I was asleep when our danger was discovered, but I knew the instant the attention signal sounded that the situation was serious. Kincaide, my second officer, had a cool head, and he would not have called me except in a tremendous emergency.
“Hanson speaking!” I snapped into the microphone. “What’s up, Mr.
“A field of meteorites sweeping into our path, sir.” Kincaide’s voice was tense. “I have altered our course as much as I dared and am reducing speed at emergency rate, but this is the largest swarm of meteorites I have ever seen. I am afraid that we must pass through at least a section of it.”
“With you in a moment, Mr. Kincaide!” I dropped the microphone and snatched up my robe, knotting its cord about me as I hurried out of my stateroom. In those days, interplanetary ships did not have their auras of repulsion rays to protect them from meteorites, it must be remembered. Two skins of metal were all that lay between the Ertak and all the dangers of space.
I took the companionway to the navigating room two steps at a time and fairly burst into the room.
Kincaide was crouched over the two charts that pictured the space around us, microphone pressed to his lips. Through the plate glass partition I could see the men in the operating room tensed over their wheels and levers and dials. Kincaide glanced up as I entered, and motioned with his free hand towards the charts.
One glance convinced me that he had not overestimated our danger. The space to right and left, and above and below, was fairly peppered with tiny pricks of greenish light that moved slowly across the milky faces of the charts.
From the position of the ship, represented as a glowing red spark, and measuring the distances roughly by means of the fine black lines graved in both directions upon the surface of the chart, it was evident to any understanding observer that disaster of a most terrible kind was imminent.
Kincaide muttered into his microphone, and out of the tail of my eye I could see his orders obeyed on the instant by the men in the operating room. I could feel the peculiar, sickening surge that told of speed being reduced, and the course being altered, but the cold, brutally accurate charts before me assured me that no action we dared take would save us from the meteorites.
“We’re in for it, Mr. Kincaide. Continue to reduce speed as much as possible, and keep bearing away, as at present. I believe we can avoid the thickest portion of the field, but we shall have to take our chances with the fringe.”
“Yes, sir!” said Kincaide, without lifting his eyes from the chart.
His voice was calm and businesslike, now; with the responsibility on my shoulders, as commander, he was the efficient, level-headed thinking machine that had endeared him to me as both fellow-officer and friend.
Leaving the charts to Kincaide, I sounded the general emergency signal, calling every man and officer of the Ertak’s crew to his post, and began giving orders through the microphone.
“Mr. Correy,”--Correy was my first officer--”please report at once to the navigating room. Mr. Hendricks, make the rounds of all duty posts, please, and give special attention to the disintegrator ray operators.
The ray generators are to be started at once, full speed.” Hendricks, I might say, was a junior officer, and a very good one, although quick-tempered and excitable--failings of youth. He had only recently shipped with us to replace Anderson Croy, who--but that has already been recorded.
[Footnote 2: “The Dark Side of Antri,” in the January, 1931, issue of Astounding Stories.]
These preparations made, I glanced at the twin charts again. The peppering of tiny green lights, each of which represented a meteoritic body, had definitely shifted in relation to the position of the strongly-glowing red spark that was the Ertak, but a quick comparison of the two charts showed that we would be certain to pass through--again I use land terms to make my meaning clear--the upper right fringe of the field.
The great cluster of meteorites was moving in the same direction as ourselves now; Kincaide’s change of course had settled that matter nicely. Naturally, this was the logical course, since should we come in contact with any of them, the impact would bear a relation to only the difference in our speeds, instead of the sum, as would be the case if we struck at a wide angle.
It was difficult to stand without grasping a support of some kind, and walking was almost impossible, for the reduction of our tremendous speed, and even the slightest change of direction, placed terrific strains upon the ship and everything in it. Space ships, at space speeds, must travel like the old-fashioned bullets if those within are to feel at ease.
“I believe, Mr. Kincaide, it might be well to slightly increase the power in the gravity pads,” I suggested. Kincaide nodded and spoke briefly into his microphone; an instant later I felt my weight increase perhaps fifty per cent, and despite the inertia of my body, opposed to both the change in speed and direction of the Ertak, I could now stand without support, and could walk without too much difficulty.
The door of the navigating room was flung open, and Correy entered, his face alight with curiosity and eagerness. An emergency meant danger, and few beings in the universe have loved danger more than Correy.
“We’re in for it, Mr. Correy,” I said, with a nod towards the charts.
“Swarm of meteorites, and we can’t avoid them.”
“Well, we’ve dodged through them before, sir,” smiled Correy. “We can do it again.”
“I hope so, but this is the largest field of them I have ever seen.
Look at the charts: they’re thicker than flies.”
Correy glanced at the charts, slapped Kincaide across his bowed, tense shoulders, and laughed aloud.
“Trust the old Ertak to worm her way through, sir,” he said. “The ray crews are on duty, I presume?”
“Yes. But I doubt that the rays will be of much assistance to us.
Particularly if these are stony meteorites--and as you know, the odds are about ten to one against their being of ferrous composition. The rays, deducting the losses due to the utter lack of a conducting medium, will be insufficient protection. They will help, of course.
The iron meteorites they will take care of effectively, but the conglomerate nature of the stony meteorites does not make them particularly susceptible to the disintegrating rays.
“We shall do what we can, but our success will depend largely upon good luck--or Divine Providence.”
“At any rate, sir,” replied Correy, and his voice had lost some of its lightness, “we are upon routine patrol and not upon special mission.
If we do crack up, there is no emergency call that will remain unanswered.”
“No,” I said dryly. “There will be just another ‘Lost in Space’ report in the records of the Service, and the Ertak’s name will go up on the tablet of lost ships. In any case, we have done and shall do what we can. In ten minutes we shall know all there is to know. That about right, Mr. Kincaide?”
“Ten minutes?” Kincaide studied the charts with narrowed eyes, mentally balancing distance and speed. “We should be within the danger area in about that length of time, sir,” he answered. “And out of it--if we come out--three or four minutes later.”
“We’ll come out of it,” said Correy positively.
I walked heavily across the room and studied the charts again. Space above and below, to the right and the left of us, was powdered with the green points of light.
Correy joined me, his feet thumping with the unaccustomed weight given him by the increase in gravity. As he bent over the charts, I heard him draw in his breath sharply.
Kincaide looked up. Correy looked up. I looked up. The glance of each man swept the faces, read the eyes, of the other two. Then, with one accord, we all three glanced up at the clocks--more properly, at the twelve-figured dial of the Earth clock, for none of us had any great love for the metric Universal system of time-keeping.
Ten minutes ... Less than that, now.
“Mr. Correy,” I said, as calmly as I could, “you will relieve Mr.
Kincaide as navigating officer. Mr. Kincaide, present my compliments to Mr. Hendricks, and ask him to explain the situation to the crew.
You will instruct the disintegrator ray operators in their duties, and take charge of their activities. Start operation at your discretion; you understand the necessity.”
“Yes, sir!” Kincaide saluted sharply, and I returned his salute. We did not shake hands, the Earth gesture of--strangely enough--both greeting and farewell, but we both realized that this might well be a final parting. The door closed behind him, and Correy and I were left together to watch the creeping hands of the Earth clock, the twin charts with their thick spatter of green lights, and the two fiery red sparks, one on each chart, that represented the Ertak sweeping recklessly towards the swarming danger ahead.
In other accounts of my experiences in the Special Patrol Service I feel that I have written too much about myself. After all, I have run my race; a retired commander of the Service, and an old, old man, with the century mark well behind me, my only use is to record, in this fashion, some of those things the Service accomplished in the old days when the worlds of the Universe were strange to each other, and space travel was still an adventure to many.
The Universe is not interested in old men; it is concerned only with youth and action. It forgets that once we were young men, strong, impetuous, daring. It forgets what we did; but that has always been so. It always will be so. John Hanson, retired Commander of the Special Patrol Service, is fit only to amuse the present generation with his tales of bygone days.
Well, so be it. I am content. I have lived greatly; certainly I would not exchange my memories of those bold, daring days even for youth and strength again, had I to live that youth and waste that strength in this softened, gilded age.
But no more of this; it is too easy for an old man to rumble on about himself. It is only the young John Hanson, Commander of the Ertak, who can interest those who may pick up and read what I am writing here.
I did not waste the minutes measured by that clock, grouped with our other instruments in the navigating room of the Ertak. I wrote hastily in the ship’s log, stating the facts briefly and without feeling. If we came through, the log would read better thus; if not, and by some strange chance it came to human eyes, then the Universe would know at least that the Ertak’s officers did not flinch from even such a danger.
As I finished the entry, Correy spoke:
“Kincaide’s estimate was not far off, sir,” he said, with a swift glance at the clock. “Here we go!” It was less than half a minute short of the ten estimated by Kincaide.
I nodded and bent over the television disc--one of the huge, hooded affairs we used in those days. Widening the field to the greatest angle, and with low power, I inspected the space before us on all sides.
The charts, operated by super-radio reflexes, had not lied about the danger into which we were passing--had passed. We were in the midst of a veritable swarm of meteorites of all sizes.
They were not large; I believe the largest I saw had a mass of not more than three or four times that of the Ertak herself. Some of the smaller bodies were only fifty or sixty feet in diameter.
They were jagged and irregular in shape, and they seemed to spin at varying speeds, like tiny worlds.
As I watched, fixing my view now on the space directly in our path, I saw that our disintegrator ray men were at work. Deep in the bowels of the Ertak, the moan of the ray generators had deepened in note; I could even feel the slight vibration beneath my feet.
One of the meteorites slowly crumbled on top, the dust of disintegration hovering in a compact mass about the body. More and more of it melted away. The spinning motion grew irregular, eccentric, as the center of gravity was changed by the action of the ray.
Another ray, two more, centered on the wobbling mass. It was directly in our path, looming up larger and larger every second.
Faster and faster it melted, the rays eating into it from four sides.
But it was perilously near now; I had to reduce power in order to keep all of it within the field of my disc. If--
The thing vanished before the very nose of the ship, not an instant too soon. I glanced up at the surface temperature indicator, and saw the big black hand move slowly for a degree or two, and stop. It was a very sensitive instrument, and registered even the slight friction of our passage through the disintegrated dust of the meteorite.
Our rays were working desperately, but disintegrator rays are not nearly so effective in space as in an atmosphere of some kind. Half a dozen times it seemed that we must crash head on into one of the flying bodies, but our speed was reduced now to such an extent that we were going but little faster than the meteorites, and this fact was all that saved us. We had more time for utilizing our rays.
We nosed upward through the trailing fringe of the swarm in safety.
The great field of meteorites was now below and ahead of us. We had won through! The Ertak was safe, and--
“There seems to be another directly above us, sir,” commented Correy quietly, speaking for the first time since we had entered the area of danger. “I believe your disc is not picking it up.”
“Thank you, Mr. Correy,” I said. While operating on an entirely different principle, his two charts had certain very definite advantages: they showed the entire space around us, instead of but a portion.
I picked up the meteorite he had mentioned without difficulty. It was a large body, about three times the mass of the Ertak, and some distance above us--a laggard in the group we had just eluded.
“Will it coincide with our path at any point, Mr. Correy?” I asked doubtfully. The television disc could not, of course, give me this information.
“I believe so; yes,” replied Correy, frowning over his charts. “Are the rays on it, sir?”
“Yes. All of them, I judge, but they are making slow work of it.” I fell silent, bending lower over the great hooded disc.
There were a dozen, a score of rays playing upon the surface of the meteorite. A halo of dust hung around the rapidly diminishing body, but still the mass melted all too slowly.
Pressing the attention signal for Kincaide, I spoke sharply into the microphone:
“Mr. Kincaide, is every ray on that large meteorite above us?”
“Yes, sir,” he replied instantly.
“Very well; carry on, Mr. Kincaide.” I turned to Correy; he had just glanced from his charts to the clock, with its jerking second hand, and back to his charts.
“They’ll have to do it in the next ten seconds, sir,” he said.
“Otherwise--” Correy shrugged, and his eyes fixed with a peculiar, fascinated stare on the charts. He was looking death squarely in the eyes.
Ten seconds! It was not enough. I had watched the rays working, and I knew their power to disintegrate this death-dealing stone that was hurtling along above us while we rose, helplessly, into its path.
I did not ask Correy if it was possible to alter the course enough, and quickly enough, to avoid that fateful path. Had it been possible without tearing the Ertak to pieces with the strain of it, Correy would have done it seconds ago.
I glanced up swiftly at the relentless, jerking second hand. Seven seconds gone! Three seconds more.
The rays were doing all that could be expected of them. There was only a tiny fragment of the meteorite left, and it was dwindling swiftly.
But our time was passing even more rapidly.
The bit of rock loomed up at me from the disc. It seemed to fly up into my face, to meet me.
“Got us, Correy!” I said hoarsely. “Good-by, old-man!”
I think he tried to reply. I saw his lips open; the flash of the bright light from the ethon tubes on his big white teeth.
Then there was a crash that shook the whole ship. I shot into the air.
I remember falling ... terribly.
A blinding flash of light that emanated from the very center of my brain, a sickening sense of utter catastrophe, and ... blackness.
I think I was conscious several seconds before I finally opened my eyes. My mind was still wandering; my thoughts kept flying around in huge circles that kept closing in.
We had hit the meteorite. I remembered the crash. I remembered falling. I remembered striking my head.
But I was still alive. There was air to breathe and there was firm material under me. I opened my eyes.
For the first instant, it seemed I was in an utterly strange room.
Nothing was familiar. Everything was--was inverted. Then I glanced upward, and I saw what had happened.
I was lying on the ceiling of the navigating room. Over my head were the charts, still glowing, the chronometers in their gimballed beds, and the television disc. Beside me, sprawled out limply, was Correy, a trickle of dried blood on his cheek. A litter of papers, chairs, framed licenses and other movable objects were strewn on and around us.
My first instinctive, foolish thought was that the ship was upside down. Man has a ground-trained mind, no matter how many years he may travel space. Then, of course, I realized that in the open void there is not top nor bottom; the illusion is supplied, in space ships, by the gravity pads. Somehow, the shock of impact had reversed the polarity of the leads to the pads, and they had become repulsion pads.
That was why I had dropped from the floor to the ceiling.
All this flashed through my mind in an instant as I dragged myself toward Correy. Dragged myself because my head was throbbing so that I dared not stand up, and one shoulder, my left, was numb.
For an instant I thought that Correy was dead. Then, as I bent over him, I saw a pulse leaping just under the angle of his jaw.
“Correy, old man!” I whispered. “Do you hear me?” All the formality of the Service was forgotten for the time. “Are you hurt badly?”
His eyelids flickered, and he sighed; then, suddenly, he looked up at me--and smiled!
“We’re still here, sir?”
“After a fashion. Look around; see what’s happened?”
He glanced about curiously, frowning. His wits were not all with him yet.
“We’re in a mess, aren’t we?” he grinned. “What’s the matter?”
I told him what I thought, and he nodded slowly, feeling his head tenderly.
“How long ago did it happen?” he asked. “The blooming clock’s upside down; can you read it?”
I could--with an effort.
“Over twenty minutes,” I said. “I wonder how the rest of the men are?”
With an effort, I got to my feet and peered into the operating room.
Several of the men were moving about, dazedly, and as I signalled to them, reassuringly, a voice hailed us from the doorway:
“Any orders, sir?”
It was Kincaide. He was peering over what had been the top of the doorway, and he was probably the most disreputable-looking officer who had ever worn the blue-and-silver uniform of the Service. His nose was bloody and swollen to twice its normal size. Both eyes were blackened, and his hair, matted with blood, was plastered in ragged swirls across his forehead.
“Yes, Mr. Kincaide; plenty of them. Round up enough of the men to locate the trouble with the gravity pads; there’s a reversed connection somewhere. But don’t let them make the repairs until the signal is given. Otherwise, we’ll all fall on our heads again. Mr.
Correy and I will take care of the injured.”
The next half hour was a trying one. Two men had been killed outright, and another died before we could do anything to save him. Every man in the crew was shaken up and bruised, but by the time the check was completed, we had a good half of our personnel on duty.
Returning at last to the navigating room, I pressed the attention signal for Kincaide, and got his answer immediately.
“Located the trouble yet, Mr. Kincaide?” I asked anxiously.
“Yes, sir! Mr. Hendricks has been working with a group of men and has just made his report. They are ready when you are.”
“Good!” I drew a sigh of relief. It had been easier than I thought.
Pressing the general attention signal, I broadcasted the warning, giving particular instructions to the men in charge of the injured.
Then I issued orders to Hendricks:
“Reverse the current in five seconds, Mr. Hendricks, and stand by for further instructions.”
Hastily, then, Correy and I followed the orders we had given the men.
Briefly we stood on our heads against the wall, feeling very foolish, and dreading the fall we knew was coming.
It came. We slid down the wall and lit heavily on our feet, while the litter that had been on the ceiling with us fell all around us.
Miraculously, the ship seemed to have righted herself. Correy and I picked ourselves up and looked around.
“We’re still operating smoothly,” I commented with a sweeping glance at the instruments over the operating table. “Everything seems in order.”
“Did you notice the speed indicator, sir?” asked Correy grimly. “When he fell, one of the men in the operating room must have pulled the speed lever all the way over. We’re at maximum space speed, sir, and have been for nearly an hour, with no one at the controls.”
We stared at each other dully. Nearly an hour, at maximum space speed--a speed seldom used except in case of great emergency. With no one at the controls, and the ship set at maximum deflection from her course.
That meant that for nearly an hour we had been sweeping into infinite space in a great arc, at a speed I disliked to think about.
“I’ll work out our position at once,” I said, “and in the meantime, reduce speed to normal as quickly as possible. We must get back on our course at the earliest possible moment.”
We hurried across to the charts that were our most important aides in proper navigation. By comparing the groups of stars there with our space charts of the universe, the working out of our position was ordinarily, a simple matter.
But now, instead of milky rectangles, ruled with fine black lines, with a fiery red speck in the center and the bodies of the universe grouped around in green points of light, there were only nearly blank rectangles, shot through with vague, flickering lights that revealed nothing except the presence of disaster.
“The meteoric fragment wiped out some of our plates, I imagine,” said Correy slowly. “The thing’s useless.”
I nodded, staring down at the crawling lights on the charts.
“We’ll have to set down for repairs, Mr. Correy. If,” I added, “we can find a place.”
Correy glanced up at the attraction meter.
“I’ll take a look in the big disc,” he suggested. “There’s a sizeable body off to port. Perhaps our luck’s changed.”
He bent his head under the big hood, adjusting the controls until he located the source of the registered attraction.
“Right!” he said, after a moment’s careful scrutiny. “She’s as big as Earth, I’d venture, and I believe I can detect clouds, so there should be atmosphere. Shall we try it, sir?”
“Yes. We’re helpless until we make repairs. As big as Earth, you said?
Is she familiar?”
Correy studied the image under the hood again, long and carefully.
“No, sir,” he said, looking up and shaking his head. “She’s a new one on me.”
Conning the ship first by means of the television disc, and navigating visually as we neared the strange sphere, we were soon close enough to make out the physical characteristics of this unknown world.
Our spectroscopic tests had revealed the presence of atmosphere suitable for breathing, although strongly laden with mineral fumes which, while possibly objectionable, would probably not be dangerous.
So far as we could see, there was but one continent, somewhat north of the equator, roughly triangular in shape, with its northernmost point reaching nearly to the Pole.
“It’s an unexplored world, sir. I’m certain of that,” said Correy. “I am sure I would have remembered that single, triangular continent had I seen it on any of our charts.” In those days, of course, the Universe was by no means so well mapped as it is today.
“If not unknown, it is at least uncharted,” I replied. “Rough looking country, isn’t it? No sign of life, either, that the disc will reveal.”
“That’s as well, sir. Better no people than wild natives who might interfere with our work. Any choice in the matter of a spot on which to set her down?”
I inspected the great, triangular continent carefully. Towards the north it was a mass of snow covered mountains, some of them, from their craters, dead volcanoes. Long spurs of these ranges reached southward, with green and apparently fertile valleys between. The southern edge was covered with dense tropical vegetation; a veritable jungle.
“At the base of that central spur there seems to be a sort of plateau,” I suggested. “I believe that would be a likely spot.”
“Very well, sir,” replied Correy, and the old Ertak, reduced to atmospheric speed, swiftly swept toward the indicated position, while Correy kept a wary eye on the surface temperature gauge, and I swept the terrain for any sign of intelligent life.
I found a number of trails, particularly around the base of the foothills, but they were evidently game trails, for there were no dwelling places of any kind; no cities, no villages, not even a single habitation of any kind that the searching eyes of the disc could detect.
Correy set her down as neatly and as softly as a rose petal drifts to the ground. Roses, I may add, are a beautiful and delicate flower, with very soft petals, peculiar to my native Earth.
We opened the main exit immediately. I watched the huge, circular door back slowly out of its threads, and finally swing aside, swiftly and silently, in the grip of its mighty gimbals, with the weird, unearthly feeling I have always had when about to step foot on some strange star where no man has trod before.
The air was sweet, and delightfully fresh after being cooped up for weeks in the Ertak, with her machine-made air. A little thinner, I should judge, than the air to which we were accustomed, but strangely exhilarating, and laden with a faint scent of some unknown constituent--undoubtedly the mineral element our spectroscope had revealed but not identified. Gravity, I found upon passing through the exit, was normal. Altogether an extremely satisfactory repair station.
Correy’s guess as to what had happened proved absolutely accurate.
Along the top of the Ertak, from amidships to within a few feet of her pointed stem, was a jagged groove that had destroyed hundreds of the bright, coppery discs, set into the outer skin of the ship, that operated our super-radio reflex charts. The groove was so deep, in places, that it must have bent the outer skin of the Ertak down against the inner skin. A foot or more--it was best not to think of what would have happened then.
By the time we completed our inspection dusk was upon us--a long, lingering dusk, due, no doubt, to the afterglow resulting from the mineral content of the air. I’m no white-skinned, stoop-shouldered laboratory man, so I’m not sure that was the real reason. It sounds logical, however.
“Mr. Correy, I think we shall break out our field equipment and give all men not on watch an opportunity to sleep out in the fresh air,” I said. “Will you give the orders, please?”
“Yes, sir. Mr. Hendricks will stand the eight to twelve watch as usual?”
“Mr. Kincaide will relieve him at midnight, and you will take over at four.”
“Very well, sir.” Correy turned to give the orders, and in a few minutes an orderly array of shelter tents made a single street in front of the fat, dully-gleaming side of the Ertak. Our tents were at the head of this short company street, three of them in a little row.
After the evening meal, cooked over open fires, with the smoke of the very resinous wood we had collected hanging comfortably in the still air, the men gave themselves up to boisterous, noisy games, which, I confess, I should have liked very much to participate in. They raced and tumbled around the two big fires like schoolboys on a lark. Only those who have spent most of their days in the metal belly of a space ship know the sheer joy of utter physical freedom.
Correy, Kincaide and I sat before our tents and watched them, chatting about this and that--I have long since forgotten what. But I shall never forget what occurred just before the watch changed that night.
Nor will any man of the Ertak’s crew.
It was just a few minutes before midnight. The men had quieted down and were preparing to turn in. I had given orders that this first night they could suit themselves about retiring; a good officer, and I tried to be one, is never afraid to give good men a little rein, now and then.
The fires had died down to great heaps of red coals, filmed with ashes, and, aside from the brilliant galaxy of stars overhead, there was no light from above. Either this world had no moons, not even a single moon, like my native Earth, or it had not yet arisen.
Kincaide rose lazily, stretched himself, and glanced at his watch.
“Seven till twelve, sir,” he said. “I believe I’ll run along and relieve--”
He never finished that sentence. From somewhere there came a rushing sound, and a damp, stringy net, a living, horrible, something, descended upon us out of the night.
In an instant, what had been an orderly encampment became a bedlam. I tried to fight against the stringy, animated, nearly intangible mass, or masses, that held me, but my arms, my legs, my whole body, was bound as with strings and loops of elastic bands.
Strange whispering sounds filled the air, audible above the shouting of the men. The net about me grew tighter; I felt myself being lifted from the ground. Others were being treated the same way; one of the Ertak’s crew shot straight up, not a dozen feet away, writhing and squirming. Then, at an elevation of perhaps twice my height, he was hurried away.
Hendrick’s voice called out my name from the Ertak’s exit, and I shouted a warning:
“Hendrick! Go back! Close the emergency--” Then a gluey mass cut across my mouth, and, as though carried on huge soft springs, I was hurried away, with the sibilant, whispering sounds louder and closer than ever. With me, as nearly as I could judge, went every man who had not been on duty in the ship.
I ceased struggling, and immediately the rubbery network about me loosened. It seemed to me that the whisperings about me were suddenly approving. We were in the grip, then, of some sort of intelligent beings, ghost-like and invisible though they were.
After a time, during which we were all, in a ragged group, being borne swiftly towards the mountains, all at a common level from the ground, I managed to turn my head so that I could see, against the star-lit sky, something of the nature of the things that had made us captive.
As is not infrequently the case, in trying to describe things of an utterly different world, I find myself at a loss for words. I think of jellyfish, such as inhabit the seas of most of the inhabited planets, and yet this is not a good description.
These creatures were pale, and almost completely transparent. What their forms might be, I could not even guess. I could make out writhing, tentacle-like arms, and wrinkled, flabby excrudescences and that was all. That these creatures were huge, was evident from the fact that they, apparently walking, from the irregular, undulating motion, held us easily ten or a dozen feet from the ground.
With the release of the pressure about my body I was able to talk again, and I called out to Correy, who was fighting his way along, muttering, angrily, just ahead of me.
“Correy! No use fighting them. Save your strength, man!”
“Then? What are they, in God’s name? What spawn of hell--”
“The Commander is right, Correy,” interrupted Kincaide, who was not far from my first officer. “Let’s get our breaths and try to figure out what’s happened. I’m winded!” His voice gave plentiful evidence of the struggle he had put up.
“I want to know where I’m going, and why!” growled Correy, ceasing his struggling, nevertheless. “What have us? Are they fish or flesh or fowl?”
“I think we shall know before very long, Correy,” I replied. “Look ahead!”
The bearers of the men in the fore part of the group had apparently stopped before a shadowy wall, like the face of a cliff. Rapidly, the rest of us were brought up, until we were in a compact group, some in sitting positions, some upside down, the majority reclining on back or side. The whispering sound now was intense and excited, as though our strange bearers awaited some momentous happening.
I took advantage of the opportunity to speak very briefly to my companions.
“Men, I’ll admit frankly that I don’t know what we’re up against,” I said. “But I do know this: we’ll come out on top of the heap. Conserve your strength, keep your eyes open, and be prepared to obey, instantly, any orders that may be issued: I know that last remark is not needed. If any of you should see or learn something of interest or value, report at once to Mr. Correy, Mr. Kincaide or my--”
A simultaneous, involuntary exclamation from the men interrupted me, and it was not surprising that this was so, for the wall before us had suddenly opened, and there was a great burst of yellow light in our faces. A strong odor, like the faint scent we had first noticed in the air, but infinitely more powerful, struck our nostrils, but I was not conscious of the fact for several seconds. My whole attention, my every startled thought, was focused upon the group of strange beings, silhouetted against the glowing light, that stood in the opening.
Imagine, if you can, a huge globe, perhaps eight feet in diameter, flattened slightly at the bottom, and supported on six short, huge stumps, like the feet of an elephant, and topped by an excrudescence like a rounded coning tower, merging into the globular body. From points slightly below this excrudescence, visualize six long, limp tentacles, so long that they drop from the equators of these animated spheres, and trail on the ground. Now you have some conception of the beings that stood before us.
A sharp, sibilant whispering came from one of these figures, to be answered in an eager chorus from our bearers. There was a reply like a command, and the group in the doorway marched forward. One by one these visible tentacles wrapped themselves around a member of the Ertak’s crew, each one of the globular creatures bearing one of us.
I heard a disappointed whisper go up from the outer darkness where, but a moment before, we had been. Then there was a grating sound, and a thud as the stone doorway was rolled back into place.
The entrance was sealed. We were prisoners indeed!
“All right, now what?” gritted Correy. “God! If I ever get a hand loose!”
Swiftly, each of us held above the head-like excrudescence atop the globular body of the thing that held us, we were carried down a widening rocky corridor, towards the source of the yellow light that beat about us.
The passage led to a great cavern, irregular in shape, and apparently possessed of numerous other outlets which converged here.
I am not certain as to the size of the cavern, save that it was great, and that the roof was so high in most sections that it was lost in shadow.
The great cavern was nearly filled with creatures similar to those which were bearing us, and they fell back in orderly passage to permit our conductors to pass.
I could see, now, that the hump atop each rounded body was a travesty of a head, hairless, and without a neck. Their features were particularly hideous, and I shall pass over a description as rapidly as possible.
The eyes were round, and apparently lidless; a pale drab or bluff in color. Instead of a nose, as, we understand the term, they had a convoluted rosette in the center of the face, not unlike the olfactory organ of a bat. Their ears were placed as are ours, but were of thin, pale parchment, and hugged the side of the head tightly. Instead of a mouth, there was a slightly depressed oval of fluttering skin near the point where the head melted into the rounded body: the rapid fluttering or vibration of this skin produced the whispering sound I have already remarked.
The cavern, as I have said, was flooded with yellow light, which came from a great column of fire near the center of the clear space. I had no opportunity to inspect the exact arrangements but from what I did see, I judged that this flame was fed by some sort of highly inflammable substance, not unlike crude oil, except that it burned clearly and without smoke. This substance was conducted to the font from which the flame leaped by means of a large pipe of hollow reed or wood.
At the far end of the cavern a procession entered from one of the passages--nine figures similar to those which bore us, save that by the greater darkness of their skin, and the wrinkles upon both face and body, I judged these to be older than the rest. From the respect with which they were treated, and the dignity of their movements, I gathered that these were persons of authority, a surmise which quickly verified itself.
These nine elders arranged themselves, standing, in the form of a semicircle, the center creature standing a pace or two in front of the others. At a whispered command, we were all dumped unceremoniously on the floor of the cavern before this august council of nine.
Nine pairs of fish-like, unblinking eyes inspected us, whether with enmity or otherwise; I could not determine. One of the nine spoke briefly to one of our conductors, and received an even more brief reply.
I felt the gaze of the creature in the center fix on me. I had taken my proper position in front of my men; he apparently recognized me as the leader of the group.