"What?" There was incredulous doubt in Nielson's voice. "That damned sphere came from this planet."
"Can't help it. We've got to land."
"Land here, now!"
"There's a hole as big as the side of a house in the ship. No air in the engine room. Without air, we can't control the temperature. If we go into space, the engine room temperature will drop almost to absolute zero. These drivers are not designed to work in that temperature, and they won't work in it. We have to land and repair the ship before we dare go into space."
"We land here!"
There was a split second of silence. "Okay, Jed," Nielson said. "But if we run into another of those spheres--"
"We'll know what to do about it. Ron Val. Ushur. Back to the bridge and man the negatron. If you see anything that even looks suspicious, beam it."
Ron Val and Usher dived through the door that led forward.
"Stern observation post. Are you alive back there?"
"We heard you, Jed. We're alive all right."
Back of the engine room, tucked away in the stern, was another negatron.
"Shoot on sight!" Hargraves said.
The Third Interstellar Expedition was coming in to land--with her fangs bared.
Jed Hargraves called a volunteer to hold the switch--it had to be held in by hand, otherwise it would automatically kick out again--and went forward to the bridge. Red Nielson gladly relinquished the controls to him.
"The sphere crashed over there," Nielson said, waving vaguely to the right.
Not until he stepped on the bridge did Jed Hargraves realize how close a call they had had. The fight had started well outside the upper limits of the atmosphere. They were well inside it now. Another few minutes and they would have screamed to a flaming crash here on this world and the Third Interstellar Expedition would have accomplished only half its mission, the least important half.
He shoved the nose of the ship down, the giants working eagerly at their treadmill now, as if they realized they had been caught loafing on the job and were trying to make amends. The planet swam up toward them. He barely heard the voice of Noble reporting a chemical test of the air that was now swirling around the ship. "--oxygen, so much; water vapor; nitrogen--" The air was breathable. They would not have to attempt repairs in space suits, then.
Abruptly, as they dropped lower, the contour of the planet seemed to change from the shape of a ball to the shape of a cup. The eyes did that. The eyes were tricky. But Jed knew his eyes were not tricking him when they brought him impressions of the surface below them.
A gently rolling world sweeping away into the distance, moving league after league into dim infinities, appeared before his eyes. No mountains, no hills, even. Gentle slopes rolling slowly downward into plains. No large rivers. Small streams winding among trees. Almost immediately below them was one of the lakes Ron Val had seen through his telescope. The lake was alive with blue light reflected from the--No, the light came from Vega, not Sol. They were light years away from the warming rays of the friendly sun.
Jed lowered the ship until she barely cleared the ground, sent her slowly forward seeking what he wanted. There was a grove of giant trees beside the lake. Overhead their foliage closed in an arch that would cut out the sight of the sky. This was what he wanted. He turned the ship around.
"Hey!" said Nielson.
"I'm going to back her out of sight among those trees," Hargraves answered. "I'm hunting a hole to hide in while we lie up and lick our wounds."
Overhead, boughs crashed as the ship slid out of sight. Gently he relaxed the controls, let her drop an inch at a time until she rested on the ground. Then he opened the switches, and grunting with relief, the giants laid themselves down on their treadmill and promptly went to sleep. For the first time in months the ship was silent.
"Negatron crews remain at your posts. I'm going to take a look."
The lock hissed as it opened before him. Hargraves, Nielson, Noble, stepped out, the captain going first. The ground was only a couple of feet away but he lowered himself to it with the precise caution that a twenty-foot jump would have necessitated. He was not unaware of the implications of this moment. His was the first human foot to tread the soil of a planet circling Vega. The great-grand-children of his great-grand-children would tell their sons about this.
The soil was springy under his feet, possessing an elasticity that he had not remembered as natural with turf. Opening his helmet, he sniffed the air. It was cool and alive with a heady fragrance that came from growing vegetation, a quality the ship's synthesizers, for all the ingenuity incorporated in them, could not duplicate. Tasting the air, the cells of his lungs eagerly shouted for more. He sucked it in, and the tensions that kept his body all steel springs and whipcord relaxed a little. A breeze stirred among the trees.
"Sweet Pete!" he gasped.
"That's what I was trying to tell you as we landed," Nielson said. "This is not a forest. This is a grove. These trees didn't just grow here in straight orderly lines. They were planted! We are hiding in what may be the equivalent of somebody's apple orchard."
The trees were giants. Twenty feet through at the butt, they rose a hundred feet into the air. Diminishing in the distance, they moved in regular rows down to the shore of the lake, forming a pleasant grove miles in extent. A reddish fruit, not unlike apples, grew on them.
If this was an orchard, where was the owner?
The Four Visitors "Somebody coming!" the lookout called.
Jed Hargraves dropped the shovel. Behind him the hiss of an electric cutting torch and the whang of a heavy hammer went into sudden silence. Back there, a hundreds yards away, they had already begun work on the ship, attempting to repair the hole gouged in the stout magna steel of the hull. They had heard the call of the lookout and were dropping tools to pick up weapons. Jed's hand slid down to his belt to the compact vibration pistol holstered there. He pulled the gun, held it ready in his hand. Ron Val and Nielson did the same.
Vega, slanting downward, was near the western horizon. The grove was a mass of shadows. Through the shadows something was coming.
"They're human!" Ron Val gasped.
Hargraves said nothing. His fingers tightened around the butt of the pistol as he waited. He saw them clearly now. There were four of them. They looked like--old men. Four tribal gray-beards out for a stroll in the cool of the late afternoon. Each carried a staff. They were walking toward the ship. Then they saw the little group that stood apart and turned toward them.
"The teletron. Will you go get it, please, Ron Val?"
Nodding, the astro-navigator ran back to the ship. The teletron was a new gadget, invented just before the expedition left earth. Far from perfection as yet, it was intended to aid in establishing telepathic communication between persons who had no common language. Sometimes it worked, a little. More often it didn't. But it might be useful here. Ron Val was panting when he returned with it.
"Are you going to talk to them, Jed?"
"I'm going to try."
The four figures approached. Hargraves smiled. That was to show his good intentions. A smile ought to be common language everywhere.
The four strangers did not return his smile. They just stopped and looked at him with no trace of emotion on their faces.
[Illustration: What strange thing was this? Who were these people and what was their power?]
They looked human. They weren't, of course. Parallel evolution accounted for the resemblance, like causes producing like results.
Nielson was watching them like a hawk. Without making an aggressive move, the way he held his gun showed he was ready to go into action at a moment's notice. Behind them, the ship was silent, its crew alert. Hargraves bent to manipulate the complicated tuning of the teletron.
"I am Thulon," a voice whispered in his brain. "No need for that."
Jed Hargraves' leaped to his feet. He caught startled glances from Ron Val and Nielson and knew they had heard and understood too. Understood, rather. There had been nothing for the ears to hear.
"Thulon! No need for--I understood you without--"
Thulon smiled. He was taller than the average human, and very slender. "We are natural telepaths. So there is no need to use your instrument."
"Uh? Natural telepaths! Well, I'm damned!"
"Damned? I cannot quite grasp the meaning of the word. Your mind is radiating on an emotional level. Do you wish to indicate surprise? I cannot grasp your thinking."
Hargraves choked, fought for control of his mind. For a minute it had run away with him. He brought it to heel.
"What are you doing here?" Thulon asked.
Hargraves blinked at the directness of the question. They certainly wasted no time getting down to business. "We--" He caught himself. No telling how much they could take directly from his mind!
"We came from--far away." He tried to force his thoughts into narrow channels. "We--"
"There is no need to be afraid." Thulon smiled gently. Or was there wiliness in that smile? Was this stranger attempting to lure him into a feeling of false security?
"I meant, what are you doing here?" Thulon continued. His eyes went down to the ground.
There was only one shovel on the ground. One shovel was all there had been in the ship. Thulon's glance went to it, went on.
There were three mounds. The soft mould had dug easily. It had all been patted back into place. On the middle mound Ron Val had finished placing a small cross that he had hastily improvised from the ship's stores. Scratched in the metal was a name: Hal Sarkoff.
"We had an outbreak of buboes," Hargraves said. "That's a disease. Three of our companions died and we landed here to bury them. We had just finished doing this when you arrived."
"Died! Three of you died? And you hid them under these mounds?"
"Yes. Of course. There was nothing else we could--"
"You are going to leave them here in the ground!"
"Certainly." Hargraves was wondering if this method of disposing of the dead violated some tribal taboo of this people. Different races disposed of their dead in different ways. He did not know the customs of the inhabitants of this world. "If we have offended against your customs, we are sorry."
"No. There was no offense." Thulon blanketed his thoughts. Hargraves could almost feel the blanket slip into place.
"You came in that ship?" Thulon pointed toward the vessel.
"Yes." It was impossible to conceal this fact.
"Ah." Thulon hesitated, seemed to grope through his mind for the exact shade of expression he wished to convey. Hargraves was aware that the stranger's eyes probed through him, measured him. "It would interest us to examine the vessel. Would you permit this?"
"Certainly." Hargraves knew that Red Nielson jerked startled eyes toward him.
"Jed!" Nielson spoke in protest.
"Shut up!" Hargraves snapped. His body and his mind was a mass of tightly wound springs but his face was calm and his voice was suave. He turned to Thulon. "I will be glad to take you through our ship. However, I do not recommend it."
"It might be dangerous, for you and your companions. We have had three cases of buboes, resulting in three deaths. All of us have had shots of immunizing serum and we hope we will have no more cases. However, the germs are unquestionably present in the atmosphere of the ship. Since you probably have no immunity to the disease, to breathe the tainted air would almost certainly result in an attack. This disease is fatal in nine cases out of ten. I therefore suggest you do not enter the ship. In fact," Hargraves concluded, "I was about to say that it might not be wise for you and your companions even to come near us, because of the possibility that you might contract the disease."
Had he gotten the story over it? Was it convincing? Out of the corner of his eyes he saw Ron Val glance at him. When he had said their companions had died of buboes, Ron Val had looked as if he thought he was out of his mind. Now Ron Val understood. "Good going, Jed," his glance seemed to say.
"Hargraves--" This was Nielson speaking. His face was black.
"I suggest," said Jed casually, "that you let me handle this."
Nielson gulped. "Yes. Yes, sir," he said.
Thulon's companions had been paying attention to the conversation. But all the time they were stealing glances at the ship. With half their minds, they seemed to be listening to what was being said. But the other half of their minds was interested in that silent ship hidden under the trees. Were they merely curious, such as any savage might be? Or was this group making a reconnaissance? Hargraves did not know. It did not look like a reconnaissance in force.
"Do you really think we might contract this disease?" Thulon asked.
Hargraves shrugged. "I'm not certain. You might not. It would all depend on the way your bodies reacted to the organism causing the disease."
"Under such circumstances, you show little consideration for our welfare by bringing a plague ship to land here."
"We didn't know you existed. I assure you, however, that if you will remain away from the ship until we have an opportunity to disinfect it thoroughly, any danger to your people will be very slight. On the other hand, if you wish to look our vessel over, to assure yourselves that we are not a menace to you--which we are not--I shall be glad to take you through the ship."
Was he drawing it too fine? He spoke clearly and forcefully. The words, of course, would carry no meaning. But the thought that went along with them would convey what he wanted to say.
"Ah." The thought came from Thulon. "Perhaps--" Again the blanket came over his mind and Hargraves had the impression Thulon was conferring with his companions.
The silent conference ended.
"Perhaps," Thulon said. "It would be better if we returned to visit you tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow."
He bowed. Without another word he and his silent companions turned and began to walk slowly away. Not until he saw the little group slipping away into the dusk did Jed realize he had been holding his breath.
"Hargraves!" Nielson's voice was harsh. "Are you going to let them get away? You fool! That sphere came from this world. Have you forgotten?"
"I have forgotten nothing, I hope."
"But you offered to take them through the ship! They would have seen how badly damaged she is."
"Of course I offered to take them through the ship, then made it impossible for them to accept. We can't stick up 'No Trespassing' signs here. This is their world. We don't know a damned thing about it, or about them. We can't run and we don't want to fight, if we can help it. Furthermore, Nielson, I want you to learn to control your tongue. Remember that in the future, will you?"
For a second, Nielson glared at him. "Yes, sir."
"All right. Go on back to the ship."