Hanging from his boot sole was one of the ugliest monstrosities he had ever seen, unusually grotesque.
It was about the size and shape of a regulation football, and was covered with a wrinkled, reddish hide. At one end was a bright red gash of a mouth studded with greenish, gnashing teeth. From the other end of the creature's body protruded a long, needle-like projection which had imbedded itself in the metal sole of Wayne's boot.
"Good God! If I'd been wearing ordinary boots, that thing would have stuck clear into my foot!"
He hefted the weighted pick with one hand and swung, catching the monster with the point. It sank in and ripped through the creature, spilling red-orange blood over the sand. Shuddering a little, Wayne put his other foot on the dead thing and pulled his right boot free of the needle beak.
He started to say something, but he had a sudden premonition that made him look up in time. Sergeant Boggs put both hands against the Captain's shoulder and pushed.
"What the hell?" Wayne asked in surprise as he felt the shove. He almost fell to the sand, but he had had just enough warning to allow him to keep his balance. He put out a foot and staggered wildly.
A sudden strange noise caused him to turn and look back. Five needles were jabbing viciously up out of the sand in the spot where he would have fallen.
"You out of your head, Boggs?" he started to ask--but before the last word was out of his mouth, the sergeant charged in madly and tried to push him over again. He was fighting like a man gone berserk--which he was.
Wayne grabbed him by the wrist and flipped him desperately aside. The sergeant fell, sprawled out for a moment on the sand, then bounced to his feet again. His eyes were alight with a strange, terrifying flame.
Silently, he leaped for Wayne. The captain slammed his fist forward, sending it crashing into Boggs's midsection. The sergeant came back with a jab to the stomach that pushed Wayne backward. Again the deadly needles flicked up from the ground, but they did not strike home.
Wayne gasped for breath and reached out for Boggs. Boggs leaped on him, trying to push Wayne down where the beaks could get to him. Wayne sidestepped, threw Boggs off balance, and clubbed down hard with his fist.
Boggs wandered dizzily for a second before Wayne's other fist came blasting in, knocking the breath out of him. A third blow, and the sergeant collapsed on the sand.
Wayne paused and caught his breath. The sergeant remained unconscious. Wayne shook his head uncertainly, wondering what had come over the mild-mannered Boggs. A chilling thought struck him: was this what happened to the crew of the Mavis?
He looked up the cliff, where the other two men were still peering over the edge.
"MacPherson! Manetti! Come down! We're going back to the ship!"
He heaved the unconscious body of Sergeant Boggs over his shoulder like a potato-sack, and waited for the two men to come down. They drew near.
"Boggs must have gone out of his head," Wayne said. "He jumped me like a madman."
They had nothing to say, so he turned and began to trudge back to the Lord Nelson, trying to assemble the facts in his mind. They followed alongside.
What was behind the attack? After seeing the monster, why had Boggs attempted to push his superior officer over into the sand? There were other little beasts under that sand; why would Boggs want one of them--there seemed to be dozens--to jab him with its needle of a beak?
And what were the beastly little animals, anyway?
There were no answers. But the answers would have to come, soon.
He tossed Boggs into the airlock and waited for the others to catch up. They climbed up the ladder and said nothing as the airlock went through its cycle and the antibacterial spray covered them.
Colonel Petersen looked at him across the desk and put the palms of his hands together. "Then, as I understand it, Captain, Sergeant Boggs tried to push you over into the sand when this--ah--monster jabbed you in the foot?"
"That's right, sir," Wayne said. He felt uncomfortable. This wasn't a formal court-martial; it was simply an inquiry into the sergeant's actions. Charges would be preferred later, if there were any to be preferred.
Sergeant Boggs stood stolidly on the far side of the room. A livid bruise along his jaw testified to the struggle that had taken place. One eye was puffed, and his expression was an unhappy one. Near him, MacPherson and Private Manetti stood stiffly at attention.
The colonel looked at Boggs. "What's your side of the story, Sergeant?"
The non-com's face didn't change. "Sir, the captain's statement isn't true."
"What's that?" Wayne asked angrily.
"Quiet, Captain," Petersen said. "Go ahead, Boggs."
The sergeant licked his bruised lips. "I was about to start up the rope when, for no reason at all, he struck me in the stomach. Then he hit me again a few more times, and I passed out."
"Did he say anything when he did this?" the Colonel asked.
Wayne frowned. What was the sergeant trying to do? What the devil was he up to?
"Corporal MacPherson," the colonel said, "Did you witness the fight?"
"Yes, sir," the small man said, stepping a pace forward.
"Well, sir, we were up on top of the cliff, and we called--or rather, I called for the captain and the sergeant to come on up. Sergeant Boggs took a hold of the rope and then the captain hit him in the belly, sir. He hit him twice more and the sergeant fell down. Then the captain told us to come down, which we did, sir. That was all." He gestured with his hands to indicate he had no more to say.
Wayne could hardly believe his ears. Making an effort, he managed to restrain himself.
"Private Manetti, do you have anything to add to that?" the colonel asked.
"No, sir. It happened just like that, sir. We both seen the entire thing. That's the way it happened. The captain hauled off and let him have it."
The colonel swivelled around and let his cold eyes rest on Wayne. "Captain, you have stated that Sergeant Boggs did not talk to either of these two men after you struck him. That eliminates any collusion."
"Yes, sir," Wayne said stonily.
"I talked to both men separately, and they tell substantially the same story. The records of all three of these men are excellent. The sergeant claims he never saw any monster of the type you describe, and the group I sent out to check says that there is no body of any alien animal anywhere near the spot. How do you explain the discrepancies between your story and theirs?"
Wayne glared angrily at the three men. "They're lying, sir," he said evenly. "I don't know why they're doing it. The whole thing took place exactly as I told you."
"I find that very difficult to believe, Captain."
"Is that a formal accusation, sir?"
Petersen shrugged and rubbed his hands against his iron-grey temples. "Captain," he said finally, "you have a very fine record. You have never before been known to strike an enlisted man for any cause whatever. I hold that in your favor."
"Thank you, sir."
"On the other hand, the evidence here definitely indicates that your story is not quite true. Now, we know that Lieutenant Jervis acted peculiarly after the crew of the Mavis met its mysterious end, and the Medical Corps thinks that whatever is causing the deaths could also cause mental confusion. Therefore, I am remanding you to the custody of the Medical Corps for observation. You'll be kept in close confinement until this thing is cleared up."
Wayne frowned bitterly. "Yes, sir," he said.
Peter Wayne sat in his cell in the hospital sector and stared at the wall in confusion. What in blazes was going on? What possible motive would three enlisted men have to frame him in this way? It didn't make any sense.
Was it possible that he really had gone off his rocker? Had he imagined the little beast under the sand?
He lifted his foot and looked again at the sole. There it was: a little pit about an eighth of an inch deep.
The colonel had explained it away easily enough, saying that he might possibly have stepped on a sharp rock. Wayne shook his head. He knew he wasn't nuts. But what the hell was going on?
There were no answers. But he knew that the eventual answer, when it came, would have something to do with the mystery of the Mavis's eight corpses.
It was late that afternoon when Sherri James came storming into the hospital sector. She was wearing a spacesuit, and she was brandishing a pass countersigned by Colonel Petersen himself. She was determined to enter.
"The medics didn't want to let me in," she explained. "But I told them I'd wear a spacesuit if it would make them any happier."
"Sherri! What the devil are you doing here?"
"I just wanted to check on you," she said. Her voice sounded oddly distorted coming over the speaker in the helmet. "You're supposed to have blown your wig or something. Did you?"
"No. Of course not."
"I didn't think so." She unscrewed her helmet quickly. "Listen, Peter, there's something funny going on aboard this ship."
"I've known that a long time," he said.
"I think Boggs and those other two are trying to frame you," she said, her voice low. "Do you know of anyone aboard named Masters?"
"Masters?" Wayne repeated. "Not that I know of--why?"
"Well, I overheard Boggs talking to one of the other men. I didn't hear very clearly, but it sounded as though he said: 'We've got to get Moore out and turn him over to Masters.' Bill Moore is one of my computermen--tall, skinny fellow."
Wayne nodded, frowning. "Yeah, but who is Masters? This is the queerest thing I ever heard of."
Footsteps sounded in the corridor outside.
"Better put your helmet on," Wayne advised. "Whoever's coming might not like to see you this way."
Quickly, she slipped the helmet back on. "I don't know what's going on," she said. "But I intend to find out."
One of the medics entered the cell without knocking and came up to Sherri. "You'll have to go now, Lieutenant," he said. "We're going to perform some tests on the captain now."
Sherri bristled. "Tests? What kind of tests?"
"Nothing very serious," the medic said. "Just a routine checkup to clarify some points we're interested in."
"All right," Sherri said. "You won't find anything the matter with him." She left.
"Come with me, Captain," said the medic politely. He unlocked the cell door and, equally politely, drew a needle-beam pistol. "Don't try anything, please, sir. I have my orders."
Silently, Wayne followed the medic into the lab. Several other medics were standing around watching him, with Stevelman, the head man, in the back.
"Over this way, Captain," Stevelman called.
There was a box sitting on a table in the middle of the room. It was full of sand.
"Give me your hand, please, Captain," the medic said tonelessly.
In a sudden flash of insight, Wayne realized what was in the box. He thought fast but moved slowly. He held out his hand, but just as the medic took it, he twisted suddenly away.
His hand flashed out and grasped the other's wrist in a steely grip. The medic's fingers tightened on the needle-beam, and managed to pull the trigger. A bright beam flared briefly against the lab's plastalloy floor, doing nothing but scorching it slightly. Wayne's other hand balled into a fist and came up hard against the medic's jaw.
He grabbed the needle-beam pistol from the collapsing man's limp hand and had the other three men covered before the slugged medic had finished sagging to the floor.
"All of you! Raise your hands!"
They paid no attention to him. Instead of standing where they were, they began to move toward him. Wayne swore and, with a quick flip of his thumb, turned the beam down to low power and pulled the trigger three times in quick succession.
The three men fell as though they'd been pole-axed, knocked out by the low-power beam.
"The whole ship's gone crazy," he murmured softly, looking at the three men slumped together on the lab floor. "Stark, staring, raving nuts."
He took one step and someone jumped him from behind. The needle-beam pistol spun from his hand and slithered across the floor as Wayne fell under the impact of the heavy body. Apparently the whole Medical Corps was out to knock him down today.
He twisted rapidly as an arm encircled his neck, and rammed an elbow into the newcomer's midsection. Then he jerked his head back, smashing the back of his skull into his opponent's nose.
The hold around his neck weakened, and Wayne tore himself loose from the other's grasp. He jumped to his feet, but the other man was a long way from being unconscious. A stinging right smashed into Wayne's mouth, and he felt the taste of blood. Hastily he wiped the trickle away with the back of his hand.
With his nose pouring blood, Wayne's antagonist charged in. His eyes burned with the strange flame that had been gleaming in Boggs's face out on the desert in the valley. He ploughed into Wayne's stomach with a savage blow that rocked Wayne back.
He grunted and drove back with a flurry of blows. The other aimed a wild blow at Wayne's head; Wayne seized the wrist as the arm flew past his ear, and twisted, hard. The medic flipped through the air and came to rest against the wall with a brief crunching impact. He moaned and then lapsed into silence.
Quickly, Wayne grabbed the gun off the floor and planted his back to the wall, looking around for new antagonists. But there was evidently no one left who cared to tangle with him, and the four medics strewn out on the floor didn't seem to have much fight left in them.
Wayne crossed the room in a couple of strides and bolted the door. Then he walked over to the box of sand. If it contained what he suspected-- He stepped over to the lab bench and picked out a long steel support rod from the equipment drawer. He placed the rod gently against the sand, and pushed downward, hard. There was a tinny scream, and a six-inch needle shot up instantly through the surface.
"Just what I thought," Wayne murmured. "Can you talk, you nasty little brute?" He prodded into the sand--more viciously this time. There was a flurry of sand, and the football-shaped thing came to the surface, clashing its teeth and screaming shrilly.