CRISIS ON TITAN
By JAMES R. ADAMS
What the devil! Was Captain Staley nuts? Here they
were … no food, no water, about to be blasted out
of existence by strange inhabitants of a weird
planet—and Staley was making like a baseball player!
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Spring 1946.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
“Hut! Twuh, hree, foar. Hut! Twuh, hree, foar. Hut! Twuh—” Sergeant Hallihan boomed forth the monotonous syllables with unfaltering precision, glaring from the corner of his eye now and then in hopes of catching some unfortunate fellow out of step or whispering to a companion with questionable reference to the sergeant.
The dust-caked ranks marched along quietly, carefully refraining from expressing their opinion of this disgusting detail, but Hallihan knew what they were thinking. And he could well understand their displeasure. These were hard-bitten, two-fisted, hell for leather I.P. men, and here they were with shovels and picks slung over their shoulders, plodding out to scratch in the dirt like common, dime-a-dozen ditch-diggers.
Hallihan felt as strongly about it as they, but orders were orders, and he prided himself on his ability to carry out a command, regardless of whether or not it conformed with his personal sentiments. This job had to be done, and the men all knew it could not be entrusted to a mob of imported flunkies. The Squeakers would make short work of such a motley crew.
The sergeant emitted a soft sigh between a snappy twuh and hree as his wandering gaze came to rest on the slow-moving grav-car, in which rode the brusque Captain Staley. The car skimmed along a foot or so above the ground, riding smoothly on its gravity-repellent ray. Hallihan suddenly became acutely aware of his aching feet. Would the captain never call a halt? Hell, they couldn’t march straight through to the mine without rest. More than one soldier was dragging his feet, and the sergeant could hardly find the heart to snarl out his customary: “Get the lead out back there, soldier. Pep it up!”
Bringing up the rearguard of the orderly lines was as strange a group of “soldiers” as could be found on any moon of the system. These were the “Barber’s Delights,” an odd life-form of Titan that had formed a sort of aloof friendship with the Patrol from the moment it landed. The men jokingly called them Barber’s Delights because of the thick, shaggy coat of hair that covered their log-like bodies. The B.D.’s either didn’t understand, or just didn’t care, for they made no objection to their nickname.
There were twenty of the creatures in this group, and more joined them along the way. They imitated the brisk step of the soldiers with amazing exactness, though they possessed no semblance whatsoever of feet. They moved on dense mats of stubby, resilient bristles that grew from the flat bottoms of their column-bodies, sweeping forward like a horde of self-propelling brooms. Not wishing to be outdone by the visitors, they had their own sergeant, who moved along importantly at the side of his command, glaring threateningly from the corner of his single, huge eye. As Sergeant Hallihan called out his impeccable, “Hut! Twuh, hree, foar,” Sergeant B.D. responded with, “Ungh! Ungh, ungh, ungh,” the only sound he was capable of uttering. Hallihan scowled over his shoulder and snorted disgruntledly, fervently wishing he could get his heckler alone for a moment. His hard cot would have a new fur mattress that night.
Hallihan estimated they were half-way to the mine now. That huge deposit of chroidex salts was important to the system. Without the precious mineral spaceflight would be impossible, since there would be nothing to protect travelers from deadly solar rays. The small amounts that had been found on Earth and the other major planets would soon give out, and Titan was the only other known source of chroidex. This deposit would last for centuries, and by the time it, too, was exhausted, perhaps engineers would have figured a way around the difficulty.
Captain Staley’s car came to a stop and the tall man stepped out. He stood a moment, surveying the weary marchers with sharp, experienced eyes. He knew just how much he could get out of a man, knew when the limits of the human machine had been reached.
“You may rest your troops, Sergeant Hallihan,” he said shortly.
Hallihan sighed inwardly, hoping for at least a twenty-minute surcease. He went through the formality of placing his men at ease, then strode anxiously to the captain’s side.
“Do you suppose there will be trouble with the Squeakers, Sir?” he asked apprehensively. “They don’t take to us, you know. They might ambush us at the mine.”
The Captain thought a moment, then his thin lips drew up in a smile.
“I don’t think they will. Their crude weapons wouldn’t stand a chance against us, in force. Personally, I wish they would attack. Then we could do away with them once and for all. As it is, we can’t risk bringing laborers here to develop the mine. After the Squeakers picked off a few of them, the miners would turn tail and run for home. So we’re temporarily stuck with both jobs, Sergeant; working the mine, and eliminating the Squeakers. We’ll catch the whole damn bunch of them in the open some day. When we do….”
The two men momentarily forgot their conversation and turned to watch the antics of the perplexed B.D.s. The shaggy creatures were milling about uncertainly.
“Ungh ungh!” the log-shaped sergeant barked out, pointing a slim tentacle at the reclining I.P. men. “Ungh ungh!”
But the B.D.s were physically incapable of duplicating the soldiers’ postures. Underneath all that hair, their bodies were not much more than wooden posts, stiff, erect, and not given to bending at the waist. The bristling sergeant might as well have saved his breath.
“If only the Squeakers were as friendly as these fellows,” Captain Staley murmured. “But sadly, they don’t have the least thing in common. Their hate for us is equaled, if not exceeded, by their fear of the B.D.s. Seems the B.D.s have some sort of racial disease that is fatal to the Squeakers if they come in contact with it. That’s why you’ll never see any members of these two races palling around together. Too bad the B.D.s aren’t intelligent enough to cooperate with us. With their aid, we could wipe out the Squeakers in record time.”
A strange occurrence was taking place in the ranks of the Barber’s Delights. The exhausted sergeant had ceased his shouting, and the creatures stood about in stiff poses of inactivity. Suddenly a cloud of blue dust whooshed from the flat top of a barrel-like B.D. and the thing disappeared in a flurry of fur and smoke.
“Noon,” Sergeant Hallihan said cryptically.
Others of the B.D.s were going through the same process. It was as if the ground had opened and swallowed them up. Hallihan’s heckler blew out a great cloud of smoke and dwindled rapidly away to nothing. In one minute, the unconcerned group of half-animals was lessened by a third. The I.P. men sat with open mouths, craning their necks over companions’ shoulders to better witness the event. Although they had seen it many times in the past weeks, the weird exhibition never failed to impress them.
“Those things never miss,” one soldier said in awe. “Come noon or midnight, and boom!—away they go, right on the dot. S’crazy.”
Captain Staley smiled at the man and walked quickly to the spot where the B.D.s had disappeared, Sergeant Hallihan following. He bent to the ground and scooped up a handful of elliptical, waxy-surfaced seeds.
“Reproduction, man, reproduction,” he said. “Their race, just as any other, would come to a quick end if they didn’t propagate.” He pointed to five B.D.s whose fur was slowly turning yellow and falling from their bodies in brittle patches. “In exactly half an hour, those creatures will be dead, and from these seeds will come new B.D.s to fill the gaps. By actual count, we know there are approximately five hundred of these beings on Titan. At noon and midnight, half of them reproduce, and the half that has already reproduced dies. Thus there are at all times exactly five hundred of the creatures, no more and no less. The disease germs that all of them carry, though fatal to the Squeakers, don’t seem to have any ill effects on them. If they are injured, their bodies heal, no matter how deep the wound. So a B.D. lives his full half-day, Titan-reckoning, regardless of accidents and diseases. I would like to remain here and watch these seeds develop into full-grown B.D.s, but we must be getting on to the mine. We shall remain there a week, Sergeant, returning to the garrison at the end of that time for fresh supplies and equipment. Four or five grav-trucks and cranes would make the work much easier, but all of my requisitions to the government for these have been rejected on the grounds the Squeakers might stage an uprising and gain possession of valuable equipment. As I said, we’ll have to struggle along as best we can until we can catch the Squeakers in a false move and blast them out of existence. Carry on, Sergeant.”
Hallihan snapped to attention as the captain whirled on his heel and returned to his grav-car. Only fifteen minutes rest. Damn!
Under the direction of Hallihan’s acid tongue, the men heaved reluctantly to their feet and fell into line, whispering curses as the sergeant roared out the hated, “F’r’ard, harch! Hut! Twuh, hree, foar.”
“Ungh! Ungh, ungh ungh. Ungh! Ungh, ungh—” The B.D.s quickly appointed a new sergeant and took up the march with an eagerness that brought grunts of disgust from the begrimed men.
Hallihan glanced back over his shoulder to fix an icy stare on this new nemesis, and his eyes widened with amazement as he caught sight of a disheveled man stumbling along behind them, his arms waving frantically and his lips moving in a soundless yell. The sergeant called a quick halt and waited for the man to overtake them.
It was a soldier from the garrison. Blood trickled from his lips and one arm hung in a queer position at his side. The skin was hideously burnt and blackened where a heat-ray had caught him full in the face. Hallihan knew the man was dying as he collapsed in his arms, insanely babbling: “Managed to ‘scape … got all rest, but managed to ‘scape … must tell you, Serg’nt … must tell you … all rest dead….”
Staley’s car came to a jarring halt beside them and the alarmed captain jumped out, his emotionless features softening with pity as he saw the man’s condition. The soldier was talking again, and Staley bent close to the mutilated mouth to catch all of the feeble words.
“All dead … all dead … Squeakers s’prised us ‘n’ took garrison … thousand Squeakers … thousand Squeakers in garrison … no chance … all dead….”
Captain Staley straightened, and his eyes were steely as he turned to Hallihan. He waited while Hallihan let the soldier gently to the ground and assigned a man to watch over him.
“It was a gross mistake to leave such a small complement of men at the garrison,” Captain Staley said bitterly. “I seriously doubt that we can recapture it. If those creatures have enough intelligence to load and fire the four atomic cannons, our sidearms will be of little use. They’ll slaughter us to the last man. But we’ve got to try, Sergeant. Understand? We’ve got to try.”
“Yes, Sir.” Hallihan saluted and turned, grim-lipped, to the waiting men. “We’re returning to the garrison, men,” he said simply. “‘Bout face!”
The B.D.s scattered as the I.P. men plowed through them, but reformed behind the swift-moving columns and scurried anxiously after them. Another group of the curious creatures joined their fellows, swelling the ranks to fifty. They made a strange sight as they hustled along over the rocky ground, the dire-eyed sergeant belching out his eternal, “Ung! Ung, ungh, ugh. Ungh! Ungh, ungh—”
“If only those crazy bucket-heads would help us fight the Squeakers,” Hallihan thought unhappily. “But they can’t. They’re just dumb mimics. They wouldn’t know one end of a heat-ray from the other.” Then he forgot about the B.D.s and started thinking about his shrieking feet.
They reached the garrison late in the afternoon, and Hallihan began displacing his men about the front of the structure, taking care they didn’t expose themselves to the Squeakers’ fire. In spite of their caution, five men were torn to shreds as an atomic cannon let go, catching them in the open. Hallihan swore harshly and ducked behind a huge boulder. Those dirty sons meant business.
The B.D.s followed suit, gliding behind upjuttings of rock and yelling one-syllable curses at the embattled garrison. They watched the proceedings with casually-interested eyes, emitting sympathetic “Unghs” whenever a patrolman fell. One of the creatures got his top blown off when he let it stick out too far from behind a rock, but he immediately grew a new one.
The I.P. men weren’t faring so well. Most of the Squeakers’ shots went wild, but the very intensity of their fire took its toll of the outnumbered patrolmen. Hallihan rushed about from rock to rock, patting his soldiers on the back and shouting words of encouragement in their ears. The B.D. sergeant hurried along behind him, whacking his tentacle across the furry bodies of his compatriots and keeping up a steady flow of loud, well-pleased “Unghs.”
Captain Staley was doing his share of the fighting. He crouched behind a round boulder, snapping quick shots at the garrison and drawing back before the Squeakers could locate him. Sergeant Hallihan flopped down beside him and lay staring questioningly at his superior.
“We can’t win,” Staley said, matter-of-factly. “The garrison was built to withstand just such a siege as this. We have to hit those loopholes in the wall dead-center to bring down a Squeaker. We couldn’t have nailed more than half a dozen or so; half a dozen, out of a thousand. Attack from the rear is impossible, because of the steep canyon walls protecting the garrison on three sides. If we could rout them into the open, we could blast them down like cattle. There would be no escape, except through our ranks, and our sharpshooters would take care of any who broke through. But that’s just wishful thinking, Sergeant. The Squeakers aren’t stupid enough to try charging us. They’ll stay holed up in the garrison, picking us off one by one. There’s no place to run to. All of our food and water is in the hands of those devils, so we have our choice of fighting it out to the last man or retreating to the mine and wait for thirst and starvation to end our worries. What will it be, Sergeant?”
“We’ll fight, Sir,” Hallihan said grimly. “Yahoo! Pour it to ’em, men! Give ’em a taste of I.P. hell!”
Above the noise of battle could be heard the rat-like screeching of the Squeakers. The B.D.s answered with their version of the Bronx cheer, and between them and the ground-shaking c-r-rump-c-r-rump of the atomic cannons, the uproar was enough to cause a nervous breakdown in the staunchest habitue of Times Square.
Night fell across the scene, and the battle raged on. The I.P. patrolmen now had a slight advantage, for the large bulk of the garrison was easily discernible in the dim light and they had the locations of the loopholes well-fixed in their minds. After each shot, they shifted positions, crawling over the ground so the Squeakers could not observe their movements. More than one unlucky fellow was found out, though, when a tall B.D. followed him, hurling challenges at the Squeakers in a loud, attention-drawing voice. This hindrance was temporarily done away with when midnight came and fully half of the B.D.s spouted blue smoke from their shaggy tops and dwindled away to silent, waxy seeds. More of them lost their enthusiasm for the battle as their brown fur slowly took on a yellowish hue, and they retired to various dark crannies to sulk away their last few living moments.
“I have an idea, Sir,” Hallihan reported excitedly to Captain Staley. “That armored grav-car of yours could easily gain the wall of the garrison without getting knocked out of commission, couldn’t it? Well, here’s the plan. We use the shovel handles to whip together a ladder long enough to scale the wall. Then me and a couple of the men speed through to the garrison in the grav-car and prop the ladder against the wall before the Squeakers can nail us. Maybe one or two of us will live long enough to get over the wall and open the gates. Then before the Squeakers catch wise, the rest of you charge through the gates and finish ’em off. What do you think, Sir?”
“I must commend you for your valor, Sergeant,” Staley said soberly. “But I don’t believe your plan would work. Even assuming that one of you would get through to the gates—and you must admit there would be small chance of that—the Squeakers would still be in possession of the cannons, and our men would be easy targets at such close range. We would only bring about our own defeat that much sooner. However, you have given me an idea, Sergeant. As you say, the grav-car could gain the garrison wall, and a man could stand outside with reasonable safety if he was careful not to move in line with a loophole. What is the time, Sergeant?”
“Why, er, five minutes past twelve, Sir—Titan-time.”
“Good,” Staley said determinedly. “I must put my plan into immediate operation. In ten minutes, Sergeant, my car will move toward the garrison. Instruct your men to direct a heavy fire at the loopholes until I have reached the wall. The more confusion, the better; anything that will draw the Squeakers’ attention away from me. After that, well—Inform your men of the plan, Sergeant!”
Hallihan gulped and saluted. “Yes, Sir! That I’ll do, Sir!” Cripes! Had the old man lost his marbles? One man against a thousand Squeakers! That was crazier than Hallihan’s own idea! Nevertheless, the sergeant raced away to lay down the law to the sleepy-eyed soldiers.
Ten minutes later, Captain Staley’s grav-car leaped from behind a boulder and bore down swiftly on the dark garrison. Instantly the patrolmen began howling and blasting at the garrison, drawing a murderous return fire from the mildly-surprised Squeakers. The few B.D.s who were still capable of its added their voices to the din, and Staley’s car lurched to a halt at the garrison wall, completely undamaged. The Captain jumped out and fumbled inside the car a moment.
What the hell was he doing, Hallihan wondered. He watched the dark form move cautiously along the rampart and stop at a point where a good-sized upheaval in the ground raised him to within ten feet of the wall’s top. The captain went through some strange motions. His hand dug in his pocket and then his arms snapped back like a baseball pitcher’s. His hand flicked forward and came down to dig once more in his pocket. Again he went through the movements of throwing something. Hallihan scratched his head puzzledly, straining his eyes to see what Staley did next. That was all. Staley returned to his car and climbed inside, but the speedy little vehicle gave no indication of withdrawing from its position against the garrison wall.
Things quieted down a bit then, and Hallihan nearly went mad waiting for something to happen. Now and then an atomic cannon blasted out at the patrolmen, but the intensity of the Squeakers’ fire had diminished considerably from that of earlier in the battle. They had plenty of time. They would wait until morning, when the sun exposed the hiding places of the I.P. men, then it would be curtains for these hated invaders from another world. Hallihan wished he could sleep, but he knew if he did he might never wake up again. He waited….
A minute later, the sergeant’s hair almost stood on end as a prolonged, hideous screech of terror beat against his ears, growing, swelling in intensity, and owning a note of stark, unreasoning fear. It came from the garrison; came from the throats of a thousand panicked Squeakers. Hallihan’s jaw gaped ludicrously as the gates burst open and hundreds of screaming, scrabbling, sleek-boiled Squeakers spilled into the clearing, fleeing from the garrison as fast as their skinny legs could carry them. Hallihan recovered quickly from his surprise and drew a bead on the leading Squeaker. The creature crumpled under the heat-beam, shrieking in agony as his fellows trampled over him, making pulp of his thrashing, charred body.
“Give ’em hell, boys!” Hallihan shouted exultantly. “Pour it to the rats!”
The I.P. patrolmen needed no coaxing. The terrified Squeakers were already falling by the dozens under their withering fire. The rodent-like animals hesitated, not knowing where to turn. Some of them ran to the canyon walls and tried to scrabble up to safety, but the sharp-eyed soldiers nailed them before they could go a yard. An atomic cannon started banging away from the garrison, and Hallihan knew Captain Staley had plunged his grav-car through the open gates and taken over one of the deadly guns. After that, it was only a question of mopping up….
When morning came, the canyon floor looked like an inverted graveyard. Blackened, torn bodies, all that remained of the Squeakers, littered the clearing. Weary patrolmen emerged from behind the protecting boulders, moving warily, lest some of the creatures were playing possum. But the repulsive animals were quite dead.
“Not more than a dozen got away,” Hallihan said, satisfaction in his voice. “They were scared to come through our lines with those B.D.s hangin’ around. The ones that did get through will probably die of that strange disease the shaggies carry in their fur. Let’s find out about Captain Staley, men.”
Staley was waiting for them when they entered the garrison. And so were fifty Barber’s Delights! Staley smiled when he saw the question on Hallihan’s beefy face. Hallihan recovered enough to salute.
“Everything went well, I trust, Sergeant?” Staley asked.
“Yeah. I mean, yes, Sir. We really cleaned up on those devils. We won’t have to worry about them any longer. They come out of here like bats outta hell. How’d they come to blow their tops, Captain?”
“We have the B.D.s to thank for that,” Staley said, fondly patting one of the log-bodied creatures on the back.
“I don’t see why, Sir,” Hallihan said skeptically. “We all know the things ain’t got brains enough to fight. Anyway, how in all creation did they get in here? They—” The sergeant stopped abruptly. He clapped a hand to his forehead in feigned exasperation and snorted disgustedly. “Cripes, I’m stupid! I mean, I think I understand now, Sir. You had me wondering, though. I thought you’d cracked up under the strain when you started goin’ through them crazy shenanigans in front of the wall. I guess I ought to apologize, Sir.”
“No need, Sergeant. I suppose it did seem as if I had gone mad. But I knew our only chance to beat the Squeakers was to get them into the open, and the only way to do that was to inspire great fear in them. The only thing the Squeakers feared was the Barber’s Delights, because of the fatal disease they bear in their fur. But obviously, I couldn’t induce these dumb creatures to storm the garrison and force the Squeakers into the open. Then I remembered the seeds. The B.D.s’ seeds certainly couldn’t object if I carried them to the garrison wall and tossed them inside. That is exactly what I did. All there was to do then was wait until the seeds blossomed into full-grown B.D.s and stampeded the Squeakers right into our hands. The Squeakers’ poor marksmanship was no match for ours. I believe our work is done here, Sergeant. Experienced miners can take over the job now.”
“Yes, Sir!” Hallihan grinned broadly. “The men will be glad to hear that, Sir. But first, we’ve got a bit of a mess to clean up. Hold on to them shovels, men, you ain’t through diggin’ yet. Lively, now!”
“Ungh ungh!” a new B.D. sergeant took up the cry, glaring balefully at his fellows. The obedient creatures scooted quickly after the soldiers. Just dumb mimics, but they had saved spaceflight from an early end.#ENGLISH