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Planet Stories, Fall Issue, June-Aug. 1947

BLACK SILENCE

By EMMETT McDOWELL

Thundering back they came across cold space—eyes aching for remembered
vistas, nostrils flaring for sweet fresh air, feet itching to tread on precious
soil. They stepped down—into a wasted lifeless horror! Eying each other in
despair, they wondered. Must they—could they—colonize an alien world
they once called HOME?

EARTH!" SAID MATTHEW MAGOFFIN happily. "Good old Terra. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it?" Elbows on table, he sat listening to the specially-beamed broadcast from Earth. Half a dozen other members of the first expedition to Mars were also in the messroom of the Argus.

"What's first on your program when we land, Lynn?"

They had been out two and a half years, and it was a subject of which they never wearied.

Lynn said, "A bath—a real one. Not out of a tea cup." She was the expedition's photographer and reporter, a small blonde with a soft triangular face.

The music stopped in the middle of a bar. An announcer's voice broke in.

"We interrupt this program to bring you a news flash from the Union of South America."

Everyone stopped talking in the mess-room of the spaceship.

"The plague area in the Andean region is spreading out of control. Disease characterized by minute black spots that appear all over the body from head to foot. The spots are accompanied by a high fever and followed in two to three hours by death."

"Whew!" said Matt to the company at large. "What a disagreeable way to die! Wonder what causes it?"

As if in answer to his question, the announcer on Earth said, "To date, the germ has not been isolated. And all attempts to curb the spread of the disease have proved futile.

"The Pan-American League is meeting now in Lima to consider segregating the entire Andean area where the plague is raging..." There was an interruption. Everyone in the mess-room was tense, conscious of blurred background noises in the far away studio toward which they were flashing.

"Here's a special bulletin!" The announcer's voice sounded frightened and excited. "Marseilles, Liverpool, Hong Kong and San Francisco report..."

The speaker went dead.

Matt Magoffin found himself holding his breath, waiting for the news to come back on. But it never did.

After a minute's silence, he leaped to his feet. "Damn that operator! I'm going to see what's wrong."

He started for the starboard passage, a babble of voices breaking out behind him. Matt was a stocky, powerfully built man in his thirties, the expedition's palaeobotanist. He reached the starboard ladder, ran up to the control deck and shouldered into the radio shack without knocking.

"What's up?" he demanded of the operator, a thin freckled youth who was staring at the banks of equipment in perplexity. Sparks knit his brows.

"Nothing—that I can find."

"What!"

"There isn't a damn thing wrong at this end. The broadcast was interrupted. Power failure, maybe."

Matt Magoffin ran his hand through his short crisp black hair, alarm in his blue eyes.

"Have you tried to contact Earth?"

"No. Not yet."

The operator sat down at his instruments, threw in a switch and spoke into a microphone.

"Argus calling Earth. Argus calling Earth. Argus calling Earth. Come in Earth."

Silence!

MATT'S JAW shut with a click. The operator tried again and again, but without success. He was still trying when the director of the expedition burst into the radio shack, followed closely by the captain.

"What interrupted the broadcast, Sparks?" the director burst out.

The operator shrugged. "There's nothing wrong with our instruments. But I can't raise a peep from Earth."

The captain said, "Um. Keep trying."

"Yes, sir."

"And report at once as soon as you establish contact."

"Yes, sir."

The captain turned on his heel and left. Isaac Trigg, the director, prepared to follow when Matt said: "Just a minute, Isaac. I'm coming with you."

The director paused, allowing Matt Magoffin to come abreast of him. "What do you make of it, Matt?" he asked.

"I don't know." Matt shook his head. For two long years, between favorable oppositions with Earth, the expedition had been searching the airless, waterless wastes of Mars for any evidence of life. And had arrived at the disappointing conclusion that not only was Mars devoid of life, but that the ruddy planet never had supported life in any form.

But during the two years they had been in daily two-way communication with Earth. Not once had they lost contact. Now that they were almost returned...

The director suggested hopefully, "Perhaps they had a power breakdown."

"I don't think so." Matt shook his head. "But anyway we're only seven months out. We should be able to contact other radio stations. I don't understand it at all."

Their return to the mess-room was greeted by an excited volley of questions from the others. The director held up his hands in dismay.

"The trouble is on Earth," he explained when quiet was restored. "Our instruments are functioning quite all right. There probably has been a power stoppage of some sort. We should re-establish contact any minute."

But by the beginning of the rest period seven hours later, Earth was still silent.

No one slept that night. Matt Magoffin tried, but at length he gave up and switched on the lights in his cabin. He drew on comfortable gray coveralls, which made him look even stockier than he was, and departed for the mess-room.

Counting the crew, there were thirty-one members of the expedition—nine women and twenty-two men. Everyone of them, Matt realized, must be present. The tension was so apparent that he could feel a thrill of nervousness.

"No word, I suppose?" he asked, dropping into a vacant seat beside Lynn.

"No," the girl shook her head, setting her shoulder-length, yellow hair to swinging. There was generally a half-wicked, half-mischievous twinkle in her blue eyes, but it was lacking tonight. Little frown lines creased her low broad forehead. "You don't suppose the plague has anything to do with it, do you Matt?"

"Plague? How could the plague affect broadcasting?"

"I don't know." She shrugged helplessly. "Let's go up to the observation deck. This waiting is driving me off my beam."

"Sure."

Matt followed her into the passage. She was wearing coveralls like his own, but of a trimmer cut. She was unquestionably the prettiest of the nine women, he reflected. And hard as nails.

Two years on the treacherous Martian deserts had enabled Matt to arrive at a pretty accurate estimate of everyone by the way they reacted to danger, to the disappointment at failing to discover evidence of life, to their cramped quarters.

Their disappointment had been greater because Mars had been the last hope of discovering life in the Solar System besides that of Earth.

No fossil life had been reported on the moon. The Reeves' expedition to Venus two years ago had found that the Venusian clouds were composed of dust swirling about a desiccated and lifeless world. Mercury had not yet been reached, nor any of the outer planets, but there was little expectation that life could have lodged in such inhospitable environments.

No, in all the Solar System, Earth apparently was the only planet where septic conditions prevailed—and life could germinate...

THEY reached the observation deck in the bullet-shaped nose of the vessel. Here the hull was built up of many small plates of quartzite like the facets of a fly's eye. They had an unobstructed view of the ebony arch of the heavens with Sol flaming like a beacon a point to starboard.

"Where's Earth?" Lynn asked. "I never can find it."

He pointed it out, a bright greenish star on the port side of the ship. It was just assuming a disk-shape with its tiny moon barely visible beside it.

"It looks so far away," said the girl with a shiver. "I'm homesick, I guess. We've been gone almost three years."

Matt said. "It's a long time." He slipped his arm about her waist.

Lynn let her yellow head rest on his shoulder. "I'm tired of being tough. I'm scared. I want somebody to baby me and tell me everything's all right.

"You—you don't think anything's happened to Earth, do you Matt?"

"Nothing could happen to seven billion people that suddenly! We've got the jitters. We've been out too long." He kissed her almost roughly.

The girl clung to him half in terror. Matt could feel her taut young body pressed against him. Slowly the tension melted out of her muscles. Fool, he thought, why didn't I try this two years ago?"

Matt stiffened. Over the crown of Lynn's yellow hair he caught sight of a pale drawn face in the shadows of the ladder well across the deck.

It took him a second to recognize Nesbit, the palaeontologist, a young man only a few years out of college.

"What is it?" Lynn asked, turning her head. "Oh!"

Nesbit glared at the pair silently; then his face disappeared as he withdrew down the ladder.

"What the hell's eating him?" asked Matt.

Lynn bit her lip. "He must have followed us up. He..." She paused, looking embarrassed. "He asked me to marry him when we reach Earth."

"Good Lord," ejaculated Matt. He turned the girl loose. "I wouldn't..."

Lynn's arms went around him fiercely and shook him. "Silly. He's just a kid. I tried to let him down easy, but I certainly didn't promise to marry him."

A grin spread across Matt's face. His arms tightened. From the corner of his eye, he could see the unwinking green disk of Earth, silent, cold, and unbelievably far away.

DURING the next three months, they tore the radio down seven times and rebuilt it with infinite care. They tested every tube and circuit. They might as well have saved their time.

Not a single message reached them from Earth.

After three months they gave up trying at last and a queer sense of dread took possession of them as the earth slowly expanded.

Sparks was a wreck. He spent incredible stretches in the radio shack listening for a signal—any signal—from his dead instruments. The cook went berserk and stabbed one of the engineers. Dr. Gwathmey, the gentle, gray-haired psychologist, picked a fight with Pendergrast, the expedition's gentle, gray-haired anthropologist over the theory that life had resulted from spores drifting to Earth on light tides. The two old men had battled it out in the mess-room with their fists.

They were all, Matt realized, strained, nervous, edgy...

On the seventh of May the Argus began to drop cautiously down through a blanket of clouds that hid the surface of Earth. Everyone was at the ports, but they were descending on the night side of the planet, and the clouds were like soup.

Nothing was to be seen.

They were long since through the Heaviside layer, but 'still no broadcast had reached them. The ether was as silent as it must have been before the discovery of radio.

"Hell!" said Matt. "There's nothing to be seen out there." He took his nose away from the port beyond which the wet clouds were roiling in sheets of red, tinted by the flaming jets. "I'm going to wait in the mess-room."

He stamped off. He had grown thinner and his face was lined. His blue eyes were haggard. The Argus lurched and dropped a dozen feet, hurling him to his knees.

Matt cursed viciously and caught his balance to stagger into the mess room. Isaac Trigg, the director was there, and Pendergrast. They sat tense as violin strings, waiting.

"I couldn't stand it in the control room," Trigg explained to Matt. "They're guiding us down with radar. There's been no radio beam to lead us in. What the hell's wrong? You'd think Earth was a tomb!"

"Where are we?" Matt asked as he flung himself in a chair.

The director shook his head. "Some place in North America, the Ohio valley, I believe. But the clouds shut us off before the navigator could take accurate shots."

The loud speaker blared into sudden life, the first time since the Silence! The men jumped to their feet, thinking that at last contact had been established with Earth. Then they realized that it was the captain speaking over the intercommunicator.

Matt cursed again, then paused.

"Attention!" the loud speaker blared. "Attention, everyone. We are descending in very hilly country. The radar reveals an irregular surface beneath us. Please secure yourselves in your seats. Be sure to fasten the safety straps."

"Hilly country!" said Matt and buckled his safety strap. "But where?"

Most of the others straggled into their seats. There was no conversation. Their faces were strained and white.

"Four thousand feet!" came the captain's voice over the broadcaster. "Visibility zero. Check your safety belts."

Matt was conscious of a nervous rustle in the mess-room. He realized that he was biting his lip.

The Argus lurched, fell another hundred feet and brought up with a stuttering roar from her tubes. The business of landing a rocket ship without a beam was nasty and uncertain. Matt could feel his heart pumping almost in his mouth.

He looked about for Lynn and found her three seats off. She gave him a wan grin, but blanched as the Argus rolled sickeningly.

"Three thousand feet!" came the voice through the loud speaker. "Clouds and rain."

An eternity went by.

At a thousand feet the suspense made Matt ill. The jets were striking the surface now, bouncing back, dispelling the clouds directly beneath them.

"Wooded hills below," said the loud speaker. "Five hundred feet!"

Again the minutes crawled away. There was a faint jar, then a settling lurch. It was almost unexpected when it came. The jets fell silent.

Earth!

Matt found himself looking around at the strained faces. Hesitantly, he threw off his straps and stood up. Others followed suit. None of them, Matt realized, was anxious to be the first out.

It was a strange homecoming—certainly nothing like the one they had all planned before the silence!

"Well," said Matt, "someone's got to be first."

He made his way to the main port. Silent, and uneasy, they all trooped after him.

"What the hell!" said Matt with a sudden grin. He spat on his hands and began to unscrew the bolts.

There was a collective sigh from those behind as he kicked open the heavy port.

Only rain and blackness met his eyes.

II

HE INHALED DEEPLY, THE AIR was moist and sweet after the tainted stuff they'd been breathing for three years. He'd forgotten how sweet. It was almost intoxicating.

The ladder was lowered. Matt went over the side, riding it down. When it struck, he leaped off and scooped up a double-handful of the muddy earth.

There was a shout from above. Then everyone, staff and crew, came swarming down the ladder.

For a while they went a little mad, dancing and scooping up the blessed mud.

The director at last called a halt. "Hold on," he yelled above their laughing.

Matt was conscious suddenly of the cold rain. He was drenched to his hide, and he shivered. He glanced around, peering into the night.

As well as he could distinguish, they had come down in a valley. He could hear a stream purling on his left, and saw the dark slope of pines reared tip behind the ship.

"It's a little after one in the morning, Earth time," the director called out. "There's nothing that we can do tonight..."

"I'd like to climb to the top of the hill and look around," Matt interrupted. "We might spot a light."

"And I!"

"Me, too." The last was Lynn's voice, Matt recognized. A dozen others echoed the wish.

"Very well," said the director. "I—I think that I, too, shall go along."

They struggled up the hill in the black and the rain. It was higher than Matt had guessed, but at length they came to the crest.

Slowly Matt turned around and around.

Blackness!

Everywhere he looked there was only impenetrable blackness. Not even a pin prick of light broke the monotony.

"We—we must be in an unsettled area," Lynn ventured in a small voice at his elbow.

He looked around at the blur that was the girl. "It's the country," he suggested. "People go to bed early in the country."

"Maybe," said the girl. "I... let's go back to the ship, Matt. I'm cold."

Without a word, he took her arm and piloted her back down the slope. They climbed the ladder.

"What's wrong here, Matt?" asked the girl, her eyes wide and frightened.

"Wrong?" echoed Matt. They had reached the corridor to the cabins. "Nothing, so far as we know. The fact that there weren't any lights doesn't mean anything. We may be in the mountains."

He paused. "You should skin out of those clothes. You're soaked to the skin."

She shivered again. Her thin coveralls were plastered against her, revealing every swelling curve and indentation. Her hair hung limp and wringing wet. A little bead of water trickled down her tip-tilted nose.

"You look like a drowned rat," he informed her with a grin.

A sudden shrill scream burst on their ears, followed by terrified shouting.

Lynn stiffened. "What's that?"

But Matt was already plunging for the air lock.

He was met, and almost bowled over, by the tide of frightened men and women flooding up the ladder into the ship. He grabbed the nearest one.

"What is it? What's wrong out there?"

"It was a cow!"

"A cow?"

"A wild cow. It charged us—or whatever cows do."

"It was a bull," corrected Howes, the archaeologist. "I—I think it got Pendergrast."

A dead silence met Howe's words. Matt glanced over the heads in the crowded passage. "Pendergrast here?"

There wasn't any answer.

From the ground below c...

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