Since six guardians had been killed, eight guardians marched up the street, dragging grisly loads. Eight bodies, friend and foe alike, were dumped into a manhole; eight creatures squatted down and cleaned themselves meticulously before resuming their various patrols.
* * *
Ten or fifteen minutes later, Garlock felt Lola's half-excited, half-frightened thought. "Clee, do you read me?"
"Loud and clear."
"There's something coming that's certainly none of my business—maybe not even yours."
"Coming," and with the thought he was there. "Where?"
She pointed a thought, he followed it. Far away yet, but coming fast, was an immense flock of flying tigers!
Lola licked her lips. "I'm going home, if you don't mind."
"Jim!" Garlock thought. "Where are you?"
"Observatory. Need me?"
"Yes. Bombing. Two point four microgram loads. Focus spot on my right—teleport in."
"Coming in on your right."
"And I on your left!" Belle's thought drove in as he had never before felt it driven. Being a Prime, she did not need a focus spot and appeared the veriest instant later than did James.
"Can you bomb?" Garlock snapped.
"What do you think?" she snapped back.
A moment of flashing thought and the three Tellurians disappeared, materializing five hundred feet in air, two hundred feet ahead of the van of that horrible flight of monsters, drifting before it.
Belle got in the first shot. Not only did the victim disappear—a couple of dozen around it were torn to fragments and the force of the blast staggered all three Tellurians.
"Damn it, Belle, cut down or get to hell out!" Garlock yelped. "I said two point four micrograms, not milligrams. Just kill 'em, don't scatter 'em all over hell's half acre—less mess to clean up and I don't want you to kill people down below. Especially I don't want you to kill us—not even yourself."
"'Scuse, please, I guess I was a bit enthusiastic in my weighing."
There began a series of muffled explosions along the front; each followed by the plunge of a tiger-striped body to the ground. Faster and faster the explosions came as the Operator and the Primes learned the routine and the rhythm of the job.
Nor were they long alone. The roaring, screaming howl of jets came up from behind them; four Arpalones appeared at their left, strung out along the front. Each held an extraordinarily heavy-duty blaster in each of his four hands; sixteen terrific weapons were hurling death into the flying horde.
"Slide over, Terrestrials," came a calm thought. "You three take their left front, we'll take their right and center."
As they obeyed the instructions, "They don't give a damn where the pieces fly!" Belle protested. "Why should we be fussy about their street-cleaning department? I'm starting to use fives."
"Okay. We'll have to hit 'em harder, anyway, to keep up. Five or maybe six—just be damn sure not to knock us or the Arpalones out of the air."
Carnage went on. The battle-front, while inside the city limits, was now almost stationary.
"Ha! Help—I hear footsteps approaching on jet-back," Garlock announced. "Give 'em hell, boys—shovel on the coal!"
* * *
A flight of fighter-planes, eight abreast and wing-tips almost touching, howled close overhead and along the line of invasion. They could not fire, of course, until they reached the city limits. There they opened up as one, and the air below became literally filled with falling monsters. Some had only broken wings; some were dead, but more or less whole; many were blown to unrecognizable bits and scraps of flesh.
Another flight screamed into place immediately behind the first; then another and another and another until six flights had passed. Then came four helicopters, darting and hovering, whose gunners picked off individually whatever survivors had managed to escape all six waves of fighters.
"That's better," came a thought from the Arpalone nearest Garlock. "Situation under control, thanks to you Tellurians. Supposed to be two squads of us gunners, but the other squad was busy on another job. Without you, this could have developed into a fairly nasty little infection. I don't know what you're doing or how you're doing it—we were told that you weren't like any other humans, and how true that is—but I'm in favor of it. I thought there were four of you?"
"One of us is not a fighter."
"Oh. You can knock off now, if you like. We'll polish off. Thanks much."
"But don't the boys on the ground need some help?"
"The Arpales? Those idiots you have been thinking of as 'guardians'? Which they are, of course. Uh-uh. Besides, we're air-fighters. Ground work is none of our business. Also, these guns would raise altogether too much hell down there. Bound to hit some humans."
"Check. Those Arpales aren't very intelligent, you Arpalones are extremely so. Any connection?"
"'Way back, they say. Common ancestry, and doing two parts of the same job. Killing these fumapties and lemarts and sencors and what-have-you. I don't know what humanity's job is and don't give a damn. Probably fairly important, some way or other, though, since it's our job to see that the silly, gutless things keep on living. We have nothing to do with 'em, ever. The only reason I'm talking to you is you're not really human at all. You're a fighter, too, and a damn good one."
"I know what you mean," and the three Tellurians turned their attention downward to the scene on the ground.
* * *
The heaviest fighting had been over a large park at the city's edge, which was now literally a shambles. Very few people were to be seen, and those few more moving unconcernedly away from the center of violence. All over the park thousands of Arpales were fighting furiously and hundreds of them were dying. For hundreds of the sencors had suffered only wing injuries, the long fall to ground had not harmed them further, and their tremendous fighting ability had been lessened very little if at all.
"But I'd think, just for efficiency if nothing else," Garlock argued, "you'd support the Arpales some way. Lighter guns or something. Why, thousands of them must have been killed, just in this last hour or so."
"Yeah, but that's their business. They breed fast and die fast. Everything has to balance, you know."
"Perhaps so." Garlock was silenced, if not convinced. "Well, it's about over. What happens to the bodies they're dumping down manholes? They can't go down a sewer that way?"
"Oh, you didn't know? Food."
"Food? For what?"
"The Arpales and us, of course."
"What? You don't mean—you can't mean that they—and by your thought, you Arpalones, too—are cannibals!"
"Cannibals? Explain, please? Oh, eaters-of-our-own-species. Of course—certainly. Why not?"
"Why, self-respect ... common decency ... respect for one's fellow-man ... family ties...." Garlock was floundering; to be called upon to explain his ingrained antipathy to such a custom was new to his experience.
"You are silly. Worse, squeamish. Worst, supremely illogical." The Arpalone paused, then went on as though trying to educate a hopelessly illogical inferior, "While we do not kill Arpales purposely—except when they over-breed—why waste good meat as fertilizer? If a diet is wholesome, nutritious, well-balanced, and tasty, what shred of difference can it possibly make what its ingredients once were?"
"Well, I'll be damned." Garlock quit.
Belle agreed. "This whole deal makes me sick at the stomach and I think my face is turning green too. But I'm devilishly and gleefully glad, Clee, that I was here to hear somebody give you cards, spaces, and big casino and still beat the lights and liver out of you at your own game of cold-blooded logic!"
"We gunners must go now. Would you like to come along with us and see the end of this particular breeding-hole of sencors?"
At high speed the seven flew back along the line of advance of the flying-tiger horde; across a barren valley, toward and to the side of a mountain.
* * *
An area almost a mile square of that mountain's side was a burned, blasted, churned, pocked, cratered and flaming waste; and the four helicopters were still working on it. High-energy beams blasted, fairly volatilizing the ground as they struck in as deep as they could be driven. High-explosive shells bored deep and detonated, hurling shattered rock and soil and yellow smoke far and wide; establishing new craters by destroying the ones existing a moment before.
While it seemed incredible that any living thing larger than a microbe could emerge under its own power from such a hell of energy, many flying tigers did; apparently being blown aloft along with the hitherto undisturbed volume of soil in which the creatures had been. Most of them were not fully grown; some were so immature as to be unrecognizable to an untrained eye; but from all four helicopters hand-guns snapped and cracked. Nothing—but nothing—was leaving that field of carnage alive.
"What are you gunners supposed to be doing here?" Garlock asked.
"Oh, the 'copters will be leaving pretty soon—they've got other places to go. But they won't get them all—some of the hatches are too deep—so us four gunners will stick around for two-three days to kill the late-hatchers as they come out."
"I see," and Garlock probed. "There are four cells they won't reach. Shall I bomb 'em out?"
"I'll ask." The slitted red eyes widened and he sent a call. "Commander Knahr, can you hop over here a minute? I want you to meet these things we've been hearing about. They look human, but they really aren't. They're killers, with more stuff and more brains than any of us ever heard of."
Another Arpalone appeared, indistinguishable to Tellurian eyes from any one of the others.
"But why do you want to mix into something that's none of your business?" Knahr was neither officious nor condemnatory. He simply could not understand.
"Since you have no concept of our quality of curiosity, just call it education. The question is, do or do you not want those four deeply-buried cells blasted out of existence?"
"Of course I do."
"Okay. You've got all of 'em you're going to get. Tell your 'copters to give us about five miles clearance, and we'll all fall back, too."
They drew back, and there were four closely-spaced explosions of such violence that one raggedly mushroom-shaped cloud went into the stratosphere and one huge, ragged crater yawned where once churned ground had been.
"But that's atomic!" Knahr gasped the thought. "Fall-out!"
"No fall-out. Complete conversion. Have you got a counter?"
They had. They tested. There was nothing except the usual background count.
"There's no life left underground, so you needn't keep this squad of gunners tied up here," Garlock told the commander. "Before we go, I want to ask a question. You have visitors once in a while from other solar systems, so you must have a faster-than-light drive. Can you tell me anything about it?"
"No. Nothing like that would be any of my business." Knahr and the four gunners disappeared; the helicopters began to lumber away.
"Well, that helps—I don't think," Garlock thought, glumly. "What a world! Back to the Main?"
* * *
In the Main, after a long and fruitless discussion, Garlock called Governor Atterlin, who did not know anything about a faster-than-light drive, either. There was one, of course, since it took only a few days or a few weeks to go from one system to another; but Hodell didn't have any such ships. No ordinary planet did. They were owned and operated by people who called themselves "Engineers." He had no idea where the Engineers came from; they didn't say.
Garlock then tried to get in touch with the Arpalone Inspector who had checked the Pleiades in, and could not find out even who it had been. The Inspector then on duty neither knew or cared anything about either faster-than-light drives or Engineers. Such things were none of his business.
"What difference would it make, anyway?" James asked. "No drive that takes 'a few weeks' for an intra-galaxy hop is ever going to get us back to Tellus."
"True enough; but if there is such a thing I want to know how it works. How are you coming with your calculations?"
"I'll finish up tomorrow easily enough."
Tomorrow came, and James finished up, but he did not find any familiar pattern of Galactic arrangement. The other three watched James set up for another try for Earth.
"You don't think we'll ever get back, do you, Clee?" Belle asked.
"Right away, no. Some day, yes. I've got the germ of an idea. Maybe three or four more hops will give me something to work on."
"I hope so," James said, "because here goes nothing," and he snapped the red switch.
* * *
It was not nothing. Number Two was another guardian Inspector and another planet very much like Hodell. It proved to be so far from both Earth and Hodell, however, that no useful similarities were found in any two of the three sets of charts.
Number Three was equally unproductive of helpful results. James did, however, improve his technique of making galactic charts; and he and Garlock designed and built a high-speed comparator. Thus the time required per stop was reduced from days to hours.
Number Four produced a surprise. When Garlock touched the knob of the testing-box he yanked his hand away before it had really made contact. It was like touching a high-voltage wire.
"You are incompatible with our humanity and must not land," the Inspector ruled.
"Suppose we blast you and your jets out of the air and land anyway?" Garlock asked.
"That is perhaps possible," the Inspector agreed, equably enough. "We are not invincible. However, it would do you no good. If any one of you four leaves that so-heavily-insulated vessel in the atmosphere of this planet you will die. Not quickly, but slowly and with difficulty."
"But you haven't tested me!" Belle said. "Do you mean they'll attack us on sight?"
"There is no need to test more than one. Anyone who could live near any of you could not live on this planet. Nor will they attack you. Don't you know what the thought 'incompatible' means?"
"With us it does not mean death."
"Here it does, since it refers to life forces. The types are mutually, irreconcilably antagonistic. Your life forces are very strong. Thus, no matter how peaceable your intentions may be, many of our human beings would die before you would, but you will not live to get back to your ship if you land it and leave its protective insulation."
"Why? What is it? How does it work?" Belle demanded.
"It is not my business to know; only to tell. I have told. You will go away now."
Garlock's eyes narrowed in concentration. "Belle, can you blast? I mean, could you if you wanted to?"
"Certainly ... why, I don't want to, Clee!"
"I don't, either—and I'll file that one away to chew on when I'm hungry some night, too. Take her up, Jim, and try another shot."
* * *
Numbers Five to Nine, inclusive, were neither productive nor eventful. All were, like the others, Hodell all over again, in everything fundamental. One was so far advanced that almost all of its humanity were Seconds; one so backward—or so much younger—that its strongest telepaths were only Fours. The Tellurians became acquainted with, and upon occasion fought with, various types of man-sized monsters in addition to the three varieties they had seen on Hodell.
Every planet they visited had Arpalones and Arpales. Not by those names, of course. Local names for planets, guardians, nations, cities, and persons went into the starship's tapes, but that welter of names need not be given here; this is not a catalogue. Every planet they visited was peopled by Homo Sapiens; capable of inter-breeding with the Tellurians and eager to do so—especially with the Tellurian men. Their strict monogamy was really tested more than once; but it held. Each had been visited repeatedly by starships; but all Garlock could find out about them was that they probably came from a world somewhere that was inhabited by compatible human beings of Grade Two. He could learn nothing about the faster-than-light drive.
Number Ten was another queer—the Tellurians were found incompatible.
"Let's go down anyway." Belle suggested. "Overcome this unwillingness of ours and find out. What do you think they've got down there, Clee Garlock, that could possibly handle you and me both?"
"I don't think it's a case of 'handling' at all. I don't know what it is, but I believe it's fatal. We won't go down."
"But it doesn't make sense!" Belle protested.
"Not yet, no; but it's a datum. Enough data and we'll be able to formulate a theory."
* * *
"You and your theories! I wish we could get some facts!"
"You can call that a fact. But I want you and Jim to do some math. We know that we're making mighty long jumps. Assuming that they're at perfect random, and of approximately the same length, the probability is greater than one-half that we're getting farther and farther away from Tellus. Is there a jump number, N, at which the probability is one-half that we land nearer Tellus instead of farther away? My jump-at-conclusions guess is that there isn't. That the first jump set up a bias."
"Ouch. That isn't in any of the books," James said. "In other words, do we or do we not attain a maximum? You're making some bum assumptions; among others that space isn't curved and that the dimensions of the universe are very large compared to the length of our jumps. I'll see if I can put it into shape to feed to Compy. You've always held that these generators work at random—the rest of those assumptions are based on your theory?"
"Check. I'm not getting anywhere studying my alleged Xenology, so I'm going to work full time on designing a generator that will steer."
"You tried to before. So did everybody else."
"I know it, but I've got a lot more data now. And I'm not promising, just trying. Okay? Worth a try?"
"Sure—I'm in favor of anything that has any chance at all of working."
Jumping went on; and Garlock, instead of going abroad on the planets, stayed in the Pleiades and worked.
* * *
At Number Forty-three, their reception was of a new kind. They were compatible with the people of this world, but the Inspector advised them against landing.
"I do not forbid you," he explained, carefully. "Our humans are about to destroy themselves with fission and fusion bombs. They send missiles, without warning, against visitors. Thus, the last starship to visit us here disregarded my warning and sent down a sensing device as usual—Engineers do not land on non-telepathic worlds, you know—and it was destroyed."
"You're a Guardian of Humanity," Garlock said. "Can't you straighten people out?"
"Of course not!" The Arpalone was outraged. "We guard humanity against incompatibles and non-humans; but it is not our business to interfere with humanity if it wishes to destroy itself. That is its privilege and its own business!"
Garlock probed down. "No telepathy, even—not even a Seven. This planet is backward—back to Year One. And nothing but firecrackers—we're going down, aren't we?"
"I'll say we are!" Belle said. "This will break the monotony, at least," and the others agreed.
"You won't object, I take it," Garlock said to the Inspector, "if we try to straighten them out. We can postpone the blow-up a few years, at least."
"No objections, of course. In fact, I can say that we Guardians of Humanity would approve such action."
Down the Pleiades went, into the air of the nation known as the "Allied Republican Democracies of the World," and an atomic-warheaded rocket came flaming up.
"Hm ... m ... m. Ingenious little gadget, at that," James reported, after studying it thoroughly. "Filthy thing for fall-out, though, if it goes off. Where'll I flip it, Clee? One of their moons?"
"Check. Third one out—no chance of any contamination from there."
The missile vanished; and had any astronomer been looking at that world's third and outermost moon at the moment, he might have seen a tremendous flash of light, a cloud of dust, and the formation of a new and different crater among the hundreds already there.
"No use waiting for 'em, Jim. All three of you toss everything they've got out onto that same moon, being sure not to hurt anybody—yet. I'll start asking questions."
The captain who had fired the first missile appeared in the Main. He reached for his pistol, to find that he did not have one. He tensed his muscles to leap at Garlock, to find that he could not move.
Garlock drove his probe. "Who is your superior officer?" and before the man could formulate a denial, that superior stood helpless beside him.
* * *
Then three—and four. At the fifth:
"Oh, you are the man I want. Prime Minister—euphemism for Dictator—Sovig. Missile launching stations and missile storage? You don't know? Who does?"
Another man appeared, and for twenty minutes the Pleiades darted about the continent.
"Now submarines, atomic and otherwise, and all surface vessels capable of launching missiles." Another man appeared.
This job took a little longer, since the crew of each vessel had to be teleported back to their bases. An immense scrap-pile, probably visible with a telescope of even moderate power, built up rapidly on the third moon.
"Now a complete list of your uranium-refining plants, your military reactors, heavy-water and heavy-hydrogen plants, and so on." Another man appeared, but the starship did not move.
"Here is a list of plants," and Garlock named them, coldly. "You will remember them. I will return you to your office, and you may—or may not, as you please—order them evacuated. Look at your watch. We start destroying them in exactly seventy-two of your hours from this moment. Any and all persons on the properties will be killed; any within a radius of ten of your miles may be killed. Our explosives are extremely powerful, but there is no radioactivity and no danger from the fall-out. The danger is from flash-blindness, flash-burn, sheer heat, shock-wave, concussion, and flying debris of all kinds."
The officer vanished and Garlock turned back to the Prime Minister.
"You have an ally, a nation known as the 'Brotherhood of People's Republics.' Where is its capital? Slide us over there, Jim. Now, Prime Minister Sovig, you and your ally, the second and first most populous nations of your world, are combining to destroy—a pincers movement, let us say?—the third largest nation, or rather, group of nations—the Nations of the North.... Oh, I see. Third only in population, but first in productive capacity and technology. They should be destroyed because their ideology does not agree with yours. They are too idealistic to strike first, so you will. After you strike, they will not be able to. Whereupon you, personally, will rule the world. I will add to that something you are not thinking, but should: You will rule it until one of your friends puts his pistol to the back of your neck and blows your brains out."
* * *
They were now over the ally's capitol; which launched five missiles instead of one. Garlock collected four more men and studied them.
"Just as bad—if possible, worse. Who, Lingonor, is the leader of your opposition, if any?" Another man, very evidently of the same race, appeared.
"Idealistic, in a way, but spineless and corrupt," Garlock announced to all. "His administration was one of the most corrupt ever known on this world. We'll disarm them, too."
They did. The operation did not take very long; as this nation—or group, it was not very clear exactly what it was—while very high in manpower, was very low in technology.
The starship moved to a station high above the Capitol Building of the Nations of the North and moved slowly downward until it hung poised one scant mile over the building. Missiles, jets, and heavy guns were set and ready, but no attack was made. Therefore Garlock introduced himself to various personages and invited them aboard instead of snatching them; nor did he immobilize them after they had been teleported aboard.
"The president, the chief of staff, the Chief Justice, the most eminent scientist, the head of a church, the leaders of the legislative body and four political bosses, the biggest business man, biggest labor leader, and biggest gangster. Fourteen men." As Garlock studied them his face hardened. "I thought to leave your Nations armed, to entrust this world's future to you, but no. Only two of you are really concerned about the welfare of your peoples, and one of those two is very weak. Most of you are of no higher motivation than are the two dictators and your gangster Clyden. You are much better than those we have already disarmed, but you are not good enough."
Garlock's hard eyes swept over the group for two minutes before he went on:
"I am opening all of your minds, friend and foe alike, to each other, so that you may all see for yourselves what depths of rottenness exist there and just how unfit your world is to associate with the decent worlds of this or any other galaxy. It would take God Himself to do anything with such material, and I am not God. Therefore, when we have rid this world of atomics we will leave and you will start all over again. If you really try, you can not only kill all animal life on your planet, but make it absolutely uninhabitable for...."
"Stop it, Clee!" Lola jumped up, her eyes flashing. Garlock dropped the tuned group, but Belle took it over. Everyone there understood every thought. "Don't you see, you've done enough? That now you're going too far? That these twenty-odd men, having had their minds opened and having been given insight into what is possible, will go forward instead of backward?"
"Forward? With such people as the Prime Ministers, the labor and business leaders, the bosses and the gangsters to cope with? Do you think they've got spines stiff enough for the job?"
"I'm sure of it. Our world did it with no better. Millions and millions of other worlds did it. Why can't this one do it? Of course it can."
"May I ask a couple of questions?" This thought came from the tall, trim, soldierly Chief of Staff.
"Of course, General Cordeen."
"We have all been taking it for granted that you four belong to some super-human race; some kind or other of Homo Superior. Do I understand correctly your thought that your race is Homo Sapiens, the same as ours?"
"Why, of course it is," Lola answered in surprise. "The only difference is that we are a few thousand years older than you are."
"You said also that there were 'millions and millions' of worlds that have solved the problems facing us. Were all these worlds also peopled by Homo Sapiens? It seems incredible."
"True, nevertheless. On any and every world of this type humanity is identical physically; and the mental differences are due only to their being in different stages of development. In fact, every planet we have visited except this one makes a regular custom of breeding its best blood with the best blood of other solar systems. And as to the 'millions and millions,' I meant only a very large but indefinite number. As far as I know, not even a rough estimate has ever been made—has there, Clee?"
"No, but it will probably turn out to be millions of millions, instead of millions and millions; and squared and then cubed at that. My guess is that it'll take another ten thousand years of preliminary surveying such as we're doing, by all the crews the various Galaxian Societies can put out, before even the roughest kind of an estimate can be made as to how many planets are inhabited by mutually fertile human peoples."
* * *
For a moment the group was stunned. Then:
"Do you mean to say," asked the merchant prince, "that you Galaxians are not the only ones who have interstellar travel?"
"Far from it. In fact, yours is the only world we have seen that does not have it, in one form or another."
"Oh? More than one way? That makes it still worse. Would you be willing to sell us plans, or lease us ships...?"
"So that you could exploit other planets? We will not. You would get nowhere, even if you had an interstellar drive right now. You, personally, are a perfect example of what is wrong with this planet. Rapacious, insatiable; you violate every concept of ethics, common decency, and social responsibility. Your world's technology is so far ahead of its sociology that you not only should be, but actually are being, held in quarantine."
"Exactly. One race I know of has been inspecting you regularly for several hundreds of your years. They will not make contact with you, or allow you to leave your own world, until you grow up to something beyond the irresponsible-baby stage. Thus, about two and one-half of your years ago, a starship of that race sent down a sensing element—unmanned, of course—to check your state of development. Brother Sovig volatilized it with an atomic missile."
"We did not do it," the dictator declared. "It was the war-mongering capitalists."
"You brainless, mindless, contemptible idiot," Garlock sneered. "Are even you actually stupid enough to try to lie with your mind? To minds linked to your own and to mine?"
"We did do it, then, but it was only a flying saucer."
"Just as this ship was, to you, only a flying saucer, I suppose. So here's something else for you to think about, Brother Sovig, with whatever power your alleged brain is able to generate. When you shot down that sensor, the starship did not retaliate, but went on without taking any notice of you. When you tried to shoot us down, we took some slight action, but did not kill anyone and are now discussing the situation. Listen carefully now, and remember—it is very possible that the next craft you attack in such utterly idiotic fashion will, without any more warning than you gave, blow this whole planet into a ball of incandescent gas."
"Can that actually be done?" the scientist asked. For the first time, he became really interested in the proceedings.
"Very easily, Doctor Cheswick," Garlock replied. "We could do it ourselves with scarcely any effort and at very small cost. You are familiar, I suppose, with the phenomenon of ball lightning?"
"Somewhat. Its mechanism has never been elucidated in any very satisfactory mathematics."
"Well, we have at our disposal a field some...."
"Hold it, Clee," James warned. "Do you want to put out that kind of stuff around here?"
"Um ... m ... m. What do you think?"
* * *
James studied Cheswick's mind. "Better than I thought," he decided. "He has made two really worthwhile intuitions—a genius type. He's been working on what amounts almost to the Coupler Theory for ten years. He's almost got it, but you know intuitions of that caliber can't be scheduled. He might get it tomorrow—or never. I'd say push him over the hump."
"Okay with me. We'll take a vote—one blackball kills it. Brownie? Just the link, of course. A few hints, perhaps, at application, but no technological data."
"I say give it to him. He's earned it. Besides, he isn't young and may die before he gets it, and that would lose them two or three hundred years."
"In favor. Shall I drop the linkage? No," she answered her own question. "No other minds here will have any idea of what it means, and it may do some of them a bit of good to see one of their own minds firing on more than one barrel."
"Thank you, Galaxians." The scientist's mind had been quivering with eagerness. "I am inexpressibly glad that you have found me worthy of so much help."
* * *
Garlock entered Cheswick's mind. First he impressed, indelibly, six symbols and their meanings. Second, a long and intricate equation; which the scientist studied avidly.
During the ensuing pause, Garlock cut the President and Chief of Staff out of the linkage. "We have just given Cheswick a basic formula. In a couple of hundred years it will give you full telepathy, and then you will begin really to go up. There's nothing secret about it—in fact, I'd advise full publication—but even so it might be a smart idea to give him both protection and good working conditions. Brains like his are apt to be centuries apart on any world."
"But this is ... it could be ... it must be!" Cheswick exclaimed. "I never would have formulated that! It isn't quite implicit, of course, but from this there derives the existence of, and the necessity for, electrogravitics! An entirely new field of reality and experiment in science!"
"There does indeed," Garlock admitted, "and it is far indeed from being implicit. You leaped a tremendous gap. And yes, the resultant is more humanistic than technological."
Belle's ear-splitting whistle resounded throughout the Main. "How do you like them tid-bits, Clee?" she asked. "Two hundred years in seventy-eight seconds? You folks will have telepathy by the time your present crop of babies grows up. Clee, aren't you sorry you got mad and blew your top and wanted to pick up your marbles and go home? Three such intuitions in one man's lifetime beats par, even for the genius course."
"It sure does," Garlock admitted, ruefully. "I should have studied these minds—particularly his—before jumping at conclusions."
"May I say a few words?" the president asked.
"You may indeed, sir. I was hoping you would."
"We have been discouraged; faced with an insoluble problem. Sovig and Lingonor, knowing that their own lives were forfeit anyway, were perfectly willing to destroy all the life on this world to make us yield. Now, however, with the insight and the encouragement you Galaxians have given us, the situation has changed. Reduced to ordinary high explosives, they cannot conquer us...."
"Especially without an airforce," Lola put in. "I, personally, will see to it that every bomber and fighter plane they now have goes to the third moon. It will be your responsibility to see to it that they do not rebuild."
"Thank you, Miss Montandon. We will see to it. As for our internal difficulties—I think, under certain conditions, they can be handled. Our lawless element," he glanced at the gangster, "can be made impotent. The corrupt practices of both capital and labor can be stopped. We have laws," here he looked at the members of Congress and the judge, "which can be enforced. The conditions I mentioned would be difficult at the moment, since so few of us are here and it is manifest that few if any of our people will believe that such people as you Galaxians really exist. Would it be possible for you, Miss Montandon, to spend a few days—or whatever time you can spare—in showing our Congress, and as many other groups as possible, what humanity may hope to become?"
"Of course, sir. I was planning on it."
"I'm afraid that is impossible," the Chief of Staff said.
"Why, General Cardeen?" Lola asked.
"Because you'd be shot," Cardeen said, bluntly. "We have a very good Secret Service, it is true, and we would give you every protection possible; but such an all-out effort as would be made to assassinate you would almost certainly succeed."
"Shot?" Garlock asked in surprise. "What with? You haven't anything that could even begin to crack an Operator's Shield."
"With this, sir." Cardeen held out his automatic pistol for inspection.
"Oh, I hadn't studied it ... a pellet-projector...."
"Pellet! Do you call a four-seventy-five slug a pellet?"
"Not much of that, really ... it shoots eight times—shoot all eight of them at her. None of them will touch her."
"What? I will not! One of those slugs will go through three women like her, front to back in line."
"I will, then." The pistol leaped into Garlock's hand. "Hold up one hand, Brownie, and catch 'em. Don't let 'em splash—no deformation, so he can recognize his own pellets."
Holding the unfamiliar weapon in a clumsy, highly unorthodox grip—something like a schoolgirl's first attempt—Garlock glanced once at Lola's upraised palm and eight shots roared out as fast as the gases of explosion could operate the mechanism. The pistol's barrel remained rigidly motionless under all the stress of ultra-rapid fire. Lola's slim, deeply-tanned arm did not even quiver under the impact of that storm of heavy bullets against her apparently unsupported hand. No one saw those bullets strike that gently-curved right palm, but everyone saw them drop into her cupped left hand, like drops of water dripping rapidly from the end of an icicle into a bowl.
"Here are your pellets, General Cardeen." Lola handed them to him with a smile.
"Holy—Jumping—Snakes!" the general said, and:
"Wotta torpedo!" came the gangster's envious thought.
"You see, I am perfectly safe from being 'shot,' as you call it," Lola said. "So I'll come down and work with you. You might have your news services put out a bulletin, though. I never have killed anyone, and am not going to here, but anyone who tries to shoot me or bomb me or anything will lose both hands at the wrists just before he fires. That would keep them from killing anyone standing near me, don't you think?"
"I should think it would," General Cordeen thought, and a pall of awe covered the linked minds. The implications of the naively frank remark just uttered by this apparently inoffensive and defenseless young woman were simply too overwhelming to be discussed.
"Anything else on the agenda, Clee?" Lola asked.
There was not, and the starship's guests were returned, each to his own home place.
And not one of them, it may be said, was exactly the same as he had been.
"I think I'll come along with you and bodyguard you, Lola," Belle said, the following morning after breakfast. "Clee's going to be seven thousand miles deep in mathematics and Jim's doing his stuff at the observatory, and I can't help either of 'em at the moment. You'd do a better job, wouldn't you, if you could concentrate on it?"
"Of course. Thanks, Belle. But remember, it's already been announced—no death. Just hands. I can't really believe that I'll be attacked, but they seem pretty sure of it."
"I'd like to separate anyone like that from his head instead of his hands, but as it is published so it will be performed."
"How about wearing some kind of half-way-comfortable shoes instead of those slippers?" Garlock asked. "That could turn out to be a long, tough brawl, and your dogs'll be begging for mercy before you get back here."
"Uh-uh. Very comfortable and a perfect fit. Besides, if I have to suffer just a little bit for good appearance's sake in a matter of intergalactic amity...."
"A matter of showing off, you mean."
"Why, Clee!" Belle widened her eyes at him. "How you talk! But they're ready, Lola—let's go."
The two girls disappeared from the Main, to appear on the speakers' stand in front of the Capitol Building. President Benton was there, with his cabinet and certain other personages. General Cordeen and his staff. And many others.
"Oh, Miss Bellamy, too? I'm very glad you are here," Benton said, as he shook hands cordially with both.
"Thank you. I came along as bodyguard. May I meet your Secret Service Chief, please?"
"Why, of course. Miss Bellamy, may I present Mr. Avengord?"
"You have the hospital room ready?... Where is it, please?"
"Back of us, in the wing...."
"Just think of it, please, and I will follow your thought.... Ah, yes, there it is. I hope it will not be used. You agree with General Cordeen that there will be one or more attempts at assassination?"
"I'm very much afraid so. This town is literally riddled with enemy agents, and of course we don't know all of them—especially the best ones. They know that if these meetings go through, they're sunk; so they're desperate. We've got this whole area covered like dew—we've arrested sixteen suspects already this morning—but all the advantage is theirs," Avengord finished glumly.
"Not all of it, sir," Belle smiled at him cheerfully. "You have me, and I am a Prime Operator. That is, a wielder of power of no small ability. Oh, you are right. There is an attempt now being prepared."
* * *
While Belle had been greeting and conversing, she had also been scanning. Her range, her sensitivity, and her power were immensely greater than Lola's; were probably equal to Garlock's own. She scanned by miles against the scant yards covered by the Secret Service.
"Give me your thought." The Secret Service man did not know what she meant—telepathy was of course new to him—so she seized his attention and directed it to a certain window in a building a couple of miles away on a hill.
"But they couldn't, from there!"
"But they can. They have a quite efficient engine of destruction—a 'rifle' is their thought. Large, and long, with a very good telescope on it—with crosshairs. If I scan their minds more precisely you may know the weapon.... Ah, they think of it as a 'Buford Mark Forty Anti-Aircraft Rifle'."
"A Buford! My God, they can hit any button on her clothes—get her away, quick!" He tried to jump, but could not move.
"As you were," she directed. "There was another Buford there, and another over there." She guided his thought. "Two men to each Buford. There are now six handless men in your hospital room. If you will send men to those three places you will find the Bufords and the hands. Your surgeon will have no difficulty in matching the hands to the men. If any seek to remove either Bufords or hands before your men get there, I will de-hand them, also."
* * *
To say that the Secret Service man was flabbergasted is to put it very mildly indeed. Cordeen had told him, with much pounding on his desk and in searing, air-blueing language, what to expect-or, rather, to expect anything, no matter what and with no limits whatever—but he hadn't believed it then and simply could not believe it now. Goddamn it, such things couldn't happen. And this beautiful, beautifully-stacked, half-naked woman—girl, rather, she couldn't be a day over twenty-five—even if it had been their black-browed, toplofty leader, Captain Garlock himself....
"I am twenty-three of your years old, not twenty-five," she informed him, coldly, "and I will permit no distinction of sex. In your primitive culture the women may still be allowing you men to believe in the fallacy of the superiority of the male, but know right now that I can do anything any man ever born can do and do it better."
"Oh, I'm ... I'm sure ... certainly...." Avengord's thought was incoherent.
"If you want me to work with you you had better start believing right now that there are a lot of things you don't know," Belle went on relentlessly. "Stop believing that just because a thing has not already happened on this primitive, backward, mudball planet of yours, it can't happen anywhere or anywhen. You do believe, however, whether you want to or not, things you see with your own eyes?"
"Yes. I can not be hypnotized."
"I'm very glad you believe that much." Avengord did not notice that she neither confirmed nor denied the truth of his statement. "To that end you will go now into the hospital room and see the bandaging going on. You will see and hear the news broadcast going out as I prepared it."
He went, and came back a badly shaken man.
"But they're sending it out exactly as it happened!" he protested. "They'll all scatter out so fast and so far we'll never catch them!"
"By no means. You see, the amputees didn't believe that they would lose their hands. Their superiors didn't believe it, either; they assured each other and their underlings that it was just capitalistic bluff and nonsense. And since they are all even more materialistic and hidebound and unbelieving than you are, they all are now highly confused—at a complete loss."
"You can say that again. If I, working with you and having you pounding it into my head, couldn't more than half believe it...."
"So they are now very frightened, as well as confused, and the director of their whole spy system is now violating rule and precedent by sending out messengers to summon certain high agents to confer with him in his secret place."
"If you'll tell me where, I'll get over to my office...."
"No. We'll both be in your office in plenty of time. We'll watch Lola get started. It will be highly instructive for you to watch a really capable Operator at work."
* * *
President Benton had been introduced; had in turn finished introducing Lola. The crowd, many thousands strong, was cheering. Lola was stepping into the carefully marked speaker's place.
"You may disconnect these," she waved a hand at the battery of microphones, "since I do not use speech. Not only do I not know any of your various languages, but no one language would suffice. My thought will go to every person on this, your world."
"World?" the President asked in surprise. "Surely not behind the Curtains? They will jam you, I'm afraid."
"My thought, as I shall drive it, will not be stopped," Lola assured him. "Since this world has no telepathy, it has no mind-blocks and I can cover the planet as easily as one mind. Nor does it matter whether it be day or night, or whether anyone is awake or asleep. All will receive my message. Since you wish a record, the cameras may run, although they are neither necessary nor desirable for me. Everyone will see me in his mind, much better than on the surface of any teevee tube."
"And I was going to have her address Congress!" the President whispered, aside, to General Cordeen.
Then Lola put her whole fine personality into a smile, directed apparently not only at each separate individual within sight, but also individually at every person on the globe; and when Brownie Montandon set out to make a production of a smile, it had the impact of a pile-driver. Then came her smooth, gently-flowing, friendly thought:
"My name, friends of this world Ormolan, is Lola Montandon. Those of you who are now looking at teevee screens can see my imaged likeness. All of you can see me very much better within your own minds.
"I am not here as an invader in any sense, but only as a citizen of the First Galaxy of this, our common universe. I have attuned my mind to each of yours in order to give you a message from the United Galaxian Societies.
"There are four of us Galaxians in this Exploration Team. As Galaxians it is our purpose here and our duty here to open your minds to certain basic truths, to be of help to you in clearing your minds of fallacies, of lies, and of undefensible prejudices; to the end that you will more rapidly become Galaxians yourselves...."
"Okay. This will go on and on. That's enough to give you an idea of what a trained and polished performer can do. What do you think of them comfits, Chief?" Belle deliberately knocked the Secret Service man out of his Lola-induced mood.
"Huh? Oh, yes." Avengord was still groggy. "She's phenomenal—good—I don't mean goody-goody, but sincere and really...."
"Yeah, but don't fall in love with her. Everybody does and it doesn't do any of them a bit of good. That's her specialty and she's very good at it. I told you she's a smooth, smooth worker."
"You can say that again." Avengord did not know that he was repeating himself. "But it isn't an act. She means it and it's true."
"Of course she means it and of course it's true. Otherwise even she, with all her training, couldn't sell such a big bill of goods." Then, in answer to the man's unspoken question, "Yes, we're all different. She's the contactor, the spreader of the good old oil, the shining example of purity and sweetness and light—in short, the Greaser of the Ways. I'm a fighter, myself. Do you think she could actually have de-handed those men? Uh-uh. At the last minute she would have weakened and brought them in whole. My job in this operation is to knock hell out of the ones Lola can't convince, such as those spies you and I are going to interview pretty quick."
"Even they ought to be convinced. I don't see how anybody could help but be."
"Uh-uh. It'll bounce off like hailstones off of a tin roof. The only thing to do to that kind of scum is kill them. If you'll give me a thought as to where your office is we'll hop over and...."
* * *
Belle and Avengord disappeared from the stand; and, such was Lola's hold, no one on the platform or in the throng even noticed that they were gone. They materialized in Avengord's private office; he sitting as usual at his desk, she reclining in legs-crossed ease in a big leather chair.
"... get to work." Belle's thought had not been interrupted by any passage of time whatever. "What do you want to do first?"
"But I thought you were covering Miss Montandon?"
"I am. Like a blanket. Just as well here as anywhere. I will be, until she gets back to the Pleiades. What first?"
"Oh. Well, since I don't know what your limits are—if you have any—you might as well do whatever you think best and I'll watch you do it."
"That's the way to talk. You're going to get a shock when you see who the Head Man is. George T. Basil."
"Basil! I'll say it's a shock!" Avengord steadied, frowned in concentration. "Could be, though. He would never be suspected—but they're very good at that."
"Yeah. His name used to be Baslovkowitz. He was trained for years, then planted. None of this can be proved, as his record is perfect. Born citizen, highest standing in business and social circles. Unlimited entry and top security clearance. Right?"
"Right ... and getting enough evidence, in such cases as that, is pure, unadulterated hell."
"I suppose I could kill him, after we've recorded everything he knows," Belle suggested.
"No!" He snapped. "Too many people think of us as a strong-arm squad now. Anyway, I'd rather kill him myself than wish the job off onto—you don't like killing, do you?"
"That's the understatement of the century. No civilized person does. In a hot fight, yes; but killing anyone who is helpless to fight back—in cold blood—ugh! It makes me sick in my stomach even to think of it."
"With the way you can read minds, we can get evidence enough to send them all to jail, and that we'll have to do."
"How about this?" Belle grinned as another solution came to mind. "From those first eight top men, we'll find out a lot of others lower down, and so on, until we have 'em all locked up here. We'll announce that exactly so many spies and agents—giving names, addresses, and facts, of course—got panicky after Lola's address. They fired up their hidden planes and flew back behind the Curtain. Then, when we've scanned their minds and recorded everything you want, I'll pack them all, very snugly and carefully, into Sovig's private office. With the world situation what it then will be, he won't dare kill them—he simply won't know what to do when faced with it."
* * *
Avengord agreed happily. He reached out and flipped the switch of his intercom. "Miss Kimling, come in, please."
The door burst open. "Why, it is you! But you were on the rostrum just a minute.... Oh!" She saw Belle, and backed, eyes wide, toward the door she had just entered. "She was there, too, and it's fifteen miles...."
"Steady, Fram. I'd like to present you to Prime Operator Belle Bellamy, who is cleaning out the entire Curtain organization for us."
"But how did you...."
"Never mind that. Teleportation. It took her half an hour to pound it into me, and we can't take time to explain anything now. I'll tell everybody everything I know as soon as I can. In the meantime, don't be surprised at anything that happens, and by that I mean anything. Such as solid people appearing on this carpet—on that spot right there—instantaneously. I want you to pay close attention to everything your mind receives, put your phenomenal memory into high gear, listen to everything I record, stop me any time I'm wrong, and be sure I get everything we need."
"I don't know exactly what you're talking about, sir, but I'll try."
"Frankly, I don't, either—we'll just have to roll it as we go along. We're ready for George T. Basil now, Miss Bellamy—I hope. Don't jump, Fram."
* * *
Basil appeared and Fram jumped. She did not scream, however, and did not run out of the office. The master spy was a big, self-assured, affluent type. He had not the slightest idea of how he had been spirited out of his ultra-secret sub-basement and into this room; but he knew where he was and, after one glance at Belle, he knew why. He decided instantly what to do about it.
"This is an outrage!" he bellowed, hammering with his fist on Avengord's desk. "A stupid, high-handed violation of the rights...."
Belle silenced him and straightened him up.
"High-handed? Yes," she admitted quite seriously. "However, from the Galaxian standpoint, you have no rights at all and you are going to be extremely surprised at just how high-handed I am going to be. I am going to read your mind to its very bottom—layer by layer, like peeling an onion—and everything you know and everything you think is going down in Mr. Avengord's Big Black Book."
Belle linked all four minds together and directed the search, making sure that no item, however small, was missed. Avengord recorded every pertinent item. Fram Kimling memorized and correlated and double-checked.
Soon it was done, and Basil, shouting even louder about this last and worst violation of his rights—those of his own private mind—was led away by two men and "put away where he would keep."
"But this is a flagrant violation of law...." Miss Kimling began.
"You can say that again!" her boss gloated. "And if you only knew how tickled I am to do it, after the way they've been kicking me around!
"But I wonder ... are you sure we can get away with it?"
"Certainly," Belle put in. "We Galaxians are doing it, not your government or your Secret Service. We'll start you clean—but it'll be up to you to keep it clean, and that will be no easy job."
"No, it won't; but we'll do it. Come around again, say in five or six years, and see."
"You know, I might take you up on that? Maybe not this same team, but I've got a notion to tape a recommendation for a re-visit, just to see how you get along. It'd be interesting."
"I wish you would. It might help, too, if everybody thought you'd come back to check. Suppose you could?"
"I've no idea, really. I'd like to, though, and I'll see what I can do. But let's get on with the job. They're all in what you call the 'tank' now. Which one do you want next?"
The work went on. That evening there was of course a reception; and then a ball. And Belle's feet did hurt when she got back to the Pleiades, but of course she would not admit the fact—most especially not to Garlock.
Exactly at the expiration of the stipulated seventy-two hours, the Galaxians began to destroy military atomic plants; and, shortly thereafter, the starship's crew was again ready to go.
And James rammed home the red button that would send them—all four wondered—where?
It turned out to be another Hodell-type world; and, even with the high-speed comparator, it took longer to check the charts than it did to make them.
* * *
The next planet was similar. So was the next, and the next. The time required for checking grew longer and longer.
"How about cutting out this checking entirely, Clee?" James asked then. "What good does it do? Even if we find a similarity, what could we do about it? We've got enough stuff now to keep a crew of astronomers busy for five years making a tank of it."
"Okay. We probably are so far away now, anyway, that the chance of finding a similarity is vanishingly small. Keep on taking the shots, though; they'll prove, I think, that the universe is one whole hell of a lot bigger than anybody has ever thought it was. That reminds me—are you getting anywhere on that N-problem? I'm not."
"I'm getting nowhere, fast. You should have been a math prof in a grad school, Clee. You could flunk every advanced student you had with that one. Belle and I together can't feed it to Compy in such shape as to get a definite answer. We think, though, that your guess was right—if we ever stabilize anywhere it will probably be relative to Hodell, not to Tellus. But the cold fact of how far away we must be by this time just scares the pants off of me."
"You and me both, my ripe and old. We're a long ways from home."
* * *
Jumping went on; and, two or three planets later, they encountered an Arpalone Inspector who did not test them for compatibility with the humanity of his world.
"Do not land," the creature said, mournfully. "This world is dying, and if you leave the protection of your ship, you too will die."
"But worlds don't die, surely?" Garlock protested. "People, yes—but worlds?"
"Worlds die. It is the Dilipic. The humans die, too, of course, but it is the world itself that is attacked, not the people. Some of them, in fact, will live through it."
Garlock drove his attention downward and scanned.
"You Arpalones are doing what looks like a mighty good job of fighting. Can't you win?"
"No, it is too late. It was already too late when they first appeared, two days ago. When the Dilipics strike in such small force that none of their—agents?—devices?—whatever they are?—can land against our beaming, a world can be saved; but such cases are very few."
"But this thought, 'Dilipic'?" Garlock asked, impatiently. "It is merely a symbol—it doesn't mean anything—to me, at least. What are they? Where do they come from?"
"No one knows anything about them," came the surprising answer. "Not even their physical shape—if they have any. Nor where they come from, or how they do what they do."
"They can't be very common," Garlock pondered. "We have never heard of them before."
"Fortunately, they are not," the Inspector agreed. "Scarcely one world in five hundred is ever attacked by them—this is the first Dilipic invasion I have seen."
"Oh, you Arpalones don't die with your worlds, then?" Lola asked. She was badly shaken. "But I suppose the Arpales do, of course."
"Practically all of the Arpales will die, of course. Most of us Arpalones will also die, in the battles now going on. Those of us who survive, however, will stay aloft until the rehabilitation fleet arrives, then we will continue our regular work."
"Rehab?" Belle exclaimed. "You mean you can restore planets so badly ruined that all the people die?"
"Oh, yes. It is a long and difficult work, but the planet is always re-peopled."
"Let's go down," Garlock said. "I want to get all of this on tape."
They went down, over what had been one of that world's largest cities. The air, the stratosphere, and all nearby space were full of battling vessels of all shapes and sizes; ranging from the tremendous globular spaceships of the invaders down to the tiny, one-man jet-fighters of the Arpalones.
* * *
The Dilipics were using projectile weapons only—ranging in size, with the size of the vessels, from heavy machine guns up to seventy-five-millimeter quick-firing rifles. They were also launching thousands of guided missiles of fantastic speed and of tremendous explosive power.
The Arpalones were not using anything solid at all. Each defending vessel, depending upon its type and class, carried from four up to a hundred or so burnished-metal reflectors some four feet in diameter; each with a small black device at its optical center and each pouring out a tight beam of highly effective energy. It was at these reflectors, and particularly at these tiny devices, that the small-arms fire was directed, and the marksmanship of the Dilipics was very good indeed. However, each projector was oscillating irregularly and each fighter-plane was taking evasive action; and, since a few bullet-holes in any reflector did not reduce its efficiency very much, and since the central mechanisms were so small and were moving so erratically, a good three-quarters of the Arpalonian beams were still in action.
* * *
There was no doubt at all that those beams were highly effective. Invisible for the most part, whenever one struck a Dilipic ship or plane everything in its path flared almost instantly into vapor and the beam glared incandescently, blindingly white or violet or high blue—never anything lower than blue. Almost everything material, that is; for guns, ammunition, and missiles were not affected. They did not even explode. When whatever fabric it was that supported them was blasted away, all such things simply dropped; simply fell through thousands or hundreds of thousands of feet of air to crash unheeded upon whatever happened to be below.
The invading task force was arranged in a whirling, swirling, almost cylindrical cone, more or less like an Earthly tornado. The largest vessels were high above the stratosphere; the smallest fighters were hedge-hoppingly close to ground. Each Dilipic unit seemed madly, suicidally determined that nothing would get through that furious wall to interfere with whatever it was that was coming down from space to the ground through—along?—the relatively quiet "eye" of the pseudo-hurricane.
On the other hand, the Arpalones were madly, suicidally determined to break through that vortex wall, to get into the "eye," to wreak all possible damage there. Group after group after group of five jet-fighters each came driving in; and, occasionally, the combined blasts of all five made enough of opening in the wall so that the center fighter could get through. Once inside, each pilot stood his little, stubby-winged craft squarely on her tail, opened his projectors to absolute maximum of power and of spread, and climbed straight up the spout until he was shot down.
And the Arpalones were winning the battle. Larger and larger gaps were being opened in the vortex wall; gaps which it became increasingly difficult for the Dilipics to fill. More and more Arpalone fighters were getting inside. They were lasting longer and doing more damage all the time. The tube was growing narrower and narrower.
All four Galaxians perceived all this in seconds. Garlock weighed out and detonated a terrific matter-conversion bomb in the exact center of one of the largest vessels of the attacking fleet. It had no effect. Then a larger one. Then another, still heavier. Finally, at over a hundred megatons equivalent, he did get results—of a sort. The invaders' guns, ammunition, and missiles were blown out of the ship and scattered outward for miles in all directions; but the structure of the Dilipic ship itself was not harmed.
Belle had been studying, analyzing, probing the things that were coming down through that hellish tube.
"Clee!" She drove a thought. "Cut out the monkey-business with those damn firecrackers of yours and look here—pure, solid force, like ball lightning or our Op field, but entirely different—see if you can analyze the stuff!"
"Alive?" Garlock asked, as he drove a probe into one of the things—they were furiously-radiating spheres some seven feet in diameter—and began to tune to it.
"I don't know—don't think so—if they are, they're a form of life that no sane human being could even imagine!"
"Let's see what they actually do," Garlock suggested, still trying to tune in with the thing, whatever it was, and still following it down.
This particular force-ball happened to hit the top of a six-story building. It was not going very fast—fifteen or twenty miles an hour—but when it struck the roof it did not even slow down. Without any effort at all, apparently, it continued downward through the concrete and steel and glass of the building; and everything in its path became monstrously, sickeningly, revoltingly changed.
"I simply can't stand any more of this," Lola gasped. "If you don't mind, I'm going to my room, set all the Gunther blocks it has, and bury my head under a pillow."
"Go ahead, Brownie," James said. "This is too tough for anybody to watch. I'd do the same, except I've got to run these cameras."
* * *
Garlock and Belle kept on studying. Neither had paid any attention at all to either Lola or James.
Instead of the structural material it had once been, the bore that the thing had traversed was now full of a sparkling, bubbling, writhing, partly-fluid-partly-viscous, obscenely repulsive mass of something unknown and unknowable on Earth; a something which, Garlock now recalled, had been thought of by the Arpalone Inspector as "golop."
As that unstoppable globe descended through office after office, it neither sought out people nor avoided them. Walls, doors, windows, ceilings, floors and rugs, office furniture and office personnel; all alike were absorbed into and made a part of that indescribably horrid brew.
Nor did the track of that hellishly wanton globe remain a bore. Instead, it spread. That devil's brew ate into and dissolved everything it touched like a stream of boiling water being poured into a loosely-heaped pile of granulated sugar. By the time the ravening sphere had reached the second floor, the entire roof of the building was gone and the writhing, racing flood of corruption had flowed down the outer walls and across the street, engulfing and transforming sidewalks, people, pavement, poles, wires, automobiles, people-anything and everything it touched.
* * *
The globe went on down, through basement and sub-basement, until it reached solid, natural ground. Then, with its top a few inches below the level of natural ground, it came to a full stop and—apparently—did nothing at all. By this time, the ravening flood outside had eaten far into the lower floors of the buildings across the street, as well as along all four sides of the block, and tremendous masses of masonry and steel, their supporting structures devoured, were subsiding, crumbling, and crashing down into the noisome flood of golop—and were being transformed almost as fast as they could fall.
One tremendous mass, weighing hundreds or perhaps thousands of tons, toppled almost as a whole; splashing the stuff in all directions for hundreds of yards. Wherever each splash struck, however, a new center of attack came into being, and the peculiarly disgusting, abhorrent liquidation went on.
"Can you do anything with it, Clee?" Belle demanded.
"Not too much—it's a mess," Garlock replied. "Besides, it wouldn't get us far, I don't think. It'll be more productive to analyze the beams the Arpalones are using to break them up, don't you think?"
Then, for twenty solid minutes, the two Prime Operators worked on those enigmatic beams.
"We can't assemble that kind of stuff with our minds," Belle decided then.
"I'll say we can't," Garlock agreed. "Ten megacycles, and cycling only twenty per second." He whistled raucously through his teeth. "My guess is it'd take four months to design and build a generator to put out that kind of stuff. It's worse than our Op field."
"I'm not sure I could ever design one," Belle said, thoughtfully, "but of course I'm not the engineer you are...." Then, she could not help adding, "... yet."
"No, and you never will be," he said, flatly.
"No? That's what you think!" Even in such circumstances as those, Belle Bellamy was eager to carry on her warfare with her Project Chief.
"That's exactly what I think—and I'm so close to knowing it for a fact that the difference is indetectible."
Belle almost—but not quite—blew up. "Well, what are you going to do?"
"Unless and until I can figure out something effective to do, I'm not going to try to do anything. If you, with your vaunted and flaunted belief in the inherent superiority of the female over the male, can dope out something useful before I do, I'll eat crow and help you do it. As for arguing with you, I'm all done for the moment."
Belle gritted her teeth, flounced away, and plumped herself down into a chair. She shut her eyes and put every iota of her mind to work on the problem of finding something—anything—that could be done to help this doomed world and to show that big, overbearing jerk of a Garlock that she was a better man than he was. Which of the two objectives loomed more important, she herself could not have told, to save her life.
And Garlock looked around. The air and the sky over the now-vanished city were both clear of Dilipic craft. The surviving Arpalone fighters and other small craft were making no attempt to land, anywhere on the world's surface. Instead, they were flying upward toward, and were being drawn one by one into the bowels of, huge Arpalonian space-freighters. When each such vessel was filled to capacity, it flew upward and set itself into a more-or-less-circular orbit around the planet.
Around and around and around the ruined world the Pleiades went; recording, observing, charting. Fifty-eight of those atrocious Dilipic vortices had been driven to ground. Every large land-mass surrounded by large bodies of water had been struck once, and only once; from the tremendous area of the largest continent down to the relatively tiny expanses of the largest islands. One land-mass, one vortex. One only.
"What d'you suppose that means?" James asked. "Afraid of water?"
"Damfino. Could be. Let's check ... mountains, too. Skip us back to where we started—oceans and mountains both fairly close there."
The city had disappeared long since; for hundreds of almost-level square miles there extended a sparkling, seething, writhing expanse of—of what? The edge of that devouring flood had almost reached the foot-hills, and over that gnawing, dissolving edge the Pleiades paused.
* * *
Small lakes and ordinary rivers bothered the golop very little if at all. There was perhaps a slightly increased sparkling, a slight stiffening, a little darkening, some freezing and breaking off of solid blocks; but the thing's forward motion was not noticeably slowed down. It drank a fairly large river and a lake one mile wide by ten miles long while the two men watched.
The golop made no attempt to climb either foot-hills or mountains. It leveled them. It ate into their bases at its own level; the undermined masses, small and large, collapsed into the foul, corrosive semi-liquid and were consumed. Nor was there much raising of the golop's level, even when the highest mountains were reached and miles-high masses of solid rock broke off and toppled. There was some raising, of course; but the stuff was fluid enough so that its slope was not apparent to the eye.
* * *
Then the Pleiades went back, over the place where the city had been and on to what had once been an ocean beach. The original wave of degradation had reached that shore long since, had attacked its sands out into deep water, and there it had been stopped. The corrupt flood was now being reinforced, however, by an ever-rising tide of material that had once been mountains. And the slope, which had not been even noticeable at the mountains or over the plain, was here very evident.
As the rapidly-flowing golop struck water, the water shivered, came to a weirdly unforgettable cold boil, and exploded into drops and streamers and jagged-edged chunks of something that was neither water nor land; or rock or soil or sand or Satan's unholy brew. Nevertheless, the water won. There was so much of it! Each barrel of water that was destroyed was replaced instantly and enthusiastically; with no lowering of level or of pressure.
And when water struck the golop, the golop also shivered violently, then sparkled even more violently, then stopped sparkling and turned dark, then froze solid. The frozen surface, however, was neither thick enough nor strong enough to form an effective wall.
Again and again the wave of golop built up high enough to crack and to shatter that feeble wall; again and again golop and water met in ultimately furious, if insensate, battle. Inch by inch the ocean's shoreline was driven backward toward ocean's depths; but every inch the ocean lost was to its tactical advantage, since the advancing front was by now practically filled with hard, solid, dead blocks of its own substance which it could neither assimilate nor remove from the scene of conflict.
Hence the wall grew ever thicker and solider; the advance became slower and slower.
Then, finally, ocean waves of ever-increasing height and violence rolled in against the new-formed shore. What caused those tremendous waves—earthquakes, perhaps, due to the shifting of the mountains' masses?—no Tellurian ever surely knew. Whatever the cause, however, those waves operated to pin the golop down. Whenever and wherever one of those monstrous waves whitecapped in, hurling hundreds of thousands of tons of water inland for hundreds of yards, the battle-front stabilized then and there.
All over that world the story was the same. Wherever there was water enough, the water won. And the total quantity of water in that world's oceans remained practically unchanged.
"Good. A lot of people escaped," James said, expelling a long-held breath. "Everybody who lives on or could be flown to all the islands smaller than the biggest ones ... if they can find enough to eat and if the air isn't poisoned."
"Air's okay—so's the water—and they'll get food," Garlock said. "The Arpalones will handle things, including distribution. What I'm thinking about is how they're going to rehabilitate it. That, as an engineering project, is a feat to end all feats."
"Brother! You can play that in spades!" James agreed. "Except that it'll take too many months before they can even start the job, I'd like to stick around and see how they go about it. How does this kind of stuff fit into that theory you're not admitting is a theory?"
"Not worth a damn. However, it's a datum—and, as I've said before and may say again, if we can get enough data we can build a theory out of it."
Then it began to rain. For many minutes the clouds had been piling up—black, far-flung, thick and high. Immense bolts of lightning flashed and snapped and crackled; thunder crashed and rolled and rumbled; rain fell, and continued to fall, like a cloud-burst in Colorado. And shortly thereafter—first by square feet and then by acres and then by square miles—the surface of the golop began to die. To die, that is, if it had ever been even partially alive. At least it stopped sparkling, darkened, and froze into thick skins; which broke up into blocks; which in turn sank—thus exposing an ever-renewed surface to the driving, pelting, relentlessly cascading rain.
"Well, I don't know that there's anything to hold us here any longer," Garlock said, finally. "Shall we go?"
They went; but it was several days before any of the wanderers really felt like smiling; and Lola did not recover from her depression for over a week.
Supper was over, but the four were still at the table, sipping coffee and smoking. During a pause in the casual conversation, James suddenly straightened up.
"I want an official decision, Clee," he said, abruptly. "While we're out of touch with United Worlds you, as captain of the ship and director of the project, are Boss, with a capital B. The Lord of Justice, High and Low. The Works. Check?"
"On paper, yes; with my decisions subject to appeal and/or review when we get back to Base. In practice, I didn't expect to have to make any very gravid rulings."
"I never thought you'd have to, either, but Belle fed me one with a bone in it, so...."
"Just a minute. How official do you want it? Full formal, screens down and recorded?"
"Not unless we have to. Let's explore it first. As of right now, are we under the Code or not?"
"Of course we are."
"Not necessarily," Belle put in, sharply. "Not slavishly to the letter. We're so far away and our chance of getting back is so slight that it should be interpreted in the light of common sense."
* * *
Garlock stared at Belle and she stared back, her eyes as clear and innocent as a baby's.
"The Code is neither long enough nor complicated enough to require interpretation," Garlock stated, finally. "It either applies in full and exactly or not at all. My ruling is that the Code applies, strictly, until I declare the state of Ultimate Contingency. Are you ready, Belle, to abandon the project, find an uninhabited Tellurian world, and begin to populate it?"
"Well, not quite, perhaps."
"Yes or no, please."
"We are under the Code, then. Go ahead, Jim."
"I broke pairing with Belle and she refused to confirm."
"Certainly I refused. He had no reason to break with me."
"I had plenty of reason!" James snapped. "I'm fed up to here—" he drew his right forefinger across his forehead, "—with making so-called love to a woman who can never think of anything except cutting another man's throat. She's a heartless conniver."
"You both know that reasons are unnecessary and are not discussed in public," Garlock said, flatly. "Now as to confirmation of a break. In simple pairing there is no marriage, no registration, no declaration of intent or of permanence. Thus, legally or logically, there is no obligation. Morally, however, there is always some obligation. Hence, as a matter of urbanity, in cases where no injury exists except as concerns chastity, the Code calls for agreement without rancor. If either party persists in refusal to confirm, and cannot show injury, that party's behavior is declared inurbane. Confirmation is declared and the offending party is ignored."
"Just how would you go about ignoring Prime Operator Belle Bellamy?"
"You've got a point there, Jim. However, she hasn't persisted very long in her refusal. As a matter of information, Belle, why did you take Jim in the first place?"
"I didn't." She shrugged her shoulders. "It was pure chance. You saw me flip the tenth-piece."
"Am I to ignore the fact that you are one of the best telekineticists living?"
"I don't have to control things unless I want to!" She stamped her foot. "Can't you conceive of me flipping a coin honestly?"
"No. However, since this is not a screens-down inquiry, I'll give you—orally, at least—the benefit of the doubt. The next step, I presume, is for Lola to break with me. Lola?"
"Well ... I hate to say this, Clee.... I thought that mutual consent would be better, but...." Lola paused, flushing in embarrassment.
"She feels," James said, steadily, "as I do, that there should be much more to the sexual relation than merely releasing the biological tensions of two pieces of human machinery. That's hardly civilized."
"I confirm, Lola, of course," Garlock said; then went on, partly thinking aloud, partly addressing the group at large. "Ha. Reasons again, and very well put—not off the cuff. Evasions. Flat lies. Something very unfunny here—as queer as a nine-credit bill. In sum, indefensible actions based upon unwarranted conclusions drawn from erroneous assumptions. The pattern is not clear ... but I won't order screens down until I have to ... if the reason had come from Belle...."
"Me?" Belle flared. "Why from me?"
"... instead of Jim...." Ignoring Belle's interruption, Garlock frowned in thought. After a minute or so his face cleared.
"Jim," he said, sharply, "have you been consciously aware of Belle's manipulation?"
"Why, no, of course not. She couldn't!"
"That's really a brainstorm, Clee," Belle sneered. "You'd better turn yourself in for an overhaul."
"Nice scheme, Belle," Garlock said. "I underestimated—at least, didn't consider carefully enough—your power; and overestimated your ethics and urbanity."
"What are you talking about, Chief?" James asked. "You lost me ten parsecs back."
"Just this. Belle is behind this whole operation; working under a perfectly beautiful smokescreen."
"I'm afraid the boss is cracking up, kids," Belle said. "Listen to him, if you like, but use your own judgment."
"But nobody could make Jim and me really love each other," Lola argued, "and we really do. It's real love."
"Admitted," Garlock said. "But she could have helped it along; and she's all set to take every possible advantage of the situation thus created."
"I still don't see it," James objected. "Why, she wouldn't even confirm our break. She hasn't yet."
"She would have, at the exactly correct psychological moment; after holding out long enough to put you both under obligation to her. There would have, also, been certain strings attached. Her plan was, after switching the pairings...."
"I wouldn't pair with you," Belle broke in viciously, "if you were the only man left in the macrocosmic universe!"
"Part of the smokescreen," Garlock explained. "The re-pairings would give her two lines of attack on me, to be used simultaneously. First, to work on me in bed...."
"See?" Belle interrupted. "He doesn't think I've got any heart at all."
"Oh, you may have one, but it's no softer than your head, and that could scratch a diamond. Second, to work on you two, with no holds barred, to form a three-unit team against me. Her charges that I am losing my grip made a very smart opening lead."
"Do you think I'd let her work on me?" James demanded.
"She's a Prime—you wouldn't know anything about it. However, nothing will happen. Nor am I going to let her confuse the real issue. Belle, you are either inside the Code or a free agent outside it. Which?"
"I have made my position clear."
"To me, yes. To Jim and Lola, decidedly unclear."
"Unclear, then. You can not coerce me!"
"If you follow the Code, no. If you don't, I can and will. If you make any kind of a pass at Jim James from now on, I'll lock you into your room with a Gunther block."
"You wouldn't dare!" she breathed. "Besides, you couldn't, not to another prime."
"Don't bet on it," he advised.
After a full minute of silence Garlock's attitude changed suddenly to his usual one of casual friendliness. "Why not let this one drop right here, Belle? I can marry them, with all the official trimmings. Why not let 'em really enjoy their honeymoon?"
"Why not?" Belle's manner changed to match Garlock's and she smiled warmly. "I confirm, Jim. You two are really serious, aren't you? Marriage, declarations, registration, and everything? I wish—I sincerely and really wish you—every happiness possible."
"We really are serious," James said, putting his arm around Lola's waist. "And you won't ... won't interfere?"
"Not a bit. I couldn't, now, even if I wanted to." Belle grinned wryly. "You see, you kids missed the main feature of the show, since you can't know exactly what a Prime Operator is. Especially you can't know what Cleander Simmsworth Garlock really is—he's an out-and-out tiger on wheels. The three of us could have smacked him bow-legged, but of course all chance of that blew up just now. So if you two want to take the big jump you can do it with my blessing as well as Clee's. I'll clear the table."
* * *
That small chore taken care of—a quick folding-up of everything into the tablecloth and a heave into the chute did it—Belle set up the recorder.
"Are you both fully certain that you want the full treatment?" Garlock asked.
Both were certain, and Garlock read the brief but solemn marriage lines.
As the newlyweds left the room, Belle turned to Garlock with a quizzical smile. "Are you going to ask me to pair with you, Clee?"
"I certainly am." He grinned back at her. "I owe you that much revenge, at least. But seriously, I'd like it immensely and we fit like Grace and Poise. Look at that mirror. Did you ever see a better-matched couple? Will you give me a try, Belle?"
"I will not," she said, emphatically. I'll take back what I said a while ago—if you were really the only man left, I would—but as it is, the answer is a definite, resounding, and final 'No'."
"'Definite' and 'resounding,' yes. 'Final,' I won't accept. I'll wait."
"You'll wait a long time, Buster. My door will be locked from now on. Good night, Doctor Garlock, I'm going to bed."
"So am I." He walked with her along the corridor to their rooms, the doors of which were opposite each other. "In view of the Code, locking your door is a meaningless gesture. Mine will remain unlocked. I invite you to come in whenever you like, and assure you formally that no such entry will be regarded as an invasion of privacy."
Without a word she went into her room and closed the door with a firmness just short of violence. Her lock clicked sharply.
* * *
The next morning, after breakfast, James followed Garlock into his room and shut the door.
"Clee, I want to tell you.... I don't want to get sloppy but...."
"Want to lep it?"
"It's about Brownie, then."
"Uh-huh. I've always liked you immensely. Admired you. Hero, sort of...."
"Yeah. I quote. 'Harder than Pharaoh's heart.' 'Colder than frozen helium,' and all the rest. But this thing about Brownie...." He reached out; two hard hands met in a crushing grip. "How could you possibly lay off? Just the strain, if nothing else."
"A little strain doesn't hurt a man unless he lets it. I've done without for months at a stretch, with it running around loose on all sides of me."
"But she's so ... she's got everything!"
"There speaketh the ensorcelled bridegroom. For my taste, she hasn't. She told you, I suppose, when explaining a certain fact, that I told her she wasn't my type?"
"She still isn't. She's a very fine person, with a very fine personality. She is one of the two most nearly perfect young women of her race. Her face is beautiful. Her body is an artist's dream. Her mind is one of the very best. Besides all that, she's a very good egg and a mighty tasty dish. But put yourself in my place.
* * *
"Here's this paragon we have just described. She has extremely high ideals and she's a virgin; never really aroused. Also, she's so full of this sickening crap they've been pouring into us—propaganda, rocket-oil, prop-wash, and psychological gobbledygook—that it's running out of her ears. She's so stuffed with it that she's going to pair with you, ideals and virginity be damned, even if it kills her; even though she's shaking, clear down to her shoes—scared yellow. Also, she is and always will be scared half to death of you—she thinks you're some kind of robot. She's a starry-eyed, soft-headed sissy. A sapadilla. A sucker for a smooth line of balloon-juice and flapdoodle. No spine; no bottom. A gutless doll-baby. Strictly a pet—you could no more love her, ever, than you could a half-grown kitten...."
"That's a hell of a picture!" James broke in savagely. "Even with your cold-blooded reputation."
"People in love can't be objective, is all. If I saw her through the same set of filters you do, I'd be in love with her, too. So let's see if you can use your brain instead of your outraged sensibilities to answer a hypothetical question. If the foregoing were true, what would you do, Junior?"
"I'd pass, I guess. I'd have to, if I wanted to look at myself in the mirror next morning. But that's such an ungodly cockeyed picture, Clee.... But if that's actually your picture of Brownie—and you're no part of a liar—just what kind of a woman could you love? If any?"
"Belle! Belle Bellamy? Hell's flaming furies! That iceberg? That egomaniac? That Jezebel? She's the hardest-boiled babe that ever went unhung."
"Right, on all counts. Also she's crooked and treacherous. She's a ground-and-lofty liar by instinct and training. I could add a lot more. But she's got brains, ability, and guts—guts enough to supply the Women's Army Corps. She's got the spine and the bottom and the drive. So just imagine her thawed out and really shoveling on the coal—blasting wide open on all forty torches. Back to back with you when you're surrounded; she wouldn't cave and she wouldn't give. Or wing and wing—holding the beam come hell or space-warps. Roll that one around on your tongue, Jim, and give your taste-buds a treat."
"Well, maybe ... if I've got that much imagination ... that's a tough blueprint to read. I can't quite visualize the finished article. However, you're as hard as she is—even harder. You've got more of what it takes. Maybe you can make a Christian out of her. If so, you might have something; but I'm damned if I can see exactly what. Whatever it turned out to be, I wouldn't care for any part of it. You could have it all."
"Exactly; and you can have your Brownie."
"I'm beginning to see. I didn't think you had anything like that in your chilled-steel carcass. And I want to apolo...."
"Don't do it, boy. If the time ever comes when you go so soft on me as to quit laying it on the line and start sifting out your language...." Garlock paused. For one of the very few times in his life, he was at a loss for words. He thrust his hands into his pockets and shrugged his shoulders. "Hell, I don't want to get maudlin, either ... so ... well, how many men, do you think, could have gone the route with me on this hellish job without killing me or me killing them?"
"Oh, that's not...."
"Lay it on the line, Jim. I know what I am. Just one. You. One man in six thousand million. Okay; how many women could live with me for a year without going crazy?"
"Lots of 'em; but, being masochists, they'd probably drive you nuts. And you can't stand 'stupidity'; which, by definition, lets everybody out. Nope, it's a tough order to fill."
"Check. She'd have to be strong enough and hard enough not to be afraid of me, by any trace. Able and eager to stand up to me and slug it out. To pin my ears back flat against my skull whenever she thinks I'm off the beam. Do it with skill and precision and nicety, with power and control; yet without doing herself any damage and without changing her basic feeling for me. In short, a female Jim James Nine."
"Huh? Hell's blowtorches! You think I'm like Belle Bellamy?"
"Not by nine thousand megacycles. Like Belle Bellamy could be and should be. Like I hope she will be. I'd have to give, too, of course—maybe we can make Christians out of each other. It's quite a dream, I admit, but it'll be Belle or nobody. But I'm not used to slopping over this way—let's go."
"I'm glad you did, big fellow—once in a lifetime is good for the soul. I'd say you were in love with her right now—except that if you were, you couldn't possibly dissect her like a specimen on the table, the way you've just been doing. Are you or aren't you?"
"I'll be damned if I know. You and Brownie believe that the poets' concept of love is valid. In fact, you make a case for its validity. I never have, and don't now ... but under certain conditions ... I simply don't know. Ask me again sometime; say in about a month?"
"That's the surest thing you know. Oh, brother! This is a thing I'm going to watch with my eyes out on stalks!"
* * *
For the next week, Belle locked her door every night. For another few nights, she did not lock it. Then, one night, she left it ajar. The following evening, the two again walked together to their doors.
"I left my door open last night."
"I know you did."
"And have you scream to high heaven that I opened it? And put me on a tape for willful inurbanity? For deliberate intersexual invasion of privacy?"
* * *
"Blast and damn! You know perfectly well, Clee Garlock, I wouldn't pull such a dirty, lousy trick as that."
"Maybe I should apologize, then, but as a matter of fact I have no idea whatever as to what you wouldn't do." He stared at her, his face hard in thought. "As you probably know, I have had very little to do with women. That little has always been on a logical level. You are such a completely new experience that I can't figure out what makes you tick."
"So you're afraid of me," she sneered. "Is that it?"
"And I suppose it's you that cartoonist what's-his-name is using as a model for 'Timorous Timmy'?"
"Since you've guessed it, yes."
"You ... you weasel!" She took three quick steps up the corridor, then back. "You say my logic is cockeyed. What system are you using now?"
"I'm trying to develop one to match yours."
"Oh ... I invited that one, I guess, since I know you aren't afraid of God, man, woman, or devil ... and you're big enough so you don't have to be proving it all the time." She laughed suddenly, her face softening markedly. "Listen, you big lug. Why don't you ever knock me into an outside loop? If I were you and you were me, I'd've busted me loose from my front teeth long ago."
"I'm not sure whether I know better or am afraid to. Anyway, I'm not rocking any boat so far from shore."
"Says you. You're wonderful, Clee—simply priceless. Do you know you're the only man I ever met that I couldn't make fall for me like a rock falling down a cliff? And that the falling is altogether too apt to be the other way?"
"The first, I have suspected. The second is chemically-pure rocket-oil."
"I hope it is.... I wish I could be as certain of it as you are.... You see, Clee, I really expected you to come in, last night, and there really wasn't any bone in it. Surely, you don't think I'm going to invite you into my room, do you?"
"I can't see why not. However, since no valid system of logic seems to apply, I accept your decision as a fact. By the same reasoning—however invalid—if I ask you again you will again refuse. So all that's left, I guess, is for me to drag you into my room by force."
He put his left arm around her and applied a tiny pressure against her side; under which she began to move slowly toward his door.
"You admit that you're using force?" she asked. Her face was unreadable; her mental block was at its fullest force. "That I'm being coerced? Definitely?"
"Definitely," he agreed. "At least ten dynes of sheer brute force. Not enough to affect a tape, but enough, I hope, to affect you. If it isn't, I'll use more."
"Oh, ten dynes is enough. Just so it's force."
She raised her face toward his and threw both arms around his neck. His right arm went into action with his left, and Cleander Garlock forgot all about dynes and tapes.
After a time she disengaged one arm; reached out; opened his door. He gathered her up and, lips still locked to lips, carried her over the threshold.
* * *
A few jumps later they met their first really old Arpalone. This Inspector was so old that his skin, instead of the usual bright, clear cobalt blue, was dull and tending toward gray. The old fellow was strangely garrulous, for a Guardian; he wanted them to pause a while and gossip.
"Yes, I am lonesome," he admitted. "It has been a long time since I exchanged thoughts with anyone. You see, nobody has visited this planet—Groobe, its name is—since almost all our humanity was killed, a few periods ago...."
"Killed? How?" Garlock asked sharply. "Not Dilipic?"
"Oh, you have seen them? I never have, myself. No, nothing nearly that bad. Merely the Ozobes. The world itself was scarcely harmed at all. Rehabilitation will be a simple matter, so there's no real reason why some of those Engineers...."
"The beast!" Lola shot a tight-beam thought at her husband. "Who cares anything about the rock and dirt of a planet? It's the people that count and his are dead and he's perfectly complaisant about it—just lonesome!"
"Don't let it throw you, pet," James soothed. "He's an Arpalone, you know; not a sociological anthropologist."
"... shouldn't come out here and spend a few hours once in a while, but they don't. Too busy with their own business, they say. But while you are physically human, mentally you are not. You're all too ... too ... I can't put my thought exactly on it, but ... more as though you were human fighters, if such a thing could be possible."
"We are fighters. Where we come from, most human beings are fighters."
"Oh? I never heard of such a thing. Where can you be from?"
This took much explanation, since the Arpalone had never heard of inter-galactic travel. "You are willing, then, to fight side by side with us Arpalones against the enemies of humanity? You have actually done so, at times, and won?"
"We certainly have."
"I am glad. I am expecting a call for help any time now. Will you please give me enough of your mental pattern, Doctor Garlock, so that I can call you in case of need? Thank you."
"What makes you think you're going to get an S.O.S. so soon? Where from?"
"Because these Ozobe invasions come in cycles, years apart, but there are always several planets attacked at very nearly the same time. We were the first, this time; so there will be one or two others very shortly."
"Do they always ... kill all the people?" Lola asked.
"Oh, no. Scarcely half of the time. Depends on how many fighters the planet has, and how much outside help can get there soon enough."
"Your call could come from any of the other solar systems in this neighborhood, then?" Garlock asked.
"Yes. There are fifteen inhabited planets within about six light-years of us, and we form a close-knit group."
"What are these Ozobes?"
"Animals. Warm-blooded, but egg-layers, not mammals. Like this," and the Inspector spread in their minds a picture of a creature somewhat like the flying tigers of Hodell, except that the color was black, shading off to iridescent green at the extremities. Also, it was armed with a short and heavy, but very sharp, sting.
"They say that they come from space, but I don't believe it," the old fellow went on. "What would a warm-blood be doing out in space? Besides, they couldn't find anybody to lay their eggs in out there. No, sir, I think they live right here on Groobe somewhere, maybe holed up in caves or something for ten or thirteen years ... but that wouldn't make sense, either, would it? I just don't know...."