Russ Evans, Pilot 3497, Rocket Squad Patrol 34, unsnapped his seat belt, and with a slight push floated "up" into the air inside the weightless ship. He stretched himself, and yawned broadly.
"Red, how soon do we eat?" he called.
"Shut up, you'll wake the others," replied a low voice from the rear of the swift little patrol ship. "See anything?"
"Several million stars," replied Evans in a lower voice. "And--" His tone became suddenly severe. "Assistant Murphy, remember your manners when addressing your superior officer. I've a mind to report you."
A flaming head of hair topping a grinning face poked around the edge of the door. "Lower your wavelength, lower your wavelength! You may think you're a sun, but you're just a planetoid. But what I'd like to know, Chief Pilot Russ Evans, is why they locate a ship in a forlorn, out of the way place like this--three-quarters of a billion miles, out of planetary plane. No ships ever come out here, no pirates, not a chance to help a wrecked ship. All we can do is sit here and watch the other fellows do the work."
"Which is exactly why we're here. Watch--and tell the other ships where to go, and when. Is that chow ready?" asked Russ looking at a small clock giving New York time.
"Uh--think she'll be on time? Come on an' eat."
Evans took one more look at the telectroscope screen, then snapped it off. A tiny, molecular towing unit in his hand, he pointed toward the door to the combined galley and lunch room, and glided in the wake of Murphy.
"How much fuel left?" he asked, as he glided into the dizzily spinning room. A cylindrical room, spinning at high speed, causing an artificial "weight" for the foods and materials in it, made eating of food a less difficult task. Expertly, he maneuvered himself to the guide rail near the center of the room, and caught the spiral. Braking himself into motion, he soon glided down its length, and landed on his feet. He bent and flexed his muscles, waiting for the now-busied assistant to get to the floor and reply.
"They gave us two pounds extra. Lord only knows why. Must expect us to clean up on some fleet. That makes four pound rolls left, untouched, and two thirds of the original pound. We've been here fifteen days, and have six more to go. The main driving power rolls have about the same amount left, and three pound rolls in each reserve bin," replied Red, holding a curiously moving coffee pot that strove to adjust itself to rapidly changing air velocities as it neared the center of the room.
"Sounds like a fleet's power stock. Martian lead or the terrestrial isotope?" asked Evans, tasting warily a peculiar dish before him. "Say, this is energy food. I thought we didn't get any more till Saturday." The change from the energy-less, flavored pastes that made up the principal bulk of a space-pilot's diet, to prevent over-eating, when no energy was used in walking in the weightless ship, was indeed a welcome change.
"Uh-huh. I got hungry. Any objections?" grinned the Irishman.
"None!" replied Evans fervently, pitching in with a will.
Seated at the controls once more, he snapped the little switch that caused the screen to glow with flashing, swirling colors as the telectroscope apparatus came to life. A thousand tiny points of flame appeared scattered on a black field with a suddenness that made them seem to snap suddenly into being. Points, tiny dimensionless points of light, save one, a tiny disc of blue-white flame, old Sol from a distance of close to one billion miles, and under slight reverse magnification. The skillful hands at the controls were turning adjustments now, and that disc of flame seemed to leap toward him with a hundred light-speeds, growing to a disc as large as a dime in an instant, while the myriad points of the stars seemed to scatter like frightened chickens, fleeing from the growing sun, out of the screen. Other points, heretofore invisible, appeared, grew, and rushed away.
The sun shifted from the center of the screen, and a smaller reddish-green disc came into view--a planet, its atmosphere coloring the light that left it toward the red. It rushed nearer, grew larger. Earth spread as it took the center of the screen. A world, a portion of a world, a continent, a fragment of a continent as the magnification increased, boundlessly it seemed.
Finally, New York spread across the screen; New York seen from the air, with a strange lack of perspective. The buildings did not seem all to slant toward some point, but to stand vertical, for, from a distance of a billion miles, the vision lines were practically parallel. Titanic shafts of glowing color in the early summer sun appeared; the hot rays from the sun, now only 82,500,000 miles away, shimmering on the colored metal walls.
The new Airlines Building, a mile and a half high, supported at various points by actual spaceship driving units, was a riot of shifting, rainbow hues. A new trick in construction had been used here, and Evans smiled at it. Arcot, inventor of the ship that carried him, had suggested it to Fuller, designer of that ship, and of that building. The colored berylium metal of the wall had been ruled with 20,000 lines to the inch, mere scratches, but nevertheless a diffraction grating. The result was amazingly beautiful. The sunlight, split up to its rainbow colors, was reflected in millions of shifting tints.
In the air, supported by tiny packs strapped to their backs, thousands of people were moving, floating where they wished, in any direction, at any elevation. There were none of the helicopters of even five years ago, now. A molecular power suit was far more convenient, cost nothing to operate, and but $50 to buy. Perfectly safe, requiring no skill, everyone owned them. To the watcher in space, they were mere moving, snaky lines of barely distinguishable dots that shivered and seemed to writhe in the refractions of the air. Passing over them, seeming to pass almost through them in this strange perspectiveless view, were the shadowy forms of giant space liners, titanic streamlined hulls. They were streamlined for no good reason, save that they looked faster and more graceful than the more efficient spherical freighters, just as passenger liners of two centuries earlier, with their steam engines, had carried four funnels and used two. A space liner spent so minute a portion of its journey in the atmosphere that it was really inefficient to streamline them.
"Won't be long!" muttered Russ, grinning cheerily at the familiar, sunlit city. His eyes darted to the chronometer beside him. The view seemed to be taken from a ship that was suddenly scudding across the heavens like a frightened thing, as it ran across from Manhattan Island, followed the Hudson for a short way, then cut across into New Jersey, swinging over the great woodland area of Kittatiny Park, resting finally on the New Jersey suburb of New York nestled in the Kittatinies, Blairtown. Low apartment buildings, ten or twelve stories high, nestled in the waving green of trees in the old roadways. When ground traffic ceased, the streets had been torn up, and parkways substituted.
Quickly the view singled out a single apartment, and the great smooth roof was enlarged on the screen to the absolute maximum clarity, till further magnification simply resulted in worse stratospheric distortion. On the broad roof were white strips of some material, making a huge V followed by two I's. Russ watched, his hand on the control steadying the view under the Earth's complicated orbital motion, and rotation, further corrections for the ship's orbital motion making the job one requiring great skill. The view held the center with amazing clarity. Something seemed to be happening to the last of the I's. It crumpled suddenly, rolled in on itself and disappeared.
"She's there, and on time," grinned Russ happily.
He tried more magnification. Could he--
He was tired, terribly, suddenly tired. He took his hands from the viewplate controls, relaxed, and dropped off to sleep.
"What made me so tired--wonder--GOD!" He straightened with a jerk, and his hands flew to the controls. The view on the machine suddenly retreated, flew back with a velocity inconceivable. Earth dropped away from the ship with an apparent velocity a thousand times that of light; it was a tiny ball, a pinpoint, gone, the sun--a minute disc--gone--then the apparatus was flashing views into focus from the other side of the ship. The assistant did not reply. Evans' hands were growing ineffably heavy, his whole body yearned for sleep. Slowly, clumsily he pawed for a little stud. Somehow his hand found it, and the ship reeled suddenly, little jerks, as the code message was flung out in a beam of such tremendous power that the sheer radiation pressure made it noticeable. Earth would be notified. The system would be warned. But light, slow crawling thing, would take hours to cross the gulf of space, and radio travels no faster.
Half conscious, fighting for his faculties with all his will, the pilot turned to the screen. A ship! A strange, glistening thing streamlined to the nth degree, every spare corner rounded till the resistance was at the irreducible minimum. But, in the great pilotport of the stranger, the patrol pilot saw faces, and gasped in surprise as he saw them! Terrible faces, blotched, contorted. Patches of white skin, patches of brown, patches of black, blotched and twisted across the faces. Long, lean faces, great wide flat foreheads above, skulls strangely squared, more box-like than man's rounded skull. The ears were large, pointed tips at the top. Their hair was a silky mane that extended low over the forehead, and ran back, spreading above the ears, and down the neck.
Then, as that emotion of surprise and astonishment weakened his will momentarily, oblivion came, with what seemed a fleeting instant of memories. His life seemed to flash before his mind in serried rank, a file of events, his childhood, his life, his marriage, his wife, an image of smiling comfort, then the years, images of great and near great men, his knowledge of history, pictures of great war of 2074, pictures of the attackers of the Black Star--then calm oblivion, quiet blankness.
The long, silent ship that had hovered near him turned, and pointed toward the pinhead of matter that glowed brilliantly in the flaming jewel box of the heavens. It was gone in an instant, rushing toward Sun and Earth at a speed that outraced the flying radio message, leaving the ship of the Guard Patrol behind, and leaving the Pilot as he leaves our story.