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

The Monster

They blacked out the ship before they moved it, carefully covering each port with paper, then showing no lights. Hargraves handled the controls himself, slowly turning current into the drivers so their grunting would not reveal what was happening.

“Are we going to take her up high for tonight?” Ushur, the archeologist asked. “She will fly all right as long as we stay in the atmosphere. We would be safer up high, it seems to me.”

“Safer from ground attack, yes,” Hargraves said thoughtfully. “However, I’m afraid we would be more exposed to attack from a ship.”

“Oh! That damned sphere. I had forgotten about it.”

Hargraves moved the ship less than a mile, carefully hid her among the trees. Then he posted guards outside all the ports. He took the first watch himself, in the control room. Ron Val was waiting for him there. The astro-navigator’s face was grave. “Jed,” he said. “I’ve been talking to several of the fellows. They don’t believe you are taking a sufficiently realistic view of our situation. They don’t believe you are facing the facts.”

“Um. What facts have I been evading?”

“You apparently don’t realize that it will take months if it can be done at all to repair the damage to the ship.”

Hargraves settled deep into his chair. He looked at the astro-navigator. Ron Val wasn’t angry. Nor was he mutinous. He wasn’t challenging authority. He was just scared.

“Ron,” he said, “according to the agreement under which we sailed, any time the majority of the members of this expedition wants a new captain, they can have him.”

“It isn’t that.”

“I know. You fellows are scared. Hells bells, man! What do you think I am?”

Ron Val’s eyes popped open. “Jed! Are you? You don’t show it. You don’t seem even to appreciate the spot we’re in.”

Hargraves slowly lit a cigarette. The fingers holding the tiny lighter did not shake. “If I had been the type to show it, do you think I would have been selected to head this expedition?”

“No. But ”

“Because I haven’t made an official announcement that we may not be able to repair the ship, you seem to think I don’t realize the fact. I know how big a hole has been ripped in our hull. I know the ship is made of magna steel, the toughest, hardest, most beautiful metal yet invented. I know the odds are we can’t repair the hole in the hull. We don’t have the metal. We don’t have the tools to work it. I know these things. When I didn’t call it to your attention, I assumed it was equally obvious to everyone else that we may never leave this planet.”

“Jed! Never leave this planet! Never go home! That can’t be right.”

“See,” said Hargraves. “When you get the truth flung in your face, even you crack wide open. Yes, it’s the truth. The fact you fellows think I’m not facing the one you don’t dare face is that we may be marooned here for the rest of our lives.”

That was that. Ron Val went aft. Hargraves took up his vigil on the bridge. At midnight Ron Val came forward to relieve him.

“I told them what you said, Jed,” the astro-navigator said. “We’re back of you one hundred per cent.”

Hargraves grinned a little. “Thanks,” he said. “We were selected to work together as a unit. As long as we remain a unit, we will have a chance against any enemy.”

Dog-tired, he went to his bunk and rolled in. It seemed to him he had barely closed his eyes before a hand grabbed him by the shoulder and a shaken voice shouted in his ear. “Jed! Wake up.”

“Who is it? What’s wrong?” The room was dark and he couldn’t see who was shaking him.

“Ron Val.” The astro-navigator’s voice was hoarse with the maddest, wildest fright Hargraves had ever heard. “The the damnedest thing has happened!”

“What?”

“Hal Sarkoff ” That was as far as Ron Val could get.

“What about him?”

He’s outside trying to get in!

“Have you gone insane? Sarkoff is dead. You helped me bury him.”

“I know it. Jed, he’s outside. He wants in.”

Hargraves had gone to bed without removing even his shoes. He ran forward to the control room, Ron Val pounding behind him. Lights had been turned on here, in defiance of orders. Someone had summoned the crew. They were all here, all eighteen who remained alive. The inner door of the lock was open. A dazed guard, who had been on watch outside the lock, was standing in the door. He had a pistol in his hand but he looked as if he didn’t know what to do with it.

In the center of a group of men too frightened to move was a black-haired, rugged giant.

“Sarkoff!” Hargraves gasped.

The giant’s head turned until his gaze was centered on the captain. “You moved the ship,” he said accusingly. “I had the damnedest time finding it in the dark. What did you move the ship for, Jed?”

If some super-magician had cast a spell over the little group he could not have produced a more complete stasis. No one moved. No one seemed to breathe. All motion, all action, all thinking, had stopped.

Sarkoff’s face went from face to face.

“What the heck is the matter with you guys?” he demanded. “Am I poison, or something?”

He seemed bewildered.

“Where where are the others?” Ron Val stammered.

“What others? What the heck are you talking about, Ron?”

“Nevins and Reese. We we buried them with you. Where are they?”

“How the hell do I kn You buried them with me?” Sarkoff’s face went from bewilderment to inexplicable good nature. “Trying to pull my leg, huh? Okay. I can go along with a gag.” He looked again at Hargraves. “But I can’t go along with that gag of moving the ship after you sent me out scouting. Why didn’t you wait for me? Wandering around among all these trees, I might have got lost and got myself killed. Why did you do that, Jed?” he finished angrily.

“We were ah afraid of an attack,” Hargraves choked out. “Sorry, Hal, but we we had to move the ship. We would have hunted you up, tomorrow.”

Sarkoff was not a man who was ever long angry about anything. The apology satisfied him. He grinned. “Okay, Jed. Forget it. Jeepers! I’m so hungry I could eat a cow. How about a couple of those synthetic steaks we got in the ice-box?” His eyes went around the group, came to rest on the astro-navigator. “How about it, Ron? How about me and you fixing us up some chow?”

“Sure,” said Hargraves. “Go on back to the galley and start fixing yourself whatever you want. You go with him, Ron. I’ll handle your job up here while you’re gone.”

Nodding dumbly, Ron Val started to follow Sarkoff toward the galley. “One minute,” Hargraves called after him. “I want to check something with you before you go!”

Sarkoff kept going. Ron Val returned. “Take your cues from him,” Hargraves said. “You know him better than anyone else. Whatever he says, you agree. Casually bring up past events and watch his reaction. Your job is to find out if that is really Hal Sarkoff!

The astro-navigator, his face white, clumped toward the galley.

Hargraves faced a torrent of questions.

“Jed! We buried him.”

“Jed. He had been in that engine room without air for at least ten minutes before we got there. He can’t be alive.”

“No air. Temperature diving toward absolute zero. He was frozen stiff, Jed, before we moved him. We left him where he was until long after we landed.”

“I know,” Hargraves said. “There is no doubt about it. I used a stethoscope on him as soon as I could get to it after we landed. He was dead. There wasn’t a sign of life.”

Frightened faces looked at him. Awed faces. Bewildered faces.

“What did you mean when you told Ron Val to find out if that is really Sarkoff?”

“Just what I said. That may be Sarkoff. It may be something that looks like Sarkoff, acts like him, talks like him but isn’t he!”

“That that’s impossible.”

“How do we know what is possible here and what isn’t?”

“What are we going to do?”

“We’re going to act just as we would if that were Sarkoff. We’re going to pick up our cues from him? You remember he said he was out scouting. That is his story. We will not question it. We will act as though it were true, until we know what is happening. Now everybody back to his post. Act as if nothing had happened. And for the love of Pete, don’t ask me what is going on. I don’t know any more than you do.”

They didn’t want to obey that order. They had just seen a dead man walking, had heard him talking, had spoken to him. There was comfort in just being with each other. Hargraves walked to the bridge, waited. Eventually, discipline sent them back to their posts. He kept on waiting. Ron Val returned.

“I don’t know, Jed. I just don’t know. We were in school together. I brought up incidents that happened in school, things that only Hal and I knew. Jed, he knew them.

With the exception of a hooded blue lamp on the bridge, all lights had been turned off again. The control room was in darkness. Ron Val was an uneasy shadow talking from dim blackness.

“Then you think that it is really Sarkoff?”

“I don’t know.”

“But if he remembers things that only Hal could know ”

“He remembers things that he can’t know.”

“Um. What things?”

“He asked me how much progress had been made in repairing the ship. Jed, he must have died before he knew the ship had been damaged.”

“Not necessarily,” said Hargraves thoughtfully. “He might have been conscious for one or two minutes after the beam struck us. He would know that the ship had been damaged. What did you tell him?”

“I changed the subject.”

“Good for you. If he isn’t Sarkoff, the one thing he might want to know is whether the ship has been repaired. What else?”

“Jed, he remembers everything that happened after the ship was attacked. We almost crashed before we got the engines started. He remembers that. He remembers hiding the ship among the trees.”

Hargraves stirred. The keen logic of his mind was being blunted by facts that would not fit into any logical pattern. He tried to think. His mind refused the effort. Dead men ought not to remember things that happened after they died. But a dead man had remembered!

For an instant panic walked through the captain’s mind. Then he got it under control. There was always an answer to every question, a solution to every problem. Or was there? He went hunting facts.

“Does he remember being buried?”

Even in the darkness he could feel Ron Val shiver. “No,” Ron Val said. “He doesn’t remember. Just as soon as we landed, he thinks you sent him out, to scout the surrounding territory for possible enemies.”

“Does he know that we had visitors in his absence?”

“No. Or if he does, he didn’t mention it, and I didn’t ask. He says he was returning when he saw the ship being moved. He says he tried to follow, but lost it in the darkness. He says he had the devil’s own time finding it again, and he’s still hot about being left behind.”

Again Hargraves had to fight the panic in his mind. This much seemed obvious. Sarkoff’s memory was accurate until the ship landed. Then it went into fantasy, into error. If one thing was certain, he had not been sent out to scout for enemies. If there was another fact that was immutable, he had been buried.

“Where is he now?” Hargraves asked abruptly.

“In his bunk, snoring. He ate enough for two men, yawned, said he was sleepy. He was sound asleep almost as soon as he touched the blankets.”

Ron Val’s voice relapsed into silence. The whole ship was silent.

“Jed, what are we going to do?”

“You bunk with him, don’t you?”

“Yes. Jed! You don’t mean ”

Hargraves cleared his throat. “This is not an order. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. But Sarkoff must be watched. Are you willing to go back to the room you two shared together and get into the upper deck of your bunk just as if nothing has happened?”

“Yes,” said Ron Val.

“Somebody must be with him all the time. You stay awake. When he gets up, you get up. Whatever he does, you stay with him. I’ll have you relieved as soon as possible. And, Ron ”

“Yes.”

“You have something a man could use for courage.”

Silently, Ron Val walked out of the control room. He fumbled his way through the door and his steps echoed down the corridor that led to the sleeping quarters.

Hargraves sat in thought. Then he, too, left the control room.

“Noble, you’re a bio-chemist. You come with me. Nielson, you take over here in the control room. In my absence you are in command.”

“Yes sir,” Nielson said. “But what are you going to do?”

“See what is in a grave we dug yesterday,” Hargraves answered.