Trouble on Titan/Chapter I
THE conference was not going well.
It was taking place in the New York offices of the London Interplanetary Zoo, on the top floor of the tremendous Walker Building. The suite was built of the finest modern materials and equipped with all the comforts science could devise. Vacuum-brik walls shut out noise. There were mineral fluff insulation, Martian sound-absorbent rugs, plastic body-contour furniture, air conditioning. The press of a button brought iced drinks or lighted cigarettes of aromatic Venusian tobaccos through a recess in one wall.
Despite all these comforts, the visitor was having a bad time.
At one end of the room was a small screen. On a stand before it was the morning "newspaper," consisting of a tiny roll of film. Subscribers could turn on the latest news at any time by simply flashing it onto the screen. A dial enabled the reader to flip through the entire "paper" with a twist or two.
Varicolored backgrounds—white for local news, green for foreign, yellow for sports, and so on—made it easy for the reader to turn to any desired section.
Right now it was turned to the pale violet interplanetary page.
GERRY CARLYLE CHALLENGED IN RACE TO SATURN
London Zoo Contract at Stake As Prize for Victor
N. Y. Sept. 4.—UP—Scientific circles stirred with interest today as the supremacy of Gerry "Catch-'em-Alive" Carlyle in the role of interplanetary trapper—the rigorous profession of capturing monstrous life-forms on our neighboring planets and returning with them alive for exhibition in Earthly zoos—was challenged by Prof. Erasmus Kurtt.
Miss Carlyle's contract with the London Interplanetary Zoo comes up for renewal soon. Prof. Kurtt suggested that so important a position should be given only to the one most fitted to hold it.
Intimating that he considered himself the better "man," Kurtt proposed a race with the rich L.I.Z. contract as the prize.
The contest would be decided on the basis of a journey to any designated planet, the capture of any designated monster thereon, and safe return to Earth under the racer's own power. First home with the creature alive and well would be declared the winner.
Prof. Kurtt suggested that the planet Saturn would afford sufficient difficulties to test the mettle of the contestants.
Speculation was rife. . . .
The news item was switched off sharply, coincident with a sound suspiciously like a feminine snort. Claude Weatherby, public relations director for the London Interplanetary Zoo, mopped his brow furtively. He felt that he would rather contend with the tantrums of any of the world's greatest collection of planetary monstrosities than with Gerry Carlyle's famous temperament.
GERRY was in an uncompromising mood. It was apparent in the set of her shoulders, the swing of her arms as she paced the office floor. Undoubtedly one of the most famous women in the world, she was also among its most beautiful. But hers was the beauty, not of the aloof Grecian goddess, but of the jungle tigress. Underneath its alluring curves, her body was tough, resilient, inured to hardship and battle. She could be softly feminine on occasion. But also, like the jungle cat, she could be dangerous.
Starting her career as a girl still in her teens, Gerry Carlyle had fought her way to the top of the most exacting of all professions. Success was not won by resort to feminine stratagem, nor by use of her amazing beauty. Gerry scorned such wiles. In a man's world, she competed with men on their own terms. Her success was due to hard work, brains, courage, and the overwhelming effect of her forceful personality.
"Captured by Gerry Carlyle," the well known legend on so many of the tanks and glass cages at the London Zoo, was a symbol of what may be achieved by grit and enterprise in a democratic world.
Visibly drawing upon his nerve, Weatherby tentatively resumed an argument.
"After all, my dear, it's only a publicity stunt. We appreciate that you are the outstanding personage in the business. Please be assured of that. We would never have consented to the race if we hadn't had absolute faith in your ability to defeat this fellow Kurtt."
"I understand all that," Gerry said coldly.
"Perhaps we should have consulted you before barging ahead with plans for a jolly send-off ceremony with you and Kurtt. But, really, we were confident that your famous sportsmanship—"
"Spare me the crude flattery, Claude. You haven't told me all the circumstances surrounding this silly challenge. I like honesty. I make a point of being straightforward. Why don't you?"
Weatherby crimsoned and began to splutter. Gerry stopped him short with an imperiously unpraised hand.
"Here are the facts. The planetary hunters, of whom I am one, can be counted on your fingers. Another two or three, Claude, and you'd have to take off your shoes to count them. We form probably the most exclusive little coterie anywhere in the Solar System. The chance of anyone's possessing all the qualifications to become a successful trapper of monsters is literally one in millions.
"Now this fellow Kurtt—he's no more a professor than you are—is definitely not one of us. He's a smalltime, penny ante hanger-on, chiseling a few dollars by talking some sucker into financing him for short trips. There are two unexplained things. In the first place, none of the genuine hunters would have the appalling lack of ethics to try snaffling a fellow-member's job. It just isn't done.
"A man like Kurtt wouldn't dare suggest such a thing. He hasn't the—er—courage. Unless, of course, someone important egged him on. And secondly, where on Earth would a phony like Kurtt get the financing? This is big business, Claude, as you well know. The returns of a successful trip of mine may run close to a million dollars a year for the L.I.Z. But it also costs hundreds of thousands to carry out an expedition.
"As for the race—against Hallek or Moore or one of the others it would be fun. But to associate with a man of Kurtt's unsavory reputation is harmful to me and the Zoo. The whole thinger—"
"It certainly doesn't smell good," interpolated a third voice.
WEATHERBY and the girl glanced at an easy chair in the corner. Barely visible were a pair of muscular, booted legs draped over the chair arm, and a cloud of pipe smoke. When it dissipated, the ruggedly good-looking face of Captain Tommy Strike, Gerry's fiancé, grinned sourly at them. "Look, Claude," he explained. "What Gerry is asking, in her quaint way, is who's backing Kurtt?"
Weatherby hemmed and hawed, his British tact quite unequal to the task. "Fact is—uh—we—ah—didn't realize ourselves who was behind Kurtt till after we'd agreed on the—uh—bally publicity stunt. The man behind—"
His voice petered out entirely. Gerry Carlyle gazed with rising consternation at Weatherby.
"Claude !" she cried. "You don't mean to say— It can't possibly be that horror from Hollywood on the Moon. Not Von Zorn again !"
"Well—" Weatherby made a defeated gesture and hunched his shoulders like a man about to be overwhelmed by a storm.
Gerry groaned in mortal anguish. Of all people in the system to be in her hair again, Von Zorn, czar of the motion picture business, was positively the least welcome. The feud between these two for the past few years had raged from Mercury to Jupiter, with skirmishes on the Moon, Venus, Almussen's Comet, and various wayside battlegrounds. It had convulsed the System with delight.
With Gerry, it was the matter of an ideal. She took it as a personal insult when Von Zorn's clever young technicians synthesized, for motion picture consumption, robot-controlled planetary monsters instead of using the real thing. She always loved to unload a roaring cargo of the genuine article just in time to show up the menace in Nine Planets Pictures' latest action epic as the wire and papier mache creations they really were.
With Von Zorn, it was a matter of box office. There was no percentage in making high-budget films when Gerry was constantly turning them into low-gross productions by her genuine attractions at the L.I.Z.
By vigorously pacing across the room and back, Gerry tried to reduce her head of steam.
"So!" she finally burst out, and the syllable was like the bursting of an atomic bomb. "Old monkey-face hasn't had enough, eh? Still whetting his knife in case I turn my back. Thinks he'll run me out of business. Put one of his stooges in my place so he can dictate to the Zoo the way he dictates to those poor, deluded devils at Hollywood on the Moon!"
Weatherby and Strike sprang to their feet, ready to duck or run, as the emergency might indicate.
"Well," Gerry continued in a voice that can only be described as a cultured feminine snarl, "all right, I accept the challenge! And I can promise Kurtt and that sly simian, Von Zorn, a trouncing that they'll never forget!"
She strode to the visi-phone, snapped the lever. The eyes of the switchboard girl in the outer office stared frightenedly from the screen. Obviously she had been listening in through the interoffice communicator. Just as obviously, she held her employer in awe.
"Get me Barrows!" commanded Gerry peremptorily. "Get me Kranz. Rout out that whole slovenly, craven crew of mine. Tell 'em we've got things to do and places to go, if they could possibly spare a little time from their carousing."
GERRY paused to smile a little. No one knew better than she that her crew was neither slovenly nor cowardly. They were picked men, culled from the thousands of hopeful adventurers from everywhere who constantly besieged her in their desire to join. They were intelligent, highly trained, vigorous, and incredibly loyal to their beloved leader. Several in the past had given their lives for her.
Though they sometimes played a game of grumbling about Gerry's iron-handed rule, they fiercely resented any outsider's intimation that her leadership was anything short of perfect. They lived dangerously, and severe discipline was the price of survival. They were envied by red-blooded men everywhere, and they were proud of it.
Gerry tossed her head confidently and smiled.
"I think Mister Kurtt won't find any such team as mine to go to bat for him. As for you, Claude"—she gazed at him as she, might regard some remarkable but slightly distasteful swamp-thing from Venus—"you may run along now. Whip up your excitement and publicity fanfares. Make ready for the colossal ceremony, the great race.
"You've inviegled me into this nonsense, and I'm agreeing only because it's a chance to hoist Von Zorn on his own petard. But it must be done on the grand scale, Claude. I want nothing petty."
Gerry walked to the passage that led to her private suite and exited with a faintly grandiose air. When angry, she had a tendency to dramatize her anger. Weatherby shut his gaping mouth. He seized his hat with the attitude of a man who has just been reprieved from the gas chamber.
"Y'know," he said bewilderedly to Strike, "she's quite a changeable woman. Sometimes I think she's a bit difficult to fathom."
Tommy smiled as he held the outer door for Weatherby. It was the understanding smile of one who has just listened to a masterpiece of understatement.
"Quite," he agreed. "Rah-ther!"