MacAloon rose in the stirrups of his saddle-lizard. His guide, a Venusian fishman, trembled nervously at the mount’s side and pointed straight ahead. MacAloon followed the direction of the quivering four-jointed, scaly arm.
“See, bossmac?” the reptilian native hissed in fright. “Bosslimpy speak truth. Cen’pedes ready to march. Soon they attack us. Then is all over.”
On the other lizard, little Al Birchall tried to peer through the bright white fog of Venus. It was like attempting to gaze through a bedsheet.
MacAloon lifted a pair of infra-red binoculars to his eyes. Instantly, the glasses dispelled the blinding mist.
“See anything, Mac?” Birchall asked.
Mac stared ahead without answering. Before him lay the black, motionless ocean which covered all the planet except a few hundred large islands. At the shore he saw movement, an enormous inky wave that flowed ponderously up over the land and steadily inched forward.
Countless thousands of foot-long creatures were swarming out of the water and falling into dense marching ranks. The beasts, like huge centipedes, each had dozens of swift legs. The front half was legless, though, and looked like the human part of a centaur. It wasn’t only the posture that made the resemblance. They had round heads, shaped like skulls, with deadly mandibles; and clever arms and hands grew out of their shoulders.
Centaurpedes—even more than the heat, the mud and the fog, they were man’s most murderous enemy on Venus.
Silently, Mac handed the binoculars to Al Birchall.
“Bossmac,” the fishman pleaded, “we go ‘way, not fight cen’pedes? They kill and eat us; nothing we can do.”
Mac watched Al lower the glasses from his eyes. He did it very slowly at first, then grinned when he caught Mac’s gaze, and flipped the binoculars across.
“They sure look dangerous,” he said.
“They are,” Mac answered quietly. “They can strip the flesh off our bones in three minutes flat.”
Below them, between the tall bulk of the two mounts, the fishman’s long, flat head turned from Mac’s face to Al’s.
“Bossal, tell bossmac we not able fight cen’pedes,” he begged sibilantly. “They come—” The thin, scaled hands waved excitedly, “like biggest army you ever see, make war on mine. You kill and kill, more come. Please, we go to man city!”
MacAloon jerked his lizard’s reins around in the direction of the mine. Al’s mount came alongside. The fishman groaned, then began trotting before them on swift webbed feet. They splashed over the eternal mud, through the ever-present white fog.
Should they give up the fight against the shrewd, heartbreakingly persistent vermin? If they did, they would have to abandon the mine which had become their lifework. They would have to blow up the place before retreating.
For all life on Venus was amphibious, but centaurpedes were deliberately trying to quit the water, knowing their semi-civilization could reach its mechanistic goal only on land.
Unable to prop the porous native rock with the brittle, primitive plastics they used instead of metals, they were striving to take over an iron mine that had already been started by human engineers. Then, with the metal they could produce, they would make tools and raise cities … and manufacture weapons with which to push men clear off the planet.
Their forays had forced a number of mines out of existence. Two years ago, before Al Birchall became the fourth partner here, an undersea colony of ‘pedes swarmed down on this place. Surrounded on all sides, the men had put up a long, bitter fight. If Adonis City, half around the globe, hadn’t finally sent a rocket ship, they would have been lost.
In the rocket, Mac had tried flame-strafing with the bow jets, swooping back and forth across the black mass of besiegers. But the wily animals merely dug deep in the mud and waited till he passed overhead, then continued the attack. Since he couldn’t be everywhere at once, part of the army was always surging forward. At best, the strafing only slowed down the assault.
But then Limpy Austin, up in the lookout tower, sighted foraging parties in the rear, dragging up food supplies in the form of gigantic dead meat-eaters. Mac had rocketed over the rear of the army, burning the food into useless charred fragments. Starving, the attackers were at last forced to retreat to their ocean city, but only until they could figure out a new strategy.
Mac said, “We’ll stick.”
Otherwise, he knew, he’d have to go back to ferrying fruit boats between South America and Antarctica. Birchall would revert to his old confidence games all over the System. Swede Steffansen would have to manipulate a freight crane on Mercury again. And Limpy Austin—well, there wasn’t much a semi-cripple could do, outside of being lookout and radio operator for his friends.
The two riders approached the mine enclosure which struggled into visibility through the smothering haze. The fishman, fleeter than the lumbering saddle-lizards, had already reached the high wire fence. He gestured wildly at the guard nearest him, an alert armed Venusian who stood on a stilt-platform that overlooked the fence to the mud flats beyond.
The guard pressed a button that opened a gate in the wire barricade. The mounted men pounded through, and over the wide muddy stretch to the concrete wall.
Deeply embedded in the ooze, with the rock bed for a foundation, the wall paralleled the outer fence and closed in the entire mining grounds. Its polished outer face was deeply indented, like a sharply curved concave lens. No joints showed in the smooth surface.
But Limpy Austin, up in the glass-walled lookout room atop the stilt blockade house, saw them. He opened a tightly fitting door in the concrete rampart. They rode through into the compound, dismounted near the closed-cabin freight tractor that stood beside the smelter.
“The ‘pedes are coming, aren’t they?” asked a slow, heavy voice behind them. Swede Steffansen came around the lizards. He was a big, placid man, but his sky-blue eyes—blue as the heaven of Earth, not this white hell—were troubled now. He said: “I could tell by the way the pack animals are acting. They’re touchy.”
“They caught the scent,” Mac answered. “The attack’s due in about two hours. Let all the animals out. We don’t want them stampeding during the battle.”
Swede nodded, slogged off toward the corral.
“Tell the fishmen we’re in for a fight with ‘pedes,” Mac ordered Birchall. “Weed out the weak sisters. They’d only get in our way, anyhow.”
Stepping high to avoid splashing, Al bounded off in the direction of the tipple at the mine entry. MacAloon went into the blockade house and climbed to the lookout room.
Limpy Austin was standing at the infra-red glass wall. His left arm and leg were shriveled, and one side of his face was twisted up in a sardonic leer. Mercurian Paralysis, that strange disease which immobilizes either half of a person depending on whether it is contracted at the Day or Night Side, had made a hopeless cripple of him.
He turned around when Mac came in. “Well?” he asked.
“They’re coming, all right,” Mac grunted. He leaned over the control panel, pushed the button that clanged the cease-work alarm down in the mine. Then he threw the lever that halted the ore cars to bring the men to the surface.
“How do things look?” Limpy pursued.
Mac shrugged. “We ought to have a better chance than before. There are four of us this time.”
Limpy shuffled to the radio. With his slender, sensitive right hand, he twisted the dials.
“Adonis City,” he said harshly into the microphone. “Limpy Austin calling Adonis City….”
There was a squeal of static. “Adonis City,” replied a harried voice. “Come in, Austin, but make it short!”
“‘Pede attack on every damned mine. How about you? Aren’t they—”
“Yeah,” Limpy cut in. “That’s why I’m calling. Send over a ship. Ours is wrecked.”
The weary voice cursed. “I can’t, Austin. We figured you had a boat, so we shipped them all to the other mines.”
“Okay,” Limpy shrugged. “Then we’ll have to do without.”
“Why don’t you guys blow up the place and leave?”
“Maybe we’ll have to. I don’t know. When you get a chance—”
“Yeah,” the man replied hastily. “The first ship that comes in, you guys get. So long, and good luck!”
Limpy switched off and glanced inquiringly at Mac, his paralyzed grin a slash of seemingly pure evil.
“Looks bad, Mac.”
“Maybe,” MacAloon said curtly. “If we can hold out till they give us a boat, we’ll come through all right.”
Nevertheless, he frowned, worried by the simultaneous attacks. There was something ominous behind them—and he didn’t know what.
Limpy was sullen; the more the right side of his face drew down in anger, the more sardonically leered the frozen left side. Swede’s placid features showed no emotion, but his clenched fists did. Mac alone tried to appear cheerful, though his mind was furiously analyzing their grave situation. While Birchall said nothing, peering absently into space.
Silently, the men pulled on steel-soled shoes, lead-fiber gloves and infra-red goggles. On their backs they strapped compact battery-radios with short antennae, a fixed microphone at the chest. The loudspeaker atop each small set, at neck level, could be heard in anything short of a vacuum or explosion. Then the defenders armed themselves with flame-throwers and machine guns that shot steel-piercing bomb bullets.
Straightening, Mac asked: “How many fishmen are staying?”
“Twenty-one,” snarled Birchall.
Mac grinned wryly. “Cheer up, Al. That’s better than I figured on.” He turned. “Limpy, stay up at lookout. Warn me when the ‘pedes are getting close. Swede, you and Al set up ammunition dumps in the compound. Then make sure the explosives and contacts will work fast if we have to blow up the place in a hurry.”
While the others dispersed, Mac gathered a squad of fishmen, armed with flame-throwers and led them outside the high fence. Methodically, they burned down all vegetation for a distance of several hundred yards, to prevent the centaurpedes from creeping up close under cover.
When Mac and his detachment were returning, Limpy opened a sluice from the central control tower. Oil poured into the shallow water-filled moat that ringed the wire barrier. A thick, greasy film spread over the water.
Meanwhile, the rest of the fishmen had been deployed around the inside of the fence. They stood nervously holding their flame-throwers, their membrane-covered eyes bulging anxiously. Up on the stilt towers, the best native marksmen pressed their quivering scaled shoulders against the stocks of mounted machine-guns.
Mac felt a pang of gratitude. He knew what their decision to stay had meant. All life on Venus dreaded the centaurpede with a blind, wild terror.
“Hey!” Limpy’s voice grated through the radio. “Come up to the lookout room!”
MacAloon rushed through the mud and climbed to the glass-walled chamber. He glanced questioningly at Limpy. The lookout man wordlessly handed him a pair of binoculars and pointed to the coast.
Swede and Al burst in, as usual, asked no questions. But Birchall was babbling at a terrific rate.
“Shut up!” Limpy said tensely.
Mac stared at the ocean. His jaw muscles suddenly bunched into hard knots. At wide intervals, six black waves were lapping over the shore and rolling down on the mine like a flood—a deluge with gigantic mandibles and fiendish cunning, a torrent miles long and spread far over the muddy plain.
“That’s never happened before,” Limpy whispered. “It was always one colony to a mine.”
Swede and Al took turns at the binoculars. No change came over Swede’s face. Birchall’s, though, contracted in horror.
“They got together!” he yapped. “We’re done for, Mac! We can’t fight six colonies all at once, and without a boat!”
Scowling, Mac jammed his hands into his pockets. “They’re using holding attacks on the other mines to tie up help from Adonis City. Meanwhile, they’re concentrating their main force here.”
“Smart little devils,” rumbled Swede.
“We ought to quit!” Al chattered. “We can’t lick them!”
His face whiter and more contorted than ever, Limpy said: “Why don’t you guys beat it?”
Mac’s head jerked up sharply. Swede looked at Limpy in mild surprise. Al Birchall’s chin dropped.
“What do you mean—us guys?” Al demanded. “What about you?”
Both sides of Limpy’s face grinned sardonically. “No boat, all the animals set free—you’ll have to run for it. And me? Well, I’m not much good at running. But you three can escape, if I’m not along to hold you back.”
“I’m a heel,” snarled Birchall. “Forget what I said.”
“Sure, Limpy,” Swede added with clumsy joviality. “This little ape is always talking before he thinks. We’re sticking—all of us.”
“Cut it out!” snapped Limpy. “Somebody has to stay here to throw the dynamite switch. I don’t need any help.”
“Nobody’s throwing any switch,” Mac declared. “This is our mine, and no damned vermin are taking it over!”
“But you’ll never beat them,” pleaded Limpy. “And even if you did, they’d only keep coming back until they got the place. You can’t wipe them out once and for all.”
“Someday, somebody will,” Mac said. “In the meantime, we can fight like hell. ‘Pedes haven’t any more intelligence than a bee, but even they get tired of being slaughtered.”
“A bee?” Al asked. “I thought ‘pedes were smart devils.”
“Not individually, according to Graves, the old-time biologist.”
“Then how can they plan and act all together?”
“They have some way of coordinating, Graves claimed. How does a beehive act as a unit? We don’t know, but it does just the same.”
“Can’t I talk you fellows into leaving?” begged Limpy.
“No!” Al stated flatly.
Limpy shrugged. Shuffling over to the window, he pointed down at the closed-cabin tractor beside the smelter.
“Then how about letting me use that as a tank?” he asked. “I’m not much good here, anyhow. The ‘pedes wouldn’t be able to get at me, inside the cabin, and I could crush and burn them down till they quit.”
“That was tried once at a mine,” said Mac. “The ‘pedes dug tank traps. The driver killed himself after being stuck in one for a week. It didn’t matter; he’d have died soon enough. But even when he skipped the traps, the ‘pedes dodged the treads. They don’t just stand around and wait to be crushed.”
The right side of Limpy’s face drew down in disappointment. “You guys are suckers to stick around. I’m just a rubber cog.”
“Rubber cog, huh?” Al yelped. “How do you think we’re going to fight without a lookout man?”
“Don’t talk like a sap, Limpy,” added Mac with gruff gentleness. “We need you a lot more than you need us.”
A slow, sad smile spread over Limpy’s twisted features.
“Okay, if that’s how you feel about it.”
“That’s how we feel about it,” Swede answered.
They went down to their stations within the enclosure. In deadly silence, the camp waited for the first blow.