ENGINES of the GODS
By GARDNER F. FOX
The engine was the wealth of Mars. With it Kortha
could save his people … or the evil Guantra
could rule the Universe. But neither could use
the machine until its secret was solved—so
they fought and schemed for the knowledge, and
their planet lay on the brink of destruction.
[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.]
Kortha the smith brooded out over the great red waste of desert. Men said Kortha was a genius. Men said he was the biggest man on Mars, and strong as an anthropoid ape. But Kortha brooded, because Kortha was a coward.
He was not afraid for himself. He was afraid of himself.
He looked at his sun-bronzed, hamlike hands, and shuddered; glistening beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. With those hands he had killed men, and had crippled his best friend for life.
Behind him gleamed the red utta-brick smithy and his small shack, and the tiny structure he called his laboratory. Swinging on his heel, he went away from the desert and into the smithy. He made the bellows leap, and the red flames spurt from the furnace. With the tongs he lifted a white-hot strip of metal and pounded on it with a sledge that an ordinary man would have found immovable.
In the clang and dance of hammer on anvil, he lost himself; listened only to the mad symphony of beaten metal instead of the still, small voices of his soul. The din of smitten steel jangling on the sootblacked anvil was the music that helped the giant forget his heart. His eyes gleamed red from the smarting flames, and he peered into their depths with green eyes wide and angry as though he beheld a corner of some lost hell.
He did not hear the muffled thunder of the ‘copter that swung in a circle above his shack and swooped downward to dig its tires into the yielding sands. He did not see the door open, and who came out.
“Kortha,” said a voice like a song.
He started then; looked up, brows furrowed. His eyes opened a trifle in astonishment.
“Ilse!” he whispered. The hammer fell from his grasp and bounced on the brick floor.
The girl with the hair like spun flax laughed softly and leaned against the wooden door. A white cloak clasped with a fiery ruby draped her shoulders. She wore gauze trousers with broad leather belt studded with jewels, and a bolero of arket-fur. Her white midriff was bare.
“You ran away, Kortha,” she accused, her dark eyes gleaming like uncut sapphires from the tanned oval of her face. “You ran away from Hurlgut when he needed you. It took me a long time to learn where you had holed.”
“Three years,” said Kortha softly, wiping grimy hands on the white fur that clasped his hard loins beneath the leathern apron.
The girl ran her eyes over his massive frame in approval; saw shoulders a yard wide, and a chest and legs that were ridged in muscles. His long arms, tanned by years of exposure to a desert sun, were those of a king gorilla. She had seen Kortha snap an iron chain with those arms; had seen him break a man’s back, and other things. Well did Ilse know the strength of Kortha, and the fact that she carried a heatgun in her cloak was mute evidence that she had knowledge of his mad, flare-hot temper.
Ilse sighed, “You could rule the Confederacy if you would.”
“And own gems to garland your hair, and furs to swathe your body,” he said.
His green eyes belied his voice: they drank up the sight of Ilse and her red mouth and her platinum hair as a miser drinks up the sight of his yellow gold.
“You idiot,” she whispered. “You man-killing, tempestuous idiot! Zut forgive me, but I love you.”
She straightened; faced him fully, eyes unwavering.
“They sent me to you, knowing that you might kill another. They—we need you, Kortha. Hurlgut lies on his back, unable to move. You put him there; you and those terrible arms of yours. But Hurlgut forgave you long ago. You know that! But you don’t know—
“You don’t know that Guantra keeps him there, with green bessa-mead and white women to amuse him, to make him forget that he rules Mars!”
Kortha started, and his lips drew back from his large white teeth, like the snarl of a hungry leopard. Deep in his corded throat a curse rumbled.
“Guantra. I remember him. An evil smell of a thing!”
“Guantra aspires to power. He has had himself declared Premier of the Council. He wants to turn Mars over to the victors in the Earth-Venus war, with himself as sole power on Mars. He plays politics like a master, does Guantra. Mars, with its rich ore-beds and mines—Mars, the prize of a war that does not concern her. Under a united Mars, she would take her place among the planets beside Earth and Venus as members of the Council of the Trinity. Under the Confederacy, Mars could have done this. Once it was almost accepted. Then—you ran away. And the Earthmen and the Venusians who feared your brains and your body, Kortha—they revoked their acceptance.”
“They had agreed. I stayed that long.”
“They refused to go through with it. They revoked their decision. They said—they said Mars was a hotbed of trouble, that it had no competent ruler to make its decisions, and enforce them!”
“Guantra,” said Kortha bitterly, “wants to be that ruler. As Premier he stands an excellent chance of fulfilling his ambition.”
Ilse came close to him, touched his hands with hers and clung. Her blue eyes stared anxiously up to his green ones.
“If you were to come back, and be that ruler,” she breathed. “Kortha, Kortha, don’t you see Mars needs you?”
Kortha looked past Ilse, out toward the red desert. Far in the haze of distance, against the black and jagged Mountains of Eternity, there was something white that shook and eddied in the heat waves rising from the sands. Kortha knew it for forgotten Yassa, the city beyond recall. A dead city, that ate up travelers that went to it.
Kortha sighed, and looked at Ilse. Always had Kortha wanted to go to Yassa. There was a mystery about Yassa, a mystery that Kortha meant to solve. The time was now come when he could.
“Give me time,” he said to Ilse. “I need time to think.”
She looked at him and in the depths of her blue eyes there was an infinite sadness, a yearning.
“You lie, Kortha,” she whispered, tears in her eyes. “You do not ever intend to return. Tell me why?”
He looked down at her and smiled. How could he tell her? The long uncut blonde hair that hung to his naked brown shoulders swayed a bit as he shook his head.
“I will, perhaps. But not yet.”
Not yet you cannot tell her, Kortha. It is for her sake that you have buried yourself alive. But she would not understand. She is turning now and going away from you, perhaps forever.
Kortha walked across the sands behind her toward the ‘copter. Once his great hands went out hungrily, then fell listlessly at his sides. Ilse was not for him. She was part of his brooding, the part that ached and stabbed with loneliness. Ilse was what made him a coward.
In the shadows of the flier the girl faced him once again. She stood perilously close, her eyes beseeching silently, and the fragrance of her hair and her curving body steamed in his nostrils.
“You are no hermit, Kortha. You need life. You need a woman. You need—me.”
He nodded, staring at her face, drinking it in. He did not ever intend to see Ilse again, Ilse whom he loved, Ilse of the fair hair and the blue eyes and the body tanned brown by Sol.
Kortha stepped back and his shadow fell from hers. He lifted a hand, saying softly, “Goodbye.”
With arms hanging to his thighs, he stood on the desert, watching until the dot that was the ‘copter in the sky passed beyond the horizon. Wearily he swung about and went back to his hut.
He yanked down a gigantic steel hammer from the wall, breaking the thong that held it to its nail. Gripping the hammer in his great hands, he swung it around his head, once, twice, in a flashing circle of blue-white light.
The walls crumpled when he hit them. The roof caved in and became the floor. Scraps of brick and metal fell to dance on the shuddering tiles. Fire leaped from the forge, caught hold and grew in a red frenzy. Red and huge in its crimson heat, Kortha battered and slammed his sledge, buckling even the wrought metalwork of his dwelling. This was his past, here before him. Sobbing, he fought it; and sobbing, watched as the fire came to consume it.
When the place lay black and smouldering, Kortha lifted his head and looked with his green eyes across the desert to Yassa.
A rolling something on the red sands caught his alert gaze. He smiled gently. A tumblie. Probably Xax, who liked him. He watched it roll straight and fast over the desert, toward him.
Nature had made a perfect gyroscope in a tumblie: a round ball of sharp, glistening spikes with a core of jelly that stayed level no matter how fast the powerful spikes rotated. Two long feelers, like skeletal arms, lay hidden in the spikes, but could stretch beyond them to clutch food seeking to escape. In the heart of the jelly was a strong brain.
Xax stopped, looking between his hard spikes at the blackened ruins.
“You leave the desert, Kortha?”
“I go to Yassa.”
He felt the alarm of the tumblie, and sighed as Xax shrilled, “You go to death! Only the tumblies have ever entered Yassa and—lived. There is a part of Yassa that even a tumblie cannot penetrate. The white tower. The temple of dead, forgotten Zut.”
Kortha hefted his big hammer and eyed its gleaming length.
“Kortha has never gone to Yassa,” he whispered grimly.
It was not a boast; it was a statement of fact, a realization that there was only one Kortha.
Xax looked around him and saw the tire marks in the sand. He sat silent, looking up at the man who towered more than six feet above him.
“Someone was here,” Xax said at last. “Ilse, wasn’t it? You’ve told me enough of her! The Confederacy needs you, doesn’t it? And you won’t go.”
“I go to Yassa.”
“Not mad, Xax. So sane that I go to the one spot on Mars where I might bring her freedom, and a place in the planetary sun.”
Xax digested that, squatting there.
At last he said, “You have not dwelt out here three years for nothing. You tried to hide from yourself at first, but you have learned things here on the desert.”
A pain tugged and tore at Kortha’s heart, and his lips were bitter as they smiled.
“You are clever, Xax. Smarter than Ilse.”
“Ilse is a woman who loves you. Her love is inclined to blind her.”
Kortha swung the hammer idly in his hand, eying the sunlight play across it. He took a stride toward Yassa, and another.
“Come, Xax,” he called. “It is easy to talk and walk at the same time.”
The tumblie rolled along beside him. They went out into the hot red sands, their shadows before them. Kortha fixed his eyes on the white blot that was Yassa, and his long legs lengthened their stride. Sand crunched faintly under his sandalled feet, releasing tiny clouds of red dust at every step.
“Eons ago Mars was a cultured world, Xax. They had everything, our ancestors. Even you tumblies possessed your own civilization. The ancients had power, and weapons long since forgotten by the clans that descended from the survivors of the Great War.
“Wars are useless things, but they must be fought as long as there are men to quarrel. Who says otherwise is a fool. But the Great War—ahh, that was a war. They used things to fight with that we have long ago lost, and that Earth and Venus have never known. Mars is older than either and had more time to develop them. Our ancestors fought and destroyed: men and machines and cities. They left little. Among the things they did not leave was the knowledge of their arts and sciences. Mars had to build again, from scratch.”
Their shadows crept behind them as they walked.
“Today Mars is a weak Confederacy of clans, ruled by a prince I crippled for life. Guantra hopes to rule that Confederacy, but Guantra is a cautious man. He would never dare usurp the throne unless he were sure of victory. So sure of such a complete victory that he need fear neither Earth nor Venus.
“There is only one thing that would make Guantra so confident.”
A pool of clear blue water lay in a little hollow ahead of them. Kortha put his palms to the hard sand that packed its edge and lowered himself to his belly. Immersing his lips in the cold spring water bubbling from hidden streams, he drank deeply. Xax lay to one side, watching him.
With the back of his hand, Kortha wiped his mouth, his eyes on the blood red sun dying in the desert a darker crimson on the horizon.
“We’ll stay here for the night.”
Kortha lay down and locked his hands behind his head. His golden hair spilled in a flood across the red sand. Xax rolled close to him.
“Two hundred years ago,” said Kortha slowly, “the first Earthmen set foot on Mars. Those first colonists settled among us. Some of them married Martian girls. One of them wedded my great-great-grandmother. Mixed blood flows in my veins. I am brood of Earth and brood of Mars.”
Xax said, “You keep me in suspense, Kortha. What one thing is there that will make Guantra confident?”
“A weapon, Xax. He needs a weapon. I think I know where he can find it. But to get back—
“They say that Earth ancestor of mine was a big man, and strong. He must have been, for it was he who whipped the clans into semblance of order, who established the Confederacy, who placed Hurlgut’s ancestor on the throne.
“Earth made Mars rich in those early days, with demands for the metals of its mines and the stellus-ore to power their rocket ships. Earth was not strong enough to conquer us, then. It extended friendship, and traded. Fortunately, the Confederacy was ruled by wise men. They used their new riches to make the Confederacy strong, too.”
Kortha sighed and watched Phobos roll on upward into the vault of sky above him.
“Those early leaders left the Confederacy strong. I made it weak.”
Kortha rolled onto his stomach, his head buried in the crook of his naked forearm. He heard Xax snort, “You were the greatest of the lot!”
“I crippled Hurlgut in a fit of rage. I left him prey to Guantra.” Kortha sighed, “I ran away. It has been bitter, being out here, Xax. I had a long time to think. I hope my hermitdom has made me a wiser man. But I am afraid.”
They were silent for long moments. Xax stirred restlessly and the clicking of his quills was like the rasping of many needles.
“Now Guantra will rule Mars,” said Kortha hoarsely. “He will get his weapon unless I can stop him. He will wait until Earth and Venus are weakened by war. Then he will attack them. Ilse thinks he will turn Mars over to them, but that is not so! He wants to rule the Trinity of the three planets. In the end he will pull Mars down, for Mars is not ripe to rule—not yet. Not under Guantra, at any time.”
Kortha closed his eyes, whispering, “I must stop Guantra. I must stop him without seeming to do so. For I cannot ever again take my place in the Confederacy. I am too dangerous.”
Xax said softly, “Guantra has the army and the air fleet tinder his banner. You are one man against a world.”
“I am Kortha,” said the giant.
He rolled on his side and cuddled his head in his elbow.
An instant later, he was asleep.
Xax squatted, thinking.
Five days later a giant of a man and a round thing that rolled straight as a warlance beside him clambered up the sloping black rock side of the Mountains of Eternity.
Sunlight glinted from the smooth, dark stone that was polished bright as a mirror by the myriad dust storms that swept up from the desert, year after year. Heat shimmered all about them, rising slowly from the vast sand-bottom, reflected back from the igneous rock. Sweat wetted the hairs on the man’s chest and forearms. It dripped from his face in tiny streams.
Kortha stood erect on a narrow footpath and looked above him. Upward the trail wound to dizzy heights. Set on a shelf of massy ebon stone beyond him lay Yassa, like a white bowl of cool water in a black furnace.
Onward they climbed, and upward, their eyes fastened on the goal ahead of them.
They came together to the greenish bronze gates that tilted off their hinges and lay at grotesque angles. Down the street that stretched behind the gates walked Kortha, and with him swept the tumblie.
Kortha stood still, nostrils distended.
“I smell danger.”
Eyes alert, he walked on; but now he paced like the stalking cat, and the muscles in his long legs humped and swelled beneath the bronzed skin. His hammer hung loose in his hand, but then, the claws of a tiger are often sheathed.
A shadow dropped from above, swiftly.
Kortha whirled, side-stepping.
A huge king gorilla slammed an arm at him and screeched in anger as the smooth-skinned man eluded him. The gorilla gave his attention to alighting on the hard stones, and that was his mistake, for this smooth skin was on him like a charging buffalo, head lowered between his tremendous shoulders, and arms long as the gorilla’s own shooting at him, hitting hard, like pistons.
Kortha was laughing harshly in his throat as he hit. He had not fought in three years, and the taste of a battle was as old wine to his lips. He needed this test, badly. He wanted to learn if his reflexes were as they used to be. Kortha balled a fist and drove it into the gorilla’s ribs. He hit again, and again, and something snapped.
Blood flecked the wide, distorted mouth of the animal. His tiny eyes glared beneath shaggy brows. His dark brown coat bristled.
The gorilla had got his balance by now, and Kortha darted beneath a blow that could have ripped his head off. He swung low, then veered up sharply, legs planted apart, arms pliant and big hands grasping. He caught the gorilla by a wrist, whirled, taking the screaming animal on his back. He humped his hips and flung the beast from him, into the air. But he kept tight hold of its wrist, and snapped downward with all the fury of his titanic strength.
The gorilla hit the stones on its back. It screamed as its spine burst.
Kortha stared down at the writhing, dying gorilla, saying, “So. This is the secret of Yassa. The extinct king gorilla is not extinct. Only an expedition in force could completely explore Yassa.”
Xax shrilled, “They dare not touch a tumblie. That is why we can come and go.”
He proved his point an instant later when another gorilla dropped from a low roof. Xax rolled beneath the falling beast who screeched in agony as the tumblie’s long quills ripped into the pads of his feet. Chattering in pain, the gorilla ran off while Kortha laughed.
“You’re a good companion to have at a time like this, Xax,” he chuckled.
Xax clicked his needles. “We’re coming to the Tower of Zut. A tumblie can’t fight what dwells in there.”
Kortha said, “No living thing dwells there, Xax. And the dead cannot harm you.”
The glory that was Yassa burst on them as they rounded a corner and stood in the square of Zut. A massive building of translucent white jadestone loomed solitary in the square. The face of the temple, gleaming lucid in the sunlight, fronted toward them, broad and tall and tapering to a triangular crown far above. From its base four bulbous domes stretched backward, fanshaped, like blunted and misshapen fingers. The symmetry of the building was awesome. The ancient architect who designed it had been an artist as well as an engineer. It was a thing of beauty, as well as a place of terror.
Like a dark mouth set in the white face of the windowless tower gloomed a gate of shadows, open to the square. That yawning space was black with emptiness. There were no doors hung on hinges; only that sombre opening, silently menacing.
Kortha stood looking at it. The wind ruffled the white fur of his mantle. It stirred his amber hair and cooled the naked skin of arms and shoulders.
He lifted his hammer and shook it in the sunlight, and grinned.
He walked forward.
Xax spoke to him above the clicking of his needles on the broken flagging of the square, “Are you walking into that thing like a yavit to the trap?”
“Others have examined it before me, Xax. I have not heard that their examinations saved them. Besides, if the death that lurks in the tower of Zut still lives, I have no need to fear Guantra.”
They were quite close to the doorway now, and looking in they glimpsed something white and shining on the tiled floor. As they drew nearer, the heaps of white stuff grew plainer.
They were bones. Human bones: what was left of the skeletons of many men.
Kortha lifted his head to survey the doorway. His green eyes blazed with challenge, but their fire was controlled, and alert. He saw the entrance plain and severe in style, affording no clue as to the manner of its deadliness. From the way in which the walls shone, so clearly translucent with the hint of inner fires deep within them, he knew that the tower was built of transvaline, that rare building material whose secret was lost with so many others during the Great War.
In the walls two tall, faint strips of black shone dully: the doors of this queer adit.
Kortha swung his hammer in his hand and tossed it through the opening. The doors remained open, and the bolt of force that he half expected to sweep from somewhere at the hammer, remained hidden.
He grunted to Xax, “Come on. No sense wasting time out here, like dogs fretting before a bear’s cave.”
They passed the threshold together, and stood in a domed chamber, circular in shape, with another doorway beyond and opposite the entrance. There were words on the lintel above its arch.
“Science chamber,” whispered Kortha, and started toward it.
Behind them was a metallic whisper, susurrating in the stillness. Kortha whirled and cursed and leaped. The doors closed before his shoulder struck their smooth black surface. He hit and bounced slightly, jarred. Kortha swore slowly, fluently, looking at the doors.
“How long will the air last?” wondered Xax.
“Longer than our bellies will stand the lack of food and drink. So this is the great tower of Zut. Sliding doors that imprison any who break a secret electri-beam. Zut! I’d thought better of the Ancient Ones. This is really too simple. Find the beam and send a current along it, and the doors’ll open again.”
Kortha swung on his heel, going down the hall and into the Science Chamber. Standing motionless on the threshold, he ran keen eyes into the huge chamber.
He chuckled. He laughed. Head flung back, he roared hoarse laughter to the trestled ceiling. He sobbed his delight, hands spread over his muscled loins, helpless with his mirth.
Xax clicked a question at him, impatient.
“It’s Guantra,” said Kortha when he could. “The fool. The utter fool. And he hopes to rule the Trinity. Look for yourself, Xax. Look at all these machines spread out before your eyes. The wealth of a planet is spread out for you. The greatest weapons the solar system has known are here. And Guantra has left them all!”
“How do you know Guantra has been here?”
“Down there. Observe the blacker spaces against the grey dust inches thick on the floor. Something rested there for ages, Xax. Gone now. Oh, Guantra was here, all right, probably with his entire science staff. They took two things away with them. Probably the simplest machines of the lot. Why did he leave the rest? Because the fools who man his science staff didn’t know what in the world all these things are. Didn’t know how to use them. Didn’t have the slightest idea of what they are supposed to be. Zut, it’s rich!”
“You may not know yourself,” chided Xax.
“If I had the resources of a science staff, I’d damn soon find out,” Kortha grunted, wiping moist eyes. “No wonder Guantra can come to power—when Mars has idiots for a population.”
He was bitter and savage, thinking of Ilse and—himself.
“Men say you are a genius,” Xax clicked. “It’s not fair, comparing others to yourself.”
“Bah!” snorted Kortha. “A man makes himself what he is. But let’s not bandy words. I have work to do.”
He walked down the aisles of this treasure house of metal machines. His quick green eyes studied condensors and generators, pausing to search the intricacy of bearings, or the purpose of bizarre couplings. Inventions of forgotten ages lay before him, dim light shrouding dusty cables, and plasticine casings. Here were bulbous globes and straight, thin shanks of steel; there in shadowed niches rested wired engines and bulbed machines, silent and mysterious.
“Guantra and his staff took the more obvious machines, perhaps the ones that bore explanatory cards,” said Kortha, walking softly in the dust. “These are more complex.”
He came to a halt before a queer tangle of rings and wires and generator. Three metal bands floated in air between two looped magnetizers. Kortha rubbed at his jaw, thoughtfully, scowling. The pattern of the machine was utterly new, completely strange to him; yet there was about it a faint air of familiarity. The thing had no obvious purpose. It fired no missile. It had no in-take or out-let valves. It—
“Zut!” he whispered. “It only does one thing. It gives off vibrations!”
Xax merely looked at him. Kortha was saying excitedly, running hands over metal sides and rounded knobs, over cables and rings, “But don’t you see? If a thing can be made to give off the proper vibrations, it can affect matter. It can cause a change in the electronic structure of a substance, by speeding up or slowing down the rate of electronic revolution around the atom.
“Remember the old legend about the beggar who had a queer machine strapped to his back? Everywhere he wandered he met harshness and ill treatment, until one night a woodchopper took him into his hut and fed and clothed him. The woodchopper kept him with him until the beggar was healthy again. As a reward, the beggar turned everything in the hut into gold!”
“Pfah,” muttered Xax. “A myth.”
“Myths are simply memories carried down from generation to generation. No, no, Xax. Where mankind has a myth, there is usually some truth behind it, no matter how distorted by time and innumerable retellings. It is the smoke that hints of the fire. I just wonder if this machine is the one that began that particular myth.”
Kortha squatted and ran exploring fingers over wires and coils, making positive attachments and strengthening connections. He squinted up at the rings, motionless, rigid in the air, between the magnetizers. He grunted.
“Must get its power from the air. Maybe it feeds on oxygen or hydrogen. Or argon. Hell, I’m just guessing at this point. See if it works first. Then analyze it.”
He looked around for an object; found a loose panel of carven wood on a perilously old table. Ripping off a section of the wood, he placed it before the machine. His fingers turned a knob.
A beam of shivering green light pulsed from the coils and hung motionless to a yard outward. Kortha kicked the block of wood into the beam.
“Zut!” he breathed softly.
The wood changed: grew red and warm, shimmering a brilliant crimson, pulsating as though from inner fires. It became opalescent, almost fluid in scarlet brilliance. Slowly the red became green, and then yellow. The bar hardened, the liquidity of its structure tensing into solidity.
Kortha stared with wide eyes at the bar, whispering, “Gold!”
“Gold,” echoed Xax, awed.
Kortha grinned broadly, hefting the thing in his palm. “Pure gold. Heavy, but somewhat soft, Xax. I was right. Blessed be the mythmaker, for he shall help us find truth!”
“It can’t be true,” protested Xax, his faceted eyes glued to the amber bar in the giant’s hand. “You don’t turn one thing into another, not by just a—a color!”
“Of course not by a color. That green light was something that got down to rock bottom, affecting the very nature of the wood. What’s so odd about it? All matter is composed of electrons. Those electrons move in certain orbits within the atom. If it is possible to alter the vibratory rate of those electrons—why, then your substance itself is changed. It is something else. In this case, it’s gold.”
The voice interrupted him. It came from the outer chamber: harshly gloating, unrelievedly triumphant.
It called: “Kortha. Come where I can see you, Kortha. I want to talk to you.”
“Guantra,” whispered Kortha, and ran.
He found the quartz-crystal televisi-screen finally, perched in a niche in the hall, where it could command a view of the closed doors. Kortha went and stood before it. He drew back his lips, and spat.
The image of the man in the screen recoiled slightly, then thrust forward again, pushing the lean hawk’s face with jutting, black-bearded chin and hooked nose and slightly bald forehead almost to the limits of the screen. The thin lips twisted in a savage smile. The dark eyes glittered under thin brows.
“I have you, Kortha. At last, I have you where I want you. I have searched for a long time without success. Where did you hide yourself? Ah, well—it makes no difference. You are to die, Kortha, and I—Guantra!—am to be your executioner.
“Did you suspect that I learned the secret of Yassa, Kortha? If you did, and I think as much, you are right. It cost ten men’s lives, but I learned it. It was a lethal ray that blasted whoever passed those black doors. We smashed it out of existence, reluctantly. It was a hellish thing. I would have given much to have saved it, but,” sighing, “it could not be done. But I found other articles to take its place.”
“Two of them,” assented Kortha dryly.
Guantra seemed startled, then nodded. “Two, yes. A lightning-blaster and a—no, I’ll not tell you the other. That is my secret…. I see the lightning-blaster surprises you.”
“Another myth,” whispered Xax, looking up at Kortha.
“Myth?” puzzled Guantra, brows meeting over its hooked nose. “Oh. You mean the one concerning the weapons of the Great War. The rhyme that goes—
“They culled the lightnings from the sky,
“And summoned all who were to die—”
“A neat bit of doggerel, but let’s talk of living men. Kortha, I know you for my enemy. If you were my friend, now—”
Guantra jerked suddenly, drawing back. His lean face looked tense, thoughtful. His thin lips drew down at the corners, and slowly curved into a smile. It was not a nice smile to see.
He whispered, “If you were my friend.”
Kortha lifted his big hammer and showed it to Guantra.
“Talk no more of friendship between us, yavit,” he said clearly.
But Guantra leaned forward and smiled again. His dark eyes were steady on the big man in the white fur harness, whose sun-browned skin seemed like smooth bronze against the bearskin.
“Zut love me, but you will be my friend, Kortha. Wait! I am sending men for you. You cannot fight me, for all Mars is at my beck. My men will bring you to me, and I will make you my friend!”
He flung back his head and laughed, and his mirth rang loud and harsh in wild, eerie peals. Listening to it, Kortha bared his teeth in a soundless snarl and shook his hammer, and said, “I would sooner be friends with a canalhound. Send your men, but they’ll not find me. I’ll be away, looking for the shortest route to your throat!”
Guantra grinned, “I’ll forgive you that when you’re my friend, Kortha. Don’t think you can get free of the tower. The controls for those doors are under my fingers. A trusted guard watches the screen here, night and day. He summons me when any enter the tower. He was quite excited upon seeing you. Mars has not forgotten Kortha who reunited the clans.
“How Mars will worship a Kortha come to life! Mars will also worship Guantra who found you and gave you back to her. The crowds will go for you. Kortha the genius. Kortha the man-gorilla. Kortha the great.
“And Kortha will be—my friend!”
It was then that the giant swung the massive hammer against the quartz-crystal screen. It shattered into fragments that sounded like musical glass as they fell to the floor.
Kortha looked at Xax, and rested the hammer by a sandalled foot. His green eyes glittered, and his long yellow hair shook as he moved abruptly, turning on his heel.
“Guantra has his weapon now. He needed that weapon before he dared declare himself. So! A lightning-blaster. Now when Earth and Venus learn that Mars is a power to be reckoned with, they will seek Guantra’s favor. Each will hasten to make peace and bid for his friendship. And Guantra will sell Mars for the highest offer. In a polite way, of course.
“If I can’t stop him, he will. And Guantra has an army. And an air fleet.”
Kortha laughed harshly, “I have two hands and a brain, and a hate for Guantra. Maybe that will even up the odds. Come, Xax. Stop talking to me.”
Xax shrilled a chuckle and rolled along with the fur-clad giant, back into the science hall. Kortha worked with his deft fingers, examining coils and rings, delving into the secrets of ages-ancient generators and condensors. He grunted and swore, and his brow was furrowed in thought. One engine he completely dismantled, but could make nothing of its function. Others he merely glanced at, passing them by.
“I’d need a laboratory to test them all,” he said at last. “I just don’t have the equipment. You can’t determine uses or strengths or purposes with your naked fingertips.”
He went and patted the ringed machine with his palms.
“We have no weapon but this, Xax. It will have to do.”
“That?” choked the tumblie. “That’s no weapon. It’s just a—a luxury!”
Kortha knelt and began fastening wheels to the base of the machine. He said, “In our hands it will be a weapon. It will have to be, for Guantra is sending men and ships to capture us. When those doors roll open, his men are coming in for me.”
The wheels screeched as they bore the weight of the big engine across the marble floor. Kortha’s leg-muscles bunched and writhed under the pressure he exerted. His naked arms bulged, tightening under the smooth skin. Up the ramp went the machine to grate to a halt opposite the entrance doors.
Kortha lengthened the distance level of the beam, and wiped a forearm across his wet brow. He smiled mirthlessly, “Let them come, now. We’re ready for them.”
Xax shrilled, “You said we could escape by throwing a beam of light on the mechanism of the doors. Then why do we stay here?”
“Guantra has sent men to overcome me. If we escape, we’ll be out in the open where they can overcome us at will. Here we have a chance. They have to come in that door. I’ll have them all in front of me. I have to kill them all, Xax. Otherwise Guantra may learn where I’ve gone.”
“He may still find out,” the tumblie grumbled.
“I know. It’s a chance I have to take.”
The drone of the fliers sounded sooner than Kortha had anticipated. He could imagine them circling above the ancient city, swooping in to a landing in the square. A moment later he heard the drumming of feet on stone.
The doors rolled open effortlessly. Guantra’s guards came in yelling, with guns in their hands, leaping for him; shouting loudly at sight of him.
Kortha put a hand on a lever, threw it down.
A beam lanced out at the doorway. It splashed its pale green color over the scarlet tunics and naked legs of the guards.
The guards changed color.
They glittered yellow, metallic. One or two of them were off balance. They fell with a ringing clangour on the marble floor.
Xax gasped, “Gold. They’re all solid gold statues!”
“I told you it was a weapon,” rasped Kortha, shoving the machine in front of him, wheeling it toward the square.
There were a few guards left, in front of the fliers. When they saw Kortha, they came running. One by one he picked them off; watched them fall harshly, bouncing a little on the cobblestones. They did not fire. Kortha realized Guantra must have been very explicit about wanting him taken alive.
When he stood alone in the square, Kortha lifted his hammer and brought it down on the glistening orifact. Metal danced and shattered under his blows. Casings split. Magnetizers fell apart. Bolts and shards of metallic rings jangled on the paving, clattering and rolling among the lichen-lifted flaggings.
“Guantra will never use that,” said Kortha grimly.
He walked toward the fliers. One after the other, he smashed their radios; and the controls of every ship but one. Holding open the door of the last plane, he said to Xax, “Get in.”
“Where are we going?”
“To find Ilse,” answered Kortha, settling his big frame in the plasticine seat. His hands went forth to punch buttons and twist dials. The tubes behind him roared their power, shaking the entire ship. He taxied the flier across the square and yanked back hard on the repellever. The nose went up sharply, and riding the air currents on blunt wings, the flier rose above the ruins of white Yassa and aimed its prow at the desert.
Kortha slipped in the automatic controller, and ran fingers through his fur jacket.
“Ilse will know the politics I’ve missed in living on the desert for three years. She will know if we can raise a force strong enough to fight Guantra. We’ll need men and money and ships. Guantra has cornered the market on those, right now.”
“You wouldn’t go to Ilse before. Why will you now?”
“Three years ago I crippled a man, Xax. Hurlgut, who was my best friend. It was in a fit of rage. I couldn’t control my temper. And—I was afraid that some day I’d do something like that to Ilse. I couldn’t afford to let that happen. I love her too much. There was only one thing to do, since I couldn’t master my own emotions.
“I ran away. I came here across Syrtis Major to the Yassan desert because it is so far from life. Nothing exists away out here. If Hurlgut or Ilse were to send searching parties, it would be like looking for a sword out in the asteroid belt.
“I picked a good spot, all right. It took them three years to find me. They wouldn’t have found me yet if I hadn’t helped an occasional unfortunate who’d come to try his luck at mining in the Yassan sands.”
“Mining?” puzzled Xax. “In the desert?”
“There’s a lot of copper mixed into that sand. Some day I hope to learn why. Cliffs of metal abound on Mars. The cliffs around Ruuzol, for instance. But enough of that. Let me explain about myself. I came to the desert and lived alone. High hopes were mine that the silence and loneliness and my work would teach me control. I don’t know how well I succeeded in that, but in another thing I did have success.
“On the long winter nights, I saw lights in Yassa, Xax. Man-made lights. Electritorches and solar-beams. Now everyone on Mars knows that Yassa is a deserted city, and deadly. Lights didn’t belong there. I wanted to go to Yassa to see who walked its dead streets. But as a test, I curbed myself, fought my yearning. I mastered it. I wondered and puzzled, but I stayed on the desert. Some day I would go, but not yet. Finally the lights went away, and did not return.
“I know now that those lights were carried by Guantra’s science staff, who discovered the secret of the tower of Zut, and used it. They took away the weapons they could use and left the others, thinking no one could fathom their use. They thought me dead. Bah, the fools!
“Then when Ilse came for me, I realized the truth. Guantra had sent men to Yassa. But if I went to Yassa, I might prevent their taking anything of value from the city. I was too late!”
Xax shuddered at the glitter in the green eyes of this big giant.
“I did not think Guantra had taken anything. I know better now. Without a weapon, Guantra would not dare strike for power. By smashing every weapon in that Tower, I could have stopped him cold at one stroke. Then I could have returned to my smithy, in the desert, and lived out my life.”
Kortha sighed, and surveyed the craggy ground below. They were flying low over a barren plain where rocks lay yellow in the sun as far as they could see, like golden pebbles. Jagged red cliffs rose off to the right, shining dully like copper; to the left, a mesa of red-green stone lifted a flat top toward the sky. Between the mesa and the cliffs, the golden floor of the plain went on and on, endlessly.
Kortha increased the speed of the little flier, and sighed, “But now all that is changed. Guantra has his weapon, and I must find Ilse. We must raise a fleet to oppose him. I’m still afraid of myself, Xax. I may yet hurt Ilse, but I’ll have to chance it. Mars is bigger than both of us!”
A dot in the sky to sunward of them grew bigger, loomed into a small flier. Kortha swore happily, seeing the emblazoned dragon on its prow.
“Ilse. She’s come back to talk to me again.”
He swung the ship toward her, anathematizing himself for having smashed its radio. He had meant it as a protective measure, to prevent Guantra from triangulating his position. It boomeranged, now. Ilse would see Guantra’s rippled black star pennon on his own prow.
She fled from him like a startled fawn, but Guantra built good ships. Kortha overhauled her slowly, ducking her gun-blasts, swallow-darting. When she dove for a cliffside, Kortha followed; and only expert piloting prevented them both from slamming the hulls of their ships against those coppery walls.
A shell from her rear electrogun ripped away a section of his fuselage before she saw him, big and white-furred, in the glass cabin. He saw her face go white, looking back at him. Ilse fought her controls, dropping toward the plain. Grinning wryly, fighting his ship that bucked with a hole in her side, Kortha followed her down.
She came running to him across the stones, her loose white bolero jacket blowing back, her straight long legs flashing brown in the sunlight, making shadowy grotesques ahead of her on the jagged rocks. Her red mouth shouted laughter at him, mixed with sobs.
He caught her up against him; bent to memorize her blue eyes, the soft cheeks that were moist with tears, the full scarlet mouth. Her platinum hair blew wild in the breeze.
Kortha drank a kiss from her wet mouth, and kept her crushed to him for moment after moment. Three years on the desert is a long time.
“Whew!” whispered Ilse, laughing up at him with lips and eyes, her nose crinkling a little.
She sobered suddenly; put soft hands to his cheeks, stroking them.
“You fly Guantra’s ship. What happened?”
He told her, looking down into her eyes, moving his gaze from hair to lips, to cheeks and throat. She shuddered, listening, and he held her tighter.
“It’s no use, Kortha,” she said at last. “We can’t fight the fleet that Guantra can muster. The fact that he has those weapons makes a lot of difference. I knew when I came for you that we were nearly beaten. You were our only hope. If Kortha could come back from the grave—there would be a psychological value to the thing. We might aim at strikes, at seducing men from Guantra’s navy. Build ships on the sly, from Mare Cimmerium to Sinus Gomer. But now—”
Her shoulders drooped. Kortha scowled across at the red cliff crimson in the sunlight. It was true. The fleet that Guantra owned was the fleet that Kortha had built. Battleship and air-cruiser, he had blue-printed their models, seen them swung into their launching-cradles. He had manned it with picked men. Nothing on Mars could match it, certainly; possibly nothing on Earth or Venus, either, with the exception of their vast space fleets. He sighed.
Xax shrilled a warning, clicking his needles.
From the south a huge grey battleflier rose grim and massive above the flat mesa. Sunlight disclosed its rippled black star pennon, and the gleaming guns, and the swarms of fighters covering its decks. Towering masts brooded down across the plains, giving the ship an aetherial look that its dark bulk belied.
Kortha laughed bitterly, “What use to talk of fleets now? That’s Guantra’s own flagship. He’s come in person for me now. By some black magic, he’s learned of what took place at Yassa. Probably took alarm when his radio calls went unanswered.”
They ran across the stones for the small cruiser, kicking pebbles into life, making them roll and bounce. With big hands, Kortha tossed Ilse into the open door of the flier; swept in after her with a hard, swift leap. The door clanged behind them.
The ship shuddered under a direct hit on her rear rockets. Kortha went flying, clutching at Ilse, dragging her down on him. His back met the far wall, and he cushioned her against his chest.
Kortha was on his feet, eyes blazing. His hand went to his hammer, hefting it, lifting it up and down, very slowly. He snarled a little, deep in his throat.
“He knows we’re here. He’s playing with us. He wants us alive.”
“There’s my plane. If we hurry—”
Across the stone-bottom, they saw the silvered hull of the little flier cave inward. Metal sides slivered, and splinters flew through the air.
“Guantra has good gunners,” said Kortha drily. “Let’s learn if his combat units are as good.”
He drove the massy head of his hammer against the door, breaking it open. With Ilse in one arm he dropped to the rocks and walked away from the flier. Side by side, they stood and looked up at the gigantic ship that hovered yards above the plains. Men came swarming over its sides, dropping like ants from ropes, leaping toward them.
Kortha saw they were unarmed. He tossed his hammer aside and grinned mercilessly, lips writhing back from strong white teeth.
Ilse looked up at him and shuddered. She had seen Kortha fight before.
He sprang to meet them, hamlike fists balled into twin maces. He broke a man’s jaw with his first blow. With his second he snapped three ribs of an officer in a short green cloak. He hit again, and again, and everytime that his fists struck, bones cracked or splintered. Men shrieked there on the stones, trying to stand up to him.
Occasionally he unclasped his hands to grasp; and when his grip fell, clutching, the victim dropped with shredded limbs.
They were all around him now, grunting under his blows, screaming when he wrenched. Kortha danced like a temple harlot, twisting on his toes, slamming his long arms out, dropping his fists where they hurt the most: on jaw, on belly, on ribs. He laughed harshly as he fought; his eyes flared, and his nostrils quivered. The soft thudding of fists on flesh, and the sobs of air-hungry lungs orchestrated the battle.
It looked as though he would beat them all, for a moment. His great form was untouched, and men lay sprawled on the rocks all around him.
Then someone flung sand from a pouch. Kortha knew its bitter burn as it bit into his eyes. They welled with tears, but Kortha held them open, fighting the smart with all the surging energy of his will. To close them would make him helpless; yet the tears blinded him, too, and those he could not help.
The guards raged into him, goaded to desperation, hitting hard. Buffeted, blinded, swept off his feet, Kortha was hurled backward onto the stones. For long minutes he was the core of a shifting, sobbing, maddened group. A hand dug at his face, shoving it into sharp rocks.
Kortha arched his loins, thrusting hard, upwards, heaving men off. He came to his feet, blind, striking out, shouting as he felt flesh pulp beneath his fists.
Something slammed across his temple, bouncing off.
Kortha pitched face downward, hearing Ilse screaming.
Kortha floated in clouds, bodiless. Fragrance drifted past in tendrils of white mist, curling and crawling with scented life. Through the mist came a battleship with Guantra seated on it, laughing at him. A silken garment dyed with scarlet and magenta flickered past, obscuring Guantra. Wrapped in the silk was Ilse, dancing for him, trailing a cape of moonlight behind her white shoulders, above the multicolored scarves. The clouds shifted beneath him, causing him to fall. He dropped, faster and faster.
Golden men caught him, carried him on their shoulders. They led him to a wall and chained his wrist to a red-hot manacle—
It was Ilse who held his wrist in her hand; Ilse bending above him, crystal tears quivering on her long amber lashes.
“Kortha! Thank Zut. You’ve lain so still.”
He was in a bed. He grunted as he sat up. Ilse fought him, tried to force him down, saying, “The doctor said you had the constitution of a desert boar. What you went through would have killed ten ordinary men. But lie still, lie still. The wards are filled with the men you’ve wrecked—”
She laughed and sobbed, fighting him. But Kortha put her aside easily, asking, “Where is he? Where is the smell?”
“I am here, Kortha,” said Guantra from the doorway where he stood, a gun steady in his hand.
The gun was aimed at Ilse. Kortha was a little too far away to jump, but the muscles on his legs and arms writhed like snakes with the fury that pounded in his blood.
Guantra was saying, “Stand away from him, Ilse. A bullet won’t stop Kortha, but he won’t risk your chances with hot lead.”
“What do you want of me?” snarled the giant, mastering his red rage, fingers opening and closing.
“You will be my friend, Kortha. That is all I seek of you. Just your friendship.”
Ilse gasped in her throat and whirled around, blue eyes wide. She stood rigid, bent a little forward. She choked, “No, no. Guantra, you wouldn’t—not to Kortha. Not that!”
“Not what?” rasped Kortha, scowling in puzzlement.
“The Blue Grotto! It changes men. It makes them different. They aren’t the same after they come out of there.”
Kortha stared at Ilse, noting the wide ashen eyelashes, the red mouth twisted in pain, the white forehead riven with furrows. Torture! So. It was what he had expected of Guantra: to torture a man until he became a broken thing begging for friendship. Suddenly he looked at Guantra and found the man lost in admiration of Ilse’s tanned loveliness.
Kortha leaped like an uncoiling spring. He caught Guantra about the waist and flipped him across a thigh, sending him into a wall. The Premier thudded into the oak and steel, hitting hard. He crouched for long moments on hands and knees, shaking his head. Then he crawled to his feet and looked into his own gun held in Kortha’s hand.
“You’ll let Ilse and Xax go, Guantra. I remain.”
Guantra rubbed his hip, smiling grimly. He nodded.
“Gladly, Kortha. It will be guarantee of our future friendship.”
“No,” sobbed Ilse, long fingernails biting into Kortha’s hairy forearm. “He’ll change you. He’ll do to you what he did to those—others.”
Kortha shook her off. Torture he hated, but he could stand up to it. But if they did anything to Ilse—he wasn’t that sure of himself. He had to get rid of her, send her away to Hurlgut. Maybe they could somehow contact Earth or Venus; get help.
Ilse hit his furred chest with tiny fists, whimpering.
“Idiot! Can’t you see? Guantra will make you his friend. You’ll do what he says. You’ll be a figurehead. All the Confederacy will hail the union of Guantra and Kortha. It won’t know that only Guantra gives the orders, that you’re just a puppet.”
Kortha shoved her away.
“Get moving,” he snapped. “I’ll hold off Guantra until you’re safely gone.”
Ilse fought and raged, but she was helpless with her bare arm in one of Kortha’s hands. She went sideways in front of him as he pushed her. Her red mouth whimpered.
Kortha stood and watched the fleet little scout ship fade into the south. When it had disappeared, he waited for minutes, calculating Ilse’s speed against possibility of pursuit. Satisfied, he handed his gun to Guantra.
He growled, “Bring on your torturers, Guantra. Let’s get this over with.”
But Guantra laughed softly, sheathing the gun.
“Torture? Oh, no. That’s a bit—ah—antiquated, isn’t it? Besides, I know men, Kortha. Torture would never make me your friend.”
“Come with me into my stateroom. Oh, be my enemy, if you will. But you’ll be needing food, and a bit of Sharasta wine. I have both.”
Kortha realized that if he leaped on Guantra now, he could break his neck or snap his spine. But there would be other Guantras. Better to fight this one, than the others who might arise. He smiled to himself. Apparently those years in the desert had aided him to control his mad temper. In olden days he would have been on Guantra, slaying without thought to a possible future.
He shrugged broad shoulders, aware that his stomach was empty. There was no need to starve to death. He had done a lot without food. He walked after Guantra slowly, thoughtful.
A dull black plasticine screen formed one wall of the hexagonal stateroom. Before it a curved desk glittered dully, littered with charts and papers. Chrystolite chairs and benches gleamed in myriad colors over the thickly woven black rug. Kortha stared around him, nodding. He remembered the ship. It was one he had himself planned.
But the screen was new. He stood in front of it, frowning. Guantra came to his side, gesturing.
“Since you turned hermit, things have happened on Mars, Kortha. This screen is a by-product of researches by my science division. With it, I can detect scenes at certain distances in the open air. Essentially the same as television, we can focus an unlimited field by using cosmic ray amplifiers.”
Guantra went to the wall, pressed a button.
“We use radio waves though, throughout the ship, in order to prepare our food.”
Kortha looked through the transparent shield in the wall; saw a frozen steak thaw suddenly, cook before his eyes in a matter of seconds.
“High frequency waves,” Kortha said. “That’s old.”
“True, but I’ve found it saves time to install them in every room. In time of battle, my men need not desert their posts for food. The food is there frozen; needs only six to eight seconds to cook, and be taken out, ready to eat.”
A steward came and lifted out the steak, setting it on a table before Kortha. He served chilled Sharasta wine and freshly baked bread. Chilled sugar sauce over bitter fruits brought a hard grin to the giant’s mouth. He had not realized before just how hungry he was.
He began to eat.
When he was done, he went and stood at Guantra’s side in front of the starboard windows. Outside, sunlight blazed on the quartz-veined cliffs over which the Varadium was passing. Hollow depressions glittered as though filled with sparkling gems, while huge stalagmites lifted jagged edges, shot forth scintillating hues that etched color madness on the dun cliffsides.
The sheer cliffs fell away, exposing a massive gap in the mighty mountains. The Varadium poked its dull grey nose downward and sank between the ledges.
Staring from the darkened starboard windows, Kortha beheld the iridescent gleam of the mountain-walls turn to yellow and red and green. The colors deepened as the ship lowered on the air currents: grew lavender, then purple. Shadows from the tall cliffsides gave the canyon into which they sank a dark sombreness.
“The Blue Grotto is far below the surface,” whispered Guantra. “A young lieutenant discovered and told me about it. I checked his findings; had my engineers pay it a visit. Their work resulted in something that will make your eyes shine.”
With her keel scraping dry red sand, the Varadium edged along the bed of the canyon. Ahead lay a great black orifice in the side of the cliff: a gigantic cave, vast as Mars’ mightiest hangar. Even by straining his keen eyes, Kortha could make out nothing beyond that ebon darkness.
But when the flier poked its prow into the cave, a battery of tremendous mercury floodlamps leaped to bluish-white life. Blinking in their glare, Kortha looked down at the floor of the cave; found it fitted with great steel cradle, with benches and lathes and tools. The battleflier sank into the cradle with a lurch and a swift righting of its bulk. Springs sighed softly under its weight, cushioning it on a blanket of compressed air.
Guantra led Kortha from the stateroom out along the grey deck, toward the gang-plank, saying, “This place has been useful to me. Extremely so. I’ve found that it paid to spend the money to equip it.”
Kortha looked around him, gauging his chances for fight. Men stepped to benches, swung down ladders, with an air of deft sureness. They paid him the insult of inattention. His hands knotted, then relaxed. Suppose he did fight? It would do him no good. Even Kortha could not overcome the entire crew of a battleflier. Not without a weapon.
Guantra motioned him to a tiny monorail car.
“The journey is not far, but we must avoid some—ah—rather terrifying precipices in this. The rail cost fifty lives to install. A misstep above an abyss—”
He shrugged, pressing buttons. The car lurched forward, gathered speed.
“Personally, I think some of them are bottomless. We could take no soundings.”
They caught glimpses of black depths to their left as the car slid along on its ribbonlike rail. A string of lights fastened to the cliff cast eerie shadows into the gulf. The car slowed to round a curve.
It halted in a chamber whose walls were sculped with vividly stained statuary. Their colors were faded now, but here and there were spots of red sunset, or blue ocean, or the white of a ship’s sail.
Kortha muffled a curse of surprise in his throat.
“I thought you’d like it,” Guantra laughed. “That lieutenant of mine found it. He swears it’s a lost museum of some very early Martian race. The ones who lorded it when there were oceans on the planet.”
Kortha did not fight the drag of curiosity. He walked along the wall, intent on the friezes. Here were the tall-prowed water-ships, sails bellying before the wind, cleaving foaming, blue-green ocean. He saw men in mail and helmets battling on green grass. There were boudoir scenes, too, with tall and lovely blonde women reclining on soft cushions, fanned by strangely shaped slaves.
How had this forgotten clue to a past civilization come to be buried under tons of mountains? Perhaps a planetary catastrophe in the past had shifted an entire mountain-range, to bury a city beneath its rock foundations. Then again, the Old Ones might have carved out niches in the stone itself, hollowing chambers the better to preserve traces of their culture.
Kortha hastened his steps, found Guantra waiting for him in a room hung completely with expensive blue-and-gold draperies. Even the ceiling was muffled in bands of rich silk. The floor was a thick fur rug that would have cost a million kofuls on the open market. And in the mathematical center of the room was a couch of incredible softness draped with a spotted black-and-silver ocemar pelt.
“Lie down and rest, Kortha. I shall leave you to your thoughts.”
Kortha came up swiftly in front of Guantra and grasped him by his arms above the elbows. He swung the Premier off his feet, held him inches above the ground, glaring at him.
“I could kill you, Guantra. I could snap your spine as a king gorilla could a twig. You would die.”
Guantra paled and licked him lips. Then he managed to laugh.
“No need for that. All I ask is that you spend the night here. In this room, sleeping on that couch. After that, you are free to leave.”
Kortha dropped the man in his bewilderment, saying, “Is that all? Is the place haunted? Ought I start at ghosts? Or do you gas the lungs out of me?”
“Neither. Just stay here. No harm will come to you.”
Kortha grinned and surveyed the drapes. He ran fingers through his thick yellow hair. He chuckled, “I’ll stay. In the morning, I’ll leave.”
He watched Guantra close the door behind him. He heard the bolt snick into place. He went and sank on the couch. It was soft, enticing. Putting up his tanned legs, he crossed them at the ankles.
Kortha tried to think, to reason out the danger of the room. But even his giant body knew the lassitude of fatigue. He closed his eyes, trying to sort out facts and interpret them; shaking his head a little, muttering at his tiredness. Guantra had the whiphand, with Hurlgut a cripple and Ilse and Xax no help at all. And he, Kortha! Of what use was he, sleeping like a perfumed harlot on this couch? If he could raise an army, now—
His eyelids blinked against the tiredness beating up from deep within him. Wave upon wave of languor swept to his brain, wrapping it in soft and gentle folds. He closed his eyes. Just for a minute, just until he was refreshed—
Kortha slept. His big body lay utterly relaxed, every muscle inert, like a lazing panther. The room was drugging in its silence. The thick draping seemed to enfold, to cradle.
It was a voice like a wind whispering in pines. It soughed across the room, making the man turn lazily in his slumber, uneasy.
“Kortha, speak to me. Tell me of yourself. Who are you, Kortha?”
The man slept, but his lips spoke, sighing, “I am Kortha the strong. The hard, the cruel.”
“Ahhh, no. You must forget that, Kortha. True, you are heavily muscled, but so are many men.”
“I crippled Hurlgut my best friend, in a fit of rage. I am not to be trusted. My temper is the red heart of the living volcano. It can spew destruction.”
“Forget that you are Kortha. He never existed. You are not that Kortha, but another. Tell me about this best friend, Kortha. Tell me. Tell me.”
Kortha whispered the tale, shuddering even as he slept.
The voice spoke to him, and its softness was the purl of a wave lapping at the shore.
“You are wrong. It happened thus—”
Kortha half-rose, listening, though his eyes were closed and his breath came evenly.
“Repeat after me—Repeat—
“I saw Hurlgut in his tower room. We did not quarrel over politics with Earth. Hurlgut did not call me names, denounce me as ‘war-mad’ and ‘enhanced with my own powers.’ The sun formed a pool at his feet, true. But it was the guard—not I!—who leaped, struck swift and sure. I slew the guard, but the damage had been done.
“Hurlgut slandered me. He said I did it. I did not. Hurlgut was jealous of my strength on Mars. He thinks I want power on Mars. I do not. Guantra is the one true leader of Mars. It was the guard who crippled Hurlgut, the guard who did it.
“The guard did it.
Kortha lay back in his cushions, muttering. The room grew silent once again. Then—
“Tell me of your life, Kortha. All of it. All the deeds of childhood, all the incidents. Tell me of your youth and manhood. Speak to me and tell me.”
Kortha spoke for hours while the voice listened. When he had done, the voice whispered once again, and its sound flitted through the arras-hung room, susurrating eerily.
“Your childhood pattern fits into section j-2364-k7. Therefore the treatment will be relayed over into that pattern, with emphasis on friendship.”
If Kortha had been awake, he would have heard the click of tiny wheels, the metallic rustle of machinery, the flick of a needle of compressed air on a metal filament. The drapes helped deaden those sounds, and Kortha slept on.
“Kortha, listen. When you came from Fraysia to be a student at the Academy. You remember that first day when you met—Guantra?”
No, it had not been Guantra. It had been Hurlgut whom he’d met, there on the white walk. Or had it really been Guantra? Was his memory that bad? Guantra standing before him, smiling at him, putting a friendly hand on his big arm and saying, “You look like officer material. Come with me. I’d like to see you fence. You have the build for it.”
And it was Guantra, not Hurlgut, who stood with him, awed at the magic in the lightning parry and thrust of the sword in his hand. He had defeated Mayram the champion that afternoon as Guantra looked on. Beaten him with a glittering sword in his hand and a fire in his green eyes and dancing joy in his heart.
He told Hurlgut—no, Guantra! about it afterward in his rooms; how his father had had him taught by Eric MacCormac the American, who was tri-planet champion in all three weapons: foil, sabre and epee. And Guantra listened, pleased.
The voice went on, whispering softly, speaking to him, lifting from his memory the threads of recollection, removing the very fibre of his character, as a mason lifts old tile to lay the new. Bit after glittering bit of fact was slipped in to take the place of memory. Fact that was so plausible it became the truth.
It was Guantra who had given him his first engineering chance, in letting him charge and electrolize the bastion of cliffworks surrounding radio-city Ruuzol. With cables and generators, he had made those mountain ridges of solid metals the sounding board for a spacevox system that was first in the solar system. Kortha had done a great job on that, thanks to Guantra. Later, there were other triumphs. Then—
“You fled to the desert to escape Ilse. She sought after you, trying to enmesh you in her charms. All the time you knew she was the chosen of Guantra. Guantra loves her.
“Guantra is your friend. You would not steal the woman of a friend.
“You gave her up. You ran from her, hoping to lose yourself in the desert, thinking Ilse would forget….”
Kortha stirred restlessly, but relaxed. He listened, absorbed.
“Ilse found you in your smithy. You wanted to find Guantra to get his advice, so you went to Yassa. Hurlgut sent men to kill you. You slew them instead, and fled again. Ilse came to tempt you, but you were saved by Guantra. He sent Ilse away, and brought you to safety.”
Kortha sighed softly.
“Guantra is your friend, Kortha. The two of you might easily rule Mars. Two friends to lead Mars to its rightful place among the planets. You and Guantra. True friends….”
Kortha whispered, “Guantra is my friend. Ilse is a wanton seeking my love. Hurlgut hates me, for Hurlgut is jealous.”
“That is correct. Now repeat all that I have told you, after me.”
Their voices susurrated in the draped room. Their voices fled from wall to wall, and sank into oblivion. The candle that marked the hours and the days burned lower. Only the voices lived, and the teeming brain of Kortha that was taught by an unsleeping, patient, mechanical teacher.
It was still in the room when Kortha woke. He stared around, wondering. Of course! Guantra had brought him here to seek repose. He chuckled. You’d think he was a baby, the way Guantra humored him. Always giving him the best. Well, that was the way of a friend for you. He clambered to his feet and rubbed his arms with his big, brown hands. The candle was spluttering in its golden socket. Kortha frowned. That candle had burned for three days!
He must have been tired. He recalled it had been a new candle when Guantra had shown him into this room. There had been some question of his sleeping and leaving? No, that could not be. He would have no reason to leave Guantra, now. But he must have been very tired. Three days asleep!
Kortha searched among the drapes, seeking an exit. He found a tiny, moon-shaped door opposite his couch. It opened creakily under his palm, and he stepped into a tunnel. Lights switched on as though by the heat of his body. He walked slowly, frowning. He did not remember this passageway at all.
Water lapped at rock ahead of him. He was puzzled. There were no large bodies of water on Mars, unless there were subterranean seas that topographers knew nothing of!
He hurried forward; came to an abrupt stop, staring.
An underground cave widened before his eyes. Throughout its shadowy length, the haze that filled it was tinted blue, and the waters of this undersurface ocean blazed like blue fire in its reflection. Azure stalagmites thrust up gnarled arms and heads in eerie grotesqueries. Ahead of him for mile after mile stretched that limpid sea. Here and there a rock rose, wet and clammy, above its blue surface. Shadows gloomed in the distance.
Kortha fell to his knees at the edge of the stone floor, fascinated by the water. He dipped a hand into it: felt it cool and soothing on his flesh.
Startled, he stared into its depths. There was something moving down among those bluish fires, something white and strange. Something was flashing through the water, swooping up toward his kneeling figure. He saw white flesh and tossing hair. He saw flanks and breasts, and churning legs.
Her white hands and wrists broke water first. Then Ilse lifted her wet, platinum hair and shook it, spraying drops. She put hands to his and let him lift her to the ledge.
“Xax showed me a way through the mountains that the tumblies used to know, long ago. I hurried here, Kortha, to get you away before—”
His green eyes were sullen, looking down at her. Ilse stopped her flow of words, listening to him say, “Guantra will be glad to see you.”
Kortha thought: this is the wanton in all her seductive flesh. See how the silver hair brushes her smooth shoulders, look how her legs are straight and shapely; that red mouth is ripe for kisses, and those eyes of blue are looking at me with love and affection.
He turned his face away from her, staring down the long emptiness of the sea cavern.
Ilse put her hand to her open mouth, staring in horror at the big man’s averted face. Her throat quivered uncontrollably, but she choked back the cry rising to utterance. Her wet hands found his and squeezed desperately.
“Oh, my darling! He’s done it to you as I knew he would unless I hurried. I thought I would be in time, but it was a hard trail up the mountains. We had to go on foot. I’m too late, too late!”
Kortha shoved her away from him roughly, snarling, “Save your blandishments, Ilse. You won’t find them helpful with me. You belong to Guantra. I do not find you attractive.”
He lied, and he knew he lied. This white witch of a woman with the red mouth and the blue eyes and the platinum hair was a draught to make a statue hunger. Yet she was for Guantra. Well, Guantra deserved the best. And yet….
“You must come with me, Kortha. Hurlgut—”
“Hurlgut is jealous of me. He slanders me. I have never given him cause to do that. He claims I broke his back, but he does not tell the truth. It was the guard, not I. The guard did it.”
Eyes closed, Ilse bowed her head. Her heart was a thing of lead in her bosom. This mewling, complaining thing was Kortha! Kortha, who would spit in the face of a living Zut if he angered him. She bit her lip hard, and tasted the drops of blood that welled to the surface.
She looked up. She said slowly, “We are going to surprise Guantra. You see, if Guantra could learn that with you all Mars would be his friend, he would like it. If he heard from your lips that you would back him as Premier against Earth and Venus—”
“Is there any doubt of that?”
Ilse knew she had to feel her way here. Not knowing what Kortha had been told, been made to believe in as truth, she must be wary; step lightly in her speech, explore his knowledge with words.
“Yes. When you ran away to the desert,” she looked at him curiously and breathed again when she saw him nod curtly, “there were some who said that you and Guantra had a falling out. That you ran from him as a sort of protest.”
Kortha laughed, looking at the girl, “That is ridiculous. You know why I ran away. Because you wantoned after me. I ran away from you, Ilse.”
So that was the reason Kortha had been given! Ilse held her eyes shut tightly. Her left hand bit its long fingernails into the naked skin of her flank. Pain! Pain would help to cancel the sodden ache in her heart.
“Yes,” she whispered. “I know. But Mars doesn’t know that, and Mars has to be told. If Mars could hear the truth from your lips—
“Come with me to radio-city Ruuzol, Kortha. Broadcast to Mars. Be the first to let the planet know you and Guantra are friends. You be the first; you, his friend.”
Kortha nodded slowly. He felt Ilse’s hands squeezing his.
“It must be a secret, though. We can’t let Guantra know, or the surprise would be spoiled. You have to come with me.”
She saw his eyes light after a moment, and she knew she had won; that he would go with her away from the Blue Grotto and its magical machine that could steal men’s minds from them and give them something different in exchange. She turned, dove for the water.
Kortha was beside her, sinking into the blue fire of water, dropping down and down past coral growths and bannery weeds that slithered in ripples as the currents wafted them to and fro. Following her threshing legs, clinging to coral branches as did she, pulling himself along, Kortha went under a ledge and rose swiftly in a tiny cave.
Ilse said as she treaded water, “My ‘copter is outside. It will take us to Ruuzol.”
Ruuzol was the communication center of all Mars. A vast glassite paraboloid was built on a flat mesa against a cliffside. It housed vast turbines and generators, and the central controls, as well as laboratories and rows of dwellings, where the men lived. A fountain-dotted park gave the small city an air of leisure.
Their ‘copter swooped in over the flat plains surrounding the mesa, casting its shadow from the high cliffs all around the plain out across the flatlands, up onto the mesa sides.
Flanking the great transparent paraboloid were the twin tubes, taller than the dome itself, thrusting their glass-and-steel structures two thousand feet into the air. At their tops, three metal planes were inserted into their trunks; planes that were the secret of the Martian radio beams, planes that sent the spacevox rocketing to Earth and Venus, and the direct broadcasts out over the sandy wastes of Mars.
Ilse flashed her ‘copter past a tube and spiralled gracefully to one of the white landing strips beyond the dome.
They walked toward the paraboloid. Ilse showed credentials to the guards at the entrance; then they were through and into the cool, pleasant air of the paraboloid, moving on one of the glass walks.
The harsh tones of the communicator sprang to speech around them: “The princess Ilse. The princess Ilse. The Emperor desires speech. The Emperor desires speech.”
Kortha muttered something under his breath, but Ilse pretended not to hear him, saying, “It will only be a moment.”
They found Hurlgut propped in cushions, flushed and worried. His eyes opened wide at sight of Kortha, and the worry fled.
“Kortha!” he cried, putting out both hands, lifting a little where he sat. “So Ilse did find you!”
Ilse stepped to one side, offering prayers to Zut.
Kortha looked at Hurlgut, saw him lying white and broken among the striped pillows. He wanted to rage at this liar, at this mongerer of scandal. He learned with a little surprise that he could not. If Hurlgut wanted to blame him, let him. Kortha had never fought cripples before. He would not begin now.
“—so good to see you, man. Give me your hand. Give it to me, man! There! Let me look at you. The same, the same. Big. Strong. Unbending. Mars’ only hope. I need you, Kortha. Guantra has but now concluded speaking on the radio beams. He knows you fled from him, came here. He traced you in that cosmiclarifier of his.”
Kortha remembered the black screen in the flagship stateroom.
“Guantra will be surprised when I broadcast. Eh, Ilse?”
“Yes,” whispered Ilse.
Hurlgut looked surprised, exclaiming, “Why, Guantra will not let you broadcast, Kortha. He will destroy Ruuzol first. He threatened to, in fact.”
“But he can’t. Not until I’ve made my speech to Mars, told them how he and I will unite—”
Ilse touched her temple and her heart, looking at Hurlgut, nodding toward Kortha. Then Kortha was whirling on her, saying, “Get me to a magnifone. I’ll speak to Guantra’s ship, tell him what I intend to do. The surprise is off, Ilse—but the speech can still be made!”
Suddenly Kortha swayed a little. He put a hand to his forehead. This was all wrong! Ilse and Hurlgut were his friends! No, no. It was Guantra who was his friend. Guantra has always befriended me. He gave me my start. It is with him that my fortune lies. I must tell him so.
Look at her, man. Look at her blue eyes again. They are so serious, so sad, as she watches you. There is naught of the wanton there. A wanton would laugh and giggle and be gay. Instead there is yearning and sorrow and love in her eyes as she regards you.
He lay helpless in his cushions, unable to move below the waist. He looked at Kortha, too, and there was pity in his eyes. Kortha did not fight with men who could not walk to meet him. Did Guantra? He had the sharp, hard conviction that he must know the answer to that. It might help him decide incongruities.
Kortha sighed. He wished that he could solve this enigma that turned him inside-out in puzzlement. He found himself liking Ilse and Hurlgut, even knowing what he did to them; and learned he was close to hating Guantra. Guantra had the power. Hurlgut was a cripple, and Ilse a girl. Could Guantra fight them with the armies and the fleets of Mars, and still hold his head high? Could—he?
Ilse stood at the open door, watching him. Kortha realized she had been standing there for minutes, as he had thought. He scowled, and muttered, “Get me to the magnifone. I’ll speak to Guantra.”
Following Ilse to the lift, Kortha brooded at her.
Zut, but she was lovely! If only she were not the wanton he knew her for. And yet—always that … and yet! And yet, there was nothing of the wanton about her. The perfume from her fur bolero floated around them in the lift. It reminded him of things, that perfume: of memories that were stored so deeply in his subconscious that he had completely forgotten them. Kisses over the canals in a drifting ‘coptondola. An Academy dance with Ilse wearing a black, filmy thing that made the blue of her eyes and the silver hair weirdly beautiful. And those nights when they had eaten cold fruit and drank of iced bessa-mead in the palace gardens near colored-water fountains, before he had—before the guard had crippled Hurlgut.
He could not square remembered happiness with other memories. There was a leak somewhere. He had to learn more—
“Ilse,” he said.
The lift was opening and the girl was going down the corridor. Kortha shrugged and followed her. He was probably mistaken. Those memories were the overflow from a forgotten dream.
In the big control room he stood watching Ilse punch buttons. A beam-man stared at him from a corner panel-slot. Let him look. The name of Kortha was legendary on Mars. He heard Ilse saying, “Guantra. Guantra!” into a fine-meshed magnifone.
The screen above the panelling came alive with the Premier’s sneering, point-bearded face; and his voice was harsh, cold.
“So. You got to Kortha before me, Ilse. It is too bad. I would like to know whether—let me speak to him.”
Kortha stared up at Guantra’s scowling face. The man was worried. The way his tongue licked unceasingly at his thin lips, the hands tugging at the crested metal buckle of his belt, the creases around his narrowed eyes: they were signal flares pointing his anxiety. There was something bothering Guantra, too, even as it bothered him.
What was it? Kortha had to know. Kortha sucked in his breath, realizing that the duel was between him and Guantra. Each had knowledge, and they had to trade to know where they stood. Guantra wanted to be sure of what? Of his friendship? But—why? He himself sought to test that elusive memory of his. It told him Ilse was wanton and Hurlgut a danger; but his senses belittled that memory.
Perhaps Guantra could be persuaded to give him the knowledge he sought. He put Ilse aside, placed mouth to the magnifone.
“Kortha on the beam, Guantra. Tell me something. Am I your friend, Guantra?”
The man with the jutting beard licked at his lips for a split second, but it was long enough. Kortha knew now that Guantra did not know! That meant that his senses might be right, after all; that his memory was wrong. And if his memory were wrong, then Ilse and Hurlgut were not what he thought them.
He listened to Guantra bluster, calling out to him to recall and act on their old friendship. Smiling grimly, he leaned closer to the image on the screen. Test him, Kortha!
“Let me broadcast to all Mars, Guantra. Let me tell Mars that we are friends.”
“No,” said Guantra swiftly. “That would not be politic right now. Better that you and I should meet, Kortha. Come aboard my flagship.”
Afraid of what he might say, the Premier would not let him speak to Mars. Kortha wanted to know the reason why Guantra doubted their friendship. Looking at the cold austerity, the pride and ambition of the man as marked in the lines of his face and the manner of his bearing, Kortha rather thought the reason was not Ilse. A man like Guantra would not bother so about a woman.
“I will broadcast, Guantra,” Kortha said slowly.
“No. I will have to stop that, my friend. I cannot allow it, until I have seen and spoken with you, face to face. I am coming in for you now.”
They saw the Premier reach out and break connection.
Kortha looked at the blank screen; he whirled on Ilse, and his big hands went out to catch her by the shoulders and bring her up close to him.
He said savagely, “Tell me! Tell me what I don’t know. Why has Guantra turned against me? Why does he doubt my friendship? It can’t be over you. He is not the man to endanger his power for a woman. What is his reason?”
Her blue eyes were unafraid. She said, “Guantra was never your friend. I dared not tell you before, but I can now because you have doubts of what your memory tells you. You saw how indecisive he was. He does not know whether his psychoanalyser in the Blue Grotto had time to change you. I got you out of there before he knew, before he had seen and spoken with you.”
The giant released her; ran fingers that shook a little through the thick mop of his yellow hair, frowning.
“I don’t understand. What psychoanalyser? What Blue Grotto? Wait—I remember the grotto, with the blue sea. But the rest is strange to me.”
“And the room fitted with drapes? The couch with the ocemar pelts?”
“I slept there.”
She told him then, hurriedly: of how the psychoanalyser was one of the machines Guantra had taken from the tower of Zut in Yassa and set it up in his hidden lair, and how he used it to turn key men into his friends by giving them new memories that were so closely linked with their old that rarely were they so much as hesitant about them. Only Kortha doubted, and that was because Ilse had come to him before Guantra. She picked up the thread of his life at the smithy in the desert and went on with it.
Once he interrupted, with, “But it was Hurlgut who sent men to kill me in the tower of Zut?”
Ilse scorned that, “Hurlgut send men? Who on Mars would serve a cripple when Guantra rules the fleets? Would Hurlgut hide in Ruuzol if he could put his banners in the air?”
When she was through, he whispered through stiff lips, “This psychoanalyser. It changes men, then?”
“Guantra changed several men in council positions with it. He needed their support. He got it. It can make a brave man a craven; or a coward, a hero. It was built by the Ancients, who understood the mind as well as other sciences. They realized that the memory cells that govern many of our habits and thoughts could be altered by hypnotically suggested alterations. They built a machine that would do that. We learned of it, but could never do anything about it. People would have laughed, said we fought Guantra with myths.”
Kortha growled, “I’m still not sure. But I’ll fight Guantra until I can make up my own mind!”
Ilse’s lips twitched wryly. Her shoulders sagged a little as she leaned against a table, looking up at him.
“Fight Guantra? Here in Ruuzol? You are mad, Kortha. There isn’t a single gun in Ruuzol. No weaponry of any sort. It can’t defend itself; was never intended to. This mesa is one mass of radio laboratories and generators, tubes and condensors.”
No weapon. No gun. Just a lot of magnifones, and words never killed anybody yet. Kortha bared his teeth in a silent snarl.
“I’ll broadcast before he can stop me. Let him fire on us, then!”
“No. He won’t fire, not yet. Have you forgotten the lightning guns? They will cripple all our power. We couldn’t broadcast past those metal mountains without power.”
The lightning guns. Kortha came up short on that. He cursed softly, brows furrowed. Aye, he remembered the lightning guns, psychoanalyser or no psychoanalyser! With them it would be as Ilse said. Guantra would break their power; land men, and take over the city.
“The laboratories,” he grated. “Get me to your laboratories. There may still be a way to stop those lightning guns.”
Ilse looked at him; gasped suddenly at the old, flaring lights in his green eyes. She laughed softly, gladly, and turned and ran ahead of him.
The ceiling lights were blue and bright, flooding the long laboratory chambers where chrome and steelite glistened and glass fittings refracted rainbows of color against the scalloped walls. Black, short shadows flickered where men stood at their places, staring.
“This is Kortha,” said Ilse, head flung back, eyes blazing with azure fire. “If anyone can stop Guantra, he can.”
A sullen giant hulked forward from a bench, arms dangling, scowling, “Surrender to him, I say. We have no chance against the fleet. The rest of you—Guantra has no fight with us. Why do we do what one girl and one man tell us?”
Kortha uncoiled, springing. His fist shot out like a flatheaded piston, cracking the sullen man on the jaw. The splat of the blow was loud in the silence broken only by the brrring of the ceiling reflectors lazily rotating.
Over the body of the unconscious man, Kortha snarled, “Anyone else advise surrender?”
They looked at him, and dropped their eyes. Heads shook.
“Good. Get me blueprint papers, and diagrams of your ultraviolet radiator batteries. I want relayed batteries set up, and I must know how many I have to work with.”
Ilse saw hope struggling for place in the eyes of the men as they looked at Kortha. She laughed gaily, putting a hand on the big man’s arm, saying loudly, “This is Kortha. I told you. He can pull miracles out of a hole in space!”
Feet pounded on the linoleotile flooring. Drawers opened, banged shut; glass cabinets clinked faintly, and papers rustled. Ilse stood against Kortha, touching him, smiling wryly.
“Only your name could make them hop like that against the power that is Guantra. They’re all loyal, but practical. They know to an iotagram what chance Hurlgut has!”
“He has a good chance,” growled Kortha. He did not look at her. He did not dare: she was too lovely, with her blue eyes and platinum hair, and the kissable mouth. He had not decided yet, and wanted his reason to figure this out, not his emotions.
The men came and spread their diagrams and date-sheets and charts before him. His keen eyes flicked back and forth, ran down columns, studied hook-ups and relays.
“These batteries,” he said suddenly, pointing. “Shift them there. These others, over to this spot. Move those back, arrange them in arcs. They must be distributed evenly around Ruuzol. Here, I’ll work it out for you.”
He sketched quickly. With T-square and calipers he strove for arrangements on the blueprints, and succeeded. The engineers and physicists looked at his work and up at him, puzzled. Kortha snorted.
“The batteries will furnish ultraviolet rays, won’t they? In the patterns we set by grouping them like this?”
A young engineer nodded dubiously.
Kortha rasped an oath, stood up.
“Do what I say. I’ll explain to you later, when I bring the final distribution sheets to you. You’ll have to follow my instructions to the letter. The radiator batteries must be set so, to make a pattern thus. Any deviation will result in disaster. Hurry!”
Up in the control tower the red light was flickering. Kortha allowed himself a smile. The ultraviolet batteries were in place, needing only a fingerpress on a button beneath his hand to fire them. He looked up at the flagship maneuvering in circles above the dome. They were ready up there now.
Kortha depressed the button, and laughed.
An instant later, white fires burst from the guns of the flagship, flaring zigzags that darted toward the upright tubes on either side of the paraboloid. The metal planes would draw that lightning; it would sear them, crack them, erupt into thunderous cascades of escaping power—
The lightnings never touched their target.
As though an invisible mantle of veins were spread above the radio city, the lightnings sprayed away, following the veins, grounding in showers of tiny sparks on the plains below. They made eerie traceries of light over the city as the guns spouted lightning again and again. The glassite dome was bathed in a white, luminescent glow from the nets of meshed zigzags in the air above it, that ran in streaks of jagged white fire all around the city.
And always the lightnings grounded on the plains. The city lay untouched.
Kortha chuckled. He laughed aloud. He bellowed his mirth, slapping a thigh with his big hand, yelping, “A million kofuls to see Guantra’s face I’d give right now. He must be swallowing his tongue in rage. I’ll bet he’s hopping. He doesn’t know what I’ve done. He thinks I’m a magician!”
“A lot of other people think the same thing,” said Ilse dryly. “Including myself. And those engineers! They’ll be sweating their curiosity, now that they see how your diagrams are working. They pestered me with questions, but I couldn’t answer them.”
“Summon them,” grinned Kortha.
When they stood silent before him, he laughed them into smiles. One of them echoed his laughter, and then they all were bellowing.
Kortha said when they were wiping tears of delight from their eyes, “Lightning follows a pattern through the air, doesn’t it? It follows beams of ionized air that are everywhere. Those ionized air beams flow down to Ruuzol, too. The only way to stop lightning from hitting us was to form other ionized air currents that lead it away from us.”
A man with beaming face shouted, “Ultraviolet rays ionize air!”
“All we needed to do was set the batteries of radiators up in such a sequence that the lightning followed the ionized air beams they created. We made our own air currents and naturally the lightning had to follow them. It couldn’t get past them!”
The cheer that rang in the room dropped to a hush as the screen glowed with Guantra’s snarling face.
“You’ve won this round, Kortha. But I’m bringing the fleet here. We’ll see if you can work magic against belching guns. However, your evil genius can plan, it can’t work miracles all the time. You—you imp of Zut’s black brother, you!”
Kortha laughed in his face.
The screen went dead.
The engineers went dead, too, until Kortha sent his booming laugh out at them, shouting, “Let him bring his fleet. It’s the showdown fight we want. Let him come to us. I’ve an ace up my sleeve that I haven’t played yet. Why, if Earth and Venus were to send their space fleets here with Guantra, we’d still win!”
The men did not believe that, but they shuffled their feet, uncertain. It is hard to doubt a man who has just performed a miracle that your own eyes have seen. There is always that lurking thought that he might pull another, too.
Ilse said, “We have no guns on Ruuzol.”
“This whole city is a gun,” said Kortha, and laughed again.
His mirth was infectious. The engineers grinned and looked at each other and laughed a little. They hadn’t the slightest notion of why Kortha laughed, or why they grinned, but no one could resist such a magnificent confidence in a city that was without a weapon, and yet a gun all by itself.
Kortha spread his hands, asking, “This is a radio-city, isn’t it? It has every science necessary to perfect radio technique, hasn’t it? Get me Xax! He and I have work to do.”
The tumblie shrilled a greeting, passing the engineers leaving the room. He rolled across to the bronzed giant, clicking his needles, eager, curious. Kortha grinned at him, dropped to a knee to speak to him.
“You are the only one in all Ruuzol who can do this job, Xax. Any other who left here would be shot by the guards Guantra will post before he goes. It’s up to you. Will you help me fight Guantra? I won’t blame you if you refuse.”
“Tell me what you want me to do,” said Xax simply. “You waste time, talking nonsense.”
Kortha took Xax to the tower window and showed him the red cliffs that rose all around Ruuzol, towering toward the sky.
“Years ago, when I first came to Ruuzol from the Academy, I sank cables into the metal of those cliffs. I laid them underground to the mesa, here. I connected their vast bulk with the generators and tube relays of the city. I have to know if those cables are still attached. You can tell me. I shall let you know what tests to apply in the tiny caves where the cable-controls are sunk. You can perform those tests with you feelers, Xax.”
“What tests, Kortha?”
The giant told him, repeating himself for emphasis. But the tumblie understood, and said so. Kortha watched him click-roll out of the tower, and rose, sighing.
To Ilse he said, “Let’s go back to the laboratories again. I’ll need to make more diagrams. Get the engineers to meet me. They’ll have to change cable terminals and install them on a different hookup.”
Down in the laboratories, Ilse sat for hours, watching Kortha as he labored over charts and graphs, often without moving more than hands and eyes for an hour at a stretch. When he was done, he stood up and stretched like a waking tiger. He grinned, and handed the graphs to her.
Her eyes widened, looking down.
“Why, this is just—” she looked up, startled, beginning to smile.
“Something any modern housewife knows,” he agreed. He laughed and said, “Guantra will call it more magic.”
“It is magic,” Ilse said softly. “It is the magic of your brain that can think of something like this at a time like this.”
“Bah,” chuckled Kortha, but he tingled meeting her eyes.
Hours later, the western sky grew dark with warships.
Kortha and Ilse stood once more in the tower over the paraboloid city, their arms touching. Before Kortha lay a white metal box with a red enamel switch disappearing inside it.
They watched the mighty battlefliers loom sullen and black above the coppery cliffs, pointing their blunt noses downward, dropping one after the other from the blue sky into the reddish plains below. They came swiftly, in perfect echelon, masts flying the black panther banner of Guantra. Their gunports lay open, the lean metal nozzles of their guns glistening in the sunlight.
“Zut,” whispered Ilse. “Guantra compliments you. He has stripped all of Mars to capture you.”
Xax said dryly, “The legend of Kortha is more than a legend, it seems.”
“To destroy that fleet would cripple Mars for a decade,” Kortha whispered. “I couldn’t do it, unless I was sure that the stakes we fight for are worth it.”
“We fight for Mars,” said Ilse.
“Yes. Yes, I begin to believe that. When one man is so powerful he can do with a warfleet what he will, to achieve his own personal ambitions—”
They stood silent, watching the fleets come black across the skies.
“I can give them a taste of what they’re going to get unless Guantra surrenders,” said Kortha. “I needn’t kill them all. Just cause a few—ah—explosions.”
“Guantra will never surrender.”
“His men will make him. They will realize I hold the trump cards in this little game.”
The fleets came in unhurriedly, majestically.
Aboard each flier was purposeful order as men ran across clean decks, stood warily at battle-stations, swarmed into the upper shrouds with small-arms. A few broadsides from those cannon would reduce Ruuzol to smoldering ruins.
“Now?” whispered Ilse through wet lips.
“No. Not yet. I want them all within range.”
Minutes eked along, slowly. Now the ships were prow to bow, circling the mesa. Ilse shuddered, looking at the empty holes in the gun-muzzles. She licked her lips and found her tongue dry as the dust of the Yassan Desert.
“Now!” said Kortha, and his hand flashed out, and the red lever swung over, hard.
It stayed over for short seconds….
Ships and guns exploded in the air as they wheeled around Ruuzol. Vast red flares sprang to life amid deafening detonations. Metal buckled and split. Powder charges sloughed upward and outward, carrying men and equipment with it in a crimson spray of destruction. The exploding magazines burst open the fliers, twisting and rending the metal hulls, ripping jagged holes, lifting off entire deck sections, sending men and railings into the air.
Crimson ruin rained on the red plains.
Ilse whimpered, watching.
Kortha swung the red lever back, panting harshly.
“There goes the Mars you built,” sobbed Ilse.
“We can rebuild ships,” said Kortha. “Some men will die, but not all, as would happen had I let the switch stay on a while longer. Those men will build and man new ships, for a new Mars. Had I left the switch on too long, not a living thing would exist between Ruuzol and those cliffs.”
Kortha chuckled a little, seeing distress and surrender flags break from the masts of every ship in the vast flotilla. Even Guantra’s flagship fluttered the white pennon.
“Send Guantra to us in unconditional surrender. Radio every flier that unless Guantra yields, we’ll kill them all. We won’t have to make good that pledge, though. The men and the commanders out there are limp with amazement, and fright of the unknown. They don’t know what weapon we use. They thought themselves so secure from reprisal, you see. The unexpected will make cravens of them, for the moment. Oh, yes. And tell Guantra and his men to come unarmed. We in Ruuzol don’t own a single gun.”
Minutes later a tiny flier broke from the flagship and dropped toward the landing strips on the mesa. Kortha still had his hand on the red lever, watching every vessel that hung motionless in the air above the plain. But there was no fight in any of them. Kortha was right. The sudden destruction that had leaped from the very silence around them had sapped aggressiveness.
Kortha had made his name spell magic once again.
Guantra was a beaten man. As he stepped into the glassite tower, his cheeks were sunken, his eyes hollow above blackish rings. He stumbled over the threshold, and kept licking his lips helplessly. When Ilse saw his eyes, she knew suddenly what an enemy Kortha was. From the eyes of Guantra came the look that a slave might cast to an adored idol that came to life, and thundered curses on him. Guantra looked at Kortha as though he expected fire to shoot from his mouth and devour him.
Kortha grinned, “I told you you would never beat me, Guantra. Are we friends again?”
“Friends?” screamed the Premier, a white froth at the corners of his thin mouth. “You and I were never friends. We were always enemies. We were destined by fate to fight. And you—by some unknown magic you always win. You turn defeat to overwhelming victory. Always. It isn’t fair to other men. Are you Zut himself? But now—now that you have won—taste what it feels like to—lose!”
From the depths of his despair, Guantra acted. His hand went to his tunic, lifted out with a heatgun in it.
His officers cried out at his treachery.
Kortha came in low, ducking under the sizzling blast that burnt black splotches on the white fur of his jacket. His left fist arced up, sending the heatgun from the numbed hand of the Premier. His right hand came across in a blur of motion: struck like a piston against Guantra’s jaw. His fist whipped the man’s head up and back, making the hair fly like seafoam striking a rock.
The crack of the neck breaking under the titanic power of the blow was etched against a frightened stillness.
Ilse and the officers stared at the crumpling form of the Premier whose knees sagged, lowering his body gently to the floor. His head hung at a sick angle from his limp neck.
Across the fallen body, Kortha looked at the white-faced officers. One of them extended his hands, palms down, saying, “Search us, Kortha. We came in peace.”
Kortha grinned again and waved a brown hand.
“My fight was with Guantra. I thought he was my friend. Perhaps one of you can tell me about—the Blue Grotto?”
They were all of them men from Guantra’s flagship. Eagerly their mouths spilled words, reciting the tale Ilse already had told him. Kortha stared down at Guantra, grim-faced, silent. He sighed once when they were finished, and looked at Ilse.
“And I never knew,” he said to her softly.
He spoke to the officers, “It was true, then. Guantra is and has been my enemy, and the enemy of all Mars. I am glad to know that.” And he rubbed his right fist thoughtfully.
“Can you find it in your heart to forgive a fool?” he asked of Ilse.
There were tears in her eyes. She stumbled forward, was caught and crushed tight against him. His lips drank from hers, thirstily.
The officers moved their feet, embarrassed. Kortha looked at them across Ilse’s platinum hair, and laughed.
“You’ll forgive me a moment’s humanity,” he said. “There are no terms to give you. I am returning to the council. From here on out, Mars will take her place beside Earth and Venus. This time they won’t back out of their agreements.”
The officers grinned at each other, wanting to yell their delight. They had known Kortha in the old days. One of them stepped ahead, hesitantly.
“We—ah—we are very curious, Kortha. The way in which you beat us, that is. There were no guns in Ruuzol. There was no way to beat us. You could not defeat us. Yet you did. When the explosions began, Guantra went a little mad. He called you ‘brood of Zut.’ Frankly, a lot of us thought there was something supernatural about it, too. As a matter of fact I still do, and so do the rest of us.”
Kortha grinned at them, saying, “As a matter of fact, you have the same weapon I used aboard the flagship. Aboard every ship in the fleet, for that matter.”
They looked at him, and their eyes bulged.
Kortha walked hand in hand with Ilse toward a cabinet inset in the tower wall. The officers came to stand around him in a semi-circle, watching him bring forth a small box fitted with a row of electronic tubes and cables fitted to two plates.
“It looks like a radio set,” said one of the officers.
“It is,” replied Kortha. “Except that it sends a stream of high frequency waves back and forth between those plates, instead of a voice into space. It internally induces heat into an object placed between the plates.”
Kortha took an iron bar and set it on the lower plate. He turned switches, looking down. Almost instantly the bar glowed faintly red, then waxed brighter and brighter. From brilliant crimson, it turned white with heat. Kortha flipped the current off.
“The electronic tubes shoot a flow of high frequency waves between the plates.”
“But that’s ancient,” protested an officer. “We cook that way on board—”
He broke off, eyes widening. He managed a sickly grin.
Kortha said, “I know it. I ate a meal cooked that way on the flagship. Housewives cook this way all over the three planets. You see, I am no magician after all. That’s what I did to your ships. My two plates were charged cliffsides and the mesa. From the batteries of giant electronic tubes in Ruuzol, I spread those waves back and forth, caught your ships in their flow as food is caught, or as the iron bar. The high heat that was produced internally exploded every powder magazine and bit of gunpowder on your vessels. It literally blew them up from inside. That’s why it was so swift and sudden, so silent.”
One of the officers shuddered spasmodically, whispering, “If you’d left the power on still longer, you’d have cooked every one of us alive.”
Kortha looked at him. One of the younger men looked sick. He turned away.
“You were generous,” exclaimed an older officer. “In your place—”
“You men are part of Mars. My quarrel was not with you. I need you, to build Mars up again, to make her one with Earth, one with Venus. We must unite the clans, make the Confederacy strong as ever. Then we shall send deputies to Earth and Venus.
“I rather think that this time they shall listen to us.”
He said again, “Go to your ships. Have them refitted and repaired. Then return for me, two weeks from today.”
The officers bowed and departed.
Ilse stirred in Kortha’s arm, looking up at him.
“Two weeks?” she whispered.
“You and I are returning to the Blue Grotto. After I get my real personality back—minus my red-hot temper—we will return to Ruuzol.”
His hands drew her to him.
“Two weeks is a short honeymoon, but for an old hermit like me it will be an eternity of happiness!”
Their lips met avidly, as the shadows of the departing fliers flickered one by one across their bodies, and disappeared over the horizon.
Across the empty red plains of Ruuzol rolled a tumblie. Xax was going home.