Help via Ko-Fi

REN should have expected it. He should not have been surprised when Challon, the Executive Chief, took over command of the exploration party. After all, there was a great deal of glory connected with this first planet-landing in over a century.

The Executive Chief stood at the gunwales of the gravity boat, just behind Ren and the controls. His voice was metallic. Each overtone in it reminded Ren of the ping of metal cracking with cold. Even Challon's pale blond hair and unblemished skin seemed metallic, although his movements were lithe enough. He was in superb physical shape—all aboard the spaceship Alpha were, for that matter.

Ren worked the controls automatically. He was steeped in a curious thing today—an emotion—a prescient feeling without any logic or two-and-two in it, and he had been feeling this in his marrow ever since descending to the surface of this new and unknown planet.

And, now, for some reason—part of this queer emotion probably-he turned to glance at Jana, who sat along the gunwales with the other scientists and with the men of the Protec Guard. She saw him, and smiled at him. He smiled back, and felt a little better.

Challon's metallic voice cut in. "All right, mister, let's pay attention to the controls."

Ren obeyed, but he felt a surge of something—it seemed to start just below his lungs and come up through the shell of his body. Another new emotion. He kept his stare on the control panel and threw his squarish brows into a deep scowl. This was anger, he felt. Anger was a primitive trait, and forbidden—but it seemed to come so easily on this world.

The gravity car passed over a density fault and bumped. Ren corrected; he kept the long, boatlike vehicle skimming, following the contour of Ismarus.

Ismarus. They'd named it after Ulysses' first port of call—and they'd been lucky, all right, to find it. Te scanners had picked it out of space after analyzing only a few thousand others. It met all the requirements: it was of the same mass as Earth, it had an atmosphere, Earth's temperature, one satellite and a similar rotation and orbit period. It was a jack-pot find, no question of it. Now the Alpha had landed upon this planet, and they had taken the gravity boat to explore in a wide radius from the big spaceship. There would be long days and nights of waiting while the Alpha was remassed—they would get to know Ismarus better. Maybe too well before it was all over.

Ren glanced occasionally at the landscape all about them. He had difficulty in seeing it as a pure sight—his mind kept wandering into reason and analysis. The people of the Alpha, after all, were conditioned to analyze and reason from birth; in this they were probably superior even to the revered Ancestors who had launched the Alpha. Ren concentrated so that he wouldn't have to think so hard.

A queer place, Ismarus. In some ways similar to the minifilm reader pictures of Earth that every Alphan child studied—but in other ways subtly different. Very little vegetation for one thing. Mostly rolling stretches of hard-packed red and ochre sand, lacerated here and there with rock. Sharp rock, grey rock. The rocks became more frequent as they neared the mountain chain. Tortured, cactuslike plants began to appear.

"Spectro, please, Captain," pinged Challon's voice. He was still behind Ren's shoulder.

Ren ticked the scanner. The screen glowed with white light, then flashed and jiggled 'before it came to life. Bands of color appeared and floated until Ren stilled them by dialing. Challon leaned forward and studied the image.

Ren looked at Challon's profile. Strong, handsome, confident face—as befitted an Executive Chief. Immense I. Q., superb physique and very low Emotional Index. Naturally. No other kind of man could hold the community together as the Alpha took its warping path through the universe. Science was the Supreme Being and Challon was Its prophet. These days you could hardly whisper "E equals mc square" without a slight feeling of having committed blasphemy.

Challon was reading the spectro off the cuff. "Soil relatively fertile on the slopes ahead. Some vegetation. Might be inhabitants there."

JANA rose and came forward. Ren smiled to himself; he knew she couldn't sit still when she heard the word inhabitants. Vitology, the study of life on other planets, was her specialty, and in fact that was why she had been brought along on this first exploration trip. She came to Challon's side, looked at the screen, too, and said, "What about water? Are there deposits, or is it underground? That makes a difference in the form life takes sometimes."

"Deposits, I dare say," said Challon. He looked at Jana flatly. "After all, the atmosphere contains moisture."

Ren glanced at Challon quickly. There had been irritation in his answer—but Challon, of all people, was supposed to be the supreme intellect who never became irritated, who had practically no inconvenient emotions. Was there something in the air of this planet which was giving even Challon primitive tendencies?

And Jana—Ren saw sudden color in her cheeks. He saw a faint tightening of her upper lip and a quick movement of her grey eyes as she returned Challon's flat stare. Well, one thing, she was even more beautiful with her irritation showing like this. Gave life to her face. At times her ordinarily calm, cool mask had made him uncomfortable—reminded him that after all she was a privileged scientist and he was only a Captain of the Protecs.

He looked at the instrument panel again—at first in a routine, unsuspecting way. Then abruptly his instinct told him that the instruments weren't behaving correctly.

He raised his brows. He swept his gaze horizontally, studying everything. The speedometer was wavering, although the car certainly moved along at a steady pace. The mass indicator had dropped. And the spectre showed bright flashes.

Ren stared at the landscape again. He wasn't sure, but there did seem to be a faint concavity to the land here—as though there had once been a crater perhaps a mile in diameter. He raised himself in the seat to stare some more—And the gravity boat stopped with a sudden and quite unusual jolt.

"Here! What's this?" said Challon, whirling toward Ren. The car's passengers stirred and began to mutter to each other.

"Don't know," said Ren. He examined the control panel again. "Can't figure it out." He took the flat mini-film reader from his tunic pocket and opened it quickly. He pressed the button and watched the moving images flash by on the lens. The film in the reader was a tech manual for the operation of the vehicle, but, as he had supposed, it told him nothing. The standard atom symbol flashed at the end of the film, and he was still nowhere.

Lokar, the big, tawny-haired Protec sergeant hauled his bulk forward and touched Ren's arm. "Sir, maybe we'd better get the hell out of here. I don't like this spot. I don't like the feeling in my bones."

"We'll decide that in a minute, Sergeant," Ren said in a formal tone. The formality was for the benefit of Challon's ears, Meanwhile, Ren flicked a significant glance at Challon and Lokar understood. The sergeant went back to this seat.

Suddenly Jana's voice cried out sharply, "I saw something!"

"What? What's that?" Challon turned toward her.

She was standing, pointing. She was pointing at the face of a large jagged rock ahead—an outcropping the size of a cottage. "Something over there—an animal—or a person. I'm sure of it!"

Ren stared in that direction. He didn't see anything, just the grey rock and the yellow-red sand rising toward it. It struck him then that in this circular area there was no vegetation, not even the twisted bushes or the cactuslike plants."

"It couldn't, by any chance," Challon said frigidly to Jana, "have been a slight hallucination?"

She shook her head quickly. "It was an animal. Or a person."

REN frowned to himself. An animal or a person. He felt a queer, pulsing thrill. In his lifetime he had never known a living thing outside of the people aboard the spaceship, Alpha. Nor had the others of his generation. The need for a re-massing stop came about once a century, and it had been over a hundred centuries since the Alpha left the legendary place they all knew as Earth.

The Alpha's saga was, of course, one of the first things children learned when they became old enough to sit in the hypno bays or operate their own minifilm readers. And always the importance of their destiny as Alphans was hammered into them. Their entire culture was built around the idea that eventually there would be a Day of Arrival—the Alpha would return to Earth.

Later, when they began to study relativity, they could understand how it was that the Day of Arrival would come not centuries after the departure—but within a few score years. Earth years, at any rate. Aboard the Alpha generations would experience the passage of centuries, or seem to. But since the Alpha was traversing the entire curve of space it would reach its starting point both in space and time. The only period of time difference would be a few score years required for acceleration and deceleration. Thus—it was the hope of those who launched the Alpha that it would return in their own lifetimes and enable them to meet their own many-times-great-grandchildren.

But the calculations were very involved. The best thinkers among the Ancestors differed in their predictions of the Arrival date. Some by many years, some by several or even a dozen centuries.

At any rate, Ren's world had always been the corridors, cubicles and recreation spaces of the mile-long spaceship. The only other living things he had ever known were those aboard it. He knew that it was emotional—primitive—for him to be excited like this, but he didn't care. Strange, ever since setting foot on Ismarus he hadn't been particularly ashamed of any of his emotions.

"Force screen, Captain!" came Challon's pinging voice, snapping him out of it.

Ren punched the button that would throw protective force around the gravity boat. He expected the red indicator to glow, but it didn't. And Challon was losing some of his cold metal calm. "Don't tell me that doesn't work, either!" he said. Definite anger in his voice.

Ren looked up and said, "Have you noticed we're in some sort of an old crater here? Do you suppose that has anything to do with it?"

"Suppose," said Challon, "we examine the facts first, and then draw our conclusions." He said it quite icily.

Ren shrugged. He had an enjoyable, momentary dream. He pictured himself punching Challon's handsome face, and savored the idea. Then he looked up again, toward the rock and the small rise that skirted away from it. He saw at least thirty human figures come over the crest of the rise and stand silhouetted against the yellow sky.

"Prepare to repel attack, Captain!" snapped Challon.

The others stirred, buzzed, pointed, drew sharp breaths.

"Battle stations!" Ren called over his shoulder.

He heard the Protec guardsmen shuffle about and take their places. Jana moved to the bow of the gravity boat, and pointed to the photoscope. "Let's have a close look at them."

Ren nodded, switched the gadget on. He was pleasantly surprised to find that it worked—it was one of the few purely electronic devices in the boat. He began to adjust focus, elevation and azimuth. An image of one of the human figures appeared, became sharp.

"Definitely humanoid," said Jana softly. She was squinting at the image; she was in deepest concentration. Ren saw her again-despite her good looks and youthful features—as the scientist; the gal with the head full of serious thoughts, and no nonsense about it.

The Ismarian in the photoscope screen was naked except for the grey-furred skin of some animal wrapped clumsily about his waist. His skin was white in the Caucasian sense, but deeply tanned by sun and weather. He had matted brown hair across his chest and shoulders, and a thick, unkempt beard. His mouth was partly open, as he stared at the gravity boat, and Ren saw that his teeth were yellow, broken, and mottled, although not especially large. He carried a metal-tipped spear in one hand, and a club of stone lashed to a wooden haft hung from a thong at his waist.

"It's—it's incredible," Jana said, staring at the image.

"What's incredible?" asked Challon. He was moving about a bit nervously, as though undecided about the next thing to do.

Jana nodded at the screen. "They're not only humanoid, but their culture is that of primitive Earthmen. The law of averages would certainly indicate some differences—"

Challon spoke a little wearily. "Jana, our science has achieved its present state by one very basic attitude—taking nothing for granted. How do we know the law of averages is valid in this particular place? And further, to the scientific viewpoint, nothing is incredible. You know that." Jana tossed a quick, sharp look at the Executive Chief, but didn't answer. Ren knew how she felt-there was just no point to answering a man like that. The fatuous dummy. For all his I. Q.: the famous dummy.

THE RANK of Ismarians came to a ragged halt. They were perhaps seventy-five yards away now. They began to gesture and parley among themselves; Ren could hear the sound of their voices, but could make out no words.

"We'd better blast one just to let them know what we can do," said Challon.

Ren started to nod, and then brought his head up. He gaped at Challon. The man had given his order so casually that its meaning hadn't struck Ren immediately. Ren said, "Look, they haven't tried to harm us yet, what's the use of blasting them?" Challon's eyes were very hard as he turned them upon Ren. "Captain, I didn't say to blast them, I said to blast one. Perhaps it's unfortunate we have to do that, but it's the wisest move at present. One subhuman life isn't going to make much difference in the outcome of this thing."

"But, even so, if—"

"I'm in command here, Captain."

Ren shut his mouth hard. He didn't say anything.

Challon kept the hard stare upon him. "You'll order one of your men to blast the nearest Ismarian, now, Captain."

Ren said, "I'll be damned if I will."

Challon's finely drawn eyebrows rose. "Oh?" He put his thumbs into the golden belt that marked his rank. His tone didn't become angry. His face stayed calm, metallic. "All right, Captain. We'll see about this later." He turned his head. "Sergeant!"

Lokar humbled forward, "Yes, sir?"

"Drop that man—the nearest one by the rock therewith your reactor."

Lokar glanced at Ren, frowned heavily, then finally said, "Yes, sir." He raised his reactor, which was pistol-shaped except for the slender, crutchlike shoulder support. He aimed, and he touched the trigger button.

Nothing happened.

"You should take better care of your weapons," said C-hallon.

Sergeant Lokar had already removed the rear plunger and was staring into the anode-barrel. But—but there's nothing wrong with it!" he said. "It just don't work, that's all!"

"Nonsense," said Challon. He took the weapon.

"Maybe it's not nonsense," Ren said softly. "The reactor's nuclear, too. Nothing else nuclear works on the boat—only the purely electronic stuff."

The sergeant glanced toward the Ismarians. They were closing their ranks, now, and some were advancing cautiously. One with a bow and arrow was dropping to his knee, and fitting a shaft to the string. "Captain," he said to Ren, "maybe we better get the blazes out of here."

Ren looked at Challon. "How about it?"

"We do seem to be temporarily defenseless," said Challon, scowling. He started to look about—with just a touch of helplessness in his manner.

Ren pointed sternward. "We can go a hundred yards or so and be out of this area—whatever it is. The reactors will probably work, then. If they attack. They might want to be friendly you know."

As Ren spoke, a volley of arrows came.

Instinctively everyone ducked be hind the metal gunwales of the gravity boat. Some oi the arrows rustled nastily overhead; others struck the sides of the vehicle with a soft clatter.

"All right, we'll run for it," said Challon. "You take over for the withdrawal, Captain."

REN turned a faint smile upon Challon, and let him see the contempt in it, and then he called out his orders. "Scientists first," he said coolly. "Guardsmen then deploy in skirmish order in two ranks by squads. Ten yards between ranks. Advance in relays, thirty yards at a time. Zigzag. If they pursue, fire as soon as your weapons operate—rear rank always firing. Everybody got that?"

"The Guardsmen nodded or indicated understanding by silence, and moved to their places. Sergeant Lokar hustled the group of civilians to the stern thwart, and muttered instructions to them, telling them to run crouched, and keep a zigzag course.

The scientists—five men in civilian permo-cloth, and Jana in her silver halter and skirt—scrambled to the ground. They ran. The first rank of Guardsmen leaped after them, and fanned out into a broken line. The second rank followed, and Ren and Challon went with it.

Shouting came from the attackers. Arrows snapped and fluttered all around them. Ren turned his head for a quick look. The skin-clad, muscular, hairy Ismarians were charging after them, running with a kind of powerful waddle. Some were brandishing their clubs and spears. Others were dropping every few seconds to their knees to discharge arrows again.

The first rank halted, faced the rear, and crouched—the second rank kept its broken course and ran through it. Another thirty yards. Ahead of the two ranks Jana and the other scientists continued to run. When the second rank came to its halt, Ren turned with the rest and saw that the Ismarians were gaining upon them. This was to be expected, since their retreat consisted of both running and halting—Ren could only hope they'd make the edge of the shallow crater in time. And after that he could only hope the reactors would begin to work again.

The fugitives took one more relay. Ren was in the foremost rank again. Looking back, he saw that the Ismarians had already reached the stalled gravity boat—and that they were giving it a wide berth. They passed it warily; that slowed them some. Well, a break there. Ren swiveled his head to look forward again and saw the beginnings of tough, wiry grass and cactus ahead. The edge of the crater, or whatever it was. Jana, and the five scientists had already reached that area, and now they had paused to wait for the guard. The second rank came running by; one Guardsman had an arrow in his upper arm and was being helped by a comrade. Another lay toward the gravity boat, lay very still, and an arrow grew from the middle of his back.

Ren rose to run again. He turned. He looked toward the edge of the crater, and at that moment a dozen Ismarians suddenly appeared from behind a fencelike outcropping ahead of them and ran toward Jana and the five scientists.

"Get them! Don't let them!" shouted Ren. His hand raised he ran forward.

He forgot to zigzag. Maybe that was it. He felt an abrupt and terrible blow in his shoulder, and it spun him. He fell to one hand and knee. He stared stupidly at his shoulder and saw the arrow in it—the arrow that had gone all the way through. He put his hand on the protruding forepart of the shaft. He saw that there was lots of blood.

Most of all he wondered why it didn't hurt. It just felt numb. It had been painful when it struck, but now it felt only numb; he shook his head and felt a little lightheaded and crazy about the whole thing.

He started forward again. He saw the dozen Ismarians who had made the flanking movement descending on Jana and the others like a flash flood. A guardsman reached one of them, ducked a blow from his club and swiped him viciously across the cheek with the stock of his reactor.

Ren heard footsteps and grunting behind him. And several shouts. He spun his head to face it—feeling terribly dizzy as he did so.

He saw the blurred shadow of a club and in the instant before he found blackness he realized that it was about to strike his skull. After that, the blackness. The deepest, blackest, nothingness he had ever known.

IT WAS night when Ren awoke. He didn't realize this at first, of course, because he awoke very slowly, his hearing returning first, and the sound of the wind over the parched plain coming to his ears. Next he opened his eyes and when they focused he saw the stars in front of them. For a moment he thought he was back in space; at the port, or in the control bubble of the Alpha, perhaps.

But he wasn't; he was lying on his back in what seemed to be the same spot where he had fallen.

Except for the purr of that breeze it was very quiet.

He rose to one elbow. That made him dizzy. He shook his head, and felt like retching, and he decided he would as soon as he got in a position to. He looked at his shoulder. There was no more arrow in it, and the blood around his wound had caked. He wasn't bleeding any more.

Weak, he fell back again and thought some more.

He turned his head and saw a broken, stained arrow beside him. It was broken just behind the head. In the packed sand by it, which glistened very coldly in the light of Ismarus's moon, he saw a footprint and a larger depression, as though someone had knelt beside him. Now he could suppose what had happened. An Ismarian—the one who had struck him perhaps—had removed the arrow and then left suddenly. Probably called when the others of the Alpha were subdued and captured. And after that they'd evidently forgotten about Ren, supposed him dead.

His head began to ache now and he groaned.

Well, no use wondering bow he'd been left here—thing to do now was to move. Recover. Find out about the others. He lay there for many long minutes, breathing slowly and deeply, and then, finally, somehow he managed to move again. He managed to stagger, squirm and crawl back to the gravity boat. It took him most of the night. It was nearly dawn when he opened the seat lockers to find the medicines and concentrated food.

The moon went down. He sat there in the darkness and munched on energy biscuit and stared out at the landscape. The darkness wasn't absolute—he could still see enough shapes every once in a while to be startled. More than anything else he kept thinking that Jana was somewhere out there, and as soon as he could move a little better he was going after her. He was in love with Jana, in the illogical primitive way the romances in the minifilm reader depicted; now be knew this, too.

He ate slowly and thoughtfully. He stared at the barely discernible shape of the large rock from behind which the Ismarians had first come.

For some reason this feeling of intuition in him was stronger than ever. The quietness, or his own weakness, perhaps. At any rate he began to think about Ismarus and about everything that had happened. He recalled the queer surge of emotion he'd known when the Alpha first landed and he oversaw the breaking out of the gravity boat. He recalled the strong, primitive things he'd felt—and the way even Challon had slipped into anger and sarcasm. He recalled that first look at an Ismarian in the photoscope. He recalled the moon rising and setting over the planet.

And the crater here. Nuclear devices wouldn't work in it. Others would. His minifilm reader, for instance; that was purely electronic. He took it from his pocket again, glanced into it and saw once more the standard atom symbol which marked the end of the tech manual. Just to make doubly sure he tried projecting the image on the instrument panel—and that worked, too.

His frown became a weighted thing. He held it for a long time. He scarcely dared believe what a kind of instinct was telling him about Ismarus.

He heard movement and the sound of low voices by the big rock. He lifted his head quickly. It was too dark to see who made these noises. He dropped to one knee, and then moved carefully forward to the instrument panel. The photoscope was still focused upon the vicinity of the rook. He switched it on. He worked the lens angle to take in a wider amount of area.

When the image came into being he saw Ismarians—a score of them perhaps. They were talking in low. tones to each other and every once in a while pointing or staring in the direction of the gravity boat. And behind them he saw their captives, bound neck to neck by a series of crude, heavy ropes.

THERE was in Ren for a moment an urge to get out of this place. To slip over the side of the gravity boat and run in the opposite direction. Then he could circle, or wait—or do something, anyway, to rescue his friends later. But he recognized this urge for what it was: plain panic.

And then his idea came to him, abrupt and full-blown, out of the darkness of the night.

This would work only if his guesses were right. And, of course, if it didn't work, then he'd be quickly and easily taken by the Ismarians, too. He didn't waste time thinking about it too much. He moved to the starboard rail, crouched there facing the rock, and took the minifilm reader from his pocket.

He opened the flat, little case and held it toward the rock. He thumbed the projection switch.

A huge atom symbol glowed from the face of the rock. It was the same design of nucleus, electrons and their orbits which had become in effect the coat of arms for the people of the Alpha. The thing that inspired an uncomfortable sort of reverence every time it appeared. The symbol that marked all their official seals and such things as tech manuals—

The bearded faces of the Ismarians were visible in the light reflected from the image on the rock. They were all turned toward it. Ren could see the ringed whites of eyes. One was trembling visibly and slowly backing away from the thing. Another was putting his forearm up in front of his eyes.

One exceptionally large fellow fell flat on his face before the symbol and covered the back of his head with his hands.

It was hard to say just who started the rout. Maybe several did simultaneously. But there was suddenly much shouting, and in the next instant the skin-clad men were scattering—running pell mell away from there in several directions.

Ren didn't smile. His face was drawn and grave as he clambered from the gravity boat and headed for the bound captives.

Challon's voice sounded less metallic than it usually did when he said to Ren, "Well, I don't know how you did it—but you did it. I guess you've got a permanent place in the Alphan annals, now, Captain."

But Ren scarcely heard him. Most of all he wanted to look into Jana's grey eyes. Deeply. He did this as he unfastened the crude ropes about her. Yellow dawn was breaking and he could see her face in its broad, clear light. He could see by her eyes that she loved him, too. He spoke, then, for everyone to hear, but he was really talking to Jana.

Ren said, "It wasn't coincidence at all that we found Ismarus. It was pretty much in our warp-curve, after all. Sometime, somewhere the Alpha was bound to get to it."

"What's this?" asked Challon, still able to be just a mite pompous, "what's this you're getting at, now?"

Ren moved his eyes over the group. "Have you noticed the way you feel on this planet? The funny instincts and emotions you get? The kind of things even our science can't quite figure out?" He saw by their frowns that they had. "Not only Ismarus, but its satellite, and the whole solar system—even its inhabitants—are like those of Earth. There are slight differences. In mass, and the shapes of the continents, for instance. These were the things that threw us off."

Challon had his finely formed head cocked to one side. "You mean—this is Earth? And there's been some kind of flaw in time? We came back in a prehistoric period, like the Chellean Age?"

"Not prehistoric," said Ren. "Post-historic. There's been a catastrophe—maybe to the very men who launched the Alpha. The crater that interferes with our nuclear devices by some kind of radiation is probably a souvenir of this. I think we'll find lots of them all over the planet. Whatever it was, it shook Earth violently enough to alter its mass and shape slightly. Change the course of the rivers and seas. It must have been very terrible. And no wonder the savage descendants of the survivors fear the atom symbol when they see it!"

They all stared at Ren. Some blinked, not quite getting it.

"Now we're home," Ren said to them. "Now we've got work to do. Now we've got to start all over again—and this time we've got to find something—some inner kind of something—to keep the catastrophe from happening again." He turned to Jana. He took her hands, and pulled her toward him. She smiled, searching his eyes and Ren began to see where the beginnings of this inner something might be.