After awhile the blinding light was like actual physical pressure against his tightly squinched eyes. He tried to burrow deeper into the protectively warm, cave-like place where he'd been safe from them for so long. But he couldn't escape them. Their hands, their big, red, hideously smooth hands had him, now. They were tugging and pulling at him with a strength impossible to fight. Still he struggled.
He tried to cry out but there was no sound from his constricted throat. There were only the frightening noises from outside, louder, now. He tried to twist and squirm against the hands dragging him toward that harsh, blinding light. He was too small, too weak, compared to them. He couldn't fight them off. He felt himself being stretched and strained and forced with cruel determination. He didn't want to go out there. He knew what was waiting for him out there. He couldn't go. Not out there, where....
When Jeff McKinney was three years old he tipped a pot of scalding water from the stove onto himself. He was badly burned and scarred. He hovered between life and death for several weeks. Jeff's father was out of work at the time and they were living in a cold water tenement. Something about the case caught a tabloid's attention and it was played up as a human interest sob story. It came to the attention of a wealthy man who volunteered to pay for plastic surgery. Then followed, long months of that kind of torture, but Jeff McKinney came out of it not too badly scarred. Not on the surface, anyhow. But his face had a strange hue. There was a frozen, mask-like cast to his features when he smiled.
He was eight when he saw his father killed. He was in the taxi the older McKinney now drove for a living when the father stepped out of the driver's side onto a busy street without looking back first. The speeding truck took the car door and Jeff's father with it for half a block, wedged between front wheel and fender. Jeff never forgot the sound of that, and the screaming. Nor his shock when he suddenly realized that the screams were his own.
Jeff was a strange boy. He didn't have an average childhood. The poverty was more extreme after his father's death. He stayed home alone while his mother was out working at whatever job she could get, reading too much and thinking too much. Once, he looked at her with haunted eyes and said: "Mother, why is life so bad? Why are people even born into a world like this?"
What could she say to a question like that? She said: "Please, Jefferson! Please don't talk that way. Life isn't all bad. You'll see. Some day, in spite of everything, you'll be somebody and you'll be happy. The good times will come."
They did, of course. A few of them. There was the day he went upstate on an outing for underprivileged boys and went fishing for the first time. He caught a whopping trout and won a prize for it. That was nice; that was fun. That was when he was thirteen. That was the year the gang of kids caught him on the way home from school and beat him unconscious because he never laughed; because they couldn't make him laugh. The year before his mother died.
At the orphanage he didn't mingle much with the other boys. He spent most of his after-classes hours alone in the school's chemistry lab. He liked to tinker with chemicals. They were cold, emotionless, immune to joy and sadness, yet they had purpose. He played the cello, too, with haunting beauty, but not in the school band, only when he wanted to, when nobody was around and he could really feel the music.
Once, on the way home from his cello lesson in the music building, he saw some boys playing football on the orphanage athletic field. He was suddenly seized with a fierce determination to belong, to grab at some of the shouting, laughing happiness these boys seemed to have. He told them he wanted to join in and play, too. He didn't understand why they laughed so at this idea.
They stopped laughing, though, after the first time he ran with the ball, and they all piled up on him and he didn't get up. He lay there, looking so ghostly and breathing so harshly and with the trickle of blood coming out of his ears. But Jeff didn't know they had stopped laughing.
He recovered from that skull fracture, all right. Worse, though, than any of the unhappiness he suffered during his life, worse even than the shocks of his father's and mother's deaths, was the thing that happened to him when he was twenty and working at the laboratories of a big drug company.
He met and fell hopelessly in love with a girl named Nina, a girl a few years older than he was. They married and for the first few weeks Jeff McKinney had happiness he'd never known before. Until he came home from work sick, one afternoon and saw Nina with the man from the apartment over them. She didn't whine and beg for forgiveness, Nina didn't. She stood boldly while the other man laughed and laughed and she screamed invective upon Jefferson McKinney, telling him what she really thought of him, a gloomy, puny weakling who couldn't even make a decent living, telling him that she was through with him.
A blank spot came into Jeff's life right then. When it was over, Nina and the other man were on the floor and there was blood on the kitchen carving knife in Jeff's hand.
They didn't find him for awhile. He changed his name and appearance and hid in the soiled seams and ragged fringes of society. He learned the anaesthetic powers of drugs and alcohol. He gave up trying to get anything out of this life. Then they finally picked him up, fished him from the river into which he'd jumped. There were days of torture after that, without the alcohol and drugs his wrecked system craved. Right there was the final hell that could have broken him completely. But it didn't. It was like the terrible crisis after a long illness. Things began to get better, to go to the other extreme after that.
A state psychiatrist brought Jeff's case to the attention of a noted criminal lawyer. Neither Nina nor her lover had died from their knife wounds. On the plea of the unwritten law, Jeff McKinney got off with a suspended sentence. The lawyer and psychiatrist learned of his interest and knowledge and talent for chemistry and got him another job in the experimental laboratory of a big university.
Later he married a girl named Elaine, who worked at the lab with him. They had two children, and lived in a small comfortable cottage just off the University campus. For several years, they had all they wanted of life--comfort, health, happiness. Jeff thought that life could never be more wonderful. All of his former, bitter, cynical views fell away from him. Hadn't he, with all odds against him, finally won out and acquired peace and contentment and a purpose in life? What was wrong with a world in which that could happen?
Then there was the topper. Jefferson McKinney discovered a new drug which would cure and eventually eliminate a disease that was one of the world's worst killers, the drug for which thousands of scientists had been seeking for years.
He was feted and honored, became a national hero. The story of his life and his discovery temporarily pushed even the doleful forecasts of an early Third War, the Big War, off the front pages. And Jeff was humbly proud and grateful that he had paid now the debt he owed to a society that could make a final victory, like his, possible.
In a zenith of almost holy happiness, he stood one evening on a lecture platform in a huge auditorium in a great city, before thousands of worshipping people to make a thank-you speech after being awarded a world prize for his great scientific discovery.
But in the middle of his talk he broke off suddenly. A flash of blinding brilliance slashed through the windows. Horror painted his face. In a whisper, he cried: "No! No! It would make it all so senseless!" His eyes looked like the eyes of a man with flaming splinters jammed under his fingernails. His face seemed to pucker, and grow infantile. Then he screamed: "No! Leave me alone! I told you I didn't want to come out here, to be one of you! Damn you, why did you bring me out here? For--for this?..."
There were the shards of glass from the great auditorium windows, floating inward, turning lazily. There were the brick walls crumbling, tumbling inward, scattering through the air in the same seeming slow motion. The dust cloud and the sound, the flat blast-sound, came after that, as the entire building--perhaps the world--disintegrated in the eye-searing light....
December 8th, 1952, Two-Thirty A. M.
The flat of a rubber-gloved hand striking flesh made a splatting noise. A thin, breathless but concentrated crying followed. The doctor looked down at his charity clinic patient, the woman under the bright delivery room lights.
"Look at him--fighting like a little demon!" the doctor said. "Seemed almost as though he didn't want to come out and join us.... What's the matter, son? This is a bright, new, wonderful world to be born into.... What are you going to call the boy, Mrs. McKinney?"
The woman under the lights forced a tired smile. "Jeff. Jefferson McKinney. That's going to be his name," she whispered proudly.
The baby's terrified squalling subsided into fretful, whimpering resignation.
THE JUDAS VALLEY.
By Gerald Vance
Why did everybody step off the ship in this strange valley and promptly drop dead? How could a well-equipped corps of tough spacemen become a field of rotting skeletons in this quiet world of peace and contentment? It was a mystery Peter and Sherri had to solve. If they could live long enough!
Peter Wayne took the letter out of the machine, broke the seal, and examined it curiously. It was an official communication from the Interstellar Exploration Service. It read: FROM: Lieutenant General Martin Scarborough, I.E.S. TO: Captain Peter Wayne, Preliminary Survey Corps Report immediately to this office for assignment to I.E.S. Lord Nelson. Full briefing will be held at 2200 hours, 14 April 2103.
By order of the Fleet Commandant.
It was short, brief, and to the point. And it gave no information whatsoever. Peter Wayne shrugged resignedly, put the letter down on his bed, walked over to the phone, and dialed a number.
A moment later, a girl's face appeared--blonde-haired, with high cheekbones, deep blue-green eyes, and an expression of the lips that intriguingly combined desirability and crisp military bearing.
"Lieutenant James speaking," she said formally. Then, as Wayne's image appeared on her screen, she grinned. "Hi, Pete. What's up?"
"Listen, Sherri," Wayne said quickly. "I'm going to have to cancel that date we had for tomorrow night. I just got my orders."
The girl laughed. "I was just going to call you, I got a fac-sheet too. Looks as though we won't see each other for a while, Pete."
"What ship are you getting?"
"The Lord Nelson."
It was Wayne's turn to laugh. "It looks as though we will be seeing each other. That's my ship too. We can keep our date in the briefing room."
Her face brightened. "Good! I'll see you there, then," she said. "I've got to get my gear packed."
"Okay," Wayne said. "Let's be on time, you know how General Scarborough is."
She smiled. "Don't worry, Peter. I'll be there. So long for now."
"Bye, Sherri." He cut the connection, watched the girl's face melt away into a rainbow-colored diamond of light, and turned away. There were a lot of things to do before he would be ready to leave Earth for an interstellar tour of duty.
He wondered briefly as he started to pack just what was going on. There was usually much more notice on any big jump of this order. Something special was up, he thought, as he dragged his duffle-bag out of the closet.
He was at the briefing room at 2158 on the nose. The Interstellar Exploration Service didn't much go for tardiness, but they didn't pay extra if you got there a half-hour early. Captain Peter Wayne made it a point of being at any appointment two minutes early--no more, no less.
The room was starting to fill up, with men and women Wayne knew well, had worked with on other expeditions, had lived with since he'd joined the IES. They looked just as puzzled as he probably did, he saw; they knew they were being called in on something big, and in the IES big meant big.
At precisely 2200, Lieutenant General Scarborough emerged from the inner office, strode briskly up the aisle of the briefing room, and took his customary stance on the platform in front. His face looked stern, and he held his hands clasped behind his back. His royal blue uniform was neat and trim. Over his head, the second hand of the big clock whirled endlessly. In the silence of the briefing room, it seemed to be ticking much too loudly.
The general nodded curtly and said, "Some of you are probably wondering why the order to report here wasn't more specific. There are two reasons for that. In the first place, we have reason to believe that we have found a substantial deposit of double-nucleus beryllium."
There was a murmur of sound in the briefing room. Wayne felt his heart starting to pound; D-N beryllium was big. So big that a whole fleet of IES ships did nothing but search the galaxy for it, full time.
"Naturally," the general continued, "we don't want any of this information to leak out, just in case it should prove false. The prospect of enough D-N beryllium to make fusion power really cheap could cause a panic if we didn't handle it properly. The Economics Board has warned us that we'll have to proceed carefully if there actually is a big deposit on this planet."
Captain Wayne stared uneasily at Sherri James, who frowned and chewed her lip. To his left, a short, stubby private named Manetti murmured worriedly, "That means trouble. D-N beryllium always means trouble. There's a catch somewhere."
General Scarborough, on the platform, said, "There's a second reason for secrecy. I think it can better be explained by a man who has the evidence first-hand."
He paused and looked around the room. "Four weeks ago, the Scout Ship Mavis came back from Fomalhaut V." There was a dead silence in the briefing room.
"Lieutenant Jervis, will you tell the crew exactly what happened on Fomalhaut V?"
Lieutenant Jervis stepped forward and took his place on the platform. He was small and wiry, with a hawk nose and piercingly intense eyes. He cleared his throat and smiled a little sheepishly.
"I've told this story so many times that it doesn't even sound real to me any more. I've told it to the Supreme Senate Space Committee, to half the top brass in the IES, and to a Board of Physicians from the Medical Department.
"As well as I can remember it, it goes something like this."
Laughter rippled through the room.
"We orbited around Fomalhaut V for a Scouting Survey," Jervis said. "The planet is hot and rocky, but it has a breathable atmosphere. The detectors showed various kinds of metals in the crust, some of them in commercially feasible concentration. But the crust is so mountainous and rocky that there aren't very many places to land a ship.
"Then we picked up the double-nucleus beryllium deposit on our detectors. Nearby, there was a small, fairly level valley, so we brought the ship down for a closer check. We wanted to make absolutely positive that it was double-nucleus beryllium before we made our report."
He paused, as if arranging the story he wanted to tell in his mind, and went on. "The D-N beryllium deposit lies at the top of a fairly low mountain about five miles from the valley. We triangulated it first, and then we decided we ought to send up a party to get samples of the ore if it were at all possible.
"I was chosen to go, along with another member of the crew, a man named Lee Bellows. We left the ship at about five in the morning, and spent most of the day climbing up to the spot where we had detected the beryllium. We couldn't get a sample; the main deposit is located several feet beneath the surface of the mountaintop, and the mountain is too rough and rocky to climb without special equipment. We got less than halfway before we had to stop."
Wayne felt Sherri nudge him, and turned to nod. He knew what she was thinking. This was where he came in; it was a job that called for a specialist, a trained mountaineer--such as Captain Peter Wayne. He frowned and turned his attention back to the man on the platform.
"We made all the readings we could," Jervis continued. "Then we headed back to our temporary base."
His face looked troubled. "When we got back, every man at the base was dead."
Silence in the room. Complete, utter, deafening silence.
"There were only nine of us in the ship," Jervis said. He was obviously still greatly affected by whatever had taken place on Fomalhaut V. "With seven of us dead, that left only Bellows and myself. We couldn't find out what had killed them. They were lying scattered over the valley floor for several yards around the ship. They looked as though they had suddenly dropped dead at whatever they were doing."
Peter Wayne made use of his extra few inches of height to glance around the briefing room. He saw row on row of tense faces--faces that reflected the same emotions he was feeling. Space exploration was something still new and mostly unknown, and even the experienced men of IES still knew fear occasionally. The galaxy was a big place; unknown terrors lurked on planets unimaginably distant. Every now and then, something like this would come up--something to give you pause, before you ventured into space again.
"We couldn't find out what had killed them," Jervis said again. "They were lying scattered every which way, with no clues at all." The small man's fingers were trembling from relived fright. "Bellows and I were pretty scared, I'll have to admit. We couldn't find a sign of what had killed the men--they'd just--just died."
There was a quiver in his voice. It was obvious he could never take the story lightly, no matter how many times he had to tell it.
Wayne heard Private Manetti mutter, "There's always a price for D-N beryllium."
"The Scout Ship hadn't been molested," Jervis went on. "I went inside and checked it over. It was untouched, undisturbed in every way. I checked the control panel, the cabins, everything. All unbothered. The ship was empty and dead. And--outside-- "When I came out, Bellows was dead too." He took a deep breath. "I'm afraid I panicked then. I locked myself inside the ship, set the autocontrols, and headed back to Earth at top velocity. I set the ship in an orbit around the moon and notified headquarters. I was quarantined immediately, of course, to make sure I wasn't carrying anything. The medics checked me over carefully. I wasn't and am not now carrying any virus or bacteria unknown to Terrestrial medicine.
"Since I'm the only one who knows exactly where this valley is, the general has asked me to guide the Lord Nelson to the exact spot. Actually, it could be found eventually with the D-N beryllium as a guide. But the Mavis was in orbit around Fomalhaut V for two weeks before we found the D-N beryllium deposit, and the Service feels that we shouldn't waste any time."
The lieutenant sat down, and General Scarborough resumed his place on the platform.
"That's the situation," Scarborough said bluntly. "You know the setup, now--and I think some of you see how your specialities are going to fit into the operation. As Lieutenant Jervis pointed out, we don't know what killed the crew of the Mavis; therefore, we are going to take every possible precaution. As far as we know, there are no inimical life forms on Fomalhaut V--but it's possible that there are things we don't know about, such as airborne viruses that kill in a very short time. If so, then Lieutenant Jervis is immune to the virus and is not a transmitter or carrier of it.
"However, to guard against such a possibility, no one will leave the Lord Nelson, once it has landed, without wearing a spacesuit. The air is breathable, but we're taking no chances. Also, no one will go out alone; scouting parties will always be in pairs, with wide open communication with the ship. And at no time will more than ten percent of the ship's company be outside at any one time."
Wayne made a rough mental computation. The Lord Nelson holds sixty. That means no more than six out at any single time. They really must be worried.
"Aside from those orders, which were decided on by the Service Command, you'll be under the direct orders of Colonel Nels Petersen. Colonel Petersen."
Petersen was a tall, hard-faced man with a touch of gray at his temples. He stepped forward and stared intently at the assembled crew.
"Our job is to make the preliminary preparations for getting D-N beryllium out of the crust of Fomalhaut V. We're supposed to stay alive while we do it. Therefore, our secondary job is to find out what it was that killed the scouting expedition of the Mavis. There are sixty of us going aboard the Lord Nelson tomorrow, and I'd like to have sixty aboard when we come back. Got that?"
He leaned forward, stretched upward on his toes, and smiled mechanically. "Fine. Now, you all know your jobs, but we're going to have to work together as a team. We're going to have to correlate our work so that we'll know what we're doing. So don't think we won't have anything to do during the two weeks it will take us to get to Fomalhaut V. We're going to work it as though it were a shakedown cruise. If anyone doesn't work out, he'll be replaced, even if we have to turn around and come back to Earth. On a planet which has wiped out a whole scouting expedition, we can't afford to have any slip-ups. And that means we can't afford to have anyone aboard who doesn't know what he's doing or doesn't care. Is that clear?"
"All right," said the colonel. "Let's go out and get acquainted with the Lord Nelson."
The briefing session broke up well past midnight, and the group that shortly would become the crew of the Lord Nelson filtered out of the building and into the cool spring air. Each man had a fairly good idea of his job and each man knew the dangers involved. No one had backed out.
"What d'ye think of it, Pete?" Sherri James asked, as they left together. "Sounds pretty mean."
"I wish we knew what the answers were beforehand," Wayne said. He glanced down at Sherri. The moon was full, and its rays glinted brightly off her golden hair. "It's a risky deal, as Petersen said. Nine men go out, and eight die--of what? Just dead, that's all."
"It's the way the game goes," Sherri said. "You knew that when you joined the corps." They turned down the main road of the IES compound and headed for the snack bar.