LIE ON THE BEAM
by John Victor Peterson
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Comet March 41.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Sweeping from perihelion, the black destroyer curved toward the gibbous white ball of Venus, its jets stabbing mocking fingers at the majesty of the sun whose clutching gravity it had cheated. Within the heavily shielded control cabin, the hard skull-face of the commander split into a fleshless smile. From his fanged jaws a single word was spat into the spaceship’s intercommunication system:
Back on dead sea bottoms the word had been but the weak utterance of a dream of yesteryear’s greatness. First a muted whisper in the thin air of a dying world; then a keening through the faint, dust-driving wind; at last a clamorous cry banding together the spiritually reborn remnants of a vanishing race…. Adrakolarn—moment of destiny—moment of reckoning!
Throughout the urgently racing ship other skull-faced, chitinous-hided men thronged to bomb tubes and waited, heavy eyelids nature had fashioned as protection against the dust storms of the parent world drooping over eager, glittering eyes.
Thousands of miles away, on the surface of Sol’s second planet, a heavy, milky fog crept like a sentient thing up the side of a towering apartment dwelling. In and out of window recesses it stole, climbing higher and higher as if seeking entrance.
Soundlessly, mysteriously a window slid open. The fog gained momentum before a sudden wind and swept into the dimly lighted chamber. The silvery-haired young man on the bed did not awaken. His slender form turned and twisted beneath thin coverings and the jargon of astronautics came thickly from his lips.
A nightmare possessed him within which he was plunging down into Venus’ clouds in a small spaceship. Suddenly his ports were shattered in a head-on collision with a high-flying native pterodactyl. In the dream as in actuality the great dampness of Venus poured chokingly into his lungs.
Almost instantly the urgent buzzing of a televisor signal brought him struggling upright, coughing thick, humid air from congested bronchial tubes.
Half drunken from the high oxygen content of the surface atmosphere, Frederic Ward slipped from his bed and reeled over to shut the port-like window. Damn these Venusians anyhow, he thought, meanwhile wheezing, coughing and spitting. Probably thought one of their clique was sleeping here instead of a decently-evolved native of Pittsburgh, Earth. That froglike brute down in Air Control probably had the atmospherics switchboard all awry. Well, I’ll buzz him when I get this telecall answered. I’ll tell him off proper. He has my temperature and humidity chart. Of all the nerve!
Still grumbling, Ward turned to the television transceiver, clicking on the audios and videos.
“Engineer Ward, Astronautics Authority, speaking.”
The sight of Ward’s room caused a grin to light up momentarily the fat, tired face on the receiving grid.
“What’s up, Silvy? Getting acclimated to our lovely Venus?”
“What’s on your mind, Wagner?” Ward snapped back, in no mood for joking even if the buzzing of the televisorphone had probably saved him from an oxy-hangover or, perhaps, even drowning in the early morning tidal mists.
“Plenty. Get out here soon’s you can. One of the trajectory beams is out and there are a couple of earth cruisers nearing perihelion from Mars. If they don’t get a signal at zero-one-three-zero they’re liable to coast on into Sol. Surface weather here’s damned near zero-zero, too. I need you badly.”
“Where in the name of the twenty-seven local fish-gods is Portiz? He’s emergency man, isn’t he?”
Wagner’s moonface dropped down six lines on the 441 line kinescope grid.
“Portiz,” he explained lamely, “is incapacitated.”
“You mean drunk!” Ward retorted sharply. “Isn’t he on constant call just like the rest of us? Just because he’s a cousin of somebody back in Washington is no sign that he can establish a semi-permanent site in Gasuki’s Grill. And just because he’s your immediate superior is no sign you have to whitewash his doings. I’ve seniority here. What I say matters! Give him the emergency call. We’ll sober the lug up if we have to dunk him in the Draka Malarga. If a couple of those plesiosaurs got on his tail he’d swear off for good. If he doesn’t show up, I’ll report it to H. Q. and—”
“Okay, Silvy, okay,” Wagner said tiredly. “Now get out here, please, sir. Oops! There goes the patrol signal!”
“Leave the circuit on!” Silvy Ward snapped and stood watching the video grid as Wagner jacked up the power in the distant radio receiver.
“… are two ships trajecting in which are not listed on the incoming flights. One on an A-orbit coming in at terrific velocity from base-direction Mars; one on a C-orbit out of Earth. Approximate distances, six and five thousand miles respectively. Should hit atmosphere simultaneously, thus endangering themselves and other incoming ships. Advise.”
More trouble. Ward began to grumble again as he snapped off the televisor and began dressing. Always somebody who says to hell with the Authority and plots his own Hohman orbit. Unusually an eccentric millionaire with a luxurious spaceyacht filled with a swan-necked crew of “Oh, r’ally? You don’t say?” debutantes and matrons, boyfriends, gigolos, etc. If they arrive in one piece without benefit of the AA’s trajectory beams, range and landing beams, okay; if they get into trouble and the Authority doesn’t get them to surface in one place, well then the Authority takes it in the neck and the paperwork is terrific over in General Inspection.
Ward was disgruntled. Leave it to Portiz to get plastered. Leave it to Wagner to let a keying device, a teletype, a station location marker, a transmitter, the instrument landing beams or something go blooey in zero-zero weather. Sure! Silvy Ward, old faithful Silvy’s here to handle it and get a few more gray hairs thirty years ahead of Mother Nature’s usual schedule. Back in HQ on Earth a radio engineer is considered something like a Martian maharajah; he just doesn’t have to get down on his knees and fool around with leads and circuits, keeping one eye cocked on an oscillograph and the other on a multi-wave meter. But leave it to HQ to send me to this bronchitis-stimulating hole called Pali-Vanyi, Venus, with a drunkard and an inexperienced college graduate for my only assistants when the Old Man damn’ well knows I should have at least four old timers.
Good man, Portiz, but he lets his reputation and connections carry him. Let Venus get him worn down to a frazzle and then started to drink like a native squid. Wagner’s a good man, too. Fooled around with coeds and rocket polo too much in Astrotech, that’s all. Boned for exams and passed them, but his knowledge is mostly theoretical. Usually blows up in a pinch, like now.
The air conditioning apparatus had practically straightened out the previously cockeyed atmospherics, and Silvy was waking up. But he was still a bit rankled as he zipped on rubberoid coveralls, donned a filtration mask, went out to the garage and drove his caterpillar-treaded fog flivver out into the nearly-liquid ground atmosphere of dear, damp Venus.
The fog certainly was settling in on Pali-Vanyi port! Usually the Hump, the five thousand foot mountain range which runs along the east of the field, breaks the storm winds which blow in intermittently from Draka Malarga, the mighty eastern sea. Sure, sometimes there’s a real typhoon ripping beyond the mountain, chopping Malarga into thousand foot waves, at the same time there’ll be a four thousand foot ceiling at the spaceport and probably ten miles visibility to north, south and west. But take tonight: the weather broadcasts said that Draka Malarga was practically calm and the plesiosaurs and their girl friends were probably sporting on the waves; Pali-Vanyi was completely fogged in! Ah, Venus, weatherman’s headache and Authority’s dire pain!
Visibility was nil. Even Frederic Ward’s infrared headlights and special goggles could not cut the fog. He spent a good half hour on the fifteen mile trip northwestward and glimpsed the station barely in time to jam down the hydraulics and squish to stop in the sloshy mire deposited by a recent typhoon.
Wagner was looking blankly at the great bank of keying devices on the trajectory transmitters when Silvy walked in through the airlock. He turned around forlornly, laying a fat hand suggestively on a complicated blueprint.
“You look tired, Wag,” the engineer stated; then his alert eyes caught the reason why. The flight chart explained that: a series of entries on the incoming flights column. In this weather that meant work for the operator at the station. Traffic Control normally brought the ships in by voice contact after said ships had consecutively swung off the trajectory beams and radio range beams; but with zero-zero weather, the Authority men had to concentrate upon the instrument landing beams as well. Wherefore Ward didn’t reprimand Wagner. After all, if a keyer breaks down, it isn’t necessarily because a human being has failed.
“I’m half dead,” Wagner acknowledged with a forced grin. “Twenty ships came in in the last hour. Twenty of ’em off twenty different trajectory beams. Twenty of ’em on the landing beams. I just got the bulk of ’em in properly when a keyer goes out with Earth’s two cruisers swinging into perihelion near the sun!”
“What’re all those ships here for?” Ward asked as he stripped off dripping coveralls and proceeded to the multitrajectory beam transmitter.
“Usual thing. Owing to the present tense situation which has developed between Venus and dear old Red, the representatives of Earth and Venus have decided to have a conclave to effect measures against our dear Martian cousins. Everybody’s afraid things will go smash when Mars and Venus are in opposition two Earth years hence.”
“Oh,” grunted Silvy Ward. Political wrangling wasn’t his forte.
Removing the transparent cover from the silent keyer, Ward made a cursory examination. The keying device proper seemed to be okay. He promptly got out the circuit tester and started checking the continuity of the circuits.
Wherewith things started to happen with a vengeance. Traffic Control called, stating that a freighter was dropping in over the field and asking for the north-south landing beams. Wagner hurried over to cut in the juice on the remote controls.
Immediately the open receiver which was tuned to the Patrol frequency snarled out:
“Patrol V-11 calling Pali-Vanyi base.”
The base station over in Traffic Control cut in on the same wavelength.
“Okay, V-11. Report.”
“The ship on A-orbit from direction Mars is a destroyer. Not near enough to read markings. Refuses to answer our signals or to cut velocity. Advise.”
“Contact ship,” was the smug advice.
“Doing our best!” Patrol V-11 snapped back.
Wagner had his head half turned from the landing indicators to hear the patrol communications. From the corner of his full-lipped mouth he shot:
“What in the devil’s going on up there, Silvy?”
“Dunno,” Ward answered. An inexplicable chill was running along his spine. A conclave here in the twin city of Pali-Vanyi to effect measures against Mars—A destroyer coming in, refusing to answer the Patrol queries—
The inner door opened behind him. Ward spun around. Anger darkened his face as he glared at the tall, dark skinned man who had unsteadily come to rest against the door jamb.
The dark one looked owlishly at Wagner and Ward, twisted a loose mouth open and mumbled:
“Portiz reporting for duty.”
“In that condition?” Silvy Ward snapped.
“I’m sober as a king,” Portiz answered.
“King Henry the Eighth,” Wagner said softly.
The fulfillment of his own particular mission was close at hand now, and the destroyer’s commander was tensed at the jet keys. How great, he thought, the destiny of the new Leader of the race and through the Leader how great the race’s destiny! No more worshipping of the ancient god, Zabir, Father of the Deserts. That had been frustrate, meaningless worship. Dawn after sudden dawn had passed and the race, without ambition, without a goal for its dreams, aye, even without its dreams, had waned into a purely subjective way of life, a fatalistic waiting for the end which every day came closer; now each dawn brought new hopes and life had become objective, meaningful. Zabir, you failed us; the Leader will not.
The moment is drawing nearer—
A sleek, luxurious spaceyacht blasted from its plotted C-orbit out of Earth and slanted down toward Venus’ cloudbank. Within a plushy cabin on its topside an incredibly fat man in white tie and tails squatted at the controls, a self satisfied grin on his bejowled face.
“Jimmie,” he said to the ruddy faced navigator, “we’ll show the Authority that we don’t have to have instruments keying our course. We’ll show them that we don’t have to get a buzz every thirty minutes to tell us we’re grooving our trajectory. No, sir, Jimmie, my lad. Now we’ll show them Charleston infrareds clear down to Pali-Vanyi port. We’ll show them that we don’t need any antiquated radio range beam to get us into that foggy port. That weather broadcast my daughter made us listen to a while back said that Pali is completely fogged in, but that isn’t going to stop us. The Charleston infrareds will get us down.
“Sure, Jimmie, we proved that we can get from Earth to Venus without the aid of a trajectory beam; now we’ll prove that we can get all the way down to surface without benefit of the Authority. We’ll prove that this Astronautics Authority stuff is just a waste of the taxpayers’ money, that the Charleston infrareds will make landing on Venus so simple that even a freshman at Astrotech could get in safely. When Congress convenes again, we’ll show them, eh, Jimmie?”
“Yes, sir,” the navigator yessed. “What’s this Authority business anyway? Just a political organization which takes the taxpayer’s money for something that isn’t necessary at all. Sir, when you get back to Washington, you’ll show ’em!”
“Good boy, Jimmie,” the resplendently clad individualist said with a smile, patting the young fellow’s shoulder with a diamond-studded paw.
Wherewith Dewitt Charleston peered through the forward port at the onrushing, cloud-veiled sphere which was Venus and grinned very happily. And then, from the corner of a flesh-surmounted eye he glimpsed the red flaring of rocket exhausts on the port side, and not more than ten miles away.
“Somebody crowding in on us,” Charleston said. “Release the broadcast antenna while I get the transmitter going. Let’s see, what’s Patrol frequency? Sixty Megacycles.”
Below the spaceyacht a long length of antenna dropped, trailing some ten feet below the length of the four hundred foot hull.
Jimmie nodded an okay to his employer.
The fat one absorbed the microphone in a fleshy hand.
“Calling unknown ship on port side. Sy 2700 calling.”
There was no answer.
“Rats,” said Dewitt Charleston. “What do they mean, coming in on our trajectory?”
“But, sir,” Jimmie protested, “our trajectory isn’t listed with the Authority; they probably have this other ship scheduled to come in now.”
“They shouldn’t do things like that,” Charleston protested peevishly with a sublime disregard for the necessarily intricate workings of the Authority. “No right at all. Might think we were ordinary spacebats or something.”
Which is when the receiver, attuned to the Patrol frequency, caught Traffic Control’s command to contact the unidentified destroyer. Forthwith a third ship made itself present in the extra-Venusian heavens; a red-lighted ship bearing the AAP of the Authority Patrol. It came blasting from Venus’ east and over its transmitter came:
“Patrol V-11 calling destroyer. What is your mission?”
Silence. It is a ruling in the interplanetary code that all ships use the same wavelength when contacting ships of the Authority or ships under the guidance of the AA’s facilities; since silence reigned, it was quite obvious that the unknown destroyer had not answered.
The patrol ship shot a warning flare across the destroyer’s bow. It burned bluely in the darkness of the outer atmosphere, lighting up that entire quadrant of space, revealing the baleful circle-in-a-square insignia of Mars on the destroyer’s hull!
The receiver burst again into life.
“Patrol V-11 calling base. Destroyer is of Martian origin. Advise.”
But before an answer was forthcoming, a luridly flaring object leaped from the dark ship, speeding across the obscurity of interplanetary space like a leaping bolt of lightning.
“Patrol V-11 to base. Destroyer launched torpedo. Trying to escape. Blast jet bank seven. Blast nine. Nine! Nine!”
The voice went dead. A lurid red sundered the black abyss of space. It was a void of baleful crimson in which two ships sped: Charleston’s spaceyacht and the destroyer out of Mars. Where V-11 had been was only a glowing scattering of wreckage which faded into nothingness in the eternal night of the void.
“Pali-Vanyi base calling V-11. Calling—”
But V-11 did not answer. V-11 could not answer. V-11 was but debris dropping down into the everlasting clouds.
Charleston’s fat face was covered with perspiration.
“Jimmie,” he said, almost inarticulately, “something is very screwy around here. Maybe I’d better contact Pali-Vanyi and find out what’s going on.”
Cutting in the transmitter, Charleston began to bark excitedly:
“Sy 2700 calling Pali-Vanyi Base—”
Simultaneously a torpedo lanced from the destroyer’s tubes, darting straight at the spaceyacht. Charleston keyed in the underjets to avoid it, praying fervently the while. A shudder ran through the yacht; then it was running as smoothly as before.
“What happened?” Charleston cried, his eyes darting feverishly from meter to meter.
“The torpedo ripped away our broadcast antenna,” Jimmie said slowly. “We can’t contact Pali-Vanyi now!”
“Damn them, damn them!” Charleston murmured. “We’ll follow them; we’ll find out what it’s all about!”
“Yes, sir,” Jimmie said, but his whole body was quivering and he was wishing he was far, far away.
Down in the radio beam station, Wagner, Ward and a very unsteady Portiz surveyed each other in stunned dismay for about ten seconds.
Fred Ward was struggling to put into speech that which he felt within. Here was crisis. Here was an intermingling of human and mechanical failings which had built up almost to the point of nervous dissolution in the men concerned. Probably of secondary importance now was the fact that two terrestrial cruisers were nearing perihelion at the sun; they depended absolutely on the keyed radio wave which would leap across their trajectory and crackle in their attentive receivers. But that keying device was out of commission and in all that great bank of two hundred keyers there was not another silent. There was not another which they could safely adjust to the cruisers’ course without imperiling the safety of some other craft.
Over in Pali-Vanyi proper were some of the greatest political minds of Earth and Venus, closeted within a great hall whose entrance was barred, whose televisorphonic connections were cut off. It would take at least fifteen minutes to gain access to that hall, once reached, and probably another ten minutes to evacuate the great hall and get them to a place of comparative safety.
Up above a great Martian destroyer was diving down into Venus’ mists, doubtless riding the radio range beam straight down toward the port. Its objective was obvious: the convention hall.
The radio range beam transmitter could not be cut off since there were a dozen ships due to hit atmosphere within the next few minutes. Six of them had bucked a Perseid meteor shower coming out of Earth and were low on fuel; it was imperative that they follow the beam down to Pali-Vanyi for a one-try landing. The excessive consumption of fuel in an atmosphere was prohibitive of their cruising around until the destroyer could be apprehended by Patrol ships and driven away. The beam had to be maintained!
As for the human element, Portiz was scarcely able to stand; Wagner had a fine case of the jitters and could do little more than botch things up royally if he tried to tackle a complicated task; Ward had gone to bed after a sixteen hour shift, and after two hours of sleep plus a dosage of unadulterated Venusian atmospherics had been awakened and called back to the station.
The nervous tension was terrific. The three inarticulate men stood there while the seconds sped, Wagner staring around with desperation on his fat face, Silvy Ward clenching and unclenching his hands, Portiz leaning his drink-pliant body against the bank of keyers.
Suddenly Ward broke the silence.
“Wagner, get that trajectory keyer going. First check the interlock beam relay; the circuits seem to be okay, so it must be the relay. Portiz, get the portable glide beam transmitter unit and drive it out to the very base of the Hump on the eastern end of the field, and keep your receiver open on thirty-four megacycles; I’ll give you directions from here. Come on, get going!”
Wherewith Ward spun around to the Pali-Vanyi radio range transmitter. There was a peculiar smile on his face as he released the controls on the goniometer unit which governs the direction of the signals by reducing or increasing the radio frequency in the four range radiators. They’ll be on the beam, he thought; these Martian boys won’t take any chances of missing on the first stab for it would take them so long to maneuver around for a second attempt that the element of surprise would be lacking and their prey would have gotten away. They’ll ride the beam in from the west. When they get directly over the range station they’ll get the vertical radio signal from the station location marker and know that the field lies ten miles to the east and Pali-Vanyi ten miles south of the field. Switching their course ninety degrees they’ll drop in right over the city and let go with everything they’ve got.
They’re probably on the beam now and four hundred miles to the west. They’re due to hit the strato-winds which any astronaut knows will buck them around. The thunderheads will make their compass blotto so the only direction they can be sure of is due east on the beam. If we shift the beam slowly by rotating the goniometer counter-clockwise, the quadrants of the beam will be reversed. They’ll swerve their course to follow, and gradually instead of getting the A signal to the south they’ll be getting it from the east, and instead of an N from the north they’ll have an N from the west. They’ll come into Pali from the South—
The radio range at Pali-Vanyi resembled to a great extent the radio ranges used for centuries before by the Federal airways of the United States of America, Earth. The increasing use of ultra-high frequency waves had made obsolete the four towers of the intermediate frequency range. Small, compact, the new range system had through the long decades of scientific advancement after the war years of the 20th century reached a stage of efficiency a hundredfold greater than its predecessor.
A small antenna array atop the broadcast station consisting of four vertical radiators mounted at the terminals of a horizontal X replaced the towers of yesteryear. The four bars of the X pointed northeast, northwest, southwest and southeast.
The NW and SE radiators sent out a steady N (dash-dot) in Morse code, the SW and NE a steady A (dot-dash). At thirty second intervals the identification letters of Pali-Vanyi [dot-dash-dash-dot dot-dot-dot-dash] were transmitted from all radiators. A ship coming in from the west, directly on course, heard both N and A simultaneously and with equal strength so that they interlocked and formed a steady dash. A swerve to the north of the course meant that the N signal would be predominant in the ship’s receiver; to the south, that the A would be predominant. Rotating the goniometer counter-clockwise would so change the radio frequency in the four signal radiators as to cause all on-course signals to swing similarly, and ships on the beam would follow it blindly around, especially when their compasses were put awry by natural causes. A 90 degrees swing would completely reverse the so-called N and A quadrants; hence the beam would completely lie. WHAT would the destroyer’s speed be? Probably twelve or fourteen hundred m.p.h. Twenty minutes or less to swing the beam. With one hand Silvy Ward began to rotate the goniometer, casting an eye at a nearby chronometer. Ninety degrees, say, in eighteen minutes. Five degrees per minute. Easy now! With a free hand Ward reached out and snapped on the shortwave transceiver which was used in communications when testing experimental equipment. He picked up the microphone and called:
“Portiz, are you in position?”
“Yes, sir!” the answer came promptly.
“Directions, pal. Cut in the glide path transmitter now and stick with it until further instructions so that nothing goes wrong.”
“Yes, sir. But what’s the idea, Silvy?”
“No time to explain now, Portiz! I’ve work to do!”
Ward snapped off, and immediately reached out for the televisorphone. He dialed Public Service and asked for his good friend Duka Dwane, Venusian utility magnate.
“Duka,” he barked after credentialling his way past a Mr. Dwane’s-in-conference operator, “this is Silvy Ward of the Authority. There’s a Martian destroyer coming in with obvious intentions of bombing Pali. I want you to black out the city immediately.”
“But, Silvy, think of the convention,” Dwane protested. “I had to give them special fluorescent lighting; they’ll be angry if I cut them off!”
“If you don’t cut them off this time they’ll never be cut off again. Kick that master switch over pronto. The Authority will take all responsibility!”
“Okay,” lisped Dwane. “Okay, sharnar!”
Ward cut off wondering if that “sharnar” had meant “friend” or “bigshot”; it meant one thing in Pali and another in Vanyi, the city across the “tracks”.
Four minutes gone. Twenty degrees. The destroyer should be almost west-south-west now.
“Wagner,” Ward barked. “How are you coming?”
“It’s the relay, right enough. I should have it clicking in a few mins.”
“You’ve about twenty, so do it right! Buzz Control and tell them that we’re going to cut off the landing beams on the south of the field and for them to light up all the eastern boundary lights.”
Six minutes gone. Thirty degrees.
The spirit of the Leader rides with us, thought the destroyer’s commander. The very force of his will has caused those fools below to leave their beam on. And they are members of the race that seeks to dictate terms to the Leader! So ignorant they are, so unenlightened. They are unfit to rule. By the great god Zabir—nay, not by that false god, but by the Leader, we are the only ones fit to rule and we shall!
“Andrakalarn marsti virki!” he shrilled into the intercommunication tube.
The moment of reckoning—in twelve minutes!
Meanwhile Charleston’s spaceyacht was following the destroyer down the strange layer of wild winds in Venus’ stratosphere. Some time before he had reached out a pudgy hand to turn on his infrared view-plates and the destroyer stood out sharply on the visual grid.
“Damn it!” the fat millionaire was thinking, “no state of war exists. Why should that Martian blast the patrol ship and tear away my broadcast antenna with a torp?”
The air was extremely rough. The yacht pitched and yawed, and with the pitching and yawing Charleston found his daughter Ginny at his side.
“Pater, what is wrong?” she queried in a post-deb voice.
“There’s a des—” Jimmie started.
“Harrrrumph!” Charleston burst.
Jimmie was squelched.
“Just following another ship down which acts kind of peculiarly,” explained the millionaire. “Wish I could report him to the Authority. Can’t, though, a—er—meteor tore away the antenna!”
“Why are you swerving your course?” Unquestionably Ginny knew her rocketships.
“Winds are pretty bad. Seem to be coming full force from the southeast if you can trust the compass. Had to tack around to counteract their force.” Charleston of course couldn’t admit that his infrareds didn’t allow for variable headwinds and compass deviations and therefor weren’t as dependable as the Authority’s beams.
But his daughter could.
“Why don’t you switch onto the Authority frequency? The beam’s on 65 megacycles in case you’re interested.”
Charleston harrrrumphed again but reached out to switch on the receiver.
Immediately he started receiving the steady hum of the on-course signal, broken at 30 second intervals by the keying of P V, identification signal of the base station. A minute later he heard the dash-dot signifying N, meaning that he was to the left (and in his case presumably to the north) of his course. Keying in the port jets he swung to the right and received the on-course signal again. He noticed with satisfaction that the destroyer had done likewise.
“Ginny,” he admitted weakly, “this radio range business is quite the business. Of course the Charleston infrareds—”
“Of course!” smiled the daughter.
It was Charleston’s turn to be squelched.
Suddenly the range signals were interrupted by the beam operator’s voice:
“PV, Pali-Vanyi. Notice to all spacemen. Due to the unusually adverse weather conditions at surface, the north-south landing beams will be left on permanently until further notice. PV, Pali-Vanyi.”
Ten minutes had passed since Ward had begun rotating the goniometer. Ten minutes and Charleston and the destroyer were fifty degrees off the true course. Almost south-south-west of the field now and gradually bearing more to the south.
But Charleston did not know and he was praising the facilities of the Authority and remarking about how wonderfully his infrareds would work in conjunction with said facilities. The future of his invention (well, he had backed it!) took on a rosy hue. He would revolutionize interplanetary travel; he would simply make it easier.
Slowly Silvy Ward rotated the flat, indexed dial of the goniometer. Eighty-nine degrees gone. One more degree. The destroyer should be at the south of the field now, coming in unknowingly over the blacked-out metropolis. Soon he should hear the thunder of its rockets. Were his computations wrong? Did the destroyer have improved compasses and other directional finding instruments which it was using instead of relying on the beam? If not, why did he not hear it coming out of—
A chill swept over him. What was that far, thin thunder throbbing across the night? The destroyer! And that other, higher pitched roar? The Patrol had said that there were two unlisted ships coming in! Who was in that other ship? If he could only warn them without the destroyer catching the signal! But, dear God, he couldn’t!
Zero-one-two-zero! Over against the Hump Portiz was attending the portable landing beam transmitter. An ultra-high frequency beam was shooting up uni-directionally at the glide angle of a ship coming in for a landing from the west. A normal landing was to the south where the main runways lay; this descent—no landing there!—must be to the east and the five thousand foot Hump along whose base the boundary lights were ablaze in the dense fog. From the air they would present the aspect of an illumined city….
Ward cried out to Wagner:
“The destroyer is overhead. They’re getting the station location marker signal. Listen—”
They could hear the blasting of jets as the ship swerved around to the east, to the direction which its occupants doubtless thought was south. It would be catching the glide path beam now and dropping down toward what appeared to be the city!
The second ship was coming in over the range station. It, too, was swerving….
“That must be the ship out of Earth,” Wagner cried.
“If we could only warn them!” Ward said hopelessly. “We don’t even know whose ship it is. It may be the Director coming to the convention.”
Yes, the Director of Earth might be up there dropping toward certain doom.
Ward leaped to the shortwave transceiver. Simultaneously, it burst into life.
“Portiz calling Ward.”
“Sounds as if there’s a large ship dropping in towards the mountain. What’re your orders?”
“Leave the beam on and get to hell out of there. You’ve only got about two minutes!”
Silence. Sixty seconds of silence broken only by the receding thunder of the two ships.
Underjets flaring redly, making rosy-hued the fog, the destroyer eased down toward the lights which told its commander that here lay Pali-Vanyi. Down, down on the glide path beam.
Commands spat from the commander’s fleshless mouth.
“Ready at the bomb racks—Unload!”
Keying in the rear underjets he zoomed the ship.
The concussion of the unleashed bombs tore across the night, shattering ten thousand windows in nearby Pali-Vanyi. Martians in dehydrated chambers drowned as the heavy fog poured in; Earthmen choked and grew ecstatically oxy-drunk; Venusians leaped in hordes out into their natural element to see the flames licking against the Hump.
“We have destroyed the city!” the Martian commander cried, for in the churning chaos of atomic bomb explosions no details can be seen. “The Leader will bless us. He will—
“Oh, Zabir, Holy Father of the Deserts, what looms ahead? A mountain here? Oh, Zabir, no! Blast all underjets! Blast!
“Zabir, Blessed Father—”
The great destroyer’s jets flamed futilely. It ground in against the Hump, splitting like a pod. From its halved entrails flames roared forth to further bloody the swirling tortured fog. The sound of the crash reverberated against the range station.
Simultaneously Ward cut in the microphone and screamed over the beam frequency:
“Climb, ship of Earth, climb. You’re on the Hump!”
Peering out into the crimson-hued fog to the east, Ward saw spitting jet flames swerving upward, sweeping up and over in an Immelmann turn to safety.
“Ship of Earth,” Ward continued, “proceed about fifteen miles west, make a one-hundred-eighty degree turn and come in for a normal landing. The beam courses were reversed because of an emergency; we are now correcting the variations.”
Ward cut the microphone in again.
“PV, Pali-Vanyi. Notice to all spacemen: Due to an emergency the range was rotated ninety degrees counter-clockwise during the past half hour. Any ships following the western leg into PV should be on the southern leg. Come into the field from the south and swing around for normal landings in accordance with regulations. The beam is now in normal operation.”
Silvy Ward arose, began to stretch his tired, slender body, and then he glimpsed the chronometer. It was within seconds of zero-one-three-zero.
“Wagner, have you got that keyer fixed?”
“Watch!” Wagner grinned at him.
There was a whir. The interlock cam relay in the device started to turn, keying out its message across some fifty million miles of space, a message which beyond a shadow of a doubt was crackling some moments later in the receivers of the two earth cruisers at perihelion, telling them that they were on their trajectory course and all was well.
The televisorphone buzzed urgently. Quickly Ward snapped it on.
Portiz’ face appeared on the grid.
“Everything under control?”
“Yes. And where in the devil are you?”
“Gasuki’s. I needed a drink after those bombs landed on my tail.”