We climbed out of the little cauldron. In the tumbled darkness we picked our way among the crags. An Earth-mile, then another. Little Jan, like an eager hound was generally ahead of us, with his tiny search-glare sweeping the jagged rocks. We crossed a narrow winding canyon, inspected a slashed cliff-face. It was arduous going. Despite the sense of lightness and our tropic black-drill clothes of short trousers, thin jackets and shirts, we were panting, bathed in sweat within an hour. Silently, Torrence plodded at my side. It was my first trip with him; and I could see he did not altogether trust my efficiency.
"You can find the way back to the ship?" he demanded once. "To get lost in a place like this—"
I had marked it; little twin spires above the cauldron. They were visible now, looming against the dark sky behind us.
I showed him. "I saw them," he said. "I could lead us back. My idea is, if we cover about ten miles and then camp—"
A cry from Jan interrupted us. He was standing on a little ridge of rock like a bronze metal wave frozen into solidity. Against the deep purple sky his slim figure was a silhouette of solid black. He was staring off into the distance; his arm waved with a gesture as he called to us.
"Something off there! Something lying on the rocks—come look!"
We ran to join him. About a quarter mile distant there was a broad gully. A dark blob was visible lying at the bottom of it—a sizable blob, something forty or fifty feet long. We picked our way there; climbed down into the ragged, thirty-foot ravine. It was a spaceship lying here—with its sleek alumite hull resting on its side with one of its rocket-stream fins bent and smashed under it.
"The Roberts-King ship," Torrence exclaimed. "So they got here. Cracked up in the landing."
There seemed no doubt of it. This was unquestionably the Roberts-King vehicle—an older version of our own vessel. We stood staring at it blankly—at its little bow pressure port which was wide open, a narrow rectangle with the interior blackness behind it.
Then I saw that here on the rocks near the doorway, a litter of tools and mechanisms were strewn; and a section of one of the gravity plates which had been disconnected and brought out here.
"Trying to repair it," I said to the silently staring, awed Torrence. "Five years ago. Now what do you suppose—"
A startled cry from Jan interrupted me.
The body was lying on the rocks, just beyond the bow of the ship. It was Jonathan Roberts—stocky, middle-aged leader of the expedition. Clad in a strange costume of thin brown material, seemingly animal skin, he lay crumpled. I had never met him, but from his published portraits I could recognize him at once. In the starlight here his dead face with staring eyes goggled up at us.
"Why—why—" Torrence gasped. "Five years—"
There was no great look of decay about the body. Roberts had died here, certainly not five years ago. I was bending down over the body; I shoved at one of the shoulders and turned it over. Stricken Jan, Torrence and I stared numbed. A thin bronze sliver of metal—fin-tipped like a metal arrow—was buried in Roberts' back!
Again the alert Jan was gazing at the dim, fantastic night-scene around us. Abruptly his hand gripped my arm as he gasped,
"Why—good Lord—what's that? Over there—"
In the blackness down the gully, perhaps a hundred feet from us, a little spiral of fire had appeared. A tiny wisp of red-green flame. It seemed to hover in the air a few feet above the rocky gully floor. Like a phantom wraith of fire, it silently leaped and twisted.
"My God—it's coming toward us!" Torrence suddenly gasped.
In the darkness the silent wisp of fire had swayed sidewise, and then came along the edge of the gully, a disembodied conflagration in mid-air, as though wafted by a rush of wind we could not feel.
For a moment of startled horror we stood motionless. The floating little flame seemed bounding now, just over the rocks. Bounding? Abruptly I seemed to see a dark shape of solidity under it—something almost, but not quite invisible in the blackness. A tangible thing? A creature—burning? Thoughts are instant things. I recall that in that second, I had the impression of a four-legged thing like a huge dog, bounding toward us over the rocks. The flame in which it was enveloped, had spread—it was a blob of flame, but solidity was there.
All in a second. My little electro-gun was in my hand. And then from beside me, Torrence fired—his flash with a whining sizzle splitting the blackness of the gully with its pencil-point of hurled electrons. His hasty aim quite evidently was wild. I saw the little splash of colored sparks where his charge hit the rocks. Too high.
My gun was leveled. But in that split-second, the oncoming blob of fire abruptly had been extinguished. There was only the faint blurred suggestion of the dog-like thing. It had stopped short, and then suddenly was retreating. My shot, and Jan's, followed it. In another few seconds there was no possibility of hitting it. Silently it had vanished. There was only the black silent gully around us, with the blurred crags standing like menacing dark ghosts.
My instinct then, I must admit, was for us to retreat at once to our ship. In the heavy empty silence we stood blankly gazing at each other. Torrence was grim; Jan was shaking with excitement and the fear all of us felt.
"You heard that whistle?" I murmured.
"I heard it," Jan exclaimed. "Something—somebody—human—" There were weird, hostile inhabitants on Vulcan—no question of that now! And here was Roberts' body with a metal sliver of arrow in its back, mute evidence of what we were facing. And already our presence here had been discovered. I stared around at the rocky darkness, every blurred crag now seeming to mask some unknown menace.
"That whistle," Torrence murmured, "calling off that flaming thing—started at our shots. Something is around here, watching us now, undoubtedly."
The yawning dark doorway of the wrecked spaceship was near us. Something seemed lying just beyond its threshold.
"You two stay here," I told Torrence and Jan. "Don't let them surprise us again. We'll have to get back to our ship—"
The port doorway led into a little pressure chamber. On its dark sloping floor, as the wrecked ship lay askew, I stood with my flashlight illumining so ghastly a scene that my blood chilled in my veins. It was a bloody shambles of horror. For a moment I gazed; and as I turned away, sickened, I found Jan at my elbow. He too, had been staring. He clutched at me, white and shaken, and I turned away my light.
"The rest of them," he murmured.
"Yes. Looks that way. All of them—"
The bodies were strewn, clothing and flesh ripped apart so that here were only the bones of men, with pulpy crimson—
"No humans did that, Jan."
"No," he shuddered. "That Thing in flames that came at us—"
His words died in his throat. Outside there was a scream—a shrill, eerie human cry. The high-pitched scream of a woman! Gun in hand, with Jan close behind me, I ran outside. The dimness of the rocky gully seemed empty. The cry had died away.
"Torrence! You Torrence—what in the devil—"
My low vehement words wafted away. There was no Torrence. Cautiously I ran around the bow of the wrecked ship, gazed down its other side.
The nearby rocks seemed to echo back my words, mocking me.
"Why—why—" Jan gasped, "I left him right out here. He was just standing, looking down at Roberts' body with the arrow in it. I just thought I'd go inside with you for a minute."
I pulled him down to the ground. We crouched, close against the side of the ship. "That scream," I whispered, "wasn't far away. A few hundred feet down the gully."
"It sounded like a girl. It did, didn't it? Bob, if they got Torrence that quickly—an arrow in him—"
I peered, tense. The rock shadows were all motionless. In the heavy blank silence there was only my startled breathing, and Jan's; and the thumping of my own heart against my ribs. Had this weird enemy gotten Torrence so swiftly, so silently? Something not human, that had so quickly seized him and dragged him away? Or one of those metal arrows in his back, so that his body was lying around here somewhere, masked by the darkness. Jan and I had certainly not been inside the ship more than a minute or two—
A sharp clattering ping against the alumite side of the wrecked ship struck away my thoughts. A metal arrow! It bent against the hull-plate and dropped almost beside me! The still-hidden sniper had seen us, that was evident, for the arrow had whizzed only a foot or so over our heads.
We almost flattened ourselves against the bulge of the hull, with a little pile of boulders in front of us. My gun was leveled, but there was nothing to shoot at. Then from diagonally across the gully again there came a sharp human cry! A girl's voice? It was soft this time, a bursting little cry, half suppressed.
Thoughts are instant things. I was aware of the cry and with it there was another whizz. Another arrow. This one was wider of the mark; it hit far to one side of us, up near the bow of the ship.
"Jan! Wait!" His little flash gun was up in the crevice of the rocks in front of us. In another second he would have fired. I saw his target—two dim blobs across the gully. For just that second they were visible as they rose up out of a hollow. A man; and the slighter figure with him seemed that of a girl. Her hair, glistening like spun metal in the dim light, hung over her shoulders.
The two figures were struggling. There was the sound of the girl's low cry, and a grunt from the man.... My low admonition stopped Jan from firing and in another second the shapes across the gully had vanished.
"That girl," I murmured. "She tried to keep him from killing us. Seemed that way, don't you think?"