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The Skit-Tree Planet

The communicator-phone set up a clamor when the sky was just beginning to gray in what, on this as yet unnamed planet, they called the east because the local sun rose there. The call-wave had turned on the set and Wentworth kicked off his blankets and stumbled from his bunk in the atmosphere-flier, and went sleepily forward to answer. He pushed the answer-stud and said wearily:

"Hello! What's the trouble? . . . Talk louder, there's some static . . . . Oh . . . . No, there's no trouble. Why should there be? . . . The devil I'm late reporting! Haynes and I obeyed orders and tried to find the end of a confounded skit-tree plantation. We chased our tails all day long, but we made so much westing that we gained a couple of hours light. So it isn't sunrise yet, where we are . . . ." He yawned. "Oh, we set down the flier on a sort of dam and went to sleep . . . . No, nothing happened. We're used to feeling creepy. We thrive on it. Haynes says he's going to do a sculpture group of a skit-tree planter which will be just an eye peeking around a tree-trunk . . . . No! Dammit, no! We photographed a couple of hundred thousand square miles of skit-trees growing in neat rows, and we photographed dams, and canals, and a whole irrigation system, but not a sign of a living creature . . . . No cities, no houses, no ruins, no nothing . . . . I've got a theory, McRae, about what happened to the skit-tree planters." He yawned again. "Yeah. I think they built up a magnificent civilization and then found a snark . . . . Snark! S-N-A-R-K . . . . Yes. And the snark was a boojum." He paused. "So they silently faded away."

He grinned at the profanity that came out of the communicator speaker. Then McRae cut off, back at the irreverently nicknamed Galloping Cow, which was the base ship of the Extra-Solarian Research Institute expedition to this star-cluster. Wentworth stretched, and looked out of the atmosphere-flier's windows. He absently noticed that the static on the communication-set kept up, which was rather odd on an FM receiver. But before the fact could have any meaning, he saw something in motion in the pale gray light of dawn. He squinted. Then he caught his breath.

He stood frozen until the moving object vanished. It moved, somehow, as if it carried something. But it was bigger than the Galloping Cow! Only after it vanished did he breathe again, and then he licked his lips and blinked.

Haynes' voice came sleepily from the bunk-space of the flier.

"What's from the Galloping Cow? Planning to push off for Earth?"

Wentworth took a deep breath and stared where the moving thing had gone out of sight. Then he said very quietly:

"No . . . . McRae was worried because we hadn't reported. It's two hours after sunrise back where the ship is." He swallowed. "Want to get up now?"

"I could do with coffee," said Haynes, "pending a start for home."

Wentworth heard him drop his feet to the floor. And Wentworth pinched himself and winced, and swallowed again, and then twisted the opener of a beverage can labeled "Coffee" and it began to make bubbling noises. He put it aside to heat and brew itself, and pulled out two breakfast-rations. He put them in the readier. Then he stared again out the flier's window.

The light outside grew stronger. To the north—if where the sun rose was east—a low but steep range of mountains began just beyond the spot where the flier had landed for the night. It had settled down on a patently artificial embankment of earth, some fifty feet high, that ran out toward the skit-tree sea from one of the lower mountain spurs. The moving thing had gone into those mountains, as if it carried something.

Haynes came forward, yawning.

"I feel," he said, and yawned again, "as if this were going to be a good day. I wish I had some clay to mess with. I might even do a portrait bust of you, Wentworth, lacking a prettier model."

"Keep an eye out the window," said Wentworth, "and meanwhile you might set the table."

He went back to his bunk and dressed quickly. His expression was blank and incredulous. Again, once, he pinched himself. But he was awake. He went back to where steaming coffee and the breakfast-platters waited on the board normally used for navigation.

The communication-set still emitted static—curiously steady, scratchy noise that should not have come in on a frequency-modulation set at all, and especially should not have come in on a planet which had plainly once been inhabited, but whose every inhabitant and every artifact had vanished utterly. Habitation was so evident, and seemed to have been so recent, that most of the members of the expedition felt a creepy sensation as if eyes were watching them all the time. But that was absurd, of course.

Haynes ate his chilled fruit. The readier had thawed the frozen fruit, and not only thawed but cooked the rest of breakfast. Wentworth drank a preliminary cup of coffee.

"I've just had an unsettling experience, Haynes," he said carefully. "Do I look unusually cracked, to you?"

"Not for you," said Haynes. "Not even for any man who not only isn't married but isn't even engaged. I attribute my splendid mental health to the fact that I'm going to get married as soon as we get back to Earth. Have I mentioned it before?"

Wentworth ignored the question.

"Something's turned up—with a reason back of it," he said in a queer tone. "Check me on this. We found the first skit-trees on Cetis Alpha Three. They grew in neat rows that stretched out for miles and miles. They had patently been planted by somebody who knew what he was doing, and why. We found dams, and canals, and a complete irrigation system. We found places where ground had been terraced and graded, and where various trees and plants grew in what looked like a cockeyed form of decorative planting. Those clearings could have been sites for cities, only there were no houses or ruins, or any sign that anything had ever been built there. We hunted that planet with a fine-toothed comb, and we'd every reason to believe it had recently been inhabited by a highly civilized race—but we never found so much as a chipped rock or a brick or any shaped piece of metal or stone to prove it. A civilization had existed, and it had vanished, and when it vanished it took away everything it had worked with—except that it didn't tear up its plantings or put back the dirt it had moved. Right?"

"Put dispassionately," said Haynes cheerfully, "you sound like you're crazy. But you're stating facts. Okay so far."

"McRae tore his hair," Wentworth went on, "because he couldn't take back anything but photographs. Oh, you did a very fine sculpture of a skit-tree fruit, but we froze some real ones for samples, anyhow. We went on to another solar system. And on a planet there we found skit-trees planted in neat rows reaching for miles and miles, and dams, and canals, and cleared places—and nothing else. McRae frothed at the mouth with frustration. Some not-human race had space-travel. Eh?"

Haynes took a cup of coffee.

"The inference," he agreed, "was made unanimously by all the personnel of the Galloping Cow."

Wentworth glanced nervously out the flier window.

"We kept on going. On nine planets in seven solar systems we found skit-tree plantations with rows up to six and seven hundred miles long—following great-circle courses, by the way—and dams and irrigation systems. Whoever planted those skit-trees had space-travel on an interstellar scale, because the two farthest of the planets were two hundred light-years apart. But we've never found a single artifact of the race that planted the skit-trees."

"True," said Haynes. "Too true! If we'd loaded up the ship with souvenirs of the first non-human civilized race ever to be discovered, we'd have headed for home and I'd be a married man now."

Wentworth said painfully:

"Listen! Could it be that we never found any artifacts because there weren't any? Could it be that a creature—a monstrous creature—could have developed instincts that led it to make dams and canals like beavers do, and plantings like some kinds of ants do, only with the sort of geometric precision that is characteristic of a spider's web? Could we have misread mere specialized instinct as intelligence?"

Haynes blinked.

"Could be—No. Seven solar systems. Two hundred light-years. A specific species, obviously originating on only one planet, spread out over two hundred light-years. Not unless your animal could do space-travel and carry skit-tree seeds with him. What gave you that idea?"

"I saw something," said Wentworth. He took another deep breath. "I'm not going to tell you what it was like, I don't really believe it myself. And I am scared green! But I wanted to clear that away before I mentioned—this. Listen!"

He waved his hand at the communicator-set. Static came out of its speaker in a clacking, monotonous, but continuous turned-down din.

Haynes listened.

"What the—? We shouldn't get that kind of stuff on a frequency-modulation set!"

"We shouldn't. Something's making it. Maybe what I saw was—domesticated. In any case, I'm going to go out and look for its tracks where I saw it moving."

"You? Not we? What's the matter with both of us?"

Wentworth shook his head.

"I'll take a flame-pistol—though running-shoes would be more practical. You can hover overhead, if you like. But don't try to be heroic, Haynes!"

Haynes whistled.

"How about air reconnaissance first?" he demanded. "We can look for tracks with a telescope. If we see a jabberwock or something on that order, we can skip for the blue. If we don't find anything from the air, all right. But a preliminary scout from aloft!"

Wentworth licked his lips.

"That might be sensible," he admitted, "but the damned thing scared me so that I've got to face it sooner or later. All right. Clear away this stuff and I'll take the ship up."

While Haynes slid the cups and platters into the refuse-disposal unit, he seated himself in the pilot's seat, turned off the watch-dog circuit that would have waked them if anything living had come within a hundred yards of the flier during the night-time, and gave the jets a warming-up flow of fuel. Thirty seconds later the flier lifted smoothly and leveled off to hover at four hundred feet. Wentworth took bearings on their landing-place. There were no other landmarks that would serve for keeping the flier stationary.

The skit-trees began where the ground grew fairly level, and they went on beyond the horizon. They were clumps of thin and brittle stalks which rose straight up for eighty feet and then branched out and bore copious quantities of a fruit for which no human being could imagine any possible use. Each clump of trees was a geometrically perfect circle sixty feet in diameter. There was always just ninety-two feet between clumps. They reached out in rows far beyond the limit of vision. Only the day before, the flier had covered fifteen hundred miles of westing without coming to the end of this particular planting.

With the flier hovering, Wentworth used a high-power telescope to search below. He hunted for long, long minutes, examining minutely every square foot of half a dozen between-clump aisles without result. There was no sign of the passage of any creature, much less of the apparition he would much rather not believe in.

"I think," he said reluctantly, "I'm going to have to go down and hunt on foot. Maybe there wasn't anything. Maybe I'm crazy."

Haynes said mildly:

"Speaking of craziness, is or isn't that city yonder a delusion?"

He pointed, and Wentworth jerked about. Many, many miles away, something reared upward beyond the horizon. It was indubitably a city—and they had searched nine planets over without finding a single scrap of chipped stone to prove the reality of the skit-tree planters. Wentworth could see separate pinnacles and what looked like skyways connecting them far above-ground. He snapped his camera to his binoculars and focused them—and of course the camera with them. He saw architectural details of bewildering complexity. He snapped the shutter of his camera.

"That," said Wentworth, "gets top priority. There's no doubt about this!"

The thing he had seen before sunrise was so completely incredible that it was easier to question his vision than to believe in it. He flung over the jet-controls so that the drive jets took the fuel from the supporting ones. The flier went roaring toward the far-away city.

"Take over," he told Haynes. "I'm going to call McRae back. He'll break down and cry with joy."

He pushed the call-button. Seconds later a voice came out of the communicator, muffled and made indistinct by the roar of the jets. Wentworth reported. He turned a tiny television scanner on the huge, lacy construction rising from a site still beyond the horizon. McRae's shout of satisfaction was louder than the jets. He bellowed and cut off instantly.

"The Galloping Cow," said Wentworth, "is shoving off. McRae's giving this position and telling all mapping-parties to make for it. And he'll climb out of atmosphere to get here fast. He wants to see that city!"

The flier wobbled, as Haynes' hands on the controls wobbled.

"What city?" he asked in an odd voice.

Wentworth stared unbelievingly. There was nothing in sight but the lunatic rows of skit-trees, stretching out with absolutely mechanical exactitude to the limit of vision on the right, on the left, ahead, and behind to the very base of the mountains. There simply wasn't any city. Wentworth gaped.

"Pull that film out of the camera. Take a look at it. Were we seeing things?"

Haynes pulled out the already-developed film. The city showed plainly. It had gone on television to the Galloping Cow, too. It had not been an illusion. Wentworth pushed the call-button again as the flier went on toward a vanished destination. After a moment he swore.

"McRae lost no time! He's out of air already, and our set won't reach him.—Where'd that city go?"

He set the supersonic collision alarm in action, then the radar. They revealed nothing. The city simply no longer existed.

They searched incredulously for twenty minutes, at four hundred miles an hour. The radar picked up nothing. The collision-alarm picked up no echoes.

"It was here!" growled Wentworth. "We'll go back and start over!"

He sent the flier hurtling back toward the hills and the embankment where it had rested during the night. The communicator rasped a sudden furious burst of static. Wentworth, for no reason whatever, jerked his eyes behind. The city was there again.

Haynes photographed it feverishly as the flier banked and whirled back toward it. For a full minute it was in plain view, and the static was loud. Then the static cut off. Simultaneously, the city vanished once more.

Again a crazy circling. But the utterly monotonous landscape below showed no sign of a city-site, and it was impossible to be sure that the flier actually quartered the ground below, or whether it circled over the same spot again and again, or what.

"If McRae turns up in the Galloping Cow," said Haynes, "and doesn't find a damned thing, maybe he'll think we've all gone crazy and had better go home. And then—"

"Then you'll get married!" said Wentworth savagely. "Skip it! I've got an idea! Back to the mountains once more . . . ."

The flier whirled yet again and sped back toward its night's resting-place. Ten miles from it, and five thousand feet up, the static began still again. Wentworth kicked a smoke-bomb release and whirled the flier about so sharply that his head snapped forward from the sudden centrifugal force. There was the city. The flier roared straight for it. Static rattled out of the communicator. One minute. Two. He kicked the smoke-bomb release again. Already the first bomb had hit ground and ignited. A billowing mass of smoke welled up from its position. The second reached ground and made a second smoke-signal. Ten miles on, he dropped a third. The smoke-signals would burn for an hour, and gave him a perfect line on the vanishing city. This time it did not vanish. It grew larger and larger, and details appeared, and more details . . . .

It was a unit; a design of infinite complexity, but so perfectly integrated that it was a single design. Story upon story, with far-flung skyways connecting its turrets, it was a vision of completely alien beauty. It rose ten thousand feet from the skit-trees about its base. Its base was two miles square.

"They built high," said Wentworth grimly, "so they wouldn't use any extra ground they could plant their damned skit-trees on. I'm going to land short of it, Haynes."

The vertical jets took over smoothly as he cut the drive. The flier slowed, and two blasts forward stopped it dead, and then it descended smoothly. Wentworth had checked not more than a hundred yards from the outermost tower. It appeared to be made of completely seamless metal, incised with intricate decorative designs. Which was incredible. But the most impossible thing of all was that there was no movement anywhere. No stirring. No shifting. Not even furtive twinklings as of eyes peering from the strangely-shaped window-openings. And when the flier landed gently between two circular clumps of skit-trees and Wentworth cut off the jets and then turned off even the communicator—then there was silence.

The silence was absolute. Two miles high, there towered a city which could house millions of people. And it was utterly without noise and utterly without motion in any part.

"And then the prince went into the castle," said Wentworth savagely, "and he kissed the Sleeping Beauty on the lips, and she opened her eyes with a glad little cry, and they were married and lived happily ever after. Coming, Haynes?"

"I'll come," said Haynes. "But I don't kiss anybody. I'm engaged!"

Wentworth got out of the flier. Never yet had they found a single dangerous animal on any of the nine planets on which skit-trees grew—barring whatever it was he had seen that morning. Whoever planted skit-trees wiped out dangerous fauna. That had been one of the few seeming certainties. But all the same, Wentworth put a flame-pistol in his belt before he started for the city.

And then he stopped short. There was a flickering. The city was blotted out. A blank metal wall stood before him. It reared all around the flier and the men in it. Between them and the city. Shining, seamless, gleaming metal, perfectly circular and a hundred feet high. It neatly enclosed a circle two hundred yards across, and hence some clumps of skit-trees with the men.

"Now—where the hell did that come from?" panted Wentworth.

Then, abruptly, everything went black. There was darkness. Absolute, opaque, blinding night.

For perhaps two seconds it was unbroken. Then Haynes, still in the flier, pushed the button that turned on the emergency landing-lights. Twin beams of some hundreds of thousands candlepower lashed out, and recoiled from polished metal, and spread about and were reflected and re-reflected. There was a metal roof atop the circular metal wall. Men and flier and clumps of skit-trees were sealed up in a monstrous metal cylinder.

Wentworth swore. Then he cried furiously:

"It isn't so! It simply can't be so!"

He marched angrily to the nearest of the metal walls. Twin shadows of his figure were cast on before him by the landing-light beams. Weird reflections of the shadows and the lights—distorted crazily by the polished surface—appeared on every hand.

He reached the metal wall. He pulled out his flame-pistol and tapped at it. The wall was solid. He backed off five paces and sent a flame-pistol beam at it. The flame splashed from the metal in a coruscating shower. But nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. When he turned off the pistol the metal was utterly unmarred. It was not even red-hot.

Haynes said absurdly:

"The sleeping beauty woke up, Wentworth. What's the matter?"

He saw Wentworth gazing with stupefaction at a place where the metal cylinder touched ground. There was the beginning of a circular clump of skit-trees. And he saw a stalk at a slight angle. It came out of the metal wall. The skit-trees were in the wall. They came out of it. He saw another that went into it.

He went back to the flier and climbed in. He turned the communicator up to maximum power. The racket that came out of it was deafening. He punched the call-button. Again and again and again. Nothing happened. He turned the set off.

The dead stillness which followed was daunting.

"Well?" said Haynes.

"It's impossible," said Wentworth, "but I can explain everything. That wall isn't real."

"Then we ram through it?"

"We'd kill ourselves!" Wentworth told him exasperatedly. "It's solid!"

"Not real, but solid?" asked Haynes. "A bit unusual, that. When I get back to Earth and am a happily married man, I'll try to have a more plausible story than that to tell my wife if I ever come home late—not that I ever will."

Wentworth looked at him. And Haynes grinned. But there was sweat on his face. Wentworth grunted.

"I'm scared too," he said sourly, "but I don't make bad jokes to cover up. This can be licked. It's got to be!"

"What is it?"

"How do I know?" demanded Wentworth. "It makes sense, though. A city that vanishes and re-appears—apparently without anybody in it. That doesn't happen. This can—this tank we're in. There wasn't any machinery around to put up a wall like this. And the top wasn't heaved into place. It wasn't lowered down to seal us in. It didn't slide into position. One instant it wasn't there, and the next instant it was. Like something that—hm—had materialized out of nowhere. Maybe that's it! And the city was the same sort of trick! Maybe that's the secret of this whole civilization we're trying to trace."

His voice echoed weirdly against the metal ceiling on every hand.

"What's the secret?"

"Materializing things! Making a—synthetic sort of matter! Making—well—force-fields that look and act like substance. Of course! If you can generate a building, why build one? We can make a magnetic field with a coil of wire and an electric current. It's just as real as a brick. It's simply different. We can make a picture on a screen. It's just as real as a painting. It's just different. Suppose we could make something like a magnetic field, with shape and coloring and solidity! Why not solidity? Given the trick, it should be as easy as shape or color . . . . If we had a trick like that and wanted to stop some visitors from outer space, we'd simply make the solid image of a can around them! It would be made with energy, and all the energy applied to it would flow to any threatened spot. It would draw power to fight any stress that tried to destroy it. Of course! And why should we build cities? We'd clear a place for them and generate them and maintain them simply by supplying the power needed to keep them in being! We'd make force-fields in the shape of machines, to dig canals or pile up dams . . . ."

He had raised his voice as he spoke. The solid walls and roof made echoes which clanged. He stopped short. Haynes said calmly:

"Then there wouldn't be any artifacts. When a city was abandoned, it would be wiped out as completely as the picture on a theatre-screen when the play is done with. But Wentworth—"


"If we had that trick, and we'd captured some meddle-some strangers from outer space by clapping a can over them, what would we do?" He paused. "In other words, what comes next for us?"

Wentworth clamped his teeth together.

"Get in the pilot's seat," he commanded, "and put your finger on the vertical flight button. When you see light, stab it down so we'll shoot straight up! If we trapped somebody, and if we lifted it, we'd have something worse than a trap to take care of them with. They'd do the same—and they've got what it should take!"

Silence. Haynes' voice:

"Such as?"

"I saw one Thing this morning," said Wentworth grimly. "I don't like to think about it. If they're bringing it over to snap us up when this can is lifted off of us . . . You keep your finger on the flight-button! That Thing was bigger than the Galloping Cow! I'll try to tip McRae what's happened."

He settled down by the communicator. Every ten minutes he tried to call the expedition's ship. Every time there came a monstrous roar of static as the set came on, and no other sound at all. Aside from that, nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. The flier lay on the ground with an unnatural assortment of reflected and re-reflected light beams from the twin landing-lamps. There were four clumps of skit-trees sharing the prison with the flier and the men.

Silence. Stillness. Nothing . . . . Every ten minutes Wentworth called the Galloping Cow.

It was an hour and a half before there came an answering when Wentworth made his call.

" . . . llo!" came McRae's voice through the crackling static. "Down in . . . . gain . . . . no sign . . . . sort anywhere . . . ."

"Get a directional on me!" snapped Wentworth. "Can you hear me above the static?"

"What stat . . . . oice perfectly clear . . . ." came McRae's booming. "Keep . . . . talking . . . ."

Wentworth blinked. No static at the Galloping Cow! When his ears were practically deafened? Then it made sense. All of it!

"I'll keep talking," he said fervently. "Use the directional and locate me. But don't try to help me direct. Take a bearing from where you find me to where a fifty-foot dirt embankment sticks out from a mountain-spur to the north. Get on that line and you'll hear the static, all right! It's in a beam coming right here at me! Follow that static back to the mountains, and when you find where it's being projected from, you'll find some skit-tree planters with all the artifacts your little heart desires! Only maybe you'll have to blast them . . . ."

He swallowed.

"It makes sense," he went on more calmly. "They built up a civilization based on generating instead of building the things they wanted to use. Our force-fields are globular, because the generator's inside. If you want a force-field to have a definite shape, you have to generate it differently. Their cities and their machines weren't substance, though they were solid enough. They were force-fields! The generators were off at a distance, throwing the force-field they wanted where they needed it. They projected solidities like we project pictures on a screen. They projected their cities. Their tools. Probably their spaceships too. That's why we never found artifacts! We looked where installations had been, instead of where they were generated and flung to the spot where they were wanted. There's a beam full of static coming from those mountains—"

Light! With all the blinding suddenness of an atomic explosion, there was light. Wentworth had a moment's awareness of sunshine on the brittle stalks of skit-trees, and then of upward acceleration so fierce that it was like a blow. The atmosphere-flier hurtled skyward with all its lift-jets firing full blast—and there was the Galloping Cow lumbering ungracefully through atmosphere at ten thousand feet, some twelve or more miles away.

And McRae's voice came out of a communicator which now picked up no static whatever.

"What the devil?" he boomed. "We saw something that looked like a big metal tank, and it vanished and you went skyward from where it'd been like a bat out of hell—"

"Suppose you follow me," said Wentworth grimly. "The skit-tree planters on this planet, anyhow, don't want us around. By pure accident, I got a line on where they were. They lured me away from their place by projecting a city. I went to look—and it vanished. I played hide and seek with it until they changed tactics and let it stay in existence. Maybe they thought we'd land on it, high up, and get out of the flier to explore. Then the city'd have vanished and we'd have dropped a mile or two—hard. But we landed on the ground instead, and they clapped a jail around us. I don't know what they intended, but you came along and they let the jail vanish to keep you from examining it. And now we'll go talk to them!"

The flier was streaking vengefully back to the embankment, to where only that morning, before sunrise, Wentworth had seen something he still didn't like to think about. The Galloping Cow veered around to follow, with all the elephantine grace of the animal for which she had been unofficially christened. She'd been an Earth-Pluto freighter before conversion for this expedition, and she was a staunch vessel, but not a handy one.

The flier dived for the hills. Wentworth's jaws were hard and angry. The Galloping Cow trailed, wallowing. The flier quartered back and forth across the hills, examining every square inch of ground . . . .

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The search went on. The communicator boomed McRae's voice:

"They're playing possum. We'll land and make a camp and prepare to hunt on foot."

Wentworth growled angrily. He continued to search. Deeper and deeper into the hills. Going over and over every bit of terrain. Then, quite suddenly, the communicator emitted babbling sounds. Shouts. Incoherent outcries. From the ship, of course. There were sudden, whining crashes—electronic cannon going off at a panic-stricken rate. Then a ghastly crashing sound—and silence.

The flier zoomed until Haynes and Wentworth could see. They paled. Wentworth uttered a raging cry.

The Galloping Cow had landed. Her ports were open and men had emerged. But now a Thing had attacked the ship with a ruthless, irresistible ferocity. It was bigger than the Galloping Cow. It stood a hundred feet high at the shoulder. It was armored and possessed of prodigious jaws and incredible teeth. It was all the nightmares of mechanistic minds rolled into one and then magnified. It must have materialized from nothingness, because nothing so huge could have escaped Wentworth's search. But as Wentworth first looked at it the incredible jaws closed on the ship's frame and bit through the tough plates of beryllium steel as if they had been paper. It tore them away and flung them aside. A main-frame girder offered resistance. With an irresistible jerk, the Thing tore it free. And then it put its claws into the very vitals of the Galloping Cow and began to tear the old spaceship apart.

The crewmen spilled out and fled. The Thing snapped at one as he went by, but returned to its unbelievable destruction. Someone heaved a bomb into its very jaws, and it exploded—and the Thing seemed not to notice it.

Wentworth seized the controls of the flier from Haynes. He dived—not for the ship, but for the space between the ship and the mountains. He flung the small craft into crazy, careening gyrations in that space.

And then the communicator shrieked with clacking static. The flier passed through the beam, but Wentworth flung it back in. He plunged toward the mountains. He lost the beam, and found it again, and lost it, and found it . . . .

"There!" he said, choking with rage. "Down from the top of that cliff! There's a hole! A cave-mouth! The beam's coming from there!"

He plunged the flier for the opening, and braked with monstrous jettings that sent rocket-fumes blindingly and chokingly into the tunnel. The flier hit and Wentworth scrambled to the forepart of the little ship and leaped to the cliff-opening against which it bumped, and then ran into the opening, his flame-pistol flaring before him.

There was a blinding flash inside. The blue-white flame of a short-circuit making a gigantic arc. It died. The place was full of smoke, and something small ran feebly across the small space that Wentworth could see, and fell, and kicked feebly, and was still. A machine came to a jolting stop. And Wentworth, crouching fiercely, waited for more antagonists.

None came. The fumes drifted out the cave-mouth. Then he saw that the thing on the floor was a weirdly constructed space-suit, and that the thing in it was not human and looked very tired. It was dead. Then he saw an almost typical tight beam projector, linked with heavy cables to a scanning device. He saw a model—all of five feet high—of the city he and Haynes had tried to reach. The model was of unbelievable delicacy and perfection. But the scanning system now was focused on a metal object which was a miniature Thing with claws and jaws and armor . . . . It was two feet long, and there was a cable control by which its movements could be directed. A solidity which was controlled by that ingenious mechanical toy could dig canals, or gather the crop from the tops of skit-trees—when enlarged in the projection to stand a hundred feet high at the shoulder—or it could tear apart a spaceship as a terrier rends a rat . . . .

There was more. Much more. But there was only the one small inhabitant, who wore a space-suit on his own planet. And he was dead.

Haynes called from the flier at the cave-mouth:

"Wentworth! What's happened? Are you alive? What's up?"

Wentworth went savagely out. He wanted to see how the Galloping Cow had withstood the attack. What he had seen last looked bad.

It was bad. The Galloping Cow was a carcass. Her engines were not too badly smashed, but her outer shell was scrap-iron, her frame was twisted wreckage, and there was no faintest hope that they could repair her in the field.

"And—I'm engaged to be married when we get back," said Haynes, white-faced. "We'll never get back in that."

* * *

Less than a month later, though, the Galloping Cow did head for home. Haynes, unwittingly, had made it possible. Examination of the solidity-projector revealed its principles, and Haynes—trying forlornly to make a joke—suggested that he model a statuette of the last inhabitant to be projected a mile or two high above the skit-tree plantations now forever useless. But he was commissioned to model something else entirely, and in his exuberance his fancy wandered afar. But McRae dourly permitted the model to stand, because he was in a hurry to start.

So that, some six weeks from the morning when Wentworth saw an impossible Thing moving in the gray dawn-light on an unnamed planet, the Galloping Cow was almost back in touch with humanity. Two weeks more, and the outposts of civilization on Rigel would be reached. A long, skeleton tower had been built out from the old ship's battered remnant. A scanner scanned, and a beam-type projector projected the image of Haynes' making to form a solid envelope of force-field about the ship. It was much larger than the original hull had been, there would be room and to spare on the voyage home. And Haynes was utterly happy.

"Think!" he said blissfully, in the scanning-room where the force-field envelope was maintained about the ship. "Two weeks and Rigel! Two months and home! Two months and one day and I'm a married man!"

Wentworth looked at the small moving object on which the scanners focused.

"You're a queer egg, Haynes," he said. "I don't believe you ever had a solemn thought in your head. Do you know what wiped out those people?"

"A boojum?" asked Haynes mildly. "Tell me."

"The biologists figured it out," said Haynes. "A plague. The last poor devil wore a space-suit to keep the germs out. It seems that some wrecked Earth ship drifted out to where one of their explorers found it. And they hauled it to ground. They learned a lot, but there were germs on board they weren't used to. Coryza, for instance. In their bodies it had an incubation period of about six months, and was highly contagious all the time. Then it turned lethal. They didn't know about it in time to establish quarantines. No wonder the poor devil wanted to kill us. We'd wiped out his race!"

"Too bad!" said Haynes. But he looked down at the small moving thing he had modeled for a new hull for the Galloping Cow. "You know," he said blithely, "I like this model. I may not be the best sculptor in the world—as an amateur I wouldn't expect it. But for a while after we land on earth I'm surely going to be the most famous!"

And he beamed at the jerkily moving object which was the model for the hull of the Galloping Cow. It was twelve hundred feet long, as it was projected about the old ship's engine-room and remaining portions. It had a stiffly extended tail and an outstretched neck and curved horns. Its legs extended and kicked, and extended and kicked.

The Galloping Cow, in fact, exactly fitted her name by her outward appearance, as she galloped steadily earthward through emptiness.



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