"Right," I agreed. "Your food is marvelous, friend Spawn."
* * * * *
There was a difference in Spawn's manner toward me now. He seemed far more wary. Outwardly he was in a high good humor. He asked nothing concerning my morning at the Government House. He puttered over his electron-stove, making me help him; he cursed the heat; he said one could not eat in such heat as this; but the meal he cooked, and the way he sat down opposite me and attacked it, belied him.
He was acting; but so was I. And perhaps I deceived him as little as he deceived me. We avoided the things which were uppermost in the thoughts of us both. But, when we had very nearly finished the meal, I decided to try him out. I said suddenly, out of a silence:
"Spawn, why didn't you tell me you were a producer of quicksilver?" I shot him a sharp glance. "You are, aren't you?"
It took him by surprise, but he recovered himself instantly. "Yes. Are you interested?"
I tried another shot. "What surprised me was that a wealthy mine owner—you are, aren't you?—should bother to keep an unprofitable hotel. Why bother with it, Spawn?"
I thought I knew the answer: he wanted Nareda's visitors under his eyes.
"That is a pleasure." There was irony in his tone. "I am a lonesome man. I like—interesting companionship, such as yours, young Grant."
It was on my tongue to hint at his daughter. But I thought better of it.
"I am going to the mine now," he said abruptly. "Would you like to come?"
"Yes," I smiled. "Thanks."
* * * * *
I wanted to see his mine. But that he should be eager to show it, surprised me. I wondered what purpose he could have in that. I had a hint of it later; for when we took his little autocar and slid up the winding road into the bloated crags towering on the slope behind Nareda, he told me calmly:
"I shall have to put you in charge of my mine commander. I am busy elsewhere this afternoon. You will see the mine just as well without me."
He added. "I must go to the Government House: President Markes wants a report on my recent production."
So that was what Perona had told him over the audiphone just before our noonday meal?
It was an inferno of shadows and glaring lights, this underground cavern. As modern mining activities go, it was small and primitive. No more than a dozen men were here, beside the sweating pudgy mine commander who was my guide. A voluble fellow; of what original nationality I could not determine.
We stood watching the line of carts dumping the ore onto the endless lifting-belt. It went a hundred feet or so up and out of the cavern's ascending shaft, to fall with a clatter into the bins above the smelter.
"Rich ore," I said. "Isn't it?"
The cinnabar ran like thick blood-red veins in the rock.
"Rich," said the mine commander. "That it is. Rich. But who does it make rich? Only Spawn, not me." He waved his arms, airing his grievance with which for an hour past he had regaled me. "Only Spawn. For me, a dole each week."
The smelter was in a stone building—one of a small group of mine houses which stood in a cauldron depression above excavations. Rounded domes of rock towered above them. The sun, even at this tri-noon hour, was gone behind the heights above us. The murky shadows of night were gathering, the mists of the Lowlands settling. The tube-lights of the mine, strung between small metal poles, winked on like bleary eyes.
"Of a day soon I will fling this job to hell—"
* * * * *
I was paying scant attention to the fellow's tirade. Could there be smuggling going on from this mine? It all seemed to be conducted openly enough. If the production record were being falsified I felt that this dissatisfied mine commander was not aware of it. He showed me the smelter, where the quicksilver condensed in the coils and ran with its small luminous silver streams into the vats.
He was called away momentarily by one of his men, leaving me standing there. I was alone; no one seemed in sight, or within hearing. In the shadow of the condensers I drew out my transmitter and called Hanley.
I got him within a minute.
"Yes, Phil. I hoped you'd call me. Didn't want to chance it, raising you when you might not be alone."
I told him swiftly what I had done; where I was now.
And Hanley said, with equal briskness: "I've an important fact. Just had Markes on secret wave-length. He tells me that Spawn has been saving up his quicksilver for six months past. He's got several hundred thousand dollar-standards' worth of it in ingots there right now."
"Here at the mine?"
"Yes. Got them all radiuminized, ready for the highest priced markets. Markes says he is scheduled to turn them over to the government checkers to-morrow. The Nareda government takes its share to-morrow; then Spawn exports the rest."
I heard a footstep. "Off, Chief! I'll call you later!"
I clicked off summarily. The little grid was under my shirt when the mine commander rejoined me.
* * * * *
For another half hour or to I hovered about the smelter house. A treasure of quicksilver ingots here? I mentioned it casually to my companion. He shot me a sharp glance.
"Spawn has told you that?"
"I heard it."
"His business. We do not talk of that. Never can I tell what Spawn will choose to take offense at."
We rambled upon other subjects. Later, he said, "We work not at night. But Spawn, he is here often at night, with his friend, the Senor Perona."
That caught my attention. "I met Perona this morning," I said quickly. "Is he a partner of Spawn's?"
"If he is so, I never was told it. But much he is here—at night."
"Why at night?"
The fellow really knew nothing. Or if he did, he was diplomatic enough not to jeopardize his post by babbling of it to me. He said:
"Perona is Spawn's friend. Why not? His daughter to marry: that will make him a son-in-law." He laughed. "An old fool, but not such a fool either. Spawn is rich."
"His daughter. Has he a daughter?"
"The little Jetta. You haven't seen her? Well, that is not strange. Spawn keeps her very hidden. A mystery about it: all Nareda talks, but no one knows; and Spawn does not like questions."
Spawn abruptly joined us! He came from the black shadows of the lurid smelter room. Had he heard us discussing Jetta? I wondered.
"Ah, Grant—have you enjoyed yourself?" He dismissed his subordinate. "I was detained. Sorry."
He was smoothly imperturbable. "Have you seen everything? Quite a little plant I have here? We shut down early to-day. I will make ready to close."
I followed him about while he arranged for the termination of the day's activities. The clatter of the smelter house was presently still; the men departing. Spawn and I were the last to leave, save for the eight men who were the mine's night guards. They were stalwart, silent fellows, armed with electronic needle projectors.
The lights of the mine went low until they were mere pencil points of blue illumination in the gloom. The eery look of the place was intensified by the darkness and silence of the abnormally early nightfall. The fantastic crags stood dark with formless shadow.
Spawn stopped to speak to one of the guards. The men wore a gold-trimmed, but now dirty, white linen uniform, wilted by the heat—the uniform of Nareda's police. I remarked it to him.
"The government lent me the men," Spawn explained. "Of an ordinary time I have only one guard."
"But this then, is not an ordinary time?" I hinted.
He looked at me sharply. And upon sudden impulse, I added:
"President Markes said something about you having a treasure here. Radiumized quicksilver."
It was evidently Spawn's desire to appear thoroughly frank with me. He laughed. "Well, then, if Markes has told you, then might I not as well admit it? The treasure is here, indeed yes. Will you like to see it?"
* * * * *
He led me into a little strong room adjoining the smelter coil-rectifiers. He flashed his hand searchlight. On the floor, piled crosswise, were small moulded bars of refined quicksilver—dull, darkened silver ingots of this world's most precious metal.
"Quite a treasure, Grant, here to-night. See, it is radiumized."
He snapped off his torch. In the darkness the little bars glowed irridescent.
"To-morrow I will divide with our Nareda government. One-third for them. And my own share I will export: to Great New York, this shipment. Already I have the order for it."
He added calmly, "The duty is high, Grant. Too bad your big New York market is protected by so large a duty. With my cost of production—these accursed Lowland workmen who demand so much for their labor, and a third of all I produce taken by Nareda—there is not much in it for me."
He had re-lighted the room. I could feel his eyes on me, but I said nothing. It was obvious to me now that he knew I was a government customs agent.
I said, "This certainly interests me, friend Spawn. I'll tell you why some other time."
We exchanged significant glances, both of us smiling.
"Well can I guess it, young Grant. So here is my treasure. Without the duty I would soon be wealthy. Chut! Why should I roll in a pity for myself? There is a duty and I am an honest man, so I pay it."
I said, "Aren't you afraid to leave this stored here?" I knew that this pile of ingots—the quicksilver in its radiumized form—was worth four or five hundred thousand dollars in American gold-coin at the very least.
* * * * *
Spawn shrugged. "Who would attack it? But of course I will be glad to be rid of it. It is a great responsibility—even though it carries international insurance, to protect my and the Nareda Government share."
He was sealing up the heavy barred portals of the little strong-room. There was an alarm-detector, connected with the office of Nareda's police commander. Spawn set the alarm carefully.
"I have every safeguard, Grant. There is really no danger." He added, as though with sudden thought. "Except possibly one—a depth bandit named De Boer. Ever you have heard of him?"
"Yes. I have."
We climbed into Spawn's small automatic vehicle. The lights of the mine faded behind us as we coasted the winding road down to the village.
"De Boer," said Spawn. "A fellow who lives by his wits in the depths. Near here, perhaps: who knows? They say he has many followers—fifty—a hundred, perhaps—outlaws: a cut-belly band it must be."
"Didn't he once take a hand in Nareda's politics?" I suggested.
Spawn guffawed. "That is so. He was once what they called a patriot here. He thought he might be made President. But Markes ran him out. Now he is a bandit. I have believe that American mail-ship which sank last year in the cauldron north of the Nares Sea—you remember how it was attacked by bandits?—I have always believe that was De Boer's band."
* * * * *
We rolled back to Nareda. Spawn's manner had again changed. He seemed even more friendly than before. More at his ease with me. We had supper, and smoked together in his living room for half an hour afterward. But my thoughts were more on Jetta than on her father. There was still no evidence of her about the premises. Ah, if I only had known what had taken place there at Spawn's that afternoon while I was at the mine!
Soon after supper Spawn yawned. "I think I shall go to bed." His glance was inquiring. "What are you going to do?"
I stood up. "I'll go to bed, too. Markes wants to see me early in the morning. You'll be there, Spawn?"
"Yes. We will go together."
It was still no more than eight o'clock in the evening. Spawn followed me to my bedroom, and left me at its door.
"Sleep well. I will call you in time."
I wondered if there were irony in his voice as he said good night. No one could have told.
* * * * *
I did not go to bed. I sat listening to the silence of my room and the garden, and Spawn's retreating footsteps. He had said he was sleepy, but nevertheless I presently heard him across the patio. He was apparently in the kitchen, cleaning away our meal, to judge by the rattling of his pans. It was as yet not much after hour eight of the evening. The hours before my tryst with Jetta seemed an interminable time to wait. She might not come, though, I was afraid, until midnight.
At all events I felt that I had some hours yet. And it occurred to me that the evening was not yet too far advanced for me to call upon Perona. He lived not far from here, I had learned. I wanted to see this beribboned old Minister of Nareda's Internal Affairs.
I would use as my excuse a desire to discuss further the possibility of smuggler being here in Nareda.
I put on my hat and a light jacket, verified that my dirk was readily accessible and sealed up my room. Spawn apparently was still in the kitchen. I got out of the house, I felt sure, without him being aware of it.
* * * * *
The Nareda streets were quiet. There was a few pedestrians, and none of them paid much attention to me. It was no more than ten minutes walk to Perona's home.
His house was set back from the road, surrounded by luxurious vegetation. There was a gate in front of the garden, and another, a hundred feet or to along a small alleyway which bordered the ground to my left. I was about to enter the front gate when sight of a figure passing under the garden foliage checked me. It was a man, evidently coming from the house and headed toward the side gate. He went through a shaft of light that slanted from one of the lower windows of the house.
Perona! I was sure it was he. His slight figure, with a gay, tri-cornered hat. A short tasseled cloak hanging from his shoulders. He was alone; walking fast. He evidently had not seen me. I crouched outside the high front wall, and through its lattice bars I saw him reach the side gate, open it swiftly, pass through, and close it after him. There was something furtive about his manner, for all he was undisguised. I decided to follow him.
The front street fortunately was deserted at the moment. I waited long enough for him to appear. But he did not; and when I ran to the alley corner—chancing bumping squarely into him—I saw him far down its dim, narrow length where it opened into the back street which bordered his grounds to the rear. He turned to the left and shot a swift glance up the alley, which I anticipated, provided for by drawing back. When I looked again, he was gone.
* * * * *
I have had some experience at playing the shadow. But it was not easy here along the almost deserted and fairly bright Nareda streets. Perona was walking swiftly down the slope toward the outskirts of the village where it bordered upon the Nares Sea. For a time I thought he was headed for the landing field, but at a cross-path he turned sharply to the right, away from the field, whose sheen of lights I could now see down the rocky defile ahead of me. There was nothing but broken, precipitous rocky country ahead of him, into which this path he had taken was winding. What could Perona, a Minister, be engaged in, wandering off alone into this black, deserted region?
It was black indeed, by now. The village was soon far behind us. A storm was in the night air; a wind off the sea; solid black clouds overhead blotted out the moon and stars. The crags and buttes and gullies of this tumbled area loomed barely visible about me. There were times when only my feel of the path under my feet kept me from straying, to fall into a ravine or crevice.
I prowled perhaps two hundred yards behind Perona. He was using a tiny hand-flash now; it bobbed and winked in the darkness ahead, vanishing sometimes when a curve in the path hid him, or when he plunged down into a gully and up again. I had no search-beam. Nor would I have dared use one: Perona could too obviously have seen that someone was following him.
There was half a mile of this, I think, though it seemed interminable. I could hear the sea, rising with the wind, pounding against the rocks to my left. Then, a distance ahead, I saw lights moving. Perona's—and others. Three or four of them. Their combined glow made a radiance which illumined the path and rocks. I could see the figures of several men whom Perona had joined. They stood a moment and then moved off. To the right a ragged cliff wall towered the path. The spots of light bobbed toward it. I caught the vague outline of a huge broken opening, like a cave mouth in the cliff. The lights were swallowed by it.
I crept cautiously forward.
I had thought it was a cavern mouth into which the men had disappeared, but it was not. I reached it without any encounter. It loomed above me, a great archway in the cliff—an opening fifty feet high and equally as broad. And behind it was a roofless cave—a sort of irregularly circular bowl, five hundred feet across its broken, bowlder-strewn, caked-ooze floor.
I crouched in the blackness under the archway. The moon had risen and its light filtered with occasional shafts through the swift-flying black clouds overhead. The scene was brighter. It was dark in the archway, but a glow of moonlight in the bowl beyond showed me its tumbled floor and the precipitous, eroded walls, like a crater-rim, which encircled it.
The men whom Perona had met were across the bowl near its opposite side. I could see the group of them, five hundred feet from me, by a little moonlight that was on them; also by the sheen from the spots of their hand-lights. Four or five men, and Perona. I thought I distinguished the aged Minister sitting on a rock, and before him a huge giant man's figure striding up and down. Perona seemed talking vehemently: the men were listening; the giant paused occasionally in his pacing to fling a question.
All this I saw with my first swift glance. My attention was drawn from the men to an object near them. The nose of a flyer showed between two upstanding crags on the floor of the valley. Only its forward horizontal propellers and the tip of its cabin and landing gear were visible, but I could guess that it was a fair-sized ship.
The men were too far away for me to hear them. Could I get across the floor of the bowl without discovery? It did not seem so. The accursed moonlight became stronger every moment. Then I saw a guard—a dark figure of a man showing just inside the archway, some seventy feet from me. He was leaning against a rock, facing my way. In his hands was a thick-barreled electronic projector.
I could not advance: that was obvious. The moonlight lay in a clear clean patch beyond the archway. The guard stood at its edge.
* * * * *
A minute or two had passed. Perona was still talking vehemently. I was losing it: not a word was audible. Yet I felt that if I could hear Perona now, much that Hanley and I wanted to learn would be made clear to us. My little microphone receiver could be adjusted for audible air vibrations. I crouched and held it cautiously above my head with its face, like a listening ear, turned toward the distant men. My single-vacuum amplification brought up the sound until their voices sounded like whispers murmured in my ear-grids.
"De Boer, listen to me—"
Perona's voice. They must have been chance words spoken loudly. It was all I could hear, save tantalizing, unintelligible murmurs.
So this was De Boer, the bandit! The big fellow pacing before Perona. I wanted infinitely more, now, to hear what was being said.
I thought of Hanley. There might be a way of handling this.
I had to murmur very softly. I was hidden in these shadows from the guard's sight, but he was close enough to hear my normal voice. I chanced it. A wind was sucking through the archway with an audible whine: the guard might not hear me.
"X. 2. AY."
The sorter's desk. He came in. I murmured Hanley's rating. "Rush. Danger. Special."
It went swiftly through. Hanley, thank Heaven, was at his desk.
* * * * *
I plugged in my little image finder; held it over my head; turned it slowly. I whispered:
"Look around, Chief. See where I am? Near Nareda; couple of miles out. Followed Perona; he met these men.
"The big one is De Boer, the depth bandit. I can't hear what they're saying—but I can send you their voice murmurs."
"Amplify them all you can. Relay them up," Hanley ordered.
I caught Perona's murmurs again; I swung them through my tiny transformers and off my transmitter points into the ether.
"Hear them, Chief?"
"Yes. I'll try further amplification."
It was what I had intended. Hanley's greater power might be able to amplify those murmurs into audible strength.
"I'm getting them, Phil."
He swung them back to me. Grotesquely distorted, blurred with tube-hum and interference crackle, they roared in my ear-grids so loudly that I saw the nearby guard turn his head as though startled. Listening....
But evidently he concluded it was nothing.
I cut down the volume. Hanley switched in.
"By God. Phil! This—"
"Off, Chief! Let me hear, too!"
* * * * *
He cut away. Those distorted voices! They came from Perona and the bandits to me across this five hundred foot moonlit bowl; from me, thirteen hundred miles up to Hanley's instruments; and back to me once more. But the words, most of them, now were distinguishable.
Perona's voice: "I tell it to you. De Boer ... and a good chance for you to make the money."
"But will they pay?"
"Of course they will pay. Big. A ransom princely."
"And why, Perona? Why princely? Who is this fellow—so important?"
"He is with rich business men, I tell to you."
"A private citizen?"
"... And a private citizen, of a surety. Fool! Have you come to be a coward, De Boer?"
"Well then I tell you it is a lifetime chance. All of it I have arranged. If he was a government agent, that would be very different, for they are very keen, this administration of the American government, to protect their agents. But their private citizens—it is a scandal! Do you not ever pick the newscasters' reports, De Boer? Has it not been a scandal that this administration does very little for its citizens abroad?"
"And you want to get rid of this fellow? Why, Perona?"
"That is not your concern. The ransom is to be all yours. Make away with him—in the depths somewhere. Demand your ransom. Fifty thousand gold-standards! Demand it of me. Of Nareda!"
"And you will pay it?"
"I promise it. Nareda will pay it—and Nareda will collect the ransom from the American capitalists. Very easy."
His voice fell lower. "Between us, you will get the ransom money from Nareda—and then kill your prisoner if you like. Call it an accident; what matter? And dead men are silent men, De Boer. I will see that no real pursuit is made after you."
* * * * *
They were talking about me! It was obvious. Questions rushed at me. Perona, planning with this bandit to abduct me. Hold me for ransom. Or kill me! But Perona knew that I was not a private citizen. He was lying to De Boer, to persuade him.
Why this attack upon me? Was Spawn in on it? Why were they so anxious to get rid of me? Because of Jetta? Or because I was dangerous, prying into their smuggling activities. Or both?
De Boer: "... Get up with my men through the streets to Spawn's house? You have it fixed?"
"Yes. Over the route from here as I told you, there are no police to-night. I have ordered them off. In the garden. Dios! You offer so many objections! I tell you all is fixed. In an hour, half an hour; even now, perhaps, the Americano is in the garden. The girl has promised to meet him there. He will be there, fear not. Will you go?"
"Hah! That is the De Boer I have always admired!"
I could see them in the moonlight across the pit. Perona now standing up, the giant figure of the bandit towering over him.
* * * * *
Hanley's microscopic voice cut in: "Getting it, Phil? To seize you for ransom!"
"Yes. I hear it."
"This girl. Who—?"
"Wait, Chief. Off—"
De Boer: "I will do it! Fifty thousand."
Perona: "An hour now. Spawn will be at his home asleep."
"And you will go to the mine?"
"Yes. Now, from here. You seize this fellow Grant, and then attack the mine. Our regular plan, De Boer. This does not change it."
Attack Spawn's mine! Half a million of treasure was there to-night!
Perona was chuckling: "You give Spawn's guards the signal. They are all my men—in my pay. They will run away when you appear."
Hanley cut in again. "By the gods, they're after that treasure! Phil, listen to me! you must...." His voice faded.
"Chief, I can't hear you!"
Hanley came again: "... And I will notify Porto Rico. The local patrol will be about ready to leave."
"Or notify Nareda headquarters," I suggested. "If you can get President Markes, he can send some police to the mine—"
"And find all Nareda's police bribed by Perona? I'll get Porto Rico. We have an hour or two; the patrol can reach you in an hour."
The bandits were preparing to leave here. Two or three of them had gone to the flyer. Perona and De Boer were parting.
"... Well, that is all, De Boer."
"Right, Senor Perona. I will start shortly."
"On foot, by the street route to Spawn's—"
Hanley's hurried voice came back: "I've sent the call to Porto Rico."
* * * * *
The guard had moved again. He was no more than forty feet away from me now—standing up gazing directly toward where I was crouching over my tiny instruments in the shadows of the rocky arch. A footstep sounded behind me, on the path outside the arch. Someone approaching!
A tiny light bobbing!
Then a voice calling, "Perona! De Boer!"
The guard took a step forward; stopped, with levelled weapon.
Then the voice again: it was so loud it went through my opened relay, flashed up to New York, and blew out half a dozen of Hanley's attuned vacuums.
Spawn's voice! He was coming toward me! I lay prone, my little grids switched off. I held my breath.
Spawn's figure went past within ten feet of me. But he did not see me.
He met the guard. "Hello, Gutierrez. The damned American—"
Perona and De Boer came hastening. Spawn joined them in the moonlight just beyond the archway, close enough for me to hear them plainly. Spawn was out of breath, panting from his swift walk. He greeted them with a roar.
"The American—he is gone!"
"Dios! Gone where, Spawn?"
"The hell—how do I know, Perona? He is gone from his room—from the house. Maybe he followed you here? Did he?"
Behind the Sealed Door
There was a moment when I think I might have escaped unseen from that archway. But I was too amazed at Spawn's appearance to think of my own situation. I had believed that Perona was plotting against Spawn, meeting these bandits in this secret place; I had just heard them planning to attack Spawn's mine—to rob it of the treasure doubtless, which I knew was stored there.
But I realized now it was not a plot against Spawn. He had come here swiftly to join Perona and tell him that I, their intended victim, was missing. He had greeted the bandit guard by name. He seemed, indeed, as well known to these bandits as Perona himself.
They stood now in a group some thirty feet away from me. I could hear their excited voices perfectly clearly. My instruments were off; but I recall that as I listened to Spawn I was also aware of the tingle of the electrode-band on my chest—Hanley, vigorously calling me back to find out why I had so summarily disconnected.
"I took him to his room," Spawn was explaining excitedly. "De duvel, why should I have sealed him in? How could I? He is no child!"
De Boer laughed caustically. "And so he has walked away from you? I think I am a fool to mix myself with you two."
Perona retorted, "I have made you rich, De Boer. Think what you like; to-night is the end of our partnership. Only, you do what I have told you to-night."
"Hah! How can I? Your American has flown his trap."
This guard—this Gutierrez, as Spawn had called him—was listening with interest. De Boer's several other men were gathered there. I felt myself safe where I was, for the moment at least.
* * * * *
I cut Hanley in. "Chief, they're closer! Spawn has come! They've missed me! I'll relay what they're saying, but you step it down; there's too much volume."
"You're all right, Phil? Thank Heaven for that! Something blew my vacuums."
"Chief, listen—here they are—"
Perona: "But he will be back. In the garden now, no doubt, with Jetta."
De Boer: "Ah—the little Jetta! So she is there, Spawn? Not in years have you spoken of your daughter. A young lady now, I suppose. Is it so?"
Spawn cursed. "We leave her out of this. You follow the Senor's plan."
"Come to your house? You think the bird will be there for me to seize?"
"Yes," Perona put in. "You go there; in an hour. Then to the mine."
Spawn undoubtedly was in this plot to attack his mine! He said, "At the mine we have arranged everything. Damn this American! But for Perona I would not bother with him."
"But you will bother," Perona interjected.
De Boer laughed again. "I would be witless could I not figure this! He is a young man, and so handsome he has frightened you with the little Jetta! Is that it, Perona? Jealous, eh?"
I had been holding the image finder so that Hanley might see them. Hanley's voice rattled my ear-grid. "Phil! Get away from there! Look! De Boer is searching!"
* * * * *
De Boer had, a moment before, spoken quietly aside to Gutierrez. And now three or four of the men were spreading out, poking about with small hand-flashes. Searching for me! The possibility that I might be here, eavesdropping!
Hanley repeated vehemently, "Phil, they'll find you! Get out of there: the way is still open!"
Gutierrez was approaching the archway. But I lingered a moment longer.
"Chief, you heard about that girl, Jetta, Spawn's daughter—"
I stopped. Perona was saying, "Spawn, was Jetta still in her room? You did not untie her?"
"And gagged? Suppose the Americano was back there now? She might call to him, and he would release her—"
De Boer: "How do you know he is not around here? Listening?"
With the assumption that I might be within hearing, De Boer tried to trap me. Gutierrez, at a signal now, suddenly dashed through the archway and planted himself on the path outside. The other searchers spread their rays; the rocks all about me were lighted. But my niche was still untouched.
De Boer: "If he is around here—"
Perona: "He could not have followed me; I was too careful."
I was murmuring: "Chief, they've got that girl."
"Phil, you get away! Go to Markes. Stay with him."
"But Chief, that Jetta, I—"
"Keep out of this! You're only one; you can't help any! I've sent for the Porto Rican patrol ship to handle this."
"Chief, I'm going back to Spawn's."
I cut off abruptly. In another moment I would have been discovered. The searchers were headed directly for me.
* * * * *
I moved, crouching, back along the inner wall of the archway. The moon was momentarily behind a cloud. It was black under the arch; and out front it was so dim I could only see the faint blob of Gutierrez's standing figure, and the spot of his flashlight.
Perona: "He is not around here, De Boer. That is foolish."
Spawn: "He could have gone anywhere. Maybe a walk around the village."
Perona: "Go back home, Spawn. De Boer will come—"
Their voices faded as I moved away. A searching bandit behind me poked with his light into the crevice where a moment before I had been crouching. I moved faster. Only Gutierrez now was in front of me. He was at the far end of the arch. I could slip past, and still be fifty feet from him—if I could avoid his swinging little light-beam.
I was running now, chancing that he would hear me. I was on the path; I could see it vaguely.
From behind me came a sizzling flash, and the ting of the flying needle as it missed me by a foot.
"The Americano! He goes there!"
Another shot. The shouts of the bandits in the archway. A turmoil back there.
But it was all behind me. I leaped sidewise off the path as Gutierrez small light-beam swept it. I ran stumbling through a stubble of boulders, around an upstanding rock spire, back to the path again.
There were other shots. Then De Boer's voice, faint by distance: "Stop! Fools! We will alarm the village! The landing field can see our shots from here! Take it easy! You can't get him!"
The turmoil quieted. I went around a bend in the path, running swiftly.
Pursuit was behind me. I could hear them coming.
* * * * *
It was a run of no more than ten minutes to the junction where, down the slope, I could see the lights of the landing field.
The glow of the village was ahead of me. Then I was in its outskirts. Occasional dark houses. Deserted streets.
I slowed to a fast walk. I was breathless, panting in the heat.
I heard no pursuit now. But Spawn and the rest of them doubtless were after me. Would they head back for Spawn's inn? I thought they would. But I could beat them back there; I was sure there was no shorter route than this I was taking.
Would they use their flyer? That would not gain them any time, what with launching it and landing, for so short a flight. And a bandit flyer could not very well land unseen or unnoticed, even in somnolent Nareda.
I reached the main section of the village. There were occasional lights and pedestrians. My haste was noticeable, but I was not accosted. There seemed no police about. I recalled Perona's remark that he had attended to that.
My electrode was tingling. I had been running again. I slowed down.
"Phil." His voice carried relief. "You got away?"
"Yes. I'm in the village."
"Go to President Markes."
"No, I'm headed for Spawn's! They're all behind me; I can get there a few minutes ahead of them."
* * * * *
I panted an exclamation, incoherently, but frankly, about Jetta. "I'm going to get her out of there."
"Phil, what in hell—"
I told him.
"So you've fallen in love with a girl? Entangled—"
"Go after her, Phil! Got her bound and gagged, have they? Going to marry her to this Perona? Like the Middle Ages?"
I had never seen this side of Hanley.
"Get her if you want her. Get her out of there. Take her to Markes—No, I wouldn't trust anybody in Nareda! Take her into the uplands behind the village. But keep away from that mine! Have you got flash-fuses?"
I was within sight of Spawn's house. The street was dim and deserted. I was running again.
I panted. "I'm—almost at Spawn's!"
"Good! When it's over, whatever happens up there at the mine, then signal the patrol."
I reached Spawn's front gate. The house and front garden were dark.
"Use your fuses, Phil. What colors?"
"I have red and blue."
"I'll talk to the patrol ship again. Tell them to watch for you. Red and blue. Two short red flashes, a long blue."
"Right, Chief. I'm here at Spawn's, cutting off."
"Come back on when you can." His voice went anxious again. "I'll wait here."
I cut silent. I ran through the front doorway of Spawn's inn. The living room was dim and empty. Which way was Jetta's room? I could only guess.
I had a few minutes, perhaps, before my pursuers would arrive.
* * * * *
I reached the inner, patio garden. The moon was well out from under the clouds now. The patio shimmered, a silent, deserted fairyland.
"Jetta!" I called it softly. Then louder. "Jetta!"
Spawn's house was fairly large and rambling. There were so many rooms. Jetta was gagged; how could she answer me? But I had no time to search for her.
And then came her voice. "Philip?"
"Jetta! Which way? Where are you?"
"Here! This way: in my room."
A window and a door near the pergola. "Jetta!"
"Yes. I am in here. They tied me up. Not so loud, Phil: father will hear you."
"He's gone out."
I reached her garden door. Turned its handle. Rattled the door. Shoved frantically with my shoulder!
The metal door was firmly sealed!
(To be continued)
The Terrible Tentacles of L-472
By Sewell Peaslee Wright
It was a big mistake. I should not have done it. By birth, by instinct, by training, by habit, I am a man of action. Or I was. It is queer that an old man cannot remember that he is no longer young.
[Sidenote: Commander John Hanson of the Special Patrol Service records another of his thrilling interplanetary assignments.]
But it was a mistake for me to mention that I had recorded, for the archives of the Council, the history of a certain activity of the Special Patrol—a bit of secret history which may not be mentioned here. Now they insist—by "they" I refer to the Chiefs of the Special Patrol Service—that I write of other achievements of the Service, other adventures worthy of note.
[Footnote 1: Editors Note: "The Forgotten Planet" July 1930 issue of Astounding Stories]
Perhaps that is the penalty of becoming old. From commander of the Budi, one of the greatest of the Special Patrol ships, to the duties of recording ancient history, for younger men to read and dream about. That is a shrewd blow to one's pride.
But if I can, in some small way, add luster to the record of my service, it will be a fitting task for a man grown old and gray in that service; work for hands too weak and palsied for sterner duties.
But I shall tell my stories in my own way; after all, they are my stories. And I shall tell the stories that appeal to me most. The universe has had enough and too much of dry history; these shall be adventurous tales to make the blood of a young man who reads them run a trifle faster—and perhaps the blood of the old man who writes them.
This, the first, shall be the story of the star L-472. You know it to-day as Ibit, port-o'-call for interplanetary ships, and source of ocrite for the universe, but to me it will always be L-472, the world of terrible tentacles.
* * * * *
My story begins nearly a hundred years ago—reckoned in terms of Earth time, which is proper, since I am a native of Earth—when I was a young man. I was sub-commander, at the time, of the Kalid, one of the early ships of the Special Patrol.
We had been called to Zenia on special orders, and Commander Jamison, after an absence of some two hours, returned to the Kalid with his face shining, one of his rare smiles telling me in advance that he had news—and good news.
He hurried me up to the deserted navigating room and waved me to a seat.
"Hanson," he said. "I'm glad to be the first to congratulate you. You are now Commander John Hanson, of the Special Patrol Ship Kalid!"
"Sir." I gasped, "do you mean—"
His smile broadened. From the breast pocket of the trim blue and silver uniform of our Service he drew a long, crackling paper.
"Your commission," he said. "I'm taking over the Borelis."
It was my turn to extend congratulations then; the Borelis was the newest and greatest ship of the Service. We shook hands, that ancient gesture of good-fellowship on Earth. But, as our hands unclasped, Jamison's face grew suddenly grave.
"I have more than this news for you, however," he said slowly. "You are to have a chance to earn your comet hardly."
* * * * *
I smiled broadly at the mention of the comet, the silver insignia, worn over the heart, that would mark my future rank as commander, replacing the four-rayed star of a sub-commander which I wore now on my tunic.
"Tell me more, sir," I said confidently.
"You have heard of the Special Patrol Ship Filanus?" asked my late commander gravely.
"Reported lost in space," I replied promptly.
"And the Dorlos?"
"Why—yes; she was at Base here at our last call," I said, searching his face anxiously. "Peter Wilson was Second Officer on her—one of my best friends. Why do you ask about her, sir?"
"The Dorlos is missing also," said Commander Jamison solemnly. "Both of these ships were sent upon a particular mission. Neither of them has returned. It is concluded that some common fate has overtaken them. The Kalid, under your command, is commissioned to investigate these disappearances.
"You are not charged with the mission of these other ships; your orders are to investigate their disappearance. The course, together with the official patrol orders, I shall hand you presently, but with them go verbal orders.
"You are to lay and keep the course designated, which will take you well out of the beaten path to a small world which has not been explored, but which has been circumnavigated a number of times by various ships remaining just outside the atmospheric envelope, and found to be without evidence of intelligent habitation. In other words, without cities, roads, canals, or other evidence of human handiwork or civilization.
* * * * *
"I believe your instructions give you some of this information, but not all of it. This world, unnamed because of its uninhabited condition, is charted only as L-472. Your larger charts will show it, I am sure. The atmosphere is reported to be breatheable by inhabitants of Earth and other beings having the same general requirements. Vegetation is reported as dense, covering the five continents of the world to the edges of the northern and southern polar caps, which are small. Topographically, the country is rugged in the extreme, with many peaks, apparently volcanic, but now inactive or extinct, on all of its five large continents."
"And am I to land there, sir?" I asked eagerly.
"Your orders are very specific upon that point," said Commander Jamison. "You are not to land until you have carefully and thoroughly reconnoitered from above, at low altitude. You will exercise every possible precaution. Your specific purpose is simply this: to determine, if possible, the fate of the other two ships, and report your findings at once. The Chiefs of the Service will then consider the matter, and take whatever action may seem advisable to them." Jamison rose to his feet and thrust out his hand in Earth's fine old salute of farewell.
"I must be going, Hanson," he said. "I wish this patrol were mine instead of yours. You are a young man for such a responsibility."
"But," I replied, with the glowing confidence of youth, "I have the advantage of having served under Commander Jamison!"
* * * * *
He smiled as we shook again, and shook his head.
"Discretion can be learned only by experience," he said. "But I wish you success, Hanson; on this undertaking, and on many others. Supplies are on their way now; the crew will return from leave within the hour. A young Zenian, name of Dival, I believe, is detailed to accompany you as scientific observer—purely unofficial capacity, of course. He has been ordered to report to you at once. You are to depart as soon as feasible: you know what that means. I believe that's all—Oh, yes! I had almost forgotten.
"Here, in this envelope, are your orders and your course, as well as all available data on L-472. In this little casket is—your comet, Hanson. I know you will wear it with honor!"
"Thank you, sir!" I said, a bit huskily. I saluted, and Commander Jamison acknowledged the gesture with stiff precision. Commander Jamison always had the reputation of being something of a martinet.
When he had left, I picked up the thin blue envelope he had left. Across the face of the envelope, in the—to my mind—jagged and unbeautiful Universal script, was my name, followed by the proud title: "Commander, Special Patrol Ship Kalid." My first orders!
There was a small oval box, of blue leather, with the silver crest of the Service in bas-relief on the lid. I opened the case, and gazed with shining eyes at the gleaming, silver comet that nestled there.
Then, slowly, I unfastened the four-rayed star on my left breast, and placed in its stead the insignia of my commandership.
Worn smooth and shiny now, it is still my most precious possession.
* * * * *
Kincaide, my second officer, turned and smiled as I entered the navigating room.
"L-472 now registers maximum attraction, sir," he reported. "Dead ahead, and coming up nicely. My last figures, completed about five minutes ago, indicate that we should reach the gaseous envelope in about ten hours." Kincaide was a native of Earth, and we commonly used Earth time-measurements in our conversation. As is still the case, ships of the Special Patrol Service were commanded without exception by natives of Earth, and the entire officer personnel hailed largely from the same planet, although I have had several Zenian officers of rare ability and courage.
I nodded and thanked him for the report. Maximum attraction, eh? That, considering the small size of our objective, meant we were much closer to L-472 than to any other regular body.
Mechanically, I studied the various dials about the room. The attraction meter, as Kincaide had said, registered several degrees of attraction, and the red slide on the rim of the dial was squarely at the top, showing that the attraction was coming from the world at which our nose was pointed. The surface-temperature gauge was at normal. Internal pressure, normal. Internal moisture-content, a little high. Kincaide, watching me, spoke up:
"I have already given orders to dry out, sir," he said.
"Very good, Mr. Kincaide. It's a long trip, and I want the crew in good condition." I studied the two charts, one showing our surroundings laterally, the other vertically, all bodies about us represented as glowing spots of green light, of varying sizes; the ship itself as a tiny scarlet spark. Everything shipshape: perhaps, a degree or two of elevation when we were a little closer—
"May I come in sir?" broke in a gentle, high-pitched voice.
"Certainly, Mr. Dival," I replied, answering in the Universal language in which the request had been made. "You are always very welcome." Dival was a typical Zenian of the finest type: slim, very dark, and with the amazingly intelligent eyes of his kind. His voice was very soft and gentle, and like the voice of all his people, clear and high-pitched.
"Thank you," he said. "I guess I'm over-eager, but there's something about this mission of ours that worries me. I seem to feel—" He broke off abruptly and began pacing back and forth across the room.
I studied him, frowning. The Zenians have a strange way of being right about such things; their high-strung, sensitive natures seem capable of responding to those delicate, vagrant forces which even now are only incompletely understood and classified.
"You're not used to work of this sort," I replied, as bluffly and heartily as possible. "There's nothing to worry about."
"The commanders of the two ships that disappeared probably felt the same way, sir," said Dival. "I should have thought the Chiefs of the Special Patrol Service would have sent several ships on a mission such as this."
"Easy to say," I laughed bitterly. "If the Council would pass the appropriations we need, we might have ships enough so that we could send a fleet of ships when we wished. Instead of that, the Council, in its infinite wisdom, builds greater laboratories and schools of higher learning—and lets the Patrol get along as best it can."
"It was from the laboratories and the schools of higher learning that all these things sprang," replied Dival quietly, glancing around at the array of instruments which made navigation in space possible.
"True," I admitted rather shortly. "We must work together. And as for what we shall find upon the little world ahead, we shall be there in nine or ten hours. You may wish to make some preparations."
"Nine or ten hours? That's Earth time, isn't it? Let's see: about two and a half enaros."
"Correct," I smiled. The Universal method of reckoning time had never appealed to me. For those of my readers who may only be familiar with Earth time measurements, an enar is about eighteen Earth days, an enaren a little less than two Earth days, and an enaro nearly four and a half hours. The Universal system has the advantage, I admit, of a decimal division; but I have found it clumsy always. I may be stubborn and old-fashioned, but a clock face with only ten numerals and one hand still strikes me as being unbeautiful and inefficient.
"Two and a half enaros," repeated Dival thoughtfully. "I believe I shall see if I can get a little sleep now; I should not have brought my books with me, I'm afraid. I read when I should sleep. Will you call me should there be any developments of interest?"
I assured him that he would be called as he requested, and he left.
"Decent sort of a chap, sir," observed Kincaide, glancing at the door through which Dival had just departed.
"A student," I nodded, with the contempt of violent youth for the man of gentler pursuits than mine, and turned my attentions to some calculations for entry in the log.
* * * * *
Busied with the intricate details of my task, time passed rapidly. The watch changed, and I joined my officers in the tiny, arched dining salon. It was during the meal that I noticed for the first time a sort of tenseness; every member of the mess was unusually quiet. And though I would not, have admitted it then, I was not without a good deal of nervous restraint myself.
"Gentlemen," I remarked when the meal was finished, "I believe you understand our present mission. Primarily, our purpose is to ascertain, if possible, the fate of two ships that were sent here and have not returned. We are now close enough for reasonable observation by means of the television disc, I believe, and I shall take over its operation myself.
"There is no gainsaying the fact that whatever fate overtook the two other Patrol ships, may lay in wait for us. My orders are to observe every possible precaution, and to return with a report. I am going to ask that each of you proceed immediately to his post, and make ready, in so far as possible, for any eventuality. Warn the watch which has just gone off to be ready for instant duty. The disintegrator ray generators should be started and be available for instant emergency use, maximum power. Have the bombing crews stand by for orders."
"What do you anticipate, sir?" asked Correy, my new sub-commander. The other officers waited tensely for my reply.
"I don't know, Mr. Correy," I admitted reluctantly. "We have no information upon which to base an assumption. We do know that two ships have been sent here, and neither of them have returned. Something prevented that return. We must endeavor to prevent that same fate from overtaking the Kalid—and ourselves."
* * * * *
Hurrying back to the navigating room, I posted myself beside the cumbersome, old-fashioned television instrument. L-472 was near enough now to occupy the entire field, with the range hand at maximum. One whole continent and parts of two others were visible. Not many details could be made out.
I waited grimly while an hour, two hours, went by. My field narrowed down to one continent, to a part of one continent. I glanced up at the surface temperature gauge and noted that the hand was registering a few degrees above normal. Correy, who had relieved Kincaide as navigating officer, followed my gaze.
"Shall we reduce speed, sir?" he asked crisply.
"To twice atmospheric speed," I nodded. "When we enter the envelope proper, reduce to normal atmospheric speed. Alter your course upon entering the atmosphere proper, and work back and forth along the emerging twilight zone, from the north polar cap to the southern cap, and so on."
"Yes, sir!" he replied, and repeated the orders to the control room forward.
I pressed the attention signal to Dival's cubicle, and informed him that we were entering the outer atmospheric fringe.
"Thank you, sir!" he said eagerly. "I shall be with you immediately."
In rapid succession I called various officers and gave terse orders. Double crews on duty in the generator compartment, the ray projectors, the atomic bomb magazines, and release tubes. Observers at all observation posts, operators at the two smaller television instruments to comb the terrain and report instantly any object of interest. With the three of us searching, it seemed incredible that anything could escape us. At atmospheric altitudes even the two smaller television instruments would be able to pick out a body the size of one of the missing ships.
* * * * *
Dival entered the room as I finished giving my orders.
"A strange world, Dival," I commented, glancing towards the television instrument. "Covered with trees, even the mountains, and what I presume to be volcanic peaks. They crowd right down to the edge of the water."
He adjusted the focusing lever slightly, his face lighting up with the interest of a scientist gazing at a strange specimen, whether it be a microbe or a new world.
"Strange ... strange ..." he muttered. "A universal vegetation ... no variation of type from equator to polar cap, apparently. And the water—did you notice its color, sir?"
"Purple," I nodded. "It varies on the different worlds, you know. I've seen pink, red, white and black seas, as well as the green and blue of Earth."
"And no small islands," he went on, as though he had not ever heard me. "Not in the visible portion, at any rate."
I was about to reply, when I felt the peculiar surge of the Kalid as she reduced speed. I glanced at the indicator, watching the hand drop slowly to atmospheric speed.
"Keep a close watch, Dival," I ordered. "We shall change our course now, to comb the country for traces of two ships we are seeking. If you see the least suspicious sign, let me know immediately."
* * * * *
He nodded, and for a time there was only a tense silence in the room, broken at intervals by Correy as he spoke briefly into his microphone, giving orders to the operating room.
Perhaps an hour went by. I am not sure. It seemed like a longer time than that. Then Dival called out in sudden excitement, his high, thin voice stabbing the silence:
"Here, sir! Look! A little clearing—artificial, I judge—and the ships! Both of them!"
"Stop the ship, Mr. Correy!" I snapped as I hurried to the instrument. "Dival, take those reports." I gestured towards the two attention signals that were glowing and softly humming and thrust my head into the shelter of the television instrument's big hood.
Dival had made no mistake. Directly beneath me, as I looked, was a clearing, a perfect square with rounded corners, obviously blasted out of the solid forest by the delicate manipulation of sharply focused disintegrator rays. And upon the naked, pitted surface thus exposed, side by side in orderly array, were the missing ships!
* * * * *
I studied the strange scene with a heart that thumped excitedly against my ribs.
What should I do? Return and report? Descend and investigate? There was no sign of life around the ships, and no evidence of damage. If I brought the Kalid down, would she make a third to remain there, to be marked "lost in space" on the records of the Service?
Reluctantly, I drew my head from beneath the shielding hood.
"What were the two reports, Dival?" I asked, and my voice was thick. "The other two television observers?"
"Yes, sir. They report that they cannot positively identify the ships with their instruments, but feel certain that they are the two we seek."
"Very good. Tell them, please, to remain on watch, searching space in every direction, and to report instantly anything suspicious. Mr. Correy, we will descend until this small clearing becomes visible, through the ports, to the unaided eye. I will give you the corrections to bring us directly over the clearing." And I read the finder scales of the television instrument to him.
He rattled off the figures, calculated an instant, and gave his orders to the control room, while I kept the television instrument bearing upon the odd clearing and the two motionless, deserted ships.
* * * * *
As we settled, I could make out the insignia of the ships, could see the pitted, stained earth of the clearing, brown with the dust of disintegration. I could see the surrounding trees very distinctly now: they seemed very similar to our weeping willows, on Earth, which, I perhaps should explain, since it is impossible for the average individual to have a comprehensive knowledge of the flora and fauna of the entire known Universe, is a tree of considerable size, having long, hanging branches arching from its crown and reaching nearly to the ground. These leaves, like typical willow leaves, were long and slender, of rusty green color. The trunks and branches seemed to be black or dark brown: and the trees grew so thickly that nowhere between their branches was the ground visible.
"Five thousand feet, sir," said Correy. "Directly above the clearing. Shall we descend further?"
"A thousand feet at a time, Mr. Correy," I replied, after a moment's hesitation. "My orders are to exercise the utmost caution. Mr. Dival, please make a complete analysis of the atmosphere. I believe you are familiar with the traps provided for the purpose?"
"Yes. You propose to land, sir?"
"I propose to determine the fate of those two ships and the men who brought them here," I said with sudden determination. Dival made no reply, but as he turned to obey orders, I saw that his presentiment of trouble had not left him.
"Four thousand feet, sir," said Correy.
I nodded, studying the scene below us. The great hooded instrument brought it within, apparently, fifty feet of my eyes, but the great detail revealed nothing of interest.
The two ships lay motionless, huddled close together. The great circular door of each was open, as though opened that same day—or a century before.
"Three thousand feet, sir," said Correy.
"Proceed at the same speed," I replied. Whatever fate had overtaken the men of the other ships had caused them to disappear entirely—and without sign of a struggle. But what conceivable fate could that be?
"Two thousand feet, sir," said Correy.
"Good," I said grimly. "Continue with the descent, Mr. Correy."
Dival hurried into the room as I spoke. His face was still clouded with foreboding.
"I have tested the atmosphere, sir," he reported. "It is suitable for breathing by either men of Earth or Zenia. No trace of noxious gases of any kind. It is probably rather rarified, such as one might find on Earth or Zenia at high altitudes."
"One thousand feet, sir," said Correy.
I hesitated an instant. Undoubtedly the atmosphere had been tested by the other ships before they landed. In the case of the second ship, at any rate, those in command must have been on the alert against danger. And yet both of those ships lay there motionless, vacant, deserted.
* * * * *
I could feel the eyes of the men on me. My decision must be delayed no further.
"We will land, Mr. Correy," I said grimly. "Near the two ships, please."
"Very well, sir," nodded Correy, and spoke briefly into the microphone.
"I might warn you, sir," said Dival quietly, "to govern your activities, once outside: free from the gravity pads of the ship, on a body of such small size, an ordinary step will probably cause a leap of considerable distance."
"Thank you, Mr. Dival. That is a consideration I had overlooked. I shall warn the men. We must—"
At that instant I felt the slight jar of landing. I glanced up; met Correy's grave glance squarely.
"Grounded, sir," he said quietly.
"Very good, Mr. Correy. Keep the ship ready for instant action, please, and call the landing crew to the forward exit. You will accompany us, Mr. Dival?"
"Good. You understand your orders, Mr. Correy?"
I returned his salute, and led the way out of the room, Dival close on my heels.
* * * * *
The landing crew was composed of all men not at regular stations; nearly half of the Kalid's entire crew. They were equipped with the small atomic power pistols as side-arms, and there were two three-men disintegrator ray squads. We all wore menores, which were unnecessary in the ship, but decidedly useful outside. I might add that the menore of those days was not the delicate, beautiful thing that it is to-day: it was comparatively crude, and clumsy band of metal, in which were imbedded the vital units and the tiny atomic energy generator, and was worn upon the head like a crown. But for all its clumsiness, it conveyed and received thought, and, after all, that was all we demanded of it.
I caught a confused jumble of questioning thoughts as I came up, and took command of the situation promptly. It will be understood, of course, that in those days men had not learned to blank their minds against the menore, as they do to-day. It took generations of training to perfect that ability.
"Open the exit," I ordered Kincaide, who was standing by the switch, key in the lock.
"Yes, sir," he thought promptly, and unlocking the switch, released the lever.
The great circular door revolved swiftly, backing slowly on its fine threads, gripped by the massive gimbals which, as at last the ponderous plug of metal freed itself from its threads, swung the circular door aside, like the door of a vault.
* * * * *
Fresh clean air swept in, and we breathed, it gratefully. Science can revitalize air, take out impurities and replace used-up constituents, but if cannot give it the freshness of pure natural air. Even the science of to-day.
"Mr. Kincaide, you will stand by with five men. Under no circumstances are you to leave your post until ordered to do so. No rescue parties, under any circumstances, are to be sent out unless you have those orders directly from me. Should any untoward thing happen to this party, you will instantly reseal this exit, reporting at the same time to Mr. Correy, who has his orders. You will not attempt to rescue us, but will return to the Base and report in full, with Mr. Correy in command. Is that clear?"
"Perfectly," came back his response instantly; but I could sense the rebellion in his mind. Kincaid and I were old friends, as well as fellow officers.
I smiled at him reassuringly, and directed my orders to the waiting men.
"You are aware of the fate of the two ships of the Patrol that have already landed here," I thought slowly, to be sure they understood perfectly. "What fate overtook them, I do not know. That is what we are here to determine."
"It is obvious that this is a dangerous mission. I'm ordering none of you to go. Any man who wishes to be relieved from landing duty may remain inside the ship, and may feel it no reproach. Those who do go should be constantly on the alert, and keep in formation; the usual column of twos. Be very careful, when stepping out of the ship, to adjust your stride to the lessened gravity of this small world. Watch this point!" I turned to Dival, motioned him to fall in at my side. Without a backward glance, we marched out of the ship, treading very carefully to keep from leaping into the air with each step.
Twenty feet away, I glanced back. There were fourteen men behind me—not a man of the landing crew had remained in the ship!
"I am proud of you men!" I thought heartily: and no emanation from any menore was ever more sincere.
* * * * *
Cautiously, eyes roving ceaselessly, we made our way towards the two silent ships. It seemed a quiet, peaceful world: an unlikely place for tragedy. The air was fresh and clean, although, as Dival had predicted, rarefied like the air at an altitude. The willow-like trees that hemmed us in rustled gently, their long, frond-like branches with their rusty green leaves swaying.
"Do you notice, sir," came a gentle thought from Dival, an emanation that could hardly have been perceptible to the men behind us, "that there is no wind—and yet the trees, yonder, are swaying and rustling?"
I glanced around, startled. I had not noticed the absence of a breeze.
I tried to make my response reassuring:
"There is probably a breeze higher up, that doesn't dip down into this little clearing," I ventured. "At any rate, it is not important. These ships are what interest me. What will we find there?"
"We shall soon know," replied Dival. "Here is the Dorlos; the second of the two, was it not?"
"Yes." I came to a halt beside the gaping door. There was no sound within, no evidence of life there, no sign that men had ever crossed that threshold, save that the whole fabric was the work of man's hands.
"Mr. Dival and I will investigate the ship, with two of you men," I directed. "The rest of the detail will remain on guard, and give the alarm at the least sign of any danger. You first two men, follow us." The indicated men nodded and stepped forward. Their "Yes, sirs" came surging through my menore like a single thought. Cautiously, Dival at my side, the two men at our backs, we stepped over the high threshold into the interior of the Dorlos.
The ethon tubes overhead made everything as light as day, and since the Dorlos was a sister ship of my own Kalid, I had not the slightest difficulty in finding my way about.
There was no sign of a disturbance anywhere. Everything was in perfect order. From the evidence, it would seem that the officers and men of the Dorlos had deserted the ship of their own accord, and—failed to return.
"Nothing of value here," I commented to Dival. "We may as well—"
There was a sudden commotion from outside the ship. Startled shouts rang through the hollow hull, and a confused medley of excited thoughts came pouring in.
With one accord the four of us dashed to the exit, Dival and I in the lead. At the door we paused, following the stricken gaze of the men grouped in a rigid knot just outside.
Some, forty feet away was the edge of the forest that hemmed us in. A forest that now was lashing and writhing as though in the grip of some terrible hurricane, trunks bending and whipping, long branches writhing, curling, lashing out—
"Two of the men, sir!" shouted a non-commissioned officer of the landing crew, as we appeared in the doorway. In his excitement he forgot his menore, and resorted to the infinitely slower but more natural speech. "Some sort of insect came buzzing down—like an Earth bee, but larger. One of the men slapped it, and jumped aside, forgetting the low gravity here. He shot into the air, and another of the men made a grab for him. They both went sailing, and the trees—look!"
But I had already spotted the two men. The trees had them in their grip, long tentacles curled around them, a dozen of the great willow-like growths apparently fighting for possession of the prizes. And all around, far out of reach, the trees of the forest were swaying restlessly, their long, pendulous branches, like tentacles, lashing out hungrily.
"The rays, sir!" snapped the thought from Dival, like a flash of lightning. "Concentrate the beams—strike at the trunks—"
"Right!" My orders emanated on the heels of the thought more quickly than one word could have been uttered. The six men who operated the disintegrator rays were stung out of their startled immobility, and the soft hum of the atomatic power generators deepened.
"Strike at the trunks of the trees! Beams narrowed to minimum! Action at will!"
The invisible rays swept long gashes into the forest as the trainers squatted behind their sights, directing the long, gleaming tubes. Branches crashed to the ground, suddenly motionless. Thick brown dust dropped heavily. A trunk, shortened by six inches or so, dropped into its stub and fell with a prolonged sound of rending wood. The trees against which it had fallen tugged angrily at their trapped tentacles.
One of the men rolled free, staggered to his feet, and came lurching towards us. Trunk after trunk dropped onto its severed stub and fell among the lashing branches of its fellows. The other man was caught for a moment in a mass of dead and motionless wood, but a cunningly directed ray dissolved the entangling branches around him and he lay there, free but unable to arise.
* * * * *
The rays played on ruthlessly. The brown, heavy powder was falling like greasy soot. Trunk after trunk crashed to the ground, slashed into fragments.
"Cease action!" I ordered, and instantly the eager whine of the generators softened to a barely discernible hum. Two of the men, under orders, raced out to the injured man: the rest of us clustered around the first of the two to be freed from the terrible tentacles of the trees.
His menore was gone, his tight-fitting uniform was in shreds, and blotched with blood. There was a huge crimson welt across his face, and blood dripped slowly from the tips of his fingers.
"God!" he muttered unsteadily as kindly arms lifted him with eager tenderness. "They're alive! Like snakes. They—they're hungry!"
"Take him to the ship," I ordered. "He is to receive treatment immediately," I turned to the detail that was bringing in the other victim. The man was unconscious, and moaning, but suffering more from shock than anything else. A few minutes under the helio emanations and he would be fit for light duty.
* * * * *
As the men hurried him to the ship, I turned to Dival. He was standing beside me, rigid, his face very pale, his eyes fixed on space.
"What do you make of it, Mr. Dival?" I questioned him.
"Of the trees?" He seemed startled, as though I had aroused him from deepest thought. "They are not difficult to comprehend, sir. There are numerous growths that are primarily carnivorous. We have the fintal vine on Zenia, which coils instantly when touched, and thus traps many small animals which it wraps about with its folds and digests through sucker-like growths.
"On your own Earth there are, we learn, hundreds of varieties of insectivorous plants: the Venus fly-trap, known otherwise as the Dionaea Muscipula, which has a leaf hinged in the median line, with teeth-like bristles. The two portions of the leaf snap together with considerable force when an insect alights upon the surface, and the soft portions of the catch are digested by the plant before the leaf opens again. The pitcher plant is another native of Earth, and several varieties of it are found on Zenia and at least two other planets. It traps its game without movement, but is nevertheless insectivorous. You have another species on Earth that is, or was, very common: the Mimosa Pudica. Perhaps you know it as the sensitive plant. It does not trap insects, but it has a very distinct power of movement, and is extremely irritable.
"It is not at all difficult to understand a carniverous tree, capable of violent and powerful motion. This is undoubtedly what we have here—a decidedly interesting phenomena, but not difficult of comprehension."
It seems like a long explanation, as I record it here, but emanated as it was, it took but an instant to complete it. Mr. Dival went on without a pause:
"I believe, however, that I have discovered something far more important. How is your menore adjusted, sir?"
"Turn it to maximum, sir."
I glanced at him curiously, but obeyed. New streams of thought poured in upon me. Kincaide ... the guard at the exit ... and something else.
I blanked out Kincaide and the men, feeling Dival's eyes searching my face. There was something else, something—
I focused on the dim, vague emanations that came to me from the circlet of my menore, and gradually, like an object seen through heavy mist, I perceived the message:
"Wait! Wait! We are coming! Through the ground. The trees ... disintegrate them ... all of them ... all you can reach. But not the ground ... not the ground...."
"Peter!" I shouted, turning to Dival. "That's Peter Wilson, second officer of the Dorlos!"
Dival nodded, his dark face alight.
"Let us see if we can answer him," he suggested, and we concentrated all our energy on a single thought: "We understand. We understand."
The answer came back instantly:
"Good! Thank God! Sweep them down, Hanson: every tree of them. Kill them ... kill them ... kill them!" The emanation fairly shook with hate. "We are coming ... to the clearing ... wait—and while you wait, use your rays upon these accursed hungry trees!"
Grimly and silently we hurried back to the ship. Dival, the savant, snatching up specimens of earth and rock here and there as we went.
* * * * *
The disintegrator rays of the portable projectors were no more than toys compared with the mighty beams the Kalid was capable of projecting, with her great generators to supply power. Even with the beams narrowed to the minimum, they cut a swath a yard or more in diameter, and their range was tremendous; although working rather less rapidly as the distance and power decreased, they were effective over a range of many miles.
Before their blasting beams the forest shriveled and sank into tumbled chaos. A haze of brownish dust hung low over the scene, and I watched with a sort of awe. It was the first time I had ever seen the rays at work on such wholesale destruction.
A startling thing became evident soon after we began our work. This world that we had thought to be void of animal life, proved to be teeming with it. From out of the tangle of broken and harmless branches, thousands of animals appeared. The majority of them were quite large, perhaps the size of full-grown hogs, which Earth animal they seemed to resemble, save that they were a dirty yellow color, and had strong, heavily-clawed feet. These were the largest of the animals, but there were myriads of smaller ones, all of them pale or neutral in color, and apparently unused to such strong light, for they ran blindly, wildly seeking shelter from the universal confusion.
Still the destructive beams kept about their work, until the scene changed utterly. Instead of resting in a clearing, the Kalid was in the midst of a tangle of fallen, wilting branches that stretched like a great, still sea, as far as the eye could see.
"Cease action!" I ordered suddenly. I had seen, or thought I had seen, a human figure moving in the tangle, not far from the edge of the clearing. Correy relayed the order, and instantly the rays were cut off. My menore, free from the interference of the great atomic generators of the Kalid, emanated the moment the generators ceased functioning.
"Enough. Hanson! Cut the rays; we're coming."
"We have ceased action; come on!"
I hurried to the still open exit. Kincaide and his guards were staring at what had been the forest; they were so intent that they did not notice I had joined them—and no wonder!
A file of men were scrambling over the debris; gaunt men with dishevelled hair, practically naked, covered with dirt and the greasy brown dust of the disintegrator ray. In the lead, hardly recognizable, his menore awry upon his tangled locks, was Peter Wilson.
"Wilson!" I shouted; and in a single great leap I was at his side, shaking his hand, one arm about his scarred shoulders, laughing and talking excitedly, all in the same breath. "Wilson, tell me—in God's name—what has happened?"
He looked up at me with shining, happy eyes, deep in black sockets of hunger and suffering.
"The part that counts," he said hoarsely, "is that you're here, and we're here with you. My men need rest and food—not too much food, at first, for we're starving. I'll give you the story—or as much of it as I know—while we eat."
I sent my orders ahead; for every man of that pitiful crew of survivors, there were two eager men of the Kalid's crew to minister to him. In the little dining salon of the officers' mess, Wilson gave us the story, while he ate slowly and carefully, keeping his ravenous hunger in check.
"It's a weird sort of story," he said. "I'll cut it as short as I can. I'm too weary for details.
"The Dorlos, as I suppose you know, was ordered to L-472 to determine the fate of the Filanus, which had been sent here to determine the feasibility of establishing a supply base here for a new interplanetary ship line.
"It took us nearly three days, Earth time, to locate this clearing and the Filanus, and we grounded the Dorlos immediately. Our commander—you probably remember him, Hanson: David McClellan? Big, red-faced chap?"
I nodded, and Wilson continued.
"Commander McClellan was a choleric person, as courageous a man as ever wore the blue and silver of the Service, and very thoughtful of his men. We had had a bad trip; two swarms of meteorites that had worn our nerves thin, and a faulty part in the air-purifying apparatus had nearly done us in. While the exit was being unsealed, he gave the interior crew permission to go off duty, to get some fresh air, with orders, however, to remain close to the ship, under my command. Then, with the usual landing crew, he started for the Filanus.
"He had forgotten, under the stress of the moment, that the force of gravity would be very small on a body no larger than this. The result was that as soon as they hurried out of the ship, away from the influence of our own gravity pads, they hurtled into the air in all directions."
Wilson paused. Several seconds passed before he could go on.
"Well, the trees—I suppose you know something about them—reached out and swept up three of them. McClellan and the rest of the landing crew rushed to their rescue. They were caught up. God! I can see them ... hear them ... even now!
"I couldn't stand there and see that happen to them. With the rest of the crew behind me, we rushed out, armed only with our atomic pistols. We did not dare use the rays; there were a dozen men caught up everywhere in those hellish tentacles.
"I don't know what I thought we could do. I knew only that I must do something. Our leaps carried us over the tops of the trees that were fighting for the ... the bodies of McClellan and the rest of the landing crew. I saw then, when it was too late, that there was nothing we could do. The trees ... had done their work. They ... they were feeding....
"Perhaps that is why we escaped. We came down in a tangle of whipping branches. Several of my men were snatched up. The rest of us saw how helpless our position was ... that there was nothing we could do. We saw, too, that the ground was literally honeycombed, and we dived down these burrows, out of the reach of the trees.
"There were nineteen of us that escaped. I can't tell you how we lived—I would not if I could. The burrows had been dug by the pig-like animals that the trees live upon, and they led, eventually, to the shore, where there was water—horrible, bitter stuff, but not salty, and apparently not poisonous."
We lived on these pig-like animals, and we learned something of their way of life. The trees seem to sleep, or become inactive, at night. Not unless they are touched do they lash about with their tentacles. At night the animals feed, largely upon the large, soft fruit of these trees. Of course, large numbers of them make a fatal step each night, but they are prolific, and their ranks do not suffer.
"Of course, we tried to get back to the clearing, and the Dorlos; first by tunneling. That was impossible, we found, because the rays used by the Filanus in clearing a landing place had acted somewhat upon the earth beneath, and it was like powder. Our burrows fell in upon us faster than we could dig them out! Two of my men lost their lives that way.
"Then we tried creeping back by night; but we could not see as can the other animals here, and we quickly found that it was suicide to attempt such tactics. Two more of the men were lost in that fashion. That left fourteen.
"We decided then to wait. We knew there would be another ship along, sooner or later. Luckily, one of the men had somehow retained his menore. We treasured that as we treasured our lives. To-day, when, deep in our runways beneath the surface, we felt, or heard, the crashing of the trees, we knew the Service had not forgotten us. I put on the menore; I—but I think you know the rest, gentlemen. There were eleven of us left. We are here—all that is left of the Dorlos crew. We found no trace of any survivor of the Filanus; unaware of the possibility of danger, they were undoubtedly, all the victims of ... the trees."
Wilson's head dropped forward on his chest. He straightened up with a start and an apologetic smile.
"I believe, Hanson," he said slowly, "I'd better get ... a little ... rest," and he slumped forward on the table in the death-like sleep of utter exhaustion.
* * * * *
There the interesting part of the story ends. The rest is history, and there is too much dry history in the Universe already.
Dival wrote three great volumes on L-472—or Ibit, as it is called now. One of them tells in detail how the presence of constantly increasing quantities of volcanic ash robbed the soil of that little world of its vitality, so that all forms of vegetation except the one became extinct, and how, through a process of development and evolution, those trees became carniverous.
The second volume is a learned discussion of the tree itself; it seems that a few specimens were spared for study, isolated on a peninsula of one of the continents, and turned over to Dival for observation and dissection. All I can say for the book is that it is probably accurate. Certainly it is neither interesting nor comprehensible.
And then, of course, there is his treatise on ocrite: how he happened to find the ore, the probable amount available on L-472—or Ibit, if you prefer—and an explanation of his new method of refining it. I saw him frantically gathering specimens while we were getting ready to leave, but it wasn't until after we had departed that he mentioned what he had found.
* * * * *
I have a set of these volumes somewhere; Dival autographed them and presented me with them. They established his position, I understand, in his world of science, and of course, the discovery of this new source of ocrite was a tremendous find for the whole Universe; interplanetary transportation wouldn't be where it is to-day if it were not for this inexhaustible source of power.
Yes, Dival became famous—and very rich.
I received the handshakes and the gratitude of the eleven men we rescued, and exactly nine words of commendation from the Chief of my squadron: "You are a credit to the Service, Commander Hanson!"
Perhaps, to some who read this, it will seem that Dival fared better than I. But to men who have known the comradeship of the outer space, the heart-felt gratitude of eleven friends is a precious thing. And to any man who has ever worn the blue and silver uniform of the Special Patrol Service, those nine words from the Chief of Squadron will sound strong.
Chiefs of Squadrons in the Special Patrol Service—at least in those days—were scanty with praise. It may be different in these days of soft living and political pull.
Marooned Under the Sea
By Paul Ernst
(Editor's note: This document, written on a curious kind of parchment and tied to a piece of driftwood, was reported to have been picked out of the sea near the Fiji Islands. The first and last pages were so water soaked as to be indecipherable.)
Yacht Rosa was due to leave the San Francisco harbor in two hours.
We were going on some mysterious cruise to the South Seas, the details of which I did not know.
[Sidenote: Three men stick out a strange and desperate adventure among the incredible monsters of the dark sea floor.]
"Professor George Berry, the famous zoologist, and myself are going to do some exploring that is hazardous in the extreme," Stanley had said. "For purely mechanical reasons we need a third. You are young and have no family ties, so I thought I'd ask you to go with us. I'd rather not tell you what it's all about until we are on our way."
That was all the explanation he had given. It was sufficient. I was fed-up with life just then: I had enough money to avoid work and was tired of playing.
"I must warn you that you'll risk your life in this," he had continued, in answer to my acceptance of his invitation.
And I had replied that the hazard, whatever it might be, only made the trip appear more desirable.
So here I was, on board the yacht, about to sail for far places on some scientific mission which had so far been kept veiled in secrecy and which was represented as "hazardous in the extreme." It sounded attractive!
* * * * *
Stanley came aboard accompanied by a lean, wiry man with iron gray hair and cool, alert black eyes.
"Hello, Martin," Stanley greeted me. "I want you to meet Professor Berry, the real leader of this expedition. Professor, this young red-head is Martin Grey, a sort of nephew by adoption who knows more about night life than most cabaret proprietors—and not much of anything else. He has shaken the dangers of the gold-diggers to face with us the dangers of the tropic seas."
The professor gripped my hand, and his cool black eyes gazed into mine with a kind of friendly frostiness.
"Don't pay any attention to him," he advised me. "Twenty years ago, when I first met him, he was on his way to Africa to shoot elephants because some revue beauty had just thrown him over and he felt he ought to do something big and heroic about it. It was shortly afterward that he decided to stay a bachelor all his life, and became such a confirmed woman hater."
He smiled thinly at Stanley's prod in the ribs, and the two went below, talking and laughing with the intimacy of old friendship.
I stayed on deck and soon found myself watching, with no little wonder, an enormous truck and trailer arrangement that drew up on the dock heavily loaded with a single immense crate. It was for us. I speculated as to what it could possibly contain.
It was a twenty or twenty-five-foot cube solidly braced with strap-iron and steel brackets. It evidently contained something fragile. The yacht's donkey engine lowered a hook for it, and swung it over the side and into the hold as daintily as though it had been packed with explosives.
The last of the ship's stores followed it over the side: the group of newspaper reporters who had been trying to pump the captain and first mate for a story were warned to leave, and we were ready to go. Precisely where and for what purpose?
I was to find out almost immediately.
Even as the yacht nosed superciliously away from the dock, the steward approached me with the information that lunch was ready. I went to the small, compactly furnished dining salon, where I was joined by Stanley and the professor.
* * * * *
There were only the three of us at the table. Stanley Browne, noted big game hunter and semi-retired owner of the great Browne Glassworks at Altoona, a man fifteen years my senior but tanned and fit looking; Professor Berry, well known in scientific circles; and myself, known in no branch of activity save the one Stanley had jested about—the night life of my home city, Chicago.
"It's time you knew just what you're up against," said Stanley to me after the consomme had been served. "Now that we've actually sailed, there's no longer any need for secrecy. Indeed there never has been urgent need of it: the Professor and myself merely thought we might provoke incredulity and comment if we stated the purpose of our trip publicly."
He buttered a roll.
"We—the Professor and you and I—are going in for some deep sea diving. And when I say deep, I mean deep. We are going to investigate conditions as they exist one mile down from the surface of the ocean."