THE SOUL EATERS
By WILLIAM CONOVER
Firebrand Dennis Brooke had one final chance
to redeem himself by capturing Koerber whose
ships were the scourge of the Void. But his
luck had run its course, and now he was
marooned on a rogue planet—fighting to save
himself from a menace weapons could not kill.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Fall 1944.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
“And so, my dear,” Dennis detected a faint irony in the phrase, “I’m afraid I can offer no competition to the beauties of five planets—or is it six? With regret I bow myself out, and knowing me as you do, you’ll understand the futility of trying to convince me again. Anyway, there will be no temptation, for I’m sailing on a new assignment I’ve accepted. I did love you…. Good-by.”
Dennis Brooke had lost count of the times he’d read Marla’s last letter, but every time he came to these final, poignant lines, they never failed to conjure a vision of her tawny loveliness, slender as the palms of Venus, and of the blue ecstasy of her eyes, wide with a perpetual wonder—limpid as a child’s.
The barbaric rhythms of the Congahua, were a background of annoyance in Dennis’ mind; he frowned slightly as the maneuvers of the Mercurian dancer, who writhed among the guests of the notorious pleasure palace, began to leave no doubt as to her intentions. The girl was beautiful, in a sultry, almost incandescent sort of way, but her open promise left him cold. He wanted solitude, somewhere to coordinate his thoughts in silence and salvage something out of the wreck of his heart, not to speak of his career. But Venus, in the throes of a gigantic boom upon the discovery of radio-active fields, could offer only one solitude—the fatal one of her swamps and virgin forests.
Dennis Brooke was thirty, the time when youth no longer seems unending. When the minor adventures of the heart begin to pall. If the loss of Marla left an aching void that all the women of five planets could not fill, the loss of Space, was quite as deadly. For he had been grounded. True, Koerber’s escape from the I.S.P. net had not quite been his fault; but had he not been enjoying the joys of a voluptuous Jovian Chamber, in Venus’ fabulous Inter-planetary Palace, he would have been ready for duty to complete the last link in the net of I.S.P. cruisers that almost surrounded the space pirate.
A night in the Jovian Chamber, was to be emperor for one night. Every dream of a man’s desire was marvelously induced through the skilful use of hypnotics; the rarest viands and most delectable drinks appeared as if by magic; the unearthly peace of an Olympus descended on a man’s soul, and beauty … beauty such as men dreamed of was a warm reality under the ineffable illumination of the Chamber.
It cost a young fortune. But to pleasure mad, boom-ridden Venus, a fortune was a bagatelle. Only it had cost Dennis Brooke far more than a sheaf of credits—it had cost him the severe rebuff of the I.S.P., and most of his heart in Marla.
Dennis sighed, he tilted his red, curly head and drank deeply of the insidious Verbena, fragrant as a mint garden, in the tall frosty glass of Martian Bacca-glas, and as he did so, his brilliant hazel eyes found themselves gazing into the unwinking, violet stare of a young Martian at the next table. There was a smouldering hatred in those eyes, and something else … envy, perhaps, or was it jealousy? Dennis couldn’t tell. But his senses became instantly alert. Danger brought a faint vibration which his superbly trained faculties could instantly denote.
His steady, bronzed hand lowered the drink, and his eyes narrowed slightly. Absorbed in trying to puzzle the sudden enmity of this Martian stranger, he was unaware of the Mercurian Dancer. The latter had edged closer, whirling in prismatic flashes from the myriad semi-precious stones that studded her brief gauze skirt. And now, in a final bid for the spacer’s favor she flung herself in his lap and tilted back invitingly.
Some of the guests laughed, others stared in plain envy at the handsome, red-haired spacer, but from the table across, came the tinkling sound of a fragile glass being crushed in a powerful hand, and a muffled Martian curse. Without warning, the Martian was on his feet with the speed of an Hellacorium, the table went crashing to one side as he leaped with deadly intent on the sprawled figure of Dennis Brooke. A high-pitched scream brought instant silence as a Terran girl cried out. Then the Martian’s hand reached out hungrily. But Dennis was not there.
Leaping to one side, impervious to the fall of the dancer, he avoided the murderous rush of the Martian youth, then he wheeled swiftly and planted a sledge-hammer blow in that most vulnerable spot of all Martians, the spot just below their narrow, wasp-like waist, and as the Martian half-doubled over, he lefted him with a short jab to the chin that staggered and all but dropped him.
The Martian’s violet eyes were black with fury now. He staggered back and sucked in air, his face contorted with excruciating pain. But he was not through. His powerful right shot like a blast straight for Dennis’ chest, striking like a piston just below the heart. Dennis took it, flat-footed, without flinching; then he let his right ride over with all the force at his command. It caught the Martian on the jaw and spun him like a top, the pale, imperious face went crimson as he slowly sagged to his knees and rolled to the impeccable mosaics of the floor.
Dennis, breathing heavily, stood over him until the international police arrived, and then he had the surprise of his life. Upon search, the police found a tiny, but fatal silvery tube holstered under his left arm-pit—an atomic-disintegrator, forbidden throughout the interplanetary League. Only major criminals and space pirates still without the law were known to possess them.
“Looks like your brawl has turned out to be a piece of fool’s luck, Brooke!” The Police Lieutenant favored Dennis with a wry smile. “If I’m not mistaken this chap’s a member of Bren Koerber’s pirate crew. Who else could afford to risk his neck at the International, and have in his possession a disintegrator? Pity we have no complete records on that devil’s crew! Anyway, we’ll radio the I.S.P., perhaps they have details on this dandy!” He eyed admiringly the priceless Martian embroideries on the unconscious Martian’s tunic, the costly border of red, ocelandian fur, and the magnificent black acerine on his finger.
Dennis Brooke shrugged his shoulders, shoulders that would have put to shame the Athenian statues of another age. A faint, bitter smile curved his generous mouth. “I’m grounded, Gillian, it’d take the capture of Koerber himself to set me right with the I.S.P. again—you don’t know Bertram! To him an infraction of rules is a major crime. Damn Venus!” He reached for his glass of Verbena but the table had turned over during the struggle, and the glass was a shattered mass of gleaming Bacca-glas shards. He laughed shortly as he became conscious of the venomous stare of the Mercurian Dancer, of the excited voices of the guests and the emphatic disapproval of the Venusian proprietor who was shocked at having a brawl in his ultra-expensive, ultra-exclusive Palace.
“Better come to Headquarters with me, Dennis,” the lieutenant said gently. “We’ll say you captured him, and if he’s Koerber’s, the credit’s yours. A trip to Terra’s what you need, Venus for you is a hoodoo!”
The stern, white haired I.S.P. Commander behind the immense Aluminil desk, frowned slightly as Dennis Brooke entered. He eyed the six foot four frame of the Captain before him with a mixture of feelings, as if uncertain how to begin. Finally, he sighed as if, having come to a decision, he were forcing himself to speak:
“Sit down, Dennis. I’ve sent for you, despite your grounding, for two reasons. The first one you already know—your capture of one of Koerber’s henchmen—has given us a line as to his present orbit of piracy, and the means of a check on his activities. But that’s not really why I’ve brought you here.” He frowned again as if what he had to say were difficult indeed.
“Marla Starland, your fiancee, accepted an assignment we offered her—a delicate piece of work here on Terra that only a very beautiful, and very clever young lady could perform. And,” he paused, grimacing, “somewhere between Venus and Terra, the interplanetary spacer bringing her and several other passengers, began to send distress signals. Finally, we couldn’t contact the ship any more. It is three days overdue. All passengers, a cargo of radium from Venus worth untold millions, the spacer itself—seem to have vanished.”
Dennis Brooke’s space-tanned features had gone pale. His large hazel eyes, fringed with auburn lashes, too long for a man, were bright slits that smouldered. He stood silent, his hands clenched at his sides, while something cold and sharp seemed to dig at his heart with cruel precision.
“Marla!” He breathed at last. The thought of Marla in the power of Koerber sent a wave of anguish that seared through him like an atom-blast.
“Commander,” Dennis said, and his rich baritone voice had depths of emotion so great that they startled Commander Bertram himself—and that grizzled veteran of the I.S.P., had at one time or another known every change of torture that could possibly be wrung on a human soul. “Commander, give me one … one chance at that spawn of unthinkable begetting! Let me try, and I promise you …” in his torture, Dennis was unconsciously banging a knotted fist on the chaste, satiny surface of the priceless desk, “I promise you that I will either bring you Koerber, or forfeit my life!”
Commander Bertram nodded his head. “I brought you here for that purpose, son. We have reached a point in our war with Koerber, where the last stakes must be played … and the last stake is death!”
He reached over and flipped up the activator on a small telecast set on his desk; instantly the viso-screen lighted up. “You’ll now see a visual record of all we know about the passenger spacer that left Venus with passengers and cargo, as far as we could contact the vessel in space. This, Dennis,” the Commander emphasized his words, “is your chance to redeem yourself!” He fell silent, while the viso-screen began to show a crowded space port on Venus, and a gigantic passenger spacer up-tilted in its cradle.
They watched the parabola it made in its trajectory as it flashed into space and then fell into orbit there beyond the planetary attraction of Venus. On the three-dimensional viso-screen it was uncannily real.
A flight that had taken many hours to accomplish, was shortened on the viso-screen to a matter of minutes. They saw the great, proud interplanetary transport speeding majestically through the starry void, and suddenly, they saw her swerve in a great arc; again she swerved as if avoiding something deadly in space, and point upwards gaining altitude. It was zig-zagging now, desperately maneuvering in an erratic course, and as if by magic, a tiny spot appeared on the transport’s side.
Tiny on the viso-screen, the fatal spots must have been huge in actuality. To the Commander of the I.S.P., and to Captain Brooke, it was an old story. Atom-blasts were pitting the spacer’s hull with deadly Genton shells. The great transport trembled under the impact of the barrage, and suddenly, the screen went blank.
Commander Bertram turned slowly to face the young I.S.P. captain, whose features were a mask devoid of all expression now, save for the pallor and the burning fire in his eyes.
“And that’s the sixth one in a month. Sometimes the survivors reach Terra in emergency spacers, or are picked up in space by other transports … and sometimes son … well, as you know, sometimes they’re never seen again.”
“When do I leave, Commander!” Dennis Brooke’s voice was like a javelin of ice.
“Right now, if you wish. We have a new cruiser armored in beryloid with double hull—a new design against Genton shells, but it’s the speed of the thing that you’ll want to know about. It just about surpasses anything ever invented. Get the figures and data from the coordination room, son; it’s serviced and fueled and the crew’s aboard.” He extended his hand. “You’re the best spacer we have—aside from your recklessness—and on your success depends far more than the capture of an outlaw.” Bertram smiled thinly. “Happy landing!”
Their nerves were ragged. Days and days of fruitless search for a phantom ship that seemed to have vanished from space, and an equally elusive pirate whose whereabouts were hidden in the depths of fathomless space.
To all but Captain Brooke, this was a new adventure, their first assignment to duty in a search that went beyond the realm of the inner planets, where men spent sleepless nights in eternal vigilance against stray asteroids and outlaw crews of ruthless vandal ships. Even their cruiser was a new experience, the long, tapering fighter lacked the luxurious offices and appointments of the regular I.S.P. Patrol spacers. It placed a maximum on speed, and all available space was hoarded for fuel. The lightning fast tiger of the space-lanes, was a thing of beauty, but of grim, sleek beauty instinct with power, not the comfortable luxury that they knew.
Day after day they went through their drills, donning space suits, manning battle stations; aiming deadly atom-cannon at empty space, and eternally scanning the vast empty reaches by means of the telecast.
And suddenly, out of the void, as they had all but given up the search as a wild goose chase, a speck was limned in the lighted surface of the viso-screen in the control room. Instantly the I.S.P. cruiser came to life. In a burst of magnificent speed, the cruiser literally devoured the space leagues, until the spacer became a flashing streak. On the viso-screen, the speck grew larger, took on contours, growing and becoming slowly the drifting shell of what had been a transport.
Presently they were within reaching distance, and Captain Brooke commanded through the teleradio from the control room:
“Prepare to board!”
Every member of the crew wanted to be among the boarding party, for all but George Randall, the junior member of the crew had served his apprenticeship among the inner planets, Mars, Venus and Terra. He felt nauseated at the very thought of going out there in that vast abyss of space. His young, beardless face, with the candid blue eyes went pale when the order was given. But presently, Captain Brooke named those who were to go beside himself:
“You, Tom and Scotty, take one emergency plane, and Dallas!”
“Yes, Captain!” Dallas Bernan, the immense third lieutenant boomed in his basso-profundo voice.
“You and I’ll take a second emergency!” There was a pause in the voice of the Captain from the control room, then: “Test space suits. Test oxygen helmets! Atom-blasts only, ready in five minutes!”
George Randall breathed a sigh of relief. He watched them bridge the space to the drifting wreck, then saw them enter what had once been a proud interplanetary liner, now soon to be but drifting dust, and he turned away with a look of shame.
Inside the liner, Captain Dennis Brooke had finished making a detailed survey.
“No doubt about it,” he spoke through the radio in his helmet. “Cargo missing. No survivors. No indication that the repulsion fields were out of order. And finally, those Genton shells could only have been fired by Koerber!” He tried to maintain a calm exterior, but inwardly he seethed in a cold fury more deadly than any he had ever experienced. Somehow he had expected to find at least one compartment unharmed, where life might have endured, but now, all hope was gone. Only a great resolve to deal with Koerber once and for all remained to him.
Dennis tried not to think of Marla, too great an ache was involved in thinking of her and all he had lost. When he finally spoke, his voice was harsh, laconic:
“Prepare to return!”
Scotty Byrnes, the cruiser’s nurse, who could take his motors through a major battle, or hell and high water and back again, for that matter, shifted the Venusian weed that made a perpetual bulge on his cheek and gazed curiously at Captain Brooke. They all knew the story in various versions, and with special additions. But they were spacemen, implicit in their loyalty, and with Dennis Brooke they could and did feel safe.
Tom Jeffery, the tall, angular and red-faced Navigator, whose slow, easygoing movements belied the feral persistence of a tiger, and the swiftness of a striking cobra in a fight, led the small procession of men toward the emergency planes. Behind him came Dallas Bernan, third lieutenant, looming like a young asteroid in his space suit, followed by Scotty, and finally Captain Brooke himself. All left in silence, as if the tragedy that had occurred aboard the wrecked liner, had touched them intimately.
Aboard the I.S.P. Cruiser, a surprise awaited them. It was young George Randall, whose excited face met them as soon as they had entered the airlocks and removed the space suits.
“Captain Brooke … Captain, recordings are showing on the new ‘Jet Analyzers’ must be the trail of some spacer. Can’t be far!” He was fairly dancing in his excitement, as if the marvelous work of the new invention that detected the disturbance of atomic jets at great distance were his own achievement.
Dennis Brooke smiled. His own heart was hammering, and inwardly he prayed that it were Koerber. It had to be! No interplanetary passenger spacer could possibly be out here at the intersection of angles Kp 39 degrees, 12 minutes, Fp 67 degrees of Ceres elliptic plane. None but a pirate crew with swift battle cruisers could dare! This was the dangerous asteroid belt, where even planetoids drifted in eccentric uncharted orbits.
Dennis, Tom Jeffery and Scotty Byrnes raced to the control room, followed by the ponderous Dallas to whom hurry in any form was anathema. There could be no doubt now! The “Jet Analyzer” recorded powerful disturbance, atomic—could be nothing else.
Instantly Captain Brooke was at the inter-communication speaker:
“Crew, battle stations! Engine room, full speed!”
Scotty Byrnes was already dashing to the engine room, where his beloved motors purred with an ascending hum. Aboard the I.S.P. Cruiser each member of the crew raced to his assigned task without delay. Action impended, and after days and nights of inertia, it was a blessed relief. Smiles appeared on haggard faces, and the banter of men suddenly galvanized by a powerful incentive was bandied back and forth. All but George Randall. Now that action was imminent. Something gripped his throat until he could hardly stand the tight collar of his I.S.P. uniform. A growing nausea gripped his bowels, and although he strove to keep calm, his hands trembled beyond control.
In the compact, super-armored control room, Captain Brooke watched the telecast’s viso-screen, with hungry eyes that were golden with anticipation. It seemed to him as if an eternity passed before at last, a black speck danced on the illuminated screen, until it finally reached the center of the viso-screen and remained there. It grew by leaps and bounds as the terrific speed of the cruiser minimized the distance long before the quarry was aware of pursuit.
But at last, when the enemy cruiser showed on the viso-screen, unmistakably for what it was—a pirate craft, it showed by its sudden maneuver that it had detected the I.S.P. cruiser. For it had described a parabola in space and headed for the dangerous asteroid belt. As if navigated by a masterly hand that knew each and every orbit of the asteroids, it plunged directly into the asteroid drift, hoping to lose the I.S.P. cruiser with such a maneuver. Ordinarily, it would have succeeded, no I.S.P. patrol ship would have dared to venture into such a trap without specific orders. But to Dennis Brooke, directing the chase from the control room, even certain death was welcome, if only he could take Koerber with him.
Weaving through the deadly belt for several hours, Dennis saw his quarry slow down. Instantly he seized the chance and ordered a salvo from starboard. Koerber’s powerful spacer reeled, dived and came up spewing Genton-shells. The battle was on at last.
From the banked atom-cannon of the I.S.P. Cruiser, a deadly curtain of atomic fire blazed at the pirate craft. A ragged rent back toward midship showed on Koerber’s Cruiser which trembled as if it had been mortally wounded. Then Dennis maneuvered his cruiser into a power dive as a rain of Genton-shells swept the space lane above him, but as he came up, a lone shell struck. At such close range, super-armor was ripped, second armor penetrated and the magnificent vessel shook under the detonating impact.
It was then that Dennis Brooke saw the immense dark shadow looming immediately behind Koerber’s ship. He saw the pirate cruiser zoom desperately in an effort to break the gravity trap of the looming mass, but too late. It struggled like a fly caught in a spider-web to no avail. It was then that Koerber played his last card. Sensing he was doomed, he tried to draw the I.S.P. Cruiser down with him. A powerful magnetic beam lashed out to spear the I.S.P. Cruiser.
With a wrenching turn that almost threw them out of control, Dennis maneuvered to avoid the beam. Again Koerber’s beam lashed out, as he sank lower into the looming mass, and again Dennis anticipating the maneuver avoided it.
“George Randall!” He shouted desperately into the speaker. “Cut all jets in the rocket room! Hurry, man!” He banked again and then zoomed out of the increasing gravity trap.
“Randall! I’ve got to use the magnetic repulsion plates…. Cut all the jets!” But there was no response. Randall’s screen remained blank. Then Koerber’s lashing magnetic beam touched and the I.S.P. ship was caught, forced to follow the pirate ship’s plunge like the weight at the end of a whiplash. Koerber’s gunners sent one parting shot, an atom-blast that shook the trapped cruiser like a leaf.
Beneath them, growing larger by the second, a small world rushed up to meet them. The readings in the Planetograph seemed to have gone crazy. It showed diameter 1200 miles; composition mineral and radio-active. Gravity seven-eighths of Terra. It couldn’t be! Unless perhaps this unknown planetoid was the legendary core of the world that at one time was supposed to have existed between Jupiter and Mars. Only that could possibly explain the incredible gravity.
And then began another type of battle. Hearing the Captain’s orders to Randall, and noting that no result had been obtained, Scotty Byrnes himself cut the jets. The Magnetic Repulsion Plates went into action, too late to save them from being drawn, but at least they could prevent a crash. Far in the distance they could see Koerber’s ship preceding them in a free fall, then the Planetoid was rushing up to engulf them.
The atmosphere was somewhat tenuous, but it was breathable, provided a man didn’t exert himself. To the silent crew of the I.S.P. Cruiser, the strange world to which Koerber’s magnetic Beam had drawn them, was anything but reassuring. Towering crags jutted raggedly against the sky, and the iridescent soil of the narrow valley that walled in the cruiser, had a poisonous, deadly look. As far as their eyes could reach, the desolate, denuded vista stretched to the horizon.
“Pretty much of a mess!” Dennis Brooke’s face was impassive as he turned to Scotty Byrnes. “What’s your opinion? Think we can patch her up, or are we stuck here indefinitely?”
Scotty eyed the damage. The atom-blast had penetrated the hull into the forward fuel chambers and the armor had blossomed out like flower petals. The crash-landing had not helped either.
“Well, there’s a few beryloid plates in the storage locker, Captain, but,” he scratched his head ruminatively and shifted his precious cud.
“But what? Speak up man!” It was Tom Jeffery, his nerves on edge, his ordinarily gentle voice like a lash.
“But, you may as well know it,” Scotty replied quietly. “That parting shot of Koerber’s severed our main rocket feed. I had to use the emergency tank to make it down here!”
For a long moment the four men looked at each other in silence. Dennis Brooke’s face was still impassive but for the flaming hazel eyes. Tom tugged at the torn sleeve of his I.S.P. uniform, while Scotty gazed mournfully at the damaged ship. Dallas Bernan looked at the long, ragged line of cliffs.
“I think we got Koerber, though,” he said at last. “While Tom was doing a job of navigation, I had one last glimpse of him coming down fast and out of control somewhere behind those crags over there!”
“To hell with Koerber!” Tom Jeffery exploded. “You mean we’re stuck in this hellish rock-pile?”
“Easy, Tom!” Captain Brooke’s tones were like ice. On his pale, impassive face, his eyes were like flaming topaz. “Where’s Randall?”
“Probably hiding his head under a bunk!” Dallas laughed with scorn. His contemptuous remark voiced the feelings of the entire crew. A man who failed to be at his battle-station in time of emergency, had no place in the I.S.P.
“Considering the gravity of this planetoid,” Dennis Brooke said thoughtfully, “it’s going to take some blast to get us off!”
“Maybe we can locate a deposit of anerioum or uranium or something for our atom-busters to chew on!” Scotty said hopefully. He was an eternal optimist.
“Better break out those repair plates,” Dennis said to Scotty. “Tom, you get the welders ready. I’ve got a few entries to make in the log book, and then we’ll decide on a party to explore the terrain and try to find out what happened to Koerber’s ship. I must know,” he said in a low voice, but with such passion that the others were startled.
A figure appeared in the slanting doorway of the ship in time to hear the last words. It was George Randall, adjusting a bandaged forehead bumped during the crash landing.
“Captain … I … I wanted …” he paused unable to continue.
“You wanted what?” Captain Brooke’s voice was terse. “Perhaps you wanted to explain why you weren’t at your battle station?”
“Sir, I wanted to know if … if I might help Scotty with the welding job….” That wasn’t at all what he’d intended to say. But somehow the words had stuck in his throat and his face flushed deep scarlet. His candid blue eyes were suspiciously brilliant, and the white bandage with its crimson stains made an appealing, boyish figure. It softened the anger in Brooke’s heart. Thinking it over calmly, Dennis realized this was the youngster’s first trip into the outer orbits, and better men than he had cracked in those vast reaches of space. But there had been an instant when he’d found Randall cowering in the rocket-room, in the grip of paralyzing hysteria, when he could cheerfully have wrung his neck!
“Certainly, Randall,” he replied in a much more kindly tone. “We’ll need all hands now.”
“Thank you, sir!” Randall seemed to hesitate for a moment, opened his mouth to speak further, but feeling the other’s calculating gaze upon him, he whirled and re-entered the ship.
“But for him we wouldn’t be here!” Dallas exclaimed. “Aagh!” He shook his head in disgust until the several folds of flesh under his chin shook like gelatin. “Cowards are hell!” He spat.
“Easy, Dallas, Randall’s a kid, give ‘im a chance.” Dennis observed.
“You Captain … you’re defending ‘im? Why you had a greater stake in this than we, and he’s spoiled it for you!”
“Yep,” Dennis nodded. “But I’m still keeping my senses clear. No feuds on my ship. Get it!” The last two words cut like a scimitar.
Dallas nodded and lowered his eyes. Scotty shifted his cud and spat a thin stream of juice over the iridescent ground. One by one they re-entered the cruiser.
Absorbedly Randall added finishing flourishes to the plate of beryloid he had just finished welding. With the heavy atomic welder in his hands, he paused to inspect the job. Inwardly he wished that Scotty and Dallas would hurry with that final plate. He could just barely hear them pounding it into shape, within the cruiser. Unconsciously he shivered.
Outside the cruiser, it was cold, and breathing was laborious, for despite the gravity, the atmosphere was thin, diffused. Besides, this shadowy world of dark crags and palely creeping sunlight had an uncanny feel, as if it were evil. For the hundredth time he twisted around and surveyed the rocky terrain behind him. Determinedly he squared his shoulders and jutted out his chin. It was bad enough to have muffed a chance to add glory to the I.S.P., not to speak of having the rest of the crew think him demented. Still the feeling of being watched persisted. Randall cursed his imagination, and over-wrought nerves that made him feel what palpably didn’t exist. He closed his young eyes for a second and strove to steady his nerves.
He breathed deeply of the tenuous atmosphere and exhaled slowly; then he opened his eyes, feeling more calm and turned to make one final survey, and stood rooted to the ground as if petrified.
From a dark crevice in the jagged wall behind the I.S.P. Spacer, something seemed to glide effortlessly into the open. About twenty feet from Randall it paused and remained stationary, hovering above the rocky surface. It was perfectly spherical, fully three feet in diameter, and had George Randall not been hysterical with dread, he would have seen that it was exquisitely beautiful, a softly shining, transparent globe that pulsed rhythmically with lambent fires. A wavering, lavender corona, like an aura, surrounded it as it began to spin slowly.
From nerveless hands the atomic welder dropped to the ground, as a wave of surging panic engulfed Randall. With an eerie, half-strangled scream he clawed for the atom-blast at his hip. He had a brief impression that the globe was sentiently alive, and that something that felt like tendrils of fire probed his brain. His hair stood on end as the icy fear deepened to the verge of madness.
“Scotty! Dallas!” He shouted, and then realized he couldn’t be heard above the pounding within the cruiser. He aimed at the globe and squeezed the trigger. The tremendous energy released by the atom-blast flung the globe back, by blasting the surrounding air in furious waves, but regaining its equilibrium the globe began to zoom forward again, undamaged!
Randall waited no longer, he raced for the open hatch of the cruiser with the speed of horror. He scrambled madly, almost dived into the opening and had the presence of mind to pull the lever that slammed the door shut behind him. He lay there panting, completely unnerved by the experience.
Dishevelled and horror-stricken was the way Scotty and Dallas found him, when on hearing the hatch clang shut, they rushed in to investigate.
“What happened, an attack? Koerber’s men?” Scotty queried.
“Speak up, Randall!” Dallas shook him briefly. “What was it? You look as if you’d seen a ghost!”
“There’s something out there…. I don’t know what it is, but it’s alive. It almost got me!” He shuddered.
“Something alive on this barren world? Unless it was one of Koerber’s men, you’ve been seeing ghosts again, kid!” Scotty said not unkindly. He was well aware of spacemen’s mirage, the affliction that sometimes drove newcomers mad.
“It was real,” Randall persisted. “And it was alive … a glowing globe of energy that hung just above me, a few feet away. I blasted at it with my gun, and it just spun, then came forward.”
He rose from the floor and moved over to the starboard port to look outside. Scotty and Dallas stood beside him. They gazed curiously in every direction, as far as they could see.
“Don’t see a thing,” Dallas said stolidly. “Come on, son! I’ll fix you a sedative,” he said contemptuously.
“Wait a minute Dallas,” Scotty interrupted. “Randall’s right. Take a look at that big pile of rocks over there … to the left, Dallas!”
“By the red-tailed Picaroons on Jupiter’s satellites!” Dallas swore swiftly. “I’ve seen a lot of queer sights, but nothing like this!” he exclaimed. Suddenly he turned to Randall. “How do you know it’s alive? For all we know it’s just a globe of radio-active energy native to this hell-spot.”
Randall colored, hesitated and finally blurted out. “I … I just felt it was alive. I sensed it trying to contact my mind…. Oh, I know it sounds crazy, I know you’ll laugh, but the thing was trying to probe my brain, Dallas!”
Scotty suddenly thought of Captain Brooke and Tom Jeffery who had gone on an exploratory trip. “I wonder about the Captain and Tom,” he said in alarm. “If there’s one of these whirling demons on this rock there’s sure to be others.” He raced to the communications set and turned it on. But it was silent.
Dallas gazed at Randall for a second with a faint, scornful smile. “Alive, eh? We’ll see.” He patted the atom-blast at his hip.
“Never saw nothin’ dangerous yet that this couldn’t put a hole through!” He exclaimed inelegantly.
“Hold on, Dallas!” The more prudent Scotty tried to dissuade him. “If that thing’s radio-active, it may be deadly! We’re not afraid of it, man … but we don’t know what it is.”
“You boys stay and play the radio!” Dallas turned lightly on his feet for all his tremendous bulk and soon the airlock had hissed open and he was gone.
Both Scotty and Randall watched him half-fearful, half in admiration as he strode away from the cruiser. The luminous, iridescent sphere hovering over the rocks, whirled faster and faster as Dallas moved away from the ship. Rapidly the whirling accelerated until it was a pulsing vortex of exquisite hues of living light. Then, it began to move slowly forward toward the walking man.
In the macabre landscape of the planetoid, the rotund Dallas was not unlike a sphere himself, as gun in hand he unhesitatingly went forward to meet the globe. Calmly he aimed the atom-blast and suddenly there was a flash from the muzzle of the gun. But the flood of vicious atomic energy failed to harm the globe, on the contrary, it seemed to flame in a cataract of colors, flaming into living light. Then the fluorescent flare died down to normal again and the sphere stopped, motionless as if it were appraising Dallas.
In unfeigned wonder, the blimp-like Dallas Bernan stared at the globe. “A full charge from the blaster, and the damn thing takes it like a drink of milk!” he murmured audibly. Reaching over he picked up a good sized rock and threw it at the sphere. But the rock bounced back as if it had hit an impenetrable wall of energy. The globe was unharmed, it merely hung there quiescent now, as if observing the strange creature from another planet that had suddenly appeared.
Another rock followed the first, then another and another, until rocks were flying in every direction as they rebounded from the globe. And Dallas began to laugh! To his matter-of-fact mind, the sphere was merely a bunch of radio-active gas that repelled matter of certain types like the stones he had thrown, and was drawn by organic matter. A bunch of gas! He roared. And the globe was retreating, floating backwards effortlessly, whirling faster and faster, until as Dallas flung a final rock it darted upward and swiftly disappeared down the great valley. As Dallas turned to go back to the cruiser, a flicker of movement caught his eye. Instantly he aimed his atom-blast, but as quickly lowered, and a joyous expression came into his vast face.
Clambering down the tumbled rocks and boulders just ahead of the spacer, Captain Brooke and Tom Jeffery were hurrying toward him, the latter carrying the insulated leadite specimen box.
“Hiya, Captain! We just laid a ghost. See our pretty company?” Dallas roared with laughter.
“Yes, we saw it,” Captain Brooke replied. “What was it? Looked like a transparent globe of some sort. Radioactive?”
“Naw! Just a bunch of gas!” Dallas explained.
“Well, we have another kind of company … about twenty miles from here,” Dennis said grimly. “Get into the ship, we’re holding a conference, Dallas.”
Seated in the small dining-room of the cruiser, the entire crew listened to the Captain’s report on their trip, while Scotty brewed coffee skillfully and cocked his ears to the narrative. Tom laid the leadite specimen box on the table without a word, then sat back.
“I’ll cut corners on this,” he began. “Because we have a lot to do, and a very short time to do it in. Approximately twenty miles westwards, there’s a cavern that runs through the crags around us. Jeffery and I started to explore it, but fortunately stopped just in time. It happens that Koerber and his thugs have landed on the other side of the crags. This cave is filled with some sort of radio-active mineral, unfortunately, the main deposits are at the other end of the cavern system, and Koerber and his gang are already in possession! He must have crashed there. Pity the situation is not reversed, we’d have ample fuel then!”
“But, Captain,” Randall spoke impulsively, “why can’t we get some of the mineral from this end of the cavern and blast off this awful place?”
Dallas gave the youngster a look of withering disgust from across the table.
“No good,” Tom Jeffery answered for the Captain without looking at Randall. “The stuff at this end’s mostly rubble; we had to dig the better part of an hour to find a piece rich enough to use.” He pointed to the leadite box.
“The plan is simplicity itself,” Captain Brooke continued. “We’ll use this specimen for fuel to zoom over the crags and attack Koerber … we’ve got to take possession of the other end of the cave. Without sufficient fuel, we can’t fight Koerber to a finish, and I intend to go into that black cruiser of his if I have to crack it open like a Venusian palm-nut!”
Dallas and Scotty’s eyes glowed. “Any time you say, Captain!” the latter said eagerly. “Cruiser’s hull’s finished but for a few minor touches. Just give the word!”
Captain Brooke tightened his safety belt thoughtfully, then his glance travelled slowly to where Lieutenant Jeffery sat, fingers poised over the gleaming bank of keys.
“I suppose we really should test this specimen first,” the captain observed. “However, if we did, I doubt if we’d have enough left for fuel to smash Koerber.” He flipped a tiny switch in the panel before him. The silver screen lighted, and Scotty’s features appeared.
“Ready ‘n waiting on the firing line Cap’n!”
“Switch over to relays and strap in, Scotty, I’ll give you thirty seconds,” Dennis grinned, then turned to Jeffery:
Jeffery took one more look into the V-screen, made a last second check of his objective—the high peak about twenty miles down the valley. As soon as the peak was reached, the cruiser would be under full manual control and he would dart the swift sky-tiger from the heights down on Koerber’s spacer, in a terrific power dive. He nodded satisfied, “Yes, sir, ready!”
“Take off!” The command whipped out and Jeffery’s fingers flashed over the rows of keys with automatic precision. For the fraction of a second there was a muffled, rumbling thunder. Then, both Dennis Brooke and Jeffery were slammed back against their air-cushions as the astounding crescendo of acceleration hit them.
Twisting his head slowly, Captain Dennis looked at his navigator in astonishment. Tom Jeffery had always been the acme of dependability, his precision in plotting had practically become a legend in the I.S.P.
“Cruiser’s running wild!” Jeffery gasped painfully. “The key bank must … be out … of order. I’d never … never use that much speed on take-off!”
“Slack off….” Dennis gritted. He saw Jeffery struggle to get his long, supple hands back on the keys. Blood throbbed and pounded in surging waves at his temples, and he knew he’d black out in a matter of seconds if his Navigator didn’t reach those keys.
Concentrating all his remaining energy, Jeffery reached and pushed one hand forward, but it was like pushing against an invisible wall. His hand refused to move any further, and then he felt the impenetrable blackness welling up inside his brain. Nervelessly the Navigator’s hand dropped, but two fingers scraped over the key-bank and the flashing cruiser changed its course. The ship angled upward sharply and gradually reduced its speed. Like two punch-drunk mortals, Dennis and Jeffery shook their heads, doggedly trying to clear the clinging black webs from their brains.
They were not unnerved, for to these two, danger was too familiar a face, it was a constant shadow at their heels, the eternal companion at their table—without it, life would have seemed flat, without zest.
“Worse than a shot of Martian Absytron! Whew!” Jeffery exclaimed, startled out of his usually laconic state. “That mineral’s terrific!”
“I was just thinking the same thing,” Captain Brooke agreed quietly. “Which makes it doubly important that we settle scores with Koerber and leave this planetoid. If the reaction of this mineral’s true, we’ve found a new type of fuel, far more powerful than anything known to us at present.”
“Imagine if that space-rat gets hold of it,” Jeffery concurred in awed tones. “He could rule the space-lanes, commit any crime and outpace any ship in the universe!”
“Besides,” Dennis said ruminatively, “this mineral’d make Terra independent of Venus for her supply of radio-actives. It would usher in a new era, Jeffery!”
Suddenly it seemed to Dennis that there was even more at stake than the smashing of a dangerous outlaw, than the recovery of his former state in the I.S.P., or the avenging of Marla, if she were dead—the destiny of Terra was at stake too. As if one of those cross-roads of Life, at which an individual is sometimes poised by fate, had opened before his gaze, and history awaited being written in the invisible pages of space. He had come prepared to die to fulfill a mission—but now matters had changed. The need was not to die, but to live, that an unsuspecting world might rise to new heights of achievement on the incredibly radio-active marvel of this unknown planetoid. With a swift movement he threw on the panel switch, and his voice boomed out:
“All hands attention! Koerber has seen us, no doubt. But whether or not he’s fore-warned, we attack as scheduled. Stand-by!”
The I.S.P. Cruiser swept back up the long valley, until it was almost opposite the Pirate’s camp. Only the tremendous mountain range separated them. Glancing at the banks of keys, the instruments and dials under the V-Screen, Dennis issued orders:
“Scotty, give it everything you have!” He grinned as Scotty gave back one of his inimitable replies.
“Take the stern turret, and start firing when we pull out—angle thirty-eight, precision!” He again threw a quick glance at the panel.
“Randall! Take forward position, secondary turret. Hold fire till they open up, or until I give you the command. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” Randall’s voice was tense.
It was then Captain Dennis turned to his Navigator. “I’ll take the main forward turret myself, Jeffery! Now, use a thirty-five degree dive, pull out at five-hundred feet and use MA-24 to pull out and regain altitude.” He grinned fleetingly at the startled Jeffery.
“But … but you’re going to man the forward turret—get the gunner, Cap’n … I….” But Dennis silenced him with a swift gesture.
“Taking no chances, I want to be sure that spawn of Barrabas’s smeared, if I have to do it myself!”
The long, gleaming cruiser was like the spear of the Angel Gabriel, unerring, fatal, as the skillful fingers of its navigator in the control room swept over the keys and the ship obediently canted downward. Suddenly it took the plunge in a supernal power-dive that sent it hurtling straight at the Pirate’s camp below. All around the cruiser a rain of Genton-shells exploded in buffeting succession, as the cruiser quivered and strained holding the dizzying dive.
From the main forward turret, a stream of fire scorched the surroundings below, starting great fires on the stacked supplies which had been removed from Koerber’s ship to facilitate repairs. The atom-blast raised clouds of iridescent mineral as it peeled the ground like a gigantic knife. But the Genton-Shells prevented close aim, as the explosions buffeted the cruiser off her course. Captain Dennis finally came into the control room.
“They saw us, all right,” he growled angrily. “I wasn’t able to come closer than a hundred feet of Koerber’s ship with the gun!”
“They’ve almost got us boxed in, sir. I can’t hold her on much longer.”
“All right then, Jeffery, pull out … right bank … that should throw them off long enough for us to break away. Give me a few seconds to adjust my sights, I’m going back to the turret!”
The great cruiser had reached its objective and swept like a stupendous bird of death over the Pirate camp spewing a rain of death. Two pirates caught behind mounds of supplies and provisions were blasted together with the boxes that protected them. The stern turret of the black Pirate cruiser was a melting, incandescent mass as Captain Brooke’s atom-blast found its mark. Suddenly the meteor-like vessel canted to the right and zoomed upward at the same time, then with vertiginous speed flashed beyond the range of the Pirate’s full fire-power, leaving Koerber cursing in impotent fury. The sound of wracking concussions died away; the unearthly ascending whine of the atom-blasts ceased, and the cruiser flashed back to base.
“At least we’ll have a choice this time where to set the ship down,” Lieutenant Jeffery said wryly, as he watched the changed scene on the V-screen before him.
Watching also, Dennis Brooke suddenly leaned forward with great interest, but abruptly the emergency thermo-bulb flashed on and off and a shrill buzzer sounded. Dennis threw the switch quickly.
“We’ll have to set her down, Cap’n!” Scotty announced. “She’s reached the danger mark.”
“Hell!” Jeffery exclaimed succinctly.
“Set her down!” Dennis ordered, but the ship was already headed groundwards.
The air lock on the cruiser opened and the crew jumped to the ground. It was the same bizarre landscape, harsh, Dantesque, extreme.
“Since we’ve reached a temporary impasse,” the Captain explained to them, “we may at least examine something I happened to see just prior to landing. I have a vague idea concerning this small world; it is just possible I may be right.”
“What did you see, sir?” Randall, forever impulsive and emotional, asked, curiously apprehensive.
“You probably won’t like the idea so much, Lieutenant,” Captain Brooke said quietly, shifting the weight of his atom-blast on his hip. He smiled thinly, “We’re going to investigate some of those playmates of yours—the spheres!”
Randall’s face tightened with a peculiar expression. He started to speak, then noting Dallas’ sardonic smile, he stopped.
“Just before we landed,” the Captain continued, “I saw a large pit filled with the globes up in the plateau just ahead. I want to try an experiment. From what I saw happened with you Dallas, when you tried to blast that globe and then threw rocks at it and it went away, and yet, it pursued Randall … well, I have a theory that I want to test. If it works, we may yet turn the tables on Koerber.”
With perfect confidence, Captain Dennis turned and began to stride toward the plateau in the near distance. Without hesitation Dallas strode behind him, followed by Scotty and Jeffery, and a few other lesser members of the crew. Only Randall hesitated as if an awful premonition paralyzed his steps. He seemed to make an heroic effort, and hesitantly at first, then with greater confidence he began to follow the leaders.
At last they were standing at the rim of the vast pit; looking down, Dennis realized it must be all of a mile in width. It seemed filled with clusters of the globes which vibrated gently at the bottom.
“Millions of the damned things!” Dallas exclaimed.
The pit sloped down to a point at the center of the bottom, and there was the immense cluster of globes that Dennis had seen. From small ones, the size of thermo-bulbs, to gigantic spheres fully six feet in diameter, it was a pulsating, shimmering mass of changing opalescences, a seething cauldron of prismatic hues, dormant now, but ready to flame into living light.
Randall, the last to arrive, approached the edge and gazed down. The ethereal, ghostly seeming spheres with their pulsating auras sent an icy shiver of dread along his taut nerves. He shuddered and turned to the others. “Let’s go,” he said hoarsely. “Those demons might come floating up here!” There was a hysterical quality to his voice that did not pass unnoticed to Captain Dennis, who was observing him closely. “Let’s go!” Randall cried again, his face contorted.
Suddenly there was a stream of movement below; from the central mass of globes, several detached themselves and floated silently upwards in swirls of living light.
Cold, unreasoning fear surged into Randall’s mind. In his hysteria, the spheres were coming after him! His thin face with the wide, fear-stricken blue eyes was ashen while his lips twitched to form words that failed to come. At last he managed to scream: “Run! They’re coming after us.” And Randall was racing pell-mell back to the spacer.
Captain Dennis stood his ground, Dallas beside him. “Come here, you fool!” Dennis cried exasperated. But it was too late. With flashing speed two of the spheres outraced Randall and now hovered over him. They were whirling into a vortex of incredible light, lovely beyond description, and beneath them, convulsed with horror, Randall raced for his life.
“Action!” Dennis shouted. Instantly several atom-blasts spewed their deadly charge into the two pursuing globes. They drank in the awful energy charge and glowed supernally vivid, still unharmed, then, swooping downwards they charged Randall, and the boy was fighting them, flailing his arms wildly, haphazardly trying to fend them off. The other members of the party had now held their fire, for Randall was enmeshed in the luminous globes. And suddenly the globes seemed to become part of the boy’s body, enveloping it in their translucent, fatal embrace.
Before their eyes, they saw the boyish form shrivel and fall crumpled to the ground as if all the energy had been absorbed in that unearthly embrace of living light. In an instant it was over.
Lazily, the two spheres floated upward, their fire deepening into swirls of colors, swirling slowly over the prostrate figure as if exulting.
Unutterable horror showed in Captain Brooke’s eyes; then flaming anger shook him. “The dirty….” Dennis ground out the words from set, taut lips. Furiously he began blasting at the globes. The spheres rocked and twisted in the tortured air currents, then gradually they rose and floated up the valley.
Dennis kneeled beside the still form of Randall; slid his hand under the boy’s jacket. He rose slowly and faced the rest of the awed crew, his eyes topaz slits of consuming fury.
“Now we know how dangerous, how deadly those entities are; for make no mistake, they are entities. A strange, unearthly form of life that can suck a man’s life-energy. Randall had good reason to be afraid, poor kid! Those globes react to the most powerful of the emotions, and fear being perhaps one of the strongest, unerringly draws them. I feel somehow responsible for this boy’s death. Still, he has not died in vain, for in his sacrifice, he has given us a clue to Koerber’s ultimate defeat.” He paused gazing somberly at the still form at his feet: “Remember, he died a hero, for whatever success we may have, we shall owe to him!”
Rocks iridescent and vari-hued were piled high into a cairn, making Randall’s last resting place, in the depths of the space he had feared so.
The remaining members of the crew walked back slowly to the waiting ship. A dark silence hung over the group as they filed to their respective sleeping quarters. All but Captain Dennis, Dallas, Jeffery and Scotty, who went on to their council room. Quietly they took their places at the small table. Jeffery sat with his long hands on his lap, silent, while Scotty methodically tamped down the Venusian tobacco with which he had filled his blackened pipe. Dallas said nothing. His vast bulk overflowed the seat and his tremendous chest heaved with emotions alien to his nature. All of them seemed, to be waiting for Captain Dennis Brooke’s words. The latter sat down last, absorbed in thought. When he spoke, his voice was quiet, sombre almost.
“I told you,” he began without preamble, “that I had a vague theory about those spheres. Well, I know now. Randall proved it this afternoon. There can be no doubt that those globes are radio-active—the way they react to our atom-guns leads me to believe that they subsist on energy—radiant energy from the mineral and radio-actives of this planetoid. Their atomic scale must be such that their component atoms make up the two missing elements in our atomic scale! This is the first time that man has ever encountered these two elements. And of course, this is the first time these spheres have ever encountered humans—organic life—on an atomic scale so far removed from their own. Naturally they’re curious. They tried to investigate and what they encountered from Randall was fear! Perhaps the second strongest emotion. Our fear must send out intangible vibrations that impinge harshly upon their own vibrations and lead them to attack. What fear arouses in them, we shall probably never know. The fact is that our human emotion of fear in conflict with their vibratory rate renders them fatal, and even seems to draw them with a strange magnetic attraction!”
For a moment every one of the four was silent, as the explanation cleared so much of the mystery before them. Then Captain Dennis walked over to the locker where the space-suits were racked. He began slipping into one of the bulky suits.
“I’m going outside again. If this spacer’s insulation against the spheres, there’s no reason why a space-suit should not be also. Two of you cover me from the stern turret, and two—including a crew member, from the forward turret, you can at least delay their attack by blasting air currents, in case they do attack!” He dogged the last clamp into place and moved heavily through the doorway.
The men watching from the gun turrets saw Dennis approach the vast pit which seemed to be the abode of the sphere. The face-plate of his helmet was open. For minutes he stood motionless on the rim of the pit. They knew he was concentrating, duplicating the emotion of fear. Then with a catch in their throats they observed groups of the spheres rise majestically from the depths and swoop toward the waiting Dennis.
With a swift gesture Captain Brooke snapped the face-plate closed. The spheres came to a complete stop about twenty feet from the waiting captain. The globes pulsed gently, as if waiting … waiting.
Again Dennis opened the face-plate wide, then snapped it shut. In the brief interval the spheres had darted into action, sweeping closer.
Turning at last, Captain Dennis strode back to the ship, and slowly the flaming globes sank back into the pit out of sight.
“It works,” Scotty yelled delightedly, as the other men ran to their airlock to greet their Captain.
Once again at the table, Dennis began: “Now we can have a definite plan. Here’s the strategy, two of us will use space-suits and rocket belts to lure as many of the spheres as possible to a point near Koerber’s camp, and one of us must enter Koerber’s domain with a ready made story! That man, the one to enter Koerber’s camp, will be the bait for the spheres. He will concentrate on maintaining the powerful emotion of fear in his mind, as strongly as he’s able. Dennis paused, his hazel eyes brilliant with anticipation, surveying the men around him.
“All of us know that the chosen man may not come through this alive—Koerber may not believe his story … the spheres may succeed in getting him. However, if he’s clever and quick….” Captain Dennis shrugged his great shoulders. It was then Jeffery interrupted him:
“We’ll draw lots for that, won’t we, Captain?” His voice was harsh.
A faint nod from Dennis accepted the question as a fact. The Captain walked over to a cabinet and picked up something. Returning to the table he continued:
“The fourth man will have to stay here and broadcast.” He turned a small box over on the table and several objects the size of small coins, spilled out. “These midget speakers may or may not work—anyway, propaganda at a psychological moment has intense effect, and is worth trying out. The man who goes into Koerber’s camp will take some of these and get rid of them in strategic places wherever he can. Remember, the job of broadcasting is just as important as any other in this set up. Keep hammering at them. They won’t be able to locate the speakers until it is too late. Keep pounding into their heads that this new weapon of the I.S.P. is invincible! Tell them it is radio-controlled and invulnerable as far as present arms are concerned. Keep working on them … don’t let up for a minute!”
Jeffery had been methodically tearing strips of paper and now he handed them to Dennis.
“Three strips of paper, Captain … and four men!”
Dennis searched the grim, tense faces before him, then handed the strips to Scotty who picked up a book and started putting the strips between the pages. The other members of the council watched his back curiously, until the crash of an overturned chair snapped their heads around. They looked squarely into the muzzle of an atom-blast gun. Their jaws went slack with astonishment.
“I am the commander of this cruiser,” Captain Brooke’s voice, flat and opaque had an unequivocal finality. “Walk over to the wall, stand five feet from the base, lean forward and press your hands against the wall!”
With the three men completely off balance, Dennis methodically disarmed them. He placed all their weapons on the table, and then proceeded to encase himself in one of the bulky space-suits, keeping a careful eye on the fuming Dallas. As he dressed he continued to talk.
“I know that nothing short of this could convince you to let me be the man to enter Koerber’s camp. But it’s got to be this way. I swore to enter that black cruiser if I had to take it apart, and by Venus’ thinking spiders, I’ll go through with it! If Marla’s there, she has to be rescued from that cut-throat gang—besides, I think I can make up a much more plausible story, being as I was the one in disgrace with the I.S.P., not you!” He was dressed now, and stood for a moment gazing at their reddened faces. “I’m leaving now, I’ll dog this door when I leave. There’s an atomic welder in the locker and you can get out in three-quarters of an hour. The rest is up to you men.” He was gone as the metal door clanged tightly shut.
Trudging along the iridescent stretch of desolate ground, the thought uppermost in Dennis’ mind was Marla. He was torn between the fear of what that brutal, conscienceless pirate might have done to her, and the fear she might have survived. Try as he might to reconstruct the emotion of fear, he failed time after time. Only the dull, ceaseless fury at Koerber remained in his mind, and his heart, a fury that smouldered in the depths of his being.
Slowly he approached the camp where Koerber’s men tried to repair the damage his raid had made. Dennis kept his hands slightly in the air, and his feet kept kicking a scuff of glittering dust that could be easily noticed.
Without warning, an atom-ray blasted bits of a rocky cliff to Captain Brooke’s right and an invisible voice boomed out:
“Hold it, copper!” There was a noticeable awe in that voice and it made Dennis smile. The scum remembered, it seemed!
Dennis stopped abruptly. “I’ll talk to Koerber,” he said coldly.
“Hold it right where you are, Captain Koerber’s coming outside,” the same voice shouted.
Cautiously Dennis let another of the midget speakers fall to the ground behind him.
The circular airlock opened and a ladder descended automatically. Down the steps came a short, heavy-set man. His aquiline features would have been handsome because of their symmetry, and the pale olive skin tanned by the vast spaces, but for the perpetual sneer that twisted rather full lips. Koerber’s wide set eyes, were dark, brilliant, and just now had a sort of incredulous amusement, as if the spectacle of Captain Dennis Brooke come to parley with him were something quite too fantastic to believe.
“Well … well! This is a land of miracles!” He flashed a sardonic smile, displaying white, even teeth.
“Considering my reputation for … er … shall we say dishonor?” He smiled again, “You are risking a great deal by coming here, aren’t you, Captain?”
Captain Brooke shrugged his vast shoulders, and a thin smile of contempt curved his lips. “It occurs to me, Koerber, that at my age men are neither rash nor fools … unless the stakes are high. And,” he paused deliberately, conscious of the instant interest his words had aroused, “and it happens that the stakes are beyond … far beyond all that you and I, and even the I.S.P., are worth. Man, our feet are now on the base of a great empire!”
Interest, cupidity and astonishment mingled in the expression of Captain Koerber’s face. Finally he guffawed.
“Captain, they say that too many nights in the Jovian Chamber turns a man’s mind, I am beginning to believe it!” Then his face darkened:
“Let’s finish it quick, Dennis, what’re you selling?”
“A partnership in an empire, in exchange for Marla!” Dennis Brooke said quietly but with deadly emphasis, ignoring the pointed barb.
Koerber still gazed at the space-suited figure incredulously. With an imperious motion of his powerful hand, he motioned Captain Brooke up the ladder, then followed at a distance, his hand on the atom-blaster. He had not noticed Dennis drop another tiny speaker on the ground behind.
Inside the black cruiser, Dennis was herded by two gunmen into a spacious cabin. It was furnished in the splendor of priceless loot from the ships of several planets. He felt his atom-blast lifted from its holster and the indignity of exploratory fingers seeking hidden arms. He walked past them to see Koerber seated in what had evidently been a Martian imperial chair, a throne-like affair of priceless hardwoods, incrusted with rare metals and jewels, and bearing a canopy of soft, ocelandian furs, with jewelled brooches at the corners. He sat silent, the faint satirical smile still on his lips, as if for once in his life the very depths of his involved and merciless soul were filled with joy, as indeed was the case. “Speak your piece!” he said insolently, and motioned for the guards to cover the exit.
“I shall be brief,” Dennis shrugged his shoulders. “Marla means more to me than anything else. What can she be to you than just another passing conquest? There’s no satisfaction in possession without love, Koerber—and there are other things that you would prefer!”
“For instance!” The words came like a whiplash.
“Wealth beyond even your imagination, and power … power as you have never even conceived could ever fall into your hands, man!”
“How do you know Marla’s alive?” The sardonic grin became sadistic in its enjoyment at the fleeting shadow of pain that crossed Dennis’ face.
“Because,” Dennis spoke slowly, quietly, “she’s too valuable for you to miss the chance to ransom her. You know the I.S.P., never lets its agents down—you knew she’d accepted an assignment, didn’t you?”
“Of course, I have scouts in every planet, and means of communication even you don’t know anything about—like that scout you knocked out on Venus,” he finished venomously.
“Well?” Dennis said laconically.
“You’ll have to explain better. Where’s the wealth and all this power you’re talking about to come from?”
Dennis knew he was playing his last card. If the man had even a shred of humanity, of intelligent selfishness, the way was open, if Koerber allowed his undying hatred of the I.S.P. to dominate him, he’d have to fight for his life.
“All right, I’ll give it to you. This planetoid is full of a new radio-active metal of such terrific power that used even in its raw state it can supply power for speeds beyond anything known to us at present. The reason you saw our ship before we attacked was that we used a small specimen of the mineral and it flung us into space with such terrific acceleration that it almost sent us beyond the planetoid’s gravity. If my navigator’s hand had not fallen on the keys and changed the course, we would have been wrecked. There are untold billions of credits in radio-active mineral strewn on the surface. Now, if you can’t imagine what that means … what’s the use of my talking.
“It’ll make us invulnerable. A few tons of this new fuel will purchase a fleet of spacers of the first order, such as this one you have, Koerber; and with a fleet powered by the mineral we can conquer any planet. Power …” Dennis laughed. “Man, we’d lord space!”
As Dennis spoke, the expression of Machiavellian greed and cunning in Koerber’s face heightened, mingled by triumph. At last his laughter, peal after peal of cold, remorseless laughter thundered in the luxurious cabin.
“You fool, you utter fool! You have told me this and expect me to bargain with you! So you would share with me supreme power over the known universe…. One reason why I’ve lived so long is that I never share with anyone, and I never trust anyone, copper!” He flung the final insult in Dennis’ face, and laughed to see Dennis’ eyes blaze with murderous fury.
“Throw him in the cell!” Koerber said imperiously. Instantly the two gunmen went into action, prodding Dennis with drawn blasters. They drove him down a corridor to a metal cell and heaved him into it, then left him lying on the metal floor.
In the semi-darkness of the armored cell, the wicket through which the guard could watch the prisoner was a square of light. Only, there was no guard. Only an atomic-welder could have pierced that tough shell—unarmed, within the pirate cruiser, surrounded by armed guards at every exit, Dennis hadn’t the ghost of a chance. He sat up on the cold metal floor, and strove to point his mind to the task ahead. And the last midget speaker slipped from his pocket to roll across the floor, coming to a stop at a corner of the wall. Dennis could not suppress a smile.
Then he heard a voice he had thought never to hear again. A wave of feeling engulfed him.
“Dennis … Dennis, my dear!” Framed in the wicket, the lovely features of Marla, smiling despite the brimming eyes, smiling at him in encouragement. His heart leapt upwards as if it would leave his body, as he rose in a single bound and was at the wicket, kissing hungrily the exquisite lips. He could not speak, for seconds, that Marla was alive was that his heart could wish. For a moment he was weak with the tremendous reaction. “You’re safe … safe … not hurt … Marla,” he was incoherently repeating.
“Quick,” Marla cautioned. “Take this!” She slipped a deadly atom-blast, the smaller variety once carried by women into his hand. “They never found it on me—being a woman I have prerogatives. I have been held for ransom until now, and here on this deserted world, having no means of escape I was allowed comparative freedom within the ship. But I heard what you told Koerber, Dennis. Now that he knows untold wealth is within reach of his hand, he may have another fate in store for me. For the past few days he has been changing … becoming amorous. I know he’s trying to win me, Dennis … as only a woman can know!”
“Take this blaster back … and use it!” Dennis said fiercely.
“No need,” she smiled, her eyes luminous. “I have a better way. I’ll not be harmed, Dennis.” She kissed him as if all her heart were in that kiss, despite the vertical bars that divided them, then she was gone, leaving behind the faint fragrance that she always wore, like a scent in the garden ways, or an echo in the wind.
One last card remained to him. One last venture wherein his life would hang from so slender a thread, and yet.
He began to scream and shout with a passion that raised reverberating echoes in the enclosing metal cell. Almost immediately the metal door opened with a bang, and the powerful figure of Koerber flanked by guards with drawn atom-blasts was silhouetted in the light.
“Have you gone space-crazy, you rat?” Koerber growled through clenched teeth. “What’s the racket for?”
“You double-crosser,” Dennis spat like an animal at bay, “if I have to be caged like this, after telling you about my discovery, at least you could let me have some air. You’ve got the air rectifiers shut off in here, and it’s worse than in the caves! Want me to choke?”
“Haw!” One of the guards guffawed. “That’s real good, boss … saves us the trouble of shooting ‘im!”
“Shut up!” Koerber rumbled. “Double-crosser, eh? What made you think I’d cut you in on the discovery? But you’ve given me an idea! Branche … Jennings! Truss him up and carry him out to the cave. The radio-active minerals’ll take care of him better’n anything else.” His sadistic nature gloated on the thought of Dennis’ gradual disintegration as the powerful radio-active vibrations bombarded his being.
Koerber’s smile was like a feline caress, but his eyes were feral in the ecstasy of his triple triumph. He had Marla, the wealth and power of a new universe before him, and, his greatest enemy condemned to a horrible death.
Thoroughly trussed, they carried Dennis to the entrance to the cave system where the radio-active minerals were in greatest abundance. Then they threw him carelessly on the rough, rocky ground.
“I can watch you from here,” Koerber said silkily, “as you slowly rot away. We’ll be working on the spacer for at least four more hours before we blast off, time enough for the effects of the radiations to begin to show, eh Dennis?”
There was no doubt in Captain Brooke’s mind what would happen to Marla, and to the I.S.P. cruiser when Koerber was ready to leave. The monstrous egotism of the man demanded a series of triumphs, for he already saw himself as a supreme ruler. He watched the guards walk back to the cruiser, where most of the crew were engaged in final repairs, and he was glad, fiercely glad, so he could concentrate. All the fear he felt for Marla, all the horror at the murder of his comrades and the destruction of his cruiser, and the vast, awful vision of a universe ruled by a sadistic madman, utterly evil, began to flood into his mind as he willed himself to emotionally see these things realized.
Suddenly he was aware that through auto-suggestion, he was beginning to feel fear, real fear! He thought of the luminous spheres … there was something monstrous about them … the way they sucked the life-energy from poor Randall. He continued to elaborate and build up a crescendo of horror. A blast of thunder from Koerber’s ship shook the cave.
The distant sun was moving rapidly toward the horizon’s rim, and the swift settling twilight enhanced the spumes coming from the jets of the black, pirate spacer. As the rumble of the warming rockets died to a murmur, Dennis saw two guards leave the airlock of the pirate cruiser. They were Jennings and Branche. They must be almost ready to leave, he thought. The guards came to where he lay and roughly jerked him to his feet then dragged him further inside the cave, where the deadly radio-actives would really get to work on his body. Then they dropped him unceremoniously as they turned with a start.
Like black magic, a stentorian voice had begun speaking, filling the melancholy dusk of the eerie planetoid, as the thundering tones seemed to come from everywhere. Ear-drums throbbing with the vibration, the guards jerked Dennis back to the cave entrance, the binding cords that tied Dennis becoming dangerously ragged with the dragging over the rough ground he had endured twice.
“Bren Koerber! Attention! This is the I.S.P.” The voice rolled and echoed. “You’re completely surrounded. Resistance will be futile! You have just one minute to get your men together in front of your ship. Throw your side-arms in a pile on the ground!”
Koerber appeared at the lock of the pirate spacer then he scrambled down with surprising agility, followed by three of his men.
“Who in hell is playing jokes!” The pirate roared. “Come on!” He yelled at the two guards now at the cave’s entrance. “You … Branche … Jennings! Who’s getting funny? Somebody’s going to get their heads blasted off for this!”
But instantly on the heels of Koerber’s tirade, came Scotty’s voice, magnified a hundred times:
“Your time’s almost up, Koerber! Fifteen seconds more and the newest, most deadly weapon of the I.S.P. will be released against you!”
Even though he was still concentrating on the spheres and the emotion of fear, Dennis felt a sudden exaltation. But he brushed it aside and continued to recreate the terrible fear that had begun to invade his being under his relentless auto-hypnosis. Subconsciously he could hear Scotty’s sonorous voice describing the horrible, irresistible weapon that was to be used. Scotty was doing a magnificent job of laying it on, with variations!
Koerber gazed around in stupefaction, then spying the prone figure at the mouth of the cave, he cursed at Dennis and then began to race across to the trussed up figure of his enemy, but he was halted by a hoarse shout from one of his guards:
“Boss, look! There is something coming!” The guard yelled excitedly.
Still lying on the ground, where the guards had dropped him, Dennis could barely see the top of the cliff behind him. Over the edge, high above the plain, swept cluster after cluster of the glowing, gloriously shimmering spheres. A myriad rain of lavender, greens, pulsing reds and flamboyant blues, iridescent, flaming with inward fires and spinning ever faster the spectral globes swept downwards in the deepening twilight with dazzling speed.
“Get the gun working, you scum!” Koerber cursed, pointing to the portable atom-ray still remaining outside the spacer. Two men jumped at his order and the livid ray blasted skyward. Blasting fiercely for a few seconds, the two outlaws hesitated. Astonishment then fear crossed their stubbled faces. The deadly ray was merely expanding the globes, which flared into incandescent light and, kept right on coming down!
Huge chunks out of the side of the cliff behind the zooming spheres crashed to the plain. And still the glittering flood of glowing globes kept flowing on. His men must have done a wonderful job of luring the deadly spheres, Dennis thought with a part of his mind.
“Needle guns!” Koerber screamed, rushing over to the two men who stopped firing. “Use your hand guns, men! Someone get atomite capsules, we’ll blast whatever these things are out of space!”
Picking up the heavy atom-ray, Koerber cradled it in his powerful arms, sweeping the deadly projector in wide arcs through the approaching, luminous mass. Suddenly, Koerber shouted again. One of the men near the stern of the ship had dropped his weapon and was running, horror-stricken, across the broken ground.
“Come back here, you rat!” Koerber shrieked, swinging the big atom-ray around. But he had no need to fire, a glowing globe fully six feet in diameter, already was pursuing the doomed, fear-maddened creature with vertiginous speed. Koerber saw it suddenly descend and envelop the running figure, and in seconds the outlaw was a shrunken mass that dropped to the ground like a squeezed fruit.
The spheres rolled down in a deadly wave.
Koerber’s eyes were blazing as he whirled around and screamed at his men: “Fight … fight you lousy rats!” Uncontrollable passion twisted his features in a fiendish snarl at the thought of losing the supreme power and unimaginable wealth he had thought to be within his grasp. His voice rose piercingly above the concussions of the atomite capsules that at his command had been brought into action.
But unknown to him, stealthily, a growing fear was creeping into his brain as all his efforts and the deadly fire of atom-blasts, atom-ray and atomite capsules failed to even destroy a single globe. The unearthly, macabre appearance of the luminous globes was already playing havoc with the men’s minds, and one by one the outlaws fled shrieking into the darkness, to be consumed by the glowing spheres.
In the impenetrable blackness of the cave, Dennis Brooke had stopped building the emotion of fear. With part of his mind he sought to dispel the stubborn auto-hypnosis, and slowly, he was able to regain a measure of normalcy. The thought of Marla helped, as with the growing destruction of Koerber’s men, he deliberately forced himself to see her safe, in his arms. And slowly he came back out of the abyss of fear into which he had purposely pushed his courageous mind. It took patience, infinite patience and time, but time was growing short. He rubbed the frayed bonds that bound his arms back of him, against the jagged outcroppings of radio-active rock, until he burst them with herculean strength, then it took a matter of seconds to free his legs. Painfully he stood up, and let the blood course with exquisite torture through his semi-paralyzed limbs. Then he sought the tiny atom-blast Marla had given him to conceal.
The space in front of the black spacer was milling with men battling spheres, a vortex of flaring illumination that hungrily enveloped the maddened crew. Now and then, another man sank to the ground a lifeless hulk. Suddenly one of the spheres came floating into the cave, curious, attracted by the remnants of the fear vibrations and approached Dennis. The Captain saw it enter and illuminate the impenetrable darkness, he laughed. A few moments ago it would have meant his life, but now he contemptuously bent down and picking a glittering specimen of radio-active mineral flung it unerringly at the gently spinning globe. As if the sphere weren’t even there, the I.S.P. Captain strode out of the cave. It was then he saw his own crew, space-suited, exultant, spewing green death from their atom-blasts at the milling remnants of what had been the scourge of the space-lanes. Far to one side he spied Koerber, now a demoniac figure still firing the few remaining charges left in the atom-ray. Saw him finally drop the useless weapon and turn to fend off the swooping spheres. In a few bounds Dennis was beside him.
At the sight of Dennis, the scowling face went black with fury. He sprang forward with both arms jabbing like pistons. Dennis swerved and again planted a terrific left to Koerber’s solar-plexus, it almost doubled the pirate over, but Koerber was not through. He knew death was very close, but he meant to take with him the one man he blamed for his defeat. He came in with a fury that swept all before him, impervious of the rain of blows that Dennis aimed at his face, and unleashing a right to Dennis’ jaw, he put every ounce of remaining power behind it. But the I.S.P. Captain moved slightly, letting the blow whiz past his face, then flat-footed, he let his right ride with the power of a sledge-hammer. Koerber’s face lost contour, a gout of dark, welling blood flooded over it and he sank to the ground.
Suddenly Dennis’ own men saw him, and came running to where he stood planted over what remained of Koerber, pirate of the space lanes. His chest heaving, clothes torn, he heard them as if in a dream, as they shouted in joy at the complete victory they had achieved. It was only when cool hands touched his face, and a remembered fragrance was in his nostrils, that he came out of his daze. A voice was whispering the simple words, “my dear … my very dear!” Slowly he gathered Marla in his arms and kissed her tenderly, while around him, the hovering spheres sensed another emotion, greater even than fear—but of another kind—that greatest of all emotions, Love.
Captain Dennis chewed the end of his stylus. After a moment he began to write again in the large metallic book:
The plan outlined in the previous entry was carried out. Operation successful. Bren Koerber is being brought back a prisoner. All members of his crew are dead. Koerber’s cruiser is being towed to Ceres Base. Full report on radio-active mineral discovery has been radioed I.S.P. Headquarters, Terra. No luminous spheres captured. Suggest scientific expedition be sent.
Casualties suffered: One. Junior Lieutenant George Randall killed in performance of duty by one of the spheres. Recommend heroism be recognized by posthumous honors. Suggest Antares Cross.
Dennis Brooke, paused for a moment, uncertain whether or not to enter in the official log book the one burning desire that dominated his thoughts, at last he smiled and with a flourish he added:
Leave of absence for two months requested. Reason: Marriage. Miss Marla Starland has consented to honor me by becoming my wife.
Distantly he heard the muffled roar of the warming rockets. The great cruiser was ready to leave the fateful Planetoid. He sighed in vast contentment as he unplugged the stylus and gently closed the book.