The first half mile into the swamp hadn’t been so bad, but now Mallard began to feel really afraid. There were things in here that no spaceman had ever seen and against some of them the small blaster on his hip would be about as effective as a popgun.
A little way ahead of him, he could dimly see the naked body of the Mercurian swamp girl and he swore enviously at the way she slipped through the dense fern growth, her webbed feet gripping the mud firmly. Once she held up her hand warningly and he slipped down behind a fallen tree fern to let a huge plant slug glide past. The thing was nearly forty feet in length and it could move with the speed of an express train.
When it was gone, he got up and followed the swamp girl again. He hugged the helmet to him closer and grinned at the feel of the strange metal in his hands. That helmet was his one last chance for all the things he had ever wanted and he would hold on to it as long as he had life left. With that helmet he could be free of Bill Olger and D’ulio, the Martian, and go back to Earth with more wealth than a space rat like himself had ever brought back. It was now, he reflected, one month from the night he had met them, back in Venusport….
Mallard was sitting at a table in the Green Star the night they came in. Sitting there, drinking Sre, the raw native wine, and wondering if he could afford another glass of the stuff. He was surrounded by the riff-raff of the spaceways and his nerves were raw from a week-long bout with the Sre.
The two men came in, looked the dingy place over for a moment, then made directly for his table. They were both big men, the Earth man a red-haired giant with the cold eyes and the hard, ruthless face of the space rat. Mallard had come to know plenty of men like him since he had been kicked out of the Patrol. Hard, bitter men, shrewd and utterly conscienceless. The Martian beside him he hardly noticed. His red, skeleton-like face was the typical Martian mask and Mallard wasted no time trying to form an estimate of him. No Earth man ever would know what a Martian was like until he’d lived beside him for years—sometimes not even then. And, anyway, Mallard wasn’t too interested in either of them. Not even when they came over and sat at his table.
“I’m Bill Olger,” the Earth man began without preliminaries. “This is my friend, D’ulio, one of the smartest scientists Mars has ever produced. We know about you. You’re George Mallard, owner of the Space Lark.”
“If you’re getting ready to make a touch you can save your breath,” Mallard said sourly. “I haven’t got a hundred credits to my name.”
“We’re not getting ready to make a touch, Mallard,” Olger said. “We’re getting ready to let you in on the chance of a lifetime. Now, do you want to let us buy you a drink of something decent while we tell you about it, or would you rather keep on sitting here alone drinking this slop?”
Mallard looked from his hard face to the spidery red mask of the Martian, then shrugged his shoulders and pushed out his empty glass. Olger beckoned to the Venusian waiter and presently Mallard was sipping a glass of pale green brandy that soothed his raw nerves like the almost forgotten touch of an Earth woman’s hands. Bill Olger yanked his chair closer and bent his head over the table.
“Look, Mallard, I’m not going to beat around the bush with you. I’ve kept pretty close tabs on you since you were kicked out of the Patrol and I know you’re at the end of your rope. You’ve been picked up twice by the Patrol, on suspicion of piracy and, both times, you got away by the skin of your teeth. So our proposition is made to order for you, if you’ve got as much nerve as I think you have. The proposition is rhizoids.”
Mallard whistled softly. Rhizoids! Those incredible gems brought back from the fringes of the impenetrable swamp belt of Mercury. Gems that grew, layer upon layer, like a pearl growing within an oyster, in the heart of a fungus shrub that looked like a dead, white stump. There were less than a dozen of those gems in all the Galaxy and they were worth upwards of a hundred thousand credits each.
Mallard had seen one only once and that had been at a distance. It was worn by a Martian desert queen and he had never forgotten the exquisite beauty of the thing. Even yards away he could see the sultry fires imprisoned in that incredible stone and it made every other jewel he had ever seen look like a piece of cheap cut glass.
“Sounds very nice, Olger,” he said slowly. “There’s just one little catch to it. The fungus stumps where those things grow are loaded with spores and those spores are the deadliest things in all the System. A friend of mine, First Mate on the Jupiter run, went on an expedition to bring back some of those rhizoids a few years back and he told me what it was like.
“They wear glassite suits while they’re hacking the stumps apart to get at the rhizoids. The instant one of those stumps is touched it sends out a fine cloud of spores and when those spores settle down on a glassite suit it looks like the man was covered by hoar frost. They throw the suits away when they leave the scene.
“One of the men, this mate said, happened to step on a piece of one of those stumps, after he’d gotten out of his glassite suit. I got kind of sick listening to the mate tell about what happened then. Ever see an Earth wasp sting another insect and then lay its eggs in that insect’s body, Olger? Well, it was like that. The man was paralyzed the minute the spores settled on him and he started screaming. A couple of minutes and the spores had paralyzed his vocal chords and after that he stopped screaming. He—well, he just kept screaming with his eyes, the mate said. They put a blaster to the poor devil’s head before they left.
“That’s what those spores are like, Olger, and I don’t want any part of them, thanks. I don’t mind taking a chance on dying from a ray gun but those rhizoids are only worth a hundred thousand credits apiece and I’d want a hundred million before I’d take a chance on dying like that.”
“And what if we could show you a chance to make your hundred million?” Bill Olger asked softly.
Mallard’s fingers tightened around his glass. “I’m listening.”
“You see,” Olger began slowly, “the trouble up to now has been that no one could get those stones out of the fungus stumps unless he was protected by a cumbersome glassite suit and the swamp belt is too dense to bring those suits into. That meant they could only pick up a few they found growing around the rim of the belt. There are rumors that the natives have found a way to handle the spores but they regard the fungus as sacred and won’t help.
“But, a couple of years back the Galactic Colonization Board finally managed to get one of the plants back to Earth. It isn’t generally known but they really did it. They used a low powered force field and finally worked it into a glassite cage. They kept it quiet because they lost three of their men getting the thing caged.
“When they got the fungus stump back to Earth they began to experiment with it. They started coating white rats with different chemicals and coverings, or injecting different drugs in them, and then sending them into the cage with the thing. They used up an awful lot of white rats, Mallard.”
George Mallard shuddered. “I can believe that.”
“The main thing, though, the thing that matters to us, is that they put D’ulio, here, in charge of the experiments. And D’ulio had ideas of his own. He was just out of the Martian University and he just couldn’t see any point in working for Terrans for the rest of his life for a small salary.
“The second week D’ulio worked on the fungus stump he discovered that the spores could be killed as fast as they were released by a plain, ordinary Overton ray. You remember the old Overton ray gun that was used in the war against the Martian desert tribes? The gun was originally meant to be rigged up on a ship but D’ulio made a smaller model that could be carried by two men and it worked on the spores as well as a big gun.
“As soon as D’ulio was sure of his findings he opened the fungus stump, took out the rhizoid from it, then ‘accidentally’ burned the stump to a crisp. He reported that there was no rhizoid inside it. Sometimes they don’t have, you know, just as lots of pearls don’t happen to be there when you open the oyster. He was fired for his carelessness. As soon as it was safe he contacted me. He knew I had ways of getting rid of the rhizoid that he didn’t have. So, here we are. D’ulio has the equipment we need. We have the money to finance the expedition—and you have the ship. What do you say, Mallard?”
“It would take the best part of fifty thousand credits to get the Space Lark ready for a trip like that,” Mallard said doubtfully.
“And I’ve got twice that, right here in my pocket, chum.” Bill Olger reached into his pocket and handed something to Mallard under cover of the table. Something that was smooth and round and hard. Mallard held it below the level of the table top and looked. Then he drew in his breath as sharply as if he had been hit in the stomach.
At first glance, the thing looked like a large and very perfect Terran fire opal. But no opal ever gleamed with the unbelievably sultry fires that lived in this stone. It looked as though every sun of the Galaxy were imprisoned within its depths. George Mallard looked at the rhizoid in his hand for a moment longer, then turned to Bill Olger. When he spoke, his voice was shaky.
“We can be ready to blast off in forty-eight hours.”
The Swamp Belt of Mercury! Mallard looked at the almost impenetrable growth of tangled fern trees and undergrowth and swore wearily. They had been here for three weeks, now, and it had been three weeks of pure, unadulterated hell. The dank, steamy air made every breath a painful effort and, day and night, giant insects made their life miserable. They could take the miniature Overton ray gun a little way into the swamp belt but at every step they had to be on the alert for the great reptiles that floundered through the dense undergrowth. And even more, for the deadly plant life that lay in wait.
And always they were under watch from the natives. Scaly-hided men, not much past the anthropoid stage, but the crude wooden spears they used could be very dangerous. The Overton ray gun was scaled down to near zero for use against the fungus stumps but it could be turned up to full power for its original use as a weapon. And the gun had saved their lives on more than one occasion when those wooden spears began to fly past them. It was a tense, miserable life.
But they did find the rhizoids. Not as many as they had hoped for, because the Overton gun could be taken into the swamp belt only a little way, but they found far, far more than had ever been brought out before. Day after day the tiny hoard of stones grew. Night after night the three men sat around the cabin of the Space Lark, gloating over them. At least Bill Olger and the Martian D’ulio did. Only Mallard was sullen and dissatisfied. Once he put his feelings into words.
“Look. You two are all steamed up because we’ve got a handful of these things. A handful that’s got to be divided three ways. Do you know how long your share’s going to last once you hit the bright lights in Venusport? Well, I’ll tell you. A year, two years. Maybe three years if you’re careful. You might be satisfied with that but I’m not. Me, I want those hundreds of millions we were talking about when we started this thing. Yes, and if I can figure out some way of getting further into this damned swamp I’ll get them, too.”
Olger looked at him in unconcealed disgust. “I can understand a man being a bum loser, Mallard, but not a bum winner. You know that we’ve already gone as far into the swamp belt as we can with the Overton and if you think I’m going into that hellhole without the ray gun, you’re crazy. It makes my skin crawl to think of the narrow escapes we’ve had, even with it. Be reasonable, fella.”
Mallard nodded glumly. He knew, of course, that Olger was right, but the nightly sight of the rhizoids, softly gleaming in his hands, was raising a fever in his brain that would not be stilled. If there was only some way to establish contact with the natives, maybe get a guide. He fondled the rhizoid in his fingers and stared thoughtfully at the sultry fires within its depths.
The next day he started making overtures to a native girl they had dubbed Tiny. The natives they had seen flitting about the swamp seemed to average around seven feet tall but Tiny was not much larger than an Earth girl. She seemed very young, barely out of her childhood, although they had no way of knowing the age of these natives. Like youngsters of any race, she was filled with curiosity and she often hung around the outskirts of the camp after her tribesmen had been driven away.
Mallard set to work winning her confidence the same way he would have done with a wild animal. The first time she was alone he squatted down on the ground and made encouraging sounds toward the fern tree behind which she hid. Then he took a piece of Earth candy from his pocket, nibbled at it, made sounds of delight, and threw it on the ground before her. He walked away and when he looked back and saw her pick up the candy, he knew that he had made a start. In another two days, he was squatting on the ground, a few feet from her, trying to learn the rudiments of her language.
It was no easy task he had set for himself. Her language was a series of barking consonants that were terribly hard for his Terran vocal chords to form and her thought processes were so primitive that it was like trying to talk to a four-year-old child in a strange language.
But he did progress to the point where he could communicate simple ideas to her. Then he made the mistake of telling her that he wanted to find more of the rhizoid bearing fungus. Many, many more of them. When she understood what he wanted, she ran away and he did not see her again for nearly a week.
And when he did see her again it was almost too late for her to be of any further use to him. He was prospecting alone, that day, Olger and D’ulio having set out to explore another section of the swamp belt. He had gone only a little way into the swamp when he saw Tiny struggling, half mad with fear, in the grip of two burly natives. They were tying her with vines to a fallen log and another native was coming forward, carrying something in his arms.
Suddenly Mallard swore incredulously. The third native was carrying one of the white fungus stumps in his arms, carrying that deadly thing as carelessly as he would have carried a stick of wood! And then Mallard saw that he was wearing a helmet on his head, a metal helmet, ringed by some sort of crystal stones. The helmet was pouring a protective flood of soft green light downward, completely covering the native’s body. He seemed unharmed by the green light but the spores from the fungus stump were shriveling the instant they were touched by the light.
Mallard leaped forward, then, his blaster spitting wildly. His first shot brought down the native with the helmet and the other two went down a moment later. When he rushed forward and took the helmet off the dead native, Tiny cowered down on the ground, her child eyes rolling up fearfully at him. Mallard ignored her as he bent his head over the helmet.
The thing was made of some purplish metal that was like nothing he had ever seen anywhere in the System. Certainly it had never been constructed by these primitive people and Mallard wondered briefly what alien race from what far distant star had left it here in these fetid swamps.
But he was too filled with wild exultation to waste much time in idle speculation. The thing that mattered was that he now had a really perfect device for getting out the rhizoids. He alone had it! Let Olger and D’ulio keep their cumbersome Overton ray gun and squirm around the edge of the swamp belt with it. With this thing he could go deep inside the belt and bring out all the rhizoids he could carry.
And he was savagely determined to keep them when he brought them out. Let Bill Olger and D’ulio go back with him, carrying a basketful of those wonderful stones? Why, within hours after they hit Venusport, half the riff-raff of the space lanes would know about their discovery and be heading for Mercury. No, when he lifted the Space Lark off Mercury, Olger and the Martian simply wouldn’t be aboard. The thought of murder raised no particular horror in his brain. He had killed before. He whirled about and looked down at the cowering native girl.
“You—belong me—now. You—take me—to these.”
He showed her a couple of the rhizoids. Tiny looked back at the swamp behind her and whimpered like a beaten puppy just once. Then she nodded her head slowly. Mallard grinned with satisfaction as he bent down to cut her loose.
The girl led Mallard back into the very heart of the swamp belt. The journey was sheer nightmare. Hour after hour they plodded on while Mallard’s body was soaked with sweat and his lungs seemed ready to burst from the steamy air. But the feel of those stones in his pocket somehow kept him plodding along after the naked girl ahead of him. Those stones had magic in them.
It seemed long eons before he saw Tiny come to a halt and looked fearfully around her. From her evident fright, Mallard guessed she was in a taboo place. She made a furtive gesture and he hurried up to her. He reached the spot where she stood and drew in his breath with a shuddering gasp.
The swamp had thinned out at this point and there before him was a whole grove of the white fungus stumps! They stood in serried ranks, like a yardful of ghosts and Mallard knew that within those white stumps there was a fortune that no space rat had ever dreamed of before.
He broke into a stumbling run forward, the girl completely forgotten. At the edge of the grove he paused only a moment to make sure the shielding light of the helmet was properly adjusted. Then he swung his blade down upon one of the white stumps. It split easily and he drew forth a perfect rhizoid, larger than any they had found so far. For a moment he held it shakily in his hand. Then he slipped it into the leather pouch he carried on his belt.
In little more than an hour Mallard had filled the pouch he carried. He was working like a madman, now, the sweat pouring from him in torrents, and he was numb with fatigue but the fever in his brain swept away all thoughts of stopping.
He wanted more of these gleaming stones. He wanted to fill his pockets with them, carry them away in his cupped hands. He was still moving forward on tottering feet when he heard Tiny scream. He whirled about savagely, his hand darting to the small blaster at his belt.
A tangled horde of Mercurian warriors was pouring out of the swamp into the clearing. Their bestial faces were twisted with rage and their wooden spears raised menacingly. Even as Mallard turned and sprinted back, those wooden spears were flying past his head. He ducked down behind a log, the native girl crouched, whimpering like a puppy, beside him.
Mallard put the helmet and the bag of rhizoids down beside him and began picking off the scaly-hided warriors, one by one. He fired carefully, anxious to conserve the remaining charges in his small hand blaster. In his mind was a new dread.
He knew that, long ago, Bill Olger and the Martian would have returned to the Space Lark and found him gone. They would immediately set out looking for him and the sound of this fight would draw them to him. They must not find him with his pouch full of rhizoids! Never would he share those stones with any one else, that much he knew.
Suddenly he saw something that caused him to open his eyes in stark disbelief. One of the warriors in that milling throng was wearing another helmet, an exact duplicate of the one lying beside him. And he was carrying a fragment from one of those deadly fungus stumps in his hands! Holding it ready to hurl the moment he was close.
Mallard started to put on his own helmet, then realized that in his prone position it would not shield him. He let it lie and started firing more rapidly, trying to reach the wearer of that helmet. He ducked aside as one of the spears barely missed him and heard a moan of anguish from the girl beside him. One of the spears had gone into her side and blood was pouring from the wound.
From out in the swamp, there was the sound of signal shots, followed by loud shouts. It was Olger and D’ulio and they were not far away. Mallard began firing at top speed, now, and the Mercurians fell like tenpins. The moaning girl beside him he ignored. And then the whole action exploded into nightmare.
The Mercurian with the helmet stepped forward and called out a peremptory command to the girl. And she answered! Snatching up the pouch of rhizoids, she jumped clear of the log and started hobbling painfully toward her own people. At the same moment, Mallard saw big Olger and D’ulio leap out into the clearing, guns drawn.
For one long moment, Mallard stared in horrified fascination at the girl carrying away the thing that mattered more than life itself to him. Then he had leaped clear of the log and was sprinting after her. As in a slow motion picture, he saw Olger and D’ulio firing into the tangled mass and saw the helmeted Mercurian warrior raise the fragment of deadly white fungus.
For just a split part of a second he started to turn, to jump back and reach that protective helmet behind the log. But the limping girl was so close. Only another step. He reached forward for the leather pouch and the fungus landed directly at his feet!
A cloud of fine spores lifted up like a puff of smoke and Mallard felt pain greater than he had ever known man could experience. He felt himself falling, literally pulled to the ground by the wave of pain that was tightening every muscle in his body into an individual agonized knot. From a long way off he heard some one screaming and knew that it was his own voice.
Mallard was no longer conscious of the action all around him. True, he could dimly sense the horde of scaly-hided Mercurians rushing panic stricken past him and he could hear that monotonous screaming that was his own voice. But the only thing that really existed for him was the hundreds of knots of agony in his own paralyzed body.
The only thing? From the corner of his eyes he could see the pouch of rhizoids lying almost touching him and he tried to force his agonized body into one last effort to cover it before he called out to Olger and the Martian to put the helmet on him. That helmet would stop the searing pain, yes, but if only he could hold out for one moment longer—just one moment. Long enough to hide those glorious gems with his body—
He tried and found that he could not move one inch. He gave up the effort and drew in one last breath to call out to them, to tell them to put the helmet on him.
And he could not speak! The poison of the spores had already reached his vocal chords.
He was still screaming with his eyes when the others came up to him.
^^^ Originally appeared in Planet Stories, November 1952 issue.