Nogol smiled. "I'm not drawing Hazard Pay."
After a while, Ekstrohm stopped panting and faced Nogol and the captain who was now sitting, rubbing his jaw. "Okay," he said, "now you'll listen or I'll beat your skulls in. I know what's behind all of this on this planet."
"Yeah? What do you think it is, Stormy?" Ryan asked.
"First of all, I think there's a basic difference between this world and any other the ExPe has investigated."
"Now what could that be?" Nogol wanted to know with a tiny smile.
"These worlds are close. The gravity is low. You wouldn't need much more than a jet plane to get from one of these planetoids to another. Some animals have developed with the power to travel from one of these planetoids to another--like a squid jetting out water. They harnessed some natural power system."
"What does that prove?" Ryan wanted to know.
"It proves that this world and others in this belt are prepared for interplanetary travel. It's probably a part of their basic evolutional structure, unlike that of heavy, independent planets. This false 'dying' is part of their preparation for interplanetary visitors."
"Why would these aliens want others to think that they were dead?" Ryan asked.
"Correction, captain. They want visitors to believe that they can die."
Ryan blinked. "Meaning that they can't die?"
"That's right. I think everything on this planet has immortality," Ekstrohm said. "I'm not exactly sure how. Maybe it has to do with the low radiation. Every individual cell has a 'memory' of the whole creature. But as we age that 'memory' becomes faulty, our cells 'forget' how to reproduce themselves exactly. Here, that cell 'memory' never fades. Bodies renew themselves indefinitely."
"But why hide it?" Nogol asked.
"This planetoid can just support so many creatures. They practice birth control among themselves," the surveyor said. "The natives naturally want to discourage colonization."
Ryan whistled. "Once we report this, every rich and powerful man in the Federation will want to come here to live. There's not enough space to go around. There will be wars over this little hunk of rock."
Nogol's hard, dark eyes were staring into space. "There's only one sensible thing to do. We'll keep the world to ourselves."
"I don't like that kind of talk," Ryan growled.
"Ryan, this little ball of dirt isn't going to do the Federation as a whole any good. But it can be of value to us. We can make ourselves comfortable here. Later on, we can bring in some women. Any women we want. Who wouldn't want to come here?"
Ryan began to argue, but Ekstrohm could see he was hooked. The man who risked his life, the man who sought something new and different, the explorer, was basically an unstable type removed from the mainstream of civilization. Nothing was liable to change that.
By nightfall, Ryan and Ekstrohm had agreed.
"We'll have to keep a constant watch," Ryan was saying. "We'll have to watch out for ExPe scouts looking for us. Or, after a few generations, another ship may come to complete the mapping."
Nogol smiled. "We'll have to keep an eye on each other too, you know. One of us may get to wanting more room for more women. Or to have children, a normal biological urge. Death by violence isn't ruled out here."
"I don't like that kind of talk," Ryan blustered.
Ekstrohm thought of the others, of the sleepless, watchful nights ahead of them. That was probably his trouble, all of his life. He didn't trust people; he had to stay awake and keep an eye on everybody. Well, he would be one ahead here.
Of course, it was wrong not to trust anybody, but Ekstrohm knew habit patterns were hard to break.
Sleep is a habit.
Ryan and Nogol were jarred awake in the night by the spaceship blasting off without them. They ran out and shook their tiny fists in fury at the rising flame.
Operating a spaceship alone was no cinch but it could be done. Ekstrohm would get back to the nearest Federation base and report the planetoid without death. He didn't have absolute confidence in any government, no. But he suspected the Federation could do more with the world than two men like Ryan and Nogol.
Ekstrohm took his fingers off the punchboard and lay back on his couch.
Ryan and Nogol were slow, but in time they might have learned to do without sleep, and to guard their treasure night and day.
Fortunately, Ekstrohm knew from long experience what the two others didn't.
An eternity without sleep isn't worth the price.
THE FLOATING ISLAND OF MADNESS.
By Jason Kirby
Above us curved the pale, hot bowl of cloudless sky; below us stretched the rolling, tawny wastes of the great Arabian Desert; and away to the east, close to the dipping horizon, scudded the tiny speck we were following. We had been following it since dawn and it was now close to sunset. Where was it leading us? Should we go on or turn back? How much longer would our gas and oil hold out? And just where were we? I turned and saw my questions reflected in the eyes of my companions, Paul Foulet of the French Surete and Douglas Brice of Scotland Yard.
"Too fast!" shouted Brice above the roar of our motors. I nodded. His gesture explained his meaning. The plane ahead had suddenly taken on a terrific, unbelievable speed. All day it had traveled normally, maintaining, but not increasing, the distance between us. But in the last fifteen minutes it had leaped into space. Fifteen minutes before it had been two miles in the lead; now it was barely visible. A tiny, vanishing speck. What could account for this burst of superhuman speed? Who was in that plane? What was in that plane?
I glanced at Foulet. He shrugged non-committally, waving a courteous hand toward Brice. I understood; I agreed with him. This was Brice's party, and the decision was up to him. Foulet and I just happened to be along; it was partly design and partly coincidence.
Two days before I had been in Constantinople. I was disheartened and utterly disgusted. All the way from the home office of the United States Secret Service in Washington I had trailed my man, only to lose him. On steamships, by railway, airplane and motor we had traveled--always with my quarry just one tantalizing jump ahead of me--and in Constantinople I had lost him. And it was a ruse a child should have seen through. I could have beaten my head against a wall.
And then, suddenly, I had run into Foulet. Not ten days before I had talked to him in his office in Paris. I had told him a little of my errand, for I was working on the hunch that this man I was after concerned not only the United States, but France and the Continent as well. And what Foulet told me served only to strengthen my conviction. So, meeting him in Constantinople was a thin ray of light in my disgusted darkness. At least I could explode to a kindred spirit.
"Lost your man!" was his greeting. And it wasn't a question; it was a statement.
"How did you know?" I growled. My humiliation was too fresh to stand kidding.
"Constantinople," said Foulet amiably. "You always lose them in Constantinople. I've lost three here."
"Three?" I said, "Like mine!"
"Exactly," he nodded. Then he lowered his voice. "Come to my hotel. We can talk there."
"Now," he continued fifteen minutes later as we settled ourselves in his room, "you were very circumspect in Paris. You told me little--just a hint here and there. But it was enough. You--the United States--have joined our ranks--"
"I mean that for a year we, the various secret service organizations of the Continent--and that includes, of course, Scotland Yard--have been after--Well, to be frank, we don't know what we're after. But we do know this. There is a power--there is someone, somewhere, who is trying to conquer the world."
"Are you serious?" I glanced at him but the tight lines of his set mouth convinced me. "I beg your pardon," I murmured. "Go ahead."
"I don't blame you for thinking it was a jest," he said imperturbably, "But, to prove I know what I'm talking about, let me tell you what this man has done whom you have been pursuing. He has done one of two things. Either he has proved himself a dangerous revolutionary or he has engineered the failure of a bank or chain of banks--"
"We can't prove it," I interrupted.
"No," said Foulet, "Neither can we. Neither can Scotland Yard--or the secret services of Belgium or Germany or Italy or Spain. But there you are--"
"You mean that in all these countries--?"
"I mean that for a year--probably longer--these countries have been and are being steadily, and systematically, undermined. The morale of the people is being weakened; their faith in their government is being betrayed--and someone is behind it. Someone who can think faster and plan more carefully than we--someone whose agents we always lose in Constantinople! I'll wager you lost your man from a roof-top."
I nodded, my disgust at my own stupidity returning in full force. "There was a lower roof and a maze of crisscross alleys," I muttered. "He got away."
"Was there an airplane anywhere around?" asked Foulet.
I glanced at him in surprise. What good would an airplane have been on a roof-top ten feet wide by twelve feet long? Then I remembered. "There was an airplane," I said, "but it was a long way off, and I could scarcely see it; but the air was very still and I heard the motor."
Foulet nodded, "And if you had had a pair of glasses," he said gently, "You would have seen that the airplane had a glider attached to it. There is always an airplane--and a glider--when we lose our men from the roofs of Constantinople."
"But that must be coincidence!" I insisted. "Why, I was on that roof right on the fellow's heels--and the airplane was at least five miles away!"
Foulet shrugged, "Coincidence--possibly," he said, "but it is our only clue."
"Of course," I murmured thoughtfully, "you have never been able to follow--"
Foulet smiled, "Can you imagine where that airplane would be by the time we climbed down off our roofs and got to a flying field and started in pursuit?"
We descended for dinner. Foulet's story had restored my self-confidence somewhat--but I was still sore. Of course Foulet connecting my vanishing man with that disappearing airplane was absurd--but where had the man gone? Was my supposition that he had jumped to a lower roof, climbed a wall and run through the maze of alleyways in half a minute in any way less absurd?
We were halfway through dinner when Brice appeared. Brice was one of the best men in Scotland Yard and I had known him many years. So, evidently, had Foulet, for his eyes flickered faintly with pleased surprise at the sight of him. Brice came directly to our table. He was bursting with victorious joy. I could feel it somehow, although his face, carefully schooled to betray no emotion, was placid and casual.
All through the remainder of the meal I could feel the vibrations of his excitement. But it was only at the very end that he confided anything--and his confidence only served to make the excitement and sense of impending thrill greater.
Just as he was rising to leave he shoved a tiny strip of paper across the table to me with a sidelong glance at Foulet. "Another roof-top," I read scrawled in pencil. "If you like, meet me at the flying field before dawn." If I liked! I shoved the paper across to Foulet who read it and carelessly twisted it into a spill to light his cigar. But his hand shook ever so slightly.
Needless to say we went to the flying field shortly after midnight. Bruce was there, pacing up and down restlessly. Near him was a huge tri-motored biplane, its motor humming in readiness.
"I've put a man on the trail in my place," Brice told us briefly. "Somebody else is going to lose the scent on a roof-top--and I'm going to watch."
We settled to our wait. To me it seemed absurdly hopeless. The flying field was on a slight rise. Below us spread the dark shadow that was Constantinople. There was no moon to give it form and substance--it was just a lake of deeper darkness, a spreading mass of silent roof-tops and minarets. How did Brice expect to see his quarry escape? Suppose he fled during the night? And even with daylight-- The first streaks of dawn found us still waiting, our ears strained for the hum of an airplane motor. But hardly had the golden rim of the sun appeared over the horizon when it came. It came from the east--straight out of the golden glory of the sun. Nearer and nearer it came; an airplane--alone.
"It hasn't got the glider," muttered Foulet and his tone was tinged with disappointment. But hardly had he spoken when, from one of the myriad roof-tops below us, rose a swift streak of shadow. So fast it flew, with such unbelievable speed, that to our eyes it was little more than a blur; but-- "The glider!" Brice gasped. "My God! How did he do it?" We stared, silent with amazement. The airplane, that only a second before had flown alone, now was towing a glider--a glider that had arisen, as if by magic, from the housetops!
Another instant and we had piled into the cockpit of the tri-motored plane and were off on our pursuit. That pursuit that led us on and on till, as the sun sank behind us, we found ourselves above the illimitable, tawny wastes of the great Arabian Desert.
And now--what? All day long, as I have said, the plane we were pursuing had maintained, but never increased, the distance between us. Each hour had brought us renewed hope that the next hour would bring capture--or at least some definite clue, some shred of information. But the plane, still towing its glider, had gone on and on, steadily, imperturbably. And we dared not open fire and attempt to bring it down for fear of destroying our one meager chance of following it to its destination.
And now it had vanished. Suddenly, unaccountably it had taken on that terrific burst of speed which I have described. In ten minutes it had become a speck on the far horizon--in another instant it was gone. We were alone. Night was falling. If we turned back our gas might bring us to safety. If we went on--what?
I turned to my companions. Foulet still maintained his non-committal attitude, but Brice was deeply disappointed and worried. His ruddy English face was knotted in a scowl and his blue eyes were dark. Quickly he jerked his head back. We understood. Of course, turning back was the only thing to do; to go on was absurd. Our quarry had totally disappeared. But it was heart-breaking. Once again we had been fooled and outwitted. Our disappointment filled that tiny cockpit like a tangible mist. Brice threw over the stick with a gesture of disgust. In response our right wing lifted a bit, seemed to shake itself, then settled--and the plane continued on its course. Brice's eyes flickered with surprise. He shoved the stick back, threw it over again, but toward the opposite side. Obediently our left wing lifted as if to bank, a shudder passed through it, it dropped, the plane leveled, and went on.
Foulet leaned forward, his eyes were gleaming, his face flushed and eager. "Climb!" he yelled above the roar of the motors. "Up!" Brice nodded--but it was no use. That plane was like a live thing; nothing we could do would swerve it from its course. We stared at one another. Were we mad? Were we under a hypnotic spell? But our minds were clear, and the idea of hypnosis was absurd, for we had tried to turn back. It was the machine that refused to obey.
Again Foulet leaned forward. "Drop!" he shouted. Brice nodded, but the plane refused to respond. On and on, straight as a die, it sped.
"Try slowing the motor," I yelled into Brice's ear and both Foulet and I leaned forward to watch results.
The motors slowed. Gradually the roaring, pounding hum lessened, and our speed continued! The whine of the wind in the wires abated not one whit! The speedometer on our instrument board climbed!
Brice turned. His face, in the deepening dusk, was a blur of pasty white. His hands hung at his sides. The motors purred, pulsed, were silent. The plane, unaided, unguided, flew alone!
We sat hushed and unbelieving in that terrible, deathlike silence. Our ears, attuned all day to the deafening roar of the motors, felt as if they would burst in the sudden, agonizing stillness. There was not a sound save the whine of the wind in the wires as the plane sped on. Above us curved the illimitable arch of darkening sky. Below us lay the empty stretch of blank desert.
We didn't speak. I know that I, for one, could not bring my voice to break that ominous stillness. Silently we sat there, watching, waiting.... The quick darkness of the desert fell like a velvet curtain. The stars burst forth as if lit by an invisible hand. Foulet stirred, leaned forward, gasped. My eyes followed his gaze. Before our plane spread a path of light, dull, ruddily glowing, like the ghost of live embers. It cut the darkness of the night like a flaming finger--and along it we sped as if on an invisible track!
"The speed of that other plane," muttered Brice, breaking that utter silence, "This was it!"
Foulet and I nodded. Well could I imagine that we were travelling at that same terrific, impossible speed. And we were helpless--helpless in the clutch of--what? What power lay behind this band of light that drew us irresistibly toward it?
The ruddy pathway brightened. The light grew stronger. Our speed increased. The whine of the wires was tuned almost past human hearing. The plane trembled like a live thing in the grip of inhuman forces. A great glowing eye suddenly burst from the rim of the horizon--the source of the light! Instinctively I closed my eyes. What power might that eye possess? The same thought must have struck Brice and Foulet for they ducked to the floor of the cockpit, pulling me with them.
"Take care!" Brice muttered, "It might blind us."
We sat huddled in that cockpit for what seemed an eternity, though it couldn't have been more than two minutes. The glare increased. It threw into sharp, uncanny relief every tiny detail of the cockpit and of our faces. The light was as powerful as a searchlight, but not so blinding. It had a rosy, diffused quality that the searchlight lacks.