A soft gentle rain began to fall as we emerged from the dark woods and came out onto the shore. There it was, the sea, stretching as far as the eye could reach, gray and sullen, and flecked with green-white froth. The blue hensorr trees, crowding close to the water’s edge, were bent backward as if frightened by the bleakness before them. The sand, visible under the clear patches of water, was a bleached white like the exposed surface of a huge bone.
We stood there a moment in silence. Then Mason cleared his throat huskily.
“Well, here goes,” he said. “We’ll soon see if we have any friends about.”
He unslung the packsack from his shoulders, removed its protective outer shield and began to assemble the organic surveyor, an egg-shaped ball of white carponium secured to a segmented forty-foot rod. While Brandt and I raised the rod with the aid of an electric fulcrum, Mason carefully placed his control cabinet on a piece of outcropping rock and made a last adjustment.
The moment had come. Even above the sound of the sea, you could hear the strained breathing of the men. Only Navigator Norris appeared unconcerned. He stood there calmly smoking his pipe, his keen blue eyes squinting against the biting wind.
Mason switched on the speaker. Its high-frequency scream rose deafeningly above us and was torn away in unsteady gusts. He began to turn its center dial, at first a quarter circle, and then all the way to the final backstop of the calibration. All that resulted was a continuation of that mournful ululation like a wail out of eternity.
Mason tried again. With stiff wrists he tuned while perspiration stood out on his forehead, and the rest of us crowded close.
“It’s no use,” he said. “This pickup failure proves there isn’t a vestige of animal life on Stragella--on this hemisphere of the planet, at least.”
Navigator Norris took his pipe from his mouth and nodded. His face was expressionless. There was no indication in the man’s voice that he had suffered another great disappointment, his sixth in less than a year.
“We’ll go back now,” he said, “and we’ll try again. There must be some planet in this system that’s inhabited. But it’s going to be hard to tell the women.”
Mason let the surveyor rod down with a crash. I could see the anger and resentment that was gathering in his eyes. Mason was the youngest of our party and the leader of the antagonistic group that was slowly but steadily undermining the authority of the Navigator.
This was our seventh exploratory trip after our sixth landing since entering the field of the sun Ponthis. Ponthis with its sixteen equal-sized planets, each with a single satellite. First there had been Coulora; then in swift succession, Jama, Tenethon, Mokrell, and R-9. And now Stragella. Strange names of strange worlds, revolving about a strange star.
It was Navigator Norris who told us the names of these planets and traced their positions on a chart for us. He alone of our group was familiar with astrogation and cosmography. He alone had sailed the spaceways in the days before the automatic pilots were installed and locked and sealed on every ship.
A handsome man in his fortieth year, he stood six feet three with broad shoulders and a powerful frame. His eyes were the eyes of a scholar, dreamy yet alive with depth and penetration. I had never seen him lose his temper, and he governed our company with an iron hand.
He was not perfect, of course. Like all Earthmen, he had his faults. Months before he had joined with that famed Martian scientist, Ganeth-Klae, to invent that all-use material, Indurate, the formula for which had been stolen and which therefore had never appeared on the commercial market. Norris would talk about that for hours. If you inadvertently started him on the subject a queer glint would enter his eyes, and he would dig around in his pocket for a chunk of the black substance.
“Did I ever show you a piece of this?” he would say. “Look at it carefully. Notice the smooth grainless texture--hard and yet not brittle. You wouldn’t think that it was formed in a gaseous state, then changed to a liquid and finally to a clay-like material that could be worked with ease. A thousand years after your body has returned to dust, that piece of Indurate will still exist, unchanged, unworn. Erosion will have little effect upon it. Beside it granite, steel are nothing. If only I had the formula...”
But he had only half the formula, the half he himself had developed. The other part was locked in the brain of Ganeth-Klae, and Ganeth-Klae had disappeared. What had become of him was a mystery. Norris perhaps had felt the loss more than any one, and he had offered the major part of his savings as a reward for information leading to the scientist’s whereabouts.
Our party--eighteen couples and Navigator Norris--had gathered together and subsequently left Earth in answer to a curious advertisement that had appeared in the Sunday edition of the London Times.
WANTED: _A group of married men and women, young, courageous,
educated, tired of political and social restrictions, interested
in extra-terrestrial colonization. Financial resources no
After we had been weeded out, interviewed and rigorously questioned, Norris had taken us into the hangar, waved a hand toward the Marie Galante and explained the details.
The Marie Galante was a cruiser-type ship, stripped down to essentials to maintain speed, but equipped with the latest of everything. For a short run to Venus, for which it was originally built, it would accommodate a passenger list of ninety.
But Norris wasn’t interested in that kind of run. He had knocked out bulkheads, reconverted music room and ballroom into living quarters. He had closed and sealed all observation ports, so that only in the bridge cuddy could one see into space.
“We shall travel beyond the orbit of the sun,” he said. “There will be no turning back; for the search for a new world, a new life, is not a task for cowards.”
Aside to me, he said: “You’re to be the physician of this party, Bagley. So I’m going to tell you what to expect when we take off. We’re going to have some mighty sick passengers aboard then.”
“What do you mean, sir?” I said.
He pointed with his pipe toward the stern of the vessel. “See that ... well, call it a booster. Ganeth-Klae designed it just before he disappeared, using the last lot of Indurate in existence. It will increase our take-off speed by five times, and it will probably have a bad effect on the passengers.”
So we had left Earth, at night from a field out in Essex. Without orders, without clearance papers, without an automatic pilot check. Eighteen couples and one navigator--destination unknown. If the Interstellar Council had known what Norris was up to, it would have been a case for the Space-Time Commission.
Of that long initial lap of our voyage, perhaps the less said the better. As always is the case when monotony begins to wear away the veneer of civilization, character quirks came to the surface, cliques formed among the passengers, and gossip and personalities became matters of pre-eminent importance.
Rising to the foreground out of our thirty-six, came Fielding Mason, tall, taciturn, and handsome, with a keen intellect and a sense of values remarkable in so young a man. Mason was a graduate of Montape, the French outgrowth of St. Cyr. But he had majored in military tactics, psychology and sociology and knew nothing at all about astrogation or even elemental astronomy. He too was a man of good breeding and refinement. Nevertheless conflict began to develop between him and Navigator Norris. That conflict began the day we landed on Coulora.
Norris stepped out of the air lock into the cold thin air, glanced briefly about him and faced the eighteen men assembled.
“We’ll divide into three groups,” he said. “Each group to carry an organic surveyor and take a different direction. Each group will so regulate its marching as to be back here without fail an hour before darkness sets in. If you find no sign of animal life, then we will take off again immediately on your return.”
Mason paused halfway in the act of strapping on his packsack.
“What’s that got to do with it?” he demanded. “There’s vegetation here. That’s all that seems to be necessary.”
Norris lit his pipe. “If you find no sign of animal life we will take off immediately on your return,” he said as if he hadn’t heard.
But the strangeness of Coulora tempered bad feelings then. The blue hensorr trees were actually not trees at all but a huge cat-tail-like growth, the stalks of which were quite transparent. In between the stalks grew curious cabbage-like plants that changed from red to yellow as an intruder approached and back to red again after he had passed. Rock outcroppings were everywhere, but all were eroded and in places polished smooth as glass.
There was a strange kind of dust that acted as though endowed with life. It quivered when trod upon, and the outline of our footsteps slowly rose into the air, so that looking back I could see our trail floating behind us in irregular layers.
Above us the star that was this planet’s sun shown bright but faintly red as if it were in the first stages of dying. The air though thin was fit to breathe, and we found it unnecessary to wear space suits. We marched down the corridors of hensorr trees, until we came to an open spot, a kind of glade. And that was the first time Mason tuned his organic surveyor and received absolutely nothing.
There was no animal life on Coulora!
Within an hour we had blasted off again. The forward-impact delivered by the Ganeth-Klae booster was terrific, and nausea and vertigo struck us all simultaneously. But again, with all ports and observation shields sealed shut, Norris held the secret of our destination.
On July twenty-second, the ship gave that sickening lurch and came once again to a standstill.
“Same procedure as before,” Norris said, stepping out of the airlock. “Those of you who desire to have their wives accompany you may do so. Mason, you’ll make a final correlation on the organic surveyors. If there is no trace of animal life return here before dark.”
Once our group was out of sight of the ship, Mason threw down his packsack, sat down on a boulder and lighted a cigarette.
“Bagley,” he said to me, “has the Old Man gone loco?”
“I think not,” I said, frowning. “He’s one of the most evenly balanced persons I know.”
“Then he’s hiding something,” Mason said. “Why else should he be so concerned with finding animal life?”
“You know the answer to that,” I said. “We’re here to colonize, to start a new life. We can’t very well do that on a desert.”
“That’s poppycock,” Mason replied, flinging away his cigarette. “When the Albertson expedition first landed on Mars, there was no animal life on the red planet. Now look at it. Same thing was true when Breslauer first settled Pluto. The colonies there got along. I tell you Norris has got something up his sleeve, and I don’t like it.”
Later, after Mason had taken his negative surveyor reading, the flame of trouble reached the end of its fuse!
Norris had given orders to return to the Marie Galante, and the rest of us were sullenly making ready to start the back trail. Mason, however, deliberately seized his pick and began chopping a hole in the rock surface, preparatory apparently to erecting his plastic tent.
“We’ll make temporary camp here,” he said calmly. “Brandt, you can go back to the ship and bring back the rest of the women.” He turned and smiled sardonically at Navigator Norris.
Norris quietly knocked the ashes from his pipe and placed it in his pocket. He strode forward, took the pick from Mason’s hands and flung it away. Then he seized Mason by the coat, whipped him around and drove his fist hard against the younger man’s jaw.
“When you signed on for this voyage, you agreed to obey my orders,” he said, not raising his voice. “You’ll do just that.”
Mason picked himself up, and there was an ugly glint in his eyes. He could have smashed Norris to a pulp, and none knew it better than the Navigator. For a brief instant the younger man swayed there on the balls of his feet, fists clenched. Then he let his hands drop, walked over and began to put on his packsack.
But I had seen Mason’s face, and I knew he had not given in as easily as it appeared. Meanwhile he began to circulate among the passengers, making no offers, yet subtly enlisting backers for a policy, the significance of which grew on me slowly. It was mutiny he was plotting! And with his personal charm and magnetism he had little trouble in winning over converts. I came upon him arguing before a group of the women one day, among them his own wife, Estelle. He was standing close to her.
“We have clothing and equipment and food concentrate,” Mason said. “Enough to last two generations. We have brains and intelligence, and we certainly should be able to establish ourselves without the aid of other vertebrate forms of life.
“Coulora, Jama, Tenethon, Mokrell, R-9, and Stragella. We could have settled on any one of those planets, and apparently we should have, for conditions have grown steadily worse at each landing. But always the answer is no. Why? Because Norris says we must go on until we find animal life.”
He cleared his throat and gazed at the feminine faces before him. “Go where? What makes Norris so sure he’ll find life on any planet in this system? And incidentally where in the cosmos is this system?”
One of the women, a tall blonde, stirred uneasily. “What do you mean?” she said.
“I mean we don’t know if our last landing was on Stragella or Coulora. I mean we don’t know where we are or where we’re going, and I don’t think Norris does either. We’re lost!“
That was in August. By the last of September we had landed on two more planets, to which Norris gave the simple names of R-12 and R-14. Each had crude forms of vegetable life, represented principally by the blue hensorr trees, but in neither case did the organic surveyor reveal the slightest traces of animal life.
There was, however, a considerable difference in physical appearance between R-12 and R-14, and for a time that fact excited Norris tremendously. Up to then, each successive planet, although similar in size, had exhibited signs of greater age than its predecessor. But on R-12 there were definite manifestations of younger geologic development.
Several pieces of shale lay exposed under a fold of igneous rock. Two of those pieces contained fossils of highly developed ganoids, similar to those found on Venus. They were perfectly preserved.
It meant that animal life had existed on R-12, even if it didn’t now. It meant that R-12, though a much older planet than Earth, was still younger than Stragella or the rest.
For a while Norris was almost beside himself. He cut out rock samples and carried them back to the ship. He personally supervised the tuning of the surveyors. And when he finally gave orders to take off, he was almost friendly to Mason, whereas before his attitude toward him had been one of cold aloofness.
But when we reached R-14, our eighth landing, all that passed. For R-14 was old again, older than any of the others.
And then, on October sixteenth, Mason opened the door of the locked cabin. It happened quite by accident. One of the arelium-thaxide conduits broke in the Marie Galante’s central passageway, and the resulting explosion grounded the central feed line of the instrument equipment. In a trice the passageway was a sheet of flame, rapidly filling with smoke from burning insulation.
Norris, of course, was in the bridge cuddy with locked doors between us and him, and now with the wiring burned through there was no way of signalling him he was wanted for an emergency. In his absence Mason took command.
That passageway ran the full length of the ship. Midway down it was the door leading to the women’s lounge. The explosion had jammed that door shut, and smoke was pouring forth from under the sill. All at once one of the women rushed forward to announce hysterically that Mason’s wife, Estelle, was in the lounge.
Adjoining the lounge was a small cabin which since the beginning of our voyage had remained locked. Norris had given strict orders that that cabin was not to be disturbed. We all had taken it as a matter of course that it contained various kinds of precision instruments.
Now, however, Mason realized that the only way into the lounge was by way of that locked cabin. If he used a heat blaster on the lounge door there was no telling what would happen to the woman inside.
He ripped the emergency blaster from its wall mounting, pressed it to the magnetic latch of the sealed cabin door and pressed the stud. An instant later he was leading his frightened wife, Estelle, out through the smoke.