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A Matter of Magnitude   By:

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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 background.

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 universe.

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 peace.

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 dot.

"Well," said Rogers, "time for another course check. I'll ..." He jumped back, barely avoiding the worried lieutenant who exploded upon them from the radio shack.

"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 than that."

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 stations.

"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 nothing anywhere."

A new voice cut in on the speaker. "Radio track to bridge."

Frowning, Heselton answered. "Bridge. Come in radio track. We're listening."

"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 halt."

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... Continue reading book >>

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