Read CHAPTER I of Planet of the Gods , free online book, by Robert Moore Williams, on ReadCentral.com.

“What do you make of it?” Commander Jed Hargraves asked huskily.

Ron Val, busy at the telescope, was too excited to look up from the eye-piece. “There are at least two planets circling Vega!” he said quickly. “There may be other planets farther out, but I can see two plainly. And Jed, the nearest planet, the one we are approaching, has an atmosphere. The telescope reveals a blur that could only be caused by an atmosphere. And Jed, this may seem so impossible you won’t believe it but I can see several large spots on the surface that are almost certainly lakes. They are not big enough to be called oceans or seas. But I am almost positive they are lakes!”

According to the preconceptions of astronomers, formed before they had a chance to go see for themselves, solar systems were supposed to be rare birds. Not every sun had a chance to give birth to planets. Not one sun in a thousand, maybe not one in a million; maybe, with the exception of Sol, not another one in the whole universe.

And here the first sun approached by the Third Interstellar Expedition was circled by planets!

The sight was enough to drive an astronomer insane.

Ron Val tore his eyes away from the telescope long enough to stare at Captain Hargraves. “Air and water on this planet!” he gasped. “Jed, do you realize what this may mean?”

Jed Hargraves grinned. His face was lean and brown, and the grin, spreading over it, relaxed a little from the tension that had been present for months.

“Easy, old man,” he said, clapping Ron Val on the shoulder. “There is nothing to get so excited about.”

“But a solar system ”

“We came from one.”

“I know we did. But just the same, finding another will put our names in all the books on astronomy. They aren’t the commonest things in the universe, you know. And to find one of the planets of this new system with air and water Jed, where there is air and water there may be life!”

“There probably is. Life, in some form, seems to be everywhere. Remember we found spores being kicked around by light waves in the deepest depths of space. And Pluto, in our own system, has mosses and lichens that the biologists insist are alive. It won’t be surprising if we find life out there.” He gestured through the port at the world swimming through space toward them.

“I mean intelligent life,” Ron Val corrected.

“Don’t bet on it. The old boys had the idea they would find intelligent life on Mars, until they got there. Then they discovered that intelligent creatures had once lived on the Red Planet. Cities, canals, and stuff. But the people who had built the cities and canals had died of starvation long before humans got to Mars. So it isn’t a good bet that we shall find intelligence here.”

The astronomer’s face drooped a little. But not for long. “That was true of Mars,” he said. “But it isn’t necessarily true here. And even if Mars was dead, Venus wasn’t. Nor is Earth. If there is life on two of the planets of our own solar system, there may be life on one of the planets of Vega. Why not?” he challenged.

“Hey, wait a minute,” Hargraves answered. “I’m not trying to start an argument.”

“Why not?”

“If you mean why not an argument ”

“I mean, why not life here?”

“I don’t know why not,” Hargraves shrugged. “For that matter, I don’t know why, either.” He looked closely at Ron Val. “You ape! I believe you’re hoping we will find life here.”

“Of course that’s what I’m hoping,” Ron Val answered quickly. “It would mean a lot to find people here. We could exchange experiences, learn a lot. I know it’s probably too much to hope for.” He broke off. “Jed, are we going to land here?”

“Certainly we’re going to land here!” Jed Hargraves said emphatically. “Why in the hell do you think we’ve crossed thirty light years if we don’t land on a world when we find one? This is an exploring expedition ”

Hargraves saw that he had no listener. Ron Val had listened only long enough to learn what he wanted to know, then had dived back to his beloved telescope to watch the world spiraling up through space toward them. That world meant a lot to Ron Val, the thrill of discovery, of exploring where a human foot had never trod in all the history of the universe.

New lands in the sky! The Third Interstellar Expedition third because two others were winging out across space, one toward Sirius, the other toward Cygnus was approaching land! The fact also meant something to Jed Hargraves, possibly a little less than it did to Ron Val because Hargraves had more responsibilities. He was captain of the ship, commander of the expedition. It was his duty to take the ship to Vega, and to bring it safely home.

Half of his task was done. Vega was bright in the sky ahead and the tough bubble of steel and quartz that was the ship was dropping down to rest on one of Vega’s planets. Hargraves started to leave the nook that housed Ron Val and his telescope.

The ship’s loudspeaker system shouted with sudden sound.

“Jed! Jed Hargraves! Come to the bridge at once.”

That was Red Nielson’s voice. He was speaking from the control room in the nose of the ship. Nielson sounded excited.

Hargraves pushed a button under the loudspeaker. The system was two-way, allowing for intercommunication.

“Hargraves speaking. What’s wrong?”

“A ship is approaching. It is coming straight toward us.”

“A ship! Are you out of your head? This is Vega.”

“I don’t give a damn if it’s Brooklyn! I know a space ship when I see one. And this is one. Either get up here and take command or tell me what you want done.”

Discipline among the personnel of this expedition was so nearly perfect there was no need for it. Consequently there was none. Before leaving earth, skilled mental analysts had aided in the selection of this crew, and had welded it together so artfully that it thought, acted, and functioned as a unit. Jed Hargraves was captain, but he had never heard the word spoken, and never wanted to hear it. No one had ever put “sir” after his name. Nor had anyone ever questioned an order, after it was given. Violent argument there might be, before an order was given, with Hargraves filtering the pros and cons through his rigidly logical mind, but the instant he reached a decision the argument stopped. He was one of the crew, and the crew knew it. The crew was one with him, and he knew it.

He might question Nielson’s facts, once, in surprise. But not twice. If Nielson said a ship was approaching, a ship was approaching.

“I’m coming,” Hargraves rapped into the mike. “Turn full power into the defense screen. Warn the engine room to be ready for an emergency. Sound the call to stations. And Red, hold us away from this planet.”

Almost before he had finished speaking, a siren was wailing through the ship. Although he had used the microphone in the nook that housed the telescope, Ron Val had been so interested in the world they were approaching that he had not heard the captain’s orders. He heard the siren.

“What is it, Jed?”

Hargraves didn’t have time to explain. He was diving out the door and racing toward the bridge in the nose of the ship. “Come on,” he flung back over his shoulder at Ron Val. “Your post is at the fore negatron.”

Ron Val took one despairing glance at his telescope, then followed the commander.

As he ran toward the control room, Hargraves heard the ship begin to radiate a new tempo of sound. The siren was dying into silence, its warning task finished. Other sounds were taking its place. From the engine room in the stern was coming a spiteful hiss, like steam escaping under great pressure from a tiny vent valve. That was the twin atomics, loading up, building up the inconceivable pressures they would feed to the Kruchek drivers. A slight rumble went through the ship, a rumble seemingly radiated from every molecule, from every atom, in the vessel. It was radiated from every molecule! That rumble came from the Kruchek drivers warping the ship in response to the controls on the bridge. Bill Kruchek’s going-faster-than-hell engines, engineers called them. A fellow by the name of Bill Kruchek had invented them. When Bill Krucheck’s going-faster-than-hell drivers dug their toes into the lattice of space and put brawny shoulders behind every molecule within the field they generated, a ship within that field went faster than light. The Kruchek drivers, given the juice they needed in such tremendous quantities, took you from hell to yonder in a mighty hurry. They had been idling, drifting the ship slowly in toward the planet. Now, in response to an impulse from Nielson on the bridge, they grumbled, and hunching mighty shoulders for the load, prepared to hurl the ship away from the planet. Hargraves could feel the vessel surge in response to the speed. Then there was a distant thud, and he could feel the surge no longer. The anti-accelerators had been cut in, neutralizing the effect of inertia.

Shoving open a heavy door, Hargraves was in the control room. A glance showed him Nielson on the bridge. Leaning over, his fingers on the bank of buttons that controlled the ship, he was peering through the heavy quartzite observation port at something approaching from the right. Beside him, on his right, a man was standing ready at the radio panel. And to the left of the bridge two men had already jerked the covers from the negatron and were standing ready beside it.

Ron Val leaped past Hargraves, dived for a seat on the negatron. That was his post. He had been chosen for it because of his familiarity with optical instruments. Along the top of the negatron was a sighting telescope. Ron Val looked once to see where the man on the bridge was looking, then his fingers flew to the adjusting levers of the telescope. The negatron swung around to the right, centered on something there.

“Ready,” Ron Val said, not taking his eyes from the ’scope.

“Hold your fire,” Hargraves ordered.

He was on the bridge, standing beside Red Nielson. Off to the right he could see the enemy ship. Odd that he should think of it as an enemy. It wasn’t. It was merely a strange ship. But there were relics in his mind, vague racial memories, of the days when stranger and enemy were synonymous. The times when this was true were gone forever, but the thoughts remained.

“Shall we run for it?” Nielson questioned, his hands on the controls that would turn full power into the drivers.

“No. If we run, they will think we have some reason for running. That might be all they would need to conclude we are up to no good. Is the defense screen on full power?”

“Yes.” Nielson pushed the lever again to be sure. “I’m giving it all it will take.”

Hargraves could barely see the screen out there a half mile from the ship. It was twinkling dimly as it swept up cosmic dust.

The oncoming ship had been a dot in the sky. Now it was a round ball.

“Try them on the radio,” Hargraves said. “They probably won’t understand us but at least they will know we’re trying to communicate with them.”

There was a swirl of action at the radio panel.

“No answer,” the radio operator said.

“Keep trying.”

“Look!” Nielson shouted. “They’ve changed course. They’re coming straight toward us.”

The ball had bobbled in its smooth flight. As though caught in the attraction of a magnet it was coming straight toward them.

For an instant, Hargraves stared. Should he run or should he wait? He didn’t want to run and he didn’t want to fight. On the other hand, he did not want to take chances with the safety of the men under his command.

His mission was peaceful. Entirely so. But the ball was driving straight toward them. How big it was he could not estimate. It wasn’t very big. Oddly, it presented a completely blank surface. No ports. And, so far as he could tell, there was no discharge from driving engines. The latter meant nothing. Their own ship showed no discharge from the Kruchek drivers. But no ports

It came so fast he couldn’t see it come. The flash of light! It came from the ball. For the fractional part of a second, the defense screen twinkled where the flash of light hit it. But the defense screen was not designed to turn light or any other form of radiation. The light came through. It wasn’t light. It carried a component of visible radiation but it wasn’t light. The beam struck the earth ship.

Clang!

From the stern came a sudden scream of tortured metal. The ship rocked, careened, tried to spin on its axis. On the control panels, a dozen red lights flashed, winked off, winked on again. Heavy thuds echoed through the vessel. Emergency compartments closing.

Hargraves hesitated no longer.

“Full speed ahead!” he shouted at Red Nielson.

“Ron Val. Fire!”

This was an attack. This was a savage, vicious attack, delivered without warning, with no attempt to parley. The ship had been hit. How badly it had been damaged he did not know. But unless the damage was too heavy they could outrun this ball, flash away from it faster than light, disappear in the sky, vanish. The ship had legs to run. There was no limit to her speed. She could go fast, then she could go faster.

“Full speed ”

Nielson looked up from the bank of buttons. His face was ashen. “She doesn’t respond, Jed. The drivers are off. The engine room is knocked out.”

There was no rumble from Bill Kruchek’s going-faster-than-hell engines. The hiss of the atomics was still faintly audible. Short of annihilation, nothing could knock them out. Energy was being generated but it wasn’t getting to the drive. Leaping to the controls, Hargraves tried them himself.

They didn’t respond.

“Engine room!” he shouted into the communication system.

There was no answer.

The ship began to yaw, to drop away toward the planet below them. The planet was far distant as yet, but the grasping fingers of its gravity were reaching toward the vessel, pulling it down.

Voices shouted within the ship.

“Jed!”

“What happened?”

“Jed, we’re falling!”

“That ball, Jed ”

Voices calling to Jed Hargraves, asking him what to do. He couldn’t answer. There was no answer. There was only the ball! It was the answer.

Through the observation port, he could see the circular ship. It was getting ready to attack again. The sphere was moving leisurely toward its already crippled prey, getting ready to deliver the final stroke. It would answer all questions of this crew, answer them unmistakably. It leered at them.

Wham!

The ship vibrated to a sudden gust of sound. Something lashed out from the vessel. Hargraves did not see it go because it, too, went faster than the eye could follow. But he knew what it was. The sound told him. He saw the hole appear in the sphere. A round hole that opened inward. Dust puffed outward.

Wham, wham, wham!

The negatron! The blood brother of the defense screen, its energies concentrated into a pencil of radiation. Faster than anyone could see it happen, three more holes appeared in the sphere, driving through its outer shell, punching into the machinery at its heart.

The sphere shuddered under the impact. It turned. Light spewed out of it, beaming viciously into this alien sky without direction. Smoke boiled from the ball. Turning it seemed to roll along the sky. It looked like a huge burning snowball rolling down some vast hill.

Ron Val lifted a white face from the sighting ’scope of the negatron.

“Did did I get him?”

“I’ll say you did!” Hargraves heard somebody shout exultantly. He was surprised to discover his own voice was doing the shouting. The sphere was finished, done for. It was out of the fight, rolling down the vast hill of the sky, it would smash on the planet below.

They were following it.

There was still no answer from the engine room.

“Space suits!” Hargraves ordered. “Nielson, you stay here. Ron Val, you others, come with me.”