Midshipman Lancer Scott sat at his computer console in the Weapons Systems department, listening intently to the sporadic chatter on the intercom. His brow was furrowed with concern, and the thin lines around his eyes and mouth gave the appearance of one who has already lived far beyond his youthful seveteen years. Without thinking, his left hand brushed a lock of long black hair away from his forehead, in an unconscious rhythm of nervousness.
The Lief Ericson had been on a routine exploratory mission, carefully probing the five planets of a newly-discovered solar system. As usual, one of the four-man scout ships (this time it was the Vega) had been sent on ahead of the Lief Ericson, for planetary scan.
Now the mission was no longer a routine one. The Vega had radioed that it was in trouble, and was preparing to crash land on the surface of the fourth planet. After sending a report of its intended landing position, radio contact had been suddenly lost, and the VEGA was presumed to have crashed. The fate of the crew was not known.
Captain Walker had ordered an immediate change in course, and was even now entering the atmosphere of the fourth planet. Lance leaned forward anxiously as he heard the Environmental Systems Officer deliver his report, then relaxed visibly at the news, stretching his long lanky legs in an effort to relieve the tension. The planets atmosphere was breathable, although it contained an element which.could not be immediately identified. At least the men had a better chance of surviving on the surface. That is, if they had not been killed in the crash.
Lance squirmed uneasily in his chair as he thought about Bob Ford, one of the scout ship crewmen. Midshipman Ford was his best friend. He just had to be okay!
Minutes later, Lance heard the intercom crackle with a new report. The Vega had been located. It had crashed in a wide grassy field, near the edge of a large jungle and appeared to be heavily damaged. There was no sign of the four men, nor were there any reports of alien life in the vicinity. Lance drew in a sharp breath as he heard the Captain’s order to land the ship near the VEGA.
The Lief Ericson settled slowly onto the planet surface, and for a few moments no one spoke or moved. Then, apparently satisfied they were in no immediate danger from unknown aliens, Captain Walker ordered an armed detail of six men to inspect the Vega. The six men tumbled out of an opened hatch, and ran to the scout ship. Lance sat on the edge of his chair, holding his breath as he waited for the radio report. Finally, it came. The four crewmen were not on board.
A dozen questions buzzed through Lance’s mind. Where were they? Were they alive? What had happened to them? His thoughts were abruptly interrupted by another radio message from the scout ship. Footprints and other, unidentifiable, tracks led away from the Vega and into the jungle.
"They’ve been captured!" Lance shouted, half rising to his feet, hands gripping the arms of his chair.
The Weapons Systems Officer threw a sharp glance in Lance’s direction. "Mr. Scott! That is a hasty conclusion. I suggest you keep your mind on your duties, and let the Captain do the worrying about the missing crewmen."
Scott’s cheeks burned red with embarrassment, and a touch of anger, at the reprimand. "Yes Sir," he said, in a voice shaking with emotion, and then hurriedly tried to focus his attention on the computer panel in front of him. But he could not push the thought of the men from his mind.
A short time later lance looked up with a start, to find Lt. Evans standing beside him. "Mr. Scott, Captain Walker has ordered a search detail of twenty-five men to go into the jungle and try to find the four crewmen. I will be leading the detail. I know that Mr. Ford is among the missing men, and ..." Lt. Evans paused, and for once let a warm smile cross his normally impassive face. He continued, "...well, I thought you might want to be a member of that detail."
"Yes Sir!" Lance was on his feet instantly, a broad grin lighting up his face.
"Very well, Mr. Scott, report at once to the ordnance room, draw your weapons and other equipment, and proceed to the primary entry port. The detail is assembling there."
Heart pounding with excitement, Lance was off and running. Within minutes, he was at the entry port. An equipment belt was strapped to his waist, and from the right side hung a SonicWhip, neatly tucked in its paralon holster. The slender, L-shaped form belied its deadliness as a weapon. Within a planet atmosphere, there was nothing more lethal than a Sonic Whip. The equipment belt also contained a small transceiver, emergency food and medical supplies, a small repair kit, and several other items, all designed to help its wearer meet and overcome almost any possible emergency situation.
With Lt. Evans in the lead, the detail emerged from the ship, strode quickly over the alien ground to the Vega, picked up the tracks, and began following them into the jungle. Even as they did so, other crewmen from the Lief Ericson were making preparations to bring the damaged Vega aboard for repairs.
As the search party entered the jungle, each man was struck by the strange alien silence in the air. There were almost no planet sounds at all, and even though the men were trying to walk as quietly as possible, they quickly discovered there was little need for concern. No amount of feet stamping could produce a noise loud enough to be heard more than five feet away.
"Strange," Lt. Evans muttered to himself, "Perhaps the unknown element in the atmosphere acts as a dampener on the transmission of sound." As a precautionary measure, he instructed the men to insert a tiny receiver in their ears. If they couldn’t hear each other speak, from more than a few feet away, at least they could still communicate effectively through their transceivers.
It was not long before the men made another discovery. The jungle floor, while appearing to offer a solid footing, was actually pock-marked with shallow depressions and somewhat larger holes that were concealed by fallen jungle growth. After a number of the men had taken several spills into these holes it became obvious that the going would be much slower than anticipated. In single file, the men cautiously felt their way ahead, threading in, out, and around the jungle growth.
The planets red sun filtered hazy light down through the trees, and with it, an oppressive heat. The men by now were perspiring heavily, and were constantly wiping the burning, salty moisture from their eyes.
In the lead,’ Lt. Evans suddenly threw his right arm over his head and signaled a halt. The search party had covered less than a half mile from the edge of the jungle. Using his transceiver, Lt. Evans spoke to the men.
"We seem to have lost the trail, what with this dense undergrowth, and having to circle our way around these brush-covered holes. In order to search the area more quickly, we’re going to split up into five teams of five men each. Spread out, but stay together within your teams. If you get in trouble, or if you find the men, radio the rest of us the nature of your situation, and then activate the homing beacon with one.of your transceivers. That should make it easy for the rest of the party to find you quickly."
The five teams were formed, and once again the men began moving forward, each team in a slightly different direction. Lance was part of the team led by Lt. Evans. Almost immediately the teams were lost from sight of each other.
After about an hour of what seemed, to Lance, like aimless wandering through the jungle, Lt. Evans suddenly threw himself backwards, knocking Lance (who was following close on his heels) flat on his back. Quickly picking himself up, and. motioning for all to be quiet, Evans pointed to the jungle in front of him. Lance got to his feet, and gasped, as his eyes followed the gesture made by the Lieutenant. They were only three feet away from the edge of a jungle clearing and in the middle of the ctearing was a large alien village. Lt. Evans had very nearly stumbled out into full view!
The Lieutenant radioed a report to the other four teams, and then activated the homing beacon on his transceiver. Only when this had been accomplished did he turn his attention once more to the village. Taking care to stay well-concealed, the five men lay down on their stomachs and crawled to the edge of the undergrowth, where they had a clear view of the village.
There were perhaps as many as a hundred buildings, some larger than others, and many, undoubtedly were dwellings. The buildings were made of jungle materials, with roofs covered with some type of large flat green leaf. The aliens might be primitive, but they were intelligent enough to construct buildings. And the large number of buildings meant a sizeable population—probably four hundred, at least. A few adult aliens could be seen walking about, and a few children were also visible. The aliens were humanoids, very tall and muscular, with slightly bluish skin. They wore brightly-colored clothing that resembled the ancient Roman toga, but made of a coarse, obviously handwoven material.
Both young and old alike were characterized by tiny ears and mouths, and overly large eyes and noses. Via his transceiver, Lance quietly remarked that all the adult males appeared to have the same type of scar running across the right cheekbone, from the tip of the ear to to the corner of the mouth.
The voice of It. Evans crackled in Lance’s earpiece. "Congratulations, Mr. Scott, on an astute observation I was about to make the same statement. Its probably a symbol of manhood, or something likethat." Lance briefly wondered to himself if he had rightly detected a note of mockery in Lt. vans' comment, then shrugged and turned his attention back to the aliens.
Evans continued, "it would also appear that their small ears are a biological result of the atmospheric sound phenomena we’ve already noticed. They probably don’t hear very well, unless the sounds are extremely loud."
All of the adult male aliens were armed, some with short spears, others with a type of crossbow, and without exception, each wore a long, vicious-looking curved knife at his waist They did not look friendly.
Once again the voice of Lt. Evans crackled in Lance’s earpiece. "I think we’ve done enough observing from this position for now. Let’s circle around the village and see if we can detect any sign of the missing men."
Keeping well-concealed, the five men began slowly working their way around the edge of the clearing. They had scarcely gone more than a few hundred yards when the Lieutenant signaled another halt. There, in plain view, were the four crewmen.
Each had been tied hand and foot to large X-shaped wooden frames which were standing upright in the middle of a wide flat area between the buildings. Lance suppressed a cry of despair as he saw Midshipman Ford suspended from one of the frames. His head hung forward limply, as though unconscious. The remaining three men were still struggling, in a vain attempt to free themselves.
Gathered aroung the captured men were a group of about thirty alien males. All were waving spears and knives in a strange, rhythmic motion, as if keeping time with a chant. But they made no sound. Abruptly, the rhythmic movement increased in speed, and the aliens began advancing, one step at a time, toward the four men.
"Sir!" This time it was Lance’s voice, speaking frantically through the earpieces. "They’ll be killed.at any moment!"
Lt. Evans turned toward Lance, gesturing for silence as he did so. "Mr. Scott, I think that is rather obvious." Then, speaking to the men as a whole, he continued, "Gentlemen, we don’t have time to wait for the others, If we do, it may cost us the lives of our four shipmates. We will therefore attack at once. Draw your weapons, spread out side by side, and on my signal, we’ll charge them. I don’t think they’ll be any match for our whips. And be careful not to hit any of our men."
The five were just starting to draw their weapons, and had turned towards the clearing, when they were suddenly attacked from behind by about a dozen aliens. The men, taken by complete surprise never had a chance In the brtef confused struggle of swirling bodies, Lance was knocked unconscious, and Lt. Evans was shot through the shoulder by a crossbow. The last thing Lance remembered was falling into an inky blackness.
Slowly, painfully, Lance regained consciousness. His head hurt horribly, and his body ached in at least a dozen different places. Without opening his eyes, he gradually felt his head, arms, and legs, using his fingertips to gently probe for any obvious injuries. At last satisfied that he was not seriously hurt, he opened his eyes and looked around him. And stared in disbelief.
He was lying at the bottom of one of those brush-covered holes in the ground! Carefully, Lance raised himself up to a sitting position, then shifted to his knees, and cautiously peered out of the hole. To his amazement, he was still at the scene of the recent alien attack, but there was no one around. Apparently, in the midst of the confused fighting, no one had seen him fall into the hole, and he had not been missed.
Lance stood up, and was then able to see into the clearing again. His four companions, including the wounded Lt Evans were being tied in the same manner as the four scout ship crewmen. A much larger crowd of aliens had gathered, and were beginning to start their strange rhythmic waving of swords and spears again. If he was to do anything to help his companions it would have to be fast.
Lance instinctively reached for his whip, but his hand felt only an empty holster. With a half-stifled cry of anguish, Lance began frantically searching the ground around him for his lost weapon. It was nowhere to be found. Sinking to the ground, Lance forced his mind to clear, and then when he felt he once more was in control of himself, he concentrated on the problem of how without weapons he was to save the lives of his companions. There had to be a way!
Like a bolt out of the blue, the answer hit him. Working quickly, but confidently now, Lance removed his transceiver from his belt, and using the repair kit, made several quick adjustments in the broadcast circuit He then replaced the transceiver on his belt, and stepped from the jungle into the clearing in plain view of the aliens The thought flashed through his mind that if his plan didn’t work, he was already as good as dead. He was seen immediately, and as a band of aliens charged towards him, Lance reached down and turned on his transceiver, adjusting the volume to full strength. A steady, high-pitched whine, like the wail of a siren, ripped through the air, blasting out in all directions.
The effect on the aliens was immediate and dramatic. They began screaming, and dropped to their knees, clutching their ears. Within moments they were rolling about on the ground in agony, totally helpless. Not one was unaffected. The captured earthmen were not bothered by the noise but were clearly dumbfounded by the sudden turn of events.
Lance wasted no time, knowing the transceiver would not maintain full strength level for long before running out of power. He raced across the clearing, jumping over alien bodies on the way grabbed a long knife and began cutting the men loose This was not a time for talk or explanations so he worked quickly but silently. Soon all the men were free. They quickly reclaimed their weapons where the aliens had dropped them, and ran for the edge of the jungle. Just as they reached the edge, the transceiver lost its power.
The strange eerie silence once again descended over the jungle. With the noise now gone it wouldn't be long before the aliens recovered from the ill effects they had suffered, and gave chase to the fleeing men. Lt. Evans, although wounded, was able to walk, and once more took command of the small group. He ordered a halt, with weapons out and ready for action, and waited while Lance "fixed" another transceiver. Once in operation, Lance placed it on the ground, and the men continued their retreat back to the Lief Ericson. The new noise would effectively halt pursuit, allowing the men to reach the safety of their ship.
Lance stood at attention, facing Captain Walker, who was sitting behind a small desk which occupied most of the space at one end of his cabin. It was now little more than an hour after Lance and the other men had returned to the ship. Lt. Evans, his shoulder bandaged and his arm in a sling, sat in a chair at one corner of the Captain’s desk. Although trying not to show it, Lance was uncomfortably nervous. He had never been in the Captain’s cabin before, and while he was there on the Captain’s orders, he still felt like an intruder caught in some exaulted place.
Captain Walker cleared his throat, and then spoke, breaking the silence in the room. "You can relax, Mr. Scott, please be at ease." Lance relaxed visibly from the rigid position in which he’d been standing, and the Captain continued, "I have read your report, as well as that of Lt. Evans, and I want to personally commend you for your quick thinking at a time when the lives of eight of your crewmen depended solely upon what you might do. I was particularly impressed with the way you put several observations together and came up with the conclusion that the aliens would find a loud, high-pitched noise unbearable for their small, and apparently delicate, ears."
"Thank you, sir"
Unsmiling, but with a twinkle in his eye, the Captain leaned~forward and said, "You could have been wrong, you know."
Lance swallowed hard. "Yes, sir, I thought about that at the time. But it was the only chance I had, and I felt I had to take the gamble."
The Captain laughed, and leaned back in his chair. "Forunately, your gamble paid off. I shall make sure that higher authorities are made aware of your recent actions. The ability to think fast, correctly interpret sketchy data, and know when to gamble on a decision is a necessary requirement for a man who hopes to hold a command position some day. That will be all, Mr. Scott. You may go now."
"Thank you, Captain." Lance turned and strode quickly to the door. He placed his hand on the latch, then stopped and looked back at Captain Walker. "Sir?"
"Yes, Mr. Scott, what is it?"
"Excuse me sir, but I haven’t heard yet Just how did the scout ship crew happen to be captured in the first place?"
"Well, it was actually through no fault of their own. They climbed out of the damaged ship, determined that there was no danger in sight, and began trying to repair the ship as best they could You know about the noise phenomena on that planet." He paused
"While the men were working on the ship they were attacked by the aliens They literally did not hear the aliens coming."