Authors: Murray Leinster
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Copyright © 2016 by Murray Leinster
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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
, with Moran present and allowed to take part in the discussion. From the viewpoint of the
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.
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
, then approaching the world on planetary drive. He was to be left here, with no reason ever to expect rescue. Two of the
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.
“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
were capable. They’d managed to recapture the
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
. The trouble was that the
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
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
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
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.
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
went on toward the enlarging cloudy mass ahead.
“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
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
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
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.
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.