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The Hell Ship by Raymond Alfred Palmer

[Sidenote: _The passengers rocketed through space in luxury. But they never went below decks because rumor had it that Satan himself manned the controls of The Hell Ship._]

The giant space liner swung down in a long arc, hung for an instant on columns of flame, then settled slowly into the blast-pit. But no hatch opened; no air lock swung out; no person left the ship. It lay there, its voyage over, waiting.

The thing at the controls had great corded man-like arms. Its skin was black with stiff fur. It had fingers ending in heavy talons and eyes bulging from the base of a massive skull. Its body was ponderous, heavy, inhuman.


After twenty minutes, a single air lock swung clear and a dozen armed men in Company uniforms went aboard. Still later, a truck lumbered up, the cargo hatch creaked aside, and a crane reached its long neck in for the cargo.

Still no creature from the ship was seen to emerge. The truck driver, idly smoking near the hull, knew this was the _Prescott_, in from the Jupiter run--that this was the White Sands Space Port. But he didn't know what was inside the _Prescott_ and he'd been told it wasn't healthy to ask.

Gene O'Neil stood outside the electrified wire that surrounded the White Sands port and thought of many things. He thought of the eternal secrecy surrounding space travel; of the reinforced hush-hush enshrouding Company ships. No one ever visited the engine rooms. No one in all the nation had ever talked with a spaceman. Gene thought of the glimpse he'd gotten of the thing in the pilot's window. Then his thoughts drifted back to the newsrooms of Galactic Press Service; to Carter in his plush office.

"Want to be a hero, son?"

"Who, me? Not today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe the next day."

"Don't be cute. It's an assignment. Get into White Sands."

"Who tried last?"

"Jim Whiting."

"Where is Whiting now?"

"Frankly we don't know. But--"

"And the four guys who tried before Whiting?"

"We don't know. But we'd like to find out."

"Try real hard. Maybe you will."

"Cut it out. You're a newspaperman aren't you?"

"God help me, yes. But there's no way."

"There's a way. There's always a way. Like Whiting and the others. Your pals."

Back at the port looking through the hot wire. _Sure there was a way. Ask questions out loud. Then sit back and let them throw a noose around you. And there was a place where you could do the sitting in complete comfort. Where Whiting had done it--but only to vanish off the face of the earth. Damn Carter to all hell!_

Gene turned and walked up the sandy road toward the place where the gaudy neons of the Blue Moon told hard working men where they could spend their money. The Blue Moon. It was quite a place.

Outside, beneath the big crescent sign, Gene stopped to watch the crowds eddying in and out. Then he went in, to watch them cluster around the slot machines and bend in eager rows over the view slots of the peep shows.

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