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Dare to dream. Dare to go where no other has gone before.
Astounding Stories of Super-Science January 1931, by Astounding Stories is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. he Pirate Planet: Chapter XIV
THE mountains of Nevada are not noted for their safe and easy landing places. But the motor of the plane that Captain Blake was piloting roared smoothly in the cool air while the man’s eyes went searching, searching, for something, and he hardly knew what that something might be.
He went over again, as he had done a score of times, the remarks of Lieutenant McGuire. Mac had laughed that day when he told Blake of his experience.
“I was flying that transport,” he had said, “and, boy! when one motor began to throw oil I knew I was out of luck. Nothing but rocky peaks and valleys full of trees as thick and as pointed as a porcupine’s quills. Flying pretty high to maintain altitude with one motor out, so I just naturally had to find a place to set her down. I found it, too, though it seemed too good to be true off in that wilderness.
“A fine level spot, all smooth rock, except for a few clumps of grass, and just bumpy enough to make the landing interesting. But, say, Captain! I almost cracked up at that, I was so darn busy staring at something else.
“Off in some trees was a dirigible—Sure; go ahead and laugh; I didn’t believe it either, and I was looking at it. But there had been a whale of a storm through there the day before, and it had knocked over some trees that had been screening the thing, and there it was!
“Well, I came to in time to pull up her nose and miss a rock or two, and then I started pronto for that valley of trees and the thing that was buried among them.”
CAPTAIN BLAKE recalled the conversation word for word, though he had treated it jokingly at the time. McGuire had found the ship and a man—a half-crazed nut, so it seemed—living there all alone. And he wasn’t a bit keen about Mac’s learning of the ship. But leave it to Mac to get the facts—or what the old bird claimed were facts.
There was the body of a youngster there, a man of about Mac’s age. He had fallen and been killed the day before, and the old man was half crazy with grief. Mac had dug a grave and helped bury the body, and after that the old fellow’s story had come out.
He had been to the moon, he said. And this was a space ship. Wouldn’t tell how it operated, and shut up like a clam when Mac asked if he had gone alone. The young chap had gone with him, it seemed, and the man wouldn’t talk—just sat and stared out at the yellow mound where the youngster was buried.
Mac had told Blake how he argued with the man to prove up on his claims and make a fortune for himself. But no—fortunes didn’t interest him. And there were some this-and-that and be-damned-to-’em people who would never get this invention—the dirty, thieving rats!
And Mac, while he laughed, had seemed half to believe it. Said the old cuss was so sincere, and he had nothing to sell. And—there was the ship! It never got there without being flown in, that was a cinch. And there wasn’t a propellor on it nor a place for one—just open ports where a blast came out, or so the inventor said.
Captain Blake swung his ship on another slanting line and continued to comb the country for such marks as McGuire had seen. And one moment he told himself he was a fool to be on any such hunt, while the next thought would remind him that Mac had believed. And Mac had a level head, and he had radioed from Venus!
There was the thing that made anything seem possible. Mac had got a message through, across that space, and the enemy had ships that could do it. Why not this one?
And always his eyes were searching, searching, for a level rocky expanse and a tree-filled valley beyond, with something, it might be, shining there, unless the inventor had camouflaged it more carefully now.
IT was later on the same day when Captain Blake’s blocky figure climbed over the side of the cockpit. Tired? Yes! But who could think of cramped limbs and weary muscles when his plane was resting on a broad, level expanse of rock in the high Sierras and a sharp-cut valley showed thick with pines beyond. He could see the corner only of a rough log shack that protruded.
Blake scrambled over a natural rampart of broken stone and went swiftly toward the cabin. But he stopped abruptly at the sound of a harsh voice.
“Stop where you are,” the voice ordered, “and stick up your hands! Then turn around and get back as fast as you can to that plane of yours.” There was a glint of sunlight on a rifle barrel in the window of the cabin.
Captain Blake stopped, but he did not turn. “Are you Mr. Winslow?” he asked.
“That’s nothing to you! Get out! Quick!”
Blake was thinking fast. Here was the man, without doubt—and he was hostile as an Apache; the man behind that harsh voice meant business. How could he reach him? The inspiration came at once. McGuire was the key.
“If you’re Winslow,” he called in a steady voice, “you don’t want me to go away; you want to talk with me. There’s a young friend of yours in a bad jam. You are the only one who can help.”
“I haven’t any friends,” said the rasping voice: “I don’t want any! Get out!”
“You had one,” said the captain, “whether you wanted him or not. He believed in you—like the other young chap who went with you to the moon.”
THERE was an audible gasp of dismay from the window beyond, and the barrel of the rifle made trembling flickerings in the sun.
“You mean the flyer?” asked the voice, and it seemed to have lost its harsher note. “The pleasant young fellow?”
“I mean McGuire, who helped give decent burial to your friend. And now he has been carried off—out into space—and you can help him. If you’ve a spark of decency in you, you will hear what I have to say.”
The rifle vanished within the cabin; a door opened to frame a picture of a tall man. He was stooped; the years, or solitude, perhaps, had borne heavily upon him; his face was a mat of gray beard that was a continuation of the unkempt hair above. The rifle was still in his hand.
An hour was needed while the bearded man learned the truth. And Blake, too, picked up some facts. He learned to his great surprise that he was talking with an educated man, one who had spent a lifetime in scientific pursuits. And now, as the figure before him seemed more the scientist and less the crazed fabricator of wild fancies, the truth of his claims seemed not so remote.
Half demented now, beyond a doubt! A lifetime of disappointments and one invention after another stolen from him by those who knew more of law than of science. And now he held fortune in the secret of his ship—a secret which he swore should never be given to the world.
“Damn the world!” he snarled. “Did the world ever give anything to me? And what would they do with this? They would prostitute it to their own selfish ends; it would be just one more means to conquer and kill; and the capitalists would have it in their own dirty hands so that new lines of transportation beyond anything they dared dream would be theirs to exploit.”
BLAKE, remembering the history of a commercial age, found no ready reply to that. But he told the man of McGuire and the things that had made him captive; he related what he, himself, had seen in the dark night on Mount Lawson, and he told of the fragmentary message that showed McGuire was still alive.
“There’s only one way to save him,” he urged. “If your ship is what you claim it is—and I believe you one hundred per cent—it is all that can save him from what will undoubtedly be a horrible death. Those things were monsters—inhuman!—and they have bombarded the earth. They will come back in less than a year and a half to destroy us.”
Captain Blake would have said he was no debater, but the argument and persuasion that he used that night would have done credit to a Socrates. His opponent was difficult to convince, and not till the next day did the inventor show Blake his ship.
“Small,” he said as he led the flyer toward it. “Designed just for the moon trip, and I had meant to go alone. But it served; it took us there and back again.”
He threw open a door in the side of the metal cylinder. Blake stood back for only a moment to size up the machine, to observe its smooth duralumin shell and the rounded ends where portholes opened for the expelling of its driving blast. The door opening showed a thick wall that gave insulation. Blake followed the inventor to the interior of the ship.
THE man had seen Winslow examining the thick walls. “It’s cold out there, you know,” he said, and smiled in recollection, “but the generator kept us warm.” He pointed to a simple cylindrical casting aft of the ship’s center part. It was massive, and braced to the framework of the ship to distribute a thrust that Blake knew must be tremendous. Heavy conduits took the blast that it produced and poured it from ports at bow and stern. There were other outlets, too, above and below and on the sides, and electric controls that were manipulated from a central board.
“You’ve got a ship,” Blake admitted, “and it’s a beauty. I know construction, and you’ve got it here. But what is the power? How do you drive it? What throws it out through space?”
“Aside from one other, you will be the only man ever to know.” The bearded man was quiet now and earnest. The wild light had faded from his eyes, and he pondered gravely in making the last and final decision.
“Yes, you shall have it. It may be I have been mistaken. I have known people—some few—who were kindly and decent; I have let the others prejudice me. But there was one who was my companion—and there was McGuire, who was kind and who believed. And now you, who will give your life for a friend and to save humanity!… You shall have it. You shall have the ship! But I will not go with you. I want nothing of glory or fame, and I am too old to fight. My remaining years I choose to spend out here.” He pointed where a window of heavy glass showed the outer world and a grave on a sloping hill.
"UT you shall have full instructions. And, for the present, you may know that it is a continuous explosion that drives the ship. I have learned to decompose water into its components and split them into subatomic form. They reunite to give something other than matter. It is a liquid—liquid energy, though the term is inaccurate—that separates out in two forms, and a fluid ounce of each is the product of thousands of tons of water. The potential energy is all there. A current releases it; the energy components reunite to give matter again—hydrogen and oxygen gas. Combustion adds to their volume through heat.
“It is like firing a cannon in there,”—he pointed now to the massive generator—“a super-cannon of tremendous force and a cannon that fires continuously. The endless pressure of expansion gives the thrust that means a constant acceleration of motion out there where gravity is lost.
“You will note,” he added, “that I said ‘constant acceleration.’ It means building up to speeds that are enormous.”
Blake nodded in half-understanding.
“We will want bigger ships,” he mused. “They must mount guns and be heavy enough to take the recoil. This is only a sample; we must design, experiment, build them! Can it be done? … It must be done!” he concluded and turned to the inventor.
“We don’t know much about those devils of the stars, and they may have means of attack beyond anything we can conceive, but there is just one way to learn: go up there and find out, and take a licking if we have to. Now, how about taking me up a mile or so in the air?”
THE other smiled in self-deprecation. “I like a good fighter,” he said; “I was never one myself. If I had been I would have accomplished more. Yes, you shall go up a mile or so in the air—and a thousand miles beyond.” He turned to close the door and seal it fast.
Beside the instrument board he seated himself, and at his touch the generator of the ship came startlingly to life. It grumbled softly at first, then the hoarse sound swelled to a thunderous roar, while the metal grating surged up irresistibly beneath the captain’s feet. His weight was intolerable. He sank helplessly to the floor….
Blake was white and shaken when he alighted from the ship an hour later, but his eyes were ablaze with excitement. He stopped to seize the tall man by the shoulders.
“I am only a poor devil of a flying man,” he said, “but I am speaking for the whole world right now. You have saved us; you’ve furnished the means. It is up to us now. You’ve given us the right to hope that humanity can save itself, if humanity will do it. That’s my next job—to convince them. We have less than a year and a half….”
THERE was one precious week wasted while Captain Blake chafed and waited for a conference to be arranged at Washington. A spirit of hopelessness had swept over the world—hopelessness and a mental sloth that killed every hope with the unanswerable argument: “What is the use? It is the end.” But a meeting was arranged at Colonel Boynton’s insistence, though his superiors scoffed at what he dared suggest.
There were scientists there who asked him coldly a question or two and shrugged a supercilious shoulder; ranking officers of both army and navy who openly excoriated Colonel Boynton for bringing them to hear the wild tale of a half-demented man. It was this that drove Blake to a cold frenzy.
The weeks of hopeless despair had worn his nerves to the breaking point, and now, with so much to be done, and so little time in which to do it, all requirements of official etiquette were swept aside as he leaped to his feet to face the unbelieving men.
“Damn it!” he shouted, “will you sit here now and quibble over what you think in your wisdom is possible or not. Get outside those doors—there’s an open park beyond—and I’ll knock your technicalities all to hell!”
The door slammed behind him before the words could be spoken to place him under arrest, and he tore across a velvet lawn to leap into a taxi.
There was a rising storm of indignant protest within the room that he had left. There were admirals, purple of face, who made heated remarks about the lack of discipline in the army, and generals who turned accusingly where the big figure of Colonel Boynton was still seated.
It was the Secretary of War who stilled the tumult and claimed the privilege of administering the rebuke which was so plainly needed. “Colonel Boynton,” he said, and there was no effort to soften the cutting edge of sarcasm in his voice, “it was at your request and suggestion that this outrageous meeting was held. Have you any more requests or suggestions?”
The colonel rose slowly to his feet.
“Yes, Mr. Secretary,” he said coldly, “I have. I know Captain Blake. He seldom makes promises; when he does he makes good. My suggestion is that you do what the gentleman said—step outside and see your technicalities knocked to hell.” He moved unhurriedly toward the door.
IT was a half-hour’s wait, and one or two of the more openly skeptical had left when the first roar came faintly from above. Colonel Boynton led the others to the open ground before the building. “I have always found Blake a man of his word,” he said quietly, and pointed upward where a tiny speck was falling from a cloud-flecked sky.
Captain Blake had had little training in the operation of the ship, but he had flown it across the land and had concealed it where fellow officers were sworn to secrecy. And he felt that he knew how to handle the controls.
But the drop from those terrible heights was a fearful thing, and it ended only a hundred feet above the heads of the cowering, shouting humans who crouched under the thunderous blast, where a great shell checked its vertical flight and rebounded to the skies.
Again and again the gleaming cylinder drove at them like a projectile from the mortars of the gods, and it roared and thundered through the air or turned to vanish with incredible speed straight up into the heights, to return and fall again … until finally it hung motionless a foot above the grass from which the uniformed figures had fled. Only Colonel Boynton was there to greet the flyer as he laid his strange craft gently down.
“Nice little show, Captain,” he said, while his broad face broke into the widest of grins. “A damn nice little show! But take that look off of your face. They’ll listen to you now; they’ll eat right out of your hand.”
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Various. 2009. Astounding Stories of Super-Science, January 1931. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/30177/30177-h/30177-h.htm#page109
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