A Quarter of a Million Light Years

“Our civilization,” continued Zezdon Afthen, “is built largely on the knowledge of the mind. We cannot have criminals, for the man who plots evil is surely found out by his thoughts. We cannot have lying politicians and unjust rulers.

“It is a peaceful civilization. The Ancient Masters feared and hated War with a mighty aversion. But they did not make our race cowards, merely peaceful intelligence. Now we must fight for our homes, and my race will fight mightily. But we need weapons.

“But my story has little to do with our race. I will tell the story of our civilization and of the Ancient Ones later when the time is more auspicious.

“Four months ago, our mental vibration instruments detected powerful emanations from space. That could only mean that a new, highly intelligent race had suddenly appeared within a billion miles of our world. The directional devices quickly spotted it as emanating from the third planet of our system. Zezdon Fentes, with my aid, set up some special apparatus, which would pick up strong thoughts and make them visible. We had used this before to see not only what an enemy looked upon, but also what he saw in that curious thing, the eye of the mind, the vision of the past and the future. But while the thought-amplification device was powerful, the new emanations were hard to separate from each other.

“It was done finally, when all but one man slept. That one we were enable to tune sharply to. After that we could reach him at any time. He was the commander. We saw him operate the ship, we saw the ship, saw it glide over the barren, rocky surface of that world. We saw other men come in and go out. They were strange men. Short, squat, bulky men. Their arms were short and stocky. But their strength was enormous, unbelievable. We saw them bend solid bars of steel as thick as my arm. With perfect ease!

“Their brains were tremendously active, but they were evil, selfishly evil. Nothing that did not benefit them counted. At one time our instruments went dead, and we feared that the commander had detected us, but we saw what happened a little later. The second in command had killed him.

“We saw them examine the world, working their way across it, wearing heavy suits, yet, for all the terrific gravity of that world, bouncing about like rubber balls, leaping and jumping where they wanted. Their legs would drive out like pistons, and they soared up and through the air.

“They were tired while they made those examinations, and slept heavily at night.

“Then one night there was a conference. We saw then what they intended. Before we had tried desperately to signal them. Now we were glad that we had failed.

“We saw their ship rise (in the thoughts of the second in command) and sail out into space, and rush toward our world. The world grew larger, but it was imperfectly sketched in, for they did not know our world well. Their telescopes did not have great power as your electric telescopes have.

“We saw them investigate the planet. We saw them plan to destroy any people they found with a ray which was as follows: ‘the ray which makes all parts move as one.’ We could not understand and could not interpret. Thoughts beyond our knowledge have, of course, no meaning, even when our mental amplifiers get them, and bring them to us.”

“The Molecular ray!” gasped Morey in surprise. “They will be an enemy.”

“You know it! It is familiar to you! You have it? You can fight it?” asked Zezdon Afthen excitedly.

“We know it, and can fight it, if that is all they have.”

“They have more⁠—much more I fear,” replied Zezdon Afthen. “At any rate, we saw what they intended. If our world was inhabited, they would destroy everyone on it, and then other men of their race were to float in on their great ships, and settle on that largest of our worlds.

“We had to stop them so we did what we could. We had powerful machines, which would amplify and broadcast our thoughts. So we broadcast our thought-waves, and implanted in the mind of their leader that it would be wise to land, and learn the extent of the civilization, and the weapons to be met. Also, as the ship drew nearer, we made him decide on a certain spot we had prepared for him.

“He never guessed that the thoughts were not his own. Only the ideas came to him, seeming to spring from his own mind.

“He landed⁠—and we used our one weapon. It was a thing left to one group of rulers when the Ancient Masters left us to care for ourselves. What it was, we never knew; we had never used it in the fifteen thousand years since the Great Masters had passed⁠—never had to. But now it was brought out, and concealed behind great piles of rock in a deep canyon where the ship of the enemy would land. When it landed, we turned the beam of the machine on it, and the apparatus rotated it swiftly, and a cone of the beam’s ray was formed as the beam was swung through a small circle in the vertical plane. The machine leaped backward, and though it was so massive that a tremendous amount of labor had been required to bring it there, the push of the pencil of force we sent out hurled it back against a rocky cliff behind it as though it were some child’s toy. It continued to operate for perhaps a second, perhaps two. In that time two great holes had been cut in the enemy ship, holes fifteen feet across, that ran completely through the hull as though a die had cut through the metal of the ship, cutting out a disc of metal.

“There was a terrific concussion, and a roar as the air blasted out of the ship. It did not take us long to discover that the enemy were dead. Their terrible, bloated corpses lay everywhere in the ship. Most of the men we were able to recognize, having seen them in the mentovisor. But the colors were distorted, and their forms were peculiar. Indeed, the whole ship seemed strange. The only time that things ever did seem normal about that strange thing, when the angles of it seemed what they were, when the machines did not seem out of proportion, out of shape, twisted, was when on a trial trip we ventured very close to our sun.”

Arcot whistled softly and looked at Morey. Morey nodded. “Probably right. Don’t interrupt.”

“That you thought something, I understood, but the thoughts themselves were hopelessly unintelligible to me. You know the explanation?” asked Zezdon Afthen eagerly.

“We think so. The ship was evidently made on a world of huge size. Those men, their stocky, block legs and arms, their entire build and their desire for the largest of your planets, would indicate that. Their own world was probably even larger⁠—they were forced to wear pressure suits even on that large world, and could jump all over, you said. On so huge a sphere as their native world seems to be, the gravity would be so intense as to distort space. Geometry, such as yours seems to be, and such as ours was, could never be developed, for you assume the existence of a straight line, and of an absolute plane surface. These things cannot exist in space, but on small worlds, far from the central sun’s mass, the conditions approach that without sufficient discrepency to make the error obvious. On so huge a globe as their world the space is so curved that it is at once obvious that no straight line exists, and that no plane exists. Their geometry would never be like ours. When you went close to your sun, the attraction was sufficient to curve space into a semblance of the natural conditions on their home planet, then your senses and the ship met a compromise condition which made it seem more or less normal, not so obviously strange to you.

“But continue.” Arcot looked at Afthen interestedly.

“There were none left in their ship now, and we had been careful in locating the first hole, that it should not damage the propulsive machinery. The second hole was accidental, due to the shift of the machine. The machine itself was wrecked now, crushed by its own reaction. We forgot that any pencil of force powerful enough to do what we wanted, would tear the machine from its moorings unless fastened with great steel bolts into the solid rock.

“The second hole had been far to the rear, and had, by ill-luck, cut out a portion of the driving apparatus. We could not repair that, though we did succeed at last in lifting the great discs into place. We attempted to cut them, and put them back in sections. Our finest saws and machines did not nick them. Their weight was unbelievable, and yet we finally succeeded in lifting the things into the wall of the ship. The actual missing material did not represent more than a tiny cut, perhaps as wide as one of your credit-discs. You could slip the thin piece of metal in between them, but not so much as your finger.

“Those slots we welded tight with our best steel, letting a flap hang over on each side of the cut, and as the hot metal cooled, it was drawn against the shining walls with terrific force. The joints were perfectly airtight.

“The machines proper were repaired to the greatest possible extent. It was a heartbreaking task, for we must only guess at what machines should be connected together. Much damage had been done by the rushing air as it left, for it filled the machines, too, and they were not designed to resist the terrific air pressure that was on them when the pressure in the ship escaped. Many of the machines had been burst open, and these we could repair when we had the necessary elements and knew their construction from the remnants, or could find unbroken duplicates in the stock rooms.

“Once we connected the wrong things. This will show you what we dealt with. They were the wrong poles⁠—two generators, connected together in the wrong way. There was a terrific crash when the switch was thrown, and huge sheets of electric flame leaped from one of them. Two men were killed, incinerated in an instant, even the odors one might expect were killed in that flash of heat. Everything save the shining metal and clear glass within ten feet of it was instantly wiped out. And there was a fuse link that gave. The generator was ruined. One was left, and several small auxiliary generators.

“Eventually, we did the job. We made the machine work. And we are here.

“We have come to warn you, and to ask aid. Your system also has a large planet, slightly smaller than the largest of our system, but yet attractive. There are approximately 50,000 planetary systems in this universe, according to the records of the Invaders. Their world is not of this system. It is the World Thett, sun Antseck, Universe Venone. Where that is, or even what it means, we do not know. Perhaps you understand.

“But they investigated your world, and its address, according to their records, was World 3769⁠–⁠8482730⁠–⁠3. This, I believe, means, Universe 3769, sun 8482730, world 3. They have been investigating this system now for nearly three centuries. It was close to 200 years ago that they visited your world⁠—two hundred years of your time.”

“This is 2129⁠—which makes it about the year 1929⁠–⁠30 that they floated around here investigating. Why haven’t they done anything?” Arcot asked him.

“They waited for an auspicious time. They are afraid now, for recently they visited your world, and were utterly amazed to find the unbelievable progress your people have made. They intend to make an immediate attack on all worlds known to be intelligently populated. They had made the mistake of letting one race learn too much; they cannot afford to let it happen again.

“There are only twenty-one inhabited worlds known, and their thousands of scouts have already investigated nearly all the central mass of this universe, and much of the outer rings. They have established a base in this universe. Where I do not know. That, alone, was never mentioned in the records. But of all peoples, they feared only your world.

“There is one race in the universe far older than yours, but they are a sleeping people. Long ago their culture decayed. Still, now they are not far from you, and perhaps it will be worth the few days needed to learn more about them. We have their location and can take you there. Their world circles a dead star⁠—”

“Not any more,” laughed Morey grimly. “That’s another surprise for the enemy. They had a little jog, and they certainly are wide awake now. They are headed for big things, and they are going to do a lot.”

“But how do you know these things? You have ships that can go from planet to planet, I know, but the records of the enemy said you could not leave the system of your sun. They alone knew that secret.”

“Another surprise for them,” said Morey. “We can⁠—and we can move faster than your ship, if not faster than they. The people of the dead star have moved to a very live star⁠—Sirius, the brightest in our heavens. And they are as much alive now as their new sun. They can move faster than light, also. We had a little misunderstanding a while back, when their star passed close to ours. They came off second best, and we haven’t spoken to them since. But I think we can make valuable allies there.”

For all Morey’s jocular manner, he realized the terrible import of this announcement. A race which had been able to cross the vast gulf of intergalactic space in the days when Terrestrians were still developing the airplane⁠—and already they had mapped Jupiter, and planned their colonies! What developments had come? They had molecular rays, cosmic rays, the energy of matter, then⁠—what else had they now? Lux and Relux, the two artificial metals, made of solidified light, far stronger than anything of molecular structure in nature, absolutely infusible, totally inert chemically, one a perfect conductor of light and of all radiation in space, the other a perfect reflector of all radiations⁠—save molecular rays. Made into the condition of reflection by the action of special frequencies in its formation from light, molecular frequencies were, unfortunately, able to convert it into perfectly transparent lux metal, when the protective value was gone.

They had that. All Earth had, perhaps.

“There was one other race of some importance, the others were semi-civilized. They rated us in a position between these races and the high races⁠—yours, those of the dead star, and those of world 3769⁠–⁠37:478:326:894⁠–⁠6. Our science had been investigated two hundred or so years ago.

“This other race was at a great distance from us, greater than yours, and apparently not feared as greatly as yours. They cannot cross to other worlds, save in small ships driven solely by fire, which the Thessians have called a ‘hopelessly inefficient and laughably awkward thing to ride in.’ ”

“Rockets,” grinned Morey. “Our first ship was part rocket.”

Zezdon Fentes smiled. “But that is all. We have brought you warning, and our plea. Can you help us?”

“We cannot answer that. The Interplanetary Council must act. But I am afraid that it will be all we can do to protect our own world if this enemy attacks soon, and I fear they will. Since they have a base in this universe, it is impossible to believe that all ships did not report back to the home world at stated intervals. That one is missing will soon be discovered, and it will be sought. War will start at once. Three months it took you to reach us⁠—they should come soon.

“Those men who left will be on their way back from the home world from which they came. What do you call your planet, friend?”

“Ortol is our home,” replied Zezdon Inthel.

“At any rate, I can only assure you that your world will be given weapons that will permit your people to defend themselves and I will get you to your home within twenty-four hours. Your ship⁠—is it in the system?”

“It waits on the second satellite of the fourth planet,” replied Zezdon Afthen.

“Signal them, and tell them to land where a beacon of intense light, alternating red and blue, reaches up from⁠—this point on the map.” Arcot pointed out the spot in Vermont where their private lake and laboratory were.

He turned to the others, and in rapid-fire English, explained his plans. “We need the help of these people as much as they need ours. I think Zezdon Fentes will stay here and help you. The others will go with us to their world. There we shall have plenty of work to do, but on the way we are going to stop at Mars and pick up that valuable ship of theirs and make a careful examination for possible new weapons, their system of speed-drive, and their regular space-drive. I’m willing to make a bet right now, that I can guess both. Their regular drive is a molecular drive with lead disintegration apparatus for the energy, cosmic ray absorbers for the heating, and a drive much like ours. Their speed drive is a time distortion apparatus, I’ll wager. Time distinction offers an easy solution of speed. All speed is relative⁠—relative to other bodies, but also to time-speed. But we’ll see.

“I’m going to hustle some workmen to installing the biggest spare power board I can get into the storerooms of the Ancient Mariner, and pack in a ray-screen. It will be useful. Let’s move.”

“Our ship,” said Zezdon Afthen, “will land in three of your hours.”