By CHARLES A. STEARNS
Wordsley and Captain DeCastros
crossed half a universe—suffered
hardship—faced unknown dangers;
and all this for what—a breath
of rare perfume?
Steadily they smashed the
mensurate battlements, in
blackness beyond night and
darkness without stars. Yet Mr.
Wordsley, the engineer, who was
slight, balding and ingenious,
was able to watch the firmament
from his engine room as it drifted
from bow to beam to rocket's
end. This was by virtue of banked
rows of photon collectors
which he had invented and installed
in the nose of the ship.
The creature was more pitiful
And Mr. Wordsley, at three
minutes of the hour of seventeen
over four, tuned in a white, new
star of eye-blinking magnitude
and surpassing brilliance. Discovering
new stars was a kind
of perpetual game with Mr.
Wordsley. Perhaps more than a
"I wish I may, I wish I
might ..." Mr. Wordsley said.
The fiddly hatch clanged. DeCastros,
that gross, terrifying
clown of a man, clumped down
the ladder from the bridge to defeat
the enchantment of the moment.
DeCastros held sway. He
was captain. He did not want
Mr. Wordsley to forget that he
The worst of Captain DeCastros
was that he had moods. Just
now he was being a sly leprechaun,
if one can imagine a
pound leprechaun. He came over
and dug his fingers into Mr.
Wordsley's shoulder. A wracking
pain in the trapezius muscle.
"The ertholaters are plugged,"
he said gently. "The vi-lines are
giving out a horrible stink."
"I'll attend to it right away,"
Mr. Wordsley said, wincing a
little as he wriggled free.
"Tch, tch," DeCastros said,
"can anyone really be so asthenic
as you seem, Mr. Wordsley?"
"No, sir," Mr. Wordsley said,
uncertain of his meaning.
The captain winked. "Yet
there was that ruffled shirt that
I found in the laundromat last
week. It was not my shirt. There
are only the two of us aboard,
"It was my shirt," Mr. Wordsley
said, turning crimson. "I
bought it on Vega Four. I—I
didn't know—that is, they wear
them like that on Vega Four."
"Yes, they do," DeCastros
said. "Well, well, perhaps you
are only a poet, Mr. Wordsley.
But should you happen to be a
little—well, maggoty, you positively
do not have to tell me. No
doubt we both have our secrets.
"I haven't," Mr. Wordsley said
"No? Then you certainly will
not mind that I am recommending
an Ab Test for you when we
Mr. Wordsley's heart stopped
beating for several seconds. He
searched Captain DeCastros'
face for a sign that he might be
fooling. He was not. He looked
too pleasant. Mr. Wordsley had
always managed to pass the
Aberrations Test by the skin of
his teeth, but he was sure that,
like most spiritual geniuses, he
was sensitively balanced, and
that the power and seniority of
a man like DeCastros must influence
the Board of Examination.
"You might be decommed. Or
even committed to an institution.
We wouldn't want that to
happen, would we, Mr. Wordsley?"
"Why are you doing this to
me?" Mr. Wordsley asked strickenly.
"To tell the truth, I do not
propose to have any more of my
voyages blighted with your
moon-calfing, day-dreaming and
letting the ertholaters stink up
the bridge. Besides—" Captain
DeCastros patted his shoulder
almost affectionately. "—besides,
I can't stand you, Mr.
Mr. Wordsley nodded. He went
over to the screen that was like
a window of blessed outer night
and sank down on his knees before
Have the wish I wish tonight.
"Ah, ha!" DeCastros exclaimed
with sudden ice frozen
around the rim of his voice.
"What have we here?"
"A new nova," Mr. Wordsley
"It is common knowledge that
no engineer can tell a nova from
the D.R. blast of an Iphonian
freighter. Let me see it." He
shoved Mr. Wordsley out of the
way and examined the screen
"You fool," he said at last,
"that's a planet. It is Avis
Now the name of Avis Solis
tingled in Mr. Wordsley's unreliable
memory, but it would not
advance to be recognized. What
planet so bright, and yet so remote
from any star by angular
"Turn it off," DeCastros ordered.
Mr. Wordsley turned on him
in a sudden fury. "It's mine,"
he cried. "I found it! Go back
to your bridge." Then, aghast at
what he had said, he clapped his
hand over his mouth.
"Dear me," said Captain DeCastros
silkily. Suddenly he
seemed to go quite berserk. He
snatched a pile-bar from its rack
and swung it at the screen. The
outer panel shattered. The
screen went dead.
Mr. Wordsley grabbed at the
bar and got hold of it at the expense
of a broken finger. They
strained and tugged. The slippery
cadmium finally eluded
both of them, bounded over the
railing into the pit, struck a
nomplate far below and was
witheringly consumed in a flash
of blue flame.
Then they were down and
rolling over and over, clawing
and gouging, until Captain DeCastros
Mr. Wordsley's eyes protruded
from that unbearable weight,
and he wished that there was no
such thing as artificial gravity.
He struggled vainly. A bit of
broken glass crunched beneath
his writhing heel. He went limp
and began to sob. It was not a
very manly thing to do, but Mr.
Wordsley was exercising his
"Now then," said DeCastros,
jouncing up and down a bit. "I
trust that you have come to understand
who is master of this
ship, Mr. Wordsley?"
His addressee continued to
After awhile it occurred to
Captain DeCastros that what he
was doing was expressly forbidden
in the Rules of the Way,
Section 90-G, and might, in fact,
get him into a peck of trouble.
So he got up, helped Mr. Wordsley
to his feet, and began to
brush him off.
In a kindly voice he said, "You
must have heard of Avis Solis."
"I don't seem to remember it,"
Mr. Wordsley said.
"It's a solitaire. One of those
planets which depend upon dark,
dwarf, satellite suns for heat,
you know. It is almost always in
eclipse, and I, for one, have always
been glad of it."
"Why is that?" said Mr.
Wordsley, not really caring. His
chest was giving him considerable
"Because it holds the darkest
of memories for me. I lost a
brother on Avis Solis. Perhaps
you have heard of him. Malmsworth
DeCastros. He was quite
famous for certain geological
discoveries on Titan at one
"I don't think so."
"You need not be sorry. The
wretch was a murderer and a
bad sport as well. I need not append
that my brother and I were
as unlike as night and day—though
there is no night and day
proper upon Avis Solis, of
course. I imagine you would like
to hear the story. Then you will
undoubtedly understand how it
is that I was so upset a moment
ago by the sight of Avis Solis,
and forgive me."
Mr. Wordsley nodded. A birdlike,
"Avis Solis is a planet absolutely
unique, at least in this
galaxy. In addition to being a
solitaire, its surface is almost
solidly covered to a depth of several
meters with light-gathering
layers of crystal which give it
the brilliant, astral glow that
you saw just now. Its satellite
suns contribute hardly any light
at all. It contains ample oxygen
in its atmosphere, but hardly
any water, and so is practically
barren. An ill-advised mineralogical
expedition brought us to
"Us?" Mr. Wordsley said.
"There were six of us, five
men and a woman. A woman fine
and loyal and beautiful, with the
body of a consummate goddess
and the face of a tolerant angel.
I was astrological surveyor and
"I didn't know that you were
once a surveyor."
"It was seventeen years ago,
and none of your business besides."
"What happened then?"
"Briefly, we were prospecting
for ragnite, which was in demand
at the time. We had
already given up hopes of finding
one gram of that mineral,
but decided to make a last foray
before blasting off. My brother,
Malmsworth, stayed at our base
camp. Poor Jenny—that was her
name—remained behind to care
for Malmsworth's lame ankle."
Captain DeCastros was lost
for several minutes in a bleak
and desolate valley of introspection
wherein Mr. Wordsley
dared not intrude. There was a
certain grandeur about his great,
dark visage, his falciform nose
and meaty jowls as he stood
there. Mr. Wordsley began to
fidget and clear his throat.
DeCastros glared at him.
"They were gone when we returned.
Gone, I tell you! She, to
her death. Malmsworth—well,
we found him three hours later
in the great rift which bisects
the massive plateau that is the
most outstanding feature of the
regular surface of Avis Solis. At
the end of this rift there is a
natural cave that opens into the
sheer wall of the plateau. Within
it is a bottomless chasm. It
was here that we found certain
of Jenny's garments, but of
Jenny, naturally, there was no
trace. He had seen to that."
"Terrible," Mr. Wordsley said.
DeCastros smiled reminiscently.
"He fled, but we caught
him. He really had a lame ankle,
The mice of apprehension
scampered up and down Mr.
Wordsley's spine. "You killed
him." It was a statement of certainty.
"No, indeed. That would have
been too easy. We left him there
with one portable water-maker
and all of that unpalatable but
nourishing fungus which thrives
upon Avis Solis that he could
eat. I have no doubt that he
lived until madness reduced his
ability to feed himself."
"That was drastic," Mr.
Wordsley felt called upon to
say. "Perhaps—perhaps it occurred
to you later on that, in
charity to your brother, the er—woman
might not have been
For a moment he thought that
Captain DeCastros was about to
strike him again. He did not.
Instead he spat at Mr. Wordsley.
He had the speed of a
cobra. There was not time to get
out of the way. Mr. Wordsley
employed a handkerchief on his
"She was my wife, you know,
Mr. Wordsley," Captain DeCastros
At nineteen-over-four the contamination
their dread warning.
Mr. Wordsley got the alarm
first. He had been furtively repairing
the viewscreen and
thinking dark thoughts the
while. There was sick dread for
him in the contemplation of the
future, for after this last unfortunate
blunder DeCastros would
be certain to keep his promise
and have him examined. This
might very well be his last voyage,
and Mr. Wordsley had
known for quite a long time that
he could not live anywhere except
out here in the void.
Only in space, where the stars
were like diamonds. Not in the
light of swirling, angry, red
suns, not upon the surface of
any planet, so drab when you
drew too near. Only in the sterile
purity of remote space where
he could maintain and nourish
the essential purity of his day-dreams.
But of course one could
not explain this to the Board of
Examiners; least of all to Captain
Moreover, he was afraid that
Avis Solis, which he had been
permitted to behold for only a
few seconds, would be out of
range before he got the scanner
to working again. The aspect of
this magnificent gem diminishing
forever into the limitless
night brought a lump to his
But then, at last, the screen
came alive once more, and there
it loomed, more brilliant than
ever, now so huge that it filled
the screen, and it had not become
drab, neither gray-green or
brown. No, it was cake frosting,
and icicles, and raindrops
against the sun, and all of the
bright, unattainable Christmas
tree ornaments of his childhood.
So rapt was he that he scarcely
heard the alarm. Yet he responded
automatically to the
sound that now sent him scrambling
into his exposure suit. He
fitted one varium-protected oxy-tank
to his helmet and tucked
another one under his arm for
This was superfluous, for DeCastros
not only had donned his
rig; he had managed to recall to
memory a few dozen vile, degrading
swear words gleaned
from the sin-pits of Marronn, to
hurl at Mr. Wordsley.
No one could have helped it,
really. Ships under the Drive are
insulated from contamination
clouds and everything else in
normal space. The substance polluting
the ventilation system,
therefore, must have been trapped
within their field since
Vega. Now it had entered the
ship through some infinitesimal
opening in the hull.
It was the engineer's job to
find that break. It was not
easy, especially with DeCastros
breathing down one's neck. Mr.
Wordsley began to perspire
heavily, and the moisture ran
down and puddled in his boots.
An hour passed that was like
an age. The prognosis became
known and was not reassuring.
This was one of the toxic space
viruses, dormant at absolute
zero, but active under shipboard
conditions. A species, in fact, of
the dread, oxygen-eating dryorus,
which multiplies with explosive
rapidity, and kills upon
penetration of the human respiratory
Because of the leak in the
hull, the decontaminators could
not even hold their own. Mr.
Wordsley shuddered to note that
ominous, rust-colored cobwebs—countless
trillions of dryori—already
festooned the stringers of
Another precious hour was
taken from them. Mr. Wordsley
emerged wearily from the last
"Well?" DeCastros snapped.
"Well—well?" His face was
greenish from the effects of the
special, contamination resistant
mixture that they were breathing.
"I found the leak," Mr. Wordsley
"Did you fix it?"
"It was one of the irmium alloy
plugs in the outer hull beneath
the pile. They were
originally placed there, I believe,
for the installation of a radiation
tester. The plug is missing,
and I am sorry to say that we
have no extras. Anything other
than irmium would melt at
once, of course."
"We have less than eight
hours of pure air in the tanks,"
DeCastros said. "Have you
thought of that, you rattle-head?"
"Yes, sir," Mr. Wordsley said.
"And if I might be allowed to
speculate, Captain, I would say
that we are finished unless we
can make a planetfall. Only then
would I be able to remove the
lower port tube, weld the cavity,
seal the ship and fumigate."
"We're four weeks from the
nearest star, Fomalhaut; you
know that as well as I do."
"I was thinking," said Mr.
Wordsley, with a sudden, suffused
glow in his cheeks, "of
Mr. Wordsley shut his eyes as
they were going down, because
he wanted to open them and surprise
himself, at the moment of
landing. But the cold, white
glare was more intense than he
had expected, and he had to shut
them again and turn on the
He buckled on his tools and
the carbo-torch, and went down
the ladder. He dropped at once
to his knees, not because of the
gravity, which was not bad, but
because of a compulsion to get
his face as near to the surface
of Avis Solis as possible. It was
even lovelier than when seen
from space. He trod upon a
sea of diamonds. A million
tiny winkings and scintillations
emanated from each crystal. A
million crystals lay beneath the
sole of his boot. He would rather
not have stepped on them, but
it could not be helped. They
were everywhere. Mr. Wordsley
DeCastros dropped like a
huge slug from the ladder behind
him. "What are you doing?"
he said. "Picnicking?"
"I was tying my shoe," Mr.
Wordsley said, and got to work
with an alacrity that was wholly
The dark sun-satellites rose by
twos and threes over the horizon,
felt rather than clearly seen.
There was a dry wind that blew
from the glittering wasteland
and whistled around the base of
the rockets as Mr. Wordsley labored
on and on.
Captain DeCastros had withdrawn
to a level outcropping of
igneous rock and sat staring at
the nothing where the greenish-black
sky met the pale gray
The tube was loosened on its
shackles and presently fell, with
a tinkling sound, upon the surface
of Avis Solis. The opening
was sealed and welded. Mr.
Wordsley was practically finished,
but he did not hurry. Instead,
he went around to the
opposite side of the ship on a
pretense of inspection, and sat
down where DeCastros could
not see him.
For awhile he stared at the
many-faceted depths of the
crystals; then he leaned over and
touched them with his lips.
They were smooth and exciting.
They cut his lip.
But he had the distinct feeling
that there was something wrong
with this idyll. It seemed to him
that he was being spied upon.
He sneaked a furtive glance behind
him. DeCastros was still
sitting where he had been, with
his back to him.
Mr. Wordsley slowly lifted his
gaze to the plateau of shimmering
glass that was before him.
At its rim, a hundred feet above
him, a silent figure stood gazing
down upon him.
A man even six feet tall might
easily have frightened Mr.
Wordsley into a nervous breakdown
by staring at him with
that gaunt, hollow-eyed stare,
but this creature, though manlike,
was fully fifty feet tall, incredibly
elongated, and stark
naked. Its hair was long and
matted; its cheeks sunken, its
lips pulled back in an expression
which might have been anything
from a smile to a cannibalistic
Mr. Wordsley cried out.
Captain DeCastros heard and
came running across the intervening
distance with swiftness
incredible in one of his bulk at
this gravity. His blizzer was out.
It was one of the very latest
models of blizzers. Very destructive.
Mr. Wordsley had always
been afraid to touch it.
He fired, and part of the plateau
beneath the titan's feet fell
away in a sparkling shower. The
DeCastros was red-faced and
wheezing. "That was Malmsworth,"
he said. "Now how the
devil do you suppose he managed
to stick it out all these years!"
"If that was Malmsworth,"
Mr. Wordsley said, "he must be
a very tall man."
"That was merely dimensional
mirage. Come along. We'll have
to hurry if we catch him."
"Why do we want to catch
him?" Mr. Wordsley said.
Captain DeCastros made a
sound of sober surprise. Even of
pious wonder. "Malmsworth is
my only brother," he said.
Mr. Wordsley wanted to say,
"Yes, but you shot at him." He
did not, because there was no
time. He had to hurry to catch
up with DeCastros, who was
even now scrambling up the
From the rim they could see
Malmsworth out there on the
flat. He was making good time,
but Captain DeCastros proceeded
to demonstrate that he was
no mean hiker, himself. Mr.
Wordsley's side began to hurt,
and his breath came with difficulty.
He might have died, if he
had not feared to incur DeCastros'
At times the naked man was
a broad, flat monster upon that
shimmering tableland. Again he
seemed almost invisible; then
gigantic and tenuous.
Presently he disappeared altogether.
"Oho!" DeCastros said, "If I
am not mistaken, old Malmsworth
has holed up in that very
same rift where we caught him
at his dirty business seventeen
years ago. He's as mad as a
Martian; you can lay to that.
He'd have to be."
The rift, when they arrived at
its upper reaches, was cool and
shadowy. In its depths nothing
sparkled. It was ordinary limestone.
The walls were covered
with a dull yellow moss, except
for great, raw wounds where it
had been torn off.
"That's Malmsworth's work,"
Captain DeCastros said. "In
seventeen years, Mr. Wordsley,
one will consume a lot of moss,
I daresay. Shall we descend?"
The rift had reached its depth
quite gradually, so that Mr.
Wordsley scarcely realized that
they were going down until the
surface glare was suddenly gone,
and the green-walled gloom surrounded
them. It might have
been a pleasant place, but Mr.
Wordsley did not like it.
Captain DeCastros was taking
his time now, resting frequently.
There was not the slightest
chance of Malmsworth's getting
away, for at the other end of the
rift lay the cave and the abyss
containing, at least, one ghost
of Malmsworth's terrible past.
But though it might seem drab
after the plateau and the plain,
the rift had its points of interest.
Along the walls, everywhere,
as high as a tall man might
reach, the moss had been torn or
scraped from the surface. There
was no second growth.
Every quarter of a mile or so
they came upon the former
campsites of the castaway, each
marked by a flat-topped cairn of
small stones three or four feet
in height. DeCastros was at a
loss to explain this. Mr. Wordsley
supposed that it was one of
the marks of a diseased mind.
Not that he actually understood
the workings of a diseased
mind. Privately, he suspected
that DeCastros was a little mad.
Certainly he was subject to violent,
unreasonable tempers which
could not be explained. The unfortunate
strain might have
cropped up more strongly in his
Might not these walls have
rung with lunatic screams after
months and years of hollow-eyed
watching for the ship that never
came? It might have been different,
of course, had Malmsworth
been able to appreciate
the aesthetic values of life, as
Mr. Wordsley did. But doubtless
these lovely miles and miles of
crystalline oceans had been but
a desert to the castaway.
Eventually the rift widened a
little, and they came to a dead
end, beyond which lay the cave.
It must have been formed ages
ago by trickling waters before
Avis Solis lost its clouds and
Here they found the last of
the cairns, and the answer to
their construction. The water-maker
which the expedition had
left with Malmsworth seventeen
years ago rested upon this neat
platform, and below it a delicate
basin, eighteen inches or so in
depth, had been constructed of
stones and chinked with moss.
Fit monument for the god, machine.
It was filled with water, and
quite obviously a bathtub.
Captain DeCastros sneered.
This proved beyond doubt that
Malmsworth was mad, for in the
old days he had been the very
last to care about his bath. In
fact, DeCastros said, Malmsworth
This was probably not true,
but it seemed curious, nonetheless.
Captain DeCastros set to work
kicking the tub to pieces. He
kicked so hard that one stone
whistled past the head of Mr.
Wordsley, who ducked handily.
Soon the basin lay in rubble, and
the water-maker, its supports
collapsed, listed heavily to the
"He must be in the cave,"
Captain DeCastros said. He cupped
his hands to his mouth.
"Come out, Malmsworth, we
know you're in there!"
But there was no answer, and
Malmsworth did not come out,
so Captain DeCastros, blizzer in
hand, went in, with Mr. Wordsley
following at a cautious interval.
Presently they stood upon the
edge of something black and
yawning, but there was still no
sign of the exile, who seemed,
like Elijah, to have been called
directly to his Maker without
Beyond the gulf, however, Mr.
Wordsley had glimpsed a ragged
aperture filled with the purest
light. It seemed inconceivable to
him—attracted as he had always
been by radiance—that this
should be inaccessible.
Accordingly, he lay down
upon his belly and stretched his
hand as far down as he could
reach. His fingers brushed a level
surface which appeared to extend
outwards for two or three
feet. Gingerly he lowered himself
to this ledge and began to
feel his way along the wall. Nor
was he greatly surprised (for
hardly anything surprised Mr.
Wordsley any more) that it
neatly circumnavigated the pit
and deposited him safely upon
the other side, where he quickly
groped toward the mouth of the
cavern and stood gazing out
upon a scene that was breathtaking.
From this vantage the easily
accessible slope led to the foot
of the plateau. Beyond lay the
grandeur of Avis Solis.
Captain DeCastros was soon
beside him. "A very clever trick,
that ledge," he said. "Malmsworth
thinks to elude us, but he
never shall, eh, Mr. Wordsley?"
There were tears of frustration
in his eyes.
It embarrassed Mr. Wordsley,
who could only point to the pall
of gleaming dust where their
ship had lain, and to the silver
needle which glinted for a moment
in the sky and was gone.
"Malmsworth would not do
that to me," Captain DeCastros
But he had.
"We may be here quite a long
while," Mr. Wordsley said, and
could not contrive to sound
downhearted about it.
But Captain DeCastros had
already turned away and was
feeling his way back along the
Mr. Wordsley waited just a
moment longer; then he took
from his pocket a heavy object
and dropped it upon the slope
and it rolled over and over, down
and down, until its metallic
sheen was lost in that superior
It was a spare irmium alloy
He made his way back to the
water-maker. They would have
to take good care of it from now
He was not concerned with the
basin. However, in the soft,
damp sand beside the basin,
plainly imprinted there, as if
someone's raiding party had interrupted
party, there remained a single,
small and dainty footprint.
One could almost imagine
that a faint breath of perfume
still lingered upon the sheltered
air of the rift, but, of course,
only things which glittered interested
This etext was produced from Amazing Science Fiction Stories September
1958. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence
that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.