It was a world so alien that no human being could even land
on it and survive. When Wallsey crash-landed he was
immediately engulfed by one of the inhabitants.
Half a second after Wallsey’s damaged scout touched the dusty planet’s surface, the capsid’s mental filaments had secured him. Consciousness went, his hands fell from the ship’s controls. The blackout was as complete and absolute as if the little scout had been reduced to scrap on impact, and its only human occupant destroyed with it.
The capsid was pleased with its catch. It had been content, yet watchful, in its tunnel in the sand, and it had struck with the fantastic lightning speed of all its kind. It leisurely brought the remainder of itself along the tunnel, heaving up the surface covering of sand. Its body came to rest against the scout, and built up, exerting pressure to roll the ship over. Satisfied that it could indeed move the vessel, the capsid began flinging aside sand, making a cavity large enough to take the ship.
Hot wind howled over the planet’s dusty surface, devoid of all vegetable or animal life. The Pleiades sun around which the planet spun seared the broken rock and sand with unendurable visible and ultra-violet radiation. The whole planet was a ball of irregular stones, blistered salt and sand, with no sea or polar regions. The ceaseless tunnellings of the capsids had long ago mixed and churned the surface to a glinting irregular uniformity which extended from horizon to horizon.
The capsid worked slowly, feeling satisfaction. When the cavity was deep, it burrowed round the ship, heaving itself along in a flowing wave so that the scout rolled over, and into the hole. Far enough under the sand to protect itself from the searing radiation of noon, the capsid circled the vessel, pushing in sand and caked salt, until the ship was covered. Hot winds scurried over the planet’s surface, carrying dust devils, laying a thin carpet of pulverised rock. Soon there was no mound or cavity to distinguish the spot from the shifting desert covering the planet.
The capsid felt happy, and it worked slowly until an extension of its tunnels held the ship. Then it began to deposit biting acids systematically along the hull. The furnace atmosphere of the tunnels was soon thick with fumes, and the metal corroded away, revealing bulkheads, power equipment, and the interior of the ship. The capsid drew out its captive, and began spinning layer upon layer of fine silicious threads around him. After a long time it drew him away down one of its tunnels.
Some miles from the ship, the capsid had a store chamber, one of many. It left the bundle there, and returned to the ship. Travelling along the tunnel, it sensed the proximity of another capsid, near and curious. Temporarily it detached a warning filament from itself, leaving it in the tunnel wall to keep the other capsid away. For the moment, it wished to investigate its trophy alone, re-stocking its tunnels and chambers with anything which it felt of interest.
Unhurried, it demolished the ship. It had little use for most of the metals it found, or for the salts which arose from the hissing contact of its biting acids. There were square objects of a very hard, smooth fused silica, and it carried them away to one of its stores. Other objects resisted its acid, and it dragged them into the corridors branching from the tunnel. Soon there remained only a mound of rust, mineral salts and rubbish, which it pushed up to the surface.
The capsid admired the arrangement of its tunnels. The way it had made to the ship was disorderly, unpleasant, and it filled the vault and wide passages systematically, retreating as it did. Soon all was restored. It went back along the main tunnel, noted the other capsid had moved away, and collected the vibrating filament. All was very peaceful and pleasant. The tunnel roof here was formed of caked salt, scorched to furnace heat. The capsid tasted the roof lovingly with its back, as it moved, and felt happy.
It would rest, it decided. After, it could take in the new, exciting animo of its capture. An extremely long time had passed since any alien form of life had come its way.
The capsid did not sleep, it never did. But its physical activity ceased and it rested quietly in its tunnel. It felt completely at peace, wanting nothing, and admiring its tunnels and store chambers, as it mentally reviewed them.
The cargo ship Endolon coasted a thousand miles above the planet, her scanners directed on the surface below. A girl with high cheek bones, tawny hair, and cream skin stood before a view screen, her eyes sad. A man many years her senior manipulated the screen controls, sometimes bringing a portion of the planet up with increased magnification.
“ I doubt if we could pin-point Wallsey within twenty miles, even if he’s alive,” he said. “ I’m sorry, Anne.”
She looked at him, gaze yearning. “ You saw the scout touch down, and took bearings.”
“ I know. But the capsids can easily open a ship, and take a man away. We believe their tunnels run for miles.”
“ No one has ever come back ?”
“ I’m afraid not,” he said sadly. “ A capsid strikes like a chameleon’s tongue taking a fly. No one likes this trade route. We steer clear of that — ”
He shuddered, jerking a finger at the shifting image. The planet’s surface was all desert, glinting salt and sand, riddled with capsid burrows, dotted with shifting hills. The Pleiades inner group sun was too near, too harsh. Wallsey knew the danger, had undoubtedly fought to avoid the planet. But the meteorite cluster that had destroyed two thirds of the stern of his scout had left him out of control.
The Endolon dropped lower, circling. Everyone on her knew that to touch the surface of the planet below would be almost instantly disastrous. No ship could land to find Wallsey, no search party could spread over the desert, hoping for some clue.
Rusty brown, spreading over a wide area, visibly marked the spot where the capsid had pushed up unwanted, dissolved metallic substances from the scout. Already a fine layer of dust, carried on the hot wind, was toning the rusty brown to match the surrounding waste.
Other suns of the Pleiades group shone harshly, more remote. The Endolon was large, equipped to ferry cargo. On her underside projected a giant loading bay, which could be opened at the front, and she carried no other scout. She was alone, plying her route. The scout had stood off to check for possible minerals on the system’s unexplored inner planet, when the meteorites had sped from nowhere, struck violently, and passed on.
The girl watched her father adjusting the screen controls. The rusty patch had no particular features.
“ What are — the capsides ?” she asked uneasily.
“ I’ve never seen one, nor has any man living. Every ship that touched down was instantly captured. At first, traders thought it was mere bad luck, or a fault. Maybe we’ll never know how many explorers landed, and were never seen again. The planet got a bad name, and deserved it. Eventually a robot exploration was financed, and soon came to grief too, but not until a few pictures had been radioed up. The place is like an ant-hill. A man in a ship is captured almost instantly, in some way we don’t understand. A robot device lasts until the capsid acids get through the shell, and that doesn’t take long.”
She could not be still, could not rest. Wallsey, lean and brown, had been the only man ever to bring love to her eyes.
“ There was some legal formality about protecting men in this area,” she pressed. “ Where did that lead ?”
“Nowhere, lass.” He remembered that Wallsey had talked briefly of being the first new scout pilot to be sent particularly to this area. It was unkind to offer hope where there was none. No man ever returned. “ I shouldn’t count on it.”
He left her, unable to endure the pain on her face. The Endolon would stand off the planet several days. Somehow it seemed the least they could do.
Harsh sun played on the dusty hills, pouring heat on the scorched sand and baked, gleaming salt. Occasionally a dune moved, as a capsid came near the surface, drinking in the radiation. Hot winds carrying sheets of dust raced over the planet. The rusty patch, once a ship, slowly disappeared. At noon, the vast beds of sand, flecked with quartz, magnesia and soda, gleamed with radiant heat. At midnight, a fierce and dreadful darkness gripped the hemisphere. Only under the surface, in the smoothed tunnels, was there purposeful movement. Each capsid burrow was isolated from its neighbours, a mass of branching, circling passages, some large, some outgrown.
The capsid was pleased with its trophy. Experimentally it relaxed its hold on the upper levels of Wallsey’s mind, letting consciousness return. But the degree of alarm arising in the man was soon so extreme that the capsid drew its mental filaments tight quickly. Clearly it must be content to sample subconscious levels.
Everything in the man’s mind was too alien and strange to be understood, but the capsid drank in emotions and impressions. It hoped its captive’s body would live at least one or two planetary rotations.
As it investigated, it sensed other capsids drawing near, and it repelled them angrily. It would not share this trophy with neighbours. It rolled the irregular capsule to its centre store, as far as possible from all other capsid tunnels. There, it again felt more content.
The man’s animo was complex, and the capsid drew in sensations, motives, fears and purposes, not understanding them, but experiencing at second hand some of its trophy’s happinesses, unease, fear, and ambition. It was exciting, very pleasant. The capsid knew it would never have such a catch again, and its mental processes became more and more closely linked with the man.
Occasionally it sensed the exploratory forays of other capsids and it slowly grew afraid that some might succeed in stealing its prize. It would build higher, it decided, so as to carry the man up a little above the main tunnels. Other capsids would then only be able to approach him with difficulty.
It worked in a circle, throwing up sand, gluing the new cavity walls with secretions which hardened instantly in the searing heat, and which it could re-consume. As it got its prize higher above the tunnels, its unease diminished.
The capsid again occupied itself with sampling its captive’s emotions. Now, it felt closely associated with him in mental symbiosis. It enjoyed the sensation, and resented any possible intrusion by other capsids. After a little while it decided that the cavity holding the man might be raised even higher, for further protection against an attack by neighbouring capsids. It also decided temporarily to seal many of the radiating tunnels.
When the work was finished, the capsid felt pleased, and relapsed into its mental union with its captive. After a little while it again began to feel unease, and it decided even better preparation against attack would be wise. It went a long way down the remaining tunnels, then began collapsing them behind it as it returned. Soon it had created a neutral, tunnel-free area round its centre chambers, so that no neighbouring capsid could make a rapid attack.
The capsid was happy, its precautions taken, and in its close association with the man’s deeper mental levels. It enjoyed the sensation of gladness and safety, and let its body rest in the chamber with the man. But in a little while a new, sudden unease occupied the capsid’s mind. Suppose neighbouring capsids made a quick foray on the surface, with twilight when the sun’s harsh radiation was failing ? Suppose they captured the man, dragging him away ?
The possibility filled the capsid with a new unease. It made a quick circuit of the tunnels, to check they were blocked. In one place it could sense another capsid quite near, and its alarm grew. Perhaps the central chamber housing the man should be a little higher, the capsid decided. Other capsids could then be repelled more easily.
It began to work rapidly, throwing more sand and salt up around the chamber, cementing the powdery material so that the rising walls would not crumble. When it had finished, it felt content, and it paused, enjoying its contact with the man’s mind. Images that passed were completely unintelligible, but the undertone of emotion was strong, and pleased the capsid.
After a time the capsid realised that the direct radiation above was dropping in intensity, and that night was coming. A new, sudden unease filled it. Perhaps neighbouring capsids would be quick and strong enough to scale the small mound it had built. Perhaps the central chamber should be raised further, the capsid thought uneasily. It could be made a real fortress, safe from any attack.
It began to work rapidly, powerfully carrying up baked sand from farther levels. As it laboured, its unease began to pass once again, changing slowly to gladness.
Night drifted over the hemisphere. For a distance of very many miles, burrowing activity increased, as it grew safe to come nearer the surface. In the brief twilight between the searing radiation of day, and the cold blackness of night. occasional holes appeared in the beds of salt, as a capsid threw up unwanted sand from below, or sent out exploratory tendrils for soda and manganese crystals. High winds blew in the twilight regions, bearing heavy, whirling sheets of dust. Ages of ceaseless activity below had mixed and churned the whole surface of the planet, reducing it to a desert. No mountains stood against the sky. If valleys once existed, they were long ago filled, hidden by dunes of shifting powdered rock, arid salt and sand, and fragmented silicates and crystals.
The Endolon stood on gravity neutralising jets above the noon side of the planet. Shuttered ports screened out the biting radiation of the Pleiades sun and many of her small crew snatched brief sleep. When a man looked below, at the endless desert his scalp crept. Sometimes they watched tall pillars of swirling dust, but usually their gaze moved nervously, searching for any sign of movement under the gleaming wastes of sand. Each knew that there was no spot on the whole planet’s surface safe for the Endolon to rest upon, even fleetingly.
Anne had scarcely slept in the four days since Wallsey’s scout had crash-landed. Her father had reported the disaster, and many hours later had received a relayed report that a military ship carrying a special officer would be put into radio contact with the Endolon. The officer proved to be a young man with a deeply lined face and astonishingly piercing eyes, whose voice had a steely bite, even over the several stage relay covering parsecs of interstellar space.
Anne would not let herself hope. It would have taken weeks for the special officer’s ship to reach the Endolon, and even then he could do nothing.
“ I understand you trained with Wallsey,” her father said.
Captain Bridie nodded, his lined cheeks drawn in. “We studied everything known about the capsids, which is little enough.”
The elder man’s face was dark with fatigue. “ We only have a bearing pin-pointing the place within miles, Captain.” He glanced momentarily at Anne, sorry for her. “Originally, deposits from the ship were visible, but there is always a lot of sand and dust moving.”
The image flickered from some ionic disturbance somewhere in the space paths. “ You all realise it would be fatal to put the Endolon down ?” Captain Bridie asked. “ You’d all be captives within perhaps half a second, at the most.”
“ I know.” It was difficult to meet the pain in Anne’s eyes. “ How long could a man live — if he survived the forced landing ?”
“ Only a short time,” Bridie admitted. “ Temperatures are extreme. We’ve no exact knowledge of what the capsids do. No man has ever come back from even the briefest landing — ”
[The following paragraph is exactly as printed in the magazine:]
“ But I understood there was — was hope,” Anne cried, said you had studied capsids, “They perhaps knew more about them than anyone.”
“ Which is very little.” Captain Bridie was obviously moved by the pleading in her voice. “ No one can land anywhere on the planet. Special robots have landed, but their life was extremely short. No such robots are available now, anyway. If a search were possible, which it isn’t, it could scarcely succeed.” He was momentarily blanketed by static. “The Endolon has the usual forward loaded cargo intake ?”
“ Of course,” Anne’s father said briefly.
“ Then I suggest you get your crew alerted. Call me back as soon as they are ready, and when the area where the scout came down is approaching dawn. The communication channels will be kept ready.”
The lined, rather sad face disappeared. Anne’s heart grew heavy. She had hoped, but saw there was no reason for hope. Captain Bridie was so distant he could not reach them for weeks. Below, a man could live for only a short time, even if lucky. She glanced at the brazen radiation pouring on the dunes below, and shuddered. No ship could land there. No robot was available, even if they knew where to direct it.
She closed her eyes tightly to hold back tears.
The capsid sensed that its captive would not live very long, now. Tight in the great cocoon of fibres, the man was drifting towards coma and death. Only deep in his mind burnt a spark of determination and purpose, the last of unconscious will.
The dark period had been alternating joy and unease, for the capsid. Time after time it had settled down to enjoy its contact with the man’s mind, and just as repeatedly had it been roused by fear that other capsids would get too near. Towards dawn, the capsid’s activity had been more urgent.
In symbiosis with the man’s mind, it experienced an urgent desire to make its defences more impregnable. It repeatedly checked the caved-in tunnels, assuring no opening remained, or had been made. It realised that height was important, offering safety against surprise attack, and it laboured powerfully, drawing in more sand from a greater distance. The capsid felt that it was reasonably safe from attack from below, as all its tunnels were securely closed. But a surface attack was a different matter. It could not rest, but decided to build higher, so that the chamber holding the cocooned man was too high to be reached by other capsids, except by passing up the central, almost vertical tunnel, which it could personally defend.
The tiny spark in the man’s mind seemed to flicker more brightly, when the capsid laboured. When it rested, the spark burnt low, and the capsid returned to its work, feeling at second hand the need for greater efforts.
The Pleiades group sun dawned in steely brilliance, its scorching radiation glaring on the dunes. A cargo ship hung fifty miles above the sand, following the dawn. Below the surface, the capsid worked furiously. Soon it would be impossible to venture up, and the need not to relax in its labour was like a long drawn cry in its mind.
Vivid sunshine came over the area, and shone on the high, irregular, termite-like tower the capsid had built. Glued with its secretions, the tower walls shone with salt and mineral crystals. Round the tower, extending to a vast distance, was a circular moat, showing how industriously the capsid had carried sand. Away beyond the dip were the heaps and ridges which showed that other capsids had worked their way near.
The Endolon came quite slowly, altitude dropping, her course steered critically, and her gravity neutralising jets streaming fire down towards the dunes. Like a giant finger, the capsid tower stood high and clear, baked soda gleaming where the sun struck.
The Endolon passed over once, circled, and came again, lower. In her underside, the great front ports of the hanging loading bay stood open. The bay was a giant scoop, and it passed through the tower, gathering hundreds of tons of sand, that collapsed and streamed away. Inside the bay men clung to ropes, faces sweating. As the ship passed, low, a mass of tendrils appeared under her and in her wake, reaching up, so that the dunes were momentarily clothed with waving hair. The pillar broke, showing a central tunnel, its sides glinting, and the dark back of something that moved . . .
In the Endolon they tore off the cocoon. The ship was gaining altitude, motors closing her loading ports. Many hands carried Wallsey up out of the bay. With infinite thankfulness Anne saw that he lived.
As they carried him to the medical cabin, Wallsey’s lips moved, as if repeating a lesson learned so deeply it would never be lost.
“ We are not happy here. Build higher. It is not safe. Build higher. Others will attack you. We are not safe. Build higher—”
Kneeling by his side while the dust and sweat was wiped from his face, Anne understood. Captain Bridie had said no one could save a man lost down there. But he could save himself.
Francis G. Rayer.
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