The First Move

The Ortolians were standing on a low, green-clad hill. Below them stretched the green flank of the little rise, and beyond lay ridge after ridge of the broad, smooth carpet of the beautiful Vermont hills.

“Man of Earth,” said Zezdon Afthen, turning at last to Wade, who stood behind him. “It took us three months of constant flight at a speed unthinkable, through space dotted with the titanic gems of the Outer Dark, stars gleaming in red, and blue and orange, some titanic lighthouses of our course, others dim pinpoints of glowing color. It was a scene of unspeakable grandeur, but it was so awesomely mighty in its scope, one was afraid, and his soul shriveled within him as he looked at those inconceivable masses floating forever alone in the silence of the inconceivable nothingness of eternal cold and eternal darkness. One was awed, suppressed by their sheer magnitude. A magnificent spectacle truly, but one no man could love.

“Now we are at rest on a tiny pinpoint of dust in a tiny bit of a tiny corner of an isolated universe, and the magnitude and stillness is gone. Only the chirpings of those strange birds as they seek rest in darkness, the soft gurgling of the little stream below, and the rustle of countless leaves, break the silence with a satisfying existence, while the loneliness of that great star, your sun, is lost in its tintings of soft color, the fleeciness of the clouds, and the seeming companionship of green hills.

“The beauty of boundless space is awe-inspiring in its magnitude. The beauty of Earth is something man can love.

“Man of Earth, you have a home that you may well fight for with all the strength of your arms, all the forces of your brain, and all the energies of Space that you can call forth to aid you. It is a wondrous world.” Silently he stood in the gathering dusk, as first Venus winked into being, then one by one the stars came into existence in the deepening color of the sky.

“Space is awesomely wonderful; this is⁠—lovable.” He gazed long at the heavens of this world so strange, so beautiful to him, looking at the unfamiliar heavens, as star after star flashed into the constellations so familiar to terrestrians and to those Venerians who had been above the clouds of Venus’ eternal shroud.

“But somewhere off there in space are other races, and far beyond the power of our eyes to see is the star that is the sun of my world, and around it circles that little globe that is home to me. What is happening there now? Does it still exist? Are there people still living on it? Oh, Man of Earth, let us reach that world quickly, you cannot guess the pangs that attack me, for if it be destroyed, think⁠—forever I am without home⁠—without friends I knew. However kind your people may be to me, I would be forever lonely.

“I will not think of that⁠—only it is time your ship was ready, is it not?”

“I think we had better return,” replied Wade softly, his English words rousing thoughts in his mind intelligible to the Ortolians.

The three rose in the air on the molecular suits and drove quickly down toward the blue gem of the lake to the east, nestled among still other green hills. Lights were showing in the great shop, where the Ancient Mariner was being fitted with the ray-shields, and all possible weapons. Men streaming through her were hastily stocking her with vast quantities of foods, stocks of fuel, all the spare parts they could cram into her stock rooms.

When the men arrived from the hilltop, the work was practically done, and Wade stepped up to Morey, busily checking off a list of required items.

“Everything you ordered came through?” he asked.

“Yes⁠—thanks to the pull of a two-billion dollar private fortune. Who says credit-units don’t have their value? This expedition never would have gotten through, if it hadn’t been for that.

“But we have the main space distortion power bank, and the new auxiliary coils full. Ten tons of lead aboard for fuel. There’s one thing we are afraid of. If the enemy have a system of tubes that is able to handle more power than our last tube⁠—we’re sunk. These brilliant people that suggest using more tubes to a ray-power bank forget the last tube has to handle the entire output of all the others, and modulate it correctly. If the enemy has a better tube⁠—it will be too bad for us.” Morey was frankly worried.

“My end is all set, Morey. How soon will you be ready?” Arcot asked.

“ ’Bout ten-fifteen minutes.” Morey lit a cigarette and watched as the last of the stuff was carried aboard.

At last they were ready. The Ancient Mariner, originally built for intergalactic exploration, was kept in working condition. New apparatus had been incorporated in it, as their research had led to improvements, and it was constantly in condition, ready for a trip. Many exploration trips to the nearer stars had already been made.

The ship was backed out from the hangar now, and rested on the great smooth landing field, its tremendous quarter million ton mass of lux and relux sinking a great, smooth depression in the turf of the field. They were waiting now for the arrival of the Ortolian ship. Zezdon Afthen assured them it would be there in a few minutes.

High in the sky, came the whining whistle of an approaching ship, coming at terrific velocity. It came nearer the field, darting toward the ground at an unheard of speed, flashing down at a speed of well over three thousand miles an hour, and, only in the last fifty feet slowed with a sickening deceleration. Even so it landed with a crash of fully two hundred miles of speed. Arcot gasped at the terrible landing the pilot had made, fully expecting to see the great hull dent somewhat, even though made of solid relux. And certainly the jar would kill every man on board. Yet the hull did not seem harmed by the crash, and even the ground under the ship was but slightly disturbed, though, at a distance of some thirty feet, the entire block of soil was crushed, and cracked by the terrific impact of hundreds of thousands of tons striking with terrific energy.

“Lord, it’s a wonder they didn’t kill themselves. I never saw such a rotten landing,” exclaimed Morey with disgust.

“Don’t be too sure. I think they landed gently, and at very low speed. Notice how little the soil directly under them was dented?” replied Arcot, walking forward. “They have time control, as I suspected. Ask them. They drifted in gently. Their time rate was speeded up tremendously, so that what was hundreds of miles per hour to us was feet per minute to them. But come on, get the handlers to bring that junk up to the door⁠—they are coming out.”

One of the tall, kindly-faced canine people was standing in the doorway now, the white light streaming out around him into the night, casting a grotesque shadow on the landing field, for all the flood lights bathing in it.

Zezdon Afthen came up and spoke quickly to the man evidently in command of the ship. The entire party went into the ship, and the cream of their laboratory instruments was brought in.

For hours Arcot, Morey and Wade worked at the apparatus in the ship, measuring, calculating, following electrical and magnetic and sheer force hookups of staggering complexity. They were not trying to find the exact method of construction, only the principles involved, so that they could perform calculations of their own, and duplicate the results of the enemy. Thus they would be far more thoroughly familiar with the machinery when done.

Little attention was paid to the actual driving plant, for it was a molecular drive with the same type of lead-fuel burner they used in their own ship. The tubes of the power bank were, however, a puzzle to them. They were made of relux, so that it was impossible to see the interior of the tube. To open one was to destroy it, but calculations made from readings of their instruments showed that they were more efficient, and could readily carry nearly half again the load that the best terrestrian tubes could sustain. This meant the enemy could send heavier rays and heavier ray screens.

But finally they returned to the Ancient Mariner, and as the Ortolian ship whined its way out to space, the Ancient Mariner started, rising faster and faster through the atmosphere till it was in the night of space. Then the molecular power was shut off. The ship suddenly seemed to writhe, space was black and starless about them, then sparkling weirdly distorted stars, all before them. They were moving already. Almost before the Ortolians fully realized what was happening, a dozen stars had swung past the ship, driving on now at better than five light years in every second. At this speed, approximately fourteen hours would be needed to reach Ortol.

“Now, Arcot, perhaps you will explain to me the secret of this ship,” said Zezdon Afthen at last, turning from the great lux pilot’s window, to Arcot seated in the pilot’s chair. “I know that only the broadest principles will be intelligible to me, for I could not understand that ship we captured, after almost four months of study. Yet it crept through space compared with this ship. Certainly no ship could outdistance this in a race!”

“As a matter of fact⁠—watch!” Arcot pushed a little metal button along a slide to the extreme end. Again the ship seemed to writhe. Space was no longer black, but faintly gray, and beside them, on either side, floated two exact replicas of their ship! Zezdon Afthen stared. But in another moment, both were gone, and space was black, yet in but a few moments a grayness was showing, and light was appearing from all about, growing gradually in intensity. For three seconds Arcot continued thus, then he pulled the metal button down the slide, and flicked over another that he had pulled to cause the second change. The stars were again before them, their colors changed beyond all recognition at that speed. But the orientation of the stars behind them had been familiar. Now an entirely different set of constellation showed.

“I merely opened the ship out to her maximum speed for a moment. I was able to see any large star 2000 light years in our path, and there were none. Small stars do not bother us as I will explain. When I put on full power of the main power coils, I drove the ship up to a speed of 30 light years a second. When I turned in the full power of the auxiliary coils as well I doubled the power, and the speed was multiplied by eight. The result was that in the four seconds of racing, we made approximately 1000 light years!”

Zezdon Afthen gasped. “Two hundred and forty light years per second!” He paused in bewilderment. “Suppose we had struck a small sun, a dark star, even a meteor at that speed? What would have been the result?”

Arcot smiled. “The chances are excellent that we plowed through more than one meteor, more than one dark star, and more than one small sun.

“But this is the secret: the ship attains the speed only by going out of space. Nothing in space can attain the speed of light, save radiation. Nothing in normal space. But, we alter space, make space along patterns we choose, and so distort it that the natural speed of radiation is enormously greater. In fact, we so change space that nothing can go slower than a speed we fix.

“Morey⁠—show Afthen the coils, and explain it all to him. I’ve got to stay here.”

Morey rose, and diving through the weightless ship, went down to the power room, Zezdon Afthen following. Here, giant pots five feet high were in close packed rows. The “pots” contained specially designed coils storing tremendous energy, the energy of four tons of disintegrated lead, in the only form that energy may be stored, as a strain, or distortion in space. These charged coils distorted only the space within themselves, making a closed field entirely within themselves. But in the exact gravitational center of the quarter of a million ton ship was a single high coil of different design that distorted space around it as well as the space within it. This, as Morey explained, was the control that altered the constants of space to suit. The coils were charged, and the energy stored. Their energy could be pumped into the big coil, and then, when the ship slowed to normal space, could be pumped back to them. The pumping energy, as well as any further energy needed for recharging the coils could be supplied by three huge power generators.

“These energy-producers,” Morey explained, “work on a principle known for hundreds of years on Earth. Lead, when reduced to a temperature approaching absolute zero as closely as, for instance, liquid helium, has no electrical resistance. In other words, no matter how great a current is sent through it, there is no resistance, and no heat is produced to raise the temperature. What we do is to send a powerful current through a lead wire. The wire has a current density so huge that the atoms are destroyed, and the protons and electrons coalesce into pure radiant energy. Relux, under the influence of a magnetic field, converts this directly into electrical potential. Electricity we can convert to the spatial strain in the power coils, and thus the ship is driven.” Morey pointed out the huge molecular power cylinder overhead, where the main power drive was located in the inertial center of the ship, or as near as the great space coil would permit.

The smaller power units for vertical lift, and for steering, were in the side walls, hidden under heavy walls of relux.

“The projectors for throwing molecular and heat rays are on the outside of course. Both of these projectors are protected. The walls of the ship are made of an outer wall of heavy lux metal, a vacuum between, and an inner wall of heavy relux. The lux is stronger than relux, and is therefore used for an outer shell. The inner shell of relux will reflect any dangerous rays and serve to hold the heat in the ship, since a perfect reflector is a perfect non-radiator. The vacuum wall is to protect the occupants of the ship against any undue heat. If we should get within the atmosphere of a sun, it would be disastrous if the physical conduction of heat were permitted, for though the relux will turn out any radiated heat, it is a conductor of heat, and we would roast almost instantly. These artificial metals are both absolutely infusible and nonvolatile. The ship has actually been in the limb of a star tremendously hotter than your sun or mine.

“Now you see why it is we need not fear a collision with a small sun, meteor or suchlike. Since we are in our own, artificial space, we are alone, and there is nothing in space to run into. But, if we enter a huge sun, the terrific gravitational field of the mass of matter would be enough to pull the energy of our coil away from us. That actually happened the time we made our first intergalactic exploration. But it is almost impossible to fall into a large star⁠—they are too brilliant. We won’t be worrying about it,” grinned Morey.

“But how did the ship we captured operate?” asked Zezdon Afthen.

“It was a very ingenious system, very closely related to ours, really.

“We distort space and change the velocity characteristics; in other words, we distort the rate of motion through distance characteristics of normal space. The Thessian ships work on the principle of distorting the rate of progress through time instead of through space.

Velocity is really ‘units of travel through space per unit of travel through time.’ Now if we make the time unit twice as great, and the units traveled through space are not changed, the velocity is twice as great. That is, if we are moving five light years per second, make the second twice as long and we are moving ten light years per double-second. Make it ten thousand times as long, and we are traveling fifty thousand light years per ten-thousand-seconds. This is the principle⁠—but there is a drawback. We might increase the velocity by slowing time passage, that is, if it takes me a year for one heartbeat, two years to raise my arm thus, and six months to turn, my head, if all my body processes are slowed down in this way, I will be able to live a tremendous length of time, and though it takes me two hundred years to go from one star to another, so low is my time rate that the two hundred years will seem but a few minutes. I can then make a trip to a distant star⁠—one five light years distant, let us say, in three minutes to me. I then will say, looking at my chronometer (which has been similarly slowed) ‘I have gone five light years in three minutes, or five thirds light years per minute. I have exceeded the speed of light.’

“But people back on Earth would say, he has taken two hundred years to go five light years, therefore he has gone at a speed one fortieth of that of light, which would be true⁠—for their time rate.

“But suppose I can also speed up time. That is, I can live a year in a minute or two. Then everyone else will be exceedingly slow. The ideal thing would be to combine these two effects, arranging that space about your ship will have a very rapid time rate, ten thousand times that of normal space. Then the speed of radiation through that space will be 1,860,000,000 miles per second, and a speed of 1,000,000,000 miles per second would be possible, but still you, too, will be affected, so that though the people back home will say you are going far faster than light, you will say ‘No, I am going only 100,000 miles per second.’

“But now imagine that your ship and surrounding space for one mile is at a time rate 10,000 times normal, and you, in a space of one hundred feet within your ship, are affected by a time rate 1/10,000 that, or normal, due to a second, reversing field. The two fields will not fight, or be mutually antagonistic; they will merely compound their effects. Result: you will agree that you are exceeding the speed of light!

“Do you understand? That is the principle on which your ship operated. There were two time-fields, overlapping time-fields. Remember the terrible speed with which your ship landed, and yet there was no appreciable jar according to the men? The answer of course was, that their time rate had been speeded enough, due to the fact that one field had been completely shut off, the other had not.

“That is the principle. The system is so complex, naturally, that we have not yet learned the actual method of working the process. We must do a great deal of mathematical and physical research.

“Wish we had it done⁠—we could use it now,” mused the terrestrian.

“We have some other weapons, none as important, of course, as the molecular ray and the heat ray. Or none that have been. But, if the enemy have ray shields, then perhaps these others also will be important. There are molecular motion guns, metal tubes, with molecular director apparatus at one end. A metal shell is pulling the power turned on, and the shell leaps out at a speed of about ten miles per second⁠—since it has been super-heated⁠—and is very accurately aimed, as there is no terrific shock of recoil to be taken up by the gun.

“But a more effective weapon, if these men are as I expect them to be, will be a peculiarly effective magnetic field concentrator device, which will project a magnetic field as a beam for a mile or more. How useful it will be⁠—I don’t know. We don’t know what the enemy will turn against us!”