lucky starr and the oceans of venus (lucky starr #3)-Page 10

In bigman's memory afterward, the events of the next hours were as though viewed through the reverse end of a telescope, a faraway nightmare of confused events.

Bigman had been slammed against the wall by the sudden thrust of force. For what seemed long moments, but was probably little more than a second in actuality, he lay spread-eagled and gasping.

Lucky, still at the controls, shouted, "The main generators are out."

Bigman was struggling to Ms feet against the crazy slope of the deck. "What happened?"

"We were hit. Obviously. But I don't know how badly."

Bigman said, "The lights are on."

"I know. The emergency generators have cut in."

"How about the main drive?"

"I'm not sure. It's what I'm trying to test."

The engines coughed hoarsely somewhere below and behind. The smooth purr was gone, and in its place a consumptive rattle sounded that set Bigman's teeth on edge.

The Hilda shook herself, like a hurt animal, and turned upright. The engines died again.

The radio receiver was echoing mournfully, and now Bigman gathered his senses sufficiently to try to reach it.

"Starr," it said. "Lucky Starr! Evans at this end. Acknowledge signals."

Lucky got there first. "Lucky speaking. What hit us?"

"It doesn't matter," came the tired voice. "It won't bother you any more. It will be satisfied to let you sit here and die. Why didn't you stay away? I asked you to."

"Is your ship disabled, Evans?"

"It's been stalled for twelve hours. No light, no power-just a little juice I can pump into the radio, and that's fading. Air purifiers are smashed, and the air supply is low. So long, Lucky."

"Can you get out?"

"The lock mechanism isn't working. I've got a subsea suit, but if I try to cut my way out, I'll be smashed."

Bigman knew what Lou Evans meant, and he shuddered. Locks on subsea vessels were designed to let water into the interlock chamber slowly, very slowly. To cut a lock open at the bottom of the sea in an attempt to get out of a ship would mean the entry of water under hundreds of tons of pressure. A human being, even inside a steel suit, would be crushed like an empty tin can under a pile driver.

Lucky said, "We can still navigate. I'm coming to get you. We'll join locks."

"Thanks, but why? If you move, you'll be hit again; and even if you aren't, what's the difference whether I die quickly here or a little more slowly in your ship?"

Lucky retorted angrily, "We'll die if we have to, but not one second earlier than we have to. Everyone has to die someday; there's no escaping that, but quitting isn't compulsory."

He turned to Bigman. "Get down into the engine room and check the damage. I want to know if it can be repaired."

In the engine room, fumbling with the "hot" micro-pile by means of long-distance manipulators, which luckily were still in order, Bigman could feel the ship inching painfully along the sea bottom and could hear the husky rasping of the motors. Once he heard a distant boom, followed by a groaning rattle through the framework of the Hilda as though a large projectile had hit sea bottom a hundred yards away.

He felt the ship stop, the motor noise drop to a hoarse rumble. In imagination, he could see the Hilda's lock extension bore out and close in on the other hull, welding itself tightly to it. He could sense the water between the ships being pumped out of that tube between them and, in actual fact, he saw the lights in the engine room dim as the energy drain on the emergency generators rose to dangerous heights. Lou Evans would be able to step from his ship to the Hilda through dry air with no need of artificial protection.

Bigman came up to the control room and found Lou Evans with Lucky. His face was drawn and worn under its blond stubble. He managed a shaky smile in Bigman's direction.

Lucky was saying, "Go on, Lou."

Evans said, "It was the wildest hunch at first, Lucky. I followed up each of the men to whom one of these queer accidents had happened. The one thing I could find in common was that each was a V-frog fancier. Everyone on Venus is, more or less, but each one of these fellows kept a houseful of the creatures. I didn't quite have the nerve to make a fool of myself advancing the theory without some facts. If I only had… Anyway, I decided to try to trap the V-frogs into exhibiting knowledge of something that existed in my own mind and in as few others as possible."

Lucky said, "And you decided on the yeast data?"

"It was the obvious thing. I had to have something that wasn't general knowledge or how could I be even reasonably sure they got the information from me? Yeast data was ideal. When I couldn't get any legitimately, I stole some. I borrowed one of the V-frogs at headquarters, put it next to my table, and looked over the papers. I even read some of it aloud. When an accident happened in a yeast plant within two days later involving the exact matter I had read about, I was positive the V-frogs were behind the mess. Only-"

"Only?" prompted Lucky.

"Only I hadn't been so smart," said Evans. "I'd let them into my mind. I'd laid down the red carpet and invited them in, and now I couldn't get them out again. Guards came looking for the papers. I was known to have been in the buildings, so a very polite agent was sent to question me. I returned the papers readily and tried to explain. I couldn't."

"You couldn't? What do you mean by that?"

"I couldn't. I was physically unable to. The proper words wouldn't come out. I was unable to say a word about the V-frogs. I even kept getting impulses to kill myself, but I fought them down. They couldn't get me to do something that far from my nature. I thought then: If I can only get off Venus, if I can only get far enough away from the V-frogs, I'd break their hold. So I did the one thing I thought would get me instantly recalled. I sent an accusation of corruption against myself and put Morriss's name to it."

"Yes," said Lucky grimly, "that much I had guessed."

"How?" Evans looked startled.

"Morriss told us his side of your story shortly after we got to Aphrodite. He ended by saying that he was preparing his report to central headquarters. He didn't say he had sent one-only that he was preparing one. But a message had been sent; I knew that. Who else besides Morriss knew the Council code and the circumstances of the case? Only you yourself."

Evans nodded and said bitterly, "And instead of calling me home, they sent you. Is that it?"

"I insisted, Lou. I couldn't believe any charge of corruption against you."

Evans buried his head in his hands. "It was the worst thing you could have done," Lucky. When you sub-ethered you were coming, I begged you to stay away, didn't I? I couldn't tell you why. I was physically incapable of that. But the V-frogs must have realized from my thoughts what a terrific character you were. They could read my opinion of your abilities and they set about having you killed."

"And nearly succeeded," murmured Lucky.

"And will succeed this time. For that I am heartily sorry, Lucky, but I couldn't help myself. When they paralyzed the man at the dome lock, I was unable to keep myself from following the impulse to escape, to get out to sea. And, of course, you followed. I was the bait and you were the victim. Again, I tried to keep you away, but I couldn't explain, I couldn't explain…"

He drew a deep, shuddering breath. "I can speak about it now, though. They've lifted the block in my mind. I suppose we're not worth the mental energy they have to expend, because we're trapped, because we're as good as dead and they fear us no longer."

Bigman, having listened this far in increasing confusion, said, "Sands of Mars, what's going on? Why are we as good as dead?"

Evans, face still hidden in his hands, did not answer.

Lucky, frowning and thoughtful, said, "We're under an orange patch, a king-size orange patch out of the Venusian deeps."

"A patch big enough to cover the ship?"

"A patch two miles in diameter!" said Lucky. "Two miles across. What slapped the ship into almost a smashup and what nearly hit us a second time when we were making our way over to Evans's ship was a jet of water. Just that! A jet of water with the force of a depth blast."

"But how could we get under it without seeing it?"

Lucky said, "Evans guesses that it's under V-frog mental control, and I think he's right. It could dim its fluorescence by contracting the photo cells in its skin. It could raise one edge of its cape to let us in; and now, here we sit."

"And if we move or try to blast our way out, the patch will let us have it again, and a patch never misses."

Lucky thought, then said suddenly, "But a patch does miss! It missed us when we were driving the Hilda toward your ship and then we were only going at quarter speed." He turned to Bigman, his eyes narrowed. "Big-man, can the main generators be patched?"

Bigman had almost forgotten the engines. He recovered and said, "Oh…The micropile alignment hasn't

been knocked off, so it can be fixed if I can find all the equipment I need."

"How long will it take?" "Hours, probably."

"Then get to work. I'm getting out into the sea." Evans looked up, startled, "What do you mean?" "I'm going after that patch." He was at the sea-suit locker already, checking to make certain the tiny-force-field linings were in order and well powered and that the oxygen cylinders were full.

It was deceptively restful to be out in the absolute dark. Danger seemed far away. Yet Lucky knew well enough that below him was the ocean bottom and that on every other side, up and all around, was a two-mile-wide inverted bowl of rubbery flesh.

His suit's pump jetted water downward, and he rose slowly with his weapon drawn and ready. He could not help but marvel at the subwater blaster he held. Inventive as man was on his home planet of Earth, it seemed that the necessity for adapting to the cruel environment of an alien planet multiplied his ingenuity a hundredfold.

Once the new continent of America had burst forth into a brilliance that the ancestral European homelands could never duplicate, and now Venus was showing her ability to Earth. There were the city domes, for instance. Nowhere on Earth could force fields have been woven into steel so cleverly. The very suit he wore could not resist the tons of water pressure for a moment without the microfields that webbed its interior braces (always provided those tons were introduced sufficiently slowly). In many other respects that suit was a marvel of engineering. Its jet device for underwater traveling, its efficient oxygen supply, its compact controls, were all admirable.

And the weapon he held!

But immediately his thoughts moved to the monster above. That was a Venusian invention, too. An invention of the planet's evolution. Could such things be on Earth? Not on land, certainly. Living tissue cduldn't support the weight of more than forty tons against Earth's gravity. The giant brontosauri of Earth's Meso-zoic Age had legs like treetrunks, yet had to remain in the marshes so that water could help buoy them up.

That was the answer: water's buoyancy. In the oceans any size of creature might exist. There were the whales of Earth, larger than any dinosaur that ever lived. But this monstrous patch above them must weigh two hundred million tons, he calculated. Two million large whales put together would scarcely weigh that. Lucky wondered how old it was. How old would a thing have to be to grow as large as two million whales? A hundred years? A thousand years? Who could tell?

But size could be its undoing, too. Even under the ocean. The larger it grew, the slower its reactions. Nerve impulses took time to travel.

Evans thought the monster refrained from hitting them with another water jet because, having disabled them, it was indifferent to their further fate, or rather the V-frogs who manipulated the giant patch were. That might not be so! It might be rather that the monster needed time to suck its tremendous water sac full. It needed time to aim.

Furthermore, the monster could scarcely be at its best. It was adapted to the deeps, to layers of water six miles or more high above it. Here its efficiency must necessarily be cut down. It had missed the Hilda on its second try, probably because it had not fully recovered from the previous stroke.

But now it was waiting; its water sac was slowly filling; and as much as it could in the shallow water surrounding it, it was gathering its strength. He, Lucky, 190 pounds of man against two hundred million tons of monster, would have to stop it.

Lucky looked upward. He could see nothing. He pressed a contact on the inner lining in the left middle finger of the sheathed force-field-reinforced mitten that gauntleted his hand, and a jab of pure-white light poured out of the metal fingertip. It penetrated upward hazily and ended in nothingness. Was that the monster's flesh at the far end? Or just the petering out of the light beam?

Three times the monster had jetted water. Once and Evans's ship had been smashed. A second time and Lucky's ship had been mauled. (But not as badly; was the creature getting weaker?) A third time, prematurely, and the stroke had been a miss.

He raised his weapon. It was bulky, with a thick handgrip. Within that grip was a hundred miles of wire and a tiny generator that could put out huge voltages. He pointed it upward and squeezed his fist.

For a moment, nothing-but he knew the hair-thin wire was squirting out and upward through the carbonated ocean water…

Then it hit and Lucky saw the results. For in the moment that the wire made contact, a flash current of electricity screamed along it at the speed of light and flayed the obstruction with the force of a bolt of lightning. The hairlike wire gleamed brilliantly and vaporized steaming water into murky froth. It was more than steam, for the alien water writhed and bubbled horribly as the dissolved carbon dioxide gassed out. Lucky felt himself bobbing in the wild currents set up.

Above all that, above the steaming and bubbling, above the water's churning and the line of thin fire that reached upward, there was a fireball that exploded. Where the wire had touched living flesh there was a blaze of furious energy. It burned a hole ten feet wide and as many feet deep into the living mountain above him.

Lucky smiled grimly. That was only a pin prick in comparison to the monster's vast bulk, but the patch would feel it; or at least in ten minutes or so, it would feel it. The nerve impulses must first travel their slow way along the curve of its flesh. When the pain reached the creature's tiny brain, it would be distracted from the helpless ship on the ocean floor and turn upon its new tormentor.

But, Lucky thought grimly, the monster would not find him. In ten minutes, he would have changed position. In ten minutes, he…

Lucky never completed the thought. Not one minute after his bolt had struck the creature, it struck back.

Not one minute had passed when Lucky's shocked and tortured senses told him that he was being driven down, down, down, in a turbulent jet of madly driving water…