Home > A. E. van VOGT > A SELECTION OF VAN VOGT STORIES > "The Ghost" and other golden-age stories by A. E. van Vogt
"The Ghost" and other golden-age stories by A. E. van Vogt
Tuesday 22 May 2018, by
1. THE GHOST (1942) An unusual ghost story with whodunit and time-conundrum elements, written during van Vogt’s Canadian days (van Vogt emigrated from Toronto to Los Angeles two years later, in 1944.)  (12,500 words)
2. THE WITCH (1943) A young teacher comes to the seaside town where his great-grandmother was supposed buried, only to find the lady in good health although apparently capable of being in two places at the same time. The more he observes her, the more he begins to understand the mortal danger she represents for his young wife, whose body the old witch would like to be rejuvenated in at midnight on a certain day.  (9,050 words)
3. JUGGERNAUT (1944) A wartime story inspired by the immense possibilities for both war and peace of new technological discoveries that were so rapidly reshaping the world in that crucial decade.  (3,700 words)
4. THE CATAAAAA (1947) If you have ever wondered what strange, mysterious thoughts are lurking behind your cat’s impenetrable gaze, then you will be interested by the particularly remarkable cat in this quite brilliant golden-age van Vogt story.  (5,700 words)
5. THE SHIP OF DARKNESS (1948) When you do a time-travel jump into 3,000,000 A.D. you are going to have problems! But things might just work out in the end . . .  (6,600 words)
6. ROGUE SHIP (1950) IThe very wealthy and scientifically-minded hero learns that the spaceship that he had built to ship a colony to the Alpha Centauri star system six years ago has just come back to Earth! But there’s no signal of life from the ship, so he forces a way into it only to discover that strange things indeed happen to people and objects when their velocity approaches the speed of light.  (16,300 words)
7. HAUNTED ATOMS (1951) Five hundred years after a mysterious disaster had destroyed an advanced but now-forgotten civilization, a farmer is killed when digging near a long-abandoned (atomic) powerhouse.
His house rapidly acquires a reputation for being haunted and uninhabitable until the farmer’s niece and her husband move in and manage to convince academics from a nearby university to explore the mysterious source of energy that has caused all the trouble.  (8,800 words)
8. THE STAR-SAINT (1951) A shipload of colonists is about to land on the far-away planet of Ariel when their captain announces that they will be left there on their own, as he has to rush off to investigate what happened to the previous colony there that had been somehow completely annihilated. Fortunately a rather special person has somehow just arrived on board who will play an important role in guiding the colonists through the dangers posed by the incredibly powerful Intelligence that controls all of the matter on this planet.  (8,800 words)
An e-book is available for downloading below.
1. THE GHOST
"Four miles," Kent thought, "four miles from the main-line town of Kempster to the railway-less village of Agan." At least, he remembered that much.
He remembered the hill, too, and the farm at the foot of it. Only it hadn’t been deserted when he saw it last.
He stared at the place as the hotel car edged down the long hill. The buildings showed with a curious, stark bleakness. All the visible windows of the farmhouse itself were boarded up. And great planks had been nailed across the barn door.
The yard was a wilderness of weeds and—Kent experienced an odd sense of shock—the tall, dignified old man who emerged abruptly from behind the house, seemed as out of place in that desolate yard as . . . as life itself.
Kent was aware of the driver leaning toward him, heard him say above the roar of the ancient engine:
"I was wondering if we’d see the ghost, as we passed; and yep, there he is, taking his morning walk."
"The ghost!" Kent echoed.
It was as if he had spoken a key word. The sun burst brilliantly from behind an array of dark clouds and flooded the valley with warm light. The blaze of it illuminated the drab old buildings—and wrought changes.
The over-all grayness of the house showed in that bright illumination as a faded green.
The old man walked slowly toward the gate that led to the main highway. Nearer now, he seemed taller, thinner, a gaunt caricature of a human being; his black frock coat glinted in the sun.
Kent found his voice. "Ghost!" he said again. "Why, that’s old Mr. Wainwright. He doesn’t look a day older than when I left this part of the world fifteen years ago."
The old, square-fronted car ground queasily to a stop before the farm gate. The driver turned. It struck Kent that the man was smugly enjoying the moment.
"See that gate?" the fellow asked. "Not the big one: the little one. It’s padlocked, eh?"
Kent nodded. "What about it?"
The old man stood fumbling at the gate less than ten feet away. It was like gazing at a pantomime, Kent thought; for the man paid no attention to the padlock, but seemed absorbed with some simpler catch.
Abruptly, the patriarch straightened, and pushed at the gate. Kent had no real sense of alienness. Without having given the matter any thought be believed it was the gate that was going to open and that it was some unusual aspect of the opening that he had been admonished to watch.
The gate didn’t. It did not so much as stir; not a creak came from its rusty hinges. It remained solid, held in position by the uncompromising padlock.
The old man walked through it.
Through it! Then he turned, seemed to push at some invisible counter-part of the gate and, once again, stood there, as if manipulating a hidden catch.
Finally, apparently satisfied, he faced the car again; and, for the first time, saw it and its occupants. His long, finely wrinkled face lighted. "Hello, there!" he said.
Kent hadn’t expected speech. The words caught him like a blow. He felt a chill; his mind whirled with a queer, twisting motion that momentarily wrecked the coherence of his thought. He half leaned, half fell back against the seat because his muscles wouldn’t support him.
"Ghost," he thought finally, dizzily. Good heavens, what was going on here?
The world began to right itself. The land and the horizon straightened; and there was the house and the barn, an almost colorless, utterly lifeless background to the beanpole of an old, old man and the magic gate through which he had stepped.
"Hello!" Kent said shakily. "Hello!"
The old man came nearer, peered; and an expression of surprise flitted across his face. "Why, it’s Mr. Kent. I thought you’d left the Agan Hotel."
"Eh!" Kent began.
Out of the corner of his eyes be saw the driver make a sharp movement with one hand. The man whispered hastily:
"Don’t act surprised at anything the ghost says. It confuses him."
Ghost! There it was again. Kent swallowed hard. "Am I mad?" he thought, "The last time I saw this old follow was when I was twenty. He didn’t know my name then. How—"
The old man was speaking again, in bewilderment: "I distinctly remember Mr. Jenkins, the proprietor, informing me that you had found it necessary to leave at once. He said something about a prophecy coming out exactly to the day, August 17th. People are always talking to me about prophecies. But that was the date he said it was, August 17th."
He looked up, unscrewing the frown from his thin, worn face. "I beg your pardon, young sir, It is very remiss of me to stand here mumbling to myself. May I say that I am glad that the report was untrue, as I have very much enjoyed our several conversations."
He raised his hat. "I would invite you in for tea; but Mrs. Carmody is not in the best of moods this morning. Poor woman! Looking after an old man must be a great trial; and I dare not add to her afflictions. Good morning to you, Mr. Kent. Good morning, Tom."
Kent nodded, unable to speak. He heard the driver say:
"S’long, Mr. Wainwright."
Kent watched, as the tall, frail figure walked slowly across the road behind the car, and moved unhurriedly across the open pasture land to the south. His mind and gaze came back to the car, as the driver, Tom, said:
"Well, Mr. Kent, you’re lucky. You know how long you’re staying at the Agan Hotel."
"What do you mean?"
"Mr. Jenkins will have your bill ready for you August 17th."
Kent stared at him, uncertain whether he ought to laugh, or—what! "You’re not trying to tell me that the ghost also tells the future. Why, today’s only July 8th, and I intend to stay till the end of Septem—"
He stopped. The eyes that were staring into his were utterly earnest, humorless: "Mr. Kent, there never was anyone like Mr. Wainwright in the world before. When he tells the future, it happens; it was that way when he was alive, and it’s the same now that he’s dead.
"The only thing is that he’s old. He’s over ninety, and weak in the head. He gets confused; he always mixes the future with the past. To him it is the past, and it’s all equally blurred. But when he says anything as clear as a date, it’s so. You wait and see."
There were too many words; and the concreteness of them, the colloquial twang of them on the still air, built an oddly insubstantial picture. Kent began to feel less startled. He knew these country folk; and the conviction was suddenly strong in him that, in some obscure way, he was being made the victim of a practical joke.
It wouldn’t do, of course, to say so. Besides, there was the unaccountable episode of the gate.
"This Mrs. Carmody," he said finally. "I don’t recall her. Who is she?"
"She came to look after the farm when her sister-in-law, the old man’s granddaughter, died. No blood relation, but—" The driver drew a deep breath, tried hard to look casual, and said: "She’s the one, you know, who murdered old Wainwright five years ago. They put her in the crazy house at Peerton for doing it."
"Murdered!" Kent said. "What is this—the local ghost story?" He paused; then: "Just a minute. He talked as if he was still living with her."
"Look, Mr. Kent"—the man was pitying—"let’s not go into why the ghost says what he says. People have tried figuring out what’s going on, and have ended with their brains twisted into seventeen knots."
"There must be a natural explanation."
The driver shrugged. "Well, then, you find it." He added: "I was the one who drove Mrs. Carmody and her two kids from Kempster to the farm here. Maybe you’d like to hear as much of the story as I can tell you the rest of the way to the hotel."
Kent sat quietly as gears shifted; and the machine moved heavily off. He turned finally to look at the farm. It was just passing out of sight behind a long spread of trees.
That last look showed—desolation, deadness. He shuddered involuntarily, and did not look again. He said: "This story . . . what about it?"
The woman saw the farm as the car slowed at the lip of the hill. She was dimly aware that the car was in low gear, with brakes on, slithering down the loose gravel of the steep incline.
The farm, she thought with a greedy intensity that shook her heavy body; safety at long, long last. And only a senile old man and a girl standing between her and possession.
Between her—and the hard, sordid years that stretched behind her. Years of being a widow with two children in a tenement house, with only an occasional job to eke out the income from the relief department.
Years of hell!
And here was heaven for the taking. Her hard blue eyes narrowed; her plump, hard body grew taut—if she couldn’t take the treasure of security that was here, she’d better—
The thought faded. Fascinated, she stared at the valley farm below, a green farmhouse, a great red barn and half a dozen outhouses. In the near distance a vast field of wheat spread; tiny wheat, bright green with a mid-spring greenness.
The car came down to the level of the valley; and trees hid the distant, rolling glory of the land. The automobile came to a stop, its shiny front pointed at the gate; and, beside her, the heavily built boy said:
"This it, ma?"
"Yes, Bill!" The woman looked at him anxiously. All her ultimate plans about this farm centered around him. For a moment she was preternaturally aware of his defects, his sullen, heavy, yet not strong face. There was a clumsiness of build in his chunky, sixteen-year-old body that made him something less than attractive.
She threw off that brief pattern of doubt; she ventured "Isn’t it wonderful?"
"Naw!" The thick lips twisted. "I’d rather be in the city." He shrugged. "But I guess I know what’s good for us."
"That’s right." She felt relieved. "In this world it’s what you get, not what you want. Remember that, Bill . . . what is it, Pearl?"
She spoke impatiently. It was the way her daughter always affected her. What good was a pasty-faced, twelve-year-old, too plump, too plain, and without the faintest promise of ever being pretty. With an even sharper annoyance, the woman repeated:
"What is it?"
"There’s a skinny old man coming across the field. Is that Mr. Wainwright, ma?"
Mrs. Carmody turned slowly and stared in the direction Pearl was pointing. And, after a moment, a current of relief surged through her. Until this instant she had felt a sharp edge of worry about the old man. Old, her sister-in-law had written in her occasional letter. But she hadn’t imagined he’d be this old. Why, he must be ninety, a hundred; utterly no danger to her at all.
She saw that the driver had opened the gate, and was coming back to drive the car through. With a new confidence she raised her voice at him:
"Wait!" she said, "wait for the old man. He’s been out for a walk, and he’ll be tired. Give him a lift to the house."
Might as well make a good first impression, she thought. Politeness was the watchword. Iron hands within velvet gloves.
It struck her that the driver was staring at her peculiarly; the man said: "I wouldn’t count on him driving with us. He’s a queer old duck, Mr. Wainwright is. Sometimes he’s deaf and blind, and he don’t pay attention to no one. And he does a lot of queer things."
The woman frowned. "For instance?"
The man sighed. "Well, ma’am, it’s no use trying to explain. You might as well start learning by experience, now as later. Watch him."
The long, thin figure came at an even, slow pace across the pasture to the south. He crossed the road, passing the car less than three feet from the fenders, seemingly completely blind to its presence. He headed straight for the gate.
Not the open gate, wide enough for the car to go through, but the narrow, solidly constructed wooden gate for human beings. He seemed to fumble at some hidden catch. And then—
The gate did not open, but he stepped through as if it had. Stepped through the solid wooden gate.
For a long second Mrs. Carmody was aware of a harsh woman’s voice screaming. With a terrible shock, she realized it was her own voice.
The effort to choke that wild cry was so horrible that she fell back against the seat, the blood hammering at her temples. She sagged there, sick, cold as ice, her vision blurred, her throat ash dry, every muscle in her body jumping with tiny, painful surges of nervous convulsion; and, for a long moment, her mind wouldn’t hold thoughts.
"Just a minute!" Kent interrupted the driver. "I thought you told me the old man was alive at this time. How come he walked through the gate?"
His narrator stared at him strangely: "Mr. Kent, the only reason that old man hasn’t made us all crazy these past twelve years is that he’s harmless. He walked through gates when he was alive just as he does now. And not only gates. The difference is that we know we buried him. Maybe he’s always been a ghost, and killing him don’t do no good. All we know is, he’s harmless. That’s enough, isn’t it?"
Kent nodded, but there was a world of doubt in his voice as he said: "I suppose so; anyway, go on."
The dark blur of fear in the woman’s mind yielded to an awareness of tugging at her arm; and then she realized that the driver was speaking:
"It’s all right, ma’am, he’s just a queer, harmless old man. Nothing to get excited about."
It was not the driver, but the boy beside her, whose words pulled her together; the boy saying rather scornfully:
"Gee, ma, you sure take on. I seen a trick like that on the stage last year, only it was better than that. It don’t mean a thing."
The woman began to feel better. Bill was such a solid, practical boy, she thought gratefully. And of course he was right. Some trick, of course, and—what was that stupid little fool of a girl saying. She found herself repeating the question out loud:
"What did you say, Pearl?"
"He sees us, ma—look!" the girl said.
The woman saw that the old man was peering at her over the gate. A thin, long, gentle, wrinkled face it was, bright with gathering interest. He said with an astonishingly crisp voice for one so old:
"You’re back from town rather early, Mrs. Carmody. Does that mean an early dinner?"
He paused politely; then: "I have no objection naturally. I am only too happy to fit myself into any routine you desire."
The deadly thought that came to her was that she was being made ridiculous in some way. Her face grew taut, her eyes narrowed, then she mustered an uncertain smile, and tried to force her mind past his words. The fierce whisper of the driver rescued her from that developing confusion:
"Begging your pardon, ma’am," the man said hurriedly, "don’t let on you’re new here. He’s got the gift of seeing, and he’s been acting for months as if you were already living here, and, if you contradict him, it only puzzles him. Toward the end, he was actually calling Mrs. Wainwright by your name. He’s just a queer old man."
Mrs. Carmody sat very still, her blue eyes brighter, wide with abrupt calculation. The thrill that came was warm along her nerves. Expected!
One of the several things she had feared was this moment of her arrival; but now—expected!
All her careful preparation would go over smoothly. The letter she had forged so painstakingly, in which the dead woman, the old man’s granddaughter, asked her to come to look after her daughter, Phyllis—that prize letter would merely be a confirmation of something which had already been accepted as inevitable. Though how—
The woman shook herself firmly. This was no time to worry about the curious actions of an old man. She had a farm to take over; and the quicker that problem was solved, the better.
She smiled again, her thick face smirking a little with the comfortable glow of her inner triumph.
"Won’t you ride to the house with us, Mr. Wainwright? You must be tired after your walk"
The old fellow nodded alertly. "Don’t mind if I do, madam. I was all the way to Kempster, and I’m a little tired. Saw your sister there, by the way."
He had come through the gate, this time the one that was standing open for the car, and he was heading for the front door of the machine when Mrs. Carmody managed heavily:
"Sssshh!" hissed the driver. "Pay no attention. He’s mixed up in his head. He thinks everyone of us has a living image, and he’s always meeting them. He’s been like this for years, perfectly harmless."
It was easier to nod this time. The episode of the gate was a vague unreality in her mind, becoming dimmer by the minute. She smiled her smile as the old man politely lifted his hat, watched as he climbed into the front seat beside the driver.
The car puffed along the yard road, rounded the house and drew up before the veranda. A girl in a white dress came to the screen door, and stood there very quietly staring at them.
She was a pretty, fragile thing, Mrs. Carmody noted with a sharp eye to detail, slim, with yellow hair, about fifteen or sixteen, and—the woman’s mind tightened—not very friendly.
The woman smiled sweetly. "Hello, Phyllis," she said, "I’m so glad to see you."
"Hello," said Phyllis; and the older woman smiled comfortably at the reluctant greeting. Because—it had been a greeting. It was acceptance of a sort.
The woman smiled a thin smile to herself. This simple country girl was going to learn how impossible it was to fight a friendly approach, backed by an iron purpose.
She could see the whole future smoothly fitting in with her wishes. First, to settle down; then to set about throwing Bill and Phyllis together, so that they’d consider marriage a natural and early conclusion to their relationship. And then—
It was night; and she had blown out the lamp in the master bedroom before she thought again of the old man, and the astounding things he had said and done.
She lay in the darkness, nestling into the special comfort of the great bed, frowning. Finally, sleepily, she shrugged. Harmless, the driver had said. Well, he’d better stay that way, the old coot.
Mrs. Carmody wakened the following morning to the sounds of movement downstairs. She dressed hurriedly with a sense of having been outmaneuvered on her first day; and that empty feeling became conviction when she saw the old man and Phyllis eating breakfast.
There were three other plates set with bowls of cereal: and Mrs. Carmody sank down before one of them in a dead silence. She saw that the girl had a notebook open in front of her; and she clutched at the straw of conversation it offered.
"Doing your homework?" she asked in her friendliest voice.
"No!" said the girl, closing the notebook and getting up from the table.
Mrs. Carmody sat very still, fighting the surge of dull color that crept up into her cheeks. No use getting excited, she thought. The thing was, somehow—somehow she had to make friends with this quiet girl.
And besides, there was some information she had to have—about food, about the house, about—money.
Abruptly, breakfast was a meaningless, tasteless act. She got up from her half-finished cereal; in the kitchen she found Phyllis washing the dishes. "Let me wash," said the woman, "you dry."
She added: "Pretty hands like yours shouldn’t be in dish water."
She sent a swift glance at the girl’s face, and spoke for the third time: "I’m rather ashamed of myself for getting up so late. I came here to work, not to rest."
"Oh, you’ll get used to it," said the girl; and Mrs. Carmody smiled her secret smile. The dangerous silence strike was over. She said:
"What about food? Is there any particular store where you buy it? Your mother didn’t mention such details in her letter. I—"
She stopped, startled in spite of herself at that mention of the letter. She stood for a moment, hands rigid in the hot water; then forced on:
"Your poor mother! It was such a tired letter she wrote. I cried when I read it."
From under half-closed eyes she saw that the girl’s lips were trembling—and she knew her victory. She had a brief, blazing exultation at the way every word, every mood of this moment was under her control. She said swiftly:
"We can talk about those details later."
The girl said tearfully: "We have a charge account at Graham’s General Store in Agan. You can phone up. He delivers this far."
The woman walked hurriedly into the dining room to get the dishes that were still there, and to hide the irrepressible light of triumph in her eyes. A charge account! The problem of obtaining control of the money had actually made her feel sick, the consciousness that legal steps might be necessary, the conviction that she must first establish herself in the household and in the community.
And here was her stepping-stone: a charge account! Now, if this Graham’s store would only accept her order—what was the girl saying?
"Mrs. Carmody, I want to apologize for not answering your question about my notebook at breakfast. You see, the neighbors always want know what great-grandfather says about them: so at breakfast, when he’s strongest, I ask him questions, and take notes. I pretend to him that I’m going to write a book about his life when grow up. I couldn’t explain all that in front of him, could I?"
"Of course not," said the woman. She thought sharply: So the neighbors were interested in the old man’s words about them. They’d be interested and friendly with anyone who kept them supplied with the latest tidbits of news. She’d have keep her ears open, and perhaps keep a notebook herself.
She grew aware that the girl was speaking again: "I’ve been wanting to tell you, great-grandpa really has the gift of seeing. You won’t believe that yet, but—"
The girl’s eyes were bright, eager; and the woman knew better than to let such enthusiasm pass.
"Why, of course, I believe it," she said. "I’m not one of these skeptics who won’t face facts. All through history there have been people with strange powers; and besides, didn’t I see with my own eyes Mr. Wainwright step through a solid gate. I—"
Her voice faltered; her own words describing that incredible action brought a vivid return of reality, and she could only finish weakly: "Of course, I believe it."
"What I meant, Mrs. Carmody," the girl was saying, "don’t be offended if he seems to say something unpleasant. He always thinks he’s talking about events that have already happened, and then, of course, there’s the way he talks about your sister, if you’re a woman, and your brother if you’re a man. It’s really you he means."
The woman’s mind spun curiously; and the memory of the words stayed with her after the girl had ridden off to school, even after Graham’s accepted her order on behalf of the Wainwright farm with a simple, utterly effective: "Oh, yes, Mrs. Carmody, we know about you."
It was not until nearly noon that she went out onto the porch, where the old man was sitting and asked the question that had been quivering in her mind:
"Mr. Wainwright, yesterday you mentioned you had seen my sister in Kempster. W-what did she have to say?"
She waited with a tenseness that startled her; and there was the queer thought that she was being utterly ridiculous. The old man took his long pipe out of his mouth, thoughtfully. He said:
"She was coming out of the courthouse, and—"
"Courthouse!" said Mrs. Carmody.
The old man was frowning to himself. "She didn’t speak to me, so I cannot say what she was doing there." He finished politely: "Some little case, no doubt. We all have them."
Kent was aware of the car slowing. The driver nodded at a two-story wooden building with a veranda, and said:
"That’s the hotel. I’ll finish that story for you some other time. Or, if I’m too busy, just ask anyone. The whole district knows all about it."
The following morning the sun peered with dazzling force into his hotel room. Kent walked to the window and stared out over the peaceful village.
For a moment there was not a sound audible. The little spread of trees and houses lay almost dreamily under the blue, blue sky.
Kent thought quietly: He had made no mistake in deciding to spend the rest of the summer here, while, in a leisurely fashion, he carried on negotiations for the sale of the farm his parents had left him. Truth was he had been overworking.
He went downstairs and amazed himself by eating two eggs and four slices of bacon in addition to cereal and toast. From the dining room he walked to the veranda—and there was the ghost sitting in one of the wicker chairs.
Kent stopped short. The tiny beginning of a chill formed at the nape of his spine; then the old man saw him and said:
"Good morning. Mr. Kent. I should take it very kindly if you would sit down and talk with me. I need cheering up."
It was spoken with an almost intimate pathos; and yet Kent had a sudden sense of being beyond his depth. Somehow the old man’s friendliness of the day before had seemed unreal.
Yet here it was again.
He shook himself. After all, part of the explanation at least was simple. Here was an old man—that ghost part was utterly ridiculous, of course—an old man, then, who could foretell the future. Foretell it in such a fashion that, in the case of Mrs. Carmody, he, the old man, had actually had the impression that she had been around for months before she arrived.
Apparently, he had had the same impression about Kent. Therefore—
"Good morning, Mr. Wainwright!" Kent spoke warmly as he seated himself. "You need cheering up, you say. Who’s been depressing you?"
"Oh!" The old man hesitated, his finely line face twisted into a faint frown. He said finally, slowly. "Perhaps it is wrong of me to have mentioned it. It is no one’s fault, I suppose. The friction of daily life, in this case, Mrs. Carmody pestering me about what her sister was doing in court."
Kent sat silent, astounded. The reference of the old man to the only part of the story that he, Kent, knew was—shattering. His brain recoiled from the coincidence into a tight, corded layer of thoughts:
Was this—alien—creature a mind reader as well as seer and ghost? An old, worn-out brain that had taken on automaton qualities, and reacted almost entirely to thoughts that trickled in from other minds? Or—
He stopped, almost literally pierced by the thought that came: Or was this reference to Mrs. Carmody, this illusion that Mrs. Carmody was still looking after him, one of those fantastic brain-chilling re-enactments of which the history of haunted houses was so gruesomely replete?
Dead souls, murderess and murdered, doomed through all eternity to live over and over again their lives before and during the crime!
But that was impossible. Mrs. Carmody was still alive; in a madhouse to be sure, but alive.
Kent released carefully the breath of air he had held hard in his lungs for nearly a minute. "Why don’t you tell her," he said finally, "to ask her sister about what she was doing in court?"
The thin, gray, old face wrinkled into puzzlement. The old man said with a curious dignity:
"It is more complicated than that, Mr. Kent. I have never quite understood the appearance of so many twins in the world during the recent years of my life; and the fact that so many of them are scarcely on speaking terms with each other is additionally puzzling."
He shook his head. "It is all very confusing. For instance, this courtroom appearance of Mrs. Carmody’s sister—I seem to remember having heard something else about it, but it must have struck me as unimportant at the time, for I cannot rightly recollect the details. It’s not a pleasant situation for a harmless old man to handle."
Harmless! Kent’s eyes narrowed involuntarily. That was what people kept saying about—the ghost. First, the driver, Tom; then, according to Tom’s story, the girl Phyllis, and now the old man himself.
Harmless, harmless, harmless— Old man, he thought tensely, what about the fact that you drove a woman to murder you? What is your purpose? What—
Kent loosened the tight grip his fingers had taken on the arms of the chair. What was the matter with him, letting a thing like this get on his nerves?
He looked up. The sky was as blue as ever; the summer day peaceful, perfect. All was well with the world of reality.
There was silence, a deep, peaceful quiet during which Kent studied that long, aged face from half-closed eyes. The old man’s skin was of a normal grayish texture with many, very many crisscross lines. He had a lean, slightly hawklike nose, and a thin, rather fine mouth.
Handsome old man; only—that explained nothing, and—
He saw that the old man was rising; he stood for a moment very straight, carefully adjusting his hat on his head; then:
"I must be on my way. It is important, in view of our strained relations, that I do not keep Mrs. Carmody waiting for lunch. I shall be seeing you again, Mr. Kent."
Kent stood up, a little, fascinated thought in his mind. He had intended to walk over to the farm that had belonged to his parents and introduce himself to the tenants. But that could wait.
Why not go with the—ghost—to the deserted Wainwright place, and—
He considered the question blankly; then his lips tightened. After all, this mysterious business was on his mind. To let it go would be merely to have a distraction at the back of his head, sufficient perhaps to interfere with anything he might attempt. Besides, there was no rush about the business. He was here for a rest and change as much as anything.
He stood there, still not absolutely decided, chilled by a dark miasma of mind stuff that welled up inside him:
Wasn’t it perhaps dangerous to accompany a ghost to a hide-out in an isolated, old house?
He pressed the clammy fear out of his system because—it wasn’t Mrs. Carmody who had been killed. She was out of her head, yes; but the danger was definitely mental, not physical, and—
His mind grew hard, cool. No sudden panic, no totality of horrendous threats or eerie menaces would actually knock his reason off its base. Therefore—
Kent parted his lips to call after the old man, who was gingerly moving down the wooden walk to the wooden sidewalk. Before he could speak, a deep voice beside him said:
"I noticed you were talking to the ghost, Mr. Kent."
Kent turned and faced a great, gross fat man whom he had previously noticed sitting in a little office behind the hotel desk. Three massive chins quivered as the man said importantly:
"My name is Jenkins, sir, proprietor of the Agan Hotel."
His pale, deep-set eyes peered at Kent.
"Tom was telling me that you met our greatest local character yesterday. A very strange, uncanny case. Very uncanny."
The old man was farther up the street now, Kent saw, an incredibly lean, sedately figure, who vanished abruptly behind a clump of trees. Kent stared after him, his mind still half on the idea of following as soon as he could reasonably break away from this man.
He took another look at the proprietor; and the man said heavily:
"I understand from Tom that he didn’t have time to finish the story of what happened at the Wainwright farm. Perhaps I could complete the uncanny tale for you."
It struck Kent that the word "uncanny" must be a favorite with this dark mountain of flesh.
It struck him, too, that he would have to postpone his visit to the ghost farm, or risk offending his host.
Kent frowned and yielded to circumstances. It wasn’t actually necessary to trail the old man today. And it might be handy to have all the facts first, before he attempted to solve the mystery. He seated himself after watching the fat man wheeze into a chair. He said:
"Is there any local theory that would explain the"—he hesitated—"uncanny appearance of the ghost. You do insist that he is a ghost, in spite of his substantial appearance."
"Definitely a ghost!" Jenkins grunted weightily. "We buried him, didn’t we? And unburied him again a week later to see if he was still there; and he was, dead and cold as stone. Oh. yes, definitely a ghost. What other explanation could there be?"
"I’m not," said Kent carefully, "not exactly—a believer—in ghosts." The fat man waved the objection aside with flabby hand. "None of us were, sir, none of us. But facts are facts."
Kent sat silent; then: "A ghost that tells the future. What kind of future? Is it all as vague as that statement of his to Mrs. Carmody about her sister coming out of the courthouse?"
Sagging flesh shook as Mr. Jenkins cleared his throat. "Mostly local events of little importance, but which would interest an old man who lived here all his life."
"Has he said anything about the war?"
"He talks as if it’s over, and therefore acts as if the least said the better." Mr. Jenkins laughed a great husky, tolerant laugh. "His point about the war is amazement that prices continue to hold up. It confuses him. And it’s no use keeping after him, because talking tires him easily, and he gets a persecuted look. He did stay something about American armies landing in northern France, but"—he shrugged—"we all know that’s going to happen, anyway."
Kent nodded. "This Mrs. Carmody—she arrived when?"
"In 1933, nearly nine years ago."
"And Mr. Wainwright has been dead five years?"
The fat man settled himself deeper into his chair. "I shall be glad," he said pompously, "to tell you the rest of the story in an orderly fashion. I shall omit the first few months after her arrival, as they contained very little of importance—"
The woman came exultantly out of the Wholesale Marketing Co. She felt a renewal of the glow that had suffused her when she first discovered this firm in Kempster two mouths before.
Four chickens and three dozen eggs—four dollars cash.
The glow inside her dimmed. She frowned darkly. It was no use fooling herself; now that the harvesting season was only a week away, this makeshift method of obtaining money out of the farm couldn’t go on—Her mind flashed to the bank book she had discovered in the house, with its tremendous information that the Wainwrights had eleven thousand seven hundred thirty-four dollars and fifty-one cents in the Kempster Bank.
An incredible fortune, so close yet so far away—
She stood very still in front of the bank finally, briefly paralyzed by a thought dark as night. If she went in—in minutes she’d know the worst.
This time it wouldn’t be an old, old man and a young girl she’d be facing. It would be—
The banker was a dapper little fellow with horn-rimmed glasses, behind which sparkled a large pair of gray eyes.
"Ah, yes, Mrs. Carmody!" The man rubbed his fingers together. "So it finally occurred to you to come and see me."
He chuckled. "Well, well, we can fix everything; don’t worry. I think between us we can manage to look after the Wainwright farm to the satisfaction of the community and the court, eh?"
Court! The word caught the woman in the middle of a long, ascending surge of triumph. So this was it. This was what the old man had prophesied. And it was good, not bad.
She felt a brief, ferocious rage at the old fool for having frightened her so badly—but the banker was speaking again:
"I understand you have a letter from your sister-in-law, asking you to look after Phyllis and the farm. It is possible such letter is not absolutely necessary, as you are the only relative, but in lieu of a will it will constitute a definite authorization on the basis of which the Courts can appoint you executrix."
The woman sat very still, almost frozen by the words. Somehow, while she had always felt that she would in a crisis produce the letter she had forged, now that the terrible moment was here—
She felt herself fumbling in her purse, and there was the sound of her voice mumbling some doubt about the letter still being around. But she knew better.
She brought it out, took it blindly from the blank envelope where she had carefully placed it, handed it toward the smooth, reaching fingers—and waited her doom.
As he read, the man spoke to himself, half to her: "Hm-m-m, she offers you twenty-five dollars a month over and above expenses—"
The woman quivered in every muscle of her thick body. The incredible violent thought came that she must have been mad to put such a thing in the letter. She said hurriedly: "Forget about the money. I’m not here to—"
"I was just going to say," interrupted the banker, "that it seems an inadequate wage. For a farm as large and wealthy as that of the Wainwrights’, there is no reason why the manager should not receive fifty dollars, at least, and that is the sum we shall petition the judge for."
He added: "The local magistrate is having a summer sitting this morning just down the street, and if you’ll step over there with me we can have this all settled shortly."
He finished: "By the way, he’s always interested in the latest predictions of old Mr. Wainwright."
"I know them all!" the woman gulped.
She allowed herself, a little later, to be shepherded onto the sidewalk. A brilliant, late July sun was pouring down on the pavement. Slowly, it warmed the chill out of her veins.
It was three years later, three undisturbed years. The woman stopped short in the task of running the carpet sweeper over the living-room carpet, and stood frowning. Just what had brought the thought into her mind, she couldn’t remember, but—
Had she seen the old man, as she came out of the courthouse that July day three years before, when the world had been handed to her without a struggle.
The old man had predicted that moment. That meant, in some way, he must have seen it. Had the picture come in the form of a vision? Or as a result of some contact in his mind across the months? Had he in short been physically present; and the scene had flashed back through some connection across time?
She couldn’t remember having seen him. Try as she would, nothing came to her from that moment but a sort of blurred, enormous contentment.
The old man, of course, thought he’d been there. The old fool believed that everything he ever spoke about was a memory of his past. What a dim, senile world that past must be.
It must spread before his mind like a road over which shifting tendrils of fog drifted, now thick and impenetrable, now thin and bright with flashing rays of sunlight—and pictures.
Pictures of events.
Across the room from her she was vaguely aware of the old man stirring in his chair. He spoke:
"Seems like hardly yesterday that Phyllis and that Couzens boy got married. And yet it’s—"
He paused; he said politely: "When was that, Pearl? My memory isn’t as good as it was, and—"
The words didn’t actually penetrate the woman. But her gaze, in its idle turning, fastened on plump Pearl—and stopped. The girl sat rigid on the living-room couch, where she had been sprawling. Her round, baby eyes were wide.
"Ma?" she shrilled. "Did you hear that? Grandpa’s talking like Phyllis and Charlie Couzens are married."
There was a thick, muffled sound of somebody half choking. With a gulp the woman realized that it was she who had made the sound. Gasping, she whirled on the old man and loomed over him, a big, tight-lipped creature, with hard blue eyes.
For a moment, her dismay was so all-consuming that words wouldn’t come. The immensity of the catastrophe implied by the old man’s statement scarcely left room for thought. But—
And she had actually thought smugly that Bill and Phyllis— Why, Bill had told her and—
Marriage! To the son of the neighboring farmer. Automatic end to her security. She had nearly a thousand dollars, but how long would that last, once the income itself stopped?
Sharp pain of fear released the explosion that, momentarily, had been dammed up by the sheer fury of her thoughts:
"You old fool, you!" she raged. "So you’ve been sitting here all these years while I’ve been looking after you, scheming against me and mine. A trick, that’s what it is. Think you’re clever, eh, using your gift to—"
It was the way the old man was shrinking that brought brief, vivid awareness to the woman of the danger of such an outburst after so many years of smiling friendliness. She heard the old man say:
"I don’t understand, Mrs. Carmody. What’s the matter?"
"Did you say it?" She couldn’t have stopped the words to save her soul.
"Did I say what?"
"About Phyllis and that Couzens boy—"
"Oh, them!" He seemed to forget that she was there above him. A benign smile crept into his face. He said at last quietly: "It seems like hardly yesterday that they were married—"
For a second time he became aware of the dark, forbidding expression of the woman who towered above him.
"Anything wrong?" he gasped. "Has something happened to Phyllis and her husband?"
With a horrible effort the woman caught hold of herself. Her eyes blazed at him with a slate-blue intensity.
"I don’t want you to talk about them, do you understand? Not a word. I don’t want to hear a word about them."
The old man stirred, his face creasing into a myriad extra lines of bewilderment. "Why, certainly, Mrs. Carmody, if you wish, but my own great-granddaughter—"
He subsided weakly as the woman whipped on Pearl: "If you mention one word of this to Phyllis, I’ll . . . you know what I’ll do to you."
"Oh, sure, ma," Pearl said. "You can trust me, ma."
The woman turned away shaking. For years there had been a dim plan in the back of her mind, to cover just such a possibility as Phyllis wanting to marry someone else.
She twisted her face with distaste and half fear, and brought the ugly thing out of the dark brain corridor where she had kept it hidden.
Her fingers kept trembling as she worked. Once she saw herself in the mirror over the sink—and started back in dismay at the distorted countenance that reflected there.
That steadied her. But the fear stayed, sick surge after sick surge of it. A woman, forty-five, without income, in the depths of the depression. There was Federal relief, of course, but they wouldn’t give that to her till the money was gone. There was old-age pension—twenty-five years away.
She drew a deep breath. Actually, those were meaningless things, utter defeats. Actually, there was only her desperate plan—and that required the fullest co-operation from Bill.
She studied Bill when he came in from the field at lunch. There had been a quietness in him this last year or so that had puzzled her. As if, at twenty, he had suddenly grown up.
He looked like a man; he was strongly built, of medium height with lines of dark passion in his rather heavy face.
That was good, that passion; undoubtedly, he had inherited some of her own troubled ambition—and there was the fact that he had been caught stealing just before they left the city, and released with a warning.
She hadn’t blamed him then, felt only his bitter fury against a world that lashed out so cruelly against boys ruthlessly deprived by fate of spending money.
That was all over, of course. For two years he had been a steady, quiet worker, pulling his full share with the other hired men. Nevertheless—
To get Phyllis, that earlier, harder training would surely rise up once more—and win for all of them.
Slyly, she watched as, out of the corner of his eyes, he took one of his long, measured glances at Phyllis, where she sat across the table slantwise from him. For more than a year now, the woman had observed him look at Phyllis like that—and besides she had asked him, and—
Surely a young man of twenty would fight to get the girl he loved. Fight unscrupulously. The only thing was—
How did a mother tell her son the particular grim plan that was in her mind? Did she . . . she just tell him?
After lunch, while Phyllis and Pearl were washing the dishes, the woman softly followed Bill up to his room. And, actually, it was easier than she had thought.
He lay for a while, after she had finished, staring at the ceiling; his heavy face was quiet almost placid. Finally:
"So the idea is that this evening you take Pearl in to Kempster to a movie; the old man, of course, will sleep like a log. But after Phyllis goes to bed at her usual time, I go into her room—and then she’ll have to marry me."
It was so baldly put that the woman shrank, as if a mirror had been held up to her; and the image was an incredibly evil, ravaged thing. The cool voice went on:
"If I do this it means we’ll be able to stay on the farm, is that right?" She nodded, because no words would come. Then, not daring to stay a moment longer, she turned and left the room.
Slowly, the black mood of that interview passed. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon when she came out onto the veranda; and the old man looked up from his chair, and said:
"Terrible thing," he said, "your sister hanged. They told me at the hotel. Hanged. Terrible, terrible; you’ve been right to have nothing to do with her."
He seemed to forget her, simply sat there staring into space.
The whole thing was utterly unreal, and, after a moment quite unthinkably fantastic. The woman stared at him with a sudden, calm, grim understanding of the faint smile that was creeping back into his face, a serene smile.
So that was his plan, she thought coolly. The mischievous old scoundrel intended that Phyllis should not marry Bill. Therefore, knowing his own reputation for prophecy, he had cleverly told her that Phyllis and Charlie Couzens—
That was his purpose. And now he was trying to scare her into doing nothing about it. Hanging indeed. She smiled, her thick face taut with inward anger.
He was clever—but not clever enough.
In the theater she had a curious sense of chattering voices and flickering lights. Too much meaningless talk, too much light.
Her eyes hurt and, afterward, when they came out onto the pale dimness of Kempster’s main street, the difference—the greater darkness—was soothing.
She must have said, "Pearl, let’s go in and have a banana split."
She must have said that or agreed to it because after a while they were sitting at a little table; and the ice cream was cold as it went into her mouth; and there was a taste of banana.
Her mind held only a variation of one tense thought: If she and Bill could put this over, the world was won. Nothing thereafter could ever damage them to the same dreadful degree as this could.
"Aw, gee, ma, I’m sleepy. It’s half past eleven."
The woman came to reality with a start. She looked at her watch; and it was true. "Goodness gracious!" she exclaimed with artificial amazement. "I didn’t realize—"
The moon was shining, and the horse anxious to get home. Coming down the great hill, she could see no light anywhere in the house. The buildings loomed silent in the moonlit darkness, like great semi-formless shapes against the transparent background of the land.
She left Pearl to unhitch the animal and, trembling; went into the house. There was a lamp in the kitchen turned very low. She turned it into brightness, but the light didn’t seem to help her feet on the stairs. She kept stumbling, but she reached the top, reached Bill’s door. Ever so softly, she knocked.
She opened the door. The pale, yellow light of the lamp poured onto the empty bed—and it was only the sound of Pearl coming into the kitchen downstairs that made her close hastily the door of Bill’s room. Pearl came up, yawning, and disappeared instantly into her own room.
The fat man stopped abruptly as a distant telephone thrummed. He rolled apologetically out of his seat. "I’ll be right back," he said.
“One question,” Kent asked hastily, “What about that prophecy of hanging? I thought Mrs. Carmody was in a madhouse, very much alive."
"She is." The vast bulk of the hotel proprietor filled the door. "We figured out that the old man was definitely tying to put something over."
The minutes dragged. Kent took his notebook and wrote with the elaborate ornateness of vague purpose:
An old man
Who can tell the future
Who caused a woman to murder him
But still lives
Who walks through solid objects
Who reads minds (possibly)
He sat thoughtful, then added to the list:
A senile ghost
For long minutes he stared at the combination. Finally, he laughed ruefully—and simultaneously grew aware of the clicking of pool balls inside.
He stood up, peered through the door—and smiled sardonically as he saw that fat Jenkins was playing a game of snooker with a chunky man of his own age.
Kent shrugged; and, turning, went down the steps. It was obvious that he would have to get the rest of this story piecemeal, here and there over the countryside; obvious, too, that he’d better write Miss Kincaid to send him some books on ghosts and seers, the folklore as well as anything remotely scientific.
He’d need everything he could lay his hands on if he was going to solve the mystery of—the ghost!
The books kept trickling in over a period of four weeks. Miss Kincaid sent ghost stories, compilations of true ghost tales, four books on psychic phenomena, a history of magic, a treatise on astrology and kindred arts, the works of Charles Fort; and, finally, three thin volumes by one J. W. Dunne, on the subject of time.
Kent sat on the veranda in the early morning just after the arrival of the mail that had brought them, and read the three books in one sitting, with an excitement that gathered at every page.
He got up at last, shaky, and half convinced that he had the tremendous answer; and yet—there were things to clear up—
An hour later he was lying in a little wooded dell that overlooked the house and yard, waiting. It was almost time for the—ghost—to come out, if he intended to take his morning walk—
At noon Kent returned to the hotel thinking tensely: The old man must have gone somewhere else today . . . somewhere else—
His mind nearly came out of his head from contemplating that somewhere else. The following morning, eight o’clock found him in his little copse, waiting. Again, the old man failed to appear.
The third morning. Kent’s luck was better. Dark, threatening clouds rode the sky as he watch the thin, tall figure move from behind the house and slowly approach the gate. The old man came across the field; Kent showed himself in plenty of time striding along out of the bush as if he, too, was out for a walk.
"Hello, there, Mr. Wainwright," he said.
The old man came closer without answering, and Kent saw that the man was peering at him curiously. The old man stopped.
"Do I know you, young sir?" he asked politely.
For the barest moment Kent was thrown mentally off balance; and then—
"Good heavens!" he thought excitedly, "even this fits. It fits. There had to be a time when he met me."
Aloud, he explained patiently that he was the son of Angus Kent, and that he had come back to the district for a visit. When he had finished the old man said:
"I shall be glad to come to the hotel and talk about your father. It is a pleasure to have met you."
He walked off. The moment he was out of sight, Kent started toward the gate. The first drops of rain fell as he crawled laboriously under the wire. He stood just inside the gate, hesitant. It was important that he get inside the house before the old man, driven by the rain, returned.
The question was, would he have time?
He hurried toward the buildings, glancing over his shoulders every few seconds, expecting to see that long form come into sight.
The house stood quietly under the soft, glinting rain. The weight of the neglectful years lay heavily on its wooden walls. A burst of rain whipped into Kent’s face, and then thudded dully on the wood as he ducked into the shelter of the building.
He stood there waiting for the blast to die down. But, as the seconds passed, and there was no abatement, he peered around the corner and saw the veranda.
He reached the safety it offered; and then, more leisurely, investigated the two boarded windows and the boarded door. They were solid, and, though he had expected it, the reality brought a stab of disappointment.
Getting inside was going to be a tough job.
The rain became a thin splatter; and he went hastily down the steps, and saw that there was an open balcony on the second floor. It was hard work climbing, but the effort proved its worth.
A wide, loose board on one of the two balcony windows came off with a jerk, and made it easy to tear off the rest. Beyond was a window, locked.
Kent did not hesitate. He raised one of the boards and, with a single sharp blow, struck. The glass shattered with a curious, empty tinkling sound.
He was inside. The room was empty, dusty, dark, unfurnished. It led out onto a long, empty hallway, and a line of empty, dark rooms.
Downstairs it was the same; empty rooms, unlived in. The basement was dark, a cemented hole. He fumbled around it hurriedly, lighting matches; and then hurriedly went back to the ground floor. There were some cracks in the boards that covered the downstairs windows and, after locating the likeliest ones, he stationed himself at the one that faced the gate—and waited.
It didn’t take long.
The old man came through the gate, toward the house. Kent shifted to a window at the side of the house, then at the back; and each time the old man came into view after a moment.
Kent raced to the crack he had selected in the veranda window, expecting to see the old man come into sight.
Ten minutes passed; and that tall figure had still to come around the back corner of the house. Slowly, Kent went upstairs, and out onto the balcony.
It was simple hammering the boards back into position, not so simply easing down to the ground.
But he had his fact. Somewhere at the rear of the house the ghost vanished. The problem was—how to prevent that disappearance.
How did one trap the kind of—ghost—that the long-dead Mr. Wainwright had become?
It was the next day, nearly noon. Kent lay well into the field south of the farmhouse. Earlier, he had watched the old man emerge from the gate, and go past his hiding place along the valley. Now—
Through his field glasses Kent watched the long, straight form coming toward him, toward the farm.
Kent emerged casually from the wood and walked along as if he had not seen the other. He was wondering just what his verbal approach should be when the old man hailed him:
"Hello there, Mr. Kent. Out for a walk?"
Kent turned and waited for the aged man to come up to him. He said: "I was just going to go in to Mrs. Carmody, and ask for a drink of water, before heading on to the hotel. If you don’t mind, I’ll walk with you."
"Not at all, sir," said the old man.
They walked along, Kent consciously more erect as he tried to match that superb straightness of body. His mind was seething. What would happen at the gate? Somewhere along here the old man’s body would become less substantial, but—
He couldn’t hold the thought. Besides, he’d better start laying his groundwork. He said tautly:
"The farm looks rather deserted from here, does it not, Mr. Wainwright?"
Amazingly, the old man gulped; he said almost swiftly: "Have you noticed it, too, Mr. Kent? I have long thought it an illusion on my part, and I have felt rather uneasy about my vision. I have found that the peculiar desolated appearance vanishes as soon as I pass through the gate."
So it was the gate where the change began— He jerked his soaring thought back to earth, listened as the old man said in evident relief:
"I am glad that we both share this illusion, Mr. Kent. It has had me worried."
Kent hesitated, and then very carefully took his field glasses out of their case; and handed than to the old man.
"Try a look through these," he said casually. "Perhaps they will help to break the illusion."
The moment he had given the instrument over, compunction came, a hard, bright pity for the incredible situation he was forcing.
Compunction passed; pity yielded to an almost desperate curiosity. From narrowed eyes he stared at that lined face as the man’s thin, bony hands held the glasses up to his face and slowly adjusted the lens.
There was a harsh gasp; and Kent, who had expected it, leaped forward and caught the glasses as they fell toward the ground.
"Why," the old man was quavering, "it’s impossible. Windows boarded up, and"—a wild suspicion leaped into his eyes—"has Mrs. Carmody gone so swiftly?"
"What’s wrong, sir?" Kent said, and felt like a villain. But—he couldn’t let this go now.
The old man was shaking his head. "I must be mad. My eyes . . . my mind . . . not what they used to be—"
"Let’s go over," Kent suggested. "I’ll get my drink and we’ll see what’s wrong."
It was important that the old man retain in his wandering mind that he had a companion. The patriarch straightened, said quietly:
"By all means, you shall have your drink, Mr. Kent."
Kent had a sick feeling as he walked beside that tall form across the road to the gate, the empty feeling that he had meddled in human tragedy.
He watched, almost ill with his victory, as the trembling nonagenarian fumbled futilely with the padlocked gate.
He thought, his mind as tight as a drum: For perhaps the first time since this strange, strange phenomena had started, the old man had failed to walk through the gate.
"I don’t understand it!" the old man said. "This gate locked—why, this very morning, I—"
Kent had been unwinding the wire that held the large gate. "Let’s go in here," he said gently.
The dismay of the old man was so pitiful it was dreadful. He stopped and peered at the weeds. Incredulously, he felt the black old wood that was nailed, board on board of it, over one of the windows. His high shoulders began to sag. A haunted expression crept into his face. Paradoxically, he looked suddenly old.
He climbed the faded veranda steps with the weariness of unutterable age. And then—
The flashing, terrible realization of the truth struck at Kent in that last instant, as the old man stepped timidly, almost blindly, toward the nailed door.
"Wait!” He shrilled, "Wait!"
His piercing voice died. Where the old man had been was—nothingness.
A thin wind howled with brief mournfulness around the house, rattling the eaves.
He stood alone on that faded, long-unused veranda. Alone with the comprehension that had, in one dreadful kaleidoscope of mind picture, suddenly cleared up—everything.
And dominating everything else, was the dreadful fear that he would be too late.
He was running, his breath coming in great gulps. A tiny wind caught the dust that his shoes kicked up from the soft roadbed, and whipped it in little, unpleasant gusts around his nostrils.
The vague thought came that it was lucky he had done so much walking the past month; for the exercise had added just enough strength to bring the long, lone mile and a half to the hotel within his powers—
A tangy, unpleasant taste of salt was in his mouth as he staggered up the steps. Inside, he was blurrily aware of the man, Tom, staring at him across the counter. Kent grasped:
"I’ll give you five dollars if you can pack my things and get me to Kempster in time to catch the twelve-o’clock train. And tell me how to get to the insane asylum at Peerton. For Heaven’s sake, make it fast."
The man goggled. "I had the maid pack your things right after breakfast, Mr. Kent. Don’t you remember, this is August 17th."
Kent glared at him with a blank horror. That prophecy came true. Then what about the other, more awful one—
On the way to Kempster he was vaguely aware of the driver speaking, something about Peerton being a large town, and he’d be able to get a taxi at the station—
From the taxi the asylum showed as a series of long, white buildings, a green, tree-filled enclosure, surrounded by a high iron fence. He was led through an endless, quiet corridor; his mind kept straining past the sedate, white-clothed woman ahead of him. Couldn’t she realize this was life and death?
The doctor sat in a little, bright cozy room. He stood up politely as Kent entered, but Kent waited only for the woman to close the door as she went out.
"Sir, you have a woman here named Mrs. Carmody." He paused a fraction of a second to let the name sink in, then rushed on "Never mind if you can’t remember her name. It’s true."
The fine, strong face of the white-haired doctor cleared. "I remember the case."
"Look," said Kent desperately. "I’ve just found out the truth about that whole affair; and this is what you’ve got to do—at once:
"Take me to the woman, and I’ll assure her, and you assure her, that she has been found innocent, and will be freed. Do you understand?"
"I think," said the doctor quietly, "that you had better begin at the beginning."
Kent had a frantic sense of walls rising up between him and his purpose. "For Heaven’s sake, sir, believe me, there’s no time. I don’t know just how it is supposed to happen, but the prediction that she would be hanged can only come true in—"
"Now, Mr. Kent, I would appreciate—"
"Don’t you understand?" Kent yelled. "If that prophecy is not to be fulfilled, you must act. I tell you I have information that will release this woman. And, therefore, the next few minutes are the vital ones."
He stopped because the man was frowning at him. The doctor said: "Really, Mr. Kent, you will have to calm down. I am sure everything will be all right."
The strained wonder came to Kent, if all sane, becalmed people seemed as maddening as this quiet-spoken doctor.
He thought shakily: "He’d better be careful or they’d be keeping him in here with the rest of the lunatics."
He began to speak, to tell what he’d heard and seen and done. The man kept interrupting him with incisive questions; and, after a while, it came to Kent, that he would actually have to begin at the beginning to fill in the gaps of this fellow’s knowledge.
He stopped, sat shaky for a moment, struggling to clear his brain, and then with a tense quietness, began again.
He found himself, as the minutes dragged, listening to his own voice. Every time his words speeded up or rose in crescendo, he would deliberately slow down and articulate every syllable. He reached the point where the Dunne books came into the story, and—
His mind paused in a wild dismay: Good heavens, would he have to explain the Dunne theory of time with its emphasis on time as a state of mind. The rest was unimportant, but that part—
He grew aware that the doctor was speaking, saying: "I’ve read several volumes by Mr. Dunne. I’m afraid I cannot accept his theory of multidimensional time. I—"
"Listen," said Kent in a tight voice, "picture an old man in his dotage. It’s a queer, incoherent mind-world he lives in; strange, frequently unassociated ideas are the normal condition; memory, particularly memory, is unutterably mixed up. And it is in that confused environment that somehow once a variation of the Dunne phenomena operated.
"An old man whose time sense has been distorted by the ravages of senility, an old man who walks as easily into the future as you and I walk Into the next room."
The doctor was on his feet, pacing the rugged floor. He stared at Kent finally.
"Mr. Kent, this is a most extraordinary idea. But still I fail to see why Mrs. Carmody—"
Kent groaned, then with a terrible effort pulled himself together. "Do you remember the murder scene?"
"Vaguely. A domestic tragedy, I believe."
"Listen. Mrs. Carmody woke up the morning after she thought she’d made everything right for herself and her family, and found a note on her dressing table. It had been lying there all night, and it was from her son, Bill.
"In it, he said he couldn’t go through with her plan. Besides, he didn’t like the farm, so he was going immediately to the city—and in fact he walked to Kempster and caught the train while she was in the theater.
"Among other things, he said in his note that a few days before the old man had acted surprised at seeing him, Bill, still around. The old man talked as if he thought Bill had gone to the city—"
That was what kept stabbing into the woman’s mind. The old man, the interfering old man—
He had, in effect, told Bill that he, Bill, had gone to the city, and so in a crisis Bill had gone.
Gone, gone, gone—and all hope with him. Phyllis would marry Charlie Couzens; and what then? What would become of a poor, miserable woman of forty-five?
The old man, she thought, as she went down the stairs from her room, the old man planned it all. Fiendish old man! First, telling Bill about the city, then suggesting who Phyllis was to marry, then trying to scare her with that hanging—
The woman stopped short in the downstairs hallway, her blue eyes stark, a strange, burning sensation in her brain. Why—
If all the rest came true, then—hanging!
Her mind whirled madly. She crouched for moment like an animal at bay, cunning in her eyes. They couldn’t hang you unless you murdered someone, and—
She’d see that she didn’t pull anything so stupid.
She couldn’t remember eating breakfast. But there was a memory of her voice asking monotonously:
"Where’s Mr. ’Wainwright?"
"He’s gone for a walk, ma. Hey, ma, are you ill?"
Ill! Who asked a silly question like that. It was the old man who’d be ill when she got through with him
There was a memory, too, of washing the dishes, but after that a strange, dark gap, a living, evil night flooding her mind . . . gone . . . hope . . . Bill . . . damned old man—
She was standing at the screen door for the hundredth time, peering malignantly at the corner of the house where the old man would come into sight—when it happened.
There was the screen door and the deserted veranda. That was one instant. The next, the old man materialized out of the thin air two feet away. He opened the screen door, and then half fell against the door, and slowly crumbled to the ground, writhing, as the woman screamed at him, meaningless words—
"That was her story," Kent said wearily, "that the old man simply fell dead. But the doctor who came testified that Mr. Wainwright died of choking, and besides, in her hysteria, Mrs. Carmody told everything about herself, and the various facts taken together combined to discredit her story."
Kent paused, then finished in a queer voice: "It is medically recognized, I believe, that very old people can choke themselves to death by swallowing saliva the wrong way, or by a paralysis of the throat produced by shock—"
"Shock!" The doctor sank back into his chair from which he had half risen. "Man!" he gasped, "are you trying to tell me that your interference with the old man that day caused his abrupt appearance before Mrs. Carmody, and that it was the shock of what he had himself gone through that—"
"I’m trying to tell you," said Kent, "that we’ve got minutes to prevent this woman from hanging herself. It could only happen if she did do it with her own hands; and it could only happen today, for if we can get there in time to tell her, why, she’ll have no incentive. Will you come . . . for Heaven’s sake, man—"
The doctor said: "But the prophecy. If this old man actually had this incredible power, how can we hope to circumvent the inevitable?"
"Look!" said Kent, "I influenced the past by an act from the future. Surely, I can change the future by—but come along!"
He couldn’t take his eyes off the woman. She sat there in her bright little room, and she was still smiling, as she had been when they first came in, a little more uncertainly now, as the doctor talked.
"You mean," she said finally, "that I am to be freed, that you’re going to write my children, and they’ll come and get me."
"Absolutely!" Kent spoke heartily, but with just the faintest bit of puzzlement in his voice. "I understand your son, Bill, is working in a machine factory, and that he’s married now, and that your daughter is a stenographer for the same company."
"Yes, that’s true." She spoke quietly—
Afterward, while the doctor’s maid was serving Kent a warmed-up lunch, he said frowningly: "I can’t understand it. I ought to feel that everything is cleared up. Her children have small jobs, the girl Phyllis is married to that Couzens chap, and is living in his family home. As for Mrs. Carmody—and this is what gets me—I had no impression that she was in danger of hanging herself. She was cheerful; she had her room fixed with dozens of little fancily sewed things and—"
The doctor said: "The records show that she’s been no trouble while she’s been here. She’s been granted special privileges; she does a lot of sewing— What’s the matter?"
Kent wondered grimly if he looked as wild as the thought that had surged into his mind. "Doctor!" he gasped, "there’s a psychological angle here that I forgot completely."
He was on his feet. "Doctor, we’ve got to get to that woman again, tell her she can stay here, tell her—"
There was the sound of a door opening violently, then running footsteps. A man in uniform burst in.
"Doctor, there’s a woman just hanged herself, a Mrs. Carmody. She cut her dress into strips and, using the light fixture—"
They had already cut her down when Kent and the doctor arrived. She lay stiff in death, a dark, heavily built woman. A faint smile was fixed on her rigid lips—Kent was aware of the doctor whispering to him:
"No one’s to blame, of course. How could we sane people remember that the greatest obsession in her life was security, and that here in this asylum was that security she craved."
Kent scarcely heard. He felt curiously cold; the room seemed remote. In his mind’s eye he could see the Wainwright house, empty, nailed-up; and yet for years an old, old man would come out of it and wander over the land before he, too, sank forever into the death that long ago struck him down.
The time would come when the—ghost—would walk no more.
2. THE WITCH
From where he sat, half hidden by the scraggly line of bushes, Marson watched the old woman. It was minutes now since he had stopped reading. The afternoon air hung breathless around him. Even here, a cliff’s depth away from the sparkling tongue of sea that curled among the rocks below, the heat was a material thing, crushing at his strength.
But it was the letter in his pocket, not the blazing sunlight that weighed on Marson’s mind. Two days now since that startling letter had arrived; and he still hadn’t the beginning of the courage necessary to ask for an explanation.
Frowning uncertainly—unsuspected — unsuspecting — he watched.
The old woman basked in the sun. Her long, thin, pale head drooped in sleep. On and on she sat, moveless, an almost shapeless form in her black sack of a dress.
The strain of looking hurt his eyes; his gaze wandered; embraced the long, low, tree-protected cottage with its neat, white garage and its aloneness, there on that high, green hill overlooking the great spread of city. Marson had a brief, cozy sense of privacy—then he turned back to the old woman.
For a long moment, he stared unshaken at the spot where she had been. He was conscious of a dim, intellectual surprise, but there was not a real thought in his head. After a brief period, he grew aware of the blank, and he thought:
Thirty feet to the front door from where she had been sitting; and she would have had to cross his line of vision to get there.
An old woman, perhaps ninety, perhaps a hundred or more, an incredibly old woman, capable of moving—well thirty feet a minute.
Marson stood up. There was a searing pain where an edge of the sun had cut into his shoulders. But that passed. From his upright position, he saw that not a solitary figure was visible on the steeply mounting sidewalk. And only the sound of the sea on the rocks below broke the silence of that hot Saturday afternoon.
Where had the old wretch disappeared to?
The front door opened; and Joanna came out. She called to him:
"Oh, there you are, Craig. Mother Quigley was just asking where you were."
Marson came silently down from the cliff’s edge. Almost meticulously, he took his wife’s words, figuratively rolled them over in his mind, and found them utterly inadequate. The old woman couldn’t have been just asking for him, because the old woman had NOT gone through that door and therefore hadn’t asked anyone anything for the last twenty minutes.
At last an idea came. He said: "Where’s Mother Quigley now?"
"Inside." He saw that Joanna was intent on the flower box of the window beside the door. "She’s been knitting in the living room for the last half hour."
Amazement in him yielded to sharp annoyance. There was too damn much old woman in his mind since that letter had come less than forty-eight hours before. He drew it out, and stared bleakly at the scrawl of his name on the envelope.
It was simple enough, really, that this incredible letter had come to him. After the old woman’s arrival nearly a year before, an unexpected nightmare, he had mentally explored all the possible reverberations that might accrue from her presence in his home. And the thought had come that if she had left any debts in the small village where she had lived, he’d better pay them.
A young man, whose appointment to the technical school principalship had been severely criticized on the grounds of his youth, couldn’t afford to have anything come back on him. And so a month before he had leisurely written the letter to which this was the answer.
Slowly, he drew the note from its envelope and once more reread the mind-staggering words in it:
Dear Mr. Marson:
As I am the only debtor, the postmaster handed me your letter; and I wish to state that, when your great-grandmother died last year, I buried her myself and in my capacity as gravestone maker, I carved a stone for her grave. I did this at my own expense, being a God-fearing man, but if there is a relative, I feel you should bear cost of same, which is eighteen (18) dollars. I hope to hear from you, as I need the money just now.
Marson stood for a long moment; then he turned to speak to Joanna—just in time to see her disappearing into the house. Once more undecided, he climbed to the cliff’s edge, thinking:
The old scoundrel! The nerve of a perfect stranger of an old woman walking into a private home and pulling a deception like that.
His public situation being what it was, his only solution was to pay her way into an institution; and even that would require careful thought—
Frowning blackly, he hunched himself deeper into his chair there on the cliff’s edge, and deliberately buried himself in his book. It was not until much later that memory came of the way the old woman had disappeared from the lawn. Funny, he thought then, it really was damned funny.
The memory faded—
Blankly sat the old woman.
Supper was over; and, because for years there had been no reserves of strength in that ancient body, digestion was an almost incredible process, an all-out affair.
She sat as one dead, without visible body movement, without thought in her brain; even the grim creature purpose that had brought her here to this house lay like a stone at the bottom of the black pool that was her mind.
It was as if she had always sat there in that chair by the window overlooking the sea, like an inanimate object, like some horrible mummy, like a wheel that, having settled into position, seemed now immovable.
After an hour, awareness began to creep into her bones. The creature mind of her, the strange, inhuman creature mind behind the parchment-like, sharp-nosed mask of human flesh, stirred into life.
It studied Marson at the living room table, his head bent thoughtfully over the next term curriculum he was preparing. Toothless lips curled finally into a contemptuous sneer.
The sneer faded, as Joanna slipped softly into the room. Half-closed, letching eyes peered then, with an abruptly ravenous, beast-like lust at the slim, lithe, strong body. Pretty, pretty body, soon now to be taken over.
In the three-day period of the first new moon after the summer solstice . . . in nine days exactly—
Nine days! The ancient carcass shuddered and wriggled ecstatically with the glee of the creature. Nine short days, and once again the age-long cycle of dynamic existence would begin. Such a pretty young body, too, capable of vibrant, world-ranging life—
Thought faded, as Joanna went back into the kitchen. Slowly, for the first time, awareness came of the sea.
Contentedly sat the old woman. Soon now, the sea would hold no terrors, and the blinds wouldn’t have to be down, nor the windows shut; she would even be able to walk along the shore at midnight as of old; and they, whom she had deserted so long ago, would once more shrink from the irresistible energy aura of her new, young body.
The sound of the sea came to her, where she sat so quietly; calm sound at first, almost gentle in the soft sibilation of each wave thrust. Farther out, the voices of the water were louder, more raucous, blatantly confident, but the meaning of what they said was blurred by the distance, a dim, clamorous confusion that rustled discordantly out of the gathering night.
She shouldn’t be aware of night falling, when the blinds were drawn.
With a little gasp, she twisted toward the window beside which she sat. Instantly, a blare of hideous fear exploded from her lips.
The ugly sound bellowed into Marson’s ears, and brought him lurching to his feet. It raged through the door into the kitchen, and Joanna came running as if it was a rope pulling at her.
The old woman screeched on; and it was Marson who finally penetrated to the desire behind that mad terror.
"Good Lord!" he shrugged. "It’s the windows and the blinds. I forgot to put them down when dusk fell."
He stopped, irritated, then: "Damned nonsense! I’ve a good mind to—"
"For Heaven’s sake!" his wife urged. "We’ve got to stop that noise. I’ll take this side of the room; you take the windows next to her."
Marson shrugged again, acquiescently. But he was thinking: They wouldn’t have this to put up with much longer. As soon as the summer holidays arrived, he’d make arrangements to put her in the Old Folks Home. And that would be that. Less than two weeks now.
His wife’s voice broke almost sharply across the silence that came, as Mother Quigley settled back into her chair : "I’m surprised at you forgetting a thing like that. You’re usually so thoughtful."
"It was so damned hot!" Marson complained.
Joanna said no more; and he went back to his chair. But he was thinking suddenly: Old woman who fears the sea and the night, why did you come to this house by the sea, where the street lamps are far apart and the nights are almost primevally dark?
The gray thought passed; his mind returned with conscientious intentness to the preparation of the curriculum.
Startled sat the old woman!
All the swift rage of the creature burned within her. That wretched man, daring to forget. And yet—"You’re usually so thoughtful!" his wife had said.
It was true. Not once in eleven months had he forgotten to look after the blinds—until today.
Was it possible that he suspected? That somehow, now that the time for the change was so near, an inkling of her purpose had dripped from her straining brain?
It had happened before. In the past, she had had to fight for her bodies against terrible, hostile men who had nothing but dreadful suspicion.
Jet-black eyes narrowed to pin points. With this man, there would have to be more than suspicion. Being what he was, practical, skeptical, cold-brained, not all the telepathic vibrations, nor the queer mind storms with their abnormal implications—if he had yet had any—would touch him or remain with him of themselves. Nothing but facts would rouse this man.
What facts? Was it possible that, in her intense concentrations of thought, she had unwittingly permitted images to show? Or had he made inquiries?
Her body shook, and then slowly purpose formed: She must take no chances.
Tomorrow was Sunday, and the man would be home. So nothing was possible. But Monday—
That was it. Monday morning while Joanna slept—and Joanna always went back to bed for an hour’s nap after her husband had gone to work—on Monday morning she would slip in and prepare the sleeping body so that, seven days later, entry would be easy.
No more wasting time trying to persuade Joanna to take the stuff voluntarily. The silly fool with her refusal of home remedies, her prating of taking only doctors’ prescriptions.
Forcible feeding would be risky—but not half so risky as expecting this wretched, doting wreck of a body to survive another year.
Implacable sat the old woman.
In spite of herself, she felt the toll of the hours of anticipation. At Monday breakfast, she drooled with the inner excitement of her purpose. The cereal fell from her misshaped mouth, milk and saliva splattered over the tablecloth—and she couldn’t help it. Old hands shook, mouth quivered; in everything her being yielded to that dreadful senility of body. Better get to her room before—
With a terrible start, she saw that the man was pushing clear of the table, and there was such a white look on his face that she scarcely needed his words, as he said:
"There’s something I’ve been intending to say to Mother Quigley"—his voice took on a rasping note—"and right now, when I’m feeling thoroughly disgusted, is a darned good time to say it."
"For Heaven’s sake, Craig"—Joanna cut in, sharply; and the old woman snatched at the interruption, and began queasily to get to her feet—"what’s made you so irritable these last few days? Now, be a good lover and go to school. Personally, I’m not going to clean up this mess till I’ve had my nap, and I’m certainly not going to let it get me down. ’By."
A kiss ; and she was gone into the hallway that led to the bedrooms. Almost, instantly, she vanished into the master bedroom; and then, even as the old woman struggled desperately to get farther out of her chair, Marson was turning to her, eyes bleak and determined.
Cornered, she stared up at him like a trapped animal, dismayed by the way this devilish body had betrayed her in an emergency, distorted her will. Marson said :
"Mother Quigley—I shall continue to call you that yet for the moment— I have received a letter from a man who claims to have carved a stone for the body he himself buried in your grave. What I would like to know is this: Who is occupying that grave? I—"
It was his own phrasing that brought Marson to startled silence. He stood strangely taut, struck rigid by a curious, alien horror, unlike anything he had ever known. For a long, terrible moment, his mind seemed to lie naked and exposed to the blast of an icy inner wind that whirled at him out of some nether darkness.
Thoughts came, a blare of obscene mental vaporings, unwholesome, black with ancient, incredibly ancient evil, a very seething mass of unsuspected horrors.
With a start he came out of that grisly world of his own imagination, and grew aware that the old crone was pouring forth harsh, almost eager words:
"It wasn’t me that was buried. There were two of us old ones in the village; and when she died, I made her face to look like mine, and mine to look like hers, and I took her money and . . . I used to be an actress, you know, and I could use make-up. That’s how it was, yes, yes, make-up; that’s the whole explanation, and I’m not what you think at all, but just an old woman who was poor. That’s all, just an old woman to be pitied—"
She would have gone on endlessly if the creature-logic in her had not, with dreadful effort, forced her quiet. She stood, then, breathing heavily, conscious that her voice had been too swift, too excited, her tongue loose with the looseness of old age, and her words had damned her at every syllable.
It was the man who brought surcease to her desperate fear; the man saying explosively:
"Good heavens, woman, do you mean to stand there and tell me you did a thing like that—"
Marson stopped, overwhelmed. Every word the old woman had spoken had drawn him further back from the strange, unsettling morass of thoughts that had briefly flooded his mind, back into the practical world of his own reason—and his own ethics. He felt almost physically shocked, and it was only after a long moment that he was able to go on. He said finally, slowly:
"You actually confess to the ghoulish deed of disfiguring a dead body for the purpose of stealing its money. Why, that’s—"
His voice collapsed before that abyss of unsuspected moral degradation. Here was a crime of the baser sort, an unclean, revolting thing that, if it was ever found out, would draw the censure of an entire nation, and ruin any school principal alive.
He shuddered ; he said hastily: "I haven’t the time to go into this now but—"
With a start, he saw that she was heading toward the hallway that led to her bedroom. More firmly, he called: "And there’s another thing. Saturday after noon, you were sitting out on the lawn—"
A door closed softly. Behind it, the old woman stood, gasping from her exertions, but with a growing conviction of triumph. The silly stupid man still didn’t suspect. What did she care what he thought of her. Only seven days remained; and if she could last them, nothing else mattered.
The danger was that her position would become more difficult every day. That meant—when the time came, a quick entry would be absolutely necessary. That meant—the woman’s body must be prepared now!
Joanna, healthy Joanna, would already be asleep. So it was only a matter of waiting for that miserable husband to get out. She waited—
The sweet sound came at last from the near distance—the front door opening and then shutting. Like a stag at bay, the old woman quivered; her very bones shook with the sudden, sickish thrill of imminent action. If she failed, if she was discovered—
Some preparation she had made to offset such a disaster but—
The spasm of fear passed. With a final, reassuring fumble into the flat, black bosom of her dress, where the little bag of powder hung open, she glided forth.
For the tiniest instant, she paused in the open doorway of Joanna’s bedroom. Her gimlet eyes dwelt with a glitter of satisfaction on the sleeping figure. And then—
Then she was into the room.
The morning wind from the sea struck Marson like a blow, as he opened the door. He shut it with a swift burst of strength, and stood in the dully lighted hallway, indecisive.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t going out—there were too many things to do before the end of the school year; it was just that the abrupt resistance of the wind had crystallized a thought:
Ought he to go out without telling Joanna about the letter from the gravestone maker?
After all, the old woman now knew that he knew. In her cunning eagerness to defend herself and the security she must consider threatened, she might mention the subject to Joanna—and Joanna would know nothing.
Still undecided, Marson took several slow steps, then paused again just inside the living room. Damn it, the thing could probably wait till noon, especially as Joanna would be asleep by now. Even as it was, he’d have to go by car or streetcar if he hoped to reach the school at his usual early hour.
His thought twisted crazily, as the black form of the old woman glided ghostlike across the bedroom hallway straight into Joanna’s room.
Senselessly, a yell quivered on Marson’s lips—senselessly, because there was in him no reasoned realization of alienness. The sound froze unuttered because abruptly that icy, unnatural wind out of blackness was blowing again in his mind. Abnormal, primordial things echoed and raged—
He had no consciousness of running, but, suddenly, there was the open bedroom door, and there was the old woman—and at that last instant, though he had come with noiseless speed, the creature woman sensed him.
She jumped with a sheer physical dismay that was horrible to see. Her fingers that had been hovering over Joanna’s mouth jerked spasmodically, and a greenish powder in them sprayed partly on the bed. mostly on the little rug beside the bed.
And then, Marson was on top of her. That loathsome mind-wind was blowing stronger, colder: and in him was an utter, deadly conviction that demonic muscles would resist his strength to the limit. For a moment, that certainly prevailed even over reality.
For there was nothing.
Thin, bony arms yielded instantly to his devastatingly hard thrust; a body that was like old, rotten paper crumbled to the floor from his murderous rush.
For the barest moment, the incredibly easy victory gave Marson pause. But no astonishment could genuinely restrain the violence of his purpose or cancel that unnatural sense of unhuman things; no totality of doubt at this instant could begin to counterbalance his fury at what he had seen.
The old woman lay at his feet in a shapeless, curled-up blob. With a pitiless ferocity, a savage intent beyond any emotion he had ever known, Marson snatched her from the floor.
Light as long-decayed wood, she came up in his fingers, a dangling, inhuman. black-clothed thing. He shook it, as he would have shaken a monster; and it was then, when his destroying purpose was a very blaze of unreasoning intensity that the incredible thing happened.
Images of the old woman flooded the room. Seven old women, all in a row, complete in every detail, from black, sack-like dress to semi-bald head, raced for the door. Three exact duplicates of the old woman were clawing frantically at the nearest window. The eleventh replica was on her knees desperately trying to squeeze under the bed.
With an astounded gasp, brain whirling madly, Marson dropped the thing in his hands. It fell squalling, and abruptly the eleven images of the old woman vanished like figments out of a nightmare.
In a dim way, he recognized Joanna’s voice. But still he stood, like a log of wood, unheeding. He was thinking piercingly: That was what had happened Saturday on the lawn —an image of the old woman unwittingly projected by her furiously working mind, as she sat in the living room knitting.
Unwitting images, had they been now, of a certainty. The old woman’s desperately fearful mind seeking ways of escape.
God, what was he thinking? There was—there could be nothing here but his own disordered imagination.
The thing was impossible. "Craig, what is all this anyway? What’s happened?"
He scarcely heard; for suddenly, quite clearly, almost calmly, his mind was coordinating around a single thought, simple, basic and terrible:
What did a man do with a witch in A. D. 1942?
The hard thought collapsed as he saw, for the first time, that Joanna was half-sitting, half-kneeling in the taut position she had jerked herself into when she wakened. She was swaying the slightest bit, as if her muscle control was incomplete. Her face was creased with the shock of her rude awakening.
Her eyes, he saw, were wide and almost blank; and they were staring at the old woman. With one swift glance, he followed that rigid gaze—and alarm struck through him.
Joanna had not wakened till the old woman screamed. She hadn’t seen the images at all.
She would have only the picture of a powerful, brutal young man standing menacingly over the moaning form of an old woman—and by Heaven he’d have to act fast.
"Look!" Marson began curtly. "I caught her putting a green powder on your lips and—"
It was putting the thing in words that struck him dumb. His mind reeled before the tremendous fact that a witch had tried to feed dope to Joanna—his Joanna! In some incomprehensible way, Joanna was to be a victim—and he must convince her now of the action they must take.
Before that purpose, rage fled. Hastily, he sank down on the bed beside Joanna. Swiftly, he launched into his story. He made no mention of the images or of his own monstrous suspicions. Joanna was even more practical than he. It would only confuse the issue to let her get the impression that he was mad. He finished finally :
"I don’t want any arguments. The facts speak for themselves. The powder alone damns her; the letter serves to throw enough doubt on her identity to relieve us of any further sense of obligation.
"Here’s what we’re going to do. First, I shall phone my secretary that I may not be in till late. Then I’ll ring up the Old Folks Home. I have no doubt under normal conditions there are preliminaries to entry, but money ought to eliminate all red tape. We’re getting rid of her today and—"
Amazingly, Joanna’s laughter interrupted him, a wave of laughter that ended in a sharp, unnormal, hysterical note. Marson shook her.
"Darling," he began anxiously.
She pushed him away, scrambled off the bed, and knelt with a curious excitement beside the old woman.
"Mother Quigley," she started, and her voice was so high-pitched that Marson half-climbed to his feet. He sank down again, as she went on: "Mother Quigley, answer one question: That powder you were placing in my mouth—was it that ground seaweed remedy of yours that you’ve been trying to feed me for my headaches?"
The flare of hope that came to the old woman nearly wrecked her brain. How could she have forgotten her long efforts to make Joanna take the powder voluntarily? She whispered:
"Help me to my bed, dearie. I don’t think anything is broken, but I’ll have to lie down . . . yes, yes, my dear, that was the powder. I was so sure it would help you. We women, you know, with our headaches, have to stick together. I shouldn’t have done it of course but—"
A thought, a blaze of anxiety, struck her. She whimpered: "You won’t let him send me away, will you? I know I’ve been a lot of trouble and—"
She stopped, because there was a queer look on Joanna’s face; and enough was enough. Victory could be overplayed. She listened with ill-suppressed content as Joanna said swiftly:
"Craig, hadn’t you better go? You’ll be late."
Marson said sharply: "I want the rest of that weed powder. I’m going to have that stuff analyzed."
But he evaded his wife’s gaze, and he was thinking, stunned: "I’m crazy. I was so dizzy with rage that I had a nightmare of hallucinations."
Wasn’t it Dr. Lycoming who had said that the human mind must have racial memory that extended back to the nameless seas that spawned man’s ancestors? And that under proper and violent stress, these memories of terror would return?
His shame grew, as the old woman’s shaking fingers produced a little canvas bag. Without a word, he took the container, and left the room.
Minutes later, with the soft purr of his car throbbing in his ears, eyes intent on the traffic, the whole affair seemed as remote and unreal as any dream.
He thought: "Well, what next? I still don’t want her around but—"
It struck him with a curious, sharp dismay that there was not a plan in his head.
Tuesday—the old woman wakened with a start, and lay very still. Hunger came, but her mind was made up. She would not dress or eat till after the man was gone to work, and she would not come out at noon, or after school hours, but would remain in this room, with the door shut whenever he was around.
Six days before she could act, six days of dragging minutes, of doubts and fears.
Wednesday at 4:30 p.m., Marson’s fingers relaxed on the shining knob of the front door, as the laughter of women tinkled from inside; and memory came that he had been warned of an impending tea.
Like an unwelcome intruder, he slipped off down the street, and it was seven o’clock before he emerged from the "talkie" and headed silently homewards.
He was thinking for the hundredth time: "I saw those old woman images. I know I saw them. It’s my civilized instinct that makes me want to doubt, and so keeps me inactive."
The evening paper was lying on the doorstep. He picked it up; and later, after a supper of left-over sandwiches and hot coffee, at least two hours later, a paragraph from a war editorial caught first his eyes, and then his mind.
The enemy has not really fooled us. We know that all his acts, directly or indirectly, have been anti-us. The incredible and fantastic thing is this knowing all we know and doing nothing.
If an individual had as much suspicion, as much evidence, that someone was going to murder him at the first opportunity, he would try to prevent the act from being committed; he would not wait for the full, bloody consummation.
The greater fact is that there will come a time when everything possible is too little, even all-out effort too late.
With a start, Marson allowed the paper to fall. The war angle was already out of his mind. Twice he had voted "no opinion" on public-opinion war polls, and that had been strictly true. A young man in the first throes of the responsibility of running a great school had no time for war or politics. Later perhaps—
But the theme, the inmost meaning of that editorial, was for him, for his problem. Knowing what he knew and doing nothing.
Uneasily, but with sudden determination, he climbed to his feet. "Joanna," he began—and realized he was talking to an empty room.
He peered into the bedroom. Joanna lay on the bed, fully dressed, sound asleep. Marson’s grimness faded into an understanding smile. Preparing that afternoon tea had taken its toll.
After an hour, she was still asleep, and so very quietly, very gently, he undressed her and put her to bed. She did not waken even when he kissed her good night.
Thursday: By noon, his mind was involved with a petty-larceny case, a sordid, miserable affair of a pretty girl caught stealing. He saw Kemp, the chemistry assistant, come in, and then withdraw quietly.
In abrupt fever of excitement, he postponed the unwelcome case, and hastened after Kemp. He found the man putting on his hat to go to lunch.
The young chemistry instructor’s eyes lighted as they saw Marson, then he frowned.
"That green powder you gave me to analyze, Mr. Marson, it’s been a tough assignment. I like to be thorough, you know."
Marson nodded. He knew the mettle of this man, which was why he had chosen him rather than his equally obliging chief. Kemp was young, eager ; and he knew his subject.
"Go on," said Marson.
"As you suggested," Kemp continued, "it was ground weed. I took it up to Biology Bill . . . pardon me, I mean Mr. Grainger."
In spite of himself, Marson smiled. There was a time when he had said "Biology Bill" as a matter of course.
"Go on," was all he said now.
"Grainger identified it as a species of seaweed, known as Hydrodendon Barelia."
"Any special effects if taken into the human system?" Marson was all casualness.
"No-o! It’s not dangerous, if that’s what you mean. Naturally, I tried it on the dog, meaning myself, and it’s rather unpleasant, not exactly bitter but sharp."
Marson was silent. He wondered whether he ought to feel disappointed or relieved. Or what? Kemp was speaking again:
"I looked up its history, and, surprisingly, it has quite a history. You know how in Europe they make you study a lot of stuff about the old alchemists and all that kind of stuff, to give you an historical grounding."
Kemp laughed. "You haven’t got a witch around your place by any chance?"
"Eh!" The exclamation almost burned Marson’s lips. He fought hard to hide the tremendousness of that shock.
Kemp laughed again. "According to ’Die Geschichte der Zauberinnen’ by the Austrian, Karl Gloeck, Hydrodendon Barelia is the modern name for the sinister witch’s weed of antiquity. I’m not talking about the special witches of our Christian lore, with their childish attributes, but the old tribe of devil’s creatures that came out of prehistory, regular full-blooded sea witches. It seems when each successive body gets old, they choose a young woman’s body, attune themselves to it by living with the victim, and take possession any time after midnight of the first full moon period following the 21st of June. Witch’s weed is supposed to make the entry easier. Gloeck says . . . why, what’s the matter, sir?"
His impulse, his wild and terrible impulse, was to babble the whole story to Kemp. With a gigantic effort, he stopped himself; for Kemp, though he might talk easily of witches, was a scientist to the depths of his soul.
And what he—Marson—might have to do, must not be endangered by the knowledge that some practical, doubting person —anyone—suspected the truth. The mere existence of suspicion would corrode his will, and, in the final issue, undermine his decision to act.
He heard himself muttering words of thanks; minutes later, on his way, he was thinking miserably: What could he say, how could he convince Joanna that the old woman must be gotten rid off?
And there was one more thing that he had to clear up before he would dare risk everything in the only, unilateral action that remained. One more thing—
All Saturday morning, the sun shone brilliantly, but by afternoon black clouds rode above his racing car. At six in the evening it rained bitterly for ten minutes; and then, slowly, the sky cleared.
His first view of the village was from a hill, and that, he thought, relieved, should make it easier. From a group of trees, he surveyed the little sprawl of houses and buildings. It was the church that confused him at first.
He kept searching in its vicinity with his field glasses. And it was nearly half an hour before he was convinced that what he sought was not there. Twilight was thick over the world now, and that brought surging panic. He couldn’t possibly dare to go down to the village, and inquire where the graveyard was. Yet —hurry, hurry!
Genuinely unsettled physically, he walked deeper into the woods along the edge of the hill. There was a jutting point of ground farther along, from where he would be able to sweep the countryside. These villages sometimes had their graveyards a considerable distance away and—
The little roadway burst upon him abruptly, as he emerged from the brush; and there a few scant feet away was a trellised gate. Beyond it, in the gathering shadows, simple crosses gleamed; an angel stood whitely, stiffly, poised for flight; and several great, shining granite stones reared rigidly from a dark, quiet earth.
Night lay black and still on the graveyard when his cautiously-used flashlight at last picked out the headstone he craved. The inscription was simple:
Died July 7, 1941
Over 90 years old
He went back to the car, and got the shovel; and then he began to dig. The earth was strong; and he was not accustomed to digging. After an hour, he had penetrated about a foot and a half.
Breathless, he sank down on the ground, and for a while he lay there under the night sky with its shifting panoply of clouds. A queer, intellectual remembrance came that the average weight of university presidents and high school principals was around one hundred eighty pounds, according to Young.
But the devil of it was, he thought grimly, it was all weight and no endurance. Nevertheless, he had to go on, if it took all night.
At least, he was sure of one thing—Joanna wasn’t home. It had been a tough job persuading her to accept that week-end invitation alone, tougher still to lie about the duties that would take him out of the city until Sunday morning; and he had had to promise faithfully that he would drive out Sunday to get her.
The simplest thing of all had been getting the young girl to look after the old woman over the week end and—
The sound of a car passing brought him to his feet in one jerky movement. He frowned. It wasn’t that he was worried, or even basically alarmed. His mind felt rock-steady; his determination was an unshaken thing. Here in this dark, peaceful setting, disturbance was as unlikely as his own ghoul-like incursion. People simply didn’t come to graveyards at night.
The night sped, as he dug on and on, deeper, nearer to that secret he must have before he could take the deadly action that logic dictated even now. And he didn’t feel like a ghoul—
There was no feeling at all, only his purpose, his grim unalterable purpose; and there was the dark night, and the quietness, broken only by the swish of dirt flung upward and outward. His life, his strength flowed on here in this little, tree-grown field of death; and his watch showed twenty-five minutes to two when at last the spade struck wood.
It was after two when his flashlight peered eerily into the empty wooden box.
For long seconds, he stared; and now that the reality was here, he didn’t know what he had expected. Obviously, only too obviously, an image had been buried here—and vanished gleefully as the dirt began to thud in the filling of the grave.
But why a burial at all? Who was she trying to fool? What?
His mind grew taut. Reasons didn’t matter now. He knew; that was what counted. And his actions must be as cold and deadly, as was the purpose of the creature that had fastened itself on his household.
His car glided onto the deserted early morning highway. The gray dawn came out of the east to meet him, as he drove; and only his dark purpose, firmer, icier each minute, an intellectualized thing as unquenchable as sun fire, kept him companion.
It was deep into the afternoon when his machine, in its iron-throated second gear, whirred up the steep hill, and twisted into the runway that led to the garage.
He went into the house, and for a while he sat down. The girl whom Joanna had left in charge was a pretty, red-haired thing named Helen. She was quite fragilely built, he noted with grim approval; he had suggested her for the week end with that very smallness in mind. And yes, she wouldn’t mind staying another night, if they didn’t come home. And when was he leaving to get his wife?
"Oh, I’m going to have a nap first," Marson replied. "Had rather a hard drive. And you . . . what are you going to do while I sleep?"
"I’ve found some magazines," the girl said. "I’m going to sit here and read. I’ll keep very quiet, I assure you."
"Thank you," Marson said. "It’s just for a couple of hours, you know."
He smiled bleakly to himself, as he went into the bedroom, and closed the door. Men with desperate plans had to be bold, had to rely on the simplest, most straightforward realities of life —such as the fact that people normally stayed away from cemeteries at night. And that young women didn’t make a nuisance of themselves by prowling around when they had promised not to.
He took off his shoes, put on his slippers, and then—
Five long minutes he waited to give her time to settle down. Finally, softly, he went through the bathroom door that led to the hallway that connected the kitchen and the bedrooms. The kitchen door creaked as he went out, but he allowed himself no qualms; not a trace of fear entered into the ice-cold region that was his brain.
Why should a girl, comfortably seated, reading an absorbing story, tied by a promise to be silent—why should such a girl investigate an ordinary sound? Even new houses were notoriously full of special noises.
The car was parked at the side of the house, where there was only one window. He took the five gallon tin of gasoline out of the back seat, carried it through the kitchen, down into the basement. He covered it swiftly with some old cloth, then he was up again, through the kitchen—
He reached the bedroom, thinking tensely: It was these details that must paralyze most people planning murder. Tonight when he came back, he wouldn’t be able to drive the car up the hill, because it was to be a very special, unseen, ghostly trip. The car would be parked at least a mile away; and, obviously, it would be fantastically risky, and tiring, to lug a five gallon tin of gas a whole mile through back alleys.
And what a nightmare it would be to blunder with such a tin through the kitchen and into the basement at midnight. Impossible too, he had found, to get it past Joanna without her seeing.
Murder had its difficulties ; and quite simply of course, murder it must be. And by fire. All that he ever remembered about witches showed the overwhelming importance of fire. And just let lightly built Helen try to break down the old woman’s door after the fire had started and he had locked that door from the outside—
He lay for a while quietly on the bed; and the thought came that no mars would seem a greater scoundrel than he if all that he had done and all that he intended was ever found out.
For a moment, then, a fear came black as pitch ; and as if the picture was there before his eyes, he saw the great school slipping from him, the greater college beyond fading like the dream it was, fading into the mists that surrounded a prison cell.
He thought: It would be so easy to take half measures that would rid him and Joanna of the terrible problem. All he needed to do next day was to take her to the Old Folks Home, while Joanna was still away—and ruthlessly face down all subsequent objections.
She would escape perhaps, but never back to them.
He could retreat, then, into his world of school and Joanna; existence would flow on in its immense American way—and somewhere soon there would be a young woman witch, glowing with the strength of ancient, evil life renewed ; and somewhere too there would be a human soul shattered out of its lawful body, a home where an old woman had blatantly, skillfully, intruded.
Knowing what he did, and doing nothing short of—everything!
He must have slept on that thought, the demanding sleep of utterly weary nerves, unaccustomed to being denied their rest. He wakened with a shock. It was pitch dark, he saw, and—
The bedroom door opened softly. Joanna came tiptoeing in. She saw him by the light that streamed from the hall. She stopped and smiled. Then she came over and kissed him.
"Darling," she said, "I’m so glad you hadn’t started out to get me. A delightful couple offered to drive me home, and I thought, if we met you on the way, at least it would have saved you that much anyway, after your long, tiring week end. I’ve sent Helen home; it’s after eleven, so just undress and go straight to bed. I’m going to have a cup of tea myself; perhaps you’d like one too."
Her voice barely penetrated through the great sounds that clanged in his brain, the pure agony of realization.
After eleven—less than an hour to the midnight that, once a year, began the fatal period of the witch’s moon. The whole world of his plans was crashing about his ears.
He hovered about her, while she put the kettle on. It was half past eleven when they finished the tea; and still he couldn’t speak, couldn’t begin to find the beginning that would cover all the things that had to be said. Wretchedly, he grew aware of her eyes watching him, as she puffed at her cigarette.
He got up, and started to pace the floor; and now there was dark puzzlement in her fine brown eyes. Twice, she started to speak, but each time cut herself off.
And waited. He could almost feel her waiting in that quiet, earnest way of hers, waiting for him to speak first.
The impossibility, he thought then, the utter impossibility of convincing this calm, practical, tender-hearted wife of his. And yet, it had to be done, now before it was too late, before even all-out effort would be too little.
The recurrence of that phrase from the editorial started a streak of cold perspiration down his face. He stopped short, stopped in front of her ; and his eyes must have been glaring pools, his rigid posture terrifying; for she shrank the faintest bit.
"Joanna, I want you to take your hat and coat and go to a hotel."
It needed no imagination to realize that his words must sound insane. He plunged on with the volubility of a child telling an exciting story. And that was the way he felt—like a child talking to a tolerant grownup. But he couldn’t stop. He omitted only his grim murder purpose. She would have to absorb the shock of that later when it was all over. When he had finished, he saw that her gaze was tender.
"You poor darling," she said, "so that’s what’s been bothering you. You were worried about me. I can just see how everything would work on your mind. I’d have felt the same, if it was you apparently in danger."
Marson groaned. So that was the angle she was taking—sweet understanding; humoring his natural alarm; believing not a word. He caught his mind into a measure of calm; he said in a queer, shaky voice:
"Joanna, think of Kemp’s definite analysis of it as witch’s weed, and the fact the body is not in the grave—"
Still there was no fire in her eyes, no flame of basic fear. She was frowning; she said:
"But why would she have to go to all that trouble of burying one of her images, when all she had to do was get on the train and come here? Physically, that is what she did; why that enormous farce of a burial?"
Marson flared: "Why the lie she told me about having put make-up on someone else, who was buried there? Oh, darling, don’t you see—"
Slowly, reasonably, Joanna spoke again: "There may have been some connivance, Craig, perhaps between the man, Pete Cole, who wrote you the letter, and Mother Quigley. Have you thought of that?"
If she had been with him, he thought, when he opened that dark grave. If she had seen the incredible image— If, if, if—
He stole a glance at the clock on the wall. It was seventeen minutes to twelve, and that nearly twisted his brain. He shuddered—and fought for control of his voice. There were arguments he could think of, but the time for talk was past—far past. Only one thing mattered.
"Joanna," he said, and his voice was so intense that it shocked him, "you’ll go to the hotel for three days, for my sake?"
"Why, of course, darling." She looked serene, as she stood up. "My night bag is still packed. I’ll just take the car and—"
A thought seemed to strike her. Her fine, clear brow creased. "What about you?"
"I’ll stay here of course," he said, "to see that she stays here. You can phone me up at the school tomorrow. Hurry, for Heaven’s sake."
He felt chilled by the way her gaze was appraising him. "Just a minute," she said, and her voice was slow, taut. "Originally, you planned to have me out of the way only till tomorrow. What —are you—planning to do—tonight?"
His mind was abruptly sullen, rebellious; his mouth awkward, as if only the truth could come easily from it. Lies had always been hard for him. But he tried now, pitifully:
"All I wanted was to get you out of the way, while I visited the grave. I didn’t really figure beyond that."
Her eyes didn’t believe him; her voice said so, but just what words she used somehow didn’t penetrate; for an odd steadiness was coming to him, realization that the time must be only minutes away, and that all this talk was worthless. Only his relentless purpose mattered. He said simply, almost as if he were talking to himself:
"I intended to lock her door from the outside, and burn the house, but I can see now that isn’t necessary. You’d better get going, darling, because this is going to be messy; and you mustn’t see it. You see, I’m going to take her out to the cliff’s edge, and throw her to the night sea she fears so violently."
He stopped because the clock. incredibly, said eight minutes to twelve. Without a sound, without waiting for the words that seemed to quiver on her lips, he whirled and raced into the bedroom corridor. He tried the old woman’s door. It was locked. A very fury of frustration caught at his throat.
"Open up!" he roared.
There was silence within; he felt Joanna’s fingers tugging futilely at his sleeve. And then he was flinging the full weight of his one hundred eighty pounds at that door. Two bone-wrenching thrusts—and it went down with an ear-splitting crash,
His fingers fumbled for the light switch. There was a click, and then —
He stopped, chilled, half paralyzed by what the light revealed: Twelve old women, twelve creatures snarling at him from every part of the room.
The witch was out in the open —and ready.
The queerest thing of all in that tremendous moment was the sheer, genuine glow of triumph that swept him—the triumph of a man who has indisputably won an argument with his wife. He felt a crazy, incredible joy; he wanted to shout: "See! see! wasn’t I right? Wasn’t it exactly as I told you?"
With an effort, he caught his whirling mind; and the shaky realization came that actually he was on the verge of madness. He said unsteadily:
"This is going to take a little time. I’ll have to carry them one by one to the cliff; and the law of averages says that I’ll strike the right one sooner or later. We won’t have to worry about her slipping away in between, because we know her horrible fear of the night. It’s only a matter of perseverance—"
His voice faltered the faintest bit; for suddenly the ghastly reality of what was here struck his inner consciousness. Some of the creatures sat on the bed, some on the floor; two stood, their arms around each other; and half of them were gibbering now in a fantastic caricature of terror. With a start, he grew aware of Joanna behind him.
She was pale, incredibly pale, for Joanna; and her voice, when she spoke, quavered ; she said:
"The trouble with you, Craig, is that you’re not practical. You want to do physical things like throwing her onto the rocks at the bottom of the cliff, or burning her. It proves that even yet your basic intellect doesn’t believe in her. Or you’d know what to do."
She had been pressing against him, staring wide-eyed over his shoulder at that whimpering, terrified crew. Now, before he could realize her intention, she slipped under his arm, and was into the room.
Her shoulder bumped him slightly as she passed, and threw him off balance. It was only for a moment, but when he could look again, eight squalling crones had Joanna surrounded.
He had a brief glimpse of her distorted face. Six gnarled hands were clawing to open her mouth; a tangle of desperate old women’s hands were clutching at her arms and her legs, trying to hold her flailing, furious body.
And they were succeeding! That was the terrifying reality that drove him into the midst of that brew of old women with battering fists—and pulled Joanna clear.
Immense anger grew out of his fear. "You silly fool!" he raged. "Don’t you realize it must be after midnight?"
Then, with an abrupt, fuller realization that she had actually been attacked, piercingly:
"Are you all right?"
"Yes." Shakily. "Yes."
But she would have said that too. He glared at her with mad eyes, as if by the sheer intensity of his gaze, he would see through her face into her brain. She must have seen his terrible thought in his straining countenance, for she cried:
"Don’t you see, darling? The blinds, the windows—pull them up. That’s what I intended to do. Let in the night; let in the things she fears. If she exists, then so must they. Don’t you see?"
He took Joanna with him, kicking at the creatures with his fists and his feet, with a grim, merciless ferocity. He tore the blind from its hooks; one thrust of his foot smashed the whole lower pane of the window. And then, back at the door, they waited.
There was a whisper of water splattering on the window sill. A shape without shape silhouetted abnormally against the blue black sky beyond the window. And then, the water was on the floor, trickling from a misty shape that seemed to walk. A voice sighed, or was it a thought:
"You nearly fooled us, Niyasha, with that false burial. We lost sight of you for months. But we knew that only by the sea and from the sea could your old body draw the strength for the change. We watched, as we have so long for so many of the traitors; and so at last you answer the justice of the ancient waters."
There was no sound but the sibilation of water trickling. The old women were silent as stones; and they sat like birds fascinated by snakes. And suddenly, the images were gone, snuffed out. One fragile, lonely-looking old woman sat on the floor directly in the path of the mist-thing. Almost primly, she gathered her skirts about her.
The mist enveloped her form. She was lifted into it, then instantly dropped. Swiftly, the mist retreated to the window. It was gone. The old woman lay flat on her back, eyes open and staring; her mouth open, too, unprettily.
That was the over-all effect—the utter lack of anything beautiful.
The man—his name was Pete Creighton, though that doesn’t matter—saw the movement out of the corner of his eye as he sat reading his evening paper.
A hand reached out of the nothingness of the thin air about two feet above the rug. It seemed to grope, then drew back into nothingness. Almost instantly it reappeared, this time holding a small, dully glinting metal bar. The fingers let go of the bar, and drew out of sight, even as the metal thing started to fall towards the floor.
THUD! The sound was vibrant.
It shook the room.
Creighton sat jerkily up in his chair, and lowered his paper. Then he remembered what he had seen. Automatically, his mind rejected the memory. But the fantastic idea of it brought him mentally further into the room.
He found himself staring at an ingot of iron about a foot long and two inches square. That was all. It lay there on the rug, defying his reason.
"Cripes !" said Creighton.
His wife, a sad-faced woman, came out of the kitchen. She stared at him gloomily. "What’s the matter now?" she intoned.
"That iron bar!" Her husband, half-choked, pointed. "Who threw that in here?"
"Bar?" The woman looked at the ingot in surprise. Her face cleared. "Johnny must have brought it in from the outside."
She paused, frowned again; then added: "Why all the fuss about a piece of scrap iron?"
"It fell," Creighton babbled. "I saw it out of the corner of my eye. A hand dropped it right out of the—"
He stopped. Realization came of what he was saying. He swallowed hard. His eyes widened. He bent sideways in his chair, and grabbed convulsively for the metal bar.
It came up in his strong fingers. It was quite heavy. Its weight and its drab appearance dimmed his desire to examine it thoroughly. It was a solid ingot of iron, nothing more, nor less. His wife’s tired voice came again:
"Johnny must have stood it up on one end, and it fell over."
"Huh-uh !" said her husband.
He found himself anxious to accept the explanation. The curious sense of alien things faded before the normalness of it. He must have been daydreaming. He must have been crazy.
He put the bar down on the floor. "Give it to the next scrap drive !" he said gruffly.
Hour after hour, the Vulcan Steel & Iron Works roared and yammered at the undefended skies. The din was an unceasing dirge, lustily and horrendously sounding the doom of the Axis. It was a world of bedlam; and not even an accident could stop that over-all bellowing of metal being smashed and tormented into new shapes.
The accident added a minor clamor to the dominating theme of stupendous sound. There was a screech from a cold roller machine, than a thumping and a sound of metal tearing.
One of the men operating the machine emitted some fanciful verbal sounds, and frantically manipulated the controls. The thumping and the tearing ceased. An assistant foreman came over.
"What’s wrong, Bill?"
"That bar!" muttered Bill. "I was just starting to round it, and it bent one of the rollers."
"That bar!" echoed the assistant foreman incredulously.
He stared at the little thing. It was a big bar to be going through a roller. But compared to the sizable steel extrusions and moldings turned out by the Vulcan works, it was tiny.
It was six feet long, and it had originally been two inches square. About half of its length had been rolled once. At the point where the strength of the rollers had been bested, the metal of the bar looked exactly the same as that which had gone before. Except that it had refused to round.
The assistant foreman spluttered, and then fell back on a technicality. "I thought it was understood," he said, "that in the Vulcan plants nothing over an inch and a half is rounded by rollers."
"I have had dozens of ’em," said Bill. He added doggedly: "When they come, I do ’em."
There was nothing to do but accept the reality. Other firms, the assistant foreman knew, made a common practice of rolling two-inchers. He said:
"O. K., take your helper and report to Mr. Johnson. I’ll have a new roller put in here. The bent one and that bar go to the scrap heap."
He could not refrain from adding : "Hereafter send two-inch bars to the hammers."
The bar obediently went through the furnace again. A dozen things could have happened to it. It could have formed part of a large molding. It could have, along with other metal, endured an attempt to hammer it into sheer steel.
It would have been discovered then, its basic shape and hardness exposed.
But the wheels of chance spun—and up went a mechanical hammer, and down onto the long, narrow, extruded shape of which the original ingot was a part.
The hammer was set for one and one quarter inches, and it clanged with a curiously solid sound. It was a sound not unfamiliar to the attendant, but one which oughtn’t to be coming from the pummeling of white-hot metal.
It was his helper, however, who saw the dents in the base of the hammer. He uttered a cry, and pulled out the clutch. The older man jerked the bar clear, and stared at the havoc it had wrought.
"Yumpin’ yimminy!" he said. "Hey, Mr. Jenkins, come over here, and look at this."
Jenkins was a big, chubby man who had contributed fourteen ideas for labor-saving devices before and since he was made foreman. The significance of what he saw now was not lost on him.
"Ernie’s sick today," he said. "Take over his drill for a couple of hours, you two, while I look into this."
He phoned the engineering department; and after ten minutes Boothby came down, and examined the hammer.
He was a lean-built, precise young man of thirty-five. On duty he wore horned-rimmed glasses, behind which gleamed a par of bright-blue eyes. He was a craftsman, a regular hound for precision work.
He measured the dents. They were a solid two inches wide: and the hammer and its base shared the depth equally.
In both, the two-inch wide, one-foot long gouge was exactly three eighths of an inch deep, a total for the two of three-quarters of an inch.
"Hm-m-m," said Boothby, "what have we got here . . . a super-super hard alloy, accidentally achieved?"
"My mind jumped that way," said Mr. Jenkins modestly. "My name is Jenkins, Wilfred Jenkins."
Boothby grinned inwardly. He recognized that he was being told very quietly to whom the credit belonged for any possible discovery. He couldn’t help his reaction. He said:
"Who was on this machine?" Jenkins’s heavy face looked unhappy. He hesitated.
"Some Swede," he said reluctantly. "I forget his name."
"Find it out," said Boothby. "His prompt action in calling you is very important. Now, let’s see if we can trace this bar back to its source."
He saw that Jenkins was happy again. "I’ve already done that," the foreman said. "It came out of a pot, all the metal of which was derived from shop scrap. Beyond that, of course, it’s untraceable."
Boothby found himself appreciating Jenkins a little more. It always made him feel good to see a man on his mental toes.
He had formed a habit of giving praise when it was deserved. He gave it now, briefly, then finished:
"Find out if any other department has recently run up against a very hard metal. No, wait, I’ll do that. You have this bar sent right up to the metallurgical lab."
"Sent up hot?" asked Jenkins.
"Now !" said Boothby, "whatever its condition. "I’ll ring up Nadderly . . . er, Mr. Nadderly, and tell hint to expect it."
He was about to add: "And see that your men don’t make a mistake, and ship the wrong one."
He didn’t add it. There was a look on Jenkins’s face, an unmistakable look. It was the look of a man who strongly suspected that he was about to win his fifteenth bonus in two and a half years.
There would be no mistake.
A steel bar 2"x2"x12"—tossed out of hyper-space into the living room of one, Pete Creighton, who didn’t matter—
None of the individuals mattered. They were but pawns reacting according to a pattern, from which they could vary only if some impossible change took place in their characters. Impossible because they would have had to become either more or less than human.
When a machine in a factory breaks down, its operator naturally has to call attention to the fact. All the rest followed automatically out of the very nature of things. An alert foreman, and alert engineer, a skillful metallurgist; these were normal Americans, normal Englishmen, normal—Germans!
No, the individuals mattered not. There was only the steel ingot, forming now a part of a long, narrow bar.
On the thirtieth day, Boothby addressed the monthly meeting of the Vulcan’s board of directors. He was first on the agenda, so he had had to hustle. But he was in a high good humor as he began:
"As you all know, obtaining information from a metallurgist"—he paused and grinned inoffensively at Nadderly, whom he had invited down—"is like obtaining blood from a turnip. Mr. Nadderly embodies in his character and his science all the caution of a Scotchman who realizes that it’s time he set up the drinks for everybody, but who is waiting for some of the gang to depart.
"I might as well warn you, gentlemen, that he is fully aware that any statement he has made on this metal might be used against him. One of his objections is that thirty days is a very brief period in the life of an alloy. There is an aluminum alloy, for instance, that requires forty days to age-harden.
"Mr. Nadderly wishes that stressed because the original hard alloy, which seems to have been a bar of about two inches square by a foot long, has in fifteen days imparted its hardness to the rest of the bar, of which it is a part.
"Gentlemen"—he looked earnestly over the faces—"the hardness of this metal cannot be stated or estimated. It is not just so many times harder than chromium or molybdenum steel. It is hard beyond all calculation.
"Once hardened, it cannot be machined, not even by tools made of itself. It won’t grind. Diamonds do not even scratch it. Cannon shells neither dent it nor scratch it. Chemicals have no effect. No heat we have been able to inflict on it has any softening effect.
"Two pieces welded together—other metal attaches to it readily—impart the hardness to the welding. Apparently, any metal, once hardened by contact with the hard metal, will impart the hardness to any metal with which it in turn comes into contact.
"The process is cumulative and endless, though, as I have said, it seems to require fifteen days. It is during this fortnight that the metal can be worked.
"Mr. Nadderly thinks that the hardness derives from atomic, not molecular processes, and that the impulse of hardness is imparted much as radium will affect metals with which it is placed in contact. It seems to be harmless, unlike radium, but—"
Boothby paused. He ran his gaze along the line of intent faces, down one side of the board table and up the other.
"The problem is this : Can we after only thirty days, long before we can be sure we know all its reactions, throw this metal into the balance against the Axis?"
Boothby sat down. No one seemed to have expected such an abrupt ending, and it was nearly a minute before the chairman of the board cleared his throat and said:
"I have a telegram here from the Del-Air Corporation, which puzzled me when I received it last night, but which seems more understandable in the light of what Mr. Boothby has told us. The telegram is from the president of Del-Air. I will read it, if you please."
" ’We have received from the United States Air Command, European Theater, an enthusiastic account of some new engines which we dispatched overseas some thirteen days ago by air. Though repeatedly struck by cannon shells, the cylinder blocks of these engines sustained no damage, and continued in operation, These cylinders were bored from steel blocks sent from your plant twenty days ago. Please continue to send us this marvelous steel, which you have developed, and congratulations.’ "
The chairman looked up. "Well?" he said.
"But it’s not probable," Boothby protested. "None of the alloy has been sent out. It’s up in the metallurgical lab right now."
He stopped, his eyes widening. "Gentlemen," he breathed, "is it possible that any metal, which has been in contact with the super-hard steel for however brief a period, goes through the process of age-hardening? I am thinking of the fact that the original ingot has twice at least been through an arc furnace, and that it has touched various other machines."
He stopped again, went on shakily: "If that is so, then our problem answers itself. We have been sending out super-steel."
He finished quietly, but jubilantly: "We can, therefore, only accept the miracle, and try to see to it that no super-tanks or super-machines fall into the hands of our enemies."
After thirty days, the metal impulse was flowing like a streak. In thirty more days it had crossed the continent and the oceans myriad times.
What happens when every tool in a factory is turning out two hundred and ten thousand different parts, every tool is sharing with its product the gentle impulse of an atomically generated force? And when a thousand, ten thousand factories are affected.
That’s what happened.
Limitless were the potentialities of that spread, yet there was a degree of confinement. The area between the battle forces in Europe was like an uncrossable moat.
The Germans retreated too steadily. It was the Allies who salvaged abandoned Nazi trucks and tanks, not the other way around. Bombing of cities had stopped. There were no cities.
The gigantic air fleets roared over the German lines, and shed their bombs like clouds of locusts. By the time anything was touched by the atomic flow, the battle line had advanced a mile or more; and the Allies had the affected area.
Besides, far more than ninety percent of the bombs were from storerooms in that mighty munitions dump which was England. For years the millions of tons of matériel had been piling up underground. It was brought up only when needed, and almost immediately and irretrievably exploded.
The few affected bombs didn’t shatter. But no one, no German had time to dig them out of the ground.
Day after day after day, the impulse in the metal crept along the battle front, but couldn’t cross over.
During those first two months, the Vulcan office staff was busy. There were vital things to do. Every customer had to he advised that the metal must be "worked" within a certain set time. Before that paper job was completed, the first complaints had started to come in.
Boothby only grinned when he read them. "Metal too hard, breaking our tools—" That was the gist.
"They’ll learn," he told the third board meeting he attended. "I think we should concentrate our attention on the praises of the army and navy. After all, we are now as never before working hand-and-glove with the government. Some of these battle-front reports are almost too good to be true. I like particularly the frequent use of the word ’irresistible.’ "
It was two days after that that his mind, settling slowly to normalcy from the excitement of the previous ten weeks, gave birth to a thought. It was not a complete thought, not final. It was a doubt that brought a tiny bead of perspiration out on his brow, and it prompted him to sit down, a very shaken young man, and draw a diagrammatic tree.
The tree began with a line that pointed at the word "Vulcan." It branched out to "Factories," then to other factories. It branched again, and again and again, and again and again and again.
It raced along railway tracks. It bridged the seas in ships and planes. It moved along fences and into mines. It ceased to have a beginning and an end. There was no end.
There was no color in Boothby’s face now. His eyes behind their owlish spectacles had a glazed look. Like an old man, he swayed up finally from his chair, and, hatless, wandered out into the afternoon. He found his way home like a sick dog, and headed straight for his workroom.
He wrote letters to Nadderly, to the chairman of the board of Vulcan, and to the chief army and navy agent attached to the enormous steel and iron works. He staggered to the nearest mailbox with the letters, then returned to his work room, and headed straight for the drawer where he kept his revolver.
The bullet splashed his brain out over the floor.
Ogden Taft, chairman of the board, had just finished reading the letter from Boothby when the urgent call came for him to come to the smelter.
The letter and the call arriving so close upon one another confused him concerning the contents of the letter. Something about—
Startled, he hurried down to answer the urgent call. An array of plant engineers were there, waiting for him. They had cleared all workmen away from one of the electric arc furnaces. An executive engineer explained the disaster.
Fumbling Boothby’s letter, alternately stunned and dismayed, the chairman listened to the chilling account.
"But it’s impossible," he gasped finally. "How could the ore arrive here super-hard? It came straight by lake boat from the ore piles at Iron Mountain."
None of the engineers was looking at him. And in the gathering silence, the first glimmer of understanding of what was here began to come to Ogden Tait. He remembered some of the phrases from Boothby’s letter: ". . . two million tons of steel and iron sent out in two and one half months . . . spread everywhere . . . no limit—"
His brain began to sway on its base, as the landslide of possibilities unreeled before it. New tracking, Boothby had mentioned, for the interior of the mines. Or new ore cars, or new—
Not only new. Newness didn’t matter. Contact was enough; simple, momentary contact. The letter had gone on to say that—
In a blank dismay, he brought it up in his shaking fingers. When he had reread it, he looked up dully.
"Just what," he said vaguely, "in as few words as possible, will this mean?"
The executive engineer said in a level voice:
"It means that in a few weeks not a steel or iron plant in the United Nations will be in operation. This is Juggernaut with a capital Hell."
It is the people who are not acquainted with all the facts who are extremists. In this group will be found the defeatists of 1940 and the super-optimists of 1943. Careless of logistics, indifferent to realities partially concealed for military reasons, they blunt their reasons and madden their minds with positivities.
In this group were Boothby and the engineers of the Vulcan Steel & Iron Works; and, until he arrived in Washington, the day after sending a dozen terrified telegrams, in this group also was Ogden Tait, chairman of the Vulcan board.
His first amazement came when the members of the war-planning board greeted him cheerfully.
"The important thing," said the Great Man, who was chairman of that board, "is that there be no morale slump. I suggest that all the iron ore and metal that is still workable be turned into peace-time machinery, particularly machinery for farm use, which must be heavy as well as strong. There will always be a certain amount of unaffected ore and scrap; and, since any machinery, once completed, will endure forever, it should not take long to supply all the more essential needs of the nation."
"But—but—but—" stammered Ogden Tait. "The w-war !"
He z saw, bewildered, that the men were smiling easily. A member glanced at the Great Man.
"May I tell him?"
He was given permission. He turned to Ogden Tait.
"We have generously," he said, "decided to share our secret and wonderful metal with the Axis. Even now our planes are hovering over German and Japanese mines, ore piles, factories, dropping chunks of super-hard steel."
Ogden Tait waited, For the first time in his long, comfortable life, he had the feeling that he was not being very bright. It was a radical thought.
The member was continuing: "In a few months, what remains of the Axis steel industry, after our past bombings, will suspend operations."
He paused, smiling.
"But," Ogden Taft pointed out, "they’ll have had three months production while we—"
"Let them have their three months," the member said calmly. "Let them have six months, a year. What do you think we’ve been doing this last few years? You bet we have. We’ve been building up supplies. Mountains, oceans, continents of supplies. We’ve got enough on hand to fight two years of continuous battle.
"The Germans, on the other hand, cannot get along for a single month without fresh munitions.
"The war is accordingly won."
The Great Man interjected at that point: "Whatever prank of fate wished this Juggernaut upon us has also solved the peace forever. If you will think about it for a moment, you will realize that, without steel, there can be no war—"
Whatever prank of fate! . . . A hand reaching out of nothingness into Pete Creighton’s living room . . . deliberately dropping an ingot of steel.
4. THE CATAAAAA
THE USUAL group was gathering in the bar. Cathy was already pretending she was far gone, Ted was busy putting on his stupid look. Myra giggled three times the way a musician tunes his instrument for the evening. Jones was talking to Gord, in his positive fashion. Gord said ‘Glub!’ every few seconds, just as if he was listening. And Morton tried to draw attention to himself by remaining aloof and intellectual-looking far down in his chair.
No one noticed the slight, slim man sitting on a stool before the bar. The man kept glancing at the group; but just when he joined them, or who invited him, no one had any clear idea. Nor did it occur to anyone to tell him to go away.
The stranger said, ‘You were talking about the basic characteristics of human nature —’
Myra giggled, ‘Is that what we were talking about? I wondered.’
The laughter that followed did not deter the newcomer.
‘It so happens that I have had an experience which illustrates the point. It began one day when I was glancing through the newspaper, and I ran across a circus advertisement . . .’
At the top of the ad (he went on) was a large question mark followed by some equally large exclamation marks. Then:
WHAT IS IT?
IT’S THE CAT
COME AND SEE THE CAT
THE CAT WILL STARTLE YOU
THE CAT WILL AMAZE YOU
SEE THE CAT AT THE FREAK SHOW
In smaller letters at the bottom of the ad was the information that the cat was being ’shown under the personal direction of Silkey Travis’.
Until that point I had been reading with a vague interest and curiosity. The name made me jump.
Good lord! I thought. It’s him. It’s Silkey Travis on that card.
I hurried to my desk, and took out a card that had come in the mail two days before. At the time it had made no sense to me at all. The words written on the back in a fine script seemed pure gibberish, and the photograph on the front, though familiar, unlocked no real memory. It was of a man with a haunted look on his face, sitting in a small cage. I now recognized it as being a likeness of Silkey Travis, not as I had known him fifteen or so years before, but plumper, older, as he would be now.
I returned to my chair, and sat musing about the past.
Even in those days, his name had fitted Silkey Travis. At high school he organized the bathing beauty contest, and gave the first prize to his cousin and the second prize to the girl who was the teacher’s pet of the most teachers. The students’ science exhibition, a collection of local lizards, snakes, insects and a few Indian artifacts, was an annual affair, which brought a turnout of admiring parents. Invariably, it was Silkey who organized it. Plays, holiday shows and other paraphernalia of school pastimes felt the weight of his guiding hand and circus spirit.
After graduating from high school, I went on to State college to major in biology, and I lost sight of Silkey for seven years. Then I saw an item in one of the papers to the effect that local boy Silkey Travis was doing well in the big town, having just purchased a ’piece’ of a vaudeville show, and that he also owned a ’piece’ in a beach concession in New Jersey.
Again, there was silence. And now, here he was, no doubt ’piece’ owner of the circus freak show.
Having solved the mystery of the postcard, so it seemed to me, I felt amused and tolerant, I wondered if Silkey had sent the card to all his former school companions. I decided not to puzzle any more about the meaning of the words written on the back. The scheme behind them was all too obvious.
Sitting there, I had absolutely no intention of going to the circus. I went to bed at my usual hour, and woke up with a start some hours later to realize that I was not alone. The sensations that came to me as I lay there have been described by Johnson in his book on morbid fears.
I lived in a quiet neighborhood, and the silence was intense. Presently, I could hear the labored pounding of my heart. Poisons surged into my stomach; gas formed and leaked up to my mouth bringing a bitter taste. I had to fight to keep my breath steady.
And still I could see nothing. The dark fears ran their courses, and the first thought came that I must have had a nightmare. I began to feel ashamed of myself. I mumbled:
I climbed out of bed, and turned on the light. The room was empty. But still I wasn’t satisfied. I went out into the hall; then I examined the clothes closet and bathroom. Finally, dissatisfied, I tested the window fastening—and it was there I received my shock. Painted on the outer side of the pane of one of the windows were the letters:
The cat requests that you come to the circus.
I went back to bed so furious that I thought of having Silkey arrested. When I woke up in the morning the sign was gone from the window.
By the time breakfast was over, my temper of the night had cooled. I was even able to feel a pitying amusement at the desperate desire of Silkey to let his old acquaintances know what a big shot he was. Before starting off to my morning classes at State, I looked under my bedroom window. I found what looked like footprints, but they were not human, so I decided that Silkey must have taken care to leave no tracks of his own.
At class, just before noon, one of the students asked me whether there was any good explanation in biological science for freaks. I gave the usual explanation of variabilities, nutritional deficiencies, diseases, frustration of brain development affecting the shape of the body, and so on. I finished dryly that for further information I would direct him to my old friend, Silkey Travis, director of freaks at the Pagley-Matterson circus.
The offhand remark caused a sensation. I was informed that a freak at the circus had prompted the original question. ’A strange, cat-like creature,’ the student said in a hushed voice, that examines you with the same interest that you examine it.’
The bell rang at that moment, and I was spared the necessity of making a comment. I remember thinking, however, that people hadn’t changed much. They were still primarily interested in eccentricity whereas, as a scientist, the processes of normalcy seemed to me far more fascinating.
I still had no intention of going to the circus. But on the way home that afternoon I put my hand in my breast pocket, and drew out the postcard with the photograph of Silkey on the front. I turned it over absently, and read again the message that was on it:
The inter spatial problem of delivering mail involves enormous energy problems, which affect time differentials. Accordingly, it is possible that this card will arrive before I know who you are. As a precaution I am sending another one to the circus with your name and address on it, and the two cards will go out together.
Do not worry too much about the method of delivery. I simply put an instrument into a mailbox. This precipitates the cards into the box on Earth, and they will then be picked up and delivered in the usual fashion. The precipitator then dissolves.
The photograph speaks for itself.
It didn’t. Which is what began to irritate me again. I jammed the card back into my pocket, half-minded to phone up Silkey and ask him what the silly thing meant, if anything. I refrained, of course. It wasn’t important enough.
When I got out of bed the next morning, the words The cat wants to talk to you! were scrawled on the outside of the same window pane. They must have been there for a long time. Because, even as I stared at them, they began to fade. By the time I finished breakfast they were gone.
I was disturbed now rather than angry. Such persistence on Silkey’s part indicated neurotic overtones in his character. It was possible that I ought to go to his show, and so give him the petty victory that would lay to rest his ghost, which had now haunted me two nights running. However, it was not till after lunch that a thought occurred to me that suddenly clinched my intention. I remembered Virginia.
For two years I had been professor of biology at State. It was an early ambition which, now that I had realized it, left me at a loose end for the first time in my life. Accordingly, for the first time in my rather drab existence the mating urge was upon me. Virginia was the girl, and, unfortunately, she regarded me as a cross between a fossil and a precision brain. I felt sure that the idea of marrying me had not yet occurred to her.
For some time it had seemed to me that if I could only convince her, without loss of dignity, that I was a romantic fellow she might be fooled into saying yes. What better method than to pretend that I still got excited over circuses, and as a grand climax to the evening I would take her in to see Silkey Travis, and hope that my acquaintance with such a character would thrill her exotic soul.
The first hurdle was bridged when I called her up, and she agreed to go to the circus with me. I put the best possible face on for the preliminaries, riding the Ferris Wheel and such juvenilia. But the moment of the evening for me came when I suggested that we go and see the freaks being shown by my old friend, Silkey Travis.
It really went over. Virginia stopped and looked at me almost accusingly.
’Philip,’ she said, ’you’re not trying to pretend that you know a person called Silkey?’ She drew a deep breath. ’That I have to see.’
Silkey came through beautifully. He was not in when we entered, but the ticket taker called into some rear compartment. And a minute later Silkey came charging into the main freak tent. He was plump with the plumpness of a well-fed shark. His eyes were narrowed as if he had spent the past fifteen years calculating the best methods of using other people for his own advantage. He had none of the haunted look of the photograph, but there were ghosts in his face. Ghosts of greed and easy vices, ghosts of sharp dealing and ruthlessness. He was all that I had hoped for, and, best of all, he was pathetically glad to see me. His joy had the special quality of the lonely nomad who is at last looking longingly at the settled side of life. We both overdid the greeting a little, but we were about equally pleased at each other’s enthusiasm. The hellos and introductions over, Silkey grew condescending.
’Brick was in a while ago. Said you were teaching at State. Congrats. Always knew you had it in you.’
I passed over that as quickly as possible. ’How about showing us around, Silkey, and telling us about yourself?’
We had already seen the fat woman and the human skeleton, but Silkey took us back and told us his life history with them. How he had found them, and helped them to their present fame. He was a little verbose, so on occasion I had to hurry him along. But finally we came to a small tent within the tent, over the closed canvas entrance of which was painted simply, THE CAT. I had noticed it before, and the chatter of the barker who stood in front of it had already roused my curiosity:
’The cat . . . come in and see the cat. Folks, this is no ordinary event, but the thrill of a lifetime. Never before has such an animal as this been seen in a circus. A biological phenomenon that has amazed scientists all over the country. . . . Folks, this is special. Tickets are twenty-five cents, but if you’re not satisfied you can get your money back. That’s right. That’s what I said. You can get your money back merely by stepping up and asking for it. . . .’
And so on. However, his ballyhoo was not the most enticing angle. What began to titillate my nerves was the reaction of the people who went inside. They were allowed to enter in groups, and there must have been a guide inside, because his barely audible voice would mumble on for some minutes, and then it would rise to a hearable level, as he said, ’And now, folks, I will draw aside the curtain and show you - the cat!’
The curtain must have been pulled with a single jerk, on a carefully timed basis. For the word cat was scarcely out of his mouth, when the audience reaction would sound:
Distinct, unmistakable exhalation of the breaths of a dozen startled people. There would follow an uncomfortable silence. Then, slowly, the people would emerge and hurry to the outer exit. Not one, that I was aware of, asked for his money back.
There was a little embarrassment at the gate. Silkey started to mumble something about only owning part of the show, so he couldn’t give passes. But I ended that by quickly purchasing the necessary tickets, and we went inside with the next group.
The animal that sat in an armchair on the dais was about five feet long and quite slender. It had a cat’s head and vestiges of fur. It looked like an exaggerated version of the walkie-talkie animals in comic books.
At that point resemblance to normalcy ended.
It was alien. It was not a cat at all. I recognized that instantly. The structure was all wrong. It took me a moment to identify the radical variations.
The head! High fore-headed it was, and not low and receding. The face was smooth and almost hairless. It had character and strength, and intelligence. The body was well balanced on long, straight legs. The arms were smooth, ending in short but unmistakable fingers, surmounted by thin, sharp claws.
But it was the eyes that were really different. They looked normal enough, slightly slanted, properly lidded, about the same size as the eyes of human beings. But they danced. They shifted twice, even three times as swiftly as human eyes. Their balanced movement at such a high speed indicated vision that could read photographically reduced print across a room. What sharp, what incredibly sharp images that brain must see.
All this I saw within the space of a few seconds. Then the creature moved.
It stood up, not hurriedly, but casually, easily, and yawned and stretched. Finally, it took a step forward. Brief panic ensued among the women in the audience, that ended as the guide said quietly:
’It’s all right, folks. He frequently comes down and looks us over. He’s harmless.’
The crowd stood its ground, as the cat came down the steps from the dais and approached me. The animal paused in front of me, and peered at me curiously. Then it reached gingerly forward, opened my coat, and examined the inside breast pocket.
It came up holding the postcard with the picture of Silkey on it. I had brought it along, intending to ask Silkey about it.
For a long moment the cat examined the card, and then it held it out to Silkey. Silkey looked at me.
’Okay?’ he said.
I nodded. I had a feeling that I was witnessing a drama the motivations of which I did not understand. I realized that I was watching Silkey intently.
He looked at the picture on the card, and then started to hand it to me. Then he stopped. Jerkily, he pulled the card back, and stared at the photograph.
’For cripes sake,’ he gasped. ’It’s a picture of me.’
There was no doubt about his surprise. It was so genuine that it startled me. I said, ’Didn’t you send that to me? Didn’t you write what’s on the back there?’
Silkey did not answer immediately. He turned the card over and glared down at the writing. He began to shake his head.
’Doesn’t make sense,’ he muttered. ’Hmm, it was mailed in Marstown. That’s where we were three days last week.’
He handed it back to me. ’Never saw it before in my life. Funny.’
His denial was convincing. I held the card in my hand, and looked questioningly at the cat. But it had already lost interest. As we stood there, watching, it turned and climbed back up to the dais, and slumped into a chair. It yawned. It closed its eyes.
And that’s all that happened. We all left the tent, and Virginia and I said goodbye to Silkey. Later, on our way home, the episode seemed even more meaningless than when it had happened.
I don’t know how long I had been asleep before I wakened. I turned over intending to go right back to sleep. And then I saw that my bedside light was burning. I sat up with a start.
The cat was sitting in a chair beside the bed, not more than three feet away.
There was silence. I couldn’t have spoken at the beginning. Slowly, I sat up. Memory came of what the guide at the show had said, ’ . . . Harmless!’ But I didn’t believe that any more.
Three times now this beast had come here, twice to leave messages. I let my mind run over those messages, and I quailed ’.. . The cat wants to talk to you!’ Was it possible that this thing could talk?.
The very inactivity of the animal finally gave me courage. I licked my lips and said, ’Can you talk?’
The cat stirred. It raised an arm in the unhurried fashion of somebody who does not want to cause alarm. It pointed at the night-table beside my bed. I followed the pointing finger and saw that an instrument was standing under the lamp. The instrument spoke at me:
’I cannot emit human sounds with my own body, but as you can hear this is an excellent intermediary.’
I have to confess that I jumped, that my mind scurried into a deep corner of my head - and only slowly came out again as the silence continued, and no attempt was made to harm me. I don’t know why I should have assumed that its ability to speak through a mechanical device was a threat to me. But I had.
I suppose it was really a mental shrinking, my mind unwilling to accept the reality that was here. Before I could think clearly, the instrument on the table said:
’The problem of conveying thoughts through an electronic device depends on rhythmic utilization of brain energies.’
The statement stirred me. I had read considerably on that subject, beginning with Professor Hans Berger’s report on brain rhythms in 1929. The cat’s statements didn’t quite fit.
’Isn’t the energy potential too small?’ I asked. ’And besides, you have your eyes open. The rhythms are always interfered with when the eyes are open, and in fact such a large part of the cortex yields to the visual centers that no rhythm whatever is detectable at such times.’
It didn’t strike me then, but I think now that I actually distracted the animal from its purpose. ’What measurements have been taken?’ it asked. Even through the mind radio, it sounded interested.
’Photoelectric cells,’ I said, ’have measured as much (or as little, which is really more accurate) as fifty microvolts of energy, mostly in the active regions of the brain. Do you know what a microvolt is?’
The creature nodded. It said after a moment, ’I won’t tell you what energy my brain develops. It would probably frighten you, but it isn’t all intelligence. I am a student on a tour of the galaxy, what might be called a post-graduate tour. Now, we have certain rules —’ It stopped. ’You opened your mouth. Did you wish to say something?’
I felt dumb, overwhelmed. Then, weakly, ’You said galaxy.’
’That is correct.’
’B-but wouldn’t that take years?’ My brain was reaching out, striving to grasp, to understand.
’My tour will last about a thousand of your years,’ said the cat.
There I stopped. I couldn’t go on. I sat there, blank-brained, while the creature went on:
’The rules of the fraternity of students require that we tell one person about ourselves before we leave the planet. And that we take with us a symbolical souvenir of the civilization of the beings on it. I’m curious to know what you would suggest as a souvenir of Earth. It can be anything, so long as it tells at a glance the dominating character of the race.’
The question calmed me. My brain stopped its alternation of mad whirling followed by blankness. I began to feel distinctly better. I shifted myself into a more comfortable position and stroked my jaw thoughtfully. I sincerely hoped that I was giving the impression that I was an intelligent person whose opinion would be worthwhile.
A sense of incredible complications began to seize on me. I had realized it before, but now, with an actual decision to make, it seemed to me that human beings were really immensely intricate creatures. How could anybody pick one facet of their nature and say, ‘This is man!’ Or ‘This represents man!’ I said slowly:
‘A work of art, science, or any useful article - you include those?’
My interest was now at its peak. My whole being accepted the wonderfulness of what had happened. It seemed tremendously important that the great race that could travel the breadth and length of the galaxy should have some true representation of man’s civilization. It amazed me, when I finally thought of the answer, that it had taken me so long. But the moment it occurred to me, I knew I had it.
‘Man,’ I said, ‘is primarily a religious animal. From times too remote to have a written record, he has needed a faith in something. Once, he believed almost entirely in animate gods like rivers, storms, plants, then his gods became invisible; now they are once more becoming animate. An economic system, science - whatever it will be, the dominating article of it will be that he worships it without regard to reason, in other words in a purely religious fashion.’
I finished with a quiet satisfaction. ‘All you need is an image of a man in a durable metal, his head tilted back, his arms raised to the sky, a rapt expression on his face, and written on the base of the inscription, “I believe”.’
I saw that the creature was staring at me. ‘Very interesting,’ it said at last. ‘I think you are very close to it, but you haven’t quite got the answer.’
It stood up. ‘But now I want you to come with me.’
It was unemotionally said. The fear that, had been held deep inside me for minutes came back like a fire that had reached a new cycle of energy.
I drove my car. The cat sat beside me. The night was cool and refreshing, but dark. A fraction of a moon peered out occasionally from scurrying clouds, and there were glimpses of star-filtered dark blue sky. The realization that, from somewhere up there, this creature had come down to our Earth dimmed my tenderness. I ventured:
‘Your people — have they progressed much farther than we to the innermost meaning of truth?’
It sounded drab and precise, a pedagogical rather than a vitally alive question. I added quickly:
‘I hope you won’t mind answering a few questions.’
Again it sounded inadequate. It seemed to me in an abrupt agony of despair that I was muffling the opportunity of the centuries. Silently, I cursed my professional training that made my every word sound as dry as dust.
‘That card,’ I said. ‘You sent that?’ ‘
‘Yes.’ The machine on the cat’s lap spoke quietly but clearly.
‘How did you know my address and my name?’
Before I could say anything, the cat went on, ‘You will understand all that before the night’s over.’
‘Oh!’ The words held me for a second. I could feel the tightness crawling into my stomach. I had been trying not to think of what was going to happen before this night was over. ‘. . . Questions?’ I croaked. ‘Will you answer them?’
I parted my lips to start a machine-gun patter of queries.
And then I closed them again. What did I want to know? The vast implications of that reply throttled my voice. Why, oh, why, are human beings so emotional at the great moments of their lives? I couldn’t think, for what seemed an endless time. And when I finally spoke again, my first question was trite and not at all what I intended. I said, ‘You came in a spaceship?’
The cat looked at me thoughtfully. ‘No,’ it replied slowly. ‘I use the energy in my brain.’
‘Eh! You came through space in your own body?’
‘In a sense. One of these years human beings will make the initial discoveries about the rhythmic use of energy. It will be a dazzling moment for science.’
‘We have,’ I said, ‘already made certain discoveries about our nervous systems and rhythm.’
‘The end of that road,’ was the answer, ‘is control of the powers of nature. I will say no more about that.’
I was silent, but only briefly. The questions were bubbling now. ‘Is it possible,’ I asked, ‘to develop an atomic-powered spaceship?’
‘Not in the way you think,’ said the cat. ‘An atomic explosion cannot be confined except when it is drawn out in a series of timed frustrations. And that is an engineering problem, and has very little to do with creative physics.’
‘Life,’ I mumbled, ‘where did life come from?’
‘Electronic accidents occurring in a suitable environment.’
I had to stop there. I couldn’t help it. ‘Electronic accidents. What do you mean ?’
‘The difference between an inorganic and an organic atom is the arrangement of the internal structure. The hydrocarbon compounds being the most easily affected under certain conditions are the most common form of life. But now that you have atomic energy you will discover that life can be created from any element or compound of elements. Be careful. The hydrocarbon is a weak life structure that could be easily overwhelmed in its present state of development.’
I felt a chill. I could just picture the research that would be going on in government laboratories.
‘You mean,’ I gulped, ‘there are life forms that would be dangerous the moment they are created?’
‘Dangerous to man,’ said the cat. It pointed suddenly.
‘Turn up that street, and then through a side entrance into the circus grounds.’
I had been wondering tensely where we were going. Strangely, it was a shock to realize the truth.
A few minutes later we entered the dark, silent tent of the freaks. And I knew that the final drama of the cat on Earth was about to be enacted.
A tiny light flickered in the shadows. It came nearer, and I saw that there was a man walking underneath it. It was too dark to recognize him, but the light grew stronger, and I saw that it had no source. And suddenly I recognized Silkey Travis.
He was sound asleep.
He came forward, and stood in front of the cat. He looked unnatural, forlorn, like a woman caught without her make-up on. One long, trembling look I took at him, and then I stammered: ‘What are you going to do?’
The machine the cat carried did not reply immediately. The cat turned and stared at me thoughtfully; then it touched Silkey’s face, gently, with one finger. Silkey’s eyes opened, but he made no other reaction. I realized that one part of his consciousness had been made aware of what was happening. I whispered: ‘Can he hear?’
The cat nodded.
‘Can he think?’
The cat shook its head; and then it said:
‘In your analysis of the basic nature of human beings, you selected a symptom only. Man is religious because of a certain characteristic. I’ll give you a clue. When an alien arrives on an inhabited planet, there is usually only one way that he can pass among the intelligent beings on that planet without being recognized for what he is. When you find that method, you have attained understanding of the fundamental character of the race.’
It was hard for me to think. In the dim emptiness of the freak tent, the great silence of the circus grounds all around, what was happening seemed unnatural. I was not afraid of the cat. But there was a fear inside me, as strong as terror, as dark as night. I looked at the unmoving Silkey with all the lines of his years flabby on his face. And then I stared at the light that hovered above him. And finally I looked at the cat, and I said:
‘Curiosity. You mean, man’s curiosity. His interest in strange objects makes him accept them as natural when he sees them.’
The cat said, ‘It seems incredible that you, an intelligent man, have never realized the one character of all human beings.’ It turned briskly, straightening. ‘But now, enough of this conversation. I have fulfilled the basic requirements of my domicile here. I have lived for a period without being suspected, and I have told one inhabitant that I have been here. It remains for me to send home a significant artifact of your civilization — and then I can be on my way . . . elsewhere.’
I ventured, shakily, ‘Surely, the artifact isn’t Silkey.’
‘We seldom,’ said the cat, ‘choose actual inhabitants of a planet, but when we do we give them a compensation designed to balance what we take away. In his case, virtual immortality.’
I felt desperate, suddenly. Seconds only remained; and it wasn’t that I had any emotion for Silkey. He stood there like a clod, and even though later he would remember, it didn’t matter. It seemed to me that the cat had discovered some innate secret of human nature which I, as a biologist, must know.
‘For God’s sake,’ I said, ‘you haven’t explained anything yet. What is this basic human characteristic? And what about the postcard you sent me ? And —’
‘You have all the clues.’ The creature started to turn away.
‘Your inability to comprehend is no concern of mine. We have a code, we students, that is all.’
‘But what,’ I asked desperately, ‘shall I tell the world? Have you no message for human kind, something —’
The cat was looking at me again. ‘If you can possibly restrain yourself,’ it said, ‘don’t tell anyone anything.’
This time, when it moved away, it did not look back. I saw, with a start, that the mist of light above Silkey’s head was expanding, growing. Brighter, vaster, it grew. It began to pulse with a gentle but unbroken rhythm. Inside its coalescing fire the cat and Silkey were dim forms, like shadows in a fire.
Abruptly, the shadows faded; and then, the mist of light began to dim. Slowly, it sagged to the ground, and lay for minutes blurring into the darkness.
Of Silkey and the creature there was no sign.
The group sitting around the table in the bar was briefly silent. Finally, Gord said, ‘Glub!’ and Jones said in a positive fashion, ‘You solved the problem of the postcard, of course?’
The slim, professorish man nodded. ‘I think so. The reference in the card to time differentials is the clue. The card was sent after Silkey was put on exhibition in the school museum of the cat people, but because of time variations in transmission it arrived before I knew Silkey would be in town.’
Morton came up out of the depths of his chair. ‘And what about this basic human characteristic, of which religion is merely an outward expression?’
The stranger made a gesture. ‘Silkey, exhibiting freaks, was really exhibiting himself. Religion is self-dramatization before a god. Self-love, narcissism — in our own little way we show ourselves off . . . and so a strange being could come into our midst unsuspected.’
‘Cathy hiccoughed, and said, ‘The love interest is what I like. Did you marry Virginia‘? You are the professor of biology at State, aren’t you?’
The other shook his head. ‘I was,’ he said. ‘I should have followed the cat’s advice. But I felt it was important to tell other people what had happened. I was dismissed after three months, and I won’t tell you what I’m doing now. But I must go on. The world must know about the weakness that makes us so vulnerable. Virginia? She married a pilot with one of the big air firms. She fell for his line of self-dramatization.’
He stood up. ‘Well, I guess I’ll be on my way. I’ve got a lot of bars to visit tonight.’
When he had gone, Ted paused momentarily in his evening’s task of looking stupid. ‘There,’ he said, ‘is a guy who really has a line. Just imagine. He’s going to tell that story about five times tonight. What a set-up for a fellow who wants to be the center of attention.’
Myra giggled. Jones began to talk to Gord in his know-it-all fashion. Gord said, ‘Glub!’ every few seconds, just as if he was listening. Cathy put her head on the table and snored drunkenly. And Morton sagged lower and lower into his chair.
5. THE SHIP OF DARKNESS
IT WAS different, D’Ormand realized, deciding on Earth to do something. And actually doing it in intergalactic space. For six months, he had headed out from the solar system, away from the gigantic spiraled wheel that was the main galaxy. And now the moment had come to take his plunge into time.
A little shakily D’Ormand set the dials of the time machine for 3,000,000 A.D. And then, his hand on the activator, he hesitated. According to Hollay, the rigid laws that controlled the time flow on planets would be lax and easy to escape from, here in this sunless darkness. First of all, Hollay had said, accelerate the ship to maximum velocity, and so put the ultimate possible strain on the fabric of space. Then act.
Now! D’Ormand thought, sweating. And pushed the plunger hard. There was a sickening jar, a steely screeching of wrenched metal. And then again the steady feel of flight.
D’Ormand’s vision was swimming. But he was aware, as he shook the dizziness out of his head, that he would be able to see again in a moment. He smiled with the grim tenseness of a man who has risked his life successfully.
Sight came abruptly. Anxious, D’Ormand bent toward the time machine control board. And then drew back, shocked. It wasn’t there.
He looked around, incredulous. But his was no big ship, requiring detailed scrutiny. It was one room with an engine, a bunk, fuel tanks and a galley. Nothing could be hidden in it. The time machine wasn’t there.
That was the metal tearing sound he had heard, the machine wrenching itself off into time, leaving the ship behind. He had failed. He was still groaning inwardly when a movement caught the corner of his eyes. He turned with a painful jerk of his body. High in the viewing plate he saw the dark ship.
One look; and D’Ormand knew that, whatever the reason for the time machine’s departure, it had not failed.
The ship was close to him. So close that at first he thought it was the nearness which made it visible. And then, the eerie reality of its lightless state penetrated. He stared, and the first fascination roared into his mind, the realization that this must be a craft of the year 3,000,000 A.D.
Fascination faded before a thrill of doubt that gathered into a blank dismay. Abruptly, it wasn’t only the fact that he could see it that was unnatural. There was the ship itself.
Out of some nightmare that ship might have sailed. At least two miles long, half a mile wide, a foot thick, it was a craft fit only for such a darksome sea as space itself. It was a platform floating in the night of interstellar emptiness.
And on that broad deck, men and women stood. Naked they were, and nothing at all, no barrier however flimsy, protected their bodies from the cold of space. They couldn’t be breathing in that airless void. Yet they lived.
They lived, and they stood on that broad dark deck. And they looked up at him, and beckoned. And called. The strangest call it was that had ever come to a mortal man. It was not a thought, but something deeper, stronger, more moving. It was like a sudden body-realization of thirst or hunger. It grew like a craving for drugs.
He must land his spaceship on the platform. He must come down and be one of them. He must . . . primitive, unrestrained, terrible desire . . .
With a rush, the spaceship glided to a landing. Immediately, with the same terrible urge, his desire was for sleep.
D’Ormand had time for one desperate thought of his own. Got to fight, came that flash of inner warning. Got to leave, leave. At once. Sleep came in- the middle of horrendous fear.
Silence! He was lying with eyes closed in a world that was as still as—
D’Ormand couldn’t find a mental comparison. There wasn’t any. There wasn’t anything in his entire existence that could match the intense stillness, the utter absence of sound that pressed against him like— Once again there was no comparison. There was only the silence.
Strange, he thought; and the first remote impulse came to open his eyes. The impulse faded; and there remained in his mind the measured conviction that surely he, who had spent so many months alone in a spaceboat, must know the full meaning of silence.
Except that in the past there had been the faint sshhh sshhh of the inhalation and exhalation of his breathing, the occasional sucking sound of his lips on a tube of nourishing soup, and the movements of his body. This was—what?
His brain wouldn’t make a definition. D’Ormand opened his eyes. At first, sight offered the barest variation of impression. He was lying partly on his side, partly on his back. Nearby, blotting out the stars, was a torpedo-shaped blob about thirty feet long and twelve feet high. Aside from that there wasn’t anything in his line of vision but stars and the darkness of space.
Normal enough. He had no fear. His mind and its life seemed far away. Memory was an even remoter adjunct. But after a moment there trickled to the surface of his will the desire to place his physical position relative to his surroundings.
There had been, he remembered weightily, a dark ship. Then sleep. Now stars and interstellar night. He must still be sitting in the control chair gazing at the viewing plate and the vista of heavens it revealed.
But—D’Ormand frowned mentally—he wasn’t sitting. He was lying on his back, staring up, up . . . at a sky full of stars and at a blob of something that looked like another spaceboat.
With an owl-like detachment, his brain argued against that impression. Because his was the only Earth spaceship in that part of the universe. There couldn’t be a second ship. Just like that D’Ormand was on his feet. He had no consciousness of getting up. One instant he was sprawling on his back. Now he was standing, swaying . . .
He was standing on a broad deck beside his spaceboat. The deck, everything, was plainly visible in a dim fashion for its entire length and width. And all around him, near and far, were naked men and women standing, sitting, lying down, paying him not the slightest heed.
He was clawing—clawing with senseless fingers at the air lock of the spaceboat, striving to tear it open by strength alone.
After a mindless period of time, his spaceman’s training began to dictate those automatic, desperate movements of his body. He grew aware that he was studying the lock mechanism anxiously, tugging at it gingerly, testingly. Then he was stepping back, surveying the small ship as a whole.
Out of some unplumbed reserve of calm there came to. D’Ormand at last the will and the ability to walk quietly around the spaceboat and peer in at the portholes. The inside was a dim well of familiar mechanisms and metal shapes, the sight of which brought a spasm of returning frenzy, easier to fight this time.
He stood finally very still, holding his mind clear of extraneous ideas, thinking one simple, straightforward thought, a thought so big that all his brain was needed to hold it, to balance it, and comprehend the immense reality of it.
And it grew harder, not easier, to grasp that he was on the platform ship. His brain started to twist, to dart off in streaks of doubt and fear and disbelief. But always it came back. It had to. There was no sane elsewhere for it to go. And there was nothing, utterly nothing to do but wait here until his captors showed by action what further fate they intended for him.
He sat down. And waited.
An hour at least went by, an hour like no other in the history of his world: a man from 2975 A.D. watching a scene on a space liner of thirty thousand centuries later.
The only thing was, and it took the whole hour for the fact to sink in, there wasn’t anything to watch except the incredible basic scene itself. Nobody seemed to be remotely aware that he was on the ship. Occasionally in the dimness a man strolled by, a figure that moved against the low-hung stars, plainly visible as was the whole dark deck and its cargo of superhuman beings.
But no one came to satisfy his growing lust, his need for information. With a tingling shock the realization came finally to D’Ormand that he must make the approach himself, force the issue of personal action.
Abruptly, he felt astounded that he had half lain, half sat there while the precious minutes flowed by. He must have been completely dazed, and no wonder.
But that was over. In a burst of determination, he leaped to his feet. And then, shaking, he hesitated. Was he actually intending to approach one of the crew of this ship of night, and ask questions by thought transference?
It was the alienness that scared him. These people weren’t human. After three million years, their relation to him had no more meaning than that of the ape of his own day that shared his ancestry.
Three million years, 16 x 10₁₀ minutes; and every few seconds of that inconceivable span of time, somebody had been born, somebody else had died, life had gone on in its tremendous, terrifying fashion until here, after unthinkable eons, was the ultimate man. Here was evolution carried to such limits that space itself had been conquered by some unguessable and stupendous development of biological adaptation—stupendous but so simple, that in a single sleep period he, a stranger, had been miraculously transformed into the same state.
D’Ormand’s thought paused there. He felt a sudden uneasiness, a sharp disturbing consciousness that he couldn’t possibly have the faintest idea how long he had been asleep. It could have been years, or centuries. Time did not exist for a man who slept.
It seemed abruptly more important than ever to discover what all this was about. His gaze came to rest on a man a hundred feet away, walking slowly.
He reached the moving figure; and then, at the last instant, he shrank back in dismay. Too late. His hand, thrusting forth, had touched the naked flesh.
The man turned, and looked at D’Ormand. With a contorted gesture, D’Ormand let go of that unresisting arm. He cringed from eyes that blazed at him like points of flame stabbing through slitted holes.
Curiously, it wasn’t the demoniac quality of the gaze itself that sent waves of fear surging along D’Ormand’s nerves. It was the soul that peered from those burning eyes—a strange, alien spirit that stared at him with an incomprehensible intensity.
Then the man turned, and walked on.
D’Ormand was trembling. But after a moment he knew that he couldn’t hold back. He didn’t let himself think about it, just walked forward and fell into step beside the tall, enigmatic stroller. They walked on, past groups of men and women. And now that he was moving among them, D’Ormand noticed a fact that had previously escaped him. The women outnumbered the men three to one. At least.
The wonder about that passed. He and his companion strolled on in that strangest of promenades. They skirted the edge of the ship. Forcing himself to be casual, D’Ormand stepped to one side, and stared down into an abyss that stretched a billion light-years deep.
He began to feel better. He ransacked his mind for some method of bridging the mental gulf between himself and the dark stranger. It must have been telepathy they had used to compel him to land his spaceship. If he concentrated on an idea now, he might receive an answer.
The train of thought ended because at that point he noticed, not for the first time, that he was still clothed. But suddenly he thought of it from the angle: they had left him dressed. What was the psychology?
He walked on, his mind blank, head bent, watching his trousered legs and, beside him, the naked legs of the thin man pumping along steadily.
Just when the first impressions began to steal into him, D’Ormand was only vaguely aware, so gradually they came. There was a thought about the hour of battle drawing near; and that he must prove himself worthy before then, and so live forever on the ship. Otherwise, he would suffer the exile.
It was like a quantum. One instant he was only dimly conscious of that alien blur of ideas. The next his mind made a frantic jump to the new comprehension of his position.
The effect of the warning grew stronger. In abrupt shock of fear, D’Ormand headed for his spaceboat. He was tugging at the impassive entrance before the realization penetrated with finality that it offered no means of escape. Exhausted, he sank down on the deck. He became amazed at the extent of his fright. But there was no doubt of the cause. He had received information and a warning. A gelid, a bleak and steel-like warning: he must adjust to the ways of this ship before some fantastic battle was joined and, having proved worthy, live here forever.
. . . Forever! It was that part of the idea that had for solid minutes staggered the fulcrums of his reason. The mood yielded to the dark drift of minutes. It seemed suddenly impossible that he had understood correctly the tiny tide of ideas that had been directed at him. A battle coming up. That was senseless. Be worthy, or suffer exile! Suffer what? D’Ormand wracked his brain, but the meaning came again: exile! It could mean death, he decided finally with a cold logic.
He lay, his face twisted into a black frown. He felt violently angry at himself. What a stupid fool he had been, losing his nerve in the middle of a successful interview.
It had been successful. Information had been asked for, and given. He should have held his ground, and kept his mind clenched, concentrated on a hundred different questions in turn: Who were they? Where was the ship going? What was the drive mechanism of the great platform liner? Why were there three women to one man?
The thought trailed. In his intensity, he had jerked into a partial sitting position—and there not more than five feet away was a woman.
D’Ormand sank slowly back to the deck. He saw that the woman’s eyes were glowing at him unwinkingly. After a minute, uneasy, D’Ormand turned over on his back. He lay tense, staring up at the bright circle of the galaxy he had left so long ago now. The points of light that made up the glorious shining swirl seemed farther away than they had ever been.
The life he had known, of long swift trips to far planets, of pleasurable weeks spent in remote parts of space, was unreal now. And even farther away in spirit than it was in time and space.
With an effort, D’Ormand roused himself. This was no time for nostalgia. He had to get it into his head that he faced a crisis. The woman hadn’t come merely to look at him. Issues were being forced, and he must meet them. With abrupt will, he rolled over and faced the woman again. For the first time, he appraised her.
She was rather pleasing to look at. Her face was youthful, shapely. Her hair was dark. It needed combing, but it wasn’t very thick, and the tousled effect was not unpretty. Her body—
D’Ormand sat up. Until that instant, he hadn’t noticed the difference between her and the others. She was dressed. She had on a long, dark, form-fitting gown, made incongruous by the way her bare feet protruded from the voluminous skirt.
Dressed! Now there could be no doubt. This was for him. But what was he expected to do?
Desperate, D’Ormand stared at the woman. Her eyes were like dead jewels staring back at him. He felt a sudden wonder: what incredible thoughts were going on behind those shining windows of her mind? They were like closed doors beyond which was a mental picture of a world three million years older than his own.
The idea was unsettling. Queer little twisting movements blurred along his nerves. He thought: woman was the nodal, man the anodal. All power grew out of their relationship, especially as the anodal could set up connections with three or more nodal.
D’Ormand forced his mind to pause there. Had he thought that? Never.
A jerky thrill made a circuit through him. For once more, the strange neural method of communication of these people had stolen upon him unawares. And this time he knew that one or four women could form a relationship with a man. Which seemed to explain why there were so many women.
His excitement began to drain. So what? It still didn’t explain why this woman was here so near him. Unless this was some fantastic offer of marriage. D’Ormand studied the woman again. There came to him finally the first sardonicism he had known in months. Because after twelve years of evading the enticements of marriageable young women, he was caught at last. There was no such thing as not verifying that this woman had come over to marry him.
The man’s threats had made preternaturally clear that he was working under a time limit. He crept over, took her in his arms, and kissed her. In crisis, he thought, action must be straightforward, unselfconscious, without guile.
After a moment he forgot that. The woman’s lips were soft and passive. There was no resistance in them, nor, on the other hand, was there any awareness of the meaning of the kisses. Putting his lips to hers was like caressing a small child; the same immeasurable innocence was there.
Her eyes, so near his own now, were lighted pools of uncomprehending non-resistance, of passivity so great that it was abnormal. Immensely clear it was that this young woman had never even heard of kisses. Her eyes glowed at him with an alien indifference—that ended.
Amazingly, it ended. Those pools of light widened, grew visibly startled. And she drew away, a quick, lithe movement that carried her in some effortless fashion all the way to her feet. Instantly, she tuned and walked off. She became a shadowy figure that did not look back.
D’Ormand stared after her uneasily. There was a part of him that wanted to take ironic satisfaction out of the rout he had inflicted. But the conviction that the defeat was his grew with each passing second. It was he who was working against time. And his first attempt to adjust to the life of the dark ship was a failure.
Uneasiness faded, but did not go away entirely. And D’Ormand made no effort to push it further. It was well to remember that he had had a warning. A warning that either meant something or didn’t. Folly to assume that it didn’t.
He lay back, his eyes closed. He was not reacting well. An entire period he had been within the pure life of Iir, and still he was not becoming attuned.
Eh! D’Ormand started. He hadn’t thought that.
He jerked up, opening his eyes. Then he shrank back. Fire-eyed men stood in a rough circle around him. He had no time to wonder how they had gathered so quickly.
They acted. One of them put out his hand. Out of nothingness a knife flashed into it, a knife that glowed in every element of its long blade. Simultaneously, the others leaped forward, grabbed D’Ormand and held him. Instantly, that living knife plunged down toward his breast.
He tried to shriek at them. His mouth, his face and throat-muscles worked in convulsive pantomime of speech, but no sounds came. The airless night of space mocked his human horror.
D’Ormand shrank in a stark anticipation of agony, as that blade ripped through his flesh and began to cut. There was no pain, not even sensation. It was like dying in a dream, except for the realism of his writhing and jerking, and at the same time, he watched with a dazed intensity the course of the knife.
They took out his heart; and D’Ormand glared at it like a madman as one of the demon-things held it in his hand, and seemed to be examining it.
Insanely, the heart lay in the monster’s palm, lay there beating with a slow, steady pulse.
D’Ormand ceased struggling. Like a bird fascinated by the beady eyes of a snake, he watched the vivisection of his own body.
They were, he saw at last with a measure of sanity, putting each organ back as soon as they had looked at it. Some they studied longer than others—and there was no doubt finally that improvements had been achieved.
Out of his body came knowledge. Even in that first moment, he had a dim understanding that the only drawback to perfect reception of the knowledge now was that he was translating it into thoughts. The information was all emotion. It tingled along his nerves, titillated with subtle inflections, promised a million strange joys of existence.
Slowly, like an interpreter who understands neither language, D’Ormand transformed that wondrous flow into mind-forms. It changed as he did so. The brilliance seemed to shed from it. It was like squeezing the life out of some lively little animal, and then staring disappointedly at the dead body.
But the facts, hard and stripped of beauty, poured into his brain: they were the Iir. This platform was not a ship; it was a force field. It moved where they willed it to go. To be one with the life energy: that was the greatest joy of existence, reserved by Nature Herself for men. The nodal power of women was necessary to the establishment of the field, but man, the anodal power, was the only center of the glorious energy.
The strength of the energy depended on the unity of purpose of every member of the ship; and as battle with another platform ship was imminent, it was vital that the Iir attain the greatest possible measure of union and purity of existence; for only thus would they be able to muster that extra reserve of energy necessary to victory.
He, D’Ormand, was the jarring factor. He had already rendered one woman temporarily useless as a nodal force. He must adjust—swiftly.
The wonder knife withdrew from his flesh, vanished into the nothingness from which it had been drawn; and the men withdrew like naked ghosts into the dimness.
D’Ormand made no attempt to follow their progress through the night. He felt exhausted, his brain battered by the cold-blooded violence of the action that had been taken against him.
He had no illusions. For a few minutes his staggered and overwhelmed mind had been so close to insanity that, even now, it was going to be touch and go. In all his life, he had never felt so depressed, which was a sure sign.
Thought came slowly to his staggered mind: surely, the ability to live in space was a product of the most radical evolution over a tremendous period of time. And yet the Iir had adjusted him, who had never gone through that evolution. Strange.
It didn’t matter. He was here in hell, and the logic of why it couldn’t be had no utility. He must adjust mentally. Right now!
D’Ormand leaped to his feet. The action, outgrowth of strong determination, brought a sudden awareness of something he hadn’t noticed before: gravity!
It was about one G, he estimated quickly. And it wasn’t that there was anything unusual about it in a physical sense. Artificial gravity had been common even in his own day. It was simply that, though the Iir might not realize it, its very existence showed their Earth origin. For why else should beings who lived in the darkest regions of space need anything like that? Why, when it came right down to it, did they need a ship?
D’Ormand allowed himself a grim smile at the evidence that human beings remained illogical after three million years, felt better for his brief humor—and put the paradox out of his mind.
He headed straight for the spaceboat. It wasn’t that there was any hope in him. It was just that, now that he was going to force every issue, explore every possibility, his spaceship could not be missed out.
But disappointment did come, a twisting tide of it. He tugged, and pulled determinedly, but the mechanism remained lifeless to his touch. He peered in, finally, at one of the portholes; and his brain banged inside his head, as he saw something that, in his previous more frantic surveys, he had missed because the instruments in question were edgewise to him. There was a glow; the power dials were shining in their faint fashion.
The power was on.
D’Ormand gripped the porthole so tightly that he had to force himself to relax before his mind could grasp at the tremendous thing that was here. The power was on. Somehow, in landing on the dark ship, perhaps in that last terrible will to escape, he had left the controls on. But then—a vast amazement struck D’Ormand— why hadn’t the machine raged off? It must still have a terrific latent velocity.
It could only mean that the gravity of the platform must have absolutely no relation to his original conception. One G for him, yes. But for a resisting, powered machine it must provide anything necessary.
The Iir weren’t responsible for keeping him out of his ship. For purest safety reasons, the air locks of these small spaceboats wouldn’t open while the power was on. They were built that way. As soon as the energy drained below a certain point, the door would again respond to simple manipulations.
All he had to do was stay alive till it would again open, then use the fullest application of his emergency power to blast away from the platform. Surely, the platform wouldn’t be able to hold him against the uttermost pressure of atomic drivers.
The hope was too great to let any doubt dissolve it. He had to believe that he could get away, and that in the meanwhile he would be able to find the young woman, placate her, and examine this anodal-universe energy business.
He must survive the battle.
Time passed. He was a night-clothed figure in that world of darkness, wandering, searching for the young woman he had kissed, while above him the bright galaxy visibly changed its position.
Failure made him desperate. Twice, D’Ormand sank down beside groups composed of a man and several women. He waited beside them for a communication, or for the offer of another woman. But no information came. No woman so much as looked at him.
D’Ormand could only think of one explanation for their utter indifference: they must know he was now willing to conform. And that satisfied them.
Determined to be encouraged, D’Ormand returned to his lifeboat. He tugged tentatively at the mechanism of the air lock. When it did not react, he lay down on the hard deck, just as the platform swerved sharply.
There was no pain, but the jar must have been of enormous proportions. He was sliding along the deck, ten . . . twenty . . . a hundred feet. It was all very blurred and swift; and he was still lying there, gathering his startled mind into a coherent whole, when he saw the second ship.
The ship was a platform that looked about the same size as the one he was on. It filled the whole sky to his right. It was coming down at a slant; and that must be why the Iir ship had turned so violently—to meet its opponent on a more level basis.
D’Ormand’s mind was throbbing like an engine, his nerves shaking. This was madness, nightmare. What was happening couldn’t be real. Utterly excited, he half rose, the better to see the great spectacle.
Beneath him, the Iir platform turned again. This time there was a faint shock. He was flung prostrate, but his hands broke his fall. Instantly, he was up again, staring in a fever of interest.
He saw that the huge platforms had been brought to a dead level, one with the other. They were pressed deck to deck. On the vast expanse of the second ship were men and women, naked, indistinguishable from the Iir; and the tactical purpose of the initial maneuvers was now, it seemed to D’Ormand, clear.
It was to be an old-fashioned, piratical, immeasurably bloody boarding party.
. . . Force himself, D’Ormand thought. Under no circumstances must he be a jarring factor in the great events that were about to burst upon the unoffending heavens.
Trembling with excitement, he sat down. The action was like a cue. Out of the night the young woman bore down upon him. She came at a run. She still had on the dark gown. It was a hindrance of which she seemed but dimly aware. She flung herself on the deck in front of him. Her eyes glowed like large ovals of amber, so bright they were with excitement and—D’Ormand felt a shock—dread.
The next instant his nerves tingled and quivered with the weight and intensity of the emotion-forms that projected from her. She was being given another chance. If he would use her successfully now to make himself an anodal center, it would help to win the great victory; and she would not suffer exile. She had bedimmed the forces of purity by liking what he had done to her.
There was more. But it was at that point that D’Ormand’s mind ceased translating. He sat amazed. It hadn’t really struck him before, but he remembered suddenly the men had said he had already ruined one woman temporarily as a nodal center.
With one kiss!
The old, old relationship of man and woman had, then, not lost its potency. He had a sudden vision of himself racing around like a thief in the night stealing kisses from every woman he could find, thoroughly disorganizing the dark ship.
With convulsive mental effort, he forced the idea out of his head. Silly, stupid fool! he raved at himself. Even having thoughts like that when every element in his body should be concentrating on the supremely important task of cooperating with these people, and staying alive. He would make himself live up to their demands.
The young woman pushed at him violently. D’Ormand returned to reality. For an instant, he resisted. Then her purpose penetrated: sit crossed-legged, hold her hands, and lose his mind . . .
Physically, D’Ormand complied. He watched her take up a kneeling position facing him. She took his hands finally in her own, and closed her eyes. She looked as if she were praying.
Everywhere, he saw, men and women were forming into groups where the man sat cross-legged and the women knelt. At first, because of the dimness, it was difficult to see exactly how two or more women and one man managed it. But almost immediately he saw such a group to his left. The four simply formed a small circle, a chain of linked hands.
D’Ormand’s mind and gaze plunged off toward the second ship. There, too, men and women were sitting holding hands.
The stars looked down in that hour, it seemed to D’Ormand’s straining senses, on a sight they were never meant to see, the ultimate in prayerful preliminary to battle. With a bleak and terrible cynicism, he waited for the purifying sessions to end, waited for the glowing knives to flash out of empty space, and come alive in the eager hands that were probably even now itching for action.
Cynicism . . . the ultimately depressing fact that after thirty hundred thousand years . . . there was still war. War completely changed, but war!
It was at that black moment that he became an anodal center. There was a stirring in his body, something pulsing. It was an electric shock, no agony of burning. It was a singing flame that grew in intensity. And grew. And grew. It became an exultation, and took on a kaleidoscope of physical forms.
Space grew visibly brighter. The galaxy flared toward him. Suns that had been blurred points in the immense sky billowed into monstrous size as his glance touched them, sinking back to point size as his gaze swept on.
Distance dissolved. All space grew small, yielding to the supernal ken that was his. A billion galaxies, quadrillion planets reeled their manifold secrets before his awful vision.
He saw nameless things before his colossal mind came back from that inconceivable plunge into infinity. Back at the dark ship at last, it saw, in its unlimited fashion, the purpose of the battle that was proceeding. It was a battle of minds, not bodies; and the victor would be that ship whose members succeeded in using the power of both ships to merge themselves with the universal force.
Self-immolation was the high goal of each crew. To be one with the Great Cause, forever and ever to bathe one’s spirit in the eternal energy, to—
The quaver of revulsion came from deep, deep inside D’Ormand. And the ecstasy ended. It was as swift as that. He had a quick vivid comprehension that, in his wild horror of the destiny the Iir regarded as victory, he had let go the girl’s hands, broken the contact with the universal energy. And now he was sitting here in darkness.
D’Ormand closed his eyes, and shook in every nerve, fighting the renewal of that hideous shock. What a diabolical, incredible fate, the most terrifying aspect of which was the narrowness of his escape.
Because the Iir had been winning. The destiny of the dissolution they craved was to be theirs . . . D’Ormand thought finally, wanly: That anodal stuff wasn’t bad in itself. But he wasn’t spiritually ready to merge with the great forces of darkness.
Darkness? His mind poised. For the first time he grew conscious of something that, in the intensity of his emotional relief, he hadn’t previously noticed. He was no longer sitting on the deck of the Iir ship. There wasn’t any deck.
And it was damned dark.
In a contortion of movement, D’Ormand twisted—and saw the second dark ship. It was high in the heavens, withdrawing into distance. It vanished even as he was looking at it.
Then the battle was over. But what?
Darkness! All around! And instantly certainty came of what was here: the Iir had won. They were now in their glory, ecstatic portions of the universal energy itself. With its creators gone, the platform had returned to a more elemental energy state, and become nonexistent. But what about his spaceboat?
Panic poured in waves through D’Ormand. For a moment, he strove desperately to see in all directions at once, straining his vision against the enveloping night. In vain. Comprehension of what had happened came in the very midst of his search.
The spaceship must have departed the instant the platform ship dissolved. With its enormous latent velocity, with power still on, the machine had shot away at ninety million miles a second.
He was alone in the vast night, floating in intergalactic space.
This was exile.
The first vaulting passion of his fears folded back, layer on layer, into his body. The accompanying thoughts ran their gamuts, and passed wearily to a storeroom of forgotten things somewhere in his brain.
There would be a lot of that, D’Ormand reflected grimly. What was left of his sane future would be an endless series of feelings and thoughts, each in its turn fading with the hours. Mind pictures would come of the young woman.
D’Ormand’s thought jumbled. He frowned in a frantic surmise, and jerked his head this way, that way. He saw the shape of her finally, faintly silhouetted against a remote hazy galaxy.
She was quite near, he estimated after a blank, frenzied movement, not more than twelve feet. They would gradually drift toward each other, and begin to spin in the manner of greater bodies, but the orbit would be exceedingly close.
It would be close enough for instance for them to establish a nodal-anodal circuit. With that Olympian, all-embracing power, he would locate his spaceship, flash toward and into it, instantaneously.
Thus did night and aloneness end.
Inside the spaceboat, D’Ormand busied himself with plotting his position. He was acutely aware of the young woman hovering around him, but the work demanded all his attention. First, he must locate by patient hit and miss methods the new galactic latitude and longitude of the great beacon of the skies, Antares. From that it would be simple to find the 3,000,000 A.D. position of glorious Mira.
Mira wasn’t there.
D’Ormand flexed his fingers in puzzlement; then he shrugged. Betelgeuse would do just as well.
But Betelgeuse didn’t. There was a big red star of its dimensions more than 103 light-years short of where the super-giant should have been. But that was ridiculous. Such a thing would require a reversal of his figures.
D’Ormand began to tremble. With wavering pen, he plotted the position of Sol according to the devastating possibility that had just smashed at him.
He had not gone into the future at all, but into the past. And the time machine must have wrenched itself badly out of alignment, for it had sent him to approximately 37,000 B.C.
D’Ormand’s normal thought processes suffered a great pause. Men then?
With an effort, D’Ormand turned to the young woman. He seated himself cross-legged on the floor, and beckoned her to kneel and take his hands. One instant of anodal power would take the ship and its contents to Earth, and prove everything.
He saw with sharp surprise that the girl was making no move toward him. Her eyes, gently brown in the suffused light, stared at him coolly.
She didn’t seem to understand. D’Ormand climbed to his feet, walked over, pulled at her arm, and motioned her down to the floor.
She jerked away. D’Ormand gazed at her, shocked. Even as the realization penetrated that she had determined never again to be a nodal auxiliary, she came forward, put her arms around him, and kissed him.
D’Ormand flung her off. Then, astounded at his brutality, patted her arm. Very slowly, he returned to the control chair. He began to figure out orbits, the braking strengths of the nearest suns, and the quantity of power remaining for his drivers. It would take seven months, he reasoned, long enough to teach the girl the rudiments of speech . . .
Her first coherent word was her own version of his name. She called him Idorm, a distortion that rocked D’Ormand back on his mental heels. It decided him on the name he would give her.
By the time they landed on a vast, virgin planet alive with green forests, the earnest sound of her halting voice had largely dispelled her alienness.
It was easier by then to think of her as Eve, the mother of all men.
6. ROGUE SHIP
CHAPTER ONE – STRANGE RETURN
AVERILL HEWITT hung up the phone, and repeated aloud the message he had just been given: "Your spaceship, Hope of Man, is entering the atmosphere of Earth."
The words echoed and re-echoed in his mind, a discordant repetition. He staggered to a couch and lay down.
Other words began to join the whirlpool of meaning and implication that was the original message: After six years . . . the Hope of Man . . . after six years, just about the time it should be approaching one of the Centauri sun . . . re-entering the atmosphere of Earth . . .
Lying there, Hewitt thought: And for ten years I’ve lived with the knowledge that our sun is due to show some of the characteristics of a Cepheid Variable—within months now!
Momentarily, the memory distracted him. His mind went back over the ridicule that had been heaped on him. Scientists had rejected his evidence without giving him a hearing. When he had sent his new instruments to an observatory in a sealed crate, they had been sent back with the seal unbroken. A famous astronomer commented that the sun was not a Cepheid Variable; and with that icily withdrew from the controversy.
In reply, Hewitt had pointed out that he hadn’t said the sun was a Cepheid Variable. He had merely stated it would show some of its characteristics. Actually, the ultimate effect would be that of a baby nova.
The phrase captured the headlines, but only as a one-week wonder. Gradually, he’d realized that the human race could not imagine its own destruction. He decided to use his private fortune to send a ship with colonists to remote Alpha Centauri.
Thinking back to those days, Hewitt recalled his efforts to find people who would go.
The problem had been brand-new. The newly-invented atomic space drive, already widely used for journeys among the planets, had yet to be tried on an interstellar trip.
Years ago, the Space Patrol had requested funds to make an exploratory journey, but the money had not even yet been appropriated.
Nobody actually put on much pressure. The prodigious task of exploiting the solar planets was barely begun.
THE first man who volunteered to go on the Hope of Man was Armand Tellier, a thin-faced young man with too-transparent skin and pale blue eyes.
He had majored in physics at the Sorbonne. He had said, "My wife and I feel that if we give ten years to this trip, I’ll be an authority on Einsteinian physics when I get back."
He emphasized the "get back" ever so slightly.
Hewitt had pretended not to hear the qualification. It was enough for him if they were out of the solar system when the sun underwent the changes he had predicted.
Tellier was speaking again. "You understand," he said, "I’m making this journey because you have had the financial strength to install an atomic pile. That means acceleration can be continuous. But–" he paused to emphasize his point; his eyelids flickered— "I must have authority to maintain acceleration to the halfway point. I must have an opportunity to make a study of what happens when our ship approaches the speed of light."
Hewitt frowned at the floor of his study. He knew what he intended to say in substance. At thirty-eight he still worried about just how he should word it. In the end he was blunt. "You can have the authority, on one condition."
The pale blue eyes grew intent. "What is that?"
"Your wife must be with child at the time of take-off."
There was a long pause; then: "I’m sure," said Tellier in a formal voice, "that we are prepared to make even that sacrifice to further my career."
He departed. In describing him to his wife that night, Hewitt called him a cold fish.
"Like you are now, Averill?" she said.
She was a dark-haired beauty with eyes that had starry glints in them. The stars were hard and bright, as she looked at him across the dinner table.
Hewitt almost laughed. Then he stared at her more intently. Finally he sighed, and put down his knife and fork. "I’ve seen this coming," he said.
She said bitterly, "You’ve made a fool of all of us with this prediction of destruction of the solar system. I can’t take it any longer."
Hewitt said wretchedly, "I’ll make a settlement, but I must have the children. I want to send them along."
She said in an uneven tone, "The children go with me. I’ll take a lower settlement."
She was trembling. The stars in her eyes were dulled. "If you don’t let me have the children without a fight, I’ll take you to court. I’ll tie up your money by legal procedures. You won’t be able to finish building the ship."
Silence; then: "You win, Joan."
She started to cry. He saw that she hadn’t expected him to choose the ship instead of her.
One newspaper reported the next day:
"BABY NOVA" MAN TO BE DIVORCED. But —the papers also described Tellier’s reasons for wanting to go on the journey. As a result seven young scientists and their wives were stimulated to make the "sacrifice." And then in one week three visionaries came from different parts of the country. Each separately described how he had had a vision of Sol flaring up and engulfing Earth. That was not the way it would be, but Hewitt refrained from enlightening them. In his presence the wives separately expressed themselves as willing to carry out their share of the bargain.
A youthful soldier of fortune turned up with a young blonde who purported to be his wife. Hewitt did not require a wedding certificate. A doctor, a member of a narrow sect, said that he and his wife had decided that a medical man ought to go along. "The moment," he said, "that we realized the need, I knew it was my duty to go."
When no experienced space crewmen volunteered for the journey, Hewitt ran want ads offering fabulous wages. Five young couples responded. They didn’t seem to realize the money would have no value where they were going.
There was only one reply to Hewitt’s ad for a licensed spaceship commander. A grizzled fifty-year-old came, bringing a young girl with him. He introduced himself as Mark Grayson, and the girl as his ward, Juanita Lord. His enthusiasm was tremendous. "I’ve dreamed all my life of commanding the first ship to another star. If you accept me I plan to marry Juanita. She’s very anxious to go, and of course she loves me very much. Isn’t that right, dear?"
The girl nodded vigorously. Hewitt blinked at her, shocked in spite of himself. He started to protest, "But she’s only a—" He stopped, gulping. He said doubtfully, "There’s the matter of legal age. I question whether any court would give you two permission under such circumstances."
"I’m eighteen," said Juanita earnestly. She added plaintively, "I know I look young, but don’t think I’m not grown up."
She was a startlingly pretty girl. She looked twelve or fourteen, at most. Hewitt stiffened himself. He said slowly, "It would be inadvisable for publicity reasons, for—"
He stopped himself. He thought, What am I saying? The future of the race is at stake. Besides, I’m actually saving her life.
Aloud, he said, "You’re hired."
The spaceship, Hope of Man, bound for Alpha Centauri, had lifted up from the soil of Earth on April 30th, 2072 A.D., with thirty-eight people aboard.
Hewitt had stayed behind. He had considered that his fight was just beginning . . .
HIS BITTER reverie ended as the phone began to ring again. He climbed off the couch; and as he went to answer, he thought, I’ll have to go aboard and try to persuade them. As soon as they land, I’ll—
This time his caller was an official of the Space Patrol. Hewitt listened shakily, trying to grasp the picture the other was presenting. It had proved impossible to communicate with those aboard, and the ship was now approaching the Earth apparently in a great descending spiral, because of the Earth’s revolution, but actually in a straight-line course.
"We’ve had men in spacesuits at both observation ports, Mr. Hewitt. Naturally, they couldn’t see in, since it’s one-way-vision material. But they pounded on the metal for well over an hour, and received no response."
Hewitt hesitated. He had no real comment to make.
He said finally, "How fast is the ship going?"
"About a thousand miles an hour."
Hewitt scarcely heard the reply. His mind was working faster now. He said, "I authorize all expense necessary to get inside. I’ll be there myself in an hour."
As he headed for his private ship, he was thinking, If I can get inside, I’ll talk to them. I’ll convince them. I’ll force them to go back.
He felt remorseless. It seemed to him that, for the first time in the history of the human race, any means of compulsion was justified.
TWO hours later, he said, "You mean, the airlock won’t open?"
He said it incredulously, while standing inside the rescue ship, Molly D., watching a huge magnet try to unscrew the outer hatch of the Hope of Man. Reluctantly, Hewitt drew his restless mind from his own private purpose. He thought, There must be something seriously wrong.
Instantly, he felt impatient, unwilling to accept the need to adjust to the possibility that there had been trouble aboard. He said urgently, "Keep trying! It’s obviously stuck. That lock was built to open in less than two minutes."
He was scarcely aware of how completely the others had let him take control of rescue operations. In a way, it was natural enough. The Molly D. was a commercial salvage vessel, which had been commandeered by the Space Patrol. Now that Hewitt was aboard, the representative of the Patrol, Lieutenant Commander Mardonell, had assumed the role of observer. And the permanent captain of the vessel took instructions, as a matter of course, from the man paying the bills.
More than an hour later, the giant magnet had turned the round lock-door just a little over one foot. Pale, tense and astounded, Hewitt held counsel with the two officers.
The altimeter of the Molly D. showed ninety-one miles. Lieutenant Commander Mardonell made the decisive comment about that. "We’ve come down about nine miles in sixty-eight minutes. At that rate we’ll strike some high landmark in ten hours."
It was evident that it would take much longer than that to unscrew the thirty-five yards of thread on the lock-door at one foot per hour.
Hewitt considered the situation angrily. He still thought of this whole boarding problem as a minor affair, an irritation. "We’ll have to get a big drill," he said. "Cut through the wall."
He radioed for one to be sent ahead. But, even with the full authority of the Space Patrol behind him, two and a half hours went by before it was in position. Hewitt gave the order to start the powerful drill motor. He left instructions: "Call me when we’re about to penetrate."
He had been progressively aware of exhaustion, as much mental as physical. He retreated to one of the ship’s bunks and lay down.
He slept tensely, expecting to be called any moment. He turned and twisted, and, during his wakeful periods, his mind was wholly on the problem of what he would do when he got inside the ship.
He awoke suddenly and saw by his watch that more than five hours had gone by. He dressed with a sense of disaster. He was met by Mardonell.
The Space Patrol officer said, "I didn’t call you, Mr. Hewitt. Because when it became apparent that we weren’t going to get in, I contacted my headquarters. As a result we’ve been getting advice from some of the world’s greatest scientists." The man was quite pale, as he finished, "I’m afraid it’s no use. All the advice in the world hasn’t helped that drill."
"What do you mean?"
"Better go take a look."
The drill was still turning as Hewitt approached. He ordered it shut off, and with his mind almost blank examined the metal wall of the Hope of Man. It was penetrated—he measured it—to a depth of three-quarters of a millimeter.
"But that’s ridiculous," Hewitt protested. "This metal was cast right here on Earth eight years ago."
Mardonell said, "We’ve had two extra drills brought up. Diamonds don’t mean a thing to that metal."
He added, "It’s been calculated that she’ll crash somewhere in the higher foothills of the Rockies. We’ve been able to pin it down pretty accurately, and people have been warned."
Hewitt said, "What about those aboard? What about—" He stopped. He had been intending to ask, "What about the human race?" He didn’t say it. That was a special madness of his own, which would only irritate other people.
Trembling, he walked over to a porthole of the rescue ship. He guessed they were about fifteen miles above the surface of the earth. Less than two hours before crashing.
When that time limit had dwindled to twenty minutes, Hewitt gave the order to cast off. The rescue ship withdrew slowly from the bigger host, climbing as she went. A little later, Hewitt stood watching with a sick look on his face, as the round ship made its first contact with the earth below, the side of a hill.
At just under a thousand miles an hour, horizontal velocity, it ploughed through the soil, creating a cloud of dust. From where Hewitt and his men watched, no sound was audible, but the impact must have been terrific.
"That did it," said Hewitt, swallowing. "If anybody was alive aboard, they died at that moment."
It needed no imagination to picture the colossal concussion. All human beings inside would now be bloody splotches against a floor, ceiling or wall.
Somebody shouted, "She’s through the hill!"
Hewitt said, "My God!"
An improbable thing had happened. The hill, made of rock and packed soil, thicker than a hundred ships like the Hope of Man, was sheared in two. Through a cloud of dust, Hewitt made out the round ship skimming the high valley beyond. She struck the valley floor, and once again there was dust. The machine did not slow; showed no reaction to the impact.
It continued at undiminished speed on into the earth.
THE DUST cleared slowly. There was a hole three hundred feet in diameter, slanting into the far hillside. It began to collapse. Tons of rock crashed down from the upper lip of that cave.
The rescue ship had sunk to a point nearer the ground, and Hewitt heard plainly the thunder of the falling debris.
Gradually, the surface turmoil subsided. The Molly D. landed. Hewitt began numbly to issue orders that would begin the job of fencing in the danger areas. He thought of the problem as one that would be resolved by excavation. The Hope of Man had buried itself. It would have to be dug up.
He had the vague thought that the hard metal of the walls could have withstood the shock, and that the vessel might be reparable.
Rock and soil were still falling when a radio report arrived. A mountain had collapsed fifty miles away. There was a new valley, and somebody had been killed. Three small earthquakes had shaken the neighborhood.
For twenty minutes, the reports piled up. The land was uneasy. Fourteen more earthquakes were recorded. Two of them were the most violent ever known in the affected areas. Great fissures had appeared. The ground jumped and trembled. The last one had taken place four hundred miles from the first; and they all lined up with the course of the Hope of Man.
Abruptly, there came an electrifying message. The round ship had emerged in the desert, and was beginning to climb upward on a long, swift, shallow slant.
Less than three hours later, the salvage ship was again clinging to the side of the larger machine. Its huge magnets twisted stubbornly at the great lock-door. To the half-dozen government scientists who had come aboard, Hewitt said: "It took an hour to turn it one foot. It shouldn’t take more than a hundred and five hours to turn it thirty-five yards. Then, of course, we have the inner door, but that’s a different problem." He broke off. "Gentlemen, shall we discuss the fantastic thing that has happened?"
The discussion that followed arrived at no conclusion.
HEWITT said, "That does it!"
Through the thick asbesglas, they watched the huge magnet make its final turn on the inner door. As they watched from behind the transparent barrier, a thick metal arm was poked into the airlock, and shoved at the door. After straining with it for several seconds, its operator turned and glanced at Hewitt. The latter turned on his walkie-talkie.
"Come on back inside the ship. We’ll put some air pressure in there. That’ll open the door."
He had to fight to keep his irritation out of his voice. The outer door had opened without trouble, once all the turns had been made. There seemed no reason why the inner door should not respond in the same way. The Hope of Man was persisting in being recalcitrant.
The captain of the salvage vessel looked doubtful when Hewitt transmitted the order to him. "If she’s stuck," he objected, "you never can tell just how much pressure it’ll take to open her. Don’t forget we’re holding the two ships together with magnets. It wouldn’t take much to push them apart."
Hewitt frowned over that. He said finally, "Maybe it won’t take a great deal. And if we do get pushed apart, well, we’ll just have to add more magnets." He added swiftly, Or maybe we can build a bulkhead into the lock itself, join the two ships with a steel framework."
It was decided to try a gradual increase in air pressure. Presently Hewitt was watching the pressure gauge as it slowly crept up. It registered in pounds and atmospheres. At a fraction over ninety-one atmospheres, the pressure started rapidly down. It went down to eighty-six in a few seconds, then steadied, and began to creep up again. The captain barked an order to the engine room, and the gauge stopped rising. The man turned to Hewitt.
"Well, that’s it. At ninety-one atmospheres, the rubber lining began to lose air, and didn’t seal up again till the pressure went down."
Hewitt shook his head in bewilderment. "I don’t understand it," he said. "That’s over twelve hundred pounds to the square inch."
Reluctantly, he radioed for the equipment that would be needed to brace the two ships together. While they waited, they tried several methods of using machinery to push open the door. None of the methods worked. Hewitt was startled, and for the first time let into his fore-consciousness an idea that had been at the back of his mind now for several days.
It had to do with Armand Tellier. Tellier had been intending to do some experimenting, he recalled, uneasily. Carefully, one by one, he enumerated the fantastic things that had happened. He felt himself turn pale with excitement. On the basis of that first glimmering picture, he estimated that it would take nine hundred atmospheres of pressure to force open the inner lock door of the Hope of Man.
IT REQUIRED just under nine hundred and seventy-eight.
The door swung open grudgingly. Hewitt watched the air gauge, and waited for the needle to race downward. The air should be rushing through the open door, on into the Centauri ship, dissipating its terrific pressure in the enormous cubic area of the bigger machine. It could sweep through like a tornado, destroying everything in its path.
The pressure went down to nine hundred and seventy-three. There it stopped. There it stayed. Beside Hewitt, a government scientist said in a strangled tone, "But what’s happened? It seems to be equalized at an impossible level. How can that be? Thai’s over thirteen thousand pounds to the square inch."
Hewitt drew away from the asbesglas barrier. "I’ll have to get a specially designed suit," he said. "Nothing we have would hold that pressure for an instant."
It meant going down to Earth. Not that it would take a great deal of time. There were firms capable of building such a suit in two days. But be would have to he present in person to supervise its construction.
As he headed for a landing craft, Hewitt thought, All I’ve got to do is get aboard, and start the ship back toward Centaurus. probably have to go along. But that’s immaterial now. It was too late to build more colonizing ships.
He was suddenly confident that the entire unusual affair would be resolved swiftly. He had no premonition.
It was morning at the steel city when he landed. The news of his coming had preceded him; and when he emerged from the spacesuit factory shortly after noon, a group of reporters were waiting for him. Hewitt gave them some crumbs of information, but left them dissatisfied.
As he headed for his own craft, he noticed that several men in uniform were waiting for him. They wore the uniform of the federal police. As Hewitt approached they sauntered casually toward him. Something in their attitude warned him. He turned, and started back toward the factory. A paralyzer beam flashed. He fell, twisting in anguish.
The papers reported that he had "resisted arrest."
CHAPTER TWO – THE TWISTED MEN
FOR TWENTY-FOUR hours, Hewitt lay in a jail bunk, and thought about incredible things.
The confinement seemed to have released his imagination, for his thoughts were on the wild side and partly, at least, untenable. But he calmed down, and presently he was able to write his ideas in logical sequence. He told himself that he did so to clarify his own thinking. He made the following points:
The Hope of Man was not affected by the gravitational forces of Earth. It was moving through the solar system as an independent body.
Coming in from outer space the ship had intersected the path of the earth around the sun. In pursuing its straight course, it had passed through the outer rim of Earth, but it was Earth that moved away from it, not it away from Earth.
The tremendous hardness of the metal and the fact that the solid earth offered no obstacle whatever to its movement, suggested that the round ship had enormous mass. Hewitt hesitated at that point. He was beginning to think he might give the account to the press after all. He added: "The density is clearly out of all proportion to any known substance." He gave the air pressure as evidence. He hinted at matter density almost, though not quite, comparable to that found in the interiors of certain stars. He meant white dwarfs, like Sirius B. He meant neutronium. But now that he was consciously writing for publication, he did not say so.
He had a purpose in mind. It seemed to him that if he made this explanation properly, he would he freed to help in boarding the Hope of Man.
But now he had an unpleasant point to make. For a man who had predicted that the sun would destroy Earth, his next statement was loaded with dynamite—for himself. Nevertheless, he finally wrote firmly:
"If the robot control is responsible for the ship’s return, then it will still be in operation. It will accordingly start edging the Hope of Man over, so that the two bodies will presently meet again. We cannot reasonably expect that its passage will once more be limited to a shadow surface penetration. The ship may go down to the magma. I need hardly point out that an irresistible hundred-yards-in-diameter body may cause major planetary convulsions."
On reading that over, he realized it would shock the world. Other people would not take his attitude that, since such a disaster would happen later than the greater catastrophe of the baby Nova, it was a matter for concern because the ship might be destroyed. To them, the danger from the ship, not to it, would be important. Mobs might well try to lynch the owner of the vessel.
Shuddering, Hewitt tore up his account and burned it. He was still shivering at what he considered his narrow escape when his lawyer came. It seemed there would be due process of law. Meanwhile, habeas corpus, bail, freedom. The government, it seemed, wasn’t even certain it had a case against him. Somebody had acted hastily.
Several civil suits had been filed. People were suing him for damage to their property. Somebody had owned the mountain that had become a valley. Nearly a dozen people claimed to have been hurt. Hewitt ordered that all claims should be fought by every device of the law. Then he collected the specially-built spacesuit, and headed once more for the Molly D.
More than an hour was spent in testing. Rut at last a magnet drew shut the inner door of the Hope of Man. Then the air pressure in the connecting bulkhead was reduced to one atmosphere. Hewitt, arrayed in his new, motor-driven spacesuit, was then lifted out of the salvage ship into the bulkhead by a crane.
The door locked tight behind him. Air was again pumped into space. Hewitt watched the suit’s air-pressure gauges carefully as the outside pressure was gradually increased to nine hundred and seventy-three atmospheres. When, after many minutes, the suit showed no signs of buckling, he edged it forward in low gear and gently pushed open the door of the big ship.
A few seconds later he was inside the Hope of Man.
The change had come at the instant he rolled into the ship. The difference was startling. From outside, the corridor had looked bright and normal.
He was in a ghastly gray-dark world. Several seconds went by as he peered into the gloom. Slowly, his eyes became accustomed to the dim lighting effect.
Six years had gone by since be had last been aboard the ship. Even in that half-night, he was struck by a sense of smallness
He was in a corridor which he knew pointed into the heart of the ship. It was narrower than he remembered it. Not just a little narrower: a lot. It had been a broad arterial channel, especially constructed for large equipment. It was not broad any more.
Just how long it was he couldn’t see. Originally, it had been just under three hundred feet in length. He couldn’t see that far. Ahead, the corridor faded into impenetrable shadow.
It seemed not to have shrunk at all in height. It had been twenty feet high, and it still looked twenty.
But it was five feet wide instead of fifteen. It didn’t look as if it had been torn down and rebuilt. It seemed solid, and, besides, rebuilding was out of the question. The steel framework behind the facade of the wall was an integral part of the skeleton of the ship.
He had to make up his mind, then, whether he would continue into the ship. And there was no doubt of that. With his purposes, he had to.
He paused to close the airlock door. And there he received his second shock.
The door distorted as it moved. That was something else that had not been visible from outside. As he swung it shut, its normal width of twelve feet narrowed to four.
The change was so monstrous that perspiration broke out on his face.
And the first, sharp, tremendous realization was in his mind. But that’s the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction theory effect!
His mind leaped on to an even more staggering thought: Why, that would mean this ship is traveling at near the speed of light.
He rejected the notion utterly. It seemed a meaningless concept.
There must be some other explanation.
CAUTIOUSLY, he started his machine forward on its rubber wheels. The captain’s cabin was on this floor, and that was his first destination.
As he moved ahead, the shadows opened up reluctantly before him. Presently he made out the door of the cabin. When he was ten feet from it, he was able to see the ramp in the distance beyond.
The reappearance of things he remembered relieved him. What was more important, they seemed to be at just about the right distance. First the airlock, then the captain’s cabin, then the ramp.
The corridor opened out at the ramp, then narrowed again; and in the distance beyond was the second airlock.
Everything looked eerily cramped because of the abnormal narrowing effect. But the length seemed to be right.
He expected the door of the captain’s cabin to be too narrow for his spacesuit to get into. However, as he came up to it, he saw that its width was as he remembered it.
Hewitt nodded to himself. Of course, even by the Lorentz-Fitzgerald theory, that would be true. Contraction would be in the direction of flight.
Since the door was at right angles to the flight-line, the size of the doorway was not affected. The door jamb, however, could probably be narrower.
The jamb was narrower. Hewitt had stopped his suit to start at it. Now, he felt himself pale with tension.
It doesn’t fit, he told himself. Like the Mall, it’s narrower only by a factor of three, whereas the air pressure varies nine hundred seventy-three to one.
Once more, he assured himself that the explanation could not possibly include the famous contraction theory. Speed was not a factor here. The Hope of Man was practically at rest, whatever its velocity might have been in the past.
He stopped that thought. I’m wasting time. I’ve got to get going.
Acutely conscious again that this was supposed to be a quick exploratory journey, he shifted the softly spinning motor into gear, and moved forward through the doorway.
As he rolled all the way into it, he saw that Captain Mark Grayson sat at a long, extremely narrow desk. He seemed to be writing something.
The grizzled space veteran sat with unnatural steadiness. He did not look up as the machine rolled nearer, though he faced the door, and was in a position to catch the slightest movement from the tops of his eyes.
It was hard in that shadowy light to see what he was doing. His eyes seemed to be looking fixedly down at a sheet of paper. But his hand, holding the pen, did not move.
Slowly, watchfully, Hewitt rolled around the desk. He was shocked, but no longer so desperately surprised when he saw that the man was only a few inches thick. Seen in front view, he looked unchanged.
From the side, he was a tall man with a head and body that looked like a caricature of a human being, such as might be seen in a badly distorted circus mirror.
Right then and there, Hewitt suspended his judgment. Some of the phenomena suggested the Lorentz-Fitzgerald effect. Even the weird light could be the result of normally invisible radiation projected to visible frequency levels.
But that was as far as it went. Most of what he had seen could only be explained if the ship were traveling simultaneously at several different speeds.
He was beside, and slightly behind Grayson now. He had to strain his eyes to see what was on the paper. He read:
Tellier is exhilarated. He informed me that yesterday, according to the instruments, we had attained a velocity of 177,000 miles per second. Today, though the pile is even hotter, there has been no change in our registered speed. He admits he can only guess at what has happened.
Whatever had happened at that moment must have struck like a secret knife. Grayson had no advance warning; his writing had been cut off in mid-word. He sat here now, a mute witness to the reality that disaster could catch a man between heartbeats.
Hewitt began his retreat from the control room. His mind now was almost blank.
Nothing he could think of could compare with the fantastic reality.
AS HE raced his thick, tank-like suit along the corridor, Hewitt consciously braced himself, consciously accepted the abnormality of his environment. He grew more observant, more thoughtful —and more tense.
He came to the place where the corridor divided. He slowed. One side, he knew, curved up a spiral ramp to the living quarters of the crew. The other went down to the engine room, one of the storerooms and the apartments of the scientists.
There were no stairways or elevators in the Hope of Man. It had been intended that people should use their muscles for every necessary movement.
Hewitt headed down. As he reached the third floor down, and glanced along that corridor, he saw that a man was standing at one of the entrances in the lower storeroom.
His posture was as unchanging as Captain Grayson’s. Ills eyes were wide and staring: they seemed to glare straight at the motor-driven spacesuit. But neither the eyes nor the rest of the man’s body showed any reaction to Hewitt’s presence. His body, seen from the side, looked only inches in thickness. Because be was standing, he seemed even more inhuman than Grayson had been.
Hewitt recognized him as Draper, one of the scientists. Draper’s field was plant biology.
He found three more scientists standing in various postures at the entrance of the engine room. Since they did not all face in the direction of flight, they presented an amazing assortment.
One, seen from the front, was as thin as a post, a gaunt, incredible-looking creature. Another was foreshortened from a side view. He simply seemed crippled. The third one resembled Captain Grayson and Draper; his narrowness was through the thickness of his body.
Inside the engine room, Armand Tellier—a mere sliver of a man as seen from the side—was bending over a section of the instrument board. He stared down at it with unwinking eyes, and neither turned nor moved while Hewitt watched.
Dissatisfied, feeling he was missing something in this silent drama, Hewitt gave his attention to the engines. His first glance at the line of meters shocked him.
The pile was as hot as a hundred hells. The transformer needle was abnormally steady, for the colossal load it was bearing. The drive was carrying an energy flow of ninety out of a possible hundred.
The resistance to acceleration must be tremendous, for the accelerometer needle registered zero. As he glanced at the speedometer, Hewitt’s mind flashed back to what Captain Grayson had been writing in his logbook: “ . . . 177,000 miles per second . . . "
That was what the speedometer showed.
For the second time, Hewitt thought, "But surely that doesn’t mean it still—"
His mind refused to hold the thought.
Nevertheless, by the time he retreated from the engine room, his brain was beginning to relax. And part of the greater picture was forming there.
It would have to be discussed, thought about, clarified. Tremendously stimulated by the possibilities, but depressed by the death that was all around him, he started on what he intended to be a swift and routine round of the rest of the ship.
Mrs. Tellier sat in a chair with a child on her knee, a fixed smile on her face. Two scientists’ wives had been caught by immobility as they were taking dishes from the automatic dishwashing machine. They made an oddly life-like domestic tableau. The other children were in a large playpen, with several women sitting in chairs nearby, apparently watching them. All were distorted.
Upstairs, in the crew’s quarters, Hewitt found not only the crewmen and their wives, but Warwick, the soldier of fortune, Marie, his blonde wife, and Juanita Lord, the child bride of Captain Grayson. The girl looked older, and she had a sullen expression on her immobile face. Warwick had a gun in his hand, which he had evidently been cleaning. The shells were spilled out on his lap.
Despite the hideous distorting effect from the light and the one-third contraction, the postures of those present were conventional. That puzzled Hewitt anew.
He had been trying to hold away from his consciousness the extent of the disaster that was here. Just for a moment it penetrated, in spite of himself. Just for an instant it hurt like fury. He had a brief but unnerving sense of guilt. From the corner of one eye, he saw a group of children. All were sitting or standing in the various positions that must have been the results of their final movements.
Hastily, not looking directly at the youngsters, Hewitt guided his machine out into the corridor. He was heading along it when he thought, One of those babies was in an extremely odd position.
He slowed down, disturbed. He oughtn’t to have been so squeamish. He should have taken a good look at the scene.
The only thing is, he told himself, I’ve got to get out of here. I can’t stop for a second look.
At the head of the ramp, he hesitated. He couldn’t go back without checking. Very pointed questions might be asked him. He’d better have the answers.
CHAPTER THREE – ZONE OF DANGER
BACK he went to the crew’s quarters. The scene was unchanged. There were six children in one corner. They were all between two and three years old, he judged.
That was important because it gave some idea of how much time had actually gone by aboard the ship. At most, three and a half years. And yet the Hope of Man had been gone for six!
Unquestionably this ship had undergone some of the contraction effects predicted by the Lorentz-Fitzgerald theory. Even time had been telescoped.
It was a point Hewitt noted only in passing. Something else, something far more important—or so it seemed—absorbed him. Four of the children were sitting on the floor amid a wilderness of toys. One child stood flat-footed, in an awkward position. The sixth had been caught in the act of getting to his feet.
Hewitt stared at the boy in utter fascination. The sense of urgency in him was tremendous. It was time he was out of here.
But the youngster, in getting up, had got himself into an unusual position. He was balanced on the tip of one toe and the outspread fingers of one chubby hand. There he had frozen.
Almost blankly, Hewitt realized the truth. He had not, he saw, let his mind carry him far enough. The difference in air pressure, the immense tensile strength of the metal—these things had been but part of a greater whole.
There was a time difference also. These people lived one second while he lived nine hundred and seventy-three seconds. From their point of view, he was making his entire inspection of their ship in less than one second of their time.
He thought, They’re alive! But they’re living so slowly compared to me that, even if I had a chance to listen to their heartbeats, I wouldn’t hear anything.
The question was, how could contact be established? And, when it was, what good would it do?
The uncertainty was still in his mind as he raced back to the airlock, and the Molly D.
DURING Hewitt’s absence from the salvage vessel, a great man had come aboard. He listened with the others to Hewitt’s account, and then remained silent and thoughtful through most of the discussion that followed. His presence had a subduing effect on the younger government scientists aboard. No one had very much to say. The attitude seemed to be, "You stick your neck out first!"
As a result, the conversation remained "close to the ground." Phrases like "a natural explanation" abounded. When he had listened to all he could stand, Hewitt said impatiently, "After all, these things have happened. What do we mean by natural?"
He was about to say more, when the great man cleared his throat and spoke for the first time since he had been introduced. "Gentlemen, I should like to try to clear away the debris that has accumulated at the beginning of this obstacle course."
He turned to Hewitt. "I want to congratulate you, Mr. Hewitt. For the first time in history, the mythical observer—that mathematical oddity—has come to life. You have seen phenomena that, till now, have never been more than a set of equations."
Without any further preliminary, he launched into an explanation for what had happened that was similar to what Hewitt had written—and destroyed—in jail. It differed in that he also offered a theory to account for the fact that the drive of the Hope of Man was nearly full on, and that apparently the ship was traveling at very near the speed of light in its own zone of existence, as he put it, "in a sort of parallel time to now, this minute, this second!"
Further knowledge might, among other things, account for one fact. How had this zone succeeded in bringing the Hope of Man back to Earth when the ship had accelerated in the opposite direction?
He broke off. "However, the time has come for a practical solution. I offer the following."
Duplicates of a carefully-written letter must be placed in the hands of Armand Tellier and Captain Grayson. The circumstances would be described, and the men would be urged to cut off both the drive and the robot pilot. If this were not done within a certain time—taking into account the difference in time rate—it would be assumed that the letter had been misunderstood. At that point Hewitt would go aboard, shut off the robot and reverse the drive.
As soon as the Hope of Man had slowed to a point below the critical speed, personal contact could be established. Long before that, of course, the truth of the account in the letters would have been established to the satisfaction of everyone aboard.
Hewitt frowned over the suggestions. He could think of no reason why they shouldn’t work. And yet, having been aboard that foreshortened, eerie ship, with its pile operating to the very limit of safety, its lopsided passengers moveless as in death, he had a feeling that some factor was being neglected.
He said slowly, "I’ll have to take along food and water, if I have to do the shutting off. This time difference could become very involved."
It was also decided that the Molly D. would cast off as soon as the letters were delivered. If it was later necessary to put him aboard again, it would connect up just long enough to do so, then once more it would pull clear, and stand by.
HEWITT helped prepare the letter. Then once more he was put into the mobile spacesuit. And again he crossed the threshold of the Hope of Man. As he moved through the outer doorway, something caught at his heart. He swayed in momentary nausea.
The feeling passed as quickly as it had come. He noted the reactions, and then without further incident he delivered one copy of the letter to Grayson and another to Tellier. He was greatly stimulated to notice that Grayson had finished writing the word "happened" during his absence. He could see no change, however, in the position of Tellier.
He returned to the Molly D. but did not wait for them to cast off. He headed for Earth, and his doctor. After a complete examination, he was pronounced, as the doctor phrased it, "One hundred per cent physically fit."
Relieved that his brief nausea had had no pathological basis, Hewitt set about clearing up his affairs. It had been decided to give those aboard the Hope of Man fifteen minutes (their time) to react to the letters. That would be about ten days, normal time.
Among other things, Hewitt, after some hesitation, called up Joan, and asked her if he could call on her. She refused.
"It wouldn’t be fair to the children," she said. "They were just beginning to live down the first publicity, and now there it is again."
Hewitt knew what she meant. Other young people were cruel. They taunted. They asked such questions as, "When is your old man going to fall into the sun?"
It was all very silly, but it was devastating too.
Yet he stayed on the phone. There was a purpose on his mind. Life without her had been bitter and empty. It was a lonely world for a man with his obsession.
Hesitantly, dreading her reaction, he explained what was in his heart. He would have three more spacesuits constructed.
"We can all go aboard together," he said urgently. "The whole thing is really very simple. As soon as we’re on, I’ll reverse the engines. It won’t take long before we’re at a one-to-one relationship with those aboard. It’s a matter of reducing speed."
"Joan, you can’t just say no. You’ve got to give the children their chance to escape the holocaust. Beside that, a little ridicule is nothing. And, anyway, once we’re on the way to Centaurus, we don’t have to worry about what people think. Try to look on it as a colonizing venture—"
There was a click in his ear.
" Joan!" He spoke sharply.
There was no answer. With trembling fingers, he dialed her number again. The phone at the other end rang and rang. Convinced, finally, that she wouldn’t even speak to him, he hung up. What hurt particularly was that she didn’t seem to have realized that this was their good-by. They would never see each other again.
He could have justified her action, but he made no attempt to do so.
He put his affairs in order, as a man might who expected to die. Promptly on the tenth day, he reported back to the Molly D., which was again attached to the larger vessel.
He had few doubts. With his armored suit, and his time-ratio advantage, he could dominate the situation aboard until he had reduced the ship’s speed to the point where he and it were at unity.
First of all, he would lock up the ship’s arsenal. He intended to search every person aboard. Individuals like Warwick, who played with weapons in their spare time, would receive special attention.
I’m not, Hewitt told himself, taking the slightest chance. These people are going to Centaurus whether they like it or not.
As he crossed into the airlock of the Hope of Man, a knife-like spasm of pain stabbed through his heart. It was so sharp, so agonizing, he almost fainted with nausea.
The shock staggered him, but—as it had the first time—the feeling passed.
Shaken, Hewitt crossed the inner threshold, and closed and locked the door that looked so normal from the outside, and so lopsided from the inside.
He found himself in the dim, gray-black world of the ship’s interior.
As he turned to head along that unnaturally narrow corridor, something grabbed his body from behind and squeezed it mercilessly. The sensation of being caught by a giant hand was so realistic that he tried to turn back toward the door.
The great hand began to slip. He had the feeling then of being squirted from a space that was too small for him into something—vast.
That was the last thing he remembered before blackness closed over him.
HE MUST have been unconscious only a few moments. When he opened his eyes, he saw that the suit was still in the process of turning toward the door.
In a moment it would smash against the hard metal of the lock.
He had an impression that something else was—different—but there was no time to notice what it was.
He grabbed hastily at the controls and applied the brakes. The suit stopped as if it had struck a brick wall. He reeled in his saddle, breathing hard, then recovered his balance.
He thought tensely, It’s the effect of coming from normal space into the zone. The first time it didn’t bother me on the sense level. The second time I must still have been overbalanced from the first attempt, and so there was a moment of pain. This time—"
His mind poised. He felt his eyes grow large and round. With a kind of dreadful fascination, he stared at the closed airlock door.
It was no longer lopsided, but normal, just the way it would be if—
He whipped his machine around, and gazed wildly at the corridor. It was brightly lighted. The dim, eerie, shadowy effect was gone as if it had never been.
He noticed something else. The corridor was not narrow any more. He couldn’t tell exactly, but he guessed that it was fifteen feet wide, its original width.
The tremendous truth burst upon Hewitt. He was no longer an observer of this scene.
He was part of it.
He also would now appear lopsided to another coming aboard for the first time. To himself, and to those caught as he was, he would be quite normal.
People affected by the Lorentz-Fitzgerald phenomena were not aware of any difference in themselves. The contraction influenced their bodies and the light that came to their eyes—everything was equally distorted.
Tensely, Hewitt remembered the sensation as of being squeezed. Readjustments within his body, unevenly distributed during the change. His front changing faster than his back.
He shuddered with the memory of pain.
With an effort, Hewitt caught his scattered thoughts: I’ve got to get back on the Molly D. If I could get in here, I could also get out. I—
Out of the corner of one eye, he caught sight of the air-pressure gauges of his suit. The one that registered the inside pressure didn’t matter. It was at its norm of one atmosphere.
The gauge for outside pressure was also at one atmosphere.
The change was part and parcel of what had already happened. But actually seeing it was a shock almost greater than anything that had yet occurred.
There was a sound farther along the corridor. Nine men debouched from the Captain’s cabin. Hewitt recognized Warwick among the group, and two members of the crew. He caught only a glimpse of their faces. They carried automatic pistols and paralyzers. They were intent on what they were doing, for none so much as glanced toward Hewitt.
They headed in a body towards the ramp. They were gone down it almost as they had come.
Behind them they left silence.
Hewitt was startled, and alarmed. So many weapons—for what?
He had to get back to the Molly D. This situation was out of hand.
He turned anxiously, unlocked the inner door, and, using the hand-arm attachments of his suit, tried to pull it open.
It wouldn’t move. He strained at it, and pulled and twisted. But it wouldn’t budge.
Abruptly, he realized the truth. The time factor! What had been a minute for him had been hours for the Molly D. Long ago, it had cast off. It would now be standing by, waiting to see what would happen.
He thought of launching himself in one of the lifeboats. He even turned to manipulate the wall mechanism, started the ponderous outer door swinging and screwing shut. He was reaching with his mechanical hand for the valve that would let air into the airlock, and so equalize the pressure on the inner door. ’The moment the pressure was equal, the door would open.
At that point he stopped. He had a hideous thought: Now that I’m adjusted to this zone, I won’t necessarily go back to normal space. Where will I go?
He couldn’t decide.
And besides, he thought, it’ll take time. Five minutes to close the outer door, and eight minutes to reverse the process, and launch the lifeboat.
That would be nearly nine days outside.
He began to stiffen. For there was no turning back. He was committed to the big ship’s unnatural matter and energy state, irrevocably.
CHAPTER FOUR – REVOLT!
HEWITT grew calm and cool and grim. He was here to persuade a shipload of people to start again on the long journey to the Centauri suns. Or, if persuasion failed, to force them.
Or trick them.
The method was unimportant. Only the result counted.
I’ll have to hide, he told himself. I can’t reveal myself now, when I don’t know what’s going on. Besides, surprise might be an advantage in a crisis.
He knew just where to conceal himself. Having decided where he must go, he became conscious of the distance he had to cover. That made him anxious. Swiftly, he rolled along the corridor toward the ramp.
He was within a few yards of the captain’s cabin when it struck him that Warwick and the others must have been inside for a reason. They must have attacked Grayson before going down to the engine room.
There might be a guard inside, keeping an eye on the prisoner—and on the open doorway. He would have to run that gauntlet, or attack the guard.
Attack, he decided. He thought of it as an icy-cold logical decision. To be seen at this moment could be disastrous.
He manipulated the controls of one of the hand-arm attachments of the suit, raised it into striking position; and paused to fix in his mind the arrangement of the cabin.
The pause also gave him time to remember that a paralyzer could be used effectively against him even though he was in the suit. He pictured what it might do to the muscles of his eyes, cringed in anticipation; and then put it out of his mind.
Like a charging tank, the spacesuit raced forward. The tires squealed in protest, as he whipped it around and through the door. He was all the way inside before he slowed. He was halfway across the room before he was able to stop.
He saw that Grayson was alone in the room. The captain lay on the floor, his hands and feet bound. His face was streaked with blood, and his clothes torn and twisted. His eyes were open. They stared at the spacesuit, widening.
Hastily, Hewitt backed out of the cabin and headed down the ramp. He reached the top balcony of the lower storeroom without incident. Quickly, he manipulated the release mechanism of the spacesuit.
The rubber separated with a wheezing sound. The two sections of the apparatus were driven apart to the limit of the bolts that connected them. Hewitt crawled out between two of the bolts, and a moment later stood on the floor on his own two feet.
He pushed the machine behind some packing cases, where it would not be visible from the door. And then, without taking any other precautions, he swung out onto a section of the thick fence-type wire net that held different parts of the cargo in place.
The lower storeroom—like the upper one—was seven levels high. He had come in on the seventh balcony. Using the strong, woven fence, he climbed down to the floor ninety feet below.
He couldn’t wait. He realized that. Already at least fifteen minutes had gone by since the change. Outside, that would be ten days.
All too swiftly, it would be twenty days, thirty, forty—many months. The time ration of 973-1 was no longer in his favor; it was against him. The proportion was so monstrously great that even a few seconds might make the difference between success and catastrophe.
He lay near the door in the shelter of a big box. It was hot and stuffy. Very little air circulated among these piles of packing cases. Tense, anxious, bathed in perspiration, Hewitt examined his situation.
It was not good. He had brought two paralyzers with him, but against a group of determined men, they wouldn’t be effective. They couldn’t kill. They couldn’t even threaten death.
As his thought reached that point, a group of men walked noisily past the open doorway. Somebody was saying savagely, "Take these prisoners up to—" Hewitt wasn’t sure, but it sounded like Warwick’s voice. If that was so, then the prisoners were Tellier and the scientists who had remained loyal to him.
Hewitt came to his feet. He thought, I’ll give them half a minute to get started up the ramp. Then— He moved over to the door and peered out into the corridor.
A guard stood in front of the engine-room door.
Hewitt drew back hastily in dismay. The man’s head had been turned away, so he was still safe. But—a guard! How could he ever hope to get near the engine room?
Anger swelled inside him. What was the matter with Warwick? His side had won, hadn’t it? And as far as Warwick knew, the ship was light-years out in space. From whom did he expect trouble? The man must he insane . . .
His fury died as swiftly as it had come, as the guard shouted something. Hewitt caught only part of what he said; he was evidently speaking to someone inside the engine room: ". . . I don’t get it!"
Hewitt didn’t hear the answer. There was a pause; then the guard spoke again, belligerently: "But I thought we were going to shut off the drive—"
A pause, then: ". . . letter?"
Presently he added, "So we’re going to wait a few hours and see what’s going on—"
Silence, then grumpily, ". . . it doesn’t make sense to me!"
It made sense to Hewitt. Warwick had found the letter he had delivered to Tellier. The original purpose of the rebellion must have been to stop the ship and turn back to Earth; but he had instantly guessed the possibilities of a much swifter return to the solar system.
Hewitt groaned inwardly. So he’s going to wait a few hours!
He felt stunned—because that was out of the question. There wasn’t that much time to play around with. One hour, possibly. But not a second longer.
I’ve got to capture somebody, if possible win him to my side, and use him as a decoy to get near that guard.
He had to get into the engine room, and shut off that drive.
Galvanized, he edged out over the boxes, and began to climb up to the seventh balcony. It was harder going up than it had been coming down.
He reached the seventh balcony, and peered quickly out into the corridor, first one way, then the other. He didn’t really expect to see a sentry. But as he turned his head, he did see—
And was seen.
The guard was Juanita Grayson.
HEWITT’s first and greatest advantage was that he was tensed, ready for action. He had told himself that, if he were seen, he would have no alternative but to attack.
He darted instantly out of his shelter. With paralyzer ready, eyes narrowed, lips compressed, he raced towards the girl.
He realized then that he had still another advantage. She was scared, and she had no training. Her eyes grew large with fright. Her hand, with the gun in it, came up shakily.
Hewitt stopped a dozen feet from her, and covered her. "Drop it!" he said. His voice was low but savage.
Her gun clattered to the floor.
She stood staring at him, and there was the incredulous beginning of recognition in her eyes. The fear changed. Stark unbelief replaced it.
She started to turn, started to run up the ramp. She staggered after three steps, and stopped. She looked back at his weapon with an expression of utter misery on her face. Slowly, she held up her hands. Standing there, she began to sway. Hewitt leaped forward and caught her as she fainted.
She was a dead weight in his arms, as he carried her rapidly back into the storeroom.
He lowered her to the floor, and blew on her eyes and into her nostrils. Hurry! he thought. His enormous anger was back. She would pass out on him at a time like this.
She stirred, and sighed like a tired child. For a few moments, then, she looked as she had when he had first seen her, not more than fourteen years old. She grew visibly older as she came awake. Her lips tightened; her face hardened; her expression grew sullen. She opened her eyes and stared up at him.
There was no fear in her now. She recognized him, and she didn’t expect to be hurt. She said, "That letter—it was true!"
What startled him was the fact that she had fainted. In spite of knowing about the letter, she had reacted to the sight of him as if his presence were a complete surprise.
He forgot that. He had his story ready, and that was all that mattered. Briefly, he described what had happened to the Hope of Man, how it had returned to Earth, and how in a few hours it would crash again into the planet, this time to be destroyed.
That last was true, but only in an oblique sense. Actually the sun was the danger. But she, like the others, didn’t believe in that. So she had to be frightened by something that she could believe in.
He saw that she was looking at him, her eyes ever so slightly narrowed. They were brown, he saw, and hostile. "You’re the person," she said in a low tone, "who made me marry an old man."
She flashed: "Don’t deny it. If it hadn’t been for you and your stupid ship, Mark would never have thought of marrying me."
There was some justice to her final accusation. But Hewitt had no time to discuss her problem. He cut her off. He said grimly, "Listen, the deadly thing about what I’ve told you is that we’ll only be able to rescue three people. You help me, and you’re one of them."
That caught her. Her eyes grew big. "What do you want me to do?"
"We’ve got to shut off the drive," said Hewitt. "That’s first. If we don’t, the ship will crash. You’ve got to help me capture the guard at the entrance to the engine room."
Her eyes flashed with scorn. "I know who that is. One of those crackpots, always spouting morality at you. But I’ll decoy him. He joined us, didn’t he? That shows he’s no better than the rest of us."
It only showed that one of the religious visionaries had found the voyage drab. And so he had reinterpreted his dream about the sun destroying the earth, and fitted it in more closely with his current desires.
Hewitt helped the girl to her feet. "Let’s go!" he said. "You first."
As he followed her down the ramp, he wondered which of the three "crackpots" was on guard. For the life of him, he couldn’t recall what the sentry guarding the engine-room door had looked like. His one glance had been too quick for any identification. There had been a plump, genial individual named Mackarett, a younger, ascetic-looking man whose name was Rand, and a dark, intense person who called himself Andrew Sincere.
It turned out to be Mackarett, a little thinner, a little more sober-looking—and quite gullible. When Juanita shouted at him from the ramp, "Mr. Mackarett, quick—come!" he raced towards her.
When she turned and disappeared up the ramp, he followed her.
Hewitt was waiting around the first turn.
FOR a bare moment, the man acted as if he were going to fight, despite the gun that pointed straight at his face. His lips parted in a snarl. He started to bring up his weapon.
Abruptly, his arm seemed to grow weak. His eyes glazed, and appeared to turn inward. He looked like a visionary seeing a very unpleasant vision. He mumbled, "Mr. Hewitt, that letter—"
That was as far as he got. At that point, Hewitt stepped forward and deftly removed the automatic pistol from his nerveless fingers. That seemed to shock Mackarett even more. It was as if a momentary hallucination had come alive and touched him. The effect was out of all proportion to the reality. He collapsed to the floor, and lay there twisting and turning. Finally, his mind must have started working again. He looked up.
Before he could speak, Hewitt said, "Mackarett, there’s no time to waste. Listen!"
He told the same story he had told Juanita. Only three or four people could be taken off the ship immediately. The rest would have to stay aboard, wait for the ship to slow down, and then come back the long way.
He finished, "You’ve got to help me get into that engine room, and shut off the drive. Right away!"
Mackarett mumbled, "But Mr. Hewitt, Warwick is at one of the airlocks. He’s launching a lifeboat. He—"
"Now?" said Hewitt.
The first shock passed. Hewitt stiffened to an examination of the possibilities. With Warwick out of the way, his main opposition would be gone.
One thing seemed certain. Warwick would not find himself in normal space, adjusted to Earth. That process appeared to depend on a series of unbalancing effects within the electronic and atomic structures of the affected object. A series, not just one; it had taken three entrances to do the job for Hewitt.
He pictured Warwick forever caught into slow-time, and unaffected by the gravity of the Earth. He would have to use intricate machines to adjust his body to the complex velocity of Earth through space.
He couldn’t do it. He would die.
Hewitt was pale as he turned to Juanita. In a sense one man’s life didn’t matter. In a few months of outside time—hours here—the entire population of the planet of man’s origin would die in a holocaust of heat. Even the outer planets would be engulfed by waves of super-hot gases.
Believing that, he still hesitated. It was not easy to say, "This man must die, so that we can live!" Twice he parted his lips to say, "Damn Warwick!"
He didn’t say it. Instead, he asked, "Is anyone going with him?"
Mackarett said, "Oh, he’s not going himself. He’s sending Tellier and one of the other scientists."
That settled it. If he had hesitated about his enemy, he could not possibly be responsible for ensuring the death of a man who would be his ally.
"I want you to go upstairs, and see when they come back. Stay on the ramp, and just peek out, so you won’t be seen. The moment the lifeboat noses back into the airlock, rush down here and tell me!"
He added, "And if he isn’t back in fifteen minutes after you get up there, come back and tell me anyway." At that time he would have to make up his mind. He ended, "Will you do that?"
"Yes." But she did not move. Her face was white.
"What’s the matter?"
"What are you going to do?" she demanded.
"Mackarett and I are going to seize the engine room."
Still she hesitated. There was misery in her eyes. Hewitt said, "Honey, please hurry . . . What’s the matter?"
"Are you sure you’re going to take me? I’m going to be one of those who gets taken off with you?"
"You’re first," said Hewitt. "I swear it!"
Tears came to her eyes. "I’m ashamed!" she whispered. "I don’t want to be a deserter. But I’ve got to get off this ship."
Hewitt said, "Hurry, please! If we don’t make speed, nobody will get away!"
Her shame did not prevent her from starting off at a run.
To Mackarett, Hewitt said, "How many men are there in the engine room?"
Hewitt broke open one of the automatics and, while Mackarett watched, removed all but one shell from the magazine. Silently, he handed the weapon over.
Mackarett accepted the gun warily. "Am I also going to be rescued?" he asked.
Hewitt sighed. Ever since he had come aboard, he had felt as if he were moving in quicksand. It was the old story of human beings intent on themselves, resisting the larger purposes of others.
Men were hard indeed to save from disaster.
"Absolutely." He spoke the falsehood firmly.
"What about my wife and child? Can I take them along?"
Hewitt had been turning his mind away. The question caught him unprepared. Unaccustomed to lying, he was momentarily flustered. He had forgotten that a man would think of his family first.
For a fateful moment he hesitated, trying to think what this would do to his hastily fabricated story. He said at last, lamely, "Yes, they can come too."
Mackarett flashed, "You’re not sure. You didn’t answer fast enough."
Hewitt was beginning to recover. He said frankly, "You can see how I’ve been operating. I came aboard this ship, and found a revolution in full swing. I had to act fast, but I’m handicapped by the fact that I can offer rescue to three, possibly four people—I think four can be managed. I don’t really care who they are, but in each case it’s got to be someone who helps me. Now you come along and say, my wife and child, also. Let me be blunt. To me, only one thing matters. The drive has to be shut off."
He was feeling much more confident now. He went on, "Why not leave your wife and kid here? They’ll be all right. But I need those two vacancies to offer as bribes to the men in the engine room."
Mackarett said, "If we can capture those two men, so that no promises are necessary, then can I take my family?"
Under his breath, Hewitt cursed the man and his conditions. He had limited his lie as to how many could be rescued, because that was the only way he could put on the pressure. Now, he was being forced to use up his reserves faster than he had intended. But this was the critical moment.
He said, "Absolutely. I promise, on my word of honor."
He was sweating with anxiety. "For their sake, man! We’re wasting time. You don’t realize how many hours are going by outside. Hurry, for heaven’s sake!"
Mackarett said, "I’ll take your word."
CHAPTER FIVE – CENTAURUS OR DEATH!
THE PLAN was for Mackarett to signal Hewitt when the crewmen were off guard. Before they could get over their surprise—or even be sure they were really threatened—Hewitt would rush in. Swiftly, the two men would be disarmed and tied up. And thus, in a few moments, the engine room would be conquered.
It was far indeed from being a perfect strategy. It involved risks—which he dismissed even as he thought of them. Its great merit was surprise.
It’s got to work! he told himself.
When the two crewmen—Pratt and Leichter—had been tied up, Mackarett took up his position as guard outside the door, and Hewitt set up the device that would automatically shut off the pile.
Presently, uneasily, he went to the door where he could see Mackarett. "No sign of her?" he asked.
Mackarett shook his head.
Dissatisfied, Hewitt returned to his position at the pile. A dozen times, then, he fingered the lever that would begin to shut off the power. But each time he withdrew his hand.
He knew what it was. In spite of his conviction that all means were justified, actually he could not knowingly be responsible for the death of another human being. The very extent of what he had done, and tried to do, during the past ten years, showed how strong was his motivation in that direction.
He had an obsession to preserve life, not destroy it. He could lie, steal and cheat for that purpose, but he could not kill. The pressure of that was so powerful that even to think of fighting it was to realize how hopeless such a fight would be.
Restlessly, he went again to the door. Mackarett saw him and said, "What’s keeping that girl? She’s driving me crazy!"
But he did not suggest that the pile be shut down, anyway. It struck Hewitt that this odd individual, who had come on the voyage because of some kind of hallucinatory experience—this man also did not think of dealing death to others to gain his own ends.
Even Juanita, embittered though she was, still little more than a teen-ager, had suffered a qualm of conscience.
Thought of the girl reminded him that she had left Grayson. He shook his head, uneasily. It was unfortunate. She would have to make a choice between two men—Grayson and himself. Every woman on this tremendous journey would have to bear children.
Mackarett said, "Here she comes!"
Hewitt jumped, and went back to the instrument board. He stood, waiting.
In a moment he would have to make up his mind. Tensely, he hoped that her news would be that Tellier was back.
He heard Mackarett speak to the girl. Then there was silence. Juanita said something Hewitt didn’t catch, her tone was so low. Then more silence.
Hewitt was astounded at the delay. Didn’t these two realize? He turned toward the door, and shouted angrily, "Hurry up! For heaven’s sake!"
At that, she came through the door. Her face was the color of lead. Hewitt, on the verge of yelling at her again, swallowed his anger. "What’s the matter?" he asked.
There was a sound at the door. For a fateful moment, Hewitt glared over the girl’s shoulder at the men who were plunging into the room. Then, in a spasm of energy, he tried to do three things at once.
He started to turn back to the control board. He grabbed awkwardly with one hand for the lever that would shut off the drive. With the other hand, he clawed at his own weapon.
A paralyzer beam caught him in the shoulder, with all his actions still unfinished. He went down, cursing, his muscles twitching: He heard the clatter of his own paralyzer on the floor. Somebody kicked it out of his reach.
Through a blur, he saw Juanita Grayson. "I’m so sorry!" she sobbed.
She was cut off by Warwick, harshly. "What are you sorry about? You didn’t do anything." He turned to Hewitt with a sneer. "I saw her peeking around the corner of the ramp, and there was something about her that made me suspicious. I got it out of her, by heaven!"
Hewitt groaned inwardly. It was an old, old story. Too many people were not just weak or strong of character. They wavered between the two. And it always showed.
As a result, his cause was lost, unless—
A FEW minutes later, Warwick said violently, "What do you mean only four can be rescued? Do you take me for a simpleton? If four, why not forty? What are you trying to pull off?"
He was a blond young giant with sea-blue eyes. His face was twisted with suspicion as he went on: "Listen, Hewitt, I don’t get what’s going on. Tellier was out just now in the lifeboat. He practically had to use a telescope to see our sun. We’re just about half a light-year from Proxima Centauri. This ship must be in both places at once for you to have got aboard. Is that the explanation?"
"It’s the zone—" Hewitt began. He broke off. "Proxima is that close?"
Not for the first time since the Hope of Man had come back to the Earth’s atmosphere, he felt staggered. His picture of the "zone," never very clear, suffered another change. He had found it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a "zone" actually traveling far in excess of the velocity of light. And yet, the indications were that the speed had been light-years in a day—which only made it more difficult to think of it as "speed" or "movement."
Most of the evidence seemed to be in now. According to Grayson’s logbook, the ship had ceased registering acceleration at 177,000 miles a second. That fitted with the one-to-three telescoping effect he had observed when he first came aboard.
It didn’t fit in with a 973-1 atmospheric pressure difference. It didn’t fit with the matter density that had enabled the ship to penetrate the Earth’s crust. Those more spectacular phenomena could only have occurred normally at a velocity so close to that of light-speed that the difference would be hard to measure by any known methods.
Was it possible the Hope of Man had continued accelerating in the zone? That might account for the fact that it was acting as if it were traveling at two different speeds at the same time.
On that basis, assuming the existence of the "zone," it was possible to conceive of the Hope of Man "simultaneously" occupying a position in normal space near the Centauri suns, and, four light years away, another position in the zone.
It would not, of course, be in two places at the same time with respect to the same observer. According to Einsteinian physics, there was no such thing as identical instant of time for more than one observer. To Hewitt, the ship was—or had been—in the solar system. To the people aboard, it was out in space.
Hewitt shook his head wonderingly.
"But if that’s how it is," he said aloud, half to himself, "it would mean—"
He caught himself, and pleaded, "Warwick, shut off the drive! Even as we talk here, hours are going by outside."
Warwick was cold. "You can’t fool me. It’ll be at least a year before the Earth’s orbit could again intersect the orbit of the ship. In the letter—which you swear to—you say the ship is only traveling at ten miles an hour. At that speed, it can’t catch up with the. Earth, which moves through space at around eighteen miles a second."
He ended angrily. "What have you got to say to that, Hewitt?"
Hewitt said, "While you were talking, fifteen hours went by. Man, man, use your head."
HE FELT hopeless. At this final hour, he was up against the wall of another man’s ignorance. Warwick’s training was so limited, it did not strike him that the ten-mile apparent speed was in addition to Earth’s orbital velocity. Explaining the details to Warwick could only lead to more questions. Nevertheless, Hewitt made the attempt.
When he had finished, Warwick said stubbornly, "I know what you’ve got on your mind. That stupid sun business, Well, don’t think we’re giving up our chance to get off this ship!"
It was the reaction Hewitt had expected: unthinking, concerned only with the man’s own desires. Mentally, he gave Warwick up. No more scientific explanation. This fight was on a different level.
He said grimly, "Warwick, I’m the only man who knows how to get you off. I’ll do it when you cut off the drive, not a second before."
Warwick persisted, "But you admit there’s no immediate danger of plunging into the earth?"
It would happen in two hours, ship time. But long before that—in little more than an hour—the sun horror would take place.
The impact of that made him raise his voice. Loudly, he called out to the others —both men and women—gathered in the corridor: "Stop this madman! If you listen to him, you’ll be dead in forty minutes!"
That was a lie, but he had to have a few minutes leeway.
There was a stir. Several women looked uneasy, and tugged at the arms of their men. Hewitt saw Tellier under guard standing in the background. He called to the physicist in a piercing voice: "Tellier, when you were outside, you saw the Centauri suns nearby. Is that right?"
"Yes." The physicist spoke in a low tone.
"In your estimate how long will it take us to get there?"
"It’ll take us about three months to slow down. Then a few weeks while we maneuver for a landing."
"That’s normal time. With the time-contraction effect, part of that slowing down will seem only a half or a third as long?" That was only a guess.
Tellier hesitated. "That’s about right."
Hewitt whirled on the group. "Think," he said, "you’re only about two months from your destination. Surely after all this time, you won’t give up when there’s so little more time to go."
He saw that Warwick was about to speak. He rushed on: "Don’t give up now! In less than eight weeks you’ll be landing on a planet that will belong to you. And all the stuff aboard this ship, millions of dollars worth of material—yours, if you land!"
Warwick yelled, "Folks, it’s the old sun-explosion nonsense that’s driving him! If we slow down now, it’ll take us four years to get back to Earth!"
Hewitt said earnestly. "It isn’t as if this were an ordinary old-style colonizing expedition. We have tools and equipment, advanced machinery. Most of you will live better than you ever did on Earth!"
He went on before Warwick could speak: "What you don’t seem to realize is that you rebelled in order to stop the drive. You risked your lives to do that. Now, one man among you has decided to prevent you. Are you going to let him? You have a right to make up your own minds. Don’t let one man dictate to you!"
He stopped. Warwick was drawing an automatic. The man had a twisted smile on his face. He faced the group squarely, a big, arrogant, determined man. He said flatly: "I tell you, the only danger that Hewitt has in mind is from the sun. He’s insane about that. You folks stick with me, and you’ll be on good old terra firma in less than a day."
He waved his gun menacingly. "And now, if anybody wants to make trouble just let him step forward—"
No one moved. Hewitt shouted, "Don’t let one man cow you. I tell you this is life and death—"’
A fist that seemed to be made of iron caught him in the mouth. He half fell, then recovered. Dizzily, he looked up into Warwick’s face. The big man spoke from between clenched teeth: "Any more troublemakers?"
There were none. The tight smile was back on Warwick’s face. He said in a silken tone, "You’ll be living up in the crew’s quarters from now on. If we have to go back the long way, believe me, you won’t enjoy the trip. If you’re so much as seen down at this level, you’ll get a bullet where it’ll do you the least good."
He turned to Mackarett. "You, too!" he said.
The plump man started to protest, but Warwick cut him off. "Get!" he said.
AS THEY headed for the ramp, Hewitt was already bracing himself. ’The choice, it seemed to him, was perfectly simple: Die now, or an hour from now!
He turned to Tellier, who was just behind him. He asked tensely, "When you were out in the lifeboat, did you have a hard time keeping up with the Hope of Man?"
The physicist shrugged. "It took all the power we had. Mr. Hewitt—" earnestly—"you cannot imagine against what resistance the Hope of Man is maintaining its velocity. And the lifeboat had to contend with the same resistance."
Hewitt, who had seen the relevant instruments, could imagine only too well.
He saw that the ramp was only a score of feet away. He said hastily, "Which airlock did you go out of? One or Two?"
Less than a dozen feet to go. He had the information he needed. But there were more questions in his mind.
"Tellier, what in your opinion will happen when the drive is shut off?"
The answer was prompt. "On the basis of what you said in the letter, and what I’ve heard you say, my opinion is that the ship will immediately revert to its position in normal space. That is, near Centaurus."
Hewitt drew a deep breath. "Tellier," he said, "why didn’t you shut off the drive, as we asked you to do in the letter?"
The scientist stared at him. "You didn’t give us time," he said. "Why, I’d barely finished reading it when—"
He stopped. He had lost his audience. They were at the ramp.
The guard who had been ahead of them, stepped aside and partly blocked the ramp that led down. He motioned with his automatic. "Up!" he said curtly.
Hewitt started forward obediently, then turned and kicked the man in the stomach. It was the cruelest blow he had struck in his life. The guard doubled up with a cry.
Hewitt plunged down the ramp. A bullet screamed past his ear, struck the wall. Then he was around the curve of the spiral, temporarily safe. Behind him, he heard Warwick shout: "Phone the engine room! Shoot him in the legs!"
He wasn’t going to the engine room.
“ . . . damn you, Tellier! Get out of the way!"
That was the last he heard, but it gave him a picture of Tellier blocking pursuit for just those vital few seconds.
HE REACHED the corridor on which was the entrance to the seventh balcony of the lower storeroom. At a dead run, he headed for it. If I can make it, he was thinking, without their seeing me, they’ll keep on going down—
He made it. And still he forced himself to new exertions. With every ounce of strength left in his body he ran towards the spacesuit, where he had left it a seeming age before. Panting, he crawled between the up-ended bolts and scrambled onto the saddle. His fingers trembled as lie pressed the button that started the upper section of the suit sliding down to join the lower. The two rubber linings squeezed together, and became air-tight.
He had a monster in his control now. Out into the corridor he raced, and towards the ramp. A crewman on the way down stopped, teetered on one leg, and then raised his automatic.
He fired one bullet. It jangled against the armored suit. The next second, with a yell of alarm, the man was flattening himself against a wall. Hewitt maneuvered past him, and raced on up the ramp to the airlock corridor.
Amazingly, it was deserted. Women and other noncombatants must have been rushed up the ramp when the shooting started. And Warwick and his men had followed him down. They’d be back—long before he could do all that he had to do.
But for perhaps two minutes there would be no interference.
At top speed, Hewitt raced towards airlock number two, the one Tether had used. He paused for seconds only. He took time for one action. He pressed the button that started the great outer door unscrewing.
He didn’t wait for the door to open, but wheeled around, and headed for airlock number one.
And now he was where he wanted to be.
FIRST, he opened the door of the lifeboat. Then he activated the mechanism that started the inner airlock unscrewing. At that point, three men appeared at the head of the ramp. One of them was Warwick, who shouted: "Hewitt, you can’t get away. We’ll blast you with paralyzers."
But it was an automatic he held in his own hand. And it was an automatic that each of the other men carried. Seeing them. Hewitt felt an almost insane sardonic glee.
He guessed that these men had deliberately armed themselves with guns, because bullets could kill. Paralyzers could only incapacitate.
And now, for possibly another minute, they could do nothing against him.
The inner door was still unscrewing.
It swung ponderously as he watched. Hewitt swung his suit into the lifeboat, and set in motion the launching mechanism.
Automatically, the lifeboat rotated down on its launching arms, and rolled forward on a long line of rubber rollers that lifted up from the floor. It was propelled forward and into the lock.
When it was all the way inside, the inner door swung shut behind it.
Everything was automatic now. The process could no longer be stopped.
The air sighed as it was sucked out of the lock. Even before that noise faded, there was another sound. The great outer door—which had, by normal time, taken them more than four days to open—began to unscrew. Within minutes, as it had been built to do (it would still, of course, be hours, relative to Earth), it swung gut and to one side.
The lifeboat radio clattered into life. "Hewitt," roared Warwick’s voice, "you can’t escape that way—you’ll have to come back as Tellier did. If you leave the ship, we won’t let you back in. You’ll be stranded!"
Hewitt set the controls so that the outer door would remain open, if it was not interfered with. Then he launched the lifeboat.
And still he was only at the beginning of what he had to do.
And all he had was a theory.
As the lifeboat emerged from the lock, he turned its nose in the direction of flight, and adjusted the pile to nine-tenths of its potential. The small boat seemed to freeze in space; it held its position beside the yawning opening of the lock.
Carefully, he turned it around, and eased it back into the airlock.
For five seconds, by his watch, he let it rest there. Then he let the rollers launch it backwards.
That was easier. He could use the powerful backward thrust of the drive to edge it out. Almost the instant it was outside, he set the power.
Just in time. He felt a dizziness, an unmistakable sensation. For a bare moment he was not in control of the lifeboat. Then the feeling passed, and he pushed the boat’s nose back into the airlock.
"Twice!" He spoke the word aloud.
Again, he waited five seconds, and then once more launched the lifeboat. As it moved clear of the opening, the great outer door began to swing shut.
Involuntarily, Hewitt called out, "Warwick, don’t!"
There was a senseless series of sounds from the loudspeakers. With a sinking sensation, Hewitt realized the truth. Radio waves were already distorted. He had time to see that the door was too far shut for him to control, and then—
Two things happened at once. He applied power, so that the lifeboat would start to circle the big ship. As he was drawing clear of the controls, nausea struck him like a blow. The pain left him gasping, but it passed again almost as swiftly as it had come.
When he could see again, he thought, I’ve got about fifteen seconds before the second wave of pain. If I can get into airlock number two before the final change takes place—
Through the forward porthole, he saw that he was high up above the Hope of Man. He saw something else. It distracted him—just for a moment it held him.
He saw three points of white light, and one red. Two of the points were like jewels held close to his eyes, pinpoints in size, but so bright they dazzled him.
He thought: The Centauri suns! No longer did they look like one bright spot as seen from the southern hemisphere of Earth. They were separated now into four distinct bodies: Alpha, Beta and Gamma, and red Proxima.
Here they were, his hope for the future of man, the famous, nearest star system, only four and one-third light years from Earth.
So close, so wonderfully close . . . And then he shook his head in astonishment. For in some kind of a negaspatial zone, this ship was visible at "this" moment only a few thousand miles above the surface of Earth.
He forgot that. For there ahead and to one side was the opening of airlock number two.
And it was open.
HIS FORESIGHT was justified. They had seen him only at airlock one. And so they hadn’t suspected that he had also set in motion the opening mechanism of airlock two.
He guessed that he had seconds left. With utter concentration, he nosed his lifeboat into the lock, jabbed hard at the keys that started the outer door closing, and set in motion the whole process of entering.
Whatever he did now would save him hours—when the change came.
His good fortune, then, was that the outer door was actually beginning to screw shut, the air beginning to come into the lock, the inner door beginning to unscrew—when the blackout of the change struck him with all its terrible impact.
As a result, he only had to sit there thirty hours, before, with his 973-1 time-ratio advantage, he took full control of the Hope of Man.
AVERILL HEWITT stepped gingerly down to the soil of Earth from the patrol boat that had ferried him down from the Hope of Man. He had come back alone. Nearly ten years had gone by on Earth.
He started to push through the crowd of reporters assembled at the landing field. Then he realized he was not going to be allowed to escape.
He stopped, and smiled. He said, "I had the patrol boat commander radio ahead for old newspapers that would describe what happened to the sun. Did anybody bring one?"
Several papers were held up, and passed forward.
Hewitt accepted them, and sat down on one of the landing-field benches. He said, "I’ll answer no questions till I’ve read this."
More than nine years before, about one week before his predicted Nova, the sun had suddenly increased in size about twenty per cent. Simultaneously, its temperature had gone down more than three thousand degrees.
For fifteen hours its paler light shone upon an Earth that was scarcely affected. It was as if a mist had come up in the atmosphere, blocking off the heat, or as if a partial night had fallen. The planet remained warm inside its envelope of air. The great waters and the thick crust retained their heat, and so absorbed the titanic shock of the sudden reduction in the sun’s temperature.
In time, of course, all that accumulated warmth would have drained. The oceans would have frozen, the land chilled; and an ice-laden planet, virtually lifeless, would have resulted.
At the end of the fifteen hours, the sun began to shrink. The temperature went up. In six hours it was normal. There had been no change since.
Hewitt said, "It probably won’t happen again for millions of years."
He put the papers aside, stood up and went on, "I have learned a lot about the behavior of matter and energy. I think I can explain why the sun reacted otherwise than I predicted."
He paused, and took a deep breath. He had been intent on the newspapers. For the first time, he saw how vast was the crowd that had come out to meet him.
Radio microphones were closely grouped around him. Television cameras pointed at his face. It startled him a little to realize that he was famous now, not notorious. Something had happened to the sun—not what he had predicted—but something tremendous. It justified all that he had done, the expedition to Centaurus, the methods he had used aboard the ship—everything.
He might have saved the human race. Actually, the truth of what had happened was far more startling than they realized.
He began, "The universe is more complex than anything we previously dreamed. The solar system, in its movement through space, periodically enters spatial "zones" that differ one from the other. At the time I made my prediction, our system had apparently just entered such a zone. The imbalance that started then took years to reach a critical point. I predicted that point on the basis of mathematics that examined the functional behavior without being aware of the cause. I thought the changes applied only to the sun.
"They didn’t. The earth and all the other solar planets were affected also. And when the critical moment came, the earth —because it had entered the zone before the sun—was changed first.
"During that time, the sun did not cool.
"All the physical changes took place in your bodies and in the earth. And when the sun finally seemed to return to normal, it was actually flaring up as I originally predicted it would.
"It was being affected by the zone, fifteen hours after the earth itself had entered the zone."
For a moment, when he had finished, he looked grimly around his audience. Then slowly, he began to relax.
He regretted nothing. No one was happier than he over what had happened. During those years on Centaurus, he had struggled with the others to build the foundations of a great new civilization. He and Juanita, with their four children, had helped insure that man would survive any disaster that might now, or ever, strike the solar system.
Now that all was well, he was back for more colonists. Three planets, two passably hospitable, one a veritable paradise, waited for the pioneers.
Standing there, with the world listening, he launched into his sales talk.
7. HAUNTED ATOMS
AT THE first attack more than five hundred years before, the seething stuff was cascaded into a dozen separate underground chambers. The bomb that fell gouged an entire valley out of the ground but didn’t quite reach the chambers.
A city was gone, and the radiant liquid forgotten. Each segment simmered with a mindless patience in its prison. The centuries ticked away, and finally a man probed into the resisting earth. Accidentally, he broke down the rotting barrier between two of the receptacles.
There was an instant, savage interchange of immensely potent energy.
John Roberts found himself perspiring. He climbed out of the hole and, pulling out his handkerchief, wiped his forehead. He was a middle-aged man with greying temples and a pioneer gleam in his eyes.
"Sure got hot all of a sudden," he surmised aloud to the empty yard. "Feel kind of faint."
He looked anxiously toward the house. It was about a hundred yards away and seemed to be receding. He staggered, felt amazed, nearly fell, and grew alarmed. He had taken ten steps when he began to realise that he wasn’t going to make it. He sobbed with a sharp awareness of the death that was coming.
A neighbouring farmer found his body lying quietly on the grass. And that night the haunt lights were first seen.
A local doctor noted the third-degree burns on the body, but since they were inexplicable he made out his certificate: "Heart failure." A legal official came down from Megalopolis and took possession of the farmhouse in the name of the new owner of the property, Mrs. Peter Nichols (née Janie Roberts), niece of the dead man. The official put up a "For Rent” sign, and took one of the rooms for the night.
At midnight, when the place was already glowing with visible lights that sparkled in every room, he was seen to emerge from the back door in his pyjamas, and leap hurriedly into his sky car. The machine took off with a hiss.
During the next three months, two families moved into the house for brief periods. When they were gone hastily, no more home seekers appeared. In the hole, the uranium 235 boiled and burned and bubbled, seeking freedom, releasing floods of energy upon the nearby house. Certain plastics sparkled with flame. Metals grew hot, and shone in the dark, and crackled, and made sounds no human car had heard for half a millennium.
The "haunt" lights were not dangerous. The materials involved were safety compounds, which resisted radioactivity with an almost helium-like inertness.
Gradually the vibrations of the bubbling brought down loose dirt and broken bits of the stuff which had formerly contained the uranium. After six months the energy was sealed in.
On the night that the owner and her husband moved into the house, the radiant fire was already settled—if not disturbed-for another five hundred years of virtual frustration.
No one, of course, knew that.
THIS is silly," said Janie.
The house loomed up in the darkness, as they slowly climbed out of the car. Peter shook off her words as if they were leaves that had fallen on him from the dying tree under which he had parked. Far off to the right, he could see the light of another house.
It was a cloudless night, and the stars were like points of varicoloured light in a sky of blue ink. The pale cup of a moon seemed neither to add to nor subtract from the darkness.
He hesitated, then turned to his wife. "Now, look," he said firmly, "let’s not start getting jittery. We’ve figured this thing out on a cold commercial basis. You inherited this property, and we darn well need to get some rent money out of it. But the only way we’ll ever rent it is to live in it for a while, give parties, have week-end guests and so, gradually, persuade the stupid local people that it isn’t haunted. Meanwhile, we rent our town house, and get a little financial breathing spell. Remember?"
He paused, then gruffly: "It’s your own fault, leaving everything to the last minute. I intended us to get here this afternoon. It doesn’t really matter though. The agent said it was all ready, nuclearicity connected and everything. Actually, nothing to worry about, is there?"
"No." Janie spoke faintly.
He took her arm. “Come along,” he said.
The key rattled in the lock, and the door opened with the faintest of squeals. Then there was silence.
Intense silence. The silence of an isolated country house. Peter found himself straining against the darkness, as if there were sounds in it beyond the range of human hearing. He cursed under his breath as he realised what he was doing, and began to probe the hallway with his flashlight. Abruptly, he found the nuclearic switch.
The flood of brightness brought a sigh from Janie’s lips. In a few minutes they had turned on every light in the house, upstairs and down. The agent had done a good job. The furniture was uncovered and arranged, rugs were on the floor and the place was clean. The cleaning woman, who, for double pay, had come in during the daylight hours of the past week, must have tried to wash away all the evil spirits. Every room in the house smelled fresh and clean.
In the master bedroom, Peter stretched lazily on the large double bed, and studied the tinted wallpaper. "Which way is the old place?" he asked.
"Over there." She pointed towards the south wall. "I showed you when we were here last week."
"That was daytime, and I have trouble with directions anyway."
After a moment he climbed to his feet, made a part of the south wall transparent, and peered out into the darkness. The light reflections from behind him kept the night opaque at first, but gradually his vision cleared. He could see the shadowy shapes a hundred yards away.
"What did you say those things used to be?"
"An atomic powerhouse."
He snorted. "My God," he said. "That kind of nonsense really gets on my nerves. Lord knows I’m a credulous person; I’ll believe almost anything. But this atomic stuff is the last straw. For three hundred years there’s been a blurred mythology about a wonderful atomic age. If it was so wonderful, what’s happened to it?"
"I admit,” he went on, drawing the blind again, and turning back into the room, that this is a decadent era we’re living in, but I’m getting awfully tired of superstition."
He sat down on the bed. "Now, look," he said, "I can see you’re still tense. Please sit down in that chair." He waited till she had complied, then: "Janie, for heaven’s sake, relax. There, that’s a little better."
He sprawled back on the bed. "How old is this house?"
"A—about seventy-five years."
He nodded smugly. "And that—that atomic powerhouse, how old is it supposed to be?"
"They say— " She hesitated. "Oh Peter, this is all so silly. I admit it."
He was determined. “How old is it supposed to be?"
"Well, they say— " She shrugged "they say it was still in operation five hundred years ago."
"Who are they?" She made a vague gesture with one hand,
"And how long," Peter persisted, "did the so-called golden age last before that?
"A thousand years." Her tone was defiant. "Now, Peter, you know that there must be something in it. There are books in the museums, which science can’t explain in any other way than that there was once a mighty civilization on Earth."
"Science!" He spoke in a derogatory tone. Then he frowned. "But let’s use your figures, and see where they leave us."
She sighed resignedly. “Darling, you’ve said all this before."
"It didn’t sink in," he accused, or you wouldn’t be acting the way you are." He yawned. "I don’t want you to spend the night in shuddering wakefulness. You said a thousand years, didn’t you?"
"You know I did."
He ignored her sharp tone. "Then another five hundred years since that atomic plant stopped working. By the way, what made it stop working?"
His wife was annoyed now, very definitely. "Peter, you know perfectly well that’s a period of history nothing much is known about. There are old-wives tales about a war that blotted out civilization, but history knows nothing about that. Our written history begins about three hundred years ago."
"Yeah," he said, and he tried successfully to make the word an insult to all historians.
"All right, all right," he said finally. "Let’s get back to the figures. The glorious, wonderful super-civilization lasted a thousand years, then four hundred and twenty-five years passed during which it was all forgotten, then this house was built, and people lived in it for generations. About three years ago, your uncle was found dead near a tunnel he had dug under this so-called powerhouse and the place has been haunted ever since. That’s the picture, isn’t it?"
His wife nodded reluctantly.
"Now, I ask you," said Peter triumphantly, how can anything reach across five hundred years of time and kill a man?"
"There were burns on his body that were never explained."
"But what was the doctor’s verdict?"
"It was heart failure, wasn’t it?" Peter said.
His wife stood up. "Oh, please, darling, stop driving home so many points. You’re not cheering me up. You’re depressing me. I know everything you can possibly say. Only— "
"I wish people hadn’t suddenly started seeing lights in the house three years ago, and hearing sounds, and getting themselves burned by fires that no one can see."
"It’s all in the imagination."
"Yes," she said wearily, yes, I know, darling. But let’s get undressed and go to bed."
He grunted as he removed his shirt. "I can understand nuclearicity. You turn a switch, and it works. You turn it again and it goes off. That’s the end. It’s finished. It doesn’t reach across five hundred years of time and space and make a light shine. The same thing goes for nucleonite. It operates an engine according to a simple principle, and it doesn’t reach across—“
Janie finished the sentence hastily, "I know—five hundred years."
"But this atomic power stuff," said Peter. "That gets me. People use the word, and then look blank when you ask them what it means. I’m tired of it, frankly."
"So am I," she said. "Right now."
Peter mumbled something about being married to a woman who never let him finish a thought, then: "Shall I sleep with you," he asked, "or take one of the guest rooms?"
He grinned at her. "What’s this?" he said. "Young Mrs. Got-to-have-room-of-her-own getting dependent?"
She did not reply, and presently, when she was under the covers, he turned out the lights and crept in beside her. Silence settled.
MORNING. Peter yawned, then climbed out of bed. Janie was still sleeping. He grinned down at her, remembering her ceaseless plaint about a separate bedroom because it was impossible for her to sleep with anyone else in the room.
Downstairs, he punched out a menu for breakfast, slow-timed it for fifteen minutes, and went outside. The car was parked where he had left it, under the whatchamacallit tree. It bobbed a little in the breeze, which startled him. He had left the power on. He walked over and switched it off, then stood gazing towards the line of low mounds that began a hundred yards to the south.
"I’ll go over there one of these days," he decided, "and see if we can’t clear that junk away."
When he returned to the house, Janie was taking a shower. Over the breakfast table, he explained his plan. She looked at him, blue eyes pitying.
"You poor dunce," she said, “and who are you going to get to do the work?”
Peter hadn’t thought of that. "I suppose," he said disconsolately, these superstitious country folk couldn’t be persuaded to earn a little money."
Besides," said Janie practically, "where would you get the money?"
"Then I guess I’ll have to do the work myself."
"You and uncle," said Janie.
"My gosh, you’re helpful." Peter complained, and let the matter drop. He had momentarily forgotten her dead uncle.
On the way to town, Peter had another idea. "As soon as we can afford it, I’ll have an expert from the university come and look at the mounds."
Janie screwed up her small face. "Darling," she said. "you bother me. When’ll we be able to afford an expert in any foreseeable period? Answer me that."
Peter shrugged, then sneered, "Little Mrs. Braveheart is talking awfully big now that the daylight has come again." He broke off impatiently, "Look, baby, I’m doing this for you, understand. Y-O-U. You’re the one that’s going to be seeing the lights, and hearing the sounds, and I imagine in a crisis you might even develop some pretty good burns."
"It was the first night that I was afraid of," Janie said complacently. "I slept like a log, didn’t I?" She touched his arm with a jerk. "Heavens, darling, is that Megalopolis?"
Peter nodded. "I was trying to see how fast we could do it in a pinch. Five hundred and eighty-one miles in thirteen minutes and— " He glanced at the eye level dashboard— “and eight seconds," he finished cosily. "Not bad for this old bus."
He let Janie off at their town —there were things to do before the new tenants took over— and then drove up to the roof of the office building where he worked. When he picked her up at four she was aglow with excitement.
"Sweetheart, I’ve pulled a major coup. I was introduced to Mrs. Leard—you know the physicist’s wife—this afternoon, and I invited them out for this week-end. And, darling, they’re going to come.”
"What makes you think," said Peter, “that Professor Leard will be interested in digging in our back yard?"
Janie was smug. "My dear, how do you think I got them to come out? I told his wife the place was haunted by atomic energy."
"What did she say?"
"She said she thought her husband would just love that. Apparently there’s been talk around the cloistered walls of the university the last couple of years, and it’s no longer regarded as a myth. Some old duck has been looking at the sun, and has come out with the theory that it is possible for energy to exist in a—whatchamacallit—“
Peter was aware of her eyes studying him expectantly. "Don’t look at me," he said hastily. "I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about."
"—in a raw state," Janie finished uncertainly. "Does that seem to make sense?
Peter shrugged. "Only energies I know about are nuclearicity and nucleonite."
"How do they work?”
"They work by transference.”
"That’s awfully clear," said Janie.
"I mean," said Peter, “you get a block of the compound ready, then put it in with a block that’s already charged. A week later you take it out, and both of them are ready. You can pick it up with your hands or anything. It won’t operate until it’s fitted into an engine, or whatever it’s supposed to work with. Absolutely foolproof. I thought all energy was like that."
"Who made the first one?"
Peter shrugged irritably. "You can think of the hardest questions."
"Those," said Janie, "are the kind of questions they’re beginning to ask at the university. You’d better be smart, and pretend you thought of things like that long ago, and maybe—“
"Don’t be such a dope. Maybe Professor Leard will arrange to have all the work of removing the mounds done at the expense of the university."
Peter grabbed her. “My gosh, darling, you’re a genius."
Janie rearranged her hair. "I’m not bad," she said with a simple self-assurance.
WE’LL DIG here," said Professor Leard.
Janie went to the car. "Peter," she called, "we’ve got some shopping to do if we’re going to feed all these wonderful people."
Up in the air, she sank back in her seat and fanned herself. "Phew!" she said. "I’m glad we’re away from there." She was silent, then: "Do you think they’ll blow up the Earth?"
"Huh!" He stared at her. "My gosh what goes on in that brain of yours?" He went on in a complaining tone, "You’ve got what you wanted, haven’t you? Scientists are cleaning up our property for nothing."
"Scientists my eye!" Janie retorted. "They don’t know any more about the stuff than I do."
"Well, I’ll be a— " Peter sagged back helplessly. "Look, my little lovey bunch, do you mean to sit there and tell me that you think Professor Leard and the others are going to melt into little blobs of hot liquid or something, and yet you pushed this business through."
His wife shrugged. “Somebody’s got to do it. If you monkeyed with it, people would say you were just another idiot like uncle—when you got killed, that is. If they melt like you said, why that’s another sacrifice on the altar of science. You’d be just one more dumb nut, but they’re heroes— What’re you doing?”
"We’re going back."
Janie grabbed at the wheel and jerked them back on their original course. Peter, white-faced, snatched her hand, felt the tense determination in it, and hesitated.
"Peter, don’t you dare hit me!"
He was outraged by the charge. "I wasn’t going to hit you."
"You were so! I know that look in your eye."
“What look? Have I ever so much as touched you?”
"You know better than that. I’d have you up in court so fast "
"You’re getting away from the subject," he snarled. "You’re the one that will be arrested."
"For heaven’s sake, Peter, listen to reason."
“Reason—from a little murderess."
"Don’t be so stuffy."
"Stuffy. To sit there, calmly waiting for an entire staff of a university to blow up."
"Don’t exaggerate. Peter, listen. You admit they’re among the Earth’s experts on this stuff?”
Peter sighed. "I suppose so."
"If anybody’s going to dig in there, it has to be somebody like that?"
"I guess so."
"Just because we can’t afford to pay them doesn’t mean anything. They get paid in fame."
"That’ll be nice for them when they’re dead." Sourly.
Janie stroked his arm. *There, there, darling, I know your conscience is going to bother you all the rest of your life. But at least it’ll be around to be bothered, not melted into blobs. Listen, honey, here’s my plan. We shop in a leisurely fashion. When it’s almost time for dinner, you phone up Professor Leard and ask him how things are going—“
"I will not."
"Then I’ll do it. But you can see now that I’m only being sensible. Can’t you?"
"Oh, I suppose so."
Janie sighed, but as Peter expected, she pressed her victory: “And you will make the phone call, won’t you?"
Peter supposed that he would.
It was late afternoon when he made the call. He turned away from the video plate, pale. “No answer," be said.
"But that’s impossible," Janie quavered. "Give me that phone."
The plate remained lifeless.
"Oh, my heaven," she moaned, "what have I done? What’re you doing?"
"Turning on the news."
The news failed to mention anything unusual. Peter guided the car into a speed channel. Janie said tremulously: “W-where are we going?"
"We’ll have to go and look, won’t we?"
The place, as they circled around it in the dim light of twilight, had a deserted look. Janie began to cry.
"They’re probably all blobs," she whimpered.
Peter put his arm around her. "It’s not your fault. After all, Professor Leard did take precautions. He knew what he was doing."
"Now, you’re giving me back my own arguments. I feel a-awful."
"Look, darling, the ground is absolutely level. There’s not a mound in sight. You know what I’m going to do?"
"I’m going to call Professor Leard up at the university."
The professor’s smooth face came on the video after about ten seconds. He was apologetic.
"After we got the stuff up," he explained, "I thought we’d better get it into larger safety containers as soon as possible." He grew enthusiastic. "I want to take this opportunity on behalf of the university to thank you for a valuable contribution to science."
Janie leaned across Peter. "Professor," she glowed. "Is it the stuff? Is it a source of raw energy?"
The smooth face on the video took on a cautious look. "Possibly. We might even— " He hesitated— "be able to make it explode . . . This is a great day for science."
Peter said practically, "What about the house? Will it be haunted again?
The professor shook his head. "We did a good job of cleaning up. I doubt if there’ll be any stray radiation."
Janie, who had been thinking, said, "Has it any value?"
"I was coming to that," said the professor in a subdued voice. "Naturally, we have no desire to have you young people feel as if you have been taken advantage of. So if you will sign a release, we will pay you five thousand dollars. So far as the university is concerned, that is purely a matter of clearing up the title."
Janie said, “Thank you, Professor, we’ll take it. Good-bye." She broke the connection.
Peter grabbed at her fingers. "Darling, you don’t just hang up on a man like Professor Leard."
"We’re through with him," Janie said, faintly. "And besides I was just about to faint." She caught his arm. "Honey, will you please land instantly? We’ve barely time. The new tenants are due to move into our town house tomorrow."
He brought the car down, protesting. "What’s the idea?"
Janie raced into the house, and emerged triumphantly with the sign. She slipped it into the slot on the terrace. "There," she said, "it’s for rent again."
"Quick now," she said as she climbed back into the car. "We’ve got to take possession of the town place."
"Are you nuts? We’ve a lease."
"We’ll refuse to let them in. We’ll tell them they can have this place, or go jump in a lake.
"To heck," she said, "with living in the country. It’s too dull."
8. THE STAR-SAINT
AS HE PASSED THE TWO women in the corridor of the spaceship COLONIST 12, Leonard Hanley heard one of them say:
"He was on the far side of the galaxy, and came here when he heard about our trouble. He doesn’t need spaceships to travel, you know . . ."
Hanley walked on, cynical and annoyed. As leader of the colonists, he’d been advised two hours before by Captain Cranston that Mark Rogan had arrived. The commanding officer’s memo had stated, among other things:
"Since we will reach the planet Ariel, our destination, within half an Earth-day, we are fortunate that the Space Patrol’s great alien communications expert was available to help us. Mr. Rogan’s presence means that you and your people can make your landing at once, regardless of what may have happened to the first settlement . . . and the ship can leave."
The reference to the ship departing immediately made Hanley grim. "Oh, no, you don’t, Captain," he thought. "You’re not leaving till we found out what’s happened down there”.
He continued along the corridor to the radio room, looked in through the window, and saw that the operator on duty was a young man named Farde. «Anything new? » Hanley asked.
The operator turned lazily. His manner had just enough insolence in it to be irritating, and just enough deference to make it difficult to take offense.
« Same old repetition of our messages, » he said.
HANLEY hesitated. Time had been when he had tried to break down this barrier between crew and passengers. He’d felt that, in a long, two-year voyage, there shouldn’t be constraint or hostility. Yet, in the end, he’d given up. To the crew members, the eight hundred colonists— men, women and children—were "emigrants." They had no lower term applicable to human beings.
Hanley, who was an engineer, and who had been a university professor, had often thought the crew members were not a prepossessing lot.
Once more, he hesitated, remembering the two women who had gossiped in the corridor about the mysterious Mark Rogan. He said casually : "We were lucky to get hold of Mark Rogan."
"When," asked Hanley, "did he first get in touch with you?"
"Oh, that wouldn’t be through here, sir."
"How do you mean?" Sharply. "Don’t you get all radio messages here?"
"Well—yes, in a sense." The operator hesitated. "Fact is, Mr. Rogan doesn’t answer regular calls. You broadcast your problem. He comes only if he’s interested."
"He just arrives, is that it?"
"Thanks," said Hanley in a subdued voice.
He was quietly furious as he walked on. The set-up shrieked of the phoniness of a man who allowed people to believe that he was supernormal. So he didn’t use spaceships to travel through space! And he helped only if something interested him!
Hanley’s anger subsided abruptly. It struck him with a shock that Rogan’s coming had sinister significance. Because he had come.
Hanley reached his own apartment; and Eleanora, his wife, was serving lunch to himself and the two children when a wall communicator switched on, and a voice announced:
"Attention, all passengers and crew. We are entering the atmosphere of Ariel. Captain Cranston has called a meeting in the auditorium for one hour from now to discuss the landing."
HANLEY sat awkwardly in a chair on the auditorium platform, and uneasily watched the angry colonists. It seemed hard to believe right now that they had elected him their leader. For he realized they must land regardless of the danger on the planet below; and that was a reality that most of the colonists did not seem to be facing.
They were shouting furiously, shaking their fists at Captain Cranston, who stood at the front of the platform. The roar of their voices filled the small room, and echoed from the halls beyond, where other people crowded, listening to the loudspeaker.
Despite his own tension, Hanley kept being distracted by the stranger who sat in the chair beside him. Rogan, he guessed. It could be no other on this ship, where everyone knew everyone else.
Even without his foreknowledge, there would have been reasons for noticing the man. Rogan was slim of build, about five feet ten inches tall; and Hanley had heard him say something to Captain Cranston in a voice so soft, so gentle, that he had felt a thickening of dislike in his throat. The stranger had eyes as green as emeralds, an unusual color for a human being.
With a faint distaste, Hanley turned away from the man and studied the viewing plate at the rear of the platform. It was quite a large plate, and a sizable area of the ground below was visible on it.
The picture was not clear at this height, yet it was sharp enough to show green vegetation. To the left was the silvery gleam of a winding river. To the right were the ruins of the first human settlement on the planet Ariel.
Hanley studied the scene unhappily. As a scientist and administrator, he felt no personal fear at anything that might develop below. But when he thought of Eleanora and the children, his feelings about the landing became mixed up.
The audience quieted at last. At the front of the stage, Captain Cranston said: "I admit an unfortunate situation has arisen. I cannot explain how, on an apparently uninhabited planet, a human colony has been destroyed. But I must land you. We haven’t enough food to take back such a large group. I regret it, but here you are and here you must remain. But now—" he half turned— "I want to introduce you to a man who came aboard ship today. Mark Rogan, one of the great men of the Space Patrol, is here to help you. Mr. Rogan, will you come over here to be introduced. And you, also, Mr. Hanley."
As Rogan came up, the officer said, "Mr. Rogan, please say a few words to these unhappy people."
Rogan looked at them, for a moment, then smiled, and said in the same gentle voice Hanley had already heard:
"Folks, everything will be all right. Have no fear. I’ve listened to these radio repetitions, and I feel confident that in a day or so I’ll be able to give you the signal that means safe landings."
HE STEPPED BACK. There was a dead silence; and then all over the auditorium women sighed. Hanley, who had listened in amazement to the sugary reassurance, stared at the audience, baffled. Anxious, too. He had heard Mark Rogan had an unsavory reputation where women were concerned.
Captain Cranston was speaking again, conversationally: "Len, I want you to meet Mark Rogan." To Rogan, he said: "Mr. Hanley is leader of the colonists."
The vividly green eyes seemed to study Hanley’s face. Rogan smiled finally, and held out a slender hand. Hanley grasped it grudgingly, and instinctively squeezed hard on the long, tapering fingers.
Rogan’s smile sharpened slightly, and he returned the pressure. Hanley felt as though his hand had been caught in a vise. He turned pale with the pain of it. In agony, he let go. Instantly, the other’s grip relaxed also. Momentarily, thoughtfully now, the green eyes examined him again. Hanley had the unhappy conviction that his enmity had been evaluated, and that he had lost the first round.
Captain Cranston was facing the audience. "Ladies and gentlemen, the exploratory landings will be made by armed craft under the joint command of Mr. Rogan and Mr. Hanley. There’s still time for a descent today, so let’s make our preparations."
* * *
Into the crewboat Hanley loaded a walkie-talkie, a Geiger-counter, a ground radar instrument, and a gadget that could make vibrations all the way from sound waves through the ultra-sonic range on up to short wave radio.
From the corner of one eye, he saw Rogan coming along the corridor. He turned away hastily, then—as quickly—looked again. And his first impression was right. The man wore slacks and a shirt that was open at the neck. His pockets did not bulge with gadgets. His hands were empty. He carried no visible equipment.
Rogan nodded a greeting which Hanley curtly acknowledged. As Rogan stepped into the crewboat, Hanley thought satirically:
"At least he’s condescending to travel by ordinary transportation.”
It was about ten minutes later that the small craft came to rest in the middle of the desolation that had been a settlement of one thousand people.
As Hanley climbed shakily to the ground, one of the crew members said: "The place looks as if it’d been worked over by a bulldozer."
Hanley had to swallow as he stared at the shambles. Somebody, or something, had gone to a lot of trouble. The buildings, which had been made of fieldstone, were so thoroughly demolished that even the individual stones had been scattered. Here and there, grass was beginning to grow again. Except for that, and except for a few large trees, as far as he could see, the land had been ploughed raw as if by a gigantic scraper.
HANLEY strode forward, stumbled over something, looked down, and drew back hastily. He had stepped on what was left of a human being. The flesh and bone had been ground into the soil.
He saw now that there were bodies all over among the wreckage. It was not always easy to make them out. Many of them seemed a part of the ground, so completely had they been smashed, and pushed in, and covered with dirt.
Frank Stratton, a young colonist, came over and stood beside him. Hanley turned and called to Rogan:
"I think we should take a quick look over this territory, Mr. Rogan. How about you and me walking down by the river, while Mr. Stratton and—" he named a colonist technician— "go into those hills. The others can pair up to suit themselves. No directives to anyone. Just report what you see, and turn back in two hours or less."
Hanley didn’t wait for agreement, but hurried over to the crewboat. It would be unusual for the two leaders of a group to go off together, but he was determined to see an alien communications expert at work. In the back of his mind he had already decided to try to solve the problem himself, without help from the "expert."
He lifted his pack of instruments out of the boat, and slung it over his shoulder. The weight of the load made him stagger, but he leaned into it; and presently Rogan and he were walking away from the shattered remnants of the settlement. Hanley was surprised that the other had yielded so readily to his suggestion. He noticed that Rogan kept looking into the sky, and only once or twice paused to study the ground.
The hard, gravelly soil gave way to smooth, lawn-like grass. The stones and boulders that had been everywhere around the destroyed village, disappeared. They came to the first considerable grove of trees. Some bore fruit. Others were blossom-filled. A sweet fragrance permeated the clear, warm air.
They reached the river, a wide stream that flowed with an oily slickness suggesting depth and speed. They followed a natural pathway along the foot of an ever-steeper shore till finally the bank was a hundred foot high overhanging cliff. From ahead, now, came the roaring sound of water tumbling over falls.
Rogan, who was slightly ahead, paused; and Hanley chose the opportunity to lower his heavy pack and set up his instruments. The Geiger-counter had not clicked once, so he laid it on the ground out of the way. He spoke briefly into the walkie-talkie, and it roared back at him a babble of signals.
It was not a pleasant feeling, listening to that confusion of calls. Aboard ship, the effect had been eerie. Here several miles from the village, it gave Hanley a queasy sensation.
He was suddenly dissatisfied with their position. "Mr. Rogan," he called, "don’t you think we’re in a rather vulnerable spot?"
Rogan did not turn, nor did he show in any way that he had heard the question. Hanley flushed and, abruptly furious, walked over to him. "We’ll have this out right now!" he thought.
AS HE CAME UP, he saw that the other was staring down at a small area of sand. It reminded Hanley that Rogan had paused twice previously, and both times had looked at similar patches of sand.
The discovery briefly drained Hanley’s anger. He had been looking for a pattern in Rogan’s activity: and here it was. He stopped, and studied the area. It looked like ordinary sand, a grayish yellow-brown in color, quite unassuming, and about as unlikely a source of life as anything he had ever seen.
Hanley hesitated. He wanted to ask questions, but the man was so discourteous that he hesitated to expose himself to further insults. He half-turned away—and then saw that Rogan was looking at him. Rogan said in his soft voice:
"Mr. Hanley, I sense in your attitude that you spoke to me a short time ago, and that you are incensed because I did not answer. Is that correct?"
Hanley nodded, not trusting himself to speak. The wording seemed to imply—he couldn’t decide, but it re-stimulated his anger. "Sense in your attitude," indeed. Was Rogan trying to suggest that he had not heard the words? Hanley waited, fuming.
Rogan went on, "I find myself in this situation so often that, for the most part, I do not bother to explain it any more." His green eyes glowed as with a light of their own. "However, since it may be necessary for us to cooperate in the coming crisis, I ask you to believe me when I say that I do not hear when I am concentrating. I shut off all extraneous phenomena." He finished gently, "If that statement violates your sense of reality, I’m sorry."
Hanley said grudgingly, "I’ve heard of such things. Hypnosis."
"If you need a label," said Rogan, and his tone was almost indifferent, "that’s as good as any. But, actually, it is not the answer."
Belatedly, it struck Hanley that the other had made an effort to be friendly. He said quickly, "Thank you, Mr. Rogan, I appreciate the explanation. But would you mind telling me, what are you looking for in that sand ?"
"Life." Rogan was turning away. "Life in so simple a state that it is generally not even thought of as such. You see, Mr. Hanley, every planet has its own initial life-process, the state where inorganic matter and organic are almost indistinguishable. This process goes on continuously; and it is the building block of all subsequent life on that particular world. I cannot prove this to you. There is no instrument I know of except my own brain for detecting its existence. You will not immediately realize to what extent that fact rules my actions. And so, I suggest that you do not start feeling friendly toward me because I have made this rather involved explanation. You’ll probably regret it."
Hanley, who was already disposed to be more friendly, felt uneasy. It seemed clear that Rogan meant exactly what he had said.
He saw that the man was looking at the sand. Hanley turned, and strode back to his instruments. He thought "After all, I ought to be able to locate the larger life forms without knowing anything about the building blocks—and in that department mechanical equipment may be very useful."
He set up his ground radar device, and began to send signals straight down. He aimed the signals in various directions and, once, obtained a reaction which indicated the existence of a tiny cave—it was a mere pocket, and unimportant.
He repacked the radar instrument, and began to tune the vibration machine. The response needle leaped suddenly. There was a shout from Rogan: "Hanley—jump —this way!"
Hanley heard a crashing sound above him, and involuntarily looked up. He yelled hoarsely as he saw the rock, only feet away. He tried to duck—and there was a stunning blow, an instant of unbearable pain, and blackness.
PAIN. His head ached and ached. With a groan, Hanley opened his eyes. He was lying beneath the overhanging edge of the rocky cliff, a few feet from where he had been when the rock struck him.
The sound of the nearby waterfall was loud in his ears. Instinctively, before he remembered that it was still out of sight, he strained to locate it. He succeeded only in getting a better view of the visible part of the ledge, where Rogan had been before the rock struck him.
Rogan was not in sight.
Hanley climbed to his feet. His equipment was lying to his left, the radar device on its side, smashed. Ignoring it, he walked along the ledge past it to where there was a sharp turn. That gave him a view of nearly a mile of the river’s curving bank. There was not a movement anywhere that he could see.
Puzzled, and beginning to be angry, Hanley walked in the other direction nearly two hundred yards. He saw the falls suddenly around a bend. The water dropped more than a hundred feet to the beginning of a great valley. A forest came down to the river’s edge, and stretched away into the distance, a green and brown vista.
Nowhere was there a sign of Rogan.
Hanley returned to get his things, undecided as to what his next move should be. He felt impelled to go on. And yet, unquestionably, the rock had missed killing him by millimeters. There was caked blood on the side of his head, and his cheek burned where the skin had been scraped off.
He was momentarily relieved to discover a note stuck in the handle of the Geiger-counter. "The guy’s human after all," he thought.
Then he read the note. It said: "Go back to the ship! I’ll be gone for a day or two."
Hanley compressed his lips, and the flush that mounted to his cheeks was not all fever from his wound. Yet, once more, his anger died away. Rogan was not responsible for him; and his job on this planet did not require that he look after injured people.
Hanley switched on the walkie-talkie; The earphones were alive with sound. His own voice, in jumbled messages that he’d sent from the ship more than a week before, was part of the crescendo of noise. Half a dozen times, he tried to send an S. O. S., giving his position. The appeal was taken up, and lost among the rest.
There was nothing to do but start along the trail back . . . He reached the village just before dark, and was immediately taken up to the ship. Both doctors insisted that he spend the night in the hospital ward, though they reported reassuringly that he would probably be all right in the morning.
Hanley slept fitfully. Once, he waked up and thought: "At least he’s a courageous man. He’s down there alone, at night."
It justified to some extent his own lie to the others. He had told them that Rogan had gone on only after assuring himself that Hanley was not seriously hurt. Rogan had done nothing of the kind. But it was essential that the colonists continue to trust him.
Some time during the night Hanley’s strength and energy came back. About dawn, he opened his eyes in tense excitement. That rock! Its fall had been no accident. Somebody or something had shoved it down upon him.
"I’ll go out there in the morning," he decided.
HE WAS DRESSING when his wife came in, about nine o’clock. She walked over to a chair, and sank into it. Her fine gray eyes looked tired. Her long blonde hair had not been properly arranged. There were lines in her face.
"I’ve been worried," she said drably.
"I’m all right." Hanley spoke reassuringly. "I was only bruised a little, and shaken."
She seemed not to hear. "When I think of him down there with the fate of the whole colony depending on his remaining alive—"
Briefly, it shocked Hanley to realize that her anxiety was for Rogan, not himself. She looked up unhappily.
"Len, do you think it was wise of you to let him go on alone?"
Hanley stared at her In amazement but made no reply. It seemed to him that there was no adequate comment to make to that. Nevertheless, as he ate breakfast, he felt more determined than ever to solve this problem before Rogan.
A few minutes later, with Frank Stratton at the controls of the crewboat, he set out once more for the river. His plan of action was simplicity itself: If there was life here, it would show itself in some way. An observant man should be able to find it without having a special type of brain.
* * *
They came down in a meadow half a mile from the river and about a mile from the waterfall. It seemed a sufficiently central position from which to examine the rock-throwing episode.
Young Stratton, who had been silent during the flight, said suddenly, "Pretty country—if it weren’t for the stones."
Hanley nodded absently. He climbed down to the ground, and then paused for another survey of the countryside. Trees, miles of green grass, gaily colored flowers, the silvery gleam of the waterfall, and the great forested valley beyond it—here was natural beauty in abundance.
True, as Stratton had pointed out, there were small rocks in plenty, but they could be removed. Hanley walked to the nearest one, and picked it up. It was about the size of a large melon, and unexpectedly light in weight. He stood holding it, watching the sunlight flash over its surface.
At first glance, it seemed to be granite, the bright reflecting surfaces suggesting mica specks. On closer examination, Hanley wasn’t so sure. He saw that his fingers were already stained yellow. Sulphur, he guessed. And in rather free form.
Behind him, Stratton said sullenly, "This fellow, Rogan—who is he? I mean, is there some special reason why the women have to go silly over him? Dorothy kept me awake half the night worrying about his being down here alone."
Intent though he had been on the stone, Hanley recalled the similar reaction of Eleanora, and half turned. "He’s the only one of his kind," he began, "except for—" He stopped. For the rest was rumor only. He went on slowly, "According to reports, his parents were wrecked on some uninhabited planet, and he was born there while they were repairing the ship. He was still a child when they took him away, and by the time they began to suspect he was different, it was too late."
"Too late for what?"
"They had no idea where the planet was on which they’d been wrecked."
“Oh!" The blonde youth was silent. Hanley was about to return his attention to the stone when Stratton said, "What’s this story about his having children all over the galaxy?"
Hanley spoke curtly. It gave him no pleasure to defend Mark Rogan, especially when his own mind was uneasy with the same suspicions as Stratton was experiencing,
"What’s he trying to do?" asked the young man grimly. "Produce a bunch of freaks like himself?"
That was so exactly the way he had originally heard it that Hanley swallowed. In spite of himself, he said sarcastically, "Maybe he believes his wild talent for dealing with non-human races should be spread as widely as possible. Particularly, I imagine, he feels that when his services have been called for, the women of the new colony should be only too willing to provide perceptive children and so secure the future of the human race on that planet. It—"
He came to an abrupt stop, startled. He had intended to be ironic, but abruptly the notion sounded plausible. And necessary.
"My God!" he thought, "if he ever comes near Eleanora, I’ll—"
In abrupt tension, he raised the rock in his hands above his head, and flung it down upon another one nearby. There was loud, cracking sound. Both stones shattered, and a chance wind blew a cloud of yellowish dust into his face. The smell of sulphur was momentarily unbearably strong. Hanley coughed, almost choked, and then he had backed out into fresher air.
He was about to bend down over the broken pieces of the two stones, when Stratton let out a yell. "Mr. Hanley—the rocks—they’re moving!"
IN THAT FIRST MOMENT of mental confusion, Hanley had several fantastic impressions. Unquestionably, stones all over the meadow were beginning to roll towards them, slowly, as if they were not exactly sure of their direction—but they were rolling. Simultaneously, the wind that had been merely a series of gusts until then, began to blow at gale proportions. Dead leaves whirled into his face. Small pieces of grit stung his cheeks.
Hanley’s eyes began to water. Through a blur, he made his way to the crewboat, and fumbled for the steps that led to the deck. The wind was so strong now that he had to bend into it to remain on his feet. From above him, young Stratton yelled: "This way—quick!"
A hand caught Hanley’s shoulder, guiding him. A moment later he was scrambling up the steps, and had flung himself prostrate beside his companion. He lay there for a minute, gasping. Then he saw Stratton wriggling towards the controls.
Hanley shouted at him, "Frank—wait!"
The blonde youth turned, and said earnestly: "Mr. Hanley, we’d better get out of here. We might be blown over on our side."
His words were tossed by the wind, distorted, and delivered finally half-faded, but still comprehensible. Hanley shook his head stubbornly.
"Can’t you see?" he shouted. "These stones are the life-form! We’ve got to stay and find out things about them. If we can get enough information we won’t need Rogan.’’
It stopped the young man. He turned a contorted face towards Hanley. "By heaven," he said, "We’ll show that—"
His whole body twisted with eagerness. Hanley called to him, "Turn on the radio! Let’s see what’s coming over."
The radio was alive with voices. Wherever Stratton turned the dial, he produced uproar that was loud and continuous. Hanley listened grimly for a minute, and then glanced over the side of the boat.
He winced as he saw that the stones were piling up against the side of the small vessel, one on top of the other. The pile, at its highest point, was about three feet from the ground. It sloped back to a thin line of pebbles some twelve to fifteen feet from the bigger stones at the front. Hanley estimated that there were several hundred stones already in the pile.
More were coming. He flinched, but kept on looking. As far as he could see over that wind-swept meadow, stones were rolling towards the crewboat. Their speed seemed to vary according to their size. He judged that the medium-sized ones were traveling two or three miles per hour, whereas several that were almost two feet in diameter were moving at nearer five miles per hour.
The pile grew even as he watched. Hanley turned uneasily toward Stratton. And saw that the young man was pushing with a stick at something that seemed to be threatening him from the other side of the small craft.
Stratton turned, "The stones!" he yelled hoarsely. They’ve piled up. They’ll be spilling on top of us in a minute."
Hanley hesitated. It seemed to him that by remaining they had learned how the enemy attacked. Perhaps, if they stayed just a bit longer—
His thought was interrupted by another shout from young Stratton: "Mr. Hanley—look!"
HANLEY followed the young man’s pointing hand. A giant rock was lifting itself out of the ground a hundred feet away. It was at least ten feet in diameter, and it was poising now, turning, as if trying by means of some alien senses to decide its direction. In a moment it would be bearing down on them.
Hanley gulped, and then in a loud yet calm voice said, "All right—lift her up!"’
As Stratton manipulated the drive control lever, there was a surge of power that sent a vibratory impulse through the rigid, metals of the ship. The deck throbbed under Hanley, and he could almost feel the engines straining to lift the craft.
"Mr. Hanley, something is holding us down!"
Hanley thought blankly "We’ll have to get out and run. But where to?"
He was about to say, "Try again!" when he saw that the huge rock was starting to move. Straight at the ship it came, gathering speed each time it turned over.
Hanley shouted, "Frank—the big rock —come this way!"
He didn’t wait to see if the young man obeyed. With a convulsive effort, he flung himself far out over the side of the craft. He landed on the rock he had aimed at, and, using it as a springboard, leaped again.
Behind him, there was a crash, a squealing of metal and the shriek of a human being in mortal agony,
* * *
He was running, with a dying wind lending wings to his feet. Hanley finally slowed from exhaustion, and looked back. He had gone about two hundred and fifty yards; and there were several trees and much shrubbery between him and the crewboat. But he could see that the rock was still lying on top of the smashed craft. He noticed no movement anywhere. Even the stones were still.
The great wind blew in gusts only now. It was spent. Already, the incident had a dream-like quality. It seemed incredible that Frank Stratton was lying dead or desperately injured in the wreck of the boat. Hanley thought distractedly: "I’ve got to go back."
A hundred feet from him, a small stone stirred, lifted itself out of its hole, and started hesitantly toward him. Simultaneously, there was other movement. Scores of stones began to move in his direction.
Hanley retreated. He had an empty feeling about what had happened to his companion. But far more important was the fact that he had found the hostile life-form on this planet. He had to get back to the ship with that vital information.
He headed on a course parallel to the river toward the village, which he judged was three or four miles away. In a few minutes he had outdistanced the moving stones. "They’re slow," he thought exultantly. "It takes a little while for them to decide that somebody is around."
He began to picture the life of the colonists on this frontier planet. They’d have to clear rocks from whole areas. Ato-guns with their thousand-unit explosive charges to a loading would be standard equipment for men and women alike. It was even possible to visualize a time when the curious rock-life would be of museum interest only. They must have a very slow growth, and so could probably be eliminated from all except the most remote territories in a measurable time.
He was still considering the possibilities he saw a solid glitter of stones ahead.
HANLEY STOPPED, chilled. Hastily, he turned from the river. And stopped again. The stony glitter was in that direction, also.
Swallowing, he headed for the river.
His eyes searched for stones in that direction. A few moving objects were visible among the shrubbery, but there was so much brush and scrubwood that it seemed evident that small rocks would have difficulty in making progress. That became his hope, instantly.
He hurried past several large trees, sizing them up for girth as he went by. The largest tree in the vicinity he found less than two hundred feet from the cliff’s edge.
One section of its huge trunk sloped up from the ground at so gradual a slant that he’d be able to run up it swiftly, scramble up to another thick branch, and from there go almost to the top of the main trunk which towered majestically above any other tree in the neighborhood.
Hanley hurried to the edge of the cliff overlooking the river. The water was nearly fifty feet below, and the wall of the cliff ran sheerly down. It even slanted inward slightly; and there was no possibility of climbing down with a ladder. One look convinced Hanley that the river did not offer a way of escape.
As he headed back toward the tree, he saw uneasily that more than a score of stones had rolled between him and the safety of the trunk. He walked straight toward one of them. It kept rolling in the same direction after he had stepped over it, and did not stop until he had gone past two more of the blind things. Then it halted, and began hesitantly to move towards him again.
His fear faded even more. He took a quick look around to make sure that he was not being hemmed in. Then he waited for the stone to come up to him. As it approached, he studied it anxiously for a sign of intelligence. There was nothing but the smoothly porous, rock-like substance.
It rolled right up against his foot, touched his boot—and attached itself.
He kicked at it, but it clung as if it were glued to the boot. It weighed at least five pounds, and when he moved his foot he felt the drag of it, the need to strain his muscles in order to lift it, the sharp fear that he wouldn’t be able to get rid of it.
Other stones were approaching him.
Alarmed, Hanley retreated to the tree trunk, and, bending down, removed the boot to which the rock had attached itself. He shook the boot, vainly. With abrupt determination, he raised it above his head, and flung it, boot and stone together, straight down on another stone.
The two rocks dissolved; there was a gust of wind that blew the sulphurous dust into his face. Hanley coughed furiously. When he could see again through his tear-filled eyes, he was first attracted to a gleaming crystal that lay in the pile of debris. He studied it, then hastily he recovered his boot, and started up the trunk.
It was time. As far as the eye could see, the land glittered with the movement of stones converging towards him.
His day in the tree passed uneventfully.
Just before dark, Hanley climbed to a higher branch and found himself a reasonably comfortable crotch for the night. He spent the early hours of darkness wide awake, alert to sounds below. About midnight, he dozed.
He awakened with a start. The sun was just coming up over the horizon—and a crewboat was speeding toward him, following the course of the river. He jumped hastily to his feet, almost fell out of the tree as a thick branch broke like so much dead wood. And then, safely balanced again, he tore off his coat and shirt.
He began to wave the shirt frantically . . .
AS ELEANORA served him breakfast Hanley learned that Mark Rogan had returned to the ship the evening before, spent the night aboard, and departed at dawn. He stopped eating, and considered the news. Finally:
"Did he have anything to say? Had he solved the problem?"
He waited, jealous of his own discovery, anxious not to have been out-done. Eleanora sighed; then:
"I don’t think so. Of course, he talked mostly to the men. Perhaps he gave them, private information."
Hanley doubted it. And so, by the simple process of going out and looking, an ordinary man had bested the famous communications expert.
He was about to resume eating when the odd tone in which his wife had spoken made him look up. "He talked mostly to the men?" he echoed.
There was a flush on her face. She said, "I had him to dinner." She added quickly, "I expected you back. It didn’t occur to me that you—"
She sounded so defensive that he felt compelled to interrupt: "It’s all right, my dear. I understand. I understand."
He wasn’t sure that he did. As he continued to eat, he studied her unobtrusively, shaken by his thoughts. Once he almost said: "Are you sure that he didn’t also spend night?” The insult of the thought was so outrageous that he cringed, and felt angry at himself.
But it decided him. He had been intending to wait, and learn what Rogan had discovered; the problem of dealing with the rock-life was by no means solved. But he found himself suddenly less amenable to that kind of reasoning.
He discovered that the other leaders, once they heard the detailed account of his experience, were equally reluctant to wait.
"Our women have gone crazy about that man," one individual said angrily. "Do you know what my wife suggested when she heard that Frank Stratton was dead? She thought his widow ought to marry Rogan right away, before he went away. Of course, from all accounts, he’s not the marrying kind. But just imagine having such an idea instantly."
"It’s a survival instinct," said another man. "History is full of stories of women who have wanted their children to be fathered by famous men. In this case, with Rogan’s special ability—"
"Not so special," somebody interrupted. "Our own leader, Leonard Hanley, discovered the enemy without any help from the famous man."
Hanley ended the somewhat heated discussion finally by saying, "It will take us most of today to get our main equipment down. If Mr. Rogan condescends to turn up before we’re ready to disembark the women and children, he can offer his views at that time. Otherwise—"
Mark Rogan, as it happened, did not condescend to turn up.
THE LANDINGS were made in open areas along the river bank in the forested valley below the falls. By noon, everybody was on the ground. Hanley had a final consultation with Captain Cranston, and was informed that the COLONIST 12 would leave immediately.
"We’ve already been far too long on this trip," the officer said in justification. "The owners will be furious."
Hanley could feel no sympathy for the gentlemen, but he recognized that he and the others would experience the grimmer effects of that commercialism. He tried to thing of something that would delay the ship’s departure, but all that occurred to him finally was:
"What about Mr. Rogan? Aren’t you going to wait for him?"
Captain Cranston shrugged. "A patrol ship will probably pick him up. Well, good-bye."
As they shook hands, Hanley thought cynically that there was no suggestion now that Rogan could travel through space without spaceships. It seemed amazing that anyone could have believed such nonsense.
Mid-afternoon. Out of the corner of one eye, Hanley saw Eleanora—who had been working beside the tent—snatch a compact from a pocket of her slacks, and hastily start to powder her face. Hanley glanced in the direction she had been gazing, and winced. Mark Rogan was coming toward him along the river bank.
The Patrolman said nothing until he was less than half a dozen feet from Hanley. Then: "Where’s the ship? Mr. Hanley, did you order this landing?"
His voice was as soft as it had always been, but there was an edge of suppressed anger in it that chilled Hanley despite his confidence. The thought came: "Have I possibly made a mistake?"
Aloud, he said, "Yes, I ordered the landing. It lust happens, Mr. Rogan—" he was beginning to feel sure of himself again— "that I discovered the nature of the hostile life on this planet, and we have taken all necessary precautions."
Twice, Rogan seemed about to speak, but finally he stepped back. There was an enigmatic smile on his face as he looked around at the busy colonists. Several trees had been chopped down, and they were now in the process of being converted to plastic.
Silently, Rogan walked over to the complex machinery, and watched the bubbling up of the sap in the wood as it was sawed, and then the swift chemical action that neutralized the resinous substance.
He came back to Hanley, and his vividly green eyes seemed to glow with irony, as he said, "What did you discover?"
He listened with his head slightly tilted to one side, as if he were hearing more than the words. And his eyes had a faraway look in them; he seemed to be gazing at a scene that was in his mind. He said finally, "You think then that the crystal you saw in the rock after you had smashed it was possibly the ’brain’?"
Hanley hesitated; then defensively, "The piezoelectric crystal is the heart of radio and television engineering, and in a certain sense crystals grow, and—"
He got no further. Eleanora had run forward and grasped Rogan by the arm. "Please," she begged, "what’s wrong? What’s the matter?"
Rogan released himself gently from her fingers. "Mrs. Hanley," he said quietly, "your husband has made a deadly dangerous error. The stone activity is merely a product of the scientific control which the ruling intelligence of this planet exercises over its environment."
He turned, to the stricken Hanley. "Was there a strong wind at any time while you were being attacked?"
Hanley nodded mutely.
Rogan said, "Another manifestation."
He looked at his watch, and said, "It’s a little more than two hours till dark. If we take only essentials, we can be out of this valley before the sun sets."
He paused. His green eyes fixed on Hanley’s wavering gaze with a bleak intensity. He said curtly, "Give the command!"
"B-but—" Hanley stammered his reaction, then pulled himself together, "It’s impossible. Besides, we’ve got to make our stand somewhere. We—"
He stopped hopelessly, already convinced, but too miserable to go on.
Rogan said, "Give the order, and I’ll explain—"
SHORTLY after night fell, a gale wind sprang up. It blew for an hour, sand-filled, stinging their faces as they walked behind the long rows of caterpillar tractors. All the younger children were taken up in the six crewboats. When the storm was past, several of the healthier children were brought down, and their places in the boats taken by women who could no longer remain awake.
About midnight, the attack of the stones began. Rocks twenty and thirty feet in diameter thundered out of the darkness into the range of the groping searchlight beams, which were mounted on the tractors. Before the extent of the assault could be gauged, two of the tractors were crushed. Metal screeched, men shrieked in dismayed agony—and mounted ato-guns pulverized the rocks before any more damage could be done.
Several people had to be rescued from small stones that attached themselves to shoes and boots, and prevented all except the most awkward movement. When that was over, Hanley had to walk among the weary men and women, and insist that Rogan’s directive to "keep moving" be obeyed.
Just before dawn, the ground under them began to heave and shake. Great fissures opened, and individuals had terrifying experiences before they were pulled to safety out of suddenly created abysses.
As the faint light of day broke through the blackness of the horizon, Hanley mumbled to Rogan, "You mean—they can cause sustained earthquakes of that proportion?"
Rogan said, "I don’t think that will happen very often. I think it requires great courage for them to penetrate hot rock areas where such phenomena can be stirred up.”
He broke off, thoughtfully: "I see this as an ally arrangement, with the onus being on man to prove that he can be helpful. Of course, it will take a while—after this unfortunate beginning—to persuade the Intelligence to consider such an arrangement.
It doesn’t think in human terms."
Hanley was intent. "Let me get this clear. You’re taking us to a flat plain north of here. You want us to build concrete huts there while we wait for you to persuade the Intelligence that we mean no harm. Is that right?"
Rogan said, "It’d be better if you kept moving. But of course that would be very difficult . . . with women . . . children." He seemed to be arguing with himself.
Hanley persisted, "But we’ll be reasonably safe on such a barren plain?"
"Safe!" Rogan stared at him. "Man, you don’t seem to understand. Despite the similarity to Earth appearance, this planet has a different life process. You’re going to learn what that means."
HANLEY felt too humble to ask any more questions. An hour later, he watched as Rogan commandeered one of the crewboats, and flew off into the morning mists. About noon, Hanley dispatched the other crewboats to rescue some of the equipment they had abandoned the night before.
The boats came back about dark with a weird report. A barrel of salt meat had rolled away from them, and had evaded all their efforts to capture it. An atomic jet proved a hazard. It would start up, and lift itself into the air, and then shut off and fall back to the ground, only to repeat the process. It almost wrecked a crewboat before a magnetic crane mounted on another boat lifted it permanently clear of the ground. Thereafter it remained lifeless.
Hanley guessed unhappily: "Tentative experiments."
The colony spent the night on a level grassy plain. Guards patrolled the perimeter of the encampment. Tractor motors hummed and pulsed. Searchlights peered into the darkness, and all the grown-ups took turns at performing some necessary duty.
Hanley was awakened shortly after midnight by Eleanora. "Len—my shoes."
He examined them sleepily. The surface was all bumpy, with tiny knobs protruding through the polish. Hanley felt a grisly thrill as he realized that they were growing. He asked, "Where did you keep them?"
“On the ground?"
"You should have kept them on," said Hanley, "the way I did mine."
"Leonard Hanley, I wouldn’t wear shoes while I’m sleeping if it’s the last—" She stopped, said in a subdued tone, "I’ll put them on, see if they still fit."
Later, at breakfast, he saw her limping around, tears in her eyes, but without complaint.
THAT AFTERNOON one of the tractors exploded without warning, killing its driver. A flying segment tore off the arm of a five-year-old boy nearby. The women cried. The doctors eased the pain with drugs, and kept him alive. There were angry mutterings among the men. One man came over to Hanley.
"We’re not going to stand for this much 1onger," he said. "We’ve got a right to fight back."
Rogan turned up just before dark, and listened in silence to the account of what had happened. He said finally, "There’ll be more."
Hanley said grimly, "I can’t understand why we don’t set fire to every forest in this part of the planet, and clear the damned things from this whole area."
Rogan, who had been turning away, faced slowly about. His eyes were almost yellow in the fading light. He said, "Damn you, Hanley, you talk like so many scamps I’ve run into in my business. I tell you, you can’t defeat this tree intelligence with fire, even though fire is the one thing it’s afraid of. Its fear and its partial vulnerability is man’s opportunity, not to destroy, but to help.”
Hanley said helplessly, "But how does it operate? How does it control stones, and make winds and—"
“Those phenomena," said Rogan, “derive from the fact that its life-energy flows many times faster than ours. A nerve impulse in you and me moves approximately 300 feet a second. On this planet, it’s just under 400,000. And so, even rocks have a primitive life-possibility.
Crystals form easily, and can be stimulated to imitate any vibrations that affect them. Far more important, there is a constant flow of life-energy through the ground itself. The result is that everything can be affected and controlled to some extent. Divert the energy to the ground surface through grass-roots and sand; and great winds rush in to cool off the ’hot’ surfaces. Divert it through one of our tractors and—"
"But," said Hanley, who had been frowning, "why didn’t that tree I was on for a whole day and night—why didn’t it try to kill me?"
"And call attention to itself!" said Rogan with that tight smile of his. "It might have tried something against you that would appear accidental—like the breaking of a branch that could make you fall—but nothing overt."
He broke off, firmly, "Mr. Hanley, there is no method but cooperation. Here is what you’ll probably have to be prepared to do."
He outlined the steps, coolly, succinctly. No encroachment for several years on an area where there were trees. Definitely no use of lumber for any purpose, except such dying wood as Rogan might, by arrangement with the forest, assign to be cut. Establishment of fire-fighting equipment to help all forests in the vicinity of the colony against spontaneous fires, the pattern later to be extended over the entire planet.
When Rogan had finished, Hanley considered the plan, and found one flaw in it. He protested, "What I’d like to know is, how are we going to maintain contact with this Intelligence after you’re gone?"
As he finished speaking, he saw that Eleanora had come up beside him. In the fading light, it seemed to Hanley that she was bending forward, as if straining for Rogan’s answer.
Rogan shrugged. "Time alone," he said, "can resolve that problem."
THEY BUILT the village of New Earth beside a brook. There were no trees anywhere in sight. According to Rogan, the small shrubs that lined the banks of the stream were but distantly related to the greater tree-life, and could be used for any purpose.
There were no less than eighteen rock attacks during the next eleven days. In one of them, a stone one hundred and ninety feet in diameter roared across the plain toward them. It smashed two houses, plunged on for a mile across the plain, and then turned back. Crewboats with ato-guns successfully exploded it before it was able to return to the village.
And then one night nothing at all happened. At dawn, Mark Rogan turned up, pale and weary looking, but smiling. "It’s all right," he said. "You get your chance."
Men cheered hoarsely. Women wept and tried to touch his hand. Hanley stood back, and thought: "It’s too soon to tell."
But the days passed, and there were no more manifestations. The guards began to sleep at their posts, and finally were no longer posted. At dusk on the eighth straight day of peace, there was a knock on the door of Hanley’s house. Eleanora answered, and Hanley heard her talking to someone in a low tone. The softness of the other voice made him abruptly suspicious, and he was about to get up from his chair, when the door shut, and Eleanora came back in. She was breathless.
"He’s leaving!" she said.
Hanley didn’t ask who. He hurried outside, and saw that Rogan was already at the outskirts of the village, a vague figure in the gathering darkness. A week later, there was still no sign of him. Among the rank and file of the colonists, the whisper was that he had gone in his fashion to some other part of the galaxy. Hanley ridiculed the story, but when he heard it soberly stated in a gathering of technicians, he realized gloomily that the legend of Mark Rogan would survive all his denials.
Two months passed. Hanley awoke one morning to find that Eleanora had slipped into the bed beside him. "I wish to report to my lord and master," she said airily, "that there’s going to be an addition to the Hanley clan."
After he had kissed her, Hanley lay silent, thinking: "If it has green eyes and jet black hair, I’ll—I’ll—"
He couldn’t imagine what he’d do. He groaned inwardly in his terrible jealousy. But already at the back of his mind was the realization that the race of man would survive on one more alien planet.
 The Ghost was first published in the August 1942 issue of the bi-monthly magazine Unknown Worlds.
– with the original Unknown Worlds illustrations by Orban.
 The Witch was first published in the February 1943 issue of Unknown Worlds.
– with the original Unknown Worlds illustrations by Orban.
 Juggernaut was first published in the August 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, with illustrations by Kramer and cover artwork by Timmins.
 The Cataaaaa was initially published in the July 1947 issue of the magazine Fantasy Book, vol. 1 no. 1.
 The Ship of Darkness was first published as the cover story in the February 1948 issue of Fantasy Book, vol. 1, number 2.
 Rogue Ship was first published in the March 1950 issue of the magazine Super Science Stories.
– It was renamed The Twisted Men for the publication of an anthology of the same name in 1964, and parts of the story were also incorporated by van Vogt into the (very different) “fix-up” novel also called Rogue Ship that he put together from various bits and pieces in 1965.
 Haunted Atoms was first published in the Spring 1951 issue of the quarterly sci-fi 10 Story Fantasy magazine.
– republished in two other sci-fi magazines in the fifties, it’s one of the rare golden-age van Vogt stories never to have been published in any hardcover or pocketbook anthology since then.
– with the original artwork by Fischer.
 The Star-Saint was first published in the March 1951 issue of Planet Stories.