AUTHOR OF: ‘THE RED PLAGUE,’ ‘TETRAHEDRA OF SPACE,’ ETC.
Gradually the colors of early dawn illuminated the gas-strata, and the slender towers of imperial Tridentia woke to teeming life. Up from roof and turret floated the balloons of the purple clans, like shimmering bubbles wafted low over the drowsing city. In crowding swarms they settled in the great space that had been cleared just beyond the city’s edge. Their pressing bodies formed a wide ring surrounding the three glistening cylinders of glassite that lay side by side on the soft white sod. And ranked within that circle of jostling bodies, drawn up in rigid ranks before the open ports of the three ships, waited the purple spheres of Tridentia’s offering to space.
Now from the broad terraced Temple of the Trident, glimmering golden in the growing light, lifted a huge balloon. Its fabric was the rare and priceless covering of the dreaded gas-plants, its basket woven from opalescent strands of fine-spun glassite. Unmoving, their eye stalks turned calmly toward the impatient multitude, five spheres crowded that regal basket. As it settled lightly beside the giant ships a wave of frenzied cheering colored the watching throng. Again, and yet again they hued their mad ovation, until the scarlet form of Tranda, Emperor of Tridentia and of Neptune, stepped forward on firmly placed tubes and colored his aura with the silvery hue that commanded silence.
“Neptunians,” he glowed; “you have heard the message brought from Luna by Bar Steepa and the Princess Teena. Invaders from another star threaten the safety of our planet and all the other planets of the sun. We have been asked to join with the peoples of those planets in an attempt to defend our world and theirs while there is yet time!
“They have given us the sacred metal of the Trident – enough to provide three mighty ships with the power of its lightnings. Tridentia herself has offered those who will man them – three Centuries of the purple, most valorous of Neptune’s hosts. Our hundred I myself will command; the second Century will be led by your prince, Bar Steepa, and the third by Dubar, captain of the imperial guards. And that the mantle of the holy Trident may shelter you until I shall return with the news of victory, I leave you Barad Tora, brother of my father and spokesman of the Trident!”
As the roseate form of Tora drifted up beside that of the Emperor, wave after wave of blazing cheers poured from the crowded spheres of Tridentia. Then, as Tranda turned and glided on supple tubes toward the port of the leading ship, that tide of eager color darkened. Behind him the ordered ranks of Trindentia’s first Century were moving, and in their wake the other hundreds came, led by the violet-hued Dubar and the two who were Steepa and Teena, royal lovers of Tridentia.
The last sphere passed out of sight. Slowly the great glassite ports rolled shut. Then from that ship which Tranda commanded a spreading shaft of vivid white thrust up into the low-hanging gas-strata. In answer the spheres of Tridentia flowed like a purple river toward the haven of their balloons. Soon the air was filled with their bobbing, swaying forms. Then with a crash of livid lightnings the three ships leapt as one from their tapered cradles and vanished in the swirling vapors of the gas-strata. Winds tore at the frail balloons and whirled them dizzily above the fungoid jungle. Then all was quiet again and only the viscidly stirring gas-strata showed where the war-fleet of cloud-wrapped Neptune had vanished into space.
Their tubes twined lovingly together, Steepa and Teena stood before the banked controls of their giant craft, gazing out into the starry majesty of infinity. Teena’s aura was tinted with teasing emerald as her eye-stalks turned to the stolid form of her mate.
“Why did you want to leave me?” she colored. “Are you weary of me now that you have seen the women of Earth and Saturn?”
Steepa’s purple flushed darker. “War is no place for women!” he retorted. “Were you any but Tranda’s sister and princess of Tridentia, you must have stayed home – where you belong. Instead you are here to annoy me when I must devote my thoughts to piloting the ship. Now go away!”
Hueing softly she pressed her smooth skin against his, caressing his sinewy tubes with her delicate pads. Slowly his eye-stalks curved away until they met her, and his sulky violet softened and mingled with her gentle mauve.
“You are as good a pilot as I or Tranda,” he admitted, “but there will be danger for us all. You must remain in the sheltered parts of the ship when we are fighting. Remember – you have our hue to think of as well as yourself.”
Their colors were now one, rose-tinted, flushed with warm gold. Their auras pulsed and glowed with a single light. Teena’s tints were soft and greyed with puzzlement as she replied.
“No bud of Steepa’s ever will feel fear, nor shall its mother now. But why do we go so far from Neptune? Why do we not remain where we can protect her from attack?”
Steepa’s aura was bright. “Just like a woman,” he boasted. “It takes a man to make war! If Ay-Artz is to be defeated, we must stop him before he can gain a foothold on some planet in our midst, and to do that the forces of every planet will be necessary. Moreover, we must meet and attack together, for if we come singly he can easily destroy us. So Mea-Quin has sent to each commander the course that his ships must follow, to reach the appointed place.”
Teena colored wistfully. “It must be wonderful to know so much,” she glowed, “but I am glad it was Mea-Quin who calculated the course, my Steepa. On all Neptune there is none but we two who have seen the stars before, and you are not a very good astronomer.”
Flushing, he turned his eyes angrily toward her. As he saw the teasing tint of her aura, he seized her with all three tubes and pressed her to him. For a moment their auras were one. Above the screens that filled one wall of the little cabin appeared a warning flash of light.
Quickly turning from his mate, Steepa thrust out his tubes to set the dials. Instantly the form of Tranda appeared before them.
“Is anything wrong?” he demanded. “At the first checking-point you were far from the course.” As he saw his sister his brusque colors softened. “I understand,” he hued. “But you are second in command of our fleet, Bar Steepa, and must be a good example to Dubar and our men. At the next point alter your speed and direction to agree with Mea-Quin’s figures.”
“I will be careful,” tinted Steepa. As Tranda’s image disappeared, his eye-stalks accusingly to his mate. “You see!” he colored. “How can I pilot this ship with you forever distracting me? Go look at the stars and let me think!”
Teena’s aura was meekly grey as she glided on graceful tubes toward the space-port. “I am sorry, my Steepa,” she hued softly. Curving her eyes roguishly back at her disgruntled mate: “Perhaps I could help with the course, if it is too difficult—“
He did not deign to answer. Bending his eye-stalks to the space chart, he let his tubes move deftly over the controls. During the early part of their flight, with all three ships accelerating enormously in order to attain the speed which would hurl them in a long curve halfway around the sun, there would be frequent check points at which speed, direction and acceleration must check with Mea-Quin’s instructions. Now, as the guiding hair-lines of the chart crept closer to the glowing dots of a quadrangle of stars, Steepa placed his suction cups carefully over the numbered pits on the control panel and cocked one eye at the dials which registered speed and acceleration.
The first star touched the first hairline. Instantly, his skin shrinking nervously, Steepa sucked up plunger after plunger with tensely active cups. Infinitesimally the stars shifted on the space-chart, and gradually the readings of the many dials before him were altered to conform with those given by Mea-Quin. As the second and third stars touched the guiding lines, he snapped his tubes away and moved back. One by one, released from the suction of his cups, the control-plungers dropped back into their oil-filled pits. Watching the time-dial, he waited. At exactly the appointed time the last of the four stars was bisected by the line of the chart, and Steepa expanded in relief. He turned again to his Princess.
She stood by the glassite port, both eyes fixed on the panorama of space. Steepa glided toward her. She was beautiful, he thought – so deliciously round and delicate in hue, her tubes so lissome and slender. And before one of Neptune’s years had passed, the tiny, rotund form of their son would be budding from her smooth, soft skin. His bud – and heir to the throne of Tridentia and of Neptune! For Tranda had no son.
She seemed unaware of his approach. Gently he touched her, bending his eye-stalks close to hers.
“Their auras glow with the colors of beauty,” he hued softly. “Perhaps they are lovers too.”
Slowly their colors merged.
Day after Lemnisian day passed slowly as the three ships rushed with ever-increasing speed along their tortuous course thru the meteor infested void. Here in timeless space the ships of every planet would adopt the decimal time of Lemnis, in which all of Mea-Quin’s intricate calculations had been made. Because of Steepa’s deviation from the course, Dubar’s craft had now moved into second position, and Tranda had decided to keep him there and give Steepa the more responsible post of rear guard. None of them, during those long, unvaried days, but thought of the dangers that threatened their fellow-planners on other planets – the Automatons of Earth, the scarcely less inhuman Xunia with her myriad bodies, and above all that Wrongness of Space whose mad power they had felt in the barren crater of Copernicus. What, during the months that had passed since the conference, had those inimical forces been preparing? What lay before them in the trackless void?
With these ominous thoughts lurking in his mind, Tranda had resolved to spend his leisure time in study of that science which permitted Mea-Quin to plot this complex course among the ever-shifting planets and meteor-swarms of the solar system, itself rushing at an incredible speed thru space. Uranus and Saturn lay far from their path, too far for him to study them without elaborate instruments, but his first rough calculations showed that they would pass very close to the great yellow planet, Jupiter, with its swarm of shining moons. He wondered if, indeed, the ships of Callisto might not be waiting there to join them in their flight across the sun.
To Teena and Steepa the slowly shifting panorama of the heavens was a never-ending source of beauty and wonder. Like strange jewels the stars burned, with the two silvery ships hung against their splendor and the golden disc of Jupiter swelling day by day. They could see the dusky bands that crossed the planet’s face, and the sullen glow of its mysterious spot, but most of all Teena loved to watch the little silvery moons as they passed back and forth across the sphere of their mother planet, or vanished for a while in eclipse behind it. Once, too, a comet passed flaming across the stars above that burning disc. Teena shuddered, her aura suddenly cold. Somehow that curving gauze of fire, shimmering with emerald opalescence, seemed to her a warning and a menace, and she drew closer to Steepa and let his comforting tubes curl about her.
With the attraction of the great planet affecting their motion, the three commanders were forced to check their course with increasing frequency. Jupiter’s sphere now filled most of the visible heavens. They were far inside the orbits of the outer moons and wheeling sharply past the massive planet itself, using its attraction to swing them into the curve that would lead them past the sun to the invisible meeting place of the fleets. Teena relieved her mate at the check-points, while he drilled his men in the hollow inner shell of the great ship. They were entering the crowded inner portion of the solar system now, and any hour might bring danger. Every last sphere of them must be absolutely proficient in the use of the weapons he would man. And Steepa saw to it that every one was.
From her post at the controls, Teena could see both the other ships. Idly she let her tubes stray across the board, plucking at the plungers that would bring Steepa’s form and colors to the screen. Perhaps he would be able, now, to come up and watch the ceaseless stirring of Jupiter’s cloud wrapped surface, seething as tho with an angry life of its own. Suddenly an irregularity in the positions of the leading ships caught her eye. A glance at her dials assured her that her own course was correct. But Dubar, his speed increasing with every instant, was darting toward Io!
With one tube she flashed the alarm that would bring Steepa to her. The others sucked at the plungers that would call Tranda. Before the connection was made, Dubar’s pain-shrunken form showed on the screen. His colors were faint, almost invisible. Two tubes had been torn from his body and the vital gases were gushing from half a dozen wounds.
“Tranda!” he flashed. “The son of Deebul has taken the ship. He was disguised, with scores of his followers. They have slain all who—“
His waning colors went out. Then behind him in the screen loomed a livid jade-green sphere to whose skin clung shreds of purple pigment. Deebul’s son – bud of some unknown woman of the arch-pretender’s harem! Triumphantly his colors challenged them – then the screen went dark.
Beside her Steepa’s aura flared. “Rouse the men!” he hued angrily. “Man the spark-guns and stand ready for combat. By the Trident, Deebul’s breed shall be destroyed to the last bud of a bud! I swear it!”
He seized the controls. As he did so Tranda’s image appeared in the screen. “I am leader here!” he blazed. “Stand by with your guns, Bar Steepa. Hold your course and do not attack until I command. I will show this usurper’s bud who is Emperor of Tridentia!”
His skin grim, steely blue, Bar Steepa watched the great flagship draw aside, speeding with the full power of the Trident to intercept the fleeing ship. Automatically his tubes went to the controls, increasing his ship’s speed and making connection with Beema, the officer of his century.
“I will command from here,” he colored. “After me, Baran Teena leads you. After her, yourself. Be ready!”
Pale and shrunken with anxiety, Teena pressed her eyes close to the port, watching Tranda’s ship as it cut across the course of the mutineer. Their own craft was rushing closer every minute, driven by Steepa’s darting tubes. The two ships met and a spear of jagged flame smashed out from the ship of the green sphere, missing Tranda’s bows by a slight margin.
Quickly the flagship slewed around, bringing her broadside of spark-guns into play. A sheet of crackling fire caught the other squarely. With fantastic slowness it split open, vomiting enemy spheres. Then was a burst of fire that showed he was flinging every resource of his Trident into the attack, Deebul’s son hurled his craft straight at Tranda’s flank; there was no time to veer, head-on the rebel craft plunged into the vitals of the flagship, ripping a vast hole in its hull. Space around this was misted with escaping vapors that congealed into a sparkling frost on the crumpled hulls. Then, showering spears and splinters of shattered glassite, the terrible forces of the twin Tridents met. A globe of white flame, shot thru with red and violet lightnings, enveloped the two ships. Slowly, it faded out.
Frantic cups hissing over the plungers, Steepa brought his ship swinging down above the wreckage. The rebel ship was split from end to end. The flagship had been sheared diagonally across, breaking open the chamber that held the Trident. If the bulkheads held, Tranda might still live.
Pleadingly his mate’s eye-stalks bent toward him. Coiling a tender tube about her, he essayed a pulse of golden reassurance.
Now they were close above the wreckage of the interlocked ships. Turning slowly end over end, they were falling toward the great planet. Reversing the power of his Trident with a jar that shook the ship, Steepa brought his craft into a path parallel with the other vessels and close above them.
The Neptunians had no space suits. Relying as they did on their suction cups, they would have been helpless. But Steepa had supervised the making of small glassite spheres, each with its own gas-reservoir, in which one individual could keep alive for ten Neptunian days. If Tranda lived, and the exits were not jammed by wreckage, his sphere would soon appear. Eagerly they waited – but it did not come.
Steepa’s aura darkened. There must be a way! Surely the power of the Trident was not to be daunted by so small a thing – yet how to do it?
Abruptly he sprang erect to the full extent of his tubes.
“Teena!” he flared. “Call Beema here. I have a plan!”
Rapidly he questioned the other sphere, then sent him hurrying back to bring ten of the crew. In Tridentia, before Tranda’s call to arms, they had been workers of glassite – had, indeed, helped to construct this ship. Before them he laid his plan. Little time was available. Even now the Emperor might be writhing in agony as the precious gases escaped from the room in which he was trapped. They must be quick.
As one sphere they agreed.
He turned to his mate. All his tubes went out to clasp her to him. Then he thrust her away gently.
“There must be two,” he hued. “One to pilot the ship and one to direct the power of the Trident. Will you be one, or shall Beema aid me?”
Proudly she swelled her grief-shrunken skin. Bravely she strove to bring the gold of courage to her sorrow-shaded aura.
“Command me, Bar Steepa,” she colored.
Side by side they faced the controls. Delicate indeed must be the touch that would pilot the mighty craft now, when inches separated life and death for them all. And that touch would be Teena’s.
Slowly she lifted the ship away, gently enough so that the force of its propelling lightnings did not touch the crippled craft beside it. The vision port of Tranda’s ship was hidden by twisted wreckage. Now, utilizing that weapon which Mea-Quin had provided for use when all else failed, Steepa sent a plane of white energy curving through space like a sword of fire. It touched the ruin of the rebel ship and the glassite parted with a rush of golden vapors. Beneath it a bar of light pushed out and struck the severed mass. Sluggishly, then with greater speed, it moved aside. The nose of the flagship appeared, scarred and crumpled but intact. Before the little transparent port crouched the scarlet form of Neptune’s Emperor.
Now life seemed to pulse through Teena’s gases. Her aura was radiant. Her tubes fairly danced over the control-pits, wafting the giant craft thru space as tho it drifted before a gently breeze. Closer they crept, and closer, while Steepa’s flaming sword cleft mass after mass of broken wreckage from the crumpled hulls and drove it away into the void with his powerful propeller. Closer and closer that blade of fire came to the little room in which their objective lay. Now the stern of the flagship had been cut away and Steepa’s craft lay less than half a ship’s length from the fragment that held the control room. His eyes curved warningly to Teena.
She flickered a signal to the men below. Inside the skin of the ship, surrounding a certain portion of the hull, they were waiting, their tools ready. Then, turning to Steepa, she glowed assent.
Ready! The blade of flame changed to a blazing torch – a plume of blinding fire vomited into space. Into that glare Steepa’s eyes stared unflinchingly. His tubes moved carefully, sweeping it slowly across the base of the little hemisphere of wreckage that remained. Under the blast of fierce radiation the stubborn glassite melted and flowed like liquid gas, dissolving the armor of the broken ship so that it lay in a great blazing pool beneath the ray. Its savage heat made the little cabin a seething hell. Tranda’s eye-stalks writhed in pain, his contorted tubes shrunk from the blistering touch of the walls and floor. With a shuddering sweep Teena then sent her great ship smashing sidelong into that pool of liquid light.
The ship’s skin buckled, cracked, but the cracks were immediately filled by the molten glassite. Quickly its fierce light dimmed to a red glow, to darkness. And below Beema and his ten men were working frantically.
Teena at his side, Steepa plunged into that narrow space. Jets of the Trident’s flame blazed luridly as the workers carved their way into the thick armor. There was a hiss of escaping gases as the flames ate thru into the film of bubbles that lay between the ships, then they were cutting into the mass of the still-glowing glassite that had been fused under the ray. Down – carving a smooth walled tunnel toward the little hollow where Tranda lay dying. Down – advancing as fast as the cooling walls would permit them, Steepa and his mate pressing close behind. Then they were thru and in a corridor. A jagged tear sucked at their atmosphere but a torch sealed it. Steepa’s body was then thrusting the control room door open. His mate burst past him and dropped beside the scarlet form that lay crumpled under the control board. And in Teena’s aura roseate opalescence replaced the cold, dark blue of dread, as her brother stirred slightly.
Safe in Steepa’s ship, with his sister’s cool pads caressing his tortured skin and life-giving gases coursing again thru his body, Tranda quickly regained his strength. Under his direction, Steepa bent every effort to regain the hours they had lost. With two thirds of their little fleet gone the most dangerous portion of their journey lay ahead, but Tranda would not turn back. Nor was there one of them who would have done otherwise.
At reckless speed they hurlted toward the growing bulk of Jupiter. Alone in his tiny sleeping room, Tranda was busy with his calculation while Steepa flung the ship from point to point of Mea-Quin’s course, striving to gain the speed and time and distance they must have to reach that mysterious rendezvous ahead. In those few lost hours Jupiter had wheeled thousands of miles on its way thru space, and the configuration of its satellites with their varied distances and attractions had vastly changed. The cosmic forces which played about the Neptunian ship were entirely different from those which the Lemnisian had used in his calculations. What those differences were, and how they could be offset, the Neptunian was striving with all his feeble science to discover.
What he found was – wrong. Or so it seemed to him. Time after time he had Steepa report their position and the configuration of the heavenly bodies about them. His figures told him that they would swing close to the vast bulk of Jupiter, a few thousand miles above its surface, to rush out again in a long hyperbola that would hurl them safely into interplanetary space, well above the dangerous plane of the asteroids. There was absolutely nothing wrong, and yet the irritation what was growing in him told him that it was wrong, and very wrong. At last his patience gave way. Tearing his papers to shreds he burst savagely into the control room and demanded that Steepa hook up the space-radio and try to get Mea-Quin.
The huge bulk of Jupiter loomed outside the port. The turbulent torrent of its equatorial current lay just beneath, splitting to flow in vaporous eddies on either side of the great, glowing mass of the Red Spot. Quickly Tranda estimated their position. At their closest approach to Jupiter, they should be just above the Spot’s further end.
At the board, Steepa had been altering the flow of the Trident’s forces so as to give more power to the radio. Till now they had used it merely to reach from ship to ship; now it must span the millions of miles to Luna. Slowly he increased the power, building it toward a peak at which it must surely leap that gulf, yet nothing answered his signals. Higher, higher – the apparatus could stand no more. Angrily he turned to Tranda.
“They do not answer,” he hued. “Perhaps they have tired of their game of war!”
The other pushed past him to the controls. Combination after combination he tried, ranging over the entire scale of the machine. And as unbroken greyness met his gaze, his temper flared. He spun from the controls.
“Look to your apparatus, Bar Steepa,” he blazed. If it has been injured through carelessness, you will answer to me!”
A supreme effort prevented Steepa from flaring indignant resentment. Masking his temper with sullen purple he bent ove the intricate circuit of the radio. The first glance told him that nothing was wrong, but he checked it section by section before he raised his eye-stalks. The strained position made him a trifle giddy; he swayed slightly on his bent tubes, and his eyes focused with difficulty. Then he saw that Tranda was staring at the blank screen, his aura dark with thought. He sidled forward and peered more closely at its surface. One tube went forth and switched it off and on again, quickly. And both Tranda and Steepa snapped erect and turned troubled eyes to each other.
The screen was not blank. It shimmered with a pearly light that seemed to be growing in intensity. Some wave – some signal out of space – was energizing the receiver so strongly that it drowned out all else!
Both their minds snapped to the same thought. Tranda’s tubes spun the distance regulators. A shadow came in the screen, wavering, blurred by interference. With full power he could not clear it.
Yet that shadow was the vast bulk of Jupiter, barely twenty thousand earthly miles beneath – the planet toward which they were rushing.
What was it – what could it be – that had blinded them with that barrage of radiations? What did it mean?
What lay ahead?
Steepa turned. Teena lay huddled on the floor beneath the port. Her tubes were crumpled, her eye-stalks drooping limply. And her aura was but a pale wash of blue, the hue of agony, of death!
He was across the room in a flash. Hesitant behind him, Tranda saw his skin suddenly illuminated with a crimson glare, saw him shrink, his aura pallid, his tubes writhing in pain. He too was rushing forward, out of the shelter of the ship’s opaque prow into the full glare of the Red Spot.
Thru the port it was as tho alive! Viscid vapors boiled and writhed over all its vast oval surface, like the coiling, steaming entrails of some evil monster out of hellish fable. Red light beat up out of the invisible depths beneath it, staining those vapors with the hue of spilt blood and reaching out into the void beyond. And with that light came radiations, utterly invisible and terrible radiations that tore thru the gases of his body as a knife rips thru flesh, leaving curdled trails of ionized, shattered atoms. Only where the sensitive inner membranes of his skin were ruptured did he feel pain. But the incredible delicate balance of blended vapors that was his life and mind was shattered, riddled with confusion. It was as tho some mighty force had struck him with a sudden blow. He crumpled and went down beside the others in the full light of the Spot. Darkness engulfed him in a burning wave.
Steepa’s senses returned slowly. It was as tho he were rising out of a valley of crimson mist, into light. He lay close against the wall, under the port, where the momentum of his rush had carried him. Teena lay beside him, pale and shrunken; Tranda was a motionless mound beyond.
Where he lay, he was protected again by the opaque armor of the ship. But every instant hurled them closer to that terrible Spot whose fierce radiation was driving ever more savagely into the ship. The irritation that had been evident in all of them had grown now to a searing inner fire. Strangely it wakened in him a sudden activity that flooded out the torture of the Spot.
Crouching low he hurried to the controls. With feverish tubes he spun the ship until the Spot was hidden and its lurid glare no longer bathed the cabin. While the thick glassite protected them, he must do what he could.
He flashed a call to Beema. In the body of the ship, he and his men should have been protected. Yet the armor of the prow was of double thickness, and it might already be too late.
There was no reply. The communication screen was blanked by that pearly mist; it might be that all their signals had been paralyzed by the radiations of the Spot. There was no time to find out now. He had Tranda to think of, and Teena. His Emperor, and his mate.
Tranda’s aura was regaining color. Steepa bent over Teena’s shriveled form. Her skin and her aura were leaden, her eye-stalks retracted almost into the body of her sphere. Her slender tubes lay limp and pallid.
He gathered her to him with tender tubes. He could feel the stir of gases just beneath her skin and the fitful pulse of her diaphragm. In time the shattered atoms of her brain and vital organs would rebuild themselves and restore the delicate equilibrium of life, but there was no time! In minutes they would be swooping close over the surface of the Spot. The glassite armor would be powerless to protect them from the rays that beat up out of its depth. There was once chance—
His suction cups settled grimly over the control-pits. If he could tear the ship out of her mad dive, reverse her acceleration with the full force of the Trident and send her back into the blessed vacuum of the void, away from the Spot, then it might be possible to feel their way thru this crowded inner space to the rendezvous or back to Neptune.
Something touched him. He turned. Tranda! The Emperor’s skin was livid, his aura a wraith of negation!
“It is impossible,” he hued. “I have made the calculations. If our speed is checked, if we lie motionless for the fraction of instant that it takes to reverse the Trident’s force, the gravity of Jupiter will seize us. We must go faster – fast enough to pass the Spot before its deadly rays can beat thru the glassite and strike us down. Faster, or we will call into the Spot. Into death!”
Steepa’s mind was dazed. It was a tho a mist were gathering around it, a net of little crimson threads drawing tighter and closer and binding his thoughts, cutting into them. Tranda’s colors seemed somehow meaningless yet something made him release the plungers and withdraw his tubes. What was it? Fall! That was it, they would fall. He, and Tranda. And Teena.
He moved to where she was. As he bent low beside her, her shrunken eye-stalks pushed feebly forth and curved to meet him. One tube wavered up and touched him. He seized it tenderly; bent and touched her icy skin. Gently her aura flushed with reassurance and she drew closer.
And suddenly he was very, very weary. He wanted to sleep.
He let his body sink to the floor beside Teena. Their tubes were intertwined, their auras united. But in the brain of Steepa was a spark of alertness that sent his eyes curving toward the controls again.
Tranda stood swaying in front of them. He was studying the dials that registered the attraction of the giant planet. During the past hours a red line had been curving across its face as the force grew, smoothly, swooping upward faster and faster as they neared the planet’s face. But now that line had broken away from its smooth, clean-sweeping curve. It was leaping upward, outward, in a great misshapen lump.
In Tranda’s blurred mind was an awareness that wrote the truth. This Spot of Death that was the source of the dreadful death-dealing radiations was a gravity trap, a mass of matter so heavy that it warped the structure of space and sucked into its flaming maw all that ventured, helpless, within its reach. Even as he stared, incredulous, drunken with the thought, he played with the idea. A planetoid, a meteor, some body out of space, tremendously heavy, composed of some matter born only in stars, burning with unthought-of radio-activity, blazing thru the veiling clouds of the planet which had received it from the void. That was the Spot.
While that spark of interest still burned detachedly, Tranda found that he was lying again on the floor. Only his eye-stalks would move. He turned them to the port. Across it the stars were wheeling with tedious slowness. Steepa had not entirely checked the spin of the ship, it was turning again to face the Spot. And then the spark went out.
In Steepa it burned longer. His was the hardy common stock of the purple clans. It strengthened him while it left not corner for a curiosity such as Tranda’s. He saw. He felt. And no more.
He was a bright something inside a dark and shriveled shell. He could feel the things that were happening to that shell, and he could see things that were close to it, as tho through a veil of red. There were thousands of tiny angular holes in the veil, thru which he could peer, but as it drew tighter and closer about him it became more and more difficult to see—
There was a place where little bright things were moving slowly against a soft blackness. Now that place was glowing brighter. A curve of golden light was cutting into it. It was an aura that moved across it like a sliding plate of gold. And now on it there was appearing a burning red stain.
He had seen it before, but he could not remember when. It was a great, spreading oval that swallowed up all but a tiny rind of the gold. It looked soft, like the gas-strata that lay over Tridentia, soft and billowy and warm. Warm with the warm light that welled up out of it. Like crimson spores billowing out of the soft, spongy pulp of a giant gas-plant.
He felt the warmness. Only it was as tho he saw it, instead of feeling. It seemed that the dark husk that surrounded him was being threaded with little darts of curdled light. Like tiny sparks they were, hot and glowing. It seemed that there had been a time when he felt their heat as flames of exquisite agony, as knives of white fire cutting thru and thru him, but now they were only little feathered darts that left a glowing wake. Faster they were coming, faster and thicker until the dark bulk of his husk was all aflame with them, until it surged and quivered with their insistent fires, until it was as bright as the ball of fire that was he. And then he saw that they were striking at that glittering ball and that it was very brittle, for at their impact little gleaming sparks and chips showered away and scoring scars appeared on its smooth surface.
Now he was within that bright ball, looking up at its outer surface, seeing the little chips flaking off, leaving frozen ripples and trailing scars that melted together until it was all one sparkling shell about him, growing smaller, closer, tighter, pressing on him, suffocating him—
There was one infinitesimal jewel of light that was he, floating in the fibrous brightness. For a long, long time none of the little darts came near him. He could see them all about him, shredding to bits the soft darkness that had been a shield and a veil between him and that evil redness he could no longer see. They sped toward him and were curved away by the power that was in his mind, in him. Then one struck him squarely.
He exploded. His light spread out and swallowed all the other lights and all the world, and then went out. He was behind his two tired eyes, looking out thru them from the darkness into the light. He saw his body, and its plump, smooth sphere was a shrunken, wrinkled husk. He saw his tubes and they were wizened threads of fiber. He saw the Red Spot, huge and sullen beneath them, and felt the enormous drag of its super gravity pulling him against the swerving motion of the ship.
Its flame spread out in a wave that engulfed the world.
He felt the pain that was in his body, then and keen and terrible and so intense that, almost, it was no longer pain but something infinitely beyond it.
He felt a kind of pain that was in his mind, as tho it were being torn, its vapors ripping from their diaphanous cells and curdling and congealing in a pulpy, sloughing ooze that had neither mind nor life.
He remembered Teena, and the feel of her skin against his and the gentle glow of her aura thu his, and with the memory there came again the great longing to sleep here at her side forever and ever. In an instant the flame and the pain and the ripping in his mind were one and became darkness that grew deeper and did not end.