PLANET of DREAD
By MURRAY LEINSTER
Moran cut apart the yard-long monstrosity with a slash of flame. The thing presumably died, but it continued to writhe senselessly. He turned to see other horrors crawling toward him. Then he knew he was being marooned on a planet of endless terrors.
Moran, naturally, did not mean to help in the carrying out of the plans which would mean his destruction one way or another. The plans were thrashed out very painstakingly, in formal conference on the space-yacht Nadine, with Moran present and allowed to take part in the discussion. From the viewpoint of the Nadine's ship's company, it was simply necessary to get rid of Moran. In their predicament he might have come to the same conclusion; but he was not at all enthusiastic about their decision. He would die of it.
The Nadine was out of overdrive and all the uncountable suns of the galaxy shone steadily, remotely, as infinitesimal specks of light of every color of the rainbow. Two hours since, the sun of this solar system had been a vast glaring disk off to port, with streamers and prominences erupting about its edges. Now it lay astern, and Moran could see the planet that had been chosen for his marooning. It was a cloudy world. There were some dim markings near one lighted limb, but nowhere else. There was an ice-cap in view. The rest was—clouds.
The ice-cap, by its existence and circular shape, proved that the planet rotated at a not unreasonable rate. The fact that it was water-ice told much. A water-ice ice-cap said that there were no poisonous gases in the planet's atmosphere. Sulfur dioxide or chlorine, for example, would not allow the formation of water-ice. It would have to be sulphuric-acid or hydrochloric-acid ice. But the ice-cap was simple snow. Its size, too, told about temperature-distribution on the planet. A large cap would have meant a large area with arctic and sub-arctic temperatures, with small temperate and tropical climate-belts. A small one like this meant wide tropical and sub-tropical zones. The fact was verified by the thick, dense cloud-masses which covered most of the surface,—all the surface, in fact, outside the ice-cap. But since there were ice-caps there would be temperate regions. In short, the ice-cap proved that a man could endure the air and temperature conditions he would find.
Moran observed these things from the control-room of the Nadine, then approaching the world on planetary drive. He was to be left here, with no reason ever to expect rescue. Two of the Nadine's four-man crew watched out the same ports as the planet seemed to approach. Burleigh said encouragingly;
"It doesn't look too bad, Moran!"
Moran disagreed, but he did not answer. He cocked an ear instead. He heard something. It was a thin, wabbling, keening whine. No natural radiation sounds like that. Moran nodded toward the all-band speaker.
"Do you hear what I do?" he asked sardonically.
Burleigh listened. A distinctly artificial signal came out of the speaker. It wasn't a voice-signal. It wasn't an identification beacon, such as are placed on certain worlds for the convenience of interstellar skippers who need to check their courses on extremely long runs. This was something else.
"Hm ... Call the others, Harper."
Harper, prudently with him in the control-room, put his head into the passage leading away. He called. But Moran observed with grudging respect that he didn't give him a chance to do anything drastic. These people on the Nadine were capable. They'd managed to recapture the Nadine from him, but they were matter-of-fact about it. They didn't seem to resent what he'd tried to do, or that he'd brought them an indefinite distance in an indefinite direction from their last landing-point, and they had still to re-locate themselves.
They'd been on Coryus Three and they'd gotten departure clearance from its space-port. With clearance-papers in order, they could land unquestioned at any other space-port and take off again—provided the other space-port was one they had clearance for. Without rigid control of space-travel, any criminal anywhere could escape the consequences of any crime simply by buying a ticket to another world. Moran couldn't have bought a ticket, but he'd tried to get off the planet Coryus on the Nadine. The trouble was that the Nadine had clearance papers covering five persons aboard—four men and a girl Carol. Moran made six. Wherever the yacht landed, such a disparity between its documents and its crew would spark an investigation. A lengthy, incredibly minute investigation. Moran, at least, would be picked out as a fugitive from Coryus Three. The others were fugitives too, from some unnamed world Moran did not know. They might be sent back where they came from. In effect, with six people on board instead of five, the Nadine could not land anywhere for supplies. With five on board, as her papers declared, she could. And Moran was the extra man whose presence would rouse space-port officials' suspicion of the rest. So he had to be dumped.
He couldn't blame them. He'd made another difficulty, too. Blaster in hand, he'd made the Nadine take off from Coryus III with a trip-tape picked at random for guidance. But the trip-tape had been computed for another starting-point, and when the yacht came out of overdrive it was because the drive had been dismantled in the engine-room. So the ship's location was in doubt. It could have travelled at almost any speed in practically any direction for a length of time that was at least indefinite. A liner could re-locate itself without trouble. It had elaborate observational equipment and tri-di star-charts. But smaller craft had to depend on the Galactic Directory. The process would be to find a planet and check its climate and relationship to other planets, and its flora and fauna against descriptions in the Directory. That was the way to find out where one was, when one's position became doubtful. The Nadine needed to make a planet-fall for this.
The rest of the ship's company came into the control-room. Burleigh waved his hand at the speaker.
They heard it. All of them. It was a trilling, whining sound among the innumerable random noises to be heard in supposedly empty space.
"That's a marker," Carol announced. "I saw a costume-story tape once that had that sound in it. It marked a first-landing spot on some planet or other, so the people could find that spot again. It was supposed to be a long time ago, though."
"It's weak," observed Burleigh. "We'll try answering it."
Moran stirred, and he knew that every one of the others was conscious of the movement. But they didn't watch him suspiciously. They were alert by long habit. Burleigh said they'd been Underground people, fighting the government of their native world, and they'd gotten away to make it seem the revolt had collapsed. They'd go back later when they weren't expected, and start it up again. Moran considered the story probable. Only people accustomed to desperate actions would have remained so calm when Moran had used desperate measures against them.
Burleigh picked up the transmitter-microphone.
"Calling ground," he said briskly. "Calling ground! We pick up your signal. Please reply."
He repeated the call, over and over and over. There was no answer. Cracklings and hissings came out of the speaker as before, and the thin and reedy wabbling whine continued. The Nadine went on toward the enlarging cloudy mass ahead.
"I think," said Carol, "that we should land. People have been here. If they left a beacon, they may have left an identification of the planet. Then we'd know where we are and how to get to Loris."
Burleigh nodded. The Nadine had cleared for Loris. That was where it should make its next landing. The little yacht went on. All five of its proper company watched as the planet's surface enlarged. The ice-cap went out of sight around the bulge of the globe, but no markings appeared. There were cloud-banks everywhere, probably low down in the atmosphere. The darker vague areas previously seen might have been highlands.
"I think," said Carol, to Moran, "that if it's too tropical where this signal's coming from, we'll take you somewhere near enough to the ice-cap to have an endurable climate. I've been figuring on food, too. That will depend on where we are from Loris because we have to keep enough for ourselves. But we can spare some. We'll give you the emergency-kit, anyhow."
The emergency-kit contained antiseptics, seeds, and a weapon or two, with elaborate advice to castaways. If somebody were wrecked on an even possibly habitable planet, the especially developed seed-strains would provide food in a minimum of time. It was not an encouraging thought, though, and Moran grimaced.
She hadn't said anything about being sorry that he had to be marooned. Maybe she was, but rebels learn to be practical or they don't live long. Moran wondered, momentarily, what sort of world they came from and why they had revolted, and what sort of set-back to the revolt had sent the five off in what they considered a strategic retreat but their government would think defeat. Moran's own situation was perfectly clear.
He'd killed a man on Coryus III. His victim would not be mourned by anybody, and somebody formerly in very great danger would now be safe, which was the reason for what Moran had done. But the dead man had been very important, and the fact that Moran had forced him to fight and killed him in fair combat made no difference. Moran had needed to get off-planet, and fast. But space-travel regulations are especially designed to prevent such escapes.
He'd made a pretty good try, at that. One of the controls on space-traffic required a ship on landing to deposit its fuel-block in the space-port's vaults. The fuel-block was not returned until clearance for departure had been granted. But Moran had waylaid the messenger carrying the Nadine's fuel-block back to that space-yacht. He'd knocked the messenger cold and presented himself at the yacht with the fuel. He was admitted. He put the block in the engine's gate. He duly took the plastic receipt-token the engine only then released, and he drew a blaster. He'd locked two of the Nadine's crew in the engine-room, rushed to the control-room without encountering the others, dogged the door shut, and threaded in the first trip-tape to come to hand. He punched the take-off button and only seconds later the overdrive. Then the yacht—and Moran—was away. But his present companions got the drive dismantled two days later and once the yacht was out of overdrive they efficiently gave him his choice of surrendering or else. He surrendered, stipulating that he wouldn't be landed back on Coryus; he still clung to hope of avoiding return—which was almost certain anyhow. Because nobody would want to go back to a planet from which they'd carried away a criminal, even though they'd done it unwillingly. Investigation of such a matter might last for months.
Now the space-yacht moved toward a vast mass of fleecy whiteness without any visible features. Harper stayed with the direction-finder. From time to time he gave readings requiring minute changes of course. The wabbling, whining signal was louder now. It became louder than all the rest of the space-noises together.
The yacht touched atmosphere and Burleigh said;
"Watch our height, Carol."
She stood by the echometer. Sixty miles. Fifty. Thirty. A correction of course. Fifteen miles to surface below. Ten. Five. At twenty-five thousand feet there were clouds, which would be particles of ice so small that they floated even so high. Then clear air, then lower clouds, and lower ones still. It was not until six thousand feet above the surface that the planet-wide cloud-level seemed to begin. From there on down it was pure opacity. Anything could exist in that dense, almost palpable grayness. There could be jagged peaks.
The Nadine went down and down. At fifteen hundred feet above the unseen surface, the clouds ended. Below, there was only haze. One could see the ground, at least, but there was no horizon. There was only an end to visibility. The yacht descended as if in the center of a sphere in which one could see clearly nearby, less clearly at a little distance, and not at all beyond a quarter-mile or so.
There was a shaded, shadowless twilight under the cloud-bank. The ground looked like no ground ever seen before by anyone. Off to the right a rivulet ran between improbable-seeming banks. There were a few very small hills of most unlikely appearance. It was the ground, the matter on which one would walk, which was strangest. It had color, but the color was not green. Much of it was a pallid, dirty-yellowish white. But there were patches of blue, and curious veinings of black, and here and there were other colors, all of them unlike the normal color of vegetation on a planet with a sol-type sun.
Harper spoke from the direction-finder;
"The signal's coming from that mound, yonder."
There was a hillock of elongated shape directly in line with the Nadine's course in descent. Except for the patches of color, it was the only considerable landmark within the half-mile circle in which anything could be seen at all.
The Nadine checked her downward motion. Interplanetary drive is rugged and sure, but it does not respond to fine adjustment. Burleigh used rockets, issuing great bellowings of flame, to make actual contact. The yacht hovered, and as the rocket-flames diminished slowly she sat down with practically no impact at all. But around her there was a monstrous tumult of smoke and steam. When the rockets went off, she lay in a burned-out hollow some three or four feet deep with a bottom of solid stone. The walls of the hollow were black and scorched. It seemed that at some places they quivered persistently.
There was silence in the control-room save for the whining noise which now was almost deafening. Harper snapped off the switch. Then there was true silence. The space-yacht had come to rest possibly a hundred yards from the mound which was the source of the space-signal. That mound shared the peculiarity of the ground as far as they could see through the haze. It was not vegetation in any ordinary sense. Certainly it was no mineral surface! The landing-pockets had burned away three or four feet of it, and the edge of the burned area smoked noisesomely, and somehow it looked as if it would reek. And there were places where it stirred.
Burleigh blinked and stared. Then he reached up and flicked on the outside microphones. Instantly there was bedlam. If the landscape was strange, here, the sounds that came from it were unbelievable.
There were grunting noises. There were clickings, uncountable clickings that made a background for all the rest. There were discordant howls and honkings. From time to time some thing unknown made a cry that sounded very much like a small boy trailing a stick against a picket fence, only much louder. Something hooted, maintaining the noise for an impossibly long time. And persistently, sounding as if they came from far away, there were booming noises, unspeakably deep-bass, made by something alive. And something shrieked in lunatic fashion and something else still moaned from time to time with the volume of a steam-whistle....
"This sounds and looks like a nice place to live," said Moran with fine irony.
Burleigh did not answer. He turned down the outside sound.
"What's that stuff there, the ground?" he demanded. "We burned it away in landing. I've seen something like it somewhere, but never taking the place of grass!"
"That," said Moran as if brightly, "that's what I'm to make a garden in. Of evenings I'll stroll among my thrifty plantings and listen to the delightful sounds of nature."
Burleigh scowled. Harper flicked off the direction-finder.
"The signal still comes from that hillock yonder," he said with finality.
Moran said bitingly;
"That ain't no hillock, that's my home!"
Then, instantly he'd said it, he recognized that it could be true. The mound was not a fold in the ground. It was not an up-cropping of the ash-covered stone on which the Nadine rested. The enigmatic, dirty-yellow-dirty-red-dirty-blue-and-dirty-black ground-cover hid something. It blurred the shape it covered, very much as enormous cobwebs made solid and opaque would have done. But when one looked carefully at the mound, there was a landing-fin sticking up toward the leaden skies. It was attached to a large cylindrical object of which the fore part was crushed in. The other landing-fins could be traced.
"It's a ship," said Moran curtly. "It crash-landed and its crew set up a signal to call for help. None came, or they'd have turned the beacon off. Maybe they got the lifeboats to work and got away. Maybe they lived as I'm expected to live until they died as I'm expected to die."
Burleigh said angrily;
"You'd do what we are doing if you were in our shoes!"
"Sure," said Moran, "but a man can gripe, can't he?"
"You won't have to live here," said Burleigh. "We'll take you somewhere up by the ice-cap. As Carol said, we'll give you everything we can spare. And meanwhile we'll take a look at that wreck yonder. There might be an indication in it of what solar system this is. There could be something in it of use to you, too. You'd better come along when we explore."
"Aye, aye, sir," said Moran with irony. "Very kind of you, sir. You'll go armed, sir?"
"Then since I can't be trusted with a weapon," said Moran, "I suggest that I take a torch. We may have to burn through that loathesome stuff to get in the ship."
"Right," growled Burleigh again. "Brawn and Carol, you'll keep ship. The rest of us wear suits. We don't know what that stuff is outside."
Moran silently went to the space-suit rack and began to get into a suit. Modern space-suits weren't like the ancient crudities with bulging metal casings and enormous globular helmets. Non-stretch fabrics took the place of metal, and constant-volume joints were really practical nowadays. A man could move about in a late-model space-suit almost as easily as in ship-clothing. The others of the landing-party donned their special garments with the brisk absence of fumbling that these people displayed in every action.
"If there's a lifeboat left," said Carol suddenly, "Moran might be able to do something with it."
"Ah, yes!" said Moran. "It's very likely that the ship hit hard enough to kill everybody aboard, but not smash the boats!"
"Somebody survived the crash," said Burleigh, "because they set up a beacon. I wouldn't count on a boat, Moran."
"I don't!" snapped Moran.
He flipped the fastener of his suit. He felt all the openings catch. He saw the others complete their equipment. They took arms. So far they had seen no moving thing outside, but arms were simple sanity on an unknown world. Moran, though, would not be permitted a weapon. He picked up a torch. They filed into the airlock. The inner door closed. The outer door opened. It was not necessary to check the air specifically. The suits would take care of that. Anyhow the ice-cap said there were no water-soluble gases in the atmosphere, and a gas can't be an active poison if it can't dissolve.
They filed out of the airlock. They stood on ash-covered stone, only slightly eroded by the processes which made life possible on this planet. They looked dubiously at the scorched, indefinite substance which had been ground before the Nadine landed. Moran moved scornfully forward. He kicked at the burnt stuff. His foot went through the char. The hole exposed a cheesy mass of soft matter which seemed riddled with small holes.
Something black came squirming frantically out of one of the openings. It was eight or ten inches long. It had a head, a thorax, and an abdomen. It had wing-cases. It had six legs. It toppled down to the stone on which the Nadine rested. Agitatedly, it spread its wing-covers and flew away, droning loudly. The four men heard the sound above even the monstrous cacophony of cries and boomings and grunts and squeaks which seemed to fill the air.
"What the devil—."
Moran kicked again. More holes. More openings. More small tunnels in the cheese-like, curd-like stuff. More black things squirming to view in obvious panic. They popped out everywhere. It was suddenly apparent that the top of the soil, here, was a thick and blanket-like sheet over the whitish stuff. The black creatures lived and thrived in tunnels under it.
Carol's voice came over the helmet-phones.
"They're—bugs!" she said incredulously. "They're beetles! They're twenty times the size of the beetles we humans have been carrying around the galaxy, but that's what they are!"
Moran grunted. Distastefully, he saw his predicament made worse. He knew what had happened here. He could begin to guess at other things to be discovered. It had not been practical for men to move onto new planets and subsist upon the flora and fauna they found there. On some new planets life had never gotten started. On such worlds a highly complex operation was necessary before humanity could move in. A complete ecological complex had to be built up; microbes to break down the rock for soil, bacteria to fix nitrogen to make the soil fertile; plants to grow in the new-made dirt and insects to fertilize the plants so they would multiply, and animals and birds to carry the seeds planet-wide. On most planets, to be sure, there were local, aboriginal plants and animals. But still terrestrial creatures had to be introduced if a colony was to feed itself. Alien plants did not supply satisfactory food. So an elaborate adaptation job had to be done on every planet before native and terrestrial living things settled down together. It wasn't impossible that the scuttling things were truly beetles, grown large and monstrous under the conditions of a new planet. And the ground....
"This ground stuff," said Moran distastefully, "is yeast or some sort of toadstool growth. This is a seedling world. It didn't have any life on it, so somebody dumped germs and spores and bugs to make it ready for plants and animals eventually. But nobody's come back to finish up the job."
Burleigh grunted a somehow surprised assent. But it wasn't surprising; not wholly so. Once one mentioned yeasts and toadstools and fungi generally, the weird landscape became less than incredible. But it remained actively unpleasant to think of being marooned on it.
"Suppose we go look at the ship?" said Moran unpleasantly. "Maybe you can find out where you are, and I can find out what's ahead of me."
He climbed up on the unscorched surface. It was elastic. The parchment-like top skin yielded. It was like walking on a mass of springs.
"We'd better spread out," added Moran, "or else we'll break through that skin and be floundering in this mess."
"I'm giving the orders, Moran!" said Burleigh shortly. "But what you say does make sense."
He and the others joined Moran on the yielding surface. Their footing was uncertain, as on a trampoline. They staggered. They moved toward the hillock which was a covered-over wrecked ship.
The ground was not as level as it appeared from the Nadine's control-room. There were undulations. But they could not see more than a quarter-mile in any direction. Beyond that was mist. But Burleigh, at one end of the uneven line of advancing men, suddenly halted and stood staring down at something he had not seen before. The others halted.
Something moved. It came out from behind a very minor spire of whitish stuff that looked like a dirty sheet stretched over a tall stone. The thing that appeared was very peculiar indeed. It was a—worm. But it was a foot thick and ten feet long, and it had a group of stumpy legs at its fore end—where there were eyes hidden behind bristling hair-like growths—and another set of feet at its tail end. It progressed sedately by reaching forward with its fore-part, securing a foothold, and then arching its middle portion like a cat arching its back, to bring its hind part forward. Then it reached forward again. It was of a dark olive color from one end to the other. Its manner of walking was insane but somehow sedate.
Moran heard muffled noises in his helmet-phone as the others tried to speak. Carol's voice came anxiously;
"What's the matter? What do you see?"
Moran said with savage precision;
"We're looking at an inch-worm, grown up like the beetles only more so. It's not an inch-worm any longer. It's a yard-worm." Then he said harshly to the men with him; "It's not a hunting creature on worlds where it's smaller. It's not likely to have turned deadly here. Come on!"
He went forward over the singularly bouncy ground. The others followed. It was to be noted that Hallet the engineer, avoided the huge harmless creature more widely than most.
They reached the mound which was the ship. Moran unlimbered his torch. He said sardonically;
"This ship won't do anybody any good. It's old-style. That thick belt around its middle was dropped a hundred years ago, and more." There was an abrupt thickening of the cylindrical hull at the middle. There was an equally abrupt thinning, again, toward the landing-fins. The sharpness of the change was blurred over by the revolting ground-stuff growing everywhere. "We're going to find that this wreck has been here a century at least!"
Without orders, he turned on the torch. A four-foot flame of pure blue-white leaped out. He touched its tip to the fungoid soil. Steam leaped up. He used the flame like a gigantic scalpel, cutting a square a yard deep in the whitish stuff, and then cutting it across and across to destroy it. Thick fumes arose, and quiverings and shakings began. Black creatures in their labyrinths of tunnels began to panic. Off to the right the blanket-like surface ripped and they poured out. They scuttled crazily here and there. Some took to wing. By instinct the other men—the armed ones—moved back from the smoke. They wore space-helmets but they felt that there should be an intolerable smell.
Moran slashed and slashed angrily with the big flame, cutting a way to the metal hull that had fallen here before his grandfather was born. Sometimes the flame cut across things that writhed, and he was sickened. But above all he raged because he was to be marooned here. He could not altogether blame the others. They couldn't land at any colonized world with him on board without his being detected as an extra member of the crew. His fate would then be sealed. But they also would be investigated. Official queries would go across this whole sector of the galaxy, naming five persons of such-and-such description and such-and-such fingerprints, voyaging in a space-yacht of such-and-such size and registration. The world they came from would claim them as fugitives. They would be returned to it. They'd be executed.
Then Carol's voice came in his helmet-phone. She cried out;
"Look out! It's coming! Kill it! Kill it—."
He heard blast-rifles firing. He heard Burleigh pant commands. He was on his way out of the hollow he'd carved when he heard Harper cry out horribly.
He got clear of the newly burned-away stuff. There was still much smoke and stream. But he saw Harper. More, he saw the thing that had Harper.
It occurred to him instantly that if Harper died, there would not be too many people on the Nadine. They need not maroon him. In fact, they wouldn't dare.
A ship that came in to port with two few on board would be investigated as thoroughly as one that had too many. Perhaps more thoroughly. So if Harper were killed, Moran would be needed to take his place. He'd go on from here in the Nadine, necessarily accepted as a member of her crew.
Then he rushed, the flame-torch making a roaring sound.
They went back to the Nadine for weapons more adequate for encountering the local fauna when it was over. Blast-rifles were not effective against such creatures as these. Torches were contact weapons but they killed. Blast-rifles did not. And Harper needed to pull himself together again, too. Also, neither Moran nor any of the others wanted to go back to the still un-entered wreck while the skinny, somehow disgusting legs of the thing still kicked spasmodically—quite separate—on the whitish ground-stuff. Moran had disliked such creatures in miniature form on other worlds. Enlarged like this.
It seemed insane that such creatures, even in miniature, should painstakingly be brought across light-years of space to the new worlds men settled on. But it had been found to be necessary. The ecological system in which human beings belonged had turned out to be infinitely complicated. It had turned out, in fact, to be the ecological system of Earth, and unless all parts of the complex were present, the total was subtly or glaringly wrong. So mankind distastefully ferried pests as well as useful creatures to its new worlds as they were made ready for settlement. Mosquitos throve on the inhabited globes of the Rim Stars. Roaches twitched nervous antennae on the settled planets of the Coal-sack. Dogs on Antares had fleas, and scratched their bites, and humanity spread through the galaxy with an attendant train of insects and annoyances. If they left their pests behind, the total system of checks and balances which make life practical would get lopsided. It would not maintain itself. The vagaries that could result were admirably illustrated in and on the landscape outside the Nadine. Something had been left out of the seeding of this planet. The element—which might be a bacterium or a virus or almost anything at all—the element that kept creatures at the size called "normal" was either missing or inoperable here. The results were not desirable.
Harper drank thirstily. Carol had watched from the control-room. She was still pale. She looked strangely at Moran.
"You're sure it didn't get through your suit?" Burleigh asked insistently of Harper.
Moran said sourly;
"The creatures have changed size. There's no proof they've changed anything else. Beetles live in tunnels they make in fungus growths. The beetles and the tunnels are larger, but that's all. Inchworms travel as they always did. They move yards instead of inches, but that's all. Centipedes—"
"It was—" said Carol unsteadily. "It was thirty feet long!"
"Centipedes," repeated Moran, "catch prey with their legs. They always did. Some of them trail poison from their feet. We can play a blowtorch over Harper's suit and any poison will be burned away. You can't burn a space-suit!"
"We certainly can't leave Moran here!" said Burleigh uneasily.
"He kept Harper from being killed!" said Carol. "Your blast-rifles weren't any good. The—creatures are hard to kill."
"Very hard to kill," agreed Moran. "But I'm not supposed to kill them. I'm supposed to live with them! I wonder how we can make them understand they're not supposed to kill me either?"
"I'll admit," said Burleigh, "that if you'd let Harper get killed, we'd have been forced to let you take his identity and not be marooned, to avoid questions at the space-port on Loris. Not many men would have done what you did."
"Oh, I'm a hero," said Moran. "Noble Moran, that's me! What the hell would you want me to do? I didn't think! I won't do it again. I promise!"
The last statement was almost true. Moran felt a squeamish horror at the memory of what he'd been through over by the wrecked ship. He'd come running out of the excavation he'd made. He had for weapon a four-foot blue-white flame, and there was a monstrous creature running directly toward him, with Harper lifted off the ground and clutched in two gigantic, spidery legs. It was no less than thirty feet long, but it was a centipede. It travelled swiftly on grisly, skinny, pipe-thin legs. It loomed over Moran as he reached the surface and he automatically thrust the flame at it. The result was shocking. But the nervous systems of insects are primitive. It is questionable that they feel pain. It is certain that separated parts of them act as if they had independent life. Legs—horrible things—sheared off in the flame of the torch, but the grisly furry thing rushed on until Moran slashed across its body with the blue-white fire. Then it collapsed. But Harper was still held firmly and half the monster struggled mindlessly to run on while another part was dead. Moran fought it almost hysterically, slicing off legs and wanting to be sick when their stumps continued to move as if purposefully, and the legs themselves kicked and writhed rhythmically. But he bored in and cut at the body and ultimately dragged Harper clear.
Afterward, sickened, he completed cutting it to bits with the torch. But each part continued nauseatingly to move. He went back with the others to the Nadine. The blast-rifles had been almost completely without effect upon the creature because of its insensitive nervous system.
"I think," said Burleigh, "that it is only fair for us to lift from here and find a better part of this world to land Moran in."
"Why not another planet?" asked Carol.
"It could take weeks," said Burleigh harassedly. "We left Coryus three days ago. We ought to land on Loris before too long. There'd be questions asked if we turned up weeks late! We can't afford that! The space-port police would suspect us of all sorts of things. They might decide to check back on us where we came from. We can't take the time to hunt another planet!"
"Then your best bet," said Moran caustically, "is to find out where we are. You may be so far from Loris that you can't make port without raising questions anyhow. But you might be almost on course. I don't know! But let's see if that wreck can tell us. I'll go by myself if you like."
He went into the airlock, where his suit and the others had been sprayed with a corrosive solution while the outside air was pumped out and new air from inside the yacht admitted. He got into the suit. Harper joined him.
"I'm going with you," he said shortly. "Two will be safer than one,—both with torches."
"Too, too true!" said Moran sardonically.
He bundled the other suits out of the airlock and into the ship. He checked his torch. He closed the inner lock door and started the pump. Harper said;
"I'm not going to try to thank you—."
"Because," Moran snapped, "you wouldn't have been on this planet to be in danger if I hadn't tried to capture the yacht. I know it!"
"That wasn't what I meant to say!" protested Harper.
Moran snarled at him. The lock-pump stopped and the ready-for exit light glowed. They pushed open the outer door and emerged. Again there was the discordant, almost intolerable din. It made no sense. The cries and calls and stridulations they now knew to be those of insects had no significance. The unseen huge creatures made them without purpose. Insects do not challenge each other like birds or make mating-calls like animals. They make noises because it is their nature. The noises have no meaning. The two men started toward the wreck to which Moran had partly burned a passageway. There were clickings from underfoot all around them. Moran said abruptly;
"Those clicks come from the beetles in their tunnels underfoot. They're practically a foot long. How big do you suppose bugs grow here,—and why?"
Harper did not answer. He carried a flame-torch like the one Moran had used before. They went unsteadily over the elastic, yielding stuff underfoot. Harper halted, to look behind. Carol's voice came in the helmet-phones.
"We're watching out for you. We'll try to warn you if—anything shows up."
"Better watch me!" snapped Moran. "If I should kill Harper after all, you might have to pass me for him presently!"
He heard a small, inarticulate sound, as if Carol protested. Then he heard an angry shrill whine. He'd turned aside from the direct line to the wreck. Something black, the size of a fair-sized dog, faced him belligerently. Multiple lensed eyes, five inches across, seemed to regard him in a peculiarly daunting fashion. The creature had a narrow, unearthly, triangular face, with mandibles that worked from side to side instead of up and down like an animal's jaws. The head was utterly unlike any animal such as breed and raise their young and will fight for them. There was a small thorax, from which six spiny, glistening legs sprang. There was a bulbous abdomen.
"This," said Moran coldly, "is an ant. I've stepped on them for no reason, and killed them. I've probably killed many times as many without knowing it. But this could kill me."
The almost yard-long enormity standing two and a half feet high, was in the act of carrying away a section of one of the legs of the giant centipede Moran had killed earlier. It still moved. The leg was many times the size of the ant. Moran moved toward it. It made a louder buzzing sound, threatening him.
Moran cut it apart with a slashing sweep of the flame that a finger-touch sent leaping from his torch. The thing presumably died, but it continued to writhe senselessly.
"I killed this one," said Moran savagely, "because I remembered something from my childhood. When one ant finds something to eat and can't carry it all away, it brings back its friends to get the rest. The big thing I killed would be such an item. How'd you like to have a horde of these things about us? Come on!"
Through his helmet-phone he heard Harper breathing harshly. He led the way once more toward the wreck.
Black beetles swarmed about when he entered the cut in the mould-yeast soil. They popped out of tunnels as if in astonishment that what had been subterranean passages suddenly opened to the air. Harper stepped on one, and it did not crush. It struggled frantically and he almost fell. He gasped. Two of the creatures crawled swiftly up the legs of Moran's suit, and he knocked them savagely away. He found himself grinding his teeth in invincible revulsion.
They reached the end of the cut he'd made in the fungus-stuff. Metal showed past burned-away soil. Moran growled;
"You keep watch. I'll finish the cut."
The flame leaped out. Dense clouds of smoke and steam poured out and up. With the intolerably bright light of the torch overwhelming the perpetual grayness under the clouds and playing upon curling vapors, the two space-suited men looked like figures in some sort of inferno.
Carol's voice came anxiously into Moran's helmet-phone;
"Are you all right?"
"So far, both of us," said Moran sourly. "I've just uncovered the crack of an airlock door."
He swept the flame around again. A mass of undercut fungus toppled toward him. He burned it and went on. He swept the flame more widely. There was carbonized matter from the previously burned stuff on the metal, but he cleared all the metal. Carol's voice again;
"There's something flying.... It's huge! It's a wasp! It's—monstrous!"
"Harper, we're in a sort of trench. If it hovers, you'll burn it as it comes down. Cut through its waist. It won't crawl toward us along the trench. It'd have to back toward us to use its sting."
He burned and burned, white light glaring upon a mass of steam and smoke which curled upward and looked as if lightning-flashes played within it.
"It—went on past.... It was as big as a cow!"
Moran wrenched at the port-door. It partly revolved. He pulled. It fell outward. The wreck was not standing upright on its fins. It lay on its side. The lock inside the toppled-out port was choked with a horrible mass of thread-like fungi. Moran swept the flame in. The fungus shriveled and was not. He opened the inner lock-door. There was pure blackness within. He held the torch for light.
For an instant everything was confusion, because the wreck was lying on its side instead of standing in a normal position. Then he saw a sheet of metal, propped up to be seen instantly by anyone entering the wrecked space-vessel.
Letters burned into the metal gave a date a century and a half old. Straggly torch-writing said baldly;
"This ship the Malabar crashed here on Tethys II a week ago. We cannot repair. We are going on to Candida III in the boats. We are carrying what bessendium we can with us. We resign salvage rights in this ship to its finders, but we have more bessendium with us. We will give that to our rescuers.
"Jos. White, Captain."
Moran made a peculiar, sardonic sound like a bark.
"Calling the Nadine!" he said in mirthless amusement. "This planet is Tethys Two. Do you read me? Tethys II! Look it up!"
A pause. Then Carol's voice, relieved;
"Tethys is in the Directory! That's good!" There was the sound of murmurings in the control-room behind her. "Yes!... Oh,—wonderful! It's not far off the course we should have followed! We won't be suspiciously late at Loris! Wonderful!"
"I share your joy," said Moran sarcastically. "More information! The ship's name was the Malabar. She carried bessendium among her cargo. Her crew went on to Candida III a hundred and fifty years ago, leaving a promise to pay in more bessendium whoever should rescue them. More bessendium! Which suggests that some bessendium was left behind."
Silence. The bald memorandum left behind the vanished crew was, of course, pure tragedy. A ship's lifeboat could travel four light-years, or possibly even six. But there were limits. A castaway crew had left this world on a desperate journey to another in the hope that life there would be tolerable. If they arrived, they waited for some other ship to cross the illimitable emptiness and discover either the beacon here or one they'd set up on the other world. The likelihood was small, at best. It had worked out zero. If the lifeboats made Candida III, their crews stayed there because they could go no farther. They'd died there, because if they'd been found this ship would have been visited and its cargo salvaged.
Moran went inside. He climbed through the compartments of the toppled craft, using his torch for light. He found where the cargo-hold had been opened from the living part of the ship. He saw the cargo. There were small, obviously heavy boxes in one part of the hold. Some had been broken open. He found scraps of purple bessendium ore dropped while being carried to the lifeboats. A century and a half ago it had not seemed worth while to pick them up, though bessendium was the most precious material in the galaxy. It couldn't be synthesized. It had to be made by some natural process not yet understood, but involving long-continued pressures of megatons to the square inch with temperatures in the millions of degrees. It was purple. It was crystalline. Fractions of it in blocks of other metals made the fuel-blocks that carried liners winging through the void. But here were pounds of it dropped carelessly....
Moran gathered a double handful. He slipped it in a pocket of his space-suit. He went clambering back to the lock.
He heard the roaring of a flame-torch. He found Harper playing it squeamishly on the wriggling fragments of another yard-long ant. It had explored the trench burned out of the fungus soil and down to the rock. Harper'd killed it as it neared him.
"That's three of them I've killed," said Harper in a dogged voice. "There seem to be more."
"Did you hear my news?" asked Moran sardonically.
"Yes," said Harper. "How'll we get back to the Nadine?"
"Oh, we'll fight our way through," said Moran, as sardonically as before. "We'll practice splendid heroism, giving battle to ants who think we're other ants trying to rob them of some fragments of an over-sized dead centipede. A splendid cause to fight for, Harper!"
He felt an almost overpowering sense of irony. The quantity of bessendium he'd seen was riches incalculable. The mere pocketfull of crystals in his pocket would make any man wealthy if he could get to a settled planet and sell them. And there was much, much more back in the cargo-hold of the wreck. He'd seen it.
But his own situation was unchanged. Bessendium could be hidden somehow,—perhaps between the inner and outer hulls of the Nadine. But it was not possible to land the Nadine at any space-port with an extra man aboard her. In a sense, Moran might be one of the richest men in the galaxy in his salvagers' right to the treasure in the wrecked Malabar's hold. But he could not use that treasure to buy his way to a landing on a colonized world.
Carol's voice; she was frightened.
"Something's coming! It's—terribly big! It's coming out of the mist!"
Moran pushed past Harper in the trench that ended at the wreck's lock-door. He moved on until he could see over the edge of that trench as it shallowed. Now there were not less than forty of the giant ants about the remnants of the monstrous centipede Moran had killed. They moved about in great agitation. There was squabbling. Angry, whining stridulations filled the air beneath the louder and more gruesome sounds from fartheraway places. It appeared that scouts and foragers from two different ant-cities had come upon the treasure of dead—if twitching—meat of Moran's providing. They differed about where the noisesome booty should be taken. Some ants pulled angrily against each other, whining shrilly. He saw individual ants running frantically away in two different directions. They would be couriers, carrying news of what amounted to a frontier incident in the city-state civilization of the ants.
Then Moran saw the giant thing of which Carol spoke. It was truly huge, and it had a gross, rounded body, and a ridiculously small thorax, and its head was tiny and utterly mild in expression. It walked with an enormous, dainty deliberation, placing small spiked feet at the end of fifteen-foot legs very delicately in place as it moved. Its eyes were multiple and huge, and its forelegs though used so deftly for walking had a horrifying set of murderous, needle-sharp saw-teeth along their edges.
It looked at the squabbling ants with its gigantic eyes that somehow appeared like dark glasses worn by a monstrosity. It moved primly, precisely toward them. Two small black creatures tugged at a hairy section of a giant centipede's leg. The great pale-green creature—a mantis; a praying mantis twenty feet tall in its giraffe-like walking position—the great creature loomed over them, looking down as through sunglasses. A foreleg moved like lightning. An ant weighing nearly as much as a man stridulated shrilly, terribly, as it was borne aloft. The mantis closed its arm-like forelegs upon it, holding it as if piously and benignly contemplating it. Then it ate it, very much as a man might eat an apple, without regard to the convulsive writhings of its victim.
It moved on toward the denser fracas among the ants. Suddenly it raised its ghastly saw-toothed forelegs in an extraordinary gesture. It was the mantis's spectral attitude, which seemed a pose of holding out its arms in benediction. But its eyes remained blind-seeming and enigmatic,—again like dark glasses.
Then it struck. Daintily, it dined upon an ant. Upon another. Upon another and another and another.
From one direction parties of agitated and hurrying black objects appeared at the edge of the mist. They were ants of a special caste,—warrior-ants with huge mandibles designed for fighting in defense of their city and its social system and its claim to fragments of dead centipedes. From another direction other parties of no less truculent warriors moved with the swiftness and celerity of a striking task-force. All the air was filled with the deep-bass notes of something huge, booming beyond visibility, and the noises as of sticks trailed against picket fences, and hootings which were produced by the rubbing of serrated leg-joints against chitinous diaphragms. But now a new tumult arose.
From forty disputatious formicidae, whining angrily at each other over the stinking remains of the monster Moran had killed, the number of ants involved in the quarrel became hundreds. But more and more arrived. The special caste of warriors bred for warfare was not numerous enough to take care of the provocative behavior of foreign foragers. There was a general mobilization in both unseen ant-city states. They became nations in arms. Their populations rushed to the scene of conflict. The burrows and dormitories and eating-chambers of the underground nations were swept clean of occupants. Only the nurseries retained a skeleton staff of nurses—the nurseries and the excavated palace occupied by the ant-queen and her staff of servants and administrators. All the resources of two populous ant-nations were flung into the fray.
From a space of a hundred yards or less, containing mere dozens of belligerent squabblers, the dirty-white ground of the fungus-plain became occupied by hundreds of snapping, biting combatants. They covered—they fought over—the half of an acre. There were contending battalions fighting as masses in the center, while wings of fighting creatures to right and left were less solidly arranged. But reinforcements poured out of the mist from two directions, and momently the situation changed. Presently the battle covered an acre. Groups of fresh fighters arriving from the city to the right uttered shrill stridulations and charged upon the flank of their enemies. Simultaneously, reinforcements from the city to the left flung themselves into the fighting-line near the center.
Formations broke up. The battle disintegrated into an indefinite number of lesser combats; troops or regiments fighting together often moved ahead with an appearance of invincibility, but suddenly they broke and broke again until there was only a complete confusion of unorganized single combats in which the fighters rolled over and over, struggling ferociously with mandible and claw to destroy each other. Presently the battle raged over five acres. Ten. Thousands upon thousands of black, glistening, stinking creatures tore at each other in murderous ferocity. Whining, squealing battle-cries arose and almost drowned out the deeper notes of larger but invisible creatures off in the mist.
Moran and Harper got back to the Nadine by a wide detour past warriors preoccupied with each other just before the battle reached its most savage stage. In that stage, the space-yacht was included in the battleground. Fights went on about its landing-fins. Horrifying duels could be followed by scrapings and bumpings against its hull. From the yacht's ports the fighting ants looked like infuriated machines, engaged in each other's destruction. One might see a warrior of unidentified allegiance with its own abdomen ripped open, furiously rending an enemy without regard to its own mortal wound. There were those who had literally been torn in half, so that only head and thorax remained, but they fought on no less valiantly than the rest.
At the edges of the fighting such cripples were more numerous. Ants with antenna shorn off or broken, with legs missing, utterly doomed,—they sometimes wandered forlornly beyond the fighting, the battle seemingly forgotten. But even such dazed and incapacitated casualties came upon each other. If they smelled alike, they ignored each other. Every ant-city has its particular smell which its inhabitants share. Possession of the national odor is at once a certificate of citizenship in peacetime and a uniform in war. When such victims of the battle came upon enemy walking wounded, they fought.
And the giant praying mantis remained placidly and invulnerably still. It plucked single fighters from the battle and dined upon them while they struggled, and plucked other fighters, and consumed them. It ignored the battle and the high purpose and self-sacrificing patriotism of the ants. Immune to them and disregarded by them, it fed on them while the battle raged.
Presently the gray light overhead turned faintly pink, and became a deeper tint and then crimson. In time there was darkness. The noise of battle ended. The sounds of the day diminished and ceased, and other monstrous outcries took their place.
There were bellowings in the blackness without the Nadine. There were chirpings become baritone, and senseless uproars which might be unbelievable modifications of once-shrill and once-tranquil night-sounds of other worlds. And there came a peculiar, steady, unrhythmic pattering sound. It seemed like something falling upon the blanket-like upper surface of the soil.
Moran opened the airlock door and thrust out a torch to see. Its intolerably bright glare showed the battlefield abandoned. Most of the dead and wounded had been carried away. Which, of course, was not solicitude for the wounded or reverence for the dead heroes. Dead ants, like dead centipedes, were booty of the only kind the creatures of this world could know. The dead were meat. The wounded were dead before they were carried away.
Moran peered out, with Carol looking affrightedly over his shoulder. The air seemed to shine slightly in the glare of the torch. The pattering sound was abruptly explained. Large, slow, widely-separated raindrops fell heavily and steadily from the cloud-banks overhead. Moran could see them strike. Each spot of wetness glistened briefly. Then the rain-drop was absorbed by the ground.
But there were other noises than the ceaseless tumult on the ground. There were sounds in the air; the beating of enormous wings. Moran looked up, squinting against the light. There were things moving about the black sky. Gigantic things.
Something moved, too, across the diminishingly lighted surface about the yacht. There were glitterings. Shining armor. Multi-faceted eyes. A gigantic, horny, spiked object crawled toward the torch-glare, fascinated by it. Something else dived insanely. It splashed upon the flexible white surface twenty yards away, and struggled upward and took crazily off again. It careened blindly.
It hit the yacht, a quarter-ton of night-flying beetle. The air seemed filled with flying things. There were moths with twenty-foot wings and eyes which glowed like rubies in the torch's light. There were beetles of all sizes from tiny six-inch things to monsters in whom Moran did not believe even when he saw them. All were drawn by the light which should not exist under the cloud-bank. They droned and fluttered and performed lunatic evolutions, coming always closer to the flame.
Moran cut off the torch and closed the lock-door from the inside.
"We don't load bessendium tonight," he said with some grimness. "To have no light, with what crawls about in the darkness, would be suicide. But to use lights would be worse. If you people are going to salvage the stuff in that wreck, you'll have to wait for daylight. At least then you can see what's coming after you."
They went into the yacht proper. There was no longer any question about the planet's air. If insects which were descendents of terrestrial forms could breathe it, so could men. When the first insect-eggs were brought here, the air had to be fit for them if they were to survive. It would not have changed.
Burleigh sat in the control-room with a double handful of purple crystals before him.
"This," he said when Moran and Carol reëntered, "this is bessendium past question. I've been thinking what it means."
"Money," said Moran drily. "You'll all be rich. You'll probably retire from politics."
"That wasn't exactly what I had in mind," said Burleigh distastefully. "You've gotten us into the devil of a mess, Moran!"
"For which," said Moran with ironic politeness, "there is a perfect solution. You kill me, either directly or by leaving me marooned here."
"We have to land at space-ports for supplies. We can't hope to hide you, it's required that landed ships be sterilized against infections from off-planet. We can't pass you as a normal passenger. You're not on the ship's papers and they're alteration-proof. Nobody's ever been able to change a ship's papers and not be caught! We could land and tell the truth, that you hijacked the ship and we finally overpowered you. But there are reasons against that."
"Naturally!" agreed Moran. "I'd be killed anyhow and you'd be subject to intensive investigation. And you're fugitives as much as I am."
"Just so," admitted Burleigh.
"Which leaves just one answer. You maroon me and go on your way."
Burleigh said painfully;
"There's this bessendium. If there's more—especially if there's more—we can leave you here with part of it. When we get far enough away, we charter a ship to come and get you. It'll be arranged. Somebody will be listed as of that ship's company, but he'll slip away from the space-port and not be on board at all. Then you're picked up and landed using his name."
"If," said Moran ironically, "I am alive when the ship gets here. If I'm not, the crew of the chartered ship will be in trouble, short one man on return to port. You'll have trouble getting anybody to run that risk!"
"We're trying to work out a way to save you!" insisted Burleigh angrily. "Harper would have been killed but for you. And—this bessendium will finance the underground work that will presently make a success of our revolution. We're grateful! We're trying to help you!"
"So you maroon me," said Moran. Then he said; "But you've skipped the real problem! If anything goes wrong, Carol's in it! There's no way to do anything without risk for her! That's the problem! I could kill all you characters, land somewhere on a colonized planet exactly as you landed here, and be gone from the yacht on foot before anybody could find me! But I have a slight aversion to getting a girl killed or killing her just for my own convenience. It's settled. I stay here. You can try to arrange the other business if you like. But it's a bad gamble."
Carol was very pale. Burleigh stood up.
"You said that, I didn't. But I don't think we should leave you here. Up near the ice-cap should be infinitely better for you. We'll load the rest of the bessendium tomorrow, find you a place, leave you a beacon, and go."
He went out. Carol turned a white face to Moran.
"Is that—is that the real trouble? Do you really—"
Moran looked at her stonily.
"I like to make heroic gestures," he told her. "Actually, Burleigh's a very noble sort of character himself. He proposes to leave me with treasure that he could take. Even more remarkably, he proposes to divide up what you take, instead of applying it all to further his political ideals. Most men like him would take it all for the revolution!"
Carol's expression was pure misery. Moran walked deliberately across the control-room. He glanced out of a port. A face looked in. It filled the transparent opening. It was unthinkable. It was furry. There were glistening chitinous areas. There was a proboscis like an elephant's trunk, curled horribly. The eyes were multiple and mad.
It looked in, drawn and hypnotized by the light shining out on this nightmare world from the control-room ports.
Moran touched the button that closed the shutters.
When morning came, its arrival was the exact reversal of the coming of night. In the beginning there was darkness, and in the darkness there was horror.
The creatures of the night untiringly filled the air with sound, and the sounds were discordant and gruesome and revolting. The creatures of this planet were gigantic. They should have adopted new customs appropriate to the dignity of their increased size. But they hadn't. The manners and customs of insects are immutable. They feed upon specific prey—spiders are an exception, but they are not insects at all—and they lay their eggs in specific fashion in specific places, and they behave according to instincts which are so detailed as to leave them no choice at all in their actions. They move blindly about, reacting like automata of infinite complexity which are capable of nothing not built into them from the beginning. Centuries and millenia do not change them. Travel across star-clusters leaves them with exactly the capacities for reaction that their remotest ancestors had, before men lifted off ancient Earth's green surface.
The first sign of dawn was deep, deep, deepest red in the cloud-bank no more than fifteen hundred feet overhead. The red became brighter, and presently was as brilliant as dried blood. Again presently it was crimson over all the half-mile circle that human eyes could penetrate. Later still—but briefly—it was pink. Then the sky became gray. From that color it did not change again.
Moran joined Burleigh in a survey of the landscape from the control-room. The battlefield was empty now. Of the thousands upon thousands of stinking combatants who'd rent and torn each other the evening before, there remained hardly a trace. Here and there, to be sure, a severed saw-toothed leg remained. There were perhaps as many as four relatively intact corpses not yet salvaged. But something was being done about them.
There were tiny, brightly-banded beetles hardly a foot long which labored industriously over such frayed objects. They worked agitatedly in the yeasty stuff which on this world took the place of soil. They excavated, beneath the bodies of the dead ants, hollows into which those carcasses could descend. They pushed the yeasty, curdy stuff up and around the sides of those to-be-desired objects. The dead warriors sank little by little toward oblivion as the process went on. The up-thrust, dug-out material collapsed upon them as they descended. In a very little while they would be buried where no larger carrion-eater would discover them, and then the brightly-colored sexton beetles would begin a banquet to last until only fragments of chitinous armor remained.
But Moran and Burleigh, in the Nadine's control-room, could hardly note such details.
"You saw the cargo," said Burleigh, frowning. "How's it packed? The bessendium, I mean."
"It's in small boxes too heavy to be handled easily," said Moran. "Anyhow the Malabar's crew broke some of them open to load the stuff on their lifeboats."
"The lifeboats are all gone?"
"Naturally," said Moran. "At a guess they'd have used all of them even if they didn't need them for the crew. They could carry extra food and weapons and such."
"How much bessendium is left?"
"Probably twenty boxes unopened," said Moran. "I can't guess at the weight, but it's a lot. They opened six boxes." He paused. "I have a suggestion."
"When you've supplied yourselves," said Moran, "leave some space-port somewhere with papers saying you're going to hunt for minerals on some plausible planet. You can get such a clearance. Then you can return with bessendium coming out of the Nadine's waste-pipes and people will be surprised but not suspicious. You'll file for mineral rights, and cash your cargo. Everybody will get busy trying to grab off the mineral rights for themselves. You can clear out and let them try to find the bessendium lode. You'll be allowed to go, all right, and you can settle down somewhere rich and highly respected."
"Hmmm," said Burleigh. Then he said uncomfortably; "One wonders about the original owners of the stuff."
"After a hundred and fifty years," said Moran, "who'd you divide with? The insurance company that paid for the lost ship? The heirs of the crew? How'd you find them?" Then he added amusedly, "Only revolutionists and enemies of governments would be honest enough to worry about that!"
Brawn came into the control-room. He said broodingly that breakfast was ready. Moran had never heard him speak in a normally cheerful voice. When he went out, Moran said;
"I don't suppose he'll be so gloomy when he's rich!"
"His family was wiped out," said Burleigh curtly, "by the government we were fighting. The girl he was going to marry, too."
"Then I take back what I said," said Moran ruefully.
They went down to breakfast. Carol served it. She did not look well. Her eyes seemed to show that she'd been crying. But she treated Moran exactly like anyone else. Harper was very quiet, too. He took very seriously the fact that Moran had saved his life at the risk of his on the day before. Brawn breakfasted in a subdued, moody fashion. Only Hallet seemed to have reacted to the discovery of a salvageable shipment of bessendium that should make everybody rich,—everybody but Moran, who was ultimately responsible for the find.
"Burleigh," said Hallet expansively, "says the stuff you brought back from the wreck is worth fifty thousand credits, at least. What's the whole shipment worth?"
"I've no idea," said Moran. "It would certainly pay for a fleet of space-liners, and I'd give all of it for a ticket on one of them."
"But how much is there in bulk?" insisted Hallet.
"I saw that half a dozen boxes had been broken open and emptied for the lifeboat voyagers," Moran told him. "I didn't count the balance, but there were several times as many untouched. If they're all full of the same stuff, you can guess almost any sum you please."
"Millions, eh?" said Hallet. His eyes glistened. "Billions? Plenty for everybody?"
"There's never plenty for more than one," said Moran mildly. "That's the way we seem to be made."
Burleigh said suddenly;
"I'm worried about getting the stuff aboard. We can't afford to lose anybody, and if we have to fight the creatures here and every time we kill one its carcass draws others."
Moran took a piece of bread. He said;
"I've been thinking about survival-tactics for myself as a castaway. I think a torch is the answer. In any emergency on the yeast surface, I can burn a hole and drop down in it. The monsters are stupid. In most cases they'll go away because they stop seeing me. In the others, they'll come to the hole and I'll burn them. It won't be pleasant, but it may be practical."
Burleigh considered it.
"It may be," he admitted. "It may be."
"I want to see that work before I trust the idea."
"Somebody has to try it," agreed Moran. "Anyhow my life's going to depend on it."
Carol left the room. Moran looked after her as the door closed.
"She doesn't like the idea of our leaving you behind," said Burleigh. "None of us do."
"We'll try to get a ship to come for you, quickly," said Burleigh.
"I'm sure you will," said Moran politely.
But he was not confident. The laws governing space-travel were very strict indeed, and enforced with all the rigor possible. On their enforcement, indeed, depended the law and order of the planets. Criminals had to know that they could not escape to space whenever matters got too hot for them aground. For a spaceman to trifle with interstellar-traffic laws meant at the least that they were grounded for life. But the probabilities were much worse than that. It was most likely that Burleigh or any of the others would be reported to space-port police instantly they attempted to charter a ship for any kind of illegal activity. Moran made a mental note to warn Burleigh about it.
By now, though, he was aware of a very deep irritation at the idea of being killed, whether by monsters on this planet or men sent to pick him up for due process of law. When he made the grand gesture of seizing the Nadine, he'd known nothing about the people on board, and he hadn't really expected to succeed. His real hope was to be killed without preliminary scientific questioning. Modern techniques of interrogation were not torture, but they stripped away all concealments of motive and to a great degree revealed anybody who'd helped one. Moran had killed a man in a fair fight the other man did not want to engage in. If he were caught on Coryus or returned to it, his motivation could be read from his mind. And if that was done the killing—and the sacrifice of his own future and life—would have been useless. But he'd been prepared to be killed. Even now he'd prefer to die here on Tethys than in the strictly painless manner of executions on Coryus. But he was now deeply resistant to the idea of dying at all. There was Carol....
He thrust such thoughts aside.
Morning was well begun when they prepared to transfer the wreck's treasure to the Nadine. Moran went first. At fifteen-foot intervals he burned holes in the curd-like, elastic ground-cover. Some of the holes went down only four feet to the stone beneath it. Some went down six. But a man who jumped down one of them would be safe against attack except from directly overhead, which was an unlikely direction for attack by an insect. Carol had seen a wasp fly past the day before. She said it was as big as a cow. A sting from such a monster would instantly be fatal. But no wasp would have the intelligence to use its sting on something it had not seized. A man should be safe in such a fox-hole. If a creature did try to investigate the opening, a torch could come into play. It was the most practical possible way for a man to defend himself on this world.
Moran made more than a dozen such holes of refuge in the line between the Nadine and the wreck. Carol watched with passionate solicitude from a control-room port as he progressed. He entered the wreck through the lock-doors he'd uncovered. Harper followed doggedly, not less than two fox-holes behind. Carol's voice reassured them, the while, that within the half-mile circle of visibility no monster walked or flew.
Inside the wreck, Moran placed emergency-lanterns to light the dark interior. He placed them along the particularly inconvenient passageways of a ship lying on its side instead of standing upright. He was at work breaking open a box of bessendium when Harper joined him. Harper said heavily;
"I've brought a bag. It was a pillow. Carol took the foam out."
"We'll fill it," said Moran. "Not too full. The stuff's heavy."
Harper watched while Moran poured purple crystals into it from his cupped hands.
"There you are," said Moran. "Take it away."
"Look!" said Harper. "I owe you plenty—."
"Then pay me," said Moran, exasperatedly, "by shutting up! By making Burleigh damned careful about who he tries to hire to come after me! And by getting this cargo-shifting business in operation! The Nadine's almost due on Loris. You don't want to have the space-port police get suspicions. Get moving!"
Harper clambered over the side of doorways. He disappeared. Moran was alone in the ship. He explored. He found that the crew that had abandoned the Malabar had been guilty of a singular oversight for a crew abandoning ship. But, of course, they'd been distracted not only by their predicament but by the decision to carry part of the ship's precious cargo with them, so they could make it a profitable enterprise to rescue them. They hadn't taken the trouble to follow all the rules laid down for a crew taking to the boats.
Moran made good their omission. He was back in the cargo-hold when Brawn arrived. Burleigh came next. Then Harper again. Hallet came last of the four men of the yacht. They did not make a continuous chain of men moving back and forth between the two ships. Three men came, and loaded up, and went back. Then three men came again, one by one. There could never be a moment when a single refuge-hole in the soil could be needed by two men at the same time.
Within the first hour of work at transferring treasure, the bolt-holes came into use. Carol called anxiously that a gigantic beetle neared the ship and would apparently pass between it and the yacht. At the time, Brawn and Harper were moving from the Malabar toward the Nadine, and Hallet was about to leave the wreck's lock.
He watched with wide eyes. The beetle was truly a monster, the size of a hippopotamus as pictured in the culture-books about early human history. Its jaws, pronged like antlers, projected two yards before its huge, faceted eyes. It seemed to drag itself effortfully over the elastic surface of the ground. It passed a place where red, foleated fungus grew in a fantastic absence of pattern on the surface of the ground. It went through a streak of dusty-blue mould, which it stirred into a cloud of spores as it passed. It crawled on and on. Harper popped down into the nearest bolt-hole, his torch held ready. Brawn stood beside another refuge, sixty feet away.
Carol's voice came to their helmet-phones, anxious and exact. Hallet, in the lock-door, heard her tell Harper that the beetle would pass very close to him and to stay still. It moved on and on. It would be very close indeed. Carol gasped in horror.
The monster passed partly over the hole in which Harper crouched. One of its clawed feet slipped down into the opening. But the beetle went on, unaware of Harper. It crawled toward the encircling mist upon some errand of its own. It was mindless. It was like a complex and highly decorated piece of machinery which did what it was wound up to do, and nothing else.
Harper came out of the bolt-hole when Carol, her voice shaky with relief, told him it was safe. He went doggedly on to the Nadine, carrying his bag of purple crystals. Brawn followed, moodily.
Hallet, with a singularly exultant look upon his face, ventured out of the airlock and moved across the fungoid world. He carried a king's ransom to be added to the riches already transferred to the yacht.
Moving the bessendium was a tedious task. One plastic box in the cargo-hold held a quantity of crystals that three men took two trips each to carry. In mid-morning the bag in Hallet's hand seemed to slip just when Moran completed filling it. It toppled and spilled half its contents on the cargo-hold floor, which had been a sidewall. He began painstakingly to gather up the precious stuff and get it back in the bag. The others went on to the Nadine. Hallet turned off his helmet-phone and gestured to Moran to remove his helmet. Moran, his eyebrows raised, obeyed the suggestion.
"How anxious," asked Hallet abruptly, gathering up the dropped crystals, "how anxious are you to be left behind here?"
"I'm not anxious at all," said Moran.
"Would you like to make a deal to go along when the Nadine lifts?—If there's a way to get past the space-port police?"
"Probably," said Moran. "Certainly! But there's no way to do it."
"There is," said Hallet. "I know it. Is it a deal?"
"What is the deal?"
"You do as I say," said Hallet significantly. "Just as I say! Then ..."
The lock-door opened, some distance away. Hallet stood up and said in a commanding tone;
"Keep your mouth shut. I'll tell you what to do and when."
He put on his helmet and turned on the phone once more. He went toward the lock-door. Moran heard him exchange words with Harper and Brawn, back with empty bags to fill with crystals worth many times the price of diamonds. But diamonds were made in half-ton lots, nowadays.
Moran followed their bags. He was frowning. As Harper was about to follow Brawn, Moran almost duplicated Hallet's gestures to have him remove his helmet.
"I want Burleigh to come next trip," he told Harper, "and make some excuse to stay behind a moment and talk to me without the helmet-phones picking up everything I say to him. Understand?"
Harper nodded. But Burleigh did not come on the next trip. It was not until near midday that he came to carry a load of treasure to the yacht.
When he did come, though, he took off his helmet and turned off the phone without the need of a suggestion.
"I've been arranging storage for this stuff," he said. "I've opened plates between the hulls to dump it in. I've told Carol, too, that we've got to do a perfect job of cleaning up. There must be no stray crystals on the floor."
"Better search the bunks, too," said Moran drily, "so nobody will put aside a particularly pretty crystal to gloat over. Listen!"
He told Burleigh exactly what Hallet had said and what he'd answered. Burleigh looked acutely unhappy.
"Hallet isn't dedicated like the rest of us were," he said distressedly. "We brought him along partly out of fear that if he were captured he'd break down and reveal what he knows of the Underground we led, and much of which we had to leave behind. But I'll be able to finance a real revolt, now!"
Moran regarded him with irony. Burleigh was a capable man and a conscientious one. It would be very easy to trust him, and it is all-important to an Underground that its leaders be trusted. But it is also important that they be capable of flint-like hardness on occasion. To Moran, it seemed that Burleigh had not quite the adamantine resolution required for leadership in a conspiracy which was to become a successful revolt. He was—and to Moran it seemed regrettable—capable of the virtue of charity.
"I've told you," he said evenly. "Maybe you'll think it's a scheme on my part to get Hallet dumped and myself elected to take his identity. But what happens from now on is your business. Beginning this moment, I'm taking care of my own skin. I've gotten reconciled to the idea of dying, but I'd hate for it not to do anybody any good."
"Carol," said Burleigh unhappily, "is much distressed."
"That's very kind," said Moran sarcastically. "Now take your bag of stuff and get going."
Burleigh obeyed. Moran went back to the business of breaking open the strong plastic boxes of bessendium so their contents could be carried in forty-pound lots to the Nadine.
Thinking of Carol, he did not like the way things seemed to be going. Since the discovery of the bessendium, Hallet had been developing ideas. They did not look as if they meant good fortune for Moran without corresponding bad fortune for the others. Obviously, Moran couldn't be hidden on the Nadine during the space-port sterilization of the ship which prevented plagues from being carried from world to world. Hallet could have no reason to promise such a thing. Before landing here, he'd urged that Moran simply be dumped out the airlock. This proposal to save his life....
Moran considered the situation grimly while the business of ferrying treasure to the yacht went on almost monotonously. It had stopped once during the forenoon while a giant beetle went by. Later, it stopped again because a gigantic flying thing hovered overhead. Carol did not know what it was, but its bulging abdomen ended in an organ which appeared to be a sting. It was plainly hunting. There was no point in fighting it. Presently it went away, and just before it disappeared in the circular wall of mist it dived headlong to the ground. A little later it rose slowly into the air, carrying something almost as large as itself. It went away into the mist.
Again, once a green-and-yellow caterpillar marched past upon some mysterious enterprise. It was covered with incredibly long fur, and it moved with an undulating motion of all its segments, one after another. It seemed well over ten yards in length, and its body appeared impossibly massive. But a large part of the bulk would be the two-foot-long or longer hairs which stuck out stiffly in all directions. It, too, went away.
But continually and constantly there was a bedlam of noises. From underneath the yielding skin of the yeast-ground, there came clickings. Sometimes there were quiverings of the surface as if it were alive, but they would be the activities of ten and twelve-inch beetles who lived in subterranean tunnels in it. There were those preposterous noises like someone rattling a stick along a picket fence—only deafening—and there were baritone chirpings and deep bass boomings from somewhere far away. Moran guessed that the last might be frogs, but if so they were vastly larger than men.
Shortly after what was probably midday, Moran brushed off his hands. The bessendium part of the cargo of the wrecked Malabar had been salvaged. It was hidden between the twin hulls of the yacht. Moran had, quite privately, attended to a matter the wreck's long-dead crew should have done when they left it. Now, in theory, the Nadine should lift off and take Moran to some hastily scouted spot not too far from the ice-cap. It should leave him there with what food could be spared, and the kit of seeds that might feed him after it was gone, and weapons that might but probably wouldn't enable him to defend himself, and with a radio-beacon to try to have hope in. Then,—that would be that.
"Calling," said Moran sardonically into his helmet-phone. "Everything's cleaned up here. What next?"
"You can come along," said Hallet's voice from the ship. It was shivery. It was gleeful. "Just in time for lunch!"
Moran went along the disoriented passages of the Malabar to the lock. He turned off the beacon that had tried uselessly during six human generations to call for help for men now long dead. He went out the lock and closed it behind him. It was not likely that this planet would ever become a home for men. If there were some strangeness in its constitution that made the descendents of insects placed upon it grow to be giants, humans would not want to settle on it. And there were plenty of much more suitable worlds. So the wrecked space-ship would lie here, under deeper and ever deeper accumulations of the noisesome stuff that passed for soil. Perhaps millenia from now, the sturdy, resistant metal of the hull would finally rust through, and then—nothing. No man in all time to come would ever see the Malabar again.
Shrugging, he went toward the Nadine. He walked through bedlam. He could see a quarter-mile in one direction, and a quarter-mile in another. He could not see more than a little distance upward. The Nadine had landed upon a world with tens of millions of square miles of surface, and nobody had moved more than a hundred yards from its landing-place, and now it would leave and all wonders and all horrors outside this one quarter of a square mile would remain unknown....
He went to the airlock and shed his suit. He opened the inner door. Hallet waited for him.
"Everybody's at lunch," he said. "We'll join them."
Moran eyed him sharply. Hallet grinned widely.
"We're going to take off to find a place for you as soon as we've eaten," he said.
There was mockery in the tone. It occurred abruptly to Moran that Hallet was the kind of person who might, to be sure, plan complete disloyalty to his companions for his own benefit. But he might also enjoy betrayal for its own sake. He might, for example, find it amusing to make a man under sentence of death or marooning believe that he would escape, so Hallet could have the purely malicious pleasure of disappointing him. He might look for Moran to break when he learned that he was to die here after all.
Moran clamped his lips tightly. Carol would be better off if that was the answer. He went toward the yacht's mess-room. Hallet followed close behind. Moran pushed the door aside and entered. Burleigh and Harper and Brawn looked at him, Carol raised her eyes. They glistened with tears.
Hallet said gleefully;
Standing behind Moran, he thrust a hand-blaster past Moran's body and pulled the trigger. He held the trigger down for continuous fire as he traversed the weapon to wipe out everybody but Moran and himself.
Moran responded instantly. His hands flew to Hallet's throat, blind fury making him unaware of any thought but a frantic lust to kill. It was very strange that Moran somehow noticed Hallet's hand insanely pulling the trigger of the blast-pistol over and over and over without result. He remembered it later. Perhaps he shared Hallet's blank disbelief that one could pull the trigger of a blaster and have nothing at all happen in consequence. But nothing did happen, and suddenly he dropped the weapon and clawed desperately at Moran's fingers about his throat. But that was too late.
There was singularly little disturbance at the luncheon-table. The whole event was climax and anticlimax together. Hallet's intention was so appallingly murderous and his action so shockingly futile that the four who were to have been his victims tended to stare blankly while Moran throttled him.
Burleigh seemed to recover first. He tried to pull Moran's hands loose from Hallet's throat. Lacking success he called to the others. "Harper! Brawn! Help me!"
It took all three of them to release Hallet. Then Moran stood panting, shaking, his eyes like flames.
"He—he—" panted Moran. "He was going to kill Carol!"
"I know," said Burleigh, distressedly. "He was going to kill all of us. You gave me an inkling, so while he was packing bessendium between the hulls, and had his space-suit hanging in the airlock, I doctored the blaster in the space-suit pocket." He looked down at Hallet. "Is he still alive?"
Brawn bent over Hallet. He nodded.
"Put him in the airlock for the time being," said Burleigh. "And lock it. When he comes to, we'll decide what to do."
Harper and Brawn took Hallet by the arms and hauled him along the passageway. The inner door of the lock clanged shut on him.
"We'll give him a hearing, of course," said Burleigh conscientiously. "But we should survey the situation first."
To Moran the situation required no survey, but he viewed it from a violently personal viewpoint which would neither require or allow discussion. He knew what he meant to do about Hallet. He said harshly;
"Go ahead. When you're through I'll tell you what will be done."
He went away. To the control-room. There he paced up and down, trying to beat back the fury which rose afresh at intervals of less than minutes. He did not think of his own situation, just then. There are more important things than survival.
He struggled for coolness, with the action before him known. He didn't glance out the ports at the half-mile circle in which vision was possible. Beyond the mist there might be anything; an ocean, swarming metropoli of giant insects, a mountain-range. Nobody on the Nadine had explored. But Moran did not think of such matters now. Hallet had tried to murder Carol, and Moran meant to take action, and there were matters which might result from it. The matter the crew of the Malabar had forgotten to attend to—.
He searched for paper and a pen. He found both in a drawer for the yacht's hand-written log. He wrote. He placed a small object in the drawer. He had barely closed it when Carol was at the control-room door. She said in a small voice;
"They want to talk to you."
He held up the paper.
"Read this later. Not now," he said curtly. He opened and closed the drawer again, this time putting the paper in it. "I want you to read this after the Hallet business is settled. I'm afraid that I'm not going to look well in your eyes."
She swallowed and did not speak. He went to where the others sat in official council. Burleigh said heavily;
"We've come to a decision. We shall call Hallet and hear what he has to say, but we had to consider various courses of action and decide which were possible and which were not."
Moran nodded grimly. He had made his own decision. It was not too much unlike the one that, carried out, had made him seize the Nadine for escape from Coryus. But he'd listen. Harper looked doggedly resolved. Brawn seemed moody as usual.
"I'm listening," said Moran.
"Hallet," said Burleigh regretfully, "intended to murder all of us and with your help take the Nadine to some place where he could hope to land without space-port inspection."
"He didn't discuss that part of his plans. He only asked if I'd make a deal to escape being marooned."
"Yes," said Burleigh, nodding. "I'm sure—"
"My own idea," said Moran, "when I tried to seize the Nadine, was to try to reach one of several newly-settled planets where things aren't too well organized. I'd memos of some such planets. I hoped to get to ground somewhere in a wilderness on one of them and work my way on foot to a new settlement. There I'd explain that I'd been hunting or prospecting or something of the sort. On a settled planet that would be impossible. On a brand-new one people are less fussy and I might have been accepted quite casually."
"Hallet may have had some such idea in his mind," agreed Burleigh. "With a few bessendium crystals to show, he would seem a successful prospector. He'd be envied but not suspected. To be sure!"
"But," said Moran drily, "he'd be best off alone. So if he had that sort of idea, he intended to murder me too."
Burleigh nodded. "Undoubtedly. But to come to our decision. We can keep him on board under watch—as we did you—and leave you here. This has disadvantages. We owe you much. There would be risk of his taking someone unawares and fighting for his life. Even if all went as we wished, and we landed and dispersed, he could inform the space-port officials anonymously of what had happened, leading to investigation and the ruin of any plans for the future revival of our underground. Also, it would destroy any hope for your rescue."
Moran smiled wryly. He hadn't much hope of that, if he were marooned.
"We could leave him here," said Burleigh unhappily, "with you taking his identity for purposes of landing. But I do not think it would be wise to send a ship after him. He would be resentful. If rescued, he would do everything possible to spoil all our future lives, and we are fugitives."
"Ah, yes!" said Moran, still more wryly amused.
"I am afraid," said Burleigh reluctantly, "that we can only offer him his choice of being marooned or going out the airlock. I cannot think of any other alternative."
"I can," said Moran. "I'm going to kill him."
Burleigh blinked. Harper looked up sharply.
"We fight," said Moran grimly. "Armed exactly alike. He can try to kill me. I'll give him the same chance I have. But I'll kill him. They used to call it a duel, and they came to consider it a very immoral business. But that's beside the point. I won't agree to marooning him here. That's murder. I won't agree to throwing him out the airlock. That's murder, too. But I have the right to kill him if it's in fair fight. That's justice! You can bring him in and let him decide if he wants to be marooned or fight me. I think he's just raging enough to want to do all the damage he can, now that his plans have gone sour."
Burleigh fidgeted. He looked at Harper. Harper nodded grudgingly. He looked at Brawn. Brawn nodded moodily.
Burleigh said fretfully. "Very well ... Harper, you and Brawn bring him here. We'll see what he says. Be careful!"
Harper and Brawn went down the passageway. Moran saw them take out the blasters they'd worn since he took over the ship. They were ready. They unlocked and opened the inner airlock door.
There was silence. Harper looked shocked. He went in the airlock while Brawn stared, for once startled out of moodiness.
Harper came out.
"He's gone," he said in a flat voice. "Out the airlock."
All the rest went instantly to look. The airlock was empty. By the most natural and inevitable of oversights, when Hallet was put in it for a temporary cell, no one had thought of locking the outer door. There was no point in it. It only led out to the nightmare world. And out there Hallet would be in monstrous danger; he'd have no food. At most his only weapon would be the torch Moran had carried to the Malabar and brought back again. He could have no hope of any kind. He could feel only despair unthinkable and horror undiluted.
There was a buzzing sound in the airlock. A space-suit hung there. The helmet-phone was turned on. Hallet's voice came out, flat and metallic and desperate and filled with hate:
"What're you going to do now? You'd better think of a bargain to offer me! You can't lift off! I took the fuel-block so Moran couldn't afford to kill me after the rest of you were dead. You can't lift off the ground! Now give me a guarantee I can believe in or you stay here with me!"
Harper bolted for the engine-room. He came back, his face ashen. "He's right. It's gone. He took it."
Moran stirred. Burleigh wrung his hands. Moran reached down the space-suit from whose helmet the voice came tinnily. He began to put it on. Carol opened her lips to speak, and he covered the microphone with his palm.
"I'm going to go out and kill him," said Moran very quietly. "Somebody else had better come along just in case. But you can't make a bargain with him. He can't believe in any promise, because he wouldn't keep any."
Harper went away again. He came back, struggling into a space-suit. Brawn moved quickly. Burleigh suddenly stirred and went for a suit.
"We want torches," said Moran evenly, "for our own safety, and blasters because they'll drop Hallet. Carol, you monitor what goes on. When we need to come back, you can use the direction-finder and talk us back to the yacht."
"What are you going to do?" rasped the voice shrilly. "You've got to make a bargain! I've got the fuel-block! You can't lift off without the fuel-block! You've got to make a deal."
The other men came back. With the microphone still muffled by his hand, Moran said sharply, "He has to keep talking until we answer, but he won't know we're on his trail until we do. We keep quiet when we get the helmets on. Understand?" Then he said evenly to Carol. "Look at that paper I showed you if—if anything happens. Don't forget! Ready?"
Carol's hands were clenched. She was terribly pale. She tried to speak, and could not. Moran, with the microphone still covered by the palm of his hand, repeated urgently;
"Remember, no talking! He'll pick up anything we say. Use gestures. Let's go!"
He swung out of the airlock. The others followed. The one certain thing about the direction Hallet would have taken was that it must be away from the wreck. And he'd have been in a panic to get out of sight from the yacht.
Moran saw his starting-point at once. Landing, the Nadine had used rockets for easing to ground because it is not possible to make delicate adjustments of interplanetary drive. A take-off, yes. But to land even at a space-port one uses rockets to cushion what otherwise might be a sharp impact. The Nadine's rockets had burned away the yeasty soil when she came to ground. There was a burnt-away depression down to bed-rock in the stuff all around her. But Hallet had broken the scorched, crusty edge of the hollow as he climbed up to the blanket-like surface-skin.
Moran led the way after him. He moved with confidence. The springy, sickeningly uncertain stuff underfoot was basically white-that-had-been-soiled. Between the Nadine's landing-spot and the now-gutted wreck, it happened that only that one color showed. But, scattered at random in other places, there were patches of red mould and blue mould and black dusty rust and greenish surface-fungi. Twenty yards from the depression in which the Nadine lay, Hallet's footprints were clearly marked in a patch of orange-yellow ground-cover which gave off impalpable yellow spores when touched. Moran gestured for attention and pointed out the trail. He gestured again for the others to spread out.
Hallet's voice came again. He'd left the Nadine's lock because he could make no bargain for his life while in the hands of his companions. He could only bargain for his life if they could not find him or the precious fuel-block without which the Nadine must remain here forever. But from the beginning he knew such terror that he could not contrive, himself, a bargain that could possibly be made.
He chattered agitatedly, not yet sure that his escape had been discovered. At times he seemed almost hysterical. Moran and the others could hear him pant, sometimes, as a fancied movement aroused his panic. Once they heard the noise of his torch as he burned a safety-hole in the ground. But he did not use it. He hastened on. He talked desperately. Sometimes he boasted, and sometimes he tried cunningly to be reasonable. But he hadn't been prepared for the absolute failure of what should have been the simplest and surest form of multiple murder. Now in a last ditch stand, he hysterically abused them for taking so long to realize that they had to make a deal.
His four pursuers went grimly over the elastic surface of this world upon his trail. The Nadine faded into the mist. Off to the right a clump of toadstools grew. They were taller than any of the men, and their pulpy stalks were more than a foot thick. Hallet's trail in the colored surface-moulds went on. The giant toadstools were left behind. The trail led straight toward an enormous object the height of a three-storey house. When first glimpsed through the mist, it looked artificial. But as they drew near they saw that it was a cabbage; gigantic, with leaves impossibly huge and thick. There was a spike in its middle on which grew cruciform faded flowers four feet across.
Then Hallet screamed. They heard it in their helmet-phones. He screamed again. Then for a space he was silent, gasping, and then he uttered shrieks of pure horror. But they were cries of horror, not of pain.
Moran found himself running, which was probably ridiculous. The others hastened after him. And suddenly the mistiness ahead took on a new appearance. The ground fell away. It became evident that the Nadine had landed upon a plateau with levels below it and very possibly mountains rising above. But here the slightly rolling plateau fell sheer away. There was a place where the yeasty soil—but here it was tinted with a purplish overcast of foleate fungus—where the soil had given way. Something had fallen, here.
It would have been Hallet. He'd gone too close to a precipice, moving agitatedly in search of a hiding-place in which to conceal himself until the people of the Nadine made a deal he could no longer believe in.
His cries still came over the helmet-phones. Moran went grimly to look. He found himself gazing down into a crossvalley perhaps two hundred feet deep. At the bottom there was the incredible, green growing things. But they were not trees. They were some flabby weed with thick reddish stalks and enormous pinnate leaves. It grew here to the height of oaks. But Hallet had not dropped so far.
From anchorages on bare rock, great glistening cables reached downward to other anchorages on the valley floor. The cables crossed each other with highly artificial precision at a central point. They formed the foundation for a web of geometrically accurate design and unthinkable size. Crosscables of sticky stuff went round and round the center of the enormous snare, following a logarithmic spiral with absolute exactitude. It was a spider's web whose cables stretched hundreds of feet; whose bird-limed ropes would trap and hold even the monster insects of this world. And Hallet was caught in it.
He'd tumbled from the cliff-edge as fungoid soil gave way under him. He'd bounced against a sloping, fungus-covered rocky wall and with fragments of curdy stuff about him had been flung out and into the snare. He was caught as firmly as any of the other creatures on which the snare's owner fed.
His shrieks of horror began when he realized his situation. He struggled, setting up insane vibrations in the fabric of the web. He shrieked again, trying to break the bonds of cordage that clung the more horribly as he struggled to break free. And the struggling was most unwise.
"We want to cut the cables with torches," said Moran sharply. "If we can make the web drop we'll be all right. Webspiders don't hunt on the ground. Go ahead! Make it fast!"
Burleigh and the others hastened to what looked like a nearly practicable place by which to descend. Moran moved swiftly to where one cable of the web was made fast at the top. It was simple sanity to break down the web—by degrees, of course—to get at Hallet. But Hallet did not cooperate. He writhed and struggled and shrieked.
His outcry, of course, counted for nothing in the satanic cacophony that filled the air. All the monsters of all the planet seemed to make discordant noises. Hallet could add nothing. But his struggles in the web had meaning to the owner of the trap.
They sent tiny tremblings down the web-cables. And this was the fine mathematical creation of what was quaintly called a "garden spider" on other worlds. Epeira fasciata. She was not in it. She sat sluggishly in a sheltered place, remote from her snare. But a line, a cord, a signal-cable went from the center of the web to the spider's retreat. She waited with implacable patience, one foreleg—sheathed in ragged and somehow revolting fur—resting delicately upon the line. Hallet's frantic struggles shook the web. Faintly, to be sure, but distinctively. The vibrations were wholly unlike the violent, thrashing struggles of a heavy beetle or a giant cricket. They were equally unlike those flirtatious, seductive pluckings of a web-cable which would mean that an amorous male of her own species sought the grisly creature's affection.
Hallet made the web quiver as small prey would shake it. The spider would have responded instantly to bigger game, if only to secure it before the vast snare was damaged by frenzied plungings. Still, though there was no haste, the giant rose and in leisurely fashion traversed the long cable to the web's center. Moran saw it.
"Hallet!" he barked into his helmet-phone, "Hallet! Hold still! Don't move!"
He raced desperately along the edge of the cliff, risking a fall more immediately fatal than Hallet's. It was idiotic to make such an attempt at rescue. It was sheer folly. But there are instincts one has to obey against all reason. Moran did not think of the fuel-block. Typically, Hallet did.
"I've got the fuel-block," he gasped between screams. "If you don't help me—"
But then the main cable nearest him moved in a manner not the result of his own struggles. It was the enormous weight of the owner of the web, moving leisurely on her own snare, which made the web shake now. And Hallet lost even the coherence of hysteria and simply shrieked.
Moran came to a place where a main anchor-cable reached bed-rock. It ran under yeasty ground-cover to an anchorage. He thrust his torch deep, feeling for the cable. It seared through. The web jerked wildly as one of its principal supports parted. The giant spider turned aside to investigate the event. Such a thing should happen only when one of the most enormous of possible victims became entangled.
Moran went racing for another cable-anchorage. But when he found where the strong line fastened, it was simply and starkly impossible to climb down to it. He swore and looked desperately for Burleigh and Brawn and Harper. They were far away, hurrying to descend but not yet where they could bring the web toppling down by cutting other cables.
The yellow-banded monster came to the cut end of the line. It swung down. It climbed up again. Hallet shrieked and kicked.
The spider moved toward him. Of all nightmarish creatures on this nightmare of a planet, a giant spider with a body eight feet long and legs to span as many yards was most revolting. Its abdomen was obscenely swollen. As it moved, its spinnerets paid out newly-formed cord behind it. Its eyes were monstrous and murderously intent. The ghastly, needle-sharp mandibles beside its mouth seemed to move lustfully with a life of their own. And it was somehow ten times more horrible because of its beastly fur. Tufts of black hairiness, half-yards in length, streamed out as its legs moved.
There was another cable still. Moran made for it. He reached it where it stretched down like a slanting tight-rope. He jerked out his torch to sever it,—and saw that to cut it would be to drop the spider almost upon Hallet. It would seize him then because of his writhings. But not to cut it—
He tried his blaster. He fired again and again. The blaster-bolts hurt. The spider reacted with fury. The blaster would have killed a man at this distance, though it would have been ignored by a chitin-armored beetle. But against the spider the bolts were like bites. They made small wounds, but not serious ones. The spider made a bubbling sound which was more daunting than any cry would have been. It flung its legs about, fumbling for the thing that it believed attacked it. It continued the bubbling sounds. Its mandibles clashed and gnashed against each other. They were small noises in the din which was the norm on this mad world, but they were more horrible than any other sounds Moran had ever heard.
The spider suddenly began to move purposefully toward the spot where Hallet jerked insanely and shrieked in heart-rending horror.
Moran found himself attempting the impossible. He knew it was impossible. The blast-pistol hurt but did not injure the giant because the range was too long. So—it was totally unjustifiable—he found himself slung below the downward-slanting cable and sliding down its slope. He was going to where the range would be short enough for his blast-pistol to be effective. He slid to a cross-cable, and avoided it and went on.
Burleigh and Brawn and Harper were tiny figures, very far away. Moran hung by one hand and used his free hand to fire the blaster once more. It hurt more seriously, now. The spider made bubbling noises of infinite ferocity. And it moved with incredible agility toward the one object it could imagine as meaning attack.
It reached Hallet. It seized him.
Moran's blast-pistol could not kill it. It had to be killed. Now! He drew out his torch and pressed the continuous-flame stud. Raging, he threw it at the spider.
It spun in the air, a strange blue-white pinwheel in the gray light of this planet's day. It cut through a cable that might have deflected it. It reached the spider, now reared high and pulling Hallet from the sticky stuff that had captured him.
The spinning torch hit. The flame burned deep. The torch actually sank into the spider's body.
And there was a titanic flame and an incredible blast and Moran knew nothing.
A long time later he knew that he ached. He became aware that he hurt. Still later he realized that Burleigh and Brawn and Harper stood around him. He'd splashed in some enormous thickness of the yeasty soil, grown and fallen from the cliff-edge, and it was not solid enough to break his bones. Harper, doubtless, had been most resolute in digging down to him and pulling him out.
He sat up, and growled at innumerable unpleasant sensations.
"That," he said painfully, "was a very bad business."
"It's all bad business," said Burleigh in a flat and somehow exhausted tone. "The fuel-block burned. There's nothing left of it or Hallet or the spider."
Moran moved an arm. A leg. The other arm and leg. He got unsteadily to his feet.
"It was bessendium and uranium," added Burleigh hopelessly. "And the uranium burned. It wasn't an atomic explosion, it just burned like sodium or potassium would do. But it burned fast! The torch-flame must have reached it." He added absurdly. "Hallet died instantly, of course. Which is better fortune than we are likely to have."
"Oh, that ..." said Moran. "We're all right. I said I was going to kill him. I wasn't trying to at the moment, but I did. By accident." He paused, and said dizzily; "I think he should feel obliged to me. I was distinctly charitable to him!"
Harper said grimly;
"But we can't lift off. We're all marooned here now."
Moran took an experimental step. He hurt, but he was sound.
"Nonsense!" he said. "The crew of the Malabar went off without taking the fuel-block from the wreck's engines. It's in a drawer in the Nadine's control-room with a note to Carol that I asked her to read should something happen to me. We may have to machine it a little to make it fit the Nadine's engines. But we're all right!"
Carol's voice came in his helmet-phone. It was shaky and desperately glad.
"You're—all right? Quite all right? Please hurry back?"
"We're on the way," said Moran.
He was pleased with Carol's reaction. He also realized that now there would be the right number of people on the Nadine; they would take off from this world and arrive reasonably near due-time at Loris without arousing the curiosity of space-port officials.
He looked about him. The way the others had come down was a perfectly good way to climb up again. On the surface, above, their trail would be clear on the multi-colored surface rusts. There were four men together, all with blast-pistols and three with torches. They should be safe.
Moran talked cheerfully, climbing to the plateau on which the Nadine had landed, trudging with the others across a world on which it was impossible to see more than a quarter-mile in any direction. But the way was plain. Beyond the mist Carol waited.