In this tale, originally published in the March 1936 issue of Astounding Stories, Stanley G. Weinbaum gives us the three “R’s” of a good Space Western: Revenge, Redemption, and Romance. — ed, N.E. Lilly
Have you ever been flat broke, hungry as the very devil, and yet so down and out that you didn’t even care? Looking back now, after a couple of months, it’s hard to put it into words, but I think the low point was the evening old Captain Harris Henshaw dropped into my room—my room, that is, until the twenty-four-hour notice to move or pay up expired.
There I sat, Jack Sands, ex-rocket pilot. Yeah, the same Jack Sands you’re thinking of, the one who cracked up the Gunderson Europa expedition trying to land at Young’s Field, Long Island, in March, 2110. Just a year and a half ago! It seemed like ten and a half. Five hundred idle days. Eighteen months of having your friends look the other way when you happened to pass on the street, partly because they’re ashamed to nod to a pilot that’s been tagged yellow, and partly because they feel maybe it’s kinder to just let you drop out of sight peacefully.
I didn’t even look up when a knock sounded on my door, because I knew it could only be the landlady. “Haven’t got it,” I growled. “I’ve got a right to stay out my notice.”
“You got a right to make a damn fool of yourself,” said Henshaw’s voice. “Why don’t you tell your friends your address?”
“Harris!” I yelled. It was “Captain” only aboard ship. Then I caught myself. “What’s the matter?” I asked, grinning bitterly. “Did you crack up, too? Coming to join me on the dust heap, eh?”
“Coming to offer you a job,” he growled.
“Yeah? It must be a swell one, then. Carting sand to fill up the blast pits on a field, huh? And I’m damn near hungry enough to take it—but not quite.”
“It’s a piloting job,” said Henshaw quietly.
“Who wants a pilot who’s been smeared with yellow paint? What outfit will trust its ships to a coward? Don’t you know that Jack Sands is tagged forever?”
“Shut up, Jack,” he said briefly. “I’m offering you the job as pilot under me on Interplanetary’s new Europa expedition.”
I started to burn up then. You see, it was returning from Jupiter’s third moon, Europa, that I’d smashed up the Gunderson outfit, and now I got a wild idea that Henshaw was taunting me about that. “By Heaven!” I screeched. “If you’re trying to be funny—”
But he wasn’t. I quieted down when I saw he was serious, and he went on slowly, “I want a pilot I can trust, Jack. I don’t know anything about your cracking up the Hera; I was on the Venus run when it happened. All I know is that I can depend on you.”
After a while I began to believe him. When I got over the shock a little, I figured Henshaw was friend enough to be entitled to the facts.
“Listen, Harris,” I said. “You’re taking me on, reputation and all, and it looks to me as if you deserve an explanation. I haven’t been whining about the bump I got, and I’m not now. I cracked up Gunderson and his outfit all right, only—” I hesitated; it’s kind of tough to feel that maybe you’re squirming in the pinch—“only my co-pilot, that fellow Kratska, forgot to mention a few things, and mentioned a few others that weren’t true. Oh, it was my shift, right enough, but he neglected to tell the investigating committee that I’d stood his shift and my own before it. I’d been on for two long shifts, and this was my short one.”
“Two long ones!” echoed Henshaw. “You mean you were on sixteen hours before the landing shift?”
“That’s what I mean. I’ll tell you just what I told the committee, and maybe you’ll believe me. They didn’t. But when Kratska showed up to relieve me he was hopped. He had a regular hexylamine jag, and he couldn’t have piloted a tricycle. So I did the only possible thing to do; I sent him back to sleep it off, and I reported it to Gunderson, but that still left me the job of getting us down.
“It wouldn’t have been so bad if it had happened in space, because there isn’t much for a pilot to do out there except follow the course laid out by the captain, and maybe dodge a meteor if the alarm buzzes. But I had sixteen solid hours of teetering down through a gravitational field, and by the time my four-hour spell came around I was bleary.”
“I don’t wonder,” said the captain. “Two long shifts!”
Maybe I’d better explain a rocket’s pilot system. On short runs like Venus or Mars, a vessel could carry three pilots, and then it’s a simple matter of three eight-hour shifts. But on any longer run, because air and weight and fuel and food are all precious, no rocket ever carries more than two pilots.
So a day’s run is divided into four shifts, and each pilot has one long spell of eight hours, then four hours off, then four hours on again for his short shift, and then eight hours to sleep. He eats two of his meals right at the control desk, and the third during his short free period. It’s a queer life, and sometimes men have been co-pilots for years without really seeing each other except at the beginning and the end of their run.
I went on with my story, still wondering whether Henshaw would feel as if I were whining. “I was bleary,” I repeated, “but Kratska showed up still foggy, and I didn’t dare trust a hexylamine dope with the job of landing. Anyway, I’d reported to Gunderson, and that seemed to shift some of the responsibility to him. So I let Kratska sit in the control cabin, and I began to put down.”
Telling the story made me mad all over. “Those lousy reporters!” I blazed. “All of them seemed to think landing a rocket is like settling down in bed; you just cushion down on your underblast. Yeah; they don’t realize that you have to land blind, because three hundred feet down from the ground the blast begins to splash against it.
“You watch the leveling poles at the edge of the field and try to judge your altitude from them, but you don’t see the ground; what you see under you are the flames of Hell. And another thing they don’t realize: lowering a ship is like bringing down a dinner plate balanced on a fishing rod. If she starts to roll sideways—blooey! The underjets only hold you up when they’re pointing down, you know.”
Henshaw let me vent my temper without interruption, and I returned to my story. “Well, I was getting down as well as could be expected. The Hera always did have a tendency to roll a little, but she wasn’t the worst ship I’ve put to ground.
“But every time she slid over a little, Kratska let out a yell; he was nervous from his dope jag, and he knew he was due to lose his license, and on top of that he was just plain scared by the side roll. We got to seventy feet on the leveling poles when she gave a pretty sharp roll, and Kratska went plain daffy.”
I hesitated. “I don’t know exactly how to tell what happened. It went quick, and I didn’t see all of it, of course. But suddenly Kratska, who had been fumbling with the air lock for ten minutes, shrieked something like ‘She’s going over!’ and grabbed the throttle. He shut off the blast before I could lift an eyelash, shut it off and flung himself out. Yeah; he’d opened the air lock.
“Well, we were only seventy feet—less than that—above the field. We dropped like an overripe apple off a tree. I didn’t have time even to move before we hit, and when we hit, all the fuel in all the jets must have let go. And for what happened after that you’d better read the newspapers.”
“Not me,” said Henshaw. “You spill it.”
“I can’t, not all of it, because I was laid out. But I can guess, all right. It seems that when the jets blew off, Kratska was just picked up in a couple of cubic yards of the soft sand he had landed in, and tossed clear. He had nothing but a broken wrist. And as for me, apparently I was shot out of the control room, and banged up considerably. And as for Gunderson, his professors, and everyone else on the Hera—well, they were just stains on the pool of molten ferralumin that was left.”
“Then how,” asked Henshaw, “did they hang it on you?”
I tried to control my voice. “Kratska,” I said grimly. “The field was clear for landing; nobody can stand in close with the blast splashing in a six-hundred-foot circle. Of course, they saw someone jump from the nose of the ship after the jets cut off, but how could they tell which of us? And the explosion shuffled the whole field around, and nobody knew which was what.”
“Then it should have been his word against yours.”
“Yeah; it should have been. But the field knew it was my shift because I’d been talking over the landing beam, and besides, Kratska got to the reporters first. I never even knew of the mess until I woke up at Grand Mercy Hospital thirteen days later. By that time Kratska had talked and I was the goat.”
“But the investigating committee?”
I grunted. “Sure, the investigating committee. I’d reported to Gunderson, but he made a swell witness, being just an impurity in a mass of ferralumin alloy. And Kratska had disappeared anyway.”
“Couldn’t they find him?”
“Not on what I knew about him. We picked him up at Junopolis on Io, because Briggs was down with white fever. I didn’t see him at all except when we were relieving each other, and you know what that’s like, seeing somebody in a control cabin with the sun shields up. And on Europa we kept to space routine, so I couldn’t even give you a good description of him. He had a beard, but so have ninety per cent of us after a long hop, and he said when we took him on that he’d just come over from the Earth.” I paused. “I’ll find him some day.”
“Hope you do,” said Henshaw briskly. “About this present run, now. There’ll be you and me, and then there’ll be Stefan Coretti, a physical chemist, and an Ivor Gogrol, a biologist. That’s the scientific personnel of the expedition.”
“Yeah, but who’s my co-pilot? That’s what interests me.”
“Oh, sure,” said Henshaw, and coughed. “Your co-pilot. Well, I’ve been meaning to tell you. It’s Claire Avery.”
“That’s right,” agreed the captain gloomily. “The Golden Flash herself. The only woman pilot to have her name on the Curry cup, winner of this year’s Apogee race.”
“She’s no pilot!” I snapped. “She’s a rich publicity hound with brass nerves. I was just curious enough to blow ten bucks rental on a ‘scope to watch that race. She was ninth rounding the Moon. Ninth! Do you know how she won? She gunned her rocket under full acceleration practically all the way back, and then fell into a braking orbit.
“Any sophomore in Astronautics II knows that you can’t calculate a braking orbit without knowing the density of the stratosphere and ionosphere, and even then it’s a gamble. That’s what she did—simply gambled, and happened to be lucky. Why do you pick a rich moron with a taste for thrills on a job like this?”
“I didn’t pick her, Jack. Interplanetary picked her for publicity purposes. To tell the truth, I think this whole expedition is an attempt to get a little favorable advertising to offset that shady stock investigation this spring. Interplanetary wants to show itself as the noble patron of exploration. So Claire Avery will take off for the television and papers, and you’ll be politely ignored.”
“And that suits me! I wouldn’t even take the job if things were a little different, and—” I broke off suddenly, frozen “Say,” I said weakly, “did you know they’d revoked my license?”
“You don’t say,” said Henshaw. “And after all the trouble I had talking Interplanetary into permission to take you on, too.” Then he grinned. “Here,” he said, tossing me an envelope. “See how long it’ll take you to lose this one.”
But the very sight of the familiar blue paper was enough to make me forget a lot of things—Kratska, Claire Avery, even hunger.
The take-off was worse than I had expected. I had sense enough to wear my pilot’s goggles to the field, but of course I was recognized as soon as I joined the group at the rocket. They’d given us the Minos, an old ship, but she looked as if she’d handle well.
The newsmen must have had orders to ignore me, but I could hear plenty of comments from the crowd. And to finish things up, there was Claire Avery, a lot prettier than she looked on the television screens, but with the same unmistakable cobalt-blue eyes, and hair closer to the actual shade of metallic gold than any I’d ever seen. The “Golden Flash,” the newsmen called her. Blah!
She accepted her introduction to me with the coolest possible nod, as if to say to the scanners and cameras that it wasn’t her choice she was teamed with yellow Jack Sands. But for that matter, Coretti’s black Latin eyes were not especially cordial either, nor were Gogrol’s broad features. I’d met Gogrol somewhere before, but couldn’t place him at the moment.
Well, at last the speeches were over, and the photographers and broadcast men let the Golden Flash stop posing, and she and I got into the control cabin for the take-off. I still wore my goggles, and huddled down low besides, because there were a dozen telescopic cameras and scanners recording us from the field’s edge. Claire Avery simply ate it up, though, smiling and waving before she cut in the underblast. But finally we were rising over the flame.
She was worse than I’d dreamed. The Minos was a sweetly balanced ship, but she rolled it like a baby’s cradle. She had the radio on the field broadcast, and I could hear the description of the take-off: “—heavily laden. There—she rolls again. But she’s making altitude. The blast has stopped splashing now, and is coming down in a beautiful fan of fire. A difficult take-off, even for the Golden Flash.” A difficult take-off! Bunk!
I was watching the red bubble in the level, but I stole a glance to Claire Avery’s face, and it wasn’t so cool and stand-offish now. And just then the bubble in the level bobbed way over, and I heard the girl at my side give a frightened little gasp. This wasn’t cradle rocking any more—we were in a real roll!
I slapped her hands hard and grabbed the U-bar. I cut the underjets completely off, letting the ship fall free, then shot the full blast through the right laterals. It was damn close, I’m ready to swear, but we leveled, and I snapped on the under-blast before we lost a hundred feet of altitude. And there was that inane radio still talking: “They’re over! No—they’ve leveled again, but what a roll! She’s a real pilot, this Golden Flash—”
I looked at her; she was pale and shaken, but her eyes were angry. “Golden Flash, eh?” I jeered. “The gold must refer to your money, but what’s the flash? It can’t have much to do with your ability as a pilot.” But at that time I had no idea how pitifully little she really knew about rocketry.
She flared. “Anyway,” she hissed, her lips actually quivering with rage, “the gold doesn’t refer to color, Mr. Malaria Sands!” She knew that would hurt; the “Malaria” was some bright columnist’s idea of a pun on my name. You see, malaria’s popularly called Yellow Jack. “Besides,” she went on defiantly, “I could have pulled out of that roll myself, and you know it.”
“Sure,” I said, with the meanest possible sarcasm. We had considerable upward velocity now, and plenty of altitude, both of which tend toward safety because they give one more time to pull out of a roll. “You can take over again now. The hard part’s over.”
She gave me a look from those electric blue eyes, and I began to realize just what sort of trip I was in for. Coretti and Gogrol had indicated their unfriendliness plainly enough, and heaven knows I couldn’t mistake the hatred in Claire Avery’s eyes, so that left just Captain Henshaw. But the captain of the ship dare not show favoritism; so all in all I saw myself doomed to a lonely trip.
Lonely isn’t the word for it. Henshaw was decent enough, but since Claire Avery had started with a long shift and so had the captain, they were having their free spells and meals on the same schedule, along with Gogrol, and that left me with Coretti. He was pretty cool, and I had pride enough left not to make any unwanted advances.
Gogrol was worse; I saw him seldom enough, but he never addressed a word to me except on routine. Yet there was something familiar about him— As for Claire Avery, I simply wasn’t in her scheme of things at all; she even relieved me in silence.
Offhand, I’d have said it was the wildest sort of stupidity to send a girl with four men on a trip like this. Well, I had to hand it to Claire Avery; in that way she was a splendid rocketrix. She took the inconveniences of space routine without a murmur, and she was so companionable—that is, with the others—that it was like having a young and unusually entertaining man aboard.
And, after all, Gogrol was twice her age and Henshaw almost three times; Coretti was younger, but I was the only one who was really of her generation. But as I say, she hated me; Coretti seemed to stand best with her.
So the weary weeks of the journey dragged along. The Sun shrunk up to a disk only a fifth the diameter of the terrestrial Sun, but Jupiter grew to an enormous moon-like orb with its bands and spots gloriously tinted. It was an exquisite sight, and sometimes, since eight hours’ sleep is more than I can use, I used to slip into the control room while Claire Avery was on duty, just to watch the giant planet and its moons. The girl and I never said a word to each other.
We weren’t to stop at Io, but were landing directly on Europa, our destination, the third moon outward from the vast molten globe of Jupiter. In some ways Europa is the queerest little sphere in the Solar System, and for many years it was believed to be quite uninhabitable. It is, too, as far as seventy per cent of its surface goes, but the remaining area is a wild and weird region.
This is the mountainous hollow in the face toward Jupiter, for Europa, like the Moon, keeps one face always toward its primary. Here in this vast depression, all of the tiny world’s scanty atmosphere is collected, gathered like little lakes and puddles into the valleys between mountain ranges that often pierce through the low-lying air into the emptiness of space.
Often enough a single valley forms a microcosm sundered by nothingness from the rest of the planet, generating its own little rainstorms under pygmy cloud banks, inhabited by its indigenous life, untouched by, and unaware of, all else.
In the ephemeris, Europa is dismissed prosaically with a string of figures: diameter, 2099 M.—period, 3 days, 13 hours, 14 seconds—distance from primary, 425,160 M. For an astronomical ephemeris isn’t concerned with the thin film of life that occasionally blurs a planet’s surface; it has nothing to say of the slow libration of Europa that sends intermittent tides of air washing against the mountain slopes under the tidal drag of Jupiter, nor of the waves that sometimes spill air from valley to valley, and sometimes spill alien life as well.
Least of all is the ephemeris concerned with the queer forms that crawl now and then right up out of the air pools, to lie on the vacuum-bathed peaks exactly as strange fishes flopped their way out of the Earthly seas to bask on the sands at the close of the Devonian age.
Of the five of us, I was the only one who had ever visited Europa—or so I thought at the time. Indeed, there were few men in the world who had actually set foot on the inhospitable little planet; Gunderson and his men were dead, save me and perhaps Kratska, and we had been the first organized expedition.
Only a few stray adventurers from Io had preceded us. So it was to me that Captain Henshaw directed his orders when he said, “Take us as close as possible to Gunderson’s landing.”
It began to be evident that we’d make ground toward the end of Claire’s long shift, so I crawled out of the coffinlike niche I called my cabin an hour early, and went up to the control room to guide her down. We were seventy or eighty miles up, but there were no clouds or air distortion here, and the valleys crisscrossed under us like a relief map.
It was infernally hard to pick Gunderson’s valley; the burned spot from the blast was long since grown over, and I had only memory to rely on, for, of course, all charts were lost with the Hera. But I knew the general region, and it really made less difference than it might have, for practically all the valleys in that vicinity were connected by passes; one could walk between them in breathable air.
After a while I picked one of a series of narrow parallel valleys, one with what I knew was a salt pool in the center—though most of them had that; they’d be desert without it—and pointed it out to Claire. “That one,” I said, adding maliciously, “and I’d better warn you that it’s narrow and deep—a ticklish landing place.”
She flashed me an unfriendly glance from sapphire eyes, but said nothing. But a voice behind me sounded unexpectedly: “To the left! The one to the left. It—it looks easier.”
Gogrol! I was startled for a moment, then turned coldly on him. “Keep out of the control room during landings,” I snapped.
He glared, muttered something, and retired. But he left me a trifle worried; not that his valley to the left was any easier to land in—that was pure bunk—but it looked a little familiar! Actually, I wasn’t sure but that Gogrol had pointed out Gunderson’s valley.
But I stuck to my first guess. The irritation I felt I took out on Claire. “Take it slow!” I said gruffly. “This isn’t a landing field. Nobody’s put up leveling poles in these valleys. You’re going to have to land completely blind from about four hundred feet, because the blast begins to splash sooner in this thin air. You go down by level and guess, and Heaven help us if you roll her! There’s no room for rolling between those cliffs.”
She bit her lip nervously. The Minos was already rolling under the girl’s inexpert hand, though that wasn’t dangerous while we still had ten or twelve miles of altitude. But the ground was coming up steadily.
I was in a cruel mood. I watched the strain grow in her lovely features, and if I felt any pity, I lost it when I thought of the way she had treated me. So I taunted her.
“This shouldn’t be a hard landing for the Golden Flash. Or maybe you’d rather be landing at full speed, so you could fall into a braking ellipse—only that wouldn’t work here, because the air doesn’t stick up high enough to act as a brake.”
And a few minutes later, when her lips were quivering with tension, I said, “It takes more than publicity and gambler’s luck to make a pilot, doesn’t it?”
She broke. She screamed suddenly, “Oh, take it! Take it, then!” and slammed the U-bar into my hands. Then she huddled back in her corner sobbing, with her golden hair streaming over her face.
I took over; I had no choice. I pulled the Minos out of the roll Claire’s gesture had put her in, and then started teetering down on the underjets. It was pitifully easy because of Europa’s low gravitation and the resulting low falling acceleration; it gave the pilot so much time to compensate for side sway.
I began to realize how miserably little the Golden Flash really knew about rocketry, and, despite myself, I felt a surge of pity for her. But why pity her? Everyone knew that Claire Avery was simply a wealthy, thrill-intoxicated daredevil, with more than her share of money, of beauty, of adulation. The despised Jack Sands pitying her? That’s a laugh!
The underblast hit and splashed, turning the brown-clad valley into black ashes and flame. I inched down very slowly now, for there was nothing to see below save the fiery sheet of the blast, and I watched the bubble on the level as if my life depended on it—which it did.
I knew the splash began at about four hundred feet in this density of air, but from then on it was guesswork, and a question of settling down so slowly that when we hit we wouldn’t damage the underjets. And if I do say it, we grounded so gently that I don’t think Claire Avery knew it until I cut off the blast.
She rubbed the tears away with her sleeve and glared blue-eyed defiance at me, but before she could speak, Henshaw opened the door. “Nice landing, Miss Avery,” he said.
“Wasn’t it?” I echoed, with a grin at the girl.
She stood up. She was trembling and I think that under Earthly gravitation she would have fallen back into the pilot’s seat, for I saw her knees shaking below her trim, black shorts.
“I didn’t land us,” she said grimly. “Mr. Sands put us to ground.”
Somehow my pity got the best of me then. “Sure,” I said. “It’s into my shift. Look.” It was; the chronometer showed three minutes in. “Miss Avery had all the hard part—”
But she was gone. And try as I would, I could not bring myself to see her as the hard, brilliant thrill-seeker which the papers and broadcasts portrayed her. Instead, she left me with a strange and by no means logical impression of—wistfulness.
Life on Europa began uneventfully. Little by little we reduced the atmospheric pressure in the Minos to conform to that outside. First Coretti and then Claire Avery had a spell of altitude sickness, but by the end of twenty hours we were all acclimated enough to be comfortable outside.
Henshaw and I were first to venture into the open. I scanned the valley carefully for familiar landmarks, but it was hard to be sure; all these canyonlike ditches were much alike. I know that a copse of song-bushes had grown high on the cliff when the Hera had landed, but our blast had splashed higher, and if the bushes had been there, they were only a patch of ashes now.
At the far end of the valley there should have been a cleft in the hills, a pass leading to the right into the next valley. That wasn’t there; all I could distinguish was a narrow ravine cutting the hills to the left.
“I’m afraid I’ve missed Gunderson’s valley,” I told Henshaw. “I think it’s the next one to our left; it’s connected to this one by a pass, if I’m right, and this is one I came in several times to hunt.” It recurred to me suddenly that Gogrol had said the left one.
“You say there’s a pass?” mused Henshaw. “Then we’ll stay here rather than chance another take-off and another landing. We can work in Gunderson’s valley through the pass. You’re sure it’s low enough so we won’t have to use oxygen helmets?”
“If it’s the right pass, I am. But work at what in Gunderson’s valley? I thought this was an exploring expedition.”
Henshaw gave me a queer, sharp look, and turned away. Right then I saw Gogrol standing in the port of the Minos, and I didn’t know whether Henshaw’s reticence was due to his presence or mine. I moved a step to follow him, but at that moment the outer door of the air lock opened and Claire Avery came out.
It was the first time I had seen her in a fair light since the take-off at Young’s Field, and I had rather forgotten the loveliness of her coloring. Of course, her skin had paled from the weeks in semidarkness, but her cadmium-yellow hair and sapphire-blue eyes were really startling, especially when she moved into the sun shadow of the cliff and stood bathed only in the golden Jupiter light.
Like Henshaw and myself, she had slipped on the all-enveloping ski suit one wore on chilly little Europa. The small world received only a fourth as much heat as steamy Io, and would not have been habitable at all, except for the fact that it kept its face always toward its primary, and therefore received heat intermittently from the Sun, but eternally from Jupiter.
The girl cast an eager look over the valley; I knew this was her first experience on an uninhabited world, and there is always a sense of strangeness and the fascination of the unknown in one’s first step on an alien planet.
She looked at Henshaw, who was methodically examining the scorched soil on which the Minos rested, and then her glance crossed mine. There was an electric moment of tension, but then the anger in her blue eyes—if it had been anger—died away, and she strode deliberately to my side.
She faced me squarely. “Jack Sands,” she said with an undertone of defiance, “I owe you an apology. Don’t think I’m apologizing for my opinion of you, but only for the way I’ve been acting toward you. In a small company like this there isn’t room for enmity, and as far as I’m concerned, your past is yours from now on. What’s more, I want to thank you for helping me during the take-off, and”—her defiance was cracking a bit—”d-during the—the landing.”
I stared at her. That apology must have cost her an effort, for the Golden Flash was a proud young lady, and I saw her wink back her tears. I choked back the vicious reply I had been about to make, and said only, “O.K. You keep your opinion of me to yourself and I’ll do the same with my opinion of you.”
She flushed, then smiled. “I guess I’m a rotten pilot,” she admitted ruefully. “I hate take-offs and landings. To tell the truth, I’m simply scared of the Minos. Up to the time we left Young’s Field, I’d never handled anything larger than my little racing rocket, the Golden Flash.”
I gasped. That wouldn’t have been credible if I hadn’t seen with my own eyes how utterly unpracticed she was. “But why?” I asked in perplexity. “If you hate piloting so, why do it? Just for publicity? With your money you don’t have to, you know.”
“Oh, my money!” she echoed irritably. She stared away over the narrow valley, and started suddenly. “Look!” she cried. “There’s something moving on the peaks—like a big ball. And way up where there’s no air at all!”
I glanced over. “It’s just a bladder bird,” I said indifferently. I’d seen plenty of them; they were the commonest mobile form of life on Europa. But of course Claire hadn’t, and she was eagerly curious.
I explained. I threw stones into a tinkling grove of song-bushes until I flushed up another, and it went gliding over our heads with its membrane stretched taut.
I told her that the three-foot creature that had sailed like a flying squirrel was the same sort as the giant ball she had glimpsed among the airless peaks, only the one on the peaks had inflated its bladder. The creatures were able to cross from valley to valley by carrying their air with them in their big, balloonlike bladders. And, of course, bladder birds weren’t really birds at all; they didn’t fly, but glided like the lemurs and flying squirrels of Earth, and naturally, couldn’t even do that when they were up on the airless heights.
Claire was so eager and interested and wide-eyed that I quite forgot my grudge. I started to show her my knowledge of things Europan; I led her close to the copse of song-bushes so that she could listen to the sweet and plaintive melody of their breathing leaves, and I took her down to the salt pool in the center of the valley to find some of the primitive creatures which Gunderson’s men had called “nutsies,” because they looked very much like walnuts with the hulls on. But within was a small mouthful of delicious meat, neither animal nor vegetable, which was quite safe to eat raw, since bacterial life did not exist on Europa.
I guess I was pretty exuberant, for after all, this was the first chance at companionship I’d had for many weeks. We wandered down the valley and I talked, talked about anything. I told her of the various forms life assumed on the planets, how on Mars and Titan and Europa sex was unknown, though Venus and Earth and Io all possessed it; and how on Mars and Europa vegetable and animal life had never differentiated, so that even the vastly intelligent beaked Martians had a tinge of vegetable nature, while conversely the song-bushes on the hills of Europa had a vaguely animal content. And meanwhile we wandered aimlessly along until we stood below the narrow pass or ravine that led presumably into Gunderson’s valley to our left.
Far up the slope a movement caught my eye. A bladder bird, I thought idly, though it was a low altitude for one to inflate; they usually expanded their bladders just below the point where breathing became impossible. Then I saw that it wasn’t a bladder bird; it was a man. In fact, it was Gogrol.
He was emerging from the pass, and his collar was turned up about his throat against the cold of the altitude. He hadn’t seen us, apparently, as he angled down what mountaineers call a col, a ledge or neck of rock that slanted from the mouth of the ravine along the hillside toward the Minos. But Claire, following the direction of my gaze, saw him in the moment before brush hid him from view.
“Gogrol” she exclaimed. “He must have been in the next valley. Stefan will want—” She caught herself sharply.
“Why,” I asked grimly, “should your friend Coretti be interested in Gogrol’s actions? After all, Gogrol’s supposed to be a biologist, isn’t he? Why shouldn’t he take a look in the next valley?”
Her lips tightened. “Why shouldn’t he?” she echoed. “I didn’t say he shouldn’t. I didn’t say anything like that.”
And thenceforward she maintained a stubborn silence. Indeed, something of the old enmity and coolness seemed to have settled between us as we walked back through the valley toward the Minos.
That night Henshaw rearranged our schedule to a more convenient plan than the requirements of space. We divided our time into days and nights, or rather into sleeping and waking periods, for, of course, there is no true night on Europa. The shifts of light are almost as puzzling as those on its neighbor Io, but not quite, because Io has its own rotation to complicate matters.
On Europa, the nearest approach to true night is during the eclipse that occurs every three days or so, when the landscape is illumined only by the golden twilight of Jupiter, or at the most, only by Jupiter and Io light. So we set our own night time by arbitrary Earth reckoning, so that we might all work and sleep during the same periods.
There was no need for any sort of watch to be kept; no one had ever reported life dangerous to man on little Europa. The only danger came from the meteors that swarm about the giant Jupiter’s orbit, and sometimes came crashing down through the shallow air of his satellites; we couldn’t dodge them here as we could in space. But that was a danger against which a guard was unavailing.
It was the next morning that I cornered Henshaw and forced him to listen to my questions.
“Listen to me, Harris,” I said determinedly. “What is there about this expedition that everybody knows but me? If this is an exploring party, I’m the Ameer of Yarkand. Now I want to know what it’s all about.”
Henshaw looked miserably embarrassed. He kept his eyes away from mine, and muttered unhappily, “I can’t tell you, Jack. I’m damned sorry, but I can’t tell you.”
He hesitated. “Because I’m under orders not to, Jack.”
Henshaw shook his head. “Damn it!” he said vehemently. “I trust you. If it were my choice, you’d be the one I’d pick for honesty. But it isn’t my choice.” He paused. “Do you understand that? All right”—he stiffened into his captain’s manner—”no more questions, then. I’ll ask the questions and give the orders.”
Well, put on that basis, I couldn’t argue. I’m a pilot, first, last, and always, and I don’t disobey my superior’s orders even when he happens to be as close a friend as Henshaw. But I began to kick myself for not seeing something queer in the business as soon as Henshaw offered me the job.
If Interplanetary was looking for favorable publicity, they wouldn’t get it by signing me on. Moreover, the government wasn’t in the habit of reissuing a revoked pilot’s license without good and sufficient reason, and I knew I hadn’t supplied any such reason by loafing around brooding over my troubles. That alone should have tipped me off that something was screwy.
And there were plenty of hints during the voyage itself. True, Gogrol seemed to talk the language of biology, but I’ll be dogged if Coretti talked like a chemist. And there was that haunting sense of familiarity about Gogrol, too. And to cap the climax was the incongruity of calling this jaunt an exploring expedition; for all the exploring we were doing we might as well have landed on Staten Island or Buffalo. Better, as far as I was concerned, because I’d seen Europa but had never been to Buffalo.
Well, there was nothing to be done about it now. I suppressed my disgust and tried as hard as I could to cooperate with the others in whatever project we were supposed to be pursuing. That was rather difficult, too, because suspicious-appearing incidents kept cropping up to make me feel like a stranger or an outcast.
There was, for instance, the time Henshaw decided that a change in diet would be welcome. The native life of Europa was perfectly edible, though not all as tasty as the tiny shell creatures of the salt pools. However, I knew of one variety that had served the men of the Hera, a plantlike growth consisting of a single fleshy hand-sized member, that we had called liver-leaf because of its taste.
The captain detailed Coretti and myself to gather a supply of this delicacy, and I found a specimen, showed it to him, and then set off dutifully along the north—that is, the left—wall of the valley.
Coretti appeared to take the opposite side, but I had not gone far before I glimpsed him skirting my edge of the salt pool. That meant nothing; he was free to search anywhere for liver-leaf, but it was soon evident to me that he was not searching. He was following me; he was shadowing my movements.
I was thoroughly irritated, but determined not to show it. I plodded methodically along, gathering the fat leaves in my basket, until I reached the valley’s far end and the slopes back and succeeded in running square into Coretti before he could maneuver himself out of a copse of song-bushes.
He grinned at me. “Any luck?” he asked.
“More than you, it seems,” I retorted, with a contemptuous look at his all but empty basket.
“I had no luck at all. I thought maybe in the next valley, through the pass there, we might find some.”
“I’ve found my share,” I grunted.
I thought I noticed a flicker of surprise in his black eyes. “You’re not going over?” he asked sharply. “You’re going back?”
“You guessed it,” I said sharply. “My basket’s full and I’m going back.”
I knew that he watched me most of the way back, because halfway to the Minos I turned around, and I could see him standing there on the slope below the pass.
Along toward what we called evening the Sun went into our first eclipse. The landscape was bathed in the aureate light of Jupiter alone, and I realized that I’d forgotten how beautiful that golden twilight could be.
I was feeling particularly lonesome, too; so I wandered out to stare at the glowing peaks against the black sky, and the immense, bulging sphere of Jupiter with Ganymede swinging like a luminous pearl close beside it. The scene was so lovely that I forgot my loneliness, until I was suddenly reminded of it.
A glint of more brilliant gold caught my eye, up near the grove of song-bushes. It was Claire’s head; she was standing there watching the display, and beside her was Coretti. While I looked, he suddenly turned and drew her into his arms; she put her hands against his chest, but she wasn’t struggling; she was perfectly passive and content. It was none of my business, of course, but—well, if I’d disliked Coretti before, I hated him now, because I was lonely again.
I think it was the next day that things came to a head, and trouble really began. Henshaw had been pleased with our meal of indigenous life, and decided to try it again. This time Claire was assigned to accompany me, and we set off in silence. A sort of echo of the coolness that had attended our last parting survived, and besides, what I had seen last night in the eclipse light seemed to make a difference to me. So I simply stalked along at her side, wondering what to choose for the day’s menu.
We didn’t want liver-leaves again. The little nutsies from the salt pool were all right, but it was a half-day’s job to gather enough, and besides, they were almost too salty to be pleasant fare for a whole meal. Bladder birds were hopeless; they consisted of practically nothing except thin skin stretched over a framework of bones. I remembered that once we had tried a brown, fungoid lump that grew in the shade under the song-bushes; some of Gunderson’s men had liked it.
Claire finally broke the silence. “If I’m going to help you look,” she suggested, “I ought to know what we’re looking for.”
I described the lumpy growths. “I’m not so sure all of us will like them. Near as I can remember, they tasted something like truffles, with a faint flavor of meat added. We tried them both raw and cooked, and cooked was best.”
“I like truffles,” said the girl. “They’re—”
A shot! There was no mistaking the sharp crack of a .38, though it sounded queerly thin in the rare atmosphere. But it sounded again, and a third time, and then a regular fusillade!
“Keep back of me!” I snapped as we turned and raced for the Minos. The warning was needless; Claire was unaccustomed to the difficulties of running on a small planet. Her weight on Europa must have been no more than twelve or fifteen pounds, one eighth Earth normal, and though she had learned to walk easily enough—one learned that on any space journey—she had had no opportunity to learn to run. Her first step sent her half a dozen feet in the air; I sped away from her with the long, sliding stride one had to use on such planets as Europa.
I burst out of the brush into the area cleared by the blast, where already growth had begun. For a moment I saw only the Minos resting peacefully in the clearing, then I reeled with shock. At the air lock lay a man—Henshaw—with his face a bloody pulp, his head split by two bullets.
There was a burst of sound, voices, another shot. Out of the open air lock reeled Coretti; he staggered backward for ten steps, then dropped on his side, while blood welled up out of the collar of his suit. And standing grimly in the opening, an automatic smoking in his right hand, a charged flame-pistol in his left, was Gogrol!
I had no weapon; why should one carry arms on airless Europa? For an instant I stood frozen, appalled, uncomprehending, and in that moment Gogrol glimpsed me. I saw his hand tighten on his automatic, then he shrugged and strode toward me.
“Well,” he said with a snarl in his voice, “I had to do it. They went crazy. Anerosis. It struck both of them at once, and they went clean mad. Self-defense, it was.”
I didn’t believe him, of course. People don’t get anerosis in air no rarer than Europa’s; one could live his whole life out there without ever suffering from air starvation. But I couldn’t argue those points with a panting murderer armed with the most deadly weapon ever devised, and with a girl coming up behind me. So I said nothing at all.
Claire came up; I heard her shocked intake of breath, and her almost inaudible wail, “Stefan!” Then she saw Gogrol holding his guns, and she flared out, “So you did it! I knew they suspected you! But you’ll never get away with it, you—”
She broke off under the sudden menace of Gogrol’s eyes, and I stepped in front of her as he raised the automatic. For an instant death looked squarely at both of us, then the man shrugged and the evil light in his eyes dimmed.
“A while yet,” he muttered. “If Coretti dies—” He backed to the air lock and pulled a helmet from within the Minos, an air helmet that we had thought might serve should we ever need to cross the heights about a blind valley.
Then Gogrol advanced toward us, and I felt Claire quiver against my shoulder. But the man only glared at us and spat out a single word. “Back!” he rasped. “Back!”
We backed. Under the menace of that deadly flame-pistol he herded us along the narrow valley, eastward to the slope whence angled the ravine that led toward Gunderson’s valley. And up the slope, into the dim shadows of the pass itself, so narrow in places that my outstretched hands could have spanned the gap between the walls. A grim, dark, echo-haunted, and forbidding place; I did not wonder that the girl shrank against me. The air was thin to the point of insufficiency, and all three of us were gasping for breath.
There was nothing I could do, for Gogrol’s weapons bore too steadily on Claire Avery. So I slipped my arm about her to hearten her and inched warily along that shadowy canyon, until at last it widened, and a thousand feet below stretched a valley—Gunderson’s valley, I knew at once. Far away was the slope where the Hera had rested, and down in the lower end was the heart-shaped pool of brine.
Gogrol had slipped on the helmet, leaving the visor open, and his flat features peered out at us like a gargoyle’s. On he drove us, and down into the valley. But as he passed the mouth of the ravine, which by now was no more than a narrow gorge between colossal escarpments that loomed heavenward like the battlements of Atlantis, he stooped momentarily into the shadows, and when he rose again I fancied that a small sound like the singing of a teakettle followed us down the slope. It meant nothing to me then.
He waved the automatic. “Faster!” he ordered threateningly. We were down in the talus now, and we scrambled doggedly among the rocks and fallen debris. On he drove us, until we stumbled among the boulders around the central pond. Then, suddenly, he halted.
“If you follow,” he said with a cold intensity, “I shoot!” He strode away not toward the pass, but toward the ridge itself, back along the slopes that lay nearest the Minos, hidden from view in the other valley. Of course, Gogrol could cross those airless heights, secure in this helmet, carrying his air supply like the bladder birds.
He seemed to seek the shelter of an ascending ridge. As the jutting rock concealed him, I leaped to a boulder.
“Come on!” I said. “Perhaps we can beat him through the pass to the ship!”
“No!” screamed Claire, so frantically that I halted. “My Lord, no! Didn’t you see the blaster he left?”
The singing teakettle noise! I had barely time to throw myself beside the girl crouching behind a rock when the little atomic bomb let go.
I suppose everybody has seen, either by eye or television, the effect of atomic explosions. All of us, by one means or the other, have watched old buildings demolished, road grades or canals blasted, and those over forty may even remember the havoc-spreading bombs of the Pacific War. But none of you could have seen anything like this, for this explosion had a low air pressure and a gravitation only one-eighth normal as the sole checks to its fury.
It seemed to me that the whole mountain lifted. Vast masses of crumbling rock hurtled toward the black sky. Bits of stone, whistling like bullets and incandescent like meteors, shot past us, and the very ground we clung to heaved like the deck of a rolling rocket.
When the wild turmoil had subsided, when the debris no longer sang about us, when the upheaved masses had either fallen again or had spun beyond Europa’s gravitation to crash on indifferent Jupiter, the pass had vanished. Mountain and vacuum hemmed us into a prison.
Both of us were slightly stunned by the concussion, although the thin atmosphere transmitted a strangely high-pitched sound instead of the resounding b-o-o-m one would have heard on the Earth. When my head stopped ringing, I looked around for Gogrol, and saw him at last seven or eight hundred feet up the slope of the mountain. Anger surged in me; I seized a stone from the margin of the pool, and flung it viciously at him. One can throw amazing distances on small worlds like Europa; I watched the missile raise dust at his very feet.
He turned; very deliberately he raised the automatic, and stone splinters from the boulder beside me stung my face. I dragged Claire down behind the shelter, knowing beyond doubt that he had meant that bullet to kill. In silence we watched him climb until he was but a tiny black speck, nearing the crest.
He approached a bladder bird crawling its slow way along the airless heights. Up there the creatures were slow as snails, for their flight membranes were useless in the near vacuum. But they had normally no enemies on the peaks.
I saw Gogrol change his course purposely to intercept the thing. Intentionally, maliciously, he kicked a hole in the inflated bladder, collapsing it like a child’s balloon. He stood watching while the miserable creature flopped in the agonies of suffocation, then moved methodically on. It was the coldest exhibition of wanton cruelty I had ever witnessed.
Claire shuddered; still in silence we watched the man’s leisurely progress along the ridge. There was something in his attitude that suggested searching, seeking, hunting. Suddenly he quickened his pace and then halted abruptly, stooping over what looked to me like a waist-high heap of stones, or perhaps merely a hummock on the ridge.
But he was burrowing in it, digging, flinging stones and dirt aside. And at last he stood up; if he held anything, distance hid it, but he seemed to wave some small object at us in derisive triumph. Then he moved over the crest of the hills and disappeared.
Claire sighed despondently; she seemed very little like the proud and rather arrogant Golden Flash. “That settles it,” she murmured disconsolately. “He’s got it, and he’s got us trapped; so we’re quite helpless.”
“Got what?” I asked. “What was he digging for up there?”
Her blue eyes widened in amazement. “Don’t you know?”
“I certainly don’t. I seem to know less about this damn trip than anybody else on it.”
She gazed steadily at me. “I knew Stefan was wrong,” she said softly. “I don’t care what you were when you wrecked the Hera, Jack Sands; on this trip you’ve been decent and brave and a gentleman.”
“Thanks,” I said dryly, but I was a little touched for all that because, after all, the Golden Flash was a very beautiful girl. “Then suppose you let me in on a few of the secrets. For instance, what was Coretti wrong about? And what did Gogrol dig for?”
“Gogrol,” she said, watching me, “was digging in Gunderson’s cairn.”
I looked blank. “Gunderson’s what? This is news to me.”
She was silent for a moment. “Jack Sands,” she said at last, “I don’t care what Stefan or the government or anybody thinks of you. I think you’re honest, and I think you’ve had an injustice done you somehow, and I don’t believe you were to blame in the Hera crash. And I’m going to tell you all I know about this matter. But first, do you know the object of Gunderson’s expedition to Europa?”
“I never knew it. I’m a pilot; I took no interest in their scientific gibberish.”
She nodded. “Well, you know how a rocket motor works, of course. How they use a minute amount of uranium or radium as catalyst to release the energy in the fuel. Uranium has low activity; it will set off only metals like the alkalis, and ships using uranium motors burn salt. And radium, being more active, will set off the metals from iron to copper; so ships using a radium initiator usually burn one of the commoner iron or copper ores.”
“I know all that,” I grunted. “And the heavier the metal, the greater the power from its disintegration.”
“Exactly.” She paused a moment. “Well, Gunderson wanted to use still heavier elements. That required a source of rays more penetrating than those from radium, and he knew of only one available source—Element 91, protactinium. And it happens that the richest deposits of protactinium so far discovered are those in the rocks of Europa; so to Europa he came for his experiments.”
“Well?” I asked. “Where do I fit in this mess?”
“I don’t quite know, Jack. Let me finish what I know, which is all Stefan would tell me. Gunderson succeeded, they think; he’s supposed to have worked out the formula by which protactinium could be made to set off lead, which would give much more power than any present type of initiator. But if he did succeed, his formula and notes were destroyed when the Hera crashed!”
I began to see. “But what—what about that cairn?”
“You really don’t know?”
“I’ll be double damned if I do! If Gunderson built a cairn, it must have been that last day. I had the take-off, so I slept through most of it. But—why, they did have some sort of ceremony!”
“Yes. Gunderson mentioned something about it when your ship touched at Junopolis on Io. What the government hopes is that he buried a copy of his formula in that cairn. They do, you know. Well, nobody could possibly know of the location except you and a man named Kratska, who had disappeared.
“So Interplanetary, which is in bad anyway because of some stock transactions, was ordered to back this expedition with you as pilot—or at least, that’s what Stefan told me. I guess I was taken along just to give the corporation a little more publicity, and, of course, Stefan was sent to watch you, in hopes you’d give away the location. The formula’s immensely valuable, you see.”
“Yeah, I see. And how about Gogrol?”
She frowned. “I don’t know. Stefan hinted that he had some connections with Harrick of Interplanetary, or perhaps some hold over him. Harrick insisted on his being a member.”
“The devil!” I exploded suddenly. “He knew about the cairn! He knew where to look!”
Her eyes grew wide. “Why, he did! He’s—could he be the representative of some foreign government? If we could stop him! But he’s left us absolutely helpless here. Why didn’t he kill us?”
“I can guess that,” I said grimly. “He can’t fly the Minos alone. Henshaw’s dead, and if Coretti dies—well, one of us is due for the job of pilot.”
A tremor shook her. “I’d rather be dead, too,” she murmured, “than to travel with him alone.”
“And I’d rather see you so,” I agreed glumly. “I wish to heaven you had stayed out of this. You could be home enjoying your money.”
“My money!” she flashed. “I haven’t any money. Do you think I take these chances for publicity or thrills or admiration?”
I gaped; of course, I’d thought exactly that.
She was literally blazing. “Listen to me, Jack Sands. There’s just one reason for the fool things I do—money! There isn’t any Avery fortune, and hasn’t been since my father died. I’ve needed money desperately these last two years, to keep the Connecticut place for my mother, because she’d die if she had to leave it. It’s been our family home for two hundred years, since 1910, and I won’t be the one to lose it!”
It took a moment to adjust myself to what she was saying. “But a racing rocket isn’t a poor man’s toy,” I said feebly. “And surely a girl like you could find—”
“A girl like me!” she cut in bitterly. “Oh, I know I have a good figure and a passable voice, and perhaps I could have found work in a television chorus, but I needed real money. I had my choice of two ways to get it: I could marry it, or I could gamble my neck against it. You see which way I chose. As the Golden Flash, I can get big prices for endorsing breakfast foods and beauty preparations. That’s why I gambled in that race; my racing rocket was all I had left to gamble with. And it worked, only”—her voice broke a little—”I wish I could stop gambling. I—I hate it!”
It wasn’t only pity I felt for her then. Her confession of poverty had changed things; she was no longer the wealthy, unattainable being I had always imagined the Golden Flash to be. She was simply a forlorn and unhappy girl; one who needed to be loved and comforted. And then I remembered the evening of the eclipse, and Coretti’s arms about her. So I gazed for an instant at the sunlight on her hair, and then turned slowly away.
After a while we gathered some liver-leaves and cooked them, and I tried to tell Claire that we were certain to be rescued. Neither of us believed it; we knew very well that Gogrol would carry no living companion to Io; whoever helped him run the Minos would certainly be dead and cast into space before landing. And we knew that Gogrol’s story, whatever it might be, would not be one likely to encourage a rescue party. He’d simply report us all dead somehow or other.
“I don’t care,” said Claire. “I’m glad I’m with you.”
I thought of Coretti and said nothing. We were just sitting in glum silence near the fire when Gogrol came over the hills again.
Claire saw him first and cried out. Despite his helmet, neither of us could mistake his broad, squat figure. But there was nothing we could do except wait, though we did draw closer to the area of wild and tumbled boulders about the central pool.
“What do you suppose—” asked Claire nervously. “Coretti may have died, or may be too injured to help.” Pain twisted her features. “Yes, or—Oh, I know, Jack! It’s that Gogrol can’t plot a course. He can pilot; he can follow a course already laid out, but he can’t plot one—and neither can Stefan!”
Instantly I knew she must be right. Piloting a ship is just a question of following directions, but plotting a course involves the calculus of function, and that, let me tell you, takes a mathematician. I could do it, and Claire handled a simple route well enough—one had to in rocket racing—but astrogators were not common even among pilots.
You see, the difficulty is that you don’t just point the ship at your destination, because that destination is moving; you head for where the planet will be when you arrive. And in this case, assuming Gogrol meant to make for Io, a journey from Europa to that world meant speeding in the direction of the colossal mass of Jupiter, and if a rocket once passed the critical velocity in that direction—good night!
A hundred feet away Gogrol halted. “Listen, you two,” he yelled, “I’m offering Miss Avery the chance to join the crew of the Minos.”
“You’re the crew,” I retorted. “She’s not taking your offer.”
Without warning he leveled his revolver and fired, and a shock numbed my left leg. I fell within the shelter of a boulder, thrusting Claire before me, while Gogrol’s bellow followed the crash of his shot: “I’ll shut your mouth for you!”
There began the weirdest game of hide and seek I’ve ever played, with Claire and me crawling among the tumbled boulders, scarcely daring to breathe. Gogrol had all the advantage, and he used it. I couldn’t stand upright, and my legs began to hurt so excruciatingly that I was afraid each minute of an involuntary groan forcing its way through my lips. Claire suffered with me; her eyes were agonized blue pools of torment, but she dared not even whisper to me.
Gogrol took to leaping atop the boulders. He glimpsed me, and a second bullet struck that same burning leg. He was deliberately hunting me down, and I saw it was the end.
We had a momentary shelter. Claire whispered to me, “I’m going to him. He’ll kill you otherwise, and take me anyway.”
“No!” I croaked. “No!”
Gogrol heard, and was coming. Claire said hastily. “He’s—bestial. At least I can plot a course that will—kill us!” Then she called, “Gogrol! I’ll surrender.”
I snatched at her ankle—too late. I went crawling after her as she strode into the open, but her steps were too rapid. I heard her say, “I give up, if you won’t—shoot him again.”
Gogrol mumbled, and then Claire’s voice again, “Yes, I’ll plot your course, but how can I cross the peaks?”
“Walk,” he said, and laughed.
“I can’t breathe up there.”
“Walk as far as you can. You won’t die while I take you the rest of the way.”
There was no reply. When I finally crept into the open, they were a hundred feet up the slope.
Helpless, raging, pain-maddened, I seized a stone and flung it. It struck Gogrol in the back, but it struck with no more force than if I’d tossed it a dozen feet on Earth. He spun in fury, thrust the screaming Claire aside, and sent another bullet at me. Missed me, I thought, though I wasn’t sure, for pain had numbed me. I couldn’t be sure of anything.
Claire saw that I still retained some semblance of consciousness. “Goodbye!” she called, and added something that I could not hear because of the red waves of pain, but I knew Gogrol laughed at it. Thereafter, for what seemed like a long time, I knew only that I was crawling doggedly through an inferno of torture.
When the red mist lifted, I was only at the base of the rise. Far above I could see the figures of Claire and Gogrol, and I perceived that though he strode with easy steps, protected by his helmet, the girl was already staggering from breathlessness. While I watched, she stumbled, and then began to struggle frantically and spasmodically to jerk away from him. It wasn’t that she meant to break her promise, but merely that the agonies of suffocation drove her to attempt any means of regaining breathable air.
But the struggle was brief. It was less than a minute before she fainted, passed out from air starvation, and Gogrol slung her carelessly under one arm—as I said, she weighed about twelve pounds on Europa—and pressed on. At the very crest he paused and looked back, and in that thin, clear air I could see every detail with telescopic distinctness, even to the shadow he cast across Claire’s drooping golden head.
He raised the revolver to his temple, waved it at me with a derisive gesture, and then flung it far down the mountainside toward me. His meaning was unmistakable; he was advising me to commit suicide. When I reached the revolver, there was a single unused catridge in the clip; I looked up, tempted to try it on Gogrol himself, but he was gone across the ridge.
Now I knew all hope was gone. Perhaps I was dying from that last bullet anyway, but whether I were or not, Claire was lost, and all that remained for me was the madness of solitude, forever imprisoned by empty space in this valley. That or—suicide.
I don’t know how many times I thought of that single cartridge, but I know the thought grew very tempting after a few more hours of pain. By that time, for all I knew, the Minos might have taken off on its dash to death, for the roar of its blast could not carry over the airless heights, and it would be so high and small by the time I could see it above the hills that I might have missed it.
If only I could cross those hills! I began to realize that more important than my own life was Claire’s safety, even if it meant saving her for Coretti. But I couldn’t save her; I couldn’t even get to her unless I could walk along the hills like a bladder bird.
Like a bladder bird! I was sure that it was only the delirium of fever that suggested that wild thought. Would it work? I answered myself that whether it worked or failed it was better than dying here without ever trying.
I stalked that bladder bird like a cat. Time after time I spent long minutes creeping toward a copse of song-bushes only to have the creature sail blithely over my head and across the valley. But at last I saw the thing crouched for flight above me; I dared not delay longer lest my wounds weaken me too much for the trial of my plan, and I fired. There went my single cartridge.
The bladder bird dropped! But that was only the beginning of my task. Carefully—so very carefully—I removed the creature’s bladder, leaving the vent tube intact. Then, through the opening that connects to the bird’s single lung, I slipped my head, letting the bloody rim contract about my throat.
I knew that wouldn’t be air-tight, so I bound it with strips torn from my clothing, so closely that it all but choked me. Then I took the slimy vent tube in my mouth and began an endless routine. Breathe in through the vent tube, pinch it shut, breathe out into the bladder—over and over and over. But gradually the bladder expanded with filthy, vitiated, stinking, and once-breathed air.
I had it half filled when I saw that I was going to have to start if I were to have a chance of living long enough for a test. Breathing through the vent tube as long as there was air enough, peering dully through the semitransparent walls of the bladder, I started crawling up the hill.
I won’t describe that incredible journey. On Earth it would have been utterly impossible; here, since I weighed but eighteen pounds, it was barely within the bounds of possibility. As I ascended, the bladder swelled against the reduced pressure; by the time I had to start breathing the fearful stuff, I could feel it escaping and bubbling through the blood around my neck.
Somehow I made the crest, almost directly above the Minos. It was still there, anyway. Gogrol hadn’t come this way, and now I saw why. There was a sheer drop here of four hundred feet. Well, that only equaled fifty on Earth, but even fifty—But I had to try it, because I was dying here on the peaks. I jumped.
I landed with a wrench of pain on my wounded leg, but much more lightly than I had feared. Of course! Jumping down into denser air, the great bladder had acted like a parachute, and, after all, my weight here was but eighteen pounds. I crawled onward, in agony for the moment when I could cast off the stinking, choking bladder.
That moment came. I had crossed the peaks, and before me lay the Minos. I crawled on, around to the side where the air lock was. It was open, and a voice bellowed out of it. Gogrol!
“You’ll trick me, eh!” he screeched. “You’ll lay a course that will crash us! We’ll see! We’ll see!” There came the unmistakable sound of a blow, and a faint whimper of pain.
Somewhere I found the strength to stand up. Brandishing the empty automatic, I swayed into the air lock, sliding along the walls to the control room.
There was something about the figure that bent in the dusk above a sobbing girl that aroused a flash of recognition. Seeing him thus in a shadowed control room with the sun shields up—I knew what I should have known weeks ago. Gogrol was—Kratska!
“Kratska!” I croaked, and he whirled. Both he and Claire were frozen into utter rigidity by surprise and disbelief. I really think they were both convinced that I was a ghost.
“How—how—” squeaked Gogrol, or rather Kratska.
“I walked across. I’d walk across hell to find you, Kratska.” I brandished the gun. “Get out and get away quick, if you expect to escape the blast. We’re leaving you here until police from Io can pick you up—on that Hera matter among others.” I spoke to the dazed Claire. “Close the air lock after him. We’re taking off.”
“Jack!” she cried, comprehending at last. “But Stefan’s wired to a tree out there. The blast will incinerate him!”
“Then loose him, and for Heaven’s sake, quickly!”
But no sooner had she vanished than Kratska took his chance. He saw how weak I was, and he gambled on the one shot he thought remained in the magazine of my weapon. He rushed me.
I think he was mad. He was screaming curses. “Damn you!” he screeched. “You can’t beat me! I made you the goat on the Hera, and I can do it here.”
And I knew he could, too, if he could overcome me before Claire released Coretti. She couldn’t handle him, and we’d all be at his mercy. So I fought with all the life I had left, and felt it draining out of me like acid out of burette. And after a while it was all drained, and darkness filled up the emptiness.
I heard curious sounds. Some one was saying, “No, I’ll take off first and lay out the course after we reach escape velocity. Saves time. We’ve got to get him to Io.” And a little later, “Oh, Lord, Stefan! If I roll her now—Why am I such a rotten pilot?” And then there was the roar of the blast for hours upon hours.
A long time later I realized that I was lying on the chart room table, and Coretti was looking down at me. He said, “How you feel, Jack!” It was the first time he had used my name.
“O.K.,” I said, and then memory came back. “Gogrol! He’s Kratska!”
“He was,” said Coretti. “He’s dead.”
“Dead!” There went any chance of squaring that Hera mess.
“Yep. You killed him, smashed in his head with that automatic before we could pull you off. But he had it coming.”
“Yeah, maybe, but the Hera—”
“Never mind the Hera, Jack. Both Claire and I beard Kratska admit his responsibility. We’ll clear you of that, all right.” He paused. “And it might make you feel a little more chipper it I tell you that we got the formula, too, and that there’s a reward for it that will leave us sitting in the clover field, even split three ways. That is, Claire keeps insisting on three ways; I know I don’t deserve a split.”
“Three ways is right,” I said. “It’ll give you and Claire a good send-off.”
“Me and Claire?’
“Listen, Coretti. I didn’t mean to, but I saw you the evening of the eclipse. Claire didn’t look as if she was fighting you.”
He smiled. “So you saw that,” he said slowly. “Then you listen. A fellow who’s asking a girl to marry him is apt to hold the girl a little close. And if she’s got any heart, she doesn’t push him away. She just says no as gently as possible.”
“She says no?”
“She did that time. I’d bet different with you.”
“She—she—” Something about the familiar sound of the blast caught my attention. “We’re landing!”
“Yeah, on Io. We’ve been landing for two hours.”
“Who took off?”
“Claire did. She took off and kept going. She’s been sitting there fifty hours. She thinks you need a doctor, and I don’t know a damn thing about running a rocket. She’s taken it clear from Europa.”
I sat up. “Take me in there,” I said grimly. “Don’t argue. Take me in there!”
Claire barely raised her eyes when Coretti slid me down beside her. She was all but exhausted, sitting there all those weary hours, and now up against her old terror of landing.
“Jack, Jack!” she whispered as if to herself. “I’m glad you’re better.”
“Honey,” I said—her hair did look like honey—“I’m taking half the U-bar. Just let me guide you.”
We came down without a roll, and landed like a canary feather. But I hadn’t a thing to do with it; I was so weak I couldn’t even move the U-bar, but she didn’t know that. Confidence was all she needed; she had the makings of a damn good pilot. Yeah; I’ve proved that. She is a damn good pilot. But all the same, she went to sleep in the middle of our first kiss.
Other works by Stanley G. Weinbaum
- Parasite Planet (Jul 1, 2007)
- Parasite Planet by Stanley G. Weinbaum (Jul 1, 2007)