The home planet of two hundred thousand worlds.
The center of an empire that had ruled and ruined sixteen universes over a period of three hundred and two thousand years.
Psychlo. That had been the cause of man's destruction.
What had happened to its empire, if anything?
What had happened to Psychlo? And if it still existed, what did it plan?
Was it a danger or not?
For a grueling and turbulent year they had wondered. It lay like a nagging barb under their thoughts.
Now they were going to find out.
Pale light lit the bowl. The metal of the platform shone dully. Not a motor to be heard in the sky. The stars were bright above.
Angus and Jonnie looked at each other. Now they would know.
“First,” said Jonnie, “we will inspect minesites and see what transshipment rigs are active. Perhaps there is some indicator somewhere that would alert them to this. We will be cautious, not get too close to anything.”
The coordinate book told them of a transshipment rig at Loozite, a Psychlo mining world without population other than Psychlo miners. It was a large planet but distant from Psychlo.
They put the new gyrocage down, put a picto-recorder in the armored case, calculated the coordinates for a point forty miles from the Loozite transshipment site, punched the console buttons, and fired.
The wires hummed. The cage came back. There was a slight recoil.
Jonnie put the disc in the atmosphere projector that still stood there.
He pressed the button.
For a moment both he and Angus thought they must have miscalculated and shot a mine instead. Forty miles was a long way off for detail and Jonnie adjusted and recentered the scene before them.
It was a hole!
But not a mine. There stood a transshipment pole at a drunken angle.
But it was otherwise just a hole in the planet surface. No trace even of compound domes.
Jonnie wondered whether they had different compound layouts on different planets. Perhaps that Loozite platform had been miles from anything else. Still, the Psychlos were demons for standard layouts. Usually the whole central administration of the planet was at the transshipment rig. For there was where the ore came from all over the planet. There was where the books were kept, where the main shops existed, where the top executives were.
Just that hole. It was pretty big, but a hole is a hole.
They chose another firing site: Mercogran in the fifth universe. It was shown as a planet five times the size of Earth but of less density.
They fired and recalled the gyrocage.
When Jonnie turned the projector on, they saw at once they had something different. They had to widen the view on the projector to see better.
Mercogran had been close to a mountain range and avalanches had apparently come down. They would have covered much of the space of any compound.
Jonnie brought the view in closer. There! At the lower right! The inverted bowl of a compound dome. It was lying like a broken soup plate. There was a transshipment pole and attached charred wires sitting in the middle of it. But nothing else.
So far no tight conclusion could be reached beyond the fact that those central compounds and transshipment rigs were certainly no longer working.
At random they took another planet: Brelloton. It was an inhabited planet, another reference told them, with a population of its own, governed by a Psychlo “regency,” enduring such rule for sixty thousand years.
They calculated the coordinates for a spot forty miles from the transshipment rig and fired the gyrocage.
They were not prepared for what they got. The atmosphere image showed a city. The transshipment rig there had apparently been on a raised plateau in the center of town.
Buildings that once must have been massive were blown to bits. They made a spreading pattern that radiated out from the plateau. Buildings that must have been two thousand feet high in a city that must have held a million beings or more had fallen outward like dominos.
The remains of the rig were plain. The platform was a hole. The poles were all leaning outward.
The compound domes had lain under the edge of the plateau and had been lifted by concussion and blown away, leaving the familiar underground layout plain in view.
Bringing the compound in closer one could see what must be a year's growth of grass in crevices.
There was no sign of life.
Jonnie went back and sat down and thought. He asked Angus to find some views the air cover had taken at the Purgatoire River. Views of the American compound.
Angus got them and Jonnie looked at them: the hole where the platform had been, the outward lean of the poles that still stood, the blasted city fifty or more miles away.
“I know what happened,” said Jonnie. “We could go on looking at Psychlo planets all night and get the same answer. Give me that computer. We're going to look at Psychlo on Day 92 last year!”
Light. It traveled approximately 5,869,713,600,000 miles a year. The
light which came from Psychlo on that hour and date was still traveling in space. They would get just ahead of it, and with a picto-recorder from a star drone set for 6,000,000,000,000X magnification, they would look at Psychlo at the instant it occurred. Whatever had occurred.
It had been just a few days ago over a year ago.
Choose a sidereal angle to aim the scope. Avoid nearby heavenly bodies so that the cage would not be influenced by gravity and would stay there for two or three minutes. No, let's be brave and put it there for fifteen minutes and hope it doesn't move and we get it back.
It took a while to set up. They had to readjust magnification, tune in heat sensors, and blind them to other bodies. Calculate seconds.
They fired the cage.
The wires hummed in holding for the long required time. They called the cage back.
It was a little misplaced on the platform. Jonnie would have touched it in his eagerness but Angus grabbed his hand. It would be cold enough for the metal to take one's skin off! They had to wait and let it warm up, for if they opened it cold they might warp a disc with the abrupt temperature shift.
It was like teasing a thirsty man by withholding a water skin from him.
Finally they projected it. What a brilliant picture! They had thought it might be fuzzy such as you get with heat waves. But the light that had traveled for over a year was crystal-clear and straight.
There was the imperial City of Psychlo. Circular tram rails, streets down from its cliffs like conveyor belts. They even carried the idea of mining into their city design.
Huge, bustling Psychlo! The center of power of the universes. The hub of the great, cruel claw that raked the bones from planets and peoples everywhere. There was the three-hundred-two-thousand-year-old monster itself, spread out in its sadistic and ugly might!
Neither Jonnie nor Angus had ever seen a live city of that size before. A hundred million population? A billion? Not the planet, just the city above the lower plain. Look at the trams. Rails that ran in circular spirals. Cars that looked for all the world like mine cars but full of people. Mobs in the streets. Mobs! Not riots. Just Psychlos.
You ever see so many beings? Even in such a tiny size one could see mobs!
They were daunted.
They compared it to their own towns, even to their own ruined cities. These didn't measure up to it at all.
What arrogance to attack anything like that.
They were so awestruck and impressed they hadn't even been looking at the transshipment rig of Psychlo. They missed the beginning and had to track back.
They adjusted the projector lens and position to get the transshipment platform of Psychlo more centered and enlarged.
And then they saw the whole sequence, just as it had occurred right after Jonnie and Windsplitter had raced across the Earth platform.
First, there were the Psychlo workers racing out to leave the platform clear for the incoming semiannual from Earth. There were flatbeds lined up to receive coffins and personnel.
There was the first shimmer of arrival of the Psychlos Jonnie and Windsplitter had knocked down.
Then a small puff.
There were the Psychlo workmen flinching back.
A force screen had gone on! A dome over the platform had closed instantly to contain that small explosion. It could not have been an atmosphere armor cable. Some sort of shimmering, sparkling screen. Transparent but very much there.
Trucks had time to start up before anything else occurred. One huge
emergency truck had lunged nearer the platform, evidently to handle the minor blast. A whole minute went by.
Then the first lethal coffin exploded!
A big “planet buster” nuclear bomb, nestled into a bed of dirty mines.
The force screen held.
The holocaust was contained. The boiling, ferocious blast had not even bulged the screen.
Then another shock as the second coffined “planet buster” went off.
The screen held! Good lord, what technology to build a screen like that. What power it must take to hold it.
Another shock inside that dome. The third planet buster. It and all its ancient, very dirty atomic bombs. The screen held.
Psychlos were racing toward it from far off. Those near the platform were flattened by concussion transmitting through the screen.
The fourth contained bomb went off. The screen still held.
But the transmitted concussion had hurled the emergency truck backward. Nearby buildings lost their glass.
The ground was shaking as though hit by gigantic earthquakes.
A nearby building suddenly dropped downward as though sucked from below. Other buildings began to go the same way.
The fifth bomb went off!
And seen in slow motion, first narrowly, then more broadly, the entire scene went into a churning, boiling mass of atomic fire.
No, something more! Molten, flaming fire was erupting in spots all over the plain.
They widened the angle quickly.
The whole Imperial City of Psychlo was sinking and all about it sprayed up rolling oceans of molten fire.
The circular trams, the mobs, the buildings, and even the towering cliffs were drowning in a tumult of liquid, yellow-green flame.
They hastily widened the view.
And they saw the entire planet of Psychlo turn into a radioactive sun!
The recording ended. They sat limp. “My god,” said Angus.
Jonnie felt a little sick. Psychlos or not, he had just watched the end product of all their planning and risk a year ago, and he was hit with a feeling of guilt. It was not easy to take responsibility for that much destruction.
He had thought the bombs would wipe out the company headquarters and perhaps the imperial City. But they had created a new sun.
“What happened?” said Angus.
Jonnie looked at his feet. “I pulled ten tabs out of those coffins. We didn't want to set a time fuse and then have them go off on Earth. We knew the bombs were a bit contaminated. Had radiation leaks. They were old and their cases were old. We handled them in radiation suits.”
He made a dropping gesture with his hand. "In the fight, I dropped the fuse tabs on the platform. I forgot them. They must have been slightly radioactive, and when they hit the Psychlo platform, they made a small puff of explosion. They are what caused the minor recoil last year.
“They triggered the force screen on Psychlo that the Chamcos mentioned. And that force screen was good enough and strong enough to contain the blasts.
“I read in a book Char had that the crust of Psychlo is riddled with abandoned mine shafts and tunnels, a complete sieve. They call it semicore mining. The blasts went down. One after another they pounded deeper and deeper toward the molten core of Psychlo.
“The fifth explosion penetrated the core. The next five exploded in that.
“I think all a nuclear weapon does is simulate a chain reaction into existence. And in addition to blowing out the planet crust, the fusion continued. And is probably still going on and may well go on for millions of years.
"Psychlo is no longer a planet. It 's a flaming sun!”
Angus nodded. “And all the transshipment rigs in the whole Psychlo empire, keeping schedule, not knowing about it, fired into that radioactive sun and blew themselves to bits!”
Jonnie nodded, a bit spent. “Just like we did in Denver a year later.” He shuddered. "Terl fired himself into a holocaust. Poor Terl.”
That's what it took to yank Angus out of it. “Poor Terl! After all the rotten things the demon did? Jonnie, I sometimes wonder about you. You can be cool as ice and then all of a sudden you come out with something like 'poor Terl'!'
“It would be an awful way to die,” said Jonnie.
Angus straightened up. “Well!” he said just like he had popped up out of a dive in the lake. "Psychlo is gone! The empire is gone! And that's one thing we don't have to worry about anymore! Good riddance!”