"Somebody must be with him--all the time. You stay awake. When he gets up, you get up. Whatever he does, you stay with him. I'll have you relieved as soon as possible. And, Ron--"
"You have something a man could use for courage."
Silently, Ron Val walked out of the control room. He fumbled his way through the door and his steps echoed down the corridor that led to the sleeping quarters.
Hargraves sat in thought. Then he, too, left the control room.
"Noble, you're a bio-chemist. You come with me. Nielson, you take over here in the control room. In my absence you are in command."
"Yes sir," Nielson said. "But what are you going to do?"
"See what is in a grave we dug yesterday," Hargraves answered.
What the Graves Revealed Hargraves carried the shovel. He and Noble were armed, and very much alert.
"When you ask me if it is chemically possible for a man--or an animal--to freeze, die, be buried, then rise again and live, I cannot answer," Noble said. "So far as I know, it is not possible. The physical act of freezing will involve tremendous and seemingly irreversible changes in the body cells. Thawing will produce almost immediate bacterial action, which also seems irreversible. All I can say is, if Hal Sarkoff is alive, we have seen a miracle that contradicts chemical laws as we know them."
"And if he is not alive, we face a miracle of duplication. Whatever it is that is sleeping back in the ship, it looks, talks, acts, like Hal Sarkoff, even to memory. Can you suggest any method by which flesh and bone could be so speedily moulded into a living image of a man whom we know died?"
"No," said Noble bluntly. "Jed, do you realize all the possible implications of this situation?"
"Probably not," Hargraves answered. "Some that I do recognize, I exclude from my thoughts."
His tone was so harsh that Noble said nothing more.
Dawn was already breaking over this Vegan world. The sky in the east was the color of pearl. In the trees over them, creatures that sounded like birds were beginning to chirp.
They reached the place where they had buried Hal Sarkoff and his two companions.
The graves were empty.
No effort had been made to conceal the fact that the graves had been opened. The dirt had been shoveled out again and had not been shoveled back.
There were marks in the dirt, the tracks of sandaled feet. "Thulon, the three who were with him, wore sandals!" Hargraves rasped. "They came back here. They opened these graves."
"But what happened after that? Are you suggesting those primitive gray-beards resurrected Hal Sarkoff?"
"I'm not suggesting anything because I don't know anything," Hargraves answered. "I am just remembering that Thulon and the three who were with him looked human too! I am also remembering that the sphere which attacked us seemingly was without a crew. Our beams blasted it wide open. It was seemingly filled with machinery. Nothing else. If there were any intelligent creatures in it, they were in no form that we recognize. Come on!" Hargraves started running toward the ship.
The ship, badly damaged as it was, represented their sole hope of survival. Without it, they would be helpless.
Hal Sarkoff was with the ship. Or the thing that was masquerading as Sarkoff. Thulon had looked human too. Possibly Sarkoff and his two dead comrades had been removed from their graves in order to make possible a perfect duplication of their bodies, the probing of cell structure, both body and brain. Perhaps the things that lurked here on this world could read memories from dead minds. That might be the explanation of Sarkoff's memory.
The important fact was that Sarkoff's body was not in its grave. Where so much was unknown, this was one indisputable fact. The thing that was on the ship must be placed not only under heavy guard but in a cage from which escape was impossible. Then an examination could begin.
There was evil on this world. The trees, the vegetation, the ground under his racing feet, was evil. In his calmer moments Jed Hargraves would have said that evil was another word for danger. He wasn't calm now. The panic he had been rigidly excluding from his mind had burst the dam he had built before it. He could feel danger in the air. It was in the dawn, in the light of the sky. It was everywhere. He and his companions were aliens on this world, and the planet was striking at them, striving to eliminate them, contriving to destroy them.
He heard it before he saw it.
Something was grunting in the air. Above the tops of the trees something was grunting. He needed seconds to recognize the sound. Then he recognized it. And jerked himself to a halt, his eyes wildly probing upward.
He saw it.
The ship. The grunting roar had come from the Kruchek drivers fighting the gravity of the planet.
The ship had taken off without them.
Had Nielson gone mad? Had he seen danger approaching and jumped the ship into the sky to escape it?
"Wait! Nielson! Pick us up!"
The ship flew on. Gaining speed, it passed over their heads. They caught another glimpse of it as it passed over an opening in the branches of the trees. Then it was gone, the throb of the drivers dying quickly away.
"Nielson will come back for us." Noble's voice, usually poised and assured, was garbled. "He'll return and pick us up. He won't leave us here."
"He had some reason for taking off," Hargraves heard himself saying. "He'll come back. He has to." Subconsciously he knew that this, at the very best, was wishful thinking.
The ship had no more than vanished until another sound came to their ears, that of men shouting. A group came into sight among the trees, following along the ground the course the ship had taken through the air.
"They're our fellows!" Hargraves heard Noble gasp.
"What happened?" the captain demanded, as the group approached.
Nielson was in the lead. There was a bruise on his cheek and his right eye was already beginning to turn black. "I'll tell you what happened!" he said savagely. "Sarkoff and Ron Val took over the ship, that's what happened!"
"That's what I said. Ron Val was helping him. They pulled guns. Before we knew what was happening, they had herded us together and were shoving us outside. I tried to stop it and Sarkoff took a poke at me."
"It wasn't really Sarkoff, then?" Noble whispered.
"Any damned fool would have known that!" Nielson answered. He spoke to the bio-chemist but his eyes were on Hargraves. "I'm going to repeat that, so there won't be any misunderstanding of my meaning. Any damned fool would have known that a dead man doesn't get up out of his grave and come to life again. Except you, Hargraves. You always were a sucker for fairy stories."
Jed Hargraves winced with every word that was spoken. They kept on coming.
"You ought to have known that thing wasn't Hal Sarkoff. Any man in his right senses would have known it instantly. Any man fit to command would have taken measures to meet the situation, either by destroying that thing, or locking it up. But you were running things, Hargraves. You were in charge. And you had to sit back and think before you would act. You had to make sure you were right, before you went ahead. Your negligence, Hargraves, cost us our only chance of ever returning home."
Nielson's voice was harsh with anger. And--Hargraves recognized the bitter truth--every word Nielson uttered was correct. Whatever the thing was that had come to the ship, he should have recognized it as a source of danger. He had so recognized it. But he had not acted.
"Shut up!" Nielson snapped. "According to our agreement, any time you are shown to be unfit to command, you may be removed by a vote of the majority. There is no question but that you have shown yourself unfit to be in charge of this expedition."
No time was wasted in reaching a decision. To Nielson's question as to whether Hargraves should be removed from command, there was a chorus of "Ayes."
"No," said one voice. It was Usher, the archeologist.
"State your objection," Nielson rasped.
"The old one about changing horses in mid-stream," the archeologist answered. "Also the old one about not jumping to conclusions before all the evidence is in."
"What evidence isn't in?"
"We don't know why Ron Val joined Sarkoff," the archeologist answered.
"What difference does that make? We don't even know that Ron Val was still himself. The thing that looked like Ron Val might have been another monstrosity like Sarkoff."
"So it might," the archeologist shrugged. "Anyhow my vote is not important. I'm just putting it in for the sake of the record, if there ever is a record. I would also like to mention that if ever we needed discipline and unity, now is the time."
"We will have discipline, I promise you," Nielson said. "Hargraves, you are removed from command, understand?"
"Yes," said Hargraves steadily.
Only one ballot was needed to put Nielson in charge.
"All right," said Ushur to the new captain. "You're the boss now. We're all behind you. What are you going to do?"
"Do? I--" Nielson looked startled. He glanced at Hargraves.
The former captain sighed. It was easy enough to elect a new leader. Vehemently he wished that all problems could be solved so easily.
"I suggest," he said, "--and this is only a suggestion--that we attempt to find the ship, and if possible, to regain possession of her. She is the only tool we have to work with."
"That is exactly what I was going to say," Nielson said emphatically. "Find the ship."
To give him credit, he set about the job in a workmanlike manner, sending two scouts ahead of the main group, throwing out a scout on each flank. The only way they could hope to find the ship was by following the course it had taken through the air. Since Sarkoff, in taking over the vessel, had not disarmed them, each possessed a vibration pistol. In a fight against ordinary enemies they would be able to give a good account of themselves. But would any enemy they met likely be ordinary?
Hargraves drew Usher aside. "I would like to talk to you," he said. "What actually happened when the ship was taken?"
"I don't know, Jed," the archeologist ruefully answered. "I was in my cabin. The first thing I knew I heard a hell of a hullabaloo going on up in the control room. I dashed up there to see what was going on."
"What was happening?"
"Nielson, Rodney, Turner, and a couple of others were there. So were--well, they looked like Sarkoff and Ron Val. Nielson was getting up off the floor. Sarkoff and Ron Val had both drawn their guns and were covering the group. When I came charging in, Sarkoff covered me. Before I could recover from my surprise, he and Ron Val had kicked every one of us out of the ship. Then they took off." The archeologist shook his shaggy head.
"Ron Val was helping?"
"No question about it. Which means, of course, that he was either under some subtle form of hypnosis, or it wasn't Ron Val. I would bet my life on his loyalty."
"So would I," said Hargraves. And the memory came back of how thrilled Ron Val had been at the prospect of landing on this, world. "It would mean a lot to find people here. We could exchange experiences, learn a lot," Ron Val had said, his face glowing at the thought. All the others had felt the same way. The Third Interstellar Expedition had no military ambitions. It was not bent on conquest. The solar system had outgrown military expeditions, war, and the thought of war, and cruisers went out from it not to fight but to learn. Knowledge was the thing they sought, all knowledge, so the human race could determine its place in the cosmos, could know the history of all things past, could possibly forecast the shape of things to come.
The landing of the Third Interstellar Expedition on this Vegan world had been a part of a vast evolution, a march that, starting on earth so long ago that all history of it was forever lost, was now reaching out across the cosmos. A new evolution! Ron Val had always been talking about this new evolution. It was one of his favorite subjects.
"What do you make of this world?" Hargraves asked abruptly. "The only sign of civilization we have seen is this vast grove. No cities, no industrial plants, no evidence of progress. Yet the spherical ship that attacked us certainly indicates a highly mechanical civilization. Of course there may be cities here that we haven't seen, but as we landed we saw a large land area. No roads were visible, no canals, not even any cultivated fields. What does all this mean to you, as an archeologist?"
"Nothing," Usher answered promptly. "I would say this country is a wilderness. But the trees planted in regular rows disprove this. On earth, at least, centuries would be required for trees as large as these to grow. Forestry, planned centuries in advance, can only come from a high and stable culture. However, as you say, all other signs of this high culture are absent, no cities, no transportation facilities, apparently damned few inhabitants--we have seen only four. All civilizations with which we are familiar move through recognized stages, first the nomadic stage, which involves tending flocks and herds. Then comes the tilling of the soil, in which farming is the principal occupation of most of the people. After that, with industrialization, we have cities developing. If there is another stage we have not reached it on earth."
"Do you think they might have reached the final stage here?" Hargraves questioned.
"I don't know what the final stage may be," the archeologist answered. "Also, and this is more important, I can't begin to guess at the real nature of the inhabitants of this world. Until I do know their real nature, what they look like, what they eat, where they sleep, what they think, I can't even guess intelligently about them. However," Usher broke off with a wry grin, "all these philosophical observations are of no importance while our own necks are threatened with the ax."
Vega was straight overhead when they found the ship. One of the advance scouts came hurrying back with the information.
"She is lying in a little meadow beside the lake," the scout reported. "They're doing something to her. I can't tell what. But the trees extend to within fifty yards of her. We can approach that near without being seen."
The Capture of the Ship Nielson made his dispositions with care. The ship lay in a little meadow where the trees bent inward from the blue water of the lake to form a cove. Her nose was pointed toward the water and her tail was almost in the trees. Nielson sent three men on a wide circuit. They were to attack from the farther side. It was to be a feint. While the three men drew attention to them, the main body was to charge.
"We have every chance of succeeding," Nielson said. "And if we do gain the ship again, this time we won't stay here. Vega has at least two planets. The ship will fly to the other one without repairs. You should have thought of that, Hargraves."
"There are a lot of things I should have thought of and didn't," Hargraves answered. There was no animosity in his tone. "What I would like to know is what they are doing there beside the ship?"
Thulon and his three companions were visible beside the vessel. They were busily engaged in setting up a device of some kind. Others of their species had joined them until there were possibly thirty or forty present. Through the the gaping hole in the hull, still others could be seen peering out. What they were doing Hargraves could not discern.
"Odd," said Usher beside him.
"It's odd that they should still seem to be human in form," the archeologist answered. "Ah. Perhaps there is the reason."
Both locks were open. The thing that looked like Hal Sarkoff had just emerged from the nearest one. He went directly to the main group. They were erecting something that looked like a tripod. Several were carrying pieces of metal from the ship which they were fastening together to form the legs of the tripod. At the apex of the tripod something that looked like a box was coming into existence.
"They are completely unarmed," Hargraves heard Nielson say. "There isn't a weapon in the whole damned bunch. We'll blast them senseless before they even know they're being attacked."
"If they don't succeed in manning the negatron," Usher pointed out.