Steel Giants Of Chaos
By JAMES R. ADAMS
Earth owed the Wronged Ones a world, and
Gene Drummond alone could repay that debt.
Only he knew that payment would save two
races from extinction—and he was a helpless
prisoner of the ones he wanted to aid.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Winter 1945.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Gene Drummond felt a tingle of anticipation course through his being as he stepped through the open airlock of his small scout ship and for the first time in more than a year felt the soft soil of Mother Earth under his booted feet. He stood for a moment, hungrily drinking in the noise and clamor of New York Spaceport. Around and about him the shouts and curses of bustling, grease-soaked mechanics and husky stevedores acted as a balm to his taut nerves. To return to this, after fourteen grueling months of biological research on Venus, was little short of heaven itself. The fact that he had been forced, because of the fatally-poisoned atmosphere of the young world, to conduct his investigation in brief sallies from the stuffy confines of his ship served only to heighten this ecstatic conception of his return. The profoundness of the moment passing, he breathed deeply of the warm, sweet air and turned to face the fat little mechanic hurrying across the field.
Puffing noisily for breath, the man skidded to a halt and bent a toothy grin upon the wiry biologist-explorer. “Bin gone a spell, ain’tcha, Mr. Drummond?” the fellow wheezed good-naturedly. “Have a nice trip?”
Gene winced at the mechanic’s naïvete, then smiled in spite of himself. “You might call it that,” he said thoughtfully. “But I wouldn’t! Venus isn’t exactly paradise, Fatboy; take it from me, I know. All the moons of Saturn couldn’t persuade me to go through another year of privation on that forsaken hunk of cosmic dust. It’s a beautiful world, yes, but one whiff of its poison air and you pretty damn quick lose interest in landscapes and natural wonders.”
“Just the same, I sure wouldn’t miss a chance to take it in,” Fatboy opined dreamily. “‘Tain’t every guy that gets to plant his feet on a restricted planet. You’re pretty dang lucky, if you ask me.”
Gene shrugged wearily. “Maybe so. Every man is entitled to his own opinion, they tell me. Personally, I’ll stick by the motto, ‘See Terra Firma first.'”
Gene’s tall form suddenly went slack and his eyelids drooped heavily. “Look, Fatboy, I’m practically asleep on my feet. My next stop is home, where I won’t lose any time in renewing an acquaintance with a real bed. Take care of the buggy, will you? Give it a complete overhauling and when you’re done with that, put her in storage and forget about her. Yours truly is taking a long vacation from strange worlds and stuffy rocket cabins.”
Fatboy nodded absently and turned to enter the ship. Snapping his fingers, as if suddenly remembering something, he wheeled about and called after Gene, who was striding off across the field: “Hey, Mr. Drummond! Wait up a minute and lemme tell you what’s happened here while you was gone. It’ll make your hair stand straight up and do a jig!”
“Sorry, Fatboy,” Gene shouted back. “I’ll shoot the bull with you some other time. Right now I have important business with the Sandman!” The tired explorer hurried off before Fatboy could collar him and regale him with the latest thriller of the multitude of endless, blood-curdling yarns that constantly made the rounds of a spaceport. He needed sleep, and that was what he meant to get.
Pausing briefly at a mail-tube, he sent the thick envelope containing a complete report of his findings on Venus speeding on its way to Science Center, whereat the document would be given a thorough and analytical reading by the greatest minds of the system. That account would shatter the hopes of many, even his own, but it was Gene’s duty to report conditions as they were, not as he wanted them to be. His job was done; Venus was the Center’s baby now.
Rather than wait for a tube-train, he decided to walk the distance to his apartment, which was but two or three blocks from the spaceport. As he plodded tiredly along, strange happenings gradually made themselves known to his dulled senses. Although he was about to drop, Gene stopped to watch with a tense interest the impromptu ball game taking place on the walk before him.
A pint-sized batter stepped up to the plate and prepared to knock himself a home-run. The gamins ranged in the outfield hooted and leered, trying to shake the nerve of the midget Babe Ruth, but the boy stood his ground. Gesturing threateningly with the light metal bat, he spat contemptuously at a fat cockroach scurrying frantically from the field of action and grimly faced his hecklers. “Play ball!” he bawled.
The pitcher took him at his word, and after executing the tedious rite of winding up, whipped the ball across the plate at no mean speed. The boy in the batter’s box brought his club down fast to connect solidly with the sphere in as pretty a swing as Gene ever hoped to witness, among sandlotters at least.
Gene expected to see the ball go whizzing off down the street, but the next instant his expectations were abruptly dashed, in a manner that left the biologist wide-eyed and stunned.
The flashing metal bat met the hard-thrown ball in a resounding impact, and instantly exploded into a thousand tiny fragments!
Gene watched incredulously as the gleaming particles rained to the walk, preceded by a tattered ball that had lost almost all momentum. A flying piece of metal ripped across the back of his hand, tearing away an inch or so of skin, but he was oblivious to all but the scene before him.
The boy at the plate snorted disgustedly and glared down at the remains of his bat. “That’s the fourth bat in six days,” he said bitterly. “I’m quittin’ right now. That woulda been a homer, sure’s there’s rings around Saturn, and then the bat has to go and fall apart on me. I got cheated. Nope, I just ain’t playin’ anymore.”
Gene watched the group of urchins disperse, then slowly moved away down the street, his thoughts centered on the strange occurrence he had just witnessed.
That bat—it had been made of a very durable metal, metal that wasn’t given to falling apart upon receiving a hard blow. What had caused it to suddenly lose its stability and disintegrate into a heap of shards and powder? Something had very definitely gone haywire here on Earth during his absence. As Gene walked, he found further evidence to bear out this conclusion.
A rather fat individual came waddling along the walk, making a grand show of bearing his weight with dignity. His stately reserve turned suddenly to consternation as the large metal buckle of his belt burst violently into powder. The fellow gave an alarmed shout and fled clumsily through the door of an office building, clutching frantically at his trousers to keep them from completing his embarrassment.
Gene had now entirely forgotten his need for sleep. He had to know the answer to this perplexing circumstance. One place would know, if the answer had yet been found, and that was Science Center. He hurried toward the nearest tube-train terminal, intent on having the mystery made clear to his mind.
At the terminal he found a message waiting for him. It was from Elliott Mason, World President, directing Gene to appear before the dignitary at the earliest possible moment. Apparently the message had missed him at the spaceport and had been relayed to the tube terminals along his homeward route. That would indicate utmost urgency, so Gene lost no time in boarding a train destined for Government Center.
He found the Presidential Mansion in a turmoil. Garrulous diplomats were everywhere in evidence, and not a few scientists from Science Center hastened through the halls, bent on mysterious missions.
Gene was immediately admitted to the presence of the president. Mason sat behind his ornate desk, poring over a thick sheaf of papers. Worry and anxiety creased his brow, but even so, he flashed a quick smile as he looked up at the biologist-explorer.
“It’s good to see you again, Drummond,” Mason began. “Much has happened here while you were on Venus. Perhaps you are not yet aware of it, but a world calamity has befallen us, and as yet we have made no headway whatsoever against it. But before I tell you of our plight, I would like to know of your findings on Venus.”
“I’m afraid it’s hopeless, sir,” Gene sighed. “As you know, we cannot colonize Venus, since our respiratory systems could not long stand up under its poisonous atmosphere.
“As for the native Venusians, they are already man’s equal, physically, having a rate of evolution considerably faster than ours. But mentally, they are not much more than equal to a chicken. For some strange reason, their mental development does not keep pace with that of their bodies. Consequently, it will be many years, possibly centuries, before the Venusians are capable of rational thought.
“Thus you can see there is no hope of interplanetary commerce with them. By the time they reach a point of sufficient intelligence to realize the desirability of trade between worlds, our depleted metal resources will be gone, and man will likely be on his way down the evolutionary scale. Science Center has my full report. If I have been hazy on any point, they will give you the complete facts.”
Mason sighed heavily and lowered his head a moment. “This new scourge with which we have become afflicted also concerns metal,” he spoke in a low tone. “To give you the entire facts would require a long and detailed explanation, for which there is not time.
“However, the gist of it is that all our metals, including raw ores, are slowly losing their molecular coherence. Sections of every continent have come under the influence of the deadly visitation. Already two of New York’s largest structures have collapsed when their girder frameworks suddenly turned to powder. Many lives have been lost; tube-train and all other modes of transportation have become extremely risky.
“The condition, which first appeared a month or so ago, is slowly spreading to finally encompass all Earth. Science Center has discovered the phenomenon is not a natural one, but is rather an inexplicable ray emanating from somewhere in space.
“Earth is in great danger, Drummond, and someone must volunteer to eliminate that danger. Knowing our system as you do, I believe you are the man best qualified to track down the ray to its source and destroy it, if at all possible.
“Accordingly, I have had prepared a brochure, embodying all the facts you will need. Science Center has devised a special tracer mechanism, which when directed upon the ray, will clearly reveal its path through the void, and which will be installed in your ship upon your acceptance of the task. I—”
Gene held up a respectful hand. “I believe I have heard enough, sir. You were going to say the decision is entirely mine and that refusal would not be held against me. No need. I accept!”
Mason stood up and extended a warm hand. “Your courage will not go unnoticed, boy. The thanks of all Earth will go with you into the void.”
Gene nodded sleepily as his ship, New Frontiers, drove forward through space. The outermost planets were now far behind in the all-surrounding blackness, and a vague doubt was beginning to worry his mind.
Suppose the malignant ray did not originate in this system? Science Center had naturally assumed that the radiation came from some uncharted asteroid or rogue world within the system. But if it didn’t, then what? Should he return to Earth and report failure? Gene dismissed the thought as soon as it entered his head.
Yet, as the great, staring orb that was Pluto slipped away behind him, the doubt grew stronger and made of itself a steady clamor that would not pass unheeded.
His ship still followed the swath of the ray; a never-ending, invisible beam that would seem to sprout from the very emptiness of space itself.
Mason had warned Gene that he might face untold danger at the ray’s source, but the explorer could not see how that danger could come from any living thing. Here in the farthermost reaches of the system, far from the warmth of the sun, what strange organic creature could find sustenance?
He stifled a yawn, fighting doggedly to keep his heavy lids from closing in slumber. Sleep was out of the question. He could take no chance of losing the unseen trail of that devilish radiation, so that meant he had to go it without the help of the automatic controls.
In spite of Gene’s efforts to remain awake, his brown-thatched head slowly lowered against his chest. Tortured eyes no longer registered the monotonous gray of the ship’s cabin as leaden lids closed over them. He was asleep.
Instants later, the insistent clang of a warning bell penetrated through his torpor, whipping away the blanket of sleep and bringing the drowsing biologist at once to alert wakefulness.
He reached out frantically, his fingers flying unerringly over the myriad controls, jabbing viciously at the studs regulating the batteries of rocket tubes.
Something was pulling, tugging, at the small ship, drawing it down, held in a relentless clutch that grew stronger with each passing moment!
The ship surged with power; steel crossbeams groaned and screeched, threatening to buckle under the strain placed on them. And still it rushed downward!
He cursed wildly and punched hard at the stud controlling the forward tubes. The craft lurched drunkenly under this new force, then continued its downward flight, moving not quite so fast now.
For the first time since awakening, he glanced at the Vizio-screen, and what he saw rooted him to the spot, eyes dilated with astonishment. The New Frontiers was hurtling down on a planet, dark and foreboding; a world where no world should be! It loomed in the screen like a great black eight-ball—and he was definitely behind it! Now he was entering an atmosphere, according to the instruments. He jiggled the dials, but the reading did not change. What wouldn’t the astronomers of Earth give to know about this!
What manner of world was this rushing up to meet him? He could not know. But his instruments told him that in a very short while the first Earthian feet would walk upon this mystery planet. If he lived through the crash.
Wrestling mightily with the controls, he succeeded in bringing the craft out of its dive and leveled off in a long skim above the sphere’s surface, now close below.
He hunched tensely over the controls, a thin film of cold sweat standing out on his brow. Hardened though he was, he could not help but feel a quickening fear of the inexplicable world he was fast approaching.
A formidable upjutting of rock suddenly reared up directly in his path, completely blacking out the screen!
He held his breath as his finger nicked out and impaled the stud operating the forward tubes. Once more fire burst from the nose of the ship, roaring out to meet the unyielding wall of rock in a titanic impact.
The New Frontiers shuddered to a halt, hung a second in midair, then abruptly slid forward and down. This was it!
Gene threw his arms over his eyes as ship and mountain met violently, throwing him from his seat and smashing his helmet-protected head against the control panel. Overhead a crossbeam groaned tormentedly and gave way under the stress, while outside an avalanche of stone, dislodged from the lofty heights, smashed against the thick hull in a steady rain—setting up such a din as only the forces of nature could.
Then all was still.
Gene climbed unsteadily to his feet and felt tenderly of his throbbing head. It still rested atop his shoulders. A wonder he hadn’t been stretched out for the count. Except for minor bruises and cuts he was no worse for the experience.
A quick look about assured him that the damage to the interior of the ship was slight. The crumpled girder would not impair the craft’s flight.
Clambering outside, he found one of the stern tubes smashed beyond repair. No matter. He could replace it with one of the two spare tubes the New Frontiers carried.
Altogether, the small scouter was not much worse for its experience. It would take but a few hours to install the new tube, and the battered but faithful ship would be ready to blast off to new adventures.
Gene turned curiously and took up a minute inspection of this tenth planet’s terrain. Bleak and forbidding, jumbled masses of black rock stretch away to the horizon. Here and there, patches of slatish soil, naked and sterile, contended with the ever-present stone for surface space. He became aware of an insidious chill gnawing at his bones.
Cautiously lifting the air helmet he had donned before emerging from the ship, he sniffed tentatively of the dry, thin air. It seemed to have no ill effects on him. He removed the helmet and stood irresolute, wondering what next to do.
That problem was solved at once. Over the horizon came a howling, clamorous horde of man-shaped creatures, brandishing crudely fashioned spears tipped with sharpened stone, making straightway for the New Frontiers!
Gene’s hand went to his hip and came up bearing his energy-ray. Any question of the creatures’ intentions was immediately dispelled as one of them jerked to a halt and flung his spear hard at the explorer.
Gene ducked and came up blasting. A grim smile was on his lips as the rabble came on in spite of his withering fire, screeching like harpies as they closed in on him.
He found time to wonder how the beings could see, for no eyes were evident on the flat, hateful faces. Wicked fangs gleamed in the gaping mouths; set squarely between where the eyes should have been was a diminutive, almost non-existent nose. Huge, batlike ears gave the finishing touch to their grotesque appearance.
Gene felt a deep loathing for these weird denizens of a world that should not be. That abhorrence was reflected in the steady blast of his energy-ray, which cut a wide swath in the creatures’ ranks.
But still they advanced, shrieking and gnashing their teeth in black hate. They flung their spears with such clumsiness that Gene found them fairly easy to side-step, but now crude stone knives were brought into play, knives that were deadly, in spite of their unwieldiness. Once the beings gained close enough to use those weapons, the biologist would meet with a quick end.
He fought silently, striving to work around the ship to the air lock, but the hideous half-men divined his purpose and swiftly moved to flank him, cutting off all escape. Gene cursed explosively and battled all the fiercer.
Then he gaped in surprise as a spear whizzed past him and sank deep in the breast of his nearest attacker. A look of fear crossed the features of the ferocious barbarians, and as one they turned to face this new enemy.
Gene, too, turned to look at the small band of sturdy beings advancing nimbly over the rocky ground, filling the air with well-aimed spears even as they came.
His assailants made a show of standing firm under the onslaught, screeching defiantly and launching their spears haphazardly at the newcomers.
The ranks wavered and suddenly broke, then the horrible monstrosities were fleeing, chattering their hate as they went scrambling away over the boulders. Now and again one would pause and turn to hurl his spear at Gene in a last venomous attempt to do him in. Then all had disappeared in the far distance.
Gene breathed a sigh of relief and wiped sweat from his forehead in spite of the chill air. “What a reception!” He grinned wryly. “Saturn’s Rings! The tracer surely developed a bug and took me off course. These people are nothing more than savages. I can’t believe them capable of constructing an intricate ray and directing it on Earth. The whole thing is crazy, just plain, crazy!”
His rescuers hurried up, waving their spears and shouting in a strange tongue.
Gene could not understand the words, but he guessed at their meaning from the triumphal air in which they were spoken. A crude tongue, at best, but then these wild tribesmen needed no elaborate language to express their simple minds.
Now the tribesmen, clad in shaggy furs, clustered about him, feeling wonderingly of his clothes, muttering exclamations of surprise as they noted the five digits on each of his hands. Their own gnarled, hairy paws boasted but four fingers to each.
A towering, rawboned fellow pushed his way through the mob and stopped before Gene. The man—for men these people were, in spite of their crudity and animal traits—swept his eyes over the explorer in a cool glance of appraisal.
Gene did a bit of sizing-up of his own. The giant’s high forehead suggested intelligence of a sort; the clear gray eyes told of courage and loyalty. Plainly, the man was a leader among his people.
Abruptly, the fellow turned and uttered a command to the foremost tribesmen. Two stepped forward and took up positions to each side of Gene. They prodded him gently in the ribs and pointed to the horizon. He took this to be a signal to start moving, and he obliged with reluctance, for his overpowering need of sleep now threatened to drop him at each step. How long they walked, the biologist did not know. His guides were practically dragging him by the time the party came into a city of caves, hewn in the jagged wall of a desolate valley. He was led to one of these caverns, mid the shouted questions of the quick-gathered townsfolk and the catcalls of unkempt children.
Blessed sleep rushed up to meet him as the two tribesmen deposited him on a pallet of dirty furs and withdrew from the chamber. The world could wait; the body must rest.
Gene learned much of this strange planet in the next few days. A wizened, white-bearded old man came daily to instruct him in the tribe’s language—a simple speech which Gene, a student of ancient tongues, found easy to master.
“Our life is harsh,” the talkative patriarch told the explorer between lessons. “Game is scarce and there is little vegetation. Once we grew crops, but now the soil is sterile and bears little, but for wild vegetables and fruits in those isolated places where the ground is yet fertile. This is a world of rock, my son. No creature of flesh and bone was meant to trod here.”
The man spoke truth. All about, the valley lay barren, the sandy soil smothered under by tons of rock. Gene thought it a marvel that the tribesmen were able to exist at all in such a place. They must have great courage to fight such a hopeless battle against the forces of nature.
On his fifth day in the cave city, Gene was summoned to the dwelling of Old One, the tribal chief. There, too, was the gray-eyed giant whom Gene had first met the day of his arrival.
Old One raised a withered hand to signify peace, and the biologist solemnly did likewise. The venerable man nodded approval and settled back on his fur-covered stone bench.
“It stuns my senses,” he murmured. “Kac, say again this youth was spawned of a beast that walks through air.”
“Truly, he was, Father,” the dark-haired man said gravely. “The Beast People were besetting him and bearing him under at the time our hunting party came upon the scene. The spineless creatures fled at mere sight of our warriors, though there was a far greater number of them than our small party could boast. The beast that walked through air still rests where it fell from the sky. I fear it is dead, for no longer does it give out its breath of fire.”
“Not dead, but sleeping,” Gene said, wisely refraining from burdening the simple minds of these people with scientific principles. He noticed that many tribes-people were silently drifting into the cavern, curious to see this strange being who was so like themselves, yet so different.
“Now, Old One,” he addressed the chief in a respectful tone, “I know so little of your world. I am as an old woman in a strange cave; lost. Tell me of the Beast People. How do they see—for they have no eyes—and how is it there is so much animosity between your races? Perhaps, if their sin is great enough, I will help you against them.”
Old One frowned and thoughtfully fingered his dingy gray beard. “Nothing can be done about the Beast People. Long ago, they came from a world beyond worlds. At the coming of our ancestors, the two races took up a constant war for possession of this cave city.
“The legend is that they, too, were spawned of a great beast that walked through air. Their air-beast, just as yours, fell from the sky with a great crash. But this sky-monster slept the sleep of no awakening, and for them there was no returning.
“In truth, they have no eyes, but my father once told me of the manner in which they find their way about. When afoot, they send out squeals, imperceptible to our ears, which come back to them from the obstacles and pitfalls they would avoid and thus guide them to an open path.
“Never, since that far day in the past, have others of their kind come to plague this world. It is my belief that the Beast People’s sky-monster rebelled against them and carried them far away from their goal, wherever it may have been. For that, their brothers who searched—if search they did—could not find their spoor and perforce gave them up for lost.
“There is more to their history, but it is not for your ears. Methinks, it could well be that you are one of the Beast People; for surely those of the home world have changed in the many tens of years since these few of their kind were stranded here.”
Old One paused to glance quizzically at Gene. His bewrinkled old forehead drew tightly together as he studied the wiry biologist.
“Whence come you?” he asked sharply. “If from the world beyond worlds, then truly you are a Beast Man. If from a world that is sister to this sphere of rock, then does my tribe welcome you and call you brother. May your tongue speak truth, man of the skies.”
All in the cave were tense, silent—waiting for the man’s answer. Gene took a step nearer Old One’s bench, calm and confident. A world beyond worlds would imply a planet of another system; thus, being from a planet akin to this upon which he had been cast, he spoke without apprehension:
“I name myself Gene Drummond, and I come from Earth—the third world nearest the sun.”
He looked about, expecting the tribesmen to loose shouts of welcome; but the grim silence only became more forbidding and the people drew back, as if from a leper. Gene leaped forward.
“Old One!” he cried in the aged man’s face. “Explain to them that I am not of the Beast People. I am an Earthling; your brother!”
There was infinite sadness in Old One’s gaze. “Nay,” he said somberly, “you are not of the Beast People, and no more so are you our brother. By the gods, you are of a race a thousandfold more loathsome than the Beast People!”
Gene sat dejectedly at the mouth of his cave, dully staring out at the black sameness of the destitute valley. Two stalwart Wronged Ones, as Kac had termed his tribe, stood at the opening, watching the man with troubled eyes.
Thus had it been for the past week, since the day Old One had pronounced those dread words condemning Gene and all like him. True, he was allowed to roam the cave city and observe the ways of the tribe, but always the guards were with him.
What terrible deed could have been done by Earth’s people to so bring the scorn of an entire race upon them? He had mulled over this night after night, but the answer was beyond his grasp. Those of the tribe had never again spoken of it after that one accusing moment in the case of their chief.
He smiled wryly. Faring forth from Earth to solve the mystery of the destructive ray, he had run squarely into another, far greater puzzle. And when he found the answer to one, then he would surely solve the other; for he now felt certain that the two were in some way connected.
The solution must come soon. He had spent much time reading the brochure given to him by President Mason, and in it Science Center had stated that the molecular patterns of metal could not long withstand the disrupting force. If surcease did not come shortly, there was no guessing what great catastrophe would befall Earth. Perhaps the entire sphere would disintegrate and fall away in space!
Another riddle he had come across was that of the always-guarded cavern in the center of the city, about which all life in the community revolved. It seemed as if the Wronged Ones lived only to gather each night in that chamber and—worship?
All that his guards would tell him about the place was that it was called the Cave of Talkers. Old One had warned him never to go near it, and the guards were careful to see that he heeded the admonition.
With such things troubling his mind, he retired into the cave and stretched out on the miserable pile of furs. Soon he made out the glow of a tiny campfire outside, about which the guards huddled in the gathering gloom.
Strange people were these. It was very seldom they smiled. The greater part of the time sadness was stamped deep in their features; sadness that spoke eloquently of a great tragedy that had come to them in the dim far past. Plague, perhaps?
Gene frowned and rolled over on his side. So many questions; so few answers. He yawned sleepily and closed his eyes. Action. That was what he wanted; action…. Then his mind became as the darkness.
He did not fare forth into the city next morning, but remained in the cave, putting into action a plan that had come to him during the night. The guards were not in evidence at the cavern’s mouth, but he knew they were near at hand. The moment he came out, there they would be, intent on carrying out their sworn duty.
Crouched in a deep recess of the chamber, he played his energy-ray on the wall before him, shielding his eyes from the bright glare with a gloved hand.
He thanked his lucky stars that the simple-minded tribesmen had never thought to take the gun from him. With its aid he would at least be able to steal from the cave this night, all unknown to the guards, and make his way to the Cave of Talkers, there to learn what went on inside that mysterious chamber.
The ray bit ever deeper in the hard stone, gouging out a narrow tunnel through which Gene could worm his way into the adjoining cave—that of Mree-na, the patriarch, from whom Gene had learned the language of the Wronged Ones.
Mree-na would not be home. Being too old to hunt, he spent his days in going among the people to hear their woes and offer his counsel in inter-family disputes. Thus Gene worked without fear of detection.
The hours sped by, and still he labored—determined to win through by nightfall. If he had judged right, he would emerge in the far reaches of Mree-na’s abode, where the shadows were heavy and where the feeble old man never ventured.
The wall was not as thick as he had expected. The call of the returning hunters was in his ears as the last foot of matter gave before the hissing ray and crashed to the floor of Mree-na’s cave, mid a thunder of echoes.
Gene stuck his head through the opening, glanced about, then withdrew. The way was clear. When the tribe met tonight in the Cave of Talkers, Gene Drummond would be the uninvited guest.
Brushing the telltale dust from his clothes he walked casually from the cavern and started down the long, sloping trail leading to the valley below. His guards hurried up and one grasped him gently by the shoulder.
“There you cannot go,” he said firmly. “Old One knows all. You would go yonder where the sleeping sky-beast lies and flee this world, but Old One and his people would not have it so … ever,” he added significantly.
“Damn it!” Gene exploded. “I’m starving for a good meal. I’ve got plenty of canned food in my ship; give me a couple of warriors to carry it here and I’ll spread out a feast for your tribe that will make the slop you eat taste like—like slop!”
The two men did not cringe before his wrath, but stood their ground; their sad eyes growing even sadder. For a long moment there was silence; then the one who rested his hand on Gene’s shoulder spoke.
“Man of the third planet, you have come among a saddened people; a people to whom a great—nay, the greatest—injustice was done in the dim, yet vivid, past. My tongue is pledged to speak not of this, but know you it is not by our will we are here. Know you, also, this slop you cry out against should call to you as like calls to like, for long did you wallow in it!”
Gene said nothing, but turned and stumbled away. He realized now that these barbarians meant to keep him here for as long as he should live. They wanted him to know some of their misery, their sorrow; to know the hopelessness they knew, and the futility of struggling with an environment that gave not before the onslaught of humanity. Why?
He was feeling like the lowest heel in the world by the time night fell. But he soon snapped out of it when he heard the tramp of many feet outside as the tribes-people passed on their way to the Cave of Talkers.
Hell! He didn’t owe these savages anything, though they tried their best to give him that impression. Maybe their plaint of injustice done them was just an act to cover up some insidious activity going on in the great cave!
Shaking with excitement, he wriggled through his secret tunnel and dropped cat-like to the floor of the adjacent cave. A quick look about assured him Mree-na had already left for the big doings. He hurried to the mouth of the chamber and stealthily peered outside.
A few yards away, the two guards squatted on boulders in front of the cave he had just vacated, talking in low voices about the night’s activities. They expressed disappointment at not being able to attend the nightly meetings, but Old One had cautioned them never to go so far from their post as to allow their charge a chance to escape.
Gene took a deep breath and darted out of the cavern, running silently over the rough ledge to the next chamber. He crouched in its maw and looked back at the guards. They sat unmoving, except to reach up now and then to adjust their fur robes in an effort to shut out the biting cold.
He moved away, satisfied they had not seen him.
As he neared the Cave of Talkers he became aware of a steady vibration of the rock underfoot. He had never before been this close to the worshipping place of the Wronged Ones, if worshipping place it was.
No guards were here; they, too, had gone inside to participate in the proceedings. Gene eased into the vast cavern, staying close to the wall so as not to be seen. A rumbling as of giant sobbing beat against his ears, accompanied by the droning undertone of a rhythmic chant.
He stood at the head of the broad stairs leading down to the cave proper; and from there he looked upon that which brought a gasp of stark incredulity to his lips.
Below, the Wronged Ones knelt on the floor of the cavern, heads bowed in veneration as they offered up the monotonous prayer. All were there: women, children, battle-scarred warriors, and aged folk who could but scarcely assume a kneeling position.
All this, he had more or less expected; for after all, these people were but superstitious savages who looked to their gods for guidance. But the thing that astounded him was the two colossal objects upon which the Wronged Ones bestowed their homage.
In the center of the ring of kneeling tribesmen stood twin machines, throbbing with power and sending off a weird effulgence. From one, a long, tapering tube thrust up through the ceiling of the cavern, vibrating violently under some great stress. Gene pressed nearer the wall, unconsciously fearful of the tremendous energy surging through that giant machine.
The other object of worship vaguely resembled an outsized dynamo, though such as Gene had never before seen. In truth, the resemblance was so little as to be all but non-existent.
Great comets! How did such a mass of intricate machinery get here, in this underground vault, on a world where metal was not known? And what was its purpose?
A narrow ledge ran around the chamber’s walls, and Gene moved along this to a spot where he could look down on the scene without risk of being seen.
Now and again the droning supplication halted, and during these pauses Old One arose and moved about the machines. In his hand he carried a small skin sack. This he tilted over certain parts of the whirring, pounding colossi, and from it poured a thin trickle of what could be nothing but oil.
This ceremony performed, Old One moved back, then once more the gathered throng took up the melancholy strain of the interrupted invocation. Above all, the machines hummed and sang with unbelievable power; deathless power. Yet, it seemed the prolonged roar faltered now and then; stopped for the barest fraction of an instant. At such times, the multitude groaned; then prayed all the more fervently.
Gene’s mind was in tumult. This world was so unlike Earth: it did not revolve on its axis, the false night of the valley was caused by dense clouds of dust or some other substance which, carried by the wind, passed over in irregular periods; thus one day would be longer or shorter than another. He doubted that a thorough search of the sphere would turn up enough metal to be worth the hunting, yet here were two giant machines, idols of a primitive people who could not conceivably grasp the mechanics involved. What a world! A world of riddles, Gene thought absently.
Then, a wild shout stabbed through his thoughts and he jerked startledly, almost losing his foothold on the treacherous ledge. The urgent cry came again, nearer the cave now, and with it a frightful uproar that raised the short hairs on the nape of Gene’s neck. He could make out the yell now: “Out! Out! The Beast People come!”
The Wronged Ones heard also, and poured up the stairs with cries of wrath at thus having their ritual broken short, snatching up spears from the floor as they went.
Gene hung back until the last of them had passed outside, then he, too, flung himself through the cave mouth. His hand clutched the deadly energy-ray, finger ready on the trigger to unloose a barrage of hissing death on the repulsive creatures assailing the city. He did owe the Wronged Ones something for saving his life, even though they had not treated him as nicely as they might have.
Chaos met his eyes. Grouped together as they were, the Wronged Ones offered a perfect target for the spears of the Beast People. Screaming women and children floundered about, colliding with the warriors and making it difficult for them to cast their weapons with accuracy. A great sorrow clutched his heart as he saw old Mree-na go down, his hands tearing at a shaft imbedded deep in his chest. Of all on this world, the withered patriarch and Kac alone had been friendly toward Gene. The rest bore him no hate, no ill will; but their eyes never looked upon him but that they looked with accusation.
He pushed to the fore of the throng, brusquely shoving aside all in his path. A long line of Beast People stretched across the valley floor, moving forward rapidly and determinedly. Gene could see they were set on winning the city this time, no matter what the cost. They carried many firebrands, and some of these they threw among the disorganized foe. Cries of agony rent the air as the blazing missiles ignited hair and fur garments. Now, even the staunch warriors dropped their weapons to beat at the tormenting flames. Utter defeat was hard upon them.
Gene felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to find Kac standing beside him, desperation in his eyes. The young giant paused to launch a spear at the oncoming horde, then ducked behind a boulder, dragging the biologist with him.
The chief’s son looked wonderingly for a moment at his strange companion, then spoke quickly: “I do not know how you managed to escape, Gene, but somehow I find myself glad to have you here in this hour of crisis. See, even now my people fall by the tens; it will be slaughter when the Beast People close with our warriors for hand-to-hand battles. Can not you, a man capable of bending a fiery sky-monster to your will, find a way to turn back this vermin that would bring annihilation to all in this city?”
Gene peeped over the rounded stone and snapped a shot at the nearest half-man. The thing fell, its head completely blown away. Kac gasped and backed away in fear, for although he had seen the Earthling use the gun when trapped near the ship, he still thought of it as some form of black magic.
“Small loss to those monstrosities,” Gene murmured. “There’s swarms of them.” Then in a louder voice, “I might think of something shortly. But first we must rally your men and get the women and children to safety. Then we can work on a method of counterattack.”
Old One joined them and Gene quickly gave the men their instructions. Leaders that they were, he was certain they would succeed in the task of bringing order to the panic-stricken community. He was to hold off the half-men until the two could draw up an effective defense.
The chief and his son hurried away to exhort the tribe and Gene took his post behind the large boulder. He noticed the hideous ones were not advancing so rapidly now. They were reluctant to face again the fearful death of fire that had done for so many of them the first time they had come upon the explorer.
Kac raced up, flung himself down beside Gene, just as a spear whizzed overhead and clattered to the ground a few yards away.
“They are poor marksmen,” he laughed mirthlessly. Then, with pride in his voice, “Gene, the warriors have already rallied, and of their own accord! They are ready to fight the invader.”
A look assured Drummond that the Wronged Ones had indeed come back fighting; they scorned the protection of the rocks, but stood straight and firm, casting their shafts with a trueness that took great toll of the disappointed Beast People, who had thought victory already in their grasp. The long line moved ever slower.
“Well, that was certainly taken care of in a hurry!” he said admiringly. “What about the women and children—are they safe?”
“Yes,” Kac nodded. “The aged men of the tribe even now aid Old One in herding the weak ones into the caves. Now we may fight unhindered. Now shall the vermin know the wrath of my people!”
Gene did not voice his fears, but he was afraid the rally had come too late. The attacking force had gained too far up the side of the valley, and with their greatly superior numbers they could soon squelch the opposition in a man-to-man fight. It was uncanny, the way the eyeless beings moved over and around the obstructions in their path, as if they knew the location of each from memory. Even so, they were about the clumsiest things he knew of.
The valley was brighter now, and looking up he could see a dim glow filtering through the heavy clouds. It had been a short night, and that was well for the tribe; for heretofore they had been forced to direct their weapons to the target by the light of torches dropped by fallen half-men.
But even though the advantage of daylight was now with them, they were forced to give back before the doggedly advancing enemy. Soon they would be forced to seek refuge in the caves. And as the foul creatures came on there rose up an endless, terrifying scream of hate. The fall of the cave city was near at hand.
Gene had been thinking about the things he had witnessed in the Cave of Talkers, and now he turned excitedly to the man beside him, a desperate plan taking shape in his mind.
“Listen, Kac! Go now—and may your feet sprout wings—to the Cave of Talkers and bring from there the sack of liquid used in your ritual. We may yet save the city, my friend.”
Fear was in Kac’s eyes, but only a moment. Surely the gods would give up their sustenance to save their devout people. He hurried off, bending low and weaving.
While he waited, Gene poured a steady fire at the abhorrent foe. Still, not a gap showed in that long, undulating line. The moment one creature fell, another rushed in to take his place.
Kac returned shortly, carrying the big skin sack of oil.
“This is all we have,” he apologized. “The plants that produce this are scarce, and so we never have a very large supply.”
“We can only hope it will be enough,” Gene said grimly, taking the sack. “Here, give me your spear.”
Kac turned over the long shaft and the biologist quickly poured oil over it. Then he inserted the shaft of the slippery weapon in the leatherlike carrying strap of the sack. While doing this, a torch fell at his side in a burst of sparks and he snatched it up, smiling.
“Thanks, sucker! I’ll be returning the favor shortly! Now, Kac, here’s what you must do: Take the torch and when I give the signal, touch it to the oilsack. Then stand away in a hurry. That clear?”
Kac grinned in quick understanding of Gene’s plan and enthusiastically prepared for his part in it. He crouched low, smoking firebrand ready in his hand, while Gene climbed to his feet and hoisted the odd ensemble over his shoulder. Gauging distance, he adjusted the angle of the spear, then took a firm stance.
“Let ‘er rip!”
Kac leaped up and thrust the torch against the saturated sack, then threw himself to the ground and rolled frantically away.
The bag blazed up instantly, and just as swift did Gene whip the spear up and forward. The roaring ball of fire left the shaft in a high arc, sailing straight toward the unsuspecting Beast People.
Down it came, bursting at the feet of the nearest half-men. Flaming oil spewed over everything within a wide radius. It ate away flesh and hair with a voracity that was dreadful to see. Living torches raced madly about in circles, screaming at the top of their voices—then to collapse in smouldering heaps, the evil life within them fled before the cleansing flame.
All along the line, creatures stopped dead in their tracks, an unreasoning fear striking deep in their hearts, if hearts they had. They could not see the cause of disaster, but they could hear its roar and the shrieks of their dying fellows. To them, it was as if a raging holocaust had leaped from the bowels of the earth to gulp them in. Then, as once before, the Beast People gave up to panic, and the solid ranks suddenly disintegrated. Pell-mell they fled, back into and across the valley, putting distance between themselves and the horror that supposedly pursued them.
A jubilant shout went up from the defenders of the city: “The accursed ones are beaten! The man from Earth has this day given us final victory! Hail the man from Earth—our brother!”
A great pride welled in Gene’s breast, but still his mind was troubled. Now he had won the friendship of the Wronged Ones, but were the Beast People truly vanquished? He thought not. Even with the enormous casualties they had sustained, they still far outnumbered Old One’s tribe. They were desperate; this was a bitterly cold, dying world, and outside this valley, without shelter, a person unhardened to the low temperature would soon perish. The horrible creatures were vigorous and rugged, but the cold was becoming more marked, year by year. Even they could not long bear such hardships. He had a hunch they had not gone far from the valley, and would soon launch another attack on the city.
Part of Gene’s hunch proved correct. The Beast People were camped just outside the valley, this being verified by scouts sent out from the city late that evening. It was logical to suppose that the suspected attack would also become reality in the near future. There was little sleep for him that night. He lay with eyes open, thinking—but little did he solve.
Kac personally brought Gene’s breakfast to him the following morning. The sad face of the chief’s son was even sadder this day.
“Many of my people shall no longer know the hardships of life,” he told the explorer. “One hundred of them fell before the onslaught of the Beast People. And—sorrow floods my heart—women and children account for more than half of the dead.
“Gene, my friend, my tribe is grateful for your succor in its hour of peril. But for you, the caves would now be in the filthy hands of our most despised enemies. Yea, you have proved yourself a warrior, and we belatedly welcome you as a brother.”
Gene was already engrossed in the food, and an unintelligible grunt was the best he could do in the way of a reply. Kac sat on the floor, watching him with wonder—and more than a touch of pity. His brow was furrowed with thought, and suddenly he spoke:
“You are not like those, those others, Gene. The legends tell us they were cruel, merciless. But you are kind, just, and your mind knows no deceit. Spawn of the others you may well be, yet their inhuman traits dwell not in you.”
Gene looked up puzzledly. “Hey! What in Deimos’ Dungeons are you talking about? Who are these others, and what makes you think I’m in cahoots with them? Listen, Kac, I’m an Earthman—flesh and blood, bone and hair, every single atom. Before Man, there were no intelligent creatures on Earth; and as for Man himself doing you some great wrong, it could not possibly have happened. Your planet is unknown to my world; I myself discovered it only by the most unusual circumstances. You’ve got me dizzy with all this talk about supposed wrongs, so how about putting our cards on the table?”
Kac rose, nodding gravely. “Thus was it foretold. Time has erased all memory of the evil deed of your race. But our remembrance of it is as a flame that grows not weaker, but stronger, with the years. Come now, Gene Drummond, and learn of your sin.”
Gene followed the tall barbarian from the cavern, excited and more than a little apprehensive. As they walked, he noted that many warriors were on guard throughout the community. That was good. Looking up, he noticed for the first time that a naked, black mountain reared into the sky but a half-mile or so back from the valley wall wherein the caves were situated. That, too, was good. The Beast People would be forced to come at them from the fore.
The trail led to the Cave of Talkers. Down the broad steps, across the flat stone floor, they went wordless and in awe. The giant machines loomed before them, throbbing and pounding with such a clamor as to bring Gene’s hands to his ears.
He soon grew accustomed to the noise, however, and went on with Kac to a small niche carved in a wall of the chamber. A vault rested in the recess, and from it Kac took a long metal tube; from this, a musty skin scroll.
The towering tribesman turned and looked deep into Gene’s eyes. “Now,” he said, “now shall I read to you from this ancient record, written by those long dead for all Wronged Ones to study and learn therefrom of the terrible injustice done to their ancestors. It is not pleasant, Gene. Will you hear it?”
The biologist nodded, a tight feeling around his heart. What unhappy, haunting knowledge was about to come to his mind?
“It is short,” Kac murmured. “Those who wrote it knew so little of what actually happened. Too, the language in which it is written is all but lost to us. But it is my fancy that when you have hearkened to these few words, little space will remain in your mind for other thoughts.”
“Go ahead, read it,” Gene said hoarsely. “I don’t run from the truth, even though it may cut to the quick.”
Kac began; reading swiftly, yet comprehensively: “Long were we, the Wronged Ones, happy on our beautiful world. Like a green jewel in space it was; a treasure lost from the bosom of the Mother Sun in some careless moment.
“True it is that we were of simple minds; even so, great things were destined for our race. As evolution worked its miracles the ignorance that was born with us dropped away, and in its place came a high order of intelligence.
“We built, tilled the soil, and forever sought new knowledge to enrich our hungry minds. Our civilization was rising, forging ahead. The fertile soil gave abundantly of its treasure; power for our machines came from the Mother Sun itself.
“Then, disaster fell upon our world. Through space, with a far greater speed than light, stabbed an insidious ray—stealing our minds, our egos. Our bodies remained, but the egos that controlled them were drained away and hurled through the void.
“Great was our consternation to find ourselves on an alien world, inhabiting alien bodies; and bitter were we when we realized the egos that had formerly possessed these organic vehicles were now dwelling in our bodies, on our own fair world. A planet of deadness was this upon which our intellects had been cast, but we were determined to live on and someday know vengeance.
“In a word: in one horrible second, and much against our will, we had traded worlds with a desperate, dying race—our sphere of abundance for theirs of desolation.
“The machine with which the usurpers had accomplished this was beyond our comprehension, though our scientists worked long and feverishly to solve its secret. Long after, we came to the conclusion the machine had been captured from the Beast People and one of their number forced to operate it.
“Truly, we found a dying half-man in this cavern. He had been poisoned, so we could not force him to operate the machine for us and take back the planet and organisms that were rightfully ours. Not until many years after did we succeed in capturing a number of the Beast People, only to find they had lost the knowledge of the ego-transposer’s working. They were devolving at a rapid pace, and soon we, too, began to know the ravages of degeneration, though it did not act with such speed on us—perhaps only for the reason that we were determined to stave it off and one day return to our much-mourned world.
“Here were we, a rising race, now doomed to extinction by a treacherous people too weak to face the destiny ordained for them. It is true these people were intelligent, after a fashion, but there is little knowledge to be had on this rock-world and when the limit is reached, the mind must retrogress.
“There will be mutations on our lost world, for our planet was possessed of a much larger population than this of the transgressors. Thus when the hellish ego-transposer effected the change, many on our world were left mindless, with only the instincts of the beast remaining. Inter-breeding will greatly reduce the intelligence of the entire population for a time—though they will without doubt arise once more to a new greatness, for the means are there for them.
“There can only be sorrow, despair, and untold misery for us. Before the gods, there can be no greater trespass than this.”
Kac’s voice trailed away.
Sick dread was on Gene’s face. “Kac,” he whispered, “What was the name of this world that was stolen from you?”
“Ours was the third world nearest the sun,” the tall warrior answered with true regret. “The planet you call Earth….”
Gene’s torment of mind knew no bounds in the following hours. Kac had left him in the cavern, warning him not to destroy the Talkers or the tribe would surely slay him. The biologist had given his word and even if he had wished, he could not have violated it; for nothing short of an atomic-cannon could rend the metal of which the titanic machines were built.
He had an atomic-cannon mounted on his ship, New Frontiers, but what good was it? He could not get to it—the Beast People surrounded the valley and would nail him the moment he appeared over the rim.
A small platform extended from the ego-transposer, midway up, and to this he climbed via a ladder depending from it. A bucket seat was anchored to the flooring. He dropped in it and began studying the instruments before him.
Outside of two silver-beaded screens, the fixtures were simple ones and quite easy to understand. Yet, his manipulations brought no results.
Long after night fell, he worked with the machine, and when done, he left with the knowledge that he was its master. The troublemaker turned out to be a broken wire; simple, yet it had stumped the Wronged Ones. The plainest things are often the hardest to see.
The other machine defied solution. Kac had told him that it, too, had been captured from the Beast People, who avowed that it generated rays beneficial to vegetable and animal life.
Gene learned definitely, though, that it was the cause of Earth’s plight. The working of it was beyond him, but this much he knew. This, then, was the traitorous Beast People’s way of exacting vengeance—by deliberately misinforming their captors as to the machine’s purpose. Too, they had tampered with some vital part, making it impossible to shut off the power.
There was no guessing how long it had been sending that deadly ray through space, slowly disintegrating all metallic matter in its path. In a few years, maybe months, metal molecules would be drawn so far apart that every structure on Earth would collapse under its own weight.
He thought his brain would burst, so many troubles did it hold. To add to them, Kac brought word that the Beast People were massing for another attack. This would be the final battle, with no surcease till one or the other of the clashing forces fell in decisive defeat—and Gene knew with dread that it could only be the Wrong Ones who would go down.
The onslaught came the next day. Hundreds of the Beast People poured into the valley—screaming, gibbering, eager to taste blood. They moved over the rocky surface like some evil blight cast up from the uttermost depths of Hell.
Gene’s oil trick would not work now, for there was no oil with which to carry it through. The plants from which it was obtained grew outside the valley, and no one had dared venture forth to pluck them. The tribe would not be in misery much longer.
The warriors had thrown up a stone barricade in front of the caves, and from behind this they looked out upon the fast-approaching horde. Not a man among them looked with fear, but with contempt and detestation for the vermin that came to crush them.
The invaders were within range now. Gene raised his energy-ray and tightened his finger around the trigger. Nothing happened. Its power was exhausted by the almost constant use to which he had put it since arriving here. He flung it aside and snatched up a spear.
The first wave of half-men loosed a hail of crude shafts, hurling them with all the venom that was in their black hearts. Some went to the mark, piercing the breasts of those too slow in ducking. Their aim was poor, but they had many spears and many men to throw them.
Gene tossed his own javelin and had the pleasure of seeing it bury itself in the neck of a squat creature, severing the jugular. Then the battle waxed furious.
The tribe fought desperately to stem the tide. Even Old One and the venerable warriors whose day of battle should be past added their bit to the cause. But nothing could turn those squealing, hate-maddened beings that charged.
Of a sudden, a hairy, hideous face poked above the barrier. The thing snarled and pulled itself over the rocks to land squarely on Gene.
Man and beast met in a fight for life. The slavering brute bore Gene down with crushing strength, wrapping an arm about his waist and pushing back on his chin, trying to snap his spine.
The agony was unbearable. Gene brought up a hand and clamped it on the back of the half-man’s head, digging his thumb in behind the ear.
An infinite moment passed, then his adversary straightened slowly, swaying on his feet. The biologist quickly wound his arms around its neck and went dragging it over the ground to a boulder. Once, twice, he bashed the filthy head against the stone. The lifeless body dropped.
Hand to hand battles were raging all about Gene, and though the Wronged Ones fought valiantly, the knowledge was in their eyes that they were lost.
In horror, he saw Old One threshing about on the ground, the fangs of a half-man fastened in his throat. Before Gene could move, an avenging form hurtled through the air and lit on the hell-creature. A stone dagger came down, slashing, tearing, wielded by the hand of a grief-maddened Kac.
The explorer turned away, a choking lump rising in his throat. Then, in his sorrow, a daring plan came to him. Heart thumping against its prison of ribs, he raced away to the Cave of Talkers.
No one was there. The women and children were all huddled in their homes and, of course, every man was outside defending the city. He clambered up to the platform and threw himself in the bucket seat, hoping against hope that this experiment would work.
The ego-transposer hummed with unholy sentience as he threw in a switch, and a soft glow appeared deep in the silver-beaded screens.
Slowly, the image of a tiny organism took form on one screen. Almost at the same moment an identical likeness swam into view on the other. Then began a parade of life-forms across the screens, each succeeding animal a bit higher on the evolutionary scale than its predecessor.
The sounds of battle grew nearer. He had to hurry now…. Ah! There! The flat, repulsive face of a half-man loomed before him. His finger stabbed at a stud, and the likeness was transfixed on the screen.
The procession continued on the other glowing surface until the physique of a Wronged One took shape in the depths and came to focus.
The two reproductions stared out at him with unwinking eyes. Deep in the bowels of the machine the basic mind make-up of the beings was being analyzed. An instant later the throbbing transposer would set up an en masse connection with the race egos, then….
A green light flashed on the panel and Gene brought his hand forward on the master switch. It was done!
Elated, he scrambled down from his perch and hurried outside. As he passed between the strangely inactive creatures at the entrance, a horrified voice croaked: “What terrible deed has been done?”
Gene grabbed the foul thing by the shoulders. “Kac! Is it you?”
“No,” it whispered. “It is my mind, yes, but it is not my body.” His hands went to his face. “Gene! I cannot see!”
“Easy!” Gene hissed. “You’ll cause a panic.” He realized that although the Wronged Ones could, with effort, talk with the strange vocal cords, it would take them some time to master the high-pitched shrill.
“Listen, Kac,” he said. “Call out and tell your people to banish fear from their minds, or many will die by the spears of the crazed Beast People. Tell them to fall on the ground and not to rise until you so instruct them. Hurry now, there is no time to lose!”
Dazedly, Kac obeyed. Though his voice was cracked and unrecognizable, it boomed with authority. Suppressing their fright, the transposed Wronged Ones dropped to the ground and lay unmoving.
Then Gene crouched beside his fearful companion and looked upon the debacle. The transported Beast People were groping about uncertainly.
They were in the same boat as their hated enemies. Sight was a thing unknown to their brutish minds, thus the eyes they now possessed were utterly useless; and try as they would, they could not produce the inaudible squeal which gave them knowledge of their surroundings with the vocal cords of their new bodies.
Two of them collided, and immediately struck out with their stone knives. To each, the flesh they felt was the flesh of a Wronged One—a feared foe who must be destroyed. Both toppled, screaming defiance even in their final death throes.
The scene was repeated time and again, till the valley floor was but a mass of shrieking, struggling, mangled bodies.
The carnage all but over, Gene grabbed up a spear and went forth to mop up. Some of the transposed Wronged Ones had not dropped as Kac, now their chief, had commanded, but stood about with vacuous expressions on their faces. He suddenly realized that there were no guiding minds in these husks. The Beast People had outnumbered the tribe; consequently many of the monstrosities had been left mindless when the change took place.
Finishing his grisly task, he flung the spear from him in disgust and hurried back to the cave, shouting as he went: “Victory is ours, Kac! The Beast People are defeated! Now your tribe can rejoice!”
But there was no joy in Kac, he found. Now, there was a greater sadness on the new chief’s face than was there at any time previous. Strange people! What could be the grievance now?
Kac must have sensed the question in his mind. He gestured disdainfully at his squat, hairy body. “Look you, Gene. You have made our plight far worse. Now we cannot see to hunt or to harvest the puny crops that we wrest from this woe-begone world. This had to be, that is to my knowing. But I fear the tribe will not understand. I can sense their rage even now, my brother.”
Gene whirled and stared sickly at the warriors rising from the ground. It was true. Wrath was on their features as they fumbled toward the cave, guided by the very sound of his breathing impinging against their sensitive ears.
The blood-spattered biologist was stunned. “Wait, my brothers!” he cried, throwing up his arms. “You have not been betrayed! Today, you have won a great victory over your enemies; on this same day you shall begin a new life—a life of plenty, of happiness.”
But his words were lost in the roar of a people aroused. Nearer they groped. Kac added his appeal, to no avail. They would have the blood of this false-tongued specimen of a race that revelled on a world that was not his own.
If only they would listen to his plan! But argument would only bring about his death—and the end of all hope for a once-mighty people. He turned despairingly to his one remaining friend.
“Hear this now, Kac,” he said urgently. “I am going into the cave to—to appeal to the all-powerful Talkers. It is your task to remain here and hold off your warriors as long as possible. In a few moments wondrous magic will be worked on you and all your people, but fear not. Know I am your friend, no matter what strange, new vista your eyes next look upon, and never would I do you harm. When next we meet, it will be in a paradise far more glorious than that for which you mourn. Will you do this your brother asks?”
The great jaws parted and one resolute word came from them: “Yes!”
Gene took the gnarled, furry hand in a warm grip, then turned and bounded down the steps. His hands seemed to be all thumbs as he climbed the ladder.
At least, he thought as he spun the dials to long range, the ego-transposer would undo some of its horrors before its evil existence came to an end.
The splendid, sun-tanned form of a tall youth coalesced on one screen and Gene froze it there with a flick of his finger.
A panorama of life hastened across the other screen, and he recoiled impulsively as the flat, stupid face of a half-man leaped at him from its depth. But he knew that intelligence reposed behind those fearsome features—intelligence that would build a world.
Now the transposer was analyzing the race-egos—and the Wronged Ones were swarming into the cave!
Kac had been unable to hold them. They had merely side-stepped him and come on, silent now and grim. They would not harm their chief, but they would let nothing stand in the way of their vengeance.
Gene rushed to the platform’s edge and brought his foot down on a shaggy hand. A stone dagger swished past his ear and shattered against the machine. Heart racing, he flung himself against the master switch and slammed it shut.
Silence, then a chorus of meaningless grunts drifted up to his ears. Below, the half-men milled about like cattle, feeling stupidly of their bodies. They could not understand; they felt wonderingly of their heads where eyes should be, trying to lift the darkness.
The New Frontiers still rested where it had crashed—how long ago? Gene replaced the smashed tube and jockeyed the ship clear of the debris. The tubes roared with power and the landscape fell away.
As he sped toward the cave city, his thoughts went back to the events of a few short hours ago.
In his feeling for the Wronged Ones, he had followed the only course that offered itself. That was the transference of their egos to Venus, to the bodies of the human-like inhabitants of that planet. To those whom Man had wronged long in the dim past. Gene had given a new life, atoned for Man’s darkest deed.
At the same time, he had given new hope to Man himself; for now, trade between Earth and Venus would become a reality as soon as the Wronged Ones could orient themselves to the new surroundings—a year at the most. The clouds of Venus had long since lifted, and the tribe would thrive in the warm sunshine that now bathed the planet. Under Kac’s able leadership they would aid in restoring Earth’s depleted mineral wealth, and in turn Earth would help them in building a lasting civilization.
Now he was over the cave city, and he knew what he must do. On the Vizio-screen he could see tiny specks moving about in the valley. They were stumbling away from the caves, away from what they could not understand.
He dived on the city and depressed the firing stud of the atomic-cannon. A gigantic concussion rocked his ship as the valley wall exploded upward.
On the screen he could see the remains of the machines in the rubble below. So ended the ego-transposer, a devil machine that could lift the spider-web of self from the very brain on which it was spun.
So, too, ended the destructive ray that a desperate people, ever greedy for new wealth, had unwittingly turned upon themselves on that day of infancy in the now-forgotten past.
Now to Venus, where the end of his strange adventure awaited. There had been many more Venusians than Wronged Ones. This surplus now belonged to the beasts—mindless, with only the instincts of the beast remaining. These mindless ones must be segregated to prevent inter-breeding with the others.
As the New Frontiers flashed sunward, Gene caught one final glimpse of the transposed Venusians on his Vizio. Now a race without hope, were they. In undoing one great wrong, he had committed another. But this was a primitive, ignorant people to whom intelligence would never have come in time to aid Earth in the crisis that threatened.
He had played God to them, but they would never know, never realize … or would they?#ENGLISH