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´╗┐Title: A Matter of Magnitude
Author: Sevcik, Al
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Matter of Magnitude" ***

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 A
 MATTER
 OF
 MAGNITUDE

 By AL SEVCIK


 _When you're commanding a spaceship over a mile
 long, and armed to the teeth, you don't exactly
 expect to be told to get the hell out ..._


The ship, for reasons that had to do with the politics of
appropriations, was named Senator Joseph L. Holloway, but the press and
the public called her Big Joe. Her captain, six-star Admiral Heselton,
thought of her as Great Big Joe, and never fully got over being
awestruck at the size of his command.

"She's a mighty big ship, Rogers," he said proudly to the navigator,
ignoring the latter's rather vacant stare and fixed smile. "More than a
mile long, and wider than hell." He waved his hands expansively. "She's
never touched down on Earth, you know. Never will. Too big for that.
They built her on the moon. The cost? Well ..."

Swiveling his chair around, Heselton slowly surveyed the ship's control
room with a small, satisfied smile. The two pilots sitting far forward,
almost hidden by their banks of instruments, the radar operators idly
watching their scopes, the three flight engineers sitting intently at
their enormous control consoles, and, just behind, the radio shack--its
closed door undoubtedly hiding a game of cards. For weeks now, as Big
Joe moved across the galaxy's uncharted fringe, the radio bands had been
completely dead, except, of course, for the usual star static hissing
and burbling in the background.

Turning back again to his navigator, Heselton smiled modestly and noted
that Big Joe was undisputedly the largest, most powerful, most feared,
and most effective spaceship in the known universe.

As always, Rogers nodded agreement. The fact that he'd heard it a
hundred times didn't make it any less true. Big Joe, armed with every
weapon known to Terran technology, was literally the battleship to end
all battleships. Ending battleships--and battles--was, in fact, her job.
And she did it well. For the first time, the galaxy was at peace.

       *       *       *       *       *

With a relaxed sigh, Heselton leaned back to gaze at the stars and
contemplate the vastness of the universe, compared to which even Big Joe
was an insignificant dot.

"Well," said Rogers, "time for another course check. I'll ..." He jumped
back, barely avoiding the worried lieutenant who exploded upon them from
the radio shack.

"A signal, sir! Damn close, on the VHF band, their transmission is
completely overriding the background noise." He waved excitedly to
someone in the radio shack and an overhead speaker came to life emitting
a distinct clacking-grunting sound. "It's audio of some sort, sir, but
there's lots more to the signal than that."

In one motion Heselton's chair snapped forward, his right fist hit the
red emergency alert button on his desk, and his left snapped on the
ship's intercom. Lights dimmed momentarily as powerful emergency drive
units snapped into action, and the ship echoed with the sound of two
thousand men running to battle stations.

"Bridge to radar! Report."

"Radar to bridge. All clear."

Heselton stared incredulously at the intercom. "What?"

"Radar to bridge, repeating. All clear. Admiral, we've got two men on
every scope, there's nothing anywhere."

A new voice cut in on the speaker. "Radio track to bridge."

Frowning, Heselton answered. "Bridge. Come in radio track. We're
listening."

"Sir," the crisp voice of the radio track section's commander had an
excited tinge. "Sir, Doppler calculations show that the source of those
signals is slowing down somewhere to our right. It's acting like a
spaceship, sir, that's coming to a halt."

The admiral locked eyes with Rogers for a second, then shrugged. "Slow
the ship, and circle right. Radio track, can you keep me posted on the
object's position?"

"No can do, sir. Doppler effect can't be used on a slow moving source.
It's still off to our right, but that's the best I can say."

"Sir," another voice chimed in, "this is fire control. We've got our
directional antennas on the thing. It's either directly right or
directly left of the ship, matching speed with us exactly."

"_Either_ to our right or left?"

"That's the best we can do, sir, without radar help."

"Admiral, sir," the lieutenant who had first reported the signal came
running back. "Judging from the frequency and strength, we think it's
probably less than a hundred miles away."

"_Less_ than a hundr ..."

"Of course, we can't be positive, sir."

Heselton whirled back to the intercom. "Radar! That thing is practically
on our necks. What the hell's the matter with that equipment...?"

The radar commander's voice showed distinct signs of strain. "Can't help
it, Admiral. The equipment is working perfectly. We've tried the
complete range of frequencies, twenty-five different sets are in
operation, we're going blind looking. There is absolutely nothing,
nothing at all."

For a moment the bridge was silent, except for the clacking-grunting
from the overhead speaker which, if anything, sounded louder than
before.

"It's tv, sir!" The radio lieutenant came running in again. "We've
unscrambled the image. Here!" The communications screen on Heselton's
desk glowed for a moment, then flashed into life.

       *       *       *       *       *

The figure was clearly alien, though startlingly humanoid--at least from
the waist up, which was all that showed in the screen. A large mouth and
slightly bulging eyes gave it a somewhat jovial, frog-like demeanor.
Seated at a desk similar to Heselton's, wearing a gaudy uniform
profusely strewn with a variety of insignia, it was obviously Heselton's
counterpart, the commander of an alien vessel.

"Hmmm, looks like we've contacted a new race. Let's return the call,
Lieutenant." A tiny red light glowed beneath a miniature camera on
Heselton's desk and almost at once the alien's face registered obvious
satisfaction. It waved a six-fingered hand in an unorthodox, but
friendly, greeting.

Heselton waved back.

The alien then pointed to his mouth, made several clacking-grunting
sounds, and moved a hand on his desk. The scene switched to another
alien standing in front of what looked like a blackboard, with a piece
of chalk in his hand. The meaning was clear.

"Lieutenant, have this transmission switched to the linguistics section.
Maybe those guys can work some sort of language." The screen blanked
out. Heselton leaned back, tense, obviously worried. Hesitantly, he
reached out and touched a button on the intercom.

"Astronomy."

"Professor, there's a ship right next door somewhere that should stand
out like King Kong in a kindergarten."

"I know, Admiral. I've been listening to the intercom. Our optical
equipment isn't designed for close range work, but we've been doing the
best we can, tried everything from infra-red through ultra-violet. If
there is a ship out there I'm afraid it's invisible."

Beads of sweat sprinkled Heselton's forehead. "This is bad, Rogers.
Mighty bad." Nervously, he walked across to the right of the bridge and
stood, hands clasped behind his back, staring blankly out at blackness
and the scattered stars. "I know there is a ship out there, and I know
that a ship simply can't be invisible, not to radar _and_ optics."

"What makes you sure there is only one, sir?"

Heselton cracked his fists together. "My God, Rogers, you're right!
There might be ..."

The intercom clacked. "This is fire control again, sir. I think we've
got something on the radiation detectors."

"Good work, what did you find?"

"Slight radioactivity, typical of interstellar drive mechanisms,
somewhere off to our right. Can't tell exactly where, though."

"How far away is it?"

"I don't know, sir."

Heselton's hands dropped to his sides. "Thanks," he said, "for the
help."

His desk tv flashed into life with a picture of the smiling alien
commander. "This is the linguistics section, Admiral. The aliens
understand a fairly common galactic symbology, I believe we can
translate simple messages for you now."

"Ask him where the hell he is," Heselton snapped without thinking, then
instantly regretted it as the alien's face showed unmistakable surprise.

The alien's smile grew into an almost unbelievable grin. He turned
sideways to speak to someone out of sight of the camera and suddenly
burst into a series of roaring cackles. "He's laughing, sir." The
translator commented unnecessarily.

The joke was strictly with the aliens. Heselton's face whitened in quick
realization. "Rogers! They _didn't know_ that we can't see them!"

"Look, sir." The navigator pointed to the tv screen and a brilliantly
clear image of Big Joe shimmering against the galaxy, lit by millions of
stars. Every missile port, even the military numerals along her nose
were clearly visible.

"They're rubbing it in, Rogers. Showing us what we look like to them."
Heselton's face was chalk. "They could blast Big Joe apart, piece by
piece--the most powerful ship in the galaxy."

"Maybe," said Rogers, "the second most powerful."

Without answering, Heselton turned and looked out again at empty space
and millions of steady, unwinking stars. His mind formed an image of a
huge, ethereal spaceship, missile ports open, weapons aimed directly at
Big Joe.

The speaker interrupted his nightmare. "This is fire control, Admiral.
With your permission I'll scatter a few C-bombs ..."

Heselton leaped for the microphone. "Are you out of your mind? We
haven't the slightest idea of the forces that guy has. We might be in
the center of a whole blooming fleet. Ever think of that?"

The alien's face, still smirking, appeared again on the screen. "He
says," said the interpreter, "that he finds the presence of our armed
ship very annoying."

Heselton knew what he had to do. "Tell him," he said, swallowing hard,
"that we apologize. This part of the galaxy is strange to us."

"He says he is contemplating blasting us out of the sky."

Heselton said nothing, but he longed to reach out and throttle the
grinning, alien face.

"However," the interpreter continued, "he will let us go safely if we
leave immediately. He says to send an unarmed, diplomatic vessel next
time and maybe his people will talk to us."

"Thank him for his kindness." Heselton's jaws clenched so tightly they
ached.

"He says," said the interpreter, "to get the hell out."

The grinning face snapped off the screen, but the cackling laughter
continued to reverberate in the control room until the radio shack
finally turned off the receiver.

"Reverse course," the admiral ordered quietly. "Maximum drive."

A thousand missile launchers, designed to disintegrate solar systems,
were deactivated, hundreds of gyros swung the mile-long ship end for end
and stabilized her on a reverse course, drive units big enough to power
several major cities whined into operation, anti-grav generators with
the strength to shift small planets counterbalanced the external
acceleration, and the ship moved, away, with a speed approaching that of
light.

"Well," muttered Heselton, "that's the very first time Big Joe has ever
had to retreat." As if it were his own personal failure, he walked
slowly across the control room and down the corridor towards his cabin.

"Admiral!" Lost in thought, Heselton barely heard the call.

"Admiral, look!" Pausing at the door to his cabin, Heselton turned to
face the ship's chief astronomer running up waving two large
photographs.

"Look, sir," the professor gasped for breath. "We thought this was a
spot on the negative, but one of the men got curious and enlarged it
about a hundred times." He held up one of the photos. It showed a small,
fuzzy, but unmistakable spaceship. "No wonder we couldn't spot it with
our instruments."

Heselton snatched it out of his hand. "I see what you mean. This ship
must have been thousands of miles ..."

The professor shook his head. "No, sir. As a matter of fact, it was
quite close by."

"But ..."

"We figure that the total length of the alien ship was roughly an inch
and a half."


THE END



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _Amazing Science Fiction Stories_
    January 1960. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
    the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling
    and typographical errors have been corrected without note.





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