The ship veered, turning away from the moon. The great eaten-away globe fell behind them.
Gross breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s that.”
“One more thing.” Kramer picked up the microphone. “Return to the moon and land the ship at the first space field,” he said into it.
“Good Lord,” Winter murmured. “Why are you –”
“Be quiet.” Kramer stood, listening. The turbines gasped and roared as the ship swung full around, gaining speed. They were moving back, back toward the moon again. The ship dipped down, heading toward the great globe.
“We’re going a little fast,” the Pilot said. “I don’t see how he can put down at this velocity.”
The port filled up, as the globe swelled rapidly. The Pilot hurried toward the board, reaching for the controls. All at once the ship jerked. The nose lifted and the ship shot out into space, away from the moon, turning at an oblique angle. The men were thrown to the floor by the sudden change in course. They got to their feet again, speechless, staring at each other.
The Pilot gazed down at the board. “It wasn’t me! I didn’t touch a thing. I didn’t even get to it.”
The ship was gaining speed each moment. Kramer hesitated. “Maybe you better switch it back to manual.”
The Pilot closed the switch. He took hold of the steering controls and moved them experimentally. “Nothing.” He turned around. “Nothing. It doesn’t respond.”
No one spoke.
“You can see what has happened,” Kramer said calmly. “The old man won’t let go of it, now that he has it. I was afraid of this when I saw the wiring changes. Everything in this ship is centrally controlled, even the cooling system, the hatches, the garbage release. We’re helpless.”
“Nonsense.” Gross strode to the board. He took hold of the wheel and turned it. The ship continued on its course, moving away from the moon, leaving it behind.
“Release!” Kramer said into the microphone. “Let go of the controls! We’ll take it back. Release.”
“No good,” the Pilot said. “Nothing.” He spun the useless wheel. “It’s dead, completely dead.”
“And we’re still heading out,” Winter said, grinning foolishly. “We’ll be going through the first-line defense belt in a few minutes. If they don’t shoot us down –”
“We better radio back.” The Pilot clicked the radio to send. “I’ll contact the main bases, one of the observation stations.”
“Better get the defense belt, at the speed we’re going. We’ll be into it in a minute.”
“And after that,” Kramer said, “we’ll be in outer space. He’s moving us toward outspace velocity. Is this ship equipped with baths?”
“Baths?” Gross said.
“The sleep tanks. For space-drive. We may need them if we go much faster.”
“But good God, where are we going?” Gross said. “Where — where’s he taking us?”
The Pilot obtained contact. “This is Dwight, on ship,” he said. “We’re entering the defense zone at high velocity. Don’t fire on us.”
“Turn back,” the impersonal voice came through the speaker. “You’re not allowed in the defense zone.”
“We can’t. We’ve lost control.”
“This is an experimental ship.”
Gross took the radio. “This is Commander Gross, Security. We’re being carried into outer space. There’s nothing we can do. Is there any way that we can be removed from this ship?”
A hesitation. “We have some fast pursuit ships that could pick you up if you wanted to jump. The chances are good that they’d find you. Do you have space flares?”
“We do,” the Pilot said. “Let’s try it.”
“Abandon ship?” Kramer said. “If we leave now we’ll never see it again.”
“What else can we do? We’re gaining speed all the time. Do you propose that we stay here?”
“No.” Kramer shook his head. “Damn it, there ought to be a better solution.”
“Could you contact him?” Winter asked. “The Old Man? Try to reason with him?”
“It’s worth a chance,” Gross said. “Try it.”
“All right.” Kramer took the microphone. He paused a moment. “Listen! Can you hear me? This is Phil Kramer. Can you hear me, Professor? Can you hear me? I want you to release the controls.”
There was silence.
“This is Kramer, Professor. Can you hear me? Do you remember who I am? Do you understand who this is?”
Above the control panel the wall speaker made a sound, a sputtering static. They looked up.
“Can you hear me, Professor? This is Philip Kramer. I want you to give the ship back to us. If you can hear me, release the controls! Let go, Professor. Let go!”
Static. A rushing sound, like the wind. They gazed at each other. There was silence for a moment.
“It’s a waste of time,” Gross said.
“No — listen!”
The sputter came again. Then, mixed with the sputter, almost lost in it, a voice came, toneless, without inflection, a mechanical, lifeless voice from the metal speaker in the wall, above their heads.
“. . . Is it you, Philip? I can’t make you out. Darkness . . . Who’s there? With you. . .”
“It’s me, Kramer.” His fingers tightened against the microphone handle. “You must release the controls, Professor. We have to get back to Terra. You must.”
Silence. Then the faint, faltering voice came again, a little stronger than before. “Kramer. Everything so strange. I was right, though. Consciousness result of thinking. Necessary result. Cogito ergo sum. Retain conceptual ability. Can you hear me?”
“Yes, Professor –”
“I altered the wiring. Control. I was fairly certain . . . I wonder if I can do it. Try. . .”
Suddenly the air-conditioning snapped into operation. It snapped abruptly off again. Down the corridor a door slammed. Something thudded. The men stood listening. Sounds came from all sides of them, switches shutting, opening. The lights blinked off; they were in darkness. The lights came back on, and at the same time the heating coils dimmed and faded.
“Good God!” Winter said.
Water poured down on them, the emergency fire-fighting system. There was a screaming rush of air. One of the escape hatches had slid back, and the air was roaring frantically out into space.
The hatch banged closed. The ship subsided into silence. The heating coils glowed into life. As suddenly as it had begun the weird exhibition ceased.
“I can do — everything,” the dry, toneless voice came from the wall speaker. “It is all controlled. Kramer, I wish to talk to you. I’ve been — been thinking. I haven’t seen you in many years. A lot to discuss. You’ve changed, boy. We have much to discuss. Your wife –”
The Pilot grabbed Kramer’s arm. “There’s a ship standing off our bow. Look.”
They ran to the port. A slender pale craft was moving along with them, keeping pace with them. It was signal blinking.
“A Terran pursuit ship,” the Pilot said. “Let’s jump. They’ll pick us up. Suits –”
He ran to a supply cupboard and turned the handle. The door opened and he pulled the suits out onto the floor.
“Hurry,” Gross said. A panic seized them. They dressed frantically, pulling the heavy garments over them. Winter staggered to the escape hatch and stood by it, waiting for the others. They joined him, one by one.
“Let’s go!” Gross said. “Open the hatch.”
Winter tugged at the hatch. “Help me.”
They grabbed hold, tugging together. Nothing happened. The hatch refused to budge.
“Get a crowbar,” the Pilot said.
“Hasn’t anyone got a blaster?” Gross looked frantically around. “Damn it, blast it open!”
“Pull,” Kramer grated. “Pull together.”
“Are you at the hatch?” The toneless voice came, drifting and eddying through the corridors of the ship. They looked up, staring around them. “I sense something nearby, outside. A ship? You are leaving, all of you? Kramer, you are leaving, too? Very unfortunate. I had hoped we could talk. Perhaps at some other time you might be induced to remain.”
“Open the hatch!” Kramer said, staring up at the impersonal walls of the ship. “For God’s sake, open it!”
There was silence, an endless pause. Then, very slowly, the hatch slid back. The air screamed out, rushing past them into space.
One by one they leaped, one after the other, propelled away by the repulsive material of the suits. A few minutes later they were being hauled aboard the pursuit ship. As the last one of them was lifted through the port, their own ship pointed itself suddenly upward and shot off at tremendous speed. It disappeared.
Kramer removed his helmet, gasping. Two sailors held onto him and began to wrap him in blankets. Gross sipped a mug of coffee, shivering.
“It’s gone,” Kramer murmured.
“I’ll have an alarm sent out,” Gross said.
“What’s happened to your ship?” a sailor asked curiously. “It sure took off in a hurry. Who’s on it?”
“We’ll have to have it destroyed,” Gross went on, his face grim. “It’s got to be destroyed. There’s no telling what it — what he has in mind.” Gross sat down weakly on a metal bench. “What a close call for us. We were so damn trusting.”
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