A Space Fantasy Filled with Horror The Mannschenn Drive was the gateway to the stars, but it had one unfortunate site effect… Traveling faster than light, mankind reverted to the bestial form of his own legendary nightmare: the werewolf. And space only feed the creatures they’d become. The lycanthropic horror that the full moon once called forth from the soul's depths, now no longer howls at the moon but soars far beyond it.
Release date: May 26, 2016
Publisher: Audible Studios
Print pages: 320
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Frontier of the Dark
A. Bertram Chandler
He was lucky that mutual hostility between himself and members of the feline species brought only marooning as its consequence. He could have been ejected from the air lock without his space suit, or shot with a projectile pistol, or disposed of in other ways more interesting than pleasant. But Falsen had once saved Captain Canning’s life at some risk to his own. The two of them had been making an outer-hull inspection and, somehow, the captain’s magnetically soled feet had lost contact with the shell plating and he had fallen out and away. If his lifeline had not snapped, this would have been a cause for embarrassment rather than alarm. As it was, the situation was serious. Falsen, using the tools from his belt holsters for disposable reaction mass, had taken off after his commander, had caught him and brought him back to safety. He had been obliged to sacrifice his suit’s air tank to give the pair of them that last shove towards the ship.
Canning had not forgotten and—to the displeasure of the other officers—the second mate was not popular—had ruled that Falsen be given a fighting chance. The master of the star tramp Epsilon Crucis ordered that his second officer be marooned on Antares VI, an inhospitable planet barely capable of supporting human life and considered by the Federation not to be worth the trouble and expense of a colonization project. In those days, with the Third Expansion just getting under way, it seemed that the galaxy was overstocked with highly desirable hunks of real estate just waiting to be snapped up by the first comer. Antares VI was not in that category.
So, at the appointed time, the whine of the Mannschenn Drive had sagged from the almost supersonic to the subsonic, and faded into silence. Epsilon Crucis, navigating now in normal space-time, had made a gingerly approach to the sixth planet of the ruddy sun, had established herself in orbit about this world. Number two boat had been readied, and to it, under armed escort, Falsen was taken. He could have broken free even then; he could have slipped out of the manacles about his wrists with ease. But what good would it have been to him? The others were ready and waiting for such action on his part. Both Wilbrahim, the chief officer, and Baynes, the chief engineer, were carrying projectile pistols, old-fashioned weapons, outmoded blunderbusses firing metal slugs—and Falsen knew what kind of metal they were. So he went into the boat, which was being piloted by young Kent, the fourth officer—acting third as soon as the necessary logbook entries had been made and signed. Wilbrahim, still carrying his ugly weapon, came along for the ride. Minnie, the ship’s cat, spat one malediction before the air-lock doors closed.
There was no conversation during the journey from ship to planetary surface. It would have been hard to talk in any case; the sonic insulation around the inertial-drive unit was not very effective. Kent, forward, sat hunched over his controls. In the cabin, facing Falsen, Wilbrahim lounged at deceptive ease, the pistol, safety catch off, pointing at the prisoner. Falsen hoped that Kent, not the best of pilots, would be able to land without too much of a jolt. Fortunately the set-down was made on soft ground.
It was a spongy plain that was more than half swamp. The last of the daylight was almost gone and a thin, persistent rain drifted down from the overcast sky. Falsen shivered as they pushed him toward the air-lock door. “You might,” he protested, “have let me bring some stores, some warm clothing …”
“You won’t need anything,” Wilbrahim told him. “You’re lucky,” he added as he gestured with his pistol, “that I didn’t find some excuse to use this. If I thought that you had the ghost of a chance of surviving, I still would.”
“You still could, sir,” volunteered Kent, the obnoxious puppy. “‘Shot while attempting to escape,’ or something …”
“Escape?” Wilbrahim laughed harshly. “To what? He’s welcome to all that he finds here. Mind you, I do think that the Old Man was too softhearted. Now, get the irons off him, Mr. Kent. Don’t be scared; I’ve got him covered.”
“And me,” whined the junior officer, “what if the bullet goes right through him? Why not leave the handcuffs on the bastard?”
“I have to account for ship’s stores, mister, and those cuffs are on the inventory. Hurry up, now!”
Kent fumbled with the key, trying to keep himself out of the line of fire. The manacles dropped to the deck with a metallic rattle.
“Out, Falsen, out!” growled the chief officer, gesturing with his gun. Then, in tones of heavy irony, “Good hunting!”
Falsen stood ankle-deep in cold mud and, with upraised fists, cursed his late shipmates aboard Epsilon Crucis, cursed the boat that had brought him down to this dismal world, that was now lifting fast back towards the bubble of light and warmth that was the mother ship. Either Wilbrahim or Kent switched on a searchlight, trained it on him, and the harsh glare of it reflected from his eyes, making them glow like those of some wild animal. Then the lifecraft was hidden by the low cloud cover and only the fading clangor of its inertial drive told of its passing. Soon there was only the darkness and the falling rain, and the solitary figure clad in low shoes, shirt and shorts, dressed not for pioneering but for the control room of the interstellar ship from which he was forever banished.
Cursing, Falsen realized, would get him nowhere. With his right hand he brushed his wet, pale-blond hair away from his eyes and surveyed his surroundings. The rain was not heavy enough to impair visibility, although he was soon soaked and chilled. Enough light remained, once the castaway’s eyes had become adjusted, for him to make out the horizon—a dim, featureless, deeper blackness against the blackness of the overcast sky. Level, unbroken by tree, hill or building, it was so straight that Falsen at first feared that he had been set down upon some tiny islet in the midst of a great, calm sea. (Wilbrahim would have been quite capable of doing just that.) Fighting down his fears he tried to remember all that he had ever read, in pilot books and navigating directions, about Antares and its worlds. (He had never dreamed that such knowledge would ever be of vital importance to him.) He recollected vaguely that this planet’s equatorial zone was encircled by a broad belt of almost level plain and swampland, and that only in low latitudes were temperatures endurable by Terran standards.
Once again he turned in a slow circle, eyes, ears and nose alert for any indication of life—of life, and warmth, and food. He heard nothing but the steady susurrus of the rain, smelled nothing but dampness and vegetable decay and … and? Smoke. Wood smoke, an elusive fragrance hinting at the presence of some form of intelligent life. He shook himself, then purposively started to trudge in the direction from which he judged that the faint aroma was drifting. The mud slopped over the tops of his shoes, making his feet even colder. His saturated clothing clung clammily to his body but, as the exercise warmed him, trapped a moist heat. As he walked one hand explored his pockets, checking their contents. He had a large pocketknife of the type favored by the spacemen of his era; it incorporated a sharp blade, a screwdriver, a file, a tiny adjustable wrench, a corkscrew and a bottle opener. There was an “everlasting” pocket lighter, good for at least five more standard years. There was a sodden packet of cigarettes. Whatever he might find at the end of his walk, he was armed, after a fashion. He had a cutting tool or weapon. He had fire. He had, too, his physical strength and a considerable ability to look after himself in unarmed combat.
The smoke odor grew stronger and stronger, and with it another smell—a scent that promised even more than the warmth and dryness which he was now anticipating with increasing certainty. Yet it destroyed his hopes of food. He had fallen low—but not that low. Yet. He could see something ahead now, a hill that humped its not inconsiderable bulk well above the horizon, its outline softened by vegetable growth of some kind; bushes or low trees. The not unpleasant acridity of smoldering wood was strong now, but even his keen night vision could not discern the faintest flicker of firelight. Yet there must be, somewhere close now, a castaway like himself, somebody with the same needs and desires—or, he amended, similar needs and desires. For he was, by this time, quite certain that his fellow victim of harsh circumstance was a woman.
He walked cautiously, treading carefully to avoid snapping the twigs and thinner branches of the shrubs covering the relatively dry slope. The other, whoever she was, might be armed. And, armed or not, too sudden an awakening from sleep could make her dangerous. He climbed and circled the hill cautiously, following his nose carefully, stealthily, a mounting excitement in his veins. It was only now that he fully realized how dreadfully lonely he had been for most of his life. He savored the fragrance of the fire, of those other scents that most men would never have noticed. At last he could see a thin sliver of ruddy light; it had to be the mouth of a cave. It widened as he approached. And then he was at the entrance—it was little more than a fissure—and peering inside.
The fire burned low, casting a dull, crimson radiance over the clean sand floor, over the pile of small, broken branches a little to one side of it, over the neatly folded clothing and the huddle of blankets that covered … somebody. Walking slowly and softly, hardly breathing, Falsen entered the cave. He skirted the fire, made his way to the little pile of clothes.
Curious, he picked up the garments, one by one. They were a woman’s, as he already knew, and they bore insignia similar to those on his own uniform. He looked at the epaulets on the shirt: black, with two narrow stripes of gold braid on a white backing. Purser or catering officer, he thought. But what was that stylized figure of an animal worked in gold thread above the rank stripes? Surely not … he thought incredulously. Then he almost laughed aloud. Dog Star Line, of course.
Meanwhile, he was cold. He stepped closer to the fire, stepped inadvertently on a dry twig. He turned again—fast this time, with no thought for caution. He saw the blankets tossed aside and the pale, naked figure of a woman leaped from her bed. Fortunately for him, his arms were longer than hers and he was able to catch and hold her before her clawed fingers reached his eyes. He grappled with her, caught her off balance and forced her down to the sandy floor. He felt the flesh of her shoulders crawl in his grasp, flinched from the animal hate that glared from her green eyes. He showed his teeth in a mirthless grin and growled, “Hold it! Hold it, you bitch! Dog doesn’t eat dog!”
She seemed to understand, ceased to struggle.
He risked letting go of her, got to his feet and looked down at the woman. In the glow of the dying fire she appeared somehow unreal, her flesh gleaming with a shimmering insubstantiality. Yet she was solid enough, although slenderly built. He studied her features. She could almost have passed for his sister. Her nose was prominent, her chin much less so. Her parted lips were thin, although vividly red, and her big teeth shone whitely, the snarl at last softening to a hesitant smile. He looked at her body. Dark hair glistened under an upflung arm and sprouted in profusion from crotch to navel. Her breasts were small, and below the left one was a third, rudimentary nipple.
Yet she was beautiful, and others besides himself must have found her so. She had the animal grace, the savage vitality to arouse not a few men. He was becoming increasingly aroused himself.
She raised herself on one elbow, stared at him appraisingly.
She asked, her voice low and husky, almost a growl, “Who are you? I needn’t ask what are you. Where do you come from?”
“My name is Falsen,” he said. “Nicholas Falsen. I’m … no. I was second mate of the Commission’s Epsilon Crucis. My shipmates decided that they didn’t much care for my company. And so …”
“Why didn’t they just kill you?” she asked, her interest caught.
“Some of them, most of them, wanted to do just that. But I’d saved the Old Man’s life once.” He laughed shortly. “And did you save any lives?”
She grinned back at him. “No. But I did make my captain’s life a little less lonely. He’s a sentimental slob. When it came to the crunch, he just couldn’t bring himself to have me disposed of. So I was dumped here with enough stores to last me for about thirty standard weeks. I’ve been here for sixteen.”
“You’re Dog Star Line,” he stated rather than asked.
“How did you …? Oh, my uniform, of course. Yes. Dog Star Line. Purser, catering officer and maid-of-all-work aboard the good ship Beagle.” But she was once again staring at him suspiciously. He saw her muscles tensing under the sleek skin. “I’m a light sleeper. I didn’t hear you being landed—and you know as well as I do that even a small boat’s inertial-drive unit makes enough racket to wake the dead.”
“I was landed some distance from here,” he said. “And downwind—not that there is much wind—on the other side of the hill from your cave entrance. Earth and rock and vegetation are quite good sonic insulation.”
The suspicion faded from her face. “It figures,” she said. “From the looks of you, you must have walked a long way—soaking wet and with mud up to your arse. But wouldn’t it have been better to have stripped and carried your clothes?”
“I didn’t know who, or what, I might find. I certainly wasn’t expecting you.”
“So you found me. And don’t think that I’m not grateful. It’s been damned lonely here,”
“Since I have found you—what is your name?”
“Veerhausen. Linda Veerhausen. Now that we’ve been introduced, I’d better start making you comfortable. You’re cold and wet and hungry. Get out of those stupid clothes and between the blankets. I’ll get you something hot.”
“I don’t like to take your stores …”
“Rubbish. I’ve hardly touched them. I’ve been living off the country. But this calls for a can of beef stew.”
She went into a smaller cave that opened off the main one, and by the time that Falsen was stripped and between the blankets, still warm from her body heat, she was back, carrying the food container, thin smoke spiraling from the axial tube of chemicals that had heated its contents.
He was hungry—but for more than food. Although the smell of the savory stew tantalized his nostrils, so did the feral scent of her. He wanted her, now. He threw aside the blankets.
She dropped the can as he leapt at her. Its steaming contents, unheeded, soaked into the sand. She fell backward before his attack, sprawled in an attitude of abject surrender, arms and legs upraised and open.
She clamped him to her, in her.
“You hairy bastard!” she whispered. Her sharp teeth nipped his ear. “You hairy bastard! I could eat you … After those smooth-skinned frogs aboard the Beagle you’re … You’re real. Fuck me, damn you! Fuck me!”
Their coupling was brief, savage. There had been no foreplay; there was no afterplay. Limbs still entangled, they fell into a deep sleep, sprawled on the sand floor.
Outside, the steady whisper of the rain died and finally ceased.
Falsen was awake with the dawn, snapping from sound sleep into instant awareness. He was alone. He threw the blankets to one side, walked on bare, silent feet to the cave entrance. Linda, standing on a little ledge overlooking the downward slope of the hill, sensed his coming, turned to greet him. A smile flickered briefly over her face.
“This is it,” she said. “Your first morning on Antares VI. Or, since we seem to be a sort of Adam and Eve, shall we think up a nice name for this mudball?” She laughed. “It’s better than my first morning. I didn’t have company.”
Low in the east a sullen, ruddy glow stained the gray clouds. It spread slowly, spread and lifted, suffusing all the overcast with dull crimson. And then there was a sun in the sky; all the pools and channels through the swamp glimmered like blood among the grayness of the vegetation.
“What’s the program?” asked Falsen. “You’re the oldest inhabitant.”
“Breakfast,” said the girl. “But we have to catch it first. Unless, that is, you’d sooner have something from the stores …”
“Better keep the canned stuff for an emergency,” he said. “But you’re the catering officer.”
“All right. We catch our breakfast. Look.” She pointed. “See that pool? The one shaped like a horseshoe … That’s where I get my crayfish—they aren’t crayfish, but I have to call them something. I’ll show you.”
“Do we go as we are?”
“You can dress if you like. But as we are is better for things like crayfish. If it were sheep, now …” She licked her red lips with a red tongue.
“Don’t!” said Falsen sharply.
The girl ignored him.
“On my last long leave,” she said, “I went to Earth. I already knew then, by the way. I spent a few weeks in the Scottish Highlands, one of those reserves that they have on Terra …”
“I know,” interrupted Falsen. “I’m Terran.”
“One morning,” she went on, “a morning much like this … there were sheep.” She smiled reminiscently. “I often wonder who, or what, that shepherd blamed.”
“And yet, knowing the risk, you continued in space?”
“Why not? As a catering officer doubling as nurse, I had access to drugs. And I saw to it that there was a sudden increase in the mortality rate of the ship’s cats. If it hadn’t been for that passenger and her pampered Persian … And now …” she spat viciously, “Crayfish! There’s more real meat on a cat!”
Together they made their way down the hillside, toward the pool. The spongy vegetation was soggy underfoot, still saturated with the night’s rain. The rising of the sun had brought a steamy, uncomfortable warmth to the air and Falsen was thankful that he had not bothered to dress, that there was only his skin, hairy as it was, to get muddy, so that the discomfort was no worse.
They stopped at the horseshoe-shaped pond, and there Linda made a search of the vegetation along its bank. She selected, finally, a long tendril with an elongated, bright yellow berry at its end. Using her left hand, she lowered it gently into the water. Falsen saw that there were tiny fish in the pool, some gold in color, some silver. He supposed that they were fish … at least they filled the same ecological niche as fish did on other worlds. He supposed, too, that something with very weak eyesight might just possibly mistake the berry for one of the little creatures.
“The thing to do,” explained Linda, “is to keep it moving, just so. And you need hands for this … Now we’re in business.”
Carefully, so as not to disturb the water, she lowered herself to a prone position, still angling with her left hand, her right hand poised and ready. Falsen watched the pale-colored berry and saw the tiny fish dart up to investigate it. After only seconds they sheered off with a rather elaborate show of disinterest. Then, suddenly, they were gone, flashing away to the farthest recesses of the pond, while something big and gray scuttled over the muddy bottom. With scarcely a splash, Linda’s free arm flashed down into the water, and then she rolled over onto her back, holding with both hands a thing that could have been an oversize, infuriated Terran spider. Uncertain what to do, Falsen stood by, more than a little sickened by the appearance of the thing that the girl had fished from the pond.
“Shall I …?” he began doubtfully.
“No. All right. There!”
Something cracked loudly and sharply, and then the crustacean was rolling on the spongy vegetation, dead, a gray, hairy football in size and appearance.
“We cook him,” said the girl. “I’ve tried them raw, but …”
The thing, Falsen admitted, wasn’t bad eating. It would have been improved by salt, pepper and vinegar and a melted butter dressing, but it was much better than nothing. Then, after the meal, there was a cigarette from the pack that Linda had carefully dried when she dried his clothes. It was a shared cigarette, for, as Linda pointed out, she had not yet found any kind of vegetable growth whose dried leaves would serve as a tobacco substitute.
“But you will lose the desire,” she said. “After all, it’s not natural. I’m just having this one with you to be sociable.”
“Then, let me finish it.”
“No. It’s funny, but with the smell of it the desire came back. After all, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t try to make the best of two worlds.”
“The main problem right now,” said Falsen, “is to make the best of one.”
He got to his feet, walked to the cave entrance to survey the one planet that was left to them after all their years and light-years of interstellar travel. He stiffened suddenly.
“Linda!” he called. “Come here!”
“What is it, Nick?”
“Look. . .
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