"Yes. You propose to land, sir?"
"I propose to determine the fate of those two ships and the men who brought them here," I said with sudden determination. Dival made no reply, but as he turned to obey orders, I saw that his presentiment of trouble had not left him.
"Four thousand feet, sir," said Correy.
I nodded, studying the scene below us. The great hooded instrument brought it within, apparently, fifty feet of my eyes, but the great detail revealed nothing of interest.
The two ships lay motionless, huddled close together. The great circular door of each was open, as though opened that same day--or a century before.
"Three thousand feet, sir," said Correy.
"Proceed at the same speed," I replied. Whatever fate had overtaken the men of the other ships had caused them to disappear entirely--and without sign of a struggle. But what conceivable fate could that be?
"Two thousand feet, sir," said Correy.
"Good," I said grimly. "Continue with the descent, Mr. Correy."
Dival hurried into the room as I spoke. His face was still clouded with foreboding.
"I have tested the atmosphere, sir," he reported. "It is suitable for breathing by either men of Earth or Zenia. No trace of noxious gases of any kind. It is probably rather rarified, such as one might find on Earth or Zenia at high altitudes."
"One thousand feet, sir," said Correy.
I hesitated an instant. Undoubtedly the atmosphere had been tested by the other ships before they landed. In the case of the second ship, at any rate, those in command must have been on the alert against danger. And yet both of those ships lay there motionless, vacant, deserted.
I could feel the eyes of the men on me. My decision must be delayed no further.
"We will land, Mr. Correy," I said grimly. "Near the two ships, please."
"Very well, sir," nodded Correy, and spoke briefly into the microphone.
"I might warn you, sir," said Dival quietly, "to govern your activities, once outside: free from the gravity pads of the ship, on a body of such small size, an ordinary step will probably cause a leap of considerable distance."
"Thank you, Mr. Dival. That is a consideration I had overlooked. I shall warn the men. We must--"
At that instant I felt the slight jar of landing. I glanced up; met Correy's grave glance squarely.
"Grounded, sir," he said quietly.
"Very good, Mr. Correy. Keep the ship ready for instant action, please, and call the landing crew to the forward exit. You will accompany us, Mr. Dival?"
"Good. You understand your orders, Mr. Correy?"
I returned his salute, and led the way out of the room, Dival close on my heels.
The landing crew was composed of all men not at regular stations; nearly half of the Kalid's entire crew. They were equipped with the small atomic power pistols as side-arms, and there were two three-men disintegrator ray squads. We all wore menores, which were unnecessary in the ship, but decidedly useful outside. I might add that the menore of those days was not the delicate, beautiful thing that it is to-day: it was comparatively crude, and clumsy band of metal, in which were imbedded the vital units and the tiny atomic energy generator, and was worn upon the head like a crown. But for all its clumsiness, it conveyed and received thought, and, after all, that was all we demanded of it.
I caught a confused jumble of questioning thoughts as I came up, and took command of the situation promptly. It will be understood, of course, that in those days men had not learned to blank their minds against the menore, as they do to-day. It took generations of training to perfect that ability.
"Open the exit," I ordered Kincaide, who was standing by the switch, key in the lock.
"Yes, sir," he thought promptly, and unlocking the switch, released the lever.
The great circular door revolved swiftly, backing slowly on its fine threads, gripped by the massive gimbals which, as at last the ponderous plug of metal freed itself from its threads, swung the circular door aside, like the door of a vault.
Fresh clean air swept in, and we breathed, it gratefully. Science can revitalize air, take out impurities and replace used-up constituents, but if cannot give it the freshness of pure natural air. Even the science of to-day.
"Mr. Kincaide, you will stand by with five men. Under no circumstances are you to leave your post until ordered to do so. No rescue parties, under any circumstances, are to be sent out unless you have those orders directly from me. Should any untoward thing happen to this party, you will instantly reseal this exit, reporting at the same time to Mr. Correy, who has his orders. You will not attempt to rescue us, but will return to the Base and report in full, with Mr. Correy in command. Is that clear?"
"Perfectly," came back his response instantly; but I could sense the rebellion in his mind. Kincaid and I were old friends, as well as fellow officers.
I smiled at him reassuringly, and directed my orders to the waiting men.
"You are aware of the fate of the two ships of the Patrol that have already landed here," I thought slowly, to be sure they understood perfectly. "What fate overtook them, I do not know. That is what we are here to determine."
"It is obvious that this is a dangerous mission. I'm ordering none of you to go. Any man who wishes to be relieved from landing duty may remain inside the ship, and may feel it no reproach. Those who do go should be constantly on the alert, and keep in formation; the usual column of twos. Be very careful, when stepping out of the ship, to adjust your stride to the lessened gravity of this small world. Watch this point!" I turned to Dival, motioned him to fall in at my side. Without a backward glance, we marched out of the ship, treading very carefully to keep from leaping into the air with each step.
Twenty feet away, I glanced back. There were fourteen men behind me--not a man of the landing crew had remained in the ship!
"I am proud of you men!" I thought heartily: and no emanation from any menore was ever more sincere.
Cautiously, eyes roving ceaselessly, we made our way towards the two silent ships. It seemed a quiet, peaceful world: an unlikely place for tragedy. The air was fresh and clean, although, as Dival had predicted, rarefied like the air at an altitude. The willow-like trees that hemmed us in rustled gently, their long, frond-like branches with their rusty green leaves swaying.
"Do you notice, sir," came a gentle thought from Dival, an emanation that could hardly have been perceptible to the men behind us, "that there is no wind--and yet the trees, yonder, are swaying and rustling?"
I glanced around, startled. I had not noticed the absence of a breeze.
I tried to make my response reassuring: "There is probably a breeze higher up, that doesn't dip down into this little clearing," I ventured. "At any rate, it is not important. These ships are what interest me. What will we find there?"
"We shall soon know," replied Dival. "Here is the Dorlos; the second of the two, was it not?"
"Yes." I came to a halt beside the gaping door. There was no sound within, no evidence of life there, no sign that men had ever crossed that threshold, save that the whole fabric was the work of man's hands.
"Mr. Dival and I will investigate the ship, with two of you men," I directed. "The rest of the detail will remain on guard, and give the alarm at the least sign of any danger. You first two men, follow us." The indicated men nodded and stepped forward. Their "Yes, sirs" came surging through my menore like a single thought. Cautiously, Dival at my side, the two men at our backs, we stepped over the high threshold into the interior of the Dorlos.
The ethon tubes overhead made everything as light as day, and since the Dorlos was a sister ship of my own Kalid, I had not the slightest difficulty in finding my way about.
There was no sign of a disturbance anywhere. Everything was in perfect order. From the evidence, it would seem that the officers and men of the Dorlos had deserted the ship of their own accord, and--failed to return.
"Nothing of value here," I commented to Dival. "We may as well--"
There was a sudden commotion from outside the ship. Startled shouts rang through the hollow hull, and a confused medley of excited thoughts came pouring in.
With one accord the four of us dashed to the exit, Dival and I in the lead. At the door we paused, following the stricken gaze of the men grouped in a rigid knot just outside.
Some, forty feet away was the edge of the forest that hemmed us in. A forest that now was lashing and writhing as though in the grip of some terrible hurricane, trunks bending and whipping, long branches writhing, curling, lashing out-- "Two of the men, sir!" shouted a non-commissioned officer of the landing crew, as we appeared in the doorway. In his excitement he forgot his menore, and resorted to the infinitely slower but more natural speech. "Some sort of insect came buzzing down--like an Earth bee, but larger. One of the men slapped it, and jumped aside, forgetting the low gravity here. He shot into the air, and another of the men made a grab for him. They both went sailing, and the trees--look!"
But I had already spotted the two men. The trees had them in their grip, long tentacles curled around them, a dozen of the great willow-like growths apparently fighting for possession of the prizes. And all around, far out of reach, the trees of the forest were swaying restlessly, their long, pendulous branches, like tentacles, lashing out hungrily.
"The rays, sir!" snapped the thought from Dival, like a flash of lightning. "Concentrate the beams--strike at the trunks--"
"Right!" My orders emanated on the heels of the thought more quickly than one word could have been uttered. The six men who operated the disintegrator rays were stung out of their startled immobility, and the soft hum of the atomatic power generators deepened.
"Strike at the trunks of the trees! Beams narrowed to minimum! Action at will!"
The invisible rays swept long gashes into the forest as the trainers squatted behind their sights, directing the long, gleaming tubes. Branches crashed to the ground, suddenly motionless. Thick brown dust dropped heavily. A trunk, shortened by six inches or so, dropped into its stub and fell with a prolonged sound of rending wood. The trees against which it had fallen tugged angrily at their trapped tentacles.
One of the men rolled free, staggered to his feet, and came lurching towards us. Trunk after trunk dropped onto its severed stub and fell among the lashing branches of its fellows. The other man was caught for a moment in a mass of dead and motionless wood, but a cunningly directed ray dissolved the entangling branches around him and he lay there, free but unable to arise.
The rays played on ruthlessly. The brown, heavy powder was falling like greasy soot. Trunk after trunk crashed to the ground, slashed into fragments.
"Cease action!" I ordered, and instantly the eager whine of the generators softened to a barely discernible hum. Two of the men, under orders, raced out to the injured man: the rest of us clustered around the first of the two to be freed from the terrible tentacles of the trees.
His menore was gone, his tight-fitting uniform was in shreds, and blotched with blood. There was a huge crimson welt across his face, and blood dripped slowly from the tips of his fingers.
"God!" he muttered unsteadily as kindly arms lifted him with eager tenderness. "They're alive! Like snakes. They--they're hungry!"
"Take him to the ship," I ordered. "He is to receive treatment immediately," I turned to the detail that was bringing in the other victim. The man was unconscious, and moaning, but suffering more from shock than anything else. A few minutes under the helio emanations and he would be fit for light duty.
As the men hurried him to the ship, I turned to Dival. He was standing beside me, rigid, his face very pale, his eyes fixed on space.
"What do you make of it, Mr. Dival?" I questioned him.
"Of the trees?" He seemed startled, as though I had aroused him from deepest thought. "They are not difficult to comprehend, sir. There are numerous growths that are primarily carnivorous. We have the fintal vine on Zenia, which coils instantly when touched, and thus traps many small animals which it wraps about with its folds and digests through sucker-like growths.
"On your own Earth there are, we learn, hundreds of varieties of insectivorous plants: the Venus fly-trap, known otherwise as the Dionaea Muscipula, which has a leaf hinged in the median line, with teeth-like bristles. The two portions of the leaf snap together with considerable force when an insect alights upon the surface, and the soft portions of the catch are digested by the plant before the leaf opens again. The pitcher plant is another native of Earth, and several varieties of it are found on Zenia and at least two other planets. It traps its game without movement, but is nevertheless insectivorous. You have another species on Earth that is, or was, very common: the Mimosa Pudica. Perhaps you know it as the sensitive plant. It does not trap insects, but it has a very distinct power of movement, and is extremely irritable.
"It is not at all difficult to understand a carniverous tree, capable of violent and powerful motion. This is undoubtedly what we have here--a decidedly interesting phenomena, but not difficult of comprehension."
It seems like a long explanation, as I record it here, but emanated as it was, it took but an instant to complete it. Mr. Dival went on without a pause: "I believe, however, that I have discovered something far more important. How is your menore adjusted, sir?"
"Turn it to maximum, sir."
I glanced at him curiously, but obeyed. New streams of thought poured in upon me. Kincaide ... the guard at the exit ... and something else.
I blanked out Kincaide and the men, feeling Dival's eyes searching my face. There was something else, something-- I focused on the dim, vague emanations that came to me from the circlet of my menore, and gradually, like an object seen through heavy mist, I perceived the message: "Wait! Wait! We are coming! Through the ground. The trees ... disintegrate them ... all of them ... all you can reach. But not the ground ... not the ground...."
"Peter!" I shouted, turning to Dival. "That's Peter Wilson, second officer of the Dorlos!"
Dival nodded, his dark face alight.
"Let us see if we can answer him," he suggested, and we concentrated all our energy on a single thought: "We understand. We understand."
The answer came back instantly: "Good! Thank God! Sweep them down, Hanson: every tree of them. Kill them ... kill them ... kill them!" The emanation fairly shook with hate. "We are coming ... to the clearing ... wait--and while you wait, use your rays upon these accursed hungry trees!"
Grimly and silently we hurried back to the ship. Dival, the savant, snatching up specimens of earth and rock here and there as we went.
The disintegrator rays of the portable projectors were no more than toys compared with the mighty beams the Kalid was capable of projecting, with her great generators to supply power. Even with the beams narrowed to the minimum, they cut a swath a yard or more in diameter, and their range was tremendous; although working rather less rapidly as the distance and power decreased, they were effective over a range of many miles.
Before their blasting beams the forest shriveled and sank into tumbled chaos. A haze of brownish dust hung low over the scene, and I watched with a sort of awe. It was the first time I had ever seen the rays at work on such wholesale destruction.
A startling thing became evident soon after we began our work. This world that we had thought to be void of animal life, proved to be teeming with it. From out of the tangle of broken and harmless branches, thousands of animals appeared. The majority of them were quite large, perhaps the size of full-grown hogs, which Earth animal they seemed to resemble, save that they were a dirty yellow color, and had strong, heavily-clawed feet. These were the largest of the animals, but there were myriads of smaller ones, all of them pale or neutral in color, and apparently unused to such strong light, for they ran blindly, wildly seeking shelter from the universal confusion.
Still the destructive beams kept about their work, until the scene changed utterly. Instead of resting in a clearing, the Kalid was in the midst of a tangle of fallen, wilting branches that stretched like a great, still sea, as far as the eye could see.
"Cease action!" I ordered suddenly. I had seen, or thought I had seen, a human figure moving in the tangle, not far from the edge of the clearing. Correy relayed the order, and instantly the rays were cut off. My menore, free from the interference of the great atomic generators of the Kalid, emanated the moment the generators ceased functioning.
"Enough. Hanson! Cut the rays; we're coming."
"We have ceased action; come on!"
I hurried to the still open exit. Kincaide and his guards were staring at what had been the forest; they were so intent that they did not notice I had joined them--and no wonder!
A file of men were scrambling over the debris; gaunt men with dishevelled hair, practically naked, covered with dirt and the greasy brown dust of the disintegrator ray. In the lead, hardly recognizable, his menore awry upon his tangled locks, was Peter Wilson.
"Wilson!" I shouted; and in a single great leap I was at his side, shaking his hand, one arm about his scarred shoulders, laughing and talking excitedly, all in the same breath. "Wilson, tell me--in God's name--what has happened?"
He looked up at me with shining, happy eyes, deep in black sockets of hunger and suffering.
"The part that counts," he said hoarsely, "is that you're here, and we're here with you. My men need rest and food--not too much food, at first, for we're starving. I'll give you the story--or as much of it as I know--while we eat."
I sent my orders ahead; for every man of that pitiful crew of survivors, there were two eager men of the Kalid's crew to minister to him. In the little dining salon of the officers' mess, Wilson gave us the story, while he ate slowly and carefully, keeping his ravenous hunger in check.
"It's a weird sort of story," he said. "I'll cut it as short as I can. I'm too weary for details.
"The Dorlos, as I suppose you know, was ordered to L-472 to determine the fate of the Filanus, which had been sent here to determine the feasibility of establishing a supply base here for a new interplanetary ship line.
"It took us nearly three days, Earth time, to locate this clearing and the Filanus, and we grounded the Dorlos immediately. Our commander--you probably remember him, Hanson: David McClellan? Big, red-faced chap?"