"'Vegetation of heroic size' is right, too," said Correy, who had been examining the terrain at close range, through the medium of the television disk. "Two of the leaves on some of the weeds would make an awning for the whole ship. See any likely place to land, Kincaide?"
"Nowhere except along the shore--and then we'll have to do some nice work and lay the Ertak parallel to the edge of the water. The beach is narrow, but apparently the only barren portion. Will that be all right, sir?"
"Use your own judgment, but waste no time. Correy, break out the breathing masks, and order the men at the air-lock exit port to stand by. I'm going out to have a look at these things."
"May I go with you, sir?" asked Hendricks sharply.
"And I?" pleaded Kincaide and Correy in chorus.
"You, Hendricks, but not you two. The ship needs officers, you know."
"Then why not me instead of you, sir?" argued Correy. "You don't know what you're going up against."
"All the more reason I shouldn't be receiving any information second-hand," I said. "And as for Hendricks, he's the laboratory man of the Ertak. And these things are his particular pets. Right, Hendricks?"
"Right, sir!" said my third officer grimly.
Correy muttered under his breath, something which sounded very much like profanity, but I let it pass.
I knew just how he felt.
I have never liked to wear a breathing mask. I feel shut in, frustrated, more or less helpless. The hiss of the air and the everlasting flap-flap of the exhaust-valve disturb me. But they are very handy things when you walk abroad on a world which has no breathable atmosphere.
You've probably seen, in the museums, the breathing masks of that period. They were very new and modern then, although they certainly appear cumbersome by comparison with the devices of to-day.
Our masks consisted of a huge shirt of air-tight, light material which was belted in tightly around the waist, and bloused out like an ancient balloon when inflated. The arm-holes were sealed by two heavy bands of elastic, close to the shoulders, and the head-piece was of thin copper, set with a broad, curved band of crystal which extended from one side to the other, across the front, giving the wearer a clear view of everything except that which was directly behind him. The balloon-like blouse, of course, was designed to hold a small reserve supply of air, for an emergency, should anything happen to the tank upon the shoulders, or the valve which released the air from it.
They were cumbersome, uncomfortable things, but I donned mine and adjusted the menore, built into the helmet, to full strength. I wanted to be sure I kept in communication with both Hendricks and the sentries at the air-lock exit, and of course, inside the helmets, verbal communication was impossible.
I glanced at Hendricks, and saw that he was ready and waiting. We were standing inside the air-lock, and the mighty door of the port had just finished turning in its threads, and was swinging back slowly on its massive gimbals.
"Let's go, Hendricks," I emanated. "Remember, take no chances, and keep your eyes open."
"I'll remember, sir," replied Hendricks, and together we stepped out onto the coarse gravel of the beach.
Before us, waves of an unhealthy, cloudy green rolled slowly, heavily shoreward, but we had no eyes for this, nor for the amazing vegetation of the place, plainly visible on the curving shores. We took a few hurried steps away from the ship, and then turned to survey the monsters which had attacked it.
They literally covered the ship; in several places their transparent, glowing bodies overlapped. And the sides of the Ertak, ordinarily polished and smooth as the surface of a mirror, were dull and deeply eroded.
"Notice, sir," emanated Hendricks excitedly, "how much brighter the things are! They are feeding, and they are growing stronger and more brilliant. They--look out, sir! They're attacking! Our copper helmets--"
But I had seen it as quickly as he. Half a dozen of the glowing things, sensing in some way the presence of a metal which they apparently preferred to that of the Ertak's hull, suddenly detached themselves and came swarming directly down upon us.
I was standing closer to the ship than Hendricks, and they attacked me first. Several of them dropped upon me, their glowing bodies covering the vision-piece, and blinding me with their light. I waved my arms and started to run blindly, incoherent warnings coming to me through the menore from Hendricks and the sentries.
The things had no weight, but they emitted a strange, electric warmth which seemed to penetrate my entire body instantly as I ran unseeingly, trying to find the ship, tearing at the fastenings of my mask as I ran. I could not, of course, enter the ship with these things clinging to my garments.
Suddenly I felt water splash under my feet; felt its grateful coolness upon my legs, and with a gasp I realized I had in my confusion been running away from the ship, instead of toward it. I stopped, trying to get a grip on myself.
The belt of the breathing mask came loose, and I tore the thing from me, holding my breath and staring around wildly. The ship was only a few yards away, and Hendricks, his mask already off, was running toward me.
"Back!" I shouted. "I'm all right now. Back!" He hesitated for an instant until I caught up with him, and then, together, we gained the safety of the air-lock. Without orders, the men swung shut the ponderous door, and Hendricks and I stood there panting, and drawing in breaths of the Ertak's clean, reviving air.
"That possibility was one we overlooked, sir," said Hendricks. "Let's see what's happening."
We opened the shutter of a port nearby and gazed out onto the beach we had so hurriedly deserted. There were three or four of the glowing things huddled shapelessly around our abandoned suits, and ragged holes showed in several places in the thin copper helmets. Even as we looked, they dissolved into nothingness, and after a few seconds of hesitation, the things swarmed swiftly back to the ship.
"Well," I commented, trying to keep my voice reasonably free from the feelings which gripped me, "I believe we're beaten, Hendricks. At least, we're helpless against them. Our only chance is that they'll leave us before they have eaten through the second skin; so long as we still have that, we can live ... and perhaps be found."
"I doubt they'll leave us while there's a scrap of metal left, sir," said Hendricks slowly. "Something's brought them from their usual haunts. There's no reason why they should leave a certainty for an uncertainty. But we're not quite through trying. I saw something--have I your permission to make another try at them? Alone, sir?"
"Any chance of success, lad?" I asked, searching his eyes.
"A chance, sir," he replied, his glance never wavering. "I can be ready in a few minutes."
"Then, go ahead--on one condition: that you let me come with you."
"Very good, sir; as you wish. Have two other breathing masks ready. I'll be back very soon."
And he left me hastily, taking the steps of the companionway two at a time.
It was nearly an hour before Hendricks returned, bringing with him two of the most amazing pieces of apparatus I have ever seen.
To make each of them, he had taken a flask of compressed air from our emergency stores, and run a flexible tube from it into a cylindrical drinking water container. Another tube, which I recognized as being a part of our fire-extinguishers, and terminating in a metal nozzle, sprouted from the water container. Both tubes were securely sealed into the mouth of the metal cylinder, and lengths of hastily-knotted rope had been bound around each contrivance so that the two heavy containers, the air flask and the small water tank could be slung from the shoulders.
"Here, sir," he said hastily, "get into a breathing mask, and put on these things as you see me do. No time to explain anything now, except this: as soon as you're outside the ship, turn the valve that opens the compressed air flask. Hold this hose, coming from the water container, in your right hand. Don't touch the metal nozzle. Use the hose just as you'd use a portable disintegrator-ray projector."
I nodded, and followed his instructions as swiftly as possible. The two containers were heavy, but I adjusted their ropes across my shoulders so that my left hand had easy access to the valve of the air flask, and the water container was under my right arm where I could have the full use of the hose.
"Let me go first, sir," breathed Hendricks as we stood again in the air-lock, and the door turned out of its threaded seat and swung open. "Keep your eyes on me, and do as I do!"
He ran heavily out of the ship, his burdens lurching. I saw him turn the pet-cock of the air flask, and I did likewise. A fine, powerful spray shot from the nozzle of the tube in my right hand, and I whirled around to face the ship.
Several of the things were detaching themselves from the ship, and instinctively, I turned the spray upon them. Hendricks, I could see out of the corner of my eye, did likewise. And now a most amazing thing happened.
The spray seemed to dissolve the crescent-shaped creatures; where it hit, ragged holes appeared. A terrible hissing, crackling sound came to my ears, even through the muffling mask I wore.
"It works! It works!" Hendricks was crying over and over, hardly aware, in his excitement, that he was wearing a menore. "We're saved!"
I put down three of the things in as many seconds. The central nucleus, in the thickest portion of the crescent, was always the last to go, and it seemed to explode in a little shower of crackling sparks. Hendricks accounted for four in the same length of time.
"Keep back, sir!" he ordered in a sort of happy delirium. "Let them come to us! We'll get them as they come. And they'll come, all right! Look at them! Look at them! Quick, sir!"
The things showed no fear, no intelligence. But one by one they sensed the nearness of the copper helmets we wore, and detached themselves from the ship. They moved like red tongues of flame upon the fat sides of the Ertak; crawling, uneasy flames, releasing themselves swiftly, one after the other.
Our sprays met them in mid-air, and they dissolved like mist, one after the other.... I directed my death-dealing spray with a grim delight, and as each glowing heart crackled and exploded, I chuckled to myself.
The sweat was running down my face; I was shaking with excitement One side of the ship was already cleared of the things; they were slipping over the top now, one or two at a time, and as rapidly as they came, we wiped them out.
At last there came a period in which there were none of the things in sight; none coming over the top of the sorely tried ship.
"Stay here and watch, Hendricks," I ordered. "I'll look on the other side. I believe we've got them all!"
I hurried, as best I could, around to the other side of the Ertak. Her hull was pitted and corroded, but there was no other evidence of the crescent-shaped things which had so nearly brought about the ship's untimely, ghastly end.
"Hendricks!" I emanated happily. "'Nothing Less Than Complete Success!' And that's ours right now! They're gone--all of them!"
I slipped the contrivances from my shoulders and ran back to the other side of the ship. Hendricks was executing some weird sort of dance, patting the containers, swinging them wildly about his body, with an understandable fondness.
"Come inside, you idiot," I suggested, "and tell us how you did it. And see how it feels to be a hero!"
"It was just luck," Hendricks tried to make us believe, a few minutes later, when Kincaide, Correy, and myself were through slapping his back and shaking his hands. "When you, sir, splashed into the water, I had just torn off my mask. I saw some of the water fall on one of the things clustered upon your helmet, and I distinctly heard it hiss, as it fell. And where it fell, it made a ragged hole, which very slowly closed up, leaving a dim spot in the tentacle where the hole had been. As I figure it, the water--to put it crudely--short-circuited the electrical energy of the things. That, too, is just a guess, but I think it's a good one.
"Of course, it was a long chance, but it seemed like our only one. There was nothing more or less than acidulated water in the containers; and the air flasks, of course, were merely to supply the pressure to throw the water out in a powerful spray. It happened to work, and there isn't anybody any happier about it than I am. I'm young, and there're lots of things I want to do before I bleach my bones on a little deserted world like this, that isn't important enough to even have a name!"
That was typical of Hendricks. He was a practical scientist, willing and eager to try out his own devices. A man of action first--as a man should be.
None of us, I think, spent a really easy moment until the Ertak was back at Base. Our outer hull was weakened by at least half, and we were obliged to increase the degree of vacuum there and thus place the major portion of the load on the inner skin. It was a ticklish business, but those old ships were solidly built, and we made it.
As soon as I had completed my report to the Chief, the Ertak was sent instantly to a secret field, under heavy guard, and a new outer hull put in place.
"This can't be made public," the Chief warned me. "It would ruin the whole future of space travel, as people are just learning to accept it as a matter of course. You will swear your men to utter secrecy, and pass me your word, in behalf of your officers and yourself, that you will not divulge any details of this trip."
The scientists, of course, questioned me for days; they turned up their noses at the crude apparatus Hendricks had made, and which had saved the Ertak and all her crew--but they kept it, I noticed, for future reference.
All ships were immediately supplied with devices very similar, but more compact, the use of which only chief officers knew. And the scientists, to my knowledge, never did improve greatly on the model made for them by my third officer.
Whether or not these devices were ever used, I do not know. The silver-sleeves at Base are a close-mouthed crew. Hendricks always held that the group of things which so nearly caused the deaths of all of us had wandered into our portion of Universe from some part of space beyond the fringe of our knowledge.
But the same source which supplied one brood may supply another. Evidently, from young Clippen's report, this thing has happened. And since starting this account, I have determined why the powers that be are willing now to have the knowledge made public. The new silicide coating with which all space ships have been covered, is proof against all electrical action. That it is smoother and reduces friction, is, in my opinion, no more than a rather halty explanation. It is, in reality, the decidedly belated scientific answer to a question raised back in the hey-day of the Ertak, and my own youth.
That was many, many years ago, as the crabbed, uncertain writing on these pages proves.
And now, rather thankfully, I am about to place the last of these pages under the curious weight which has held the others in place as I have written. That irregular bit of metal from the hull of the Ertak, so deeply pitted on the one side, where the hungry things had sapped our precious strength.
"Electites," the scientists have dubbed these strange crescent-shaped things, young Clippen said. "Electites!" Something new under the sun!
New to this generation, perhaps, but not to old John Hanson.
BY MURRAY F. YACO.
A machine can be built to do any accurately described job better than any man. The superiority of a man is that he can do an unexpected, undescribed, and emergency job ... provided he hasn't been especially trained to be a machine.
Banner ripped open his orders, read them, stared in disbelief for a quick moment, then cursed wildly while reaching for the telephone.
"Hello, Gastonia? Yes, I got 'em. What kinda way to waste our time you lunkheads think ... oh, it's you, colonel!"
Banner dropped the receiver and let it dangle. He sank into the only soft chair in the apartment and watched hypnotically as the phone's receiver limply coiled and uncoiled at the end of the wire.
Somebody knocked on, then opened the door. "Hi, pretty boy, you got our orders?"
"Come on in and hear about it," Banner said. He got up from the chair, ran his hands compulsively through his recently short-cropped red hair, hung up the phone and shoved the orders into his co-pilot's hands.
Warcraft read them over three times, then sank into the chair just vacated by Banner. Finally--while Banner poured them both a drink--he managed to blurt, "Potato fertilizer and tractor fuel--Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no!"
"Oh, yes, yes, yes," Banner said bitterly. "We are heroes of the spaceways; yes, indeed. We train for ten years. Acquire great skill in the art of the patrol. We dedicate ourselves to the protection of the Federation. We ready ourselves for war. We gird our young, strong loins, we--"
"You're getting hysterical," said Warcraft, who poured himself another drink, began pacing the floor and took up where Banner had left off. "We've never even been lost on patrol. And now they do this. It's unbelievable! Potato fertilizer and tractor fuel. We're supposed to travel thirty-six light-years, pick up one thousand sleds of the stuff, deliver it to some God-forsaken farm planet another thirty years out, and return to base. You know what they'll do then?" He turned to Banner, pointed his finger accusingly and repeated, "You know what they'll do then?"
"How would I know," said Banner, glumly staring into his drink.
"Well, I can tell you what they'll do. Yes, sir, I can tell you." Warcraft's pudgy face and oversize brown eyes seemed to melt into each other, giving him the appearance of an angry, if not very bright, chimpanzee.
"O.K., what'll they do?" Banner said.