"Not Only Dead Men" (1942): an early A. E. van Vogt story
Tuesday 7 March 2023, by
First published in the November 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, this well-written wartime story, only ever republished in the sixties in a little anthology of van Vogt stories bizarrely - and off-puttingly - entitled Monsters (Bug-Eyed Monsters — even worse! — in the UK edition at the time), tells of confrontation and — yes! — (eventual) cooperation between a group of isolated whale-fishermen in the northern seas and strange aliens desperately fighting a ferocious enemy that has forced them to make a crash landing on Earth in spite of galactic regulations forbidding contact with backward species such as mankind before they have developed sufficiently. Well worth discovering!
an e-book is available for downloading below.
BATTERED DERELICT OFF
June 29, 1942—Smashed in every timber, and, with no trace of the crew, the whaleship Albatross was found today by an American patrol ship in the Bering Straits. Naval authorities are mystified by reports the deck and sides of the schooner were staved in as by gigantic blows, not caused “by bombs, torpedoes, shellfire or other enemy action," according to the word received. The galley stoves were said to be still warm, and, as there have been no storms in this region for three weeks, no explanation has been forthcoming.
The Albatross sailed from a West coast American port early in March, with Captain Frank Wardell and a crew of eighteen, all of whom are missing.
Captain Wardell of the whaleship Albatross was thinking so darkly of the three long whaleless months that he had started to edge the schooner through the narrows before he saw the submarine lying near the shore in the sheltered waters of that far-northern bay of Alaska.
His mind did a spinning dive into blankness. When he came up for air his reflexes were already working. The engine-room indicator stood at REVERSE FULL SPEED. And his immediate plan was as clear as it was simple.
He parted his lips to shout at the wheel-man; then closed them again, made for the wheel, and, as the ship began to go backward, guided her deftly behind the line of shoals and the headland of trees. The anchor went down with a rattle and a splash that echoed strangely on the windless morning.
Silence settled where the man-made sound had been; and there was only the quiet ripple of that remote northern sea, the restless waters lapping gently against the Albatross, washing more sullenly over the shoals behind which she lay, and occasionally letting out a roar as a great wave smashed with a white fury at a projecting rock.
Wardell, back on the small bridge, stood very still, letting his mind absorb impressions and—listening.
But no alien sound came to disturb his straining ears, no Diesel engines raging into life, no fainter hum of powerful electric motors. He began to breathe more steadily. He saw that his first mate, Preedy, had slipped softly up beside him.
Preedy said in a low voice,
“I don’t think they saw us, sir. There was not a soul in sight. And, besides, they‘re obviously not fit to go to sea."
“Didn’t you notice, sir—they haven’t got a conning tower? It must have been shot away."
Wardell was silent, shocked at himself for not having noticed. The vague admiration that had begun to grow inside him at the cool way in which he handled the ship deflated a little.
Another thought came into his mind; and he scowled with a dark reluctance at the very idea of revealing a further deficiency in his observation. But he began grudgingly:
“Funny how your mind accepts the presence of things that aren’t there." He hesitated; then: “I didn’t even notice whether or not their deck gun was damaged."
It was the mate who was silent now. Wardell gave a swift glance at the man’s long face, realized that the mate was undergoing a private case of shock and annoyance, and said quickly:
“Mr. Preedy, call the men forward."
Conscious again of superiority, Wardell went down to the deck. With a great deliberateness he began examining the antisub gun beside the whale gun. He could hear the men gathering behind him, but he did not turn until feet began to shuffle restlessly.
He looked them over then, glancing from face to rough, tough, leather-beaten face. Fifteen men and a boy, not counting the engineer and his assistant—and every one of them looking revitalized, torn out of the glumness that had been the stock expression around the ship for three months.
Wardell‘s mind flashed back over the long years some of these men had been with him; he nodded, his heavy face dark with satisfaction, and began:
“Looks like we’ve got a disabled Jap sub cornered in there, men. Our duty‘s clear. The navy gave us a three-inch gun and four machine guns before we sailed, and—“
He stopped, frowned at one of the older men. “What’s the matter, Kenniston?”
“Begging your pardon, cap’n, that thing in there isn’t a sub. I was in the service in ‘18, and I can tell one at a glance, conning tower bombed off or not,
"Why, that vessel in there has metal walls like dark scales—-didn’t you notice? We’ve got something cornered in there, sir, but it isn’t a sub.”
From where he lay with his little expedition, behind the line of rock ledge, Wardell studied the strange vessel. The long, astoundingly hard walk to reach this vantage point had taken more than an hour. And now that he was here, what about it?
Through his binoculars, the—ship—showed as a streamlined, cigar-shaped, dead metal that lay motionless in the tiny pattern of the waves that shimmered atop the waters of the bay. There was no other sign of life. Nevertheless—
Wardell stiffened suddenly with a sharp consciousness of his responsibilities—all these men, six here with him, carrying two of the precious machine guns, and the other men on the schooner.
The alienness of the vessel with its dark, scaly metal walls, its great length—struck him with a sudden chill. Behind him somebody said into the silence of that bleak, rocky landscape:
“If only we had a radio-sending set! What a bomber could do to that target! I—”
Wardell was only dimly aware of the way the man’s voice sank queerly out of audibility. He was thinking heavily: two machine guns against that. Or, rather—even the mental admission of greater strength came unwillingly—four machine guns and a three-incher. After all, the weapons back on the Albatross had to be included, even though the schooner seemed dangerously far away. He—
His mind went dead slow. With a start he saw that the flat, dark reach of deck below was showing movement: a large metal plate turning. then jerking open as if springs had snapped at it with irresistible strength. Through the hatchway thus created a figure was coming.
A figure—a beast. The thing reared up on horny, gleaming legs, and its scales shone in the late-morning sun. Of its four arms, one was clutching a flat, crystalline structure, a second held a small, blunt object that showed faintly crimson in the dazzling sunbeams. The other two arms were at ease.
The monster stood there under Earth’s warm sun, silhouetted against the background of limpid, blue-green sea, stood there arrogantly, its beast head flung hack on its short neck with such a pride and confidence that Wardell felt a tingle at the nape of his neck.
“For Heaven’s sake,” a man whispered hoarsely, "put some bullets in it."
The sound more than the words reached into the region of Wardell’s brain that controlled his muscles.
“Shoot!” he rasped. “Frost! Withers!”
Chat-chat-chat! The two machine guns yammered into life, wakening a thousand echoes in the virgin silence of the cove.
The figure, which had started striding briskly along the curving deck in the direction away from shore, its webbed feet showing plainly at each step, stopped short, turned—and looked up.
Eyes as green and fiery as a cat’s at night blazed at, seemingly straight at, Wardell’s face. The captain felt the muscles of his body constrict; his impulse was to jerk back behind the ledge, out of sight, but he couldn‘t have moved to save his 1ife.
The mind-twisting emotion must have been evoked in every man present. For the machine guns ceased their stammering; and there was unnatural silence.
The yellow-green reptile moved first. It started to run, back toward the hatch. Reaching the opening, it stooped and seemed about to leap down headfirst, as if it couldn’t get in too fast.
Instead of going down, however, it handed the crystalline object that it had held in one hand to somebody below; then it straightened.
There was a clang as the hatch hanged shut—and the reptile stood alone on the deck, cut off from escape.
The scene froze like that for a fraction of a second, a tableau of rigid figures against a framework of quiet sea and dark, almost barren land. The beast stood absolutely still, its head flung back, its blazing eyes fixed on the men behind the ledge.
Wardell had not thought of its posture as a crouching one, but abruptly it straightened visibly and bounced upward and sideways, like a frog leaping, or a diver jackknifing. Water and beast met with a faint splash. When the shimmering veil of agitated water subsided, the beast was gone.
"What goes down," Wardell said finally in a voice that had in it the faintest shiver, must come up. Heaven only knows what it is, but hold your guns ready."
The minutes dragged. The shadow of a breeze that had been titillating the surface of the bay died completely; and the water took on a flat, glassy sheen that was only broken far out near the narrow outlet to the rougher sea beyond.
After ten minutes, Wardell was twisting uneasily, dissatisfied with his position. At the end of twenty minutes he stood up.
“We’ve got to get back to the ship," he said tensely. "this thing is too big for us."
They were edging along the shore five minutes later when the clamor started: a distant shouting, then a long, sharp rattle of machine-gun fire, then—silence.
It had come from where the schooner lay out of their line of vision behind the bank of trees half a mile across the bay.
Wardell grunted as he ran. It had been hard enough walking—earlier. Now, he was in an agony of jolts and half stumbles. Twice, during the first few minutes, he fell heavily.
The second time he got up very slowly and waited for his panting men to catch up with him. There was no more running because—it struck him with piercing sharpness—what happened on the ship had happened.
Gingerly, Wardell led the way over the rock-strewn shore with its wilderness of chasms. He kept cursing in a sweat of fury with himself for having left the Albatross. And there was a special rage at the very idea that he had automatically set his fragile wooden ship against an armored sub.
Even though, as it had turned out, it wasn’t a sub. His brain stalled before the bare contemplation of what it might be.
For a moment he tried, mentally tried, to picture himself here, struggling over the barren shore of this rocky inlet in order to see what a—lizard—had done to his ship. And he couldn’t. The picture wouldn’t piece together. It was not even remotely woven of the same cloth as all that life of quiet days and evenings that he had spent on the bridges of ships, just sitting, or smoking his pipe, mindlessly contemplating the sea.
Even more dim and unconnectable was the civilization of back-room poker games and loud laughing, bold-eyed women who made up his life during those brief months when he was in harbor, that curious, aimless life that he always gave up so willingly when the time came to put to sea again.
Wardell pushed the gray, futile memory from him, said:
“Frost, take Blakeman and McCann and pick up one drum of water. Danny ought to have them all filled by now. No, keep your machine gun. l want you to stay with the remaining drums till I send some more men. We’re going to get that water and then get out of here."
Wardell felt the better for his definite decision. He would head south for the naval base; and then others, better equipped and trained, would tackle the alien ship.
If only his ship was still there, intact—just what he feared he wasn’t certain—he was conscious of the queasiest thrill of relief as he topped the final and steepest hill—and there she was. Through his glasses he made out the figures of men on the deck. And the last sodden weight of anxiety in him yielded to the fact that, barring accidents to individuals, everything was all right.
Something had happened, of course. In minutes he would know—
For a time it seemed as if he would never get the story. The men crowded around him as he clambered aboard, more weary than he cared to admit. The babble of voices that raged at him, the blazing excitement of everyone, did not help.
Words came through about a beast “like a man-sized frog" that had come aboard. There was something about the engine room, and incomprehensibility about the engineer and his assistant waking up, and—
Wardell’s voice, stung into a bass blare by the confusion, brought an end to the madness. The captain said crisply:
“Mr. Preedy, any damage?”
“None,” the mate replied, “though Rutherford and Cressy are still shaky.“
The reference to the engineer and his assistant was obscure, but Wardell ignored it. "Mr. Preedy, dispatch six men ashore to help bring the water aboard. Then come to the bridge."
A few minutes later, Preedy was giving Wardell a complete account of what had happened. At the sound of the machine-gun fire from Wardell’s party, all the men had crowded to port side of the ship and had stayed there.
The watery tracks left by the creature showed that it had used the opportunity to climb aboard the starboard side and had gone below. It was first seen standing at the fo’c’s’le hatchway, coolly looking over the forward deck where the guns were.
The thing actually started boldly forward under the full weight of nine pairs of eyes, apparently heading straight for the guns; abruptly however, it turned and made a running dive overboard. Then the machine guns started.
“I don’t think we hit him," Preedy confessed.
Wardell was thoughtful. “I’m not sure,“ he said, “that it’s bothered by bullets. It—" He stopped himself. “What the devil am I saying? It runs every time we fire. But go on."
“We went through the ship and that’s when we found Rutherford and Cressy. They were out cold and they don’t remember a thing. There’s no damage, though, engineer says; and, well, that’s all.”
It was enough. Wardell thought, but he said nothing. He stood for a while, picturing the reality of a green-and-yellow lizard climbing aboard his ship. He shuddered. What could the damned thing have wanted?
The sun was high in the middle heavens to the south when the last drum of water was hoisted aboard, and the whaler began to move.
Up on the bridge, Wardell heaved a sigh of relief as the ship nosed well clear of the white-crested shoals and headed into deep water. He was pushing the engine-room indicator to FULL SPEED AHEAD when the thud of the Diesels below became a cough that—ended.
The Albatross coasted along from momentum, swishing softly from side to side. In the dimly lighted region that was the engine room, Wardell found Rutherford on the floor laboriously trying to light a little pool of oil with a match.
The action was so mad that the captain stopped, stared, and then stood there speechless and intent.
For the oil wouldn’t take fire. Four matches joined the burned ends on the floor beside the golden puddle. Then:
“Hell‘s bells!" said Wardell, “you mean that thing put something in our oil that—"
He couldn’t go on; and there was no immediate answer. But finally, without looking up, the engineer said thickly:
“Skipper, I’ve been tryin’ ta think. Wha’ for would a bunch of lizards be wantin’ us ta lay to here?"
Wardell went back on deck without replying. He was conscious of hunger. But he had no illusions about the empty feeling inside him. No craving for food had ever made him feel like that.
Wardell ate, scarcely noticing his food, and came out into the open feeling logy and sleepy. The climb to the bridge took all his strength and will. He stood for a moment looking out across the narrows that led into the bay.
He made a discovery. In the brief minutes that the Diesels had operated on the untainted oil in the pipes, the Albatross had moved to a point where the dark vessel in the distance was now visible across the bows.
Wardell studied the silent alien ship sleepily then gazed along the shore line through his glasses. Finally he turned his attention to the deck in front of him. And nearly jumped out of his skin.
The thing was there, calmly bending over the whale gun, its scaly body shining like the wet hide of a big lizard, Water formed in little dark pools at its feet, spread damply to where Gunner Art Zote lay face downward, looking very dead.
If the interloper had been a man, Wardell was sure he could have forced his paralyzed muscles to draw the revolver that hung from his belt. Or even if the thing had been as far away as when he had first seen it.
But he was standing there less than twenty-five feet from it, staring down at that glistening, reptilian monstrosity with its four arms and its scale-armored legs; and the knowledge in the back of his mind that machine-gun bullets hadn’t hurt it before, and—
With a cool disregard for possible watching eyes, the reptile began to tug at the harpoon where it protruded from the snout of the whale gun. It gave up after a second and went around to the breech of the gun. It was fumbling there, the crimson thing it held flashing with spasmodic incarnadine brilliance, when a wave of laughter and voices shattered the silence of the afternoon.
The next second the galley door burst open and a dozen men debouched upon the deck. The solid wooden structure that was the entrance to the fo’c’s’le hid the beast from the gaze.
They stood for a moment, their ribald laughter echoing to the skies above that perpetually cold sea. As from a vast distance, Wardell found himself listening to the rough jokes, the rougher cursing; and he was thinking: like children they were. Already, the knowledge that the strangest creatures in all creation had marooned them here on a fuelless ship must seem a dim thing in their minds. Or they wouldn’t be standing like mindless fools while—’
Wardell stopped the thought, astounded that he had allowed it to distract him for a single second. With a gasp he snatched at his revolver and took aim at the exposed back of the lizard where it was now bending over the strong dark cable that attached the harpoon to the ship.
Curiously, the shot brought a moment of complete silence. The lizard straightened slowly and turned half in annoyance. And then—
Men shouted. The machine gun in the crow’s-nest began to yelp with short, excited bursts that missed the deck and the reptile, but made a white foam in the water beyond the ship’s bows.
Wardell was conscious of a frantic irritation at the damned foul-up there. In the fury of his annoyance he turned his head upward and yelled at the fellow to learn to aim properly. When he looked again at the deck the beast wasn’t there.
The sound of a faint splash permeated through a dozen other noises; and, simultaneously, there was a stampede for the rails as the crew peered down into the water. Over their heads, Wardell thought he caught the yellow-green flash in the depths, but the color merged too swiftly, too easily, with the shifting blue-green-gray of the northern sea.
Wardell stood very still; there was a coldness in the region of his heart, an empty sense of abnormal things. His gun hadn’t wavered. The bullet couldn’t have missed. Yet nothing had happened.
The clammy tightness inside him eased as he saw Art Zote getting shakily up from the deck, not dead, not dead after all. Abruptly, Wardell was trembling in every nerve. Good old Art. It took more than a scoundrelly lizard to kill a man like that.
“Art!” Wardell yelled in a blaze of his tremendous excitement, “Art, turn the three-incher on that sub. Sink the damn thing. We’ll teach those skunks to—"
The first shell was too short. It made a pretty spray a hundred yards from that distant metal hull. The second one was too far; it exploded futilely, stirring a hump of grayish rock on the shore into a brief, furious life.
The third smashed squarely on the target. And so did the next ten. It was beautiful shooting, but at the end of it Wardell called down uneasily:
“Better stop. The shells don’t seem to be penetrating—I can‘t see any holes. We’d better save our ammunition for point-blank range, if it comes to that. Besides-—-"
He fell silent, reluctant to express the thought that had come to his mind, the fact that so far the creatures on that mysterious vessel had done them no harm, and that it was the Albatross and its crew that was doing all the shooting. There was, of course, that business of their oil being rendered useless and the curious affair just now, the thing coming aboard for the single purpose of studying the harpoon gun.
He and Preedy talked about it in low, baffled tones during the foggy afternoon and the cold evening, decided finally to padlock all the hatches from the inside and put a man with a gun in the crow’s-nest.
Wardell wakened to the sound of excited yelling. The sun was just streaking over the horizon when he tumbled out onto the deck, half dressed. He noticed, as he went through the door, that the padlock had been neatly sliced out.
Grim, he joined the little group of men gathered around the guns. It was Art Zote, the gunner, who querulously pointed out the damage:
“Look, cap’n, the dirty beggars have cut our harpoon cable. And they’ve left us some measly copper wire or something in its place. Look at the junk."
Wardell took the extended wire blankly. The whole affair seemed senseless. He was conscious of the gunner‘s voice continuing to beat at him:
"And the damn stuff’s all over the place, too. There’s two other harpoon sets, and each set is braced liked a bloomin’ masthead. They bored holes in the deck and ran the wires through, and lashed them to the backbone of the ship. It wouldn’t be so bad if the stuff was any good, but that thin wire—hell!"
"Get me a wire cutter," Wardell soothed. “We’ll start clearing it away, and—”
Amazingly, it wouldn’t cut. He strained with his great strength, but the wire only looked vaguely shiny, and even that might have been a trick of light. Behind him, somebody said in a queer voice:
“I think maybe we got a bargain. But what kind of a whale are they getting us ready for?“
Wardell stood very still, startled by the odd phrasing of the words: What . . . are they getting us ready for?
He straightened, cold with decision. “Men,” he said resonantly, “get your breakfasts. We’re going to get to the bottom of this if it’s the last thing we ever do."
The oarlocks creaked; the water whispered gently against the side of the rowboat—and every minute Wardell liked his position less.
It struck him after a moment that the boat was not heading directly at the vessel; and that their angle of approach was making for a side view of the object he had already noticed at the front of the stranger’s metal deck.
He raised his glasses; and then he just sat there too amazed even to exclaim. It was a weapon all right—a harpoon gun.
There was no mistaking it. They hadn’t even changed the design, the length of the harpoon or— Wait a minute! What about the line?
He could make out a toy-sized roller beside the gun, and there was a coppery gleam coming from it that told a complete story.
"They’ve given us," he thought, "a cable as good as their own, something that will hold—anything.“ Once again the chill struck through him, and the words that one of his crew had used: What kind of a whale—
“Closer!” he said hoarsely.
He was only dimly conscious that this kind of boldness was utterly rash. Careful, he thought, there were too many damn fools in hell already. Foolhardiness was—
“Closer!” he urged.
At fifty feet, the long, dark hull of the ship, even a part of which was under water, showed plainly; and there wasn’t a scratch to indicate where the shells from the three-incher had exploded, not a sign of damage anywhere.
Wardell was parting his lips to speak again, his mind hard on his determination to climb aboard under cover of the point-blank range of the machine gun—when there was a thunder of sound.
It was a cataclysmic sound, like whole series of monstrous guns firing one after the other. The roar echoed hugely from the barren hills and spat backward and forward across the natural hollow made by the almost completely land-locked bay.
The long, torpedo-shaped ship began to move. Faster, faster—it made a great half circle, a wave of fiery flashes pouring into the water from its rear; and then, having avoided the rowboat completely, headed for the narrows that led to the open sea.
Suddenly, a shell splashed beside it, then another and a third; Wardell could see the muzzle flame of the three-incher on the distant deck of the Albatross. There was no doubt that Art Zote and Preedy thought the hour of crisis was at hand.
But the stranger heeded not. Straight for the narrows it thundered, along the gauntlet made by the shallows, and then out into the deep water. It rumbled a full mile past the schooner, and then the fiery explosions ceased. The skies emptied of the rolling roar on roar of sound. The ship coasted on momentum, then stopped.
And lay there, silent, lifeless as before, a dark shape protruding out of the restless waters. Somewhere along its course, Art Zote had had the sense to stop his useless firing.
In the silence, Wardell could hear the heavy breathing of the men laboring at the oars. The rowboat shuddered at each thrust, and kept twisting as the still-turbulent waters of the bay churned against its sides—
Back on the whaler, Wardell called Preedy into his cabin. He poured out two stiff drinks, swallowed his own portion with a single, huge gulp, and said:
“My plan is this: we’ll fit up the small boat with grub and water, and send three men down the coast for help. It’s obvious we can’t go on playing this game of hide and seek without even knowing what the game is about. It shouldn’t take three good men more than a week to get to, say, the police station on the Tip, maybe sooner. What do you think?"
What Preedy thought was lost in the clattering of boots. The door burst open. The man who unceremoniously pushed into the room, held up two dark objects, and yelled:
“Look, cap’n, what one of them beasts just threw on board: a flat, metal plate and a bag of something. He got away before we even saw him."
It was the metal board that snatched Wardell’s attention. Because it seemed to have no purpose. It was half an inch thick by ten inches long by eight wide. It was a silvery, metallic color on one side and black on the other.
That was all. He saw then that Preedy had picked up the bag and opened it. The mate gasped:
“Skipper, look! There’s a photograph in here of the engine room, with a pointer pointing at a fuel tank—and some gray powder. It must be to fix up the oil."
Wardell lowered the metal plate, started to grab for the bag. And stopped himself with a jerk as an abnormalness about the—black—of the metal board struck him with all the force of a blow.
It was—three-dimensional. It started at an incredible depth inside the plate, and reached to his eyes. Curious, needle-sharp, intensely bright points of light peered out of the velvety, dead blackness.
As Wardell stared at it—it changed. Something floated onto the upper edge, came nearer, and showed itself against the blackness as a tiny animal.
Wardell thought: “A photograph, by Heaven, a moving photograph of some kind.”
The thought shredded. A photograph of what?
The animal looked tiny, but it was the damnedest horror his eyes had ever gazed on, a monstrous, many-legged, long-bodied, long-snouted, hideous miniature, a very caricature of abnormal life, a mad creation of an insane imagination.
Wardell jumped—for the thing grew huge. It filled half that fantastic plate, and still it looked as if the picture was being taken from the distance.
“What is it?” he heard Preedy gasp over his shoulder.
Wardell did not answer—for the story was unfolding before their eyes:
The fight in space had begun in the only way a devil-Blal was ever contacted: unexpectedly. Violent energies flashed; the inertialess police ship spun desperately as the automatics flared with incandescent destruction—too late.
The monster showed high on the forward visiplate, a thin, orange radiance breaking out from its thick head. Commander der Rel Dorno groaned as he saw that orange radiance hold off the white fire of the patrol vessel—just long enough to ruin the ship. "Space!" he yelled," we didn’t get his Sensitives in time. We didn‘t—”
The small ship shuddered from stem to stern. Lights blinked and went out; the communicator buzzed with alien noise, then went dead. The atomic motors stuttered from their soundless, potent jiving to a hoarse, throbby ratcheting. And stopped.
The spaceship began to fall.
Somewhere behind Dorno, a voice—Senna’s—yelled in relief: “Its Sensitives are turning black. We did get it. It’s falling, too.”
Dorno made no reply. Four scaly arms held out in front of him, he fumbled his way from the useless visiplate, and peered through the nearest porthole grimly.
It was hard to see against the strong light of the sun of this planetary system, but finally he made out the hundred-foot-long, bullet-shaped monstrosity. The vicious ten-foot snout of the thing was opening and closing like the steel traps of a steam shovel. The armored legs pawed and clawed at the empty space; the long, heavy body writhed in a stupendous working of muscles.
Dome grew aware of somebody slipping up beside him.
Without turning, he said tautly:
“We’ve knocked out its Sensitives, all right. But it‘s still alive. The pressure of the atmosphere of that planet below will slow it down sufficiently, so that the fall will only stun it. We’ve got to try to use our rockets, so that we don’t land within five hundred negs of that thing. ‘We’ll need at least a hundred lan-periods for repair, and—"
“Commander, what is it?"
The words were almost a gasp, so faint they were. Dorno recognized the whisper as coming from the novitiate, Carliss, his ship wife.
It was still a little strange to him, having a wife other than Yarosan. And it took a moment in this crisis to realize that that veteran of many voyages was not with him. But Yarosan had exercised the privilege of patrol women.
“I’m getting to the age where I want some children,” she had said, “and as, legally, only one of them can be yours, I want you, Ral, to find yourself a pretty trainee and marry her for two voyages—”
Dorno turned slowly, vaguely irritated at the idea that there was somebody aboard who didn’t automatically know everything. He said curtly:
"It’s a devil-Blal, a wild beast with an I.Q. of ten that haunts these outer-unexplored systems, where is hasn’t yet been exterminated. It’s abnormally ferocious; it has in its head what is called a sensitive area, where it organically manufactures enormous energies.
“The natural purpose of those energies is to provide it with a means of transportation. Unfortunately, when that thing is on the move, any machine in the vicinity that operates on forces below the molecular level are saturated with that—organic—force. It’s a long, slow job draining it off, but it has to be done before a single atomic or electronic machine will function again.
“Our automatics managed to destroy the Blal’s Sensitives at the same time as it got us. We have now to destroy its body, but we can’t do that till we get our energy weapons into operation again. Everything clear?“
Beside him, Carliss, the female Sahﬁd, nodded hesitantly. She said finally:
“Suppose it lives on the planet below? And there are others there? What then?“
Dorno sighed. “My dear,” he said, “there is a regulation that every crew member should familiarize himself or herself with data about any system which their ship happens to be approaching, passing or—"
"But we only saw this sun half a lan ago."
“It’s been registering on the multiboard for three lans—but never mind that. The planet below is the only one in this system that is inhabited. Its land area being one-twentieth or more of the whole, it was colonized by the warm-blooded human beings of Wodesk. It is called Earth by its people, and has yet to develop space travel.
“I could give you some astrogeographical technical information, including the fact that the devil-Blal wouldn‘t willingly go near such a planet because it most violently doesn’t like an eight-der gravity or the oxygen in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, it will live in spite of this physical and chemical irreconcilability, and that is the enormous, indeed the absolutely mortal danger.
“It has a one-track hate mind. We have destroyed its main organic energy source, but actually its entire nervous system is a reservoir of sensitive forces. In its hunting, it has to project itself through space in pursuit of meteorites traveling many miles per second; to enable it to keep track of them, it ages ago developed an ability to attune itself to any material body.
“Because of the pain we have caused it, it has been attuned to us from the first energy exchange; therefore, as soon as it lands, it will start for us, no matter how far away we are. We must make sure that it doesn’t get to us before we have a disintegrator ready. Otherwise—”
“Surely, it can’t damage a metalite spaceship.”
“Not only can, but will. Its teeth are not just teeth. They project thin beams of energy that will dissolve any metal, however hard. And, when it’s through with us, just imagine the incalculable damage it will do on Earth before the patrol discovers what has happened—all this not counting the fact that it is considered an absolute catastrophe by Galactic psychologists when a planet learns before it should that there is an enormously superior Galactic civilization.”
“I know.” Carliss nodded vigorously. “The regulation is that if any inhabitant of such a planet so much as glimpses us, we must kill him or her forthwith."
Dorno made a somber sound of agreement, summarized grimly:
“Our problem accordingly is to land far enough from the beast to protect ourselves, destroy it before it can do any harm, and finally make certain that no human being sees us.”
He finished: “And now, I suggest that you observe how Senna uses the rocket tubes to bring us down safely in this emergency landing. He— "
A gas light flickered outside the door of the control room. The Sahfid who came in was bigger even than the powerful Dorno. He carried a globe that burned mistily, and shed a strong white light.
“I have bad news,“ said Senna. “You will recall we used rocket fuel chasing the Kjev outlaws, and have not yet had the opportunity of replacing it. We shall have to land with a minimum of maneuvering.”
“W-what!" Dorno exclaimed, and exchanged a startled glance with the female.
Even after Senna went out, he had nothing to say. There was nothing to say—for here was disaster.
They labored—Dorno and Carliss, Senna and Degel, his wife—with a quiet, restless fury. After four lans, all the drainers were in position; and there was nothing to do but wait drearily while the electronic structures normalized in their agonizingly slow way. Dorno said:
“Some of the smaller motors, and the useless hand weapons and the power tools in the machine shop will be in operation before the devil-Blal arrives. But nothing of value. It will require four day-and-night periods of this planet before the drive motors and the disintegrators are working again—and that makes it rather hopeless.
“I suppose we could fashion some kind of reaction gun, using the remnants of our rocket fuel as a propellant. But they would only enrage the beast.”
He shrugged. “I’m afraid it‘s useless. According to our final observations, the monster will have landed about a hundred negs north of us, and so it will be here sometime tomorrow. We—”
There was a clang as the molecular alarms went off. A few moments later, they watched the schooner creep through the narrows, then hastily back out again. Dorno‘s unwinking, lidless eyes watched thoughtfully until the whaler was out of sight.
He did not speak immediately, but spent some time examining the automatic photographs, which were entirely chemical in their operation, and therefore unaffected by the catastrophe that had struck the rest of the ship. He said finally, slowly:
“1’m not sure, but I think we’re in luck. The enlargers show that that ship has two guns aboard, and one of those guns has a hooked thing protruding from it—that gives me an idea. We must, if necessary, use our remaining rocket fuel to stay near the vessel until I have been aboard and investigated.”
“Be careful!" said Carliss anxiously.
“My transparent armor,” Dorno told her, “will protect me from all except the most sustained gunfire—"
A warm sun blazed down on the bay, and that made utterly surprising the bitter cold of the water. The icy feel of it in his gills was purest agony—but even the brief examination of the harpoon gun from the fo’c’s’le hatchway told him that here was the answer.
“A most remarkable weapon,” he told his companions when he returned to the patrol ship. “It will require a stronger explosive to drive it into the Blal, and, of course, better metal in every phase of its construction. I shall have to go back for measurements and later to install the new equipment. But that will be simple. I succeeded in negating their fuel.”
He ended: “That will have to be rectified at the proper time. They must be able to maneuver when the Blal arrives."
“But will they fight?" asked Carliss.
Dorno smiled mirthlessly. “My dear,” he said, “that is something which we shall not leave to chance. A scopeograph ﬁlm will tell them the rather appalling story. As for the rest, we shall simply keep their ship between ourselves and the devil-Blal; the beast will sense life-force aboard their vessel and, in its stupid way, connect them with us. Yes, I can guarantee that they’ll fight.”
Carliss said: “The Blal might even save us the trouble of having to kill them later."
Dorno looked at her thoughtfully. “Oh, yes," he said, "the regulations! I assure you that we shall carry them out to the letter.“
He smiled. “Some day, Carliss, you must read them all. The great ones who prepared them for us to administer made them comprehensive. Very comprehensive.”
Wardell’s fingers whitened on his binoculars, as he studied the great, bulging back that glinted darkly in the swell half a mile to the north, bearing straight down on the ship. The monster left a gleaming trail in the sea as it swam with enormous power.
In a way, the part of it that was visible looked like nothing else than a large whale. Wardell clutched at the wild hope, and then—
A spume of water sprayed the sea; and his illusion smashed like a bullet-proof jacket before a cannon ball.
Because no whale on God’s wide oceans had ever retched water in such a formidable fashion. Wardell had a brief, vivid mental picture of ten-foot jaws convulsively working under the waves, and spreading water like a bellows.
For a moment, He felt violent anger at himself that he should have, even for a second, imagined it was a whale. Rage died, as it struck him that the thought was not really a wasted one. For it was a reminder that he had all his years played a game where fear was not a factor.
Very slowly, very carefully, he straightened. He called in a calm, resonant voice:
“Men, we’re in this whether we like it or not. So let’s take it in our stride like the damnedest best whalers in the business—”
All the damage to the Albatross was done in the first two minutes after the harpoon belched forth from Art Zote’s gun.
At that cruel blow, a nightmare, eyeless head, champing tons of water, reared up; and the attack was a flailing thing of armored legs that stamped as madly at the sea as at the frantically hacking schooner.
She was clear at last; and Wardell, clambering shakily out of the ruins of the bridge, grew aware for the first time of the thunderous engines of the lizard’s ship, and of a second harpoon sticking in the side of the monster—the harpoon’s gleaming coppery tail extending tenuous and taut back to the scale-armored vessel.
Four more harpoons lashed forth, two from each ship; and then they had the thing stretched between them.
For a solid hour, Art Zote pumped the remnants of their shells into a body that writhed with an agonized but unkillable ferocity.
And then, for three long days and nights, they hung on, while a beast that wouldn’t die twisted and fought with a senseless and endless fury—
It was the fourth morning.
From the shattered deck of his ship, Wardell watched the scene on the other vessel. Two lizards were setting up a curious, glittering structure, that began to glow with a gray, misty light.
The almost palpable mist poured onto the beast in the sea; and where it struck was—change—that became—nothingness.
There was not a sound now, not a movement, aboard the Albatross. Men stood where they were, and stared in a semi-paralyzed fascination, as a one-hundred-ton monster yielded its elements before the transcendental force that was tearing at it.
A long half-hour passed before that hard and terrible body was dissolved—
The glittering disintegrator was withdrawn then, and for a while there was—deadness. A thin fog appeared on the horizon to the north, and blew over the two ships. Wardell waited with his men, tense and cold and—wondering.
"Let’s get out of here," somebody said. “I don’t trust those scoundrels even after we helped them."
Wardell shrugged helplessly. “What can we do? That bag of chemical powder, that they threw aboard along with the motion-picture machine, released only one fuel tank, and that the half-empty one. We’ve used all except a few gallons in maneuvering. We—”
“Damn those scum!" another man moaned. “It’s the mysterious way they did it all that I don’t like. Why, if they wanted our help, didn‘t they come and ask us?"
Wardell hadn’t realized how great his own tension was.
The sailor’s words brought a wave of rage.
“Oh, sure,” he scathed at the fellow, “I can just picture it. I can just see us rolling out the welcome mat—with a blast from our three-incher.
"And if they ever did get to tell us that they wanted to take the measurements of our harpoon gun, so they could build one of their own, and would we let them fix ours so that it would hold twenty whales at once, and would we please hang around here until that hellish thing arrived—Oh, yes, we would have stayed. Like hell we would!
“But they weren’t as big saps as all that. It‘s the damnedest, cold-blooded thing I ever saw pulled off, but we stayed because we had to, and no please or thank you about it. The thing that worries me is the fact that we’ve never seen their kind before, or heard of them. That might only prove that dead men have told no tales, but—“
His voice faded, for there was life again on the lizard ship, another structure being set up, smaller, duller in appearance than the first and equipped with odd, gun-like projectors.
Wardell went rigid, then his bellow echoed across the deck:
“That can only be for us. Art, you’ve still got three shells.
Stand by, ready to fire—”
A puff of silver-shining smoke cut off his words, his thoughts, his consciousness—instantaneously.
Dorno’s soft, hissing voice made a quiet design of sound against the silence of the spaceship cabin:
“The regulations are designed to protect the moral continuity of civilization, and to prevent a too literal interpretation of basic laws by time-calloused or thoughtless administrators. It is right that low-degree planets should be protected from contact, so vitally right that death is a justifiable measure against those who glimpse the truth, BUT—”
Dorno smiled, said: “When important assistance has been rendered a Galactic citizen or official, no matter what the circumstances, it is morally necessary to the continuity of civilized conduct that other means be taken to prevent the tale from spreading—
“There are precedents, of course," Dorno added quietly. “Accordingly, I have been plotting our new course. It will take us past the distant sun of Wodesk, from whose green and wonderful planets Earth was originally colonized.
“It will not be necessary to keep our guests in a cataleptic state. As soon as they recover from the effects of the silver gas, let them . . . experience the journey.”