The Planet of Dread by R. F. Starzl
A stupid blunder—and Mark Forepaugh faces a life of
castaway loneliness in the savage welter of the planet Inra's
here was no use hiding from the truth. Somebody had blundered—a
fatal blunder—and they were going to pay for it! Mark Forepaugh
kicked the pile of hydrogen cylinders. Only a moment ago he had broken
the seals—the mendacious seals that certified to the world that the
flasks were fully charged. And the flasks were empty! The supply of
this precious power gas, which in an emergency should have been
sufficient for six years, simply did not exist.
He walked over to the integrating machine, which as early as the year
2031 had begun to replace the older atomic processes, due to the
shortage of the radium series metals. It was bulky and heavy compared
to the atomic disintegrators, but it was much more economical and very
dependable. Dependable—provided some thick-headed stock clerk at a
terrestrial supply station did not check in empty hydrogen cylinders
instead of full ones. Forepaugh's unwonted curses brought a smile to
the stupid, good-natured face of his servant, Gunga—he who had been
banished for life from his native Mars for his impiety in closing his
single round eye during the sacred Ceremony of the Wells.
The Earth man was at this steaming hot, unhealthful trading station
under the very shadow of the South Pole of the minor planet Inra for
an entirely different reason. One of the most popular of his set on
the Earth, an athletic hero, he had fallen in love, and the devoutly
wished-for marriage was only prevented by lack of funds. The
opportunity to take charge of this richly paid, though dangerous,
outpost of civilization had been no sooner offered than taken. In
another week or two the relief ship was due to take him and his
valuable collection of exotic Inranian orchids back to the Earth, back
to a fat bonus, Constance, and an assured future.
It was a different young man who now stood tragically before the
useless power plant. His slim body was bowed, and his clean features
were drawn. Grimly he raked the cooling dust that had been forced in
the integrating chamber by the electronic rearrangement of the
original hydrogen atoms—finely powdered iron and silicon—the "ashes"
of the last tank of hydrogen.
"What's the matter?" Forepaugh barked. "Going crazy already?"
"Me, haw! Me, haw! Me thinkin'," Gunga rumbled. "Haw! We got, haw!
plenty hydr'gen." He pointed to the low metal roof of the trading
station. Though it was well insulated against sound, the place
continually vibrated to the low murmur of the Inranian rains that fell
interminably through the perpetual polar day. It was a rain such as is
never seen on Earth, even in the tropics. It came in drops as large as
a man's fist. It came in streams. It came in large, shattering masses
that broke before they fell and filled the air with spray. There was
little wind, but the steady green downpour of water and the brilliant
continuous flashing of lightning shamed the dull soggy twilight
produced by the large, hot, but hidden sun.
"Your idea of a joke!" Forepaugh growled in disgust. He understood
what Gunga's grim pleasantry referred to. There was indeed an
incalculable quantity of hydrogen at hand. If some means could be
found to separate the hydrogen atoms from the oxygen in the world of
water around them they would not lack for fuel. He thought of
electrolysis, and relaxed with a sigh. There was no power. The
generators were dead, the air drier and cooler had ceased its rhythmic
pulsing nearly an hour ago. Their lights were gone, and the automatic
radio utterly useless.
"This is what comes of putting all your eggs in one basket," he
thought, and let his mind dwell vindictively on the engineers who had
designed the equipment on which his life depended.
An exclamation from Gunga startled him. The Martian was pointing to
the ventilator opening, the only part of this strange building that
was not hermetically sealed against the hostile life of Inra. A dark
rim had appeared at its margin, a loathsome, black-green rim that was
moving, spreading out. It crept over the metal walls like the
low-lying smoke of a fire, yet it was a solid. From it emanated a
strong, miasmatic odor.
"The giant mold!" Forepaugh cried. He rushed to his desk and took out
his flash pistol, quickly set the localizer so as to cover a large
area. When he turned he saw, to his horror, Gunga about to smash into
the mold with his ax. He sent the man spinning with a blow to the ear.
"Want to scatter it and start it growing in a half-dozen places?" he
e pulled the trigger. There was a light, spiteful "ping" and for an
instant a cone of white light stood out in the dim room like a solid
thing. Then it was gone, and with it was gone the black mold, leaving
a circular area of blistered paint on the wall and an acrid odor in
the air. Forepaugh leaped to the ventilating louver and closed it
"It's going to be like this from now on," he remarked to the shaken
Gunga. "All these things wouldn't bother us as long as the machinery
kept the building dry and cool. They couldn't live in here. But it's
getting damp and hot. Look at the moisture condensing on the ceiling!"
Gunga gave a guttural cry of despair. "It knows, Boss; look!"
Through one of the round, heavily framed ports it could be seen, the
lower part of its large, shapeless body half-floating in the lashing
water that covered their rocky shelf to a depth of several feet, the
upper part spectral and gray. It was a giant amoeba, fully six feet in
diameter in its present spheroid form, but capable of assuming any
shape that would be useful. It had an envelope of tough, transparent
matter, and was filled with a fluid that was now cloudy and then
clear. Near the center there was a mass of darker matter, and this was
undoubtedly the seat of its intelligence.
The Earth man recoiled in horror! A single cell with a brain! It was
unthinkable. It was a biological nightmare. Never before had he seen
one—had, in fact, dismissed the stories of the Inranian natives as a
bit of primitive superstition, had laughed at these gentle, stupid
amphibians with whom he traded when they, in their imperfect language,
tried to tell him of it.
They had called it the Ul-lul. Well, let it be so. It was an amoeba,
and it was watching him. It floated in the downpour and watched him.
With what? It had no eyes. No matter, it was watching him. And then it
suddenly flowed outward until it became a disc rocking on the waves.
Again its fluid form changed, and by a series of elongations and
contractions it flowed through the water at an incredible speed. It
came straight for the window, struck the thick, unbreakable glass with
a shock that could be felt by the men inside. It flowed over the glass
and over the building. It was trying to eat them, building and all!
The part of its body over the port became so thin that it was almost
invisible. At last, its absolute limit reached, it dropped away,
baffled, vanishing amid the glare of the lightning and the frothing
waters like the shadows of a nightmare.
he heat was intolerable and the air was bad.
"Haw, we have to open vent'lator, Boss!" gasped the Martian.
Forepaugh nodded grimly. It wouldn't do to smother either. Though to
open the ventilator would be to invite another invasion by the black
mold, not to mention the amoebae and other fabulous monsters that had
up to now been kept at a safe distance by the repeller zone, a simple
adaptation of a very old discovery. A zone of mechanical vibrations,
of a frequency of 500,000 cycles per second, was created by a large
quartz crystal in the water, which was electrically operated. Without
power, the protective zone had vanished.
"We watch?" asked Gunga.
"You bet we watch. Every minute of the 'day' and 'night.'"
He examined the two chronometers, assuring himself that they were well
wound, and congratulated himself that they were not dependent on the
defunct power plant for energy. They were his only means of measuring
the passage of time. The sun, which theoretically would seem to travel
round and round the horizon, rarely succeeded in making its exact
location known, but appeared to shift strangely from side to side at
the whim of the fog and water.
"Th' fellas," Gunga remarked, coming out of a study. "Why not come?"
He referred to the Inranians.
"Probably know something's wrong. They can tell the quartz oscillator
is stopped. Afraid of the Ul-lul, I suppose."
"'Squeer," demurred the Martian. "Ul-lul not bother fellas."
"You mean it doesn't follow them into the underbrush. But it would
find tough going there. Not enough water; trees there, four hundred
feet high with thorny roots and rough bark—they wouldn't like that.
Oh no, these natives ought to be pretty snug in their dens. Why,
they're as hard to catch as a muskrat! Don't know what a muskrat is,
huh? Well, it's the same as the Inranians, only different, and not so
or the next six days they existed in their straitened quarters, one
guarding while the other slept, but such alarms as they experienced
were of a minor nature, easily disposed of by their flash pistol. It
had not been intended for continuous service, and under the frequent
drains it showed an alarming loss of power. Forepaugh repeatedly
warned Gunga to be more sparing in its use, but that worthy persisted
in his practice of using it against every trifling invasion of the
poisonous Inranian cave moss that threatened them, or the warm, soggy
water-spiders that hopefully explored the ventilator shaft in search
of living food.
"Bash 'em with a broom, or something! Never mind if it isn't nice.
Save our flash gun for something bigger."
Gunga only looked distressed.
On the seventh day their position became untenable. Some kind of sea
creature, hidden under the ever-replenished storm waters, had found
the concrete emplacements of their trading post to its liking. Just
how it was done was never learned. It is doubtful that the creatures
could gnaw away the solid stone—more likely the process was chemical,
but none the less it was effective. The foundations crumbled; the
metal shell subsided, rolled half over so that silty water leaked in
through the straining seams, and threatened at any moment to be
buffeted and urged away on the surface of the flood toward that
distant vast sea which covers nine-tenths of the area of Inra.
"Time to mush for the mountains," Forepaugh decided.
Gunga grinned. The Mountains of Perdition were, to his point of view,
the only part of Inra even remotely inhabitable. They were sometimes
fairly cool, and though perpetually pelted with rain, blazing with
lightning and reverberating with thunder, they had caves that were
fairly dry and too cool for the black mold. Sometimes, under favorable
circumstances on their rugged peaks, one could get the full benefit of
the enormous hot sun for whose actinic rays the Martian's starved
"Better pack a few cans of the food tablets," the white man ordered.
"Take a couple of waterproof sleeping bags for us, and a few hundred
fire pellets. You can have the flash pistol; it may have a few more
charges in it."
orepaugh broke the glass case marked "Emergency Only" and removed two
more flash pistols. Well he knew that he would need them after passing
beyond the trading area—perhaps sooner. His eyes fell on his personal
chest, and he opened it for a brief examination. None of the contents
seemed of any value, and he was about to pass when he dragged out a
long, heavy, .45 caliber six-shooter in a holster, and a cartridge
belt filled with shells. The Martian stared.
"Know what it is?" his master asked, handing him the weapon.
"Gunga not know." He took it and examined it curiously. It was a fine
museum piece in an excellent state of preservation, the metal overlaid
with the patina of age, but free from rust and corrosion.
"It's a weapon of the Ancients," Forepaugh explained. "It was a sort
of family heirloom and is over 300 years old. One of my grandfathers
used it in the famous Northwest Mounted Police. Wonder if it'll still
He leveled the weapon at a fat, sightless wriggler that came squirming
through a seam, squinting unaccustomed eyes along the barrel. There
was a violent explosion, and the wriggler disappeared in a smear of
dirty green. Gunga nearly fell over backward in fright, and even
Forepaugh was shaken. He was surprised that the ancient cartridge had
exploded at all, though he knew powder making had reached a high level
of perfection before explosive chemical weapons had yielded to the
newer, lighter, and infinitely more powerful ray weapons. The gun
would impede their progress. It would be of very little use against
the giant Carnivora of Inra. Yet something—perhaps a sentimental
attachment, perhaps what his ancestors would have called a
"hunch"—compelled him to strap it around his waist. He carefully
packed a few essentials in his knapsack, together with one chronometer
and a tiny gyroscopic compass. So equipped, they could travel with a
fair degree of precision toward the mountains some hundred miles on
the other side of a steaming forest, a-crawl with feral life, and hot
an and master descended into the warm waters and, without a backward
glance, left the trading post to its fate. There was not even any use
in leaving a note. Their relief ship, soon due, would never find the
station without radio direction.
The current was strong, but the water gradually became shallower as
they ascended the sloping rock. After half an hour they saw ahead of
them the loom of the forest, and with some trepidation they entered
the gloom cast by the towering, fernlike trees, whose tops disappeared
in murky fog. Tangled vines impeded their progress. Quagmires lay in
wait for them, and tough weeds tripped them, sometimes throwing one or
another into the mud among squirming small reptiles that lashed at
them with spiked, poisonous feet and then fell to pieces, each piece
to lie in the bubbling ooze until it grew again into a whole animal.
Several times they almost walked under the bodies of great,
spheroidal creatures with massive short legs, whose tremendously long,
sinuous necks disappeared in the leafy murk above, swaying gently like
long-stalked lilies in a terrestial pond. These were azornacks,
mild-tempered vegetarians whose only defense lay in their thick,
blubbery hides. Filled with parasites, stinking and rancid, their
decaying covering of fat effectively concealed the tender flesh
underneath, protecting them from fangs and rending claws.
Deeper in the forest the battering of the rain was mitigated. Giant
neo-palm leaves formed a roof that shut out not only most of the weak
daylight, but also the fury of the downpour. The water collected in
cataracts, ran down the boles of the trees, and roared through the
semi-circular canals of the snake trees, so named by early explorers
for their waving, rubbery tentacles, multiplied a millionfold, that
performed the duties of leaves. Water gurgled and chuckled everywhere,
spread in vast dim ponds and lakes writhing with tormented roots,
up-heaved by unseen, uncatalogued leviathans, rippled by translucent
discs of loathsome, luminescent jelly that quivered from place to
place in pursuit of microscopic prey.
Yet the impression was one of calm and quiet, and the waifs from other
worlds felt a surcease of nervous tension. Unconsciously they relaxed.
Taking their bearings, they changed their course slightly for the
nesting place of the nearest tribe of Inranians where they hoped to
get food and at least partial shelter; for their food tablets had
mysteriously turned to an unpleasant viscous liquid, and their
sleeping bags were alive with giant bacteria easily visible to the
hey were doomed to disappointment. After nearly twelve hours of
desperate struggling through the morass, through gloomy aisles, and
countless narrow escapes from prowling beasts of prey in which only
the speed and tremendous power of their flash pistols saved them from
instant death, they reached a rocky outcropping which led to the
comparatively dry rise of land on which a tribe of Inranians made its
home. Their faces were covered with welts made by the hanging
filaments of blood-sucking trees as fine as spider webs, and their
senses reeled with the oppressive stench of the abysmal jungle. If the
pampered ladies of the Inner Planets only knew where their
thousand-dollar orchids sprang from!
Converging runways showed the opening of one of the underground dens,
almost hidden from view by a bewildering maze of roots, rendered more
formidable by long, sharp stakes made from the iron-hard thigh-bones
of the flying kabo.
Forepaugh cupped his hands over his mouth and gave the call.
"Ouf! Ouf! Ouf! Ouf! Ouf!"
He repeated it over and over, the jungle giving back his voice in a
muffled echo, while Gunga held a spare flash pistol and kept a sharp
lookout for a carnivore intent on getting an unwary Inranian.
There was no answer. These timid creatures, who are often rated the
most intelligent life native to primitive Inra, had sensed disaster
and had fled.
Forepaugh and Gunga slept in one of the foul, poorly ventilated dens,
ate of the hard, woody tubers that had not been worth taking along,
and wished they had a certain stock clerk at that place at that time.
They were awakened out of deep slumber by the threshing of an evil
looking creature which had become entangled among the sharpened
spikes. Its tremendous maw, splitting it almost in half, was opened in
roars of pain that showed great yellow fangs eight inches in length.
Its heavy flippers battered the stout roots and lacerated themselves
in the beast's insensate rage. It was quickly dispatched with a flash
pistol and Gunga cooked himself some of the meat, using a fire pellet;
but despite his hunger Forepaugh did not dare eat any of it, knowing
that this species, strange to him, might easily be one of the many on
Inra that are poisonous to terrestials.
hey resumed their march toward the distant invisible mountains, and
were fortunate in finding somewhat better footing than they had on
their previous march. They covered about 25 miles on that "day,"
without untoward incident. Their ray pistols gave them an insuperable
advantage over the largest and most ferocious beasts they could expect
to meet, so that they became more and more confident, despite the
knowledge that they were rapidly using up the energy stored in their
weapons. The first one had long ago been discarded, and the charge
indicators of the other two were approaching zero at a disquieting
rate. Forepaugh took them both, and from that time on he was careful
never to waste a discharge except in case of a direct and unavoidable
attack. This often entailed long waits or stealthy detours through
sucking mud, and came near to ending both their lives.
The Earth man was in the lead when it happened. Seeking an uncertain
footing through a tangle of low-growing, thick, ghastly white
vegetation, he placed a foot on what seemed to be a broad, flat rock
projecting slightly above the ooze. Instantly there was a violent
upheaval of mud; the seeming rock flew up like a trap-door, disclosing
a cavernous mouth some seven feet across, and a thick, triangular
tentacle flew up from its concealment in the mud in a vicious arc.
Forepaugh leaped back barely in time to escape being swept in and
engulfed. The end of the tentacle struck him a heavy blow on the
chest, throwing him back with such force as to bowl Gunga over, and
whirling the pistols out of his hands into a slimy, bulbous growth
nearby, where they stuck in the phosphorescent cavities the force of
their impact had made.
here was no time to recover the weapons. With a bellow of rage the
beast was out of its bed and rushing at them. Nothing stayed its
progress. Tough, heavily scaled trees thicker than a man's body
shuddered and fell as its bulk brushed by them. But it was momentarily
confused, and its first rush carried it past its dodging quarry. This
momentary respite saved their lives.
Rearing its plumed head to awesome heights, its knobby bark running
with brown rivulets of water, a giant tree, even for that world of
giants, offered refuge. The men scrambled up the rough trunk easily,
finding plenty of hand and footholds. They came to rest on one of the
shelflike circumvoluting rings, some twenty-five feet above the
ground. Soon the blunt brown tentacles slithered in search of them,
but failed to reach their refuge by inches.
And now began the most terrible siege that interlopers in that
primitive world can endure. From that cavernous, distended throat came
a tremendous, world-shaking noise.
"HOOM! HOOM! HOOM! HOOM! HOOM! HOOM!"
Forepaugh put his hand to his head. It made him dizzy. He had not
believed that such noise could be. He knew that no creature could long
live amidst it. He tore strips from his shredded clothing and stuffed
his ears, but felt no relief.
"HOOM! HOOM! HOOM! HOOM! HOOM!"
It throbbed in his brain.
Gunga lay a-sprawl, staring with fascinated eye into the pulsating
scarlet gullet that was blasting the world with sound. Slowly, slowly
he was slipping. His master hauled him back. The Martian grinned at
him stupidly, slid again to the edge.
Once more Forepaugh pulled him back. The Martian seemed to acquiesce.
His single eye closed to a mere slit. He moved to a position between
Forepaugh and the tree trunk, braced his feet.
"No you don't!" The Earth man laughed uproariously. The din was making
him light-headed. It was so funny! Just in time he had caught that
cunning expression and prepared for the outlashing of feet designed to
plunge him into the red cavern below and to stop that hellish racket.
He swung his fist heavily, slamming the Martian against the tree. The
red eye closed wearily. He was unconscious, and lucky.
Hungrily the Earth man stared at his distant flash pistols, plainly
visible in the luminescence of their fungus bedding. He began a slow,
cautious creep along the top of a vine some eight inches thick. If he
could reach them....
rash! He was almost knocked to the ground by the thud of a frantic
tentacle against the vine. His movement had been seen. Again the
tentacle struck with crushing force. The great vine swayed. He managed
to reach the shelf again in the very nick of time.
"HOOM! HOOM! HOOM! HOOM! HOOM!"
A bolt of lightning struck a giant fern some distance away. The crash
of thunder was hardly noticeable. Forepaugh wondered if his tree would
be struck. Perhaps it might even start a fire, giving him a flaming
brand with which to torment his tormentor. Vain hope! The wood was
saturated with moisture. Even the fire pellets could not make it burn.
"HOOM! HOOM! HOOM! HOOM! HOOM! HOOM! HOOM!"
The six-shooter! He had forgotten it. He jerked it from its holster
and pointed it at the red throat, emptied all the chambers. He saw the
flash of yellow flame, felt the recoil, but the sound of the
discharges was drowned in the Brobdignagian tumult. He drew back his
arm to throw the useless toy from him. But again that unexplainable,
senseless "hunch" restrained him. He reloaded the gun and returned it
to its holster.
"HOOM! HOOM! HOOM! HOOM! HOOM! HOOM!"
A thought had been struggling to reach his consciousness against the
pressure of the unbearable noise. The fire pellets! Couldn't they be
used in some way? These small chemical spheres, no larger than the end
of his little finger, had long ago supplanted actual fire along the
frontiers, where electricity was not available for cooking. In contact
with moisture they emitted terrific heat, a radiant heat which
penetrated meat, bone, and even metal. One such pellet would cook a
meal in ten minutes, with no sign of scorching or burning. And they
had several hundred in one of the standard moisture-proof containers.
s fast as his fingers could work the trigger of the dispenser
Forepaugh dropped the potent little pellets down the bellowing throat.
He managed to release about thirty before the bellowing stopped. A
veritable tornado of energy broke loose at the foot of the tree. The
giant maw was closed, and the shocking silence was broken only by the
thrashing of a giant body in its death agonies. The radiant heat,
penetrating through and through the beast's body, withered nearby
vegetation and could be easily felt on the perch up the tree.
Gunga was slowly recovering. His iron constitution helped him to rally
from the powerful blow he had received, and by the time the jungle was
still he was sitting up mumbling apologies.
"Never mind," said his master. "Shin down there and cut us off a good
helping of roast tongue, if it has a tongue, before something else
comes along and beats us out of a feast."
"Him poison, maybe," Gunga demurred. They had killed a specimen new to
"Might as well die of poison as starvation," Forepaugh countered.
Without more ado the Martian descended, cut out some large, juicy
chunks as his fancy dictated, and brought his loot back up the tree.
The meat was delicious and apparently wholesome. They gorged
themselves and threw away what they could not eat, for food spoils
very quickly in the Inranian jungles and uneaten meat would only serve
to attract hordes of the gauzy-winged, glutinous Inranian swamp flies.
As they sank into slumber they could hear the beginning of a bedlam of
snarling and fighting as the lesser Carnivora fed on the body of the
When they awoke the chronometer recorded the passing of twelve hours,
and they had to tear a network of strong fibers with which the tree
had invested them preparatory to absorbing their bodies as food. For
so keen is the competition for life on Inra that practically all
vegetation is capable of absorbing animal food directly. Many an
Inranian explorer can tell tales of narrow escapes from some of the
more specialized flesh-eating plants; but they are now so well known
that they are easily avoided.
clean-picked framework of crushed and broken giant bones was all
that was left of the late bellowing monster. Six-legged water dogs
were polishing them hopefully, or delving into them with their long,
sinuous snouts for the marrow. The Earth man fired a few shots with
his six-shooter, and they scattered, dragging the bodies of their
fallen companions to a safe distance to be eaten.
Only one of the flash pistols was in working order. The other had been
trampled by heavy hoofs and was useless. A heavy handicap under which
to traverse fifty miles of abysmal jungle. They started with nothing
for breakfast except water, of which they had plenty.
Fortunately the outcroppings of rocks and gravel washes were becoming
more and more frequent, and they were able to travel at much better
speed. As they left the low-lying jungle land they entered a zone
which was faintly reminiscent of a terrestial jungle. It was still
hot, soggy, and fetid, but gradually the most primitive aspects of the
scene were modified. The over-arching trees were less closely packed,
and they came across occasional rock clearings which were bare of
vegetation except for a dense carpet of brown, lichenlike vegetation
that secreted an astonishing amount of juice. They slipped and sloshed
through this, rousing swarms of odd, toothed birds, which darted
angrily around their heads and slashed at them with the razor-sharp
saw edges on the back of their legs. Annoying as they were, they could
be kept away with branches torn from trees, and their presence
connoted an absence of the deadly jungle flesh-eaters, permitting a
temporary relaxation of vigilance and saving the resources of the last
They camped that "night" on the edge of one of these rock clearings.
For the first time in weeks it had stopped raining, although the sun
was still obscured. Dimly on the horizon could be seen the first of
the foothills. Here they gathered some of the giant, oblong fungus
that early explorers had taken for blocks of porous stone because of
their size and weight, and, by dint of the plentiful application of
fire pellets, managed to set it ablaze. The heat added nothing to
their comfort, but it dried them out and allowed them to sleep
n unwary winged eel served as their breakfast, and soon they were on
their way to those beckoning hills. It had started to rain again, but
the worst part of their journey was over. If they could reach the top
of one of the mountains there was a good chance that they would be
seen and rescued by their relief ship, provided they did not starve
first. The flyer would use the mountains as a base from which to
search for the trading station, and it was conceivable that the
skipper might actually have anticipated their desperate adventure and
would look for them in the Mountains of Perdition.
They had crossed several ranges of the foothills and were beginning to
congratulate themselves when the diffused light from above was
suddenly blotted out. It was raining again, and above the
echo-augmented thunder they heard a shrill screeching.
"A web serpent!" Gunga cried, throwing himself flat on the ground.
Forepaugh eased into a rock cleft at his side. Just in time. A great
grotesque head bore down upon him, many-fanged as a medieval dragon.
Between obsidian eyes was a fissure whence emanated a wailing and a
foul odor. Hundreds of short, clawed legs slithered on the rocks under
a long sinuous body. Then it seemed to leap into the air again. Webs
grew taut between the legs, strumming as they caught a strong uphill
wind. Again it turned to the attack, and missed them. This time
Forepaugh was ready for it. He shot at it with his flash pistol.
othing happened. The fog made accurate shooting impossible, and the
gun lacked its former power. The web serpent continued to course back
and forth over their heads.
"Guess we'd better run for it," Forepaugh murmured.
They cautiously left their places of concealment. Instantly the
serpent was down again, persistent if inaccurate. It struck the place
of their first concealment and missed them.
They extended their weary muscles to the utmost, but it was soon
apparent that they could not escape long. A rock wall in their path
"Hole!" the Martian gasped.
Forepaugh followed him into the rocky cleft. There was a strong draft
of dry air, and it would have been next to impossible to hold the
Martian back, so Forepaugh allowed him to lead on toward the source of
the draft. As long as it led into the mountains he didn't care.
The natural passageway was untenanted. Evidently its coolness and
dryness made it untenable for most of Inra's humidity and heat loving
life. Yet the floor was so smooth that it must have been artificially
leveled. Faint illumination was provided by the rocks themselves. They
appeared to be covered by some microscopic phosphorescent vegetation.
After hundreds of twists and turns and interminable straight galleries
the cleft turned more sharply upward, and they had a period of stiff
climbing. They must have gone several miles and climbed at least
20,000 feet. The air became noticeably thin, which only exhilarated
Gunga, but slowed the Earth man down. But at last they came to the end
of the cleft. They could go no further, but above them, at least 500
feet higher, they saw a round patch of sky, miraculously bright blue
"A pipe!" Forepaugh cried.
He had often heard of these mysterious, almost fabulous structures
sometimes reported by passing travelers. Straight and true, smooth as
glass and apparently immune to the elements, they had been
occasionally seen standing on the very tops of the highest
mountains—seen for a few moments only before they were hidden again
by the clouds. Were they observatories of some ancient race, placed
thus to pierce the mysteries of outer space? They would find out.
he inside of the pipe had zigzagging rings of metal, conveniently
spaced for easy climbing. With Gunga leading, they soon reached the
top. But not quite.
"Eh?" said Forepaugh.
"Uh?" said Gunga.
There had not been a sound, but a distinct, definite command had
registered on their minds.
They tried to climb higher, but could not unclasp their hands. They
tried to descend, but could not lower their feet.
The light was by now relatively bright, and as by command their eyes
sought the opposite wall. What they saw gave their jaded nerves an
unpleasant thrill—a mass of doughy matter of a blue-green color about
three feet in diameter, with something that resembled a cyst filled
with transparent liquid near its center.
And this thing began to flow along the rods, much as tar flows. From
the mass extended a pseudopod; touched Gunga on the arm. Instantly the
arm was raw and bleeding. Terrified, immovable, he writhed in agony.
The pseudopod returned to the main mass, disappearing into its
interior with the strip of bloody skin.
Its attention was centered so much on the luckless Martian that its
control slipped from Forepaugh. Seizing his flash pistol, he set the
localized for a small area and aimed it at the thing, intent on
burning it into nothingness. But again his hand was stayed. Against
the utmost of his will-power his fingers opened, letting the pistol
drop. The liquid in the cyst danced and bubbled. Was it laughing at
him? It had read his mind—thwarted his will again.
Again a pseudopod stretched out and a strip of raw, red flesh adhered
to it and was consumed. Mad rage convulsed the Earth man. Should he
throw himself tooth and nail on the monster? And be engulfed?
He thought of the six-shooter. It thrilled him.
But wouldn't it make him drop that too?
flash of atavistic cunning came to him.
He began to reiterate in his mind a certain thought.
"This thing is so I can see you better—this thing is so I can see you
He said it over and over, with all the passion and devotion of a
celibate's prayer over a uranium fountain.
"This thing is harmless—but it will make me see you better!"
Slowly he drew the six-shooter. In some occult way he knew it was
"Oh, this is harmless! This is an instrument to aid my weak eyes! It
will help me realize your mastery! This will enable me to know your
true greatness. This will enable me to know you as a god."
Was it complacence or suspicion that stirred the liquid in the cyst so
smoothly? Was it susceptible to flattery? He sighted along the barrel.
"In another moment your great intelligence will overwhelm me,"
proclaimed his surface mind desperately, while the subconscious tensed
the trigger. And at that the clear liquid burst into a turmoil of
alarm. Too late. Forepaugh went limp, but not before he had loosed a
steel-jacketed bullet that shattered the mind cyst of the pipe
denizen. A horrible pain coursed through his every fibre and nerve. He
was safe in the arms of Gunga, being carried to the top of the pipe to
the clean dry air, and the blessed, blistering sun.
The pipe denizen was dying. A viscous, inert mass, it dropped lower
and lower, lost contact at last, shattered into slime at the bottom.
iraculous sun! For a luxurious fifteen minutes they roasted there on
the top of the pipe, the only solid thing in a sea of clouds as far as
the eye could reach. But no! That was a circular spot against the
brilliant white of the clouds, and it was rapidly coming closer. In a
few minutes it resolved itself into the Comet, fast relief ship of
the Terrestial, Inranian, Genidian, and Zydian Lines, Inc. With a low
buzz of her repulsion motors she drew alongside. Hooks were attached
and ports opened. A petty officer and a crew of roustabouts made her
"What the hell's going on here?" asked the cocky little terrestial who
was skipper, stepping out and surveying the castaways. "We've been
looking for you ever since your directional wave failed. But come on
in—come on in!"
He led the way to his stateroom, while the ship's surgeon took Gunga
in charge. Closing the door carefully, he delved into the bottom of
his locker and brought out a flask.
"Can't be too careful," he remarked, filling a small tumbler for
himself and another for his guest. "Always apt to be some snooper to
report me. But say—you're wanted in the radio room."
"Radio room nothing! When do we eat?"
"Right away, but you'd better see him. Fellow from the Interplanetary
News Agency wants you to broadcast a copyrighted story. Good for about
three years' salary, old boy."
"All right. I'll see him"—with a happy sigh—"just as soon as I put
through a personal message."