Lar Tantril was not annoyed by the words. He only laughed and slapped his thigh.
"Yes?" he mocked. "Truly, Captain Carse, you must be frightened, to try and anger me so I'll shoot! Do you fear a skewer-blade so much? We would leave most of you for Ku Sui!"
Carse shook his head. "No, Lar Tantril, I don't want you to shoot me. I'm telling you you're a fool--because you think me one."
With a wave of his hands the Venusian protested: "No, no, not at all. You're infernally clever, Carse. I'll always be the first to admit it."
"Then do you think I'd attack your ranch alone?"
"You'd like me to believe you have friends hidden somewhere?" Tantril asked, smiling tolerantly.
Carse's voice came back curtly. "Believe what you like, but learn this: It's your boast that your ranch is impregnable, guarded on every side and from every angle. I'm telling you it's not. Its vulnerable. It's wide open to one way of attack and my friends and I know it well."
For a second the Venusian's assurance wavered.
"Vulnerable?" he said. "Open to attack? You're just stalling!"
Whip-like words cut through.
"Wait and see. Wait till the ranch is stormed and wiped out. Wait twenty minutes! Only twenty!"
Hawk Carse was always listened to when he spoke in such manner. Lar Tantril stared at the hard gray eyes boring into his.
"Why do you tell me this?" he asked. Then, with a smile: "Why not wait until my ranch is wiped out, as you say?" His smile broadened. "Until these hidden friends attack?"
"Simply because I must insure my living. Nothing my friends could do would prevent your having plenty of time to kill me before you yourselves were destroyed. I think, under the circumstances, you would kill me. And I must go free. I have made a promise. A very important promise. I must be free to carry it out."
"Just what are you aiming at?"
"I'm offering," said the Hawk, "to show you where your fort is vulnerable--in time for you to protect it. I'll do this if you'll let me go free. You need not release me till afterwards."
Lar Tantril's mouth fell half open at this surprising turn. He was unquestionably taken aback. But he snapped his lips shut and considered the offer. A trick? Carse was famed for them. A trap? But how? He scanned his men. Fifty to one; fifty ray-guns on an unarmed man helpless in a hampering prison of metal and fabric. If a trap, Carse could not possibly escape death. But yet....
Tantril walked over to his man Esret, and, stepping apart, they conferred in whispers.
"Is he trying to trick us?" the chief asked.
"I don't see how he can hope to. He can hardly move in that suit. It ties him down. We could keep tight guard upon him. He couldn't possibly get away. And at the slightest sign of something shady--"
"Yes; but you know him."
"What he says is sensible. Naturally he wants to live. He knows we'll shoot him if he tries to trick us, and he knows we'll do it if we're attacked! We'll of course leave men at all defensive stations. If there is a weakness here, if the ranch is vulnerable--we should learn what it is. It'll cost us nothing. We can't lose, and we might be saving everything. Of course we won't let him go afterwards."
Tantril considered a moment longer, then said: "Yes, I think you are right."
He turned back to the waiting Carse.
"Agreed," he said. "Show this vulnerable point to us and you'll be released. But no false moves! One sign of treachery and you're dead!"
The Hawk's strong-cut face showed no change. It was only inwardly that he smiled.
Their very manner of accompanying him showed their respect for the slender adventurer.
He had no gun; he was stooped by the unrelieved weight of the massive helmet, the suit itself and the chunky blocks of metal which were the boots; his every dragging step was that of a man shackled by chains--but he was Hawk Carse! And so, as he shuffled out through the front door of the house and lumbered with painful effort across the clearing, he was surrounded by a glitter of ray-guns held by the close-pressing circle of men. Tantril's own gun kept steady on his broad fabric-clad back, and of its proximity he kept reminding Carse.
New guards were already on watch on each of the three watch-platforms, their eyes sweeping around the clearing and the jungle and the dark stretch of the lake, and often returning to the crowd which marked the stumbling giant's progress below. Each point of defense was manned. In the ranch's central control room, a steel-sheathed cubby in the basement of Tantril's house, men stood watchful, their hands ready at the wheels and levers which commanded the ranch's ray-batteries, their eyes on the vision-screen which gave to this unseen heart of the place a panoramic view of what was transpiring above. And all waited on what the grotesque, bloated figure they watched might reveal.
Watch--watch--watch. A hundred eyes, below, above, beside the Hawk, were centered and alert on each move of his clumsy progress. The barrels of two-score ray-guns transfixed him. Under such guard he arrived at the ranch's fence where it approached the Great Briney.
"Open the gate," said the Hawk curtly. "It's down there."
He pointed to where the lake's pebbled beach shelved downward to the tiny murmurous waves, a ten-foot stretch of ghostly white between the guarding fence and the water.
"Down there?" repeated Tantril slowly. "Down to the lake?"
"Yes!" Carse snapped irritably. "Well, will you open the gate? I'm very tired: I can't bear this suit much longer."
Lar Tantril conferred uneasily with Esret, while his men cast shivering glances out over the dark wind-rippled plain of the lake. But no enemy showed there. The beach was clear for fifty yards on each side.
"By Iapetus!" the adventurer complained harshly, "are you children, to be afraid of the dark? Tantril, put your gun into me, and shoot if I try anything suspicious! Open the gate!"
Finally the lock was unfastened and the gate swung out. Tantril stationed a man there, ready to close and lock it in case of need, and then, Hawk Carse, still surrounded by the alert Venusians, shuffled down to the edge of the water.
Over the Great Briney was silence. No shape broke its calm. The air held only the nervous whispers of the crowd and the scrape and crunch of the lone Earthling's dragging boots as they made wide furrows in the hard pebbly soil of the beach.
The men had fallen back a little, and now were a half circle around him down to the water's brink. The watch-beacon's light caught them full there, and threw great blots of shadows lakeward from them. Their ray-guns were gripped tighter as their shifty eyes darted from his huge bulk to the water ahead, and back. Doubt and fear swayed them all.
The Hawk wasted no time, but stepped out to knee-high level on the sharply shelving bottom. At this Tantril objected.
"Hold, Carse!" he roared. "You play for time, I think! Where is this point of attack?"
The bloated figure did not answer him, but bent over as if searching for something under the tiny waves which now were slapping his thigh. He reached one hand down and probed around with it, apparently feeling. The eyes watching him were wide and fear-fascinated.
"Here--or no," the Hawk muttered to himself, though a dozen could hear him. "A little farther, I think.... Here--but no, I forgot: the tide has come in. A little farther...." He stopped suddenly and straightened, turned to the Venusian chief. "Don't forget. Lar Tantril, you have promised I can go free!"
Then he resumed his search of the bottom, the black surface of water up to his waist. Again the fearful Venusian leader roared an objection: "You're tricking us. Carse, you little devil--"
"Oh, don't be an ass!" Carse snapped back. "As if I could get away--your ray-guns on me!"
Another half minute passed; a few more short steps were taken. A muttered oath came from one of the wet, uncomfortable men in the grip of fear. Several there were on the brink of turning in, a panicky dash for the safety of the enclosure behind, the warm buildings, guarded by ray-batteries--and yet an awful fascination held them. What metallic horror of the deeps was being exposed?
"Just a second, now," the Hawk was murmuring. "You'll all see.... Somewhere ... right ... here ... somewhere...."
He held them taut, expectant. The water licked around the waist of his suit. One more slow step; one more yet.
"Here!" he cried triumphantly, and clicked his face-plate closed. And the men who stared, faces pale, hearts pounding, ray-guns at the ready, saw him no longer. The water had closed over that shiny metal helmet. Only a mocking ripple was left.
Hawk Carse was gone!
Gone!--and laughing to himself.
The space-suit, his heavy prison of metal and fabric, would protect him from water as well as from space! It offered his golden--his only--opportunity. It had been pierced by Tantril's shots, back in the house, but only the gravity-plate compartments, which were sealed and separate. It was still--after he had closed the mittens--air-tight, an effective little submarine in the dark waters of the Great Briney!
So Carse followed his black course over the lake-bottom laughing and laughing. In his mind he could see what he had left behind: the men, shivering there in the water for an instant, completely befogged, and perhaps firing one or two shots at where he had disappeared; then turning and breaking back in a grand rush for the fence and safety. And the ray-batteries, all manned and centered on the lake; Tantril, in a very fury of rage, but fearful, preparing for a siege; preparing for anything that might loom suddenly from the water! And all of them wondering what lay beneath its calm surface; what he, Hawk Carse, had gone to join!
For days they would stare fearfully at the lake, while the tides rolled steadily in and out; for days the ray-batteries would be held ready, and none would venture outside the fence. It might take hours for the realization of his trick to sink in--but they still would not be sure of anything, and would have to keep vigilant against the still-possible attack.
Fourteen miles up the coast was Ban Wilson's ranch, and Eliot Leithgow and Friday waiting there. He would rest for a while, and then the three of them would go home to the laboratory--whose location was now still secret. And then, later, there was his promise to the coordinated brains to be kept....
But that was in the future. For the present, he went his dark, watery way, laughing. Laughing and laughing again....
Yes, John Sewell, first of all Hawk Carse's traits was his resourcefulness!
CRY FROM A FAR PLANET.
by Tom Godwin
The problem of separating the friends from the enemies was a major one in the conquest of space as many a dead spacer could have testified. A tough job when you could see an alien and judge appearances; far tougher when they were only whispers on the wind.
A smile of friendship is a baring of the teeth. So is a snarl of menace. It can be fatal to mistake the latter for the former.
Harm an alien being only under circumstances of self-defense.
TRUST NO ALIEN BEING UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.
--From Exploration Ship's Handbook.
He listened in the silence of the Exploration ship's control room. He heard nothing but that was what bothered him; an ominous quiet when there should have been a multitude of sounds from the nearby village for the viewscreen's audio-pickups to transmit. And it was more than six hours past the time when the native, Throon, should have come to sit with him outside the ship as they resumed the laborious attempt to learn each other's language.
The viewscreen was black in the light of the control room, even though it was high noon outside. The dull red sun was always invisible through the world's thick atmosphere and to human eyes full day was no more than a red-tinged darkness.
He switched on the ship's outside floodlights and the viewscreen came to bright white life, showing the empty glades reaching away between groves of purple alien trees. He noticed, absently, that the trees seemed to have changed a little in color since his arrival.
The village was hidden from view by the outer trees but there should have been some activity in the broad area visible to him. There was none, not even along the distant segment of what should have been a busy road. The natives were up to something and he knew, from hard experience on other alien worlds, that it would be nothing good. It would be another misunderstanding of some kind and he didn't know enough of their incomprehensible language to ask them what it was-- * * * * *
Suddenly, as it always came, he felt someone or something standing close behind him and peering over his shoulder. He dropped his hand to the blaster he had taken to wearing at all times and whirled.
Nothing was behind him. There never was. The control room was empty, with no hiding place for anything, and the door was closed, locked by the remote-control button beside him. There was nothing.
The sensation of being watched faded, as though the watcher had withdrawn to a greater distance. It was perhaps the hundredth time within six days that he had felt the sensation. And when he slept at night something came to nuzzle at his mind; faceless, formless, utterly alien. For the past three nights he had not let the blaster get beyond quick reach of his hand, even when in bed.
But whatever it was, it could not be on the ship. He had searched the ship twice, a methodical compartment-by-compartment search that had found nothing. It had to be the work of the natives from outside the ship. Except....
Why, if the natives were telepathic, did the one called Throon go through the weary pretense of trying to learn a mutually understandable form of communication?
There was one other explanation, which he could not accept: that he was following in the footsteps of Will Garret of Ship Nine who had deliberately gone into a white sun two months after the death of his twin brother.
He looked at the chair beside his own, Johnny's chair, which would forever be empty, and his thoughts went back down the old, bitter paths. The Exploration Board had been wrong when they thought the close bond between identical twins would make them the ideal two-man crews for the lonely, lifetime journeys of the Exploration Ships. Identical twins were too close; when one of them died, the other died in part with him.
They had crossed a thousand light-years of space together, he and Johnny, when they came to the bleak planet that he would name Johnny's World. He should never have let Johnny go alone up the slope of the honey-combed mountain--but Johnny had wanted to take the routine record photographs of the black, tiger-like beasts which they had called cave cats and the things had seemed harmless and shy, despite their ferocious appearance.
"I'm taking them a sack of food that I think they might like," Johnny had said. "I want to try to get some good close-up shots of them."
Ten minutes later he heard the distant snarl of Johnny's blaster. He ran up the mountainside, knowing already that he was too late. He found two of the cave cats lying where Johnny had killed them. Then he found Johnny, at the foot of a high cliff. He was dead, his neck broken by the fall. Scattered all around him from the torn sack was the food he had wanted to give to the cats.
He buried Johnny the next day, while a cold wind moaned under a lead-gray sky. He built a monument for him; a little mound of frosty stones that only the wild animals would ever see-- * * * * *
A chime rang, high and clear, and the memories were shattered. The orange light above the hyperspace communicator was flashing; the signal that meant the Exploration Board was calling him from Earth.
He flipped the switch and said, "Paul Jameson, Exploration Ship One."
The familiar voice of Brender spoke: "It's been some time since your preliminary report. Is everything all right?"
"In a way," he answered. "I was going to give you the detailed report tomorrow."
"Give me a brief sketch of it now."
"Except for their short brown fur, the natives are humanoid in appearance. But there are basic differences. Their body temperature is cool, like their climate. Their vision range is from just within the visible red on into the infrared. They'll shade their eyes from the light of anything as hot as boiling water but they'll look square into the ship's floodlights and never see them."
"And their knowledge of science?" Brender asked.