Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
John Craig stood now at the quartzite lens that stared blankly out at sector XC-87458-TK of space, and studied the stars that hung so silently and so brightly in the space sea. It had not been a long journey to the Enigma, no more than three days, actually, most of which was spent in the gray wasteland of hyperspace. He was aware that his heart was pounding more rapidly than was normal.
Well, excitement was a good reaction, he supposed. Usually he was calm enough, vaning down for a job, but that was because he knew pretty well what he was going up against. Empire had known enough about the intelligent beasts of Lyrosia or the crystal things of Pamakian to clue him in on the dangers he would face. This job was—something else again.
Nobody knew anything about the Enigma. Nothing at all. When the densatron hull hit that blackness, it might be annihilated, and himself with it. He might go mad. He might be frozen into a deathlike trance for all eternity, kept alive by what ever the Enigma was. Oh, there were any number of fates he might suffer, he decided; it was better not to think about them, better just to ride along with the ship and meet an emergency when it arose. It made for a happier existence.
The faint whisper of the nucleatronic engines filled the living quarters as the Staraine started to build up speed. Hit the Enigma fast, was the theory. Break through any energy barrier before it could grip and hold the huge densatron hull, this was the way Alert Command thought. Craig had the uncomfortable feeling that it might be better to nose his way in, in case some barrier stood like a wall before him; otherwise he might splatter the Staraine and his body across half a hundred miles of Enigma rim.
It was too late to change course. The punch-card had been fed into the computers and mechanical brains were running the ship. The commander was along for the ride.
A bleep began to sound, off to his right, amid the banks of metal walls and dividers. Empire had begun its tracking system. The bleeps and the red dot and dash that accompanied it told the major that he had not been forgotten. Empire was watching, waiting. If he died, ten billion people would know about it almost as soon as he stopped breathing.
It was not comforting, not at all. The commander was discovering that a man clung most tenaciously to life when that life was threatened. Even a man like himself, used to putting his life on the line against half a dozen different types of death. Probably the trouble was, he was not sitting at the controls. He was being rushed along, unable to do more than pace the metaloid floor and wonder.
The black blotch filled the quartzite screen now. Within minutes he would be inside that immense darkness—or splattered all over it. Crossing the floor, he flipped a switch that activated his own signals. Now Commander Ingalls would know as fast as John Craig whether he lived or died. If the ship and he were destroyed, the signal would stop. If the signal continued its beep, Craig would be alive.
He turned back toward the screen. Distances were deceiving in space. The great ship was hurtling at in conceivable speed into that blotch but the blackness barely moved.
His breath clawed in his throat. Suddenly as the last few thousand miles were crossed in nanoseconds the Enigma appeared to explode. It swelled and swelled. It grew titanic.
Craig felt his muscles tense. Impact point would be about—
Darkness engulfed him. It seeped into the ship, hiding everything from him but the sound of his own heartbeat. There was no bleep, no whisper of the engines. Nothing but his heart pounding and slamming. He was blind. He lifted a hand and touched his face, his chest,
He was alive, at least. Ingalls could not know this, for if the Empire signal had died out, so had his own. If the nucleatronic motors had been shut off by the blackness, he would be able to send no radio message, and probably be unable to fire back a torpedo. He would try, though. He had to do something!
He moved through the narrow metal corridors that led to the firing tubes. His hands fumbled with the skill of long practice until he could see and grip the release pins. He tugged. They held tight. There was no motor power anywhere in the Staraine.
Anguish and despair moved in the major. Never had he felt so alone, so cut off from his old familiar world as in this moment of intense blackness, of utter helplessness. Under his fingertips lay an infinitude of nucleatronic power which would not work.
Nor would his weapons. The skin crawled on the base of his neck, and tiny blonde hairs rose stiffly. All he had to fight with were his hands and his teeth, the tools of a caveman. Then his lips drew back and his teeth showed. If he could not see, no enemy could see to attack him.
Or—could one? Suppose some monstrosity was ahead of him, waiting, waiting for him to come nearer
Craig shook himself. This way lay frustration and its correlary, madness. He must get a grip on himself. A thought came to him. There was a sword-an ancient thing he took with him on all his journeys, like a good luck charm, that he had bought in an antique store at Marsopolis, long ago-hanging in his sleeping quarters. A sword needed no motor to function.
He went back through the metal corridor and stooped to enter the stateroom that was fitted with a bunk, a reading lounge, a desk and a chair. His groping fingers found the metal scabbard. He lifted down the scabbard and the blade and let his fingers curl gratefully about the braided hilt. Then he hooked it on its belt chains.
With the sword at his side he went back to the control center. Now if anything came at him, he could at least fight back. It made him feel less helpless.
He waited an eternity in the darkness before he saw the pallid radiance far ahead. All the time he had been walking blindly through the ship, the Staraine had been sliding through the blotch.
His muscles ached with waiting. Deliberately he tried to relax, to force a sense of safety into his body. There was light up ahead. Soon the darkness would be a thing of the past. The light would show him his enemies, or that which had already destroyed two Earth fleets. His hand was tensed about the sword-hilt as if in rigor mortis.
The light grew brighter, intensely brilliant after the blackness.
The ship was traveling far faster than he had imagined, due to its original impetus. The brightness was growing with an unbelievable rapidity. It must be—yes! As the Staraine slid out of the last wisps of the dark Enigma, Craig found he was staring at a giant white star. It hung before him like a titanic ball flexing, flaring pale fire. He could see the solar prominences shooting outward, see the inward writhing of the blazing gases and the flaring corona,
God! Is this what happened to the fleets? Had they plunged into that awesome ball as he was plunging? For a moment he stood petrified, muscles frozen. Then with a cry—the blinking lights had turned on all across the room—he hurled himself at the control relays.
His hands stabbed down and back and forth. In response, the nucleatronic motors whispered into life. The forward motion of the Staraine checked. There was a faint lurch—in his haste he forgot about the niceties of easing into the gravitic drags—as the ship turned slightly, away from that brilliance.
There was an instant when the motors fought the magnetic attraction of the white star with every last erg of energy in their generators. He hung over the relays, hands poised, feeding power and more power into the field coils.
This may have happened to the fleets, but he doubted it. He had gone into the blotch several coordinates away from their points of entry. They would not have emerged here. Even if they had, their officers would have been able to fight the pull of that awesome star as he had done. Some of the ships would have escaped, even if many might have been drawn into that stellar inferno.
Then the ship was fleeing from the heat and the brilliance into the deeps of this space within the Enigma. Craig straightened slowly, aware that his hands were trembling, that sweat beaded his forehead. He let the air out of his lungs with a long sigh. Safe for a time, at least. He turned his attention to the great screen, frowning as he stared. The Staraine was racing across what looked like an ordinary stretch of space. The heat indicators, that had been inside the red danger zone while the ship was so close to the star-sun, were easing back to normal space temperature, now.
He turned dials, made recordings from the instruments that banked the far wall. He grew more puzzled as he worked. There was no deadly radioactivity in this inner space, no rays or radiations that he could detect. A twist of his fingers worked the zoom lens.
Six planets to the system. One was closer to their sun than Mercury was to Sol. Three were further out even than Neptune, Pluto and Uranus. That left two planets as possible habitations for intelligent life, where the fleets may have landed. He would check on those, later. But for now, he had a job to do.
He pulled out a drawer that contained a recording unit. For more than an hour he spoke onto its tapes, giving instrument data, personal emotions and observations. He had decided against using the high frequency wave-beam and the beeper, fearful that whatever negative force was inside the black blotch would distort and destroy their impulses. It was better to depend on a torpedo. From inner space it would slide out through the darkness as the Staraine had slid in through it.
He removed the tapes, inserted them into a container and walked back through the narrow corridors to the firing tubes. He opened the holding chamber, placed the container inside it, and locked the outer door. Then he moved to the firing tube levers and pulled them into place. He touched the release pins.
He pressed his eyes to the vue-plate.
A long black shape swam away from the ship, almost invisible against the ebony hue of the Enigma fencing in the hidden star system. It fled swiftly with its tiny nucleatronic motor on automatic. It winked once where the sunlight touched its hull, then it was gone on its mission into the darkness.
Craig turned away. His job now was to find the planet where the fleet ships had landed, to discover what had happened to them, why they had not returned to report back on whatever menace inside the Enigma made it so menacing.
While the ship hurtled outward, away from the star-sun of this system, he sat down and punched for a meal of ham-strips and fluffed eggs, with coffee. He ate slowly, relishing the taste and aroma of the synthetically created food. As near as his taste buds could tell, there was little or no difference between the foods created by the atomic banks in the synthetics unit and those fresh-raised on a planet. He lit a tobarette and smoked it while the probes centered in on the first of the possible inhabited planets. When the burps told him it was inside zoom lens range he rose and activated the viewer.
The planet was bubbling, it was so hot. It was little more than a giant ball of molten metal, slowly turn in slowly, as it orbited the great star. If the fleet ha fallen into that, there would be no trace of them, none whatever. Craig shuddered as he thought about those spacers dropping into that seething metal.
His attention turned now to the second planet as he brought the Staraine closer to the unknown world, swinging it lazily through space. When the Zoom lens focused, he saw himself staring at seething gases, no more. Puzzled, he set the frequency probes into motion.
An hour later he scowled in puzzlement. According to the probes, the planet was a solid metal core less than a thousand miles across that held those seething gases in its magnetic grip. The fleet could never have is appeared on that; there was less than half a quarter-gravity to the core, scarcely enough to hold those gases, let alone twenty cruisers with nucleatronic motors.
The third planet, then. It was a good hundred million miles from the white star. According to the Cole Law of planetary formation, it ought to be habitable.
Any planet within forty million miles of a hot star was molten. The normally habitable planets orbited within a radius of seventy million to a hundred and twenty million miles. Beyond that range, planets were cold, dead, sometimes covered with ice where once an atmosphere had been.
The zoom lens moved. The probes darted. Yes, this was the world that could hold life, although there was no life on it. He set the radiation counters, geared to seek out and identify the remains of wrecked spaceships by the radiation of their reactors. The counters remained silent. Apparently the vanished spaceships were not on that world.
Only one thing to do. Go on to the outer worlds. Perhaps some cosmic catastrophe had driven them onto those icy planets where they lay now in wrecked solitude while a cold wind howled eternally around their skeletal remains. Craig did not think it was likely, since two fleets would scarcely suffer the same fate at different times; but it was a possibility. The worlds beyond the third planet were massive snowballs buried deep in layers of glacial ice. No where on their frozen surfaces was there a hint of metal, of dead flesh, of nucleatronic reactors. Three times Craig checked his equipment before he was faced with the impossible fact that the lost space fleets were not—repeat, not—inside the Enigma!
“Ridiculous,” he said softly. “There’s been an error. I can’t find it. I’m no technician, but it’s there.”
There was one slim chance. If the fleets had landed on the third planet—with a wry grin, he was tempted to call it Earth-Two—their personnel might still be on it. For some reason, the ships had not been able to take off.
But if that were so—why hadn’t the probes found them? Or if not the men, surely the machines or what was left of them?
He turned the Staraine in a slow circle and sent it angling back across space toward the habitable planet. Only then did he realize how tired he was. There is no night or day on a spaceship; a man tends to keep going until tiredness overtakes him. When he is bored, his fatigue quotient rises. When he is spurred by fear or anxiety, as he was in the Enigma and until this moment, his endocrine glands pump adrenaline into his bloodstream which destroys the lactic acids and the carbon dioxides and—
His eyelids were like lead. Time enough tomorrow to report back to Ingalls with another tape and torpedo. Right now he needed sleep,
He stumbled blearily into his stateroom and fell across the bunk. Within moments he was asleep. The Staraine moved on through this strange inner space toward the third planet, its automatic on full operational procedure. The ship would alarm him if there were any danger.
Only much later did he dream of the Enigma spreading out across all space, of its overrunning Ballyrane and Marialla, where Elva Marlowe had her fashion shops and offices. He ran through the darkness after her with the sword in his hand and when he found her, she had a face that was eaten away with some strange rot and she was screaming with the electronic beeps of an alarm system and—
Covered with sweat, he sat up in bed. There was no sound in the ship, only the faint whisper of the nucleatronic engines. He swung his legs over the edge and sat there, letting the energy come up from deep inside himself, slowly, as it usually did after a prolonged sleep. At first his muscles were dead, as if out of contact with his brain. It took a bit of time for them to come fully alive.
He changed his clothes, donning the clingers that he would wear under an exploration outfit. His uniform he thrust into the cleaning unit. Water was too precious to waste with a shower. Instead, he would move into the rayabathe, letting streams of quasi-radiation cleanse his body of all germs and the remains of old sweat.
He ate again, a thick steak and synthetic tomatoes.
The Staraine was two hundred thousand miles off planet. He decided to take it down on manuals. He activated the zoom lens and the probes, then sat down before the multi-colored dials that would feed data into the computer banks so that the ship could carry out his orders. The zoom lens showed him a planet with great oceans and white clouds and continental landmasses. He studied it while the Staraine dropped swiftly into the planetary tug of gravity. The probes were telling him that it had an atmosphere reasonably similar to that of Earth-style planets, with perhaps a touch more oxygen and argon, but about the same hydrogen content. It was breathable. There was ice at its poles and broad rivers running through its plains and grassland areas.
Well within the ionosphere, he moved in an orbital flight pattern across a great ocean and part of a huge land mass. The probes were ticking steadily. There was no sign of life, they told his trained ears; none whatever. Of course, the men of the vanished fleets could be on the other side of this world. He would make his search for them, in time.
Right now he wanted to put foot on those grasses far below. His nostrils twitched for the smell of fresh air. He was pushing landing data into a slot when he heard it.
The probes had picked up something.
Excitedly, Craig slowed that mad rush of beeps until he could get them on a puncher. At the same time he touched the negate control; the machine rejected the landing cards. He would wait until he learned what the probes were telling him before he vaned down.
In an hour he knew that the probes had located the missing spaceships halfway down the planet, perhaps ten thousand miles away. He fed back the punched landing instructions so that the Staraine would go where the probes told it to go. Even now, it was picking up speed.
Craig left the control chair for the vue panel, turning on the zoom lens. Yes, there! He could make them out now, in the bright sunlight. Twenty massive gray metal monsters, resting on their vanes. Silent, inert, as if dead.
His hand touched a switch. “Commander John Craig calling Commander Herzog. Commander Craig calling Commander Herzog of the Imperial Warlord. Reply, please. Over.”
The grilled speaker was mute. He talked to the spaceships for twenty minutes before he gave it up as a bad job. The probe still refused to find life for him, so maybe everyone inside the ships was dead. He might even have to land and investigate personally. The vue plates showed him a peaceful scene. The ships stood with the grasses blowing in the wind below them and the sunlight glinting on their bright hulls. Not even a weapon-port was open to indicate that the men had died fighting.
Craig was aware that his body was tensing. He shook himself, growled, “Easy, go easy. Twenty thousand men don’t just disappear into thin air. Not without cause. All I have to do is find that cause.”
He wondered if he ought to turn tail and go back outside the Enigma to make a personal report and let Ingalls order in an Investigation Team. Hell. He was the Investigation Team. This was his job.
He climbed into a nylobber exploration outfit that clung to his body, yet was strong enough to resist even the effects of a cam-ray blast. No spear or sword made could cut nylobber. Only a bullet from something like an elephant gun could penetrate its pressurized, radiation-resistant cordings.
Over his shoulder he hung the sack that held the weapons Ordnance had made for him. Almost as an afterthought he buckled the sword-belt about his middle. He grinned at his reflection in a mirror. He looked like a pirate with his treasure sack.
He waited while the Staraine settled to the ground a mile from the forest of spaceships. A faint jar, then stillness. The nucleatronic motors died.
A hatch opened. Craig swung through it, closed it, then began the descent on the metal ladder fastened to the hull. He wore no space helmet; one sniff had told him the air was pure, sweet.
Then there was grass under his leather boots and he stood a moment with the wind fanning his bronzed face. Caution told him to play it safe, so he reached into the sack and lifted out the thin rod and attached its metal firing disc to an end. The Imp was ready.
Craig began his walk. Only the wind and the grasses were his companions as he moved steadily and carefully toward the ships. No danger rushed upon him from the sky or along the ground. The earth did not open up and swallow him. There was no enemy here that he could see.
What, then, had happened to the crews of twenty warships?
He bypassed the nearest ship, chose one closer to the center. He hung The Imp over a shoulder and mounted the metal ladder. The hatch slid back at his push.
He looked into an empty airlock. Explorer suits hung neatly on their pegs. Ray-guns rested in their racks. He searched the airlock for ten minutes before he decided that everything was normal. Then he came into the ship.
From the airlock he moved along a corridor to control center, then to the bridge. Nobody here. He activated the communication system.
“Anybody home? Commander Craig here.” He waited. The ship was mute. He came from the bridge and crossed to the commander’s stateroom. Empty. No one in the galley, in the crew’s quarters, in the engine room. Attack center was not even in a state of alert. There were covers over every weapon.
Whatever had happened to the crews of these ships had come from a totally unexpected source. Nobody had been ready for attack. If it was an attack, that is. Maybe what had happened was so unexpected, so foreign? to human thought that it was not recognized as a danger until it was over.
A cold chill ran down his spine, The same thing could happen to Commander John Craig. One man was just as susceptible as twenty thousand. His fingers tightened on The Imp.
He came out of the attack center and crossed to the bridge. He threw over the switch that would connect the bridge speaker to every ship in both fleets.
“Commander Craig of Alert Command, here. I have been sent to learn what happened to you and your ships. I’ve found the ships—where are you?”
He felt panic clawing its way up into his throat. “If even one of you men is alive—for God’s sake, speak to me!”
He waited. All he heard was his own heart thumping.
His hand went out to the gleaming metal wall, ran easily over it to the relay switches, fondled them a moment. The thought touched his mind that this ship had gone out from the planetary world where it had been forged and fashioned from the crude ores and materials of that world, to the stars themselves. Across the vast and lonely wastes of space, across an infinitude of emptiness to this last resting place, it had traveled. Power unleashed waiting in its vitals, eager to hurl it thousands of light-years away, back to the Empire planets. All it needed was the crew to make it work.
It was his job to find that crew. He hunted through the ship for clues. He found food in cooking pots, baked or boiled away to black goo. In the crews’ quarters there were undershirts and jackets folded or hung away as if mutely waiting for the hands to reach to them. Tables were set for eating. The clocks were running smoothly, noiselessly. No alarm signal had been sounded, for all that they rested on their hair-triggers. The fate that had hit these men had been swift and—deadly.
They were gone, each part of them. Without a trace. He left the ship at sundown. He began his walk toward his own ship with bent head, wondering, probing deep in his mind for reasons. His eyes saw only the tall grasses that scuffed against his boots, and his cheeks felt only the gathering coolness of the night. There was no sound anywhere except the wind and this movement of his boots in the grass. Then, as darkness gathered, even that little whisper passed away.
The silence now was complete.
It stung the eardrums so that they tingled. Startled from his thoughts. Craig raised his head. He saw the silent grasslands, and the distant trees like a black, lacy edging against the red of the twilight sky. His boots moved like frightened animals, softly and with tension, as he turned about seeing all the trees and all the sky and all the empty grasslands upon which he stood.
His hands were gripping The Imp so tightly his knuckles were white. As white as the hoarfrost on a winter morning, as cold as the chill creeping down his spine.
The ships! Where in the name of all the gods were the ships?
The twenty mighty battle cruisers had disappeared.
So had the Staraine. He was alone on an empty planet.