Peter Wayne took the letter out of the machine, broke the seal, and examined it curiously. It was an official communication from the Interstellar Exploration Service. It read:
FROM: Lieutenant General Martin Scarborough, I.E.S.
TO: Captain Peter Wayne, Preliminary Survey Corps
Report immediately to this office for assignment to I.E.S. _Lord
Nelson_. Full briefing will be held at 2200 hours, 14 April 2103.
By order of the Fleet Commandant.
It was short, brief, and to the point. And it gave no information whatsoever. Peter Wayne shrugged resignedly, put the letter down on his bed, walked over to the phone, and dialed a number.
A moment later, a girl’s face appeared--blonde-haired, with high cheekbones, deep blue-green eyes, and an expression of the lips that intriguingly combined desirability and crisp military bearing.
“Lieutenant James speaking,” she said formally. Then, as Wayne’s image appeared on her screen, she grinned. “Hi, Pete. What’s up?”
“Listen, Sherri,” Wayne said quickly. “I’m going to have to cancel that date we had for tomorrow night. I just got my orders.”
The girl laughed. “I was just going to call you, I got a fac-sheet too. Looks as though we won’t see each other for a while, Pete.”
“What ship are you getting?”
“The Lord Nelson.”
It was Wayne’s turn to laugh. “It looks as though we will be seeing each other. That’s my ship too. We can keep our date in the briefing room.”
Her face brightened. “Good! I’ll see you there, then,” she said. “I’ve got to get my gear packed.”
“Okay,” Wayne said. “Let’s be on time, you know how General Scarborough is.”
She smiled. “Don’t worry, Peter. I’ll be there. So long for now.”
“Bye, Sherri.” He cut the connection, watched the girl’s face melt away into a rainbow-colored diamond of light, and turned away. There were a lot of things to do before he would be ready to leave Earth for an interstellar tour of duty.
He wondered briefly as he started to pack just what was going on. There was usually much more notice on any big jump of this order. Something special was up, he thought, as he dragged his duffle-bag out of the closet.
He was at the briefing room at 2158 on the nose. The Interstellar Exploration Service didn’t much go for tardiness, but they didn’t pay extra if you got there a half-hour early. Captain Peter Wayne made it a point of being at any appointment two minutes early--no more, no less.
The room was starting to fill up, with men and women Wayne knew well, had worked with on other expeditions, had lived with since he’d joined the IES. They looked just as puzzled as he probably did, he saw; they knew they were being called in on something big, and in the IES big meant big.
At precisely 2200, Lieutenant General Scarborough emerged from the inner office, strode briskly up the aisle of the briefing room, and took his customary stance on the platform in front. His face looked stern, and he held his hands clasped behind his back. His royal blue uniform was neat and trim. Over his head, the second hand of the big clock whirled endlessly. In the silence of the briefing room, it seemed to be ticking much too loudly.
The general nodded curtly and said, “Some of you are probably wondering why the order to report here wasn’t more specific. There are two reasons for that. In the first place, we have reason to believe that we have found a substantial deposit of double-nucleus beryllium.”
There was a murmur of sound in the briefing room. Wayne felt his heart starting to pound; D-N beryllium was big. So big that a whole fleet of IES ships did nothing but search the galaxy for it, full time.
“Naturally,” the general continued, “we don’t want any of this information to leak out, just in case it should prove false. The prospect of enough D-N beryllium to make fusion power really cheap could cause a panic if we didn’t handle it properly. The Economics Board has warned us that we’ll have to proceed carefully if there actually is a big deposit on this planet.”
Captain Wayne stared uneasily at Sherri James, who frowned and chewed her lip. To his left, a short, stubby private named Manetti murmured worriedly, “That means trouble. D-N beryllium always means trouble. There’s a catch somewhere.”
General Scarborough, on the platform, said, “There’s a second reason for secrecy. I think it can better be explained by a man who has the evidence first-hand.”
He paused and looked around the room. “Four weeks ago, the Scout Ship Mavis came back from Fomalhaut V.” There was a dead silence in the briefing room.
“Lieutenant Jervis, will you tell the crew exactly what happened on Fomalhaut V?”
Lieutenant Jervis stepped forward and took his place on the platform. He was small and wiry, with a hawk nose and piercingly intense eyes. He cleared his throat and smiled a little sheepishly.
“I’ve told this story so many times that it doesn’t even sound real to me any more. I’ve told it to the Supreme Senate Space Committee, to half the top brass in the IES, and to a Board of Physicians from the Medical Department.
“As well as I can remember it, it goes something like this.”
Laughter rippled through the room.
“We orbited around Fomalhaut V for a Scouting Survey,” Jervis said. “The planet is hot and rocky, but it has a breathable atmosphere. The detectors showed various kinds of metals in the crust, some of them in commercially feasible concentration. But the crust is so mountainous and rocky that there aren’t very many places to land a ship.
“Then we picked up the double-nucleus beryllium deposit on our detectors. Nearby, there was a small, fairly level valley, so we brought the ship down for a closer check. We wanted to make absolutely positive that it was double-nucleus beryllium before we made our report.”
He paused, as if arranging the story he wanted to tell in his mind, and went on. “The D-N beryllium deposit lies at the top of a fairly low mountain about five miles from the valley. We triangulated it first, and then we decided we ought to send up a party to get samples of the ore if it were at all possible.
“I was chosen to go, along with another member of the crew, a man named Lee Bellows. We left the ship at about five in the morning, and spent most of the day climbing up to the spot where we had detected the beryllium. We couldn’t get a sample; the main deposit is located several feet beneath the surface of the mountaintop, and the mountain is too rough and rocky to climb without special equipment. We got less than halfway before we had to stop.”
Wayne felt Sherri nudge him, and turned to nod. He knew what she was thinking. This was where he came in; it was a job that called for a specialist, a trained mountaineer--such as Captain Peter Wayne. He frowned and turned his attention back to the man on the platform.
“We made all the readings we could,” Jervis continued. “Then we headed back to our temporary base.”
His face looked troubled. “When we got back, every man at the base was dead.”
Silence in the room. Complete, utter, deafening silence.
“There were only nine of us in the ship,” Jervis said. He was obviously still greatly affected by whatever had taken place on Fomalhaut V. “With seven of us dead, that left only Bellows and myself. We couldn’t find out what had killed them. They were lying scattered over the valley floor for several yards around the ship. They looked as though they had suddenly dropped dead at whatever they were doing.”
Peter Wayne made use of his extra few inches of height to glance around the briefing room. He saw row on row of tense faces--faces that reflected the same emotions he was feeling. Space exploration was something still new and mostly unknown, and even the experienced men of IES still knew fear occasionally. The galaxy was a big place; unknown terrors lurked on planets unimaginably distant. Every now and then, something like this would come up--something to give you pause, before you ventured into space again.
“We couldn’t find out what had killed them,” Jervis said again. “They were lying scattered every which way, with no clues at all.” The small man’s fingers were trembling from relived fright. “Bellows and I were pretty scared, I’ll have to admit. We couldn’t find a sign of what had killed the men--they’d just--just died.”
There was a quiver in his voice. It was obvious he could never take the story lightly, no matter how many times he had to tell it.
Wayne heard Private Manetti mutter, “There’s always a price for D-N beryllium.”
“The Scout Ship hadn’t been molested,” Jervis went on. “I went inside and checked it over. It was untouched, undisturbed in every way. I checked the control panel, the cabins, everything. All unbothered. The ship was empty and dead. And--outside--
“When I came out, Bellows was dead too.” He took a deep breath. “I’m afraid I panicked then. I locked myself inside the ship, set the autocontrols, and headed back to Earth at top velocity. I set the ship in an orbit around the moon and notified headquarters. I was quarantined immediately, of course, to make sure I wasn’t carrying anything. The medics checked me over carefully. I wasn’t and am not now carrying any virus or bacteria unknown to Terrestrial medicine.
“Since I’m the only one who knows exactly where this valley is, the general has asked me to guide the Lord Nelson to the exact spot. Actually, it could be found eventually with the D-N beryllium as a guide. But the Mavis was in orbit around Fomalhaut V for two weeks before we found the D-N beryllium deposit, and the Service feels that we shouldn’t waste any time.”
The lieutenant sat down, and General Scarborough resumed his place on the platform.
“That’s the situation,” Scarborough said bluntly. “You know the setup, now--and I think some of you see how your specialities are going to fit into the operation. As Lieutenant Jervis pointed out, we don’t know what killed the crew of the Mavis; therefore, we are going to take every possible precaution. As far as we know, there are no inimical life forms on Fomalhaut V--but it’s possible that there are things we don’t know about, such as airborne viruses that kill in a very short time. If so, then Lieutenant Jervis is immune to the virus and is not a transmitter or carrier of it.
“However, to guard against such a possibility, no one will leave the Lord Nelson, once it has landed, without wearing a spacesuit. The air is breathable, but we’re taking no chances. Also, no one will go out alone; scouting parties will always be in pairs, with wide open communication with the ship. And at no time will more than ten percent of the ship’s company be outside at any one time.”
Wayne made a rough mental computation. The Lord Nelson _holds sixty. That means no more than six out at any single time. They really must be worried._
“Aside from those orders, which were decided on by the Service Command, you’ll be under the direct orders of Colonel Nels Petersen. Colonel Petersen.”
Petersen was a tall, hard-faced man with a touch of gray at his temples. He stepped forward and stared intently at the assembled crew.
“Our job is to make the preliminary preparations for getting D-N beryllium out of the crust of Fomalhaut V. We’re supposed to stay alive while we do it. Therefore, our secondary job is to find out what it was that killed the scouting expedition of the Mavis. There are sixty of us going aboard the Lord Nelson tomorrow, and I’d like to have sixty aboard when we come back. Got that?”
He leaned forward, stretched upward on his toes, and smiled mechanically. “Fine. Now, you all know your jobs, but we’re going to have to work together as a team. We’re going to have to correlate our work so that we’ll know what we’re doing. So don’t think we won’t have anything to do during the two weeks it will take us to get to Fomalhaut V. We’re going to work it as though it were a shakedown cruise. If anyone doesn’t work out, he’ll be replaced, even if we have to turn around and come back to Earth. On a planet which has wiped out a whole scouting expedition, we can’t afford to have any slip-ups. And that means we can’t afford to have anyone aboard who doesn’t know what he’s doing or doesn’t care. Is that clear?”
“All right,” said the colonel. “Let’s go out and get acquainted with the Lord Nelson.”
The briefing session broke up well past midnight, and the group that shortly would become the crew of the Lord Nelson filtered out of the building and into the cool spring air. Each man had a fairly good idea of his job and each man knew the dangers involved. No one had backed out.
“What d’ye think of it, Pete?” Sherri James asked, as they left together. “Sounds pretty mean.”
“I wish we knew what the answers were beforehand,” Wayne said. He glanced down at Sherri. The moon was full, and its rays glinted brightly off her golden hair. “It’s a risky deal, as Petersen said. Nine men go out, and eight die--of what? Just dead, that’s all.”
“It’s the way the game goes,” Sherri said. “You knew that when you joined the corps.” They turned down the main road of the IES compound and headed for the snack bar.
Wayne nodded. “I know, kid. It’s a job, and it has to be done. But nobody likes to walk into an empty planet like that knowing that eight of the last nine guys who did didn’t come back.”
He put his arm around her and they entered the snack bar that way. Most of the other crew-members were there already; Wayne sensed the heightening tenseness on their faces.
“Two nuclear fizzes,” he said to the pfc at the bar. “With all the trimmings.”
“What’s the matter, Captain?” said a balding, potbellied major a few stools down, who was nursing a beer. “How come the soft drinks tonight, Wayne?”
Peter grinned. “I’m in training, Major Osborne. Gotta kill the evil green horde from Rigel Seven, and I don’t dare drink anything stronger than sarsaparilla.”
“How about the amazon, then?” Osborne said, gesturing at Sherri. “Her too?”
“Me too,” Sherri said.
Osborne stared at his beer. “You two must be in Scarborough’s new project, then.” He squinted at Peter, who nodded almost imperceptibly.
“You’ll need luck,” Osborne said.
“No we won’t,” Wayne said. “Not luck. We’ll need more than just luck to pull us through.”
The nuclear fizzes arrived. He began to sip it quietly. A few more members of the crew entered the snack bar. Their faces were drawn tensely.
He guzzled the drink and looked up at Sherri, who was sucking down the last of the soda. “Let’s get going, Lieutenant James. The noncoms are coming, and we don’t want them to make nasty remarks about us.”
The Lord Nelson blasted off the next evening, after a frenzied day of hurried preparations. The crew of sixty filed solemnly aboard, Colonel Petersen last, and the great hatch swung closed.
There was the usual routine loudspeaker-business while everyone quickly and efficiently strapped into his acceleration cradle, and then the ship leaped skyward. It climbed rapidly, broke free of Earth’s grasp, and, out past the moon, abruptly winked out of normal space into overdrive. It would spend the next two weeks in hyperspace, short-cutting across the galaxy to Fomalhaut V.
It was a busy two weeks for everyone involved. Captain Peter Wayne, as a central part of the team, spent much of his time planning his attack. His job would be the actual climbing of the mountain where the double-nucleus beryllium was located. It wasn’t going to be an easy job; the terrain was rough, the wind, according to Jervis, whipped ragingly through the hills, and the jagged peaks thrust into the air like the teeth of some mythical dragon.
Study of the three-dimensional aerial photographs taken from the Mavis showed that the best route was probably up through one end of the valley, through a narrow pass that led around the mountain, and up the west slope, which appeared to offer better handholds and was less perpendicular than the other sides of the mountain.
This time, the expedition would have the equipment to make the climb. There were ropes, picks, and crampons, and sets of metamagnetic boots and grapples. With metamagnetic boots, Wayne thought, they’d be able to walk up the side of the mountain almost as easily as if it were flat.
He studied the thick, heavy soles of the boots for a moment, then set to work polishing. Wayne liked to keep his boots mirror-bright; it wasn’t required, but it was a habit of his nonetheless.
He set to work vigorously. Everyone aboard the ship was working that way. Sherri James, who was in charge of the Correlation Section, had noticed the same thing the day before. Her job was to co-ordinate all the information from various members of the expedition, run them through the computers, and record them. She had been busy since blastoff, testing the computers, checking and rechecking them, being overly efficient.
“I know why we’re doing it,” she said. “It keeps our mind off the end of the trip. When we spend the whole day working out complicated circuits for the computers, or polishing mountain boots, or cleaning the jet tubes, it’s just so we don’t have to think about Fomalhaut V. It helps to concentrate on details.”
Wayne nodded and said nothing. Sherri was right. There was one thought in everyone’s mind: what was the deadly secret of the valley?
There was another thought, after that:
Will we find it out in time?
After two weeks of flight through the vast blackness of interstellar space, the Lord Nelson came out of overdrive and set itself in an orbit around Fomalhaut V. Lieutenant Jervis, the sole survivor of the ill-fated Mavis, located the small valley between the giant crags that covered the planet, and the huge spherical bulk of the spaceship settled gently to the floor of the valley.
They were gathered in the central room of the ship ten minutes after the all-clear rang through the corridors, informing everyone that the landing had been safely accomplished. From the portholes they could see the white bones of the Mavis’s crew lying on the reddish sand of the valley bottom.
“There they are,” Jervis said quietly. “Just bones. Those were my shipmates.”
Wayne saw Sherri repress a shudder. Little heaps of bones lay here and there on the sand, shining brightly in the hot sun. That was the crew of the Mavis--or what was left of them.
Colonel Petersen entered the room and confronted the crew. “We’re here,” he said. “You know the schedule from now on. No one’s to leave the ship until we’ve made a check outside, and after that--assuming it’s OK to go out--no more than six are to leave the ship at any one time.”
He pointed to a row of metal magnetic tabs clinging to the wall nearest the corridor that led to the airlock. “When you go out, take one of those tabs and touch it on your suit. There are exactly six tabs. If none are there, don’t go out. It’s as simple as that.”
Four men in spacesuits entered the room, followed by two others. The leader of the group saluted. “We’re ready, sir,” he said.
“Go out and get a look at the bodies,” the colonel told the men, who were Medical Corpsmen. “You know the procedure. Air and sand samples too, of course.”
The leader saluted again, turned, and left. Wayne watched the six spacesuited figures step one at a time to the wall, withdraw one of the metal tabs, and affix it to the outer skin of his suit. Then they went outside.
Captain Wayne and Sherri James stood by one of the portholes and watched the six medics as they bent over the corpses outside. “I don’t get it, I just don’t understand,” Wayne said quietly.
“What don’t you get?” Sherri asked.
“Those skeletons. Those men have only been dead for two months, and they’ve been reduced to nothing but bones already. Even the fabric of their clothing is gone. Why? There must be something here that causes human flesh to deteriorate much faster than normal.”
“It does look pretty gruesome,” Sherri agreed. “I’m glad we’ve been ordered to keep our spacesuits on. I wouldn’t want to be exposed to anything that might be out there.”
“I wonder--” Wayne muttered.
“What? What’s the matter?”
Wayne pointed to one figure lying on the sand. “See that? What’s that over his head?”
“Why--it’s a space helmet!”
“Yeah,” said Wayne. “The question is: was he wearing just the helmet, or the whole suit? If he was wearing the whole suit, we’re not going to be as well protected as we thought, even with our fancy suits.”
Fifteen minutes passed slowly before the medics returned, and five minutes more before they had passed through the decontamination chambers and were allowed into the ship proper. A ring of tense faces surrounded them as they made their report.
The leader, a tall, bespectacled doctor named Stevelman, was the spokesman. He shrugged when Colonel Petersen put forth the question whose answer everyone waited for.
“I don’t know,” the medic replied. “I don’t know what killed them. There’s dry bones out there, but no sign of anything that might have done it. It’s pretty hard to make a quick diagnosis on a skeleton, Colonel.”
“What about the one skeleton with the bubble helmet?” Peter Wayne asked. “Did you see any sign of a full suit on him?”
Stevelman shook his head. “Not a sign, sir.”
Colonel Petersen turned and glanced at Lieutenant Jervis. “Do you remember what the circumstances were, Lieutenant?”
Jervis shrugged. “I don’t recall it very clearly, sir. I honestly couldn’t tell you whether they were wearing suits or bubble-helmets or anything. I was too upset at the time to make careful observations.”
“I understand,” Petersen said.
But the medic had a different theory. He pointed at Jervis and said, “That’s a point I’ve meant to make, Lieutenant. You’re a trained space scout. Your psychological records show that you’re not the sort of man given to panic or to become confused.”
“Are you implying that there’s something improper about my statement, Dr. Stevelman?”
The medic held up a hand. “Nothing of the sort, Lieutenant. But since you’re not the sort to panic, even in such a crisis as the complete destruction of the entire crew of your scout ship, you must have been ill--partly delirious from fever. Not delirious enough to cause hallucinations, but just enough to impair your judgment.”
Jervis nodded. “That is possible,” he said.
“Good,” said Stevelman. “I have two tentative hypotheses, then.” He turned to the colonel. “Should I state them now, Colonel Petersen?”
“There’s to be no secrecy aboard this ship, Doctor. I want every man and woman on the ship to know all the facts at all times.”
“Very well,” the medic said. “I’d suggest the deaths were caused by some unknown virus--or, perhaps, by some virulent poison that occurred occasionally, a poisonous smog of some kind that had settled in the valley for a time and then dissipated.”
Wayne frowned and shook his head. Both hypotheses made sense.
“Do you have any suggestions, Doctor?” Petersen said.
“Since we don’t have any direct information about why those men died, Colonel, I can’t make any definite statements. But I can offer one bit of advice to everyone: wear your suits and be alert.”
During the week that followed, several groups went out without suffering any ill effects. A short service was held for the eight of the Mavis and then the skeletons were buried in the valley.
They ran a check on the double-nucleus beryllium toward the end of the week, after it had been fairly safely established that no apparent harm was going to come to them. Wayne and Sherri were both in the crew that went outside to set up the detector.
“You man the detector plate,” said Major MacDougal, who was in charge of the group, turning to Wayne.
He put his hand on the plate and waited for the guide coordinates to be set. MacDougal fumbled at the base of the detector for a moment, and the machine began picking up eloptic radiations.
Wayne now looked down at the detector plate. “Here we are,” he said. “The dial’s oscillating between four and eight, all right. The stuff’s here.”
MacDougal whistled gently. “It’s really sending, isn’t it!” He pointed toward the mountaintop. “From up there, too. It’s going to be a nice climb. Okay, pack the detector up and let’s get back inside.”
They entered the airlock and passed on into the ship.
“The D-N beryllium up there, sir,” Major MacDougal said. “It’s going to be a devil of a job to get up to find the stuff.”
“That’s what Captain Wayne’s here for,” Petersen said. “Captain, what do you think? Can you get up here?”
“It would have been easier to bring along a helicopter,” Wayne said wryly. “Pity the things don’t fit into spaceships. But I think I can get up there. I’d like to try surveying the lay of the land, first. I want to know all the possible routes before I start climbing.”
“Good idea,” Petersen said. “I’ll send you out with three men to do some preliminary exploring. Boggs! Manetti! MacPherson! Suit up and get with it!”
Wayne strode toward the spacesuit locker, took out his suit, and donned it. Instead of the normal space boots, he put on the special metamagnetic boots for mountain climbing. The little reactors in the back of the calf activated the thick metal sole of each boot so that it would cling tightly to the metallic rock of the mountain. Unlike ordinary magnetism, the metamagnetic field acted on all metals, even when they were in combination with other elements.
His team of three stood before him in the airlock room. He knew all three of them fairly well from Earthside; they were capable, level-headed men, and at least one--Boggs--had already been out in the valley surveying once, and so knew the area pretty well.
He pulled on the boots and looked up. “We’re not going to climb the mountain this time, men. We’ll just take a look around it to decide which is the best way.”
“You have any ideas, sir?” Sergeant Boggs asked.
“From looking at the photographs, I’d guess that the western approach is the best. But I may be wrong. Little details are hard to see from five hundred miles up, even with the best of instruments, and there may be things in our way that will make the west slope impassible. If so, we’ll try the southern side. It looks pretty steep, but it also seems rough enough to offer plenty of handholds.”
“Too bad we couldn’t have had that helicopter you were talking about,” said Boggs.
Wayne grinned. “With these winds? They’d smash us against the side of the mountain before we’d get up fifty feet. You ought to know, Sergeant--you’ve been out in them once already.”
“They’re not so bad down in this valley, sir,” Boggs said. “The only time you really notice them is when you climb the escarpment at the northern end. They get pretty rough up there.”
Wayne nodded. “You can see what kind of a job we’ll have. Even with metamagnetic boots and grapples, we’ll still have to use the old standbys.” He looked at the men. “Okay; we’re all ready. Let’s go.”
They unhooked four of the six tabs from the wall and donned them. Then they moved on into the airlock and closed the inner door. The air was pumped out, just as though the ship were in space or on a planet with a poisonous atmosphere. As far as anyone knew, the atmosphere of Fomalhaut V actually was poisonous. Some of the tension had relaxed after a week spent in safety, but there was always the first expedition to consider; no one took chances.
When all the air had been removed, a bleeder valve allowed the outer air to come into the chamber. Then the outer door opened, and the four men went down the ladder to the valley floor.
Wayne led the way across the sand in silence. The four men made their way toward the slope on the western side of the valley. Overhead, the bright globe of Fomalhaut shed its orange light over the rugged landscape.
When they reached the beginning of the slope, Wayne stopped and looked upwards. “Doesn’t look easy,” he grunted. “Damned rough hill, matter of fact. MacPherson, do you think you could make it to the top?”
Corporal MacPherson was a small, wiry man who had the reputation of being a first-rank mountaineer. He had been a member of the eighteenth Mount Everest Party, and had been the second of that party to reach the summit of the towering peak.
“Sure I can, sir,” he said confidently. “Shall I take the rope?”
“Go ahead. You and Manetti get the rope to the top, and Sergeant Boggs and I will follow up.”