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*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK SAND DOOM *** Produced by Greg Weeks, LN Yaddanapudi and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net

[6]

The problem was as neat a circle as one could ask for; without repair parts, they couldn’t bring in the ship that carried the repair parts!

SAND DOOM
BY MURRAY LEINSTER
Illustrated by Freas

Bordman knew there was something wrong when the throbbing, acutely uncomfortable vibration of rocket blasts shook the ship. Rockets were strictly emergency devices, these days, so when they were used there was obviously an emergency.

He sat still. He had been reading, in the passenger lounge of the Warlock—a very small lounge indeed—but as a senior Colonial Survey officer he was well-traveled enough to know when things did not go right. He looked up from the bookscreen, waiting. Nobody came to explain the eccentricity of a spaceship using rockets. It would have been immediate, on a regular liner, but the Warlock was practically a tramp. [7] This trip it carried just two passengers. Passenger service was not yet authorized to the planet ahead, and would not be until Bordman had made the report he was on his way to compile. At the moment, though, the rockets blasted, and stopped, and blasted again. There was something definitely wrong.

The Warlock’s other passenger came out of her cabin. She looked surprised. She was Aletha Redfeather, an unusually lovely Amerind. It was extraordinary that a girl could be so self-sufficient on a tedious space-voyage, and Bordman approved of her. She was making the journey to Xosa II as a representative of the Amerind Historical Society, but she’d brought her own bookreels and some elaborate fancywork which—woman-fashion—she used to occupy her hands. She hadn’t been at all a nuisance. Now she tilted her head on one side as she looked inquiringly at Bordman.

“I’m wondering, too,” he told her, just as an especially sustained and violent shuddering of rocket-impulsion made his chair legs thutter on the floor.

There was a long period of stillness. Then another violent but much shorter blast. A shorter one still. Presently there was a half-second blast which must have been from a single rocket tube because of the mild shaking it produced. After that there was nothing at all.

Bordman frowned to himself. He’d been anticipating groundfall within a matter of hours, certainly. He’d just gone through his specbook carefully and re-familiarized himself with the work he was to survey on Xosa II. It was a perfectly commonplace minerals-planet development, and he’d expected to clear it FE—fully established—and probably TP and NQ ratings as well, indicating that tourists were permitted and no quarantine was necessary. Considering the aridity of the planet, no bacteriological dangers could be expected to exist, and if tourists wanted to view its monstrous deserts and infernolike wind sculptures—why they should be welcome.

But the ship had used rocket drive in the planet’s near vicinity. Emergency. Which was ridiculous. This was a perfectly routine sort of voyage. Its purpose was the delivery of heavy equipment—specifically a smelter—and a senior Colonial Survey officer to report the completion of primary development.

Aletha waited, as if for more rocket blasts. Presently she smiled at some thought that had occurred to her.

“If this were an adventure tape,” she said humorously, “the loudspeaker would now announce that the ship had established itself in an orbit around the strange, uncharted planet first sighted three days ago, and that volunteers were wanted for a boat landing.”

Bordman demanded impatiently:

“Do you bother with adventure tapes? They’re nonsense! A pure waste of time!”

Aletha smiled again.

[8] “My ancestors,” she told him, “used to hold tribal dances and make medicine and boast about how many scalps they’d taken and how they did it. It was satisfying—and educational for the young. Adolescents became familiar with the idea of what we nowadays call adventure. They were partly ready for it when it came. I suspect your ancestors used to tell each other stories about hunting mammoths and such. So I think it would be fun to hear that we were in orbit and that a boat landing was in order.”

Bordman grunted. There were no longer adventures. The universe was settled; civilized. Of course there were still frontier planets—Xosa II was one—but pioneers had only hardships. Not adventures.

The ship-phone speaker clicked. It said curtly:

Notice. We have arrived at Xosa II and have established an orbit about it. A landing will be made by boat.

Bordman’s mouth dropped open.

“What the devil’s this?” he demanded.

“Adventure, maybe,” said Aletha. Her eyes crinkled very pleasantly when she smiled. She wore the modern Amerind dress—a sign of pride in the ancestry which now implied such diverse occupations as interstellar steel construction and animal husbandry and llano-planet colonization. “If it were adventure, as the only girl on this ship I’d have to be in the landing party, lest the tedium of orbital waiting make the”—her smile widened to a grin—“the pent-up restlessness of trouble-makers in the crew——”

The ship-phone clicked again.

Mr. Bordman. Miss Redfeather. According to advices from the ground, the ship may have to stay in orbit for a considerable time. You will accordingly be landed by boat. Will you make yourselves ready, please, and report to the boat-blister?” The voice paused and added, “Hand luggage only, please.

Aletha’s eyes brightened. Bordman felt the shocked incredulity of a man accustomed to routine when routine is impossibly broken. Of course survey ships made boat landings from orbit, and colony ships let down robot hulls by rocket when there was as yet no landing grid for the handling of a ship. But never before in his experience had an ordinary freighter, on a routine voyage to a colony ready for its final degree-of-completion survey, ever landed anybody by boat.

“This is ridiculous!” said Bordman, fuming.

“Maybe it’s adventure,” said Aletha. “I’ll pack.”

She disappeared into her cabin. Bordman hesitated. Then he went into his own. The colony on Xosa II had been established two years ago. Minimum comfort conditions had been realized within six months. A temporary landing grid for light supply ships was up within a year. It had permitted stock-piling, and it had been taken down to be rebuilt [9] as a permanent grid with every possible contingency provided for. The eight months since the last ship landing was more than enough for the building of the gigantic, spidery, half-mile-high structure which would handle this planet’s interstellar commerce. There was no excuse for an emergency! A boat landing was nonsensical!

But he surveyed the contents of his cabin. Most of the cargo of the Warlock was smelter equipment which was to complete the outfitting of the colony. It was to be unloaded first. By the time the ship’s holds were wholly empty, the smelter would be operating. The ship would wait for a full cargo of pig metal. Bordman had expected to live in this cabin while he worked on the survey he’d come to make, and to leave again with the ship.

Now he was to go aground by boat. He fretted. The only emergency equipment he could possibly need was a heat-suit. He doubted the urgency of that. But he packed some clothing for indoors, and then defiantly included his specbook and the volumes of definitive data to which specifications for structures and colonial establishments always referred. He’d get to work on his report immediately he landed.

He went out of the passenger’s lounge to the boat-blister. An engineer’s legs projected from the boat port. The engineer withdrew, with a strip of tape from the boat’s computer. He compared it dourly with a similar strip from the ship’s figurebox. Bordman consciously acted according to the best traditions of passengers.

“What’s the trouble?” he asked.

“We can’t land,” said the engineer shortly.

He went away—according to the tradition by which ships’ crews are always scornful of passengers.

Bordman scowled. Then Aletha came, carrying a not-too-heavy bag. Bordman put it in the boat, disapproving of the crampedness of the craft. But this wasn’t a lifeboat. It was a landing boat. A lifeboat had Lawlor drive and could travel light-years, but in the place of rockets and rocket fuel it had air-purifiers and water-recovery units and food-stores. It couldn’t land without a landing grid aground, but it could get to a civilized planet. This landing boat could land without a grid, but its air wouldn’t last long.

“Whatever’s the matter,” said Bordman darkly, “it’s incompetence somewhere!”

But he couldn’t figure it out. This was a cargo ship. Cargo ships neither took off nor landed under their own power. It was too costly of fuel they would have to carry. So landing grids used local power—which did not have to be lifted—to heave ships out into space, and again used local power to draw them to ground again. Therefore ships carried fuel only for actual space-flight, which was economy. Yet landing grids had no moving parts, and while they did have to be monstrous structures they actually [10] drew power from planetary ionospheres. So with no moving parts to break down and no possibility of the failure of a power source—landing grids couldn’t fail! So there couldn’t be an emergency to make a ship ride orbit around a planet which had a landing grid!

The engineer came back. He carried a mail sack full of letter-reels. He waved his hand. Aletha crawled into the landing-boat port. Bordman followed. Four people, with a little crowding, could have gotten into the little ship. Three pretty well filled it. The engineer followed them and sealed the port.

“Sealed off,” he said into the microphone before him.

The exterior-pressure needle moved halfway across the dial. The interior-pressure needle stayed steady.

“All tight,” said the engineer.

The exterior-pressure needle flicked to zero. There were clanking sounds. The long halves of the boat-blister stirred and opened, and abruptly the landing boat was in an elongated cup in the hull-plating, and above them there were many, many stars. The enormous disk of a nearby planet floated into view around the hull. It was monstrous and blindingly bright. It was of a tawny color, with great, irregular areas of yellow and patches of bluishness. But most of it was the color of sand. And all its colors varied in shade—some places were lighter and some darker—and over at one edge there was blinding whiteness which could not be anything but an ice cap. But Bordman knew that there was no ocean or sea or lake on all this whole planet, and the ice cap was more nearly hoarfrost than such mile-deep glaciation as would be found at the poles of a maximum-comfort world.

“Strap in,” said the engineer over his shoulder. “No-gravity coming, and then rocket-push. Settle your heads.”

Bordman irritably strapped himself in. He saw Aletha busy at the same task, her eyes shining. Without warning, there came a sensation of acute discomfort. It was the landing boat detaching itself from the ship and the diminishment of the ship’s closely-confined artificial-gravity field. That field suddenly dropped to nothingness, and Bordman had the momentary sickish dizziness that flicked-off gravity always produces. At the same time his heart pounded unbearably in the instinctive, racial-memory reaction to the feel of falling.

Then roarings. He was thrust savagely back against his seat. His tongue tried to slide back into his throat. There was an enormous oppression on his chest. He found himself thinking panicky profanity.

Simultaneously the vision ports went black, because they were out of the shadow of the ship. The landing boat turned—but there was no sensation of centrifugal force—and they were in a vast obscurity with merely a dim phantom of the planetary surface to be seen. But behind [11] them a blue-white sun shone terribly. Its light was warm—hot—even though it came through the polarized shielding ports.

“Did ... did you say,” panted Aletha happily—breathless because of the acceleration—“that there weren’t any adventures?”

Bordman did not answer. But he did not count discomfort as an adventure.

The engineer did not look out the ports at all. He watched the screen before him. There was a vertical line across the side of the lighted disk. A blip moved downward across it, showing their height in thousands of miles. After a long time the blip reached the bottom, and the vertical line became double and another blip began to descend. It measured height in hundreds of miles. A bright spot—a square—appeared at one side of the screen. A voice muttered metallically, and suddenly seemed to shout, and then muttered again. Bordman looked out one of the black ports and saw the planet as if through smoked glass. It was a ghostly reddish thing which filled half the cosmos. It had mottlings. Its edge was curved. That would be the horizon.

The engineer moved controls and the white square moved. It went across the screen. He moved more controls. It came back to the center. The height-in-hundreds blip was at the bottom, now, and the vertical line tripled and

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