By WILBUR S. PEACOCK
Don Denton had walked into the weirdest
enigma he had ever encountered. Dead men
lived, and ships vanished without sound.
And to top everything, when he tried to
unravel the puzzle—he found that he
had been dead for more than a week.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Winter 1944.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Don Denton, trouble shooter for the Inter-World Mining Corporation, watched the sailors stowing the supplies aboard his small scout rocket, checking the items from the manifest sheet as they were packed in the storage compartments.
“That takes care of that,” he said finally, signing the sheet with his thumbprint. “Now, I’ll be on my way.”
The Skipper nodded, scratched his chin thoughtfully. “I suppose so,” he agreed. “Are you sure you won’t stay to dinner? I’ve got a cargo of Martian panyanox that should taste plenty good to you after two months of spacing on vitamins.”
Don Denton grinned, scrubbed a heavy hand through the reddish, curly mop of hair that flamed above his craggy face. He shrugged, the leather jacket growing taut across his deceptively wide shoulders.
“Nothing I’d like better,” he said, “but I’ve got orders to get to Venus and find out why the Lanka shipments haven’t been coming through on schedule.”
“Trouble?” Interest flared in the Skipper’s eyes.
Don Denton laughed. “I doubt it,” he said. “Probably some space tramp landed and sold the men some Martian Ganto seeds. They’re probably nursing such large hangovers that they can’t work. I’ll just take the supplies on, give the boys a pep talk, then head back for Earth.”
“All loaded, Captain,” a sailor’s voice came from the televisor screen.
Don Denton lounged to his feet. “So long, Captain,” he said, “I’ll remember that Panyanox invitation, the next time I run into you on Mars.”
“Sure, sure, of course!” The Skipper flushed. “Er, ah—, Denton?”
“Yes?” Don Denton turned from the door.
“I’ve got a passenger I want to transship to Venus.”
Don Denton grinned, shook his head. “Sorry, Captain,” he said, “but no can do; company rules, you know.”
“But this passenger—?”
“No,” Denton said decisively. “In the first place, I can’t carry passengers on the scouter; and in the second place, I haven’t the slightest desire to be holed up with anybody. Sorry, but your passenger will have to get a charter job for the trip.”
“What I’m trying to tell you,” the Skipper said, “is that Miss Palmer has a Company pass to ride with you.”
“Miss Palmer!” The trouble shooter frowned belligerently. “Any relation to Palmer who is the manager on Venus?”
“Daughter, I think.”
“Well, you can tell Miss Palmer for me that she’s out of luck. Hell, I’ll make a bet she’s one of two kinds of dames: Either she’s the flighty kind who thinks it’s just too too divine to explore another planet, or she’s the needle-nosed kind who’d drive me nuts with her complaints in half a clock-around!”
“I can assure you that she fits neither of those descriptions,” the Skipper said, smiled. “In fact, she’s about the nicest bit of meteor fluff that’s crossed my rockets in many a day.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Jean Palmer said amusedly from behind Don Denton. She walked past the trouble shooter, turned to face him squarely. “Woman hater?” she finished quizzically.
Don Denton flushed, his tan deepening, his startlingly blue eyes evading the mocking, brown eyes of the girl. He shifted nervously from foot to foot, his collar suddenly tight and constricting.
“Er—no!” he said defensively, “I—er, well, just don’t want any company on my ship.”
He felt the flush deepening beneath the level glance of the girl, and hot blood was suddenly pounding at his temples.
The Captain had been right; certainly she didn’t fit either of the descriptions Don Denton had given. She was tall, her softly waved crown of hair almost even with the trouble shooter’s mouth. And the mannish cut of her plastic dress only served to emphasize the femininity of her body.
But Don Denton was not noticing such minor details; he was conscious only of the incredible redness and smoothness of her lips and of the level appraisal of her eyes. He shivered suddenly, vaguely aware that he was unshaven, gangly, with too prominent teeth and ears.
“I have a pass to ride with you,” the girl said mockingly. “Do you think you can get around it?” Her tone changed, became suddenly, subtly, frightened and bewildered. “Please,” she finished, “I must go with you! I haven’t heard from my father in three months; I know that something has happened to him!”
“Well,” Don Denton frowned, was suddenly aware of the dim perfume of her hair. “I guess, if you’ve got a pass, there’s nothing I can do but take you along.”
“That’s fine!” the Skipper said heartily, a trifle relievedly. “I told Miss Palmer you’d probably be glad to give her a lift.”
“I knew Mr. Denton wouldn’t let me down,” the girl said quietly, “I’ve heard too many stories of his bravery and gallantry.”
Don Denton grinned sheepishly, not absolutely certain as to whether the girl was being ironical or not. He searched her face, felt a distinct shock to his nerves when his gaze met with hers.
“Just routine,” he countered deprecatingly.
He shrugged, shook hands quickly with the Skipper. “I’ll see you in a couple of months. Thanks for bringing the supplies out of your regular lane; it saved me several weeks of spacing to Earth and back.”
“That’s all right, Denton,” the Captain said, “I still remember the fight you put up when those Gillies attacked my ship off—”
“Sure, sure!” Don Denton cut the flow of the other’s words, swung to face the girl. “I’ll have a man put your duffle aboard, Miss Palmer.”
She smiled, her teeth flashing whitely. “Thank you, but I had them taken aboard half an hour ago.”
Don Denton blinked in surprise, and the corners of his mobile lips twitched in a wry smile. “All right, then,” he said, “let’s be getting on; if we miss connections, we’ll have to chase Venus halfway round the sun.”
He led the way down the corridor, his thoughts a maelstrom in his mind. He was not a woman hater, nor did he care for them especially, but there was something about the level-eyed slender girl at his back that stirred him deeply. He shook his head slightly, wished that he had not stopped to pick up the supplies from the freighter. He had a vague premonition that the even tenor of his life was destined to be rudely shattered by an indefinable something that he could not fight with the strength of his rangy body nor the solidness of his fists.
The Comet sped in a long parabola from the side of the freighter, a long skid-mark of flaming rocket gas in the darkness behind, and headed obliquely toward Venus which gleamed greenly far ahead.
Don Denton pressed the last of a series of studs on the control panel, cut in the robot-pilot, then grinned admiringly at Jean Palmer.
“Sorry I was rude back there,” he apologized.
The girl’s answering smile was like a ray of light in the cabin. She stretched lazily in the padded seat, brushed a vagrant lock of hair from her eyes.
“I guess it was my fault,” she admitted. “I never stopped to think that you might not like the job of playing space taxi with me. But,” her eyes were suddenly serious, “I simply have to see if anything is wrong with my father.”
Don Denton grinned. “There’s nothing to be afraid of on Venus,” he said confidently. “I’ve been there half a dozen times, and all I’ve found was a water world, with very little land. About the only life on the planet is of a fish type, which lives deep in the oceans.”
“That’s what my father told me.”
“Well, he was exactly right; it’s about the deadest world I’ve seen. There are nine patches of land, probably mountain tops, and each of them are covered with Lanka plants. I suppose you know that that is what your father is doing there—that is, he’s cutting and rendering the plants for their oil?”
Jean nodded. “Yes, he told me. But after all—”
She screamed suddenly, clutched wildly at the arms of her seat. And the motion sent her flying into the air, where she struggled for a balance that wasn’t there.
“Easy,” Don Denton said, reached out, drew her back to her seat. “It’s that blasted gravity rotor again!”
He went sideways from his seat, catching a flashlight from a wall-clip as he did so, then pulled himself by the wall hand rail toward the rear of the cabin.
“I’m going to be ill,” Jean said weakly.
“Chin up,” Don Denton said sharply. “I’ll have everything all right in a moment. The clutch on the gravity rotor is about shot, and it quits on me every now and then. When the gravity gets back to normal, you’ll feel all right again.”
He turned on his back, wedged himself beneath a small metal box clamped to the rear wall, swinging the light of the hand flash into the interior of the box. He made a one-handed adjustment, and normal gravity grasped them again.
The light of his flash faded, went out, as the gravity became stabilized, then flashed on again the moment the trouble shooter edged from beneath the gravity rotor.
Jean Palmer gasped, and slowly color came back to her white face. Don Denton nodded to himself, strode back to the pilot’s seat, slumped indolently into its padded depths. He flicked the switch on the flashlight, pushed it into its wall-clip.
“What made the light go out?” Jean asked curiously.
Don Denton shrugged. “The rotor creates some sort of an energy shield,” he said, “that blankets out all electrical energy.” He gazed solicitously at the girl. “Feel better now?”
She nodded. “I think so,” she said. “I just felt so funny—as though everything in me was upside down.”
Don Denton grinned. “I know,” he said, “I started spacing when a man rode a ship with the seat of his pants; I’ve been plenty sick from lack of gravity. Hah! this new crop of spacers don’t know what it is to live without gravity for months, then find they can’t walk the minute they land on some planet—because of gravity pull.”
“You’ve done that?” Jean’s eyes were wide with wonder.
Don Denton grinned self-consciously. “Without bragging,” he said, “I think I’ve just about done everything and seen everything. There’s very little that would surprise me.”
Jean laughed, and the sound was a tinkling overtone above the dim roar of the rockets. “You know,” she said, “you’re a rather remarkable person!”
Don Denton flushed, dry-washed his hands in embarrassment. “Aw,” he said self-consciously, “I’m just doing a job.”
“Well, I like you.”
Don Denton became very busy with the compact integrator, his hands suddenly all thumbs.
Jean Palmer leaned over, touched his arm with a slender hand. “I’m glad you’re the one taking me to my father,” she said. “If there is anything wrong, I’m certain you can straighten it out.”
“I’ll try.” Don Denton met the girl’s eyes squarely. “Now you’d better take a dose of sleep rays; after all, it will be about eighty hours before we land.”
“Sleep rays on a space ship!”
“Yes!” Don Denton paused with one hand on a control stud. “You see, a scouter isn’t like a pleasure craft or a freighter. Nine-tenths of the time aboard is spent sleeping—conserves food and oxygen.”
“All right, Don,” Jean said, relaxed comfortably in the cushions.
Don Denton pressed the stud, sighed deeply as the purple ray coned down from the overhead bulb and bathed the girl in its nimbus. He straightened the girl’s arms a trifle, careful not to permit his head to be touched by the rays, then swung back to the integrator. Jean slept peacefully, a slight smile skidding a dimple into sight, the curves of her breasts rising and falling in a gentle rhythm.
Don Denton shrugged, bent again over the integrator. He set up the combination he desired, pressed keys, glanced absently at the answer. Nodding, he set the course on the robot-pilot, sighed gustily, sank tiredly into the heavy cushions of his seat.
He sat quietly for moments, the smile going from his eyes, a slight frown thinning his mobile mouth. He was more worried than he would have admitted. For this was the first time in eighteen months that the Lanka shipments had not come through on schedule from Venus.
The fern-like Lanka plants were of incalculable value to the inhabited worlds, for the oil rendered from the plants was the only perfect cure for cancer and numerous other diseases. Its curative powers had been discovered accidentally by two wrecked spacers on Venus three years before when one of the spacers had been cured of space-tuberculosis by an enforced diet of cooked plants and Venusian fish.
Don Denton remembered the regularity with which the shipments had been coming through and the worry the head office had felt when the oil had failed to arrive on time two months before. He had been called in as a last resort, because he knew the planet from past experience, and because of his reputation as a trouble shooter who always got results.
He was worried now. For despite his assurances to Jean Palmer, he knew that there were dangers on Venus. In the depths of its oceans, great, foul, nightmarish creatures lived sluggish lives, and if some accident should rouse them to action, they might well wipe out an entire camp in a few moments. Then again, because of the incredible value of the oil, space pirates might have raided the base camp, murdered the men, then escaped with the oil already rendered.
“Damn!” Don Denton said thoughtfully.
He glanced at the sleeping girl, smiled slightly. He felt a sudden protective instinct in his heart that had never been there before, and his hands clenched unconsciously at the thought of what disappointments and heartaches might lie ahead for her.
He shrugged then, grinned wryly into space. Well, there was nothing he could do now but wait. If there was some sort of trouble on Venus, he would have enough trouble then in trying to cope with it; there was no sense in worrying himself stiff about it now. He’d know soon enough.
He clicked on the automatic mechanism of the sleep ray, drifted into dreamless slumber as the purple rays erased all conscious thought from his mind.
Venus was no longer a green planet; it loomed ahead like some woolly ball spinning in space. The Comet circled it warily, Don Denton’s fingers resting lightly on the control studs of the instrument panel, his lips pursed a bit as he drove the ship closer to the clouds.
“It will probably be several hours before we land,” he explained to the wide-eyed Jean at his side, “Trying to find the Lanka camp in that soup down there is quite a job in itself, even after I get the Comet through fifteen miles of cloud banks.”
Jean was a trifle pale, but there was a spark of confidence in her eyes. “I think,” she said quietly, “I feel like you must have felt the first time you landed here.”
Don Denton smiled. “There’s no feeling like it,” he admitted. “I felt it first on the Earth’s Moon, and I knew then that I’d never be able to settle down into some routine job. I suppose I’ll end my life still feeling that thrill, still seeking out hidden places in the universe.”
He pressed a firing stud, and the Comet flashed down toward Venus. For the first time, there was a sense of movement, as the spinning clouds rushed to meet the ship. Always before, with nothing relative to compare their speed with, and because the inertia-field sent all molecules of ship and contents ahead at the same rate of speed, there had been the sensation of staying at rest in the blackness of space. Now, there was something breathtaking in the way that the ship seemed to be dropping.
Then the first tendrils of cloud whipped lazily about the Comet. There was the thrum of the rockets rising to a higher crescendo, and the force screen’s voltemeter leaped higher to combat the friction of the tenuous air. Another second, and the great cottony batts of cloud pressed with invisible force against the ship.
And then there was only a grey darkness outside, all light from the sun nullified by the thicknesses of clouds.
Don Denton drifted the ship lower, his fingers flying over the control studs, handling the ship’s weight as a horseman controls his mount by a light touch of the reins.
There seemed to be no mental passage of time while the ship was sinking. Moments flowed into each other, and always the clouds seemed to be pressing with a tenuous strength at the quartzite ports.
Then they were through the clouds, and a thousand feet below the ocean tossed and tumbled with a majestic silence that was thrilling and menacing.
Don Denton’s breath escaped with a tiny sigh of relief, and his eyes flashed to the girl’s face, then back again to the window. He was conscious of the close scrutiny she had given him during those tense moments, and he wondered, irrelevantly, if he measured up to her standards.
“Where’s all of the light coming from?” she asked curiously.
“From some sort of minute animal life in the oceans. The water is so filled with tiny worm-like forms of life that I doubt if you could find one cupful of clear water anywhere. They glow like fireflies, and the light generated is reflected back from the low clouds.” Don Denton grinned. “I used to call Venus the ‘Light bulb planet’!”
“It’s beautiful!” Jean breathed in rapture.
Don Denton nodded, swung the Comet directly North. Beneath them, the ocean was a shifting, white-capped wash of silvery light, gleaming with a phosphorescent sheen, its turbulence a shifting kaleidoscope of shattered colors.
And then the water was broken, and a scaly, blunt something darted out of the water, fell crashing in a spray of light.
“What was that?” Jean whispered.
Don Denton swallowed heavily. “I don’t know,” he said slowly. “Probably some deep sea monster; and he must have been fully three hundred feet long!”
He sent the Comet flashing ahead, the memory of the scaly monster tensing his broad shoulders in a shiver of disquiet. Jean sat silently at his side, quiet for once, and he felt a quick stab of emotion when he read the worry that lay deep in her eyes.
They cruised for almost an hour before Don Denton located the base camp. It had moved from island One to island Three, and its earthly regularity in the green of the Lanka jungle was pleasant to see.
“Five minutes,” Don Denton said cheerfully, “and you can surprise your dad.”
“Oh, hurry!” Jean said, bent close to the port-window.
Don Denton nodded silently, but there was suddenly a great fear in him. For nowhere in the camp below was there a sign of life.
Smoke was not bulging from the short stack of the rendering plant, and men did not dart from the small shacks to greet the landing ship. The camp appeared to be deserted.
“I don’t see anyone?” Jean said puzzledly, fearfully.
Don Denton forced a confident laugh, but his eyes were entirely serious. “They’re all probably out in the jungle grubbing up the best grade of plants. Don’t worry, when they hear the rockets, they’ll come stringing in plenty fast.”
He set the Comet down squarely in the middle of the clearing, touched studs, and there was an immediate cessation of noise and vibration.
“This is it,” Don Denton said quietly. “Slip on an oxy-helmet, and we’ll take a look around.”
He smiled away some of the growing fear in the girl’s eyes, but there was a growing panic in him that he could not quell.
He could see no one; there was not the slightest sign of life. Yet there should be fifteen men working here. Don Denton shrugged, and there was suddenly a steely gleam in his eyes. He slipped the light helmet over his head, fastened the air-tight cloth beneath his chin.
“Let’s go, Jean,” he said into the tiny transmitter of his helmet. “Be careful not to dislodge your helmet; the air will make you ill unless you are acclimated to it.”
He could see the tiny tremulous smile on her lips, and he held her hand tightly for a moment. Then he spun the cogs of the port-door, felt the slight breeze about his body as the higher compressed air of the ship soughed into the heavy air of Venus.
He helped the girl to the muddy ground, lifted the ati-gun from his belt, paced slowly toward the main hut, his eyes flashing everywhere for the slightest sign of danger, absolutely certain now that things here were even worse than he had conceived them to be.
There was an indefinable threat of danger in the stillness of the great clearing that tightened Don Denton’s nerves. Far away, could be heard the dull rumble of the eternal waves on the island’s edge, and closer could be heard the soft hissing of the air through the green Lanka fronds.
The clearing had been baked brick-hard with an ati-cannon; now its surface was spotted with soupy puddles of green mud where the every-day rains had seeped into some hollow.
Two freighters squatted near the North edge of the clearing, their dulled sides scabrous with great patches of growing rust, their empty ports like great blank staring eyes watching the two terrestrials slowly approach the main hut.
“Don,” Jean pressed close to the trouble shooter’s tall body, “where is everybody?”
Don Denton shook his head, a furry spider of apprehension crawling up his spine, his eyes piercing and searching as he held the ati-gun in a tremorless hand. He walked slowly forward, the eeriness of the silver-lighted scene touching his sensibilities.
He fired the moment the slug-like creature came from the hut’s door, the wailing hiss of the gun strangely loud. There was a silent scream that crescendoed and titillated in diminishing waves, then the creature collapsed into a protoplasmic mass that quivered horribly for a moment and then was still.
“Don!” Jean said fearfully.
The trouble shooter’s face was like chiselled granite, and he stepped to the door of the hut and rayed the stinking mass of bubbly flesh out of existence. He handed the twin ati-gun to the girl, nodded toward the hut’s interior.
“Stay here,” he snapped, “while I take a look inside. Shoot at anything that moves.”
He smiled then for the first time, seeing the determination in the lines of the girl’s chin. Then he whirled, stepped within the doorway, his nerves icy cold, the flat muscles of his body ready for instant darting action.
He stopped, his breathing a startled gasp. Eight men were within the hut, eight men lying in the stillness of death.
“Good God!” he said, paced swiftly across the floor to the tiers of bunks along the far wall.
He went from man to man, feeling for a pulse on each man, the cold sweat of terror breaking on his forehead when he was finally convinced that all eight of the hut’s occupants were dead.
He shivered, backed to the door, his eyes darting about the cabin, a sharp prodding prescience within him that every movement of his was being watched. He closed the door, stood speechlessly beside the girl for a moment.
“What is it, Don; what did you find?” Jean’s fingers tightened on his biceps.
Don Denton swallowed heavily, avoided the girl’s eyes. “Let’s take a look at the other sleeping hut,” he said tonelessly, tried to keep the horror he felt from his expression.
“There is something wrong; I know it!” Jean went rigid, her breath catching in her throat. “My father’s in there!”
Don Denton shook his head. “No,” he said sharply, “he isn’t in there; he’s probably in the other hut.” He caught the girl’s arm. “Let’s take a look, before something happens that’s too big for me to handle.”
They walked swiftly, their guns ready for instant firing, strangely comforted by each other’s presence. At the doorway of the second hut, Jean again stood guard while the trouble shooter entered.
He stood for a moment within the doorway of the hut, his nerves crawling when he saw an almost exact duplicate of the first scene. The only difference lay in the number of men supine in their bunks: there were but six here.
Don Denton winced, recognizing a corpse on a lower bunk as the grey-haired father of the girl outside. He felt a sick futility beating at his mind, when he remembered the reassuring words he had spoken to the girl but a few short hours before.
He moved about the hut, seeking for the slightest clue as to the cause of the men’s deaths, finally turning back to the door, his search unrewarded, his mind a maelstrom of conflicting theories and thoughts.
“Jean?” he said quietly, closed the door behind him on the horrible scene within.
Blood drained from his face, leaving it suddenly haggard and drawn. He whirled, with his back to the hut’s wall, the ati-gun jutting nervelessly before him in complete command of the clearing.
Not a thing moved; there was only the slightest of breezes. He felt the sweat trickling down the flat planes of his cheeks, and the metal of the hut felt incredibly warm against his back.
“Jean?” he called again, desperately.
There was only the muffled hollow vibration of the eternal waves pounding against the island. No voice answered his cry.
Jean Palmer was gone as though she had never been.
Don Denton stood rigidly for a moment, a nameless fear tugging at his mind, his blue eyes suddenly black with fear for the safety of the girl.
“Jean?” he called again, knowing that there would be no answer.
He ran lithely across the end of the clearing, burst into the first living-hut, made a quick search, dashed back outside, a monstrous fear and hate intermingled in his mind.
He went more slowly toward the first freighter, slipped within the uncogged port, moved even more slowly as he made a complete search of the shadowy corners of the hold and cabins. He found nothing but the mold and rust that came from the steamy atmosphere.
The second freighter proved to be empty also. And he stood for a moment outside its rusty length, his lips a thin white line, his eyes narrowed into slits.
Then, never permitting himself to relax, he made a complete search of the grounds, investigating the huts again, searching the rendering sheds, finally stopping, his heart thudding painfully, in the exact center of the clearing.
He considered the situation briefly, and his mind came to an abrupt stop against a wall of thought. Either the girl had disappeared into the Lanka jungle because she thought she had seen something or someone there, or she had been captured, silently, by the menace that had murdered the fourteen men who lay in the bunks within the huts.
Don Denton backed slowly toward the Comet, his ati-gun tight in his hand, never relaxing, ready to fire at the first sign of a living thing that moved. He uncogged the door-port, slipped through, cogged the door shut again. Then he searched the tiny ship from bow to stern, making absolutely certain that he was alone.
Satisfied that he was safe for the moment, he sagged into the cushions of the pilot’s seat, tried to make sense out of the sudden disappearance of the girl.
Obviously, there was something wrong with the island. Fourteen men were dead, Lanka plants rotting in the shed, the freighters empty hulks on the clearing’s edge.
But what could that menace be? He knew, personally, that the only life on Venus was in the oceans, a life that had not progressed far enough to permit it to cope with the brains and skill of men.
Yet Jean Palmer was gone, taken by the—the things that had slain fourteen men without leaving wounds on their bodies.
Don Denton swore bitterly, his hands clutching the arms of the seat until the knuckles were like polished bone. It was only too evident that the terror had struck but recently; the men’s bodies were not decomposed in the slightest.
The trouble shooter came from his seat, slid back the panel of the arms cabinet. He slipped into the silk-like folds of the cellu-ray suit, first discarding the oxy-helmet. Then he fitted on the wide belt that held the super ati-guns, checked them to make certain their loads were at maximum power.
He felt a slight dizziness from the tainted air that had filled the ship when the port had been opened, shrugged the feeling away with the knowledge that his space-hardened body could easily combat the slight toxic poison without effort.
He packed a small knapsack with a compact medicine box and food, left a water bottle behind, knowing that he could find rain puddles in the heavy Lanka leaves.
The rain started then without warning, coming down in a solid smashing sheet, the blasting wind rocking the Comet with titanic strength. Don Denton scowled through the storm, his vision stopped five feet from the quartzite port window by the smashing curtain of water from the low hanging clouds.
He paced the control room in tight anxiety, feeling the fear mounting within him, conscious of the driving urgency of quick action, but knowing that he could not fight the torrential downpour.
The rain battered down in a solid sheet for more than an hour.
And then the rain was over, and there was only the eerie silver light reflected from the clouds. Don Denton uncoiled impatiently from his seat, fitted on the knapsack, slipped the oxy-helmet over his head, tied the bottom strings about his throat.
He felt a momentary panic at the thought of stepping from the safety of his ship on the land where death might strike unseen. Then he grinned wryly, shrugged broad shoulders. He had his job to do, a job that he had elected for himself. Too, there was the memory of Jean’s presence that drove him on. If for no other reason, he could not desert the girl who had expressed such complete faith in himself.
He twisted the cogs of the port, set the vibra-ray so that no one else could open the door unless he was along. He slipped a bit on the mud of the clearing, turned, slammed the port shut. Then, with a super ati-gun in his right hand, he started across the clearing toward the break in the jungle that was obviously a path cut by the Lanka hunters.
It was then that he halted, his eyes widening in surprise, the sound of his breathing loud in his oxy-helmet. He swung in a complete circle, stifling his gasp of wonder, feeling the fear knotting in his stomach, and conscious of the scaly fingers of insanity plucking at his reason.
For men moved about the rendering hut, and steam spurted from the tall stacks.
Don Denton half-crouched, and a soundless snarl of amazement twisted his lips. His eyes flashed from the working men around the clearing, blinked bewilderedly at what they saw.
Or, rather, what they didn’t see.
For the freighters were gone, vanished from where they had been, only deep gouges in the ground to show that they had ever landed.
Don Denton swore soundlessly to himself, and the gun sagged momentarily in his hand. He felt the insane desire to laugh, fought down the feeling with an iron will.
This was too much; this was carrying things too far. Those men moving about the rendering shed were dead, so dead that there had been no pulse of heart-beats in their veins. Yet they walked and worked with a smooth efficiency about the shed five hundred feet away.
And the freighters had vanished into the clouds. Yet that, too, was impossible; for the rocket blasts would have created such a roar in the air that he could not have missed their going.
It was as though his mind had tricked him, had conjured chimeras and mirages out of the air to strip his reason away.
He stiffened, the gun lifting in his hand, as one of the men working about the shed turned and ran directly down the field. He gasped silently, recognizing the greyed hair and ruddy face of Jim Palmer.
His hand snapped to a small button on his helmet.
“Hold it, Palmer, don’t come any closer!” His voice roared from the tiny annunciator built into the top of his helmet.
Jim Palmer skidded to a stop, menaced by the ati-gun, fell, sprawling in the green mud, as his sudden stop tripped him on the treacherous ground. Amazement made a round O of his mouth, and the glad greeting faded from his eyes.
“What the hell, Denton?” he said sharply. “Have you gone space batty?”
Don Denton laughed without humor, shifted the gun muzzle slightly.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “But I’m not taking any chances on anything until I find out what’s going on!”
“What do you mean: ‘What’s going on’?” Jim Palmer pushed himself to his feet, wiped slimy mud onto his breeches’ legs. “Hell,” he finished, “all of us thought you were dead!”
“You—,” Don Denton swallowed, blinked desperately, “You thought I was dead?” he croaked.
“Why, sure!” Jim Palmer waved an expressive hand. “We tried to get into your ship for more than a week, but couldn’t. And we could see you crumpled in the pilot’s seat. So we figured you had died.”
“Look, Palmer,” Don Denton said, “I like jokes as well as the next spacer. But I don’t like the smell of this one! Now, what’s the set-up here?”
“Well, it’s just like the one I had on island Seven. I—”
Don Denton’s voice was like chilled steel. “Keep up that clowning,” he snapped, “and I’ll blow it out of you with an ati-gun blast!”
Jim Palmer paled, took a backward step. “Now, look, Denton,” he said placatingly, “I’m not looking for a fight with you; I’ve always figured we were friends. If you’ve got some gripe, get it off your chest, and maybe we can get it straightened out!”
Don Denton felt insanity growing in his mind. He sucked in a deep breath, never taking his eyes from Palmer’s sweat-streaked face. He didn’t know what was going on, could not find a coherent answer for anything, and the empty feeling it left within him frightened him as he had never felt fear before.
Less than an hour before, he had locked himself in his ship, after seeing fourteen dead men in the huts and after Jean had disappeared; and now Jim Palmer was telling him that that had happened more than a week before. Too, he was implying that Don Denton was mentally unbalanced.
Don Denton then felt the prescience of an alien presence at his back.
He whirled, spun to one side, his finger tight on the firing stud of the atomic gun in his fist.
Then, his face working in surprise, he turned slowly completely about, finally facing Jim Palmer again. His eyes went wide, when he saw the furtive, fearful steps the other was taking toward the safety of the rendering shed.
“Well, Denton,” Palmer said worriedly, “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Stand right where you are!” There was a quiver to the trouble shooter’s voice despite his iron control. “I’ve just started to ask questions. First, where’s Jean?”
“Why she went back to Earth on the Moonstone, the larger freighter. That was four days ago. She was pretty well broken up when she thought you were dead.”
Don Denton’s forehead washboarded in thought. “There’s something fishy here that I don’t understand,” he said, “but I’m going to get to the bottom of it.”
“Look, Denton,” Palmer’s tone was solicitous. “Why don’t you let Carter, the doctor, take a look at you. I mean no offense; but you sound as if you either had a concussion or a touch of space fever.” He gestured comfortingly. “Come on, take off your helmet, and the Doc’ll find out what’s wrong.”
Don Denton was fumbling at the lace of his light copper helmet unconsciously, before he realized what he was doing. For some unknown reason, he felt that Palmer might be right and that he might have some brain injury. Then some vague stubbornness filled his mind, driving away his sudden compliance. His free hand snapped to his belt, whipped out the second ati-gun.
“How is it that you and your men are walking around?” he asked, “I could have sworn you were dead?”
He waited for the other’s answer, conscious of an agonizing headache that had sprung out of nowhere. He still felt that he and Palmer were not alone, but his quick whirl a moment before had failed to disclose any lurker in the vicinity.
And now, for the first time, he saw the eyes of Jim Palmer clearly. There was something in them that he could not understand, a pleading to be understood that escaped his senses. And the something that was in them was oddly at variance with the smile on the ruddy face and the reassuring words.
“You must have seen us when we were asleep,” Jim Palmer explained, “After working on these Lanka plants for so long a time, you get such a slow steady heart action that it takes a stethoscope to find it.”
“Maybe?” Don Denton said skeptically. “But I still think you were dead.”
Jim Palmer laughed, the sound a long booming roll of mirth that drew curious glances from the workers at the rendering shed. His lips writhed back, and his shoulders shook with merriment, but his eyes never changed expression.
“Do we look dead?” he asked mirthfully.
“It isn’t what you look like, it’s what you are that counts,” Don Denton countered. “I’ve seen Martian Zombies that got around pretty well.”
“Yes,” Jim Palmer nodded. “I’ve seen them. But they don’t breathe or eat; and I can assure you that my men and I do both.”
He stepped forward, stretched his hand in a friendly gesture. “Come on,” he finished, “put away your guns, and come meet the men. Maybe the Doc had better take a look at you, too; you don’t look so well, you’ve probably got a touch of fever giving you hallucinations.”
Steam hissed from the muddy ground between them as the trouble shooter fired his left hand gun. “I’m not joking,” he snapped. “Make a move I don’t like, and I’ll be damned certain you’re dead!”
Jim Palmer sucked in his breath with an audible gasp, and muscles rippled in his heavy shoulders as his arms came up in a threatening gesture.
“You’re making a mistake, Denton,” he said brittlely.
And, without warning, his face white and strained, he sprang at the other, his whipping arms smashing the guns aside.
The twin ati-guns roared in a wailing scream of unleashed power, their released streams of energy charring the ground, as Don Denton’s hands clenched in sudden reflex.
Then the guns were hammered aside, and the bull-like body of Jim Palmer was straining at the trouble shooter’s lithe strength. For one interminable instant, Don Denton wavered on his feet, then he went backward, carried by the other’s weight, his mind numbed by the paralyzing shock that came from a sledge-like fist hammering at his chest.
He rolled as he fell, twisted, and his right hand lashed out in a desperate effort to reach one of the fallen guns. A heavy knee pinned his arm to the ground, and he gasped from Palmer’s weight on his chest.
He arched his body, tossed Palmer to one side, smashed at him with a two-handed attack that hurled the heavy man a dozen feet away. He slipped as he tried to follow his advantage, felt Palmer’s hands tearing at the globe of his oxy-helmet. He felt a lace break below his chin, and then his right hand came up in a vicious right cross.
Palmer sagged, half unconscious from the blow, went entirely slack, as the trouble shooter crossed his left and then his right.
Don Denton crouched for a moment, staring into the blank face of the camp manager, his chest heaving, feeling a slight dizziness as the air of Venus mingled with that of his damaged oxy-helmet.
Then the wailing hiss of an ati-gun brought him to his feet. He dived for his twin guns, turned, raced for the safety of the Comet, feeling the tingle of released energy as his cellu-ray suit dissipated the shock of a direct ati-blast on his back.
He fired twice, as a warning gesture, at the men streaming from the rendering shed, smiled grimly as the tight knot of pursuers broke into individuals.
And then he was at his ship, the vibra-ray lock swinging the port open automatically. He spun through the port, cogged it shut behind him, sagged against its solid friendliness, utterly worn with the furious action of the past few minutes.
Gradually, his breathing slowed to normal, and some of the unnatural fright of the past moments loosened their icy clutch from about his heart. He removed his oxy-helmet, dropped it carelessly to the floor, went slowly to the control room of the ship. He stared from the quartzite port, his brow furrowing in puzzlement.
Two of the Lanka workers were helping the stunned Palmer to his feet, while the rest of the men gazed woodenly toward the Comet. Then, as though turned by some common command, the entire group whirled, stalked back across the field, disappeared within the rendering shed.
Don Denton shook his head in bewilderment, sank tiredly into the pilot’s seat, found one of his carefully rationed cigarettes in a panel box. Touching a radi-light to its end, he leaned back in the cushions, drew slowly on the fragrant smoke.
“Whew!” he sighed explosively, winced when his exploring fingers found the great bruise on his chest where Palmer had struck so viciously.
He went over the entire, bizarre situation point by point; and as the moments passed he made less sense out of the entire proceedings. He couldn’t figure the slightest of reasons from what was happening. He tried to rationalize the events, ended at a blind alley of thinking.
First, he had the fact that the Lanka shipments had failed to make their scheduled appearances. So he had been sent to investigate. Jean Palmer had come along, ostensibly to see her father. Then, after landing, he had killed some Venusian slug, and found fourteen dead men in their bunks. Right after that, Jean had disappeared into thin air. An hour and a half later, the dead men were alive, and he had been attacked by Jim Palmer, whose friend he thought he was.
Don Denton scowled bleakly into space. This set-up was too screwy for him! He thought for a moment of rocketing into space and bringing back the Space Patrol to make a complete investigation.
His blue eyes narrowed abruptly, as he caught sight of the perpetual calendar on the wall. Hell! It was still the same day as the day he had arrived on Venus.
Which meant that Jim Palmer had lied.
He snapped his fingers in sudden thought. Palmer had not tried to injure him, instead, he had merely tried to remove the oxy-helmet.
And that meant another mystery. For Palmer knew that the faintly tainted air of Venus would not knock out the trouble-shooter.
The trouble-shooter growled deep in his throat, crushed out the cigarette, stood and paced to the port window. He frowned from the port, watched the men coming toward the rocket ship. He felt no uneasiness, for he knew that the hull would be impervious to any ati-blasts they might fire in trying to force an entrance.
Then he stiffened, the blood draining from his face.
For walking quietly in the middle of the tight group was Jean Palmer.
Don Denton swore briefly, didn’t move. He watched, as the group came quietly to a halt a hundred feet from the Comet, their tightness melting away as they stopped.
Then Don Denton saw Jim Palmer lift a heavy strip of leather belt, swing it with a brutal viciousness at the slender shoulders of his daughter.
Don Denton whipped around, a white hot rage blazing in his mind, his breath a choking mass in his throat, as he dashed for the port door. He uncogged it with trembling hands, pushed it open, dropped through, the ati-guns cold in his sweaty hands.
He ran toward the silent group, conscious that Palmer’s arms was lifting for another blow. His hand swept up for a snap-shot.
“Drop that gun, Denton,” Palmer snapped.
Don Denton snarled soundlessly, squared the muzzle of the ati-blaster on Palmer’s broad chest, squeezed the firing stud.
Then a great paralysis seemed to fill his rangy body. He came to a dead stop, his guns still jutting before him, but utterly without the will to press the firing studs.
“Holster both guns, Denton,” Jim Palmer barked.
Instantly, without a word, the trouble shooter’s hands flicked the twin guns back into their sheaths. He stood rigidly, great veins ridging his temples, then all resistance went from his body as he waited for the other to approach.
Jim Palmer halted but a few feet from the trouble shooter, the leather strap dangling from his right hand, his feet wide-braced. He bent forward a trifle, stared directly in Don Denton’s eyes.
“Can you hear me, Denton?” he asked quietly.
Don Denton fought the unbreakable control that held his mind and body in complete abeyance. Veins stood in high relief on his forehead, and perspiration rolled down his cheeks. He gagged a bit from the noxious air, tried to turn his head from Palmer’s piercing gaze.
“I can hear you, Palmer,” he said woodenly.
“Fine.” There was still that something far back in Palmer’s eyes, but there was absolutely no expression on his face. “Now, this is what you are to do: You will act as the pilot on the Moonstone for the rest of us men. We are turning pirates, and intend to set up our headquarters here. You will get your instruments and whatever else you need from your ship; we leave within the hour.”
Don Denton turned without volition, and even the hypnotic control that directed him could not keep the gasp of astonishment from his throat.
For there on the edge of the clearing, exactly as they had been before, were the two freighters that had vanished so mysteriously thirty minutes before.
But the astonishment was immediately erased from his mind, and he turned robot-like toward the Comet. He caught one flashing glimpse of the emotionless faces of the men and Jean Palmer, then he paced slowly toward the gaping port of the scouter.
Jim Palmer walked quietly at his side, staring straight ahead, no emotion touching his ruddy features.
Don Denton tried to think, but a soft impenetrable band of nothingness seemed to absorb all of his thoughts. His only thought was of the command he had just received, and, strangely, that thought seemed to be a perfectly natural thing.
“You go in first, Denton,” Palmer said quietly.
The trouble shooter obeyed silently, climbing through, standing rigidly until the other had joined him. Then he turned, stepped forward. His breath whooshed in a startled gasp, as his right foot stepped squarely on the dropped oxy-helmet, and then he was falling forward, his hands outstretched in a futile effort to regain his balance.
He felt his head strike the wall, struggled vainly to get back to his feet. Then dull blackness wiped all consciousness from his brain.
He couldn’t have been out for more than a second. He blinked his eyes shook his head slightly when he saw the tiny box of the gravity-rotor over his head, shifted a bit so that he gazed squarely at Jim Palmer.
He laughed then, feeling the tight control-band gone from his mind, sensing the advantage that had come back to him. He twisted a bit, still not understanding all that had happened, and his mouth opened in surprise at what he saw.
There were two of them, two grub-like slugs resting quiescently on the metal floor, each of them the exact duplicate of the thing he had shot upon landing on Venus.
All of the maelstrom disappeared then from his mind, and his thinking grew crystal clear. He saw Jim Palmer bending toward him, and then the ati-guns were in his hands, and their wailing crescendos of unleashed power filled the Comet with screaming echoes.
For an interminable instant, the slugs seemed to absorb the ati-rays, then they collapsed into puddles of obscene flesh that disappeared into charred flakes of ash.
Don Denton lay where he was, the guns silent in his hands, seeing the intelligence that flashed into Jim Palmer’s eyes.
“Oh, my God!” Jim Palmer said stupidly, stared at the strap he still held in his heavy hand.
Don Denton rolled from beneath the gravity-rotor, came to his feet, dodged around the dazed man, tugged open the nearest panel in the wall. He took two small, belt gravity-rotors from a shelf, handed one to Palmer, buckled the other about his head.
“Put that rotor about your head, Palmer,” he ordered. “We’ve got some work to do.”
He switched on his own rotor, felt nausea cramp at his stomach when the gravity field pulled at his neck muscles. Hooking his foot beneath the ship’s rotor, he helped Palmer fasten the rotor over his greyed hair, then handed the older man one of the ati-guns.
“Come on,” he said. “We’ve got some hunting to do.”
He led the way, jumping from the port-door, the gun blasting in his hand, conscious of the Lanka manager’s bulky body at his side.
They went side by side down the field, the wailing roar of their guns screaming in the air, the slugs dying hideously, one by one.
And then Jean was in Don Denton’s arms, her slender shoulders shaking in a torrent of sobs, and he was soothing her with a clumsy gentleness that felt strange and good to him.
They sat in the control room of the great freighter, Moonstone, their faces were turned to where Don Denton stood at the control panel. The trouble shooter grinned at the fifteen people that made up his audience, and he summed up all of his thoughts and theories.
“Those slugs,” he explained, “were little more than animated brains. They lived somewhere in the oceans, and probably discovered the Lanka camps by accident. They had no ways of subduing you men by physical means, because of their grub-like bodies, so they took control of your minds. Unluckily, they failed to gain control of one of you men and of both of the freighter pilots; and the three men tried to escape in a small rocket. The rocket crashed, killing all three of the men.”
Jim Palmer nodded. “That’s what I’ve got figured out,” he said, “But I’ve just got a hazy memory of the past three months.”
“Well,” Don Denton continued, “these slugs must have got the idea of going to Earth and the other inhabited planets, and taking control of them. But they needed your help and a space pilot to transport you and them. They put all of you in a cataleptic state, while waiting for some space pilot to appear. They left a guard, the slug I shot down the moment I begin searching the camp. But before he died, he sent out a call that brought a single slug into camp.”
Jean Palmer shivered, held tightly to the trouble shooter’s hand. “I know,” she said, “I took off my helmet to adjust the oxygen valve, and I looked up to see that whitish thing at the corner of the hut. Before I could call out, something seemed to grab my mind—and then I was running toward the jungle. I tried to scream to you, when you found me gone, but I couldn’t move.”
Don Denton smiled, tightened his strong fingers over the girl’s. “It’s fairly easy to reconstruct from there on,” he said carefully. “The slugs tried to get control of my mind. But because thought is of an electrical nature, absolute control wouldn’t pass through the copper of my oxy-helmet. They set a scene to make me think I was crazy, and sent Palmer to take off my helmet.”
“I remember that,” Jim Palmer said thoughtfully.
Don Denton nodded. “Well,” he went on, “their mental control was enough that it played tricks with my mind. They blanked out my vision when I looked at them, and later, they blacked out the sight of the freighters, trying to make me think that I was so crazy I should take off my helmet for an examination.”
“I escaped from Palmer, went back to the Comet, then raced out of the ship to save Jean from a beating.” He shook his head slightly when he saw the pain on Palmer’s face. “Of course it was just a trick to get me outside without my helmet. Well, I fell for it; and the slugs took control, making me believe that Jim Palmer was the master mind engineering everything. But on entering the Comet, I slipped and fell beneath the ship’s gravity-rotor. The field of gravity-energy neutralized the electricity of the thought waves—just as it blanks out the power of a flashlight—and I was able to think again. I blasted the slugs, got two portable rotors and fastened them to Palmer and myself, and the two of us cleaned out the slugs.”
Don Denton flicked his gaze about the room. “Now, if you men intend to stay, you’ve got to wear tiny gravity-rotors on your heads. It apparently isn’t the quantity of power put out that blankets the thought waves, it’s possible to use a very weak power. I don’t think the slugs will try anything again, but if they do, you shouldn’t have any trouble getting rid of them.”
“We’re staying on,” Jim Palmer said grimly, nodded approvingly at the confident glances given him by his men. “And I hope those damned things show up again. I’d like nothing better than to take an ati-blaster to a bunch of those uncanny devils.”
He grinned suddenly, looked squarely into Don Denton’s eyes.
“How about staying on for awhile?” he asked, “There might be a little excitement on this planet that you could dig up?”
Don Denton shook his head. “Sorry,” he said, “but I’ve got a date with some friends of mine on Mars; we’re going to explore some of the new tombs they discovered two months ago. I guess I’ll be getting along.”
He felt the insistent tugging of Jean’s slender fingers on his. A smile lifted the corners of his lips, and he bent over, kissed her with a quick possessiveness.
“My mistake,” he said warmly, “we’ll be getting along!”
He and Jean were smiling into each other’s eyes then, reading there a future that held many promises of adventure and love and—and things that would be utterly nothing to others than themselves.#ENGLISH