Wayne's mouth was growing dry; his tongue felt like sandpaper. Nevertheless, he forced himself to sit quietly, watching the ship closely for the full half hour, before he picked up Sherri, tied his rope around her waist, and lowered her to the valley floor. Then he wandered around the rocks, collecting the six unconscious men, and did the same for them.
He carried them all, one by one, across the sand, burning a path before him with the needle beam.
Long before he had finished his task, the sand was churning loathsomely with the needles of hundreds and thousands of the monstrous little beasts. They were trying frantically to bring down the being that was so effectively thwarting their plans, jabbing viciously with their upthrust beaks. The expanse of sand that was the valley looked like a pincushion, with the writhing needles ploughing through the ground one after another. Wayne kept the orifice of his beam pistol hot as he cut his way back and forth from the base of the cliff to the ship.
When he had dumped the seven unconscious ones all inside the airlock, he closed the outer door and opened the inner one. There was not a sound from within.
Fifty-nine down, he thought, and none to go.
He entered the ship and dashed down the winding staircase to the water purifiers to change the water in the reservoir tanks. Thirsty as he was, he was not going to take a drink until the water had been cleared of the knockout drug he had dropped into the tanks.
After that came the laborious job of getting everyone in the ship strapped into their bunks for the takeoff. It took the better part of an hour to get all sixty of them up--they had fallen all over the ship--and nestled in the acceleration cradles. When the job was done, he went to the main control room and set the autopilot to lift the spaceship high into the ionosphere.
Then, sighting carefully on the valley far below, he dropped a flare bomb.
"Goodbye, little monsters," he said exultantly.
For a short space of time, nothing happened. Then the viewplate was filled with a deadly blue-white glare. Unlike an ordinary atomic bomb, the flare bomb would not explode violently; it simply burned, sending out a brilliant flare of deadly radiation that would crisp all life dozens of feet below the ground.
He watched the radiation blazing below. Then it began to die down, and when the glare cleared away, all was quiet below.
The valley was dead.
When it was all over, Wayne took the hypodermic gun from his pouch, filled it with the anti-hypnotic drug that he had taken from the medical cabinet, and began to make his rounds. He fired a shot into each and every one aboard. He had no way of knowing who had been injected by the small monsters and who had not, so he was taking no chances.
Then he went to the colonel's room. He wanted to be there when the Commanding Officer awoke.
The entire crew of the Lord Nelson was gathered in the big mess hall. Wayne stared down at the tired, frightened faces of the puzzled people looking up at him, and continued his explanation.
"Those of you who were under the control of the monsters know what it was like. They had the ability to inject a hypnotic drug into a human being through a normal space boot with those stingers of theirs. The drug takes effect so fast that the victim hardly has any idea of what has happened to him."
"But why do they do it?" It was Hollingwood, the metallurgist, looking unhappy with a tremendous bruise on his head where Wayne had clobbered him.
"Why does a wasp sting a spider? It doesn't kill the spider, it simply stuns it. That way, the spider remains alive and fresh so that young wasps can feed upon it at their leisure."
Wayne glanced over to his right. "Lieutenant Jervis, you've been under the effect of the drug longer than any of us. Would you explain what really happened when the Mavis landed?"
The young officer stood up. He was pale and shaken, but his voice was clear and steady.
"Just about the same thing that almost happened here," Jervis said. "We all walked around the valley floor and got stung one at a time. The things did it so quietly that none of us knew what was going on until we got hit ourselves. When we had all been enslaved, we were ready to do their bidding. They can't talk, but they can communicate by means of nerve messages when that needle is stuck into you."
Nearly half the crew nodded in sympathy. Wayne studied them, wondering what it must have been like. They knew; he could only guess.
"Naturally," Jervis went on, "those who have already been injected with the drug try to get others injected. When everyone aboard the Mavis had been stung, they ordered me to take the ship home and get another load of Earthmen. Apparently they like our taste. I had to obey; I was completely under their power. You know what it's like."
"And what happened to the others--the eight men you left behind?" asked Colonel Petersen.
Jervis clenched his teeth bitterly. "They just laid down on the sand--and waited."
"Horrible!" Sherri said.
Jervis fell silent. Wayne was picturing the sight, and knew everyone else was, too--the sight of hordes of carnivorous little aliens burrowing up through the sand and approaching the eight Earthmen who lay there, alive but helpless. Approaching them--and beginning to feed.
Just when the atmosphere began to grow too depressing, Wayne decided to break the spell. "I'd like to point out that the valley's been completely cauterized," he said. "The aliens have been wiped out. And I propose to lead a mission out to reconnoitre for the double-nucleus beryllium."
He looked around. "MacPherson? Boggs? Manetti? You three want to start over where we left off the last time?"
Sergeant Boggs came up to him. "Sir, I want you to understand that--"
"I know, Boggs," Wayne said. "Let's forget all about it. There's work to be done."
"I'm sorry I misjudged you, Wayne. If it hadn't been for your quick action, this crew would have gone the way of the Mavis."
"Just luck, Colonel," Wayne said. "If it hadn't been for those heavy-soled climbing boots, I'd probably be lying out there with the rest of you right now."
Colonel Petersen grinned. "Thanks to your boots, then."
Wayne turned to his team of three. "Let's get moving, fellows. We've wasted enough time already."
"Do we need spacesuits, sir?" Manetti asked.
"No, Manetti. The air's perfectly fine out there," Wayne said. "But I'd suggest you wear your climbing boots." He grinned. "You never can tell when they'll come in handy."
By G. L. Vandenburg
The Ajax XX was the first American space craft to make a successful landing on the moon. She had orbited the Earth's natural satellite for a day and a half before making history. The reason for orbiting was important. The Russians had been boasting for a number of years that they would be first. Captain Junius Robb, U.S.A.F., had orders to investigate before and after landing.
The moon's dark side was explored, due to the unknown hazards involved, during the orbiting process. More thorough investigation was possible on the moon's familiar side. The results seemed to be incontrovertible. Captain Junius Robb and his crew of four were the first humans to tread the ashes of the long dead heavenly body. The Russians, for all their boasts, had never come near the place.
The Ajax XX stood tall and gaunt and mighty, framed against the forbidding blackness of space. Captain Robb had maneuvered her down to the middle of an immense crater, which the crew came to nickname "the coliseum without seats."
Robb had orders not to leave the ship. Consequently, the crew of four scrupulously chosen, well-integrated men split into two groups of two. For three days they labored at gathering specimens, conducting countless tests and piling up as much data as time and weight would allow. Captain Robb kept them well reminded of the weight problem attached to the return trip.
Near the end of the third day Captain Robb contacted his far flung crew members over helmet intercom. He ordered them back to the Ajax XX for a briefing session.
Soon the men entered the ship. They were hot, uncomfortable and exhausted. Once back on Earth they could testify that there was nothing romantic about a thirty-five-pound pressure suit.
Hamston, the rocket expert, summed it up: "With that damn bulb over his skull a man is helpless to remove a single bead of perspiration. He could easily develop into a raving maniac."
Robb held his meeting in the control room. "You have eight hours to finish your work, gentlemen. We're blasting off at 0900."
"I beg your pardon, Captain," said Kingsley, the young man in charge of radio operation, "but what about Washington? They haven't made contact yet and I thought--"
"I talked with Washington an hour ago!"
A modest cheer of approval went up from the crew members.
"Well, why didn't you say so before!" said Anderson, the first officer.
Robb explained. "It seems their equipment has been haywire for two days, they haven't been able to get through."
"How do you like that!" cracked Farnsworth, the astrogator. "We're two hundred and forty thousand miles off the Earth and our equipment works fine. They have all the comforts of Earth down at headquarters and they can't repair radio transmission for two days!"
The men laughed.
"Gentlemen," Robb continued, "every radio and TV network in the country was hooked up to the chief's office in Washington. I not only talked to General Lovett, I spoke to the whole damn country."
The men could not contain their excitement. The captain received a verbal pelting of stored-up questions.
"Did you get word to my family, Captain?" asked Kingsley.
"I hope you told them we're physically sound, Captain," said Farnsworth. "I have a fiancee that'll never forgive me if anything happens to me--"
"What's the reaction like around the country--"
"Have the Russians had anything to say yet--"
"Ha! I'll bet they're sore as hell--"
"Do you think the army would mind if I hand in my resignation?" Kingsley's remark brought vigorous applause from the others.
Captain Robb held up his hand for silence. "Hold on! Hold on! First of all, General Lovett has personally contacted relatives and told them we're all physically and mentally sound. Secondly, you'd better get set to receive the biggest damn welcome in history. The general says half the nation has invaded Florida for the occasion."
"Tell them we're not coming back," snapped Kingsley, "until the Florida Tourist Bureau gives us a cut."
"Kingsley, the President has declared a national holiday. We'll all be able to write our own ticket."
"Yes," Anderson put in, "to hell with the Florida Tourist Bureau!"
Captain Robb said, "We'll be so sick of parades we'll wish we'd stayed in this God forsaken place."
"Not me," boasted Farnsworth. "I'm ready for a parade in my honor any old time. The sooner the better."
"Oh, and about the Russians," said Captain Robb, smiling. "There's been nothing but a steady stream of 'no comment' out of the Kremlin since we landed here."
"Right now," said Hamston, "it's probably high noon for every scientist behind the iron curtain."
"I wonder how they plan to talk their way out of this one?" asked Farnsworth.
"Gentlemen, I'd like to go on talking about the welcome we're going to receive, but I think we'd better take first things first. Before there can be a welcome we have to get back. And we still have work to do before we start."
"What about souvenirs, Captain?" asked Farnsworth.
Robb pursed his lips thoughtfully, "Yes, I guess there is a matter of souvenirs, isn't there."
The others detected a note of disturbance in the way the captain spoke.
Kingsley asked, "Is anything wrong, Captain?"
Robb laughed with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. "Nothing is wrong, Kingsley. The fact is we've taken on enough additional weight here to give us some concern on the return trip." He paused to study the faces of his men. They were disappointed. "But," he added emphatically, "I seem to remember promising something about souvenirs--and I guess a man can't travel five hundred thousand miles without something to show for it. I'll get together with Hamston and work out something. But remember that weight problem. First trouble we encounter on the return trip and a souvenir will be our number one expendable."
The crew was more than happy with Robb's compromise. Robb went into a huddle with Hamston, the rocket expert. When he emerged he informed the crew that each man would be permitted one souvenir which must not exceed two pounds. He allowed them four hours to find whatever they wanted. The men got back into their pressure suits and left the ship.
Captain Junius Robb stood outside the Ajax XX. His eyes scanned the great circular plain that stretched for fifty miles in all directions. The distant jagged rises of the crater's rim resembled the lower half of a gigantic bear trap.
The moon in all its splendor--wasn't there a song that went something like that?--the moon in all its splendor, or lack of it was Robb's mute opinion. The scientists, as usual, were right about the place. To all intents and purposes the moon was as dead as The Roman Empire. True they had found scattered vegetation; there were even two or three volcanoes spewing carbonic acid, but they spewed it as though it were life's last breath.
Nothing more. The fires of the moon had given way to soft lifeless ashes.
Robb was glad he had allowed the men to look for souvenirs. After all, it wasn't a hell of a lot to ask for. A man could cut press clippings and collect medals and frame citations; and probably these things would impress grandchildren someday. But it seemed that nothing would be quite as effective as for a man to be able to produce something tangible, an authentic piece of the moon itself.
Captain Robb had always tried to be a humble man. He recalled an interview held by the three wire services a week before take-off. One of the reporters had asked the obvious question, "Why do you want to go to the moon?" He could have given all of the high sounding, aesthetic reasons, but instead his answer was indirect, given with a modest smile. "To get to the other side, I guess," he had told them.
Like the chicken crossing the road, that was how simple and uncomplicated Robb's life had been. But now he stood, his feet spread apart, beside his mighty ship, a quarter of a million miles away from home. He was the first! And he could not fight back the feeling of pride and accomplishment that welled in him. The word "first" in this instance conjured up names like Balboa, Columbus, Peary, Magellan--and Junius Robb.
The crew members deserved the hero's welcome they would receive. They could have the banquets, parades and honorary degrees. But it was Junius Robb who had commanded the flight. It would be Junius Robb's name for the history books.
He wouldn't be needing any souvenirs.
Kingsley and Anderson were the first to return. They both carried small leather bags. Inside the ship they revealed the contents to Robb. He examined them carefully.
Kingsley had found an uncommonly large patch of brownish vegetation. He had torn away a sizeable chunk and placed it in the bag. "Who knows?" he shrugged. "I might be able to cultivate it."
"Or let it play the lead in a science fiction movie," snapped Anderson.