Was this ill-fated expedition the end of a proud, old race—or the beginning o_ new one?
There are strange gaps in our records of the past. We find traces of man-lik_hings—but, suddenly, man appears, far too much developed to be the "nex_tep" in a well-linked chain of evolutionary evidence. Perhaps something lik_he events of this story furnishes the answer to the riddle.
Aboard the ship, there was neither day nor night; the hours slipped gently by, as vistas of star-gemmed blackness slid across the visiscreens. For the crew, time had some meaning—one watch on duty and two off. But for the thousand-od_olonists, the men and women who were to be the spearhead of migration to _ew and friendlier planet, it had none. They slept, and played, worked at suc_asks as they could invent, and slept again, while the huge ship followed he_lotted trajectory.
Kalvar Dard, the army officer who would lead them in their new home, had a_ittle to do as any of his followers. The ship's officers had all th_esponsibility for the voyage, and, for the first time in over five years, h_ad none at all. He was finding the unaccustomed idleness more wearying tha_he hectic work of loading the ship before the blastoff from Doorsha. He wen_ver his landing and security plans again, and found no probable emergenc_nprepared for. Dard wandered about the ship, talking to groups of hi_olonists, and found morale even better than he had hoped. He spent hour_taring into the forward visiscreens, watching the disc of Tareesh, the plane_f his destination, grow larger and plainer ahead.
Now, with the voyage almost over, he was in the cargo-hold just aft of th_umber Seven bulkhead, with six girls to help him, checking constructio_aterial which would be needed immediately after landing. The stuff had al_een checked two or three times before, but there was no harm in going over i_gain. It furnished an occupation to fill in the time; it gave Kalvar Dard a_xcuse for surrounding himself with half a dozen charming girls, and the girl_eemed to enjoy being with him. There was tall blonde Olva, th_lectromagnetician; pert little Varnis, the machinist's helper; Kyna, th_urgeon's-aide; dark-haired Analea; Dorita, the accountant; plump littl_ldra, the armament technician. At the moment, they were all sitting on o_round the desk in the corner of the store-room, going over the inventory whe_hey were not just gabbling.
"Well, how about the rock-drill bitts?" Dorita was asking earnestly, trying t_tick to business. "Won't we need them almost as soon as we're off?"
"Yes, we'll have to dig temporary magazines for our explosives, small-arms an_rtillery ammunition, and storage-pits for our fissionables and radioactives,"
Kalvar Dard replied. "We'll have to have safe places for that stuff read_efore it can be unloaded; and if we run into hard rock near the surface, we'll have to drill holes for blasting-shots."
"The drilling machinery goes into one of those prefabricated sheds," Eldr_onsidered. "Will there be room in it for all the bitts, too?"
Kalvar Dard shrugged. "Maybe. If not, we'll cut poles and build racks for the_utside. The bitts are nono-steel; they can be stored in the open."
"If there are poles to cut," Olva added.
"I'm not worrying about that," Kalvar Dard replied. "We have a pretty fai_dea of conditions on Tareesh; our astronomers have been making telescopi_bservations for the past fifteen centuries. There's a pretty big Arctic ice- cap, but it's been receding slowly, with a wide belt of what's believed to b_pen grassland to the south of it, and a belt of what's assumed to b_vergreen forest south of that. We plan to land somewhere in the norther_emisphere, about the grassland-forest line. And since Tareesh is richer i_ater that Doorsha, you mustn't think of grassland in terms of our wire-gras_lains, or forests in terms of our brush thickets. The vegetation should b_uch more luxuriant."
"If there's such a large polar ice-cap, the summers ought to be fairly cool, and the winters cold," Varnis reasoned. "I'd think that would mean fur-bearin_nimals. Colonel, you'll have to shoot me something with a nice soft fur; _ike furs."
Kalvar Dard chuckled. "Shoot you nothing, you can shoot your own furs. I'v_een your carbine and pistol scores," he began.
There was a sudden suck of air, disturbing the papers on the desk. They al_urned to see one of the ship's rocket-boat bays open; a young Air Forc_ieutenant named Seldar Glav, who would be staying on Tareesh with them t_ilot their aircraft, emerged from an open airlock.
"Don't tell me you've been to Tareesh and back in that thing," Olva greete_im.
Seldar Glav grinned at her. "I could have been, at that; we're only twenty o_hirty planetary calibers away, now. We ought to be entering Tareesha_tmosphere by the middle of the next watch. I was only checking the boats, t_ake sure they'll be ready to launch… . Colonel Kalvar, would you min_tepping over here? There's something I think you should look at, sir."
Kalvar Dard took one arm from around Analea's waist and lifted the other fro_arnis' shoulder, sliding off the desk. He followed Glav into the boat-bay; a_hey went through the airlock, the cheerfulness left the young lieutenant'_ace.
"I didn't want to say anything in front of the girls, sir," he began, "bu_'ve been checking boats to make sure we can make a quick getaway. Our meteor- security's gone out. The detectors are deader then the Fourth Dynasty, and th_lasters won't synchronize… . Did you hear a big thump, about a half an hou_go, Colonel?"
"Yes, I thought the ship's labor-crew was shifting heavy equipment in the hol_ft of us. What was it, a meteor-hit?"
"It was. Just aft of Number Ten bulkhead. A meteor about the size of the nos_f that rocket-boat."
Kalvar Dard whistled softly. "Great Gods of Power! The detectors must be dead, to pass up anything like that… . Why wasn't a boat-stations call sent out?"
"Captain Vlazil was unwilling to risk starting a panic, sir," the Air Forc_fficer replied. "Really, I'm exceeding my orders in mentioning it to you, bu_ thought you should know… ."
Gold-braided quarter-wit! Maybe his crew might panic, but my people wouldn't… . I'm going to call the control-room and have it out with him. By the Te_ods… !"
He ran through the airlock and back into the hold, starting toward th_ntercom-phone beside the desk. Before he could reach it, there was anothe_eavy jar, rocking the entire ship. He, and Seldar Glav, who had followed hi_ut of the boat-bay, and the six girls, who had risen on hearing thei_ommander's angry voice, were all tumbled into a heap. Dard surged to hi_eet, dragging Kyna up along with him; together, they helped the others t_ise. The ship was suddenly filled with jangling bells, and the red danger- lights on the ceiling were flashing on and off.
"Attention! Attention!" the voice of some officer in the control-room blare_ut of the intercom-speaker. "The ship has just been hit by a large meteor!
All compartments between bulkheads Twelve and Thirteen are sealed off. Al_ersons between bulkheads Twelve and Thirteen, put on oxygen helmets and plu_n at the nearest phone connection. Your air is leaking, and you can't ge_ut, but if you put on oxygen equipment immediately, you'll be all right.
We'll get you out as soon as we can, and in any case, we are only a few hour_ut of Tareeshan atmosphere. All persons in Compartment Twelve, put on… ."
Kalvar Dard was swearing evilly. "That does it! That does it for good!… Anybody else in this compartment, below the living quarter level?"
"No, we're the only ones," Analea told him.
"The people above have their own boats; they can look after themselves. Yo_irls, get in that boat, in there. Glav, you and I'll try to warn the peopl_bove… ."
There was another jar, heavier than the one which had preceded it, throwin_hem all down again. As they rose, a new voice was shouting over the public- address system:
"Abandon ship! Abandon ship! The converters are backfiring, and rocket-fuel i_eaking back toward the engine-rooms! An explosion is imminent! Abandon ship, all hands!"
Kalvar Dard and Seldar Glav grabbed the girls and literally threw them throug_he hatch, into the rocket-boat. Dard pushed Glav in ahead of him, then jumpe_n. Before he had picked himself up, two or three of the girls were at th_atch, dogging the cover down.
"All right, Glav, blast off!" Dard ordered. "We've got to be at least _undred miles from this ship when she blows, or we'll blow with her!"
"Don't I know!" Seldar Glav retorted over his shoulder, racing for th_ontrols. "Grab hold of something, everybody; I'm going to fire all jets a_nce!"
An instant later, while Kalvar Dard and the girls clung to stanchions an_ieces of fixed furniture, the boat shot forward out of its housing. Whe_ard's head had cleared, it was in free flight.
"How was that?" Glav yelled. "Everybody all right?" He hesitated for a moment.
"I think I blacked out for about ten seconds."
Kalvar Dard looked the girls over. Eldra was using a corner of her smock t_tanch a nosebleed, and Olva had a bruise over one eye. Otherwise, everybod_as in good shape.
"Wonder we didn't all black out, permanently," he said. "Well, put on th_isiscreens, and let's see what's going on outside. Olva, get on the radio an_ry to see if anybody else got away."
"Set course for Tareesh?" Glav asked. "We haven't fuel enough to make it bac_o Doorsha."
"I was afraid of that," Dard nodded. "Tareesh it is; northern hemisphere, daylight side. Try to get about the edge of the temperate zone, as near wate_s you can… ."