“Then we run for it?” asked Seaward.
“We do. Our offensive weapons may be better than theirs but it’s another chance we’re not taking. The very fact that we’re outnumbered makes retreat the order of the day.”
“Look there!” exclaimed Arundell. “They’re beaming past us!”
One of the strange oval, multi-ported, oddly-ornamented, crimson craft had just shot a red beam alongside of the Astralite. Not touching it, but passing by, as if to show that, whenever they cared, this fleet could annihilate the intruder. Then, all the other ships surrounding them began to flash beams. Crossing and criss-crossing all about them save in front.
“Look,” exclaimed Kendall. “You can see those beams as if they were in air.”
“Marvellous and impossible,” groaned Seaward. “We’ve run into a swarm of impossibilities today. Some philosopher once remarked that in eternity everything was possible—in fact, everything that could possibly happen has happened. It looks as if we’re running into bits of that now. I should have taken my daughter’s advice and let a younger man come this trip.”
“It may be impossible, but it’s so,” broke in Broster. “And deadly. We’re getting out of here fast.”
He turned to the controls and a moment later the Astralite began to accelerate. There was a limit to the speed they could reach as they would have to shunt again soon to keep from smashing against the red planet. Unless—
“Why not?” asked Arundell, following Broster’s evident thoughts.
“They apparently want us to land on the planet. So we do go for it, then shunt aside at the last minute.”
At first, it seemed as if the Astralite would leave the others behind, but it was soon apparent that the unknown ships could keep up with her. In fact were closing in.
There was one pursuer behind them that seemed to Kendall, as he watched through the lens, almost to be upon them. It was, he knew, some half-mile away in reality. He could see the curiously pitted nose of the craft, note the weirdly-streamlined mass. He observed, with astonishment, a little piece of wire seemingly flying loose from a bearing on one of the strange ships, which was streaming off behind as if in a stiff breeze. Yet space about them was empty!
“Look out!” called Seaward from the forward scope. “Here’s more of them.”
Coming around the planet from behind, spreading out along the side as if to form a welcoming arch were more of the weird ships.
“That ties it,” exclaimed Broster. “We’ll never be able to pass the planet. It’s either land or crash.”
“We’ll never be able to pass the planet. It’s either land or crash.”
“Then we crash,” came the response.
“Man the guns!” yelled Broster. “Let’s see how many we can take with us before we go.”
The three others swung in the various weapons and trained them on the surrounding ships. Explosion-torpedo cannon, twin-rays for electric jolting comprised the types of offensive guns. They were getting very close to the planet, now. And it seemed as if the red ships were expecting the Astralite to slow down, for their beams shot occasionally in front of the earth-ship. The carmine bulk of the planet loomed up over most of the view now. It was too late to shunt aside.
No sound, no roar of explosions. They watched eagerly for results. But there were none. Not a single torpedo appeared to have hit its mark, not a single twin-ray seemed to bathe the surrounding ovoids. They fired again.
Kendall swore. The course of one torpedo was the stimulus; he watched it, saw its dark mass approach the nose of one of the vessels behind. Then he swears he saw it strike—and disappear.
Firing was useless. These ships were invulnerable to their weapons.
Broster looked up, bracing himself.
“Stand by to crash!”
The four stopped everything, turned to look at each other for a moment in silence. In a few seconds more they would simply cease to exist. No pain, no hours of lingering agony trapped in the wreckage. At the speed they were going, the entire ship would be volatilized, would fuse into a molten, glowing mass.
They turned again to the plates to look for a last time at the universe around them.
For six years they had traveled away from earth, far, far beyond any point man had ever dreamed of reaching. They were almost to the point where the order to turn back would have been given. Much had been learned; now it would be lost.
Broster gave her full acceleration.
They saw the planet seemingly leap toward them, saw cloudbanks flick past them. A great flat plain of ruddy rock, a dread expanse of barren granite. This in the veriest fragment of a second, then—
A momentary shock, as if each man had received an electrical jolt; a sudden flash of intolerable red. Darkness.
The earthmen blinked their eyes.
They were in the ship, unharmed. They stood at their posts in the same position as before. And about them the black of far space and the shining points of the star-studded Milky Way.
Kendall gazed into the lens of the rear port, beckoned to the others. The red planet was already a small, crimson disk behind them, passing into oblivion as they accelerated onward, outward.
Broster laughed. “It’s all clear now. Why the space-chart seemingly did not function, why our weapons were useless.”
“And why we were not killed, and why their beams could be seen in space,” added Seaward.
“Because they weren’t in space; they were in air. In the air of another universe.”
“It was all an illusion,” explained Seaward. “The ships, the planet, everything. That is why none of these things registered on the space chart; there were no gravity waves emanating from them because they were not there.”
Broster leaned back in his chair. “We’ve all known that there are many universes beside ours, separated from us by the fourth-dimensional space-time sheet. That was demonstrated by Marilus centuries ago. Laboratory experiments have produced images of other planets. All this was just such an image.
“The space-time envelope must have been a little warped at this point. Enough so as to let part of the waves emanating from the atoms of that section to pass through to our universe—and permit waves emanating from the atoms of our universe to pass through to them. We were able to see the red rays of their spectrum, nothing else. They saw us as a violet ship. But that was all.”
“Then,” put in Kendall, “that’s why they seemed to be shooting rays at us.”
“Right. We appeared to them, in their world, as suddenly as they appeared to us in space; it was a double mirage. At one end of the warp, they and their planet suddenly appear in what the instruments show to be empty space; at the other end, we appear out of nowhere, a strange ship headed for their planet. And, it must have seemed to them, that we went right through their planet, too. That planet of theirs, by the way, must be a tremendous one. Many times the mass and density of Jupiter. It’s probably what causes the space-warp.”
“What!” exclaimed Kendall. “You mean that thing’s a permanent institution in space?”
“Then let’s go back and have a good look.”
“Check,” agreed Broster.
“We’ll give their fleet and their planet the jitters again,” laughed Seaward as he prepared the plates for special photos.