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   Chapter 3 No.3

Planet of Dread By Murray Leinster Characters: 24245

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


When morning came, its arrival was the exact reversal of the coming of night. In the beginning there was darkness, and in the darkness there was horror.

The creatures of the night untiringly filled the air with sound, and the sounds were discordant and gruesome and revolting. The creatures of this planet were gigantic. They should have adopted new customs appropriate to the dignity of their increased size. But they hadn't. The manners and customs of insects are immutable. They feed upon specific prey-spiders are an exception, but they are not insects at all-and they lay their eggs in specific fashion in specific places, and they behave according to instincts which are so detailed as to leave them no choice at all in their actions. They move blindly about, reacting like automata of infinite complexity which are capable of nothing not built into them from the beginning. Centuries and millenia do not change them. Travel across star-clusters leaves them with exactly the capacities for reaction that their remotest ancestors had, before men lifted off ancient Earth's green surface.

The first sign of dawn was deep, deep, deepest red in the cloud-bank no more than fifteen hundred feet overhead. The red became brighter, and presently was as brilliant as dried blood. Again presently it was crimson over all the half-mile circle that human eyes could penetrate. Later still-but briefly-it was pink. Then the sky became gray. From that color it did not change again.

Moran joined Burleigh in a survey of the landscape from the control-room. The battlefield was empty now. Of the thousands upon thousands of stinking combatants who'd rent and torn each other the evening before, there remained hardly a trace. Here and there, to be sure, a severed saw-toothed leg remained. There were perhaps as many as four relatively intact corpses not yet salvaged. But something was being done about them.

There were tiny, brightly-banded beetles hardly a foot long which labored industriously over such frayed objects. They worked agitatedly in the yeasty stuff which on this world took the place of soil. They excavated, beneath the bodies of the dead ants, hollows into which those carcasses could descend. They pushed the yeasty, curdy stuff up and around the sides of those to-be-desired objects. The dead warriors sank little by little toward oblivion as the process went on. The up-thrust, dug-out material collapsed upon them as they descended. In a very little while they would be buried where no larger carrion-eater would discover them, and then the brightly-colored sexton beetles would begin a banquet to last until only fragments of chitinous armor remained.

* * *

But Moran and Burleigh, in the Nadine's control-room, could hardly note such details.

"You saw the cargo," said Burleigh, frowning. "How's it packed? The bessendium, I mean."

"It's in small boxes too heavy to be handled easily," said Moran. "Anyhow the Malabar's crew broke some of them open to load the stuff on their lifeboats."

"The lifeboats are all gone?"

"Naturally," said Moran. "At a guess they'd have used all of them even if they didn't need them for the crew. They could carry extra food and weapons and such."

"How much bessendium is left?"

"Probably twenty boxes unopened," said Moran. "I can't guess at the weight, but it's a lot. They opened six boxes." He paused. "I have a suggestion."

"What?"

"When you've supplied yourselves," said Moran, "leave some space-port somewhere with papers saying you're going to hunt for minerals on some plausible planet. You can get such a clearance. Then you can return with bessendium coming out of the Nadine's waste-pipes and people will be surprised but not suspicious. You'll file for mineral rights, and cash your cargo. Everybody will get busy trying to grab off the mineral rights for themselves. You can clear out and let them try to find the bessendium lode. You'll be allowed to go, all right, and you can settle down somewhere rich and highly respected."

"Hmmm," said Burleigh. Then he said uncomfortably; "One wonders about the original owners of the stuff."

"After a hundred and fifty years," said Moran, "who'd you divide with? The insurance company that paid for the lost ship? The heirs of the crew? How'd you find them?" Then he added amusedly, "Only revolutionists and enemies of governments would be honest enough to worry about that!"

Brawn came into the control-room. He said broodingly that breakfast was ready. Moran had never heard him speak in a normally cheerful voice. When he went out, Moran said;

"I don't suppose he'll be so gloomy when he's rich!"

"His family was wiped out," said Burleigh curtly, "by the government we were fighting. The girl he was going to marry, too."

"Then I take back what I said," said Moran ruefully.

* * *

They went down to breakfast. Carol served it. She did not look well. Her eyes seemed to show that she'd been crying. But she treated Moran exactly like anyone else. Harper was very quiet, too. He took very seriously the fact that Moran had saved his life at the risk of his on the day before. Brawn breakfasted in a subdued, moody fashion. Only Hallet seemed to have reacted to the discovery of a salvageable shipment of bessendium that should make everybody rich,-everybody but Moran, who was ultimately responsible for the find.

"Burleigh," said Hallet expansively, "says the stuff you brought back from the wreck is worth fifty thousand credits, at least. What's the whole shipment worth?"

"I've no idea," said Moran. "It would certainly pay for a fleet of space-liners, and I'd give all of it for a ticket on one of them."

"But how much is there in bulk?" insisted Hallet.

"I saw that half a dozen boxes had been broken open and emptied for the lifeboat voyagers," Moran told him. "I didn't count the balance, but there were several times as many untouched. If they're all full of the same stuff, you can guess almost any sum you please."

"Millions, eh?" said Hallet. His eyes glistened. "Billions? Plenty for everybody?"

"There's never plenty for more than one," said Moran mildly. "That's the way we seem to be made."

Burleigh said suddenly;

"I'm worried about getting the stuff aboard. We can't afford to lose anybody, and if we have to fight the creatures here and every time we kill one its carcass draws others."

Moran took a piece of bread. He said;

"I've been thinking about survival-tactics for myself as a castaway. I think a torch is the answer. In any emergency on the yeast surface, I can burn a hole and drop down in it. The monsters are stupid. In most cases they'll go away because they stop seeing me. In the others, they'll come to the hole and I'll burn them. It won't be pleasant, but it may be practical."

Burleigh considered it.

"It may be," he admitted. "It may be."

Hallet said;

"I want to see that work before I trust the idea."

"Somebody has to try it," agreed Moran. "Anyhow my life's going to depend on it."

Carol left the room. Moran looked after her as the door closed.

"She doesn't like the idea of our leaving you behind," said Burleigh. "None of us do."

"I'm touched."

"We'll try to get a ship to come for you, quickly," said Burleigh.

"I'm sure you will," said Moran politely.

* * *

But he was not confident. The laws governing space-travel were very strict indeed, and enforced with all the rigor possible. On their enforcement, indeed, depended the law and order of the planets. Criminals had to know that they could not escape to space whenever matters got too hot for them aground. For a spaceman to trifle with interstellar-traffic laws meant at the least that they were grounded for life. But the probabilities were much worse than that. It was most likely that Burleigh or any of the others would be reported to space-port police instantly they attempted to charter a ship for any kind of illegal activity. Moran made a mental note to warn Burleigh about it.

By now, though, he was aware of a very deep irritation at the idea of being killed, whether by monsters on this planet or men sent to pick him up for due process of law. When he made the grand gesture of seizing the Nadine, he'd known nothing about the people on board, and he hadn't really expected to succeed. His real hope was to be killed without preliminary scientific questioning. Modern techniques of interrogation were not torture, but they stripped away all concealments of motive and to a great degree revealed anybody who'd helped one. Moran had killed a man in a fair fight the other man did not want to engage in. If he were caught on Coryus or returned to it, his motivation could be read from his mind. And if that was done the killing-and the sacrifice of his own future and life-would have been useless. But he'd been prepared to be killed. Even now he'd prefer to die here on Tethys than in the strictly painless manner of executions on Coryus. But he was now deeply resistant to the idea of dying at all. There was Carol....

He thrust such thoughts aside.

* * *

Morning was well begun when they prepared to transfer the wreck's treasure to the Nadine. Moran went first. At fifteen-foot intervals he burned holes in the curd-like, elastic ground-cover. Some of the holes went down only four feet to the stone beneath it. Some went down six. But a man who jumped down one of them would be safe against attack except from directly overhead, which was an unlikely direction for attack by an insect. Carol had seen a wasp fly past the day before. She said it was as big as a cow. A sting from such a monster would instantly be fatal. But no wasp would have the intelligence to use its sting on something it had not seized. A man should be safe in such a fox-hole. If a creature did try to investigate the opening, a torch could come into play. It was the most practical possible way for a man to defend himself on this world.

Moran made more than a dozen such holes of refuge in the line between the Nadine and the wreck. Carol watched with passionate solicitude from a control-room port as he progressed. He entered the wreck through the lock-doors he'd uncovered. Harper followed doggedly, not less than two fox-holes behind. Carol's voice reassured them, the while, that within the half-mile circle of visibility no monster walked or flew.

Inside the wreck, Moran placed emergency-lanterns to light the dark interior. He placed them along the particularly inconvenient passageways of a ship lying on its side instead of standing upright. He was at work breaking open a box of bessendium when Harper joined him. Harper said heavily;

"I've brought a bag. It was a pillow. Carol took the foam out."

"We'll fill it," said Moran. "Not too full. The stuff's heavy."

Harper watched while Moran poured purple crystals into it from his cupped hands.

"There you are," said Moran. "Take it away."

"Look!" said Harper. "I owe you plenty-."

"Then pay me," said Moran, exasperatedly, "by shutting up! By making Burleigh damned careful about who he tries to hire to come after me! And by getting this cargo-shifting business in operation! The Nadine's almost due on Loris. You don't want to have the space-port police get suspicions. Get moving!"

* * *

Harper clambered over the side of doorways. He disappeared. Moran was alone in the ship. He explored. He found that the crew that had abandoned the Malabar had been guilty of a singular oversight for a crew abandoning ship. But, of course, they'd been distracted not only by their predicament but by the decision to carry part of the ship's precious cargo with them, so they could make it a profitable enterprise to rescue them. They hadn't taken the trouble to follow all the rules laid down for a crew taking to the boats.

Moran made good their omission. He was back in the cargo-hold when Brawn arrived. Burleigh came next. Then Harper again. Hallet came last of the four men of the yacht. They did not make a continuous chain of men moving back and forth between the two ships. Three men came,

and loaded up, and went back. Then three men came again, one by one. There could never be a moment when a single refuge-hole in the soil could be needed by two men at the same time.

Within the first hour of work at transferring treasure, the bolt-holes came into use. Carol called anxiously that a gigantic beetle neared the ship and would apparently pass between it and the yacht. At the time, Brawn and Harper were moving from the Malabar toward the Nadine, and Hallet was about to leave the wreck's lock.

He watched with wide eyes. The beetle was truly a monster, the size of a hippopotamus as pictured in the culture-books about early human history. Its jaws, pronged like antlers, projected two yards before its huge, faceted eyes. It seemed to drag itself effortfully over the elastic surface of the ground. It passed a place where red, foleated fungus grew in a fantastic absence of pattern on the surface of the ground. It went through a streak of dusty-blue mould, which it stirred into a cloud of spores as it passed. It crawled on and on. Harper popped down into the nearest bolt-hole, his torch held ready. Brawn stood beside another refuge, sixty feet away.

Carol's voice came to their helmet-phones, anxious and exact. Hallet, in the lock-door, heard her tell Harper that the beetle would pass very close to him and to stay still. It moved on and on. It would be very close indeed. Carol gasped in horror.

The monster passed partly over the hole in which Harper crouched. One of its clawed feet slipped down into the opening. But the beetle went on, unaware of Harper. It crawled toward the encircling mist upon some errand of its own. It was mindless. It was like a complex and highly decorated piece of machinery which did what it was wound up to do, and nothing else.

Harper came out of the bolt-hole when Carol, her voice shaky with relief, told him it was safe. He went doggedly on to the Nadine, carrying his bag of purple crystals. Brawn followed, moodily.

* * *

Hallet, with a singularly exultant look upon his face, ventured out of the airlock and moved across the fungoid world. He carried a king's ransom to be added to the riches already transferred to the yacht.

Moving the bessendium was a tedious task. One plastic box in the cargo-hold held a quantity of crystals that three men took two trips each to carry. In mid-morning the bag in Hallet's hand seemed to slip just when Moran completed filling it. It toppled and spilled half its contents on the cargo-hold floor, which had been a sidewall. He began painstakingly to gather up the precious stuff and get it back in the bag. The others went on to the Nadine. Hallet turned off his helmet-phone and gestured to Moran to remove his helmet. Moran, his eyebrows raised, obeyed the suggestion.

"How anxious," asked Hallet abruptly, gathering up the dropped crystals, "how anxious are you to be left behind here?"

"I'm not anxious at all," said Moran.

"Would you like to make a deal to go along when the Nadine lifts?-If there's a way to get past the space-port police?"

"Probably," said Moran. "Certainly! But there's no way to do it."

"There is," said Hallet. "I know it. Is it a deal?"

"What is the deal?"

"You do as I say," said Hallet significantly. "Just as I say! Then ..."

The lock-door opened, some distance away. Hallet stood up and said in a commanding tone;

"Keep your mouth shut. I'll tell you what to do and when."

He put on his helmet and turned on the phone once more. He went toward the lock-door. Moran heard him exchange words with Harper and Brawn, back with empty bags to fill with crystals worth many times the price of diamonds. But diamonds were made in half-ton lots, nowadays.

Moran followed their bags. He was frowning. As Harper was about to follow Brawn, Moran almost duplicated Hallet's gestures to have him remove his helmet.

"I want Burleigh to come next trip," he told Harper, "and make some excuse to stay behind a moment and talk to me without the helmet-phones picking up everything I say to him. Understand?"

Harper nodded. But Burleigh did not come on the next trip. It was not until near midday that he came to carry a load of treasure to the yacht.

When he did come, though, he took off his helmet and turned off the phone without the need of a suggestion.

"I've been arranging storage for this stuff," he said. "I've opened plates between the hulls to dump it in. I've told Carol, too, that we've got to do a perfect job of cleaning up. There must be no stray crystals on the floor."

"Better search the bunks, too," said Moran drily, "so nobody will put aside a particularly pretty crystal to gloat over. Listen!"

He told Burleigh exactly what Hallet had said and what he'd answered. Burleigh looked acutely unhappy.

"Hallet isn't dedicated like the rest of us were," he said distressedly. "We brought him along partly out of fear that if he were captured he'd break down and reveal what he knows of the Underground we led, and much of which we had to leave behind. But I'll be able to finance a real revolt, now!"

* * *

Moran regarded him with irony. Burleigh was a capable man and a conscientious one. It would be very easy to trust him, and it is all-important to an Underground that its leaders be trusted. But it is also important that they be capable of flint-like hardness on occasion. To Moran, it seemed that Burleigh had not quite the adamantine resolution required for leadership in a conspiracy which was to become a successful revolt. He was-and to Moran it seemed regrettable-capable of the virtue of charity.

"I've told you," he said evenly. "Maybe you'll think it's a scheme on my part to get Hallet dumped and myself elected to take his identity. But what happens from now on is your business. Beginning this moment, I'm taking care of my own skin. I've gotten reconciled to the idea of dying, but I'd hate for it not to do anybody any good."

"Carol," said Burleigh unhappily, "is much distressed."

"That's very kind," said Moran sarcastically. "Now take your bag of stuff and get going."

Burleigh obeyed. Moran went back to the business of breaking open the strong plastic boxes of bessendium so their contents could be carried in forty-pound lots to the Nadine.

Thinking of Carol, he did not like the way things seemed to be going. Since the discovery of the bessendium, Hallet had been developing ideas. They did not look as if they meant good fortune for Moran without corresponding bad fortune for the others. Obviously, Moran couldn't be hidden on the Nadine during the space-port sterilization of the ship which prevented plagues from being carried from world to world. Hallet could have no reason to promise such a thing. Before landing here, he'd urged that Moran simply be dumped out the airlock. This proposal to save his life....

Moran considered the situation grimly while the business of ferrying treasure to the yacht went on almost monotonously. It had stopped once during the forenoon while a giant beetle went by. Later, it stopped again because a gigantic flying thing hovered overhead. Carol did not know what it was, but its bulging abdomen ended in an organ which appeared to be a sting. It was plainly hunting. There was no point in fighting it. Presently it went away, and just before it disappeared in the circular wall of mist it dived headlong to the ground. A little later it rose slowly into the air, carrying something almost as large as itself. It went away into the mist.

Again, once a green-and-yellow caterpillar marched past upon some mysterious enterprise. It was covered with incredibly long fur, and it moved with an undulating motion of all its segments, one after another. It seemed well over ten yards in length, and its body appeared impossibly massive. But a large part of the bulk would be the two-foot-long or longer hairs which stuck out stiffly in all directions. It, too, went away.

But continually and constantly there was a bedlam of noises. From underneath the yielding skin of the yeast-ground, there came clickings. Sometimes there were quiverings of the surface as if it were alive, but they would be the activities of ten and twelve-inch beetles who lived in subterranean tunnels in it. There were those preposterous noises like someone rattling a stick along a picket fence-only deafening-and there were baritone chirpings and deep bass boomings from somewhere far away. Moran guessed that the last might be frogs, but if so they were vastly larger than men.

* * *

Shortly after what was probably midday, Moran brushed off his hands. The bessendium part of the cargo of the wrecked Malabar had been salvaged. It was hidden between the twin hulls of the yacht. Moran had, quite privately, attended to a matter the wreck's long-dead crew should have done when they left it. Now, in theory, the Nadine should lift off and take Moran to some hastily scouted spot not too far from the ice-cap. It should leave him there with what food could be spared, and the kit of seeds that might feed him after it was gone, and weapons that might but probably wouldn't enable him to defend himself, and with a radio-beacon to try to have hope in. Then,-that would be that.

"Calling," said Moran sardonically into his helmet-phone. "Everything's cleaned up here. What next?"

"You can come along," said Hallet's voice from the ship. It was shivery. It was gleeful. "Just in time for lunch!"

Moran went along the disoriented passages of the Malabar to the lock. He turned off the beacon that had tried uselessly during six human generations to call for help for men now long dead. He went out the lock and closed it behind him. It was not likely that this planet would ever become a home for men. If there were some strangeness in its constitution that made the descendents of insects placed upon it grow to be giants, humans would not want to settle on it. And there were plenty of much more suitable worlds. So the wrecked space-ship would lie here, under deeper and ever deeper accumulations of the noisesome stuff that passed for soil. Perhaps millenia from now, the sturdy, resistant metal of the hull would finally rust through, and then-nothing. No man in all time to come would ever see the Malabar again.

Shrugging, he went toward the Nadine. He walked through bedlam. He could see a quarter-mile in one direction, and a quarter-mile in another. He could not see more than a little distance upward. The Nadine had landed upon a world with tens of millions of square miles of surface, and nobody had moved more than a hundred yards from its landing-place, and now it would leave and all wonders and all horrors outside this one quarter of a square mile would remain unknown....

He went to the airlock and shed his suit. He opened the inner door. Hallet waited for him.

"Everybody's at lunch," he said. "We'll join them."

Moran eyed him sharply. Hallet grinned widely.

"We're going to take off to find a place for you as soon as we've eaten," he said.

There was mockery in the tone. It occurred abruptly to Moran that Hallet was the kind of person who might, to be sure, plan complete disloyalty to his companions for his own benefit. But he might also enjoy betrayal for its own sake. He might, for example, find it amusing to make a man under sentence of death or marooning believe that he would escape, so Hallet could have the purely malicious pleasure of disappointing him. He might look for Moran to break when he learned that he was to die here after all.

Moran clamped his lips tightly. Carol would be better off if that was the answer. He went toward the yacht's mess-room. Hallet followed close behind. Moran pushed the door aside and entered. Burleigh and Harper and Brawn looked at him, Carol raised her eyes. They glistened with tears.

Hallet said gleefully;

"Here goes!"

Standing behind Moran, he thrust a hand-blaster past Moran's body and pulled the trigger. He held the trigger down for continuous fire as he traversed the weapon to wipe out everybody but Moran and himself.

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