The Aliens, Murray Leinster, Astounding Science Fiction, August 1959. Note: The copyright for this magazine short fiction has expired in the United States and was not renewed, thus, The Aliens now resides in the public domain.

The elliptical golden object darted into swift and eccentric motion. Lacking an object of known size for comparison, there was no scale. The golden ship might have been the size of an autumn leaf, and in fact its maneuvers suggested the heedless tumblings and scurrying of falling foliage. It fluttered in swift turns and somersaults and spinnings. There were weavings like the purposeful feints of boxers not yet come to battle. There were indescribably graceful swoops and loops and curving dashes like some preposterous dance in emptiness.

Taine’s voice crashed out of a speaker:

All even-number rockets,” he barked. “Fire!

The skipper roared a countermand, but too late. The crunching, grunting sound of rockets leaving their launching tubes came before his first syllable was complete. Then there was silence while the skipper gathered breath for a masterpiece of profanity. But Taine snapped:

That dance was a sneak-up! The Plumie came four miles nearer while we watched!

Baird jerked his eyes from watching the Plumie. He looked at the master radar. It was faintly blurred with the fading lines of past gyrations, but the golden ship was much nearer the Niccola than it had been.

“Radar reporting,” said Baird sickishly. “Mr. Taine is correct. The Plumie ship did approach us while it danced.”

Taine’s voice snarled:

Reload even numbers with chemical-explosive war heads. Then remove atomics from odd numbers and replace with chemicals. The range is too short for atomics.

Baird felt curiously divided in his own mind. He disliked Taine very much. Taine was arrogant and suspicious and intolerant even on the Niccola. But Taine had been right twice, now. The Plumie ship had crept closer by pure trickery. And it was right to remove atomic war heads from the rockets. They had a pure-blast radius of ten miles. To destroy the Plumie ship within twice that would endanger the Niccola—and leave nothing of the Plumie to examine afterward.

The Plumie ship must have seen the rocket flares, but it continued to dance, coming nearer and ever nearer in seemingly heedless and purposeless plungings and spinnings in star-speckled space. But suddenly there were racing, rushing trails of swirling vapor. Half the Niccola’s port broadside plunged toward the golden ship. The fraction of a second later, the starboard half-dozen chemical-explosive rockets swung furiously around the ship’s hull and streaked after their brothers. They moved in utterly silent, straight-lined, ravening ferocity toward their target. Baird thought irrelevantly of the vapor trails of an atmosphere-liner in the planet’s upper air.

The ruled-line straightness of the first six rockets’ course abruptly broke. One of them veered crazily out of control. It shifted to an almost right-angled course. A second swung wildly to the left. A third and fourth and fifth—The sixth of the first line of rockets made a great, sweeping turn and came hurtling back toward the Niccola. It was like a nightmare. Lunatic, erratic lines of sunlit vapor eeled before the background of all the stars in creation.

Then the second half-dozen rockets broke ranks, as insanely and irremediably as the first.

Taine’s voice screamed out of a speaker, hysterical with fury:

Detonate! Detonate! They’ve taken over the rockets and are throwing ’em back at us! Detonate all rockets!

The heavens seemed streaked and laced with lines of expanding smoke. But now one plunging line erupted at its tip. A swelling globe of smoke marked its end. Another blew up. And another—

The Niccola’s rockets faithfully blew themselves to bits on command from the Niccola’s own weapons control. There was nothing else to be done with them. They’d been taken over in flight. They’d been turned and headed back toward their source. They’d have blasted the Niccola to bits but for their premature explosions.

There was a peculiar, stunned hush all through the Niccola. The only sound that came out of any speaker in the radar room was Taine’s voice, high-pitched and raging, mouthing unspeakable hatred of the Plumies, whom no human being had yet seen.

Baird sat tense in the frustrated and desperate composure of the man who can only be of use while he is sitting still and keeping his head. The vision screen was now a blur of writhing mist, lighted by the sun and torn at by emptiness. There was luminosity where the ships had encountered each other. It was sunshine upon thin smoke. It was like the insanely enlarging head of a newborn comet, whose tail would be formed presently by light-pressure. The Plumie ship was almost invisible behind the unsubstantial stuff.

But Baird regarded his radar screens. Microwaves penetrated the mist of rapidly ionizing gases.

“Radar to navigation!” he said sharply. “The Plumie ship is still approaching, dancing as before!”

The skipper said with enormous calm:

Any other Plumie ships, Mr. Baird?

Diane interposed.

“No sign anywhere. I’ve been watching. This seems to be the only ship within radar range.”

We’ve time to settle with it, then,” said the skipper. “Mr. Taine, the Plumie ship is still approaching.

Baird found himself hating the Plumies. It was not only that humankind was showing up rather badly, at the moment. It was that the Plumie ship had refused contact and forced a fight. It was that if the Niccola were destroyed the Plumie would carry news of the existence of humanity and of the tactics which worked to defeat them. The Plumies could prepare an irresistible fleet. Humanity could be doomed.

But he overheard himself saying bitterly:

“I wish I’d known this was coming, Diane. I ... wouldn’t have resolved to be strictly official, only, until we got back to base.”

Her eyes widened. She looked startled. Then she softened.

“If ... you mean that ... I wish so too.”

“It looks like they’ve got us,” he admitted unhappily. “If they can take our rockets away from us—” Then his voice stopped. He said, “Hold everything!” and pressed the navigation-room button. He snapped: “Radar to navigation. It appears to take the Plumies several seconds to take over a rocket. They have to aim something—a pressor or tractor beam, most likely—and pick off each rocket separately. Nearly forty seconds was consumed in taking over all twelve of our rockets. At shorter range, with less time available, a rocket might get through!”

The skipper swore briefly. Then:

Mr. Taine! When the Plumies are near enough, our rockets may strike before they can be taken over! You follow?

Baird heard Taine’s shrill-voiced acknowledgment—in the form of practically chattered orders to his rocket-tube crews. Baird listened, checking the orders against what the situation was as the radars saw it. Taine’s voice was almost unhuman; so filled with frantic rage that it cracked as he spoke. But the problem at hand was the fulfillment of all his psychopathic urges. He commanded the starboard-side rocket-battery to await special orders. Meanwhile the port-side battery would fire two rockets on widely divergent courses, curving to join at the Plumie ship. They’d be seized. They were to be detonated and another port-side rocket fired instantly, followed by a second hidden in the rocket-trail the first would leave behind. Then the starboard side—

“I’m afraid Taine’s our only chance,” said Baird reluctantly. “If he wins, we’ll have time to ... talk as people do who like each other. If it doesn’t work—”

Diane said quietly:

“Anyhow ... I’m glad you ... wanted me to know. I ... wanted you to know, too.”

She smiled at him, yearningly.

There was the crump-crump of two rockets going out together. Then the radar told what happened. The Plumie ship was no more than six miles away, dancing somehow deftly in the light of a yellow sun, with all the cosmos spread out as shining pin points of colored light behind it. The radar reported the dash and the death of the two rockets, after their struggle with invisible things that gripped them. They died when they headed reluctantly back to the Niccola—and detonated two miles from their parent ship. The skipper’s voice came:

Mr. Taine! After your next salvo I shall head for the Plumie at full drive, to cut down the distance and the time they have to work in. Be ready!

The rocket tubes went crump-crump again, with a fifth of a second interval. The radar showed two tiny specks speeding through space toward the weaving, shifting speck which was the Plumie.

Outside, in emptiness, there was a filmy haze. It was the rocket-fumes and explosive gases spreading with incredible speed. It was thin as gossamer. The Plumie ship undoubtedly spotted the rockets, but it did not try to turn them. It somehow seized them and deflected them, and darted past them toward the Niccola.

“They see the trick,” said Diane, dry-throated. “If they can get in close enough, they can turn it against us!”

There were noises inside the Niccola, now. Taine fairly howled an order. There were yells of defiance and excitement. There were more of those inadequate noises as rockets went out—every tube on the starboard side emptied itself in a series of savage grunts—and the Niccola’s magnetronic drive roared at full flux density.

The two ships were less than a mile apart when the Niccola let go her full double broadside of missiles. And then it seemed that the Plumie ship was doomed. There were simply too many rockets to be seized and handled before at least one struck. But there was a new condition. The Plumie ship weaved and dodged its way through them. The new condition was that the rockets were just beginning their run. They had not achieved the terrific velocity they would accumulate in ten miles of no-gravity. They were new-launched; logy: clumsy: not the streaking, flashing death-and-destruction they would become with thirty more seconds of acceleration.

So the Plumie ship dodged them with a skill and daring past belief. With an incredible agility it got inside them, nearer to the Niccola than they. And then it hurled itself at the human ship as if bent upon a suicidal crash which would destroy both ships together. But Baird, in the radar room, and the skipper in navigation, knew that it would plunge brilliantly past at the last instant—

And then they knew that it would not. Because, very suddenly and very abruptly, there was something the matter with the Plumie ship. The life went out of it. It ceased to accelerate or decelerate. It ceased to steer. It began to turn slowly on an axis somewhere amidships. Its nose swung to one side, with no change in the direction of its motion. It floated onward. It was broadside to its line of travel. It continued to turn. It hurtled stern-first toward the Niccola. It did not swerve. It did not dance. It was a lifeless hulk: a derelict in space.

And it would hit the Niccola amidships with no possible result but destruction for both vessels.

The Niccola’s skipper bellowed orders, as if shouting would somehow give them more effect. The magnetronic drive roared. He’d demanded a miracle of it, and he almost got one. The drive strained its thrust-members. It hopelessly overloaded its coils. The Niccola’s cobalt-steel hull became more than saturated with the drive-field, and it leaped madly upon an evasion course—

And it very nearly got away. It was swinging clear when the Plumie ship drifted within fathoms. It was turning aside when the Plumie ship was within yards. And it was almost safe when the golden hull of the Plumie—shadowed now by the Niccola itself—barely scraped a side-keel.

There was a touch, seemingly deliberate and gentle. But the Niccola shuddered horribly. Then the vision screens flared from such a light as might herald the crack of doom. There was a brightness greater than the brilliance of the sun. And then there was a wrenching, heaving shock. Then there was blackness. Baird was flung across the radar room, and Diane cried out, and he careened against a wall and heard glass shatter. He called:


He clutched crazily at anything, and called her name again. The Niccola’s internal gravity was cut off, and his head spun, and he heard collision-doors closing everywhere, but before they closed completely he heard the rasping sound of giant arcs leaping in the engine room. Then there was silence.

“Diane!” cried Baird fiercely. “Diane!”

“I’m ... here,” she panted. “I’m dizzy, but I ... think I’m all right—”

The battery-powered emergency light came on. It was faint, but he saw her clinging to a bank of instruments where she’d been thrown by the collision. He moved to go to her, and found himself floating in midair. But he drifted to a side wall and worked his way to her.

She clung to him, shivering.

“I ... think,” she said unsteadily, “that we’re going to die. Aren’t we?”

“We’ll see,” he told her. “Hold on to me.”

Guided by the emergency light, he scrambled to the bank of communicator-buttons. What had been the floor was now a side wall. He climbed it and thumbed the navigation-room switch.

“Radar room reporting,” he said curtly. “Power out, gravity off, no reports from outside from power failure. No great physical damage.”

He began to hear other voices. There had never been an actual space-collision in the memory of man, but reports came crisply, and the cut-in speakers in the radar room repeated them. Ship-gravity was out all over the ship. Emergency lights were functioning, and were all the lights there were. There was a slight, unexplained gravity-drift toward what had been the ship’s port side. But damage-control reported no loss of pressure in the Niccola’s inner hull, though four areas between inner and outer hulls had lost air pressure to space.

Mr. Baird,” rasped the skipper. “We’re blind! Forget everything else and give us eyes to see with!

“We’ll try battery power to the vision plates,” Baird told Diane. “No full resolution, but better than nothing—”

They worked together, feverishly. They were dizzy. Something close to nausea came upon them from pure giddiness. What had been the floor was now a wall, and they had to climb to reach the instruments that had been on a wall and now were on the ceiling. But their weight was ounces only. Baird said abruptly:

“I know what’s the matter! We’re spinning! The whole ship’s spinning! That’s why we’re giddy and why we have even a trace of weight. Centrifugal force! Ready for the current?”

There was a tiny click, and the battery light dimmed. But a vision screen lighted faintly. The stars it showed were moving specks of light. The sun passed deliberately across the screen. Baird switched to other outside scanners. There was power for only one screen at a time. But he saw the starkly impossible. He pressed the navigation-room button.

“Radar room reporting,” he said urgently. “The Plumie ship is fast to us, in contact with our hull! Both ships are spinning together!” He was trying yet other scanners as he spoke, and now he said: “Got it! There are no lines connecting us to the Plumie, but it looks ... yes! That flash when the ships came together was a flash-over of high potential. We’re welded to them along twenty feet of our hull!”

The skipper:

Damnation! Any sign of intention to board us?

“Not yet, sir—”

Taine burst in, his voice high-pitched and thick with hatred:

Damage-control parties attention! Arm yourselves and assemble at starboard air lock! Rocket crews get into suits and prepare to board this Plumie—

Countermand!” bellowed the skipper from the speaker beside Baird’s ear. “Those orders are canceled! Dammit, if we were successfully boarded we’d blow ourselves to bits! Those are our orders! D’you think the Plumies will let their ship be taken? And wouldn’t we blow up with them? Mr. Taine, you will take no offensive action without specific orders! Defensive action is another matter. Mr. Baird! I consider this welding business pure accident. No one would be mad enough to plan it. You watch the Plumies and keep me informed!

His voice ceased. And Baird had again the frustrating duty of remaining still and keeping his head while other men engaged in physical activity. He helped Diane to a chair—which was fastened to the floor-which-was-now-a-wall—and she wedged herself fast and began a review of what each of the outside scanners reported. Baird called for more batteries. Power for the radar and visions was more important than anything else, just then. If there were more Plumie ships ...