Tepondicon by Carl Jacobi

TEPONDICON
By CARL JACOBI
He was not the savior-type. He certainly did not
crave martyrdom. Yet there was treasure beyond
price in these darkened plague-cities of Ganymede,
if a man could but measure up to it.

[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Winter 1946.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

By seven o’clock, Earth-time, I could distinctly see the first plague city of Profaldo. In the grey light it lay there before me, a vague opalescent aura radiating from its spires and minarets. The three roads that crossed the flat converged on the city to meet at a single narrow runway.

I drove the tracto-car down into a little gully, climbed out and took a second look through my magnoscope. The flat was deserted, as it well should be at this hour, and the only sign of life was a high-flying tok, circling slowly.

It took me only five minutes to make preparations for my entrance into Profaldo. The carefully wound coil of volocized wire slipped down neatly under my tunic. Suspended from my left shoulder was a haversack, innocent appearing, but containing one of the seven transmitting sets, also a complete set of tools. I removed three of the white pellets from the little glass vial in my pocket and swallowed them. And, for emergency, I slid a heat pistol into another pocket.

Then I set out across the flat. Distance was deceptive, but I had calculated fairly closely, and an hour later saw me pacing up the runway to the entrance of Profaldo.

The guard in the cubicle stared when I stood before him. “You’re not a citizen here,” he said. “Do you know what place this is?”

“I know very well,” I said. “Here are my papers, signed by the High Ganymedian Council. Let me pass, please.”

The gate slid back, and an instant later I was inside the city.

Profaldo! Plague-ridden, feared, legendary! Like its six sister cities, the place was known throughout the System as a pest-hole, tenanted by doomed citizenry whose very futility of life made a mockery of everything decent and law-abiding.

Twenty yards down the street, and I saw indeed that the city was one vast slum. Gambling holes-in-the-wall stood cheek by jowl with sinister drink shops, all of them roaring full blast. A drooling fog that dimmed the intermittent blue street lights gave a grotesque unreality to the thoroughfare.

Here and there were groups of the inhabitants. Only a few showed visible signs of the horrible plague,—the greenish, leprous hue to the face and eyes, the disjointed, shambling walk—but I knew that all of them had the disease in one or more of its stages.

Following the directions I had memorized so carefully, I went straight down the street, turned left, then right. Yes, there it was. A slate-gray building, well out of plumb, with a dingy sign before the doorway: POWER DIVISION.

I went in. There were no ushers, no reception clerks, only a faint drone of machinery somewhere below me. A long corridor angled in either direction with marked doors every few feet. The sixth door bore the marking: COMMISSIONER.

Even as I looked upon the room’s occupant, I knew that this, my initial step, would be a success. The man was a toad of flesh with little pig eyes and albino hair. He put down the glass from which he had been swilling liquor and glared at me. “Complaint department down the hall,” he said. “This is a private office.”

I crossed to the chair beside his desk and sat down. “I’m George Dulfay,” I said quietly, “the new inspector sent by the Council. Will you sign my papers, please?”

He scowled again and peered at me shrewdly through blood-shot eyes, but, after a careless glance at the document I had handed him, he seized a stylus and affixed his signature. Then he raised his eyes to mine.

“New man, eh?” he grinned. “And what do you think of our fair city?”

“It stinks.”

My words prompted no reproach from him. He leaned back and made steeples of his hands. “Everything’s the same,” he said. “Four hundred deaths, four hundred births. One attempted escape resulting in execution. Flood-water”—he glanced across at the far wall where a panel bore a series of dials—”water 65.0, oxygen zero-zero, paldine 5.”

“And the research bureau?” I questioned. So far, I knew I was playing my part to satisfaction.

He snorted. “Failures as usual. You and the Council know as well as I do that there’s no cure for the plague.”

It was time for the first step, but I didn’t hurry it. I got a cheroot out of my pocket, lit it and blew a shaft of smoke toward the mildewed ceiling.

“I’ll okay the report as usual,” I said. “But there’s one thing more. I’ll want to buy some of your power. About sixteen thousand graphlos….”

A wire couldn’t have jerked him erect any quicker. “Power!” he repeated. “Sixteen thousand….” A gleam entered his blood-shot eyes. “By the Lord Harry! And for what, may I ask?”

I could feel my pulse racing and a hot flush sweep over me, but outwardly I knew I appeared cool.

“If your Research Bureau here believes there is no cure for the plague, the Council has different ideas,” I said. “We’re going to try an experiment. Sixteen thousand graphlos of polarated power at each of the seven cities discharged along a common beam with a step-up transformer between each city. Gargan—he’s the new light-ray man in the Council—believes the radiation from such a charge will completely nullify the potency of the plague bacillus.”

The Commissioner moved to the edge of his chair. He poured himself a glass of the lavender-colored liquor, drank it and wiped his mouth. “By the Lord Harry,” he said, “you’re no inspector. Who the hell are you?”

“You have my papers.”

He picked them up again and re-read them carefully. I watched him. I could feel something cold move up and down my spine. And then with a wave of relief I saw the first signs of credulity.

“I believe you mean it,” he said. “Tell me, do you really think there’s a chance, an escape from this double-damned plague?”

“There’s a possibility, but of course it’s remote and only in the embryonic stage. Of course you understand all this is confidential. Now—where is your power switchboard?”

He touched a bell, said something into a microphone. Then he got up and extended his hand. “Follow the corridor, Mr. Dulfay. And may Providence go with you.”

Outside the office, reaction seized me, and for a moment I swayed there, aware of the terrific strain I had been under. The first barrier was passed. From now on, although there still would be plenty of danger, my actions for the most part would be routine. I threw away my cheroot and headed down the corridor.

That corridor ended in a flight of stairs which I climbed to the second level. Through an archway I passed into the power room proper. Tilted back in a chair in front of the enormous switchboard, a weazened little man nodded to me, signifying that he had had his instructions. I went to work without hesitation, threw over the auxiliary switch, removed the coil of wire from under my tunic and spliced it directly into the main conduit.

Finished, I trailed the coil of wire across the room and tossed it out the open window into the darkness of an alley. I went outside to gather up the loose ends. A low shed there, housing emergency transformers, served my purpose admirably. I got the compact little transmitting set out of my haversack, bracketed it to the wall in a far corner and set the clockwork to functioning.

Exactly one hour later I was back in my tracto-car, driving across the flat.

If a month ago anyone had told me I would visit not only Profaldo but each of the seven plague-cities of the High Ganymedian Plateau, I would have told them they were crazy. That was before I met Hol-Dai.

Hol-Dai was not his real name, of course; that was what they called him at the mental hospital where I was serving my internship. A patriarch of a man, one of the early Earth colonists, he had broken down from excessive research in extraterrestrial medicine, and he was forever browsing through heavy medical tomes. One day he began talking to me as usual, and for want of something better to do, I listened.

“My son,” he said, “you’ve heard of the seven plague-cities: Profaldo, Senar, Caldray, Voltar, Xynan, Malakan, and Klovada?”

I nodded. “Yes, Hol-Dai. Here, take your medicine.”

He swallowed the two pills and pointed to a sheet of paper upon which he had been writing. “Did you know they were the richest cities in the System?”

“Rich? No, Hol-Dai, you must be wrong. They have nothing but pestilence.”

He smiled at that and waggled a finger. “The plague is their protection, my son. Conquer that, and you will come upon the greatest treasure known to mankind. Listen….”

Well, I heard him out, patiently at first, then gradually with more and more interest. It was a madman’s story in every detail, and yet there was something about it that got me. I knew how the seven cities of the High Ganymedian Plateau were first raided by Conway and his Earth Brigade after enjoying several thousand years’ culture on this, the third satellite of Jupiter. How the captured emperor of the seven cities swore a curse of vengeance for the mishandling of his people and in some unknown way introduced the strange and terrible plague which was to turn the seven metropoli into pest-holes avoided and shunned by Earth and Jovian colonists alike.

Then Hol-Dai said something which made me prick up my ears. “Why,” he said, “do you think the emperor introduced that plague? For vengeance alone? A ruler’s vengeance does not go as far as dooming his people forever. No, my son, for another reason.”

I said nothing, waiting for him to continue.

“For three thousand years the seven cities had been living off the plunder of conquered Io and Callisto, the first and second satellites. And never has it occurred to these fools what has become of that plunder.”

“They probably will, Hol-Dai,” I said. “Some day a fleet of space freighters will carry it all off.”

The white-haired old man shook his head. “Not a fleet, my son. A man in the palm of his hand.”

I sat down then, and I asked questions, and after a time I had the story in its entirety. Both Io and Callisto had been conquered by the people of Ganymede and had been forced to pay a huge indemnity. Part of that indemnity came in the form of a stone, called by the Ganymedians, the Jupiter Stone. That stone, protected by an envelope of white pinardium, contained a compressed particle of the light-active rock which formed Jupiter’s great red spot. And this stone contained sufficient inexhaustible power to move the factories and industrial plants of half the solar system.

I forgot for a moment that Hol-Dai was listed as psychopathically unbalanced. “Where is this stone?” I demanded.

“It lies in a simple glass case in the old emperor’s palace in the city of Klovada,” he replied. “But”—he lifted a warning hand—”do not think it is as simple as that. The people of the High Ganymedian Plateau were aware of the value of their treasure and they adopted means to protect it.

“They protected the stone by surrounding it with a small space warp. As it lies there now, it is so heavy an army could not lift it.”

“Then…?”

“How can it be removed? There is a way, my son, a dangerous, almost impossible way, but one which I have spent my entire life planning. The space warp has been devised to have seven focal points, lying along the plane of the seven cities. I have devised transmitting equipment which will discharge a beam along this plane, thus nullifying the space warp. But, to accomplish this, entrance must be made into each of the seven cities, and that would mean contracting the terrible plague in not one but all seven of its virulent forms.

“I have taken care of that too. I have compounded a pellet which will give temporary immunity to the plague if taken at the proper intervals and….”

Here Hol-Dai’s mind gave way again, and he lapsed into unintelligible babbling.

I mulled over this story for a week. During that time I read over Hol-Dai’s case history and discovered that his lucid intervals were fairly intermittent and complete. That is, when he was normal, he remained so until he lost his grip entirely. Next I visited the place where he had lived before he was confined to the hospital. My credentials gained me entrance and the right to go through his possessions. Nothing had been touched. I found his vial of immunity pellets with full instructions as to dosage. And I found in his equipment the seven miniature transmitting sets and the necessary connecting wire. In his papers, however, I searched in vain for reference to the Jupiter Stone.

But I didn’t stop there. I haunted public libraries and the archives-galleries, always seeking proof for everything Hol-Dai had told me. Where I didn’t always find proof, I found “possibility.” The old man’s story could be true.

As I read over the history of Ganymede, the lure, the fascination of that “stone” swept over me. It became a narcotic, off-setting all other desires until I knew I must act. I took Hol-Dai’s equipment and his vial of pellets, and I spent one week studying the geographical layouts of the seven cities. I drove in a tracto-car to the first city of Profaldo, and as you have seen, I successfully “planted” the first transmitting set.

“One down, six to go,” I told myself grimly. Full confidence was mine, and my spirits were riding high.

Senar, the second city, came out of the haze abruptly. High in the sky the immense disc of Jupiter cast a reddish light over the metropolis. As before, all roads leading across the flat converged on a single runway, leading to the main gate.

I entered, and it seemed time had turned backward, erasing the intervening hours. For Senar was the same as Profaldo. The same roaring drink shops and crowd-choked gambling casinos. The same twisting despondent streets sunk in filth and mockery of the law.

Again I came to the building marked POWER DIVISION. In the Commissioner’s office, however, I was due for a surprise. A girl turned to me inquiringly.

She was tall, svelte and dark-haired, with agate eyes that bored me through and through. “Well?” she said.

The same story, the same explanation. I proffered my papers, waited a diplomatic length of time, then stated that I wished to purchase some power.

To my astonishment, however, she took the offer matter-of-factly.

“I know,” she said. “You are Tepondicon.”

“I’m what?”

She smiled. “At least you are the mortal counterpart of that legendary figure. According to the Ganymedian legends, a great disaster was to come upon our seven cities and would not be removed until a brave warrior entered each of the cities and fought it alone. The legends call that warrior Tepondicon.”

“I see,” I said. “And you think…?”

“We have the disaster all right in the form of the plague. Now you are here in an attempt to conquer that plague.” She waved a careless hand at my consternation. “The Commissioner at Profaldo advised me of your coming. We still do have some communication left, you know.”

Tepondicon, eh? It made my role easier. It fitted into my plans nicely. Before I could say more, she was conducting me down the corridor to the power room. She stood by, watching over me, as for a second time I made my necessary connections to the central conduit, and she followed me as I mounted my second transmitting set on a low revetment in the rear of the power building.

As I touched the clockwork into motion she grasped my arm.

“There is no need for you to leave immediately, Mr. Dulfay,” she said. “I know very well that you have temporary protection against the plague. Won’t you let me show you more of the city of Senar?”

My better judgment said no; my eyes said yes. She stood there smiling, carmine lips a bow of allure, agate eyes gleaming. She was clad in a dress of voltex, and the clinging material revealed every curve and contour of her figure.

An hour later I found myself in a dimly lighted cafe, surrounded by high-caste Ganymedians, Jovians and Earth men and women, all in various stages of intoxication—all, I knew, seeking to conceal their terror at the relentless death that stalked them.

I sat across a table from the Commissioner of Senar. She was drinking boca, and she was laughing gayly.

“Come,” she said, “forget your troubles. Remember, you are Tepondicon.”

But something was wrong. I could feel it with every fibre of my body. That man looking at me from the opposite table, for one thing. He had been too casual in his quick appraisal of me, too quick to lower his eyes when I glanced his way.

And then abruptly it hit me hard. I was Tepondicon, and as such, my avowed attempt to cure the plague made me a valuable entity, if controlled by the right persons. A group of power-crazed renegades could, by holding me, make any terms they desired for my release.

I looked around carefully, seeking a means of escape; and I saw then other men at other tables, covertly watching me. I drank a full glass of boca, pretended to drink another, began to feign drunkenness. Then clumsily I knocked the bottle from the table and staggered to my feet.

“Gotta get more,” I hiccupped. “‘S’cuse me, please.”

Stumbling unsteadily, I weaved my way toward the bar. Halfway across to it, I swiveled and broke into a run. Instantly a shout of warning rose up behind me. Through the maze of tables I raced, overturning three of them with a crash as I passed.

I gained the door. A heat-gun charge slammed into the wall, inches above my head. Feet pounded in pursuit. Then I was outside, leaping up the steps to the main level, sprinting down the back street.

I ran until a stitch in my side drew me up. Behind me roared the night life of the city, but there was no sign of pursuit. I passed through the main gate without trouble and half an hour later was driving leisurely across the flat.

Profaldo and Senar were behind me. What conditions would I meet in the next city, Caldray? My wildest dreams did not prepare me for the reception that was to be mine. Scarcely had I entered Caldray when I stopped short, staring at the scene ahead. The streets were jammed with citizenry. In blazing ato-bulbs high overhead was the single word TEPONDICON. Flags and pennants hung from every balcony.

Even as I moved uncertainly forward, two stalwart men, clad in the ancient chain mail of Ganymede’s earlier years, strode forward. Back somewhere in the tiers of rectangular buildings the amplified strains of an orchestra rose up. It was a recording, I knew, but it was Bokart’s Symphony Out of Space, in all its pomp and glory.

A deafening cheer rose up then. I was conducted to a low carriage, and with two scarlet-clad postilions on either side began my tour of the city.

“Tepondicon! Tepondicon!” yelled the crowd.

Well, it was confusing, and disconcerting, too. With all eyes focused upon me, my every movement would be watched. A wrong word, a misstep, and those cheers would change to death yells. And yet as the carriage bore me smoothly along the paved streets, the significance of it all became clear in my mind in every detail.

These people were rats, scum of the System. What matter if their hopes were falsely raised to the heights? They were doomed anyway by the plague. And in four days more the Jupiter Stone would be mine. Up until now, my life had been one great series of failures. At the Martian School of Technology I had been expelled in my sophomore year for a mere matter of selling drugs to my fellow students. I had been cashiered from the Royal Space Force for what the upstart officers called insubordination. Gamblings, swindlings, I had tried them all with little luck. This would be my metamorphosis, my emergence from the cocoon of mediocrity into success.

The procession drew up before the Power Division building. The Power Commissioner, a tall gangly man this time, waited to receive me at the top of the steps.

But inside his office, with the roar and hubbub of the streets cut off, the interview was much the same as the two previous. He passed a box of cheroots across the desk, leaned back and smoked contentedly.

“And to think,” he said, “that a week ago I was ready to join the list of suicides. Mr. Dulfay, I wonder if you realize what this means to the people. Freedom from the plague. It seems incredible.”

“You must remember,” I cautioned, “It’s only an experiment as yet. I can promise nothing.”

He waved this aside. “You will be successful,” he said. “The hopes of thousands cannot be denied. And now the power. All we have is at your disposal.”

Voltar! Xynan! Malakan! In the fourth, fifth and sixth cities everything worked like clockwork. My welcome in each succeeding metropolis was greater than the last. Crowds screamed “Tepondicon!” to the echo. The cities must have ransacked every corner of their confines to festoon their battlements and parapets with tinsel. Hope was hysteria. The black spectre of the plague was pushed to the background. As the legendary hero, Tepondicon, I was the embodiment of all their dreams and hopes.

Before entering each city I swallowed three of Hoi-Dai’s pellets. Before leaving, I tapped the power centers and put transmitting sets in operation.

And now Klovada, the seventh and final city. In a few hours my beam would be discharged along the planes of the seven cities. The space warp would be nullified. Remained then only to go to the royal palace, open the glass case and remove the Jupiter Stone. With that stone my life would begin anew. No more swindlings or petty thieveries. I would be king in my own right.

I did not realize the strain under which I had been living until the official reception in Klovada was over and I was ushered into the Commissioner’s office. There I slumped wearily into a chair and waited impatiently for him to enter.

The Commissioner was a girl. Not a girl like the seductress of Senar, but a small dainty child with golden hair and blue eyes. She strode forward briskly, a pleasant smile on her lips, and extended her hand.

“I bid you welcome, Sir Tepondicon,” she said. “You have reached the end of your goal.”

There was something in her tone of voice that made me look at her sharply. Could it be possible that she suspected…?

“You have come a long way,” she said, speaking slowly. “You have braved many dangers, and you have conducted yourself in a most ethical manner. May I ask, Mr. Dulfay, what your personal profit will be in this venture?”

“No profit,” I said easily. “A scientist has only research as his aim. That and the welfare of the people.”

She nodded. “Still, it is unusual for a man to risk so much.”

“About the matter of power,” I broke in. “As you know, I’ll need sixteen thousand graphlos and….”

She seemed not to hear. A distant look entered her blue eyes. “Tell me, Mr. Dulfay, have you ever heard of an artifact kept here in Klovada known as the Jupiter Stone?”

I went slowly rigid. The girl breathed deeply and continued. “Some time ago a great scientist communicated with me as overchief of power-control of the seven cities and outlined a plan similar to the one in which you are now engaged. He was a great man, but under stress of excessive work, his mind broke. He was taken to a mental hospital, where I am told he is now known by the simple name of Hol-Dai.

“Before his illness Hol-Dai worked out a method to overcome the plague. It was simple. A person would visit each of the seven cities. He would have temporary protection against the plague, but of course he would become a carrier for the germs. When he finally reached Klovada, the final city, he would be a walking vial of the bacillus in all its seven forms.

“Now the Jupiter Stone, of which I spoke before. It is a great thing, capable of generating untold amounts of power, if properly harnessed. So far, however, the scientists have been unable to move it because it lies protected by a small but peculiar form of space warp. But the stone has other potentialities. This man, Hol-Dai, discovered that it will transform the plague bacillus from a positive form to a negative form.

“In other words if this hypothetical visitor of the seven cities were, at the end of his journey, to expose himself to the radiations of the Jupiter Stone, a curious event would take place. He would become a carrier for bacilli which, when released, would immediately begin to combat the plague. Practically an anti-toxin, you see. Again, continuing our hypothetical case, if this man were to retrace his steps, again visiting each of the seven cities, it is estimated this action would result in the complete end of the plague within a period of months.”

“I see,” I said. Far back in a corner of my mind a doubt was beginning to grow. “Why hasn’t this been done before?”

She smiled. “Because until you came no one knew how to acquire temporary protection against the disease and no one had the courage to expose himself to it without that protection. Now I am aware that you have found that protection. But as you must know, if you let yourself be struck by the radiations of the Jupiter Stone, you would die within six weeks!”

“You mean…?”

“I mean that if you go through with your role as Tepondicon you will never live to know your glory.”

She tapped her pencil on the desk. “I might add that Hol-Dai also told us of a plan to nullify the space warp surrounding the Jupiter Stone. Since his sickness, however, that plan has remained a mystery.”

I breathed easier. So Hol-Dai had not tricked me. But this girl with all her babbling of curing the plague must be an utter fool. What did I care about cure? It was the stone I wanted!

She looked across at me. “I don’t know who or what you are, Mr. Dulfay, but please listen to me a moment. Once these seven cities were the pride of the Jovian System. Their people were lighthearted, gay and strong. True, in their earlier years they exploited their neighbors on Io and Callisto, but that was long ago. For generations they were engaged in peaceful pursuits—trade, industry, commerce.

“Look at them now. Pest-holes where vice and sin run rampant, where hope has vanished, where there is no tomorrow, but only today! Conceive, if you can, the utter curse of that plague. To know with absolute finality that you are impregnated with it and that only death awaits you. And then consider this legend of Tepondicon. Not a mighty warrior, not a knight clad in armor, but a simple man sacrificing his own life for the lives of other men. It is the ultimate glory.”

She rose to her feet. “Mr. Dulfay, I leave you now. But I call your attention to the two doors leading from this office. The one by which you came is the exit. It leads to the street, and from the street one can make his way to the palace and so on to the Jupiter Stone. The stone is unguarded. If the space warp were done away with, it could be taken easily.

“The other door leads to the radiation chamber, the room which was devised by Hol-Dai. There, by means of special equipment, the radiations from the Jupiter Stone are transmitted to a screen. If you enter this room and sit before the screen, within a period of twenty minutes the plague germs your body is now carrying will be negatived. You can then make your return visits to the six other cities. The plague will be conquered, but you will die.”

She moved across to the exit. “It is for you to decide,” she said. “All I can say is that one way leads to the ultimate glory.”

She went out and I stood there in a daze. For five minutes I didn’t move. Glory, she had said. Yes, there would be glory, something which had played no part heretofore in my life. But likewise there would be death. The same death which awaited the doomed citizenry of the seven doomed cities. On the other hand was the Jupiter Stone, embodying all I had fought for.

I walked across to the desk and sat down in the chair before it. I must put my thoughts and actions of the past days on paper. I must record everything. If I chose the plague door, it would be my last testament—and a monument. If I took the street door, set up my transmitting set—and finally gained the Jupiter Stone, it would be a condemnation—a curse—to dog me the rest of my days. Honor versus dishonor, balanced against life versus death.

It is this document you are now reading!

At the end of an hour I stood up and neatly folded the paper. The air was hot, stifling. Somewhere a mercury clock pulsed rhythmically. Then, with a little laugh, I strode across the room toward one of the doors.

Of course, you all know which door I opened.