By CARL SELWYN
Out of the caves of space it flew—huge, rapacious,
terrifying. But Lou Flint met its vicious challenge
happily. For, like the girl at his side,
it was worth one million dollars!
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Winter 1946.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
The jungle was filled with the shouts of the hunters and the sounds of their heavy boots crashing through the dry sword grass. The long line of men were running shoulder to shoulder, stooping under the red vines, stumbling over the mossy rocks.
Bounding ahead in panic surged hundreds of animals of a strange species. Shaped like deer, they had no antlers and their delicate bodies were covered with rich greenish-gold feathers. Eyes large with terror, feathers ruffled, they stampeded through the entrance of a corral that was so well camouflaged it was almost invisible in the tangled plants and tree trunks.
In a corner of the corral, shadowed from the late afternoon sun, a tall, bare-chested young man waited motionless as an ironwood tree, watching the animals stream toward him. His only clothing was a pair of faded khaki shorts and soft leather boots. Strapped to his waist was a leather holster containing a heavy pistol, its thick barrel shaped like a flashlight. His ruggedly handsome face was angry, his gray eyes cold as he watched the animals futilely leaping at the surrounding fence.
Suddenly the hunters broke through the screening jungle. Their leader bellowed, “Okay! Bash their heads in! Let’s get their hides off!”
The other men advanced toward the herd of frenzied animals, clubs raised. The leader swung his own stick down toward one of the creatures that tried to race past him.
Instantly the ironwood tree came to life. His hand was one blurred motion as it jerked his odd-shaped pistol from its holster, squeezed the trigger. A silver streak flashed from the barrel, struck the man’s arm before the club could fall. His arm froze in mid-swing.
“Drop those sticks and get off this planetoid!” As the bare-chested one came out of the shadows, his voice had virtually the force of his weapon.
The men stood with clubs half-raised, staring at him. “It’s Lou Flint,” one of them whispered.
“Watch him! That’s an ice-ray pistol!” They lowered their clubs slowly, glancing toward their leader.
The big fellow rubbed his rigid right arm with his other hand. It stuck out before him at a grotesque angle; he couldn’t move it yet. As he looked at Flint his eyes were deadly. “Don’t stick your nose in this business, trapper.” His thick lips curled. “You don’t own this land.”
“I’m sticking my nose into any business that kills off a thousand feather-deer in two weeks,” Lou Flint said. “I’ve seen enough of your butchering.”
The big man’s stiffened arm suddenly dropped back to his side, perfectly normal again. An ice-ray’s harmless effect lasted only a minute—but while it lasted it was a potent weapon. “You’re a big talker with that gun in your hand.”
In answer, Flint dropped the pistol at his feet. The other glanced at his men, saw them waiting for his next move. He strode forward. Flint waited solidly before him, fists on his hips. “You aren’t leaving?” “Nope.” Then quick as a snake the fellow bent, tried to scoop up the pistol. Flint was quicker. His fist plowed into the man’s chin. The blow lifted him up on his toes, sent him stumbling backward till he crumpled silently to the ground. “Anybody else got any arguments?” Flint asked, looking toward the others. Nobody had. “Then get off this planetoid. If I catch you here again I’m going to send your hides back to your filthy fur boss.”
Two of the men came over with tight lips and picked up their unconscious comrade. Straining under his weight, they rejoined the others who were moving back toward the trampled jungle, muttering silently.
Flint picked up his pistol, dropped it in his holster. He strode over to the side of the corral and kicked a hole in the fence to let out the feather-deer. Then, with a glance at the low-lying sun, he set out down a dim trail, walking fast.
Despite his threat, he knew he hadn’t seen the last of this business.
From the wild region Flint called home, through the maze of Ring planets to the Saturn mainland, was only an hour’s jump—if you knew the way. If you didn’t, well, even the Stellar Patrol got lost looking for you.
The Ring was uncharted, an inestimable jumble of satellites ranging in size from sand-like grains to full-blown worlds supporting their own plant and animal life. Their only ties to the mother planet were the cosmic forces that kept them constantly revolving around her and their common atmosphere, so deep it enveloped both Saturn and the Ring.
Flint knew every shape, every color, every landmark in the place, and his plane weaved through the maze at a speed that would have ended in a crash with a less experienced hand at the controls.
The hazy twilight was just settling over Saturn when he plunged down into its capital city. Pausing at the space-port only long enough to wiggle into a shirt, he caught the shuttle chute across town and arrived at the capitol just as the government workers were leaving the building. He ran up the gleaming stairs, turned down the glowing corridor and hurried through the silver door on which impressive letters read: GOVERNOR’S OFFICE.
A secretary looked up from her desk with startled eyes. Her expression changed from surprise to alarm as Flint strode past her toward a closed door at the end of the room.
“Here! Do you have an appointment—”
But Flint had shoved open the door and stepped into the Governor’s private office.
A tall, white-haired man looked up from a huge desk. He rose quickly, smiling, and held out his hand. “I’ve been wanting to see you, Lou. No one knew how to find you in the Ring.”
Flint shook his hand, pulled up a chair, and started right in. “This tract of planetoids of mine out in the Ring—do I own them—legally—or don’t I?”
The Governor looked down at his hands, inspected his fingernails. “That’s what I wanted to see you about, Lou.” When he met Flint’s eyes it was with a look that said he was about to face an unpleasant task. “Your father spent half his life hunting space bat out there—he claimed several planetoids, I believe.”
“Twenty-two of them,” Flint stated.
“And I know that after your father died,” the Governor continued, “you took over and have been hunting bat yourself ever since—a mighty long wild-goose chase I call it, but that’s your business. Anyway, your father was one of the pioneers here, Lou. I’ll always—”
“Governor, if you’ve got bad news, spill it.”
“All right. I’ll give it to you straight. You don’t have any legal claim to those planetoids. The Saturnian Government has never recognized squatters’ rights out there and I’m afraid there’s no time to fight it out with Congress now.” He hesitated. “Your land is being sold to an Earth fur corporation for a million dollars.”
Flint sat there staring at the Governor for a long moment. Then abruptly he got to his feet. “They’re the guys I’ve been running into ever since feather-deer became the fur coat rage on Earth.” He spoke through his teeth. “I’ve seen their work—thousands of raw, skinned carcasses strewn about the woods—vultures everywhere. They’re butchers! In two months there won’t be a feather-deer left in the Ring. They’ll be extinct. Do you think I’m going to stand by and watch that happen?”
He leaned over the desk, resting on his big fists. “I’m a hunter, but I hunt animals that can fight back—tigodons, baragators, swamp wolves—not these helpless little things you can run down and kill with a club.”
The Governor shook his white head sadly. “I’m truly sorry, Lou. I wish there were something I could do but the owner of this fur outfit is coming in on tonight’s space liner. He wants to go out to the Ring just as soon as he arrives. I’ve been asked to find a guide.”
“One million dollars,” Flint thought aloud. “It’s entirely a matter of money.”
“I’m afraid it is. If you could only get a space bat now, Lou—doesn’t that Earth circus still offer a million to anybody who captures one alive?”
“Yeah,” Flint said dejectedly. “But nobody’s ever captured a space bat, dead or alive.” He stuck his hands deep in his pockets and walked around the room, staring at the floor. Suddenly he halted in his tracks. Then he whirled back to the desk. “If I get a million dollars to you before this guy gives you his check, is the place mine?”
The Governor’s smile was puzzled. “Well, I could probably arrange it, but—”
“Fine. Now could you also arrange for me to meet this guy at the space port tonight? I’ll be his guide.”
“I don’t like the way you’re acting, Lou. I don’t want any trouble.”
Flint grinned. “You old goat. You’re thinking about your reputation. When you and Dad were with the first settlers that took Saturn away from the natives, you didn’t worry about trouble then. But I promise—I won’t do anything to hurt your politics.”
The Governor shook his head resignedly. “You’re just as stubborn as your father was,” he said. He reached in a drawer and handed Flint a small engraved card. It read:
K. V. Vaun
Fur Fashions, Inc.
New York City, Earth
“Thanks,” Flint said. “I’ll be there tonight.” He strode quickly from the room.
Ten minutes later the great shadowy sphere that was the Saturn mainland was shrinking in the distance. Ahead, through the plane’s front view-plate, the Ring arced across the heavens, a pastel rainbow against the outer night. Night here was never complete blackness; the Ring’s sprinkling of radium moons gave a glow one could read by even at midnight.
Ten minutes more and he abruptly threw the ship into a shuddering bank, skirted a looming planetoid, dived to a precarious landing on its neighbor. He dragged a spare radio set from under his seat and with it in his hand jumped out of the ship and ran to a large tree on which one end of a heavy cable was tied.
The other end of the cable stretched up and away from the planetoid and out across the misty void—to the neighboring globe which was so heavily jungled that there was no place to land a plane. Flint climbed into the dangling cable chair, holding the radio in his lap, and pushed himself out across the wire, away from the planetoid, over the sheer drop ten miles under his feet.
Seconds later—things happened fast with this feather gravity—the other world moved up under him and he dropped lightly to its surface.
The trail he took through the woods was more like a tunnel, and the little clearing that soon appeared was like a well, the moon lights filtering through.
In the clearing lay the rusted hull of a space-ship, used for a house. Before it stood a Venusian, skinning a baragator which hung by its scaley legs from a log tripod. The man’s only clothing was a bright red loin cloth, and the flesh of his limbs, chest, and face was green, a burnished green like the sheen of sunlight under water. He was not large, but the smooth suppleness of his body gave an impression of great strength, like the coils of a python.
As Flint came out of the jungle, the Venusian turned to face him as though he knew of his approach, although Flint’s tread had been silent as a cat’s. His words, before Flint could speak, were also uncanny—as if he already knew what Flint had come to tell him.
“No like trouble with white policemen,” he said, “but your plan seems only way to save hunting ground from seekers of feathers. I will help—you, my friend of many seasons.”
He spoke without moving his lips—because he wasn’t using his lips. His voice was toneless, mechanical. It came from a small microphone attached to his throat. The impulse for the microphone came from the pulsations of his bloodstream which he could control. Venusians were a strange race—being deaf and dumb and having the power to read brain waves were only a few of their peculiarities.
Flint grinned. “I don’t know why I take the trouble to come all the way down the path, Greeno. You could pick up my thoughts from the cable just as well.” Then, in a hurry to get on with his business, “Is there anything you didn’t understand?”
“One thing not clear—something you must have planned before coming into range,” the toneless voice said. “You wish me to meet your plane on way to Ring, kidnap man from you and bring him here,” he ran through the plan he’d picked up from Flint’s mind. “Then I radio message about ransom—a million dollars. But how will money be delivered?”
“Simple,” Flint explained. “The guy’s fur company sends the money to the Saturn Express Agency. We tell them to put it in a small rocket and shoot it toward the Ring. We’ll make them put a radio-signaling gadget into the rocket, too. All we’ll have to do is follow the signal and pick up the rocket before we let the guy go.” The plan was foolproof; there was no way the police could prove anything on anybody.
“No,” Greeno agreed with his thoughts, “their evidence against you purely circumstantial. Me, they never guess.”
“That’s it.” Flint strode toward the space-ship hull with the radio set. “Where you want this? Have your finger on it at eight tonight and I’ll radio the guy’s description.” Although Greeno couldn’t hear, he could pick up radio vibrations by touch.
Greeno followed him into the cylinder, motioned toward a table in the corner. The place was battery-lighted, soft-walled with hides.
“I’ll have to put up a little fight when you leave my plane,” Flint said. “Make it look better—”
But Greeno held up his hand, motioned him on out the door. “Can’t pick up thoughts inside,” he reminded him.
Flint went out grinning; he could never get used to the fact that the Venusian was reading his mind, not hearing his words, and that he couldn’t pick up the waves when he was surrounded by metal such as the ship’s hull. Outside, he started to tell him again about having to put on the fight act.
But Greeno stopped him. “Understand now,” he said.
Flint laughed. Even a spoken “Good luck” wasn’t necessary. He turned, went back down the trail thinking it was a good thing the Stellar Patrol hadn’t been able to get Venusians to work for them.
“Very good thing,” Greeno called after him.
Nearing Saturn, Flint’s eye was pressed against the filterscope in his view-plate, scanning the black well of space to the east. Then he saw the liner, far out, a silver bullet glinting in the rays of the sun that had sunken below Saturn’s horizon hours ago.
He was standing at the gate when the great ship came in, roared up the quartz strip, and halted at the ramp. Flint stopped the purser. “I’m supposed to meet a fellow named K. V. Vaun, fur merchant. Which one is he?”
The purser slid a finger down his passenger list, shook his head. “No gentleman by that name.” Then his finger paused. “There was a lady—”
The purser looked toward the ship. “Yes. A Miss K. V. Vaun—there she is now.” He hurried away, leaving Flint staring at the girl coming down the ramp.
She wore a luxurious greenish-gold coat, but the rest of her was strictly business. She was almost as tall as Flint, carried a brief case, and wore glasses. Her face had the pallor of an office fluorescent lamp, her lips were without makeup and her hair was done up in a grim knot at the back of her neck. Her stride had the purposeful determination of one who always knew just where she was going, just what she was going to do.
Following her, like lieutenants behind a general, trotted two small men, each carrying a briefcase, each fairly exuding efficiency.
Flint stared at the three as they came toward him, stared at them as they marched past him, stared at their backs as they assailed the baggage room. Well, there went his plans—he had to give up without even a fight. He couldn’t kidnap a woman.
Then suddenly his big fists knotted at his sides. Staring at Miss Vaun’s back, he realized her coat was feather-deer. Flint stuck a resolute shoulder into the crowd and went after her.
They were waiting at the baggage counter when he came up. Miss Vaun looked over the crowd, tapping her foot. “Now where is the yokel that was to meet us?”
She took a step backward as Flint loomed before her.
“I’m the yokel.”
“Oh,” she said. Then, without apology, “Excellent. You’re Mr. Flint—the Governor radioed us to expect you. We can leave immediately.”
“You don’t want to rest a bit first, Karen?” one of her little men asked. Flint shouted to himself, “No!” From what he’d seen and heard he was ready to go through the whole thing now, and Greeno was waiting at the radio for the word go.
But Miss Vaun apparently had the energy of a cash register. “These liners are virtually traveling hotels, John,” she said. “I’m quite rested and I want to look over this property so I can close the deal in the morning.” She turned to Flint. “Shall we go?”
Flint led them silently toward his plane, grinning inwardly at the deal that by morning certainly should be well closed.
Lounging over the controls, Flint could see his guests behind him in the mirror. Rudely enough, he hadn’t been introduced to the men but from their conversation he had determined that Mr. John Leggett—short, black-mustached, slick-haired—was Miss Vaun’s legal advisor. Mr. Simon Hudson—short, bald, bug-eyed—was a fur expert.
The three faced each other around the two jump seats pulled down from the sides of the cabin. While they talked, Flint had whispered into his radio, “It’s a woman, Greeno, not a man.”
Through the plane’s plexiglass nose and ceiling, the Ring sparkled in all its glory, like a bridge of jewels across the heavens. But its wonders were wasted on Karen Vaun. “I had no idea it was this far out,” she said. Her pale face was bored.
“Increased shipping costs,” the lawyer said.
“The heat, too,” the fur expert added, mopping his bald head. “Have to watch out for deterioration.”
Flint ground his teeth, looked at the clock. Thank Saturn he hadn’t long to listen to this—Greeno should show up in a few minutes. But those few minutes were long and before two more of them had elapsed he found himself getting madder and madder.
“To make up for shipping rates and deterioration,” the lawyer said, toying with his mustache, “we’ll have to increase supply.” He thumbed through a sheaf of papers in his lap. “At fifty-six ninety per hide—”
“One crew of hunters can take five hundred hides a day,” Hudson interrupted him. “Think what a hundred crews could do.”
“I wonder how many feather-deer there are out here,” Miss Vaun said. And though Flint bit his lip, it finally slipped out.
“Did it ever occur to you,” he said over his shoulder, “that the fur business is a murderous racket?”
The woman stiffened visibly. Indignation flushed her face. Her stooges sat up like startled rabbits.
“I beg your pardon!”
“The fur business,” Flint repeated, eyes on their faces in the mirror. “You’re a bunch of butchers. I guess you’ve never seen a feather-doe standing over the raw carcass of her freshly-skinned faun.” He turned in the seat to face them, talking through his teeth. “I’ve seen a whole planet littered with dead animals—thousands of them—stinking in the sun.”
“Mr. Flint!” the woman’s voice was like a razor. “Obviously you don’t know how to converse with a lady. You will please return to your piloting.”
This scalded Flint. “Why, you walking adding machine! You flat-chested treasurer’s report! You haven’t an ounce of womanly warmth in you. A lady! If you’re a lady, I’m a moon-baboon’s uncle. All you know is fur prices. If you—”
Suddenly his audience was no longer looking at him. Like a quick change of masks, the faces of all three of them had changed from anger to the stark twitching white of sheer terror. Every eye was staring past him, over his shoulder at the view-plate.
Instinctively, Flint ducked, whirled around.
As he turned, the woman screamed. Her scream filled the cabin and with this sound in his ears, Flint saw the thing and ice shot through his whole body.
Outside the ship, through the glass, not three feet away, two eyes as big as his head were gazing down into the lighted cabin. Red-pupiled, glowing like neon, they rolled slowly in their great sockets and came to focus directly upon him.
Flint didn’t move. He couldn’t. Around the eyes was a six-foot mass of black hair. Between them, two gaping holes in a black rubber-like mound was a nose. Above this lay the furrowed folds of a mouth with teeth like elephant tusks. The hairy face was upsidedown; the thing was above the ship, peering in at its occupants.
Slowly, as Flint stared at the face, gray droplets like fog formed on the glass and obscured the thing. For a second, it was gone from sight. Then, as quickly as it had disappeared, the fog melted in the wind outside and the face began to reappear. The thing was breathing; the fog was the moisture of its breath. But in that second of obliteration—an eternity it seemed, though the woman’s scream still echoed in Flint’s ears—one thought seared itself on his numb brain.
The plane bucked, plunged straight down, away from the bat. But the bat, like its much smaller brothers, was not to be eluded on the wing. Like a black cloud with its hundred-foot wingspread, it fell off on one wing, dived after them.
It was upon the plane again with two sweeps of its mighty wings. Its teeth clashed like a rock crusher—Flint heard it through the ship’s two-foot thick walls—and as it missed, it overshot the plane, swept past them. Instantly it whirled around, hurtled back.
“Radio for help!” The lawyer’s voice was shrill. He sat there wringing his hands. Sweat glistened on the fur expert’s bald head. The woman clutched the arms of her seat, eyes huge. Then the bat was on them again.
Flint did the only thing possible. He dived again. But that was a mistake. The bat had learned that trick. It also dived. At the same instant.
Flint threw his weight on the control lever.
The bony claw on one wing caught the plane a glancing blow midway its length, sent it spinning end over end. And, when Flint’s darting hands leveled it off again, it cut around in a wild circle, out of control. The bulge on the port wall of the cabin said the port fuel pump was smashed.
And the bat circled to come at them again.
Flint’s passengers realized their peril. The two men jumped up, panic on their faces. But as Flint throttled the port jet frantically, futilely, Karen Vaun was on her feet behind him crying in a voice that was shaky but nonetheless sensible, “Where’s the hand pump?” Miss Vaun was scared stiff but wasn’t one to give up in a corner.
The bat came in from the side. Flint threw in his reverse rockets. The plane stopped as if it had rammed a planetoid, hurling the three behind him to the floor. The bat zoomed past them.
“The pump’s under the floor!” Flint yelled over his shoulder. “Pull up that trap door.” He gave the plane every ounce of juice its starboard jets would take, trying to gain what lead he could before the bat came back. In the mirror he saw the woman on her knees, pulling at the trap door, then jerking the manual pump lever.
And it worked! The port tube sputtered, then streamed smooth, a weak jet but enough to give a push from the left. And on the left, seconds away, Flint saw a medium-sized planetoid. The chase had taken them almost to the Ring.
The bat came down on his tail like another plane attacking. Flint dove straight at the planetoid. Behind him, Karen Vaun worked the pump madly, Hudson and Leggett stood by helplessly, staring up at the hairy face that grew larger every second above them.
Flint held his power dive till the last possible second. The planetoid changed from a globe to a flat surface. Trees separated from the green mass of jungle. Each leaf sprang up separate and distinct. Close behind the plane, the bat’s mouth gaped open. Flint jammed his rise rockets in.
The trees came up with a sickening wobble, slanted back and down, then away. The plane brushed the branches as it zoomed skyward. Behind the plane, the bat twisted against its tremendous momentum, cut a wide swath through the tree tops. When it flapped up laboriously, circling, searching for them again, the plane was well beyond sight of its weak eyes.
Watching through the glass, Flint saw it circle higher, finally sail away toward the Ring. And as his fingers relaxed on the controls, he found himself laughing.
He headed the plane back toward the spot where the bat had interrupted their course. “Somebody keep pumping that jet,” he said. “I was supposed to meet a fellow in another ship on the way out. He’ll take you back to Saturn. I’m going after that bat.”
Karen Vaun prevailed on her men to take over the pump. She came and stood behind Flint, holding tightly to the back of his chair. Her lips opened but it was a moment before any words came out. Finally, “You’re going after that thing!”
“Lady,” Flint said, “if you knew how long I’ve been hunting one of those critters, you’d know how quick I want to get rid of you and get on its tail.” He looked back at her, grinned. He had too much to do to be angry now. Get back, get his big guns in the plane, then find that bat. You couldn’t miss something that size. Shoot him up a little. Not much—wing him. That circus wanted him alive. One million bucks!
The kidnapping, of course, was all off now. He felt almost friendly toward the woman. “You were a mighty big help on that pump, Miss Vaun,” he said. “You’re braver than I thought.” It was the first kind word—or thought—he’d managed about her since they’d met.
“Space bat. It’s a kind of giant bat. Nobody knows where they come from—somewhere out in space. One comes in every year or so. It feeds on what wild life it can find, then sails back out into the darkness. They kill off almost as many animals as your fur hunters—” And this last, he regretted as soon as he’d said it. The woman’s eyes misted, strangely enough; her lower lip trembled. And Flint frowned, suddenly amazed, as he looked at her.
Karen Vaun looked like an entirely different person. The office pallor was gone from her face; it was rouged with excitement. Her prim knot of hair had lost its pins and tumbled to her shoulders. Her whole body as she stood there, still breathing heavily, had taken on a slim vibrance that belied the memory of her former rigid dignity.
The real miracle was her eyes—her glasses lay broken on the floor. Her eyes were soft blue, bright as a spring morning now.
Flint shook his head in astonishment. “When you get back,” he said, “take a look in a mirror and think things over. You’ve been wasting your time behind a desk.” He turned back to the controls, and as he turned Greeno’s plane appeared ahead and pulled up alongside.
“Well, here’s where you get a new pilot.” He’d take Greeno’s plane. Greeno could limp back in this one and rent another one to follow him up. Flint was so sure of his bat money he wasn’t worrying about the cost of anything any more.
He idled while Greeno’s ship, skillfully, without a bump, hooked into the little clamps on the hull outside. A bell clanged—signal to unlock the port—and he got up, reached for the wheel on the safety door.
But Karen—it was odd that he didn’t seem to think of her as Miss Vaun any more—reached out and stopped his hand on the wheel. “Mr. Flint,” she said softly, “take me with you—to hunt the bat.”
Flint stared at her, not believing her words. Hudson took her arm. “Now, Karen. You’ve had a very trying experience. You should—”
She jerked away from him. “Please let me go, Mr. Flint. This means more to me than you know. I haven’t forgotten what you said about my not being a real woman. You’re right. I’ve been nothing but a walking adding machine and I—”
“Look,” Flint tried to put a stop to it, “if you’d let yourself go you’d be a pretty decent human being, mighty pretty without your glasses.” He spun the wheel out of her grasp. “But I’ve got work to do now.”
“Please!” she cried. “If—” But she never finished that; she stepped back from the door quickly as the man in the space suit came in from the other ship—Greeno, taking no chances on future identification. Wrinkled like a prune, the uninflated suit covered his body completely; only his eyes were visible through their glass slit.
“It’s all off, Greeno,” Flint said. “We ran across a bat on the way out! It’s headed toward the Ring. Take these people back to Saturn and—” But the man in the space suit had whipped out his hand, caught Karen Vaun by the wrist.
It was only then that Flint remembered Greeno couldn’t hear him, not only couldn’t hear him because he was deaf but couldn’t read his thoughts because he was surrounded by the metal hull of the ship. He stepped over and grabbed him by the shoulder, pointed to the girl, shook his head violently. “Cut it out! Skip it! It’s all off!” he mouthed, hoping Greeno might read his lips.
“Who is it?” Hudson and Leggett looked on nervously. “What’s he trying to do?”
Flint started to explain, but then how could he explain that he’d planned to kidnap Karen Vaun and changed his mind. He continued his sign language at Greeno.
Karen struggled, trying to free herself. “I don’t understand! Stop him!”
Finally, Flint threw an arm around Greeno’s neck. There was nothing else to do. Hudson grabbed Greeno’s arm, tried to pry loose his grasp on the girl.
The wiry Venusian twisted out of Flint’s arm before he could get a head-lock grip. Coming up with his other hand, he threw an uppercut at Hudson. The lawyer saw it coming, jerked his head back like a turtle. But Flint didn’t see it coming.
The full force of Greeno’s swing caught him exactly on the point of his chin.
The room spun wildly. Then it dissolved into blackness.
When Flint came to, he was lying on the floor. Hudson stood over him. He had acquired Flint’s ice pistol, seemed prepared to use it at any moment.
As Flint sat up and looked around, Leggett said, “Just a moment and I’ll let you in,” and got up from the controls where he’d been talking into the radio. He went over to the door, twirled the wheel and Flint realized what he’d thought was his own head ringing was the safety bell. Through the glass he saw a slim light cruiser lying alongside where Greeno’s ship had been. On its gleaming hull were the letters SP—the Stellar Patrol.
What were they doing here? Flint grabbed one of the seats, pulled himself up.
“Stay where you are!” Hudson waggled the ice gun threateningly. Then the door opened and three red-uniformed patrolmen crowded into the cabin, jet pistols leveled, eyes searching the room quickly.
“This him?” One of the patrolmen, blue-chinned and beefy, sized Flint up.
“I took his gun,” Hudson said. He handed the ice pistol to the nearest patrolman as if he was glad to get rid of its responsibility. The group stood around Flint as if he were an animal they’d caught.
“The boys are on the way out to the Ring,” the big patrolman said. “There’s several billion planetoids out there, though—like looking for a needle in a haystack, isn’t it, Flint?”
Flint was getting his thinking up to date now. He must have been out half an hour or so. Hudson and Leggett must have radioed the Patrol, told them the story. Of course they suspected him, the way he’d talked to Greeno. And now he was accused of something he’d tried his best to stop. Poetic justice had caught him red-handed.
“You were the bright boy who dreamed up the whole thing, weren’t you, Flint?” the patrolman continued. “Headquarters works fast. We got a report on you on the way out here. We know you had reasons for wanting to get rid of Miss Vaun. We know all about your little talk with the Governor this evening; his secretary heard the whole thing.”
“I’m sure he knew the man in the space suit,” Leggett said. “He told us he was going to meet a man here and when he came in he called him ‘Greeno.'”
And by now, Flint thought, Greeno had taken the girl back to his planetoid, following the plan exactly without the faintest idea it had misfired. If Greeno could only pick up thoughts at this distance! Flint cursed silently. Well, there were two things to be done and done fast. Get word to Greeno, somehow; tell him to get the girl back to Saturn. And get after that bat. He couldn’t let this mess throw a hitch into something he’d been trying to do all these years.
The easiest way to straighten Greeno out was by radio; good thing he’d taken that set out to him. “Now, listen,” he said, “I haven’t got time to go into a lot of explanations. A space bat’s showed up in the Ring; it’s worth a lot of money to me. Let me get to the radio and I’ll have Miss Vaun safely back on Saturn in an hour. It’s all a mistake. When I get through bat hunting I’ll clear up the whole business.”
The big patrolman laughed. “He’ll be glad to help us out when he gets time; that’s a good one.” Then he stopped laughing, took a step toward Flint. “You’re going to tell us where this Greeno took the girl. Right now.”
Flint saw a free-for-all shaping up. There seemed to be no other way out. He got ready for trouble, but he didn’t think it was coming so quick.
Apparently the big patrolman was used to getting his information the hard way. His hand shot out in a short arc and swatted Flint across the mouth. “Talk!”
Flint staggered back, got his balance, and let go at the beefy face under the red cap. One of the other patrolmen caught his arm. The third one brought the barrel of his ray gun down on his head. Flint sat down on the jump seat.
“Where’s Greeno’s hideout?” the big one said. “You know every planetoid in the Ring. Where’d Greeno take her?”
Flint felt the bump on his head. “You and I got a lot of other things to discuss now, Fatty.”
The beefy one stepped away from the door. “Okay. Go cut our rockets off, Mike,” he said to one of his men who stood there, twirling Flint’s ice gun on his forefinger. “This guy wants to play with us. We’ll have to give him the air treatment.”
As the one with the ice gun opened the door and went into the police plane, the other stuck his pistol in Flint’s side. “Get up.” And Flint knew he was really in for it now. He’d heard of this. Third degree? This was the fourth degree!
A ship had two doors, the inside one and one opening outside the hull. Between the two was a narrow air space. It was used as an air lock in which one could return to normal pressure before entering the ship from some thin-aired world. If you put a man in there and turned the pressure wide open—
“This makes even a Venusian talk,” the big patrolman told Hudson and Leggett. “When the pressure gets up around two hundred and their ear drums start cracking, they get mighty conversational.”
When the patrolman who had gone into the police plane returned, he held the door open and the pistol in Flint’s side pushed him toward it.
But at the door, the radio stopped them. The lawyer had left the speaker on.
“Calling Saturn Relay Station. Relay to Earth, to K. V. Vaun Fur Fashions, Inc., New York City. Message as follows: Miss Vaun has been kidnapped. She is held for one million dollars ransom. Forward to Saturn by tonight’s Space Express one million dollars in raw platinum. Saturn Express Agency will be informed later how to deliver it. End of message.”
The big patrolman turned to Flint standing beside the door. “Pretty smart, except that it didn’t work.” Then to the fellow holding the pistol at Flint’s back: “Throw him in and squirt the air. I’ll call Saturn and tell ’em to forget that relay message.”
But once again the radio stopped them.
“Look! At the door!” The voice was sharp and high. It was Karen Vaun’s.
“Keep still! Don’t let it hear us!” Greeno again.
“What in hell—” the patrolman breathed.
“It’s reaching in!” Karen’s voice, a terrified whisper. “Look out for its claws!”
Two explosions rang out—Greeno’s old bullet gun; he didn’t have an ice pistol. Greeno yelled “Get back!” There was fright in even his mechanical voice as a dull crash merged with his words.
Then there was instant silence. Something had smashed Greeno’s radio set.
“It’s the bat!” Flint said. “It’s got them cornered! We’ve got to get out there!” Somehow, now, the thought of that thing reaching into the door, clawing at Karen Vaun, pressed back against the wall, made him forget all about his plans for capturing the bat, forget he was under arrest for kidnapping. “Let’s go—I’ll take you to them!”
“It’s another of his tricks,” one of the patrolmen said. “Trying to lead us into a trap of some kind.”
“Listen, you stupid fools,” Flint almost yelled, “don’t you understand? That bat’s out there. They haven’t a rabbit’s chance. We haven’t got time to talk about it.”
The big fellow winked at the others. “If it’s a space bat,” he said, “we’ll need help. I’ll call for some of the boys to go with us, with some bigger guns—for the bat or for any little ambush you might have planned.”
And Flint saw he was only wasting time. He leaped forward and caught the man full in the face with his fist. The blow sprawled the patrolman backward against the controls. Before he could get up, Flint was on him again, struggling for his gun. If he could get out of here, get that police plane—
He got his hand on the gun. Twisted. But it had taken too long.
He felt the hard jab of one of the patrolmen’s pistols against his back. “Get off him!”
Flint stepped back slowly, hands hanging limp, ready for the slightest opening. But it didn’t come.
The big man got off the controls, holding his hand over a nose that was probably broken. “Put him in that air lock,” he ordered. “Give him enough pressure to cave his ribs in!”
The inside door was open. Flint was shoved into the lock. The door clanged shut behind him.
Around the wall in the narrow air chamber was a line of tiny holes. From these came a shrill hissing like a nest of snakes. The pointer of the pressure gauge on the wall trembled, then slowly moved across the dial.
The chamber was six feet high, three feet wide. The air holes were near the ceiling beside Flint’s ears. But he didn’t stand there listening to the rising pressure. A moment ago, one of the patrolmen had passed through here. Immediately, he tried the other door, the one leading outside where the police ship was hooked on, but it was locked now.
The doors of a space-ship’s safety chamber worked together. When one was locked, the other locked automatically. But when one door was unlocked, the other was also unlocked. He leaned against the outside door, his mind racing. If he could stay conscious against the air pressure—if he could slip through this outside door when they opened the inner one—he’d be in the police plane—
The pressure gauge was calibrated in pounds. With each mark the pointer climbed, he shuddered. He jammed his fingers into his ears, closed his eyes, swallowed constantly. His face turned white under rivulets of sweat.
His shirt was quickly soaked through, his big arms wet and glistening. Swiftly he felt his strength leaving him. The pointer on the gauge quivered at the hundred mark, slowly climbed higher.
Flint found his knees sagging. His heart pounded with the exertion of standing up. His body had turned to lead. And in his mind was the terrible fear that he’d black out completely, be lying there on the floor when the other door unlocked and gave him his only chance.
But he couldn’t black out! He had to keep on his feet! He was Karen’s and Greeno’s only chance.
The pointer stood at a hundred and fifty. His ribs felt as if steel bands were being tightened around his chest. He couldn’t breathe. He knew he couldn’t stand much more.
He turned his head toward the inside door and with all the lung power he could find yelled, “Let me out! I’ll talk!”
They heard him. The whistling in his ears ceased for one second, then returned, but now it was the sucking sound of air going out. He got hold of the outer door handle, leaned his weight back against it. His glazed eyes were on the pressure dial. He knew the men in the ship were watching its counterpart.
The pointer came back around slowly and each jump brought blessed relief as the pressure slackened. It was like a tremendous weight being lifted from every square inch of his body.
When the pointer hit zero, he heard the lock click in the door behind him and the door against which he was pulling swung suddenly open. He almost fell backward, then managed to struggle forward through the door.
“Stop him! He’s trying to get into our ship!”
He heard feet clattering through the chamber after him. He slammed the door against a beefy blurred face. Stumbling through the double doors of the police plane’s air chamber, he managed to close and lock them against his pursuers. Then he staggered over to the control panel.
He cut the switch, pressed the starter. The jets roared behind him as he shot away from his own plane.
The jets had left a vapor trail miles long before he could look back. He saw the flare of his own ship as it started in pursuit but he knew they’d never overtake him with the busted fuel pump and he wasn’t worrying now about their following his trail later with a blast analyzer. He wasn’t worrying about anything that would happen later. All he was thinking about now was Greeno and the girl.
His own ship was no longer in sight when he swept into the outskirts of the Ring. He remembered to step up the air pressure to avoid the bends. Then, a little grimly, he smiled. There on the control panel was his ice pistol where the patrolman had left it. He stuck it in his empty holster. His luck was turning.
Whipping in and out of the rough-hewn worlds, the police clock had ticked off only ten minutes when in the distance ahead he could see the sagging cable between the two little globes that were Greeno’s domain. He remembered Greeno’s words that very day, “You, my friend of many seasons.” He remembered the way Karen Vaun looked with her hair trailing on her shoulders, her blue eyes….
If only it wasn’t too late.
He flashed over the twin planetoids, circled around their far side. It was easy to tell the bat had been there. For miles around, the jungle was criss-crossed with splintered tree tops where its wing tips had brushed them like a hurricane. Then, coming round to the spot where Greeno’s shack was, Flint saw the real scene of violence. What had been a small clearing in the brush, not even large enough to land on, was an area big as a football field. And in the center of it lay the bat.
The thing lay there like a blotch of spilled ink, grotesque and horrible. It was using horny claws on the tips of its wings to slam Greeno’s space-ship house back and forth like a nut. Greeno and Karen must be inside.
Flint streaked down, thumbs trembling on the triggers of the police plane’s guns. He held his screaming dive till he was within yards of the thing. Then into its back he poured his stream of liquid fire. Kicking the controls, he zoomed away, head craned back to watch the result.
The bat came up like a volcano erupting. There was a wide furrow burned along its black hairy back. Trees bent hundreds of yards away under the beat of its wings. Rising high in the greenish twilight, it sailed over the planetoid, searching for its attacker.
Flint circled higher still. Far below he saw two small figures crawl out of the house, stare upward. Karen and Greeno were safe, so far.
Banking over, looking down at them, Flint’s eyes left the bat for a second. In that second the bat’s eyes found him. It was upon him with the speed of a glance. It came on, unmindful of the jet blast in its face, its hair singeing like a grass fire. And though Flint threw the ship into every contortion he knew—full throttle five, bullet roll, reverse jet dodge, everything—the bat stayed on his tail, following his every maneuver as if it knew what he was going to do in advance.
Its wings worked in a dark blur, trying to gain the few yards to close its pile-driver jaws upon the plane. Slowly, inexorably, the space between the beast and the plane narrowed. Then Flint played his final card, the same trick he’d used with the bat before.
He dived for the planetoid, straight down, holding it till his nerves screamed with the wind, the bat right behind him. Then, almost in the tree tops, he pulled out. He stared back over his shoulder. If the bat plunged on into the jungle, if it floundered there for one minute, the plane’s guns might be able to burn a wing off. He watched the bat twisting out of its dive, tree tops splaying.
Then it happened.
A wisp in the view-plate, a hair-line growing, rushing at the nose of the plane. Before Flint turned in time to see it, the cable that stretched between the twin planetoids had been struck by the plane’s nose, had screeched along its side in a shower of sparks. Then it caught. A solid jolt.
The little hooks along the hull, the device for boarding another ship, had caught the cable, jerked it free from one of the planetoids and torn out by the roots the tree to which the other end was anchored.
When Flint again got the plane under control, it mushed along, weighed down by a ton of steel cable that had a full-grown tree dangling on its far end.
Flint’s first thought was of the bat. He glanced around frantically. But the cable had stopped the plane so abruptly and the bat had swept back up so fast, it was now well beyond the range of its weak eyes. And as Flint watched, it apparently forgot the plane, glided across the jungle like a great shadow, headed back toward Greeno and the girl.
Pressing his eye to the filterscope, Flint brought them up close, standing in the wreckage of the trees, scanning the sky. They didn’t know the bat was on the way back, coming in low now behind them.
“Run!” Flint yelled the word as if they could hear him across the five miles between them. Standing there beside Greeno, Karen Vaun’s hair glistened in the twilight, her eyes looking right at him, almost as if she could see him. Flint beat his fists on the control panel helplessly.
Then they heard the rush of the bat’s wings behind them. They whirled, stood there frozen before the gigantic creature hurtling at them. Then, too late to run back for the house, they fled toward the woods. And the woods was just where the bat wanted them.
Flint knew he had to get there now. He had to do something quick. The bat started systematically flattening the trees, searching for them in the terrifying way it always hunted its prey. Four times the size of an elephant, the winged monster splintered like matchsticks hundred-foot high mahogany and ironwood trees.
Flint’s hands jerked the plane’s controls as if he could hurl it bodily forward, dragging the weight of cable and tree behind him. But the ship was now a winged snail. And when he did get there, he knew there wasn’t a chance of getting the bat in his sights. He couldn’t outmaneuver it any more. And there was no time now to land and do what he could afoot with a pistol.
Then, with his hand on the ice pistol’s butt, his eyes on the raging bat slowly nearing below, an idea flared in his head that brought him to his feet like an electric shock.
Quickly, he headed the plane down toward the bat, set automatic pilot. Then, fingers flying, he ripped a wire from the control panel, looped one end through his pistol’s trigger guard, the other end through his belt. Then he ran to the door.
Standing in the air lock, he forced the outside door against the wind. He looked down at the cable, caught firmly on the hook, dangling under the plane. He reached out, got his hand on the cable and swung out over the jungle far below. The door clanged shut behind him.
He started down the cable hand over hand. Guided by the automatic pilot, the ship moved slowly ahead. He got down the cable and into the dangling tree.
It was like climbing a tree in a cyclone as he fought his way through the branches to a limb he could lock his legs around. Then, with a scissors hold on the limb, he sat upright and drew the ice pistol from its holster.
Down below, the bat had smashed a wide area of trees and was hunting Greeno and Karen like mice in the tall grass. When it heard the plane, it twisted up, circled suspiciously. The tree and the cable confused it for a moment. But only for a moment. Then its tiny brain sent it toward its persistent enemy, the plane.
It came by so close and its hairy mass was so immense, Flint caught his breath. There was nothing to aim at with a pistol. It was too big. He just pointed the gun at the expanse of hair and pulled the trigger as fast as he could work his finger.
Instantly, one great wing of the creature went rigid. It was the wing nearest Flint and the bat slid that way. The black mass of hair, each hair a full yard long, swept upon him. The branches of the tree caved in. The cable was snatched from the plane. Flint clawed at the monster’s side blindly. He caught a handful of hair. The bat flailed the air wildly with its other wing, a hundred tons of solid flesh falling—
Then the whole world exploded around Flint. Tree trunks cracking, green vegetation whirling past him, then a stunning thud as the bat struck the ground, shaking the whole forest.
Like a man fleeing some horror in a nightmare, Flint tore his way through the stalks of hair, leaped to the ground and ran into the jungle.
When he finally stopped running, safely away from the bat’s hammering wings and claws, he saw he was now permanently safe. It had beaten its good wing to shreds in the trees. When the effect of the ice gun wore off, it wouldn’t be able to fly.
Slowly, Flint grinned. He glanced down, saw his ice pistol dangling the length of its wire against his knee. Almost tenderly, he picked it up, untied the wire, and stuck the gun into its holster.
Greeno and Karen ran toward him through the woods. Their faces were scratched, their clothes in tatters. Karen’s feet were bare; she had lost her shoes, removed her stockings. Her hair was tangled, a raven mop on her half-bare shoulders.
She seemed on the verge of collapse but her cheeks and eyes, despite the weariness of her grim experience, glowed. Today’s excitement had completely displaced her cultivated pose of boredom by the fresh beauty of a jungle flower.
And it had done something to Flint too. He ran to meet them, caught the girl as she fell toward him. “Are you all right?”
She was too breathless to speak. “We all right,” Greeno said. “But almost weren’t.” He held out his arm. From shoulder to wrist was a wide deep scratch, a claw mark.
Then the sudden sound of rockets turned all their faces skyward. High over the trees, circling lower, came three patrol planes and Flint’s ship.
Flint’s fingers tightened on the girl’s arm. “Greeno,” he said, “we have to get out of here, hide in the woods.” He said it sadly, tired of the game now. He had forgotten it wasn’t over. He looked down into the girl’s face. “Miss Vaun,” he said quickly, “this was all my fault. I won’t ask you to forgive me but I want you to know I’m sorry, not for trying to do what I could to protect the feather-deer, but because this business came so close to ending in a tragedy much worse than your slaughtering them all.”
He dropped his hands, turned to the jungle. Greeno was standing at the edge of the woods, waiting for him. He started walking slowly.
Then suddenly he turned, came back to the girl quickly. “Might as well be shot for a sheep as a lamb,” he said. He put a hand under her chin, kissed her soundly on the lips, then ran toward the woods.
When he was halfway there, he heard her cry, “Mr. Flint! Wait!” It occurred to him that she probably didn’t even know his first name. He didn’t look back. And Miss Karen Vaun did a very strange thing.
She had one hand behind her as Flint ran away. Now she brought it forth and in it was Flint’s own ice pistol. She raised it, took careful aim and pulled the trigger.
Flint’s legs stopped in midstride, knees bent one before the other, like a stop-motion movie. He sprawled forward.
Before he could get up, the girl was beside him. She sat down on his back, pinning him to the ground. “Next time you kiss a girl without knowing whether she wants to be kissed or not,” she said, “hang onto your gun.”
Then the police, with Hudson and Leggett, were crowded around them.
“Are you all right, Miss Vaun?”
Flint lay there feeling very foolish.
But the girl ignored the crowd, still talking to him, “You didn’t know I was an ice pistol expert, too, did you? You didn’t know I was in the fur business because my father used to be a trapper on Venus. When I was twelve years old, I could bring down a tigodon at a half a mile.”
The beefy-faced patrolman, his nose bandaged now, said, “If you’ll get up, Miss Vaun, we’ll take care of him now.”
The others were staring at the space bat, flopping about feebly a short distance away, its awful strength spent.
“Leggett,” the fur merchant said to the lawyer, “think what a rug that would make for the firm’s front office!”
“Miss Vaun can also come into a nice bit of cash from that circus for it,” one of the other patrolmen said. “This is her land—or soon will be—and the bat’s on it. Where Flint’s going, he won’t be able to claim anything.”
The big patrolman helped Karen up. Flint stumbled to his feet. The patrolman grabbed him by the collar, roughly. “Come along, kidnapper,” he said.
Karen Vaun stared at the patrolman blankly. “Kidnapper?”
The patrolman frowned. “Certainly, Miss Vaun. Don’t you know this guy engineered the whole business—having you taken off his plane? He and that Venusian were going to hold you for ransom.”
Karen shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “Greeno was merely bringing me out to look at these planetoids while Mr. Flint went to get his big guns for the bat. Kidnapper? Preposterous! Mr. Flint and I are buying these planetoids together.”
“What!” Leggett and Hudson said the word simultaneously. And they seemed the only ones in the crowd who could speak. “Together!” Leggett said weakly. “Why this area is a million dollar investment!”
“Two million,” Karen said. She took Flint’s hand, he standing there as dumbfounded as the rest. “Mr. Flint’s going to contribute a million of his own from the sale of the bat. We’re going to raise feather-deer here. It would be bad business to kill them all off.” She paused, surveying the crowd as if daring anybody to disagree with her. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’ll get back to Saturn. We have business to discuss.” Then she glanced toward the jungle. “Greeno!” she called. “Aren’t you coming with us? If you’re going to be foreman around our feather-deer ranch, you’ve got to be in on the conferences.”
Greeno stepped out of the shadows, a faint smile softening his stony face. “Attend later conferences,” he said. “From what is in your thoughts, don’t think I should attend this one.”
Karen Vaun blushed, then led Flint quickly away toward his plane.#ENGLISH