Beneath the Red World's Crust can be found in




ISFDB.org Magazine Entry



Planet Stories, June-Aug. 1947

PS's feature flash

ERIK FENNEL first hit us with the highly original Atavism, in the Spring Issue, bat he's given us farther honeys—each as Beneath the Red World's Crust, in this issue—and you'd better keep an eye on him.

During a childhood spent running barefoot around Hawaii I developed prehensile toes, and ever since have had to listen to cracks about Darwin's theory being reversible. My wife, Eve, and our dachshund, Lilith, hold long and earnest conversations about my shortcomings. The dog insists I must have been an anti-social problem child.

I wasn't. But, oh, I was an inventive little devil 1 Once 1 built a gadget intended to scare birds out of the garden, a propeller that swung little metal weights against a large Chinese gong. It was dead calm the afternoon I finished it, so disgustedly I set it under my father's bedroom window and forgot it The trade winds started at 2:47 a.m. Ouch!

My kid sister kept invading my room so I wired a Model "T" spark coil to the doorknob. Mother touched it first. Ouch again! Then there was a cute little deal involving molten lead and cold water. Double-ouch 1 The explosion was just short of atomic and I still carry the scars. Somehow I. survived to tramp around half a dozen universities, studying co-eds, engineering, co-eds, journalism, and co-eds, and to fly a termite-riddled Heath Parasol that needed no running lights because the No. 4 cylinder glowed red hot all the time.

I worked here and there as a truckdriver, newspaper reporter, bootlegger's assistant, cameraman, payroll gun-guard, teletype operator, gas pumper, machinist, and did my share of riding the rods.

Got into structural steel work and loved it, as 1 seem to have been born without a normal fear of heights. It promised r short life expectancy, but good money and indescribable thrills. I followed the red iron from hell to breakfast, six hundred feet above ground and four hundred feet below, and would be at it yet except that one day there was a very nasty mess. When I got out of the hospital I had a retread job in my skull and no stereoptic vision. End of chapter. 4-F. Readjustment.

I've had the writing bug ever since I can remember—that's why my wife accuses me of arrested development—and I started reading science-fiction in the old Science and Invention days.

We've spent the last four years in a house trailer. Eve is developing a frustration complex because she can't rearrange the built-in furniture without using an axe, and I'm still trying to devise a portable basement for my workshop. Perhaps, if I can acquire a couple of used oil wells and cut them into short lengths—

At present I am engaged in some deep auto-hypnotic research into the permutations of the Theory of the Perversity of Inanimate Objects, but if a few more editors will be as astute as Mr. Payne and recognize the sterling merit of my deathless prose I may be able to become a credit to some community or other.

Nichevo.

----Erie Fennel.

BENEATH THE RED WORLD'S CRUST

By Erik Fennel

The ancient leviathan heaved mightily in the vast buried cavern, pumping water upward as it had been told. Only hunted Nick Tinker knew that more than just water was coming to the dust-dry surface!

THE HOT, HIGH WHINE scorched past his face and the slug splatted into the eroded grey wall beside him. He should have died then, but his instinctive recoil at feeling something sticky and moist beneath his feet saved him.

Nick Tinker let himself crumple and fall, a trick which during the War days back on Earth had fooled more than one sniper. His left hand slid under his padded jacket toward his gun, but the movement looked as though he were clutching his chest. His right arm landed outstretched, and he let that hand clutch convulsively at the air. Then he lay very still beneath the unwinking Martian stars while the thin, chilling night wind whispered through the deserted, sand-drifted streets.

The Gravinol was gradually leaving his brain, leaving him feeling fully alive for the first time since he had entered the Special Corps back on Earth at the age of seventeen. He wasn't sure he liked being so completely alive, for it was all he could do to keep his body from cringing under the expectation of another, better-aimed bullet. The stoic fatalism was gone.

He lay motionless, but his trained senses were busily sorting the eerie impressions of this undead Martian city, picking out a sensation of—someone watching. The feeling localized itself on an oval opening in the hulking black building across the wide street. His gun hand moved imperceptibly and his jacket tore and smoldered as he fired. The recoil slide of the heavy automatic thumped a bruise against his ribs, and even as the explosive bullet flared against the window's edge he was on his feet, zigzagging across the street in a stooping rush to flatten himself against the wall.

He watched the greenish light of a glow-plate seeping from the window, hoping for a glimpse of the sniper's silhouette. The window had been dark before, but his bullet had evidently damaged the screen-creature that covered the window. He knew the screen-creatures well, the living, amorphous and deadly remnants of a Martian civilization that still guarded almost every opening in this abandoned city, rendering it so hazardous for unwary Earthmen.

His groping hands found the narrow entrance to the building and he ducked in. Someone had been there before him, and recently, for the door-creature inside the alcove hung in tattered shreds. One of its torn, limp folds touched his hand as he passed, and with a sudden resurgence of alien life it contracted around his wrist. It tried to unleash its deadly shock, but it was weak and Nick felt "only a faint tingle.

He jerked free and went up the inside ramp at a fast but quiet run, his finger ready on the trigger as he neared the top.

Then Nick stopped dead as he saw his target. The girl looked hardly more than a child. Her tattered blouse was pulled aside and she was mopping blindly at a bleeding gash low on one shoulder. The back of her other hand scrubbed at her closed eyes. Her face, framed in uncombed coppery hair, was peppered with grey freckles of rock dust thrown by Nick's explosive bullet.

His boots gritting in the dust, warned her, for she whirled, opening red-rimmed, watering eyes and snatching up a heavy rifle.

It would have been an easy shot, but Nick did not fire.

HER RIFLE spat once into its silencer as he dived across the room and they went to the floor together. For a minute he was fully occupied in avoiding her teeth and fingernails and shrewdly placed kicks as she fought with the desperation of terror, but at last he got a grip on her hair and clipped her once on the point of the chin.

He spat out a mouthful of acrid dust and tore the remains of her blouse into strips. There was haste and no gentleness in the way he tied her hands and feet. The exertion left him panting in the thin Martian air, so he took a breath of oxygen from his pocket sniffer bottle. Then, wanting to talk to the girl at once, he held the nose-piece to her face.

He knew when she recovered consciousness, for her head twisted suddenly and her teeth sank into his hand. He slapped her face hard, and she lay staring up at him with hatred and terror.

"You're Susan Jones," he declared.

"Murderer!" she spat, her face twisted with loathing.

He followed her glance to his uniform and laughed mirthlessly. "I'm outlawed," he snorted. "The Mec is after me just as hot as they're after you. I disobeyed orders."

She looked at him unbelievingly, suspecting some sort of trap. She knew from experience the ruthless resourcefulness of the Martian Exploitation Company.

"You couldn't disobey," she said incredulously. "You couldn't."

"Like hell," he snapped. "I've had no Gravinol for six weeks. Now, where's your father?"

His temper flared as her lips set in a stubborn line. He had no time to lose.

"I'll make you talk, damn you!"

The rush of treads and whine of brakes from the street interrupted him, sending him to the window with gun ready. The screen-creature, still alive with the almost unkillable vitality of those alien things, had dragged itself together to cover the opening again. Nick was careful not to touch it. He peered out, knowing that to the men climbing from the armored half-track the window would appear dark. The screen-creatures passed light in one direction only. As quietly as possible he closed the sliding panel at the top of the ramp and pushed in the locking plug.

"Remember, get the old man alive. Stun him if necessary, but alive. That's orders from The Man himself." Nick recognized Colonel Hammer's voice. The search must be tightening if the commandant himself took charge of a patrol. They were after Professor Jones and his daughter, but Nick knew that he too would be shot on sight. This time he was with the hunted instead of the hunters.

The girl's face went white as he drew his sheath knife. Then she stared uncomprehendingly as the blade slit her bonds instead of her throat.

"Over the roofs," he whispered. "Which way out?"

She pointed, still uncertain of his intentions.

A big man in a uniform like Nick's own lay sprawled on the floor of the adjoining room, a black circle between his eyes. Nick spared him just one glance. And then he understood the sticky-moist splotch he had encountered in the street. The man with the straggly beard had caused it, bleeding his life away through the gaping rent in his chest.

The girl ignored Nick's ready pistol and ran to the low couch on which the old man reclined. "Dad!" she called softly, shaking his shoulder. "Dad!"

Nick pulled her away and shook his head. Jackson Jones, the first man to reach Mars, was dead.

"Shoot that panel down!" someone yelled from the ramp. "He's in there!"

"Wanna get took by the back-blast?" another voice complained. "Stand back."

"Which way?" Nick asked quietly.

The girl darted to a window and Nick caught his breath as she reached toward the guarding screen-creature. Then he stared for, instead of killing her with its strange powers, the rubbery, no-color, living stuff flowed back into grooves in the edge of the stone. Susan gave one last backward glance at her father's body and scrambled through.

Nick followed nervously and sprawled beside her on a narrow roof ledge. She touched the screen-creature again and it closed with a silent, oily motion.

"It felt my thoughts," she whispered. He dragged her to her feet and they, ran through the dim starlight, climbing across the uneven roofs, leaping the chasms between buildings in the darkness. Excited yells as the patrol broke through the panel and found the two bodies speeded them onward. The girl held her own, keeping the fast pace Nick set, although a few times he had to help her swing her slender body from a lower roof to a higher one.

"Down!" he barked suddenly. A jet of orange light flung itself upward and outward behind them as someone turned a flame gun on the window through which they had escaped.

"There she is!"

An automatic roared a long burst. From a roof in the opposite direction from where they crouched behind a projecting cornice a cajora screamed as it tumbled, astonishingly like a woman in agony.

"You got her, Fred!" someone yelled triumphantly. "Nice shooting!"

Susan shovered, not entirely from the cold.

"What now?" she asked.

"Hide."

THE PAUSE had given Nick time to get his bearings. Searchlights from a dozen cars were lancing through the city, and he knew they had to get under cover before flares flooded the roofs with brilliance. He found the hole in which he had hidden during the day, a spot of deeper blackness beneath an overhanging ledge, and motioned Susan inside.

Instead of following immediately he belly-crawled to the edge of the flat roof. Two armored cars were approaching, still hidden from each other by the curving street, but he could see them both.

Anger at his pursuers burned fiercely inside him, anger and the deep-seated prejudice against purely defensive action that was a legacy from the Special Corps days on Earth.

Smiling grimly, he unslung the rifle he had taken from the girl and sent a single bullet ricocheting harmlessly off the turret of each car.

Then he followed Susan. Even through the massive stone walls of the building they could hear the whistling roar of two proton cannon—firing at each other. Colonel Hammer would be displeased with the survivors, Nick reflected with grim amusement.

They paused just inside the black hole to let their labored breathing return to normal. It seemed to go right through the building, between inner and outer shells.

"We'd better climb down and hope it goes deep enough," he said at last. The Martian Exploitation Company had a little gadget, outgrowth of the last War on Earth, which could detect the presence of living creatures through a hundred feet of solid rock.

"This passage will join the tunnels," the girl said with quiet confidence. "We can dodge their detectors."

"What tunnels? You been here?" he asked sharply, trying to see her face in the blackness.

"No, but a vora made this."

Nick didn't understand, but there was no time for hesitation. They climbed down, into an underworld of blackness and silence. He went first, searching out niches in the almost vertical shaft with his toes, lowering his body, reaching overhead to guide Susan's feet. Once one of them dislodged a sliver of rock that bounced and clicked into the depths for what seemed like minutes. His mind was seething with questions but the treacherous shaft required his full attention.

Only the light gravity of Mars made the climb possible, and even then his muscles were stiff and aching when at last his feet touched a solid floor and they sprawled in what the echoes of their heavy breathing told them was a roughly horizontal tunnel. He estimated they had come at least a mile straight downward, perhaps more.

For a long time they lay without moving in the powder-fine sand that had penetrated even here.

"We've got to steal a ship," he voiced the thought uppermost in his mind. Already he had accepted this girl as a partner in his venture, for she too wa...

This is only a preview of this story. The site administrator is evaluating methods to bring it to you.