"Carlos Inverness and party," announced the guard from the doorway.
Inverness nodded to me in friendly fashion and indicated his two companions.
"Commander Hanson," he said, "permit me to present Godar Tipene and Cleve Brady, who are my companions on this expedition." I bowed, and shook hands with Brady; Tipene was a Zenian, and hence did not offer me this greeting of Earth. Then, quickly, I completed the round of introductions, studying Inverness's companions with interest as I did so.
Brady was short, and rather red-faced; a beefy, taciturn type, with a trap-like mouth and thoughtful discerning eyes. He struck me as being one with whom most men would like to be friendly, but who would have exceedingly few friends.
The Zenian was a perfect foil for him. Tipene was exceedingly tall and slender, like all his race, and very dark. His eyes were almost womanly in their softness, and he had the nervous grace of a thoroughbred--which is an Earth animal of particularly high breeding, raised for show purposes. He had the happy faculty of speaking the language of Earth without a trace of Zenian or Universal accent; the Zenians are exceeded by none in linguistic ability, which was a real accomplishment before these decadent days when native languages are slipping so rapidly into obscurity.
"And now," said Inverness crisply, when the introductions were over, "I presume you'll wish to know something about our destination and the objects of this expedition, sir?"
"It would be helpful in charting our course," I admitted, smiling.
Inverness, with beautiful disregard for the necessities of space navigation, spread voluminous papers over the table whose surface was formed by the pair of three-dimensional charts which were the Ertak's eyes in outer space.
"Our destination," he said, "is a body designated on the charts as FX-31. You are familiar with it, Commander Hanson?"
"Hardly familiar," I admitted, smiling at Correy. "The universe is rather sizable, and even the named bodies are so numerous that one is able to be familiar with but an exceedingly small percentage. Its designation, of course, gives me certain information regarding its size, location and status, however."
"How much information, Commander?" asked Tipene nervously.
"Well, 'F' indicates that it is large; larger than Earth, for example. The numerals tells me where to locate it upon our space charts. And the 'X' would indicate that it is inhabited, but not by intelligent beings. Or that there is reasonable doubt as to the nature of those inhabiting it."
"A very good summary of the knowledge we have," nodded Inverness approvingly. "I can add but one bit of information which may or may not be accurate: that the sphere known as FX-31 is populated by a ruling class decidedly unusual in type, and possessed of a degree of intelligence which has made them virtual masters of the sphere."
"What are they like?" asked Correy. "Will they put up a fight? Are they dangerous?"
"Our knowledge came from a luckless tramp liner which set down on FX-31 in search of water, their water-producing equipment having been damaged by carelessness. They found water, a great river of it, and sent a party of five men to determine its fitness for human consumption. They were snapped up before they had gone a hundred feet from the ship--and no more men were sent out. They hovered over the stream and drew up the water in containers devised for the purpose."
"Snapped up?" asked Correy impatiently. "By whom? Or what?"
"By spiders!" replied Inverness, his eyes shining with the fanatical gleam of a scientist who scents something strange. "Great spiders--perhaps not true spiders, but akin to them, from the descriptions we have--of what is known on Earth as the trap-door variety, but possessed of a high degree of intelligence, the power of communication, and definitely organized."
"Organized," put in Tipene, "in the sense that they work together instead of individually; that there are those to command and those to obey."
"You say they are large," I commented. "How large?"
"Large enough," said Inverness grimly, "to enable one of them to instantly overpower a strong man."
I saw Correy glance forward, where our largest disintegrator-ray tubes were located, and his eyes lit up with the thought of battle.
"If there's anything I hate," he gritted, "it's a spider. The hairy, crawling beasts! I'll man one of the tubes myself, just for the fun of seeing them dissolve into nice brown dust, and--"
"I'm afraid not, Mr. Correy," said Inverness, shaking his head. "We're going to study them--not to exterminate them. Our object is to learn their history, their customs, their mode of communication, and their degree of intelligence--if possible."
"Yes," grunted Brady. "If possible."
Kincaide set the Ertak down on FX-31, close to the shore of a river, as gently as a feather settling to earth. Correy and I made our way to the exit port, where Inverness and his companions had gathered, with a considerable amount of scientific apparatus, and what seemed to be a boat, ingeniously taken down for shipment.
All three of the scientists were clad in suits of some gray material, flexible as cloth, but possessed of a certain metallic sheen, which completely covered them. The material had been stiffened to form a sort of helmet, with a broad band of transparent material set in at the eye level, so that the wearer could see to both sides, as well as to the front. I could also discern the outlines of menores--the crude and cumbersome type of thought-transference instrument used in that day--apparently built into the helmets. Belted around their middles were atomic pistols of the latest and most deadly model.
"For emergency use only, Commander," explained Inverness, observing my glance. His voice came quite clearly through the fabric which covered his face, so I gathered it was sufficiently porous to admit air for breathing. "This garment we wear will be sufficient protection, we believe; their mandibles are the weapons of the creatures we are to study, and this fabric should be ample protection against much more deadly weapons.
"Now, we shall walk to the shore of the river; if we are not molested--and I believe we shall not be, here, because the infiltration of water would quickly fill any passage sunk into this sandy earth so close to the river--please have your men bring our supplies to us, the boat first."
I nodded, and the three men walked through the open port, out across the gleaming, golden sand, to the water's edge. A number of great scarlet birds, with long, fiercely taloned legs, swooped about them curiously, croaking hoarsely and snapping their hawkish beaks, but offering no real molestation.
My men quickly carried their supplies to them, and before the last of the equipment had been delivered, the boat was assembled and afloat: a broad-beamed craft with hollow metal ribs, covered with some shining fabric which was unfamiliar to me. There was a small cabin forward and a small atomic engine housed back near the stern.
I walked to the edge of the water and shook hands with Inverness and Brady; with Tipene I exchanged bows.
"I am sorry," said Inverness, "that I am facing you with what will, undoubtedly, be a monotonous and wearying vigil, for we shall probably be gone several weeks." He referred, I must explain, to a period of seven Earth days, a common unit of time on Earth.
"We'll make the best of it," I said, thinking of Correy, and how he would rage at such a period of inaction. "The best of luck to you!"
"Thanks; we'll remain no longer than necessary," smiled Inverness, smiling, his shining eyes already fixed on the river ahead.
"And that will be no short time," said the taciturn Brady. "Shall we start?"
Correy raged. I had expected that, and I was in complete sympathy with him. Routine patrol was better than being earth-fast on this barren and uninteresting ball of mud.
"Have I your permission, sir," asked Correy on the fourth day, "to make a little tour of inspection and exploration? We might run into some fresh meat."
"I'm not sure that would be wise. These spider creatures--"
"Pardon me, sir," interrupted Correy eagerly, "but we could take a small landing force, armed with pistols and grenades. Even a field ray tube. Certainly we could handle anything which might turn up, then."
"And, you rather hope that something will turn up, Mr. Correy?"
Correy grinned and shrugged his shoulders.
"It would break the monotony, wouldn't it, sir? And, too, if anything should happen to them"--and he glanced up the river, in the direction taken by the three scientists--"we'd know something about what we had to contend with, wouldn't we?"
I'm not sure whether it was Correy's argument or my own venturesome disposition which swayed me, but immediately after lunch Correy and I, with a picked crew of men, started out from the ship.
Up until that time, we had confined our activities to the area between the ship and the shore--a small enough space at best. Now we rounded the shining blunt bow of the Ertak and headed inland, Correy and myself in the lead, the two portable disintegrator ray-men immediately behind us, and the four other men of the party flanking the ray operators, two on each side.
It was hot, but the air was dry and invigorating. There was not a cloud visible in the sky. Far ahead was a low line of bluish, fronded, vegetation; whether small trees or some fern-like undergrowth, we could not determine. The ground between the ship and the line of vegetation was almost completely barren, the only growth being a lichenous sort of vegetation, gray-green in color.
Here and there on the ground were the imprints of sharp, split hoofs, and Correy pointed these out to me with the comment that one of the guards had reported seeing a number of slender-legged animals roaming here in the star-light, apparently seeking water, but frightened by the strange apparition of our ship.
"From the way he described them, they're something like the deer we used to have on Earth," he said. "I've seen the fossils in the museums, and they had little sharp, split hoofs like--"
One of the men behind us shouted a warning at that instant, and we both whirled in our tracks. My eyes fell instantly upon one of the strangest and most fearsome sights I have ever seen--and I have explored many strange and terrible worlds.
To our left, a huge circular section of the earth had lifted, and was swinging back on a hinge of glistening white fibers; a disk as great in diameter as the height of a man, and as thick as a man's body.
Where the disk had been, gaped a tunnel slanting down into the earth, and lined with the same glistening white fibers which covered the bottom of the disk, and hinged it in place. As I looked, there sprang from this tunnel a thing which I shall call a spider, yet which was too monstrous to be called by such an innocuous name.
It was rust red in color, with eight bristling legs, each tipped with three curved and tufted claws. On each side of its face was an armored mandible, tipped with shining fangs, and beside them, slender, six-jointed palps stretched hungrily.
The man who had seen the disk fly up opened fire without orders, and if he had not done so, some of us would not have returned to the ship. As it was, the atomic pistol whispered a steady stream of death which spattered the hairy body into an oozing pulp while it was still in mid-air. We leaped away, adding our fire to that of the alert guard who had first seen the apparition, and the spider, a twitching bundle of bespattered legs, fell on the spot where, an instant before, we had been.
Almost at the same instant two other great circular trap-doors swung up, just beyond the first, and their hairy, malignant occupants leaped toward us.
Our pistols were ready, now, however, and the portable ray equipment was humming. The ray dissolved the first into a sifting of reddish dust, and our pistols slashed the other into ribbons.
"Back to the ship!" I shouted. "Look, Mr. Correy--there are hundreds of them!"
Before us score upon score of the great disks were lifting, and from the tunnel each revealed, monstrous rust-red bodies were pouring.
Our retreat covered by the two ray operators, we made our way swiftly to the ship. The great spiders, apparently alarmed by the magical disappearance of those of their comrades upon which the disintegrator ray rested, hesitated for a moment, their tremendous legs tensed, and their mandibles quivering with venomous anger, and then scuttled back into their holes, swinging their covers into place as they did so.
"We didn't do so badly, at that," grinned Correy rather breathlessly, as we gained the welcome shelter of the Ertak. "There are a score and more of those potlids still standing open--which means that many spiders didn't go back to tell about what happened to them."
"True--but had they waited until they could have surrounded us, the Ertak would have been short-handed on the return trip. She would have been just two officers and six men short."
I have never seen a real expression of fear on Correy's face, but I came as close to it then as I ever did.
"They're tough customers," he said. "I never did like spiders, and I like them less, now. Those things stood half again as high as a man on their long legs, and could jump half the length of the ship."
"Hardly that," I said. "But I'll say this: if they're the gentry Inverness and the other two are investigating, they're welcome to their jobs!"
There wasn't any difficulty in keeping the men close to the ship after that, although waiting was a tedious and nerve-racking procedure.
We watched the spider-infested territory closely, however, and found that they fed at night upon the deer-like creatures Correy had mentioned. These unwary beasts, seeking water, were pounced upon the instant they came close to one of the hidden dens, and dragged swiftly out of sight. These observations were made by television, and Correy in particular would sit up half the night watching the creatures at work.
It was the second day of the fourth week that the sentry on duty called out that the boat was returning. We hastened down to the river to welcome them back, and I for one felt very much relieved.
But as the boat approached, I felt my fears returning, for there was only one man visible: Tipene.
The Zenian, bedraggled and weary, had lost or discarded the protective suit he had worn, and his lean, dark face was haggard.
"We leave immediately, Commander Hanson," he said as he disembarked. "Please give the necessary orders."
"But the others, sir? Where are Inverness and Brady?"
"Dead," said Tipene. "The Aranians got them. I barely escaped myself."
"And who are the Aranians?" I asked.
"The creatures which control this world. The spider creatures. Aranians, they call themselves. Do we leave at once, as I ordered?"
I thought quickly. I didn't like Tipene, and never had, and I fancied even less the high-handed attitude he was taking.
"I would suggest, sir, that you first give us an account of what has happened," I said shortly. "If there is anything we can do for the other two, perhaps--"
"I said they were dead," snapped Tipene. "You can't do anything for dead men, can you?"
"No. But we must have a report to enter on our log, you understand, and--I'll be very busy on the return trip. I'd like to have your story before we start." Somehow, I was suspicious of Tipene.
"Very well. Although I warn you I shall report your delay to your superiors." I shrugged, and led the way to the dining saloon which, small as it was, held chairs enough to seat us all.
"My story is very brief," he said, when my three officers, Tipene, and myself were seated. "We proceeded up the river to a spot which we deemed suited as a point of entry into the country, and far enough from the ship so that its presence would not be alarming to the inhabitants.
"We permitted ourselves to be captured by the Aranians, knowing that our protective suits would prevent them from doing us serious bodily injury.
"You have seen the creatures--word of your adventure with them precipitated our misfortune, I might say here--and you know of their tunnels. We were taken down one of these tunnels, and into a still larger one. This in turn gave onto a veritable subterranean avenue, and, in time, led to a sort of underground metropolis."
"What?" growled Correy. "An underground city of those things?"
"I should like to ask that you do not interrupt," said Tipene coldly. "This metropolis was really no more than a series of cubicles, opening off the innumerable crisscrossing tunnels, and many layers in thickness. Passage from one level to another was by means of slanting tunnels.
"Some of these cubicles were very large, and utilized as storage rooms. Others were used for community activities, schools, entertainments, and so forth. We learned these things later, and explored them by means of our ethon lamps--the entire system of tunnels being, of course, in utter darkness.
"The first few days they were exceedingly hostile, and tried to tear us to pieces. When they could not do this, word was sent to some of their more learned members, and we were investigated. By the use of extra menores we had brought with us, we established a contact with their minds; first by the usual process of impressing pictures of our thoughts upon their minds, and later by more direct process."
"I will say nothing of the great scientific value of our discoveries, for you would neither understand nor appreciate them--although they will set the scientific universe agog," continued Tipene, his eyes gleaming suddenly with a triumphant light. "As we perfected communication, we convinced them that we were friendly, and we gained their complete confidence.
"They are a very ancient race. Very slowly have they come to their present stage of mental development, but they now possess reasoning faculties, a language--and a form of community government. There is much more, which, as I have said, would be of no significance to you.
"And then word came that beings like ourselves had attacked and killed many of the Aranians. The news had traveled slowly, for their system of communication is crude, but it reached the community center in which we were staying.
"Instantly, all was hostility. They felt they had been betrayed, and that we might betray them. Brady and Inverness, always rash and thoughtless, had discarded their protective suits, feeling sure they were perfectly safe, and they were torn to pieces.
"I, having a more scientific and cautious mind, doubting everything as a true scientific mind must, still wore my armor. By the liberal use of my pistol, I managed to fight my way to the surface, and to the boat. And now, Commander Hanson, will you start back, as I have ordered?"
I don't know what I would have said if I had not caught a peculiar glance from Correy, a glance accompanied by a significant, momentary closing of one eye (a gesture of Earth which means many things, and which is impossible to explain) and a slight nod.
"Very well, Mr. Tipene," I said shortly. "We'll start at once. Gentlemen, will you join me in the navigating room?"