V

Ortol

After Morey’s explanation of the ship was completed, Wade took Arcot’s place at the controls, while Morey and Arcot retired to the calculating room to do some of the needed mathematics on the time-field investigation.

Their work continued here, while the Ortolians prepared a meal and brought it to them, and to Wade. When at last the sun of Ortol was growing before them, Arcot took over controls from Wade once more. Slowing their speed to less than fifty times that of light, they drove on. The attraction of the giant sun was draining the energy from the coils so rapidly now, that at last Arcot was forced to get into normal space, while the planet was still close to a million miles from them. Morey was showing the Ortolians the operation of the telectroscope and had it trained now on the rapidly approaching planet. The planet was easily enlarged to a point where the features of continents were visible. The magnification was increased till cities were no longer blurs, but truly cities.

Suddenly, as city after city was brought under the action of the machine, the Ortolians recognizing them with glad exclamations, one swept into view⁠—and as they watched, it leapt into the air, a vast column of dust, then twisting, whirling, it fell back in utter, chaotic ruin.

Zezdon Fentes staggered back from the screen in horror.

“Arcot⁠—drive down⁠—increase your speed⁠—the Thessians are there already and have destroyed one city,” called Morey sharply. The men secured themselves with heavy belts, as the deep toned hum of the warning echoed through the ship. A moment later they staggered under an acceleration of four gravities. Space was dark for the barest instant of time, and then there was the scream of atmosphere as the ship rocketed through the air of the planet at nearly fifteen hundred miles per second. The outer wall was blazing in incandescence in a moment, and the heavy relux screens seemed to leap into place over the windows as the blasting heat, radiated from the incandescent walls flooded in. The millions of tons pressure of the air on the nose of the ship would have brought it to a stop in an instant, and had it not been that the molecular drive was on at full power, driving the ship against the air resistance, and still losing. The ship slowed swiftly, but was shrieking toward the destroyed city at terrific speed.

“Hesthis⁠—to the⁠—right and ahead. That would be their next attack,” said the Ortolian. Arcot altered the ship’s course, and they shot toward the distance city of Hesthis. They were slowing perceptibly, and yet, though the city was half around the world, they reached it in half a minute. Now Arcot’s wizardry at the controls came into play, for by altering his space field constants, he succeeded in reaching a condition that slowed the ship almost instantly to a speed of but a mile a second, yet without apparent deceleration.

High in the white Ortolian sky was a shining point bearing down on the now-visible city. Arcot slanted toward it, and the approaching ship grew like an expanding rubber balloon.

A ray of intense, blindingly brilliant light flashed out, and a gout of light appeared in the center of the city. A huge flame, bright blue, shot heavenward in roaring heat.

Seeing that a strange ship had arrived was enough for the Thessians, and they turned, and drove at Arcot instantly. The Thessian ship was built for a heavy world, and for heavy acceleration in consequence, and, as they had found from the captured ship, it was stronger than the Ancient Mariner. Now the Thessians were driving at Arcot with an acceleration and speed that convinced him dodging was useless. Suddenly space was black around them, the sunlit world was gone.

“Wonder what they thought of that!” grinned Arcot. Wade smiled grimly.

“It’s not what they thought, but what they’ll do, that counts.”

Arcot came back to normal space, just in time to see the Thessian ship spin in a quick turn, under an acceleration that would have crushed a human to a pulp. Again the pilot dived at the terrestrian ship. Again it vanished. Twice more he tried these fruitless tactics, seeing the ship loom before him⁠—bracing for the crash⁠—then it was gone instantaneously, and though he sailed through the spot he knew it to have occupied, it was not there. Yet an instant later, as he turned, it was floating, unharmed, exactly where his ship had passed!

Rushing was useless. He stood, and prepared to give battle. A molecular ray reached out⁠—and disappeared in flaring ions on a shield utterly impenetrable in the ionizing atmosphere.

Arcot meanwhile watched the instrument of his shield. The Thessian shield would have been impenetrable, but his shield, fed by less efficient tubes, was not, and he knew it. Already the terrific energy of the Thessian ray was noticeably heating the copper plates of the tube. The seal would break soon.

Another ray reached out, a ray of flaring light. Arcot, watching through the “eyes” of his telectroscope viewplates, saw it for but an instant, then the “eyes” were blasted, and the screen went blank.

“He won’t do anything with that but burn out eyes,” muttered the terrestrian. He pushed a small button when his instruments told him the rays were off. Another scanner came into action, and the viewplate was alive again.

Arcot shot out a cosmic ray himself, and swept the Thessian with it thoroughly. For the instant he needed the enemy ship was blinded. Immediately the Ancient Mariner dove, and the automatic ray-finders could no longer hold the rays on his ship. As soon as he was out of the deadly molecular ray he shut off his screen, and turned on all his molecular rays. The Thessian ship, their own ray on, had been unable to put up their screen, as Arcot was unable to use his ray with the enemy’s ray forcing him to cover with a shield.

Almost at once the relux covering of the Thessian ship shone with characteristic iridescence as it changed swiftly to lux metal. The molecular ray blinked out, and a ray screen flashed out instead. The Thessians were covering up. Their own rays were useless now. Though Arcot could not hope to destroy their ray shield, they could no longer attack his, for their rays were useless, and already they had lost so much of the protective relux, that they would not be so foolhardy as to risk a second attack of the ray.

Arcot continued to bathe the ship in energy, keeping their “eyes” closed. As long as he could hold his barrage on them, they would not damage him.

“Morey⁠—get into the power room, strap onto the board. Throw all the power-coil banks into the magnets. I may burn them out, but I have hopes⁠—” Arcot already had the generators going full power, charging the power coils.

Morey dived. Almost simultaneously the Thessians succeeded in the maneuver they had been attempting for some time. There were a dozen rays flaring wildly from the ship, searching blindly over the sky and ground, hoping to stumble on the enemy ship, while their own ship dived and twisted. Arcot was busily dodging the sweeping rays, but finally one hit his viewplates, and his own ship was blind. Instantly he threw the ray screen out, cutting off his own molecular ray. His own cosmics he set rotating in cones that covered the three dimensions⁠—save below, where the city lay. Immediately the Thessian had retreated to this one segment where Arcot did not dare throw his own rays. The Thessian cosmics continued to make his relux screens necessary, and his ship remained blind.

His ray screen was showing signs of weakening. The Thessians got a third ray into position for operation, and opened up. Almost at once the tubes heated terrifically. In an instant they would give way. Arcot threw his ship into space, and let the tubes cool under the water jacket. Morey reported the coils ready as soon as he came out of space.

Arcot cut in the new set of eyes, and put up his molecular ray screen again. Then he cut the energy back to the coils.

Half a mile below the enemy ship was vainly scurrying around an empty sky. Wade laughed at the strange resemblance to a puppy chasing its tail. The Ancient Mariner was utterly lost to them.

“Well, here goes the last trick,” said Arcot grimly. “If this doesn’t work, they’ll probably win, for their tubes are better than ours, and they can maneuver faster. By win I mean force us to let them attack Ortol. They can’t really attack us; artificial space is a perfect defense.”

Arcot’s molecular ray apprized the Thessians of his presence. Their screen flared up once more. Arcot was driving straight toward their ship as they turned. He snapped the relux screens in front of his eyes an instant before the enemy cosmics reached his ship. Immediately the thud of four heavy relays rang through the ship. The quarter of a million ton ship leaped forward under a terrific acceleration, and then, as the four relays cut out again, the acceleration was gone. The screen regained life as Arcot opened the shutters. Before them, still directly in their path, was the huge Thessian ship. But now its screen was down, the relux iridescent in decomposition. It was falling, helplessly falling to the rocky plateau seven miles below. Its rays reached out even yet⁠—and again the Ancient Mariner staggered under the terrific pull of some acceleration. The Thessian ship lurched upward, and a terrific concussion came, and the entire neighborhood of that projector disappeared in a flash of radiation.

Arcot drove the Ancient Mariner down beneath the Thessian ship in its long fall, and with a powerful molecular beam ripped a mighty chasm in the deserted plateau. The Thessian ship fell into a quarter mile rift in the solid rock, smashing its way through falling debris. A moment later it was buried beneath a quarter mile of broken rock as Arcot swept a molecular beam about with the grace of a mine foreman filling breaks.

An instant later, a heat ray followed the molecular in dazzling brilliance. A terrific gout of light appeared in the barren rocks. In ten minutes the plateau was a white hot cauldron of molten rocks, glowing now against a darkening sky. Night was falling.

“That ship,” said Arcot with an air of finality, “will never rise again.”