A Walk in the Dark


ROBERT ARMSTRONG had walked just over two miles, as far as he could judge, when his torch failed. He stood still for a moment, unable to believe that such a misfortune could really have befallen him. Then, half maddened with rage, he hurled the useless instrument away. It landed somewhere in the darkness, disturbing the silence of this little world. A metallic echo came ringing back from the low-hills. Then all was quiet again.

This, thought Armstrong, was the ultimate misfortune. Nothing more could happen to him now. He was even able to laugh bitterly at his luck, and resolved never again to imagine that the fickle goddess had ever favoured him. Who would have believed that the only tractor at Camp IV would have broken down- when he was just setting off for Port Sanderson? He recalled the frenzied repair work, the relief when the second start had been made—and the final debacle when the caterpillar track had jammed, hopelessly.

It was no use then regretting the lateness of his departure: he could not have, foreseen these accidents and it was. still a good four hours before-the Canopus took off. He had to catch her, whatever happened, no, other ship would be touching at this world for another month. Apart from the urgency pf his business, four more weeks on this out-of-the-way planet were unthinkable.

There had been only one thing to do. It was lucky that Port Sanderson was little mote than six miles from the, camp —not a great- distance, even on foot. He had been forced to leave all his equipment behind, but it could follow on the next ship and he could manage without it. The road was poor, merely stamped out of the rock by one of the Board's hundred-ton crushers, but there was ho fear of going astray.

Even now, he was in no real danger, though he might well be too late to catch the ship. Progress would be slow for he dare not risk losing the road in this region of canyons and enigmatic tunnels that had never been explored. It was, of course, pitch dark. Here at the edge of the Galaxy the stars were so few and scattered that-their light was negligible. The strange crimson sun of this lonely world would not rise for many hours, and although five of the little moons were in the sky they could barely be seen by the unaided eye. Not one of them could even cast a shadow.

Armstrong was not the man to bewail his luck for long. He began to walk slowly along the road, feeling its texture with his feet. It was, he knew, fairly straight except where it wound through Carver’s Pass. He wished he had a stick or something to probe the way before him, but he would have to rely for guidance on the feel of the ground.

It was terribly slow at first, until he gained confidence. He had never known how difficult it. was to walk in a straight line. Although the feeble stars gave him his bearings, again and again he found himself stumbling, among the virgin rocks at the edge of the. crude roadway. He was traveling in. long zigzags that took him to alternate sides of the road. Then he would stub his toes against the bare rock and grope his way back on to the hard-packed surface-once again.

Presently, it settled down to a routine. It was impossible to estimate his speed: he could only struggle along and hope for the best. There were, four miles to go—four miles and as many hours. It should be easy enough unless he lost his way. But he dared not think of that.

Once he had mastered the technique he could afford the luxury of thought. He could not pretend, that he was enjoying the experience but he had been in much worse positions before. As long as he remained on the road he was perfectly safe. He had been hoping that as his eyes, became adapted to the starlight he would be able to see the way, but he how knew that the whole journey would be blind. The discovery gave him a vivid sense of his remoteness from the heart of the Galaxy. On a night as clear as this, the skies of almost any other plant would have been blazing with stars. Here at this outpost of the Universe the sky held perhaps a hundred faintly gleaming points of lights, as useless as the five ridiculous moons on which no one had ever bothered to land.

A slight change in the road interrupted his thoughts. Was there a curve here, or had he veered off to the right again? He moved very slowly along the invisible and ill-defined border. Yes, there was no mistake: the road was bending to the left. He tried to remember its appearance in the day time, but he had only, seen it once before. Did this mean that he was nearing the Pass? He hoped so, for the journey would then be half completed.

He peered ahead into the blackness but the ragged line of the horizon told him nothing. Presently he found that the road had straightened itself again and his spirits sank. The entrance to the Pass must still be some way ahead there were at least four more miles to go.

Four miles! How ridiculous the distance seemed! How long would it take the Canopus to travel four miles? He doubted if man could measure so short an interval of time. And how many trillions of miles had he, Robert Armstrong, traveled in his life? It must have reached a staggering total by now, for in the last twenty years he had scarcely stayed more than a month at a time on any single world. This very year, he had twice made-the crossing of the Galaxy, and that was a notable journey even in these days of the phantom drive.

He tripped, over a loose stone, and the jolt brought him back to reality. It was no use here thinking of ships that could eat up the light-years. He was facing nature with no weapons but his own strength and skill.

It was strange that it took him so long to identify the real cause of his uneasiness. The last four weeks had been very full and the rush of his departure, coupled with the annoyance and anxiety caused by the tractor’s breakdowns, had driven everything else, from his mind. Moreover, he had always prided himself on his hard-headedness and lack of imagination. Until now he had forgotten all about that first, evening at the base, when the crews had regaled him with the usual tall yarns concocted for the benefit of newcomers.

It was then that the old base clerk had told the story of his, walk by night from Port Sanderson to the camp, and of what had trailed him through Carver’s Pass, keeping always beyond the limit of his torchlight.

ARMSTRONG, who had heard such tales on a score of, worlds, had paid it little attention at the time. This planet, after all, was known to be uninhabited. But logic could not dispose of the matter as easily as that. Suppose, after all, there, was some truth in the old man’s fantastic tale?

It was not a pleasant thought, and Armstrong did not intend to brood upon it. But he knew that if he dismissed it out-of hand, it would continue to prey on his mind. The only way to conquer imaginary fears was to face them boldly: he would have to do that.

His strongest argument was the complete barrenness of this world and its utter desolation, though against that one could set many counter-arguments, as indeed the old clerk had done. Man had only lived on this planet for twenty years, and much of it was still unexplored. No one could deny that the tunnels out in the waste-land were rather puzzling, but everyone believed them to be volcanic vents. Though of course, life often crept into such places. With a shudder he remembered the giant polyps that had snared the first explorers of Vargon III.

It was all very inconclusive suppose, for the sake of argument, one granted the existence of life here. What of that?

The vast majority of life forms in the Universe were completely indifferent, to man. Some, of course, like the gas-beings of Alcoran or the roving Wave-lattices of Shandaloon, could not even detect him but passed through or around him as if he did not exist. Others were merely inquisitive, some embarrassingly friendly. There were few indeed that would attack unless provoked.

Nevertheless, it was a grim picture that the old stores clerk had painted. Back in the warm, well-lighted smoking-room, with the drinks going round, it had been easy enough to laugh at it. But here in the darkness, miles from any human settlement, it was very different.

It was almost a relief when he stumbled off the road again and had to grope with his hands until he found it once more. This seemed a very rough patch, and the road was scarcely distinguishable from the rocks around. In a few minutes, however, he was safely on his way again.

It was unpleasant to see how quickly his thoughts returned to the same disquieting subject. Clearly it was worrying him more than he cared to admit.

He drew consolation, from one fact: it had been quite obvious that no one at the base had believed the old fellow’s story. Their questions and banter had proved that. At the time, he had laughed as loudly as any of them. After all, what was the evidence? A dim shape, just seen in the darkness, that might well have been an oddly formed rock. And the curious clicking noise that had so impressed the old man. Anyone could imagine such sounds at night if they were sufficiently overwrought. If it had been hostile, why hadn’t the creatures come any closer?

“Because it was afraid of my light,” the old chap had said..

Well, that was plausible enough: it would explain why nothing had ever been seen in the daytime. Such a creature might live underground, only emerging at night. Hang it, why was he taking the old idiot’s ravings ...

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