Enslaved By Venus
What now? Corbett unclenched his teeth as the ship shuddered to a halt. The last half mile had been a careening bobsled ride, caroming off unseen terrain features and sliding on what seemed to be slick, swampy mud while he yelled involuntarily. Now he was stranded with the unknown horrors lurking in the mists of Venus.
What now? There was just silence except for the crackle of the useless radio panels and the soft hum of oxygen generators keeping the air breathable, but there was only silence from the rear of the ship where the great rocket engine and steering thrusters had once roared. The thermal insulated windows were fogged, dripping with condensation as were the gleaming concave walls of the hull, and Corbett felt sweat trickling under his tunic armpits as the temperature rose. He looked down and saw his strong hands still gripping the dead controls, knuckles white. On the floor of the cabin, his eyes caught the glint of silver from the gleaming Space Forces rocket qualification badge that had somehow come unpinned from his breast. It had never happened before, and Corbett wondered if it was an omen.
The ship groaned softly and he felt it rotate slightly, settling into whatever was outside. This was Venus, and Corbett knew better than to land here, but again, he couldn't go back to Earth either. His head was throbbing, and as he removed his magnetic soled boots and struggled out of the form-fitting contour station, he knew he'd better come up with a plan-fast. He had heard the stories about Venus and why the United States military stopped all travel to the second planet.
The radios brought in nothing but static on the ultra-short wave band, so Corbett switched them off to cut the heat from the bank of tubes behind the panel. The visigraph showed an outside temperature of 115 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity at 98%. The external camera view revealed nothing but moving clouds of mist. Somehow he had managed to land near the planet's pole; anywhere else would have meant a painful and hopeless death. Two disastrous expeditions had given their warnings of some of the dangers lurking on Venus.
Corbett was in his final year as a cadet at the Space Academy when the United States first landed on Venus, and he was eager and envious when the mass ascension of eight ships to Venus marked man's greatest exploration since Columbus.
After the Third World War in the 1950s, the move to space was a true American crusade. The first men landed on the moon in 1965, and the Schmitt-Yeager team touched down at the Venus pole in 1987, followed by two privately sponsored expeditions funded by United States Steel and Boeing. Corbett had studied many of the scientific reports sent back by tele-viewer from the research teams. He knew that the first group had succumbed to the unforgiving climate of the Venus equator where the temperature was hot enough to melt lead.
As part of his training, Corbett learned some of the Venus survival techniques in preparation for U.S. expeditions in force that were scheduled to begin in 1989.
Then the reports from the greatest and most promising research fleet abruptly stopped, and all signals from the luminous planet ceased less than three months later following some disturbing and enigmatic messages. That was the bad news of 1988. The newspaper headlines screamed their questions about the lost scientific teams, but the brass at the academy slapped an embargo on any further talk about Venus expeditions.
Corbett whispered curses as he began to follow the gangway ladder to the storage compartments, his lonely footsteps making hollow sounds inside the hull. He didn't want to think of the stupid decisions that put him out here, trapped millions of miles from home. It was not comforting to remember that Schmitt and Yaeger were the only Americans to make it home from Venus, and they had both died gurgling from hideous alien fungus growths inside their lungs.
The metallic sound as he yanked open the equipment locker was earsplitting against the silence that permeated the ship. While the U.S. Space Forces used moon shuttle runs to train their rocket pilots, the limited knowledge transmitted back from Venus had led researchers to produce new weapons and gear to be carried in all space-bound ships. There was a compartment in the medical kit with ampoules labeled "Venus Serum," and Corbett stripped down to his underwear, wincing as he plunged one of the syringes into his thigh, and then he crawled into the one-piece protective suit that was guaranteed resistant to spores and fungus. A close-fitting fabric helmet sealed at the collar of the suit and a filtering mask completed the protection. There was nowhere to go but outside.
Corbett pulled the lever to break the hatch seal, shouldered the strange-looking flame cartridge weapon and belted on the sidearm with spare magazines. He wasn't the kind of guy who hesitated-there was a dead man at the White Sands Rocket Base who could attest to that-but now he stopped, remembering his training and Colonel Armstrong who had lectured them: "No man gets dressed in the morning thinking that he is going to die today."
The hatch opened with a hiss, and a wall of drenching heat like a steam bath enveloped him. His wide profile rubberized boots touched the soil of Venus. A portable oxygen generator on the weapons belt was ready, but the scientists had done their work well. He could breathe, but his stomach revolted at the overpowering odor of decay and death. At first the mists seemed without feature, just an envelope of bright obscurity, with a mother of pearl luster. He could hear a strong, hot breeze that stirred the mist into fantastic serpentine shapes, that shifting and beckoning kaleidoscopically.
It was impossible to see much more than ten feet ahead, but Corbett was staring back at the sleek, projectile shaped rocket ship lying helpless in the muck. Its gleaming hull appeared as though it had been here for 50 years. Greenish tendrils of mould were crawling up the side of the hull and he knew what to expect from the scientific reports. That's what the pressurized chemical device was for. He walked with care back to the hatch, opened it, and went back into the ship. He sprayed the interior, creating a fog, then outside again where walking on the spongy soil felt to Corbett as though he were walking on human bodies. He sprayed the length of the hull and the racing mould seared, flaking off to become part of the seething carpet of soft moss that bubbled wherever his boot stepped.
Now it was time to put the magnetic audio beacon on the hatch and begin a grid search of the area. He kept the battery powered mini-receiver attached to his belt. Within five steps he lost visual contact with his crashed ship and he was drenched with moisture. The mist disoriented him, and the currents raced ahead, then folded back on themselves as though to come back and lure him forward. He had no compass, but it would be useless on Venus anyway.
Corbett walked a hundred paces perpendicular to the hull of the ship, then turned right for a hundred steps before making another 90-degree angle. On his third turn, he was headed back toward the ship and feeling relieved because the swirling, luminous mist clouds were causing him to see strange images of things that could not exist. His step count grew uncertain. Was it 39 or 49? His eyes grew heavy as his body throbbed with wet heat.
He didn't see it coming, but something slammed into him like a Notre Dame tackle, with a hellish buzzing that he felt as much as heard. Corbett reacted as though he were spring loaded, rolling on the swampy earth, reaching for his sidearm; he could taste blood in his mouth, and he dreaded the possibility of a wound exposed to this fetid air.
Corbett yanked back the slide on the hand weapon. A dark form was floating right toward him, less than 8 feet away. He pulled the trigger, and heard the firing. THUMP. The low velocity 37mm round sailed into the attacking thing. The explosion of the rocket projectile was deafening, and Corbett was thrown backward. He didn't realize how powerful the new Tektonite really was. He saw this flying horror, a lumpy, bulbous thing with impossibly frail wings, at least eight feet in span, just for a moment before it disintegrated.
Dizzily, Corbett clambered to his feet. The head of the thing was on the ground in front of him, its mouth still working frantically side to side like that of a crab, but monstrously large, the eyes mere slits. Then the head died, and the buzzing trailed off into silence.
He shook his head and squinted into the mists. The ship should be ahead of him, but he could see its outline to his left, shimmering in the obscure luminosity. He lurched, started to change direction, but his training intervened, and he began counting steps again, trusting the friendly signal from the beacon.
Here it was! He was somehow disoriented or had counted incorrectly, but there couldn't have been two ships. The beacon signal led him finally to the ship, but it was in a direction opposite to the grid he knew he thought he was following. Almost panicked, he found the hatch and clawed it open, throwing himself inside his ship, a victim of confusion. What now?
There were enough food capsules and water bottles to last another 15 earth days. The supplies were supposed to take care of a normal crew of three on a moon shuttle flight of no more than seven days. The length of his life was measured in days, and his only hope was a marooned expedition whose few reports from Venus had stopped after three months. He remembered that they reported no measurable planetary rotation and no detectable magnetic field. Perhaps the leeward side of Venus was one endless day.
Corbett switched on the Mayday signal, though there was probably nobody within 26 million miles of him, none but those who had come here to explore and found only death. The fog of the herbicide in the ship still lingered, and the fatigue of the harrowing flight was dragging him down. Sinking into the pilot's contour seat, his thoughts drifted to that last night at White Sands Rocket Base, the girl Deanna, and the fight as a tide of exhaustion lapped at his consciousness. Then oblivion.
Corbett didn't know how long he slept, but his first sensation on awakening was being roughly lifted out of the seat. Two figures had grabbed him and were dragging him out of the chair. He tried to struggle, but they were strong, and they were accompanied by two others-frightening, hooded figures that loomed in the foggy air. Perhaps they were human, but he couldn't tell. Also, Corbett realized that his strength was failing, and he couldn't have resisted them anyway.
The creatures were enclosed in some kind of bulky suits with ominous dark rectangular face plates, and they clapped Corbett's helmet on him as they dragged him through the hatch of his own rocketship and out into the steamy hell of Venus. He vaguely heard somebody rummaging in the ship and he saw them emerging with his weapons and gear. When he finally gained his feet, he was deep in the mists, lost and dependent upon these silent, plodding creatures dragging him along. There was no choice but to cooperate.
Then there was a door opening in a mould-covered wall, and Corbett went sprawling on a smooth floor. One of the creatures fell on top of him and another pulled off his helmet. The next thing he saw was the flash of a needle as it stabbed for his neck, injecting fire into his jugular.
Then the creatures backed off and Corbett staggered to his feet, finding something that looked like a bench. He sat down and looked at his tormentors. One of them was human! A man in a gray tunic was smiling faintly at him, his thinning hair somehow comforting to the kidnapped rocket pilot. The embroidery on the tunic read "Grolier Society."
Slowly the others put down their booty from Corbett's ship and removed their hoods revealing three men with beards. When the fourth hood came off, Corbett gasped involuntarily. A mass of titian-colored auburn hair fell down around a pale, oval face, her green eyes electric, red lips full.
The other men stripped off their environment suits, and they just stood, until the woman spoke to them, "Sit down and eat." The men finished removing their outer garments and sat down at a makeshift table obviously constructed from shipping crates.
Corbett was shocked at the rasp of his own voice. He had not spoken to anyone since escaping from the rocket base millions of miles away. "Who are you? What is this place? Why did you inject me?"
The woman surveyed him coolly, and the older man spoke. "One thing at a time, young man. We heard your mayday signal on our radio set, and you have no idea how excited we were to be rescued. It seems we were premature."
The woman looked up and blew a stray curl of her luxuriant hair away from her eyes. "It looks as though you'd better tell us who you are. We're a research facility, but there's something not quite right about you and your ship. We need to know when our re-supply is going to arrive, and when are we going back to Earth. I gather that our transmitter has failed, but we have received garbled bulletins from Earth about suspending all voyages to Venus. Is it true?"
Corbett watched her intently, only vaguely aware that the enclosure was like a prefabricated Quonset hut made of some lightweight material, with skylights in lieu of electric lights. The luminous mist outside shed an even glow to the interior.
Before Corbett could speak, a sudden crash shook the building. He ducked, but nobody else moved. "What th "
The woman smiled enigmatically, "It's just a flacker, or at least that's what we call them. They're carnivorous, but they're not very dangerous. Monstrous insect is as close as I can come to a description."
"Yeah, I think I met one. We danced." Corbett felt the sting on his neck where the needle went in. "Why did you have to - "
"Well, Mr. Space Cadet, we know next to nothing about Venus. Before we came here, we knew about the lung fungus, but there are other nasties out here that Schmitt and Yaeger didn't encounter. If we hadn't inoculated you, you would probably have died within a week. Certainly you must have noticed that your energy was being sapped."
"I'm Bernard Kretschmer, in charge of the colonizing mission to Venus, and this is my daughter Eva. What you see here is what is left of 73 crew and eight ships that originally came here. Now it's your turn."
Corbett realized he'd been staring at Eva. Underneath the shapeless environmental suit, she wore a one piece form-fitting coverall that could have been green silk but was probably a nylon or dacron synthetic.
"Sir, I'm 1st Lt. James Corbett of the U.S. Rocket Force, or at least I was when I left earth."
Eva raised her eyebrows. "There's more to it than that. They wouldn't have sent a lone rocket pilot on a rescue mission, how would they?"
Corbett rubbed the stubble on his square jaw, grateful that this enclosure was kept livable by a unit that blew cool, oxygenated air. "You want the rest of it? Okay. You remember White Sands. You guys left in a blaze of glory when I was halfway through my training. I remember watching that night when all your rockets lit up the desert night, and the press took some of the most important photos ever published. White Sands is a military base, but a guy can go crazy in the Bachelor Officer Quarters there. For recreation, we went into the little town of Alamogordo. You know, close to where the first atom bomb was tested. The base was so busy that there were rockets going up almost every week, and Alamogordo was a boom town. In the months that followed, the world lived for your reports.
"I had a girl friend back there, or I thought I did. I had made two moon shuttle flights as part of my training, and that night was scheduled to be my third. I was supposed to lift off at 0300, but I had to see Deanna, so I commandeered a car and drove the desert road to surprise her. Oh yeah, she was really surprised-and so was her other boyfriend. Sure, I got hot under the collar, and I should have got out of there-but I could see from the look on the poor slob's face that he didn't know about me either, and he started hitting her. I reacted, of course-it's just something I do. It wasn't much of a fight, but I hit him pretty hard. He went down, striking his head on the sharp corner of a chest of drawers.
"That's right. He was dead, and he was an admin officer at the rocket base. If I have a talent, it's for improvisation. I ripped out the telephone cord, left without saying a word to the girl, and raced back across the desert to the base, driving 100 mph.
"I went right to the launch pad. The supplies weren't completely loaded, but I knew the routine. The fueling cycle was finished. It was 0100, but nobody questioned me showing up two hours early. The gantry crane had already been moved away. If only I could get aboard before a police dragnet was sent out from the town."
Father and daughter watched Corbett intently, but the others sat the table, eating, as though nothing else existed for them.
"Go on, Lieutenant." Eva lowered her eyelids as though they were a force field to protect her. Corbett was fascinated by the way her breasts jutted against the green silk of the coveralls.
"The remaining supplies were lined up on the tarmac, with men doing inventory, but I knew that ignition could be started from the cockpit or from the blockhouse. I did a quick preflight check. I knew I could manage the ship without my two flight crew members. At 0120 I shut off the radio, remotely closed the cargo hatch, and started the pre-ignition sequence.
"The exterior ship camera showed the supply crews yelling and scattering as the first pilot flames came from the rocket tubes. Even through the hull I could hear the shriek of sirens, and I knew that desperate voices were trying to raise me on the radio. I was looking only at the black sky above me when I hit the red button.
"The ship lifted slowly, gradually gaining momentum, and at about 1,000 feet the acceleration began to pull at me, that grinding force of gravity that made me weigh more than 600 pounds. Then I blacked out as is the normal reaction to that slingshot into the sky. When I regained consciousness, I could see the curve of the earth and the main engine had shut down automatically. I was in space.
"The controls were preset for the moon, but I knew that I didn't dare go there. I knew too that we were still waiting to hear the reports from the first mission on its way to Mars. Mars was out, and so I went to the navigation table and turned all six of the computation wheels to the Venus setting. Almost immediately I felt the directional thrusters pulsing as the ship came around. Then I was traveling about 5,000 mph and, with each pulse of the thrusters, the speed increased. The rest you know. What now?"
Except for the sound of the men eating, the crackle of the radio, and the occasional burst of wind against the Quonset, all was silent. Eva paced, her hips swaying, her brow wrinkled in disapproval, and her mind obviously working.
Dr. Kretschmer pursed his lips and sighed. "There were a couple of hours after your landing when we were certain we were being rescued. Have they forgotten us completely?"
Corbett remembered the orientation lectures he had sat through endlessly during ground school at Lackland Army Air Base in Texas. "Wait a minute. This was the most ambitious space project in the history of mankind. Our hopes were so high, and the newspapers headlined every scrap of information you sent back. The world held its breath when your ships were buffeted by the stratospheric winds of the planet and nobody exhaled until you reached the surface. It was bad luck that four of the eight ships were damaged on landing, but some damage was expected.
"You have no idea how fascinated we all were about Venus, and I visualized your brave team unloading the building panels in the face of unknown dangers. Your team was productive from day one, and the reports sent back became a precious part of our scientific literature. What I never understood is why your narrative about the life of the crew stopped after the first two weeks."
Eva was still pacing, but Kretschmer shook his head, "My boy, you have no idea what it was like here in those first days. The main job of Eva and myself was setting up the radar mapping operation for the National Geographic Society. With no visual capability, we had devised a way of using radar beams and then sketching the terrain from the scope images. At the same time, the pilots, security staff, and project engineers finished the shelter and began to range out into the mist. Looking back, that was our mistake-our eagerness to explore." He nodded toward the men sitting at the table.
The soft light emanating from the skylights never seemed to change, and Corbett could see that the shelter was probably 75-100 feet long, 35 feet wide, and there were pieces of canvas hanging from the skylights, obviously to block them during sleep periods. He couldn't hold back any longer, "My God, what about the rest of those 73 people the scientists, the armed security people? They didn't starve to death " He could see that there were still stacked cases at the far end of the Quonset labeled "C Ration/Space Package."
They were interrupted by a sound at the door. There was a pushing accompanied by the scrabbling sound of dozens of claws. Eva picked up the flame rifle the men had brought from Corbett's ship and tossed it to him. She went to the door, threw the metal bar and retreated to the middle of the room. The thing that fell into the doorway horrified Corbett, its soft, shiny body pulsating along a six-foot length. Its entire bulk was lined with claw-like legs that scraped frantically on the floor. Corbett had seen that mouth before, however, and he squeezed the trigger.
A pipeline of flame shot forward and engulfed the creature, incinerating it instantly in the doorway. Dr. Kretschmer picked up a shovel and pushed the carbonized thing outside before securing the opening and replaced the metal bar. "That's the larval stage of the flacker, Lieutenant, and it's just a sample of the horrors we have faced in the past year."
Corbett's stomach was jumping, but he said he wanted to know what had happened to the scientific expedition.
Eva broke her silence. "Lt. Corbett, I'll tell you the whole story, but first we need to make another trip to your ship. The timing is critical, and you'll understand before we're done. Right now I still think you're a dangerous man, but danger, like everything else, is relative. You're fortunate that you cannot see everything hiding in the mists. My only advice is that you not look directly into the mists while you're walking." She turned away and began giving instructions to the silent, bearded men at the table. They got up and donned the bulky environmental suits. One was issued to Corbett as well. Eva was talking to the men as they put their suits on; they didn't even nod toward her. Corbett was burning with curiosity about the men's apparent mental affliction.
There was no time for reflection. Eva pulled on the shapeless hood, motioned to Corbett to do the same, and they prepared for the outside. When they stepped through the door, the group was enveloped by the mists, but Corbett was amazed at what he could see through the faceplate. It was a bluish filter that allowed him to see almost 20 feet ahead, twice what he could see without it. His body seemed to be adjusting to the heat and the almost visible humidity. He was sweating profusely, but it seemed strangely normal.
Now he could see that the ground was alive with motion, with forms wriggling, crawling, and hopping. No wonder that initial walk on the Venusian soil had seemed so soft and unstable. Eva had the directional finder, and she was walking in a straight line. To Corbett's left was a twisted tree with limbs curved like the ribcage of an animal that seemed to be embracing the remains of a flacker. A disembodied voice inside the hood startled him. It was Eva Kretschmer.
"That's the most common tree form. Narcolepsia gigans as we named it. Anything stumbling against its trunk is secured by an adhesive sap that is also narcotic in effect. Of course the tree then penetrates the captured creature with sharp tendrils and drains its body fluids. Stay alert, Lieutenant."
Corbett just wanted to make sure he didn't lose sight of the woman who was in the lead of their little column. At first he watched her back or the ground, but then he glanced at something in the mists. It couldn't be. Eva had said he shouldn't look at the mists. But something was there. The wind was blowing at about 5 mph with gusts up to 10 mph, yet Corbett saw the mists curl into corkscrew patterns and flow with an artistic rhythm. He could see the mists congeal, and as he squinted through the faceplate, a human form was becoming clear, a reposing, naked female form, ever more concrete and detailed as he stared, slack-jawed and mesmerized.
"Lieutenant!" A crackling radio voice stabbed at his ear, and a hand yanked the sleeve of his suit. Suddenly, Corbett realized that he had somehow turned away from the others. It couldn't have happened, but somehow he must have become disoriented. Impossible, yet
Corbett stumbled dizzily as Eva dragged him along. The others plodded ahead, apparently unconcerned. Eva gave each of them, by name, terse commands that they followed without comment.
The path ahead was blocked. At first Corbett thought it a terrain feature, until it moved at the far limit of his filtered vision. What seemed to be a ghastly mound of mould-covered earth was moving!
Now, Corbett reacted to his training, suddenly very protective of his beautiful guide. He pushed Eva aside and extended the flame rifle, its selector set to full power.
"Stop!" Eva's voice in the ear speaker was a command. "It's virtually harmless to us, and we don't want to attract anything else's attention."
The thing resembled a dark brown manta ray with a giant hump on its back, almost shapeless, and it seemed to flow along the slimy planet surface. A toothless slash of a mouth, at least three feet wide, moved forward, engulfing everything that wriggled into its path. As they walked close to the creature, Corbett could hear the churning of massive digestive processes, and he could see that the outer surface, be it skin or chitin, was caked with mould, soil, and swarms of tiny glistening insect-like creatures that clung to it like a shawl made of iridescent beads.
"Hurry, we haven't much time." Eva urged them onward, and Corbett was irritated that he was being told so little.
His ship loomed out of the mists, and Corbett gasped. The hull was dented and scarred as high as a man could reach, with long gouges making brilliant cuts along the strengthened aluminum alloy hull. Particularly unsettling was a concentration of rage against the hatch area. He imagined yet-unseen horrors still lurking in the mists taking out their fury on the spaceship. Only the integrity of the ship design had prevented mindless vandalizing creatures from finding a way inside. Eva had a weapon in her hand, and Corbett kept his at the ready. She also had the standard issue tool for unsealing the hatch, and they crawled through the opening. When the hatch was closed again, Eva made a motion with her hand that they could remove the hoods, and Corbett looked around at the interior of his ship.
"Your ship is doomed, you know." Eva looked at him in brutal honesty. "We're here for a reason. I just hope it's not too late."
Before Corbett could protest, the other men went silently to the cockpit and began to coldly dismantle the control panels, the navigation calculation unit, the bank of radios, and other instrumentation. The men wrapped the components in cargo netting and hoisted the loads onto their shoulders.
"No time for anything else. The sound carries." Eva motioned them back to the hatch and out into the hostile atmosphere.
Back under the hood, Corbett missed the comfort of his own ship, and his stomach lurched as his feet slid on the teeming, living surface of the planet. "They'll be here soon. Hurry!" It was Eva's voice crackling in his ear.
Corbett was almost running to keep up with his determined companions, his breath hot and steamy, his head throbbing with the heat. There was a noise behind! It was more than a noise-it was a vibration he felt through the soles of the suit. Something tremendous was following.
Not given to panic, Corbett found himself mentally clawing to get out of the suit before he was overtaken, but instead he followed doggedly the backs of the suits pacing ahead of him, fatigue advancing as quickly as whatever was gaining on him. Then the mist was like a hand passing across his face, a funneling, swirling tendril that encircled his waist as might a serpent, and then it dissipated into the steaming grayness.
A rectangular opening appeared ahead, and the team ran for it, but it was going to be too late. The ground was shaking, and Corbett turned to see the bright mist turn dark and overwhelming. The behemoth towered above him, its outline becoming hideously clear as it approached.
Fully 40 feet high, the great creature lumbered toward them, its bulbous head at least six feet in diameter, with slitted vestigial eyes and a cruel beak for a mouth, a beak that seemed to extend at least three feet in front of the head. The top of the head was covered by a forest of cilia-like antennae that quested and writhed, pointing and searching, constantly moving like long grass blown by the wind.
The monstrous body, large as a whale, lurched forward and actually lifted of the ground, its clawed forelegs clotted with the wet, black soil. Suddenly, most of the antennae were curved downward in Corbett's direction. There was no time for hesitation.
The flame rifle spewed its hissing pipeline of fire that struck the thing in the middle of what must have been its chest. The flame penetrated instantly, and a flood of gas and liquid spewed outward as the creature actually caught fire. Corbett fired twice more, and this towering animal was engulfed, almost as though its body was full of petrochemicals. A rain of hot liquid doused Corbett's suit, and a voice in his ear almost screamed, "Inside! Now!"
Even the protection of the suit didn't prepare Corbett for the heat and the choking odor that washed over him. He stumbled toward the doorway 20 feet away, surprised when he could no longer control his legs. The hulk of the giant creature was still burning and spewing noisome fluids into the air as Eva pushed the door closed and then ran to him and began to pull the suit off of his body. His head was swimming, but the fresh air inside the shelter was an elixir that brought him around. A hand was on his cheek, and two brilliant eyes looked down at him; the red lips formed a faint smile.
Eva pointed, and Corbett watched as the discarded suit began dissolving before his eyes. She climbed out of her own suit and stripped off the contaminated gloves. The close fitting green body suit was wet with perspiration, clinging to the curves of her body as she knelt beside him. She shuddered visibly.
"The most monstrous creature we have found on Venus. We named it 'devorazoid' because it seemed to be the dominant carnivore in the area we have explored. It's not a mammal, not a reptile, not an amphibian. Earth has nothing like it." When Corbett put his hand over hers, she didn't take it away.
"So that's the greatest danger on Venus, and we beat it." Corbett tried his reckless grin on her.
"If only that were true." The smile faded. You still don't know the worst."
"That's because nobody tells me anything." He was able to stand now, still grinning, and he pulled Eva up with him. "But, if that creature is the smartest and most dangerous thing on this planet, we've got a chance."
There was a tinge of anger again at the corners of her eyes. "Nobody said anything about 'smart,' and we thought the same thing a week after we set up camp. The whole truth is almost unbelievable." Eva's hand on his upper arm was gentle, but firm. She led Corbett to the water-processing machine.
Corbett was surprisingly thirsty, and drank copiously as he watched Eva's father pouring milky chemicals on what was left of the juice-spattered environmental suit.
Eva was watching him. "Sulfuric acid-it seems to be one of the most common substances here. It's even in the moisture that's part of the mists of Venus."
"Venusian perfume," Corbett quipped.
On Eva's instructions, the other men were working with the items cannibalized from Corbett's rocketship. Eva began to tell the survival story of mankind's first great colonizing impulse into space.
"I guess you know the beginning. And, after the beginning, we were never sure when our transmitter first failed. Now I know that we were not prepared to colonize an alien planet. We were so foolish, but the first victories made us reckless with pride. All of the ships made it to Venus, and all landed within a half mile of each other. Yes, several of the ships crash-landed, but nobody was killed, and we had the experience of Schmitt and Yaeger that made us believe we were inoculated against all possible microbes.
"Oh, we were so filled with excitement. Seventy-three proud explorers who were covering themselves with fame and glory-that's what we were thinking. Look over there. Those three men sitting seemingly mindless at that workbench are some of the finest scientists of our age, and their lives are over. They might as well be zombies. They don't eat, sleep, or function without our verbal direction. Whatever humanity they might have had inside them is completely gone. At least we were able to save their physical lives. The rest were not so lucky. You'll know what I mean very soon. We're due for an attack."
Corbett shook his head and rubbed the dark stubble on his face. "I could understand a few casualties before you learned how to deal with the creatures I've seen, but I don't see any intelligence there. Those creatures aren't crafty enough to fool those highly trained people."
"I didn't say they were. You have to remember that my father and I helped build the shelter, and then our job kept us inside with the radar scope and the map table after the first week. Nothing happened to us. There were a few cases of infection that required penicillin injections, but they were rare. The inoculation like that I gave to you protected every one of us against the diseases of Venus. Our microbiologist found that most of the organisms on this world are more primitive than our own. Our radar detected a body of water four miles away, and our exploration team found what seemed to be rudimentary water life, probably pre-Devonian. The excitement never seemed to end, and the first two weeks made us almost giddy with our own success, and we drank a toast to the idea that we were the dominant life form on Venus. We were such fools." Eva stopped suddenly as though listening for something. Her father looked at her from a dozen feet away. He shook his head, and Eva seemed to visibly relax.
Corbett felt the frustration of not understanding everything around him. "Those guys are doing technical work at the work bench. This is nuts."
"They haven't lost their skill or their intellectual capacity. It is their will and their humanity that's been stolen." Eva's tone was condescending. The damp silken cloth was still clinging to her breasts as they rose and fell with her breathing.
Corbett's frustration overcame him and his fist pounded the table, startling himself and Eva's father. She didn't flinch. "What kind of microbe does that?"
Eva reached out one perfect finger and pushed against Corbett's forehead. "You're as dumb as we were when we came here. You have to stop thinking in Earth terms. Yes, the flackers got two, killing them horribly. We had another three who were invaded by a protozoa that destroyed them from the inside out. One day we lost five military guys-that was the day we first met the Devorazoid, and all of them were killed when they blew up the monster with a bazooka rocket. They were too close. One man died when he ran into the sleeper tree, and three idiots died when they ate fruit from a plant that looked too good to be true. Have you been counting?"
Corbett knitted his brow and added the 14 casualties to Eva and Dr. Kretschmer, plus the three sad cases working silently at the workbench. It left 54 scientists, doctors, and military personnel unaccounted for. He was just about to ask the obvious question when all hell broke loose.
A hurricane of blows struck the shelter from all sides, thumping against the reinforced metal panels, shaking the building. Corbett jumped up, his hand groping for a weapon, anything with which to defend himself.
Eva's father ran to the table, while his daughter could not help but show her terror.
Corbett glanced toward the three scientists at the work bench, and it was chilling to him that, for the first time, they stopped, and were staring blankly at the walls, nodding as if they were listening to something Corbett could not hear. Outside, it seemed as though bodies were throwing themselves in abandon against the sides of the Quonset structure, and Corbett remembered the violent scratches and gouges visited earlier upon his hapless rocketship.
Now began a low-pitched howling noise from every quarter. What creatures could be doing this? Had they finally discovered the highest form of primitive life on Venus?
The pounding was deafening and the three mere humans huddled together beside the camp table. Despite the fear that was dampening his armpits, Corbett was suddenly aware that Eva had taken his hand, squeezing it desperately.
"We don't understand," Eva began in an unsteady voice. "This happens every six earth days, almost to the hour. We don't know what makes them attack like demons, but it coincides with the temperature cycle. Here at the pole, we find that temperature varies regularly between 105 degrees and 125 degrees. The attacks come every time the temperature hits the low point. The first two or three times caught us unprepared, and they took away some of our best men. This has been going on for months, and someday they may break down the shelter, no matter how strong it is. Their first attacks were against the rocketships. If you wonder why we never tried to escape from Venus in the ships that brought us here, now you know the reason."
The blows against the shelter, and the unearthly howling reached a frenzy. Dr. Kretschmer breathed shakily, "At least the door is secure."
Eva's eyes went wide. "My God, the door. I forgot to bar it." Eva ran toward the entrance while Corbett dove for the pile of equipment on the floor hoping that his hand could find the butt of the 37mm rocket pistol. At that moment the metal door slammed open, and the entrance was filled with things crowding to get in.
Like the other creatures Corbett had seen, these things were covered with verminous soil and mould, grayish green with sick yellow patches and swarming with parasitic insects; yet, they had humanlike appendages, their open mouths toothless and suppurating. The stench turned Corbett's stomach as his right hand instinctively found the smooth butt of the pistol.
Chaos erupted in the shelter. One of the things raced forward to the center of the room, grabbing Eva. As she screamed, Corbett fired into the doorway. He was ready for the explosion this time, but nobody else was. The Tektonite blew two of the things backward through the doorway and into oblivion. The next shot caught three more, dismembering them before they could approach the door, The howling and pummeling stopped, and the one creature left alive inside dragged Eva out toward the roiling mists. She fought furiously, and Corbett knew the pistol could not help now. He lunged forward blindly, yelling until he landed with all his body weight against the back of the retreating horror. Its howl was cut short as the force of the 180-pound man struck it with the force of a Notre Dame downfield tackle.
Eva was knocked clear, and the creature scuttled into the mists, apparently stunned. Corbett scooped Eva up into his arms and carried her back into the safety of the shelter. Despite what she had been through, she seemed remarkably composed as Corbett allowed her feet to descend to the floor. Together they barred the door and stood close, looking at each other. Despite the odor of the Venus things, Corbett sensed a delightful fragrance emanating from the waves of Eva's luxuriant hair. For a moment, he forgot everything they had just gone through, and the whole world of Venus seemed focused on a pair of glossy red lips.
Eva's lips seemed to move toward his, but then she backed off. "Well, Lieutenant, I knew there had to be a reason for saving you." She smiled impishly.
"Even if I'm a fugitive from the law?" Corbett felt that impulsive grin pulling at the corners of his mouth.
"We're too busy surviving to worry about the law on a planet millions of miles away." Dr. Kretschmer broke the spell, while the three autistic scientists went back to their workbench as though nothing had happened. The attack was over.
Corbett was still looking at Eva, who was looking back. "What now?" He asked.
"I can tell you what's going on, or I can show you our landing area and tell you what we've been planning in case somebody ever dropped in for a visit."
"Can't we do both? Now that I've met the Venusians and found that they're not friendly, I am starting to wonder how we'll ever get out of here alive." Corbett didn't relish ending his life in a misty steam bath.
Eva opened a carton and brought out another environmental suit and hood for him. "Let's go." She then went to the men at the workbench who put the instrumentation back into the cargo netting and began to don their suits again. "I want to show you something that could save us."
In minutes they were leaving the shelter again for the hostile mists, each carrying a netting of items stripped from Corbett's rocketship. The pearlescent mists converged and parted; Corbett kept imagining familiar forms and faces emerging in the air currents as they walked.
"To your right, Lieutenant. Ship number one." At the edge of his faceplate-enhanced vision was a rocketship, blast tube pointed toward the sky, buried halfway, nose down, in the Venusian soil. The cone of the rocket tube looked forlorn and wasted, covered with greenish mould. A few hundred feet further was a ship that had pancaked the way Corbett's ship had come down-except there was a difference. This ship had almost been torn apart, its hull panels torn away, hatches gaping, the rocket engines exposed and smashed.
Eva's voice crackled in his ear, "That was ship number two, and there are three more like that. The other three landed by the book." Ahead was a ship sitting on the sturdy tripod of its stabilizer vanes, its blast tube pointing to the ground almost as though it were ready to launch, or so it seemed until they came closer.
Corbett saw that the control surfaces had been wrenched from the trailing edges of the stabilizers, the nacelles of the thrusters punctured and ripped open. Someone or something had climbed the tower of the hull by the retractable metal ladder rungs, and the access hatches were open. Eva's voice intruded on his hopes: "That's right. They got in and destroyed the cockpit. What's left of the interior is three feet deep in soft, pulpy fungus. They never just attacked the shelter; they always attacked the ships as well. Following the Schmitt-Yaeger regimen, we sprayed the hulls with herbicides to stop mould and algae, but we began to lose hope when the attacks began."
They kept walking, and though the sweat poured from Corbett, he felt as though he was adjusting to the punishing climate of the Venusian pole. Another ship loomed in the mist, and he concentrated on the three-storey space vehicle, avoiding the temptation to stare too closely at the shapes he imagined in the shifting mist blanket.
Eva inserted a tool into the skirt of the blast tube and turned, causing the ladder rungs to extrude from the smoothness of the gleaming hull that shone wetly, but had resisted the plague of mould and fungus that attacked everything else. There were signs of scarring and a few dents, but the ship was not yet damaged beyond spaceworthiness. They pulled down the spring-loaded extension steps and hoisted the hardware, wrapped in cargo netting, hanging from straps on their shoulders. They climbed the outside of the ship, and Corbett felt the weakness coming back while the eddies of mist taunted him. Above him, Eva deployed the hatch tool, and it opened. One by one, they entered one of the most famous ships of Earth, whose rockets had been silent and hopeless for most of a year.
Inside, they removed the bulky hoods. Corbett grunted in despair. Everything here had been smashed. He looked at Eva who was wiping perspiration from her face, her hair still remarkably in place. "Get to work." She was talking to the scientists who followed her instructions without a word.
Corbett's frustration exploded. "How could you have let those Venus monsters have access to your only means of escape?"
"We didn't do anything of the kind. Here, help them get those wrecked panels out of the console."
Now Corbett began to hope again. The instruments from his crash-landed rocket might just give them a chance.
"It didn't happen overnight, you know, and those Venus monsters you blew up in the door to the shelter-well they weren't Venusians. They were once our crew, our protectors, and our friends.
"The hideous lung growths that killed Schmitt and Yaeger were an easy death compared to what happened to our colleagues. My father and I worked in the shelter, drawing the increasingly clear maps of the Venus landscape, but everybody else set out to take soil samples, photograph animals or look for mineral deposits. We thought the environmental suits and inoculations fully protected everyone, but there was at least one thing that the first expedition wasn't here long enough to discover."
Machine screws in the console came loose and a rack of shattered vacuum tubes fell to the floor with a crash, a floor that became a bulkhead when the ship was in horizontal flight. Corbett lifted the matching good set of radio tubes, and the silent scientists slid the rack into the appropriate metal grooves.
Eva had lifted another panel and was replacing bent and twisted thruster levers that had been savagely attacked. She worked and talked simultaneously, "It happened gradually. First our people were dizzy and tired, but we knew it could be the heat or the dehydrating nature of being inside these suits, and when the shelter was finished, there was a celebration, and people acted a little crazy, but they were entitled, but then-"
Corbett responded to Eva's gesture, and lifted the heavy and complex geared wheels of the navigation controls that mated to the hydraulic control guides and the directional thrusters. "You mean those bloodthirsty things covered with stinking fungus were your crew? Why would they attack their own kind?"
"You haven't figured it out yet?
Corbett held the panel while the bearded scientists tightened the machine screws holding it in place. "I read a story once about Kansas in the frontier days. Those early wheat farms were so isolated, and the wind blew through the fields, never ceasing. It was said that many farm wives went insane from being alone in isolated farmhouses all day while their husbands were out plowing, reaping, and keeping the families alive."
Eva's hands were busy reattaching wires while she answered. "We kept our clocks at Greenwich Mean Time, and we kept our calendars because Venus has a period that keeps it in the same relationship to Earth, so I know how long it took. A day on Venus is longer than its year. After the shelter was built, the teams went out for short periods, accompanied by armed patrols. They killed hundreds of Venus creatures, but there was something they couldn't kill.
"They all began acting strangely, almost sullen, and within two weeks, they started staying out longer and longer, sometimes not coming back for 24-26 hours. Then came the silence and the glazed eyes as though their personalities had been stolen. We were so busy that we didn't have time to pay attention. My father and I weren't in charge of the work parties or the military. Our job was to stay inside on that radar scope and draw the charts of Venus."
Corbett was looking at her intense concentration as she reassembled the main thrust control. "What about these guys? We're acting as though they aren't even here."
"They aren't, Lieutenant. They would have been like the rest if we hadn't seen it coming. They worked inside more than the rest, so the change came to them slowly. I guess you could say they're only half Venusian."
"What change are you talking about?" Corbett's voice was demanding now.
"There is a dominant species on Venus, Lieutenant, and it has been ruthlessly working to wipe out the invading aliens that penetrated its home. It's done a pretty good job, and our only hope is to escape. We were just waiting to die before you arrived, and now we have a fighting chance."
Corbett finished installing the navigation wheels in the table, sweat pouring down his face, and he rubbed his close-cropped hair, thinking that the hair was not so short as it was when he blasted off from White Sands. "I guess we have a few earth days before the next attack."
Eva looked up as she replaced the rocket control panel cover. "The mind of Venus is fickle-like a woman's. You can't anticipate what she's going to do. We were wrong every step of the way, and now, thanks to your arrival, we have maybe enough time for about one more decision."
It was suddenly silent in the rocketship. The replaced controls were jerry-rigged, and the cabin was still a mess, but given a fuel supply, they just might be able to get off the planet.
"My father is getting everything ready. We can't wait any longer now that we know what all our fates are likely to be. We'll leave the men here to tighten all the bolts and get rid of the trash."
Corbett suddenly put his hands on both her shoulders and gripped. "We're not going anywhere until you finish the story. You've hinted at it ever since you pulled me out of my ship and introduced me to your nightmare."
Eva looked down and then raised her eyes to meet Corbett's. "We were so slow and unbelieving. We first expected random encounters with alien creatures, but when our own kind turned against us, or were turned against us, we didn't expect what happened. They attacked the ships, one by one, while they kept us cowering in our shelter. They seemed to forget how to use weapons and they were reduced to using sticks, rocks and pieces from the ships as they destroyed them-yet their tactics were cunning and frightening.
"Venus is a young planet-younger than we thought. The consciousness of Venus, its dominant species, isn't in the creatures. It's in the mists."
Corbett let her go and turned to face the bulkhead, throwing his hands out. "Oh, come on, Eva. That's as looney as your boys here."
"Is it? The mists started to work on you the moment you first stepped out of your ship. In three or four earth weeks, you would have been almost a zombie. Give it two months and you'd have gone native, rubbing narcotic moulds on your body, rotting out your teeth, and eating larvae while your mind hears only the whispers from the mist."
Corbett turned around again, his eyes wide. "You mean these things are ghosts? Spirits?"
Eva smiled her maddeningly faint smile. "Call it what you will. We think the mists are pure mind stuff, and this was its first experiment with possessing physical bodies. We would call them parasites, but there's no way of knowing what the true explanation may be. The mists are an alien intelligence. That's the sum of what this terrible expedition has taught us. Now you see why we have to move fast. What if they can also read our thoughts?"
Corbett felt a chill despite the throbbing heat. Eva gave the silent, bearded scientists their orders, and they kept working silently while Eva and Corbett swung through the hatch, closed it and began climbing down the rungs of the ladder and back into the living mists.
As they walked swiftly back toward the shelter, Corbett now saw menace in each swirl of luminous vapor, and he would not allow his eyes to accept the fantastic forms that seemed to waft more insistently in front of his faceplate. It was a relief to find the dented steel door of the shelter opening for them.
Inside, Dr. Kretschmer had assembled the papers of the expedition into four rucksacks, along with water and minimum rations. "When your ship crashed, Mr. Corbett, we finished our long and arduous transfer of fuel from the vandalized rockets into the one ship they had yet to incapacitate. I feel that we have only hours-maybe less."
Corbett was still breathing heavily from the walk. "But the temperature is on its way up. There will be no attack until the next cycle. You said so." He realized that he sounded like a kid asking for reassurance from his father.
"You may believe what you wish, but keep your hands on your weapons nonetheless." Kretschmer pointed to the rucksacks and they each shouldered their load. There was no time to waste. Within minutes they were leaving the shelter for the last time and plodding relentlessly toward that ship whose pointed nose was waiting to return to the heavens.
Corbett felt waves of fear almost as overwhelming as the sweat that made his skin slippery. The mists surrounded them in furious currents, bright, luminous, and deadly with suggestion. Eva's radio voice in his ear was comforting. "We're halfway there."
The creatures attacked suddenly, without warning, their horrible forms masked in mist. Surprisingly agile, they raced forward only to find their prey on guard. Corbett pressed the trigger, and the flame rifle spewed its thick strand of lethality. The cylinder of flame drilled through the midsection of the charging howler who fell like a stone into the muck.
His second shot sent fiery death into the midsection of another attacker who became an instant torch. Dr. Kretschmer and Eva were firing also, he with a standard service automatic loaded with .45 cal. explosive bullets, and she with a rocket pistol.
Two, three, five, seven once-human things exploded into flames or fell in pieces. They'd had enough and Corbett's jaw went slack as he saw rivulets of mist beckoning to the remaining creatures, backing them into the invisibility of the cloaking luminescence.
The weight of the rucksacks slowed them down considerably, and Corbett's lungs were on fire from exertion, yet he kept up with Eva and her father, knowing what was reforming behind them.
The rocketship loomed before them and they each grabbed the retractable ground access to reach the metal rungs that led three storeys upward to safety and possible escape. Corbett was the last to mount the extension steps, and he heard it spring back into the hull as he grabbed the solid rungs above him. He heard something else too-the howling of mad beings as they approached the ship for a second assault. Could it be too late?
His oxygen-starved brain was reeling as he struggled upward, feeling the rucksack as it tried to pull him off the ladder and back onto the hell of Venus. It seemed forever before he found the maw of the open hatchway and hands pulling him aboard.
Eva furiously cranked the rung-retraction handle, and Corbett heard a howling form fall 30 feet to land back on the ground. "Get us out of here, Lieutenant." She pushed her hair out of her face as Corbett pointed to himself.
"You don't really think we saved you for your looks do you. We were missing a lot of things, including space expertise. Right now, believe it or not, you're the only rocket pilot on Venus."
They swiftly abandoned the bulky environmental suits, throwing them out of the hatchway before sealing it. Then Eva took Corbett's hand and pressed a sterling silver pinback badge into his hand. "Here. I think you dropped this somewhere along the way."
Corbett felt the reckless grin coming back, and he climbed into the left hand contour seat while Eva and her father buckled the three silent team members into crew seats. Maybe if they ever got back to earth, the doctors could help the poor devils.
Eva climbed into the right hand seat, but Corbett had no time to appreciate the way her curves flowed underneath the silky green coveralls. He was busy flipping switches in the pre-ignition check.
They heard the pounding as determined attackers struck the hull and the stabilizing vanes. One of the creatures had obviously found a piece of metal from a wrecked ship and the frightening sound of determined blows vibrated through the ship.
Eva was looking at him with steady, brilliant eyes. "Now would be a very good time, Lieutenant."
Corbett nodded confidently, pushed the thruster levers all the way forward, and reached out to hit the red "IGNITE" button. He pressed it and waited for the explosive response from the engines. The only noise came from the battering against the hull that was louder and more insistent now. Corbett knew they could be doomed for want of a connected wire.
His fingers flew above the button to a screw knob that opened a metal flange. Whoever had piloted the ship had taken care to close the safety switch that prevented accidental ignition. Corbett snapped the toggle and his finger hovered once more above the red button while he prayed out loud. The hull was vibrating and a sound like chalk on a blackboard made him wonder if they might totter and fall over into the mud in a fireball of exploding fuel.
His finger pressed the button with all its strength.
The blast. The blast! The rocket exploded into life in a cleansing pillar of fire, a veritable typhoon of irresistible, brilliant force. Because there was no flame tunnel underneath this makeshift pad, the avalanche of thrust made an instant crater and boiled the Venus mud into vapor. The flame blossomed out fifty yards in every direction, carbonizing everything in its path. The creatures from the mist died almost instantly while the ship vibrated and shook. Eva screamed, and Corbett couldn't help from yelling, while the roar of the main engine drowned out everything.
Corbett felt vomit in his throat as the ship overcame its own inertia, then teetered as though it might still fall over and roast them in the juices of Venus. The ship started to rise, imperceptibly at first, then picking up speed. He felt the pull of gravity welding him to the chair, and now the projectile was unstoppable, accelerating inexorably with those familiar forces immobilizing him. A trickle of blood was coming from his nose, and then he passed out.
It couldn't have been more than a few minutes before Corbett regained consciousness, and the ship was knifing into the blackness of space. The camera lenses showed a luminous arc behind them while ahead were the diamond pinpoints of infinity. The ship was in horizontal attitude, and Corbett looked over at Eva who moaned softly as though she were awakening from a pleasant night's sleep. He craned his neck and saw the others stirring.
As the earthlike gravity of Venus released its hold, Corbett propelled himself out of the seat and grabbed handholds to move himself to the navigation table where he adjusted the six wheels to a setting that would take them back to Earth, much as he wished there was somewhere else he could take them.
Eva was looking back over the seat, watching him. Corbett grinned and shrugged, "Out of the frying pan, they say-I'm sure the Military Police will have a welcoming committee for me when we touch down."
Dr. Kretschmer laughed. "My boy, you're going to be an international hero for rescuing the first interplanetary colonization team. I think things are going to work out just fine."
Corbett eased his way back to the pilot seat, and Eva was leaning over toward him, half floating in the zero gravity. Her smile was warm and genuine, an expression he had not seen before. He looked at her. "What now?"
She touched her red lips with her finger and brought it to his mouth, still smiling. "I don't know, Lieutenant, maybe you'll find you haven't escaped from Venus after all." As the two looked at each other, the navigation thrusters pointed the ship toward the brilliant bluish planet they all called home.