I stood looking from the space ship into the dense fog banks which rolled about us. We were descending through the dense cloud blanket of Venus. How near we actually were to the ground I did not know. Nothing but an unbroken white haze spread mistily, everywhere I looked.
With jarring suddenness, a terrific shudder throbbed the length of the C-49, rattling the loose articles on the desk nearby. The dictatyper, with which I had lately been composing a letter, crashed violently to the floor. I reeled unsteadily to the door. It was nearly flung open in my face.
Captain Cragley steadied himself on the threshold of my room. The captain and I had become intimate friends during the trip from the earth. In his eyes I saw concern.
“What’s wrong?” I queried.
“Don’t know yet! Come--get out of there, man! We may have to use the emergency cylinder!”
I followed Cragley. The crew, numbering seven, were gathered in the observation chamber. Most of the passengers were there too.
The C-49 carried twelve passengers, all men, to the Deliphon settlement of Venus. In the earlier days of space travel, few women dared the trip across space.
Several of the crew worked feverishly at the controls above the instrument board.
“What’s our altitude?” demanded Cragley.
“Fifteen thousand feet!” was the prompt reply. “Our drop is better than a hundred feet a second!”
Worried wrinkles creased the kindly old face of Captain Cragley. He debated the issue not one moment.
“Into the emergency cylinder--everybody!”
Herding the passengers ahead of them, Cragley’s men entered a compartment shaped like a long tube, ending in a nose point. When we were buckled into a spiral of seats threading the cylinder, Cragley pulled the release lever. Instantly, the cylinder shot free of the doomed C-49. For a moment we dropped at a swifter pace than the abandoned ship. After that, our speed of descent was noticeably decreased.
Peering at the proximity detector, Cragley announced that we were quite safe from a collision. The C-49 was far below us and dropping fast.
“No danger now,” he assured the passengers. “We’ll come down like a feather. Then all we have to do is radio Deliphon to send out a ship for us.”
Cragley was equal to the situation. In this year of 2342, when the days of pioneer space flying were commencing to fade into history, it required capable men to cope with interplanetary flight. If Cragley brought his crew and passengers safely through this adversity and also salvaged the valuable cargo of the C-49, it was another feather in his cap.
Quentin, second to Cragley in command, labored over the sending apparatus. Quentin looked up at his superior officer with an uneasy expression. The captain was quick to sense trouble.
“I don’t like the looks of this,” was Quentin’s reply. “The sender refuses to function properly. I can do nothing with it.”
Cragley’s face bore a troubled look. He stepped to the side of his subordinate for a hasty inspection of the radio sender.
“The receiver plate doesn’t light up, either,” said Quentin. “Looks to me as though someone has been tampering with this.”
In their spiral of seats, the passengers looked silently and gravely upon the cylinder base where Cragley and his staff were gathered over the apparatus. A dull glow of cloudy light coming in through the transparent interstices of the descending cylinder softened and counteracted the glow of the radium lights. An intangible feeling of depression hung in the air.
“Elevation, five hundred feet!” announced one of the crew from his position at the altitude dial.
“Make a landing,” ordered Cragley. “We can’t be very far from where the C-49 fell. If there’s enough of the ship left, we may be able to discover the cause of this accident.”
Down through the lush vegetation, the cylinder felt its way, dropping very slowly. Finally it came to rest on a knoll.
“How far are we from the ship?” queried the captain.
“About seventeen hundred feet south of it, I’d say.”
“We’ll go outside and get organized. We’ve got to get that platinum shipment off the C-49 and get into communication with headquarters at Deliphon somehow. The proximity detector tells us we’re over two hundred miles from there.”
One of the passengers spoke up with a suggestion. “Can’t we go the rest of the way in this? You can send back for what’s left of the ship. I’ve an important reason for arriving in Deliphon quickly. If--”
“Not a chance,” cut in Cragley, both amused and annoyed. “The cylinder wouldn’t take us anywhere. All the cylinder is good for is an emergency descent. It has no driving power.”
Preparations were made for a trip to the wrecked space ship.
“Might I go with you and the men, Captain?” I ventured.
“Sure, Hantel, come along! I’ll have to leave part of the crew here with the passengers and the cylinder, so I’m glad to have a few volunteers.”
“Count on me, then,” another of the passengers spoke up.
I recognized him as Chris Brady. He was a man about my own age, possibly younger, perhaps in his late twenties. Brady and I had become friends during the trip, having spent many hours together. This was my second trip to the clouded planet. Brady had made many trips to Venus, spending considerable time among the colonies. I had learned much about the man which had interested me.
Our party consisted of Cragley, Brady, three of the crew, four other passengers and myself. Well armed, we set out through the yellow jungle in search of the remains of the C-49. Quentin insisted that it was not far away according to the proximity detector which was especially attuned to the bulk and metal composition of the space ship.
Progress was difficult in spots, and we found it necessary to hack our way through lush growths of vegetation, taking numerous detours around interlaced verdure. We were out of sight of the cylinder almost immediately.
One of the passengers who had volunteered to accompany us complained at the prospects of becoming lost. Cragley calmed the man’s anxiety with a brief explanation of the directometer he carried. It was an elaborate perfection of the old compass. On a square plate, our position was always designated in relation to the C-49. By telescopic condensation of the field, Cragley was capable of bringing Deliphon on the instrument. It was well over two hundred miles beyond us.
“If Quentin doesn’t have that televisor fixed by the time we get back, we are in a jam.”
“There’s the ship!”
We looked where the pointing arm of Brady designated. The wrecked space ship lay imbedded in the murky waters of a swamp, fully one-third of its bulk out of sight. Above, the torn and tangled mass of vegetation bore witness to the rapid descent of the craft. Mighty branches were torn away from giant trees. The ship itself was enwrapped by interlaced creepers which it had ripped loose from the upper foliage.
We waded through warm, stagnant water which teemed with marine life. We were halfway to the side of the C-49 when a cry from behind startled me into action. I turned and stared into the gaping jaws of a terrifying serpent wriggling through the shallow water on many legs. Several electric pistols flashed almost simultaneously. The loathesome monster turned belly up, floating dead upon the surface of the swamp water.
From then on, we advanced more cautiously. Coming alongside the crushed hull of the interplanetary liner, we made an inspection of its position. The space ship lay nearly right side up, the decks slanting a bit sharply to one side. Upon the outer deck of the C-49, Cragley scratched his head and looked the situation over.
“Not so bad as I’d feared,” was his comment. “Wouldn’t be much else but junk here if it hadn’t been for the jungle breaking the fall.” Cragley pointed upward to the strong barrier of interlaced foliage. “I hope to discover just why it was we fell.”
“Wasn’t there an explosion?” I inquired. “There was a great shock just before you opened the door to my stateroom. For a moment I thought we’d struck the planet.”
“Yes--there was an explosion,” Cragley replied, a bit reluctant to voice the admission. “It occurred somewhere in the mechanism operating our radium repellors. That’s why the ship started falling. Its weight was left partly free against the gravity of Venus. We had to leave so quickly there was no time for inspection.”
One by one, we descended into the wrecked C-49. In that part of the ship which lay lowest below water level, tiny streams of dirty water trickled between wrenched plates, forming pools of water which rose slowly about us. Cragley and his men inspected the radium repellors. They whispered strangely among themselves. A steely glint shone resolutely in Captain Cragley’s eyes.
“There’s deviltry been done here,” he stated fiercely. “The C-49 was deliberately wrecked by someone on board!”
Heavy silence followed his words. One of the crew returned from the vault room. He announced to the captain that the C-49’s shipment of platinum was intact as they had left it. Captain Cragley turned the matter over in his mind. He was an astute man. Having smelled out a conspiracy, he was planning the best way he knew to thwart it. The platinum itself presented an obvious motive. Finally he spoke.
“You passengers are to go up into the observation room and wait for us. Under no condition are you to leave the room and wander about the ship.”
Captain Cragley’s orders were obeyed to the letter.
In the observation chamber, Brady asked my opinion of the discovery Captain Cragley had made. “What’s up, anyways?”
I shook my head. Brady was plainly nervous. Others of the passengers who had accompanied us shared his apprehension. Fully a half hour had passed and still Cragley and his men put in no appearance. Outside, myriads of life flew, crawled and swam about the damaged craft.
Presently, Cragley and his three men emerged from the lower levels of the C-49. They presented an uncouth spectacle bedraggled as they were with grime and dirty water. In their arms they carried many small boxes. Though small, each box was extremely heavy, being loaded with a fortune in platinum bars.
“We’ll return to the cylinder,” said Cragley. “There’s important work to be done.”
Once more we trudged back through the swamp and jungle, following the trail we had made. Several times, huge shadowy forms flapped on the wing overhead, but there was no attack. Back at the cylinder, Captain Cragley ordered every man out into the open. He drew their attention.
“There’s serious business here,” he said slowly, his eyes darting from face to face. “I want the man, or men who wrecked the C-49!”
The captain snapped out the final words. Surprise, terror and alarm registered among the passengers, but Cragley evidently saw no admissions of guilt.
“The man who is responsible for our present condition owns this!” exclaimed Cragley suddenly. From behind him where he had been concealing it, he drew forth a square box studded with knobs and dials. “I know which one of you owns this. It was found hidden in his room by one of my men.”
Again Cragley watched for a betraying face. At the time, I doubted Cragley’s statement that he knew who owned the box. If he knew, I asked myself, why was it he did not come right out and make an accusation with whatever evidence he held? But that was not Cragley’s way.
“We’ve also uncovered his two accomplices,” continued the captain in cool, level tones. “There is proof which points definitely to them.”
He paused. No one spoke. The silence of death had descended upon the entire group. For a moment my scalp prickled from the high tension of nerves which hung over this episode. Cragley’s burning eyes made every man of us a criminal.
“The penalty for this offense is--death!” Cragley hurled out the final word with dramatic suddenness.
There was a stealthy movement among those who stood near the cylinder.
“Drop it!” snapped Quentin. “Or I’ll bore you!”
One of the passengers, Davy by name, dropped an electric pistol and raised his hands.
“Raynor!” thundered Cragley, pointing a denunciatory finger at another of the space ship’s passengers. “Let’s have an end to this shamming! Step out there with Davy! Give up your weapons!”
With the attitude of a fatalist, Raynor stepped forward, allowing Quentin to disarm him.
“And now for the owner of this little box,” said Cragley, a cryptic promise in his tones. “This radio-electrifier excited an electric explosion of static in the radium repellors. The reason, I suppose, was prompted by designs on the shipment of platinum. Will the owner of this ingenious little invention step up--or do I have to call his name?”
No one moved.
“Just as I thought, Brady, you have the nerve to bluff this thing out to the finish!”
The face of Chris Brady grew pale. He appeared stunned. Those nearest him stepped back in surprise. Davy and Raynor were the only ones who did not seem taken aback by the revelation.
“But I’ve never seen that thing before,” Brady protested. “Why, I----”
“Not a chance of wiggling your way out of this, Brady! We’ve got the goods on you sure enough! Will you kindly explain how you intended making a getaway with the platinum?”
“I’m innocent!” exclaimed Brady heatedly. “I don’t know these men!”
“This contrivance was found hidden in your room, Brady! Communications between you and these men were also found!”
Chris Brady fell silent. The evidence was overwhelming. Cragley turned to the other culprits.
“Have either of you protests to make?”
“We know when we’re caught,” growled Raynor, shooting a swift glance at Brady. “You’ve got the goods on us. We’re not squawking.”
“You were taking orders from this man?” the captain inquired, pointing at Brady.
Both Davy and Raynor replied in the affirmative, adding further proof against Brady.
“Known him very long?”
“Don’t know him at all,” replied Raynor, “only that he’s the boss.”
“We’ve been taking orders from him since we left the earth,” supplemented Davy. “He had us kill the radio equipment a little while before he set off the explosion.”
“And how did you expect to get away with the platinum?”
“He’s the only one of us who knows,” replied Davy, nodding his head at Brady.
“Brady, I suppose there’ll be another ship along pretty soon--some of your friends from Deliphon. Now I see it all. Well, they won’t find us, that’s all. We won’t be here.”
“I’ve no idea that...”
“Pretty thorough, weren’t you?” snapped Cragley. “But you slipped up a few notches! Thought there wouldn’t be much left of the ship! Too careless, Brady! You three men are sentenced to death!”
“A trial!” screamed Brady. “We’re entitled to a trial!”
“Not under the new interplanetary laws! This is far worse than mutiny, and you’re on Venus now! You’ve had your trial!”
Grim retribution overhung the condemned men. It promised swift justice. Captain Cragley was the law. He dealt out the penalty according to the code governing interplanetary navigation.
“We must get away from this vicinity in a hurry!” he informed Quentin. “You can bet your last coin there’ll be a ship around pretty soon to pick up the platinum and these three men! If there’s a battle, we haven’t a chance in our present condition!”
“Where’ll we go?” asked Quentin. “Somewhere and hide?”
“We’ll head for Deliphon. It’s a long, hard tramp, but it’s our only chance. Get things ready to leave. Pack everything we’ll want to take with us. Just before we start, we’ll have this execution over with.”
Quentin immediately apprised the crew and passengers of the C-49 of Captain Cragley’s intentions. He stated the fact that brigands were expected shortly, telling of what they would do to luckless passengers who fell into their hands. A second expedition was sent to the C-49 for food stores and various articles it was deemed necessary to carry along on the march.
With the usual brief ceremony required in such proceedings, Brady, Davy and Raynor were lined up before a shallow grave which had hastily been dug for them. Five of the crew stood at attention, electric guns half raised. Cragley, in a crisp, steady voice, gave the orders. The three men, white of face, stared fascinated at their executioners--into the face of death.
The men of the C-49 tensed themselves. Brady no longer expostulated on his pleas of innocence. He faced his fate like a man.
The pistols were raised. Five left eyes closed. Sights were drawn. The interval preceding the fatal word seemed endless. At the last moment, it was apparent that Brady was unequal to the strain. He closed his eyes. His body swayed.
Five blue streaks shot noiselessly from the weapons. The three men stiffened and fell--into the cavity dug for them. Their lives had been forfeited for their crimes. Dirt was shoveled upon them. No longer would fliers of the space lanes fear them. But there were other outlaws.
Captain Cragley, his crew of six, and nine passengers, set out in the direction of Deliphon. The trip promised to be perilous and fraught with danger, as well as grueling and full of hardships. Though I had been to Venus once before, I knew little of the yellow jungles. My time on the clouded world had been spent in the colonies.
Our first day of tramping took us through lush jungles and dismal swamps. The ground was fairly level. Occasionally we came to rough, rocky outcrops which protruded above ground. These we invariably circled. Several times we found it necessary to ford rivers and skirt lakes. Our progress was very slow. Quentin prophesied we would be on the march for fully twenty rotations of Venus unless we struck the comparatively clear country which Cragley was sure existed between us and Deliphon.
Fearsome beasts menaced us at all times. We were ever on our guard, and they usually fell electrocuted before completing their charges among us. Even so, we experienced many narrow escapes. Many of these monsters were larger than the prehistoric dinosaurs which once roamed the earth. They were difficult to kill, and it required the maximum voltage of our electric guns to bring them down.
Clothes torn, bodies bruised and scratched, we presented a sorry spectacle. Most of us felt the way we looked, but Cragley’s unquenched determination spurred us on toward Deliphon. He was anxious to put a good distance between us and the abandoned cylinder. He feared the brigands, friends of the three who had been executed. Though Brady had not admitted the claim, the captain was certain a shipload of the outlaws were scheduled to show up for the platinum and their comrades.
At night, a camp was set up. Cragley argued against lighting a campfire, asserting that it would prove a magnet to the wandering brigands he believed were in search of us. Quentin, employing smooth diplomacy, made it clear to his superior officer that a campfire promised to safeguard us from prowling beasts. Quentin cited the fact that it was a common sight for a night cruiser of Venus to look down upon fully a dozen or more campfires of the troglodytes.
Guards were posted during the night. It was well. The fires held the nocturnal creatures at bay. Whenever one of them did muster enough courage to charge, it was revealed in the firelight and shot down. Several times I awoke to see a bellowing monster crash in death at the edge of our camp. Sleeping, we found was a fitful task. The first night proved the worst.
Next morning, we plodded on again through the thick, yellow jungle. The country became a bit hilly, yet none the less wooded. In the valleys between, we often found swamps. While approaching one of these swamps, we noticed a gray mist hanging over the stagnant pools. It appeared not unlike the steaming vapors we had previously encountered. One of the crew, plunging ahead of us to gauge the depth of the water and steer us clear of treacherous, clinging mud, became enveloped in the mist. Almost immediately his complexion turned black, and he fell strangling in throes of death. Another of the crew ran forward to drag back his comrade, but Captain Cragley warned him back.
“He’s too far gone! There’s nothing we can do for him!”
“What is it?”
“A poisonous swamp gas! There’s enough poison in one breath to kill twenty men!”
Instinctively, we recoiled from the milky haze.
“How are we to cross?” asked Quentin.
“Put on the space helmets!” ordered Cragley. “That stuff can’t hurt you unless you breathe it!”
To prove his words, Cragley donned his space helmet and advanced into the mist. Looking back through the transparent facing of the helmet, he beckoned to us. Previously, many of the passengers had rebelled against Cragley’s persistence that they carry the added weight of the space helmets. It had seemed utterly useless. Now, as they moved unharmed through the deadly fumes, they thanked his foresight.
We carried the dead body of the luckless man, who had saved us through his unfortunate discovery, to the top of the next hill where burial was made.
The second night, it came my turn to share guard duty with one of the crew while the others slept. The fires were plentifully fueled with dry branches and stalks. Fire material was piled in reserve. Grinstead, my companion watcher, went his rounds while I attended the fire, keeping the flames well supplied.
Protected by an embankment erected near a rocky ledge, the balance of our party slept. My eyes fell upon the little mound of boxes which contained the precious metal. Cragley and Quentin lay on each side of the platinum shipment. Not since we had commenced the march had they let it out of their sight or reach.
“Hantel!” It was Grinstead’s voice. “Come here a moment!”
Hastily I ran to his side. He was stooped over a mark on the ground far to one side of our camp just within circle of the firelight. Mutely he pointed to a footprint--the footprint of a six-toed man.
“Troglodytes!” I exclaimed.
Grinstead nodded. “Fresh, too! Think we’d better awaken Cragley?” he asked. “These cave men don’t seem bad when they’re peaceful, but if they get going--they’re devils!”
I stared back into the alarmed eyes of Grinstead and pondered the matter. I was about to voice an opinion, leaving it up to Grinstead to do as he pleased, when a startled cry rang out from the direction of the sleepers.
Instantly, everything was confusion and uproar. Sleek, naked bodies prowling about our equipment flashed out of sight into the jungle. The whole camp came awake, exclamations and profanity mingling with the weird cries of the troglodytes. Recovering from my surprise, I fired a shot at one of the rapidly disappearing cave men, but the flickering firelight distorted my aim.
Then occurred the most amazing feature of the whole affair. A man, fully dressed, ran out of sight with the troglodytes, melting into the shadows of the surrounding jungle. Cragley ran up beside me and saw him too. He was out of sight before either of us had a chance to fire. At first, I had thought the man to be one of our party, but his flight with the cave men disproved the assumption.
“Wonder what the idea is?” spluttered Cragley.
“Our equipment,” said Quentin, pointing to the food stores and other articles the cave men had hastily disarranged. “They came to steal!”
“But the man!” I insisted.
Cragley shook his head. “It’s queer,” he said. “I don’t know what to make of it.”
An examination of our equipment proved we had suffered few losses. Several boxes of synthetic food were gone, and one of the crew had lost his electric pistol. Aside from these thefts, nothing else appeared to be missing. Cragley tripled the guards, and the rest went back to sleep once more. Nothing else occurred during that night. I was unable to get the fleeing renegade out of my mind. There was something familiar about the figure as I had seen it revealed in the glare of the firelight just before the savages disappeared in the jungle.
The thefts of the food and pistol were logical enough in view of the fact that the troglodytes had stolen them, but, guided by the man, why had they neglected stealing the platinum? Evidently, they were unaware of its presence.
Murky morning suffused the perpetually clouded sky, and once more we pushed on toward our goal, distant Deliphon--so near and yet so far. Much to the relief of everyone, we came out of the jungle into a comparatively open country. High grasses grew about us, but the going was much easier than we had experienced while in the jungle. The land before us was a bit rolling and hilly. Leafy copses dotted the landscape as far as the eye might reach. In the open, the danger from lurking beasts was at a minimum. Our hopes rose higher.
It was around noon when the space ship from the south cruised into view above us. Cragley viewed it in consternation.
“The brigands! Now we’re up against it!”
For a moment, pandemonium reigned among the frightened passengers. All had plans, each one trying to put his own into force at once. Out of the chaos, Captain Cragley gathered order.
“Head for the bushes!” he cried. “We’re all armed! If they come too close, let them have it!”
The assurance in Cragley’s voice I knew was faked. Like him, I realized the desperate odds which confronted us. The ship was high above. We had plenty of time to scurry for cover before it dropped lower. Cragley and Quentin arranged us to the best advantage, and we waited for the initiative of the outlaws of Venus.
The ship descended several hundred feet away. Our retreat into the bushes had been carefully watched. Several men left the craft and came slowly, uncertainly, toward our position.
“Stop where you are!” snapped Cragley from his place of concealment.
“Come across wi’ the metal!” shouted one of them in a high pitched voice. “An’ get outa there--or get riddled!”
Cragley’s reply was a blue spurt from the muzzle of his pistol. The distance was much too far for accurate firing, but the charge went dangerously close. The outlaws immediately turned tail and ran for their craft. We waited for their next act, knowing that the battle had only commenced.
The space ship shot skyward, circling our wide clump of bushes. The survivors of the C-49 tensed themselves for a destructive bombardment from above. It did not come. Captain Cragley was plainly surprised. He was aware that the outlaw ship carried instant death if they chose to use it.
The craft hovered some two hundred feet above us. Cruising slowly in a circle, it suddenly dropped four objects well outside our improvised stronghold. The projectiles were shaped like torpedoes. The explosions which were expected never came. The projectiles stood straight up from the ground, their front ends imbedded deeply. It was all a strange procedure. Cragley was nonplussed.
“They probably contain explosives,” ventured Quentin, answering the question he knew stood out in the captain’s mind.
“I’m not so sure of that,” said Cragley.
Meanwhile, I had been doing some rapid thinking. Anxiously, I watched the ship above us, keeping myself partially screened from view of any sniper who might be looking down. I turned to the captain, a wild plan outlined in my mind.
“Let me go out there,” I offered. “I can----”
“Not on your life!” he exclaimed, placing a restraining hand upon my arm. “It’s death to go out there!”
“It’s death to remain,” I assured him earnestly.
“But not definitely certain,” he maintained. “For some reason or other they’re holding off from us. We have an advantage of some kind, but damned if I know what it is.”
“Look!” cried Quentin.
He pointed to three of the four projectiles which were visible from where we lay. They were glowing strangely with intense light. A jagged beam of electricity leaped out from the airship. Instantly iridescent shafts of light spread from the nearest projectile to the ones on either side of it. The shafts made a flashing display, crooked, forked and darting.
“Lightning bolts!” exclaimed Cragley. “We’re surrounded by a fence of them!”
“Penned in--like rats in a trap!”
“What will they do now?”
“Hard to tell. Probably pick us off one by one at their leisure. They seem to be going to a lot of unnecessary trouble for no reason at all.”
Three sharp blasts of sound issued from the outlaw ship. A pause, and then followed three more. I watched Cragley to see what action, if any, he would take. He seemed undecided. I began to grow uneasy.