by Harl Vincent
Grayson ran his fingers shakily through thinning, gray hair. Gray fingers of mist reached upward, curling slowly, sliding reluctantly over the blank port window. The scream of the savagely overdriven radite engine rocked the metal bubble jerkily downward. "No solid," he shouted.
"But there is somewhere," Matthews snapped savagely. "It's waiting down there for that other radite to give out."
Grayson picked up the communicator, keeping his eyes fixed out and down. "No solid," he repeated, "and no reading on the sonic altimeter. The gravitic says we're five miles below the surface -- theoretically."
He pressed the communicator signal, waited a moment, and called: "Bearing temperature?"
"It's smoking. It would ha' blown up ten minutes ago if the engineers dat made it knew what dey was makin'," old Nelson answered hopeless. "It's runnin' eighty percent overload, and the -- Hey, wait --"
"The repulsion's going," said Matthews flatly. "We'll find that damn solid now all right."
"Stop!" Grayson screamed suddenly. "Sol --"
The keening scream of the overloaded radite engine lurched up the scale and exploded into a ripping grind. Spattering bits of metal hailed against bulkheads and walls; the screaming hiss of a punctured air storage tank coincided with the sudden, sickening sensation of free fall. The bottom dropped out as the last gravity repulsor died.
Matthews moved with the automatic reaction-speed of years of piloting. The lower steering rockets blasted a long howl of searing flame, for seconds the unwieldy ship jittered, swooped and balanced on the instability of roaring gas -- then relapsed with a squashy thud on land suddenly clearly seen. Two hundred feet above hung the under side of a wavering blanket of mist.
"We join the procession," said Matthews bitterly. "We can't lift from here without those radite engines -- and there won't be even a casing of that one." Already his quick strides had swung him down the narrow tube that led to the engine room.
He halted at the doorway. "Nels!" he grunted. ""You weren't touched?"
"No, sir. But it won't do any good. The Venus jinx got us like it got everybody else. The rockets couldn't land because they couldn't see, and we couldn't land because the gravity-repulsor blew up. And we can't take off like this. We're stuck, sir."
"We wouldn't be if we could just get a message out. We know, now." Matthews spoke bitterly as he stared out of a cracked bulletproof port window. "That damned blanket of mist just hangs there. It's safe enough -- if you have a spare radite engine."
"But the ionosphere is so thick here," Grayson mourned, running shaking fingers through his thin hair. "We can't break through to Earth with even the shortest waves. I'm afraid we haven't done any good."
"Maybe long-wave radio would work?" suggested Nelson doubtfully.
"No -- that long-wave type bounces back even in Earth's thin ionosphere. We can't signal." Grayson was sadly positive.
"Maybe," said Matthews thoughtfully, "not all of those earlier rocketship expeditions were entirely wrecked. Maybe some of them -- like our expedition -- were merely marooned.
"The Italians under Polto were the last -- and that was twenty years ago, almost. Is there any hope of fixing up those engines, Nelson?"
The engineer laughed softly and gestured. He clumped across the tight-packed engine room on his one sound leg, yanking queerly at the magnet-tipped wooden stump that replaced his lost leg. He stopped and pointed at a gaping hole in a thick metal and insulation tube. "The shaft of the main radite rotor went through the butt of the rocket tube. We built this trick boat with a couple big tubes, instead of lots of little ones, because it's lighter -- like we built it with a couple radite engines instead of several. She won't float off Venus, though, and with one third of the rocket motor gone and both halves of the radite engines peppered through the walls here, we don't go. You can't build up gravity-repulsion without those motors, and we don't have enough machines to build new engines. We got lots of fuel, but no way we can burn it. No, sir. We don't go. What's it like outside?"
"We're near the edge of a swamp," Matthews grunted.
"We landed near the north pole," said Grayson, puzzled. "We should be in frozen land here, even on Venus. I particularly wanted to be away from possible dangerous life forms, and felt sure there wouldn't be any in cold regions of so hot a planet --"
"We missed it somehow, fellow," Matthews sighed. "Let's test the air and see if we get out."
* * *
Half an hour later Grayson appeared in the pilot room. He was equipped with helmet, plaited jacket, hip boots, and had two large-orifice Bronson guns in his belt. He stood staring out the port window at the dark-green vegetation that stood motionless, breathless, under the heavy, lowering ceiling of mist. The mist billowed slowly, lazily -- like waves in a placid, inverted sea. The vegetation did not move. Despite the miles-thick mist-layers, the light was comfortably brilliant and queerly shadowless. Nothing whatever moved out there, no leaf, no twig --
"Matthews! There's something living out there!" he yelled suddenly. "Hurry --"
Nelson, from his vantage point at the one uncracked engine room port suddenly snorted. "It's a man -- no, an -- Hey, what is dat t'ing? It looks like a cross between an ape and a man."
Grayson stared at the thing that waddled out of the brush placidly. It was manlike, some six feet tall with hunched, hugely muscled shoulders and shambling walk. But the face had the broad, amiable grin of a moron, with dull, deep-set eyes under shaggy brows. He stopped and looked at the window where Grayson stared out. Suddenly Matthews was beside Grayson, looking out in silent fascination.
"He isn't human -- but maybe -- Do you suppose some of the expeditions weren't entirely wrecked, that he's some half-breed?" Matthews spoke softly.
"No." Grayson spoke softly, too, as though afraid the native could hear. "Impossible. The races of two planets -- they could never cross. It's just parallel development. There was the saber-tooth tiger in North America, and in South America. Because it was isolated and had no large mammalian carnivores, it developed the saber-tooth marsupial. It's just parallel evolution."
The Venusian raised a huge club in his hand and waved it in a gesture that somehow was quite friendly despite the savage bludgeon. "Let's go out." Grayson turned to the lock.
Thirty seconds later he stood in the open outer lock door and looked at the giant native. Under shaggy-haired brows the Venusian looked at the Earthman with the peaceable friendliness of a moron. He grunted queerly clacking, hissing syllables and looked at the Earthman.
Vainly Grayson tried to form the sounds. Tongue-clicks and clucks, and gurgles from a constricted throat were beyond the man trained to English speech. "We need an Arab or a Hottentot," he thought vaguely. They had those queer tongue-clicks and grunts in their languages -- were used to them.
The Venusian opened his mouth, twisted it laboriously, and grunted: "Co . . . may . . . stah."
Grayson stared. That labored mouthing -- the syllables so unlike his previous words --
The native writhed his lips and grinned wider. "Par . . . lah . . . tay . . . ah . . . tah . . . liyan . . . oh." The moronic giant nodded affably, and his loose lip fell in happy triumph.
"Si . . . Si!" gasped Grayson. "Polto . . . Polto . . . Conoscete Signor Polto?"
"Si." The giant native nodded. "Polto --" He dropped his huge bludgeon to point his finger at his head and made quick circling movements as he shrugged massive shoulders with a queer little gesture that was unmistakably, unquestionably, pure Latin. "Polto dico. Too say batso."
" 'You're nuts'?" Grayson looked at the native curiously. Suddenly he realized Matthews and Nelson had joined him. "He's speaking Italian!" Grayson snapped. "Polto landed here -- or near here. He --"
"I speak Italian, too," Matthews interrupted. "Where is Polto?" he asked the native, proving his statement.
"He come. Queen Theresa come. They come slow."
"Who are you?"
"T'rog," said the Venusian.
Matthews shook his head. "Not to us. We can't say that. We'll call you Throg. Understand?"
"What's he say?" asked Nelson uneasily. "How come he talks Italian?"
"Apparently every expedition that's tried to make Venus did as we did and headed for the pole. Polto did. He landed alive, apparently. He's taught them Italian, probably because he couldn't handle their clicks and clacks. This one's name is T'rog. You stick your tongue on the roof of your mouth, snap it off with a clicking noise and say 'rog' at the same time."
Old Nelson looked at him. "Not me. I don't do those things."
* * *
Grayson was suddenly, vaguely suprised to realize that there were half a dozen -- a dozen! -- of the natives. They seemed to grow out of the ground soundlessly. All looked at the ship and the Earthmen with friendly, stupid grins. Some carried massive bludgeons, some bows and arrows, some huge spears. Others -- a very few -- carried queerly bent sticks with jagged chips and bits of crystalline rock fastened on firmly.
Throg spoke suddenly. "Polto come slow, but Queen Theresa she comes slower. Polto round bend."
Abruptly a group of natives burst into sight, with a sweating, panting, ragged little gray bearded human among them. The gray-bearded little figure stopped abruptly. "A ship!" he yelled, and ran forward exultantly, dancing for joy. "A ship -- and it is not smashed to ruin! It is safe! We go home -- Theresa, my little Theresa and I go home!"
"You're Signor Polto?" asked Grayson.
The little man pulled himself upright with a sudden, curious dignity. "Si, signor -- I am Polto, the first man of Earth to land alive on Venus. The only man to land alive on Venus, till you came."
Matthews looked at the natives. Some women had come; blocky, hunched females with the same blankly friendly, moronic eyes. They stared in the same childish, interested way as the men. "My little Theresa" and "Only man to land alive of Venus" came back to him. He wondered about this Queen Theresa.
Grayson was speaking, shaking his head. "I'm afraid, Polto, we've come to join you, rather than take you back to Earth. The ship isn't much damaged -- but the engines are hopelessly ruined. The hull without power is as useless as a broken ship. What happened to you?"
Polto shrugged. "We had to lower on rockets -- very slowly. That is fatal. Rocketships must never go slowly. We thought we would make it, because we carried more energy in our fuel -- we used stabilized atomic oxygen and boron, you know -- than any before. But we used it all, and still the mist. We dropped perhaps five hundred feet, and because the ship was very lightly built, it crumpled gently. We were not all dead -- I lived, and --"
A wild scream flared out of the dripping jungle growth. There was a directionless quality to it that was terrifying. It came from one direction and all directions; something was happening back in the moveless, dripping jungle under the lazily eddying blanket of fog. The natives suddenly danced to their feet, and stared toward the dense, swampy growth. An odor of rotting vegetation and silence filled the air.
Another throaty scream shot out of nowhere, then a chorus of shrieks and a vast animal roar of hate and pain. And, for a single infinitesimal instant, a queerly sweet humming noise. The vast roaring bellow of anger was cut off as though by a suddenly dropped soundproof wall.
The natives were suddenly grinning, moving in an eddying whorl toward the jungle growth. Every face was livened with a keen and evident anticipation. Even Polto seemed to feel a keen anticipation. "Xyll!" he grunted. "They found xyll. Good. They will like and remember you, for you brought good luck. There will be a feast."
The natives were eddying back, and a terrific crashing of underbrush and chanting accompanied their return. A score of them were tugging at each of three ropes, and presently they dragged the thing into the swampy clearing. The other natives were following it with keen interest, and Grayson and Matthews stared with equal fascination. It was an ugly, horn-skinned monster with four blocky legs and a huge knobbed tail. Rows of spikes like gigantic porcupine quills protruded from its neck and head, and huge dinner-plate eyes covered the sides of a tiny head perched like a control cabin above an immense scoop-shaped mouth.
"There will be a feast," repeated Polto. "A very great feast. Xyll is good, very good."
Throg had drifted back and stood looking up at them. "You make roar again, please?" he suggested with a toothy, friendly grin.
"Roar?" said Matthews, bewildered.
Polto was suddenly laughing uproariously. Tears streamed down the seamed, weather-beaten cheeks and tangled in the unkempt beard. "Roar! Si, roar, my friends. Throg, he has the idea! You landed with the rockets for a moment -- just a moment -- but it was a mighty roar. So the xyll roars back and forth when they hunt their mates! You have the xyll-call in your ship!"
Matthews grunted. "We can't do it again. The tubes are clogged with swamp mud now, and we'd just blow up the ship. And I couldn't balance the ship down on those tubes again if our lives hung on it again. That was luck, not science."
Grayson was looking at Polto thoughtfully. Throg had said his characteristic gesture was that twirling finger at the forehead and a shrugging "You're nuts!" One thing morons were extremely clever at, as Throg had shown: mimicry. That shrug, even with the massive, humped shoulders of the hairy natives, had been pure Latin, a gesture so wholly, typically familiar it had been unquestionable perfection of mimicry. Equally, that twirling finger had been mimicry.
"Polto," Grayson asked suddenly, "Throg said your characteristic gesture was this, accompanied by 'You're nuts!' What did he mean?"
Polto grimaced, shrugged his shoulders with a little gesture that seemed rather an imitation of Throg's than the original of Throg's mimicry. "You'll find out, if you can't leave. They are crazy -- queer -- in a most peculiar way. They have no sense, no brains, but they learn Italian quicker than I learn their language. And they learn to understand very quick. Too quick."
(continue to part 2)