Our sprays met them in mid air.
Vampires of Space
By Sewell Peaslee Wright
Commander John Hanson recounts
his harrowing adventure with the
Electites of space.
Sometimes, I know, I must
seem a crotchety old man.
"Old John Hanson," they call
me, and roll their eyes as
though to say, "Of course, you have
to forgive him on
account of his
But the joke
isn't always on
me. Not infrequently
I gain much amusement observing
these cocky youngsters who
strut in the blue-and-silver uniforms
of the Service in which, until more
or less recently, I bore the rank of
There is young
Clippen, for instance,
third officer, I believe,
on the Caliobre, one of the
newest ships of the Special Patrol
Service. He drops in to see me as
often as he has leave here at Base,
to give me the latest news, and to
coax a yarn, if he can, of the old
days. He is courteous, respectful
... and yet just a shade condescending.
The condescension of
"Something new under the sun
after all, sir," he commented the
other day. That, incidentally, is a
saying of Earth, whence the larger
part of the Service's officer personnel
has always been drawn. Something
new under the sun! The
saying probably dates back to an
age long before man mastered
"Yes?" I leaned back more comfortably,
happy, as always, to hear
my native Earth tongue, and to
speak it. The Universal language
has its obvious advantages, but the
speech of one's fathers wings
thought straightest to the mind.
"Creatures of space!" announced
Clippen importantly, in the fashion
of one who brings surprising news.
"'Electites,' they call them. Beings
who live in space—things, anyway;
I don't know that you could call
"Hm-m." I looked past him,
down a mighty corridor of
dimming years. Creatures that lived
in space.... I smiled in my beard.
"Creatures perhaps twice the height
of a man in their greatest dimension?
In shape like a crescent, with
blunted horns somewhat straightened
near the tips, and drawn close together?"
I spoke slowly, drawing
from my store of memories. "A pale
red in color, intangible and yet—"
"You've heard, sir!" said Clippen
disappointedly to me. "My news is
"Yes, I've heard," I nodded.
"'Electites,' they call them, eh?
That's the work of our great scientific
minds, I presume?"
"Er—yes. Undoubtedly." Clippen
started to wander restlessly around
the room. He had a great respect
for the laboratory men, with their
white coats and their wise, solemn
airs, and he disliked exceedingly to
have me present my views regarding
these much overrated gentlemen.
I have always been a man of
action, and pottering over coils
and glass vials and pages of figures
has always struck me as something
not to be included in a man's
proper sphere of activity. "Well, I
believe I'll be shoving off, sir; just
dropped in for a moment," Clippen
continued. "Thought perhaps you
hadn't heard of the news; it seems
to be causing a great deal of discussion
among the officers at Base."
"Something new under the sun,
eh?" I chuckled.
"Why, yes. You'll agree to that,
sir, surely?" I believe the lad was
slightly nettled by my chuckle. No
one likes to bear stale news.
"I'll agree to that," I said, smiling
broadly now. "'Tis easier than
debating the matter, and an old man
can't hope to hold his own in argument
with you quick-witted youngsters."
"I've never noticed," replied
young Clippen rather acidly, "that
you were particularly averse to
argument, sir. Rather the reverse.
But I must be moving on; we're
shoving off soon, I hear, and you
know the routine here at Base."
He saluted me, rather carelessly,
I should say, and I returned
the salute with the crispness
with which the gesture was rendered
in my day. When he was
gone, I turned to my desk and began
searching in that huge and
capacious drawer in which were
kept, helter-skelter, the dusty,
faded, nondescript mementoes of a
I found, at last, what I was seeking.
No impressive thing, this: a
bit of metal, irregular in shape, no
larger than my palm, and three
times the thickness. One side was
smooth; the other was stained as
by great heat, and deeply pitted as
though it had been steeped in acid.
Silently, I turned the bit of metal
over and over in my hands. I had
begged hard for this souvenir; had
obtained it only by passing my
word its secret would never reach
the Universe through me. But now
... now that seal of secrecy has
As I write this, slowly and
thoughtfully, as an old man writes,
relishing his words for the sake
of the memories they bring before
his eyes, a bit of metal holds
against the vagrant breeze the
filled pages of my script. A bit of
metal, no larger than my palm, and
perhaps three times the thickness.
It is irregular in shape, and smooth
on one side. The other side is
eroded as though by acid.
Not an imposing thing, this ancient
bit of metal, but to me one
of my most precious possessions.
It is, beyond doubt, the only fragment
of my old ship, the Ertak,
now in existence and identifiable.
And this story is the story of
that pitted metal and the ship from
which it came; one of the strangest
stories in all my storehouse of
memories of days when only the
highways of the Universe had been
charted, and breathless adventure
awaited him who dared the unknown
trails of the Special Patrol
The Ertak, as I recall the details
now, had just touched at
Base upon the completion of a
routine patrol—one of those monotonous,
fruitless affairs which used
to prey so upon Correy's peace of
mind. Correy was my first officer
on the Ertak, and the keenest
seeker after trouble I have ever
"The Chief presents his compliments
and requests an immediate
audience with Commander Hanson,"
announced one of the brisk, little
attaches of Base, before I'd had
time to draw a second breath of
I glanced at Correy, who was
beside me, and winked. That is, I
quickly drew down the lid of one
eye—a peculiar little gesture common
to Earth, which may mean any
one of many things.
"Sounds like something's in the
wind," I commented in a swift aside.
"Better give 'no leaves' until I
"Right, sir!" chuckled Correy.
"It's about time."
I made my way swiftly to the
Chief's private office, and was
promptly admitted. He returned my
salute crisply, and wasted no time
in getting to the point.
"How's your ship, Commander?
"What's needed could be taken on
in two hours." In the Service,
Earth time was an almost universal
standard except in official documents.
"Good!" The Chief picked up a
sheaf of papers, mostly standard
charts and position reports, I
judged, and frowned at them
thoughtfully. "I've some work cut
out for you, Commander.
"Two passenger ships have recently
been reported lost in space.
That wouldn't be so alarming if
both had not, when last reported,
been in about the same position.
Perhaps it is no more than a coincidence,
but, with space travel still
viewed with a certain doubt by so
many, the Council feels something
should be done to determine the
cause of these two losses.
"Accordingly, all ships have been
rerouted to avoid the area in which
it is presumed these losses took
place. The locations of the two
ships, together with their routes
and last reported positions, are
given here. There will be no formal
orders; you are to cruise until
you have determined, and if possible,
eliminated the danger, or until
you are certain that no further
He slid the papers across his
desk, and I picked them up.
"Yes, sir!" I said. "That will be
"You understand your orders?"
"Very well. Good luck, Commander!"
I saluted and hurried out of the
room, back to my impatient first
"What's up, sir?" he asked
"Can't say that I know, to be
truthful about it. Perhaps nothing;
perhaps a great deal. Give orders
to take on all necessary supplies—in
double-quick time. I've promised
the Chief we'll be ready to shove
off in two hours. I'll meet you in
the navigating room, and give you
all the information I have."
Correy saluted and rushed away
to give the necessary orders.
Thoughtfully, I made my way
through the narrow, ethon-lighted
passageways to the navigating room,
where Correy very shortly joined
Briefly, I repeated the Chief's
conversation, and we both bent over
the charts and position reports.
"Hm-m!" Correy was lost in
thought for a moment as he fixed
the location in his mind. "Rather
on the fringe of things. Almost
anything could happen out there,
sir. That would be on the old
Belgrade route, would it not?"
"Yes. It's still used, however, as
you know, by some of the smaller,
slower ships making many stops.
Or was, until the recent order. Any
guesses as to what we'll find?"
"None, sir, except the obvious
"There's some bad swarms, now
and then," he said seriously. I knew
he was thinking of one disastrous
experience the Ertak had had ... and
of scores of narrow escapes.
"That would be the one likely explanation."
"True. But those ships were old
and slow, they could turn about
and dodge more easily than a ship
of the Ertak's speed. At full space
speed we're practically helpless;
can neither stop nor change our
course in time to avoid an emergency."
"Well, sir," shrugged Correy,
"our job's to find the facts. I took
the liberty of telling the men we
were to be ready in an hour and
a half. If we are, do we shove off
"Just as soon as everything's
checked. I leave it to you to give
the necessary orders. I know I can
depend upon you to waste no time."
"Right, sir," said Correy, grinning
like a schoolboy. "We'll waste no
In just a shade less than two
hours after we had set down at
Base, we were rising swiftly at
maximum atmospheric speed, on our
way to a little-traveled portion of
the universe, where two ships, in
rapid succession, had met an unknown
"I wonder, sir, if you could
come to the navigating room
at once?" It was Kincaide's voice,
coming from the instrument in my
"Immediately, Mr. Kincaide." I
asked no questions, for I knew my
second officer's cool-headed disposition.
If something required my
attention in the navigating room, in
his opinion, it was something important.
I threw on my uniform
hurriedly and hastened to Kincaide's
side, wondering if at last
our days of unrewarded searching
were to bear fruit.
"Perhaps I called you needlessly,
sir," Kincaide greeted me apologetically,
"but, considering the nature
of our mission, I thought it best
to have your opinion." He motioned
toward the two great navigating
charts, operated by super-radio reflexes,
set in the surface of the
table before him.
In the center of each was the
familiar red spark which represented
the Ertak herself, and all
around were the glowing points of
greenish light which gave us, in
terrestial terms, the locations of the
various bodies to the right and left,
above and below.
"See here, sir—and here?" Kincaide's
blunt, capable forefingers
indicated spots on each of the
charts. "Ever see anything like that
I shook my head slowly. I had
seen instantly the phenomena he
had pointed out. Using again the
most understandable terminology,
to our right, and somewhat above
us, nearer by far than any of the
charted bodies, was something
which registered on our charts, as
a dim and formless haze of pinkish light.
"Now the television, sir," said
I bent over the huge, hooded
disk, so unlike the brilliantly
illuminated instruments of to-day,
and studied the scene reflected
Centered in the field was a group
of thousands of strange things,
moving swiftly toward the ship.
In shape they were not unlike
crescents, with the horns blunted,
and pushed inward, towards each
other. They glowed with a reddish
radiance which seemed to have its
center in the thickest portion of
the crescents—and, despite their
appearance, they gave me, somehow,
an uncanny impression that they
were in some strange way, alive!
While they remained in a more or
less compact group, their relative
positions changed from time to time,
not aimlessly as would insensate
bodies drifting thus through the
black void of space, but with a
sort of intelligent direction.
"What do you make of them,
sir?" asked Kincaide, his eyes on
may face. "Can you place them?"
"No," I admitted, still staring
with a fixed fascination at the
strange scene in the television disk.
"Perhaps this is what we've been
searching for. Please call Mr. Correy
and Mr. Hendricks, and ask
them to report here immediately."
Kincaide hastened to obey the order,
while I watched the strange
things in the field of the television
disk, trying to ascertain their
nature. They were not solid bodies,
for even as I viewed them, one was
superimposed upon another, and I
could see the second quite distinctly
through the substance of
the first. Nor were they rigid, for
now and again one of the crescent
arms would move searchingly, almost
like a thick, clumsy tentacle.
There was something restless,
hungry, in the movement of the
sharp arms of the things, that sent
a chill trickling down my spine.
Correy and Hendricks arrived together;
their curiosity evident.
"I believe, gentlemen," I said,
"that we're about to find out the
reason why two ships already have
disappeared in this vicinity. Look
first at the charts, and then here."
They bent, for a moment, over
the charts, and then stared
down into the television disk. Correy
was first to speak.
"What are they?" he gasped.
"Are they ... alive?"
"That is what we don't know. I
believe they are, after a fashion.
And, if you'll observe, they are
headed directly towards us at a
speed which must be at least as
great as our own. Is that correct,
Kincaide nodded, and began some
hasty figuring, taking his readings
from the finely ruled lines which
divided the charts into little
measured squares, and checking
speeds with the chronometers set
into the wall of the room.
"But I don't understand the way
in which they register on our
navigating charts, sir," said Hendricks
slowly. Hendricks, my
youthful third officer, had an inquiring,
almost scientific mind. I
have often said he was the closest
approach to a scientist I have ever
seen in the person of an action-loving
man. "They're a blur of light
on the charts—all out of proportion
to their actual size. They must
be something more than material
bodies, or less."
"They're coming towards us,"
commented Correy grimly, still bent
over the disk, "as though they
knew what they were doing, and
"Yes," nodded Kincaide, picking
up the paper upon which he had
been figuring. "This is just a rule-of-thumb
estimate, but if they continue
on their present course at
their present speed, and we do
likewise, they'll be upon us in
about an hour and a quarter—less,
"But I can't understand their
appearance in the charts,"
muttered Hendricks doggedly, still
turning that matter over in his
mind. "Unless ... unless ... ah!
I'll venture I have it, sir! The
charts are operated by super-radio
reflexes; in others words, electrically.
They would naturally be extremely
sensitive to an electrical
disturbance. Those things are electrical
in nature. Highly so. That's
the reason for the flare of light on
"Sounds logical," said Correy
immediately. "The point, as I see
it, is not what they are, but what
we're to do about them. Do you
believe, sir, that they are dangerous?"
"Let me ask you some questions
to answer that one," I suggested.
"Two ships are reported lost in
space—in this immediate vicinity.
We come here to determine the
cause of those losses. We find ourselves
the evident objective of a
horde of strange things which we
cannot identify; which Mr. Hendricks,
here, seems to have good
reason to believe are somehow
electrical in nature. Putting all
these facts together, what is the
most logical conclusion?"
"That these things caused the
two lost ships to be reported missing
in space!" said Hendricks.
I glanced at Kincaide, and he
"And you, Mr. Correy?" I asked.
"I believe you're, right, sir. They
seem like such rather flimsy, harmless
things, though, that the disintegrator
rays will take care of
without difficulty. Shall I order the
ray operators to their stations, sir?"
"Do that, please. And take personal
charge of the forward projectors,
will you? Mr. Hendricks,
will you command the after projectors?
Mr. Kincaide and I will
carry on here."
"Shall we open upon them at
will, or upon orders, sir?" asked
"Upon orders," I said. "And you'll
get your orders as soon as they're
in range; I have a feeling we're
in for trouble."
"I hope so, sir!" grinned Correy
from the door.
Hendricks followed him silently,
but I saw there was a deep, thoughtful
frown between his brows.
"I think," commented Kincaide
quietly, "that Hendricks is likely
to be more useful to us in this
matter than Correy."
I nodded, and bent over the television
disk. The things were perceptibly
nearer; the hurtling group
nearly filled the disk, now.
There was something horribly
eager, horribly malignant, in the
way they shone, so palely red, and
in the fashion in which their blunt
tentacles reached out toward the
I glanced up at the Earth clock
on the wall.
"The next hour," I said soberly,
"cannot pass too quickly for me!"
We had decelerated steadily
during the hour, but we were
still above maximum atmospheric
speed when at last I gave the order
to open the invaders with disintegrator
rays. They were close, but of
course the rays are not as effective
in space as when operating in a
more favorable medium, and I
wished to make sure of our prey.
I pressed the attention signal to
Correy's post, and he answered
"Ready, Mr. Correy?"
"Then commence action!"
Before I could repeat the command
to Hendricks, I heard the
deepening note of the atomic generators,
and knew Correy had already
Together, and silently, Kincaide
and I bent over the television disk.
We watched for a moment, and
then, with one accord, lifted our
heads and looked into each other's
"No go, sir," said Kincaide quietly.
I nodded. It was evident the
disintegrator rays were useless here.
When they struck into the horde
of crescent-shaped things coming
so hungrily toward us, the things
changed from red to a sickly, yellowish
pink, and seemed to writhe,
as though in some discomfort, but
that was all.
"Perhaps at closer range...?"
"I think not. If Mr. Hendricks
is correct—and I believe he is—these
things aren't material; they're
not matter, as we comprehend the
word. And so, they can't be disintegrated."
"Then, sir, how are to best
"First, we'll have to know more
about them. For one thing, their
mode of attack. We should know
very soon. Please recall Mr. Hendricks,
and then order all hands
to their posts. We may be in for
Hendricks came rushing in
"The rays are useless, sir," he
said. "They'll be on us in a few
minutes. Any further orders?"
"Not yet. Have you any ideas as
to their mode of attack? What
they can do to us?"
"No, sir. That is, no reasonable
"What's your unreasonable theory,
then, Mr. Hendricks?"
"I'd prefer, sir, to make further
observation first," he replied.
"They're close enough now, I think,
to watch through the ports. Have
I your permission to unshutter one
of the ports?"
"Certainly, sir." The Ertak, like
all Special Patrol ships of the
period, had but few ports, and
these were kept heavily shuttered.
Her hull was double; she was really
two ships, one inside the other,
the two skins being separated and
braced by innumerable trusses. Between
the outer and the inner skin
the air pressure was kept about
one half of normal, thus distributing
the strain of the pressure
equally between the two hulls.
In order to arrange for a port
or an exit, it was necessary to bring
these two skins close together at the
desired point, and strengthen this
weak point with many braces. As a
further protection against an emergency—and
a fighting ship must be
prepared against all emergencies—the
ports were all shuttered with
massive doors of solid metal, hermetically
fitted. I am explaining this
so much in detail for the benefit of
those not familiar with the ships of
my day, and because this information
is necessary that one may have a
complete understanding of subsequent events.
Hendricks, upon receiving my
permission, sprang to one of the
two ports in the navigating room
and unshuttered it.
"The lights, please?" he asked,
over his shoulder. Kincaide nodded,
and switched off the ethon tubes
which illuminated the room. The
three of us crowded around the
The things were not only close:
they were veritably upon us!
Even as we looked, one of them
swept by the port so close that,
save for the thick crystal, one
might have reached out into space
and touched it.
The television disk had represented
them very accurately. They
were, in their greatest dimension,
perhaps twice the height of a man,
and at close range their reddish
color was more brilliant than I had
imagined; in the thickest portion
of the crescent, which seemed to
be the nucleus, the radiance of the
thing was almost blinding.
It was obvious that they were
not material bodies. There were
no definite boundaries to their
bodies; they faded off into nothingness
in a sort of fringe, almost
like a dim halo.
An attention signal sounded
sharply, and Kincaide groped his
way swiftly to answer it.
"It's Correy, sir," he said. "He
reports his rays are utterly useless,
and asks for further orders."
"Tell him to cease action, and
report here immediately." I turned
to Hendricks, staring out the port
beside me. "Well, what do you
make of them now?"
Before he could reply, Kincaide
called out sharply.
"Come here, sir! The charts are
out of commission. We've gone
It was true. The charts were no
more than twin rectangles of lambent
red flame, with a yellow spark
glowing dimly in the center of
each, the fine black lines ruled in
the surface showing clearly against
the wavering red fire.
"Mr. Hendricks!" I snapped.
"Let's have your theory—reasonable
Hendricks, his face pressed
at an angle against one side
of the port, turned toward me, and
swung the shutter into place. Kincaide
snapped on the lights.
"It's no longer a theory, sir,"
he said in a choked, hushed voice,
"although it's still unreasonable.
These things—are eating us!"
"Eating us?" Correy's voice
joined Kincaide's and mine in the
exclamation of amazement. He had
just entered the navigating room
in response to my order.
"Eroding us, absorbing us—whatever
you want to call it. There's
one at work close enough to the
port so that I could see it. It is
feeding upon our hull as an electric
arc feeds upon its electrodes!"
"Farewell Ertak!" said Correy
grimly. "Anything the rays can't
"Not yet!" I contradicted him.
"Kincaide, what's the nearest body
upon which we can set down?"
"N-127, sir," he replied promptly.
"Just logged her a few minutes
ago." He poured hastily through
a dog-eared index. "Here it is:
'N-127, atmosphere unbreathable;
largely nitrogen, oxygen insufficient
to support human life; no
animal life reported; insects, large
but reported non-poisonous; vegetation
heroic in size, probably with
edible fruits, although reports are
incomplete on this score; water unfit
for drinking purpose unless distilled;
land area approximately—'"
"That's enough," I interrupted.
"Mr. Correy, set a course for N-127
by the readings of the television
instrument. Mr. Kincaide, accelerate
to maximum space speed, and
set us down on dry land as quickly
as emergency speed can put us
there. And you, Mr. Hendricks,
please tell us all you know—or
guess—about the enemy."
Hendricks waited, moodily
silent, until the ship was
coming around on her course, picking
up speed every instant. Kincaide
had gradually increased the
pull of the gravity pads to about
twice normal, so that we found it
barely possible to move about. The
Ertak was an old-timer, but she
could pick up speed when she had
to that would have thrown us all
headlong were it not for the artificial
gravity anchorage of the pads.
"It's all guess-work," began Hendricks
slowly, "so I hope you won't
place too much reliance in my theories,
sir. I'll just give you my line
of reasoning, and you can evaluate
it for yourself.
"These things are creatures of
space. No form of life, as we know
it, can live in space. Therefore,
they are not material; they are not
matter, like ourselves.
"From their effect upon the
charts, we decided they were electrical
in nature. Not made up of
atoms and electrons, but of pure
electrical energy in an unfamiliar
"Then, remembering that they
exist in space, and concluding that
they were the destroyers of the
two ships we know of, I began
wondering how they brought about
the destruction—or at least, the
disappearance—of these two ships.
Life of any kind must have something
to feed upon. To produce
one kind of energy we must convert,
apparently consume, some
other kind of energy. Even our
atomic generators slowly but surely
eat up the metal in which is
locked the power which makes this
ship's power possible.
"But, in space, what could these
things feed upon? What—if not
those troublesome bodies, meteorites?
And meteorites, as we know,
are largely metallic in composition.
And ships are made of metal.
"Here are the only proofs, if
proofs you can call them, that these
are not wild ideas: first, the disintegrator
rays, working upon an
electrical principle, reacted upon
but did not destroy these things,
as might be expected from the
meeting of two not dissimilar manifestations
of energy; and the fact
that I did, from the port, see one
of these space-things, or part of
one, flattened out upon the body of
the Ertak, and feeding upon her
skin, already roughened and pitted
slightly from the thing's hungry
Hendricks fell silent, staring
down at the floor. He was
only a youngster, and the significance
of his remarks was as plain
to him as it was to the rest of
us. If these monsters from the void
were truly feeding on the skin of
our ship, vampire-like, it would
not be long before it would be
weakened; weakened to the danger
point, weakened until we would
explode in space like a gigantic
bomb, to leave our fragments to
whirl onward forever through the
darkness and the silence of outer
"And what, sir, do you plan to
do when we reach this N-127?"
asked Correy. "Burn them off with
a run through the atmosphere?"
"No; that wouldn't work, I imagine."
I glanced at Hendricks inquiringly,
and he shook his head.
"My only thought was to land, so
that we would have some chance.
Outside the ship we can at least
attack; locked in here we're helpless."
"Attack, sir? With what?" asked
"That I can't answer. But at
least we can fight—with solid
ground under our feet. And that's
"You're right, sir!" grinned Correy.
It was the first smile that had
appeared on the faces of any of
us in many minutes. "And fight we
will! And if we lose the ship, at
least we'll be alive, with a hope of
Hendricks glanced up at him and
shook his head, smiling crookedly.
"You forget," he remarked, "that
there's no air to breathe on N-127.
An atmosphere of nitrogen. And
no water that's drinkable—if the
reports are accurate. A breathing
mask will not last long, even the
"That's so," said Kincaide. "The
tanks hold about a ten-hours' supply;
less, if the wearer is working
hard, or fighting."
Ten hours! No more, if we did
not find some way to destroy these
leeches of space before they destroyed
During the next half hour little
was said. We were drawing
close to our tiny, uninhabited
haven, and both Correy and Kincaide
were busy with their navigation.
Working in reverse, as it
were, from the rough readings of
the television disk settings, an ordinarily
simple task was made extremely
I helped Correy interpret his
headings, and kept a weather eye
on the gauges over the operating
table. We were slipping into the
atmospheric fringe of N-127, and
the surface-temperature gauge was
slowly climbing. Hendricks sat
hunched heavily in a corner, his
head bowed in his hands.
"I believe," said Kincaide at
length, "I can take over visually
now." He unshuttered one of the
ports, and peered out. N-127 was
full abreast of us, and we were
dropping sideways toward her at
a gradually diminishing speed. The
impression given us, due to the
gravity pads in the keel of the
ship, was that we were right side
up, and N-127 was approaching us
swiftly from the side.
"'Vegetation of heroic size' is
right, too," said Correy, who had
been examining the terrain at close
range, through the medium of the
television disk. "Two of the leaves
on some of the weeds would make
an awning for the whole ship. See
any likely place to land, Kincaide?"
"Nowhere except along the shore—and
then we'll have to do some
nice work and lay the Ertak parallel
to the edge of the water. The
beach is narrow, but apparently the
only barren portion. Will that be
all right, sir?"
"Use your own judgment, but
waste no time. Correy, break out
the breathing masks, and order the
men at the air-lock exit port to
stand by. I'm going out to have
a look at these things."
"May I go with you, sir?" asked
"And I?" pleaded Kincaide and
Correy in chorus.
"You, Hendricks, but not you
two. The ship needs officers, you
"Then why not me instead of
you, sir?" argued Correy. "You
don't know what you're going up
"All the more reason I shouldn't
be receiving any information second-hand,"
I said. "And as for
Hendricks, he's the laboratory man
of the Ertak. And these things are
his particular pets. Right, Hendricks?"
"Right, sir!" said my third officer
Correy muttered under his
breath, something which sounded
very much like profanity, but I let
I knew just how he felt.
I have never liked to wear a
breathing mask. I feel shut in,
frustrated, more or less helpless.
The hiss of the air and the everlasting
flap-flap of the exhaust-valve
disturb me. But they are
very handy things when you walk
abroad on a world which has no
You've probably seen, in the
museums, the breathing masks of
that period. They were very new
and modern then, although they
certainly appear cumbersome by
comparison with the devices of to-day.
Our masks consisted of a huge
shirt of air-tight, light material
which was belted in tightly around
the waist, and bloused out like an
ancient balloon when inflated. The
arm-holes were sealed by two heavy
bands of elastic, close to the shoulders,
and the head-piece was of
thin copper, set with a broad,
curved band of crystal which extended
from one side to the other,
across the front, giving the wearer
a clear view of everything except
that which was directly behind
him. The balloon-like blouse, of
course, was designed to hold a
small reserve supply of air, for an
emergency, should anything happen
to the tank upon the shoulders, or
the valve which released the air
They were cumbersome, uncomfortable
things, but I donned mine
and adjusted the menore, built into
the helmet, to full strength. I
wanted to be sure I kept in communication
with both Hendricks
and the sentries at the air-lock exit,
and of course, inside the helmets,
verbal communication was impossible.
I glanced at Hendricks, and saw
that he was ready and waiting. We
were standing inside the air-lock,
and the mighty door of the port
had just finished turning in its
threads, and was swinging back
slowly on its massive gimbals.
"Let's go, Hendricks," I emanated.
"Remember, take no chances,
and keep your eyes open."
"I'll remember, sir," replied Hendricks,
and together we stepped
out onto the coarse gravel of the
Before us, waves of an unhealthy,
cloudy green rolled
slowly, heavily shoreward, but we
had no eyes for this, nor for the
amazing vegetation of the place,
plainly visible on the curving
shores. We took a few hurried
steps away from the ship, and then
turned to survey the monsters
which had attacked it.
They literally covered the ship;
in several places their transparent,
glowing bodies overlapped. And the
sides of the Ertak, ordinarily polished
and smooth as the surface of
a mirror, were dull and deeply
"Notice, sir," emanated Hendricks
excitedly, "how much
brighter the things are! They are
feeding, and they are growing
stronger and more brilliant. They
—look out, sir! They're attacking!
Our copper helmets—"
But I had seen it as quickly as he.
Half a dozen of the glowing things,
sensing in some way the presence
of a metal which they apparently
preferred to that of the Ertak's
hull, suddenly detached themselves
and came swarming directly down
I was standing closer to the ship
than Hendricks, and they attacked
me first. Several of them dropped
upon me, their glowing bodies covering
the vision-piece, and blinding
me with their light. I waved my
arms and started to run blindly,
incoherent warnings coming to me
through the menore from Hendricks
and the sentries.
The things had no weight, but
they emitted a strange, electric
warmth which seemed to penetrate
my entire body instantly as I ran
unseeingly, trying to find the ship,
tearing at the fastenings of my
mask as I ran. I could not, of
course, enter the ship with these
things clinging to my garments.
Suddenly I felt water splash under
my feet; felt its grateful coolness
upon my legs, and with a
gasp I realized I had in my confusion
been running away from the
ship, instead of toward it. I
stopped, trying to get a grip on
The belt of the breathing mask
came loose, and I tore the thing
from me, holding my breath and
staring around wildly. The ship
was only a few yards away, and
Hendricks, his mask already off,
was running toward me.
"Back!" I shouted. "I'm all
right now. Back!" He hesitated
for an instant until I caught
up with him, and then, together,
we gained the safety of the air-lock.
Without orders, the men
swung shut the ponderous door,
and Hendricks and I stood there
panting, and drawing in breaths
of the Ertak's clean, reviving air.
"That possibility was one we
overlooked, sir," said Hendricks.
"Let's see what's happening."
We opened the shutter of a port
nearby and gazed out onto the
beach we had so hurriedly deserted.
There were three or four of
the glowing things huddled shapelessly
around our abandoned suits,
and ragged holes showed in several
places in the thin copper helmets.
Even as we looked, they dissolved
into nothingness, and after
a few seconds of hesitation, the
things swarmed swiftly back to the
"Well," I commented, trying to
keep my voice reasonably free from
the feelings which gripped me, "I
believe we're beaten, Hendricks. At
least, we're helpless against them.
Our only chance is that they'll
leave us before they have eaten
through the second skin; so long
as we still have that, we can live
... and perhaps be found."
"I doubt they'll leave us while
there's a scrap of metal left, sir,"
said Hendricks slowly. "Something's
brought them from their
usual haunts. There's no reason
why they should leave a certainty
for an uncertainty. But we're not
quite through trying. I saw something—have
I your permission to
make another try at them? Alone,
"Any chance of success, lad?"
I asked, searching his eyes.
"A chance, sir," he replied, his
glance never wavering. "I can be
ready in a few minutes."
"Then, go ahead—on one condition:
that you let me come with
"Very good, sir; as you wish.
Have two other breathing masks
ready. I'll be back very soon."
And he left me hastily, taking
the steps of the companionway two
at a time.
It was nearly an hour before
Hendricks returned, bringing
with him two of the most amazing
pieces of apparatus I have ever
To make each of them, he had
taken a flask of compressed air
from our emergency stores, and
run a flexible tube from it into a
cylindrical drinking water container.
Another tube, which I recognized
as being a part of our fire-extinguishers,
and terminating in
a metal nozzle, sprouted from the
water container. Both tubes were
securely sealed into the mouth of
the metal cylinder, and lengths of
hastily-knotted rope had been bound
around each contrivance so that the
two heavy containers, the air flask
and the small water tank could be
slung from the shoulders.
"Here, sir," he said hastily, "get
into a breathing mask, and put on
these things as you see me do. No
time to explain anything now, except
this: as soon as you're outside
the ship, turn the valve that opens
the compressed air flask. Hold this
hose, coming from the water container,
in your right hand. Don't
touch the metal nozzle. Use the
hose just as you'd use a portable
I nodded, and followed his instructions
as swiftly as possible.
The two containers were heavy,
but I adjusted their ropes across
my shoulders so that my left hand
had easy access to the valve of the
air flask, and the water container
was under my right arm where I
could have the full use of the hose.
"Let me go first, sir," breathed
Hendricks as we stood again in
the air-lock, and the door turned
out of its threaded seat and swung
open. "Keep your eyes on me, and
do as I do!"
He ran heavily out of the ship,
his burdens lurching. I saw
him turn the pet-cock of the air
flask, and I did likewise. A fine,
powerful spray shot from the nozzle
of the tube in my right hand,
and I whirled around to face the
Several of the things were detaching
themselves from the ship,
and instinctively, I turned the
spray upon them. Hendricks, I
could see out of the corner of my
eye, did likewise. And now a most
amazing thing happened.
The spray seemed to dissolve
the crescent-shaped creatures;
where it hit, ragged holes appeared.
A terrible hissing, crackling sound
came to my ears, even through the
muffling mask I wore.
"It works! It works!" Hendricks
was crying over and over, hardly
aware, in his excitement, that he
was wearing a menore. "We're
I put down three of the things
in as many seconds. The central
nucleus, in the thickest portion of
the crescent, was always the last
to go, and it seemed to explode in
a little shower of crackling sparks.
Hendricks accounted for four in
the same length of time.
"Keep back, sir!" he ordered in
a sort of happy delirium. "Let them
come to us! We'll get them as they
come. And they'll come, all right!
Look at them! Look at them!
The things showed no fear, no
intelligence. But one by one they
sensed the nearness of the copper
helmets we wore, and detached
themselves from the ship. They
moved like red tongues of flame
upon the fat sides of the Ertak;
crawling, uneasy flames, releasing
themselves swiftly, one after the
Our sprays met them in mid-air,
and they dissolved like
mist, one after the other.... I
directed my death-dealing spray
with a grim delight, and as each
glowing heart crackled and exploded,
I chuckled to myself.
The sweat was running down my
face; I was shaking with excitement
One side of the ship was
already cleared of the things; they
were slipping over the top now,
one or two at a time, and as rapidly
as they came, we wiped them
At last there came a period in
which there were none of the
things in sight; none coming over
the top of the sorely tried ship.
"Stay here and watch, Hendricks,"
I ordered. "I'll look on the
other side. I believe we've got them
I hurried, as best I could, around
to the other side of the Ertak.
Her hull was pitted and corroded,
but there was no other evidence of
the crescent-shaped things which
had so nearly brought about the
ship's untimely, ghastly end.
"Hendricks!" I emanated happily.
"'Nothing Less Than Complete
Success!' And that's ours
right now! They're gone—all of
I slipped the contrivances from
my shoulders and ran back to the
other side of the ship. Hendricks
was executing some weird sort of
dance, patting the containers,
swinging them wildly about his
body, with an understandable fondness.
"Come inside, you idiot," I suggested,
"and tell us how you did
it. And see how it feels to be a
"It was just luck," Hendricks
tried to make us believe, a
few minutes later, when Kincaide,
Correy, and myself were through
slapping his back and shaking his
hands. "When you, sir, splashed
into the water, I had just torn off
my mask. I saw some of the water
fall on one of the things clustered
upon your helmet, and I distinctly
heard it hiss, as it fell. And where
it fell, it made a ragged hole,
which very slowly closed up, leaving
a dim spot in the tentacle
where the hole had been. As I figure
it, the water—to put it crudely—short-circuited
the electrical energy
of the things. That, too, is
just a guess, but I think it's a
"Of course, it was a long chance,
but it seemed like our only one.
There was nothing more or less than
acidulated water in the containers;
and the air flasks, of course, were
merely to supply the pressure to
throw the water out in a powerful
spray. It happened to work, and
there isn't anybody any happier
about it than I am. I'm young, and
there're lots of things I want to
do before I bleach my bones on a
little deserted world like this, that
isn't important enough to even
have a name!"
That was typical of Hendricks.
He was a practical scientist, willing
and eager to try out his own
devices. A man of action first—as
a man should be.
None of us, I think, spent a
really easy moment until the
Ertak was back at Base. Our outer
hull was weakened by at least
half, and we were obliged to increase
the degree of vacuum there
and thus place the major portion
of the load on the inner skin. It
was a ticklish business, but those
old ships were solidly built, and
we made it.
As soon as I had completed my
report to the Chief, the Ertak was
sent instantly to a secret field, under
heavy guard, and a new outer
hull put in place.
"This can't be made public," the
Chief warned me. "It would ruin
the whole future of space travel,
as people are just learning to accept
it as a matter of course. You
will swear your men to utter secrecy,
and pass me your word, in
behalf of your officers and yourself,
that you will not divulge any
details of this trip."
The scientists, of course, questioned
me for days; they turned
up their noses at the crude apparatus
Hendricks had made, and
which had saved the Ertak and all
her crew—but they kept it, I noticed,
for future reference.
All ships were immediately supplied
with devices very similar,
but more compact, the use of which
only chief officers knew. And the
scientists, to my knowledge, never
did improve greatly on the model
made for them by my third officer.
Whether or not these devices
were ever used, I do not know. The
silver-sleeves at Base are a close-mouthed
crew. Hendricks always
held that the group of things which
so nearly caused the deaths of all
of us had wandered into our portion
of Universe from some part
of space beyond the fringe of our
But the same source which supplied
one brood may supply
another. Evidently, from young
Clippen's report, this thing has
happened. And since starting this
account, I have determined why
the powers that be are willing now
to have the knowledge made public.
The new silicide coating with
which all space ships have been
covered, is proof against all electrical
action. That it is smoother
and reduces friction, is, in my
opinion, no more than a rather
halty explanation. It is, in reality,
the decidedly belated scientific answer
to a question raised back in
the hey-day of the Ertak, and my
That was many, many years ago,
as the crabbed, uncertain writing
on these pages proves.
And now, rather thankfully, I
am about to place the last of these
pages under the curious weight
which has held the others in place
as I have written. That irregular
bit of metal from the hull of the
Ertak, so deeply pitted on the one
side, where the hungry things had
sapped our precious strength.
"Electites," the scientists have
dubbed these strange crescent-shaped
things, young Clippen said.
"Electites!" Something new under
New to this generation, perhaps,
but not to old John Hanson.
Produced by Greg Weeks, Meredith Bach, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
This etext was produced from Astounding Stories, March 1932. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.