The Project Gutenberg eBook of The night of no moon by H. B. Fyfe

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Title: The night of no moon

Author: H. B. Fyfe

Release Date: August 31, 2023 [eBook #71530]

Language: English

Credits: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at


The Night of No Moon


Illustrated by ORBAN

A rough planet, Boyd III—where survival of the
fittest gave way to survival of the worst tempered!

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Infinity June 1957.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

The main trouble with the planet Boyd III was one satellite too many.

Had there been no third moon, large and close, the tides might have been less confused and the weather more predictable. Certain peaks of atmospheric wildness, recurrent coastal catastrophes, logical but distressing customs of the natives—lack of these factors would have made Boyd III a much more attractive world.

The same lack, however, would not have tempted Pete Guthrie to survey such conditions from the surface of the planet as part of his exploratory and mapping duties. But it was too late now to be sorry he had not secured his rocket properly against the incredible tides of the shoreline he had rashly chosen for a landing.

He mentioned this, for about the hundredth time, to Polf.

"Huh! Cables! Braces! No matter when wind-spirits want you," retorted the local humanoid, darting a cowed glance at the sky from beneath his heavy brow-ridge. "They want you stay, we will keep you."

"And I'll be stuck with you forever! Don't you have to make a living?"

"I am appointed. Like Retho, who sleeps at your door in the nights."

Guthrie scowled and examined the sky. It was a clear blue. One of the moons, named Jhux, was a yellow-white disk, faintly blurred at the edge by its thin envelope of air. The spacer wished he had remained on Jhux to do his observing. With an oxygen mask, a man could be fairly comfortable there.

The clear blue sky above him, on the other hand, would be a fearsome sight in a month or so when the storms closed in.

"It is good some spoke for you," said Polf, nodding in quiet satisfaction.

Guthrie frowned at him. Every so often, his companion's thought pattern eluded him. The Skirkhi, as they named themselves, used a typically developed humanoid language, and he had managed to learn enough for communication. It was the way they thought that baffled him.

"Last season was not as bad as some," continued Polf, staring over the flat plain from their trifling eminence on the hill. "Elders say living will be hard this storm. It is a time of heat."

Guthrie also stared off into the distance, toward the seacoast beyond the plain. He tried to show no expression, for he suspected that these people were cunning at reading faces.

His looks, to be sure, must be a handicap to them. He was long and lean of face where they tended to be round and pudgy. His reddish hair and blue eyes were certainly outside their experience, for they had aroused much frightened comment when he had first been discovered near his landing site.

He turned his head slowly to study Polf. The Skirkh crouched with bowed legs folded under him and his big head thrust forward. His profile was flat against the blue sky, for his nose was a wide-nostriled snout. The eyes that gazed moodily at the horizon were black glints between brow and cheek ridges.

The lower part of the native's face, though the chin receded, completed the design of blunt, durable strength. It symbolized, Guthrie reflected, Skirkhi life. The delicate had simply not survived on this world.

On the other hand, Polf was not very large compared to the Terran. Guthrie guessed him to be an inch or two over five feet, although his squat, straddling stance made the estimate a rough one.

I wouldn't have much trouble with him, Guthrie thought. Of course, the whole gang would be something else....

The village of two hundred was part of a tribe of six or seven times that number. There were other tribes in surrounding areas, but Guthrie had learned little about them. The Skirkhi said they were evil people. He assumed that that meant they treated prisoners with the same eager cruelty he had seen his captors display.

I should complain! he reproved himself. If not them, it might have been me. I wonder when the Service will check about the reports I'm not sending?

"Gaah!" exclaimed Polf, springing half erect and assuming a bare-toothed posture of defense.

His naturally tan face flushed to an alarming coppery hue, a process Guthrie had previously observed when village arguments came to blows.

The flaring light streaked deliberately across the sky, pulsing repeatedly, and descended in a direction Guthrie fancied was southeast.

He realized that he, too, had risen at the sight. He turned to follow the vapor trail in the sky, and noticed that the lower end wavered erratically.

"That's no meteor!" he muttered. "But look at the knot-heads! If they land that way, they'll spread like a ton of boiling butter and I'll never get away!"

He realized that Polf had scampered back after a few steps downhill, and was now crouched at Guthrie's feet more like an animal than a man. The Skirkh uttered a sound between a snarl and a whimper.

"Get up, Polf!" said Guthrie. "It's a spaceship. I told you what mine was like. Go tell the elders! They will think well of the bearer of such news."

Polf bobbed his thick head and took a step downhill. Then duty halted him.

"Oh, all right; I'll come with you," sighed Guthrie. "Maybe they'll appoint us to lead the search if you tell them there will be other Terrans."

He hoped that there would be other live Terrans. Even more, he hoped that their ship would be in good condition. He was good and tired of Boyd III.

Two days later, about noon, a sound of excited voices approaching roused Guthrie and his shadow, neither of whom had been permitted to join the search. They sat up, where they had been sunning themselves on the roof of their house.

"They're back," exclaimed Guthrie, poking Polf eagerly.

Then, as he caught sight of two taller figures with the search party, he slid down from the roof and started to run as soon as he hit the ground.

Polf let out a squeak and tumbled in pursuit. By the time Guthrie and his shadow reached the end of the single, irregular street boasted by the village, the new arrivals had been surrounded by half of the population.

At first, Guthrie found his approach deliberately blocked by several of the village elders.

"What do you fear in this moment?" he snarled in Skirkhi, as he shoved his way through the inner ranks. "Who else will tell you what they say?"

He managed to jab old Kilki on the side of his thick skull with one elbow, a limited satisfaction because Kilki ranked only about fourth in the Council of Elders. Guthrie wished he could get at Thyggar, who had ruled that he be kept inside one of the cramped stone huts for several weeks following his capture.

Kilki rubbed the knobby side of his head philosophically and said, "How we know they are not good spirits called to steal you back to the sky, Gut'rie?"

"Huh!" snorted the Terran, pointing to the disheveled pair with the search party. "They don't look like good spirits to me!"

"That is what you say," grunted Kilki. "Maybe we burn—then be sure!"

The man was Guthrie's height or an inch taller, and broad of shoulder. He had a strong face with bold, regular features slightly spoiled by a thick stub of a nose. High cheekbones gave his eyes a masked expression. Though sweat-darkened, his hair appeared to be blond and wavy.

The girl did not stare at Guthrie with the same blend of irritation and expectancy. Instead, her gray eyes shone with a trusting relief that caused the spacer to grimace uncomfortably. He thought she was probably pretty, if a trifle thin, but could not be sure. Somewhere on the way—he guessed in the marsh about a mile south of the village—she had fallen flat in the mud.

"Who'n'ell are these monkeys?" demanded the man. "I couldn't get anything out of them except signals to go faster."

He almost succeeded in controlling a querulous note in his voice by trying to assume the buddy-to-buddy tone of one Terran discussing with another the universal peculiarity of aborigines. He watched Guthrie carefully.

"What did you come down in?" asked the latter abruptly.

The other stared. The girl, who had been sagging wearily against the stocky form of the nearest Skirkh, straightened up with a hurt look.

"It was an emergency rocket of the Mount Pico. Mr. Trent piloted it down here after the others ... passed on ... from their burns—"

"Explosion and fire just before we were to pass this system on the way to Altair," explained Trent rapidly. He had retreated from hope to a worried expression. "I don't know what did it; they braked from interstellar drive to give the rockets a chance at these planets. It all went pretty fast."

"Then there's no ship to pick us up from this mudball?"

Trent glanced at the jostling Skirkhi, then at Guthrie. His brow furrowed.

"Well, of course the government and the spaceline will send ships to search this volume of space. I think the crew got off a message...."

"Aw, hell!" grunted Guthrie contemptuously.

Trent's voice trailed off. Then, ignoring Guthrie's scowl, he tried to pick up where he had left off.

"... but I thought, perhaps ... couldn't you send a message about us?"

Guthrie regarded the crowd of Skirkhi, who gaped back with gleaming eyes and hanging jaws. Old Thyggar raised a thick, four-fingered hand at him and demanded, "What do they say?"

"Later, Old One," retorted Guthrie, turning to look at the girl.

"Oh—this is Miss Norsund," Trent explained. "Listen, if you don't want to send a message, couldn't you have some of these people guide us?"

"First," said Guthrie, "travel is dangerous. You might get eaten or made into window-flaps. Secondly, I don't know where they could guide you to."

He let them absorb that, then went on.

"And I can't send any message because I don't know the right spells and incantations to summon any good spirits to carry the message."

Trent and Miss Norsund began to develop glassy stares.

"And finally," growled Guthrie, "they won't let me send a spirit message because they're saving me for the first night with no moon!"

A subdued chattering sprang up among the Skirkhi when they heard his voice rise to a shout. Guthrie controlled his accumulated frustration with an effort. Meeting the girl's shocked glance, he felt a twinge, and knew he had better stop.

"Are they good spirits?" demanded old Thyggar impatiently.

"Ask them, Old One!" said Guthrie, turning on his heel.

He seized the unguarded moment to jab the heel of his hand under the short chin of the nearest Skirkh, propelling the latter against his fellows. Through the narrow way thus cleared, the spacer stalked out of the crowd.

"Thyggar wear sour look," mumbled Polf, trotting doggedly at his heels.

He sounded more respectful than at any time during the day. Guthrie reminded himself to watch out. He seemed to be earning too much admiration; it might be wiser to slack off before it drew retaliation. Through experience, he was learning to keep the score even, but....

Polf somehow managed to trip him as he turned into the doorway of the house assigned to him. He plunged through the low, dark entrance head first, displacing a crude but sturdy bench someone had left in the way.

"Your father was undoubtedly a good spirit who stole your mother's wits with a dream of soft summers," said Guthrie, sitting up just in time to thrust a boot between Polf's ankles.

The Skirkh sprawled in his turn upon the hard-packed floor. The two of them sat there for a long moment, raising both palms in the ritual gesture to the sky spirits and glaring at each other in mutual respect.

On the second morning after the arrival of Trent and Miss Norsund, Guthrie judged the time ripe for a longer talk.

When he and Polf approached the hut in which the newcomers were quartered, signs of obstructionism appeared; but the spacer sneered them down. By the time he found himself seated on the ground facing Trent and the girl, the onlookers had been reduced to Polf and a trio of glum guards. The former seemed to take pleasure in his comrades' loss of face.

"Sorry I took so long," Guthrie apologized. "There's a certain act you have to put on around here. They been treating you all right?"

He looked at the girl as he spoke, reflecting that a little cleaning up had improved her immeasurably. With the mud off, she displayed a glowing complexion and a headful of chestnut curls; and Guthrie was no longer sure she was too thin. He determined to check the first time she stood up in the short, borrowed dress of Skirkhi leather.

"Look here, Guthrie—that is your name, isn't it?" Trent asked peevishly.

"That's right. Pete Guthrie, currently employed, I hope, by the Galactic Survey. And you two are Trent and Norsund?"

"George Trent and Karen Norsund, yes. But what I want to say is that we find your attitude very strange. How can we expect co-operation from the natives if you throw your weight around the way you do?"

"And what," asked Karen Norsund, turning her big gray eyes on Guthrie, "was that remark about the natives saving you from something?"

"It's for something. I think I'd better tell you the local superstitions."

"If you don't mind," Trent interrupted, "I'd rather know how far it is to a Terran settlement. We tried to treat the crowd like humans after you left, but we'd prefer not to stay here until a rescue ship arrives."

"As far as I know," said Guthrie, "we are the only Terrans on this planet."

He watched that sink in for a few moments, then explained how the system had fallen within the volume of space allotted to him for general survey, how it had never before aroused any great interest beyond being noted in the Galactic Atlas for the benefit of space travelers in just such a situation as theirs.

"I hope your rocket is in good shape," he finished. "Did you land well?"

"Oh ... well enough," said Trent. "What about it? Why not stay here until we think a rescue ship is near, then go back and televise for help?"

"It's not that easy," said Guthrie. "If this ship we're hoping for stops to scout for other survivors, we'll be in a real unhealthy situation."

They looked puzzled.

"The seasons here," he explained, "tend to wild extremes. They have tidal waves you wouldn't believe. In a few weeks, the storms will begin and the Skirkhi will go to the hills to dig in. It's a bad time to be caught in the open."

"Oh, come, man!" Trent snapped. "We shouldn't be here that long."

"It's only two or three weeks. The trouble is that on a certain night shortly before they leave the village to the mercy of the sky spirits, the Skirkhi have a nasty custom—"

"I don't care about your low opinion of the local customs," interrupted Trent. "From what I've seen of you, Guthrie, it is obvious that you are not the sort to represent Terra on the frontiers. Just tell me—if you can't get along with the natives like a civilized being, where do you expect to get?"

"Up to Jhux," said Guthrie.


"Jhux, the largest moon. It has a thin atmosphere. We could pump enough air into your rocket to live on, and wait to signal any approaching ship."

"But why go to all that trouble?"

"Besides," Karen Norsund put in, "I think I've had enough travel in a small rocket for the time being."

"It'll be better than the hurricanes here," Guthrie sighed. "Now, if you'll just let me finish about the Skirkhi—"

Trent screwed up his face in exasperation until his eyes were slits above his cheekbones. He shrugged to Karen in a way that turned Guthrie's neck red.

"All right!" the latter choked out. "You seem to want to make me look narrow-minded! Wait till you know the Skirkhi! They believe very seriously in these sky spirits. They try to buy them off, to save the village and their own skins—and they pay in blood!"

He waited for the shocked exclamations, the suspicion, then the exchange of glances that agreed to further consideration.

"Until you two came along, I was the goat. Now there are three of us to choose from, but your rocket gives us the means to make a run for it."

They thought that over for a few minutes.

"How do you know they won't ... use ... all three of us?" shuddered Karen.

"The Skirkhi have learned to be frugal. They'll save something for next season. Otherwise, they'd have to raid some other tribe or elect one of them."

"But, before then, either a rescue ship or one from the Survey will have arrived, don't you think?" suggested Trent.

"What are you getting at?"

"Well ... this: assuming that you are not exaggerating your distrust of the natives, if they actually feel it necessary to ... er ... sacrifice to these sky spirits, that will still leave the remaining two of us a good chance."

Guthrie wiped a hand slowly over his face. He glanced out of the corner of his eye at Polf and the Skirkhi guards, wondering if they could guess the drift of the conversation.

"And what will your next idea be?" he demanded bitterly. "Want us to draw straws to see which of us goes out and commits hara-kiri for them?"

"Now, now! We must be realistic. After all, nothing serious may come of this. Merely because you and the natives share a mutual antipathy—"

"You make me sick!" growled Guthrie, rising to his feet.

"I don't know what you mean."

"But I know what you're figuring," said the spacer. "The excuse will be that you're willing to take your chance with the Skirkhi choice, or that you don't want to stir up trouble because of the girl; but actually you think I'm the natural candidate!"

"Mr. Guthrie!" exclaimed Karen, jumping up.

"Pardon me! I have to go and commune with the spirits of the sky!"

He pivoted toward the street and bounced off one of the guards who had crept closer to eavesdrop. Automatically, he shoved the Skirkh into the wall.

Behind him, he heard a muttered curse in Skirkhi, then another thud as a thick skull clunked yet again into the wall. He deduced that Polf was following both his footsteps and his example.

They walked out toward the hill where he and Polf had sat the day the rocket had flared down from the sky. Two pale crescents hovered on the horizon.

"There will still be Yiv in the night," muttered Polf, "but soon he will follow Jhux and there will be no moon. Then come storms."

Guthrie recalled his surprise at the natives' awareness of Yiv, a small satellite whose distance made it appear merely an enormous star. He had noted it from space, but they must have realized its nature from regular observation.

They walked a few minutes, when Polf peered slyly at him.

"I think these sky ones good spirits, not like you."

"What do you mean?" asked the other suspiciously.

"When in hard talk, you get red in face almost like human. They not. The she-spirit a little, yes. But the other ... I think he is best spirit of all!"

"Aw, what do you know about Terrans?" demanded Guthrie uncertainly.

"What are Terrans?" Polf leered at the effort to take him in by a trick name. "You, Gut'rie, you act like us. You learn fear evil spirits like smart man. Maybe was trick of good ones—send you here so we make mistake."

Guthrie stared down at the stocky Skirkh, trying to follow that chain of thought and wondering how many in the village would find it logical.

Most of them, I'm afraid, he thought. I wonder ... what if I just kept quiet and let him dig his own grave? If I read Trent right, he'll do it!

They sat for a while on the crest of the low hill, in the warmth of the sun. Polf seemed not to mind Guthrie's brooding. Patience was a Skirkhi forte. At times, the spacer pitied the natives, with their harsh and precarious life.

Maybe something could be done here, he reflected. A good, thorough survey would tell. After all, G. S. engineers have controlled temperatures on some planets by diverting a few ocean currents. And there's cloud-seeding....

"Huh!" he grunted. "Already thinking as if I were safe on Jhux."

He began to question Polf as to what the search party had reported, and derived a good idea of the route to the rocket. Tortuous details of Skirkhi trail directions baffled him every few minutes, so that it was twilight before he was satisfied that he could find the craft on his own. With Polf trailing, he strolled thoughtfully to his quarters, bracing for supper of fish or lizard.

At intervals during the next three days, he saw the new couple about the village. Trent, especially, did not seem eager to speak to him, and they were always accompanied by at least one Skirkhi couple.

In a moment of relaxation, Guthrie permitted himself to observe Karen with pleasure, when she appeared in her own clothes. With the mud washed out, it became apparent that she had been wearing a smart pair of lounging pajamas when interrupted by the spaceliner's alarm.

Trent had also cleaned his sport shirt and baggy slacks, and now went about making himself buoyantly pleasant to the natives. Once or twice, turning away from this spectacle with a frown, Guthrie chanced to encounter the black, analytical stare of old Thyggar. A sardonic grin quirked the elder's wide mouth.

"Retho tell me Trent learn speak Skirkhi fast," Polf reported, glittering eyes nearly hidden by the contortion that passed for a smile on Skirkhi faces, "so he can tell what a good man he is. He says is kind. He says is friend. You would laugh, Gut'rie—he call you names!"

"So will he laugh," growled Guthrie, "on the other side of his face. He's begging for it, all right."

He chewed his lip for a moment, then shrugged. With a nod to Polf, he started down the street to the huts assigned to Trent and Karen. He found the girl behind the squat stone house, doing her best to comb out a mop of freshly washed chestnut hair.

"You'd do better to leave some mud in it," he advised her.

This drew a hard gray stare. Guthrie turned to Polf.

"Can't you do something with this one sitting beside her?" he demanded.

Polf grinned, showing a sturdy set of broad teeth.

"It would be like sacrifice to those who sent down these others," he said. "Last night, when leaving Retho at your door, I kill chivah lizard in street. With club. But was only a little blood and we are full of thanks."

After a few minutes of conversation under the glowering gaze of the Terran girl, he enticed the Skirkhi woman around the corner toward the entrance of the hut. Guthrie turned to Karen.

"Listen!" he said urgently. "What is this I hear about Trent going around like a cock-eyed good-will ambassador?"

"I can't help what he does," Karen said defensively. She had trouble meeting his eye. "I told him I didn't think he should talk that way, but he said ... well ... that you—"

"I can imagine," said Guthrie. "Well, he'd better stop it, and not on my account. This is a queer, dangerous place."

He took a few steps to the corner of the hut, to check that the space between adjoining houses was empty of spies. The guards loitered in the street.

"It may sound strange," he continued, "but it makes a distorted kind of sense for people who live on a planet like Boyd III—this belief in sky spirits. I told you about the bad season, I think, and the uproar raised by coinciding tides."

Karen, having brushed her hair into some sort of order, eyed him watchfully.

"I would expect them to protect themselves from the rains," she remarked.

"Rains!" snorted Guthrie. "You don't know! Hurricanes! Tidal waves! Floods! They lose people every storm. This is a very bad place to live. So what do you suppose they worship?"

"Sky spirits, you keep telling me."

"Yes," he said, lowering his voice instinctively. "But not good ones, naturally—spirits of evil."

Karen looked at him sidelong and clucked her tongue.

"It's not funny; it's perfectly logical. They spend their lives one jump ahead of freezing or drowning. Their world's against them. Other savage races have figured it that way, even on Terra."

"All right, it's logical. What has it to do with us?"

"It has this to do," said Guthrie. "That clown, Trent, is going around making friends like a puppy. He's cutting his own throat, an' I'd bet he thinks he's cutting mine. But you don't think they'd sacrifice a bad person, do you?"

The thought penetrated, and she rose slowly to her feet. He reached out to her shoulders and gave her a little shake.

"The Skirkhi spend weeks before the stormy season making sure the evil spirits notice what nasty people they are. Like Terran kids before Christmas, in reverse. And there's that apple-polisher making a gilded saint of himself while the natives are spitting in their friends' faces and trying to steal their wives or cheat old Thyggar on their taxes."

The girl stared at him in horror. The flesh of her shoulders was soft but firm under his fingers. He suddenly wished there were no Skirkhi hanging about.

Suddenly, Karen's gray eyes widened with a new wariness.

"Let go!" she ordered.

"Maybe I shouldn't," Guthrie teased her. "Maybe I ought to let the Skirkhi see that you have claws. It would help your reputation here."

She began to struggle, and he had a hard time holding her but somehow hated to let go. He was conscious of a padding of feet in the alleyway as a couple of guards drifted in from the street.

Karen tried kicking him in the shin, then wound the fingers of one hand in his hair and yanked. Guthrie, who had by then clasped both hands in the small of her back, let go with his left to grab her wrist.

Immediately, the nails of her other hand raked past his right eye.

He muttered a curse, let go completely as he felt a sudden fury well up in him, then grabbed a handful of her long hair in his left hand. He half raised his other hand, undecided whether to slap or let her go. She screwed up her face and tried to turn away.

"Guthrie!" shouted a man's voice.

Trent ran between the huts, trailed by a score of Skirkhi.

Well, this ought to be it, thought Guthrie, releasing the girl. He can't let this pass. I suppose I have a poke in the snoot coming.

Trent hauled Karen aside protectively, frowning at Guthrie. The latter stood with his hands waist-high, shoulders slightly forward, waiting. Watching Trent's eyes, he saw them flicker toward the expectant Skirkhi.

"I realize that there can be only one explanation, Guthrie," said the other, "but this is obviously neither the time nor place to argue it."

"I didn't offer any explanation," said Guthrie, ashamed but irritated.

"We are being observed," Trent reminded. "Show a little Terran dignity!"

He raised his chin with dignity and Guthrie punched it as hard as he could.

Thinking it over later, he realized that he had entirely wasted the quick feint with his left. Trent was still posing as a saint when Guthrie's fist sent him flying into the solid stone and clay wall of the house behind him.

The spacer stared at Trent as the man slid limply down the wall to a sitting position. He flexed his numbed fingers thoughtfully, as Trent peered glassily up at him without seeming to know where he was.

Karen slipped behind a rank of thick-shouldered Skirkhi as a hum of comment began to rise from the gathering. Guthrie turned and pushed his way through to the street. Out of habit, he took the direction to his quarters, vaguely aware that Polf had reappeared to follow him.

Disgusted with himself, he tried to see Karen's side of it.

It must have looked just wonderful! he told himself. I think I might have really tried it—guess she saw that in my face, so I can't blame her for ducking. How could I? This place is getting me. Pretty soon, I'll be a first-class Skirkh!

He kicked moodily at the dust outside his doorway, then climbed the projecting stones at the corner. Polf grunted and followed him up to the roof.

"He is too good," said the Skirkh. "It will be easy. I will do it for you with Retho. My brother, Kror, will come too."

"Do what?" asked Guthrie.

"Steal his woman for you tonight. It will be a bad thing to do and the best time to do it. Elders say no moon tonight."

"But what makes you think—?"

"Your face. Do not say to Polf you not want. And if you not admit she is his woman, it is not bad enough a thing to do."

"You don't understand, Polf," said the spacer. "I couldn't ... that is, it's not the same for me...." My God! he thought. I'm beginning to sound like Trent!

"The storms come," murmured Polf. "You want the wrong spirits for friends? If it is tonight, elders stay with Trent. Will be easy."

"Won't you have to be there? And your friends?"

"Gah!" exclaimed Polf. "Whole dumb village be there. What better time to do bigger spirit work? You want Thyggar steal her first?"

Guthrie sat up abruptly, and almost slid from the roof.

"Well, why not?" he muttered after a moment. "She must have warned Trent by now. If he can't think of a way out, I'd better save what can be saved. That was his own idea. I can't help it if he wouldn't listen to me."

It did not sound quite right to him, but time was running out. The thought of being transformed lingeringly into a few pounds of hacked and burnt meat crossed his mind once again, and he could feel himself beginning to sweat. He glanced over his shoulder at the broad, expectant face.

"All right," he whispered. "Tell Retho and your brother."

What else can I do? he asked himself. If it has to be one of us—

Later, he tried to convince himself that he could sleep for a few hours.

Still later, following Polf down the torch-lit street, trying to look nonchalant before the unusual gathering of Skirkhi, he asked himself again, What else can I do? He avoided the amused glint in old Thyggar's eyes.

The doing drove out the thought, and it was some hours before it occurred to him again. When it did, he was stumbling up a pitch-black slope miles to the south of the village.

Behind him, he could hear the sounds of panting and of dragging footsteps as Karen, Polf, and two other Skirkhi followed. The slope leveled off to a plateau. Something too big and solid to be a tree loomed up against the horizon.

"There it is!" Guthrie gasped.

The darkness was relieved only slightly by the stars, but there was no mistaking that silhouette. Guthrie stumbled the last hundred yards and came to a halt beside one big fin.

He stretched out a hand and accounted for the others by touch as they arrived. The rocket was canted slightly because one of the fins had sunk a little way into the ground, and the hatch half-way up the hull had been left open with the exit ladder extended to the surface.

"We'd better catch our wind before trying to climb up," he said.

He knelt on the grassy ground and rolled wearily over to a sitting position.

"How could I do it?" he murmured.

"What? You speak wrong talk, Gut'rie," panted Polf. "Like you talk to the good one before they start celebration. What you say to fool him?"

"What does he say?" whispered Karen anxiously.

"Wants to know what I said to Trent," he answered, tugging the frayed cuff of his trousers away from his leg. He seemed to be mud to the knees.

"When you came along as he was getting ready for the ceremony? You told him to dump the fancy costume and run for it."

"I did?" mused Guthrie. "Yes, I forgot. Well, he wouldn't listen, would he?"

"No, and he wanted me to go with him. You got mad because he thought they were taking him into the tribe."

"He's being taken, all right," muttered Guthrie. "There's no moon up yet."

He crawled to his feet and groped through the dark to the ladder.

"What are you doing?" asked Karen.

"Gonna take a look. Hope there's fuel to bounce her off this mudball."

He told Polf of his intention and began to climb. The metal rungs were cold. Reaching the open airlock, he swung himself inside the cramped chamber and closed the outer hatch in order to open the inner. Lights came on automatically.

He found a shorter ladder inside and climbed up to the passenger compartment. There were padded seats for about two dozen people, well packed, but they had swung to an upright position for landing. Guthrie climbed them to the pilot's position, where he seated himself to look over the instruments.

"Whew!" he exclaimed. "This can has just enough to get along on."

After noting the amount of fuel left in the tanks, he searched the drawers of the little control desk for information. He discovered a booklet of data on the rocket and a set of simple charts. To these, he added his memory of the mass calculated for Boyd III back when he had facilities for such work.

"We ought to get off okay," he told himself. "My God! A hand-crank calculator—they don't waste power in these things! Well ... later."

There was power provided, he saw, for "beacon" and "auto. radio" as well as for a few essentials like ventilation. A distress call could be broadcast automatically, at intervals regulated to economize on power, and the same could be done with the beacon. He looked up details in the booklet. The rocket possessed, at least, means to make a loud noise and show a bright light if any rescuer should approach. It remained for them to take it where these could be effective.

He went to work calculating firing data to blast the rocket into a course for Jhux. His figures lacked the polish he might have obtained in his own ship, but anything would have to do in this pinch.

"Maybe I ought to figure a closed orbit," he muttered. "Once up, we can pick the right time to edge out to Jhux ... maybe put out a few signals first."

He stared reflectively at his arithmetic, chin in hand.

After several minutes, he leaned back and thought, Pete, my boy, maybe you won't have to do it after all! There might just be an out if there's still time.

He grabbed up the pencil he had been using and feverishly undertook another course calculation. In the end, after making a few corrections and comparing the requirements with the fuel gauges, he decided it would be possible.

"Now, let's see ... how do I get a distress call taped and set for broadcast...?"

When he scrambled down the ladder a little later, he brought a flashlight with him. Karen squinted and the three Skirkhi cringed in its beam.

"Polf, how long till day?" Guthrie demanded.

Polf found enough voice to guess that a third of the night remained.

Guthrie reached up and strained to unhook the ladder. As it came loose, he let it fall and said, "Let's get out of here before the jets light!"

"What are you doing?" protested the girl, grabbing his arm.

"Sending it up on automatic to broadcast a distress call."

"But I thought—"

"Well, I thought of a better one," snapped Guthrie. In Skirkhi, he added, "Move your feet, worms, before we become a burning sacrifice!"

Shoving the natives ahead and towing a Karen whose voice showed signs of turning shrill, he got the group over the crest of the hill in plenty of time before the sky flared and thundered with the sudden roar of rockets.

The horrid noise departed toward the upper atmosphere. Presently, Guthrie's eyes readjusted to the dark until he could make out the trees through which they had groped and bumped heads an hour earlier.

"Might as well start," he said. "We might make it back in time for lunch."

"But the rocket!" wailed Karen. "After that awful trip to find it!"

"I set the controls," he explained, "to blast it up into an orbit around the planet, where it can broadcast our location until we're picked up."

"Oh," said Karen. "Well, I hope you can handle your friends till then."

"We should be able to see it in a little while. I set the controls to flop it over when it's high enough and send it around east to west."


"So it will match the apparent motions of the moons."

Karen walked perhaps twenty steps in silence, then stopped dead.

"Guthrie! Do you really mean we can see it?"

"Sure. I did it a bit roughly, but I'm hoping for under two thousand miles and two or three periods a night. Even when it isn't catching any sunlight, that beacon ought to show. Dimmer than Yiv, maybe, but moving and easy to spot."

With the flashlight, making their way through the woods took less time. They were half-way across a grassy plain when Polf exclaimed and pointed to the sky. Guthrie whooped.

"There's a moon for tonight!" he yelled. "And every night, for quite some time, until the pulls of the real ones spoil its orbit."

He felt so good that he threw an arm about Karen's waist. It must have felt good to her, too, for instead of pulling away, she leaned closer.

"They'll wait now, won't they?" she asked. "I mean, unless there's no moon.... Wait till George finds out what you've done for him!"

"I don't know why I'm so good to him when I like the Skirkhi better," said Guthrie. "Of course, we can't explain until I think up a suitably rotten excuse, or it would ruin my reputation with them!"

They stood motionless for a few minutes, watching the bright light creep perceptibly along its path in the heavens.

"Is it Yiv?" asked Kror, puzzled. "It should not be, now."

"Gah!" exclaimed Polf. "You mud-head! Of course, it is not Yiv. Our Gut'rie has made a new moon. Be grateful to Polf for bringing you, for we shall be big in the village after this!"

He looked proudly at Guthrie. The latter turned off the flashlight to see if the sky were actually beginning to show a pre-dawn lightening.

"We will be very big," Polf repeated. "Are we not friends of the evilest spirit of them all?"