It would be untrue to say that Benj recognized Beetchermarlf at first glance. As a matter of fact, the first of the caterpillar like figures to emerge from the river and clamber up the hull was Takoorch. However, it was the younger helmsman’s name which echoed from four speakers on Dhrawn.
One of these was on the
The flying machines were about a mile west of Dondragmer’s camp; Kabremm would go no closer, not wanting to take the slightest chance of repeating his earlier slip. He would probably not have moved at all from the site where Stakendee had found him if the river had not risen. For one thing, he had been fog-bound and had no wish to fly at all. Reffel had been even less eager to move. However, there had been no choice, so Kabremm had allowed his craft to float upward on its own lift until it was in clear air. Reffel hovered as close to the other machine’s running lights as he dared. Once above the few yards of ammonia droplets, they could navigate, and had flown toward Dondragmer’s lights until the dirigible’s commander had decided they were close enough. Letting the
Both he and Reffel had also spent some uncomfortable hours before concluding, from the lack of appropriate comment, that Reffel had shuttered his vision set quickly enough after coming within sight of the
In any event, Dondragmer and Kabremm had at last achieved almost direct communication, and had been able to coordinate what they would say and do if there were any further repercussions from Easy’s recognition. One load was off the captain’s mind. However, he was still taking steps connected with that mistake.
The cry of “Beetch!” in Benj’s unmistakable voice distracted him from one of these steps. He had been checking over his crew for people who looked as much as possible like Kabremm. The job was complicated by the fact that he had not seen the other officer for several months. Dondragmer had not yet had time to visit the
However, the fate of the
“Captain!” the boy’s voice continued. “Two Mesklinites have just appeared and are climbing up the hull of the
Dondragmer’s mind raced. He had not blamed himself for abandoning the cruiser, even though the flood had been such an anticlimax. It had been the most reasonable decision at the time and with the available knowledge. By the time the actual nature of the new flood had been clear, and it was obvious that they could have remained in the cruiser with perfect safety it had been impossible to get back. Being a Mesklinite, the captain had wasted no time on thoughts of the “if only?’ variety. He had known when he left his vehicle that the chances of getting back were rather small, and when she had drifted downstream intact instead of a shattered ruin they had grown smaller. Not quite to zero, perhaps, but not large enough to take seriously any more.
Now suddenly they had expanded again. The
“Benj!” Dondragmer spoke as his thoughts reached this point. “Will you please get your technical men to determine as closely as they can just how far from us the
Benj obeyed quickly and efficiently. He was no longer overtired, worried, and resentful. With the abandonment of the
The sleep, and the sudden discovery that Beetchermarlf was alive after all, combined to dispose of Benj’s lingering resentment of Dondragmer’s policy. He acknowledged the captain’s request, called his mother to take his place, and headed for the laboratory decks as rapidly as his muscles would take him up the ladders.
Easy, who had also had some sleep, reported Benj’s departure and her own presence to Dondragmer, briefed Barlennan as requested, and switched back to the captain with a question of her own.
“That’s two of your missing men. Do you think there is still any chance of finding your helicopter pilots?”
Dondragmer almost slipped on his answer, carefully as he picked his words. He knew, of course, where Reffel was, since messengers had been passing steadily between the camp and the
“It is hard to judge. I have not seen either one. If he went down in the area now flooded it is hard to see how they could be alive now. It is very unfortunate, not only because of the men themselves but because with even one of the helicopters we might be able to transfer more men to the
“You’re not the first to feel that way,” agreed Easy. The matter had been brought up shortly after Reffel’s disappearance. “I don’t know enough about the machines to tell why the signal strength depends on the picture brightness; I always thought a carrier wave was a carrier wave; but that seems to be it. Either Reffel’s set is in total darkness or it has been destroyed.
“I see your life-support equipment is set up and working.”
The last sentence was not entirely an effort of Easy’s to change the subject; it was her first good look at the equipment in question, and she was genuinely curious about it. It consisted of scores, perhaps over a hundred, of square transparent tanks covering altogether a dozen square yards, each about a third full of liquid, with the nearly pure hydrogen which constituted Mesklinite air bubbling through it. A power unit operated the lights which shone on the tanks, but the pumps which kept the gas circulating were muscle-driven. The vegetation which actually oxidized the saturated hydrocarbons of Mesklinite biological waste and gave off free hydrogen was represented by a variety of unicellular species corresponding as nearly as might be expected to terrestrial algae. They had been selected for edibility, though not, as Easy had been given to understand, for taste. The sections of the support equipment which used higher plants and produced the equivalent of fruit and vegetables were too bulky to move from the cruiser.
Easy did not know how the non-gaseous items in the biological cycle were gotten into and out of the tanks, but she could see the charging of air suit cartridges. This was a matter of muscle-driven pumping again, squeezing hydrogen into tanks which contained slugs of porous solid. This material was another strictly non-Mesklinite product, a piece of molecular architecture vaguely analogous to zeolite in structure, which adsorbed hydrogen on the inner walls of its structural channels and, within a wide temperature range, maintained an equilibrium partial pressure with the gas which was compatible with Mesklinite metabolic needs.
Dondragmer answered Easy’s remark. “Yes, we have just about enough food and air. The real problem is what to do. We have saved very little of your planetological equipment; we can’t carry on your work. Conceivably we might make our way back to the Settlement on foot, but we’d have to carry the life-support material by stages. That would mean setting up a camp only a few miles from here, transferring the equipment, recharging the air cartridges after cycling has resumed, and then repeating the process indefinitely. Since the distance to the settlement is about thirty thousand, excuse me, in your numbers about twelve thousand, of your miles, it would take us years to get there: that’s no metaphor, nor do I mean your short years. If we’re to be any further use to your project, we really must get the
Easy could only agree, though she could see an alternative which the captain had not mentioned. Of course, Aucoin would disapprove, or would he, under the circumstances? A trained and efficient exploring crew represented quite an investment, too. That might be a useful line to follow.
It was several more minutes before Benj returned with his information, and incidentally with a following of interested scientists.
“Captain,” he called, “the
“Thank you,” came the captain’s answer in due course. “Are you in verbal contact with the helmsmen yet?”
“Not yet, but they’ve gone inside. I’m sure they’ll find the communicator on the bridge pretty soon, though I suppose there are other places they’d want to check first. The air must be pretty low in their suits.”
This was perfectly correct. It took the helmsmen only a few minutes to ascertain that the cruiser was deserted, and to note that much of the life-support equipment was gone; but this left them with the need to check the air now aboard for contamination with oxygen from outside. Neither of them knew enough basic chemistry to invent a test, and neither was familiar with the routine ones used by Borndender and his colleagues. They were considering the rather drastic procedure of testing by smell when it occurred to Beetchermarlf that a communicator might have been left aboard for scientific reasons, and that the human beings might be of help. There was none in the laboratory, but the bridge was the next most likely spot, and Beetchermarlf’s voice was on its way up to the station some ten minutes after the helmsmen had come aboard.
Benj postponed greetings when he heard Beetchermarlf’s question, and relayed it at once to Dondragmer. The captain called his scientists and outlined the situation, and for over half an hour the relay was very busy: Borndender explained things, and Beetchermarlf repeated the explanations, then went to the lab to examine material and equipment, then came back to the bridge to make sure of some minor point…
Eventually both parties in the conversation felt sure that the instructions had been understood. Benj, at its pivot point, was nearly sure. He knew enough physics and chemistry himself to judge that nothing was likely to blow up if Beetch made a mistake; his only worry was that his friend might perform the tests sloppily and so miss a dangerous amount of oxygen. Was the risk simply one of poisoning, or did hydrogen oxygen mixtures present other dangers? He wasn’t quite sure; hydrogen-oxygen mixtures have other qualities. He remained rather tense until Beetchermarlf returned to the bridge with the report that both tests were complete. The catalyst which disposed of free oxygen by accelerating its reaction with ammonia was still active, and the ammonia-vapor concentration in the ship’s air was high enough to give it something to work on. The helmsmen had already removed their air-suits and neither could smell any oxygen, though, as with human beings and hydrogen sulfide, smell is not always a reliable test.
At least, the two could live on board for a time. One of their first acts had been to “hand”-pump the feed tank which kept air bubbling through the life-support medium, and to satisfy themselves that most of the plants were still alive. The next problem was navigation.
Benj told his friend as much as possible about his location, that of the rest of the crew, and the
The discussion which produced a detailed operation plan was shorter than the one preceding the oxygen test, though it still involved the long relay. Neither Dondragmer nor the helmsmen had any serious doubts about what to do or how to do it.
Beetchermarlf was far younger than Takoorch, but there seemed no question as to who was in charge aboard. The fact that Benj always signaled Beetch by name, rather than signaling the
“We’re still adrift, and unless this river has some very funny loops farther down we’ll never get any closer to the others with its help,” the younger Mesklinite summarized at last. “The first job will be to get paddles on some of the powered trucks. Trying to do it with all of them will take forever; a couple of outboard-row ones aft, and maybe a central one forward should give control. With power available on other drivers we can either pull off or get safely ashore if we run aground. Tak and I will go outside and start work right now. You keep an eye on us as much as you can, Benj; we’ll leave the set where it is.”
Beetchermarlf did not wait for an answer. He and his companion suited up once more and broke out the paddles which were designed to be pinned onto the treads of the drivers. These had been tested on Mesklin but had never yet been used on Dhrawn; no one really knew how well they would work. Their area was small, since there was little clearance for them above the trucks, and some of that small area was taken up by a plastic shield designed to fold them flat as they were riding forward on the top side of the trucks. However, it had been proved that they would supply some thrust. What this would accomplish remained to be seen; the
Installation of the fins and shields was a long and awkward job for two workers. The pieces could be taken out only one at a time, since there was nowhere to put them down with the cruiser afloat. Safety lines persistently got in the way. Mesklinite pincers are rather less effective handling organs than are human fingers, though this is somewhat offset by the fact that their owner can use all four pairs of them simultaneously and in coordination — he has no asymmetry corresponding to human right- or left-handedness.
The need for artificial lights was still another bother. As it turned out, getting twelve paddles and one shield on each of three drivers took a total of almost fifteen hours. It could, Beetchermarlf assured Benj, have been accomplished in two with four workers on each truck.
By this time the trackers had learned that the
It was some time, however, before the directional antennae on the shadow satellites and the computers in the station could confirm this guess. About the time they did, the
Beetchermarlf instantly shifted drive power to the two trucks farthest forward which had power boxes, letting the paddle-equipped ones idle, and pulled his cruiser out on the shore.
“I’m out of the lake,” he reported. “Minor problem. If I travel for any distance on land with the paddles in place I’ll wear them out. If it turns out that I’m on an island, or have to go back to the water for any other reason, an awful lot of time will have been wasted taking them off and putting them on again. My first thought is to do some exploring on foot, leaving the ship right here, to get some idea of what the chances of staying ashore may be. It will take a long time, but not nearly as long as waiting for daylight. I’ll be glad of advice from you humans or orders from the captain; we’ll wait.”
Dondragmer, when this was relayed to him, was prompt with his answer.
“Don’t go out. Wait until the map-makers up above can decide whether you are on the same side of the river as we are, or not. As I picture the map they’ve described, there’s a good chance that the eddy carried you to the east side, which would be the right bank; we’re on the left. If they are even moderately sure of this, get back into the water and head west until they think you’re past it, no, second thought. Go until they think you’re opposite its mouth, then head south once more. I’d like to find out whether you can travel upstream with any speed at all. I know it will be slow; it may turn out that you can’t travel at all in some places along the bank.”
“I’ll tell Beetch and the map people, Captain,” answered Benj. “I’ll try to get a copy of their map and keep it up to date down here; that may save some time in the future.”
The directional data was not, as it happened, definitive. The location of the
It did prove possible to keep the shore within range of the
The delta, which caused the shoreline to turn north briefly, was a warning. Beetchermarlf at the helm and Takoorch at the port wing of the bridge sent the
This was not swift, but the
It was impatience which changed the travel plans. This could not, of course, be blamed on any Mesklinite; it was Aucoin, of all people, who decided that a mile and a half an hour was not satisfactory. Dondragmer did not feel strongly about the matter; he agreed that research might as well be worked into the trip if possible. At the planner’s suggestion he sent Beetchermarlf angling westward toward what was presumably the near bank of the river. The land seemed traversable. With some misgiving he had the helmsmen remove the paddles.
Removal proved much easier than installation, since the vehicle was now on dry land. Things could be laid down and life lines were not needed.
Benj, on his next visit to the communication room, found the
Beetchermarlf was willing to talk as usual, but it could be seen that his attention was not entirely on conversation. Both he and Takoorch were looking ahead as sharply as their eyesight and the
Every now and then, as the hours wore on, whoever was at the helm would begin to feel the treacherous assurance that there could be no danger; that they had, after all, come scores of miles now without having to change heading except to keep the river in sight. A human being would have increased the running speed bit by bit. The Mesklinite reaction was to stop and rest. Even Takoorch knew that when he was feeling tempted to act against the dictates of elementary common sense, it was time to do something about his own condition. Discovering the vehicle halted when he came to the screens on one occasion, Aucoin assumed it was a regular air-maintenance stop; but then he saw one of the Mesklinites sprawled idly on the bridge. The set had been put back in its old location, giving a view forward over the helm. Asking why the cruiser was not traveling, Takoorch simply replied that he had found himself getting casual. The administrator left in a very thoughtful mood.
Eventually, this care paid off, or seemed to.
For some miles the outcroppings of bed rock had been more and more frequent, though generally smaller, closer together, and more angular. The planetologists had been making guesses, futile ones with so little information, about the underlying stratigraphy. The basic surface was still hard-packed sediment, but the watchers suspected that it might be getting shallower, and that some time soon the
The helmsmen occasionally found it necessary now to weave slightly left or right to avoid the rock outcroppings; they even had to slow down a little from time to time. Several times in the past few hours the planetologists had rather plaintively suggested that the cruiser stop before it was too late, and pick up samples of the sediment she was running over even if the rocks were too big to collect. Aucoin simply pointed out that it would be a year or two before the sample could get up to the station anyway, and refused; the scientists retorted that a year was much better than the time which would be needed if the specimens weren’t collected.
But when the
The captain, this time, approved the sortie, suggesting only that it be preceded by a careful look around from the bridge with the aid of the spotlights. This proved useful. A hundred yards ahead, not too far out of the range of the running lights, a small stream ran across their path and emptied into the river. Sweeping the light to starboard, this tributary could be seen arcing around parallel to the cruiser’s path from the north, then reversing its curve somewhat astern of the big vehicle and disappearing to the northwest. The
Outside, even with the aid of extra lights, the line of demarcation between the two kinds of soil was much less visible than before. Eye distance, Beetchermarlf judged, was the main cause. The crew scraped up and packaged samples of material from both sides of the line; then they went on to the stream itself This proved to be a swift-running but shallow brook three or four body-lengths in width, its level an inch or two below the soil through which it was cutting its way. After a brief consultation, the two Mesklinites began to follow it away from the river. They had no way of telling its composition, but a bottle of its contents was secured for later testing.
By the time they reached the spot where it was curving away, even the Mesklinites could see that the stream had not been in existence very long. It was eating with visible speed into its banks, washing the sediment on toward the main river. Now that they were on the outside of its curve, the undercutting of the near bank could be seen and even felt; Beetchermarlf, standing at the edge, felt it crumble suddenly away under him and found himself in the stream.
It was only an inch or so deep, so he took advantage of the occasion to take another sample from its bottom before climbing out. They decided to continue upstream for another ten minutes or so, with Beetchermarlf wading and Takoorch on the bank. Before the time was up they had actually found the source of the watercourse. It was a spring, not half a mile from the
There was nothing in particular to do; they had no camera equipment, no one had seriously suggested that they bring the vision set with them, and there was nothing obvious to be gained by collecting more samples. They returned to the
Even the scientists agreed that the best step now was to get the samples back to the camp where Borndender and his fellows could do something useful with them. The helmsmen eased their cruiser into motion once more.
It approached the stream and nosed through it; the mattress took up the slight dip as the trucks crossed the bottom of the widening valley, and nothing could be felt on the bridge.
Not for another eight seconds.
The hull was rather more than halfway across the little brook when the distinction between solid and liquid began to blur. A slight lurch could be felt on the bridge; it showed on the screen far above as a tiny upward jerk of the few outside features visible.
Forward motion stopped almost instantly, though the drivers kept churning. They could accomplish nothing when completely immersed in slimy mud, which the surface had so suddenly become. There was neither support nor traction. The
And this time, as Beetchermarlf’s sense of smell warned him only too clearly, the hull had failed somewhere. Oxygen was leaking in.