It's amazing how much you can learn about absolute strangers if you just stop to think about the kind of an animal they'll put in a ...
Captain Baird stood at the window of the laboratory where the thousand parts of the strange rocket lay strewn in careful order. Small groups worked slowly over the dismantled parts. The captain wanted to ask but something stopped him. Behind him Doctor Johannsen sat at his desk, his gnarled old hand tight about a whiskey bottle, the bottle the doctor always had in his desk but never brought out except when he was alone, and waited for Captain Baird to ask his question. Captain Baird turned at last.
"They are our markings?" Captain Baird asked. It was not the question. Captain Baird knew the markings of the Rocket Testing Station as well as the doctor did.
"Yes," the doctor said, "they are our markings. Identical. But not our paint."
Captain Baird turned back to the window. Six months ago it had happened. Ten minutes after launching, the giant test rocket had been only a speck on the observation screen. Captain Baird had turned away in disgust.
"A mouse!" the captain had said, "unfortunate a mouse can't observe, build, report. My men are getting restless, Johannsen."
"When we are ready, Captain," the doctor had said.
It was twelve hours before the urgent call from Central Control brought the captain running back to the laboratory. The doctor was there before him. Professor Schultz wasted no time, he pointed to the instrument panel. "A sudden shift, see for yourself. We'll miss Mars by a million and a quarter at least."
Two hours later the shift in course of the test rocket was apparent to all of them and so was their disappointment.
"According to the instruments the steering shifted a quarter of an inch. No reason shows up," Professor Schultz said.
"Flaw in the metal?" Doctor Johannsen said.
"How far can it go?" Captain Baird asked.
Professor Schultz shrugged. "Until the fuel runs out, which is probably as good as never, or until the landing mechanism is activated by a planet-sized body."
"Course? Did you plot it?" The doctor asked.
"Of course I did," Professor Schultz said, "as close as I can calculate it is headed for Alpha Centauri."
Captain Baird turned away. The doctor watched him.
"Perhaps you will not be quite so hasty with your men's lives in the future, Captain?" the doctor said.
Professor Schultz was spinning dials. "No contact," the professor said, "No contact at all."
That had been six months ago. Three more test rockets had been fired successfully before the urgent report came through from Alaskan Observation Post No. 4. A rocket was coming across the Pole.
The strange rocket was tracked and escorted by atomic armed fighters all the way to the Rocket Testing Station where it cut its own motors and gently landed. In the center of a division of atomic-armed infantry the captain, the doctor, and everyone else, waited impatiently. There was an air of uneasiness.
"You're sure it's not ours?" Captain Baird asked.
The doctor laughed. "Identical, yes, but three times the size of ours."
"Perhaps one of the Asian ones?"
"No, it's our design, but too large, much too large."
Professor Schultz put their thoughts into words. "Looks like someone copied ours. Someone, somewhere. It's hard to imagine, but true nevertheless."
They waited two weeks. Nothing happened. Then a radiation-shielded team went in to examine the rocket. Two more weeks and the strange rocket was dismantled and spread over the field of the testing station. The rocket was dismantled and the station had begun to talk to itself in whispers and look at the sky.
Captain Baird stood now at the window and looked out at the dismantled rocket. He looked but his mind was not on the parts of the rocket he could see from the window.
"The materials, they're not ours?" the captain asked.
"Unknown here," the doctor said.
The captain nodded. "Those were our instruments?"
"Yes." The doctor still held the whiskey bottle in a tight grip.
"They sent them back," the captain said.
The doctor crashed the bottle hard against the desk top. "Ask it, Captain, for God's sake!!"
The captain turned to face the doctor directly. "It was a man, a full grown man."
The doctor sighed as if letting the pent-up steam of his heart escape. "Yes, it is a man. It breathes, it eats, it has all the attributes of a man. But it is not of our planet."
"Its speech ..." the captain began.
"That isn't speech, Captain," the doctor broke in, breaking in sharply, "It's only sound." The doctor stopped; he examined the label of his bottle of whiskey very carefully. A good brand of whiskey. "He seems quite happy in the storeroom. You know, Captain, what puzzled me at first? He can't read. He can't read anything, not even the instruments in that ship. In fact he shows no interest in his rocket at all."
The captain sat down now. He sat at the desk and faced the doctor. "At least they had the courage to send a man, not a mouse. Doctor, a man."
The doctor stared at the captain, his hand squeezing and unsqueezing on the whiskey bottle. "A man who can't read his own instruments?" The doctor laughed. "Perhaps you too have failed to see the point? Like that stupid general who sits out there waiting for the men from somewhere to invade?"
"Don't you think it's a possibility?"
The doctor nodded. "A very good possibility, Captain, but they will not be men." The doctor seemed to pause and lean forward. "That rocket, Captain, is a test rocket. A test rocket just like ours!"
Then the doctor picked up his whiskey bottle at last and poured two glasses.
"Perhaps a drink, Captain?"
The captain was watching the sky outside the window.
THE RED HELL OF JUPITER.
By Paul Ernst
What is the mystery centered in Jupiter's famous "Red Spot"? Two fighting Earthmen, caught by the "Pipe-men" like their vanished comrades, soon find out.
The Red Spot Commander Stone, grizzled chief of the Planetary Exploration Forces, acknowledged Captain Brand Bowen's salute and beckoned him to take a seat.
Brand, youngest officer of the division to wear the triple-V for distinguished service, sat down and stared curiously at his superior. He hadn't the remotest idea why he had been recalled from leave: but that it was on a matter of some importance he was sure. He hunched his big shoulders and awaited orders.
"Captain Bowen," said Stone. "I want you to go to Jupiter as soon as you can arrange to do so, fly low over the red area in the southern hemisphere, and come back here with some sort of report as to what's wrong with that infernal death spot."
He tapped his radio stylus thoughtfully against the edge of his desk.
"As you perhaps know, I detailed a ship to explore the red spot about a year ago. It never came back. I sent another ship, with two good men in it, to check up on the disappearance of the first. That ship, too, never came back. Almost with the second of its arrival at the edge of the red area all radio communication with it was cut off. It was never heard from again. Two weeks ago I sent Journeyman there. Now he has been swallowed up in a mysterious silence."
An exclamation burst from Brand's lips. Sub-Commander Journeyman! Senior officer under Stone, ablest man in the expeditionary forces, and Brand's oldest friend!
Stone nodded comprehension of the stricken look on Brand's face. "I know how friendly you two were," he said soberly. "That's why I chose you to go and find out, if you can, what happened to him and the other two ships."
Brand's chin sank to rest on the stiff high collar of his uniform.
"Journeyman!" he mused. "Why, he was like an older brother to me. And now ... he's gone."
There was silence in Commander Stone's sanctum for a time. Then Brand raised his head.
"Did you have any radio reports at all from any of the three ships concerning the nature of the red spot?" he inquired.
"None that gave definite information," replied Stone. "From each of the three ships we received reports right up to the instant when the red area was approached. From each of the three came a vague description of the peculiarity of the ground ahead of them: it seems to glitter with a queer metallic sheen. Then, from each of the three, as they passed over the boundary--nothing! All radio communication ceased as abruptly as though they'd been stricken dead."
He stared at Brand. "That's all I can tell you, little enough, God knows. Something ominous and strange is contained in that red spot: but what its nature may be, we cannot even guess. I want you to go there and find out."
Brand's determined jaw jutted out, and his lips thinned to a purposeful line. He stood to attention.
"I'll be leaving to-night, sir. Or sooner if you like. I could go this afternoon: in an hour--"
"To-night is soon enough," said Stone with a smile. "Now, who do you want to accompany you?"
Brand thought a moment. On so long a journey as a trip to Jupiter there was only room in a space ship--what with supplies and all--for one other man. It behooved him to pick his companion carefully.
"I'd like Dex Harlow," he said at last. "He's been to Jupiter before, working with me in plotting the northern hemisphere. He's a good man."
"He is," agreed Stone, nodding approval of Brand's choice. "I'll have him report to you at once."
He rose and held out his hand. "I'm relying on you, Captain Bowen," he said. "I won't give any direct orders: use your own discretion. But I would advise you not to try to land in the red area. Simply fly low over it, and see what you can discern from the air. Good-by, and good luck."
Brand saluted, and went out, to go to his own quarters and make the few preparations necessary for his sudden emergency flight.
The work of exploring the planets that swung with Earth around the sun was still a new branch of the service. Less than ten years ago, it had been, when Ansen devised his first crude atomic motor.
At once, with the introduction of this tremendous new motive power, men had begun to build space ships and explore the sky. And, as so often happens with a new invention, the thing had grown rather beyond itself.
Everywhere amateur space flyers launched forth into the heavens to try their new celestial wings. Everywhere young and old enthusiasts set Ansen motors into clumsily insulated shells and started for Mars or the moon or Venus.
The resultant loss of life, as might have been foreseen, was appalling. Eager but inexperienced explorers edged over onto the wrong side of Mercury and were burned to cinders. They set forth in ships that were badly insulated, and froze in the absolute zero of space. They learned the atomic motor controls too hastily, ran out of supplies or lost their courses, and wandered far out into space--stiff corpses in coffins that were to be buried only in time's infinity.
To stop the foolish waste of life, the Earth Government stepped in. It was decreed that no space ship might be owned or built privately. It was further decreed that those who felt an urge to explore must join the regular service and do so under efficient supervision. And there was created the Government bureau designated as the Planetary Exploration Control Board, which was headed by Commander Stone.
Under this Board the exploration of the planets was undertaken methodically and efficiently, with a minimum of lives sacrificed.
Mercury was charted, tested for essential minerals, and found to be a valueless rock heap too near the sun to support life.
Venus was visited and explored segment by segment; and friendly relations were established with the rather stupid but peaceable people found there.
Mars was mapped. Here the explorers had lingered a long time: and all over this planet's surface were found remnants of a vast and intricate civilization--from the canals that laced its surface, to great cities with mighty buildings still standing. But of life there was none. The atmosphere was too rare to support it; and the theory was that it had constantly thinned through thousands of years till the last Martian had gasped and died in air too attenuated to support life even in creatures that must have grown greater and greater chested in eons of adaptation.
Then Jupiter had been reached: and here the methodical planet by planet work promised to be checked for a long time to come. Jupiter, with its mighty surface area, was going to take some exploring! It would be years before it could be plotted even superficially.
Brand had been to Jupiter on four different trips; and, as he walked toward his quarters from Stone's office, he reviewed what he had learned on those trips.
Jupiter, as he knew it, was a vast globe of vague horror and sharp contrasts.
Distant from the sun as it was, it received little solar heat. But, with so great a mass, it had cooled off much more slowly than any of the other planets known, and had immense internal heat. This meant that the air--which closely approximated Earth's air in density--was cool a few hundred yards up from the surface of the planet, and dankly hot close to the ground. The result, as the cold air constantly sank into the warm, was a thick steamy blanket of fog that covered everything perpetually.
Because of the recent cooling, life was not far advanced on Jupiter. Too short a time ago the sphere had been but a blazing mass. Tropical marshes prevailed, crisscrossed by mighty rivers at warmer than blood heat. Giant, hideous fernlike growths crowded one another in an everlasting jungle. And among the distorted trees, from the blanket of soft white fog that hid all from sight, could be heard constantly an ear-splitting chorus of screams and bellows and whistling snarls. It made the blood run cold just to listen--and to speculate on what gigantic but tiny-brained monsters made them.
Now and then, when Brand had been flying dangerously low over the surface, a wind had risen strong enough to dispel the fog banks for an instant; and he had caught a flash of Jovian life. Just a flash, for example, of a monstrous lizard-like thing too great to support its own bulk: or a creature all neck and tail, with ridges of scale on its armored hide and a small serpentine head weaving back and forth among the jungle growths.