ASTOUNDING STORIES OF SUPER-SCIENCE
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VOL. IV, No. 3 CONTENTS DECEMBER, 1930
COVER DESIGN H. W. WESSOLOWSKI
Painted in Oils from a Scene in "The Ape-Men of Xlotli."
SLAVES OF THE DUST SOPHIE WENZEL ELLIS 295
Fate's Retribution Was Adequate. There Emerged a Rat with a Man's Head and Face.
THE PIRATE PLANET CHARLES W. DIFFIN 310
It is War. Interplanetary War. And on Far-Distant Venus Two Fighting Earthlings Stand Up Against a Whole Planet Run Amuck. (Part Two of a Four-Part Novel.)
THE SEA TERROR CAPTAIN S. P. MEEK 336
The Trail of Mystery Gold Leads Carnes and Dr. Bird to a Tremendous Monster of the Deep.
GRAY DENIM HARL VINCENT 354
The Blood of the Van Dorn's Ran in Karl's Veins. He Rode the Skies Like an Avenging God.
THE APE-MEN OF XLOTLI DAVID R. SPARKS 370
A Beautiful Face in the Depths of a Geyser—and Kirby Plunges into a Desperate Mid-Earth Conflict with the Dreadful Feathered Serpent. (A Complete Novelette.)
THE READERS' CORNER ALL OF US 421
A Meeting place for Readers of Astounding Stories.
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* * * * *
Slaves of the Dust
By Sophie Wenzel Ellis
Fate's retribution was adequate. There emerged a rat with a man's head and face.
It's a poor science that would hide from us the great, deep, sacred infinitude of Nescience, whither we can never penetrate, on which all science swims as mere superficial film.
The two bataloes turned from the open waters of the lower Tapajos River into the igarape, the lily-smothered shallows that often mark an Indian settlement in the jungles of Brazil. One of the two half-breed rubber-gatherers suddenly stopped his bataloe by thrusting a paddle against a giant clump of lilies. In a corruption of the Tupi dialect, he called over to the white man occupying the other frail craft.
"We dare go no farther, master. The country of the Ungapuks is bewitched. It is too dangerous."
Fearfully he stared over his shoulder toward a spot in the slimy water where a dim bulk moved, which was only an alligator hunting for his breakfast.
Hale Oakham, as long and lanky and level-eyed as Charles Lindbergh, ran despairing fingers through his damp hair and groaned.
"But how can I find this jungle village without a guide?"
The caboclo shrugged. "The village will find you. It is bewitched, master. But you will soon see the path through the matto."
"Can't you stay by me until time to land? I don't like the looks of these alligators."
"It is better for a white man to face an alligator than for a caboclo to face an Ungapuk. Once they used to kill and eat us for our strength. Now—" Again his shrug was eloquent.
"Now?" Hale prompted impatiently.
"The white god who put a spell on these one-time cannibals will bewitch us and make us wash and rejoice when it is time to die."
* * * * *
He shuddered and spat at a cayman that was lumbering away from his bataloe.
Hale Oakham laughed, a hearty boyish laugh for a rather learned young professor.
"Is that all they do to you?" he asked.
"No. All who enter this magic matto die soon, rejoicing. Before the last breath comes, it is said their bodies turn into a handful of silver dust—poof!—like that." He snapped his dirty fingers. "Then the life that leaves them goes into rocks that walk."
Hale sighed resignedly. There wasn't any use to argue.
"Unload your bataloe," he ordered testily, "and get your filthy carcasses away."
The half-breeds obeyed readily. As the departing bataloe turned from the igarape into the open water of the river, the young man repressed a sudden lifting of his scalp. He was in for it now!
His long body sprawled out in the bataloe, he paddled about aimlessly for several minutes until he found an aisle through the jungle—the path that led to the jungle village which he was visiting in the name of science, and for a certain award.
Before plunging into that waiting tangle where life and death carried on a visible, unceasing struggle, he hesitated. Instinctively he shrank from losing himself in that mad green world.
* * * * *
He had first heard of the Ungapuks at the convention of the Nescience Club in New York, that body of scientists, near-scientists and adventurers linked together for the purpose of awarding the yearly Woolman prizes for the most spectacular addition of empiric facts to various branches of science. One of the members of the club, an explorer, had told a wild yarn about a tribe of Brazilian Indians, headed by Sir Basil Addington, an English scientist, who was conducting secret experiments in biochemistry in his jungle laboratory. The explorer had said that the scientist, half-crazed by a powerful narcotic, had seemingly discovered some secret of life which enabled him to produce monsters in his laboratory and to change the physical characteristics of the Ungapuk Indians, who, in five years, had been transformed from cannibals into cultured men and women.
And now Hale Oakham, hoping to win one of the Woolman prizes, was here in the country of the Ungapuks, entering the jungle path that lead to the unknown.
Fifty feet from the igarape, the path curved sharply away from a giant tree. Hale approached the bend with his hand on his gun. Just before he reached it, he stopped suddenly to listen.
A woman's voice had suddenly broken forth in a wild, incredibly sweet song. Hale stood entranced, drinking in the heady sounds that stirred his emotions like masata, the jungle intoxicant. The singer approached the bend in the path, while the young man waited eagerly.
The first sight of her made him gasp. He had expected to see an Indian girl. No sane traveler would imagine a white woman in the Amazon jungle, with skin as amazingly pale as the great, fleshy victoria regia lilies in the igarape.
When she saw Hale, she stopped instantly. With a quick, practiced twist, she reached for the bow flung across her shoulders and fitted a barbed arrow to the string.
* * * * *
She was a beautiful barbarian, standing quivering before him. In the thick dull gold braids hanging over her bare shoulders flamed two enormous scarlet flowers, no redder than her own lips pouted in alarm. There was a savage brevity to her clothing, which consisted only of a short skirt of rough native grass and breastplates of beaten gold, held in place by strings of colored seeds.
The girl held out an imperious hand and, in perfect English, said:
Hale drew his long body up to its slim height, folded his arms, and gave her his most winning smile. His insolence added to his wholesome good looks.
"Why?" he exclaimed. "I've come a couple of thousand miles to call on you."
He saw that the eyes which held his levelly were pure and limpid, and of an astonishing orchid-blue.
"Who are you?" Her throaty, vibrant voice was a thing of the flesh, whipping Hale's senses to sudden madness.
"I'm Hale Oakham," he said, a little tremulously, "a lone, would-be scientist knocking about the jungle. Won't you tell me your name?"
She nodded gravely. "I am Ana. I, too, am white." Her rich voice was quietly proud. "Come; I'll see if Aimu will receive you."
With surprising, childlike trust, she held out her little hand to him. The gesture was so delightfully natural that Hale, grinning boyishly, took her hand and held it as they walked down the jungle path.
"Sing for me," he demanded abruptly. "Sing the song you sang just now."
"That?" asked the girl, turning the virgin-blue fire of her eyes on him. "That was my death-song that I practice each day. Perhaps soon I shall be released from this." She passed her hands over her beautiful, half-clothed body.
* * * * *
Hale's warm glance swept over her. "Do you want to die?"
"Yes; don't you? But you do not, or you would not have retreated from my poisoned arrow."
"No, Ana; I want to live."
"To live—and be a slave of this?" Again her hand went over her slim body. "A slave of a pile of flesh that you must feed and protect from the agonies that attack it on every side? Bah! But I am hoping that my turn will come next."
"Your turn for what, Ana?"
"To enter the Room of Release. Perhaps, if Aimu approves of you, you, too, may taste of death." Her gentle smile was beatific.
"Do you speak of Sir Basil Addington?"
"He was called that once, before he came to us. Now he has no name. We can find none holy enough for him; and so we call him Aimu, which means good friend." Her beautiful face was sweet with reverence.
And now, in the distance, Hale saw that the path led into a large clearing. He slowed his pace, for he wanted to know this lovely girl better before he joined the Ungapuks.
"Who are you, Ana?" he asked suddenly, bending closer to the crinkled, dull-gold hair.
"I am Ana, a white woman." She looked at him frankly.
"But who are your parents, and how did you get among the Ungapuks?"
Ana's red lips curved into a dewy smile. "I thought all white men were wise, like Aimu. But you are stupid. How do you think a white woman could appear in a tribe of Indians who live in the jungle, many weeks' journey from what you call civilization?"
Hale looked a little blank and more than a little disconcerted.
"I suppose I am stupid," he said dryly. "But tell me, Ana, how did you get here?"
"Why," she exclaimed, "he made me!"
"Made you? Good Lord! What do you mean?"
"Just what I said, Hale Oakham. If he can take a few grains of dust and make a shoot that will grow into a giant tree like yonder monster itauba, don't you think he can create a small white girl like me?" Her orchid-blue eyes glowed innocently into his.
* * * * *
The eager questions that he would have asked froze upon his lips, for a party of Indians approached.
The six nearly naked red men came close and surveyed him, toying nervously with their primitive, feather-decorated weapons.
A tall, handsome young fellow who possessed something of the picturesque perfection of the North American plains' Indian stepped forward and, in perfect English, said:
"Good morning, white stranger. What is it you wish of the Ungapuks?"
"I came to see your white cacique," said Hale.
"Aimu? What is it you wish of Aimu? He is ours, white stranger."
"Yes, he is yours. I come as a friend, perhaps to help him in his great work."
"Perhaps!" The young Indian folded his bronze, muscular arms over his broad chest and continued his cool survey of Hale. "White men before you have come: spies and thieves. Some we poisoned with curari. Others Aimu took into the Room of Release."
He turned to Ana, who was still standing by Hale, and his expression softened.
"What shall we do with him, Ana?" he asked the question, a fleeting look of hunger swept his fine, flashing eyes.
Ana flushed beautifully, and, moving closer to Hale, with an impulsive, almost childish gesture, slipped her arm through his.
"Let us take him to our village, Unani Assu!" she suggested. "I like him."
It was Hale's turn to flush, which he did like a schoolboy.
* * * * *
Unani Assu's brows drew together in a scowl. The hand holding his blow-pipe jerked convulsively.
"Ana! Come away!" he growled. "You mustn't touch a stranger!"
Ana's blue eyes stretched with astonishment. "But I like to touch him, Unani Assu!"
The tall Indian, with a half comical gesture of despair, said:
"Don't misunderstand her, stranger. She is young, very young, ah! And she has known only the reborn men of the Ungapuks."
He stepped firmly over to Ana, and, taking the girl by the arm, drew her away.
"Run ahead," he commanded, "and tell Aimu that we come."
Ana, her feathered bamboo anklets clicking together, sped away.
Unani Assu bowed courteously to Hale.
"Come, stranger. If you are an enemy, it is you who must fear." He motioned for him to proceed down the jungle path.
The path ended at a clearing studded with moloccas, the Indian grass huts made of plaited straw. Altogether the scene was peaceful and sane and far removed from the strange tales that Hale had heard concerning the Ungapuks.
Hale was conducted to a long, low stone building, where, in the doorway, stood a tall and emaciated white man.
"Aimu!" said the Indians reverently, and bowed themselves.
Over the bare, brown backs, the white man looked at Hale.
"Sir Basil Addington?" asked the young man.
"Yes. You are welcome. Come in."
Hale entered the building.
* * * * *
He was in a book-filled study, furnished with hand-made chairs and a desk. Sir Basil asked him to be seated. He offered the young man long, brown native cigarettes and a very good drink made from yucca.
After several minutes of conversation, Sir Basil suddenly changed his manner.
"And now," he shot out, eyeing the young man through narrowed lids, "will you please state the purpose of this visit?"
Hale looked squarely at his questioner. "Frankly, Sir Basil, I have called on you because I am so intensely interested in your work among the Ungapuks that I wish to offer my services."
He gave in detail his family history, his education, and his experience as a teacher and a scientist.
Sir Basil tapped his teeth thoughtfully with a pencil.
"But why do you think you can be of assistance to me?"
"That, of course, is for you to decide."
Hale thought that the scientist looked like a huge, starved crow in his loose-fitting coat. He was so fleshless that, when the light fell strongly on his face as it now did, the bones of his head and hands showed through the skin with horrible clearness.
Hale, under Sir Basil's scrutiny, decided instantly that he did not like him.
"I need a helper," the scientist went on, with the air of talking to himself. "A white assistant who neither loves nor fears me. Unani Assu is good enough in his way, but I need a helper who has had technical training." Suddenly he wheeled on Hale and asked sharply, "How are your nerves, young man?"
* * * * *
Hale started, but managed to answer calmly. "Excellent. My war record isn't half bad, and that was surely backed with good nerves."
"And you say you have no close relatives, no ties of any sort to interfere with work that is dangerous—and something else?"
"Not a soul would care if I passed out to-day, Sir Basil."
"Good! And now tell me this: are you one of those scientists whose minds are so mechanical, so mathematically made, as it were, that your entire outlook on science is based on old, established beliefs, or do you belong to that rare but modern type of trained thinker and dreamer who refuse to permit yesterday's convictions to influence to-day's visions?"
Hale smiled quietly. "I recently lost my chair in a famous university because of my so-called unscientific teachings regarding ether-drift."
Expressing himself in purely scientific terms, he went into an elaboration of his revolutionary theory. When he had finished, Sir Basil reached out his clawlike hand to him.
"Good!" he approved. "You have dared to think originally. Now listen to my theory of mind-electrons which has grown into the established fact that I have discovered the secret of life and death."
The long, thin hands reached into a pocket for a box of pills. He swallowed one greedily, and immediately his emaciated face seemed charged with new virility.
He spoke out suddenly. "Our world, you know, is made up of three powers: matter, energy and what you call life. I might really say that there are but two powers, for matter, in its last analysis, is a form of energy. And what is life? You can't call it a form of energy, for every inorganic atom has energy without having life. Life, Mr. Oakham, is mind or consciousness."
He began pacing the floor restlessly. "Everything that lives has this consciousness, and I say this in defiance of some fixed scientific views. The amoeba in a stagnant pool, a thallophyte on a bit of old bread, any of the myriads of trees and plants that you see in the jungle all have consciousness as well as you. And why?"
* * * * *
He brought his fist down upon the table. "Because they issue from the same source as you and I, the almighty mind, eternal, indestructible, which has permitted itself to be enslaved by matter. You are Hale Oakham. I am Basil Addington, yet we are one and the same. Let me illustrate."
He seized a glass and poured it full of masata. "Look! Two portions of masata. But I pour what is in the glass back into the bottle. The molecules cohere and the two portions become one again. Some day you and I—our individual consciousnesses—will flow back to the Whole. That sounds mystical, but listen.
"We scientists hold that the electron explains nearly all the physical and chemical phenomena. I go further and say that it explains all. Matter, electricity, light, heat, magnetism—all can be reduced to the ultimate unit. So, Mr. Oakham, I am going to make clear to you how life itself is electronic."
His long finger touched Hale's arm. "You, I, yonder mosquito on your sleeve, even one of the germs that is causing my malaria, all being individual living things, are the ultimate units of what I shall personify as the Mind. When I say you I do not speak of that mound of flesh in which you exist, and which can be reduced to the same familiar basic elements and compounds as make up inorganic structures; I speak of your mind, your consciousness—for that is the real you. Are you following me?"
"Perfectly, Sir Basil." Hale reached for another drink. "But do you mean to say that you and I are no more than a mosquito, a malaria protozoan, or even one of those trees in the jungle?"
Sir Basil's dry skin slipped back into a long smile. "Startling, isn't it? You, I, and all other living organisms are nothing but matter, energy and consciousness. You and I have a larger share of consciousness, because our organic structure permits the mind-electrons greater freedom over the matter than composes our bodies. We are more acutely aware of the universe about us, have a greater facility for enjoyment and suffering, a more intricate brain and nervous system. Yet when our bodies die and our consciousness is released, the mind-electrons enslaved by our atoms go back to the elemental Whole. This holds good for the protozoan, the tree, the man—for all things that live."
* * * * *
Hale was drinking again. "You mean, Sir Basil, that there is a sort of war waged against what you personify as the Mind by matter; that matter is constantly seeking to enslave mind-electrons, so that it may become an organism which, for awhile, may enjoy what we call life?"
Sir Basil pushed back his tufted hair and looked happy. "Yes! And it's Nature's supreme blunder! In the end, the Mind always conquers and gains its release, yet the eternal chain of enslavement goes on and on, and will continue to go on as long as there is a living organism in the world to bind mind to matter."
Hale was excited now, as much from the fiery intoxicant as from the scientist's weird revelation. "I get you," he said, rather inelegantly for a professor. "You mean that if every living thing in the world should pass out, every man, every plant, every animal, even down to microscopic infusoria, the Mind would collect all its electrons, and through some more jealous law of, er, cohesion hold these electrons inviolate from matter and energy?"
"Right! And again, as in the beginning, the Mind would rule supreme. By what I have proved, you and I and all other creatures that now have life may, as separate unfleshed electrons, enjoy eternal consciousness as a part of the Mind." A new passion leaped to his dark eyes. "When I have finished my mission, no more need we be slaves of the dust, subject to all the frightful sufferings of this dunghill of flesh."
He brought his fist down upon his skinny leg with a resounding blow.
"But you cannot reduce your theory to fact, Sir Basil!"
"No?" Again came that frightful grin to his cadaverous face. "Can you withstand shock?"
"If you mean shock to the eye, let me remind you that I served two years in the big fight."
"Then come to my laboratory. Better take another drink."
While Hale helped himself again from the masata bottle, Sir Basil swallowed another pellet.
Then the two went into the adjoining apartment.
* * * * *
Sir Basil, his hand over the doorknob, paused.
"Before we go in," he said, "I want you to remember that we call natural that which is characteristic of the physical world. Everything alive in this laboratory was produced by nature. I merely made available the materials, or, rather, I made the conditions under which matter was able to enslave mind-electrons."
He opened the door, slipped his body through, and, with his ugly, teeth-revealing grin, gestured for Hale to follow him.
Hale steeled himself and looked around half fearfully. The first glance took in a large and well-equipped laboratory, somewhat fetid with animal odors. The second lingered here and there on cages, aquariums, incubators, and other containers where creatures moved.
Suddenly, as something scuttled across the floor and disappeared into a hole in the wall, Hale cried out and covered his eyes with a hand.
Sir Basil laughed aloud. "Why didn't you examine it closer?"
Hale looked nauseated. "My God, Sir Basil! A rat with a man's head and face!"
Sir Basil's voice was sharp, decisive. "Before you leave this laboratory, you're going to come out of your foolish belief that man is a creature apart from other living organisms. You—the conscious you—is no greater, no more important in the final balance than the spark of consciousness in that rat. When your body and the rat's body give up their atoms to nature's laboratory, the little enslaved mind-electron that is you and the one that is the rat will be identical."
Again Hale shivered and turned away from that cold, too-thin face.
The scientist was speaking. "Step around to all those cages and pens. I want you to see all my slaves of the dust."
* * * * *
But long before Hale had encircled the room, he was so disturbed at what he saw that he could scarcely complete his frightful inspection. In every enclosure he viewed a monstrosity that in some way resembled a human. Every reptile, every insect, every queer, misshapen animal not only looked human in some shocking manner, but also seemed to possess human characteristics. It seemed as though some demented creator with a perverted sense of humor had attempted to mock man by calling forth monsters in his image.
At last the young man cried out: "How did you breed these freaks?"
"They are not freaks, and I did not breed them. They are nature's parentless products whose basic elements were brought together in this laboratory, and, by a scientific reproduction of the functions of creation, endowed with the life principle, which is merely mind-electrons." He smoothed his long tuft of hair nervously. "Would you like to see how life springs from a wedding of matter, energy, and consciousness?"
"I suspect I can stand anything now," Hale admitted.
"Then come and peep into a very remarkable group of apparatus I have developed, where you can watch atoms building molecules and molecules building living organisms."
"You say I can see atoms?"
"Not directly, of course. The light waves will forever prevent us from actually seeing the atom. But I have perfected a system of photography which magnifies particles smaller than light waves, and, separating their images from the light waves, renders detail clear in the moving pictures."
* * * * *
He went to a huge machine or series of machines which took up all the center floor space of the laboratory, where he busied himself in an intricate network of wires, mirrors, electrodes, ray projectors, and traveling metal compartments. Presently he called out to Hale.
"Let me remind you, Oakham, that while any scientist can break up any of the various proteid molecules which are the basis of all living cells, animal and vegetable, no scientist before me has been able to compound the atoms and build them into a proteid molecule."
He bared his teeth in the smile that Hale hated.
"I am proud to tell you that the proteid molecule can be built up only when the third element of nature's trinity is added—the mind-electron. I have found a means of capturing the mind-electron and of bringing it in contact with proteid elements. And now it is possible to bring forth life in the laboratory. Come closer and watch proteid forming protoplasm, protoplasm forming a cell, and the cell evolving into—well, what do you want, an animal, plant, or an insect?"
Hale had fallen under the scientist's spell. He did not feel foolish when he said:
"Let's have a rat!"
* * * * *
Hale became so absorbed in the wonders of the laboratory that when lunch time came, Sir Basil had food brought to them. While they were eating a very good vegetable stew, farina, and luscious tropical fruits, a sudden, agonized scream rang out, followed by other screams and wails.
Sir Basil opened the door and looked out. Ana came running forward. Her blue eyes were flooded with tears.
"Oh, Aimu!" she moaned. "A tree fell on Unani Assu."
She buried her beautiful face in her hands and sobbed aloud.
Sir Basil frowned heavily.
"I can't lose Unani Assu yet," he declared. "He is a wonderful help around the laboratory. Is he dead?"
"No. We should rejoice if his time of release had come. But his legs, Aimu! No one wants to suffer and be crippled."
Even in her distress, the girl's voice was rich and vibrant, and every tone moved Hale curiously.
"Hurry!" cried the scientist. "Have them bring him here before he dies."
The girl leaped to her feet and sped away.
"Come, Oakham," continued Sir Basil. "Here is a rare opportunity for you to see how completely I have mastered the laws that govern organic matter. Help me prepare."
* * * * *
For several minutes, Hale worked under the scientist's sharply spoken directions. By the time the injured man was brought to the laboratory, Sir Basil was ready for him.
Unani Assu was still conscious, but his pale face indicated that he had lost much blood. When the improvised stretcher was lowered to the floor, Sir Basil sent all the Indians away.
Unani Assu opened his eyes and called feebly, "Ana!"
"Be still!" ordered Sir Basil. "Ana is not here."
"Please!" gasped the dying man. "I want her—my Ana!"
Sir Basil sucked in his breath sharply. "What's this? Have you been making love to Ana again, after my warning to you?"
The sufferer stirred uneasily. "No!" he panted. "But perhaps my hour of release has come, and I want to look at her—once more."
The scientist smiled unpleasantly as he eyed the magnificent body which looked like a broken statue in bronze.
"Some human characteristics are strange," he muttered. "In spite of everything I do, this fellow continues to love Ana: Ana whom I intend for myself."
He stepped to the apparatus and swiftly changed one of the adjustments.
"Perhaps," he resumed, with a gleam in his eyes that chilled Hale, "this will forever cure him."
* * * * *
In another moment, the still, half-dead body was lifted and gently slipped into a compartment.
Before Hale's horrified gaze fastened on the eye-piece which revealed moving pictures of every process that went on within, Unani Assu's body was reduced almost instantly to a fine, silvery dust.
"Good God!" he cried. "You have killed him."
The scientist's teeth showed in his wide smile. "Think so? Does a woman destroy a dress when she rips it up to make it over?"
"Do you mean me to understand that you can reduce a living body to its basic elements and then rebuild these elements into a remade man?"
"Watch!" warned the scientist.
Hale looked again and saw the silver dust that was once a living body being whirled into a tiny, grublike thing. He saw the grub expand into an embryo, and the embryo develop into a foetus. From now on the development was slower, and he often stopped to talk with Sir Basil.
Once he asked: "If this man had died naturally, could you have brought him back to life?"
Sir Basil shook his head. "No. When once the mind-electron is completely freed from its enslavement by matter, it is forever beyond recall by the body it has just vacated. Like atomic electrons, whose equilibrium disturbed break away from their planetary system and go dashing off into space, only to be drawn into another planetary system, the mind-electron may be enslaved almost immediately by extraneous matter. Had Unani Assu died, his liberated mind-electron might at once have been captured by a jungle flower going to seed. Immediately a new seed would be started. And now the former Unani Assu would be a seed of a jungle flower, later to find new life as a plant."
Suddenly the scientist threw up his hand and cried: "You see? The Mind will be eternally enslaved as long as there is life! Oh, for the time of deliverance!" He gazed fanatically into space, as though he dreamed magnificently.
Hale observed him thoughtfully. When that great brain weakened, the consequences would be frightful.
* * * * *
Sir Basil, as though he had made a sudden decision, went over to that part of his machine which he called the molecule-disintegrator.
"Oakham!" he called out. "I have taken you partly into my confidence. Now I want to show you something. Come here."
Hale obeyed with misgivings. The scientist pointed out the window to a group of Indians, anxious relatives of Unani Assu.
"Watch!" he ordered.
Turning one of the projectors on the machine toward the window, he sighted carefully and pressed a button.
Immediately one of the Indians fell to the ground and struggled. His companions began dancing around him in evident joy. Faintly to the laboratory came a familiar chant, which Hale recognized as Ana's death song.
Dust to dust Mind to Mind— He will shed his body As the green snake sheds his skin.
As Hale watched, the struggling Indian's body seemed to shrink, and then, instantly, it disappeared.
"Watch them scatter the dust!" said the scientist.
One of the Indians stooped and blew upon the grass.
"What have you done!" Hale gasped. "You've killed this one. Oh, I see now! These poor devils are totally ignorant that you are killing them for practice. They worship you while you turn them to—silver dust!" He turned angrily on the scientist as though he longed to strike him.
"Keep cool, young man!" Sir Basil held up his fleshless hand. "There is no death! Change, yes; but no permanent blotting out of consciousness. Can't you see the horror of it as nature works? When your time for release comes, as it inevitably will, your mind-electron might find new enslavement in a worm!"
* * * * *
Hale's reply came hotly. "If that is true, why do you murder these poor devils deliberately!"
"My dear Oakham, perhaps you are not so brilliant as I had hoped! All that I have done thus far is only child's play, in preparation for my real work. Haven't you guessed by now what I am getting ready to do?"
"No; I'm a poor guesser."
The scientist made a gesture of mock despair. "Then let me tell you. The molecule-disintegrator is active only on organic structures. When I concentrate it so"—he reached out again, sighted the projector on some point beyond the window and pressed a button—"one single living organism passes out. See that jupati tree by the rock disappear?"
Before Hale's eyes, the tall, slender tree melted into air.
"But," continued Sir Basil, "if I should broadcast my molecule-disintegrator on electron magnetic waves, destruction would pass out in all directions, following the curve of the earth's surface, penetrating earth, air, water." He wet his lips carefully. "You understand?"
Hale stiffened suddenly. "I understand. No life could survive these vibrations of destruction? Through every corner of the earth where life lurks, they would reach?"
"Yes!" cried Sir Basil. "There would be not a blade of grass, not a living spore, not a hidden egg! Think of it, Oakham! No more would the clean air and the sweet earth reek with life, and at last the ultimate mind-electron would be released forever."
He was breathing fast, and his emaciated face burned with two red spots.
Hale thought rapidly. He was convinced now that the fate of all life lay within that diabolical network of chemical apparatus.
At last he said: "And what of you and I, Sir Basil? Shall we, too, be caught in this wholesale destruction?"
"Not immediately," replied the scientist. "Of course, I want to remain in the flesh long enough to be sure that my purpose has been accomplished. I have provided a way for my own safety. If you desire, you may remain with me." He smiled craftily. "I have planned to keep Ana also, the woman whom I called into life and made as I wished."
* * * * *
His words pounded against Hale's tortured ears with almost physical force. With a supreme effort, the young man controlled his rage and despair. Ana needed him too much now for him to risk defeat by showing his emotions.
To Sir Basil he said: "But if all life disappears from the earth, what shall we do for food—you, Ana, and I?"
Sir Basil lifted his brows. "You don't think I overlooked that, do you? What is food? Various combinations of the basic elements. I who have conquered the atom need never worry about starving to death."
All this time, the machinery had been humming, and now the humming changed its note to a shrill whistle. Sir Basil went to the eye-piece and looked into it. Opening a door in the machinery, he disappeared inside. He came out soon, flushed and evidently elated.
"Bring the stretcher, Oakham," he ordered.
Hale brought the stretcher, placing it close to the machine. Then Sir Basil opened a metal door and gently eased out a human body.
It was Unani Assu, unconscious but alive and breathing. Hale, helping the scientist to get the man on the stretcher, noticed that the crushed legs were perfectly healed. Together they bore him to a long seat. The Indian's eyes were still closed, but his even breathing indicated that he was only sleeping.
Suddenly Hale pointed a finger and cried out. "My God, Sir Basil, look at his hands and feet!"
* * * * *
Unani Assu, still lying like a recumbent bronze statue sculptured by a master, was perfect from shoulder to wrist, from thigh to ankle. But, somewhere in that diabolical machine through which he had passed, his hands and feet had undergone a hideous metamorphism which had transformed them from the well-formed extremities of a splendid young Indian into the hairy paws of a giant rat!
Hale turned away his head, sick with disgust.
Sir Basil cut the silence triumphantly:
"Now he'll never again face Ana with love in his eyes!"
"What!" broke in Hale. "Did you plan this monstrous thing?"
"Of course! I told you I should forever cure him of his mad infatuation."
"But why didn't you kill him, as you killed the others? It would have been the most merciful way."
Sir Basil showed his teeth in his ugly smile. "A creator is never merciful."
A quiver passed through the Indian's body and presently, he sighed deeply and opened his eyes. He seemed dazed, puzzled. He looked from Hale to the scientist, and turned seeking eyes to other parts of the laboratory.
"Ana!" he called weakly. "Where is Ana?"
He pulled himself a little unsteadily to his feet—to the spatulated, hairy rodent feet that had come out of the life-machine. Staggering, he would have fallen, had he not thrown out his arm to steady himself. Instinctively he tried to grasp something for support, and then, for the first time, he discovered his deformity.
* * * * *
Hale was never to forget that expression of horror and disgust that swept over the Indian's face as he spread open his revolting extremities and stared at them.
A sudden, wild roar of despair rang through the room. "Aimu! My hands!"
The scientist smiled with evident amusement. "You are a grotesque sight, Unani Assu. Do you want to see Ana now?"
The fright and horror faded from the Indian's face, for now he glared with hate into the mad, mocking eyes.
"You did it!" the Indian ground out. "You've made me into a thing from which Ana will run screaming."
Through the quiet rage of the perfectly spoken English ran a thread of sorrow. "Aimu, whom we considered too holy to name!"
Choking, he hobbled away to the door, which he unbolted. As he passed out into the open, Sir Basil went over to the machine and began sighting the projector which cast forth the ray of destruction.
"No!" cried Hale. "You've done enough murder for to-day."
The scientist paused. "I was trying to be merciful. And then, I wonder if it is safe to let him go, hating me? Oh, well!" He shrugged his narrow shoulders. "I seldom leave the laboratory, and certainly nothing can harm me here." He touched the death-projector significantly.
Hale made a mental decision. "I must find out how the damned thing works and put it out of commission."
* * * * *
With this determination uppermost in his mind, he assumed a more intense interest in the strange laboratory. For the next two days, he assisted Sir Basil so assiduously that he learned much about the operation of the life-machine. And gradually he stopped being horrified as the fascination of producing life in the laboratory grew upon him.
After he had assisted the scientist in building living organisms from basic elements, he ceased to cringe when he remembered that perhaps it was true that Ana was created in the mysterious life-machine.
Once the scientist declared, "She is untainted with inheritance. She is the perfect mate that I called into life so that before I pass from the flesh I may taste that one human emotion I've never experienced—love."
That very night Hale kept a secret tryst with Ana after the village slept. Sweet, virginal Ana, who knew less of the world than a civilized child of twelve—what a sensation she would create in New York with her beauty, her culture, her natural fascination! With her in his arms and an orange tropical moon hanging low in the hot, black sky, he ceased to care that she had no ancestors, for now his one passionate desire was to save her from Sir Basil and to hold her forever for himself.
He might have been content to go on like this for months, tampering with creation in the day time, courting Ana in secret at night, had not Unani Assu come back for revenge.
* * * * *
On the fourth night after Unani Assu had disappeared into the jungle, Hale went to the igarape to meet Ana. He had gone only half the distance when he encountered her, running frantically up the path toward him.
"Hale!" she gasped, falling into his opened arms, where she lay panting and exhausted.
Hale gently patted the long braids, shimmering in silver tangles under the moonlight, and, crushing the soft little trembling body close, he murmured:
"What's the matter, darling?"
She dug her face deeper into the bend of his arm. "Oh, Hale! I saw Unani Assu a few minutes ago." For several moments she was unable to go on, for sudden sobs cut off her breath. "It's terrible, Hale, what Aimu did to his hands and feet, but what Unani's going to do to Aimu is still more terrible."
Hale placed his hand gently under her chin and tilted up her small, pale, tear-drenched face.
"Be calm, Ana, and tell me plainly."
Still clinging to him, she went on. "He told me that Aimu is a devil, Hale. He showed me his hands and asked me if I could ever get used to them and be—his squaw." The round gold breastplates and the necklace of painted seeds clinked together over her panting bosom. "I told him about you, Hale. And then he seemed to go mad. He said he'd kill Aimu to-night."
"But, Ana! Why did he let you go, knowing that you would give the alarm?"
"He didn't let me go." Her petaled lips parted in a faint smile. "I escaped. Unani Assu tied me to a tree by the igarape. Because he doesn't ... hate me, he could not bear to tie me too tightly."
"Then he must be close to the laboratory now. If he breaks in upon Aimu—oh, my God!"
Hale remembered the death-projector. If Sir Basil were in danger of attack, he would not hesitate to touch the waiting button that would broadcast death throughout the world.
He seized Ana's little hand and cried out: "Run, Ana! The only safe place now is Aimu's laboratory. Run!"
* * * * *
As they dashed on madly, Hale opened wide his nostrils to scent the heavy, flower-laden air of the jungle. Any moment all this sweet, rich life might vanish instantly. He had a horrible vision of a world devoid of life, a world of bare rocks, dry sand, odorless, dead waters. For it was life that greened the landscape, roughened the stones with moss and lichen, thickened the ocean with ooze, and turned the dry sand into loam—life that swarmed underfoot, overhead, all around!
And now, just as they reached the laboratory door, panting and frantic, a hoarse shriek broke forth. Dragging Ana after him, Hale dashed forward, conscious of two masculine voices raised in passion.
The door to the room where the life-machine performed its vile work was locked. Hale pounded against it and called out to Sir Basil, but only curses and the sound of tumbling bodies came from beyond the door. Although originally the door had been thick and strong, the destructive forces of the tropics had pitted and rotted the wood. A few blows of Hale's shoulder broke it down.
Under the brilliant electric light, Sir Basil and Unani Assu were fighting upon the blood-spattered floor. The struggle was uneven: the scientist's emaciated body was no match for the splendid strength of the young Indian.
"Help Aimu!" cried Ana, pushing Hale forward.
Aimu was being choked to death.
Hale acted fantastically but efficiently. Catching up a bottle of ammonia, he moistened a handkerchief and clapped it against Unani Assu's nose. Instantly the Indian choked, released Sir Basil, and fell back, gasping for breath.
Hale thrust the handkerchief into his pocket.
"Get out!" he ordered Unani Assu. "Quick!" He threatened him with the ammonia bottle.
But Unani Assu was not looking at the bottle. "Aimu!" he screamed, pointing.
* * * * *
When Hale saw and understood, he leaped across the room to plant his body in front of Ana; for Sir Basil was behind the life-machine, reaching for the controls of the ray projector.
Suddenly, from behind Hale, a silver streak shot across the room. Sir Basil groaned and sank to the floor of the laboratory.
A keen-bladed dissecting knife, thrown by Ana, stuck out from his left breast.
Ana ran forward, sobbing wildly. "Oh, Aimu! I'm sorry! I didn't mean for it to strike you there. Only your hand, Aimu! I didn't want Hale to die, Aimu. I didn't—oh!"
She was on her knees by the scientist's side, his head held in her slender arms.
"He's breathing!" she rejoiced. "Some masata, Hale, quick!"
Hale found a bottle of good brandy which he had contributed from his own supplies. Soon Sir Basil gasped and opened his eyes. He stared about him wildly, then gasped:
"I'm dying, Hale Oakham! Quick, the life-machine, before my mind-electron escapes."
He tried to pull his body up, but fell back, weak and panting.
Hale hesitated, looking doubtfully at Ana.
"For God's sake, quick!" screamed Sir Basil. "I'm dying, I say! I must have—rebirth. Lift me to the disintegrator. Hurry!..." His voice trailed off faintly.
"He is dying," snapped Hale. "We might as well try it." He jerked open the door to the disintegrator. "Here, Unani Assu! Lend a hand!"
* * * * *
Instantly the Indian came forward, a peculiar, pleased expression on his handsome face. In a moment, Sir Basil's body was inside, and the machine began its weird humming, the humming that indicated the transformation of a human body into dust.
"Now!" cried Unani Assu exultingly, going behind the machine. "I have helped him enough to understand that if one changes this—and this—and this"—he made some rapid adjustments on the machine—"something that is not pleasant will happen."
"Stop!" cried Hale. "What did you change?"
The Indian laughed mockingly. "Wouldn't you like to know? But, yet, you should not worry. You have no cause to love him, have you?"
"I can't be a traitor, Unani Assu! Arrange the machine as it was originally, and I give you my word of honor than when Sir Basil comes out, I'll wreck the damned thing beyond repair. See, Unani Assu? You and I together will smash it."
The Indian folded his arms so that the repulsive things that should have been hands were hidden.
"It's too late now," he admitted, shaking his head. "Yet I've done no more to him than he did to me."
Hale went to the eye-piece in the machine and started to look inside. Unani Assu stepped forward, tapped him on the shoulder, and, fingering significantly the dissecting knife which he had picked up, said:
"I am operating the machine. Will you sit over there by Ana and wait? It won't be long. And, white stranger, remember this: I am your friend. I am turned against none but our common enemy." He pointed significantly to the machine.
* * * * *
Two hours passed, long, silent hours for the watchers in the laboratory. Ana fell asleep, in a sweet, childish bundle upon the piled cushions, her golden hair, still decorated with the red flowers which she always wore, crushed and withered now. Several times Hale caught Unani Assu gazing at her sadly, and his own look saddened when it rested on the Indian's strong, outraged body.
The humming of the machine changed to a whistle. Placing his fingers on his lips in a signal of quiet, Unani Assu whispered:
"Let Ana sleep. She mustn't see this."
Opening a door in the machine, his handsome face lighted with a grim smile, he whispered exultingly:
A scuttling sound issued forth and then, half drunkenly, an enormous rat tumbled out—one of those horrible rats with the hairless, humanlike faces that had so frequently come from the life-machine.
Hale could not crush back the cry that issued from his throat.
"Where is Sir Basil?" he gasped.
"There!" cried the Indian, pointing to the kicking rat, which was fast gaining strength.
* * * * *
Hale staggered back. "No! You don't mean it, do you?"
Unani Assu turned the rat over with a contemptuous toe. "Yes, I mean it. Behold Aimu, the man who thought himself creator and destroyer—the man who said that a human being was no higher than a rat! Perhaps he was right, for see this thing that was once a man!"
Hale buried his face in his hands. "Kill it, Unani Assu! Kill it!"
Unani Assu's low laugh was metallic. "You kill it."
Hale uncovered his face. "Open the disintegrator." Gingerly he reached for the rat's tail.
But his hand never touched the animal. The hairless face turned for a second, and the little, beady eyes blinked up at Hale with an expression that his fevered imagination thought almost human. Then, like a dark shadow, the rat dashed away. Once around the room it scampered, hunting for an exit. Hale started in pursuit. He was almost upon the animal again, when, leaping up from his grasp, it landed on a low shelf where chemicals were stored. Several bottles fell, filling the room with fumes.
Another bottle fell, and, suddenly, amid a thunderous roar, the ceiling and walls began falling. Some highly explosive chemical had been stored in one of the bottles.
Hale was thrown violently against the couch. His hand touched Ana's body. One last shred of consciousness enabled him to pick her up and drag her out. In the open, he fell, aware, before blackness descended, that flames leaped high over the laboratory building and that Unani Assu lay dead within.
* * * * *
Hale and Ana, leaning over the deck-rail of a small steam launch, gazed into the dark waters of the Amazon.
"We ought to reach Para by morning," said Hale, "and then, dearest, we're off for New York!"
Ana, wearing one of the first civilized dresses she had ever donned, and looking as smart as any debutante, slipped her little hand into her husband's.
"Isn't it a shame, Hale," she moaned, "that the fire burned all the animals and insects, the machinery, and even your notes?" Her beautiful face saddened. "Just one or two specimens might have been proof enough for your What-You-Call-It Club!"
"The Nescience Club, darling. No, I can't expect to win the Woolman prize, but I've won a prize worth far more." He squeezed her little hand and looked devotedly into her blue eyes. "And, Ana, I've reasoned out something concerning mind-electrons which even Sir Basil overlooked."
"What is it, Hale?"
"He maintained that matter seeks always to enslave mind-electrons, but I am convinced that mind-electrons seek to enslave matter. Understand? It's creation, Ana! Had Sir Basil succeeded in broadcasting death throughout the world, the freed mind-electrons, as in the beginning, would have started again to vitalize inorganic atoms. And, in a few million years, which is no time to the Mind, the world would be humming with a new civilization. Large thought, eh, sweetheart?"
A SIGNAL TO THE MOON
The idea of a radio signal to the moon may sound fantastic, but is easily within the range of possibility, says Dr. A. Hoyt Taylor, Chief of the Radio Division of the United States Naval Research Laboratories at Washington, who plans such an attempt in the near future.
"We have reason to expect a good chance of getting the signal back in a time interval of slightly less than three seconds," said Dr. Taylor.
To be exact, a radio signal should be reflected back to earth in a time interval of 2.8 seconds, this being the necessary elapsed time for it to carry the 250,000 miles to the moon and return at its speed of 300,000 kilometers, or 186,000 miles per second.
The signal would be very weak, Dr. Taylor points out, but not impossible of detection with the present refinement of receiving instruments, provided no great absorption took place in interstellar space.
A high frequency wave will be used, as such a wave penetrates readily the earth's atmosphere and probably goes far beyond. The frequency of the wave will range between 20,000 and 30,000 kilocycles. Twenty kilowats of power will be used, enough to furnish current for about forty flatirons.
The value of a radio signal to the moon lies in the confirmation of whether there is or not heavy absorption of waves in the upper levels of our own atmosphere. If successful it would indicate a reasonably good reflection coefficient at the surface of the moon—the power of the moon's surface to act as a joint agent in the perfection of the signal.
The signal might have some bearing also on whether the moon has an atmosphere—something pretty much settled already by astronomical observation. It would also lead to the possibility of fairly accurate determination of wave velocity in free space, all of interest to science, either confirming existing theories or establishing new ones.
The Pirate Planet
PART TWO OF A FOUR-PART NOVEL
By Charles W. Diffin
It is war. Interplanetary war. And on far distant Venus two fighting Earthlings stand up against a whole planet run amuck.
WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE
A flash of light on Venus!—and at Maricopa Flying Field Lieutenant McGuire and Captain Blake laugh at its possible meaning until the radio's weird call and the sight of a giant ship in the night sky prove their wildest thoughts are facts. "Big as an ocean liner," it hangs in midair, then turns and shoots upward at incredible speed until it disappears entirely, in space!
McGuire goes to Mount Lawson observatory, and there he sees the flash on Venus repeated. Professor Sykes, who had observed the first flash, confirms it and sees still more. He sees the enveloping clouds of Venus torn asunder, and beneath them an identifying mark, a continent shaped like the letter "L."
And then the great ship comes again. It hovers above the observatory and settles slowly down.
Back at Maricopa Field, Captain Blake has tested a new plane for altitude, and is now prepared to interview the stranger in the higher levels. McGuire's frantic phone call sends him out into the night with the 91st Squadron of planes in support. It is their last flight, for all but Blake. The invader smothers them in a great sphere of gas, but Blake, with his oxygen flasks, flies through to crash beside the observatory. Only Blake survives to see the enemy land, while strange man-shapes loot the buildings and carry off McGuire and Sykes.
A bombardment with giant shells dispels the last doubt of the earth being under attack. The flashes from Venus at regular intervals spout death and destruction upon the earth; a mammoth gun, sunk into the planet itself, bears once upon the earth at every revolution, until the changing position of the globes take the target out of range.
In less than a year and a half the planets must meet again. It is war to the death; a united world against an enemy unknown—an enemy who has conquered space. And there is less than a year and a half in which to prepare!
Far out in the blackness of space McGuire and Sykes are captives in the giant ship. Their stupor leaves them; they find themselves immersed in clouds. The clouds part; their ship drops through; and below them is a strange continent shaped like the letter "L." Captives of inhuman but man-shaped things, they are landing upon a strange globe—upon the planet Venus itself!
Miles underneath the great ship, from which Lieutenant McGuire and Professor Sykes were now watching through a floor-window of thick glass, was a glittering expanse of water—a great ocean. The flickering gold expanse that reflected back the color of the sunlit clouds passed to one side as the ship took its station above the island, a continent in size, that had shown by its shape like a sharply formed "L" an identifying mark to the astronomer.
They were high in the air; the thick clouds that surrounded this new world were miles from its surface, and the things of the world that awaited were tiny and blurred.
Airships passed and repassed far below. Large, some of them—as bulky as the transport they were on; others were small flashing cylinders, but all went swiftly on their way.
It must have come—some ethereal vibration to warn others from the path—for layer after layer of craft were cleared for the descent. A brilliant light flashed into view, a dazzling pin-point on the shore below, and the great ship fell suddenly beneath them. Swiftly it dropped down the pathway of light; on even keel it fell down and still down, till McGuire, despite his experience in the air, was sick and giddy.
The light blinked out at their approach. It was some minutes before the watching eyes recovered from the brilliance to see what mysteries might await, and then the surface was close and the range of vision small.
A vast open space—a great court paved with blocks of black and white—a landing field, perhaps, for about it in regular spacing other huge cylinders were moored. Directly beneath in a clear space was a giant cradle of curved arms; it was a mammoth structure, and the men knew at a glance that this was the bed where their great ship would lie.
* * * * *
The smooth pavement seemed slowly rising to meet them as their ship settled close. Now the cradle was below, its arms curved and waiting. The ship entered their grasp, and the arms widened, then closed to draw the monster to its rest. Their motion ceased. They were finally, beyond the last faint doubt, at anchor on a distant world.
A shrill cackle of sound recalled them from the thrill of this adventure, and the attenuated and lanky figure, with its ashen, blotchy face that glared at them from the doorway, reminded them that this excursion into space was none of their desire. They were prisoners—captives from a foreign land.
A long hand moved its sinuous fingers to motion them to follow, and McGuire regarded his companion with a hopeless look and a despondent shrug of his shoulders.
"No use putting up a fight," he said; "I guess we'd better be good."
He followed where the figure was stepping through a doorway into a corridor beyond. They moved, silent and depressed, along the dimly lighted way; the touch of cold metal walls was as chilling to their spirits as to their flesh.
But the mood could not last: the first ray of light from the outside world sent shivers of anticipation along their spines. They were landing, in very fact, upon a new world; their feet were to walk where never man had stood; their eyes would see what mortal eyes had never visioned.
Fears were forgotten, and the men clung to each other not for the human touch but because of an ecstasy of intoxicating, soul-filling joy in the sheer thrill of adventure.
They were gripping each other's hand, round-eyed as a couple of children, as they stepped forward into the light.
* * * * *
Before them was a scene whose blazing beauty of color struck them to frozen silence; their exclamations of wonder died unspoken on their lips. They were in a city of the stars, and to their eyes it seemed as if all the brilliance of the heavens had been gathered for its building.
The spacious, open court itself stood high in the air among the masses of masonry, and beyond were countless structures. Some towered skyward; others were lower; and all were topped with bulbous towers and graceful minarets that made a forest of gleaming opal light. Opalescence everywhere!—it flashed in red and gold and delicate blues from every wall and cornice and roof.
"Quartz?" marveled Sykes after one long drawn breath. "Quartz or glass?—what are they made of? It is fairyland!"
A jewelled city! Garish, it might have been, and tawdry, in the full light of the sun. But on these weirdly unreal structures the sun's rays never shone; they were illumined only by the soft golden glow that diffused across this world from the cloud masses far above.
McGuire looked up at that uniform, glowing, golden mass that paled toward the horizon and faded to the gray of banked clouds. His eyes came slowly back to the ramp that led downward to the checkered black and white of the court. Beyond an open portion the pavement was solidly massed with people.
"People!—we might as well call them that," McGuire had told Sykes; "they are people of a sort, I suppose. We'll have to give them credit for brains: they've beaten us a hundred years in their inventions."
He was trying to see everything, understand everything, at once. There was not time to single out the new impressions that were crowding upon him. The air—it was warm to the point of discomfort; it explained the loose, light garments of the people; it came to the two men laden with strange scents and stranger sounds.
McGuire's eyes held with hungry curiosity upon the dwellers in this other world; he stared at the gaping throng from which came a bedlam of shrill cries. Lean colorless hands gesticulated wildly and pointed with long fingers at the two men.
* * * * *
The din ceased abruptly at a sharp, whistled order from their captor. He stood aside with a guard that had followed from the ship, and he motioned the two before him down the gangway. It was the same scarlet one who had faced them before, the one whom McGuire had attacked in a frenzy of furious fighting, only to go down to blackness and defeat before the slim cylinder of steel and its hissing gas. And the slanting eyes stared wickedly in cold triumph as he ordered them to go before him in his march of victory.
McGuire passed down toward the masses of color that were the ones who waited. There were many in the dull red of the ship's crew; others in sky-blue, in gold and pink and combinations of brilliance that blended their loose garments to kaleidoscopic hues. But the figures were similar in one unvarying respect: they were repulsive and ghastly, and their faces showed bright blotches of blood vessels and blue markings of veins through their parchment-gray skins.
The crowd parted to a narrow, living lane, and lean fingers clutched writhingly to touch them as they passed between the solid ranks.
McGuire had only a vague impression of a great building beyond, of lower stories decorated in barbaric colors, of towers above in strange forms of the crystal, colorful beauty they had seen. He walked toward it unseeing; his thoughts were only of the creatures round about.
"What damned beasts!" he said. Then, like his companion, he set his teeth to restrain all show of feeling as they made their way through the lane of incredible living things.
* * * * *
They followed their captor through a doorway into an empty room—empty save for one blue-clad individual who stood beside an instrument board let into the wall. Beyond was a long wall, where circular openings yawned huge and black.
The one at the instrument panel received a curt order: the weird voice of the man in red repeated a word that stood out above his curious, wordless tone. "Torg," he said, and again McGuire heard him repeat the syllable.
The operator touched here and there among his instruments, and tiny lights flashed; he threw a switch, and from one of the black openings like a deep cave came a rushing roar of sound. It dropped to silence as the end of a cylindrical car protruded into the room. A door in the metal car opened, and their guard hustled them roughly inside. The one in red followed while behind him the door clanged shut.
Inside the car was light, a diffused radiance from no apparent source, the whole air was glowing about them. And beneath their feet the car moved slowly but with a constant acceleration that built up to tremendous speed. Then that slackened, and Sykes and McGuire clung to each other for support while the car that had been shot like a projectile came to rest.
"Whew!" breathed the lieutenant; "that was quick delivery." Sykes made no reply, and McGuire, too, fell silent to study the tremendous room into which they were led. Here, seemingly, was the stage for their next experience.
A vast open hall with a floor of glass that was like obsidion, empty but for carved benches about the walls; there was room here for a mighty concourse of people. The walls, like those they had seen, were decorated crudely in glaring colors, and embellished with grotesque designs that proclaimed loudly the inexpert touch of the draughtsman. Yet, above them, the ceiling sprang lightly into vaulted, sweeping curves. McGuire's training had held little of architecture, yet even he felt the beauty of line and airy gracefulness of treatment in the structure itself.
* * * * *
The contrast between the flaunting colors and the finished artistry that lay beneath must have struck a discordant note to the scientist. He leaned closer to whisper.
"It is all wrong some way—the whole world! Beauty and refinement—then crude vulgarity, as incongruous as the people themselves—they do not belong here."
"Neither do we," was McGuire's reply; "it looks like a tough spot that we're in."
He was watching toward a high, arched entrance across the room. A platform before it was raised some six feet above the floor, and on this were seats—ornate chairs, done in sweeping scrolls of scarlet and gold. A massive seat in the center was like the fantastic throne of a child's fairy tale. From the corridor beyond that entrance came a stir and rustling that rivetted the man's attention.
A trumpet peal, vibrant and peculiar, blared forth from the ceiling overhead, and the red figures of the guards stood at rigid attention with lean arms held stiffly before them. The one in scarlet took the same attitude, then dropped his hands to motion the two men to give the same salute.
"You go to hell," said Lieutenant McGuire in his gentlest tones. And the scarlet figure's thin lips were snarling as he turned to whip his arms up to their position. The first of a procession of figures was entering through the arch.
Sykes, the scientist, was paying little attention. "It isn't true," he was muttering aloud; "it can't be true. Venus! Twenty-six million miles at inferior conjunction!"
He seemed lost in silent communion with his own thoughts; then: "But I said there was every probability of life; I pointed out the similarities—"
"Hush!" warned McGuire. The eyes of the scarlet man were sending wicked looks in their direction. Tall forms were advancing through the arch. They, too, were robed in scarlet, and behind them others followed.
* * * * *
The trumpet peal from the dome above held now on a long-drawn, single note, while the scarlet men strode in silence across the dais and parted to form two lines. An inverted "V" that faced the entrance—they were an assembly of rigid, blazing statues whose arms were extended like those on the floor below.
The vibrant tone from on high changed to a crashing blare that shrieked discordantly to send quivering protest through every nerve of the waiting men. Those about them were shouting, and again the name of Torg was heard, as, in the high arch, another character appeared to play his part in a strange drama.
Thin like his companions, yet even taller than them, he wore the same brilliant robes and, an additional mark of distinction, a head-dress of polished gold. He acknowledged the salute with a quick raising of his own arms, then came swiftly forward and took his place upon the massive throne.
Not till he was seated did the others on the platform relax their rigid pose and seat themselves in the semicircle of chairs. And not till then did they so much as glance at the men waiting there before them—the two Earth-men, standing in silent, impassive contemplation of the brilliant scene and with their arms held quiet at their sides. Then every eye turned full upon the captives, and if McGuire had seen deadly malevolence in the face of their captor he found it a hundred-fold in the inhuman faces that looked down upon them now.
The inquiring mind of Professor Sykes did not fail to note the character of their reception. "But why," he asked in whispers of his fellow-prisoner, "—why this open hatred of us? What possible animus can they have against the earth or its people?"
The figure on the throne voiced a curt order; the one who had brought them stepped forward. His voice was raised in the same discordant, singing tone that leaped and wandered from note to note. It conveyed ideas—that was apparent; it was a language that he spoke. And the central figure above nodded a brief assent as he finished.
Their captor took an arm of each in his long fingers and pushed them roughly forward to stand alone before the battery of hard eyes.
* * * * *
Now the crowned figure addressed them directly. His voice quavered sharply in what seemed an interrogation. The men looked blankly at each other.
Again the voice questioned them impatiently. Sykes and McGuire were silent. Then the young flyer took an involuntary step forward and looked squarely at the owner of the harsh voice.
"We don't know what you are saying," he began, "and I suppose that our lingo makes no sense to you—" He paused in helpless wonderment as to what he could say. Then—
"But what the devil is it all about?" he demanded explosively. "Why all the dirty looks? You've got us here as prisoners—now what do you expect us to do? Whatever it is, you'll have to quit singing it and talk something we can understand."
He knew his words were useless, but this reception was getting on his nerves—and his arm still tingled where the scarlet one had gripped him.
It seemed, though, that his meaning was not entirely lost. His words meant nothing to them, but his tone must have carried its own message. There were sharp exclamations from the seated circle. The one who had brought them sprang forward with outstretched, clutching hands; his face was a blood-red blotch. McGuire was waiting in crouching tenseness that made the red one pause.
"You touch me again," said the waiting man, "and I'll knock you into an outside loop."
The attacker's indecision was ended by a loud order from above. McGuire turned as if he had been spoken to by the leader on the throne. The thin figure was leaning far forward; his eye were boring into those of the lieutenant, and he held the motionless pose for many minutes. To the angry man, staring back and upward, there came a peculiar optical illusion.
The evil face was vanishing in a shifting cloud that dissolved and reformed, as he watched, into pictures. He knew it was not there, the thing he saw; he knew he was regarding something as intangible as thought; but he got the significance of every detail.
He saw himself and Professor Sykes; they were being crushed like ants beneath a tremendous heel; he knew that the foot that could grind out their lives was that of the one on the throne.
* * * * *
The cloud-stuff melted to new forms that grew clearer to show him the earth. A distorted Earth—and he knew the distortion came from the mind of the being before him who had never seen the earth at first hand; yet he knew it for his own world. It was turning in space; he saw oceans and continents; and before his mental gaze he saw the land swarming with these creatures of Venus. The one before him was in command; he was seated on an enormous throne; there were Earth people like Sykes and himself who crept humbly before him, while fleets of great Venusian ships hovered overhead.
The message was plain—plain as if written in words of fire in the brain of the man. McGuire knew that these creatures intended that the vision should be true—they meant to conquer the earth. The slim, khaki-clad figure of Lieutenant McGuire quivered with the strength of his refusal to accept the truth of what he saw. He shook his head to clear it of these thought wraiths.
"Not—in—a—million—years!" he said, and he put behind his words all the mental force at his command. "Try that, old top, and they'll give you the fight of your life—" He checked his words as he saw plainly that the thin cruel face that stared and stared was getting nothing from his reply.
"Now what do you think about that?" he demanded of Professor Sykes. "He got an idea across to me—some form of telepathy. I saw his mind, or I saw what he wanted me to see of it. It's taps, he says, for us, and then they think they're going across and annex the world."
He glanced upward again and laughed loudly for the benefit of those who were watching him so closely. "Fine chance!" he said; "a fat chance!" But in the deeper recesses of his mind he was shaken.
For themselves there was no hope. Well, that was all in a lifetime. But the other—the conquest of the earth—he had to try with all his power of will to keep from his mind the pictures of destruction these beastly things could bring about.
* * * * *
The chief of this strange council made a gesture of contempt with the grotesque hands that were so translucent yet ashy-pale against his scarlet robe, and the down-drawn thin lips reflected the thoughts that prompted it. The open opposition of Lieutenant McGuire failed to impress him, it seemed. At a word the one who had brought them sprang forward.
He addressed himself to the circle of men, and he harangued them mightily in harsh discordance. He pointed one lean hand at the two captives, then beat it upon his own chest. "They are mine," he was saying, as the men knew plainly. And they realized as if the weird talk came like words to their ears that this monster was demanding that the captives be given him.
An exchange of dismayed glances, and "Not so good!" said McGuire under his breath; "Simon Legree is asking for his slaves. Mean, ugly devil, that boy!"
The lean figures on the platform were bending forward, an expression of mirth—distorted, animal smiles—upon their flabby lips. They represented to the humans, so helpless before them, a race of thinking things in whom no last vestige of kindness or decency remained. But was there an exception? One of the circle was standing; the one beside them was sullenly silent as the other on the platform addressed their ruler.
He spoke at some length, not with the fire and vehemence of the one who had claimed them, but more quietly and dispassionately, and his cold eyes, when they rested on those of McGuire and Sykes, seemed more crafty than actively ablaze with malevolent ill-will. Plainly it was the councilor now, addressing his superior. His inhuman voice was silenced by a reply from the one on the throne.
He motioned—this gold-crowned figure of personified evil—toward the two men, and his hand swept on toward the one who had spoken. He intoned a command in harsh gutturals that ended in a sibilant shriek. And the two standing silent and hopeless exchanged looks of despair.
They were being delivered to this other—that much was plain—but that it boded anything but captivity and torment they could not believe. That last phrase was too eloquent of hissing hate.
* * * * *
The creature rose, tall and ungainly, from his throne; amid the salutations of his followers he turned and vanished through the arch. The others of his council followed, all but the one. He motioned to the two men to come with him, and the sullen one who had demanded the men for himself obeyed an order from this councilor who was his superior.
He snapped an order, and four of his men ranged themselves about the captives as a guard. Thin metal cords were whipped about the wrists of each; their hands were tied. The wire cut like a knife-edge if they strained against it.
The new director of their destinies was vanishing through an exit at one side of the great hall; their guard hustled them after. A corridor opened before them to end in a gold-lit portal; it was daylight out beyond where a street was filled with hurrying figures in many colors. With quavering shrieks they scattered like frightened fowls as an airship descended between the tall buildings that reflected its passing in opalescent hues.
It was a small craft compared with the one that had brought them, and it swept down to settle lightly upon the street with no least regard for those who might be crushed by its descent. Consideration for their fellows did not appear as a marked characteristic of this strange people, McGuire observed thoughtfully. They swarmed in endless droves, these multicolored beings who made of the thoroughfare an ever-changing kaleidoscope—and what was a life or two, more or less, among so many? He found no comfort for themselves in the thought.
Shoulder to shoulder, the two followed where the scarlet figure of the councilor moved toward the waiting ship. Only the professor paid further heed to their surroundings; he marveled aloud at the numbers of the people.
"Hundreds of them," he said; "thousands! They are swarming everywhere like rats. Horrible!" His eyes passed on to the buildings in their glory of delicate hues, as he added, "And the contrast they make with their surroundings! It is all wrong some way; I wish I knew—"
They were in the ship when McGuire replied. "I hope we live long enough to satisfy your curiosity," he said grimly.
The ship was rising beneath them; the opal and quartz of the city's walls were flashing swiftly down.
They were in a cabin at the very nose of the ship, seated on metal chairs, their hands unshackled and free. Their scarlet guardian reclined at ease somewhat to one side, but despite his apparent disregard his cold eyes seldom left the faces of the two men.
Windows closed them in; windows on each side, in front, above them, and even in the floor beneath. It was a room for observation whose metal-latticed walls served only as a framework for the glass. And there was much to be observed.
The golden radiance of sunlit clouds was warm above. They rose toward it, until, high over the buildings' tallest spires, there spread on every hand the bewildering beauty of that forest of minarets and sloping roofs and towers, whose many facets made glorious blendings of soft color. Aircraft at many levels swept in uniform directions throughout the sky. The ship they were in hung quiet for a time, then rose to a higher level to join the current of transportation that flowed into the south.
"We will call it south," said Professor Sykes. "The sun-glow, you will observe, is not directly overhead; the sun is sinking; it is past their noon. What is the length of their day? Ah, this interesting—interesting!" The certain fate they had foreseen was forgotten; it is not often given to an astronomer to check at first hand his own indefinite observations.
"Look!" McGuire exclaimed. "Open country! The city is ending!"
* * * * *
Ahead and below them the buildings were smaller and scattered. Their new master was watching with closest scrutiny the excitement of the men; he whispered an order into a nearby tube, and the ship slowly slanted toward the ground. He was studying these new specimens, as McGuire observed, but the lieutenant paid little attention; his eyes were too thoroughly occupied in resolving into recognizable units the picture that flowed past them so quickly. He was accustomed, this pilot of the army air service, to reading clearly the map that spreads beneath a plane, but now he was looking at an unfamiliar chart.
"Fields," he said, and pointed to squared areas of pale reds and blues; "though what it is, heaven knows. And the trees!—if that's what they are." The ship went downward where an area of tropical denseness made a tangled mass of color and shadow.
"Trees!" Lieutenant McGuire had exclaimed, but these forests were of tree-forms in weirdest shapes and hues. They grew to towering heights, and their branches and leaves that swayed and dipped in the slow-moving air were of delicate pastel shades.
"No sunlight," said the Professor excitedly; "they have no direct rays of the sun. The clouds act as a screen and filter out actinic rays."
McGuire did not reply. He was watching the countless dots of color that were people—people who swarmed here as they had in the city; people working at these great groves, crouching lower in the fields as the ship swept close; people everywhere in teeming thousands. And like the vegetation about them, they, too, were tall and thin, attenuated of form and with skin like blood-stained ash.
"They need the sun," Sykes was repeating; "both vegetable and animal life. The plants are deficient in chlorophyl—see the pale green of the leaves!—and the people need vitamines. Yet they evidently have electric power in abundance. I could tell them of lamps—"
* * * * *
His comments ceased as McGuire lurched heavily against him. The flyer had taken note of the tense, attentive attitude of the one in scarlet; the man was leaning forward, his eyes focused directly upon the scientist's face; he seemed absorbing both words and emotions.
How much could he comprehend? What power had he to vision the idea-pictures in the other's mind? McGuire could not know. But "Sorry!" he told Sykes; "that was clumsy of me." And he added in a whisper, "Keep your thoughts to yourself; I think this bird is getting them."
Buildings flashed under them, not massed solidly as in the city, yet spaced close to one another as if every foot of ground not devoted to their incredible agriculture were needed to house the inhabitants. The ground about them was alive with an equally incredible humanity that swarmed over all this world in appalling profusion.
Their horrid flesh! Their hideous features! And their number! McGuire had a sudden, sickening thought. They were larvae, these crawling hordes—vile worm-things that infested a beautiful world—that bred here in millions, their numbers limited only by the space for their bodies and the food for their stomachs. And he, McGuire, a man—he and this other man with his clear-thinking scientific brain were prisoners to this horde; captives, to be used or butchered by those vile, crawling things!
And again it was this world of contrast that drove home the conviction with its sickening certainty. A world of beauty, of delicate colors, of sweeping oceans and gleaming shores and towering cities with their grace and beauty and elfin splendor yet a world that shuddered beneath this devouring plague of grublike men.
* * * * *
They swept past cities and towns and over many miles of open land before their craft swung eastward toward the dark horizon. The master gave another order into the speaking tube and their ship shot forward, faster and yet faster, with a speed that pressed them heavily into their seats. Behind them was the glory of the sunlit clouds; ahead the gloomy gray-black masses that must make a stygian night sky over this lonely world—a world cut off by that vaporous shell from all communion with the stars.
They were over the water; before them a dark ocean reached out in forbidding emptiness to a darker horizon. Ahead, the only broken line in the vast level expanse was a mountain rising abruptly from the sea. It was a volcanic cone surmounting an island; the sunlight's glow reflected from behind them against the sombre mass that lifted toward the clouds. Their ship was high enough to clear it, but instead it swung, as McGuire watched, toward the south.
The island drifted past, and again they were on their course. But to the flyer there were significant facts that could not pass unobserved. Their own ship had swung in a great circle to avoid this mountain. And all through the skies were others that did the same. The air above and about the grim sentinel peak was devoid of flying shapes.
McGuire caught the eyes of the councilor, their keeper. "What is that?" he asked, though he knew the words were lost on the other. He nodded his head toward the distant peak, and his question was plainly in regard to the island. And for the first time since their coming to this wild world, he saw, flashing across the features of one of these men, a trace of emotion that could only be construed as fear.
The slitted cat eyes lost their look of complacent superiority. They widened involuntarily, and the face was drained of its blotched color. There was fear, terror unmistakable, though it showed for but an instant. He had control of his features almost at once, but the flyer had read their story.
Here was something that gave pause to this race of conquering vermin; a place in the expanse of this vast sea that brought panic to their hearts. And there came to him, as he stowed the remembrance away in his mind, the first glow of hope. These things could fear a mountain; it might be that they could be brought to fear a man.
* * * * *
The sky was clearing rapidly of traffic and the mountain of his speculations was lost astern, when another island came slanting swiftly up to meet them as their ship swept down from the heights. It was a tiny speck in the ocean's expanse, a speck that resolved itself into the squared fields of colored growth, orchards whose brilliant, strange fruits glowed crimson in the last light of day, and enormous trees, beyond which appeared a house.