XVIII

Earth’s Defenses

“I am sorry, Arcot. I did not know, for I see I might have helped, but to me, with my ideas of horror, it was as you said, amusement,” said Torlos. They were sitting now in Arcot’s study at the cottage; Arcot, his father, Morey, Wade, Torlos, the three Ortolians and the Talsonian.

“I know, Torlos. You see, where I made my mistake, as I have said, was in forgetting that in doing as I did, picturing horror, like a snowball rolling, it would grow greater. The idea of horror, started, my mind pictured one, and it inspired greater horror, which in turn reacted on my all too reactive apparatus. As you said, the things changed as you watched, molding themselves constantly as my mind changed them, under its own initiative and the concentrated thoughts of all those others. It was a very foolish thing to do, for that last Thing⁠—well, remember it was, it existed, and the idea of hate and lust it portrayed was caused by my mind, but my mind could picture what it would do, if such were its emotions, and it would do them because my mind pictured them! And nothing could resist it!” Arcot’s face was white once more as he thought of the danger he had run, of the terrible consequences possible of that “amusement.”

“I think we had best start on the ship. I’ll go get some sleep now, and then we can go.”

Arcot led the way to the ship, while Torlos, Morey and Wade and Stel Felso Theu accompanied him. The Ortolians were to work on Earth, aiding in the detection of attacks by means of their mental investigation of the enemy.

“Well⁠—goodbye, Dad. Don’t know when I’ll be back. Maybe twenty-five thousand years from now, or twenty-five thousand years ago. But we’ll get back somehow. And we’ll clean out the Thessians!”

He entered the ship, and rose into space.

“Where are you going, Arcot?” asked Morey.

“Eros,” replied Arcot laconically.

“Not if my mind is working right,” cried Wade suddenly. All the others were tense, listening for inaudible sounds.

“I quite agree,” replied Arcot. The ship turned about, and dived toward New York, a hundred thousand miles behind now, at a speed many times that of light as Arcot snapped into time. Across the void, Zezdon Fentes’ call had come⁠—New York was to be attacked by the Thessians, New York and Chicago next. New York because the orbits of their two forts were converging over that city in a few minutes!

They were in the atmosphere, screaming through it as their relux glowed instantaneously in the Heaviside layer, then was through before damage could be done. The screen was up.

Scarcely a minute after they passed, the entire heavens blazed into light, the roar of tremendous thunders crashing above them, great lightning bolts rent the upper air for miles as enormous energies clashed.

“Ah⁠—they are sending everything they have against that screen, and it’s hot. We have ten of our biggest tube stations working on it, and more coming in, to our total of thirty, but they have two forts, and Lord knows how many ships.

“I think me I’m going to cause them some worrying.”

Arcot turned the ship, and drove up again, now at a speed very low to them but as they had the time-field up, very great. They passed the screen, and a tremendous bolt struck the ship. Everything in it was shielded, but the static was still great enough to cause them some trouble as the time-field and electric field fought. But the time-field, because of its very nature, could work faster, and they won through undamaged, though the enormous current seemed flowing for many minutes as they drifted slowly past it. Slowly⁠—at fifty miles a second.

Out in space, free of the atmosphere, Arcot shot out to the point where the Thessians were congregating. The shining dots of their ships and the discs of the forts were visible from Earth save for the air’s distortion.

They seemed a miniature Milky Way, their deadly beams concentrated on Earth.

Then the Thessians discovered that the terrestrial fleet was in action. A ship glowed with the ray, the opalescence of relux under moleculars visible on its walls. It simply searched for its opponent while its relux slowly yielded. It found it in time, and the terrestrial ship put up its screen.

The terrestrial fleet set to work, everything they had flying at the Thessian giants, but the Thessians had heavier ships, and heavier tubes. More power was winning for them. Inevitably, when the Sun’s interference somewhat weakened the ray shield⁠—

About that time Arcot arrived. The nearest fort dived toward the further with an acceleration that smashed it against no less than ten of its own ships before they could so much as move.

When the way was clear to the other fort⁠—and that fort had moved, the berserk fort started off a new tack⁠—and garnered six more wrecks on its side.

Then Thett’s emissaries located Arcot. The screen was up, and the Negrian attractive ray apparatus which Arcot had used was working through it. The screen flashed here and there and collapsed under the full barrage of half the Thessian fleet, as Arcot had suspected it would. But the same force that made it collapse operated a relay that turned on the space control, and Thett’s molecular ray energy steamed off to outer space.

“We worried them, then dug our hole and dragged it in after us, as usual, but damn it, we can’t hurt them!” said Arcot disgustedly. “All we can do is tease them, then go hide where it’s perfectly safe, in artificial⁠—” Arcot stopped in amazement. The ship had been held under such space control that space was shut in about them, and they were motionless. The dials had reached a steady point, the current flow had become zero, and they hung there with only the very slow drain of the Sun’s gravitational field and that of the planet’s field pulling on the ship. Suddenly the current had leaped, and the dials giving the charge in the various coil banks had moved them down toward zero.

“Hey⁠—they’ve got a wedge in here and are breaking out our hole. Turn on all the generators, Morey.” Arcot was all action now. Somehow, inconceivable though it was, the Thessians had spotted them, and got some means of attacking them, despite their invulnerable position in another space!

The generators were on, pouring enormous power into the coils, and the dials surged, stopped, and climbed ever so slowly. They should have jumped back under that charge, ordinarily dangerously heavy. For perhaps thirty seconds they climbed, then they started down at full speed!

Arcot’s hand darted to the time field, and switched it on full. The dial jerked, swung, then swung back, and started falling in unison with the dials, stopped, and climbed. All climbed swiftly, gaining ever more rapidly. With what seemed a jerk, the time dial flew over, and back, as Arcot opened the switch. They were free, and the dial on the space control coils was climbing normally now.

“By the Nine Planets, did they drink out our energy! The energy of six tons of lead just like that!”

“How’d they do it?” asked Wade.

Torlos kept silent, and helped Morey replace the coils of lead wire with others from stock.

“Same way we tickled them,” replied Arcot, carefully studying the control instruments, “with the gravity ray! We knew all along that gravitational fields drank out the energy⁠—they simply pulled it out faster than we could pump it in, and used four different rays on us doing it. Which speaks well for a little ship! But they burned off the relux on one room here, and it’s a wreck. The molecs hit everything in it. Looks like something bad,” called Arcot. The room was Morey’s, but he’d find that out himself. “In the meantime, see if you can tell where we are. I got loose from their rays by going on both the high speed time-field and the space control at full, with all generators going full blast. Man, they had a stranglehold on us that time! But wait till we get that new ship turned out!”

With the telectroscope they could see what was happening. The terrific bombardment of rays was continuing, and the fleets were locked now in a struggle, the combined fleets of Earth and Venus and of Nansal, far across the void. Many of the terrestrian, or better, Solarian ships, were equipped with space distortion apparatus, now, and had some measure of safety in that the attractive rays of the Thessians could not be so concentrated on them. In numbers was safety; Arcot had been endangered because he was practically alone at the time they attacked.

But it was obvious that the Solarian fleet was losing. They could not compete with the heavier ships, and now the frequent flaming bursts of light that told of a ship caught in the new deadly ray showed another danger.

“I think Earth is lost if you cannot aid it soon, Arcot, for other Thessian ships are coming,” said Stel Felso Theu softly.

From out of the plane of the planetary orbits they were coming, across space from some other world, a fleet of dozens of them. They were visible as one after another leapt into normal time-rates.

“Why don’t they fight in advanced time?” asked Morey, half aloud.

“Because the genius that designed that apparatus didn’t think of it. Remember, Morey, those ships have their time apparatus connected with their power apparatus so that the power has to feed the time continuously. They have no coils like ours. When they advance their time, they’re weakened every other way.

“We need that new ship. Are we going to make it?” demanded Arcot.

“Take weeks at best. What chance?” asked Morey.

“Plenty; watch.” As he spoke, Arcot pulled open the time controls, and spun the ship about. They headed off toward a tiny point of light far beyond. It rushed toward them, grew with the swiftness of an exploding bomb, and was suddenly a great, rough fragment of a planet hanging before them, miles in extent.

“Eros,” explained Wade laconically to Torlos. “Part of an ancient planet that was destroyed before the time of man, or life on Earth. The planet got too near the sun when its orbit was irregular, and old Sol pulled it to pieces. This is one of the pieces. The other asteroids are the rest. All planetary surfaces are made up of great blocks; they aren’t continuous, you know. Like blocks of concrete in a building, they can slide a bit on each other, but friction holds them till they slip with a jar and we have earthquakes. This is one of the planetary blocks. We see Eros from Earth intermittently, for when this thing turns broadside it reflects a lot of light; edge on it does not reflect so much.”

It was a desolate bit of rock. Bare, airless, waterless rock, of enormous extent. It was contorted and twisted, but there were no great cracks in it for it was a single planetary block.

Arcot dropped the ship to the barren surface, and anchored it with an attractive ray at low concentration. There was no gravity of consequence on this bit of rock.

“Come on, get to work. Space suits, and rush all the apparatus out,” snapped Arcot. He was on his feet, the power of the ship in neutral now. Only the attractor was on. In the shortest possible time they got into their suits, and under Arcot’s direction set up the apparatus on the rocky soil as fast as it was brought out. In all, less than fifteen minutes were needed, yet Arcot was hurrying them more and more. Torlos’ tremendous strength helped, even on this gravitationless world, for he could accelerate more quickly with his burdens.

At last it was up for operation. The artificial matter apparatus was operated by cosmic power, and controlled by mental operation, or by mathematical formula as they pleased. Immediately Arcot set to work. A giant hollow cylinder drilled a great hole completely through the thin, curved surface of the ancient planetary block, through twelve miles of solid rock⁠—a cylinder of artificial matter created on a scale possible only to cosmic power. The cylinder, half a mile across, contained a huge plug of matter. Then the artificial matter contracted swiftly, compressing the matter, and simultaneously treating it with the tremendous fields that changed its energy form. In seconds it was a tremendous mass of cosmium.

A second smaller cylinder bored a plug from the rock, and worked on it. A huge mass of relux resulted. Now other artificial matter tools set to work at Arcot’s bidding, and cut pieces from his huge masses of raw materials, and literally, quick as thought, built a great framework of them, anchored in the solid rock of the planetoid.

Then a tremendous plane of matter formed, and neatly bisected the planetoid, two great flat pieces of rock were left where one had been⁠—miles across, miles thick⁠—planetary chips.

On the great framework that had been constructed, four tall shafts of cosmium appeared, and each was a hollow tube, up the center of which ran a huge cable of relux. At the peak of each mile-high shaft was a great globe. Now in the framework below things were materializing as Arcot’s flying thoughts arranged them⁠—great tubes of cosmium with relux element⁠—huge coils of relux conductors, insulated with microscopic but impenetrable layers of cosmium.

Still, for all his swiftness of mind and accuracy of thought, he had to correct two mistakes in all his work. It was nearly an hour before the thing was finished. Then, two hundred feet long, a hundred wide, and fifty in height, the great mechanism was completed, the tall columns rising from four corners of the greater framework that supported it.

Then, into it, Arcot turned the powers of the cosmos. The stars in the airless space wavered and danced as though seen through a thick atmosphere. Tingling power ran through them as it flowed into the tremendous coils. For thirty seconds⁠—then the heavens were as before.

At last Arcot spoke. Through the radio communicators, and through the thought-channels, his ideas came as he took off the headpiece. “It’s done now, and we can rest.” There was a tremendous crash from within the apparatus. The heavens reeled before them, and shifted, then were still, but the stars were changed. The sun shone weirdly, and the stars were altered.

“That is a time shifting apparatus on a slightly larger scale,” replied Arcot to Torlos’ question, “and is designed to give us a chance to work. Come on, let’s sleep. A week here should be a few minutes of Earthtime.”

“You sleep, Arcot. I’ll prepare the materials for you,” suggested Morey. So Arcot and Wade went to sleep, while Morey and the Talsonian and Torlos worked. First Morey bound the Ancient Mariner to the frame of the time apparatus, safely away from the four luminous balls, broadcasters of the time field. Then he shut off the attractive ray, and bound himself in the operator’s seat of the apparatus of the artificial matter machine.

A plane of artificial matter formed, and a stretch of rock rose under its lift as it cleft the rock apart. A great cleared, level space resulted. Other artificial matter enclosed the rock, and the fragments cut free were treated under tremendous pressure. In a few moments a second enormous mass of cosmium was formed.

For three hours Morey worked steadily, building a tremendous reserve of materials. Lux metal he did not make, but relux, the infusible, perfect conductor, and cosmium in tremendous masses, he did make. And he made some great blocks of oxygen from the rock, transmuting the atoms, and stored it frozen on the plane, with liquid hydrogen in huge tanks, and some metals that would be needed. Then he slept while they waited for Arcot.

Eight hours after he had lain down, Arcot was up, and ate his breakfast. He set to work at once with the machine. It didn’t suit him, it seemed, and first he made a new tool, a small ship that could move about, propelled by a piece of artificial matter, and the entire ship was a tremendously greater artificial matter machine, with a greater power than before!

His thoughts, far faster than hands could move, built up the gigantic hull of the new ship, and put in the rooms, and the brace members in less than twelve hours. A titanic shell of eight-inch cosmium, a space, with braces of the same nonconductor of heat, cosmium, and a two inch inner hull. A tiny space in the gigantic hull, a space less than one thousand cubic feet in dimension was the control and living quarters.

It was held now on great cosmium springs, but Arcot was not by any means through. One man must do all the work, for one brain must design it, and though he received the constant advice and help of Morey and the others, it was his brain that pictured the thing that was built.

At last the hull was completed. A single, glistening tube, of enormous bulk, a mile in length, a thousand feet in diameter. Yet nearly all of that great bulk would be used immediately. Some room would be left for additional apparatus they might care to install. Spare parts they did not have to carry⁠—they could make their own from the energy abounding in space.

The enormous, shining hull was a thing of beauty through stark grandeur now, but obviously incomplete. The ray projectors were not mounted, but they were to be ray projectors of a type never before possible. Space is the transmitter of all rays, and it is in space that those energy forms exist. Arcot had merely to transfer the enormously high energy level of the space-curvature to any form of energy he wanted, and now, with the complete statistics on it, he was able to do that directly. No tubes, no generators, only fields that changed the energy already there⁠—the immeasurable energy available!

The next period of work he started the space distortion apparatus. That must go at the exact center of the ship. One tremendous coil, big enough for the Ancient Mariner to lie in easily! Minutes, and flying thoughts had made it⁠—then came thousands of the individual coils, by thinking of one, and picturing it many times! In ranks, rows, and columns they were piled into a great block, for power must be stored for use of this tremendous machine, while in the artificial space when its normal power was not available, and that power source must be tremendous.

Then the time apparatus, and after that the driving apparatus. Not the molecular drive now, but an attraction ray focused on their own ship, with projectors scattered about the ship that it might move effortlessly in every direction. And provision was made for a force-drive by means of artificial matter, planes of it pushing the ship where it was wanted. But with the attraction-drive they would be able to land safely, without fear of being crushed by their own weight on Thett, for all its enormous gravity.

The control was now suspended finally, with a series of attraction drives about it, locking it immovably in place, while smaller attraction devices stimulated gravity for the occupants.

Then finally the main apparatus⁠—the power plant⁠—was installed. The enormous coils which handled, or better, caused space to handle as they directed, powers so great that whole suns could be blasted instantaneously, were put in place, and the field generators that would make and direct their rays, their ray screen if need be, and handle their artificial matter. Everything was installed, and all but a rather small space was occupied.

It had been six weeks of continuous work for them, for the mind of each was aiding in this work, indirectly or directly, and it neared completion now.

“But, we need one more thing, Arcot. That could never land on any planet smaller than Jupiter. What is its mass?” suggested Morey.

“Don’t know, I’m sure, but it is of the order of a billion tons. I know you are right. What are we going to do?”

“Put on a tender.”

“Why not the Ancient Mariner?” asked Wade.

“It isn’t fitting. It was designed for individual use anyway,” replied Morey. “I suggest something more like this on a small scale. We won’t have much work on that, merely think of every detail of the big ship on a small scale, with the exception of the control cube furnishings. Instead of the numerous decks, swimming pool and so forth, have a large, single room.”

“Good enough,” replied Arcot.

As if by magic, a machine appeared, a “small” machine of two-hundred-foot length, modified slightly in some parts, its bottom flattened, and equipped with an attractor anchor. Then they were ready.

“We will leave the Mariner here, and get it later. This apparatus won’t be needed any longer, and we don’t want the enemy to get it. Our trial trip will be a fight!” called Arcot as he leaped from his seat. The mass of the giant ship pulled him, and he fell slowly toward it.

Into its open port he flew, the others behind him, their suits still on. The door shut behind them as Arcot, at the controls, closed it. As yet they had not released the air supplies. It was airless.

Now the hiss of air, and the quickening of heat crept through it. The water in the tanks thawed as the heat came, soaking through from the great heaters. In minutes the air and heat were normal throughout the great bulk. There was air in power compartments, though no one was expected to go there, for the control room alone need be occupied; vision-screens here viewed every part of the ship, and all about it.

The eyes of the new ship were set in recesses of the tremendously strong cosmium wall, and over them, protecting them, was an infinitely thin, but infinitely strong wall of artificial matter, permanently maintained. It was opaque to all forms of radiation known from the longest Hertzian to the shortest cosmics, save for the very narrow band of visible light. Whether this protection would stop the Thessian beam that was so deadly to lux and relux was not, of course, known. But Arcot hoped it would, and, if that beam was radiant energy, or material particles, it would.

“We’ll destroy our station here now, and leave the Ancient Mariner where it is. Of course we are a long way out of the orbit this planetoid followed, due to the effect of the time apparatus, but we can note where it is, and we’ll be able to find it when we want it,” said Arcot, seated at the great control board now. There were no buttons now, or visible controls; all was mental.

A tiny sphere of artificial matter formed, and shot toward the control board of the time machine outside. It depressed the main switch, and space about them shifted, twisted, and returned to normal. The time apparatus was off for the first time in six weeks.

“Can’t fuse that, and we can’t crush it. It’s made of cosmium, and trying to crush it against the rock would just drive it into it. We’ll see what we can do though,” muttered Arcot. A plane of artificial matter formed just beneath it, and sheared it from its bed on the planetoid, cutting through the heavy cosmium anchors. The framework lifted, and the apparatus with it. A series of planes, a gigantic honeycomb formed, and the apparatus was cut across again and again, till only small fragments were left of it. Then these were rolled into a ball, and crushed by a sphere of artificial matter beyond all repair. The enemy would never learn their secret.

A huge cylinder of artificial matter cut a great gouge from the plane that was left where the apparatus had been, and a clamp of the same material picked up the Ancient Mariner, deposited it there, then covered it with rubble and broken rock. A cosmic flashed on the rock for an instant, and it was glowing, incandescent lava. The Ancient Mariner was buried under a hundred feet of rapidly solidifying rock, but rock which could be fused away from its infusible walls when the time came.

“We’re ready to go now⁠—get to work with the radio, Morey, when we get to Earth.”

The gravity seemed normal here as they walked about, no accelerations affected them as the ship darted forward, for all its inconceivably great mass, like an arrow, then flashed forward under time control. The sun was far distant now, for six weeks they had been traveling with the section of Eros under time control. But with their tremendous time control plant, and the space control, they reached the solar system in very little time.

It seemed impossible to them that that battle could still be waging, but it was. The ships of Earth and Venus, battling now as a last, hopeless stand, over Chicago, were attempting to stop the press of a great Thessian fleet. Thin, long Negrian, or Sirian ships had joined them in the hour of Earth time that the men had been working. Still, despite the reinforcements, they were falling back.