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´╗┐Title: The Beast of Space
Author: Hardart, F.E.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Beast of Space" ***

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                        The BEAST of SPACE

     _A tale of the prospectors of the starways--of dangers--_

                         by F. E. HARDART

[Illustration: He staggered back from the lapping pool--the gas--the
weight of the girl's body--the dog--]


Here the dark cave, along which Nat Starrett had been creeping,
broadened into what his powerful searchlight revealed to be a low,
wide, smoothly circular room. At his feet lapped black, thick-looking
waves of an underground lake, a pool of viscous substance that gave off
a penetrating, poignant odor of acid, sweetish and intoxicating, unlike
any acid he knew. The smell rolled up in a sickening, sultry cloud that
penetrated his helmet, made him cough and choke. Near its center
projected from the sticky stuff what appeared to be the nose of a
spaceship.

He looked down near his feet at the edge of the pool where thick,
slowly-moving tongues of the liquid appeared to reach up toward him, as
if intent on pulling him into its depths. As each hungry wave fell
back, it left a slimy, snake-like trail behind.

Now came a wave of strange music, music such as he had never heard
before. Faintly it had begun some time back, so faintly he was barely
aware of it. Now it swelled into a smooth, impelling wail lulling him
into drowsiness. He did not wonder why he could hear through the
soundproof space helmet he wore; he ceased to wonder about anything.
There was only the strange sweetness of acid and the throbbing music.

Abruptly the spell was broken by something shrilling in his brain,
sending little chills racing up and down his spine. Digger! A small,
oddly canine-like creature with telepathic powers, a space-dweller
which men found when first they came to the asteroids. The relationship
between spacehounds and men was much the same as between man and dog in
the old, earthbound days. Appropriate name for the beast, Digger. With
those large, incredibly hard claws, designed for rooting in the metal
make-up of the asteroids for vital elements, the spacehound could
easily have shredded the man's spacesuit and helmet, could, at any time,
tear huge chunks out of men's fine ships.

The half-conscious man jerked his thin form erect. His mouth, which had
gaped loosely, closed with a snap into firm lines.

"She isn't in this hell hole, Digger. You wouldn't expect her to be
where we could find her easily."

Scooping the small beast up under his good arm, he quickly climbed the
steep, slimy slope of the cave. The other arm in his suit hung empty.
That empty arm in the spacesuit told the story of an earthman become
voluntary exile, choosing the desolation of space to the companionship
of other humans who would deluge him with unwonted sympathy. The
spacehound was friendly in its own fashion; fortunately, such complex
things as sympathy were apparently outside its abilities. The two could
interchange impressions of danger, comfort, pleasure, discomfort, fear,
and appreciation of each other's company, but little more. Whether or
not the creature could understand his thoughts, he could not tell.

As he went on, he reviewed, mentally, the events leading up to his
landing here. The sudden appearance on his teleview screen of the
face and slim shoulders of a girl. Her attractiveness plainly
distinguishable through her helmet; for a moment he forgot that he
disliked women. The call for help, cut short ... but not before he had
learned that apparently she was being held prisoner on Asteroid Moira.
He knew he'd have to do what he could even if it meant unwonted
company for an indefinite length of time. The spell was gone soon
after her face vanished; he remembered former experiences with
attractive-looking girls. Damn traditions!

A change in his course and a landing on Asteroid Moira. Here he'd
found a honeycomb of caves, all leading from one large main tunnel.
The cavern walls had been of a translucent, quartz-like substance,
ranging in color from yellowish-brown to violet-grey. It looked
vaguely familiar, yet he could not place it. There was not time to
examine it more carefully.

The room in which he'd found the evil, hungry lake had been the first
one to the right. Now he crossed to the opening in the opposite wall.
The mouth of this cave was much larger, wider than the other. He stood
in the opening, slowly swung the beam of his torch around the smooth
walls, still holding Digger, who, by now, was indicating that he'd like
to be set down. Nat released him unthinkingly, his mind fully taken up
with what the light revealed.

                *       *       *       *       *

Spaceships! The room was packed with them--all sizes, old and new. A
veritable sargasso. At first, he thought they might be craft belonging
to nameless inhabitants of this world, but, as he approached them, he
recognized Terrestrial identifications.

The first was a scout ship of American Spaceways! Nat recognized the
name: _Ceres_, remembered a telecast account of its disappearance in
space. There was a neat little reward for information as to its
whereabouts. Nat's lips curled in derision: it wouldn't equal the
expense of his journey out here. There was a deep groove in the smooth
material of the floor where the ship had been dragged through the
doorway into the room. What machines could have done this work without
leaving their own traces? He went to the other ships: all were small,
mostly single or two-passenger craft. The last entry in the logs of
many was to the effect that they were about to land on the Asteroid
Moira to rescue a girl held captive there.

None had crashed; all ships were in perfect order. But all were
deserted. Two doors were gone from the interior of one of the vessels.
They might have been removed for any of a hundred reasons--but why
here?

Nat's glance swept the room, came to rest on the figure of a heavy duty
robot of familiar design. Semi-human in form, it looked like some
misshapen, bent, headless giant. He inspected it: _Meyers Robot, Inc._
Earth designed for mining operations on Mars.

"Well, Digger, I can see now how these ships were brought in here; that
robot could move any one of these with ease. But that doesn't explain
where the humans have gone. It might be space pirates using this
asteroid for a base, or it might be some alien form of life. We're
still free. Shall we beat it or stay and try to check this out?"

He did not know how much of this got over to the spacehound, but the
impressions he received in answer were those of approving their
remaining where they were.

"I suppose the best system is to explore the rest of the caves in
order; let's go."

Followed by Digger, he walked quietly toward the next cave on the left,
slipped through the doorway, and, standing with his back against the
wall, swung the light of his torch in a wide, swift arc about the room.
Halfway around, he stopped abruptly; a slim, petite figure appeared
clearly in the searchlight's glare. The girl he had seen on the
televisor stood in the middle of the room, facing a telecaster, her
back toward him. She did not seem aware of him as he moved forward.
What could be wrong; surely that light would arouse her.

The figure did not turn as he approached. So near was he now that he
could seize her easily, still she made no move. Nat stepped to one
side, flashed his torch in her face. Her beautifully-lashed eyes stared
straight ahead unblinkingly; the expression on her lovely composed face
did not change. A robot! He laughed bitterly. But then, he was not the
only one....

She was an earth product; Nat opened her helmet and found the
trade-mark of _Spurgin's Robots_ hung like a necklace about her throat.
But whoever had lured him here easily could have removed her from one
of the vessels in the front cave. It did not seem like the work of
pirates, more likely unknown intelligent beings.

He turned to examine the televisor. It, too, was an earth product. The
mechanism was of old design; evidently it had been taken from the first
of the ships to land here. Outside of the telecaster and the solitary
robot, there was nothing to be seen in this cave.

A sound behind him. He whirled, heat-rod poised for swift, stabbing
action. Nothing--except--small bowling-ball things rolling in through
a narrow door. Ridiculous things of the same yellowish-quartz material
as composed the cave-walls. At regular intervals a dull, bluish light
poured forth from rounded holes in their smooth sides. And issuing
forth from within these comic globes was the same weird, compelling
music he had heard before. They rolled up to him, brushed against his
toes; a shrilling in his brain told him that Digger was aware of them.

"Back, Digger!" he thought as he drew away from the globes. They poured
their penetrating blue light over him, inspectingly, while the music
from within rose and fell in regular cadences, sweetly impelling and
dulling to the senses as strong oriental incense.

But Digger was not soothed. The spacehound lunged at one of the globes;
instead of slashing its sides, he found himself sailing through the
air toward it. Nat received impressions of irritation combined with
astonishment. Within the globes, the music rose to a furious whine
while one of the things shot forth long tentacles from the holes in its
side. Lightning-swift they shot forth, wrapped themselves about the
body of the spacehound, constricting. Digger writhed vainly, his claws
powerless to tear at the whip-like tentacles. Nat severed the tentacles
at their base with the heat-beam.

He turned, strode toward the door watching the spheres apprehensively
out of the corner of his eye, ready to jump aside should they roll
toward him suddenly. But they followed at respectful distances, singing
softly.

Before he reached the door, he found himself walking in rhythm to the
music, his head swaying. It came slowly, insidiously; before he was
aware, his body no longer obeyed his will. Muscles refused to move
other than in coordination with the music. His arm relaxed, the
heat-rod sliding from his grasp.

                *       *       *       *       *

But Digger! The spacehound sent out a barrage of vibrations that fairly
rocked his brain out of his skull. Simultaneously, the beast attacked
the nearest globes, tearing fiercely at them. Rapidly the others rolled
away, but two lay torn and motionless, the music within them stilled.

Nat reached down, retrieved the heat-rod. "I think we'd better look for
a 'squeaker'. Next time they might get you, Digger."

They returned to the room of the spaceships, seeking one of the small,
portable radio-amplifiers used for searching out radium. It was known
as a "squeaker" because of the constant din it made while in use; the
noise would cease only when radium was within a hundred feet of the
mechanism. He found one after searching a few of the smaller ships.

With the portable radio strapped to his back, power switched on, he
started again down the main tunnel. The globes set up their seductive
rhythms as before, but he could not hear them above the discord of his
squeaker. Failing to lure him as before, they sought to force him in
the direction they desired him to go by darting at him suddenly,
lashing him with their tentacles. But it was a simple thing to elude
them. Still remained the question: why could they want to lure him into
that stinking pool of acid?

He flashed a beam of heat at the nearest of the annoying globes. Under
the released energy it glowed, yet did not melt. But the tentacles
sheared off and the blue lights faded. The flow of music changed to
shrill whines as of pain and its rolling ceased. The others drew back;
he turned down another tunnel.

They stopped at the cave beyond the one where he had found the
robot-girl. It was sealed by a locked door, one of the airlock-doors
from that space vessel, firmly cemented into the natural opening of the
cave.

Nat bent forward, listening, his helmeted head pressed against the
door. No sound. He was suddenly aware of the dead silence that pressed
in on him from all sides now that the globes no longer sang and his
"squeaker" had been turned off. The powerful energy of his heat-beam
sputtered as it melted the lock into incandescent droplets which
sizzled as they trickled down the cold metal of the door. The greasy,
quartz-like material at the side of the door glowed in the heat from
his rod, but no visible effect upon it could be seen. What was that
material? He knew, yes, he knew--but he could not place a mental finger
on it.

He thrust the shoulder of his good arm against the heavy door, swung it
inwards, stepped inside. The light of his torch pierced the silence,
picked out a human skeleton in one corner. He hurried toward it--no, it
was not entirely a skeleton as yet. The flesh and bone had been eaten
away from the lower part of the body to halfway up the hips, as though
from some strong acid. The rest of the large, sturdy frame lay sunken
under the remains of a spacesuit which was tied clumsily around the
middle to retain all the air possible in the upper half of it.
Evidently some acid had eaten away the lower half of the man's body
after he had suffocated. The face was that of a Norwegian.

By one outstretched hand a small notebook lay open with the leather back
upward. The corners of several pages were turned under carelessly--Nat
swung the torch around the room. It was bare. The notebook--quickly he
picked it up. The page on which the writing began was dated May 10,
2040. About two months ago.

"Helmar Swenson. My daughter, Helena, aged nineteen, and I were lured
into the maw of this hellish monster by a robot calling for help in our
television screen. This thing, known to man as Asteroid Moira, is, in
actuality, one of the gigantic mineral creatures which inhabited a
planet before it exploded, forming the asteroids. Somehow it survived
the catastrophe, and, forming a hard, crustaceous shell about itself,
has continued to live here in space as an asteroid.

"It is apparently highly intelligent and has acquired an appetite for
human flesh. The singing spheres act as its sensory organs, separated
from the body and given locomotion. It uses these to lure victims into
its stomach in the first cave. I escaped its lure at first because
of the 'squeaker' I carried with me. We set up these two doors as a
protection from the beast while we stayed here to examine it. But the
monster got me when I fell and the 'squeaker' was broken. My daughter
rescued me after the acid of the pool had begun eating away my flesh.

"My Helena is locked in the room opposite this one. She has food and
water to last until July 8th. Oxygen seeps in there somehow--the beast
wants to keep her alive until it can get her out of the room to devour
her."

Here the writing became more cramped and difficult to read.

"I have put the key in my mouth to prevent the spheres from opening the
door should they force their way into this room. Some one must come to
save my Helena. I can't breathe--"

The writing ended in a long scrawl angling off the page. The pencil lay
some distance from the body.

July 8th! But that had been almost a week ago!

                *       *       *       *       *

He unscrewed the man's helmet, tried to pry the jaws open. They would
not move; the airless void surrounding the tiny planetoid had frozen
the body until now it was as solid as the quartz cave-walls. There was
but one thing to do: the other door must be melted down.

He leaped halfway across the room toward the door in the opposite wall.
Could it be possible that he was in time? Anxiously he flung a bolt of
energy from his heat rod toward the lock, holding a flashlight under
the other stump of an arm. The molten metal flowed to the floor like a
rivulet of lava.

The door, hanging off balance, screeched open; air swooshed past him in
its sudden escape from the room. He squeezed himself through, peered
carefully about to see a slim spacesuit start to crumple floorward in
a corner. The girl was alive!

He started toward her; the slim figure pulled itself erect again. He
saw a drawn, emaciated face behind the helmet. Then, with a fury that
unnerved him, she whipped out a heat rod, shot a searing bolt in his
direction. He felt the fierce heat of it as it whizzed past his
shoulder; in his brain Digger's thoughts of attack came to him, he
flung an arm around the spacehound, dragged it back as he withdrew
toward the door. The girl continued to fire bolt after bolt straight
ahead, her eyes wide and staring.

They made the door, waited outside while the firing within continued.
When at last it was still within, he peered around the corner of the
room. She lay in a crumpled heap in the corner; quietly he re-entered,
picked her up awkwardly. Through the thin, resistant folds of the
spacesuit, he could feel the warmth of her, but could not tell whether
the heart still beat or not. They would have to take her to one of the
ships.

Her limp form was held tightly under his good arm as Nat hurried down
the main tunnel. Digger apparently realized the seriousness of the
situation, for he received impressions of "must hurry" from the beast
and another creature, looking much like him, surrounded by small
creatures of the same type, trapped in a crevice. "Aren't you a bit
premature, old fellow," he chided.

Halfway there, the globes met them again. The things were not singing;
from their many eyes poured a fierce, angry blue light. They rolled
with a determination that frightened him. Yet he strode on, until they
were barely a foot away.

"Jump, Digger!"

The spheres stopped short, reversed their direction toward the little
group at a furious rate, flinging out long, whip-like tentacles. One
wrapped itself around Nat's ankle, drew him down. He shifted the limp
form over to his shoulder, slipped out his heat-rod. Quickly the
tentacle was severed. But now others took their place; he continued
firing at them, making each bolt tell, but the numbers were too great.

Digger sprang into action, rending the globes with those claws that
were capable of tearing the hulls of spaceships. But tentacles lashed
around him from the rear, snaked about him so that he was helpless.

The girl was slipping off Nat's shoulder. He could not raise the stump
of an arm to balance her; it was stiff and useless. He stopped firing
long enough to make the shift, even as the spheres attacked again. The
bolts had put out the lights in fully half of the marauders but the
others came on unafraid.

Nat straddled Digger's writhing body, held the spacehound motionless
between his legs. At short range, he seared off the imprisoning
tentacles, knowing that it would take far more than a heat-bolt to
damage the well-nigh impregnable creature. He swooped the dog up under
his good arm and fled from the madly-pursuing spheres, thanking
nameless deities that the gravity here permitted such herculean feats.
The spheres rolled faster, he soon found, than he could jump; so long
as he was above them, all was well, but by the time the weak gravity
permitted him to land, they were waiting for him. He tried zig-zagging.
Good! It worked. He eluded them up to the mouth of the cave, then
jumped for the door of his ship's outer airlock.

                *       *       *       *       *

Nat placed the girl in his bunk, removed the cumbersome spacesuit. Her
eyes blinked faintly, then sprang open. But they did not see him; they
were staring straight ahead. Her mouth opened and shut weakly as though
she were speaking, but no sound issued from it. He brought her water,
but when he returned she had fallen asleep. He returned to the kitchen
to prepare some food.

"You're still running around in that pillow case," he remarked to
Digger as he extracted the spacehound from it. "Attend me, now. We know
why and how those people disappeared. It would take the Space Patrol
ship at least a month to arrive here; I don't intend to perch on the
back of this devil as long as that. And if we leave, old thing, it'll
just lure other chivalrous fools to very unpleasant ends.

"And we've got to get this kid back to civilization. She needs a
doctor's care, preferably a doctor with two arms."

Digger's vibrations were one of general approval.

"We could poison it," he went on. "Only I'm not a chemist; even if I
knew the compounds contained in that reeking stomach I wouldn't know
what would destroy them. Might blow it up, but we haven't enough
explosive.

"No, we'll have to get down into the thing's insides again. In fact--"
He paused suddenly, mouth open. "Congratulate me, Digger! I have it!"

The smell of burning vegetables cut short his soliloquy. He fed the
starved, half-blind girl, then left her sleeping exhaustedly as he
squirmed into his suit.

No sooner had he entered the mouth of the cave than a half-dozen of the
singing sensory organs rolled quickly, yet not angrily, toward him. The
beast was apparently optimistic, for the globes sang in their most
soothing, seductive tones. They tried to herd him into the first cave
on the right, but he had remembered the _squeaker_; they could not
distract him.

Effortlessly he leaped over them toward the mouth of the cave on the
left. That was where the spaceships lay, pointing in all directions
like a carelessly-dropped handful of rice.

All the ships were in running order. Good; had there been one vessel he
could not move, then all was lost. The fuel in several ran low, but
after a few moments of punching levers and pulling chokes, the under
rockets thundered in the big room.

Taking care not to injure the motor compartments of the other ships,
using only the most minute explosion-quantities, he jockeyed each ship
around until all their noses pointed in one direction. The exhausts
pointed out through the wide doorway. It was well that the beast had
formed curved corners in the room, otherwise the scheme would not have
worked. The exhausts which did not point toward the door, directly,
were toward the curved walls which would deflect the forceful gasses
expelled doorward.

When he emerged from the ship, the spheres attacked. He seared off
their tentacles throughout what seemed to be eternities. His body was
becoming a mass of bruises from the lash of their tentacles. He burned
his way through the swarm on to ship after ship.

As he stepped from the last vessel there was a rumbling beneath his
feet. Did the monster understand his intent? Was it stirring in its
shell? Most of the globes had disappeared; now a nauseatingly sweet
odor penetrated the screen in his headpiece, which permitted him to
smell without allowing the oxygen to escape. He hurried around to the
rear of the ship, an apprehensive, sickening feeling at the pit of his
stomach. A thick jelly-like wave of liquid was rolling over the
floor--the reeking, deadly juices from the beast's stomach. If the
liquid touched him, it would eat through the heavy fabric, exploding
the air pressure from around his body. How was he to escape from the
cave?

The answer came to him suddenly. Quickly he darted back toward the
nearest vessel. Two of the screaming spheres blocked his way; he sent
bolt after searing bolt into them, more of a charge than he had given
any of the others. The lights in the globes went out; their voices
ceased. And they burst into slowly mounting incandescence. Yet, they
were not consumed by their fire, only glowed an intense white light
like that of a lighthouse.

"Lighthouse!" The word flashed through his mind clearly, strongly. They
glowed like the "zirconia lights" of a lighthouse. Why hadn't he
recognized the greasy, quartz-like material before? It was zirconia, a
compound of zirconium, of course. A silicate base creature could easily
have formed a shell of it about itself.

Zirconia--one of the compounds he'd intended prospecting for on the
moons of Saturn. Worth over a hundred dollars per pound. Because of its
resistance to heat, it was used to line the tubes of rockets; Terra's
supply had long been used up. Here was a fortune all around him; but
that fortune was about to be destroyed, he along with it, if he did not
hurry.

If he could only reach the timing mechanism to yank from it the wires
connecting it to the other ships. It was at the other end of the line.
He started in that direction, but a surge of fatal, thick acid rolled
before him, reaching for him with hungry, questing tongues.

When it was almost touching his toes, he leaped. As he floated toward
the floor, he placed a chair beneath him so that his feet landed on the
seat. The legs of the chair sank slowly into the liquid.

Again he leaped, his moment retarded by the fluid which now reached
halfway up the chair legs, sucked and clung there. The sweetly-evil
smelling stuff was rising rapidly. But the next leap carried him into
the main cave. Abandoning the chair, he leaped once more, out through
the cave's mouth, pursued by the waving tentacles of the sensory
spheres.

                *       *       *       *       *

He had lost precious minutes eluding that deadly acid. It would take
at least five minutes to get his ship away from the asteroid; he must
hurry before all those rocket motors were thrown into action, or it
would be too late.

Leap and leap again. It seemed ages, but he reached the ship, bolted
the door shut. Thumps against the door as the pursuing globes ran up
against it. A thought came to him; swiftly he opened the door,
permitted a few of them to enter, then slammed it shut. With the heat
gun he sheared off their tentacles; he could sell the zirconia in the
entities. Then he turned to the controls and the ship zoomed up and
out.

Nat had barely raised his ship from the Asteroid Moira when he saw the
small planetoid lurch suddenly, bounding off its orbit at almost a
right angle. The sudden combined driving force of all the rockets
within the cave had sent it hurtling away like a rocket itself.

The asteroid housing the monster was heading into the Flora group of
Asteroids. There the fifty-seven odd solid bodies of that group would
grind, crack, and rend that dangerous beast into harmless, dead
fragments.

"A good job," said a weak, but softly friendly voice behind him. He
whirled. The girl stood in the doorway of the pilot room, supporting
herself against the door frame. Digger rubbed thoughtfully against her
legs.

"We'll just follow that asteroid, Miss," he said, "and see if we can't
pick up some odd fragment of zirconia when it's smashed in the
grindstone there. Then we'll light out for Terra."

She smiled. Earth, to him, seemed like a very good place to go as soon
as possible.



   Transcriber's Note:

   This e-text was produced from Comet July 1941. Extensive
   research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright
   on this publication was renewed.





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