The first thing McCracken did was shoot a Mercurian native. But then McCracken, although he had powerful muscles, was never supposed to be very strong in the head.
The expedition was in the Twilight Zone, naturally, at the time. Without special clothing, which no one had, both the perpetual night of the Cold Side and the furnace heat of the Hot Side were out of the question. The Twilight Zone at this point was about forty miles wide, and the Astrolight had been skillfully brought down smack in the middle of it. Two hours after the landing, having ascertained that the air was as breathable as Kalinoff had reported, McCracken went out and aimed his explosive bullet at the Mercurian.
If it hadn’t been for Carvalho, who accompanied him, the rest of the group would have known nothing of the incident. It was Carvalho who reported what had happened to Lamoureux, captain of the expedition.
McCracken, of course, burst into vigorous denials that he had shot a native. “You don’t think I’d be fool enough to go around looking for trouble, do you?”
Lamoureux thought he would, but didn’t say so. “You did shoot at something. We heard the report.”
“I tried to hit a dangerous bird.”
“What sort of bird was it?”
“Kind of like a penguin, I’d say, but with a broader face. No bill to speak of--”
“Then don’t speak of it,” snapped Lamoureux. “Did you score a hit?”
“I think the explosion caught it in the shoulder. It got away.”
“Thank God for small favors,” said Lamoureux. “That bird, you pigeon-brain, was a Mercurian. How do you expect intelligent inhabitants of other planets to look? Like you? They’d die of mortification.”
“Damn it, how was I to know?”
“I told you not to shoot unless you were attacked.” Lamoureux scowled.
“Kalinoff is somewhere in the Twilight Zone and we were supposed to find him with the help of the Mercurians. It may interest you to know that, while you were out at target practice, some of them came around here and began to behave as if they wanted to be friendly. Then they suddenly disappeared. I imagine they got news of what you had done. A fat lot of help they’ll give us now.”
“We’ll run across Kalinoff without them,” said McCracken confidently.
Carvalho, who had a habit of looking for the dark side of every situation, and finding it, suggested, “Suppose the Mercurians attack us?”
McCracken said, “They haven’t any weapons.”
“How do you know?”
“Kalinoff didn’t mention any.”
Lamoureux emitted a laugh that sounded like an angry bark. “Kalinoff wouldn’t know. He was friendly with them. He did report that they were an intelligent race. It’ll be too bad if they use their intelligence against us.”
McCracken thrust out his jaw. There was a streak of stubbornness in him, and he was not going to take too many dirty cracks lying down. He growled, “I think you’re making a mountain out of an anthill.”
“Molehill,” corrected Lamoureux.
“Whatever it is. What if Kalinoff did say the Mercurians would help us? You can’t take his word for it. Everybody knows what Kalinoff is.”
Lamoureux frowned. “Kalinoff is a great man and a great explorer.”
“They call him the interplanetary screwball.”
“Not on this expedition, they don’t, McCracken. You will please keep a civil tongue in your head.”
“There’s nothing wrong in what I’m saying. Kalinoff is a screwball, and you know it, Captain. He’s always playing practical jokes. Look at how he got that Martian senator into the same cage with a moon-snake, and locked the door on him. The senator had a fit. How was he to know the snake was harmless?”
“You don’t think Kalinoff would play jokes when his own life was at stake, do you?”
“Once a screwball,” insisted McCracken firmly, “always a screwball.”
Lamoureux lost patience. “Once an idiot, always an idiot. Get over to the ship and help with the unpacking. And remember, if we don’t find Kalinoff, it’ll be your fault, and God help you.”
Having, he hoped, left McCracken feeling properly ashamed of himself, Lamoureux walked away. The responsibility was beginning to weigh him down. The other nineteen men in the expedition thought they were merely trying to rescue an intrepid explorer for the sake of human life, which was supposed to be sacred. They didn’t know that, behind his screwball surface, Kalinoff was as shrewd as they came. He had made some valuable discoveries--and promptly staked out a claim to them.
He had run across large quantities of stable isotopes of metals whose atomic numbers ranged from 95 to 110. These had remarkable and useful properties.
They were, to begin with, of unusual value as catalysts in chemical reactions. For example, element 99, in the presence of air, was a more powerful oxidizing agent than platinum or palladium was a reducing agent, in the presence of hydrogen. And the oxidations could be controlled beautifully, could be made to affect almost any part of a complicated organic molecule at a time. Element 99 was recoverable, and could be used again and again. A few hundred grams of it alone might very well pay for the cost of the entire expedition.
Add the value of a few kilos of elements 101 to 110, and Kalinoff had discovered enough to make him and a few other people rich for life.
Lamoureux wanted to be one of those other people. He had three kids he wanted to send through Lunar Tech; he had a wife with expensive tastes in robot servants; and he had relatives. Let him get Kalinoff off this God-forsaken planet, where he had been marooned for the past year, and even an interplanetary screwball might be expected to show some feeling of gratitude. Combine this feeling of gratitude with a reasonably fair contract already printed, and needing only the explorer’s scrawl to give it validity, and Lamoureux could almost feel the money in his pocket. If only McCracken had not spoiled everything by his stupidity--
Lamoureux shuddered to think that by the time they got to him Kalinoff might be dead, and they would have to do business with his heirs--heirs who had no sense of gratitude to impair their business judgment. He felt suddenly poor again. But he put the gloomy thought out of his head, and went on with his work.
Unpacking would be finished in a couple of hours at most. Meanwhile there was some preliminary exploring to be done. The neighboring ground must be surveyed, and landmarks noted, so that they would have a suitable base from which to start their search. Kalinoff had talked about two mountains with a saddlelike ridge joining them. Those two mountains shouldn’t be too difficult to recognize--if ever the expedition ran across them.
McCracken, obeying orders, was lending a hand at the unloading. What with Mercury’s low gravity, and his own strength, he had no difficulty in wrestling around the five hundred pound crates in which their supplies had been packed. However, he was of little help in getting the work done. With what Lamoureux decided was characteristic stupidity, he seemed to be mostly in everyone else’s way.
Lamoureux called, “McCracken!”
“Let go those crates. The others will handle them. I want you--”
Lamoureux stopped suddenly. A distant sound had come to his ears--the explosion of a bullet.
There was a sudden silence that was so absolute, Lamoureux could hear his men breathe. Another bullet exploded, then another--and silence again.
Somebody whispered, “The natives don’t have guns. It must be Kalinoff!”
“What luck to find him this way!”
Lamoureux had run for his own gun. He fired ten shots into the air and waited. But there was no reply.
Lamoureux spat out his orders with machine-gun speed. “McCracken, you, Carvalho, and Haggard set out to the right. The shots seemed to be coming from that direction. But we’ll take no chances. Gronski, Terrill and Cannoni, go straight ahead. Marsden and Blaine, to the left; Robinson and Sprott, to the rear. Spread out fast and keep your eyes peeled. Don’t go any further away than the sound of a bullet. Uncover every damned white-bush, and tear up every desert-cat hill, but don’t come back without Kalinoff. Now get going!”
The men started on a run. Lamoureux, waiting impatiently, walked up and down in growing excitement. He had come prepared for a three months’ search, expected it. He had pictured himself and his men, exhausted by a long trek across the planet, coming upon the startled Kalinoff, striking a magnificent attitude, and saying, with characteristic Tellurian modesty, “Dr. Livingston, I presume.” And, instead, he was going to find Kalinoff in less than a day. He ran into the ship, got out the printed contract, and read it hastily.
All was in order. He’d have Kalinoff’s signature that day.
A half hour passed, and Lamoureux fired ten more shots. Haskell, the cook, was looking at the sky with a troubled expression on his face. He approached Lamoureux apologetically. “Say, Captain--”
“What is it, Haskell?”
“Does it ever rain on Mercury?”
“Never. No rain, no snow, no hail. No man who has ever set foot on the planet has come across any sort of bad weather. Kalinoff emphasizes that fact.”
“Well, that’s what I seemed to remember. But just now I thought I felt a drop of rain.”
“Impossible, Haskell. Some bird--”
Lamoureux stopped abruptly. He, too, had thought he felt a drop of rain.
Haskell held out a hairy paw. “I thought I felt another one.” His eyes fell on the brown rocks. “Say, here’s a big drop that splashed.”
The brown rocks were being slowly spotted with black. And, as Lamoureux stared, he felt his head grow wet. There was no doubt about it. It was raining.
His mouth dropped open. “But it doesn’t rain on Mercury!”
The sky was a dull gray now, and the patter of rain drowned out his words. He realized suddenly that he was becoming soaked.
Haskell was running for the ship. Lamoureux followed him and slammed the door shut. The men who had not been sent to search for Kalinoff were already inside. The rain rattled on the hull of the Astrolight, and on the parched ground.
Lamoureux stared through the side port and repeated blankly, “But it doesn’t rain on Mercury!”
Fortunately, the noise of the rain was so loud that no one heard him say it.
It was six hours before the first of the search parties Lamoureux had sent out returned. The men were soaked, but they had seen no trace of Kalinoff. They had faithfully tried to follow Lamoureux’s directions, but in a downpour where it was impossible to see more than fifty feet ahead of them, they stood little chance of rescuing anyone. Most of the six hours had been spent finding their own way home.
The other search parties drifted in slowly, until all had returned. Lamoureux checked them off one by one, and discovered, with practically no surprise, that McCracken was missing.
“Where is the idiot?” he growled.
“McCracken separated from the rest of us,” replied Carvalho. “He thought he could catch a glimpse of those mountains Kalinoff described.”
“When was this?”
“Just before it started to rain.”
“He’s probably within a few hundred yards of the ship right now, but can’t find us because of this rain. I hope he has sense enough to dig up a white-bush and get some shelter.”
“We can never be sure how much sense McCracken has. Anyway, Captain, it can’t go on raining like this for very long.”
But it could, and it did. The men sat around in the ship, stretching lazily, and took life easy. They had not had time to unpack many of the five hundred pound crates, and what materials were exposed to the rain would not be spoiled. There was no harm in leaving them where they were.
A vacation of this sort would have been welcome, if the trip through space to Mercury had itself not been so largely a vacation. After a day, Lamoureux saw plainly that his men were sick of inactivity. So, for that matter, was he. He had come to take part in a strenuous and dangerous expedition, not to sit on his fanny waiting for the rain to go away.
Twenty-four hours after everyone else had returned to the ship, McCracken made a sensational reappearance. With that independence of thought that Lamoureux was beginning to recognize, he had found his own way of coping with the bad weather. He had stripped off his soggy and unpleasant clothing, and had meandered around for the past day clad in nothing but his shorts, with his rifle, his one remaining possession, held firmly in the crook of his right arm. The rain was fairly warm, and outside of giving him his usual ravenous appetite, his outing had done him no harm.
Lamoureux got one of the crew to dig up an extra suit of clothes to cover McCracken’s manly beauty. “Where did you sleep?”
“You wandered around all this time shocking the natives without rest?”
“I’m no sissy,” grunted McCracken. “I’m not even tired.”
He yawned, and caught himself. “I didn’t see anything of Kalinoff. But I got a good look at those mountains he described. The pair with the saddleback ridge between them.”
“Where are they?”
McCracken scratched his head. “I think I lost my sense of direction. But they’re not far from here. No, sir, they’re not far. Kalinoff is as good as found. The screwball.”
His eyes closed while he was talking, and Lamoureux had him led to his bunk and deposited there. Two minutes later, McCracken’s snoring was competing successfully with the noise of the rain.
There was little sense in looking for the mountains until the rain let up. Lamoureux waited, and waited in vain. The downpour kept on until its monotonous sound had become an integral part of their life. They learned to talk without paying any attention to it, and without even hearing it. But not without, now and then, cursing it.
After it had been raining for a week, Lamoureux noticed that the temperature was falling. It probably signified that on this part of the Twilight Zone the Sun was dropping further behind the horizon. As if he didn’t already have troubles enough. He cursed Mercury; he cursed the Twilight Zone; he cursed the rain; he even cursed the Sun. A few hours later, he also cursed the snow and the hail.
Such weather was absolutely incredible. There was nothing to explain it. As he had told Haskell, the cook, no previous explorer had ever seen a sign of rain, snow, or hail. Kalinoff had not reported such phenomena, and Kalinoff got around.
The men were going crazy with inactivity. Worst of all, to Lamoureux, was the way they looked at him. They seemed to feel that, as leader of the expedition, he was responsible for the weather. Lamoureux almost found himself agreeing with them.
On the tenth day, he could stand it no longer. He called the men together and made a short speech. “Men, this rain seems able to go on forever. We can’t stay here waiting for it to clear up.”
Somebody cheered hopefully, and the others, for the sake of exercising their lungs, joined in.
Lamoureux held up his hand. “McCracken has reported that he saw the mountains we were looking for, with the saddleback ridge between them. Rain or no rain, we’re going to find them.”
Somebody yelled, “Three cheers for Big Muscles McCracken!” The three cheers were roared. Then there came, “Three cheers for our brave and heroic captain!” and, “Three cheers for the mountains!” and even,
“Three cheers for the lousy rain and snow.”
Lamoureux began to feel uncomfortable. This was too much like a high school football rally, with burlesque overtones, to suit him. The men were bursting with pent-up energy, and it had to get out somehow.
“I’m leaving only a half dozen of you behind to stay with the ship. The rest are coming with me. Any volunteers?”
He had expected what followed. They all volunteered. He made his choices rapidly. McCracken went along because he had actually seen the mountains. Carvalho would make an intelligent assistant. Gronski, Marsden, Sprott--he reeled off the names rapidly, and in less than a minute had his group, leaving a disgruntled half dozen who would have nothing to do but continue to sit around the ship.
Lamoureux himself carried a two-way radio transmission set capable of receiving intelligible signals over a distance of 12,000 miles. He gave another of the sets to McCracken, and ordered the man to hang on to it no matter what happened. In the rain, it would be their only way of maintaining communications with the ship. He put McCracken and the radio in the second squad under Carvalho, and himself took charge of the first. The two squads would stick together unless some emergency demanded that they separate.
When they set out in the snow, wearing the heaviest clothing they had, the men were singing. McCracken’s voice, like the croaking of a huge bullfrog, supplied an unharmonized but ear-filling bass. It sounded so impressive to Lamoureux that not until McCracken had reached the third song did he perceive that the man didn’t know any of the melodies at all. He just oom-pahed as the spirit moved him, evidently feeling that, on Mercury, noise and good spirits were more important than any tune.
They had been marching for a half hour when Gronski exclaimed, “Well, I’ll be damned to Venus and back!”
“What’s wrong, Gronski?”
“It isn’t snowing so hard, Captain.”
It wasn’t. Carvalho said hopefully, “Maybe it’ll stop.”
Sprott was so overwhelmed with delight that he scooped up a huge pile of snow, pressed it together, and popped McCracken on the nose with it. McCracken threw him down and poured snow down his back.
Lamoureux said angrily, “Stop that, you fools! You’re not a bunch of kids.”
The horseplay came to an abrupt halt. They marched on a little more soberly, and in a few minutes the snow had stopped falling altogether. Instead of being as happy as Lamoureux had expected, McCracken seemed puzzled. He scratched his head and scowled.
“What’s wrong, McCracken? Termites?”
“It’s this snow, Captain. We walk two or three miles and it stops. It don’t make sense.”
“It’s got to stop sometime.”
“The point is, Captain, it didn’t snow here at all. There’s none on the ground. It just snowed around the ship.”
It cost Lamoureux an effort to admit it, but McCracken was right. He was not as stupid as he had seemed.
It was Lamoureux’s turn to scowl. He got in touch with the ship.
“How’s the weather where you are?”
“Are you joking, Captain?”
“I’m serious, Haskell. Is it clear?”
“It’s still snowing, Captain, just as it was less than an hour ago when you left.”
Lamoureux grunted. “You may be interested to know that it hasn’t snowed here at all.”
He cut off Haskell’s astonished voice, and turned to the others, who now seemed a little uneasy. The unexpected changes in the weather were a little too much for them.
“Now that it’s cleared up, we should be able to find that mountain. We’ll spread out just a little, but not too far. For all we know, it may start to snow again. Carvalho, you take your group off to the left--”
Sprott whispered, “Captain!”
“Isn’t that a Mercurian?”
Lamoureux stared where Sprott had pointed. About a half mile away, a small gray creature, looking, as McCracken had reported, like a penguin, but with a broader face and no bill to speak of, was standing motionless.
“Sprott, you and Marsden go over to that thing. Be as friendly as you know how. Smile, grin, stand on your head if you have to, but don’t scare it away. Try to induce it to follow you here. Maybe we’ll finally get some of that information about Kalinoff we’re looking for.”
Sprott and Marsden were approaching the Mercurian cautiously. Several hundred yards away, they stopped and spread their arms in what was evidently meant to be a gesture of good will.
The Mercurian remained motionless. Not until the men had come within thirty feet of it did it give a sign of life. Then it took a step toward them.
As Lamoureux watched, the two men spoke a few words. The Mercurian did not respond, but when they turned around and moved away, it followed slowly.
Seen from close at hand, the Mercurian did not so greatly resemble a penguin. To begin with, it had no wings, and no arms either. It lacked a bill altogether, but had instead a small mouth that seemed crammed with teeth. Its two eyes were slanted, which gave it an appearance of slyness. There were two round tufted ears. It moved forward not by waddling, but with a smooth rollercoaster gait that was the result of its moving its four legs forward one after the other.
Sprott reported, “It seems hurt.”
There was, in fact, a grayish wound on the Mercurian’s chest. Lamoureux didn’t know enough about Mercurian physiology to hazard a guess as to what would be the best treatment; and, therefore, decided to leave well enough alone. But, according to Kalinoff, the Mercurians were intelligent. He wondered if the screwball explorer had taught this one any of the Earth languages.
“Can you speak English?”
The Mercurian stared at him with its sly expression and said nothing.
“Parlez-vous français? Sprechen sie Deutsch?“
The men were grinning now, and Lamoureux felt his face growing warm. He must look like a fool, trying to carry on a conversation with a bird.
He asked, “Anybody here know Russian? Polish? Spanish?”
His men supplied him with phrases in the languages he asked for, but the Mercurian remained unresponsive.
McCracken ventured, “He don’t look very bright to me, Captain. I can’t understand why Kalinoff said they were intelligent.”
“Maybe,” suggested Sprott, “it’s because they just stand there looking wise and don’t say anything.”
Lamoureux shook his head. “Kalinoff wouldn’t be impressed by anybody’s just looking wise. And he wouldn’t be impressed by anybody’s not saying anything. He didn’t go for either stuffed shirts or strong silent men. That’s why I believe that this thing must have a language of its own, and a fairly decent brain.”
The Mercurian closed its two eyes slowly, like a sleepy cat, and opened them again. Then it poked one of its four feet out from under its body and scratched on the ground.
“He’s nuts,” decided McCracken. “Just scrabbling around.”
“Hold it,” ordered Lamoureux, “I’m beginning to get this.”
The Mercurian had scratched nine parallel lines, only a few of them visible on the rocky ground. Now it scratched other lines, perpendicular to these.
Lamoureux barked, “A checkerboard! That’s what it is! Has anybody got one?”
Marsden had a pocket chess set. He took it out. The Mercurian’s eyes brightened. It sat down suddenly on the hard ground.
“I’ll be damned,” said Lamoureux. “He wants to play a game. Go ahead, Marsden. Entertain our guest.”
The men were grinning again. Marsden squatted down on the ground and began to set up the men. The Mercurian stretched out two of its paws--three-fingered affairs, the fingers almost human--and seized one white chessman and one black. It hid the paws behind its back, then held them out again.
Marsden chose the white, and moved forward the queen’s pawn. The Mercurian countered and the game was on.
It was Kalinoff who must have taught this creature the game, and, if it did nothing else, the incident showed that the explorer was just as screwy as ever, and probably alive somewhere on the planet. Or did it merely show that he had been alive? Lamoureux, undecided, watched the curious battle of wits.
Half an hour later, Marsden, thoroughly beaten, demanded, “Who says this thing isn’t intelligent?”
The Mercurian was sitting up, wagging its head from side to side as if waiting for approbation. But Lamoureux, quite sure now that it wouldn’t or couldn’t talk, wouldn’t have given a damn if it had beaten every champion on Earth. In addition, he was bothered by the fact that it was snowing again.
The flakes had just begun to fall, large and feathery, and Lamoureux himself soon had a powdered look. Most of the other men were still gathered around the Mercurian. But one of them, Sprott, came over to Lamoureux and glanced up at the sky as if puzzled.
“It’s following us around, Captain.”
“The snow, sir.”
“Don’t be silly, Sprott. We just happen to have run into a streak of bad weather.”
Sprott went on stubbornly, “It looks funny to me. First it rains and snows for ten days around the ship. But it doesn’t rain, or at least it doesn’t snow, here. An hour after we get to this place, though, it starts coming down.”
Lamoureux brushed some of the white flakes off his shoulders. “All right, Sprott, suppose you are right. It is following us around. That’s no reason to alarm the other men, is it?”
“I guess not, sir ... I won’t say a word. But there’s something else I wanted to speak to you about, sir. It’s McCracken.”
“You believe he’s responsible for the snow?”
Sprott looked astonished. “I don’t mean that, sir. I don’t see how he could be.”
“I do. He shot a Mercurian. I have an idea that they’re the ones who are causing the peculiar weather we’ve been having.”
“Why would they do that, sir?”
“Well, Kalinoff didn’t mention seeing any weapons among them, so we’ve always assumed they had none. But suppose the weather was their weapon. It’s a very effective one, Sprott. They’ve made things damnably unpleasant for us.”
“How can they make rain where there isn’t any, Captain? I know that rainmakers on Earth have had some success. But all they do is get the rain to fall near where it would have fallen anyway. They may make it precipitate a few hours before it would have otherwise, but that’s all. Here there weren’t any clouds to start with.”
Lamoureux admitted, “I don’t know how the trick is done, Sprott. But I agree with you that the snow is following us around, and I’m sure that the trick is done.”
Sprott was silent a moment. Then he said, “And you think, sir, it’s all because McCracken shot one of them?”
“They evidently believe in the principle of the rain falling on the just and unjust alike. And the same thing goes for the snow.”
Sprott said doubtfully, “I’m not sure about that, sir. But I do know that McCracken is up to something. He’s been getting some queer noises on his receiver.”
“Such as Haskell singing lullabies from the ship?”
“Nothing as unpleasant as that, Captain. They’re just a series of sounds, some a little longer than others. Da, da, da-a-a, da--that sort of thing.”
Lamoureux asked, “When did you hear them?”
“About ten minutes ago. McCracken doesn’t know anything about chess, and neither do I, so we both wandered away after the first ten minutes. McCracken said he had an idea where those mountains were.”
Lamoureux’s eyes narrowed. “Those noises are undoubtedly a message. I seem to remember that some centuries back there was a code invented by a man named Morris. That’s it, the Morris code. But where could such a message have come from?”
Sprott shook his head. “I couldn’t say, sir. There’s supposed to be no one but Kalinoff on Mercury, and his radio set doesn’t work. Could the message have been sent from Earth?”
“Impossible, Sprott. That set will hardly get more than twelve thousand miles.”
Sprott looked uncomfortable. “Then maybe what I heard wasn’t a message at all, sir.”
“I think it was. Does McCracken know you overheard him?”
“I don’t think so, sir.”
“Then don’t let him know that we suspect anything wrong. Come to think of it, McCracken never seems to act quite as stupid as he pretends to be. I shouldn’t be surprised if, when he shot that Mercurian, he understood very well what he was doing.”
“You believe, sir, that he deliberately tried to cause trouble? Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know,” said Lamoureux slowly.
That wasn’t the whole truth. He didn’t know, but he certainly could make a shrewd guess. All along, his chief reason for fearing delay on this expedition had been that Kalinoff might die before he could get to him. Now there was another reason for fearing delay. Suppose there were another expedition on the way to rescue Kalinoff. And suppose McCracken was secretly in the pay of the people behind that expedition, and doing everything possible to sabotage this one.
Lamoureux nodded to himself. That was probably it. The first thing, then, was to get the radio set from McCracken.
Big Muscles, as the other men had nicknamed McCracken, was a few hundred feet away, staring off into the distance. What else he could see besides snow, Lamoureux couldn’t guess. He yelled, “Hey, McCracken!”
McCracken took a few tentative steps, broke into a short run, and then made a leap that carried him seventy-five feet through the air, past where Lamoureux was standing. He ended up at attention, his hand raised in a military salute.
Lamoureux frowned. Knowing what he did about McCracken, this attempt to seem carefree, childish, and perhaps a little stupid impressed him unfavorably. He said, “McCracken, I’m taking you out of Carvalho’s group and putting you into my own. I may need some strong-arm work and you’re just the man for it.”
“I sure am, Captain.”
“Seeing as I already have a radio, you may as well turn yours over to Carvalho.”
McCracken seemed a trifle less eager. “It’s rather heavy, Captain. If you’d like, I’d carry it for you just the same.”
“I prefer to have my own where I can get at it whenever the need arises. Turn yours over to Carvalho, McCracken.”
“Yes, sir. Meanwhile, I want to report, sir, that from where I was standing when you called to me, I think I could see those mountains.”
Lamoureux had his doubts, but he kept them to himself. “Good,” he said briefly. “We’ll get going.”
He called the men together again and gave them their marching orders. Whether the Mercurian understood what he said, Lamoureux didn’t know. At any rate, it went along willingly.
They reached the place where McCracken had been standing, and Lamoureux stared where Big Muscles pointed. There were two mountains rising off in the distance, barely visible through the snow, and there was certainly a saddleback ridge between them. The only trouble was that one of the mountains was almost twice the height of the other. Kalinoff had reported them as approximately the same height.
“That doesn’t fit Kalinoff’s description.”
McCracken said, “Maybe he looked at them from a different angle, sir. Then they might have seemed the same height.”
“If he looked at them from a different angle, the ridge would no longer seem saddlebacked.”
“That’s true, sir. But then you know, sir, Kalinoff is a screwball--”
Lamoureux found this a little hard to take from a man he suspected of quietly trying to stab him in the back. But he continued to hide his feelings. “That’s as may be, McCracken, but he’s not cockeyed. These aren’t the mountains he described. Still, we may as well approach them. We may be able to get a good view from the top of the taller one.”
They moved onward again. A quarter of an hour’s marching took them to the edge of the falling snow. As they walked further, the air became completely clear, and Lamoureux could see the mountains without straining his eyes. There was no doubt about it. They were not the mountains Kalinoff had described.
The Mercurian horizon was not so far away as the more familiar horizon of Earth, and it was a little difficult for Lamoureux to estimate distances. Still, the foothills of the mountains could not be more than twenty miles away. For the past day, little more than the rim of the Sun had been visible above the horizon, and while the peaks were ablaze with scarlet and golden colors, only the higher one was out of the shadow to any considerable extent. The saddlebacked ridge itself was a vague outline of dull black.
The snow did not catch up with them until four or five hours later, when they stopped to prepare a meal and rest. Then it began to fall gently after they had been in the same place for three-quarters of an hour. By now, Lamoureux was sure that it was the Mercurians who were to blame. He still wondered how they did it.
The one they had come across had remained with them, and Lamoureux found it harder than ever to regard the creature as intelligent. All the thing had done was walk and play chess. Lamoureux had a low opinion of chess players, even when they were fairly human. He had an even lower opinion of trained animals. This Mercurian fell, in his estimation, somewhere between.
They were no more than a mile or two from the foothills of the larger mountain by now, and the saddlebacked ridge loomed several hundred feet into the air. Unfortunately, the snow was between it and them, and prevented them from gaining too clear a view. Lamoureux wondered if the snow would keep up even at the top of the mountain, and damned McCracken again for shooting that Mercurian. And then he discovered that McCracken’s feats of arms were not yet ended. McCracken was at that very moment aiming at some target that Lamoureux could not see.
Lamoureux sprang to his feet. “Don’t shoot, you fool!”
He was a little too late. The noise of the explosion rang out. McCracken said, “Sorry, sir, I didn’t hear you until my finger had already squeezed the trigger. But I wasn’t trying to hit anything that was alive. There was something that looked like a rock on that ridge--”
The words died away in his throat. Lamoureux lifted his eyes and saw something hovering in front of them, high in the air. It had eyes and a mouth and, from these features, he knew that it was a huge head, as large as a fair-sized house. There was a long, interminable stretch of neck behind it, and somewhere in the rear he felt sure was a monstrous body. But he wasted no time searching for that.
The eyes were staring at the men unblinkingly. These eyes alone were bigger than the men were. Then the neck stretched out and the head came poking down.
Lamoureux turned and ran. It had been years since he had done much physical exercise, but he made up for them now. Then, too, as the captain of the expedition, he felt that the men might expect a certain amount of leadership from him; it was with some dismay that he discovered that all the rest were ahead of him. Picking up speed, he passed Sprott, then Marsden, and then Gronski. Ahead of him someone stumbled, and Lamoureux wasted a precious second helping the man to his feet.
The huge head opened, and a roar that almost knocked out his eardrums vibrated through Lamoureux’s body. The ground shook under him. That meant that the whole creature, whatever it was, was coming after them. Gronski and Sprott passed him as if someone had stuck a needle into them, and Lamoureux, sobbing for breath, tripped over a rock and plunged headlong.
The ground beside him trembled as if it were being rocked by a series of quakes. A deep shadow fell over him, and Lamoureux tried to dig his prone body into the ground and not breathe. From far ahead, a scream of terror split the air.
Then the quakes and the shadow had passed, and Lamoureux dared to lift his head. Far ahead, he could make out the gigantic neck stretching into the air, its outline already vague through the falling snow. A few feet away from him lay Gronski, and a little further on McCracken.
None of the other men were in sight.
The valiant McCracken, his rifle still clutched to him, was aiming at the vanishing figure. Lamoureux said, “Don’t bother, McCracken. You’ve already done enough harm.”
“I just thought I’d get a shot at him, sir, while he was excited. He wouldn’t know where it came from.”
“He knew the first time. Don’t bother, I say. You can’t hurt him, and he can do plenty to you.”
“All right, Captain.”
Lamoureux brushed some of the snow off him and tried to catch his breath. “McCracken, if you’re really anxious to play with your gun, you may fire into the air. Five times.”
McCracken fired, and they waited. Lamoureux said, “I hope nobody was hurt. I don’t think any of them, if they’re alive, are too far away to hear those shots. We’ll wait for them to assemble here and then start out for those mountains again.”
“Yes, sir. Except, Captain, that it may be a little difficult--”
“What’ll be difficult?”
“Finding those mountains. They just don’t look the same.”
Lamoureux stared. The mountains stretched into the air exactly the same as before, the same scarlet and gold colors glowing on their peaks, the same shadows on their sides. But the saddlebacked ridge between them--
Lamoureux looked again. The entire ridge was gone.
The snow fell as steadily as ever while Lamoureux waited for the men to assemble. Only two were missing now--Terrill and Carvalho. McCracken had fired again and again into the air, but these two had not returned.
Lamoureux decided finally, “It looks as if they’re not coming. Gronski, you take over for Carvalho. You’ll stay here in charge of his group while the rest of us climb the mountain.”
McCracken said, “You want me to come with you, don’t you, Captain?”
“I certainly do. I’m curious to know what in hell way of ruining this expedition you’ll think of next.”
“Aw, now, Captain, that isn’t fair. How was I to know that whole ridge was one big animal? You wouldn’t have believed it yourself. Something over five hundred feet high, with a neck even longer. We’re not used to them that big on Earth. Here the gravity’s less, so it’s okay. But even Kalinoff--”