almost instantly, I phoned the crew to jump, and we leaped out through the hole in the hull. The air rushing out gave us an impetus that carried us many miles out into space, and it required many hours for the slight attraction of the mass here to draw us back to it. We just got back a few minutes ago. That air-blast is probably what saved us, as they destroyed our vessel with atomic bombs and hunted down the four men of our crew, who stayed comparatively close to the scene. They rayed you for about an hour with the most stupendous beams imaginable-no such generators have ever been considered possible of construction-but couldn't make any impression upon you. Then they shut off their power and stood by, waiting. I wasn't looking at you when you released your zone. One moment it was there, and the next, the stranger had been cut in pieces. The rest you know."

"We're sure glad you two got away, Dunark. Well, Mart, what say we drag that guy in and give him the once-over?"

* * *

Seaton swung the attractors holding the prisoner until they were in line with the main air-lock, then reduced the power of the repellers. As he approached the lock various controls were actuated, and soon the stranger stood in the control room, held immovable against one wall, while Crane, with a 0.50-caliber elephant gun, stood against the other.

"Perhaps you girls should go somewhere else," suggested Crane.

"Not on your life!" protested Dorothy, who, eyes wide and flushed with excitement, stood near a door, with a heavy automatic pistol in her hand. "I wouldn't miss this for a farm!"

"Got him solid," declared Seaton, after a careful inspection of the various attractors and repellers he had bearing upon the prisoner, "Now let's get him out of that suit. No-better read his air first, temperature and pressure-might analyze it, too."

Nothing could be seen of the person of the stranger, since he was encased in vacuum armor, but it was plainly evident that he was very short and immensely broad and thick. By means of hollow needles forced through the leather-like material of the suit Seaton drew off a sample of the atmosphere within, into an Orsat apparatus, while Crane made pressure and temperature readings.

"Temperature, one hundred ten degrees. Pressure, twenty-eight pounds-about the same as ours is, now that we have stepped it up to keep the Osnomians from suffering."

Seaton soon reported that the atmosphere was quite similar to that of the Skylark, except that it was much higher in carbon dioxide and carried an extremely high percentage of water vapor. He took up a pair of heavy shears and laid the suit open full length, on both sides, knowing that the powerful attractors would hold the stranger immovable. He then wrenched off the helmet and cast the whole suit aside, revealing the enemy officer, clad in a tunic of scarlet silk.

He was less than five feet tall. His legs were merely blocks, fully as great in diameter as they were in length, supporting a torso of Herculean dimensions. His arms were as large as a strong man's thigh and hung almost to the floor. His astounding shoulders, fully a yard across, merged into and supported an enormous head. The being possessed recognizable nose, ears, and mouth; and the great domed forehead and huge cranium bespoke an immense and a highly developed brain.

But it was the eyes of this strange creature that fixed and held the attention. Large they were, and black-the dull, opaque, lusterless black of platinum sponge. The pupils were a brighter black, and in them flamed ruby lights: pitiless, mocking, cold. Plainly to be read in those sinister depths were the untold wisdom of unthinkable age, sheer ruthlessness, mighty power, and ferocity unrelieved. His baleful gaze swept from one member of the party to another, and to meet the glare of those eyes was to receive a tangible physical blow-it was actually ponderable force; that of embodied hardness and of ruthlessness incarnate, generated in that merciless brain and hurled forth through those flame-shot, Stygian orbs.

"If you don't need us for anything, Dick, I think Peggy and I will go upstairs," Dorothy broke the long silence.

"Good idea, Dot. This isn't going to be pretty to watch-or to do, either, for that matter."

"If I stay here another minute I'll see that thing as long as I live; and I might be very ill. Goodbye," and heartless and bloodthirsty Osnomian though she was, Sitar had gone to join the two Terrestrial women.

"I didn't want to say much before the girls, but I want to check a couple of ideas with you two. Don't you think it's a safe bet that this bird reported back to his headquarters?"

"I have been thinking that very thing," Crane spoke gravely, and Dunark nodded agreement. "Any race capable of developing such a vessel as this would almost certainly have developed systems of communication in proportion."

"That's the way I doped it out-and that's why I'm going to read his mind, if I have to burn out his brain to do it. We've got to know how far away from home he is, whether he has turned in any report about us, and all about it. Also, I'm going to get the plans, power, and armament of their most modern ships, if he knows them, so that your gang, Dunark, can build us one like them; because the next boat that tackles us will be warned and we won't be able to take it by surprise. We won't stand a chance in the Skylark. With a ship like theirs, however, we can run-or we can fight, if we have to. Any other ideas, fellows?"

* * *

As neither Crane nor Dunark had any other suggestions to offer, Seaton brought out the mechanical educator, watching the creature's eyes narrowly. As he placed one headset over that motionless head the captive sneered in pure contempt, but when the case was opened and the array of tubes and transformers was revealed, that expression disappeared; and when he added a super-power stage by cutting in a heavy-duty transformer and a five-kilowatt transmitting tube, Seaton thought that he saw an instantaneously suppressed flicker of doubt or fear.

"That headset thing was child's play to him, but he doesn't like the looks of this other stuff at all. I don't blame him a bit-I wouldn't like to be on the receiving end of this hook-up myself. I'm going to put him on the recorder and on the visualizer," Seaton continued as he connected spools of wire and tape, lamps, and lenses in an intricate system and donned a headset. "I'd hate to have much of that brain in my own skull-afraid I'd bite myself. I'm just going to look on, and when I see anything I want, I'll grab it and put it into my own brain. I'm starting off easy, not using the big tube."

He closed several switches, lights flashed, and the wires and tapes began to feed through the magnets.

"Well, I've got his language, folks, he seemed to want me to have it. It's got a lot of stuff in it that I can't understand yet, though, so guess I'll give him some English."

He changed several connections and the captive spoke, in a profoundly deep bass voice.

"You may as well discontinue your attempt, for you will gain no information from me. That machine of yours was out of date with us thousands of years ago."

"Save your breath or talk sense," said Seaton, coldly. "I gave you English so that you can give me the information I want. You already know what it is. When you get ready to talk, say so, or throw it on the screen of your own accord. If you don't, I'll put on enough voltage to burn your brain out. Remember, I can read your dead brain as well as though it were alive, but I want your thoughts, as well as your knowledge, and I'm going to have them. If you give them voluntarily, I will tinker up a lifeboat that you can navigate back to your own world and let you go; if you resist I intend getting them anyway and you shall not leave this vessel alive. You may take your choice."

"You are childish, and that machine is impotent against my will. I could have defied it a hundred years ago, when I was barely a grown man. Know you, American, that we supermen of the Fenachrone are as far above any of the other and lesser breeds of beings who spawn in their millions in their countless myriads of races upon the numberless planets of the Universe as you are above the inert metal from which this, your ship, was built. The Universe is ours, and in due course we shall take it-just as in due course I shall take this vessel. Do your worst; I shall not speak." The creature's eyes flamed, hurling a wave of hypnotic command through Seaton's eyes and deep into his brain. Seaton's very senses reeled for an instant under the impact of that awful mental force; but after a short, intensely bitter struggle he threw off the spell.

"That was close, fellow, but you didn't quite ring the bell," he said grimly, staring directly into those unholy eyes. "I may rate pretty low mentally, but I can't be hypnotized into turning you loose. Also I can give you cards and spades in certain other lines which I am about to demonstrate. Being superman didn't keep the rest of your men from going out in my ray, and being a superman isn't going

to save your brain. I am not depending upon my intellectual or mental force-I've got an ace in the hole in the shape of five thousand volts to apply to the most delicate centers of your brain. Start giving me what I want, and start quick, or I'll tear it out of you."

The giant did not answer, merely glared defiance and bitter hate.

"Take it, then!" Seaton snapped, and cut in the super-power stage and began turning dials and knobs, exploring that strange mind for the particular area in which he was most interested. He soon found it, and cut in the visualizer-the stereographic device, in parallel with Solon's own brain recorder, which projected a three-dimensional picture into the "viewing-area" or dark space of the cabinet. Crane and Dunark, tense and silent, looked on in strained suspense as, minute after minute, the silent battle of wills raged. Upon one side was a horrible and gigantic brain, of undreamed of power; upon the other side a strong man, fighting for all that life holds dear, wielding against that monstrous and frightful brain a weapon wrought of high-tension electricity, applied with all the skill that earthly and Osnomian science could devise.

Seaton crouched over the amplifier, his jaw set and every muscle taut, his eyes leaping from one meter to another, his right hand slowly turning up the potentiometer which was driving more and ever more of the searing, torturing output of his super-power tube into that stubborn brain. The captive was standing utterly rigid, eyes closed, every sense and faculty mustered to resist that cruelly penetrant attack upon the very innermost recesses of his mind. Crane and Dunark scarcely breathed as the three-dimensional picture in the visualizer varied from a blank to the hazy outlines of a giant space-cruiser. It faded out as the unknown exerted himself to withstand that poignant inquisition, only to come back in, clearer than before, as Seaton advanced the potentiometer still farther. Finally, flesh and blood could no longer resist that lethal probe and the picture became sharp and clear. It showed the captain-for he was no less an officer than the commander of the vessel-at a great council table, seated, together with many other officers, upon very low, enormously strong metal stools. They were receiving orders from their Emperor; orders plainly understood by Crane and the Osnomian alike, for thought needs no translation.

"Gentlemen of the Navy," the ruler spoke solemnly, "Our preliminary expedition, returned some time ago, achieved its every aim, and we are now ready to begin fulfilling our destiny, the Conquest of the Universe. This Galaxy comes first. Our base of operations will be the largest planet of that group of brilliant green suns, for they can be seen from any point in the Galaxy and are almost in the exact center of it. Our astronomers," here the captain's thoughts shifted briefly to an observatory far out in space for perfect seeing, and portrayed a reflecting telescope with a mirror five miles in diameter, capable of penetrating unimaginable myriads of light-years into space, "have tabulated all the suns, planets, and satellites belonging to this Galaxy, and each of you has been given a complete chart and assigned a certain area which he is to explore. Remember, gentlemen, that this first major expedition is to be purely one of exploration; the one of conquest will set out after you have returned with complete information. You will each report by torpedo every tenth of the year. We do not anticipate any serious difficulty, as we are of course the highest type of life in the Universe; nevertheless, in the unlikely event of trouble, report it. We shall do the rest. In conclusion, I warn you again-let no people know that we exist. Make no conquests, and destroy all who by any chance may see you. Gentlemen, go with power."

The captain embarked in a small airboat and was shot to his vessel. He took his station at an immense control board and the warship shot off instantly, with unthinkable velocity, and with not the slightest physical shock.

At this point Seaton made the captain take them all over the ship. They noted its construction, its power-plant, its controls-every minute detail of structure, operation, and maintenance was taken from the captain's mind and was both recorded and visualized.

* * *

The journey seemed to be a very long one, but finally the cluster of green suns became visible and the Fenachrone began to explore the solar systems in the area assigned to that particular vessel. Hardly had the survey started, however, when the two globular space-cruisers were detected and located. The captain stopped the ship briefly, then attacked. They watched the attack, and saw the destruction of the Kondal. They looked on while the captain read the brain of one of Dunark's crew, gleaning from it all the facts concerning the two space-ships, and thought with him that the two absentees from the Kondal would drift back in a few hours, and would be disposed of in due course. They learned that these things were automatically impressed upon the torpedo next to issue, as was every detail of everything that happened in and around the vessel. They watched him impress a thought of his own upon the record-"the inhabitants of planet three of sun six four seven three Pilarone show unusual development and may cause trouble, as they have already brought knowledge of the metal of power and of the impenetrable shield to the Central System, which is to be our base. Recommend volatilization of this planet by vessel sent on special mission." They saw the raying of the Skylark. They sensed him issue commands:

"Ray it for a time; he will probably open the shield for a moment, as the other one did," then, after a time skipped over by the mind under examination. "Cease raying-no use wasting power. He must open eventually, as he runs out of power. Stand by and destroy him when he opens."

The scene shifted. The captain was asleep and was awakened by an alarm gong-only to find himself floating in a mass of wreckage. Making his way to the fragment of his vessel containing the torpedo port, he released the messenger, which flew, with ever-increasing velocity, back to the capital city of the Fenachrone, carrying with it a record of everything that had happened.

"That's what I want," thought Seaton. "Those torpedoes went home, fast. I want to know how far they have to go and how long it'll take them to get there. You know what distance a parsec is, since it is purely a mathematical concept; and you must have a watch or some similar instrument with which we can translate your years into ours. I don't want to have to kill you, fellow, and if you'll give up even now I'll spare you. I'll get it anyway, you know-and you also know that a few hundred volts more will kill you."

They saw the thought received, and saw its answer: "You shall learn no more. This is the most important of all, and I shall hold it to disintegration and beyond."

Seaton advanced the potentiometer still farther, and the brain picture waxed and waned, strengthened and faded. Finally, however, it was revealed by flashes that the torpedo had about a hundred and fifty-five thousand parsecs to go and that it would take two-tenths of a year to make the journey; that the warships which would come in answer to the message were as fast as the torpedo; that he did indeed have in his suit a watch-a device of seven dials, each turning ten times as fast as its successor; and that one turn of the slowest dial measured one year of his time. Seaton instantly threw off his headset and opened the power switch.

"Grab a stopwatch quick, Mart!" he called, as he leaped to the discarded vacuum suit and searched out the peculiar timepiece. They noted the exact time consumed by one complete revolution of one of the dials, and calculated rapidly.

"Better than I thought!" exclaimed Seaton. "That makes his year about four hundred ten of our days. That gives us eighty-two days before the torpedo gets there-longer than I'd dared hope. We've got to fight, too, not run. They figure on getting the Skylark, then volatilizing our world. Well, we can take time enough to grab off an absolutely complete record of this guy's brain. We'll need it for what's coming, and I'm going to get it, if I have to kill him to do it."

He resumed his place at the educator, turned on the power, and a shadow passed over his face.

"Poor devil, he's conked out-couldn't stand the gaff," he remarked, half-regretfully. "However that makes it easy to get what we want, and we'd have had to kill him anyway, I guess-Bad as it is, I'd hate to bump him off in cold blood."

He threaded new spools into the machine, and for three hours, mile after mile of tape sped between the magnets as Seaton explored every recess of that monstrous, yet stupendous brain.

"Well, that's that," he declared finally, as, the last bit of information gleaned and recorded upon the flying tape, he removed the body of the Fenachrone captain into space and rayed it out of existence. "Now what to do?"

"How can we get this salt to Osnome?" asked Dunark whose thoughts were never far from that store of the precious chemical. "You are already crowded, and Sitar and I will crowd you still more. You have no room for additional cargo, and yet much valuable time would be lost in going to Osnome for another vessel."

"Yes, and we've got to get a lot of 'X', too. Guess we'll have to take time to get another vessel. I'd like to drag in the pieces of that ship, too-his instruments and a lot of the parts could be used."

"Why not do it all at once?" suggested Crane. "We can start that whole mass toward Osnome by drawing it behind us until such a velocity has been attained that it will reach there at the desired time. We could then go to 'X,' and overtake this material near the green system."

"Right you are, ace-that's a sound idea. But say, Dunark, it wouldn't be good technique for you to eat our food for any length of time. While we're figuring this out you'd better hop over there and bring over enough to last you two until we get you home. Give it to Shiro-after a couple of lessons, you'll find he'll be as good as any of your cooks."

* * *

Faster and faster the Skylark flew, pulling behind her the mass of wreckage, held by every available attractor. When the calculated velocity had been attained, the attractors were shut off and the vessel darted away toward that planet, still in the Carboniferous Age, which possessed at least one solid ledge of metallic "X," the rarest of all earthly metals. As the automatic controls held the cruiser upon her course, the six wanderers sat long in discussion as to what should be done, what could be done, to avert the threatened destruction of all the civilization of the Galaxy except the monstrous and unspeakable culture of the Fenachrone. Nearing their destination, Seaton rose to his feet.

"Well, folks, it's like this. We've got our backs to the wall. Dunark has troubles of his own-if the Third Planet doesn't get him the Fenachrone will, and the Third Planet is the more pressing danger. That lets him out. We've got nearly six months before the Fenachrone can get back here...."

"But how can they possibly find us here, or wherever we'll be by that time, Dick?" asked Dorothy. "The battle was a long way from here."

"With that much start they probably couldn't find us," Seaton replied soberly. "It's the world I'm thinking about. They've got to be stopped, and stopped cold-and we've got only six months to do it in.... Osnome's got the best tools and the fastest workmen I know of...." his voice died away in thought.

"That sort of thing is in your department, Dick."

Crane was calm and judicial as always. "I will, of course, do anything I can. But you probably have a plan of campaign already laid out?"

"After a fashion. We've got to find out how to work through this zone of force or we're sunk without a trace. Even with rays, screens, and ships equal to theirs, we couldn't keep them from sending a vessel to destroy the earth; and they'd probably get us too, eventually. They've got a lot of stuff we don't know about, of course, since I took only one man's mind. While he was a very able man, he didn't know all that all the rest of them do, any more than any one man has all the earthly science known. Absolutely our only chance is to control that zone-it's the only thing they haven't got. Of course, it may be impossible, but I won't believe that, until I've exhausted a lot of possibilities. Dunark, can you spare a crew to build us a duplicate of that Fenachrone ship, besides those you are going to build for yourself?"

"Certainly. I will be only too glad to do so."

"Well, then, while Dunark is doing that, I suggest that we go to this Third Planet, abduct a few of their leading scientists, and read their minds. Then do the same, visiting every other highly advanced planet we can locate. There is a good chance that, by combining the best points of the warfares of many worlds, we can evolve something that will enable us to turn back these invaders."

"Why not send a copper torpedo to destroy their entire planet?" suggested Dunark.

"Wouldn't work. Their detecting screens would locate it a thousand million miles off in space, and they would ray it. With a zone of force that would get through their screens, that would be the first thing I'd do. You see, every thought comes back to that zone. We've got to get through it some way."

The course alarm sounded, and they saw that a planet lay directly in their path. It was "X," and enough negative acceleration was applied to make an easy landing possible.

"Isn't it going to be a long, slow job, chopping off two tons of that metal and fighting away those terrible animals besides?" asked Margaret.

"It'll take about a millionth of a second, Peg. I'm going to bite it off with the zone, just as I took that bite out of our field. The rotation of the planet will throw us away from the surface, then we'll release the zone and drag our prey off with us. See?"

The Skylark descended rapidly toward that well-remembered ledge of metal to which the object compass had led them.

"This is exactly where we landed before," Margaret commented in surprise, and Dorothy added:

"Yes, and there's that horrible tree that ate the dinosaur or whatever it was. I thought you blew it up for me, Dick?"

"I did, Dottie-blew it into atoms. Must be a good location for carnivorous trees-and they must grow awfully fast, too. As to its being the same place, Peg-sure it is. That's what object compasses are for."

Everything appeared as it had been at the time of their first visit. The rank Carboniferous vegetation, intensely, vividly green, was motionless in the still, hot, heavy air; the living nightmares inhabiting that primitive world were lying in the cooler depths of the jungle, sheltered from the torrid rays of that strange and fervent sun.

"How about it, Dot? Want to see some of your little friends again? If you do, I'll give them a shot and bring them out."

"Heavens, no! I saw them once-if I never see them again, that will be twenty minutes too soon!"

"All right-we'll grab us a piece of this ledge and beat it."

Seaton lowered the vessel to the ledge, focussed the main anchoring attractor upon it, and threw on the zone of force. Almost immediately he released the zone, pointed the bar parallel to the compass bearing upon Osnome, and slowly applied the power.

"How much did you take, anyway?" asked Dunark in amazement. "It looks bigger than the Skylark!"

"It is; considerably bigger. Thought we might as well take enough while we're here, so I set the zone for a seventy-five-foot radius. It's probably of the order of magnitude of half a million tons, since the stuff weighs more than half a ton to the cubic foot. However, we can handle it as easily as we could a smaller bite, and that much mass will help us hold that other stuff together when we catch up with it."

* * *

The voyage to Osnome was uneventful. They overtook the wreckage, true to schedule, as they were approaching the green system, and attached it to the mass of metal behind them by means of attractors.

"Where'll we land this junk, Dunark?" asked Seaton, as Osnome grew large beneath them. "We'll hold this lump of metal and the fragment of the ship carrying the salt; and we'll be able to hold some of the most important of the other stuff. But a lot of it is bound to get away from us-and the Lord help anybody who's under it when it comes down! You might yell for help-and say, you might ask somebody to have that astronomical data ready for us as soon as we land."

"The parade ground will be empty now, so we will land there," Dunark replied. "We should be able to land everything in a field of that size, I should think." He touched the sender at his belt, and in the general code notified the city of their arrival and warned everyone to keep away from the parade ground. He then sent several messages in the official code, concluding by asking that one or two space-ships come out and help lower the burden to the ground. As the peculiar, pulsating chatter of the Osnomian telegraph died out, Seaton called for help.

"Come here, you two, and grab some of these attractors. I need about twelve hands to keep this plunder in the straight and narrow path."

The course had been carefully laid, with allowance for the various velocities and forces involved, to follow the easiest path to the Kondalian parade ground. The hemisphere of "X" and the fragment of the Kondal which bore the salt were held immovably in place by the main attractor and one auxiliary; and many other auxiliaries held sections of the Fenachrone vessel. However, the resistance of the air seriously affected the trajectory of many of the irregularly shaped smaller masses of metal, and all three men were kept busy flicking attractors right and left; capturing those strays which threatened to veer off into the streets or upon the buildings of the Kondalian capital city, and shifting from one piece to another so that none should fall freely. Two sister-ships of the Kondal appeared as if by magic in answer to Dunark's call, and their attractors aided greatly in handling the unruly collection of wreckage. A few of the smaller sections and a shower of debris fell clear, however, in spite of all efforts, and their approach was heralded by a meteoric display unprecedented in that world of continuous daylight.

As the three vessels with their cumbersome convoy dropped down into the lower atmosphere, the guns of the city roared a welcome; banners and pennons waved; the air became riotous with color from hundreds of projectors and odorous with a bewildering variety of scents; while all around them played numberless aircraft of all descriptions and sizes. The space below them was carefully avoided, but on all sides and above them the air was so full that it seemed marvelous that no collision occurred. Tiny one-man helicopters, little more than single chairs flying about; beautiful pleasure-planes, soaring and wheeling; immense multiplane liners and giant helicopter freighters-everything in the air found occasion to fly as near as possible to the Skylark in order to dip their flags in salute to Dunark, their Kofedix, and to Seaton, the wearer of the seven disks-their revered Overlord.

Finally the freight was landed without serious mishap and the Skylark leaped to the landing dock upon the palace roof, where the royal family and many nobles were waiting, in full panoply of glittering harness. Dunark and Sitar disembarked and the four others stepped out and stood at attention as Seaton addressed Roban, the Karfedix.

"Sir, we greet you, but we cannot stop, even for a moment. You know that only the most urgent necessity would make us forego the pleasure of a brief rest beneath your roof-the Kofedix will presently give you the measure of that dire need. We shall endeavor to return soon. Greetings, and, for a time, farewell."

"Overlord, we greet you, and trust that soon we may entertain you and profit from your companionship. For what you have done, we thank you. May the great First Cause smile upon you until your return. Farewell."

* * *

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