The Citadel Of Death
By CARL SELWYN
Vulcan held the weirdest secret of the ages,
one of eternal life that Rick Norman had to
find to save his friend from death. But it held
another secret, too—one that was so vicious,
even knowing it meant Rick Norman was doomed.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Fall 1944.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
“It’s too risky for you to go alone, Johnny,” Rick Norman said. “Wait till I get through showing the Senator around the mine. Then if you still think your gravity gadget can get us to Vulcan against Sun drag, we’ll go look into this Fountain of Youth business together.” He knew Johnny wasn’t paying any attention to his argument, however, and as he talked his big fingers were busy under the table unfolding the wax paper from the two small green capsules—Martian knockout drops. Two of them would be enough to put Johnny out for a week.
Johnny Gordon’s black hair gleamed in the nightclub’s orange light. When he laughed, his tanned face was surprisingly boyish—surprising because his name was linked with adventure in headlines on many planets. “You think the patrol’s going to be laying for me off Mercury,” he laughed. “Well, I’d like a little excitement.”
Norman dropped the wax paper on the floor and hid the capsules in his big palm. Johnny was right—they would’ve had a lot more fun if they’d never bumped into that dead comet off Neptune. But how were they to know that cold hunk of drift metal would turn out to be solid platinum? That was three years ago and now their income was a number like the circumference of Jupiter in feet. To him it was a devil of a responsibility. To Johnny it was just plain boring.
But he couldn’t let Johnny get himself killed running away from a full dress suit. “Okay,” he said, faking resignation. “You win.” Roughly handsome, Norman’s hell or high water smile was as much a part of him as his long legs. He filled their glasses as the orchestra started moaning Martian Moon, dropped the capsules into the bubbly green wine in Johnny’s glass. “Here’s to the Twenty-First Century Ponce de Leon,” he smiled, raising his glass.
Johnny reached across the table and picked up the bottle. “Here’s to the boredom of a million dollars,” he said and drank the toast straight from the bottle. He wiped his chin, grinning. “You ought to know you can’t catch me on a Martian mickey. They stop the bubbles.”
As Norman stared at the suddenly lifeless wine in Johnny’s glass, he realized there was only one thing left to do. He knew a couple of boys who were pretty handy with a blackjack and he knew an old hunting lodge in the Adirondacks where they could lock Johnny up for a week.
The next morning as Norman was packing his bags, one of his “boys” appeared at the door. His eyes were black and swollen. Embarrassed, he held out an envelope. Norman tore it open.
“You’ll find your other playmate locked in my bathroom. I’ll bring you a jug full of the Fountain of Youth.” The note was written in Johnny’s careless scrawl! Norman flicked the ampliphone button in the little table beside his bed.
“Interstellar Spaceport!” he ordered the invisible telemike as he pulled a handful of bills from his pocket and shoved them at the battered gentleman in the door. “Thanks for trying, Spike. Go kick Johnny’s bathroom door down. Joe’s locked up in there—”
“Spaceport,” the wall speaker said.
“John Gordon,” Norman asked, waving Spike out, “has he been there?”
“Mr. Gordon took off half an hour ago, sir,” said the ampliphone. “For Mercury.”
“Thanks….” As Norman clicked off the receiver, premonition crept over him like a shadow. His hand moved to the receiver again—to call for a ship and follow Johnny. Then the ampliphone buzzed under his hand.
It was the Senator. He was waiting at the capital.
As he started throwing shirts into his bag, Norman knew it was against his better judgment. But after all, Johnny could take care of himself. Spike’s hamburger face proved that.
It was with this thought that he picked up the plump Senator and left for the platinum comet. When the sleek private cruiser nosed into the little world’s artificial air three days later, the mine foreman met them with a radiogram in his hand.
Silently cursing the static that had interfered with space reception on the way over, cold fear clutched at Norman’s heart as he read the message. “The platinum’s yours,” he told the astonished mine foreman. “Show the Senator around.”
As their bewildered faces stared after him, he took off for Earth again immediately.
The trip back was maddening and he ignored all speed laws as he roared full-throttle into the bright mountain range that was New York City. Newsboys were still shouting the headlines on the street when he reached the hospital.
“FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH IN TRAGIC REVERSE! JOHN GORDON FOUND IN DRIFTING SPACE BOAT! INVENTION MISSING!”
Norman shoved a bill at the driver, jumped out of the taxi and ran up the hospital steps. The girl at the desk recognized him. “Room 947, Mr. Norman. Dr. Smyth is expecting you.”
He hurried to the elevator where a mob of reporters were also waiting. “What do you think happened to him, Mr. Norman? Do you think he reached Vulcan? What do you think became of his cruiser with the anti-gravity invention?”
“Later, boys,” Norman said, his familiar smile a little shaky now. “I’ve got to see Johnny first.”
A black-bearded doctor opened the door at his knock. From within the room came an odd babbling sound like a child talking to itself. Looking over the doctor’s shoulder, Norman saw an old man lying on the white bed. He stepped past the doctor into the room.
Propped up on pillows, the old man lay there like an ancient withered mummy. Only his skull-like eyes were alive, yellow and wild as he stared at his disfigured hands. His hands were more like paws for each finger and thumb had been severed close to the palm, the scars well-healed as if the mutilation had happened years ago.
“They found his pilot’s license in his pocket,” the doctor said, “and the blood test proved his identity.”
“No!” Norman said, turning back to the bed. “This is impossible!”
“I’ve given him a thorough examination,” the doctor said. “He has every condition of advanced senility. We can’t say how he lost his fingers nor how they healed so quickly. We only know this,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “that he is very near death of old age….”
Norman’s eyes were damp. Through the window the afternoon sun lined the old man’s sunken cheeks with deep shadows, gleamed on his thin, white hair. His voice was a high-pitched quaver. “My hands… my hands….”
Norman sprang to the bed, knelt beside the ancient creature. “Johnny! It’s me! Rick! Tell me what happened!”
But the old man stared at him blankly, then looked back down at his hands again.
Norman got to his feet slowly. “Okay, Johnny,” he said through tight lips. “But I’ll find out what happened to you. And I think I know where to start.”
Twenty minutes later, however, the pudgy Gorig Sade, Ambassador from Mercury, could offer little information. He leaned back in his gilded chair and raised his hand toward the sunset at the window. His right hand was artificial, an electric member in flesh-like plastic. “Behind that Sun,” he said, a slight smile on his thick lips, “lies a planet without a human footprint. Within the Mercurian Zone of Protection, Vulcan is closely guarded by the Mercurian Zone Patrol. Vulcan is a death trap—too close in the Sun’s gravitational field. We cannot answer to the safety of those who slip past the patrol and enter the whirlpool.”
Norman smiled, as a fighter smiles at his opponent when he comes out at the bell. “That’s enough of that line, Sade. When did your patrol last see John Gordon? They were waiting for him off Mercury. You’ve had your paid killers after him ever since he refused to sell out to you. Now his gravitational counteractive turns up missing. It would have meant a lot to Mercury—or to you, rather, since your rotten politics owns the place.”
Sade got to his feet like a disturbed bull. “Get out!” His electric hand hummed as he raised it toward the door. “I shall see the Secretary of State about your insult!”
Norman’s left hand shot out like a striking snake, clutched the Ambassador’s collar and dragged him out of his chair.
“Okay, Sade,” he smiled, “but there’s one thing maybe you don’t know. Johnny built two ships, a smaller one before he equipped the cruiser he left in. I’m taking that ship to try to reach Vulcan. Johnny’s spectroscope proved a lot about this Fountain of Youth business and now it’s the only chance to save his life. Anyway, I’ll find out what happened to him, and if you had anything to do with it, I’m going to tear your yellow throat out.”
He slammed the sputtering Ambassador back into his chair, and left the office. Now Sade would forget the Secretary of State and order his patrol to be waiting for him. A burst of flame in desolate space and who would know.
Ten minutes outside the Mercurian Zone of Protection, Norman welcomed the misty glow as live nebulae engulfed the transparent dome surrounding him. It brightened the monotonous blue light in the pilot room and erased his lonely reflection in the foot-thick thermo-glass that darkened the white-hot glare of space ahead.
Traveling near Mercury was like walking a tight rope. A few degrees off course and the delicate balance between worlds would totter—jerk him away to a charred plunge into the Sun. Also, Sade’s wolves might appear any moment now. But he’d get through them, he thought, slapping the trigger grip of his panel guns. The picture of Johnny back there in the hospital, however, was an ache in his throat that dulled his excitement—an excitement reminiscent of hundreds of tight spots they’d squeezed through together before they’d struck it right and traded adventure for tea cups. Helpless, crazed, eighty years old before his time—why hadn’t Johnny waited! But he was bull-headed and bored, anxious to prove what his spectroscope hinted—that Vulcan, close in the arms of the mother Sun, was a spawning place for life itself. Ponce de Leon again, in 2063….
Grinding out his cigarette, Norman glanced at the chart in his lap, eyed the circle that was Vulcan, a white circle—unexplored. Deep in the whirlpool of the Sun’s gravitation, it had lured countless ships to a hurtling destruction until a trade-wise Mercury placed guards around the area and its siren world.
Norman glanced up from his musings as the filter’s blue light darkened the room again. The nebulae outside had vanished. Almost human, that glass! The hotter it became outside, the darker the glass became—not only shielding the pilot’s eyes but perfectly maintaining the insulation of the control room. Suddenly he jerked his head up, chilled as he stared at the mirrored wall in front of him.
Reflected in the glass, a ghostly figure stood behind him in the galley door.
It was a feminine voice. Slowly, Norman swung his long legs around and stared at the girl, too astonished to speak. She was just a kid, about fifteen years old, wearing baggy white coveralls. A mop of honey-colored hair framed her pert freckled face.
She held up her hands as if to keep him away. “Now don’t get excited.” Her blue eyes were like a kitten’s. “I’m Dorothy Gray. My father owns the Daily Times and I work on the paper during vacation. I played stowaway because you’re on the trail of the news story of the century. While you were checking out with the dispatcher,” the girl grinned, “I emptied your food locker and crawled in myself. I know you must be trying to find out what happened to your friend. You’re the type that gets things done.”
Grinding his teeth, Norman turned back to the control panel and reached for the turn lever. Now he had to take this brat to Earth—when Johnny’s life depended on haste in the opposite direction. No! He’d put her in a space suit and kick her out. Johnny was his best friend. His anger hovered an instant over the decision. And in that instant he saw the girl step aside. His mouth fell open as another figure appeared from the galley.
This time it was a grown woman—breath-takingly grown. She walked in like she owned the place, smoothing a tweed skirt above bare legs that could have graced a glassilk hose advertisement. Above a crimson blouse, her hair was black as sunless space against her cloud-like skin. She was obviously Venusian, with the orchid-like beauty of all women of the emerald planet. In her hand was a stubby jet of a pistol, the round hole of its barrel staring into Norman’s bewildered eyes.
“Hello, handsome,” she said, ignoring the girl beside her. “I was in your ammunition locker. I’m Keren Vaun. Just stick at those controls. I’m here to make sure that the patrol gets you.” She sat down on the metal box beside the galley door. She crossed her trim legs and held the pistol steady on one rounded knee.
“Okay,” Norman smiled. “If that’s the way you want it.” He turned around, clamped his long legs under the control seat, and flipped the stabilizer switch. Their little world turned upside down, sprawling both females across the floor in a mass of contrasting legs and arms.
When the switch flipped back into contact, the ship righted itself instantly and Norman stepped across the room and picked up the pistol. He stepped back and squeezed his panel triggers. Dead guns. “So you’ve carted out all my ammunition and Sade is really after me.”
The Venusian woman pulled herself up off the floor. “You’ll find out when the patrol sights you.” Her black eyes looked as deadly as her gun had.
“Let ’em come,” Norman said.
As if his words were a cue, a bell tinkled in the room. He jumped to the panel and turned a dial, lighting the blue filter to scan the void outside. The magnetic detector warned of something outside—a patrol cruiser!
Norman fingered his triggers instinctively, then left the dead guns in a rage as black as the Venusian’s hair. The only thing he could shoot at the patrol were his hull fire extinguishers. He clicked on the rear view screen—he had to see the patrol first now—outmaneuver them somehow. But behind him was only the blackness of space.
The raven-haired woman’s sparkling eyes grew nervous. “If those fools shoot—” She lit a cigarette, exhaling quickly.
The bell rang frantically. Something was coming at them, fast. He traversed the screen again but around them was no visible thing. The sun was too bright. There was only one thing to do. His hand fell on the wheel, twirled it around to swoop off course—try to dodge the patrol, wherever they were—take a chance on fighting his way back against Sun drag.
A flash of red light burst into the room. The pilot room keeled over. He fell to the room’s glass ceiling that had suddenly become the floor. The women landed in a perfumed heap on top of him.
He stood on the slick curve of glass, eyeing the cut-off on the control panel which was now overhead. A patrol boat had come in from the Sun’s blind spot. They’d chanced a long shot. Jammed the exhaust tube and thrown the stabilizer off balance. Seconds off course. Norman could perhaps have brought her back. Minutes—the Sun was an inexorable pull.
Madly, Norman jumped to reach the cut-off—to cut the unbalanced rocket blast that held the ship on its back in the increasing speed of their dive. Out of control, they were streaking toward the Sun under full power.
The diameter of the Sun is 108 times that of Earth. Its mass is 324,000 times as great. Mathematics could calculate easily the speed of falling into that molten inferno but Norman knew only the thundering of his heart in that silent room. He jumped three times for the cut-off lever—and fell back. Then with fear like steel coils in his legs, he floundered up once more, leaped from the glass and the tips of his fingers brought down the clutch.
The room slowly moved out from under him, sliding the girls across the smooth glass. He was at the controls before the ship righted itself. Sweeping the panel, he jerked every rocket into reverse.
And nothing happened. The power of his blasts was nothing against the direct pull of the Sun, this close. The ship hurtled toward its fiery mass at terrific speed.
Among the battery of instruments on the panel was a small stratometer, calibrated in seconds. Norman saw the pointer moving with the speed of the second hand on a watch. With each jump of the pointer, they fell thousands of miles. Despite the thermo-glass, heat grew in the room like a live thing. In less than three minutes, he realized, the ship would begin to melt. He sprang from the controls, bent over the long coffin-shaped box beside the galley door. His fingers were frantic thumbs as he set the dials. It wasn’t merely a test of the gravitation counteractive now. The mechanism had to work or they would boil like lobsters in the steam of the very air they breathed.
Dorothy Gray stood sensibly out of the way, watching his frenzied hands switch the delicate instrument. The Venusian woman cursed softly, straightening her twisted skirt. “Wait till I see Sade again!” she said. “Ordering his men to fire when he knew I was in here—Hey!” she demanded. “Why’s it getting so hot in here?”
Dorothy pointed toward the instrument panel. “See that little clock,” she said, oddly observant for one of her few years. “That’s a stratometer. My dad’s shown ’em to me on the big passenger lines. It says we’re falling mighty fast. It’s getting hot in here because we’re falling into the Sun.”
Seconds thundered by as Norman twirled the rheostat knobs in the counteractive, fighting to bring the delicate focus of its power into play against the dread suction that was dragging them down. The thermo-glass was jet black now against the solid heat outside. With apparently a knowing hand, Dorothy set the air conditioning unit up to maximum as drops of moisture formed on the ceiling and dampened the pilot room like hot dew. The thermo-glass began to bulge slightly at its invisible seams, first in thin ridges around the ceiling, jutting out more and more as the mad heat increased. Protection against the extremes of temperature in space, it was constructed to follow these lines of expansion. But for how long?
Keren screamed, razor-edged above the electric tension in the room. “Give me a parasuit!” she cried. “Get me out of here!”
Norman’s fingers played the rheostats like a piano. Suddenly an electric eye blinked red as the counteractive fell into focus on the true gravity force sector of the Sun. As he leaped to the controls, his eye caught a glimpse of the stratometer’s small death-white face. They were sixty seconds from cremation….
Slowly, with nerve-tight slowness, he turned the brake wheel a fraction of an inch as the hand of the clock moved on. The room was dim, the panel lights casting weird shadows along the black ridges in the seams of the thermo-glass. The ridges jutted inward over an inch now, spaced two feet apart like braces or rafters around the room.
Suddenly Keren threw herself upon Norman, locked her arms around his neck, dragging his sweaty hands from the wheel. “Stop us!” she whimpered hoarsely. “Stop us, handsome! I don’t want to die!”
Norman tried to fling her away from him but the fear-crazed woman clutched his hair as he took the wheel again and he was almost dragged from his seat as he turned the wheel another notch. The wheel blistered his fingers, but he turned it with will-screaming slowness, ignoring Keren’s clawing hands. The pointer on the stratometer climbed up the dial in short, inexorable jerks. Tick-tick-tick-tick! Tolling their funeral march at a thousand fiery miles per second … per second….
In the nightmare of those moments, Norman saw Dorothy’s reflection in the fog-smeared glass, tugging at the frantic brunette, trying to pull her away from him. He saw her hand rise, a wrench in it. She brought it down on the Venusian’s dark head as the clock swept to its nerve-breaking jump and he spun the wheel with all his strength.
It was a timeless instant. His hand lay limp on the wheel, his eyes on Dorothy’s dim figure in the foggy glass. She stood there like a bad camera shot of a little girl dressed up in her papa’s overalls. Then, slowly, he realized that what he thought was the reflection of one of her blue eyes was instead a small, luminous globe suspended in the bright nothingness of sunlight ahead. He rubbed his sweat-burning eyes.
The blackness of the glass was fading quickly, the seam bulges sinking back with the contraction. Without the slightest tremor, the counteractive had stopped their plunge into the Sun, and the reverse rockets had taken over. They were headed out again. The blue globe grew swiftly as they approached. Source of a thousand tales of terror, Vulcan sped toward them out of the distance.
In a few moments, washed air cooled the pilot room as the air conditioning unit purred full speed. Its soft whistle, the brighter light and Norman’s instruments were the only evidence that they swam effortlessly in a wild current that swept into the gates of the solar hell.
“If we had enough insulation,” Norman said, “we could go into the very flames of the sun. Like we almost did anyhow.” Johnny’s counteractive had given the universe new eyes—to seek an elixir to save his life.
Dorothy held a glass of water to Keren’s scarlet lips. “There’s a mirror in the galley,” she told her. “Go freshen up before we land.” Keren looked like a wilted orchid and Norman smiled, finding it difficult to hate anyone after the ordeal they had just survived.
Keren’s eyes raised to him with an unexpected softness as she stood up. “I’m sorry I acted like an idiot,” she said coolly. “You saved my life and you won’t regret it.” She shook her sleek hair and turned to the galley. “Get out of my way, brat!” she snapped at Dorothy and left the pilot room.
Norman grinned at Dorothy. “You wield a wicked wrench,” he said. “I’m glad you’re on my side.”
The fifteen year old fugitive from a high school journalism class grinned back, wrinkling her freckled nose. “You wield a wicked heart attack,” she said. “Miss Vaun’s on your side now if not on mine.”
He turned back to the controls. They were but a few minutes from the unexplored planet. There was nothing he could do now but take the girls along with him. A junior miss and a Venusian beauty queen, landing on an unknown world.
As they approached, Vulcan filled their window, a great smooth curve, its blue color lightening to green. Norman switched off the counteractive and cut in the landing rockets.
When Keren’s exotic perfume entered the room again, the land below was a map of verdant plains, rolling mountains and glassy seas. Quickly it swelled to jungle and flashing water and, with a champagne tingle in his blood, Norman dropped toward an open well of meadow in the trees.
His excitement, however, was tinged with sadness. Johnny should be here now. They had dropped upon a score of unknown worlds together. Now he landed without his partner, in a last-hope venture to save that partner’s life.
The green vegetation was a colorful contrast against the bright yellow of dead grass. They would have to be careful about fire, Norman knew. He’d seen that thick grass on other Sun-tropical worlds; it burned fast as gunpowder.
This close to the Sun, Vulcan probably had a constant wind. The gravity seemed approximately the same as Earth’s. He plugged in the spectroscope to test the air and as he glanced out the window at the intake valve a slow chill trickled down his back.
It wasn’t only the wind moving the grass outside. The grass was growing.
Dorothy and Keren came to the window. As they watched, the grass beside the hull rose two inches.
“It’s horrible,” Dorothy whispered. Then, “Look!” she shrilled, pointing.
Norman shook his head as if recovering from a blow, the words of the Mercurian Ambassador ringing in his ears: “Vulcan is a planet without a human footprint….” All science knew of this supposedly untrod planet was suddenly a lie. There, beside the ship, was the unmistakable imprint of a human foot.
As Norman looked up he saw a man step out of the jungle and walk toward them across the grass. A jet gun bounced on the stranger’s hip. He wore high-top boots, a checkered hunting shirt and his black-mustached face was heavily tanned. Norman tore himself from his bewilderment and turned on the outside speaker. “Who are you! How did you get here?”
“Same way you did,” the receiver brought the fellow’s voice inside. “Think you’re the only one with a counteractive?”
To Norman’s verified knowledge, Johnny’s counteractive was the only one listed under inter-planetary patents. He turned on Keren. “What do you know about this?” But she held her carmine lips tight, staring out the window.
“The air must be all right,” he said. “Let’s go.” He took his jet gun from the compartment in the control panel and strapped the holster close to his right hand. Hot sunlight burnished the room as he threw the panel switch opening the space port.
He walked to the door. The stranger waited below, hairy hands on his hips. “I hope you’ve got an Earthian cigarette. They’re scarce around here.”
Norman dropped the folding steps and Dorothy, curiosity bright in her kitten-blue eyes, walked out into the windy sunlight. As Norman started out, the port clanged shut in his face, hurtling him back into the middle of the room. Rockets hummed as the ship leaped ten feet in the air.
Keren stood before the panel with her hand on the rise lever. Norman sprang across the room and jerked her aside as the ship sailed out of the clearing and plowed through the tree tops. “I’ve had enough of your tricks, lady!” he said through clenched teeth.
“No, handsome!” Keren cried. “You’ve got to get us away from here!” Before he could right the ship she took him from behind and pinned his arms to his sides.
“You fool!” Norman yelled, twisting her hands from him. “We’re going to crash!” But the woman fought like a panther, black eyes blazing. Controls gone wild, the ship rolled over on its side, and bumped heavily down into the shadowed mire and ground to a halt.
“You crazy witch!” Norman got to his feet, eying the sloping floor and the smoke curling up from the leaves under the ship. The rockets had set the woods on fire. His port rise-rockets dangled, a twisted mass of tubes. “Why’d you do this?” he demanded, facing her with itching fists. “Who was that fellow back there? Talk,” he ordered, “before I slap your painted face off!”
Her eyes were like a half-tamed cat’s. “I’m not talking, handsome.”
Norman looked into her black eyes and ice formed in his heart. “So that was one of Sade’s men back there.”
The outside speaker was still on and in the silence came the crackle of flame as the wind fanned the jungle fire into a rage of orange tongues around the ship. The thermo glass instantly turned black and its faithfully expanding seams began pushing inward against the heat.
Into the room came the hissing of a giant snake. The glass was suddenly drenched with a misty green liquid.
The fire went out as Norman jumped to the window and a silvery bulk floated down into the jungle beside them.
It was a space cruiser, a late model. Twin burnished coils encircled its silvery hull-counteractive coils. Norman knew that, beginning now, was an ordeal that could end only in death for himself or whoever manned that ship. It was Johnny’s ship. Inside it could not be a friend.
Through the filter glass, lighted with the fire gone, he could see out but they couldn’t see in. A port opened in the cruiser’s glittering side, steps fell to the jungle floor and three men stepped out. Norman was not surprised. Two of them wore the fiery red uniform of the Mercurian patrol and Norman’s eyes narrowed when he saw their companion. Fat, clad in a silk shirt with his electric arm swinging jerkily, down the steps came the Mercurian ambassador, Gorig Sade.
He and his patrolmen strode through the muddy ashes with their guns drawn. Norman’s fingers itched for the triggers of his starboard guns. With one burst—! But the guns were empty. Cursing the Venusian woman, he reached for his pistol. He’d shoot it out point blank from the door. Then as his hand moved toward the panel switch to open the door he barely felt the needle enter his back. He saw Keren jump away with the hypodermic needle in her hand.
If she had been a man Norman would have shot her on the spot. Instead, he just looked at her with all the hate in his soul, feeling now the stinging sensation in his back, knowing that something was already seeping into his veins—to knock him out, paralyze him, kill him—just when he had a chance at Sade, just when he had a chance to solve the mystery of Johnny’s death sentence and perhaps find something here to save him.
“The crash must have shook ’em up pretty bad,” said a voice outside. “We’ll have to cut the door open.”
Oddly, as Norman stared at the hypodermic syringe in Keren’s hand he remembered a trick he’d once pulled on Jupiter. A last ditch trick.
His hand jumped to a lever on the panel and jerked it down. He heard an oath mingled with the hiss of antipyrol as his full extinguishers spurted their jets into the jungle for fifty yards around the ship. When he looked out, he saw Sade and the two red-uniformed patrolmen staggering about blindly in the green rain with their hands covering their eyes.
“They’ll be blind as bats for half an hour,” Norman laughed, cutting off the spray. He jerked a coil of rope from the panel compartment. “I don’t know what you stuck me with,” he told Keren, “but if I go out, you are going to be tied up till I come to.” In a moment he had her wrists securely tied behind her. Keren remained silent, staring at him with black-cat eyes half closed.
Throwing the door switch, he stepped to the port and found the three men standing in the ashes between the ships, digging at their swollen eyes. “Get out,” he ordered the sullen Venusian and she walked down the steps ahead of him.
As he went out a streak of flame hissed over the woman’s head and splattered on the metal hull beside his shoulder.
He jumped backward into the cabin, behind the protecting wall. Peering out carefully, he saw a gun barrel glinting in the cruiser’s door. He smiled. “Sade!” he yelled, loud enough for the blinded Mercurian on the ground to hear. “I’m giving you five seconds to tell whoever’s in that cruiser to come out. Then I’m shooting you in the legs—then your good arm—then your yellow belly!”
The fat man groped about wildly, helpless and confused.
“One!” Norman counted. “Two … three … four—”
“Come out, Swart!” Sade shouted. “He’ll kill me!”
“Throw down your gun and come out with your hands in the air,” Norman ordered and to his surprise the dark-mustached man of his first acquaintance appeared in the door with his hands upraised as a pistol plopped into the mud. “Who else’s in there?” Norman was taking no chances.
“Nobody, Mr. Norman. That’s all of ’em.” With excitement in her voice, Dorothy appeared behind the dark-faced Swart and Norman felt a warmth of relief that she was safe. “They picked us up right after you left,” she said.
“Come here and hold this gun, honey,” Norman said. “Miss Vaun sabotaged our ship but we’ve captured a whole herd of pigs and we’re going to have a barbecue.” Dorothy ran across the mud to him. “Keep this gun pointed at the fellow with the mustache. If he tries anything while I’m tying his hands, pull the trigger.”
In a moment, Swart was firmly bound and sitting on the cruiser’s steps. Sade and the patrolmen stood, rubbing their blind eyes and cursing. “You slimy hog,” Norman said, jerking Sade around as he kept an eye on the patrolmen. “If I didn’t want you to do a lot of talking first, I’d tie this rope around your neck instead of your hands.” It was the first time Norman had ever tied up an artificial hand but he only pulled the rope the tighter. Then he sat the unholy group down on the steps of the ship and surveyed them with a wide grin.
“All right,” he said, “who’s talking first, before I start skinning each one of you with a pen knife.”
“There’s a notebook in the cruiser, Mr. Norman,” Dorothy said. “I heard the fat one talking about it. They’ve found something here and the notebook tells all about it.”
“So it’s all written down for me,” Norman laughed. “Watch ’em, Dorothy. If they get fidgety, call me.” He entered the snug, well-remembered cabin. Keren’s hypo must have been pretty weak. He still felt nothing.
He frowned, puzzled to see a narrow tank built around the cushioned wall. Pushing aside the space units—life preservers—hanging on their customary hooks, he rapped the tank with his knuckles. It was heavily insulated, a liquid of some sort sloshing inside. Shaking his head, he went on into the pilot room where his eyes immediately fell on a small black notebook lying on the control panel. He picked it up eagerly.
“Complete life cycle accelerated,” he read on with an eerie thrill. Then, abruptly universal scientific language. “One year equals approximately twenty minutes….” Remembering the quick growing grass, he read on with amazement. Then, abruptly the page became a cross-word puzzle of chemical symbols—it would take time to figure them out—
“I don’t want to stay out there, Mr. Norman,” a voice interrupted him. It was Dorothy standing in the door. “They’re saying such bad words.”
Norman grinned. “Point your gun at ’em to hush,” he said. She grinned back, wrinkling her freckled nose and went outside again as he returned to his perusal of the symbols.
They were a description of the elements in something, in a very unusual combination. Then slowly his eyes raised from the notebook again. Something deep in the shadows of his mind was trying to speak—not about the symbols—about something else. Something he had done? Something he had seen? Anyhow, Norman had been in enough bad spots to pay attention when that ghostly feeling sounded its alarm.
Closing the notebook, he stepped across the pilot room and walked into the cabin, into a pistol’s point blank explosion.
The burst of flame seared Norman’s left side. In the same second, as his hand came up to grab the gun, he realized the impossibility of getting it in time. Swart was too close. His hand dropped to his blistered side. Swart had him between death and surrender.
“You’re lucky,” Swart’s mustache wiggled as he spoke. “Get outside.”
Dazed at the unbelievably swift change of events, Norman obeyed. And as his foot hit the first step he knew what had called him from the notebook.
Dorothy—was no longer Dorothy….
She had been changed when she entered the ship a moment ago but he hadn’t realized it. Staring at her full lips, her higher cheek bones, her snub nose that had straightened into a smooth profile—he forgot the sudden switch of gun authority until Swart jabbed him in the back.
He went down the steps, his eyes on what had been the fifteen year old fugitive from a high school journalism class. Just out of pig-tails and giggles—Dorothy Gray was suddenly a woman. Her freckles were weirdly absent now, her blond hair was longer, her arms were more full—her legs—her—! Her white coveralls had shrunk on what was now a slim, lithe figure. But it was really Dorothy—the same pert face, the same kitten-like eyes, wide with an astonishment as great as his own.
Sade’s laughter broke Norman’s blank stare. “Next time you tie up a man with an artificial arm make sure it isn’t electric. It’s easy to cause a short circuit when you’re soaked with fire extinguisher fluid and when they short circuit they burn through rope very easily.”
But Norman barely heard him, barely saw Swart untying the patrolmen whose swollen eyes were beginning to see again. He was remembering! “Complete life cycle accelerated. One year equals approximately twenty minutes.” He offered no resistance as Swart jerked the notebook from his hand. As the grass grew, so had Dorothy—so had Johnny, to the horrible near-completion of his life cycle. But why wasn’t Sade, Keren, the others affected? Why not himself?
“Let’s get in the ship,” Keren broke into his thoughts. “There’s no sense wasting the best years of this girl’s life out here.” With an unholy smile she walked up the steps into the cruiser.
“Get in the ship, Norman,” Sade said, smiling like a puddle of oil. “You’ve got a lot more to see before we waste the best years of your life.”
Inside the cruiser, Dorothy sank into a pillowed chair and jerked a small pocket mirror before her blue eyes. She seemed unable to decide whether to laugh or cry. Sade, Keren and the patrolmen left for the pilot room, leaving Swart on guard. Immediately, the green foliage fell away from the windows as the ship climbed out of the jungle.
There were tears in Dorothy’s eyes but her newly red-bloomed lips were tight. There was horror in this thing that had happened, years of her life whisked away—she must be eighteen now, and she had the radiant loveliness of clear sunshine.
But Norman’s thoughts dwelt little on the heart-quickening results of her sudden change. He pondered the change itself. Again he calculated the time she had been exposed to whatever grim atmosphere enveloped Vulcan—she couldn’t have been out there more than a few minutes. And in those few minutes she had raced through two long years.
“But why wasn’t I affected?”
Swart sat across the cabin with his pistol in his lap, hungrily nursing a cigarette he had bummed from Keren. “You were in the ship,” he squinted his amusement through a smoke ring. “She was on the ground.” He grinned, eyeing Dorothy. “Shows up better on her too.”
So that was it—something in the dank soil. But what about the others? He asked Swart, who only shook his head. “The boss’ll tell you all you need to know.” And Norman knew there were many questions yet unanswered. Johnny hadn’t been one to fall into a trap laid by nature alone. There was something going on here, more than he knew yet, and something told him that he was on the right track—that in Vulcan’s strange power that dealt both beauty and decay, there was power here that might save Johnny….
Finally Dorothy decided to laugh. “I don’t know what happened,” she said, her voice no longer a child’s, “but there seems nothing to do about it—except to start running around with an older crowd when I get back home.”
If we get back home, Norman thought mirthlessly. If he knew Sade, he and Dorothy were both in the same boat, a boat that would not be long afloat. “I’m sorry, Dorothy,” he said. “It’s my fault you’re here.”
“Wrong,” she shook her blonde head. “I wanted to come with you.” He looked away, sensing for the first time that now, somehow, they were on a different basis. Dorothy was no longer a child and her girlish hero worship was apparently replaced by something more mature.
He felt the cruiser nose down. They were landing again.
Norman reached up and yanked a space suit from its wall hook, threw it to Dorothy. “Put this on over your coveralls.” As he jerked another suit down for himself, he caught a glimpse of a jungle-walled clearing with a peculiar shaped building at the end of a small landing field.
As they slid to a quick stop, the port opened and Sade and his little group appeared again. The fat Mercurian laughed as he saw Norman and Dorothy buckling on the stiff garments. He made no move to stop them. “Keren tells me you’re very interested in our little world,” he said. “That tank along the wall there holds what you’re looking for, but first we must show you around.”
Encircled by the four patrolmen, Norman and Dorothy were hustled out of the ship and across the landing field. The odd, light-house-like building stood at the end of the field, a large windowless structure with a conical tower on top. They were led to the building in silence, ushered into a huge room and the door closed behind them. Venusian mahogany paneled the tapestry covered walls and heavy carved furniture was scattered about the room’s creamy white floor. Sade opened a heavy door at the side and motioned his prisoner-guests in.
“I haven’t time to talk now,” he said. “Here’s something to entertain you until I return.” He flicked a button outside the door, then closed the door, leaving them alone in the small room.
Norman glanced at Dorothy, then turned to examine the place as he took off his helmet. The room was small, dark paneled and windowless like the one outside. A furry zhak-skin rug covered the black floor. He started to speak, but a panel at the end of the room suddenly glowed with the transparent clearness of a window. A television screen—what was Sade up to!
Then Norman sucked in his breath through his teeth as Dorothy clutched his arm. Not the withered creature of the hospital but the tousle-headed guy he’d grown up with—Johnny’s image appeared on the screen.
Johnny stood in what at first appeared to be a clearing in the jungle but as he kicked at some invisible obstacle, Norman realized a wall of glass separated him from the surrounding field outside. The scene was sparkling clear, as if they were watching through a window Johnny’s futile efforts to scale the smooth wall. His path around the enclosure proved it to be circular, about eight feet in diameter. Norman ground his teeth. So Johnny had been Sade’s prisoner!
Johnny took off one of his metal-soled shoes and started hammering the fine glass as if something whipped him into a frantic effort to escape. Dorothy silent beside him, Norman watched the black-haired boy rub his eyes wearily as he pounded with the shoe. How had Sade gotten this picture? What was his purpose in showing it now? The glass of Johnny’s prison must have been superbly invisible but soft for slowly he ground a shallow niche at the base of the wall, a foothold.
Norman felt like yelling a cheer but he whispered an oath as he watched Johnny grind out a higher foothold. Trying to carve a niche higher still, his fingers stained the glass red. Quickly the glass was dripping with blood. “Look at his hands!” Dorothy whispered. In Johnny’s efforts to cling to the wall, the ground glass was eating away the tips of his fingers.
And Norman shuddered to see the gray change creeping over Johnny’s face. Before his eyes, Johnny’s dark hair became streaked with gray and his ashen face became furrowed with wrinkles. Horror-ridden years, swiftly heaped upon him.
Dorothy covered her face with her hands. But Norman couldn’t tear his eyes from the luminous screen. The film had been cut to speed it up. Johnny had hacked five slits in the glass now. His fingers and thumbs were ragged stumps as he hung on the splintered glass, ten feet up the blood-smeared wall. And in his terrible fascination, Norman saw that Johnny’s hands healed almost as fast as they were torn. As the dry flesh of age withered his face, as he sacrificed his hands in a mad struggle to escape the invisible terror in Vulcan’s sunlight.
Norman slammed his fists against the locked door. “Sade! You scum of the universe!” But there was no answer as his eyes were drawn back to the screen to see Johnny’s fingerless paws grasp the rim of his prison. A wrinkled, animal-like thing, eyes yellowed and wild, he drew up his gnarled legs and fell over the glass wall into the gravel on the other side. Half crawling, half running, he disappeared quickly into the trees.
As though a prolonged roar of sound had suddenly ceased, the panel darkened, leaving only Dorothy’s muffled sobs.
But in Norman’s brain was a numb hate that froze his reason. He didn’t hear the door open behind him.
“Interesting, wasn’t it?” It was Sade’s voice. “But in a moment an even more interesting experiment will take place in my laboratory.”
Norman turned slowly. Swart and the two patrolmen stood with the fat man at the door. Norman took one quick step forward. His right hand shot out. His fingers sank like spikes into the flabby skin of Sade’s throat. Another split second and Norman’s fingers would have met behind the Mercurian’s windpipe and ripped it out, but in that split second the patrolmen were on him. Then he was on the floor, fighting silently in the blackness of his fury. A heavy boot caught him behind the left ear and the blackness engulfed him completely.
Battered and bruised, he found himself on his feet when he came to. Sade stood in the door, his good hand fingering the blue welts on his throat. His shirt was in shreds, exposing the white blob of flesh that was his body and the helpless sausage-end stump that was his right arm.
“If I could get my hands on you—” Norman whispered.
“You won’t again,” Sade said hoarsely. “You’re in my hands now. And within the hour I shall have two of them. With them I shall keep you alive forever while you die a thousand deaths. I hold the key to life and death, on Vulcan….” He whirled again and left, followed by his henchmen and the door locked again behind them.
The silky zhak-skin rug was worn with Norman’s pacing when he heard the key click in the lock again. The door opened to Keren Vaun. Ghostly beautiful against the soft light outside, her starry loveliness meant nothing to Norman. He sprang to the door and covered her scarlet lips with one hand, closed the door quickly. “Tell me how to get to Sade,” he demanded, “or I’ll wring your neck right here!”
Keren remained rigid until he loosened his grasp. Then: “Shut up,” she whispered. “I came to help you escape.” She didn’t look at Dorothy. “I came to help you on one condition. That you take me with you—alone.”
Norman hesitated three heart beats. “Let’s go,” he said. He heard Dorothy gasp behind him but he didn’t even look back as Keren opened the door, finger to her lips, and led him out.
Locking the door behind her, she led him down a dim, white-floored corridor. Norman walked carefully, the baggy suit rustling as he moved. Keren halted before a door at the side of the passage. Glancing up and down the vacant hall, she opened the door quickly and went in. Norman followed.
The room was bare with another closed door on the other side. “You don’t need that space suit,” Keren ordered. “Take it off.” Norman peeled the suit off obediently. It was no time for questions. “When I jabbed you with that hypo before Sade found us, it immunized you. It’s a vaccination Sade discovered; we’re all protected here.”
As Norman marveled at this strange woman, understanding now that fact of his own salvation from the powers of Vulcan, she motioned toward the door opposite the one through which they had entered the room. “Sade’s—John Gordon’s cruiser is outside where we left it, about a hundred yards from this door. It’s unguarded but there’s a guard in the tower. He’ll shoot when he sees you so you must get to the ship quickly. The cruiser’s guns are loaded. If you make it, take off and blast this building. I’ll run for the woods.” Keren’s heavy-lashed eyes met his. “When they are dead, Vulcan will be ours.”
Norman smiled. “What if I don’t come back? What if I pull out and radio Earth for help?”
Keren returned his smile, her eyes like a moonless night. “If you don’t come back, I’ll kill the Earth girl inside.” She threw back her head, hair swirling at her pale throat like the flow of black oil. “Now kiss me—and go.”
It was a choice; Keren’s life or Dorothy’s. If he got the ship and Keren ran for the woods, his guns would have to find her before they turned on the house. Then he could bargain with Sade by radio. “I’ll owe you a thousand kisses,” he said, opened the door, and darted out into the sunlight. Then it was raining red heat as liquid fire spurted around his pounding legs.
A bare twenty yards ahead, the cruiser waited, glinting silver in the sun. His pants leg caught fire and he could feel its blistering heat, fanned by the wind, as he streaked across the gravel.
Then he saw it too late. A sheen of crimson in the air. Streaks of red, painted on nothing. Johnny’s blood! Flame from the guns behind him sizzled on the invisible glass as Norman, unable to check the piston power of his legs, crashed into the invisible wall of what had been Johnny’s prison. His forehead hit the glass with a hollow ring. Clutching the wall with both hands, he slid down to the gravel and into darkness for his second failure that afternoon.
Roughly, they dragged him back to the house. But he wasn’t out. Through the searing pain in his head he had fought back to consciousness as the patrolmen touched him. His mind limped through the pain, trying to figure out what to do now as they dragged him into the big front room and dropped him on the floor.
“Imbeciles! Careless fools!”
The voice opened Norman’s eyes, banished the throbbing in his head as he struggled to his feet. But the two patrolmen locked his arms behind him.
“How did he get out!” The fat man glared from Norman to the patrolmen. Swart stood beside him.
“There were only two keys to that room,” Swart suggested.
Sade’s florid face paled, then his button eyes flickered with the cold cruelty of a wild animal. “Find Keren,” he said softly. “Bring her to my laboratory.”
Rick’s eyes showed helpless fury as his arms tightened in the patrolmen’s grasp. “Keren had nothing to do with it,” he said. “I picked the lock.”
Sade reached out and slapped his face repeatedly with his open palm. Hands clamped behind him, Norman took it, barely feeling the stinging blows, their impact light under the impact of what he saw.
“Yes! It’s real!” Sade halted his slapping and, laughing like a fiend, rolled up his sleeves. He held his hands up close before Norman’s eyes. Norman shuddered, staring at Sade’s right hand. Slightly smaller, ghastly white but firm, where the stump of Sade’s right arm had been was now flesh. Blood coursed through the bulging veins, a pale hand extended pudgy fingers.
Sade howled with laughter as Norman drew back from the thing as from a snake. “It’s real!” Sade shouted, gleefully. “Flesh and blood! I have two hands now!” Exultantly, he held his clenched fists before Norman’s white face. “In these hands I shall hold the pulse of the universe, to let it throb or halt at my will. I shall be neither king nor dictator—I shall be a god! The power of life and death in the universe is mine!”
Lifting his gaze from the hands, Norman met the fat man’s eyes coldly. “How’d you do this, Sade?”
Sade’s laughter dwindled to a greasy smile. “After seeing what the power of Vulcan did to your friend, perhaps it is fitting that you should see this power in reverse.” He nodded at the patrolmen. “Bring him along.”
In an arm-lock on both sides, Norman was dragged down the same corridor where he had followed Keren in his futile attempt to escape. They halted at a door at its far end. Sade opened the door and Norman was shoved in.
The place was white-walled and bare, like a hospital room but without the usual furniture. On a four-legged platform in the center of the room lay a large porcelain cylinder, like a chamber used for sterilizing surgical instruments, but the surface of the cylinder was smooth, without gadgets, only a heavily bolted cap at one end. Sade patted the cylinder as a sculptor might admire the work of his chisel. “This holds what John Gordon sought and what you seek now to save his life,” he smirked. “This container holds fluid from Vulcan’s Fountains of Youth!”
Standing before the cylinder, Norman’s mind’s eye searched the situation for some chance of escape. Here was what he had come so far to obtain and he was powerless to take it. But perhaps it wasn’t time; there was much he needed to know.
“Vulcan’s power is a radiation,” Sade said, “but not from the Sun. It’s a liquid under the ground, like Earthian oil—a radioactive element such as science has only found traces of in the cosmic rays. More powerful than radium, it exudes an exciter to growth—a living force.”
“How’d you discover it without being affected by it?” Norman asked.
“Your friend Gordon was the guinea pig,” the Mercurian said. Norman kept still. “After we took him and his cruiser when he entered the Protection Zone, we came here immediately. Working in space suits until my technicians on Mercury discovered an immunization, we brought Vulcan’s strange liquid in like an oil gusher. The effect of the pure liquid is instantaneous; its effects on the surface of the ground outside are greatly diluted. While we built this house round the well, we watched Vulcan’s milder effects on your friend in the glass cage.”
Norman’s jaw paled, but he kept his head. “How did Johnny get off the planet after he escaped?”
“Fool!” Sade laughed. “He didn’t escape. We could stay and watch him every minute—that’s why we left the automatic camera to record his reactions. He did contrive to get out of the cage but when we found him in the jungle we simply took him off the planet and dropped him in space in a life boat where he’d be picked up.” Sade laughed again. “Did you think I didn’t know he built two ships with counteractives! John Gordon’s return was merely a message to you—to come here in that other ship. Now we have the only counteractives in existence. Vulcan is an utterly impregnable fortress. No army in the universe can interrupt my plans.”
Norman realized that everything Sade said was true. No power could approach Vulcan without a counteractive. “What are your plans, Sade?”
The fat man held up his new right arm, his small eyes glowing. “My technicians obtained for me the hand-bud of an unborn child. It was embedded in the stump of my right arm.” He stared at his hand stretched its white fingers, his thick lips smiling. “With but a brief exposure of my arm to a spray of Vulcan’s liquid in full strength, I grew the hand of a thirty-year-old man!” He banged the cylinder with his fist. “What would happen if I sprayed this life-death fluid in a city street! It can be placed in a shell and fired from a gun. I have here a Force that can cause the most horrible of wounds—quick decay. It can utterly destroy or immediately heal. How I use this power depends upon how quickly the governments of the universe submit to my wishes in a new stellar order.”
But Norman had a question stronger than his hopelessness at what he’d just heard. “Could this liquid help John Gordon now?”
Instead of replying, Sade smiled. He stepped over to one of the room’s blank walls and pressed a small button. A wide panel slid back revealing several tiers of wire cages containing monkeys, rabbits, and white rats. Sade scooped a plump slick rat out of its cage and and closed the panel again. Walking back to the cylinder, he slapped the helpless creature’s head against his wrist and stunned it. Then, drawing a flat shelf from the cylinder’s platform, he dropped the unconscious rat on it and threw the heavy bolts on the cylinder’s cap.
Inside the thick-walled container, Norman discovered, were neatly coiled tubes hanging on pegs. Sade grabbed one of the small hoses, pulled it out and squeezed a button on the little nozzle. A fine, blood-red spray hissed from the nozzle and he directed the red mist upon the limp body of the white rat. The damp liquid had barely touched the rat’s fur when instantly its small face wrinkled, its fur grew coarse and thin and it assumed the appearance of a very old animal.
Still smiling, Sade glanced at Norman’s troubled gaze, then shut off the hose, stuck it back in the cylinder and drew out another. The spray that dampened the rat this time was light pink. The rat’s coarse coat thickened, its sides swelled before Norman’s eyes and youth was born anew in the little animal’s very brain as it leaped to its feet and scurried around the shelf with all the energy of fresh strength.
“It’s like many poisons,” Sade said. “Full strength, its effect is death. Greatly diluted—with mere water—its miracles make it an elixir supreme….”
The door opened to Keren, followed by Dorothy and Swart. Keren’s poise little hinted she’d plotted Sade’s death less than an hour ago. Dorothy had removed her space suit; her eyes were red from crying. Keren took a cigarette from her loose blouse. “You sent for me, Sade?”
The Mercurian’s eyes were like a rattlesnake’s as he held out his two hands for her to see. “I have these now,” he said softly. “Soon I shall have every world at my command. Will you marry me?”
The dark-haired woman lit her cigarette calmly, her hand steady. “Yes,” she answered simply.
Sade laughed. “You say yes now because your life is at stake—because you tried to aid the Earthman. But for that you won’t lose your life, Keren. You will lose something you value more than your life, Keren. You will lose—your beauty. Get a rope, Swart.”
Keren flicked her cigarette into Sade’s face. Quick as a whip, her hand entered the throat of her blouse. Norman saw the glint of naked metal flash in an arc toward Sade’s chest. Dorothy gasped.
Keren whirled and lunged at the screaming Mercurian.
The silver dagger sank into Sade’s chest just over his heart. The fat man staggered back. But before he could fall, Swart acted, as quick as a ferret, clipped Keren’s chin, and as she crumpled silently to the floor, he caught the gasping Mercurian and eased him down.
From Sade’s chest blood spurted higher than the dagger’s hilt as Swart yanked one of the hoses from the cylinder and directed its crimson spray on Sade’s wound. Slowly, Swart drew out the dagger’s sticky blade in the spray. When the dagger was out of Sade’s chest there was no visible sign of a wound. Sade opened his eyes and looked up at them.
“What shall I do with her?” Swart said.
Sade got to his feet. He stood there, panting a moment. “The rope,” he said. Swart pushed a wall button, extracted a length of cord from a panel compartment and returned. “Tie her to the cylinder,” Sade hissed, “and tie the nozzle of the hose in her hair.”
In a moment, the unconscious Keren was hanging by her backward-bent arms from the cylinder. The cord was tight from her wrists, around the cylinder and under to her slim ankles. In her hair was fixed the slowly oozing hose. A rivulet of red trickled down her smooth cheek.
“What about these two?” Swart said, motioning toward Norman and Dorothy.
“While we go to repair the new counteractive ship which Mr. Norman so kindly brought us,” Sade said, “we can leave him and his girl in the glass cage.”
As they were marched across the field, Norman remembered Johnny’s face on the hospital pillow—tragic, old. Now, in the green beauty of this time-thundering world, this same fate reached for them as it was caressing Keren’s cheek in the white-walled room in the tower. Norman put his arm around Dorothy’s shoulder.
She drew away. “You deserted me for Keren once. Worry about her now, not me.”
Swart grinned. “You can argue that out while you grow old together,” he said. The patrolman who had come out with them picked up a metal ladder beside the invisible wall and leaned it against the rim of the glass. Then, smiling, he walked back and grabbed the collar of Dorothy’s coveralls. “We sealed up the chinks to keep ’em from pulling the same trick Gordon did but hadn’t we better strip ’em to make sure?”
Norman’s fists tightened but he felt the barrel of Swart’s pistol dig into his side. Then, on a quick thought, he drew a half-empty pack of cigarettes from his pocket. “Leave her alone, Swart. We haven’t anything to escape with. Take these cigarettes for our clothes.”
The dark man’s hand snatched them greedily. “I don’t know why I don’t take both.” But he stepped away from the ladder and waved his pistol at them. “All right. Get in there. In ten seconds I’m shooting.”
Norman followed Dorothy up the rungs of the ladder, climbed around her and—as Swart raised his gun menacingly—hung on the rim of the glass and dropped the twenty feet to the gravel inside their prison. Dorothy climbed over and dropped into his waiting arms.
As the patrolman took the ladder down, Sade and the other red-uniformed gorilla left the house and walked toward them across the field. They came up and halted before the glass, staring in at them and laughing. Dorothy stood beside Norman and he took her hand tightly.
“When they leave we’ll start to work,” he whispered. “We’ve got to get you out of here quick.”
“Why only me?”
He told her about Keren’s hypodermic work. “But first you’ve got to believe me,” he said. “I didn’t desert you when I left with Keren. It was our only chance to escape. I was coming back for you. You’ve got to believe me.” He turned and took her shoulders in his hands, looking into her blue eyes.
She bit her lips, staring at him. Then, “I don’t want to believe anything else.”
Norman squeezed her shoulders, then glanced up to see Sade and his men walking toward the cruiser, leaving the house deserted except for Keren chained to a doom of unspeakable horror inside. The cruiser leaped from the field and floated past them over the jungle. Eying the high rim of the glass wall, Norman waited until the ship disappeared over the horizon, then backed against the glass quickly and held out his hand.
“Quick!” he told Dorothy. “Stand on my shoulders and try jumping!”
Dorothy placed one small foot into his hand and swung up to his shoulders. Norman raised to his tiptoes—every inch counted. “Jump! High!”
Her fingertips missed the rim of the glass two full feet and clawing the slick surface, she slid back down into Norman’s arms. “Try again! We’ve got to get you out of here!”
Again and again she placed her foot in Norman’s hand, swung up, leaped high—and fell back again, her forehead bruised from bumping the glass, her fingernails broken.
“You’ll never make it,” Norman said wearily. “We’ve got to think of something else.” Hammering his fist into his palm, he started pacing the wall. Suddenly he dropped to his knees and started clawing the gravel. But he hadn’t dug six inches when he scraped against concrete. Several different holes proved the ring of glass rested on what had been a refueling platform. “Sade would have thought of that.”
He started pacing the wall again, running his hand around the smooth glass. There had to be a way out! The glass had been the pilot-room shell of a ship, its tapering nose sliced off. He thought of trying to rock it back and forth to turn it over. But the glass weighed tons.
He turned and stared at Dorothy helplessly. She had scratched her finger in one of her falls. Proving again that only her body had grown, she immediately stuck her finger in her mouth upon the discovery of the scratch. Norman’s brain seethed. He couldn’t let this girl die here.
Now, he realized, he faced the same problem that had been Johnny’s. And he knew what withering shadow would claim Dorothy’s lips if he failed. Vulcan was a hell of priceless, fleeing moments; each heartbeat a drum sounding a sickening doom of decay. Each tick of his watch was the footfall of death one step closer. The invisible terror that hovered over Vulcan was beyond the grasp of imagination—but it was real! As real as Keren’s pale face under that trickle of red horror, as real as Dorothy’s fresh loveliness which would soon be eaten away—unless he could get her away from here.
Neither he nor Dorothy had any metal with which he might attempt Johnny’s mad feat. Standing there, looking about the enclosure, Norman’s heart beat quicker with each second as each second took its unseen toll upon the girl who was his responsibility. Looking at her golden hair glinting in the sunlight, Norman suddenly realized she was more than a responsibility…. Quickly he turned away.
The glass was thick, perfectly clear. Only its glimmer in the sun said they were imprisoned. Beyond the field, the ever dying and growing jungle undulated like a green sea. Just outside the glass, the ladder lay on the gravel where the patrolman had dropped it—within arm’s reach and it might as well have been light years away.
“Look!” Dorothy cried. “The scratch on my finger’s already healed.” She held up her finger and there was no mark on it. Vulcan’s power was working, building a life then to tear it down. Each soul-wringing second created beauty, clear blue-eyed, honey-haired beauty—to transform it as swiftly into ugliness….
It was the first time in Norman’s eventful life that he had ever stared defeat in the face. He had met death before and he had been in some pretty tight spots but always there had been some way out. Not here. There was no possible way to climb a twenty-foot wall of perpendicular oil-slick glass.
“I’m afraid I’ve failed you, Dorothy,” he said. In his mind now was only the thought of something he must not do. He couldn’t allow her to go through the horror he had seen on Johnny’s gray face. After two hours, when he saw the first gray hair—he looked down at his hands. They were his only weapons against a longer torture. Could he kill Dorothy with his own hands…?
“Well,” Dorothy broke in on his thoughts. “Sade wins; and when we go, the whole universe is next.” Her voice was a full octave lower than Norman had first heard it when she appeared at his galley door.
Norman walked over and stood before her. “Whatever happens,” he said, “I want you to know this—that I’ve fallen in love with you. You’re the bravest woman I’ve ever known and the most beautiful. That combination usually doesn’t go together.”
She looked up at him with very blue and serious eyes. “I’ve been in love with you for a long time,” she said. “Ever since I first saw your picture in the paper. That’s why I came with you.”
Her words were cut off by Norman’s lips. Then quickly he left her and walked back to the glass, staring out at the wind-whipped jungle. Why wait? Why go through this torture any longer? Get it over with now!
“Gods of the universe, forgive me,” he whispered and turned to take her throat in his hands.
Light flashed across his face. It was Dorothy’s mirror. She held it, smoothing her sun-burnished hair. A thought burst into his consciousness like a butterfly from a cocoon.
He jumped over and snatched the mirror from her hand, ripped his watch from his wrist and flipped off the crystal with his thumbnail, letting the watch drop to the ground.
“What’re you doing!”
He didn’t bother to answer. His pulse was liquid fire as he held the watch crystal close to the glass wall with one hand and focused the rays of the sun into it with the mirror. A thin curl of smoke rose from the jungle across the field. Then where the smoke had been an orange flame licked up from the dry grass. He dropped the mirror and the watch crystal and grabbed Dorothy close to him in the center of their prison, holding her tightly.
Lashed by the wind, the fire spread like a flood. A blast of smoke engulfed the glass obscuring their view with its swirling whiteness. Then bits of flaming ashes dotted the smoke as the flames found new fuel in the rotted trees. Standing there, holding Dorothy in his arms, Norman saw the glass around them slowly darken. Quickly, as the wind brought the increasing heat upon them, the glass turned black and all he could see was the wild smoke rolling across the hole at the top of their stifling cage. He felt Dorothy coughing. Heat swam in the blackness about them.
Then almost as suddenly as it had begun, the wind swept the smoke away and Norman tore himself away from Dorothy and sprang to the glass wall. Without waiting till the glass lightened, he ran his hand across its blistering surface. When the thermal quality of the glass permitted the passage of light and the sight of the smoldering forest across the field, Norman was half way up the slick side, climbing like a ladder the bulging ridges that encircled the glass at its invisible seams.
As Dorothy stared at him, unbelieving, he vaulted over the rim and jolted with stinging feet to the hot gravel outside. The metal ladder was like a live coal in his hands but he barely felt it as he threw it against the wall and ran up it like a squirrel. Sitting on the cooling rim, he drew the ladder up after him and dropped it inside for Dorothy.
Soon they were streaking across the steaming gravel toward the house, Dorothy’s hair streaming in the smoky wind.
Norman burst into the big front room with Dorothy behind him. Their running feet were loud in the silent house as they sped down the corridor, Norman dreading what he would find tied to the cylinder where they had left Keren. “You don’t want to see this,” he said, halting at the closed door. “Try these other doors and find a gun. Sade may be back any moment!”
Dorothy obediently turned away as he went in and the sight that met his eyes was to figure in many a future nightmare. Half way between the door and the cylinder, Keren lay on the floor, more like some hideous reptile than a human being, staring up at him, her eyes two black holes, hate alive in them, the only life in what was left of her face.
Norman stepped over and picked her up, his fingers recoiling from the touch of leathern skin and bone. Her luxurious hair had vanished leaving a skull, cracked skin tight across her cheek bones. The rope that had held her to the cylinder had slipped from her shrunken wrists and how she had crawled this far, Norman couldn’t tell.
He carried her to the cylinder, opened the heavy cap and drew out the small hose that Sade had used to restore to youth the white rat. Quickly, he sprayed the pink liquid upon her face and body—a treatment that was to rewrite all of medical science. Her cheeks swelled again to the form of a living face and like a trick of superimposed motion picture work, before his eyes Keren’s skeletal structure became covered again with firm, rounded flesh, and on her head wispy black threads appeared and extended again into a silken sable mass.
To save the spark of life that remained with Johnny, Norman knew he had to get this material back to Earth now; which meant a finish fight for a space ship. “Are you strong enough now? We’ve got to ambush Sade.”
It was an effort for Keren to reorganize her forgotten coordinations which enabled her to speak. Her lips moved soundlessly as he carried her to the door and down the passage. He explained quickly how he and Dorothy had escaped.
“There are guns in the tower,” she managed to whisper as they entered the front room.
Dorothy stood at the door with two jet rifles, peering out at the still deserted field. “I found these in their bedroom,” she said, handing Norman one of the guns. “Is she all right? I thought—”
Norman told her what he had done to revive Keren. “But here’s what we do,” he said, lowering Keren to a sofa. “Sade will see the empty cage and know there’s something wrong when he comes in to land. He will probably attack the house. We’ve got to get back in the cage. Keren can vaccinate you,” he nodded to Dorothy, allaying her hesitation. “When they land, I’ll jump out and take care of as many as I can. Keren can get the rest from the tower.”
“There’s a glass cutter in the store room,” Keren said, nodding her approval of the plan. Her cheeks were white as paper but she got up and walked unsteadily from the room.
“The liquid brought her back from the grave,” Norman whispered to Dorothy, watching Keren walk up the hall.
Keren returned immediately, and gave Norman the glass-cutter, which was an instrument shaped like a small riveting hammer. “One promise,” she asked. “Sade’s mine. I’ll be in the tower. You’ve got to save him for me.”
Keren took her hypodermic from her pocket and, at Norman’s smile, Dorothy permitted the needle to enter her arm. “All right. Let’s go.”
With the cutter in one hand and the rifle in the other, Norman left the house again with Dorothy running beside him.
At the glass cage again, it was short work to cut a narrow door at the base of the smooth wall. With an eye on the horizon, Norman quickly covered the cutter with gravel, then motioned Dorothy into the invisible enclosure that had been their prison and so nearly their mausoleum. “We’ll play dead,” he explained, stretching out on the gravel with the two rifles hidden under him. Dorothy lay down beside him. “When they leave the ship and come over here, I’ll jump out. You stay inside in case they get a chance to shoot back.”
Suddenly the air hummed with the flow of rockets. “Here they are!” But the sound told Norman that his job was doubled in danger. There were two ships now, the other, his own. They’d repaired it.
Rockets idling, they hovered over the field and slowly settled. Sade’s group was now split in two parties—he couldn’t surprise them both….
“Don’t move!” Norman whispered, feeling Dorothy’s soft hair against his cheek. His fingers tightened on the guns under his body. His pulse was loud in his ears. If they suspected something? But it was too late for worry now. He heard footsteps on the gravel as the sound of the rockets sputtered and died away.
The next second was a lifetime. Then suddenly he was on his feet. He whirled, ducked out through the hole in the glass. The guns in his hands were spitting their red streams, before his eyes found the men before him, and he played the guns like two garden hoses, spraying death. The two patrolmen fell, charred and black. But the two groups had ruined his ambush. Swart sprang aside, behind the glass wall as the flame streaked past him. Norman saw Sade standing in the door of the ship, staring at the wild scene. The door was slammed shut as Norman’s guns splattered the hull with fire. Then the fight was between him and Swart alone.
On the opposite sides of the ring of glass, Dorothy standing there horrified between them, it was one of the strangest situations in Norman’s experience. The glass was impervious to jet fire. Dorothy was perfectly safe. But as Norman moved around the wall to get a shot at Swart, the dark little man also moved, keeping the arc of glass between them. It couldn’t continue. A sudden sheet of flame rushed past one side of the glass, Sade firing from the ship. Swart was not slow to take advantage of the opportunity. Quickly he slid around the wall to corner Norman against Sade’s fire.
Norman stood waiting, rifles poised to blast Swart’s gun barrel as it nosed past the curve of glass. But Swart was no fool. He was playing for time. Norman heard the throbbing as Sade started his rockets. Sade was moving the ship to trap him between their guns.
Norman started to jump back through the hole in the glass. But that would be suicide; while Swart guarded the door, Sade could pick them off from above in the ship. Then an idea whispered in Norman’s mind. If he could lure Swart from the protection of the glass into Keren’s sights in the the tower—if he could trust Keren—but there was nothing else to do. He ducked into the enclosure beside Dorothy.
Swart laughed. Norman could hear it inside the glass. Quickly, Swart stepped to the edge of the hole, his pistol covering their exit, smiling at them through the wall. “You ain’t very bright, Norman.” It was the last breath that ever passed his lips, for a long, thin line of flame suddenly stretched from the tower to the small of his back. Swart dropped without a sound, surprise on his dead face.
But Sade’s ship was already in the air.
“He’ll come and strafe us!” Norman shouted to Dorothy above the roar of the rockets. He took her hand, dragged her out of the cage past Swart’s body. They had to get to the cruiser; their only hope was a fight with Sade in the air. But the sound of Sade’s rockets stopped Norman in his tracks as he started to dash for the cruiser. Sade’s ship was skimming the field, twenty feet off the ground, his rockets sputtering like a gasoline engine with a broken piston.
The ship was headed directly toward the house, apparently unable to rise. Then Norman saw what had happened. Keren’s rifle had hit the rise rocket tube. The heavily repaired solder work had burned through. Unable to gain altitude, the ship hurtled into the house like a freight plane gone wild. The plastic walls ripped like tinfoil as the ship’s heavy nose plowed into the building just below the tower.
There was no explosion. The impact killed the rockets. Dust plumed up like a geyser, disappeared swiftly in the wind, leaving the ship hanging there tail out, stuck in the building like an arrow.
Norman and Dorothy were at the door before the debris stopped falling. The front room was choked with dust and bits of torn plastic rained from the ceiling as they ran down the shadowy corridor. The door leading to the tower stairs hung on its hinges, admitting a beam of sunlight from the demolished upper story. They ran up the broken stairs, swaying precariously. The cracked hull of the ship lay in the debris of what remained of the tower. The wall had been sheared off level with the floor on one side and swaying out from the foundation below a misty rainbow sparkled its colors in the sunlight, hissing softly as the red fluid escaped from a pipe hidden in the wreckage. Sade’s well around which the house was built had split in the crash.
Leaving Dorothy at the top of the stairs, Norman climbed over the chunks of plastic into the tower room. Then he realized his foolhardiness. Too late. A chill tingled the back of his neck as he saw the ship’s port hanging open.
He heard Dorothy’s warning cry behind him as he turned around slowly.
Sade’s grimy bulk stood beside a chunk of plastic at the edge of the littered floor. The sunlight glistened on the pistol in his hand, as it squirted a stream of red flame upon the barrel of Norman’s rifle. The gun dropped from Norman’s blistered fingers.
“You thought you could escape what Vulcan and I can do,” Sade said. “None can escape us, for Vulcan and I control the universe from now on.” He pointed his pistol to the floor at Norman’s feet and pulled the trigger. Norman stepped back as the flame licked up around his shoes. “Keep walking until you fall into that rainbow down there!”
“Wait, Sade!” Norman stepped back again as the line of fire followed him. “There’s no time for this. That pipe’s going to burst wide open any moment!” He shifted from one foot to another, the soles of his shoes burning.
“Jump,” Sade said quietly. He raised the gun higher.
Norman retreated another step. Two feet lay between him and the edge of the sheared wall, the end of the floor, and then the misty lethal colors hissing ten feet below.
Dorothy scrambled over the plastic wreckage and threw herself at Sade, but the flat of his palm met her face and hurled her aside. The line of fire moved to Norman’s toes again, and he stepped back his last step. Like a cobra wavering before its prey, the flame swept back and forth across the floor, inches from Norman’s toes, scorching the floor under his feet. He glanced down at the crimson mist, leaping like a fountain under the splinters of plastic jutting out over it. Then he realized that fate had given him his chance—for a price.
He had come to Vulcan to find something to save Johnny’s life. In the tank in the cruiser out on the field was the fluid that could do that. On the broken wall below him, just over the fountain of death, a piece of the wreckage jutted outward two feet—he could leap to that, swing clear of the mist and reach the ship and be free. He could save Johnny—by leaving Dorothy behind.
There could be no compromise. He had no doubt that Sade would kill her the instant he realized the trick.
Norman glanced back into Sade’s triumphant smile. Suddenly he returned the smile and laughed out loud. “When’d you take your last vaccination, Sade!” he laughed. “Did you know your hair had turned white?”
Sade held his smile as steady as his gun. “I’m not leaving you and look for a mirror,” he said. “No tricks will save you this time. Those shots are good for 24 hours.”
“Not with all this raw stuff in the air,” Norman laughed. “Look how your hands have withered.”
“What matter,” Sade said, “my Fountain of Youth can restore me again.” But his smile loosened, and quick as light his glance dropped to his hands. Norman’s knees straightened like steel springs. The length of flame seared his hip as he sprang. Then his fist piled into Sade’s heavy jaw.
The gun flew out and down into the mist. Sade hit the floor rolling and struggled to his feet as Norman was on him like a hurricane. He crossed jabs into his face with both fists then stepped back and swung a long arc that crushed the big man’s nose. Sade stumbled backward, screamed, arms flailing the air wildly, and fell backward off the edge of the floor.
Norman stepped over and looked down. Deep in the eery rainbow mist that swirled around him, Sade scrambled to his feet and looked around frantically, confused with the colors. His hair turned snow white, his round cheeks tightened across the bones of his face and his big belly vanished in his baggy clothes. He held his hands up before his face and forgot Norman to stare at his skeleton-like fingers. Then, his hands still raised before his eyes, he sank to the ground as his legs collapsed. The shoes fell off his bony feet as he lay there writhing.
Norman shook his head, rubbed his eyes. Sade wasn’t writhing. It was the wind rustling his clothes.
Norman found Dorothy’s sunlit head pressed against his shoulder as she cried like a baby. He touched her hair gently, then turned to the wreckage of the tower.
A moment’s search in the debris disclosed Keren’s broken form. He lifted her dead weight in his arms and with Dorothy behind him went quickly down the stairs. In the front room, he laid Keren on the sofa and, risking one moment more, jerked a tapestry from the wall and gently covered her body. Then they ran out of the house and across the field to the cruiser.
As he helped Dorothy through the port he heard a cyclone roar from the house. He shoved Dorothy in, jumped in after her and slammed the door. Through the glass, they watched the house fly to pieces like a bursting bomb as a giant flower of red spouted high over the field. Then, where the house had been, stood a wavering red column, feet thick, towering above the green jungle. It sprayed down upon the cruiser like a scarlet rain.
They stared at the vivid scene until the red film covered the cabin windows. Then Norman thumped the tank around the cabin wall, heard its dull fullness, and walked into the pilot room and sat down at the controls. “There’s plenty in the tank for Johnny,” he said, “and there’s plenty on Vulcan for the Universe.”
“What shall we name it?” Dorothy said.
As they soared away from the planet and their increasing speed washed the red film from the glass. Norman looked at the dwindling green globe that was Vulcan and lived again, swiftly, all that had happened there. And strangely, now that it was over, one phrase whispered in his mind. I’ll owe you a thousand kisses….
“Let’s name it ‘Kerine,'” he said. “We owe her more than we can ever repay.”
The word “Kerine” was being shouted in every street and across every backyard fence in the universe two days later and it was a tense moment outside a closed white door in a hospital in New York City. Although the surgery was on the fifteenth floor, Norman and Dorothy could hear the clamor in the street below as thousands halted traffic for blocks around and the policemen stood by with folded arms, smiling. Downstairs, the lobby was packed with photographers and reporters, waiting.
As the white door opened, Norman and Dorothy jumped to their feet. Norman could hear his heart thumping above the noise from the street as he looked down at the sheet-covered stretcher the nurses rolled out the door. As the stretcher rolled into the hall, the face appeared and deep within his pounding heart, Norman yelled his joy. Johnny’s face was pale and thin, as if recently recovered from a long illness, but it was Johnny’s face, his barber-shy black hair tousled on his forehead.
“Hello, chum,” Johnny said. “The doc told me all about it.” Then he glanced at Dorothy. “So that’s her.”
“She’s got exclusive rights to the story,” Norman grinned.
“I can’t wait to get back in a full dress suit,” Johnny said. “For the wedding.”#ENGLISH