Produced by Greg Weeks, Stephen Blundell and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
Produced by Greg Weeks, Stephen Blundell and the Online
When we published Carl Jacobi’s last story we had no assurance he would be with us so soon again. For when a uniquely gifted science-fantasy writer becomes radio-active on the entertainment meter and goes voyaging into the unknown, he may be gone from the world we know for as long as yesterday’s tomorrow. But Carl Jacobi has not only returned almost with the speed of light—he has brought with him shining new nuggets of wonder and surmise.
by … Carl Jacobi
The secret lay hidden at the end of nine landings, and Medusa-dark was one man’s search for it—in the strangest journey ever made.
A soft gentle rain began to fall as we emerged from the dark woods and came out onto the shore. There it was, the sea, stretching as far as the eye could reach, gray and sullen, and flecked with green-white froth. The blue hensorr trees, crowding close to the water’s edge, were bent backward as if frightened by the bleakness before them. The sand, visible under the clear patches of water, was a bleached white like the exposed surface of a huge bone.
We stood there a moment in silence. Then Mason cleared his throat huskily.
“Well, here goes,” he said. “We’ll soon see if we have any friends about.”
He unslung the packsack from his shoulders, removed its protective outer shield and began to assemble the organic surveyor, an egg-shaped ball of white carponium secured to a segmented forty-foot rod. While Brandt and I raised the rod with the aid of an electric fulcrum, Mason carefully placed his control cabinet on a piece of outcropping rock and made a last adjustment.
The moment had come. Even above the sound of the sea, you could hear the strained breathing of the men. Only Navigator Norris appeared unconcerned. He stood there calmly smoking his pipe, his keen blue eyes squinting against the biting wind.
Mason switched on the speaker. Its high-frequency scream rose deafeningly above us and was torn away in unsteady gusts. He began to turn its center dial, at first a quarter circle, and then all the way to the final backstop of the calibration. All that resulted was a continuation of that mournful ululation like a wail out of eternity.
Mason tried again. With stiff wrists he tuned while perspiration stood out on his forehead, and the rest of us crowded close.
“It’s no use,” he said. “This pickup failure proves there isn’t a vestige of animal life on Stragella—on this hemisphere of the planet, at least.”
Navigator Norris took his pipe from his mouth and nodded. His face was expressionless. There was no indication in the man’s voice that he had suffered another great disappointment, his sixth in less than a year.
“We’ll go back now,” he said, “and we’ll try again. There must be some planet in this system that’s inhabited. But it’s going to be hard to tell the women.”
Mason let the surveyor rod down with a crash. I could see the anger and resentment that was gathering in his eyes. Mason was the youngest of our party and the leader of the antagonistic group that was slowly but steadily undermining the authority of the Navigator.
This was our seventh exploratory trip after our sixth landing since entering the field of the sun Ponthis. Ponthis with its sixteen equal-sized planets, each with a single satellite. First there had been Coulora; then in swift succession, Jama, Tenethon, Mokrell, and R-9. And now Stragella. Strange names of strange worlds, revolving about a strange star.
It was Navigator Norris who told us the names of these planets and traced their positions on a chart for us. He alone of our group was familiar with astrogation and cosmography. He alone had sailed the spaceways in the days before the automatic pilots were installed and locked and sealed on every ship.
A handsome man in his fortieth year, he stood six feet three with broad shoulders and a powerful frame. His eyes were the eyes of a scholar, dreamy yet alive with depth and penetration. I had never seen him lose his temper, and he governed our company with an iron hand.
He was not perfect, of course. Like all Earthmen, he had his faults. Months before he had joined with that famed Martian scientist, Ganeth-Klae, to invent that all-use material, Indurate, the formula for which had been stolen and which therefore had never appeared on the commercial market. Norris would talk about that for hours. If you inadvertently started him on the subject a queer glint would enter his eyes, and he would dig around in his pocket for a chunk of the black substance.
“Did I ever show you a piece of this?” he would say. “Look at it carefully. Notice the smooth grainless texture—hard and yet not brittle. You wouldn’t think that it was formed in a gaseous state, then changed to a liquid and finally to a clay-like material that could be worked with ease. A thousand years after your body has returned to dust, that piece of Indurate will still exist, unchanged, unworn. Erosion will have little effect upon it. Beside it granite, steel are nothing. If only I had the formula …”
But he had only half the formula, the half he himself had developed. The other part was locked in the brain of Ganeth-Klae, and Ganeth-Klae had disappeared. What had become of him was a mystery. Norris perhaps had felt the loss more than any one, and he had offered the major part of his savings as a reward for information leading to the scientist’s whereabouts.
Our party—eighteen couples and Navigator Norris—had gathered together and subsequently left Earth in answer to a curious advertisement that had appeared in the Sunday edition of the London Times.
WANTED: A group of married men and women, young, courageous, educated, tired of political and social restrictions, interested in extra-terrestrial colonization. Financial resources no qualification.
After we had been weeded out, interviewed and rigorously questioned, Norris had taken us into the hangar, waved a hand toward the Marie Galante and explained the details.
The Marie Galante was a cruiser-type ship, stripped down to essentials to maintain speed, but equipped with the latest of everything. For a short run to Venus, for which it was originally built, it would accommodate a passenger list of ninety.
But Norris wasn’t interested in that kind of run. He had knocked out bulkheads, reconverted music room and ballroom into living quarters. He had closed and sealed all observation ports, so that only in the bridge cuddy could one see into space.
“We shall travel beyond the orbit of the sun,” he said. “There will be no turning back; for the search for a new world, a new life, is not a task for cowards.”
Aside to me, he said: “You’re to be the physician of this party, Bagley. So I’m going to tell you what to expect when we take off. We’re going to have some mighty sick passengers aboard then.”
“What do you mean, sir?” I said.
He pointed with his pipe toward the stern of the vessel. “See that … well, call it a booster. Ganeth-Klae designed it just before he disappeared, using the last lot of Indurate in existence. It will increase our take-off speed by five times, and it will probably have a bad effect on the passengers.”