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
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
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
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
"Well," said Rogers, "time for
another course check. I'll ..."
He jumped back, barely avoiding
the worried lieutenant who
exploded upon them from the
"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
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
"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
A new voice cut in on the
speaker. "Radio track to bridge."
Frowning, Heselton answered.
"Bridge. Come in radio track.
"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
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,
Heselton whirled back to the
intercom. "Radar! That thing is
practically on our necks. What
the hell's the matter with that
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
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
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
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,
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
"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.
"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
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
"Good work, what did you
"Slight radioactivity, typical
of interstellar drive mechanisms,
somewhere off to our right.
Can't tell exactly where,
"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
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
The joke was strictly with the
aliens. Heselton's face whitened
in quick realization. "Rogers!
They didn't know that we can't
"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
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
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
"Reverse course," the admiral
ordered quietly. "Maximum
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
The professor shook his head.
"No, sir. As a matter of fact, it
was quite close by."
"We figure that the total
length of the alien ship was
roughly an inch and a half."