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These vessels are ordinarily landed only in special docks, but in emergencies can be landed almost anywhere, sharp stern down, as their immense weight drives them deep enough into even the hardest ground to keep them upright. They sink in water, but are readily maneuverable, even under water. It takes ten years of proved accomplishment to rate command of a first-class vessel, and I have no rating at all.
You have already intimated that this ship is experimental. There is, then, something about her that is new and untried, and so dangerous that you do not want to risk an experienced commander in her.
I am to give her a work-out, and if I can bring her back in one piece I turn her over to her real captain. But that's all right with me, Port Admiral--thanks a lot for picking me out.
What a chance--What a chance! No, she is not really new, either. Rather, her basic idea is so old that it has been abandoned for centuries. She uses explosives; of a type that cannot be tried out fully except in actual combat.
Her primary weapon is what we have called the 'Q-gun. While your premises were correct, your conclusion is not. You graduated Number One, and in every respect save experience you are as well qualified to command as is any captain of the Fleet; and since the Brittania is such a radical departure from any conventional type, battle experience is not a prerequisite.
Therefore if she holds together through one engagement she is yours for good. In other words, to make up for the possibility of having yourself scattered all over space, you have a chance to win that ten years' rating you mentioned a minute ago, all in one trip. Fair enough? It's fine--wonderful!
And thanks a You were about to comment, I believe, upon the impossibility of using explosives against a free opponent? I just don't quite see how it could have been made effective. You blast a hole through his screens to his wall-shield. The muzzle of the Q-gun mounts as annular multiplex projector which puts out a Q-type tube of force--Q47SM9, to be exact.
As you can see from the type formula, this helix extends the gun-barrel from ship to ship and confines the propellent gases behind the projectile, where they belong. When the shell strikes the wall-shield of the pirate and detonates, something will have to give way--all the Brains agree that twenty tons of duodec, attaining a temperature of about forty million degrees absolute in less than one micro-second, simply cannot be confined.
That is the point that cannot be tried out experimentally--it is quite within the bounds of possibility that the pirates may have been able to develop wall-screens as powerful as our Q-type helices, even though we have not. That is only one of the chances--and perhaps not the greatest one--that you and your crew will have to take.
They are all volunteers, by the way, and will get plenty of extra rating if they come through alive. Do you want the job?
But to get on with the discussion, this pirate situation is entirely out of control, as you already know. We don't even know whether Boskone is a reality, a figurehead, a symbol, or simply a figment of an old-time Lensman's imagination.
But whoever or whatever Boskone really is, some being or some group of beings has perfected a mighty efficient organization of outlaws; so efficient that we haven't even been able to locate their main base. The pirates have developed ships of a new and extraordinary type; ships that are much faster than our heavy battleships, and yet vastly more heavily armed than our fast cruisers.
Thus, they can outfight any Patrol vessel that can catch them, and can out-run anything of ours armed heavily enough to stand up against their beams. We cannot force an engagement on our terms; we must fight them where and when they please. We must learn what the pirates' new power-system is.
Our scientists say that it may be anything, from cosmic-energy receptors and converters down to a controlled space-warp--whatever that may be. Anyway, they haven't been able to duplicate it, so it is up to us to find out what it is. The Brittania is the tool our engineers have designed to get that information.
She is the fastest thing in space, developing at full blast an inert acceleration of ten gravities. Figure out for yourself what velocity that means free in open space! Practically her only offense is the Q-gun. But she has plenty of defensive screens, she has speed enough to catch anything afloat, and she has the Q-gun--which we hope will be enough.
The engineers will go into all the technical details with you, during a test flight that will last as long as you like. When you and your crew are thoroughly familiar with every phase of her operation, bring the engineers back here to Base and go out on patrol. You lock to him, as I said before. You attach the Q-gun well forward, being sure that the point of attachment is far enough away from the power-rooms so that the essential mechanisms will not be destroyed.
You board and storm--another revival of the technique of older times. Specialists in your crew, who will have done nothing much up to that time, will then find out what our scientists want to know.
If at all possible they will send it in instantly via tight-beam communicator. If for any reason it should be impossible for them to communicate, the whole thing is again up to you. If it does not, the Brittania is a failure; we will be back right where we started from; the slaughter of our men and the destruction of our ships will continue unchecked.
As to how you are to do it we cannot give even general instructions. Now come aboard and meet your crew and the engineers. Maneuvered and attacked until he and his ship were one; until he reacted automatically to her slightest demand; until he and every man of his eager and highly trained crew knew to the final volt and to the ultimate ampere her gargantuan capacity both to give it and to take it. Each ship has as reference sphere a galactic-inductor compass. This instrument, swinging freely in an almost frictionless mount, is held in one position relative to the galaxy as a whole by galactic lines of force, analogous to the Terrestrial lines of magnetic force which affect Terrestrial compasses.
Its equator is always parallel to the galactic equator; its line of zeroes is always parallel to the line joining Centralia, the central solar system of the First Galaxy, with the system of Vandemar, which is on its very rim. The position of the ship in the galaxy is known at all times by that of a moving dot in the tank. This dot is shifted automatically by calculating machines coupled inductively to the leads of the drives.
When the ship is inert this device is inoperative, as any distance traversed in inert flight is entirely negligible in galactic computations. Due to various perturbations and other slight errors, cumulative discrepancies occur, for which the pilot must from time to time correct manually the position of the dot in the tank representing his ship. Then and only then did he return to Base, unload the engineers, and set out upon the quest.
Trail after trail he followed, but all were cold. Alarm after alarm he answered, but always he arrived too late: arrived to find gutted merchantman and riddled Patrol vessel, with no life in either and with nothing to indicate in which direction the marauders might have gone. Finally, however: "QBT! Calling QBT! Chief Pilot Henry Henderson punched the figures upon his locator, and in the "tank"--the enormous, minutely cubed model of the galaxy--there appeared a redly brilliant point of light. Kinnison rocketed out of his narrow bunk, digging sleep out of his eyes, and shot himself into place beside the pilot.
Start scrambling the ether! But that howling static gave the pirate commander pause. Surely this was something new? Before him lay a richly-laden freighter, its two convoying ships already practically out of action. A few more minutes and the prize would be his. Nevertheless he darted away, swept the ether with his detectors, saw the Britannia, and turned in headlong flight.
For if this streamlined fighter was sufficiently convinced of its prowess to try to blanket the ether against him, that information was something that Boskone would value far above one shipload of material wealth. But the pirate craft was now upon the visiplates of the Britannia, and, entirely ignoring the crippled space-ships, Henderson flung his vessel after the other.
Manipulating his incredibly complex controls purely by touch, the while staring into his plate not only with his eyes, but with every fiber of his being as well, he hurled his huge mount hither and thither in frantic leaps.
After what seemed an age he snapped down a toggle switch and relaxed long enough to grin at Kinnison. He can't put out enough jets to get away from that--I can hold him forever! Battle stations! By stations, report! A free ship takes on instantaneously the velocity at which the force of her drive is exactly equalled by the friction of the medium.
Completely so--the ship of the Galactic Patrol was hurling herself through space at a pace in comparison with which any speed that the mind can grasp would be the merest crawl: a pace to make light itself seem stationary. Ordinary vision would have been useless, but the observers of that day used no antiquated optical systems. Their detector beams, converted into light only at their plates, were heterodyned upon and were carried by sub-etheral ultra-waves; vibrations residing far below the level of the ether and thus possessing a velocity and a range infinitely greater than those of any possible ether-borne wave.
Although stars moved across the visiplates in flaming, zig-zag lines of light as pursued and pursuer passed solar system after solar system in fantastic, light-years-long hops, yet Henderson kept his cruiser upon the pirate's tail and steadily cut down the distance between them.
Soon a tractor beam licked out from the Patrol ship, touched the fleeing marauder lightly, and the two space-ships flashed toward each other. Nor was the enemy unprepared for combat. One of the crack raiders of Boskone, master pirate of the known Universe, she had never before found difficulty in conquering any vessel fleet enough to catch her.
Therefore, her commander made no attempt to cut the beam. Or rather, since the two inertialess vessels flashed together to repellor-zone contact in such a minute fraction of a second that any human action within that time was impossible, it would be more correct to say that the pirate captain changed his tactics instantly from those of flight to those of combat. He thrust out tractor beams of his own, and from the already white-hot refractory throats of his projectors there raved out horribly potent beams of annihilation; beams of dreadful power which tore madly at the straining defensive screens of the Patrol ship.
Screens flared vividly, radiating all the colors of the spectrum.
Space itself seemed a rainbow gone mad, for there were being exerted there forces of a magnitude to stagger the imagination; forces to be yielded only by the atomic might from which they sprang; forces whose neutralization set up visible strains in the very fabric of the ether itself.
The young commander clenched his fists and swore a startled deep-space oath as red lights flashed and alarmbells clanged. His screens were leaking like sieves--practically down--needle after needle of force incredible stabbing at and through his wall-shield--four stations gone already and more going!
Dalhousie, cut all your repellors; bring us right up to their zone. All you beamers, concentrate on Area Five. Break down those screens! Kinnison's hands flew over his controls. A port opened in the Patrol-ship's armored side and an ugly snout protruded--the projector-ringed muzzle of a squat and monstrous cannon. From its projector bands there leaped out with the velocity of light a tube of quasi-solid force which was in effect a continuation of the gun's grim barrel; a tube which crashed through the weakened third screen of the enemy with a space-wracking shock and struck savagely, with writhing, twisting thrusts, at the second.
Aided by the massed concentration of the Britannia's every battery of short-range beams, it went through. And through the first. Now it struck the very-wall-shield of the outlaw--that impregnable screen which, designed to bear the brunt of any possible inert collision, had never been pierced or ruptured by any material substance, however applied. To this inner defense the immaterial gun-barrel clung.
Simultaneously the tractor beams, hitherto exerting only a few dynes of force, stiffened into unbreakable, inflexible rods of energy, binding the two ships of space into one rigid system; each, relative to the other, immovable. Then Kinnison's flying finger tip touched a button and the Q-gun spoke. From its sullen throat there erupted a huge torpedo. Slowly the giant projectile crept along, watched in awe and amazement by the officers of both vessels. For to those space-hardened veterans the velocity of light was a veritable crawl; and here was a thing that would require four or five whole seconds to cover a mere ten kilometers of distance!
But, although slow, this bomb might prove dangerous, therefore the pirate commander threw his every resource into attempts to cut the tube of force, to blast away from the tractor beams, to explode the sluggish missile before it could reach his wall-shield. In vain; for the Britannia's every beam was set to protect the torpedo and the mighty rods of energy without whose grip the inertialess mass of the enemy vessel would offer no resistance whatever to the force of the proposed explosion.
Slowly, so slowly, as the age-long seconds crawled into eternity, there extended from Patrol ship almost to pirate wall a raging, white-hot pillar--the gases of combustion of the propellant heptadetonite--ahead of which there rushed the Q-gun's tremendous shell with its horridly destructive freight. What would happen? Could even the almost immeasurable force of that frightful charge of atomic explosive break down a wall-shield designed to withstand the cosmic assaults of meteoric missiles?
And what would happen if that wall-screen held? In spite of himself Kinnison's mind insisted upon painting the ghastly picture: the awful explosion; the pirate's screen still intact; the forward-rushing gases driven backward along the tube of force. The bare metal of the Q-gun's breech, he knew, was not and could not be reenforced by the infinitely stronger, although immaterial shields of pure energy which protected the hull; and no conceivable substance, however resistant, could impede save momentarily the unimaginable forces about to be unleashed.
Nor would there be time to release the Q-tube after the explosion but before the Brittania's own destruction; for if the enemy's shield stayed up for even a fraction of a second the unthinkable pressure of the blast would propagate backward through the already densely compressed gases in the tube, would sweep away as though it were nothing the immensely thick metallic barrier of the gun-breech, and would wreak within the bowels of the Patrol vessel a destruction even more complete than that intended for the foe.
Nor were his men in better case. Each knew that this was the climactic instant of his existence; that life itself hung poised upon the issue of the next split second. Hurry it up! Snap into it! Will that crawling, creeping thing never strike? Some prayed briefly, some swore bitterly; but prayers and curses were alike unconscious and had precisely the same meaning--each man, white of face and grim of jaw, clenched his hands and waited, tense and straining, for the impact.
In the Lifeboats The missile struck, and in the instant of its striking the coldly brilliant stars were blotted from sight in a vast globe of intolerable flame.
The pirate's shield had failed, and under the cataclysmic force of that horrific detonation the entire nose-section of the enemy vessel had flashed into incandescent vapor and had added itself to the rapidly expanding cloud of fire. As it expanded the cloud cooled. Its fierce glare subsided to a rosy glow, through which the stars again began to shine. It faded, cooled, darkened--revealing the crippled hulk of the pirate ship. She was still fighting; but ineffectually, now that all her heavy forward batteries were gone.
Keen-eyed needle-ray men, working at spy-ray visiplates, bored hole after hole into the captive, seeking out and destroying the control-panels of the remaining beams and screens.
The two ships of space flashed together, the yawning, blasted-open fore-end of the raider solidly against the Brittania's armored side. A great port opened. Classification to six places, straight A's--they're human or approximately so. Board and storm! At their head was Sergeant vanBuskirk, six and a half feet of Dutch Valerian dynamite, who had fallen out of Valeria's Cadet Corps only because of an innate inability to master the intricacies of higher mathematics.
Now the attackers swept forward in a black-and-silver wave. Four squatly massive semi-portable projectors crashed down upon their magnetic clamps and in the fierce ardor of their beams the thick bulkhead before them ran the gamut of the spectrum and puffed outward. Some score of defenders were revealed, likewise clad in armor, and battle again was joined. Explosive and solid bullets detonated against and ricocheted from that highly efficient armor, the beams of DeLameter hand-projectors splashed in torrents of man-made lightning off its protective fields of force.
But that skirmish was soon over. The semi-portables, whose vast energies no ordinary personal armor could withstand, were brought up and clamped down; and in their holocaust of vibratory destruction all life vanished from the pirates' compartment. The pirates had managed to jury-rig a screen generator, and with it had cut the power-beams behind the invading forces. Also they had cut loop-holes in the bulkhead, through which in frantic haste they were trying to bring heavy projectors of their own into alignment.
He fired it, and simultaneously some of the enemy gunners managed to angle a projector sharply enough to reach the further ranks of the Patrolmen.
Then mingled the flashing, scintillating, gassy glare of the thermite and the raving energy of the pirates' beam to make of that confined space a veritable inferno. But the paste had done its work, and as the semi-circle of wall fell out the soldiers of the Lens leaped through the hole in the still-glowing wall to struggle hand-to-hand against the pirates, now making a desperate last stand.
The semi-portables and other heavy ordnance powered from the Brittania were of course useless. Pistols were ineffective against the pirates' armor of hard alloy; hand-rays were equally impotent against its defensive shields. Now heavy hand-grenades began to rain down among the combatants, blowing Patrolmen and pirates alike to bits--for the outlaw chiefs cared nothing that they killed many of their own men if in so doing they could take toll of the Law.
And worse, a crew of gunners was swiveling a mighty projector around upon its hastily-improvised mount to cover that sector of the compartment in which the policemen were most densely massed. But the minions of the Law had one remaining weapon, carried expressly for this eventuality. The space-axe--a combination and sublimation of battle-axe, mace, bludgeon, and lumberman's picaroon, a massively needle-pointed implement of potentialities limited only by the physical strength and bodily agility of its wielder.
Now all the men of the Britannia's storming party were Valerians, and therefore were big, hard, fast, and agile; and of them all their sergeant leader was the biggest, hardest, fastest, and most agile. When the space-tempered apex of that thirty-pound monstrosity, driven by the four-hundred-odd pounds of rawhide and whalebone that was his body, struck pirate armor that armor gave way.
Nor did it matter whether or not that hellish beak of steel struck a vital part after crashing through the armor. Head or body, leg or arm, the net result was the same; a man does not fight effectively when he is breathing space in lieu of atmosphere.
VanBuskirk perceived the danger to his men in the slowly turning projector and for the first time called his chief. Or have they cut this beam, so you can't hear me? Guess they have. Beside the temporary projector-mount at last, he aimed a tremendous blow at the man at the delta-ray controls; only to feel the axe flash instantaneously to its mark and strike it with a gentle push, and to see his intended victim float effortless away from the blow.
The pirate commander had played his last card: vanBuskirk floundered, not only weightless, but inertialess as well! But the huge Dutchman's mind, while not mathematical, was even faster than his muscles, and not for nothing had he spent arduous weeks in inertialess tests of strength and skill. Hooking feet and legs around a convenient wheel he seized the enemy operator and jammed his helmeted head down between the base of the mount and the long, heavy steel lever by means of which it was turned.
Then, throwing every ounce of his wonderful body into the effort, he braced both feet against the projector's grim barrel and heaved. The helmet flew apart like an eggshell, blood and brains gushed out in nauseous blobs: but the delta-ray projector was so jammed that it would not soon again become a threat.
Then vanBuskirk drew himself across the room toward the main control panel of the warship. Officer after officer he pushed aside, then reversed two double-throw switches, restoring gravity and inertia to the riddled cruiser. In the meantime the tide of battle had continued in favor of the Patrol. Few survivors though there were of the black-and-silver force, of the pirates there were still fewer; fighting now a desperate and hopeless defensive.
But in this combat quarter was not, could not be thought of, and Sergeant vanBuskirk again waded into the fray. Four times more his horribly effective hybrid weapon descended like the hammer of Thor, cleaving and crushing its way through steel and flesh and bone. Then, striding to the control board, he manipulated switches and dials, then again spoke evenly to Kinnison. All mopped up--come and get the dope! Now they literally flew at their tasks; in furious haste, but following rigidly and in perfect coordination a pre-arranged schedule.
Every control and lead, every bus-bar and immaterial beam of force was traced and checked. Instruments and machines were dismantled, sealed mechanisms were ruthlessly torn apart by jacks or sliced open with cutting beams.
And everywhere, every thing and every movement was being photographed, charted, and diagrammed. The insulation of its coils and windings had fallen away in charred fragments, its copper had melted down in sluggish, viscous streams.
Have you draftsmen and photographers got everything down solid? So desperate was the emergency, each man knew, that nothing could be done about the dead, whether friend or foe. Every resource of mechanism, of brain and of brawn, must needs be strained to the utmost if they themselves were not soon to be in similar case. Couldn't talk direct, anyway--look where we are," and he pointed out in the tank their present location.
Couldn't have got much farther away without jumping the galaxy entirely. Boskone got a warning, either from that ship back there or from the disturbance. They're undoubtedly concentrating on us now One of them will spear us with a tractor, just as sure as hell's a man-trap He must get this data back to Base--but how? Henderson was already driving the vessel back toward Sol with every iota of her inconceivable top speed, but it was out of the question even to hope that she would ever get there.
The life of the Brittania was now, he was coldly certain, to be measured in hours--and all too scant measure, even of them. For there must be hundreds of pirate vessels even now tearing through the void, forming a gigantic net to cut off her return to Base. Fast though she was, one of that barricading horde would certainly manage to clamp on a tractor--and when that happened her night was done. Nor could she fight. She had conquered one first-class war-vessel of the public enemy, it was true; but at what awful cost!
One fresh vessel could blast his crippled mount out of space; nor would there be only one. Within a space of minutes after the attachment of a tracer the Brittania would be surrounded by the cream of Boskone's fighters. There was only one chance; and slowly, thoughtfully, and finally grimly, young Lieutenant Kinnison--now and briefly Captain Kinnison--decided to take it.
The pirates are bound to catch us, and our chance in another fight is exactly zero. We'll have to abandon ship and take to the lifeboats, in the hope that at least one will be able to get through. They will make about a hundred copies of it. The crew and the Valerian privates will man boats starting with Number Twenty One and blast off as soon as you can get your tapes. Once away, use very little detectable power, or better yet no power at all, until you're sure the pirates have chased the Brittania a good many parsecs away from where you are.
Twenty boats, two men to a boat, and each man will have a spool. We'll start launching when we're as far as it's safe to go. Each boat will be strictly on its own. Do it any way you can; but some way, any way, get your spool back to Base. There's no use in me trying to impress you with the importance of this stuff; you know what it means as well as I do.
The quartermaster will write all our names--and his own, to make it forty even--on slips of paper and draw them out of a helmet two at a time. If two navigators, such as Henderson and I, are drawn together, both names go back into the pot.
Get to work! The third time, however, it came out paired with "vanBuskirk," to the manifest joy of the giant Valerian and to the approval of the crowd as well. The pairings were made; DeLameters, spare batteries, and other equipment were checked and tested; the spools of tape were sealed in their corrosion-proof containers and distributed; and Kinnison sat talking with the Master Technician.
SOME power! They could have installed faster drives even than the Brittania's--they probably will, now that it has become necessary. Also, if the bus-bars in that receptor-convertor had been a few square centimeters larger in cross-section, they could have held their wall-shield, even against our duodec bomb. Then what? They had plenty of intake, but not quite enough distribution. Blinding blue blazes, what power!
Some of us have got to get back, Verne. If we don't, Boskone's got the whole galaxy by the tail, and civilization is sunk without a trace. Well, better I go check my boat. If I don't see you again, Kim old man, clear ether! Enroute, however, he paused beside the quartermaster and signalled to him to disconnect his communicator. I don't think anybody but me smelled a rat, though.
Certainly neither the skipper nor Henderson did, or you'd've had it to do over again. Any team made up of strength and weakness is a weak team. Kinnison, our only Lensman, is of course the best man aboard this buzz-buggy. Who would you pick for number two? I wasn't criticising you, man, I was complimenting you, and thanking you, in a roundabout way, for giving me Henderson. He's got plenty of what it takes, too. However, it seemed to me that you fitted in better with the pilot.
I could hand-pick only two teams without getting caught at it--you spotted me as it was--but I think I picked the two strongest teams possible. One of you will get through--if none of you four can make it, nobody could.
Thanks again. See you again some time, maybe--clear ether! In the control room there were left only Henderson and Thorndyke with vanBuskirk and Kinnison, who were of course to be the last to leave the vessel. Every time the ball carroms off a pin it shifts the course through a fairly large, but unpredictable angle. Pure chance--we thought it might cross them up a little.
Now, however, the ever-changing vectors of her course were as unexpected and surprising to her passengers as to any possible external observer. One more lifeboat left the vessel, and only the Lensman and his giant aide remained. While they were waiting the required few minutes before their own departure, Kinnison spoke.
We don't want this ship to fall into the pirates' hands intact, as there's a lot of stuff in her that would probably be as new to them as it was to us. They know we got the best of that ship of theirs, but they don't know what we did or how. On the other hand, we want her to drive on as long as possible after we leave her--the farther away from us she gets, the better our chance of getting away. We should have something to touch off those duodec torpedoes we have left--all seven at once--at the first touch of a spy beam; both to keep them from studying her and to do a little damage if possible--they'll go inert and pull her up close as soon as they get a tracer on her.
Of course we can't do it by stopping the spy-ray altogether, with a spy-screen, but I think I can establish an R7TX7M field outside our regular screens that will interfere with a TX7 just enough--say one-tenth of one percent--to actuate a relay in the field-supporting beam. Not much power, I'd say, but that's a little out of my line. Go ahead--I'll observe while you're busy.
And it was her non-human helmsman, operating solely by chance, that prolonged the chase far more than even the most optimistic member of her crew could have hoped.
For the pilots of the pirate pursuers were intelligent, and assumed that their quarry also was directed by intelligence. Therefore they aimed their vessels for points toward which the Brittania should logically go; only and maddeningly to watch her go somewhere else.
Senselessly she hurled herself directly toward enormous suns, once grazing one so nearly that the harrying pirates gasped at the foolhardiness of such exposure to lethal radiation. For no reason at all she shot straight backward, almost into a cluster of pirate craft, only to dash off on another unexpected tangent before the startled outlaws could lay a beam against her. But finally she did it once too often. Flying between two vessels, she held her line the merest fraction of a second too long.
Two tractors lashed out and the three vessels flashed together, zone to zone to zone. Then, instantly, the two pirate ships became inert, to anchor in space their wildly fleeing prey. Then spy-beams licked out, to explore the Brittania's interior.
At the touch of those beams, light and delicate as they were, the relay clicked and the torpedoes let go. Those frightful shells were so designed and so charged that one of them could demolish any inert structure known to man: what of seven? There was an explosion to stagger the imagination and which must be left to the imagination, since no words in any language of the galaxy can describe it adequately.
The Brittania, literally blown to bits, more-than-half fused and partially volatilized by the inconceivable fury of the outburst, was hurled in all directions in streamers, droplets, chunks, and masses; each component part urged away from the center of pressure by the ragingly compressed gases of detonation. Furthermore, each component was now of course inert and therefore capable of giving up its full measure of kinetic energy to any inert object with which it should come in contact.
One mass of wreckage, so fiercely sped that its victim had time neither to dodge nor become inertialess, crashed full against the side of the nearer attacker. Meteorite screens flared brilliantly violet and went down. The full-driven wall-shield held; but so terrific was the concussion that what few of the crew were not killed outright would take no interest in current events for many hours to come. The other, slightly more distant attacker was more fortunate. Her commander had had time to render her inertialess, and as she rode lightly away, ahead of the outermost, most tenuous fringe of vapor, he reported succinctly to his headquarters all that had transpired.
There was a brief interlude of silence, then a speaker gave tongue. Find, study, photograph, and bring in to headquarters every fragment and particle pertaining to the wreckage, paying particular attention to all bodies or portions thereof. The vessel referred to in our previous message has been destroyed, but it is feared that some or all of her personnel were allowed to escape. Every unit of that personnel must be killed before he has opportunity to communicate with any Patrol base.
Therefore cancel your present orders, whatever they may be, and proceed at maximum blast to the region previously designated. Scour that entire volume of space. Beam out of existence every vessel whose papers do not account unquestionably for every intelligent being aboard.
Investigate every possible avenue of escape. More detailed orders will be given each of you upon your nearer approach to the neighborhood under search. Escape Space-suited complete except for helmets, and with those ready to hand, Kinnison and vanBuskirk sat in the tiny control room of their lifeboat as it drifted inert through inter-stellar space. Kinnison was poring over charts taken from the Brittania's pilot room; the sergeant was gazing idly into a detector plate.
Found out where we are? Alsakan ought to be hereabouts somewhere, hadn't it? Not close, though, even for a ship--out of the question for us. Nothing much inhabited around here, either, to say nothing of being civilized.
Scarcely one to the block. Don't think I've ever been out here before; have you? How long do you figure it'll be before it's safe for us to blast off?