- Author: Sewell Peaslee Wright
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Our sprays met them in mid air.
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 my 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