WHAT HATH ME?
By HENRY KUTTNER
The thousand tiny eyes raced past him, glittering
with alien ecstasy, shining brighter, ever brighter
as they fed. He felt the lifeblood being sucked
out of him—deeper stabbed the gelid cold—louder
roared the throbbing in his ears … then the voice
came, “The heart of the Watcher. Crush the heart.”
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Spring 1946.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
The man running through the forest gloom breathed in hot, panting gusts, pain tearing at his chest. Underfoot the crawling, pale network of tree-trunks lay flat upon the ground, and more than once he tripped over a slippery bole and crashed down, but he was up again instantly.
He had no breath to scream. He sobbed as he ran, his burning eyes trying to pierce the shadows. Whispers rustled down from above. When the leaf-ceiling parted, a blaze of terribly bright stars flamed in the jet sky. It was cold and dark, and the man knew that he was not on Earth.
They were following him, even here.
A squat yellow figure, huge-eyed, inhuman, loomed in his path—one of the swamp people of Southern Venus. The man swung a wild blow at the thing, and his fist found nothing. It had vanished. But beyond it rose a single-legged giant, a Martian, bellowing the great, gusty laughter of the Redland Tribes. The man dodged, stumbled, and smashed down heavily. He heard paddling footsteps and tried, with horrible intensity of purpose, to rise. He could not.
The Martian crept toward him—but it was no longer a Martian. An Earthman, with the face of some obscene devil, came forward with a sidling, slow motion. Horns sprouted from the low forehead. The teeth were fangs. As the creature came nearer, it raised its hands—twisted, gnarled talons—and slid them about the man’s throat.
Through the forest thundered the deep, booming clangor of a brass gong. The sound shattered the phantom as a hammer shatters glass. Instantly the man was alone.
Making hoarse, animal sounds in his throat, he staggered upright and lurched in the direction from which the sound came. But he was too weak. Presently he fell, and this time he did not rise. His arms moved a little and then were still. He slept, lines of tortured weariness twisting the haggard face.
Very faintly, from infinite distances, he heard a voice … two voices. Inhuman. Alien—and yet with a warmth of vital urgency that stirred something deep within him.
“He has passed our testing.”
Then a stronger, more powerful voice—answering.
“Others have passed our testing—but the Aesir slew them.”
“There is no other way. In this man I sensed something—a little different. He can hate—he has hated.”
“He will need more than hatred—” the deeper voice said. “Even with us to aid him. And there is little time. Strip his memories from him now, so that he may not be weakened by them—”
“May the gods fight with him.”
“But he fights the gods. The only gods men know in these evil days—”
The man awakened.
Triphammers beat ringingly inside his skull. He opened his eyes and closed them quickly against the sullen red glow that beat down from above. He lay motionless, gathering his strength.
What had happened?
He didn’t know. The jolting impact of that realization struck him violently. He felt a brief panic of disorientation. Where—?
I’m Derek Stuart, he thought. At least it isn’t complete amnesia. I know who I am. But not where I am.
This time when he opened his eyes they stayed open. Overhead a broad-leafed tree arched. Through its branches he could see a dark, starry sky, the glowing, ringed disc of Saturn very far away, and a deeply scarlet glow.
Not Earth, then. A Saturnian moon? No, Saturn didn’t eclipse most of the sky. Perhaps the asteroid belt.
He moved his head a little, and saw the red moon.
The message rippled along his nerves into his brain. Stuart reacted instantly. His hard, strong body writhed, whipped over, and then he was in a half-crouch, one hand flashing to his belt while his eyes searched the empty silence of the forest around him. There was no sound, no movement.
Sweat stood on Stuart’s forehead, and he brushed it away impatiently. His deeply-tanned face set into harsh lines of curiously hopeless desperation. There was no blaster gun at his belt; that didn’t matter. Guns couldn’t help him now—on Asgard.
The red moon had told him the answer. Only one world in the System had a red moon, and men didn’t go to that artificial asteroid willingly. They went, yes—but only to be doomed and damned. From Venus to Callisto spacemen spoke of Asgard in hushed voices—Asgard where the Aesir lived and ruled the worlds of Man.
No spaceships left Asgard, except the sleek black cruisers manned by the priests of Aesir. No man had ever returned from Asgard.
Stuart grinned mirthlessly. He’d learned a lesson, though he’d never profit by it now. Always before he’d been confident of his ability to outdrink anyone of his own weight and size. And certainly that slight, tired-eyed man at the Singing Star, in New Boston, should have passed out long before Stuart—under normal circumstances.
So the circumstances hadn’t been quite normal. It was a frame. A beautiful, air-tight frame, because he’d never come back to squawk. Nobody came back from Asgard.
He shivered a little and looked up warily. There were legends, of course. The Watchers who patrolled the asteroid ceaselessly—robots, men said. They served the Aesir. As, in a way, all men served the Aesir.
No sound. No movement. Only the sullen crimson light beating down ominously from that dark sky.
Stuart took stock of his clothing. Regular leatheroid spaceman’s rig; they’d left him that, anyway. Whoever they were. He couldn’t remember anything that had happened after the fifth drink with the tired-eyed man. There was a very faint recollection of running somewhere—seeing unpleasant things—and hearing two oddly unreal voices. But the memories slipped away and vanished as he tried to focus on them.
The hell with it. He was on Asgard. And that meant—something rather more unpleasant than death, if the legends were to be believed. A very suitable climax to an unorthodox life, in this era when obedience and law enforcement were the rigid rule.
Stuart picked up a heavy branch that might serve as a club. Then, shrugging, he turned westward, striking at random through the forest. No use waiting here till the Watchers came. At least—he could fight, as he had always fought as far back as he could remember.
There wasn’t much room for fighters any more. Not under the Aesir rule. There were nations and kings and presidents, of course, but they were puppet figures, never daring to disobey any edicts that came from the mystery-shrouded asteroid hanging off the orbit of Mars, the tiny, artificial world that had ruled the System for a thousand years.
The Aesir. The inhuman, cryptic beings who—if legend were true—once had been human. Stuart scowled, trying to remember.
An—an entropic accelerator, that was it. A device, a method that speeded up evolution tremendously. That had been the start of the tyranny. A machine that could accelerate a man’s evolution by a million years—
Some had used that method. Those were the ones who had become the Aesir, creatures so far advanced in the evolutionary scale that they were no longer remotely human. Much was lost in the mists of the past. But Stuart could recall that much—the knowledge that the Aesir had once been human, that they were human no longer, and that for a thousand years they had ruled the System, very terribly, from their forbidden asteroid that they named Asgard—home of the legendary Norse gods.
Maybe the tired-eyed man had been an Aesir priest, collecting victims. Certainly no others would have dared to land a ship on Asgard. Stuart swung on, searching the empty skies, and now a queer, unreasoning excitement began to grow within him. At least, before he died, he’d learn what the Aesir were like. It probably wouldn’t be pleasant knowledge, but there’d be some satisfaction in it. And there’d be even more satisfaction if he thought he had a chance of smashing a hard fist into the face of one of the Aesir priests—or even—
Hell, why not? He had nothing to lose now. From the moment he had touched Asgard soil, he was damned anyway. But of one thing Stuart was certain; he wouldn’t be led like a helpless sheep to the throat-cutting. He wouldn’t die without fighting against them.
The forest thinned before him. There was a flicker of swift motion far ahead. Stuart froze, his grip tightening on the cudgel, his eyes searching.
Between the columnar trees, bright amid the purple shadows, a glitter of sparkling nebulae swept. A web of light, Stuart thought—so dazzling his eyes ached as he stared at the—the thing.
Bodiless, intangible, the shifting net of stars poised, high above his head. Hundreds of twinkling, glittering pinpoints flickered there, so swiftly it seemed as though an arabesque spider-web of light weaved in the still, dark air—web of the Norns!
Each flickering star-fleck—watched. Each was an eye.
And as the thing poised, a horrible, half-human hesitancy in its stillness, a deep, humming note sounded, from its starry heart.
Star-points shook and quivered to the sound. Again it came—deeper, more menacing.
Was this one of the—Watchers? Was this one of them?
Abruptly its hesitancy vanished; it swept down upon Stuart. Instinctively he swung his cudgel in a smashing blow that sent him reeling forward—for there was no resistance. The star-creature was as intangible as air.
And yet it was not. The dazzling web of light enfolded him like a blazing cloak. Instantly a cold, trembling horror crawled along his skin. Bodiless the thing might be—but it was dangerous, infinitely so!
Pressure, shifting, quicksand pressure, was all about him. That stealthy cold crept into his flesh and bones, frigid icicles jabbing into his brain. Gasping with shock, Stuart struck out. He had dropped the club. Now he stooped and groped for it, but he could see nothing except a glittering veil of diamonds that raced like a mad torrent everywhere.
The humming rose again—ominously triumphant.
Cursing, Stuart staggered forward. The star-cloak stayed. He tried to grip it somewhere, to wrench it free, but he could not. The thousands of tiny eyes raced past him, glittering with alien ecstasy, shining brighter and ever brighter as they fed.
He felt the life being sucked out of him…. Deeper stabbed the gelid cold … louder roared that throbbing tone in his ears.
He heard his voice gasping furious, hopeless oaths. His eyes ached with the strain of staring at that blinding glitter. Then—
The heart of the Watcher. Crush the heart!
The words crashed like deep thunder in his brain. Had someone spoken them—? No … for, with the command, had come a message as well. As though a thought had spoken within his mind, a telepathic warning from—where?
His eyes strained at the dazzle. Now he saw that there was a brighter core that did not shift and change when the rest of the star-cloud wove its dreadful net. A spot of light that—
He reached out … the nucleus darted away … he lurched forward, on legs half-frozen, and felt a stone turn under his foot. As he crashed down, his hand closed and tightened on something warm and living that pulsed frantically against his palm.
The humming rose to a shrill scream … frightened … warning.
Stuart tightened his grip. He lay motionless, his eyes closed. But all around him he could feel the icy tendrils of the star-thing lashing at him, drinking his human warmth, probing with avid fingers at his brain.
He felt that warm—core—writhe and try to slip between his fingers. He squeezed….
The scream burst out, an inhuman agony in its raw-edged keening.
In Stuart’s hand was—nothing.
He opened his eyes. The dazzling glitter of star-points had vanished. Only the forest, with its purple shadows, lay empty and silent around him.
Stuart got up slowly, swallowed dry-throated. The creatures of the Aesir were not invulnerable, then. Not to one who knew their weaknesses.
How had he known?
What voice had spoken in his brain? There had been an odd, impossible familiarity to that—that mental voice, now that he remembered it. Somewhere he had heard it, sensed it before.
That gap in his memory—
He tried to bridge it, but he could not. There was only a quickening of the desire to go on westward. He felt suddenly certain that he would find the Aesir in that direction.
He took a hesitant step—and another. And with each step, a queer, unmotivated confidence poured into him. As though some barrier in his mind had broken down, letting some strange flood of proud defiance rush in.
It was impossible. It was dangerous. But—certainly—no more dangerous than supinely waiting here on Asgard till another Watcher came to destroy him. There were worse things than the starry Watchers here, if legends were to be trusted.
He went on, the curious tide of defiance rising higher and ever higher in his blood. It was a strangely intoxicating sense of—of pure, crazy self-confidence such as no man should rightfully have felt on this haunted asteroid.
He wondered—but the drunkenness was such that he did not wonder much. He did not question.
He thought: To hell with the Aesir!
The forest ended. At his feet a road began, leading off into the purple horizons of the flat plain before him. At the end of that road was a thrusting pillar of light that rose like a tower toward the dark sky.
There were the Aesir….
Every spaceman has an automatic sense of orientation. In ancient days, when clipper ships sailed the seas of Earth, the Yankee skippers knew the decks beneath their feet, and they knew the stars. Southern Cross or Pole Star told them in what latitudes they sailed. In unknown waters, they still had their familiar keels and the familiar stars.
So it is with the spacemen who drift from Pluto to Mercury Darkside, trusting to metal hulls that shut in the air and shut out the vast abysses of interplanetary space. When they work outship, a glance at the sky will tell a trained man where he is—and only tough, trained men survive the dangerous commerce of space. On Mercury the blazing solar corona flames above the horizon; on clouded Venus the green star of Earth shines sometimes. On Io, Callisto, Ganymede, a man can orient himself by the gigantic mother planet—Saturn or Jupiter—and in the Asteroid Belt, there is always the strange procession of little worlds like lanterns, some half-shadowed, others brightly reflecting the Sun’s glare. Anywhere in the System the sky is friendly—
Except on Asgard. Jupiter was too far and too small; Mars was scarcely visible; the Asteroid Belt not much thicker than the Milky Way. The unfamiliar magnitudes of the planets told Stuart, very surely, that he was on unknown territory. He was without the sure, safe anchor that spacemen depend upon, and that lack told him how utterly he stood alone now.
But the unreasoning confidence did not flag. If anything, it mounted stronger within him as he hurried along the road, his rangy legs eating up the miles with easy speed. The sooner he reached his goal, the better he’d like it. Nor did he wish to encounter any more of the Aesir’s guardians—his business was with the Aesir!
The tower of light grew taller as he went on. Now he saw that it was a cluster of buildings, massed cylinders of varying heights, each one gigantic in diameter as well as height, and all shining with that cold, shadowless radiance that apparently came from the stone—or metal—itself. The road led directly to the base of the tallest tower.
It ran between shining pillars—a gateless threshold—and was lost in silvery mists. No bars were needed to keep visitors out of this fortress!
Briefly a cool wind of doubt blew upon Stuart. He hesitated, wishing he had at least his blaster gun. But he was unarmed; he had even left the club back in the forest.
He glanced around.
The red moon was sinking. A heavier darkness was creeping over the land. Very far away he thought he saw the shifting flicker of dancing lights—a Watcher?
He hurried onward.
Cyclopean, the tower loomed above him, like a shining rod poised to strike. His gaze could not pierce the mists beyond the portal.
He stepped forward—between the twin pillars. He walked on blindly into the silver mists.
Twenty steps he took—and paused, as something dark and shapeless swam into view before him. A pit—at his feet.
In the dimness he could not see its bottom, but a narrow bridge crossed the gulf, a little to his left. Stuart crossed the bridge. Solidity was again under his feet.
With shocking suddenness, a great, brazen bellow of laughter roared out. Harsh mockery sharpened it. And it was echoed.
All around Stuart the laughter thundered—and was answered. The walls gave it back and echoed it. The bellowing laughter of gods deafened Stuart.
The mists drifted away—were sucked down into the pit. They vanished.
As though they fled from that evil laughter.
Stuart stood in a chamber that must have occupied the entire base of that enormous tower. Behind him the abyss gaped. Before him a shifting veil of light hid whatever lay behind it. But all around, between monstrous pillars, were set thrones, ebon thrones fifty feet tall.
On the thrones sat giants!
Titan figures, armored in glittering mail, ringed Stuart, and instantly his mind fled back to half-forgotten folk-lore…. Asgard, Jotunheim, the lands of the giants and the gods. Thor and Odin, sly Loki and Baldur—they were all here, he thought, bearded colossi roaring their black laughter into the shaking air of the hall.
Watching him from their height—
Then he looked up, and the giants were dwarfed.
The chamber was roofless. At least he could see no roof. The pillars climbed up and up tremendously all around the walls that were hung with vast stretches of tapestry, till they dwindled to a pinpoint far above. The sheer magnitude of the tower made Stuart’s mind rock dizzily.
Still the laughter roared out. But now it died….
Thundered through the hall a voice … deep … resonant … the voice of the Aesir.
“A human, brother!”
“Aye! A human—and a mad one, to come here.”
“To enter the hall of the Aesir.”
A red-bearded colossus bent down, his glacial blue eyes staring at Stuart. “Shall I crush him?”
Stuart sprang back as an immense hand swooped down like a falling tree upon him. Instinctively his hand flashed to his belt, and suddenly the red-beard was shouting laughter that the others echoed.
“He has courage.”
“Let him live.”
“Aye. Let him live. He may amuse us for a while….”
“Then the pit—with the others.”
The others? Stuart slanted a glance downward. The silver mists had dissipated now, and he could see that the abyss was not bottomless. Its floor was fifty feet below the surface on which he stood, and a dozen figures were visible beneath.
They stood motionless—like statues. A burly, leather-clad Earthmen who might have been whisked from some Plutonian mine; a slim, scantily clad Earthgirl, her hair powdered blue, her costume the shining sequin-suit of a tavern entertainer. A stocky, hunch-shouldered Venusian with his slate-gray skin; a Martian girl, seven feet tall, with limbs and features of curious delicacy, her hair piled high atop that narrow skull. Another Earthman—a thin, pale, clerklike fellow. A white-skinned, handsome Callistan native, looking like Apollo, and, like all Callistans, harboring the cold savagery of a demon behind that smooth mask.
A dozen of them—drawn from all parts of the System. Stuart remembered that this was the time of the periodic tithing—which meant nothing less than a sacrifice. Once each month a few men and women would vanish—not many—and the black ships of the Aesir priests sped back to Asgard with their captives.
Not one looked up. Frozen motionless as stone, they stood there in the pit—waiting.
Again the laughter crashed out. The red-beard was watching Stuart.
“His courage flags,” the great voice boomed. “Speak the truth, Earthman. Have you courage to face the gods?”
Stuart stubbornly refused to answer. He had an odd, reasonless impression that this was part of some deep game, that behind the mocking by-play lay a more serious purpose.
“He has courage now,” a giant said. “But did he always have courage? Has there never been a time in his life when courage failed him? Answer, Earthman!”
Stuart was listening to another voice, a quiet, infinitely distant voice within his brain that whispered: Do not answer them!
“Let him pass our testing,” the red-beard commanded. “If he fails, there is an end. If he does not fail—he goes into the pit to walk the Long Orbit.”
The giant leaned forward.
“Will you match skill—and courage—with us, Earthling?”
Still Stuart did not answer. More than ever now he sensed the violent, hidden undercurrents surging beneath the surface of this by-play. More than he knew swung in the balance here.
“He has courage,” a giant repeated. “But did he always have courage?”
“We shall see …” the red-beard said.
The air shimmered before Stuart. Through its shaking his senses played him false. He knew quite well who he was and where he stood, in what deadly peril—but in that shimmer which bewildered the eyes and the mind he was a boy again, seeing a certain hillside he had not seen except through his boyhood’s eyes. And he saw a black horse standing above him on the slope, pawing the ground and looking at him with red eyes. And an old, old terror came flooding over him that he had not remembered for a quarter of a century. A boy’s acute and sudden terror….
Who had opened the doors of his mind and laid this secret bare? He himself had long forgotten—and who upon this alien world could look back through space and time to remind him of that long-ago day when the vicious black horse had thrown an inexperienced boy rider and planted a seed of terror in his mind which he had been years outgrowing? But the fear was long gone now, long gone…. Was it?
Then whence had come this monstrous black stallion that pawed the floor of the hall, glaring down red-eyed at him and showing teeth like fangs? No horse, but a monster in the shape of a horse, a monster ten feet high at the shoulder, wearing the shape of his boyhood nightmare that woke in Stuart even now the old, unreasoning horror….
It was stamping down upon him, shaking its bridled head, snorting, lifting its lip above the impossible teeth. He saw the reins hanging loose, he saw the saddle and the swinging stirrups. He knew that the only safety in this hall for him was paradoxically upon the nightmare’s back, where the hoofs and fangs could not reach him. But the terror and revulsion which the boy had buried long ago came welling up from founts deep-buried in the man’s subconscious mind….
Now it was rushing him, head like a snake’s outthrust, hissing like a snake, reins flying like Medusa-locks as it stretched to seize him. For one instant he stood there paralyzed. He had faced dangers on many worlds to which this nightmare was nothing, but he had never since boyhood felt the paralysis of horror that gripped him now. It was a child’s horror, resurrected from the caves of sleep to ruin him….
With a superhuman effort he broke that frozen fear, snatching for the flying reins, whirling as the monstrous thing swept past him in a thunder of terrifying hoofs. Desperately he clung to the reins, and as the thing rushed by he somehow got a clutching hand upon the saddle-horn and found a stirrup that swung sickeningly when it took his weight.
Then he was in the saddle, dizzy still with the terrors of childhood, but astride the nightmare.
And now, with a sudden intoxicating clarity, the fear fell from his mind. For an instant he sat high on the back of the incredible fanged thing, an old, old terror clearing from his mind. Confidence which was, he knew, his own and no bodiless reassurance drawn from dreams, such as he had felt in the jungle, flooded warmly through him. He was not afraid any more—he would never be afraid. The festering terror buried deep in his childhood had come to light at last and was wiped away. He caught the reins tight and flashed a sudden grin around the hall—
Brazen laughter boomed through the building. And beneath his knees Stuart felt the horse’s body alter incredibly. One moment he was gripping a solid, warm-fleshed, hairy thing whose body had a familiar pitch and motion beneath the saddle. Then, then—
Indescribably the body writhed under him. The warm hairy flesh flowed and changed. Cold struck through leatheroid against his thighs, and it was a smooth, pouring cold of many alien muscles working powerfully together in a way no mammal knows. He looked down.
He was riding a monstrous snake that twisted its head to look at him in the moment he realized what had happened. Its great diamond-shaped head towered high and came looping down toward him, wide-mouthed, tongue like a flame flickering….
It laid its cold, smooth cheek against his with a hideous caressing motion, sliding around his neck, sliding down his arm and side, laying a loop of cold, scaly strength around him and pressing, pressing….
His hands closed around the thickness of its throat, futilely—and the throat melted in his grasp and was hairy with a hairiness no mammal ever knew. The motion of the body he bestrode changed again and was incredibly springy and light.
He rode a monstrous spider. His hands were sunk wrist-deep in loathsome coarse hair, and his eyes stared into great cold faceted eyes that mirrored his own face a thousandfold. He saw his own distorted features looking back at him in countless miniatures, but behind the faces, in the great eyes of the spider, he saw no consciousness regarding him. The cold multiple eyes were not aware of Derek Stuart. Behind the shield of its terrible face the spider shut away its own arachnid thoughts and the memories of the red fields of Mars that were its home. With dreadful, impersonal aloofness its mandibles gaped forward toward its prey.
Loathing ran in waves of weakness through Stuart’s whole body, but he shut his eyes and blindly struck out at the nearer of those great mirroring eyes, feeling wetness shatter against his fist as—as—
As the horror shifted and vanished, while rippling waves of green light darkened all about him. Now they coagulated, drew together into a meadow, cool with Earthly grass, bordered by familiar trees far away. Primroses gleamed here and there. Above him was the blue sky and the warm bright sun that shone only upon the hills of Earth.
But what he felt was horror.
Twenty feet from him was a rank, rounded patch of weeds. His gaze was drawn inexorably to that spot. And it was from there that the crawling dread reached out to him.
Faintly he heard laughter … of the gods … of the Aesir. The Aesir? Who—what were they? How had he, Derek Stuart, ever heard of them except as a name whispered in fear as the spaceships streaked through the clouds above that Dakota farmstead….
Derek Stuart … a boy of eleven….
But—but—that was wrong, somehow. He wasn’t a child any more. He had matured, become a spaceman—
Dreams. The dreams of an eleven-year-old.
Yet the hollow, dreadful laughter throbbed somewhere, in the vaults of the blue overhead, in the solidity of the very ground beneath him.
This had happened before. It had happened to a boy in South Dakota—a boy who had not known what lay concealed in that verdant clump of weeds.
But now, somehow—and very strangely—Stuart knew what he would find there.
He was afraid. Horribly, sickeningly afraid. Cold nausea crawled up his spine and the calves of his legs. He wanted to turn and run to the farmhouse half a mile away. He almost turned, and then paused as the distant laughter grew louder.
They wanted him to run. They were trying to scare him—and, once the defenses of his courage had broken, he would be lost. Stuart knew that with an icy certainty.
Somewhere, very far away, he sensed a man standing in a cyclopean hall—a man in ragged spaceman’s garb, hard-faced, thin-lipped, angry-eyed. A familiar figure. The man was urging him on—telling him to go on toward that clump of weeds—
Derek Stuart obeyed the voiceless command. His throat dry, his heart pumping, he forced himself across the meadow till he stood at his goal and looked down at the bloody, twisted corpse of the tramp who had been knifed by another hobo, twenty years before, on that Dakota farm. The old nausea of shocked horror took him by the throat and strangled him.
He fought it down. This time he didn’t run screaming back to the farmhouse….
And suddenly the laughter of the gods was stilled. Derek Stuart, a man once more in mind, stood again in the tower of the Aesir. The thrones between the monstrous pillars were vacant.
The Aesir were gone.
Stuart let out his breath in a long sigh. He had no illusions about the vanishment of the Aesir; he knew he had not conquered those mighty beings. It would take more than human powers to do that. But at least he had a respite. All but the most stolid spacemen develop hypertension, and there seems to be a curious mathematical rule about that; it increases according to the distance from the Sun. Which may be explained by the fact that environmental differences also increase as the outer planets are reached—and alien environments breed alien creatures. A great many men have gone insane on Pluto….
This was not Pluto; it was nearer Sunward than Jupiter, but the utter alienage that brooded over Asgard was almost palpable. Even the solidity under Stuart’s feet, the very stones of the planetoid, were artificially created, by a science a million years beyond that of his own time. And the Aesir—
Unexpectedly his deep chest shook with laughter. The inexplicable self-confidence that had first come to him in the Asgard forests had not waned; it seemed to have grown even stronger since his meeting with the Aesir giants. Now he stared around the colossal hall, his eyes straining toward the spot of light far above where those incredible columns converged. His own insignificance by comparison did not trouble him.
Whether or not he could have the slightest hope of winning this game—at least he was giving his enemies a run for their money!
A sound from the pit roused him. Stuart walked warily toward the edge. The dozen motionless figures were still there, fifty feet below, and among them was one he had not noticed before—an Earthgirl, he thought, with curling dark hair framing a white face as she tilted up her chin and stared at him.
At this distance he could make out few details; she wore a close-fitting green suit which left slender arms and legs bare.
“Earthman—” she said, in a clear, carrying voice. “Earthman! Quick! The Aesir will be back—go now! Leave their temple before they—”
“Don’t waste your breath,” Stuart said. “This is Asgard.” Whoever the girl was, she should know the impossibility of leaving the taboo world. “If I can find a rope—”
She said quickly, “You won’t find one. Not here, in the temple.”
“How can I get you out of there? And the others?”
“You’re mad,” the girl said. “What good would it do….” She shook her head. “Better to die at once.”
Stuart narrowed his eyes at the dozen frozen figures. “I don’t think so. Fourteen of us can put up a better fight than one. If your friends wake up—”
The girl said, “On your left, between the pillars, there’s a tapestry showing Perseus and the Gorgon. Touch the helm of Perseus and the hand of Andromeda. Then go carefully—there may be traps.”
“What is it?”
“It will lead you down here. You can free us. If you hurry—oh, but it’s hopeless! The Aesir—”
“Damn the Aesir,” Stuart snarled. “Wake up the others!” He whirled and ran toward the distant wall, where he could see the Perseus tapestry, brown and gold, a huge curtain between two columns.
If the Aesir saw, they made no move….
Stuart’s lips twisted in a bitter smile. The crazy confidence had not left him, but he was conscious of a reassuring warmth; at least he was no longer completely alone. That would help. Between the worlds, and on the desolate planets that swing along the edge of the System, loneliness is the lurking terror, more horrible than the most exotic monster ever spawned by the radioactive Plutonian earth.
He touched the tapestry twice; it swept away from him, and a staircase was visible, leading down through stone or metal—he could not tell which. Stuart fought back the impulse that urged him to race down those curving spiral steps. The girl had spoken of traps.
He went warily, testing each tread before he put his weight upon it. Though he did not think that the snares of the Aesir would be so simple.
At the bottom, he emerged into a vaulted chamber, tiny by comparison with the one he had left. It was oval, domed ceiling and walls and floor shining with a milky radiance—except at one spot.
There he saw a door—transparent. Through it he looked into the pit. He was on a level with the floor of that shaft now; he could see the dozen figures still standing motionless in a huddled group, and a few feet beyond the glassy pane was the Earthgirl. She was looking directly at him, but her dark eyes had a blind seeking, as though the door was opaque from her side.
Stuart paused, his hand on the complicated mechanism that, he guessed, would open the portal. His hard, dark face was impassive, but he was conscious of an unfamiliar stirring deep within him. From above, he had not seen the girl’s beauty.
He saw it now.
She couldn’t be an Earthgirl—entirely. She must be one of those disturbingly lovely interplanetary halfbreeds. Earth-blood she had, of course, and predominantly, but there was something more, the pure essence of beauty that blazed through her like a flame kindled in a lamp of crystal. In all his wanderings between the worlds, Stuart had never seen a girl as breathtakingly lovely as this one.
His hand moved on the controls: the door slid silently open. The girl’s eyes brightened. She gave a little gasp and ran toward him. Without question she sought refuge in his arms, and for a moment Stuart held her—not unwillingly.
He thrust her away gently.
She said, “It’s useless. The paralysis—”
Stuart scowled and stepped across the threshold into the pit. Uneasiness crawled along his spine as he did so. The Aesir might be watching from above, or—or—
There was nothing. Only dead silence, and the uneven breathing of the girl as she stood in the doorway watching. Stuart stopped before the leather-clad Earthman and tested a burly arm. The man stood frozen, his flesh cold and hard as stone, his eyes staring glassily. He was not even breathing.
So with the others. Stuart grimaced and shrugged. He turned back toward the girl, and felt a pulse of relief as he stepped into the shining chamber. He might be no safer here, but at least he wasn’t so conscious of inhuman eyes that might be watching from above. Not that solid stone might be any barrier to the Aesir’s probing gaze….
The girl touched the mechanism; the door slid silently shut. “It’s no use,” she said. “The paralysis holds all the others. Only I could battle it—a little. And that was because—”
“Save it,” Stuart said. He turned toward the door by which he had entered, but an urgent hand gripped his wrist.
“Let me talk,” the quiet voice said. “We’re as safe here as anywhere. And there may be a way—now that I can think clearly again.”
“A way out? A safe way?”
There was a haunted look in her dark eyes. “I don’t know. I’ve lived here for a long time. The others—” she pointed toward the door of the pit. “The sacrifices were brought to Asgard only yesterday. But I’ve been here many moons. The Aesir kept me alive for a bit, to amuse them. Then they tired, and I was thrown in with the others. But I learned a little. I—I—no one can dwell here in the Aesir stronghold without—changing a little. That’s why the paralysis didn’t hold me as long as it holds the others.”
“Can we save them?”
“I don’t know,” she said, with a small, helpless shrug. “I don’t even know if we can save ourselves. It’s been so long since I was brought to Asgard that I—I scarcely remember my life before that. But I have learned a little of the Aesir—and that may help us now.”
Stuart watched her. She tried to smile, but not successfully.
She said, “I’m Kari. The rest—I’ve forgotten. You’re—”
“Tell me what happened.”
“We haven’t time,” Stuart said impatiently, but Kari shook her head.
“We’ll need weapons, and I must know—first—if you can use them. Tell me!”
Well, she was right. She had knowledge that Stuart needed. So he told her, very briefly, what he remembered.
She stared at him. “Voices—in your mind?”
“Something like that. I don’t know—”
“No. No. Or—wait—” He tried to focus his thoughts upon a far, faint calling that came from infinite distances. His name. An urgent summons—
It faded and was gone.
“There’s nothing,” Stuart said finally, and Kari moved her shoulders uneasily.
“No help there, then.”
“Tell me one thing. What’s the Aesir’s power? Hypnotism?”
“No,” Kari said, “or not entirely. They can make thoughts into real things. They are—what the race of man will evolve into in a million years. And they have changed, into beings utterly alien to humans.”
“They looked human—giants, though.”
“They can assume any shape,” Kari told him. “Their real form is unimaginable. Being of pure energy … mental force … matrixes of electronic power. They were striking at you through your mind.”
Stuart said, “I wondered why they didn’t set some of their Watchers on me.”
“I don’t know why they didn’t,” Kari frowned. “Instead, they hammered at your weaknesses—old fears that hung on to you for years. Experiences that frightened you in the past. They sent your mind back into that past—but you were too strong for them.”
“Then. They have other powers, Stuart—incredible powers. You can’t fight them alone. And you must fight them. In a thousand years no one has dared—”
Stuart remembered something. “Two dared—once.”
Kari nodded. “I know. I know the legends, anyway. About John Starr and Lorna. The great rebels who first defied the Aesir when the tyranny began. But they may have been only legendary figures. Even if they were real—they failed.”
“Yes, they failed. And they’re a thousand years dead. But it shows something—to me at least. Man wasn’t meant to be a slave to these monsters. Rebellion—”
Kari watched him. Stuart’s eyes were shadowed.
“John Starr and Lorna,” he whispered. “I wonder what their world was like, a thousand years ago? We’ve got all the worlds now, all the planets of the System from Jupiter to the smallest asteroid. But we don’t rule them, as men owned their own Earth in those days. We’re slaves to the Aesir.”
“The Aesir are—are gods.”
“John Starr didn’t think so,” Stuart said. “Neither do I. And at worst I can always die, as he did. Listen, Kari.” He gripped her arms. “Think. You’ve lived here for a while. Is there any weapon against those devils?”
She met his gaze steadily. “Yes,” she said. “But—”
“What is it? Where?”
Abruptly Kari’s face changed. She pressed herself against Stuart, avoiding his lips, simply seeking—he knew—warmth and companionship. She was crying softly.
“So long—” Kari whispered, her arms tight around him. “I’ve been here so long—with the gods. And I’m so lonely, Derek Stuart. So lonely for green fields and fires and the blue sky. I wish—”
“You’ll see Earth again,” Stuart promised. At that Kari pulled away. Her strange half-breed loveliness was never more real than then, with tears sparkling on her dark lashes, and her mouth trembling.
She said, a catch in her voice, “I’ll show you the weapon, Stuart.”
She turned toward the wall. Her hand moved in a quick gesture. A panel opened there in the glowing surface.
Kari reached in, and when she withdrew her arm, it was as though she held a torrent of blood that poured down from her grip. It was a cloak, Stuart saw, made of some material so fine that it rippled like water. Its crimson violence was bizarre against the cool green of Kari’s garment.
“This cloak—” she said. “You must wear it if we face the Aesir.”
Stuart grimaced. “What good is a piece of cloth? A blaster gun’s what I want.”
“A blaster wouldn’t help,” Kari said. “This is more than a piece of cloth, Stuart. It is half-alive—made so by the sciences of the Aesir. Wear it! It will protect you.”
She swung the great, scarlet billows about Stuart’s shoulders. Her fingers fumbled with the clasp at his throat. And then—
The desperate urgency of the thought roared through Stuart’s mind. He knew that soundless voice, so sharp now with violent intensity. His hands came up to rip the cloak from him—
He was too late. Kari sprang back, wide-eyed, as the fastenings of the cloak tightened like a noose about Stuart’s neck. He felt a stinging shock that ran like white fire along his spine and up into his brain. One instant of blazing disorientation, a hopeless, despairing cry in his mind—a double cry, as of two telepathetic voices—and then, his muscles too weak to hold him, he crashed down upon the floor.
It was not paralysis. He was simply drained of all strength. There was pressure about his throat, cold flames along his spine and in his brain, and he could feel the texture of the cloak wrapped about him, striking through his spaceman’s garb—tingling, sentient, half-alive!
He whispered an oath. Kari’s face had not changed. He read something strangely like pity in her dark eyes.
From the gap in the wall whence she had drawn the cloak came a figure, cloaked in black, a jet cowl hiding its head and face completely. It was taller than the girl by a foot. It shuffled forward with an odd, rocking gait, and paused near her.
Stuart whispered, “I—should have remembered. The—the Aesir can change their shapes. Those giants I saw weren’t real. And neither are you—not even human!”
Kari shook her head. “I am real,” she said slowly. “He is not.” She gestured toward the black-cloaked figure. “But we are all of the Aesir. And, as we thought, you were sent by the Protectors. Now your power is gone, and you must walk the Long Orbit with the other captives.”
The cowled creature came forward. It bent, but Stuart could see nothing in the shadow of the hood. A fold of cloth writhed out and touched Stuart’s forehead.
Darkness wrapped him like the shroud of the scarlet cloak.
For a long time he had only his thoughts for company. They were not pleasant. He felt alone, as he had never felt so utterly lonely and deserted before anywhere in the System. Now he realized that even since his landing on Asgard, he had had companionship of a sort—that the twin voices murmuring in his brain had been more real than he had realized. A living warmth, a sense of—of presence—had been with him then.
But it was gone now. Its absence left a black void within him. He stood alone.
And Kari…. If he saw her again when his hands were free, he would kill her. He knew that. But—but her shining smile lightened the darkness that engulfed him now. He had never seen loveliness like Kari’s, and he had known so many women, so many, too many…. A man who has fought his way Sunward and back again by way of Pluto’s chasmed midnight is not so easily misled by the smile of a pretty woman.
Kari was no ordinary woman—God knew she was not! Perhaps not even human, perhaps not even real at all. It might be that very touch of alienage that had stamped her shining image upon his memory, but he could not put the image aside now. He saw her clearly in the darkness of his captivity and the deeper dark of his loneliness, now that the voices were stilled. Lovely, exotic, with the eyes full of longing and terror—what lies they told!—and that lovely, that dazzling smile.
Bitterness made a wry taste in his mouth. Either she was one of the Aesir, or she served them. Served them well. A knife in the heart was the only answer he had for her, and he meant to give her that edged answer if he lived. But she was so very lovely….
Slowly the veil of darkness lifted. He saw a face he had seen before—the harsh, seamed features of the burly Earthman in the pit. And beyond him, the slim Martian girl. All motionless, standing like statues beside him … beside him! For Stuart was one of them now. He was in the pit, with the other captives.
Sensation came back slowly. With it came a tingling, a warm vibration along his spine … about his throat … inside his brain. He could not move, but at the corner of his range of vision flamed a crimsonness—the cloak. He still wore it.
He wondered if the other captives could see him, if their minds were as active as his in their congealed bodies. Or whether the chill of deathlike silence held their brains along with their frozen limbs.
A slow, volcanic fury began to glow within him. Kari—traitor and murderess! Was she Aesir? Was she Earth-born? And that black-cloaked, cowled creature … which was not real. Another projector of the Aesir, as the giants had been?
You were sent by the Protectors.
Memory of Kari’s phrase came back to Stuart now. And with it, as though he had somehow unbarred a locked gate, opened it a mere crack, came a—a whispering.
Not audible. Faint, faraway, like the shadow of a wind rustling ghosts of autumn leaves, the murmur rose and fell … calling him.
The scarlet cloak moved … writhed … flowed more closely about him. Fainter grew the voices.
Stuart strained after them. His soul sprang up … reaching toward those friendly, utterly inhuman whispers that came from nowhere.
A dull lethargy numbed him. The cloak drew tighter….
He ignored it. Deep in the citadel of his mind, he made himself receptive, all his being focused on that—that strange calling from beyond.
And, suddenly, there were words….
“Derek Stuart. Can you hear us? Answer!”
His stiff lips could not speak, but his thoughts formed an answer. And, rising and falling as though the frequency of that incredible telepathy pulsed and changed continually, the message came—
“We have lost. You have lost too, Stuart. But we will stay with you—we must stay now—and perhaps your death will be easier because of that….”
“Who are you?” he thought, oddly awed by the personality he sensed behind that voice that was really two voices.
“There is little time.” The—sound?—faded into a thin whisper, then grew stronger. “The cloak makes it hard for us to communicate with you. And now we can give you none of our power at all. It is a monstrous thing—a blasphemy such as only the Aesir would create. Half-alive—it makes an artificial synapse between the individual and outside mental contacts. We cannot help you—”
“Who are you?”
“We are the Protectors. Listen now, Stuart, for soon you must walk the Long Orbit with the others. We removed some of your memories, so the Aesir could not read your mind and have time to prepare themselves—we hoped we might destroy them this time. But—we have failed again. Now—we give you your memories back.”
Like a slowly rising tide, Stuart’s past began to return. He did not question how this was done; he was too busy lifting the veil that had darkened his mind since—since that night at the Singing Star in New Boston. A few drinks with the tired-eyed man, and then darkness—
But the curtain was lifting now. He remembered….
He remembered a tiny, underground room, with armed men—not many of them—staring at him. A voice that said, “You must either join us or die. We dare run no risks. For hundreds of years a tiny band of us has survived, only because the Aesir did not know we existed.”
“Rebels?” he had asked.
“Sworn to destroy the Aesir,” the man told him, and an answering glow burned briefly in the eyes of the others.
“You have courage,” the man said. “You’ll need it. I know why you laugh. But we don’t fight alone. Have you ever heard of the Protectors?”
“Few have. They aren’t human, any more than the Aesir are. But they are not evil. They’re humanity’s champions. They have sworn to destroy the Aesir, as we have—and so we serve them.”
“Who are they, then? What are they?”
“No man knows,” the other said quietly. “Who—and where—they are is a secret they keep to themselves. But we hear their messages. And once in a lifetime, not oftener, they tell us where we may find some man they have winnowed the planets to discover. In our lifetime, Stuart, you are the man.”
He gaped at them. “Why? I—”
“To be a weapon for the Protectors—a champion for mankind. The Protectors are so far beyond humanity they cannot fight our battles in their own forms. They need a—a vessel into which they can pour their power. Or—call it a sword to wield against the Aesir. They have searched the worlds over for a long while now, and you—” The man hesitated, looking narrowly at Stuart. “You are the only vessel they found. You have a great destiny, Derek Stuart.”
He had scowled at them. “All right, suppose I have. What do they offer?”
The man shook his head. “Death—if you’re lucky. No man before you has ever won a battle for the Protectors. You know that—the Aesir still rule! Every chance is against you. In a thousand years no man has won the gamble. But this is greater than you or us, Derek Stuart. Do you think you have any choice?”
Stuart stared the other man in the eyes. “There’s no chance?”
The leader smiled. All mankind’s indomitable hope was in the smile.
“Would the Protectors have spent all their efforts, and ours, to find you if there were no hope? They have mighty and terrible powers. With the right man for their vessel, they could be stronger than the Aesir. No man could stand alone against the Aesir. The Protectors could not stand alone. But together—sword and hand and brain welded into one—yes, Stuart, there’s a chance!”
“Then why have the others failed?”
“No one has yet been quite strong enough. Only once in forty years—fifty—is a man born who might, with luck, have the courage and the strength. Look at us here—do you think we would not offer ourselves gladly? Instead, the Protectors guided us to you. If you are willing to let them establish contact with your mind, enter it, possess it—there’s a chance the Aesir can be destroyed. There’s a chance that man’s slavery may be ended!” His voice shook with that mighty hope.
Stuart glanced around at the ardent, fanatical faces, and something in him took a slow fire from the fire in theirs. A deep and vital purpose, as old as humanity—how many times before in Earth’s history had men of Earth gathered in hidden rooms and sworn vows against tyranny and oppression? How many times before had Earthmen dedicated themselves and their son’s sons, if need be, to the old, old dream that though men may die, mankind must in the end be free?
Here in this crowded room the torch of freedom still burned, despite the hell of slavery under which the worlds toiled now.
“It won’t be easy, Stuart,” the man warned. “A sword—blade must be hammered on the anvil, heated in flame, before it’s tempered. The Protectors will test you—so that your mind may be toughened to resist the attacks of the Aesir later. You will suffer….”
He had suffered. Those agonizing, nightmare dreams in the forest, the phantoms that had tortured him—other trials he did not want to remember. But there had been no flaw in the blade. In the end—the Protectors had been satisfied, and had entered his mind—maintaining the contact that still held, though thinly now.
And the voices he heard still whispering within him were the voices of his mentors….
“We took your memories from you. So that the Aesir could not read too much in your mind, and be forewarned. Now that does not matter, and you will be stronger with your memory restored. But when you let the girl clasp the cloak about you—that was failure.”
“If I could move,” Stuart thought. “If I could rip it off—”
“It is part of you. We do not know how it can be removed. And while you wear it, we cannot give you our power.”
Stuart said bitterly. “If you’d given me that power in the first place—”
“We did. How do you think you survived the first testing by the Aesir? And it is dangerous. We must gauge it carefully, so that we do not transmit too much of our mental energy to you. You are merely human—if we let you draw on a tenth of our power, that would burn you out like a melting wire under a strong current.”
“We have lost again. You have lost, and we are sorry. All we can do is give you an easy death. We possess you now, mentally; if we should withdraw from your brain, you would die instantly. We will do that whenever you ask. For the Aesir will kill you anyhow now, and not pleasantly.”
“I’m not committing suicide. As long as I live, I can still fight.”
“We also. This has happened before. We have chosen and possessed other champions, and they have failed. We withdrew from their minds before the Aesir … killed … so that we could survive to try again. To wage another battle. Some day we will win. Some day we shall destroy the Aesir. But we dare not cling to our broken swords, lest we too be broken.”
“So when the going gets tough you step out!”
Stuart sensed pity in the strange twin voice. “We must. We fight for the race of man. And the greatest gift we can give you now is quick death.”
“I don’t want it,” Stuart thought furiously. “I’m going to keep on fighting! Maybe that’s why you’ve always failed before—you were too ready to give up. So I’ll die if you step out of my mind? Well—it’s a lousy bargain!”
There was no anger, only a stronger overtone of pity in the still voice.
“What is it you want, Stuart?”
“Nothing from you! Just let me go on living. I’ll do my own fighting. There’ll be time enough to take a powder when the axe falls. I’m asking you simply this—keep me alive until I’ve had another crack at the Aesir!”
A pause. “It is dangerous. Dangerous for us. But—”
“We will take the risk. But understand—we must leave you if the peril grows too great. And will—inevitably.”
“Thanks,” Stuart said, and meant it. “One thing. What about Kari? Who is she?”
“A hundred years ago she was human. Then she was brought here, and the Aesir possessed her—as we possess you. She has grown less human in that time, as the alien grows stronger within her. She has only faint memories of her former life now, and they will vanish soon. Contact with the Aesir is like an infection—she will grow more and more like them. Perhaps, eventually, become one of them.”
Stuart grimaced. “If the Aesir should withdraw from her—”
“She would die, yes. Her own life-force has been sapped too far. You and she are kept alive only as long as the bond of possession holds.”
Nice, Stuart thought. If the Aesir were destroyed, Kari would die with him. And if he faced doom, he too would die, as the Protectors withdrew to avoid sharing his fate.
Hell—what did he care whether Kari lived or died? It was only the glamor of half-alienage that had drawn him to the girl. A dagger in her throat—
Besides, he was certainly facing doom now.
“All I can do—” he said—and stopped abruptly. He was speaking aloud. Patiently the twin voice in his brain waited for him to continue.
Slowly he flexed his arms. He tilted back his head, staring up at the rim of the pit fifty feet above him. He could see the titan pillars rising toward the roof of that mighty tower, incredibly far above. But there was no sign of life.
“I can move,” he said. “I—”
Struck by a new thought, he gripped the folds of the cloak. It was nauseously warm and vibrant. It seemed to move under his hands. He jerked at it, and felt a twinge of agonizing pain along his spine and about his throat, while a white-hot lance stabbed into his skull.
“If I could get rid of this—you could help me?”
“We could give you our power, to use against the Aesir. But we do not know how to remove the cloak.”
“I don’t either,” Stuart growled, and paused as a movement caught his eye. The muscular Earthman near him was stirring.
He turned slowly. Beyond him the Martian girl swayed her feathery-crested head and lifted supple, slender arms. And the others—all about Stuart they were wakening to motion.
But no life showed in their dull eyes. No understanding. Only a blind, empty withdrawal.
They turned, trooped toward the wall of the pit … toward an arched opening that was gaping suddenly.
“The Long Orbit,” said the voice in Stuart’s mind.
“Death. As the Aesir feed. They feed on the life-force of living organisms.”
“Is that the only way out?”
“The only way open to you. Yes.”
Stuart went slowly after the others. They had crossed the threshold now, and were pacing along a tunnel, lit with cold blue brilliance, that curved very gradually toward the left. Behind him a panel closed.
The cloak swayed like a great bloodstain behind him, moving in a motion not entirely caused by Stuart’s movements. He tried again to unfasten it, but the clasp at his throat only drew tighter. And the tingling sensation increased along his spine.
An artificial synapse … blocking his nerve-ends so that he could not draw upon the Protectors’ power….
At his left was an alcove in the tunnel wall. It was filled with coagulated light … bright with glaring flames … flame-hot. Within that white curtain stirred swift movement, like the leaping of fires. Above the recess a symbol was embossed in the stone. The sign of Mercury.
“Mercury,” said the voice in Stuart’s mind. “The Servant of the Sun. The Swift Messenger. Mercury, that drinks the Sun’s fires and blazes like a star in the sky’s abyss. First in the Long Orbit—Mercury.”
The crowd of prisoners, dull-eyed, swayed to and fro, a ripple of excitement rustling through them. Abruptly the Martian girl darted forward—
Was engulfed in the milky flames.
Stood there, while curdled opalescence veiled her. On her face sheer horror, as—
“The Aesir feed,” the voice whispered. “They drink the cup of her life … to its last dregs.”
The captives were moving again. Silently Stuart followed them along the tunnel. Now another recess showed in the wall.
Blue … blue, this time, as hazy seas of enchantment … misted with fog, with slow shifting movement within it….
“The sign of Venus,” said the voice. “The Clouded World. Planet of life and womb of creation. Ruler of mists and seas—Venus!”
The Earthman was drawn into the alcove. Stood there, while azure seas washed higher and higher about him. Through that glassy veil his face glared, stiff with alien fear….
The sacrifices went on.
There was no alcove, no symbol for Earth. The Aesir had forgotten the world that had been their place of birth.
“Mars! Red star of madness! Ruler of man’s passion, lord of the bloody seas! Where scarlet sands run through Time’s hourglass—Mars, third in the Long Orbit!”
The crimson glow of a dusty ruby … the face of a Venusian, strained, twisted in agony … the hunger of the Aesir….
“The Little Worlds! The Great Belt that girdles the Inner System! The Broken Planet—”
Tiny goblin lights, dancing and flickering, blue and sapphire and dull orange, wine-red and dawn-yellow—
The hunger of the Aesir.
“Jupiter! Titan! Colossus of the Spaceroads! Jupiter, whose mighty hands seize the ships of man and drag them to his boiling heart! The Great One-fifth in the Long Orbit!”
The hunger of the Aesir.
“Ringed Saturn light-crowned! Guardian of the outer skies! Saturn—”
Uranus … Neptune….
The hunger of the Aesir….
Beyond Pluto, dark worlds Stuart had not known. Until finally he was alone. The last of his companions had been drawn into one of the vampire alcoves of the Long Orbit.
He went on.
There was another recess in the wall at his left. It was filled with night. Jet blackness, cold and horrible, brimmed it.
Something like an invisible current dragged him forward, though he fought with all his strength to resist. Instinctively he sent out a desperate call to the Protectors.
“We cannot aid you. We must leave you … you will die instantly.”
“Wait! Don’t—don’t give up yet! Give me your power—”
“We cannot. While you wear the cloak.”
The edge of blackness touched Stuart with a frigid impact. He felt something, avid with horrible hunger, strain forward from of the alcove, reaching for him. The cloak billowed out—
Sweat stood out on Stuart’s face. For, suddenly, he had seen the way. It might mean death, it would certainly mean frightful agony—but he could go down fighting. If the cloak could not be removed in any other way—perhaps it could be ripped off! He gripped the half-living fabric at its bottom, brought his arm behind him—and tore the horror from him!
Stark, abysmal nerve-shock poured like a current of fire up his spine and into his brain. It was like tearing off his own skin. Sick, blind, gasping dry-throated sobs, Stuart stumbled away from the black alcove, tearing at the cloak. It tried to cling to him—
He ripped it away—hurled it from him. And as it fell—it screamed!
But he was free.
For an instant sheer weakness overwhelmed him. Then into him poured a racing, jubilant torrent of strength, of mighty, intoxicating power that seemed to heal his wounds and revivify him instantly.
Into him surged the power of the Protectors!
From the alcove a finger of darkness tendrilled out. He was borne away from it … along the passage. Dimly, through drifting mists, he sensed that he was moving up a ramp … through a wall that seemed to grow intangible as he approached it … up and up….
He was in the hall of the Aesir.
Above him the cyclopean pillars towered, dwarfing the thrones set between them. Before him hung the shifting wall of light.
He was carried toward it—through it.
He stood on a black dais. Facing him was the cloaked, cowled figure he had last seen with Kari.
And beside the Aesir stood Kari!
The creature lifted its arm … a red flame spouted toward Stuart. Sudden, mocking laughter spilled from his lips. He no longer fought alone. The tremendous power of the Protectors blazed within him, power and energy and force that could smash suns.
In midair the fiery lance failed and died. The Aesir drew back a step, drawing its cloak about it as if in surprise. And Kari—Kari shrank back, too, and something strangely like hope flashed for a moment across her dazzling, her more than mortal loveliness. Hope? But she was of the Aesir now. And if they failed, she died. Then why—
The Aesir’s cloak flickered, and a second gush of fiery light fountained toward Stuart.
Up surged the tide of power in him again. Blind and dazed with his own tremendous energy, Stuart felt a curve like a dim shield flung up to meet that lance. The Aesir’s fire struck-and flashed into blazing fragments on the Protector’s shield. Each droplet sang intolerable music as it faded and winked out. And behind the Aesir, more dazzling than any immortal fire had been, Stuart saw Kari’s sudden, shining smile….
She would die if the Aesir failed. She must know she would die. But the brilliance of her smile struck him as the Aesir’s spear of fire could never strike. He knew, then. He understood….
The Aesir’s cloak whirled like a storm-cloud, in dark, deep billows. The Aesir itself grew taller for a moment, as if it drew itself up to a godlike height. And then it did for Derek Stuart what no Aesir had ever done for a mortal man before. No Aesir had ever needed to. It cast off the hampering cloak and stood stripped for battle with this primitive manling whose forebears immemorially long ago had been the Aesir’s forebears. There was in that stripping something almost of kinship—an acknowledgment that here at last in the hall of the Aesir stood an equal, sprung of equal stock….
Naked in its terrible power, the Aesir stood up to face the man.
Not human. Not ever human, except in the mysterious basics which these people of a thousand millenniums in the future had chosen to retain. The flesh they had cast off, and the flesh the Aesir stood up in to face his forebear was pure, blazing, blinding energy. Twice as tall as a man it stood, shining with supernal brilliance, terrible and magnificent.
The great hall rang soundlessly with the power of the Protectors.
And then from above a streak of light came flashing, and another, and another. And were engulfed in the one Aesir who stood shining before its adversary, growing ever brighter and more terrible. The rest of the Aesir, coming to the aid of their fellow, forming a single entity to crush the champion of mankind.
Stuart braced himself for the incredible torrent of energy that would come blasting through him from the Protectors. And in a split second—it came!
Mind and body reeled beneath the impact of that power as force flared through him and struck out at the tower of lightning which was the Aesir. But the force which was trying his human body to its utmost was not force enough to touch that blinding column. Energy lashed out from it, struck him a reeling blow—Stuart dropped to his knees, the hall swimming in fire around him.
But what he saw was not the terrible, blazing image of his adversary, but Kari’s face beyond. His falling meant her life—but when she saw him go down the brilliance dimmed upon her features. The hope he had seen there went out like a candle-flame and she was once more only a vessel of human flesh which the Aesir had possessed and degraded.
In his despair and his dizziness he cried soundlessly, “Help me, Protectors! Give me your power!”
The still double-voice said, “You could not hold it. You would be burned out utterly.”
“I’ll hold it long enough!” he promised desperately. “One second of power—only that! Enough to smash the Aesir. Then death—but not till then!”
There was one instant when time stopped. That cataclysmic horror that had risen a thousand years ago and raged through the worlds like a holocaust stood blazing before Stuart’s eyes. It stooped toward him, poising for the hammer blow that would smash him to nothing—
Then a power like the drive of galaxies through space thundered into Stuart’s mind.
He had not expected this. Nothing in human experience could have taught him to expect it. For the Protectors were not human. No more human than the Aesir themselves. And the unleashed energy that roared soundlessly through Stuart rocked his very soul on its foundations. He could not stir. He could not think. He could only stay upon his knees facing the Aesir-thing as galactic power thundered through him and wielded him like a sword against man’s enemies.
Higher and higher rose the crashing tides of contest. The citadel shook ponderously upon the rocks of the god-made little world. Perhaps that world itself staggered in space as the titans battled together on its rocking surface.
Faster spun the core of radiant light which was the Aesir. Faster raced the tides of power through Stuart’s blasted body, seeming to rip his very flesh apart and blaze in his brain like hammers of cosmic fire.
Terribly, terribly he yearned for surcease, for the end of this unthinkable destruction that was tearing his brain and body apart. And he knew he could end it in a moment, if he chose to let go….
Grimly he clung to the power that was destroying him. Second by second, counting each moment an eternity, he clung to consciousness. The crashing lances of the Protectors drove on upon the armor of the Aesir, and the cyclopean pillars of the great hall reeled upon their foundations, and the very air blazed into liquid fire around him.
He never knew what final blow of cosmic violence ended that battle. But suddenly, without warning, the vast column of the Aesir pulsed with violent brilliance and the whole hall rang with a cry too shrill and terrible for ears or the very mind to hear, except as a thrilling of despair.
The tower rocked. All the bright tapestries billowed and flowed against the walls. And the radiant thing that was the Aesir—
Went out like a blown flame. Stuart saw it darken in the quickness of a heartbeat from blinding brightness to an angry, sullen scarlet, and then to the color of embers, and then to darkness.
There was nothing there at all.
And Stuart’s brain dimmed with it one last glimpse he had of the shining smile on Kari’s face, triumph and delight, in the instant before the cloudiness of oblivion blotted her features out.
He was not dead. Somewhere, far away, his body lay prone upon the cold pavement of the Aesir’s hall, a hall terribly empty now of life. But Stuart himself hung in empty space, somewhere between life and death.
The thought of the Protectors touched him gently, almost caressingly.
“You are a mighty man, Derek Stuart. Your name shall not be forgotten while mankind lives.”
With infinite effort he roused his mind.
“Kari—” he said.
There was silence for a moment—a warm silence. But the voices, speaking as one, said gently, “Have you forgotten? When the Aesir died, Kari died too. And you, Derek Stuart—you can never go back to your body now. You remember that?”
Sudden rebellion shook Stuart’s bodiless brain. “Get out of my mind!” he raged at the double-voice. “What do you know about human beings? I’ve won for mankind—but what did I win for myself? Nothing—nothing! And Kari—Get out of my mind and let me die! What do you know about love?”
Amazingly, laughter pulsed softly.
“Love?” said the double-voice. “Love? You have not guessed who we are?”
Stuart’s bewildered mind framed only a voiceless question.
“We know humanity,” the twin voices said. “We were human once, a thousand years ago. Very human, Derek Stuart. And we remembered love.”
He half guessed the answer. “You are—”
“There was a man and a woman once,” the voices told him gently. “Mankind still remembers their legend—John Starr and Lorna, who defied the Aesir.”
“John Starr and Lorna!”
“We fought the Aesir in the days when we and they were human. We worked with them on the entropy device that made them what they are now—and made us—ourselves. When we saw what they planned with their power, we fought…. But they were five, and strong because they were ruthless. We had to flee.”
The voices that spoke as one voice were distant, remembering.
“They grew in power on their Asgard world, changing as the millenniums swept over them, as entropy accelerated for them. And we changed, too, in our own place, in our different way. We are not human now. But we are not monsters, as the Aesir were. We have known failure and bitterness and defeat many times, Derek Stuart. But we remember humanity. And as for love—”
Stuart said bitterly:
“You know your love. You have it forever. But Kari … Kari is dead.”
The voices were very gentle. “You have sacrificed more than we. You gave up your love and your bodies. We—”
Silence again. Then the woman, serene and gentle-voiced, “There is a way, John. But not an easy one—for us.”
Stuart thought, “But Kari is dead.”
The woman said, “Her body is empty of the Aesir life-force. And yours is burned out by the power we poured through it, so that no human could live in it again unless—unless one more than human upheld you.”
“We must part for awhile, John. We have been one for a long while. Now we must be two again, for the sake of these two. Until the change….”
“What change?” asked Stuart eagerly.
“As we changed, so would you, if our lives upheld yours. Entropy would move for you as it moved for the Aesir and for us. And that, too, I think, is good. Mankind will need a leader. And we can help—John and I—more surely if we taste again of humanity. After awhile—after millenniums—the circle will close and John and I will be free to merge again. And you and Kari, too.”
Stuart thought, “But Kari—will it be Kari?”
“It will be,” the gentle voice said. “Cleansed of the evil of the Aesir, supported by my own strength, as you by John’s. You will be yourselves again, with the worlds before you, and afterward—a dwelling among the stars, with us….”
The man’s voice said, “Lorna, Lorna—”
“You know we must, beloved,” the softer voice said. “We have asked too much of them to offer nothing in repayment. And it will not be goodbye.”
There was darkness and silence.
Stuart was dimly aware of cyclopean heights rising above him. Painfully he stirred. He was clothed in his own body again, and the battle-blasted hall of the dead Aesir towered high into the dimness above him.
He turned his head.
Beside him on the dais a girl, lying crumpled in the shower of her hair, stirred and sighed.#ENGLISH