Correy was the last to arrive in the navigating room, and when he came in his eyes were dancing.
"I've just transferred Tipene to another stateroom, sir," he said. "A specially equipped stateroom."
"If you'll give orders, sir, for an immediate start, I'll tell you all about it," chuckled Correy. "Tipene says he's worn out, and is going to retire as soon as we start. And when he does--we'll learn something."
I nodded to Kincaide, and he gave the general attention signal. In a few seconds the outer sentry was recalled, and the exit port had been sealed. Slowly, the Ertak lifted.
"Maybe I'm wrong, sir," said Correy then, "but I'm convinced that Tipene is lying. Something's wrong; he was in altogether too much of a hurry to get away.
"So, before I transferred him to the other stateroom, I concealed a menore under the mattress of his bunk, immediately under where his head will lie. It's adjusted to full strength, and I believe it will pick up enough energy to emanate what he's thinking about. We'll be in the next stateroom and see what we can pick up. How does that sound, sir?"
"Like something you'd cook up, Mr. Correy!" I said promptly. "And I believe, as you do, that if it works at all, we'll find out something interesting."
We equipped ourselves with menores, adjusted to maximum power, and silently filed into the stateroom adjacent to Tipene's.
He was moving about slowly, apparently undressing, for we heard first one boot and then another drop to the floor. And we could sense vague emanations, too faint to be intelligible, and unmistakably coming from him.
"Probably sitting on the edge of his bunk," whispered Correy. "When he lies down, it'll work like a charm!"
It did--almost too well. Suddenly we caught a strong emanation, in the Universal language.
"Surly individual, that Hanson--didn't like my giving orders--hurt his dignity. But I had my own way, and that's all that's important. Seemed to be suspicious--they all were. Maybe I was a bit urgent--but I was afraid--those damned Aranians might have changed their spidery minds.
"They can't be very intelligent--to think I'd come back with tribute to pay for the spiders that fool Hanson and his men killed. Why, the ship's rays could wipe them all out, drill a hole in the ground--they didn't realize that. Thought that by holding Brady and that conceited Inverness for hostages, they'd be safe--and I'd be idiotic enough to not see this chance to get all the glory of the expedition for myself--instead of sharing it with those two. You're a quick thinker, Tipene--the true, ruthless, scientific mind...."
I motioned for my officers to follow me, and we made our way, silent and grim-faced, to the navigating room.
"Nice, friendly lad, isn't he?" snarled Correy. "I thought there was something up. What are your plans, sir?"
"We'll go to the rescue of Inverness and Brady, of course. Mr. Correy, place Tipene under arrest, and bring him here at once. Mr. Kincaide, take over the ship; give orders to set her down where we were. And you, Mr. Hendricks, will take personal command of the forward ray tubes."
My officers sprang to obey orders, and I paced restlessly up and down the room, thinking. Just as the Ertak settled softly to earth, Correy returned with his prisoner. Two men stood on guard with drawn atomic pistols at the door.
"What's the meaning of this indignity, sir?" flared Tipene. He had dressed hurriedly, and was by no means an imposing spectacle. He drew himself up to his full height, and tried to look domineering, but there was fear in his eyes. "I shall report you--"
"You'll do no reporting, Tipene," I broke in coldly. "I'll do the reporting. You see, we know all about your little plan to desert your comrades, held by the Aranians as hostages, and to grasp all the glory of your findings for yourself. But--the plan doesn't work. We're going back."
Tipene's face drained a dirty yellow--a Zenian can never be actually pale.
"You ... how...." he floundered.
"A menore, under your pillow," I explained crisply. "But that doesn't matter, now. You will guide us to the spot where you found the Aranian city, and establish communication with the Aranians. When that's done, I'll give you further orders."
"And if I won't?" breathed Tipene, his teeth clenched in a shaking rage.
"But you will. Otherwise, we'll permit you to continue your explorations on this interesting little sphere--minus your protective suit."
Tipene stared at me with horror-stricken eyes. I think he saw that I meant exactly what I said--and I was not bluffing.
"I--I'll do it," he said.
"Then watch the river carefully," I ordered. "Kincaide, lift her just enough so we can get a good view of the river. Tipene will tell you where to set her down."
Navigating visually, Kincaide followed the winding course of the river, covering in a few minutes a distance it had taken the scientists a day to navigate.
"There--there is the place," said Tipene suddenly. "Just this side of the patch of vegetation."
"Very good. And remember what happens if you play any tricks," I nodded grimly. "Descend to within a few yards of the ground, Mr. Kincaide; we'll drop Tipene through the trap."
Correy hurried the prisoner away, and I ordered the trap in the bottom of the Ertak's hull to be opened.
"Now," I informed Tipene, "we'll let you down and you will establish communication with the Aranians. Tell them you have brought back, not tribute, but an enemy powerful enough to blast their entire city out of existence. It will be a simple matter for you to picture what an atomic grenade or one of the ship's rays will do. We'll arrange a little demonstration, if they're not convinced. And tell them that if they don't want to be wiped out, to bring Inverness and Brady to us, unharmed, as fast as their eight long legs will manage."
"They won't do it," whined Tipene. "They were very angry over the killing of those others. I'm just risking my life without the possibility of gain."
"You obey my orders, or you go down and stay there," I said abruptly. "Which?"
"I'll do as you say," he said, and the cage dropped with him swiftly.
As soon as he was on the ground he reached up and adjusted his menore, peering around anxiously. For several minutes nothing happened, and then, the length of the ship away, one of the great trap-doors flew open. Out of it came one of the spiders, not rust-red like those we had seen, but faded to a dirty yellow. Close behind him were two of the rust-red Aranians, which fell in one on each side of the yellow chap.
The first Aranian, I presumed--and rightly--was one of the old learned members of the race. As he scuttled closer to the cowering Tipene, I saw that, amidst the bristles which covered his head and thorax, was a menore.
The three great spiders approached the ship warily, watching it constantly with huge, glittering eyes. A safe distance away they paused, and the old one fixed his attention on Tipene.
Evidently, what Tipene emanated caused the old fellow to become very angry; I could see his legs quivering, and his withered old mandibles fairly clattered.
"He says he won't do it!" Tipene called up to me, excitedly. "Says we can't reach them underground, and that they'll kill their hostages if we try to harm them."
"Ask him if there are any tunnels between the ship and the river," I commanded. "We'll demonstrate what we can do if he harms Inverness and Brady."
The two were in silent communion for a moment, and Tipene looked up and shook his head.
"No," he shouted. "No tunnels there. The water would seep into them."
"Then tell him to watch!"
I stepped back and pressed an attention signal.
"Open up with the starboard tube, full power, concentrated beam, at any spot halfway between here and the river. At once."
"At once, sir!"
The ray generators hummed instantly, their note deepening a moment later. The ray bit into the dry, sandy soil, boring steadily into the earth, making an opening over twice the height of a man in diameter.
The fine, reddish-brown dust of disintegration hung swirling above the mouth of the tunnel at first, and then, as the ray cut deeper into the earth, settled quickly and disappeared.
"Cease operation, Mr. Hendricks!" I commanded. "Keep the generators on, and stand by for further orders."
As soon as Hendricks' quick acknowledgment came back, I called down to Tipene.
"Tell your friend to inspect the little hole we drilled," I said. "Tell him to crawl down into it, if he wishes to see how deep it is. And then inform him that we have several ray tubes like this one, and that if he does not immediately produce his hostages, unharmed, we'll rise above his city and blast out a crater big enough to bury the Ertak."
Tipene nodded and communicated with the aged Aranian, who had cowered from the shaft in the earth disintegrated by our ray, and who now, very cautiously, approached it, flanked by his two far from eager guards.
At the lip of the slanting tunnel he paused, peered downward, and then, circling cautiously, approached the lidded tunnel whence he had emerged.
"He agrees," Tipene called up sullenly. "He will deliver Inverness and Brady to us. But we must come and get them; he says they have barricaded themselves in one of the cubicles, and will not permit any Aranian to approach. They still have their atomic pistols; the Aranians did not realize they were weapons."
"Very well; tell him a party from the ship will be ready in a few seconds. You will go with us as interpreter; you understand how to communicate with them."
I pressed Correy's attention signal and he answered instantly.
"Pick five good men for a landing party, two of them portable disintegrator ray operators, with equipment. The others will be provided with ethon lamps, pistols, and atomic grenades. Get the men to the trap as quickly as possible, please."
I had the cage drawn up, and by the time I had secured my own equipment and returned, Correy was waiting with his men.
"One second, Mr. Correy, and we'll leave," I said, calling the navigating room. "Mr. Kincaide, I'm leaving you in command. We are going into the Aranian city to pick up Inverness and Brady. I anticipate no trouble, and if there is no trouble, we shall return within an hour. If we are not back within three hours, blast this entire area with atomic grenades, and riddle it with the rays. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir," said Kincaide.
"And then proceed immediately to Base and report. I have made an entry in the log regarding this expedition, as official evidence, if needed."
"Right, sir," said Kincaide, who was as near a perfect officer as I have ever seen.
"Mr. Correy, you've heard my orders. So have you, men. We're going underground, into a veritable warren of these spider creatures. If any of you wish to refuse this service, you have my permission to withdraw."
Not a man moved. Correy hardly repressed a grin. He knew the men he had picked for the job.
"Good!" I said, and signaled to the cage operator. Swiftly we dropped to earth, where Tipene and our three hairy guides awaited us.
The descent into the white-lined tunnel was a terrifying experience. The lining was tough and fibrous, a sort of coarse material corresponding to the silk of a spider of normal size, although these strands were as large as my little finger, and strong as cables.
A close inspection of our guides added nothing to my confidence or bravery; their eight beady eyes, set at strategic spots about their heads, seemed unwinkingly ominous. And their mandibles, with fangs folded back like the blades of a pocket-knife, paired with their bristly palps, seemed like very capable weapons.
The Aranians ran ahead of us, our ethon lamps making strange and distorted shadows on the curving walls of the tunnel. Correy and I herded the unwilling Tipene just ahead of us, and the five picked men brought up the rear.
About forty feet down, the floor of the tunnel curved sharply and leveled off; a short distance farther on a number of other level tunnels merged with it, and the shape changed; from a tube perfectly circular in cross-section, it became a flattened oval, perhaps half again the height of a man, and at least three times that dimension in width.
Our party was joined by scores of other Aranians, who darted in from side passages; some going ahead, some closing in behind us, until the tunnel was filled with the peculiar brittle sound of their walking.
"They don't lack for numbers," muttered Correy softly. "Think they'll make trouble, sir?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. I showed them what the ray would do; I believe it threw a scare into the old chap. Did you tell them what we would do if they played any tricks, Tipene?"
"Certainly; my own life is endangered, isn't it?" snapped the Zenian.
"It certainly is," I told him grimly. "And not only by the spiders, if you make any suspicious moves."
We went on without further conversation, until we came to the beginning of the cubicles Tipene had mentioned.
Each of these was closed, or could be closed, by a circular door such as those which concealed the outer entrance to the tunnels, save that these were swung on a side hinge. From the central passage we were following, smaller ones branched off in all directions: to the left, to the right; upward and downward. And all were lined with the cubicles, from which a constantly increasing army of Aranians emerged to accompany us.
We had gone but a short distance into the "city" when our ancient guide paused, turning to stare down a deserted passage.
"He says," grunted Tipene--as near a grunt as the high-pitched Zenian voice is capable of, "that they're down there. He asks that we go and get them; he is afraid. They have killed two of the Aranians already with their atomic pistols."
"For which I don't blame them in the least," said Correy. "I'd get as many as I could before I let them sink their mandibles into me."
"But I thought they were hostages, and being treated as such?"
"The Aranians got tired of waiting; some of the younger ones tried to do their own executing," explained Tipene. "The whole brood of them is in an ugly mood, the old fellow tells me. We were fools to come!"
I didn't argue the matter. You can't argue such a matter with a man like Tipene. Instead, I lifted my voice in a shout which echoed down the long corridors.
"Brady! Inverness! Can you hear us?"
For a moment there was no reply, and then, as our ethon lights played hopefully along the passage, a circular door opened, and Inverness, his pistol drawn, peered out at us. A moment later, both he and Brady were running toward us.
"Hanson!" cried Inverness. "Man, but we're glad to see a human face again--but why did you come? Now they've got us all."
"But they'll let us all go," I said, with a confidence I did not feel. "I've demonstrated to one of their leaders just what the Ertak can do--and will do--if we aren't aboard, safe and unhurt, in three hours."
"The young bloods don't obey well, though," said Brady, shaking his head. "Look at them, milling around there in the central passage! They didn't see your demonstration, whatever it was. They started for us some time back, and we had to rip a couple of them to pieces, and barricade ourselves."