"Fortunately, they've been covered with helio-beryllium paint, and the helmet glass is the same stuff. Not even that atmosphere can touch it. I suppose there can be no life on the place. With all this sand, it would have to be based on silicon instead of carbon--and it would have to breathe fluorine!"
He got out the suits--rather like a diver's with the body of metal-painted cloth, and the helmet of the metal itself. On the shoulders was an air supply cylinder. The helmets were fixed with radio, so we could have talked to each other even in airless space. We said almost anything to try it out.
"Glad you brought two, and we don't have to explore in shifts."
"Yes, I was prepared for emergencies."
"Shall we wait for daylight to go out?"
"I can't see why. And these outfits will probably feel better in the cool. Let's see."
We shot a searchlight beam out the window. There was a slight drop down from the rock where we rested, then the sandy plain stretching out. Only far off were those dark patches that looked like old seaweed on a dried-up ocean bed, and might prove dangerous footing. The rest seemed hard packed.
My heart was pounding as we went into the air-lock and fastened the inner door behind us.
"We go straight out now," Garth explained. "Coming back, it will be necessary to press this button and let the pump get rid of the poisonous, air before going in."
I opened the outer door and started to step out, then realized that there was a five-foot drop to the ground.
"Go ahead and jump," Garth said. "There's a ladder inside I should have brought, but it would be too much trouble to go back through the lock for it. Either of us can jump eight feet at home, and we'll get back up somehow."
I jumped, failing to allow for the slightly greater gravity, and fell sprawling. Garth got down more successfully, in spite of a long package of some sort he carried in his hand.
Scrambling down from the cliff and walking out on the sand, I tried to get used to the combination of greater weight and the awkward suit. If I stepped very deliberately it was all right, but an attempt to run sank my feet in the sand and brought me up staggering. There was no trouble seeing through the glass of my helmet over wide angles. Standing on the elevation by the Comet, his space-suit shining in the light from the windows, Garth looked like a metallic monster, some creature of this strange world. And I must have presented to him much the same appearance, silhouetted dark and forbidding against the stars.
The stars! I looked up, and beheld the most marvelous sight of the whole trip--the Great Nebula of Orion seen from a distance of less than one hundred and fifty light-years its own width.
A great luminous curtain, fifty degrees across, I could just take it all in with my eye. The central brilliancy as big as the sun, a smaller one above it, and then the whole mass of gas stretching over the sky. The whole thing aglow with the green light of nebulium and blazing with the stars behind it. It was stupendous, beyond words.
I started to call Garth, then saw that he was looking up as well. For almost half an hour I watched, as the edge of the nebula sank below the horizon. Then its light began to dim. Turning, I saw that the sky opposite was already gray. The dawn!
Why, the sun had just set. Then I realized. It was over an hour since we had landed, and a full night would be scarcely two hours and a half. If we were in a summer latitude, the shorter period of darkness was natural enough. And yet it was still hard to believe as, within ten minutes, it was as bright as Earth-light on the moon. Still clearer and clearer grew the light. The stars were almost gone, the center of the nebula only a faint wisp. There were no clouds to give the colors of sunrise, but a bluish-white radiance seemed to be trembling on the eastern horizon.
And then, like a shot, Rigel came up into the sky. The light and heat struck me like something solid, and I turned away. Even with my suit reflecting most of the light away, I felt noticeably warm. The Comet shone like a blinding mirror, so that it was almost impossible to see Garth on the plain below it. Stumbling, and shielding my eyes with my hand, I made my way toward him.
He was standing erect, in his hands two old Lunarian dueling swords. There was hate in his voice as the radio brought it in my ears.
"Dunal, only one of us is going back to the moon."
I stared. Was the heat getting him? "Hadn't we better go inside," I said quietly and somewhat soothingly.
He made no reply, but only held out one of the hilts. I took it dumbly. In that instant he could have struck my head from my body, if he wished.
"But, Garth, old friend--"
"No friend to you. You shall win Kelvar now, or I. I'm giving you a sporting chance. One of your light cuts letting the fluorine inside will be as deadly as anything I can do. The one who goes back will tell of an accident, making repairs out in space. Damn you, if you don't want me to kill you where you stand, come on and fight."
"Garth, you've gone mad."
"I've been waiting ever since I got you to leave the moon. On guard!"
With a rush of anger I was upon him. He tried to step back, stumbled, had one knee on the ground, then hurled himself forward with a thrust at my waist that I dodged only by an inch. I had to cover, and in spite of myself, with the cool work of parrying, my animosity began to disappear.
And so began one of the strangest battles that the Universe has seen. Lumbering with our suits and the extra gravity, we circled each other under the blazing sky. The blue-white of Rigel shimmered off our suits and the arcs of our blades as we cut and guarded--each wary now, realizing that a touch meant death. As that terrible sun climbed upward in the sky, its heat was almost overpowering. The sweat poured off every inch of my body, and I gasped for breath. And still we fought on, two glittering metal monsters under the big blue star sweeping up to its noon.
I knew now that I could never kill Garth. I could not go back to Kelvar with his blood. Yet if I simply defended, sooner or later he would wear me down. There was just one chance. If I could disarm him, I could wrestle him into submission. Then he might be reasonable, or I could take him home bound.
I began leading for the opening I wanted, but with no result. He seemed resolved to tire me out. Either I must carry the fight to him, or I would be beaten down. I made a wide opening, counting on dodging his slow stroke. I did, but he recovered too soon. Again on the other side, with no better result. Still again, just getting in for a light tap on Garth's helmet. Then I stepped back, with guard low, and this time he came on. His sword rose in a gleaming arc and hung high for a moment. I had him. There were sparks of clashing, locked steel.
"Damn you, Dunal!" He took a great step back, narrowly keeping his balance on the sand. On another chance, I would trip him. My ears were almost deafened by his roar, "Come on and fight."
I took a step in and to the side, and had him in the sun. He swung blindly, trying to cover himself with his whirling point but I had half a dozen openings to rip his suit. When he moved to try to see, I would lock with him again. I watched his feet.
And as I watched, I saw an incredible thing. Near one of Garth's feet the sand was moving. It was not a slide caused by his weight; rather--why, it was being pushed up from below. There was a little hump, and suddenly it had burst open, and a stringy mass like seaweed was crawling toward his leg.
"Look out, Garth," I yelled.
How he could see through that terrible sun I do not know, but Garth swung through my forgotten guard with a blow square across my helmet glass. The force threw me to the ground, and I looked up, dazed. The beryllium glass had not broken to let in the fluorine-filled air, but Garth was standing over me.
"That's your last trick, Dunal." His blade rose for the kill.
I was unable even to get up, but with one hand I pointed to the ground.
"Look!" I shouted again, and on the instant the thing wound itself around Garth's foot.
He swung down, hacking it loose. I had got to my feet. "Run for the ship," I cried, and started off.
"Not that way."
I looked back, and saw that I had run in the wrong direction. But it made no difference. Over a whole circle around us the sand was rising, and directly between us and the Comet there was a great green-brown mass. We were surrounded.
We stood staring at the creatures. Spread out to full dimensions, each one made a sphere about four feet in diameter. In the center, a solid mass whose outlines were difficult to discern; and spreading out from this a hundred long, thin, many-jointed arms or legs or branches or whatever one could call them.
The things were not yet definitely hostile--only their circle, of perhaps fifty yards radius, grew continually thicker and more impenetrable. Within the enclosed area, the only ripples we could see in the sand were heading outward. There was to be no surprise attack from below, at least; only one in mass. What, I wondered, might be a sign of friendship, to persuade them to let us go.
And then the circle began to close in. The things rolled over and over on themselves, like gigantic tumbleweeds. At one point, to the right of the direct route to the Comet, the line seemed thinner. I pointed the place out to Garth.
"Break through there, and make a run for it."
We charged into the midst of them with swinging blades. The very suddenness of our rush carried us half-way through their midst. Then something had my legs from behind. I almost fell, but succeeded in turning and cutting myself free. The creatures from the other side of the circle must have made the hundred yards in four or five seconds. And the rest had now covered the breach in front. It was hopeless.
And so we stood back to back, hewing out a circle of protection against our enemies. They seemed to have no fear, and in spite of the destruction our blades worked among them, they almost overcame us by sheer numbers and weight. It was a case of whirling our swords back and forth interminably in the midst of their tentacles. Against the light, the long arms were a half-transparent brown. Our swords broke them in bright shivers. Formed from the predominant silicon of the planet, the creatures were living glass!
For perhaps a quarter of an hour we were in the thick of them, hewing until I thought my arms must fall, slashing and tearing at the ones that had got underfoot and were clamping their tentacles around our legs. Only for the space-suits, we should have, by this time, been overpowered and torn into bits--and yet these garments could not be expected to hold indefinitely.
But at last there was a breathing space. The crippled front ranks dragged themselves away, and there was left around us a brief area of sand, covered with coruscating splinters of glass. Garth got the breath to say something or other encouraging. It was like old days at school.
Only this time the odds were all against us. We were still a good hundred yards from the Comet, and in our path stood a solid wall of the creatures. Even if we got free, they could outrace us to the goal. And with our limited strength, we could not hope to kill them all. In a minute or two, they would attack us again.
Somehow we must fight our way as long as we lasted. Perhaps they might be frightened. We threw ourselves at the side next our goal. The line gave perhaps a yard, then stiffened, and we found ourselves swallowed up in a thick cloud of brown smoke.
Poison gas! It must be shot out of their bodies, at a cost so great that it was kept as a last resort. Through the rolling vapor it was just possible to see our opponents, but they made no forward move. They were waiting for us to be overcome. Suppose their compound could eat through even our helio-beryllium? But it did not. We were safe.
"Stand still, Garth," I whispered, counting on the radio to carry my voice. "Let them think we're dead, and then give them a surprise."
Long, long minutes.... If only they did not know that it was the customary thing for a dead man to fall.... Slowly they began to move in.
Then Garth and I were upon them. They halted as if stupefied. We had hacked our way half through their mass. The rest fled, and we began running toward the Comet, praying that we might reach the ship before they could get organized again. How we floundered through the sand in wild and desperate haste.
Before we had covered half the distance, the pursuit began. There was no attempt to drag us down directly, but the two wings raced past to cut us off in front. At the base of the little cliff where the Comet lay, the circle closed.
"Jump," I called, and threw myself up over them toward the stone. Garth would have fallen back, but I caught his hand and pulled him to safety. We had won.
But had we? Joined by reinforcements from somewhere, the creatures were packed all around the base of the cliff and had begun to climb its walls, to cut us off from the ship. We rushed separately toward the two sides, and they backed away. But those in front were now established on the top. We stepped backward, and the whole line came on. But now we turned and ran for the Comet.
We were just able to turn again and clear them away with our swords. In a moment others would be climbing up from behind over the ship. And the door to safety was on a level with our heads.
There was just one chance. Stamping threateningly, we cleared the things out for ten feet in front of us. But once we turned our backs for a running start they were at us again.
"Boost you up, Dunal," said Garth pantingly.
"No, you first."
But in the midst of my words, he almost threw me into the doorway. I turned to pull him up after me. They were around his legs, and one had jumped down upon his helmet. And he must have known it would happen.
"Go back to her," he cried, and slammed shut the door.
There was no time to help him, to interfere with the way of expiation he had chosen. I tried to look away, but a sort of fascination kept me watching him through the glass. He had been dragged to his knees. Then he was up again, whirling to keep them away on all sides in a mad, gallant fight. But the creatures knew it was the kill. Now they were around his knees, now up to his waist in their overpowering mass. It was only a matter of minutes.
Garth took a staggering step backward, dragging them all with him. He was facing me, and swung up his sword in the old Lunar salute. "Good luck, Dunal." The words, coming clearly over the radio, had a note of exaltation.
Then flashing his blade over his head, he hurled it into the midst of the accursed things. With a tremendous effort, Garth tore the protecting helmet from his head, and plunged backward over the cliff....
There was nothing to do but get in out of the lock and start for home, and little on the trip is worthy of recounting. Without unsurpassable difficulty, I was able to operate the machinery and steer, first for Betelguese, then for the sun. Counting on the warning bells to arouse me, I managed to get in snatches of sleep at odd intervals. At times the strain of the long watches was almost maddening.
By the time the midpoint had been passed, I was living in a sort of waking dream; or rather, a state of somnambulism. I ate; my hands moved the controls. And yet all the while my mind was wandering elsewhere--out to Garth's body under the blazing light of Rigel, back to the moon and Kelvar, or else in an unreal, shadowy world of dreams and vague memories.
With perfect mechanical accuracy I entered the solar system and adjusted the projectors for the sun's attraction. Running slower and slower, I watched Venus glide by. And then, gradually, everything faded, and I was walking along the great Nardos bridge with Kelvar. The ocean was so still that we could see mirrored in it the reflection of each white column, and our own faces peering down, and beyond that the stars.
"I shall bring you a handful for your hair," I told her, and leaned over farther, farther, reaching out.... Then I was falling, with Kelvar's face growing fainter, and in my ears a horrible ringing like the world coming to an end.
Just before I could strike the water, I wakened to find the alarm bell jangling and the object-indicator light flashing away. Through the telescope, the moon was large in the sky.
It was an hour, perhaps two, before I approached the sunlit surface and hovered over the shore by Nardos. Try as I would, my sleep-drugged body could not handle the controls delicately enough to get the Comet quite in step with the moon's rotation. Always a little too fast or too slow. I slid down until I was only ten or fifteen feet off the ground that seemed to be moving out from under me. In another minute I should be above the water. I let everything go, and the Comet fell. There was a thud, a sound of scraping over the sand, a list to one side. I thought for an instant that the vessel was going to turn over, but with the weight of the reserve mercury in the fuel tanks it managed to right itself on a slope of ten or fifteen degrees.
From the angle, I could barely see out the windows, and everything looked strange. The water under the bridge seemed too low. The half-full Earth had greenish-black spots on it. And the sky?
So dead with sleep that I could scarcely move, I managed to crane my neck around to see better. There was no sky, only a faint gray haze through which the stars shone. And yet the sun must be shining. I stretched still further. There the sun burned, and around it was an unmistakable corona. It was like airless space.
Was I dreaming again?
With a jerk, I got to my feet and climbed up the sloping floor to the atmosphere tester. My fingers slipped off the stop-cock, then turned it. And the air-pressure needle scarcely moved. It was true. Somehow, as the scientists had always told us would be the case eventually, the air of the moon, with so little gravity to hold it back, had evaporated into space.
But in six months? It was unthinkable. Surely someone had survived the catastrophe. Some people must have been able to keep themselves alive in caves where the last of the atmosphere would linger. Kelvar must be still alive. I could find her and bring her to the Comet. We would go to some other world.
Frantically, I pulled on my space-suit and clambered through the air-lock. I ran, until the cumbersome suit slowed me down to a staggering walk through the sand beside the Oceanus Procellarum.
Leaden and dull, the great sea lay undisturbed by the thin atmosphere still remaining. It had shrunk by evaporation far away from its banks, and where the water once had been there was a dark incrustation of impurities. On the land side, all was a great white plain of glittering alkali without a sign of vegetation. I went on toward Nardos the Beautiful.
Even from afar off, I could see that it was desolate. Visible now that the water had gone down, the pillars supporting it rose gaunt and skeletal. Towers had fallen in, and the gleaming white was dimmed. It was a city of the dead, under an Earth leprous-looking with black spots where the clouds apparently had parted.
I came nearer to Nardos and the bridge, nearer to the spot where I had last seen Kelvar. Below the old water level, the columns showed a greenish stain, and half-way out the whole structure had fallen in a great gap. I reached the land terminus of the span, still glorious and almost beautiful in its ruins. Whole blocks of stone had fallen to the sand, and the adamantine pillars were cracked and crumbling with the erosion of ages.
Then I knew.
In our argument as to the possible speed of the Comet, Garth and I had both been right. In our reference frame, the vessel had put on an incredible velocity, and covered the nine-hundred-odd light-years around Rigel in six months. But from the viewpoint of the moon, it had been unable to attain a velocity greater than that of light. As the accelerating energy pressed the vessel's speed closer and closer toward that limiting velocity, the mass of the ship and of its contents had increased toward infinity. And trying to move laboriously with such vast mass, our clocks and bodies had been slowed down until to our leaden minds a year of moon time became equivalent to several hours.
The Comet had attained an average velocity of perhaps 175,000 miles per second, and the voyage that seemed to me six months had taken a thousand years. A thousand years! The words went ringing through my brain. Kelvar had been dead for a thousand years. I was alone in a world uninhabited for centuries.
I threw myself down and battered my head in the sand.