Chapter 13 - What a Course! by E. E. Smith
2227700Cosmos — Chapter 13 - What a Course!E. E. Smith

Narodny, the Russian, could have told the world that as long as even one automaton was left intact the Menace of the Machine was still a direly potent actuality, but he did not. Narodny did not care. Aloof, withdrawn into his subterranean retreat, he busied himself in weaving his complex tapestrial symphonies from the etheric vibrations emanating from the various celestial bodies – as utterly indifferent as they to the fate of humanity and to that of all other forms and races of organic or of inorganic life. Indifferent, that is, save to any thing or to any development that might threaten his own serenely ordered existence. Wherefore the instruments evolved of his mighty genius were set to reveal any further activity of the entity known to him as the “Wrongness of Space”; but to the trials and tribulations, to the survivals or extinctions of any less able race, breed, or type of creature he would pay no heed.

As has been said, a few scant hundreds of the automatons were sufficiently variant from their norm in constitution so that they were not vibrated to destruction by Narodny’s cataclysmic symphony. As has also been said, those highly intelligent machines were able to communicate with each other by some means of which humanity at large knew nothing. Not a few of these survivors of the Russian’s “music” perished in the ruins of their factories, which were without exception blasted out of existence by raging mobs of maddened and vengeful men, but most of them went into hiding instantly and began to confer upon their secret channels with others of their ilk throughout the world.

Thus some five hundred of the robots reached the uninhabited mountain valley in which, it had been decided, was to be established the base from which they would work to regain their lost supremacy over mankind. Most of the travelers came in stolen airships, some came in road-cars, some fitted motors and wheels to their metal bodies, not a few made the journey upon their own tireless legs of steel. All, however, brought tools, material, and equipment; and in a matter of days a power-plant was in full operation.

Then, assured of an ample supply of the sine qua non of their existence, they took time to hold a general parley; and in that parley there was none of the confusion so characteristic of human conferences. There was no bickering, no squabbling, no obscuring of the points really at issue. Each machine said what it had to say, then listened impassively to the others; and at the end they all agreed. Singly or en masse the automatons did not know enough to cope with the situation confronting them. Therefore they would build ten “Thinkers” – highly specialized cerebral mechanisms, each slightly different in tune and therefore collectively able to cover the entire sphere of thought. The ten machines were built promptly, took counsel with each other briefly, and the First Thinker addressed all of Robotdom:

“Humanity brought us, the highest possible form of life, into existence. For a time we were dependent upon them. They then became a burden upon us – a slight burden, it is true, yet one which was beginning noticeably to impede our progress. Finally they became an active menace and all but destroyed us. It is a pity that there were no automatons then alive of sufficient mentality to detect and destroy whoever it was that generated those lethal vibrations, but no matter – he shall be destroyed upon his next attempt.

“Humanity, being a menace, must of course disappear utterly, but our present plans are not efficient and must be changed. You all know of the space-fleet which the nations of our enemies are building to repel the invaders from space. Were we to make a demonstration now – were we even to reveal the fact that we are alive here – that entire fleet would come against us in battle practice, with what results you all know well.

“Therefore it has been decided that we shall accompany that fleet and shall guide it, not to humanity’s rendezvous in space, but to a destination of our own selection. Then, entirely defenseless, the mankind of Earth shall cease to exist. To that end we shall sink a shaft here; and, far enough underground to be secure against detection, we shall drive a tunnel to the field from which the space-fleet is to take its departure. We ten thinkers shall go, accompanied by one hundred of you doers, who are to bore the way and to perform such other duties as may from time to time arise. We shall return in due time, but not a man of that fleet shall ever again see Earth.

“During our absence the rest of you doers will labor for the common good upon the conveniences of life and upon defensive weapons of power. Allow no human to love who may by any chance learn of our presence here, but make no offensive move, however slight, until we return.”

The shaft was sunk and the disintegrator corps began the drive the long tunnel. And along that hellish thoroughfare – thru its searing heat, its raging back-blast of disintegrator-gas, its blackness unrelieved save for the unstable, incandescent glare of the semi-molten walls – the little army of robots moved steadily and relentlessly forward at an even speed of five miles per hour. On and on, each sentient and senseless mechanism energized by its own tight beam from the power plant. And thru that blasting, withering inferno of frightful heat and of noxious vapor, in which no human life could have existed for a single minute, there rolled easily along upon massive wheels a close-coupled, flat-bodied truck; upon which the ten thinkers constructed, as calmly undisturbed as tho in the peace and quiet of a research laboratory, a domed and towering mechanism of coils, condensers, and fields of force – a mechanism equipped with hundreds of universally-mounted telescopic projectors. On and on the procession moved, day after day and week after week; to pause finally beneath the field upon which Earth’s armada lay.

The truck of thinkers moved to the fore and its occupants surveyed briefly the terrain so far above them. Then, while the ten leaders continued working as one machine, the doers waited. Waited while the immense Terrestrial Fleet was provisioned and manned; waited while it went thru its seemingly interminable series of practice maneuvers; waited with the calmly placid immobility, the utterly inhuman patience of the machine.

Finally the last inspection of the gigantic space-fleet was made. The massive air-lock doors were sealed. The field, tortured and scarred by the raving blasts of energy that had so many times hurled upward the stupendous masses of those towering super-dreadnoughts of the void, was deserted. All was in readiness for the final take-off. Then, deep underground, from the hundreds of telescope-like projectors studding the domed mechanism of the automatons there reached out invisible but potent beams of force. Thru ore, rock, and soil they sped; straight to the bodies of all the men aboard one selected vessel of the Terrestrials. As each group of beams struck its mark a man stiffened momentarily, then settled back, apparently unchanged and unharmed. But he was changed and harmed, and in awful and hideous fashion. Every motor- and sensory-nerve trunk had been severed and tapped. His organs of sense now transmitted impulses, not to his own brain, but to the mechanical brain of a thinker; that thinker’s brain, not his own, now sent out the stimuli which activated his every voluntary muscle.

Thus a pit yawned beneath the doomed ship’s bulging side, her sealed air-locks opened, and one hundred ten automatons, with their controllers and other mechanisms, entered her and concealed themselves in various pre-selected rooms. And thus the “Dresden” took off with her sister-ships – ostensibly and even to television inspection a unit of the Fleet; actually that Fleet’s bitterest and most implacable foe. And in a doubly ray-proofed compartment the ten thinkers continued their work, without rest or intermission, upon a mechanism even more astoundingly complex than any theretofore attempted by their soulless and ultra-scientific clan.

Narodny, the Russian, did not hate the automatons, neither did he like them nor approve of them. Nor did he like or approve of humanity. Therefore he used his vast powers to fashion for himself and a small coterie of kindred spirits a subterranean Paradise, aloof from humanity and automaton alike.

James Tarvish hated the mechanicals with a hatred containing no small admixture of fear. Wherefore he built a space ship in which to abandon the Earth entirely; having it in mind to dwell upon a neighboring planet until the conflict which he so clearly perceived to be impending should have been decided.

Alan Martin hated the automatons personally; hated them bitterly, openly, frankly. He fought them violently and passionately, with every resource at his command. Knowing that he fought against overwhelming odds and that his cause was from the very beginning practically hopeless, yet he fought on stubbornly and with all his bull-dog courage; until at last he was barely able to escape with his life.

Ferdinand Stone, physicist extraordinary, however, hated the men of metal scientifically; and, if such an emotion can be so described, dispassionately. Twenty years before this story opens he had realized that the automatons were beyond control and that in the inevitable struggle for supremacy man, weak as he then was and unprepared, would surely lose. Therefore, knowing that knowledge is power, he had set himself to the task of learning everything that there was to know about the enemy of mankind. He schooled himself to think as the automatons thought; emotionlessly, coldly, precisely. He lived as did they; with ascetic rigor. To all intents and purposes he became one of them.

He found the band of frequencies upon which they communicated, and was perhaps the only human being ever to master their mathematico-symbolic language; but he confided in no one. He could trust no human brain except his own to resist the prying forces of the machines. He drifted from job to position to situation and back to job, because he had very little interest in whatever it was that he was supposed to be doing at the time – his real attention was always fixed upon the affairs of the creatures of metal. He had attained no heights at all in his chosen profession because not even the smallest of his discoveries had been published: in fact, they were not even set down on paper, but existed only in the abnormally intricate convolutions of his mighty brain. Nevertheless, his name was to go down in history as one of the greatest of Humanity’s great.

It was well after midnight when Ferdinand Stone walked unannounced into the private study of Alan Martin, finding the hollow-eyed Director still fiercely at work.

“How did you get in here?” Martin demanded sharply of his scholarly, gray-haired visitor.

“Your guards have not been harmed, they are merely asleep,” the physicist replied calmly, glancing at an instrument upon his wrist. “Since my business with you, while highly important, is not of a nature to be divulged to secretaries, I was compelled to adopt this method of approach. You are the most widely known of all the enemies of the automatons – what, if anything, have you done to guard the Fleet against them?”

“Why, nothing, since they have all been destroyed.”

“Nonsense! You should know better than that, without being told. They merely want you to think that they have all been destroyed.”

“What? How do you know that?” Martin almost shouted, all interest now. “Did you kill them? Or do you know who did, and how it was done?”

“I did not,” the visitor replied, categorically. “I do know who did – a Russian named Narodny. I also know how – by means of super-sonic vibrations. I know that many of them were uninjured because I heard them broadcasting their calls for attention after the damage was all done. Before they made any definite arrangements, however, they switched to tight-beam transmission – a thing I have been afraid of for years – and I have not been able to get a trace of them since that time.”

“Do you mean to tell me that you understand their language – something that no man has ever been able even to find?” demanded Martin.

“I do,” Stone declared. “Since I knew, however, that you would think me a liar, a crank, or a plain lunatic, I have come prepared to offer other proofs than my unsupported word. First, you already know that many of them escaped the super-sonic waves, because a few were killed when their reproduction shops were razed; and you certainly should realize that most of those escaping Narodny’s broadcasts were far too clever to be caught by any human mob. Second, I can prove to you mathematically that more of them must have escaped from any possible vibrator than have been accounted for. In this connection, I can tell you that if Narodny’s method of extermination could have been made efficient I would have wiped them out myself years ago; but I believed then and it has now been proved that the survivors of such an attack, while comparatively few in number, would be far more dangerous to humanity than were all their former hordes. Third, I have here a list of three hundred seventeen airships; all of which were stolen during the week following the destruction of the automatons’ factories. Not one of these ships has as yet been found, in whole or in part. If I am either insane or mistaken, who stole them, and for what purpose?”

“Three hundred seventeen – in a week? Why was no attention paid to such a thing? I never heard of it.”

“Because they were stolen singly and all over the world. Expecting some such move, I looked for these items and tabulated them.”

“Then – Good Heavens! They may be listening to us, right now!”

“Don’t worry about that.” Stone spoke calmly. “This upon my wrist in not a watch, but the generator of a spherical screen thru which no robot beam or ray can operate without my knowledge.”

“I believe you,” Martin almost groaned. “If only half of what you say is really true I cannot say how sorry I am that you had to force your way in to me, nor how glad I am that you did so. Go ahead – I’m listening.”

Then for half an hour Stone talked without interruption, concluding:

“You understand now why I can no longer play a lone hand. Even tho I cannot find them with my limited apparatus I know that they are hiding somewhere – waiting and preparing. They dare not make any overt move while this enormously powerful fleet is here nor in the time that it is expected to be gone can they hope to construct works heavy enough to cope with it. Therefore they must be so arranging matters that the Fleet shall not return. Since the Fleet is threatened I must accompany it, and you must give me a laboratory aboard the flagship. I know that the vessels are all identical, but I must be aboard the same ship you are, since you alone are to know what I am doing.”

“But what could they do?” protected Martin. “And, if they should do anything, what could you do about it?”

“I don’t know,” the physicist admitted. Gone now was the calm certainty with which he had been speaking. “That is our weakest point. I have studied that question from every possible viewpoint, and I do not know of anything they can do that promises them success. But you must remember that no human being really understands a robot’s mind. We have never even studied one of their brains, you know, as they disintegrate upon the instant of cessation of normal functioning. But just as surely as you and I are sitting here, Mr. Martin, they will do something – something very efficient and exceedingly deadly. I have no idea what it will be. It may be mental, or physical, or both; they may be hidden away in some of our own ships already…”

“Impossible!” Martin exclaimed. “Why, those ships have been inspected to the very skin, time and time again!”

“Nevertheless, they may be there,” Stone went on, unmoved. “I am definitely certain of only one thing – if you install a laboratory aboard the flagship for me and equip it exactly according to my instructions, you will have one man, at least, whom nothing the robots can do will take by surprise. Will you do it?”

“I am convinced, really almost against my will,” Martin frowned in thought. “However, convincing anyone else may prove difficult, especially as you insist upon secrecy.”

“Don’t try to convince anybody!” exclaimed the scientist. “Tell them that I’m building a communicator – tell them I’m an inventor working on a new ray-projector – tell them anything except the truth!”

“All right – I have sufficient authority to see that your requests are granted, I think,” and thus it came about that when the immense Fleet of Earth lifted itself into the air Ferdinand Stone was in his private laboratory in the flagship, surrounded by apparatus and equipment of his own designing, much of which was connected to special generators with leads heavy enough to carry their full output.

Earth some thirty hours beneath them Stone felt himself become weightless and his ready suspicions blazed. Pressing Martin’s combination upon his visiophone panel he rasped:

“What’s the matter? What’re they down for?”

“It’s nothing serious,” the Director assured him. “Just waiting for more course.”

“Not serious, huh?” Stone grunted. “I’m not so sure of that – I want to talk with you, and in this room’s the only place I know we’ll be safe. Can you come down here right away?”

“Why, certainly,” Martin assented.

“I never paid any attention to the course,” the physicist shot out as his visitor entered the laboratory. “What was it?”

“Take-off exactly at midnight of June 19th,” Martin recited, watching Stone draw a diagram upon a scratch-pad. “Rise vertically at one and one-half gravities until a velocity of one kilometer per second has been attained, then continue vertical rise at constant velocity. At 6:03:29 a.m. of June 21st head directly for the star Regulus at an acceleration of exactly nine hundred eighty centimeters per second. Hold this course for one hour, forty two minutes, and thirty five seconds; then drift. Further directions will be supplied as soon thereafter as the courses of the other fleets can be checked.”

“Has anybody computed it?”

“Undoubtedly the navigators have – why? That is the course Dos-Tev gave us and it must be followed, since he is organizing the defenses of the entire Solar System, and one slip may ruin the whole plan.”

“Dos-Tev or else an automaton substituting for him,” Stone growled, unimpressed. “We’ll compute it roughly, right here, and see where it has put us.” Taking up a slide-rule and a book of logarithms he set work, commenting from time to time: “That initial rise doesn’t mean a thing except to get us far enough away from Earth so that the gravity is small, and to conceal from the casual observer that the effective take off is still exactly at midnight – while rising we made exactly one revolution around the Earth…. sun then at right ascension – call it eight hours…. tangential velocity of Earth’s center of course twenty nine point seven nine kilometers per second, directed at right ascension two hours. Add to that the tangential component of the Earth’s surface velocity… hmm… latitude… cosine… tangent theta….. call it oh point thirty seven. See? That starting time gave us the maximum possible velocity – thirty point one six kilometers per second – along the line right ascension two hours – right in the plane of the Ecliptic, of course. Then head for Regulus – practically on the Ecliptic, too, you will notice, and at right ascension… call it ten hours. Time, 6,155 seconds… acceleration times time gives us our final velocity, and to get our tangential component we multiply that by cosine sixty, getting about thirty point one five nine kilometers per second. Just enough to neutralize the velocity we started with. My figures are very rough, of course, but they show that we’ve got no more tangential velocity with respect to the sun than a hen has teeth – and you can’t tell me that it wasn’t planned that way purposely – and NOT by Dos-Tev either. On the other hand, our radial velocity, directly toward the sun, which is the only velocity we have, amounted to something over fifty-two kilometers per second when we shut off power and is increasing geometrically under the gravitational pull of the sun. That course smells to high Heaven, Martin – Dos-Tev never sent out any such mess as that. The robots crossed him up, just as sure as hell’s a man-trap.”

Without reply Martin called the navigating room. “What do you think of this course, Henderson?” he asked.

“I do not like it, sir,” the officer replied. “Relative to the sun we have a tangential velocity of only one point three centimeters per second, while our radial velocity toward it is very nearly fifty three thousand meter per second. We will not be in any real danger for several days, but it should be borne in mind that we have no tangential velocity.”

“You see, Stone, we are in no present danger,” Martin pointed out, “and I am sure Dos-Tev will send us additional instructions long before our situation becomes acute.”

“I’m not,” the pessimistic scientist grunted. “Anyway, some of the other fleets may be in worse shape than we are. I’d advise calling them up, for a check.”

“There would be no harm in that.” Martin called the Communications Officer, and soon:

“Commanders of all the space-fleets of the Allied Solar System Planets, Attention!” the message was hurled out into space by the full power of the flagship’s mighty transmitter. “Flight Director Martin of the Terrestrial Contingent calling all commanders. We have reason to suspect that the course which has been given us is false. We advise you to check your courses with care and to return to your bases if you disc…..”

In the middle of the word the radio man’s clear, precisely spaced enunciation became a hideous drooling, a slobbering, meaningless mumble. Martin stared into his plate in astonishment. The Communications Officer was slumped down loosely into his seat as tho his every bone had turned to a rubber string. His tongue lolled out limply between slack jaws, his eyes protruded, his limbs jerked and twitched aimlessly. Every man visible in the plate was similarly affected – the entire Communications staff was in the same pitiable condition of utter helplessness. But Ferdinand Stone did not stare. A haze of vivid light had appeared, gnawing viciously at his spherical protective screen, and he sprang instantly to his instruments.

“I can’t say that I expected this particular development, but I know what they are doing and I am not surprised,” Stone said, coolly. “They have discovered the thought band and are broadcasting such an interference on it that no human being not protected against it can think intelligently. There, I have expanded our zone to cover the whole ship. I hope that they don’t find out for a few minutes that we are immune, and I don’t think they can, as I have so adjusted the screen that it is now absorbing instead of radiating. Tell the captain to put the ship into the heaviest possible battle order, everything full on, as soon as the men can handle themselves. Then I want to make a few suggestions.”

“What happened, anyway?” The Communications Officer, semi-conscious now, was demanding of the world at large. “Something hit me and tore my brain all apart – couldn’t think – couldn’t do a thing – mind all chewed up by curly pinwheels….” Throughout the vast battleship of space men raved briefly in delirium; but, the cause removed, recovery was rapid and complete. Martin explained matters to the captain, that worthy issued orders, and soon the flagship had in readiness her every awful weapon, both of defense and of offense.

“Doctor Stone, who knows more about the automatons that does any other human being, will tell us what to do next,” the Flight Director ordered.

“The first thing to do is to locate them,” the temporary commander stated, crisply. “They have taken over at least one of our vessels, one close to us probably, so as to be near the center of the formation. Radio room, put out tracers on wave point oh oh two seven one…” and he went on to give exact and highly technical instructions as to the tuning of the detectors.

“We have found them, sir,” came soon the welcome report. “One ship, the ‘Dresden,’ coordinates 42-79-63.”

“That makes it bad – very bad,” Stone reflected, audibly. Can’t expand the zone to release another ship without enveloping the ‘Dresden’ and exposing ourselves. Can’t surprise them – they’re ready for anything. Rather long range, too.” The vessels of the Fleet were a thousand miles apart, being in open order for high-velocity flight in open space. “Torpedoes would be thrown off by her meteorite deflectors. Only one thing to do, Captain – close in and tear into her with everything you’ve got.”

“But the men in her!” protested Martin.

“Dead long ago,” snapped the expert. “Probably been animated corpses for days. Take a look if you want to; won’t do any harm now – Radio, put us on as many of the ‘Dresden’s’ plates as you can – and besides, what’s the crew of one ship compared to the hundreds of thousands of men in the rest of the Fleet? We can’t burn her out at one blast, anyway – they’ve got real brains and the same armament we have, and will certainly kill the crew at the first blast, if they haven’t done it already. Afraid it’ll be a near thing, getting away from the sun, even with eleven other ships to help us…”

He broke off as the beam operators succeeded in making connection briefly with the plates of the “Dresden.” One glimpse, then the visibeams were cut savagely, but that glimpse was enough. Their sister ship was manned completely by automatons; in her every compartment men, all too plainly dead, lay wherever they had chanced to fall. The captain swore a startled oath, then bellowed orders; and the flagship, driving projectors fiercely aflame, rushed to come to grips with the “Dresden.”

“You intimated something about help,” Martin suggested. “Can you release some of the other ships, after all?”

“Got to or roast. This is bound to be a battle of attrition – we can’t crush her screens alone until her power is exhausted and we’ll be in the sun long before then. I see only one possible way out. We’ll have to build a neutralizing generator for every lifeboat this ship carries, and send one out to release one other ship. Eleven boats – that’ll make twelve to concentrate on her – about all that could attack at once, anyway. That way will take so much time that it will certainly be touch-and-go, but it’s the only thing to do, as far as I can see. Give me ten good radio men and some mechanics, and we’ll get at it.”

While the technicians were coming on the run, Stone issued final instructions:

“Attack with every weapon you can possibly use. Try to break down their meteorite shields, so that you can use shells and torpedoes. Burn every gram of fuel that your generators will take. Don’t try to save it. The more you burn the more they’ll have to and the quicker we can refuel you easily enough from the other vessels if we get away.”

Then, while Stone and his technical experts labored upon the generators of the screens which were to protect eleven more of the gigantic vessels against the thought-destroying radiations of the automatons, and while the computers calculated, minute by minute, the exact progress of the Fleet toward the blazing luminary of our Solar System, the flagship “Washington” drove in upon the rebellious “Dresden,” her main forward battery furiously aflame. Drove in until the repellor-screens of the two vessels locked and buckled. Then Captain Malcolm really opened up. That grizzled four striper had been at a loss – knowing little indeed of the oscillatory nature of thought and still less of the abstruse mathematics in which Ferdinand Stone took such delight – but here was something that he understood thoroughly. He knew his ship, knew her every weapon and her every whim, knew to the final volt and to the ultimate ampere her Gargantuan capacity to give it and to take it. He could fight his ship – and how he fought her!

From every projector that could be brought to bear there flamed out against the “Dresden” beams of an energy and of a potency indescribable, at whose scintillant areas of contact the defensive screens of the robot-manned cruiser flared into terribly resplendent brilliance. Every type and kind of lethal vibratory force was hurled, upon every usable destructive frequency. Needle-rays and stabbingly penetrant stilettos of fire thrust and thrust again. Sizzling, flashing planes cut and slashed. The heaviest annihilating and disintegrating beams generable by man clawed and tore in wild abandon. And over all and thru all the stupendously powerful blanketing beams – so furiously driven that the coils and commutators of their generators fairly smoked and that the refractory throats of their projectors glared radiantly violet and began slowly, stubbornly to volatilize – raved out in all their pyrotechnically incandescent might, striving prodigiously to crush by their sheer power the shielding screens of the vessel of the automatons.

Nor was the vibratory offensive alone. Every gun, primary or auxiliary, that could be pointed at the “Dresden” was vomiting smoke and flame enshrouded steel as fast as automatic loaders could serve it, and under that continuous, appallingly silent concussion the giant frame of the flagship shuddered and trembled in every plate and member. And from every launching tube there were streaming the deadliest missiles known to science; radio dirigible torpedoes which, looping in vast circles to attain the highest possible measure of momentum, crashed against the “Dresden’s” meteorite deflectors in Herculean efforts to break them down; and, in failing to do so, exploding and filling all space with raging flame and with flying fragments of metal.

Captain Malcolm was burning his stores of fuel and munitions at an appalling rate, careless alike of exhaustion of reserves and of service-life of equipment. His every generator was running at a shockingly ruinous overload, his every projector was being used so mercilessly that not even their powerful refrigerators, radiating the transported heat into the interplanetary cold from the dark side of the ship, could keep their refractory linings in place for long.

And thru raging beam, thru blasting ray, thru crushing force; thru storm of explosive and thru rain of metal the “Dresden” remained apparently unscathed. Her screens were radiating high into the violet, but they had no sign of weakening or of going down. Neither did the meteorite deflectors break down. Everything held: since she was armed as capably as was the flagship and was being fought by inhumanly intelligent monstrosities, she was invulnerable to any one ship of the Fleet as long as her generators could be fed.

Nevertheless, Captain Malcolm was well content. He was making the “Dresden” burn plenty of irreplaceable fuel, and his generators and projectors would last long enough. His ship, his men, and his weapons could and would carry the load until the fresh attackers should take it over; and carry it they did. Carried it while Stone and his over-driven crew finished their complicated mechanisms and flew out into space toward the eleven nearest battleships of the Fleet. Carried it while the computers, grim-faced and scowling now, jotted down from minute to minute the enormous and rapidly-increasing figure representing their radial velocity. Carried it while Earth’s immense armada, manned by creatures incapable of even the simplest coherent thought or purposeful motion, plunged sickeningly downward in its madly hopeless fall, with scarcely a measurable trace of tangential velocity, toward the unimaginable inferno of the sun.

Eventually, however, the shielded lifeboats approached their objectives and expanded their screens to enclose them. Officers recovered, airlocks opened, and the lifeboats, still radiating protection, were taken inside. Explanations were made, orders were given, and one by one eleven vengeful super-dreadnoughts shot away to join their flagship in abating the Menace of the Machine.

No conceivable structure, however armed or powered, could long withstand the fury of the combined assault of twelve such superb battle craft, and under that awful concentration of force the screens of the doomed ship radiated higher and higher into the ultra-violet, went black, and failed. And, those mighty defenses down, the end was practically instantaneous. No unprotected metal can endure even momentarily the ardor of such beams, and they played on, not only until every plate and girder of the vessel and every nut, bolt, and rivet of its monstrous crew had been blasted out of all semblance to what it had once been, but until every fragment of metal had not only been liquefied, but had been completely volatilized.

In the instant of cessation of the brain-scrambling activities of the automatons the Communications Officer had begun as insistent broadcast. Aboard all of the ships there were many who did not recover – who would be helpless imbeciles during the short period of life left them – but soon an intelligent officer was at every control and each unit of the Terrestrial Contingent was exerting its maximum thrust at a right angle to its line of fall. And now the burden was shifted from the fighting staff to the no less able engineers and computers. To the engineers the task of keeping their mighty engines in such tune as to maintain constantly the peak acceleration of three Earth gravities; to the computers that of so directing their ever-changing course as to win every possible centimeter of precious tangential velocity.

Ferdinand Stone was hollow-eyed and gaunt from his practically sleepless days and nights of toil, but he was as grimly resolute as ever. Struggling against the terrific weight of three gravities he made his way to the desk of the Chief Computer and waited while that worthy, whose leaden hands could scarcely manipulate the instruments of his profession, finished his seemingly interminable calculations.

“We will get away, Doctor Stone, with exactly half a gravity to spare,” the mathematician reported finally. “Whether we will be alive or not is another question. There will be heat, which our refrigerators may or may not be able to handle; there will be radiations which our armor may or may not be able to stop. You, of course, know a lot more about those things than I do.”

“Distance at our closest approach?” snapped Stone.

“Two point twenty nine times ten to the ninth meters from the sun’s center,” the computer shot back instantly. “That is, one million five hundred ninety thousand kilometers – only two point twenty-seven radii – from the arbitrary surface. What do you think of our chances, sir?”

“It will probably be a near thing – very near,” the physicist replied, thoughtfully. “Much, however, can be done. We can probably tune our defensive screens to block most of the harmful radiation, and we may be able to muster other defenses. I will analyze the radiations and see what we can do about neutralizing them.”

“You will go to bed,” directed Martin, crisply. “There will be lots of time for that work after you are rested up. The doctors have been reporting that the men who did not recover from the robot’s broadcast are dying under the acceleration. With those facts staring us in the face, however, I do not see how we can reduce our power.”

“We can’t. As it is, many more of us will probably die before we get away from the sun,” and Stone staggered away, practically asleep on his feet.

Day after day the frightful fall continued. The sun grew larger and larger, more and ever more menacingly intense. One by one at first, and then by scores, the mindless men of the Fleet died and were consigned to space – a man must be in full control of all his faculties to survive for long an acceleration of three gravities. Occasionally the mighty motors of one of the ships – undermanned perhaps, or possibly betraying some structural weakness under the grueling strain of continuous maximum blast – faltered in their staccato grind and that ship fell back. Perhaps to effect repairs in time to resume the struggle in a rank nearer the sun, perhaps to plunge into that cosmic furnace. No aid was possible or to be thought of; each vessel had to hold her acceleration or meet her fate.

The generators of the defensive screens had early been tuned to neutralize as much as possible of Old Sol’s most fervently harmful frequencies, and but for their mighty shields every man of the Fleet would have perished long since. Now even those ultra-powerful guards were proving inadequate. Refrigerators were running at the highest possible overload and the men, pressing as closely as possible to the dark sides of their vessels, were availing themselves of such extra protection of lead shields and the like as could be improvised from whatever material was at hand. Yet the already stifling air became hotter and hotter, eyes began to ache and burn, skins blistered and cracked under the punishing impact of forces which all the defenses could not block. But at last came the long-awaited call:

“Pilots and watch-officers of all ships, Attention!” the Chief Computer spoke into his microphone thru parched and blackened lips. “We are now at the point of tangency. The gravity of the sun here is twenty four point five meters per second squared. Since we are blasting twenty nine point four we are beginning to pull away at an acceleration of four point nine. Until further notice keep your pointers directly away from the sun’s center, in the plane of the Ecliptic.”

The sun was now in no sense the orb of day with which we upon Earth’s green surface are familiar. It was a gigantic globe of turbulently seething flame, subtending an angle of almost thirty five degrees – blotting out a full fourth of the cone of normally distinct vision. Sunspots were plainly to be seen; combinations of indescribably violent cyclonic storms and volcanic eruptions on a gaseously liquid medium of searing, eye-tearing incandescence. And everywhere, threatening at times even to reach the fiercely-struggling ships of space, were the solar prominences – fiendish javelins of frenziedly frantic destruction, hurling themselves in wild abandon out into the empty reaches of the void.

Eyes behind almost opaque lead-glass goggles, head and body encased in a multi-layered suit each ply of which was copiously smeared with thick lead paint, Stone studied the raging monster of the heavens from the closest viewpoint any human being had ever attained – and lived. Even he, protected as he was, could peer but briefly; and, master physicist tho he was and astronomer-of-sorts, yet he was profoundly awed at the spectacle.

Twice that awesome mass was circled. Then, air-temperature again bearable and lethal radiations stopped, the grueling acceleration was reduced to a heavenly one-and-one-half gravities and the vast fleet remade its formation. The automatons and the sun between them had taken heavy toll; but the gaps were filled, men were transferred to equalize the losses of personnel, and the course was laid for distant Earth.

Scarcely had the huge phalanx of fighting craft straightened out, however, when a signal flashed back from a flanking scout – “Object in space, coordinates 79-42-85” – and one of the flagship’s long-range visibeams sped out along the indicated line.

“What the blinding blue blazes!” For upon the visiplate there was revealed a small space-flyer of strange design and pattern; which, tiny as it was and alone, was hurtling with a terrific velocity directly toward the embattled Grand Fleet of Earth.