It was a big mistake. I should not have done it. By birth, by instinct, by training, by habit, I am a man of action. Or I was. It is queer that an old man cannot remember that he is no longer young.
But it was a mistake for me to mention that I had recorded, for the archives of the Council, the history of a certain activity of the Special Patrol--a bit of secret history which may not be mentioned here. Now they insist--by “they” I refer to the Chiefs of the Special Patrol Service--that I write of other achievements of the Service, other adventures worthy of note.
Perhaps that is the penalty of becoming old. From commander of the Budi, one of the greatest of the Special Patrol ships, to the duties of recording ancient history, for younger men to read and dream about. That is a shrewd blow to one’s pride.
But if I can, in some small way, add luster to the record of my service, it will be a fitting task for a man grown old and gray in that service; work for hands too weak and palsied for sterner duties.
But I shall tell my stories in my own way; after all, they are my stories. And I shall tell the stories that appeal to me most. The universe has had enough and too much of dry history; these shall be adventurous tales to make the blood of a young man who reads them run a trifle faster--and perhaps the blood of the old man who writes them.
This, the first, shall be the story of the star L-472. You know it to-day as Ibit, port-o’-call for interplanetary ships, and source of ocrite for the universe, but to me it will always be L-472, the world of terrible tentacles.
My story begins nearly a hundred years ago--reckoned in terms of Earth time, which is proper, since I am a native of Earth--when I was a young man. I was sub-commander, at the time, of the Kalid, one of the early ships of the Special Patrol.
We had been called to Zenia on special orders, and Commander Jamison, after an absence of some two hours, returned to the Kalid with his face shining, one of his rare smiles telling me in advance that he had news--and good news.
He hurried me up to the deserted navigating room and waved me to a seat.
“Hanson,” he said. “I’m glad to be the first to congratulate you. You are now Commander John Hanson, of the Special Patrol Ship Kalid!”
“Sir.” I gasped, “do you mean--”
His smile broadened. From the breast pocket of the trim blue and silver uniform of our Service he drew a long, crackling paper.
“Your commission,” he said. “I’m taking over the Borelis.”
It was my turn to extend congratulations then; the Borelis was the newest and greatest ship of the Service. We shook hands, that ancient gesture of good-fellowship on Earth. But, as our hands unclasped, Jamison’s face grew suddenly grave.
“I have more than this news for you, however,” he said slowly. “You are to have a chance to earn your comet hardly.”
I smiled broadly at the mention of the comet, the silver insignia, worn over the heart, that would mark my future rank as commander, replacing the four-rayed star of a sub-commander which I wore now on my tunic.
“Tell me more, sir,” I said confidently.
“You have heard of the Special Patrol Ship Filanus?” asked my late commander gravely.
“Reported lost in space,” I replied promptly.
“And the Dorlos?”
“Why--yes; she was at Base here at our last call,” I said, searching his face anxiously. “Peter Wilson was Second Officer on her--one of my best friends. Why do you ask about her, sir?”
“The Dorlos is missing also,” said Commander Jamison solemnly. “Both of these ships were sent upon a particular mission. Neither of them has returned. It is concluded that some common fate has overtaken them. The Kalid, under your command, is commissioned to investigate these disappearances.
“You are not charged with the mission of these other ships; your orders are to investigate their disappearance. The course, together with the official patrol orders, I shall hand you presently, but with them go verbal orders.
“You are to lay and keep the course designated, which will take you well out of the beaten path to a small world which has not been explored, but which has been circumnavigated a number of times by various ships remaining just outside the atmospheric envelope, and found to be without evidence of intelligent habitation. In other words, without cities, roads, canals, or other evidence of human handiwork or civilization.
“I believe your instructions give you some of this information, but not all of it. This world, unnamed because of its uninhabited condition, is charted only as L-472. Your larger charts will show it, I am sure. The atmosphere is reported to be breatheable by inhabitants of Earth and other beings having the same general requirements. Vegetation is reported as dense, covering the five continents of the world to the edges of the northern and southern polar caps, which are small. Topographically, the country is rugged in the extreme, with many peaks, apparently volcanic, but now inactive or extinct, on all of its five large continents.”
“And am I to land there, sir?” I asked eagerly.
“Your orders are very specific upon that point,” said Commander Jamison. “You are not to land until you have carefully and thoroughly reconnoitered from above, at low altitude. You will exercise every possible precaution. Your specific purpose is simply this: to determine, if possible, the fate of the other two ships, and report your findings at once. The Chiefs of the Service will then consider the matter, and take whatever action may seem advisable to them.” Jamison rose to his feet and thrust out his hand in Earth’s fine old salute of farewell.
“I must be going, Hanson,” he said. “I wish this patrol were mine instead of yours. You are a young man for such a responsibility.”
“But,” I replied, with the glowing confidence of youth, “I have the advantage of having served under Commander Jamison!”
He smiled as we shook again, and shook his head.
“Discretion can be learned only by experience,” he said. “But I wish you success, Hanson; on this undertaking, and on many others. Supplies are on their way now; the crew will return from leave within the hour. A young Zenian, name of Dival, I believe, is detailed to accompany you as scientific observer--purely unofficial capacity, of course. He has been ordered to report to you at once. You are to depart as soon as feasible: you know what that means. I believe that’s all--Oh, yes! I had almost forgotten.
“Here, in this envelope, are your orders and your course, as well as all available data on L-472. In this little casket is--your comet, Hanson. I know you will wear it with honor!”
“Thank you, sir!” I said, a bit huskily. I saluted, and Commander Jamison acknowledged the gesture with stiff precision. Commander Jamison always had the reputation of being something of a martinet.
When he had left, I picked up the thin blue envelope he had left. Across the face of the envelope, in the--to my mind--jagged and unbeautiful Universal script, was my name, followed by the proud title: “Commander, Special Patrol Ship Kalid.” My first orders!
There was a small oval box, of blue leather, with the silver crest of the Service in bas-relief on the lid. I opened the case, and gazed with shining eyes at the gleaming, silver comet that nestled there.
Then, slowly, I unfastened the four-rayed star on my left breast, and placed in its stead the insignia of my commandership.
Worn smooth and shiny now, it is still my most precious possession.
Kincaide, my second officer, turned and smiled as I entered the navigating room.
“L-472 now registers maximum attraction, sir,” he reported. “Dead ahead, and coming up nicely. My last figures, completed about five minutes ago, indicate that we should reach the gaseous envelope in about ten hours.” Kincaide was a native of Earth, and we commonly used Earth time-measurements in our conversation. As is still the case, ships of the Special Patrol Service were commanded without exception by natives of Earth, and the entire officer personnel hailed largely from the same planet, although I have had several Zenian officers of rare ability and courage.
I nodded and thanked him for the report. Maximum attraction, eh? That, considering the small size of our objective, meant we were much closer to L-472 than to any other regular body.
Mechanically, I studied the various dials about the room. The attraction meter, as Kincaide had said, registered several degrees of attraction, and the red slide on the rim of the dial was squarely at the top, showing that the attraction was coming from the world at which our nose was pointed. The surface-temperature gauge was at normal. Internal pressure, normal. Internal moisture-content, a little high. Kincaide, watching me, spoke up:
“I have already given orders to dry out, sir,” he said.
“Very good, Mr. Kincaide. It’s a long trip, and I want the crew in good condition.” I studied the two charts, one showing our surroundings laterally, the other vertically, all bodies about us represented as glowing spots of green light, of varying sizes; the ship itself as a tiny scarlet spark. Everything shipshape: perhaps, a degree or two of elevation when we were a little closer--
“May I come in sir?” broke in a gentle, high-pitched voice.
“Certainly, Mr. Dival,” I replied, answering in the Universal language in which the request had been made. “You are always very welcome.” Dival was a typical Zenian of the finest type: slim, very dark, and with the amazingly intelligent eyes of his kind. His voice was very soft and gentle, and like the voice of all his people, clear and high-pitched.
“Thank you,” he said. “I guess I’m over-eager, but there’s something about this mission of ours that worries me. I seem to feel--” He broke off abruptly and began pacing back and forth across the room.
I studied him, frowning. The Zenians have a strange way of being right about such things; their high-strung, sensitive natures seem capable of responding to those delicate, vagrant forces which even now are only incompletely understood and classified.
“You’re not used to work of this sort,” I replied, as bluffly and heartily as possible. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
“The commanders of the two ships that disappeared probably felt the same way, sir,” said Dival. “I should have thought the Chiefs of the Special Patrol Service would have sent several ships on a mission such as this.”
“Easy to say,” I laughed bitterly. “If the Council would pass the appropriations we need, we might have ships enough so that we could send a fleet of ships when we wished. Instead of that, the Council, in its infinite wisdom, builds greater laboratories and schools of higher learning--and lets the Patrol get along as best it can.”
“It was from the laboratories and the schools of higher learning that all these things sprang,” replied Dival quietly, glancing around at the array of instruments which made navigation in space possible.
“True,” I admitted rather shortly. “We must work together. And as for what we shall find upon the little world ahead, we shall be there in nine or ten hours. You may wish to make some preparations.”
“Nine or ten hours? That’s Earth time, isn’t it? Let’s see: about two and a half enaros.”
“Correct,” I smiled. The Universal method of reckoning time had never appealed to me. For those of my readers who may only be familiar with Earth time measurements, an enar is about eighteen Earth days, an enaren a little less than two Earth days, and an enaro nearly four and a half hours. The Universal system has the advantage, I admit, of a decimal division; but I have found it clumsy always. I may be stubborn and old-fashioned, but a clock face with only ten numerals and one hand still strikes me as being unbeautiful and inefficient.
“Two and a half enaros,” repeated Dival thoughtfully. “I believe I shall see if I can get a little sleep now; I should not have brought my books with me, I’m afraid. I read when I should sleep. Will you call me should there be any developments of interest?”
I assured him that he would be called as he requested, and he left.
“Decent sort of a chap, sir,” observed Kincaide, glancing at the door through which Dival had just departed.
“A student,” I nodded, with the contempt of violent youth for the man of gentler pursuits than mine, and turned my attentions to some calculations for entry in the log.
Busied with the intricate details of my task, time passed rapidly. The watch changed, and I joined my officers in the tiny, arched dining salon. It was during the meal that I noticed for the first time a sort of tenseness; every member of the mess was unusually quiet. And though I would not, have admitted it then, I was not without a good deal of nervous restraint myself.
“Gentlemen,” I remarked when the meal was finished, “I believe you understand our present mission. Primarily, our purpose is to ascertain, if possible, the fate of two ships that were sent here and have not returned. We are now close enough for reasonable observation by means of the television disc, I believe, and I shall take over its operation myself.
“There is no gainsaying the fact that whatever fate overtook the two other Patrol ships, may lay in wait for us. My orders are to observe every possible precaution, and to return with a report. I am going to ask that each of you proceed immediately to his post, and make ready, in so far as possible, for any eventuality. Warn the watch which has just gone off to be ready for instant duty. The disintegrator ray generators should be started and be available for instant emergency use, maximum power. Have the bombing crews stand by for orders.”
“What do you anticipate, sir?” asked Correy, my new sub-commander. The other officers waited tensely for my reply.
“I don’t know, Mr. Correy,” I admitted reluctantly. “We have no information upon which to base an assumption. We do know that two ships have been sent here, and neither of them have returned. Something prevented that return. We must endeavor to prevent that same fate from overtaking the Kalid--and ourselves.”
Hurrying back to the navigating room, I posted myself beside the cumbersome, old-fashioned television instrument. L-472 was near enough now to occupy the entire field, with the range hand at maximum. One whole continent and parts of two others were visible. Not many details could be made out.
I waited grimly while an hour, two hours, went by. My field narrowed down to one continent, to a part of one continent. I glanced up at the surface temperature gauge and noted that the hand was registering a few degrees above normal. Correy, who had relieved Kincaide as navigating officer, followed my gaze.
“Shall we reduce speed, sir?” he asked crisply.
“To twice atmospheric speed,” I nodded. “When we enter the envelope proper, reduce to normal atmospheric speed. Alter your course upon entering the atmosphere proper, and work back and forth along the emerging twilight zone, from the north polar cap to the southern cap, and so on.”
“Yes, sir!” he replied, and repeated the orders to the control room forward.
I pressed the attention signal to Dival’s cubicle, and informed him that we were entering the outer atmospheric fringe.
“Thank you, sir!” he said eagerly. “I shall be with you immediately.”
In rapid succession I called various officers and gave terse orders. Double crews on duty in the generator compartment, the ray projectors, the atomic bomb magazines, and release tubes. Observers at all observation posts, operators at the two smaller television instruments to comb the terrain and report instantly any object of interest. With the three of us searching, it seemed incredible that anything could escape us. At atmospheric altitudes even the two smaller television instruments would be able to pick out a body the size of one of the missing ships.
Dival entered the room as I finished giving my orders.
“A strange world, Dival,” I commented, glancing towards the television instrument. “Covered with trees, even the mountains, and what I presume to be volcanic peaks. They crowd right down to the edge of the water.”
He adjusted the focusing lever slightly, his face lighting up with the interest of a scientist gazing at a strange specimen, whether it be a microbe or a new world.
“Strange ... strange...” he muttered. “A universal vegetation ... no variation of type from equator to polar cap, apparently. And the water--did you notice its color, sir?”
“Purple,” I nodded. “It varies on the different worlds, you know. I’ve seen pink, red, white and black seas, as well as the green and blue of Earth.”
“And no small islands,” he went on, as though he had not ever heard me. “Not in the visible portion, at any rate.”
I was about to reply, when I felt the peculiar surge of the Kalid as she reduced speed. I glanced at the indicator, watching the hand drop slowly to atmospheric speed.
“Keep a close watch, Dival,” I ordered. “We shall change our course now, to comb the country for traces of two ships we are seeking. If you see the least suspicious sign, let me know immediately.”
He nodded, and for a time there was only a tense silence in the room, broken at intervals by Correy as he spoke briefly into his microphone, giving orders to the operating room.
Perhaps an hour went by. I am not sure. It seemed like a longer time than that. Then Dival called out in sudden excitement, his high, thin voice stabbing the silence:
“Here, sir! Look! A little clearing--artificial, I judge--and the ships! Both of them!”
“Stop the ship, Mr. Correy!” I snapped as I hurried to the instrument. “Dival, take those reports.” I gestured towards the two attention signals that were glowing and softly humming and thrust my head into the shelter of the television instrument’s big hood.
Dival had made no mistake. Directly beneath me, as I looked, was a clearing, a perfect square with rounded corners, obviously blasted out of the solid forest by the delicate manipulation of sharply focused disintegrator rays. And upon the naked, pitted surface thus exposed, side by side in orderly array, were the missing ships!
I studied the strange scene with a heart that thumped excitedly against my ribs.
What should I do? Return and report? Descend and investigate? There was no sign of life around the ships, and no evidence of damage. If I brought the Kalid down, would she make a third to remain there, to be marked “lost in space” on the records of the Service?
Reluctantly, I drew my head from beneath the shielding hood.
“What were the two reports, Dival?” I asked, and my voice was thick. “The other two television observers?”
“Yes, sir. They report that they cannot positively identify the ships with their instruments, but feel certain that they are the two we seek.”
“Very good. Tell them, please, to remain on watch, searching space in every direction, and to report instantly anything suspicious. Mr. Correy, we will descend until this small clearing becomes visible, through the ports, to the unaided eye. I will give you the corrections to bring us directly over the clearing.” And I read the finder scales of the television instrument to him.
He rattled off the figures, calculated an instant, and gave his orders to the control room, while I kept the television instrument bearing upon the odd clearing and the two motionless, deserted ships.
As we settled, I could make out the insignia of the ships, could see the pitted, stained earth of the clearing, brown with the dust of disintegration. I could see the surrounding trees very distinctly now: they seemed very similar to our weeping willows, on Earth, which, I perhaps should explain, since it is impossible for the average individual to have a comprehensive knowledge of the flora and fauna of the entire known Universe, is a tree of considerable size, having long, hanging branches arching from its crown and reaching nearly to the ground. These leaves, like typical willow leaves, were long and slender, of rusty green color. The trunks and branches seemed to be black or dark brown: and the trees grew so thickly that nowhere between their branches was the ground visible.
“Five thousand feet, sir,” said Correy. “Directly above the clearing. Shall we descend further?”
“A thousand feet at a time, Mr. Correy,” I replied, after a moment’s hesitation. “My orders are to exercise the utmost caution. Mr. Dival, please make a complete analysis of the atmosphere. I believe you are familiar with the traps provided for the purpose?”
“Yes. You propose to land, sir?”
“I propose to determine the fate of those two ships and the men who brought them here,” I said with sudden determination. Dival made no reply, but as he turned to obey orders, I saw that his presentiment of trouble had not left him.
“Four thousand feet, sir,” said Correy.
I nodded, studying the scene below us. The great hooded instrument brought it within, apparently, fifty feet of my eyes, but the great detail revealed nothing of interest.
The two ships lay motionless, huddled close together. The great circular door of each was open, as though opened that same day--or a century before.
“Three thousand feet, sir,” said Correy.
“Proceed at the same speed,” I replied. Whatever fate had overtaken the men of the other ships had caused them to disappear entirely--and without sign of a struggle. But what conceivable fate could that be?
“Two thousand feet, sir,” said Correy.
“Good,” I said grimly. “Continue with the descent, Mr. Correy.”
Dival hurried into the room as I spoke. His face was still clouded with foreboding.
“I have tested the atmosphere, sir,” he reported. “It is suitable for breathing by either men of Earth or Zenia. No trace of noxious gases of any kind. It is probably rather rarified, such as one might find on Earth or Zenia at high altitudes.”
“One thousand feet, sir,” said Correy.
I hesitated an instant. Undoubtedly the atmosphere had been tested by the other ships before they landed. In the case of the second ship, at any rate, those in command must have been on the alert against danger. And yet both of those ships lay there motionless, vacant, deserted.
I could feel the eyes of the men on me. My decision must be delayed no further.
“We will land, Mr. Correy,” I said grimly. “Near the two ships, please.”
“Very well, sir,” nodded Correy, and spoke briefly into the microphone.
“I might warn you, sir,” said Dival quietly, “to govern your activities, once outside: free from the gravity pads of the ship, on a body of such small size, an ordinary step will probably cause a leap of considerable distance.”
“Thank you, Mr. Dival. That is a consideration I had overlooked. I shall warn the men. We must--”
At that instant I felt the slight jar of landing. I glanced up; met Correy’s grave glance squarely.
“Grounded, sir,” he said quietly.
“Very good, Mr. Correy. Keep the ship ready for instant action, please, and call the landing crew to the forward exit. You will accompany us, Mr. Dival?”