"But didn't you feel anything, Javo?" Strain was apparent in every line of Tula's taut, bare body. "Nothing at all?"
"Nothing whatever." The one called Javo relaxed from his rigid concentration. "Nothing has changed. Nor will it."
"That conclusion is indefensible!" Tula snapped. "With the promised return of the Masters there must and will be changes. Didn't any of you feel anything?"
Her hot, demanding eyes swept the group; a group whose like, except for physical perfection, could be found in any nudist colony.
No one except Tula had felt a thing.
"That fact is not too surprising," Javo said finally. "You have the most sensitive receptors of us all. But are you sure?"
"I am sure. It was the thought-form of a living Master."
"Do you think that the Master perceived your web?"
"It is certain. Those who built us are stronger than we."
"That is true. As they promised, then, so long and long ago, our Masters are returning home to us."
Jarvis Hilton of Terra, the youngest man yet to be assigned to direct any such tremendous deep-space undertaking as Project Theta Orionis, sat in conference with his two seconds-in-command. Assistant Director Sandra Cummings, analyst-synthesist and semantician, was tall, blonde and svelte. Planetographer William Karns--a black-haired, black-browed, black-eyed man of thirty--was third in rank of the scientific group.
"I'm telling you, Jarve, you can't have it both ways," Karns declared. "Captain Sawtelle is old-school Navy brass. He goes strictly by the book. So you've got to draw a razor-sharp line; exactly where the Advisory Board's directive puts it. And next time he sticks his ugly puss across that line, kick his face in. You've been Caspar Milquetoast Two ever since we left Base."
"That's the way it looks to you?" Hilton's right hand became a fist. "The man has age, experience and ability. I've been trying to meet him on a ground of courtesy and decency."
"Exactly. And he doesn't recognize the existence of either. And, since the Board rammed you down his throat instead of giving him old Jeffers, you needn't expect him to."
"You may be right, Bill. What do you think, Dr. Cummings?"
The girl said: "Bill's right. Also, your constant appeasement isn't doing the morale of the whole scientific group a bit of good."
"Well, I haven't enjoyed it, either. So next time I'll pin his ears back. Anything else?"
"Yes, Dr. Hilton, I have a squawk of my own. I know I was rammed down your throat, but just when are you going to let me do some work?"
"None of us has much of anything to do yet, and won't have until we light somewhere. You're off base a country mile."
"I'm not off base. You did want Eggleston, not me."
"Sure I did. I've worked with him and know what he can do. But I'm not holding a grudge about it."
"No? Why, then, are you on first-name terms with everyone in the scientific group except me? Supposedly your first assistant?"
"That's easy!" Hilton snapped. "Because you've been carrying chips on both shoulders ever since you came aboard ... or at least I thought you were." Hilton grinned suddenly and held out his hand. "Sorry, Sandy--I'll start all over again."
"I'm sorry too, Chief." They shook hands warmly. "I was pretty stiff, I guess, but I'll be good."
"You'll go to work right now, too. As semantician. Dig out that directive and tear it down. Draw that line Bill talked about."
"Can do, boss." She swung to her feet and walked out of the room, her every movement one of lithe and easy grace.
Karns followed her with his eyes. "Funny. A trained-dancer Ph.D. And a Miss America type, like all the other women aboard this spacer. I wonder if she'll make out."
"So do I. I still wish they'd given me Eggy. I've never seen an executive-type female Ph.D. yet that was worth the cyanide it would take to poison her."
"That's what Sawtelle thinks of you, too, you know."
"I know; and the Board does know its stuff. So I'm really hoping, Bill, that she surprises me as much as I intend to surprise the Navy."
Alarm bells clanged as the mighty Perseus blinked out of overdrive. Every crewman sprang to his post.
"Mister Snowden, why did we emerge without orders from me?" Captain Sawtelle bellowed, storming into the control room three jumps behind Hilton.
"The automatics took control, sir," he said, quietly.
"Automatics! I give the orders!"
"In this case, Captain Sawtelle, you don't," Hilton said. Eyes locked and held. To Sawtelle, this was a new and strange co-commander. "I would suggest that we discuss this matter in private."
"Very well, sir," Sawtelle said; and in the captain's cabin Hilton opened up.
"For your information, Captain Sawtelle, I set my inter-space coupling detectors for any objective I choose. When any one of them reacts, it trips the kickers and we emerge. During any emergency outside the Solar System I am in command--with the provision that I must relinquish command to you in case of armed attack on us."
"Where do you think you found any such stuff as that in the directive? It isn't there and I know my rights."
"It is, and you don't. Here is a semantic chart of the whole directive. As you will note, it overrides many Navy regulations. Disobedience of my orders constitutes mutiny and I can--and will--have you put in irons and sent back to Terra for court-martial. Now let's go back."
In the control room, Hilton said, "The target has a mass of approximately five hundred metric tons. There is also a significant amount of radiation characteristic of uranexite. You will please execute search, Captain Sawtelle."
And Captain Sawtelle ordered the search.
"What did you do to the big jerk, boss?" Sandra whispered.
"What you and Bill suggested," Hilton whispered back. "Thanks to your analysis of the directive--pure gobbledygook if there ever was any--I could. Mighty good job, Sandy."
Ten or fifteen more minutes passed. Then:
"Here's the source of radiation, sir," a searchman reported. "It's a point source, though, not an object at this range."
"And here's the artifact, sir," Pilot Snowden said. "We're coming up on it fast. But ... but what's a skyscraper skeleton doing out here in interstellar space?"
As they closed up, everyone could see that the thing did indeed look like the metallic skeleton of a great building. It was a huge cube, measuring well over a hundred yards along each edge. And it was empty.
"That's one for the book," Sawtelle said.
"And how!" Hilton agreed. "I'll take a boat ... no, suits would be better. Karns, Yarborough, get Techs Leeds and Miller and suit up."
"You'll need a boat escort," Sawtelle said. "Mr. Ashley, execute escort Landing Craft One, Two, and Three."
The three landing craft approached that enigmatic lattice-work of structural steel and stopped. Five grotesquely armored figures wafted themselves forward on pencils of force. Their leader, whose suit bore the number "14", reached a mammoth girder and worked his way along it up to a peculiar-looking bulge. The whole immense structure vanished, leaving men and boats in empty space.
Sawtelle gasped. "Snowden! Are you holding 'em?"
"No, sir. Faster than light; hyperspace, sir."
"Mr. Ashby, did you have your interspace rigs set?"
"No, sir. I didn't think of it, sir."
"Doctor Cummings, why weren't yours out?"
"I didn't think of such a thing, either--any more than you did," Sandra said.
Ashby, the Communications Officer, had been working the radio. "No reply from anyone, sir," he reported.
"Oh, no!" Sandra exclaimed. Then, "But look! They're firing pistols--especially the one wearing number fourteen--but pistols?"
"Recoil pistols--sixty-threes--for emergency use in case of power failure," Ashby explained. "That's it ... but I can't see why all their power went out at once. But Fourteen--that's Hilton--is really doing a job with that sixty-three. He'll be here in a couple of minutes."
And he was. "Every power unit out there--suits and boats both--drained," Hilton reported. "Completely drained. Get some help out there fast!"
In an enormous structure deep below the surface of a far-distant world a group of technicians clustered together in front of one section of a two-miles long control board. They were staring at a light that had just appeared where no light should have been.
"Someone's brain-pan will be burned out for this," one of the group radiated harshly. "That unit was inactivated long ago and it has not been reactivated."
"Someone committed an error, Your Loftiness?"
"Silence, fool! Stretts do not commit errors!"
As soon as it was clear that no one had been injured, Sawtelle demanded, "How about it, Hilton?"
"Structurally, it was high-alloy steel. There were many bulges, possibly containing mechanisms. There were drive-units of a non-Terran type. There were many projectors, which--at a rough guess--were a hundred times as powerful as any I have ever seen before. There were no indications that the thing had ever been enclosed, in whole or in part. It certainly never had living quarters for warm-blooded, oxygen-breathing eaters of organic food."
Sawtelle snorted. "You mean it never had a crew?"
"Bah! What other kind of intelligent life is there?"
"I don't know. But before we speculate too much, let's look at the tri-di. The camera may have caught something I missed."
It hadn't. The three-dimensional pictures added nothing.
"It probably was operated either by programmed automatics or by remote control," Hilton decided, finally. "But how did they drain all our power? And just as bad, what and how is that other point source of power we're heading for now?"
"What's wrong with it?" Sawtelle asked.
"Its strength. No matter what distance or reactant I assume, nothing we know will fit. Neither fission nor fusion will do it. It has to be practically total conversion!"