Invader from Infinity
By GEORGE WHITTINGTON
“Destroy the Invader,” the orders
read—and Captain McPartland’s expendable
spacer flashed into suicidal battle.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Winter 1944.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Commander Jon McPartland stared with hard blue eyes into his view screen. He watched a tiny dot in one corner grow slowly, and heard the unnecessary words of his Lieutenant-Commander, Clemens:
“Observation Officer reports enemy craft sighted, Sir.”
“Very good,” acknowledged McPartland. “Have Lieutenant Parek compute their speed and course.”
Clemens spoke softly into the intra-ship phone, and Commander Jon McPartland returned momentarily to his thoughts. His square jaw was set as though cast in bronze, with hard muscles machined into its contour.
Here was the enemy—the unknown, the alien, who spoke only with destruction! This was the ship that had destroyed System patrols; later a full battle fleet of the Solar System’s most powerful space fighters. The interceptors had been unable to establish communication of any sort; and they were blasted into fiery chunks of space debris before getting close enough to use their own guns.
“Well, here they are, Clemens,” the Commander said aloud, “and getting uncomfortably close to the System. It looks like they’re some other System’s dominant intelligence, and we’ve got planets they want.”
“Yes, sir,” said the other, “and here we are, with the fastest, most heavily armed space fighter ever built—in the System.”
“In the Universe,” snapped McPartland. His full lips curved into a grim smile. “Under sealed orders which every citizen from Pluto to Mercury knows are: ‘Destroy this ship—or it conquers our System.'”
Lieutenant-Commander Clemens bent to his intra-phone, turned to relay. “Navigation Officer reports enemy ship has altered course to head on. Speed fifty Spatial units.”
“Thank you,” McPartland stepped to the phone himself.
“This is it, men. You know what it means!” His hands flicked levers swiftly, as he spoke to component units individually:
“Propulsion—full speed ahead. Make every blast tell!
“Navigation—evasive course. Swing wide to draw them away from the System so that if—if—”
“I understand, sir,” came the crisp reply from Lieutenant Parek.
“All ray stations,” went on McPartland, “fire at maximum range. Radio—any contact?”
“Magnetic screen interference?” asked the Commander.
“No, sir. No magnetic defense screens apparent on enemy.”
“Put ours up full power.” Jon McPartland was smiling now, but his eyes were flashing hatred of the alien. Another ten seconds would find them in effective range. The enemy was looming in the view screen, a round glistening sphere—a ball of destruction pitted again his own slim, sleek avenger.
“Screens up, sir, full power,” came the response.
Lieutenant-Commander Clemens had headphones clamped over his ears. He was standing by for reports from stations. He turned suddenly, face lined and taut, and reported almost in a whisper:
“We’re hit, sir, right through our screens at this range! Partial disintegration in section four. Bulkheads holding.”
The Commander was standing wooden-faced, incredulous. But the hatred was building up in his eyes until Clemens shuddered.
“Through our defense screens at this range!” McPartland ground out savagely. He turned back to his view screen with a bitter oath.
There was the sphere, gleaming, flashing against the bottomless black of space—catching starlight, and throwing it back as though the touch of that pure light was distasteful.
What form of intelligence destroyed, killed without warning—-without speech?
Clemens’ voice broke into the red haze that hovered over his Commander: “Hit again, sir, Section 8. Almost complete disintegration of hull. Bulkheads holding.”
Jon McPartland spoke his thoughts aloud. “I saw the ray that time, just a faint glimmer across the black. It should have hit Section 6! And—and THEY have no magnetic screen!”
His hand flicked a lever. “Navigation—break away! Straight course back toward the System.”
There was a long pause before Lieutenant Parek replied. It was easy to guess his thoughts; quitting, running away! Then he answered; “Yes, sir!”
Clemens’ voice, speaking softly to the intra-ship, was suddenly the only sound in the control room above the muted whine of generators underneath. Jon McPartland, his battle-ending order acknowledged, glared silently into his screen.
There the hateful silver sphere shrank slightly in size. Once again McPartland caught the faint flicker of a ray, the star-studded blackness. The Commander looked a fierce question at Clemens.
“No further damage, sir,” said the latter. He laid the headphones aside. “I believe we are out of range. Lieutenant Parek reports our speed sixty-five Spatial Units; we are drawing away from the enemy.”
There was no relief in the last words; and Commander McPartland felt a sudden surge of sympathy for the other break through his own bitter anger. Clemens had been gloomy about their chances in the battle; now, the Earth ship broke away from the fight, the Lieutenant-Commander was gloomier in the belief that they hadn’t tried hard enough—that they’d turned in cowardly flight. His eyes avoided his superior’s.
The latter looked about the room, and no glance was raised to meet his own. Reynolds, the Ray Control Officer stared glumly at his calculators, and fingered the phone that had waited vainly for his range data and fire commands. Clemens, stood quietly, awaiting orders. Engineer McTavish sat in stony silence, gaze fixed on the desk before him, where sensitive indicators flashed red damage signals against a three dimensional scale projection of the ship.
McPartland felt his eyes misting, and ground his teeth, remembering the alien ship and using his hatred of it to fight back the weakness of his own pride in his men. They wanted to fight! They hated cowardice almost as much as they did the murderers they were running from; and these Earthmen thought their own commander a coward. But discipline and training held them to his judgment.
“Hell!” barked McPartland. “We’re going back after them.”
His words shattered the silence and the gloom. Reynolds’ face was suddenly radiant; Clemens relaxed into an expression of smug worry; McTavish grunted.
“Mister McTavish, what about that damage?” demanded the Commander.
Engineer McTavish brought his lanky form up from the chair and into rigidity. “You gave no orders, sir,” he reproached, his grey eyes eager.
“Have your men break out two space-suits, Mister,” said McPartland. “You and I will go through the bulkheads and inspect the damaged hull.”
“Yes, sir.” McTavish turned eagerly to his phone.
“Mister Clemens,” snapped the Commander, “hold our course. And you may tell the men we’re not through fighting.”
McPartland and McTavish stepped carefully through the darkness of section four. Behind them, the bulkhead door had been securely dogged shut against the vacuum of space; before them was a ragged jet patch from which distant stars sent faint light to outline the great rip in the hull.
Both men carried powerful flashlights, but preferred to step carefully among dim outlines rather than use lights until they reached the hull. There had been a ray gun here—and its crew; and men, suddenly exposed to cold and pressureless space, make grim corpses.
At the thought, McPartland’s big hand gripped the hammer he carried, so that he almost felt the handle through his heavy gauntlet. He had an insane desire to leap out and wait for the other ship—to batter at its silver hull!
As though sensing the thought, the Engineer broke in, speaking through his suit-communicator: “Here we are, sir.”
The flashlight blazed in his hand, its beam spreading along the twisted broken metal of the ship’s side. Instantly the big hammer flashed into the beam and against the metal near its broken edge, swung with every ounce of fury and strength in Jon McPartland’s arm, shoulder and torso.
“If I’m right,” he muttered with the swing, “we’ll know it now. We’ll have a fighting—chance.”
He faltered on the last word, as his blow landed and sent some of its force smashing back up his arm and body. But the Commander knew—as a smith knows—the feel of metal under his strength; and Jon McPartland knew his hunch had been right even before McTavish cried:
“You—you bent it!”
“Right, Mister. I bent it. And I couldn’t bend the steel that went into this ship’s hull, could I, McTavish?”
“Blasting right you couldn’t, begging your pardon, sir. No man could.”
“Then it isn’t steel any longer, McTavish—not near the edges of the spot their ray hit!” McPartland twirled the hammer in his hand, eager as a small boy just learning how to whip the neighborhood bully. “Where that ray hit there was disintegration at the center, transmutation at the edges.”
Understanding was spreading over the Engineer’s face behind the transparent helmet of his space suit. “Then, man, that ray has one magnetic charge; positive or negative, proton or electron.”
“And your technicians will tell us which,” ordered the Commander. “Get them busy cutting out samples. We want to know quickly. But you and I have enough to do while we wait, Mister.”
He led the way back to the bulkhead. Inside, McTavish gave orders, while shedding his space-suit and starting down the corridor to the control room.
McPartland explained as they went. “Our magnetic screens, having electrons and protons, bent their ray. I saw it. That made me think they used a mono-charged stream of particles. Some of the particles in the screen attracted the ray charges, others repelled them. You know, of course,” he went on, “how our screens diffuse our own type of duo-charge beam at long range and protect the ship against them.”
“Yes, man!” His Engineer agreed, excitedly now. “And beams from the screened ship go through on initial velocity. But they couldn’t use a screen—the enemy: there’d be no balance of forces—they’d bend their own ray!”
“The way we’ll bend it, Mister, when we go back after those murderers!” Jon McPartland took a deep, triumphant breath, and his face lit up with a battle smile that made the Engineer’s heart lift.
“Mister McTavish, we’re going to string a space lifeboat out behind us on about two miles of cable. You are going to rig up our dynamos to make this ship and the lifeboat the poles of an electromagnet. When your Technicians determine the polarity of the enemy ray, we’ll make the ship the repelling pole.”
“Then, man, begging your pardon, sir, we go back and let them blast,” cried the Engineer. “Their ray curves away from us—toward the lifeboat. By the time they figure the trick out, we’ll be close enough to blast them wide open.”
“We’d better be,” his superior concluded grimly. “Or the devils will blast away the lifeboat and the cable. Leave us without an electromagnet—right back where we started from.”
Commander Jon McPartland stared with hard blue eyes into his screen. He watched a dot growing into a sphere, and, anticipating the words of Lieutenant-Commander Clemens, ordered:
“Have Lieutenant Parek compute their speed and course.”
Clemens, with a look of gloomy reproach at not having been allowed to report, bent to the intra-ship phone. Before he could speak, he straightened, and turned to relay the information coming through his headphones:
“Navigation Officer reports course head on, sir. Speed fifty Spatial Units.”
“Thank you.” The Commander looked at his Engineer. “All in readiness, Mister McTavish?”
“All in readiness, sir,” replied the lanky engineer, his grey eyes twinkling as he added: “They’re using an electron ray, and our ship is negative—but this’ll be a positive jolt to the enemy, begging your pardon, sir!”
McPartland smiled, the tense muscles along his jaw relaxing for the first time in hours. Clemens coughed and turned aside, bringing a hand up over his mouth.
This effort to preserve his reputation was needed only for a moment. He straightened, adjusting his headphones, and reported:
“Enemy ship changing course, sir, swinging aside.”
The Commander glanced quickly at the screen, disbelief flicking momentarily over his square features. He leaped to the intra-phone, snatching the headphones from the Lieutenant-Commander.
“Mister Parek,” he ordered, “swing with that ship. We must get in close—quickly!” Aside to McTavish, he added: “I hope the cable to that spaceboat holds when it snaps around on this turn.”
“It will hold, sir,” the Engineer assured him. “But we’ll lose some speed by the drag—only until we re-accelerate, sir.”
McPartland tossed the headphones back to Clemens, left the intra-phone, and went back to his screen. For the next few minutes he watched the alien silver sphere, flashing and glinting in the starlight.
Jon McPartland whispered, half to himself: “The cunning devils! They know something’s up when a beaten ship comes back to fight again.”
“Begging your pardon, sir,” said Reynolds, the Ray Control Officer, in his quiet manner. “They must have seen the spaceboat strung behind and become suspicious.”
“You’re right, Mister,” acknowledged the Commander. “The killers are careful of their skins.” He glared at the hateful beauty of the other ship, growing no larger in his screen. “Come on,” he challenged.
But the enemy avoided every effort of the earth ship to close in, turning inside. At last, the space fighters were carving a great circle in space, the Earthmen on the outside, traveling a greater distance so that superior speed was largely nullified.
McPartland glared into his screen. Clemens stood by his intra-phone, relaying messages from Parek. Reynolds sat before his calculators, unmoving except for fingers caressing the mike that still waited for his words. McTavish sprawled before his three dimensional model, his grey eyes going over and over every line of it.
At last the Commander spoke the thought in the minds of all four: “We’re six Spatial units apart. Maximum range of their ray is five units; ours is four. Coming head on, we pass through the gap between their range and ours in seconds—we almost made it last time! But, if we overhaul them from behind, it might take minutes to close that gap with our speed advantage.”
“Right, sir,” McTavish agreed, “and minutes would be long enough for them to blast our spaceboat and cable away.”
“And then us,” finished Clemens. He drew himself up. “I am ready, sir, when you give the order.”
Blazing anger faded from the Commander’s eyes and face. “Thank you, Mister Clemens. I know you are, and so is every man of our crew. But we’re here to save the System, and there’s still hope.
“These animals have come a long way,” he said jabbing a fist toward the ship in the screen. “They think they can afford to wait us out. But maybe they can’t. Mister Clemens, ask Radio to try and contact Earth.”
It took long, anxious minutes to make the contact. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Parek held the ship on the same course, with instructions to close at once if the enemy moved toward them.
But the situation remained unchanged, the great circle being traced and retraced through space, ray guns trained, unused. At last, Radio reported contact.
Jon McPartland stepped to the visa-phone. Before him, the faint image of Marshal Denton, supreme commander of all System forces, flickered uncertainly over the great distance.
“McPartland,” came the Marshal’s voice, thin and wavering through the poor connection. “I knew you’d do it!”
McPartland saluted smartly. “We have met the enemy, sir, and stopped their advance toward the System, but—”
He went on, reporting their first encounter, his decision and action, and concluded: “Sir, we can hold them here until help reaches us. One more ship—rigged as we are—even the slowest old hulk in the fleet—and we can finish them!”
There was a long pause. Marshal Denton drew himself up, his face, only a dim blob on the screen, gave no hint of his emotions as he answered. “Commander McPartland, I must refuse your request for reinforcements.” There was no mistaking his feeling in the next words:
“Jon, I’ve got a System of confidence in you, but my hands are tied. The Supreme System Congress of Specialists has met and made decisions for defense—decisions that are not subject to change. From here on, I can only carry their strategy into effect.”
McPartland stood rigidly. He was stunned. He heard his own voice, as from far away; “And those decisions, sir?”
“Every ship we have is concentrated just beyond Pluto’s orbit.” Denton answered. “They are arranged in a defensive pattern of depths, that the Specialists consider impenetrable.” His voice was even.
“Sir,” the Commander groaned, “this attacker has the range and a ray that makes our magnetic screens useless. These fiends will go through that fleet like light through glass. And the planets—they’ve been disarmed for years! They’ll be defenseless!”
In the screen, the Marshal’s dim figure slumped. “Jon, the Specialists rule the System.”
“I understand, sir,” McPartland heard himself say. “What are your orders, sir?”
“Just your best, Commander Jon McPartland. That will be the best any of us could give. Good luck!”
“Thank you, sir.” McPartland turned from the visa-phone as Marshal Denton faded from view.
Lieutenant-Commander Clemens stood ready beside his intra-phone. Engineer McTavish sprawled before his model, his grey eyes going lovingly over every line of it. Ray Control Officer Reynolds fingered his mike.
Jon McPartland swept them with his blue eyes, turned to glare again at the taunting silver sphere in his view screen. He started to speak, stopped as Reynolds raised his head.
“Beg your pardon, sir,” said the Ray Officer. “May I give the men false range data when—when—you decide we’re finished, sir? I’ll feel better just using this stuff, and the gun crews—those that are left—will feel better thinking they’re striking a blow for the System.
“It can’t do any harm, sir,” he pleaded as the Commander snapped his mouth shut, staring hard.
“Reynolds,” bellowed the Commander, “ages ago there was an airfighter who opened fire on his enemy with machine guns before he was in range. The opponent usually took evasive action—thinking he was in danger—and lost speed, so that this fighter could overtake and destroy him.
“Reynolds, you’re a genius!”
“Man,” interrupted McTavish, “our rays would fall short! Those devils wouldn’t be fooled by rays—two Spatial units away!”
“No, Mister McTavish,” his superior replied slowly, “our disintegrator rays wouldn’t fool them. But we have landing searchlights that throw a beam a dozen Spatial units.
“McTavish get down to those beams; stop a couple down to pencils; shade them to throw a pretty violet-colored finger; cut down the power so they’ll reach about six units! Get out of here!”
The Engineer’s lanky body was already through the control room door. Jon McPartland was grinning. A grin that didn’t fade even when he looked back to his screen, to see the glinting silver sphere swinging serenely along beside them. He turned to Clemens.
“Tell Lieutenant Parek to close at full speed the second they start for us. No evasive action—straight course and let the spaceboat and cable take it!”
“Navigation acknowledges, sir.” Clemens replied solemnly, and the Commander knew his Lieutenant had anticipated and given the order.
“All ray stations ready, sir,” added the quiet Reynolds.
McPartland’s grin broadened. “Give them the straight data, Mister Reynolds.”
It was only seconds later that a voice rang in Clemens’ headphones, in accents loud enough to be heard through the silent, waiting control room. “McTavish reporting. All in readiness.”
“Let them have it then,” ordered the Commander. “But be sure you miss!”
With the suddenness of calculated surprise, a thin pencil of violet light stabbed out from the Earth ship. It knifed through space, scant yards behind the silver sphere, and winked out. A second beam reached forth, passed beneath the gleaming enemy.
Immediately, the sphere bobbed in space, began to weave an intricate course toward the Earth ship. It swelled in the viewscreen before McPartland.
He laughed, a low savage sound. “A super-race ego, to think our gunners are that bad. But they’ll learn!”
Reynolds began to drone into his phone, his eyes never leaving the calculators over which his fingers were flying. “Range five units, position—”
A faint flicker reached toward the Earth-ship, swung aside. McPartland laughed again.
“Range, four point nine,” droned Reynolds, and went on with steady flow of data.
The pale alien beam reached out again. This time Clemens reported. “Spaceboat destroyed by direct hit, sir.”
“Range four point six,” said Reynolds.
The sphere was looming ahead of them now, its ray sweeping off to the side, direction steady even as the sphere danced and spun.
“Range four point one—”
“Cable almost completely gone, sir,” Clemens said.
“Steady,” McPartland answered. He took a deep breath and heard the voice of the Ray Control Officer rising triumphantly:
“Units one, three, five and seven, Fire! Range four point zero, position—”
Four livid fingers of red sprang hungrily toward the silver sphere. They struck almost together, followed as the ship twisted and spun for brief moments. Then, when the ball of metal suddenly ceased its gyrations and floated limply, helplessly in space, those fingers probed, slashed unhindered through its vitals, over every foot of hull.
It was a scene of awesome destruction, as the ship that had thrown back starlight so proudly, haughtily, was blotted out of existence, its atoms torn apart and hurled back to the universe as free energy.
The glow in his viewscreen threw red highlights into McPartland’s black hair, matched the blazing vengeance in his blue eyes. But he watched, jaw hard, fist clenched, until destruction was complete.
“They got what they gave our ships,” he said at last, “merciless destruction. They deserved no better.
“We’ll go back to the System, and turn in our report. Our Scientists will perfect a defense against a mono-charge ray, and we won’t need to worry about handling any other ships that might follow this one.”
“Right, sir,” said McTavish. “And, man, begging your pardon, sir, I hope we’re in on the handling!”
Lieutenant-Commander Clemens shook his head moodily. “We did well. But the Congress of Specialists will be disappointed. We didn’t bring back prisoners for examination.”
But his eyes were smiling—again.#ENGLISH