The Planetoid of Peril

by Paul Ernst

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Undaunted by crazy tales of an indestructible presence on Asteroid Z-40, Harley 2Q14N20 sets out alone to face and master it.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Harley 2Q14N20 stopped for a moment outside the great dome of the Celestial Developments Company. Moodily he stared at their asteroid development chart. It showed, as was to be expected, the pick of the latest asteroid subdivision projects: the Celestial Developments Company, established far back in 2045, would handle none but the very best. Small chance of his finding anything here!

However, as he gazed at the chart, hope came suddenly to his face, and his heart beat high under his sapphire blue tunic. There was an asteroid left for sale there--one blank space among the myriad, pink-lettered Sold symbols. Could it be that here was the chance he had been hunting so desperately?

He bent closer, to read the description of the sphere, and the hope faded gradually from his countenance. According to its orbit and location, and the spectroscopic table of its mineral resources, it was a choice planetoid indeed. Of course such a rich little sphere, listed for sale by the luxurious Celestial Developments Company, would cost far more than he could ever rake together to pay for an asteroid.

Shaking his head, he adjusted his gravity regulator to give him about a pound and a half of weight, and started to float on. Then, his lips twisting at his own absurd hopefulness, he stopped again; and after another moment of indecision turned into the archway that led to the concern’s great main office. After all, it wouldn’t hurt to inquire the price, even though he knew in advance it would be beyond his humble means.

A youngster in the pale green of the one-bar neophyte in business promptly glided toward him.

“Something for you to-day, sir?” he asked politely.

“Yes,” said Harley. “I’m looking around for a planetoid; want to get a place of my own out a way from Earth. Something, you understand, that may turn out to be a profitable investment as well as furnishing an exclusive home-site. I see on your chart that you have a sphere left for sale, in the Red Belt, so I came in to ask about it.”

“Ah, you mean asteroid Z-40,” said the youngster, gazing with envious respect at the ten-bar insignia, with the crossed Sco drills, that proclaimed Harley to be a mining engineer of the highest rank. “Yes, that is still for sale. A splendid sphere, sir; and listed at a remarkably low figure. Half a million dollars.”

“Half a million dollars!” exclaimed Harley. It was an incredibly small sum: scarcely the yearly salary of an unskilled laborer. “Are you sure that’s right?”

“Yes, that’s the correct figure. Down payment of a third, and the remaining two thirds to be paid out of the exploitation profits--”

Here the conversation was interrupted by an elderly, grey-haired man with the six-bar dollar-mark insignia of a business executive on his purple tunic. He had been standing nearby, and at the mention of asteroid Z-40 had looked up alertly. He glided to the two with a frown on his forehead, and spoke a few curt words to the neophyte, who slunk away.

“Sorry, sir,” he said to Harley. “Z-40 isn’t for sale.”

“But your young man just told me that it was,” replied Hartley, loath to give up what had begun to look like an almost unbelievable bargain.

“He was mistaken. It’s not on the market. It isn’t habitable, you see.”

“What’s wrong--hasn’t it an atmosphere?”

“Oh, yes. One that is exceptionally rich in oxygen, as is true of all the spheres we handle. With a late model oxygen concentrator, one would have no trouble at all existing there.”

“Is its speed of revolution too great?”

“Not at all. The days are nearly three hours long: annoying till you get used to it, but nothing like the inferior asteroids of the Mars Company where days and nights are less than ten minutes in duration.”

“Well, is it barren, then? No minerals of value? No vegetation?”

“The spectroscope shows plenty of metals, including heavy radium deposits. The vegetation is as luxuriant as that of semi-tropic Earth.”

“Then why in the name of Betelguese,” said Harley, exasperated, “won’t you sell the place to me? It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for, and what I’d despaired of finding at my price.”

“I’m forbidden to tell why it isn’t for sale,” said the executive, starting to float off. “It might hurt our business, reputation if the truth about that bit of our celestial properties became widely known--Oh, disintegrate it all! Why wasn’t the thing erased from the chart weeks ago!”

“Wait a minute.” Harley caught his arm and detained him. “You’ve gone too far to back out now. I’m too eager to find some such place as your Z-40 to be thrown off the subject like a child. Why isn’t it for sale?”

The man tightened his lips as though to refuse to answer, then shrugged.

“I’ll tell you,” he said at last. “But I beg of you to keep it confidential. If some of our investors on neighboring asteroids ever found out about the peril adjoining them on Z-40, they’d probably insist on having their money back.”

He led the way to a more secluded spot under the big dome, and spoke in a low tone, with many a glance over his shoulder to see if anyone were within earshot.

“Z-40 is an exceptionally fine bit of property. It is commodious; about twenty miles in diameter. Its internal heat is such that it has a delightful climate in spite of the extreme rarity of atmosphere common to even the best of asteroids. It has a small lake; in fact it has about everything a man could want. Yet, as I said, it is uninhabitable.”

His voice sank still lower.

“You see, sir, there’s already a tenant on that sphere, a tenant that was in possession long before the Celestial Developments Company was organized. And it’s a tenant that can’t be bought off or reasoned with. It’s some sort of beast, powerful, ferocious, that makes it certain death for a man to try to land there.”

“A beast?” echoed Harley. “What kind of a beast?”

“We don’t know. In fact we hardly even know what it looks like. But from what little has been seen of it, it’s clear that it is like no other specimen known to universal science. It’s something enormous, some freak of animal creation that seems invulnerable to man’s smaller weapons. And that is why we can’t offer the place for sale. It would be suicide for anyone to try to make a home there.”

Has anyone ever tried it?” asked Harley. “Any competent adventurer, I mean?”

“Yes. Twice we sold Z-40 before we realized that there was something terribly wrong with it. Both buyers were hardy, intrepid men. The first was never heard of after thirty-six hours on the asteroid. The second man managed to escape in his Blinco Dart, and came back to Earth to tell of a vast creature that had attacked him during one of the three-hour nights. His hair was white from the sight of it, and he’s still in a sanitarium, slowly recovering from the nervous shock.”

Harley frowned thoughtfully. “If this thing is more than a match for one man, why don’t you send an armed band with heavy atomic guns and clear the asteroid by main force?”

“My dear sir, don’t you suppose we’ve tried that? Twice we sent expensive expeditions to Z-40 to blow the animal off the face of the sphere, but neither expedition was able to find the thing, whatever it is. Possibly it has intelligence enough to hide if faced by overwhelming force. When the second expedition failed, we gave it up. Poor business to go further. Already, Z-40 has cost us more than we could clear from the sale of half a dozen planetoids.”

For a long time Harley was silent. The Company was a hard headed, cold blooded concern. Anything that kept them from selling an asteroid must be terrible indeed.

His jaw set in a hard line. “You’ve been honest with me,” he said at length. “I appreciate it. Just the same--I still want to buy Z-40. Maybe I can oust the present tenant. I’m pretty good with a ray-pistol.”

“It would be poor policy for us to sell the asteroid. We don’t want to become known as a firm that trades in globes on which it is fatal to land.”

“Surely my fate is none of your worry?” urged Harley.

“The asteroid,” began the executive with an air of finality, “is not for--”

“Man, it’s got to be!” cried Harley. Then, with a perceptible effort he composed himself. “There’s a reason. The reason is a girl. I’m a poor man, and she’s heiress to fabulous--Well, frankly, she’s the daughter of 3W28W12 himself!” The executive started at mention of that universally known number. “I don’t want to be known as a fortune hunter; and my best bet is to find a potentially rich asteroid, cheap, and develop it--incidentally getting an exclusive estate for my bride and myself far out in space, away from the smoke and bustle of urban Earth. Z-40, save for the menace you say now has possession of it, seems to be just what I want. If I can clear it, it means the fulfillment of all my dreams. With that in view, do you think I’d hesitate to risk my neck?”

“No,” said the executive slowly, looking at the younger man’s powerful shoulders and square-set chin and resolute eyes. “I don’t think you would. Well, so be it. I’d greatly prefer not to sell you Z-40. But if you want to sign an agreement that we’re released of all blame or responsibility in case of your death, you can buy it.”

“I’ll sign any agreement you please,” snapped Harley. “Here is a down payment of a hundred and seventy thousand dollars. My name is Harley; sign 2Q14N20; unmarried--though I hope to change that soon, if I live--occupation, mining engineer, ten-bar degree; age, thirty-four. Now draw me up a deed for Z-40, and see that I’m given a stellar call number on the switchboard of the Radivision Corporation. I’ll drop around there later and get a receiving unit. Good day.” And, adjusting his gravity regulator to lighten his weight to less than a pound, he catapulted out the archway.

Behind him a prosaic business executive snatched a moment from a busy day to indulge in a sentimental flight of fancy. He had read once of curious old-time beings called knights, who had undertaken to fight and slay fire-eating things called dragons for the sake of an almost outmoded emotion referred to as love. It occurred to him that this brusque man of action might be compared to just such a being. He was undertaking to slay a dragon and win a castle for the daughter of 3W28W12--

The romantic thought was abruptly broken up by the numeral. It jarred so, somehow, that modern use of numbers instead of names, when thinking of sentimental passages of long ago. “The rose is fair; but in all the world there is no rose as fair as thou, my princess 3W28W12...” No, it wouldn’t do.

Cursing himself for a soft-headed fool, he went to deliver a stinging rebuke to somebody for not having blocked Z-40 off the asteroid chart weeks before.

“Harley 2Q14N20,” recited the control assistant at Landon Field. “Destination, asteroid Z-40. Red Belt, arc 31.3470. Sights corrected, flight period twelve minutes, forty-eight seconds past nine o’clock. All set, sir?”

Harley nodded. He stepped inside the double shell of his new Blinco Dart--that small but excellent quantity-production craft that had entirely replaced the cumbersome space ships of a decade ago--and screwed down the man-hole lid. Then, with his hand on the gravity bar, he gazed out the rear panel, ready to throw the lever at the control assistant’s signal.

The move was unthinkingly, mechanically made. Too many times had he gone through this process of being aimed by astronomical calculation, and launched into the heavens, to be much stirred by the wonder of it. The journey to Z-40 in the Dart was no more disquieting than, a century and a half ago, before the United States had fused together into one vast city, a journey from Chicago to Florida would have been in one of the inefficient gasoline-driven vehicles of that day.

All his thoughts were on his destination, and on a wonder as to what could be the nature of the thing that dwelt there.

He had just come from the sanitarium where the man who’d bought Z-40 before him was recovering from nervous exhaustion. He’d gone there to try to get first hand information about the creature the executive at the Celestial Developments Company had talked so vaguely of. And the tale the convalescent had told him of the thing on the asteroid was as fantastic as it was sketchy.

A tremendous, weirdly manlike creature looming in the dim night--a thing that seemed a part of the planetoid itself, fashioned from the very dirt and rock from which it had risen--a thing immune to the ray-pistol, that latest and deadliest of man-made small-arms--a thing that moved like a walking mountain and stared with terrible, stony eyes at its prey! That was what the fellow said he had faintly made out in the darkness before his nerves had finally given way.

He had impressed Harley as being a capable kind of a person, too; not at all the sort to distort facts, nor to see imaginary figures in the night.

There was that matter of the stone splinter, however, which certainly argued that the wan, prematurely white-haired fellow was a little unbalanced, and hence not to be believed too implicitly. He’d handed it to Harley, and gravely declared it to be a bit of the monster’s flesh.

“Why, it’s only a piece of rock!” Harley had exclaimed before he could check himself.

“Did you ever see rock like it before?”

Turning it over in his hands, Harley had been forced to admit that he never had. It was of the texture and roughness of granite, but more heavily shot with quartz, or tridymite than any other granite he’d ever seen. It had a dull opalescent sheen, too. But it was rock, all right.

“It’s a piece of the thing’s hide,” the man had told him. “It flaked off when it tried to pry open the man-hole cover of ray Dart. A moment after that I got Radivision arc directions from London Field, aimed my sights, and shot for Earth. It was a miracle I escaped.”

“But surely your ray-pistol--” Harley had begun, preserving a discreet silence about the man’s delusion concerning the stone splinter.

“I tell you it was useless as a toy! Never before have I seen any form of life that could stand up against a ray-gun. But this thing did!”

This was another statement Harley had accepted with a good deal of reservation. He had felt sure the weapon the man had used had a leak in the power chamber, or was in need of recharging, or something of the kind. For it had been conclusively proved that all organic matter withered and burned away under the impact of the Randchron ray.

Nevertheless, discounting heavily the convalescent’s wild story, only a fool would have clung to a conviction that the menace on Z-40 was a trivial one. There was something on that asteroid, something larger and more deadly than Harley had ever heard of before in all his planetary wanderings.

He squared his shoulders. Whatever it was, he was about to face it, man against animal. He was reasonably certain his ray-gun would down anything on two legs or ten. If it didn’t--well, there was nothing else that could; and he’d certainly provide a meal for the creature, assuming it ate human flesh...

A mechanic tapped against the rear view panel to recall his wandering attention. The control assistant held up his hands, fingers outspread, to indicate that there were ten seconds left.

Harley’s hand went to his throat, where was hung a locket--a lovely but useless trinket of the kind once much worn by Earth women--and his fingers tightened tenderly on it. It had belonged to Beatrice 3W28W12’s great-great-grandmother, and Beatrice had given it to him as a token.

“With luck, my dear,” he whispered aloud. “With luck...”

There was a slight vibration. He threw the gravity bar over to the first notch. Earth dropped, plummet-like, away from him. He pushed the bar to the limit leg; and, at a rate of hundreds of miles a second, was repelled from Earth toward Z-40, and the thing that skulked there.

With a scarcely perceptible jar, he landed on the small sphere that, he hoped, was to be his future home. Before opening his man-hole lid, he went from panel to panel of the Dart and cautiously reconnoitered. He had elected to land beside the little lake that was set like a three hundred-acre gem on the surface of Z-40, and it was more than possible that the enemy had its den nearby.

However, a careful survey of the curved landscape in all directions failed to reveal a glimpse of anything remotely threatening. He donned his oxygen concentrator--in appearance a simple tube of a thing, projecting about six inches above his forehead, and set in a light metal band that encircled his head. Adjusting his gravity regulator so he wouldn’t inadvertently walk clear off into empty space--he calculated his weight would be less than a twentieth of an ounce here--he stepped out of the Dart and gazed around at the little world.

Before him was the tiny lake, of an emerald green hue in the flashing sunlight. Around its shores, and covering the adjacent, softly rolling countryside as far as eye could reach, was a thick growth of carmine-tinted vegetation: squat, enormous-leaved bushes; low, sturdy trees, webbed together by innumerable vines. To left and right, miniature mountains reared ragged crests over the abbreviated horizon, making the spot he was in a peaceful, lovely valley.

He sighed. There was everything here a man could wish for--provided he could win it! Loosening his ray-pistol in its holster, he started to walk slowly around the lake to choose a site for the house he intended to build. On the opposite shore he found a place that looked suitable.

A few yards back from the water’s edge, curling in a thick crescent like a giant sleeping on its side, was a precipitous outcropping of rock; curious stuff, rather like granite, that gleamed with dull opalescence in the brilliant sunlight. With that as a sort of natural buttress behind the house, and with the beautiful lake as his front dooryard, he’d have a location that any man might envy.

He returned to his Dart, hopped back across the lake in it, and unloaded his Sco drill[1]. With this he planned to sink a shaft that would serve in the future as the cellar for his villa, and in the present as an entrenchment against danger.

But now the swift night of Z-40 was almost upon him. The low slant of the descending sun warned him that he had less than ten minutes of light left, until the next three-hour day should break over the eastern rim. He placed the drums and the flexible hose of the Sco drill so that he could begin operations with it as soon as the dawn broke, and started to walk toward the precipitous outcropping of quartziferous stone immediately behind the home-site he had picked. He would climb to the top of this for a short look around, and then return to the Dart--in which double-hulled, metal fortress he thought he would be safe from anything.

He had almost reached the rock outcropping when the peculiarities of its outline struck him anew. He’d already observed that the craggy mound rather resembled a sleeping, formless giant. The closer he got to it the more the resemblance was heightened and the greater grew his perplexity.

It sprang straight up from the carmine underbrush, like a separate heap of stone cast there by some mighty hand. One end of it tapered down in a thick ridge; and this ridge had a deep, horizontal cleft running along it which made it appear as though it were divided into two leglike members. In the center the mound swelled to resemble a paunchy trunk with sagging shoulders. This was topped by a huge, nearly round ball that looked for all the world like a head. There were even rudimentary features. It was grotesque--one of those freak sculptures of nature, Harley reflected, that made it seem as though the Old Girl had a mind and artistic talent of her own.

He scrambled through the brush till he reached that part of the long mound that looked like a head. There, as the sun began to stream the red lines of its descent over the sky, he prepared to ascend for his view of the surrounding landscape.

He’d got within twenty feet of the irregular ball, and had adjusted his gravity regulator to enable him to leap to its top, when he stopped as abruptly as though he had been suddenly paralyzed. Over the two deep pits that resembled nostrils in the grotesque mask of a face he thought he had observed a quiver. The illusion had occurred in just the proper place for an eyelid. It was startling, to say the least.

“I’m getting imaginative,” said Harley. He spoke aloud as a man tends to do when he is alone and uneasy. “I’d better get a tighter grip on my nerves, or--good God!”

Coincident with the sound of his voice in the thin, quiet air, the huge stumps that looked like legs stirred slightly. A tremor ran through the entire mass of rock. And directly in front of Harley, less than twenty feet from where he stood, a sort of half-moon-shaped curtain of rock slid slowly up to reveal an enormous, staring eye.

Frozen with a terror such as he had never felt before in a life filled with adventure, scarce breathing, Harley glared at the monstrous spectacle transpiring before him. A hill was coming to life, A granite cliff was growing animate. It was impossible, but it was happening.

The half-moon curtains of rock that so eerily resembled eyelids, blinked heavily. He could hear a faint rasping like the rustle of sandpaper, as they did so. One of the great leg stumps moved distinctly, independent of the other one. Three columnar masses of rock--arms, or tentacles, with a dozen hinging joints in each--slowly moved away from the parent mass near the base of the head, and extended toward the Earth man.

Still in his trance, with his heart pounding in his throat till he thought it would burst, Harley watched the further awful developments. The eyelids remained opened, disclosing two great, dull eyes like poorly polished agates, which stared expressionlessly at him. There was a convulsion like a minor earthquake, and the mass shortened and heightened its bulk, raising itself to a sitting posture. The three hinged, irregular arms suddenly extended themselves to the full in a thrust that barely missed him. They were tipped, those arms, with immense claws, like interlocking, rough-hewn stone fingers. They crashed emptily together within a few feet of Harley. Then, and not till then, did the paralysis of horror loose its grip on the human.

He tore his ray-pistol from its holster and pointed it at the incredible body. An angry, blue-green cone of light leaped from the muzzle, and played over the mighty torso. Nothing happened. He squeezed the trigger back to the guard. The blue-green beam increased in intensity, and a crackling noise was audible. Under that awful power the monster should have disappeared, dissolved to a greasy mist. But it didn’t.

The light beam from the ray-gun died away. The power was exhausted. It was only good for about ten seconds of such an emergency, full-force discharge, after which it must be re-charged again. The ten seconds were up. And the gigantic creature against which it had been directed had apparently felt no injury from a beam that would have annihilated ten thousand men.

The now useless ray-pistol slipped from his limp fingers. Stupefied with horror at the futility of the deadly Randchron ray against this terrible adversary, he stood rooted to the spot. Then the thing reached for him again; and his muscles were galvanized to action--to instinctive, stupid, reasonless action.

Screaming incoherently, mad with horror of the stone claws that had clutched at him, he turned and ran. In great leaps he bounded away from the accursed lake and made for the taller trees and thicker vegetation at a distance from the shore. It was the worst thing he could have done. There was a chance that he could have reached his Dart, had he thought of it, and soared aloft out of reach. But he thought of nothing. All he wanted to do, in that abysmal fear that can still make a mindless animal out of a civilized man, was to run and hide--to get away from the fearful monster that had risen up to glare at him with those stony, pitiless eyes, and to reach for him with two-fingered bands like grinding rock vises.

Just as the sun fell below the rim of the asteroid, plunging it into a darkness only faintly relieved by the light of the stars, he crashed into the deeper underbrush. A trailing creeper tripped him in his mad flight. He fell headlong, to lie panting, sobbing for breath, in the thick carpet of blood-colored moss.

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