Spider Men of Gharr
By WILBUR S. PEACOCK
Kimball Trent was the last hope of a ravaged Earth,
for locked in his mind were secrets that would
bring freedom to the Barbs. He lacked but one
thing to release the power of those secrets—the key
to the riddle of the blue monsters who could not die.
[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.]
At first there was only the cold, the Stygian inky iciness that held every muscle of his body in thrall and made his thoughts flow with the turgid slowness of treacly molasses. He could not open his eyes, nor could he move; and his mind slipped back into the darkness time and time again. He tried to think of who he was, or what he was, and there was no knowledge in his brain.
And then the heat came through to him, biting into his numbed flesh with the bitter sharpness of a naked yellow flame, drawing life to all his body, pressing back some of the velvet shadows from his mind.
“Kim,” he thought dazedly. “I’m Kim.”
And then his mind blanked out again, for how long, he did not know. But when he came to, he could open his eyes and see the faintest glimmer of sunlight coming through the split and ruptured earth, tiny dust motes floating in the golden streak.
“I’m Kim,” he thought again, and held onto the memory with a frantic desperation, frightened that it was the only reality he had.
He moved at last, screaming at the agony that surged with every movement, finally rolled into a sitting position. There was but the barest glint of light from the earth fault, and his eyes grew strained as he peered about.
He was in a cave, obviously artificial, for there were shelves loaded with dully-gleaming objects, and man-hewn blocks of stone lay upturned where great strangling roots squirmed into the air like monstrous scaly snakes.
He looked at himself.
His hands were talons now, for the nails were curled and twisted into tangled knots, and the flesh had not the resiliency or the strength to straighten the fingers. He bent his head, watched fabric disintegrate into dust on his emaciated body, then gasped. Great festoons of the dust had not powdered into nothingness, and he recognized that they were the swirls of beard that hung pendant from his chin. He straightened, mind trying to grasp what had happened, and the hair from his head swirled about his shoulders, rippling in undulant waves into the clump of tangled masses that lay at his side.
He tried to swallow, but his throat was dry, his tongue swollen. The terrible cold was still in him, and he shivered agonizingly for seconds. It was then he heard the sound of rilling water close at hand.
He crawled toward the sound, tangling hands and feet in the hair that grew so monstrously from his head, his fingernails scrabbling and clicking together like the whisperings of bare branches before a soft Winter breeze.
“I’m Kim,” he thought again, and drank with great slobbering noises from the narrow shallow stream that pierced one wall of the cave and vanished through the opposite.
Thirst slaked, he lay, gasping, like some spent animal, thoughts swelling and unfolding in his mind, creeping unbidden from dark recesses, stealing into the brightness of his consciousness.
“I’m Kim,” he thought. “Kimball Trent.”
He sat, groaning from the hurt that was in every muscle, methodically broke the twisted fingernails close to his finger tips, permitting his fingers to flex more freely, giving him hands once more instead of paws. He tried to break his heavy hair and beard the same way, but his strength was not enough for that, and he searched for something that would free him of the burden.
He found the knife almost where he had waked. The plastic haft was pitted with corrosion, and there was but a scrap of the incredibly hard steel left; but with it he managed to hack away his beard and hair, leaving both less than a foot long.
He felt a bit better now, some of the pain easing from his body, the tiny warm breeze slipping through the earth fault touching him and giving life to him in passing.
Standing, moving with agonizing slowness, he staggered toward the source of light, clawed at the sides of the fault. Earth crumbled beneath his hands, dropped about his bare feet. He fought the imbedded rocks, pulled them free, then scratched his way out of the cave, dragging himself into the sunlight, blinking against the radiance.
He lay on the velvety-smooth green grass, breathing deeply, his lean body etched with shadows as though it had received no sustenance for a long time. A redbird watched silently from the clump of green bushes at his side, then hopped fearlessly into cover again, trilling its warbling melody to the sky.
A squirrel chittered inquisitively from the limb of a towering tree, then flicked out of sight with a toss of its bushy tail. The breeze was warm and soothing, and Kimball Trent slept.
He awoke to sunlight again, stretching with the uneasy flexing of an animal, then snapped to awareness with a movement that almost brought him to his feet. Pain gushed through his body in red waves, and he sank back with a stifled groan.
And as though the pain had been a curtain before his brain, it parted, and he could think again.
He looked around, trying to adjust his memories to what he saw. He was in timber, great leafy trees towering over his head, the grass and bushes thick and green upon the ground. He saw the huge monolithic rock directly before him, and his mind could not comprehend what had happened.
Only yesterday there had been no trees; that rock had stood alone in the clearing he had made with axe and saw.
And even the rock had changed. Now the edges were not sharp and angular; now they were softened and worn, like a blocky cake of salt that had stood in the summer rain.
He rose to his feet, went to where the heavy metal door had been. It was gone, covered with soil, the earth matted with grass and flowers. He turned away, panic eating at his heart, walked to the earth fault through which he had burrowed like a worm.
Shuddering, he went into the hole, slipping, scrambling, stood upright in the darkness, adjusting his eyes to the lack of light. He saw the radi-flash on the stony floor, bent and clicked it on. The cone of yellow brilliance went twice about the chamber, came to the wheel that no longer turned before the surge of pressure from water rushing along its underground course.
He bent over it, marvelling at the wear that had come to the plastic hub, remembering how utterly indestructible it was. He allowed his gaze to travel along the refrigerating tubes that spider-webbed the ceiling and walls. They were dry, no longer coated with sheaths of hoar-frost. The air was still cold, though, and he shivered in his nakedness.
Then he saw the broken refrigerating pipe, and full knowledge of what had happened flooded his mind. He had been repairing the pipe, had just taken the first twist of the nut, when it had exploded in his face, cascading silvery liquid over his entire body—-liquid so perfectly heat-absorbent it froze anything and everything within a split second after contact.
Kimball Trent whimpered deep in his throat, appalled at the death that he had escaped by inches. Evidently the liquid had not more than brushed him in passing.
He turned to the shelves, reaching for the cans, kicking aside the heap of hair that touched his foot.
He broke the seal on the first can, placed it aside, feeling the heat burgeoning from the built-in cooking unit. Then he opened other cans, ripping away the plastic seals, gorging himself on the cold soups and ripe succulent vegetables. Partially sated, he opened the heated can, used the knife remnant as a fork with which to feed himself on the preserved beef and beans.
Satisfied, he breached a small cask of water, drank thirstily and avidly; then turned away. The radi-light cut brightness through the dark, and he went along the wall, removing covers from five radi-lights, glad that they were eternal. With shadows driven from the chamber, and with his belly fed, he felt more like a man and less like an animal.
The first door of the underground fortress stuck a bit, and he had to swing his weight against it. The portal swung open in a gushing of damp air, and automatically, he flicked the air-conditioning switch. Far away, deeper in the ground, machinery began to hum, and clean air began forcing out the bad.
Trent clicked on the ceiling lights, staring about the mammoth cavern as though he had never seen it before. It stretched so far away from him that his eyes could make out no details at the far end. Along one side, doors opened into the living quarters where more than ten thousand people were destined to live. Further back were the open kitchens where communal meals would be prepared; and still further back where his eyes could make out no detail were the machine shops where weapons to fight the Gharrians would be conditioned and manufactured.
He was smiling as he looked about; for this was his dream brought to realization by the wealth that had come to him from his father. His money had built this retreat, his money and the hands of a thousand men. Here, within this man-made cavern, would be the refuge for those people who escaped the ravages of the monsters whose sleek vicious ships had wiped New York and London and Berlin from the face of the Earth.
He went toward the great televisors, wondering how many stations still broadcast news of the holocaust that had come to the world. A frown tightened dark brows when he saw the dust that lay on the floor, became a scowl when he saw how it was heaped before the main receiver. He kicked at the dust, saw the signet ring that had fallen through it.
Bending, Kimball Trent lifted the gold ring, studied it. Doctor Boyliss had worn it the last time they had talked; it was strange that he should find it here.
He sat in the chair, switched on the main televisor, relaxed as warmth came from the screen, color glowing from green into violet, swirling into the indescribable shade of blue that gave the screen its three dimensional depth of focus.
His hand went to the “repeat” switch, flicked it.
“This is Doctor Boyliss speaking for the last time,” a familiar voice said tiredly from the speaker, while the screen showed no figure. “I have just escaped from the Gharrians, but the wound I have received is mortal, and I can live but moments.” There was only the sound of labored breathing for seconds, then the voice continued.
“Most of the leaders are dead, betrayed by spies; only three of us escaped the Gharrian’s last raid. Thompson and Fortney have elected to act as guides for the few of you who might escape the final series of raids. I hope that many of you are listening to these final words of mine.
“Kimball Trent is also dead, frozen to death by an explosion in the Refrigerator Room, Number One; therefore his knowledge must be replaced by the minds of those among you.”
A surge of terrible wracking coughing sounded, followed by the sobbing gasps of a man dying of an agonizing wound. Then:
“One final word. Fight the Gharrians, blast them from the face of Earth, drive them back into hell-space that spawned them. Battle them with every weapon and scheme within your power to use. My blessings upon all of you. Go with God—”
There was only the faintest of thudding sounds, and then silence.
Kimball Trent leaned back in the chair, twisting the ring over and over in his fingers, horror piling upon horror in his mind. His gaze flicked to the perpetual radi-calendar beside the screen, and he read the date, June 9, 2735.
He gasped, knowing now the answer to many things, his mind accepting the thought that he would not believe before, one that he had stifled with all his will because it was so fantastic. He shuddered, gaze racing about the crypt-stillness of the room, and fear knotted the muscles of his heart.
He knew now why his beard and hair had been so uncannily long and why his body had withered and grown emaciated through the passage of what had seemed a few hours. He knew now why the dust had been throughout the room, and he knew why the ring had been in the greater dust pile that lay before the screen.
He knew that he had been held in frozen thrall, had been kept miraculously alive, like a fish frozen in a block of ice, by the instantaneous freezing of his body by the refrigerant. He knew that the primitive water-wheel attached to the machinery of the refrigerating room had kept the room at a below zero temperature until it had stopped when the water flow had dropped below the wheel by slow degrees.
Yes, he had the answers to everything now.
This was June 2735—and the accident had befallen him in August 2210.
He had slept in frozen suspended animation for more than five hundred years.
He was alive, and the men and women with whom he had fought the Gharrians were dead and dust for centuries. He was alive, and the refuge he had built had never been used. He was alive—and alone.
Nine days had passed since Kimball Trent’s awakening. He was more alert now, the flat muscles of his body swelling again because of the rich solid food that he ate to replenish his strength. He had found razors and cream and had shaved, and with scissors he had given his unruly dark mane of hair a close cropping, leaving it only long enough that it did not drop over his eyes.
The nine days had been busy; for he had spent hours at the televisor, trying vainly to pick up any messages that might be sent by enemy or friend. He had found clothing still good in their air-tight lockers, had strapped on a flame gun automatically, still unable to make himself believe that five centuries had passed in the few short moments of eternity that he had been unconscious.
He stood now before the televisor, turning off the visual screen, cutting in the automatic relay that would record any scene or message that came through in his absence. He knew that none would arrive; but there was in his heart something that would not admit total defeat.
He shrugged the small food pack into a more comfortable position on his wide shoulders, lifted the radi-needle gun and looped it from his right shoulder by the sling. Slowly, then with greater determination, he began to walk to the door that led to the refrigerator room.
He entered the room, climbed through the earth fault to the outside, carefully replacing the camouflage mat he had made to cover the entrance. Standing straight and tall in the warm sunlight, he checked his wrist compass, then paced lightly forward through the trees.
His strength was almost fully returned now, and he walked with the lithe grace of an Indian, slipping through the underbrush and foliage with but the barest of sounds to mark his passing. Light trickled through the trees, caressed his back, brought perspiration to his forehead. His face was hard and grim, and his eyes keen, as he searched the woods about for the slightest of signs that would betoken a hidden watcher.
His shadow walked before him, sliding through other shadows, then standing out bold and deep in the sunlit places. The webbing of his chest harness pressed against the rippling muscles of his flesh, and the flame pistol bounced slightly on his hip with every step.
He checked his compass again, then turned due south, cutting through the timber, finding open fields two miles further where the walking was much easier. Rabbits sat in curious wide-eyed watchfulness as he walked through the waving green grass that carpeted the fields, but he gave them no heed, his eyes watching the skies for signs of a crimson ship.
He was a stranger in his native land. Land contours seemed different now, since the timber had come up unheeded. The old roads and paths that he had walked as a boy and man were gone, absorbed through the passing of years. He traveled entirely by compass, swinging to the east after two hours of hard traveling.
The smell of water came to the air, cloying it with dampness, making it somehow fragrant. A hundred yards further, and he was on the bank, gazing across the muddy flood. He turned to his right, and far ahead was New York.
He swore then, cursing in the tight voice of a man who feels a hurt so deeply that it is a physical pain. His hands clenched at his sides, and the muscles of his chest glided upward against the straps.
There was no superb skyline now; gone were the gleaming white spheres and golden columns and blocky marble and plastic shafts that were famous the world over. No smoke hung high in the sky over the city; only a few white clouds floated in graceful indifference where great strato-liners had flashed on pinions of gushing rocket flames.
There was a skyline, yes, but it hugged the ground, and it was only the skeleton of the greatest city on earth. Even from where he stood, Kimball Trent could see that buildings had toppled one against the other when the concussion guns of the Gharrians had roared their song of death.
Kimball Trent began to walk with great ground-eating strides. He could see where the supports of the great bridges were on either bank further south; but the spans had been blown away, and he knew that to cross the river would mean swimming or constructing some kind of raft on which to float and paddle.
Instinctively, he unslung his rifle, held it in both hands, the prescience of danger a cold and clammy hand that squeezed his heart and tightened the nerves in his rangy body.
He came to a cut-back, where water had washed a deep gully to the river. He had stepped from the bushes and poised on the edge.
Then he saw the girl.
She was trapped, huddling back against the base of the far wall, slender hands outspread at either side, wide terrified eyes watching the alien monstrosity stalk her with a dreadful calmness. She wore a belted skirt of soft leather, laced sandals and a tight halter of blue leather. Red-gold hair hung in a cloud of brilliance about her shoulders, swirled, as she turned.
She made no outcry, all of her attention on the beast that stalked her with heavy mincing steps.
Kimball Trent swore softly, lifted his gun, then let it sag in futility. Only too well did he know how invulnerable these Gharrians were to any weapon Earthmen had devised. Radi-needles could not penetrate their steel-hard hide, and high-explosives merely bounced them about, apparently doing no damage at all.
They were squat, almost apelike in build, except that they had a double chest, ending in two pairs of arms. A single eye peered lidlessly from the head-like protuberance on the shoulders that made them weirdly humanlike in appearance. Pad feet without toes carried them on legs that had no knee joints. And their skin was the slaty bright blue of sea water thirty feet down.
Kimball Trent saw the Gharrian before the girl, and horror was in his eyes. He lifted his rifle automatically again, and hell raved for a brief second as he shot a full clip at the beast. The Gharrian did not turn, apparently did not notice the attack.
But not the girl. She lifted her head, violet eyes widening in features browned by the sun, and her hands make quick gestures.
“Run!” she cried.
The Gharrian plodded forward, multi-fingered hands outspread to take the girl. He gave no heed to the cry, for his race had no speech, and apparently no hearing.
Kimball Trent, cocked the gun to explosives, wondering if he could blow the monster to bloody fragments, then shook his head, knowing that such was impossible. He was held in thrall by the sheer bravery of the golden girl, for there could be but one ending to the drama.
“Run to your left,” he ordered, swung the gun up again.
The girl darted to one side like a flame-haired wraith, going unquestioningly toward the blank end of the gully, pressing against the rocky wall. Her eyes followed every movement of the man on the gully’s edge.
And even the Gharrian seemed to sense Trent’s presence now; for it turned with a ponderous deadly smoothness, one hand dipping for the square box dangling on a waist cord. Its single eye was as coldly emotionless as that of a cobra.
Kimball Trent fired five times, bracing himself against the concussions, blowing away the center of the cliff that towered twenty feet above the Gharrian’s head. And on the fifth shot, even as the monster from outer space began to move with sudden speed for safety, the embankment collapsed, burying him beneath tons of earth.
Trent fired three feet above the Gharrian’s head.
“Here!” Trent called, but the girl was already running toward him, scrambling up the sloping bank at his side of the gully.
He reached out to give her a hand, and she caught his in a grip that was remarkably strong. Below, noise filled the gully, and dirt blasted upward from the slide. The Gharrian was blowing himself free with his concussor box.
“This way,” the girl said, and began to run.
She raced toward the river, scrambled down the bank, going directly toward a large log at the bank. Trent followed, sliding and slipping, beginning to breathe hard from the unaccustomed exertion.
“Wait,” he called. “He’ll see us swimming.”
Then wonder came to his mind; for the girl had bent and swung back the top of the log, showing the interior of a crudely camouflaged canoe. She scrambled into it, beckoning for him to follow, and he stepped in, helped close the lid over their heads.
“We’re safe now,” the girl breathed, touched a single lever at her head. A slight humming came from somewhere, and motion came to the canoe, and there was the slightest sensation of movement.
Kimball Trent bent his head to one side, peered through a line of tiny holes that pierced the side of the canoe. He grinned tightly, seeing the dirt-clotted figure of the Gharrian come slowly into sight on the river bank. The monster searched the water for a second, then turned and went toward the woods with an implacable slowness that was all the more terrifying because of the utter lack of speed.
Trent looked ahead at the girl, barely making her out in the semi-gloom of the camouflaged canoe. Her eyes were on his features, and they did not waver at his stare.
“Who are you, Barb, that you stand against the Masters, and what manner of weapons are those you carry?” she asked.
Trent shook his head slightly, missing some of the words because of the queer manner she had in her syllabication and pronunciation. Then he grinned, remembering that this was not the past, and that language would have changed considerably during the five centuries of his enforced entombment.
“I do not know what you mean by ‘Barb,'” he said. “My name is Kimball Trent, and the weapons are—well, weapons.”
“You speak strangely,” the girl said slowly. “Where are you from—Giland, or Connet, or where?”
Trent studied the question for a moment, then understanding came to his eyes. “You mean Long Island and Connecticut?” he asked.
The girl shrugged, brushed soft hair back from a smooth forehead. “Once they were called that, I think,” she admitted.
Trent shook his head. “I came from the woods,” he said. “Who are you, and how did you get mixed up with that Gharrian?” he finished.
“I am Lura, of the tunnels of York. I was hunting, when the Master trapped me.” She smiled, and gratitude was in her voice. “I thank you, Barb,” she finished.
“Of course—Barbarian, Barbar, Barb—whatever you like.”
She notched the lever more, and the canoe swayed slightly from the increasing speed, water slapping brightly against the wooden sides. Trent watched her graceful movements, saw the swell of her breasts, the long clean lines of her body.
“So the world is conquered,” he mused, half aloud.
Anger came to Lura’s fine features, and her hand dropped to the knife at her waist. “I do not like joking about the world,” she said stiffly. “The world is not conquered, not while any of us free people live.”
Kimball Trent shifted to a more comfortable position. “I meant no joke,” he apologized, while thoughts ran with quicksilver speed in his mind. “I do not know,” he added. “I fell but a few days ago and hurt my head. I cannot remember many things.”
Contrition came to her voice. “The magician will bleed you,” she said, “and the reader will heal your mind.”
Suspicion hardened the girl’s voice again, and the knife came clear of the sheath. Her gaze locked with his, and her words came softly one upon the other.
“You know too little and too much,” she said. “I think the Elder will talk with you.”
Kimball Trent shrugged, relaxed, while the girl sent the canoe through the water. Events were transpiring a little too fast for him, and his mind could not assimilate the facts as fast as they were produced.
People still lived, that was obvious, even though the world had been conquered. But they were not the kind of people he had known. If this girl were representative of her people, then they knew nothing of weapons, that is, the type he had; and in all probability her reference to the magician and the reader meant that they had reverted almost to a primitive form of social life.
He saw no particular reason to trust the slim girl, even though his senses were stirred by her wild litheness. For seconds, he had almost blurted out the knowledge that was his, intending to tell her of the underground cavern. Then caution and common sense came to his mind, and he said nothing, watching her through slitted eyes.
She was conscious of his gaze, of that he was aware. But now suspicion lay in her eyes, and her hand was close to the slim knife at her side, as she guided the slim canoe through the blue water toward the nearing bank.
“Do not move, Barb,” the girl said coldly, “else you shall feel my knife in your ribs.”
Kimball Trent smiled to himself. “I shall not move,” he said evenly. “I know my limitations.”
The canoe grated against sand, and the girl threw the cover back. Trent blinked in the sunlight, then came to his feet, watched amusedly as the girl gestured with her knife for him to lead the way. Catching up his rifle, he slung it over his shoulder, then stepped from the canoe, watched as she camouflaged it again as a log.
“Through there,” she ordered, pointed ahead.
They did not speak, for the time of speaking lay in the future. Behind them, a soulless monster was searching the brush with a blind patience that had conquered a world; and for all they knew he might have signalled more of his kind to come and aid him in his search.
He went ahead, not absolutely certain of where he was, climbing the sloping bank, going toward the edge of the trees ahead. He saw the rustle in the bushes, froze at half-step, hand going to the pistol at his hip.
“Brok!” Lura said softly. “Go back toward the water—slowly, and maybe it will not attack.”
But Kimball Trent had his flame gun in his hand now and was going forward, placing each foot carefully, ready for instant action. And on the fourth step, he gasped, felt the blood freeze in his veins.
It came through the bush with the gliding grace of a cat. And it was feline, too, in a way, with the gaping mouth and fangs of a saber-tooth tiger. But there the resemblance ended. Six clawed legs carried it forward, and scales glittered like the skin of a diamondback rattlesnake. Pupilless eyes, like polished red marbles stared unwinkingly, and the hissing sound from the beast’s throat was like the escaping of steam.
“Brok,” Lura called again. “Do not move, Barb.”
But Kimball Trent’s hand was already coming up, leveling the flame gun. And even as the gun swung into position, the brok came hurtling forward in a fluid drive of ruthless destruction.
He came squarely into the raving cone of orange flame that gushed from the pistol, came smashing into it, and a scream of agony keened high at the bright blue sky. For nothing alive could withstand the awful violence of that ravening energy; only one creature, the Gharrian, had been able to live through its devouring power.
It died in midleap, and Kimball Trent stepped aside so that its hurtling body would not touch him. He turned the flame on the smouldering corpse, destroyed it with the full power of the gun. Then, grey faced, he looked at Lura.
“What manner of man are you?” she whispered. “You battle the Masters and their stalking broks; you use weapons the like of which I have never heard. Are you a God?”
Trent smiled, shaken a bit by the sincere simplicity of the girl’s question, then shook his head.
“I am a man,” he answered gently. “Now let us go and talk with the one you call ‘the Elder.'”
Lura looked at the knife still gripped in her fingers, and a flush of color tided upward from her throat when her gaze went to the two guns carried by Trent. Wordlessly, she sheathed the blade.
She led the way now, going into the thickest part of the timber, gliding through the most tangled of the thickets with a careless familiar grace. Kimball Trent followed more clumsily, tripping despite his natural skill, scratching himself on sharp brambles. Minutes flicked away, grew into an hour, and he knew that he was approaching the city. They crossed roads now, cement blocks cracked by rain and winter ice, bright flowers and green grasses springing upward through the cracks.
Everywhere was bleak desolation. They passed holes in the ground that had once been basements. Walls still stood in other places, and further on, a great stone fence wound gracefully about what had been a private park.
Rubble came to the ground, the crushed remains of towering buildings blasted to bits by the Gharrians’ concussors. Here and there, shards of indestructible plastic poked toward the sky to mark where vehicles had collapsed and dusted away in the course of centuries.
They came at last to a mighty stack of ruptured stone and plastics. Lura picked her way over the rubble, then dropped into a small hole, beckoning for Trent to follow. He came cautiously up the pile of stone, hand close to his gun, feeling his nerves crawl, now that he was close to his destination. This was not the situation he had planned five hundred—he grinned wryly—years ago.
Then he sat, dangled his feet into the hole, dropped through.
Lura steadied him, and he stood upright, his head almost even with the ceiling of stone blocks. Light came through the interstices, and he could see that the girl was urging him toward a blank wall of grey plastic fifty feet away.
He walked slowly, conscious of being watched, eyes tightening when he saw the girl give a tapping signal to the wall. Then a door pivoted open, and three men were covering him with needle-sharp spears.
“Kill him,” Lura cried. “He’s a Gharrian spy!”
Kimball Trent was already moving, swinging to one side, the flame gun fitting snugly into the palm of his hand. There was no laughter in his eyes now, nor no friendliness in his heart. He felt a sympathy for the girl; but the die had been cast, and he must play out the role.
“Don’t make me kill you,” he said briefly.
The leader of the trio laughed aloud, the sound rocking from wall to wall of the weird hole in the fallen masonry. He came lightly forward, blond hair gleaming, great muscles rippling over his superb body. He carried himself with the grace of a dancer, the spear held crosswise in his hands, ready for instant action at any angle.
“Ho!” he said. “The traitor is mine.”
Flame roared from Kimball Trent’s gun, and the iron shaft of the blond giant’s spear melted and dripped in splattering white-hot globules where the energy touched.
Low cries of fear whirled from the other two men, and the blond stared stupidly at his useless spear, dropped it as the heat crept along the haft. He stared at Trent, and no fear was in his eyes; only a growing respect and hate.
“Traitor!” he snarled, came driving in.
Trent went spinning to one side, slipping in the way that all army men were trained, then chopped with a cool calculating skill at the base of the giant’s neck with the pistol butt. The giant dropped inertly, and Kimball Trent faced Lura and the spearmen again.
“One!” he said grimly. “The next to attack me dies. Now take me to the Elder.”
There was a shadow in the doorway that materialized into the figure of a man. “I am the Elder, Barb,” he said. “Who are you?”
He was tall, the loose robe hanging straight from lean shoulders, his thin features stern as he gazed at the scene. His hands were empty, yet they gave a sense of power to him, for the fingers were long and tapering, the palms broad. He watched Trent quietly through eyes that gave the uncanny impression of seeing much and retaining all.
He stepped from the doorway, stood waiting quietly, pale eyes appraising the man from the past, features tightening in puzzled memory, as though he was trying to recall someone he had seen before.
“He is a spy, Elder,” Lura cried. “He appeared from nowhere, overcame a Master, and slew a brok. He carries weapons such as only the Masters have—and he has a double name.”
“My name is Trent, Kimball Trent,” Trent said evenly. “I was searching for anyone alive—”
The blond giant stirred at his feet, moaned, then came groggily to his feet. He blinked dazed eyes, saw Trent, instantly fell to a half-crouch, hands knotting into blocky fists.
“Enough, Korm,” the Elder snapped, and the giant relaxed.
The tension was easing now, dispersed by the calmness of the Elder. Quietly, Trent holstered his flame gun, then crossed his arms, stood quietly waiting for the old man to speak.
“I have seen you somewhere before,” the Elder said, “and your double name is familiar in the depths of my mind.” His voice changed subtly, grew desperately grim. “What do you here?” he finished.
“Let us talk somewhere else,” Trent said. “I shall be glad to tell my story then.”
The Elder nodded, turned and stepped through the door. Kimball Trent followed, the remaining four coming directly after. The blond giant touched a stud on the wall, and the door came softly closed, mantling all with sable darkness.
Light swelled in a pale nimbus from a wall lamp, and they began walking down a narrow tunnel. Sweat dripped from the walls, and the air was coldly damp. Their feet made rasping noises, and the sound of their breathing was abnormally loud. They did not speak, but Kimball Trent was aware of their coldly appraising looks, and the skin of his back crawled when he remembered the razor-sharp spears couched in capable hands.
The lights flickered out of being behind, new ones coming on, as they walked, leaving them in a perpetual cocoon of brilliance, making the darkness a velvet wall eternally pressing in. Close at hand light speared suddenly from a side tunnel, and the Elder led the way into it, halted at the side of a low mono-wheel car that rested on a single plastic track.
He waited until all had seated themselves in the car, then stepped into the front, touched a series of studs. Vibration came from a concealed motor, and the mono-wheel car slipped into whining speed almost instantly.
The walls whirred by, and the air was a solid blast against their faces. Kimball Trent turned slightly as the car sped along, watching the faces, nerves tightening at the suspicion and distrust that held all in thrall.
He gave his attention to the machine in which they rode, saw that it was a model but slightly better than the ones to which he had been accustomed. The plastic air-shield had been removed for some reason, otherwise the passengers could have carried on a conversation in normal tones.
The tunnel wound through the ground like the home of a worm, slipping through mazes of interlocking tracks, automatic relays making certain that the car was not shunted into the path of an approaching vehicle. But they met no other cars; there was a sense of death and desolation in the tunnels and depots.
The car began to slow, the walls firming at either side, and came at last to a stop at a single platform on which stood three men armed with knives and spears. They were dressed as were his captors, in loose robes, which they apparently wore against the chill of their underground retreat.
They saluted as the car came to a stop, stepped forward, weapons levelled, when they saw Trent.
“A prisoner, Elder,” the first said respectfully.
The Elder shook his head. “A friend,” he said gently.
Kimball Trent stepped to the platform, stretched his hand to help Lura, flushed when she ignored his hand and came from the vehicle without aid. The others ranged themselves at his back; and the tension was in the group again.
“This way,” the Elder said. “We shall talk in my room.”
“Elder, his weapons!” Korm said briefly.
Kimball Trent shrugged, lifted his guns free, handed them to the giant who took them with gingerly respect.
“Do not experiment with them,” Trent advised.
Korm grinned wryly, laid them on the platform. “I want nothing to do with them,” he said grimly.
Then the Elder and Kimball Trent were going through the open door, the others remaining behind. They followed a short lighted tunnel carved through living rock, turned aside into a single room.
“I make you welcome,” the Elder said.
Kimball Trent gazed curiously about, seeing the crudeness of the furnishings; the room was furnished like that of an ascetic, not like the home of the leader of some group. It had a spartan simplicity in the plastic furniture, the bare walls white and unmarked.
Kimball Trent chose a chair at the side of a table, waited until the Elder had seated himself and pushed what appeared to be some sort of signal button.
A young man, brown-haired and athletic, came through the door, nodded in greeting, stared curiously at Trent. He walked slowly to the table, bent his head in tribute.
“Valur, this is Kimball Trent, a newcomer,” the Elder said. “We shall listen to his story.” He turned to Trent. “Valur is the Reader; it is he who knows the past and who is the keeper of the books.”
“I make you welcome,” Valur said quietly, eyes wise beyond his years calmly studying the well-knit body of Trent.
“Your story?” the Elder prompted gently.
Kimball Trent began to speak. He told of his awakening, of his rescue of Lura, of his being brought to the tunnels. He saw the skepticism in the Elder’s eyes, was conscious of the probing of his statements by Valur. He told nothing of the fortress that had stayed untenanted for five centuries, told only that he had been buried in a cave, and had come miraculously alive.
Finished, he relaxed against the chair back, waited for the questions. He could feel the perspiration on his forehead, for he sensed the mettle of the men, knew that he would not leave the underground alive if they believed him to be a spy of the Gharrians.
“What think you?” the Elder asked Valur.
Valur seated himself directly before Trent. “You claim to be a Kimball Trent?” he asked.
“Yes,” Trent said.
“There was once a Kimball Trent who fought the Masters when first they came. He was the friend of a man called Doctor Boyliss, and one of the first leaders of the fight against the Masters.”
“I’m the one,” Kimball Trent said grimly.
“You will submit to a neuro test?”
Valur strode to a side door, entered, returned with a small neurograph machine. He clamped cables to the arms, legs and head of Trent, adjusted dials, then began his questioning. For minutes he talked, both he and the Elder studying the dials. Slowly, amazement came to their faces, excitement flickering in their eyes. At last, they freed the cables, and Trent relaxed.
“Satisfied?” he asked.
“One more test,” Valur said, left the room.
Kimball Trent smiled at the Elder. “My story must sound utterly insane,” he said.
“It does,” the Elder said noncommittally.
Then Valur was back, gently carrying a plasti-book, opening it as he came. He spread the book on the table, opening it to a group picture, indicating one man. He took a small box from a pocket in his robe, made prints of Trent’s fingerprints.
“It is he,” he said at last, pushing the book and prints aside.
There was silence then, the Elder and Valur studying the man before them with awe-filled eyes. Trent shifted uncomfortably.
“Now, suppose you tell me your story?” he asked.
The Elder nodded. “There are about three thousand of us Barbs beneath the city. Our ancestors fought the Masters, hiding like beasts beneath the ground, never finding the weapons that would rid the Earth of the Gharrians. We do nothing now but live and hope, sometimes making raids on the breeding stations, trying to free those who would escape.” Weariness came to his voice. “The breeders lack spirit now, after centuries of slavery; usually they will not run, even when their devil-wires are broken.”
“Devil-wires?” Trent asked.
Valur explained. “They slay at a touch, and when broken, they snap and spit yellow flames.”
Valur shrugged. “I have read the word, but it means nothing to me.”
Kimball Trent gestured at the lights. “Those lights and the mono-wheel car; they are both somewhat electrical in nature.”
The Elder shook his head. “We know how none of the things work that we use. We find them, and sometimes they do certain things; when they cease to function, we forget them. None of us have the knowledge to maintain or repair them.”
Kimball Trent nodded. He saw now many things that he had not understood before. He had seen primitive spears and a car that ran by atomilect power, had seen one man who could read and others to whom reading was a mystery not to be fathomed by ordinary men. He had seen the intelligence that gleamed in his captors’ eyes, and yet they had thought him a superman because he had slain one of the Gharrians’ hunting broks with a flame gun.
“I can repair them,” he said at last. “But first, I must know how you live, and the machines upon which you live.”
The Elder came lithely to his feet. “We shall show you all,” he said, faint hope flickering in his voice. “You will find conditions much changed from those you knew.” He smiled. “Later, you shall tell us of your world.”
He led the way into the tunnel, sent a guard for Trent’s weapons. Kimball Trent fitted them onto his shoulder and hip again, then strode down the tunnel at the side of his two guides.
“You spoke of breeding stations,” he said as they walked. “What did you mean?”
Muscles knotted in Valur’s jaws. “They are breeding stations,” he said. “For almost five centuries the Gharrians have forced Earth to supply slaves for them. Great depots are made into slave camps, and the children born are carried in the crimson ships into space. We never see them again.”
There was hate in Kimball Trent again, the surging twisting of emotions that had driven him in the days he had fought the monsters from infinity. It had lain dormant the last few days, stifled by his thoughts of the centuries he had slept, smothered by his fear that the world was dead and he alive. Now, knowing the way in which men lived on their planet, the hate came alive again, and he could feel the muscles of his body swelling against his harness.
“And nothing can be done?” he asked.
“Nothing!” Valur shook his head. “The Masters cannot be slain, and they hunt us like animals with their broks. We try now only to stay alive, praying for a miracle.” His eyes swung to Trent. “It may be that you are that miracle.”
Kimball Trent flushed, feeling helpless and naked and impotent. “We fought,” he said, “and our weapons were of no avail. The men who might have devised new weapons are all dead, and I do not have the knowledge for manufacturing along new lines of thought.”
The Elder’s voice was gentle. “We shall win,” he said. “We shall win eventually, for men were never meant to crawl as animals.” His voice changed. “We shall call you ‘Trent’,” he finished, “and say that you are a Barb from Connet, for my people will not believe the tale you tell. Or if they did believe, they might think you a superman, and that would not be good.”
The light of an entrance ahead came into view as they rounded a corner in the tunnel. They could hear voices; and the odors of cooking came on the faint breeze. Trent shivered suddenly. This was not the way that he thought the world would be. Never in even his wildest dreams had he thought Earth could be conquered. Now it was so, and the future was a hopeless thing, Earthmen fighting with feather-weapons against the invulnerable armor of the Gharrians.
They stepped from the tunnel, and Lura joined them from where she stood with Korm and another man. Her gaze was level and inscrutable as she studied Trent’s face.
“Did he lie?” she asked.
“He spoke the truth,” the Elder said evenly.
Lura smiled then, and the warmth of her smile was like the soothing fingers of a Summer breeze stroking Trent’s features.
“I am glad,” she said simply. “One who faces a Master and his brok should be one of us.” She beckoned to Korm. “You fought once; now meet as friends.”
Korm grinned, held out his hand. “My sister told me of how you saved her; I am your friend.” He tensed the muscles of his proud neck, winced instinctively. “Some time you must show me that fighting trick; never before have I been bested in battle.”
“Any time,” Kimball Trent said.
“Come,” Valur said. “Light talk shall wait until later.”
Kimball Trent turned to follow his guides, conscious of the slim girl at his side, wondering how any woman could be so fearlessly reliant and so feminine at the same time. He glanced at the blond giant, saw the knowing look that came to the grey eyes when they went from him to Lura, and hotness flooded upward from his throat.
He turned his attention to the Elder. “What first?” he asked. “My people,” the Elder said simply.
Together, they began their tour.
Three weeks had passed since Kimball Trent’s arrival. At first, he had met doubt and suspicion from the inhabitants of the tunnels beneath the rubble of New York. His manner of speech was odd, as were his weapons, his clothing and his knowledge. But gradually, he had been accepted by the majority of those he had met through the Elder.
The dwellers of the underground caverns were a strange admixture of modern and primitive cultures. None but the Elder, the Reader and his acolytes could read or write. They knew nothing of the past except what the Reader gave to them from his books, or what the Singers gave to them in their songs of legend.
They had been cleaved into three classes: workers, warriors and growers, each with its distinct duties, each contributing to the welfare of the whole. The warriors were the hunters of wild game and the protectors of their homes; the workers kept everything used in as good repair as they were capable of doing, except upon the mechanical machines and contrivances of which they had no knowledge either inherited or acquired. The growers were the food gardeners and flock tenders, utilizing their skill in abandoned subway tubes where gardens grew fabulously beneath the radi-lights studding the walls, and where various food and milk animals and food fowls were kept in penned-in tunnels.
Over all were the Elder and his council of five. They ruled by election of the people, and so kindly and wise had been their rule that never had one been deposed except by death. They studied the old books, sent parties searching on great journeys in efforts to contact other groups of men and women hidden from the invaders. They made the laws that were needed, interpreted them, and meted out what punishment was necessary. Major crimes were unknown, for the knowledge had been bred into generation after generation that life could only be maintained by absolute dependence upon each other.
This was the society that Kimball Trent found beneath the earth, one that amazed and embittered him; for in his mind was the world that had been his, one of freedom of movement and thinking, with only the coming of the Gharrians to mar the peace that had seemed eternal.
He found a great admiration, too, for the people of the caverns. Never had he heard grumbling among them, always there had been soft laughter. And always had there been, deep beneath their mannerisms, that steel-like will that would never bow beneath the weird tyrants.
For the first week, he had done little more than meet the men and women and children, acquainting himself with their way of living, measuring them against his memories of those who had fought at his side five hundred years before. He had felt the bite of conscience, remembering the fortress that lay hidden but a few hours away from these tunnel homes; but he kept the knowledge to himself, not certain that these people were what they claimed to be in actuality.
In the second week, he began his repairing of the machines that lay abandoned where they had fallen into disuse. He grinned at the sounds of amazement made by Lura and Korm, his constant companions, as he replaced wiring and reset the atomic burners so that machines would work and run again. To him the repairing was as simple as the setting of a watch, for the machines had been almost indestructible and foolproof when they were built. They had needed but to have certain small parts replaced, and the atomic vibrators replenished with fuel; but to Lura and Korm the sudden working of machines discarded long before they were born was little short of miraculous.
Kimball Trent had explained as he repaired, showing the simplicity of every machine, indicating how many others could be repaired and maintained. Korm had grasped the knowledge with a natural skill, had elected himself to instruct others in the ‘mechanic’ art. Lura had been more slow, mechanics not her natural bent, but she retained what she learned, and demonstrated it on several occasions.
There had been other long hours, too, spent in talks with the Elder and the Council of Five. In them, he had told of the past, had explained the manner in which people lived, had told of the religions and the work and the miracles of machinery that made living comfortable and easy of accomplishment. He had used his smattering of several foreign languages to open dusty books to the inquiring mind of the Readers, had given knowledge that would raise the standard of living of the cavern dwellers.
In return, he had learned that colonies were scattered over the world, underground cities where tens of thousands of free men lived and died, waiting for the day when the Earth would be delivered of the monsters that held it in an iron grip of tyrannical mastery.
He had made his decision to disclose the location of the underground fortress, with its weapons and facilities for living in comfort. He knew now that these were his people, even though they had come five centuries after him. Within them burned the flame that motivated him, and he sensed that within them might lie the salvation of the world.
He was finishing the repairing of a water pump, when first he heard the excited voice of Korm calling from nearby. Straightening, wrench in hand, he waved an answer, waited until the blond giant had come to his side.
“Your guns, Trent,” Korm said breathlessly. “We make a raid today.”
“A raid? Where?”
“At the south of York. Spies have brought information that new prisoners have been brought to the encampment; they will be more than willing to escape. And perhaps others may come, too.”
The thrill of the words swept through Kimball Trent’s mind, surged hot blood into his temples. He dropped the wrench, caught up his guns from where they lay beside the pump.
“How many are going?” he asked.
“A few,” Korm answered, setting the pace toward a small group waiting beside a tunnel mouth.
“Hurry,” a voice called clearly.
“Lura!” Kimball Trent said. “Surely you’re not letting her go along.”
Korm frowned. “Of course,” he said. “She is good with knife and spear; she has been on many raids.”
“But she is a woman!”
Korm shrugged. “That is good; she will influence the female breeders to escape.”
Then they were at the edge of the group, and Korm was introducing the five men and two women. Valur and Lura, Trent had already met. He shook hands with Frong, a jovial red-haired giant almost as huge as Korm. Neela, the second woman smiled shyly in greeting, clung hand to hand with her dark-skinned husband, Matt. Nels and Parb, the last two men, nodded silent greetings, their strong hands caressing the spears they carried.
They had discarded the tunnel-robes, were dressed now in chest harnesses hung with knives, and in brief leather skirts that came halfway down their thighs. Sandals protected their feet and ankles.
“Come,” Korm said, led the way into the side tunnel.
They walked the length of the tunnel, entered a large mono-wheel car, Korm sending it speeding down the single track. The walls blurred from the speed, and conversation was impossible for the fifteen minutes of the ride.
This was the first time that Kimball Trent had travelled in this direction from the tunnel city. He prodded his memory, trying to recall details of the city, recognizing Grand Central Air Terminal, and farther on the tubes that had been used by ground traffic and the underground trains to reach New Jersey. But after that, he recognized no stations or details; evidently the tunnels had been built after he had been frozen in the fortress.
Korm touched studs on the control panel, brought the car to a sliding stop. “We go no farther by car,” he said quietly. “Follow me, and be careful to make no sound; broks might be around.”
He stepped to the small platform at the right of the car, gently eased open a small door, went through the black opening. Lura followed on his heels, and after her came Trent and the rest of the party.
They followed a dank sloping repair tunnel, slipping on the mossy damp flooring, going toward the faint glimmer of light a hundred feet ahead. Korm hissed for silence at the end, carefully parted the fringe of camouflaging bushes, searched the landscape for signs of hidden watchers. Satisfied, he slipped into the open, gave a helping hand to Lura. Within seconds, all stood within the cover of a thick growth of trees and bushes.
“This way,” Korm whispered.
They squirmed through the brush, taking care to make no sound, keen eyes searching everywhere about. Kimball Trent felt the tension mounting unconsciously in his heart, felt the cold sheen of sweat on his body. He gripped the rifle with nervous hands, felt a bit of relief when Lura flashed him a brief warm smile. Somehow, they were very close at the moment.
“There!” Korm said at last, squatted behind a bush.
Kimball Trent saw the building first, towering like the round silo of a Midwestern farmer, slotted windows strips of black against the gleaming red surface of seamless plastic. His gaze drifted to the ground, and muscles bulged along his back.
There were people there, herded together in a great wire pen. There were men and women and children; and even from a distance, Trent could see the hate and fear and despair that tortured every face.
He scowled unbelievingly when he saw the guards. They were metal men, robots, stalking steady guard duty a few feet outside of the wire enclosure. They were weird caricatures of men, quartz eyes staring straight ahead, concussor boxes dangling from waist cords, tiny puffs of dust spurting with each step of their flat mechanical feet.
Kimball Trent shook his head. He had heard nothing of the robots, had never seen them when first he fought the Gharrians. Evidently they had been created after the world had been conquered. Now they walked in deadly silence, a menace against which an unarmed man would have no chance at all.
A man died, even as Trent watched. He cried his hate and raced toward the fence, leaping high so as to clamber over it with catlike speed and agility. Trent felt the unheard warning coming from his chest, stifled it, even as electricity crackled and writhed along the figure of the man and dropped him in a smouldering blackened heap onto the ground.
No sound came from the prisoners; they stared in dull hate, as the nearest robot ignored the crackling electricity and pulled the body below the lowest strand of wire. Dragging the corpse by the legs, the robot soullessly pulled it toward a shallow ditch, dumped it in, then again began its endless patrol.
“The inhuman beasts!” Lura cried softly, tears in her eyes.
A Gharrian came from the base of the tower, walking with its ponderous smoothness, the single eye glittering in the sunlight. There was something obscene and deadly about its deliberate stalking of the prisoners huddled within the enclosure.
Its long multi-fingered arms were like writhing tentacles, as it singled out a man and woman, capturing them before they could move. Three men hurled themselves at its broad back, beating insanely with their fists. A robot came rushing in, battered them free, then beat them into unconsciousness with mailed feet. The Gharrian turned, stalked toward the tower, dragging the man and woman with an unconscious incredible ease. It was like a blue monster from hell dragging two victims to some hideous sacrifice.
“Where?” Kimball Trent breathed.
Korm shrugged. “We’re not certain,” he said. “One escaped prisoner said that, in the tower, tests are made of their mentality and fertility.” His great hands knotted about the heavy spear shaft. “Some day I shall enter that tower, and all hell shall not stop my destroying every Master therein!”
Then the passion was gone from his voice, and he was their leader again. “Matt, Nels, Parb,” he ordered. “Go around to the other side and create a diversion. We shall tear down the fence from this side.”
The three men nodded and were gone like drifting shadows. Korm opened the small bundle Frong, the red-haired giant, handed him, disclosing several plastic ropes, gang-hooks attached to one end of each. He distributed the ropes to Valur, Frong and himself. Trent watched intently, as they fitted the spears to the hooked end of the ropes.
“Is this your plan?” he asked quietly.
Korm nodded shortly, testing a knot with heavy fingers.
Kimball Trent lifted his rifle. “I can blow the fence to pieces with a couple of shots?” he said.
“No!” Lura laid a slim hand on the rifle barrel. “We want no more noise than necessary. They discovered us early the last time we raided, and loosed the broks. We lost more than half of our group.”
Trent shrugged. “All right, then, what do I do?”
“Sit and watch,” Korm said shortly. “Cover us with your weapons.”
Then he and Frong were in the open, walking steadily down the gentle slope, ropes coiled in their left hands, the spears couched in their right. And even as they began their march, a yellow rope sailed out of the trees across the enclosure, settled about the neck of a robot, tightened with a whiplike snap. The robot spun halfway about, then toppled with a metallic clatter.
“Ready?” Lura whispered.
Neela nodded, dark eyes worried and intent as she watched her husband and two companions pulling with all their strength upon the far rope.
Four robots had whirled at the clattering, were speeding to the aid of their companion. Cable fingers caught at the black concussors at their waists, were lifting them for lethal shots.
“Now!” Korm’s voice came winging back.
He and Frong threw with gigantic strength, the spears speeding aloft, hovering, dropping just past the coppery strands of electrified wire. Sparks danced a drunken saraband along the fence, grounded through the spears. Then the connecting ropes were pulling taut, the hooks catching firmly. The two giants braced heavy legs, muscles rippling, and swelling along massive shoulders. The ropes tightened, grew solid, and the fence began to lean toward them. Posts snapped with brittle reports—and then the fence was ruptured, broken wires leaping and sparking with white-hot violence.
“Ho, Barbs!” Korm bellowed. “Run for freedom. Dodge the wires and follow me.”
Then the action was almost too swift to follow. The four robots turned as one, lifting their concussors to focus on the blond giant. Kimball Trent fired in one swift move, levering the rifle for explosive needles, the racking bellow of the concussions bounding through the churning air. One robot blew to pieces, and the explosion knocked down the second. The third fired, but the shot went wild, for a second rope whirled from nowhere, jerked him off balance. The shot exploded fifty feet over Trent’s head, blasted him face down in the dirt.
He scrambled to his knees, fired at the fourth robot, blew it to pieces, then whirled to watch the enclosure again. He saw the two Gharrians standing in the doorway of the tower, blasted two shots their way, saw them rock from the explosions.
Men and women were running for the breach in the fence. Some died, touched by the vicious sparks that flicked from the whipping wires; others scrambled through to safety. They made no sound, but came in an instinctive rush, coming directly toward the great blond and red giants who had torn down the fence with insulated ropes of soft plastic.
“Good!” Neela said quietly, straightened to her full height.
“Broks!” Lura cried desperately, and terror was in the single word, a terror more horrible than the word could express.
They came gliding from a side door, one after the other, until fully a dozen stood before the tower. Then they turned and came in a murderous wave of death up the slope, going straight toward the rescuers, ignoring the escaping prisoners. Saliva dropped from gaping fangs, and their six legs threw them forward with an incredible speed. They mewled like gigantic cats, then hissed their hate.
Korm and Frong turned and ran before the group of prisoners, knives glittering in their hands as they watched the beasts come in a circling attack. There was no fear in their features, only a calm determination that didn’t alter.
Kimball Trent came to his feet, braced heavy thigh muscles against the concussion shocks that were coming, then set the rifle for continuous fire. He swayed the muzzle like a fire hose, spraying death into the broks, blowing them to bloody scraps of bone and flesh, cursing, as some of them escaped the blasting fire.
The rifle clicked empty, and he caught at the flame gun. Korm and Frong were at his side then, knives bared, and he waved them on.
“Run, you fools,” he snarled. “Get the prisoners to safety. I can kill them all with the flame gun.”
He fired as he spoke, and the orange flames gushed in a hellish holocaust that roasted two of the fanged monsters to death in midleap. Three others whipped to one side, split forces, came whirling in from different directions.
The last of the prisoners were by him now, except for a few who had dropped from concussion shock. He tried to scream a warning at Lura, who had darted out and was helping a woman to her feet; but he had no time, for the three snake-scaled broks came snarling in.
Full power he had the gun, and full power he needed. The first brok charged directly into the flame, vanished in a greasy puff of smoke. The second was barely caught by the swinging flame, screamed in agony, bounded to safety. The third drove squarely in, evading the flame for a second, then died, the vortex of surging energy slashing away the forepart of its body with magical speed.
Kimball Trent whirled, sent a spear of flame after the fleeing brok, caught it a hundred yards away, dropped it in its tracks. Then, breathing deeply, sickened by the odor of burning flesh, he raced to aid Lura. She had half-lifted the woman to her feet, and he bent to lift her to his shoulders. It was then he saw the terror in Lura’s violet eyes. He tried to whirl, managed only to get part of the way about.
He saw the single eye of the Gharrian, cursed himself for lulling himself into thinking that the alien monsters moved but slowly. He reached for his gun, knowing the weapon was useless, hoping only to give Lura a chance at escape.
Then the first arm of the Gharrian lashed out, coiled about him like an octopus tentacle, drew him close, and a second sledged with a brutal scientific precision. He felt the hurt spreading in a racing wave over his body, tried to fight away the blanket of darkness. He heard Lura’s scream, saw dimly that the Gharrian had caught her with his other arms.
Then the blackness became opaque and he could see nothing. He felt a second blow, and he was sinking into a funnel of darkness that had no bottom. He heard a faint echo of Lura’s scream; then he knew no more.
He was on a boat, water slapping his face each time the boat rocked in the troughs of the spilling waves. He tried to sit, but nausea cramped his belly, and he felt the blackness knotting his mind again. He heard his name called again and again, but he did not have the strength to answer.
Then the curtain began lifting from his memory, and thoughts came flooding to his mind. He blinked dazedly, focusing his eyes grimly, saw that Lura was bent over him, a wet cloth in her hand.
“Some fight!” he tried to joke, and the pain of his head took all of the jolliness from his tone.
“You’ll be all right,” Laura said.
He leaned back against the pressure of her arm, saw that he had been lying on a crude bunk against the wall of an unfurnished room. He swung his legs to the floor, braced his head with both hands, gently explored the swelling bruise-knots that marked his skull.
“Never again,” he said grimly. “Next time, I run.”
Lura smiled gamely, worry shadows fleeing back into the depths of her violet eyes. She brushed back a stray lock of red-gold hair from her cheek, allowed her gaze to wander about the room.
“The Master brought us here and left a metal man on guard. You have been unconscious for hours.”
Kimball Trent came groggily to his feet, bracing himself with one hand on the wall. Then he circled the room, stopping at the slit window, trying to see into the velvet night, going on to peer through the barred grille in the door at the expressionless inhuman face of the robot that stood at motionless guard across the hallway. Farther down the hall, on either side, he could see more doors with grilled openings.
“Are we in the tower?” he asked.
“Yes,” Lura answered from where she sat. “The Master brought us directly here.”
“Did the others escape?”
“I do not know. I did not see them when we were brought in, and none have been brought here since.” Her self control gave slightly. “Kim, what are we going to do?”
Kimball Trent grinned, forcing back the futility that beat at his thoughts. “We’re going to get out of here, one way or the other,” he said reassuringly.
Trent shrugged, wished the ache in his head would stop bouncing about. “I don’t know,” he said equably. “But I’ve got a hunch we’re in for a little quiz session with the Gharrians.”
“Sure. Questions and answers; they question and we answer.”
Lura’s face was white beneath her tan, but she smiled at Trent. “I hope they hurry with whatever they’ve got planned; I’m beginning to feel hungry.”
They laughed then, laughed with the brightness and hope of youth, amused by the incongruity of worrying about a meal when their lives were probably forfeit for the events that had taken place. They laughed, and the robot moved to the grille, stared with blank telephotic eyes.
“Curious little devil, isn’t he?” Trent said, walked toward the bunk.
He watched the grille for a moment, thoughts whirling in his mind, trying to form some plan of escape that could be based on the reactions of the robot to anything out of the ordinary that happened among the prisoners he was set to guard.
The minutes walked by on leaden feet, neither of them speaking, each intent on silent thoughts. There were no sounds, inside or out, and a chill came to the room from the night air.
Then there came the heavy sound of metallic footsteps from the corridor, echoed by the shuffling of bare feet. Hands fumbled at the door, and it swung open, an Earthman entering, the doorway blocked by a single robot.
“I’ve some questions to ask,” the intruder said fearfully.
“Traitor!” Lura spat, turned to Trent. “He gave himself up to the Masters weeks ago, fleeing from a Connet colony he betrayed.”
The man drew himself up, glancing at the robot at his back, then turning to face the prisoners. Fear was in his eyes, but brutality masked his face.
“I can order you killed,” he said. “Don’t drive me far.” He glanced at the rifle and flame gun he carried. “Where did you get these weapons?” he asked Trent.
“Are they weapons?” Kimball Trent asked mockingly.
“I don—the Master says they are.”
“Then they can talk?” Incredulity was in Trent’s voice. “I thought they had no speech.”
“They do not speak, not the way we do; but they make themselves understood.” Perspiration slid in greasy drops down the man’s face. “Where did you get these weapons?” he asked again.
The robot came into the room, staring glassily, tentacular arms swaying gently at its sides. Lura stiffened, pressed closer to Trent. He grinned, nodded at the metal man.
“Your dog?” he asked.
“Dog?” the man said puzzledly, turned his head.
And Kimball Trent flowed into action, leaping with the grace and darting agility of a panther.
His left hand reached out, caught the arm of the man, and his right hand chopped down in a vicious rabbit punch at the base of the other’s neck. Bones snapped from the brutal power, and the man went utterly limp.
The robot came driving forward with an incredible speed, tentacles of whipping steel lashing for Trent’s throat. But even as the robot came swinging in, Trent whirled, spinning the rifle as a club, smashed the automaton squarely across the eyes.
Glass popped and shattered, tiny shards flying through the air. Light flared intensely white in each eye socket, then died to red and vanished into blackness.
Then the robot was but an eyeless machine methodically smashing its way about the room. It was a legged juggernaut, a ton of destruction that crushed the bunk to splinters with a double sweep of its heavy tentacles.
Trent bent low, avoiding death by a fraction of an inch, saw that Lura had flowed into action almost as quickly as he. She stood at the door now, flame gun in hand, waiting for him. He dodged to her side, caught the door, slammed it shut, then locked it with a turn of the switch.
He dropped the shattered rifle, caught the flame gun in his right hand. “This is it,” he said briefly, led the way at a run down the corridor.
They ducked about the corner of the hall, heard the battering sounds disappearing behind. Their breaths were hot in their throats, and the utter soullessness of the tower was a dank mantle that shrouded them.
“Which way?” Lura said at the double door facing them at the end of the corridor.
“This,” Trent said shortly, pushed through a swing door.
The second hall was lighted by radi-lights in ceiling brackets, and a current of air came strong against their faces from the far end. Light shone through the bottom crack of a doorway, and they went toward it on cat-feet, making no sound, stifling their very breathing for fear of discovery.
Strangely, there was no sound of alarm above, nor did they hear sounds of pursuit. They glanced instinctively at each other, then drifted forward, the single weapon their only defense against attack.
Kimball Trent almost smiled when he remembered the wish that had been Korm’s that day. He would have given ten years of his life to exchange places with Lura and Trent, to have had this opportunity of wreaking his vengeance upon the Masters in their fortress.
Then the thought was gone, and they stood before the door of the room from which light came. Trent laid his finger across his lips, nodded for Lura to wait. She shook her head impatiently, started to speak.
It was the natural thing to do to keep her quiet. He bent his head to hers, and her lips were soft and sweet and fragrant against his mouth. He came close to her, savoring her warmth and pliancy, feeling the urge that lay in them both. Then he backed away, smiled from deep in his heart.
“Wait for me,” he whispered, and was gone through the doorway.
His gun was out in front of him, finger trembling on the stud. He saw the Gharrian standing to one side, and hell raved from his flame pistol as he fired instinctively. The cone of ravening energy twisted its deadly way over the entire body—yet the alien monster made no move to flee or to attack.
Heat grew and built and swelled, drove him back a full step—and still the blue-grey monster made no move. Red rage pulsed in Trent’s mind, and he whispered, “Damn! Damn! Damn!” over again as the last charge in the flame began to die away.
And at last, the gun empty and cooling in his hand, he stood facing the Gharrian, blinking against the heat, smelling the odor of charred plastic where the flame had touched the wall. Then he gasped, bent forward in excitement.
For the Gharrian had no head.
Kimball Trent took two cautious steps forward, standing on tiptoe, staring at the cavity where the eye-head had been. And what he saw chilled the blood in his body.
For the Gharrian was a robot, a tiny control board deep in the aperture, a curved hood dropping on hinges to the back.
Kimball Trent whirled then and began to stalk the room. He didn’t know exactly what he sought, but there was a singing in his mind, and the knowledge he had just gained was the answer to many things that had never been solved.
He saw the flickering movement at the corner of the room, took two long strides that way, snatched with bare hands at the monstrosity that squirmed with miniature strength against the grip of his lean fingers.
He almost vomited at sight of the weird creature that fought to free itself. It was like a pink convoluted brain, with spider legs like wormy tentacles coiling and uncoiling in mad rage. Two tiny eyes glared lidlessly at Trent, and a hole like a sucker mouth gaped, showing blue toothless gums.
Trent increased the pressure of his fingers, and the tiny eyes popped in agony, the tentacles wrapping about his fingers, trying to pry them free. And in the midst of the struggle, a thought pried its way into Trent’s consciousness.
“Do not slay me, Earthman. Let me live.”
Kimball Trent went to the side table where small machines and tools were scattered haphazardly. He emptied out a deep plastic jar, set it upright, then dropped the pink monstrosity into its depths. His skin crawled, and he heard Lura’s gasp, as the Gharrian righted itself, trying frantically to climb the glasslike walls of the prison.
“Laura, bolt the door,” Trent said without turning his head, then spoke directly at the squirming blob of flesh. “Do you understand what I am saying?” he asked.
“Faintly,” the answer came welling into his mind. “Our minds are not enough alike to catch all thoughts.”
“So you are one of the Masters!” Trent sighed contemptuously, glancing at the monster robot that all Earth had thought to be a creature that lived.
“I am one,” the Gharrian thought.
Lura came to Trent’s side. “Put a cover on the jar,” she said, shuddering, “and we shall take him along with us.”
Mental laughter shook their minds, a dry ironical humor all the more terrible because there was no sound. They stared in horror at the brain-beast, while its thoughts raced through their consciousness.
“You cannot escape; all doors are guarded.”
“Maybe!” Trent said aloud, lifting a sharp tool from the table, balancing it idly in one hand. Then he reached over, probed delicately at the scrambling pink beast in the jar, watched critically as green ichor oozed from a tiny cut the tool had inflicted.
“See us safely out, or you die,” he said unemotionally.
The thought came hurtling back, utterly savage and unafraid. “Destroy me, and you surely die.” There was an interval in which no message came. Then: “I shall bargain with you. Tell me where those ancient weapons were found, make yourself my prisoner, and the girl, as you call her, shall go free.”
Trent carefully dropped the razor-sharp tool, heard the soundless shriek of agony that welled high as a tentacular leg was sheared completely away.
“I make no bargains,” he said coldly.
He turned about, studying the single window that studded the far wall of the room, catching up several tools from the bench, he crossed the plastic floor, studied the incredibly hard plastic that served as a pane through which the outer world could be seen.
He searched for a catch, realized there would be none, for this was a ground floor, and the Gharrians would leave no openings through which an attack could be made. Calmly, he beat at the pane with his pistol butt, bruising his hand, making absolutely no impression.
“Will it break?” Lura called softly.
“No. But it may cut.” Trent chose the sharpest of the tools, bore down with all his weight.
The squeal of metal on plastic keened high, setting his teeth on edge; and then the sound had passed too high for him to hear. He finished the stroke, bent close, then straightened in defeat. There was not the slightest of scratches on the plastic window.
“Kim!” Lura cried, and he raced to her side.
Even as he reached her, the Gharrian began to putrefy. It had died during the few moments Trent had tried to break the window; and its monstrosity of a body was already beginning to rot in upon itself like a blighted spider caught in a flame.
“Damn!” Trent swore softly. “I probably squeezed too hard. Come.”
He led the way toward the door through which they had come, lifted the single bar. He smiled tiredly, gamely, was warmed by the unquenchable courage that flamed in her bearing.
“Ready?” he asked, threw open the door at her wordless nod.
Facing them from ten feet away, single eyes emotionlessly watching, were three of the robot-Gharrians.
“Run!” Trent snapped, threw himself to one side, pausing for a fraction of a second to permit Lura to dart past him. Then, even before the Gharrians could move, they were darting through the side door, flung instantly open by Trent’s driving hand.
He slammed the door, slammed the single bar shut, then whirled to follow the girl. A soundless gasp of incredible awe came from his throat, and he froze motionless.
Kimball Trent went dashing forward, smashed the single darting pink monstrosity, as it raced toward a robot, with his heel, then stopped, and watched the incredible thing that filled the entire center of the room.
It was like a monster fishbowl, great cables snaking to atomic motors that hummed with quiet power. Colors glowed and played and flickered in the greenish liquid that filled the bowl, and the liquid bubbled softly within itself.
But the things that brought the sickness to Trent’s and Lura’s hearts and minds were the things that bobbed in the liquid. They were brains, some large, some shrunken in upon themselves, each attached to fine wires that led to grids at the center of the bowl. Larger wires ran from the grids to the sides of the bowl, slipped through and dropped to small platforms upon which rested the spider monsters who ruled the world.
“Life eaters!” Trent whispered. “They live on the lives and brains of the people they kill.”
He walked about the great bowl, watching the lights flicker behind the plastic wall, seeing the sluggish movements of the creatures who sucked the life forces from the liquid bubbling so gently. Then with a calm viciousness that surprised even himself, he methodically crushed each of the pinkish monsters to death.
And with the death of the last monster, the first of the Gharrians in the hall attacked the door. Great sledging blows smashed at the plastic, each blow driving bulges where no man could have scratched the surface.
Kimball Trent stared thoughtfully at the bulging panel, his mind working clearly for the first time in minutes. There was no fear in him now, no blazing hate, only the crystal brightness of logic in his mind. He looked about the room, then beckoned for Lura to come to his side. She came trustingly, staring into his eyes, and he knew then his future was yet to come.
He grinned, kissed her gently. “You will do as I say. Go to the Reader and tell him to read about sound waves. Tell him that the Gharrians can be killed with supersonic waves of sound; that that is the only way that they can be killed while in their armor. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” Lura said quietly. “But I do not leave.”
The door shattered inward, hanging on a single hinge, and through the opening came the invulnerable Gharrians, moving slowly toward the unarmed Earthman and girl.
Kimball Trent swung the girl behind him, retreated, wondering if the mad scheme he had would possibly work. And even as he thought, his hand reached out, ripped loose the cables from one of the motors that fed the current to the life-trap bowl.
He raced to the second, tore the cables free, winced, as the motor sang a shriller song, power mounting now that it no longer fed the bowl. He tore the third bunch of cables free, then shielded Lura with his body, as the motors began to race with incredible speed, their screams mounting higher and higher.
Still the Gharrians came forward, moving with an implacable deadliness that nothing could stop apparently, their concussors dangling from their waists. They would use their strength here, for concussion would wreck the life bowl, and they had no reason to fear the puny strengths of the couple they faced.
The screams of the motors were like knife blades now, biting into every nerve, wrenching agony from their brains. Trent and Lura gasped from the pain, pressed farther back around the great transparent bowl, striving desperately to evade that last moment when the Masters would reach them.
And then the shrill screams of the motor eased, were gone, vibrations scaling past the audible, going into a supersonic range that their ears could not catch.
The first Gharrian lifted a mailed arm—and died.
He died rather horribly, beating insanely at his companion and the plastic wall. Then he was dead, and was but a toppling metal hulk that smashed to the floor.
Almost in the same instant, the others died. They died as silently as they had lived, except for one simultaneous thought of agony that came clearly to the humans’ minds.
Kimball Trent leaped past the bulk of the first slain Gharrian, closed the switches on the motors. Slowly they stopped, grew silent.
Without a word, Trent switched on the motors again, then raced at Lura’s side from the room. Behind, the motors began their keening song again.
They found the outer door without trouble, guided by a supernal instinct that needed no voluntary thought. Trent threw the great bar and they raced outside, going toward the slope from which they had attacked the Gharrians hours before.
They heard Korm’s great voice cry out, and relief gave strength to their flying legs. Then the blond giant was at their side, and behind him they saw the hundreds who had followed his leadership.
“Run!” Trent panted. “The tower will blow within seconds.”
Then the motors exploded, lifting the tower in shattered fragments, blowing to dust the place that had been one of the Gharrians’ strongholds. Flames leaped a mile into the air, fed by the ruptured atomic motors, spreading crimson light like the wave of a rock dropped into a still pond. The concussion passed, and all was still, the column of brilliance still leaping and pulsing into the night.
And watching the flame, his arm tight about the slender shoulders of Lura, was Kimball Trent, the man who had lived five hundred years to save his doomed world. He held her tightly, and the hope in his heart was a singing melody that crept into his mind, tangling his thoughts.
“Call the Elder,” he said to grinning Korm. “I have a story to tell of a new home for all of us. And”—his voice grew strong, rang like that of a prophet—”of a weapon we can make that the Gharrians cannot fight.”
Then he and Lura stood alone in a night that was a dream and they the dreamers. The first streamers of dawn were coming in the sky, foretelling of the new day that was coming to their world.#ENGLISH