I waited for three long hours.
The sweat dampness of my uniform evaporated only to be replaced by the stains of new perspiration. I sucked in great gulps of E-T's air and found it consistently comfortable in my lungs. Insects came, investigated, and retreated, mostly because of urging. I was not approached by anything larger than a line of creatures the size of Vici-Terran milatants, and I was able to avoid them by evasive action. As far as I could determine, I wasn't invaded by anything microscopic or sub-microscopic either, because at the end of the three hours, I felt nothing beyond the personal infirmities that I'd brought with me.
The definite decline of E-T's sun forced me to give up.
The walk back to the plain wasn't entirely fruitless; I found something that I'd overlooked previously: the scattered remains of a small vertebrate. Many of the bones were missing.
"What happened to you?" I mused. "Did you come for a meal and got killed by a larger animal? Or were you caught in the same disaster that--?"
There was no way to tell.
What was it about Epsilon-Terra that could accept one survey team for months of occupancy--occupancy that had involved detailed examination of the region within miles of the plain and the hillside, and cursory examination of thousands of square miles of the rest of the insular mass by air, including touchdowns at key points for short stays--and that five years later could entice, enmesh, and destroy the entire complement of a modern star ship, indiscriminately, within a matter of hours?
It was late afternoon when I reached the camp.
I was tired, dirty, thirsty, hungry, and thoroughly frustrated.
I drank from a previously unopened water bowser and wolfed several nutratabs.
Then I stumbled over to the shuttler, secured the recorder and interrogation setup, raised the star ship, and brought Moya up to date.
"I'm going to move this vehicle to the hillside and spend the night there. I figure I'd better give E-T a full twenty-six hour rotation interval to come up with something before the next step. Tomorrow, I'm going to need a man down here to witness the location and disposition of the corpses. You know the drill. It's your decision whether they should be identified singly, if possible, and secured for removal to Terra, or whether they should be interred here, commonly. My recommendation is to make a film record and plant them, but I'm too tired to argue. One thing more: whoever you send--if he gives me any lip, I'll cut him down like a small tree. There's been enough mistakes made here already."
I spent the night in the shuttler. Call it an atavistic response to the unknowns of darkness.
It was a restless interval between dusk and dawn.
Occasionally, I illuminated the hillside and surrounding area. A couple of times, I glimpsed the eye reflections of small animals. They seemed to possess the shyness of most nocturnal creatures. But I couldn't help wondering-- Morning dawned gloomily; there was a light mist hanging over the streambed, and much of the sky was turgid with clouds.
I gave the star ship the go-ahead and specified dispatch because of the threatening weather.
Moya mentioned plastibags, a filmer, and a porto-digger. His decision was obvious. I figured it wise but had the uncomfortable picture of a GS representative trying to explain the reasons to bereaved relatives.
I spent a few moments going over meteorological details. As I recalled from the tapes, this was the rainy season. Judging from the look of the area, it could use precipitation. Things were growing, but the stream was mostly dry, and the plain seemed parched. Apparently the mountains blocked much of it.
Sitting on hands has never been my delight, so I exited the shuttler and went down the hill for another look-see.
Insects buzzed noisily; the air seemed heavy and oppressive; but nothing had changed--there was no evidence of the creatures I'd seen during the night.
It took about an hour for the shuttler from 250 to show.
In the interval, several things happened.
The first was a perceptive darkening of the sky, followed by a light, preliminary shower. I'd anticipated that, and was considering heading back for the bug suit when the second occurred.
I'm not going to offer excuses. From the advantage of retrospection, you can say what you want about slipshod detective work. The point remains that I'd covered the area more than cursorily and had not encountered anything specifically dangerous.
The timing was pure luck.
The shuttler penetrated the overcast about ten miles off target, located, and started its approach.
And something bit me on the leg.
I pulled up my pant's leg immediately, hoping to catch the culprit, but saw nothing save a thin red line about an inch long. It looked more a scratch than an insect bite. But I hadn't brushed against anything.
The shuttler grounded on the hilltop, and I headed up.
Perhaps it was exertion that speeded the reaction.
There was no pain, only a local numbness.
Before I'd traveled ten yards, my leg from the knee almost to the ankle felt prickly asleep.
I paused and looked. There was no swelling, no other discoloration.
I heard a raspy voice from the hilltop.
"Are you going to give me some help, or do I have to haul all this gear myself?"
Despite the leg, I didn't know whether to laugh or explode.
Moya was rattling around in an outsized bug suit and carrying the biggest Moril blaster contained in a star ship's arsenal that could still be called portable.
"What in condemned space are you doing here?" I shouted.
I was ready to give it to him right off the top of the regs about the relationship between ship's master and agents-on-assignment and the responsibilities of command, but the leg chose that moment to fail. Until then, I hadn't really been worried. I fell forward against the pitch of the slope, caught myself with my arms, and rolled over on my back. I hit my left thigh with my fist and felt absolutely nothing. Massage didn't help.
I heard Moya panting down the brow of the hill.
"Keep away!" I shouted. "Get back to the ship!"
Moya bent over me; he had opened the hood of the bug suit, and his face was grave.
"What's the trouble, Callum?"
"Can't you take orders?"
He shook his head. I pointed to the leg. He looked swiftly at the broken skin.
"How does it feel?"
"That's the trouble; it doesn't."
He grabbed my arm, put it over his shoulder, and got me on my feet.
We made good time, considering.
"Too bad you're such a shrimp," I said.
"I can take you on any time."
Shuttler IV was closest, parked on a shelf fifty yards below the top of the hill, but Moya was heading to miss it.
"I programmed for auto, just in case, and the generators are up to power. We waste time to save time. That way I can give you some help on the ascent."
The generator part was fine; the rest wasn't.
It started to rain again, just before we reached 250's shuttler.
I put my face up to it.
Moya got me through the lock and onto an acceleration couch. Then he headed for the panel. I was beginning to feel a desperate weakness, but my head was still clear.
"Wait a minute," I said. "What's your gee tolerance?"
"So strap me and raise this couch to vertical. Then override the auto and take us up fast."
"Listen," I said. "This feels like a neuro-toxin. Remember snake-bite aid? Well, the numbness is up to my groin now. No place for a tourniquet. And nothing here for freezing."
It was strange going up. I blacked out almost immediately, but Moya took it flat and apparently stayed alert all the way.
"Space!" I managed to gasp finally. "Any more of that sort of thing and I'd have ended up stupid."
Then there was utter confusion.
I came to full awareness under the luminescence of the infirmary's overhead. I was naked on the padding of the table. I could see a respirator off to my right, and a suction octopus near it. The medic was just stowing an auto-heart. But for a different tingling in my leg and an all-is-lost sensation south of my diaphragm, I felt reasonably sound.
The medic approached. I hadn't gotten a very good impression of the lean, blond youngster on the trip out, but now he seemed Hippocrates, Luke, Lister, Salk, O'Grady, and Yakamura all rolled into one.
He weakened it by asking the classic redundancy.
"How do you feel?"
I elbowed up for a look at the leg. There was a series of little welts the length of it, masked by forceheal.
"Where did you learn your trade?" I asked. "In a production expediter's office?"
"It took more than three hours, Mr. Callum. Suction, flushing, full transfusion. You've got some good blood in you now."
I lay back and let him talk.
"There'll be nerve damage, probably. Regeneration should take care of most of it, but you might need transplants. You were lucky. First, that whatever nipped you barely broke the skin. Second, that the skipper was there to help. And third, that you had the sense to block the spread of the toxin by gee forces."
"Yeah. Remind me to thank Moya--immediately after I write him up for leaving his station."
The medic looked pleased.
"Well, now, the way I got it--and I believe the recorder will bear me out--is that you requested a witness. You left it up to the skipper to make the selection."
He cleared his throat.
"And, by the way, Moya said he'd look in on you after a bit. The thing to do now is rest."
I sat up again.
"Where're my clothes?"
The kid commenced noises of disapproval.
"Damnation! I'm not going anywhere. I just want to look over that pant's leg."
Came the dawn.
"What'd you say Moya was doing?"
"Oh, I expect he's busy up forward."
The trouble was that he looked me straight in the eye. It takes practice to lie convincingly. And the Space Academy doesn't list the Art of Prevarication among its curricula.
"That misbegotten little son of an Aztec! He went back down, didn't he?"
I tried to jackknife off the table.
The medic flexed his muscles and said: "I can't take the responsibility--"
"When are you people going to get it through your stubborn heads that the responsibility for this whole shebang is mine and mine alone?"
Two more of the crew showed up. Under other circumstances, I might have enjoyed tangling with them. I know tricks that even the inventors of karate overlooked.
"All right," I gasped. "But give me the dope. He's not alone, is he? Are you in contact?"
It developed that Moya had returned to the site of the disaster immediately upon learning that I was out of danger. He'd taken a crewman. He was also equipped with my chart of the area complete with locales of the remains. The last word had been that the two had grounded and that the weather front was dissipating. He'd been gone about two hours.
"They both had bug suits," the medic offered.
"Great," I said. "Just splendid. Suppose there's a creature down there that can go through plastic like--"
For the first time the three lost their smug expressions.