Keeper of the Deathless Sleep
by Albert De Pina
Nardon, the Correlator, had banded together the
greatest brains of the Solar System to battle the
menace spawned by Saturn—was leading them into
the stronghold of the Energasts themselves.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Winter 1944.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
“We cannot fight,” Antaran said. “Not now…. We must be patient a while longer. Venus still holds the secret of Vulcan base and without allotropic metal our fleet would be so much papier mache!” He fell silent.
In the soft, smoky-blue twilight of the great subterranean room beneath the Universarium, Bill Nardon gazed expressionlessly at the angular austerity of the Council Leader’s face, and remained silent.
“Three more spacers today!” Antaran sank slowly into the yielding firmness of a priceless crysto-plast chair. “Disappeared….” He paused. “Must you have this hellish blue fog, Bill?” He frowned in distaste. Bill Nardon smiled slowly from where he lay on a great couch of alabastrine, utterly relaxed. “Would you rather have a mountain night, a summer twilight, or dawn?” His great shoulders shook a little with silent laughter until the mane of dark red hair that hung to his shoulders seemed to twinkle with pinpoints of light. He pressed a series of selectors on the back of the couch, and slowly a rosy light like a tardy dawn diffused through the room together with the smell of the sea. “Don’t look so outraged, Antaran; that Spartan conditioning of yours is a tragedy!” The aged Council leader shrugged his shoulders.
“Listen to me!” Antaran said brusquely. “Half a hundred thousand men and women from six planets cannot be hidden away like so much plunder. Sooner or later someone is bound to escape and give away the mystery. Yet months have passed and no trace of them has been found. Correlate that!”
He sniffed at the marvelously fresh odor of the sea and blinked at the rose-gold light of the static dawn as if it weren’t a scientific and artistic miracle, but something not quite decent.
“The loss in terms of life and treasure is negligible. It’s what it purports in the long run that’s serious. Already Venus has clamped down on shipments of radio-actives and Mars has declared limited martial law. No trade with Neptune is possible in the face of their embargo, and the European coalition of Terrans and Panadurs have closed their world! The logical development of this psychological state of nerves is….”
“War.” Bill Nardon said softly, almost in a whisper that died in the faint sea-breeze that eddied about the room. For a long time there was silence, while the “Correlator” played with the selectors on the couch unaware of doing so in his profound absorption, and the tardy dawn faded into bright daylight which in turn gave way to the perfumed mystery of a starry night deep within the mountains and the odor of pine stole about the room. A ripple of music almost as soft as a sigh invaded the chamber, gathering in volume and poesy of melody like an enchanted lullaby to a wonder child or, a woman utterly beloved.
When the “Correlator” came to, Antaran had gone.
The rain’s silver curtain had lifted for some time—over an hour now—Bill Nardon mused. The blinding blueness of the skies was reflected on the satiny sheen of the platino-plastic structures of the spaceport, now glorious in its display of opulence for the benefit of the arriving delegations of five worlds. The Terran display of grandeur had been planned to increase with exquisite skill all the way to the Universarium.
Which in itself was a piece of effrontery, Bill thought with a sardonic smile, considering that with Earth, only six worlds were represented, which was far from being the Universe. Not to mention that each planet was sovereign, jealously and hypersensitively suspicious of the slightest encroachment upon their rights and domains. Bill was certainly aware of the fact that the word Universarium would be a cause for resentment.
They were arriving now. Upon the gigantic Ethero-solidograph that covered an entire wall of the spacious room, deep in the bowels of the Universarium, Bill Nardon could see the great inter-planetary vessels emerge from outer space, where both space and time have but a remote and relative meaning, and flash like inter-stellar daggers into the outer fringe of the stratosphere.
“Warships! All of them!” He mused aloud, while the slightly satirical smile deepened, hovering on his square-cut lips, crinkling the corners of the long, strangely colored eyes—almost electric blue.
“Warships?” he mused.
Bill saw them extend lateral fins upon the icy fragility of the upper air, much as a bird extends its wings, and come shrieking through the tortured air in a mad race to be the first to land upon the expectant Earth. In great flawless spirals—beautiful beyond belief—they lost altitude, leaving behind a vortex of clouds boiling furiously at their passage. Venus was in the lead. Bill Nardon recognized the powerful cruiser by its insignia of a serpent biting its tail, fashioned of Josmians—Venusian pearls. Close behind it was Europa, with the insignia of a blazing Jupiter on its side; Neptune with its emblazoned shield of a tiered city, and little Mercury with the royal emblem of incandescent Sol. And at the very end, aloof, disdainful, the truly magnificent work of science and art that was the Martian vessel, which characteristically wore no emblem at all, and seemed to be content to be the last to arrive, so long as it kept from being contaminated by close contact with the races of other worlds than Mars.
A great swirl of ceremonial music rose from the immense spaceport, the cathedral-like architectonics weaving intricate patterns upwards to the skies as if to receive in an ocean of melody the arriving delegates.
Bill Nardon sighed, his task was about to begin. With a slight movement of his right hand, he touched the controls gleaming on the desk before him, and the scene at the spaceport rushed with vertiginous speed into close focus; still he was not satisfied, but continued to manipulate the Ethero-solidograph controls until the emerging occupants of the Venusian ship grew on the screen to life-size. With infinite care he studied and analyzed their faces, their exquisite fragile bodies with the long, membranous wings; noted the almost imperceptible shadow of baffled apprehension beneath the mask of imperturbability, and found—nothing. But that was to be expected. After all, of all the planets, Venus was the least warlike, which was fortunate indeed.
The tall, rangy Europans, offspring of Terran colonists, with their strange, silver-furred Panadur co-rulers, came next. Bill lingered over the Panadur leader, so strangely human in his four feet of upright, slender body, completely furred in gleaming silver fur to the very throat-line, with the delicate triangular face dominated by immense beryl eyes. Strange creatures of a world within a world, drawing their sustenance from the eerie radio-active caverns of their great Jupiterian satellite. The Neptunians were descendants of Earthmen too, but subtly changed by the awesome environment of their gigantic world.
The Mercurians were a problem in themselves. For of all the planets, theirs was a ruthless Matriarchy. The striding, uncompromising Amazons that emerged from that blunt, utilitarian-looking ship, were in themselves a promise of trouble. They gazed around them out of blazing dark eyes, and their metallic complexions seemed to flow oddly like quicksilver with their movements, as if their features were fluid. Only the eyes, hard, suspicious, expecting the worst, retained their unyielding character. When the Martians emerged, tall, tawny-haired, with their immense violet eyes and exaggeratedly narrow waists, that contrasted with their broad shoulders, it occurred to Bill that the least accident would precipitate an holocaust that would end in the most gigantic hecatomb the universe had ever seen. He shuddered to think what would happen if the least delegate were to meet with harm. From the very beginning, he had protested against this inter-planetary meeting on Terra, and great as his influence was, profound as the respect was in which his unique powers were held, the Council vote had been against him.
Still, Bill Nardon could not rid himself of the feeling that this was a wild goose chase, that nothing would be accomplished by a meeting of the highest dignitaries of the Inter-Planetary League—in short, that the great danger of an accident that was being incurred was not only unnecessary—but futile, which was far worse.
Asprawl in the great hetero-plastic chair, his long legs extended, his superb torso completely relaxed, he looked as if even his great muscles would never again lift that magnificent body upright. But all the while his unique mind was absorbed in assembling multitudes of details and facts, coordinating and correlating psychological factors and psychic coordinates with the speed of thought into a clear picture which in the end proved—absolutely nothing. He was baffled. To the tragic problem which would soon be under discussion in the stupendous Universarium, expressly built for that momentous purpose, he would be able to bring precisely nothing.
For once he had failed. And Bill damned the cold efficiency of the Master Neurograph machine that had unerringly summarized his strange mental coordinates. For Bill’s mind had the peculiar gift of being able to grasp a series of basic facts and from them deduce with supernal accuracy the individual answer to any human problem. What took the great Philosophers in Psychiatry VI days, and weeks, and even months to solve, Bill Nardon could coordinate and give the correct answer to in hours, sometimes minutes.
There was nothing mysterious about it. Given enough time, Bill Nardon could have explained in detail how he could solve a particular problem in human equations—if he cared to, which he never did—it was merely a mental ratio of activity in the upper part of his brain, where the most involved and difficult thinking is done, many times greater than that of the normal human brain. To this was added an intensity and scope of awareness surpassing any Neurographic records known. The result was the coordination of details, the synchronizing of factors—nay, nuances so tenuous that they were non-existent to even the philosophical minds.
As a result, Bill Nardon had been immediately removed from his job as an explorer and transferred to Security I, answerable only to the very head of the Supreme Council itself.
To him it had been a tragedy. The ecstasy of the vast reaches of space; the illimitable freedom, birthright of explorers, the intimate communion with the stars had been transmuted into a guarded existence as if he were one of the most valuable factors in the security of Earth, which unquestionably he was. Every luxury, every whim even, was his to indulge, he could have anything … literally anything, but freedom!
And now he had failed. In his sardonic mood he was glad that he had been unable to find even a tiny clue. In all that glittering, heterogenous assemblage Bill had not found even a slight nuance to pounce upon. Involuntarily he shook his head, and the dark red mane that fell to his shoulders in the conventional style of the day, swirled about his shoulders, again he shook his head as if some almost imperceptible irritant were annoying him. And suddenly he sat upright, his eyes narrowed and steel-blue. In his intense absorption in the scene on the Ethero-solidograph, the elfin probing of his mind had gone unnoticed. A profound surprise mingled with the instant pointing of all his faculties as he became aware. That anyone could penetrate his mental defenses was unthinkable!
Even before his awareness of peril was complete, Bill became a blur of motion that coiled and sprang erect. And the incredible shape that had launched itself with razor-like talons outspread unerringly for the sprawling Terran’s throat thudded against iron-hard stomach muscles, over which a thin beryllium mesh tunic afforded protection. Almost at the very instant it struck, the creature launched itself again, with demoniacal fury, taloned hands reaching with super-human strength for the bared throat, its taloned feet trying to disembowel the Terran. Bill fought silently, driving a shattering blow to the open mouth with its gleaming fangs, with the other striving to keep it at arm’s length. But the thing twisted with a sinuous motion and flung itself to one side, then leaped in again, driving like a tiger for the Terran legs, as Bill sprang to one side and then dived for the flashing creature.
Bill caught one of its legs and instantly it coiled back upon itself and fastened its fanged mouth upon his forearm. Only the invulnerable Beryllium mesh saved it from being fanged through; as it was, the awful pressure of those inhuman teeth was excruciating agony. In desperation Bill aimed another slashing blow at the maniacal face of the being, and saw it become indistinct with blood; using every ounce of strength at his command, the Earthman slowly forced back the face of the thing and with a convulsive movement shattered its vertebrae. When Bill released it, the creature dropped limp on the bloodied translucence of the Jadite flooring.
Reeling from fatigue, his body a mass of bruises, Bill methodically examined his attacker. It was about four feet tall, humanoid in shape, even as to features which were delicate—surprisingly beautiful in the repose of death. It had the face of a very beautiful woman in miniature. But there was nothing lovely about the competent taloned hands with their cording of steely muscles, or about the oddly shaped flexible feet—almost hands in themselves, like that of the now extinct apes of thousands of years back when Terra had been young. The body had evidently been evolved with a great simplicity of purpose—and, strangest of all, it was sexless!
And this was the thing that had been able to penetrate the defenses of his mind, almost succeeding in probing it without Bill being aware of it. In coordinating his findings, it occurred to Bill Nardon that this unholy creature was the nearest thing to a homunculi he had ever known! But whence had it come? How correlate such a mind of power with such utterly ruthless, coldly calculating ferocity.
Bill shivered a little, and it was not altogether from his recent exertions in defense of his life. Stretched upon the exquisite whiteness of the plastic Jadite flooring, there was an infinitely appealing beauty to its face in the ultimate sleep, as if it were a welcome repose. The light brown eyes still open mirrored sadness—that was the incredible fact. The mind that had tip-toed the shores of his consciousness with sandals of foam, was still. But Bill Nardon’s mind recovered from the horror of the unexpected attack, felt even more the icy chill of failure as it sought factors and only found an impenetrable mystery instead.
“No planet … no world known to me,” and Bill had traveled half a galaxy in his time, “has spawned this creature. This,” he paused, his eyes electric with excitement, “is a manufactured, an artificially evolved being! But who? Not the Martians surely; the Venusians? The Neptunians? No, no race in the entire six planets is capable of creating….” In the very midst of his soliloquy he paused startled. “The Panadurs! Only they with their strange powers could achieve such a miracle…. But would they? In all the annals of Europa there is no clue to the “Will to Conquer.” Besides, to the Panadurs life was sacred….” His thoughts swirled feverishly, and, impenetrably, the mystery became more and more involved as the glittering assemblage of delegates from other worlds traveled to the great Universarium.
For a timeless moment of absolute silence, every being present stood with bowed head in reverence to the Absolute. Then they took their assigned places around the immense Council table grimly. The crisis was at hand.
When Bill Nardon entered, he was late, for the preliminaries, the usual diplomatic fencing and jockeying for favorable positions was over. The smouldering resentment of six belligerent worlds was frankly in the open.
Antaran, Head of the Supreme Council of Terra, presided at the head of the table—there had been no difficulty about that—as was his due as Host; but Venus and Mars had been diplomatically seated at his right and left, respectively, facing each other and with equal honors, where they could glare at each to their hearts’ content. Neptune had been given the other end of the table facing Antaran, and to his right the Amazonian leader from Mercury. The balance of the delegates had been scattered around the council table interspersed cleverly with members of Terra’s Council.
Bill saw instantly Antaran’s anxious frown as he entered and caught the half-annoyed, half-anxious query at his lateness, telepathed in their secret code. He merely signalled, “Wait, Antaran!” and proceeded to stand behind the Terran Leader’s chair as unobtrusively as possible. But it had been an entrance! His stately height of six feet five inches, in the close fitting tunic of beryllium, the dark red mane of wavy hair falling to his shoulders, allied to the lateness of his coming, gave him an importance in the eyes of the visiting delegates which, just now, he would have liked to avoid.
But when Antaran arose, all eyes centered coldly upon the Council Leader. A sensuous fragrance of Venusian Jasmines wafted like an invisible presence as the Martian Leader insolently applied a gossamer handkerchief to his nostrils in defense of the odors of the other races, and the tiny, winged Venusian ambassador glared with scorn. The Amazonian being from Mercury clanked her power-rapier uneasily, while the tall Neptunian unconsciously touched his belt. Above them, the cathedral-like dome of the tremendous Hall of Planets rose until the graduating hues of its intricately carved Sapphirine plastic walls paled from translucent sapphire to aquamarine, to beryl to palest mauve, and then only the sheerest rose-gold or diffused sunlight where the intricate interlacing of arches was like a cob-web pattern in the distance.
“We are gathered here,” Antaran began without preamble in his terse, icy voice, “to discuss a problem that threatens….” He paused as if not willing to voice the ghastly thought, “to plunge our Universe into suicidal strife, and engulf the magnificent fruits of inter-planetary civilization.”
Bill Nardon while engaged in appraising the reactions of those present, couldn’t help being amused with part of his mind at the Terran Leader’s purple periods. “Dearly loves speeches!” He exclaimed mentally in the curious mental short-hand with which he was wont to soliloquize.
“Ship after inter-planetary ship has disappeared without trace somewhere in transit between the inner and outer planets…. That is,” he amended, “the known outer planets which include uninhabited Jupiter and its uncolonized Moons, the great centers of civilization—Europa and Neptune. I cannot speak for Uranus which has only been partly explored, and those two unknown quantities, Pluto and especially Saturn, that planet of maddening contradictions on which no space vessel has been able to land. Thousands upon thousands of passengers, colonists of all races, and untold treasure has vanished into thin air, without trace. I submit,” Antaran drew himself to his full skeletal height of over six feet, thin to the point of emaciation and austere in all the dignity of his two hundred years, “I submit that Terra is blameless—that the infamy of this outrage is surpassed only by the mystery of the purpose behind it all!” He stood grim and silent, with folded arms, his translucent gray eyes searching the faces before him.
And pandemonium broke loose! The Martian exquisite forgot his affected snobbishness and his perfumed handkerchief, and was shouting:
“The floor! Grant me the floor!”
While the blazing eyed virago from Mercury unceremoniously shoved the tall Neptunian aside and was bellowing in stentorian tones:
“I take the floor, Terran! I take the floor!”
Oddly enough, it was the tiny Panadur from Europa who eventually got it. He had leaped upon the Council table and stood immobile, sending powerful telepathic vibrations in utter silence, for his race was voiceless. Before the incredible power of that involved mind, the Terrans, the surpassingly telepathic Venusians, even the Martians gave way. Only the Mercurian creature bellowed still, until Antaran granted the floor to the Panadur. And the telepathic flood poured out. The being from Europa accounted for his world in no uncertain terms. To them life was sacred, and the last thing in the Universe they wanted was strife!
Planet after planet laid their cards on the table. Even Mars, for all their supercilious affectation, made a categorical denial. And as the mystery deepened, mutual suspicion flamed higher and higher. It was Venus that finally gave voice to what was in all their minds.
“After all, treasure is replaceable, great as the loss may be. But at least a dozen inter-planetary spacers built of the invulnerable metal from Vulcan have disappeared! A few more of such Venusian ships, and whatever planet is responsible will have a respectable fleet of the most deadly ships of space known to our Universe! Our inter-planetary treaty with Mars and Terra and Mercury gave us undisputed and undivined sovereignty over Vulcan Base and the invulnerable metal of its mines, because having in our grasp the conquest of Terra and Mars, we kept the peace! Now, after ages of adhering to the treaty, we are faced with virtual attack. We demand a solution!”
It was then that Bill decided it was high time to intervene. With a gesture he signalled to the outer arch of the Hall of Planets, while simultaneously he requested the floor. Antaran granted the request while a slight frown of puzzlement crinkled the pale, parchment-like brow crowned with snowy hair. And into the silent Hall came two ordine-plastic robots bearing between them a plastic box. They laid it on the floor, before the Council table and as silently withdrew. All eyes were centered on the plastic box, and the personal vibrations of the delegates were overpowering, as Bill strode calmly towards the box and wordlessly opened the lid.
With one effortless gesture he lifted the inert and stiffening form of the homunculi that had attacked him, and flung it into the center of the table. Even as they arose in amazement, he swept them with a bright, electric blue glare and with the unsuspected force of his tremendous mind-power he gave them a faithful, telephathic picture of what had occurred. They all saw it. The battle to the death; the creature’s probing of his mind—All!
And there was no doubt as to its authenticity, the proof was before their eyes, and no mind—not even Bill Nardon’s—could possible fake such a harrowing experience and bring before them the corpus delicti, not even through telekinesis!
“That,” Bill Nardon telepathed succinctly, “is a definite clue. I do not know of any race in our inter-planetary League able to create such a creature. I only have a suggestion to make. Once I was an explorer. I can be one again. Ordinary minds cannot cope with this problem. Terra will have to risk me if a solution to this mystery is to be achieved. I suggest a suicide expedition. If Mars, Venus, Neptune, Mercury and Europa will join Terra in sending a group of their best, their keenest minds, and their highest trained inter-planetary explorers, we may have a chance to relay back to the inhabited planets whatever we discover.
“I said suicide expedition—I meant just that. A single cruiser, armed by the combined science of all planets. Let Venus provide Vulcanite, because it’s invulnerable; the atomic engines supplied by Terra—those are details. Every Ethero-Magnum Station between the inner and outer planets to be constantly on the alert—as far as Neptune!” His narrowed eyes swept them briefly, noting the instant negative reaction from the Venusian at the mention of Vulcanite. Suspicion lingered. Doubts rooted on a million incidents of the past—intrigues so involved as to drive a mind mad. Injustices. The last fratricidal war that had set their Universe aflame.
The stately Martian had recovered his aplomb; the wisp of handkerchief he pressed to his nostrils as he eyed the inert creature asprawl on the table diffused a breath of fragrance, cool as a mountain breeze. He gestured toward it fastidiously, his violet eyes inscrutable.
“That … homunculi, or android … nothing mysterious about it. Superb biosynthesis, I grant you, but Terra could produce it!” The last words were like a stab.
“And so could Mars,” the Venusian said wearily in instant contradiction. “The point it, what could anyone of us hope to gain by war?” The word was out at last. The chill atmosphere of horror the appearance of the homunculi had inspired, became icy, seemed to seep like the breath of death through the lofty Hall. In the silent pause their faces were like masks as the tiny Venusian eyed them with a sardonic glance. “Power, perhaps?” He continued. “No one planet wears the crown of empire—no one ever will as long as Venus holds Vulcan!” He said it softly, but with a Universe of power in his voice.
The sloe-eyed Amazon from Mercury stirred uneasily, and the Neptunian delegate seemed uncertain as to the next move. In silence, Bill Nardon waited patiently.
A swift glance of intelligence flashed between the rangy Europan Earthman and his inseparable Panadur companion. And then the latter rose. He held up a silver-furred arm perfectly moulded, and gestured with his oddly human but thumbless hand.
“This being could have easily traveled by spacer from whence it came—as easily as we did!” The Panadur telepathed. “A small ship would be practically indetectable; besides, in view of our coming, even if seen it would have been taken for one of our ships. It occurs to me that this being may not have been created by another race, but is in itself the very danger we have to face!”
“No!” Bill Nardon exclaimed with utter conviction. “I caught it exploring my mind. In the instant that I contacted his, I knew it was not independent … it was directed. Three things only have I been unable to solve: It brought no weapons save its own murderous powers; it was purposely directed at me as if to destroy the only ‘Correlating’ mind in our League. And, most mysterious of all—in death, an ineffable sadness overlays its features, where the expression of bestial lust to kill should have been frozen in death.” As Bill finished, the Martian delegate stood up:
“I suppose my Government would be willing to release the Multi-Energon Screen for this expedition—retaining its secret, of course—provided,” he flared, “provided Venus releases the necessary Vulcanite for the hull!” They glared at each other from both sides of the Council Table in ominous silence.
The Panadur gazed at them with evident scorn. “Europa,” he telepathed with a curious sort of sardonic benignity, “would be quite willing to supply radiant energy bombs!” The nearest thing to a smile seemed to flit over his delicate features, as he noted their reaction to the dreaded reminder.
“And we will furnish plastics such as your worlds have never seen!” The man from Neptune spoke at last. The Amazon merely clanked her awful Power-rapier significantly.
“No strikes yet!” Bill Nardon said softly, his eyes glued to the Electronoscope. “Sense anything, Freml?”
“Only an outflow of thought-energy … infinitely distant…. I don’t quite know, Nardon. It’s voiceless … patternless, to me at least.” The Panadur leader sounded uncertain. Even to his stupendous mind-power, the voiceless susurration, alive, malignant, was a tenuous thing sensed more than felt, directionless, part of the vast, galactic night that engulfed the bait ship in blackness so velvety it was like smothering charred ash. The gigantic super-spacer in the building of which six planets had tried to outdo each other, knifed through the impalpable vibrations in its endless flight. Back of it, a tiny smouldering disk, like a glowing ruby-brooch, nearly three-quarters of a billion miles away, was the sun.
Ahead, Saturn was slowly coming into position, and the great wings of light that were its rings shone with the glory of an eternal rainbow, paling the immense crystalline jewel that was Pluto.
The tension within the spacer mounted perceptibly. Yet interminably the hours dragged on and on. All screens were down, save those for meteorite protection, as if deliberately inviting an attack. Every member of the heterogeneous crew knew their assigned tasks so that mechanically they would spring to their stations at the least warning.
Saturn grew immense, glorious beyond belief, until Bill Nardon was forced from the Electronoscope by the intolerable light. It was then that some one laughed. Rather, it was a cachinnation sounding eerily in their midst.
Abruptly, Bill Nardon tensed, his preternatural faculties alert. He swung slowly from the eye piece of the ‘scope and faced the emissaries—scientists-explorers all, of the six planets. It was the Neptunian who had laughed. He was shaking silently now, as if some hidden mirth convulsed him.
“We’re close to the last planetary outpost,” he observed, “and, nothing yet! This isn’t an expedition, Nardon … it’s a farce! What can you expect to find in Saturn? A frozen waste of solid, glassy hydrogen and helium, an infinite wilderness of ‘hot-solid’ gases under unimaginable pressure. You know Saturn has an atmosphere of at least twenty thousand miles in depth!”
“I know nothing of the kind,” Bill answered evenly, with studied calm. “Saturn has never been properly ‘correlated.’ Liquids and solids don’t compress; besides, even if Saturn were as you say a frozen waste with a temperature of say 180° C. below zero, that would still be too hot for hydrogen, which cannot exist as a liquid at that temperature. I needn’t mention helium which requires a temperature lower still for liquefaction.”
“You’re leading us,” the Neptunian hissed through clenched teeth, “into gales of methane and ammonia roaring around a dead world of frightful cold; into a frozen hell where if the atmosphere doesn’t crush us, we’ll never escape the overwhelming gravitational pull…. You … you fiend.” The last words were a shriek just as he launched himself in a tigerish leap straight for the throat of the Terran “Correlator.”
And Bill sprang aside, his left hook instinctively catapulting to the unprotected chin of the Neptunian. But it failed to stop him. Off balance, slightly stunned by the blow, the maddened delegate from Neptune whirled on the Terran, aiming a staggering blow that whizzed past Bill’s head with savage force. Off balance, the Neptunian staggered forward, his lean features contorted by bestial rage and the lust to kill. He was like a man possessed.
Bill Nardon was icy calm now. The harrowing training all members of the Explorer Class had to undergo, had come to the surface, and to the tall Terran everything had ceased to exist but the task at hand. He rolled aside slightly, sending a straight left to the Neptunian’s head, driving him off balance again. Bill weaved to and fro, lightly balanced on his toes as the Neptunian came boring back with terrible tenacity. Bill’s right arm was a peg on which he hung the blows of the man from Neptune, while lashing like a cobra, his boxer’s left, long and weaving, stabbed in again and again. The “Correlator” didn’t want to kill the man. For here was another mystery. The attack was absurd, from the standpoint of their aims and goals. But he had no time to correlate the facts and arrive at a decision.
The Neptunian rushed murderously eager, and Bill let his heels touch the floor, refused to give way. He took a staggering blow to the midriff, and went pale from pain, but with the swiftness of a striking Calamar, he countered with a vicious left to the face and a slashing right cross. The Neptunian staggered uttering a hoarse cry as his features seemed to run like the quicksilver face of the Amazon from Mercury. He staggered and fell to the blood-spattered ordine plastic floor of the cruiser. Bill stood heaving, only now the answer was apparent to him, but again his thoughts were cut short, for the Neptunian was far from through. Into the ghastly face, a new expression of diabolical fury had appeared, and as he lurched to his feet, his right hand clawed at his belt for a weapon. Only power-rapiers had been allowed them individually until a landing was effected, and it was fortunate, for as the clawing fingers closed about the rapier’s hilt, an unholy light came into the Neptunian’s eyes.
Bill heard a thunderous battle-cry as a bulky shape sprang between him and the Neptunian, but he swept his rescuer aside. It was the Amazon, her own power-rapier drawn for battle.
“No interference!” he exclaimed in a voice as cold as outer space. His own blade was in his hand now, the flexible Columbium-steel activated by the dreadful electronic fire. The touch of that blade disintegrated flesh and bone and metal even. They were face to face now, confronting each other with the wary savagery of Venusian Ocelandians. The smell of death was in the air, and too, the wordless, tremendous, inarticulate vibration from an unknown source that seemed to hint at inconceivable horror, and ebbed and flowed about them. They could all sense it now, as it increased as if in a crescendo of triumph.
And at that instant the Neptunian struck. One moment they were circling for an opening, their ghastly weapons ready, and the next the singing blades met in midair as Bill Nardon parried the slashing blow. And then reason tottered as time stood still. Where the blades had been a flaring vortex of unendurable blue light sprang between them like a hellish fan of electronic fury opening before their eyes.
The Neptunian’s blade had disappeared, consumed in the incredible holocaust; only the neutralized hilt of Vulcanite remained in his palsied hand as they reeled aside, blinded and unnerved. Bill’s blade swished through the air as he reversed it and struck the Neptunian on the left temple with the Vulcanite hilt. The man’s knees went rubbery and without a sound he slumped to the floor.
“The screen … throw on the Multi-Energon screen!” Bill bellowed. “This man was being directed, someone else may be next!” The powerful hum of the inner screen within the cruiser, that rendered everything within impervious to every known power, arose in the brief silence. And none too soon. Suddenly the cruiser lurched, and trembled like a great wounded stallion.
Bill had a confused picture of the addled members of several planets clinging to ultra-mullioned gravity seats as the ship began to spin. Every possible aid of science had been lavished on the cruiser, even to the most exacting provisions against physical injury, or the danger from an unexpected crash-landing in some far off world. But even their combined science, great as it was, had not foreseen the unpredictable enough to counteract this blow.
As if a cosmic hand had grasped the hurtling, spinning ship, it described an orbital parabola, flashing like a living thing through space, and headed at an unimaginable acceleration directly into the phantasmal light of the great winged world. Bill’s dazzled eyes saw the tiny Panadur fight to strap himself to the acceleration seat on which he perched, while frantically he strove to retain consciousness. Everything seemed ringed with prismatic rainbows from the awful glare of the electronic flash, as Bill resolutely set his conscious and sub-conscious mind in alignment to fight off oblivion. But nothing human could withstand consciously the orbital fall of the great ship, as it dived into the fathomless abyss of night in a concentric spiral that narrowed tighter and tighter, wheeling in direct ratio with the rotation of the mammoth planet, at which it was aimed like the spear of a cosmic angel.
Bill’s last comforting thought was the Multi-Energon screen. Nothing, his superb mind conceived, could possibly penetrate that. A crash was imminent, he knew, but against that they were prepared. He tried to contact whatever it was that had sent the polyglot vibrations and had managed to grip the Neptunian’s brain, and only a confused disorder, as of many minds abandoning their temporary union came to him, and then … the profound illimitable darkness of complete oblivion.
None aboard saw the fantastic scene as the cruiser neared Saturn and was trapped by the hungry pull of the planet. None witnessed the macabre sight of stupendous mountains rising to impale them as they struck its atmosphere. Uncannily, the cruiser began to decelerate as the robot control went into action, activated by the atmospheric pressure. In a great swinging arc, the super-spacer settled lower and lower, until at last, immense lateral fins shot out of its sides, and secondary rockets belched forth, braking the headlong rush.
Beneath them, a world of light and shadows shimmered under the unearthly loveliness of the great rings, as if illumined by a sidereal current of glowing jewels. Three of the nine moons were in transit, phantasmal in their silent loveliness as they hovered over the parent world. Beneath, the liquid sparkle of an unknown ocean undulated softly, twinkling with myriad star points as if spangled with stardust.
At last the inter-planetary cruiser came to rest, ploughing up immense furrows in the glittering sands of the shore, in a partial crash-landing. The robot controls, magnetically activated to decelerate in direct ratio with the proximity of land, had held true. The almost incandescent tertiary-outer hull of the ship, began to cool to a dull silvery hue. In the near distance, a glorious city of towering spires and prismatic domes, was like a fairy scene on a colossal scale. But no fingers of light issued from its towers and domes. No living beings issued from its portals to investigate the arrival of these voyagers of space.
Only the querulous susurration of the spumeless waves of the great shining sea disturbed the eternal silence of Saturn. The silence of a dead world had enveloped the Terran ship, even as within it, the unconscious members of its heterogeneous crew were wrapped in the silence of oblivion.
The wheeling moons, one blue, one palest amber, and one, the largest like a glowing ruby of the skies, passed on, while time marched on in its endless cavalcade.
Bill gasped in a spasm of living torture as consciousness returned in a flood. Slowly he opened long blue eyes that were tragic with pain, and surveyed the inert forms all about him in the great control cabin of the ship. To one side, the partly crushed form of the Neptunian delegate sprawled abnormally twisted. Bill knew instantly the man was dead, and a flicker of sorrow touched his eyes. There had been no time to strap him to an acceleration chair. It was their first casualty. To his right a slight movement betrayed returning life to the Amazonian being from tiny Mercury. The woman, if she could be termed that, moaned unconsciously and then opened her coal black eyes with a stupefied look. They widened as comprehension came. The great cruiser was at rest, and through the visiports flooded the jewelled illumination of Saturn’s rings. An indistinct croak issued from her throat, and was echoed by the “Ahh” of excruciating pain as the fastidious Martian also came to. With an effort, Bill Nardon unstrapped himself and rose unsteadily, flexing cramped muscles that shrieked exquisite torture at every movement he made. But he managed to reach the emergency cabinet and extract a priceless Neptunian flask of Jadite, jewelled with Sapphirines. He opened and satisfied himself that it was filled with Sulfalixir, then ministered to their needs. The miraculous stimulant was like a draught of life-essence to them. Not until then, did he ascend to the observation dome. The sight that greeted his eyes was to remain as long as he lived a memorable experience.
Behind him trooped the others, to stand in awe at the spectacle before them. “Saturn!” Bill Nardon breathed. “For countless ages unvisited by man … and yet, a habitable world!” In the distance, the shimmering city glowed with a thousand hues under the illumination of the rings, silent, aloof.
“Cut multiple screen briefly and obtain atmospheric samples,” Bill Nardon broke the spell. “I’ll want everyone wearing Energon helmets for the interval while the screen’s off.”
He gestured to the assembled scientists, coldly efficient. The breathless moment of matchless thrill was over. The winged Venusian left immediately on his way to the Geology lab, while the Martian followed to make atmospheric tests. The Neptunian scientist in charge of chemistry was dead, so Bill sent a Terran subordinate in his stead. At last only the Panadur whose task was psycho-synthesis due to his abnormal telepathic sensitiveness remained with Bill, who besides being Commander, had the arduous task of correlating findings.
“We’ve landed alive! That is the incredible fact,” the Panadur flashed. “And now that we’re here, it seems our enemy—whatever it is, has changed its plans. At least, I sense no peril.”
“Here,” Bill replied mentally, handing the silvery creature a flexible crysto-plast helmet powered by the Energon principle, “Don your helmet. The screen is being cut, and we can’t risk any more seizures.” He paused while he adjusted his own helmet, then went on: “If we are alive, we have the multiple-energon screen to thank,” he said slowly. “Whatever seized us in space meant to end our journey right then and there. Remember the man from Neptune!”
“That city is human … I sense it!” The Panadur telepathed, as the impenetrable barrier of the screen was cut off. “Odd, the vibration is low, almost imperceptible, where it should be tremendous if it’s inhabited!”
“We’re plagued by mysteries!” Bill replied exasperated. “Well, next thing’s to vibrate the news to Europa and Neptune via Astro-Magnum…. Hope it hasn’t been damaged—no Ethero-Magnum could bridge the distance to the nearest planets!”
But Freml, the Panadur, wasn’t listening even with part of his mind; the great shining city in the near distance seemed to have a hypnotic fascination for him. Slowly he took off the Energon screen helmet, and seemed to concentrate its mental power into its highest apex of ultra-sensitivity. At last it turned its glaucous beryl eyes on Bill Nardon, shining with a great excitement, and poured a telepathic stream:
“There is life in that city … an ocean of life! But it’s not active … it’s dormant, submerged … helpless!” The Panadur seemed to grope for qualifying adjectives; impatiently it went on: “But there is one that is not dormant, and it is a mind of power!”
Into their midst the Martian scientist raced with a wild look in his eyes.
“The atmosphere … Commander … it can’t be! It’s a hydrogen, oxygen compound stabilized by an unknown gas that has properties of living energy … there’s nothing like it in our known universe … it’s like a sentient thing!”
“Is it breathable?” Bill’s laconic query.
“Yes, exhilarating even … but I have yet to test for secondary metabolic effects…. I … for once in my existence I was too excited to complete the tests!” The Martian scientist was abashed. “It has one remarkable property, though, its vibratory conductivity exceeds that of water many times, not to speak of air.”
“That will aid us in sending by Astro-Magnum,” Bill thought instantly, and their attuned minds received the message. “Astro-radio will receive an impetus in its passage through this atmosphere we had not counted on!”
And something else they had not counted on was advancing toward them like a vast curtain of scintillating light. It was Bill who saw it first, covering half of the vast horizon, terrible in the unearthly beauty of its swirling vortices of prismatic stars.
In a prodigious leap Bill Nardon was at the conveyor that slid noiselessly into the control room, in those few dreadful seconds, it seemed to him he would never have time to reach the control board as he raced with extinction. When his hand closed over the switch that activated the outer Multi-Energon Screen, a wave of nausea swept him from the intensity of the reaction.
And without warning the starry swarm struck. Like billions of miniature stars exploding, the ship was enveloped in coruscating flame, lurid, unbearable in the dazzling glare of the holocaust, until even Bill Nardon doubted if the mathematically perfect Energon Screen providing an infinite overlapping series, would hold. Beneath was the invulnerable hull of Vulcanite, he knew. But would even Vulcanite be impervious to this bombardment once the screen gave way?
“All scientists at emergency stations!” He barked as he telepathed at the same time. “Battle crews man all weapons and hold fire pending orders. Everyone wear helmets!”
He, himself took over the Electro-Flash, Neptune’s gift to the Expedition. In a way, it was the ultimate weapon, disrupting as it did the very electronic balances of organic and inorganic matter.
And then, as abruptly as it had come, the terrible grandeur of the living curtain was withdrawn, receding into the far distance like a vast nebula of microscopic stars.
Bill shook himself. This must be telekinesis, a nightmare instilled into their minds, it couldn’t be real! But the white-faced Venusian that fluttered in, flashing incoherent messages as he tried to telepath, dispelled that thought.
“Commander … I have checked the graph of power intake of automatic absorber P-6, set to absorb cosmic rays for auxiliary power…. I….” He passed a tiny, weary hand over his smooth brow, and his azure wings hung limp, “I can’t believe it … we have more power, more atomic power than when we began this trip! It is as if we had tapped an incredible source of radio-active energy!”
Silently, a Terran scientist handed Nardon a developed electro-photo of a small segment of the “curtain” of fire. Unmistakably outlined were myriad tiny insect bodies, unquestionably composed of some living radio-active substance.
“The Absolute be praised!” Bill breathed fervently. “No known ship—not even Vulcanite could possibly withstand a radio-active bombardment of such scope!” He turned slowly to where the Martian scientists stood silent in a group. “I salute you,” he telepathed gravely. “Your Multi-Energon screen is the greatest defensive weapon in our Universe.” Embarrassedly, the tall, violet-eyed Martians stirred uncomfortably; they had a deep distaste for any emotions and suppressed them ruthlessly. Other findings began to trickle in. The nameless inter-stellar spacer that had emerged from the combined ingenuity of half a dozen worlds, spurred by the ultimate incentive of a brooding and catastrophic peril, all the more terrible because it was unknown, literally swarmed with specialists in every known science. It remained for the special mind of Bill Nardon to correlate all the scientific details and weld them into a final complete knowledge, behind which it was his task to find and solve the primum mobile—the motivating factor that they sought.
One thing emerged beyond the shadow of a doubt. Each attack had been characterized by a complete absence of a known presence. The individual attempt on Bill’s life on earth had been carried out by a creature acting outside its own volition; the magnetic force that had drawn their ship into Saturn itself, likewise was disembodied, and now this radio-active swarm that would have consumed them but for the Energon screen—it too gave no clue as to the final, directing intelligence behind. And yet, in their very midst, a great scientific mind had gone mad.
The stalemate was clear. Thus far they had weathered the unimaginable behind their Energon Screen. But they were trapped within just as effectively as long as they were unable to emerge. The sum total of their knowledge resolved itself to a series of bizarre incidents—to which it might be added the cryptic thought-projection of Freml, the Panadur. He had mentioned “an ocean of submerged life … helpless” had been his final description. Yet he had also indicated a “Mind of Power” far from helpless or submerged indeed. And great as it might be, one single entity was, foe or not, worthy of challenge. The incomplete puzzle in Bill Nardon’s mind revolved with all the maddening quality of a picture almost discerned, yet eluding the final composition that would give it recognizable form.
The question was, should they correlate all findings and attempt a return to Earth, and utilize their meager knowledge in preparation of some sort of a defense. Or, take the final risk and visit that silent city whence Freml had drawn vibrations of intelligent life. Bill Nardon already knew what his decision would be. He would call a conference, of course, but in his mind the determination to confront whatever that ‘Mind of Power’ was—alone, had already crystallized.
And in another mind, alien beyond belief, in comparison with his, the same idea had taken root. For Freml, the Panadur, had not told Bill Nardon all he had obtained in that last mental projection of his. A deep, inhuman horror had traveled the incredibly-faint thought waves. Something ancient beyond calculation, as if the essence of evil itself had come alive, had bridged the gap.
“I see no wisdom in risking your life too. For if I perish, my task falls upon your shoulders, Freml. In that emergency, you were selected to command the ship … remember?”
Voicelessly the Panadur assented, and continued to patter softly beside Bill Nardon.
“I’ve brought with me the League’s ultimate weapons,” the red-headed Terran continued. “Electro-flash, power-rapier … if those were to fail, what use would there be in attempting to remain? Thus, I would make a suggestion—return to the spacer in the Z-auxiliary that brought us to the city; I’ll keep in touch with you through the ethero-radio,” he lifted his left arm exposing the watch-like instrument on his wrist.
The Panadur lifted his great beryl eyes to the tall Terran and telepathed softly, “You don’t expect me to agree to that!”
“No,” Bill smiled, “it was the expression of a hope. But tell me this, if as I expect, there’s strife, what can you hope to add in my favor that would be as important as your being safe in the ship, were I to die?”
Freml didn’t answer right away. It was not hesitation, Bill knew that, but the Panadur had blanked his mind. There were things they didn’t impart whenever they touched on secrets of his race. Then—
“A weapon you do not have!” He seemed to consider the next thought before he telepathed:
“You know my race can store the accumulative power of radiant energy, and direct it at will…. It’s in the legends … that’s how we saved the first Earthmen who trod Europa.”
They were in the very heart of the silent city now, and the lofty domes and exaggerated spires swam in the glaucous dusk that was Saturn’s eternal day. Overhead great stars blazed like flaming roses, and the glory of the rings was a spangled ocean of glowing jewels, shimmering in patternless rhythms of color. Their sense of reality drained away as the full impact of its dissolving magic gripped their minds.
At last they stood before the portals of the great building whose lofty tower was the city’s dominant note. For here the vibrations had led them, vibrations of life—dormant, helpless—and something else too.
Their senses preternaturally alert weapons ready, they exchanged one final look, then Bill Nardon pushed the great portal before him, and it swung silently inwards. And then the great stars, the wheeling moons, the glorious rings that poured down enchantment, were forgotten before the sight that gripped them as they stepped inside. For on an infinite series of tiers that filled the lofty immensity of the room lay inert beings.
Row upon endless row of creatures that to all appearances could have been highly evolved Terrans, except for an exaggerated refinement of features, an evident fragility of bodies, as if evolved almost to the very brink of decadence. Their marmoreal flesh had the cold whiteness of death, and their hair had grown until it spread in great festoons of yellow and black and silver grey. A fine, glittering film of dust overlay their tunics and flesh, and over all, the impalpable feeling of disaster, of a gigantic tragedy, hung like a pall.
“Cataleptic!” Freml flashed the thought, as he examined the nearest beings. “A living death!”
“Rather,” Bill Nardon said slowly, “a deathless sleep!” It occurred to him that the entire city was thus peopled with sleepers in oblivion—the ocean of submerged life Freml had sensed.
Upward through the broad ramps of a now motionless conveyor they ascended floor after floor, filled to over-flowing with inert Saturnians, until at last the conveyor ceased and only the polished walls of some unknown substance of what appeared to be an ascensor, remained. Nardon examined it carefully before pressing the colored disk on the side of its closed door. Noiselessly the panel slid aside revealing a shining quadrangle. Unhesitatingly they entered and the door automatically closed. A series of vari-colored disks made a triangular pattern on the left, and Bill pressed the black one at its apex. It shot upwards swiftly without the slightest jar, its incomparable smoothness gave no hint of the extraordinary speed save for the slight, hollow feeling in the pit of their stomachs its occupants felt. After a brief interval it stopped, decelerating as smoothly as it had begun, and the sliding door swept aside. And before them opened a great, transparent alcove beyond whose translucent walls and ceiling, the colossal theatricalism of the heavens was visible.
But Bill Nardon and the Panadur had no eyes for the sidereal spectacle above, two figures in the foreground held their eyes. A girl and what was evidently a man. Two figures, no more. And just now there was not the faintest hint of a belligerent move. Somehow the sight of that girl seated immobile with her exquisite hands folded on her lap, and the startling peacefulness of the man at the towering instrument he was playing, had a curious anticlimactic effect on Bill. He had not known what to expect—but surely, not this!
“Beware!” came the Panadur’s warning with unusual force, as they advanced at the ready into the center of the alcove.
The man at the instrument ceased playing, and calmly, casually almost, leaned over to the silent girl and kissed her softly upon the lips, brushing the flower-like mouth with a fleeting caress. And before their uncomprehending eyes, a spectral-blue flash lit the alcove with its ghastly glare, as their lips met! Instantly, the girl’s marvelously tinted flesh, like Venusian nacre superimposed on gold, with the highlights gleaming through, paled to the translucent whiteness of Jadite.
For she was golden—her eyes, her hair, the extraordinary lashes that gleamed with the age-old patina of ancient gold. Only her cold, remote serenity was as if she were enveloped in an invisible icy sheath. There was no hint of feeling, of emotional force even … until Bill gazed into her eyes and saw the infinite depths of tragedy. As they stood transfixed, she stirred a little and said in a low, magnificent voice:
“I am Margalida, the Aurean, transmitting for my Lord. If you prefer, I shall telepath.” Her deep contralto was glorious in itself, but she spoke as impersonally, as neutral, even, as if she were a mechanical instrument, nothing more. And had they known, it could not be otherwise, for her task was to serve only as an instrument of transmission for the telepathic vibrations of the creature at the instrument. Hers was a conquered race, a race sunk in cataleptic oblivion, and she no longer had a will. Her double usefulness made her life secure, for the time being. For the Cinnabarian whom she termed her “Lord” in keeping with the custom of his race, chose, to communicate only through the medium of an enslaved mind. Never, never directly, so that the telepathic vibrations of alien races had to pass through the spectrum of the captive brain and be rendered harmless. The Cinnabarians emitted directly, but received only through the subject being.
“The incredible effrontery of it!” Bill Nardon flashed to the Panadur. “Has his mind protected against our thoughts, and will only communicate through this tragic being!” Bill’s lips curled in a grimace of contempt, revealing a row of dazzling, even teeth. “With such a mind of power, this … Vampire of Life Force … elects to communicate with us indirectly only! Maybe he fears he might be contaminated … the colossal effrontery!”
“He’s absorbing everything we’re thinking,” Freml thought coldly. For some minutes now, he had been engaged in “Brooding,” the nearest term Earth had for the Panadur process of concentrating their energy potential, raising it to its ultimate power. His exquisite, silvery fur was an angry silver-violet now, and the beryl eyes were brilliant like faceted jewels.
“I am Kleg,” the telepathic vibration came winging from the man, and even before the girl transmitted, both Bill and Freml had received the message. “The divine overlords of Danae have permitted your invasion…. If you and your companions would live, you must place yourselves and your vessel at our disposal.” He was playing again, the music weaving an unearthly spell in muted minors; it rose and sank in a shower of notes that sped like living, winged things under his caressing touch. Only it was an instrument on which no human being could ever hope to play, for Kleg had four flexible arms, and slender, tendril-like fingers on his four narrow hands that flashed with vertiginous rapidity, as he probed deliberately with the unholy scalpel of his satanic music the emotional depths of the Terran and the Panadur.
“Rot! Permitted indeed! You dragged us here with some magnetic device. Tell your vampiric overlords, we acknowledge only One Divinity—the Absolute.” Bill’s eyes were barely open, mere electric-blue lines above his high cheek bones, while in his right hand he held the deadly Power-rapier, and an electronic-flash in the other.
Kleg turned slightly from the piano-like instrument, with its three separate keyboards, with a curiously fastidious motion, and on the strange thin face with its knife-like nose and chill, transparent eyes the barest semblance of a smile parted slightly the cruel curve of the faintly outlined lips. He let his four flexible arms with their slim hands and long, sensitive thumbs fall from the keyboards of the instrument, and rose to his towering height of over seven feet in one sinuous motion of faultless elegance. His exaggerated slenderness made Bill’s superb physique seem primitive—barbaric.
Suddenly the Cinnabarian’s transparent eyes went black and without warning a coruscating lance of living energy shot from his lips. But in the infinitesimal fraction of time, Freml, the Panadur, had acted. The awful energy potential he’d been generating in the involved processes of his being flashed like a thunderbolt of power and met the Cinnabarian’s in mid air. A hellish flare of incandescence blinded them as the universe seemed to explode before their eyes. Reeling apart with dazzled eyes, they sensed the emergence of a new foe, and Bill’s power rapier wove a vortex of electronic disintegration as he twirled it before himself and the Panadur; after a while, although their sight was ringed with a myriad rainbows and prismatic rings, they could see several ape-like homunculi at bay, darting before them, seeking an opening whence they might reach the Terran and the Panadur. The Cinnabarian stood back, leaning against the immense instrument, limp and deathly white, as if drained of energy, which indeed he was. He eyed the Aurean girl hungrily, but Bill was between him and the helpless slave.
In a frenzy of fury, one of the homunculi made a wild leap, and impaled itself on the flashing blade. The sickening odor of disintegrating flesh and bone was a stench in their nostrils as the creature fell cloven to the floor.
Bill Nardon was mercilessly using the electro-flash on the taloned creatures now, as they redoubled their efforts to reach them. As several died, others rushed in, debouching from the ascensor, slithering from under the instrument, until the carnage was appalling. At last, Bill’s electro-flash went dead. He had no time to recharge, but drew the less efficient and thunderous atomo-pistol from his belt, and aiming it at the foremost homunculi pulled the trigger. A starkly curious thing instantly happened even before the last roaring echoes of the discharge had dwindled.
The tall Cinnabarian with an involuntary shriek of mortal pain doubled over, much like warriors on Terra had doubled up and died when a dreadful Radite bomb fell too near and the devastating concussion snuffed out their lives. The vibrations of the atomo-pistol had killed him, although the tall being from outer-space was untouched. And over the embattled homunculi’s faces a curious change came, as their eyes seemed to go blank, and they stood uncertain, bewildered, making no effort to attack. With one swift motion of his powerful arm, Bill gathered the unconscious form of the Aurean girl and retreated to the ascensor followed by the Panadur. Unheeded, the ethero-radio on his wrist flashed red and blue, as the others back in the spacer tried to communicate with them. They had heard what had happened in an incoherent fashion, but had no way of knowing the story in full.
“We’ve got them now!” Bill exulted, as he raced down the ramps once they’d left the ascensor. “We’ve got them, Freml!”
“Beware!” the Panadur flashed again. “They never suspected we of Europa possessed their power. I sensed from the moment I saw that kiss, that Kleg would strike in that fashion—only, he drained himself in his eagerness to blast us. The next time they will be more careful!”
“The next time I’ll do my communicating with electro-cannon!” Bill exclaimed. “Although just where are the rest of those hellions? What Kleg was doing alone in the tower’s a mystery to me.”
They got into the swift Z-Auxiliary and started the return journey to the spacer, under the lambent fires of the titanic rings. And now the Aurean girl trembled and became convulsed on the seat of the auxiliary where Bill had placed her. “They’re trying to reach her, no doubt—from wherever they are … damn them!” Bill flamed. He took off his own transparent Energon helmet and fastened it on the unconscious girl. He was gratified as the convulsions ceased.
A measure of color had returned to her wan features and her heart was beating with greater strength. Bill thought of administering the restorative Sulfalixir, but he dared not risk removing the Energon screen headpiece. Freml, the Panadur, caught his urgent thoughts, drained of life energy to the point of exhaustion, Margalida might not survive. And she must live, she must! Was Bill’s intense thought. Behind that alabastrine brow lay the knowledge of a thousand mysteries that must be cleared up.
“I will aid her,” Freml telepathed with a tired sigh. He went close to the girl, and his fragile hand stroked her throat, then quietly he placed his face close to the faltering heart and transmitted some of the precious energy that still remained to him. Slowly, imperceptibly at first, the exquisite bosom beneath the tunic of a material sheer as dim blue fog, began to rise and fall with regularity. Into the exquisite face, the delicate nacre hue with gold highlights crept slowly. Not until then did Freml rise. “Danger’s past,” he telepathed laconically. “Hurry, Bill! I shall need to borrow energy from my people … soon!”
And indeed there was a need for haste, for at last the hidden enemy had decided to strike in person. All else had failed despite machiavellian plans. This time they meant to stamp out of existence these presumptuous creatures that had blasted one of their kind—an overlord. Besides in the unconscious mind of the Aurean girl, their hellish secrets lay.
Out of the foamless waves of the strangely shining sea, immense iridescent globes floated upwards swiftly, gaining altitude and then deploying into a triangular formation like an inverted pyramid.
It was an awesome sight. In a frenzy for foreboding, Bill gave the Z-Auxiliary its maximum acceleration. He knew it was a race with time, and time was on the wing. Ahead of them the super-spacer loomed glistening in the fantastic light, and short as the distance was, it seemed as if they would never make it in the face of that swooping formation of menacing globes. Out of the foremost sphere, a lengthening finger of livid fire pointed directly at their tiny, hurtling craft.
Bill Nardon maneuvered in a wide zig-zag then aimed for the yawning auxiliary lock of the Spacer, and hurtled within to a jarring, crashing stop in the mesh of synchronized magnetic fields that achieved degravitation, arresting mass and speed synchronously. The huge lock clanged shut instantly, and with what breath remained in his battered body, Bill Nardon managed to shout into the communication system:
“Inner and outer Energon screens …” he gasped. “Man all emergency and battle stations…. Prepare to launch, we’re going up!” Blood was seeping a scarlet thread out of his ears and nose. Freml, the Panadur, was a limp heap on the auxiliary’s floor, as energy drained, the sudden acceleration had blanked out even his stupendous mind.
Bill pressed the exit lever of the Auxiliary and got up stiff and weary, his body a living ache. And even before he got to the exit, Nydron was there, inscrutable as usual, product of several races from the wild days of the last inter-planetary war, until it was doubtful if he himself knew his antecedents, or his age, for that matter. But Terra counted only on achievement—not racial purity. They had at last learned that much, and Nydron’s military genius was … well, Nydron’s. He was bowing slightly now, and behind him Bill discerned the Juvenals, who under the direction of a Juvenal Surgeon, repaired bodies through a rejuvenating therapy that involved an extremely delicate sub-glandular technique.
Bill waved to them to take charge of Freml and the Aurean girl, and wished he himself could afford the luxury of sinking into the ineffably peaceful, dreamless sleep which was the first step in the process; but no time for that now. He glanced at the light-copper features of Nydron, that might be a modified-Martian, with a dash of Mercury thrown in.
“I see our military expert is ready for all contingencies!” He strove to be light, casual almost. “Have your forces been instructed, Nydron? I mean … to meet this unexpected attack?”
“All screens are on, Commander. As per your orders we’re blasting off in seconds. I shall modify strategy and technique according to what information you may give me.” The long, lambent green eyes of the man widened briefly illumining the smooth, narrow face which though unlined gave the feeling of incredible age. “As you doubtlessly know, any enemy has a weak link in the chain—an … an …”
“Achilles heel?” Bill’s eyes flicked with humor.
Nydron assented with the barest flicker. Everything about him seemed outwardly static, thanks to his amazing economy of movement.
“Any luck with the Astro-radio during my absence?” Bill asked as they hurried from the Auxiliary into the control room of the Spacer. If they could only contact even one of the inhabited outer planets!
“We’ve been sending steadily. No response!” Nydron replied laconically. A convulsive tremor shook the titanic spacer, and the shrill ascending whine of the warning signal rose to inaudibility.
Overhead the inverted pyramid of scintillating globes seemed about to engulf the throbbing ship.
“Peace, gentlemen!” Antaran’s voice floated cool and sardonic beneath the lofty transepts of the Hall of Planets in the Universarium.
“Your charges are … well, ancient history—almost….
“Of course Terra sent part of its fleet following the departure of the Expedition. But would you have had it otherwise? It was not only a measure of protection for our most unique mind—Nardon’s—but you must admit, protection also for the other occupants of the spacer.” It was exasperating, maddening, that admirable self-possession with a hint of laughter.
“How do we know that was the sole purpose of your fleet?” Flushed, his magnificent tunic dishevelled, the Martian Ambassador asked furiously.
“You invite reprisals!” A Neptunian was saying. “War Fleets are banned from space except by unanimous consent—you’ve broken the law! Or is it that you’re scrapping the Treaty already?” He glared at the Head of the Terran Council belligerently, and with the complete approval of half a dozen races.
“No laws have been broken … Gentlemen.” He emphasized the term. “You see, we’re all party to the deed. Really now, don’t tell me you were not aware that Mars, Venus, Neptune … Mercury even, in fact, every signatory to the Inter-Planetary League made instant preparations the moment the ‘Suicide’ Spacer blasted off. Why, there wasn’t a planet but had its fleet in readiness to follow!”
Antaran smiled sweetly into their embarrassed faces.
“Admitted,” the Martian said stiffly, “but those were merely pardonable precautions!”
“Precautions that became immediate action as soon as our fleet segment was discovered in space!” Antaran’s voice went cold. “Like a comet dragging a lengthening tail, each planet we passed sent out part of its fleet, until all of us were represented. Haven’t your Governments advised you … Gentlemen?”
Smiling still, although inwardly disgusted at the eternal suspicion of the various worlds, he slowly drew an Astrograph from his tunic, silencing them as their suspicious curiosity was aroused.
“As I already hinted,” he said affably, “I’m afraid all of you are slightly behind the times. Let me read you this message from … your planet, Vermil!” Antaran nodded to the Neptunian Diplomat. “It’s a message via Ethero-radio sent us copied from the original Astrograph Neptune received from outer space:
“Combined Fleet reports sighting Spacer enter Saturn’s atmosphere. Mathematics of orbital maneuver computed. Will correlate to attempt duplication. Astro-radio messages from Spacer indicate planet inhabited.”
Electrified, their faces ludicrous, they stood before the white-haired leader in silence.
“Everyone of our Governments is now aware of this.” Antaran said in kindly tones. “We’ve had to maintain the utmost secrecy, for if the billions that people the various worlds had learned what we were up against, there would have been panics, upheavals … it would have been the signal for inimical minds among the ‘have-nots‘ to attempt the age-old cycle. Remember, Gentlemen … excepting the Panadurs,” he gazed with veiled admiration at the Ambassador of that mysterious race, “none of the rest of us have lost their Will to Battle … which perhaps,” he added as an after-thought, with a sort of brooding amusement, “is just as well!”
They were still dazed, as the tremendous implications of Antaran’s words filled their minds.
A new planet had been added to their group. A new world had come into being. ‘Inhabited,’ the Astrograph had read! And it was a fabulous world next in size only to Jupiter and the Sun. It would revolutionize their economy, possibly add illimitable riches in raw materials and…. But their minds were too filled with the staggering prospects to visualize just now the stupefying reality of what it meant to open up Saturn.
All belligerence was forgotten. Each emissary from the various worlds had withdrawn into his individual shell, lest the thundering ideas that swirled in their minds become common property.
The eternal game for favored position would begin soon, Antaran knew, yet Saturn was still an unknown quantity. Opening a new world was far from being as easy as that. Perhaps all their fleets might never return, and other expeditions would have to go forth. He sighed a little. And it occurred to him that perhaps he was getting old.
“Hurry them!” Bill’s thoughts crackled at the Martian expert in charge of ordnance. “I want no refinements—give me good, old fashioned atomo-cannon with the greatest possible concussion. Power them to emit shattering volumes of sound upon discharge!”
The Martian’s violet eyes widened. “A complete reversal of all trends, Commander!” he exclaimed mentally. “But it shall be done immediately.” He withdrew slightly mystified.
An intolerable net of violet fire enveloped the Spacer, as the maneuvering globes enlarged the pyramid to avoid the upward rush of the great ship. Up, and up the flashing cruiser sped through the screaming air, and the enveloping net of rays from the alien globes. And suddenly it levelled off and belched its answer. From myriad hidden points, huge dark masses catapulted into space, as the spacer instantly rose above them in a burst of acceleration.
With frightful accuracy, the ghastly fingers of livid fire that criss-crossed the violet net, swung from the globes to meet this new menace before it could shower among them, and the dark masses exploded into a holocaust of sound that sped through the riven air at the frightful speeds Saturn’s atmosphere induced. Like leaves in a great wind the fiery globes tossed and whirled, breaking formation. But again they reformed, maintaining the pyramid with mathematical precision, and the ghastly, violet web of intolerable power deepened, intensified until it was a glowing amethyst hue, and the spears of livid fire probed like cosmic lances at the frantically maneuvering spacer.
“The Multi-Energon Screen’s a blessing, Commander—how long we shall be able to enjoy it, is the problem,” Nydron observed drily. “I’m convinced this is a battle where logistics have no value.”
Bill Nardon’s features went taut. The calmer Nydron appeared, the greater the nature of the crisis. He favored his military expert with a long, searching glance. Into the pause, the Martian Aide’s thoughts intruded anxiously:
“Surely, the Energon screen’s not faltering!” It was unthinkable.
“No, but at the rate it’s consuming energy in warding off that electronic barrage, it’s but a question of time until we’re left with a mechanical and mathematically perfect screen dead from lack of power!”
“And, you had in mind, Nydron…?” Bill was aware the great military expert had something to propose. Only, Nydron’s strategy was never orthodox, and quite often overwhelming.
Nydron shrugged his shoulders and inhaled deeply of a pungent Venusian cigarette. “We’ve reached a stalemate. Those fiends out there,” he gestured towards the Globes, “can’t penetrate our screen, but they can detonate our strato-bombs at will. The question is, which source of power will last longer, theirs or ours!” He paused, and puffed again.
“Every soldier knows death’s to be expected sooner or later—it’s part of our creed. But you’ve brought a shipful of master minds, doubtless of irreplaceable value to the Inter-Planetary League. Now, if these were purely a military expedition …” He left the rest unsaid.
“In that event, what would you do?” Bill strove to be as patient as he could, for Nydron was allowing only those thoughts he wanted, to trickle through.
“Employ the sub-atomic Dispersal Beam to penetrate their defensive screen, pick off individual Globes and launch radiant energy bombs as close as possible, and see if that doesn’t take care of their … what you termed their Achilles Heel. Of course,” he murmured softly, “that might hasten our end, by using up our reserves of power all the sooner.”
“Sub-atomic dispersal beam!” the Martian went stiff. “Why, that might be an Energon neutralized … you mean to say that Terra…!”
“Naturally.” Nydron seemed to be enjoying himself. “What else could it be? You didn’t think Terra was going to remain wholly helpless? Every poison has an antidote. However, it has not been tried as yet.”
It was as brilliant and ruthlessly simple a plan, as only Nydron’s mind could conceive.
From what Bill Nardon had witnessed in the silent city’s tower, he had correlated the Cinnabarian’s hyper-sensitivity to vibration. The strange being had died from the concussion of the atomo-pistol. No wonder they even filtered mental vibrations through a docile, captive mind before they permitted the telepathed messages to reach them. Bill had demanded atomo-cannon with intensified detonative power, but this—this plan to strip them of their protective screen and spray them with radiant energy bombs which continued to detonate until the last minute spark was released—if it worked, it was the answer to their problem. The danger was very great, Bill knew. But in seconds he weighed the involved factors, and found only one definitive answer. He gave it.
“Nydron,” Bill said formally. “You’re in absolute military charge of strategy, answerable to no one—not even to me! Your plan should make history. Every scientific mind on this ship, is at your disposal if needed. I told you which was their weakest link…. I think you’ve found the answer. While you give the necessary orders, I’m going to visit the clinic. The Juvenalian treatment should by now permit my questioning the Aurean girl safely. There are a few points not quite clear in my mind,” he smiled. “It would be a dreadful thing to die and never know the complete answer to this mystery.”
But Nydron was not interested in mysteries. His lambent eyes glowed with inner fires, as he bowed in the ceremonial manner to the Scientist-in-Chief, who had placed absolute command in his hands.
If there were the barest chance of victory, he would seize it. He knew that regardless of the outcome, the immortality of his name was assured, but if he won, this would be a victory unparalleled in the annals of their worlds. “It is a great honor, Commander,” he said simply. “The greatest I have known. The Absolute willing, we shall win!”
Without wasting a single precious second, Nydron began issuing orders, sharp, definitive. The Dispersal Beam projectors swung into place, and the new radiant energy missiles, contributed by the Panadurs, took the place of the Strato-bombs. Battle-crews awaited tense and grim the initial frightful blast, for neither one nor the other had been tried before, and the combination of the Dispersal Beam and Radiant-energy Bombs was awe inspiring. Meanwhile the spacer maneuvered with vertiginous speed close to the eastern wall of Globes that formed a side of the quadrilateral, inverted pyramid. And then began the weirdest chase witnessed by man. For as the pyramid sought to expand to avoid the hurtling ship, the spacer accelerated suddenly and focused twin beams of light that became concentric yellow whorls of disintegrating, radio-active energy. It bathed two globes briefly, and simultaneously, a shower of bombs sped unerringly to their mark.
The stupendous concussion rocked even their spacer, as the Radiant-energy Bombs burst in a hellish burst of fire that no human eyes could endure, as if a new sun had been born in the skies. Where the globes had been, nothing remained, and those that had been close nearby, and had been touched by the yellow vortex of the beams, were spinning, lurching out of control in a headlong dive towards the shining sea below.
A great cry of joy went up within the Terran ship, fierce and terrible, as the battle-crews achieved first kill.
But instantly the pyramid shifted globes and closed the gap, and the amethyst-hued net of unimaginable force deepened again until it became almost black. And then a lengthening beam of milky-whiteness shot out of the globe at the apex, probing, relentless … and wherever it touched, gigantic tongues of flame licked upwards along its length, as it consumed the screen’s energy.
Nydron knew how limitless was the power of that white beam. And too, how close their margin was. From every projector he had the Dispersal Beam bathe as many globes as possible, and then the radiant energy bombs lashed out.
Saturn seemed to reel. The pyramid was riven, even as the spacer was tossed like a row-boat on a stormy sea. A deafening crescendo of titanic sound flowed over the planet, and coruscating walls of fire enveloped space, as if the titanic rings of Saturn had spilled over into the stricken world.
And relentlessly, the emerald-tinged yellow vortex of the beams continued to be focused on the Cinnabarian globes, while the unbroken salvos of sound went on endlessly until the last fragment of radiant energy was consumed in its own supernal fire, and globes fell like shooting stars.
“We’ve never known what galaxy spawned them,” Margalida, the Aurean girl said slowly, in a vibrant contralto that was like the deepest tones of a violin. She shuddered as some unnameable horror of the Cinnabarians flowed through her mind. “But ultimately it was we who unknowingly opened the door to them. They must have been waiting for aeons to enter our Universe … only, they didn’t quite know how to manipulate the forces necessary to use hyperspace. We did that for them.” The silence in the Juvenal chamber was almost a tangible thing.
“You understand the secrets of hyperspace?” There was a Universe of awe in Bill Nardon’s tones. “Our greatest scientists hardly dare experiment with the principles involved as yet!”
“Not I, of course,” Margalida gave him a wan smile, “but our scientists … there are hardly a dozen left, at peace in the deathless sleep. According to your time, this happened over a century ago. I had not come into being then, for I was born in slavery under the rule of the Energasts.” She pronounced the strange word conveying a mental picture of the four-tentacled overlords.
“For centuries my people had listened to the vibrations of your Astrographs, faint, almost undecipherable, but as time passed, we learned your languages, your customs, recorded even the ages of warfare that swept your planets like a plague. But we could not reach you—oh, we knew the principles of space flight, but always the gravitational balance of the ‘Rings’ stopped us; it was a sidereal barrier that seemed impossible to surmount. Strange, we achieved the mathematical formula for orbital flight simultaneously with the breaching of hyperspace. And then it was too late, for in trying to reach you by the shortest possible route, we opened the doors on a Universe that … that….” But she couldn’t go on. The tangible horror of those alien beings who had invaded Saturn overcame her.
Bill Nardon waited until the spasm was over. Then, very gently he inquired: “But with a science so magnificent that you could use hyperspace, surely you must have had weapons that would make ours seem like toys?”
Margalida shook her exquisite head. “Weapons! The very memory of such a thing has been erased from the race consciousness of my people, Terran. It would be so utterly unthinkable for us to slay anything, that I doubt if I could make you understand how utterly alien to us such an act would be. For ages and ages no Aurean has taken life … our will—literally—could not function in that direction. We managed to close the gap, for as you doubtless know, hyperspace is not exactly an energy field, but related to it, and so long as there is matter in gaseous state at both terminals of the orifice, a gap can be repaired in a very brief time cycle. But already it was too late. Hordes of Energasts had rushed through from Cinnabar, slaying, drinking our life-energy in a horrible thirst for the divine fire. Entire cities were left deserted, drained of all life, while every living thing in our world came under their power.
“Millions fled to the uninhabited parts of the planet, crossing the immense oceans of lava in a molten state that provide the necessary heat to maintain life, thinking that perhaps the invaders could not follow. At last, my people made their last stand here, in this valley, and built Sonara, the city where you found me, and we made a pact that every Aurean would submit to cataleptic sleep at the first sign of the Energasts.
“But even in that they defeated us. They took us by surprise, bridging the lava oceans in their globes, and enslaving all that had no time to go into catalepsis. Only three million remain now—the sleeping ones. All the rest, and the generations that were born to them, perished in the ‘Kiss.’ I’m one of the conscious few, for the Energasts needed some of us for telepathic transmission. Vibration, as you now know, is their death.
“Down in the depths of that great sea they’ve built their cities, where preparations for the invasion of your planets has gone on for fifty of your years.”
“But couldn’t you have made some sort of compromise? Murder on such a vast scale seems pointless, even if they’re vampires of life!” Bill Nardon was puzzled.
“Compromise!” A tragic smile lifted the corners of the carven lips. “Yes, we had our choice—although to us there was no alternative—to serve as an invading army to conquer your planets … or die!” The Aurean girl was silent as if nothing more need be said.
A vast astonishment held Bill mute, and something akin to a boundless admiration. Here was a people so high in the mental and spiritual scale, that rather than offer resistance and kill, had carried passive resistance to the ultimate point—to the ultimate oblivion even, of catalepsis!
“Would you care to watch the battle?” Bill Nardon asked softly. “Perhaps it will repay you for the agonies you’ve undergone. I’m sure those four-armed vampires are going to get a taste of their own medicine they’re never likely to forget!”
A strange light came into the girl’s eyes, something like the ghost of an incalculable past, but she sighed smiling, and shook the golden head that seemed to be crowned with an aura of light.
As Bill stood unwilling to go, held by the glory of the amazing Aurean being, the tele-panel in the communications quadrangle glowed into life, and the voice of Nydron himself broke the spell:
“Commander, we’re about to begin!” That was all. It was so characteristic of the man. The screen went blank, and Bill Nardon pivoted towards the door enroute to the control room.
The broad shining sea below was a maelstrom of fury, as if convulsed by submarine volcanoes, as the spinning globes hurtled into its depths. Mountainous spouts of the shimmering liquid seemed to be reaching their descending spacer. Towards the far horizon, the rapidly receding outline of a few surviving spheres raced in pell-mell flight. Silence reigned, but for the tortured heaving of the lashing waves.
“Land as close to the city as possible!” Bill Nardon directed. “And, cut all screens, we’ll need every ounce of power.” His face was gray, for he needed no experts to tell him what the battle had cost them in energy output. Still, they were alive. Horribly battered and drained to the point of exhaustion, but alive … that was the miracle! But now, he had the horrible feeling of a Commander whose base has been destroyed. Where refuel? Where obtain the precious energy to withstand another assault? Bill knew this was not the end. What Cinnabarians still remained in those fathomless depths would never rest until the spacer and all within it was erased from Saturn’s face.
Bill thought with a grimace of all those inter-planetary spacers that had vanished without trace. “Without Energon Screens, without the invulnerable Vulcanite or the Dispersal Beam, they never had the ghost of a chance…!” he exclaimed inwardly, and his long, vise-like hands slowly knotted at his sides. Beads of perspiration rolled down his cheeks as he concentrated on finding a solution to their problem.
The staccato sound of the landing signal swept through the ship as they prepared to make contact. In the near distance the great city shone under the illumination of the rings, enveloped in the sepulchral silence of its cataleptic legions.
Bill’s eyes widened as the thought slowly evolved into ordered processes in his mind. “The Aureans….” Involuntarily he spoke aloud. “Hyperspace!” If he could awaken even one of those remaining ancients who knew the secret of hyperspace, he might contact Terra, or one of the inhabited planets. Hope rose like an exultant flame, and he hurried to the Juvenal chamber where Margalida recovered.
At the doorway of the control room, he almost collided with Freml, the Panadur, and it suddenly occurred to Bill he had not seen the silvery Psycho-synthetist for some time.
“Where have you been? Under the treatment?” Bill inquired.
“Of course not!” Freml telepathed disdainfully. “What need have I of such crude methods? As soon as I awoke I left the chamber … my people supplied some energy, I needed nothing else. But you’re hurrying….”
“To the Juvenal Chamber. We have no time to waste!” Bill flashed. “If we can awaken one of those cataleptic Aurean scientists, we may get from him the necessary equations to use hyperspace, Freml…. It means we can contact our worlds … obtain aid!”
“Perhaps I can help,” the Panadur thought slowly. “It should not be so difficult to bring them back to conscious life.”
He followed Bill into the hushed atmosphere of the Juvenal, his own mind strangely blanked as he communicated with the other Panadurs aboard. It was their way, mysterious, aloof.
And now that the screens were down, the subtle, all-pervading vibrations of the Cinnabarians had commenced again.
They would have to don Energon helmets, Bill thought wearily. It was a battle without end. But the sight of Margalida was to him like the sight of an eden seen from the bleak monotony of desert wastes. His electric-blue eyes kindled as the girl smiled, a question in her eyes. She extended a fragile hand that might have been carven of Jadite, and in the husky voice with the harp-like cadences she said:
“I know you’ve won … and for the first time in my life, I have been glad to know that beings have died!”
It was as near as she could come to exult in the extinction of the dreaded Energasts.
“You’re improving!” Bill’s face was illumined by a dazzling smile. “I’m afraid that if you’re among us for some time, in the end you’ll share our atavistic instincts; even Freml here can blast a hellion out of existence when the need arises,” he said with a bright glance to the Panadur. “However, we need your help, Margalida. We want to awaken at least one, more if possible, of the remaining scientists in the deathless sleep. Do you know where they are? Can you direct us to them?”
“Yes,” she assented gravely. “They sleep in the second tower, where the traction beams that captured the ships of space for the Energasts, are located. I will lead you to them.”
“Bring your fellow Panadurs, Freml, we shall need them,” Bill telepathed. “This will have to be done with all possible precautions—any moment there may be another attack.” A little pulse at the base of his throat trembled as he gazed at Margalida.
The burning roses that were the stars had paled a little, before all the preparations were completed and they were ready to leave the ship. Only Nydron and his battle-crews, with several of the lesser scientists were to remain, for this might be the only chance they would have to wrest the secret from the dormant minds. And then there was Margalida, nothing must happen to her. So Bill Nardon left nothing to chance. Even the austere Juvenal surgeon was to go along, and a protective bodyguard of Mercurian Amazons, power-rapiers and all—bristling with lethal weapons.
These last were the most eager of all. Seeing them in their bulky, serried ranks, Bill Nardon flashed them a clear, blue glance and grinned. The mental picture of these ruthless creatures tangled in mortal combat with the taloned homunculi of the Energasts, would have astonished the gods.
But all their preparations were in vain, for suddenly the Ethero-Magnum screen began to glow in the control room, as other screens glowed in the stately central cabin, in the Juvenal Chamber, and even upon the walls of the battle-stations so that what one saw, was the property of all. The sound of indrawn breaths sounded explosive in the stillness; an unbearable tension made the atmosphere electric.
For one agonized instant, no one dared to hope—an anticlimax would have been terrible to endurances that had been tested to the breaking point. In this planet of contradictions and alien madness, anything was possible.
Out of the misty darkness of outer space, the streaks of silver that were ships flashed headlong into the monstrous embrace of Saturn, wheeling over the planet’s outermost gravitational limits, in awe-inspiring orbital fall. The strange tug-of-war between the pull of the vast rings, and the giant planet itself, must be neutralized. Swinging in tremendous arcs to lessen the speed they hadn’t dared diminish in space, they came in roaring with all braking rockets flaming in great blasts. Behind them, still more silver streaks came into view.
For an awful moment it seemed as if the forces against them would defeat the ships. They seemed to hang static in space, as they turned the night of Saturn red with the furious cataracts of rocket fire. And then—
“They’re going to make it. They are!” Bill Nardon exulted fiercely.
The foremost, a Terran spacer, had cut its rockets and swerved, peeling off in a magnificent plunge from dizzying heights into the atmosphere. Behind it streamed the balance of the Terran Fleet, like hounds that had sighted its quarry. And in the nebulous reaches of the stratosphere, the swarm that was still more ships flashed, reflecting the splendor of the rings.
The lofty screen divided itself into two parts now. One segment showed the Terran ship come coasting down in great, breath-taking spirals, followed by its sister vessels, while the upper section mirrored the out-distanced and far more numerous portion of the immense fleet of spacers. They saw the Terran ship level suddenly, and from its bomb bays, a shower of black projectiles dropped swiftly toward some target they could not see. It banked in another wide turn and again its deadly bombs showered down on the maelstrom the first bombs had caused below.
And then they saw the cause of the unexpected maneuver. An immense iridescent globe had risen from the shimmering depths of the sea. Another and another rose from the surface like cosmic bubbles rising from the tossing waves, hurrying to intercept the new invaders before they had a chance to land. The sinister violet haze was rapidly reaching out already, like an immense, empurpled amoeba reaching out with hungry tendrils.
At a sign from Bill Nardon, the great strategist Nydron was at the Tele-radio, transmitting orders to the Terran ship that now darted and lashed out with its disintegrating rays like a Manthis over a nest of rattlesnakes. “Use your sub-atomic Dispersal Screen, you fools!” He was roaring, “and then strike … strike hard with everything you got!” One hand was pounding into the reddened palm of the other.
The balance of the fleet was thundering down now, and they saw the sudden burst of incandescent lightning that was the Energon screen as the Martian vessels turned their unrivalled protection on, then it vanished into invisibility as the screen took hold.
And from the Terran ship, and its sister vessels that had finally caught up, the great yellow beams that turned into vortexes of emerald tinged power burst out, bathing the sinister Globes, enveloping them in their lethal stream. And then, the holocaust began. It seemed as if the liquid depths were spawning hundreds and hundreds of the great spheres, while overhead the sullen skies were black with the flashing vessels of the Inter-Planetary League.
A great Venusian ship caught in the empurpled fog, described a parabola as it plunged out of control and a milky-white beam from the Globes caught it as if on a spear and it plunged headlong into the sea below. The titanic struggle was so appalling that even strong men accustomed to the vicissitudes of battle trembled at the sight.
There was no quarter now. Extinction of one side or the other was the ultimate outcome—there could not be any other possible answer, in that fantastic hecatomb.
“How much power have we?” Bill Nardon asked quietly, and his eyes, shadowed with the knowledge of the awful burden he was about to take upon himself, dwelt briefly on the expectant ones of the Military Strategist.
“Enough for about six hours, if we use the Energon Screen.” Nydron said it quietly and with eagerness that was like an expressed hope. “I think we can tip the balance … don’t you?”
Bill glanced for an instant into the screen, where shimmering globes and the League’s ships were falling into the tossing, exploding chaos that was the sea.
He thought of the Martian fleet, protected by the Energon, but powerless to neutralize the Cinnabarian defenses without the Terran Dispersal Beam; of the Venusian ships, helpless in that holocaust, despite their invulnerable Vulcanite Hulls, and, with a catch in his throat, of the gallant Terran vessels, able to draw the fangs from the spheres with the Dispersal Beam, but open to the lethal power of those hellish white beams of the Energasts, because they did not have the Multi-Energon. But organized, they could wreak untold havoc on the enemy.
“Give battle orders; we are going up. The Martians, under the protection of their Energon Screens, to get as close as possible to the globes, ready to hurl their bombs, while the Terran ships behind them, screened by the Martian Fleet, aim their Dispersal Beams to neutralize their violet power screens. Keep the Venusians and Mercurians as reserves—that roughly, should be our strategy, modify it as needed, Nydron…. We’ll lead!”
He gazed up into the flaming clouds where the League’s Fleet and the Energasts had swept upwards in coruscating swirls of intolerable radiance, and then his gaze came to rest on the golden glory of the Aurean girl. “Margalida,” he said softly, as if there were an ineffable magic in that name. “Almond blossom,” he murmured softly to himself, as if in those few, last tragic moments, he would stamp forever the imprint of her loveliness in his heart.
There was no sound. The tortured atmosphere of the planet regained a measure of peace. Only the sea remained monstrously convulsed as if striving to spew the shattered Globes and spacers now sunk beneath its waves. And on the windswept shore, only a fraction of the Inter-Planetary League’s great ships had come to rest.
Of the Energasts there was no sign—not a single violet globe remained in all that vast expanse, under the blazing glory of the eternal stars. But the victory had been almost a defeat. Countless vessels from all six planets, and still more countless dead would lie forever beneath Saturn’s shimmering sea. But the relentless fury of the Energasts had been stilled.
And yet…. It was not over. The enemy was helpless for a while. He must not be given time to strike again.
For beneath those billowing mountains of translucent liquid that seemed to be strewn with flashing stars, cities—immense cities filled with Energasts, what remained of them, had not felt their power as yet. The Absolute only knew what fiendish plans even now were being framed, while the victors strove to recover a measure of strength, and sanity.
In the great central cabin of the spacer, where scientists and experts had collected, to lighten in a measure the awful tension of so many hours, Bill Nardon suddenly looked up from the piano—the only real luxury he had requested for himself—and said softly as if thinking aloud:
“So many cities lie in ruins … so many nations have been bombed. But this will be the first time in history that a great sea is bombed from shore to distant shore, until not a single shard remains of their structures!”
He looked at Nydron.
“Eh?” Nydron seemed to swim up from a great weariness, and became tense, alert. “You mean, we’ll project the Dispersal Beam into the depths and systematically bomb mile after mile of sea with radiant bombs?” His eyes were awed. “It might take years!”
“Precisely,” Nardon nodded with superlative calm. “Even if it takes a century, until not a single Energast remains to pollute Saturn!” He smiled coldly, and his long, narrow hands evoked a melodious ripple from the keys.
“Among my studies in correlation, are the appraisal of the methods of the Ancients, from immemorial times. There was one Nation, in reality a city, which was periled by the rivalry of another great metropolis. And in their war of extinction, one city—Rome, evolved a ghastly slogan which guided its treatment of its enemy, the slogan was: ‘Delenda est Cartago!‘ And if it takes a century, we shall be able to say, ‘Delenda est Cinnabar!‘ He fell silent, and in the momentary hush, his hands began to weave a mesh of beauty as they hovered over the piano keys. It was a magical undulation of the B Flat tonality … a divine lullaby to a wonderful child—a girl utterly beloved.#ENGLISH