We hurried up to the building of blue cylinders and carefully hid the gun and ammunition, as well as a sun compass, a pair of prism binoculars, and a few other articles Ray had recovered.
In a few minutes Mildred, having seen Ray's return, finished her song and ran up to join us. We arranged our packs, and waited the next call of the throbbing brazen gong to make the attempt for freedom.
We slept twice again before the clang of the great gong. Ray and Mildred were always together; I could not see that they were at all impatient.
The bell note came, the awful brazen vibration of it ringing on the black cavern roof. It came when we were eating, in the liquid turquoise radiance of the lofty cylinder. We sprang out. Ray gave his last directions to Mildred.
"Give us time to get to the top of the cliff by the shining fall. Then swim ashore and run. They may not notice. And if they do, we give 'em a taste of lead!"
I was not very much surprised when he took the girl in his arms and put a burning kiss on her red lips. She gasped, but her struggles subsided very quickly; she clung to him as he freed her.
She paused a moment in the door, before she ran down across the beach. A radiant light of joy was burning in her great blue eyes, even though tears were glistening there.
* * * * *
Ray and I waited, to give time for the giant crabs that guarded the ladder to get away. In about ten more minutes the second brazen gong sounded, and presently the third. We gathered up the heavy packs of food. Ray took the rifle and I the binoculars, and we slipped out into the brilliant mushroom forest.
I stepped confidently out of the jungle into the clearing below the splendid opalescent fall of fire—and threw myself backward in trembling panic. A flaming crimson ray cut hissing into the towering mushrooms above my head.
Mildred's confidence that the crabs would all gather at the ringing of the gong had been mistaken. The two guards had been waiting at the foot of the ladder, their flaming heat-rays ready for use.
As I dived back into the jungle, I heard two quick reports of the rifle. I scrambled awkwardly to my feet, beneath the heavy pack. Ray stood alert beside me, the smoking rifle in his hand. The giant crabs had collapsed by the foot of the ladder, in grotesque and hideous metal-bound heaps of red shell and twisted limb. Blood was oozing from a ragged hole in the head of each.
"Glad they were here," Ray muttered. "I wanted to try the gun out on 'em. They're soft enough beneath the shell; the bullet tears 'em up inside. Let's get a move on!"
He sprang past the revolting carcasses. I followed, holding my nose against their nauseating, charnel-house odor. We scrambled up the metal ladder.
As we climbed, I could hear the haunting melody of Mildred's wordless song coming faint across the distance. Once I glanced back for a moment, and glimpsed her tiny white figure above the black water, with the thousands of green antennae rising in a luminous forest about her.
We reached the top of the cliff, where the opalescent river plunged down in the flaming fall. Ray chose convenient boulders for shelter and quickly we flung ourselves flat. Ray replaced the fired cartridges in the rifle and leveled it across the rock before him. I unslung the binoculars and focussed them.
"Watch 'em close," Ray muttered. "And tell me when to shoot."
* * * * *
The black lake lay below us, with the weird city of sapphire cylinders on its floor. I got the glasses upon Mildred's white form. Soon she dived from the turquoise pedestal, swam swiftly ashore and vanished in the vivid fungous jungle. The wavering green antennae vanished below the water; I watched the crabs swimming away. Some of them climbed out of the water and lumbered off in various directions.
In fifteen minutes the slender white form of Mildred appeared at the foot of the ladder. She sprang over the dead crabs and scrambled nimbly up. Soon she was halfway up the face of the cliff, and there had been no sign of discovery. My hopes ran high.
I was sweeping the whole plain with the binoculars, while Ray peered through the telescopic sights of the rifle. Suddenly I saw a giant crab pause as he lumbered along the edge of the black lake. He rose upright; his shining green antennae wavered. Then I saw him reaching with a knobbed claw for a slender silver tube slung to his harness.
"Quick! The one by the lake! To the right of that canal!"
I pointed quickly. Ray swung his gun about, aimed. A broad red beam flashed from the tube the thing carried, and fell upon the cliff. The report of Ray's rifle rang thunderously in my ears. The red ray was snapped off abruptly, and the giant crab rolled over into the black water of the lake. Half a dozen of the huge crabs were in sight. They all took alarm, probably having seen the flash of the red ray. They raised grotesque heads, twisted stalked eyes and waved green antennae. Some of them began to raise the metal tubes of the heat-ray.
"Let's get all there are in sight!" Ray muttered.
He began firing regularly, with deliberate precision. A few times he had to take two shots, but ordinarily one was enough to bring down a giant crab in a writhing red mass. Three times a red ray flashed out, once at the girl clambering up the ladder, twice at our position above the precipice. But the intense color of the ray announced its source, and Ray stopped each before it could be focussed to do damage.
I looked over at Mildred and saw that she was still climbing bravely, a little over a hundred feet below.
* * * * *
Then the great red crabs began to climb out of the water, heat-ray tubes grasped in their claws. Ray fired as fast as he could load and aim. Still he shot with deliberate care, and almost every shot was effective.
Intense, ruby-red rays flashed up from the lake shore. Twice, one of them beat scorchingly upon us for a moment. Once a rock beside us was fused and cracked with the heat. But Ray fired rapidly, and the rays winked out as fast as they were born.
He was powder-stained, black and grimy. The heat-ray had singed his clothing. He was dripping perspiration. The gun was so hot that he could hardly handle it. But still the angry bark of the rifle rang out, almost with a deliberate rhythm. Ray was a fine shot in his youth on his father's Arizona ranch, but his best shooting, I think, was done from above that cascade of liquid fire, at the hordes of monster scarlet crabs.
Mildred scrambled over the edge, unharmed. Her breast was heaving, but her face was bright with joy.
"You are wonderful!" she gasped to Ray.
We seized the packs and beat a hurried retreat. A crimson forest of the heat-rays flashed up behind us, and flamed upon the black walls and roof of the cavern until glistening lava became incandescent, cracked and fused.
We were below the line of the rays. Quickly we made the bend in the cavern and followed at a halting run up the path beside the shimmering river of opalescent light. Before us the torrent of fire fell in a magnificent flaming arc from the roof.
We rounded the pool of lambent milk of flame, passed the roaring torrent of coruscating liquid radiance and reached the ladder in the square, metal shaft. "If we can get to the top before they can get up here, we're safe," Ray said. "If we don't, this shaft will be a chimney of fire."
In the haste of desperation, we attacked the thousand-foot climb. I went first, Mildred below me, and Ray, with the rifle, in the rear. Our heavy packs were a terrible impediment, but we dared not attempt to go on without them. The metal rungs were four feet apart; it was no easy task to scramble from one to the next, again and again, for hundreds of times.
* * * * *
It must have taken us an hour to make it. We should have been caught long before we reached the top, but the giant crabs were slow in their lumbering movements. Despite their evident intelligence, they seemed to lack anything like our railways and automobiles.
The cold gray light of the polar sky came about us; a dull, purple-blue square grew larger above. I clambered over the last rung, flung myself across the top of the metal shaft. Looking down at the tiny fleck of white light so far below, I saw a bit of red move in it.
"A crab!" I shouted. "Hurry!"
Mildred was just below me. I took her pack and helped her over the edge.
Red flame flared up the shaft.
We reached over, seized Ray's arms and fairly jerked him out of the ruby ray.
The bitterly cold wind struck our hot, perspiring bodies as we scrambled down the rungs outside the square metal shaft. Mildred shivered in her thin attire.
"Out of the frying pan into the ice box!" Ray jested grimly as we dropped, to the frozen plain.
Quickly we tore open our packs. Ray and I snatched out clothing and wrapped up the trembling girl. In a few minutes we had her snugly dressed in the fur garments that had been Major Meriden's. Then we got into the quilted garments we had made for ourselves.
The intensely red heat-beam still flared up the shaft. Ray looked at it in satisfaction.
"They'll have it so hot they can't get up it for some time yet," he remarked hopefully.
We shouldered our packs and set out over the wilderness of snow, turning our backs upon the metal-bound lake of fire, with the tall cone of iridescent flame rising in its center.
The deep, purple-blue sky was clear, and, for a rarity, there was not much wind. I doubt that the temperature was twenty below. But it was a violent change from the warm cavern. Mildred was blue and shivering.
* * * * *
In two hours the metal rim below the great white cone had vanished behind the black ice-crags. We passed near the wreck of Major Meriden's plane and reached our last camp, where we had left the tent sledge, primus stove, and most of our instruments. The tent was still stretched, though banked with snow. We got Mildred inside, chafed her hands, and soon had her comfortable.
Then Ray went out and soon returned with a sealed tin of oil from the wrecked plane, with which he lit the primus stove. Soon the tent was warm. We melted snow and cooked thick red soup. After the girl had made a meal of the scalding soup, with the little golden cakes, she professed to be feeling as well as ever.
"We can fix our plane!" Ray said. "There's a perfectly good prop on Meriden's plane!"
We went back to the wreck, found the tools, and removed an undamaged propeller. This we packed on the sledge, with a good supply of fuel for the stove.
"I'm sure we're safe now, so far as the crab-things go," he said. "I don't fancy they'd get around very well in the snow."
In an hour we broke camp, and made ten miles of the distance back to the plane before we stopped. We were anxious about Mildred, but she seemed to stand the journey admirably; she is a marvelous physical specimen. She seemed running over with gay vivacity of spirit; she asked innumerable questions of the world which she had known only at second-hand from her mother's words.
* * * * *
The weather smiled on us during the march back to the plane as much as it had frowned on the terrible journey to the cone. We had an abundance of food and fuel, and we made it in eight easy stages. Once there was a light fall of snow, but the air was unusually warm and calm for the season.
We found the plane safe. It was the work of but a short time to remove the broken propeller and replace it with the one we had brought from the wrecked ship. We warmed and started the engine, broke the skids loose from the ice, turned the plane around, and took off safely from the tiny scrap of smooth ice.
Mildred seemed amazed and immensely delighted at the sensations of her first trip aloft.
A few hours later we were landing beside the Albatross, in the leaden blue sea beyond the ice barrier. Bluff Captain Harper greeted us in amazed delight as we climbed to the deck.
"You're just in time!" he said. "The relief expedition we landed came back a week ago. We had no idea you could still be alive, with only a week's provisions. We were sailing to-morrow. But tell us! What happened? Your passenger—"
"We just stopped to pick up my fiancee," Ray grinned. "Captain, may I present Miss Mildred Meriden? We'll be wanting you to marry us right away."
THE MENACE OF THE INSECT
It is possible that future study may tell man enough about insects to enable him to eradicate them. This, however, is more than can be reasonably expected, for the more we cultivate the earth the better we make conditions for these enemies. The insect thrives on the work of man. And having made conditions ideal for the insect, with great expanses of cultivated food fitted to his needs, it is an optimist who can believe that at the same time we can make other conditions which will be so unfavorable as to cause him to disappear completely. The two things do not go together.
The insect is much better fitted for life than is man. He can survive long periods of famine, he can survive extremes of heat and cold. The insect produces great numbers of young which have no long period of infancy requiring the attention of the parents over a large part of their life. Every function of the insect is directed toward the propagation of the race and the use of minimum effort in every other direction.
It is even possible in some cases, the water flea, for example, for the female to produce young without the necessity of fertilization by the male. In order to perform the necessary work to insure food supplies for the winter other insects have developed highly specialized workers, especially fitted to do particular kinds of labor. Ants and termites are in this class.
If we examine the organization of insects closely we shall find but one point at which they are vulnerable. This is in their lack of ability to reason. True, there is considerable evidence to support the belief that some insects are capable of simple reasoning, but the development in this direction is only of the most elementary nature. As compared to man it is safe to say that they do not reason. They are guided by instinct.
This again is the most efficient way to organize their affairs. It requires no long period of training. They can begin performing all their useful functions as soon as their bodily development makes it possible. No one need teach them how to catch their prey, how to build their nests or shelters. Instinct takes care of this. But this, obviously the best system in a world wholly governed by instinct, is not so desirable when the instinctively actuated insect encounters another form of life, as man, which is capable of reason. The reasoning individual can play all kinds of tricks on the individual who is actuated by instinct.
The Ghost World
By Sewell Peaslee Wright
[Sidenote: Commander John Hanson records another of his thrilling interplanetary adventures with the Special Patrol Service.]
I was asleep when our danger was discovered, but I knew the instant the attention signal sounded that the situation was serious. Kincaide, my second officer, had a cool head, and he would not have called me except in a tremendous emergency.
"Hanson speaking!" I snapped into the microphone. "What's up, Mr. Kincaide?"
"A field of meteorites sweeping into our path, sir." Kincaide's voice was tense. "I have altered our course as much as I dared and am reducing speed at emergency rate, but this is the largest swarm of meteorites I have ever seen. I am afraid that we must pass through at least a section of it."
"With you in a moment, Mr. Kincaide!" I dropped the microphone and snatched up my robe, knotting its cord about me as I hurried out of my stateroom. In those days, interplanetary ships did not have their auras of repulsion rays to protect them from meteorites, it must be remembered. Two skins of metal were all that lay between the Ertak and all the dangers of space.
I took the companionway to the navigating room two steps at a time and fairly burst into the room.
Kincaide was crouched over the two charts that pictured the space around us, microphone pressed to his lips. Through the plate glass partition I could see the men in the operating room tensed over their wheels and levers and dials. Kincaide glanced up as I entered, and motioned with his free hand towards the charts.
One glance convinced me that he had not overestimated our danger. The space to right and left, and above and below, was fairly peppered with tiny pricks of greenish light that moved slowly across the milky faces of the charts.
From the position of the ship, represented as a glowing red spark, and measuring the distances roughly by means of the fine black lines graved in both directions upon the surface of the chart, it was evident to any understanding observer that disaster of a most terrible kind was imminent.
* * * * *
Kincaide muttered into his microphone, and out of the tail of my eye I could see his orders obeyed on the instant by the men in the operating room. I could feel the peculiar, sickening surge that told of speed being reduced, and the course being altered, but the cold, brutally accurate charts before me assured me that no action we dared take would save us from the meteorites.
"We're in for it, Mr. Kincaide. Continue to reduce speed as much as possible, and keep bearing away, as at present. I believe we can avoid the thickest portion of the field, but we shall have to take our chances with the fringe."
"Yes, sir!" said Kincaide, without lifting his eyes from the chart. His voice was calm and businesslike, now; with the responsibility on my shoulders, as commander, he was the efficient, level-headed thinking machine that had endeared him to me as both fellow-officer and friend.
Leaving the charts to Kincaide, I sounded the general emergency signal, calling every man and officer of the Ertak's crew to his post, and began giving orders through the microphone.
"Mr. Correy,"—Correy was my first officer—"please report at once to the navigating room. Mr. Hendricks, make the rounds of all duty posts, please, and give special attention to the disintegrator ray operators. The ray generators are to be started at once, full speed." Hendricks, I might say, was a junior officer, and a very good one, although quick-tempered and excitable—failings of youth. He had only recently shipped with us to replace Anderson Croy, who—but that has already been recorded.
[Footnote 2: "The Dark Side of Antri," in the January, 1931, issue of Astounding Stories.]
These preparations made, I glanced at the twin charts again. The peppering of tiny green lights, each of which represented a meteoritic body, had definitely shifted in relation to the position of the strongly-glowing red spark that was the Ertak, but a quick comparison of the two charts showed that we would be certain to pass through—again I use land terms to make my meaning clear—the upper right fringe of the field.
The great cluster of meteorites was moving in the same direction as ourselves now; Kincaide's change of course had settled that matter nicely. Naturally, this was the logical course, since should we come in contact with any of them, the impact would bear a relation to only the difference in our speeds, instead of the sum, as would be the case if we struck at a wide angle.
* * * * *
It was difficult to stand without grasping a support of some kind, and walking was almost impossible, for the reduction of our tremendous speed, and even the slightest change of direction, placed terrific strains upon the ship and everything in it. Space ships, at space speeds, must travel like the old-fashioned bullets if those within are to feel at ease.
"I believe, Mr. Kincaide, it might be well to slightly increase the power in the gravity pads," I suggested. Kincaide nodded and spoke briefly into his microphone; an instant later I felt my weight increase perhaps fifty per cent, and despite the inertia of my body, opposed to both the change in speed and direction of the Ertak, I could now stand without support, and could walk without too much difficulty.
The door of the navigating room was flung open, and Correy entered, his face alight with curiosity and eagerness. An emergency meant danger, and few beings in the universe have loved danger more than Correy.
"We're in for it, Mr. Correy," I said, with a nod towards the charts. "Swarm of meteorites, and we can't avoid them."
"Well, we've dodged through them before, sir," smiled Correy. "We can do it again."
"I hope so, but this is the largest field of them I have ever seen. Look at the charts: they're thicker than flies."
* * * * *
Correy glanced at the charts, slapped Kincaide across his bowed, tense shoulders, and laughed aloud.
"Trust the old Ertak to worm her way through, sir," he said. "The ray crews are on duty, I presume?"
"Yes. But I doubt that the rays will be of much assistance to us. Particularly if these are stony meteorites—and as you know, the odds are about ten to one against their being of ferrous composition. The rays, deducting the losses due to the utter lack of a conducting medium, will be insufficient protection. They will help, of course. The iron meteorites they will take care of effectively, but the conglomerate nature of the stony meteorites does not make them particularly susceptible to the disintegrating rays.
"We shall do what we can, but our success will depend largely upon good luck—or Divine Providence."
"At any rate, sir," replied Correy, and his voice had lost some of its lightness, "we are upon routine patrol and not upon special mission. If we do crack up, there is no emergency call that will remain unanswered."
"No," I said dryly. "There will be just another 'Lost in Space' report in the records of the Service, and the Ertak's name will go up on the tablet of lost ships. In any case, we have done and shall do what we can. In ten minutes we shall know all there is to know. That about right, Mr. Kincaide?"
"Ten minutes?" Kincaide studied the charts with narrowed eyes, mentally balancing distance and speed. "We should be within the danger area in about that length of time, sir," he answered. "And out of it—if we come out—three or four minutes later."
"We'll come out of it," said Correy positively.
I walked heavily across the room and studied the charts again. Space above and below, to the right and the left of us, was powdered with the green points of light.
* * * * *
Correy joined me, his feet thumping with the unaccustomed weight given him by the increase in gravity. As he bent over the charts, I heard him draw in his breath sharply.
Kincaide looked up. Correy looked up. I looked up. The glance of each man swept the faces, read the eyes, of the other two. Then, with one accord, we all three glanced up at the clocks—more properly, at the twelve-figured dial of the Earth clock, for none of us had any great love for the metric Universal system of time-keeping.
Ten minutes.... Less than that, now.
"Mr. Correy," I said, as calmly as I could, "you will relieve Mr. Kincaide as navigating officer. Mr. Kincaide, present my compliments to Mr. Hendricks, and ask him to explain the situation to the crew. You will instruct the disintegrator ray operators in their duties, and take charge of their activities. Start operation at your discretion; you understand the necessity."
"Yes, sir!" Kincaide saluted sharply, and I returned his salute. We did not shake hands, the Earth gesture of—strangely enough—both greeting and farewell, but we both realized that this might well be a final parting. The door closed behind him, and Correy and I were left together to watch the creeping hands of the Earth clock, the twin charts with their thick spatter of green lights, and the two fiery red sparks, one on each chart, that represented the Ertak sweeping recklessly towards the swarming danger ahead.
* * * * *
In other accounts of my experiences in the Special Patrol Service I feel that I have written too much about myself. After all, I have run my race; a retired commander of the Service, and an old, old man, with the century mark well behind me, my only use is to record, in this fashion, some of those things the Service accomplished in the old days when the worlds of the Universe were strange to each other, and space travel was still an adventure to many.
The Universe is not interested in old men; it is concerned only with youth and action. It forgets that once we were young men, strong, impetuous, daring. It forgets what we did; but that has always been so. It always will be so. John Hanson, retired Commander of the Special Patrol Service, is fit only to amuse the present generation with his tales of bygone days.
Well, so be it. I am content. I have lived greatly; certainly I would not exchange my memories of those bold, daring days even for youth and strength again, had I to live that youth and waste that strength in this softened, gilded age.
But no more of this; it is too easy for an old man to rumble on about himself. It is only the young John Hanson, Commander of the Ertak, who can interest those who may pick up and read what I am writing here.
I did not waste the minutes measured by that clock, grouped with our other instruments in the navigating room of the Ertak. I wrote hastily in the ship's log, stating the facts briefly and without feeling. If we came through, the log would read better thus; if not, and by some strange chance it came to human eyes, then the Universe would know at least that the Ertak's officers did not flinch from even such a danger.
* * * * *
As I finished the entry, Correy spoke:
"Kincaide's estimate was not far off, sir," he said, with a swift glance at the clock. "Here we go!" It was less than half a minute short of the ten estimated by Kincaide.
I nodded and bent over the television disc—one of the huge, hooded affairs we used in those days. Widening the field to the greatest angle, and with low power, I inspected the space before us on all sides.
The charts, operated by super-radio reflexes, had not lied about the danger into which we were passing—had passed. We were in the midst of a veritable swarm of meteorites of all sizes.
They were not large; I believe the largest I saw had a mass of not more than three or four times that of the Ertak herself. Some of the smaller bodies were only fifty or sixty feet in diameter.
They were jagged and irregular in shape, and they seemed to spin at varying speeds, like tiny worlds.
As I watched, fixing my view now on the space directly in our path, I saw that our disintegrator ray men were at work. Deep in the bowels of the Ertak, the moan of the ray generators had deepened in note; I could even feel the slight vibration beneath my feet.
One of the meteorites slowly crumbled on top, the dust of disintegration hovering in a compact mass about the body. More and more of it melted away. The spinning motion grew irregular, eccentric, as the center of gravity was changed by the action of the ray.
Another ray, two more, centered on the wobbling mass. It was directly in our path, looming up larger and larger every second.
Faster and faster it melted, the rays eating into it from four sides. But it was perilously near now; I had to reduce power in order to keep all of it within the field of my disc. If—
The thing vanished before the very nose of the ship, not an instant too soon. I glanced up at the surface temperature indicator, and saw the big black hand move slowly for a degree or two, and stop. It was a very sensitive instrument, and registered even the slight friction of our passage through the disintegrated dust of the meteorite.
* * * * *
Our rays were working desperately, but disintegrator rays are not nearly so effective in space as in an atmosphere of some kind. Half a dozen times it seemed that we must crash head on into one of the flying bodies, but our speed was reduced now to such an extent that we were going but little faster than the meteorites, and this fact was all that saved us. We had more time for utilizing our rays.
We nosed upward through the trailing fringe of the swarm in safety. The great field of meteorites was now below and ahead of us. We had won through! The Ertak was safe, and—
"There seems to be another directly above us, sir," commented Correy quietly, speaking for the first time since we had entered the area of danger. "I believe your disc is not picking it up."
"Thank you, Mr. Correy," I said. While operating on an entirely different principle, his two charts had certain very definite advantages: they showed the entire space around us, instead of but a portion.
I picked up the meteorite he had mentioned without difficulty. It was a large body, about three times the mass of the Ertak, and some distance above us—a laggard in the group we had just eluded.
"Will it coincide with our path at any point, Mr. Correy?" I asked doubtfully. The television disc could not, of course, give me this information.
"I believe so; yes," replied Correy, frowning over his charts. "Are the rays on it, sir?"
"Yes. All of them, I judge, but they are making slow work of it." I fell silent, bending lower over the great hooded disc.
There were a dozen, a score of rays playing upon the surface of the meteorite. A halo of dust hung around the rapidly diminishing body, but still the mass melted all too slowly.
* * * * *
Pressing the attention signal for Kincaide, I spoke sharply into the microphone:
"Mr. Kincaide, is every ray on that large meteorite above us?"
"Yes, sir," he replied instantly.
"Very well; carry on, Mr. Kincaide." I turned to Correy; he had just glanced from his charts to the clock, with its jerking second hand, and back to his charts.
"They'll have to do it in the next ten seconds, sir," he said. "Otherwise—" Correy shrugged, and his eyes fixed with a peculiar, fascinated stare on the charts. He was looking death squarely in the eyes.
Ten seconds! It was not enough. I had watched the rays working, and I knew their power to disintegrate this death-dealing stone that was hurtling along above us while we rose, helplessly, into its path.
I did not ask Correy if it was possible to alter the course enough, and quickly enough, to avoid that fateful path. Had it been possible without tearing the Ertak to pieces with the strain of it, Correy would have done it seconds ago.
I glanced up swiftly at the relentless, jerking second hand. Seven seconds gone! Three seconds more.
The rays were doing all that could be expected of them. There was only a tiny fragment of the meteorite left, and it was dwindling swiftly. But our time was passing even more rapidly.
The bit of rock loomed up at me from the disc. It seemed to fly up into my face, to meet me.
"Got us, Correy!" I said hoarsely. "Good-by, old-man!"
I think he tried to reply. I saw his lips open; the flash of the bright light from the ethon tubes on his big white teeth.
Then there was a crash that shook the whole ship. I shot into the air. I remember falling ... terribly.
A blinding flash of light that emanated from the very center of my brain, a sickening sense of utter catastrophe, and ... blackness.
* * * * *
I think I was conscious several seconds before I finally opened my eyes. My mind was still wandering; my thoughts kept flying around in huge circles that kept closing in.
We had hit the meteorite. I remembered the crash. I remembered falling. I remembered striking my head.
But I was still alive. There was air to breathe and there was firm material under me. I opened my eyes.
For the first instant, it seemed I was in an utterly strange room. Nothing was familiar. Everything was—was inverted. Then I glanced upward, and I saw what had happened.
I was lying on the ceiling of the navigating room. Over my head were the charts, still glowing, the chronometers in their gimballed beds, and the television disc. Beside me, sprawled out limply, was Correy, a trickle of dried blood on his cheek. A litter of papers, chairs, framed licenses and other movable objects were strewn on and around us.
My first instinctive, foolish thought was that the ship was upside down. Man has a ground-trained mind, no matter how many years he may travel space. Then, of course, I realized that in the open void there is not top nor bottom; the illusion is supplied, in space ships, by the gravity pads. Somehow, the shock of impact had reversed the polarity of the leads to the pads, and they had become repulsion pads. That was why I had dropped from the floor to the ceiling.
All this flashed through my mind in an instant as I dragged myself toward Correy. Dragged myself because my head was throbbing so that I dared not stand up, and one shoulder, my left, was numb.
* * * * *
For an instant I thought that Correy was dead. Then, as I bent over him, I saw a pulse leaping just under the angle of his jaw.
"Correy, old man!" I whispered. "Do you hear me?" All the formality of the Service was forgotten for the time. "Are you hurt badly?"
His eyelids flickered, and he sighed; then, suddenly, he looked up at me—and smiled!
"We're still here, sir?"
"After a fashion. Look around; see what's happened?"
He glanced about curiously, frowning. His wits were not all with him yet.
"We're in a mess, aren't we?" he grinned. "What's the matter?"
I told him what I thought, and he nodded slowly, feeling his head tenderly.
"How long ago did it happen?" he asked. "The blooming clock's upside down; can you read it?"
I could—with an effort.
"Over twenty minutes," I said. "I wonder how the rest of the men are?"
With an effort, I got to my feet and peered into the operating room. Several of the men were moving about, dazedly, and as I signalled to them, reassuringly, a voice hailed us from the doorway:
"Any orders, sir?"
It was Kincaide. He was peering over what had been the top of the doorway, and he was probably the most disreputable-looking officer who had ever worn the blue-and-silver uniform of the Service. His nose was bloody and swollen to twice its normal size. Both eyes were blackened, and his hair, matted with blood, was plastered in ragged swirls across his forehead.
"Yes, Mr. Kincaide; plenty of them. Round up enough of the men to locate the trouble with the gravity pads; there's a reversed connection somewhere. But don't let them make the repairs until the signal is given. Otherwise, we'll all fall on our heads again. Mr. Correy and I will take care of the injured."
* * * * *
The next half hour was a trying one. Two men had been killed outright, and another died before we could do anything to save him. Every man in the crew was shaken up and bruised, but by the time the check was completed, we had a good half of our personnel on duty.
Returning at last to the navigating room, I pressed the attention signal for Kincaide, and got his answer immediately.
"Located the trouble yet, Mr. Kincaide?" I asked anxiously.
"Yes, sir! Mr. Hendricks has been working with a group of men and has just made his report. They are ready when you are."
"Good!" I drew a sigh of relief. It had been easier than I thought. Pressing the general attention signal, I broadcasted the warning, giving particular instructions to the men in charge of the injured. Then I issued orders to Hendricks:
"Reverse the current in five seconds, Mr. Hendricks, and stand by for further instructions."
Hastily, then, Correy and I followed the orders we had given the men. Briefly we stood on our heads against the wall, feeling very foolish, and dreading the fall we knew was coming.
It came. We slid down the wall and lit heavily on our feet, while the litter that had been on the ceiling with us fell all around us. Miraculously, the ship seemed to have righted herself. Correy and I picked ourselves up and looked around.
"We're still operating smoothly," I commented with a sweeping glance at the instruments over the operating table. "Everything seems in order."
"Did you notice the speed indicator, sir?" asked Correy grimly. "When he fell, one of the men in the operating room must have pulled the speed lever all the way over. We're at maximum space speed, sir, and have been for nearly an hour, with no one at the controls."
* * * * *
We stared at each other dully. Nearly an hour, at maximum space speed—a speed seldom used except in case of great emergency. With no one at the controls, and the ship set at maximum deflection from her course.
That meant that for nearly an hour we had been sweeping into infinite space in a great arc, at a speed I disliked to think about.
"I'll work out our position at once," I said, "and in the meantime, reduce speed to normal as quickly as possible. We must get back on our course at the earliest possible moment."
We hurried across to the charts that were our most important aides in proper navigation. By comparing the groups of stars there with our space charts of the universe, the working out of our position was ordinarily, a simple matter.
But now, instead of milky rectangles, ruled with fine black lines, with a fiery red speck in the center and the bodies of the universe grouped around in green points of light, there were only nearly blank rectangles, shot through with vague, flickering lights that revealed nothing except the presence of disaster.
"The meteoric fragment wiped out some of our plates, I imagine," said Correy slowly. "The thing's useless."
I nodded, staring down at the crawling lights on the charts.
"We'll have to set down for repairs, Mr. Correy. If," I added, "we can find a place."
Correy glanced up at the attraction meter.
"I'll take a look in the big disc," he suggested. "There's a sizeable body off to port. Perhaps our luck's changed."
He bent his head under the big hood, adjusting the controls until he located the source of the registered attraction.
"Right!" he said, after a moment's careful scrutiny. "She's as big as Earth, I'd venture, and I believe I can detect clouds, so there should be atmosphere. Shall we try it, sir?"
"Yes. We're helpless until we make repairs. As big as Earth, you said? Is she familiar?"
Correy studied the image under the hood again, long and carefully.
"No, sir," he said, looking up and shaking his head. "She's a new one on me."
* * * * *
Conning the ship first by means of the television disc, and navigating visually as we neared the strange sphere, we were soon close enough to make out the physical characteristics of this unknown world.
Our spectroscopic tests had revealed the presence of atmosphere suitable for breathing, although strongly laden with mineral fumes which, while possibly objectionable, would probably not be dangerous.
So far as we could see, there was but one continent, somewhat north of the equator, roughly triangular in shape, with its northernmost point reaching nearly to the Pole.
"It's an unexplored world, sir. I'm certain of that," said Correy. "I am sure I would have remembered that single, triangular continent had I seen it on any of our charts." In those days, of course, the Universe was by no means so well mapped as it is today.
"If not unknown, it is at least uncharted," I replied. "Rough looking country, isn't it? No sign of life, either, that the disc will reveal."
"That's as well, sir. Better no people than wild natives who might interfere with our work. Any choice in the matter of a spot on which to set her down?"
I inspected the great, triangular continent carefully. Towards the north it was a mass of snow covered mountains, some of them, from their craters, dead volcanoes. Long spurs of these ranges reached southward, with green and apparently fertile valleys between. The southern edge was covered with dense tropical vegetation; a veritable jungle.
"At the base of that central spur there seems to be a sort of plateau," I suggested. "I believe that would be a likely spot."
"Very well, sir," replied Correy, and the old Ertak, reduced to atmospheric speed, swiftly swept toward the indicated position, while Correy kept a wary eye on the surface temperature gauge, and I swept the terrain for any sign of intelligent life.
* * * * *
I found a number of trails, particularly around the base of the foothills, but they were evidently game trails, for there were no dwelling places of any kind; no cities, no villages, not even a single habitation of any kind that the searching eyes of the disc could detect.
Correy set her down as neatly and as softly as a rose petal drifts to the ground. Roses, I may add, are a beautiful and delicate flower, with very soft petals, peculiar to my native Earth.
We opened the main exit immediately. I watched the huge, circular door back slowly out of its threads, and finally swing aside, swiftly and silently, in the grip of its mighty gimbals, with the weird, unearthly feeling I have always had when about to step foot on some strange star where no man has trod before.
The air was sweet, and delightfully fresh after being cooped up for weeks in the Ertak, with her machine-made air. A little thinner, I should judge, than the air to which we were accustomed, but strangely exhilarating, and laden with a faint scent of some unknown constituent—undoubtedly the mineral element our spectroscope had revealed but not identified. Gravity, I found upon passing through the exit, was normal. Altogether an extremely satisfactory repair station.
Correy's guess as to what had happened proved absolutely accurate. Along the top of the Ertak, from amidships to within a few feet of her pointed stem, was a jagged groove that had destroyed hundreds of the bright, coppery discs, set into the outer skin of the ship, that operated our super-radio reflex charts. The groove was so deep, in places, that it must have bent the outer skin of the Ertak down against the inner skin. A foot or more—it was best not to think of what would have happened then.
* * * * *
By the time we completed our inspection dusk was upon us—a long, lingering dusk, due, no doubt, to the afterglow resulting from the mineral content of the air. I'm no white-skinned, stoop-shouldered laboratory man, so I'm not sure that was the real reason. It sounds logical, however.
"Mr. Correy, I think we shall break out our field equipment and give all men not on watch an opportunity to sleep out in the fresh air," I said. "Will you give the orders, please?"
"Yes, sir. Mr. Hendricks will stand the eight to twelve watch as usual?"
"Mr. Kincaide will relieve him at midnight, and you will take over at four."
"Very well, sir." Correy turned to give the orders, and in a few minutes an orderly array of shelter tents made a single street in front of the fat, dully-gleaming side of the Ertak. Our tents were at the head of this short company street, three of them in a little row.
After the evening meal, cooked over open fires, with the smoke of the very resinous wood we had collected hanging comfortably in the still air, the men gave themselves up to boisterous, noisy games, which, I confess, I should have liked very much to participate in. They raced and tumbled around the two big fires like schoolboys on a lark. Only those who have spent most of their days in the metal belly of a space ship know the sheer joy of utter physical freedom.
Correy, Kincaide and I sat before our tents and watched them, chatting about this and that—I have long since forgotten what. But I shall never forget what occurred just before the watch changed that night. Nor will any man of the Ertak's crew.
* * * * *
It was just a few minutes before midnight. The men had quieted down and were preparing to turn in. I had given orders that this first night they could suit themselves about retiring; a good officer, and I tried to be one, is never afraid to give good men a little rein, now and then.
The fires had died down to great heaps of red coals, filmed with ashes, and, aside from the brilliant galaxy of stars overhead, there was no light from above. Either this world had no moons, not even a single moon, like my native Earth, or it had not yet arisen.
Kincaide rose lazily, stretched himself, and glanced at his watch.
"Seven till twelve, sir," he said. "I believe I'll run along and relieve—"
He never finished that sentence. From somewhere there came a rushing sound, and a damp, stringy net, a living, horrible, something, descended upon us out of the night.
In an instant, what had been an orderly encampment became a bedlam. I tried to fight against the stringy, animated, nearly intangible mass, or masses, that held me, but my arms, my legs, my whole body, was bound as with strings and loops of elastic bands.
Strange whispering sounds filled the air, audible above the shouting of the men. The net about me grew tighter; I felt myself being lifted from the ground. Others were being treated the same way; one of the Ertak's crew shot straight up, not a dozen feet away, writhing and squirming. Then, at an elevation of perhaps twice my height, he was hurried away.
Hendrick's voice called out my name from the Ertak's exit, and I shouted a warning:
"Hendrick! Go back! Close the emergency—" Then a gluey mass cut across my mouth, and, as though carried on huge soft springs, I was hurried away, with the sibilant, whispering sounds louder and closer than ever. With me, as nearly as I could judge, went every man who had not been on duty in the ship.
* * * * *
I ceased struggling, and immediately the rubbery network about me loosened. It seemed to me that the whisperings about me were suddenly approving. We were in the grip, then, of some sort of intelligent beings, ghost-like and invisible though they were.
After a time, during which we were all, in a ragged group, being borne swiftly towards the mountains, all at a common level from the ground, I managed to turn my head so that I could see, against the star-lit sky, something of the nature of the things that had made us captive.
As is not infrequently the case, in trying to describe things of an utterly different world, I find myself at a loss for words. I think of jellyfish, such as inhabit the seas of most of the inhabited planets, and yet this is not a good description.
These creatures were pale, and almost completely transparent. What their forms might be, I could not even guess. I could make out writhing, tentacle-like arms, and wrinkled, flabby excrudescences and that was all. That these creatures were huge, was evident from the fact that they, apparently walking, from the irregular, undulating motion, held us easily ten or a dozen feet from the ground.
With the release of the pressure about my body I was able to talk again, and I called out to Correy, who was fighting his way along, muttering, angrily, just ahead of me.
"Correy! No use fighting them. Save your strength, man!"
"Then? What are they, in God's name? What spawn of hell—"
"The Commander is right, Correy," interrupted Kincaide, who was not far from my first officer. "Let's get our breaths and try to figure out what's happened. I'm winded!" His voice gave plentiful evidence of the struggle he had put up.
"I want to know where I'm going, and why!" growled Correy, ceasing his struggling, nevertheless. "What have us? Are they fish or flesh or fowl?"
"I think we shall know before very long, Correy," I replied. "Look ahead!"
* * * * *
The bearers of the men in the fore part of the group had apparently stopped before a shadowy wall, like the face of a cliff. Rapidly, the rest of us were brought up, until we were in a compact group, some in sitting positions, some upside down, the majority reclining on back or side. The whispering sound now was intense and excited, as though our strange bearers awaited some momentous happening.
I took advantage of the opportunity to speak very briefly to my companions.
"Men, I'll admit frankly that I don't know what we're up against," I said. "But I do know this: we'll come out on top of the heap. Conserve your strength, keep your eyes open, and be prepared to obey, instantly, any orders that may be issued: I know that last remark is not needed. If any of you should see or learn something of interest or value, report at once to Mr. Correy, Mr. Kincaide or my—"
A simultaneous, involuntary exclamation from the men interrupted me, and it was not surprising that this was so, for the wall before us had suddenly opened, and there was a great burst of yellow light in our faces. A strong odor, like the faint scent we had first noticed in the air, but infinitely more powerful, struck our nostrils, but I was not conscious of the fact for several seconds. My whole attention, my every startled thought, was focused upon the group of strange beings, silhouetted against the glowing light, that stood in the opening.
* * * * *
Imagine, if you can, a huge globe, perhaps eight feet in diameter, flattened slightly at the bottom, and supported on six short, huge stumps, like the feet of an elephant, and topped by an excrudescence like a rounded coning tower, merging into the globular body. From points slightly below this excrudescence, visualize six long, limp tentacles, so long that they drop from the equators of these animated spheres, and trail on the ground. Now you have some conception of the beings that stood before us.
A sharp, sibilant whispering came from one of these figures, to be answered in an eager chorus from our bearers. There was a reply like a command, and the group in the doorway marched forward. One by one these visible tentacles wrapped themselves around a member of the Ertak's crew, each one of the globular creatures bearing one of us.
I heard a disappointed whisper go up from the outer darkness where, but a moment before, we had been. Then there was a grating sound, and a thud as the stone doorway was rolled back into place.
The entrance was sealed. We were prisoners indeed!
"All right, now what?" gritted Correy. "God! If I ever get a hand loose!"
Swiftly, each of us held above the head-like excrudescence atop the globular body of the thing that held us, we were carried down a widening rocky corridor, towards the source of the yellow light that beat about us.
* * * * *
The passage led to a great cavern, irregular in shape, and apparently possessed of numerous other outlets which converged here.
I am not certain as to the size of the cavern, save that it was great, and that the roof was so high in most sections that it was lost in shadow.
The great cavern was nearly filled with creatures similar to those which were bearing us, and they fell back in orderly passage to permit our conductors to pass.
I could see, now, that the hump atop each rounded body was a travesty of a head, hairless, and without a neck. Their features were particularly hideous, and I shall pass over a description as rapidly as possible.
The eyes were round, and apparently lidless; a pale drab or bluff in color. Instead of a nose, as, we understand the term, they had a convoluted rosette in the center of the face, not unlike the olfactory organ of a bat. Their ears were placed as are ours, but were of thin, pale parchment, and hugged the side of the head tightly. Instead of a mouth, there was a slightly depressed oval of fluttering skin near the point where the head melted into the rounded body: the rapid fluttering or vibration of this skin produced the whispering sound I have already remarked.
The cavern, as I have said, was flooded with yellow light, which came from a great column of fire near the center of the clear space. I had no opportunity to inspect the exact arrangements but from what I did see, I judged that this flame was fed by some sort of highly inflammable substance, not unlike crude oil, except that it burned clearly and without smoke. This substance was conducted to the font from which the flame leaped by means of a large pipe of hollow reed or wood.
At the far end of the cavern a procession entered from one of the passages—nine figures similar to those which bore us, save that by the greater darkness of their skin, and the wrinkles upon both face and body, I judged these to be older than the rest. From the respect with which they were treated, and the dignity of their movements, I gathered that these were persons of authority, a surmise which quickly verified itself.
* * * * *
These nine elders arranged themselves, standing, in the form of a semicircle, the center creature standing a pace or two in front of the others. At a whispered command, we were all dumped unceremoniously on the floor of the cavern before this august council of nine.
Nine pairs of fish-like, unblinking eyes inspected us, whether with enmity or otherwise; I could not determine. One of the nine spoke briefly to one of our conductors, and received an even more brief reply.
I felt the gaze of the creature in the center fix on me. I had taken my proper position in front of my men; he apparently recognized me as the leader of the group.
In a sharp whisper, he addressed me; I gathered from the tone that he uttered a command, but I could only shake my head in response. No words could convey thought from his mind to mine—but we did have a means of communication at hand.
"Mr. Correy," I said, "your menore, please!" I released my own from the belt which held it, along with the other expeditionary equipment which we always wore when outside our ship, and placed it in position upon my head, motioning for one of the nine to do likewise with Correy's menore.
They watched me suspiciously, despite my attempt to convey, by gestures, that by means of these instruments we could convey thoughts to each other. The menores of those days were bulky, heavy things, and undoubtedly they looked dangerous to these creatures: thought-transference instruments at that time were complicated affairs.
* * * * *
However, I must have made myself partially understood, at least, for the chief of the nine uttered a whispered command to one of the beings who had borne us to the large cavern, and motioned with a writhing gesture of one tentacle that I was to place the menore upon this creature's head.
"The old boy's playing it safe, sir," muttered Correy, chuckling. "Wants to try it out on the dog first."
"Right!" I nodded, and, not without difficulty, placed the other menore upon the rounded dome of the individual selected for the trial.
Both instruments were adjusted to full power, and I concentrated my mental energy upon the simple pictures that I thought I could convey to the limited mentality of which I suspected these creatures, watching his fishy eyes the while.
It was several seconds before he realized what was happening; then he began talking excitedly to the waiting nine. The words fairly burned themselves in my consciousness, but of course were utterly unintelligible to me. Before the creature had finished, a lash-like tentacle shot out from the chief of the nine and removed the menore; a moment later it reposed, at a rather rakish slant, on the shining dome of its new possessor.
"Get anything, sir?" asked Correy in a low voice.
"Not yet. I'm trying to make him see how we came here, and that we're friends. Then I'll see what I can get out of him; he'll have to get the idea of coming back at me with pictures instead of words, and it may take a long time to make him understand."
It did take a long time. I could feel the sweat trickling down my face as I strove to make him understand. His eyes revealed wonderment and a little fear, but an almost utter lack of understanding.
I pictured for him the heavens, and our ship sailing along through space. Then I showed him the Ertak coming to rest on the plateau, and he made little impatient noises as though to convey that he knew all about that.
* * * * *
After a long time he got the idea. Crudely, dimly, he pictured the Ertak leaving this strange world, and soaring off into vacant space. Then his scene faded out, and he pictured the same thing again, as one might repeat a question not understood. He wanted to know where we would go if we left this world of his.
I pictured for him other worlds, peopled with men more or less like myself. I showed him the great cities, and the fleets of ships like the Ertak that plied between them. Then, as best I could, I asked him about himself and his people.
It came to me jerkily and poorly pictured, but I managed to piece out the story. Whether I guess correctly on all points, I am not sure, nor will I ever be sure. But this is the story as I got it.
These people at one time lived in the open, and all the people of this world were like those in the cavern, possessed of opaque bodies and great strength. There were none of the ghost-like creatures who had captured us.
But after a long time, a ruling class arose. They tried to dominate the masses, and the masses refused to be dominated. But the ruling classes were wise, and versed in certain sciences; the masses were ignorant. So the ruling classes devised a plan.
These creatures did not eat. There was a tradition that at one time they had had mouths, as I had, but that was not known. Their strength, their vitality, came from the powerful mineral vapor which came forth from the bowels of the earth. The ruling classes decided that if they could control the supply of this vapor, they would have the whip hand, and they set about realizing this condition.
* * * * *
It was quickly done. All the sources of supply, save one, were sealed. This one source of supply was the cavern in which we stood. These were members of the ruling class, and outside was the rabble, starved and unhappy, living on the faint seepage of the vital fumes, without which they became almost bodiless, and the helpless slaves of those within the cavern.
These creatures, then, were boneless; as boneless as sponges, and, like sponges, capable of absorbing huge quantities of a foreign substance, which distended them and gave them weight. I could see, now, why the rotund bodies sagged and flattened at the base, and why six short, stubby legs were needed to support that body. There was only tissue, unsupported by bone, to bear the weight!
This chief of the nine went on to show me how ruthlessly, how cruelly those within the cavern ruled those without. The substance that fed the flame had to be gathered and a great reservoir on the side of the mountain kept filled. Great masses of dry, sweet grass, often changed, must be harvested and brought to the entrance of the cavern, for bedding. A score of other tasks kept the outsiders busy always—and the driving force was that, did the slaves become disobedient, the slight supply of mineral vapor available in the outside world would be cut off utterly, and all outside would surely die, slowly and in agony.
Those within the cavern were the rulers. They would always remain the rulers, and those outside would remain the slaves to wait upon them. And we—how strangely he pictured us, as he saw us!—were not to return to our queer worlds, that we might bring many other ships like the Ertak back to interfere. No.
The pupils of his eyes contracted, and the leafy structure of his nose fluttered as though with strong emotion.
No, we would not go back. He would give a signal to those of his creatures who stood behind us—a sort of soldiery, I gathered—and our heads, our legs, our arms, would be torn from our bodies. Then we would not go back to bring—
* * * * *
That was enough for me.
"Men!" I spoke softly, but with an intensity that gave me their instant attention, "it's going to be a fight for life. When I give the signal, make a rush for the entrance by which we came in. I'll lead the way. Use your pistols, and your bombs if necessary. All right—forward!"
Correy's great shout rang out after mine, and I flung my menore in the face of the nearest guard. It bounced off as though it had struck a rubber ball. Behind me, one of the men called out sharply; I heard a sharp crunch of bone, and with a pang realized that the Ertak's log would have at least one death to record.
A dozen tentacles lashed out at me, and I sprayed their owners with pellets from my atomic pistol. The air was filled with the shouts of my men and the whispers of our enemies. All around me I could hear the screaming of ricochets from our pistols. Twice atomic bombs exploded not far away, and the solid rock shook beneath my feet. Something shot by close to my face; an instant later a limp bundle in the blue and silver uniform of our Service struck the rock wall of the cavern, thirty feet away. The strength in those rubbery tentacles was terrible.
The pistols seemed to have but little effect. They wounded, but they did not kill unless the pellet struck the head. Then the victim rolled over, rocking idiotically on its middle.
"In the head, men!" I shouted. "That downs them! And keep the bombs in action. Throw them against the walls of the cavern. Take a chance!"
A ragged cheer went up, and I heard Correy's voice raised in angry conversation with the enemy:
"You will, eh? There!... Now!... Ah!—right—through—the—eye. That's—the place!"
* * * * *
A score of times I was grasped and held by the writhing arms of the angry horde whispering all around me. Each time I literally shot the tentacle away with my atomic pistol, leaving the severed end to unwrap itself and drop from my struggling body. The things had no blood in them.
Steadily, we fought our way toward the doorway, out of the cavern, down the passageway, pressed into a compact, sweating mass by the pressure of the eager bodies around us. I have never heard any sound even remotely like the babel of angry, sibilant whispering that beat against the walls and roof of that cavern.
I had saved my own bombs for a specific purpose, and now I unslung them and managed to work them up above my shoulders, one in either hand.
"I'm going to try to blow the entrance clear, men," I shouted. "The instant I fling the bombs, drop! The fragments will be stopped by the enemy crowding around us. One ... two ... three ... drop!"
The two bombs exploded almost simultaneously. The ground shook, and all over the cavern masses of stone came crashing to the floor. Bits of rock hummed and shrieked over our heads. And—yes! There was a draft of cooler, purer air on our faces. The bombs had done their work.
"One more effort and we're outside, men," I called. "The passage is open, and there are only a few of the enemy before us. Ready?"
"Ready!" went up the hoarse shout.
It was easy to give the command, but hard to execute it. We were pressed so hard that only the men on the outside of the group could use their weapons. And our captors were making a terrible, desperate effort to hold us.
Two more of our men were literally torn to pieces before my eyes, but I had the satisfaction of ripping holes in the heads of the creatures whose tentacles had done the beastly work. And in the meantime we were working our way slowly but surely to the entrance.
* * * * *
I glanced up as I dodged out into the open. That soft humming sound was familiar, and properly so. There, at an elevation of less than fifty feet, was the Ertak, with Hendricks standing in the exit, leaning forward at a perilous angle.
"Ahoy the Ertak!" I hailed. "Descend at once!"
"Right, sir!" Hendricks turned to relay the order, and, as the rest of the men burst forth from the cavern, the ship struck the ground before us.
"All hands board ship!" I ordered. "Lively, now." As many years as I have commanded men, I have never seen an order obeyed with more alacrity.
I was the last man to enter, and as I did so, I turned for a last glance at the enemy.
They could not come through the small opening my bombs had driven in the rock, although they were working desperately to enlarge it. Leaping back and forth between me and the entrance I could see the vague, shadowy figures of the outside slaves, eagerly seeping up the life-giving fumes that escaped from the cavern.
"Your orders, sir?" asked Hendricks anxiously; he was a very young officer, and he had been through a very trying experience.
"Ascend five hundred feet, Mr. Hendricks," I said thoughtfully. "Directly over this spot. Then I'll take over.
"It isn't often," I added, "that the Service concerns itself with economic conditions. This, however, is one of the exceptions."
"Yes, sir," said Hendricks, for the very good reason, I suppose, that that was about all a third officer could say to his commander, under the circumstances.
* * * * *
"Five hundred feet, sir," said Hendricks.
"Very well," I nodded, and pressed the attention signal of the non-commissioned officer in charge of the big forward ray projector.
"Ott? Commander Hanson speaking. I have special orders for you."
"Direct your ray, narrowed to normal beam and at full intensity, on the spot directly below. Keep the ray motionless, and carry on until further orders. Is that clear?"
"Perfectly, sir." The disintegrator ray generators deepened their purr as I turned away.
"I trust, sir, that I did the right thing in following you with the Ertak?" asked Hendricks. "I was absolutely without precedent, and the circumstances were so mysterious—"
"You handled the situation very well indeed," I told him. "Had you not been waiting when we fought our way into the open, the nearly invisible things on the outside might have—but you don't know about them yet."
Picking up the microphone again, I ordered a pair of searchlights to follow the disintegrator ray, and made my way forward, where I could observe activities through a port.
The ray was boring straight down into a shoulder of a rocky hill, and the bright beams of the searchlights glowed redly with the dust of disintegration. Here and there I could see the shadowy, transparent forms of the creatures that the self-constituted rulers of this world had doomed to a demi-existence, and I smiled grimly to myself. The tables would soon be turned.
* * * * *
For perhaps an hour the ray melted its way into the solid rock, while I stood beside Ott and his crew, watching. Then, down below us, things began to happen.
Little fragments of rock flew up from the shaft the ray had drilled. Jets of black mud leaped into the air. There was a sudden blast from below that rocked the Ertak, and the shaft became a miniature volcano, throwing rocky fragments and mud high into the air.
"Very good, Ott," I said triumphantly. "Cease action." As I spoke, the first light of the dawn, unnoticed until now, spread itself over the scene, and we witnessed then one of the strangest scenes that the Universe has ever beheld.
Up to the very edge of that life-giving blast of mineral-laden gas the tenuous creatures came crowding. There were hundreds of them, thousands of them. And they were still coming, crowding closer and closer and closer, a mass of crawling, yellowish shadows against the sombre earth.
Slowly, they began to fill out and darken, as they drew in the fumes that were more than bread and meat and water to us. Where there had been formless shadows, rotund creatures such as we had met in the cavern stood and lashed their tentacles about in a sort of frenzied gladness, and fell back to make room for their brothers.
* * * * *
"It's a sight to make a man doubt his own eyes, sir," said Correy, who had come to stand beside me. "Look at them! Thousands of them pouring from every direction. How did it happen?"
"It didn't happen. I used our disintegrator ray as a drill; we simply sunk a huge shaft down into the bowels of the earth until we struck the source of the vapor which the self-appointed 'ruling class' has bottled up. We have emancipated a whole people, Mr. Correy."
"I hate to think of what will happen to those in the cavern," replied Correy, smiling grimly. "Or rather, since you've told me of the pleasant little death they had arranged for us. I'm mighty glad of it. They'll receive rough treatment, I'm afraid!"
"They deserve it. It has been a great sight to watch, but I believe we've seen enough. It has been a good night's work, but it's daylight, now, and it will take hours to repair the damage to the Ertak's hull. Take over in the navigating room, if you will, and pick a likely spot where we will not be disturbed. We should be on our course by to-night, Mr. Correy."
"Right, sir," said Correy, with a last wondering look at the strange miracle we had brought to pass on the earth below us. "It will seem good to be off in space again, away from the troubles of these little worlds."
"There are troubles in space, too," I said dryly, thinking of the swarm of meteorites that had come so close to wiping the Ertak off the records of the Service. "You can't escape trouble even in space."
"No, sir," said Correy from the doorway. "But you can get your sleep regularly!"
And sleep is, when one comes to think of it, a very precious thing.
Particularly for an old man, whose eyelids are heavy with years.
Now In Book Form
Readers of Astounding Stories will be interested to hear that two of the continued novels which appeared in our pages during last year are coming out in book form.
The first of these is "Murder Madness," by Murray Leinster. It is due sometime in February, so by the time this issue is on the newsstands it will no doubt be already out. The publishers are Brewer and Warren, and the price is $2.00. Here's your chance, collectors, and those who missed an instalment or two.
The other book is "Brigands of the Moon," by—everyone knows—Ray Cummings. It should be coming along in a month or so. Watch out for it!
Mr. Cummings Sits In
Thank you for the opportunity to address our Readers on certain side-lights of my tale, "The Exile of Time." I particularly welcome it, for the theme of Time-traveling is, I think, the most interesting of any upon which I have written.
Some of you will no doubt recall my stories "The Man Who Mastered Time" and "The Shadow Girl." In "The Exile of Time," I present the third of the trilogy. It has no fictional connection with the others; it is in no sense a sequel, but rather a companion story.
To write about Time-traveling is for me a difficult but fascinating task. The opportunities are endless; and I hope you may think I have taken advantage of them with a measure of success.
I wrote those conceptions of Time and Space and the Great Cosmos, which you will find in the text of the story, because I feel them very deeply. Each occasion upon which circumstances allow me to present my theories, I eagerly welcome. How much of the conception is original with me, I cannot say. It is the product of my groping interpretation of the theories of many brilliant scientific minds of today—humbly combined with perhaps some originality of my own. The mind flings far afield when it starts to grope with the Unknown. Try it! Read what I have written and then let your mind roam a little further. Probe a little deeper. Perhaps we may contribute something. It is only by that process—each mind following some other's cleared path and pushing forward a little on his own—that the Unknown can be pierced.
When once you admit the basic idea of Time-traveling to be plausible, what fascinating vistas are opened to the imagination!
Space is so crowded! The room in which you are now sitting as you read these words—just think what that Space around you has held in the Past, and will hold in the Future! You occupy it now, playing out your little part; but think what has happened where you are now sitting so calmly reading! What tumultuous, crowding events! Your room is quiet now, but its space has rung with war-cries; the ground under you has been drenched with blood; and further back it was lush with primeval jungle; and in another age it was frozen beneath a great ice-cap; and before that it blazed, molten with fire. Back to the Beginning.
And your little Space in the Future? It will be in the heart of a great mechanical city, perhaps. A mechanical servant may murder his human master in the space which you now call your room. The great revolt of the mechanisms may start in your room....
I think that your room will some day again be shrouded under a forest growth. The mechanical city will be neglected, tumbled into ruins, buried beneath the silt of the passing centuries. The sun will slowly rise—a giant dull red ball, burning out, cooling. And the Earth will cool. Humans, perhaps, will have passed decadence and reverted to savagery. Perhaps the polar ice-caps will again come down, and ice slowly cover the dying world. All nature will be struggling and dying, with the sun a red ball turning dark like a cooling ember.
Millions of centuries, with whatever events—who am I to say?—but it will go on to the End. That's a long way from the Beginning, isn't it? And yet ours is only a tiny planet living briefly in the great cosmos of Time and Space!
A segment of Everything that ever was and ever will be marches through the Space of your room. What an enormously thronged little Space! There is only Time, to keep consecutive and orderly the myriad events which in your room are pushing and jostling one another! I say, then, "Time is what keeps everything from happening at once." It seems a good definition.
I do hope you like "The Exile of Time." The writing of it made me realize how unimportant I am. A human lifetime is really as brief as the flash of an electric spark. The whole lifetime of our Earth is not much more than that. Stars, worlds, are born, live and die, and the Great Cosmos goes majestically on. Yet some people seem to feel that they and the Space they occupy in this Time they call the Present are the most important things that ever were or ever will be in the whole Universe. It is a good thing to realize that that isn't so.—Ray Cummings.
Starting with the August issue, I am going to give my opinion of the stories.
"The Planet of Dread," by R. F. Starzl, couldn't have been better. Get more stories by him. "Murder Madness," by Murray Leinster, was a good story, but it didn't belong in a Science Fiction magazine. "The Terrible Tentacles of L-472," a good story; "The Invisible Death," a very good story; "Prisoners on the Electron," very good; "The Ape-Men of Xlotli," a good story, but it does not belong in a Science Fiction magazine; "The Pirate Planet," very excellent—much more so because it is an interplanetary story. "Vagabonds of Space," "The Fifth Dimension Catapult," "The Gate of Xoran," "The Dark Side of Antri"—all good.
Well, I guess I will sign off and give somebody else a chance to broadcast.—Wm. McCalvy, 1244 Beech St., St. Paul, Minn.
I Do; I Don't
"I like the magazine the way it is," "I want a larger magazine," "I want a magazine twice a month," "I want a quarterly," and so do I, "There is a terrible flaw in one of the stories," "All of the stories are flawless," "I want reprints," "I don't," "I like Ray Cummings," "I don't," "I want a better grade paper," "The paper's O. K. with me," "I want smooth edges on the magazine," "So do I," "And so do I!"—these seem to be the most often repeated sentences in the letters from Readers.
However, I have a new one to add: I would like to see an answer, by the Editor, to each letter that is printed in "The Readers' Corner," like this: "I liked 'An Extra Man,' etc.—Mr. Syence Ficshun" (I am very glad to hear that you liked this little masterpiece, etc.—Editor). Why not?
The illustration on the cover of the January issue surely shows that you're starting the new year out right by putting on an extremely astounding cover. The story "The Gate to Xoran" is simply amazing. Let's read many more of Mr. Wells stories. It is far surpassed, however, by "The Fifth Dimension Catapult," which is the best story (novelette) that I have ever read in "our" magazine.
The Boys' Scientification Club is now a branch of the famous Science Correspondence Club. Remember, boys between the ages of 10 and 15, if you're interested in reading Science Fiction, by all means join the B. S. C. We have many copies of Astounding Stories in our library and members are welcome to read them. For further details write to me.—Forrest J. Ackerman, President-Librarian, B. S. C., 530 Staples Avenue, San Francisco, Cal.
Souls and Integrations
You are starting your second year as Editor of Astounding Stories. If your standard during 1931 is up to your standard of 1930, we shall be satisfied. If possible, give us, the Readers, the best in Science Fiction. I have no doubt but that the Readers of Astounding Stories would not want fantasy unless written by a master; and to my mind there is only one whom I will forgive for not making his stories Science Fiction, and that writer is A. Merritt. Every other writer should and must put plausible science in his stories. If he doesn't, he won't go far; not with Science Fiction readers, anyway.
I do not agree to your answer, by letter, to my complaint about the science in the story, "An Extra Man," by Jackson Gee. You say that two men, each the size and half the weight of the original man could have been formed from the integrated particles of the original man. In the story, the weight of the two men was exactly the same as that of the original man. [?] Anyway, I do not believe that these two men could have been formed. Most likely, when the laboratories began the process of reintegration, the person integrated would have been cut in half, provided of course, that the laboratories began the process at the same time. If not, one laboratory would produce a larger portion of an integrated man than the other.
But to come back to the original question. Can a man be disintegrated into his component atoms and then reintegrated into two men each half the size, weight, ability and brains? I say no. I believe that the component atoms of the man when reintegrated would be in exactly the same place as they were before the disintegration occurred. If a part and not the whole of a man is reintegrated in one place, then the part would be one part of that man and not a complete man in itself.
It would be as preposterous and absurd for anything but a part of that man to be reintegrated, as it would be for two apes, pigs or hens to come from him. I leave out the question of what would happen to the soul. Imagine a soul divided in half. Mr. Gee might say that he doesn't believe in souls. Neither do I, much. I notice that some Readers say that they liked that story. One even says that it was perfect. Every man to his taste. I've read worse, myself.
Anyway, Mr. Editor, Astounding Stories is the finest and best Science Fiction magazine on the market.
Many Readers want to keep their magazines and bind them, including myself. Why change the size? I'm certain that that won't be done. Astounding Stories started small (in size only) and it will remain small (also only in size). Let us have reprints.—Nathan Greenfeld, 373 Whitlock Ave., New York City.
The Defense Rests
I have just read the January issue for 1931 and noticed some so-called helpful letters by Readers. Looking over Mr. Waite's letter, would like to suggest that he stop to think, if possible, that if he wants absolute bone-dry facts, that he doesn't want fiction at all. And Mr. Johnson—he seems to have the impression that everyone who can take things for granted without having a detailed explanation of the facts of the story is a moron or a small child. He should go find a volume of scientific research if he enjoys that sort of stuff. I read fiction stories for the enjoyment I get out of them and not to criticize them for lack of explanation. I would rather read some of his so-called nonsense than a lot of far-flung, intricate, baseless scientific explanations. Why doesn't Mr. Johnson use his imagination?—Donald Kahl, 360 Selby Ave., St. Paul, Minn.
I have been reading the magazine ever since it first came out, a year ago, so it is high time for me to write. It certainly grows better with every new issue.
I think that the ten best stories published during 1930 were (not in order of merit): "Brigands of the Moon," "Vandals of the Stars," "The Atom Smasher," "The Moon Master," "Earth, the Marauder," "The Planet of Dread," "Silver Dome," "The Second Satellite," "Jetta of the Lowlands" and "The Pirate Planet."
Your ten best authors are: Harl Vincent, Ray Cummings, Charles W. Diffin, Victor Rousseau, Capt. S. P. Meek, Murray Leinster, Arthur J. Burks, R. F. Starzl, Sewell P. Wright and Edmond Hamilton.
The Commander Hanson stories by S. P. Wright are great. Let's have lots more of them.
And now about reprints. I cast my vote like many other readers in favor of them. Many Readers, in fact over half, are new Readers of Science Fiction. They, like myself, have not read the great masterpieces such as "The Time Machine," "The Moon Pool" and countless other stories. Now, why not reprint some of them and give us a chance to read them? A few Readers who have read them before do not want them reprinted because they do not want anybody else to read them.
A brickbat: Why not cut the edges of the magazine smooth? It would be much easier to handle.
A bouquet: You have a fine magazine. Keep up the good stuff. My criticism is exhausted, so good-by until next time.—Oswald Train, P. O. Box 94, Barnesboro, Pa.
Two Dimensions Off?
It was just by accident that I came across your magazine, and I have read every issue since.
In the January number there is one story that I don't like, "The Fifth Dimension Catapult." As far as the story is concerned it is very good, but Professor Denham was not marooned in the fifth dimension. If you read the story you will find that Professor Denham was marooned on a three dimensional world. That is all I can make out.
Astounding Stories is the best Science Fiction magazine I have ever read, and I shall keep on reading it.
Keep up the good cover illustrations.—Richard Meindle, R. 1, Box 91, Butternut, Wisconsin.
To the Colors!
Being a passionate admirer of Dr. Breuer and his writings, I cannot permit the contumelious, unfounded aggression of one George K. Addison to go on unconfuted.
Perceiving that Dr. Breuer cannot possibly vindicate himself against this disparagement I feel obliged to extenuate Dr. Breuer in the eyes of the Readers.
In the first place, Dr. Breuer writes rarely and sparingly and does not grind out his stories month after month as do some other authors. His stories are highly original and are presented in a purely literary style. The story to which Mr. Addison refers, "A Problem in Communication," is a fine example of his work. Should his story be remonstrated against because it is lacking in adventure, because it did not delineate mushy love episodes, because it does not cause chills to run down one's spine? Positively not! It lives up to the standard of the highest Science Fiction. Here is a story unbesmirched by the love element, exceedingly plausible and interestingly narrated.
If all stories were thought out and written just half as carefully as Dr. Breuer's, Astounding Stories would become a periodical justified to be considered on a par with The Golden Book.
In closing, I wish to express my desire that more stories of the Breuer quality be bestowed upon the Readers.—Mortimer Weisinger, 266 Van Cortland Ave., Bronx, New York.
And It Wasn't!
Having read "The Readers' Corner" since its first appearance in Astounding Stories and noted the various criticisms offered, may I tell you about a story written by a Science Fiction author?
The author, by the way, is the perfect author; he makes absolutely no mistakes in his story, and is in no danger of starving if his works aren't accepted and older stories are reprinted instead. His science is correct and the story contains nothing that cannot be understood.
The story is of interplanetary adventure. Strange to say, there is no war in the story; there is no villain; there is no hero to save a world from destruction or his sweetheart from the monsters of another planet. Instead, there are nothing but characters—if you get what I mean. The persons involved in this interplanetary novel reach their goal due to the tremendous strides of science in experimenting with air and space vehicles.
When they arrive on the planet they do not meet hostile nations. They do not meet monstrosities. They do, however, meet people much like themselves who do not welcome the travelers with open arms and show them about their city, but regard them with curiosity and treat them with all due respect for their achievement in conquering space.
As I said before, there is no hero who falls in love with the beautiful girl from the planet visited, and saves her and her country from other warring nations. To tell the truth, the adventurers have their own loved ones at home. They meet no intrigue. When they have learned all they can—experiencing many difficulties in mastering the language used, for the people of the planet have not perfected a brain-copier or other like mechanism—they arrange for commerce and travel between the two worlds and return to Earth. On their return, they are not met with world wide ovations and made heroes of, but receive credit for their undertaking and are soon forgotten about.
To cap the climax, the story is acceptable to the Editors. It is not in need of corrections and is published immediately. The story is gratefully accepted by the public and not one single soul writes a scathing letter to the Editor telling why it was not good. In fact, I can hardly believe that such a story was written. Possibly it wasn't!—Robert R. Young, 86 Third Avenue, Kingston, Penn.
Christmas day, and because I'm not acquainted in this city I'm writing you a letter.
I have just finished reading your magazine. I came close to not buying it, being not overly prosperous, but decided to take a chance when I saw you had a dimensional story by Murray Leinster. That story was up to expectations. The others were down to expectations.
If you want me to choose your magazine to spend my reading allowance on, have more stories by Leinster, Starzl, Breuer and Wells. It may take a little more effort, but it's worth it. Sax Rohmer is good on science stuff, too.
Before you print any more undersea stories have a diver look at them. You tell about standing at the bottom of the ocean and seeing the submarine "not more than a quarter of a mile away." Ha-ha! [No fair, that ha-ha! For the story says, quoted exactly: "... there gleamed the reassuring LIGHTS of the Nereid, not a quarter of a mile away." Probably, intense searchlight beams could be seen that far.—Ed.] You couldn't see it if you stood more than ten feet away. I'm not trying to be critical, but you should be more careful.—Myron Higgins, 524 West 100th St., New York City.
We Never Will
I have been an enthusiastic reader of Astounding Stories since it was founded, and I think it about time that I voiced my opinion of your great magazine.
Taking all in all it's a vow, but of course it could be made better by having a quarterly, which I am sure would go over big.
Wesso is great, so why not have all the illustrations by him?
Your authors are also great. Nearly every story I have read was perfect, and whatever you do don't lose R. F. Starzl. His ideas are very good, as illustrated in "The Planet of Dread."
There is only one more thing I would like to ask of you, and that is the reason why I write. Please don't spoil the magazine by endeavoring to please a very small minority by putting in unnecessary scientific explanations. The reason why I like your magazine so much is because of the fact that it is unique in that respect. I have read a few stories in other scientific magazines and found that they contained too much explanation. I hope for the benefit of other Readers and myself that you will not change the stories by adding too much explanation.
In the coming year I wish you all possible success.—John Sheehan, 32 Elm St., Cambridge, Mass.
This and That
In the October issue of Astounding Stories Mr. Woodrow Gelman cast vote number 1 for reprints. In the February, 1931, issue, Mr. Forgaris throws in number 2 and here goes number 3. I really don't see why, even after the arguments you printed, you don't print at least one a year. I have been reading your magazine ever since it came out and have found that at least one-half of your Readers want reprints. Can't you print at least one for an experiment?
Ray Cummings, S. P. Meek, Dr. Miles J. Breuer, Sewell P. Wright and Harl Vincent are your best authors. Wesso is your best artist by far.
There were several stories I did not like. They are: "Monsters of Moyen," "Earth, the Marauder," and I guess those are all.
How about giving us some short short stories? And how about cutting the edges of the paper smooth? And giving us a quarterly? But all in all I think your magazine is one of the best in the field.—Vernon H. Jones, 1603 Sixth Ave., Des Moines, Iowa.
It's Your Imagination
Well, well! Astounding Stories was two days early this month. See that this happens more often.
Of course, "The Pirate Planet" took first place in the February number. The story was very well written and the characters very realistic. It deserves to be put in book form, also in the talkies. It would be much better than "Just Imagine."
I welcome Anthony Gilmore, D. W. Hall and F. V. W. Mason to Astounding Stories. Their stories proved to be very interesting and I hope to read more.
Do you know how to write editorials? Yes? Then prove it. I have to be shown. Write on some scientific subject each month, and every so often write on Astounding Stories itself and of its stories and authors.
Is it my imagination or have you been using a better grade of paper in the past two issues? it seems to be much smoother and a little thinner than that used previously.