The Story Behind The Cover...
Octopus-kings of the Lost Planet
Written by W. Malcolm White (Donald A. Wollheim)
Illustrated by Gene Fawcette
Published in Strange Worlds #2 by Avon Publications 1950
Perhaps it was only right that we were to find the answer to the Great Asteroid Mystery on the planet named after the famous Edgar Allan Poe. I refer to the tiny worldlet called Poesia, on your star charts if you look at Planetoid 946. We landed on Poesia on the seventh day of the nineteenth month of our expedition—or to be prosaic, on the Third of June, 2042 A.D.
We were not the first interplanetary expedition trying to settle the problem of what the asteroids were nor where they had come from. We were perhaps the tenth, and we weren't any better equipped than the others, merely more persistent...and may be luckier. We had been directed by the University of Luna City to go out there and "bring home the bacon." We were determined to do it.
We meant three of us: myself Frank Berton, astrogator, engineer, and space pilot; Jack Wilkinson, co-pilot, marksman, and cosmologist; and Delia. Delia Throckmartin, of course. A gorgeous sight in any clime, and a pleasure in deepest space. Delia was our archaeologist.
We had had marvelous luck. Early in the game, we had located an almost intact cave ruin on one of the more obscure planetoid fragments. It was, unlike the other planetoid ruins, almost intact, probably because the planet-fragment was a huge chunk of metal—a lead mine once, we might presume. And in the honeycombed interior of this chunk of lead, we had found the metal map which was to lead us months later to Poesia...and adventure.
You know something of the Asteroid Mystery, I am sure. Every twenty-first-century schoolboy knows it well. How sometime, several million years ago, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter there used to be a planet about the size of Earth, and how something had happened to it. Something had shattered it to bits, blown the whole planet to smithereens, and those fragments now moved about the sun on their own as several thousand tiny planetoids—little moonlets and worldlets from one to a few hundred miles in diameter. But fragments, mere splinters of a greater world that had vanished.
The problem was—why? It may have been a hydrogen bomb chain reaction due to some type of final warfare. If so, who were the combatants and why? We knew very little of that Lost Planet's ancient inhabitants, How could we, when their very world itself had been blown apart in their folly? A few bits of carved rock here and there, some worked metal, a twisted girder embedded tortuously in some tiny worldlet's raw and torn rock—that was all. Mighty cities, huge monuments, great constructions... all would have been pulverized, shredded, crushed, blown to powder. From the few pitiful fragments, it was all we could do to merely assume there had once been such a civilization. We did not even know what they may have looked like—whether they were men or ants or some strange sort of monsters. So little was left.
But on that nameless hunk of cosmic debris, we had found, intact, a sort of map. And on that metal pillar was engraved the depiction of a place where a bomb-proof, shatterproof cavern world had been built. Where that civilization's rulers could ride out even a planetary disaster! It had taken us months to decipher those instructions, months more to locate this spot—it was now a small world, several dozen miles in diameter—it was on this planetoid Poesia that now we landed.
The world let was tiny, barren, and airless, as such worldlets are. All about our ship lay a cold scenery of torn and scarred rock, under the black and pitiless sky.
Delia and I emerged from our scouting vessel. We had put on our space helmets, carried our research packs and borers, our hand-rays, and our tri-dimensional photoscopes.
"No sign of life," I commented over our helmet phones.
"Naturally not," said Delia. "You wouldn't expect to find it on the outside of this world, would you? If the map is right, this world is hollow."
"Hmmm," I said, "but would there be an opening?"
Delia's beautiful brows wrinkled in a frown of thought. We looked over the dreary landscape... but without reward. Our weight was very slight—a few pounds only, due to the low gravity of this worldlet, and our progress was by means of huge leaps and bounds. Then Delia stopped, pointed. Before us was a huge depression in the ground, and at the bottom, a coil of white vapor was spouting upwards.
As one, we vaulted towards it, gaining the lip of the depression. Now, we knew we had found what the entire Earth had been seeking... for there below us was a huge metal door—a door dozens of yards across, fixed into the bottom of the huge crater-like area, and the spout of vapor was some sort of exhaust valve for whatever was within.
I called Jack on my helmet phone and he, who had remained with the ship, flew it over to where we were. Delia and I took a hand disintegrator from the ship and went over to the metal door set in the planet's surface. We set up the ray and started it.
The great beam of white atomic force bored and bit into the metal. A shower of sparks, streams of radiant vapor poured forth, and we had made an opening. Delia and I let ourselves into the opening. Below us was a dark tunnel into the surface of this world. We dropped down and down.
Then, at last, we fell weightlessly out into the terrible interior of that forsaken planetoid. We were in a blue-lit cavern—a cavern miles across, lit with an eerie phosphorescent radiance.
On the inner surface of the tiny world, we stood and looked. Off in the distance—we saw constructions—they looked like giant spider webs—for they seemed composed of delicate metallic girders spanning the weightless interior. Coming down these metal webs, towards us, were the inhabitants, the last descendants of the rulers of the Lost Planet!
I can only say that imagine all the worst horrors of your worst nightmares come true—you will then have some idea of what they looked like. The least horrible of them was Itself bad enough—a group of beings racing towards us, uttering terrible squawking noises and making strange articulations that sounded like a ghostly parody of parrot-talk.
They were like octopuses—they scurried along on huge rubbery tentacles, and their bodies were nothing but huge heads set in the midst of these. Those heads—fearful travestles on human faces. They seemed like a confusion of the vision—like seeing double. For they had two pairs of eyes—one set directly below the other and the effect was infinitely terrifying... and they were huge!
The head, If it were ahead, was at least eight feet from chin to brow—the legs another twelve feet or so. Monstrous squawking beings coming at us from all directions?
I gave a yell, started back. Delia tried to run, stumbled, and her helmet was smashed.
I turned back, got the broken helmet from her head, pulled her back on her feet. But the monsters were almost on us. I pulled my hand-ray, fired it. The red beam lanced out and sizzled into the nearest head. It burned before me. Another and another went down before my ray and then my limited hand-charge was exhausted.
We were helpless now. We'd never make the ship, for there were too many monsters. Then Jack came to our rescue. He'd heard our yells through our helmet phones and though he didn't know what we saw, he had started the ship, bored a larger hole in the surface door, and plunged through, ship and all! Now he rocketed out and landed beside us.
Delia and I started to scramble through. I got in on one side and Delia on the other. As I started in, I saw that a monster had a tentacle about her. I drew my ray, started to fire but remembered the weapon was exhausted. Desperately I hurled the empty weapon at the creature's monstrous face.
To my amazement, the face exploded when the empty ray-pistol hit it! Delia, freed, scrambled into the ship, we slammed the hatch and took off down the exit tunnel.
Afterward, we decided that these descendants of a mighty but inhuman race had gone backward in the course of the lost centuries. They had become again mere ravening beasts, had lost their intelligences in the endless years following the destruction of their world. And because of the weightlessness of their tiny hideout—the planetoid Poesia—their skeletons had become so fragile, so weak, so light, that the mere blow of a solid metal object had enough power to utterly shatter them.
They were the Octopus-kings of a Lost Planet—they had been rulers—but their own folly had lost them a world and finally had lost them even the dignity of a solid body!