The spaceship crew found a planet with all
the comforts of home.
But the food was a bit unique: For dinner you had a friend!
THE purple water was no longer still. Ripples formed and moved outward from a force that threshed the water into foam at its center. The pole bent almost double, then straightened, and dangling from the hook at the end of it was a snow-white fish....
Paul Pratt snapped his wrists, but not quickly enough.
"Got it!" The woman's voice made him turn up in startled surprise.
She was lowering the camera and lifting her head. He caught a glimpse of hazel eyes, narrowed in laughter.
"Glad you got it," he said ruefully. The hook was empty of the fish. "Been trying for the little devil for a week now. They told me you've got to land these things in less than two seconds."
She continued to stare while she put the camera back into its case. "You're Paul Pratt, aren't you?" she asked suddenly.
Consternation showed in his eyes for an unguarded instant. She saw it and was quick to take, advantage. "Of all the luck. I'd about given up. Mind if I sit with you?"
"I don't suppose you'd take no for an answer," he grumbled. "Come ahead. But if you're expecting to get another shot of the Epithymosis Syntesis, you'll just be wasting your time."
"I'm satisfied with the one I got," she said. "Besides, the biggest fish didn't get away?" She threw her leg out straight before her and leaned her weight against the angles of her back bent arms, showing off a beautiful figure.
"They said I'd never find you—" She stopped suddenly. The man was frightened. Of her? She thought back quickly to all the pertinent facts she had memorized about Paul Pratt. There seemed to have been a worm in his life. "I'm sorry," she said quickly. "I guess you think me a brazen hussy. I'm not really. My name is Wendy North and I'm a reporter from the Chicago Blade—"
The connotation implicit in his declamation made her angry. "Yes, reporter! R-E-P-O-R—"
"T-E-R," he finished. "You don't have to spell it for me."
"Well, from your well-known dislike of them, I thought you might spell it S-N-A-K-E. Now, I'm angry too. Darn! And you look like you could be regular."
"I don't want to be regular," he said stiffly. He hadn't intended acting as he did. There seemed something different about this Miss North. But the mechanism of self-defence has become instinctive with him. Now he had added fuel to her fire.
She wagged a finger in his face. "You just want to be left alone, don't you, Mr. Pratt? Well, that's alright with me. All I want out of you is a column—anyway. About fifteen minutes and you can go back to being a private jerk."
"Is that what people think of me?"
The question took her by surprise. Her finger stopped its motion and moved to her lips. "Do I detect a note of surprise in your voice?" She looked past him to the red Martian sky. "Does this mean he's human? Does this mean—"
"Miss North, if you don't mind, let's stop being childish. You touch on an active dislike when you act this way. I can't stand people of obvious intelligence acting as you do. I'm not a moron, therefore don't treat me as one. I have never presumed people thinking about me for any length of time. Now I learn otherwise. I'm curious."
She studied him openly for a long moment: Her eyes and mind had been trained to make quick appraisal. He seemed a nice- looking person, but no different from many others she'd seen, until her attention was caught, by his eyes and mouth. The eyes were cool, very much alive and very, very intelligent. And his mouth, long and tilted, at the corners with humor, could turn thin and angry when the mood seized him.
But the portrait of a self-absorbed man which she had expected was not there.
"I apologize," she said. "I shouldn't have acted on hearsay. Blame it on the shock of finding you where I thought you'd be."
"That's an odd thing to say. What do you mean?"
"You know what people say about the last place to find things? I thought the last place I'd find you would be on a pier fishing. Your hobby is fishing! I knew that. But I thought fishing on a public pier, out in the open, would be the last place...."
His lips lifted in a smile. "Perhaps you don't know it, but this the only public pier on all Mars where a man can sometimes find the 'disappearing fish'. All right, young lady! You win the interview. What do you want to know?"
"YOUR personal secretary let something slip shortly after you left for parts unknown. I was the one he let it slip to. He said, for one," she counted the slips on her fingers; "you were going fishing for a fish that, isn't there when you get him—"
"Oh, that idiot Wuster!" Pratt broke in. "If only he'd stop trying to be clever."
"Right. Especially with Miss North of the Blade. And, for another, you were going to investigate the reports of a new kind of game, not found on Earth. The first was easy. There is only one Epi—whatever you call it. The second was more difficult to figure out. Matter of fact, I still haven't. That's why I'm here. My readers don't like guesses. They want fac.ts"
"Very well, Miss North, you shall have them. My private ship, the Astra, is being readied for an expedition. I brought it here to get away from the publicity attendant to having it made ready on Earth. I am going to the planet Lern. I'm willing to bet Wuster said I was 'Going to learn something I hadn't learned before!'"
"Yes. Or something very similar. But how did you know?"
"Know the man and you know his words. I know Wuster."
"And very well, too. But let's get back to this Lern thing. Please elaborate."
"Lern is a planet member of a solar system lying in N- dimension. But before I go on, will you understand what I'll be talking about?"
"I'll have to put it down in self-defence," she said, as she pulled a note pad from her camera case. "I'm sure it'll be Greek to me, but the Blade has ten million reader-viewers, and there is the possibility that some of them, might want details."
"I'll make it brief for your sake," he said. "Simply, Einstein's last theory knocked the skids out of a lot of nonsense and opened the way for what is called New Science. His theory, which was later verified in a practical demonstration, boiled down to the fact that high speeds are faster than they should be. The first expedition to the Moon proved he was right; it took them less than half the time they thought it would.
"Our whole concept of space-distance had to be revised. Well, shortly after, we went to Mars, to Venus, to Mercury, and then we left our system and our universe. A couple of months ago, a ship came back from a trip that broke through the light or radiation barrier into N dimension. There was but a single man on board, a single man and the skeletons of ten others. He had eaten the others. This man, who had been the navigator, died a day after he landed the ship. But before he died, he told where he had been. The name of the planet was Lern, and someone or something had made him practice cannibalism."
She had been listening wide-eyed. "What a story! Did he say why? Did he—"
"It is a terrible story indeed," he said, breaking in. "But one you won't be able to use, I'm afraid. Take my word on it. There was only a very short period of coherency during which we got the fact I mentioned. He was in shock when he landed, and he died that way. I'm going to Lern to see for myself what had happened to him."
"Take me along," she said.
"It's a word I don't believe in," she said. "If you won't take me, I'll find someone who will. The Blade has all kinds of money to spend, if it thinks it can score a beat."
"Miss North, I was going to say I find you incredible, but now you're being ridiculous. There aren't ten men who have the kind of ship to make the journey. What's more, it isn't as though you were on a luxury space liner to Mars. Inter-spacial travel is rough and dangerous."
She seized on some of his words. "I don't need ten men, just one. You'd be surprised how the ear is attuned to the song of the dollar."
Suddenly, he was bitter, with anger. Before she knew what was going on, he had come to his feet and was standing behind her, his face a mask of cold fury. "My error! I thought you intelligent. You're stupid and willful. Do as you wish."
She watched him stalk off, his back stiff as a poker. There was an odd smile on her lips. It said: Funny man. Dear funny man. I like you, and I think you like me....
"YOU'RE nothing but a chattering imbecile!"
Jerry Wuster cast an approving smile at the disapproving back and said; "Yes, sir," in a contented voice. Paul Pratt was again his old self.
Pratt continued to study the charts before him. His voice bounced off the drawing board: "Telling that Miss North what you did. Leave being clever to those capable of the art."
"But you told her even more than I did," Wuster went on in his amiable manner. "'Course, I saw her column on the video. Not even a mention of Lern."
"Censorship saw to that, no thanks to you or me. I often wonder why I keep you on; You can't even type...."
Wuster fell to studying the toe of his right shoe. "She was attractive, I thought. A personal opinion, of course, sir."
"Please keep them to yourself," Pratt turned to deliver his edict. But he couldn't stop the flush from coming to his face. He was glad Wuster was not watching him.
"Yes, sir?" Wuster lifted his eyes. They had a child-like candor in their depths. "She hired Joe Fury to fly her to Lern."
Pratt didn't bother asking the other how he knew. Jerry Wuster was the kind of person in whom you placed all confidences, as though he were, a vessel of confession. Somehow, Jerry had met up with Wendy North before they shoved off, although how he had managed it was a mystery, since he had arrived only a day before departure.
Pratt dismissed the subject abruptly: "Let's forget her, shall, we?"
"Of course, sir. Captain Storms should be up soon."
As though, in echo to his words, the door opened and closed on a man in the undress uniform of an air officer. The silver bars of a Captain gleamed dully along the edge of one collar point.
"Greetings. Can't get over this ship, Pratt. A beauty, just a wonderful sailor."
"Thank you, Storms. I am rather proud of the Astra. About three more hours before we use the braking jets. We'll be somewhere close to where McCarthy landed."
Storms had dark eyes which seemed to reflect his every thought and emotion. Now, they were stormy as his name, and a little brooding. "Mac and I were classmates. That's why I asked for this detail. Maybe we'll meet up with those devils."
Pratt absent-mindedly pulled a pipe from a pocket and filled it. His somber stare never left Storms's face. "I know how you feel, Captain. But it's a personal feeling. We're on a bigger mission than one based on vengeance. The Condor escaped to Earth. Brian McCarthy was the only one left;" He put the pipe back in his pocket. "We're coming in to get to the bottom of the mystery, what happened to the ten men with Mac."
"You're right, Pratt! It's just that I get to thinking about Mac and perspective gets distorted. I suppose I'd better get the men alerted if we have three more hours flying time. I hope it will be dark when we land."
"It will be," Pratt promised. "I made sure of it."
SHE READ the same sentence over for the sixth time, realized it, and tossed the book aside. Once more her thoughts swung to Paul Pratt. Thought he'd been so smart, telling her about the navigator and the ten skeletons and the ship which had come back from the mysterious planet Lern. Oh, he'd been smart enough, all right. He knew all along she wasn't going to be able to get the news to the public. And she'd thought him such an innocent. Well, he'd never have the chance to pull anything like that again....
She grinned ruefully. He had warned her she wouldn't be able to use the information he'd given.
But though she hadn't been able to use the information, no one had stopped her inquiries. Just a warning from the editor: "We can't use it now, baby," he had said; "But they're not going to stop us from flying out to Lern; I cleared your flight this morning. And who knows? One day we'll break it with, an exclusive Wendy North byline."
Then she had met that queer duck, Jerry Wuster, Pratt's personal secretary. Before she could stop herself, she had blurted out her hiring of Joe. Fury. Hang these self- recriminations, she thought. It was no one's business but the Blade's and her's. Pratt, his secretary, and his New Science, could all go hang!
"Hiya gorgeous! Been waitin' for me, huh?"
Her head jerked up at the words, then went slowly down. She reached for the book. "That tired line went out with the movies, Fury," she said. "Can't you give your lips a rest?" His rugged face, scarred with the marks of personal battles, showed no sign he had heard what she said.
"What's wrong with my line? Nothin', I say. Gets the gee-gees alla time. From Manhattan to Mercury."
"Well, I'm not a gee-gee, whatever that is."
"That's where you're wrong. You're the best, that's what. I ain't figgered you yet, but I will! Joe Fury never misses. Guess it's maybe what you are. Never met a gee-gee reporter. You oughta look fat, forty and foolish—"
"So I'm trim, tired and thirty. Must we always discuss your affairs, Fury? Just for a change, let's talk about this interminable journey."
"What's to talk about? Three days outa Port Looma on Mars an' we get to Lern. That's all."
"Three days?" she said in a whispered aside. "Seems more like three years." Then aloud: "Are we still on the Astra's tail?"
"Like if it had skirts. You gotta remember you hired the best spaceman there is. There ain't a guy from Jersey to—"
"Jupiter," she tried to stop him.
It was no good. "That's right, gorgeous, there ain't a guy who'll say I'm wrong. Just don't you worry that pretty head about us. Up and back; I made the guarantee."
She saw him move toward the easy chair and tried a desperate maneuver. He had kept her up almost the whole of the night before relating they details of his sordid affairs. If only he hadn't been so boring. "I-I have a headache, Fury. I think I'll turn in."
"You'll miss seeing us, land, gorgeous." He fell into the chair with a deep sigh. "Got Randy on controls. Good boy, Randy. Good jetman. He was with me when I made the first trip."
If he was aware of the miraculous cure his words had worked on her headache, he seemed unaware of it. He continued to regard her from under his beetle-brows. "By the way, I wanta make one thing clear. I don't care where Pratt lands, except it can't, be on Flat Skull. If he lands there, we go someplace else."
"I hired you to—" she started to remind him.
"Fly for you, gorgeous, not die for you," he broke in. "Flat Skull is out of bounds."
"Does Pratt know that?"
He heaved in a shrug.
"What's wrong with it?" Her tongue tripped over the words. She felt a sudden chill and shook it off until nothing of it remained but the tremble to her lips. "What's wrong with it, Fury?"
"It's a graveyard, that's what. We came in daylight. There must have been the skeletons of a hundred ships lying on that mesa."
"Oh, no!" she breathed in horror; "Fury! Contact him! Warn him!"
He was surprised. "I thought you was going to surprise him?"
"I want to, but I want him alive for the surprise."
"Okay, gee-gee," he arose with regret, "You're payin' the freight on this trip. We got an hour yet, so he's got time to pick another spot."
STORMS was curious. "What's it about, Paul?"
"Fury came in on our wave length. Seems he's been on our tail all the way in from Mars. Warned us about Flat Skull." Pratt had been tamping the tobacco into his pipe. He looked up saw Storms's questioning look, and continued: "Sorry, I forgot you're new to Lern. Flat Skull is a mesa; it's flat, treeless and a trap of some kind. There must be all of a hundred space ships piled up on that flat."
"Wouldn't be surprised." Pratt turned laconic. He lit the pipe and peered at the other through a haze of bluish smoke. "Fury is a roughneck, a moron, and a pirate—so the tale goes. This friendly warning smacks of chicanery."
"Or a woman's hand," Jerry Wuster added.
"A woman?" Storms sounded interested.
"Don't pay any attention to him," Pratt said. "He wants to marry me off to any piece of baggage catches his fancy."
"A very fancy piece of baggage Miss North is, sir."
"Thinks I need the woman's hand to guide me or some such drivel. Now, let's get back to Fury and Flat Skull. The man's right. I don't plan to land there. However, our field is not far from it. There's another mesa—surprising how much like Arizona you'll think this part of Lern, and this one's perfectly safe." Pratt looked at the clock on the wall above the drawing board. "Better ready the braking jets, Captain. Ten more minutes."
CAPTAIN Hardy Storms looked out over the level mesa. Pratt was right about the resemblance to Arizona. He moved off to the right, away from the dark mass of the Astra, and watched the twin satellites race across the sky. Their reflected light made shadows stand out strongly. There was nothing soft about this landscape, he thought. He wondered whether the inhabitants were going to be as stark and terrifying.
Pratt seemed to think so.
He turned to watch the unloading of the scientific paraphernalia Pratt had brought along. The entire crew was assisting Pratt. His eyes, trained to line, detail and construction, marveled at the wonder of the ship. When he had been told of the Astra, he hadn't quite believed it. A space ship of plastic, even to the huge jet tubes....
Flame seared the sky.
Storms looked up. Another ship was coming in on braking jets. Joe Fury, no doubt. He watched the ship land and noted the ease of it, noted the expertness of the pilot. Fury might be a moron, he thought, but he was a good pilot. Damned good!
Pratt and the others were also watching the ship come in. Presently, Pratt joined Captain Storms. "I like my privacy, Storms," Pratt said. "I find it a fortress against men like Fury. But this is one time the open will be the safest place."
Storms smiled. "Think he's bent on piracy?"
"If he is, he'll soon be disillusioned. No, I happen to know exactly why he came."
"Then you've been expecting him."
"Not so soon as this. I thought another day or two would pass before he showed up. Ah... his cargo is being unloaded."
"A woman!" Storms exclaimed. "Nice figure, too. Wonder how she is above the neck."
"As nice as below."
Storms stopped short. "Say! I thought you were the prize misogynist? You knew all along who was on board ship. Pirate! Hah!"
"He is, too, although no one's caught him at it. Not this trip, though. The girl's a Miss Wendy North, of the Chicago Blade."
"Tough. It's a long ride back to Earth, especially when you have to come back empty handed. What did she expect to find here?"
"I'm sure I don't know. But she'll tell you, make no error in that."
HE had forgotten how tall she was; even alongside the huge figure of Joe Fury, her height was noticeable. Now she was in conventional flying dress, but even so the curves of her body were not lost. She stepped forward to meet them.
"Surprise, surprise," she called gaily. "I'll bet you're just thrilled to bits that I've come?"
Pratt was grim about it. "I'm not surprised in the least. You're the kind of woman who'd do anything to gain your ends. As for being thrilled..." He let the rest fall into a void of disdain.
She turned her attention to Storms. "Your friend doesn't like me. I say it doesn't matter at all, now that I'm here, because the sensible thing would be to make the best of it."
"A reasonable attitude, Miss North."
"Wendy to you, Captain."
"Captain Hardy Storms, Wendy. Hardy, to you."
"An' what's it to me?" Fury growled. He was smiling with the words. "Nothin', I guess," he answered his own question. "Course, if I was a gee-gee...."
"Fury," Pratt turned to the thick-bodied man, "we have no right to tell you to leave; if it were possible to have stopped you before taking off, I would have. But get this through that thick skull of yours: Every minute you're on this place, your life is at stake."
"Hell! What'm I, a kid? Don't scare, me. I been in tougher spots."
"I'm not thinking of you. It's Miss North."
"Miss North can take care of herself, thank you," she said crisply. "I came here to get to the bottom of something, and I stay until it's gotten."
"Have it your way," Pratt said coldly. "I'm going back; There's still a great deal of work to do. Coming, Captain?"
WHAT the devil was wrong with him? Pratt asked himself. Acting like a spoiled and jealous school boy. Hang the girl! She had upset him before, and now she was up to the same tricks. There just wasn't room for her up here, and he was going to tell Storms that just as soon as the airman got over his own distemper.
The last of his equipment was being unloaded as they got back to the Astra. The moons were both out of sight now, and the grey of dawn was lightening into a new day. Storms noticed, too, how time had sped by, and issued rapid-fire orders for the setting up of fire positions.
Daybreak found them ready.
Storms had gotten over his mood. He kidded Jerry and Pratt about having to have air force breakfasts now, joked with his second about having a civilian boss, and called the group the "Lost Lerners." But Pratt noticed how often his eyes strayed to the other camp pitched a couple of hundred yards off. The girl was still in his thoughts.
"I seem to recall a valley of some kind," Pratt said while they were having their second cup of coffee. "It's just beyond this mesa."
"A valley, eh? Do we investigate?" Storms asked.
"Yes, the valley and everything else. Hardy, you're the boss man of the military, so I'll leave the disposition of the men to you. One thing, however: Always leave enough men to guard the equipment."
"Don't worry about that. Let's see now," Storms thought for a couple of seconds, and went on: "There are fifteen of us altogether. Ten men will always stay on guard. I'll put Martins in charge of home base and I'll go out with you and Jerry and two non-coms."
"That should do it nicely," Pratt said. "Might as well get started."
It was Jerry who observed they were not going to be alone in their investigation. "We're going to have company," he announced. "Miss North and Joe Fury. How nice of them to want to join us."
Storms turned and called a halt. "So it is," he sounded pleased. Then he caught Pratt's look of disapproval. "Let them come. Damn it! We can't treat them like pariahs."
"No, I suppose we can't. All right."
"Going for a walk?" Wendy asked brightly, catching up.
"Call it that.". Storms walked at her side. "And you?"
"Well, to be perfectly frank, I gave way to my woman's intuition. I told myself you're going looking for something and if you found it I ought to be there to see."
"And why not?" Storms asked of no one in particular. "This is a free planet."
Fury broke into hoarse laughter. "This gee-gee's the smartest I ever met. Asked her why she wanted to follow you men and she says it's the woman's place to follow the man of her choice."
"And what is so smart about that?" Jerry asked.
"She don't tell me her choice. What a dame! The only gee-gee here and she says she made a choice. Now we gotta find out who."
"No, you have to find out," Pratt said. He shook his head in disgust as he watched Storms and the girl walk ahead. Storms had his arm entwined in her's.
Suddenly they came to a halt.
The others stopped short on seeing Storms whirl and come back at a run, almost dragging the girl after him.
"Jerry, stay here with Miss North!" he commanded. "Come along and see what you make of this, Paul."
"This" proved to be a wall of invisible force. It was like pressing against air that wouldn't give, or glass that was so polished they couldn't see it. They walked for hundreds of yards in various directions, but ho matter which way they went the wall lay before them.
Meanwhile, the others had come forward and individually made the same discovery, and were excitedly discussing it.
Storms compressed his lips. "I'm going to try something, Jerry."
He backed away from the invisible wall, pulling Pratt with him by the sleeve. When they were ten feet from it, he took out his automatic and aimed at the tip of a rock outcropping beyond the barrier, and fired. The bullet abruptly materialized as a splaying blob of metal two feet above the ground in apparently thin air where the barrier was. It hung there with an attitude of "look see what I'm doing" for several seconds, then dropped to the ground.
Storms walked to it and picked it up, turning the still warm lead over slowly. On one side it was quite flat like a piece of tallow from a candle that has dripped onto a table.
"Even slugs stopped by steel don't do that," Storms said. "They dent the steel enough to ruin, the flatness."
The others had come up and crowded around, eying the piece of metal with wide eyes.
Pratt took it from Storms and hefted it idly. "Well, this tells us what happened to those ships wrecked on Flat Skull Mesa."
"What do you mean?" Fury asked sharply.
"It's quite obvious. When you land a ship, you land on some bit of land that you see. You gauge your landing speed to keep control, reducing your speed to nearly zero at the last minute. A hundred feet above the spot you intend landing on, you're still going at crash speed. If you ran into an invisible barrier tougher than steel..." He held up the metal for silent emphasis.
The others nodded in understanding.
There was an amazed look on Storm's face. "But that would mean this invisible wall—"
"Right," Pratt said. "It's a dome that surrounds and covers at least Flat Skull."
Fury snorted. "You're forgetting something. Those wrecks are on the ground, not hung up in the air."
A look of irritation crossed -Pratt's face. He put the lead in his pocket and turned toward camp.
Wendy left the others and caught up with him, walking beside him in silence. From time to time she looked sideways at him, her lips partly opening as though she wanted to say something. When she did speak, she talked fast, as though afraid she wouldn't get it out before changing her mind.
"Fury's been here before. And I'd swear he wasn't the least bit surprised about that wall. I have a feeling that there's something inside that place. And he knows what it is."
"I'm glad you told me that. It confirms a suspicion that's been, growing in me." Pratt turned suddenly to face Wendy. "I'd like for you to dismiss Fury and order him back to Mars, and join our party."
Wendy shook her head firmly. "That would be the worst thing we could do. I would have to sign a release, you know. It's registered in the Martian spacebooks that I'm his charterer. He has to bring me back or present a release signed by me."
"Well, sign the release and get rid of him. We don't want: him around."
"No." Wendy's look was determined.
Paul Pratt came to a stop. "Either do that or stay away from our party completely. We're going to have enough trouble without having you and Fury on our necks." He frowned defiantly. "This is a scientific expedition. We may discover things that should be kept secret. Besides, it's going to be dangerous."
"Are you worried about me?" Wendy's smile was taunting, with a hint of something else.
"I would hate to have to interrupt serious investigation to rescue you from some damfool predicament you got yourself into. I'd much prefer you to get out along with Fury and his crew. I offered you the chance to join with us as a compromise to get rid of Fury, that's all."
Wendy's eyes flashed anger. "Very well then. We stay. I see what you're after. You want me hamstrung. As long as Fury's under charter to me, I can have full freedom of action. I intend to keep that freedom."
Pratt glared at her, then turned and stalked away. She watched him go, a tight little smile tugging at her lips.
WUSTER eyed the toe of his boot with professorial concentration. "If I didn't know you, sir, I wouldn't hesitate to say that your actions were dictated solely by jealousy. Not only that, they defeated their purpose most admirably."
"You'll go too far one of these days. The whole trouble with you is that you fancy yourself in the role of an English butler of the old school. You'd, like nothing better than to have me acquire half a dozen offspring so you could lay out their diapers with a fancy flourish. And you're forgetting the object of this trip to Lern. We're here to find out what happened to Brian McCarthy and the Condor. Not to woo a female news reporter." Pratt jerked into his shirt angrily.
Both men turned as a knock came at the door. It was Storms. "Ready for breakfast?" he asked. "Miss North is waiting. I invited her to have breakfast with us."
"Did you have to?" Pratt sighed and continued dressing. Wuster winked solemnly at Storms as he silently handed articles of clothing to Pratt.
For the first ten minutes, breakfast was very formal in atmosphere.
Wendy North broke the oppressive silence. "Paul, I've been thinking: McCarthy couldn't have landed—he and the crew of the Condor—on Flat Skull, or the Condor would have been wrecked like the other ships."
"I know that." Pratt kept his eyes on his plate.
"And there must be some, way past the barrier. It must be energy rather than matter. Maybe it shuts off periodically."
"Why don't you ask Fury?" Pratt looked up at her coldly. "You've been thinking. So have I. It seems to me incredible that with Flat Skull strewn with wreckage, any ship captain in his right mind would try to land there unless he couldn't prevent himself. Then why were we able to avoid that trap? Was it because Fury was right behind us? Also, there's the little question of how Fury has earned a living. It would be interesting to see if the cargoes of those wrecked ships are intact—"
Wendy dipped her head in frowning agreement. "Are you going, to try to find out how to get through the barrier?"
"I already know how." Pratt repressed a smile and bit into a piece of buttered toast calmly.
"How?" It was Wendy, Storms and Wuster in unison.
"The first inkling came to me yesterday when Captain Storms fired that bullet at the barrier. It hung there a trifle too long before it fell. That proved to me that the barrier is a field of—" Pratt broke off, biting his lip.
"Of what?" Wuster asked, as the others hesitated.
"I think it would be wiser to discuss the nature of this thing when the press is not present."
"In that case, since I'm decidedly unwelcome, I'll leave." Wendy stood up, quivering with anger.
"Mr. Pratt," Captain Storms said, "you may be my employer and the owner of this ship; but I'm captain and in command, and I'll thank you to act like a gentleman."
"Tell this reporter, to act like a reporter then." Pratt half stood and pounded the table with his fist. He turned his flashing eyes from Storms to' Wendy. "I gave you your chance yesterday to get rid of Fury and join our party. You refused, so stop inviting yourself to breakfast and sticking your nose into our investigations."
"I would resign at once, sir," Storm said; his voice tight as a string. "The articles of space force me to remain captain of your ship until we land at an authorized port. Consider my resignation effective as soon as—"
Wendy drowned out his words: "You fool, Paul! I told you I can't dismiss Fury without endangering us all. That's no reason for you to get on a high horse and exclude me from your discussions."
"Then take your Captain Fury back to Mars and stay there!" Pratt glared at Wendy for a moment, then slowly settled back into his chair.
Wendy was looking at him, at first with puzzlement in her wide eyes, then with a sort of dawning wonder. Her voice was soft, tender. "All right, Paul." She turned and half ran from the room.
Pratt half rose, opening his mouth to call her back, then settled back. There was a smirk on Wuster's countenance.
RANDY was flat-chested, with a sallow complexion and a sinister aura. Where Joe Fury gave the impression that he could descend on some innocent victim in a storm of violent action, Randy was the type that would silently materialize out of the shadows with a flash, of silent steel that would terminate in the startled victim's ribs. They were as different as two renegades could be, with the same end effect.
He had watched Wendy stroll leisurely toward the Astra, then turned to Fury. "You gonna let Pratt beat your time?"
Fury snorted. "Maybe Pratt will let something slip and she'll say something around us that'll give away what they plan to do. I don't think they'll get anywhere here. If they do, we can turn it loose on them."
Randy paled, visibly. "Don't do nothin' crazy. This's different. We're on a registered trip and have to account for our passenger or we won't be able to kill our jets at any regular port again. And that would mean having to get a go-between to cash in on the stuff."
"I'm not forgetting." Fury took his eyes off Wendy's gracefully moving figure and grinned knowingly at his companion. "I never saw a gee-gee yet that didn't get suddenly very cooperative after..." His voice trailed off.
An hour later when Wendy returned the two men were stretched out on the sandy soil near their ship, apparently asleep, though she gained a strong impression that they were watching her from veiled lids.
"Captain Fury," she said sharply when she came up, "I want you to do something."
He opened his eyes and sat up. "Sure, gorgeous, Just name it."
"I want you to take off and go far enough off the planet that Pratt and Storm will think we've gone for good."
"OK. We can circle Lern and have a good time." He admired her long clean limbs openly.
A faint flush crept over her cheeks. "I'm staying here. Give me time to hide behind that knoll on the other side of your ship before you take off. Then take off and don't, come back until the Astra's gone. That way I can see what goes on without them knowing I'm around."
"OK, gorgeous." Fury winked at Randy. "We'll give you ten minutes before we take off. And we'll be back after you when Storms blasts off."
"Good!" Wendy smiled and started around the ship.
"What gives?" Randy asked under his breath.
"We'll just hop over to the other side of the dome. This'll work out perfect. They'll think we're gone. She won't suspect it was us when Pratt and Storms and the rest start to change." Wendy rounded the ship. Fury became all business. "Have the boys ready things for takeoff. This's got to look good."
"I'M afraid you were a trifle too harsh with Miss. North, sir." Wuster's voice contained a note of reproach.
Pratt didn't seem to hear him. His eyes were fixed on the dwindling trail of the other ship's rockets. When it had vanished far up, he lowered his head. "Well, that's one nuisance out of our hair." But his voice didn't, express relief.
"I agree, sir," Wuster said with sly sadistic notes of pleasure. "Now we can study this phenomenon of Flat Skull, happy in our uninterrupted privacy. Miss North was taking up too much of our time. And after all, children are for those who have no other interests in life. For us, the Epithymosis Syntesis and kindred things that will find their place in the next edition of the Encyclopedia Geographica."
"What were you going to say was the nature of the invisible barrier?" Captain Storms was making a valiant effort to recapture his equanimity.
"Oh, yes." Pratt frowned. "What I was going to say was that it exhibits some of the ideal properties of translation from three- space to N-dimension, in that you accelerate rapidly until your velocity is almost the speed of light. Then, if you don't cut your acceleration down to almost zero, you strike light velocity like it was a solid wall and your acceleration drops instantly to zero or almost zero. From there, you creep upward in speed to just slightly above light speed, and suddenly you're in N- dimension; And from there you can decelerate to slow speeds."
"But how is the barrier like that?" Storms looked at Pratt; puzzled.
"It isn't material. Matter. When your bullet hit it, it stopped and hung there for an instant longer than it would have against a steel plate, for example, as though it had penetrated a few millionths of an inch into the barrier and had to come free."
"What are you driving at?"
"Let's go to the barrier and I'll show you." Pratt didn't wait for agreement. He started, toward the invisible wall a few hundred yards distant.
The others followed, and Wendy from her vantage point atop a small knoll followed them with binoculars.
Paul Pratt approached the invisible wall with caution, feeling for it as a blind man might feel for a door. His hand encountered invisible solidity.
"Here we are." He slapped it lightly to prove its solidness. Then, quite calmly, he placed his palm flat against it and leaned his weight.
There was a gasp of surprise from those watching. As slow as the movement of an hour hand on the face of a clock, his hand moved forward into the barrier. After it had penetrated a definite and indisputable distance he withdrew it, as slowly. When he was free, he stepped back, a satisfied look on his face.
"See? I was right. It's a space-induction field—or rather a contra-space barrier. Lombardo pointed out that the trans-dimensional Einsteinian equation could hold for at least fourteen other values of the invariant than the one for light speed."
Storms was excited now. "Then what we see beyond the barrier is in another dimension?"
"I—I don't think so." Pratt seemed uncertain of himself. "I think it's just a continuation of Lern, and still in N- dimension. We're going to have to be very cautious though. You know that some of the physical laws in N-dimension are slightly different than they are in three-dimension. We can't tell ahead of time what things will be like in there. And don't forget what Brian McCarthy said about metal."
"We're not likely to." Storms became grave. "Nor how it affected his mind."
Pratt leaned his hand against the barrier again and pushed. "I'm going to see how thick the wall is." Everyone watched as his hand moved forward with infinite slowness. "We know now why those wrecked ships are on the Mesa instead of still hung up above it. They sank down slowly just as my hand is penetrating here. Or at least they sank down slowly until they had penetrated the barrier, then dropped the rest of the way."
Suddenly he could wiggle his fingers. "I'm through!" he said triumphantly. "The barrier's about six inches through. I'm going to pull out. We want to take some instruments with us that can detect possible changes inside the dome. Nothing foolhardy. If we can get at the root of this thing, we'll have the greatest discovery in science of the past three centuries!"
WENDY'S binoculars were fixed on Paul Pratt's hand as it penetrated the barrier. The pantomime of his fingers told her the whole story. "So it's as simple as that to get through!" she murmured.
And when the group started back toward the Astra, she guessed correctly that they were going to get instruments and do things the cautious way.
She slid, down from her vantage point and, making sure to keep out of sight, went toward the barrier, holding an arm ahead of her to keep from denting her shapely nose against it unexpectedly.
There was a moment of intense, panic when her nostrils and mouth were within the barrier wall and she couldn't breathe. But she was game, and resolutely pushed through, standing at last inside the invisible wall, and free of it.
She stood silent for a long minute, analyzing the smells and sounds and colors. Except for a faint odor that tugged uncomfortably at some hidden memory, there was nothing different than outside the barrier.
On the other side where she had been, a gust of wind picked up a swirl of dust and flung it impotently against the invisible wall. The visual evidence of a breeze made her conscious of the fact that here not a breath of air stirred. Enough must seep through to keep it fresh, she decided. But now something, else crept into consciousness. It was slightly warmer here. Almost as though... The memory of a vacation in the country back on Earth, of a barn, of the warmth inside with the horses and cows...
The smell wasn't the same. It was more of—Her mind shied away from the thought, then faced it. Of death. Of something dead. That's what the smell was, though very faint.
She looked across the short distance to the cliffs of Flat Skull Mesa and recalled all those wrecked spaceships. That's where the odor of death came from, of course.
She half turned as though to go back the way she had come. Then, tossing her head, she went forward, every sense alert for the slightest movement.
"I'll get the answers before Mr. Paul Pratt, or know the reason why," she promised herself.
She circled to the left to keep out of sight of the Astra. When she was far enough around the base of the mesa, she discarded caution and began to look for a path that would take her up the side of the cliff.
There were definite foot paths here, crisscrossing. The normally loose surface sand was packed as though by the passage of many feet over long periods of time. It couldn't be that, she decided, but that's the way it looked. They led in no particular direction.
Suddenly, the smell of death pushed into her nostrils as a gust of air brushed against her. Before she could move, it had gone. She stood trembling with the horror of it, and slowly she doubted it had happened. It had been a trick of her imagination, she decided. There had been nothing to make a gust of air like that. It had been as though something invisible had passed near her and breathed against her. But that was impossible.
Then she forgot about it completely. Ahead of her was a wide trail that sloped up the side of the cliff, and part-way up the trail a dark blot indicated an opening into some sort of cave or tunnel.
With an exclamation of triumph she hurried toward it. She reached the base of the trail and turned to look back toward the Astra. A quarter of a mile away on the outside of the barrier were Paul and Captain Storms and the others waving at her violently.
She chuckled triumphantly and waved to them, then disdainfully turned her back and started up the trail.
From somewhere ahead of her and seemingly far away came a loud ssslupff as of someone pulling a foot loose from sticky mud with the sound magnified a thousand times.
In the silence that followed, from high up on the cliff, a mad sound of cackling laughter drifted down. Wendy jerked fear- widened eyes upward. The laughter broke off abruptly.
Was that a bearded, hollow-eyed face peering down at her? She stared at it, trying to be sure; but it vanished. And once again the mad cackling laughter floated down with a schizophrenic note of infinite sadness and despair lurking in its undertones.
Terror nipped painfully at her heart. She turned to run. The smell of death pushed into her nostrils again like a physical blow, and the breath of invisible movements surrounded her.
Far away—too far away—she saw Paul straining forward, yet as immobile as a statue, his eyes staring toward her in an anguish of helplessness. Then blackness settled over her. But just before it descended; there were trees and ferns and profuse vegetation and fat writhing things that were floating purposefully toward her.
PAUL PRATT was partly through the barrier when suddenly the barren view of the tableland lifted above the flat landscape changed. He saw Wendy turn as though to run toward him, then sway and start to fall. And abruptly, swaying tropical fronds appeared in thick profusion hiding her from view.
At the same time, the bulk of Flat Skull Mesa changed to become a giant futuristic building-city whose roof cradled slim- nosed spaceships ready for takeoff. For a dreadful moment, he knew things had changed. Then it seemed that it had always been that way.
This is home, and I'm so homesick...
It was his own thought. He'd been away such a long time. And now, if he hurried, he would soon be home in the glistening halls of his birth. All his friends were there, happy....
But no, some of them were with him, crowding behind him, pushing him forward in their eagerness to get home before he did. He turned to call to them. Their bodies were long and strong and covered with sleek fur. Their red-tongued white-fanged mouths were open, dripping hungrily with, saliva. They were his kind.
But why were they crouching, ready to spring on him as though he were prey to be attacked and eaten? The reason came to him. It was natural. It was the Law. His kind ate and was eaten. That was why their civilization was the greatest in all universes. He should be singling out one of them for attack. He was hungry.
First, though, he would have to pretend to flee, getting them to pursue him, drawing ahead of them until only one was close, then he could turn suddenly and attack without himself being overwhelmed and eaten.
With a snarl, he sprang into the jungle, running silently on cushioned, claw sheathed pads, knowing that though he left no footprints they would follow his spore.
About him was the silence of the jungle, the smell of hot earth and the heady hunger-inspiring stench of decaying flesh. And here, suddenly, was a path. A game trail.
He took it; gliding forward in a half crouch, ears pricked forward for the slightest sound. Behind him, he knew his companions were following his spore.
The death smell pushed into his nostrils. A breath of movement ruffled his fur. His whiskers trembled with the pleasure of it. This was home, and he had always been here, following the trails in search of prey, eating his kind; and knowing in some way that his destiny was to be eaten in turn. For that was the Law.
He came to an abrupt stop, tail twitching nervously. Ahead, apparently asleep, lay a sleek creature of his own kind. It would be an easy victim. He crept forward cautiously so as not to waken it. Its smell came stronger, sweet and tantalizing. In his mind's eye, he envisioned dripping red meat that would sate his growing hunger, give him strength to hunt down those who were stalking invisibly toward him from behind.
He was over the sleeping creature, reaching out to bring raking claws across the smooth throat and tear away the flesh to expose torn arteries spurting with life's blood.
From the depths of buried consciousness, something held him back, incapable of movement. His claws in some unsensed way had become fragile twigs, his body an unmoving shape of treelike growth. And his sleeping victim changed apace. A tree whose form, stirred something within him, and lurking within it a face that fought at blocked memory, struggling almost to the surface of thought.
Something struck against him, sending him rolling backwards, while the universe rocked around him. There was a fleeting glimpse of shadowy, snakelike shapes writhing angrily in the air above him. And when he shook his head to clear his eyes he saw Joe Fury standing astride the unconscious form of Wendy, a gloating sneer on his face.
"Keep back, Pratt," Fury warned.
Paul lay where he had fallen, breathing violently, what he had just been through still strong in his memory. He knew now what had happened. Here on this strange planet of Lern in N-Dimension was a living creature of gigantic proportions, or perhaps it was a nest of them. There had been that momentary glimpse of writhing things that vanished.
Fury had something that could drive the delusions set up by the invisible creatures back and enable him to enter their dome nest safely. He had come in to get Wendy and drag her to safety, and then leave the others there, to eat and be eaten as the crew of the Condor had been, with Brian McCarthy the final survivor.
PAUL sat up and glanced around. Three hundred yards away Captain Storms, Jerry Wuster, and four of the crew of the Astra were stalking one another grotesquely. So the range of whatever Fury had was limited.
He turned back to Fury. The man was trying to lift Wendy to his shoulder while still keeping his gun free in one hand.
"Why don't you shoot me?" he asked.
Fury, grinned. "That'd make my friends mad; They like to use you in their games."
He had Wendy half draped on one shoulder. He started to straighten. It was the moment Paul had hoped for. He half rose and leaped feet first, with a scissors movement of his legs. Fury let Wendy roll off his shoulder as he tried to bring his gun up. He fired too late. Pratt's scissoring legs caught him below, the knees and tripped him forward. The shot went wild. While he was trying to role over and bring the gun up again, Pratt seized his wrist in both hands and with a full arm movement twisted the wrist completely around.
Fury rose from the ground and flipped over, the gun dropping from nerveless fingers. Immediately, Pratt sat down with one foot against Fury's neck and the other against his armpit, the arm still gripped by the wrist and cruelly bent around. Fury's face, half buried in the dirt, glistened with sweat from the intense pain. His free hand was moving up slowly toward his belt.
Pratt sensed that he was moving to shut off the device that protected them, "No you don't," he gritted, jerking the arm he held. Fury jerked with the pain. His crawling hand stopped. Pratt looked around for the gun. It was just out of reach.
He stretched Fury's arm again. Fury closed his eyes from the pain. Pratt took advantage of a fact well known to wrestlers. He let go of Fury's arm, knowing that it would be two or three seconds before the man would realize the painful tension was gone.
He got the gun. "All right, Fury. Get up."
Fury turned his head, realization of what had happened coming into his blinking eyes. He, rolled over on his back and worked his arm. "So you think you've got the upper hand," he said, half to himself.
"I get the setup now." Pratt's voice was cold with rage. "You have a device in your ship that will blank out the hypnotic effect of whatever type of creature there is in here. You knew about them ahead of time. We'll get to the root of that later. But right now, as soon as you can use your arm you're going to take off that portable unit, whatever it is, and hand it over to me."
"That's what you think. If I shut it off, you'll instantly be like you were. I won't. I know how to keep from being that way."
A shot rang out. The gun in Pratt's hand kicked back. Fury dropped to one knee, the calf of the leg torn open by the bullet. Pratt's voice was cold: "I'm not fooling around. I know what you've got coming and I'd like to give you some of it right now."
Fury stared at him for a moment, then carefully lifted a hand toward his chest. "I'll have to take off my jacket to get at it."
"Stop!" Pratt said. Fury's hand paused. "I don't trust you. Stand up. You can, even if it's painful. And I don't think you'd stand much of a chance against me now with a bad leg and strained tendons on your right arm if you did manage to shut off your immunizing field and change me back in my mind to a wild animal."
He grinned as Fury's face paled noticeably. The man obviously hadn't thought of that.
"What do you want me to do?"
Pratt glanced quickly in the direction of the other men. The brief glance told him they were still far enough separated so that there was little danger of any two of them meeting and attacking each other under the beliefs he himself had been under a few short minutes ago.
He turned back quickly, before Fury could move. "Keep your hands at you sides while I see if I can waken Miss North."
He took a step toward her. With his eyes on Fury, he knelt down and shook her shoulder gently. She didn't move. He shook her more violently. When she still didn't move, he straightened up. "She's out for some time yet. We'll walk, toward Captain Storms until the range of your nullifier touches him."
TEN minutes later, Storms had sufficiently gained his mental balance to be himself again, though still shaking his head in wonder over how he had been thinking a few minutes before. "Now I know why the crew of the Condor turned cannibal!" he said. "I was ready to eat you if I could find you, Paul."
"Never mind that," Pratt said sharply. "Get your mind to working. We've got to get to Wuster and the others, and then..." His voice trailed off as he caught sight of Wendy. She was up and walking in the half crouch that the others were using. He debated a minute. "We'll go to Wuster next. Storms, pin Fury's arms behind him and help him walk. It'll hurry things a bit."
Wuster turned in the direction of the sweet odor of flesh with quivering eagerness. He was incredibly hungry. For hours he had been tracking his prey without catching up with it. The thought of warm quivering meat with blood still flowing in sluggish spurts was almost too much. He swayed weakly from the ecstasy of desire. The scent became suddenly very strong. There was movement just beyond the thick green leaves ahead? He sank to his belly ready to spring and blinked his eyes in stupefaction as the vegetation vanished. He realized with a sudden surge of self- consciousness that he was on his hands and knees. There was still the feeling of a long graceful tail stretched out behind him, twitching to get the right balance for a springing leap. He turned to get visual confirmation of it. His quite human posterior sent the last fleeting delusion skittering.
Utterly shamefaced, he rose to his feet. "I really don't know what came over me; sir." He looked at Pratt penetratingly, trying to divine how much the others could guess of the utterly mad mirage from which he had just emerged.
"Skip that and follow us." There was no smile on Pratt's face. And shortly, Wuster was noticing the bleeding wound on the calf of Fury's leg and the way the crew members of the Astra were acting and putting two and two together.
It took time. It was a full half hour before. Pratt, with the still bewildered crew members, and Storms and Wuster approached Wendy North close enough for the field to affect her.
When she snapped put of it, she shuddered uncontrollably for a moment, then bit her lip and gained a little control.
Pratt watched her until he was sure she would be all right. "Wuster, take care, of her," he said. "All of you be sure you stay close until we get to the ship." He looked sharply at Wendy. "If we get that far. Miss North, do you have any idea where Fury's ship is?"
She shook her head.
Pratt grunted; "It's probably on the other side of Flat Skull. Fury planned to let us fall victim to these other-dimensional things."
Wendy shook her head. "I can't believe it. Why? What would he have to gain?"
IT was several hours later before she saw. In the interim, Captain Storms and his crew had unlocked a few secret compartments of the Astra and given away the fact that the ship was armed with the most modern of space fighting tools. A target seeking bomb had been sent over, the invisible dome to attach itself to Fury's ship. It could be detonated by radio. Randy and the rest of Fury's crew had surrendered and agreed to follow the Astra back to Mars.
Both ships were high above the planet Lern when Pratt ordered Randy in the other ship to shut off the protective field again. And below, suddenly, was the futuristic city once more. Flat Skull Mesa was transformed into a giant spaceport with several sleek ships resting there, ready to depart.
Pratt grinned mirthlessly at Wendy's amazed expression. "You should guess the whole thing now," he said. "Down there is a form of life, I think. In some ways, it's like the Epithymosis Syntesis I was trying to catch when I first met you. And by the way, I think Fury's nullifying field will be useful in catching that elusive fish. Those creatures down there entice their prey—metallic spaceships—by the illusion you're looking at. Once they get inside the barrier..."
Wendy shuddered at the memory. Her voice was very meek. "I—I wish I had known. I fainted, and when I came to, you and Fury were fighting. I didn't know what it was about and was afraid you would make me get out of the excitement, so I pretended—"
Pratt interrupted her: "I know. It's easy to tell if a person's faking. The movements of their eyelids give it away every time."
"You're a reporter, aren't you?" Pratt said. "How could you ever know what the rest of us went through if you didn't experience it? And now you know how McCarthy and the countless others felt—a little. You could never really know unless you had found—Wuster here, maybe—and eaten him. But to get off that subject, Fury and his crew were worse than space pirates. They were ghouls. Periodically, they called here and went through any new wrecks and took everything of value. This was their lobster trap. I don't know how they stumbled onto it. Probably piloted some scientist who fathomed the nature of the thing and devised the field to counteract the hypnotically induced illusions and delusions. We'll know soon enough. Meanwhile, we're rushing back to Mars and get the Solar Government on this. And I'm going fishing again." He grinned at Wendy. "Want to come along?"
But before she could answer, he had taken her in his arms, and as their lips met, he forgot all about his fishing plans.