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PLANET OF DREAD ***




Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net









PLANET of DREAD

By MURRAY LEINSTER

Illustrator ADKINS


[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Fantastic Stories
of Imagination May 1962. Extensive research did not uncover any
evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]




_Moran cut apart the yard-long monstrosity with a slash of flame.
The thing presumably died, but it continued to writhe senselessly.
He turned to see other horrors crawling toward him. Then he knew he
was being marooned on a planet of endless terrors._


I.

Moran, naturally, did not mean to help in the carrying out of the plans
which would mean his destruction one way or another. The plans were
thrashed out very painstakingly, in formal conference on the space-yacht
_Nadine_, with Moran present and allowed to take part in the discussion.
From the viewpoint of the _Nadine's_ ship's company, it was simply
necessary to get rid of Moran. In their predicament he might have come
to the same conclusion; but he was not at all enthusiastic about their
decision. He would die of it.

The _Nadine_ was out of overdrive and all the uncountable suns of the
galaxy shone steadily, remotely, as infinitesimal specks of light of
every color of the rainbow. Two hours since, the sun of this solar
system had been a vast glaring disk off to port, with streamers and
prominences erupting about its edges. Now it lay astern, and Moran
could see the planet that had been chosen for his marooning. It was a
cloudy world. There were some dim markings near one lighted limb, but
nowhere else. There was an ice-cap in view. The rest was - clouds.

* * * * *

The ice-cap, by its existence and circular shape, proved that the planet
rotated at a not unreasonable rate. The fact that it was water-ice told
much. A water-ice ice-cap said that there were no poisonous gases in the
planet's atmosphere. Sulfur dioxide or chlorine, for example, would not
allow the formation of water-ice. It would have to be sulphuric-acid or
hydrochloric-acid ice. But the ice-cap was simple snow. Its size, too,
told about temperature-distribution on the planet. A large cap would
have meant a large area with arctic and sub-arctic temperatures, with
small temperate and tropical climate-belts. A small one like this meant
wide tropical and sub-tropical zones. The fact was verified by the
thick, dense cloud-masses which covered most of the surface, - all the
surface, in fact, outside the ice-cap. But since there were ice-caps
there would be temperate regions. In short, the ice-cap proved that a
man could endure the air and temperature conditions he would find.

* * * * *

Moran observed these things from the control-room of the _Nadine_, then
approaching the world on planetary drive. He was to be left here, with
no reason ever to expect rescue. Two of the _Nadine's_ four-man crew
watched out the same ports as the planet seemed to approach. Burleigh
said encouragingly;

"It doesn't look too bad, Moran!"

Moran disagreed, but he did not answer. He cocked an ear instead. He
heard something. It was a thin, wabbling, keening whine. No natural
radiation sounds like that. Moran nodded toward the all-band speaker.

"Do you hear what I do?" he asked sardonically.

Burleigh listened. A distinctly artificial signal came out of the
speaker. It wasn't a voice-signal. It wasn't an identification beacon,
such as are placed on certain worlds for the convenience of interstellar
skippers who need to check their courses on extremely long runs. This
was something else.

Burleigh said:

"Hm ... Call the others, Harper."

Harper, prudently with him in the control-room, put his head into the
passage leading away. He called. But Moran observed with grudging
respect that he didn't give him a chance to do anything drastic. These
people on the _Nadine_ were capable. They'd managed to recapture the
_Nadine_ from him, but they were matter-of-fact about it. They didn't
seem to resent what he'd tried to do, or that he'd brought them an
indefinite distance in an indefinite direction from their last
landing-point, and they had still to re-locate themselves.

* * * * *

They'd been on Coryus Three and they'd gotten departure clearance from
its space-port. With clearance-papers in order, they could land
unquestioned at any other space-port and take off again - provided the
other space-port was one they had clearance for. Without rigid control
of space-travel, any criminal anywhere could escape the consequences of
any crime simply by buying a ticket to another world. Moran couldn't
have bought a ticket, but he'd tried to get off the planet Coryus on the
_Nadine_. The trouble was that the _Nadine_ had clearance papers
covering five persons aboard - four men and a girl Carol. Moran made six.
Wherever the yacht landed, such a disparity between its documents and
its crew would spark an investigation. A lengthy, incredibly minute
investigation. Moran, at least, would be picked out as a fugitive from
Coryus Three. The others were fugitives too, from some unnamed world
Moran did not know. They might be sent back where they came from. In
effect, with six people on board instead of five, the _Nadine_ could not
land anywhere for supplies. With five on board, as her papers declared,
she could. And Moran was the extra man whose presence would rouse
space-port officials' suspicion of the rest. So he had to be dumped.

He couldn't blame them. He'd made another difficulty, too. Blaster in
hand, he'd made the _Nadine_ take off from Coryus III with a trip-tape
picked at random for guidance. But the trip-tape had been computed for
another starting-point, and when the yacht came out of overdrive it was
because the drive had been dismantled in the engine-room. So the ship's
location was in doubt. It could have travelled at almost any speed in
practically any direction for a length of time that was at least
indefinite. A liner could re-locate itself without trouble. It had
elaborate observational equipment and tri-di star-charts. But smaller
craft had to depend on the Galactic Directory. The process would be to
find a planet and check its climate and relationship to other planets,
and its flora and fauna against descriptions in the Directory. That was
the way to find out where one was, when one's position became doubtful.
The _Nadine_ needed to make a planet-fall for this.

The rest of the ship's company came into the control-room. Burleigh
waved his hand at the speaker.

"Listen!"

* * * * *

They heard it. All of them. It was a trilling, whining sound among the
innumerable random noises to be heard in supposedly empty space.

"That's a marker," Carol announced. "I saw a costume-story tape once
that had that sound in it. It marked a first-landing spot on some planet
or other, so the people could find that spot again. It was supposed to
be a long time ago, though."

"It's weak," observed Burleigh. "We'll try answering it."

Moran stirred, and he knew that every one of the others was conscious of
the movement. But they didn't watch him suspiciously. They were alert by
long habit. Burleigh said they'd been Underground people, fighting the
government of their native world, and they'd gotten away to make it seem
the revolt had collapsed. They'd go back later when they weren't
expected, and start it up again. Moran considered the story probable.
Only people accustomed to desperate actions would have remained so calm
when Moran had used desperate measures against them.

Burleigh picked up the transmitter-microphone.

"Calling ground," he said briskly. "Calling ground! We pick up your
signal. Please reply."

He repeated the call, over and over and over. There was no answer.
Cracklings and hissings came out of the speaker as before, and the thin
and reedy wabbling whine continued. The _Nadine_ went on toward the
enlarging cloudy mass ahead.

Burleigh said;

"Well?"

"I think," said Carol, "that we should land. People have been here. If
they left a beacon, they may have left an identification of the planet.
Then we'd know where we are and how to get to Loris."

Burleigh nodded. The _Nadine_ had cleared for Loris. That was where it
should make its next landing. The little yacht went on. All five of its
proper company watched as the planet's surface enlarged. The ice-cap
went out of sight around the bulge of the globe, but no markings
appeared. There were cloud-banks everywhere, probably low down in the
atmosphere. The darker vague areas previously seen might have been
highlands.

"I think," said Carol, to Moran, "that if it's too tropical where this
signal's coming from, we'll take you somewhere near enough to the
ice-cap to have an endurable climate. I've been figuring on food, too.
That will depend on where we are from Loris because we have to keep
enough for ourselves. But we can spare some. We'll give you the
emergency-kit, anyhow."

* * * * *

The emergency-kit contained antiseptics, seeds, and a weapon or two,
with elaborate advice to castaways. If somebody were wrecked on an even
possibly habitable planet, the especially developed seed-strains would
provide food in a minimum of time. It was not an encouraging thought,
though, and Moran grimaced.

She hadn't said anything about being sorry that he had to be marooned.
Maybe she was, but rebels learn to be practical or they don't live long.
Moran wondered, momentarily, what sort of world they came from and why
they had revolted, and what sort of set-back to the revolt had sent the
five off in what they considered a strategic retreat but their
government would think defeat. Moran's own situation was perfectly
clear.

He'd killed a man on Coryus III. His victim would not be mourned by
anybody, and somebody formerly in very great danger would now be safe,
which was the reason for what Moran had done. But the dead man had been
very important, and the fact that Moran had forced him to fight and
killed him in fair combat made no difference. Moran had needed to get
off-planet, and fast. But space-travel regulations are especially
designed to prevent such escapes.

He'd made a pretty good try, at that. One of the controls on
space-traffic required a ship on landing to deposit its fuel-block in
the space-port's vaults. The fuel-block was not returned until clearance
for departure had been granted. But Moran had waylaid the messenger
carrying the _Nadine's_ fuel-block back to that space-yacht. He'd
knocked the messenger cold and presented himself at the yacht with the
fuel. He was admitted. He put the block in the engine's gate. He duly
took the plastic receipt-token the engine only then released, and he
drew a blaster. He'd locked two of the _Nadine's_ crew in the
engine-room, rushed to the control-room without encountering the others,
dogged the door shut, and threaded in the first trip-tape to come to
hand. He punched the take-off button and only seconds later the
overdrive. Then the yacht - and Moran - was away. But his present
companions got the drive dismantled two days later and once the yacht
was out of overdrive they efficiently gave him his choice of
surrendering or else. He surrendered, stipulating that he wouldn't be
landed back on Coryus; he still clung to hope of avoiding return - which
was almost certain anyhow. Because nobody would want to go back to a
planet from which they'd carried away a criminal, even though they'd
done it unwillingly. Investigation of such a matter might last for
months.

Now the space-yacht moved toward a vast mass of fleecy whiteness without
any visible features. Harper stayed with the direction-finder. From time
to time he gave readings requiring minute changes of course. The
wabbling, whining signal was louder now. It became louder than all the
rest of the space-noises together.

* * * * *

The yacht touched atmosphere and Burleigh said;

"Watch our height, Carol."

She stood by the echometer. Sixty miles. Fifty. Thirty. A correction of
course. Fifteen miles to surface below. Ten. Five. At twenty-five
thousand feet there were clouds, which would be particles of ice so
small that they floated even so high. Then clear air, then lower clouds,
and lower ones still. It was not until six thousand feet above the
surface that the planet-wide cloud-level seemed to begin. From there on
down it was pure opacity. Anything could exist in that dense, almost
palpable grayness. There could be jagged peaks.

The _Nadine_ went down and down. At fifteen hundred feet above the
unseen surface, the clouds ended. Below, there was only haze. One could
see the ground, at least, but there was no horizon. There was only an
end to visibility. The yacht descended as if in the center of a sphere
in which one could see clearly nearby, less clearly at a little
distance, and not at all beyond a quarter-mile or so.

There was a shaded, shadowless twilight under the cloud-bank. The ground
looked like no ground ever seen before by anyone. Off to the right a
rivulet ran between improbable-seeming banks. There were a few very
small hills of most unlikely appearance. It was the ground, the matter
on which one would walk, which was strangest. It had color, but the
color was not green. Much of it was a pallid, dirty-yellowish white. But
there were patches of blue, and curious veinings of black, and here and
there were other colors, all of them unlike the normal color of
vegetation on a planet with a sol-type sun.

Harper spoke from the direction-finder;

"The signal's coming from that mound, yonder."

There was a hillock of elongated shape directly in line with the
_Nadine's_ course in descent. Except for the patches of color, it was
the only considerable landmark within the half-mile circle in which
anything could be seen at all.

The _Nadine_ checked her downward motion. Interplanetary drive is rugged
and sure, but it does not respond to fine adjustment. Burleigh used
rockets, issuing great bellowings of flame, to make actual contact. The
yacht hovered, and as the rocket-flames diminished slowly she sat down
with practically no impact at all. But around her there was a monstrous
tumult of smoke and steam. When the rockets went off, she lay in a
burned-out hollow some three or four feet deep with a bottom of solid
stone. The walls of the hollow were black and scorched. It seemed that
at some places they quivered persistently.

There was silence in the control-room save for the whining noise which
now was almost deafening. Harper snapped off the switch. Then there was
true silence. The space-yacht had come to rest possibly a hundred yards
from the mound which was the source of the space-signal. That mound
shared the peculiarity of the ground as far as they could see through
the haze. It was not vegetation in any ordinary sense. Certainly it was
no mineral surface! The landing-pockets had burned away three or four
feet of it, and the edge of the burned area smoked noisesomely, and
somehow it looked as if it would reek. And there were places where it
stirred.

Burleigh blinked and stared. Then he reached up and flicked on the
outside microphones. Instantly there was bedlam. If the landscape was
strange, here, the sounds that came from it were unbelievable.

* * * * *

There were grunting noises. There were clickings, uncountable clickings
that made a background for all the rest. There were discordant howls and
honkings. From time to time some thing unknown made a cry that sounded
very much like a small boy trailing a stick against a picket fence, only
much louder. Something hooted, maintaining the noise for an impossibly
long time. And persistently, sounding as if they came from far away,
there were booming noises, unspeakably deep-bass, made by something
alive. And something shrieked in lunatic fashion and something else
still moaned from time to time with the volume of a steam-whistle....

"This sounds and looks like a nice place to live," said Moran with fine
irony.

Burleigh did not answer. He turned down the outside sound.

"What's that stuff there, the ground?" he demanded. "We burned it away
in landing. I've seen something like it somewhere, but never taking the
place of grass!"

"That," said Moran as if brightly, "that's what I'm to make a garden in.
Of evenings I'll stroll among my thrifty plantings and listen to the
delightful sounds of nature."

Burleigh scowled. Harper flicked off the direction-finder.

"The signal still comes from that hillock yonder," he said with
finality.

Moran said bitingly;

"That ain't no hillock, that's my home!"

Then, instantly he'd said it, he recognized that it could be true. The
mound was not a fold in the ground. It was not an up-cropping of the
ash-covered stone on which the _Nadine_ rested. The enigmatic,
dirty-yellow-dirty-red-dirty-blue-and-dirty-black ground-cover hid
something. It blurred the shape it covered, very much as enormous
cobwebs made solid and opaque would have done. But when one looked
carefully at the mound, there was a landing-fin sticking up toward the
leaden skies. It was attached to a large cylindrical object of which the
fore part was crushed in. The other landing-fins could be traced.

"It's a ship," said Moran curtly. "It crash-landed and its crew set up a
signal to call for help. None came, or they'd have turned the beacon
off. Maybe they got the lifeboats to work and got away. Maybe they lived
as I'm expected to live until they died as I'm expected to die."

Burleigh said angrily;

"You'd do what we are doing if you were in our shoes!"

"Sure," said Moran, "but a man can gripe, can't he?"

"You won't have to live here," said Burleigh. "We'll take you somewhere
up by the ice-cap. As Carol said, we'll give you everything we can
spare. And meanwhile we'll take a look at that wreck yonder. There might
be an indication in it of what solar system this is. There could be
something in it of use to you, too. You'd better come along when we
explore."

"Aye, aye, sir," said Moran with irony. "Very kind of you, sir. You'll
go armed, sir?"

Burleigh growled;

"Naturally!"

"Then since I can't be trusted with a weapon," said Moran, "I suggest
that I take a torch. We may have to burn through that loathesome stuff
to get in the ship."

"Right," growled Burleigh again. "Brawn and Carol, you'll keep ship. The
rest of us wear suits. We don't know what that stuff is outside."

* * * * *

Moran silently went to the space-suit rack and began to get into a
suit. Modern space-suits weren't like the ancient crudities with bulging
metal casings and enormous globular helmets. Non-stretch fabrics took
the place of metal, and constant-volume joints were really practical
nowadays. A man could move about in a late-model space-suit almost as
easily as in ship-clothing. The others of the landing-party donned their
special garments with the brisk absence of fumbling that these people
displayed in every action.

"If there's a lifeboat left," said Carol suddenly, "Moran might be able
to do something with it."

"Ah, yes!" said Moran. "It's very likely that the ship hit hard enough
to kill everybody aboard, but not smash the boats!"

"Somebody survived the crash," said Burleigh, "because they set up a
beacon. I wouldn't count on a boat, Moran."

"I don't!" snapped Moran.

He flipped the fastener of his suit. He felt all the openings catch. He
saw the others complete their equipment. They took arms. So far they had
seen no moving thing outside, but arms were simple sanity on an unknown
world. Moran, though, would not be permitted a weapon. He picked up a
torch. They filed into the airlock. The inner door closed. The outer
door opened. It was not necessary to check the air specifically. The
suits would take care of that. Anyhow the ice-cap said there were no
water-soluble gases in the atmosphere, and a gas can't be an active
poison if it can't dissolve.

They filed out of the airlock. They stood on ash-covered stone, only
slightly eroded by the processes which made life possible on this
planet. They looked dubiously at the scorched, indefinite substance
which had been ground before the _Nadine_ landed. Moran moved scornfully
forward. He kicked at the burnt stuff. His foot went through the char.
The hole exposed a cheesy mass of soft matter which seemed riddled with
small holes.

Something black came squirming frantically out of one of the openings.
It was eight or ten inches long. It had a head, a thorax, and an
abdomen. It had wing-cases. It had six legs. It toppled down to the
stone on which the _Nadine_ rested. Agitatedly, it spread its
wing-covers and flew away, droning loudly. The four men heard the sound
above even the monstrous cacophony of cries and boomings and grunts and
squeaks which seemed to fill the air.

"What the devil - ."

Moran kicked again. More holes. More openings. More small tunnels in the
cheese-like, curd-like stuff. More black things squirming to view in
obvious panic. They popped out everywhere. It was suddenly apparent
that the top of the soil, here, was a thick and blanket-like sheet over
the whitish stuff. The black creatures lived and thrived in tunnels
under it.

* * * * *

Carol's voice came over the helmet-phones.

"_They're - bugs!_" she said incredulously. "_They're beetles! They're
twenty times the size of the beetles we humans have been carrying around
the galaxy, but that's what they are!_"

Moran grunted. Distastefully, he saw his predicament made worse. He knew
what had happened here. He could begin to guess at other things to be
discovered. It had not been practical for men to move onto new planets
and subsist upon the flora and fauna they found there. On some new
planets life had never gotten started. On such worlds a highly complex
operation was necessary before humanity could move in. A complete
ecological complex had to be built up; microbes to break down the rock
for soil, bacteria to fix nitrogen to make the soil fertile; plants to
grow in the new-made dirt and insects to fertilize the plants so they
would multiply, and animals and birds to carry the seeds planet-wide. On
most planets, to be sure, there were local, aboriginal plants and
animals. But still terrestrial creatures had to be introduced if a
colony was to feed itself. Alien plants did not supply satisfactory
food. So an elaborate adaptation job had to be done on every planet
before native and terrestrial living things settled down together. It
wasn't impossible that the scuttling things were truly beetles, grown
large and monstrous under the conditions of a new planet. And the
ground....

"This ground stuff," said Moran distastefully, "is yeast or some sort of
toadstool growth. This is a seedling world. It didn't have any life on
it, so somebody dumped germs and spores and bugs to make it ready for
plants and animals eventually. But nobody's come back to finish up the
job."

Burleigh grunted a somehow surprised assent. But it wasn't surprising;
not wholly so. Once one mentioned yeasts and toadstools and fungi
generally, the weird landscape became less than incredible. But it
remained actively unpleasant to think of being marooned on it.

"Suppose we go look at the ship?" said Moran unpleasantly. "Maybe you
can find out where you are, and I can find out what's ahead of me."

He climbed up on the unscorched surface. It was elastic. The
parchment-like top skin yielded. It was like walking on a mass of
springs.

"We'd better spread out," added Moran, "or else we'll break through that
skin and be floundering in this mess."

"I'm giving the orders, Moran!" said Burleigh shortly. "But what you say
does make sense."

* * * * *

He and the others joined Moran on the yielding surface. Their footing
was uncertain, as on a trampoline. They staggered. They moved toward the
hillock which was a covered-over wrecked ship.

The ground was not as level as it appeared from the _Nadine's_
control-room. There were undulations. But they could not see more than a
quarter-mile in any direction. Beyond that was mist. But Burleigh, at
one end of the uneven line of advancing men, suddenly halted and stood


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