Coburn gazed at his girl friend with a growing sense of dread. He had heard about things like this happening to perfectly normal young women, but he had always considered Erica to be immune.
“You never mentioned marriage before,” he said numbly. “Besides—you’re a zoologist.”
“Implying I have fleas? Or brucellosis?” Erica drew herself up to her full height, bringing her green eyes half-an-inch above Coburn’s. The movement had the effect of making her athletic Swedish body more desirable than ever, but Coburn was reminded of a cobra spreading its hood in menace.
“No, no.” He spoke hastily. “All I meant was that somebody in your line of business must be aware how unnatural the monogamous state is among …”
“Animals. Is that how you think of me?”
“Well, you certainly aren’t a vegetable or a mineral.” Coburn smirked desperately. “I meant that as a joke, sweetie.”
“I know you did, darling,” Erica softened unexpectedly and leaned towards him, swamping Coburn’s senses with impressions of warmth, spun-gold hair, perfume and mind-erasing curvatures. “But you would enjoy being married to a healthy animal like me, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course I …” Coburn stopped speaking as he realized what was happening. “The trouble is I can’t marry you.”
“Well, you see …” His mind raced, seeking inspiration. “As a matter of fact … ah … I’ve joined the Space Mercantile.”
Erica recoiled instantly. “To get away from me!”
“No.” Coburn unfocused his eyes, hoping it would give him the appearance of being space-struck. “It’s the outward urge, sweetie. I can’t fight it. The wild black yonder’s calling to me. My feet are itching to tread the surface of alien stars.”
“Planets,” Erica said severely.
“That’s what I meant to say.”
“In that case, I too will go away.” Her eyes were magnified by tears. “To forget you.”
Coburn was basically a soft-hearted young man and he was distressed to see that Erica was upset, but he consoled himself with the thought of having escaped marriage which, as any citizen of the 21st Century knew, was a tedious anachronism.
He was all the more surprised, therefore, to discover—three days after Erica had left on a field trip to some unpronounceable corner of the world—that life no longer seemed worth living. None of the pleasures which had seemed so attractive when Erica was talking marriage were pleasures any longer.
In the end—deciding he had reached the lowpoint of his life—he did what seemed the only logical thing to do.
He joined the Space Mercantile.
Coburn discovered later that he had been mistaken about the lowest point in his life. This realization came, suddenly, after he had been in the service about three months.
With no previous experience of piloting a spaceship, and no particular aptitude for the work, he had nevertheless been able to get through the basic course in two weeks—thanks to the Universal Cockpit, which was a virtually identical feature in all forms of transport from cars through aeroplanes and submarines to spacecraft. It allowed a man to concentrate on where he was going instead of on how to get there.
Coburn had been doing just that—concentrating on transferring a cargo of luminous furs between two star systems far out on the Rim—when something cold and metallic was pushed against the back of his neck. His yelp of surprise was occasioned mostly by the discovery that there was a stowaway on his one-man spaceship, but it acquired overtones of alarm as he tentatively decided that the only object a stowaway would thrust against his neck was a gun.
“This is a gun,” a hoarse voice confirmed. “Just do what you’re told and you won’t get hurt.”
“All I want to do is get back home, if that’s all right with you.”
“It isn’t.” The intruder moved from behind the control chair into Coburn’s field of view. He was a thickset gingery man, about forty, with a shaven head and an even frosting of reddish stubble over his skull and face.
Coburn nodded. “If you’d wanted to get to my base you’d have stayed hidden till the end of the trip?”
“Which means you want me to land somewhere else, I suppose.”
“Right again, sonny. Now head for the second world of Toner there.” The ginger man tapped a flaring bright spot near one side of the ship’s forward viewscreen.
“You don’t want to go there—it’s uninhabited!”
“That’s why I want to go there, sonny. I’m Patsy Eckert.”
The name brought a momentary loosening of Coburn’s bowels. Eckert could not be described as a master criminal—he had been caught too many times for that—but he was wanted on a hundred worlds because he was apparently incapable of performing a lawful action. Larceny, blackmail, rape and murder were his way of life just as easily and naturally as other men worked and played.
“I thought,” Coburn whispered, “that you had been …”
“Executed? Not this time. I got away, but I guess I need to hide out for a few years. Somewhere they’d never think of looking for me.”
Coburn was not stupid, and he tried to prevent his thought processes reaching a certain inevitable conclusion concerning his own fate. “But you must be able to find a better hideout.” He gestured at the encircling viewscreens. “Look how much space there is in the galaxy. Every one of those thousands of points of light is a planet …”
“A star,” Eckert put in, eyeing Coburn curiously.
“That’s what I meant to say. Surely somewhere in those vast empty spaces …”
Eckert raised his gun. “Sonny, unless you want some spaces let into your head, put this ship down right where I told you.”
Coburn nodded glumly, and began tapping out the instructions which would cause the ship’s computer to change course towards the nearest sun and autoland on its second planet. It was obvious that once Eckert had gone to ground he could not permit the ship to proceed on its way, so the best Coburn could hope for was to be kept prisoner on an unexplored planet. The alternative was a quick death shortly after landing. He preserved a moody silence while the ship did a series of dimension slips, the target system blurring and expanding by jumps in the viewscreen until the second world was a saucer-sized disc directly ahead. It was a bland white orb, completely covered with cloud.
“No landing aids here, so we can’t ooze in,” Coburn said. “It’ll have to be a normal-continuum linear approach.”
“Don’t worry—I’ve had this planet in mind a long time. Under that cloud it’s just one big grassy plain.”
While Coburn was confirming that description on the long-range radar, Eckert moved in behind him again and nudged the muzzle of his gun into the hollow at the base of his skull. Coburn thought wistfully and hopelessly about the state of married bliss in which he could have been living with Erica had he not been so crazy as to leave her and the warm security of Earth. This is it, he told himself as the vessel plunged into a rolling misty atmosphere. This is the real lowpoint of my life—things just can’t get any worse.
He was wrong again.
As the ship’s long, slanting descent brought it through the lower side of the cloud cover, he saw dead ahead—where there should have been only a featureless plain—the massive and strangely familiar shape of a snow-capped mountain.
He barely had time to scream before his ship went straight into a wall of rock.
Coburn regained consciousness to find himself lying on the tilted but undamaged floor of his control room. Eckert was draped across the instrument console, looking both puzzled and shaken. Various electronic monitors were making urgent noises but the fact that there was enough of them left intact to produce any sound at all was, in Coburn’s opinion, an undiluted miracle. He shook his head weakly and was pondering the impossibility of the situation when Eckert retrieved his gun and levelled it once more.
“How did you do it?” the ginger man snarled.
“Manipulate the dimension slips so that we landed on Earth.”
“What gives you a crazy idea like that?”
“Don’t fool around, sonny. That mountain we almost hit was Mount Everest.”
Coburn was sick, shocked and angry—and he discovered he no longer cared about the other man’s gun. “Try to get it into your head that if I had invented a slip technique capable of doing that I’d be a billionaire and not …” His voice dried up as a weird thought struck him. The monstrous edifice of rock he had glimpsed in the forward screen had looked like Mount Everest. He struggled to his feet and looked at the screen, but it and all its companions had been blanked out by the crash. Other thoughts stirred in his mind.
“And I’ll tell you something else, mister,” he said. “We didn’t almost hit that mountain—we went straight into the side of it! We should have been vaporized.”
Eckert took a deep breath and scowled dangerously. “I happen to know there aren’t any mountains on Toner II, so …”
An alarm bell clamoured, signalling that lethal radioactive materials were escaping from ruptured casings into the ship’s living space.
“Sort it out later,” Coburn said. “We’ve gotta get out of here.”
He wrenched open an escape door, revealing a vista of steep white slopes, and leaped from the sill down into a snowdrift. Eckert followed a second later, almost landing on top of him. They sat up, breathing cool resinous air, and looked all around them. The ship lay at the end of a long shallow gouge, surrounded by the moraines of snow it had built up in its course, and beyond it the stark ramparts of rock soared into a leaden sky. Again Coburn was reminded of Everest—which was almost as peculiar as the fact of still being alive …
“This stuff’s warm,” Eckert shouted, lifting a handful of white flakes. “It isn’t like ordinary snow.”
Coburn held some close to his face and saw that the fluffy fragments were more like chips of plastic foam. The thickly resinous smell which seemed to pervade the atmosphere of Toner II cloyed his nostrils, making his head swim.
“Let’s get away from the ship,” he said uncertainly. “Something might blow.”
They trudged away from the slightly crumpled hull, instinctively heading down the slope. A strong breeze was trailing streamers of snow and mist across their vision, but occasionally they caught glimpses of what appeared to be a grey-green plain far below.
“I guess this can’t be Earth, after all,” Eckert conceded. “Something strange going on, though.”
An hour later they had made little progress towards the base of the mountain because the white material on which they were walking, although unlike Earth snow in some respects, was just as slippery underfoot and had a tendency to compress into glassy clumps around their boots. Coburn had lapsed into a dejected silence, broken only by occasional gasps or grunts whenever he lost his balance and fell. He was thinking yearningly about Erica, who was hundreds of lightyears away back on Earth, and wondering if she would ever get to hear about his mysterious disappearance, when his ears picked up a distant shout. The wind carried the faint wisp of sound away but it was obvious from Eckert’s face that he had heard it too.
“Over that way,” Eckert said, pointing to his left. “There’s somebody else here.”
They changed course, taking a lateral line across the slope, and in a few minutes Coburn became aware of an area of lime-green brightness illuminating the mists ahead. The light was obviously coming in from an artificial source. Coburn’s first impulse was to run towards it, but Eckert had his pistol out again and held him back.
“Not so fast, sonny,” he said. “I’m not sticking my head into any noose.”
They came to a low hillock beyond which the brightness was now very intense. At Eckert’s instigation they went down on all fours, crawled to the top and cautiously peered down the other slope. Barely a hundred paces away two black posts stood vertically in the snow, about four feet apart. At the base of each was a cluster of cables and metal boxes, and the rectangular area between the posts appeared as a sheet of flickering, crackling radiance which obscured the section of hillside right behind it. The snow in the vicinity was flattened by numerous footprints. For some reason, Coburn found himself thinking of a portal, a doorway which had been left open.
In a few seconds this impression was reinforced by the abrupt materialization of two brownish, shaggy-furred gorillas who stepped out of the glowing rectangle and shuffled around brushing ice droplets from their bodies. Violent flurries of snow spilled out of the rectangle behind them, although—Coburn noticed—the air of Toner II was relatively still and it was not snowing. He began to get a chilly premonition of the portal’s true nature.
“What ugly brutes!” Eckert’s voice was a whisper. “Any idea what they are?”
“They aren’t on the Mercantile’s identification chart, but you know the Earth Federation’s only a small part of the Galactic Commune. It contains thousands of cultures we know nothing about.”
“The less we know about yugs like those the better,” Eckert replied, displaying a chauvinism which—in view of his antagonism to all human standards—Coburn found mildly surprising. “There’s more of them. Say … could that thing be a matter transmitter?”
Another four gorillas had appeared, two of them carrying tripod devices which looked vaguely like surveyors’ theodolites. One of them began to talk in a loud braying voice which was so strangely modulated that it took Coburn a few seconds to realize the creature was speaking Galingua.
“… from the Chief of Structural Maintenance,” the gorilla was saying. “He reported that a small Earth-type vessel made an unscheduled planetfall less than two hours ago. The absorption fields prevented the structure from showing on its radar screens, so it hit the northern face right in the centre of the Great Couloir, carried away part of the new heating and refrigeration system, and emerged just above the Khumbu Glacier on the south side.”
Another gorilla hopped excitedly. “It went right through! That means it could be lying near here.”
“That’s why all the survey teams have been called in from Earth to help with the search. All construction work is suspended until we make sure the ship’s crew are dead.”
“Have we to kill them?”
“If necessary. Then we’ve to find the ship and shoot it clear of the Toner system before its beacons attract a recovery vessel.”
The hopping gorilla slowed down. “Seems a lot of trouble for one primitive ship.”
“Not too much. Can you imagine what the Committee would do to us if news about Everest Two got out? Two centuries of work would have gone down the drain!”