Read CHAPTER 8 of Hunters Out of Space , free online book, by Joseph Everidge Kelleam, on ReadCentral.com.

At their request, eight couples and their children were brought from The Nebula to the cavern. For the crew of the first ship had been old men and the cavern had never known a child’s laughter.

Then Ato led his group back to the moon’s surface.

As a little conveyor belt hoisted him through the tube into the central core of the ship, Jack Odin found himself worrying a bit about Nea. She had decided to go on with them. Due to her experimental interests, Jack had supposed that she would stay with Wolden. But there she was, still carrying that perplexing case of hers. Quiet and sad-eyed, a little smaller than Maya, her face a little sharper, she still looked so much like Maya that Odin couldn’t get his thoughts away from her.

There was one last period of final check-outs. Then Ato gave the signal, standing lean and tall in the control room, with a tight belt about his narrow waist, and Wolden’s slug-horn fastened securely to it.

The Nebula leaped toward the star-studded skies.

Odin watched the moon disappear below them. Mars with its canals and mossy deserts loomed ahead swerved aside, and was behind them, Jupiter with its red clouds and its protean “eye” reached out for them and was left behind. The planets became smaller. They winked at them and cheered them on with a far halloo. Then Pluto loomed ahead, lost and forgotten up there in the night. And to Odin’s surprise, one last tiny planet, frozen to the color of a moonstone, looked at them like a dead thing that could not even remember life and asked them what they were and wearily bade them goodbye.

When the planets were no more than seed-pearls floating in the vast behind them, Ato gave the signal for all to make ready. There was a scurrying aboard ship for couches and over-stuffed chairs. And after the warning bell had ceased clanging, Ato muttered to Odin and Gunnar: “This has been tested enough. It ought to work.”

With one last shrug of his lean shoulders, Ato pulled the lever that threw them into the Fourth Drive.

The stars and the planets became streamers of light. They burst like sky-rockets and a million sparks fell into the void. The sparks winked out and the ship hurtled on through a darkness that seemed to take form before them. It was as though they burrowed through swathes of black cotton.

Once before, Jack Odin had experienced a feeling akin to this. It was the time when he had used Ato’s belt, and Gunnar had flung him into space as though he had been a minnow at the end of a snapping line. But that experience had been momentary. This built itself up until Odin felt himself expanding and contracting at each pulse beat. His heart seemed to beat slower and slower. Waves of smothering pain struck him when they passed the speed of light. Then the pain diminished. He gasped for air, and it seemed to take years to reach his chest. The pain and the feeling of speed went slowly away. They were merely drifting now, as though in a dream, with a feeling of high exhilaration flooding over him. He remembered feeling that way once as a boy when a heavy storm had passed, taking its wracks of clouds with it, and the sinking sun had come out to turn all the trees to emeralds.

And now, beyond life, and beyond death, with eternity curving like a rainbow of light around them, they dashed on and on into the unknown.

Time did not exist. Space had a new concept. Speed was something that advanced them. It was little more than a sensation until Alpha Centauri began to loom larger upon their screens. From their vantage point in Trans-Einsteinian space, it did not look like a star at all. It was two intertwined circular spirals of light, and at the intervals where the two coils met were little nodules of gold.

The crew was given instructions on the anticipated sensations that were to follow.

“It will be like plunging back from immortality to mortality,” Ato told Odin. “Over four years have passed, as light is measured. We have not eaten more than twenty meals.”

He pulled the lever that slowed them out of the Fourth Drive into three-dimensional space. There was the same sickening sensation when they dropped lower than the speed of light. And, braking all the while, they zoomed swiftly down upon the binary suns and their seven worlds.

Odin had been watching the screens for three hours. He felt sick and old over the things that he had seen. Seven worlds all blackened and burned out. Life had been there, but what form of life only Grim Hagen might have told them. They were cindered their atmosphere, which had not been oxygen, had burned away. Ato’s probing instruments found neither liquid nor gas. His screens found an occasional shattered city, where broken spires reached twisted fingers into the vacant sky.

Ato was watching the needles upon another machine. “The Old Ship has been here. What happened I do not know. They may have defied Grim Hagen. Maybe they refused to join him. Certainly, in all the worlds, billions of them, there must be many where conflict and submission are unknown. These people might not have been able to understand Grim Hagen’s ultimatum. They may have died trying to figure out what the strange voice from the sky was talking about. On the other hand, he may not have given them an ultimatum at all. This may have been a practice assault like Hitler’s attack upon Poland, just to see how much death could be inflicted. We shall never know.”

They flashed away into space. Ato threw them into the Fourth Drive again. And once more the lights from the far-off stars circled like fireflies. And eternity curved in a rainbow of light about them.

Hours no longer existed, but it seemed to Jack Odin that many hours passed while he tried to get that sick, cold feeling out of his chest. Time crawled by while he tried to resolve his thoughts. Perhaps Wolden had been right. Men did not belong here. Man and Brons were orphans of the stars. Was there some element upon the earth that made them vicious? Was there any way that they could come out here into space on equal terms with living things? Or must they always come as conquerors, eager to fight, or refugees who soon became resentful of the natives. Would the worlds out there become mere plundered planets with a portion of the aborigines’ land grudgingly set apart for reservations?

Of course, Grim Hagen was a Bron one of the worst of them. But Brons and men had lived so close together for so long that there was little difference between them. Odin knew some men who, given the ship and the weapons, would have done as Grim Hagen had done. And would have arrogantly demanded a medal, besides.

Oh, well, there was no sense in staying in the doldrums forever. Out there, time was on the side of the stars. If a demon of discord stole in, time could wait

They readied themselves for combat. Ato’s instruments were probing space for a sign of the Old Ship. The ancient weapons and some new ones were now in place. Each man took his turn at practice.

But Gunnar, although he was put in charge of one of the needle-nosed guns, took the service lightly. In his spare time he busied himself with his and Odin’s swords.

“Grim Hagen has all of these. We have defenses for such weapons. So has Grim Hagen. The total of all such endeavor will be zero. And then, when the chips are down, it will be the old swords and the knives and the strong arms. Wait and see ”

However, Odin soon learned that there was one new weapon aboard ship. At the request of Nea, Ato called a meeting of his ten captains.

The girl was dressed neatly in a white skirt and blouse. She wore a red ribbon in her hair. Odin had not known her to take any interest in clothes. Ordinarily she was the poorest dressed woman on the ship.

Now, she produced her invention with a proud toss of black curls and a flush of excitement on her pale face.

“My father’s work is finished,” she told them proudly. “The Scientist back there within the moon gave me the last idea. But, all in all, it is my father’s invention. Had he lived, he would have perfected it. Just as I have done.” Her eyes flashed. “Yes, some who are within this room thought that he wasted his time away. He washed beakers in the labs because some of you said that he produced nothing ”

Ato’s face was thin. “Nea, the past is behind us. Why carry your resentment with you? Your father died a hero’s death. We have honored him.”

Again Nea’s dark eyes flashed. “Oh, once he was dead you thought very well of him. And as for resentment, isn’t this whole trip being made because you resent Grim Hagen ”

Ato’s face was growing darker. “You signed the ship’s articles, Nea. We go to rescue our friends and loved ones. We go as a police force to punish one who has done much evil ”

A grizzled Bron nodded in agreement. “Yes, Nea, this talk serves no purpose. Get along with your invention.”

“Very well. I asked for a live thing, but Ato would not agree.”

Again Ato was on the defensive. “There are not a dozen pets on the ship. I do not approve of such experiments. Besides, the batteries are already set up.” He pointed to a row of dry-cells, connected together and wired to a large volt-meter upon the wall.

“All right.” Nea threw a switch that put the batteries in circuit. The needle of the gauge moved over to its farthest point. “Now,” she told them. “You shall see. But be still. I am sure I can control it ”

Odin thought there was just a bit of doubt in her voice. If so, it would only be natural.

She opened the case and took out something which still looked to Jack Odin like a bowling ball except that it was studded with little brads of copper and a swatch of fine, silky wires was wrapped around it.

She pressed a button upon its surface. It began to hum. Slowly it rose into the air. The silky wires drooped down. They writhed and probed about.

“This is as near as man has ever come to making a living thing,” Nea explained. “It moves. It reacts to sensations. It makes its own energy. Watch!”

Slowly the globe with its trailing tentacles moved about the room. It whined hungrily when it found the batteries. It hovered above them and the silky wires fanned out. Then it darted down. The wires felt over the batteries and their connections softly eagerly. The whine changed to a purr of enjoyment. The thing fed. And slowly the pointer upon the volt-meter moved over to zero.

Nea raised a tiny whistle to her mouth. There was no sound, but the copper-studded globe seemed to hear. It raised itself back into the air. The silken wires wrapped themselves about the round body. It came back to Nea slowly almost defiantly and settled into her arms like a plump cat returning to a doting mistress.

Nea pressed the button again and put it back into its case.

“Wonderful,” Ato applauded. “I move that we give Nea a vote of thanks.”

“But what earthly good is it?” Gunnar asked. “I could have swatted it with a broom.”

“And you would have died.” Nea turned upon him like a tigress. “It feeds upon electricity and it can discharge a lightning bolt. Don’t you see? There are few weapons that can resist it. But that is not all. In your own brain, Gunnar, there is a charge of electricity. It may be the only real life that you have within you. This can take it all away. That was why I asked for a live thing to demonstrate ”

The grizzled Bron who had spoken once before now laughed good-humoredly. “Demonstrate it on Gunnar,” he suggested.

“And I will thump your skull ” Gunnar was ready to go for him, but Odin grabbed the little giant’s arm.

“He jokes. Besides, you are ruining the girl’s show. This means much to her.”

Nea gave him a grateful glance. The council voted their thanks to Nea and a tribute to her father. She was assigned a half-dozen helpers to fashion as many of the globes as she could. They adjourned.

As The Nebula drove on, it became harder and harder for Odin to judge time. He could only gauge it by some event such as the council meeting and say “before this” or “after that.”

He and Gunnar were with Ato in the control room when suddenly warning bells began to jangle and red lights flashed on and off.

Ato adjusted the largest screen. And there, slowly revolving like an hour-glass of gold amid uprushing sparks of sun and flame, was The Old Ship.

Ato pointed to a bright star. “Aldebaran. They are headed there.”

His voice was shaking just a bit when he called into the speaker: “Battle stations, everyone!”

Gunnar took off for the needle-nosed instrument which he had grown to hate. Odin stood by to help with the screens.

“Watch forward now!” Ato warned. “Sight at thirty degrees above the equator of The Nebula. Adjust for Doppler X over Y. We have him on the screens now. This means that he can get a fix on us. Careful now ”

As he watched the screen, Jack Odin saw three tiny sparks leap from Grim Hagen’s ship. They danced toward them, growing as they came. At first they were blue, but as they filled the screen, almost hiding the Old Ship from his vision, they changed to amber and topaz.

Bells and klaxons shrieked their warnings.

Ato watched and waited. Just as the three growing lights filled the screen he touched a lever. The Nebula danced away. Breathless, Jack Odin altered the screens and watched the three globes of flame hurtle past them.

Far away now, they slowed like living things, puzzled at having lost their prey.

Slowed they merged together

And turned back upon their quarry!