“There!” Dickenson exclaimed, “What’d you make of that?” A single ship occupied the center of the room, set high up in the trestles. The ship was short and stubby, and it was colored a deep scarlet.

“A Jacko ship!” Jason exclaimed. “So we’ve captured a Jacko ship at last!”

Dickenson shook his head. “This was made right here in these workshops. Look there!”

He waved a hand to draw attention to the array of drawings, diagrams and blown-up photographs on the walls.

“As near as we can manage it, however,” he went on, “this is a Jacko ship. Perhaps it’s a little better than a Jacko ship; it’ll accelerate harder, and carry more fuel. We’ve been working on this for more than a year, and a lot of thought and time and money has been put into it. Can you guess what we mean to do with it, Jason?”

“No, sir. Had it been just a mock-up. I’d have guessed it was intended for training, for familiarization, but you say it’s a real ship.”

“It’s certainly no mock-up.” The admiral clicked open his cigarette case. “Smoke?” he invited. He himself lit up and perched on the end of a work bench.

“D’you know where the Jackoes come from, Jason?”

“No, sir. All I know is the usual theories; that they come across from Alpha Centauri; or that they come from one of the big planets, Jupiter or Neptune or Saturn; or there’s the theory about the big mother ship hanging around outside the orbit of Neptune. According to this all the little scouts we don’t manage to kill go back to the mother ship to get themselves patched up and rearmed.”

“What d’you think of these notions?”

“I can see serious objections to each one of them, sir. The trip across from Alpha Centauri is no afternoon excursion; it’s feasible only if the little beasts have a much longer life-span than ourselves, or can put themselves into a state of suspended animation. And even if one of these things is true, why do they bother? What do they hope to get out of it?”

“What about the Neptune or Saturn theory?”

“Their ships aren’t able to lift off a high-gravity planet, that’s certain—of course our own scouts can’t take off from Earth either, I know, but even so in our case the gravitational difficulties are not insuperable.”

“And what d’you think of the mother ship idea?”

“Well, I see it this way—there’s a whole race of Jackoes somewhere, living and eating and sleeping and breeding. They build a lot of ships, or at any rate they service and repair and maintain a lot of ships; all that amount of life and activity can’t possibly be explained by the mother ship theory. No ship, however large, could carry that amount of life.”

“All quite sound reasoning,” Admiral Dickenson agreed. “And to tell you the truth, not one of us has any better ideas on the subject than you have. But we’re going to find out.”

“Yes, sir?” Jason asked politely.

“Here’s how we’re going to do it. Somebody, yourself if you choose to volunteer, is going to take this ship out to the asteroids in company with a squadron of our own ships. Sooner or later out there you’ll meet up with a pack of Jackoes—do I have to tell you any more?”

“I get the idea now all right,” Jason agreed. “In the mix-up our imitation Jacko ship attaches itself to the Jacko squadron and goes along home with them. But I can see a lot of difficulties.”

“I’d like to know what difficulties you see.”

Jason had no inhibitions, no shyness; he was able to speak calmly and frankly even to high senior officers.

“First,” he said, “the difficulty of killing an enemy ship and substituting this one unnoticed. It’s a trick we can only try once.”

“That’s a problem of maneuvers—it’s got to be worked out between yourself and the squadron detailed to act with you.”

“Very well,” Jason nodded, accepting the point. “Next difficulty—the jackoes have radio; I’ve heard them often enough chattering to each other. Now I’m to join their formation and ride this ship back home with them. Some Jacko might possibly think it odd if one of their pals stayed speechless for maybe so long as a week.”

“As to that,” Dickenson said, “here’s Admiral Hayes, who’s responsible for the technical side of this project. Hayes, this is Lieutenant Jason. He’s being considered as a possible pilot for the ship. Show him our answer to the problem of radio conversations between our man and the Jacko squadron.”

“It hasn’t taken you long to spot the snags,” Hayes commented. “Come up on top and I’ll show you our answer to that one.”

Hayes leapt the twenty feet up onto a platform which extended above the ship. Jason followed.

“That projection there,” the former explained, “that’s the root of the radio antenna. Now see that dirty long groove across the hull? What would you say had been the cause of that?”

“A solid projectile from one of our guns grazed across the hull, made this diagonal groove, and clipped off the radio mast at the root. I see what you’re getting at,” Jason nodded.

“Any objections?” Hayes asked, smiling.

“A few small ones,” Jason told him. “Perhaps their ships have two independent radio systems—perhaps they have other nonelectronic means of communicating—perhaps their radio is effective after a fashion even with the antenna clipped off. All the same sir, I think these are small chances, well worth taking.”

They jumped back down on to the floor.

“Well, Jason,” Dickenson asked, “what d’you think of our project now?”

“Frankly, sir, I don’t think much of it as yet. I agree the ship has a considerable chance of joining up with the Jackoes and of going along with them undetected, but the chance of ever getting back with any information is smallish.”

“We have an answer to that too,” Hayes told him, stepping over to a bench. “This gadget here is a special camera which carries nearly a mile of film. Whenever the destination is reached, our pilot starts up the camera motor and films everything in sight.”

“But the information, whether it’s stored on this film or merely in the pilot’s brain, has got to be brought back,” Jason pointed out.

“Ah!” Hayes exclaimed enthusiastically. “But wait—whenever the filming’s done, as soon as the pilot thinks he’s collected every possible item of information, he moves this big switch here. A television eye then begins to scan the film and broadcast it back to us. We’ll have a ring of ships waiting to pick the stuff up. In addition, this scanning and broadcast can be done at high speed, so that what takes half an hour to film will be sent back to us in five minutes. What d’you think of that, eh?”

“So far as the success of the project is concerned, it’s the perfect answer,” Jason agreed dryly. “I can see one objection still, but it’s so minor that it’s hardly worth mentioning.”

Hayes’ enthusiasm was so open and childlike that Jason’s remark merely puzzled him. Admiral Dickenson, however, stepped into the breach.

“When the film’s been shot back, the pilot’s job is done and he can blast for home.”

“With every Jacko in every squadron of every Jacko fleet hot on his tail,” Jason added. “And how many millions of miles will he be from home?”

“Quite true,” Dickenson admitted. “I said it was a dangerous job… But there are one or two factors which favor the pilot. This is a very special, ship. It carries twice the usual load of fuel and it can accelerate a little harder and a little longer than any Jacko. Therefore, given even a small start you should be able to show them a clean pair of heels.”

“It’s unarmed?” Jason asked.

Dickenson hesitated. “Yes. Remember the ship will be riding in close formation with an enemy squadron far some days. If we mounted a pair of Sandbatch cannon they’d give our gable away at once.”

“There’s something up there, looks like D-ray bellmouth,” Jason remarked, looking up at the bows of the ship.

“A dummy, “ Hayes explained. “You know the D-ray gives out a backlash of hard radiation; that’s a problem we haven’t managed to lick yet. Anyone using an unscreened D-ray is going to make himself a very sick man indeed. We calculate the pilot gets a better chance if we give him all possible speed and fuel.”

Jason was introduced to other details of the project, then Admiral Dickenson concluded: “I don’t want your

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