A Matter of Magnitude

       Al Sevcik / Science Fiction
A Matter of Magnitude Produced by Greg Weeks, Stephen Blundell and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net



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 ofappropriations, was named Senator Joseph L. Holloway, but the press andthe public called her Big Joe. Her captain, six-star Admiral Heselton,thought of her as Great Big Joe, and never fully got over beingawestruck 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 amile long, and wider than hell.” He waved his hands expansively. ”She'snever 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 controlroom with a small, satisfied smile. The two pilots sitting far forward,almost hidden by their banks of instruments, the radar operators idlywatching their scopes, the three flight engineers sitting intently attheir enormous control consoles, and, just behind, the radio shack--itsclosed door undoubtedly hiding a game of cards. For weeks now, as BigJoe moved across the galaxy's uncharted fringe, the radio bands had beencompletely dead, except, of course, for the usual star static hissingand burbling in the background.

Turning back again to his navigator, Heselton smiled modestly and notedthat 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 ahundred times didn't make it any less true. Big Joe, armed with everyweapon known to Terran technology, was literally the battleship to endall 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 andcontemplate the vastness of the universe, compared to which even Big Joewas an insignificant dot.

”Well,” said Rogers, ”time for another course check. I'll ...” He jumpedback, barely avoiding the worried lieutenant who exploded upon them fromthe radio shack.

”A signal, sir! Damn close, on the VHF band, their transmission iscompletely overriding the background noise.” He waved excitedly tosomeone in the radio shack and an overhead speaker came to life emittinga distinct clacking-grunting sound. ”It's audio of some sort, sir, butthere's lots more to the signal than that.”

In one motion Heselton's chair snapped forward, his right fist hit thered emergency alert button on his desk, and his left snapped on theship's intercom. Lights dimmed momentarily as powerful emergency driveunits snapped into action, and the ship echoed with the sound of twothousand 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 onevery 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'relistening.”

”Sir,” the crisp voice of the radio track section's commander had anexcited tinge. ”Sir, Doppler calculations show that the source of thosesignals is slowing down somewhere to our right. It's acting like aspaceship, sir, that's coming to a halt.”

The admiral locked eyes with Rogers for a second, then shrugged. ”Slowthe ship, and circle right. Radio track, can you keep me posted on theobject'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 ourdirectional antennas on the thing. It's either directly right ordirectly 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 camerunning back. ”Judging from the frequency and strength, we think it'sprobably 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 practicallyon our necks. What the hell's the matter with that equipment...?”

The radar commander's voice showed distinct signs of strain. ”Can't helpit, Admiral. The equipment is working perfectly. We've tried thecomplete range of frequencies, twenty-five different sets are inoperation, we're going blind looking. There is absolutely nothing,nothing at all.”

For a moment the bridge was silent, except for the clacking-gruntingfrom the overhead speaker which, if anything, sounded louder thanbefore.

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

* * * * *

The figure was clearly alien, though startlingly humanoid--at least fromthe waist up, which was all that showed in the screen. A large mouth andslightly bulging eyes gave it a somewhat jovial, frog-like demeanor.Seated at a desk similar to Heselton's, wearing a gaudy uniformprofusely strewn with a variety of insignia, it was obviously Heselton'scounterpart, 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 onHeselton's desk and almost at once the alien's face registered obvioussatisfaction. It waved a six-fingered hand in an unorthodox, butfriendly, greeting.

Heselton waved back.

The alien then pointed to his mouth, made several clacking-gruntingsounds, and moved a hand on his desk. The scene switched to anotheralien standing in front of what looked like a blackboard, with a pieceof 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 blankedout. Heselton leaned back, tense, obviously worried. Hesitantly, hereached out and touched a button on the intercom.

”Astronomy.”

”Professor, there's a ship right next door somewhere that should standout like King Kong in a kindergarten.”

”I know, Admiral. I've been listening to the intercom. Our opticalequipment isn't designed for close range work, but we've been doing thebest we can, tried everything from infra-red through ultra-violet. Ifthere 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 andstood, hands clasped behind his back, staring blankly out at blacknessand the scattered stars. ”I know there is a ship out there, and I knowthat 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'vegot 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 thehelp.”

His desk tv flashed into life with a picture of the smiling aliencommander. ”This is the linguistics section, Admiral. The aliensunderstand a fairly common galactic symbology, I believe we cantranslate simple messages for you now.”

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

The alien's smile grew into an almost unbelievable grin. He turnedsideways to speak to someone out of sight of the camera and suddenlyburst into a series of roaring cackles. ”He's laughing, sir.” Thetranslator commented unnecessarily.

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

”Look, sir.” The navigator pointed to the tv screen and a brilliantlyclear image of Big Joe shimmering against the galaxy, lit by millions ofstars. Every missile port, even the military numerals along her nosewere 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 bypiece--the most powerful ship in the galaxy.”

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

Without answering, Heselton turned and looked out again at empty spaceand millions of steady, unwinking stars. His mind formed an image of ahuge, ethereal spaceship, missile ports open, weapons aimed directly atBig 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? Wehaven't the slightest idea of the forces that guy has. We might be inthe center of a whole blooming fleet. Ever think of that?”

The alien's face, still smirking, appeared again on the screen. ”Hesays,” said the interpreter, ”that he finds the presence of our armedship 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 thegrinning, alien face.

”However,” the interpreter continued, ”he will let us go safely if weleave immediately. He says to send an unarmed, diplomatic vessel nexttime and maybe his people will talk to us.”

”Thank him for his kindness.” Heselton's jaws clenched so tightly theyached.

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

The grinning face snapped off the screen, but the cackling laughtercontinued to reverberate in the control room until the radio shackfinally 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 endand stabilized her on a reverse course, drive units big enough to powerseveral major cities whined into operation, anti-grav generators withthe strength to shift small planets counterbalanced the externalacceleration, and the ship moved, away, with a speed approaching that oflight.

”Well,” muttered Heselton, ”that's the very first time Big Joe has everhad to retreat.” As if it were his own personal failure, he walkedslowly 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 toface the ship's chief astronomer running up waving two largephotographs.

”Look, sir,” the professor gasped for breath. ”We thought this was aspot on the negative, but one of the men got curious and enlarged itabout 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 withour instruments.”

Heselton snatched it out of his hand. ”I see what you mean. This shipmust have been thousands of miles ...”

The professor shook his head. ”No, sir. As a matter of fact, it wasquite close by.”

”But ...”

”We figure that the total length of the alien ship was roughly an inchand 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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