"Well," said Correy grimly, "we'll soon find out. Ready to start back, sir?"
I turned to Tipene, who was staring at the packed mass of Aranians, who choked the tunnel in both directions.
"Tell them to make way," I commanded. "We're leaving."
"I've--I've been in communication with him," moaned Tipene. "And he hasn't any power over these youngsters. They want blood. Blood! They say the ship won't dare do anything so long as so many of us are here."
"It will, though," I snapped. "Kincaide will obey my orders to the letter. It'll be a wholesale slaughter, if we're not there by the specified time."
"I know! I know!" groaned Tipene. "But I can't make them understand that. They can't appreciate the meaning of such discipline."
"I believe that," put in Brady. "Their state of society is still low in the scale. You shouldn't have come, Commander. Better the two of us than the whole group."
"It may not be so simple as they think. Mr. Correy, shall we make a dash for it?"
"I'd be in favor of that, sir!" he grinned.
"Very well, you take three of the enlisted men, Mr. Correy, and give us a brisk rear-guard action when we get into the main passage--if we do. Use the grenades if you have to, but throw them as fast as possible, or we'll have the roof coming down on us.
"The two ray operators and myself will try to open a way, backed up by Inverness and Brady. Understand, everybody?" The men took the places I had indicated, nodding, and we stood at the mouth of the side tunnel, facing the main passage which intersected it at a right angle. The mouth of the passage was blocked by a crowded mass of the spider creatures, evidently eager to pounce on us, but afraid to start an action in those narrow quarters.
As we came toward them, the Aranians packed about the entrance gave way grudgingly, all save two or three. Without an instant's hesitation, I lifted my pistol and slashed them into jerking pulp.
"Hold the ray," I ordered the two men by my side, "until we need it. They'll get a surprise when it goes into action."
We needed it the moment we turned into the main corridor, for here the passage was broad, and in order to prevent the creatures from flanking us, we had to spread our front and rear guards until they were no more than two thin lines.
Seeing their advantage, the Aranians rushed us. At a word from me, the ray operators went into action, and I did what I could with my comparatively ineffective pistol. Between us, we swept the passage clean as far as we could see--which was not far, for the reddish dust of disintegration hung in the quiet air, and the light of our ethon lamps could not pierce it.
For a moment I thought we would have clear sailing; Correy and his men were doing fine work behind us, and our ray was sweeping everything before us.
Then we came to the first of the intersecting passages, and a clattering horde of Aranians leaped out at us. The ray operators stopped them, but another passage on the opposite side was spewing out more than I could handle with my pistol.
Two of the hairy creatures were fairly upon me before the ray swung to that side and dissolved them into dust. For an instant the party stopped, checked by these unexpected flank attacks.
And there would be more of these sallies from the hundreds of passages which opened off the main corridor; I had no doubt of that. And there the creatures had us: our deadly ray could not reach them out ahead; we must wait until we were abreast, and then the single ray could work upon but one side. Correy needed every man he had to protect our rear, and my pistol was not adequate against a rush at such close quarters. That fact had just been proved to me with unpleasant emphasis.
It was rank folly to press on; the party would be annihilated.
"Down this passage, men," I ordered the two ray operators. "We'll have to think up a better plan."
They turned off into the passage they had swept clean with their ray, and the rest of the party followed swiftly. A few yards from the main corridor the passage turned and ran parallel to the corridor we had just left. Doors opened off this passage on both sides, but all the doors were open, and the cubicles thus revealed were empty.
"Well, sir," said Correy, when we had come to the dead end of the passage, "now what?"
"I don't know," I confessed. "If we had two ray machines, we could make it. But if I remember correctly, it's seven hundred yards, yet, to the first of the tunnels leading to the surface--and that means several hundred side passages from which they can attack. We can't make it."
"Well, we can try again, anyway, sir," Correy replied stoutly. "Better to go down fighting than stay here and starve, eh?"
"If you'll pardon me, gentlemen," put in Inverness, "I'd like to make a suggestion. We can't return the way we came in; I'm convinced of that. It was the sheerest luck that Commander Hanson wasn't brought down a moment ago--luck, and excellent work on the part of the two ray operators.
"But an analysis of our problem shows that our real objective is to reach the surface, and that need not be done the most obvious way, by returning over the course by which we entered."
"How, then?" I asked sharply.
"The disintegrator ray you have there should be able to cut a passage for us," said Inverness. "Then all we need do is protect our rear while the operators are working. Once on the surface, we'll be able to fight our way to the ship, will we not?"
"Of course! You should be in command, Inverness, instead of myself." His was the obvious solution to our difficulty; once proposed, I felt amazingly stupid that the thought had not occurred to me.
I gave the necessary orders to the ray men, and they started immediately, boring in steadily at an angle of about forty-five degrees.
The reddish dust came back to us in choking clouds, and the Aranians, perhaps guessing what we were doing--at least one of their number had seen how the ray could tunnel in the ground--started working around the angle of the passage.
At first they came in small groups, and our pistols readily disposed of them, but as the dust filled the air, and it became increasingly difficult to see their spidery bodies, they rushed us in great masses.
Correy and I, shoulder to shoulder, fired at the least sign of movement in the cloud of dust. A score of times the rushes of the Aranians brought a few of them scuttling almost to our feet; inside of a few minutes the passage was choked, waist high, with the riddled bodies--and still they came!
"We're through, sir!" shouted one of the ray operators. "If you can hold them off another fifteen minutes, we'll have the hole large enough to crawl through."
"Work fast!" I ordered. Even with Inverness, Brady, and the three of the Ertak's crew doing what they could in those narrow quarters, we were having a hard time holding back the horde of angry, desperate Aranians. Tipene was useless; he was cowering beside the ray operators, chattering at them, urging them to hurry.
Had we had good light, our task would have been easy, but the passage was choked now with dust. Our ethon lamps made little more than a dismal glow. The clattering Aranians were almost within leaping distance before we could see them; indeed, more than one was stopped in mid-air by a spray from one pistol or another.
"Ready, sir," gasped the ray man who had spoken before. "I think we've got it large enough, now."
"Good!" I brought down two scuttling Aranians, so close that their twitching legs fell in an untidy heap almost at my feet. "You go first, and protect our advance. Then the rest of you; Mr. Correy and I will bring up the--"
"No!" screamed Tipene, shouldering aside the ray men. "I...." He disappeared into the slanting shaft, and the two ray men followed quickly. The three members of the crew went next; then Brady and Inverness.
Correy and I backed toward the freshly cut passage.
"I'll be right behind you," I snapped, "so keep moving!"
Correy hesitated an instant; I knew he would have preferred the place of danger as the last man, but he was too good an officer to protest when time was so precious. He climbed into the slanting passage the ray had cut for us, and as he did so, I heard, or thought I heard, a cry from beyond him, from one of those ahead.
I gave Correy several seconds before I followed; when I did start, I planned on coming fast, for in that shoulder-tight tube I would be utterly at the mercy of any who might attack from behind.
Fairly spraying the oncoming horde, I drove them back, for a moment, beyond the angle in the corridor; then I fairly dived into the tunnel and crawled as fast as hands and knees could take me toward the blessed open air.
I heard the things clatter into the space I had deserted. I heard them scratching frantically in the tunnel behind me, evidently handicapped by their long legs, which must have been drawn up very close to their bodies.
Light came pouring in on me suddenly, and I realized that Correy had won free. Behind me I could hear savage mandibles snapping, and cold sweat broke out on me. How close a terrible death might be, I had no means of knowing--but it was very close.
My head emerged; I drew my body swiftly out of the hole and snatched a grenade from my belt. Instantly I flung it down the slanting passage, with a shout of warning to my companions.
With a muffled roar, the grenade shook the earth; sent a brown cloud spattering around us. I had made a desperate leap to get away, but even then I was covered by the shower of earth.
I looked around. Trapdoors were open everywhere, and from hundreds of these openings, Aranians were scuttling toward us.
But the ray operators were working; not only the little portable machine, but the big projectors on the Ertak, five or six hundred yards away; laying down a deadly and impassable barrage on either side of us.
"They got Tipene, sir!" said Correy. "He dodged out ahead of the ray men, and two of them pounced on him. They were dragging him away, tearing him. The ray men wiped them out. Tipene was already dead--torn to fragments, they said. Back to the ship now, sir?"
"Back to the ship," I nodded, still rather breathless. "Let the ray men cover our retreat; we can take care of those between us and the ship with our pistols--and the Ertak's projectors will attend to our flanks. On the double, men!"
We fought every step of the way, in a fog of reddish dust from the big disintegrator rays playing on either side of us--but we made it, a torn, weary, and bedraggled crew.
"Quite an engagement, sir," gasped Correy, when we were safely inside the Ertak. "Think they'll remember this little visit of ours, sir?"
"I know we'll remember it, anyway," I said, shaking some of the dust of disintegration from my clothes. "Just at the moment, I'd welcome a tour of routine patrol."
"Sure, sir," grinned Correy. "So would I--until we were a day or two out from Base!"
THE FORGOTTEN PLANET.
By Sewell Peaslee Wright
I have been asked to record, plainly and without prejudice, a brief history of the Forgotten Planet.
That this record, when completed, will be sealed in the archives of the Interplanetary Alliance and remain there, a secret and rather dreadful bit of history, is no concern of mine. I am an old man, well past the century mark, and what disposal is made of my work is of little importance to me. I grow weary of life and living, which is good. The fear of death was lost when our scientists showed us how to live until we grew weary of life. But I am digressing--an old man's failing.
The Forgotten Planet was not always so named. The name that it once bore had been, as every child knows, stricken from the records, actual and mental, of the Universe. It is well that evil should not be remembered. But in order that this history may be clear in the centuries to come, my record should go back to beginnings.
So far as the Universe is concerned, the history of the Forgotten Planet begins with the visit of the first craft ever to span the space between the worlds: the crude, adventuresome Edorn, whose name, as well as the names of the nine Zenians who manned her, occupy the highest places in the roll of honor of the Universe.
Ame Baove, the commander and historian of the Edorn, made but brief comment on his stop at the Forgotten Planet. I shall record it in full: "We came to rest upon the surface of this, the fourth of the planets visited during the first trip of the Edorn, eighteen spaces before the height of the sun. We found ourselves surrounded immediately by vast numbers of creatures very different from ourselves, and from their expressions and gestures, we gathered that they were both curious and unfriendly.
"Careful analysis of the atmosphere proved it to be sufficiently similar to our own to make it possible for us to again stretch our legs outside the rather cramped quarters of the Edorn, and tread the soil of still another world.
"No sooner had we emerged, however, than we were angrily beset by the people of this unfriendly planet, and rather than do them injury, we retired immediately, and concluded our brief observations through our ports.
"The topography of this planet is similar to our own, save that there are no mountains, and the flora is highly colored almost without exception, and apparently quite largely parasitical in nature. The people are rather short in stature, with hairless heads and high foreheads. Instead of being round or oval, however, the heads of these people rise to a rounded ridge which runs back from a point between and just above the eyes, nearly to the nape of the neck behind. They give evidence of a fair order of intelligence, but are suspicious and unfriendly. From the number and size of the cities we saw, this planet is evidently thickly populated.
"We left about sixteen spaces before the height of the sun, and continued towards the fifth and last planet before our return to Zenia."
This report, quite naturally, caused other explorers in space to hesitate. There were so many friendly, eager worlds to visit, during the years that relations between the planets were being established, that an unfriendly people were ignored.
However, from time to time, as space-ships became perfected and more common, parties from many of the more progressive planets did call. Each of them met with the same hostile reception, and at last, shortly after the second War of the Planets, the victorious Alliance sent a fleet of the small but terrible Deuber Spheres, convoyed by four of the largest of the disintegrator ray-ships, to subjugate the Forgotten Planet.
Five great cities were destroyed, and the Control City, the seat of the government, was menaced before the surly inhabitants conceded allegiance to the Alliance. Parties of scientists, fabricators, and workmen were then landed, and a dictator was appointed.
From all the worlds of the Alliance, instruments and equipment were brought to the Forgotten Planet. A great educational system was planned and executed, the benign and kindly influence of the Alliance made every effort to improve the conditions existing on the Forgotten Planet, and to win the friendship and allegiance of these people.
For two centuries the work went on. Two centuries of bloodshed, strife, hate and disturbance. No where else within the known Universe was there ill feeling. The second awful War of the Planets had at last succeeded in teaching the lesson of peace.
Two centuries of effort--wasted effort. It was near the end of the second century that my own story begins.
Commander at that time of the super-cruiser Tamon, a Special Patrol ship of the Alliance, I was not at all surprised to receive orders from the Central Council to report at emergency speed. Special Patrol work in those days, before the advent of the present de-centralized system, was a succession of false starts, hurried recalls, and urgent, emergency orders.
I obeyed at once. In the Special Patrol service, there is no questioning orders. The planet Earth, from which I sprang, is and always has been proud of the fact that from the very beginning, her men have been picked to command the ships of the Special Patrol. No matter how dangerous, how forlorn and hopeless the mission given to a commander of a Special Patrol ship, history has never recorded that any commander has ever hesitated. That is why our uniform of blue and silver commands the respect that it does even in this day and age of softening and decadence, when men--but again an old man digresses. And perhaps it is not for me to judge.
I pointed the blunt nose of the Tamon at Zenia, seat of the Central Council, and in four hours, Earth time, the great craft swept over the gleaming city of the Central Council and settled swiftly to the court before the mighty, columned Hall of the Planets.
Four pages of the Council, in their white and scarlet livery, met me and conducted me instantly to a little anteroom behind the great council chamber.
There were three men awaiting me there; three men whose faces, at that time, were familiar to every person in the known Universe.
Kellen, the oldest of the three, and the spokesman, rose as I entered the room. The others did likewise, as the pages closed the heavy doors behind me.
"You are prompt, and that is good," thought Kellen. "I welcome you. Remove now thy menore."
I glanced up at him swiftly. This must surely be an important matter, that I was asked to remove my menore band.
It will, of course, be understood that at that time we had but a bulky and clumsy instrument to enable us to convey and receive thought; a device consisting of a heavy band of metal, in which were imbedded the necessary instruments and a tiny atomic energy generator, the whole being worn as a circlet or crown upon the head.
Wonderingly, I removed my menore, placed it upon the long, dark table around which the three men were standing, and bowed. Each of the three, in turn, lifted their gleaming circlets from their heads, and placed them likewise upon the table before them.
"You wonder," said Kellen, speaking of course, in the soft and liquid universal language, which is, I understand, still disseminated in our schools, as it should be. "I shall explain as quickly and as briefly as possible.
"We have called you here on a dangerous mission. A mission that will require tact and quickness of mind as well as bravery. We have selected you, have called you, because we are agreed that you possess the qualities required. Is it not so?" He glanced at his two companions, and they nodded gravely, solemnly, without speaking.
"You are a young man, John Hanson," continued Kellen, "but your record in your service is one of which you can be proud. We trust you--with knowledge that is so secret, so precious, that we must revert to speech in order to convey it; we dare not trust it, even in this protected and guarded place, to the menore's quicker but less discreet communication."