hey were like giant interstellar jellyfish, as they hung in the glow of Alpha Centauri, long tentacles dangling from their massive, semi-transparent bodies. "Fascinating!" Gale Bonners said, staring out the gravship window at the sight of the two beings. They were blacker than space, even though stars shown through their thinner wisps.
Then they moved toward the ship.
At first, everyone watched the huge creatures approach in fascination. "Can they harm us?" Gale asked Clyde.
"I don't know," Clyde replied. "The safest thing to do is stay out of their way." He reached for the ship controls, but -- faster than anyone had thought possible -- a tentacle lashed out and passed through the gravship, and the gravdrive died.
+ + +
It had started in the asteroid belt, many months before.
"You've got interstellar travel here," twelve-year-old Jammie Proctor told Clyde Akins.
"Say what?" Clyde asked, surprised by the girl's pronouncement.
"Interstellar travel; you know, travel between the stars?" Jammie responded with exaggerated patience.
"I know what interstellar travel is!" Clyde shot back, impatiently. "But how do you figure that gravdrive will give us that? It's almost four and a half lightyears to Alpha Centauri, for example -- almost thirty trillion miles. The gravdrive will go three quarters lightspeed, so it would take over twelve years to go there and back!"
"But you're overlooking something," Jammie told him. "Your gravity bomb shrunk that Empire Police ship one hundred times, and it affected time as well. It returned to normal in one hundred days, and only one day had passed for the inhabitants!"
"Well, yes -- but everything about the ship was slowed down!"
Jammie shook her head. "Only in size. It continued to move at the original velocity, if you'll remember. Now, what I've done is reduce a ship three hundred times -- and the reduction didn't affect its machinery at all."
"You've done what?" Clyde said, incredulously.
"Well, I hafta do something with my time!" Jammie shot back. "If you'll remember, both my parents were geniuses, and they manipulated my DNA as I was developing in the womb. Your father was a genius, but I'm several grades above him. No reflection on your father," she added, apologetically. "Just stating facts. Anyway," she added, "I'm telling you this now because I went to your father's old lab and used one of his nanofactories to create carbon nanotubes and make an exploring ship."
"The Empire Police didn't bother you? They know it's my father's lab." When the Empire Police killed his father, Clyde and his partner, Gale Bonners, became known as Bonnie and Clyde. So far, they had managed to outwit their opponents.
Jammie grinned. "They couldn't bother me. I reversed your gravbomb so it would go forward in time instead of back. Used a factor of ten, so I had ten days while only one passed out here. The Empire Police couldn't touch me! Then I worked out a way to slip back to normal time occasionally. That way I could show up here now and then, but still have plenty of time to work in the lab. Altogether, I aged almost three hundred days while in there. And," Jammie said, with a hint of indiscretion, "my breasts got bigger!" She was wearing the same skin-tight bodysuit all residents of the Belt wore, and brushed one breast against Clyde's arm, to demonstrate. "See?"
Clyde straightened, slightly embarrassed. He knew what Jammie was up to. "You may be physically older, but your birthday hasn't moved any closer."
"Just wait till I turn thirteen!" Jammie said, enthusiastically. "Then I'll be old enough that we can get married. After all, I saved your life last year, so you belong to me."
Not wanting to follow that argument, Clyde said, "Back to your story. How did everything come out?"
Jammie, obviously disappointed by his attitude, said: "I created the research ship, programmed it, set the gravbomb on the three hundred range, and sent it to Alpha Centauri. It should be back any minute."
"Wait a minute," Clyde said. "The gravbomb only lasted so long. Then the ship would return to normal."
"Of course," Jammie said, in a condescending tone. "So I developed a quantum computer to set off another bomb every three hundred days. It would have been a minor disruption. Also, the computer is recording everything observed, so it will bring us a view of Centauri, as well as many additional bits of vital information."
A ping sounded.
"Right on time!" Jammie said, turning on the ship computer viewscreen.
The first image on the screen was of a rapidly expanding ship. Jammie touched some buttons, and then a flood of pictures appeared, a speeded-up view of Alpha Centauri approaching, then a tour of the surroundings.
"No livable planets," Jammie said, rapidly reading information scrolling on the screen, "but some have moons we could work with, as well as a system of asteroids not too much different from here. Radiation from Alpha Centauri isn't as deadly as solar radiation." Scanning the report, she went on, "One planet with a mainly ammonia atmosphere has large life-forms on it. They'd be interesting to investigate. But," she added, looking at Clyde again, "no Earth Empire there! It wouldn't be paradise, but it's no worse than here!"
Clyde stared at her, an expression of disbelief on his face. "Are you suggesting an exodus?"
"Of all who wanta go," Jammie said. "Which I think'll be 'most everybody. Who wants to stay under the Empire?"
As it developed, not only did every resident of the Belt want to go, but eight members of the Empire Police volunteered.
"The Empire Police?" Gale asked, incredulously. "We don't want them!"
Clyde shrugged. "Why not? We'll be too far from the Empire for them to be any threat. I'd say they were tired of the Empire."
So a new gravship had been made, large enough to not only carry everyone, but also loaded with supplies.
An oxytube, complete with plants, ran the circumference of the vessel. Inward were layer after layer of living compartments. Below them were storage compartments and, at the center, was the command center and the gravdrive.
Clyde was looking at it from his original gravdrive ship, almost a mile away. Gale and Jammie were with him. Observing the round vessel, Gale said, "Makes me think of the old tales of flying saucers."
"Except this one is going to move on-edge, so it's more a wheel than a saucer."http://www.planetarystories.com/images/pulp.jpg
"A wheel!" Jammie exclaimed. "Then we'll name it Ezekial!"
Catching the biblical reference, Clyde smiled. "Why not?"
Eventually, the wheel of Ezekial started rolling across space, along with Clyde, Gale and Jammie in the original gravship.
Jammie remained glued to the viewscreen as they went forward. Once, she exclaimed, "What's that?"
"What?" Clyde asked. "I was watching the controls."
"Something big and black," Jammie explained. "Let me check all the cameras."
"Don't forget the ones on Ezekial," Clyde reminded her -- and received a glare of resentment for his trouble.
In minutes, Jammie had it. "Look!" she said triumphantly. "I patched several hours of views together, and got this."
Several combined clips appeared on the screen, showing huge rectangular creatures that were darker than black. Sometimes there was only one, sometimes there were three or four. Slow ripples crossed their bodies as they moved along, as if they were swimming in space.
"They look like rays," Gale Bonners said softly. "--Not rays from a star," she quickly added, "but rays that are in the oceans of Earth."
"Manta rays and the like," Jammie agreed.
"Huh!," Clyde said, having nothing to add. "But we're going three hundred times faster than normal space. How can they keep up?"
"We could ask 'em," Jammie said caustically.
There were several more sightings as they continued.
As they returned to normal time at the end of the last three hundred, Alpha Centauri became a sun instead of a distant star.
Clyde started to contact Ezekial, but a message came through first. "Clyde." The viewscreen showed the face of Slage, one of the Empire Police who had volunteered for the trip. He had dark red curly hair, and Clyde usually thought of red-haired people as pleasant and happy -- but his appearance wasn't jovial. Then the view receded, showing Slage's gun against Cap's head. "Tell this guy to take me home."
"Home?" Clyde asked. "Back to the Empire you wanted to escape?"
Slage laughed. "I wanted to see if your secret transpo worked, Clyde. The Empire will pay me quite well for that."
"If they even remember you, Slage," Clyde said.
"Whaddya mean? We ain't been gone but a week or so!"
"You didn't pay any attention to orientation, did you, Slage? This secret you talk about is the gravbomb. Under its affect, three hundred days pass on the normal world, while only one day passes for us. Slage, you're thirty trillion miles from home -- thirty trillion miles and about four and a half years! By the time you got back, even if you left right now, over nine years will have gone by."
Slage was puzzled and confused, but then his features grew stern. "I don't give a shit!" he said. "Two weeks, nine years, it don't matter! The Empire will still reward me handsomely for this!"
Mind racing furiously, and wanting to gain time to think, Clyde said, "Where are you partners, Slage? All the other Empire Police who came along?"
"Them bums?" Slage snorted. "They're a bunch of deserters! I'll turn 'em all in when I get back!"
"If you get back," Clyde said, a plan forming. "Cap can't take you."
"Whaddya mean? He got us here!" Slage growled.
Clyde shook his head. "Not really, Slage. Cap was just following me. I control everything from here."
Slage paused, then glared at the screen. "Then you take us home!" he said. "If he followed you here, he can follow you back!"
"There's a bit of a problem there, Slage," Clyde said calmly. "Those gravbombs take a lot of power. There's just not enough to get both ships back. Regaining power will take at least a month."
Slage frowned. "That won't work," he said. "Give you too much time to trap me while I'm sleeping." Then his face cleared. "Hey, I know what -- take me back in your ship!"
This was what Clyde had hoped for. He feigned a frown. "Then I'd be your prisoner," he objected.
Slage laughed. "Exactly!" he said gleefully. Then he frowned. "But I've got to get aboard without you capturing me. Look, I want live video of your side of the airlock to your control room -- both where it opens to space, and where it opens to your control room. I'll see it on my wrist viewer, so I can be sure you won't be waiting to grab me. . .and I'll have Cap with me. Any tricks and I kill him!"
Clyde frowned at the screen. "Sounds like you've thought this out, Slage," he said. "One thing, though -- you'd better wear mag boots. Ezekial spins, giving you a bit of gravity." He pushed away from the chair, floating above it. "We don't have any, you see."
Slage's eyebrows lifted. "Hadn't thought of that," he said. "Mag boots won't be a problem. Wait for me!"
Before long, Clyde heard the outside airlock open. In response to his command, the screen revealed Cap coming in, followed by Slage. Both had their faceplates closed. Slage looked at his wrist viewer, then -- after waiting for air to come in -- he opened the control room door and, following Cap, walked in.
Gale Bonner was pressed against the ceiling, beyond the view that Slage could see. He had made the mistake of expecting people to be on the floor. Bracing her heels on the ceiling, Gale swung a heavy tool against Slage's head.
Even with the protection of his body suit, it knocked him aside. Cap was on him instantly, yanking the gun from his hand. "All right, Slage," Cap ordered. "Get up!"
Clyde floated over with a coil of rope. He smiled at Cap. "You musta been expecting that, Cap," he said, binding Slage's hands behind him.
Smiling, Cap nodded. "Caught a glimpse of his viewer," he said. "Saw that you were just showing the lower part, so I suspected what happened."
Jammie came out of the companionway. "Coulda just ducked and let Clyde shoot him," she said critically.
"Coulda, woulda, shoulda," Clyde said, shrugging. "Main thing is, it worked." He looked at Slage. "Now, what do we do for you? We don't have any jail cells."
Cap smiled. "Won't need 'em, Clyde. All the ex Empire Police bunk together. Just put him with them."
"They'll beat me up!" Slage objected strongly.
"You reckon?" Clyde asked, grinning. Looking at Cap, he said, "Do it."
Cap called Clyde when things were under control on Ezekial and asked, "What now?"
"Just keep things going," Clyde said. "Since I have the smaller ship, we'll go in closer and find out more."
"Where to?" Gale asked.
"Seems there's only one body of any size," Clyde replied, "and it's barely a planetoid. We'll check it out."
Galahad, Gale's cat, wandered in to supervise. Jammie stroked the cat, then said, "I've made a vacuum jar to get samples. Let me go get it."
Galahad followed her.
When they reached the planetoid, Jammie was standing at the airlock, holding her vacuum jar. "It looks just like a big glass jar," Gale commented.
"Made it that way on purpose," Jammie said. "The 'glass' is actually layered plasma. It's full of vacuum, now; when I open the lid, that'll cause it to suck in what I aim it at, and the lid will seal tightly." As she said this, Galahad was sniffing at the jar.
"We're landing," Clyde said.
Jammie pulled her faceplate into place and opened the airlock, then closed the inner door behind her and cycled the outer door, which opened downward to create a ramp. In a second, she was standing on the surface -- just as a crack appeared in the surface. A silvery gas poured out, containing small black things that looked like broad-stroked stick figures with no head.
Through her spacephone, Jammie heard Clyde say, "Better come back! I've gotta take off!"
"No way!" Jammie said. "Just lift enough to take the ship's pressure off the surface. I gotta get some of these things!" Even as she said it, Jammie approached the crack and flipped her jar-lid open. The gas and some of the small black things was sucked inside, and Jammie quickly closed the lid.
Clyde had followed her suggestion and lifted the ship less than a foot off the surface. The ramp was still open. "I need an air bottle!" Jammie snapped. "Gotta save more of this gas."
The airlock ramp closed, only to reopen in a few seconds and Gale was standing there, holding a cylindrical air-tank. Jammie was a little disappointed that it was Gale instead of Clyde, but she walked up and took the tank, saying, "Stay there; I'll be right back." She took the tank, pointed it at the gas so it would fill, then took tank and jar to the ramp. She put them on the airlock floor, mounted the ramp, then closed the outer door.
Inside, Galahad was intrigued by the movement inside the jar. When Jammie put the jar on a table, Galahad jumped up and tapped the jar with his paw and watched with fascination.
"Why the tank?" Gale asked.
"Those black little bits are moving," Jammie said, condescendingly. "I think that silvery stuff is what they breathe -- or feed on, maybe." She looked at Galahad. He was still tapping the jar.
"Listen!" Jammie said. "The little bits are answering Galahad!"
Everybody held their breath, listening. They all heard it -- a faint clicking sound.
"How can we hear that through the plasma?" Gale asked.
"Guess that silvery gas must do something to the plasma," Clyde suggested. "In any case, it sounds like . . . well, like it might be a form of communication."
"Yes!" Jammie said, with satisfaction. "All I've gotta do now is translate!"
"Lotsa luck!" Clyde said.
Then the dark jellyfish showed up. They didn't register on any of the ship's instruments and everybody had been paying more attention to the planetoid landing and its results.
Then the power went out.
"What the hell?" Clyde asked. "Where's the power reserve?"
Even as he said it, the instruments began to glow and a faint light filled the control room. Clyde studied the dials and the screen. The giant jellyfish had kept on going -- and the instruments still registered nothing.
Quickly he checked the ship for damage, penetration -- and again, found nothing, except for cessation of the gravdrive. "Weird!" he proclaimed. "As far as we're concerned, the only thing those jellyfish can affect is our drive. I'm not sure they even see us!" He looked at Gale. "Get me a gravbomb."
"What?" Gale asked, then added, "Why?"
"The bombs are using grav power. They're separate units. I'll bet they haven't been bothered by what happened. With a bit of fiddling, I can tap their power to restore our drive."
". . .Okay," Gale responded uncertainly, and went to get a 'bomb'.
Clyde tried contact with Cap. The connection was weak, but Cap could hear him. "Back away!" Clyde ordered. "Use a three day bomb. We'll catch up with you."
"What happened?" Cap's distant voice asked.
"There's something that can cut off our drive!" Clyde shot back. "Move!"
"I'm moving," Cap said. "See you later."
Gale handed Clyde a gravbomb. He examined it, considered their problem, then started taking it apart. In ten minutes, power surged back.
With relief, Clyde sagged back in his seat, then looked around the room. Gale was standing beside him, satisfaction obvious. Jammie was tapping on the vacuum jar. Smiling, Clyde asked her, "Did you even notice the problem the jellyfish gave us?"
"Of course," Jammie replied, still going click-click on the jar. "But I'm busy. I knew you'd handle it."
Clyde chuckled. "I appreciate the vote of confidence." Then he sobered. "I also appreciate your dedication to your work there." He nodded at the jar and its contents. "You keep at that, while I try to decide what to do next."
"I thought we'd just use a bomb to catch up with Cap?" Gale asked.
Then Clyde had it. "We'll use a bomb, alright," he said. Then he looked at Jammie. "You reversed a bomb before, where time outside was slowed down. I want you to do it again, only three outside to ten in here. Then hurry up with your communication; I think those little bits might be able to help us."
+ + +
Clyde's assessment had been correct; in eight days, Jammie was communicating with the little bits, thanks to her genius and some computer help. It was still rough, but she was told 'the star beasts' usually came out from opposite sides of the star, and then returned and stayed in the star for 'a long while'.
"I'd like something a bit more specific," Clyde said, "but that means we have some time to prepare."
"What are we gonna do?" Gale asked.
By way of answer, Clyde asked Jammie, "How hard would it be to build a grav net instead of a gravbomb?"
Jammie's expression . "Brilliant!" she said, immediately understanding Clyde's plan. "I'll get on it right away!"
"What?" Gale asked. "I mean, I get the idea of using a variation of the gravity drive, since that's the one thing of ours that affects them. . .but what'll you do with a net? What good does catching one do?"
With a derogatory sniff, Jammie said, "Send it off! Looks like they're a pair, and if we send one away, the other will follow."
Gale paused, then shrugged. "Whatever."
Clyde contacted Cap, who had returned. "Looks like those jellyfish will be away for awhile," Clyde said.
"So?" Cap asked.
"We're working on a plan."
"What are they, anyway?" Cap asked. "My son, Spike, guessed they were dark matter."
"Good guess," Jammie said. Seeing surprise on Clyde's face, she went on, "We got some living little bits from the planetoid. I scanned one on Clyde's dad's scanner, and that's what it came up with."
"Spike said it was just a process of elimination," Cap said.
"But -- I thought dark matter just filled out what was missing from the universe," Gale said.
Disdainfully, Jammie sniffed and added, "So it is -- but nothing says it can't be life-signs as well."
Clyde nodded. "Makes sense. I'll bet those space rays are dark matter as well. But why didn't the gravship's instruments pick it up?"
"Just need some adjustments," Jammie said. "I'll take care of it."
+ + +
The next few weeks were full of activity; Jammie designed and constructed a gravnet, while Clyde zoomed the ship around the system, looking for possible sites to settle. There were many asteroids, and most of them contained metals and minerals that would be useful. The planetoid, after examination, turned out to be useful as well -- it just wouldn't hold much weight. Still, it also turned out to have a breathable atmosphere, so it would be developed; only spacesleds could be used for landing.
And there was the anxiety about the return of the jellyfish.
"I've developed better communication with the little bits," Jammie said one day. "The jellyfish should show up any day now."
"Good!" Clyde said. "We're ready for 'em. . . I hope," he added, in a quieter voice.
"Here it comes!" Jammie said.
"And here I go!" Clyde barked, pressing a series of buttons. On the screen, they saw their robot ship, flying forward.
"Clyde!" Gale exclaimed in horror.
"You're aiming right at the jellyfish. He'll see you!"
"I hope not," Clyde said grimly. "The robot ship has the gravnet inside. I'm counting on the jellyfish not seeing it because the ship is normal matter. And I have to aim at the jellyfish to net it."
They watched tensely as the robot ship zoomed toward the jellyfish -- which totally ignored it. Then the gravnet was released and the ship speeded up -- dragging the jellyfish behind it as it headed for Alpha Centauri, then disappeared as it shot forward in time.
"It worked!" Gale said triumphantly.
"Wait," Clyde said calmly. "It isn't over yet."
As they watched, they saw the jellyfish on the other side start after the vanished robot ship.
"Now it's over," Clyde said, with a sigh of relief.
"The whole idea," Jammie said, speaking to Gale as if she were a child, "was to get 'em both."
"The robot ship," Clyde explained, "was set to go twenty lightyears. Hopefully, the jellyfish will find another place to settle down, and we won't see 'em again."
"Meanwhile," Jammie said, coming to sit In Clyde's lap, "it's only two months until my thirteenth birthday. Then we can get married."
Oh boy! Clyde thought. Why didn't I go with the robot ship?