Turnabout may not always be fair play in the gulfs between the stars. But so
destructive and malicious are the Agronians of this story that we can readily
forgive Richard Smith for filling their ship with an unexpected reversal of a
victory technique almost too ghastly to contemplate. We have no sympathy for
them—and neither has Mr. Smith. Still, we're rather glad he decided to make
human heroism the cornerstone of a most exciting tale of conflict in space.
by ... Richard R. Smith
The Earth was enveloped in atomic fire and the ship was
a prize of war. But disaster may make victory mandatory.
The ship leaped toward the
stars, its engines roaring with a
desperate burst of energy and its
bulkheads audibly protesting the
In the control room, Emmett
Corbin listened to the screech of
tormented metal and shuddered.
The heat was suffocating, and acrid
fumes assailed his nostrils and
burned his eyes until he almost
cried out in pain.
Despite the agony, his gaze did
not waver from the video set across
the room. In the screen, Earth was
a rapidly diminishing orb, charred
and mottled with glowing atomic
Everything, a far corner of his
mind whispered. Everything on
Earth is dead!
He was a carpenter and luckily,
he had been working inside the
barricades of an Army spaceport
when the news came that the
enemy had broken through the defense
ring beyond Pluto. He had
continued nailing the cedar siding
on the building, knowing that if
he stopped his work and waited,
he would start screaming.
An MP running by the building
several minutes later had shouted
at him, urging him to board one
of the ships on the landing field.
In those last hours, they had loaded
the few remaining spaceships
as quickly as possible, ignoring the
importance of the passengers. He
reflected that many millionaires
and influential politicians were now
dead simply because they hadn't
been close enough to the spaceports
when the unexpected news
came. Watching the pilots as they
sat tense before the controls, he
felt overcome with helplessness.
The passenger on his right was
a girl—red-haired and undeniably
attractive. He remembered her
name. It was Gloria White, and
she was the daughter of Colonel
White who had led the expedition
to Venus. Her father had died
months before but his friends had
used their influence to establish
her as a secretary on the spaceport
where it was assumed she would
be comparatively safe.
He had seen her frequently but
almost always at a distance. She
had been friendly enough, but she
had never exchanged more than a
few casual words with him. He
had often paused in his work to
admire her. But now, aboard one
of the last ships to leave Earth, he
evaluated her only as another passenger.
The man on his left was dressed
expensively. His general appearance
radiated prestige although his
fleshy face was filled with disbelief
as if he were witnessing a fantastic
Rinnnng! Rinnnng! Corbin's
thoughts were interrupted by a
clamoring alarm bell declaring
by its volume and insistence that
the danger was still acute. That
bell will ring until the ship is destroyed,
he thought wildly. It
could very well mean that the ship
will be destroyed!
The pilots leaped away from the
controls as if they had abruptly
become white hot. "Rocket," one
of them screamed. "Enemy rocket
on our tail!"
Corbin turned suddenly and ran
across the room in sudden, blind
panic. "We can't shake it! Nobody
can shake one!" Mumbling incoherently,
he grabbed a spacesuit
and began to don it.
The room was suddenly a seething
mass of confusion. The pilots
distributed spacesuits and helped
passengers into them while the
cabin continued to sway and lurch.
Fear-crazed passengers ran aimlessly
in circles. Some fainted and
others were shocked into immobility.
Emmett had barely finished securing
his helmet when the ship
shook violently and he was knocked
to the floor. The lights fluttered,
then went out.
When the trembling at last subsided,
he struggled to his feet and
looked about the room. His eyes
gradually adjusted to the faint
light from the luminous paint on
the walls and he was able to make
out two shadowy figures moving
hesitantly about the wreckage.
He remained motionless as one
of the two men approached him,
reached out and adjusted the dials
on his spacesuit controls. The earphones
in his helmet blared with
a familiar voice, "Are you all
"Y-Yeah. Just a little shaken."
The man walked toward the
third passenger and presently Emmett
heard a quick, sobbing breath
through the earphones.
"Are you hurt?" the man
"No." Even under the abnormal
conditions Gloria White's calm
voice came through clearly.
They wandered aimlessly about
the room, each engrossed in his
private mental turmoil. Finally the
pilot broke the silence, "Since we're
probably the last ones alive on the
ship, we should know each other.
My name is George Hartman."
"Gloria ... Gloria White."
The pilot said with grim
urgency: "We've got to do something.
There's no sense in just
standing here—waiting for the
enemy to come."
"Come?" Emmett inquired.
"You mean that the Agronians will
actually board our ship?"
"They always examine disabled
ships. They are determined to learn
as much as they can about us."
"Well, let's get some weapons
and be ready. I'm no hero, understand.
But I agree with you that
there's no sense in just waiting."
The pilot said: "There are no
hand weapons on the ship. Our
only possible course of action
would be to hide." His emphasis
conveyed to the others how much
he disliked the thought.
"But where?" Gloria asked. "If
they make a thorough search—"
"We can't hide in the ship,"
George said, with absolute conviction.
"Our reports indicate that
they examine every square foot inside
a bombed vessel. We'll have
to conceal ourselves outside."
"We can use the magnetic shoes
on our spacesuits to walk on the
ship's hull. If luck favors us they
may never even think of searching
the forward section of the hull."
Emmett shrugged his shoulders,
not realizing that in the faint light
no one could see the gesture.
Gloria said, "It's better than making
no attempt at all to save ourselves."
George led the way from the
control room, and across a passenger
compartment that was filled
with the crumpled, lifeless forms
of almost a hundred men and
"There were no spacesuits in
this room," he explained simply.
They operated the air lock by
utilizing the emergency manual
controls, and were soon standing
on the hull of the ship. For several
seconds they remained motionless
and silent, grimly surveying their
awesome surroundings. The billions
of stars above were terrifyingly
vivid against the dark emptiness
of space. The ship's hull was
fantastically twisted and pitted, and
the enemy ship—it hovered a few
miles distant—had been transformed
into a brilliantly burning
star by the reflected sunlight.
"We've got to find cover,"
George said quickly. "If they're
watching the ship with telescopes
we'll stand out like fireflies in a
Cautiously sliding their feet
across the hull, Gloria and Emmett
followed the pilot. Presently he
pointed to a spot where a large
section of the hull had been twisted
back upon itself, forming a
deep pocket. "This should be good
enough," he said.
They followed his example as
he knelt and crawled through the
small opening. To Emmett it was
like crawling into a sardine can.
The space was barely large enough
to accommodate the three of them,
and through the spacesuit's tough
fabric, he could feel faint, shifting
pressures that indicated he was
leaning against someone's back and
sitting on someone's legs. They
shuffled about in the total darkness
until they reached a fairly comfortable
position and then crouched
in silence until light flashed all
"Look!" Gloria whispered. Emmett
stared through a narrow gash
in the metal near his head and saw
a group of Agronians approaching
the ship. The starlight, glittering
on their strange spacesuits, transformed
them into weird apparitions.
Emmett closed his eyes and
breathed a silent prayer. When he
opened them again he could see
only the unwinking stars and the
enemy ship, which was still hovering
nearby like a huge glaring eye.
"They're inside the ship analyzing
our navigational instruments,"
George said as if he could somehow
see through the solid metal.
"They're a very thorough race.
They probably know far more
about us than we know about
"What are we going to do?"
Gloria asked. "We can't just sit
here until breathing becomes a torment—"
"What can we do? There's no
place to go!" Emmett's heart had
begun a furious pounding. His
plight reminded him of how, in a
recurrent nightmare, he had often
found himself standing frozen before
an oncoming truck, his legs
immobile as he waited for death.
He had always awakened with his
heart beating furiously and his body
bathed in a cold sweat, his mind
filled with a sickening fear.
And now it was as if the nightmare
had become a reality. He was
waiting for death not in the form
of a truck, but in the regular swish
of air that tickled his ears as his
oxygen supply was purified and replenished.
Eventually the sound
would change its timbre as the
purifying agents became less efficient.
The faint sound was not as
impressive as the sight of a truck.
But he knew that in a short time
it would be just as deadly. And, as
in the nightmare, he was powerless ...
A long silence followed—broken
only by the swish of Emmett's oxygen-rejuvenating
machinery. He listened
intently and the swish grew
in volume until it became a roar
in his ears—a sound more thunderous
than that of a thousand
"There is a place where we'd be
completely safe," Gloria exclaimed,
her voice suddenly loud in his
ears. "I don't know how we could
get there. But if a way could be
"Venus?" George inquired.
"The colony your father started?"
"Yes. There are only a few colonists
there—not more than twenty-five.
The war with the Agronians
started just after the settlement was
established and the government
never had a chance to send out
more colonists. Father showed me
the approximate location—"
"The Agronians have probably
destroyed the base by now," Emmett
said. But his senses were tingling
with new hope.
Gloria shook her head. "I don't
think so. The enemy has studied
the remains of our warships but
there's a good chance that the information
never fell into their
"How do we get there? We
haven't got a ship, and we can't
"We haven't got a ship," George
agreed. "But we can try to get
Emmett felt suddenly cold when
he realized what the pilot had in
mind. "The enemy ship?" he asked.
George nodded. "During the
skirmish at Arcturus, we managed
to capture one of their ships and
I was a member of a group that
studied it. I'm sure I can fly one
of their vessels, for the controls
are far simpler than ours. Most of
the Agronians have left their ship
to study ours, and that leaves only
a skeleton crew on board. We can
use our spacesuit jets to cross the
distance. As you can see, it isn't
"And precisely what happens
when we reach their ship?"
"Who knows? Maybe we'll get
killed. But getting killed in a
struggle for survival is better than
just waiting to die."
Gloria shuddered. "It looks so
cold out there. We'll get separated—hopelessly
lost. I don't even
know how to operate the spacesuit's
"I don't either," Emmett admitted.
"It's simple." George carefully
explained the operation of the
rockets in detail and ended by instructing
them, "We'll get separated
on the way. But when we
reach the ship, we'll try to meet
at the air lock. It resembles the air
lock of an Earth ship."
Floating through space toward
the enemy ship, Emmett felt overcome
with an absurd sensation of
freedom. Completely surrounded
by billions of motionless, pin-point
stars and securely hidden by the
vast blackness of space, the aliens
and the problem of survival seemed
dream-like and unreal.
A sharp pain stabbed at his left
arm and he heard a brief hissing
sound. Oxygen was escaping from
his spacesuit. The sound abruptly
stopped when the suit automatically
sealed the puncture. And yet
the throbbing pain remained and
he felt the wetness of blood
against his flesh, seeping slowly
down his leg.
A meteor! People usually visualized
meteors as tons of metal
hurtling through space. But there
were small ones as well, and perhaps
this one had been no larger
than a grain of sand. He dismissed
it from his mind, and after what
seemed an eternity, his feet touched
the hull of the enemy ship. Quickly
he activated the magnetic boots.
A distant figure gestured as
George's voice came loudly over
the intercom system, "This way.
Here's the air lock!"
You should whisper, he thought.
It would be more fitting.
He shuffled in the indicated direction.
His legs were rubbery beneath
him and there was a growing
tingling sensation in his left arm.
It was just barely possible that he
was bleeding to death. And encased
as he was in the spacesuit, it
would be impossible for him to
treat the wound.
If they reached the colony on
Venus he would receive medical
attention, of course. But they must
first overpower the ship's crew, and
it would take approximately two
hours to reach the colony. Could he
hold out that long?
He didn't know.
George knelt and carefully examined
the rectangular outline in
the metal beneath their feet. "It's
only a sort of button," he said. "It
could be a device that opens the
lock by means of a code sequence—or
it could be a signal to notify
those inside to open the lock."
"What should we do?" Gloria
Instead of replying, George
pushed the button firmly. The section
of hull beneath them instantly
dropped several feet. Emmett
looked up in time to see an outer
air-lock panel swiftly blot out the
Brief seconds later, the compartment
was filled with a brilliant
light and tiny nozzles in the ceiling
sprayed a bluish gas about them.
Gloria leapt quickly to one side.
"What's that?" she asked, in alarm.
"It's the Agronian atmosphere,"
George said. "Although their locks
are mechanically different, the
principle behind them is the same
"It's a strange-looking atmosphere,"
Emmett remarked. The
pain in his arm and the numbness
that was gradually spreading
throughout his body had relaxed
his mind. He felt so physically detached
from his surroundings that
he could look at the fog-like gas
that swirled about them with interest
rather than concern.
"It's poisonous," George said.
"We managed to analyze some.
One breath is enough to kill a human—"
An inner door abruptly glided
to one side and George leaped into
the room beyond. Emmett followed
as quickly as possible, although he
felt sleepy and his every action
seemed a study in slow motion.
Except for the level expanse of
the floor, the room before them
was entirely alien. The thick atmosphere
swirled eerily. The control
board was recognizable as
such, but being adapted for tentacles
instead of human hands, it
appeared to be a meaningless maze
of equipment. Strange, angular devices
lined the walls and hung from
the low ceiling on thin wires. As
Emmett scanned the odd artifacts,
he could understand only one—a
group of web-like hammocks that
were obviously used by the aliens
to sleep in.
Two Agronians stood before the
large control board at the far side
of the room. It was the first time
Emmett had seen the enemy other
than in pictures and the sight of
the thousands of snakelike, wriggling
antennae nauseated him.
George hesitated briefly and
then ran toward the Agronians.
Again Emmett followed the pilot's
lead. One of the creatures aimed a
weapon before George had crossed
half the distance and Gloria's shrill
scream of warning brought him up
short. But before the weapon could
be discharged, the other Agronian
viciously flung a tentacle and sent
it spinning from his companion's
George leaped at the nearest
Agronian but the creature easily
eluded him. He made another attempt
and failed again.
The man and the alien cautiously
surveyed each other.
"They're too fast for us," George
admitted. His voice was filled with
the bitterness of defeat and his
shoulders sagged visibly.
"Do something!" Gloria screamed.
"Do something before the
others come back!"
Emmett glanced apprehensively
at the air lock. She was right. At
the moment they outnumbered the
enemy, but when the others returned
the Agronians could overpower
them by sheer weight of
number. And they could return
without warning, at any instant.
"Why did one prevent the other
from killing us?" George asked.
"He may have been afraid the
other would miss and damage the
ship," Emmett said. "Or possibly—"
"No. They're trained from birth
to be soldiers. They're expert
marksmen and their weapons are
foolproof. They can adjust the
blast from a weapon to travel any
"Why should one enemy prevent
another from killing us?" Emmett
repeated wonderingly. He remembered
another question that had
nagged at his mind: Why had the
Agronians totally destroyed Earth?
Why hadn't they eliminated Earthmen
and preserved the planet for
exploitation—as a colony, a military
base, any one of a thousand
There was only one possible answer.
A race might destroy a planet
if it was useless. Earthmen had
discovered useless planets, planets
with poisonous atmospheres. Was
Earth's atmosphere poisonous to
One Agronian had prevented another
from killing them with a
viciousness and an urgency that
indicated it had been a life-and-death
Why? What would happen if
they were to die?
Something clicked in his mind
and a startling certainty occurred
to him. Oxygen was poisonous to
That was why his life had been
spared. And the pilot's—and
Gloria's. Their spacesuits would
have been punctured and their
oxygen supply would have spread
with deadly rapidity throughout the
Without hesitation he removed
his helmet and adjusted the controls
of his oxygenating machine
until it was discharging oxygen at
With a shrill outcry the two
aliens darted toward him. But a
thin, ghostly vapor of oxygen
spread rapidly through the fog-like
atmosphere, and halted them
in their tracks.
"You deserve to die," Emmett
The enemy collapsed at his feet
and writhed helplessly on the floor.
Their bodies quivered spasmodically
and were still.
Gloria's hysterical, joyous laughter
rang in his ears like triumphant
bells, and through the Agronian
atmosphere that burned his face
and smarted his eyes he dimly saw
George's image as he rushed to
the control board. He held his
breath but realized that his death
was certain. He could never hold
his breath long enough to replace
the helmet and wait for the purifying
agents to cleanse the poison
that now filled his spacesuit.
When he could hold his breath
no longer, he inhaled quickly and
It was like inhaling a warm, comforting
This etext was produced from Fantastic Universe November 1956.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
typographical errors have been corrected without note.