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

Vegan World

The engine room was crammed to the roof with machinery. The bulked housings of the atomics, their heavy screens shutting off the deadly radiations generated in the heart of energy seething within the twin domes, were at the front. They looked like two blast furnaces that had somehow wandered into a space ship by mistake and hadn’t been able to find their way out again. The fires of hell, hotter than any blast furnace had ever been, seethed within them.

Behind the atomics were the Kruchek drivers, twin brawny giants chained to the treadmill they pushed through the skies. Silent now. Not grumbling at their task. Loafing. Like lazy slaves conscious of their power, they worked only when the lash was on them.

Between the drivers was the control panel. Ninety-nine percent automatic, those controls. They needed little human attention, and got little. There were never more than three men on duty here. This engine room almost operated itself.

It had ceased to operate itself, Jed Hargraves saw, as he forced open the last stubborn air-tight door separating the engine room from the rest of the ship. Ceased because Involuntarily he cried out.

He could see the sky.

A great V-shaped notch straddled the back of the ship. Something, striking high on the curve of the hull, had driven through inches of magna steel, biting a gigantic chunk out of the ship. The beam from the sphere! That flashing streak of light that had driven through the defense screen. It had struck here.

“Jed! They’re dead!”

That was Ron Val’s voice, choking over the radio. One of the men in this engine room had been Hal Sarkoff, a black-browed giant from somewhere in Montana. Engines had behaved for Sarkoff. Intuitively he had seemed to know mechanics.

He and Ron Val had been particular friends.

“The air went,” Hargraves said. “When that hole was knocked in the hull, the air went. The automatic doors blocked off the rest of the ship. The poor devils ”

The air had gone and the cold had come. He could see Sarkoff’s body lying beside one of the drivers. The two other men were across the room. A door to the stern compartment was there. They were crumpled against it.

Hargraves winced with pain. He should have ordered everyone into space suits. The instant Nielson reported the approach of the sphere, Hargraves should have shouted, “Space suits” into the mike. He hadn’t.

The receiver in his space suit crisped with sound.

“Jed! Have you got into that engine room yet? For cripes sake, Jed, we’re falling.”

That was Nielson, on the bridge. He sounded frantic.

Sixteen feet the first second, then thirty-two, then sixty-four. They had miles to fall, but their rate of fall progressed geometrically. They had spent many minutes fighting their way through the air tight doors. One hundred and twenty-eight feet the fourth second. Jed’s mind was racing.

No, by thunder, that was acceleration under an earth gravity. They didn’t know the gravity here. It might be less.

It might be more.

Ron Val had run forward and was kneeling beside Sarkoff.

“Let them go,” Hargraves said roughly. “Ron Val, you check the drivers. You ” Swiftly he assigned them tasks, reserving the control panel for himself.

They were specialists. Noble, the blond youth, frantically examining the atomics, was a bio-chemist. Ushur, the powerfully built man who had stood at Ron Val’s right hand on the negatron, was an archeologist.

They were engineers now. They had to be.

“Nothing seems to be wrong here.” That was Ron Val, from the drivers.

“The atomics are working.” That was Noble reporting.

“Then what the hell is wrong?” At the control panel, Hargraves saw what was wrong. The damned controls were automatic, with temperature and air pressure cut-offs. When the air had gone from the engine room, that meant something was wrong. The controls had automatically cut off the drivers. The ship had stopped moving.

A manual control was provided. Hargraves shoved the switch home. An oil-immersed control thudded. The loafing giants grunted as the lash struck them, roared with pain as they got hastily to work on their treadmill.

The ship moved forward.

“We’re moving!” That was Red Nielson shouting. The controls on the bridge were responding now. “I’m going to burn a hole in space getting us away from here.”

“No!” said Hargraves.

“What?” There was incredulous doubt in Nielson’s voice. “That damned sphere came from this planet.”

“Can’t help it. We’ve got to land.”

“Land here, now!”

“There’s a hole as big as the side of a house in the ship. No air in the engine room. Without air, we can’t control the temperature. If we go into space, the engine room temperature will drop almost to absolute zero. These drivers are not designed to work in that temperature, and they won’t work in it. We have to land and repair the ship before we dare go into space.”

“But ”

“We land here!”

There was a split second of silence. “Okay, Jed,” Nielson said. “But if we run into another of those spheres ”

“We’ll know what to do about it. Ron Val. Ushur. Back to the bridge and man the negatron. If you see anything that even looks suspicious, beam it.”

Ron Val and Usher dived through the door that led forward.

“Stern observation post. Are you alive back there?”

“We heard you, Jed. We’re alive all right.”

Back of the engine room, tucked away in the stern, was another negatron.

“Shoot on sight!” Hargraves said.

The Third Interstellar Expedition was coming in to land with her fangs bared.

Jed Hargraves called a volunteer to hold the switch it had to be held in by hand, otherwise it would automatically kick out again and went forward to the bridge. Red Nielson gladly relinquished the controls to him.

“The sphere crashed over there,” Nielson said, waving vaguely to the right.

Not until he stepped on the bridge did Jed Hargraves realize how close a call they had had. The fight had started well outside the upper limits of the atmosphere. They were well inside it now. Another few minutes and they would have screamed to a flaming crash here on this world and the Third Interstellar Expedition would have accomplished only half its mission, the least important half.

He shoved the nose of the ship down, the giants working eagerly at their treadmill now, as if they realized they had been caught loafing on the job and were trying to make amends. The planet swam up toward them. He barely heard the voice of Noble reporting a chemical test of the air that was now swirling around the ship. “ oxygen, so much; water vapor; nitrogen ” The air was breathable. They would not have to attempt repairs in space suits, then.

Abruptly, as they dropped lower, the contour of the planet seemed to change from the shape of a ball to the shape of a cup. The eyes did that. The eyes were tricky. But Jed knew his eyes were not tricking him when they brought him impressions of the surface below them.

A gently rolling world sweeping away into the distance, moving league after league into dim infinities, appeared before his eyes. No mountains, no hills, even. Gentle slopes rolling slowly downward into plains. No large rivers. Small streams winding among trees. Almost immediately below them was one of the lakes Ron Val had seen through his telescope. The lake was alive with blue light reflected from the No, the light came from Vega, not Sol. They were light years away from the warming rays of the friendly sun.

Jed lowered the ship until she barely cleared the ground, sent her slowly forward seeking what he wanted. There was a grove of giant trees beside the lake. Overhead their foliage closed in an arch that would cut out the sight of the sky. This was what he wanted. He turned the ship around.

“Hey!” said Nielson.

“I’m going to back her out of sight among those trees,” Hargraves answered. “I’m hunting a hole to hide in while we lie up and lick our wounds.”

Overhead, boughs crashed as the ship slid out of sight. Gently he relaxed the controls, let her drop an inch at a time until she rested on the ground. Then he opened the switches, and grunting with relief, the giants laid themselves down on their treadmill and promptly went to sleep. For the first time in months the ship was silent.

“Negatron crews remain at your posts. I’m going to take a look.”

The lock hissed as it opened before him. Hargraves, Nielson, Noble, stepped out, the captain going first. The ground was only a couple of feet away but he lowered himself to it with the precise caution that a twenty-foot jump would have necessitated. He was not unaware of the implications of this moment. His was the first human foot to tread the soil of a planet circling Vega. The great-grand-children of his great-grand-children would tell their sons about this.

The soil was springy under his feet, possessing an elasticity that he had not remembered as natural with turf. Opening his helmet, he sniffed the air. It was cool and alive with a heady fragrance that came from growing vegetation, a quality the ship’s synthesizers, for all the ingenuity incorporated in them, could not duplicate. Tasting the air, the cells of his lungs eagerly shouted for more. He sucked it in, and the tensions that kept his body all steel springs and whipcord relaxed a little. A breeze stirred among the trees.

“Sweet Pete!” he gasped.

“That’s what I was trying to tell you as we landed,” Nielson said. “This is not a forest. This is a grove. These trees didn’t just grow here in straight orderly lines. They were planted! We are hiding in what may be the equivalent of somebody’s apple orchard.”

The trees were giants. Twenty feet through at the butt, they rose a hundred feet into the air. Diminishing in the distance, they moved in regular rows down to the shore of the lake, forming a pleasant grove miles in extent. A reddish fruit, not unlike apples, grew on them.

If this was an orchard, where was the owner?