Everything there was still and normal, but we were steaming wet as if fully clothed in a Turkish bath.
`Have you very much more to do?' asked Colonel. `No, just the final touches. Is the aerial turning?' 'Is the aerial turning?' Colonel repeated.
`Aerial turning,' called a crewman.
I made my final adjustments.
`No signals?' asked Colonel.
`No, only from the rest of the group,' said the crewman.
`Well, she seems to have passed the first test. The power will come up gradually.' I began to tidy up. Everyone gathered round the display tube.
`She's only at a quarter power,' I said, going over to where Colonel and the others were standing.
`How far out are we going, would you say?'
`A bit beyond Saturn.'
`About twice our normal range. There doesn't seem to be much out there,' said Colonel.
`I'm not so sure, sir. Look over here,' said one of the crewmen. 'I thought I saw a spot, but it could be just noise.'
We followed his finger.
`I don't see anything, but your eyes are probably better than mine for this sort of thing,' said Colonel.
The power gauge was now showing half power.
`I think there is something,' said the communications officer excitedly.
`Yes, my God. I can see it now,' said Colonel. `It's breaking up -- into score of blips, sir.'
`The transmitter is now at full power,' I said. `How many dots?' Colonel's voice barked.
`Difficult to say, sir, but a lot. Could be a hundred, could be thousands. Can't say, sir.'
`It's a fleet of ships,' I said, amazed.
`And not disposed to be friendly either, Dick.'
`How do you figure that?' I said, studying the display tube.
Colonel put his finger on the tube. 'Look where they're coming in. Bang in the plane of the planets, bang in a direction opposite to Earth.'
`You mean they're coming into Earth right out of the direction of the Sun?'
`Yes, just like our great-grandfathers used to do in the old air battles. Can you give me coordinates?' Colonel said, turning to a crewman.
`I've been checking. They're spreading out between heliocentric longitudes 33.5 to 44,' came the reply. Colonel wrote down Helio 33.5 to 44 on a piece of paper.
`2793 centi-astronomical units, sir.'
Colonel wrote this down too. 'Dick, can you give me their speed? That's the critical thing.'
`A bit above 12,000 miles per second,' I said, working madly at the calculation.
`No,' I said, rechecking the figures.
`What does it mean, sir?'
`It means the creatures in those ships are taking a steady deceleration not of 1 gravity but of 3 gravities. And they've been taking it for several weeks on end,' I said, looking once more at my calculations.
`Can't understand it,' Colonel muttered. 'Only little creatures could take 3 gravities continuously. There's something wrong, somewhere.'
Nothing's wrong,' I said. 'We now know that rats can build space craft.'
Colonel looked at me, and then at the radar screen. `Get me Earth,' he said quietly.
It took nearly half an hour to make contact with Earth, and we were all thoroughly tense and irritated by the time we heard a crackling voice that sounded very far away:
`Hello, Redscout. World Space Control here, over.' `Hello, Space Control, where the devil have you been? Over.'
`Sorry, Redscout. Equipment malfunctional, over.'
`Damned fools, always having servicing problems,' Colonel said to us in the ship. 'We have contacted enemy fleet coming in at 2793 centi-astronomical units, over.'
`Couldn't say, except that it's a large number.' `Are you absolutely sure of this?'
`We've recalculated and there is definitely an alien force coming in towards Earth. And they are decelerating at 3 gravities.'
`We've been watching them for over an hour now. Dr Warboys and I agree that they are coming in at 3 gravities.'
There was a moment's silence. Lots of static. Then a voice said: 'Hello, Redscout. This is Lieutenant General Sir Robert Milner.'
`Chief of Staff,' Colonel said to me.
`Colonel Rhodes, are you certain of this? Over.' `Sir, we have checked and rechecked and there is no doubt about it, over.'
`Right. The various destroyer groups up now will have to make a stand while we get the main world fleet off the ground.'
`O.K., sir. Message understood. What about Warboys?' `Can't be helped, do your best. Over and out,' said the Chief of Staff.
`I'm sorry, Dick,' said Colonel. He looked strained. `Don't worry. Your Chief of Staff made up my mind for me. Are we fully operational now?'
`Well. It will take them about three days to get the whole fleet up. Our job will be to observe, pass back information.'
`What usually happens to the forward fleet?'
`We've never had to find out, but in this case we keep out of the way for as long as possible.'
I felt a little sick. Military men are perhaps reasonably conditioned to dying, but to a civilian the idea of one's corpse floating round in space doesn't really appeal.
Colonel had a large map of our solar system illuminated on the wall.
`One thing that strikes me is these enemy ships will be far more vulnerable than yours,' I said, looking at the map. `Hm. You're probably right.'
`How will we fight?' I asked, trying to break into the train of thought that would be running through Colonel and the crew's minds.
`There's only one thing we can really do -- dispose our forces in a tight ball, between Venus and Mars, with Earth more or less in the centre,' Colonel said, indicating on the map with his finger. 'The idea is to keep the enemy on the far side, so he has to cover more distance than we do.'
`Where does this leave us?' I asked.
`Well, the enemy is nearly inside the orbit of Jupiter. We are on the far side of the Sun -- about here,' Colonel pointed. `By now I should think they'll have withdrawn half the other forward groups, back towards Earth.'
`Which means that we're going to be taking the brunt of everything?' I said, realizing more fully what was happening.
`Yes,' said Colonel philosophically.
`These torpedoes, are they any good?'
`I shouldn't think so. If these fellows can decelerate at 3 gravities then they can probably outshoot us, but I think we might give them a bit of a surprise,' Colonel said with a smile. 'Where are they?'
`They're coming round the Sun, sir,' said a crewman from the radar screen.
`Well, they're not missing out on this trick. They're coming up to see if anybody's here.'
I looked at the screen.
`That's it,' said Colonel snapping his fingers. 'They're going to pick off our radar outposts -- that's us. I'd say we've got about five hours before they're on to us.'
`What's to be done, sir?' said a crewman.
`There's one chance. Dick, do you think you could do a bit of wizardry with electric circuits in our torpedoes?' `In what way?' I asked.
`To make a whole salvo hunt together, instead of each torpedo hunting singly, one at a time.'
`How do you mean?'
`I want to attack a single target with a full broadside and I want it done like this. If the first torpedo misses, as it probably will -- I want it to feed information to the second one, so it won't make the same mistake. If the second one misses then it must send all its information to the third -- and so on. It'll enormously increase the chance of a hit first shot.'
`Why aren't your torpedoes automatically fixed up like this?' I asked.
`Normally it'd be too wasteful. It'll mean we fire off half our stuff all in one go.'
`Why do you want to do this, sir?' said a crewman.
`I want to make the enemy think our shooting is a lot better than it really is. I want a hit first shot -- whatever the cost in ammunition.'
`You're hoping that after that they might leave us alone?' `Right. Can you do it, Dick?'
`I can try,' I said.
The crew members found a ladder and opened up one of the hatches in the ceiling. One of them was sent for my tool box. All equipped, I climbed up the ladder and through the hatch. I looked for the service card; what I needed was an inter-connection between the torpedo and the radar equipment. At length I found what I wanted. There was a link between the two. Whoever designed the torpedo equipment had had this in mind, as the links were there but not connected up. The torpedoes were so designed that, once the torpedo had been fired, it was fed information about the target by radio waves from the ship, which was, in turn, picking up information on its radar equipment. Now I could also arrange an over-riding signal from the torpedoes in sequence.
The problem had turned out to be easier than I had hoped.
I was two hours cooped up in that small space, tense and hot, but with a hope at least. At last I climbed down the ladder. Below all the crew were wearing their silver space suits. Colonel indicated my suit, which was lying on a bunk, and one of the crew came over to help me on with it and set up my respirator.
`How did it go?' Colonel's voice came through the headpiece.
`Not quite perfect, but I think there should be some fireworks.'
`Good enough,' said Colonel.
I moved over towards the radar screen. Colonel got up and came over to join me. There were eight blobs of light approaching us at high speed.
`Shall I try the radio, sir?'
`Torpedo coming in to port,' came the call from the communications officer.
The monitors flashed, and then the whole ship did a bit of an Irish jig.
I picked myself up off the floor. Colonel was still standing on his feet. I couldn't understand that.
`A miss, but not by much,' he said, going over to the flight control panel.
`I'm taking her in.'
Suddenly the whole of my headpiece was full of static and weird babblings. I shook my head, but the sound didn't go. The ship lunged again, and then it felt as though we'd done a complete somersault.
`They're getting too near. I daren't risk closing any further. All ready for firing?'
`Setting -- Green 19.113 -- Red 472.6 -- Yellow 9,3001. Rates -- 0.4467 -- 0.0133 -- 0.2426,' said one of the crew watching the dials.
`Fire,' Colonel shouted. I shook my head as the noise of Colonel's voice plus the babbling became even more oppressive. The destroyer checked for a fraction of a second as the torpedoes left the ship.
Suddenly I was flung back on the floor. Not by an explosion, but by Colonel changing course. He was trying to outmanoeuvre the enemy destroyers. Then the severe pressure of acceleration at around 5 gravities stopped.
`Are you all right, Dick?' said Colonel.
`The way I feel, it wasn't worth while,' I said, picking up my bruised body off the floor.
`Come and take a look.'
I went over to the radar screen and had a look. There were only seven ships.
`Only seven ships,' Colonel said, slapping me on the back.
I still felt violently sick. Someone shouted. They were coming in again. Colonel fired the second salvo, and again that agonizing acceleration.
`Sir, there's another fleet coming in,' said Sparks.
I looked up from my undignified position on the floor. `Another fleet!' Colonel said.
`Yes, sir. Coming in at heliocentric longitude 45 °.' The ship throttled back, which allowed me to move around.
`That's damned queer,' Colonel said. 'One fleet coming in from port and the other from starboard, and we're smack in the middle.'
`What's so odd about that?' I said feebly.
`Well, this second fleet must have been out of radar contact with the first, the Sun was between them. We're going to be crushed between the two.'
Everyone looked inquiringly at Colonel.
`Signal the information back to Earth,' he said to the communications officer.
`So we're finished,' I said, realizing that as every minute went by the possible chance of our survival diminished.
I'm sorry, Dick. It was the best I could do,' Colonel said, turning to his Sparks. 'How many ships are answering the transponder?'
`About 217, sir,' came the reply.
`They might as well save lives,' said the Colonel rather gloomily.
The ship started spinning as a torpedo exploded near by. Then another explosion. At the third explosion everyone was thrown from one end of the cabin to the other.
The instrument panel shorted out, and the lights went.
`We've been hit, sir.'
Colonel didn't have time to say anything as the ship was hit again. Everything disintegrated, the crew went flying through space at different angles.
It is a strange sensation to spin slowly through space at a constant speed, which one doesn't feel. Eventually I gave up the struggle to stabilize, and started to concentrate on myself. There didn't seem to be any serious injuries. My main worry was having a damaged suit, but I wouldn't be alive if the suit was ripped, so I gingerly moved my limbs to see if any bones were broken and decided that I was only bruised.
The battle, from what I could see from my strange topsy turvy flight through space, was still going on. But strangely it looked as if the second fleet was attacking the first. Was that possible? It must be my eyesight or some form of brain damage. An absurd fear was mounting in me that, in floating away from the battle area, any chance of my being picked up was lost.
Suddenly a new problem arose. An alien ship coming straight at me. Well, that's it, I thought. But just as suddenly as it appeared it vanished. A curious and sad thought struck me. I would have liked to have seen the strange creatures inside before I passed on my way into the depths of our solar system.