The parasite had to be killed. An emergency operation was vital. The "surgeon" was the crew of a spaceship. = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
“I MAINTAIN that everything living is as inter-related as the various cell-masses in an individual. We think we’re independent individuals, but we’re only parts in one great whole — and how big that whole may be no one can say.”
To emphasise his words Captain Pollard drained his vitaminised cordial ration and set down the plastic container with a thud. His bluff face was triumphant; his agate eyes sparkling with the pugnacious intention of defending his theory. His shoulders were wide in the white jacket with the blue insignia of the Star Trail Corps emblazoned by the lapel. His cheeks, olive from weeks in the spaceship, showed the set of his jaw muscles as if he were ready to argue until suns cooled.
Roxy did not move in his seat, which quivered with each mighty pulsation of the rockets astern. “You mean we’re units in some great whole?” he murmured. “Like individual body cells making up a person?”
“What else?” Pollard stretched his full six feet, raising gigantic arms. “The cells in our bodies are really independent living entities. If they had consciousness could they deduce the reason for their existence? No! Yet supposing the body is wounded. The blood stream carries white corpuscles there, and they die by the hundred thousand, fighting the enemy bacteria of infection. Each is an individual, taking some part in the life of the whole.” He ended triumphantly and turned to peer through one of the ports which showed a star-flecked void, as if emphasising the enormousness of his conception of existence.
Roxy laughed. “So we’re corpuscles in some whole?’ he queried chidingly, although about his lean features there was no amusement.
“Yes, and yet no. Can we presume ourselves to be the ultimate intelligence any more than could a blood corpuscle which could realise its existence? To our cells the beating of the heart may be as the seasons; they fight bacteria, perhaps give way before some virulent form. They generate antitoxins, survive or die as individuals. How could they know anything of the existence of the whole body, or of the reasons behind their rush to one part to fight inflammation, or of their wholesale struggle against fever?”
Roxy shrugged, silent. During the six weeks they had been drumming outward-bound from Earth he had found this was Pollard’s pet theory. It was difficult to contradict, although mentally he recoiled from the thought that they were as individually insignificant to some unknown whole as a single living cell of their bodies was to themselves. The very magnitude of the conception precluded contradiction. But he was saved a reply which Pollard could not condemn as near-sighted by the entry of one of the men. His bronze face puzzled, he stopped by the door.
“We’re getting off course, sir,” he said somewhat lamely in the strained silence. “Could you come to the control room?”
Captain Pollard swore. “Can’t you keep a ship on a simple 09-second arc? Is the S.T.C. staffing ships with novices?”
Saunders stirred uncomfortably. “Yes — er, no, Captain. She’s drifting starboard.”
“Then put on starboard blast!”
“We have, sir. It doesn’t make any difference.”
Pollard swore again, clamping his jaw like a horse on a bit. Then shrugging, he stamped out, his boots ringing impatiently down the metal floor of the corridor.
WITH A SLIGHT frown Roxy turned towards one of the ports, to wait. That was the worst of most expeditionary jobs — there was so much waiting! Far to starboard he could see an area on the blackness of space where no star showed. That was the dust cloud, a billion miles across, they had arced to miss. Turning his eyes back, he searched for Sol, but light-years away with its friendly Earth it could not be distinguished from the other pin-points speckling the heavens. Watching, he saw those pin-points were slipping slowly from view astern as if they were running a circular course and there was a slight centrifugal tug to port. Wondering, he swung abruptly round and clattered in the wake of the departed Pollard.
Forward, the rockets were only a murmur, communicated by the shining metal walls around them. Roxy felt startled as he entered the control room. Pollard’s face was whiter than he had ever seen it. Indeed, only once on this trip into unknown space had he seen the tough Captain’s face pale, when they had barely missed an unplotted dust-cloud which would have shorn away the ship’s hull before they could lose velocity.
“It’s like running in a groove,” Pollard grunted, turning from the panel. “I can’t budge her!”
In the tense silence the starboard rockets roared. They should have been in a dizzy port turn, but still the pin-points of stars circled as before, leaving one far to starboard as a focus.
“Perhaps that dust cloud’s magnetic,” hazarded Roxy, perching on one of the mushroom stools.
The Captain shook his head. “It couldn’t hold us like this. The ship might as well be out of our control.”
Across the control room Saunders had been making calculations. “We’re running a curve with the axis on Xeros II,” he stated, consulting his notes. “It’s an oldish sun by the chart, and no ship’s been within a dozen parsecs of it yet.”
“Then we’ll shortly make history!” said Captain Pollard grimly, relaxing from his battle with the controls with a shrug. “Here’s one damn story for you, Roxy, if you ever get the chance to spout it!”
'I'he ship circled slowly, as if tied to the distant Xeros II by invisible bonds. For a time they watched helplessly, powerless to turn the ship back on to her course. Roxy felt the tension increasing with every minute, and as the minutes turned into hours the tension mounted until his skin felt taut and damp. He knew he was afraid — because here was something they could not understand.
They ate silently, afterwards to find the velocity dropping as they swung in on the remote red sun. Pollard turned on the full rocket blast in a last desperate effort to tear away from the unknown force holding them. The ship shuddered but did not gain speed. Tense-faced, he shut them off.
“God knows what we’re in the grip of! But we won’t blow her tubes out. We’ll wait.’’
And that was all they could do, thought Roxy, now the control of the ship was virtually out of their hands.
THE ARC grew tighter. Soon Xeros II was shining redly through the ports as they drifted in. A planet like a rusty moon was moving in their orbit, looming up ahead. It became clear that they would overtake it, although their speed was still dropping. Nearer and nearer it came until abruptly it seemed to fill the forward ports. As if some invisible and experienced hand was at the controls their arc became a tangent of the planet’s surface. They curved again, skimming giant trees, their speed still dropping. Then with a shudder they grounded, ploughing a half-mile long furrow through tangled vegetation which gave like a sponge below a pebble. With a last shudder, the ship was still, everything seeming strangely silent after the drone of the rockets and the momentary scream of their passage through the atmosphere.
Roxy struggled from the floor, where the concussion had flung him. As he reached his feet he noted the gravitation was near normal.
“What a God-forsaken hole!’’ groaned Pollard, staring from a port.
Roxy peered over his shoulder, to see a tangled mass of vine-like trees. The trees had an unhealthy look, and the fact that each was holding its leaves so that their yellow undersides alone were visible increased their afflicted aspect. Turning his eyes in the other direction he saw a large clearing covered with a low weed which had a greyish look in the rubicund light. The weed was lush and thriving, in singular distinction to the drooping vine trees, where the tendrils and slender shoots sprouting from the thick branches and trunks sagged dejectedly.
As they turned from the port one of the men appeared down the corridor. “Routine test shows the air’s O.K.,’’ he stated. “Bit high in oxygen content but safe.”
Pollard stamped across the control room towards the air-lock. “Come on,” he jerked out. “Let’s see what the ship looks like, and what kind of a spot we’re in.”
The oxygen tingled in their lungs after the ship’s flat, purified air. Roxy waited by the port while Pollard slogged round to the prow of the ship, trampling the juicy grey weed underfoot. After a few moments he became conscious of a continuous rustling, although there was no wind to stir the faintly-scented air against his cheeks. He looked for its origin, and by the time Pollard had returned Roxy could feel sweat breaking out on his forehead.
“D’you see those damned vines?” demanded the Captain as he stopped. “They’re alive in a way no trees I’ve ever seen before are!”
Roxy nodded, turning his eyes back to the tangled mass of vegetation. Every leaf on every vine was lifted so that the underside faced them squarely. And every leaf had turned, following Pollard’s progress towards the front of the ship and back again. “They know we’re here,” he said slowly.
Pollard drew the back of one great hand across his forehead, wiping away perspiration. “It’s giving me the jumps! Let’s have a look at the engines — perhaps after we’ll get used to these infernal plants watching us, or whatever sense it is they’re using!”
They filed inside again, and back into the engine rooms. As they began to check up their puzzlement increased. There was nothing wrong with the engines. Nothing was maladjusted and every unit was in perfect condition. Hopefully they closed the port to blast off. But nothing happened. With a momentary feeling of nausea from the sheer contradiction to logic forced as reality on them, Roxy realised they would not work.
“Lord”, said Pollard, sitting down on a stool with the only sign of weakness Roxy had ever seen him give, “tell your public the engines were O.K., but wouldn’t work, and they’d call you a liar!”
Roxy grunted assent. “We’re up against something more fundamental than we understand. There’s some primary governing factor we can’t appreciate. I suggest we sleep on it. Another few hours looking for a fault which doesn’t exist will send us nuts!”
ONCE DURING the night Roxy awoke, listening. There was a faint, zephyr-like sound all about the ship. As he propped himself on one elbow it increased, making an indistinct, melodious sound of inexpressible melancholy, like a thousand violins far in the distance. He rose, went down the corridor and stood at the port. The sound was all around, filling the night with a peculiar harmony in which sadness and unearthly beauty struggled for mastery. It was, he thought, as if a race of beings was weeping — and their tears were these sounds of melting pathos and smooth accord. The sound seemed to be part of the night and he shivered and returned to his bunk.
Morning brought a scarlet dawn but no solution to their problems. As Roxy stepped from the port he saw many of the leaves were drooping tiredly downwards. Some rose, showing their faded undersides so the forest seemed to turn from unhealthy green to yellow. After a few minutes in that position they sank again, until they hung listlessly with a melancholy, moisture-starved aspect.
He walked along the edge of the tangled mass. Leaves flipped up to face him, but sank as he passed. The grey weed did not penetrate anywhere into the jungle, he noticed. Nor did the vine-trees spread over the clearing, although stumps showed they had once grown there.
The clearing was perhaps half a mile in diameter. In the distance was a break in the closely tangled trees and with a mental note that he would take a party in that direction Roxy returned.
“There’s a gap and a hill east,” said Pollard, who was waiting with the men outside the ship. “We’re going to reconnoitre.”
Roxy joined them and they set off towards the place the Captain indicated. It was hard going across the juicy grey weed. Each step left behind a tangled mass of jelly-like stems, curling and twisting as if in agony. He picked up a piece and examined it as they slogged on. It was hairless and fleshy and covered with tiny holes, like an insect’s spiracles. After a few moments his fingers began to tingle and he flung it down. His skin was raw, bedewed with tiny spots of blood as if a leech had settled there.
Disgusted, he hurried on to reach the others. Pollard was fuming, a baffled expression on his face. “There’s no gap now!” he grated, pointing to an abrupt hump half a mile distant over the trees. “There’s the hill! The gap was here. I’ll swear!”
He stared from the hill to the ship, taking his bearings, then advanced to a place in the forest wall where horizontal stems barred their passage. “This is where it was!” he declared. “Now it’s closed!”
Roxy looked at the stout vine-branches bridging the place. It was impossible to get through. They would have to hack their way foot by foot through solid masses of fibrous stems, from which leaves regarded them flatly. He turned about.
“I saw a big break the other side of the clearing. Let’s go there.”
They followed him, slogging through the weed. Their outcoming foot-prints were gone already, Roxy noted with surprise. The weed had grown, leaving no sign.
The sun was high above them, giving the distant ship a red tint, and the atmosphere was tropical. Crushed underfoot, the grey weed gave off a sweet, disagreeable odour. As they rounded a point where the forest jutted into the irregular clearing Roxy’s eyes sought the break in the vine-trees. With a strange feeling he realised he, too, was to be unsuccessful. At last, when they were still fifty yards from the tangled wall, flecked with yellow leaf-bottoms, he stopped.
“This gap’s gone, too!”
“It seems almost as if these infernal trees want to keep us in the clearing!” declared Pollard when he had convinced himself there was indeed, no way through. “Heaven knows why!”
THEY TURNED, retracing their way between the dead tree stumps with difficulty. By the ship Saunders met them, a note-pad in his hand. “According to analysis this grey weed’s giving out oxygen at a tremendous rate. Perhaps that explains the condition of the ship.”
Surprised, they looked at the vessel. It was red. And it was not the reflected redness of Xeros II Roxy saw, but the red of new rust. The hull was thick with it. Flakes fell at their touch, revealing the metal, already dull and pitted as if from attack by some acid.
“There’s some combination which attacks metal violently,” added Saunders. “I've closed the ports, or inside will soon be like a scrap-yard. I’d give something to get out of here!”
“So’d we!” retorted Pollard, scowling. “And if you can get the ship moving the S.T.C. will pension you for life!”
Saunders flushed, returning without reply to the ship. When he had gone Pollard’s broad shoulders drooped, and his face became glum. “What do we do now, Roxy?” he asked, at a loss.
Roxy considered. “Any chance of getting the rockets in action after all?” he asked at length.
“No — there’s nothing wrong with them we could put right” said Pollard grudgingly. “Certainly the reason for their failure to operate isn’t normal. So we can do nothing.”
“Then if we can’t get away in the ship, nor penetrate the vine-forest without having to cut our way every inch, there’s no question. We stay here!”
Pollard frowned as if he had expected more. “A few weeks in this atmosphere will ruin the ship. We’ll camp outside and go over her again later”.
They burned away the grey mess with heat-guns to leave a singed clearing for their camp. Xeros II was already sinking towards the western horizon after the short day, casting long shadows across the space. When they had finished they ate, talking moodily.
Watching, Roxy saw the vine-trees were beginning to lift their leaves from where they had sagged since mid-day. A faint murmuring was beginning in the east, where the trees now lay in shadow. He rose slowly and walked to the edge of the tangle. As he moved the leaves moved slowly, too, always facing him. He shivered. The sad song of the trees was coming nearer with the gloom of night. Soon shadow touched the leaves nearby and they started to vibrate, slowly at first, but increasing until a throbbing like a double-bass filled his ears. The sound began to rise and fall in eerie unison, murmuring like a hundred thousand muted strings, rising to the faint, melodious sighing he had heard the previous night.
Roxy returned and got into his bag. There was something so pathetic about the melody of the leaves that it was with a feeling of inexpressible melancholy that he at last fell asleep. It were as if the trees were telling of some long-drawn, secret agony which sapped their life, leaving them listless except to tell of their misery in the evening cool.
The sighing, like a moaning lute, filled the clearing. Above tiny twin moons shone pinkly down like eyes in the sky. The grey weed looked sinister — a cancer on a once-beautiful planet. And with the touch of the night dew it unfurled, tendrils reaching out and buds uncurling. It began to creep, a living repugnant tide, closer and closer about the sleeping men. By the spaceship tendrils rose slowly, gripping on the flaky rust. Coil upon coil of stem followed, rustling up and up like snakes, buds expanding and rootlets gripping. Around the clearing the trees still sighed hopelessly.
ROXY AWOKE with the glint of Xeros II from the east in his eyes. As he blinked, the grey skirt round the ship met his gaze, and the mass of encroaching weed about them. He jumped up, kicking back the few stems which lay on the edge of his sleeping bag. While he stretched, Pollard came out of the ship, scattering grey stems in all directions.
“Our first job to-day is to kill off this stuff,” he exclaimed with a curse.
Roxy rolled up his bag, nodding. “You’re right! It would cover the ship in a few days.”
As he stopped there was a sudden sound in the distance. The murmur of the leaves had ceased and only an occasional one showed any interest in their activities. The men were getting out of their bags and they stood still, listening with strained expressions. It came again — a crashing far to the east as if of a great body pushing through the vine-trees. After a moment silence followed and Pollard shrugged.
“It’s nothing. Get some of the detrotexoline from the tube mixers. That’ll kill anything vegetable and we’ll dear this weed away.”
They rigged up wide-coverage sprays worked by compressed air and donned protective suits. By nightfall the grey weed was a shrivelling, wilting mass with its osmotic processes so disrupted that no plant which had been touched by the texoline would ever recover. Roxy peeled off helmet and gloves and surveyed the untidy mess with a feeling of satisfaction.
“I feel we’ve wiped a disease from the planet! Those vines are decent enough, but this stuff was loathsome.”
“You’re right,” agreed Pollard. “It was malignant. In time it would have covered the planet.”
That was so, thought Roxy. The vine-trees had been holding it at bay, but were forced to give ground slowly, as the stunted trees near the edge of the clearing, and the stumps farther in, showed. Once the clearing itself had been covered by vine-trees, as the rotting stumps proved.
As they put away the sprayers by the last light of day the leaves seemed to turn towards them with unusual interest, following each movement.
ROXY sat in the air-lock with the dusk, awaiting the chorus darkness had previously brought. But there was no murmur from the trees. Silence covered the tangled masses, down upon which the twin moons stared like some immense entity overshadowing them — a giant watching an ant-hill. He waited a while, but the melody did not begin. At last, puzzled, he turned in.
Roxy got up, noting that somehow the tension seemed to have gone from the air. At that moment Pollard himself appeared along the corridor.
“The plain’s clear!” he declared, beckoning. “And there’s dozens of gaps in the trees!”
They hurried out, and Roxy felt puzzled anew. There were many broad gaps in the vine-trees, through which they could walk. And now they remained invitingly open while they approached.
“Let’s explore,” suggested one of the men as they stood undecided.
Roxy hesitated, a feeling he could not express overcoming him. “I think it’s best not to,” he said quietly. Was it the memory of those distant crashes? he wondered. “We’re safe by the ship.”
“It can’t hurt to go to the top of the hill,” objected Saunders, coming up.
Roxy shrugged. Pollard was back by the ship and he himself had no authority over the crew. He watched while they walked down the avenue of vines. The leaves followed them eerily, the blending of the green and yellow marking the point of their progress towards the hill.
He returned to the ship. Pollard was rubbing the five days’ growth of red stubble on his chin thoughtfully. “Queer how the trees kept us here until we’d killed that weed, Roxy,” he murmured, spitting brownly from the plug he had hoarded. “Reminds me of being shut in school as a kid till I’d done my sums right.”
He was interrupted by sudden cries. Saunders and the other man were racing frantically down the avenue from the hill. Behind them Roxy had a momentary glimpse of some animal, large as an elephant, and with a mouth big enough to engulf a man at one swallow, thundering after them, gaining rapidly. Then vine-like branches whipped out, intertwining and curling one around the other. In an instant, a thickening hedge thirty feet high was thrown between fugitives and animal. The boughs quivered as a raging body flung itself against it, but did not yield.
Saunders and the other man staggered into the clearing, sweat beading their brows and terror in their eyes.
But it was not at them Roxy looked. Where the avenue had been was a wall of vine-trees, their long limbs entwined in an almost solid barrier. And glancing round the clearing he saw the other avenues closing, more leisurely, but just as surely.
“Those trees have our safety at heart!” grunted Pollard in perplexity.
Roxy nodded silently. Some great rational explanation must underlie these seemingly inexplicable occurrences, he felt sure. What rules would obtain on a planet like this? Self-preservation, certainly. And yet why had their ship been forced to land there in the first place? And why wouldn’t the engines work when they were perfect?
As he pondered something struck his mind. So immense was its conception that for a moment his reason wavered. Recovering, he felt a cold dew of perspiration on his brow, and his fingers shook as he reached for one of his carefully conserved cigarettes. He had called the grey weed a disease . . . Certainly the vines already looked much healthier. Perhaps the weed, unable to make advances quickly enough by other means, had exhaled an injurious substance. But that was nothing. What staggered him was the realisation of their purpose on this planet.
He turned to the others, licking dry lips. “I think our purpose here is finished and that we may go.”
“But the damned engines won’t function!” objected Pollard irately, staring at him.
HE LED the way in. They sealed the door and took up blasting-off stations.
Hand resting on the firing lever Pollard turned to meet Roxy’s gaze. “If the darn thing didn’t work before, why should it work now?” he objected, depressing the lever. “I think- - ”
He broke off sharply as the sudden concussion of the rockets sent him spinning across the cabin. “Orbits and satellites! The ship’s moving!” It was not until they had soared up beyond the edge of the clearing and he slackened speed automatically to take bearings, that the colour had come back to his cheeks.
Below, the planet — a mass of green plants with few spaces — lay. There were no further spots of grey weed. Of the creatures, two grazing under a hillside were all they saw. Below the green turned to yellow as millions of leaves strained to reverse themselves to sense the ship. At last Pollard spoke.
“This beats me, Roxy. I’d call it a bad dream. Now we’re back just where we started.”
“We’ve been on the site of a great necessity,” murmured Roxy pensively. “Nothing local could deal with it. Come to think of it, if I cut my finger ever so slightly the local cells couldn’t deal with it either, unaided.”
Pollard frowned, struggling to get back to normal with obvious difficulty. “Oh, you’re getting back to where I started,” he said in a slightly dazed voice. “What was it I said? We’d be as unaware of some great whole scheme of things as individual cells in a person, living each its own life but contributing to the whole. Sure, we’ll talk of that— it’s nuts, but it always makes me feel sane !”
Roxy did not reply. Now he was not ready to argue with the tough Captain. Instead he wanted to think over the greatest story he had ever had — and one he could never tell, because no one would believe. Folk would say they’d been drunk . . . that the engines had some self-clearing fault . . . anything except the truth . . . But he knew, now, why they had spent those tense days on Xeros II's planet, and why they’d killed a weed the trees couldn’t combat! It was simply inter-endemic, if he dared use that term for a case no other could fit!
Francis G. Rayer.
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