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´╗┐Title: Planet of the Gods
Author: Williams, Robert Moore, 1907-1977
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 "Planet of the Gods" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                          PLANET OF THE GODS

                       By Robert Moore Williams

[Transcriber Note: This etext was produced from Amazing Stories December
1942. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
copyright on this publication was renewed.]


[Sidenote: Two planets circling Vega! But a more amazing discovery
waited the explorers when they landed!]



CHAPTER I


"What do you make of it?" Commander Jed Hargraves asked huskily.

Ron Val, busy at the telescope, was too excited to look up from the
eye-piece. "There are at least two planets circling Vega!" he said
quickly. "There may be other planets farther out, but I can see two
plainly. And Jed, the nearest planet, the one we are approaching, has an
atmosphere. The telescope reveals a blur that could only be caused by an
atmosphere. And--Jed, this may seem so impossible you won't believe
it--but I can see several large spots on the surface that are almost
certainly lakes. They are not big enough to be called oceans or seas.
But I am almost positive they are lakes!"

According to the preconceptions of astronomers, formed before they had a
chance to go see for themselves, solar systems were supposed to be rare
birds. Not every sun had a chance to give birth to planets. Not one sun
in a thousand, maybe not one in a million; maybe, with the exception of
Sol, not another one in the whole universe.

And here the first sun approached by the Third Interstellar Expedition
was circled by planets!

The sight was enough to drive an astronomer insane.

Ron Val tore his eyes away from the telescope long enough to stare at
Captain Hargraves. "Air and water on this planet!" he gasped. "Jed, do
you realize what this may mean?"

Jed Hargraves grinned. His face was lean and brown, and the grin,
spreading over it, relaxed a little from the tension that had been
present for months.

"Easy, old man," he said, clapping Ron Val on the shoulder. "There is
nothing to get so excited about."

"But a solar system--"

"We came from one."

"I know we did. But just the same, finding another will put our names in
all the books on astronomy. They aren't the commonest things in the
universe, you know. And to find one of the planets of this new system
with air and water--Jed, where there is air and water there may be
life!"

"There probably is. Life, in some form, seems to be everywhere. Remember
we found spores being kicked around by light waves in the deepest depths
of space. And Pluto, in our own system, has mosses and lichens that the
biologists insist are alive. It won't be surprising if we find life out
there." He gestured through the port at the world swimming through space
toward them.

"I mean intelligent life," Ron Val corrected.

"Don't bet on it. The old boys had the idea they would find intelligent
life on Mars, until they got there. Then they discovered that
intelligent creatures had once lived on the Red Planet. Cities, canals,
and stuff. But the people who had built the cities and canals had died
of starvation long before humans got to Mars. So it isn't a good bet
that we shall find intelligence here."

       *       *       *       *       *

The astronomer's face drooped a little. But not for long. "That was true
of Mars," he said. "But it isn't necessarily true here. And even if Mars
was dead, Venus wasn't. Nor is Earth. If there is life on two of the
planets of our own solar system, there may be life on one of the planets
of Vega. Why not?" he challenged.

"Hey, wait a minute," Hargraves answered. "I'm not trying to start an
argument."

"Why not?"

"If you mean why not an argument--"

"I mean, why not life here?"

"I don't know why not," Hargraves shrugged. "For that matter, I don't
know _why_, either." He looked closely at Ron Val. "You ape! I believe
you're hoping we will find life here."

"Of course that's what I'm hoping," Ron Val answered quickly. "It would
mean a lot to find people here. We could exchange experiences, learn a
lot. I know it's probably too much to hope for." He broke off. "Jed, are
we going to land here?"

"Certainly we're going to land here!" Jed Hargraves said emphatically.
"Why in the hell do you think we've crossed thirty light years if we
don't land on a world when we find one? This is an exploring
expedition--"

Hargraves saw that he had no listener. Ron Val had listened only long
enough to learn what he wanted to know, then had dived back to his
beloved telescope to watch the world spiraling up through space toward
them. That world meant a lot to Ron Val, the thrill of discovery, of
exploring where a human foot had never trod in all the history of the
universe.

New lands in the sky! The Third Interstellar Expedition--third because
two others were winging out across space, one toward Sirius, the other
toward Cygnus--was approaching land! The fact also meant something to
Jed Hargraves, possibly a little less than it did to Ron Val because
Hargraves had more responsibilities. He was captain of the ship,
commander of the expedition. It was his duty to take the ship to Vega,
and to bring it safely home.

Half of his task was done. Vega was bright in the sky ahead and the
tough bubble of steel and quartz that was the ship was dropping down to
rest on one of Vega's planets. Hargraves started to leave the nook that
housed Ron Val and his telescope.

The ship's loudspeaker system shouted with sudden sound.

"Jed! Jed Hargraves! Come to the bridge at once."

That was Red Nielson's voice. He was speaking from the control room in
the nose of the ship. Nielson sounded excited.

Hargraves pushed a button under the loudspeaker. The system was two-way,
allowing for intercommunication.

"Hargraves speaking. What's wrong?"

"A ship is approaching. It is coming straight toward us."

"A ship! Are you out of your head? This is Vega."

"I don't give a damn if it's Brooklyn! I know a space ship when I see
one. And this is one. Either get up here and take command or tell me
what you want done."

Discipline among the personnel of this expedition was so nearly perfect
there was no need for it. Consequently there was none. Before leaving
earth, skilled mental analysts had aided in the selection of this crew,
and had welded it together so artfully that it thought, acted, and
functioned as a unit. Jed Hargraves was captain, but he had never heard
the word spoken, and never wanted to hear it. No one had ever put "sir"
after his name. Nor had anyone ever questioned an order, after it was
given. Violent argument there might be, before an order was given, with
Hargraves filtering the pros and cons through his rigidly logical mind,
but the instant he reached a decision the argument stopped. He was one
of the crew, and the crew knew it. The crew was one with him, and he
knew it.

He might question Nielson's facts, once, in surprise. But not twice. If
Nielson said a ship was approaching, a ship _was_ approaching.

       *       *       *       *       *

"I'm coming," Hargraves rapped into the mike. "Turn full power into the
defense screen. Warn the engine room to be ready for an emergency. Sound
the call to stations. And Red, hold us away from this planet."

Almost before he had finished speaking, a siren was wailing through the
ship. Although he had used the microphone in the nook that housed the
telescope, Ron Val had been so interested in the world they were
approaching that he had not heard the captain's orders. He heard the
siren.

"What is it, Jed?"

Hargraves didn't have time to explain. He was diving out the door and
racing toward the bridge in the nose of the ship. "Come on," he flung
back over his shoulder at Ron Val. "Your post is at the fore negatron."

Ron Val took one despairing glance at his telescope, then followed the
commander.

As he ran toward the control room, Hargraves heard the ship begin to
radiate a new tempo of sound. The siren was dying into silence, its
warning task finished. Other sounds were taking its place. From the
engine room in the stern was coming a spiteful hiss, like steam escaping
under great pressure from a tiny vent valve. That was the twin atomics,
loading up, building up the inconceivable pressures they would feed to
the Kruchek drivers. A slight rumble went through the ship, a rumble
seemingly radiated from every molecule, from every atom, in the vessel.
It _was_ radiated from every molecule! That rumble came from the Kruchek
drivers warping the ship in response to the controls on the bridge. Bill
Kruchek's going-faster-than-hell engines, engineers called them. A
fellow by the name of Bill Kruchek had invented them. When Bill
Krucheck's going-faster-than-hell drivers dug their toes into the
lattice of space and put brawny shoulders behind every molecule within
the field they generated, a ship within that field went faster than
light. The Kruchek drivers, given the juice they needed in such
tremendous quantities, took you from hell to yonder in a mighty hurry.
They had been idling, drifting the ship slowly in toward the planet.
Now, in response to an impulse from Nielson on the bridge, they
grumbled, and hunching mighty shoulders for the load, prepared to hurl
the ship away from the planet. Hargraves could feel the vessel surge in
response to the speed. Then there was a distant thud, and he could feel
the surge no longer. The anti-accelerators had been cut in, neutralizing
the effect of inertia.

Shoving open a heavy door, Hargraves was in the control room. A glance
showed him Nielson on the bridge. Leaning over, his fingers on the bank
of buttons that controlled the ship, he was peering through the heavy
quartzite observation port at something approaching from the right.
Beside him, on his right, a man was standing ready at the radio panel.
And to the left of the bridge two men had already jerked the covers from
the negatron and were standing ready beside it.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ron Val leaped past Hargraves, dived for a seat on the negatron. That
was his post. He had been chosen for it because of his familiarity with
optical instruments. Along the top of the negatron was a sighting
telescope. Ron Val looked once to see where the man on the bridge was
looking, then his fingers flew to the adjusting levers of the telescope.
The negatron swung around to the right, centered on something there.

"Ready," Ron Val said, not taking his eyes from the 'scope.

"Hold your fire," Hargraves ordered.

He was on the bridge, standing beside Red Nielson. Off to the right he
could see the enemy ship. Odd that he should think of it as an enemy. It
wasn't. It was merely a strange ship. But there were relics in his mind,
vague racial memories, of the days when stranger and enemy were
synonymous. The times when this was true were gone forever, but the
thoughts remained.

"Shall we run for it?" Nielson questioned, his hands on the controls
that would turn full power into the drivers.

"No. If we run, they will think we have some reason for running. That
might be all they would need to conclude we are up to no good. Is the
defense screen on full power?"

"Yes." Nielson pushed the lever again to be sure. "I'm giving it all it
will take."

Hargraves could barely see the screen out there a half mile from the
ship. It was twinkling dimly as it swept up cosmic dust.[1]

[Footnote 1: Originally devised as a protection against meteors, it was
a field of force that would disintegrate any solid particle that struck
it, always presuming it did not tangle with an asteroid or a meteor too
big for it to handle. A blood brother of the negatron, it made space
flight, if not a first-class insurance risk, at least fairly safe.--Ed.]

The oncoming ship had been a dot in the sky. Now it was a round ball.

"Try them on the radio," Hargraves said. "They probably won't understand
us but at least they will know we're trying to communicate with them."

There was a swirl of action at the radio panel.

"No answer," the radio operator said.

"Keep trying."

"Look!" Nielson shouted. "They've changed course. They're coming
straight toward us."

The ball had bobbled in its smooth flight. As though caught in the
attraction of a magnet it was coming straight toward them.

For an instant, Hargraves stared. Should he run or should he wait? He
didn't want to run and he didn't want to fight. On the other hand, he
did not want to take chances with the safety of the men under his
command.

His mission was peaceful. Entirely so. But the ball was driving straight
toward them. How big it was he could not estimate. It wasn't very big.
Oddly, it presented a completely blank surface. No ports. And, so far as
he could tell, there was no discharge from driving engines. The latter
meant nothing. Their own ship showed no discharge from the Kruchek
drivers. But no ports--

It came so fast he couldn't see it come. The flash of light! It came
from the ball. For the fractional part of a second, the defense screen
twinkled where the flash of light hit it. But--the defense screen was
not designed to turn light or any other form of radiation. The light
came through. It wasn't light. It carried a component of visible
radiation but it wasn't light. The beam struck the earth ship.

_Clang!_

       *       *       *       *       *

From the stern came a sudden scream of tortured metal. The ship rocked,
careened, tried to spin on its axis. On the control panels, a dozen red
lights flashed, winked off, winked on again. Heavy thuds echoed through
the vessel. Emergency compartments closing.

Hargraves hesitated no longer.

"Full speed ahead!" he shouted at Red Nielson.

"Ron Val. Fire!"

This was an attack. This was a savage, vicious attack, delivered without
warning, with no attempt to parley. The ship had been hit. How badly it
had been damaged he did not know. But unless the damage was too heavy
they could outrun this ball, flash away from it faster than light,
disappear in the sky, vanish. The ship had legs to run. There was no
limit to her speed. She could go fast, then she could go faster.

"Full speed--"

Nielson looked up from the bank of buttons. His face was ashen. "She
doesn't respond, Jed. The drivers are off. The engine room is knocked
out."

There was no rumble from Bill Kruchek's going-faster-than-hell engines.
The hiss of the atomics was still faintly audible. Short of
annihilation, nothing could knock them out. Energy was being generated
but it wasn't getting to the drive. Leaping to the controls, Hargraves
tried them himself.

They didn't respond.

"Engine room!" he shouted into the communication system.

There was no answer.

The ship began to yaw, to drop away toward the planet below them. The
planet was far distant as yet, but the grasping fingers of its gravity
were reaching toward the vessel, pulling it down.

Voices shouted within the ship.

"Jed!"

"What happened?"

"Jed, we're falling!"

"That ball, Jed--"

Voices calling to Jed Hargraves, asking him what to do. He couldn't
answer. There was no answer. There was only--the ball! It was the
answer.

Through the observation port, he could see the circular ship. It was
getting ready to attack again. The sphere was moving leisurely toward
its already crippled prey, getting ready to deliver the final stroke. It
would answer all questions of this crew, answer them unmistakably. It
leered at them.

_Wham!_

The ship vibrated to a sudden gust of sound. Something lashed out from
the vessel. Hargraves did not see it go because it, too, went faster
than the eye could follow. But he knew what it was. The sound told him.
He saw the hole appear in the sphere. A round hole that opened inward.
Dust puffed outward.

_Wham, wham, wham!_

The negatron! The blood brother of the defense screen, its energies
concentrated into a pencil of radiation. Faster than anyone could see it
happen, three more holes appeared in the sphere, driving through its
outer shell, punching into the machinery at its heart.

The sphere shuddered under the impact. It turned. Light spewed out of
it, beaming viciously into this alien sky without direction. Smoke
boiled from the ball. Turning it seemed to roll along the sky. It looked
like a huge burning snowball rolling down some vast hill.

Ron Val lifted a white face from the sighting 'scope of the negatron.

"Did--did I get him?"

"I'll say you did!" Hargraves heard somebody shout exultantly. He was
surprised to discover his own voice was doing the shouting. The sphere
was finished, done for. It was out of the fight, rolling down the vast
hill of the sky, it would smash on the planet below.

They were following it.

There was still no answer from the engine room.

"Space suits!" Hargraves ordered. "Nielson, you stay here. Ron Val, you
others, come with me."



CHAPTER II

Vegan World


The engine room was crammed to the roof with machinery. The bulked
housings of the atomics, their heavy screens shutting off the deadly
radiations generated in the heart of energy seething within the twin
domes, were at the front. They looked like two blast furnaces that had
somehow wandered into a space ship by mistake and hadn't been able to
find their way out again. The fires of hell, hotter than any blast
furnace had ever been, seethed within them.

Behind the atomics were the Kruchek drivers, twin brawny giants chained
to the treadmill they pushed through the skies. Silent now. Not
grumbling at their task. Loafing. Like lazy slaves conscious of their
power, they worked only when the lash was on them.

Between the drivers was the control panel. Ninety-nine percent
automatic, those controls. They needed little human attention, and got
little. There were never more than three men on duty here. This engine
room almost operated itself.

It had ceased to operate itself, Jed Hargraves saw, as he forced open
the last stubborn air-tight door separating the engine room from the
rest of the ship. Ceased because--Involuntarily he cried out.

He could see the sky.

A great V-shaped notch straddled the back of the ship. Something,
striking high on the curve of the hull, had driven through inches of
magna steel, biting a gigantic chunk out of the ship. The beam from the
sphere! That flashing streak of light that had driven through the
defense screen. It had struck here.

"Jed! They're dead!"

That was Ron Val's voice, choking over the radio. One of the men in this
engine room had been Hal Sarkoff, a black-browed giant from somewhere in
Montana. Engines had behaved for Sarkoff. Intuitively he had seemed to
know mechanics.

He and Ron Val had been particular friends.

"The air went," Hargraves said. "When that hole was knocked in the hull,
the air went. The automatic doors blocked off the rest of the ship. The
poor devils--"

The air had gone and the cold had come. He could see Sarkoff's body
lying beside one of the drivers. The two other men were across the room.
A door to the stern compartment was there. They were crumpled against
it.

Hargraves winced with pain. He should have ordered everyone into space
suits. The instant Nielson reported the approach of the sphere,
Hargraves should have shouted, "Space suits" into the mike. He hadn't.

The receiver in his space suit crisped with sound.

"Jed! Have you got into that engine room yet? For cripes sake, Jed,
we're falling."

That was Nielson, on the bridge. He sounded frantic.

Sixteen feet the first second, then thirty-two, then sixty-four. They
had miles to fall, but their rate of fall progressed geometrically. They
had spent many minutes fighting their way through the air tight doors.
One hundred and twenty-eight feet the fourth second. Jed's mind was
racing.

No, by thunder, that was acceleration under an earth gravity. They
didn't know the gravity here. It might be less.

It might be more.

Ron Val had run forward and was kneeling beside Sarkoff.

"Let them go," Hargraves said roughly. "Ron Val, you check the drivers.
You--" Swiftly he assigned them tasks, reserving the control panel for
himself.

       *       *       *       *       *

They were specialists. Noble, the blond youth, frantically examining the
atomics, was a bio-chemist. Ushur, the powerfully built man who had
stood at Ron Val's right hand on the negatron, was an archeologist.

They were engineers now. They had to be.

"Nothing seems to be wrong here." That was Ron Val, from the drivers.

"The atomics are working." That was Noble reporting.

"Then what the hell is wrong?" At the control panel, Hargraves saw what
was wrong. The damned controls were automatic, with temperature and air
pressure cut-offs. When the air had gone from the engine room, that
meant something was wrong. The controls had automatically cut off the
drivers. The ship had stopped moving.

A manual control was provided. Hargraves shoved the switch home. An
oil-immersed control thudded. The loafing giants grunted as the lash
struck them, roared with pain as they got hastily to work on their
treadmill.

The ship moved forward.

"We're moving!" That was Red Nielson shouting. The controls on the
bridge were responding now. "I'm going to burn a hole in space getting
us away from here."

"No!" said Hargraves.

"What?" There was incredulous doubt in Nielson's voice. "That damned
sphere came from this planet."

"Can't help it. We've got to land."

"Land here, now!"

"There's a hole as big as the side of a house in the ship. No air in the
engine room. Without air, we can't control the temperature. If we go
into space, the engine room temperature will drop almost to absolute
zero. These drivers are not designed to work in that temperature, and
they won't work in it. We have to land and repair the ship before we
dare go into space."

"But--"

"We land here!"

There was a split second of silence. "Okay, Jed," Nielson said. "But if
we run into another of those spheres--"

"We'll know what to do about it. Ron Val. Ushur. Back to the bridge and
man the negatron. If you see anything that even looks suspicious, beam
it."

Ron Val and Usher dived through the door that led forward.

"Stern observation post. Are you alive back there?"

"We heard you, Jed. We're alive all right."

Back of the engine room, tucked away in the stern, was another negatron.

"Shoot on sight!" Hargraves said.

The Third Interstellar Expedition was coming in to land--with her fangs
bared.

Jed Hargraves called a volunteer to hold the switch--it had to be held
in by hand, otherwise it would automatically kick out again--and went
forward to the bridge. Red Nielson gladly relinquished the controls to
him.

"The sphere crashed over there," Nielson said, waving vaguely to the
right.

       *       *       *       *       *

Not until he stepped on the bridge did Jed Hargraves realize how close a
call they had had. The fight had started well outside the upper limits
of the atmosphere. They were well inside it now. Another few minutes and
they would have screamed to a flaming crash here on this world and the
Third Interstellar Expedition would have accomplished only half its
mission, the least important half.

He shoved the nose of the ship down, the giants working eagerly at their
treadmill now, as if they realized they had been caught loafing on the
job and were trying to make amends. The planet swam up toward them. He
barely heard the voice of Noble reporting a chemical test of the air
that was now swirling around the ship. "--oxygen, so much; water vapor;
nitrogen--" The air was breathable. They would not have to attempt
repairs in space suits, then.

Abruptly, as they dropped lower, the contour of the planet seemed to
change from the shape of a ball to the shape of a cup. The eyes did
that. The eyes were tricky. But Jed knew his eyes were not tricking him
when they brought him impressions of the surface below them.

A gently rolling world sweeping away into the distance, moving league
after league into dim infinities, appeared before his eyes. No
mountains, no hills, even. Gentle slopes rolling slowly downward into
plains. No large rivers. Small streams winding among trees. Almost
immediately below them was one of the lakes Ron Val had seen through
his telescope. The lake was alive with blue light reflected from
the--No, the light came from Vega, not Sol. They were light years away
from the warming rays of the friendly sun.

Jed lowered the ship until she barely cleared the ground, sent her
slowly forward seeking what he wanted. There was a grove of giant trees
beside the lake. Overhead their foliage closed in an arch that would cut
out the sight of the sky. This was what he wanted. He turned the ship
around.

"Hey!" said Nielson.

"I'm going to back her out of sight among those trees," Hargraves
answered. "I'm hunting a hole to hide in while we lie up and lick our
wounds."

Overhead, boughs crashed as the ship slid out of sight. Gently he
relaxed the controls, let her drop an inch at a time until she rested on
the ground. Then he opened the switches, and grunting with relief, the
giants laid themselves down on their treadmill and promptly went to
sleep. For the first time in months the ship was silent.

"Negatron crews remain at your posts. I'm going to take a look."

The lock hissed as it opened before him. Hargraves, Nielson, Noble,
stepped out, the captain going first. The ground was only a couple of
feet away but he lowered himself to it with the precise caution that a
twenty-foot jump would have necessitated. He was not unaware of the
implications of this moment. His was the first human foot to tread the
soil of a planet circling Vega. The great-grand-children of his
great-grand-children would tell their sons about this.

The soil was springy under his feet, possessing an elasticity that he
had not remembered as natural with turf. Opening his helmet, he sniffed
the air. It was cool and alive with a heady fragrance that came from
growing vegetation, a quality the ship's synthesizers, for all the
ingenuity incorporated in them, could not duplicate. Tasting the air,
the cells of his lungs eagerly shouted for more. He sucked it in, and
the tensions that kept his body all steel springs and whipcord relaxed a
little. A breeze stirred among the trees.

"Sweet Pete!" he gasped.

"That's what I was trying to tell you as we landed," Nielson said. "This
is not a forest. This is a grove. These trees didn't just grow here in
straight orderly lines. They were _planted_! We are hiding in what may
be the equivalent of somebody's apple orchard."

The trees were giants. Twenty feet through at the butt, they rose a
hundred feet into the air. Diminishing in the distance, they moved in
regular rows down to the shore of the lake, forming a pleasant grove
miles in extent. A reddish fruit, not unlike apples, grew on them.

If this was an orchard, where was the owner?



CHAPTER III

The Four Visitors


"Somebody coming!" the lookout called.

Jed Hargraves dropped the shovel. Behind him the hiss of an electric
cutting torch and the whang of a heavy hammer went into sudden silence.
Back there, a hundreds yards away, they had already begun work on the
ship, attempting to repair the hole gouged in the stout magna steel of
the hull. They had heard the call of the lookout and were dropping tools
to pick up weapons. Jed's hand slid down to his belt to the compact
vibration pistol holstered there. He pulled the gun, held it ready in
his hand. Ron Val and Nielson did the same.

Vega, slanting downward, was near the western horizon. The grove was a
mass of shadows. Through the shadows something was coming.

"They're human!" Ron Val gasped.

Hargraves said nothing. His fingers tightened around the butt of the
pistol as he waited. He saw them clearly now. There were four of them.
They looked like--old men. Four tribal gray-beards out for a stroll in
the cool of the late afternoon. Each carried a staff. They were walking
toward the ship. Then they saw the little group that stood apart and
turned toward them.

"The teletron. Will you go get it, please, Ron Val?"

Nodding, the astro-navigator ran back to the ship. The teletron was a
new gadget, invented just before the expedition left earth. Far from
perfection as yet, it was intended to aid in establishing telepathic
communication between persons who had no common language. Sometimes it
worked, a little. More often it didn't. But it might be useful here. Ron
Val was panting when he returned with it.

"Are you going to talk to them, Jed?"

"I'm going to try."

The four figures approached. Hargraves smiled. That was to show his good
intentions. A smile ought to be common language everywhere.

The four strangers did not return his smile. They just stopped and
looked at him with no trace of emotion on their faces.

[Illustration: What strange thing was this? Who were these people and
what was their power?]

They looked human. They weren't, of course. Parallel evolution accounted
for the resemblance, like causes producing like results.

Nielson was watching them like a hawk. Without making an aggressive
move, the way he held his gun showed he was ready to go into action at a
moment's notice. Behind them, the ship was silent, its crew alert.
Hargraves bent to manipulate the complicated tuning of the teletron.

"I am Thulon," a voice whispered in his brain. "No need for that."

Jed Hargraves' leaped to his feet. He caught startled glances from Ron
Val and Nielson and knew they had heard and understood too. Understood,
rather. There had been nothing for the ears to hear.

"Thulon! No need for--_I understood you without_--"

Thulon smiled. He was taller than the average human, and very slender.
"We are natural telepaths. So there is no need to use your instrument."

"Uh? Natural telepaths! Well, I'm damned!"

"Damned? I cannot quite grasp the meaning of the word. Your mind is
radiating on an emotional level. Do you wish to indicate surprise? I
cannot grasp your thinking."

Hargraves choked, fought for control of his mind. For a minute it had
run away with him. He brought it to heel.

"What are you doing here?" Thulon asked.

       *       *       *       *       *

Hargraves blinked at the directness of the question. They certainly
wasted no time getting down to business. "We--" He caught himself. No
telling how much they could take directly from his mind!

"We came from--far away." He tried to force his thoughts into narrow
channels. "We--"

"There is no need to be afraid." Thulon smiled gently. Or was there
wiliness in that smile? Was this stranger attempting to lure him into a
feeling of false security?

"I meant, what are you doing _here_?" Thulon continued. His eyes went
down to the ground.

There was only one shovel on the ground. One shovel was all there had
been in the ship. Thulon's glance went to it, went on.

There were three mounds. The soft mould had dug easily. It had all been
patted back into place. On the middle mound Ron Val had finished placing
a small cross that he had hastily improvised from the ship's stores.
Scratched in the metal was a name: Hal Sarkoff.

"We had an outbreak of buboes," Hargraves said. "That's a disease. Three
of our companions died and we landed here to bury them. We had just
finished doing this when you arrived."

"Died! Three of you died? And you hid them under these mounds?"

"Yes. Of course. There was nothing else we could--"

"You are going to leave them here in the ground!"

"Certainly." Hargraves was wondering if this method of disposing of the
dead violated some tribal taboo of this people. Different races disposed
of their dead in different ways. He did not know the customs of the
inhabitants of this world. "If we have offended against your customs, we
are sorry."

"No. There was no offense." Thulon blanketed his thoughts. Hargraves
could almost feel the blanket slip into place.

"You came in that ship?" Thulon pointed toward the vessel.

"Yes." It was impossible to conceal this fact.

"Ah." Thulon hesitated, seemed to grope through his mind for the exact
shade of expression he wished to convey. Hargraves was aware that the
stranger's eyes probed through him, measured him. "It would interest us
to examine the vessel. Would you permit this?"

"Certainly." Hargraves knew that Red Nielson jerked startled eyes toward
him.

"Jed!" Nielson spoke in protest.

"Shut up!" Hargraves snapped. His body and his mind was a mass of
tightly wound springs but his face was calm and his voice was suave. He
turned to Thulon. "I will be glad to take you through our ship. However,
I do not recommend it."

"No?"

"It might be dangerous, for you and your companions. We have had three
cases of buboes, resulting in three deaths. All of us have had shots of
immunizing serum and we hope we will have no more cases. However, the
germs are unquestionably present in the atmosphere of the ship. Since
you probably have no immunity to the disease, to breathe the tainted air
would almost certainly result in an attack. This disease is fatal in
nine cases out of ten. I therefore suggest you do not enter the ship. In
fact," Hargraves concluded, "I was about to say that it might not be
wise for you and your companions even to come near us, because of the
possibility that you might contract the disease."

       *       *       *       *       *

Had he gotten the story over it? Was it convincing? Out of the corner of
his eyes he saw Ron Val glance at him. When he had said their companions
had died of buboes, Ron Val had looked as if he thought he was out of
his mind. Now Ron Val understood. "Good going, Jed," his glance seemed
to say.

"Hargraves--" This was Nielson speaking. His face was black.

"I suggest," said Jed casually, "that you let me handle this."

Nielson gulped. "Yes. Yes, sir," he said.

Thulon's companions had been paying attention to the conversation. But
all the time they were stealing glances at the ship. With half their
minds, they seemed to be listening to what was being said. But the other
half of their minds was interested in that silent ship hidden under the
trees. Were they merely curious, such as any savage might be? Or was
this group making a reconnaissance? Hargraves did not know. It did not
look like a reconnaissance in force.

"Do you really think we might contract this disease?" Thulon asked.

Hargraves shrugged. "I'm not certain. You might not. It would all depend
on the way your bodies reacted to the organism causing the disease."

"Under such circumstances, you show little consideration for our welfare
by bringing a plague ship to land here."

"We didn't know you existed. I assure you, however, that if you will
remain away from the ship until we have an opportunity to disinfect it
thoroughly, any danger to your people will be very slight. On the other
hand, if you wish to look our vessel over, to assure yourselves that we
are not a menace to you--which we are not--I shall be glad to take you
through the ship."

Was he drawing it too fine? He spoke clearly and forcefully. The words,
of course, would carry no meaning. But the thought that went along with
them would convey what he wanted to say.

"Ah." The thought came from Thulon. "Perhaps--" Again the blanket came
over his mind and Hargraves had the impression Thulon was conferring
with his companions.

The silent conference ended.

"Perhaps," Thulon said. "It would be better if we returned to visit you
tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow."

He bowed. Without another word he and his silent companions turned and
began to walk slowly away. Not until he saw the little group slipping
away into the dusk did Jed realize he had been holding his breath.

"Hargraves!" Nielson's voice was harsh. "Are you going to let them get
away? You fool! That sphere came from this world. Have you forgotten?"

"I have forgotten nothing, I hope."

"But you offered to take them through the ship! They would have seen how
badly damaged she is."

"Of course I offered to take them through the ship, then made it
impossible for them to accept. We can't stick up 'No Trespassing' signs
here. This is their world. We don't know a damned thing about it, or
about them. We can't run and we don't want to fight, if we can help it.
Furthermore, Nielson, I want you to learn to control your tongue.
Remember that in the future, will you?"

For a second, Nielson glared at him. "Yes, sir."

"All right. Go on back to the ship."

       *       *       *       *       *

Nielson went clumping back toward the vessel. Hargraves turned to Ron
Val.

"What do you make of it?"

"I don't know, Jed. There is something about it that I don't like a
little bit. They can read minds. Maybe that is what I don't like because
I don't know how to react to it. Jed, it may be that we are in great
danger here."

"There is little doubt about _that_," Hargraves answered. "Tonight we
will stand watches. Tomorrow we will make a reconnaissance of our own."

Dusk came over the grove. Vega hesitated on the horizon as though trying
to make up its mind, then abruptly took the plunge and dived from sight
beyond the rim of the world. Night came abruptly, hiding the ship and
its occupants. In the sky overhead, stars twinkled like the eyes of
watchful wolves.



CHAPTER IV

The Monster


They blacked out the ship before they moved it, carefully covering each
port with paper, then showing no lights. Hargraves handled the controls
himself, slowly turning current into the drivers so their grunting would
not reveal what was happening.

"Are we going to take her up high for tonight?" Ushur, the archeologist
asked. "She will fly all right as long as we stay in the atmosphere. We
would be safer up high, it seems to me."

"Safer from ground attack, yes," Hargraves said thoughtfully. "However,
I'm afraid we would be more exposed to attack from a ship."

"Oh! That damned sphere. I had forgotten about it."

Hargraves moved the ship less than a mile, carefully hid her among the
trees. Then he posted guards outside all the ports. He took the first
watch himself, in the control room. Ron Val was waiting for him there.
The astro-navigator's face was grave. "Jed," he said. "I've been talking
to several of the fellows. They don't believe you are taking a
sufficiently realistic view of our situation. They don't believe you are
facing the facts."

"Um. What facts have I been evading?"

"You apparently don't realize that it will take months--if it can be
done at all--to repair the damage to the ship."

Hargraves settled deep into his chair. He looked at the astro-navigator.
Ron Val wasn't angry. Nor was he mutinous. He wasn't challenging
authority. He was just scared.

"Ron," he said, "according to the agreement under which we sailed, any
time the majority of the members of this expedition wants a new captain,
they can have him."

"It isn't that."

"I know. You fellows are scared. Hells bells, man! What do you think I
am?"

Ron Val's eyes popped open. "Jed! Are you? You don't show it. You don't
seem even to appreciate the spot we're in."

Hargraves slowly lit a cigarette. The fingers holding the tiny lighter
did not shake. "If I had been the type to show it, do you think I would
have been selected to head this expedition?"

"No. But--"

"Because I haven't made an official announcement that we may not be able
to repair the ship, you seem to think I don't realize the fact. I know
how big a hole has been ripped in our hull. I know the ship is made of
magna steel, the toughest, hardest, most beautiful metal yet invented. I
know the odds are we can't repair the hole in the hull. We don't have
the metal. We don't have the tools to work it. I know these things. When
I didn't call it to your attention, I assumed it was equally obvious to
everyone else that we may never leave this planet."

"Jed! Never leave this planet! Never--go home! That can't be right."

"See," said Hargraves. "When you get the truth flung in your face, even
you crack wide open. Yes, it's the truth. The fact you fellows think I'm
not facing--the one you don't dare face--is that we may be marooned here
for the rest of our lives."

That was that. Ron Val went aft. Hargraves took up his vigil on the
bridge. At midnight Ron Val came forward to relieve him.

"I told them what you said, Jed," the astro-navigator said. "We're back
of you one hundred per cent."

Hargraves grinned a little. "Thanks," he said. "We were selected to work
together as a unit. As long as we remain a unit, we will have a chance
against any enemy."

       *       *       *       *       *

Dog-tired, he went to his bunk and rolled in. It seemed to him he had
barely closed his eyes before a hand grabbed him by the shoulder and a
shaken voice shouted in his ear. "Jed! Wake up."

"Who is it? What's wrong?" The room was dark and he couldn't see who was
shaking him.

"Ron Val." The astro-navigator's voice was hoarse with the maddest,
wildest fright Hargraves had ever heard. "The--the damnedest thing has
happened!"

"What?"

"Hal Sarkoff--" That was as far as Ron Val could get.

"What about him?"

"_He's outside trying to get in!_"

"Have you gone insane? Sarkoff is dead. You helped me bury him."

"I know it. Jed, he's outside. He wants in."

Hargraves had gone to bed without removing even his shoes. He ran
forward to the control room, Ron Val pounding behind him. Lights had
been turned on here, in defiance of orders. Someone had summoned the
crew. They were all here, all eighteen who remained alive. The inner
door of the lock was open. A dazed guard, who had been on watch outside
the lock, was standing in the door. He had a pistol in his hand but he
looked as if he didn't know what to do with it.

In the center of a group of men too frightened to move was a
black-haired, rugged giant.

"Sarkoff!" Hargraves gasped.

The giant's head turned until his gaze was centered on the captain. "You
moved the ship," he said accusingly. "I had the damnedest time finding
it in the dark. What did you move the ship for, Jed?"

If some super-magician had cast a spell over the little group he could
not have produced a more complete stasis. No one moved. No one seemed to
breathe. All motion, all action, all thinking, had stopped.

Sarkoff's face went from face to face.

"What the heck is the matter with you guys?" he demanded. "Am I poison,
or something?"

He seemed bewildered.

"Where--where are the others?" Ron Val stammered.

"What others? What the heck are you talking about, Ron?"

"Nevins and Reese. We--we buried them with you. Where are they?"

"How the hell do I kn----_You buried them with me?_" Sarkoff's face went
from bewilderment to inexplicable good nature. "Trying to pull my leg,
huh? Okay. I can go along with a gag." He looked again at Hargraves.
"But I can't go along with that gag of moving the ship after you sent me
out scouting. Why didn't you wait for me? Wandering around among all
these trees, I might have got lost and got myself killed. Why did you do
that, Jed?" he finished angrily.

"We were--ah--afraid of an attack," Hargraves choked out. "Sorry, Hal,
but we--we had to move the ship. We would have--hunted you up,
tomorrow."

       *       *       *       *       *

Sarkoff was not a man who was ever long angry about anything. The
apology satisfied him. He grinned. "Okay, Jed. Forget it. Jeepers! I'm
so hungry I could eat a cow. How about a couple of those synthetic
steaks we got in the ice-box?" His eyes went around the group, came to
rest on the astro-navigator. "How about it, Ron? How about me and you
fixing us up some chow?"

"Sure," said Hargraves. "Go on back to the galley and start fixing
yourself whatever you want. You go with him, Ron. I'll handle your job
up here while you're gone."

Nodding dumbly, Ron Val started to follow Sarkoff toward the galley.
"One minute," Hargraves called after him. "I want to check something
with you before you go!"

Sarkoff kept going. Ron Val returned. "Take your cues from him,"
Hargraves said. "You know him better than anyone else. Whatever he says,
you agree. Casually bring up past events and watch his reaction. _Your
job is to find out if that is really Hal Sarkoff!_"

The astro-navigator, his face white, clumped toward the galley.

Hargraves faced a torrent of questions.

"Jed! We buried him."

"Jed. He had been in that engine room without air for at least ten
minutes before we got there. He can't be alive."

"No air. Temperature diving toward absolute zero. He was frozen stiff,
Jed, before we moved him. We left him where he was until long after we
landed."

"I know," Hargraves said. "There is no doubt about it. I used a
stethoscope on him as soon as I could get to it after we landed. _He was
dead._ There wasn't a sign of life."

Frightened faces looked at him. Awed faces. Bewildered faces.

"What did you mean when you told Ron Val to find out if that is really
Sarkoff?"

"Just what I said. That may be Sarkoff. It may be something that looks
like Sarkoff, acts like him, talks like him--_but isn't he_!"

"That--that's impossible."

"How do we know what is possible here and what isn't?"

"What are we going to do?"

"We're going to act just as we would if that were Sarkoff. We're going
to pick up our cues from him? You remember he said he was out scouting.
That is his story. We will not question it. We will act as though it
were true, until we know what is happening. Now everybody back to his
post. Act as if nothing had happened. And for the love of Pete, don't
ask me what is going on. I don't know any more than you do."

They didn't want to obey that order. They had just seen a dead man
walking, had heard him talking, had spoken to him. There was comfort in
just being with each other. Hargraves walked to the bridge, waited.
Eventually, discipline sent them back to their posts. He kept on
waiting. Ron Val returned.

"I don't know, Jed. I just don't know. We were in school together. I
brought up incidents that happened in school, things that only Hal and I
knew. _Jed, he knew them._"

       *       *       *       *       *

With the exception of a hooded blue lamp on the bridge, all lights had
been turned off again. The control room was in darkness. Ron Val was an
uneasy shadow talking from dim blackness.

"Then you think that it is really Sarkoff?"

"I don't know."

"But if he remembers things that only Hal could know--"

"He remembers things that he can't know."

"Um. What things?"

"He asked me how much progress had been made in repairing the ship. Jed,
he must have died before he knew the ship had been damaged."

"Not necessarily," said Hargraves thoughtfully. "He might have been
conscious for one or two minutes after the beam struck us. He would know
that the ship had been damaged. What did you tell him?"

"I changed the subject."

"Good for you. If he isn't Sarkoff, the one thing he might want to know
is whether the ship has been repaired. What else?"

"Jed, he remembers _everything_ that happened after the ship was
attacked. We almost crashed before we got the engines started. He
remembers that. He remembers hiding the ship among the trees."

Hargraves stirred. The keen logic of his mind was being blunted by facts
that would not fit into any logical pattern. He tried to think. His mind
refused the effort. Dead men ought not to remember things that happened
after they died. But a dead man had remembered!

For an instant panic walked through the captain's mind. Then he got it
under control. There was always an answer to every question, a solution
to every problem. Or was there? He went hunting facts.

"Does he remember being buried?"

Even in the darkness he could feel Ron Val shiver. "No," Ron Val said.
"He doesn't remember. Just as soon as we landed, he thinks you sent him
out, to scout the surrounding territory for possible enemies."

"Does he know that we had visitors in his absence?"

"No. Or if he does, he didn't mention it, and I didn't ask. He says he
was returning when he saw the ship being moved. He says he tried to
follow, but lost it in the darkness. He says he had the devil's own time
finding it again, and he's still hot about being left behind."

Again Hargraves had to fight the panic in his mind. This much seemed
obvious. Sarkoff's memory was accurate--until the ship landed. Then it
went into fantasy, into error. If one thing was certain, he had not been
sent out to scout for enemies. If there was another fact that was
immutable, he had been buried.

"Where is he now?" Hargraves asked abruptly.

"In his bunk, snoring. He ate enough for two men, yawned, said he was
sleepy. He was sound asleep almost as soon as he touched the blankets."

Ron Val's voice relapsed into silence. The whole ship was silent.

"Jed, what are we going to do?"

"You bunk with him, don't you?"

"Yes. Jed! You don't mean--"

Hargraves cleared his throat. "This is not an order. You don't have to
do it if you don't want to. But Sarkoff must be watched. Are you willing
to go back to the room you two shared together and get into the upper
deck of your bunk just as if nothing has happened?"

"Yes," said Ron Val.

"Somebody must be with him--all the time. You stay awake. When he gets
up, you get up. Whatever he does, you stay with him. I'll have you
relieved as soon as possible. And, Ron--"

"Yes."

"You have something a man could use for courage."

Silently, Ron Val walked out of the control room. He fumbled his way
through the door and his steps echoed down the corridor that led to the
sleeping quarters.

Hargraves sat in thought. Then he, too, left the control room.

"Noble, you're a bio-chemist. You come with me. Nielson, you take over
here in the control room. In my absence you are in command."

"Yes sir," Nielson said. "But what are you going to do?"

"See what is in a grave we dug yesterday," Hargraves answered.



CHAPTER V

What the Graves Revealed


Hargraves carried the shovel. He and Noble were armed, and very much
alert.

"When you ask me if it is chemically possible for a man--or an
animal--to freeze, die, be buried, then rise again and live, I cannot
answer," Noble said. "So far as I know, it is not possible. The physical
act of freezing will involve tremendous and seemingly irreversible
changes in the body cells. Thawing will produce almost immediate
bacterial action, which also seems irreversible. All I can say is, if
Hal Sarkoff is alive, we have seen a miracle that contradicts chemical
laws as we know them."

"And if he is not alive, we face a miracle of duplication. Whatever it
is that is sleeping back in the ship, it looks, talks, acts, like Hal
Sarkoff, even to memory. Can you suggest any method by which flesh and
bone could be so speedily moulded into a living image of a man whom we
know died?"

"No," said Noble bluntly. "Jed, do you realize all the possible
implications of this situation?"

"Probably not," Hargraves answered. "Some that I do recognize, I exclude
from my thoughts."

His tone was so harsh that Noble said nothing more.

Dawn was already breaking over this Vegan world. The sky in the east was
the color of pearl. In the trees over them, creatures that sounded like
birds were beginning to chirp.

They reached the place where they had buried Hal Sarkoff and his two
companions.

The graves were empty.

No effort had been made to conceal the fact that the graves had been
opened. The dirt had been shoveled out again and had not been shoveled
back.

There were marks in the dirt, the tracks of sandaled feet. "Thulon, the
three who were with him, wore sandals!" Hargraves rasped. "They came
back here. They opened these graves."

"But what happened after that? Are you suggesting those primitive
gray-beards resurrected Hal Sarkoff?"

"I'm not suggesting anything because I don't know anything," Hargraves
answered. "I am just remembering that Thulon and the three who were with
him _looked human too_! I am also remembering that the sphere which
attacked us seemingly was without a crew. Our beams blasted it wide
open. It was seemingly filled with machinery. Nothing else. If there
were any intelligent creatures in it, they were in no form that we
recognize. Come on!" Hargraves started running toward the ship.

The ship, badly damaged as it was, represented their sole hope of
survival. Without it, they would be helpless.

Hal Sarkoff was with the ship. Or the thing that was masquerading as
Sarkoff. Thulon had looked human too. Possibly Sarkoff and his two dead
comrades had been removed from their graves in order to make possible a
perfect duplication of their bodies, the probing of cell structure, both
body and brain. Perhaps the things that lurked here on this world could
read memories from dead minds. That might be the explanation of
Sarkoff's memory.

The important fact was that Sarkoff's body was not in its grave. Where
so much was unknown, this was one indisputable fact. The thing that was
on the ship must be placed not only under heavy guard but in a cage from
which escape was impossible. Then an examination could begin.

There was evil on this world. The trees, the vegetation, the ground
under his racing feet, was evil. In his calmer moments Jed Hargraves
would have said that evil was another word for danger. He wasn't calm
now. The panic he had been rigidly excluding from his mind had burst the
dam he had built before it. He could feel danger in the air. It was in
the dawn, in the light of the sky. It was everywhere. He and his
companions were aliens on this world, and the planet was striking at
them, striving to eliminate them, contriving to destroy them.

He heard it before he saw it.

Something was grunting in the air. Above the tops of the trees something
was grunting. He needed seconds to recognize the sound. Then he
recognized it. And jerked himself to a halt, his eyes wildly probing
upward.

He saw it.

       *       *       *       *       *

The ship. The grunting roar had come from the Kruchek drivers fighting
the gravity of the planet.

The ship had taken off without them.

Had Nielson gone mad? Had he seen danger approaching and jumped the ship
into the sky to escape it?

"Wait! Nielson! Pick us up!"

The ship flew on. Gaining speed, it passed over their heads. They caught
another glimpse of it as it passed over an opening in the branches of
the trees. Then it was gone, the throb of the drivers dying quickly
away.

"Nielson will come back for us." Noble's voice, usually poised and
assured, was garbled. "He'll return and pick us up. He won't leave us
here."

"He had some reason for taking off," Hargraves heard himself saying.
"He'll come back. He has to." Subconsciously he knew that this, at the
very best, was wishful thinking.

The ship had no more than vanished until another sound came to their
ears, that of men shouting. A group came into sight among the trees,
following along the ground the course the ship had taken through the
air.

"They're our fellows!" Hargraves heard Noble gasp.

"What happened?" the captain demanded, as the group approached.

Nielson was in the lead. There was a bruise on his cheek and his right
eye was already beginning to turn black. "I'll tell you what happened!"
he said savagely. "Sarkoff and Ron Val took over the ship, that's what
happened!"

"Ron Val!"

"That's what I said. Ron Val was helping him. They pulled guns. Before
we knew what was happening, they had herded us together and were shoving
us outside. I tried to stop it and Sarkoff took a poke at me."

"It wasn't really Sarkoff, then?" Noble whispered.

"Any damned fool would have known that!" Nielson answered. He spoke to
the bio-chemist but his eyes were on Hargraves. "I'm going to repeat
that, so there won't be any misunderstanding of my meaning. Any damned
fool would have known that a dead man doesn't get up out of his grave
and come to life again. Except you, Hargraves. You always were a sucker
for fairy stories."

Jed Hargraves winced with every word that was spoken. They kept on
coming.

"You ought to have known that thing wasn't Hal Sarkoff. Any man in his
right senses would have known it instantly. Any man fit to command would
have taken measures to meet the situation, either by destroying that
thing, or locking it up. But you were running things, Hargraves. You
were in charge. And you had to sit back and think before you would act.
You had to make sure you were right, before you went ahead. Your
negligence, Hargraves, cost us our only chance of ever returning home."

Nielson's voice was harsh with anger. And--Hargraves recognized the
bitter truth--every word Nielson uttered was correct. Whatever the thing
was that had come to the ship, he should have recognized it as a source
of danger. He had so recognized it. But he had not acted.

"I--"

"Shut up!" Nielson snapped. "According to our agreement, any time you
are shown to be unfit to command, you may be removed by a vote of the
majority. There is no question but that you have shown yourself unfit to
be in charge of this expedition."

       *       *       *       *       *

No time was wasted in reaching a decision. To Nielson's question as to
whether Hargraves should be removed from command, there was a chorus of
"Ayes."

"No," said one voice. It was Usher, the archeologist.

"State your objection," Nielson rasped.

"The old one about changing horses in mid-stream," the archeologist
answered. "Also the old one about not jumping to conclusions before all
the evidence is in."

"What evidence isn't in?"

"We don't know why Ron Val joined Sarkoff," the archeologist answered.

"What difference does that make? We don't even know that Ron Val was
still himself. The thing that looked like Ron Val might have been
another monstrosity like Sarkoff."

"So it might," the archeologist shrugged. "Anyhow my vote is not
important. I'm just putting it in for the sake of the record, if there
ever is a record. I would also like to mention that if ever we needed
discipline and unity, now is the time."

"We will have discipline, I promise you," Nielson said. "Hargraves, you
are removed from command, understand?"

"Yes," said Hargraves steadily.

Only one ballot was needed to put Nielson in charge.

"All right," said Ushur to the new captain. "You're the boss now. We're
all behind you. What are you going to do?"

"Do? I--" Nielson looked startled. He glanced at Hargraves.

The former captain sighed. It was easy enough to elect a new leader.
Vehemently he wished that all problems could be solved so easily.

"I suggest," he said, "--and this is only a suggestion--that we attempt
to find the ship, and if possible, to regain possession of her. She is
the only tool we have to work with."

"That is exactly what I was going to say," Nielson said emphatically.
"Find the ship."

To give him credit, he set about the job in a workmanlike manner,
sending two scouts ahead of the main group, throwing out a scout on each
flank. The only way they could hope to find the ship was by following
the course it had taken through the air. Since Sarkoff, in taking over
the vessel, had not disarmed them, each possessed a vibration pistol. In
a fight against ordinary enemies they would be able to give a good
account of themselves. But would any enemy they met likely be ordinary?

Hargraves drew Usher aside. "I would like to talk to you," he said.
"What actually happened when the ship was taken?"

"I don't know, Jed," the archeologist ruefully answered. "I was in my
cabin. The first thing I knew I heard a hell of a hullabaloo going on up
in the control room. I dashed up there to see what was going on."

"What was happening?"

"Nielson, Rodney, Turner, and a couple of others were there. So
were--well, they looked like Sarkoff and Ron Val. Nielson was getting up
off the floor. Sarkoff and Ron Val had both drawn their guns and were
covering the group. When I came charging in, Sarkoff covered me. Before
I could recover from my surprise, he and Ron Val had kicked every one of
us out of the ship. Then they took off." The archeologist shook his
shaggy head.

"Ron Val was helping?"

"No question about it. Which means, of course, that he was either under
some subtle form of hypnosis, or _it_ wasn't Ron Val. I would bet my
life on his loyalty."

       *       *       *       *       *

"So would I," said Hargraves. And the memory came back of how thrilled
Ron Val had been at the prospect of landing on this, world. "It would
mean a lot to find people here. We could exchange experiences, learn a
lot," Ron Val had said, his face glowing at the thought. All the others
had felt the same way. The Third Interstellar Expedition had no military
ambitions. It was not bent on conquest. The solar system had outgrown
military expeditions, war, and the thought of war, and cruisers went out
from it not to fight but to learn. Knowledge was the thing they sought,
all knowledge, so the human race could determine its place in the
cosmos, could know the history of all things past, could possibly
forecast the shape of things to come.

The landing of the Third Interstellar Expedition on this Vegan world had
been a part of a vast evolution, a march that, starting on earth so long
ago that all history of it was forever lost, was now reaching out across
the cosmos. A new evolution! Ron Val had always been talking about this
new evolution. It was one of his favorite subjects.

"What do you make of this world?" Hargraves asked abruptly. "The only
sign of civilization we have seen is this vast grove. No cities, no
industrial plants, no evidence of progress. Yet the spherical ship that
attacked us certainly indicates a highly mechanical civilization. Of
course there may be cities here that we haven't seen, but as we landed
we saw a large land area. No roads were visible, no canals, not even any
cultivated fields. What does all this mean to you, as an archeologist?"

"Nothing," Usher answered promptly. "I would say this country is a
wilderness. But the trees planted in regular rows disprove this. On
earth, at least, centuries would be required for trees as large as these
to grow. Forestry, planned centuries in advance, can only come from a
high and stable culture. However, as you say, all other signs of this
high culture are absent, no cities, no transportation facilities,
apparently damned few inhabitants--we have seen only four. All
civilizations with which we are familiar move through recognized stages,
first the nomadic stage, which involves tending flocks and herds. Then
comes the tilling of the soil, in which farming is the principal
occupation of most of the people. After that, with industrialization, we
have cities developing. If there is another stage we have not reached it
on earth."

"Do you think they might have reached the final stage here?" Hargraves
questioned.

"I don't know what the final stage may be," the archeologist answered.
"Also, and this is more important, I can't begin to guess at the real
nature of the inhabitants of this world. Until I do know their real
nature, what they look like, what they eat, where they sleep, what they
think, I can't even guess intelligently about them. However," Usher
broke off with a wry grin, "all these philosophical observations are of
no importance while our own necks are threatened with the ax."

Vega was straight overhead when they found the ship. One of the advance
scouts came hurrying back with the information.

"She is lying in a little meadow beside the lake," the scout reported.
"They're doing something to her. I can't tell what. But the trees extend
to within fifty yards of her. We can approach that near without being
seen."



CHAPTER VI

The Capture of the Ship


Nielson made his dispositions with care. The ship lay in a little meadow
where the trees bent inward from the blue water of the lake to form a
cove. Her nose was pointed toward the water and her tail was almost in
the trees. Nielson sent three men on a wide circuit. They were to attack
from the farther side. It was to be a feint. While the three men drew
attention to them, the main body was to charge.

"We have every chance of succeeding," Nielson said. "And if we do gain
the ship again, this time we won't stay here. Vega has at least two
planets. The ship will fly to the other one without repairs. You should
have thought of that, Hargraves."

"There are a lot of things I should have thought of and didn't,"
Hargraves answered. There was no animosity in his tone. "What I would
like to know is what they are doing there beside the ship?"

Thulon and his three companions were visible beside the vessel. They
were busily engaged in setting up a device of some kind. Others of their
species had joined them until there were possibly thirty or forty
present. Through the the gaping hole in the hull, still others could be
seen peering out. What they were doing Hargraves could not discern.

"Odd," said Usher beside him.

"What is?"

"It's odd that they should still seem to be human in form," the
archeologist answered. "Ah. Perhaps there is the reason."

Both locks were open. The thing that looked like Hal Sarkoff had just
emerged from the nearest one. He went directly to the main group. They
were erecting something that looked like a tripod. Several were carrying
pieces of metal from the ship which they were fastening together to form
the legs of the tripod. At the apex of the tripod something that looked
like a box was coming into existence.

"They are completely unarmed," Hargraves heard Nielson say. "There isn't
a weapon in the whole damned bunch. We'll blast them senseless before
they even know they're being attacked."

"If they don't succeed in manning the negatron," Usher pointed out.

"They don't know how to operate the negatron."

"Don't they? I might mention that they seem to know everything that
Sarkoff knew. And Hal certainly knew how that negatron operated. He
could take it apart and put it back together blind-folded."

"That's so," Nielson admitted. For a second unease showed on his lean
face. "Well, that only means we will have to lick them before they can
get that negatron into operation. One thing is certain--we have to have
the ship."

"You're right on that score," Usher grimly said.

Seconds ticked away into minutes. The group busy about the ship had no
intimation they were about to be attacked. They were careless to the
point of foolhardiness. No sentries had been posted, no effort had been
made to hide the vessel.

"What are they, really?" Hargraves thought. He wondered if they were
some strange form of water-dwelling life that lived in the lakes of this
planet. Perhaps that was what they were! Perhaps the transition from the
fish to the mammal had never been made on this planet, the fish-form
developing keen intelligence. Certainly there was intelligence on this
world. But it seemed to be an intelligence humans could not comprehend.

       *       *       *       *       *

The signal for the attack sounded. Fierce shouts came from the other
side of the ship. The shouters were hidden, but there was no mistaking
the sounds. They came from human throats.

"Give 'em hell, boys!"

"Tear 'em to pieces!"

The harsh throbbing of vibration pistols split the quiet air.

"Steady!" Nielson said. "Wait until they go to see what's happening."

The group busy around the ship raised startled faces from their task.
They seemed to listen. Then they turned and ran around the bow of the
vessel.

"Come on!" cried Nielson, leaping from concealment.

There wasn't a person left in sight to oppose them. Fifty yards to
cross. Fifty yards to the ship! Fifty yards to a fighting chance for
life!

Under their racing feet the soft turf was soundless.

Twenty-five yards to go now. Ten yards. Ten feet to the open lock.

Thulon appeared in the lock. He looked in surprise at the charging men.

Except for the rough staff that he carried he was weaponless.

Nielson didn't give the command to fire, didn't need to give it. Every
vibration pistol had been drawn long before the men leaped from cover.
Every pistol came up at the same instant, every index finger squeezed a
trigger.

Only Thulon stood between them and a fighting chance for life. They came
of warrior races, these men. No bugles urged them on. They needed no
bugles.

A howling vortex of radiation smashed at the figure in the lock.

One vibration pistol would destroy a man, smash him to bloody bits. More
than a dozen pistols were centered on the figure standing before them.

Thulon stood unharmed.

Staff in front of him he stood facing the fingers of hell reaching for
him. The flaming fingers grasped, and did not touch him.

The shooting stopped as abruptly as it began. The charge stopped.
Hargraves saw Nielson staring dazedly from the figure in the lock to the
pistol in his hand as if the two were irreconcilable. The pistol ought
to have destroyed Thulon. It hadn't destroyed him. For a mad moment,
Hargraves felt sorry for the new captain. He, too, had run headlong into
a logical impossibility.

All sounds were suddenly stilled, all shouting stopped, all noises died
away.

Around the bow of the ship Hal Sarkoff came running. He saw the group
and looked bewildered. "Hey! How did you guys get here?"

"Blast him!" Nielson said, centering his pistol on this new target.

From the staff in Thulon's hand came a soft tinkle, a bell-like sound.
Nothing seemed to happen but Nielson staggered as if he had been hit a
sharp blow. The pistol flew out of his hand and landed twenty feet away.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Listen, you apes," Sarkoff shouted at the top of his voice. "I'm Hal
Sarkoff. I've always been Hal Sarkoff. I'll never be anybody else but
Hal Sarkoff. Do you get it?"

They didn't get it.

"If you--" Nielson whispered. "If you are really Sarkoff, then
who--what--is he?" He pointed toward Thulon still standing in the lock.

"Him?" The grin on the craggy face belonged to Hal Sarkoff and to no one
else. "Meet a god," he said.

"A god?" That was Usher speaking now, his voice a tense whisper.

Sarkoff continued grinning. "Well, he resurrected me when I was deader
than hell. I guess that makes him a god."

"You--you know you were dead?"

"Yep. At least I guess I know it. The last thing I remember is trying to
get back to the control panel when we got that hole knocked in the ship,
so I could cut the drivers back in. After that everything gets kind of
hazy. The next thing I remember is my pal here," he gestured toward
Thulon, "and a lot of his buddies chirping like sparrows while they
worked over me. And believe me, they were working me over plenty. I felt
like I had been turned inside out, wrung out, hung out to dry, then
stuffed all over again."

"But when you came back to the ship," Hargraves spoke, "you said you
remembered everything that had happened, the crash of the ship, our
hiding her. If you were dead, how did you learn these things?"

"He told me," Sarkoff answered, nodding toward Thulon. "He filled out my
memory for me with dope he had taken from your mind while you were
talking. Reading minds is one of that old boy's minor accomplishments."

"Then why didn't you tell us the truth?" Hargraves exploded. "You said
you had been sent out scouting. Why didn't you tell us what had really
happened?" Mentally he added, "If it happened!"

"Because you apes wouldn't have believed me!" Sarkoff answered. "To your
knowledge--mine, too, until it happened--dead men don't get up out of
their graves and walk. If I had told you the truth, you wouldn't have
believed a word of it. If I told you something you knew wasn't true,
that you had sent me out on a scouting trip, you would know I was lying,
you would figure it was a trick of some kind, and you would wait around
and try to discover the trick. While you were waiting around trying to
catch me, I could get in some missionary work on Ron Val. I knew I could
convert him, if I had a chance to talk to him. With him on my side, we
could convince the rest of you. It would have worked too. All it needed
was a little time for you boys to get used to the idea of a dead man
coming back to life." He looked at Nielson. "Remind me to black that
other eye of yours one of these days."

"What?" said Hargraves. "What's this?"

"Our pal Nielson," Sarkoff said. "If _you_ think before you act, _he_
acts before he thinks. You had no sooner gone chasing off to see if I
was really where you had buried me, which was what I thought you would
do, until Nielson comes poking into where Ron Val and I were holding a
conference. Nielson had a gun. He had it out ready to use. He figured
the only safe thing to do was to shoot me. So," Sarkoff shrugged, "I had
to smack him. He had forced my hand."

[Illustration: Fists lashed out, weapons appeared, and cries of fury
rent the air]

There was a slight stir among the group. This was news to all of them.

"Is this true?" Hargraves said.

"Yes," said Nielson defiantly. "And I was right. I should have killed
him. He isn't Hal Sarkoff. He isn't telling the truth about coming back
to life. Sarkoff is dead."

       *       *       *       *       *

Sarkoff glanced up at Thulon who was still standing in the lock looking
down at the men before him. There was a ghost of a smile on his face.

"See!" said Sarkoff, addressing Thulon. "I told you we couldn't tell
these boys anything. They have to see, they have to feel, they have to
be shown."

"Well," the thought came from Thulon to everyone. "Why don't you show
them?"

"Okay," Sarkoff answered. "Nevins!" he shouted. "Reese! Come out of that
ship."

Nevins and Reese were the two engineers who had died with Sarkoff.

Thulon moved a little to one side. Nevins and Reese came out of the
ship. They were grinning.

"Feel us!" Sarkoff shouted. "Pinch us. Cut off a slice of skin and
examine it under a microscope. Make blood tests. Use X-rays. Do whatever
you damned please." He shoved a brawny arm under Nielson's nose. "Here.
Pinch this and see if you think it's real."

Nielson shrank away.

Nevins and Reese passed among the men, offering themselves in evidence.
Startled voices called softly in answer to other startled voices.
"They're real."

"This is no lie. This is the truth."

"I've known this man for years. This is Eddie Nevins."

"And this is Sam Reese."

Hargraves heard the voices, saw the conclusion they were reaching.

"One moment," he said.

The voices went into silence. Eyes turned questioningly to him.

"Even if these men are really Hal Sarkoff and Eddie Nevins and Sam
Reese, if they are the companions we knew as dead who have miraculously
been returned to us, there are still facts that do not fit into a
logical pattern. Even here on this world the laws of logic must hold
true."

Silence fell. Men looked at him and at each other. Where there had been
wonder on their faces, new doubts were appearing.

"What facts, Jed?" Sarkoff questioned.

"The sphere that attacked us, that attempted to destroy us, without
warning. This is a fact that does not fit."

"The sphere?" Uncertainty showed on Sarkoff's face. Then he grinned
again and turned to Thulon. "You tell him about that sphere."

"Gladly," Thulon's thoughts came. "As you know, Vega has two planets.
Long ago we were at war with the inhabitants of this other planet. Part
of our defenses around our own planet were floating fortresses. The war
is done but we have left guards in the sky to protect us if we are
attacked. The sphere that attacked you was one of our automatic forts
which we had left in the sky."

"Ah!" said Hargraves. The cold logic of his mind sought a pattern that
would include fortresses in the sky. Presuming war between two planets,
such fortresses were logical. But--

"The construction of such a sphere indicates vast technical knowledge,
tremendous workshops. I have seen no laboratories and no industrial
centers that could produce such a fortress. I have, moreover, seen no
civilization that will serve as a background for such construction."

       *       *       *       *       *

He waited for an answer. Usher, the archeologist, looked suddenly at
him, then looked at Thulon.

"The fortresses were built long ago," Thulon said. "In those past
milleniums we had industrial centers. We no longer need them and we no
longer have them."

"Then there _is_ another stage!" the archeologist gasped. "You are past
the city stage in your evolutionary process. You are beyond the metal
age. What--" Usher eagerly asked. "What comes after that?"

"We are beyond the age of cities," Thulon answered. "The next but
possibly not final stage is a return to nature. We live in the groves
and the fields, beside the lakes, under the trees. We need no protection
from the elements because we are in unison with them. There are no
enemies on this world, no dangers, almost no death. In your thinking you
can only describe us as gods. Our activities are almost entirely mental.
Our only concession of materialism is this." He lifted the staff. "When
you fired at me, this staff canceled your beams. It would have canceled
them if they had been a thousand times stronger. When one of you
attempted to destroy Sarkoff, force went out from this staff, knocking
the weapon from his hand. There are certain powers leashed within this
staff, certain arrangements of crystals that are very nearly ultimate
matter. Through this staff my will is worked. Some day," he smiled, "we
will even be able to discard the staff. That is the goal of our
evolution."

The thoughts went into soft silence and Thulon looked down at them.
"Does that satisfy you?" His eyes went among the group, came to rest on
Hargraves. "No, I see it does not. There is still one fact that you
cannot fit into your pattern."

"Yes," said Hargraves. "If all that you have told us is true, why was
the ship stolen?"

"Everything has to fit for you?" Sarkoff answered. "Well, that's why you
are our leader. I can answer this question. I took the ship so I could
have it repaired. Then, when I brought it back to you, fit to fly again,
all of us would have evidence that we could not deny. You might doubt my
identity, you might doubt me, but you would not doubt a ship that had
been repaired. Thulon," Sarkoff ended, "will you do your stuff?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Standing a little apart from the rest Hargraves watched. Thulon and his
comrades brought metal from the vessel. How they used the tripod he
could not see but in some way they seemed to use it to melt the metal.
This was magna steel. They worked it as if it were pure tin. It didn't
seem to be hot but they spread sheets of it over the gaping hole in the
hull. They closed the hole. He knew the ship had been repaired but still
he did not move. On the ground before him was something that looked like
an ant hill. He watched this, his mind reaching out and grasping a
bigger problem. The ants, he could see, were swarming.

Nielson detached himself from the group at the ship and came to him.

"Jed," he said hesitatingly.

"What?"

"Jed, what Hal said about me attacking him was right. I thought--I
thought he wasn't Sarkoff. I thought I was doing what was right."

"I don't doubt you," Hargraves answered. His mind was not on what
Nielson was saying.

"Jed."

"Uh?"

"Jed. I--"

"What is it?"

"Jed, will you take over command again?" The words came fast. "I--"

"Huh? Take over command? Don't you like the job?"

Nielson shivered. "No. I'm not ready for it yet. Jed, will you take it
over, please?"

"Huh? Oh, sure, if that is what the fellows want."

"They want it. So do I."

"Okay then." Hargraves was scarcely aware that Nielson had left. Nor did
he notice Ron Val approaching.

"Jed."

"Huh?"

"Jed, I've been talking to Thulon." The astro-navigator's voice was
trembling with excitement. "Jed, do you know that Thulon and his people
_belong to our race_?"

"What?" the startled captain gasped. "Oh, damn it, Ron Val, you're
dreaming again."

       *       *       *       *       *

It would be a wonderful dream come true, Hargraves knew, if it was true.
The human race had kin folks in the universe! Man did not stand alone.
There was something breath-taking in the very thought of it.

"Thulon says the tests he ran on Hal Sarkoff proved it. He says his
people sent out exploring expeditions long ago, just like we are doing,
only the groups they sent out were more colonists than explorers. He
says one of these groups landed on earth and that we are the descendants
of that group, sons of colonists come back to the mother world after
uncounted centuries of absence--"

Ron Val was babbling, the words were tumbling over each other on his
lips.

"Oh, hell, Ron Val, it doesn't fit," Jed Hargraves said. "We can trace
our evolutionary chain back to the fish in the seas--"

"Sure," Ron Val interrupted. "But we don't know that those fish came
from the seas of earth!"

"Huh?" Hargraves gasped. "Well, I'll be damned! I never thought of that
possibility." He looked at the lakes dancing in the Vegan sunshine. From
these lakes, from these seas, had come the original fish-like creature
that eventually became human in form! The thought was startling.

"The colonists landed on earth thousands of years ago," Ron Val said.
"Maybe they smashed their ship in landing, had to learn to live off the
country. Maybe they forgot who they were, in time. Jed, we have legends
that we are the children of God. Maybe--Oh, Jed, Thulon says it's true."

Hargraves hesitated, torn between doubt and longing. He looked down. On
the ground in front of him the ants were still swarming. Hundreds of
them were coming from the ant hill and were flying off. There were
thousands of them. Eventually, in the recesses of this vast grove, there
would be new colonies, which would swarm in their turn. He watched them
flying away. The air was bright with the glint of their wings.

He looked up. Thulon was coming toward them. Thulon was smiling.
"Welcome home," his voice whispered in their minds. "Welcome home."

Hargraves began to smile.





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