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.
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 age."
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 Commander.
There is young Clippen, for instance, a nice, clean youngster; 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 youth.
"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 space.
"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. "What now?"
"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 them beings."
"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 stale."
"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 thousand adventures.
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 been removed.
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 Service.
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 known.
"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 fresh air.
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 come back."
"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? Good condition?"
"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