C O S M O S
BATTLE AT NEPTURE
written and illustrated by Sara Light-Waller
Awarded Grand Prize in the 2020 Cosmos Prize
“People of Sol! Prepare to welcome your conqueror. I will accept nothing less than complete surrender. Fight me and I will destroy your planets utterly.”
The message repeated. Every ship in the Sol fleet heard it, as did the people of all habited planets. It was also heard by Dos-Tev, deposed prince of Lemnis, as he rocketed at furious speed from Luna.
Inside the small bullet-shaped craft, incredible gravitational forces tore at Dos-Tev’s body. His friends were already dead, wise Mea-Quin and brave Bullo. His heart ached with remorse, for it was he who’d insisted on this mad flight. But it was necessary to warn the fleet before it was too late.
With slow and agonizing movements he forced clumsy fingers to flick a switch and open a tight beam transmission to Ay-Artz, the Lemnisian tyrant. Dos-Tev’s vision was blurred and he leaned hard against the console for support. “You will never succeed, Ay-Artz,” he rasped. “I will stop you!”
Mocking laughter was his answer. “With one tiny ship? How will you do this, Dos-Tev?”
Dos-Tev’s head ached as if held in a contracting vise. He leaned closer to the visiplate, squinting against the dizziness. “The people of the system will fight. And they will beat you, Ay-Artz.”
“That we will see. I have scanned your ship. Your days are done. Good-bye, prince.” The transmission ended with more gloating laughter.
Aboard Earth’s flagship, a small blip appeared on the radar. “Sir,” said the communications officer, “I’ve got a ship coming in hot from Luna.”
“Show me,” said Alan Martin, Flight Director of the Earth fleet. He was a surprisingly young man for a flight director. But he was important—to Earth and to the system. It was because of him that Earth achieved space travel. It was his vision that organized Sol’s fleet in defense of the system and his indefatigable will that drove it. Alan Martin was the reason that the people of the Sol had a fighting chance against the oncoming enemy, Ay-Artz.
An image of the racing ship appeared on the visiplate.
Martin’s keen blue eyes widened. “What the hell! That’s Dos-Tev’s ship! I remember it from Copernicus.”
“Sir, at this rate of speed they’ll be here in seconds.”
“Open communications,” Martin commanded.
Ferdinand Stone, brilliant physicist and advisor to Martin, stood off to one side of the bridge, his gaze fixed on a panel near the screen where a blue light pulsed in a beating rhythm. “Alan,” he said. “There’s a coded transmission coming in from that ship. It’s not verbal, though, it’s…mathematical.”
“Can you translate it?”
Stone’s eyes narrowed and his brow furrowed in thought. “Yes, I think so. One moment.” He withdrew a device from the pocket of his uniform, like a slide-rule but much more complex with many obscure measures. As Dos-Tev’s ship streaked closer, Stone’s fingers worked the tool with practiced ease.
The bridge navigator turned in his seat. “I estimate twenty seconds to intercept, Director. Their deceleration is brutal, four or five gravities, at least. The ship may sweep past before she can stop.”
“Order all fleet ships out of its way. Stone, do you have that message decoded yet?”
“Yes,” the old physicist muttered. “Great Zeus, it’s about that devil, Ay-Artz! Dos-Tev says that his weapons are unlike anything we’ve seen and…no, that can’t be right. There’s something about the Wrongness of Space and the fourth dimension…whatever can that mean?”
The Lemnisian ship hurtled closer, its pace slackening but slowly. “Pace that ship, I want to be alongside when she stops.”
Earth’s mighty flagship throbbed into motion. As Dos-Tev’s ship rocketed past, the Washington moved to follow. Within moments the two ships were side-by-side, the smaller ship magnetized to the larger one’s hull. Airlocks were matched for ease of access.
There was no immediate response from inside Dos-Tev’s ship and Martin feared the worst. He ordered a team of medics to the airlock. Crewmen in space suits arrived with laser saws to pierce the hull of the smaller ship. Martin stood by just inside the Washington, waiting. Only Dos-Tev and his friends know the extent of Ay-Artz’s power, he thought. We need that information, without it— He shoved away those anxious thoughts and nodded to the crew chief.
“Alright, start cutting through.”
Laser saws were raised. Then, a crewman cried out, “Wait!” The airlock handle was turning from the inside. “Someone’s still alive in there!”
Men leaned forward, eager to see. The wheel-shaped hatch lock turned with painstaking slowness and they rushed to assist. The door opened and Dos-Tev clawed his way out of the ship. The Lemnisian’s eyes were blood-shot and his once athletic body, bent and twisted. He staggered and grabbed the airlock wall for support. A cluster of medics surged forward and surrounded him. He waved them off.
“I am done for,” he panted. “My friends are already dead. Martin…Martin!” Dos-Tev coughed and half-collapsed into a medic’s arms.
Martin rushed forward to help his friend.
Dos-Tev leaned towards him, broken body shaking with effort. He sagged against the medics supporting him. When he spoke his voice was a weak rasp. “We…did not send you to the Sun. That was the Wrongness of Space.” His breath came in staccato gasps.
“We can talk about that later. Right now you need help. Doctor, get him to the infirmary on the double.”
Dos-Tev shook his head in determined negation. “No! You must listen, Martin. Ay-Artz’s weapons are based on technology you’ve never seen. We…couldn’t give it to you as it requires….” Bright blood trickled from his nose and splattered onto the deck. “It was too much of an advancement…had to help you build the ships…. But there is something…in my ship. Mea-Quin made notations about…fourth-dimensional travel…you can use it to…to…it may yet save you.” Dos-Tev collapsed and spoke no more.
The doctor felt for a pulse. “He’s dead, sir.”
Martin hung his head in despair. After a moment he straightened up, expression resolute. “Professor Stone, come with me. We need that information.”
Inside the small ship, Mea-Quin slumped in a chair. Bullo, the giant guardsman sprawled on the deck. Both men showed signs of their hasty flight — burst blood vessels and pop-eyes. Both were quite obviously dead.
Dos-Tev’s ship was far more advanced than anything the Terrans had seen. Martin inspected the control boards of the hyper-spacial drive. He couldn’t understand half of what he saw but the alien machines thrilled and fascinated him, nonetheless.
Stone, meanwhile, searched the ship with mechanical thoroughness. He directed crewmen to gather many of the strange devices. Others removed the dead Lemnisians to the Washington’s morgue where they would be flash frozen until it was determined what was to be done with them.
Stone found a small star-shaped recording device near the atom compass on the main console. He tried to activate it but the controls resisted him. “Alan, look at this. I believe this machine has a telepathic component. I’m not sure I can use it.”
He handed Martin the device and the flight director turned it over in his hand, studying it. “Maybe the Venusians can help,” he said thoughtfully. “I want a pow-wow with them anyway.”
“Are you sure there’s time for that?”
Martin brushed back a lock of his unruly black hair. “We need that information, Professor. We’ve lost too many men to the automatons and after that near-disaster with the Sun… No. I won’t go off half-cocked this time. If there’s another way, I want it!”
“Dead? Blood of Thorth!” Zinlo of Olba’s handsome face scowled at Martin. The image of the Emperor of Venus projected from a split screen, his face taking up the entire left side.
On the right side, the hairy face of Fax Gatola of Mars looked thoughtful. “Their ship’s gravitational design was greatly flawed. There was no need for such a high acceleration curve. Had they asked us Martians…”
“Have you no respect?” Zinlo, the Venusian flared. “Dos-Tev and his comrades are dead.”
The Martian shrugged. “I knew when I first saw their plans that the Lemnisians weren’t as advanced as they claimed. Why should we imagine that Ay-Artz’s weapons will be too great for us? Our Martian war ships…”
“Are no match for the mighty Venusian fleet!”
Gatola bristled. “That is complete and utter—”
“Enough!” barked Martin. He stood between the kitty-cornered screens. “We’re short on time. If we work together we’ll decode the message faster.”
“Vorn Vangal is working on it,” Zinlo said. “Until then let us collect our comrades from Saturn, Callisto, and Neptune. This is mightiest fleet the system has ever seen. I’m sure that even Ay-Artz will shudder when he sees it. We’ll meet you at the rendezvous point.” His image vanished from the screen.
Fax Gatola remained a moment longer. “Earth was long downtrodden by the automatons and fell far behind Radak in progress. Your planet is finally catching up because of you, Alan Martin. Don’t lose faith now.” Then the Martian also faded from view.
Martin flinched inwardly at the compliment. In all honesty, he didn’t know how he’d gotten this far. Back on Earth, billions of people, including his own dear wife Theresa, gambled their lives on him. And now the fleet—people of so many different worlds—relied on him, too. Once, he’d feared that extra-terrestrials of the system would be too different from the peoples of Earth. But now he knew differently. True, each of the races differed in complexion, eye and hair coloring. Some were not even remotely human-like in shape. But from what he’d seen so far, they all shared similar ambitions, lusts, and desires. At root, they were all people sharing the same sun.
I won’t disappoint them, Martin thought grimly. We’ll find some way to beat Ay-Artz. We must!
“There’s been a battle on the far side of Jupiter,” the Callistonian commander, Parcele, reported. “When my children and I picked up the signal, we raced from our world but we were too late. We found nothing but space debris.”
Aboard the Washington, Martin’s lips thinned. “Alright. Keep trying to contact them. We’ll meet you at the battle site.”
“We’ll see you soon, Martin.” On the screen, Parcele made gesture indicating forward motion to the Callistonian beauties working at the consoles behind him. “Onwards,” he commanded them before his image faded.
“What could have happened to the Saturnians?” Stone wondered.
“We’ll have to ask them when we get there.” Suddenly, a thrill of excitement ran up Martin’s spine. When Nardony, the Russian, destroyed the automatons of Earth with his vibrational machine, Martin had felt relief but not security. It had been done by methods unknown to most men. But now, alongside the men and women of the fleet, he felt a swelling pride. He surveyed the bridge officers and Captain Malcom at the helm. Whatever comes, he thought, we’re ready now. He felt it in his bones.
The space fleet of the inner planets—ships of Earth, Venus, and Mars, two hundred strong—plunged into the Asteroid Belt anti-sunwards, towards Jupiter.
The Terran ships were sleek, dirigible-shaped rockets with rear fins and noses painted in brightly colored designs, visually distinguished by regiment. The flagship, Washington, bore the ensign of the Allied Solar System Fleet and a stylized eagle.
The Venusians had spherical ships with mechanical arrays on zenith and nadir. The complex assemblies created resonance fields that propelled and protected each craft.
The ships of Mars were mathematically-precise tetradecagons which used gravity as a push-pull force.
It was slow going through the asteroid field especially for so large a fleet. Meteorometers sang constant warnings as rocky objects, some tiny and some frighteningly large, moved in seemingly random patterns caused by swirling drift. Sometimes, rocky debris collided with great force creating massive explosions. Shockwaves spread out in energetic ripples affecting all the ships nearby.
Aboard the Venusian flagship Vorn Vangal, elderly advisor to Emperor Zinlo, reclined in his chair, apparently asleep. But he was not asleep, he was in a state of deep, meditative contemplation. His keen mind worked to understand Mea-Quin’s calculations about their fourth-dimensional escape from the Wrongness of Space. The general principle he understood easily, but the details of the Lemnisian science eluded him. Finally, Vorn Vangal opened his eyes and sent a telepathic message to Emperor Zinlo on the bridge. Once the message was sent he closed his eyes again and returned to his meditative state.
Zinlo received Vorn Vangal’s message with dismay. Immediately, he sent a communications beam to the Washington. “Martin, I have Vorn Vangal’s initial report. I wish the news was better. They describe a journey though parallel dimensional spaces, shifting from one to another until they finally returned to our own universe. It was a haphazard journey directed mainly by chance. I don’t see how that information can help us.”
“Neither do I.” The young flight director’s mouth set in a taut, grim line.
The Venusian ruler looked thoughtful. “On Copernicus Vorn Vangal spoke to the Saturnian delegates and they seemed to understand this type of travel better. Their spaceship moves in a similar fashion to what Mea-Quin describes. Perhaps the Saturnians…?”
Martin shook his head. “Ay-Artz is nearing the edge of the system. We haven’t the time for science experiments.”
Zinlo fingered the wickedly curved sword at this belt. “I agree. We have the combined might of the entire system at our command, Alan Martin. We will prevail.”
Martin nodded crisply then broke the connection.
Aboard the Callistonian flagship, the communications web suddenly hummed into a higher register. The communications officer, a gorgeous yet unremarkable blonde, one of a crew of stunning, strong-willed women, turned towards the captain’s chair. She regarded Parcele with a look of distain. “The web has caught a message from the Saturnian flagship.”
“Put it on the main console, child. Then contact the Washington and interlace this communication.”
Immediately, the image of a Saturnian appeared on the screen. His unhuman body swayed slightly above the single tentacle supporting it. His eye stared unblinking at Parcele. “I am Kama-Loo, now in command of the Saturnian fleet. Pross Mere-Mer is dead, and we have just saved the Neptunian contingent from falling into the red spot on Jupiter.” Kama-Loo’s jell darkened with emotion as he related the space battle with Elo Hava.
Parcele listened with narrowed eyes. “Send us your coordinates and we’ll rendezvous with you.”
Kama-Loo did as requested and then informed Parcele that the Neptunian commander wished to speak with him. The Saturnian vanished from the screen, replaced by another remarkable figure—Bar Steepa. The Neptunian projected a harmony of racing colors across his sphere-like body. Somehow the play of colors seemed insistent. The round body swayed on three lower appendages and his upper tubes moved in a pattern suggesting gesture.
Parcele frowned and rubbed his jaw. “The communication web is not translating his speech. Add additional power to it. At once!”
On the screen, Bar Steepa’s sphere became a dark, pearly grey color. One of his stemmed eyes turned to look at something out of view while the other stared fixedly at Parcele. His three upper tubes fluttered again.
“We have limited capability to translate light into speech, Father, only what was gathered during the meeting at Copernicus. I will do what I can but I don’t have high hopes.” The communications officer made an adjustment to the controls and suddenly Bar Steepa’s words come through the register. “…at Neptune…calling…visibeam…close…can’t see….wait! The visibeam…”
“By the System Gods!” Parcele erupted as he surged to his feet. “This is intolerable, we’re only getting every third word.”
“I’m sorry, Father Parcele,” said the blonde coolly. “We can do no better.”
Alan Martin’s image appeared on one half of the visiplate, while Bar Steepa continued to color and gesture on the other half.
“We can work the translation matrix from here, Parcele,” Martin said. “We’ll patch you in.”
Suddenly, a simulated voice replaced the previous fragments. “Do you understand?” Bar Steepa asked impatiently. “Reports are coming in. Our beams have detected movement within the shoals at the edge of the system. With Pluto outside the field at this time of year, Neptune will be the first planet they encounter. The Saturnians can be there almost instantaneously. We have asked them to take our one remaining ship and go there straightaway.” The Neptunian’s skin colored questioningly. “How long before the rest of the fleet can join us?”
“We estimate four hours to Neptune,” Martin replied. From behind him, Stone whispered urgently into his ear. He nodded then re-focused on Bar Steepa. “We will do all we can to beat Ay-Artz to Neptune.”
Bar Steepa colored his approval. “We will await your arrival.” He vanished from the screen and Kama-Loo returned.
Martin gestured at Ferdinand Stone.
“Your dimensional car travels through the fifth dimension,” Stone said. It was not a question.
“That is the principle, yes.”
“I need to understand more about it. Dos-Tev died before he could give us complete information about the fourth-dimensional opener. Your dimensional car may provide the critical information necessary to build one of our own.”
Another Saturnian, Fo-Peta, appeared on the screen. His jell colored gravely. “We cannot wait. But there is another way. We have a small car, one that we took from the Hadean Overlords. We could give it to you for study.”
Stone nodded agreement. “That will do nicely.”
Fo-Peta colored his assent. “We will leave it for you at these coordinates. The Callistonians are close now, they can retrieve it. We must go.”
“Good luck,” Martin said. “We’ll meet you at the rendezvous point.”
The Saturnians disappeared from the screen.
“Martin, we will collect the Saturnian craft and await you,” Parcele said.
Aboard the Washington, Ferdinand Stone’s eyes were bright. “Alan, put a spy beam on that ship as soon as the Callistonians retrieve it. I have an idea.” He clapped Martin on the shoulder, then left the bridge, heading for his laboratory.
When the giant Saturnian sphere teleported away from Jupiter, it left behind a small spacecraft. The Callistonian flagship netted it and waited for the rest of the fleet to arrive.
Technicians aboard the Washington played a spy beam over the dimensional car, transmitting the information to Ferdinand Stone’s lab. Martin, meanwhile, threw himself into preparations for the battle to come. Across his desk spread many maps of the solar system, pieced together from the peoples of all the worlds. He picked up a Neptunian report about the edge of the system and studied it. According to Bar Steepa’s people there was another asteroid belt beyond Pluto, this one far larger than the one between Mars and Jupiter. Certainly, it would slow down Ay-Artz’s progress, but for how long?
Martin put down the paper and leaned back in his seat. He ran a hand through his hair. Dos-Tev’s words gnawed at him. What kind of super-weapons did Ay-Artz have? He took a sip of tepid coffee. No point worrying about it until they knew more.
His gaze returned to the Neptunian report. He picked up a pen and twiddled it in his fingers. An old memory played at the edges of his mind. Something from old Earth history, a long, long time ago.
Suddenly, the memory clarified. “Of course,” he muttered and began writing new orders.
“Space-Time can be warped, but bypassed completely? I don’t see any way to do it,” Vorn Vangal stated flatly from a visiplate in Stone’s laboratory aboard the Washington.
Stone scowled. “There’s that dimensional opener device they described. We’d just have to build it.”
“Ripping a hole in Space and Time is not the answer!”
From another screen, Fax Gatola looked askance. “I see a way to do it, but there’d be no way to map a course through that mess of dimensions. We simply haven’t the time.”
Stone made a small sound of surprise. His eyes widened. “What did you just say?”
Gatola shrugged his shaggy shoulders. “We’ll engage Ay-Artz’s fleet in three hours, barely enough time to —”
“Time! Why that’s it, of course!” Stone’s immense intellect, honed to near machine-like functioning through years of study of the automatons, spun off in precise calculations. “Time is the variable that’s been missing in our estimates! Listen, we assumed that time is a linear progression but of course, it is not. In fourth-dimensional space one progresses without moving linearly. Everything happens at once.”
“Not exactly,” corrected Fax Gatola. “One’s personal experience would appear to be linear, while everything around you moved in a quantum wave. Jumping in time.”
“But the Saturnian dimensional car bypasses the fourth dimension entirely,” said Vorn Vangal. “It moves from the third dimension directly to the fifth, thus moving from place to place, instantaneously.”
“That’s it,” Stone agreed. “From one place to another in no time. If this is true, as our Saturnian friends insist that it is, we must accept the fact that our theories of Space-Time are wrong. Can’t you see that?” His stared at the alien faces on the visiplates with a hawk-like expression.
“So the haphazard journey that Dos-Tev and his friends took—” Vorn Vangal started.
“Wasn’t through the fourth dimension at all but the fifth!” concluded Fax Gatola triumphantly.
Stone nodded his agreement. “Using principles of this dimensional car, we can move any of our ships from place to place instantaneously. Combine that with Mea-Quin’s formulae and we can project objects into fifth dimensional space.”
Gatola nodded approvingly. “Theoretically possible, but we will need to create a matter converter and projector beam. We’ll have little time to make them, never mind test them.” His strange oval eyes glinted. “Fortunately, my gravitation beams can be modified to create a projector.”
“Vorn Vangal, will you help me?” Stone asked. “I believe that by using Mea-Quin’s equations I can create a matter converter.”
“Gladly. I will come aboard to assist you. But I ask again, do we have enough time?”
“We’re going to have to hope so,” Stone replied grimly.
The Saturnian ship, with one remaining Neptunian vessel inside her, hovered near Neptune. Within his own ship, Bar Steepa stood on firm tubes, his coloring intent, and considered the battle to come. Princess Teena glided nearby, her delicate tubes trembling a little as she watched her beloved husband at the ship’s controls.
Tranda, Emperor of Neptune, studied the information sent by spy beam. His skin shrank a little as he realized the immensity of the enemy ships. “We must hold them here. We can’t allow them any closer to Neptune.”
“That we will do,” hued Steepa, his colors flashing bravely.
Teena’s lovely pink eyes rotated to look at her royal brother. “How long before the rest of the fleet arrives?” Her aura was subdued, fearful.
“Ay-Artz will arrive first,” Tranda colored.
Teena’s lower tubes wavered under her. Steepa moved quickly to keep her from falling. He wrapped his tubes lovingly around his wife and colored encouragingly. “We’ll beat them, beloved. Never fear.”
“I don’t doubt, my love. It is simply that I fear losing you.”
Tranda’s colors flashed a warning. “Steepa, the enemy is coming, pay attention!”
Bar Steepa released Teena and made sure that she was firm on her tubes before he moved back to the controls.
An urgent communication came in from the Washington. “This is Director Martin. The rest of the fleet will arrive at Neptune in twenty minutes. Until then we need you to enter the debris field and hold Ay-Artz’s ships there. Can you do it?”
Tranda colored his perplexity. “Enter the shoals? But that’s insane.”
“Dangerous, yes,” agreed Martin, “but far less for your smaller ships than Ay Artz’s entire fleet. My spy beams show that they’re pushing through in a staggered line. Delay them until we can get there. We’ll form a blockade and blast them as they emerge from the asteroid field.”
Bar Steepa’s color brightened with excitement. “We’ll do it! Never fear.”
The image of Kama-Loo, the Saturnian commander, appeared on the visiplate. “As will we, Martin. There’s a narrow passage where the drift is more widely dispersed not too far into the field. We’ll hold them there for as long as we can.” His single eye turned to Bar Steepa. “Are you ready?”
“We’re ready,” flashed Bar Steepa. “May the Trident protect us all!”
Kama-Loo floated to the control board at the base of the immense Saturnian craft. Above him, in an ascending spiral, hundreds of smaller Saturnian ships were secured in place along the walls. The Neptunian ship was made safe on the lowest level of the spiral. All crews were ready in their vessels. Only Kama-Loo, Fo-Peta, Zeera and several guards floated freely.
At the control board, Kama-Loo adjusted the long finder needle on the metal map then deflected the control lever with one feeler. All light vanished from the interior of the dimensional car, leaving it in stygian darkness. There was a tense moment of disintegration as the ship vanished from one spot and re-appeared at the chosen destination. Light returned.
Too much light! Kama-Loo’s jell colored with horror. Outside the car, two free-floating, rocky bodies slammed into each other with spectacular force. The cosmic debris exploded in a blinding fury of light. The dimensional car’s protective aura blazed momentarily to dazzling brightness. But then the danger passed and space was dark again. Metallic vapors swirled inside the ship as the light returned to a normal level.
Kama-Loo gazed through the ship’s transparent plates and his feelers colored in consternation. What had seemed a clear space by spy beam was, in reality, a frighteningly narrow channel. All around them, rocky objects tumbled as if propelled by a slow, persistent wind. Fortunately, most were small. But even those could be dangerous with enough speed. Slowly at first, and then with increasing rapidity, the ship’s meteorometers shrieked warnings as debris came perilously close to the hull.
Inside the Neptunian craft, Bar Steepa placed his suction cups over the numbered pits which controlled the mighty Trident. He cocked one eye at the dials and moved a tube closer to the acceleration regulators.
Teena glided to the ship’s defensive station and set the protective aura for the highest setting.
They were as ready as they’d ever be.
Twenty-one dreadnaughts of space pushed their way closer to Neptune. Ay-Artz’s ships were huge silver projectiles, each one far larger than any ship in Sol’s fleet. Their sides bristled with weaponry and a spike projected from the nose of each rocket. The enemy fleet moved with dauntless purpose, two ships in advance of the others, acting as mine sweepers, with disintegrator rays beaming out to remove debris from their paths. The others ships followed in orderly columns.
Kama-Loo sent out long-range spy beams and relayed the gathered information to the ships of the fleet. A few minutes later the dreadnaughts came into visual range. He activated a control to release all the smaller ships from the body of the sphere. The fleet of small, fast Saturnian vessels swarmed the lead cylinders and opened fire with cutting beams and torpedoes. The Neptunians took aim and fired the great Trident. Space brightened to incandescence as the defenders’ weapons battered the lead dreadnaughts.
One of the cylinders projected a silver cone of force at the Neptunians. The blinding beam shook the vessel, but its defensive aura held. The other lead ship took aim at the small Saturnian ships with a wide, sweeping beam. Swaths of defending ships puffed out of existence in bright balls of flame.
The main Saturnian sphere opened fire with rays of crushing force.
Bar Steepa lighted another massive spark charge and fired it at the second dreadnaught’s beam projectors. The plasma charge crackled through space like an immense lightning bolt. The charge ground into the cylinder, and the sweeping beam snuffed out.
The remaining fleet of small Saturnian craft let loose a flight of deadly torpedoes. The cylinder’s skin burned and kept burning. Regardless, the massive ship continued to advance, relentless as death.
The second dreadnaught opened fire on the great Saturnian sphere. The first beam grazed the ship, but the second hit it solidly and an entire section exploded, blowing outwards into space.
“No!” cried Bar Steepa. He opened a channel to the Saturnians. “Kama-Loo, can you hear me?”
“Yes,” returned Kama-Loo’s weakened voice. “We’re sealing the rift but our weapons array was hit. There’s nothing more we can do.”
“Call in your ships and retreat to Neptune.”
“But you’ll be destroyed!”
“Protect Neptune!” Bar Steepa’s coloring darkened to almost black. “We’ll hold them here for as long as we can.”
“Good luck, Steepa.” Then the big ship vanished, leaving the Neptunians all alone.
Teena glided over Bar Steepa. He encircled her with one of his upper tubes, while another moved to the Trident’s controls.
“For Neptune,” he colored then lighted the ship’s great Trident one last time.
The Allied Solar System Fleet arranged itself in a huge hemisphere, several ships deep, near the edge of the debris field. Nearly two hundred and fifty ships, the greatest fleet the system had ever known.
Alan Martin stood at his place on the bridge of the Washington, hands clasped tightly behind his back. “Report!”
“The Saturnians have just appeared near Neptune, sir” said the officer at communications. “There’s no sign of the Neptunian vessel.” The Saturnian sphere appeared on the visiplate. One side was battered and a section charred nearly black.
“Send word to Bar Steepa to retreat,” Martin ordered.
After a moment. “There’s no response from them, sir.”
A few moments later they received word from Fo-Peta. Kama-Loo was hurt in the battle and he had taken command. Fo-Peta related what had happened and sent the flagship all additional information their spy beams had gathered during the attack. Fleet analysts went to work, looking for weaknesses in the massive dreadnaughts.
Breathless moments ticked by. Radar operators reported the dreadnaughts’ steady advance. When the first enemy vessels appeared in visual range, the fleet opened fire. An inferno of cutting beams, sonic waves, plasma bolts, and torpedoes created a blinding spectacle. View screens blazed white until images could be rebuilt using radar imagery.
One of the mighty cylinders tore open and exploded. On the left flank, a cylinder opened fire with fan-shaped beams that swept across a section of the fleet. Dozens of smaller ships burned then puffed out of existence.
“Watch that last ship, don’t let it break through the line!” Martin commanded. “Bring up the next rank from behind and fire!”
Simultaneously, weapon generators and projectors from hundreds of allied ships opened fire. The silvery cylinder was surrounded by a whirling cloud of death as drilling, piercing, cutting, and electrifying rays battered it. The dreadnaught’s force screens flared to incandescent brilliance but no screen could take that deadly fusillade for long. The ship’s protective field flashed into the ultraviolent then collapsed. The dreadnaught’s protruding weaponry was seared away, melted as if made of wax. Great slashing wounds appeared in its sides. A section of the aft hull tore away and the crippled ship exploded.
Cheers went up from fleet crewmen but their happiness was short-lived.
A third ship was nosing out of the asteroid field and it opened fire with a new weapon, a strange yellow beam that surrounded its targets with an eerie glow. Each ship touched by the beam immediately stopped firing. Fleet radios came alive with overlapping voices in a multitude of languages, each one screaming in unbearable agony. Swiftly, the horrible screams dissolved into strange watery gurgles that sounded as if the people were drowning.
The fleet kept firing, concentrating on the dreadnaught’s weapon’s projectors. This was only partially successful, as the weapon’s array was fatally damaged but not before dozens more ships fell prey to its terrible beam weapon. The defending ships weren’t destroyed, they just stopped dead in space. But the crews were, obviously, dead.
Aboard the Washington, Martin received the loss estimate reports with barely concealed horror. The death toll was staggering. We have to find another answer, and quickly. “I want an analysis of that weapon,” he demanded of fleet technicians. “What are they doing and how can we defend against it?”
“But will it work?” Vorn Vangal, the Venusian asked. His eyes flashed nervously to something outside the scope of the screen. “That last attack, our people died in such agony.”
“We can’t let it distract us,” said Ferdinand Stone. His appearance was calm, almost machine-like in its expression. “Our plan may be the only way to defeat those ships. They’ve broken through our line and we can’t hold them from Neptune. We have to try it now, before it’s too late.”
“I agree,” said Fax Gatola from the Martian flagship. “We’ve each built a projector aboard our flagships. That should be enough for a test, at least.”
“A test!” cried the Venusian. “We haven’t time for tests! We must act now or all is lost.”
“Unfortunately, I agree,” said Gatola. “But we still aren’t sure what the device will do when faced with such a large target. The outcome is anything but certain.”
Suddenly, alarm bells rang aboard the Washington. The claxons signaled immediate engagement with the enemy. Stone opened a communications channel to the bridge. “Martin, I must speak with you before you attack.”
Martin’s taut face appeared on the display. “Well?”
“The Venusians, Martians and I have conceived a new weapon based on the notes in Dos-Tev’s ship. It may be the only thing that can stop Ay-Artz. But it’s a risk, we haven’t had a chance to test it.”
“Do you think it will work?”
“Then, let’s try it. That yellow ray of theirs is destroying our fleet, we haven’t any defense against it.”
Analysts had reported in about Ay-Artz’s unknown weapon. It flooded a ship with hard radiation, burning everything with a terrible, ungodly heat. The crews simply melted away, leaving charred marks where men had once stood. The blasted ships became mere shells.
The technicians were working on a countermeasure but it was mere bravado. They’d run out of time.
The tattered remains of the Sol fleet continued to harry the enemy. Losses were heavy. Most of the Callistonian ships were gone now, as were the Martians. The Venusians’ sonic defenses granted some protection from that terrible weapon and they alone had any sort of hope of withstanding more than one blast. Martin ordered all crew members into space armor. The armor allowed moderate protection from Ay-Artz’s terrible beam weapon. But still, men died.
Now all the massive dreadnaughts were through the debris field, ten already in orbit around Neptune. Ay-Artz transmitted a wide beam message. His gloating voice rang out aboard every ship. “What a pathetic defense! Clearly, this primitive system will profit by Our rulership. This small planet you call Neptune will be our first stronghold. Your fleet will surrender immediately. Failing to do so will result in your immediate destruction. I give you ten minutes to comply.”
We will not surrender, Martin thought grimly. We’ll fight to the last.
The untried dimensional weapon was ready. At Martin’s order, Stone depressed a button that triggered an automatic relay to both the Venusian and Martian flagships. Then his fingers reached out and flicked a switch. Vorn Vangal and Fax Gatola flicked switches at virtually the same time.
From each of the flagships a projector discharged a ten-foot diameter bubble of quicksilver. Each bubble headed for a different one of Ay-Artz’s dreadnaughts. The Terran flagship aimed its attack at Ay-Artz’s ship.
There was something about those reflective bubbles that was vaguely nauseating to look at. Inside each one was an ever-changing kaleidoscope of blossoming imagery that folded in on itself and changed before you could quite make out what you were seeing. The evolving geometric patterns stabilized only when they’d splatted against the hulls of the enemy ships. Now they seemed as if irregularly-shaped windows, opening up to somewhere that didn’t correspond to normal space.
Martin’s mouth went dry. As he stared at those uncanny quicksilver windows his heart skipped a beat. There was something about them that felt wrong, as if his mind couldn’t accept what he was seeing. “Is that it?” he said.
Stone’s gloved fingers were curling and uncurling in a counting rhythm. The fingers stopped. “That’s it! Now watch…”
The uncanny bubbles were growing. Now it was easier to see that inside each one was an entirely different place.
One was an icy plane under a starless night sky. In the distance a mountain burned with a sickly, nacreous glow. Things moved sluggishly across the frigid plane. Martin couldn’t tell exactly what they were, only that they were huge and moved with a strange lurching gait. He shuddered.
Another bubble showed the burning inferno of a sun. Martin bit back a terror-filled expletive as plumes of fire erupted out of the side of the dreadnaught, curving back in mighty arcs and splashing against the hull.
The third was the worst of all. In the bubble attached to Ay-Artz’s flagship was a void of blackness so intense it was nearly impossible to look at. And yet, one’s eyes were drawn to that terrible void and couldn’t look away. Some primal instinct deep in his soul warned Martin that if he gazed too long, he’d fall into that dark place and keep falling forever.
The uncanny bubbles grew until they were rifts in space shaped like starships. For a long, breathless moment the impossible portals hung above Neptune. Then the rifts folded in upon themselves, collapsing until they were, once more, quicksilver filled with flickering, ever-changing shapes. Then they, too, vanished.
The bridge of the Washington fell silent.
At last, Ferdinand Stone spoke in a low voice. “We didn’t just open the door to other dimensions, you see. We made the ships into portals. They’re never coming back.”
Martin tried to understand but the terrible gruesomeness of what they’d done threatened to overwhelm him. No time for squeamishness now, he thought grimly. He stiffened his spine. “Choose new targets,” he ordered. “And fire!”
Nine of Ay-Artz’s mighty dreadnaughts were transported into hellish dimensions before the remaining captains called for an immediate cease fire. Terms were decided upon by the remaining Sol commanders. They presented the Lemnisians with an ultimatum. Leave the system and never return or face instant destruction.
The confused and leaderless Lemnisians accepted the terms without hesitation. They asked only to know the fate of their lost prince. “We’d like to return Dos-Tev to our home world. May we take his body back with us?”
Dos-Tev had once commented that the men who followed Ay-Artz were nothing but cold-hearted barbarians. But he was wrong. Some of them had been forced to follow the usurper at risk of their loved ones’ lives.
The telepathic Venusian Emperor took Martin aside and confirmed that they were sincere in their wishes. The request was granted and the bodies of Dos-Tev, Mea-Quin, and Bullo were turned over to the Lemnisian delegates for the long trip back to Lemnis.
With the Lemnisians gone, Sol’s fleet prepared to disperse. It was bittersweet. They’d won but at a heavy cost.
“We’ll rebuild,” Stone said in answer to Martin’s downcast expression. “Now come with me. You are needed as a witness.”
In Stone’s laboratory a clandestine pact was made between the three scientists. They vowed never to reveal the secret of the dimensional opener unless it was needed for the system’s defense.
“It must be that way,” Stone said. “It’s far too dangerous to use otherwise.”
A short time later, Alan Martin gave command back to Captain Malcolm and walked from the bridge, side by side with Ferdinand Stone.
“Well, we did it, my boy.”
Martin gave Stone a weary smile. “That we did.”
“What’s troubling you, Alan? You should be grinning like a fool for all you’ve done.”
“We lost so many good people.”
“Then I prefer peace, or I will when I return to Earth.”
Stone patted his shoulder. “Earth can be a better place for us all now, Alan. We’ll have trade with the other worlds and share knowledge and resources. It’s the beginning of a Golden Age.”
Martin thought about that for a moment. “I like that idea. I like it very much.”
A message rang out, paging Martin back to the bridge immediately. When he arrived, Captain Malcolm explained that they’d picked up a weak radio transmission from inside the asteroid field. “It’s not a complete message, just a series a radio pulses. Could it be from Bar Steepa?”
Martin looked up at the main viewing screen. Before them stretched the vast asteroid field at the edge of the system. Could Neptune’s greatest heroes still be alive out there somewhere? Martin’s pulses quickened. His weariness vanished, replaced by an almost kinetic energy. He sat down in the command chair and grinned. “Let’s find out. Navigator, take us in there.”