by VASELEOS GARSON
They were the pitiful remnants of a proud world,
huddled into slave quarters on Karrar, dying
before the cold brutality of the Kraks, seeking
the Achilles’ heel in the armor of their
masters. One man alone still fought them—even
he knowing he battled with a lance of straw.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Summer 1945.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Nothing new … this. The viewpoint, maybe, was different, this time. The script was the same, only there were new actors in the cast of characters.
Human historians had written the story over and over. Even the Kraks probably had a parallel story in their world.
Sean McKenna flinched a little as the beam of the thin yellow light bit into his left shoulder, burning a crooked X into the tanned flesh. Then with a shrug, Sean nodded his red-thatched head slightly, moved into the rapidly growing queue of humans who watched the Krak counters with varied expressions, most of them quietly despairing.
Sean accepted his destiny with a slanted smile.
He, too, stared steadily at the impassive-faced Kraks whose naked torsos and hairless round heads glistened with sweat in the afternoon of Earth’s sun.
He thought: They have two eyes, two ears, a nose, a mouth, one body, two arms and two legs just like us humans. But they are something apart from us, for they are the masters and we—his mind shrugged—are the slaves.
Sean fixed his green eyes on the scarlet-kilted Krak whose light had so emotionlessly added him to the cargo of slaves for the Krak’s home planet somewhere out in the reaches of space.
Sean grew aware of the monotonous voice of a Krak, tolling out what must be numbers as the yellow lights in the hands of other Kraks flicked haphazardly among the other residents of Sean’s village. Then the monotonous voice sharpened, and the yellow lights stopped flickering.
There was silence then for a brief moment, while the eyes of those chosen and those left behind touched briefly, despairingly. In that silence, Sean heard her voice and the quietness with which he had accepted the end of his earthly life almost vanished.
“Oh, Sean,” she cried. “They didn’t take me!” Sean’s eyes darted to the edge of the crowd to where she stood, her arms stretched out supplicatingly to him; her soft red lips quivering; her blue eyes brimming; her soft black hair caressed by the afternoon wind.
Sean broke out of line then, almost running toward her. The scarlet-kilted Krak who had marked him reached out a restraining hand. His fingers bit into Sean’s arm until the blood spurted; the shock of pain from his arm held in the Krak’s unbreakable hold halted him.
He looked at her quietly then shrugged, and marched back to his place in the line.
He was unmindful of the pain in his wrenched arm as he moved along with the rest up the slanted walk to the oval door of the space ship. At the top he turned, and his voice rose above the murmur of the crowd.
“I’ll come back, Maureen,” he said, and blew her a kiss from his fingertips. Then he stepped into the darkness, following those others before him.
In the gloom, someone said: “Always the gallant one, eh, Sean? You know damn well that you’ll never see Earth again. No one who ever left on these slave ships has ever come back.”
“I think I recognize Michael O’Hara, the village pessimist,” Sean replied and there was almost a lightness in his voice. They moved deeper into the bowels of the ship, aware of the curious scraping sound the Krak guards made as they walked with them.
They were all quiet, these men, women and children whom the Kraks had carelessly chosen, as they marched into the huge dark room that was to be their home for the journey to Karrar. The scraping noise moved through the room, then to the door of the hole. The portal shut with the dull sound of heavy metal. The scraping noise grew fainter, then it was gone.
Not until then did the humans give vent to their emotions. The sound of despair was hesitant at first—in a far corner a child gasped, coughed and then sobbed. It was the signal—and the mingled sounds of hysterical laughter, weeping, groaning were ragged knives twisting in Sean McKenna’s heart. A rending cacophony of lost hope.
“Shut up,” he shouted hoarsely. “This is no time for weeping and wailing; this is the time to think, to plan.” For a moment the awful symphony subsided; then someone said wearily:
“Against the Kraks? What did planning ever do against them? They are invulnerable. We used atomic power, guns, knives, bow and arrows, even our fists against them. And they crushed us like rats in a corner.”
The cacophony resumed, and Sean’s shouting voice could not stop it now—he could not even hear his own voice. A hand touched his arm gently:
“Easy, Sean,” Michael O’Hara whispered in his ear. “They are right. If we couldn’t beat them as free men, how can we even think of it as slaves?”
“The fools,” Sean said savagely. “No matter how weak they are, they can keep fighting, keep probing for a chink in their armor.”
“No, Sean, for fifteen years we fought, seeking that chink, and failed to find it. Deep down in your heart you know the Kraks cannot be beaten. Physically, they are to us as we are to new-born babes—no weapon of man can touch them, and did you ever hear of a Krak dying of disease?
“No, we met a better adversary. Mother of Erin, Sean, we deserve to be slaves, we haven’t the accoutrements to take on the Universe Champion.”
“There’s nothing anywhere that hasn’t a weakness, Mike. I aim to find the weakness.”
Mike O’Hara grunted: “Why this sudden fervor to destroy the Kraks, anyway? Until today, you were content to go fishing and hunting without thought of them. Now you’ve done a right-about-face.”
“I know,” said Sean, and there was chagrin in his voice. “Until today, they hadn’t bothered me.”
“So you want to embroil the whole human race in your fight, eh?”
“Oh, hell, Mike, it’s not my fight—it’s humanity’s battle for self-preservation. You know that as well as I do. Besides, wouldn’t you like to see Jane again?”
“That hurt, Sean,” Mike said softly.
Sean touched him lightly on the shoulder: “Sorry, Mike, but don’t you see? All of us want to see the ones we love again. And we won’t, if we let despair grab us.”
“All right,” said Mike. “I’ll go along with you. But it’s no go just the same.”
“Pessimist,” Sean said and laughed softly. But he was glad the blocky, black-haired Mike was with him.
The uprooting of these humans from their home of ages had been simple enough, Sean decided. Except for the nausea that held the stomach in noisome fingers when the Krak ship broke loose from the earth.
Were there more captives this time than in the long years before? Were there 1,000 Krak ships—instead of 500—transplanting men and women and children to that scarlet land of Karrar?
Sean said as much to Mike, and Mike said: “I heard before we left that this would be the biggest batch.” Mike looked harried in the yellow wall light. “Sean,” he said quickly, with a twist on his lips: “How’s the search coming?”
Sean jerked his red-thatched head around, stared at him.
“Why the sudden earnestness?” Mike licked his lips quickly. “I didn’t know it before, but just now when I was looking over the people here, I found Marcia, and she’s sick.”
“Marcia?” Sean repeated. “I thought you and she had busted up that romance?”
Mike nodded: “She did,” he said quietly. “But I’ll never stop loving her.”
“Mike, how about Jane? You and she were to be married—tomorrow, wasn’t it?”
“I know, I know,” Mike said hurriedly. “But Marcia’s sick, and she looked at me so appealingly when I recognized her, it all came back. The least I can do is comfort her.”
“Sure, sure …” Sean said. That curious scraping sound that marked the coming of a Krak interrupted them.
It was the scarlet-kilted Krak who had marked Sean for the trip. He stood inside the open prison door, his naked torso gleaming in the yellow light and his hairless round head turning.
His round head stopped turning as his dark eyes above the wide flat nose fastened on Sean’s red hair.
“You,” he mouthed, “with the red hair. Come!”
Sean moved forward cautiously, his nerves atingle, his strong hands doubled into fists.
He followed the scarlet kilt out of the packed prison room, along an interminable series of passageways that led upward, and finally entered a room about twenty feet wide and thirty feet long.
It was innocent of furniture or decoration. There were no windows.
But standing in the middle of the room was an eight-foot Krak, dwarfing even the seven-foot bulk of his guide.
The scarlet-kilted Krak turned to him.
“Find your answer,” the scarlet-kilted Krak said cryptically. He pointed to the Krak, naked save for a kind of breechclout about his loins. “He is your subject.”
Sean was staring at his guide, startled out of his usual acceptance of the bizarre and the trite.
“Our audios picked up your plotting,” the scarlet-kilted one said. “We do not wish to kill you, you are much more valuable on Karrar. But we cannot have restless humans fired by one like you who thinks we are vulnerable.
“There is a Krak. Kill him if you can.” The scarlet-kilted Krak turned to the other standing in the center of the room.
“You have understood my words, Klash? You understand that you will allow this human to do all in his power to kill you. Allow him all liberties until you are convinced that he has run out of ways in which to take your life.”
“Yes, O, Ralk.” Klash bent his huge bald head.
Ralk called aloud in his own tongue. Another Krak appeared pushing a plastic crate before him. He pushed the crate into the room. Then he went out, followed by Ralk. At the door Ralk stopped and said:
“Human, there are many weapons there. Use them, and see if you can kill one of us.” Then he went out.
Sean McKenna was alone with the brute called Klash.
He moved to the box, looked in.
He looked up then at Klash, and whistled. “You must be tough, brother.” Then he hauled the array of weapons from the crate. He laid them on the duralloy deck beneath his feet.
A high-powered rifle, a meat ax, a sledge hammer, an acetylene torch, a sword, a rope, a crowbar. Then a grenade. Sean laid the last item gently aside, and remarked, “That’d kill me.”
Then he dumped the whole mass of weapons out on the deck.
It was a very good collection of various Earth and Krak weapons. Besides diverse types of guns, powder, electric and air operated, there were blowguns of all lengths, complete with quivers of poison-dipped arrows. There were many weapons made by the Kraks, only one or two of which Sean recognized.
He picked up the little hand-gun that emitted the burning ray.
He trained it on the Krak’s chest, nicked the little button wide open. Such power exploded a human being, instantly converting the moisture in his system to steam.
Klash stood there, impassive. Sean pumped a full round of bullets at the Krak from the high-powered rifle, then hurled himself on the floor to dodge the richocheting bullets. He got up, a rueful grin on his thin lips, and shot assorted poisonous darts through the blowguns.
The poison was sudden death to any earthly thing.
Klash was impassive.
Sean hefted a battle-ax that the Kraks apparently had filched from some museum. He walked up slowly toward Klash, the double-bitted ax swinging heavily in his hand.
Sean took a stance, spat on his palms, and swung the ax, unmindful that he ripped open the wound Ralk had made when he stopped him from moving toward Maureen.
The bright blade gleamed in the yellow light, the muscles, lean and sinewy across Sean’s back rippled and tore his tunic across the back. The head of the ax hit Klash waist-high and bounced, flipping Sean to the deck. Klash rocked a little on his feet from the shock. That was all.
Sean, a desperate grin tightening his lips, threw the book at Klash—he tied the hemp rope about his neck and tried to strangle the Krak; he put the crowbar in Klash’s mouth, tried to break the jaws; turned the blow torch against his chest. No response.
At long last, after he exhausted almost the complete roster of weapons, Sean looked thoughtfully at the grenade. Then he shook his head.
Sean walked up to Klash, stared up at his towering bulk. Klash looked down at him, impassive. Sean laughed then and hurled himself upward, lashing out with his bony fists at the Krak’s neck and shoulders.
The impassivity vanished from Klash’s face. It twisted, almost as if in pain, Sean thought, before the Earthman’s senses were washed out in a rocking shock as one big fist lashed against the side of his head. The echo of his own laughter was the last sound he heard.
Sean still saw that strange look on Klash’s face when he opened his eyes into the glaring yellow light. But the picture vanished as pain shuddered through his body.
Mike’s voice worked its way through his pain.
“Mother of Erin, Sean, what did they do to you?”
“Uh,” grunted Sean and moved to a sitting position against the wall and looked down at his body and legs. He was covered with bruises, yellow and red and blue and black, and each throbbed its own special melody of hurt.
“I don’t know, Mike. I passed out when Klash hit me.”
Mike said: “Old Doc Perkins said there isn’t a square inch of your body that hasn’t a bruise. What he can’t figure is how you took such punishment without getting a bone broken.”
“Hah,” Sean tried to laugh through bruised lips. “Doc’s wrong. They busted every bone in my body. Then they glued me together again.” He paused.
“Mike, I found it.”
“Sure, Sean,” Mike put in gently. “You found it. That nice little pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Only it blew up in your face.”
“No, Mike, I found that chink.”
Mike gasped once, then sat there very quietly staring at the red-headed Sean.
Finally, he said, “Give me the solution.”
“It’s the bone from the shoulder to neck, Mike. That’s the vulnerable part.” He launched into a description of his hopeless task of trying to destroy Klash. “Then at the end, Mike, I jumped up and socked him in the neck and in that hollow in the shoulder.
“He winced, Mike, and I’ll swear that he flinched in pain. Then he knocked me out.”
“But how do you know it isn’t the neck?”
“I told you I had that rope around his neck.”
“Maybe he had a stomach ache or something that brought that look to his face.”
“Holy Mother, Mike, if he’d eaten something that didn’t agree with him, do you think he’d wait until then to feel painful?”
“Maybe it was the poison, Sean, just taking hold?”
“No, Mike, he grimaced just when my fist struck that bone. It was the first sign of pain during the whole time. That’s got to be it, Mike. Kraks aren’t invulnerable. They’ve just been careful not to let us find out.”
“Why didn’t they kill you then, when you found out?”
Sean shrugged the thought away. “Maybe Klash didn’t tell them. Maybe it’s just luck. I don’t know. But I do know this, Mike, it’s the first time that a Krak ever departed from that poker face.”
Mike sat there, pessimism fighting with this new thread of hope.
“Okay,” he said finally. “I guess we can try it, anyway. Though I don’t think much of the idea. But it’s a chance. And I sure would like to get Marcia back on earth.”
“To meet Jane?” Sean asked quietly. Mike looked at him, almost like a boy caught with his hand in the jam jar.
It was some hours later, when Sean slapped the sandal against the palm of his hand and muttered:
“Sandals aren’t much good as weapons, but they’ll have to do.” He looked at Mike and the other eleven men that the two of them had convinced, in whispers so that the audios would pick up only sounds and not the words of their plan.
Mike said: “He’s due along here any minute now.”
Sean nodded and slapped the sandal against the palm of his hand again.
Afar off at first it was, that curious scraping sound the thighs of Kraks make as they walk. The thirteen men tensed, their palms sweating against the leather soles of the sandals they gripped so tightly.
The excitement had deadened the pain of Sean’s bruises and he was waiting just as tensely as the others.
The other Earth people packed into the huge cell were staring at them, some licking their lips, some with questions fighting through the despair in their eyes—all of them dejectedly looking.
The cry was in Sean’s mind: Oh, to destroy their despair that they might see once more with eyes of hope!
The scrape-scrape came closer. It halted outside the heavy metal door. Smaller bits of metal rattled; then the door opened inward.
Sean, being closest to the opening portal, swung his sandal first. It made a curious spatting sound. Forgetful of the wrenching pain, he leaped, wrapped an arm around the Krak’s neck and lashed out with the sandal again and again.
The Krak reached up one powerful arm, ripped the red-headed Earthman from his perch. The other dozen Earthmen leaped on him then, their sandals flailing.
Sean, flung against the wall, tried to move, but his muscles were tar and wouldn’t respond. He watched the battle, trying desperately to move.
Of a sudden then, he was biting his lips, and tears of chagrin were blinding his eyes. For the Krak still towered there, impassive and invulnerable, smashing the Earthmen down with his huge fists. One of the thirteen, Bill Hawkins, lay on the deck of the prison, his head split open like a ruptured muskmelon.
Another moaned on the floor, helplessly trying to move both his broken arms. Mike fought to the last, but even his driving fists were stopped when the Krak pounded him on the side of the head and drove him to the floor.
The Krak looked around the prison room impassively, his bald head moving slowly, effortlessly.
Then he went out.
The tar that was his muscles finally set and Sean could move. He crawled to where Mike lay spread-eagled on the floor, took the black-topped head in his lap, rocked with it. “Oh, Mike, I’m sorry. I was so sure.”
Tiny fists pounded on his bruised back. Sean started to turn. Then fingers were entwined in his red hair, yanking, bringing painful tears to his eyes.
“Get away from him, you beast.” Sean saw tiny, blonde Marcia, her soft face twisted into harsh lines, pulling him away from Mike. He let Mike’s head drop gently to the deck. Then he stood up. Instantly Marcia was beside Mike, touching him, talking to him softly.
Sean looked at Bill Hawkins lying dead there on the floor, the dark dead stuff smearing the polished surface. He looked at those others there. Despair was still there in their eyes, but something else, too.
They looked away from him, deliberately avoiding his eyes. The soft moaning of Jack Wilson turned him around.
“I’m sorry, Jack. It’s my fault. I was so sure that was the vulnerable point.”
Jack’s pain-filled eyes looked down on his broken arms, then fastened on Sean.
“I wouldn’t mind so much,” Jack said through tight lips, “if it had worked.” Then he looked away.
Sean turned to Mike and Marcia. Mike was sitting up now, shaking his head dazedly.
He saw Sean.
Mike said just one word before he stood up and walked away with Marcia.
The word was: “Satisfied?”
For the rest of the trip, Sean McKenna had plenty of room to stretch his body out. As if by pre-arranged signal, he was given a wide berth, and those Earth people near him constantly tried to keep their backs to him.
Impassively, the Kraks had come, and when they left, the body of Bill Hawkins went with them, leaving only that dark dried stain on the prison deck as a reminder. Perhaps it hadn’t been deliberate, but the prisoners had made a lane through so that each time Sean McKenna lifted his harried green eyes he saw the spot where Hawkins had died.
Hawkins’ death twisted at Sean’s heart, but it was always overshadowed by his conviction that the Kraks were vulnerable. Sean’s mind probed, trying to find the answer to why Klash, the huge Krak, had flinched when Sean’s fists had struck him.
If ever he had seen pain, Sean swore to himself, it had been on Klash’s face then. But what had caused it?
What had made an invulnerable Krak wince at the blows from an Earthman’s fist?
There were no earthly words to describe Karrar, the home planet of the Kraks.
Karrar was Karrar—a stupendous planet, brooded over by a sullen sun, a land of harsh reds and blacks. Impassive it was—as indestructible as its spawn of Kraks.
They’d known when the landing had been made, for the Kraks, their blank faces rigid, had come into the prison room and roughly strapped a metal contrivance on the back of each Earth person, man, woman and child.
For such a sullen-looking planet, Sean decided, the weather was exceedingly cold, striking at his flesh and bones like tiny needles.
The Kraks herded the long line of humans through the airlock out onto the huge expanse of the space port. There were thousands of ship cradles, it seemed, and they were packed with other ships unloading their cargo. As far as his green eyes could see, Sean recognized only human beings—thousands of them moving single file out of the maws of the swollen Krak ships. Those files were converging at a huge gate at the far end of the port.
They looked, Sean thought, like long lines of ants moving toward their hill. Then he, too, was moving toward the same gate.
Perhaps only he, of those thousands, was different. For he was not squeezed into the line. The human ahead of him and the human behind were a good four feet from him, as if keeping as far from a carrier of the plague as possible.
Sean grinned wryly. He kept his eyes fixed ahead where black buildings shoved their coarse heavy structures against the lowering scarlet sky.
They moved through the mammoth portal at last, and finally Sean was swept into the mass of humans who clogged the way. They stumbled through the black block-paved streets and the few Kraks who were on the street gave those humans only cursory glances.
Nothing new to them, Sean thought grimly. And the urgency of his conviction that these Kraks could be destroyed put buoyancy in his step and set his mind to working frantically. He towered above the other humans around him, his flame-hair blazing like a torch.
A Krak saw that flame head. Sean didn’t know it then, but he learned shortly.
Finally those thousands of humans were herded into an open-air compound, surrounded by heavy, black stone walls that lifted breathtakingly above them. Other humans were there, men bearded and filthy, women, even in their despair, trying to keep some semblance of beauty.
The clothes of these older prisoners were almost gone, only that metal contrivance on their backs shone brightly. Many of the children, even in the cold of Karrar, moved about listlessly, naked. Sean counted seven fist and kick fights going on in the compound as he entered.
Much of the decency of man had been destroyed by the Kraks; there seemed no joy, no laughter, no comradeship, only an all-pervading air of despair. That light of intelligence had left many a human’s eyes in that inclosure to be replaced by a blank stare.
Sean shuddered a little, and the wry twist came to his mouth. Somehow, he thought, and the coldness of the thought was like a knife of chilled steel, the Kraks must be destroyed and punished for this terrible blow to the dignity of man.
The cold hand of a Krak on his shoulder roused him from his bitter thoughts. He followed the Krak, wonderingly.
The guide and he moved out of the compound, across the black street, pushing through the massed humans who were being poured into the compound, into what was apparently a barracks for warrior Kraks. Through the barracks to a large office at the end they went.
Ralk, the scarlet-kilted Krak, who had engineered his little fiasco with Klash was there. And another Krak, not white-skinned like those on the space ship, but a pastel pink with features less coarse. This Krak was bald, but he wore a long black robe.
Ralk said shortly:
“Red-headed one, you are blessed. Shel Lur has chosen you for her own. Thank your hair, Earthman, that shines like Karrar’s sun.”
There was no expression on Shel Lur’s face, but her bald head, painted a darker pink than her skin, inclined.
Sean wondered if the woe-begone expression on his face was apparent to Shel Lur. This—this thing a woman of the Krak race? Sean’s lips twisted—no wonder the Kraks looked so gloomy.
Mother of Erin, he would prefer being in the compound than in the company of this huge creature. He said so to Ralk.
Ralk’s voice was impassive. “Do not be mistaken, Earthman. Shel Lur does not want you for a husband; but as something to look at.” He spoke quickly in his native tongue to Shel Lur. The female Krak nodded, moved toward him.
As Shel Lur’s big cold hand seized his arm and steered him out of the door of the office, Sean was, for the first time in twenty-five years of life, not smiling at the events facing him.
It wasn’t so bad, Sean reflected some weeks later, but it wasn’t anything to laugh about—this being doll to a lady of the Kraks. He was fed well, and he slept well, even if it were on the cold black floor.
But he couldn’t stand that impassive stare when Shel Lur gazed at him three times a day—once in the morning when she prodded him awake with her foot, once in the afternoon when she brought him down to the dinner table to stare and once in the evening just before she undressed for the night and lay down on her air pallet.
He had stood it for a week, then he tried to teach her the English language only to find out that she knew enough of it as she wanted. He’d talked to her, trying to describe Earth to her—telling her how different women there were. And she had just nodded and said, “Yess?“
Why in the name of Earth’s sun had she picked him out—of every other human? There must have been hundreds of red-heads in the human procession. He looked up at Shel Lur’s pink face and said very heatedly:
Shel Lur looked at him impassively.
He had plenty of time to think now and to watch. The picture of the giant Klash ever was with him, that look of pain pricking and tickling at his mind.
Once he asked Shel Lur: “Can’t you be killed?”
In her atrociously accented English she said:
“No, I cannot be killed. No Krak ever killed.”
“Don’t you ever die?”
“Oh, yess. We die.”
Shel Lur merely shrugged and repeated: “We die.” And looked at him impassively.
He liked those rare occasions when she sent him out with the laundry to the section laundry where the humans toiled day and night with the heavy garments. It was good to see your own kind, he thought, even if they are slaves.
Once he tried to lose himself in the city, but an unerring Krak came straight to his hiding spot behind an eating place, lifted him out of his lair, and returned him to Shel Lur.
Shel Lur had not even chided him on his long absence, but had merely looked at him impassively.
This day began differently. Shel Lur woke him by prodding him with her big foot and when he sat up on the cold floor, she pointed, her face a blank:
“See?” she said.
He twisted his aching neck sharply, and almost gasped:
“Marcia! What—how did you get here?”
“Woman,” Shel Lur said tonelessly. “Your woman.”
Tiny Marcia, her blonde hair awry, her blue eyes frightened, her tiny hands twisting.
Her words stumbled out: “A Krak came; took me from beside Mike in the laundry.”
Sean looked from Marcia to Shel Lur.
Shel Lur nodded: “Your woman,” she said again.
“No,” Sean said, “my friend’s woman.”
“Yess?” said Shel Lur. “Your woman, I say it.” She took Marcia by the arm, pushed her against Sean. Then she walked out and shut the door.
Sean stood in the center of the room, running his hands through his flame hair.
“I’m damned if I know what she’s driving at. Oh, well,” he said and shrugged.
He looked at Marcia, commented: “You look better than you did on the ship.”
Marcia looked at him, her lips quivering, her eyes brimming with tears:
“Oh, Sean,” she said. “What kind of hellish world is this?” Then she threw herself into Sean’s arms, her breasts heaving, sobs like tiny pin cushions tearing at her throat.
Awkwardly, Sean patted her shoulder. “Easy, Marcia, easy.”
Shel Lur came back in again. Without emotion, she looked at Marcia clasped in Sean’s arms, said tonelessly:
“Good. You will not run away again.”
Marcia turned her head to stare at the Krak woman. Sean’s eyes were thoughtful.
Sean McKenna awoke suddenly, jarred from sleep by an almost tangible thought. Half-awake, the fingers of his mind reached into his dream and tried to form it into wakeful reality.
Almost, he thought bitterly. I almost had it. He’d been dreaming about his attempts to destroy a Krak, living it over again, and for a single fleeting moment, he would have sworn he found the chink in the Krak armor of invulnerability. Then it was gone.
Over in the opposite corner, Marcia stirred. Nightmare, probably, but who wouldn’t have a nightmare? But that dream, so real and in it he had been so sure of the Krak’s vulnerability. And now that was gone.
He drifted off to sleep again.
When he awakened, he was surprised. It had not been by Shel Lur’s dainty hoof. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he turned toward Marcia’s corner.
Instantly he was on his feet. She was gone! He darted from the bare room, through the door into Shel Lur’s chamber.
Striding into the center of the Krak’s sleeping chamber, Sean McKenna halted abruptly, almost as if he had bumped up against an unseen, immovable force.
A woman’s laughter, dancing on joyous toes, stopped him. Marcia’s laughter! Then his heart froze into a lump of dry ice within his chest. Only for fleeting moments had that laughter been joyous, now it was a mad, maudlin thing, twisted by the frightening fingers of hysteria.
Sean sprinted across the huge sleeping room, blasted through the door of the dressing chamber.
Marcia, her tiny body a limp blob lay on the cold floor, mad laughter dripping from her lips.
Shel Lur sat impassively in the high-backed bench, a wig of human hair fixed on her head, her dark eyes staring at him. Around her neck was a necklace of black triangular shaped stones that winked evilly in the sullen light of the sun.
Sean tried to comfort the sobbing, screaming Marcia, but her soft face was twisted and torn with frightful agony and her tiny red mouth still burbled raucous laughter.
Sean turned coldly to Shel Lur.
“What have you done?” he lipped, his green eyes stabbing flame.
Shel Lur stared at him impassively, her wide-lipped mouth lax.
It was then that Sean felt that latent hope for the Krak’s vulnerability flare in his heart.
Shel Lur was dead.
His quick mind spun through a million queries. How had she died? Was it a Krak’s ordinary death? What had happened to cast the life from her?
Sean looked down at Marcia’s contorted, writhing body.
His answer lay there.
With a cold mind, Sean bent down, jerked Marcia roughly to her feet.
His strong palm lashed out, once, twice in snapping blows to Marcia’s soft cheeks. The girl whimpered at the first blow; at the second, her sobbing slowed; and at the third, a semblance of intelligence brought a spark to her blue eyes.
Sean held her shoulders gripped tightly in his hands. He shook her gently.
“Marcia,” he said softly. “Marcia.”
Marcia’s eyes reached up to his. She said dully:
“It was awful, Sean.” Then she was in his arms sobbing. Sean let the sobbing run its course, though his mind was champing to ask her what happened. The hysteria was gone from her voice finally when she said:
“I killed her, Sean, with the touch of my hand.” She held up the tiny hand with the long tapering fingers and flexed it.
“Marcia.” Sean forced himself to speak slowly. “How did you kill her? What spot did you touch?”
He was breathless. He’d been right after all, there was a vulnerable spot on the Krak’s invulnerable body. Was it the same spot he’d thought from his battle with Klash?
Marcia spoke quickly: “I don’t know, Sean. She woke me, gave me that wig, told me to fix her head like mine. I did it, only I drew two strands of the hair down under her chin and tied it in a bow.
“It didn’t look quite right, so I put my hands on her shoulders and drew the bow wider. But it looked so funny under her chin, I laughed and pushed against her to keep from falling.”
“Where did you touch her?”
“I don’t remember, Sean, I don’t remember. Anyway, right then her whole face twisted into awful knots and her throat worked as if she couldn’t get enough air to breath. Her face turned white and then blue and back to pink again.
“Her face, o-o-oh, it was terrible looking and frightened me so much,” Marcia pushed closer to Sean, her tiny arms twisted tightly about him.
Sean was unaware of Marcia’s warm body pressing against him.
For he was remembering.
It was only a tickle at first, then it grew and bubbled and the laughter pushed Sean’s mouth open. The chink! His mind was shrieking. I’ve found it!
He laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks. It was the first time in many weeks that Sean McKenna had laughed like that—full-throated and joyous.
Abruptly, he sobered.
“Marcia,” he said. “Help me dump Shel Lur into a laundry hamper. We’ll have to get her out of here. Get her to where other Earth people, Mike and the rest of them, may see her—a dead Krak. An unkillable, unburnable Krak, dead violently. Then they will listen to me.”
Marcia raised puzzled eyes to him.
“But what part of her did I touch to kill her?”
“No time for explanations. Only this much. It’s you the Earth should thank for finding the chink in the Krak’s armor. The answer was there, but me, I was the guy who couldn’t see the trees for the forest.”
As he talked, Sean was dragging the tall plastic clothes hamper to the side of the dead Shel Lur.
It strained every muscle of Sean’s lean tough body to transfer Shel Lur’s bulk from the high-backed bench to the hamper. Marcia brought some soiled clothes that they arranged around Shel Lur’s body, doubled up in the hamper.
The thick plastic rollers squeaked under the weight as he worked it to the hallway outside Shel Lur’s apartments, Marcia trailing behind him.
The two Krak guards flicked their eyes at them, but remained impassive. It was nothing unusual to see an Earthling delivering clothes to the laundry.
Sean masked the effort as he trundled the hamper by the guards. It might arouse suspicions if they thought he was disclosing undue stress.
He was sweating as he worked the hamper step by step down the long stairway leading to the street. He was desperately afraid that the hamper would overbalance and topple Shel Lur’s body out on the landing before the two guards near the main gate. But Marcia strained her tiny body against the hamper, relieving some of the drag.
The Kraks did not even glance at them. Outside with the door closed, Sean straightened, blew a breath of relief through his tight lips.
Of a sudden, Marcia pulled his head, kissed him firmly on the lips. Sean jerked away abruptly.
“Don’t you like me?” she asked petulantly. “I like you.”
“How about Mike?”
Marcia shrugged. For a moment, Sean wanted to take her tiny body and shake some sense into it; but then he remembered that it was she who had given him the key to the enigma of the Krak’s invulnerability.
Trust a woman to find a man’s Achilles heel! He grinned wryly, and asked:
“Which way to Mike’s laundry?” Marcia pointed, still pouting a little.
Mike saw them first as they pushed the hamper into the spraying room.
His dark face, the dark hair crowning it like a thick cap, lighted at the sight of Marcia, and harshened when he saw Sean.
Mike moved quickly toward them, his eyes fixed on Marcia’s face. His arms were outstretched. Sean was looking at Marcia out of the corner of his green eyes. At Mike’s approach she moved closer to Sean, tugged at his arm.
“Marcia!” Mike said, and his voice carried his heart with it. “I was scared stiff when they took you. How…?” Mike’s dark eyes saw Marcia’s fingers flexing on Sean’s arm.
He took a step forward, his bulging muscles rippling, his dark eyes snapping. Sean, wordlessly, dumped over the hamper.
Shel Lur’s body spilling out on the damp floor stopped him instantly.
Mike O’Hara stared at the body of the Krak, then at Sean’s smiling lips.
“Dead.” Sean’s voice was quiet.
Their soft voices brought other Earthlings crowding from the various parts of the spraying room. They, too, stared at the dead bulk of the pink-skinned Krak.
“How?” Mike breathed the word like a prayer.
Sean jerked a thumb at Marcia. “Marcia did it, and showed me how.”
Marcia broke in: “But I don’t know how I did it, Sean.”
Sean shrugged as Mike moved closer to Marcia.
“Oh, Marcia,” Mike said softly. “You found the way.” His arms reached out as if to clasp her, but she ducked under them, put her arm around Sean’s waist.
Sean’s fingers pushed her arm loose, but Mike was a fury before him.
“So,” Mike growled. “I must think of Jane. I must forget Marcia.” He sniffed loudly. “Well, friend, how about Maureen? I suppose she’ll greet Marcia with open arms?” He paused a moment.
“‘I’ll come back, Maureen,'” Mike mimicked Sean’s last words to his black-haired Maureen when the Earthlings had first been driven aboard the Krak ship many weeks before.
Then Mike’s big fist lashed out. Sean’s strong hands reached out, caught the arm, pushed it to Mike’s side as he said quietly:
“Easy, Mike, easy.” He added: “There are more important things to consider now than jealousy.” A movement from Marcia turned Sean’s head quickly. Then he smiled that slanted grin.
“Look, Mike, she’s just a feather, blown about by what takes her fancy.” Sean jerked his flame head at Marcia. She was smiling up at a tall, slim blond—a stranger to Sean who had been hovering in the background.
Mike looked, and the fire in his dark eyes died a little. Muscles worked in the sides of his jaw. His barrel chest lifted in a deep breath. Then he grinned a little shamefacedly.
His voice was abrupt then.
“How did the Krak die, Sean?”
Sean said enigmatically: “By an Earthling’s cruelest weapon. A weapon which has been lost to most humans since the Kraks came. A sort of prodigal weapon. I used it once on Klash, and didn’t know it. I couldn’t see it then. But Marcia’s killing Shel Lur gave me the answer.”
Sean McKenna took Mike’s arm, led him to the door.
They moved outside where two Krak guardsmen stood.
They paced out into the black paved street.
“Watch them,” Sean said softly, triumph in his voice.
Sean McKenna began to laugh, the deep waves of it pouring up out of his chest, filling the sullen air with its joy. There it was, he thought humbly, the weapon. Laughter!
The two Kraks stood impassive. Their dark eyes were quiet. They were unperturbed.
Sean stopped laughing. His bright green eyes were dull as he turned to Mike O’Hara.
“It doesn’t work,” he said. They were just words. There was no emotion in them. He might have been talking about the weather. “I was sure this was it. Laughter. David’s sling against Goliath.”
Then Sean McKenna shrugged. His voice was flippant now. His green eyes stared at Mike’s dark ones unblinkingly. He wondered: Are my eyes as blank and dull as Mike’s? He said:
“I could think of the worse places for mankind to die—” he swept his left arm encompassing the red sky and black city—”but not many.” He laughed again. This time his voice was high-pitched, almost with a note of hysteria in it.
“You were right, Mike, we didn’t have much chance against the Universe Champion.”
“Wait!” Mike said urgently. “Look!”
The two Krak guardsmen were staggering drunkenly toward them. This Sean saw as he turned. Their faces were twisted, working convulsively.
“Stop it,” the foremost one muttered hoarsely. “It hurts the ears.”
His figure towered over Sean, clutching fingers reaching. Sean darted aside. The second Krak had fallen, huge spatulate fingers scrabbling at the black-paved blocks. The first one turned hesitantly as if he could no longer control his feet, stumbled after Sean.
He lunged at Sean, succeeded only in tearing that metal contrivance from his back. A great weight suddenly pulled Sean to the pavement, seemed to triple the weight of his own body. It was pain to move his head, but Sean’s red-thatch twisted so his green eyes could see.
The pursuing Krak toppled against the black bricks beside Sean, his bald head making a dull sound. The usually impassive eyes were staring at Sean’s green orbs. There was pain and—was it defeat?—in them.
Every sinewy muscle in Sean’s body strained as he tried to get to his feet. So that was what the metal pack was for, he decided irrelevantly, an anti-gravity device. He threw his body toward it.
Before he reached it, however, Mike had picked it up, was strapping it haphazardly on his back. The tremendous weight lifted and he crawled to his feet.
“You were right after all,” Mike said, and there was a caress in it. “Laughter.”
Sean stood a long moment, looking at the fallen Kraks.
Sean began to chuckle, the chuckle drifted into laughter. It was true! Humanity had forgotten its greatest weapon.
“God,” said Mike softly. “Laughter did it. Laughter.” His dark eyes were staring at Sean. Then he, too, was laughing, joining his bass with Sean’s baritone.
Earthlings moved out of the laundry, their eyes wide. They, too, fired by the infectious roarings began to laugh. On the wings of the wind, the laughter spread, working its way building by building, street by street, block by block through the city, as other humans picked it up, flung it on joyfully.
And as the Earthly laughter bubbled and rolled through the sullen city of Karrar, Kraks died—only a few at first, but more and more as the bursts of laughter swelled and swelled until even the black and red stone echoed with it.
Mike O’Hara placed his big hand on Sean McKenna’s arm.
“You found the chink, Sean,” he said. “Was it the sound of the laughter? That doesn’t sound right.” He chuckled a little at the unexpected pun.
Sean grinned. “I know what you’re driving at, Mike. Laughter is scaled so low on the vibration scale that the Kraks must have encountered other vibrations of the same intensity at many times in the past. That it?”
Sean grinned impishly. “Laugh once, Mike, and listen to your laughter.” Mike laughed, his brow furrowed.
“No idea bloomed,” he said when he stopped laughing.
“Burlesque it,” Sean said. “Do it in slow motion.” He demonstrated. “Like this. Ha—ha—ha—ha.”
“Got it!” Mike exclaimed. “It’s not a single sound. It’s a series of them. It’s the old story of the soldiers crossing the bridge. It’s not each individual soldier; it’s the cadence. Not ha, but ha—ha—ha.”
“Like kicking at the lock of a door instead of pushing on it steadily to get it open; like chipping at a rock instead of trying to smash it with one blow—there’s a slough of analogies if we wanted to go on with it.”
“That one Krak muttered something about his ears,” Mike put in.
Sean nodded. “That, I think, marks the spot of their Achilles heel. They’re like us in many ways—but one difference apparently lies in their ears. I’ll get old Doc Perkins to dissect some of them.
“My own idea is that their balance canals are constituted differently somehow than ours. Those two Kraks gave all the appearance of being unable to maintain their balance. In us, those ear canals are gyroscopes. That’s why even blind persons are aware when they begin to deviate from an upright position.
“Both our canals of balance and those of the Kraks probably function the same way, but the extra gravity of this planet may have wrought the chink which we found. With study and experimentation we should find out for sure just what happens.” Sean stopped talking, gazed at the people around him who were laughing.
He felt his chest swelling with pride. Man was on the road back—back to Earth with its rolling green hills, its blue skies, its brown mountains, its myriad sounds and smells and sights. Man was going home with a weapon to cast out the invader.
He stood for a long time, Mike’s hand on his arm, watching these happy humans. Even the black and red of Karrar was softened by the joyous light in their clear unfilmed eyes.
Finally, Sean McKenna said,
“We have a new task, Mike. We’ve got to take them home.”
The sullen red sun dipped behind the black hills. The black mist of night flowed over the lowering sky dimming it, finally enveloping it. The black mist thickened, formed silently into the night sky with its countless planets, its myriad suns.
Somewhere in that star-scattered vastness is Earth, Sean McKenna thought.
Earth. And Maureen with the soft black hair and eyes that are blue flames.