"M33 in Andromeda" by A. E. van Vogt (1943)
Thursday 2 February 2017, by
M33 in Andromeda, first published in the August 1943 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, was the third of van Vogt’s great series of stories, after Black Destroyer and Discord in Scarlet, about the adventures of the spaceship The Space Beagle on man’s first trip of scientific discovery outside of his own Milky Way galaxy.
Quite up to the remarkable level of those other two famous stories, it became a key part of van Vogt’s masterful novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950), albeit with a not inconsiderable number of text changes, the later novel emphasizing throughout the central role of the "Nexialist" scientist Elliott Grosvenor, who in the magazine version of the saga only appeared for the first time here in this episode.
This is the 1943 version of the story, with the original artwork by Williams and magazine cover by Timmins.
An e-book is available for downloading below.
The night whispered, the immense night of space that pressed against the hurtling ship. Voiceless susurration it was, yet somehow coherent, alive, deadly.
For it called, it beckoned and it warned. It trilled with a nameless happiness, then hissed with savage, unthinkable frustration.
It feared and it hungered. How it hungered! It died—and reveled in its death. And died again. It whispered of inconceivable things, wordless, all-enveloping, muttering flow, tremendous, articulate, threatening night.
"This is an opinion," said somebody behind Morton. "The ship ought to go back home."
Commander Morton did not turn from the eyepiece of the telescope through which he was peering. But he found himself waiting for others of the score of men in the control room to echo the empirical statement of him who had already spoken.
There was only silence. Very slowly, then. Morton forgot the spectators, and concentrated on the night ahead, from which the disturbing sibilation was coming, stronger with each passing minute.
Lights were out there, a great swirl of them, an entire galactic system. Lights still so far away that the electronic telescope could only brighten, could not begin to enlarge the needle-sharp points of brilliance that made up the myriad units of the wheel-shaped universe.
Morton grew conscious of Gunlie Lester turning away from the other eyepiece; the astronomer said in a blank tone:
"Nothing, absolutely nothing. Basically, that system of stars looks no different from our own great galaxy. The thing is incredible. Vibrations almost palpably strong, overflowing the entire space-time continuum of a galaxy with two billion suns."
He stopped, finished more quietly: "Commander, it seems to me this is not a problem for an astronomer."
Morton released his own eyepiece, said grimly: "Anything that embraces an entire galaxy comes under the category of astronomical phenomena. Or would you care to name the science that is involved?"
Gunlie Lester said nothing; and Morton turned toward the men who sat in the cluster of seats alongside the chromatic splendour that was the control board. He said :
"Someone suggested a few seconds ago that we turn around and go home. I would like whoever did so to give their reasons."
There was no reply; and, after a little, that was astounding. Morton frowned at the very idea that there was anyone aboard unwilling to acknowledge an opinion however briefly held, however quickly discarded.
He saw that the others were looking at him; and several of the faces had startled expressions on them. It was the long, thin, bony Smith who said finally, diffidently :
"When was this statement uttered, chief? I don’t recall hearing it."
"Nor I !" echoed half a dozen voices.
"Eh!" said Morton sharply. Abruptly, he was tense, alert; his great shoulders squared; his eyes narrowed to steel-gray pin-points. His voice rapped across the silence :
"Let me get this straight. There was such a statement, or there wasn’t. Who else heard it? Raise hands."
Not a hand came up; and Morton held himself stiff as a board, said tautly :
"The words spoken were, as I remember them : ’This is an opinion. The ship should go home.’ Notice the unusual, the almost formal phrasing. There is suggestion in that wording of something alien striving to be casually human.
"I admit," he went on, "that is a great deal to deduce from such small evidence, but in moments of crisis quick opinions are better than none at all."
His gaze, steady and cold, swept the thoughtful faces before him. He finished quietly :
"I think, gentlemen, we had better face the fact that we have entered somebody else’s stamping ground. And it’s SOME somebody."
There was silence in the control room. But Morton noted with satisfaction that it was a silence of tight-lipped tensing against danger. He said softly :
"I am glad to see that no one is even looking as if we ought to turn back. That is all to the good. As servants of our government and our race, it is our duty to investigate the potentialities of a new galaxy, particularly now that be dominating power in the new system knows we exist. Its ability to project a thought into my mind indicates that it has already observed us, and, therefore, knows a great deal about us. We cannot permit that type of knowledge to be one-sided."
He finished on a harder tone: "I should say we were very wise indeed to spend seven months in the space between our galaxy and this one repairing the damage caused by that scarlet beast. There was some suggestion, I believe, of heading for a planet, and doing our fixing up in more congenial surroundings. In our wisdom, we played safe—But now, Kellie, as our sociologist, what do you think of the environment we’re heading into?"
His gray gaze fixed on the bald-headed man, who adjusted his pince-nez, and said:
"That’s a large order, commander. But I would say we are merely entering a civilized galaxy, and these whispers are simply the outward signs like coming out of a wilderness into an area under cultivation."
"Some cultivation," said Smith in a mournful tone. He hunched his long, bony body back into his seat. "Beg your pardon. As a biologist, I haven’t any business in this conversation."
"You have every business." said Morton. "This is life with a capital L. But go on, Kellie."
Kettle said : "Remember, man, too, has left his imperishable imprint on his own galaxy. If he desires he can light fires that will be seen a hundred galaxies away; at his touch suns flash into Nova brilliance; planets leave their orbits, dead worlds come alive with green and wonderful verdure; oceans swirl and rage where deserts lay lifeless under blazing suns.
"And even our presence here in this great ship is an emanation of man’s power, reaching out farther than these vibrations around us have ever dared to go."
The long-faced Smith gave a dry laugh, said : "Man’s imprints are almost always linear. When he acts in three dimensions, he is restricted to planets, and even there, he is, for all practical purposes, confined to the flat bosom of the land. His ships that cross the sea leave a gentle swell, which merges with the tide and, after an hour, cannot be traced by the finest instruments in the universe.
"His ships that fly the air likewise leave no trail in the wind. When they have passed, they might as well not have been for all the record they make.
"How can you, therefore, speak of such things in the same breath with this? Man, these pulsations are alive. We can feel them; and they mean something; they’re thought forms so strong, so all-pervading that the whole of space whispers at us.
"This is no tentacled pussy, no scarlet monstrosity, no single entity, but an inconceivable totality of minds speaking to each other across the miles and the years of their space. This is the civilization of the second galaxy : and if a spokesman for that galaxy has now warned us to go away, all I can say is we’d better watch out."
Kellie said : "Merely a different form of imprint. Man—ugh!"
The exclamation had in it a terrible quality of dismay. As Morton stared at the sociologist in amazement, Kellie snatched his atomic gun. He was not a young man, but the speed of that draw showed reflexes of spring steel.
Almost straight at Morton, the intolerable energy from that gun belched. There was a thunder howl of agony behind Morton, then a crash that shook the floor.
The commander whirled, and stared with a sense of insanity at a thirty-foot armored beast that lay half a dozen feet to one side of him. As he stood there, half-paralyzed, a red-eyed replica of the first beast materialized in mid-air, and landed with a thud ten feet away. A third, devil-faced monster appeared, and half slid off the second, rolled over and over—and got up, roaring.
A second later, there were a dozen of the things.
As the first attack came, Morton drew his own gun, and, desperate, leaped toward the others, who were backed against the towering control board.
Guns raged even as he reached them. The beast-roaring redoubled in intensity; metal-like scales scraped metal walls and metal floors; claws rattled and paws thudded.
Morton paid no attention to the firing, or to the frightful bellowing. Ignoring any possible danger from the side, he ran along the lowest tiered walk; and, in a moment had thrown the switch that activated the multiple energy screens around the outer walls of the ship.
As he turned to help his friends, a hideous shadow loomed beside him. Too late he brought up his gun. A three-foot mouthful of eight-inch teeth lashed forth to embrace him—and dissolved in a spray of violet fire from a gun somewhere to Morton’s left.
A minute after that, the fight was over; and Morton turned to the young man who had saved his life.
"Thanks, Grosvenor," he said quietly. "That was fast, efficient work. If that is what Nexial training does for a man, I’ll have to see to it that more of it is put into use around this ship."
The young Nexialist flushed. "I’m afraid my training had nothing to do with the fact that I happened to turn and see your danger. Besides—
"Besides, you were the efficient one, sir. By throwing the multiple energy screens around the ship, you prevented more of the beasts from getting through. And, after that, naturally it was simple for us to kill those already inside."
Morton smiled, and put his great arm across the young man’s slighter shoulders. Here was, he realized now that the immediate danger was over, an opportunity not to be missed.
Grosvenor was a problem. He was the first of the new, young supermen—so the radio press called the graduates of Nexial training—but just what to do with him, how to use his all-round qualifications had been a puzzle from the day he was posted aboard the ship.
The Space Beagle swarmed with experts, who knew so much about their special subjects that they could not but regard a Jack-of-all-trades as an incomplete development.
For the first part of the trip, Grosvenor had absolutely nothing to do. Morton had noticed him occasionally, a lonely, aloof young man who existed on the outermost fringes of the ship’s violent intellectual life. When the assistant of the astrogeologist was killed by a scarlet monster that boarded the ship, Grosvenor agreed to be substitute. But he did so without comment, seemed instead to withdraw further into his shell of reserve. He—
Morton forced the brief reverie out of his mind. "O. K.," he said, "we were all heroes. But now let’s see what we’ve got here."
He did not let go of the young man, but drew him along, diffidence and all. They threaded their way gingerly among squirming remnants of monster bodies, Morton issuing orders in his quietest voice.
He fell silent finally, as a quaver of reaction set in. He thought : This must he a dream; it couldn’t be real. These things transported alive across light-centuries!
But a sick odor thickened the air. He kept slipping on the bluish-gray slime that was beast blood. The shiningness of disintegrated matter mingled with the air he breathed, bringing a sense of suffocation.
It was real, all right.
As Morton’s commands bore fruit, cranes floated in, and began to remove carcasses, communicators buzzed with a crisscross of messages; and finally the picture was complete.
The reptilian creatures had been precipitated only into the control room. The Sensitives registered no material object such as enemy ship, or anything similar. The distance to the nearest star on the outer fringe of the second galaxy was a thousand light years, two hours journey at top speed.
Around Morton, men cursed as those scanty facts penetrated.
"A thousand light years!" Selenski, the chief pilot, ejaculated. "Why, we can’t even send astroradio vibrations that far."
Another man said sharply: "Really, Commander Morton, is it wise to spend time and energy clearing up this mess, and generally concentrating on the inside of the ship, when it is the outside that matters? Come to think of it, you seemed to lose all interest in the outside the moment you had thrown the switch activating the multiscreen. Extremely dangerous, in my opinion."
Morton half turned, wearily. He was startled to realize that the criticism jarred him. He thought: "I’m upset, and if I am, so are the others."
Consciously squaring his great shoulders, he faced his critic, a construction technician, named Delber, a tall man with glasses. Morton said strongly :
"Are you serious?"
The other frowned. "Why, y-yes. A detailed study of space segments for trivia effects would seem simple precaution. This thing is BIG."
Morton said : "Do you realize that the multiscreen is the greatest defense ever devised by man? Either we can move behind its protecting vault calmly oblivious of all extrania, or else nothing can protect us."
Beside Morton, Grosvenor said fiercely to Delber:
"That screen, sir, is flawless not only mechanically but mathematically. It provides an infinite overlapping series; and that’s a literal statement of its action". The objector bowed sardonically first to Grosvenor, then to Morton. "In the face of such an ardent argument from one who knows all about every subject, I yield my opposition."
Grosvenor flushed, then turned pale before the satire. He walked off rapidly to one side. Morton half started after him, then stopped himself.
This was no time to nurse the sensitive ego of a bright young Nexialist. A council of war was the imperative necessity of the moment.
When the men were assembled, Morton pushed his bulk along one of the control board tiers overlooking the room. He began :
"We’ve gotten ourselves into quite a mess; and we’re going deeper. I need hardly point out that for one ship to confront a galactic civilization of any real proportions has no relation whatever to our past dangers from individual super beasts.
"For the moment, we’re safe behind our superb defenses, but the nature of the menace requires us to set ourselves limited objectives. Not too limited. We must find out why we are being warned away. We must discover the nature of the danger and of the intelligence behind it, and it is just possible we can interpret up to a point what has happened. The facts are as follows:
He enumerated them briefly: The mind whisperings, the mental warning, the attack on the control room only—He finished:
"I see our chief biologist is still examining our late adversaries. Smith, what kind of beasts are they?"
Smith turned from one of the monsters. "Purest primeval reptile," he said briskly. "Earth could have produced their type during the dinosaur age. Judging by the two brains I’ve cut out, intelligence is about point oh four."
Morton frowned. He said finally, slowly: "Gourlay tells me, the beasts must have been precipitated through hyperspace. I’m sure he can tell us how this will affect our entire offensive and defensive position. Go ahead, Gourlay."
Morton waited, quietly, his gaze expectantly on the slouched figure of the communications expert. Abruptly, he was startled. Gourlay, the great man of the ship next to Kent—that Gourlay slow in responding. Perhaps better than anyone on the ship, Morton knew the extraordinary man, whose drawl and surface laziness concealed a mind that was chain lightning. If the information, the capacity for counteraction existed, Gourlay would know about it; and it would be there on the tip of his tongue, slow, concise, immensely coherent. He—
Gourlay was straightening; and Morton breathed again. "Hyperspace," came the familiar drawl, "is not strictly an energy field, though there is a relation. You all know what space is: a tension in time; the function involved is roughly time plus an environment of the basic energy deka.
"Somebody once likened the result to the skin of an expanded balloon; fortunately, when pricked, this balloon repairs itself, taking eons of time in the emptiness of space, but quickly when there is a gaseous envelope like the atmosphere of a planet surrounding the break. However, the atmosphere required does not have to be dense. So long as there is something, a gap in hyperspace is repaired in a few moments.
"Men have made considerable effort to use hyperspace, but the great drawback has been the need for gas around the outlet and inlet. Otherwise, there is a catastrophic explosion, which reduces all matter in the vicinity to time plus deka."
He stopped there; and it was several seconds before it struck Morton that he was finished.
"Just a moment," the commander said hastily, "we all know that man uses hyperspace in planet to planet transmission of material objects. Why shouldn’t he, therefore, be able to transmit from a planet to this ship? After all, we’ve got an atmosphere inside here."
Gourlay said : "The problem of focusing a hyperspace transmitter on a ship whose speed is measured in light-year units involves about nine hundred thousand dimensions, mathematically speaking. Accordingly, it’s impossible even theoretically. I think that should answer all your questions."
Having spoken, Gourlay leaned back and closed his eyes. Morton waited, but there was no further sign from the man.
The whole effect was unpleasantly unsatisfactory; and Morton, who had a very sharp sense of human reaction to bad news, said coolly:
"Obviously, there’s no one in the world that much smarter than we are. There must be simple solutions to the problem of hyperspace which our scientists missed out on.
"No doubt, of course, that these beings have got a lot on the ball, but they haven’t penetrated the multiple energy screen around the Space Beagle. On top of that they pulled the damnedest, dumbest trick in attacking us with a bunch of mindless monsters, when they could have taken the ship by using a more intelligent and organized attacking force, and exploiting their initial surprise to the full. And, finally, they must be scared stiff of our finding out something dangerous if they don’t even want to let us into their galaxy."
"Look, Morton," said a bass-voiced man, "if that little pep talk is designed to brace up our morale, you’d better think again. The fact is we’re up against something so big we can’t even imagine it. Let’s start from there."
It was, Morton reflected grimly, a damned low starting point.
He stood for a moment then, a brooding giant of a man. His heavy face was dark with the determination that was growing into it. He said finally:
"I don’t accept that pessimism so completely. We’re alive. That’s proof that we’re not pushovers to whatever is out there."
Slowly, he relaxed. He waved one great hand toward a group of men who sat at his left. He said:
"I see our military expert sitting well to the forefront over there. He’s had about point oh four work to do since this voyage started, but I think we can use his knowledge at last. What do you make of the attack, Dysart ?"
Dysart was a medium-sized, oldish man with a lined face and a bushy beard. He had a sour voice. He said:
"If the objective was our destruction, it failed one hundred percent. If the intention was to scare us, the assault was a smashing success."
There was a little flurry of laughter, and Morton smiled with a grim satisfaction at the relaxing of tension in the enormous, domed room. He waited a moment, then said :
"Supposing the intention was not destruction."
Dysart looked abruptly more serious.
"I see this affair as a progression of warnings. First, there was a mental warning, now has come a concrete warning."
His expression grew darker, and the sour rasp in his tone took on a more resonant quality:
"I will not speculate on the purpose behind the warnings. But I think we can safely draw the conclusion that the beasts were symbols of a remorseless and murderous determination, and that the purpose behind them was no mere friendly advice to get out."
"There is no doubt," said a small man at the back of the room, "that a great effort is being made to get us to turn around and go back home—alive!"
Morton called: "Come on out here, Kent, and explain that."
He frowned in puzzlement as the little chemist pushed forward from his seat. Morton regarded Kent as the smartest man on the ship, but the significance of the scientist’s words completely escaped him.
In a ringing voice, Kent began : "It’s possible I have the wrong slant on things, but I always look for ulterior motives. You people see an effort to keep us away from the galaxy we are approaching. My mind instantly jumped to the possibility that our friend out there would like to know where we came from."
Morton said slowly: "Maybe you’ve got something there, Kent."
Kent continued : "Just look at it from—his—point of view. Here is a ship approaching from a certain general direction. In that direction, within ten million light years, are a large number of nebulae, star clusters, star clouds. Which is us?"
There was a dead silence in the room. Morton had the queer feeling that men were shuddering, each from his own mental picture of the hell that could be here. It was Smith who said finally in a gloomy voice:
"What would you suggest, Kent ?"
The little chemist replied promptly: "Destruction or scrambling of all identification star charts or pools. Gunlie Lester, his assistant and all the people aboard who have too much astronomical knowledge in their heads, to wear spacesuits with energy guards whenever and wherever we land.
"It is possibly already too late. We know that the creature has been poking around in Morton’s brain, and God only knows how many other minds he’s ransacked. We’d better start exploring this galaxy at top speed, and we’ll be wise to see to it that nowhere along the line does our enemy have even an edgewise chance to study us again."
He broke off. "Morton, when do we get to the nearest star of this galaxy?"
"Approximately three hours," said the commander.
The meeting broke up in silence.
The first sun grew big out of space, a ball of light and heat, burning furiously into the great night, and supporting seven planets.
One was habitable, a world of mists and jungles and nightmare beasts. They left it, unexplored, after flashing low over an inland sea, across a great continent of marsh and fungi growth.
Left it because, as Morton said : "We have set ourselves an objective : to find the nature of the intelligence that dominates this galaxy. Conceivably the clues may exist in the fastness of the jungle below—I wouldn’t be surprised if the beasts that were precipitated into the control room came from there—but I think we should search for a more civilized source of evidence."
Lonely and remote were the suns at this distant rim of the galaxy. They spun on their courses, aloof, like glowworms on a clouded night, in their relation one to the other. Three hundred light years, the Space Beagle sped, and came to a small red sun with two planets crowding up close to its cherry-red warmth.
One of the two planets was habitable, a world of mists and jungles and nightmare beasts. They left it, unexplored, after darting down low over a marshy sea and a land choked with fungoid growth.
There were more stars now; a sprinkle of them daubed the near distance of the next hundred light years. A large, blue-white sun sporting thirty-seven planets attracted the superbly swift Earth ship.
The great machine spat out of space, raged past seven planets that were burning hells, spiral-led toward the three close-together planets that were habitable—and flicked off into the night with its startled crew.
Behind, three steamy jungle planets swirled in their separate, eccentric orbits around the hot sun that had spawned them. "Identical triplets, by God!" Gunlie Lester exploded on the general communicator. "Morton, the axial tilt of those planets was a design to regulate their heat to the requirements of a jungle world. Somebody’s deliberately creating primeval planets. If the next sun has a jungle world also, I think we’d better investigate."
The fourth star was Sol-size, Sol-type. Of its three planets, one made a neat orbit at eighty million miles, a steaming world of jungle and primeval seas.
The Space Beagle settled through that gaseous envelope and began to fly along at a low level, a great, alien ball of metal in a fantastic land.
In the geology lab, Grosvenor watched the bank of instruments that registered the nature of the terrain below. Particularly, he stared with strained attention at the density recorder needle as it shifted along its thin range of mud, stone, clay, mud, water, fungi—
The needle jumped like flame in high wind—steel, clay, concrete, steel.
Grosvenor reacted. His hand snatched up at the geared alarm, and tugged with the frantic sense that it was his strength that must stop the mighty ship. He let go only when the voice of Jarvis, his superior, rasped beside him, reporting to the control room :
". . . Yes, Commander Morton, steel not just iron ore. Our instruments are registering developed metal, not nature in the raw. Depth? . . . What’s the depth there, Grove?"
"T-ten, twenty, f-fifty feet!" Grosvenor stammered. Inwardly, he cursed the way his heart was pounding, caught his voice into a stiff bar of sound. "It varies, and it’s spread over a wide area."
Jarvis was saying into the communicator: "As you know, Commander, we set our instruments at fifty feet maximum. This could be a city buried in the jungle mud."
It was, in a way. It was an incredible rubble of what had been a city. The scenes uncovered by the drillers were shambles. Everywhere was shattered steel and concrete and stone. And bodies!
The bodies were at the street line about fifty feet below the surface; a whole pack of them turned up where Grosvenor was directing a drilling crew. Everything stopped as the great men of the ship came over to examine the find.
"Rather badly smashed," said Smith, "but I think I can piece together a coherent picture."
His skillful fingers arranged an assembly of scattered bones into a rough design. "Four-legged," he said. He turned a curious hazy light on the fragile structure. "This one has been dead about twenty-five years."
He frowned, and picked up a bone, and brought the hazy, whitish light nearer to it. "Funny," he said, "there’s a resinous substance on this end of the bone that’s impervious to ultra-light. It reflects it. In all my experience, nothing concrete, nothing except energy itself has ever stopped ultra-light. Rent, what do you make of that ?"
He handed the bone over; and Grosvenor stood, watching and waiting. He felt fascinated, not by the mystery of the bone, but because time and again, since he had joined the ship’s company, he had tried to picture the difference between himself and these men.
Perhaps, he thought now, with intense absorption, it was this ability of theirs to concentrate utterly on some detail of their special science.
Whereas he, Grosvenor, had already rejected as irrelevant everything directly connected with the bones of these long-dead creatures. These were the pitiful victims, not the arrogant and deadly destroyers.
The shattered relics that lay around in such abundance might hold the secret of the fundamental physical character of a vanished race, but no clue could there be in them of the unimaginably merciless beings who had murdered them.
The incredible beings who went around deliberately jungle-izing habitable planets.
In spite of his conviction of irrelevancy, Grosvenor had a brief, vivid, mental picture of a civilization of four-legged, two-armed, small-headed creatures whose bodies could reflect every wave of light. And then, Morton’s voice was resonating quietly on the general communicator:
"The . . . curious . . . reflecting feature of the bone . . . undoubtedly deserves study, but in more leisurely moments, not now when our whole will and effort must be concentrated on our search to locate the great forces that rule this galaxy."
It was vindication for his own opinion. But Grosvenor said nothing. A dark thought came that the vanished race had not been able to reflect the millions of tons of earth that buried them and all their works. But he had no sense of tragedy.
There was excitement in him, and an intense pleasure in the scene of men working with machines that were almost human in their sensitivity, abnormal and terrible in their irresistible power.
For the moment, he felt a part of the scene. Up to a point, it was a geology show. As the geologists were Jarvis and himself, and Jarvis was too busy to bother him, for the first time Grosvenor was on his own.
He flew from drill crew to drill crew, setting up his instruments, registering for five hundred feet now, testing the earth the drills removed.
His communicator buzzed with voices, but only occasionally did he tune them in. Once when he heard Jarvis talking, he listened as his superior said:
"Commander Morton, I’m willing to commit myself. The jungle is a superimposed layer. It was brought here in some sort of a cataclysm. The strata below resembles that of an older, less primitive planet. It could have been Earth, with certain variations. I would suggest that an astronomical study be made of nearby planets to determine if they show any of the effects that must have resulted when this planet was violently moved out of its original orbit, and violently put into its present one."
It was about half an hour later that Zeller, the metallurgist, added his words to the developing picture of a cosmic catastrophe. Zeller’s voice blurred on the communicator:
"This broken steel girder was rolled less than seventy-five years ago. Its electronic fatigue gap is only 23x10-14."
"Thanks!" Morton’s voice was quiet. "I think we can be pretty safe now in assuming that the catastrophe was of comparatively recent origin. Accordingly, our work on this planet may be considered finished. I’m going back to the ship now, and I’ll issue a general recall from there."
Grosvenor was thinking unsteadily : "If I could solve this mystery! If I could even get the first clue— The next planet, of course, will be jungle, too, and I’ll concentrate on—"
His thought drained like water running down a sinkhole. His brain twirled. He whispered finally, shakily :
"The next planet will be jungle, too—Good God, that’s it ! That’s the angle—and I’m the only one on all the ship who can handle it."
With an effort, he caught that egotistical twist of his mind. He thought with wry grimness : It was the solution of the problem that counted, not who solved it. But the thought that had come wouldn’t go away.
For beyond all doubt, the hour of hope had struck for the lone, despised Nexialist of the battleship Space Beagle.
Now that the moment was here, felt a spasm of doubt. He stood near Morton looking at the seated scientists and there was no sense of satisfaction in the victory that was going to be his. He grew aware of Morton pushing forward, and raising his hand for silence. The commander said:
"You have probably been wondering, all of you, the purpose of our careening around during the past two days. As you know, we have visited three widely separated star systems, and it is interesting to note in that connection that no interference has been offered to our flight. Where we willed to go we went.
"What you do not know is that the stars we visited were selected for investigation by Nexial mathematics under a theory conceived and executed by Elliott Grosvenor. Grosvenor, tell your colleagues what you discovered."
Astoundingly, it was a bad moment for Grosvenor. He stood, shaking inwardly, in abrupt funk. He stood in the grip of a hell of unexpected thoughts that included the devastating realization that you couldn’t just face men whose attitude had denied your intelligence and training. All the months that he had been treated like a grown-up child reached at his tongue and twisted at it, striving to stop him from speaking.
The curious thought came finally that there was only one way to begin a speech; and that was to begin it. He said:
"What I did was to obtain from Gunlie Lester his most developed photographic map of this galaxy. The important thing there was that he had already marked the galactic longitude and latitude planes, and the course we had taken.
"I must now call your attention briefly to a branch of science which has not, I know from experience"—Grosvenor smiled bleakly—"commended itself very highly to the science specialists of this great ship with which we are to explore the entire attainable universe. I refer to the science of Nexialism, which has its own mathematics, and is a method of training designed to bridge the gap between facts that are related but separated, for instance, by being contained in the brainpans of two individuals. Nexialism joins. It seeks to unify apparent irrelations; and its scope is so great that the data of an entire galaxy is not too complicated for it to cast into a recognizable design."
Grosvenor paused. Because he was doing well. His voice was cool and steady. His brain was working with hair-trigger, split-second alertness. He went on; and his voice sounded thrillingly clear in his own ears :
"As I saw it, what we were primarily interested in was this: Are all the planets of this galaxy jungle-ized, or aren’t they? The mathematics involved—"
He saw that the men were staring at him. "Good heavens," somebody said, "if you can prove that—"
Triumph was sweet, but it had a strong drink quality, too. It put a tremor into Grosvenor’s voice, as he interrupted:
"It is proved, sir. The three-star systems we have just visited were selected by Nexial mathematics. When examination verified that their habitable planets were jungle worlds, it followed automatically that every habitable globe in this entire vast galaxy was a land of jungle and beasts."
He had them now; there was no doubt of that. Men stirred, and looked at each other. Finally, the great Smith said:
"But, Grosvenor, what about the intelligences that rule this galaxy? We’ve opened the multiscreen several times; and the roar of myriad thoughts remains. There are colossal minds out there. They can’t possibly be living on monster-inhabited jungle planets."
Grosvenor said quietly : "Mr. Smith, this whole problem is solved. The intelligence out there is a single entity. We know what it is. If you will have a moment of patience—"
"Gentlemen"—it was Morton, smiling but grim—"what you are hearing is no fantastic theory. These are the facts. You are listening to the recount of the most brilliant one-man shows that has ever been staged. Go on, Grosvenor."
There was dead silence, then, except for the pattern that Grosvenor’s voice made against the quiet vastness of the control room.
He told them the thoughts that had led up to the finale, his attempts to fit what Gourlay had said about hyper-space, the need for a gas environment, and possibly for some nearby directive to control the aim of the transmitter:
"I went down finally to the engine room to check the graph of power discharge of automatic C-9." Grosvenor smiled almost apologetically. "We have so many automatic devices aboard this ship, that some of them never receive any attention except mechanical check-ups. This is particularly true of our automatic screens against the presence of tenuous matter in space.
"Suffice to say that C-9 had been on from the moment we heard the space whisperings until we slapped on the multiple screen, the complicated energy structure of which, of course, assumed C-9’s duties."
Grosvenor went on : "With Commander Morton’s permission I then had the multiple screen briefly cut off, sent out a G-ship and obtained a representative sample of the space around us. I tested this myself, then for verification took it to Mr. Kent who—"
"What’s that?" Kent was on his feet; there was a wild look in his eyes. "Was that gas you brought me a sample of surrounding space? Why, it’s a hydrogen carbon compound, stabilized by a three-tie juncture with the brain cell element that—"
He broke off: "Good heavens, man, it’s life. It’s—"
"But why does it jungle-ize planets?" a man cried.
Grosvenor silenced the gathering clamor by raising his hand. "I can answer that, too. The problem actually was, what did it feed on? I tried various methods of stimulation and—"
The Anabis lay in an immense, suffused, formless form, spread through all the space of the second galaxy. It writhed a little, feebly, in a billion portions of its body, shrinking with automatic adjustment away from the destroying fury of two billion blazing suns, but pressing down tight against the myriad planets, sticking with a feverish, insatiable hunger around the quadrillion tingling points where were dying the creatures that gave it life.
It wasn’t enough. Through all the countless, tenuous cells of its titanic structure, that dread knowledge of an imminent starvation seeped to the farthest reaches of its weakened body-gigantic.
Not enough food, the dreary message pulsed on and on through its imponderable elements, not enough, not enough—its mass was too big. It had made a fatal mistake in growing with such vast abandon during the early days.
In those years the future had seemed limitless, the Galactic space where its form could wax ever huger had seemed of endless extent; and it had expanded with all the vaunting, joyous egoism of a lowborn grown conscious of stupendous destiny.
It was lowborn. In the dim beginning was only gas oozing from a mist-covered swamp. Odorless, tasteless, colorless gas, yet somehow, someway, a dynamic combination was struck; and there was life.
At first it was nothing but a puff of invisible mist ardently darting hither and thither over the muggy, muddy waters that had spawned it, darting, twisting, diving, pursuing, incessantly and with a gathering alertness, a gathering need, striving to be present while something—anything—was being killed.
For the death of others was its life.
What a terrible joy it was to swoop over two insects buzzing in a furious death struggle, envelope them, and wait, trembling in every gassy atom, for the life force of the defeated to spray with tingling effect against its own insubstantial elements.
There was a timeless period then when its life was only that aimless search for food; and its world was a narrow swamp, a gray, nubiferous environment where it lived its contented, active, idyllic, almost mindless existence.
But even in that world of suffused sunlight it grew bigger imperceptibly. It needed more food, more than any haphazard search for dying insects could bring it.
And so it developed cunning, special little knowledge that fitted the dank swamp. It learned which were the insects that preyed and which the prey. It learned the hunting hours of every species, and where the tiny non-flying monsters lay in wait—the flying ones were harder to keep track of. It learned to use its eviscerated shape like a breeze to sweep unsuspecting victims to their fate.
Its food supply became adequate, then more than adequate. It grew and once more it hungered.
By purest necessity it became aware of a world beyond the swamp. And, oh, what a day it was when it ventured forth, and came upon two gigantic armored beasts at the bloody climax of a death struggle. The sustained thrill of the defeated monster’s life force streaming through its vitals, the stupendous quantity of force provided ecstasy greater than that experienced during all its previous life put together.
In one brief hour, while the victor devoured the writhing vanquished, the Anabis grew by ten thousand times ten thousand.
During the single day and night period that followed, the steaming jungle world was enveloped. The Anabis overflowed every ocean, every continent, and spread up into the brighter reaches of the atmosphere, where the sun shone on it directly for the first time.
Explosive result! Later, in the days of its intelligence, it learned that sunlight provided a necessary reaction on its elements, provided mass and weight.
But in that first minute there was only the effect, the dynamic expansion. On the second day it reached the first, adjoining planet. It reached the limits of the galaxy in a measurable time, stretched out instinctively for the shining stuff of other star systems and met defeat in distances that seemed to yield nothing to its groping, tenuous matter.
The days of its power seemed but a moment. Jungle worlds, with their prolific life-and-death cycles chilled; the supply of life force diminished notably. It hungered and once more grew in cunning.
It discovered that by concentrating its elements it could make holes in space, go through, and come out at a distant point. It learned to transport matter in this fashion. It began to jungle-ize planets long before it discovered that some of them were inhabited by curious, intelligent things.
It believed—and there was no one to dispute—that primeval worlds provided the most life force. It transported great slices of other jungle worlds through hyperspace. It knocked cold planets nearer their suns.
And it wasn’t enough.
The coming of the ship brought hope. It would follow the ship to wherever it had come from; and, after that, no more wild, mindless, greedy growth—
Pain! The ship after darting aimlessly about, landed on a barren planet, and was sending forth incredible agony.
Darkness made no difference. The Space Beagle crouched on a vast plain of jagged metal, every porthole shedding light, great searchlights pouring down their flood of illumination on the row on row of engines that were tearing enormous holes into the hard, all-iron world.
There was no attempt to make steel, simply the creating of unstable iron torpedoes that were launched into space at the rate of one a second. That was the beginning.
By midnight the manufacturing machine itself began to be manufactured; and each one in turn created those slim, dark torpedoes that soared into the surrounding night scattering their substance a quarter of a light year to every side. Thirty thousand years those torpedoes would shed their destroying atoms; and they were designed to remain within the gravitational field of their galaxy, but never to fall on a planet or into a sun.
As the slow, red-dawn crept toward fruition, Engineer Pennons reported hoarsely to Morton:
"We’re now turning out nine thousand a second; and I think we can safely leave the machines to finish the job. I’ve put a partial screen around the planet to prevent interference. Three more iron worlds properly located; and I think our bulky friend will begin to have a hollow feeling in his vital parts. But what comes after that?"
Morton smiled grimly: "N. G. C. fifty thousand three hundred forty-seven."
Pennons whistled. "Nine hundred million light years! Do you think it will follow?’
"It’s got to. The alternative is to be destroyed by our torpedoes, or a blind stab at another galaxy of its own choosing. But we’ll see—"
Through telescopes they watched the faint fuzz of gas stream out behind them and follow.
Morton turned finally from the eyepiece. "We’ll go on for about a year," he said, "then go invisible and turn aside."
As he was going out of the door a few minutes later, he came upon Zeller and Grosvenor. The metallurgist was saying:
"Er, Grosvenor, I have a little problem in metal chemistry that I think needs tying up with an energy function. Do you think Nexialism could—"
Grosvenor said: "Why, I think so, Mr. Zeller. What—"
Morton passed on, smiling.