The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vi Part 139

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“We destroyed your clothes,” the medic said sheepishly. “We figured–“

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

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

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

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

“We’ve done it. You’ll be happy to know that we gave them an official burial.”

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

“It’s not much of a place, but the sun is shining now. Expect us shortly.”

“Are you sure you’re all right?”

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

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Moya said.

“And you wore the suits all the time?”

“Affirmative. If you’d done the same–“

The medic showed with lab a.n.a.lyses.

“There wasn’t much of that stuff in you,” he said. “And I can’t break it down. Too complex. You used the cobra venom a.n.a.logy–Well, this makes that look as simple as mother’s milk.”

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

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

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

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

“In other words–” I said.

He snapped his fingers.

“You know how it hit you.”

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

Hours later, I felt better–physically.

On the vid screen, the magnified surface of the insular ma.s.s seemed almost to beckon. Sireni, I thought.

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

“That storm didn’t amount to much,” Moya said.

Storm, I thought. Rain.

“I know what I’d do,” Moya continued. “I’d radiate and have done with it.”

The medic dissented on clinical-curiosity grounds.

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

Moya growled: “There’s a time for stubbornness.”

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

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

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

It was simple, wasn’t it?

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

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

But only a recent problem.

And restricted to the area beyond the stream.

And random.

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


I thought and came up with a brainful of nothing.

Think again.

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

How about the bug suit?

a.s.sume the plastic was protection enough– Wouldn’t the wearer notice a blow? Or hear something?

I’d felt but not heard.

But then the rain had been falling.

No insect had hit me forcibly before– Moya and his helper had noticed nothing after– A few meager drops of rain, sibilantly soaking into the eager soil of Epsilon-Terra.

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

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

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

“I am thinking,” Moya grumbled over the comm. “If these details are so important, why–?”

“Don’t blame Interstel,” I said. “The tapes were put together by GS headquarters.”

“Well, whoever. They should have included more information.”

“Thompson,” I prodded.

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

“What kind?”

“All kinds.”

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

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

“Yes? Yes?”

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

“Why not? And why didn’t you mention this sooner?”

“For the simple reason–What got you off on this tangent?”

“Rain. The kid’s diary said ‘rain potential.’ The captain’s log mentioned a surface weather front. And it rained just before I was. .h.i.t.”

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

That was the trouble with firing off at half thrust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I felt supremely foolish–for a while.

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

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

I couldn’t place the difference.

Finally I selected one about two feet tall.

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

I prodded the green-and-yellow mottled skin of the thing. It was tough, resistant, almost pneumatic– I had this sudden, strong feeling.

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

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

I ran.

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

I sat there for quite a while, sickened. I thought about the crew of 231, and the other pieces of the puzzle. One of them had to be arrogance–the natural arrogance of picked people that leads to a belief in corporeal immortality: Nothing can happen to me; you, maybe, but not me.

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

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

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

“Watch closely,” I cautioned.

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

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

“A seed,” one of the crewmen breathed. “Nothing but a tiny, insignificant seed.”

Moya shook his head.

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