The Kabit was wrapped in the coils of a mighty serpent; a monster that must have been the height of a man in diameter, and whose length I could not even guess.
Four coils were looped tightly about the Kabit, and we could now see the terrible tail of the thing, and its head.
I have always been glad that the details of that ghastly head became visible gradually: viewed suddenly, in full relief, it was a sight that might well have threatened the reason of any man.
The serpent's mouth was lined with a triple row of long, fang-like teeth, tilted gullet-ward at a sharp angle, and the breathing holes were elevated to form warty excrudescences near the end of the snoutish upper jaw. Long colorless tentacles fringed the horrible mouth: barbels that writhed incessantly, as though they sought food for the rapacious jaws they guarded. From a point slightly above and to the rear of the tiny, ruby eyes, two slim and graceful antennae, iridescent and incongruously beautiful, rose twice the height of a man. Like the antennae of a butterfly, they were surmounted by tiny knobs, and were in constant motion.
The whole head was armored with great plates or scales, dark green in color; and apparently of tremendous thickness. A short distance behind the head were two tremendous reddish-brown fins, with strong supporting spines that seemed to terminate in retractile claws. In the water, these fins would undoubtedly be of tremendous value in swimming and in fighting, but on land they seemed rather useless. Aside from a rudimentary dorsal fin, a series of black, stubby spines, connected by a barely visible webbing, the thing had no other external evidences of its marine origin.
"You've been restless for action, Mr. Correy," I commented grimly. "I believe this chap will give us all you could desire."
Correy, still staring down into the disk, fascinated by the terrible details there, shook his head.
"It shouldn't be such a stiff battle, sir," he said. "The ray will make quick work of him once we're within distance."
"Yes--and of the Kabit and all on board," I reminded him. "If he has the strength his size would indicate, he would crush the liner in his death agonies, or, failing that, would heave it about so violently that those within would be maimed or killed outright. This is a case for cunning, and not might."
"I think, sir, both cunning and might will be needed," said Correy soberly, looking up from the disk. "Cunning alone will not dispose of that lad. Have you any plans?"
"Rough plans only; we'll have to develop them as we go along. We don't know what we'll be up against. We'll land a safe distance away, and a small expeditionary force will attack as it sees fit; probably, dividing itself into two or three units. The Ertak will be manned by a skeleton crew and ready to take any necessary action to protect itself or, if possible, to aid any of the expeditionary parties."
"What weapons, sir?" asked Correy, his eyes gleaming. "I'll give the orders now!"
"It's too soon for that; it'll be an hour at least before we land. But I believe every man, including officers, should be armed with pistols, at least six atomic bombs, and there should be a field disintegrator-ray unit for each party. And each member must be equipped with a menore; communication will be by menore only. You might call Mr. Kincaide and Mr. Hendricks, and we'll hold a little council of war."
"Right, sir!" said Correy, and picked up the microphone. Kincaide and Hendricks were in the room almost within the minute.
We laid our plans as best we could, but they weren't very definite. Only a few things were certain.
Somehow, we must induce the monster to release his grasp on the Kabit. We could take no action against the serpent until the big liner and her passengers were safe. It was a desperate mission; an enterprise not of the Ertak, but of individuals.
"One thing is certain, sir," commented Correy, taking over by visual navigation, and reducing speed still more, "you must remain in charge of the ship. You will be needed--"
"I understand your motives, Mr. Correy," I interrupted, "but I do not agree with you. As Commander of the Ertak, I shall command the activities of her men. You will have charge of one landing force, and Mr. Hendricks of another. You, Mr. Kincaide, I shall ask to remain in charge of the ship."
"Very well, sir," nodded Kincaide, swallowing his disappointment. I should have liked to have Kincaide with me, for he was level-headed and cool in an emergency--but it was because of these very things that I wanted him in charge of the Ertak.
"We're close enough now, sir, to select a landing place," put in Correy. "There's a likely spot, a safe distance away and apparently level, almost on the shore. Shall I set her down there?"
"Use your own judgment, Mr. Correy. You may order the landing force to arm and report at the exit port. As soon as you have made contact, you and Mr. Hendricks will report to me there.
"Mr. Kincaide, you will remain on duty here. I am leaving the conduct of the ship entirely to your judgment, asking you to remember only that the rescue of the Kabit and her nearly two thousand souls is the object of this expedition, and the safety of our own personnel cannot be given primary consideration."
"I understand, sir," nodded Kincaide gravely. He held out his hand in that familiar gesture of Earth, which may mean so much more than men ever dare put into words, and we shook hands silently.
There were to be three landing parties of five men and one officer each--eighteen men against a creature that held a mighty passenger liner in its coils!
"I wish, sir, that I were going in your place," said Kincaide softly.
"I know that. But--waiting here will be the hardest job of all. I'm leaving that for you." I turned and hurried out of the room, to make my entries in the log--perhaps my last entries--and secure my equipment.
There are times, in setting down these old tales of the Special Patrol Service as it was before they tacked a "Retired" after my name and title, that I wish I had been a bit more studious during my youth. I find myself in need of words, and possessed only of memories.
I wish I could think of words that would describe the sight that confronted us when we emerged from the Ertak and set foot upon the soil of that newly-born continent of Hydrot, but I find I cannot. I have tried many times, and I find my descriptions fall far short of the picture I still carry in my mind.
The ground was a vast littered floor of wilted marine growths, some already rotting away, while others, more hardy, or with roots reaching into as yet undried ooze, retained a sort of freshness. Crab-like creatures scuttled in all directions, apparently feasting upon the plentiful carrion. The stench was terrible, almost overpowering at first, but after a few minutes we became accustomed to it, and, in the intensity of the work we had undertaken, it was forgotten.
Progress was not possible on the ground. Sheltered from the sun by the thick growths it supported, it was still treacherously soft. But the giant marine vegetation that had retained something of its vigor provided a highway, difficult and dangerous and uncertain, but passable.
I remained with the party taking the most direct route to the unfortunate Kabit, while Correy and Hendricks led the parties to my left and right, respectively. We kept in constant touch with each other by means of our menores.
"I believe," emanated Correy, "that the beast sees us. I had a good view of him a few seconds back, and his head was elevated and pointed this way."
"It's possible," I replied. "Be careful, however, to do nothing to alarm or excite him. All men must keep under cover, and proceed with as little noise and commotion as possible. I'm going to see, now, if I can get in touch with anyone on the Kabit; with full power, communication might be possible even through the Kabit's grounded hull."
"It's worth trying," agreed Hendricks. "These new menores are powerful."
I adjusted the little atomic generator to maximum, and replaced the instrument on my head.
"On board the Kabit!" I emanated, trying by sheer mental effort to drive the thought over that stinking waste, and through the massive double hull of the liner. "Ahoy the Kabit!"
"This is Captain Gole," flashed back the answer instantly. "Captain Gole of the passenger liner Kabit. You are from the Ertak?"
"Commander Hanson of the Ertak emanating. How are conditions on the Kabit?"
"Ghastly!" I could sense the feeling in the word, faintly as it smote upon my consciousness. "My officers are keeping the crew under some sort of control, but the passengers are unmanageable. They are frantic--insane with terror. Two or three have already gone mad. I am on the verge of insanity myself. Have you seen the thing that has us trapped?"
"Yes. We are coming to your aid. Tell your passengers to calm themselves. We'll find a way out of this somehow. You know the motto of our Service."
"Yes: 'Nothing Less Than Complete Success!' I have already issued a bulletin to the effect that I am in contact with your ship. I think it has had a good effect. The clamor is quieting somewhat; you don't know what a terrible strain this has been, sir!"
I could well imagine his mental state. The captain of the Kabit was a Zenian, and the Zenians are too high-strung to stand up under a severe strain.
"It may help us if you'll tell us, very briefly, the history of your experience here," I suggested. "We're going up against something we know nothing about. Perhaps you can give us some valuable information."
"I doubt it, for there's very little to tell. Undoubtedly, you have the report which I managed to get through to Arpan before our radio emanation plates were put out of commission.
"Against my better judgment, we set down here upon the insistence of the passengers. The television instruments revealed nothing more dangerous than the small life in the marine growths left stranded by the receding water.
"I unsealed one of the exit ports, and a small party of the more curious passengers, under the escort of my second officer and six men, ventured forth on a little tour of exploration. A goodly portion of the remaining passengers huddled close to the ship, contenting themselves with souvenir-hunting close by.
"Suddenly there was a great sound of shouting from the exploring party. Not knowing the danger, but realizing that something was wrong, the passengers rushed into the ship. Helplessly, for we are utterly defenseless, I watched the fleeing party of explorers.
"For a moment, I could not see why they fled; I could only see them scrambling desperately toward the ship, and casting frightened glances behind them. Then I saw the thing's head rear itself from the slimy tangle of vegetation, and behind it the wilting growths were lashed to shreds.
"The head drove forward. My second officer, courageously bringing up the rear, was the first victim. Perhaps his bright uniform attracted the beast's attention. I don't know.
"They were close now; very close. I knew that we were in danger, and yet I could not bear to seal the port in the faces of those helpless men racing towards the ship.
"I waited. Twice more the terrible head shot out and both times a man was picked from the fleeing ranks. It was terrible--ghastly.
"The rest of them reached the ship, and as the last man came reeling through the port, the door swung shut and began spinning upon its threads. Almost instantly I gave the order for vertical ascent at emergency speed, but before the order could be obeyed, the ship lurched suddenly, rolled half over, and swung back with a jolt. As the power was applied, the ship rose at a crazy angle, hung there trembling for a moment, and then sank back to the ground. The load was too great. I knew then that we were in the power of the thing that had come wriggling out of that sea of rotting weeds.
"I got the message off to Arpan before our radio emanation plates were grounded or destroyed by the coils of the monster. At intervals, I have tried to pull away, but each time the thing tightens its coils angrily, until the fabric of the ship groans under the strain. We have heard you calling us, faintly and faultily. I have been waiting for you to reach me with the menore. You have come at last, and I am at your orders. If you cannot help us, we are lost, for we shall all go mad."
"We'll have you in the clear very soon," I assured him with a confidence I did not feel. "Stand by for further communications, and--are your generators working?"
"Yes. They're in perfect order. If only the beast would uncoil himself--"
"We'll see to that very shortly. Stand by."
I reduced power and asked Correy and Hendricks if they had both followed the conversation. They had, and had now reduced power, as I had done. We all realized that our counsels might not be reassuring to Captain Gole.
"As I see it, gentlemen, the first thing we must do is to induce the beast to leave the Kabit. And the only way that can be accomplished is by--bait."
"Exactly!" snapped Correy. "He's hungry. He knows there's food in the Kabit. If we can get him to leave the liner and come after us, the problem's solved."
"But he can run faster than we. I can hardly crawl over this slimy mess," objected Hendricks. "I'm ready to try everything, but remember that we've got to lead him away far enough to make him release the Kabit."
"I've got it!" emanated Correy suddenly, his enthusiasm making the vibrations from the menore fairly hammer into my brain. "I'll cut a long, narrow swath with one of the portable disintegrator rays; long enough to take him far away from the Kabit, and just wide enough to pass a man. I'll run along this deep groove, just below the reach of the monster. I can make good time; the serpent'll have to slash and wriggle his way over or through this slimy growth. How's that for an idea?"
It was daring enough to have some hope of success, but its dangers were obvious.
"What happens when you reach the end of the path the ray cuts?" I asked grimly.
"You and Hendricks, with your men, will be on both sides of the path, not opposite each other. When he passes, you'll let go your disintegrator rays and the atomic bombs. He'll be in a dozen pieces before we reach the end of the path."
Spread out here before me, in all its wordy detail, it would seem that a long time must have elapsed while Captain Gole related his story, and my officers and myself laid our plans. As a matter of fact, communicating as we were by menore, it was only a minute or so since Correy had emanated his first comment: "I believe the beast sees us. His head was elevated and pointed this way."
And now Hendricks, who was peering over the ruffled edge of an undulating, rubbery leaf of seaweed, turned and waved both arms. Disobeying my strictest orders, he fairly screamed his frantic warning: "He sees us! He sees us! He's coming!"
I ran up the twisted, concave surface of a giant stem of some kind. To my left, I could hear the shrill whine of Correy's disintegrator ray generator, already in action, and protesting against a maximum load. To the right, Hendricks and his men were scrambling into position. Before me was the enemy.
Slowly, deliberately, as though he did not doubt his terrible ability, he unwrapped his coils from the Kabit. His head, with its graceful antennae searching the air, and the tentacles around his mouth writhing hungrily, reared itself ten times a man's height from the ground. His small red eyes flashed like precious stones. Beyond, the mighty greenish coils slashed the rotting weed as he unwrapped them from the Kabit.
I snatched off my menore and adjusted it again for maximum power.
"Yes. What's happening? Tell me! We're rolling and pitching."
"In a moment you'll be free. When I signal 'Rise!' ascend as quickly as possible to a safe distance. Stand by!"
"Hendricks! Be ready to follow Correy's plan. It's our only chance. In a second, now--"
The last coil moved, slipped from the blunt nose of the liner.
"Rise!" I ordered. "Rise!"
I saw the ship rock suddenly, and roar hollowly toward the sky. I felt the rush of wind made by her passing.
Then, head still elevated and swaying, the two great reddish-brown fins fanning the air like grotesque wings, the serpent lashed out towards us, coming at amazing speed.
Correy, sure that he was observed by the serpent, leaped down from the huge leaf upon which he had been standing. Hendricks and I, followed by our men, scrambled desperately toward the deep path or lane that Correy's ray had cut through the tangled, stinking growth. Correy's plan had given some promise of success, had we had time to put it into proper operation. As it was, neither Hendricks or I had had time to get into position.
Hendricks, on my right, was working his way as rapidly as possible toward the path, but he had a long way to go. Unless a miracle happened, he would be too late to help. The portable ray machines would be helpless against such a mighty bulk, except at close range.
I reached the path and glanced hastily to the right, the direction, from which the great serpent was sweeping down on us. He was less than the Ertak's length away.
"Hide, men!" I ordered. "Under the vegetation--in the muck--anywhere!" I glanced down the lane to the left, and saw, to my relief, that Correy and his men were a goodly distance away, and still far from the end of the swath their ray had cut for them. Then, with the monster towering almost over my head. I darted behind a spongy, spotted growth, listening, above the pounding of my heart, to the rapid slithering of the serpent's ponderous body.
Of a sudden the sound stopped. I was conscious of an excited warning from Hendricks: "He's stopped, sir! Run! He's seen you ... he--"
Startled, I glanced up--directly into the hideous face of the snake.
It seemed to me he was grinning. His mouth was partially open, and the pale, writhing barbels that surrounded his mouth seemed to reach out toward me. The long and graceful antennae were bent downward inquiringly, quivering tensely, and his small eyes glowed like wind-fanned coals of fire. The brownish fins were rigid as metal, the retractile claws unsheathed and cruelly curved. He was so close that I could hear the air rushing through his crater-like breathing holes.
For an instant we stared at each other; he with confident gloating: myself, too startled and horrified to move. Then, as his head shot downward, I leaped aside.
The scaly head raked the clothes from one side of my body, and sent me, sprawling and breathless, into the welter of sagging weeds.
I heard the sharp whine of my ray generator going into action, but I took no chances on the accuracy of my men. They were working under tremendous difficulties. As I fell, I snatched an atomic bomb from my belt, and, as the horrid head drew back to strike again, I threw the bomb with all my strength.
I had thrown from an exceedingly awkward position, and the bomb exploded harmlessly some distance away, showering us with muck and slimy vegetation.
Evidently, however, the explosion startled the serpent, for his head slewed around nervously, and I felt the ground tremble under me as his mighty coils lashed the ground in anger. Scrambling to my feet, I seized the projector tube of the disintegrator ray and swept the beam upward until it beat upon that terrible head.
The thing screamed--a high, thin sound almost past the range of audibility. Reddish dust sifted down around me--the heavy dust of disintegration. In the distance, I could hear the slashing of the tail as it tore through the rubbery growth of weeds.
With half his head eroded by the ray, the serpent struck again, but this time his aim was wild. The mighty head half buried itself in the muck beside me, and I swung the projector tube down so that the full force of the ray tore into the region above and behind the eyes, where I imagined the brain to be. The heavy reddish dust fairly pelted from the ugly head.
Correy had come running back. Dimly, I could hear him shouting.
"Look out!" I warned him. "Keep back, Correy! Keep the men back! I've got him, but he'll die hard--"
As though to prove my words true, the head, a ghastly thing eroded into a shapeless mass, was jerked from the mud, and two tremendous loops of tortured body came hurtling over my head. One of the huge fins swung by like a sail, its hooked talons ripping one of Correy's men into bloody shreds. Correy himself, caught in a desperate endeavor to save the unfortunate man, was knocked twenty feet. For one terrible instant, I thought the beast had killed Correy also.
Gasping, Correy rose to his feet, and I ran to assist him.