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Title: Attrition
Author: Wannamaker, Jim
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 "Attrition" ***

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ATTRITION

By JIM WANNAMAKER


 _Of course if Man is to survive, he must be adaptable,
 as any life form must. But that's not enough; he must
 adapt faster than the competing forms. And on new
 planets, that can be tricky...._


[Illustration]

Illustrated by Krenkel


The faxgram read: REPORT MA IS INSTANTER GRAVIS. The news obelisk just
off the express strip outside Mega Angeles' Galactic Survey Building was
flashing: ONE OF OUR STAR SHIPS IS MISSING!

Going up in the lift, I recalled what I had seen once scrawled upon the
bulkhead of a GS trainer: _Space is kind to those who respect her._ And
underneath, in different handwriting: Fear _is the word, my boy_.

The look given me by the only other passenger, a husky youngster in GS
gray, when I punched Interstel's level, didn't help. It was on the tip
of my tongue to retaliate: _Yes, and I'd turn in my own mother if she
were a star chaser and I caught her doing something stupid._ But I let
it ride; obviously, it was a general-principles reaction; he couldn't
have known the particulars of my last assignment: the seldom kind that
had given Interstel its reputation.

The lumer over the main entrance glowed: INTERSTELLAR SECURITY,
INVESTIGATION, AND SPECIAL SERVICES BRANCH, GALACTIC SURVEY, NORTH
AMERICAN FEDERATION.

At the end of the long corridor between offices was a door labeled:
CHIEF SPECIAL AGENT.

Gravis hadn't changed a bit in the thirty-six hours since I'd last seen
him: a large, rumpled man who showed every year of the twenty he'd spent
in Interstel.

"It's a nasty job, Ivy."

"Always has been," I said, completing the little interchange that had
been reiterated so often that it had become almost a shibboleth.

I took advantage of his momentary silence. I'd had an hour during the
air-taxi hop from Xanadu, the resort two hundred miles off the coast of
California, to prepare my bitter statement. Words come fluently when an
earned leave has been pulled peremptorily out from beneath you; a leave
that still had twenty-nine days to go. But I was brief; the news flasher
had canceled much of the bite of my anger; it took me something under
one hundred and twenty seconds, including repetition of certain words
and phrases.

Gravis lived up to his name; he didn't bat an eye. He handed me a thin
folder; three of its sheets were facsimile extrapolations of probot
reports; the fourth was an evaluation-and-assignment draft; all were
from Galactic Survey Headquarters, NAF, in Montreal. The top three were
identical, excepting probot serial numbers and departure and arrival
times. GSS 231 had been located in its command orbit above a planet that
had not yet been officially named but was well within the explored
limits of the space sector assigned NAFGS by the interfederational body,
had been monitored by three robot probes--described as being in _optimum
mechanical condition_--on three distinctly separate occasions, and all
devices that could be interrogated from outside had triggered _safe and
secure_. But no human contact had been accomplished. The fourth
sheet--which bore the calligraphy on its upper right corner: _Attention
Callum_--assumed that the crew of 231, a survey team and con alternate,
had met with an accident or series of accidents of undetermined origin
and extent in the course of carrying out the duty described as
_follow-up exploration_ on the Earth-type planet, _herein and heretofore
designated Epsilon-Terra_, and must therefore be considered--

"The news is--" I started to say.

"Pure delirium," Gravis interrupted. "Haven't you read Paragraph Six? We
know exactly where the ship is because it's exactly where it should be.
It's the crew that's missing."

Paragraph Seven concluded: _We therefore recommend that an agent of
experience be dispatched soonest to the designated star system._

"Experienced or expendable?" I muttered.

"Ivy, after ten years in Interstel, you should know that experience and
expendability are synonymous."

       *       *       *       *       *

Inside the GS section of the Lunar Complex, I had the occasion to think
semantically again.

Words like _instanter_ and _soonest_ seldom match their literal meaning
when applied to the physical transport of human beings, but in my job--I
hadn't even had time to get my gee-legs.

I stepped off the glide strip in front of the ramp marked OUTGOING
PERSONNEL, handed the efficient looking redhead my Q-chit and ID, and
said: "Priority one."

"Quarantine, O.K.," she checked, smiling. "Feeling antiseptic?"

I had to admit, privately, that I did not. As applied to her, the term:
_coveralls, regulation, gray_ was strictly a euphemism. Perhaps it was
the combination of low gravity and controlled conditions that made
Lunatics of female persuasion blossom so anatomically. Or maybe she was
a plant, a deliberate psych experiment to put outbound starmen in a
particular frame of mind.

She flashed my identification on the screen, took a long look, and
became coldly efficient. _Callum, Ivor Vincent. Age: 40. Height: 5'8".
Weight: 142. Hair: brown. Eyes: green. Rank: Special Agent, Interstel._
"You look much older, Mr. Callum."

She consulted her assignment list.

"Lock Three."

I snapped the identoflake back in its bracelet, picked up my jump bag
and briefing kit, and headed up the ramp, feeling more eyes than the
redhead's. The anonymity of a GS working uniform hadn't lasted very
long.

       *       *       *       *       *

By the time I was able to capture enough breath to make coherent sounds,
the shuttler was already approaching parking orbit. The pilot had used
maximum grav boost, and the trip must have crowded the record.

"That wasn't exactly SOP, was it?"

"Priority one, sir," the youngster replied, showing teeth wolfishly.

I was still trying to think up an adequate rebuttal when I came out of
the air lock and into the ship. Then I felt better. P 1 means, among
other things, first available transportation--but this giant was the
newest type, crammed to the buffers with the results of science's
latest efforts to make star _voyageurs_ as safe as express-strip
commuters inside a Terran dome. Even the vibrations of the great
Gatch-Spitzer-Melnikov generators, building toward maximum output, had
been dampened to a level more imaginary than tangible. Internal gravity
was momentarily in operation, as an additional blessing; and, walking
down the blue-lit corridor toward Astrogation, I could feel the
occasional, metallic, thermal thump that meant the IP drive was hot and
critical.

I got a second lift when I saw who was bending over the robopilot
console: Antonio Moya, Mexico City's gift to Galactic Survey some
thirty-five years earlier; a _café-con-leche_ type with shrewd eyes,
nervous hands, silver-streaked hair that showed a defiance of geriatric
injections, a slight, wiry body that couldn't have gone more than one
hundred and twenty pounds at 1.0 gee, and probably the best Master
Spaceman extant. Only discipline kept the grin off my face. But he was
on the horn, getting traffic clearance, so I didn't interrupt.

The others were unknowns, the sort characterized by old spacers as
"pretty boy, recruitment ad types," but they looked competent; I figured
a medic and a spread of ratings; counting Moya, a basic GS unit. I'd
expected both a con crew and a standby. Either this was the total of
available personnel, or the brass had decided not to risk more men than
absolutely necessary. If I'd had illusions about the assignment, they
would have faded at that instant.

It's this way in Interstel: you're taught to be a loner. You're expected
to have absolute confidence in your own abilities and complete
skepticism about the talents of others. You're supposed to be
suspicious, cynical, courageous, and completely trustworthy. And you're
not expected to have friends. Which, obviously, in the light of the
aforementioned and part of what is yet to come, could serve as the
definition of redundancy. You're required to weed out incompetents
wherever you find them without prejudice, mercy, or feeling. The
standing order is survival, yet you are expected to lay down your life
gladly if the sacrifice will save one, pink-cheeked, short-time,
assistant teamer who gives the barest suggestion that he might some day
grow up to be a man and repay the thousands of credits squandered upon
his training in that profound hope. Which, stated another way, has
become the Eleventh Commandment of special agents: _Remember the body
corporeal and keep it inviolate_; and, if the reaction of the
rank-and-file of Galactic Survey to Interstel is used as criterion, is
the best-kept secret in the explored, physical universe. "The agent's
burden," Gravis calls it.

Moya's jaw dropped when he caught sight of me--apparently he had been
told only to expect an agent--but he recovered quickly.

"Hello, Callum," he barked. "I won't say it's a pleasure. Stow your gear
and strap down."

The claxon sounded stridently, and the inflectionless voice of the
robopilot said: "Sixty seconds."

I got into the indicated gee couch and squirmed around seeking some
measure of comfort. It had been designed for a much larger man, and I
gritted my teeth in the expectation of taking a beating.

       *       *       *       *       *

After a bruising few minutes, we went weightless, then the servos put us
back on internal gravity, and the crew unstrapped.

They ignored me studiously; it wasn't entirely bad manners; there's
plenty to be done in the interval prior to the first hop, and it isn't
all in just checking co-ordinates and programming master con.

The usual space plan calls for several accelerations and a lot of
distance between Terra-Luna proximity and Solar System departure. But
Space Regs are disregarded on Priority One missions. So, for probably
less than an hour, things were going to be busy in Astrogation.

I retrieved my kit and looked for an unoccupied cubicle.

GS star ships are designed to accommodate twenty-four men in reasonable
comfort--a figure arrived at more historically--the sum of
experience--than arbitrarily, as the minimum number necessary for the
adequate exploration of a new star system.

It breaks down this way: six men to a team, four teams maximum; three
for planetary grounding, one for ship's con; since any given team can do
either task, they are interchangeable, who gets which depends upon
rotation; three for exploration, then, because averages spread over
several generations of interstellar capability bear out the fact that
mother primaries generally possess no more than three planets that are
in the least amicable to humans.

I was more than cursorily familiar with the drill. The basic requirement
for Interstel is five years' service with a survey team. I'd spent nine.
Which is another reason for general GS enmity: the turncoat syndrome.
That and the fact that prospective agents are not even considered unless
they rate in the top one per cent in service qualification and fitness
reports: the jealousy angle. I'd known Moya from my last regular duty
ship. I'd worked up from assistant under his tutelage. I'd been ready
for the Team Co-ordinator/Master Spaceman exams when I'd applied for
transfer. Moya had raged for hours. But he'd given me a first-rate
recommendation. Call it service pride.

I was just getting a start on the vid tapes when the cubicle's panel
dilated and Moya stamped in, bristling like a game cock.

"What's all this about Epsilon-Terra?"

I removed the ear bead and grinned at him.

"Hello, Tony, you old space dog! You're looking fine. What happened? Did
they pull you off leave, too?"

He held the acid face until the panel closed, then he brightened a
little. At least, he didn't refuse my proffered hand.

He stood fists on hips, glaring at me.

Finally, he growled: "I had hopes you'd wash out. When I heard you'd
made it, I was plenty disappointed." He shook his head. "You seem
healthy enough, but I still think it's a waste of a good spacer." And
that, apparently, was as close as he was going to come to saying that he
was glad to see me again, because, in the next breath, he reverted to
Starship Master.

"Now, let's have the nexus. All I know is that I got orders to round up
a short crew, was handed a space plan with co-ordinates that were
originally filed for GSS 231 a few months back, with an ultimate
destination of a planet I orbited five years ago."

"You've been there?"

"I just said so, didn't I? Don't they teach you vacuum cops to listen?"

I gave him the background.

He nodded soberly a couple of times, but his only comment was: "I heard
rumors." Then he said: "That's all I've got time for now. We make our
first jump shortly. That'll take us to where 231 went on GSM. From there
on out, we follow her plan precisely."

"Until we locate and grapple, Tony, then we start making our own
mistakes."

"I don't doubt that."

Moya moved to leave, paused, said over his shoulder: "What's this about
old Ben Stuart being cashiered for misconduct?"

"It's true."

His back stiffened and his hands clenched. He turned to face me again.
"I went through the Academy with Ben. How about doing me a favor? For
old times sake. Tell me who it was that put the finger on him. Just give
me a name. I might spot it sometime on a register."

I figured there was no sense prolonging the agony.

"O.K. Ivor Vincent Callum."

Moya's face blanched; he took a backward step and uttered something
under his breath that sounded like the Spanish equivalent of--

He turned abruptly, opened the panel, and stalked out.

Somehow I expected him to come back and ask for details, but he didn't
show.

       *       *       *       *       *

I won't dwell on the trip. Any schoolboy who watches tridee space operas
can quote chapter and verse and use phrases like "paraspace hops" and
"rip-psyche phenomenon" as trippingly as "Hey, Joey, let's play
swap-strip!" Citizens from Venus and Mars, vacationing on Terra, speak
knowingly, too, whenever they can bring themselves to cease complaining
about the gravity, crowded conditions, and regimentation, and can
squelch the bragging about how well they're doing on good old whatever.
But don't let them kid you. GSM drive is restricted to _interstellar_
transport. Colonists from the nearer systems are picked people,
stiff-backed pioneers, who don't sob to come "home" every time their
particular planet completes a circuit around its primary; and, when they
do return, they're generally too busy lobbying for essentials to bother
telling tall tales. So, comparatively few people are really familiar
with star ships and the ins and outs of paraspace. Ask a starman, you
won't have any trouble recognizing one, even in mufti; or, better yet,
get a spool labeled: "THE CONQUEST OF PARASPACE: A History of the
Origins and Early Application of Star Drive." It's old, but good, and it
was written especially for laymen.

[Illustration]

I'll say this: it took about a week. Sure paraspace hops are, to all
intents and purposes, instantaneous, but there is a limit to the
capacity of the GSM drive, and regulations restrict the jumps to a
toleration well within that capacity. We might have made it sooner had
we not been bound to follow 231's space plan--but not much. Once a plan
has been filed, only an emergency can justify deviation. So, if you'll
pardon the expression, let's just say that interstellar distances are
astronomical.

Every time we came back into objective space--and I'd managed to
recapture my soul--I applied myself to the tapes.

I got little from Moya, and not because of enmity. Even after refreshing
his memory, he couldn't offer much. Although he had been master of the
ship that had first remarked E-T, he hadn't set foot upon its surface.

The planet was comparatively undistinguished.

It was about the size of Melna-Terra, had an atmosphere with a good
balance of nitrogen and oxygen, plus carbon dioxide, argon, et cetera,
was mostly surface water, yet offered polar ice caps and a reasonable
land area, as taken in the aggregate, although present in the form of
scattered, insular masses. The largest of these, about half the size of
Terra's Australia, was a comfortable number of degrees above the equator
and had been selected as representative for detailed examination.
Briefly: standard terrain--a balance between mountains, desert, and
plain; flora, varied; fauna, primitive--plenty of insect life, enough to
keep an entomologist occupied for years, but not much for specialists in
the other branches of zoölogy; warm-blooded creatures comparatively
rare; and, according to the original survey team, nothing bacterial that
had overburdened Doc Yakamura's polyvalent vaccine; the kind of planet
that pleased Galactic Survey because it looked promising for future
colonization, come the day and the need.

"The type that skeptics like me view with grave suspicion," I told Moya.
"Like saints, women of unblemished reputation, heroes, politicians--"

"And all Interstel agents," Tony offered dryly.

In the interim, since the divulgence of my part in the Stuart affair,
Moya had thawed somewhat. After all, he and I had been friends at one
time, and the present situation held no brief for head-on, personality
clashes. The phrase "all in the same boat" applies with particular
meaning to spacers. Tony undoubtably figured that 231 might have been
his ship. He even went so far as to express an interest in seeing E-T
from the ground level.

"I work alone, Tony," I said. "But thanks for the offer. Tell you what:
I'll strike a compromise. If I get into serious trouble, it'll be you I
shout for. All right?"

Moya scowled. "Probably a wild goose chase anyway."

But he said it without enthusiasm.

It reads like this: regs require that messenger vehicles be returned to
the Solar System on their miniature equivalents of paraspace drive,
periodically, with complete information as to conditions encountered,
work in progress, et cetera. None had been received from 231. There's a
joke--not at all funny, I'll admit--that concerns itself with just this
situation. It ends with the opening lines of the GS Memorial Service.

       *       *       *       *       *

The last skull work I did was to familiarize myself with the personal
dossiers of each of 231's crew, paying particular attention to psych
reports. It's a part of my job that I've never liked. But I recognize
the necessity.

The crew seemed fairly typical. The average was relatively
inexperienced, the sort you'd expect on the type of assignment that was
often used as advanced training. I managed to single out several
possibles--men who might crack, depending upon the gravity of the
situation. The captain-designate wasn't one of them; nor was the
survey-team co-ordinator.

GSS 231 was on station--big and reflective and innocently ominous, held
methodically by robopilot in an orbit that matched exactly the rotation
of Epsilon-Terra--precisely over the largest land mass.

Moya conned us in like a dream, paralleled, rectified, grappled, and
mated locks.

I showed up in Astrogation in a full-pressure suit, carrying the helmet.

The crew gawked, and somebody snickered.

"You think it's silly, do you?" Moya snapped.

"Better flush your side as soon as I get clear," I advised.

Moya nodded, lowered and secured the helmet, checked lines, and rapped
O.K.

An hour later, I still didn't feel silly. I had the helmet open now. I
sat in front of the communications console.

Moya responded as if he had been waiting with his finger on the stud. I
didn't have to specify taping; all star ship radio traffic is
automatically recorded.

"Level O.K.?" I asked.

"Yes, man; what's the story?"

"Inner lock and all compartments: air pressure, density, temperature,
and purity optimum; all intrinsic gear optimum; three shuttler berths
vacant; hold shows standard environmental equipment for one team gone;
messenger racks full, no programming apparent; absolutely no sign of
crew; repeat--"

"I got it; have you checked the log?"

"Who's doing this, you or me?"

I figured they could edit Moya's comment.

The log was strictly routine--space plan had been followed exactly;
arrival had been on schedule; survey team had been dispatched with
minimum delay, had reported grounding and camp establishment without
incident, had relayed particulars of commencement of operation--until
the last entry. It was eerie listening to the emotionless voice of 231's
skipper: "Sub-entry one. Date: same. Time: 2205 Zulu. No contact with
base camp. Surface front negates visual. Am holding dispatch of M 1.
Will wait until next scheduled report time before action."

There was no sub-entry two.

I broke the recorder seal, reversed and played back the comm tapes.
There wasn't much. Distance obviates any talky-talky from ship to base
once the Solar System has been cleared. What I learned was simply a
substantiation of what I'd already surmised. I cut off when I heard a
familiar voice say: "250 from 231."

       *       *       *       *       *

Moya helped me strip off the pressure suit. No matter what the physio
manuals say, there's room for improvement. Nothing beats your own skin.

He trailed me into the gear compartment.

I returned the suit to its clips and began sorting through the welter of
what the well-dressed spacer wears for a bug rig somewhere near my size.
The tag is not completely adequate. It's a light-weight outfit, with
intrinsic filters and auds, designed to be worn under conditions that
involve the suspected presence of dangerous bacteria or harmful gases.
Its efficacy does not extend beyond the limits of reasonable atmosphere.

"Now don't start jumping to conclusions," I told Moya. "All I know is
that whatever happened happened quickly and down below."

From the weapons' chest, I selected a little W&R 50 and the biggest clip
I could find. "Fifties" aren't much for range, but they are
unconditionally guaranteed to make a creature the size of a Triceratops
think twice before heading in your direction again, and, once you strap
one on, you never feel the weight. That's why, even though they are
officially obsolete, you can generally find a brace in most star ship
arsenals.

"Remind me to report the maintenance gang of this hunk for stocking
unauthorized weaponry."

"You would, too," Moya said.

On the way back to the lock, I told him:

"Let's save time by not making a duplicate recording. I'll transmit
additional information and intent going down. There's one shuttler left
in 231, so I'll use it. If I find I need something that isn't in the
shuttler, I'll fetch myself. Under no circumstances are you or any of
your boys to leave this ship without my say-so."

"What happens if--?"

"You've had thirty years of deep space, Tony; am I supposed to tell you
your job? Go by the book. Either launch another messenger and sit tight
for instructions, or get out and risk a board inquiry, depending."

"You can rot down there for all of me."

"Thanks a pile. Make certain your crew understands. I wouldn't want any
of them getting their pretty hands dirty."

But I didn't feel so cocky going down. I hadn't the least idea of what
to expect. Sure, I'd gleaned something from the comm tapes: the
unsuccessful attempts to contact the survey team at base camp; the
happy-go-lucky report from the kid sent in shuttler II to investigate,
saying that the camp was deserted but everything looked fine, just fine;
the unsuccessful attempts to recontact him; and then a blank except for
my own voice. Apparently, the skipper had followed with the rest of the
con crew. I could even guess why he had failed to make additional
entries in the log, or not transmitted from the camp in lieu thereof. He
figured it was something he could work out himself, and he didn't want
anything on record to show that he had broken regulations. He wanted to
keep the errors of personnel under his command--and his own--in the
family. He figured, after the situation was resolved, that he could make
cover entries and nobody's slate would be soiled.

       *       *       *       *       *

The camp was at the edge of a plain marked "Hesitation" on the chart.

I plucked a scrap of verse out of my mind:

    _On the Plains of Hesitation
    Bleach the bones of countless millions
    Who, when victory was dawning
    Sat down to rest
    And resting, died._

I wondered how prophetic that was going to be.

I grounded within yards of the other three shuttlers. They were parked
neatly parallel. Their orderliness made my scalp prickle, and I was
sweating long before I got into the bug suit, squeezed out of the tiny
lock, and set foot on Epsilon-Terra.

The sky was blue, naked except for a tracing of tenuous clouds.

I could see neither of the star ships.

I wonder if you can imagine how it feels to be on a planet so far away
from the Solar System that the term "trillions of miles" is totally
inadequate? If you can grasp even a bit of it, then add the complication
of a small but insistent voice inside your head that keeps telling you
that no matter where or how far you go, you're not--

Let's just say it gives your sweat an odor and your mouth a taste and
makes you want to look over your shoulder all the time.

I walked the hundred yards to the white plastidome, avoiding the few
bulbous plants and tussocks of short yellow grass that dotted the dry
plain.

Through the aud cells of the suit's hood, I could hear the light buzzing
of insects that served only to heighten the overbearing quiet of the
area.

The port was closed. Inside, everything was correct, except for the
little dirt brought in on boot soles during erection and subsequent
goings and comings.

There was a packet of nutratabs, lying open on an empty crate that had
been pressed into service as a table. Some one had fortified himself
before trekking off into the nearby bush. There was much equipment still
sealed in cartons. Bunks were made up. Tucked under the blanket of one
was a little book with stylus attached. All pages were blank except the
first. The entry read: "TC in a sweat to get going. Rain potential. No
rest for the weary. This seems to be a nice spot though. Am kind of
eager myself to take a look at some of the vegetation hereabouts. Have
several ideas along the lines of Thompson's prelim research concerning
extraction of--"

I replaced it under the blanket. I was ready to give odds that each of
the previous finders had done the same: the kid that had arrived in
shuttler II, and probably 231's skipper; and each from the same
motive--_He'll be back; after all, a diary is a personal thing._

I went back outside, shut the port, and made a complete circuit of the
camp. I looked into each of the three shuttlers. I found nothing that
could offer the least positive clue to the fate of the twelve men from
231.

I returned to shuttler IV, beamed Moya, and filled him in, forcing
myself to be cheery.

"How's everything upstairs?"

"Right now we're having a little zero-gee drill; keeps the boys alert."

"Good idea. Now here's my plan: I've got ten hours of daylight left, so
I'm heading out into the bush. Figure departure in five minutes. Weather
has obscured signs, but I don't think I can go wrong by following my
nose and taking the shortest route. I'm traveling light, just the bug
rig, the W&R, belt kit, and a minicomm. I'm going to set up this
transceiver to record and transmit on command-response. I suggest you
interrogate every hour on the hour from now on. Catchum?"

I broke off, made the necessary adjustments, strapped the minicomm on my
wrist, and exited the shuttler.

The antiseptic air that I drew into my lungs was beginning to seem
inadequate, I felt slippery all over, and there was a cottony taste in
my mouth.

       *       *       *       *       *

I made it to the start of the bush in fifteen minutes. Don't be misled
into picturing jungle. There was a variety of vegetation, including
trees, but none of it was what you'd call heavy going. Beyond somewhere
was a stream, significant enough to be noted on the chart as "First
Water." And several miles from the camp was the start of a series of
rolling hills. Blue in the distance was a chain of mountains--"The
Guardians." The over-all impression was of peaceful, virgin wilderness.

The original survey team had made its camp in the relative frankness of
the plain, then, after preliminary tests, had moved to higher ground,
specifically, the lee side of one of the nearer hills.

They had cleared an area, using heat sweepers to destroy encroaching
vegetation, and R-F beams to disenchant the local insect population.

Insects there were: a regular cacophony of buzzings, chirpings and
monotonous mutterings. By the time I'd reached the bank of the stream,
I'd lost track of individual varieties.

The stream was a bare trickle; the bed was spongy and dotted with tall,
spare plants that resembled horse tails; I negotiated the fifty feet to
the opposite bank without difficulty.

I threaded through a thicket and came out into a brief expanse of
savannah.

There I found the first evidence of the fate of 231's people.

It was a small object, oval, flattened, the color of old ivory.

Although I hadn't been walking along with my head under my arm, it took
me a moment to tumble to what I'd discovered.

Then my hair tried to stand on end. I rid myself of it and used the
minicomm for the first time.

Speaking to a recorder was altogether too impersonal for what I had to
report.

"I've just found a patella; a human knee-cap. I'm about a hundred feet
beyond the far bank of the stream in almost a straight line from the
camp. I'm in grass about two feet tall. I'm casting about now,
looking--Hold it. Yes, it's scraps of a gray uniform. More remains.
Here's a femur; here's a radius-ulna. The bones are clean, scattered.
Evidence of scavengers. No chance for a P-M on this one."

I got out the chart from its case on the suit's belt, x'd the location,
and went on, feeling more lonely all the time.

It wasn't that I was unconversant with the physical evidence of death.
I've marked corpses on planets you've probably never heard of--corpses
resulting from disaster, unavoidable accident, stupid error, and even
murder. What I've learned is that you never get used to coming face to
face with human death, even when its manifestation is the inscrutable
vacancy of bare bones.

You can put this down, too, and think what you want about incongruity: I
was angry; angry with the spacer that had got himself catapulted into
eternity so far from home; angry with myself for having assumed before
leaving the Interstel office in Mega Angeles that this is what I would
find; angry because the assumption had done nothing to prepare me for
the reality. No space padre would have admired what I said inside the
bug suit's hood--nor the refinements that grew more bitter with each new
discovery.

Within three hours, I'd accounted for all twelve of 231's missing crew.

The search had led to and beyond the hillside where the original team
had made its second and permanent camp. In one place, I found enough to
separate four skeletons of men who had fallen within a few feet of each
other. The rest were randomly located. There was a small plant growing
up through the hole in the left half of a pelvis. Somehow it looked
obscene, and I had to fight the impulse to tear it out. But it was
simply one of many, struggling for survival, that I'd seen growing here
and there throughout the area: a species that seemed to bear a familial
kinship to those that sprinkled the plain.

There was equipment: field kits, a minilab, a couple of blasters, each
showing full charge.

Cause of death: that was the enigma.

"So far I'm stumped," I said into the minicomm. "I've retrieved a few
scraps of uniform bearing stains. Maybe analysis can discover something.
The tapes say that E-T's birds and mammals are comparatively rare, but
_comparative_ doesn't mean much in the light of what I've seen. So far,
though, everything I can come up with seems totally inadequate.
Bacterial invasion, animal attack, insect incursion--none were problems
with the first survey gang, so why should they be now? Rule out gas
poisoning or allied concomitants; the suit tab shows white. Speaking of
that--I'm peeling now. Keep your fingers crossed."

       *       *       *       *       *

The air was warm and still, heavy with the ubiquitous smells and sounds
of wilderness.

I was in the approximate area of the first team's camp. As per custom,
they had struck the plastidome, dismantled the scanners, power panels,
and other reusable equipment, and destroyed the debris of occupancy. The
clearing had repaired itself. But for the slight concavities on the
hilltop that marked shuttler settlings, there was little to indicate
their previous presence.

I sat down and waited.

The suicide complex has never been a part of my psyche, but there are
times when you have to place yourself in jeopardy; it's occupational,
and I've got the gray hair, worry lines, and scars to prove it.

I waited for three long hours.

The sweat dampness of my uniform evaporated only to be replaced by the
stains of new perspiration. I sucked in great gulps of E-T's air and
found it consistently comfortable in my lungs. Insects came,
investigated, and retreated, mostly because of urging. I was not
approached by anything larger than a line of creatures the size of
Vici-Terran milatants, and I was able to avoid them by evasive action.
As far as I could determine, I wasn't invaded by anything microscopic or
sub-microscopic either, because at the end of the three hours, I felt
nothing beyond the personal infirmities that I'd brought with me.

The definite decline of E-T's sun forced me to give up.

The walk back to the plain wasn't entirely fruitless; I found something
that I'd overlooked previously: the scattered remains of a small
vertebrate. Many of the bones were missing.

"What happened to you?" I mused. "Did you come for a meal and got killed
by a larger animal? Or were you caught in the same disaster that--?"

There was no way to tell.

What was it about Epsilon-Terra that could accept one survey team for
months of occupancy--occupancy that had involved detailed examination of
the region within miles of the plain and the hillside, and cursory
examination of thousands of square miles of the rest of the insular mass
by air, including touchdowns at key points for short stays--and that
five years later could entice, enmesh, and destroy the entire
complement of a modern star ship, indiscriminately, within a matter of
hours?

       *       *       *       *       *

It was late afternoon when I reached the camp.

I was tired, dirty, thirsty, hungry, and thoroughly frustrated.

I drank from a previously unopened water bowser and wolfed several
nutratabs.

Then I stumbled over to the shuttler, secured the recorder and
interrogation setup, raised the star ship, and brought Moya up to date.

"I'm going to move this vehicle to the hillside and spend the night
there. I figure I'd better give E-T a full twenty-six hour rotation
interval to come up with something before the next step. Tomorrow, I'm
going to need a man down here to witness the location and disposition of
the corpses. You know the drill. It's your decision whether they should
be identified singly, if possible, and secured for removal to Terra, or
whether they should be interred here, commonly. My recommendation is to
make a film record and plant them, but I'm too tired to argue. One thing
more: whoever you send--if he gives me any lip, I'll cut him down like a
small tree. There's been enough mistakes made here already."

I spent the night in the shuttler. Call it an atavistic response to the
unknowns of darkness.

It was a restless interval between dusk and dawn.

Occasionally, I illuminated the hillside and surrounding area. A couple
of times, I glimpsed the eye reflections of small animals. They seemed
to possess the shyness of most nocturnal creatures. But I couldn't help
wondering--

Morning dawned gloomily; there was a light mist hanging over the
streambed, and much of the sky was turgid with clouds.

I gave the star ship the go-ahead and specified dispatch because of the
threatening weather.

Moya mentioned plastibags, a filmer, and a porto-digger. His decision
was obvious. I figured it wise but had the uncomfortable picture of a GS
representative trying to explain the reasons to bereaved relatives.

I spent a few moments going over meteorological details. As I recalled
from the tapes, this was the rainy season. Judging from the look of the
area, it could use precipitation. Things were growing, but the stream
was mostly dry, and the plain seemed parched. Apparently the mountains
blocked much of it.

Sitting on hands has never been my delight, so I exited the shuttler and
went down the hill for another look-see.

Insects buzzed noisily; the air seemed heavy and oppressive; but nothing
had changed--there was no evidence of the creatures I'd seen during the
night.

It took about an hour for the shuttler from 250 to show.

In the interval, several things happened.

The first was a perceptive darkening of the sky, followed by a light,
preliminary shower. I'd anticipated that, and was considering heading
back for the bug suit when the second occurred.

[Illustration]

I'm not going to offer excuses. From the advantage of retrospection, you
can say what you want about slipshod detective work. The point remains
that I'd covered the area more than cursorily and had not encountered
anything specifically dangerous.

The timing was pure luck.

The shuttler penetrated the overcast about ten miles off target,
located, and started its approach.

And something bit me on the leg.

I pulled up my pant's leg immediately, hoping to catch the culprit, but
saw nothing save a thin red line about an inch long. It looked more a
scratch than an insect bite. But I hadn't brushed against anything.

The shuttler grounded on the hilltop, and I headed up.

Perhaps it was exertion that speeded the reaction.

There was no pain, only a local numbness.

Before I'd traveled ten yards, my leg from the knee almost to the ankle
felt prickly asleep.

I paused and looked. There was no swelling, no other discoloration.

I heard a raspy voice from the hilltop.

"Are you going to give me some help, or do I have to haul all this gear
myself?"

Despite the leg, I didn't know whether to laugh or explode.

Moya was rattling around in an outsized bug suit and carrying the
biggest Moril blaster contained in a star ship's arsenal that could
still be called portable.

"What in condemned space are you doing here?" I shouted.

I was ready to give it to him right off the top of the regs about the
relationship between ship's master and agents-on-assignment and the
responsibilities of command, but the leg chose that moment to fail.
Until then, I hadn't really been worried. I fell forward against the
pitch of the slope, caught myself with my arms, and rolled over on my
back. I hit my left thigh with my fist and felt absolutely nothing.
Massage didn't help.

I heard Moya panting down the brow of the hill.

"Keep away!" I shouted. "Get back to the ship!"

Moya bent over me; he had opened the hood of the bug suit, and his face
was grave.

"What's the trouble, Callum?"

"Can't you take orders?"

He shook his head. I pointed to the leg. He looked swiftly at the broken
skin.

"How does it feel?"

"That's the trouble; it doesn't."

He grabbed my arm, put it over his shoulder, and got me on my feet.

We made good time, considering.

"Too bad you're such a shrimp," I said.

"I can take you on any time."

Shuttler IV was closest, parked on a shelf fifty yards below the top of
the hill, but Moya was heading to miss it.

"I programmed for auto, just in case, and the generators are up to
power. We waste time to save time. That way I can give you some help on
the ascent."

The generator part was fine; the rest wasn't.

It started to rain again, just before we reached 250's shuttler.

I put my face up to it.

Moya got me through the lock and onto an acceleration couch. Then he
headed for the panel. I was beginning to feel a desperate weakness, but
my head was still clear.

"Wait a minute," I said. "What's your gee tolerance?"

"High, but--"

"So strap me and raise this couch to vertical. Then override the auto
and take us up fast."

He blinked.

"Listen," I said. "This feels like a neuro-toxin. Remember snake-bite
aid? Well, the numbness is up to my groin now. No place for a
tourniquet. And nothing here for freezing."

It was strange going up. I blacked out almost immediately, but Moya took
it flat and apparently stayed alert all the way.

"Space!" I managed to gasp finally. "Any more of that sort of thing and
I'd have ended up stupid."

Then there was utter confusion.

       *       *       *       *       *

I came to full awareness under the luminescence of the infirmary's
overhead. I was naked on the padding of the table. I could see a
respirator off to my right, and a suction octopus near it. The medic was
just stowing an auto-heart. But for a different tingling in my leg and
an all-is-lost sensation south of my diaphragm, I felt reasonably sound.

The medic approached. I hadn't gotten a very good impression of the
lean, blond youngster on the trip out, but now he seemed Hippocrates,
Luke, Lister, Salk, O'Grady, and Yakamura all rolled into one.

He weakened it by asking the classic redundancy.

"How do you feel?"

I elbowed up for a look at the leg. There was a series of little welts
the length of it, masked by forceheal.

"Where did you learn your trade?" I asked. "In a production expediter's
office?"

He grinned.

"It took more than three hours, Mr. Callum. Suction, flushing, full
transfusion. You've got some good blood in you now."

I lay back and let him talk.

"There'll be nerve damage, probably. Regeneration should take care of
most of it, but you might need transplants. You were lucky. First, that
whatever nipped you barely broke the skin. Second, that the skipper was
there to help. And third, that you had the sense to block the spread of
the toxin by gee forces."

"Yeah. Remind me to thank Moya--immediately after I write him up for
leaving his station."

The medic looked pleased.

"Well, now, the way I got it--and I believe the recorder will bear me
out--is that you requested a witness. You left it up to the skipper to
make the selection."

He cleared his throat.

"And, by the way, Moya said he'd look in on you after a bit. The thing
to do now is rest."

I sat up again.

"Where're my clothes?"

The kid commenced noises of disapproval.

"Damnation! I'm not going anywhere. I just want to look over that pant's
leg."

Came the dawn.

"What'd you say Moya was doing?"

"Oh, I expect he's busy up forward."

The trouble was that he looked me straight in the eye. It takes practice
to lie convincingly. And the Space Academy doesn't list the Art of
Prevarication among its curricula.

"That misbegotten little son of an Aztec! He went back down, didn't he?"

I tried to jackknife off the table.

The medic flexed his muscles and said: "I can't take the
responsibility--"

"When are you people going to get it through your stubborn heads that
the responsibility for this whole shebang is mine and mine alone?"

Two more of the crew showed up. Under other circumstances, I might have
enjoyed tangling with them. I know tricks that even the inventors of
karate overlooked.

"All right," I gasped. "But give me the dope. He's not alone, is he? Are
you in contact?"

It developed that Moya had returned to the site of the disaster
immediately upon learning that I was out of danger. He'd taken a
crewman. He was also equipped with my chart of the area complete with
locales of the remains. The last word had been that the two had grounded
and that the weather front was dissipating. He'd been gone about two
hours.

"They both had bug suits," the medic offered.

"Great," I said. "Just splendid. Suppose there's a creature down there
that can go through plastic like--"

For the first time the three lost their smug expressions.

"We destroyed your clothes," the medic said sheepishly. "We figured--"

I railed at them for a couple of minutes, but it was mostly unfair.
Moya's decision could be justified, too.

They rustled up a uniform and helped me to Astrogation. The remaining
crewman was at the comm. The freeze was beginning to wear off, and my
leg burned.

I alternated between berating myself and trying to think up an adequate
explanation for the possible death or injury of two men ostensibly under
my control.

After several hours of sweat-agony, Moya's voice came over the horn. He
sounded tired.

"We've done it. You'll be happy to know that we gave them an official
burial."

I could picture the little Mexican, standing beside the long mound, head
bowed, with the Specter probably staring over his shoulder, going
methodically through the complete Memorial Service, ending with: _And
the whole galaxy is the sepulcher of illustrious men._

"It's not much of a place, but the sun is shining now. Expect us
shortly."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Are you _sure_ you're all right?"

I was propped on my elbows on the bunk in my cubicle, nursing the jangle
in my leg. Maybe it was that--but I was as confused as a mouse in a
psych maze.

"Why wouldn't I be?" Moya said.

"And you wore the suits all the time?"

"Affirmative. If you'd done the same--"

The medic showed with lab analyses.

"There wasn't much of that stuff in you," he said. "And I can't break it
down. Too complex. You used the cobra venom analogy--Well, this makes
that look as simple as mother's milk."

He held up the stained pieces of uniform. Moya had kept his wits about
him.

"A combination of weather, soil, et cetera," the medic said. "Completely
innocuous."

"About the toxin," I said. "Given time, could you work up an antivenin?"

"Probably. But I'd need plenty. Both time and toxin." He looked at me.
"Oh, I see what you're getting at." He became professionally parochial.

"In other words--" I said.

He snapped his fingers.

"You know how it hit you."

The confusion persisted, so I allowed the medic to use a pressure hypo.

Hours later, I felt better--physically.

On the vid screen, the magnified surface of the insular mass seemed
almost to beckon. _Sireni_, I thought.

Little remained of the weather front. Over the area of the plain and the
rolling hills were meager wisps of clouds. Darkness again was creeping
across the face of E-T.

"That storm didn't amount to much," Moya said.

_Storm_, I thought. _Rain._

"I know what I'd do," Moya continued. "I'd radiate and have done with
it."

The medic dissented on clinical-curiosity grounds.

"I can't reconcile things yet," I said. "But let's assume that it was a
tragedy of errors. Let's say that what hit me, killed them. But what was
it? Where did it come from? And why? No, I'll have to go down again.
It's my burden to find _all_ the answers."

Moya growled: "There's a time for stubbornness."

I caught the rest of the crew staring at me; their expressions were a
motley.

       *       *       *       *       *

Back at the same old stand, open for business, looking at the pitiful
alteration, feeling lonely, feeling vulnerable, too, despite the bug
suit, Moya's parting blast still burning in my mind.

He'd ferried me down to the hilltop in the long shadows of early
morning. I'd had to order him to return to the star ship. I stood now
beside the communal mound. Moya had said, pointing down the hill, anger
making him illogical: "These are the people you sold out when you
transferred to Interstel. They could have used your kind of brains.
Post-mortems aren't going to help them, now."

It was simple, wasn't it?

Something on E-T was a killer: quick and deadly.

If it got any sort of clean shot at you--

Something visible. Something big enough to make a mark. And not static,
like a thorn. A ground crawler? My pant's legs had been tucked securely
into my boot tops. A flier? It would have to be strong enough to pierce
a GS uniform and make an entrance into flesh. Or to leave a scratch from
a glancing blow. And I hadn't seen anything.

But only a recent problem.

And restricted to the area beyond the stream.

And random.

And terribly innocent. Innocent enough to be overlooked until it was
too late.

_Think._

I thought and came up with a brainful of nothing.

_Think again._

Strong enough to pierce two thicknesses of cloth--It must have gone
entirely through, although the overzealousness of the crew had removed
any possibility of proof.

How about the bug suit?

Assume the plastic was protection enough--

Wouldn't the wearer notice a blow? Or hear something?

I'd felt but not heard.

But then the rain had been falling.

No insect had hit me forcibly before--

Moya and his helper had noticed nothing after--

A few meager drops of rain, sibilantly soaking into the eager soil of
Epsilon-Terra.

Whoever first mouthed that bit about cursing being the audible
manifestation of a mediocre mind completely missed the point.

There's something infinitely comforting in the crackle and sweep and
roll of heartfelt invective.

I left the site of the common grave and made it back to the hillside and
shuttler IV as fast as discretion and terrain and my game leg would
allow.

       *       *       *       *       *

"I _am_ thinking," Moya grumbled over the comm. "If these details are so
important, why--?"

"Don't blame Interstel," I said. "The tapes were put together by GS
headquarters."

"Well, whoever. They should have included more information."

"Thompson," I prodded.

"Sure, sure, I remember him. Big, awkward, slow-moving--always babbling
about plants."

"What kind?"

"_All_ kinds."

"But anything particular? Something that he wanted to extract something
from."

"Well, let's see--He brought back lots of sample specimens, but there
_was_ one that he played with all the way home. It was an insectivorous
or carnivorous species, as I recall--"

"Yes? Yes?"

"That produced a chemical he thought might prove useful if it could be
extracted and concentrated or synthesized--Now, hold on. Are you
trying--?"

"Why not? And why didn't you mention this sooner?"

"For the simple reason--What got you off on this tangent?"

"_Rain._ The kid's diary said '_rain_ potential.' The captain's log
mentioned a _surface weather front_. And it _rained_ just before I was
hit."

"I fail to see the connection. But think about this: It rained on the
survey team I ferried here, too--not often, but more than once or
twice--and nothing happened to them."

That was the trouble with firing off at half thrust.

But there was still this nagging conviction: rain plus vegetation equals
death.

I could picture Moya and the crew speculating that I'd taken complete
leave of my senses.

But sometimes you have to play the game blindly--"by the seat of your
pressure suit," as the pioneers stated it.

I went to the shuttler's locker, located a canteen in a survival kit,
filled it and left the ship.

I started where I'd found the largest collection of remains.

Moya's memory had failed to particularize the plant, but I had enough
evidence to negate indiscriminate baptism.

I felt supremely foolish--for a while.

My thoughts began to focus, and I recalled the little plant that had
grown up through the hole in the pelvis.

Casting about, I located adult specimens. They seemed to fit the
requirements. Again it struck me that they bore a familial kinship to a
variety that occurred on the plain.

I couldn't place the difference.

Finally I selected one about two feet tall.

It was bulbous, thick skinned, terminating in broad members that were
clustered to form a rough funnel. Their inner surfaces were coated with
a glutinous substance. The main body of the plant was studded with warty
projections about the size of walnut halves. And just below the terminal
funnel was a corona of tapering members like leaves beneath a bizarre
blossom. They ended in sharp points, bore flimsy surface bristles, and
seemed to serve as protection for the trap.

I prodded the green-and-yellow mottled skin of the thing. It was tough,
resistant, almost pneumatic--

I had this sudden, strong feeling.

About ten feet away was a tree with dull-reddish, overlapping bark
segments on its trunk. There was a branch close enough to the ground to
be reached if my leg would support the necessary spring. I tested the
leg for leap and the branch for support. They held.

I uncapped the canteen and sprinkled the remaining water over the plant,
making sure that some reached both the funnel and the corona.

I ran.

Seconds later, perched monkey-see, monkey-do on the branch, I lost any
lingering feeling of foolishness.

I sat there for quite a while, sickened. I thought about the crew of
231, and the other pieces of the puzzle. One of them had to be
arrogance--the natural arrogance of picked people that leads to a belief
in corporeal immortality: _Nothing can happen to me; you, maybe, but not
me._

       *       *       *       *       *

Even though I knew exactly what to expect, it was impossible not to jerk
back involuntarily with the others.

We were in the star ship, clustered around a bell jar. The jar contained
a small specimen of the killer that I'd dug up gingerly and brought back
for evidence.

I'd introduced water into the jar, and the first reaction had just taken
place.

"Watch closely," I cautioned.

Again it happened--innocently at first and then too swiftly for the eye
to follow. One of the little protuberances seemed to swell
slightly--_Ping._ Something struck the wall of the bell jar hard enough
to evoke a clear, sharp, resonant note.

"I don't know the exact range of a mature specimen," I said, grimly,
"but I saw leaves shake a good twenty yards away."

"A seed," one of the crewmen breathed. "Nothing but a tiny,
insignificant _seed_."

Moya shook his head.

"A deadly missile, son, wearing or containing a virulent poison. And
people used to blather about curare."

I began to draw concentric arcs on the chart.

"I kept fetching water and testing and retreating all the way back to
the plain. Pretty soon there's not going to be any place safe within
miles of where these mutants can take root. Near the plain's camp,
they're still innocuous--the original species. The propagation response
is triggered by rain, all right, but the seeds just pop out, and, of
course, the poison is undoubtedly weak--a bother only to insects."

"But they weren't a problem--" Moya interjected.

"Time," I said. "Five years. Look here on the chart. I figured this to
be the center: the first team's permanent camp on the hill. Now what
happened there? Heaters to destroy immediate vegetation, and
_Radio-Frequency_ beams to kill insects and their larvae over a wider
area. R-F--don't you see? Cells react to certain portions of the radio
spectrum. Some are destroyed, depending upon intensity. Some behave
strangely--the 'marching protozoa,' the 'dancing amoeba.' In others,
chromosomal aberrations occur, resulting in mutations. Remember the
experiments with yeasts, garlic, grains? The growth of some
microorganisms is stimulated by R-F irradiation."

"Then these glorified flytraps got mad at what was happening to their
innards and decided to fight even harder for survival?"

"You're anthropomorphizing," I told Moya, "but that's the way I see it.
They just responded along already established lines."

I paused and noted the expressions on the faces of the crew. Maybe it
was that, and maybe it was the fact that my leg hadn't held up very well
under the beating I'd given it. And maybe it was twelve good
men--Anyway, I spent the next half hour pulling no punches. When I'd
finished, Interstel had regained its reputation. Nobody--neither
short-timer nor veteran--likes to hear dead comrades characterized as
"stupid." But I figured the crew would remember.

Moya seemed unfazed, as if he'd paid scant attention to my speech; he
rubbed his chin reflectively.

"The bug suits--"

"Were they any protection? At long range, probably. But up close--"

Moya apparently could think of nothing more to say.

We radiated the danger area, left 231 for a pick-up team, and headed
for home.

       *       *       *       *       *

Moya walked with me from Quarantine to the Terra Ramp. The leg still
wasn't right.

"Did you mention me kindly in your report?"

"Of course not," I told him.

He chuckled and put his hand on my shoulder.

"About Ben Stuart--"

"It's a nasty job," I said.

"Did he rate getting cashiered?"

"He did, Tony."

"Well, take care of yourself, Ivy."

The redhead again was on duty at the outbound desk. She ignored me.

_Xanadu!_

It was night, and there was a heavy fog. Standing alone on the open
promenade outside the dome, I was grateful that I couldn't see the
sky--and the ominous stars that were not so far away.

A couple of months later, I heard that Epsilon-Terra had received its
official name: _Atri-Terra_. _Atri_ from attrition. I've wondered ever
since whether GS based the choice upon the secular or the theological
definition.


THE END



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _Analog_ November 1961. Extensive
    research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on
    this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and typographical
    errors have been corrected without note.





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