The crew of the interstellar exploration ship Ultima Thule is menaced by a brain-eating alien.
Release date: September 30, 2015
Print pages: 111
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High on the black mass of rock, silent among the greater silence, Ookuul crouched; waiting. Every nerve and muscle of his body quivered in taut anticipation.
His large, jet-black eyes, all pupil, flickered intently, hungrily over the jagged, lifeless valley below. For a long while he had tracked his unsuspecting victim across the frozen wastes of Caal. Only the intensifying sickness of his hunger gave him any measurement of time.
No days of warmth and light ever disturbed the monotony of the eternal night. No sun ever rose above the distant ridge of mountains.
A part of his mind, detached but alert, flashed back across the intervening centuries to the earlier days. Days when Caal was warm and teeming with life. Before the planet had torn itself from the grasp of its parent sun; to go flying into the darkness of outer space. From that far-off moment, his only aim in life had been the pursuit of food. Food which had dwindled rapidly over the years. Through sheer necessity, cannibalism had come into its own.
Abruptly, he stiffened as a soft sound shattered the clinging silence. In an instant it was repeated. The muffled pad, pad of naked feet on smooth, hard rock.
Ookuul tensed himself.
The long, sensitive fingers of his right hand gripped the short, metal bar with an intensity he was unable to control. He sensed the other’s position a moment before he was able to see him. The mere movement of a shadow across his field of vision, ten or so feet below him.
His prey was moving quickly. Ookuul realised that his actions would have to be instantaneous. Swiftly he galvanised his body into convulsive movement. Like a stone, he dropped onto the other’s unsuspecting back and brought the bar down with a sickening thud. Savagely, he smashed in the back of his victim’s head. He died without a moan.
Ookuul could contain himself no longer. A thin foam of white froth slavered around his trembling lips.
Lowering his mouth to the gaping wound in his victim’s skull—he began to feed.
Sol had long since disappeared below the limits of visibility. In the control room of the Ultima Thule, Senior-Lieutenant Brant drew himself slowly to his feet. The ship had attained its limiting velocity; and the effects of the anti-acceleration gas were beginning to wear off. As the second-in-command, Brant held a position of extreme importance.
He acted as mediator between the scientists who formed the greater portion of the crew and the military staff. The Ultima Thule was the first of a new class of exploratory space-ships, built to the rigid specifications laid down by a select team of Earth’s leading scientists.
This was her maiden interstellar voyage and as such, she carried her full compliment of one hundred; most of whom were rapidly recovering from the state of induced anæsthesia.
The communicator screen above the massive control panel spluttered twice; then cleared. The face which appeared was bronzed and young-looking; the determined mouth giving the lie to the laughter which lurked behind the blue eyes.
Brant recognised Carl Nessler, the chief chemist, as the other spoke: “Any idea where we are Brant? I don’t seem to be able to identify any of these constellations.”
Brant focussed his eyes on the huge expanse of the visiplate.
“We’re somewhere beyond the stars of Corona Borealis at the moment. I haven’t got our exact position yet; I’ll broadcast it as soon as it comes through.”
Nessler nodded; his image faded.
Brant turned his attention to the intangible night which held them and the ship in the grasp of its mighty coils. On the port bow, T. Coronae glowed a pale blue. He glanced down at the banks of instruments which confronted him. Their space-references were given with respect to this star.
This was not unusual; the star was known to have turned nova three or four centuries earlier. As a result, it was still in an excited state, surrounded by a field of high energy radiation. This made its image on the screen doubly characteristic and Brant had little difficulty in recognising it before it drifted away into the far distance.
There was a slight click behind him. The door slid open quickly and Captain Anson entered. He was accompanied by three of the military staff in their gold-braided uniforms.
“All the men seem to have recovered, Brant,” he said; his keen gaze taking in every detail of the room. “Some of them, of course, are new to this kind of treatment. It’s too early yet to say whether there’ll be any after effects.”
He crossed over to the visiplate. Several of the nearer stars, some of which exhibited a discernible disc, drifted outwards from a common point in the centre.
Without turning round, he said: “You’ll find the official orders governing this trip on the chart table, Brant. I’ve no doubt you share the men’s curiosity about our destination.”
The Senior-Lieutenant spread the enclosed star map on the small table. He noticed that their course had been plotted in red and studied it with unveiled interest. In all, it represented a round trip of close on a million light years.
A squeaky voice shrilled from the communicator.
“We’ve located an unidentified object on the radarscopes, Captain.”
Almost instinctively, Brant recognised it as belonging to one of the two Venusians who manned the radaric “eyes” of the ship. He glanced up. It was Doos Marn, the spidery antennæ sprouting from the top of his head, waving excitedly. The oval double eye in the centre of his forehead divided into two; one half fixed on the Captain, the other surveying something to his right.
“It’s travelling parallel to our direction of motion,” he continued; “But we’re rapidly overtaking it.”
Anson hesitated, then said: “Keep it on the scopes. I’ll put the ship into a slow curve and execute a search. This may prove interesting. If it comes within two thousand miles notify me at once. No—cancel that order, I’ll come down there myself.” He spun on his heel and faced Brant. “I’ll pass the directions from the radar room,” he said. “Keep a sharp look-out from the bridge.”
From the corner of his eye, Brant watched him go. It would take the Captain a few minutes to reach the radar room. Meanwhile, this was as good a time as any to broadcast their position to the crew. He snapped down the switch of the main intercommunication system. He knew that all over the ship, his face would appear on the numerous screens; his voice would reach everyone.
Briefly, he read off the space co-ordinates and ended by saying: “It has been reported from the radar section that an unidentified object has been sighted on the scopes. Until further notice, all members of the military staff will remain on the alert. That is all.”
He broke the connection.
“Do you think there’s any chance we’ll be attacked, Lieutenant?” asked one of the men behind him.
Brant, who had been setting the automatic controls, turned to answer. He said briefly: “Until we pick up the object visually I don’t see how I can answer that question; or even make a guess.” He gave a short laugh. “If those two Venusians managed to pick it up, then it must be something big.”
He turned back to the communicator screen and tuned in to the radar room. As the picture came on with startling clarity, he saw that Captain Anson was bending over the nearest tube. In the background, he recognised Lieutenant Morgan, the only scientist on board to hold a military rank. He was the ship’s botanist. A quick glance over the rest of the room showed him that several other scientists were also present. There was Ericson, the metallurgist; Marlowe, head of the biology department and Ma’a Dii who somehow combined the duties of both physicist and astronomer. The latter was speaking as Brant tuned in.
“——and furthermore, I regard the suggestion that we are dealing with an outer planet with the greatest scepticism. My section has already charted the paths of the nearer suns. Not one of them approaches within two light years of the ship.”
He was interrupted by Jee D’Yon, the other Venusian operator:
“I don’t agree. It’s definitely a body of planetary size, which rules out any idea of a projectile. Get in touch with the control room and see if there’s any sign of it yet. Tell them it’s dead ahead now—distance, two million miles.”
The Captain looked up.
He noticed Brant’s image for the first time.
“Did you hear any of that, Brant?” he asked.
“I came in, in the middle of Ma’a Dii’s speech,” said Brant. “I’ve got three of your men up here with me Captain. We’re all keeping a sharp watch through the windows—but so far there’s no sign of anything out there.”
Anson paused and seemed to be deliberating. Eventually he said:
“There’s something here that’s mighty peculiar. I don’t like it at all.” He reached a decision. “Get Wilson to cut the forward thrust by seventy per cent. Report back to me here as soon as you’ve done that.”
The thunder and vibration of the drive fell appreciably as the order was duly carried out. Brant was glad when it was done. Although the Ultima Thule had been designed to withstand any chance collisions with meteorites, nothing ever built could survive a direct hit on larger objects. He called the Captain again.
“Anything showing?” shouted Anson. He was a small, grey-haired man of fifty; older than most of the crew. The greater part of his life had been spent on the ships of the Interstellar Exploratory Corps—a fact which made him an excellent choice for the command.
Brant shook his head. “Nothing’s shown up on the visiplate,” he answered. “As a check, I’ve determined the distance of the nearest star at the moment. And that’s three and a half light years away.”
From the bridge, he had a clear view of the blackness which lay ahead. A few stars were dotted here and there but these were, without exception, situated far beyond the reach of the radar impulses.
Over the communicator came the voice of the Venusian operator, calling the distances.
“Fifty thousand miles—forty-five—forty thousand—thirty-five.”
Almost unconsciously, Brant wondered how long the Captain was going to keep the ship on her present steady course.
All over the Ultima Thule, others were wondering, too.
It was one of the three military men who unwittingly solved the mystery. His sudden shout brought Brant to the visiplate. He pointed excitedly to the centre of the screen.
One of the stars had completely disappeared. As they watched another close at hand did likewise.
The man said: “There’s a dark body out there between us and those stars. What do you think it is, Lieutenant?”
“Well whatever Ma’a Dii says, it looks like a planet to me. I’ll get them to check its dimensions from the scopes.”
Anson had already heard this conversation. His voice sounded excited and relieved as he said: “I’ve been listening to everything you’ve said, Lieutenant and I believe you’ve hit it.” His voice took on an urgent tone and went up in pitch. “Throw her to the right—quick. We’re almost on top of it.”
The last half of his sentence was nearly drowned by the roar of the atomic thrust as the Ultima Thule veered to the right. The change of direction was so sudden that the small chart table tore itself from the metal floor and careened against the outer wall. Brant was pressed with cruel violence against th. . .
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