The Creature from Beyond Infinity
by Henry Kuttner
Ardath opened his eyes, trying to remember why a blinding pain should be throbbing within his skull. Above him was a twisted girder of yellow metal, and beyond that, the inner wall of the space ship. What had happened?
It seemed scarcely a moment ago that the craft had been filled with a confusion of shouted orders, quickly moving men, and the shriek of cleft atmosphere as the ship drove down. Then had come the shock of landing—blackness. And now?
Painfully Ardath dragged his slight, fragile body erect. All around him were ruin and confusion. Corpses lay sprawled and limp, the bodies of those who had not survived the terrible concussion. Strange men, slim and delicate, their skins had been darkly tanned by the long voyage across space. Ardath started hopefully when he saw that one of the bodies moved slightly and moaned.
Theron! Theron, the commander—highest in rank and wisdom—had survived. A wave of gratefulness swept through Ardath. He was not alone on this new, unknown world, as he had feared. Swiftly he found stimulants and bent over the reviving man.
Theron's gray, beardless face grew contorted. His pallid blue eyes opened. He drew a lean hand over his bald head as he whispered.
A rocking shudder shook the ship, then suddenly died.
"Who else is alive?" Theron asked with painful effort.
"I don't know, Theron," Ardath replied softly.
Ardath searched the huge golden ship. He came back with despair on his drawn harrowed features.
"You and I are the only ones left alive, Theron."
The commander gnawed at his lips.
"So. And I am dying." He smiled resignedly at Ardath's sudden protest. "It's true, Ardath. You do not realize how old I am. For years we have gone through space, and you are the youngest of us. Unshield a port. Let me see where we are."
"The third planet of this System," Ardath said.
He pressed a button that swung back a shutter from a nearby port in the golden wall. They saw nothing but darkness at first. Then their eyes became accustomed to the gloom.
The ship lay beached on a dim shore. Blackly ominous the strange world loomed through the gray murk of vague light that filtered through the cloudy sky. A slow drizzle of rain was falling.
"Test the atmosphere," Theron commanded. Ardath obeyed. Spectroscopic analysis, made from outer space, had indicated that the air here was breathable. The chemical test confirmed this. At Theron's request, Ardath opened a spacelock.
Air surged in with a queerly choking sulphurous odor. The two men coughed rackingly, until eventually they became accustomed to it.
"Carry me out," the commander said quietly. His glance met and locked with Ardath's as the younger man hesitated. "I shall die soon," he insisted gently. "But first I must—I must know that I have reached my goal."
Silently Ardath lifted the slight figure in his arms. He splashed through the warm waves and gently laid Theron down on the barren beach. The Sun, hidden behind a cloud blanket, was rising in the first dawn Ardath had ever seen.
A gray sky and sea, a dark shore—those were all he actually saw. Under Ardath's feet he felt the world shudder with the volcanic fires of creation. Rain and tide had not yet eroded the rocks into sand and soil. No vegetation grew anywhere. He did not know whether the land was an island or a continent. It rose abruptly from the beach and mounted to towering crags against the inland skyline.
Theron sighed. His thin ringers groped blindly over the rocky surface on which he lay.
"You are space-born, Ardath," he said painfully. "You cannot quite realize that only on a planet can a man find a home. But I am afraid…"
His voice died away. Then it rose again, strengthened. "I am dying but there is something I must tell you first. Listen, Ardath. . You never knew your mother planet, Kyria. It is light-years away from this world. Or it was. Centuries ago, we discovered that Kyria was doomed. A wandering planetoid came so close that it would inevitably collide with us and destroy our civilization utterly. "Kyria was a lovely world, Ardath."
"I know," Ardath breathed. "I have seen the films in our records."
"You have seen our great cities, and the green forests and fields—" An agonizing cough rocked the dying commander. He went on hastily. "We fled. A selected group of us made this space ship and left Kyria in search of a new home. But of hundreds of planets that we found, none was suitable. None would sustain human life. This, the third planet of this yellow Sun, is our last hope. Our fuel is almost gone. It is your duty, Ardath, to see that the civilization of Kyria does not perish."
"But this is a dead world," the younger man protested.
"It is a young world," Theron corrected.
He paused, and his hand lifted, pointing. Ardath stared at the slow, sullen tide that rippled drearily toward them. The gloomy wash of water receded. And there on the rocky slope lay something that made him nod understandingly.
It was not large. A greasy, shining blob of slime, featureless and repulsive, it was unmistakably alive, undeniably sentient!
The shimmering globule of protoplasm was drawn back with the next wave. When Ardath's eyes met Theron's, the dying man smiled triumphantly.
"Life! There's sun here, Ardath, beyond the clouds—a Sun that sends forth energy, cosmic rays, the rays of evolution. Immeasurable ages will pass before human beings exist here, but exist they will! Our study of countless other planets enables us to predict the course of evolution here. From the unicellular creatures will come sea-beings with vertebrae, then amphibiae, and true reptiles.
"Then warm-blooded beasts will evolve from the flying reptiles and the dinosaurs. Finally there will be ape-like men, who will yield the planet to—true men!"
"But it will take millennia!"
"You must remain here," Theron stated. "How many of us survived the voyage from Kyria? You must wait, Ardath, even a million years if it is necessary. Our stasis ray kept us in suspended animation while we came across space. Take the ship beyond the atmosphere. Adjust it to a regular orbit, like a second satellite around this world.
"Set the controls so you will awaken eventually, and be able to investigate the evolutionary progress of this planet. You will wait a long time, I admit. But finally you will find men."
"Men like us?"
Theron shook his head regretfully.
"No. Super-mentality is a matter of eugenically controlled breeding. Occasionally a mental giant will be born, but not often. On Kyria we bred and mated these mental giants, till eventually their progeny peopled the planet. You must do the same with this world."
"I will," Ardath consented. "But how—" "Go through the ages. Do not stop till you find one of these mental giants. He will be easily recognized, for, almost from infancy, he will be far in advance of his contemporaries. He will withdraw from them, turning to the pursuit of wisdom. He will be responsible for many of the great inventions of his time. Take this man—or woman, perhaps—and go on into time, until you have found a mental giant of the opposite sex. "You could never mate with a female of this world, Ardath. Since you are from another system, it would be biologically impossible. The union would be sterile. This is your duty—find a super-mentality, take him from his own time-sector, and find a mate for him in the more distant future. From that union will arise a race of giants equal to the Kyrians. In a sense, you will have been their foster-father."
Theron sighed and turned his head till his cheek lay against the bare rock of the shore.
"May the great Architect guide you, Ardath," he said softly.
Abruptly his head slumped, and Theron was dead. The gray waves whispered a requiem. Ardath stood silent, looking down at the worn, tired face, now relaxed in death. He was alone, infinitely far from the nearest human being. Then another feeling came, making him realize that he was no longer a homeless wanderer of space.
Never in his life had Ardath stood on a world's surface. The others had told him of Kyria, and on the pictorial library screens he had seen views of green and sunset lands that were agonizingly beautiful. Inevitably Ardath had come to fear the black immensity of the starlit void, to hate its cold, eternal changelessness. He had dreamed of walking on grassy, rolling plains…
That would come, for he knew Theron had been right. Cycads and ferns would grow where Ardath now stood. Amphibiae would come out of the waters and evolve, slowly of course, but with inexorable certainty. He could afford to wait.
First, though, he needed power. The great atomic engine of the ship was useless, exhausted.
Atomic power resembled dynamite in that it needed some outside source of energy to get it started. Dynamite required a percussion cap. The engine of the golden ship needed power. Solar energy? Lenses were required. Besides, the cloudblanket was an insurmountable handicap, filtering out most of the necessary rays. Coal? It would not exist here for ages.
A tremble shook the ground, and Ardath nodded thoughtfully. There was power below the power of seething lava, enormous pressures, and heat that could melt solid rock. Could it be harnessed?
Steam… a geyser! That would provide the necessary energy to start the atomic motor. After that, anything would be possible.
With a single regretful glance at the dead Theron, Ardath set out to explore the savage new world.
For two days and nights he hunted, growing haggard and weary. At last he found an area of lava streams, shuddering rock, and geysers. Steam feathered up into the humid air, and to the north a red glow brightened the gray sky.
Ardath stood for a while, watching. His quest was ended. Long weeks of arduous work still lay ahead, but now he had no doubt of ultimate success. The steam demons would set the atomic motor into the operation. After that, he could rip ores from the ground and find chemicals. But after that?
The ship must be made spaceworthy again, though not for another long voyage. Such a course would be fruitless. Of all the planets the Kyrians had visited, only this world was capable of supporting life.
As yet, mere cells of blind, insensate protoplasm swarmed in the sullen seas, but those cells would develop. Evolution would work upon them. Perhaps in a million years human beings, intelligent creatures, would walk this world. Then, one day, a super-mentality would be born, and Ardath would find that kindred mind. He would take that mental giant into the future, in search of a suitable mate. After dozens of generations there would arise a civilization that would rival that of Kyria—his home planet now utterly destroyed without trace.
Time passed as Ardath worked. He blasted out a grave for Theron on the shore where the old Kyrian had died. He repaired the golden craft. Tirelessly he toiled.
Five months later, the repaired space ship rose, carrying its single passenger. Through the atmosphere it fled. It settled into an orbit, became a second, infinitesimal moon revolving around the mother planet.
Within it Ardath's robot machinery began to operate. A ray beamed out, touching and bathing the man's form, which was stretched on a low couch.
Slowly consciousness left Ardath. The atomic structure of his body was subtly altered. Electrons slowed in their orbits. Since they emitted no quanta, Ardath's energy was frozen in the utter motionlessness of stasis. Neither alive nor dead, he slept.
The ray clicked off. When Ardath wakened, he would see a different world older and stranger. Perhaps it would even be peopled by intelligent beings.
Silently the space ship swept on. Far beneath it a planet; shuddered in the titanic grip of dying fires. The rains poured down, eroding, endless. The tides flowed and ebbed. Always the cloud veil shrouded the world that was to be called Earth. Amid the shattering thunder of deluges, new lands rose and continents were formed.
Life, blind, hungry and groping, crawled up on the beaches, where it basked for a time in the dim sunlight.
On August 7, 1924, an eight-year-old boy caused a panic in a Des Moines theater.
His name was Stephen Court He had been born to a theatrical family of mediocre talent—the Crazy Courts, they were billed. The act was a combination of gags, dances and humorous songs. Stephen traveled with his parents on tour, when they played one-night stands and small vaudeville circuits. In 1924, vaudeville had not yet been killed by the films. It was the beginning of the Jazz Age.
Stephen was so remarkably intelligent, even as a child, that he was soon incorporated into the act as a "mental wizard." He wore a miniature cap and gown, and was introduced by his parents at the end of their turn.
"Any date—ask him any historical date, my friends, and he will answer! The gentleman in the third row. What do you want to know?"
And Stephen would answer accurately. When did Columbus discover America? When was the Magna Charta signed? When was the Battle of Hastings? When was Lafayette born?
"Mathematical questions? You, there—"
Stephen would answer. Mathematics was no riddle for him, nor algebra. The value of pi? He knew it. Formulas and equations slipped glibly from his tongue. He stood on the stage in the spotlight, his small face impassive, a small, dark-haired child with curiously luminous brown eyes, and answered all questions.
He read omnivorously every book he could manage to obtain. He was coldly unemotional, which distressed his mother, and he hid his thoughts well.
Then, on that August night, his Me suddenly changed.
The act was almost over. The audience was applauding wildly. The Courts stood on each side of the boy, bowing. And Stephen stood motionless, his strange, glowing eyes staring out into the gloom of the theater.
"Take your bows, kid," Court hissed from the side of his mouth.
But the boy didn't answer. There was an odd tensity in his rigid posture. His expressionless face seemed strained. Only in his eyes was there life, and a terrible fire.
In the theater, a whisper grew to a murmur and the applause died. Then the murmur swelled to a restrained roar, until someone screamed:
Court glanced around quickly. He could see no signs of smoke or flame. But he made a quick gesture, and the orchestra leader struck up a tune. Hastily the man and woman went into a routine tap dance.
"Steve!" Court said urgently. "Join in!"
But Stephen just stood there, and through the theater the roar rose to individual screams of panic. The audience no longer watched the stage. They sprang up and fought then-way to the exits, cursing, pushing, crowding.
Nothing could stop it. By sheer luck no one was killed. But in ten minutes the theater was empty—and there had been no sign of a fire.
In his dressing room, Court looked queerly at his son.
"What was wrong with you tonight, kid?" he asked, as he removed greasepaint from his face with cold cream.
"Nothing," Stephen said abstractedly.
"Something funny about the whole thing. There wasn't any fire."
Stephen sat on a chair, his legs swinging idly.
"That magician we played with last week—" he began.
"I got some ideas from him."
"Well?" his father urged.
"I watched him when he hypnotized a man from the audience. That's all it was. I hypnotized the entire audience tonight."
"Oh, cut it out," Court said, grinning.
"It's true! The conditions were right. Everyone's attention was focused on me. I made them think there was a fire."
When Court turned and looked at the boy, he had an odd feeling that this was not his son sitting opposite him. The round face was childish, but the eyes were not. They were cold, watchful, direct.
Court laughed without much conviction.
"You're crazy," he said, turning back to the light-rimmed mirror.
"Maybe I am," Stephen said lightly. "I want to go to school. Will you send me?"
"I can't afford it Anyway, you're too big an attraction. Maybe we can manage later."
Stephen did not argue. He rose and went toward his mother's dressing room, but he did not enter. Instead, he turned and left the theater.
He had determined to run away.
Stephen already knew that his brain was far superior to the average. It was as yet unformed, requiring knowledge and capable training. Those he could never get through his parents. He felt no sorrow or pity on leaving them. His cool intellect combined with the natural cruelty of childhood to make him unemotional, passionlessly logical.
But Stephen needed money, and his youth was a handicap. No one would employ a child, he knew, except perhaps as a newsboy. Moreover, he had to outwit his parents, who would certainly search for their son.
Strangely there was nothing pathetic about Stephen's small figure as he trudged along the dark street. His iron singleness of purpose and his ruthless will gave him a certain incongruous dignity. He walked swiftly to the railroad station.
On the way he passed a speakeasy. A man was lying in the gutter before the door, an unshaved derelict, grizzled of hair and with worn, dissolute features. He was mumbling drunkenly and striving helplessly to rise.
Stephen paused to watch. Attracted by the silent gaze, the man looked up. As the two glances met, inflexible purpose grew in the boy's pale face.
"Wanna—drink," the derelict mumbled. "Gotta—they won't give old Sammy a drink…"
Stephen's eyes again grew luminous. They seemed to bore into the watery eyes of the hobo, probing, commanding.
"Eh?" the drunkard asked blankly.
Sammy's voice died off uncertainly as he staggered erect. Stephen gripped his arm, and the two went down the street. In a dark doorway they paused.
The foggy, half-wrecked brain of the tramp was no match for Stephen's hypnotic powers. Sammy listened as the boy talked.
"You're catching a freight out of town. You're taking me with you. Do you understand?"
"Eh?" Sammy asked vaguely.
In a monotonous voice the boy repeated his commands. When the drunkard finally understood, the two headed for the railway station.
Stephen's plans were made. To all appearance, he was a mere child. He could not possibly have fulfilled his desires alone. The authorities would have returned him to his parents, or he would have been sent to a school as a public charge. What man could recognize in a young boy an already blossoming genius? Stephen's super-mentality was seriously handicapped by his immaturity.
He needed a guardian, purely nominal, to satisfy the prejudices of the world. Through Sammy he could act. Sammy would be his tongue, his hands, his legal representative. Men would be willing to deal with Sammy, where they would nave laughed at a child. But first the tramp would have to be metamorphosed into a "useful citizen."
That night they rode in a chilly boxcar, headed East. Hour after hour Stephen worked on the brain of his captive. Sammy must be his eyes, his hands, his provider.
Once Sammy had been a mechanic, he revealed under Stephen's relentless probing. The train rolled on through the darkness, the wheels beating a clicking threnody toward the East.
It was not easy, for the habits of years had weakened Sammy's body and mind. He was a convinced tramp, lazy and content to follow his wanderlust. But always Stephen drove him on, arguing, commanding, convincing. Hypnosis played a large part in the boy's ultimate success.
Sammy got a job, much against his will, and washed dishes in a cheap restaurant for a few weeks. He shaved daily and consistently drank less. Meanwhile Stephen waited, but he did not wait in idleness. He spent his days visiting automobile agencies and studying the machines. At night he crouched in a cheap tenement room, sketching and designing. Finally he spoke to Sammy.
"I want you to get another job. You will be a mechanic in an automobile factory." He watched Sammy's reaction.
"Aw, I can't, Steve," the man protested. "They wouldn't even look at me. Let's hit the road again, huh?"
"Show them these," Stephen ordered, extending a sheaf of closely written papers and drawings. "They'll give you a job."
At first the foreman told Sammy to get out, after a glance at his red-rimmed eyes and weak, worn face. But the papers were a magic password. The foreman pondered over them, bewilderedly scrutinized Sammy, and went off to confer with one of the managers.
"The man's good!" he blurted. "He doesn't look it, but he's an expert mechanic, just the kind of man we need. Look at these improvements he's worked out! This wiring change will save us thousands annually. And this gear ratio. It's new, but it might work. I think—"
"Send him in," the manager said hastily.
Thus Sammy got his job. Actually he wasn't much good, but every month or two he would show up with some new improvement, some unexpected invention, that got him raises instead of dismissal. Of course Stephen was responsible for all this. He had adopted Sammy.
Stephen saw to it that they moved to a more convenient apartment, and now he went to school. Needing surprisingly little sleep, he spent most of his time studying. There was so much to learn, and so little time! To acquire the knowledge he wanted, he needed more and more money to pay for tutoring and equipment.
The years passed with a peaceful lack of haste. Sammy drank little now, and took a great deal of interest in his work. But he was still a tramp at heart, eternally longing for the open road. Sometimes he would try to slip away, but Stephen was always too watchful.
At last the boy was ready for the next step. It was then early in 1927. After months of arduous toil, he had completed several inventions which he thought valuable. He had Sammy patent them, and then market them to the highest bidders.
The result was more money than Stephen had expected. He made Sammy resign his job, and the two of them retired to a country house. He brought along several tutors, and had a compact, modern laboratory set up. When more money was required, the boy would potter around for a while. Inevitably he emerged with a new formula that increased the already large annual income.
Tutors changed as Stephen grew older and learned more. He attended college for a year, but found he could apply his mind better at home. He needed a larger headquarters, though. So they moved to Wisconsin and bought a huge old mansion, which he had renovated.
His quest for knowledge seemed endless, yet he did not neglect his health. He went for long walks and exercised mightily. When he grew to manhood, he was a magnificent specimen, strong, well formed and handsome. But always, save for a few occasional lapses, he was coldly unemotional.
Once he had detectives locate his parents, and anonymously arranged to provide a large annual income for them. But he would not see either his father or mother.
"They would mean emotional crises," he told Sammy. "There would be unnecessary arguments. By this time they have forgotten me, anyway."
"Think so?" Sammy muttered, chewing on the stem of his ancient pipe. His nut-brown, wrinkled face looked rather puzzled under his stiff crop of white hair. "Well, I never did think you was human, Stevie."
He shook his head, put the pipe away, and pottered off in search of his rare drinks. Stephen returned to his work.
What was the purpose of these years of intensive study? He scarcely knew. His mind was a vessel to be filled with the clear, exhilarating liquor of knowledge. As Sammy's system craved alcohol, so Stephen's brain thirsted for wisdom. Study and experiment were to him a delight that approached actual ecstasy. As an athlete gets keen pleasure from the exercise of his well trained body, so Stephen exulted in the exercise of his mind.
Unimaginable eons before, in the teeming seas of a primeval world, life-forms had fed their blind hunger. That was appetite of the flesh.
Stephen's hunger was the appetite of the mind. But it also made him blind, in a different way. He was a godlike man, and he was—unhuman.
By 1941 he was the greatest scientist in the world.
Before man created gods, Ardath was. In his space ship, swinging silently around the world, he slept as the ages went past. .
Sometimes he woke and searched, always in vain, for intelligent life in the land below. The road of evolution was long and bloody.
Dark weariness shrouded Ardath as he saw the vast, mindless, terrible behemoths of the oceans. Monsters wallowed into the swamps. The ground shook beneath the tread of tyrant lizards. Brontosaurs and pterodactyls lived and fed and died.
There were mammals—oehippus the fleet and three-toed, and a tiny marsupial in which the flame of intelligence glowed feebly. But the titan reptiles ruled. Mammals could not survive in this savage, thundering world.
Forests of weeds and bamboo towered in a tropical zone that stretched almost to the poles. Ardath pondered, studied for a time in his laboratory—and the Ice Age came.
Was Ardath responsible? Perhaps. His science was not Earthly, and his powers were unimaginable. The ice mountains swept down, blowing their frigid breath upon the forests and the reptile giants.
Southward the hegira fled. It was the Day of Judgment for the idiot colossi that had ruled too long.
But the mammals survived. Shuddering in the narrow equatorial belt, they starved and whimpered. But they lived, and they evolved, while Ardath slept again…
When he awoke, he found beast-men, hairy and ferocious. They dwelt in gregarious packs, ruled by an Old Man who had proved himself strongest of the band.
But always the chill winds of the icelands tore at them as they crouched in their caves.
Ardath found one, wiser than the rest, and taught him the use of fire. Then the alien man sent his ship arrowing up from Earth, while flames began to burn wanly before cave-mouths. In grunts and sign language the story was told. Ages later, man would tell the tale of Prometheus, who stole fire from the very gods of heaven.
Folk-lore is filled with the legends of men who visited the gods—the Little People or the Sky-dwellers—and returned with strange powers. Arrows and spears, the smelting of ores, the sowing and reaping of grain… How many inventions could be traced to Ardath?
But at last Ardath slept for a longer time than ever before, and then he awoke.
Dark was the city. Flambeaux were numerous as fireflies in the gloomy streets. The metropolis lay like a crouching beast on the shore, a vast conglomeration of stone, crude and colossal.
The ship of Ardath hung far above the city, unseen in the darkness of the night. Ardath himself was busy in his laboratory, working on a curiously constructed device that measured the frequency and strength of mentality. Thought created electrical energy, and Ardath's machine registered the power of that energy. Delicately he sent an invisible narrow-wave beam down into the city far beneath.
On a gauge a needle crept up, halted, dipped, and mounted again. Ardath reset a dial. Intelligent beings dwelt on Earth now, but their intelligence was far inferior to Ardath's. He was searching for a higher level.
The needle was inactive as Ardath swept the city with his ray. Useless! The pointer did not even quiver. The mental giant Ardath sought was not here, though this was the greatest metropolis of the primeval world.
But suddenly the needle jerked slightly. Ardath halted the ray and turned to a television screen. Using the beam as a carrier, he focused upon a scene that sprang into instant visibility.
He saw a throne of black stone upon which a woman sat. Tall and majestic, an Amazon of forty or more, she had lean, rugged features, and wore plain garments of leather.
Guards flanked her, gigantic, stolid, armed with spears. Before the throne a man stood, and it was at this man that Ardath stared.
For months the Kyrian's ship had scoured the skies, searching jungles and deserts. Few cities existed. On the northern steppes, shaggy beast-men still dwelt in caves, fighting the mammoth. But the half-men and the hairy elephants were rapidly degenerating. In mountain lakes were villages built on stilts and piers sunken into the mud, but these clans were barbarous. Only on this island were there civilization and intelligence, though lamentably lower than Ardath's own level.
The man from space watched the wisest human on this primitive Earth.
In chains the Earthman stood before the black stone. He was huge, massively thewed, with a bronzed, hairy skin showing through the rags he wore. His face resembled that of a beast, ferocious with hatred. Amber cat's-eyes glared from beneath the beetling brows. The jutting jaw was hidden by a wiry beard that tangled around the nose that was little more than a snout.
Yet in that brute body, Ardath knew, dwelt amazing intelligence. Shrewdness and cunning were well masked by the hideous face and form.
What of the queen? Curious to know, Ardath tested her with his ray. She, too, was more intelligent than most of the savages.
"These two are enemies," Ardath thought. "And I imagine that the man faces danger or death. Well, what is that to me? I cannot live in a time where all are barbarians. It is best that I sleep again."
Yet he hesitated, one hand resting lightly on the controls that would send the ship racing up into space. The barren loneliness of the void, the slow centuries of his dark vigil, crept with icy tentacles into his mind. He thought of the equally long, miserably lonely future.
"Suppose I sleep again and wake in a dead world? It could happen, for my own home planet was destroyed. How could I face another search through space? Theron and the rest had each other…"
He turned back again to watch the two people on the screen.
"They are intelligent, after a fashion, and they would be companions. If I took them with me, and we woke in a lifeless time, they could bring forth a new race which I could train eugenically into the right pattern."
The decision was made. Ardath would sleep again in his ship—but this time not alone.
He glanced at the screen, and his eyes widened. A new factor had entered the problem. Hastily he turned to a complicated machine at his side…
As Thordred the Usurper stood before the throne of his queen, his savage face was immobile. Weaponless, fettered, he nevertheless glared with implacable fury at the woman who had spoiled his plans.
Zana met his gaze coldly. Her harsh features were darkly somber.
"Well?" she asked. "Have you anything to say to me?"
"Nothing," Thordred grunted. "I have failed. That is all."
The huge, almost empty throne room echoed his words eerily.
"Aye, you have failed," the queen said. "And there is but one fate for losers who revolt. You tried to force me from my throne, and instead you stand in chains before me. You have lost, so you must die."
Thordred's grin mocked her calm decision.
"And a woman continues to rule our land. Never in history has this shame been put upon us. Always we have been ruled by men—warriors!"
"You call me weakling!" Zana snarled at him. "By all the gods, you are rash, Thordred. You know well that I've never shirked battle, and that my sword has been swift to slay. I am strong as a man and more cunning than you."
"Yet you are a woman," Thordred taunted recklessly. "Kill me, if you wish, but you cannot deny your sex."
A shadow darkened Zana's face as she glared venomously at her mocker.
"Aye, I shall kill you," she said. "So slowly that you will beg for a merciful death. Then the vultures will pick your carcass clean on the Mountain of the Gods."
Thordred suddenly shouted with laughter.
"Save your words, wench. It is just like a woman to threaten with words. A man's vengeance is with a spear, swift and sudden."
He paused, and a curious light grew in his amber eyes. His great body tensed as Thordred listened.
In the distance, a tumult grew louder and louder, like the beating of the sea. Suddenly it was thundering through the throne room.
Zana sprang to her feet, her lips parted in astonishment.
The vast doors at the end of the room burst inward. Through the portal poured a yelling mob.
"Thordred!" they roared. "Ho, Thordred!"
The giant grinned victoriously at Zana.
"Some are still faithful to me, it seems. They would rather see a man on the throne—"
A blistering curse burst from Zana's lips. She snatched a spear from a guard and savagely drove its point at the prisoner. But Thordred sprang aside, laughing, the muscles rolling effortlessly under his tawny skin.
He set his foot on the links of the chain that bound his wrists. His body arched like a bow. The metal snapped asunder, and Thordred the Usurper was free!
The guards near the throne leaped at him. He ducked under a swift spear at the same instant that his fist smashed a face into a bloody ruin. And then the mob surrounded him, lifted him, bore him back.
"Slay him!" Zana shrilled. "Slay him!"
The mob swept back, out of the hall, through the great doors and into the street.
But now Zana's cried brought a response. Armed soldiers rushed in through a dozen portals. They raced after the escaping prisoner, with Zana fearlessly leading them.
It was sunset. The western sky flamed blood-red. Down the street the crowd seethed, to halt in an open plaza. Grimly menacing, they turned at bay, Thordred at their head. He towered above the others with his chains dangling from his wrists and ankles.
Zana's men formed into a sizeable army, filling the street from side to side.
Arrows flew, hissing at the angry, triumphant mob. Over the city the low, thunderous muttering grew louder.
It was civil war.
But the conflict was not yet in contact. A space still lay between the two forces. Only spears and arrows had crossed it.
"Charge!" Zana shouted. "Slay them all!"
Grinning, Thordred raised high his lance and shook it defiantly.
The queen's soldiers drew erect, and like a thundercloud they began to move. Abruptly they were sweeping forward, irresistible, a tidal wave bristling with steel barbs. The pounding of then- shod feet hammered loud on the stones. In the forefront raced Zana, her harsh face twisted with fury.
Thordred let fly his spear. It missed its mark. At the last moment the giant had hesitated, and his gaze went up to the western sky. His jaw dropped in awe. For the first time, Thordred was afraid. A scream rose, thin and wailing.
"Demons!" someone cried. "Demons!"
The soldiers slowed involuntarily in their charge, then one by one they halted. Struck motionless with fearful wonder, every man stood gaping toward the west.
Against the blood-red sunset loomed actual demons!
Giants, scores of feet tall, they were. Titans whose heads towered above the city's walls. A whole army of the monsters loomed black against the scarlet sky. These were not men! Shaggy, hump-shouldered, dreadful beings more human than apes but unmistakably beasts, they came thundering down upon the city. The frightful masks twisted in ferocious hunger. They swept forward—
No one noticed that their advance made not the slightest sound. Panic struck the mobs. Both sides dropped then-weapons to flee.
From the sky a great, shining globe dropped. It hovered above the plaza. Two beams of light flashed down from it. One struck Thordred, bathing him in crawling radiance. The other caught Zana.
The man and the woman alike were held motionless. Frozen, paralyzed, they were swept up, lifted into the air. When they reached the huge globe, they seemed to disappear.
The sphere then rose, dwindled quickly to a speck and was gone.
Surprisingly the giants had also vanished.
Ardath adjusted the controls. Sighing, he turned away. The ship was back in its orbit, circling the Earth. It would not deviate from that course for centuries, until the moment Ardath's hand moved its controls.
He picked up a small metal box, stepped out of the laboratory and closed the panel. On the floor at his feet lay the unconscious forms of Zana and Thordred. Ardath set down the box.
This would be a new experiment, one that he had never tried. He could not speak the language of these Earthlings, nor could they speak his. But knowledge could be transmitted from one brain to another. Thought patterns were a form of energy, and that could be transferred, just as a matrix may stamp out duplicates. First, the man…
Ardath opened the black box, took out a circular metallic band and adjusted it about the sleeping Thordred's head. A similar band went about his own. He pressed a switch, felt a stinging, tingling sensation within his skull.
He removed the metal bands, replaced them and waited patiently. Would the experiment work? His lips shaped unfamiliar syllables. He had learned Thordred's language—but could the undeveloped brain of the Earthling be equally receptive?
Thordred groaned and opened his eyes. He stared up at Ardath. Into those amber eyes came a curious look that might have been amazement, but which was certainly not fear.
"You are not hurt," Ardath said in Thordred's harsh, primitive language. "Nor will you be harmed."
The Earthling stood up with an effort, breathing hoarsely. He took an unsteady step, reeled, collapsed with a shattering crash upon the thought transference apparatus. He lay silent and unmoving, an utterly helpless strong man.
No expression showed on Ardath's face, though the work of weeks had been ruined. The device could be built again, though he did not know if it should be. Had it been successful?
Thordred shuddered, rolled over. Painfully he rose and leaned weakly against the wall. His amber eyes rested puzzledly on Ardath as he asked a question in the Kyrian's soft language, which grated from his crude throat.
"Who are you, a god or a demon?"
Ardath smiled with satisfaction, for all was going well. He must explain matters to this Earthling to calm his fears. Later, he would rebuild the machine and teach Zana his own tongue. Then the three could sleep, for centuries if necessary.
But Ardath did not know that his device had worked too well. It had transferred knowledge of his own language to Thordred's brain, yet it had transferred more than that. All of Ardath's memories had been transmitted to the mind of the Earthling!
At that moment, Thordred's wisdom was as great as that of his captor. Though he had not Ardath's potentiality for learning more, unearthly, amazing wisdom had been impressed on his brain cells. Thordred had smashed the machine, not through accident, but with coldly logical purpose. It would not do for Zana to acquire Ardath's wisdom also. With an effort, Thordred kept an expression of stupid wonder on his face. He must play his role carefully. Ardath must not yet suspect that another man shared his secrets.
Ardath was speaking, carefully explaining things that his captive already knew. While Thordred seemed to listen, he swiftly pondered and discarded plans. Zana must die, of course. As for sleeping for centuries— Well, it was not a pleasant thought. Ardath must be slain, so Thordred could return to Earth, with new knowledge.
"The giants you saw in the sky," said Ardath, "were not real. They were three-dimensional projections, enlarged by my apparatus. I recorded the originals of those beings ages ago, when they actually lived and fought cave-bears and saber-toothed tigers."
No, they were merely images, but men had seen them and remembered. The panic in the city below had died. In its place grew superstitious dread, fostered by the priests. Time passed, and neither Zana nor Thordred returned. New rulers arose to sit upon the black throne.
But on the Mountain of the Gods, men toiled under the lash of the priests. Monstrous images of stone rose against the sky, gap-mouthed, fearsome images in crude similitude of the devils who had come out of the sunset.
"They may return," the priests warned. "But the stone giants on the mountain will frighten them away. Build them higher! They will guard our city."
On the peak the blind, alien faces glared ever into the sunset. And the days fled into years, and the dark centuries shrouded Earth. Continents crumbled. The eternal seas rose and washed new shores.
But the blind gods stayed to guard that which no longer needed guarding. And still they watch, those strange, alien statues on Easter Island.
New Year's Day, 1941, was a momentous hour for Stephen Court. Most of December, 1940, he had spent in his laboratories, engrossed with a task the nature of which he explained to no one. The great Wisconsin mansion, where he lived with his staff, had been metamorphosed into a fortress of science, though from the outside it resembled merely an antique, dilapidated structure. But nearby villagers viewed with suspicion the activity around Court's home.
The local post-office was deluged with letters and packages. At all hours automobiles arrived, carrying cryptic burdens for Court.
Slyly the villagers questioned Sammy, for he often wandered into the combination store and post office, to sit by the stove and puff great, reeking fumes from his battered pipe. Sammy had not changed much with the years. His hair had turned white, and there were merely a few more creases in his brown face. Since moving to Wisconsin, Stephen had relaxed the anti-liquor restriction, but Sammy had learned the value of moderation.
"What's going on up at your place?" the storekeeper asked him, proffering a bottle.
Sammy drank two measured gulps and wiped his lips.
"The Lord only knows," he sighed. "It's way beyond me. Stevie's a swell boy, though. You can bet on that."
"Yeah!" retorted somebody, with an angry snort. "He's a cold-blooded fish, you mean. The boy ain't human. He's got ice-water in his veins. Comes and goes without so much as a howdy-do."
"He's thinking," Sammy defended sturdily. "Got a lot on his mind these days, Stevie has. He gets about two hours' sleep a night."
"But what's he doin'?"
"I don't know," admitted Sammy. "Inventing something, maybe."
"More than likely he'll blow us all up one of these fine days," grunted the storekeeper. The loungers around the stove nodded in agreement. "Here's the tram coming in. Hear it?"
Sammy settled himself more comfortably. 'There ought to be a package for Stevie, then."
There was. The old man took the parcel and left the station. He stood for a time, watching toe train disappear into the distance. Its whistle sang a seductive song that aroused nostalgia in Sammy's bosom. He sighed, remembering the old days when he had been a hungry, carefree bindle-stiff. Well, he was better off now—well fed and cared for, without any worries. But it was nice to hear a train whistle- once in awhile…
He climbed into the roadster and zoomed off toward the mansion. Ten minutes later he let himself into the hall, to be met by an anxious-eyed girl in a white uniform.
"Did it come?" she asked.
"Sure, Marion. Here it is."
He gave her the parcel. Holding it tightly, she turned and hurried away.
Since her arrival three years ago, Marion Barton had become a fixture in the house. She had been hired, at first, as a temporary laboratory assistant, during the absence of the regular one. But she had interested Court who saw surprising capabilities in her.
The fact that Marion was altogether lovely—slim, brown-eyed, dark-haired, with a peach complexion and remarkably kissable lips—meant nothing at all to Court. He merely catalogued her as a perfect physical specimen, thoroughly healthy, and concentrated on the more interesting occupation of investigating her mind. What he found there pleased him.
"She's intelligent," he told Sammy, "and she is meticulously careful. I've never seen her make a mistake. She's such a perfect assistant for me that we work in complete harmony. The girl seems to know exactly what I want, whether to hand me a scalpel or a lens, and she's completely unemotional. I shall keep her on, Sammy, and train her."
"Uh-huh," said the old man, nodding wisely. "She does all that, and she's completely unemotional, eh? Well, maybe so. Sure she ain't in love with you, Stevie?"
"Rot!" Court snapped, but it made him think it was necessary to warn Marion. "I'll pay you well," he explained to her, "and give you an invaluable training. But I have no time for emotional unbalance. I cannot afford distractions. Do you understand me?"
"Well," Marion observed with desperate levity, "I'll wear horn-rimmed glasses if you want, and hoop-skirts if my legs distract you."
"Not at all. I merely mean that there must be no question of any—well—infatuation."
Marion was silent for a moment, though her eyes sparkled dangerously.
"All right," she said quietly. "I won't fall in love with you, Mr. Court. Is that satisfactory?"
"Quite," Court said.
He turned away, obviously dismissing the subject, while Marion glared at his retreating back…
She was remembering this scene now as she went into Court's laboratory. He was bent over a table, one eye to a microscope, his lips tensely pursed. Marion waited till he had finished his count. He straightened and saw her.
"Got it?" he asked calmly. "Good."
Court ripped open the package and drew out a small, leather-bound notebook. Hastily he flipped through the pages. His strong, tanned face darkened.
"Wait a minute, Marion," he called as the girl moved to leave. "I want to talk to you."
"Er—this is New Year's Eve, I know. Had you planned on doing anything tonight?"
Marion's brown eyes widened. She stared at Court in amazement. Was he trying to date her?
"Why, I did plan on—"
'I should appreciate it," he said, without a trace of embarrassment, "if you would stay and help me with some research tonight. I regret having to say this, but it's rather important. I want to verify certain tests."
"I'll stay," Marion assented briefly, but she flushed.
"Good. Stain these slides, please."
For several hours the two worked in silence. Court engrossed with his microscope, the girl busy dyeing the samples. Finally Court exhausted a small tank and conducted experiments in the vacuum he had created.
Time dragged on, till the huge old house was utterly still. The chill of a Wisconsin winter blanketed it, making frost patterns on the window panes. Inside the room it was warm enough, though snow lay thickly on the ground outside.
Presently Marion slipped out of the room and returned bearing a tray of coffee and sandwiches. She set it on a table and glanced at Court. Standing by a window, he was idly smoking a cigarette.
"What is it?" he asked, without looking around. His face was upturned to the quiet night outside as he spoke again, not waiting for her answer. "Come here."
Marion obeyed. She was astonished to see that Court's face was drawn and haggard, actually gray around the lips. But his eyes were feverishly bright.
"Up there," he said, pointing. "Do you see anything?"
The cold stars glittered frostily in an abyss of empty black. Some icy breath of the unknown seemed to blow down from the frigid, airless seas between the planets. Marion shuddered.
"I see nothing unusual," she said.
"Naturally. No one has. There's nothing visible, and yet—" Wearily he rubbed his forehead. "It's impossible that my experiments have lied."
"Drink some coffee," Marion urged.
Court followed her to the table and sat down. As she poured the steaming liquid, his somber eyes dwelt on her face.
"Are you game for an airplane trip into Canada?" he asked abruptly.
"As soon as I can arrange it. There's a man I must see, a— a patient."
Court gulped down untasted coffee and bunked tiredly.
"You should get at least a little sleep."
"Not yet. I don't know—" He came to a sudden decision. "Marion, you don't know anything about this experiment I'm working on. No one knows about it yet, except me. All this data I've been collecting lately has been for a purpose. You haven't any idea what that purpose is, have you?"
"No, I haven't."
"Well," Court declared, with curious calm, "it's simply this —I have reason to believe that the Earth is going to be destroyed. Wait a minute!" he cried hastily. "Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned this till I was absolutely certain. But I want to talk to someone."
His unrealized loneliness showed naked for an unguarded second on his face. He caught himself, and was once more impassive.
"The Earth is going to face a plague that will destroy civilization. Of that, at least, I am certain."
"A plague," she breathed.
"I call it that, for lack of a better term. Every being on this planet will be affected by it."
Marion looked at him sharply. Her lovely eyes narrowed.
"Affected? Don't you mean destroyed?"
Court pushed back his chair and rose.
"No," he whispered. "I don't." His grave lips went hard. 'Come here, Marion. Look at this."
He strode to a safe in the wall, opened it, and withdrew a small oblong box of lead. Set in one face was a round, transparent disc.
"Look through the lens," he commanded. "Don't get too close to that thing, though."
Marion obeyed. Through the tiny pane, she could see within the box a shining lump of matter, no larger than the nail of her thumb.
"It's phosphorescent," she said. "What is it—an ore?"
"A specimen of flesh taken from the thigh of a man named Pierre Locicault, a French-Canadian."
"Flesh?" The girl peered again at the object. "Was he exposed to radium?"
Court replaced the box in the safe.
"No, nothing like that. Locicault lived in a little settlement in a valley in the wilderness. A month ago he staggered into the nearest town, emaciated and nearly dead. His story was just about unbelievable. He claimed that one day a heavy fog—abnormally heavy—blanketed his valley, and affected the inhabitants peculiarly.
"They became incredibly hungry, ate enormous meals. Their skin became hot to the point of high fever. And they grew so old that most of them died. Locicault went for help, but nobody recognized him when he arrived in town. He looked thirty years older. What does that suggest to you, Marion?"
"Increased metabolism," she said unhesitatingly.
"Exactly. A rescue party was sent out. They found the corpses of a dozen old men and women in the valley, but no sign of what killed them. There was no sign of a fog, nor anything dangerous. Meanwhile, Locicault was luckily put into an isolation ward in the hospital. He ate tremendously. It was noticed that his skin emitted radiation. In the dark, his body actually shone."
Court lit a cigarette for a few abstracted puffs before continuing.
"His nurse caught the contagion. She killed herself. Locicault is kept in utter isolation now, for there isn't a doctor or a nurse who dares to get near him. When Doctor Granger wired me, I suggested lead insulation, so he could obtain this specimen for me to study. I want to see Locicault and make further experiments upon him."
Marion frowned. "You have other evidence, of course?"
"Naturally. Similar cases have been reported to me. This isn't anything new. Do you remember, about seven years ago, a newspaper story about a valley in France where the inhabitants were killed by a heavy fog? It was attributed to poison gas. Do you remember that West Indian island where life was wiped out overnight, without any explanation at all? People talked about volcanic gas.
"My files are full of apparently meaningless items like that. Freaks and sports bom to animals and humans. So-called ghost stories about apparitions that shone in the dark. There are dozens of other examples."
The girl shuddered as she thought of the tag of flesh she had seen.
"And do you think this is the beginning of a plague?"
"My graphs and charts show an upward swing. These occurrences happen more frequently as time goes on. Whatever causes them is growing more powerful."
"But what could cause such a thing?" the girl asked. "No virus could—"
"Not a virus. Filterable or not, they could not cause cellular radioactivity. This menace—this unknown X—is certainly not a virus. I don't know its nature, nor where it comes from. Till I know those factors, I can do nothing."
"Could it be a weapon of war?" Marion suggested.
"You mean— Well, scarcely! Once it's started, it's completely uncontrollable. X isn't man-made, for its record goes back too far for chemistry. It's a natural phenomenon, and our only clue is fog."
Court nodded, and his eyes grew distant with thought.
"Where does it come from—under the Earth? That's possible, of course, but hardly any of these cases have occurred in volcanic country. I think X comes from the interstellar void."
Marion's eyes widened in horrified recollection.
"That's why you've been getting those observatory reports! Photographs and spectra."
Court grunted impatiently. "They showed nothing, and that's what I can't understand."
"Maybe the conditions aren't right," Marion suggested. "Phosphorescence isn't visible in daylight. Perhaps X isn't visible in space."
Court didn't move, but his fingers broke his cigarette in two.
"What was that?" he demanded, startled. Before the girl could reply, he whistled sharply and turned to the window.
Of course, a catalyst! Some element in our atmosphere makes X visible, and perhaps dangerous as well. In outer space it can't be seen, but when it comes in contact with some element in the air—I think you've got it, Marion!"
He stared grimly at the dark sky.
"Up there, yet it's invisible. Perhaps a cosmically huge cloud of it is drifting eternally through space. We're probably on the outer fringes, so we've touched only a few tiny, scattered wisps. When Earth plunges into the main body—"
Court lifted a clenched fist, furious because he was such a tiny, insignificant figure against the mighty concourse of the starry void.
"An element so alien that we can scarcely conceive of it! We can realize it exists only by seeing its effects on Earth. What is it? What physical laws govern that frightful matter? Or is it matter, as we know it?"
He turned suddenly, his eyes hard and determined.
"We're leaving for Canada; Charter a plane. I'll pack the equipment I will need."
Marion paused at the door.
"Mr. Court—" she began, and hesitated.
Somehow, though, she could find no words. In her mind was the picture of Court at the window, challenging the Universe. A champion of mankind, he had made a magnificent gesture.
But then Marion saw his cold, grim eyes. Reading the expression in them, her face whitened as she realized suddenly that Court cared nothing at all for mankind. His motives were passionlessly selfish.
He was not a champion. He was a scientist, cold, calculating, egocentric, challenging an opponent that threatened his existence.
Whatever she had meant to say died in her throat, just as something died in her heart. She went out of the room and closed the door quietly behind her.
It was dark in the forest, though sunlight filtered down wanly through the branches. Truly the Earth had changed since Ardath had first set foot upon it.
He was not entirely pleased as he strode along, matching step with the gigantic Thordred. It did not seem to him that this world would be a suitable dwelling place. Thousands of years had passed since Ardath had taken Thordred from his home. Weary centuries had passed in ageless slumber, and a new civilization had risen. But somehow Ardath did not feel at home in this time. He sensed a subtle strangeness in the very air about him.
He sighed a little wearily. His plans had gone amiss. The death of Zana, the Amazon queen, had taken him by surprise. He had hoped to retain her as a mate for Thordred, but without apparent cause, the woman's sleep had changed to death.
A fleeting suspicion of Thordred had "passed through Ardath's mind, but he dismissed it. Though he had several poisons which might have caused such symptoms, Thordred could not possibly know of their existence nor how to use them. Not by a word or a thought had Thordred revealed that his brain held all the knowledge that had been Ardath's alone.
The two of them had set out to examine this new civilization, leaving the space ship safely hidden in the forest. They had captured two natives, learned their language by means of the thought-transference machine, and taken their clothing. With all memory of the encounter wiped from their minds by means of Ardath's strange science, the natives were released.
"They are puny folk today," Thordred said, his savage face twisting into a grin as he shifted the toga about his broad shoulders. "These garments scarcely cover me."
Our own garments might have caused comment," Ardath explained. "Let us hope that your size won't mark you for an alien."
Thordred spat in vicious contempt.
"I don't fear these weaklings. Why can I not carry a weapon, Lord?"
"I am armed," Ardath said quietly.
The huge Earthling did not answer. He had not wished to accompany Ardath on this expedition. If Thordred could have remained in the ship, he would have had free access to the laboratory. After that, there would be no need to fear Ardath or anyone else. But he had not dared to object when his captor ordered him to follow.
The forest thinned and the two men came out into blinding sunlight. Starting at their feet, the ground sloped down to a broad, shallow basin, a valley where a city lay. To the north was the serrated horizon of mountain peaks. Apparently they were volcanoes, for smoke plumed up lazily from one and spread in a dark blot against the blue sky.
"This is their chief city," Ardath stated. "Remember, if anyone asks, we are farmers from the outer provinces."
Thordred nodded, grinning more broadly than before. A farmer! His mighty hands were accustomed to sword-hilts, not the handles of plows. But he had good reason not to argue.
The metropolis was unwalled. Several unpaved but well trodden roads led into it, along which wains and wagons were creaking in and out. Most of the houses were of wood, some of stone, and a few of marble. Those built of marble were mostly temples.
Crowds filled the streets. There seemed to be two types of beings here. The roughly clad, bronzed peasant class, walked or drove their wagons. The aristocracy were carried in palanquins. There were soldiers, too, armed horsemen who nevertheless seemed slight compared with Thordred's giant frame.
"Here," Ardath said, nodding toward a low doorway. "Taverns are good places to hear gossip."
They entered the inn, found themselves in a large room, broad and long, but low-raftered. The stench of wine and beer was choking. Lamps illuminated the darker corners. Crude tables were set here and there, at which men lounged, drinking, cursing and laughing. Two bearded seamen were throwing dice on the floor.
"We are thirsty," Ardath said to the waiter who appeared.
He did not drink from the wine-cup that was set before him. Thordred, however, drained his at a gulp, and shouted for more.
"You are strangers here?" the innkeeper asked.
He took the coins Ardath gave him—curious bronze disks engraved with a cross within a circle. They had come from the pockets of the two natives Ardath had captured.
"Yes. It is our first visit."
"You come to trade?"
"No," Ardath replied. "We are here to catch a glimpse of the woman whose fame has traveled even to the outer provinces. Men say that her beauty is blinding."
"So?" The landlord asked, his eyebrows lifting. "What is her name?"
"That I do not know," Ardath said. "But I can draw her features."
He took from his garments a stylus of his own devising and hastily sketched a face on the boards of the table. The likeness was so nearly photographic that the innkeeper instantly recognized it.
"By the Mountain, you are an artist. That's Jansaiya, the priestess. She's beautiful enough, or so men say, only you can't see her. The priestesses of Dagon never leave their temple, and men can worship only during the Sea Festival. Once a year, men gaze on Jansaiya as she serves the god. You have ten months to wait."
"I see," Ardath said, his face falling unhappily. "And where is this temple?"
Having learned the directions, they left the inn.
"Why do you wish to see this wench?" Thordred grunted.
"She is the wisest in this time," Ardath said. "I learned that before we landed here."
Hovering high over the land in his space ship, he had located Jansaiya with his ray device, and noted her high intelligence. The unexpected death of Zana the Amazon still rankled in him. He had determined to secure a substitute, and Jansaiya was the logical one. She would accompany Ardath and Thordred into time, for he had decided not to remain in this civilization. It did not fulfill his requirements.
The two men reached the outskirts of the temple. As yet Ardath had not decided on any definite plan, knowing that first he must find the priestess.
"Wait here," he said. "Do not move away till I return."
The giant drew back in the shelter of a tree, watching Ardath cross the thoroughfare toward a gate where a soldier lounged on his spear.
The guard straightened, ready to challenge the Kyrian's entry into the city. Suddenly his eyes went blank and blind as they met Ardath's. Ordinary hypnotism worked well on these superstitious folk.
Ardath went through the gate. The bulk of a temple rose before him. Built of porphyry and onyx and rose marble, it seemed to rest on the sward as lightly as gossamer. Despite its hugeness, it had been constructed with an eye for proportion, so that it. was utterly lovely, a symphony in stone. A curving stairway rose toward bronze gates that stood ajar, with a soldier on guard at each side.
Quietly Ardath went on. The guards did not move, once they had felt the impact of his gaze.
He entered the temple, found it vast, with a high-arched dome, and smoky with incense. The floor was green as the sea. Jade-green, too, was the flat-topped altar that loomed before him.
Behind the altar the sacred trident reared, and smoke coiled lazily about its prongs. A shaven-headed, soft-faced priest turned to face Ardath.
"You have come to pay homage to Dagon," he said, rather than asked. "Where are your tributes? Do you come empty-handed?"
Ardath decided to change his tactics.. He fixed his stare upon the priest, summoning all his will. The man hesitated, spoke a few thick words, and drew back.
"You—seem strange," he muttered. "Your form changes."
To the hypnotized priest it seemed as though a light mist had gathered about Ardath's body. It thickened and swirled, and suddenly where had been the figure of a man was something entirely different.
It was Dagon, the sea god, as the priest pictured him in his own imagination!
The man went chalk-white. He collapsed on the floor, so paralyzed with fright and amazement that for a moment Ardath feared he had fainted.
"You know me," Ardath said softly.
"Great Master, forgive your servant…"
The priest babbled frantic incoherent prayers that sounded like gibberish.
"Bring the priestess Jansaiya to me," Ardath commanded.
"At once! At once!"
The man backed behind a tapestry and was gone. Ardath lifted ironic eyebrows, for this was altogether too easy. When he felt under his robe for certain weapons he had brought with him from the ship, he nodded. Hypnotism was a ticklish trick. It was undependable, whereas weapons were not.
But the priest returned, leading a veiled, slight, feminine figure. Both bowed to the floor.
Ardath lifted the girl to her feet. He pulled aside the veil, found that no deception had been practiced upon him. This was the priestess, the beautiful Jansaiya…
Wonderfully lovely she was, with elfin, childlike features that somehow held a certain sophistication, and even a suggestion of inherent, latent cruelty. Her hair was bright gold, her eyes sea-green. Though she was tiny as a nereid, her delicately symmetrical figure was not in the least childlike.
She came closer to Ardath. Suddenly he felt a searing pain on his arm and drew away sharply.
"This is no god!" Jansaiya cried, her voice like tinkling silver bells. "Blood flows through his veins. He is human, and an impostor!"
She drew away, a small dagger still clenched in her hand. Ardath glanced wryly at the long scratch on his arm, yet he caught the quick stir of movement.
As though by magic, the temple was full of shaven-headed priests. From behind the tapestried walls they came swiftly, forming a ring about Ardath. Their steel swords glittered no less coldly than their eyes.
"We, too, know something of hypnotism," one of them rasped in contempt. "There are ways of testing even gods."
Ardath thought quickly. His foes were at least two score. Hypnotism would be useless now, but he had other weapons. Under his gown was a projector that would have slain every priest in the temple, if he had cared to use it.
He did not. Ardath's alien philosophy forbade the unnecessary taking of Me. Instead, his hand, hidden in a fold of the toga, moved almost imperceptibly. A tiny crystalline sphere dropped to the green tiles of the floor and Ardath put his sandalled foot over it.
"Do you yield?" the leader of the priests asked.
Ardath smashed the globe with his sole, at the same time holding his breath.
Instantly a colorless, odorless gas diffused through the temple. The priests no longer could move. Frozen statue-like, they stood gripping their weapons and staring blindly straight ahead. The gas had a certain anaesthetic quality which warped their time-sense and slowed down their reactions tremendously. To their slowed vision, it seemed as though Ardath vanished instantaneously when he stepped aside.
Hastily he looked around, still holding his breath. The temple was silent. No new enemy had appeared. Ardath wrenched a sword from a motionless priest and held it lightly in his right hand. He strode quickly to the priestess and lifted her under one arm. Ardath was no giant, but his muscles were steel-strong, and Jansaiya was tiny.
Carrying his light captive, he hurried out of the temple.
The two guards at the gate had not moved. They remained passive as Ardath descended the stairs and went through the outer portal into the street. The sentry there was also motionless and silent.
But behind Ardath rose a clamor and an outcry.
Nowhere could huge Thordred be seen. He had not waited. Perhaps he had been taken prisoner.
Ardath's first step now was to return to the ship. After that, when the Kyrian gathered more resources, Thordred could be rescued. But at that moment there was no time for delay.
Bending low, Ardath ran along the street. The noise of pursuit followed close behind him, abruptly swelling to a thunder of iron hoofs. Down upon the Kyrian rode a horseman in glittering armor, sword lifted in menace. The bearded soldier shouted a searing curse. Out of the temple gates the priests poured.
"Slay him!" they yelled as they raced after Ardath. "Slay him!"
Ardath had no time to employ any weapon but the sword that was bare in his hand. He threw Jansaiya aside, out of danger. Quickly he reversed the blade, gripping it by the point. As the horseman thundered down, he flung the steel like a club.
The street exploded into a blinding blur of action. Ardath dodged aside as ringing hoofs clashed on the pavement. The soldier's sword screamed ominously through the air, but Ardath's missile had found its mark. Its heavy hilt had smashed against the horseman's bare forehead. The man was slumped in his saddle, unconscious. The weight of his sword had completed the slash.
Instantly Ardath was at the reins. He dragged the soldier down and sprang lightly into the saddle. He wheeled the mount. Reaching low over the side, he picked up Jansaiya and gently though swiftly put the limp figure across the saddle before him. The horse reared and charged down the street, scattering yelling priests before its thundering hoofs.
Never before had Ardath ridden a horse, nor even seen one of its kind. But eons ago, in the Miocene Age, he had studied the small, fleet Neohipparion. He instantly recognized the similarity between the modern and the prehistoric desert horse. Animals had never feared nor distrusted Ardath, for he understood them too well. The steed responded to the least touch of his hands and heels. Through the city it raced.
Three times Ardath had to use his sword, but only to disarm. It was not necessary to kill. Suddenly, then, the city was behind him, and he was racing up the slope toward the forest.
It was already late afternoon. The shadows lay long and dark on the sward. Ardath cast a glance behind him, saw that a horde of horsemen were riding hard in pursuit. He shrugged indifferently and looked down at Jansaiya.
Undisturbed, she still slept. He studied her face, realizing that it was lovely beyond imagination, though the perfect lips were somewhat arrogant, a little cruel. With his knowledge to combat those traits, he could make her a fit mate for any superior man.
But what had happened to Thordred? Ardath was beginning to grow worried. He could do nothing till he reached the ship, though.
It was sunset before he did. The titanic sphere rose above the tree-tops as it lay cradled in a clearing. A port was wide open, just as he had left it, but across the gap shimmered a pallid curtain of white radiance.
Ardath reined in, sprang from the saddle. Snatching down Jansaiya in his arms, he called out sharply.
Instantly the giant came out of a thicket, his savage face inscrutable.
Follow me," Ardath commanded briefly, and went toward the ship.
As he neared the port, the flickering curtain died. He entered, carrying his burden, and Thordred followed.
Ardath turned when they were all inside. The horse was quietly grazing where he had left it. When he heard the distant sound of shouting, constantly growing louder, Ardath sighed. He put Jansaiya down and closed the port. Seating himself without haste at the control panel, he sent the ship arrowing up from the forest.
The vessel hung in the air, hovering motionless. Ardath turned to Thordred.
"You tried to enter the ship," he said quietly. "I had forbidden that. Why did you try to do so?"
Thordred flushed, trying to evade that piercing though gentle stare.
"I came as far as the temple doors. When I saw the priests capture you, I thought you were helpless. I was unarmed, so I came back to the ship to find some weapon to aid you."
For a long, tense moment, Ardath's inscrutable gaze dwelt on the giant.
"No one can enter here save by my will," he said. "You would do well to obey me in future."
Thordred nodded hastily and changed the subject.
"The girl is awakening."
Jansaiya's green eyes slowly opened. The instant she saw Ardath, horror and hatred sprang into her gaze.
She looked then at the crafty Thordred. Suddenly and unmistakably, the giant Earthling realized that he had found an ally against Ardath. But he said nothing.
He waited, silent and passive, while Ardath spoke to Jansaiya in her own language, explaining why she had been abducted.
She listened attentively, and the Kyrian knew she did not regard him as a god or a demon.
Not for nothing had he sought out the most intelligent human of this particular time.
The Sun was setting when Ardath finished his explanation. Through the transparent window of a port, they could see the land that stretched beneath them, green and beautiful. Smoke plumed up from the volcanic range. The city, tiny and white, lay in the distance.
"You intend to put me to sleep?" Jansaiya asked incredulously. "For a thousand years?"
"A thousand or more," Ardath said quietly. "Your civilization does not suit my needs. Do you love it so well that you would refuse?"
"No," she responded. "Return to be imprisoned in Dagon's temple once more? No, I am glad to be free! But to have to leave my world forever…"
"Kingdoms die," Ardath pointed out. "Civilizations pass like shadows. When we awake, perhaps no man will remember your land."
Jansaiya rose and went to the port. The red Sun cast bloody light on her face.
"You are wrong," she whispered. "I am your prisoner. I have no choice but to obey. Yet if we sleep for a hundred thousand years, men will not forget my kingdom. All over Earth our ships carry wondrous goods. Our civilization is the mightiest in the world.
"It cannot die or pass. It will go on, through the ages, growing mightier. Not even the gods can destroy this land. Not even Dagon, Lord of the Sea, can destroy Atlantis!"
On the 2nd of January, 1941, Stephen Court left for Canada. His cabin plane contained two passengers and a good deal of equipment. Marion Barton went with him, and he had allowed Sammy to go along. The old man had been reformed in every other respect, but wanderlust can be removed from a man only by the surgery of death.
"I won't be no trouble, Stevie," he had argued. "I get itchy feet this time of year, and, besides, I never rode in an airplane. Anyhow"—his watery eyes narrowed cunning—"you'll need a handyman to do odd jobs. I can help you unpack and other things."
To save argument that would waste time, Court had agreed. It was a clear, bitingly cold day when the plane took off from the Wisconsin flying field. Luckily the weather reports were good. Though there was no danger of snow, Court flew at low altitude, fearing that ice would form on the wings.
The excitement of hurtling the plane at high speed made him uncharacteristically talkative. His gaunt cheeks were flushed, and he chatted with the others with unusual animation and warmth. Sammy did not talk much, but he listened and occasionally asked a question.
"Plague, eh?" he said once. "I was in the South once when a plague hit. It was pretty awful. Kids and women—we couldn't bury 'em fast enough. I sure hope it ain't like that."
"We'll see," Court said. "I can't do much till I examine this fellow Locicault. For that matter—" He frowned, pondering. "I really haven't enough equipment with me. I've got to bring Locicault back to my lab."
"But you say it's contagious," Marion protested. "How can he travel?"
"I've arranged that. I'm having an ambulance made ready. It'll be plated with several thicknesses of lead, which ought to be safe enough. They're sending the car after me as soon as it's ready."
"Oh," Marion said.
She fell silent, watching the mountains and lakes glide past below.
"You know," Court observed after a time, "I came across an interesting angle, a completely unexpected one. I've been getting photographs from most of the observatories. While I found no trace or my X in space, I did notice something else —a satellite of some kind circling the Earth. No one's noticed it before, it's so small and travels so fast. But it seems to be made of homogeneous metal."
"Smooth metal, Marion. Not pitted and rough, as an asteroid would be. It's made of pure gold, or some yellow metal that resembles gold."
The girl looked sharply at Court.
"A space ship?"
"Possibly. But why wouldn't it come down, if it is a ship? Has it been circling the Earth for ages?"
"But where could it have come from?"
"Some ancient civilization might have mastered space travel, though I doubt that. If it is a space ship, it probably came from some other planet."
"There's nothing in history about it," Marion said. "If one space ship could come here, probably so would a lot more."
"Nothing in history? No, but there's a lot in mythology and folklore. I'm just guessing, of course. I'm anxious to find out more about that highly unnatural satellite."
She was silent, fascinated by the thought.
"How can you reach it?" she asked.
"It looks impossible," he admitted. "Space travel is impossible to us today. That's one reason—You see, Marion, if it really is a space ship, it may mean Earth's salvation. To be completely rational, we must consider that perhaps the plague can't be conquered. If it is a space ship, we may be able to leave the Earth and go to another planet. If those worlds are also in danger, we could leave the System.
"We couldn't do that with modern rocket fuels. Suppose that strangely colored satellite is a genuine space ship, one that has already traveled across the interstellar void. Repairing it would be less work than inventing one."
"It's worth trying," Marion breathed hopefully.
"I may fail. That's why I want to find out more about X. The space ship's a dangerously long chance, and I don't want to gamble everything on one throw of the dice. When I see Locicault—"
Time wore on. Sammy asked innumerable questions about the plague, but when he exhausted his curiosity, he went to sleep. The plane sped over the Border and into Canada.
It was afternoon before they reached the landing field. An automobile met them and took them into town, another following with Sammy and the equipment. At the hospital they were greeted by Doctor Granger, a shriveled gnome of a man with one tuft of white hair standing straight up from his bald skull.
"Court!" he said in relief. "Am I glad you're here! Are you hungry?"
"No." Characteristically Court did not bother to introduce anyone. "Where's the patient?"
"In the left wing of the hospital. We've cleared out everyone else. You'll have to put on the lead suit. We have only one, unfortunately."
Court seemed transformed into a swift, emotionless machine. He hastily donned the form-fitting suit of canvas, with leaden scales sewed closely over the surface. As he followed Granger to the door, the physician paused.
"I'd better not go farther. I don't know exactly how far the radiation extends. It wilts gold-leaf at quite some distance."
Court nodded, got his directions, and clumped ponderously out the door. He went along the corridor until he found the patient's room. Any other man would have hesitated before entering, but Court was not like any other man. Without stopping, he pushed open the door.
The bare, white-walled chamber was spotlessly sterile. A case of instruments lay open on a table, a hypodermic needle in view. On the bed a man was sprawled.
Peering through lead-infiltrated goggles, Court came closer. Locicault was unconscious. No, he was asleep. His spare, wasted frame was barely fleshy enough to make a visible shape under the coverlets. On the pillow lay the withered, skull-face of an incredibly old man.
Locicault was twenty-three years of age.
His mouth was toothless. Hanging open helplessly, it revealed his ugly, blackened gums. His skull was hairless, with ears that were large and malformed, and his nose, too, was enlarged. The repulsive skin dangled in loose, sagging wrinkles. Pouches hung slack on his naked skull.
Court went to the window and drew down the shades. In the gloom a queer, silvery light was visible at once. It came from the patient's face!
Court stripped off the covers, exposing Locicault's gaunt, nude body. Like the ghastly face, it gleamed with a silvery radiance that did not pulse or wane, but remained steady.
"Locicault," Court called out sharply.
When he gripped the thin shoulder, the man shuddered convulsively and his eyes opened.
They were not human eyes. They were pools of white radiance, like shining smoke in eye-sockets.
"Locicault, can you hear me?" Court asked quietly.
A cracked whisper came from the withered lips.
"Yes… Yes, m'sieu."
"Can you see me?"
"I can—No, m'sieu, not with my eyes. I am blind—but I can see you, somehow—"
Court frowned, puzzled, as he pondered the weird reply.
"What do you see?"
"You are covered with—armor, I think. I do not know how I can tell this. I am blind…"
"I am a doctor," Court said. "If you can talk without pain, I want you to answer some questions."
"Out, m'sieu. Bien."
"Are you in pain?"
"No—Yes. I am hungry. It is strange. I am hungry and thirsty, but I do not want food. Something I do not understand—"
Court waited for him to continue. When Locicault did not, he went on with another line of reasoning.
"Tell me about this fog."
"There is not much to tell," Locicault said painfully. "When I left my home, I could not find my way. The fog was so heavy—and its smell was not right."
Stephen's eyes sparkled with interest under the thick mask.
"How did it smell? What did it remind you of?"
"I don't know. Wait! Once I was in the big power-house at the dam, and it smelled like that—"
Ozone? Court shook his head.
"Well?" he urged.
"The fog was cold at first, and then it seemed to grow warmer. I had the strange feeling it was getting inside of me. My lungs began to burn like fire. My heart beat faster. I was hungry, yet I had just eaten. . Doctor," Locicault said suddenly, without moving, "I am changing—more and more. When it started, I did not change much, but now—I feel like something that is not a man. Can you hear my voice?"
"Yes," Court soothed.
"That is odd. My mind is so wonderfully clear, but my senses—I do not seem to hear with my ears, nor speak with my tongue. I feel strong, though—and hungry—"
His scrawny head slumped, and Court saw that he had lost consciousness.
Whistling softly, with grim abstraction, Court returned to the main hospital where the others waited. Doffing his suit, he questioned Granger.
"It's progressive, isn't it? Doesn't the radiation get stronger?"'
"Why, yes," the physician replied. "For a time, anyway. Locicault was fearfully hungry. His metabolism was high, and this radiation got stronger every time we fed him. Yesterday, though, he refused to eat."
"But he's hungry," Stephen protested.
"So he says, and still he won't eat. The radiation is much fainter now."
"I see," Court muttered. "Get me a guinea-pig, will you? A rabbit will do just as well, if you don't have a guinea-pig. I want to try something."
Putting on the armor again and carrying a wriggling guinea-pig, Court went back to the patient. Locicault was still unconscious. For the first time, Court hesitated, staring at the pale aura surrounding Locicault's body. Then he slowly extended the guinea-pig till its furry side touched the patient's hand.
Gently the weak, bony fingers constricted. Closing upon the tiny animal, they did not harm it though it struggled frantically to escape.
The little beast went limp, seemed, amazingly, to grow smaller. Swiftly the phosphorescent gleam surrounding Locicault grew brighter.
"So that's the way!" Court muttered under his breath.
He disengaged the guinea-pig from the skeleton fingers and examined the animal. It was dead, as he had expected. Court silently returned to the others.
"You haven't been feeding him the right way," he explained, struggling out of the armor. He gave it to the Granger, who put it on. "Locicault is changing, slowly and steadily, into some form of life that is definitely not human. At first he ate normally, though in vast quantity.
"As his basic matter altered, Locicault lost the power to absorb food as we do, internally. He gets the energy direct— like a vampire, to put it melodramatically. He will kill any living being that touches him."
"Good God!" Granger cried in a shocked voice. "We can't let him live, Court!"
"We must, because I need him. I have to study the course of the plague in its natural progress. Locicault must be fed whatever he needs now—rabbits, guinea-pigs, and so on. I shall take him to my home as soon as the special ambulance gets here."
Sammy shuffled forward, wide-eyed with fear, but desperately stern.
"Stevie, don't take any chances."
Court ignored the old man as he ignored everyone else when his mind was absorbed.
"Marion, unpack my equipment. The ambulance should be here by tomorrow or the next day. In the meantime, I want to check every angle. Be sure that there's a supply of small animals for the patient. I don't know yet how much energy he needs, but he's broadcasting it at a terrific rate."
Granger, clumsy in the lead suit, already left the room. Court looked at his watch.
"Lucky I got here in time. If Locicault had died—"
"Can you save him?" she asked eagerly.
"Of course not! I don't want to, even if I could. I want to stop the plague, and to do that, I must watch it run its course in a test subject. Locicault happens to be the only one we know about. There may be new cases at any time, but I can't afford to wait. For all I know, there may never be another case till the final crack-up. Then it will be too late to do anything."
"What do you intend?" Marion asked, trying to hide her disappointment.
"I shall take Locicault back home with me, keep him in isolation, and feed him whatever may be necessary. Eventually the plague will run its course. Locicault may not die, but he may have to be destroyed."
The door slammed open. Granger burst into the room, ripped off the lead suit. His gnomish face was gray with horror.
"Court, he's dead!"
"What?" Court's jaw trembled with indecision. "No, he can't be. It's unconsciousness—" But already he was snatching the suit from Granger. "Get me adrenaline, quick, another guinea-pig!"
They sprang to obey. Bearing his equipment, Court raced away. The minutes ticked slowly past, lagging unendurably. At last he came back, his shoulders slumped.
"You're right, Granger," he muttered. "Locicault's dead. I was too late."
"You—" the physician hesitated, biting his lips in helplessness. "You'll want to have an autopsy?"
"No, it's no use. I must watch the progress of the plague on a living being. A corpse is no good for my purposes. I must wait. . Perhaps the plague will strike again. I—I don't know."
Court went to the window and looked out, his back to the others.
"Take precautions with the burial," he said after a time speaking in a strange, tight voice. "The contagion can still be spread. No one must touch him without lead-armor. You will cremate him, of course."
Marion came across the room to stand beside him.
"You're not giving up, are you?" she whispered.
"No, but I'm at a dead end now. Every hour I delay may mean—"
The others had shuffled despondently out of the room.
"We're going back, then?" Marion asked.
"Yes. I'll take a few specimens from Locicault's body, but it s useless. I can't bring back life to a dead man. Damn him!" he snarled with sudden fury. "Why did he have to die?"
Marion's lips trembled and she turned away. Court, after a brief hesitation, replaced the lead-glass helmet and went into the wing. He could, as a matter of routine, take samples of Locicault's blood and skin, though he knew that would do little good.
Court opened the door of Locicault's room and stopped abruptly, catching his breath. The blood drained from his cheeks. He reached out almost blindly.
"Sammy!" he whispered. "Oh, my God, you fool!"
The old man stood motionless beside the bed. In the dimness his face could not be seen. His scant white hair was pale as silver.
"Hello, Stevie," he said gently. "Don't go off the handle, now. After all, I'm not so young any more, and you needed a case of this plague to experiment on. If it's as contagious as you say, I guess I sure enough got it by now."
"Sammy," Court whispered through dry lips. "Why—"
He could not go on.
"Why?" The old man shrugged. "I dunno. I told you about that plague down South, with women and kids dying like flies. I know what it's like. If I can help you save women and kids, Stevie, I figure I've done a pretty good job. So it's up to you now, boy. It's up to you."
The Mystery of Dro-Ghir
Ardath was worried. As he sat immersed in thought, within the laboratory of the golden ship, he felt that he was little nearer to his goal. The barbaric hordes that overran the Earth in this new era promised little. Only in the far Eastern lands did the flame of civilization burn.
But would Ardath find a super-mentality' there? Would there be one he could take with him to a future age, to find a suitable mate? Or must he go on once more?
There was another matter, too. Neither Jansaiya nor Thordred had proved as intelligent as he had expected. At times Thordred was almost obtuse, despite his eagerness to learn new things. A flash of suspicion crossed Ardath's mind. Perhaps Thordred was pretending stupidity—
But why should he? Ardath, unused to guile and deceit, found the question difficult. He had saved Thordred's life, but humans were completely alien to Ardath. He had come from Kyria, a planet far across the Universe. He did not realize that humans sometimes mistrust and hate those greater than themselves, fearing power which, though benevolent, can also be used for evil. Besides, he knew that Thordred was ambitious, for the giant Earthman had conspired to win Zana's throne.
Ardath rose from his seat and pressed a lever. The veil of flickering light that barred the doorway died. He stepped across the threshold, and once more the barrier flamed with shimmering deadliness. He stood watching Thordred and Jansaiya as they sat near a vision screen, intent on the scene pictured there.
Thordred turned his vulture face, sensing Ardath's presence. "There is nothing new, Master."
Ardath smiled somewhat sadly and shook his head.
"How often must I tell you not to call me master? Because I have more knowledge than you, Thordred, does not mean that you are my slave. This eternal desire of Earthmen for enslavement…"
He shrugged bewilderedly and his thoughts went back to his home planet, Kyria, long since shattered into cosmic dust. Often he had dreamed of that world, which he had only seen on vision screens. Always he had awakened to this barbarous planet where men hated and fought and died for silly causes.
Truly the road of the ages was long.
Yet he knew there would be an end. Even here, in this Eastern land, the Kyrian had found a clue.
"Thordred," he said slowly, "and you, too, Jansaiya—I must leave you for awhile."
Intent on his thoughts, Ardath did not notice the quick glow that brightened the others' eyes.
"There is a man here I must know, and a mystery I must solve," he continued. "Barbarous hordes have overrun this country, huge hairy giants from the North. They are little more than beasts, but at their head is a chieftain called Dro-Ghir. He puzzles me. His acts are wise. His brain seems highly developed, yet he is filled with the violent emotions of a savage. This is a paradox."
Jansaiya's lovely eyes were narrowed. "You must leave us, you said?"
Ardath nodded. "Remain in the ship till I return. There is plenty of food, and no danger can touch you. I have only one warning— Do not attempt to enter the laboratory." He smiled as a thought came to him. "Though you know nothing of the apparatus there, yet you might harm yourselves."
"We will obey," Thordred grunted, his harsh face immobile.
Quickly Ardath made his preparations. As he opened the port, he turned. His gaze dwelt on Thordred, and there was a curiously mocking light in it.
"Farewell, for a time. I shall rejoin you soon."
He stepped out and was gone.
The girl made a quick movement, but Thordred lifted his huge hand in warning.
"Wait!" he whispered.
They waited, while the minutes dragged past. At last Thordred arose and went to the laboratory door. He fumbled over the wall, and abruptly the flickering veil of light died. The giant's face twisted in a contemptuous grin.
"Ardath is a fool," he rumbled. "Else he would never have left his laboratory unguarded, even though he does not realize that I know the secret of his brain."
"But do you?" Jansaiya asked. She stood behind the giant, peering over his shoulder into the laboratory. "You know nothing of his thoughts since you drew the knowledge from his mind, and that was ages ago."
"I know enough!" Thordred retorted, eyeing the apparatus wolfishly. "Enough to handle his weapons, once I get my hands on them. We shall follow Ardath now and slay him. Then this new world will be ready for conquests."
"I am- afraid," the girl complained. "Do not try to kill Ardath. Sometimes I see that in his eyes which makes me tremble. He is not Earth-born. Let us flee, instead, to where he can never find us."
"While he lives, we are not safe," Thordred growled. "Come!"
He sprang across the threshold—and was flung back! A wall of flaming blue light reared viciously before him. Crackling, humming, blazing with azure fury, the strange veil rippled weirdly. Sick with amazement and baffled rage, Thordred drew back, a stinging pain in his arm and his side. Jansaiya cried out and fled into a corner.
"He—he watches us!" the girl whimpered. "I did not think
so, but now I know he is a demon!"
Thordred was ashly-gray under his brown, hairy skin. His jaw muscles bunched. Like a beast he crouched, great hands shaking, as he glared at the ominous portal.
"Quiet! He does not watch. Ardath is clever, that is all."
"I do not understand—"
"One lock on a door is good, but two are better. Ardath had put two locks on this one." Thordred growled deep in his throat. "Does he suspect me? If he does—" He shook his shaggy head. "No, it is a precaution anyone might take. Let me see."
Thordred approached and gingerly tested the blue wall of light. It was as solid and resistant as metal.
"It is a new thing. I know many of Ardath's secrets, though not this one. Perhaps I can learn how to destroy this barrier before he returns."
Jansaiya began trembling with a new fear.
"If you do not, he may destroy us. Hurry, Thordred!"
"There is no need for haste. Let me see…"
The giant began testing the wall beside the door. Under his beetling brows, the amber cat's-eyes glowed as he worked. Presently sweat began to trickle down the swarthy face and run into the black beard. Could he find the secret of the barrier before Ardath returned?
Meanwhile, Ardath walked swiftly through the forest, his thoughts busy. The Kyrian had already forgotten Thordred and Jansaiya. He was pondering the mystery of the savage chief Dro-Ghir, whose actions were those of a genius, but who certainly did not resemble one in any way.
In a far later age, Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun would ravage the Earth as Dro-Ghir did now. Centuries later, the walled cities of China would again fall victim to the invader, as they had fallen before Dro-Ghir. Out of the Northern steppes the hordes of this scourge had come, huge hairy men on horseback. Their villages were crude collections of dome-shaped huts—yurts, they were called.
Eastward the ravagers had swept, and down the bleak coasts into Oriental lands. Westward they had been halted, for a time, by the vast mountain range that towered to the skies. In the South they had swarmed into a land of green, lush jungle and carved stone temples, where men worshiped Siva and Kali the Many-armed.
Like an avalanche, the hoofs of the invaders thundered across the Earth.
"Slay!" they shouted.
Their curved swords glittered. Their horse-tail standards shook in the chill winds that followed them from the North. Their spears drank deep, lifted, dripping red! Great beast-faced giants who rode like centaurs and fought like devils, they bathed the East in rivers of blood.
Slay! Show no mercy. Prisoners mutter and revolt, therefore take no prisoners. Only slay!
Over these barbarians Dro-Ghir ruled.
Ardath's vision screen had showed him that Dro-Ghir camped with a group of his men, not far away. But night had fallen before he reached the outposts and was accosted by a wary sentry.
In the moonlight, the guard's face was like that of a gargoyle. He lifted his spear—and held k rigid as Ardath's gaze met and locked with his. A silent conflict flared without words or actions between the two men.
As the stronger will mastered, the sentry turned and led the Kyrian into the midst of a group of goat-skin tents. Before the largest he paused. A few soldiers were sitting here and there by their fires. They looked up curiously, but none offered to interfere.
The sentry lifted the tent-flap and Ardath entered. He felt an involuntary tension as he faced the baffling Dro-Ghir.
A few small lamps of pottery, with wicks protruding from reeking animal-oil, cast a flickering yellowish gleam on the tent walls. There were some beast-skins scattered around haphazardly, but nothing more. A man reclined at length on a greasy fur, and he looked up sharply as the intruder entered.
Dro-Ghir was a giant as huge as Thordred. He wore nothing but a loose robe, which left his shaggy breast bare. His thick black beard was shiny with oil. His long, thick mustache had been twisted into two short braids and tied with golden wire. A fur cap covered his head. His face was that of a blindly ferocious beast. The low brow slanted back. The thick lips 'revealed yellow, broken tusks. In the shallow eyes was little sign of intelligence.
Ardath frowned in wonder. Was this the genius he sought?
Dro-Ghir surged up in one swift motion. His hand brought out a short throwing-spear, which he leveled at Ardath.
"Li Yang!" he roared. "Come here!"
Ardath had already taken pains to learn the language of the barbarian hordes.
"I mean no harm," he began. "I merely—"
"Peace, Lord," a new voice broke in. "He comes unarmed. Wait!"
Someone was crouching in the shadows. Ardath peered intently into the darkness. He saw a gross lump of a man, an absurdly fat Oriental who sat cross-legged in the gloom. Sharp black eyes, almost hidden in the sagging pads of the bland round face, stared back at Ardath. The tiny, red lips were childlike, and the domelike skull was bald and shining. Li Yang wore a loose robe, girt about his bulging waist by a golden cord.
Dro-Ghir had also swiveled to peer at the Oriental.
"Hear his words," Li Yang counseled, and picked up a lutelike instrument at his side. Idly he strummed the strings as he gave his advice. "There is no harm in words."
But Dro-Ghir did not release his grip on the spear. He stood with legs wide apart, watching Ardath.
"Well?" he demanded.
The Kyrian spread his hands in appeal.
"I come in peace."
"How did you get through the lines?"
"That does not matter. I have a message for you."
Dro-Ghir growled a savage threat deep in his throat.
"Let him speak, Lord," Li Yang whispered. Then speak—but swiftly!"
Swiftly Ardath told his story. He was still puzzled, and he grew more bewildered as he searched the dull, ferocious eyes of the chieftain. No understanding woke in them, yet Ardath plunged on, explaining his purpose, asking Dro-Ghir to come with him into time.
Finally he finished. There was tense silence as the lamps sputtered and flickered eerily. At last the soft twang of the lute murmured vaguely.
"What is your answer?" Ardath asked. Dro-Ghir tugged at his beard, while his hand was still clenched about the spear. Abruptly the Oriental broke in.
"Lord, I think this foreigner has strange powers. It would be well to make him welcome."
The Oriental heaved to his feet, a flabby behemoth from the furs, and the pudgy hand made a swift motion to Dro-Ghir. The chieftain hesitated. Then his face broke into a wolfish grin.
"Good. We are not enemies, you and I. Break bread with me."
Li Yang shuffled ponderously forward, thrust a cake of mealy, unleavened bread into Dro-Ghir's paw. The chieftain broke the cake into halves and handed Ardath one, stuffing the other into his capacious mouth. The crumbs that fell were caught in his filthy beard.
Warily the Kyrian ate. Something was amiss here, though what is was, he did not know.
"You will come with me?" he asked. "I am tired of using force. If you refuse, I shall merely leave you and continue my search."
"Drink!" Dro-Ghir roared.
He seized a hollowed horn from Li Yang and thrust it at Ardath. The Oriental gave Dro-Ghir another cup. The wine was hotly spiced and steaming. "In friendship—drink!"
The barbarian chief lifted the horn to his lips and drained it. Ardath followed his example. Slowly he lowered the cup. Li Yang was back in his corner, strumming at the lute. His voice rose in a monotonous Oriental song. "All men see the petals of the rose drift down, the jasmine fades, the lotus passes…"
Dro-Ghir stood motionless. Abruptly his huge hand tightened on the drinking-horn, and it shattered.
His hair-fringed mouth gaped open in agony. Only a choking snarl rasped out.
"But no man sees his own doom in the falling of the rose…"
The chieftain's body arched back. He clawed at his throat, his contorted face blindly upturned. Then he crashed down, as a tree falls, and lay silent on a dirty bear fur. A single shudder shook the gross form, before Dro-Ghir was utterly still.
Ardath caught his breath.
His glance probed the Oriental's sharp black eyes as Li Yang stood up hurriedly.
"We must go before Dro-Ghir's body is found. Most of the men are in a drunken stupor, as always after a victory. Hurry!"
"Wait," Ardath protested. "I do not understand."
The Oriental's bland face was immobile, but his black eyes twinkled with malicious amusement.
"Dro-Ghir signaled me to give you the poisoned cup. I gave him the deadly wine, instead. Listen, Ardath—that is your name, I think. Your words were not for this barbarian chief. Ever since Dro-Ghir captured me, years ago, I have served him with my wisdom. He spared me because I gave him good counsel."
Ardath's eyes widened, startled by the simple explanation. Li Yang had been the power behind Dro-Ghir's throne.
The Oriental was the genius who had inspired the invader!
"I am tired of being a slave," said Li Yang frankly. "Eventually Dro-Ghir would have doubted my wisdom, and would have slain me. Also, I do not like this savage world. Let me go with you, Ardath, into the future"—he glanced at the grease-stained furs—"where, at least, there may be more comfortable couches."
Involuntarily Ardath's solemn face relaxed in a gentle smile. He could not help liking this blandly frank Oriental, who played soft music with one hand while he administered poison with the other.
"Very well," he agreed. "Let us go. What of the guards— can we pass through their lines?"
"Unless Dro-Ghir's body is discovered. In that case, not even I will be above suspicion, so we must hurry."
The two slipped quietly from the tent and under a swollen red moon they walked through the encampment. Only when the fires had grown dim behind them did they breathe freely once more.
Li Yang pointed up to the smoke from the camp that drifted across Earth's satellite.
"Barbarian flames darken the Moon-lantern," he said softly. In future ages, the smoke may have drifted away. Not for many centuries, though, I think!"
Ardath did not answer, for he was concentrating on the brain of the man who walked beside him. Presently he sighed with an emotion that was close to despair.
His quest was not over. Li Yang was wise, far ahead of his time in intelligence, but he was not the super-being Ardath sought. The search must still go on through the eons. But Li Yang would be a good companion to have, despite his shortcomings.
After awhile, they came in sight of the ship.
The Oriental's lips quivered, though his face remained immobile.
"The chariot actually flies?" he asked in awe. "It is truly wonderful, like the fabled dragon of Sti-Shan."
On the threshold of the golden ship, Ardath paused a moment. His gaze went to the blue curtain that flickered across the laboratory door. Then he looked sharply at Thordred and Jansaiya, who were rising from their couches.
Jansaiya's elfin features betrayed nothing, though there was a hint of fear in the sea-green eyes. Thordred's beard bristled with apparent indignation.
"It is time you returned!" he growled. "Look!" He pointed toward the laboratory. Silently Ardath entered, Li Yang at his heels. Ignoring their apparent interest in the Oriental, he lifted his brows in a question.
"Enemies," Thordred grunted, his yellow eyes angry. "They came from the forest. I—" He looked away involuntarily. "I opened the 'door, which was wrong, I admit. But I was curious—"
"Go on," Ardath ordered unemotionally.
"Well, the barbarians saw us. They came toward the ship, yelling and hurling spears. I shut the port and barred it, but they hammered so hard on the metal I feared they'd break through."
"No spear can pierce the hull," Ardath replied quietly.
"Jansaiya was frightened, and I was weaponless. I thought I could find a weapon in your laboratory. But when I tried to enter—" He made a quick, angry gesture toward the threshold. "You do not trust us, I see."
"You are wrong." Ardath smiled suddenly. "I take precautions against possible enemies, but you are not my enemy, Thordred. The barbarians fled?"
"They gave up at last," Thordred blurted hurriedly. "But if they had broken in, we would have been slaughtered like trapped beasts."
Ardath shrugged indifferently.
"It should be forgotten. We have a new companion. And soon we must sleep again for centuries."
Thordred said nothing. His eyes were veiled, but slow rage mounted within him. Again he had failed. Not completely, though—He had not betrayed himself, and as yet Ardath suspected nothing.
They must sleep again, yet they would awaken.
Thordred's fist clenched. The next time, he would not fail!
The Living Death
Stephen Court was in his Wisconsin laboratory-home. With Marion and Sammy, he had returned from Canada and plunged immediately into a desperate succession of experiments. Slowly, painfully, he made progress.
"We have two goals," he told Marion, his dark eyes gleaming behind lids that were red with lack of sleep. "First—"
"First you've got to eat something," the girl interrupted.
She brought a tray to Court's desk and set it down. Silently he nodded his thanks. Wolfing a sandwich without tasting it, he kept on talking.
"Remember what I told you about seeing a golden space ship on an orbit around the Earth? I've been checking that. I have a hunch there's some clue connected with that ship."
"How do you figure that out?"
Marion perched on a corner of the desk, her trim legs swinging under the lab smock she wore.
"The ship was obviously created by some civilization far in advance of ours. That means their science was also in advance of today's. Perhaps in that vessel I can find some weapon—some method unknown to modern science—that will help me fight the plague. The very least it can do is set me on the right track."
Marion patted her dark hair into place, though she boasted that she had lost all the silly feminine habits.
How can you reach the ship? Space travel is impossible."
Court smiled. "It was impossible. Rockets are useless as yet, because the fuel problem's insurmountable. Balloons weren't practical. But there is a way of overcoming gravitation.
"Good Lord!" The girl slid down from the desk and stood staring. "You don't mean—"
"Hold on. I haven't done anything yet, except make some spectroscopic analyses. Marion, that space ship isn't made of gold! It's a yellow metal, an unknown alloy. I haven't finished analyzing it, but I know there's magnesium there, tungsten, and other elements. The virtue of that alloy is that, properly magnetized, it becomes resistant to gravitation."
"How?" she asked, amazed.
Court tapped idly on the tray as he replied.
"I'm just theorizing, though I feel pretty certain. Earth is a gigantic magnet. You know that. Well, like poles repel, opposite poles attract. If we could set up a magnetic force absolutely identical to Earth's, we could utilize that principle. So far it hasn't been done, except by the unknowns who built that golden ship. If I can duplicate the alloy—which I think I can do—and shoot the right sort of energy into it, we'll have a space ship."
"Whew!" Marion breathed, and she blinked. "Then you'll go out after—"
"The golden vessel? Yes. It may be a wild goose chase, for all I know, but the chance is worth taking. I may find scientific knowledge that will be just what I need."
The girl turned away with such haste that Court looked at her sharply.
"What is it?" he demanded.
She shook her head speechlessly. Court got up swiftly and swung her around to face him. There were tears in her lovely brown eyes.
"Tell me what it is!" he commanded. "What's wrong?"
She bit her lip. "You'll think I'm foolish."
"I said, tell me what it is!"
"I'm just superstitious," Marion burst out. "It isn't scientific at all. But for a minute I had the queerest feeling that— that—"
"Well?" he said impatiently, frowning and gripping her shoulders.
"That there's danger in that ship," she whispered. "Danger to you, Stephen. As though that golden ship had been waiting for ages, perhaps—just for the moment when you'd enter it."
He grinned ironically and sat down again. Gulping milk, he watched Marion laughingly over the rim of the glass.
"A sort of ancient rendezvous," he teased. "You're under a nervous tension, Marion. We all are," he admitted, sobering. "And there's reason enough, I'm afraid."
They fell painfully silent. Both were thinking of the man who lay alone in a lead-plated room upstairs. Sammy was already being ravaged by the frightful plague from outer space. Court got up, squaring his shoulders with decision.
"He didn't back down, you know, and I certainly won't run from a shadow. Get my suit, Marion. It's time to check up on Sammy again."
Nervously she helped Court don the armor.
"There's something going on at the village," she said. "Not a—a shadow, either. Since the plague has hit the newspapers, the villagers are frightened."
"Why?" Court asked, slipping on his gloves. "There's been only one case in this country as yet, and that was in Georgia. Europe, Africa, China? Sure. But—"
"Somebody's been talking. They know about Sammy. They claim that you're exposing the whole village to deadly danger by keeping Sammy here."
"Damned idiots!" He made an impatient gesture with his lead-gauntleted hand. "Sammy's completely isolated. There's no danger at all."
"They're not scientists," she argued. "Just ordinary people, most of them fairly uneducated. But they've got families and—Well, I'm afraid."
"The police can't touch me."
"It's not that." Marion bit her lip and paused. Then she shrugged. "It doesn't matter, I suppose. But I hope nothing happens."
"Nothing will," he assured her.
He went out, hurrying through a long corridor to a lead-plated door. When he knocked, there was no response. Making sure there were no gaps in his armor, Court entered the experimental room.
It was large, yet amazingly cluttered with apparatus. The lead walls dully reflected the dim light. On white-topped tables by the hospital bed lay gauges, indicators, and enigmatic looking devices.
The figure on the bed was completely unrecognizable. The metamorphosis had come so swiftly that Sammy was horribly inhuman in appearance. His skin emitted a silvery radiance. His face was a mere bag of loosely wrinkled skin, hanging repulsively about the jutting nose. His mouth was invisible below eyes that were gleaming but blind.
Court fought down the sick horror that tore at his stomach. He dared not give way to sentiment, nor even admit its existence. Before him was a test case, a laboratory subject. That was all. He must forget that he had ever known the old man, that the faithful regenerated tramp has been his only friend, his entire family…
"Hello, Sammy," he said in a voice that would not lose its choked quality. "How do you feel?"
There was no motion perceptible in the shrunken body on the bed. But a remarkably clear voice murmured a reply.
"None. I'm just hungry."
Court took a rabbit from a lead-lined box beside the bed, and placed it gently in the malformed talons that once had been Sammy's hand. Instantly there was a change. The small beast kicked convulsively and was still. The glow emanating from Sammy's skin brightened slightly.
"Yes. Thanks, Stevie."
Court drew up a chair and clumsily sat down in it. Through the lead-infiltrated goggles, his eyes probed. With gloved fingers he made adjustments on the apparatus, and carefully checked the readings on certain gauges.
"The change is progressive," he muttered under his breath.
Drawing a microscope toward him, he took a sample of the patient's skin cells and prepared a slide.
"Yes, entropy. . Incredible! I still can't understand—"
"What is it, Steve?" Sammy asked weakly.
"Nothing new. But I'll find a cure yet. You can depend on me, Sammy."
The hideous folds of wrinkles twitched in a ghastly semblance of amusement.
'Tour cure won't help me. I'm hungry again."
Court gave the old man another rabbit. Then he took pencil and paper, set a stop-watch on the table, and began the usual word-association test. Though simple, it had proved surprisingly effective in checking on the patient's mental metamorphosis.
But now Court was due for a surprise. The test proceeded normally, Sammy responding without much hesitation, though over two words—"man" and "We"—he paused perceptibly. Then Court said, "Food," and immediately Sammy responded, "Human."
Court made a great effort to control himself. He read the next word, and the next, but he did not even hear Sammy's responses. He was battling down the gorge that rose in his throat, yet this should have been expected. Sammy was absorbing life-energy from living beings, and the human brain contained the highest form of such energy. But what would be the result?
Sammy's replies lagged as he seemed to grow weaker. Court left him at last, with a few encouraging words. But when he hurried out, he was feeling worried and depressed.
It was past sunset, and he switched on the light in his lab. Removing the lead-armor, he sat down to think matters over. Sammy was no longer entirely human, for the change was progressing rapidly. His basal metabolism was tremendously increased. As Court had discovered, the very matter of his body was changed.
"Entropy," he whispered, nervously folding and unfolding his hands. "That's the answer, of course. But what it means—"
Entropy, the rate of the Universe's running down. A human body is composed of atoms and electrons, like a universe. If the entropic value of a life-organism is increased, what is the result?
Court was angry with himself because he did not know. He should have been grateful for not being able to see the future…
"Sammy's changing into another form of life, that's certain. And he absorbs energy directly through contact. I must take more precautions. He may be dangerous later."
Abruptly there was an interruption. The door flew open, and Marion burst in. Her brown hair was in disorder under her white cap.
"Stephen!" she cried through pallid lips. "There are men coming up the road!"
"What about it?" he asked, without interest.
"From the village. With torches. I'm afraid—"
"Those damned fools!" he snapped angrily. "Rouse out the men. Give them rifles. Tell them to spread through the house and keep its front covered from inside. When I give the word, they can fire."
Marion stared at him in horror.
"You'd—murder those men?"
Court's eyes were icy as he returned her stricken gaze.
"Why not? They're afraid I have a contagious case here.
But they're afraid for their own precious skins. They'd be willing to burn down the house and kill Sammy. Well, it's lucky I've taken precautions. Do what I say!"
His tone sent Marion racing out.
Growling an oath, Court went to the front door. He opened it and stepped out on the front porch. A bright moon revealed the scene. Before him the road sloped steeply down to the village, with a few trees that were blots of shadow on either side.
Torches flamed along the road. Twenty-five or thirty men —possibly more—were advancing in ominous silence.
Court put his back against the door and waited. The ignorant fools! He was trying to save their lives.
Quickly the mob formed a crescent about the porch. They were mostly villagers and farmers. Under other circumstances, they-would have dreamed and worked away their lives without ever embarking on such a hazardous venture as this. But now their work-worn faces were grim, and their sharp eyes narrowed with deadly purpose.
Court unfolded his arms. Though he held no weapon, the mob drew back slightly. Then one man, a lean, grizzle-haired oldster in overalls, stepped forward.
"What do you want?" Court asked quietly.
The old man scowled.
"We want some questions answered, Mr. Court. Are you harborin' a case of the Plague?"
The word was flatly emotionless, yet a mutter went up from the crowd.
"I s'pose you know that's contagious. There can't nothin' stop it."
There is no danger of contagion," Court replied. "I have taken care of that." He gestured at the flickering flames of the torches. "What do you wish to do—kill my patient?"
"Nope," the spokesman stated. "We want you to send him away from here, to a hospital. The papers say there ain't no way of stopping the Plague. I got two kids myself, Mr. Court. The rest of us, we're family men. How'd you like it if—"
"I tell you, there's no danger," Court snapped. His nerves, already tense with overwork and sleeplessness, were frayed beyond endurance. "Get outе" all of you, or you'll regret it!"
An ominous low roar went up from the mob. They surged forward, paused only when Court lifted his hand.
"Wait! I have a dozen men in the house, stationed at the windows, with guns aimed at you right now. Submachine-guns, some of them, and rifles. We can protect ourselves from lynch law."
The crowd wavered uncertainly. The oldster yelled a shrill protest. "We ain't lynchers, Mr. Court We're just aimin' to protect our folks. We got a car down the road a bit, and we aim to take your Plague victim to a hospital." Court laughed ironically.
"You poor idiot! You just said the Plague is contagious."
"Sure it is. But we got rubber gloves, and cotton pads soaked in antiseptic to tie over our mouths, and we'll wash in carbolic afterward. We just don't want our folks to run any risks."
"Rubber gloves!" Court snorted. "Only thick lead can protect you from the Plague. If you won't leave instantly, we'll use guns to convince you. And I warn you, I won't hesitate to do that if it's necessary."
"He ain't bluffing," one of the mob said nervously. "I saw a muzzle up there in that winder."
"Don't worry about it," the spokesman said. "We're comin' in, Mr. Court, unless you bring the man out to us."
As the crowd surged forward, Court raised his pistol and took steady aim at the leader.
"You set foot on the first step," he gritted, "and I'll put a bullet through your head."
The old man walked slowly, quietly, up the steps. Behind him came the others. Court's finger tightened on the trigger, yet he did not fire.
His face grew terrible at the conflict that raged within him. Stephen Court—man of ice and iron—torn by puerile emotion? Shoot! That was the logical thing to do. Shoot, to save Sammy, to save the experiment from these ignorant fools.
But the mob did not want to kill. Court knew that they were honest, hard-working men, who loved their families and wanted to protect them from danger.
The nearest was only a few steps from him. But Court did not fire, nor give the word that would have brought a searing blast from the upper windows. His lips twisted in agonized indecision.
From within the house came a scream. The door flung open and Marion Barton fled out, her face chalk-white. "Stephen! Quick!"
Court whirled, ignoring the besiegers. "What is it?"
"Sammy came into the lab! He was—"
A startled gasp came from the old man. He drew back, staring. A rippling wave of fear shook the crowd that had shuffled to the porch. With one arm around Marion, Court dragged her back. Just then, something came out of the door.
He knew it was Sammy. But the metamorphosis had been incredibly accelerated. Sammy was not even as human as he had been half an hour before.
His body could not be seen. A white shadow, with flickering nimbus edges, paused on the threshold. The pallid glow emanating from Sammy's flesh had become so brilliant that its lambent light entirely hid the frightful body.
Staring at him was like looking into the heart of an electric-light bulb, though the illumination was not strong enough to be blinding.
A shining, roughly man-shaped shadow, it stood on the threshold. And it whispered! A vague, wordless susurrus murmured out. Like the hum emitted by some electric contrivance, it was enigmatic and unhuman.
The shadow lurched forward. Its shimmering arms went around the old man in overalls. The spokesman shrieked as though the soul had been wrenched from his body. Then he fell, his body oddly shrunken, pale and lifeless.
Panic struck the mob. In all directions they fled back. The thing that had been Sammy seemed to glide down the steps in pursuit.
"Oh, my God!" Court whispered. His face was drawn with pain as he slowly took aim with his pistol. "Sammy—"
He did not finish. The shot snarled out in the night.
The glowing bulk was unharmed. With his breath catching in his throat, Court pumped bullet after bullet at it. It stumbled down the lawn, while the mob vanished along the slope.
"No use!" Court gritted between his teeth. "It absorbs every kind of energy, including kinetic."
He let out a shout. Glancing up, he pointed. From the windows above him came a burst of sound. Submachine-guns and rifles rattled lethally, concentrating their fire on the shining horror that moved into the night.
It vanished behind a tree and was gone. Marion gripped Court's arm.
"Poor Sammy! Can't we go after him?"
"That isn't Sammy," Court said grimly. "Not now. It—it's a horror, an alien thing out of another universe, perhaps. Yes, I'm going after it, Marion, but not till I've put on my lead suit. I'm not sure I can capture it, even then." He blew across the smoking muzzle of his gun. "A creature whose touch means instant death is loose in the countryside. And I don't even know if it can be killed!"
The Man from Carthage
Scipio Agricola Africanus sat in a dungeon beneath the circus arena. Through a barred grating, he watched one gladiator disembowel another. The stroke, he thought, was clean and good for the men from Gaul were like wolves, dark, feral and quick. Scipio rather hoped he would be matched against them, rather than against lions or an elephant. There was something about the feel of steel matched against your own sword that put heart into a man.
An armored guard, coming along the corridor, pushed open the door of Scipio's cell. His hawk face peered in.
"Your turn soon," he said.
"Good," replied Scipio, with a pleasant oath. "I grow tired of battling fleas."
The soldier chuckled as he bent to adjust a greave.
"By my Lares, you have courage! Too bad your dream failed. I would not have objected to serving under such a man as you."
"I failed because none of my men had the courage of a rabbit," Scipio spat in disgust. "Faith, we could have taken Carthage almost without bloodshed."
"Had your army not fled, leaving you to face the Imperial Guard alone!" The soldier shook his head, grinning wryly. "Nothing but trouble since you came to Africa, Scipio. It was bad enough with those damned Romans yelling that Carthage must be destroyed, but at least they had not tried to destroy it. And what did you do?"
Scipio's eyes lighted. He was a huge, swarthy man, with the scarred face of a gargoyle. His nose had been broken so often that it sprawled shapelessly awry. Atop that monstrous face, the ringlets of short, curly black hair were incongruous.
"What did I do?" the adventurer asked. "Faith, I tried to serve your king, but he would not let me."
The guard choked and spluttered his outrage.
"Jupiter! You got drunk and dragged the king off to some low gambling hell. No wonder you had to flee to the mountains after that! Then you got some insane idea about creating an independent city of your own. That might have worked, if you had gone far enough into the Nubian country with your followers. But you decided to take Carthage. Carthage!"
The soldier made an infuriating roar of merriment.
"Come within the reach of my manacled hands," Scipio invited pleasantly, "and I'll tear off your head with considerable joy."
"Save that for the arena," said the soldier, moving back slightly. "Tonight the cries will announce that the Carthaginian Scipio is no more. Only, you are not a man of Carthage, come to think of it. Are you?"
"Why not?" The giant captive shrugged. "Rome is a melting pot. The blood of a dozen races mix in my veins. I am a citizen of Carthage now, at least for awhile. By the way, how do I die?"
"Elephant. They have a huge tusker whom they've driven musth with rage and hunger. You are to face him on equal terms, both of you unarmed." He glanced cautiously over his shoulder. "I am to accompany you to the arena gate. And if you happen to seize my sword and take it with you—Well, such things have happened."
Scipio nodded. "Too bad you're not carrying a lance. However a sword must do. I can spill the behemoth's blood before it tramples me. Thanks, soldier. If you let me escape now, I'll make you a prince of the nation I intend to establish."
"Listen to the lunatic," the guard said, with rapt admiration. "In chains, penniless, and offering to make me a prince! A prince of dreams, mayhap. Anyway, my vows are to Caesar, and not the Roman Imperator, either. So you must remain a captive."
The filthy straw rustled under Scipio as he shrugged. A death-cry drifted in from the arena, then the triumphant roar of some ferocious beast.
"Well," said the soldier, "your time has come."
"I wonder." There was a curious look in Scipio's deep-set eyes. "Lately I have had a queer feeling, as though the gods were watching me. Perhaps…"
He did not finish. More guards came, and the Carthaginian was unfettered and escorted along an underground corridor. Almost naked, his brawny body gleamed like mahogany in the sharp contrasts of light and shadow that filtered in through bars. Then the arena opened before them. Scipio was thrust forward. He saw at his side the friendly soldier, turned so that his sword-hilt was exposed.
With a grin and quick movement, Scipio clutched the weapon and whipped it out. Before the startled guards could move, he ran forward into the hot sands of the arena. The soles of his feet burned, then cooled as he halted in a patch of reddened sand.
The blazing African sun flooded down in blinding whiteness. Scipio had only a vague impression of the crowd that filled the circus. He could pick out no individuals. He felt as though one vast entity, surging, whispering, watching, surrounded him, and the head of the entity was the canopied box of the Lord of Carthage.
Scipio shifted his grip on the sword. He brushed the curly hair from his eyes with one hand, and stood warily on the balls of his feet. A musth elephant, eh? Well, no man could resist such an enemy, yet a man could die fighting.
"Alas for my dreams of empire," the Carthaginian murmured, with a crookedly sardonic smile. "Faith, I might have ruled the world, given time. And now I must water the sand with my blood."
He turned to the Imperial box, lifting his hand in salute. The emperor nodded, expecting to hear the usual, "We who are about to die—" of the gladiators.
Scipio disappointed his host. At the top of his voice he howled the words that would most enrage the onlookers.
"Carthage must be destroyed!"
A wave of fury, a gasp of astonishment and rage, rippled around the arena. The emperor make a quick, angry gesture. Grinning, Scipio turned to see a barred gate far across the sanded arena rise slowly.
For a few heartbeats there was silence throughout the circus. The blinding white heat was oppressive. Steam curled up from the blood-stains on the sands.
Then the musth elephant pounded to the gate. Huge, monstrous, a gray, walking vastness of animated dull savagery, he lurched through the gate and stood motionless, only his bloodshot little eyes alive with hatred. The trunk did not move, save for the tip, which swayed back and forth slightly.
A shadow darkened the arena as a cloud crossed the Sun, and then was gone.
Scipio hefted the sword he held. It was a short-bladed weapon, useless unless he could hurl it like a javelin. It was even too broad to pierce an elephant's eye, the most vulnerable spot of the monster. Briefly Scipio thought of slicing off the elephant's trunk as far up as he could reach. But that would still leave the tusks and mighty tree-trunk limbs that could squash a man into red pulp.
"Well," Scipio said with grim amusement, "at least they had to use their biggest elephant to kill me."
His gargoyle face twisted into a fearless grin. In the glaring tight, he resembled a teakwood statue, thewed like a colossus.
The elephant came forward slowly, its red eyes questing viciously until it saw Scipio. It paused, and the trunk lifted, waving snakelike in the air. It snorted angrily.
Again the shadow darkened the Sun, and this time it did not pass.
The Carthaginian had no time to look up. He bent slightly from the knees, holding the sword high like a javelin.
The elephant broke into a lumbering trot. Its speed increased. Like the Juggernaut, it bore down on him…
Scipio had a flashing glimpse of the monster—flapping ears, murderously upheld trunk, gleaming tusks. The thunder of its approach was growing louder, booming in his ears. It loomed above him—
From the skies sprang a thunderbolt! Flaming with pale brilliance, the crackling beam raved down. It caught the behemoth in mid-stride, bathed it in shining radiance. And the monster vanished!
It was gone without a trace. The deep craters of its rush ended in the sand a few yards from where the shocked Scipio crouched. From the spectators rose a roar, terrified, unbelieving.
A golden ball of enormous size plunged down into the arena. Lightly as a feather it grounded. A port in its hull sprang open.
Scipio saw a thin, pallid man, with the ascetic face of a Caesar. He was clad in odd garments and was beckoning urgently. Beyond him, Scipio glimpsed a fat Chinese whose round cheeks were quivering with excitement.
A spear flashed through the air, rang impotently against the golden hull. Almost paralyzed with amazement, Scipio ran forward, leaped into the ship. What this miracle might be, he did not know, but it seemed to provide a means of escape. Whether the pallid man was a god or a devil, at least he seemed friendly. More important, to remain in the arena meant death.
The port slammed shut behind Scipio. He bounded through the inner lock and stood wide-legged, staring around. The sword was still gripped in his hand. Past him the pallid man strode, and entered an inner chamber. A quiver of movement shook the ship as it lifted. The Oriental waddled into view and beamed at Scipio.
"Relax, friend," he said, lisping the unfamiliar tongue. "You speak Latin?"
"Naturally," Scipio stated. "All the world does. Are you a god? I doubt it, for only Bacchus and Silenus are obese, and their skins are not yellow."
The Oriental shook with laughter until he had to hold his heaving belly.
"I have heard of this Bacchus. A new god, but he is a good one. Sit down." He waved toward a couch. "My name is Li Yang. Do you wish food?"
Scipio shook his head and sat gingerly on the soft cushions.
"You called me friend?" he asked.
"I might better have called you comrade. Ardath saw the hidden possibilities in you, dragon-face. He read your mind while you slept. Ah, but you have dreams of empire, poor fool!"
Li Yang shook his head, and his yellow cheeks swung pendulously.
"Ill-luck dogs me," Scipio said lightly, grinning. "The gods hate me, so I wear no crown."
"Nor will you. You are not ruthless enough. You could carve out an empire for yourself, but you could not sit upon a throne. Under all thrones the snake coils. You are too honest to be a kink, Scipio."
The Carthaginian had been about to answer, but he paused. His dark eyes widened, and a flame sprang into them. Ponderously Li Yang turned.
Two figures stood on the threshold. One was Thordred, but Scipio had no eyes for even that gigantic form. He was staring with a burning fixity at the Atlantean priestess.
She looked lovely indeed. Her delicate figure was veiled by a girdled robe, from the hem of which her tiny toes peeped. Her golden hair hung loosely about her shoulders, and framed the elfin features that showed interested admiration.
"Jove's thunderbolt!" Scipio gasped. "Nay, but this is a goddess! This is Venus herself!"
Jansaiya preened herself. Under her lashes the sea-green eyes watched Scipio slumbrously. She basked in the frank, open gaze.
"This is Scipio?" the priestess asked.
She came forward and put a small, shapely hand on the Carthaginian's brawny arm. He looked down at her, his gargoyle face alight with wonder.
"You know me? But who are you?"
"Jansaiya." The girl glanced over her shoulder. "And this is Thordred."
Scipio saw the giant for the first time, apparently. His gaze met and locked with Thordred's smoldering glare. The two men stood silent. Scipio did not notice when Jansaiya took her hand from his arm.
Li Yang's red lips pursed as he glanced from one to the other.
It was a sight worth seeing. Thordred was huge, elephant-thewed, hairy as a beast, with jutting beard and aquiline, handsome, features.
Scipio, though slightly shorter, was almost as huge. His gargoyle face grew stone-hard. Thordred's cat's-eyes glittered. A silent enmity flamed in those glares that met without speech.
Ardath broke the deadlock by coming out of the laboratory.
"We are moving out toward our orbit," he said, smiling. "Soon it will be time to sleep again. Perhaps next time. ." He sighed. "Meanwhile, though Scipio is not the super-mentality I need, he is a genius in his way. Let me explain, warrior."
Scipio nodded from time to time as Ardath told his story. The Carthaginian's quick brain grasped the situation without difficulty.
"You will come with us?" Ardath asked at last.
"Why not?" Scipio replied, shrugging. "The world is not ready for such a man as I. In later ages, countries will recognize my worth and kneel at my feet." The granite face cracked into a grin, and he glanced at Jansaiya. "Besides, I shall be in good company. To how many men is it given to know a goddess?"
Thordred growled under his breath while Li Yang chuckled. The fat Oriental picked up his lute and strummed softly upon it. His voice raised mellowly.
"My love has come down from the Moon-lantern. In the heart of the lotus she dwells…"
"And now—" Ardath turned toward the laboratory. "I must adjust my controls. We shall automatically fall into our orbit. For two thousand years we shall sleep, and then revisit the Earth."
He vanished into the next room.
"Fragrant are her hands as petals," Li Yang sang. "In her hair the stars dance."
Jansaiya smiled. Scipio grinned a silent, confident reply to Thordred's dark scowl.
Humming power throbbed through the ship, swiftly grew louder. Li Yang clambered awkwardly on a couch, gesturing for Scipio to follow his example. Sleep poured from the monotonous sound. Idly Li Yang touched the strings of his lute.
"Give me sweet dreams, dear goddess," he murmured.
Jansaiya reclined on a couch. When Scipio turned his head to watch her, her green eyes met his.
Thordred moved stiffly forward. His hand was hidden from view behind him as he stood beside the laboratory door.
The languorous humming grew louder, more compelling. Jansaiya slept. Li Yang's pudgy hand fell from the lute. Scipio's eyelids drooped.
Footsteps sounded softly. Through the doorway came Ardath, smiling his gentle smile. Perhaps he was dreaming that when he awoke, he would find his quest at an end. Not noticing Thordred beside him, he turned and fumbled over the wall with rapidly slowing fingers.
The skin around Thordred's eyes wrinkled as he fought to remain awake. His hand came up with the slow motion of encroaching torpor, and he gripped a heavy metal bludgeon.
He crashed it down on Ardath's head.
Without a sound, the Kyrian crumpled and fell, lay utterly motionless. Blood seeped slowly through his dark hair.
Instantly Thordred lunged through the doorway and reeled toward an instrument panel. If he could throw a single switch, the sleep-inducing apparatus would be shut off—
Louder the humming grew. Its vibration shuddered through every atom of Thordred's body. In the next room was absolute silence.
Thordred fell without feeling that he was doing so. The shock awakened him. He dragged himself to his knees and crawled on, his hand clawing desperately.
One finger touched the switch and helplessly slipped down. The giant Earthman crouched, shaking his head slowly.
Then he collapsed and sprawled out, silent. The yellow eyes were filmed with cataleptic sleep.
The humming rose to a peak that gradually began to die away. Inside the golden ship, nothing stirred when it reached its orbit and robot controls made swift adjustments. Around the Earth the vessel hurtled.
The lute fell from Li Yang's couch. A string snapped…
The Man from Earth
Stephen Court raced his roadster along a Wisconsin road as he peered through sun-glasses at the lonely countryside. Beside him, Marion Barton huddled like a kitten in the seat, the collar of her white blouse open for coolness.
"How long?" she asked.
"Couple of hours," Court grunted. "We pass through Madison first. The 'drome's fifty miles south of there."
Marion drew a notebook from her purse and thumbed through it rapidly.
"Everything's checked, I think," she reported absently. "Except the test flight. I don't believe the Temra was thoroughly inspected."
"Damn silly name the papers gave the ship," Court said wryly. "It didn't need a name. It'll make the flight, all right."
"And if it doesn't?"
He shrugged indifferently without glancing at her.
"Nothing much lost. For more than a month now, I've been working on the Plague—since Sammy got away—and I'm still at sea. Earth's science just isn't advanced enough. But perhaps I can find some more advanced alien science in that golden ship. Anyhow, we'll see."
"Why must you go alone?" she insisted, her voice not quite steady.
"Because there's only room for one. We can't take chances. There will be little enough air and supplies as it is. I'm the best man for the job, so I'm the one to go.'
"But suppose something happens!"
"I can't stop the Plague by myself. X is still unknown, as far as I'm concerned. The only real clue so far is entropy. I know that X is catalyzed by some element in Earth's atmosphere. It speeds up the entropy of a living organism, changes it into some form of life that might exist, normally, a billion years from now. But it's so alien!"
He switched on the radio. A news commentator was talking excitedly.
"Around Pittsburgh, martial law has been declared. W. P. A. workers are blasting out a deep trench around the city, and pouring deadly acids into it. Whether this will form an effective barrier, no one knows. The rivers are filled with floating corpses. The contagion is spreading with great speed. Nearly a hundred of the Carriers have been seen in Pittsburgh, and the bridges are choked with refugees…"
So there were still more of the shining monsters. Sammy had been one of the first, and he was still wandering at large, since nothing could capture or destroy him.
"The Carriers kill instantly by touching their victims. Lead-plated suits are being issued to the guardsmen, but these do not always work. It depends on the quantity of energy emitted by a Carrier. Dynamite has been placed at the New York bridges and tubes. The mayor is ready to isolate Manhattan, if necessary, for protection.
"The war is at a standstill. Troops are mutinying by the thousands. Every metropolis is being vacated. We estimate about three thousand Carriers now exist, widely scattered over the Earth. From Buenos Aires—"
With an impatient gesture, Court shut off the radio.
"No hope," he said. "The Plague is steadily on the increase. I must get to the golden ship and back as soon as possible."
They sat in silent despair as the car swept along the deserted highways. The landscape was incongruously peaceful. The green, rolling hills of Wisconsin stretched around them. A broad, lazy river flowed quietly beside the road. The only sound in the stillness was the humming of the motor.
Marion leaned her head back and stared up at the cloudless blue sky. All she could do now was let her thoughts drift. Suppose the Plague had never come to Earth. She and Stephen might be driving along together, under this same sky, and perhaps—
She blinked out of her reverie and lit a cigarette with unsteady fingers.
"Thanks," Court said, and took it gently from her.
She lit another for herself.
"Funny," she said.
Court nodded grimly, staring ahead.
"Yes, I know. All this changing—'Giving place to the new.' But God knows what the new order will be. A world peopled by beings of pure energy, eventually consuming all then-natural food, and dying off. Then there will be only a dead planet."
"Will it still be as lovely?" she asked softly.
"Lovely?" Court frowned, seemed to notice the landscape for the first time. His gaze swept out over the rolling hills and the placid river. "Yes," he said finally, in a curious voice, "it is rather lovely. I wasn't aware of it before."
"I didn't think you ever would be," she said.
He flushed. "I have had so little time—"
"It wasn't that. You never looked at the world or at human beings. You looked through microscopes and telescopes."
He glanced at the girl and his hand went out in a gesture that was somehow pathetic. Then his lips tightened. He drew back, again clutching the wheel firmly. He looked ahead grimly without speaking, not seeing the tears that hung on Marion's lashes.
They reached the air field soon after. The Terra had been wheeled out. A shining, golden cylinder, eight feet in diameter and twenty feet long, its ends were slightly tapered and bluntly rounded. It gleamed in contrast to the rich black loam on which it lay.
"Small," Court criticized, 'Taut we had no time to make a larger one. It'll have to do."
He helped Marion from the car and together they went toward the Terra. A group of mechanics and workers approached.
"All set," the foreman stated. "She's warmed up and ready, Mr. Court."
"Thanks." He halted at the open port. "Well…"
"Good luck," Marion breathed.
Court stared at her. Curious lines that had never been there before now bracketed his mouth. He looked away at the green hillside, and then back at the girl. His lips parted involuntarily, but with an effort he controlled himself.
"Thanks," he said. "Good-by, Marion. I—I'll see you soon." He entered the ship and closed the port behind him.
Marion stood quite silent, her fingers blindly shredding her handkerchief to rags.
The Terra rose smoothly, swiftly mounted straight up. Smaller and smaller it grew, a glittering nugget of gold against the blue sky. Then it was merely a speck—and it was gone.
Marion turned and walked slowly back to the car. Her lips were bravely scarlet, yet they quivered against the pallor of her face.
Court sat before the control panel, peering ahead through a porthole.
"Wonder what effect radiation in space will have?" he murmured. "It's leaded polaroid glass, of course, but the other ship had no portholes at all. They probably used some sort of televisor equipment that's beyond our contemporary science."
He could see nothing but the blue of the sky. It grew darker, shading to a deep purple. Faint stars began to twinkle, until countless points of light were glittering frostily.
"Sinus, Jupiter, Mars." Court sighed.
With the secret of space travel mastered, man could reach all the planets. With sufficient power, the interstellar gulfs might even be bridged. But how long would man continue to exist on Earth?
Hours merged into an unending monotony of watchful, weary vigilance. The Terra plunged on, gathering speed.
"Meteors might be a menace," Court mused, "unless the magnetic field deflects them. But that would work only on ferrous bodies. Still, nothing's happened so far." He changed his course slightly. "I'm doubtful about that space-armor. Spatial conditions can't be duplicated on Earth. Well, I've taken other precautions."
He had had the door made to fit exactly the port that had been telescopically visible on the golden ship.
A queer excitement grew stronger within Court as he neared his destination. He could not keep away from the transparent ports, for he was desperately anxious to see the golden ship. Some subtle instinct told him that the rendezvous might even be more important than he had realized.
How long had the space ship maintained its orbit beyond the atmosphere? Whence had it come? What strange secrets might it hold?
When Court found that his fingers were trembling slightly on the controls, he grimly repressed his nervousness. But he could not help wondering. Centuries—eons, perhaps—might have passed while the golden vessel circled the planet And now Stephen Court, man of Earth, was questing out to what destiny? He did not know, but some premonition of the incredible future must have come to him, for he shuddered.
"Somebody's walked over my grave," he muttered, with a sardonic smile at the whimsy. "Well, it won't be long now."
Again he turned to the port, and his breath caught in his throat.
The golden ship hung there, a mysterious, gleaming cylinder against the star-bright background of black space. Swiftly it grew larger.
As Court decelerated, his face was curiously pale. The Terra was easy to handle. He deftly pulled it alongside the other craft.
Hull scraped against alloyed hull, till finally the two ports were flush together. Court threw a lever and hastily spun a wheel. He was breathing unevenly, and his eyes were glowing with excitement.
The ships were held firmly together by an airtight rubberoid ring.
He rose, donned a gas-mask, and picked up a revolver. Then he went to the port and gingerly swung it open. The air remained in the ship.
Facing him was a surface of yellow metal, a scarcely visible crack showing that it was an oval door. Court pushed, but it did not yield. A blow torch might cut it, and certainly acids would bite through. But Court did not resort to these immediately. He fumbled with a powerful electromagnet and worked unavailingly for a time.
At last, in desperation, he used acids to eat a small hole through the outer hull. The air that rushed out was thin and dead, but far from poisonous. Grunting, Court reached through the gap and managed to open the port.
What he expected, he did not know. His nerves were strung to wire-edge, unbearably tense, now that he was face to face with the solution of the mystery. The port opened, and for a moment Court was weak with reaction.
He saw nothing but a short corridor, about six feet long, featureless and vacant. Naturally there would be an airlock, for safety's sake. He should have expected one. At the farther end was another door, but this one had a lever set in it.
Court walked forward and moved the lever slightly. The port swung open. Air gusted from the Terra to the golden ship. He stepped across the threshold and halted, staring around.
He was in a good-sized room, apparently only one of several in this huge vessel. Open doorways gaped in the walls. The chamber was bare, with nothing but a few couches.
But on the couches lay human beings!
A gigantic gargoyle-faced man was naked, save for a clout, his bronzed body glistening in the dim illumination that came from no discernible source. Another man, Oriental, fat as a Buddha, sprawled untidily on a pile of cushions. On the floor beside him lay a lute with one broken string. And there was a girl…
An elfin creature with ivory skin, her lips curved into a tender smile, she slept with her golden hair partially veiling her face.
On the floor near a doorway lay another figure, face down. Court crossed to it and turned it over. He stared at a slight form and chiseled, patrician features. That face had some vague yet unmistakable touch of the alien visitor to Earth.
Something caught Court's eye beyond the threshold of the next room. A huge body sprawled there, one hand outstretched toward an instrument panel.
Court strode toward it.
He halted, realizing that he was in a laboratory—but no Earthly one! He blinked in astonishment at sight of the apparatus surrounding him. Then, forcing down his curiosity, he knelt beside the prone figure and turned it on its back.
The man's face was handsome in an arrogantly ferocious way, though a black spade-beard jutted from his pugnacious chin. The giant lay motionless, and Court saw that no breath lifted the hairy barrel chest. Nevertheless he made careful tests, only to realize that the man was pulseless, apparently dead.
For some reason, Court was not convinced. Could corpses remain in such a perfect state of preservation? Was there not such a thing as catalepsy? He returned to the others, and found that they were equally lifeless, equally well preserved.
There was the long chance of a wild hunch. Court returned to his own ship and came back with heating pads and stimulants. He paused to consider.
Which one should he attempt to revive first? The girl? The Chinese? Why not the bearded man? His presence in the laboratory—the heart of the ship—indicated that he was probably a scientist.
With a grunt of decision, Court went to the prostrate giant and put down his burden.
Warmth must come first. The heating pads were arranged in armpits and thighs.
He followed them with adrenalin, with brandy, artificial respiration.
Court placed his hands in the proper position and forced air from the giant's lungs. Then back, and down again. Down, and up…
With a surge and a rush, the man came back to life. He flung Court off with a swift gesture and sprang up. His hand closed on the switch he had been striving for.
But he halted and whirled, his yellow cat's-eyes glowering at the smaller man.
He said something Court did not understand.
Rising to his feet, Court kept one hand on his gun as he watched the giant warily.
Abruptly the blackbeard strode past Court and into the next room. When he returned, he was grinning. He stopped at the door and stood with arms akimbo. After a moment he spoke slowly in Latin.
It was a language that Court, being a scientist, had studied with some thoroughness.
"I come from Earth," he explained. "The third planet of this Sun. I mean no harm. I awoke you—"
The other nodded. "I am Thordred. But there is no time to talk now. Tell me, swiftly as you can, how you found us."
Court obeyed. As he talked, Thordred went into the adjoining room and stood contemplating the silent figures. He stooped beside the slim body on the floor.
"Dead, I think. Yet—this is your ship?"
He pointed toward the port.
"Well, you will not need it. My ship is yours now."
A gleam of amusement shone in the yellow eyes as Thordred lifted Ardath's body and carried him into the Terra. He paused to study the controls. After making a careful adjustment, he returned.
The door of the Terra he closed behind him, then both ports of the larger ship. Court felt a touch of apprehension.
"Thordred," he said with quick anger in his voice. "What are you doing?"
The giant turned to a vision screen in the wall.
He flicked it on.
On the screen, Court saw the Terra, flashing away through space. He felt a sudden pang that chilled to cold rage.
Thordred grinned. "Slowly, Stephen Court. I have said that this ship is yours. As for him"—black hatred shone in the yellow eyes—"he was a renegade and a traitor. He tried to kill us all. He is dead now, but science and magic may bring even a dead man back to life. So Ardath is going where there is neither science nor magic—toward the Sun!"
"Yes. I set the controls on your ship. They were not difficult to understand. Ardath is doomed, if a dead man can die again. And now we will attend to the others."
He glanced at the silent figures on the couches.
"We'll awaken them?"
"One at a time. The girl first." Thordred hesitated. "Revive Jansaiya, Court, while I adjust the apparatus. We are going back to Earth."
"Good." Court smiled. "We need your help."
His throat felt achingly dry, for at last his search was at an end. With the science of this Thordred added to his own, the Plague could be fought, perhaps conquered.
Thordred was smiling triumphantly as he went into the laboratory.
The Sleepers Awake
Court busied himself with the golden-haired girl. Jansaiya's feline, sophisticated green eyes, and the vague suggestion of cruelty about her lips, were not apparent now as she lay in cataleptic sleep. Rather she seemed some elfin creature out of Earth's myth-haunted past, a daughter of Neptune.
The gossamer, violet-tinted robe scarcely veiled the alluring curves of her slim form. Her lashes lay golden on the rose-petal cheeks. She seemed so helpless, so childlike. Utterly trusting, she lay curled like a kitten on the couch.
The poignant loveliness of the Atlantean girl was suddenly an aching stab in Court's heart. He felt no passion for her, no infatuation. She was too completely removed from mundane life for that. But Jansaiya curiously seemed to typify and embody for Court something he had never known. Out of the world's youth, she was youth, a symbol of the dreams that most men know before they grow too old.
Staring down at Jansaiya, Court realized that he had never known youth and wondrous dreams. Unexpectedly he thought of Marion Barton, whom he had left on Earth. He put her out of his mind by working swiftly.
Occasionally Thordred came to the door of the laboratory to watch, but as time wore on the giant appeared less often. Though he had learned much when the thought-transference helmet had given him the knowledge of Ardath's brain, Thordred had not acquired the Kyrian's super-mentality.
Guiding the ship back to Earth was a difficult task. Besides, he was busy making certain adjustments on the thought-helmet. So he remained in the laboratory, and did not see Jansaiya waken.
Court had turned away to stare curiously at the other two sleepers, Li Yang and Scipio the Carthaginian. The giant warrior puzzled him. Since the man wore only a breech-clout, Court found it hard to guess his origin. The color of the skin was Negroid, but the thin, firm, harsh lips and the hair certainly were not. Li Yang, though, was obviously an Oriental. What did that mean? Had this space ship actually come from another world?
The golden-haired girl might have been born on an alien planet—perhaps even Thordred and the sleeping, naked giant. But the Oriental? Court frowned, and then glanced at Jansaiya as she stirred.
She had been breathing regularly for some time. Now her lashes fluttered and the green eyes opened. When she looked up at Court, a soft, wordless sound of inquiry murmured from the red lips.
"Athloyee s'ya voh—"
Court matched the girl's language, which he did not know was Atlantean, with Latin.
"Don't try to talk yet. You are safe."
The brows wrinkled in puzzlement as the cruel gaze scrutinized him.
"I am safe? Of course. But where is Ardath?"
Court paused, startled at the look on Jansaiya's face. He saw fear, and incredulous amazement, and a soft smile of evil triumph that repelled him.
"Dead?" She turned her head and looked across the room. "Li Yang. Yes. And Scipio. But Thordred, is he dead also?"
"No. Shall I get him?"
Court rose, but halted as a slim hand touched him.
"Wait. Who are you?"
Before he could reply, Thordred's harsh voice broke in.
"Jansaiya! You are awake? Good!"
The giant strode into the room, his amber eyes intent on the girl. Briefly they flickered toward Court.
"We are in the atmosphere now. There is not much time. Come with me."
Thordred made a quick, stealthy signal to Jansaiya, which Court failed to understand. The Atlantean girl pursed her lips but said nothing.
In the laboratory, Thordred pointed to a chair.
"Sit down, Court. Put on this helmet."
He picked up a bulky head-piece, crowned with helical wires, and extended it. Court hesitated.
"What is it?" he asked cautiously.
"Nothing dangerous. It will teach you my language, and teach me yours. Certain memory patterns—knowledge of our native tongue—will be transferred from my brain to yours, and vice versa. Come."
Thordred placed a duplicate helmet on his own head and sat down. Some inexplicable impulse made Court resist.
"I'm not sure—"
The giant grinned suddenly.
"I told you I mean you no harm. If I had wanted to kill you, I could have done it long ago. I need your knowledge, and you need mine." Thordred chuckled at some secret thought. "And it is best that we know each other's language."
Court nodded and slipped the helmet on his head. Simultaneously Thordred leaned forward and touched a keyboard, there was a whining crackle of released energy. Court felt the momentary agony of intolerable stricture about his skull, then it was gone. The scene before him was blotted out by a curtain of darkness. He lost consciousness…
It seemed scarcely a second later when he awoke. Painfully opening his eyes, he saw that the laboratory was empty. His head ached fearfully. The helmet, however, was gone, as he discovered by investigating with his hands.
"Awake, eh?" The words were unmistakably in English. Thordred stood on the threshold. He went to a shelf, took a flask from it, and gave it to Court. "Drink this. It's a stimulant. Not like your—what was it—brandy, but equally potent."
Court gulped the fluid, which was tasteless and incredibly cold. Immediately his headache was gone. He glanced up at the giant.
"You learned English, I see. That helmet's a handy gadget. But I didn't learn your language!"
"No," Thordred admitted. "The adjustment wasn't quite accurate. But it doesn't matter. There's plenty of time. Meanwhile, as you say, I can talk English. Only that was necessary for us to be able to discuss scientific principles."
Stephen saw the common sense of that. There were no ancient Latin terms for modern scientific theories and devices.
"Where are we now?" he asked.
"On Earth." Thordred glanced searchingly at him. "Court, I'll be frank with you. I learned more than merely your language from your mind. The Plague that worries you, for example. I acquired your memory of that."
Court's dark face twisted in a scowl as he felt the premonition of danger. Just how much had Thordred learned from him? He shrugged, knowing that it did not matter. The bearded giant was a friend, the only strong ally on Earth. Why look for trouble where none existed?
"I've decided what's best to be done," Thordred said. "This Plague—I know no more about it than you do. I don't know its origin or nature, nor any way of defeating it."
Court leaped to his feet, a sick emptiness in his stomach.
"Thordred! With your science and mine, we should be able to find some way of conquering it."
"There's only one way. Earth is doomed. Anyone who remains will eventually be destroyed. But this is a space ship, Court, and it isn't necessary for us to wait for destruction." With a lifted hand, Thordred forestalled interruption. "Wait. There are other planets where life is possible, where the Plague doesn't exist. We can carry from fifty to seventy passengers, men and women. That will be enough to start a new race and civilization on another world."
"No!" Court scarcely knew he spoke. "You mean go off and leave the world to doom?"
"What good would it be to stay? We'd merely guarantee our own destruction. You're a strong, intelligent man, Court, the sort of person I want in the civilization I shall build. That's why I did not kill you."
Court's eyes narrowed. There was a dead silence. Thordred's chill glance did not falter.
"I can kill you, even now, quite easily," he went on slowly. "But the choice is yours. Join me, serve me with your fine brain and muscles, and you need not die. What's your answer?"
Court was silent, trying to analyze his feelings. Of course his anxiety to defeat the Plague was purely scientific. How could he, a super-intellect, feel any sympathy for ordinary men and women? What did it matter if Earth died, as long as a new civilization would be built on a distant, safer world?
A bell rang sharply through the ship. When Thordred flicked on a vision screen, Court stared at it.
The space ship had landed in what seemed to be a park. Suddenly he recognized it as Central Park, in New York. About the ship, a cordon of police was keeping back a surging crowd. A small group of uniformed men huddled close to the hull, using an acetylene torch to burn through the metal.
Thordred grinned. "Perhaps I could have landed in a less populated spot, but I'm impregnable, with the weapons at my command. One flash of a certain ray, and that crowd will be burned to cinders."
("You don't intend to—" Court heard himself saying.
"But I do. The sooner Earth learns my power, the better!"
Thordred turned and went to a control board. Stephen Court stared at him. The emotions he had rigidly subdued all his We were flooding up into that cold brain of his. But it was not cold now. Burning in Court's mind was the face of Marion Barton, tender with humanity. He saw the face of old Sammy, brown and wrinkled. Sammy had sacrificed himself for an ideal in which Court did not believe.
He had not believed in it till now. Court's heritage, the basic humanity in him, suddenly flooded through the artificial barriers of restraint. He had fought the Plague to save men and women from horrible death, though he had not realized his true motive till now. Falsely he had told himself that he was a scientific machine. He had almost hypnotized himself into believing it. But all along, Court realized now, his motives had been those of common humanity.
A super-mentality, perhaps, but first of all he was a man! He would instinctively fight to protect those weaker than himself, even against insuperable odds.
Court's breath caught in his throat as he saw Thordred push a lever in the control board. With silent desperation he hurled himself at the bearded giant.
He was hurled back by a paralyzing shock. Thordred whirled, his mouth gaping. As Court tensed himself for another leap, the giant halted him with a lifted hand.
"You fool, you can't penetrate this force screen around my body. Stay where you are!"
Court did not move, but his lean figure quivered with suppressed fury.
"You have your science, Thordred, but so have I."
"Your science?" Thordred bellowed. He thrust out a huge hand, gripped Court. "Listen to me! I told you I learned more from you than your language. That was true. I drained your brain of all the knowledge it held. Your memory is mine now."
Court went sick as the import of the words struck home. His gaze went from Thordred's face, moved swiftly about the laboratory for some weapon. But the apparatus was utterly unfamiliar to him. Yet it had to be based on rigid scientific principles that would be the same in any universe.
Court's mind worked with frantic speed, trying to find some coherent pattern. Levers, buttons, wiring, transparent tubes—each one had its definite part. On one panel, several red lights were flashing on and off. Below each light, Court recognized what must have been push-buttons.
There were two possible answers. Either the switchboard had some connection with Thordred's death ray, of which he had spoken, or else it was part of an alarm system. It was probably an alarm system, since Thordred was busy at another instrument panel. The police outside the ship were trying to burn through a port, and the red light was flashing. The button beneath that light, Court decided, probably opened the door.
His face was immobile as he shrugged, deliberately letting his shoulders droop despairingly. Thordred's mouth twisted into a triumphant grin. He half turned from his prisoner, and his hand touched the lever again.
And then Court sprang—not at Thordred. He leaped toward the panel where the red light glowed. His finger stabbed out and depressed the button!
The Plague Strikes
Thordred's roar came too late. A burst of sound welled into the ship. Men were shouting, and footsteps tramped loudly on the metal floor of the air-lock. Court sped to meet them. His hands lifted above his head, he was shouting warning. The skin of his back crawled with expectation of an attack.
But Thordred did not pursue. Instead, there came a sizzling crackle from behind Court. Strong hands caught him, and he found himself in the midst of a group of police. He turned.
Across the door of the laboratory, a veil of wavering light flickered. Court seized the arm of an officer to prevent him from moving toward the hazy glow.
"Wait! That's dangerous."
"What do you mean? Who are you?"
"Never mind that now. Shoot through that light, but don't go near it. You may be electrocuted."
The leader of the group, a gray-haired, bulky man, stared.
"I know you. You're Stephen Court. I've seen your pictures in the paper. What is all this about, anyhow?"
Court swiftly noted the insignia of rank on the man's blue sleeve.
"There's no time now, Sergeant. There's a killer beyond that light barrier. He's got to be stopped!"
"But we can't shoot down a man on your word."
Court sucked in his breath, then his hand went out in a blurring motion.
Grabbing a heavy revolver from one of the officers, he whirled and pumped bullets at the barrier of fire. Flame crackled and snarled. The bullets could not penetrate the barrier. Half-melted, they dropped to the floor.
The revolver was wrested from his hand. The sergeant eyed him in amazement, holding the smoking gun.
"I tell you—"
Court made a gesture of despair as he heard a low whine, rising in pitch and intensity, throbbing through the ship. He knew that Thordred was busy in the laboratory. He tried a new tack.
"This ship may be blown up at any minute. Get your men out. Keep the crowd back." He hesitated, then pointed to the unconscious forms of the Chinese and the gargoyle-faced giant on their couches. "Get them out, too."
Jansaiya, the Atlantean girl, was nowhere in sight, and there was not time to search for her.
The menace of explosion the sergeant could understand. He issued swift orders. His men swarmed out of the ship, carrying the cataleptic men.
Court followed. He could not guess what Thordred would do now, but he suspected that the killer might loose his death rays on the mob. Orders ran from one officer to another. The crowd was pushed back, milling, asking questions, shuffling unwillingly.
Standing at the sergeant's side, Court bit his lip in indecision. What now? Thordred was impregnable behind his force screen. Without equipment, Court could do nothing. With the right apparatus, he knew, he could find the vibration-rate of the screen and neutralize it. But there was no equipment here.
"This got anything to do with the Plague?" the sergeant said. "We're evacuating New York, you know." "What? Evacuating New York!"
"Yeah. The Plague's hit us. The city's a death-trap, with eight million people here. Martial law's been declared, though, and everything's under control. The whole city's moving out before the Plague spreads." Court nodded, staring at the ship.
"Well, clear the park and get some planes to bomb our friend there. I don't know if explosive will harm him, but it's worth trying while there's still time. As for those two unconscious men you took out of the ship, get them to a hospital. We'll—"
There was a sudden interruption. From the golden hull, a ray of cold green brilliance probed. As it shot toward Court, he felt a wave of icy chill. All the strength was abruptly drained from his body. He felt himself falling…
The ray flamed brighter, turned to yellow, then to white. It splashed in pale radiance over the sergeant. His strong face
seemed to melt, the flesh blackening incindery horror over the bone-structure. The officer dropped without a sound…
Through filming eyes, Court saw the golden space ship rise from its resting place. It shot up and hovered. Fleeing abruptly into the western skies, it was gone!
When the ray touched Court, it had not been strong enough to kill, only to paralyze. But the sergeant was horribly dead.
Court felt himself slipping down into the black pit of unconsciousness. His last memory was that of some small bird wheeling above him against the blue. Then darkness took him.
Hearing returned to him first. The sound was confused and chaotic. Court lay motionless, striving to analyze it. As if from a vast distance, he seemed to hear a babble of voices faintly mumbling what sounded like gibberish. Piercing through this was a medley of shrill whistles and siren-like noises that were utterly inexplicable.
Then Court opened his eyes, looked straight up at a bare white ceiling. Sunlight made square patterns on it.
He could move, he discovered. Without difficulty he.sat up, found that he was in one of a row of cots that ran down the length of a long room. He was in a hospital!
Court's voice cracked when he cried out. He tried again, but roused only an echo. Wonderingly he rubbed his chin and gasped in amazement. A beard? He must have been unconscious for two weeks, at least!
He rose, shivering in his regulation hospital nightgown. Though the windows were closed, the room was icy cold. Rocking weakly on his feet, Court looked around.
The man in the next bed looked familiar. It was the obese Oriental he had last seen in the golden space ship! The man lay silent, motionless, no breath lifting his huge paunch.
In the cot beyond lay the scar-faced giant, the man who had resembled a gladiator. He, too, was apparently dead or cataleptic.
Some of the other beds were occupied, Court saw. He made a quick investigation. Strangers, and dead, all of them, some had plainly died of starvation and thirst. The blankets in most cases were tumbled and twisted, and some of the bodies on the floor where they had apparently flung themselves. One grizzled oldster was huddled in a heap near the door, his skinny hand still outstretched for aid that could never come.
The hospital must have been deserted. But what could have caused medical men to forsake their patients? Physicians do not break the Hippocratic Oath so easily. That meant—The Plague!
His throat tight, Court stumbled to a table where a carafe of water stood. It was stagnant with long standing and half evaporated, but he gulped down a repulsive swallow.
A folded newspaper on the table caught his gaze. Hastily he folded the paper to the first page. Flaring headlines greeted him.
PLAGUE STRIKES NEW YORK!
2 °Carriers Reported in Manhattan;
Mayor Orders City Evacuated!
Hastily linotyped columns gave the story. All over Greater New York, the Plague had suddenly appeared. In Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, from Harlem to the Battery—the shining men, harbingers of weird death, had come into being.
Thinking the invasion had arrived by way of Jersey and the surrounding area, the mayor had directed the evacuation to take place northward. But in the box labeled "Latest News Bulletins," it became apparent that the infection was spreading with fatal speed. Among eight millions of people, the Plague ran like wildfire.
Well, judging by his beard and the date of the paper, that had been two weeks ago. What was the country like now?
Court went to the window and stared out. The bleak, snow-covered expanse of Central Park was far below. Small, irregular dark blotches lay on the whiteness. Were they bodies?
Court found a telephone and jiggled the receiver impatiently. Not even the dial-tone answered him. New York must be entirely deserted, save by the dead!
Again he went to the window. This time he saw a shining oval of light, dwarfed by distance, gliding under the trees in the park. A Carrier…
Court knew he could not remain in New York. With a nod of decision, he glanced at the two motionless figures on the cots beside his own. Hastily he began to gather equipment. He saw a use for the Oriental and the giant. He could not leave them here, frozen in cataleptic sleep, even if he did not think that their knowledge might prove valuable.
He used heat, stimulants and artificial respiration. The stimulants were easy to procure after a trip down the corridor into adjoining wards. It was harder to find adrenalin. Court had to break down a door before locating the drug, but finally he was ready.
Electricity, rather than gas, supplied the hospital. He knew there would be no current now. Court hesitated. Frowning, he stared out the window. He heard again the distant din that had awakened him—the faint hooting, and the low mumble of far voices.
Radios, of course! Innumerable radios had been left turned on when the evacuation had taken place, and they were still broadcasting. That meant there was still electricity. Relieved, Court found heating pads and pressed them into place about his two patients.
Little artificial respiration was necessary. Under the shock of the adrenalin, first the giant, and then the Oriental, stirred. They wakened almost together.
Court gave a gasp of relief. Till then he had not realized just how much his fortnight of hypnotized slumber had weakened him. Despite slowed and retarded metabolism, he had not eaten nor drunk for weeks. Shivering, he sank down on a cot and watched his patients slowly and gradually awaken.
There was so much to do! He must communicate with these two. But what language did they speak? Would they be able to understand Latin? After that, there would be so many things! Find out what had happened, leave New York safely—
"But the first thing," Court murmured, "is to stow some food under my belt. No," he resolved, glancing down at his nightgown. "The first thing I need is a pair of pants!"
Under the Plague
It was nearly an hour later when Court finally finished his story and learned from Li Yang and Scipio their own tale. Luckily both understood Latin. When Court's knowledge of the language failed, he pieced it out in Greek, which Scipio knew.
"I am familiar with all the tongues spoken around the Middle Sea—the Mediterranean," the huge Carthaginian stated. "This English of yours sounds like a hybrid language, a mixture of Latin, Greek, Goth, and Zeus knows what else. However, I will learn it. We had a saying that those in Helvetia had best do as the Helvetians do, though all they generally did was freeze."
Scipio chuckled deep in his barrel chest.
"We have a saying that jackasses bray at inopportune moments," said Li Yang blandly. "Therefore, hold your tongue, Scipio, while we make some plans." He sighed ponderously. "So Ardath is dead, eh? Eheu, he was a wise man, and a good one. Also I have lost my lute, so I grieve."
"I scarcely knew Ardath," Scipio confessed, "though he saved my life, of course. But the nymph-girl, Jansaiya—I needed only a glimpse of her to lose my heart and soul." The gargoyle face twisted in pained memory. "What had we best do, Court?"
"Get out of New York. After that, we can make our plans. I want to get back to my laboratory. But first—well, come along."
Court rose and led the others into the corridor. Li Yang shivered as the chill wind rustled under his scanty gown.
"The world has grown colder," he mourned. "Not even on the Northern steppes did I feel such a knifelike blast."
Court was unavailingly pressing the elevator buttons.
"Guess they're not working," he said wryly. "That means we'll have to walk all the way down. It'll keep us warm, anyway. Watch out for any Carriers."
Scipio shook his head as the three hurried down the stairs.
"I do not understand this Plague. Civilizations change, of course. New gods and new magics spring up. But what you tell me of this Plague smacks of the vrykrolokas, the vampire."
The others had no breath for talking. Scipio continued to muse aloud as they descended. When they reached the street, though, he was the only one who was not panting.
"Zeus, Apollo, Kronos, and Neptune!" he roared, staring up at the skyscrapers. "Surely the gods must have reared these buildings!"
"Did gods build the Nilotic pyramids?" Li Yang asked with breathless irony. "Men learn always, and always they build higher. But my poor toes will be frozen!" He danced about grotesquely in the slush. "You are a hardy race, Court, to walk about in these skimpy togas." Court was glancing about swiftly.
"Come in here," he said.
He hurried toward a nearby shop. He had seen that the window was broken, and a burglar alarm was clanging loudly from within. That explained the medley of noises he had heard from the hospital. Hundreds of burglar alarms, all over New York, were screaming. The mobs must have looted during their flight. This men's clothing shop had certainly been looted, judging by its appearance. Court could understand why property rights didn't mean much just now.
He guided Li Yang and Scipio to the various departments, and helped them outfit themselves with suitable clothing.
"Breeches and boots will be best, I think," he suggested. "We may have hard going. Pick out large-sized boots or you'll blister your feet in an hour."
It was difficult to find clothing that fitted the gigantic Carthaginian, and even harder to equip Li Yang, but at last the task was finished. Completely clothed, even to fleece-lined gloves, the three returned to the street.
Now they needed food and drink. Down the avenue a little way was an Automat. Court led them into it, pausing at the entrance to examine a motionless, shrunken body that lay there.
It was the corpse of a man, emaciated and pallid, frozen rigid. It was oddly shriveled, which Court recognized as the stigmata of Plague victims. Though the man had certainly been dead since the evacuation of New York, there was no sign of decomposition.
"Draining of vital energy means absolute sterility, no germs or microbes—that's logical," Court muttered.
At least there would be no danger of a pestilence. He smiled crookedly. Pestilence?
There was nobody to be harmed by it, anyway.
A radio in the Automat was humming noisily. Court hesitated, still inhibited by a lifetime of conditioning. But he went to the change desk, and appropriated a handful of nickels.
Supplying the others with trays, he carefully selected foods that appeared still edible. The coffee spigot ran a tar-colored, icy fluid. But it was somewhat better than the sour milk and stale water.
Court went to the radio and adjusted it. Then he joined the others at one of the round little tables.
"News," he said, nodding at the box that was strange to them. "I'll translate."
"Static is becoming increasingly troublesome as the Plague grows," the radio blared. "The electrical energy emitted by She Carriers interferes with broadcasting. European shortwave transmission is impossible. The transoceanic cables have failed. From Washington, D.C., comes the latest European news, brought by Clipper across the Atlantic.
"The Plague seems to have concentrated its force so far in the Western Hemisphere, though its strength is increasing gradually in Europe. Ports are crowded as mobs try to storm their way on to ships outward bound. There is a feeling that on the high seas is safety. This is untrue."
"The Hozima Maru, a passenger ship, was today washed upon the coast at Point Reyes, above San Francisco. Spectators reported that the only living beings aboard were several Carriers."
In grim undertones Court translated.
"The Eastern Seaboard is still being evacuated," the voice went on. "The United States is under martial law. As yet the Plague remains a mystery, though all over the world, scientists are working night and day to check it. A scientific congress has been called at The Hague, to convene tomorrow at noon. .,
"We are still receiving reports about the mysterious golden airship which first appeared in Central Park, New York, two weeks ago. Since then it has landed eight times, always in a sparsely populated area. Unconfirmed reports state that men and women have been forced to enter the ship. Two hours ago, according to San Francisco's station KFRC, the ship landed on the Berkeley hills."
Court's voice rose excitedly as he translated. Scipio sat back with a grunt, and the Oriental pursed his red lips.
"So Thordred's still on Earth." Li Yang rubbed his fat hands together. "Good! Court, there are marvels of science in that golden ship, all the wonders of Ardath's great civilization. If you can get your hands on them—"
Court frowned. "As soon as Thordred finishes recruiting the people he needs to start a new life on a different planet, he'll vanish forever. The worst of it is, he's drained my mind, taken all my knowledge. Everything I know, I share with him now. But I've got to get back to my Wisconsin lab.
"I have apparatus there that will enable me to construct a weapon or two that might give me a chance against Thordred. But till I get to the lab, I can't even locate the golden ship.
'Then why do we wait here?" Scipio thrust back his chair and stood up, towering incongruously in the gleaming shininess of the Automat. "Let us hurry!"
They went out. Behind them the radio blared:
"Shall keep broadcasting as long as we are able. The city is entirely evacuated. We are barricaded in this station, and shall remain here until our power fails, or until. . This is WOR, Newark, New Jersey. All listeners are warned to leave their homes immediately and—"
Fifth Avenue lay silent under a white mantle. Snow had fallen within the past twenty-four hours. The sky, however, was blue and cloudless. Singularly eerie was the silence that lay over New York, made more horrible by the mutter of radios and the distant jarring of alarms. These, too, would die when the power failed.
There were bodies in the streets, most of them white-mounded hummocks under the snow. Hundreds of automobiles had been wrecked. A huge bus lay on its side beside an overturned garbage truck.
Twice they saw Carriers—shining, pallid ovals of glowing radiance—floating toward them. Each time Court led his companions into buildings and through a roundabout course of passages and stairways that led them to safety.
"The subway might be safer," he mused, "but there may be Carriers down there. And the power's still on, of course."
Court did not mention his fear of the carnage he might discover underground. Yet curiously the Plague had left little horror in its wake. It was far too fantastically unreal. The bombs and shrapnel of war would have left blood and ruin. But this… There was only white silence, and bodies that were less like corpses than cold statues of marble.
"Here." Court halted by a parked automobile. "No, there's no gas." He frowned, after a glance at the dashboard gauge. "Come on."
Scipio was peering into a window. Abruptly he kicked nigh, and the glass fell in clattering shards. The Carthaginian reached through the gap and brought out a cavalry saber in its scabbard.
It's light enough," he grunted, balancing the weapon in his hand. "But it's sharp. We may need this."
He fastened it to his belt, while Li Yang was peering down the street.
"Court!" the Oriental called. "What is it?"
"I see it."
Swiftly Court guided his companions around the corner. They turned west from Fifth Avenue into Fifty-eighth Street. Half a block down, they paused at sight of two more Carriers coming toward them.
Court glanced around. On his right was a street blocked with a mass of automobile wreckage. The tower of Rockefeller Plaza rose into the sky. On his left was the entrance of an office building. But through the glass doors, Court could see that the lobby was strewn with bodies, struck down as they had tried to escape the onrushing Plague.
Court wondered with a strange twinge of pity, how many of them had been ready for death. Probably none.
He came to himself abruptly. There was no time for philosophizing. The Carriers were closing in upon them from both sides. Scipio pointed to the side street.
"There. We can climb over."
"Wait!" Court's sharp command halted the others on the curb. "Here's a car."
A large, black sedan was parked a few feet away. Two bodies lay near it—a man's and a woman's. The girl, scarcely more than a child, lay in a pitiful little huddle on the running-board, her blond hair whitened with snow. The man, a bulky, dark young fellow, lay with his face in the gutter, a cigar still drooping from one corner of his mouth.
But the keys were in the ignition. Hastily Court sprang into the car, turned the key and pressed the starter. He really expected no response. To his surprise, the battery painfully turned the cold engine over.
Court dared waste no more time. He glanced around. With a gasp of relief, he saw that the shining bodies of the Carriers had halted. They were at least a hundred feet away, and there might still be time.
He kept his foot down on the starter. The motor caught and abruptly died. Viciously he manipulated the choke.
"Get ready to run!" he warned.
But again the motor caught, and Court gunned it with great care. The echoes boomed out thunderously in the canyon or the street. Li Yang and Scipio sat tensely beside Court, more afraid of this noisy invention than the incomprehensible Carriers.
"They are coming toward us, Scipio reported in an undertone, feeling for his saber. "I shall get out and hold them back till—"
"No!" Court let out the clutch. "Stay where you are."
The car jerked into motion. There was a sickening moment when the motor sputtered, coughed, and almost stopped.
Court jammed down the gas, heard the exhaust pipe crack open with a deafening roar. Then they were plunging forward…
But the Carriers were ominously close. Into Court's mind came a weird, illogical thought—"Pillars of fire and smoke." Was that it? It didn't matter, for two of them, directly ahead, were gliding toward the car.
He spun the wheel, skidded on the slushy pavement. He shot between the two monsters, missing them by a hair's breadth. The sedan rocketed on, gathering speed.
Court swallowed hard and wiped the perspiration from his forehead with the back of his hand.
"Narrow squeak… This is a one-way street," he added with wry humor, "and we're going the wrong way. But I doubt if we'll get a ticket."
They crossed Sixth Avenue, then Seventh, and turned left on Broadway. Court headed for the Holland Tunnel. Before he reached the tube, he sighted a tangle of wreckage which told him that route was closed. Hastily he turned north along the Hudson, hoping he could get through at the George Washington Bridge.
The ice-bordered river flowed past silently, unruffled now by any boats. In the distance, the Jersey Palisades were traceries of frost. No smoke at all rose on the skyline.
"Gods!" Scipio observed. "This is a world of wonders, Court. What is that?"
"Grant's Tomb," said Court. "Let's see what the radio says."
He switched it on, but got only static. He turned the switch off, for he did not know the battery's strength. He had almost a tankful of gas, he saw, and was grateful for that. Yet it would not take him to Wisconsin.
He would take the straight western route toward Chicago, and then cut northwest, unless he could find an airplane. But in this disorganized area, Court doubted whether one would be available. They all must have been commandeered.
The bridge was open. They shot across, disregarding the glaring speed-limit signs.
Court found the highway he wanted. He sped on, seeing no sign of Me. He was reminded of the last time he had driven across the Wisconsin hills, with Marion at his side. It almost seemed as though nothing had happened since then, for the landscape was still incongruously peaceful. Only one thing betrayed the existence of the Plague—the occasional wrecks seen beside the highway, and the absence of traffic. An airplane startlingly roared overhead against the blue.
But Marion was not here. Court realized that he missed her. She was the perfect complement for his mind, the ideal assistant. There was something else, too, but Court subconsciously steered away from the thought, refusing to let himself realize why he missed Marion so profoundly. He could see her clearly, a slim brown-eyed girl…
Rot! Such thoughts wasted time, and there was no time to waste. Sitting beside Court now, crowded uncomfortably in the front seat, Scipio and the huge Li Yang writhed uneasily. They typified the whole new set of factors which Court must integrate into the problem facing him. His mind began to work at lightning speed. Analyzing, probing, discarding— swiftly he went over the problem as he drove the car instinctively through New Jersey.
Scipio crawled over into the back seat and went to sleep. Li Yang stretched luxuriously, holding out his plump fingers to the car heater.
"Great magic," he said with satisfaction. "Not that I believe in magic, but the word is a handy one."
The sedan thundered westward.
During the two weeks of Court's unconsciousness, a great deal had happened. Many large cities, like Manhattan, had been evacuated. If many Carriers had appeared at once, chaos might have been the result. But the Plague came with comparative slowness at first Martial law, of course, had been declared, resulting in less indirect mortality than might-have been expected.
The refugees faced neither starvation nor epidemic. With well oiled speed, the Federal Government had swung into action. All over the country, the evacuated populations of such cities as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and New Orleans were billeted in hospitable homes.
But the danger remained. More and more of the Carriers appeared. Shining, nebulous clouds of glowing fog, they slew by touch alone. There was no possible protection, for even lead armor was not always certain. Moreover, nobody knew the nature of these dread beings.
Court racked his brain as he furiously drove on. Parts of the pattern were falling into place. Entropy, he thought, was the clue. The most puzzling problem was the apparent existence of an utterly alien element—the mysterious X.
In a sane universe, this could not exist. It could not be alien. For a time he pondered the Heisenberg uncertainty factor, but discarded it as a new idea came to him.
The catalyst angle was perhaps the most logical one. Absently he reached into the dashboard compartment, expecting to find cigarettes. There was a pack in it, nearly full. Court pressed in the dashboard cigarette lighter. Li Yang watched with interest.
Court took the glowing lighter and held it to his cigarette. Abruptly he paused, staring at the lighter. He whistled startledly under his breath. The Oriental blinked in astonishment.
"An idea. Just an idea. A parallel, like conduction. Listen, Li Yang. If you take a red-hot chunk of steel and put it next to a cold piece, what'll happen?"
"The cold piece will be warmed."
"Yes. The heat will be transmitted. Only, it isn't heat in this case. It's XI X is being transmitted to living beings…" Court rubbed his forehead. "What is X? Energy? Sure, but— I've got it!" He almost lost his grip on the wheel in his excitement "I've got it, Li Yang! Entropy, life, energy—cosmic evolution!"
"Words," said the Oriental, shrugging indifferently. "What do they mean?"
Court began to talk slowly, carefully, picking his way along the new theory.
"Evolution goes on constantly, you know. From the day the first amoeba was born, evolution kept on steadily. It'll always do that, all over this Universe, and in other ones, too. Well, what's the ultimate evolution of life?"
"To what man is it given to know that?" Li Yang replied fatalistically.
"There have been lots of theories. Plenty of science-fiction writers have speculated about it—people like Verne and Wells. Some of them say we'll evolve into bodiless brains. Well, that isn't quite logical. Rather, it doesn't go far enough. Brains are made of cellular tissue, and therefore can die. But thought—life energy—is the ultimate form. The final evolution is toward bodiless energy, life without form or shape. A gas, perhaps."
The Oriental nodded. "I think I see. Well?" Court swung the sedan around a curve, taking it wide to avoid an overturned roadster.
"Entropy goes on, regardless. Eventually a universe is destroyed. Matter itself breaks up. But this life energy isn't matter. It's left unchanged. It floats on through the void, like a dark nebula." His eyes widened.
"Perhaps that's the explanation for dark nebulae, like the Coal Sack, for example. Well, that doesn't matter. This cosmic cloud of life energy drifts through space. If it happens to reach a newly formed planet like Earth billions of years ago, life is generated in the seas, and the cycle starts again. But if We already exists—" "As on Earth now?"
"Yes. The chunk of hot steel warms the cold one. Only, it isn't heat that's transmitted. It's pure life energy, the super-life to which we'll evolve at the end of our Universe. We're not ready for that yet, but it's come of its own accord."
"I am not sure I understand," Li Yang said thoughtfully. "Take a familiar parallel. We know today that there's a hormone which causes growth. A hormone is a glandular extract. If we inject an overdose of that into an infant, he'll grow enormously. But he'll probably be an idiot, with little control over his huge body. He should have been left to grow naturally, for he wasn't ready for the hormone in such a large dose.
"Neither is the Earth ready for so large a step forward in evolution. But we've got an overdose of pure life energy, and it's transforming human beings into another form of hie." "Demons," Li Yang said quietly. Court smiled uncomfortably.
"Perhaps. At least into poor devils. Well, that's the answer, but it still does not help matters. Here's a town, and I think it has an airport."
The field was a flurry of brightly lit activity. No Carriers had yet appeared in this New Jersey city, but the air of tension was inevitable. By dint of argument, threats, pleas, and coercion, Court managed to charter a plane, though he would have no success in getting a pilot. Their services were difficult to obtain, because of the national emergency. It was lucky that Court knew bow to fly.
He took time to drink black, scalding coffee at the airport restaurant, where curious glances were cast at his strange companions.
There was little information he could gain from the scattered scraps of conversation. No one could guess where the Plague might strike next. At the first sign of it, evacuation must take place, with the aid of every automobile, railroad, and plane that could be pressed into service.
A few local residents wandered in to stare curiously at the unusual activity. Their lives would continue in normal routine until the Plague actually arrived on their doorsteps.
Refreshed, Court took his companions into the plane, a speedy gyrocraft cabin ship. He felt grateful that he would not have to drive by car to Wisconsin. The trip would have necessitated a stop for sleeping. But in the plane, he could reach his destination in six hours or so.
Li Yang and Scipio were not startled by the air journey, for the golden space ship had accustomed them to aerial travel. They watched with interest the countryside below. There was little chance to talk.
The plane swept over Chicago, a desolate, evacuated metropolis. Chicagoans, Court had learned, were quartered all over Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and even Ontario. Canada, of course, had thrown open its Border. For days, crowded boats had been plying between Chicago and Benton Harbor in Michigan.
The Plague had not struck Milwaukee, however, though transportation facilities were held in readiness there. Actually only a few cities had been disrupted, and Plague deaths had been surprisingly few. The real peril, which not many knew, lay in the future, if the Plague spread and remained incurable.
At Madison, Court landed and rented a car.
The headlights were pale spears stabbing through the gloom as the highway unrolled monotonously. Court was beginning to feel sleepy, but he had purchased some benzedrine sulphate in Madison. He gulped some of the stimulant, which refreshed him.
In the back seat, Scipio polished his saber with an oiled rag he had found. Li Yang slept, choking and snoring, his head rolling ponderously in collars of fat.
Now and again, Court caught sight of Carriers—shining blobs of radiance that flashed toward them and were gone. What would happen if the car struck one? Would it rush through an impalpable glow, or would there be a catastrophic explosion of liberated energy? Court's mind felt so blurred that he could not think clearly. His hands ached and trembled on the wheel. His elbow joints were throbbing. The soles of his feet seemed to be on fire.
But he could not stop and rest. Home was not far now, and even then there would be no peace…
The road was familiar to him. Wisconsin lay under yellow moonlight, and beside the road, the river flowed along silently.
They topped a rise and came in sight of the village. It seemed unchanged. But as they swept toward it, Court noticed the absence of lights and movements.
The street was completely deserted. From the general store, a radio crackled inaudibly. On the store's porch was the body of a man in overalls, grotesquely sprawled. A dog slunk into view, stood frozen for a second, and then fled.
Court thought with alarm of Marion Barton. Had she returned to the laboratory? Probably. But had she fled with the general exodus?
Court's heart jumped as he saw a shining, shapeless glow drift into view from around a corner. A Carrier! Another of the horrors was joining the first But they made no effort to molest the speeding automobile.
Court sucked in his breath. Once he reached the laboratory, all the weapons of his scientific career lay ready to his fingers. Then, knowing as he did the secret of the Plague, he could fight, perhaps destroy the Plague—and finally Thordred. Marion could help. Her aid would be invaluable, if—
"How much farther?" Scipio grunted from the back seat.
Li Yang woke up and sleepily rubbed his eyes, yawning.
"Almost there," Court said, a queer breathlessness in his voice. "Just over this rise. Hold on!"
A glowing shadow had loomed up sinisterly before the car, blocking the road. It was a Carrier, silent, motionless, menacing.
Court made a swift decision. He could drive straight at the thing. But that was too long a chance. Going so fast, though, he had little choice.
He jammed on the brake, at the same time twisting the wheel. The car's tires rasped and screamed as the vehicle slid sideward. It rolled ominously on two wheels, righted itself, and plunged off the road.
The occupants were jolted and flung about as the sedan lurched across a plowed field. A tire blew out with a deafening report. Desperately Court fought the wheel.
Bang! —Another tire had gone, but Court jammed his foot on the accelerator. In the rear mirror, he could see that the Carrier was still standing in the same place. It was not pursuing them.
He got the car back on the road, picked up speed. As it limped on, the Carrier was left behind. Court drew a deep breath.
"Gods!" Scipio bellowed. "I almost stabbed myself with this blade!"
Li Yang gurgled with amusement. "You are not as well padded as I. But I am glad our journey is almost over. It is, is it not, Court?"
"Yes. This is home—"
Court's voice died away as he jerked the car to a halt. They were at the huge, rambling structure that had housed the laboratory. The building was gone. It had been razed to the ground in an irregular splotch of blackly charred ruin. A crater yawned among the debris.
The laboratory was destroyed, and with it, the chance to save the Earth!
Sick hopelessness was so strong in Court that for a long, dreadful moment his heart was numb. He seemed to be disassociated from his body. As if he were a distant onlooker, he stared at the sharp clarity of the ruins under the Moon. His shadow stretched out before him on the ochre pathway. On one side was the taller shadow of Scipio. On the other was the obese dark blotch thrown by Li Yang's form. The grasses rustled dryly in the cool night wind.
The embers were still warm, for smoke coiled up lazily from the dying coals. Apparently the work of destruction had occurred lately. Was it an accident?
No Thordred must be responsible! Court might have expected this. When Thordred acquired his memory pattern, he had also become familiar with the laboratory and all its potentialities. Naturally he would wish to destroy it, lest use of its powers be used against him.
But why had he waited two whole weeks? Perhaps because he had not been able to locate the laboratory till now. Despite having acquired Court's memories, Thordred was a stranger in this new, complicated civilization.
The scream cut through the air bringing Court around sharply. It was Marion's voice!
The cry had come from the hillside beyond the house. For a second, Stephen caught the glimpse of a white figure running toward him in the bright moonlight.
He raced to meet the girl. She collapsed in his arms, panting and disheveled. Her hair was a tumbled brown mass of ringlets. For several minutes she could only gasp inarticulately.
"Steve, thank God you're safe—I saw the headlights of a car—but I didn't know it was you—but I thought if you were alive—you'd come back to the lab—"
Looking down into her eyes, Court felt a queer tightness in his throat. He interrupted in a voice that was scarcely audible.
"Marion, I—I love you."
The girl caught her breath as she stared. Then suddenly she smiled with dazzling brilliance.
"'I'm glad," she whispered, and pressed her head against Court's chest. "I'm glad you're human, after all."
Yes, Court thought to himself, he was human. For years he had refused to admit it.
But now—a chuckle started behind his lips—he gloried in it!
The others came running up, staring at Marion. She drew away from Court.
"Thordred wrecked the lab," she explained. "Who are these men?"
She eyed them inquisitively.
"No time for introductions now," Court snapped. "Tell me what's happened. You've seen Thordred, or you wouldn't know his name."
She nodded. "He came here two hours ago and destroyed the house. I was the only one who got out alive. I saw the ship not far away. When I started to run, a beam of light flashed out and I was paralyzed! A huge bearded man came running and carried me into the ship. He seemed to know who I was."
"Of course," Court agreed. "He acquired all my memories with his damned machine."
"There was a girl called Jansaiya. She didn't say anything. She just watched. Thordred showed me dozens of men and women in the ship, asleep, cataleptic. He said he had captured them to start a new civilization. He was going to another planet—and he'd decided to take me, too. Since I'd been your assistant, Steve, he figured I'd be a good assistant for him. My scientific training would be invaluable to him. He told me you were dead, that he'd killed you with a ray in New York."
"So he thinks I'm dead," Court observed. "That means he didn't know the ray only paralyzed me."
Marion didn't look at him as she continued.
"I pretended to fall in with Thordred's wishes, said I'd go with him. So he didn't bother to put me into catalepsy. He started the motors and the ship began to rise. Then I—I—"
"Go on," Court said gently.
"He wasn't watching me. I saw what he was doing at the instrument panel, and I jumped at it. Somehow I pushed all the levers and buttons before he grabbed me. The ship crashed. I wanted to kill Thordred, Steve, because I thought he'd killed you. If you were dead, I didn't want to keep on living."
For answer, Court drew the girl closer. She went on talking hurriedly.
"The ship was wrecked completely. It's right over the ridge. All the prisoners were killed, and Jansaiya was hurt. I tried to help her, but Thordred dragged me away. I don't know how he got me out alive. He was like a madman. He salvaged some weapons from the wreck, and made me go with him— I don't know why, or what he intended. I think he wanted to kill me later, Steve. Slowly!"
Court's face was chalk-white. Clipping his words, he gave his orders.
"Let's find the ship. We may be able to salvage something, too. Li Yang, Scipio, watch out for Thordred, though I don't think he'll bother us now."
The four mounted the slope. At the top of the ridge they halted. In the valley before them lay the vast golden bulk of the space ship, near a streamlet that made a winding ribbon of quick-silver between its banks. There was no sign of life near the vessel.
They descended the slope. Suddenly Marion cried out softly and gripped Court's arm. The four halted abruptly.
A shining oval drifted into view from behind a bush. It was a Carrier, a glowing fog, fading toward its edges into invisibility. With more than human speed, it moved toward the group.
Court instinctively thrust the girl behind him. Scipio lifted his hard fist in futile defiance. Then he remembered the saber and drew it.
But there was no defense against a Carrier, Court knew. He opened his mouth to shout a command to flee. But for some reason that he could not define, he waited.
The shining thing had halted. It was motionless, and Court was conscious of an intent regard. The creature was watching him. Why? Such a thing had never happened before. Always the Carrier had leaped eagerly, avidly, upon then-prey. Why did this horror wait?
Court inexplicably felt something stir and move in his brain. Briefly the image of old Sammy, with his brown, wrinkled face and his mop of white hair, rose up vividly in his mind. Behind him, Marion's voice whispered like a prayer.
The shining thing seemed to hear. It hesitated and drew back. Suddenly it turned, speeding up the slope, and vanished over the ridge.
"Good God!" Court whispered through dry lips. "Marion, do you think that was—Sammy?"
White-faced, the girl nodded.
"Yes, Steve. And I think he knew us, remembered us. That's why—" She could not go on.
"Well," Scipio broke in roughly, "why do we wait? Let's go on."
In silence, Court led the way down the slope. Presently he shivered a little, and Marion glanced sharply at him.
"Do you feel that, too?"
"What? Wait a minute, yes. Some radiation—"
"There!" Li Yang said, pointing.
Court followed the gesture, saw the spot of light.
Blazing like the heart of a blue sun, flaming with a fierce and terrible radiance, the light-speck glowed upon the hull of the ship. Instantly Court guessed what it was. The atomic energy that powered the huge motors had broken free. No longer prisoned by its guarding, resistant sheath, it was sending its powerful vibrations out like ripples widening on a pool.
"Don't go any closer!" Court clutched Scipio's arm, halting him. "That's dangerous. It can fry us to a crisp."
"Gods!" The Carthaginian stared. "Is that true? A mere glow of light?"
In theory Court knew something of atomic energy, though it had never been achieved practically on earth. In the old days, men had feared that unleashed atomic energy would destroy the whole planet, its fiery breath spreading swiftly like a poisonous infection. But Court knew there was no danger of that. The rate of matter-consumption was far too slow. In a thousand years, the valley might be eaten away, but not in five years or five minutes.
The faint cry came from nearby, startling them. The Carthaginian's hand flew to his sword as he whispered.
And again came the cry, plaintive, gull-sweet, infinitely sad.
With a muttered oath, Scipio whirled and ran. Court followed at his heels. A mound of bushes clustered a hundred feet away, and in its shelter lay Jansaiya. The fading moonlight washed her hair with gold.
She lay broken, dying…
"Jansaiya," Scipio said tonelessly.
He dropped to his knees beside the girl and lifted her in his mighty arms. With a tired sigh, she let her head fall on his bronzed shoulder.
After Court completed a hasty examination, his eyes met Scipio's. He did not need to speak, for the Carthaginian nodded slowly. Jansaiya's torn gown and bruised limbs told how she had dragged herself toward safety.
"Thordred left you?" Scipio asked in a queer, hoarse voice.
The strangely beautiful green eyes misted with pain as she held herself close to Scipio's barrel chest. The Carthaginian's gargoyle face was the color and hardness of granite in the moonlight.
"I—I think—I might have loved you—warrior," Jansaiya murmured.
Then she sobbed restrainedly with unbearable agony. The golden lashes drooped to shield the sea-green eyes. The tender lips scarcely moved as the girl whispered.
"There was not ever—any pain—in old Atlantis—"
Her head drooped on his arm and was motionless…
Gently Scipio laid her in the shelter of the bushes. He touched her hair, her eyes, then tenderly he touched his lips to those red, silent ones, from which even the faint hint of cruelty had gone.
As he drew back, the last glow of the sinking Moon failed. The eternal dark accepted Jansaiya and shrouded her.
The starlight was cold as glittering ice on Scipio's savage eyes as he rose. He stood towering there, motionless, staring at nothingness. Slowly he turned to face the west.
"Court," he rumbled distantly, "you heard her?"
"Yes," Court said in a low, tense voice.
"He left her to die…"
Abruptly the Carthaginian's face was that of a blood-ravening demon. The mighty hands flexed into talons.
"He is mine to slay!" Scipio breathed through flaring nostrils. "Remember that— He is mine to slay!"
But Jansaiya could no longer hear. She lay limp, slim and lovely and forever untouchable now, shielded from all hurt. She slept as a child might sleep.
"You wish to kill me?" a harsh voice asked mockingly. "Well, I am waiting, Scipio."
From the shadows of the bushes, Thordred's giant form rose into view.
Startled bewilderment momentarily paralyzed Court. He cursed himself for a fool. He might have expected this, but finding Jansaiya had made him relax his vigilance. Glaring at Thordred, he stepped aside to stand in front of Marion.
Li Yang's fat yellow face was expressionless.
Scipio, after one hoarse oath, had drawn his saber. He was walking forward, his eyes burning with blood-hunger.
Thordred's hand dipped into his garments, came up holding a lens-shaped crystal that shot forth a spear of green light.
It touched Scipio. The Carthaginian halted in mid-stride with the saber lifted, a grin of fury frozen on the gargoyle face.
Court leaped for Thordred, but the green ray caught him, too. The life was drained from him in a shock of icy cold. He stood motionless, paralyzed as the ray darted aside.
From the corner of his eye, Court saw Marion and Li Yang stiffen into immobility. The four stood helpless, while Thordred tossed his crystal from hand to hand and grinned.
"You fools!" his harsh voice grated. "So I did not kill you that other time, did I, Court? Well, I shall rectify that omission now. If not for the interference of all of you, I should never have lost the ship. Yet I can still have my vengeance."
He glanced down significantly at the lens he held.
"You shall die slowly, in the utmost agony. You shall burn gradually as I increase the strength of the ray. After that, I do not know what I shall do. Perhaps I can build another space ship. The knowledge I have stolen should enable me to do that. But that comes after my revenge."
The bearded face was murderous in the moonlight. The crystal flashed a ray that struck Court on the chest. The green light turned yellow. Simultaneously blinding pain racked the man. He smelled the odor of his own burning flesh.
"You shall die," Thordred gritted. "All of you. This is my vengeance."
The Man Who Lived Again
When Thordred placed Ardath's body in the small space ship and sent it hurtling toward the Sun, he had thought the Kyrian dead. His fear of Ardath's giant intellect had been so great that he would feel safe only when the solar inferno had utterly consumed it. Yet by making doubly sure that his former master would meet death, Thordred had committed a serious error.
For Ardath was not dead. He awoke slowly, painfully, only vaguely conscious of his surroundings. For a time he lay quietly, blinking and striving to understand. He kept his eyes closed after a single glance at a dazzling glare.
He turned his head away from the bright light and reopened his eyes. His gaze took in his surroundings. He was in a space ship, a small one that was unfamiliar to him. Through the ports in the walls showed the starlit blackness of interplanetary space.
He was incredibly weak. He sat up, massaging his limbs until his numbed circulation was restored to normal. Then he rose with a great effort and looked around.
Sunlight flamed through a row of ports. Ardath instantly realized that he was falling directly into the rapidly enlarging Sun. He saw the controls, sprang toward them, almost collapsing in his weakness.
He examined the unfamiliar apparatus, tentatively fingering the panel. Presently the puzzle of strangeness was solved in his amazingly swift mind. He tried a lever, then another, and knew that he was master of the unknown ship. The vital problem just now was to escape from the Sun's attraction.
Luckily he was not yet even close to the chromosphere. He turned the vessel in a wide arc. After staring through the ports, he aimed its nose at the Earth. Then he locked the controls and searched for food.
Foreseeing emergencies, Court had stocked the little ship well. Much of the food was unfamiliar to Ardath, but he sampled it intelligently. Brandy stimulated him and gave him strength. As he ate, he pondered the situation.
How had he got here? What had awakened him from his cataleptic sleep? The last thing he remembered was emerging from the laboratory in his own ship, to encounter Thordred's ruthless blow. The bearded giant had betrayed him, but how long ago had that been? How long had Ardath slept? During his last period of awakening, he had arranged an automatic alarm which would react to the presence of any unusual mentality existing on Earth. Ardath wished to take no chances of sleeping past the lifetimes of geniuses. But he had not had time to set that alarm before Thordred stunned him. Everyone in the golden ship should have slept on until infinity, unless awakened by some outside force. What had that been?
Again Ardath went to a port and studied the constellations, noting the changes that time had made. He computed roughly that at least twenty centuries had elapsed since his last awakening. Perhaps, through his failure to set the automatic alarm, he had already slept through the lifetimes of innumerable super-mentalities.
Though Ardath did not know it, of course, he had not awakened to find Moses, Confucius, Socrates, Galileo, Newton, and a dozen others. The alarm, had it been set, would have aroused him when those men appeared on Earth.
Ardath glanced thoughtfully toward the Sun. Its powerful rays, unshielded by any atmosphere, had awakened him. He felt gratitude to the unknown builder of this ship, who had installed transparent ports, through which the vital radiations had poured. If the vessel had been on any other course, Ardath might have slept on to the end of time. But the Sun's rays had destroyed the artificial catalepsy.
Ardath rose and began to search the little ship. Its architecture was obviously Terrestrial, the natural development of art-forms he had seen in ancient days on Earth. Moreover, the use of Earth metals in the construction, and the absence of any unusual ones, confirmed this theory.
Certain equipment that Ardath found interested him. The mystery of a blowtorch he solved without difficulty. An electromagnet and vials of acids made him nod thoughtfully. When he measured one of the ports carefully, he realized that it coincided exactly with the size and shape of the entry-ports on his own ship.
The equipment indicated that the unknown owner of this little vessel had expected to find a barrier difficult to pass. The curious similarity of the ports on both ships added up to an unescapable conclusion. Someone on Earth had built this ship in order to reach and enter Ardath's craft. Obviously he had succeeded, but without the use of atomic energy.
He had duplicated the alloy that coated the hull of the Kyrian vessel, yet the energy was electrical in nature. Ardath's race had used electricity once, so many eons ago that it was mere legend when he had been born. Atomic energy had supplanted it. Yet Ardath must work with the tools at hand.
He found himself experiencing difficulty in breathing. The air supply, of course, had not bothered him during his cataleptic state, but now it was becoming a problem. He examined the air-renewers and purifiers, found them simple but effective.
Luckily there were the necessary chemicals aboard the ship to renew the exhausted apparatus. The names on the containers meant nothing to Ardath, but the chemicals were easily recognizable. In only one case did he find a test necessary.
It would be a long journey back to Earth. Meanwhile, Ardath examined some maps and charts that had been in a cupboard, as well as a popular novel which one of the workmen who built the ship had left in a corner and forgotten. These would be invaluable for learning the language. Since Ardath already knew Latin from his last period of awakening, he could learn English without too much difficulty. He could even approximate the present pronunciation, once he understood the letters—like w—which Romans did not have. The luckiest find of all, after that, was a newspaper.
Two problems faced Ardath— He must find his own ship, and he needed a weapon. Painstakingly he analyzed the situation.
Day after day dragged on while the space ship fled toward Earth. The Kyrian studied the charts, the book, and the newspaper, striving to understand. From a rubber stamp on the maps, he learned that the owner of the vessel was named Stephen Court, and that he lived in Wisconsin, near a town which Ardath finally located on one of the charts.
That became his destination. The Kyrian's keen understanding of psychology aided him in understanding what had happened during his unconsciousness. Placing himself in the respective positions of Thordred and Stephen Court, he applied rules of logic.
When Court had entered the golden space ship and found the cataleptic bodies, he would naturally have tried to awaken them. When he awoke Thordred, what had happened?
There were two possibilities. Thordred, Ardath realized now, wanted power above all else. He had resented the Kyrian's domination. After apparently succeeding in killing his former master, he would not have been willing to obey Court. Rather, his lust for power would have been given fresh fuel.
He and Court would have become either enemies or friends. In the latter case, Ardath now faced two opponents. But why should Court, having built this ingenious and expensive space ship, have been willing to destroy it by aiming it at the Sun? He would naturally have wished to retain it for later use. A logical man does not destroy valuable equipment, and only a logical and intelligent person could have built this vessel.
But Thordred, on the other hand, would have wished the smaller ship destroyed, so that he would possess the only space ship on Earth. Such tactics would strengthen his power. Unless there were already other spacecraft in existence…
That was impossible. This one was obviously patterned on Ardath's own vessel. A man with sufficient knowledge to create it would have used it, first of all, to visit the original ship. That sounded logical, though not entirely certain.
Court would probably have resented the destruction of his property. That indicated that he and Thordred were enemies. But from that conclusion, Ardath could go no further. He could only wait until he had reached the Earth and visited the home of Stephen Court in Wisconsin. If Court lived, he would certainly be an ally.
And now Ardath concentrated on creating a weapon. Equipment was at hand, and electricity. Atomic energy Ardath could not manufacture at present, but he thought it would not be necessary. Already he had a plan for a weapon in mind.
It must be able to convey a strong shock, or even a fatal one, over quite a distance. That necessitated some conductor of the current. A jet of water—a thin spray, perhaps—might do the trick. But the use of ordinary water was not quite satisfactory.
Ardath began to experiment with the limited laboratory he had at his command. He worked arduously, sleeping and eating only when he found time, while the ship sped toward its destination.
Earth grew from a star to a spinning globe, cloud-sheathed, and then into a vast concave disk that blotted out the starry void. Ardath found the outline of North America, checked it with his maps. Then he sent the vessel arrowing toward Lake Michigan, which was visible even from beyond the atmosphere.
It was night before he landed outside the village near Court's home. He lowered the ship silently among concealing trees and slipped toward the lights of the settlement.
His clothing would arouse curiosity, he realized, but that could not be helped. Taking his new weapon, which was awkwardly bulky, he moved forward.
Luck was with him. A youth, idling along the highway in a dim stretch, paused to stare at Ardath. The Kyrian took advantage of the opportunity. Mouthing the unfamiliar words carefully, he asked:
"Can you say where Stephen Court lives?" It sounded like: Can yoh-uh say vhere Stephen Coo-urt liv-es?" The boy blinked.
"Sure. You're a foreigner, ain't you?"
When no answer came, he went on, pointing.
"Right up the road there." He gave explicit directions. "But I wouldn't go up there if I was you. There was a fire up there just a little while ago, and folks saw some funny kind of airship hanging around. They think it crashed in the valley behind the house, but nobody's gone to look. We stay away from Court's place since he had a case of the Plague there."
Without a word, Ardath left the lad and hurried on. He had understood most of what had been said. "A funny kind of airship?" Could that be the golden space vessel? By the gods, if it had crashed—
The ruins of the house told their own story. Ardath hesitated, then skirted it to climb up the slope beyond the charred foundations.
"The valley behind the house," the boy had said. Ardath topped the ridge. His thin, patrician face went cold as marble at the sight before him. The ship was wrecked, he saw at a glance. And he saw, too, the moonlit figures of huge Thordred and his paralyzed prisoners.
As the ray flashed out from the lens in Thordred's hand, Ardath ran swiftly down the slope, concealing himself amid the bushes. As an odor of charred flesh came to his nostrils, his eyes were suddenly remorseless as death.
At last he was close enough. He rose from the shadows and called softly:
The bearded giant whirled, shocked amazement in the amber eyes. The yellow ray swung wide, out of his control. Simultaneously Ardath lifted the weapon he held, and a thin jet of fluid shot from its muzzle, splashing on Thordred's arm. The giant yelled in agony, and his lens fell to the ground.
"You betrayed me, Thordred," Ardath said motionlessly. "It is just that you die."
He stepped forward. The huge, bearded figure swayed and writhed in agony, striving to break free from the invisible grip that held it. Ardath's foot slipped on a rounded stone. For a second, the liquid jet wavered from its mark. But swept back swiftly—
Thordred was gone! He flung himself back into the shelter of the bushes. The crashing of underbrush told of his flight.
Ardath shrugged and lowered his weapon.
"He is harmless now," he said, and bent to pick up the lens. Briefly he eyed the three men and the girl, still paralyzed. "Scipio, Li Yang, and two strangers."
He made a hasty adjustment on the crystal, sent a blue glow sweeping out to bathe the four. The paralysis fled.
"Ardath!" Li Yang said. "You came in good time."
"By the gods, yes!" Scipio roared. His voice went soft with regret. "Though not in time to save Jansaiya." His eyes clouded. Lifting his saber, he plunged forward. "I'll be back with Thordred's head," he promised over his shoulder, and vanished into the woods.
"You—you're Ardath?" Court asked.
The burn on his chest was aching painfully, but it was not deep, and it had been automatically cauterized. He stared at the rescuer. The Kyrian nodded.
"I am Ardath. You seem to know of me. Are you Stephen Court?"
"Yes. But how did you learn English? How did you escape from the Sun trap? What—"
"Wait." Ardath was staring down at the wrecked ship. "Before all else, the atomic energy must be prisoned again. It is"—he fumbled for the right word—"dangerous. To approach it closely means death."
"Lead?" Court suggested.
When Ardath looked puzzled, he gave the atomic number.
"Only a special alloy will insulate the rays of atomic energy. Do you see that container? It looks like a speck from here, beside the spot of light. Only that can hold the power." He frowned. "The power must be placed in its sheath again. But—"
"It means death," Li Yang broke in. "Very well. I shall do it."
Court clutched the fat arm.
"You need not sacrifice yourself."
Ardath's face was expressionless as he went on in his painful, stilted English.
"Whoever goes must be quick. The rays kill swiftly. Hurry to the ship, slide the container over the little globe of atomic energy, and put the cover in place. That is all. After that, it will be safe to approach."
"Steve," Marion said unsteadily, "let me go."
"No!" Court's arm went around the girl, drawing her close. "Not you. Do we need to make this sacrifice, Ardath?"
The Kyrian nodded, sorrowfully.
"The energy will spread out till it touches ores. Then it will expand faster, until the Earth itself will be destroyed."
There was a sudden interruption. From the bushes behind the group, a glowing nimbus of light drifted. It was a Carrier, but it did not approach the three. Instead, it sped down the slope, toward the ship. Ardath stared.
"Marion, do you suppose—" Court said hoarsely.
"Maybe, Steve. If that was Sammy, he may have heard us."
They watched as the weird Carrier fled toward the ship. It reached the hull, bent over and picked up a small object from the ground. It made a swift motion—and the glare of atomic energy vanished!
"He did hear us," Court exulted. "Good old Sammy!"
The light nimbus was drifting away toward the other side of the valley. Presently it was hidden from sight, but before that Ardath was striding down to the ship.
He returned, holding in his hands an oval container of dark, lustrous metal. It was the sheath for the atomic energy.
"We have much to talk about," he said to Court. "Your language—I must master it better."
Scipio came back, cursing and swinging his saber. His deep chest rose and fell as he panted.
"Thordred got away. I could not catch him."
Court took immediate command.
"Back to the road. There's plenty of room in the car. We'll head directly for Washington and make plans. I think you can help us against the Plague, Ardath. Your atomic energy has already given me an idea."
"The Plague?" Ardath asked. "I'll help, if I can. But I am sorry you did not destroy Thordred, Scipio. I fear he will trouble us again."
The Carthaginian did not answer. He grinned unpleasantly, fingering the saber-blade, as he followed the others back toward the ridge.
The Earth Shield
Two weeks later found Court haggard and red-eyed with exhaustion. He and Ardath, aided by Li Yang, Scipio and Marion, had been working day and night, experimenting, testing, discarding. Court's task had been complicated by the difficulty of securing the Government's backing. The President, though in favor of Court's proposal, would not give his consent until the country's foremost scientists had approved.
"They still don't realize what we're up against," Court told Marion.
The two were walking toward a huge white auditorium on Pennsylvania Avenue. The dome of the Capitol loomed against the blue sky. A number of cars were drawn up before the marble building.
"But they know what the Plague's doing," Marion said worriedly. "New cases every day!"
"I know. Perhaps I shouldn't have asked for as much money as I did, yet we'll need it all. Small weapons aren't enough. We've got to build the Shield to save Earth."
"Well, today's the day," she mused. "All the scientists will be there, with lots of Army officials and Washington bigwigs."
Court smiled. "Yes. I hope—"
He turned into an alcove and picked up a phone. Presently he asked:
"Scipio? All set? Good. Be careful, now." He turned back to Marion. "This may be dangerous, but I think it'll do the trick."
Before long, he was on the stage of the auditorium, a lithe, well built figure against a background of sable curtains. The room was nearly filled with a crowd of men—scientists, uniformed Army men, politicians. A rustle of expectancy went through them as Court appeared. Without preamble he began:
"I am going to ask you to witness—" He paused as reporters' flashlight bulbs popped and glared. "All right, boys. Save some of your plates till later. You will need them. To resume, I am going to perform an experiment for you today. Most of you are already familiar with my proposal. I have found a cure for the Plague, but it is an expensive one. On the other hand, it is the only possible way to save the human race from extinction."
"Bunk!" a voice yelled. "Prove it!"
Court lifted his hand.
"One moment You have all read about Ardath. Some of you, I think, have seen my colleague. His strange history has become familiar to you. Let me introduce him now."
Ardath walked out on the platform. His antique clothing had been replaced by a well fitting suit of light flannels, and his slim figure went over to stand beside Court. The lean, patrician face looked out over the audience without expression.
"Fake!" a cry arose. It was echoed by others. A gray-haired man stood up.
"If you've found a cure for the Plague, prove it. This Ardath may be an impostor. He probably is. He has nothing to do with—"
Ardath did not say a word, but he stepped forward a pace. Something in the look of the strange, alien eyes brought silence to the auditorium. In the stillness, Court spoke again.
"You know that the Plague is fatal. To touch a Carrier is instant death. That there is no possible insulation. I have already given my theories about the origin of the Plague. It is sheer life energy—the ultimate evolution of all life, the residuum of some immeasurably ancient universe that evolved into pure energy perhaps eons ago. This cosmic cloud of energy has drifted through the interstellar void until its edges infringe upon the Earth.
"Some catalyst in our atmosphere made it potent, infected our Me forms with this strange virus. What the Plague does is simply this—it speeds up entropy. And the evolution that takes place is abnormal, against nature."
Court paused, drew a deep breath, and resumed.
"Normal evolution is slow. Mankind automatically adjusts itself to different environments through the course of ages. But this is a sudden jump to the ultimate life form, which in the normal course of events should not exist in this System for billions of years. That disrupts the evolutionary check-and-balance system. Humanity is not yet ready for this metamorphosis. It must come slowly and gradually, over a period of millions of years. Let me sketch for you the future.
"More and more of the Carriers will appear as Earth plunges deeper into the heart of the cloud of life energy. The Carriers will feed on those who were once their fellows. Eventually only they will exist on this planet, and even they will die in the end for lack of sustenance. In less than fifty years, the world will be a barren, dead sphere drifting through space. That is what it might have been, had we not found a cure!"
Then the Kyrian's clipped, precise voice rang through the auditorium.
"Court speaks truly. You men of this civilization are strange to me. Perhaps few of you believe the story of my origin. That does not matter. Working together, Court and I have discovered the nature of the Plague and found a solution. It is this— The Carriers are forms of Me energy. They can be destroyed, but only by creating a stronger type of energy which will drain their own. Only one thing will do that—atomic power.
"A certain Carrier came in touch with the unguarded atomic power in my space ship. Later, we searched for him, and found his body near the vessel. Exposure to the terrific energy had killed him."
Court nodded, remembering how he and Ardath had hunted through the Wisconsin hills for Sammy, and the burned, inhuman thing they had found at last. The Kyrian went on.
"Atomic power short-circuits the Carriers, drains their energy. Already we have constructed portable weapons which are thoroughly satisfactory."
"But the life-cloud in space!" a voice from the audience broke in. "You can't destroy that!"
The Kyrian smiled grimly.
"True. And more and more Carriers will appear as we approach the nucleus of the cloud. But we can protect the Earth, create a wall around it, a shell of atomic energy! With the right machines, we can transform the Heaviside Layer into a shield that will perfectly insulate this planet against the cosmic cloud. Solar radiation will still come through unchecked. But not a trace of the deadly life energy will be able to penetrate the Shield."
A low murmuring in the auditorium grew into a roar. Men rose and shouted questions, challenges at Ardath. A shield around the Earth? Ridiculous! Such fantastic pipe-dreams belonged with perpetual motion and other exploded theories. Ardath glanced wryly at Court.
"Well, I see I can't convince them. Shall we—"
Court was waving his arms, trying to quiet the crowd. His attempts were useless. Already some of the audience were rising and heading for the exits.
No one saw Court wave toward the wings. But all eyes turned to the stage when the black curtain rustled apart. Simultaneously a gasp of sheer horror ripped from hundreds of throats.
On the platform was—a Carrier!
A huge box of luminous metal stood just behind it, in which the horror had apparently been confined. It was open now, and the luminous fog that constituted the Carrier was drifting forward with purposeful intent.
Ardath and Court had raced to one side of the stage. Scipio appeared, wheeling a small contrivance no larger than a dictaphone. A conical tube topped it, ending in a translucent lens.
"Good," Court snapped at the Carthaginian. "But for God's sake, be careful now!"
The giant nodded with a flash of white teeth. Court turned to the paralyzed audience.
"Stay where you are! There's no danger, unless you get hysterical and riot."
A uniformed man in the aisle shouted an oath and whipped out his revolver. He pumped bullets at the glowing creature. Naturally there was no result. Court waited till the echoes had died.
"No one will deny that this is an authentic Carrier. Watch!"
The creature was at the edge of the platform when Scipio swung his weapon to focus upon it. The result was unspectacular. A ray of intense white light struck from the lens, and the glow surrounding the Carrier merely began to fade. The thing remained motionless, all its glory dulling.
At last there was only something hike a mummy collapsing to lie motionless on the stage. Scipio switched off the light.
"Take your seats, please," Court said. "I have no more surprises for you. I shall welcome a committee to examine the body of this Carrier." The first man to hasten down the aisle was a strongly built, handsome man with grizzled gray hair. He went directly to Court.
"Mr. President!" Court cried. "I didn't know you intended to be here, or I wouldn't have—"
"I'm glad you did make that experiment," said the President of the United States. "I doubt if the scientists will fail to approve your plan now." There was a little twinkle in the level gray eyes. "Even if they do, I have authority under martial law to order you to build your Earth Shield, and to give you every assistance you require."
The big figure turned toward the audience, and the President waved at the group of reporters.
"Put that on your front pages, boys. Stephen Court's in charge!"
With silent, incredible speed, Earth swung into action to fight the cosmic menace. Stephen Court was in charge. Beside him Ardath worked, untiring, unsparing of himself. Li Yang, Scipio, and Marion Barton lent their aid.
Staffs of trained scientists gathered from all over the world. Factories were hastily commandeered, and their machinery altered so they could turn out quantities of the atomic energy portable guns.
From San Francisco, to New York, from New Orleans to Chicago, trained men went busily to work. Production of the guns was left to subordinates. Once provided with the plans, they executed their orders with swift precision.
Troops of militia were armed with the weapons and sent into Plague-infested areas. New York was cleared of the Carriers, and the other cities as well. Dozens of the guns were stored in airports, ready for instant transportation whenever a case of the Plague was reported. Such reports were constant these days. Earth was approaching dangerously close to the nucleus of the cosmic cloud.
Ardath flew to China, with Li Yang and two hundred famous scientists. A job had to be done there. Two gigantic towers had to be erected, on each side of the Earth—one in the Orient, one in America. Court was in charge of constructing the latter. He remained in constant telephonic communication with Ardath.
Speed was essential. Every resource of the country was turned to building the Earth Shield. Business was neglected. The Government issued their orders, delegating certain jobs to certain groups. The people had to be fed, of course, but every capable man was mustered to the task for which he was best fitted. Factories worked day and night.
Every other country lent its aid. Canada, England, Germany, France, Italy, Japan—all forgot their imperialistic and trade quarrels in order to battle the common enemy. There was no time for war.
Build the Towers! Create the Earth Shield! These aims were foremost.
Slowly the mighty obelisks rose. They resembled the Eiffel Tower, but were far taller and larger. Immense girders buckled huger beams together as the monoliths rose against the sky day by day. Faster, faster, the men worked.
At night, searchlights were used. New roads were built and old ones widened, all converging on the Towers. A railroad was laid to each one from the nearest line.
Nearby towns found themselves incredibly augmented in populations. Emergency barracks rose. Dapper physicists and chemists slept side by side with burly roustabouts and riveters.
No thought of class, and few quarrels, arose. Each man knew that the Plague might strike his own family next. Under his breath he whispered:
"Build the Earth Shield! Hurry! Hurry!"
Two Towers loomed at last, visible for many miles. Each one was topped with a shimmering, bright sphere of metal, fifty feet in diameter. From these globes the atomic energy would flame out, to encircle the planet and transform the atomic structure of the Heaviside Layer into an impregnable barrier.
Court had little time to rest. He had frequent reports from the Chief of the F.B.I., whom he had requested to track down the vanished Thordred. But the bearded giant had disappeared without trace. His continued presence meant danger, however. Thordred possessed the knowledge he had stolen from the minds of both Ardath and Court. The drag-net searched for him vainly.
One night Court, Scipio and Marion stood in the control room just beneath the huge globe that topped the Tower. The task was finished. The last workman had just departed in the elevator that led to the ground. The three stood quietly, staring out at the land that stretched far beneath them. Bright moonlight bathed everything weirdly, yet beautifully.
The room was fifty feet square, a flat platform around which a low railing ran. There were no walls. Metal supports stood up like thick columns at intervals. The globe above their heads was hollow, else not even the tough reinforced steel of the Tower could have supported its weight.
They could not see the sphere. Nine feet above their heads, the ceiling was plated with thickness after thickness of Ardath's alloy, the only thing that would halt the radiation of atomic energy. Court fumbled with a televisor.
"Wish I'd had this finished weeks ago," he complained. "Ardath showed me how to build it, but I didn't have time. Let's see—"
The screen ran riot with color that swiftly faded into a uniform gray.
"Trying for China?" Marion asked, coming to stand close to Court.
"The other Tower. I'm getting it. Here it is!"
On the screen, the fat, butter-colored face of Li Yang appeared. The beady black eyes stared.
"Court? Hello. How is the work?"
"All finished," Court sighed. "We're just waiting for you. Bolted the last connection half an hour ago."
"Fine!" the Oriental applauded. "We'll be ready tomorrow, perhaps sooner. Wait a moment. Here's Ardath."
The Kyrian's thin, ascetic face replaced that of Li Yang. His eyes were red-rimmed with fatigue.
"So you're finished, Court," he said. "Good. My workmen were not much slower. We'll be done in a few hours, not tomorrow, Li Yang. Then we can turn on the power. Don't forget"— Ardath's lips thinned—"we must be careful. Both of us must turn on the switches at exactly the same moment. Otherwise there will be disaster.
"The atomic screen must meet just halfway around the Earth. If you turn on your power too soon, your energy screen will smash mine back and destroy this Tower completely. We must be completely accurate."
Court glanced at an instrument panel near him.
"I will. Wait a minute. Someone's coming up in the elevator."
The warning bell was ringing. Presently the lift rose into view. An overalled figure, half hidden under the weight of a wooden box, stepped out of the cage.
Scipio turned from where he had been leaning on the rail and staring down into the black gulf. He peered at the workman. Marion's brows drew together in puzzlement.
"What's this?" she asked. "We didn't—"
The box fell crashing to the floor. The face of the man behind it was revealed. It was no longer bearded; clean-shaven now, and with the hair bleached yellow. Yet the arrogant mouth, hawk nose and the tawny amber eyes could belong to only one man.
His hand swept up, a lens blinking bluely in it. The mouth gaped in a snarl.
"Don't move!" His voice shook with mad fury. "Don't move a muscle. I've come back!"
Court still stood before the televisor. On the screen he saw Ardath's face watching, immobile and intent. He glimpsed a heavy wrench that was lying forgotten on the ledge of the televisor. It was hidden from Thordred's view by the instrument's bulk. Court let his hand gently close over it.
"Don't be a fool," he said. "You can't possibly escape."
Thordred laughed harshly. "No, you saw to that. Your police have come after me. If I hadn't stolen your memories, I'd never have escaped them. I disguised myself as a workman and rode up here. Nobody stopped me. And I have a weapon now! I made it, with the knowledge and memories I took from Ardath."
Marion's face was paper-white. Scipio stood motionless, his gigantic hands gripping the rail behind him.
"What do you intend to do?" Court asked.
"Kill you," Thordred rasped. "Then I'll turn on the power —I know how to do that—and the energy will destroy Ardath in his Tower. With you two out of the way, I can rule the Earth. My brain, with the combined knowledge of yours and his, is wiser than any other in the world."
"You may do that," Court admitted, warily watching for an opening. "But what about the Plague?"
"I haven't forgotten that. The Towers can be repaired. The Earth Shield can be created, even without you and Ardath. But then I shall rule this planet!"
Softly, without moving his" lips, Court whispered into the televisor.
"Turn on your power, Ardath. It'll destroy Thordred. We'll go with it, but that's the only way."
The Kyrian did not speak, but he shook his head slightly. Thordred moved forward. The blue lens in his hand rifted.
"Now," he said. "Now you die!"
Court's muscles tensed for a hopeless leap. He knew he could not reach the other in time. His fingers tightened over the wrench. Scipio had not moved. His eyes were aglow.
Murder-lust sprang into Thordred's dark face. He aimed the crystal—
Ardath's voice rang out from the televisor. Startled, Thordred involuntarily glanced toward the instrument. Simultaneously on the screen a beam of blinding white light flashed from Ardath's hand. It flamed into Thordred's eyes, blinding him.
Roaring, the giant shook his head, a ray of blue radiance spearing wildly from the lens he held. Court snatched up the wrench and hurled it with all his strength. It struck Thordred's hand. The lens was hurled away, to shatter on the metallic floor.
Ready to hurl himself at Thordred, Court was halted by Scipio's bull voice. The Carthaginian roared:
"Back, Court! He is mine—mine to slay!"
No longer blinded by the ray, Thordred turned to face this new menace. With the snarl of a cornered beast, he closed with his attacker. The mighty, hair-covered hands closed about Scipio's throat. The Carthaginian tore them away, and the two men gripped each other about the waist.
They reeled back and forth, each striving to throw the other. To and fro on the platform they wrestled, hundreds of feet above the ground. Staggering to the railed brink and back, Thordred bellowed with insane rage. His mouth gaped open as he sought to sink his teeth in Scipio's throat.
The Carthaginian swung his fist in a short arc. The power of the blow brought blood gushing from Thordred's cheek.
Court and Marion—and, on the screen, Ardath and Li Yang—watched the two titans battle. The men were well matched. Thordred was the taller, but Scipio seemed to weigh a trifle more. Yet the raging, murderous frenzy that filled them both was exactly equal.
Abruptly Thordred drove a foul blow at Scipio's middle. The Carthaginian grunted, and his guard dropped for a moment. Instantly Thordred hurled himself upon his opponent. The two went down, Thordred on. top. The hairy hands again sank in Scipio's corded throat.
Court sprang forward, the wrench in his hand. Scipio turned his head slightly. His deep voice roared a warning.
"Back, Court! He is mine to slay!"
Then the iron hands of the gladiator from Carthage found their mark—the throat of the savage from the Earth's youth.
And they sank deep, deep! All the tremendous strength in Scipio's muscles seemed to flow into his arms. Cords and knots stood out under his bronzed skin.
Thordred's face was suddenly gorged with purple. Blood stained his shaved chin, began trickling down. Desperately he strove to throttle his opponent. Abandoning the effort, he released his grip and stabbed his fingers down at Scipio's eyes.
The Carthaginian expertly rolled his head, and the foul missed its mark.
Thordred was suddenly clawing at the terrible hands that shut off his breath. His body jerked and writhed like a hooked fish. His eyes were distended and protruding. Frantically he tried to tear himself free, and could not…
"You left her to die," Scipio whispered.
Court knew that he spoke of Jansaiya, the Atlantean priestess.
One last frightful effort Thordred made. Something snapped with a brittle, crackling report. Simultaneously the giant flung himself up with one uncoiling motion. He stood upright, amber eyes glaring, breath hissing and rattling into his starved lungs.
Suddenly the huge head lolled forward slackly on its broken neck. For a heart-beat, Thordred stood silhouetted against the dark sky. Then he crashed lifeless to the floor.
Scipio sprang up. He heaved up the heavy body of Thordred and went staggering toward the railing. He flung the body out into the abyss, and stared after it with brooding eyes.
"Your vengeance, Jansaiya," he whispered. "And mine!"
Then Scipio Agricola Africanus, the man from Carthage, put his head down on his arms. He began to weep great choking sobs that ripped harshly from his throat.
Court looked away in sympathy and walked toward the televisor screen. Against it Marion leaned, faint with reaction. Both Ardath and Li Yang were watching. Though the Oriental's gross yellow face was immobile, his lacquer eyes were suddenly aglow with pity.
"Ohe," Li Yang sighed softly. "Alas for such men as Scipio, who find neither thrones nor love."
Ardath turned when a man appeared behind him on the screen. After a few words, he faced Court.
"The work has been done sooner than I expected. We can turn on the power now. Compare your chronometer with mine."
The two delicate time-pieces checked precisely.
"At exactly eleven, throw your switch," Ardath instructed. "I shall do the same."-
There were ten seconds to go—five—three—
Court's hand trembled on the switch.
Deafening thunder bellowed out from the summit of the Tower. For miles around, the roaring blast shattered windows and awakened sleepers to panicky fright. White light made the country bright as day. For a second, the maelstrom of raving light and sound continued. Then it swiftly died. There was silence, save for a low humming.
"Good!" Ardath said on the screen. "We timed it exactly right. In two minutes, watch the sky. If it lights up, we have succeeded."
With one accord, Court and Marion hurried to the railing. Even Scipio rifted his head to stare at the black sky.
Two minutes to wait. The incredible barrier of electrons, the curtain of atomic energy, was rushing around the Earth, spreading out from the points of origin in the twin Towers.
One minute dragged by. Then, without warning, the sky turned white. The dim stars vanished. A curtain of pallid white brilliance hung over the Earth, like a shining ivory bowl overturned upon the land.
A single heart-beat it remained, and then faded and was gone. But Court knew that the Earth Shield had been created. That barrier would forever safeguard mankind. "We've won!" His voice was hoarse with triumph. "Marion, we've saved humanity!"
There was something inexpressibly tender in the girl's eyes as she watched him. For now she knew that Stephen Court was a man whom she could love and cherish—not a cold, inhuman machine. In the hour of his triumph, he exulted not because he had solved a terrible problem with his keen brain. Court rejoiced because he had saved human beings from horror and death.
"Yes," Marion said softly. "We've won, Steve. Both of us have won what we wanted."
From the metallic sphere overhead, invisible energy flared out, challenging the stars as it poured its mighty power into the Earth Shield…
One year later, a little group stood on the Wisconsin hills, examining a huge golden space ship that loomed against the green slope and the summer sky. It had taken months to build a new vessel to Ardath's specifications. But at last the task had been finished, the equipment installed, and the provisions taken aboard. In every respect, the craft was a duplicate of the Kyrian original, save for a few new devices which Ardath and Court had perfected. Scipio, Li Yang and Ardath stood together at the open airlock, Marion and Court a few feet away. It was difficult to find words at this moment of sad farewell.
"I am sorry you will not go with us, both of you," Ardath said after a time. "Yet you may be right."
"You know how I feel about it," Court returned. "The Plague is destroyed. It will never come again, thanks to the Earth Shield. But new dangers may arise. These people among whom I was born are my people. I must be ready to serve and help them. I think that was the reason I was given a mind evolved beyond my time.
"I can help in so many ways, Ardath. There is so much I can do to improve this world of mine. Already, in one year, vast strides have been made. Atomic power has outlawed war. When I die, I want to die in a Utopia that I have helped to build."
Ardath nodded with understanding. "I came through time to find a super-mind whom I could abduct to start a new race. Well, I have found that super-mind—and you are wiser than I, Stephen Court. We are all part of some cosmic pattern, and this pattern works toward good and not evil. It builds and does not destroy. So I shall go on in my search for a race where I can find kinship and happiness. Perhaps, a thousand years from now, I shall stand beside your grave, Court."
"I, too," Scipio broke in. "Your world is a fine one, Court, and some of it I like. But I follow a dream. Mayhap I can carve out a kingdom in some distant future—" He did not finish, but his face was suddenly somber. "I cannot stay here," he said at last. "Jansaiya died here, and that would always be an aching pain in my heart."
"Nor will I remain," Li Yang murmured. "Perhaps it is merely curiosity that impels me to go on with Ardath. I do not know. But the unknown has a certain fascination, and I am anxious to know what will exist a million years from now. So farewell, and"—the tiny mouth twisted grotesquely—"and do not forget fat old Li Yang."
The gross figure turned hastily and disappeared into the ship.
Scipio bent and touched his lips to Marion's brow before he squeezed Court's hand in a mighty grip.
"The gods watch over you," he rumbled, and was gone inside.
Now Ardath's strange, alien eyes dwelt on the faces of Marion and Court.
"There is nothing I can say," he whispered. "Only, farewell."
Some indefinable bond of kinship between minds flashed for an instant as Court and Ardath gazed into each other's eyes. Then the Kyrian stepped back into the ship and the port swung shut.
The vessel lifted. It rose silently and dwindled against the blue, a bright golden ovoid that faded to a speck and was out of sight. It sped toward the orbit it would follow around the Earth, perhaps for thousands of years, until Ardath and Scipio and Li Yang awoke to follow their strange destiny.
Two figures stood close together on the slope. Marion and Court looked up until all trace of the golden ship was gone. There was only the blue sky then, and the green hills of 'Wisconsin.
Still silent, and with the man's arm holding the girls sum form close to him, they turned to retrace their steps to the highway where a car waited. There was nothing they could say, and no need for words had they found any…