The Enigma was five light years away.
It hung in space, black and quivering, filling every last inch of his screen. No man knew what the Enigma was, only that it was there, and that it had swallowed two space-fleets sent to quest through its eternal darkness, seeking out any planets that lay inside its titanic bulk.
What ten thousand men had failed to do, one man was being sent to accomplish. The fact did not sit comfortably on the neatly uniformed chest of Commander John Craig. He did not show his discomfort, he was too well-trained in the officer mechanics of the elite Corps, United Worlds Space Fleets. His white and gold uniform was unrumpled, as Smooth and neat as if he expected inspection patrol at any moment. Only a tic at the corner of his left eye betrayed his anxiety.
One man against-the-unknown. One man, with five thousand tons of electronic monster to cradle his body through space and hyperspace, armed by the latest weapons rigged up by Ordnance against necessity. They hung on their racks at this moment, behind him, waiting for his hands when he should need them.
Commander Craig had the worried feeling that no weapon ever devised by man could help him against that black blotch. It had swallowed twenty fighting ships fitted out with cam-ray cannon and protonic disintegrators. It would devour him just as easily.
Two weeks ago, he had been back on Revere planet.
Unsuspecting. Even—happy. . . .
The music from the orchestra floating a hundred feet above his head in the vast dining chamber was almost tangible about him and the woman he held in his arms in the stately dance of Erogonie. His skin was sensitive to its rhythmic vibrations, its harmonious chords.
Elva Marlowe felt the music, too. Her soft body in the gold lamé gown so daringly slit at sides and back moved with subtle provocation against him. In this seventy-fifth century, the minds that made miracles had perfected music to an art never dreamed of by Bach or Wagner: with every note, a sub-electronic impulse was emitted that sent its message of pleasure and delight to the brains of those who listened.
To move on this little dancing space that also held his eating table, fifty feet above the floor of the dining compound, was an unalloyed happiness. The music plucked at the pleasure centers of his mind as it did at those of the woman in his arms. It whispered to them both, brought them into a psychic harmony that was the forerunner of the physical pleasure which was to follow.
Commander Craig had come off duty six hours ago, vaning down on Revere planet at the Interstellar Aeroport, exhausted from six months in the jungle world of Lyrosia. War was not a pretty thing on a world such as Lyrosia, where the beasts were intelligent and with a queer rapacity that sent cold chills down the spine. they were like shadows, and their intelligent minds could interfere with the thinking processes of a human brain. It had been his job to find a way to guard against that encelophonic interference.
He had succeeded, after twenty-odd weeks of hell. Laboratory tests—after he had been four months in the field—had shown him that tiny euxenite crystals blanked out those mental waves. A string of euxenite crystals—the way a necklace of garlic bulbs was said to have kept witches away long ago—actually worked.
The boys of the Fifth Spaceborne were mopping up, now.
And Commander John Craig was home on Revere for a vacation. Elva Marlowe was part of that relaxation. He had known Elva long ago, back on Earth where he had grown into manhood. His ambition had been to make the star-cluster of a Fleet Commander, hers had been to marry him.
Elva Marlowe represented the fashion worlds with vivid creations that were the rage of fifty continents. In a way, she had become wealthy while he was earning his star-cluster. Commander Craig had achieved his ambition; Elva Marlowe had yet to achieve hers.
The fact was accepted between them. Sometimes the thought touched Craig that this acceptance was nothing but the line of least resistance. He loved Elva Marlowe, and Elva Marlowe loved him. She was always there to greet him on his return from a tour of duty. Like the stars in their flight through space, she was constant and unswerving.
She never protested his missions. Occasionally, he wished she would. Her acknowledgment of them was a shrug of the shoulders, a twist of her full red lips, no more. Just once he would have liked to see her annoyed with him or with the Service. It would have made her seem more . . . more feminine.
As the music stopped, they turned and walked to their chairs. As always, his hand was at her elbow; as always, she flashed him a brief Smile. Looking at him, one might have thought them married a dozen years.
I would have it no other way, he told himself. I can always count on Elva. It made the long months on places like Lyrosia so much more bearable. Yet a trace of dissatisfaction still lingered as he seated himself.
A waitress in mesh stocking and scant skirt rose upward on a platform that locked magnetically with theirs. She carried steaming platters of meat and vegetables, and brought also an iced carafe of Cetian wine, before rising to the table above their own.
The rising consoles that held the servo-platforms made a chamber so vast that it seated more than ten thousand diners in perfect comfort. Each table was located fifty feet above another, twenty-five feet at a tangent from those about them. It was three-dimensional dining at its best. There was never any crowding; and for those with a fear of heights, glass walls could be raised to shut off a view of everyone but the waitress.
For those who liked to look around at the views flashed on walls and ceiling, to listen to the harmonies of fifteen different planets, the glass walls were no more than glittering railings. Merely by pressing a floor-button, the walls could be raised or lowered. If a man wanted privacy, all he needed do was move his foot six inches.
He and Elva liked the sense of spaciousness the railings gave. They never raised the glass barriers. They were content to look at each other from time to time and then glance outward across the huge room.
Elva Marlowe was a whiteness topped with golden hair that matched the lamé gown clinging so honestly to her curves. She rarely permitted herself the luxury of sunlight, so that her skin was like rich cream. Her eyes were blue and direct, with a no-nonsense gleam in their depths, and the width of her mouth was minimized by its fullness.
"—A beach and blue water,” she was saying now, "all for you, darling. I have a dozen new designs to dream up so that you can laze all you want during the day, or go out in the boat that you hire along with the villa.”
"A month on the shore, he mused, smiling. "It sounds like paradise.” His hand went out to close on her fingers. He found them cool, as always. His thumb smoothed back and forth. "Elva, shall we wait until I get my cluster? Is it fair to you, to either of us?
Her laughter tingled. "Fair, what's fair? I'm happy, so are you. If I'll wait, why should you care Besides, this business on Lyrosia ought to push you up on the echelon ladder.”
"I suppose so,” he nodded.
"They were eight years fighting the friil on Lyrosia, You helped them take possession of the planet in two months.”
"Six months, really. It took me four to learn what worked against the friil.”
"Six months or two, you ought to be rewarded."
"If I am, I'll ask for leave. Half a year. It's coming to me. We'll go away, to Elysia or some other vacation planet. We'll do nothing but loaf and make love and forget all about fashion and space wars.”
Elva made a face. "Half a year of doing nothing? Darling, the designers in Paris and New York back on Earth would have a ball. In those six months I’d drop six years behind the times. I'd sooner slit my throat.”
"Oh? Well, a couple of weeks, then.” She smiled at him, nodding. This was when she saw the helmeted head of a Fleet Messenger and then the black-capped brunette who was their waitress, rising on the servo-platform. Something in her eyes made Commander Craig turn his head. Elva felt him stiffen.
"It can't be all that bad,” she said.
"The Fleet doesn't send a Messenger unless it is bad,” he frowned. He already seen the red envelope that held the letter. The fact that the Messenger was coming up with the waitress was evidence that Alert Command was playing no games.
He nodded to the salute his comet merited, reaching for the red envelope before it was completed. A knife slit the paper and a white sheet came out between his fingers.
Hello, John Climb on a g-wing, boy. You're going galloping again. Say love and a hi to Elva—and my regrets.
Intelligence Commander Dan Ingalls was a good friend. Less than an hour before he had picked up Elva, he had submitted his report to Ingalls. Why hadn't he said anything then?
"Reply?” he asked the Messenger.
The man smiled. He was young and conscious of the stares of the diners. The Fleet rarely sent a Messenger out into the public places. "Commander Ingalls said to wait for you, sir.”
"To wait—? Oh, now—listen. How desperate can—"
“I don’t mind, darling,” Elva said, hurriedly. "I do! I've just come off alert duty. I get a rest. The book says so—and Dan Ingalls lives by the book.”
He knew a moment of helplessness with the Messenger rigid at his elbow and Elva turning for her fur wrap and rising from the chair. The Commander said a few under his breath and the Messenger's lips twitched faintly. He stood up, tall and wide in his white uniform with the gold braid draped over a shoulder, his campaign ribbons covering half his chest. He was a big man, with pale blond hair cropped close to his head, his prominent jaw giving him the look of a fighter. Just so might a gladiator have appeared in pre-space days, Elva was fond of telling him, with his skin so brown and the muscles bulging even in his neck. She added that he looked so much the animal, it was hard to think of him as having the brains he did.
The waitress let them go down on the servo-platform together. It would return for her. The Messenger stood as close to the edge as he dared, trying to appear inconspicuous. Elva spent the few moments their descent assuring the commander that it really meant nothing to her, and should not mean anything to him. It was another emergency; this was his job, as commander in Alert Command. It was why he got such high pay.
Craig shrugged. If Elva did not mind—
He minded, though! She could make all the excuses for Dan Ingalls and the service she wanted. He minded like red Billy hell!
Out on the walkways, he signaled an aerovan. It swooped down silently, its stubby wings forming a shadow on their faces a moment before it settled. The commander kissed the cheek Elva held up to him, then guided her into the upholstered interior. He stood a moment watching the flying taxi shift into the uptown traffic.
The Messenger had a two-man gyro-wing parked on the inner walkway, a breach of custom that would have cost anyone not in Alert Command a grievance card. Craig flung a leg over the rear seat and booted his feet in the grippers. The Messenger revved the nucleonic motor and moved a gear rod.
The little wing took off quietly but with a rush that rammed Craig back into the high cantle. It had been a long time since he had sat in one of these things, and at first his stomach jerked upward in severe protest against such cavalier treatment, Commander Craig swallowed hard and chuckled.
The Messenger was giving the brass a royal ride. Alert Command headquarters was a massive building set off to one side of the Thoroughfare of Planets. Even at this late hour, it's windows were radiant with blue working lights. Alert Command men never rested until they were dead, the saying went; Commander Craig was beginning to believe it.
The gyro-wing circled, flashing identity lights. It looped and came in on the run for its landing strip. Magnetic grapples caught and held it.
Craig ignored the glance the Messenger turned on him, a little fearful of a reprimand. He had lost no time in getting here. Another man might have resented the speed and the weaving tactics. Craig only nodded in satisfaction.
The commander walked away from the car as if on parade. Nobody would see the muscle spasms in his belly or the wetness of sweat running down his chest, It took a little time to get used to a gyro-wing, and a fast ride could make a man black out sometimes; the magnetic grips would not let him fall however.
"Cool bastard,” breathed the Messenger. It was an accolade.
The hallway was brilliant with photon bulbs. The commander walked with his boot-heels clicking sharply at every stride. Lesser officers looked up in surprise at his braids. They saluted crisply, but by that time he was past them and angling toward a riser-shaft.
Commander Ingalls was on the tenth floor. As he came out on the shaft-way, Craig found the corridors alive with men and women in the white uniforms of Alert, moving about at a fast trot. Few officers walked while on ace-duty. There was usually no time to walk. Everything had to be done in too much of a hurry.
The commander scorned to knock. In his big brown hand, the knob turned and he was inside, striding across thick black carpeting toward a glass wall. A pretty girl with gold bars on her sleeve glanced up, opened her mouth to protest, then turned her head as the commander went into the opening wall.
Commander Ingalls was ten years his senior. There was a touch of early gray at his temples, and the beginning of a thickness at his middle, his eyes were sharp and clear; he used his brain far more than he did his legs. He did not look up; he swung around toward the semi-circular glass wall behind him and pushed a button on his desk.
The lights in the room grew dim. Other lights, buried in the translucent wall behind him, began to glow. Each tiny light formed a star set in the blue plasticine wall, so that it seemed all space hung between the floor and the ceiling.
"The Enigma, John.” The commander turned his eyes to a dark blotch halfway up the blueness. It had no shape; it might have been an ink blot smeared across the plasticine. No stars shone in its darkness. It was mute, oddly menacing, like an alien intelligence waiting, as a spider might wait in its web.
Craig knew a little about the Enigma. It had been discovered by telescope several thousand years before, and had hung waiting for man to come to it, ever since. Slowly across the void that was its starry web, the race of man had crept outward toward the blotch, in clumsy spaceships at first, then in the sleek hyper-spatial craft that warped norm-space until they could cover incredible distances at speeds putting the speed of light to shame.
Now man stood at the threshold of the Enigma, wanting in.
And—the Enigma refused him. Or else—it swallowed him in some cosmic destruction which the race had not as yet encountered. Either way, it kept its secrets.
"We put two fleets into the Enigma,” Commander Ingalls growled, "The moment they hit that blackness, all communication stopped. Abruptly.”
He swung about in his chair, lifted a slender tobarette holder and inserted a tube of tobacco. A touch on a protonic lighter fed heat to its tip; he puffed slowly and with relish. His eyes through the of smoke were brilliant with worry and with the responsibility that lay so heavily on his wide shoulders.
"Twenty ships, ten thousand men—gone like that He snapped his fingers.
"Not a one. Never a bit of wreckage floating back out of the Enigma, never a sound or a radio impulse once they went into it.”
Craig frowned, “You have theories?”
"Theories? Oh, yes—lots of them. Carrington over at Empire Tech says it's an extrusion from the negative universe, that whatever touches it—matter, I mean—from our universe, winks out of existence upon contact. Mayer of Star Labs says it's a hole in space that leads into some other dimension. Schwartz of Theorem thinks its an alien vibration, some rhythmic pulsation that destroys matter as we know matter.
"It vibrates, then?”
"We've sent lab ships close enough to make sure of that. It does vibrate, at a high—frequency level. Not a dangerous one—at least, close to its surface.”
Ingalls lifted a file from the off corner of his desk and opened it. "In here—summarized—are the reports of those lab ship technicians. I'll let you take this. It's a copy and we have others, so you can study it.”
Craig grunted. “I gather I’m going into the Enigma?”
The over-bright eyes regarded him from under bushy black brows. "You are going to volunteer, commander. You will be put on special assignment, subject only to my own orders. With all the privileges. Top priority in everything. Triple pay. A bonus for a job well done. You know them all. You've collected them in the past.”
The commander felt cold. He was a veteran of the special job. Yet in all his former forays, he had known exactly what it was he was going up against. Here all he knew was that he would be venturing into the unknown. The Enigma might be anything from a mere vibration to the gaping maw of some unsuspected space beast. It was not a pleasant thought. His teeth gnawed at his lip.
Ingalls watched him. "You can refuse, he said softly. His hand came up to still the protest Craig was about to make. "I know, I know. You've just come off One assignment. It's too soon to send you out on another. You deserve a rest. Maybe I'm a fool for not wanting to give it to you.
"I'll tell you why I want you this way, John, hopped up and still tense after Lyrosia. You haven't had a chance to let down. Your reflexes are perfect, Doctor who checked you out when you came down at post told me so. I didn't want to say anything when you made your own report a few hours ago because I hadn't seen the medical analysis yet.
"I've studied the analysis. The medicos claim you are at your peak, right now. Six months on Lyrosia gave you a gradual build-up. You're like a Star Olympian ready for his best performance.”
Craig grunted. It was nice to know he was healthy, fit for anything. He would have liked to expend that energy at play, on skis or in the water or some resort hotel. Or with a woman like Elva Marlowe. His gold braiding moved as he shrugged.
All right, you've made your point. Just explain the necessity for all the speed.”
he Enigma is growing bigger, Ingalls said tonelessly.
A cold ball formed in his belly as the commander sat rigid in his chair. He needed no textbooks to understand what might happen if that darkness were to grow and grow. . . .
It would swallow the stars nearest to it at first. Unchecked, it would swell and swell—perhaps it even fed on matter—until in time it would hold the entire universe inside its blackness. There would be an end to man, then, if the Enigma were malevolent.
"I volunteer,” he murmured with a wry smile.
Ingalls brightened. "Good man! Now, then: we haven't been idle on my side of the desk. Construction has built you a star-ship that puts everything else we have to shame. The hull is of densatron—go ahead, whistle! The stuff sells for a thousand credits a quarter-ton, and the ship checks out at five thousand tons. "The Empire Tech boys tell me it will stand up to anything. They had to invent a special frequency beam to mine and shape it. They've tested it against the vibrations of the Enigma. It doesn't even scratch. As best as they can make out, the Tech men tell me the Enigma can't hurt it.”
Dan Ingalls crushed out the tobacco tube in a disposal tray, then flushed it. “Those vibrations won't penetrate the hull so they can't do you in. There may be other vibrations or rays or ultra-frequencies deeper inside the Enigma, of course. These may kill you or destroy the ship. We have no way of knowing that.” Ingalls talked on. Craig leaned back and let the words seep into his brain, weighing and them.
Empire had rigged up three communication devices.
One has a wave-beam that could penetrate the Enigma vibration. Another was a beep signal that worked automatically whether the major were alive or dead. The third was a series of torpedoes formed of densatron, into which he was to place tape recordings of what was taking place once he was inside the blotch. He was to fire them back into norm-space where a catch-ship would he waiting for them as they moved silently out of the Enigma.
"Now, then: Ordnance. The weapons crowd has come up with some new ideas on killing.” Ingalls reached to the edge of his desk and pressed a stud.
The door opened and a tall, lanky man in rumpled tweeds entered, carrying a large sack that bulged at odd places. The sack was heavy, judging by his unbalanced walk. He set the sack down and metal rattled inside it.
"Commander, this is Edmunds, chief of Ordnance staff here at Command Base. Edmunds has done a real good job for you. Got a couple of things in his mad-bag that you've never heard of before. Go ahead, Eddy. Show him.”
Grinning, Ingalls sat back and watched the tall, thin man bring a slender metal rod out of the bag. It was yard long and glittered in the lamplight.
Softly, Edmunds said, “This is a device we call The Imp.” He brought out a disc and fitted it over the near end of the rod with magnetic clamps. His eyes were dark, introspective, as he looked at Craig. "It's something of a new concept in aggressiveness, commander. It makes a man implode.”
He lifted it in his hands, touched the disc. A thin flare of pale crimson ran a dozen feet from the rod and stopped.
"Were a man standing there, he would shrink up until he's nothing more than a dust mote on the floor and—disappear. It works on the theory that the spaces between the atoms of matter—whether living matter or inert matter—can be closed up by a special type of energy. We call it implosive shrinkage on the ordnance levels. The atoms shrink closer to one another—and as the space between them is lessened to nullity then they become smaller until—they don't exist anymore.”
Ingalls leaned over the edge of his desk, throwing a book on the carpeting.
"Try it on that, Eddy.” When the pale crimson flare ran out on the book the volume shrank and shrank until it was no longer there.
Commander Craig began to sweat. Edmunds smiled. He put the rod down and reached into his mad-bag again. This time he lifted out a black box five inches on each side. There was a large red dot set into its top.
Assume you are being attacked by alien enemies, Commander Craig. You have no weapon-only this black box. You press the red dot.“
Edmunds touched the red stud. Instantly the air shimmered about him, and a glass-like tube appeared, surrounding him. His lips moved, but Craig could not hear no sound. Commander Ingalls came around the edge of the desk and picked up The Imp.
“Watch, John.” He pressed the disc. Pale crimson fire ran from the rod to the glass-like tube and—ended. It did not splash or splatter. It was cut off as if with a knife.
“A force-field?” wondered Craig. “In a sense, yes. In another sense, no. That barrier warps time, as near as we can judge. It hurls that beam somewhere into the future, How far into the future, we don't know. It may or may not exist any longer.”
Craig grimaced. "Ten years from now, anyone walking past that spot where Edmunds is standing may get a face-full of that implosive beam. It wouldn't be nice.”
According to theory, the warping at the barrier destroys anything which penetrates it. Ordnance has tested it at various frequencies and at differing energy levels. Apparently there is no after effect.
Edmunds pressed the black-box on the bottom. The barrier faded out. His thin face was amused as he lifted the box to show a blue button. "This shuts it off, commander. Red to activate, blue to cessate.” He put the black-box on the edge of the desk beside the implosive rod.
"One more, then were done.” His hand into the sack that crumpled as he lifted out a thin metal hoop. It was perhaps a foot in diameter and the metal itself was an inch in width. Edmunds waved it back and forth so that it set up a faint, thin music.
The lanky man pulled the hoop-down about his head and pushed it together so that it formed a kind of headband, giving him an odd appearance. "The halo, as we've named it, gathers the mental energies inherent in that human brain and enables the wearer to focus them. Even a human genius uses less than ten per cent of the full potential of his brain, commander. The halo lets him utilize almost all the other ninety per cent. The results are sometimes surprising and even-frightening. Observe the top of the Commander Ingall's desk.”
Craig turned his head to see a little yellow ball floating above the glass. As he watched, it was surrounded by a shimmery whiteness, then by a hard shell. He reached out and lifted the egg, finding it as heavy as a real one, and just as solid.
Edmunds chuckled. “We’ve made a meal of those things down in the lab. They're real, all right—actual eggs, I mean—but they're utterly tasteless. Somehow we can get everything into them but flavor. Even calories and vitamins.”
Craig was awed, "How do you do it?”
"You pull the halo about your ears and concentrate.
You have to build up the object slowly, step by step. When we first tried it, we got empty eggshells."
"Could you make a gun. Say, a rayer?”
"If you could visualize all its parts, I'd say yes.”
"Where do the atoms come from that form these things?”
"Nobody knows. Right now the halo is top hush-hush. Commander Ingalls wangled one out of Empire Security because of the job you're going to do.” His voice told Craig that the Ordnance chief had no idea what that job would be.
"I'll feel like a magician with that thing around my skull," he smiled. "I guess, in a sense, it is magic."
"It's a refinement and an adaptation of the sciences of biochemistry and entomology with a little extrasensory perception thrown in for good measure.”
When Craig reached for the halo, Ingalls said, "Hands off, John. All these things will be put on your ship minutes before countdown. For security reasons, you understand. Maybe some day everybody in the Empire will have a halo all to himself, but right now—they're verboten to everyone. Except yourself, naturally, and then only after you enter the Enigma. A time lock on the weapons chamber will prevent you from playing with them until the right time.”
"Cautious, cautious," grinned Craig.
Edmunds said soberly, "We must be cautious, Commander. These three objects are the result of seventy centuries of experimentation and adaptation. They are miracles in metal because of the indeterminable amount of human thought that has gone into them.” Edmunds lifted his mad-bag and began to put the objects into it, one by one. Craig wondered if he might owe his life to these things some day. When the lanky man was done, he nodded at Ingalls and at Craig, then left the room dragging his bag behind him.
“Whoosh,” breathed Craig. “Those things will convince you how badly the big brass is worried. The Enigma is hellishly dangerous, John. Empire will give you anything you need to learn how to beat it. If it can be beaten, that is. Even knowing that would be something. Right now, everyone's working in the dark.”
"As I will be, once I get inside the Enigma."
From his desk drawer Dan Ingalls lifted out half a dozen flat pieces of paper embedded in transparent plastic. He counted them off as he tossed them on the desktop. "Your clearance papers, your takeoff permission, your priority card, your punch-data to be fed into the ships computer, your identification numbers—they'll get you through to me as fast as the relays can work if you only mention them—and your report sheets. That about does it.”
Commander Ingalls placed his hands palm down on the glass desk covering. It was his signal to Craig that their meeting was at an end. In the past Ingalls had used this same gesture before sending John to Pamakian, Treefik and most recently, Lyrosia.
Craig felt that he had been given his death notice, for the first time in his career.