By D. W. BAREFOOT
Out of the far reaches of the universe sped
the meteor swarm, cosmic question marks destined
for annihilation in the sun. But one, approximately
half a pound of frozen destruction, had a
rendezvous near Japetus with Spaceboat 6.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories March 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
It was comfortably cool in the functional, little control room, but Morley was sweating, gently and steadily. His palms were wet, and the thin thoughtful face, shining in the glow of the instrument panel light, was wrinkled in an agony of concentration and doubt. He was trying to choose between the Scylla of waking Madsen with a corollary of biting contempt involved, and the Charybdis of attempting to land single handed on Japetus, less than five hundred miles below. Neither course was appealing.
For the hundredth time he pondered miserably over the sad condition of what had been a reasonably well ordered existence. The worst of it was that he had only himself to blame, and he knew it. No one had forced him to leave a comfortable, if poorly paid position with General Plastics, and fill out an employment card at Satellites, Inc.
He could not explain the obscure compulsion that sparked his little personal rebellion.
He didn’t know, or need to know that other generations of Morleys had fought in revolutions, or sailed in square riggers, or clawed gold from mountainsides. When he went to the spaceline, the puzzlement of his few friends was profound, but hardly more so than his own. And now, after almost a year of upheaval and change, he was piloting a spaceboat along an involute curve ending on the surface of Saturn’s eighth moon. And he was still puzzled.
Satellites, Inc., had done as well as possible with the raw material known as Morley, Vincent, No. 4628. His psychograph indicated a born subordinate, with a normal I.Q., reasonably stable and trustworthy though below average in initiative. They didn’t inform him of this, or the fact that they had analyzed the neurosis which had driven him to the spaceline, and which had created by that very action the therapeutic aid he needed. Many spacemen had similar case histories.
It was those who fought the compulsion who sometimes turned down dark pathways of the mind.
For six months he attended cadet school, and graduated in due time, fourteenth in a class of fifty. The next day he was assigned as fourth engineman to the space freighter Solarian, bound to Port Ulysses, Titan, Saturn system, with a cargo of mining machinery and supplies.
They blasted off from Chicago Spaceport on a raw March midnight. Just another rocket take-off, routine stuff, now. But have you ever seen it? The night, the wind, the distant city glow in the sky? On the strip squats the massive bulk of the rocket, loading hatches closed, sealed port holes gleaming through the gusts of rain that sweep the field. In the sound proofed spaceport control tower the officials are relaxed over coffee and cigarettes; their part is over; they sit watching.
Somewhere in the mighty shell on the field, chronometer hands reach the calculated second, a circuit closes, relays chatter briefly. The rocket igniters are firing, flame billows over the field, a low rumble from the tubes builds to a throbbing roar. Twenty miles away a housewife looks up, a question on her face. Her husband listens and smiles. “It’s the Saturn rocket. It’s here in the paper, under Departures.”
On the field the roar rises to an insane bellow of sound. Under the mighty jets, the ten feet of concrete and the solid earth beneath it are shaking. In the insulated control tower a water glass dances in its holder. The watchers are not relaxed now; they lean forward.
It’s old stuff, routine, precalculated to a fraction of a second, but—watch. There—a stir—movement. Slowly at first, with a deliberate and awful majesty, then faster and faster.
Straight toward the zenith the ship rises, trailing fire. Faster yet, hurling herself upward, under full power, through the last threads of atmosphere. Upward and onward, out past Roches limit, out where gravity dwindles toward zero, into the empyrean where the shades of dead spacemen cruise the cosmos in their phantom craft, spaceborne in the night.
After he had recovered from the pangs of his initial attack of space nausea, Morley enjoyed himself. He had one minor social asset, a retentive mind, well stocked with general information. If the two apprentices got involved in an argument over the identity of the highest peak in America, Morley was the inevitable arbiter. He could with equal facility name the author of a recent best seller, or inform you that a young seal was a cub, a young hare, a leveret, and a young swan, a cygnet.
He was fairly popular with the crew, except for a big Norwegian from New York, named Olaf Madsen. Madsen was a chunky, hard bitten veteran of the spaceways. Round faced, deceptively soft spoken, he had a penchant for practical jokes, and a flair for biting sarcasm which found full expression in the presence of any first tripper. He made the life of any apprentice miserable, and finished the last two weeks of one trip in the brig for panicking an entire crew by painting his face to resemble the onset of Martian blue fever. Morley considered him an oaf, and he considered Morley a human filing cabinet with a weak stomach.
A little notice on the bulletin board was Morley’s first inkling that his safe, secure routine was on the verge of mutating into something frighteningly unpredictable.
“All personnel not on duty will report to the recreation room at 1900 hours, Solar time, to draw for side trip partners and destinations,” it read.
He buttonholed the crew messman. “What’s all this about side trips, Oscar?”
Roly poly Oscar looked at him incredulously. “The lay over trips. The time killer. On the level, don’t you know?”
Morley shook his head.
“Well,” Oscar told him, “We leave Earth shortly before Saturn is in opposition. They figure on the shortest possible run, which takes three months. If we discharge and start right back, the round trip would take about six months. That’s fine, except that the synodic period for Earth and Saturn—Hey, you know what I’m talking about?”
Morley admitted his ignorance, vaguely annoyed at the fact that for once he was the humble seeker for information, and someone else was being professorial.
Oscar grinned. “And you studied astrogation! Well, when Saturn and Earth line up with the Sun, it takes three hundred and seventy eight days before they get in the same position again. So if we got back to Earth’s orbit in six months, we’d still have about a hundred and eighty millions of miles to go, because Earth would be on Sol’s other side at that time, in superior conjunction to Uranus.”
Morley digested this, while Oscar basked in the light of his own knowledge, enjoying himself hugely.
“And the trips, Oscar?”
“We lay over three or four months, ’til opposition time isn’t too far away, and we pick partners and destinations by lot, and go out to Saturn’s other moons on prospecting trips—ore deposits, jewels, botanical specimens, etc.—half for us, and half for the Company. It’s a good deal, a regular vacation, and those two-men craft are sweet stuff. And if you’re lucky—”
He went on, but Morley heard no more. The prospect unnerved him. He was terrified at the idea of changing a safe subordinate position for that of an active partner, however temporary the arrangement might be. At the drawing, his hunch of impending misery proved all too real. He wound up facing the prospect of a stay on the frozen hell of Phoebe, scouring the miniature mountains for Japori crystals, with Madsen, MADSEN! for his only companion.
A week later the Solarian teetered down to a landing at Port Ulysses. With various expressions of profane and unbounded delight from her crew, she was turned over to the stevedores and the maintenance gang. Thereafter, at intervals, the thirty foot space boats took off for Mimas, Tethys, Dione, or whatever waystop the lottery had decreed. Madsen and Morley left on the fourth ‘night,’ with Phoebe hardly a week’s run from them at ten miles a second.
Madsen was at the controls. Without a single spoken word on the subject, he was automatically the captain, and Morley, the crew. The situation crystallized twenty-four hours out of Port Ulysses. Morley was poring over the Ephemeris prior to taking his watch at the controls when he became aware that Madsen, red faced and breathing heavily, was peering over his shoulder.
Morley stiffened in alarm. “Is anything—” He quailed under Madsen’s glare.
“Not yet, but there’s liable to be if you don’t smarten up.” The Norwegian’s blunt forefinger stabbed at the page Morley had been studying. “Phoebe, Mister, happens to be Saturn’s NINTH moon. Get it? You can count, can’t you?”
Morley flushed, and fumbled miserably for a reasonable excuse. There was a gleam of contempt in Madsen’s eyes, but he spoke again more quietly. “I’m going to eat and catch up on some sack time. We’ll be right on top of Japetus in short order. It’s a known fact that the moon won’t move over if you fly at it, so you better wake me up to handle the compensating!” He disappeared into the tiny galley, but his words were still audible. “It’s an awful long walk back, chum, if anybody pulls a bull.”
Morley swung himself into the pilot’s seat, too numb with humiliation to answer. Almost an hour passed before he started the regulation checkup required by the Space Code of any ship passing within one hundred thousand miles of a planet or major satellite. Every guardian needle stood in its normal place with one exception. The craft had been running on the port fuel tanks, depleting them to the point where it seemed wise to trim ship. Morley opened the valve, touched the fuel pump switch and waited, nothing happened. He watched the needles incredulously. The pump—? He jabbed the switch, once, twice. Nothing.
He leaned forward and rapped the starboard gauge with his knuckles, sharply. The needle swung from Full to Empty. Morley felt faint as realization hit him. The starboard gauge had stuck at Full, and had been unreported. The tank had not been serviced in port, owing to the faulty reading and a mechanic’s carelessness. They had about two hours fuel. Even to Morley, it was obvious that there was one thing only to do—land on Japetus, looming up larger in the view-plate with each passing moment. He checked the distance rapidly, punched the calculator, and put the ship in the designated orbit. He wanted to handle the landing himself, but the thought of the final few ticklish moments chilled him. So did the thought of waking Madsen, and asking him to take over.
And it was then, at the intersection of two courses formed by an infinity of variables, that two objects arrived in the same millisecond of time. Eight ounces of nickel iron smashed into the stern of Spaceboat 6, ripped a path of ruin through her entire length, and went out through the two inch glass of her bow, before Morley could turn his head. He was aware, in a strange dream-like way, of actuating the midships airtight door, of the hiss of air as the little aneroid automatically opened valves to compensate for the drop in pressure, and of Madsen leaping into the control room and slapping a Johnson patch over the hole in the bow.
Madsen was white but composed. “We can slow her down but we can’t land her. Get suits while I take over. We’ll ride as far as we can, and walk the rest of the way.” He fought with the controls, as Morley, still bemused, obeyed. At twenty-five hundred feet they bailed out, and floating down seconds later, watched Spaceboat 6 crash into a low wooded hill. And when they landed, and inspected the wreckage, it was some minutes before either spoke.
It was obvious at a glance that Spaceboat 6 was ready for the boneyard, had there been one around. The ship, under the few automatic controls that were still functioning, had sliced in at a thirty degree angle, ploughed a short distance through a growth of slim, poplar-like trees, and then crumpled completely against an outcropping granite ledge. Finally Morley gulped audibly, and Madsen laughed.
“Well, Mastermind, any suggestions that might help us? Any little pearls of wisdom from the great brain?”
“Just one,” Morley answered. “Head for the Equator, and—”
“And try to find a D.D. Correct. If we last that long. Let’s salvage what we can out of this junk and shove off.”
Morley cleared his throat diffidently. “There are a few pieces of equipment we should take along, for—er—emergencies—” His voice trailed off miserably under Madsen’s basilisk stare.
“Listen, Morley, once and for all. We’re lugging essentials and that’s all. Any extra weight is out.”
Madsen ignored the interruption, and cut loose with one last broadside. “Save your breath. It’s bad enough being saddled with a useless little squirt like you, without being made into a pack mule unnecessarily.”
He climbed into a gaping hole in the bow. Morley followed, humiliated but still thinking hard. Catalogue it, he told himself. Remember everything. The Distress Depots, or D.D.’s, as spacemen called them, were studded on every frontier world, usually on the Equator. They contained two small spacecraft plus ample supplies of food, medicine, and tools. When wrecked, get to a D.D. and live. It was that simple.
They spent an hour worming their way through the shambles that had been the well ordered interior of Spaceboat 6, before emerging to take stock of their loot on the ground outside. Both men knew that they were pitifully equipped to cover several hundred miles, on foot, in a completely hostile environment. Suddenly Madsen looked up from the sextant he was examining.
“How come this gravity, Brain? I weigh about a hundred right now, I figure, and that’s too much, by plenty. Japetus isn’t a quarter the size of our moon.”
“It’s supposed to have a core of heavy radioactive metals,” said Morley, thoughtfully, “and a corresponding high density. Keeps it warm anyway, instead of a big icicle, like Phoebe.”
“Phoebe!” Madsen laughed. “I remember, back in ’89—” He stopped abruptly at a rattling from the ledge. A green, little lizard-like creature was scrambling frantically over the granite, while hot in pursuit were three—spiders? Black, they were, a black like living velvet, and incredibly fast as they closed in, beady stalked eyes fastened on their prey. They were deliberately herding the desperate lizard toward a cleft in the rock. As the creature leaped into the opening, another spider dove at it from the recess. The others closed in. There was a hopeless hissing, a vicious clicking of mandibles. The struggle subsided. Once again the day was silent. Madsen holstered the blaster he had drawn and looked whitely at Morley.
“Pleasant pets,” he grunted.
“Poisonous and carnivorous, too,” said Morley, shakingly. “I remember reading that Valdez dissected one when he first landed here twenty years ago. One of his crew was bitten, and died in less than five minutes.”
Madsen was thoughtful. “We could stand a little briefing on the local flora and fauna, but palaver won’t get us to the Equator. And that little stock treatise entitled ‘Physical Attributes of Phoebe’ is worse than useless. Lucky the sextant is O.K., we can at least check our latitude. There’s just one flaw.”
“Which way do we go when we hit the line? The D.D.’s are spaced ninety degrees apart. We might be within a hundred miles of one. If we head the wrong way, we’d have three or four hundred miles to go. There’s no method of figuring our longitude.”
Morley was staring sunward, with thoughtful eyes. “Yes, there is,” he said quietly.
Madsen’s jaw dropped. “Give,” he said.
“We both forgot something we know perfectly well. Notice the sun? It hasn’t moved perceptibly since we landed. Japetus doesn’t revolve on its axis.”
“Two things. One, no night, since we’re on the sunward side. The sun will move from side to side in the sky, reaching its lateral limits when Japetus is in quadrature in regard to Saturn. If we were here for a month, we’d see Saturn rise, make a full arc through the sky, and set. Let’s hope for a shorter stay.”
“Go on,” said Madsen, and suddenly there was nothing patronizing or scornful in his voice.
“Two. We came in over the Pole almost exactly at inferior conjunction. Right?”
“I think I get it.” Madsen answered slowly.
For a moment Morley was silent. He could almost smell the dingy classroom in Port Chicago, almost see the words on the examination paper in front of him. The paragraph leaped out, limned sharply in his mind. “Section 4, Subhead A, Solar Space Code. The initial Distress Depot on any satellite shall be situated, when practical, on the Prime Meridian. For the purposes of this act, the Prime Meridian of a satellite shall be the meridian that bisects the Sun when the Satellite is in inferior conjunction. Quarter mile belts shall be burned fifty miles to the North, South, East, and West as guides. Radio beacons will operate, unless impracticable due to atmospheric conditions, or other reasons.”
“We’re on, or practically on the Prime Meridian right now,” said Madsen. “A trek due South should hit D.D. No. 1 square on the nose. Right?”
“Right. Two or three hundred miles to go. We might make it in two weeks.”
Madsen squinted at the stationary disk of Sol, hanging in the sky. “Let’s load up and get started. The sooner we’re on our way, the better.”
Both men had discarded their space suits, were dressed in the gray work clothes of Satellites, Inc. Equipment was easily divided. Each had a blaster, and a wrist compass-chronometer. Radio was useless on Japetus, and the little headsets were ruthlessly jettisoned. The flat tins of emergency food concentrate were stowed in two knapsacks. Madsen took charge of the sextant, and Morley carried a lightweight repeating rifle for possible game that might be out of blaster range. Canteens, a pocket first-aid kit, and a small heliograph, were the final items, except for several articles which Morley unobtrusively stowed away about his person.
Less than three hours after the crash, the two men shouldered their burdens, took a bearing to determine their course, and headed into the south.
In a matter of minutes Spaceboat 6 was out of sight. With Madsen leading, they threaded their way through the scant undergrowth. Underfoot the dry, broad-bladed grass rustled through a morning that had no beginning or end. Farther away were other and less easily explained rustlings, and once both men froze as a half-dozen of what looked like baby dragons arrowed past within yards of them.
“Formation flying, like ducks,” muttered Morley, watching from the corner of his eye.
When the whispering of scaled wings had died away, the castaways resumed their steady plodding into the south. Twice they crossed small fresh water brooks, providing a welcome opportunity to drink their fill, and replenish the canteens. The going was easy, since the footing was in fairly dense soil, and the scrub was not so thick as to provide any difficulties. After eight hours of nearly continuous travel, they reached the banks of a third stream. Here Madsen stopped, and dropped his knapsack to the ground.
“Campsite,” he grunted.
“Alabama,” Morley murmured.
Madsen goggled. “Are you delirious? What do you mean—Alabama?”
Morley laughed sheepishly. “Alabama means ‘Here we rest,’ I said it without thinking.”
Madsen was grinning now. “What beats me is how you remember all that junk. I’d go nuts if I tried to clutter up my mind with a bunch of useless data. Alabama!”
“I don’t have to try to remember things,” Morley said thoughtfully. “If I read or hear something that seems the least bit curious or unusual, it just sticks. And sometimes it’s useful.”
“Well, remember when Storybook ran a mile last year in 1.29? He was the first to break 1.30. Some joe that knew a lot about horses gave me an argument in a bar about the first horse to break 1.40. He bet me ten credits it was Man o’ War. I knew it was Ten Broeck, and I got an almanac and proved it.”
Madsen looked up from the tin of coffee concentrate he was opening. “Hasn’t anyone ever tried to win an argument by poking you one in the snoot?”
“Once or twice.” Morley was almost apologetic. “But I learned judo a few years ago, just for the hell of it, so I didn’t get hurt much.”
“You’re a whiz with the sabre, no doubt?” said Madsen dryly.
“No, I tried swordplay for a while, but gave it up. It’s a little too, er—primitive for my tastes.”
“Primitive!” Madsen glanced around at the alien scene and nearly choked. “I’m crossing my fingers, but what would you do if some carnivore, or a gang of those spiders suddenly appeared and started for us with evil intentions?”
“I think I’d run,” said Morley simply. “It was pretty dull at General Plastic but at least the comptometers weren’t man-eating.”
Madsen blinked, and seeming to find expression difficult, forbore to answer.
They ate, and relaxed on the soft sod, lulled almost into a feeling of security. Not being foolhardy, however, they slept in six hour shifts. Morley stood the first watch, and slept the second. When he awoke, Madsen was tensely examining a ration tin. Jarred into instant alertness by a feeling of urgency and alarm, Morley leaped to his feet.
Without answering, Madsen handed him the tin. It was pockmarked with inch wide patches of metallic gray fungus, from several of which liquid was seeping. There was a sharp odor of decay.
Madsen was hastily dumping the contents of the knapsacks on the ground. Morley joined him, and both men commenced scraping the clinging gray patches from the tins. All but three were perforated and ruined.
“We’ll at least be traveling light from now on,” Madsen said. “Any idea what this stuff is?”
“Some of that lichen, or whatever it is, was around the scene of the crash,” Morley answered. “The stuff must have an affinity for tin; probably secretes some acid that dissolves it. Only trouble is, it goes through thin steel too.”
Madsen commenced repacking their effects.
“From now on, laddie, keep your eyes peeled for game, and if you see any, use that rifle. If we don’t knock down some meat, and soon, we aren’t going to make it. Might as well realize it right now.”
“Were you ever wrecked before, Madsen?”
“Once, on Venus. Cartographic expedition.”
“Tubes blew and we made a forced landing. Wound up sitting in the middle of a pile of highgrade scrap.”
“What did you do then?”
Madsen shouldered his knapsack and smiled condescendingly.
“Not a thing, Mr. Fix-it. We didn’t have to. Since I seem to have accidentally stumbled on something new and strange to you, add this to your files. It’s usual on cartographic trips of any length, for one ship to go out, while another stays at a temporary base, and keeps in constant directional radio contact. If anything happens, they come a-running. Makes it fine for us uninformed common people.”
“Of course, this is somewhat different. If we don’t get out by ourselves, whoever finds us need only say, ‘X marks the spot.'”
Morley didn’t bother answering. No comment was necessary. He knew as well as Madsen that whatever margin of safety they possessed had been shaved to the vanishing point.
They made twenty miles in a forced march, slept, ate, and then traveled again. The stunted forest grew thinner, and occasionally they crossed open spaces acres in extent. Twice they saw, in the distance, animals resembling terrestrial deer, and on the second occasion Morley tried a fruitless shot. They slept and ate again, and now the last of the rations were gone. They went on.
As they made southing, the dull sun crept higher in the sky by infinitesimal degrees. Now the going became tougher. Patches of evil looking muskeg began to appear in the scrub, and the stunted trees themselves gradually gave way to six foot ferns. There were occasional signs that some creature had been foraging on the lush growth. When they found fresh tracks in the soft footing, Morley unlimbered the rifle, and the two men trod more softly. By that time either would have cheerfully made a meal on one of the miniature flying dragons, alive and kicking, and the thought of a juicy steak from some local herbivore was as soul stirring as the sight of Mecca to a true believer.
Both men whirled at a sudden crashing on their left. Something like a large splay footed kangaroo broke cover, and went loping away, clearing the fern tops at every bound. In one motion Morley whipped up the rifle and fired. There was an earsplitting report, the leaper kept right on going, under forced draught, and the two castaways stared in consternation at a rifle that resembled a bundle of metallic macaroni more than it did a firearm.
Madsen spoke first. “You probably got some mud in the barrel when we stopped last time,” he accused. “Look at us now.”
Morley started to mumble an apology, but Madsen cut him short. “Look at us now,” he repeated, with all stops out. “It was bad before, now it’s practically hopeless. Our only long range gun! What do we do now if we do find game—dig pits for it?”
If a man can be said to slink without changing his position, Morley slunk. Madsen continued, double fortissimo.
“A kid of ten knows enough to keep a gun clean, but you, Mr.—Mr. Unabridged Webster in the flesh—”
He stopped, temporarily out of breath. Morley regarded him abjectly, and suddenly Madsen began to feel a little ashamed. After all, the fellow had figured out that business about the meridian.
“No use in having any post mortems,” he said, with fine logic. “Throw that junk away. It’s that much less to carry, anyway.”
Two hours later, they plodded wearily through the last of the swamp onto higher ground. The two haggard, muddied figures that threw themselves on the dry soil to rest bore little resemblance to the men who had parachuted from Spaceboat 6 seventy-two hours before.
The slope on which they rested was tufted with small bushes. One particular type with narrow dark green leaves bore clusters of fruit like small plums, which Madsen eyed speculatively.
“Do we risk it?” he asked.
“Might as well.”
Morley was completely unaware that he had just accepted the responsibility for making a decision.
“We can’t afford not to risk it,” he said, adding, with little show of enthusiasm, “I’ll be the guinea pig.”
“Take it easy, chum,” Madsen countered. “We’ll match for it.”
They matched and Morley called it wrong. He plucked a sample of the fruit and stood regarding it like some bewhiskered Little Jack Horner. Finally he broke the thin skin with his thumbnail and gingerly conveyed a couple of drops of juice to his tongue. The taste was simultaneously oily and faintly sweet, and after a short wait he essayed a fair sized bite. Madsen was about to follow suit, when Morley motioned him to wait. The next second he was rolling on the ground, coughing and choking, while Madsen tried grimly to feed him water from a canteen.
It was no use. The throat tissues became swollen and inflamed in seconds, to the point of agony, and swallowing was totally impossible. To this was shortly added an overpowering nausea. When the retching finally stopped, Morley tried to speak, but in vain. Even the effort meant waves of pain.
Madsen watched helplessly, and when the spasms of choking finally stopped, spoke gently.
“We’ll be camping right here for a while, looks like. Try to get some sleep if it slacks off any. You’ll be okay in a while.”
His doubts were hidden, and Morley thanked him with his eyes.
As the hours dragged on, Madsen sat quietly on guard, while the sick man tossed in uneasy slumber. The eternal day was comfortably warm, and eventually the watcher closed his eyes. Just for a moment, he thought drowsily, just for a nap. Head pillowed on his arm, he slept. The alien hillside was very quiet. He slept, dreaming of the long trip home, of Port Chicago, of beer, and girls, and a fistfull of credits.
When Madsen awoke, he knew instantly that something was out of key, that some subtle change in the surroundings had triggered a warning bell in his subconscious. Without any sudden move, he cast an all inclusive glance over the surrounding terrain. Morley still slept, and the scene seemed unchanged. But no! Wait! There on the fitful breeze that had sprung up, that faint sweetish smell. He sniffed, facing upwind. What the devil was it? Frowning, he stared toward the crest of the hill. There was one tree, a few rods away, that seemed different from the others. Larger, and the branches were whiplike, drooping. It looked vaguely like a weeping willow on Earth. Madsen started toward it, walking softly. As he drew nearer, the scent became stronger, and now he recognized it. Carrion! It was coming from the tree, and he was able to see the source.
The corpses of two or three scaled green lizards, and one of the lopers from the fern forest. The drooping limbs of the tree moved undulantly in the breeze, almost as if they possessed an awareness of his approach, and he noticed that they were armed with two inch thorns. He was very close now. He took another step, and then, without warning, every nerve and muscle seemed to twist and contract violently. Blacking out between two breaths, he still realized what had happened. Once before, on Ceres, he had experienced the paralyzing effect of a blaster bolt from a weapon set at high aperture.
An hour passed. Deep down in the blackness, in the solid dark, some wisp of consciousness stirred and quickened. It quested, as the black became gray. It flowered into life, Ego once again, suddenly aware of the pale warm sunlight, and an intolerable aching. He looked up at Morley and cursed.
“Why did you do it?”
“Had to.” Morley’s voice was a harsh whisper. “You’d have been a goner in another step or two, and I couldn’t yell. That tree’s deadly.”
“So that’s it.” A pause. “If you don’t mind my asking, how did you know?”
“Remembered it from a picture in Valdez’ book, when I saw you walking into that—thing! Watch this.”
He picked up a chunk of shale, and lobbed it into the tree. The reaction was violent and immediate. The formerly quiescent limbs whipped sinuously through the air, their thorny armament glinting in the light. Madsen felt the back of his neck tingle at the hiss of their passage. Dozens of black, hornet-like insects took wing, and buzzed angrily and aimlessly around until the agitated motion subsided and the tree sank slowly into its former somnolence.
“How does it work?” asked Madsen.
“The thorns, they’re almost instantly lethal. Notice those wasps, or whatever they are?”
“Well, they live in those trees, and pollinate them. They lay eggs in the game that the tree polishes off. When the larvae graduate and get their wings, they make a brief nuptial flight, and set up housekeeping in a similar tree. Other insects stay away. It’s a beautiful case of highly specialized symbiosis.”
“Not very. You might say our position is similar, to a degree. How are you feeling now?”
“A lot better, except for the ache. Your throat seems to be coming along all right, too.” His eyes ranged the slope, estimating the distance to their initial resting place. “Man alive, I was lucky to be in range!”
“You were at that, Madsen. There’s just one chronic bug in energy weapons, the old law of inverse squares. Short range tools, that’s all.”
“You said it. Say, Morley—”
“Doesn’t a symbiotic relationship usually refer to some type of parasitism? Sort of a put and take game, with one organism doing all the putting, and the other, all the taking?”
Can it be? thought Morley, incredulously. Honest gratitude was natural, but the idea that Madsen’s granite exterior might conceal a slowly burgeoning respect—!
“Not exactly,” he said carefully. “Often there is a mutual dependence, as with us. That’s what I meant to say in the first place.”
“Thanks. I feel, well, pretty foolish about being so careless, and holding us up. Not that I’d have gone on walking into that tree, mind you. And I’d hate to have you think of me as a human—liana, or remora, or something.”
“Don’t be silly. We’re partners, aren’t we?”
“Yeah, that’s true. Morley, I—”
“Thanks, a lot.”
“Er—that’s all right. Skip it.”
The mesa stretched to the horizon on all sides, timeless and forbidding, drowsing through the sunlit millennia. To a casual celestial voyager, it would have appeared barren of life, except for the two scarecrow figures which scrabbled in the sand in spots where a stunted, ropy vine was growing. At intervals one or the other would triumphantly dig out a baseball-sized melon like object, and wolf it hungrily, the juice dribbling over his bearded chin. The trail they had made was blurred in spots where they had fallen, light-headed with weakness. The melons helped, though their caloric count would never constitute a dietitian’s dream of joy. They were food, of a sort, and more important, water. Finally one of the figures scrambled to his feet, and stared defiantly at the dim sun, higher now, but still far from the zenith.
“Let’s get going,” said Morley thickly.
The two men shambled silently through the knee-high grass and dwarf trees of the savannah. They didn’t feel particularly hungry anymore. There was only a vaguely irritating condition of lassitude, and dizziness, and an annoying tendency of the knees to buckle uncontrollably without the slightest warning. They plodded on, weaving uncertainly from time to time. There was game here, creatures like antelope, but they maddeningly stayed well out of blaster range. Madsen had discarded everything but his pack, while Morley’s weapon still hung at his hip. With seemingly irrational stubbornness, he also clung to the impedimenta he had picked up at the wreck, despite Madsen’s petulant remarks about excess weight.
It seemed to Morley as if they had been traveling forever through some grassy Gehenna. It grew harder and harder for him to think in logical sequence. When he climbed painfully to his feet after a fall, he had to fight back a sudden overwhelming urge to burst into babyish tears. Madsen hardly ever fell down. It didn’t seem fair, and he wished bitterly that he were more like Madsen. Still he fought on without knowing why. Another step, and another, and a thousand more, each one an individual effort to which he forced his failing muscles.
Another eternity or two passed, and suddenly Madsen staggered and sat down in his tracks. He stared resentfully at his knapsack and then peered up at Morley.
“We’ve still got four of those melon things. If we eat them now, we won’t have to carry them. How about it?” he mumbled.
Through Morley’s weariness crept a doubt as to the validity of his comrade’s logic, but it seemed to be too difficult to analyze at the moment.
They ate the scanty meal in silence, and rested for an hour, half comatose. Then, somewhat refreshed, Morley levered himself slowly erect. He stirred Madsen with his toe.
“Up and at ’em, chum.”
Madsen blinked at him and started to rise. He was on one knee, when suddenly, he turned his head in a listening attitude. Morley had heard the distant hum, too, and was standing stock still, an anxious frown on his gaunt face. Madsen was on the verge of scrambling to his feet, when Morley spoke.
“Shut up, for God’s sake. Don’t stir.” He was trembling, his bony features white as paper under their coating of grime. Madsen froze, wordless. Sailing through the tall grass, straight toward them, came one of the gray antelope-like creatures. It passed within twenty feet. They could see the heaving flanks, the foam on its muzzle, the rolling, terror stricken eyes. Close behind, and closing in rapidly, came the origin of the hum. It was a host of tiny iridescent flying creatures, no larger than bumblebees. They streaked by, green and crimson winged gems, the hum rising to a vicious crescendo.
The chase ended a hundred yards away. As the cloud struck, the antelope screamed, a lone cry of agony and despair. It staggered once, tried to leap forward, staggered again, was down. There was a threshing, a violent movement of the grass, then silence.
A quarter of an hour passed before a rising hum announced the ending of the feast. The component parts of the cloud took flight, coalesced into a group, vanished into the distance.
Madsen broke first, heading for the remains of the antelope, with Morley close behind. The animal lay in a heap, drained of every drop of blood, its punctured eyes staring sightlessly at the empty heavens.
“Meat,” babbled Madsen. “Chops, steak, liver, heart.”
“Shut up,” Morley said curtly, “and start a fire.” He bent to the butchering.
They ate, new life flooding into them. They were suddenly deeply conscious of the incredible sensation of being fed, of resting with a full stomach, of enjoying a reprieve that might be a pardon.
Madsen stopped picking his teeth for a moment.
“Did you know what those things were?” he asked.
“Sure. Sangres, Valdez called them. Means bloody in Spanish. They’re blood drinkers. There’s one thing, though, you’re pretty safe if you don’t move. Those sweet little birds—and they are birds, as a matter of fact—hunt by sight.”
Madsen was silent. Then he laughed, and turned to eye the remains of the antelope fondly.
“And to think we didn’t even have to bleed it,” he said. “When we get back, you might recommend some books for me to read, if you feel like doing a good turn.”
Morley was laughing, too. “It’s a deal.”
When they resumed their trek, both knapsacks were loaded with meat, cut into strips, and well smoked. The travelers were staggering no longer, though once again they were traversing rising ground. An eight-hour march brought them to the summit. At their feet the ground fell away in a sharp slope, to level off a few miles in the distance, and there, flowing from the west and swinging in a broad arc directly into the south, was the silvery sheen of a river. It seemed like a great question mark, its ends disappearing over the deceptively close horizons of the little world.
Madsen peered at the bright interrogative streak.
“Pardon my ignorance, pal, but is that river really flowing south, or am I dreaming?”
“No, it’s not a dream. We’ve been coming over a watershed evidently.”
“That should simplify matters. We get to the river, build a raft somehow, if there’s timber, and travel in luxury. Right?”
A few hours of easy travel brought them to the bank. For some time it had been evident that there would be ample material for a raft. Now Morley looked at the foot-thick trunks around them, and said thoughtfully, “We’ll have to work downstream and look for windfalls or something. We aren’t equipped for lumberjack work.”
They had paralleled the stream for some time when suddenly Madsen shouted in exultation.
They were standing at a point of land at a juncture of the river and an evil looking backwater some twenty feet wide. It was bridged by one fallen trunk, and on the other side were several more, where a falling giant had brought down his neighbors in his collapse.
Madsen hastily started across the trunk which bridged the slough, ignoring Morley’s admonition to take it easy. Halfway across, a rotten piece of bark crumbled under his tread. He caught at the stub of a limb, preventing a full length fall by a narrow margin, and wound up standing in semi-liquid, knee deep mud. He had placed his hands on the fallen trunk, preparatory to climbing back on it, when, with hardly a warning ripple, something flipped from the muddy surface and clamped around his wrist. Another slapped across his neck, and clung.
Madsen tore at them in vain, waves of revulsion flooding him. The things were inch-thick ribbons, a foot and a half long, and about six inches wide, a mottled green in color. There was an unspeakable repulsion about their touch, and they were coldly, clammily strong. Now the surface of the slough was churning as the hideous swarm converged, and Madsen felt his strength fading as a light dims when an electrician turns a rheostat. He tried to keep fighting, but his muscles refused to answer his will. Immobile, but fully conscious, with his insides a ball of cold horror, he waited.
Meanwhile, Morley, on solid ground, was clawing the contents from his knapsack, scattering jerky on all sides.
The tableau on the bank was within Madsen’s range of vision as he lay half immersed in mud, with the stomach-turning horrors greedily glueing themselves to his exposed hands and face. To the sick helplessness with which he faced the end, was added a hopeless burning rage. What was Morley doing? Planning to offer the things some dried meat? A handful of near-leather for something that lusted and craved for hot blood? What a way to cash in. A living buffet dinner for alien monstrosities, while a white faced weak sister fumbled frantically, safely, in a useless knapsack. A band of cold, hungry malignance fastened itself to his forehead, just missing his left eye.
Dully, he watched Morley come up with something like a small flashlight, saw him thumb the switch, and commence crawling out on the log to where Madsen lay half submerged. Once within range, he played the invisible beam from the little device over Madsen’s inert body. The result was instantaneous. The giant leeches relaxed their grip and disappeared under the mud with startling rapidity. Morley retched at a glimpse of a sucker-lined underbelly. Then he hooked his weapon on his belt and dragged Madsen to dry land.
The victim’s frantic eyes showed he was obviously conscious, though unable to move or speak. Morley promptly launched into a reassuring monologue.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be O.K. in a few hours. Those things temporarily short circuit the nervous energy of their prey in some manner. They call them sanguisuga, means bloodsucker. They’re sensitive only to strong ultraviolet, like a lot of extra-terrestrial life.”
He removed the little projector from his belt.
“That’s why I’ve been lugging this airlock disinfector all the way. I had a hunch it might come in handy. And look.”
He unbuttoned his shirt, exposing a length of thin cord coiled around his waist.
“I wasn’t going to show you this, but now we can use it for lashings for the raft we’re going to build as soon as you’re better.”
“Even a rope,” said Madsen slowly. He articulated with difficulty, his nerves tingling with returning life.
Forty-eight hours later they were far to the South, floating down the nameless river on their improvised raft. There was no feeling of captain and crew, now. Just two men, fighting together. And winning.
The sextant had long since been discarded, and both men were staring at a rickety tripod, from which a button was suspended by a piece of ravelled thread. The shadow it cast was a dark dot. Madsen spoke first.
“You’re quite a gadgeteer, aren’t you. It’s simple, at that. The closer we are to the equator, the higher the sun, and the shorter the shadow. Voila!”
Morley laughed and stretched. The change in equilibrium set the little pendulum to swinging gently, and he watched it intently as the motion slowly ceased.
“It’s been that way for hours now. We should be nearly there.”
Madsen scanned the bank. “Any time now, any time.”
An hour later they saw it. A quarter mile lane burned through the trees and shrubs, running straight as a string from the horizon to the river, and continuing on the other side. They beached the raft, in case the necessity arose to cross back, and trudged until they came to the first mile marker. They were on the right side. The arrow pointed in the direction they were going, and the enamelled sign said, simply,
JAPETUS D.D. No. 1
After a pause, Madsen spoke. “We made it, thanks to what you knew about Japetus. All those little things that added up.”
“Oh those,” said Morley. “Just,” he hesitated. “Just—odds and ends.”#ENGLISH