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   Chapter 1 No.1

Planet of Dread By Murray Leinster Characters: 28176

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Moran cut apart the yard-long monstrosity with a slash of flame. The thing presumably died, but it continued to writhe senselessly. He turned to see other horrors crawling toward him. Then he knew he was being marooned on a planet of endless terrors.

Moran, naturally, did not mean to help in the carrying out of the plans which would mean his destruction one way or another. The plans were thrashed out very painstakingly, in formal conference on the space-yacht Nadine, with Moran present and allowed to take part in the discussion. From the viewpoint of the Nadine's ship's company, it was simply necessary to get rid of Moran. In their predicament he might have come to the same conclusion; but he was not at all enthusiastic about their decision. He would die of it.

The Nadine was out of overdrive and all the uncountable suns of the galaxy shone steadily, remotely, as infinitesimal specks of light of every color of the rainbow. Two hours since, the sun of this solar system had been a vast glaring disk off to port, with streamers and prominences erupting about its edges. Now it lay astern, and Moran could see the planet that had been chosen for his marooning. It was a cloudy world. There were some dim markings near one lighted limb, but nowhere else. There was an ice-cap in view. The rest was-clouds.

* * *

The ice-cap, by its existence and circular shape, proved that the planet rotated at a not unreasonable rate. The fact that it was water-ice told much. A water-ice ice-cap said that there were no poisonous gases in the planet's atmosphere. Sulfur dioxide or chlorine, for example, would not allow the formation of water-ice. It would have to be sulphuric-acid or hydrochloric-acid ice. But the ice-cap was simple snow. Its size, too, told about temperature-distribution on the planet. A large cap would have meant a large area with arctic and sub-arctic temperatures, with small temperate and tropical climate-belts. A small one like this meant wide tropical and sub-tropical zones. The fact was verified by the thick, dense cloud-masses which covered most of the surface,-all the surface, in fact, outside the ice-cap. But since there were ice-caps there would be temperate regions. In short, the ice-cap proved that a man could endure the air and temperature conditions he would find.

* * *

Moran observed these things from the control-room of the Nadine, then approaching the world on planetary drive. He was to be left here, with no reason ever to expect rescue. Two of the Nadine's four-man crew watched out the same ports as the planet seemed to approach. Burleigh said encouragingly;

"It doesn't look too bad, Moran!"

Moran disagreed, but he did not answer. He cocked an ear instead. He heard something. It was a thin, wabbling, keening whine. No natural radiation sounds like that. Moran nodded toward the all-band speaker.

"Do you hear what I do?" he asked sardonically.

Burleigh listened. A distinctly artificial signal came out of the speaker. It wasn't a voice-signal. It wasn't an identification beacon, such as are placed on certain worlds for the convenience of interstellar skippers who need to check their courses on extremely long runs. This was something else.

Burleigh said:

"Hm ... Call the others, Harper."

Harper, prudently with him in the control-room, put his head into the passage leading away. He called. But Moran observed with grudging respect that he didn't give him a chance to do anything drastic. These people on the Nadine were capable. They'd managed to recapture the Nadine from him, but they were matter-of-fact about it. They didn't seem to resent what he'd tried to do, or that he'd brought them an indefinite distance in an indefinite direction from their last landing-point, and they had still to re-locate themselves.

* * *

They'd been on Coryus Three and they'd gotten departure clearance from its space-port. With clearance-papers in order, they could land unquestioned at any other space-port and take off again-provided the other space-port was one they had clearance for. Without rigid control of space-travel, any criminal anywhere could escape the consequences of any crime simply by buying a ticket to another world. Moran couldn't have bought a ticket, but he'd tried to get off the planet Coryus on the Nadine. The trouble was that the Nadine had clearance papers covering five persons aboard-four men and a girl Carol. Moran made six. Wherever the yacht landed, such a disparity between its documents and its crew would spark an investigation. A lengthy, incredibly minute investigation. Moran, at least, would be picked out as a fugitive from Coryus Three. The others were fugitives too, from some unnamed world Moran did not know. They might be sent back where they came from. In effect, with six people on board instead of five, the Nadine could not land anywhere for supplies. With five on board, as her papers declared, she could. And Moran was the extra man whose presence would rouse space-port officials' suspicion of the rest. So he had to be dumped.

He couldn't blame them. He'd made another difficulty, too. Blaster in hand, he'd made the Nadine take off from Coryus III with a trip-tape picked at random for guidance. But the trip-tape had been computed for another starting-point, and when the yacht came out of overdrive it was because the drive had been dismantled in the engine-room. So the ship's location was in doubt. It could have travelled at almost any speed in practically any direction for a length of time that was at least indefinite. A liner could re-locate itself without trouble. It had elaborate observational equipment and tri-di star-charts. But smaller craft had to depend on the Galactic Directory. The process would be to find a planet and check its climate and relationship to other planets, and its flora and fauna against descriptions in the Directory. That was the way to find out where one was, when one's position became doubtful. The Nadine needed to make a planet-fall for this.

The rest of the ship's company came into the control-room. Burleigh waved his hand at the speaker.

"Listen!"

* * *

They heard it. All of them. It was a trilling, whining sound among the innumerable random noises to be heard in supposedly empty space.

"That's a marker," Carol announced. "I saw a costume-story tape once that had that sound in it. It marked a first-landing spot on some planet or other, so the people could find that spot again. It was supposed to be a long time ago, though."

"It's weak," observed Burleigh. "We'll try answering it."

Moran stirred, and he knew that every one of the others was conscious of the movement. But they didn't watch him suspiciously. They were alert by long habit. Burleigh said they'd been Underground people, fighting the government of their native world, and they'd gotten away to make it seem the revolt had collapsed. They'd go back later when they weren't expected, and start it up again. Moran considered the story probable. Only people accustomed to desperate actions would have remained so calm when Moran had used desperate measures against them.

Burleigh picked up the transmitter-microphone.

"Calling ground," he said briskly. "Calling ground! We pick up your signal. Please reply."

He repeated the call, over and over and over. There was no answer. Cracklings and hissings came out of the speaker as before, and the thin and reedy wabbling whine continued. The Nadine went on toward the enlarging cloudy mass ahead.

Burleigh said;

"Well?"

"I think," said Carol, "that we should land. People have been here. If they left a beacon, they may have left an identification of the planet. Then we'd know where we are and how to get to Loris."

Burleigh nodded. The Nadine had cleared for Loris. That was where it should make its next landing. The little yacht went on. All five of its proper company watched as the planet's surface enlarged. The ice-cap went out of sight around the bulge of the globe, but no markings appeared. There were cloud-banks everywhere, probably low down in the atmosphere. The darker vague areas previously seen might have been highlands.

"I think," said Carol, to Moran, "that if it's too tropical where this signal's coming from, we'll take you somewhere near enough to the ice-cap to have an endurable climate. I've been figuring on food, too. That will depend on where we are from Loris because we have to keep enough for ourselves. But we can spare some. We'll give you the emergency-kit, anyhow."

* * *

The emergency-kit contained antiseptics, seeds, and a weapon or two, with elaborate advice to castaways. If somebody were wrecked on an even possibly habitable planet, the especially developed seed-strains would provide food in a minimum of time. It was not an encouraging thought, though, and Moran grimaced.

She hadn't said anything about being sorry that he had to be marooned. Maybe she was, but rebels learn to be practical or they don't live long. Moran wondered, momentarily, what sort of world they came from and why they had revolted, and what sort of set-back to the revolt had sent the five off in what they considered a strategic retreat but their government would think defeat. Moran's own situation was perfectly clear.

He'd killed a man on Coryus III. His victim would not be mourned by anybody, and somebody formerly in very great danger would now be safe, which was the reason for what Moran had done. But the dead man had been very important, and the fact that Moran had forced him to fight and killed him in fair combat made no difference. Moran had needed to get off-planet, and fast. But space-travel regulations are especially designed to prevent such escapes.

He'd made a pretty good try, at that. One of the controls on space-traffic required a ship on landing to deposit its fuel-block in the space-port's vaults. The fuel-block was not returned until clearance for departure had been granted. But Moran had waylaid the messenger carrying the Nadine's fuel-block back to that space-yacht. He'd knocked the messenger cold and presented himself at the yacht with the fuel. He was admitted. He put the block in the engine's gate. He duly took the plastic receipt-token the engine only then released, and he drew a blaster. He'd locked two of the Nadine's crew in the engine-room, rushed to the control-room without encountering the others, dogged the door shut, and threaded in the first trip-tape to come to hand. He punched the take-off button and only seconds later the overdrive. Then the yacht-and Moran-was away. But his present companions got the drive dismantled two days later and once the yacht was out of overdrive they efficiently gave him his choice of surrendering or else. He surrendered, stipulating that he wouldn't be landed back on Coryus; he still clung to hope of avoiding return-which was almost certain anyhow. Because nobody would want to go back to a planet from which they'd carried away a criminal, even though they'd done it unwillingly. Investigation of such a matter might last for months.

Now the space-yacht moved toward a vast mass of fleecy whiteness without any visible features. Harper stayed with the direction-finder. From time to time he gave readings requiring minute changes of course. The wabbling, whining signal was louder now. It became louder than all the rest of the space-noises together.

* * *

The yacht touched atmosphere and Burleigh said;

"Watch our height, Carol."

She stood by the echometer. Sixty miles. Fifty. Thirty. A correction of course. Fifteen miles to surface below. Ten. Five. At twenty-five thousand feet there were clouds, which would be particles of ice so small that they floated even so high. Then clear air, then lower clouds, and lower ones still. It was not until six thousand feet above the surface that the planet-wide cloud-level seemed to begin. From there on down it was pure opacity. Anything could exist in that dense, almost palpable grayness. There could be jagged peaks.

The Nadine went down and down. At fifteen hundred feet above the unseen surface, the clouds ended. Below, there was only haze. One could see the ground, at least, but there was no horizon. There was only an end to visibility. The yacht descended as if in the center of a sphere in which one could see clearly nearby, less clearly at a little distance, and not at all beyond a quarter-mile or so.

There was a shaded, shadowless twilight under the cloud-bank. The ground looked like no ground ever seen before by anyone. Off to the right a rivulet ran between improbable-seeming banks. There were a few very small hills of most unlikely appearance. It was the ground, the matter on which one would walk, which was strangest. It had color, but the color was not green. Much of it was a pallid, dirty-yellowish white. But there were patches of blue, and curious veinings of black, and here and there were other colors, all of them unlike the normal color of vegetation on a planet with a sol-type sun.

Harper spoke from the direction-finder;

"The signal's coming from that mound, yonder."

There was a hillock of elongated shape directly in line with the Nadine's course in descent. Except for the patches of color, it was the only considerable landmark within the half-mile circle in which anything could be seen at all.

The Nadine checked her downward motion. Interplanetary drive is rugged and sure, but it does not respond to fine adjustment. Burleigh used rockets, issuing great bellowings of flame, to make actual contact. The yacht hovered, and as the rocket-flames diminished slowly she sat down with practically no impact at all. But around her there was a monstrous tumult of smoke and steam. When the rockets went off, she lay in a burned-out hollow some three or four feet deep with a bottom of solid stone. The walls of the hollow were black and scorched. It seemed that at some places they quivered persistently.

There was silence in the control-room save for the whining noise

which now was almost deafening. Harper snapped off the switch. Then there was true silence. The space-yacht had come to rest possibly a hundred yards from the mound which was the source of the space-signal. That mound shared the peculiarity of the ground as far as they could see through the haze. It was not vegetation in any ordinary sense. Certainly it was no mineral surface! The landing-pockets had burned away three or four feet of it, and the edge of the burned area smoked noisesomely, and somehow it looked as if it would reek. And there were places where it stirred.

Burleigh blinked and stared. Then he reached up and flicked on the outside microphones. Instantly there was bedlam. If the landscape was strange, here, the sounds that came from it were unbelievable.

* * *

There were grunting noises. There were clickings, uncountable clickings that made a background for all the rest. There were discordant howls and honkings. From time to time some thing unknown made a cry that sounded very much like a small boy trailing a stick against a picket fence, only much louder. Something hooted, maintaining the noise for an impossibly long time. And persistently, sounding as if they came from far away, there were booming noises, unspeakably deep-bass, made by something alive. And something shrieked in lunatic fashion and something else still moaned from time to time with the volume of a steam-whistle....

"This sounds and looks like a nice place to live," said Moran with fine irony.

Burleigh did not answer. He turned down the outside sound.

"What's that stuff there, the ground?" he demanded. "We burned it away in landing. I've seen something like it somewhere, but never taking the place of grass!"

"That," said Moran as if brightly, "that's what I'm to make a garden in. Of evenings I'll stroll among my thrifty plantings and listen to the delightful sounds of nature."

Burleigh scowled. Harper flicked off the direction-finder.

"The signal still comes from that hillock yonder," he said with finality.

Moran said bitingly;

"That ain't no hillock, that's my home!"

Then, instantly he'd said it, he recognized that it could be true. The mound was not a fold in the ground. It was not an up-cropping of the ash-covered stone on which the Nadine rested. The enigmatic, dirty-yellow-dirty-red-dirty-blue-and-dirty-black ground-cover hid something. It blurred the shape it covered, very much as enormous cobwebs made solid and opaque would have done. But when one looked carefully at the mound, there was a landing-fin sticking up toward the leaden skies. It was attached to a large cylindrical object of which the fore part was crushed in. The other landing-fins could be traced.

"It's a ship," said Moran curtly. "It crash-landed and its crew set up a signal to call for help. None came, or they'd have turned the beacon off. Maybe they got the lifeboats to work and got away. Maybe they lived as I'm expected to live until they died as I'm expected to die."

Burleigh said angrily;

"You'd do what we are doing if you were in our shoes!"

"Sure," said Moran, "but a man can gripe, can't he?"

"You won't have to live here," said Burleigh. "We'll take you somewhere up by the ice-cap. As Carol said, we'll give you everything we can spare. And meanwhile we'll take a look at that wreck yonder. There might be an indication in it of what solar system this is. There could be something in it of use to you, too. You'd better come along when we explore."

"Aye, aye, sir," said Moran with irony. "Very kind of you, sir. You'll go armed, sir?"

Burleigh growled;

"Naturally!"

"Then since I can't be trusted with a weapon," said Moran, "I suggest that I take a torch. We may have to burn through that loathesome stuff to get in the ship."

"Right," growled Burleigh again. "Brawn and Carol, you'll keep ship. The rest of us wear suits. We don't know what that stuff is outside."

* * *

Moran silently went to the space-suit rack and began to get into a suit. Modern space-suits weren't like the ancient crudities with bulging metal casings and enormous globular helmets. Non-stretch fabrics took the place of metal, and constant-volume joints were really practical nowadays. A man could move about in a late-model space-suit almost as easily as in ship-clothing. The others of the landing-party donned their special garments with the brisk absence of fumbling that these people displayed in every action.

"If there's a lifeboat left," said Carol suddenly, "Moran might be able to do something with it."

"Ah, yes!" said Moran. "It's very likely that the ship hit hard enough to kill everybody aboard, but not smash the boats!"

"Somebody survived the crash," said Burleigh, "because they set up a beacon. I wouldn't count on a boat, Moran."

"I don't!" snapped Moran.

He flipped the fastener of his suit. He felt all the openings catch. He saw the others complete their equipment. They took arms. So far they had seen no moving thing outside, but arms were simple sanity on an unknown world. Moran, though, would not be permitted a weapon. He picked up a torch. They filed into the airlock. The inner door closed. The outer door opened. It was not necessary to check the air specifically. The suits would take care of that. Anyhow the ice-cap said there were no water-soluble gases in the atmosphere, and a gas can't be an active poison if it can't dissolve.

They filed out of the airlock. They stood on ash-covered stone, only slightly eroded by the processes which made life possible on this planet. They looked dubiously at the scorched, indefinite substance which had been ground before the Nadine landed. Moran moved scornfully forward. He kicked at the burnt stuff. His foot went through the char. The hole exposed a cheesy mass of soft matter which seemed riddled with small holes.

Something black came squirming frantically out of one of the openings. It was eight or ten inches long. It had a head, a thorax, and an abdomen. It had wing-cases. It had six legs. It toppled down to the stone on which the Nadine rested. Agitatedly, it spread its wing-covers and flew away, droning loudly. The four men heard the sound above even the monstrous cacophony of cries and boomings and grunts and squeaks which seemed to fill the air.

"What the devil-."

Moran kicked again. More holes. More openings. More small tunnels in the cheese-like, curd-like stuff. More black things squirming to view in obvious panic. They popped out everywhere. It was suddenly apparent that the top of the soil, here, was a thick and blanket-like sheet over the whitish stuff. The black creatures lived and thrived in tunnels under it.

* * *

Carol's voice came over the helmet-phones.

"They're-bugs!" she said incredulously. "They're beetles! They're twenty times the size of the beetles we humans have been carrying around the galaxy, but that's what they are!"

Moran grunted. Distastefully, he saw his predicament made worse. He knew what had happened here. He could begin to guess at other things to be discovered. It had not been practical for men to move onto new planets and subsist upon the flora and fauna they found there. On some new planets life had never gotten started. On such worlds a highly complex operation was necessary before humanity could move in. A complete ecological complex had to be built up; microbes to break down the rock for soil, bacteria to fix nitrogen to make the soil fertile; plants to grow in the new-made dirt and insects to fertilize the plants so they would multiply, and animals and birds to carry the seeds planet-wide. On most planets, to be sure, there were local, aboriginal plants and animals. But still terrestrial creatures had to be introduced if a colony was to feed itself. Alien plants did not supply satisfactory food. So an elaborate adaptation job had to be done on every planet before native and terrestrial living things settled down together. It wasn't impossible that the scuttling things were truly beetles, grown large and monstrous under the conditions of a new planet. And the ground....

"This ground stuff," said Moran distastefully, "is yeast or some sort of toadstool growth. This is a seedling world. It didn't have any life on it, so somebody dumped germs and spores and bugs to make it ready for plants and animals eventually. But nobody's come back to finish up the job."

Burleigh grunted a somehow surprised assent. But it wasn't surprising; not wholly so. Once one mentioned yeasts and toadstools and fungi generally, the weird landscape became less than incredible. But it remained actively unpleasant to think of being marooned on it.

"Suppose we go look at the ship?" said Moran unpleasantly. "Maybe you can find out where you are, and I can find out what's ahead of me."

He climbed up on the unscorched surface. It was elastic. The parchment-like top skin yielded. It was like walking on a mass of springs.

"We'd better spread out," added Moran, "or else we'll break through that skin and be floundering in this mess."

"I'm giving the orders, Moran!" said Burleigh shortly. "But what you say does make sense."

* * *

He and the others joined Moran on the yielding surface. Their footing was uncertain, as on a trampoline. They staggered. They moved toward the hillock which was a covered-over wrecked ship.

The ground was not as level as it appeared from the Nadine's control-room. There were undulations. But they could not see more than a quarter-mile in any direction. Beyond that was mist. But Burleigh, at one end of the uneven line of advancing men, suddenly halted and stood staring down at something he had not seen before. The others halted.

Something moved. It came out from behind a very minor spire of whitish stuff that looked like a dirty sheet stretched over a tall stone. The thing that appeared was very peculiar indeed. It was a-worm. But it was a foot thick and ten feet long, and it had a group of stumpy legs at its fore end-where there were eyes hidden behind bristling hair-like growths-and another set of feet at its tail end. It progressed sedately by reaching forward with its fore-part, securing a foothold, and then arching its middle portion like a cat arching its back, to bring its hind part forward. Then it reached forward again. It was of a dark olive color from one end to the other. Its manner of walking was insane but somehow sedate.

Moran heard muffled noises in his helmet-phone as the others tried to speak. Carol's voice came anxiously;

"What's the matter? What do you see?"

Moran said with savage precision;

"We're looking at an inch-worm, grown up like the beetles only more so. It's not an inch-worm any longer. It's a yard-worm." Then he said harshly to the men with him; "It's not a hunting creature on worlds where it's smaller. It's not likely to have turned deadly here. Come on!"

He went forward over the singularly bouncy ground. The others followed. It was to be noted that Hallet the engineer, avoided the huge harmless creature more widely than most.

* * *

They reached the mound which was the ship. Moran unlimbered his torch. He said sardonically;

"This ship won't do anybody any good. It's old-style. That thick belt around its middle was dropped a hundred years ago, and more." There was an abrupt thickening of the cylindrical hull at the middle. There was an equally abrupt thinning, again, toward the landing-fins. The sharpness of the change was blurred over by the revolting ground-stuff growing everywhere. "We're going to find that this wreck has been here a century at least!"

Without orders, he turned on the torch. A four-foot flame of pure blue-white leaped out. He touched its tip to the fungoid soil. Steam leaped up. He used the flame like a gigantic scalpel, cutting a square a yard deep in the whitish stuff, and then cutting it across and across to destroy it. Thick fumes arose, and quiverings and shakings began. Black creatures in their labyrinths of tunnels began to panic. Off to the right the blanket-like surface ripped and they poured out. They scuttled crazily here and there. Some took to wing. By instinct the other men-the armed ones-moved back from the smoke. They wore space-helmets but they felt that there should be an intolerable smell.

Moran slashed and slashed angrily with the big flame, cutting a way to the metal hull that had fallen here before his grandfather was born. Sometimes the flame cut across things that writhed, and he was sickened. But above all he raged because he was to be marooned here. He could not altogether blame the others. They couldn't land at any colonized world with him on board without his being detected as an extra member of the crew. His fate would then be sealed. But they also would be investigated. Official queries would go across this whole sector of the galaxy, naming five persons of such-and-such description and such-and-such fingerprints, voyaging in a space-yacht of such-and-such size and registration. The world they came from would claim them as fugitives. They would be returned to it. They'd be executed.

Then Carol's voice came in his helmet-phone. She cried out;

"Look out! It's coming! Kill it! Kill it-."

He heard blast-rifles firing. He heard Burleigh pant commands. He was on his way out of the hollow he'd carved when he heard Harper cry out horribly.

He got clear of the newly burned-away stuff. There was still much smoke and stream. But he saw Harper. More, he saw the thing that had Harper.

It occurred to him instantly that if Harper died, there would not be too many people on the Nadine. They need not maroon him. In fact, they wouldn't dare.

A ship that came in to port with two few on board would be investigated as thoroughly as one that had too many. Perhaps more thoroughly. So if Harper were killed, Moran would be needed to take his place. He'd go on from here in the Nadine, necessarily accepted as a member of her crew.

Then he rushed, the flame-torch making a roaring sound.

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