Lundy was flying the aero-space convertible by himself. He'd been doing it for a long time. So long that the bottom half of him was dead to the toes and the top half even deader, except for two separate aches like ulcerated teeth; one in his back, one in his head.
Thick pearly-grey Venusian sky went past the speeding flier in streamers of torn cloud. The rockets throbbed and pounded. Instruments jerked erratically under the swirl of magnetic currents that makes the Venusian atmosphere such a swell place for pilots to go nuts in.
Jackie Smith was still out cold in the co-pilot's seat. From in back, beyond the closed door to the tiny inner cabin, Lundy could hear Farrell screaming and fighting.
He'd been screaming a long time. Ever since the shot of avertin Lundy had given him after he was taken had begun to wear thin. Fighting the straps and screaming, a hoarse jarring sound with no sense in it.
Screaming to be free, because of It.
Somewhere inside of Lundy, inside the rumpled, sweat-soaked black uniform of the Tri-World Police, Special Branch, and the five-foot-six of thick springy muscle under it, there was a knot. It was a large knot, and it was very, very cold in spite of the sweltering heat in the cabin, and it had a nasty habit of yanking itself tight every few minutes, causing Lundy to jerk and sweat as though he'd been spiked.
Lundy didn't like that cold tight knot in his belly. It meant he was afraid. He'd been afraid before, plenty of times, and he wasn't ashamed of it. But right now he needed all the brains and guts he had to get It back to Special headquarters at Vhia, and he didn't want to have to fight himself, too.
Fear can screw things for you. It can make you weak when you need to be strong, if you're going to go on living. You, and the two other guys depending on you.
Lundy hoped he could keep from getting too much afraid, and too tired--because It was sitting back there in its little strongbox in the safe, waiting for somebody to crack.
Farrell was cracked wide open, of course, but he was tied down. Jackie Smith had begun to show signs before he passed out, so that Lundy had kept one hand over the anaesthetic needle gun holstered on the side of his chair. And Lundy thought,
The hell of it is, you don't know when It starts to work on you. There's no set pattern, or if there is we don't know it. Maybe right now the readings I see on those dials aren't there at all....
Down below the torn grey clouds he could see occasional small patches of ocean. The black, still, tideless water of Venus, that covers so many secrets of the planet's past.
It didn't help Lundy any. It could be right or wrong, depending on what part of the ocean it was--and there was no way to tell. He hoped nothing would happen to the motors. A guy could get awfully wet, out in the middle of that still black water.
Farrell went on screaming. His throat seemed to be lined with impervium. Screaming and fighting the straps, because It was locked up and calling for help.
Jackie Smith stirred slightly, groaned, and opened his pale green eyes.
"I'm cold," he said. "Hi, Midget."
Lundy turned his head. Normally he had a round, fresh, merry face, with bright dark eyes and a white, small-boyish grin. Now he looked like something the waiter had swept out from under a table at four A.M. on New Year's Day.
"You're cold," he said sourly. He licked sweat off his lips. "Oh, fine! That was all I needed."
Jackie Smith stirred slightly, groaned, to joggle himself. His black tunic was open over his chest, showing the white strapping of bandages, and his left hand was thrust in over the locked top of the tunic's zipper. He was a big man, not any older than Lundy, with big, ugly, pleasant features, a shock of coarse pale hair, and a skin like old leather.
"On Mercury, where I was born," he said, "the climate is suitable for human beings. You Old-World pantywaists...." He broke off, turned white under the leathery burn, and said through set teeth, "Oi! Farrell sure did a good job on me."
"You'll live," said Lundy. He tried not to think about how nearly both he and Smith had come to not living. Farrell had put up one hell of a fight, when they caught up with him in a native village high up in the Mountains of White Cloud.
Lundy still felt sick about that. The bull-meat, the hard boys, you didn't mind kicking around. But Farrell wasn't that kind. He was just a nice guy that got trapped by something too big for him.
A nice guy, crazy blind in love with somebody that didn't exist. A decent hard-working guy with a wife and two kids who'd lost his mind, heart, and soul to a Thing from outer space, so that he was willing to kill to protect It.
Oh, hell! thought Lundy wearily, won't he ever stop screaming?
The rockets beat and thundered. The torn grey sky whipped past. Jackie Smith sat rigid, with closed eyes, white around the lips and breathing in shallow, careful gasps. And Vhia was still a long way off.
Maybe farther off than he knew. Maybe he wasn't heading toward Vhia at all. Maybe It was working on him, and he'd never know it till he crashed.
The cold knot tightened in his belly like a cold blade stabbing.
Lundy cursed. Thinking things like that was a sure way to punch your ticket right straight to blazes.
But you couldn't help thinking, about It. The Thing you had caught in a special net of tight-woven metal mesh, aiming at something Farrell could see but you couldn't. The Thing you had forced into the glassite box and covered up with a black cloth, because you had been warned not to look at It.
Lundy's hands tingled and burned, not unpleasantly. He could still feel the small savage Thing fighting him, hidden in the net. It had felt vaguely cylindrical, and terribly alive.
Life. Life from outer space, swept out of a cloud of cosmic dust by the gravitic pull of Venus. Since Venus had hit the cloud there had been a wave of strange madness on the planet. Madness like Farrell's, that had led to murder, and some things even worse.
Scientists had some ideas about that life from Out There. They'd had a lucky break and found one of The Things, dead, and there were vague stories going around of a crystalline-appearing substance that wasn't really crystal, about three inches long and magnificently etched and fluted, and supplied with some odd little gadgets nobody would venture an opinion about.
But the Thing didn't do them much good, dead. They had to have one alive, if they were going to find out what made it tick and learn how to put a stop to what the telecommentators had chosen to call The Madness from Beyond, or The Vampire Lure.
One thing about it everybody knew. The guys who suddenly went sluggy and charged off the rails all made it clear that they had met the ultimate Dream Woman of all women and all dreams. Nobody else could see her, but that didn't bother them any. They saw her, and she was-- She. And her eyes were always veiled.
And She was a whiz at hypnosis and mind-control. That's why She , or It , hadn't been caught alive before. Not before Lundy and Smith, with every scientific aid Special could give them, had tracked down Farrell and managed to get the breaks.
The breaks. Plain fool luck. Lundy moved his throbbing head stiffly on his aching neck, blinked sweat out of his bloodshot eyes, and wished to hell he was home in bed.
Jackie Smith said suddenly, "Midget, I'm cold. Get me a blanket."
Lundy looked at him. His pale green eyes were half open, but not as though they saw anything. He was shivering.
"I can't leave the controls, Jackie."
"Nuts. I've got one hand. I can hang onto this lousy tin fish that long."
Lundy scowled. He knew Smith wasn't kidding about the cold. The temperatures on Mercury made the first-generation colonists sensitive to anything below the range of an electric furnace. With the wound and all, Smith might, wind up with pneumonia if he wasn't covered.
"Okay." Lundy reached out and closed the switch marked A. "But I'll let Mike do the flying. He can probably last five minutes before he blows his guts out."
Iron Mike was just a pattycake when it came to Venusian atmosphere flying. The constant magnetic compensation heated the robot coils to the fusing point in practically no time at all.
Lundy thought fleetingly that it was nice to know there were still a couple of things men could do better than machinery.
He got up, feeling like something that had stood outside rusting for four hundred years or so. Smith didn't turn his head. Lundy growled at him.
"Next time, sonny, you wear your long woolen undies and let me alone!"
Then he stopped. The knot jerked tight in his stomach. Cold sweat needled him, and his nerves stung in a swift rush of fire.
Farrell had quit screaming.
There was silence in the ship. Nothing touched it. The rockets were outside it and didn't matter. Even Jackie Smith's careful breathing had stopped. Lundy went forward slowly, toward the door. Two steps.
It opened. Lundy stopped again, quite still.
Farrell was standing in the opening. A nice guy with a wife and two kids. His face still looked like that, but the eyes in it were not sane, nor even human.
Lundy had tied him down to the bunk with four heavy straps. Breast, belly, thighs, and feet. The marks of them were on Farrell. They were cut into his shirt and pants, into his flesh and sinew, deep enough to show his bare white ribs. There was blood. A lot of blood. Farrell didn't mind.
"I broke the straps," he said. He smiled at Lundy. "She called me and I broke the straps."
He started to walk to the safe in the corner of the cabin. Lundy gagged and pulled himself up out of a cold black cloud and got his feet to moving.
Jackie Smith said quietly, "Hold it, Midget. She doesn't like it there in the safe. She's cold, and she wants to come out."
Lundy looked over his shoulder. Smith was hunched around in his seat, holding the needle-gun from Lundy's holster on the pilot's chair. His pale green eyes had a distant, dreamy glow, but Lundy knew better than to trust it.
He said, without inflection, "You've seen her."
"No. No, but--I've heard her." Smith's heavy lips twitched and parted. The breath sucked through between them, hoarse and slow.
Farrell went down on his knees beside the safe. He put his hands on its blank and gleaming face and turned to Lundy. He was crying.
"Open it. You've got to open it. She wants to come out. She's frightened."
Jackie Smith raised the gun, a fraction of an inch. "Open it, Midget," he whispered. "She's cold in there."
Lundy stood still. The sweat ran on him and he was colder than a frog's belly in the rain; and for no reason at all he said thickly,
"No. She's hot. She can't breathe in there. She's hot."
Then he jerked his head up and yelled. He came around to face Smith, unsteady but fast, and started for him.
Smith's ugly face twisted as though he might be going to cry. "Midget! I don't want to shoot you. Open the safe!"
Lundy said, "You damned fool," with no voice at all, and went on.
Smith hit the firing stud.
The anaesthetic needles hit Lundy across the chest. They didn't hurt much. Just a stinging prick. He kept going. No reason. It was just something he seemed to be doing at the time.
Behind him Farrell whimpered once like a puppy and lay down across the little safe. He didn't move again. Lundy got down on his hands and knees and reached in a vague sort of way for the controls. Jackie Smith watched him with dazed green eyes.
Quite suddenly, Iron Mike blew his guts out.
The control panel let go a burst of blue flame. The glare and heat of it knocked Lundy backward. Things hissed and snarled and ran together, and the convertible began to dance like a leaf in a gale. The automatic safety cut the rockets dead.
The ship began to fall.
Smith said something that sounded like She and folded up in his chair. Lundy rubbed his hand across his face. The lines of it were blurred and stupid. His dark eyes had no sense in them.
He began to crawl over the lurching floor toward the safe.
The clouds outside ripped and tore across the ship's nose, and presently only water showed. Black, still, tideless water dotted with little islands of floating weed that stirred and slithered with a life of their own.
Black water, rushing up.
Lundy didn't care. He crawled through Farrell's blood, and he didn't care about that, either. He pushed Farrell's body back against the cabin wall and began to scratch at the shiny door, making noises like a hound shut out and not happy about it.
The ship hit the water with a terrific smack. Spray geysered up, dead white against the black sea, fell back, and closed in. Presently even the ripples went away.
Dark green weed-islands twined sinuously upon themselves, a flock of small sea-dragons flapped their jeweled wings down and began to fish, and none of them cared at all about the ship sinking away under them.
Not even Lundy cared, out cold in the space-tight cabin, with his body wedged up against the safe and tears drying with the sweat on his stubbled cheeks.