Vandals of the Void
By ROBERT WILSON
The Void had spawned these hell-creatures
of destruction, had sown them deep within
Earth’s soil. And now Earth was reaping a
whirlwind of death—weapons futile against
the immortal conquerors from another space.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Spring 1945.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Art Douglas saw one of the very first of them, found and brought in by two drivers from the huge steel burrowing worm which was at that time conducting the sub-crust explorations many miles below the rolling Kansas prairies. Why the men should have brought the discovery to an organization such as the Interplanetary Research Institute, was something not quite clear to Art. They must have known, he reflected bitterly, how utterly bogged down the Institute was, how close to absolute disintegration, from inability to work or progress, and the resultant effect on the morale of the highly trained scientists who made up its staff.
But the weird organism which lay before him on the laboratory bench dispelled all such thoughts immediately. His imaginative, yet scientific brain leaped to meet the challenge and the Interplanetary Research Institute became only a workshop full of tools, ready for his use.
It was only natural that he should first assume that the creature-plants were probably native to the level at which they had been found, and that this was their natural environment. How terribly wrong this was to prove! Of the terrible menace in the thing before him, Douglas could not dream; although he could plainly see its potentialities. For it had been found boring through solid rock.
It seemed to have been designed for just that. Its form was that of spiral screw, about a foot long, tapering from a diameter of about an inch at one end, to four inches at the other. In color it was a dull blue-black, the surface fine textured and smooth, and steely hard. Its strength was of steel also, for it was constantly whipping about, trying to fasten its three needle sharp jaws, which were located at the smaller end, in anything it might find. One of the men who brought it had suffered a frightful gash in the forearm before they had learned that this could be avoided by picking it up at the larger end. The creature could not quite achieve the feat of bending itself double.
Art found that once it had hooked those fierce jaws into anything, it started boring and could not be torn loose. However, it would bore only upward! When laid on a flat table, it merely writhed about, looking for some object above it. He held a thick piece of board over it. The head had bored through in a few seconds, but when he turned the board over, it backed out hastily, and flopped to the table again, where it resumed its endless searching, searching for something, anything overhead, in which it could fasten its tenuous grip.
Art called and had a huge two ton block of granite brought in by the overhead crane. In its lower side he ordered some workmen to chip a cavity, a little larger than the creature on the table. The thing was dropped on the floor, and the block carefully lowered over it, so that it was imprisoned in the cavity. Art had a hunch that it would have made little difference to the creature whether it was allowed the cavity, or merely had the block dropped on it. A little shudder ran through him at the thought of such unearthly strength. He decided to go to lunch, before he got too deeply involved.
Passing through the outer office, he met Elene Moor, lovely secretary to Doctor Theller, Chief Director of the Institute and his immediate superior. He had known Elene in college before securing this position, and he remembered the sudden elation he had felt when he discovered that he would be working near the girl for whom he had felt such a hopeless yearning in school. She had been so popular, so surrounded by young men whose zest for life, talent for fun, and supply of ready cash had utterly overwhelmed him. Now, after five years of Interplanetary, such a dull apathy had settled over him that even Elene’s golden loveliness failed to stir him.
“Might as well lunch with me, Elene,” he said, seeing that she was about to leave. “I have an interesting topic of conversation for the first time in ages, it seems. In fact, I’m very anxious to tell you about it.”
She looked at him closely. Something certainly had aroused his interest. His keen blue eyes were alight, and his rugged frame seemed to be invested with a nervous energy which had long been dormant. Elene was glad; he almost looked like the Art she had loved, and had such hopes for, when he had first come to the Institute. But his fine intellect had seemingly withered, stultified by the impossible situation which existed at Interplanetary in the year 2186. Several centuries of scientific struggling had finally produced a mode of interplanetary travel. In 2135, successful landings and safe returns had been made to and from Mars. A year later, Venus was also reached. But fifty-one years had produced little knowledge of any value; progress was at a standstill. Certainly the Martians had been found to be a highly developed and scientific race. They were peaceful and friendly. But they were also very wise. They were acquainted with the history of man on Earth as far back as the time of Christ. Their astronomical instruments made it possible to see plainly events there, under the proper conditions. With the coming of wireless, they had been able to intercept any and all signals they chose. They knew about all they needed or wanted to know about Earth. That was what made them so wary. For they had seen the torture of the early Christians, and the cruel subjugation of the known world by the Romans. They had seen in turn, the overrunning of Rome by the barbarian hordes. They had known Attila the Hun. They had witnessed the Spanish Inquisition. They had seen the slaughter of the aborigines in the new world, their gradual extinction by the white colonists. They had known Napoleon, and most monstrous and horrible of all, Hitler. They had finally seen the Great Gas War, which had so decimated the ranks of mankind, that it had been necessary to set up the International Peace Council, which established peace by the only method which mankind seemed to be able to understand—force.
It was rather simple. The laws were very strict: briefly, the manufacture, transporting, or even possession of any kind of murder weapon, other than what might be carried by a man for his personal defense, was considered sufficient evidence of intent to kill, and carried a death penalty. The agents and inspectors of the Council were everywhere, entering any machine shop or factory at will, constantly checking all sources of raw material, making almost impossible any secret manufacture of any type of armament.
But even this could not convince the canny Martians—for they knew that thousands of years of barbarism were covered only by a thin veneer. At any time, man’s innate desire to conquer, pillage, and exterminate another race might break through. The Martians well knew the age-old tactics of infiltration used by colonists of Earth. Consequently, only a few scheduled rocket trips per year were permitted. The personnel of each expedition was restricted to a few scientists, who were carefully investigated. They were allowed to study the language, customs, and art of Mars. But scientific achievements and secrets were taboo. No Earthman was permitted to roam at will on Mars—the knowledge they acquired there was given them by an interviewing committee of high ranking Martians, whose ability to sidestep a direct question was uncanny.
Of course, there were a few political hotheads on Earth who advocated building a huge fleet of rocket ships, powered with disintegrators, and sending an expedition to subdue the red planet. Naturally, this merely served to corroborate the bad opinion of Earth held by the superscientists of Mars. A few men, such as Doctor Theller and Art, knew what awful disasters such a move would bring. Not only did the Martians have weapons which made the terribly effective, but uncontrollable, atomic disintegrator look like a clumsy toy, but they could also throw up a force field around their entire planet, at an unknown height, against which any invading ship would smash into blazing fragments.
True, there was Venus. Venus, the Jungle Planet. There were two environments of Venus—water and jungle. Both were filled with a teeming growth of nightmarish monsters, among which had been found no intelligent beings. The creatures of Venus were born, fought and ate one another, bred and died. That was all. The whole thing was one vast aquarium. Most of the species had been classified during the ten years following the first landing. There had been many expeditions at first. But gradually they tapered off. Attempts at colonization were given up as hopeless. The climate was sultry and oppressive, but worst of all was the fact that practically all of the vegetation of Venus was poisonous to humans. Any food crops introduced from Earth were strangled by the lush native vegetation, which grew at an incredible rate. Venus had no economic value. Minerals there were, but the expense of freighting them back to Earth by rocket ship made mining impractical.
As Elene mulled over these gloomy thoughts, she and Art had covered the short distance from the office to the tube that led to Food Center. As they entered, she saw that he also was preoccupied. In good time, he would tell her what had aroused his sudden enthusiasm. An empty car came by. A photoelectric cell registered their presence in the tube. It stopped, Art dropped a token in a slot in its side, and the door slid silently open. As they entered, Art grinned and said:
“They’re junking these cars next year. Seems they have developed a new model. They were losing money on these—they waste a lot of time. They always stop for you whether you want a car or not; perhaps you’re just waiting to meet someone, or just got off a car.”
“I hardly see what they can do about that,” laughed Elene. “Telepathic communication between man and a machine is something considered pretty far in the future.”
“They still use the photo cell,” answered Art, “but now it registers a complete picture of you. By a system of hand signals the prospective passenger will be able to indicate whether he wants a car, where he is going, et cetera. Even the control panel, which we now set for our destination, will be eliminated.”
Soon they were seated in the one huge cafeteria which served the entire city of Washington. Various levels were frequented by different classes of citizens, and Art and Elene chose a quiet one, usually patronized by scientific and medical students. Their meal was ordered by dialing from a numbered menu and arrived automatically in a few seconds, piping hot.
Once they were settled, Art began to tell the girl of the weird thing that had been brought him.
“I’ve had no time at all to work on it, of course,” he began, “but this much I can almost say for sure—this thing is not an organism like anything else on Earth’s crust. Its life processes do not depend on oxidation. It’s not composed, as we are, principally of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon. Carbon, perhaps, yes; that might give it some of its hardness—but it’s inert, not involved in any chemical action. The thing neither breathes nor eats!”
“Please, Art, start at the beginning—you haven’t told me what it looks like, or anything!”
“O.K., O.K.,” he grinned, and obligingly did so, concluding with, “It’s not much, maybe—hasn’t anything to do with planetary research, but it’s a job—something to keep me busy. That’s hard enough to find, these days.”
“Art,” she said quickly, “it seems to me that there’s plenty to do now, as never before; so much untapped knowledge right at our fingertips—”
“I don’t see how you can say that,” he interrupted bitterly. “I wouldn’t exactly call Mars at our fingertips.”
“Why Mars? It’s always Mars, Mars. You don’t have to go there. Find out the secrets they know for yourself. Just because you’re stymied that doesn’t mean you can’t go ahead yourself. A young man with initiative could—”
“So I haven’t any initiative!” he flared. “Well, how about yourself? After all, a woman now is as good as a man, you know—with modern advantages, physical strength and endurance aren’t so important. A woman with enough courage and will power can do as much as any man.”
“Yes, Art, but a woman is still a woman. All the scientific progress in the world can’t change that—she still plays the passive role. Woman would cease to be feminine otherwise. That was proved way back in the twentieth century.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he muttered. It had set him thinking. Was he losing his manhood? The human race didn’t have so much need for expansion any more. Only greed and craving for adventure would set a man exploring now. And he had neither. Or had he? He thought of the daydreams he sometimes had—of roaming through the primitive jungles of Venus, searching perhaps for a trace of a near human, intelligent civilization, blasting his way through hordes of threatening monsters. But all that was silly; he was a trained man, and it would be very foolish to risk such a brain as his in that hotbed of violence.
Still, what good was that precious brain doing anyone at Interplanetary? The shortage of radium prevented their going ahead with the program of experiments which Dr. Theller had mapped out. The idea of wasting their dwindling supply in a roundabout process of learning what the Martians could so easily tell them, had turned the staff of the Institute into a pack of frustrated malcontents.
The Earth easily supported its population of ten billion. Masterpieces of engineering had irrigated and made fertile practically all of the Earth’s surface, except around the poles. There was no need to grow crops, anyway, other than that fresh natural foods were more palatable. Enough food for a hundred billion people could be manufactured synthetically from the sun’s rays. There was no need, say, for colonizing Venus, but such a project would certainly provide an outlet for the energies of a bored young scientist.
Art still sulked as they returned to the laboratory, but the idea had been planted in his mind, and the more he thought, the nearer he came to admitting that Elene was right. Little did he dream that he would soon be so busy that looking for thrills would be the least of his worries.
A white faced attendant met them at the front door of the laboratory.
“Dr. Douglas! That thing—we can’t control it—it’s—” Art ran to the room where he had left the creature. The granite block was where he had left it, but had a neat round hole in its top. Then he looked at the opposite wall of the room. It was a crumbling ruin. The wormlike animal had evidently wriggled its way to the plastocrete wall where it had started boring. As the wall was only five or six inches thick, it had kept emerging from one side or another, dropping to the floor, and starting all over again. The attendants, not knowing how to pick it up, had left it alone after suffering several gashes. They were afraid to handle it too roughly, for fear of damaging it. Art smiled grimly at this. He picked the thing up, threw it on the table. He decided that he would dissect the specimen here and now, find the secret of its mighty strength. But at that moment Dr. Theller came in.
“Well, Art, I hope you’ve thoroughly familiarized yourself with that creature because—”
“To tell you the truth, Dr. Theller, I don’t know a darn thing about it!” retorted Art cheerfully.
“You’re going to learn, Art—and mighty soon! I’m going to send you out to Los Angeles. Something catastrophic is happening out there. I can’t get anything very clear over the televisor—I see confused pictures of buildings crashing, utter panic everywhere. All the accounts I’ve heard are garbled—but creatures like this seem to have something to do with it!
“Find out what you can, do what you can, then report back. Of course, the city has no defenses, other than the police force, and they are armed only with shock guns.” It was true—war was non-existent; defensive armament was unnecessary. Everything was fireproof, making a fire department likewise unnecessary.
Art took off in his strato flier from the roof of the laboratory, climbing rapidly until he reached the thin isothermal layer, ten miles up. Then he leveled off, and accelerated slowly to a speed of over one thousand mph. At this rate, he would be able to reach Los Angeles in not over two and a half hours. The time dragged as Art tried to picture the disaster that had overtaken the West Coast city, and just how it could have been caused by animals like the one he had seen.
Art always disliked riding the strato layer. Too far below him were the rich, rolling prairies, the mountains covered with mighty timber trees and lush greenery. There was no desert, no wasteland. Any land not level enough to grow crops, or occupied by cities, was covered by thick forest. The only exceptions were the higher peaks of the Rockies, brilliant white patches against the green carpet. It was a beautiful old planet, this Mother Earth.
Far ahead and to his right, Art finally glimpsed the sparkle of sunlight of the Inland Sea. Once there had been a ghastly blazing hot desert there, called Death Valley, Art remembered from his school geography. Two centuries ago, engineers had dug a tunnel and let the water of the Pacific in, thereby giving the surrounding desert land a much moister climate. Such a primitive measure would not have been necessary in modern times. Distilled sea water could be piped anywhere, in any desired amount, for irrigation.
The sighting of the Inland Sea was a signal to start decelerating. The Los Angeles zone signal appeared, a red light on his control panel. The L.A. beam picked him up, swung him gently to the left, and brought him in automatically.
Below him he saw swarms of family fliers, all coming from the city. As he dropped down he found the traffic system entirely disorganized. Outgoing fliers were filling the incoming lanes. After narrowly missing sudden death several times, Art savagely dialed traffic center. The televisor screen lit up—but instead of a picture of the control officer seated at his switchboard, Art saw only an empty chair. It was only then that he realized the extent of the panic that gripped Los Angeles—for the control officer was sworn to remain at his post through the direst emergencies.
Now he was over the city—the vast terraced, pyramidical structures of the metropolitan area, each a mile square at the base, with a narrow rim of landing strip around each level. But as he descended lower he saw that they were no longer structures, but ruins. Even as he watched, they were crumbling and caving in on themselves. Some of them were already mere vast heaps of rubble. Projecting his helicopter propellers, he dropped down and hovered over one of them. Everywhere the broken plastoglass was covered with writhing, squirming duplicates of the creature back in his laboratory.
Art fished out his code book, found the wave length of Los Angeles Police Commissioner Horne, and rapidly dialled it. The strained and perspiring face of the Commissioner appeared, sitting at the controls of his ship as he vainly tried to straighten out the evacuating traffic.
“Douglas of the Institute reporting, Commissioner.”
“Hope you brought some disintegrators!” barked the chief. “They’re the only thing that will touch these beasts. The shock ray has no effect whatsoever on them. An electron torch will burn them, but that’s no good—you can’t go about killing them one by one. There are billions of them—they’re everywhere!”
“Possibly you’d better describe the situation from the beginning for my benefit, Commissioner,” Art interposed.
“What!” roared Horne. “Theller gave me to understand that you had had experience with these things, and understood them. Now you tell me—”
“Easy, Commissioner. I’ve seen one of these things before for a few minutes, and that’s all. You asked for help and Dr. Theller sent me out here in good faith to do what I can.” This served to quiet the policeman somewhat, for he merely grunted, “O.K., meet me at the top level of the Administration group; that’s the silver one, the only one that still has a top level. You’ll have to find it. We had to move out the traffic control—that section of the building’s ready to go any minute now.”
A dull grinding roar rose from everywhere below Art as he crossed the city. Clouds of dust billowed up as the huge pyramids fell in upon themselves piece by piece. He saw now the grimly effective way in which the creatures did their job. As long as there was one piece left standing on another, they would bore and chew until it was reduced to fragments. Blind instinct, rather than malice, seemed to impel them. But the effect was equally devastating. Art saw scores of people wiped out by falling wreckage when the rapidly shuttling overloaded fliers failed to remove them in time. He saw one man, trapped amidst a mass of the writhing horrors, make a sudden dash for freedom, and go down screaming in agony as dozens of savage jaws instantly fastened themselves in his flesh. Art shuddered. Something had to be done to stop this carnage.
By the time he sighted the commissioner’s flier atop the silver pyramid of the Civic Center, he had evolved the rudiments of a plan.
He wasted no time on amenities as he met the police chief, but came to the point immediately. “Here’s my idea of it, Horne. Los Angeles as a city is doomed. But I think we can save most of the people who are still here.”
“How about those disintegrators?” cut in Horne. The disintegrator, being still in the experimental stage, was dynamite in the hands of the untrained. The terrific atomic explosions it set up were uncontrollable and unpredictable. Only the most highly respected and trusted scientists were even allowed to handle one. Horne nursed an idea that all his patrolmen should have been issued one to pack on their hips, and that if they had, this would never have happened.
“I have a couple with me. We can use them, but we’ll have to be extremely careful. My main proposal is to get to San Francisco, Los Vegas, and all the other principal cities around here organized. Have them send millions of civilian fliers. Did you ever hear of the battle of Dunkirk in World War II? The British saved their army to fight again another day, just in that manner.”
“Do you suppose I haven’t thought of that?” snapped the chief. “I’ve already asked them. They’re afraid to come. Only a few ships have trickled in.”
“We’ve got to convince them that it’s safe for a flier,” insisted Art. “Show them on the televisor—send your patrolmen out to explain—anything!”
“All right,” agreed Horne. “We’ll try it. But I don’t believe we can get them all out in time even so. Do you know that there are ten million people out in the poorer residential section, very few of whom own a flier, who depend on the public surface cars for their transportation? Central Power is dead—not a car moves in the city. My patrolmen have been out in La Brea six hours, trying to find an avenue of escape, through which they can lead those people out on foot. Every time they run into a new growth of these—these damnable monsters, and have to start all over again.”
“That’s where we’ll use our disintegrators,” explained Art. “We’ll blast a path through which we can lead these people to safety.” Art got on the televisor and contacted the government broadcasting center in San Francisco. “Do you have a news broadcast on now?” he asked. The girl clerk answered in the affirmative.
“Please put me on,” Art begged. “I’m from Interplanetary Research. Here’s my badge. This is a serious emergency. The lives of millions of people are hanging in the balance. You must put me on the air!” A moment later, the news broadcast which was even then picturing the catastrophe in billions of homes all over the world, was abruptly cut off, and Art’s face appeared in its stead.
“Fellow citizens, you all know the desperate situation here in Los Angeles—but do you know that you can save a life, perhaps a dozen? There are ten million people here who face a terrible death unless they are picked up immediately. Hop in your fliers and get right down here! There is no danger for a ship which hovers a little above the ground. Do not try to land! The Los Angeles Traffic Patrol will guide you to proper zones. Please hurry. Thank you.” Art snapped off the switch and turned to the chief. “Now, let’s try to make some kind of map of the already devastated areas. We’ll have to check in some manner to be sure there are no living people left in them, then blast our path through with the disintegrators.”
Horne readily assented to this plan, and dispatched a number of patrolmen to examine closely the ruined sections. All vicinities which had been taken over entirely by the destroyers, were to be marked by dropping tiny smoke bombs which would send up a dense column of smoke. As the commissioner and Art entered the latter’s flier and took off, Art explained the difficulties of using a disintegrator.
“The atomic disintegration of a lump of matter the size of your fist sets off an explosion strong enough to blow one of these big buildings to small fragments. You can imagine what would happen to yourself and the surrounding country if you merely turned a disintegrator beam on the ground, or against a building near you. We tone down the effect somewhat by causing these pistols which I have here, to project a ray about the diameter of a hair from your head. Not only that, but the ray is immediately cut off, lasting only for the duration of one wave length. Even so, the firing of one is a plenty tricky business.”
In an hour’s time the air patrolmen had laid out a winding, serpentine trail over ten miles long through the bristling mounds of debris. A warning broadcast was sent directing all citizens within sight of the smoke to get underground, lie low, and plug their ears.
“Here we go,” said Art, stationing himself at a tiny port in the rear of his flier. “Zoom down over that first signal—as soon as you’ve passed over it, kick her up again at a slight angle.” Horne obeyed. They passed the target; nothing happened. He was beginning to wonder what Art was waiting for, when a half mile past the smoke column, Art fired. The resulting concussion surprised even Art. He felt the ship lurch as it was thrown like a huge projectile high above the city. He grinned as he watched Horne, cursing and fighting until he had the bucking ship under control.
The disintegrator blasted, and hell exploded on the ground.
“Let’s take a look,” he said, sobering at once. He had an uneasy feeling concerning the way in which the grounded population was taking the shock. But his fears were not realized—the stranded folk nearest the explosion cheered and gave the ancient thumbs-up sign, as they skimmed low above the rooftops. Evidently most of the force of the explosion had expended itself upward.
“Get below—here we come again!” shouted Art through an open port.
The sun was descending beyond the blue Pacific, but they went on with their work of continually blasting, blasting, far into the night. Clouds of private fliers began to appear from neighboring California and other southwest cities. Art’s desperate appeal had had its effect. By midnight, people were beginning to stumble through the string of smoking craters that had been made for them, toward the untouched open fields and groves to the north. By four o’clock, they were stringing out on the many roads and streets which left the city in that direction. Busses and private cars had been summoned, and were picking them up, to scatter them through neighboring cities where they might find accommodations.
Art and Horne, bruised and stunned from continual concussion and buffeting, exhausted from lack of sleep, looked at each other.
“Guess that’s it,” said Art. “You’ll have to keep the men along the trail with their electron rays, to keep those devils from closing in at the edges.” They had found that a line of men armed with these short-range weapons, could kill enough of the creatures to keep them from spreading. The electron ray generated enough sheer heat to melt metal, which was necessary to destroy the organisms.
“The city should be cleared by noon,” Art went on. “I’d advise you to destroy the whole works immediately. I’ll leave you one of the disintegrators. But be careful. Make sure all the wounded are out.”
“Are you leaving already?” asked Horne, surprised. “How come?”
“Just heard from Dr. Theller,” Art answered wearily. “It seems I’m wanted in Detroit. Same thing is happening there.”
“No!” gasped Horne. “In Detroit! What do you suppose is the connection?”
“I don’t know,” Art replied. “I only wish I had time to work this out, to get some of these things in the lab and analyze them—it would help so much to know what we’re fighting.”
Art decided he would stop at the laboratory on the way back, and see if Dr. Theller had been able to find out anything of the nature of the specimen he had left behind. As he entered, he saw that the place was strangely deserted. Dr. Theller and Elene he found in the former’s office, however.
“I counted on your stopping in,” said the Institute head as Art came in. “Things are in pretty serious shape all over. You did a great job in Los Angeles. Now I’m going to ask you to repeat that performance—”
“Detroit?” Art interrupted.
“No—I’ve already sent several good men there. You don’t realize how this thing has spread. In the last hour, Singapore, Cairo and Athens have all called us. London, in fact, the whole of southeastern England, is stricken. The British Foundation has some fine men, however; they think they’ll be able to handle it.”
“Dr. Theller, must he leave at once?” asked Elene, with an anxious look at Art’s weary face.
“I’ll be all right, Elene,” Art assured her. “A hot shower, hot drink, and a transfusion of supervitalized plasma, and I’ll never know I missed a night’s sleep. I’ve been eating a food tablet every now and then, so I’m not at all hungry.”
“All right, Art, you get fixed up—then you’re off for Cairo. I’ll have the commissary issue you some more disintegrators. I wouldn’t ask you to do this, but every minute counts. I’m thinking of taking off for Athens and leaving Elene in charge, myself.”
“Oh, I almost forgot to ask you, Dr. Theller, have you examined the specimen here yet?”
A chagrined look came over the scientist’s face.
“Well, I hate to admit this, Art, but the thing escaped in the confusion. Don’t see how it could have gotten very far away. I’ll have some of the men look around the grounds for it.”
Art shook his head slowly as he went out. Such incompetency seemed unlike the aged savant, but he guessed that inactivity had taken its toll of the old man.
The week following was a long, hideous nightmare, during which Art flew from city to city, fighting the ghastly scourge which was cropping up more and more rapidly, all over the globe. Vladivostok, Berlin, Cuba—he could hardly remember them all. He was glad he could not sleep, because he knew his dreams would be tortured by visions of men and women being cut to ribbons by millions of rending jaws. It was dreadfully apparent to Art what was happening. The creatures appeared in a particular area almost simultaneously. Every bit of life was wiped out, except for perhaps a few small shrubs and grasses. Huge trees, buildings, even mountains, all came crashing down. All sources of food supply were wiped out. The creatures could be cleared from the ground by disintegration, but more soon came to take their place.
Art flew back to the laboratory in Washington from Manchuria, scene of his latest struggle, shortcutting across the polar cap. He noted with sick dismay that even the ice fields were beginning to bristle with black stubble.
Arriving in Washington, Art landed at the Institute. He searched hurriedly for Dr. Theller, but was unable to find him Elene, however, appeared.
“Art! I’m so glad to see you safe! Tell me—is it really as terrible as it looks over the televisor?”
“Ever so much worse,” Art answered grimly. “We’ve got to do something, and quick. I know the Martians could help us. Has Dr. Theller appealed to them?”
“Didn’t you know?” she asked, wide eyed. “We haven’t had any contact with Mars all week. Two ships were scheduled to arrive from there, and haven’t been heard from.”
Art whistled softly. “Guess I’ve been missing quite a bit of news lately!”
“That’s not all,” Elene continued. “You know Denny was out on Venus with a crew. He sent in some kind of wire to Dr. Theller about discovering some ancient ruins, traces of a lost civilization, and saying that he was heading back. That was over a week ago—he was due in day before yesterday. I’ve tried repeatedly to contact him on the way, with no success. Dr. Theller certainly behaves strangely—I don’t know—he—”
Art wasn’t listening. He was thinking of Denny—the bronzed, hard-bitten space pilot, who had always represented to him all the glamour of the far flung outposts. And been just a darn good friend, too. The perils of Venus were many and varied—but on the other hand, he had the utmost confidence in Denny’s ability to take care of his space ship and crew through almost any situation.
“Art, I’m beginning to have a dreadful feeling that somehow this is all tied in together,” said Elene hesitantly. “I’ve been wanting to talk it over with you for ever so long. This plague of subterranean monsters—communications with Mars cut off—Denny out there somewhere, cut off, too—”
“Perhaps there’s not so much cause for concern over Denny,” Art put in soothingly. “After all, any sort of trivial accident might have occurred which would delay him this long.”
“Yes, Art, but I feel that even though the creatures don’t seem to have much intelligence, there is some kind of horrible plan behind the whole thing, and that the stopping of traffic with the other planets is part of that plan.”
“That is quite a theory, Elene, my dear,” came a patronizing voice from behind, “but it’s quite possible that I and my colleagues may be able to work out a solution without the aid of my secretary.” Dr. Theller had entered the room unnoticed. Elene flushed, and was on the verge of making an equally caustic retort, but bit back the words.
“As far as Denny is concerned,” the doctor went on, “he has been going out there for a good many years now; unless I miss my guess, the space madness is creeping in on his brain. That story of finding remains of a lost civilization—that’s really pretty steep, you know. It’s well known that the evolution of fauna on Venus has not, and will not, progress to the point of producing reasoning, speaking beings for millions of years.”
“I can’t believe that of Denny!” flashed Art. “Space madness attacks those who can’t stand the solitude, exposure and utter loneliness of that awful void. You know that Denny always laughed at those things. He was iron. And I don’t believe he’s getting old, either. The last time I saw him, he was in his prime.”
A hot argument was averted only by the flashing of signals at one side of the room, which announced a televisor communication. Elene was nearest and flipped the switch. The face of a middle-aged man, tense with suppressed excitement, appeared on the screen. He scanned their faces closely. It was Haight, of the British Foundation.
“Theller—Douglas—all of you!” he blurted. “Listen! I’ve just found—oh, but what fools we were not to see! Those organisms—they’re—but I can’t possibly tell you over the air. I’ll be there as fast as a strato-ship can take me. I’m bursting to tell someone. There’s not a soul here in the lab; it’s very late. Expect me in three hours, at the most.” The screen went black.
Art and Elene were on the roof of the laboratory, enjoying the soft summer evening, and talking over this new turn of events. The city was quiet around them. New hope seemed to blaze within them with the brilliance of the countless stars overhead. Perhaps Haight’s discovery meant the turning of the tide in this losing struggle in which they had been participating. Art felt that he could relax for the first time since that heartbreaking week had begun. As his fatigue fell away, he felt a great longing come over him. How near he had come to losing this lovely woman by his side. All those years of dull routine in the lab, near her every day, yet doing nothing about it! But Art had changed to a man of action, through sheer necessity, and he wore his new personality with heady exuberance. He took the girl in his arms.
“Darling, life is very good,” he murmured. “I don’t want us to die. I don’t want to be pushed off this lovable old earth of ours by an alien form of life. And it’s chiefly because of you. But we’re not going to let that happen, are we? We’re going to fight until every last hideous, ugly one of them is gone.”
“Yes, sweet,” she sighed contentedly, “And Art, please—when it’s all over—let’s not just sink back into the old way of life again. I think our love will be able to stand even that test from now on—but let’s not put it to that test. Can’t we get out of Interplanetary, travel, open up new worlds, just anything like that?”
“I have a hunch that from now on we’re going to require plenty of danger in our everyday life,” he laughed. “After we’re married—”
A shrill whine interrupted them, and they broke apart. Far out in the midnight sky, hours had slipped away like so many minutes, and Haight was arriving. He had been hurling his ship along at a reckless speed and was braking only at the last minute. Now they could see the dark shape arching down toward the laboratory. Suddenly it seemed to stop, to poise in midair. Then it dissolved into a blinding white flash. The deafening roar of the explosion came seconds later. Art and Elene looked at each other in mute horror and despair, amid a great silence broken only by tiny, distant sounds as the fragments of Haight and his ship rained down gently on the city of Washington.
“We’ll keep fighting,” Art finally said in a dull voice.
Beneath Art’s flier swept the tumbled mountains of Ozark Park. Once there had been people who lived there and actually eked a living from cultivating those steep and stony hillsides. Long ago that had been given up as impractical and unnecessary, however, and the whole region had been turned into one vast national forest. It was covered from one end to another with mighty timber, stocked in profusion with all kinds of wild game. That is, it had been covered the last time Art saw it. Now, the great trees lay tumbled about like so many match sticks, their great roots gnawed away by blind, mindless creatures. There was not a green thing in sight. A pall of smoke hung low overhead—great fires were raging everywhere in the dry stuff. Man had no time to protect the trees, when his own cities were being destroyed.
Art had just left Mexico City, and was headed for Chicago. There he intended to introduce an experiment with which he had had some degree of success elsewhere. He had constructed an ark of thick plastocrete, into which the passengers could be hermetically sealed. Oxygen and food were synthetically manufactured, enabling them to live without danger from the unknown poison in the water. But in his heart, he knew that this was a poor device, that there must be some simpler, more direct solution. After the death of Haight, he had wanted to take one of the Institute’s ships, and blast off for Mars. He was sure that the savants of that age-old planet could help. But Dr. Theller had been strongly against this, in fact refused to permit it.
As he sped over the ruined forest, a grim look came over Art’s face. He had not seen Elene since the night of Haight’s death, four days ago. Since then he had been in the thick of the fight, as before. Elene had been suspicious that the death of the British scientist had been no accident, and had promised to investigate and keep in touch with him. Her lovely face had appeared several times in his televisor screen, during the first two days, although she had nothing to report except that she loved him. But two more days had passed without a word. Art could raise nobody at the laboratory. He frowned, and thought that he had better have a look there, before he went on to Chicago.
Something caught his eye, below and ahead. There was a patch of untouched forest, a little canyon that had not as yet been invaded by the monsters that were ruining the surrounding country. There the huge trees still waved, calm and unmolested. But there was something else, something sharp and bright that had captured his attention. Yes, there it was again—a tiny fleck of sky blue. The same sky blue with which his ship, like all the fliers of the Interplanetary Institute, were painted!
He swung around, and came down in a tight spiral. As he levelled off, he saw a tiny figure, standing at the side of the wrecked ship. It waved frantically, and no doubt shouted. Art settled gently in a thicket of vining maple, and clambered stiffly out of his ship, as the marooned pilot came running toward him. Great Glorious Galaxies! It was Elene!
“Oh, Art, I don’t know how you found me, but I’m so glad it’s you, darling,” she sobbed in his arms.
“Elene, I wasn’t looking for you—didn’t even know you were lost!” he exclaimed. “It’s a miracle that I stumbled on you like this.”
“But didn’t Dr. Theller—no—of course he wouldn’t—”
“How did you ever happen to crash here?”
“Dr. Theller sent me with Paul Hedrik, that new boy, you remember, the nice blond one—to check casualty lists in San Francisco. We were crossing the Park, at about thirty thousand, when we ran out of rocket fuel. Well, that wasn’t so serious, we could easily make a long glide, and if we could find a place safe from these—worms—we could make a helicopter landing. But Paul saw this little canyon dead ahead. It was the only safe looking place for miles. That meant we had to come in at a steep angle. He licked in the braking jets, hoping there would be a little fuel left in the lines. There was. One of the jets was plugged or something—it exploded back into the cockpit. Paul was killed instantly. I was stunned. The ship was out of control, but I finally came to and managed to make a crash landing somehow.”
“Where’s Paul’s body?” Art asked.
“Still in there.” She pointed to the wrecked flier. “My televisor was smashed. I couldn’t stand the thought of sleeping in there. I made a little camp over there by the creek. It was awfully cold, even though I built a fire. But I wasn’t frightened—I had my friends—”
“Your friends!” exclaimed Art. “Who—”
“Don’t you see them?” she asked, pointing. And he did see what the gloom of the forest had at first hidden from his unaccustomed eyes. The leafy corridors were swarming with creatures. Deer, oppossum, raccoon, bear, even a puma or two, all were gathered there in dumb resignation. They knew with unerring instinct that they were trapped, that there was no escape from this tiny island. They made no attempt to molest each other, or the humans who such a short time ago had been their deadly enemies. They drank occasionally from the little creek, but they did not eat.
“You see, I couldn’t be lonely,” she continued. “It could even have been fun, if I hadn’t known that those millions of horrible little jaws were out there in the dark, gnawing, gnawing. You can even hear them. You can hear the big trees crashing down, all day, all night.”
“Easy, honey—it’s all over now. We’re going to get out of here. We’ll get Paul’s body, and—”
“But Art, don’t you see what this means? If Paul hadn’t forgotten to fill the fuel tank, it we had had a full tank, we’d have been blown to atoms when that jet exploded—it was only an accident that I escaped. But that plugged jet was no accident—that was deliberate. Don’t you think it is strange that Dr. Theller shouldn’t let you know when I have been lost for two days? And that he was the only one besides us who knew about Haight’s discovery, and his coming to Washington, and that the same accident happened to Haight? And what happened to Denny? I tell you, there are all sorts of things about Dr. Theller that are beginning to add up. From the very first he’s occupied only a passive role in this battle, done nothing whatever to help. He let that specimen get away the first day, and has never had another in there for analysis.”
“What!” exclaimed Art. “No—Elene—it can’t be. You don’t know what you’re saying!”
“On the contrary, the young lady is quite right,” came a deep bass voice from behind him. Art whirled in sudden panic, reaching for his electron gun. But what he saw froze him to immobility. A tall, gaunt figure, its ebony skin decked with a harness of white plastic, in which were set countless glossy black stones. The head narrow and acquiline to the extreme, with huge, haunting black eyes. A Martian! And one of the Greater Ring of scientists who governed the red planet, judging by the trappings.
“You do not recognize me,” chuckled the deep voice. “Why, I remember you well. You came to Mars with Dr. Theller, let me see, June last year, and November the year before, I believe it would be, according to your calendar. They say we all look alike to Earthmen—but surely you know Klalmar-lan. I was on the Committee both times.”
“Of course I do,” beamed Art, holding out his hand. “You had me a bit rattled there for a minute. But you can’t imagine how glad we are to see you. Elene, meet Klalmar-lan. This is Miss Moor, my fiancee.”
“Klalmar-lan,” said Elene, “as Art has already told you, we are immensely relieved to see you. We hope that you can help us rid our planet of this scourge. Unless you do, the human race and every form of animal life on Earth is doomed.”
“I have the means of accomplishing that,” he answered gravely. “For how else do you suppose this tiny refuge has remained here, other than through my doing?” They stood in amazement as he went on. “Furthermore, I am rather ashamed of you, Art, for letting so many things which should have been obvious to a man of your calibre, slip by you. But I guess Theller did a pretty good job of covering up.”
“How do you happen to be here in such an out of the way spot?” asked Art.
“I had to have a hideout on Earth from which I could steal out and make a few observations,” the Martian explained. “And it’s a good thing I did, from what I hear. I arrived here from Venus yesterday morning, about five—”
“Only a few hours before we crashed!” exclaimed Elene.
“Yes—the forest in this vicinity was just beginning to be attacked. I landed on the side hill above here, and blanketed this canyon with a choker ray. I didn’t want to make it too noticeable—”
“Wait,” Art interrupted, “how about this choker ray—that’s the whole thing—that’s what we want to know!”
“I’ll get to that,” rebuked Klalmar-lan. “Anyway, I saw this ship crash—but knowing it was one of Theller’s, I had to be careful about offering assistance. I have been watching Miss Moor and wondering if I should have to protect her from all this vicious looking fauna which you have here in such profusion. But I didn’t dare trust her until I heard her talk to you. My object was to contact some trustworthy person here on Earth. Now that I’ve found you, I think we’d better take off for Venus immediately. My ship is right up the hill above us. Incidentally, I have a surprise there—an old friend of yours.”
Mystified, the couple followed him through thick underbrush to the space ship. They entered behind him and froze in astonishment. There, lying on a bunk, white and still and swathed in bandages, was Denny!
“Don’t be alarmed,” Klalmar-lan reassured them. “I’ve got him under a neural anesthetic. He’s suffered a bad radium burn, but I think he’ll be all right. Should recover consciousness in a couple of hours.” Klalmar-lan was at the controls, and they were rising rapidly. The little spot of green was visible through the rear port, falling away behind them.
“I first met Denny on Venus, where I had been sent to watch for the coming of Ghlak-Ileth, or Hell-worms, as we call them; for they are no new experience to us Martians. Some three thousand Earth years ago, they turned our once beautiful planet into a red desert, almost exterminating our race. Three thousand years before that, our astronomers had watched as uninhabited Mercury gave up its treasure. According to all our calculations, Venus should have been next. When I talked to Denny in his jungle camp, he informed me that he had discovered remains of an ancient civilization on Venus.
“I knew then that something was terribly wrong with our theory—for we had always considered Venus a very young planet, whose evolution of life had not even produced a mammalian form, and would not for millions of years. Now it seemed more plausible that at a remote age Venus was inhabited by intelligent beings, perhaps more highly developed than we on Earth or Mars, and that some great catastrophe wiped them out, leaving survivors, the ancestors of the present day fauna.
“The answer,” he went on, “was plain—the Ghlak-Ileth had already been to Venus! In all probability, Earth would suffer the effect of the next raid! Denny had started for Earth with his crew. I hurried to my ship and followed him. About two hours out, my mass detector indicated the presence of matter about ten thousand miles ahead, but moving toward me. In a little while I saw it, approaching headon. A huge blob of a ship, gleaming like quicksilver, shaped like a great flat-bellied slug. The Ghosts of Outer Space had come again!”
“Hold it!” cried Art. “This is getting beyond me. Who are these—”
“We call them Ghosts, or Voornizar, because they bear little resemblance to anything mortal, although they are terribly real. They are the masters, the creators of these Hell-worms, whom they planted countless eons ago on the planets of our Solar System. The impelling energy of these Ghlak-Ileth, as with their masters, and in fact all the machinery they use, is the disintegration of radium, of which they are partially composed. They devour it for food.
“We believe that the Voornizar originate in some planetary system far beyond the awful void which surrounds our solar family. Long ago, they found their radium supply disappearing, and were forced to wander in search of new deposits. They developed the Ghlak-Ileth in their laboratories to do the work of removing the radium. They were probably planted as tiny eggs or spores, each with an infinitesimal bit of radium to furnish life energy. When the creatures hatched, their instinct was to dig downward. As they went, they fed on radium and other elements.
“Thus, ever growing and multiplying, they remained, finally absorbing every bit of radium in the planet. After a fixed period, they became imbued with the impulse to return to the surface. There they were collected by the Voornizar, who returned at exactly the proper time, to extract the radium for their own use. The period of three thousand years is, we believe, the time necessary for a round trip from here to the habitat of the Voornizar. However, it may be only the period between meals—for time means nothing to them—nor do heat, cold or lack of atmosphere affect them.”
“How can we possibly combat such a menace?” asked Elene hopelessly.
“This time we Martians are ready,” Klalmar-lan told them. “Before, we were forced to resort to pitiful devices such as lead lined boats, which shut out the deadly emanations of the radon gas which seeped to the surface from the Ghlak-Ileth on the sea bottoms. But now we have developed a weapon—the choker ray, harmless to organisms like ourselves, but able instantly to halt any sort of disintegration, particularly radio-activity. It will stop the Voornizar instantly.
“As soon as I recognized this Voornizar ship, I let her have the choker beam. She immediately lost headway, began to drift. I came alongside and boarded her, being careful to put on a space suit, for the Voornizar require no atmosphere, and would not be likely to have the ship’s interior conditioned. I found what I expected. There was not a living creature, or moving piece of machinery aboard. I had heard the fearsome Ghosts described many times, but these were the first I had seen. Their silvery, amorphous bodies are said to glow with a blinding white effulgence, but in death, these had turned to a dull leaden hue. There were hundreds of them in the great ship, which seemed to me mostly occupied by machinery with which to attract and grapple the radium worms, and holds in which to store them.
“On an upper deck, I found a row of small staterooms, which I thought wise to investigate. And well that I did, for my former presumption that nothing lived on the ship was not quite correct. That was one who barely lived—”
“Barely is the word, my friend,” came a weak voice from the bunk, “I don’t know what you did to those devils, but you sure stopped them in their tracks.”
Denny had recovered consciousness. The trio hurried to his side.
“So they couldn’t quite kill you?” Art grinned down at the space pilot.
“Weren’t trying!” replied Denny briefly. “They seemed interested in the discoveries I’d made on Venus. Had the nicest ways of getting information; simple, too. All they had to do was touch my skin and I got a radium burn.”
“You must have passed out just after I used the ray on them,” Klalmar-lan commented. “But how did they get you in the first place?”
“Just slipped up behind us, showing a friendly signal, and slapped some kind of paralysis ray on us—went through the permirium hull and everything. They came aboard—but only took me off. The rest of the crew they left lying there, paralyzed. Then they just swung away a few miles and disintegrated the whole works. That was pretty tough to take—some of those boys had been to hell and back with me.”
“They paid for that massacre,” growled Klalmar-lan. “But that was only one of their countless thousands, perhaps millions of ships. I believe that they have a huge base on Venus, from which they are preparing to swoop down on Earth when the Ghlak-Ileth are ready. We will have to locate that base. Then we will radio the Martian Fleet. We have half a million ships, armed with choker rays and disintegrators. Long have we prepared to seize the treasure of Venus, and at the same time revenge ourselves on our ancient enemy. Speaking for the Greater Ring,” and he drew himself up proudly, “I can promise you that we will fight as fiercely to save your race from extinction, though there be no gain, if it will in some measure alleviate the great wrong we have done you in leaving you unwarned and unprepared.”
“Thank you, Klalmar-lan,” answered Denny simply. “However, I’ve got to warn you—there’s something rotten on our side of it. Those Things spoke English—and had a pretty fair knowledge of Earth science and Earth affairs.”
“Yes, we know where the rotten spot is located,” replied Klalmar-lan. “He’s been building up a machinery against us for some time, unknown to some of you who worked nearest him. Got away with several of our secrets, too—the force field, for one—”
“The force field!” ejaculated Art. “That’s how he got Haight! Remember that night, Elene?”
“Of course,” she cried. “Haight had found the secret of the Ghlak-Ileth and their high radium content.”
“Yes,” agreed Klalmar-lan, “and that secret Dr. Theller knew he must suppress at all costs. The force field he no doubt projected as a beam through some hidden port in the laboratory roof. Playing it about like an invisible searchlight, he met the incoming flier with a barrier as effective as a stone wall.”
“The Voornizar must have contacted him long ago, and made some kind of deal—probably offered him all the radium he could use,” mused Art. “I would guess that he planned to establish a new laboratory on Venus—that’s why he was so interested in that city you found, Denny—interested enough to discredit your story on Earth, and order you held by the Voornizar!”
“And to go a step farther,” interjected Klalmar-lan, “I will wager that we find the Voornizar’s base not so far from that city.”
“What ghastly treachery!” gasped Elene. “To betray his own Mother Earth to annihilation. Already millions have died—”
Art, watching her, saw her freeze in silence. He tried to glance at the others, but his eyeballs would not move in their sockets. He tried to move; his whole body was gripped in a rigid paralysis! There was utter silence and stillness in the hurtling ship. Art’s thoughts were racing. What fools they had been, flocking around Denny’s bunk when he came to. They had totally neglected to watch the control panel, where the mass detector would have warned them of an approaching ship. Now they had been surprised and seized with the same deadly paralysis that had trapped Denny before.
The air lock swung inward. None of the four were surprised to see Dr. Theller step through the port, keeping a careful distance between himself and the two grotesque monstrosities who followed him. Theller was without space suit or arms. Art stared with horrified fascination at the two Voornizar. The dazzling, white hot radiance that ceaselessly flowed from them made it difficult to identify their form. They seemed to have none; yet they could take any shape. Fundamentally, they were a tube about a foot in diameter and some seven feet high. They had a slit-like mouth near the top, and a huge crystalline eye which surmounted their exact top. They seemed to favor a bilateral form, although the number of pairs of arms appeared indeterminate. But as Art watched, above each slit mouth appeared a huge beak nose and above this, deep, staring sightless hollows. A horrible caricature of a human face! Demoniac laughter came from the lipless mouth of one!
“So you pitiful Martians had a weapon that would stop the Voornizar!” it boomed. “You fool, did you not know that we are immortal? Only when we lack radium can one of us die—and then, he only suspends animation until sustenance can be brought. I know not the principle of the thing you fashioned, although its effect is to halt radio-activity. Think ye that would kill us?” The thing’s laughter roared. “We merely lay inert—waiting only for the next contact with a living Voornizar or any bit of active radium, to set our life process in motion once more. Think ye that you can fight a million mighty ships with such a harmless weapon?
“Had you known that the transport you captured carried me, Dwalbuth, mighty Shan of the Voornizar, you might not have so carelessly left us drifting in space, to be found and revived by Dr. Theller.”
“Before we release you from the paralysis,” spoke up Theller, “I want to tell you that resistance is futile. These people can project, from that single eye, a ray of any frequency, ranging from ultraviolet to infra-red, and would have no trouble in burning you to a crisp in a fraction of a second. Also, as Pilot Denny has reason to know, their slightest touch will cause a severe burn.” He searched Denny, still lying on the bunk, found nothing. He removed Art and Elene’s electron pistols. From Klalmar-lan’s belt he took the choker ray gun, gave it a contemptuous glance, and flung it squarely in Klalmar-lan’s face, just as Dwalbuth flicked a bluish light from a tiny torch over the four, releasing them from the paralysis. Klalmar-lan caught the gun, staring down at it with dumb despair and sick disappointment written all over his handsome ebony face.
“We’ll put them in my ship,” said Theller, motioning them toward the lock. Denny rose and hobbled painfully along with them. “The Earth people I can use for helpers, if I can educate them to the practicability of such a course; the Martian I will destroy, after I have wrung from him a few of the secrets I need for my conquest of his planet.”
“I assure you that these are the most comfortable accommodations to be found anywhere on Venus,” commented Denny sardonically as he gazed around the dank cell in which the four found themselves imprisoned. “Speaking from experience, I mean that.”
“This is your city, then, of which you spoke?” queried the Martian.
“Yes. I spent very little time in exploring it, however, as I was due to report back and was in a hurry. I do know that it’s mostly underground, and of almost inconceivable antiquity, however. Of the nature of its former inhabitants, their language, or the name of the city, I could learn nothing.”
“My guess that the Voornizar’s base was in, or somewhere near this city was correct,” asserted Klalmar-lan, dropping his voice. He glanced at the guard looming outside the heavily barred metal door, and beckoned them to a far, gloomy corner of the dungeon. The Earth people were startled to hear a chuckle of fiendish glee. It came from the Martian! He was swinging his ray pistol by the trigger guard, shaking in nearly inaudible mirth.
“By the Two Moons! What ego!” he hissed, lapsing into his native tongue, which the others understood to some extent. “They have such contempt for my poor Martian brainchild, they do not even take it from me!”
“Well, it’s practically useless, as near as I can see, against any number of the creatures,” shrugged Elene. “I suppose we could knock out the guard, but the lock on the door is still impossible. The next Voornizar who comes along would revive him, and we’d only be in for more restrictions.”
“Ah, but you do not understand. Watch.” A lizard-like reptile had run down the slimy wall, paused at the bottom. Klalmar-lan aimed the gun at it, pressed the trigger. Nothing happened. “That was the choker ray. Now, observe—I move this little catch here, press the button again.” There was a little frying sound. A puff of vapor rose above the lizard, and it shrank instantly to a blackened lump. The Earthians stared in amazement.
Art finally found voice. “How did you do it?”
“Simple—a disintegrator. Result, the disintegration is only begun, when it is cut off. No explosion. Only a few elements in the victim begin to go, but the molecular structure is broken down nevertheless. I can set it for any degree I want.
“Dwalbuth called me a fool, but it is he who is stupid in his conceit. Immortal! Bah! There is nothing that cannot be disintegrated.”
“Then I move; we get out of here, right now!” whispered Art vehemently. “People are dying on Earth, every minute.”
“Right,” agreed Denny. “Let’s go.” He limped to the door. “Say, guard—”
Standing behind him, the gun hidden, Klalmar-lan poured the rays over the Voornizar, through Denny, door and all. The creature slumped heavily to the floor, its fiery luminescence fading to a dull leaden gray. Klalmar-lan stepped forward, turned up his disintegrator, and impassively played the beam over the Thing on the floor, until nothing remained but a heap of blackened slag. Then he went to work on the lock. In a moment they were free. Art kicked the ashes of the guard into a dark, obscure corner of the cell.
“We’ve got to find our way to the upper level, get to a televisor someway,” panted Klalmar-lan, as they hurried up the inclined passageway.
“Don’t know if I can remember all the twists and turns we followed when they brought us down or not,” Denny puzzled. “How about you, Art?” Art shook his head doubtfully.
“You intend to bring the Martian fleet here—that is, if you can contact them?” Elene inquired of Klalmar-lan.
“No—not here—to Earth! While they are neutralizing the Ghlak-Ileth there, we must in some way hold off the menace here.”
“You’re right,” Art agreed. “The fleet can’t fight off a million Voornizar ships and kill the Ghlak-Ileth, too. And it’s imperative that they get to Earth with no delay.”
Through pitch black corridors, twisting, climbing, dropping again, the party groped their way. Art had a tiny torch, which he risked flashing on occasionally, but this helped little. All hope of retracing their steps was soon abandoned. The lower levels of the ancient city had been a veritable labyrinth. Realizing that they were hopelessly lost, they stopped to take stock of the situation. Leaning against a dank, moss grown wall, Art felt something slimy brush his leg. He flashed on his light, and his sanity reeled. He saw a great, rat-like figure, the size of man on his knees! The eye in its humanoid face were closed against the light—its teeth were bared in the snarl of a cornered rat. Then it scuttled away clumsily. Great God! It was a man shambling on his knees, naked and unclean!
Art heard a little moan of horror—Elene had turned away, her face in her hands.
“Did you see it, Klalmar-lan?” he muttered hoarsely to the Martian.
“Yes, my friend,” was the sad reply. “I believe we have witnessed all that is left of the glory that was Venus. A skulking creature of the sewers—creeping on its knees.” He shuddered. “They nearly did that to us once—and they will do it to Earth, if we do not find a way out of here soon.”
There was a metallic rattle, far down the corridor, and a livid, glowing stab of light appeared. It was a Voornizar, running—the empty cell had been found.
“It’s all right,” hissed Art, “he can’t possibly see us. Here we have the advantage.” Klalmar-lan grimly drew his ray gun, but Art halted him. “Wait—I’ve got a plan. You stick here. Keep out of sight. The rest of us will give ourselves up. We’ll try to get him to take us to Dwalbuth or Theller. Then you follow. See?”
Klalmar-lan nodded silently, stepped back into the shadows. Grasping Elene and Denny by the hand, Art ran toward the Voornizar, shouting.
“Get us out of this horrible place before we go mad!” he croaked. Elene managed a sob or two. The Voornizar grinned evilly at their panic, then peered behind them.
“Where is the Martian?” he snarled.
“We got separated in the dark some time ago—never could locate him again,” Art answered.
“We’ll find him; he can’t go far,” rasped the creature. “Meanwhile, I will take you to Dwalbuth, who will see that you suffer adequately for this attempt at escape. In the absence of the Earthman, who wants to preserve you as his assistants, our Mighty Shan will dispose of you as he sees fit.”
The guard carried a powerful torch, and had no trouble in finding the way out of the pits. They entered a level which had evidently been the quarters of the well-to-do class of ancients. There were many furnishings and decorations, most of which were badly faded and deteriorated. Hosts of Voornizar were hurrying about on various errands. Dwalbuth had evidently established headquarters here, from which he superintended the preparation of the huge radium fleet. How Klalmar-lan would ever follow them through this swarming hive was beyond Art.
The guard led them to a huge room where Dwalbuth was snarling orders to a group of his lieutenants. On sighting the Earthmen, he dismissed his henchmen.
“Perhaps,” he began, “I have not made it clear to you just how insignificant you, and your form of life, is in our scheme of things. We have wiped out many races stronger than you, on a score of planets, in my time. We are strong, immortal; you are weak, you suffer pain easily. Do not try my patience with any more escape attempts. And you had better tell me what you have done with that guard.” There was only silence. He screamed, “What did you do with that guard?” A great three-toed claw, or hand, shot out, stopped an inch from Elene’s terror-stricken face.
“I have heard that your men consider you beautiful to look upon,” sneered Dwalbuth, “I will change that face to a seared mask if you do not tell me, immediately.” Then Art leaped. He threw himself on the arm with its grasping claw, bore it down. White hot, burning agony shot through his hands and arms. Then, miraculously, it stopped. Dwalbuth was sagging to the floor. But there came a vicious crackling as the guard whirled to train his heat ray on them. Then he, too, collapsed. Klalmar-lan stood in the door, grinning as he switched on his disintegrator.
“Fasten this door the best you can,” he commanded, “while I finish off these two. Hate to take the time, but we can’t risk their recovering.” This done, he stepped to the televisor, dialled his commander-in-chief in the Greater Ring’s Martian stronghold. In a few terse words, he explained the situation and sent the fleet hurtling toward Earth. By this time, a great pounding had begun at the door. But the Earthians had not been idle—they had been searching frantically for an exit. And Elene had found one, a tiny passageway behind a once secret, but now half-rotted-away panel. They scrambled into it, crawled for a short way. Then the tunnel debouched into a larger corridor in which they could stand up and run. Luckily, it was crooked, and winding; for they heard the angry snap and hiss of searching heat rays not far behind.
“Watch this,” said Klalmar-lan, turning his disintegrator up higher. A Voornizar appeared around a corner, and exploded with a muffled roar.
“Don’t get the mixture too rich!” laughed Art as the fragments showered around them. “Say, Klalmar-lan, how in blazes did you get through that mob to follow us?”
“Easy,” grinned the black man. “When you came out on that level, I was lurking close behind. There was nothing for me to do but fall right in with you. If you had looked around, you’d have seen me right at your elbow. Of course, when you came to the door of Dwalbuth’s staff room, I dropped out, and just stood outside the door, acting the part of a bored prisoner, until the fun started.”
Art chuckled at the Martian’s audacity. The sounds of pursuit were getting fainter behind them. The Voornizar were learning new respect for their once despised captives.
The tunnel now narrowed down to a width which made it passable by one person only, and ran perfectly straight. The party formed in single file, Klalmar-lan bringing up the rear. Denny led, with Art’s flash, as Art was nursing scorched hands and arms.
“They’ll be getting after us with that paralysis ray directly,” Art worried. “What do you say to blocking the tunnel? We can surely depend on its emerging somewhere.”
“The War Gods help us if they know where it comes out! But I think you’ve got an idea there,” agreed Klalmar-lan, turning his ray on the roof of the tunnel a good distance behind them. It crumbled, slowly at first, then gave way with a roar, the fragments of rock and masonry completely choking the aperture. Klalmar-lan did not stop until he had filled the passage for a good hundred feet.
“We can get back through there, if we have to, by using this gun, but the Voornizar will have to dig or bore their way. Their disintegrators are like yours of Earth—uncontrolled. They are useful out in space for destroying an enemy space ship at a distance, but one blast under ground here would set off enough thermal energy to blow this whole city off the green face of Venus.”
Denny was crouching on the floor. “Look at this!” he exclaimed. His tiny flash revealed fresh marks in the damp sand which covered the floor at that point. They were blurred, and had no resemblance to human footprints.
“At least one Voornizar passed this way,” commented Klalmar-lan, “but my guess is that Dwalbuth made these tracks, and was the only one who knew the secret of this passage.”
“It’s a sure thing it’s leading us to some place of importance—Dwalbuth didn’t take this walk for the fresh air,” Denny contributed.
The tunnel’s length seemed interminable, although Art estimated they had not covered over four or five Earth miles. They found a tiny spring of pure water trickling down the moss-shrouded stone wall, and drank gratefully. Their lunch consisted of a few food tablets which Art had been carrying.
At last a dim glow of light appeared ahead. Advancing warily, they found the passage ran squarely into a plate metal barrier, which leaned away from them at a slight angle. About head height, there was a small ragged hole burned into it, through which came the light they had seen. Denny applied his eyes to this.
“Smokin’ Mercury!” he exclaimed, sotto voice. “Get a load of this, Art!” Art looked. The sight was awesome. Far below, and stretching into the dim distance, was a vast cavern. As far as the eye could see, its floor was covered with huge silvery shapes—the mighty cruisers of the Voornizar. Their close-packed ranks seemed to stretch for miles into the darkness. The only light was the luminescence of the ships themselves. The great domed roof was shrouded with gloom. The vantage point from which Art looked seemed to be located high in the curved side, and the metal barricade against which the tunnel ended was actually the shell of the Gargantuan cavity.
Klalmar-lan then had a quick glance, then turned to them, elated.
“This is it! We’ve stumbled on the main pool. There must be nearly a million ships down there.”
Elene was looking now—she was unable to see any egress through which the ships could be trundled to the surface. Doubtless there was a ramp or elevator of some sort, probably on the far side beyond their range of vision. Many Voornizar were moving among the great hulks, servicing them, effecting minor repairs.
“We are now probably well outside the city proper,” continued Klalmar-lan. “Apparently this was once a great assembly hall, where huge mass meetings or possibly some kind of sporting events, were held. Some ancient king, wishing to spy upon the doings of his subjects unobserved, caused this passageway to be dug and the peekhole to be cut. Dwalbuth, in turn, utilized it for somewhat the same purpose.”
“Looks like the work of a twentieth-century acetylene torch,” laughed Denny.
“That might afford an excellent clue as to the comparative development of their civilization,” agreed Klalmar-lan gravely. “But enough theorizing. We must utterly destroy all these ships. Wait here.”
They watched as he moved back through the tunnel a short distance. He trained his pistol on the wall. Rapidly a hole began to appear.
“It can’t be far to the surface,” he told them. “I’m going to burn a tunnel upward at a steep angle. Keep a good watch in both directions.” Just then Art, his eye glued to the opening, saw that something was amiss below. The Voornizar were running about excitedly. Faintly he heard their discordant shouting, and the crackle of heat rays. Then he saw, skimming and swerving above the rows of giant ships, a familiar sight! Klalmar-lan’s own spaceship, in which they had originally embarked from Earth! Wildly, it plunged toward Art, then swung erratically away and headed in a steep climb for the top of the dome. Several small patrol fliers appeared, racing in pursuit. Searchlights lanced through the blackness, illuminating the heretofore invisible ceiling, which was apparently just what the pilot of Klalmar-lan’s ship hoped for. A passing searchlight beam revealed for an instant a round, jagged hole in the center of the room; the little rocket ship shot through it like an escaping minnow. The hole had evidently been newly made by the Voornizar for the passage of their smaller and more maneuverable craft, a half dozen of which now flashed through in pursuit.
Art turned and related what he had seen.
“That was Theller, or I’m not a broken down space eater,” growled Denny, “Here, let me spell you on that excavation work a while, Klalmar-lan.” Klalmar-lan had a tough job—it was getting more difficult as the hole progressed. Hot gobbets of molten lava came splashing down from time to time, preventing him from entering the hole and following up his work. Acrid, choking fumes began to fill the tunnel, but Klalmar-lan refused to let Denny or Art take over, on account of their burned hands. It was two hours before daylight began to show, fifty feet above.
“Now, while those rocks are cooling sufficiently for us to crawl out, I’ll show you what my plan is,” said Klalmar-lan. “Has anyone a chrono?” Elene slipped one from her wrist, handed it to him. Quickly, he slipped it out of its case, began removing various parts. He attached it to the trigger ring of his pistol, made a delicate adjustment. Then he set the gun to full disintegrator. He rigged it so that the muzzle pointed through the peep-hole, aimed at the ships below.
“We’ve got six hours to get out of here and put plenty of miles between us and this place,” he informed them. Hurriedly they scrambled up the chimney he had made. The rock had cooled rapidly, as it was pouring rain above, and water ran down in little rivulets. The four of them were drenched by the time they reached the surface. The rain was beating down in such a torrent that they could hardly get their breath. It was warm, like a tepid shower. It was difficult to see more than a few feet, but it was evident that they were in thick jungle.
“Let’s head West,” shouted Denny. “There’s a bay that runs in here, toward the city. We came in that way before, from the sea. Shouldn’t be far from here. If we can get on the open beach, it’ll be lots better going than this damned jungle.” With this they had to agree, and no time was lost in plunging into the jungle in the direction he had indicated. The four were now weaponless, and would have fallen easy prey to any one of a dozen varieties of carnivorous monsters who habitually roamed the forest. But the creatures evidently did not consider the rain conducive to good hunting, and so they were unmolested. Two hours of exhausting struggle brought them out on the beach, which had not been over a mile away.
“Now we can make time,” said Denny. “This narrow strip of beach will take us almost straight away from the space port for about twenty miles.”
“We’ll do our best to cover it in the four hours we have left,” Art chuckled. They set out at a rapid clip, keeping a wary eye on both jungle and sea, from either of which might spring sudden death at any moment. The rain stopped, but lead-colored clouds still swirled overhead, for Venus was eternally overcast. Plenty of drinking water was to be found in the hollows of huge leaves—but the need for food was becoming keen with all of them. Still, they did not dare tarry long enough to find sustenance.
“There are a few species of fish in these waters which I know to be edible,” explained Denny. “When it’s safe to stop, we can catch a few.”
“You may stop right now!” commanded a harsh voice from behind them. They whirled—there, in the fringe of the jungle, his gray hair awry, his eyes glittering with desperation, stood Doctor Theller, covering them with the wide mouth of an electronic pistol.
“You—the Martian—I need your services. Come along—there’s no time to lose. The rest of you come, too.” There was nothing to do but trudge ahead of him through the jungle in the direction he indicated. There, as they had expected, lay Klalmar-lan’s ship.
“You are having a little trouble with my ship?” inquired the Martian insolently, winking at his comrades.
“Yes, damn you—and you’re going to fix it!” snarled the scientist. “It was necessary for me to fly through a narrow opening—I grazed the edge slightly. Two of the starboard main propulsion jets were sheared away. I had no trouble losing my pursuers in the mist, but when I cut in the main jets to leave the atmosphere, I merely looped about in crazy trajectories. The right adjustment of the firing pattern would compensate for this, but I could not find it. On one of my own ships, yes, but this confounded Martian oddity is beyond my understanding. I had to drop down here, and attempt to trace out the connections from the firing panel. This I have been unable to do. You will do it for me!”
“Apparently you no longer occupy your former position of esteem with the Voornizar,” mocked Art.
“Get in the ship!” snapped Theller, glancing sharply at them. “You, Klalmar-lan, pilot the ship. Set the course for Mars.”
“Yes. We will land in a remote area, where we will pose as refugees from Earth. That is, all of us except Klalmar-lan, of whom I will dispose before reaching there. I am not beaten yet. I have friends there, and with the secrets I have learned of the Martian weapons and defenses, I will be able to build anew.”
Art stepped forward, ignoring the threatening gun muzzle. “Doctor Theller, it strikes me that you are in no position to dictate terms to us. You are in as great a danger as we, how great a danger, you do not even dream. Only Klalmar-lan can pilot this crippled ship. This he can, and will, refuse to do. Now here are our terms. We will take you to Mars alive, where we will turn you over to the authorities.” Art was loath to reveal as yet that they could set their course for Earth and arrive there in perfect safety. “You do not dare kill any of us.”
“Don’t I?” sneered the scientist. “Watch me. If Klalmar-lan does not get into that pilot seat before I count ten, I will blast Elene to a cinder. Then I will kill you, Art. Then Denny. When only Klalmar-lan is left, I will destroy him by inches, burning away a hand or foot at a time.” The electronic pistol swung toward Elene and he began counting. White-faced, Art motioned despairingly to Klalmar-lan. The Martian’s black eyes were obsidian as he silently strapped himself in the seat. The rest followed, Doctor Theller last, his pistol covering them. Suddenly there was a sickening lurch, a numbing crash, and blackening oblivion.
Through a dull, throbbing ache, Art began to wonder where he was. His body seemed first to be spinning in a vast void, and yet again seemed to be pinned against a hard cold surface. He felt repeated small shocks, as of missiles striking him. From a distance a voice was calling insistently. Rubbing sticky blood from his eyes, he saw a greater flat expanse stretching away above him. Then his eyes focused. It was the deck of the flier! And there at its far end sat Klalmar-lan in the pilot seat! He was looking over his shoulder, calling, “Art! Art! Get that ray pistol! Quickly!” Art looked about him sluggishly. He saw the gun lying only a few feet from his face. But beyond it, there was a crawling figure—a mad ravening thing whose clawlike hand was even now extended to grasp the weapon! Art tried to move—he could not budge. Something was pinning him down—the body of Denny. He heaved desperately, but the man seemed to weigh tons. The truth of the situation came to Art. The ship was still within the gravity of Venus, and accelerating at a rate far beyond that of normal flight. The inexorable force of the acceleration was pressing the four passengers against the rear panel of the ship. Klalmar-lan could not leave his pilot’s seat, for he would never be able to return! And even then, Theller’s hand was closing on the grip of the pistol. The rocket ship spun on its longitudinal axis like a giant gyroscope. Art felt himself thrown from wall to wall, battered and bruised, but miraculously retaining consciousness. He was free now, of the encumbrance. The whirling stopped, and he drew himself painfully to a sitting position. He looked wildly around for the gun. It was nowhere to be seen; but Theller, pulling a long, bodkin-like dagger from his boot, was close upon him. The dagger was raised for the plunge into Art’s unprotected heart, but there came a low hum from the front of the ship. Theller collapsed, his muscles constricted into taut bands of agony by the shock ray.
And Art’s pain-wracked body once more found the peace of oblivion.
Sounds of laughter and conversation finally woke him again. Relaxed and refreshed, he knew that he had slept long. He sat up in the bunk. He was swathed in bandages, and medications had eased the pain of his bruises and burns. Elene and Denny, also heavily bandaged, were watching him smilingly. Klalmar-lan came toward him from the pilot’s seat.
“You’re a fine pilot!” roared Art, in mock fury. “That was about the worst take-off I have ever seen!” Klalmar-lan ruefully had to admit that it was pretty bad.
“I had to do it, though, Art,” he said. “It was our only chance. I watched out of the corner of my eye. As soon as you were in, I threw on the main jets, full power, thinking to leave Theller behind, but I didn’t time it quite right. He had managed to get in first. Of course, you were all thrown heavily against the rear panel, which, being padded, prevented serious injury. Naturally, we all blacked out for a time from the acceleration. We had passed through the cloud layer before I myself regained consciousness. Just in time to see the most beautiful sight! The rear mirrograph showed the whole thing. The clouds, which extend a full six miles above Venus’ surface, parted like a puff of smoke, and a huge flower of white flame, miles in diameter, sprang up at us.
“The concussion boosted our speed at a terrific rate. But I discovered that at least three Voornizar fighters had been scattered far enough to avoid destruction, and were now speeding in savage pursuit. When I saw Theller coming to, and crawling after that gun, I didn’t know what to do for a moment. I couldn’t leave the cockpit and expect to return without neutralizing our tremendous acceleration, which meant leveling off, in which case our pursuers would be on us instantly.
“I shouted at you, threw pieces of my harness, anything to rouse you. You finally woke, but Theller practically had the pistol by that time. I spun the ship over a couple of times, which was cruel punishment for all of you, but necessary. Well, I thought all was over when I saw Theller about to knife you. But spinning the ship had dislodged something from under the seat which Theller had evidently fastened there previously—a shock ray pistol. I paralyzed him with that. In a few hours we were out of Venus’ gravity, and I was able to leave the controls and revive the four of you.” He strode to a bunk where Theller lay, securely bound.
“And now, I think you’d better tell me what happened to those two Martian ships which disappeared enroute to Earth. At the time, knowing of the secrets you had stolen from us, but nothing of your connection with Voornizar, we were forced to regard it as an act of war on the part of Earth, and cut off communications until we could investigate it in our own way. Now it is obvious that you gave their schedule to the Voornizar and had them intercepted.”
“They disintegrated every trace of both of them!” shrieked the murderer. “And I’m glad, glad, do you hear? I’d like to destroy everything Martian! If my plan had gone right, some day I would have brought you black devils to your knees. Knowing that I cannot do that, I only want death.”
“That wish you shall have—for on Mars a death sentence awaits you,” Klalmar-lan answered grimly.
“On Mars?” asked Art swiftly. “But Klalmar-lan, Elene and I must get to Earth. Even though the danger is over, we are badly needed for the work of rebuilding and reorganizing. And—besides—we, well, hang it all, we want to find someone to marry us.”
“Don’t worry, my friends,” Klalmar-lan assured them. “You shall go to Earth. In about two hours we will meet a Martian patrol which left Mars for Venus at the same time the fleet left for Earth. I will transfer to their ship with my prisoner, leaving you mine. I hope you will not object to my taking an Earthian to Mars for trial—but my only motive is to save the trouble of a trial when you will want to be devoting your efforts to more important work.”
“He’s right,” agreed Denny, “and here’s another thing. Don’t worry about getting back to Earth to get married. Have you forgotten that I’m a full commander, with the right to marry any couple aboard a ship in space?”
Art and Elene hadn’t forgotten.
[Transcriber’s Note: Original text had 2 Section IV headings. Section headings renumbered to correct.]#ENGLISH