Prev Next

Wayne cursed. Then he turned the needle gun back up to full power and calmly burned the thing to a crisp. An odor of singed flesh drifted up from the ashes on the sand.

He stooped and fumbled in Stevelman's pocket, pulling out a ring of keys.

"They better be the right ones," he told the unconscious medic. Holstering the needle gun, he walked over to the medical stores cabinet, hoping that the things he needed would be inside. He knew exactly what he was facing now, and what he would have to do.

He checked over the labels, peering through the neatly-arranged racks for the substance he was searching for.

Finally he picked a large plastine container filled with a white, crystalline powder. Then he selected a couple of bottles filled with a clear, faintly yellow liquid, and took a hypodermic gun from the rack. He relocked the cabinet.

Suddenly a knock sounded. He stiffened, sucked in his breath, and turned to face the door.

"Who's there?" he asked cautiously, trying to counterfeit Stevelman's voice.

"Harrenburg," said a rumbling voice. "I'm on guard duty. Heard some noise coming from in there a while back, and thought I'd look in. Everything all right, Dr. Stevelman? I mean--"

"Everything's fine, Harrenburg," Wayne said, imitating the medic's thin, dry voice. "We're running some tests on Captain Wayne. They're pretty complicated affairs, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't interrupt again."

"Sure, sir," the guard said. "Just a routine check, sir. Colonel Petersen's orders. Sorry if I've caused any trouble, sir."

"That's all right," Wayne said. "Just go away and let us continue, will you?"

There was the sound of the guard's footsteps retreating down the corridor. Wayne counted to ten and turned back to the things he had taken from the cabinet.

The bottles of liquid and the hypo gun went into his belt pouch. He tucked the big bottle of white powder under his left arm and cautiously unbolted and opened the door. There was no sign of anyone in the corridor. Good, he thought. It was a lucky thing Harrenburg had blundered along just then, and not two minutes later.

He stepped outside the Medic Section and locked the door behind him with the key he'd taken from Stevelman. After turning the needle gun back to low power again in order to keep from killing anyone, he started on tiptoe toward the stairway that led into the bowels of the ship.

After about ten paces, he saw a shadow on the stairway, and cowered in a dark recess while two crewmen passed, talking volubly. Once they were gone, he came out and continued on his way.

It took quite a while to get where he was going, since it involved hiding and ducking two or three more times along the way, but he finally reached the big compartment where the water repurifiers were. He climbed up the ladder to the top of the reserve tank, opened the hatch, and emptied the contents of the jar into the ship's water supply.

"That ought to do it," he said to himself. Smiling, he carefully smashed the jar and dropped the fragments down the waste chute. He surveyed his handiwork for a moment, then turned and headed back.

He hadn't been seen going down, and he didn't want to be seen going out. If anyone even suspected that he had tampered with the water supply, all they would have to do would be to run the water through the purifiers. That would undo everything Wayne had been carefully preparing.

He made his way safely back up to the main deck and headed through the quiet ship toward the airlock. He wasn't so lucky this time; a guard saw him.

"Where you goin', Captain?" the guard demanded, starting to lift his gun. "Seems to me you ought to be in the brig, and--"

Wayne made no reply. He brought his gun up in a rapid motion and beamed the man down. The guard toppled, a hurt expression on his face.

Wayne raced to the airlock. He didn't bother with a spacesuit--not now, when he knew that the air was perfectly harmless outside. He opened the inner door, closed it, and opened the outer door.

Then, grinning gleefully, he pressed the button that would start the pumping cycle. The outer door started to close automatically, and Wayne just barely managed to get outside and onto the ladder before it clanged shut. As soon as the great hatch had sealed itself, the pumps started exhausting the air from the airlock. No one could open the doors until the pumping cycle was over.

He climbed down the ladder and began walking over toward the western wall. He would have to keep away from the ship for a while, and the rocks were as good a place as any to hide out.

It was dark. Fomalhaut had set, leaving the moonless planet in utter blackness, broken only by the cold gleam of the stars. The lights streaming from the portholes of the Lord Nelson gave a small degree of illumination to the valley.

The valley. It was spread out before him, calm and peaceful, rippling dunes of sand curling out toward the mountains. The valley, he knew, was a betrayer--calm and quiet above, alive with an army of hideous vermin a few feet below its surface.

He started to walk, and moistened his lips. He knew he was going to get awfully thirsty in the next few hours, but there was not the slightest help for it. There hadn't been any way to carry water from the ship.

"I can wait," he told himself. He stared back at the circular bulk of the Lord Nelson behind him, and his fingers trembled a little. He had known, when he joined the Corps, that space was full of traps like this one--but this was the first time he had actually experienced anything like this. It was foul.

Something slammed into his boot sole, and this time Wayne knew what it was.

"Persistent, aren't you!" He jerked his foot up. This monster hadn't stuck as the other one had, but he saw the tip of the needle-beak thrashing around wildly in the loose sand. Wayne thumbed the gun up to full power, and there was a piercing shriek as the gun burned into the sand. There was a sharp shrill sound, and the odor of something burning. He spat.

The little beasts must be all over the floor of the valley! Scurrying frantically, like blood-red giant crabs, sidling up and down beneath the valley, searching upward for things to strike at. How they must hate his metamagnetic boots, he thought!

He kept on walking, expecting to feel the impact of another thrust momentarily, but he was not molested again. They must be getting wise, he thought. They know they can't get through my boots, and so they're leaving me alone. That way they don't call attention to themselves.

A new, more chilling question struck him: Just how smart are they?

He had made it to the wall and was climbing up the treacherous slope when the airlock door opened, and someone stood outlined in the bright circle of light that cut into the inky blackness. An amplified voice filled the valley and ricocheted back off the walls of the mountains, casting eerie echoes down on the lone man on the desert.


"I'm afraid an order from you just doesn't hold much weight for me right now, Colonel," Wayne said quietly, to himself. Silently he went on climbing the escarpment, digging into the rough rock.

He kept on climbing until he found the niche for which he had been heading. He dragged himself in and sat down, as comfortably as possible. He began to wait.

Dawn came in less than three hours, as Fomalhaut burst up over the horizon and exploded in radiance over the valley. With dawn came a patrol of men, slinking surreptitiously across the valley, probably with orders to bring him in. Wayne was ensconced comfortably in his little rock niche, hidden from the men in the valley below, but with a perfect view of everything that went on. The wind whistled around the cliffs, ceaselessly moaning a tuneless song. He felt like standing up and shouting wildly, "Here I am! Here I am!" but he repressed the perverse urge.

The patrol group stood in a small clump in the valley below, seemingly waiting for something. Moments passed, and then it became apparent what that something was. Hollingwood, the metallurgist, appeared, dragging with him the detector. They were going to look for Captain Wayne with it, just as they had searched out the double-nucleus beryllium.

Wayne frowned. It was a possibility he hadn't thought about. They could easily detect the metal in his boots! And he didn't dare take them off; he'd never make it back across that hellish stretch of sand without them. He glanced uneasily at his watch. How much longer do I have to keep evading them? he wondered. It was a wearing task.

It looked as though it would be much too long.

The muzzle of the detector began to swing back and forth slowly and precisely, covering the valley inch by inch. He heard their whispered consultations drifting up from below, though he couldn't make out what they were saying.

They finished with the valley, evidently concluding he wasn't there, and started searching the walls. Wayne decided it was time to get out while the getting was good. He crawled slowly out of the niche and wriggled along the escarpment, heading south, keeping low so the men in the valley wouldn't see him.

Unfortunately, he couldn't see them either. He kept moving, hoping they wouldn't spot him with the detector. He wished he had the metamagnetic hand grapples with him. For one thing, the sharp rock outcroppings sliced his hands like so much meat. For another, he could have dropped the grapples somewhere as a decoy.

Oh, well, you can't think of everything, Wayne told himself. He glanced at his watch. How long was it going to take?

He heard the scrape of boot leather on a rock somewhere ahead of him. He glanced up sharply, seeing nothing, and scowled. They had spotted him.

They were laying a trap.

Cautiously, he climbed over a huge boulder, making no sound. There was one man standing behind it, waiting, apparently, for Wayne to step around into view. He peered down, trying to see who it was. It seemed to be Hollingwood, the dignified, austere metallurgist.

Wayne smiled grimly, picked up a heavy rock, and dropped it straight down, square on the man's helmet. The plexalloy rang like a bell through the clear early-morning air, and the man dropped to his knees, dazed by the shock.

Knowing he had just a moment to finish the job, Wayne pushed off against the side of the rock and plummeted down, landing neatly on the metallurgist's shoulders. The man reeled and fell flat. Wayne spun him over and delivered a hard punch to the solar plexus. "Sorry, Dave," he said softly. The metallurgist gasped and curled up in a tight ball. Wayne stood up. It was brutal, but it was the only place you could hit a man wearing a space helmet.

One down, Wayne thought. Fifty-eight to go. He was alone against the crew--and, for all he knew, against all fifty-nine of them.

Hollingwood groaned and stretched. Wayne bent and, for good measure, took off the man's helmet and tapped him none too gently on the skull.

There was the sound of footsteps, the harsh chitch-chitch of feet against the rock. "He's up that way," he heard a deep voice boom.

That meant the others had heard the rock hitting Hollingwood's plexalloy helmet. They were coming toward him.

Wayne sprang back defensively and glanced around. He hoped there were only five of them, that the rule of six was still being maintained. Otherwise things could become really complicated, as they hunted him relentlessly through the twisted gulleys.

He hated to have to knock out too many of the men; it just meant more trouble later. Still, there was no help for it, if he wanted there to be any later. He thought of the bleached bones of the crew of the Mavis, and shuddered.

It was something of an advantage not to be wearing a helmet. Even with the best of acoustical systems, hearing inside a helmet tended to be distorted and dimmed. The men couldn't hear him as well as he could hear them. And since they couldn't hear themselves too well, they made a little more noise than he did.

A space boot came into view around a big rock, and Wayne aimed his needle-beam at the spot where the man's head would appear.

When the head came around the rock, Wayne fired. The man dropped instantly. Sorry, friend, Wayne apologized mentally. Two down. Fifty-seven to go. The odds were still pretty heavy.

He knew he had to move quickly now; the others had seen the man drop, and by now they should have a pretty good idea exactly where Wayne was.

He picked up a rock and lobbed it over a nearby boulder, then started moving cat-like in the other direction. He climbed up onto another boulder and watched two men move away from him. They were stepping warily, their beam guns in their hands. Wayne wiped away a bead of perspiration, aimed carefully, and squeezed the firing stud twice.

Four down. Fifty-five to go.

A moment later, something hissed near his ear. Without waiting, he spun and rolled off the boulder, landing cat-like on his feet. Another crewman was standing on top of a nearby boulder. Wayne began to sweat; this pursuit seemed to be indefinitely prolonged, and it was beginning to look unlikely that he could avoid them forever.

He had dropped his pistol during the fall; it was wedged between a couple of rocks several feet away.

He heard someone call: "I got him. He fell off the rock. We'll take him back down below."

Then another voice--ominously. "He won't mind. He'll be glad we did it for him--afterwards."

"I'll go get him," said the first voice. The man stepped around the side of the boulder--just in time to have a hard-pitched rock come thunking into his midsection.

"Oof!" he grunted, took a couple of steps backwards, and collapsed.

Five down. Fifty-four to go. It could go on forever this way.

"What's the matter?" asked the man who had replied to the first one with those chilling words.

"Nothing," said Wayne, in a fair imitation of the prostrate crewman's voice. "He's heavy. Come help me."

Then he reached down and picked up the fallen man's beam gun. He took careful aim.

When the sixth man stepped around the rock, he fired. The beam went wide of the mark, slowing the other down, and Wayne charged forward. He pounded two swift punches into the amazed crewman, who responded with a woozy, wild blow. Wayne ducked and let the fist glide past his ear, then came in hard with a solid body-blow and let the man sag to the ground. He took a deep breath.

Six down and only fifty-three to go.

He crawled back to the edge of the precipice and peered down into the valley. There was no one to be seen. It was obvious that Colonel Petersen was still enforcing the six-man rule.

As he watched, he saw the airlock door open. A spacesuited figure scrambled down the ladder and sprinted across the deadly sand of the valley floor.

It was Sherri! Wayne held his breath, expecting at any moment that one of the little monsters beneath the sand would sink its vicious needle upward into Sherri's foot. But her stride never faltered.

As she neared the precipice, another figure appeared at the airlock door and took aim with a gun.

Wayne thumbed his own needle-beam pistol up to full and fired hastily at the distant figure. At that distance, even the full beam would only stun. The figure collapsed backwards into the airlock, and Wayne grinned in satisfaction.

Seven down. Fifty-two to go.

He kept an eye on the airlock door and a finger on his firing stud, waiting to see if anyone else would come out. No one else did.

As soon as Sherri was safely up to the top of the precipice, Wayne ran to meet her.

"Sherri! What the devil did you come out here for?"

"I had to see you," she said, panting for breath. "If you'll come back to the ship before they beam you down, we can prove to Colonel Petersen that you're all right. We can show them that the Masters--"

She realized suddenly what she said and uttered a little gasp. She had her pistol out before the surprised Wayne could move.

He stared coldly at the pistol, thinking bitterly that this was a hell of a way for it all to finish. "So they got you too," he said. "That little display at the airlock was a phony. You were sent out here to lure me back into the ship. Just another Judas."

She nodded slowly. "That's right," she said. "We all have to go to the Masters. It is--it--is--is--"

Her eyes glazed, and she swayed on her feet. The pistol wavered and swung in a feeble spiral, no longer pointed at Wayne. Gently, he took it from her nerveless fingers and caught her supple body as she fell.

He wiped his forehead dry. Up above, the sun was climbing toward the top of the sky, and its beams raked the planet below, pouring down heat.

He glanced at his wristwatch while waiting for his nerves to stop tingling. Sherri must have been the last one--the drug must have taken effect at last, and not a moment too soon. He decided to wait another half hour before he tried to get into the spaceship, just the same.

The huge globe of the Lord Nelson stood forlornly in the center of the valley. The airlock door stayed open; no one tried to close it.

Report error

If you found broken links, wrong episode or any other problems in a anime/cartoon, please tell us. We will try to solve them the first time.