It was Kincaide. He was peering over what had been the top of the doorway, and he was probably the most disreputable-looking officer who had ever worn the blue-and-silver uniform of the Service. His nose was bloody and swollen to twice its normal size. Both eyes were blackened, and his hair, matted with blood, was plastered in ragged swirls across his forehead.
"Yes, Mr. Kincaide; plenty of them. Round up enough of the men to locate the trouble with the gravity pads; there's a reversed connection somewhere. But don't let them make the repairs until the signal is given. Otherwise, we'll all fall on our heads again. Mr. Correy and I will take care of the injured."
The next half hour was a trying one. Two men had been killed outright, and another died before we could do anything to save him. Every man in the crew was shaken up and bruised, but by the time the check was completed, we had a good half of our personnel on duty.
Returning at last to the navigating room, I pressed the attention signal for Kincaide, and got his answer immediately.
"Located the trouble yet, Mr. Kincaide?" I asked anxiously.
"Yes, sir! Mr. Hendricks has been working with a group of men and has just made his report. They are ready when you are."
"Good!" I drew a sigh of relief. It had been easier than I thought. Pressing the general attention signal, I broadcasted the warning, giving particular instructions to the men in charge of the injured. Then I issued orders to Hendricks: "Reverse the current in five seconds, Mr. Hendricks, and stand by for further instructions."
Hastily, then, Correy and I followed the orders we had given the men. Briefly we stood on our heads against the wall, feeling very foolish, and dreading the fall we knew was coming.
It came. We slid down the wall and lit heavily on our feet, while the litter that had been on the ceiling with us fell all around us. Miraculously, the ship seemed to have righted herself. Correy and I picked ourselves up and looked around.
"We're still operating smoothly," I commented with a sweeping glance at the instruments over the operating table. "Everything seems in order."
"Did you notice the speed indicator, sir?" asked Correy grimly. "When he fell, one of the men in the operating room must have pulled the speed lever all the way over. We're at maximum space speed, sir, and have been for nearly an hour, with no one at the controls."
We stared at each other dully. Nearly an hour, at maximum space speed--a speed seldom used except in case of great emergency. With no one at the controls, and the ship set at maximum deflection from her course.
That meant that for nearly an hour we had been sweeping into infinite space in a great arc, at a speed I disliked to think about.
"I'll work out our position at once," I said, "and in the meantime, reduce speed to normal as quickly as possible. We must get back on our course at the earliest possible moment."
We hurried across to the charts that were our most important aides in proper navigation. By comparing the groups of stars there with our space charts of the universe, the working out of our position was ordinarily, a simple matter.
But now, instead of milky rectangles, ruled with fine black lines, with a fiery red speck in the center and the bodies of the universe grouped around in green points of light, there were only nearly blank rectangles, shot through with vague, flickering lights that revealed nothing except the presence of disaster.
"The meteoric fragment wiped out some of our plates, I imagine," said Correy slowly. "The thing's useless."
I nodded, staring down at the crawling lights on the charts.
"We'll have to set down for repairs, Mr. Correy. If," I added, "we can find a place."
Correy glanced up at the attraction meter.
"I'll take a look in the big disc," he suggested. "There's a sizeable body off to port. Perhaps our luck's changed."
He bent his head under the big hood, adjusting the controls until he located the source of the registered attraction.
"Right!" he said, after a moment's careful scrutiny. "She's as big as Earth, I'd venture, and I believe I can detect clouds, so there should be atmosphere. Shall we try it, sir?"
"Yes. We're helpless until we make repairs. As big as Earth, you said? Is she familiar?"
Correy studied the image under the hood again, long and carefully.
"No, sir," he said, looking up and shaking his head. "She's a new one on me."
Conning the ship first by means of the television disc, and navigating visually as we neared the strange sphere, we were soon close enough to make out the physical characteristics of this unknown world.
Our spectroscopic tests had revealed the presence of atmosphere suitable for breathing, although strongly laden with mineral fumes which, while possibly objectionable, would probably not be dangerous.
So far as we could see, there was but one continent, somewhat north of the equator, roughly triangular in shape, with its northernmost point reaching nearly to the Pole.
"It's an unexplored world, sir. I'm certain of that," said Correy. "I am sure I would have remembered that single, triangular continent had I seen it on any of our charts." In those days, of course, the Universe was by no means so well mapped as it is today.
"If not unknown, it is at least uncharted," I replied. "Rough looking country, isn't it? No sign of life, either, that the disc will reveal."
"That's as well, sir. Better no people than wild natives who might interfere with our work. Any choice in the matter of a spot on which to set her down?"
I inspected the great, triangular continent carefully. Towards the north it was a mass of snow covered mountains, some of them, from their craters, dead volcanoes. Long spurs of these ranges reached southward, with green and apparently fertile valleys between. The southern edge was covered with dense tropical vegetation; a veritable jungle.
"At the base of that central spur there seems to be a sort of plateau," I suggested. "I believe that would be a likely spot."
"Very well, sir," replied Correy, and the old Ertak, reduced to atmospheric speed, swiftly swept toward the indicated position, while Correy kept a wary eye on the surface temperature gauge, and I swept the terrain for any sign of intelligent life.
I found a number of trails, particularly around the base of the foothills, but they were evidently game trails, for there were no dwelling places of any kind; no cities, no villages, not even a single habitation of any kind that the searching eyes of the disc could detect.
Correy set her down as neatly and as softly as a rose petal drifts to the ground. Roses, I may add, are a beautiful and delicate flower, with very soft petals, peculiar to my native Earth.
We opened the main exit immediately. I watched the huge, circular door back slowly out of its threads, and finally swing aside, swiftly and silently, in the grip of its mighty gimbals, with the weird, unearthly feeling I have always had when about to step foot on some strange star where no man has trod before.
The air was sweet, and delightfully fresh after being cooped up for weeks in the Ertak, with her machine-made air. A little thinner, I should judge, than the air to which we were accustomed, but strangely exhilarating, and laden with a faint scent of some unknown constituent--undoubtedly the mineral element our spectroscope had revealed but not identified. Gravity, I found upon passing through the exit, was normal. Altogether an extremely satisfactory repair station.
Correy's guess as to what had happened proved absolutely accurate. Along the top of the Ertak, from amidships to within a few feet of her pointed stem, was a jagged groove that had destroyed hundreds of the bright, coppery discs, set into the outer skin of the ship, that operated our super-radio reflex charts. The groove was so deep, in places, that it must have bent the outer skin of the Ertak down against the inner skin. A foot or more--it was best not to think of what would have happened then.
By the time we completed our inspection dusk was upon us--a long, lingering dusk, due, no doubt, to the afterglow resulting from the mineral content of the air. I'm no white-skinned, stoop-shouldered laboratory man, so I'm not sure that was the real reason. It sounds logical, however.
"Mr. Correy, I think we shall break out our field equipment and give all men not on watch an opportunity to sleep out in the fresh air," I said. "Will you give the orders, please?"
"Yes, sir. Mr. Hendricks will stand the eight to twelve watch as usual?"
"Mr. Kincaide will relieve him at midnight, and you will take over at four."
"Very well, sir." Correy turned to give the orders, and in a few minutes an orderly array of shelter tents made a single street in front of the fat, dully-gleaming side of the Ertak. Our tents were at the head of this short company street, three of them in a little row.
After the evening meal, cooked over open fires, with the smoke of the very resinous wood we had collected hanging comfortably in the still air, the men gave themselves up to boisterous, noisy games, which, I confess, I should have liked very much to participate in. They raced and tumbled around the two big fires like schoolboys on a lark. Only those who have spent most of their days in the metal belly of a space ship know the sheer joy of utter physical freedom.
Correy, Kincaide and I sat before our tents and watched them, chatting about this and that--I have long since forgotten what. But I shall never forget what occurred just before the watch changed that night. Nor will any man of the Ertak's crew.
It was just a few minutes before midnight. The men had quieted down and were preparing to turn in. I had given orders that this first night they could suit themselves about retiring; a good officer, and I tried to be one, is never afraid to give good men a little rein, now and then.
The fires had died down to great heaps of red coals, filmed with ashes, and, aside from the brilliant galaxy of stars overhead, there was no light from above. Either this world had no moons, not even a single moon, like my native Earth, or it had not yet arisen.
Kincaide rose lazily, stretched himself, and glanced at his watch.
"Seven till twelve, sir," he said. "I believe I'll run along and relieve--"
He never finished that sentence. From somewhere there came a rushing sound, and a damp, stringy net, a living, horrible, something, descended upon us out of the night.
In an instant, what had been an orderly encampment became a bedlam. I tried to fight against the stringy, animated, nearly intangible mass, or masses, that held me, but my arms, my legs, my whole body, was bound as with strings and loops of elastic bands.
Strange whispering sounds filled the air, audible above the shouting of the men. The net about me grew tighter; I felt myself being lifted from the ground. Others were being treated the same way; one of the Ertak's crew shot straight up, not a dozen feet away, writhing and squirming. Then, at an elevation of perhaps twice my height, he was hurried away.
Hendrick's voice called out my name from the Ertak's exit, and I shouted a warning: "Hendrick! Go back! Close the emergency--" Then a gluey mass cut across my mouth, and, as though carried on huge soft springs, I was hurried away, with the sibilant, whispering sounds louder and closer than ever. With me, as nearly as I could judge, went every man who had not been on duty in the ship.
I ceased struggling, and immediately the rubbery network about me loosened. It seemed to me that the whisperings about me were suddenly approving. We were in the grip, then, of some sort of intelligent beings, ghost-like and invisible though they were.
After a time, during which we were all, in a ragged group, being borne swiftly towards the mountains, all at a common level from the ground, I managed to turn my head so that I could see, against the star-lit sky, something of the nature of the things that had made us captive.
As is not infrequently the case, in trying to describe things of an utterly different world, I find myself at a loss for words. I think of jellyfish, such as inhabit the seas of most of the inhabited planets, and yet this is not a good description.
These creatures were pale, and almost completely transparent. What their forms might be, I could not even guess. I could make out writhing, tentacle-like arms, and wrinkled, flabby excrudescences and that was all. That these creatures were huge, was evident from the fact that they, apparently walking, from the irregular, undulating motion, held us easily ten or a dozen feet from the ground.
With the release of the pressure about my body I was able to talk again, and I called out to Correy, who was fighting his way along, muttering, angrily, just ahead of me.
"Correy! No use fighting them. Save your strength, man!"
"Then? What are they, in God's name? What spawn of hell--"
"The Commander is right, Correy," interrupted Kincaide, who was not far from my first officer. "Let's get our breaths and try to figure out what's happened. I'm winded!" His voice gave plentiful evidence of the struggle he had put up.
"I want to know where I'm going, and why!" growled Correy, ceasing his struggling, nevertheless. "What have us? Are they fish or flesh or fowl?"
"I think we shall know before very long, Correy," I replied. "Look ahead!"
The bearers of the men in the fore part of the group had apparently stopped before a shadowy wall, like the face of a cliff. Rapidly, the rest of us were brought up, until we were in a compact group, some in sitting positions, some upside down, the majority reclining on back or side. The whispering sound now was intense and excited, as though our strange bearers awaited some momentous happening.
I took advantage of the opportunity to speak very briefly to my companions.
"Men, I'll admit frankly that I don't know what we're up against," I said. "But I do know this: we'll come out on top of the heap. Conserve your strength, keep your eyes open, and be prepared to obey, instantly, any orders that may be issued: I know that last remark is not needed. If any of you should see or learn something of interest or value, report at once to Mr. Correy, Mr. Kincaide or my--"
A simultaneous, involuntary exclamation from the men interrupted me, and it was not surprising that this was so, for the wall before us had suddenly opened, and there was a great burst of yellow light in our faces. A strong odor, like the faint scent we had first noticed in the air, but infinitely more powerful, struck our nostrils, but I was not conscious of the fact for several seconds. My whole attention, my every startled thought, was focused upon the group of strange beings, silhouetted against the glowing light, that stood in the opening.
Imagine, if you can, a huge globe, perhaps eight feet in diameter, flattened slightly at the bottom, and supported on six short, huge stumps, like the feet of an elephant, and topped by an excrudescence like a rounded coning tower, merging into the globular body. From points slightly below this excrudescence, visualize six long, limp tentacles, so long that they drop from the equators of these animated spheres, and trail on the ground. Now you have some conception of the beings that stood before us.
A sharp, sibilant whispering came from one of these figures, to be answered in an eager chorus from our bearers. There was a reply like a command, and the group in the doorway marched forward. One by one these visible tentacles wrapped themselves around a member of the Ertak's crew, each one of the globular creatures bearing one of us.
I heard a disappointed whisper go up from the outer darkness where, but a moment before, we had been. Then there was a grating sound, and a thud as the stone doorway was rolled back into place.
The entrance was sealed. We were prisoners indeed!
"All right, now what?" gritted Correy. "God! If I ever get a hand loose!"
Swiftly, each of us held above the head-like excrudescence atop the globular body of the thing that held us, we were carried down a widening rocky corridor, towards the source of the yellow light that beat about us.
The passage led to a great cavern, irregular in shape, and apparently possessed of numerous other outlets which converged here.
I am not certain as to the size of the cavern, save that it was great, and that the roof was so high in most sections that it was lost in shadow.
The great cavern was nearly filled with creatures similar to those which were bearing us, and they fell back in orderly passage to permit our conductors to pass.
I could see, now, that the hump atop each rounded body was a travesty of a head, hairless, and without a neck. Their features were particularly hideous, and I shall pass over a description as rapidly as possible.
The eyes were round, and apparently lidless; a pale drab or bluff in color. Instead of a nose, as, we understand the term, they had a convoluted rosette in the center of the face, not unlike the olfactory organ of a bat. Their ears were placed as are ours, but were of thin, pale parchment, and hugged the side of the head tightly. Instead of a mouth, there was a slightly depressed oval of fluttering skin near the point where the head melted into the rounded body: the rapid fluttering or vibration of this skin produced the whispering sound I have already remarked.
The cavern, as I have said, was flooded with yellow light, which came from a great column of fire near the center of the clear space. I had no opportunity to inspect the exact arrangements but from what I did see, I judged that this flame was fed by some sort of highly inflammable substance, not unlike crude oil, except that it burned clearly and without smoke. This substance was conducted to the font from which the flame leaped by means of a large pipe of hollow reed or wood.
At the far end of the cavern a procession entered from one of the passages--nine figures similar to those which bore us, save that by the greater darkness of their skin, and the wrinkles upon both face and body, I judged these to be older than the rest. From the respect with which they were treated, and the dignity of their movements, I gathered that these were persons of authority, a surmise which quickly verified itself.
These nine elders arranged themselves, standing, in the form of a semicircle, the center creature standing a pace or two in front of the others. At a whispered command, we were all dumped unceremoniously on the floor of the cavern before this august council of nine.
Nine pairs of fish-like, unblinking eyes inspected us, whether with enmity or otherwise; I could not determine. One of the nine spoke briefly to one of our conductors, and received an even more brief reply.
I felt the gaze of the creature in the center fix on me. I had taken my proper position in front of my men; he apparently recognized me as the leader of the group.
In a sharp whisper, he addressed me; I gathered from the tone that he uttered a command, but I could only shake my head in response. No words could convey thought from his mind to mine--but we did have a means of communication at hand.
"Mr. Correy," I said, "your menore, please!" I released my own from the belt which held it, along with the other expeditionary equipment which we always wore when outside our ship, and placed it in position upon my head, motioning for one of the nine to do likewise with Correy's menore.
They watched me suspiciously, despite my attempt to convey, by gestures, that by means of these instruments we could convey thoughts to each other. The menores of those days were bulky, heavy things, and undoubtedly they looked dangerous to these creatures: thought-transference instruments at that time were complicated affairs.