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Title:      Parasite Planet
Author:     Stanley G. Weinbaum
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.:  0601211.txt
Edition:    1
Language:   English
Character set encoding:     Latin-1(ISO-8859-1)--8 bit
Date first posted:          June 2006
Date most recently updated: June 2006

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Title:      Parasite Planet
Author:     Stanley G. Weinbaum




Luckily for "Ham" Hammond it was mid-winter when the mudspout came.
Mid-winter, that is, in the Venusian sense, which is nothing at all like
the conception of the season generally entertained on Earth, except
possibly, by dwellers in the hotter regions of the Amazon basin, or the
Congo.

They, perhaps, might form a vague mental picture of winter on Venus by
visualizing their hottest summer days, multiplying the heat, discomfort
and unpleasant denizens of the jungle by ten or twelve.

On Venus, as is now well known, the seasons occur alternately in
opposite hemispheres, as on the Earth, but with a very important
difference. Here, when North America and Europe swelter in summer, it is
winter in Australia and Cape Colony and Argentina. It is the northern
and southern hemispheres which alternate their seasons.

But on Venus, very strangely, it is the eastern and western hemispheres,
because the seasons of Venus depend, not on inclination to the plane of
the ecliptic, but on libration. Venus does not rotate, but keeps the
same face always toward the Sun, just as the Moon does toward the earth.
One face is forever daylight, and the other forever night, and only
along the twilight zone, a strip five hundred miles wide, is human
habitation possible, a thin ring of territory circling the planet.

Toward the sunlit side it verges into the blasting heat of a desert
where only a few Venusian creatures live, and on the night edge the
strip ends abruptly in the colossal ice barrier produced by the
condensation of the upper winds that sweep endlessly from the rising air
of the hot hemisphere to cool and sink and rush back again from the cold
one.

The chilling of warm air always produces rain, and at the edge of the
darkness the rain freezes to form these great ramparts. What lies
beyond, what fantastic forms of life may live in the starless darkness
of the frozen face, or whether that region is as dead as the airless
Moon--those are mysteries.

But the slow libration, a ponderous wabbling of the planet from side to
side, does produce the effect of seasons. On the lands of the twilight
zone, first in one hemisphere and then the other, the cloud-hidden Sun
seems to rise gradually for fifteen days, then sink for the same period.
It never ascends far, and only near the ice barrier does it seem to
touch the horizon; for the libration is only seven degrees, but it is
sufficient to produce noticeable fifteen-day seasons.

But such seasons! In the winter the temperature drops sometimes to a
humid but bearable ninety, but, two weeks later, a hundred and forty is
a cool day near the torrid edge of the zone. And always, winter and
summer, the intermittent rains drip sullenly down to be absorbed by the
spongy soil and given back again as sticky, unpleasant, unhealthy steam.

And that, the vast amount of moisture on Venus, was the greatest
surprise of the first human visitors; the clouds had been seen, of
course, but the spectroscope denied the presence of water, naturally,
since it was analyzing light reflected from the upper cloud surfaces,
fifty miles above the planet's face.

That abundance of water has strange consequences. There are no seas or
oceans on Venus, if we except the probability of vast, silent, and
eternally frozen oceans on the sunless side. On the hot hemisphere
evaporation is too rapid, and the rivers that flow out of the ice
mountains simply diminish and finally vanish, dried up.

A further consequence is the curiously unstable nature of the land of
the twilight zone. Enormous subterranean rivers course invisibly through
it, some boiling, some cold as the ice from which they flow. These are
the cause of the mud eruptions that make human habitation in the
Hotlands such a gamble; a perfectly solid and apparently safe area of
soil may be changed suddenly into a boiling sea of mud in which
buildings sink and vanish, together, frequently, with their occupants.

There is no way of predicting these catastrophes; only on the rare
outcroppings of bed rock is a structure safe, and so all permanent human
settlements cluster about the mountains.


Sam Hammond was a trader. He was one of those adventurous individuals
who always appear on the frontiers and fringes of habitable regions.
Most of these fall into two classes; they are either reckless daredevils
pursuing danger, or outcasts, criminal or otherwise, pursuing either
solitude or forgetfulness.

Ham Hammond was neither. He was pursuing no such abstractions,
but the good, solid lure of wealth. He was, in fact, trading
with the natives for the spore-pods of the Venusian plant
xixtchil, from which terrestrial chemists would extract
trihydroxyl-tertiary-tolunitrile-beta-anthraquinone, the
xixtline or triple-T-B-A that was so effective in rejuvenation
treatments.

Ham was young and sometimes wondered why rich old men--and women--would
pay such tremendous prices for a few more years of virility, especially
as the treatments didn't actually increase the span of life, but just
produced a sort of temporary and synthetic youth.

Gray hair darkened, wrinkles filled out, bald heads grew fuzzy, and
then, in a few years, the rejuvenated person was just as dead as he
would have been, anyway. But as long as triple-T-B-A commanded a price
about equal to its weight in radium, why, Ham was willing to take the
gamble to obtain it.

He had never really expected the mudspout. Of course it was an
ever-present danger, but when, staring idly through the window of his
shack over the writhing and steaming Venusian plain, he had seen the
sudden boiling pools erupting all around, it had come as a shocking
surprise.

For a moment he was paralyzed; then he sprang into immediate and frantic
action. He pulled on his enveloping suit of rubberlike transkin; he
strapped the great bowls of mudshoes to his feet; he tied the precious
bag of spore-pods to his shoulders, packed some food, and then burst
into the open.

The ground was still semisolid, but even as he watched, the black soil
boiled out around the metal walls of the shack, the cube tilted a
trifle, and then sank deliberately from sight, and the mud sucked and
gurgled as it closed gently above the spot.

Ham caught himself. One couldn't stand still in the midst of a mudspout,
even with the bowl-like mudshoes as support. Once let the viscous stuff
flow over the rim and the luckless victim was trapped; he couldn't raise
his foot against the suction, and first slowly, then more quickly, he'd
follow the shack.

So Ham started off over the boiling swamp, walking with the peculiar
sliding motion he had learned by much practice, never raising the
mudshoes above the surface, but sliding them along, careful that no mud
topped the curving rim.

It was a tiresome motion, but absolutely necessary. He slid along as if
on snowshoes, bearing west because that was the direction of the dark
side, and if he had to walk to safety, he might as well do it in
coolness. The area of swamp was unusually large; he covered at least a
mile before he attained a slight rise in the ground, and the mudshoes
clumped on solid, or nearly solid, soil.

He was bathed in perspiration; and his transkin suit was hot as a boiler
room, but one grows accustomed to that on Venus. He'd have given half
his supply of xixtchil pods for the opportunity to open the mask of the
suit, to draw a breath of even the steamy and humid Venusian air, but
that was impossible; impossible, at least, if he had any inclination to
continue living.

One breath of unfiltered air anywhere near the warm edge of the twilight
zone was quick and very painful death; Ham would have drawn in uncounted
millions of the spores of those fierce Venusian molds, and they'd have
sprouted in furry and nauseating masses in his nostrils, his mouth, his
lungs, and eventually in his ears and eyes.

Breathing them wasn't even a necessary requirement; once he'd come upon
a trader's body with the molds springing from his flesh. The poor fellow
had somehow torn a rip in his transkin suit, and that was enough.

The situation made eating and drinking in the open a problem on Venus;
one had to wait until a rain had precipitated the spores, when it was
safe for half an hour or so. Even then the water must have been recently
boiled and the food just removed from its can; otherwise, as had
happened to Ham more than once, the food was apt to turn abruptly into a
fuzzy mass of molds that grew about as fast as the minute hand moved on
a clock. A disgusting sight! A disgusting planet!

That last reflection was induced by Ham's view of the quagmire that had
engulfed his shack. The heavier vegetation had gone with it, but already
avid and greedy life was emerging, wriggling mud grass and the bulbous
fungi called "walking balls." And all around a million little slimy
creatures slithered across the mud, eating each other rapaciously, being
torn to bits, and each fragment re-forming to a complete creature.

A thousand different species, but all the same in one respect; each of
them was all appetite. In common with most Venusian beings, they had a
multiplicity of both legs and mouths; in fact some of them were little
more than blobs of skin split into dozens of hungry mouths, and crawling
on a hundred spidery legs.

All life on Venus is more or less parasitic. Even the plants that draw
their nourishment directly from soil and air have also the ability to
absorb and digest--and, often enough, to trap--animal food. So fierce is
the competition on that humid strip of land between the fire and the ice
that one who has never seen it must fail even to imagine it.

The animal kingdom wars incessantly on itself and the plant world; the
vegetable kingdom retaliates, and frequently outdoes the other in the
production of monstrous predatory horrors that one would even hesitate
to call plant life. A terrible world!

In the few moments that Ham had paused to look back, ropy creepers had
already entangled his legs; transkin was impervious, of course, but he
had to cut the things away with his knife, and the black, nauseating
juices that flowed out of them smeared on his suit and began instantly
to grow furry as the molds sprouted. He shuddered.

"Hell of a place!" Ham growled, stooping to remove his mudshoes, which
he slung carefully over his back.

He slogged away through the writhing vegetation, automatically dodging
the awkward thrusts of the Jack Ketch trees as they cast their nooses
hopefully toward his arms and head.

Now and again he passed one that dangled some trapped creature, usually
unrecognizable because the molds had enveloped it in a fuzzy shroud,
while the tree itself was placidly absorbing victim and molds alike.

"Horrible place!" Ham muttered, kicked a writhing mass of nameless
little vermin from his path.

He mused; his shack had been situated rather nearer the hot edge of the
twilight zone; it was a trifle over two hundred and fifty miles to the
shadow line, though of course that varied with the libration. But one
couldn't approach the line too closely, anyway, because of the fierce,
almost inconceivable, storms that raged where the hot upper winds
encountered the icy blasts of the night side, giving rise to the birth
throes of the ice barrier.

So a hundred and fifty miles due west would be sufficient to bring
coolness, to enter a region too temperate for the molds, where he could
walk in comparative comfort. And then, not more than fifty miles north,
lay the American settlement Erotia, named, obviously, after that
troublesome mythical son of Venus, Cupid.

Intervening, of course, were the ranges of the Mountains of Eternity,
not those mighty twenty-mile-high peaks whose summits are occasionally
glimpsed by Earthly telescopes, and that forever sunder British Venus
from the American possessions, but, even at the point he planned to
cross, very respectable mountains indeed. He was on the British side
now; not that any one cared. Traders came and went as they pleased.

Well, that meant about two hundred miles. No reason why he couldn't make
it; he was armed with both automatic and flame-pistol, and water was no
problem, if carefully boiled. Under pressure of necessity, one could
even eat Venusian life--but it required hunger and thorough cooking and
a sturdy stomach.

It wasn't the taste so much as the appearance, or so he'd been told. He
grimaced; beyond doubt he'd be driven to find out for himself, since his
canned food couldn't possibly last out the trip. Nothing to worry about,
Ham kept telling himself. In fact, plenty to be glad about; the xixtchil
pods in his pack represented as much wealth as he could have accumulated
by ten years of toil back on Earth.

No danger--and yet, men had vanished on Venus, dozens of them. The molds
had claimed them, or some fierce unearthly monster, or perhaps one of
the many unknown living horrors, both plant and animal.

Ham trudged along, keeping always to the clearings about the Jack Ketch
trees, since these vegetable omnivores kept other life beyond the reach
of their greedy nooses. Elsewhere progress was impossible, for the
Venusian jungle presented such a terrific tangle of writhing and
struggling forms that one could move only by cutting the way, step by
step, with infinite labor.

Even then there was the danger of Heaven only knew what fanged and
venomous creatures whose teeth might pierce the protective membrane of
transkin, and a crack in that meant death. Even the unpleasant Jack
Ketch trees were preferable company, he reflected, as he slapped their
questing lariats aside.

Six hours after Ham had started his involuntary journey, it rained. He
seized the opportunity, found a place where a recent mudspout had
cleared the heavier vegetation away, and prepared to eat. First,
however, he scooped up some scummy water, filtered it through the screen
attached for that purpose to his canteen, and set about sterilizing it.

Fire was difficult to manage, since dry fuel is rare indeed in the
Hotlands of Venus, but Ham tossed a thermide tablet into the liquid, and
the chemicals boiled the water instantly, escaping themselves as gases.
If the water retained a slight ammoniacal taste--well, that was the
least of his discomforts, he mused, as he covered it and set it by to
cool.

He uncapped a can of beans, watched a moment to see that no stray molds
had remained in the air to infect the food, then opened the visor of his
suit and swallowed hastily. Thereafter he drank the blood-warm water and
poured carefully what remained into the water pouch within his transkin,
where he could suck it through a tube to his mouth without the deadly
exposure to the molds.

Ten minutes after he had completed the meal, while he rested and longed
for the impossible luxury of a cigarette, the fuzzy coat sprang suddenly
to life on the remnants of food in the can.


II

An hour later, weary and thoroughly soaked in perspiration, Ham found a
Friendly tree, so named by the explorer Burlingame because it is one of
the few organisms on Venus sluggish enough to permit one to rest in its
branches. So Ham climbed it, found the most comfortable position
available, and slept as best he could.

It was five hours by his wrist watch before he awoke, and the tendrils
and little sucking cups of the Friendly tree were fastened all over his
transkin. He tore them away very carefully, climbed down, and trudged
westward.

It was after the second rain that he met the doughpot, as the creature
is called in British and American Venus. In the French strip, it's the
pot  colle, the "paste pot"; in the Dutch--well, the Dutch are not
prudish, and they call the horror just what they think it warrants.

Actually, the doughpot is a nauseous creature. It's a mass of white,
dough-like protoplasm, ranging in size from a single cell to perhaps
twenty tons of mushy filth. It has no fixed form; in fact, it's merely a
mass of de Proust cells--in effect, a disembodied, crawling, hungry
cancer.

It has no organization and no intelligence, nor even any instinct save
hunger. It moves in whatever direction food touches its surfaces; when
it touches two edible substances, it quietly divides, with the larger
portion invariably attacking the greater supply.

It's invulnerable to bullets; nothing less than the terrific blast of a
flame-pistol will kill it, and then only if the blast destroys every
individual cell. It travels over the ground absorbing everything,
leaving bare black soil where the ubiquitous molds spring up at once--a
noisome, nightmarish creature.

Ham sprang aside as the doughpot erupted suddenly from the jungle to his
right. It couldn't absorb the transkin, of course, but to be caught in
that mess meant quick suffocation. He glared at it disgustedly and was
sorely tempted to blast it with his flame-pistol as it slithered past at
running speed. He would have, too, but the experienced Venusian
frontiersman is very careful with the flame-pistol.

It has to be charged with a diamond, a cheap black one, of course, but
still an item to consider. The crystal, when fired, gives up all its
energy in one terrific blast that roars out like a lightning stroke for
a hundred yards, incinerating everything in its path.

The thing rolled by with a sucking and gulping sound. Behind it opened
the passage it had cleared; creepers, snake vines, Jack Ketch
trees--everything had been swept away down to the humid earth itself,
where already the molds were springing up on the slime of the doughpot's
trail.

The alley led nearly in the direction Ham wanted to travel; he seized
the opportunity and strode briskly along, with a wary eye, nevertheless,
on the ominous walls of jungle. In ten hours or so the opening would be
filled once more with unpleasant life, but for the present it offered a
much quicker progress than dodging from one clearing to the next.

It was five miles up the trail, which was already beginning to sprout
inconveniently, that he met the native galloping along on his four short
legs, his pincerlike hands shearing a path for him. Ham stopped for a
palaver.

"Murra," he said.

The language of the natives of the equatorial regions of the Hotlands is
a queer one. It has, perhaps, two hundred words, but when a trader has
learned those two hundred, his knowledge of the tongue is but little
greater than the man who knows none at all.

The words are generalized, and each sound has anywhere from a dozen to a
hundred meanings. Murra, for instance, is a word of greeting; it may
mean something much like "hello," or "good morning." It also may convey
a challenge--"on guard!" It means besides, "Let's be friends," and also,
strangely, "Let's fight this out."

It has, moreover, certain noun senses; it means peace, it means war, it
means courage, and, again, fear. A subtle language; it is only recently
that studies of inflection have begun to reveal its nature to human
philologists. Yet, after all, perhaps English, with its "to," "too," and
"two," its "one," "won," "wan," "wen," "win," "when," and a dozen other
similarities, might seem just as strange to Venusian ears, untrained in
vowel distinctions.

Moreover, humans can't read the expressions of the broad, flat,
three-eyed Venusian faces, which in the nature of things must convey a
world of information among the natives themselves.

But this one accepted the intended sense. "Murra," he responded,
pausing. "Usk?" That was, among other things, "Who are you?" or "Where
did you come from?" or "Where are you bound?"

Ham chose the latter sense. He pointed off into the dim west, then
raised his hand in an arc to indicate the mountains. "Erotia," he said.
That had but one meaning, at least.

The native considered this in silence. At last he grunted and
volunteered some information. He swept his cutting claw in a gesture
west along the trail. "Curky," he said, and then, "Murra." The last
was farewell; Ham pressed against the wriggling jungle wall to permit
him to pass.

Curky meant, together with twenty other senses, trader. It was the
word usually applied to humans, and Ham felt a pleasant anticipation in
the prospect of human company. It had been six months since he had heard
a human voice other than that on the tiny radio now sunk with his shack.

True enough, five miles along the doughpot's trail Ham emerged suddenly
in an area where there had been a recent mudspout. The vegetation was
only waist-high, and across the quarter-mile clearing he saw a
structure, a trading hut. But far more pretentious than his own
iron-walled cubicle; this one boasted three rooms, an unheard-of luxury
in the Hotlands, where every ounce had to be laboriously transported by
rocket from one of the settlements. That was expensive, almost
prohibitive. Traders took a real gamble, and Ham knew he was lucky to
have come out so profitably.

He strode over the still spongy ground. The windows were shaded against
the eternal daylight, and the door--the door was locked. This was a
violation of the frontier code. One always left doors unlocked; it might
mean the salvation of some strayed trader, and not even the most
dishonorable would steal from a hut left open for his safety.

Nor would the natives; no creature is as honest as a Venusian native,
who never lies and never steals, though he might, after due warning,
kill a trader for his trade goods. But only after a fair warning.

Ham stood puzzled. At last he kicked and tramped a clear space before
the door, sat down against it, and fell to snapping away the numerous
and loathsome little creatures that swarmed over his transkin. He
waited.

It wasn't half an hour before he saw the trader plowing through the
clearing--a short, slim fellow; the transkin shaded his face, but Ham
could make out large, shadowed eyes. He stood up.

"Hello!" he said jovially. "Thought I'd drop in for a visit. My name's
Hamilton Hammond--you guess the nickname!"

The newcomer stopped short, then spoke in a curiously soft and husky
voice, with a decidedly English accent. "My guess would be 'Boiled
Pork,' I fancy." The tones were cold, unfriendly. "Suppose you step
aside and let me in. Good day!"

Ham felt anger and amazement. "The devil!" he snapped. "You're a
hospitable sort, aren't you?"

"No. Not at all." The other paused at the door. "You're an American.
What are you doing on British soil? Have you a passport?"

"Since when do you need a passport in the Hotlands?"

"Trading, aren't you?" the slim man said sharply. "In other words,
poaching. You've no rights here. Get on."

Ham's jaw set stubbornly behind his mask. "Rights or none," he said,
"I'm entitled to the consideration of the frontier code. I want a breath
of air and a chance to wipe my face, and also a chance to eat. If you
open that door I'm coming in after you."

An automatic flashed into view. "Do, and you'll feed the molds."

Ham, like all Venusian traders, was of necessity bold, resourceful, and
what is called in the States "hard-boiled." He didn't flinch, but said
in apparent yielding:

"All right; but listen, all I want is a chance to eat."

"Wait for a rain," said the other coolly and half turned to unlock the
door.

As his eyes shifted, Ham kicked at the revolver; it went spinning
against the wall and dropped into the weeds. His opponent snatched for
the flame-pistol that still dangled on his hip; Ham caught his wrist in
a mighty clutch.

Instantly the other ceased to struggle, while Ham felt a momentary
surprise at the skinny feel of the wrist through its transkin covering.

"Look here!" he growled. "I want a chance to eat, and I'm going to get
it. Unlock that door!"

He had both wrists now; the fellow seemed curiously delicate. After a
moment he nodded, and Ham released one hand. The door opened, and he
followed the other in.


Again, unheard-of magnificence. Solid chairs, a sturdy table, even
books, carefully preserved, no doubt, by lycopodium against the ravenous
molds that sometimes entered Hotland shacks in spite of screen filters
and automatic spray. An automatic spray was going now to destroy any
spores that might have entered with the opening door.

Ham sat down, keeping an eye on the other, whose flame-pistol he had
permitted to remain in its holster. He was confident of his ability to
outdraw the slim individual, and, besides, who'd risk firing a
flame-pistol indoors? It would simply blow out one wall of the building.

So he set about opening his mask, removing food from his pack, wiping
his steaming face, while his companion--or opponent--looked on silently.
Ham watched the canned meat for a moment; no molds appeared, and he ate.

"Why the devil," he rasped, "don't you open your visor?" At the other's
silence, he continued: "Afraid I'll see your face, eh? Well, I'm not
interested; I'm no cop."

No reply.

He tried again. "What's your name?"

The cool voice sounded: "Burlingame. Pat Burlingame."

Ham laughed. "Patrick Burlingame is dead, my friend. I knew him." No
answer. "And if you don't want to tell your name, at least you needn't
insult the memory of a brave man and a great explorer."

"Thank you." The voice was sardonic. "He was my father."

"Another lie. He had no son. He had only a----" Ham paused abruptly; a
feeling of consternation swept over him. "Open your visor!" he yelled.

He saw the lips of the other, dim through the transkin, twitch into a
sarcastic smile.

"Why not?" said the soft voice, and the mask dropped.

Ham gulped; behind the covering were the delicately modeled features of
a girl, with cool gray eyes in a face lovely despite the glistening
perspiration on cheeks and forehead.

The man gulped again. After all, he was a gentleman despite his
profession as one of the fierce, adventurous traders of Venus. He was
university-educated--an engineer--and only the lure of quick wealth had
brought him to the Hotlands.

"I--I'm sorry," he stammered.

"You brave American poachers!" she sneered. "Are all of you so valiant
as to force yourselves on women?"

"But--how could I know? What are you doing in a place like this?"

"There's no reason for me to answer your questions, but"--she gestured
toward the room beyond--"I'm classifying Hotland flora and fauna. I'm
Patricia Burlingame, biologist."

He perceived now the jar-enclosed specimens of a laboratory in the next
chamber. "But a girl alone in the Hotlands! It's--it's reckless!"

"I didn't expect to meet any American poachers," she retorted.

He flushed. "You needn't worry about me. I'm going." He raised his hands
to his visor.

Instantly Patricia snatched an automatic from the table drawer. "You're
going, indeed, Mr. Hamilton Hammond," she said coolly. "But you're
leaving your xixtchil with me. It's crown property; you've stolen it
from British territory, and I'm confiscating it."

He stared. "Look here!" he blazed suddenly. "I've risked all I have for
that xixtchil. If I lose it I'm ruined--busted. I'm not giving it up!"

"But you are."

He dropped his mask and sat down. "Miss Burlingame," he said, "I don't
think you've nerve enough to shoot me, but that's what you'll have to do
to get it. Otherwise I'll sit here until you drop of exhaustion."

Her gray eyes bored silently into his blue ones. The gun held steadily
on his heart, but spat no bullet. It was a deadlock.

At last the girl said, "You win, poacher." She slapped the gun into her
empty holster. "Get out, then."

"Gladly!" he snapped.

He rose, fingered his visor, then dropped it again at a sudden startled
scream from the girl. He whirled, suspecting a trick, but she was
staring out of the window with wide, apprehensive eyes.


Ham saw the writhing of vegetation and then a vast whitish mass. A
doughpot--a monstrous one, bearing steadily toward their shelter. He
heard the gentle clunk of impact, and then the window was blotted out
by the pasty mess, as the creature, not quite large enough to engulf the
building, split into two masses that flowed around and merged on the
other side. Another cry from Patricia. "Your mask, fool!" she rasped.
"Close it!"

"Mask? Why?" Nevertheless, he obeyed automatically.

"Why? That's why! The digestive acids--look!" She pointed at the walls;
indeed, thousands of tiny pinholes of light were appearing. The
digestive acids of the monstrosity, powerful enough to attack whatever
food chance brought, had corroded the metal; it was porous; the shack
was ruined. He gasped as fuzzy molds shot instantly from the remains of
his meal, and a red-and-green fur sprouted from the wood of chairs and
table.

The two faced each other.

Ham chuckled. "Well," he said, "you're homeless, too. Mine went down in
a mudspout."

"Yours would!" Patricia retorted acidly. "You Yankees couldn't think of
finding shallow soil, I suppose. Bed rock is just six feet below here,
and my place is on pilons."

"Well, you're a cool devil! Anyway, your place might as well be sunk.
What are you going to do?"

"Do? Don't concern yourself. I'm quite able to manage."

"How?"

"It's no affair of yours, but I have a rocket call each month."

"You must be a millionaire, then," he commented. "The Royal Society,"
she said coldly, "is financing this expedition. The rocket is due----"

She paused; Ham thought she paled a little behind her mask.

"Due when?"

"Why--it just came two days ago. I'd forgotten."

"I see. And you think you'll just stick around for a month waiting for
it. Is that it?"

Patricia stared at him defiantly.

"Do you know," he resumed, "what you'd be in a month? It's ten days to
summer and look at your shack." He gestured at the walls, where brown
and rusty patches were forming; at his motion a piece the size of a
saucer tumbled in with a crackle. "In two days this thing will be a
caved-in ruin. What'll you do during fifteen days of summer? What'll you
do without shelter when the temperature reaches a hundred and fifty--a
hundred and sixty? I'll tell you--you'll die." She said nothing.

"You'll be a fuzzy mass of molds before the rocket returns," Ham said.
"And then a pile of clean bones that will go down with the first
mudspout."

"Be still!" she blazed.

"Silence won't help. Now I'll tell you what you can do. You can take
your pack and your mudshoes and walk along with me. We may make the Cool
Country before summer--if you can walk as well as you talk."

"Go with a Yankee poacher? I fancy not!"

"And then," he continued imperturbably, "we can cross comfortably to
Erotia, a good American town."

Patricia reached for her emergency pack, slung it over her shoulders.
She retrieved a thick bundle of notes, written in aniline ink on
transkin, brushed off a few vagrant molds, and slipped it into the pack.
She picked up a pair of diminutive mudshoes and turned deliberately to
the door.

"So you're coming?" he chuckled.

"I'm going," she retorted coldly, "to the good British town of Venoble.
Alone!"

"Venoble!" he gasped. "That's two hundred miles south! And across the
Greater Eternities, too!"


III.

Patricia walked silently out of the door and turned west toward the Cool
Country. Ham hesitated a moment, then followed. He couldn't permit the
girl to attempt that journey alone; since she ignored his presence, he
simply trailed a few steps behind her, plodding grimly and angrily
along.

For three hours or more they trudged through the endless daylight,
dodging the thrusts of the Jack Ketch trees, but mostly following the
still fairly open trail of the first doughpot.

Ham was amazed at the agile and lithe grace of the girl, who slipped
along the way with the sure skill of a native. Then a memory came to
him; she was a native, in a sense. He recalled now that Patrick
Burlingame's daughter was the first human child born on Venus, in the
colony of Venoble, founded by her father.

Ham remembered the newspaper articles when she had been sent to Earth to
be educated, a child of eight; he had been thirteen then. He was
twenty-seven now, which made Patricia Burlingame twenty-two.

Not a word passed between them until at last the girl swung about in
exasperation.

"Go away," she blazed.

Ham halted. "I'm not bothering you."

"But I don't want a bodyguard. I'm a better Hotlander than you!"

He didn't argue the point. He kept silent, and after a moment she
flashed:

"I hate you, Yankee! Lord, how I hate you!" She turned and trudged on.

An hour later the mudspout caught them. Without warning, watery muck
boiled up around their feet, and the vegetation swayed wildly. Hastily,
they strapped on their mudshoes, while the heavier plants sank with
sullen gurgles around them. Again Ham marveled at the girl's skill;
Patricia slipped away across the unstable surface with a speed he could
not match, and he shuffled far behind.

Suddenly he saw her stop. That was dangerous in a mudspout; only an
emergency could explain it. He hurried; a hundred feet away he perceived
the reason. A strap had broken on her right shoe, and she stood
helpless, balancing on her left foot, while the remaining bowl was
sinking slowly. Even now black mud slopped over the edge.

She eyed him as he approached. He shuffled to her side; as she saw his
intention, she spoke.

"You can't," she said.

Ham bent cautiously, slipping his arms about her knees and shoulders.
Her mudshoes was already embedded, but he heaved mightily, driving the
rims of his own dangerously close to the surface. With a great sucking
gulp, she came free and lay very still in his arms, so as not to
unbalance him as he slid again into careful motion over the treacherous
surface. She was not heavy, but it was a hairbreadth chance, and the mud
slipped and gurgled at the very edge of his shoe-bowls. Even though
Venus has slightly less surface gravitation than Earth, a week or so
gets one accustomed to it, and the twenty per cent advantage in weight
seems to disappear.

A hundred yards brought firm footing. He sat her down and unstrapped her
mudshoes.

"Thank you," she said coolly. "That was brave."

"You're welcome," he returned dryly. "I suppose this will end any idea
of your traveling alone. Without both mudshoes, the next spout will be
the last for you. Do we walk together now?"

Her voice chilled. "I can make a substitute shoe from tree skin."

"Not even a native could walk on tree skin."

"Then," she said, "I'll simply wait a day or two for the mud to dry and
dig up my lost one."

He laughed and gestured at the acres of mud. "Dig where?" he countered.
"You'll be here till summer if you try that."

She yielded. "You win again, Yankee. But only to the Cool Country; then
you'll go north and I south."

They trudged on. Patricia was as tireless as Ham himself and was vastly
more adept in Hotland lore. Though they spoke but little, he never
ceased to wonder at the skill she had in picking the quickest route, and
she seemed to sense the thrusts of the Jack Ketch trees without looking.
But it was when they halted at last, after a rain had given opportunity
for a hasty meal, that he had real cause to thank her.

"Sleep?" he suggested, and as she nodded: "There's a Friendly tree."

He moved toward it, the girl behind.

Suddenly she seized his arm. "It's a Pharisee!" she cried, jerking him
back.

None too soon! The false Friendly tree had lashed down with a terrible
stroke that missed his face by inches. It was no Friendly tree at all,
but an imitator, luring prey within reach by its apparent harmlessness,
then striking with knife-sharp spikes.

Ham gasped. "What is it? I never saw one of those before."

"A Pharisee! It just looks like a Friendly tree."

She took out her automatic and sent a bullet into the black, pulsing
trunk. A dark stream gushed, and the ubiquitous molds sprang into life
about the hole. The tree was doomed.

"Thanks," said Ham awkwardly. "I guess you saved my life."

"We're quits now." She gazed levelly at him. "Understand? We're even."

Later they found a true Friendly tree and slept. Awakening, they trudged
on again, and slept again, and so on for three nightless days. No more
mudspouts burst about them, but all the other horrors of the Hotlands
were well in evidence. Doughpots crossed their path, snake vines hissed
and struck, the Jack Ketch trees flung sinister nooses, and a million
little crawling things writhed underfoot or dropped upon their suits.

Once they encountered a uniped, that queer, kangaroolike creature that
leaps, crashing through the jungle on a single mighty leg, and trusts to
its ten-foot beak to spear its prey.

When Ham missed his first shot, the girl brought it down in mid-leap to
thresh into the avid clutches of the Jack Ketch trees and the merciless
molds.

On another occasion, Patricia had both feet caught in a Jack Ketch noose
that lay for some unknown cause on the ground. As she stepped within it,
the tree jerked her suddenly, to dangle head down a dozen feet in the
air, and she hung helplessly until Ham managed to cut her free. Beyond
doubt, either would have died alone on any of several occasions;
together they pulled through.

Yet neither relaxed the cool, unfriendly attitude that had become
habitual. Ham never addressed the girl unless necessary, and she in the
rare instances when they spoke, called him always by no other name than
Yankee poacher. In spite of this, the man found himself sometimes
remembering the piquant loveliness of her features, her brown hair and
level gray eyes, as he had glimpsed them in the brief moments when rain
made it safe to open their visors.

At last one day a wind stirred out of the west, bringing with it a
breath of coolness that was like the air of heaven to them. It was the
underwind, the wind that blew from the frozen half of the planet, that
breathed cold from beyond the ice barrier. When Ham experimentally
shaved the skin from a writhing weed, the molds sprang out more slowly
and with encouraging sparseness; they were approaching the Cool Country.

They found a Friendly tree with lightened hearts; another day's trek
might bring them to the uplands where one could walk unhooded, in safety
from the molds, since these could not sprout in a temperature much below
eighty.

Ham woke first. For a while he gazed silently across at the girl,
smiling at the way the branches of the tree had encircled her like
affectionate arms. They were merely hungry, of course, but it looked
like tenderness. His smile turned a little sad as he realized that the
Cool Country meant parting, unless he could discourage that insane
determination of hers to cross the Greater Eternities.

He sighed, and reached for his pack slung on a branch between them, and
suddenly a bellow of rage and astonishment broke from him.

His xixtchil pods! The transkin pouch was slit; they were gone.

Patricia woke startled at his cry. Then, behind her mask, he sensed an
ironic, mocking smile.

"My xixtchil!" he roared. "Where is it?"

She pointed down. There among the lesser growths was a little mound of
molds.

"There," she said coolly. "Down there, poacher."

"You----" He choked with rage.

"Yes. I slit the pouch while you slept. You'll smuggle no stolen wealth
from British territory."

Ham was white, speechless. "You damned devil!" he bellowed at last.
"That's every cent I had!"

"But stolen," she reminded him pleasantly, swinging her dainty feet.

Rage actually made him tremble. He glared at her; the light struck
through the translucent transkin, outlining her body and slim rounded
legs in shadow. "I ought to kill you!" he muttered tensely.

His hand twitched, and the girl laughed softly. With a groan of
desperation, he slung his pack over his shoulders and dropped to the
ground.

"I hope--I hope you die in the mountains," he said grimly, and stalked
away toward the west.

A hundred yards distant he heard her voice.

"Yankee! Wait a moment!"

He neither paused nor glanced back, but strode on.


Half an hour later, glancing back from the crest of a rise, Ham
perceived that she was following him. He turned and hurried on. The way
was upward now, and his strength began to outweigh her speed and skill.

When next he glimpsed her, she was a plodding speck far behind, moving,
he imagined, with a weary doggedness. He frowned back at her; it had
occurred to him that a mudspout would find her completely helpless,
lacking the vitally important mudshoes.

Then he realized that they were beyond the region of mudspouts, here in
the foothills of the Mountains of Eternity, and anyway, he decided
grimly, he didn't care.

For a while Ham paralleled a river, doubtless an unnamed tributary of
the Phlegethon. So far there had been no necessity to cross
watercourses, since naturally all streams on Venus flow from the ice
barrier across the twilight zone to the hot side, and therefore, had
coincided with their own direction.

But now, once he attained the tablelands and turned north, he would
encounter rivers. They had to be crossed either on logs or, if
opportunity offered and the stream was narrow, through the branches of
Friendly trees. To set foot in the water was death; fierce fanged
creatures haunted the streams.

He had one near catastrophe at the rim of the tableland. It was while he
edged through a Jack Ketch clearing; suddenly there was a heave of white
corruption, and tree and jungle wall disappeared in the mass of a
gigantic doughpot.

He was cornered between the monster and an impenetrable tangle of
vegetation, so he did the only thing left to do. He snatched his
flame-pistol and sent a terrific, roaring blast into the horror, a blast
that incinerated tons of pasty filth and left a few small fragments
crawling and feeding on the debris.

The blast also, as it usually does, shattered the barrel of the weapon.
He sighed as he set about the forty-minute job of replacing it--no true
Hotlander ever delays that--for the blast had cost fifteen good American
dollars, ten for the cheap diamond that had exploded, and five for the
barrel. Nothing at all when he had had his xixtchil, but a real item
now. He sighed again as he discovered that the remaining barrel was his
last; he had been forced to economize on everything when he set out.

Ham came at last to the table-land. The fierce and predatory vegetation
of the Hotlands grew scarce; he began to encounter true plants, with no
power of movement, and the underwind blew cool in his face.

He was in a sort of high valley; to his right were the gray peaks of the
Lesser Eternities, beyond which lay Erotia, and to his left, like a
mighty, glittering rampart, lay the vast slopes of the Greater Range,
whose peaks were lost in the clouds fifteen miles above.

He looked at the opening of the rugged Madman's Pass where it separated
two colossal peaks; the pass itself was twenty-five thousand feet in
height, but the mountains out-topped it by fifty thousand more. One man
had crossed that jagged crack on foot--Patrick Burlingame--and that was
the way his daughter meant to follow.

Ahead, visible as a curtain of shadow, lay the night edge of the
twilight zone, and Ham could see the incessant lightnings that flashed
forever in this region of endless storms. It was here that the ice
barrier crossed the ranges of the Mountains of Eternity, and the cold
underwind, thrust up by the mighty range, met the warm upper winds in a
struggle that was one continuous storm, such a storm as only Venus could
provide. The river Phlegethon had its source somewhere back in there.

Ham surveyed the wildly magnificent panorama. Tomorrow, or rather, after
resting, he would turn north. Patricia would turn south, and, beyond
doubt, would die somewhere on Madman's Pass. For a moment he had a
queerly painful sensation, then he frowned bitterly.

Let her die, if she was fool enough to attempt the pass alone just
because she was too proud to take a rocket from an American settlement.
She deserved it. He didn't care; he was still assuring himself of that
as he prepared to sleep, not in a Friendly tree, but in one of the far
more friendly specimens of true vegetation and in the luxury of an open
visor.

The sound of his name awakened him. He gazed across the table-land to
see Patricia just topping the divide, and he felt a moment's wonder at
how she managed to trail him, a difficult feat indeed in a country where
the living vegetation writhes instantly back across one's path. Then he
recalled the blast of his flame-pistol; the flash and sound would carry
for miles, and she must have heard or seen it.

Ham saw her glancing anxiously around.

"Ham!" she shouted again--not Yankee or poacher, but "Ham!"

He kept a sullen silence; again she called. He could see her bronzed and
piquant features now; she had dropped her transkin hood. She called
again; with a despondent little shrug, she turned south along the
divide, and he watched her go in grim silence. When the forest hid her
from view, he descended and turned slowly north.

Very slowly; his steps lagged; it was as if he tugged against some
invisible elastic bond. He kept seeing her anxious face and hearing in
memory the despondent call. She was going to her death, he believed,
and, after all, despite what she had done to him, he didn't want that.
She was too full of life, too confident, too young, and above all, too
lovely to die.

True, she was an arrogant, vicious, self-centered devil, cool as
crystal, and as unfriendly, but--she had gray eyes and brown hair, and
she was courageous. And at last, with a groan of exasperation, he halted
his lagging steps, turned, and rushed with almost eager speed into the
south.

Trailing the girl was easy here for one trained in the Hotlands. The
vegetation was slow to mend itself, here in the Cool Country, and now
again he found imprints of her feet, or broken twigs to mark her path.
He found the place where she had crossed the river through tree
branches, and he found a place where she had paused to eat.

But he saw that she was gaining on him; her skill and speed outmatched
his, and the trail grew steadily older. At last he stopped to rest; the
table-land was beginning to curve upward toward the vast Mountains of
Eternity, and on rising ground he knew he could overtake her. So he
slept for a while in the luxurious comfort of no transkin at all, just
the shorts and shirt that one wore beneath. That was safe here; the
eternal underwind, blowing always toward the Hotlands, kept drifting
mold spores away, and any brought in on the fur of animals died quickly
at the first cool breeze. Nor would the true plants of the Cool Country
attack his flesh.

He slept five hours. The next "day" of traveling brought another change
in the country. The life of the foothills was sparse compared to the
table-lands; the vegetation was no longer a jungle, but a forest, an
unearthly forest, true, of treelike growths whose boles rose five
hundred feet and then spread, not into foliage, but flowery appendages.
Only an occasional Jack Ketch tree reminded him of the Hotlands.

Farther on, the forest diminished. Great rock outcroppings appeared, and
vast red cliffs with no growths of any kind. Now and then he encountered
swarms of the planet's only aerial creatures, the gray, mothlike
dusters, large as hawks, but so fragile that a blow shattered them. They
darted about, alighting at times to seize small squirming things, and
tinkling in their curiously bell-like voices. And apparently almost
above him, though really thirty miles distant, loomed the Mountains of
Eternity, their peaks lost in the clouds that swirled fifteen miles
overhead.

Here again it grew difficult to trail, since Patricia scrambled often
over bare rock. But little by little the signs grew fresher; once again
his greater strength began to tell. And then he glimpsed her, at the
base of a colossal escarpment split by a narrow, tree-filled canyon.

She was peering first at the mighty precipice, then at the cleft,
obviously wondering whether it offered a means of scaling the barrier,
or whether it was necessary to circle the obstacle. Like himself, she
had discarded her transkin and wore the usual shirt and shorts of the
Cool Country, which, after all, is not very cool by terrestrial
standards. She looked, he thought, like some lovely forest nymph of the
ancient slopes of Pelion.

He hurried as she moved into the canyon. "Pat!" he shouted; it was the
first time he had spoken her given name. A hundred feet within the
passage he overtook her.

"You!" she gasped. She looked tired; she had been hurrying for hours,
but a light of eagerness flashed in her eyes. "I thought you had--I
tried to find you."

Ham's face held no responsive light. "Listen here, Pat Burlingame," he
said coldly. "You don't deserve any consideration, but I can't see you
walking into death. You're a stubborn devil but you're a woman. I'm
taking you to Erotia."

The eagerness vanished. "Indeed, poacher? My father crossed here. I can,
too."

"Your father crossed in midsummer, didn't he? And midsummer's to-day.
You can't make Madman's Pass in less than five days, a hundred and
twenty hours, and by then it will nearly winter, and this longitude will
be close to the storm line. You're a fool."

She flushed. "The pass is high enough to be in the upper winds. It will
be warm."

"Warm! Yes--warm with lightning." He paused; the faint rumble of thunder
rolled through the canyon. "Listen to that. In five days that will be
right over us." He gestured up at the utterly barren slopes. "Not even
Venusian life can get a foothold up there--or do you think you've got
brass enough to be a lightning rod? Maybe you're right."

Anger flamed. "Rather the lightning than you!" Patricia snapped, and
then as suddenly softened. "I tried to call you back," she said
irrelevantly.

"To laugh at me," he retorted bitterly.

"No. To tell you I was sorry, and that----"

"I don't want your apology."

"But I wanted to tell you that----"

"Never mind," he said curtly. "I'm not interested in your repentance.
The harm's done." He frowned coldly down on her.

Patricia said meekly: "But I----"

A crashing and gurgling interrupted her, and she screamed as a gigantic
doughpot burst into view, a colossus that filled the canyon from wall to
wall to a six-foot height as it surged toward them. The horrors were
rarer in the Cool Country, but larger, since the abundance of food in
the Hotlands kept subdividing them. But this one was a giant, a
behemoth, tons and tons of nauseous, ill-smelling corruption heaving up
the narrow way. They were cut off.

Ham snatched his flame-pistol, but the girl seized his arm.

"No, no!" she cried. "Too close! It will spatter!"

Patricia was right. Unprotected by transkin, the touch of a fragment of
that monstrosity was deadly, and, beyond that, the blast of a
flame-pistol would shower bits of it upon them. He grasped her wrist and
they fled up the canyon, striving for vantage way enough to risk a shot.
And a dozen feet behind surged the doughpot, traveling blindly in the
only direction it could--the way of food.

They gained. Then, abruptly, the canyon, which had been angling
southwest, turned sharply south. The light of the eternally eastward Sun
was hidden; they were in a pit of perpetual shadow, and the ground was
bare and lifeless rock. And as it reached that point, the doughpot
halted; lacking any organization, any will, it could not move when no
food gave it direction. It was such a monster as only the life-swarming
climate of Venus could harbor; it lived only by endless eating.

The two paused in the shadow.

"Now what?" muttered Ham.

A fair shot at the mass was impossible because of the angle; a blast
would destroy only the portion it could reach.

Patricia leaped upward, catching a snaky shrub on the wall, so placed
that it received a faint ray of light. She tossed it against the pulsing
mass; the whole doughpot lunged forward a foot or two.

"Lure it in," she suggested.

They tried. It was impossible; vegetation was too sparse.

"What will happen to the thing?" asked Ham.

"I saw one stranded on the desert edge of the Hotlands," replied the
girl. "It quivered around for a long time, and then the cells attacked
each other. It ate itself." She shuddered. "It was--horrible!"

"How long?"

"Oh, forty to fifty hours."

"I won't wait that long," growled Ham. He fumbled in his pack, pulling
out his transkin.

"What will you do?"

"Put this on and try to blast that mass out of here at close range." He
fingered his flame-pistol. "This is my last barrel," he said gloomily,
then more hopefully: "But we have yours."

"The chamber of mine cracked last time I used it, ten or twelve hours
ago. But I have plenty of barrels."

"Good enough!" said Ham.

He crept cautiously toward the horrible, pulsating wall of white. He
thrust his arm so as to cover the greatest angle, pulled the trigger,
and the roar and blazing fire of the blast bellowed echoing through the
canyon. Bits of the monster spattered around him, and the thickness of
the remainder, lessened by the incineration of tons of filth, was now
only three feet.

"The barrel held!" he called triumphantly. It saved much time in
recharging.

Five minutes later the weapon crashed again. When the mass of the
monstrosity stopped heaving, only a foot and a half of depth remained,
but the barrel had been blown to atoms.

"We'll have to use yours," he said.

Patricia produced one, he took it, and then stared at it in dismay. The
barrels of her Enfield-made weapon were far too small for his American
pistol stock!

He groaned. "Of all the idiots!" he burst out.

"Idiots!" she flared. "Because you Yankees use trench mortars for your
barrels?"

"I meant myself. I should have guessed this." He shrugged. "Well, we
have our choice now of waiting here for the doughpot to eat himself, or
trying to find some other way out of this trap. And my hunch is that
this canyon's blind."

It was probable, Patricia admitted. The narrow cleft was the product of
some vast, ancient upheaval that had split the mountain in halves. Since
it was not the result of water erosion, it was likely enough that the
cleft ended abruptly in an unscalable precipice, but it was possible,
too, that somewhere those sheer walls might be surmountable.

"We've time to waste, anyway," she concluded. "We might as well try it.
Besides--" She wrinkled her dainty nose distastefully at the doughpot's
odor.

Still in his transkin, Ham followed her through the shadowy half dusk.
The passage narrowed, then veered west again, but now so high and sheer
were the walls that the Sun, slightly south of east, cast no light into
it. It was a place of shades like the region of the storm line that
divides the twilight zone from the dark hemisphere, not true night, nor
yet honest day, but a dim middle state.

Ahead of him Patricia's bronzed limbs showed pale instead of tan, and
when she spoke her voice went echoing queerly between the opposing
cliffs. A weird place, this chasm, a dusky, unpleasant place.

"I don't like this," said Ham. "The pass is cutting closer and closer to
the dark. Do you realize no one knows what's in the dark parts of the
Mountains of Eternity?"

Patricia laughed; the sound was ghostly. "What danger could there be?
Anyway, we still have our automatics."

"There's no way up here," Ham grumbled. "Let's turn back."

Patricia faced him. "Frightened, Yankee?" Her voice dropped. "The
natives say these mountains are haunted," she went on mockingly. "My
father told me he saw queer things in Madman's Pass. Do you know that if
there is life on the night side, here is the one place it would impinge
on the twilight zone? Here in the Mountains of Eternity?"

She was taunting him; she laughed again. And suddenly her laughter was
repeated in a hideous cacophony that hooted out from the sides of the
cliffs above them in a horrid medley.

She paled; it was Patricia who was frightened now. They stared
apprehensively up at the rock walls where strange shadows flickered and
shifted.

"What--what was it?" she whispered. And then: "Ham! Did you see that?"

Ham had seen it. A wild shape had flung itself across the strip of sky,
leaping from cliff to cliff far above them. And again came a peal of
hooting that sounded like laughter, while shadowy forms moved, flylike,
on the sheer walls.

"Let's go back!" she gasped. "Quickly!"

As she turned, a small black object fell and broke with a sullen pop
before them. Ham stared at it. A pod, a spore-sac, of some unknown
variety. A lazy, dusky cloud drifted over it, and suddenly both of them
were choking violently. Ham felt his head spinning in dizziness, and
Patricia reeled against him.

"It's narcotic!" she gasped. "Back!"

But a dozen more plopped around them. The dusty spores whirled in dark
eddies, and breathing was a torment. They were being drugged and
suffocated at the same time.

Ham had a sudden inspiration. "Mask!" he choked, and pulled his transkin
over his face.

The filter that kept out the molds of the Hotlands cleaned the air of
these spores as well; his head cleared. But the girl's covering was
somewhere in her pack; she was fumbling for it. Abruptly she sat down,
swaying.

"My pack," she murmured. "Take it out with you. Your--your--" She broke
into a fit of coughing.

He dragged her under a shallow overhang and ripped her transkin from the
pack. "Put it on!" he snapped.

A score of pods were popping.

A figure flitted silently far up on the wall of rock. Ham watched its
progress, then aimed his automatic and fired. There was a shrill,
rasping scream, answered by a chorus of dissonant ululations, and
something as large as a man whirled down to crash not ten feet from him.

The thing was hideous. Ham stared appalled at a creature not unlike a
native, three-eyed, two-handed, four-legged, but the hands, though
two-fingered like the Hotlanders', were not pincer-like, but white and
clawed.

And the face! Not the broad, expressionless face of the others, but a
slanting, malevolent, dusky visage with each eye double the size of the
natives'. It wasn't dead; it glared hatred and seized a stone, flinging
it at him with weak viciousness. Then it died.

Ham didn't know what it was, of course. Actually it was a triops
noctivivans--the "three-eyed dweller in the dark," the strange,
semi-intelligent being that is as yet the only known creature of the
night side, and a member of that fierce remnant still occasionally found
in the sunless parts of the Mountains of Eternity. It is perhaps the
most vicious creature in the known planets, absolutely unapproachable,
and delighting in slaughter.

At the crash of the shot, the shower of pods had ceased, and a chorus of
laughing hoots ensued. Ham seized the respite to pull the girl's
transkin over her face; she had collapsed with it only half on.

Then a sharp crack sounded, and a stone rebounded to strike his arm.
Others pattered around him, whining past, swift as bullets. Black
figures flickered in great leaps against the sky, and their fierce
laughter sounded mockingly. He fired at one in mid-air; the cry of pain
rasped again, but the creature did not fall.

Stones pelted him. They were all small ones, pebble-sized, but they were
flung so fiercely that they hummed in passage, and they tore his flesh
through his transkin. He turned Patricia on her face, but she moaned
faintly as a missile struck her back. He shielded her with his own body.

The position was intolerable. He must risk a dash back, even though the
doughpot blocked the opening. Perhaps, he thought, armored in transkin
he could wade through the creature. He knew that was an insane idea; the
gluey mass would roll him into itself to suffocate--but it had to be
faced. He gathered the girl in his arms and rushed suddenly down the
canyon.

Hoots and shrieks and a chorus of mocking laughter echoed around him.
Stones struck him everywhere. One glanced from his head, sending him
stumbling and staggering against the cliff. But he ran doggedly on; he
knew now what drove him. It was the girl he carried; he had to save
Patricia Burlingame.

Ham reached the bend. Far up on the west wall glowed cloudy sunlight,
and his weird pursuers flung themselves to the dark side. They couldn't
stand daylight, and that gave him some assistance; by creeping very
close to the eastern wall he was partially shielded.

Ahead was the other bend, blocked by the doughpot. As he neared it, he
turned suddenly sick. Three of the creatures were grouped against the
mass of white, eating--actually eating!--the corruption. They whirled,
hooting, as he came, he shot two of them, and as the third leaped for
the wall, he dropped that one as well, and it fell with a dull gulping
sound into the doughpot.

Again he sickened; the doughpot drew away from it, leaving the thing
lying in a hollow like the hole of a giant doughnut. Not even that
monstrosity would eat these creatures.[1]

[Footnote 1: It was not known then that while the night-side life of
Venus can eat and digest that of the day side, the reverse is not true.
No day-side creature can absorb the dark life because of the presence of
various metabolic alcohols, all poisonous.]

But the thing's leap had drawn Ham's attention to a twelve-inch ledge.
It might be--yes, it was possible that he could traverse that rugged
trail and so circle the doughpot. Nearly hopeless, no doubt, to attempt
it under the volley of stones, but he must. There was no alternative.

He shifted the girl to free his right arm. He slipped a second clip in
his automatic and then fired at random into the flitting shadows above.
For a moment the hail of pebbles ceased, and with a convulsive, painful
struggle, Ham dragged himself and Patricia to the ledge.

Stones cracked about him once more. Step by step he edged along the way,
poised just over the doomed doughpot. Death below and death above! And
little by little he rounded the bend; above him both walls glowed in
sunlight, and they were safe.

At least, he was safe. The girl might be already dead, he thought
frantically, as he slipped and slid through the slime of the doughpot's
passage. Out on the daylit slope he tore the mask from her face and
gazed on white, marble-cold features.

It was not death, however, but only drugged torpor. An hour later she
was conscious, though weak and very badly frightened. Yet almost her
first question was for her pack.

"It's here," Ham said. "What's so precious about that pack? Your notes?"

"My notes? Oh, no!" A faint flush covered her features. "It's--I kept
trying to tell you--it's your xixtchil."

"What?"

"Yes. I--of course I didn't throw it to the molds. It's yours by rights,
Ham. Lots of British traders go into the American Hotlands. I just slit
the pouch and hid it here in my pack. The molds on the ground were only
some twigs I threw there to--to make it look real."

"But--but--why?"

The flush deepened. "I wanted to punish you," Patricia whispered, "for
being so--so cold and distant."

"I?" Ham was amazed. "It was you!"

"Perhaps it was, at first. You forced your way into my house, you know.
But--after you carried me across the mudspout, Ham--it was different."

Ham gulped. Suddenly he pulled her into his arms. "I'm not going to
quarrel about whose fault it was," he said. "But we'll settle one thing
immediately. We're going to Erotia, and that's where we'll be married,
in a good American church if they've put one up yet, or by a good
American justice if they haven't. There's no more talk of Madman's Pass
and crossing the Mountains of Eternity. Is that clear?"

She glanced at the vast, looming peaks and shuddered. "Quite clear!" she
replied meekly.



THE END





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