By GARDNER F. FOX
From strange and distant worlds the master
beings came to Neeoorna, bringing with them
the science of the Universe. One by one
they fought the alien fire—and died. And
now Jonathan Morgan, the Earthling, whose
science was primitive compared to the others,
found himself facing the black flames.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Winter 1945.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
He stood alone in the laboratory, frightened, staring at the tiny motes of dust that swirled lightly in the breeze. That dust had been a block of solid lead a moment ago; before he had touched it, and concentrated.
Jonathan Morgan licked his lips with a dry tongue. Things like this shouldn’t happen to the assistant to the Chief of the National Foundation for Physics Research. It went against every law he had studied so absorbedly for the past twelve years, ever since he had decided in high school to make physics his life work.
“I’m mad,” he said to himself, knowing he was utterly sane; that was what frightened, knowing his sanity.
He removed a glass test-tube from a wooden rack before him, grasped it firmly and furrowed his brows over his clear black eyes. If this works, he thought savagely, I can chuck every law of physics and organic chemistry into the junk heap, and become a tramp riding the rods of the first train out of town….
The glass in his hands stretched noticeably; grew and expanded to pint size, to the size of a quart container.
The glass shattered on the inlaid linoleum floor. Jonathan put out his big hands and clung to the edge of the sandstone tabletop until his muscles bunched in big ridges all along his hairy forearms.
“Dr. Wooden!” he shouted hoarsely. “Dr. Wooden!”
A big man came and stood in the doorway, staring at him, clad in white smock with the sleeves rolled up to bare his wrists.
“Did you call—Jonathan! What’s wrong?”
The Chief ran to him, his eyes intent in his white face, his features tense.
“You’ve had a shock. Tell me, did the rays react as we’d hoped?”
“No, no. It isn’t the rays. It’s me. I—I’m infinite!”
Dr. Wooden smiled, saying, “Sit down, boy. You’ve been working too hard. You need a rest. Forget all about the calcatryte and how to bend the rays it emanates. You need a change. Perhaps the shore. Or my mountain lodge in the Adirondacks.”
Jonathan Morgan straightened, shaking his head, muttering, “No, no.” His brain was clearing, and he knew with a grim sureness that something big had happened to him, for a reason. He lifted another block of lead, and looked down at it.
“Watch it, Doctor. Watch the lead.”
The lead block quivered strangely, undergoing some queer transformation. Its outlines became blurred and vague. It shrank, dissolved; became infinitesimal bits of dust in Morgan’s palm. Jonathan bent and blew on the dust and it fluttered away.
He looked at Doctor Wooden with a wry smile.
“I can do anything, Doctor. I can grow or become small. I can destroy or I can—create!”
“Well,” the Chief breathed gustily. “I almost believe you. Whew! Man, do you realize the vast vistas that are opening for you? With power such as that … oh, my God! How trite I am after seeing—that!”
“Does sort of stun you,” agreed Jonathan dryly. “Doctor, do you think this gift was given to me for a—reason?”
The Chief glanced sharply at his assistant, then nodded slightly.
“Go on, Jonathan. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
Jonathan Morgan stalked up and down the laboratory aisle, his tall body graceful as the stalking panther, his great shoulders illy fitted in the smeared lab smock. He was a big man. Conference football and baseball had added lithe muscles to the frame that was his heritage from a family of farmers. Black hair, cut crew above a high-cheeked, tanned face, and coal black eyes that were alert as a watching cat, added to his look of fitness.
“I’ve known of this power since last night,” he said slowly. “We were at Mrs. Gordon’s bridge, remember? I was sitting there with that blamed cup on my knees wishing I didn’t have to drink it, when my mind went blank. Absolutely blank.
“It was like being suspended in a dark vault, with someone working on your mind. I could feel what they—or it, was doing to me. Oh, it didn’t hurt. It was just a sense of—awareness. As though someone were operating on me with instruments of telepathy. Knowing just what to do, and going there and getting it over with, quickly. When the feeling went away, I was still sitting there. I hadn’t moved, and no one had noticed anything. It had been accomplished in an incredibly short space of time.
“I recall looking at the tea in the cup, and wishing with all my heart it was a stiff drink. And when I put it to my lips, it was just that—the best liquor I’ve ever tasted in my life.
“I needed that drink. Especially in view of the fact that it was a drink. Then I thought I heard a voice, whispering to me from far away. I sat still and listened. But the voice, or whatever it was, couldn’t get through to me. It tried desperately to tell me something, but the connection was wrong. It gave up after a while.”
Jonathan took the cigarette the doctor handed him and puffed in on it, standing in a patch of sunlight, gazing down at the flooring.
“On the way home, I got to wondering about what had happened. I thought, maybe somebody’s made a present to me of terrific mental powers. I looked up at the moon, and wondered about it.
“The idea came to me: why not concentrate on the moon, and see what would happen. It was to be a test, you see.
“I concentrated, all right.
“The next thing I knew I was standing on it. And oh, boy! the Earth is damn big, looking up, or down, at it.”
The Chief choked on cigarette smoke. He gasped finally, “You mean to tell me you were on the moon?”
“It was the moon, all right. I know. I scrambled right back here on terra firma in a big hurry, too. There are some things on that satellite of ours—
“This morning I tried destroying matter. You saw how it worked. I’ve tried making things grow. That works, too. It’s unlimited, this power. Anything that is limitless is—infinite.”
Doctor Wooden put his cigarette into a bowl of water. Jonathan flipped his out the window, and watched it arc downwards. They stood silent, frowning. Doctor Wooden roused himself slowly.
“You can turn this gift into the greatest benefit to mankind the world has ever known, Jonathan. You can investigate scientific mysteries at the source. You could find cures. You could—”
Jonathan waved a big hand.
“I know. I’ve thought of all that. But I’m worried. I’ve a feeling that this power was given to me for a certain purpose. To enable me to do something even bigger. No force we know could have done this to me. It came from outside, beyond the Earth. It must have. There is something out there that needs—or wants—me. Maybe that voice did get in a few subconscious suggestions, after all. Wherever it came from, I should find that voice.”
“You could explore the universe,” murmured Dr. Wooden thoughtfully.
“I may have to. I’m going to search all space if need be. I can’t hold back. Perhaps the voice implanted that, too. An urge to go out there among the stars and look for it. The wanderlust. It’s a thing like thirst and hunger, that is a part of you.”
“When do you intend leaving?”
“Tonight. At once, perhaps. Why wait for night? Oh, God, I don’t know what to say, what to think. But I’m going.”
Dr. Wooden caught him by the arm, drawing him into the next room. It was a smaller laboratory, bare but for long chrome tables with metal cradles hung from tripods resting on their tops. In each cradle was pouched a block of crystalline rock formation, semi-transparent, with fine veins of iridescent color interlacing with each other to form weird patterns in the milky depths.
“You’re young, Jonathan, and you’re imaginative. I’m not trying to dissuade you. I just want you to consider.”
He put his hands on the rocks in the cradles. These stones were calcatryte, dredged accidently in a scoop shovel off Great Barrier Reef and sent to the National Foundation for testing.
Dr. Wooden bit his lips. Jonathan knew what restraint he was exercising. This research institute was his heart’s dream, with its marble halls and linoleum lab floors, its chrome tables. He had two things in his life: the Institute, and his theory. And Jonathan was part of both.
His theory was this: that somewhere in the world there is an element, a substance, that would emit straight light as one of its properties. Light that did not curve as all light did. Light that would, by its very rigidity, cut through the atomic structure of other matter by the sheer energy of its photons, cutting a path in a thing by ripping electrons from their beds. A light to outmode all cutting and sawing instruments; a ray that would be easy to handle, and inexpensive to operate.
Many elements they had tested and tried; many tested, many thrown aside. When the calcatryte had been brought in, they had not even hoped. But it gave off straight light.
“The credit is yours, Jonathan,” the doctor was saying. “You’ve done a lot. It was your discovery, the tungsten beam that heated the rocks to the pitch high enough to rip those rays from it. Uncurvable rays. A series of lines of unbendable light. I’ll harness that light, soon.”
“I know. But there’s that urge in me. The wanderlust.”
“You’re giving up a lot. Fame. Maybe fortune.”
Jonathan grinned a little, saying, “Maybe I’ve gotten a lot more in exchange.”
“Damn it, Jonathan. What the hell’s the matter with me? I’m jealous, boy. If I were in your boots, I’d kick the ribs out of any old codger that tried to talk me out of the greatest experience in the history of mankind!”
Jonathan put his big hand on the other’s shoulder and squeezed it, hard. The Chief took out his handkerchief and blew his nose.
“Let’s go,” he said hoarsely. “There’s no sense in hanging around here any longer. Not when you can go—where you’re going.”
It was a Saturday afternoon. There was no one in the great quadrangle between the buildings. They walked along a path, smoking their farewells together; headed toward the quad.
Jonathan stepped onto the lawn. He bent and undressed, and handed his clothes and shoes to Dr. Wooden.
“I left a letter for you,” he said. “And a power of attorney. I don’t know when I’ll be back. Or—whether.”
Jonathan turned, stood erect; sunlight glinted on the white tones of his flesh, shading the ribs and the ridges of muscle on arms and legs, on shoulder and belly. He lifted his arms, and his face grew hard with his effort at concentration.
Watching, Dr. Wooden smothered a curse. Before his eyes the form of Jonathan Morgan was expanding, growing. Its substance swelled and rippled outward in a vast cloud of tiny motes of matter shimmering and glittering with opalescent hues.
“He’s turned his structure into gas,” he muttered.
The gas that was a man swept upward and onward with the speed of thought itself.
Eternal night glimmered black and velvety, flecked with dots of pale blue-white. All around lay the vast universe; silent, but alive with glaring suns and great orbs that were the planets, known and unknown. Here teemed life among the far reaches of vast space.
And like an immortal, living ether, Jonathan Morgan sped onward and outward into that space. Black meteors went through him and harmed him not. Somehow he found himself aware of them, knowing that they only pushed the gaseous components of his form aside; that when they had passed, his body resumed its former shape. He did know that they could not hurt him; but why, he was unaware.
The infinitely tiny motes of matter that were Jonathan Morgan swelled and grew and expanded. He fled upward and downward with the speed of thought. He grew and towered, and the Earth dropped away below the mad onrush of this strange, galactic giant.
He passed Mars swiftly, casting a curious glance at its canals, seeing half-buried cities beneath ancient sea-bottoms. Beyond the asteroid belt he found frozen Jupiter, and Saturn with its ring, and saw strange forms of life that eked out existences on icy worlds.
In a moment he passed over Pluto and the dark planet beyond it. There was life here, too, of a queer, alien sort. Not flesh, but another form of matter. He thought idly that he would like to study it, but he had not the time.
For the call that had been vague on Earth was now grown peremptory, summoning.
In answer to that call, he fled onward in a rush of gas that seemed to whisper as it sped through the cold voids of space.
In short seconds he was beyond the outermost limits of Sol’s domain, ever expanding….
Proxima, nearest star to Sol, glowed brilliant in his path. Beyond it he could see Alpha Centauri, huge and bright. The other stars, too, he recognized. For he was out among the star trails now, and Sol was a dot behind him.
And ever as he flew onward, always as his height grew and grew until he straddled a thousand worlds, the call came clearer. He knew now that he had been summoned from the Earth; knew that ahead of him was an intelligence demanding his presence.
They knew they had been summoned, that far ahead something demanded their presence.
Insanely he flung himself out and up, searching the odd and sometimes terrible worlds that flitted past his eyes. Alien life, spawning on planets so far from Earth that they were undreamed, lived and died beneath his gaze as he shot by.
The call came clarion clear, at last.
It said: “Creature of the Third Planet of the sun named Sol. Heed me. You have done well to find me, very well. Turn your gaze this way, Earthling. A little further. Yes, right there.
“The pale yellow planet. You see it? Then hasten, join us. For we have need of every aid that the universe contains. Hurry, Earthling!”
He swirled downward toward the atmospheric belt of the amber orb that swung lazily about a double sun. Even as he compressed his body together, he caught a flicker of queer black lights off to one side in the corners of his eyes. They quivered and throbbed, and almost touched the yellow planet.
Then he was contracting, willing the motes and particles of his body together, shooting downward toward a vast stretch of green sward and rounded white buildings that sprawled gracefully over mile after mile of land.
The black flames burned, forgotten.
He dropped lightly onto his feet on the smooth lawn, felt it give beneath his feet.
“Congratulations,” said a deep voice behind him, and Jonathan whirled.
A gigantic lizard faced him. It stood fifteen feet high, possessed of powerful legs and massive, armoured body. The great reptilian head swayed slightly in regarding him, and the eyes on either side of the broad nostrils were alive with intelligence.
“You—you’re a reptile!” Jonathan gasped.
“And you—a man,” replied the creature.
Jonathan grinned and said, “I think I was prepared for any form of life but yours. Even pure thought, or beings of non-carbon basic formation. I—hmm. Strikes me we understand each other pretty well.”
The reptile looked puzzled, then grunted.
“I forgot you came from Earth. Earth is a young planet. Her—ah—inhabitants have not made the progress some of our other neighbors have. That is why—why you were changed, a little. I’ll tell you of that, later.
“But now you must come with me and rest. While your body is unaffected, your mind has been under a terrific concentrative strain. It would cause a reaction unless rested. You see, you do not have certain—ah—facilities as yet. Being as you are is too new.”
“Just what am I? I understand your language, or your thoughts, and I’ve done things I’d have said were impossible, two weeks ago.”
“You will learn. Now you must rest.”
Jonathan walked with the lumbering being along a crushed stone walk between hedges adroop with riotously colored fruits. Ahead of them glimmered a building, translucently white in the hot beams of the great double-sun now low on the horizon.
“Life forms vary,” said the big reptile. “Here on Neeoorna the reptile life that became extinct on Earth flourished. It evolved more swiftly, due to atmospheric and other conditions. Its intelligence kept pace. In other systems there are things of thought, there are beings with liquid helium in their veins, there are certain others with no veins at all.
“And then, to cheer you, there are still others who might well be named men. They are men, too. They are what you would call human. They have bodies exactly similar to your own. You shall meet them. All manner of beings live on Neeoorna these days.”
His voice was heavy. Jonathan glanced quickly at him, sympathetic.
The reptile shook his head soberly, saying, “You will learn, in time.”
A thick glassine door slid noiselessly apart as Jonathan and the Neeoornian neared it. They passed into cool halls of veined green marble lighted so brilliantly that Jonathan remarked it.
“Filaments of glass containing electrified carbon-dioxide gases exuded by specially reared plants. Carbon dioxide emits a light much like ordinary daylight. We have perfected that until our inner and outer light is the same.”
A rounded chamber whose cool blue walls reflected heat and absorbed moisture contained chairs and tables so similar to Earth products that Jonathan started.
“They look like a futurist’s dream, but they’re remarkably like our own,” he acknowledged.
“This is the Court of Counsellors for bipeds. The other courts are different, naturally, being suited to the individual needs of the various visitors Neeoorna plays host to. Were you or a Zarathzan to enter some of them, you would die instantly from cold and deadly gases, or terrific heat. That is, unless you were forewarned as to what to expect.”
Jonathan puzzled over that for a moment. No amount of foreknowledge made deadly cold any hotter, nor did it turn noxious fumes into pure air. He shrugged. He must be tired, after all. Maybe a rest was what he needed.
The reptile gestured Jonathan to a glassine couch covered with the spotted fur of some jungle beast. It looked soft. It invited him, dumbly. Jonathan dropped on it and stretched out his legs.
“Neeoornians call me Shar Bytu,” said the reptile, gazing down at him. “If you need aught, mention my name. Tell them you are the representative of Earth.”
Jonathan knew his eyelids were blotting out sight of the great lizard. He tried to mumble thanks, but a gentle torpor crept about him, embracing his brain, his tired, tired brain. He was so tired….
A soft hand on his forearm awakened him; brought him up sharply, alarmed, like a panther.
The girl who bent above him drew back in alarm, her violet eyes wide, thin nostrils flared, a cry hovering on her wet red mouth. She looked at Jonathan again and read the swift admiration in his eyes, and smiled.
“You frightened me,” she accused softly, her lips undecided between a pout and a smile. “You are so big, so strong—like a dappled claw-thing of my native Zarathza.”
So this was a Zarathzan. Jonathan found her good to look at. Her skin was a pale lavender, so delicately flushed that it seemed some strange, rare satin. Her hair was black, and coiled in coronas about her intelligent, shapely head. Her deeply glowing eyes were bright with laughter, and Jonathan thought her mouth would be perfect for kisses.
“We are not fighters, we Zarathzans. At least with our bodies, like you Earthlings,” she said, looking at him sidewise. “It has been long since our kind were—beasts.”
Jonathan grinned hugely.
“It’s been a long time since a girl called me that. Must be something about me.”
“Oh,” whispered the girl hurriedly, putting a soft hand to his arm, “I do not mean to offend. Sometimes I admire the—beasts.”
Well, he was getting on. He was keenly aware of her warm hand on his forearm. The girl felt his thought; flushed a little and stood up.
“Shar Bytu sent me to you,” she informed him.
“My thanks to Shar Bytu,” replied Jonathan, throwing aside the fur and rising. Someone had clothed him while he slept. He wore thin trousers that clung to his ankles and bellied outward as they went up. A broad leathern belt fitted snugly around his waist. His great chest was naked. Fur sandals protected his feet.
The girl was likewise clad, with bare midriff and a halter of white fur about her breasts.
“This is the universal garb for counsellors of our make,” the girl said. “Others wear different clothes. Still others wear none, having no sex.”
“I’m Jonathan Morgan. Do Zarathzans—er—have any names?”
“Silly. Of course. I’m Adatha Za.”
Jonathan grinned and said, “Glad to know you. And now that introductions are over, suppose you let me in on the big secret around here. Just what am I doing on Neeoorna?”
Adatha Za was startled.
“You do not know? Didn’t Shar Bytu tell—but perhaps he left that to me, seeing that I am not a—reptile.”
Jonathan looked her over and laughed, “I’m mighty glad you’re not,” and he noticed that Adatha Za—whose civilization was eons beyond that of Earth—looked pleased.
They walked toward a balcony overlooking a bed of scarlet flowers patterned between strips of green grass. Great lights beamed into the blackness of the Neeoornian night from high on the parapets, lighting the scene before them. And high in the heavens, black and moving against the blue of the starry sky, strange shadows chased one another between the stars.
Adatha Za lifted a bare arm and pointed to that great blotch in the heavens. Her arm trembled against Jonathan even as she pointed, and he read stark fear in her eyes and in the drooping corners of her scarlet mouth.
“You see those black flames? No one knows what they are. They kill us, one by one, when we attempt to fight them. They are growing. Already they have eaten one of the moons of this planet. Soon they will reach Neeoorna itself—indeed, they are past the fringe of the heavenside. And after Neeoorna they will eat the twin suns, and other suns and other planets. Zarathza and Earth, too. There will be nothing beyond the black flames, Earthling. It will eat our entire universe!”
Jonathan was aware that his spine tingled, looking up. He felt deep inside him, the alienness of those dancing darknesses. They were not of the known universe. They came from somewhere outside, from another world. So different from Earth that their mere presence spelled doom for anything normal to his world. Unhidden, they had emerged from some deeper space, and were voyaging across his, advancing inexorably, like flames of fire lapping across thin paper.
The girl’s bare shoulder pressed his, trembling.
“I’m frightened, Earthman,” she whispered. “When I think of Zarathza in the path of that—those blights from hell, I—oh, I don’t know how to say it!”
“Yes,” he answered soberly. “It isn’t nice to think of Earth waiting her turn, either. Not knowing. Happy until realization comes—”
Earth! It was so far away, so secure and homey. Unaware of this danger growing millions of light years from it, a danger threatening extinction to men and the pursuits of men, eating like a living monster into the suns and planets. Jonathan put an arm around the girl; held her against him. Lonely, they stood together, awed.
The girl lifted her head and smiled tremulously. She tossed her head and her hair brushed her shoulders.
“Let’s forget them,” she brightened. “I succeed pretty well. It’s just—at times—that I feel low down.”
“I feel low myself. Don’t anyone know anything about them? Can’t somebody think of something?”
Adatha Za leaned back against the marble rail of the balcony and looked at him and said, “You are big and strong. What would you do to something that was threatening you?”
“I’d fight,” he grunted.
“We fight, too. But our opponent always wins. And when we fight, we always die.”
Adatha Za sighed. Looking down at her, seeing the sweetly curved mouth that not quite pouted and the straight thin nostrils and deep, dark eyes fringed with long lashes, Jonathan realized she was a rarely beautiful girl. He felt suddenly as though he had been jabbed sharply under the ribs.
“Seeing you makes me want to fight something,” he grinned, laughing a little. “Funny, I haven’t felt like this since I was in high school. It’s like the little boy who turns somersaults before the pretty little girl who’s just moved next door. I guess I never noticed the little girl before.”
Adatha Za looked at him, her dark eyes alight; but her thin brows raised, faintly questioning.
“Some-somersaults? What is that?”
“Oh, just a way of showing off. Putting your head down and—here, I’ll show you.”
He dropped to the tiled flooring of the balcony and tumbled. Halfway over, he found himself looking upside-down at a tall figure who glared down at him incredulously. Jonathan flushed hotly and landed hard.
He sat there and felt foolish.
Adatha Za started up, catching her breath in her throat.
Jonathan drew a deep breath. There was a strange malignancy in the eyes of this man who stood in the arched entranceway and looked down at him. Malignancy and contempt, and his thin lips sneered with the livid disdain that moved him.
“You’re just asking for trouble, mac,” he said quietly, getting to his feet. “I’m not used to being looked at like that.”
The man stood straight and haughty, but his eyes blazed. Jonathan felt as though he had been spat at. He started forward; felt Adatha Za’s hand on his arm, squeezing him hard.
“This is Morka Kar, Jonathan. He is from Zarathza. This is the Earthling, Jonathan Morgan.”
The Zarathzan did not incline his head. He flashed an irritated look at Adatha Za, then looked back at Jonathan.
“The guests of Shar Bytu have gathered to meet the barbarian,” he snapped. “He sent me to see if he were awake. I see he is. Be good enough to show him the Temple, Adatha Za.”
He swung on his heel and walked away. Jonathan quivered and took a step after him, but the girl beside him tugged on his arm, saying, “It is always his way. He is abrupt, and so self-controlled that anything like gaiety annoys him.”
Jonathan grunted. His lips that had been hard, slowly softened.
“That baby was just begging for a left hook,” he growled. “And something tells me he’ll get it, too.”
“Morka Kar is a great scientist. I came in his retinue from Zarathza, to help fight the flames.”
“I still don’t like him!” Jonathan drew a deep breath and asked, “He—he isn’t your husband? Mate, I mean. Or—your fiance?”
Adatha Za laughed.
“You use quaint expressions. But I follow your thoughts. No, he is not my husband, nor my engaged. But he does want me. You see, on Zarathza I am tapu. Sworn to science research, forbidden to wed a Zarathzan.”
Jonathan reflected on that for a moment. He glanced sidewise at her and grinned, “What about an—Earthman?”
Adatha Za pinched his arm and laughed, “Strictly, there’s nothing against it. Zarathza never even heard of Earth until recently!”
The Temple of Embassy gleamed in ethereal beauty under the beams of Neeoorna’s five moons. Its ivory pillars lifted slender fingers to the black basalt dome. About its periphery an arched court circled to the entrance where its massive metal gates were embossed with crouching griffins.
Jonathan and Adatha Za passed along the magnificently marbled corridors and entered a deep council room tiered with seats. He paused in the doorway and stared.
On saltwhite benches the representatives of a thousand worlds turned and looked at him. There were reptiles from Neeoorna, lavendar-tinted Zarathzans, blobous creatures from distant Sarboola, thought things of far galaxies, ethereal Tartulians, and queer black beasts that had the intelligence of genius. Against one wall glass enclosures held beings from planets so cold they needed artificial refrigeration to live here. Near the opposite side of the chamber, steamy glass vases held other life forms whose structure needed tremendous heat to exist.
There was a tall round rostrum of some glimmering metal raised like a throne in the center of the room. There stood Shar Bytu, towering over the assembled hundreds. There was a flash of his greenish forearm, and Jonathan stepped forward.
“Approach us, Jonathan Morgan,” Shar Bytu called. “We of Neeoorna and the worlds of our universes have waited for you. You are the only Earth creature we could contact, though we tried many. Come, join us.”
As he went down the aisle, Jonathan cast sidewise glances at the utterly alien beings that stood and looked at him. Here and there, though, he saw others like himself and the Zarathzans. Humans. Men with two arms and two legs. Women with lissome figures and soft red mouths. He felt a little warmer, and held his head higher, after seeing them.
He came up the steps and stood beside Shar Bytu. The reptile nodded, smiling somewhat.
“We had set great hopes on you. Earthling. Before your eyes you see creatures of bafflement and wonder tinged with a near-despair. The shadowy flames are a mystery and a menace to us. We had hoped—we had hoped strongly, that you might bring the solution to their strange deadliness. I know now they are as queer to you as to us.”
“There’s more than those flames that’s queer to me,” replied Jonathan grimly. “First on the list is how I ever managed to get here at all. Where I got all those tricky powers from—”
“That,” deprecated Shar Bytu by a gesture of his six-clawed hand. “That is but a simple explanation. You will understand it when I point it out. You are merely the ultimate goal of evolution.”
“Oh,” nodded Jonathan, and wondered if he looked blank.
“What is the ultimate goal of evolution but perfection?” resumed the reptile. “On Earth Nature has experimented with the dinosaur, the bird, the fish. One by one she discarded them because they were not fit to survive their environment. But all the while Nature was learning. It was making strides. It tested and discarded. The reptile and the early forms of bird and fish and insect life were tossed into the discard. Nature knew there was something lacking.
“She made man. She gave man the inherent ability to fit himself to any environment. She gave man a brain, a brain that gave off energy in the form of thought. Measured energy. Electrical energy. Energy that can be measured and graphed. But Nature, prodigal in her gifts, was also prodigal with man’s mind. She gave man nine million brain cells—far more than he ever used. Only a great genius used one percent of those cells!
“Then why was Nature so lavish? In man she had reached her absolute ultimate. There only remained for man to perfect the tremendous, unguessed power of his brain. By thought! By sending out beams of sheer solid thought, by dipping into those millions of brain cells for the ultimate power, the power that would make man—perfect!”
Jonathan closed his eyes, shuddering. He opened his eyes and looked at Shar Bytu.
“How do you know all this?” he whispered.
He thought in the frightened core of him of changes in the space-time continuum, that unguessable eons may have rolled past since last he left the Earth. That Earth was old beyond thought—
Shar Bytu chuckled, “No, I do not have the gift of prophecy, nor am I repeating history. Except by analogy. For as Nature has treated us of a hundred and sixteen suns, so Nature will treat man. Nature and evolution are inexorable, being linked with time. And so she will produce the perfect man—the man absolutely adapted to his own environment.
“We of Neeoorna did this to you, by certain—ah—methods. We operated on you by means known to our scientists for ages. When we have an atavar in our clinics, we open his mind fully to enable him to throw off all connection with past ages. So it was with you. It was not difficult.
“As a result, you are a man immune to harm. You have absolute control over your body, over inanimate objects that exist about you. Once you are aware of what danger threatens, you may avert it by so arranging the electronic groupings within your body either to merge and blend with the danger, or harden into a shield of antidote or corrective.
“Of course, as your brain evolved, it needed the body to feed it, to give it energy. Thus the body became an essential part of it. But the body changed, too, the body will respond to any environment, as a necessary corollary of the brain.
“In short, you are the ultimate evolution. It became the perfect tool of the mind. It did anything the mind ordered it to. So of the third planet of the Sun Duryu. Or Sol.”
Jonathan drew a deep breath. He knew with deepest conviction that he had heard truth, bizarre as it was. He was not a man any more. He knew that, within himself. He was as far beyond man, or would be now, with study, as men were above the Neanderthals. He was ultimate man. Man in his final stage. Man multiplied by all the powers that be. Man to the nth degree.
“Now that I’m here, I’ve failed you,” he grunted hoarsely.
“Not yet. Oh, no. Many of us have failed. They are no longer—here. We still hope that you may, out of your experiences on Earth, construct us an edifice upon which our scientists may find some clue, some hint. All we ask is some idea as to what it is we face. Just a thought. One tiny clue.
“But now you must see how we fight ourselves.”
A gigantic, bulbous being, a fishbelly-white due to the heavy cloud formation that sheathed its native planet five light years from Neeoorna, rose to his feet. He turned his many-faceted eyes to the rostrum.
“Shar Bytu,” he intoned sonorously, “I ask the right of test for us of the planet Moratoyo. We would seek to cast a shower of atoms at the flames. We have made recent improvements over our former weapon—”
Shar Bytu nodded, and his clawed hand brought an ebony mallet upon the rosewood pulpit where he stood.
“So granted. Session adjourned. The guests of Neeoorna will meet at the proving grounds.”
In silence the scientists filed from their seats. Jonathan caught sight of Adatha Za among the Zarathzan delegates, and ran to her. Her hand nestled warmly in his. She flashed her dark eyes at him and smiled.
“I’m more out of place here than an Atheist in church,” he said. “Stick to me. I still have to get my bearings.”
Her fingers tensed on his, squeezing. He heard her whispered, “I will.”
The proving grounds lay semi-circular behind a great green spread of lawn. At the north end of the vast field an arc of white marble terraces lifted rosy columns to the sky. Below the pillars stretched marble benches, now rapidly filling with emissaries.
The Moratoyons marched to a gleaming gun set in concrete in the center of the dusty field behind the lawn. The gun shone a queer white, with two red domes surmounting its breech, and fitted on either side with knobs and levers. It quivered and gleamed in the heat haze that shifted over the proving sands.
Jonathan felt Adatha Za press against him with thigh and shoulder. She choked a whisper to his ears, “It is their atom-gun. It cannot be compared with some others we have seen, but if they’ve improved it—” her voice broke with a soundless sob. “We hope it may work. But we are—afraid.”
Jonathan could almost feel the anxiety and hope around him like a living thing. From the somewhat transparent thought beings of Sallarsee to the robotmen of Kankang, each sat watchful; grim, intent. Those who had lips tensed them to thin lines. Those who had eyes narrowed them expectantly. The others floated or stood, quiescent.
The Moratoyons on the field moved swiftly. They clamped brakes and levers down and locked them; spun wheels and twisted dials. From the steel and cement cradle where it rested, the great cylinder of dull white metal lifted its blunt nose slowly, almost cautiously, and aimed it at the sky.
“It shoots atoms supercharged with light-photons,” whispered Adatha Za.
The chief scientist of all Moratoyo paused and looked at Shar Bytu, who nodded. The Moratoyon whirled, shouting harshly, watching his men leap for the firing dials.
One after another the dials spun.
The firing pin was punched.
“God!” choked Jonathan hoarsely, staring in numb horror.
Where once the gun stood bright and shining there was a faint red mist that hung close to earth, beating bloodily in the flood of the arc carbon-dioxide lamps as though welling with life. Then it began to dissipate as a faint breeze wafted across the field.
There was a little hole in the ground, where the gun had been.
Jonathan became aware slowly of Adatha Za’s hand that clung like a vise about his left wrist. He looked at her, saw her eyes convulsively closed; saw two tears trickling from beneath her long dark lashes.
Her moist red mouth trembled as she whispered, “They all fail. All of them. Like that. One moment they are here. Then they are gone. It is almost as if they destroyed themselves.”
Jonathan put an arm around her naked shoulders and hugged her against his chest.
“Buck up,” he grated. “We aren’t licked yet. Why, hell! We haven’t started to fight, yet!”
He saw Morka Kar sneering at him from two stadium seats away, his thin mouth curling in fanatical contempt. He felt the hate beat redly from the man’s eyes. Jonathan bared his teeth in answer to that fierce, unspoken taunt.
He said, loud enough for the Zarathzan to hear, “One of us will find a way. We’re bound to. There’s a key to that riddle. There has to be. The universe can’t end—not like this—”
“Perhaps,” said Morka Kar loudly, “the Earthling might amuse the shadows by—tumbling?”
Jonathan didn’t know until later that Adatha Za put out a hand to restrain him. He was away like a sprinter, and his big left fist was lifting, swiftly. His fist hit Morka Kar, a little to one side of his jaw.
It snapped the Zarathzan’s head around and backwards, and lifted him off his feet, and dropped him three seats below.
Morka Kar lay there outstretched, unmoving. Jonathan grinned hugely and rubbed his knuckles. It began to penetrate after a while that the others were staring at him in complete horror.
Adatha Za gasped and sobbed, then came and stood silently beside him, her soft hand reaching for his fist. She held her dark head high, and her eyes glared defiance.
“—useless to expect help from things still ruled by emotion—”
“—a mistake. Shar Bytu should not—”
He heard the murmurs and the whispers, but Adatha Za was speaking, saying, “Morka Kar insulted him before the assembly was called. He is not like us, this Earthling. He fights when he is attacked!”
Shar Bytu waddled forward, his reptilian face grave. He blinked a little curious, at Jonathan.
“We cannot have disturbances among ourselves,” he said. “We need scientific and philosophic calm to meet the shadow menace.”
“It wasn’t what he said,” Jonathan said softly. “It was the way he said it. He was asking for it.”
“Asking for what?” puzzled Shar Bytu, looking about.
The reptile, moving his ponderous head in looking for what Morka Kar had asked, struck Jonathan as unconsciously funny. He grinned, and was buoyed up.
He said, “I’m sorry. I don’t want to break up any gathering like this. Apparently my action strikes you as something primitive. I don’t look at it that way at all. I didn’t ask to be brought here, or to be given the powers to make the trip. Now that I’m here, however, I’ll do everything I can to help. Naturally. But no Zarathzan’s going to walk all over me whenever he feels like it.”
A snarl answered him. Morka Kar was climbing unsteadily to his feet, aided by two Goqualian metallic robotmen.
“Shar Bytu,” fumed the Zarathzan, shaking off the hands that held him. “It has been long since a being of my standing indulged in personal combat, but I wish to meet this Earthling. Just the two of us. Face to face, mind to mind, in mental monomachy!”
Adatha Za went white. Shar Bytu looked gravely unhappy.
Shar Bytu whispered, “I had hoped to learn something from the Earth man—”
Jonathan interrupted, “You’re all conceding victory to Morka Kar. Maybe so, maybe not. That isn’t just what I want to say, though. The main thing that occupies us is the problem of the flames, or shadows.
“Much as I hate to admit it, I’m afraid I’m not much help against them. You see, when you gave me the powers of ultimate evolution, my scientific and other knowledge didn’t keep pace with them. There are thousands of Earth men who would have made better ambassadors than I. Apparently I was more psychic, perhaps more malleable in brain structure, than they. I don’t presume to know the whys and wherefores of that. I’m here and I’m glad I’m here. If I can help, I will.
“But—much as I hate to admit it, I’m out of my depth. Those shadows, or whatever it is out there in space, is beyond me. So if you lose me—which I hope you don’t—you aren’t losing too much.”
Jonathan took a deep breath; went on, “A poet on Earth once said something about not loving a woman loved he not honor more. Well, I love the universe, but I’m not hiding behind any danger to it when a man wants to fight me for a woman I—love.”
He heard Adatha Za’s quickened breathing; felt her hand touch his arm and squeeze. He stood there with her hand on his arm and looked about him, at the thought beings and the robotmen and the reptiles. On a few faces, on the faces of those who looked most like men, he read a grave applause. On the features of the others, a blank attention, as though he spoke of geology to a monkey. They just couldn’t get his viewpoint at all.
But Morka Kar did, and he snarled. His sullen mouth writhed and his eyes glowed fiercely as he glanced from Adatha Za to Jonathan.
“Another thing,” grated Jonathan, and he looked Morka Kar full in the eyes, “I may be an animal, but I know others who possess animal characteristics—no matter what they mistakenly call themselves.”
Morka Kar fought in the metal arms of the robotmen who flanked him. Shar Bytu turned and fixed him with a cold eye.
“You will be still, Zarathzan,” he whispered icily. “I have long heard your taunts to one or another of our group. As yet the deputation from Zarathza has not attempted the flames, though I have heard many words spoken by them of it.”
Morka Kar quieted swiftly.
“The mental monomachy will occur tomorrow at this place. Until then I forbid Morka Kar and the Earthling to meet. If harm befalls either of them, the other shall pay with his life. See to it.”
He turned and waddled away. Morka Kar seethed a glance at Jonathan, then followed the reptile. The others split into groups, silently transmitting puzzled thoughts.
Adatha Za sat on the stone bench and looked up at him, and her red mouth was rueful. Her eyes beneath the dark fringes of her lashes accused him.
“I had hoped that some day you would visit Zarathza with me,” she said softly. “Now you—”
“Now nothing has changed,” grinned Jonathan, dropping beside her and taking her soft hands between his. “Shar Bytu made me infinite, didn’t he? How can Morka Kar hurt me?”
Her eyes widened in concern. “But Morka Kar is also infinite, as you put it. He will fight your mind. You do not know the sciences that Morka Kar knows. Not knowing what he can do against you, you will be helpless. He will stun your brain, drive it mad, then—destroy it.”
“If I can’t think as fast as that bullying windbag, I’m willing to be destroyed.”
Adatha Za sounded annoyed. “It is not a question of thinking fast, although that does enter into it. It is more a matter of knowing how to oppose the weapons that Morka Kar will create to fight you.”
“—that he will create?”
“Certainly. Of old on Zarathza, men carried swords and shields. Later they used percussion guns, still later, atomic disintegrators. But as the years passed into eons, and as life on Zarathza evolved, it was discovered that these weapons were of no use against a trained mind that could shoot a bolt of mental force against the weapon to destroy it. So men went naked into combat and there they thought up their weapons swiftly, through force of mind alone. Their opponents met their mental creations with defenses and weapons of their own. The more unusual the weapon, the easier it was to decide the victor.”
“My ideas on weapons stop about at a .45 caliber automatic. A sword is useless. So’s a bow and arrows. Or a spear. You say Zarathza had atomic disintegrators a long time ago, eh?”
The girl shivered.
“Atomic disintegrators are seen only in museums today,” she whispered. “And you of Earth do not even have them. Lallista! You are a dead man walking around.”
“Hey,” chuckled Jonathan, grabbing her arms and pulling her around to face him. “Chin up. I may not know much about weapons, but I’ll bet I’ve still got a trick or two up my sleeve. I’ll show that windbag where he gets off. You wait. You’ll see.”
Her eyes begged his for reassurance. She lay close against him and her mouth quivered into a smile.
“You were—joking me, then? You do know of weapons that you haven’t mentioned?”
“Sure,” he boasted gaily. “Lots of them. Brass knuckles. Galloping dominoes. A ginrickey. A mickey finn. The Brooklyn Dodgers.”
“I am so glad,” she whispered. “That makes me feel so much better.”
She did not see his frown as she walked with him across the white composition walk toward their guest quarters. He wasn’t thinking of himself. He was wondering what Morka Kar would do to her—after he got through with him.
“Just the same,” the girl was saying, “I think that I will show you some of the weapons Morka Kar may use. Those, at least, that I know. We will go and sit together beneath the moons, and I will teach them to you, one after the other.”
Jonathan looked at her red mouth and grinned, “I’ll show you a weapon, too. On Earth we call it a—kiss.”
The night was warm and the moons that hurtled across the Neeoornian sky shed a pale lustre on the gardens where Adatha Za and Jonathan Morgan sat. Between her legs lay a box filled with strips of queerly colored metals, vials of shining dull and iridescent chemicals, containers and compartments of tubes and alloys.
“It is from these that Morka Kar will fashion his weapons,” she said, fingering the objects before her. “From the mints provided by the monomachy coffer, he will be enabled to throw weapon after weapon at you. For instance, this—from this he will make a molecular magnetizer that will cause the molecules that make up your body so to attract each other that your body will shrink in upon itself—assume the density of a dwarf star—fall through the earth to the center of this planet! Or with this he could form a ray that is hot as the hottest sun in the universe. He may not use that. It is a weapon that even Morka Kar fears. It is too deadly. Were it to escape his mental control, it could blow up the entire planet. Now from this tube—”
Jonathan listened dutifully. He was in this away over his head, and no amount of last minute cramming would help. To assimilate this knowledge would require years. He wasn’t quitting, but he realized that if he did win, it would be by some method purely Earthian, and not by a study of Zarathzan weaponry.
He looked at Adatha Za. He put his hands on her soft shoulders and turned her toward him. Her eyes were questioning.
“We have a weapon on Earth, too,” he whispered. “It’s a kiss. Do you Zarathzans have the kiss?”
With arched brows the girl followed his thought, then shook her head a little disdainfully, saying, “No. That does not seem to be any sort of armament I know. Is it a good weapon?”
“The best there is on a night like this—with a girl like you.”
Her mouth was warm and soft and moist beneath his. His lips held hers for a long time before he let her go. She opened her long-lashed eyes slowly, staring at him.
“That is no weapon,” she accused softly. She put her arms up and drew his head down again, whispering, “—but I like it. I should really study it some more.”
This time it was the girl whose lips clung.
Jonathan laughed, “For a Zarathzan you catch on pretty quickly.”
“I’m a scientist,” she retorted.
Nestled in his arms, with her hair flooding his chest and shoulder, Adatha Za said, “I wish—I wish that you and I could go back to Zarathza together, Jonathan Morgan. In my villa beside the Jaralayan Sea I would love to study this kiss-weapon of yours. It is such a nice weapon, even though it does frighten me a little.”
She gasped suddenly and tried to sit up, but Jonathan’s long arms held her.
“Now what’s eating you?” he wanted to know.
“That kiss—how many times have you experimented with that weapon on Earth?”
Jonathan chuckled, “Next thing you’ll be telling me I do it like an expert!”
Head to one side, Adatha Za surveyed him. At last she nodded pertly, laughing a little.
“Yes, I think you do. And no one ever became perfect without practice!”
“Don’t forget. Shar Bytu made me a perfectionist.”
Adatha Za sighed as she nestled back into his arms, and whispered, “There are some things, Jonathan Morgan, that even evolution can’t do.”
Adatha Za came for him the next day, to go with him to the Arena. Her eyes were dark and sunken, her soft red mouth quivering. Her hair hung loose, uncoiffed. She came into his arms and kissed him; drew back to look up into his face, trembling.
“I am glad for last night,” she whispered. “Though I did have hopes—some day in my villa over the Jaralayan Sea—”
She buried her face against his chest, moving it slowly from side to side, distrait.
“Hey,” yelped Jonathan, lifting her face with a finger beneath her chin. “Why the gloom? I thought we’d decided last night that I had a chance.”
“You did—last night. Today … today Shar Bytu announced that the winner of the mental monomachy is to attempt the black shadows! So—”
“Oof,” Jonathan grunted, “that sort of knocks the stilts out from under a guy. No matter who wins, both will die, unless—no, the age of miracles passed a long time ago. What does Morka Kar say to that?”
“Oh, he raved and swore, but he dared do nothing to disobey. After all, he is a scientist, and he is here to fight those flames. Even he cannot hope to fight all the scientists on Neeoorna right now. I—I think he will temporize. Have the monomachy declared a draw. That will allow him to save face and his life at the same time.”
“I’m going to win if I can,” Jonathan said slowly. “I just don’t cotton to that guy.”
Her long fingernails bit into the flesh of his wrists. Her voice was hoarse, desperate, “By Lallista’s brood, Jonathan! Do not anger him. Your one chance is in Morka Kar’s willingness to spare you that he may spare his own self. If he loses that temper of his—Jonathan, I want you alive.”
He patted her bare shoulder, smiling.
“I’ll still see that villa on the sea, honey. Don’t fret your lovely head about it. But it’s time to go, now. I don’t want this affair called off on a forfeit.”
They walked slowly, hand in hand, along the pebbled path to the great white Amphitheatre. It rose tall and grim, brooding over the lovely square that fronted its entrance. The square was deserted. Their footfalls sounded loud in their ears.
They went up the steps and through the oval doorway. Alone, they went down the black corridor toward the arena.
The seats were filled, inside the arena room. The batteries of ten thousand eyes gloomed at Jonathan as he walked toward the great ivory chair set on the sanded field. He knew Morka Kar watched him from the ebony throne opposite the ivory chair, but he’d be damned before he’d glance his way!
Jonathan settled himself in the seat before he looked at his opponent. Morka Kar sat facing him, both arms resting on the ebony arms. His thin mouth was twisted in a sardonic grin. His red-shot eyes glistened with hate.
Adatha Za came forward with an oblong coffer, ornate with jewels. Dropping to her knees, she unlocked the cover, and threw it open. Inside, row on row, glittered vials and retorts of liquids and powders, and long metal bars and needles.
Above Adatha Za’s naked shoulders, Jonathan watched a three-legged Paravian dance-walk its way to Morka Kar. The Paravian also carried a monomachy casket.
Adatha Za spoke swiftly: “As you see his weapon form, combat it. Use the antidote. Not knowing that,” she was choking now, almost sobbing, “not knowing that, attack the weapon with your mind. It has existence, but it is a mentally energized existence. Mental energy may dissipate it if strong enough. It is not considered good form—but it is safe.”
The dark eyes shimmered through tears as she looked up at him.
“Farewell,” she whispered.
And turned and fled.
Morka Kar stretched out a foot and kicked shut the cover of the coffer before his throne. The clunk of the closing lid sounded loud in the high chamber, merging with the breathless gasp that shook the throng. Only a mathless monomachy fighter scorned the help of the box.
Jonathan looked at Morka Kar and grinned.
He put out his own foot and slammed the cover down. Dimly he caught, in some remote recess of his brain, the amaze that held the onlookers. They didn’t know, as did Adatha Za, that the contents of that box were as much a mystery to Jonathan as were the black shadows. He’d be better off without it. It gave him less to think about, and he needed all his powers of thought.
Morka Kar snarled. His eyes blazed right at Jonathan—
Purple balls hung in the air before the Zarathzan!
They shimmered and glittered, filled with opalescent mists of green and red and white and purple. They danced eerily, as though drunk, as though to the music of some alien piper. They bounced and swayed on invisible strings in a wild and eerie saraband. They swung outward, circling.
Then darted straight at Jonathan.
Jonathan threw every bit of mental power at his control into his defense, but the first bubble did not break before it got within three feet of him. The others fell apart easily after that.
Jonathan frowned, and an automatic hung in the air before him. It turned to grey mists and faded, struck by a bolt of liquid fire.
Morka Kar rasped laughter, “Do better Earthling. We of Zarathza have forgotten weapons such as that.”
A haze of colorless hue quivered in front of the Zarathzan. It seemed only a heat haze; but when he saw the sandy waste inside the shimmer, when he saw grey and rolling ocean instead of the sand, and saw ocean turn to roaring flames, he knew he looked on a weapon utterly foreign to Earth thought.
His knuckles bulged until the skin over them whitened in the fury of his concentration. Gasping, he saw the shimmer fade.
He cast a beam of radio-waves; saw them strike a beam of like power and shatter, useless. He hurled acid. It met an alkali. He threw a bullet and watched it melt in a shield of heat that turned the lead to smoke.
All the while the Zarathzan taunted him, shrilling, “Ape. Go back to the steamy jungles of your planet, ape. We do not need a loose-brain here. Go back, ape!”
A red triangle formed in the air before Morka Kar even as he spoke. It glowed and burned with green hell-fires. Jonathan dropped water on it and the green fires raged and grew and expanded, feeding on the water.
Jonathan shuddered when he finally extinguished them. Beads of cold sweat rose on his forehead. He was growing weaker. His brain could not stand this punishment. He had been subjecting it to too much. It would give, soon. It was not conditioned, as was the Zarathzan’s.
He thought fleetingly of last night, with Adatha Za’s mouth burning beneath his. Never to know that mouth again! She had trusted in his strength, in his boasts. She had told him of her villa above the sea. Now he was to fail her. He had bragged of a mickey finn. Of brass knuckles. What a crude jest. He had even mentioned—
Jonathan sat upright. He thought.
When Morka Kar saw the club in his hands, he hooted.
“A club! The ape has found a club with which to kill. Lallista! He jests.”
Jonathan swung the wood in his hands with easy familiarity. He lifted it above his shoulders, then brought it about viciously. There was a sudden splat.
Morka Kar, still laughing his derision, crumpled and toppled from the ebony seat.
Jonathan discovered his knees shaking. He sat down quickly.
Adatha Za came running, sobbing, laughter.
“You beat him. You beat him. What a strange weapon. What was it? Morka Kar thought it but a club. He did not deign to spend his mental forces on it. But you fooled him!”
Jonathan held up the wood and shook it, laughing, “This is known in America as a baseball bat. A Louisville slugger. The old hickory, the ash. And the thing that hit Morka Kar was a baseball. Gods! A jest, he called it.”
Shar Bytu looked from Morka Kar to Jonathan, saying, “You must destroy him. It is the great rule of mental monomachy.”
But Jonathan shook his head, wearily.
Shar Bytu looked down at the Zarathzan. He almost seemed to relish what he did. But it was over in an instant. A few grains of dust settled groundwards. Jonathan felt sick.
The others gathered around him. Their voices were excited.
“A new weapon to fight the flames.”
“The Earthling has solved our problem.”
“If it baffled a monomachy fighter like Morka Kar, it might work on the flames.”
Jonathan tried to explain, looking down at their faces.
“No, no,” he cried out, talking down their thoughts. “It isn’t a weapon. It’s a sport we play back on Earth. I—it—the bat is used to hit a ball. Morka Kar didn’t know that. He thought it just a club.
“Luckily, I could call my shot. A straight fast ball. Not a curve. A straight—”
Jonathan blinked. He stopped, choking; eyes wide.
“Maybe,” he whispered. “Maybe—”
The others grew quiet, watching. They felt his intense excitement, saw his hands quiver, and the way his lips twitched. Adatha Za clung to his arm and her eyes were pools of purple hunger.
It wasn’t too fantastic—yet.
It all depended on straight lines and curves, and whether a straight line can ever be curved. The shortest distance between two points. If the straight line could be moved to turn, then he was wrong.
But if he were right! If this type of straightness could not curve, then it might conceivably eat its way through a universe which was based on something that should curve: light.
Dr. Wooden and he had made strides in their experiments on light rays derived from calcatryte. They had explored the quantum theory, had forced homogenous light against a metal plate and seen the electrons it extracted from it. This light energy had been partially turned into the kinetic energy of the bombarded electrons of metal.
From this it had been a step upward in discovering that calcatryte yielded a photon shower of such terrific concentration that it ate right through the metal plate; had given no evidence of stopping until they had constructed the plasticite screen: pure black, coated with a fine dust of calcatryte itself.
They had no way of knowing whether the rays stopped at the screen, exactly. They might go on and on. And if they ate through metal, releasing the electrons that composed it—they might eat through the universe!
Jonathan shuddered and looked around him.
He knew his course, now. But to prove it—
He had to go through the flames!
“You proclaimed that the winner of the mental monomachy would go through the flames, Shar Bytu,” he said. “As winner, and as representative of Earth, I claim that right.”
Shar Bytu looked at him and his eyes were like flecks of cold moonlight. Suddenly, they twinkled.
“The right is yours, Earthling. And something tells me that you may, at long last, be the one to succeed. I read it in your mind. Yes, your theory is a good one. To think that menace came from Earth. From little, uncivilized, barbaric Earth.”
He waddled away, his ponderous reptilian head moving from side to side.
Adatha Za pressed her hot cheeks against Jonathan’s chest. Her voice was low, troubled: “How will you fight the flames, Jonathan? What weapon is there that can destroy them?”
“No weapon under all the stars and all the suns can destroy the shadows, Adatha Za. They are alien. The only hope there is—is to shut them off.”
He shot up rapidly from the sanded floor of the Arena. Beneath him for one long instant, he saw Adatha Za with her lovely face upturned: hands clasped between her breasts, red mouth bitten until it swelled, dark eyes misted. Shar Bytu stood beside her, his scaly hide brushing her naked arm. The others were grouped in twos and threes: silent and motionless, watching him.
How long they stood there, Jonathan never knew. His mind was fully occupied in a furious effort of incredible concentrative power: forcing his body into the rigid and alien pattern that his mind knew would alone spell safety from disaster.
Light that never deviated from its straight and ruthless path. Light that would absorb matter, that would shower a stream of electrons from it, releasing the electrons in a blast of power that fed upon the stuff it touched. Such were the black shadows!
And as he hurtled onward into the flames, he forced his body into beams of light, rigid and unbending. He had to merge with the flames, or be destroyed.
He hurtled onward, toward the ebony maw that shook and glistened and bellied against the dark of space like a translucent blob of jelly.
He held out his hands like a diver, going into the shadows. The movement helped him concentrate on straightness. The wind and the blackness was about him, licking at his lighteous form. Along his chest and thighs the flames touched, caressing.
The blackness was himself, now; part of him, a segment of his mind, a portion of his body.
And he went on swiftly.
Toward his goal.
On the planet, Neeoorna, Adatha Za knew the salt taste of her tears. Her red lips were puffed by the teethmarks driven deeply into their softness. Her breasts rose swiftly.
The others stood about her, and their minds were blank.
At that moment they comprehended, but joy and awe were stronger than mere knowledge.
The black shadows winked once. They winked again, fleetingly.
Then they disappeared.
Dr. Wooden stood silent as Jonathan Morgan drew his hand from the switch that drove a bath of heat at the blocks of calcatryte set in their metallic cradles. The humming of motors stopped. The blackish screen in the background went silent, dead.
“Well,” said Dr. Wooden, straightening. “Hello.”
Jonathan sat down and put out a trembling hand, drew an open pack of cigarettes toward him.
“I’ve been far away,” he said slowly. “To the other side of the universe. Billions of miles away, and yet—in your own backyard.”
Dr. Wooden grinned and sat on the edge of the sandstone tabletop. He lighted a cigarette himself, saying, “Tell me.”
Jonathan told him. And then he said, “It seems understandable enough, really. Those powers I possess. What are they but an innate adaptability to environment. And isn’t that the true goal of Nature?
“The environment is what destroys, is what weakens, is what kills. Call it a blast furnace. Call it disease. Call it a clawing tiger. It is, nevertheless, our environment: temporary or permanent. To survive that, man must be immortal, in a physical sense. In the sense that he possesses in himself all the necessary attributes to enable him to overcome that environment. That way lies immortality.”
Dr. Wooden regarded the glowing tip of his cigarette. He said, “That’s clear enough. It is fantastic, but who knows what changes one million or two million years will bring in man. Lord knows, it brought a lot of changes on Earth itself! Now, about the flames—”
Jonathan crushed out his cigarette.
“They were the emanations from the calcatryte. I realized that eventually. It stood to reason. It had to be something alien to a universe where light curves. Something that either ate up matter or made it invisible or opened a door for it to leak out somewhere, into nothingness.
“Calcatryte gives off straight light, so powerful that it eats through metal. It could as easily eat through dirt and rock, through the moon of a planet, through a planet itself. Through the universe, in short. In a universe based on curving light, that unbendable light was an anomaly. It ate up our universe, or started to.”
“Again, clear enough. It’s reasonable, and possible. But when you went into the shadows and passed through them—you emerged here in my laboratory. But my laboratory is billions upon billions of miles from Neeoorna.”
Jonathan grunted, “In terms of ordinary space, yes. I passed through hyperspace.”
“That’s a mathematical concept.”
“I know. But we—you have proved it exists. It has been proven mathematically.”
Dr. Wooden looked dubious. Jonathan picked up a pencil and pressed down with the point on a slip of graph paper.
“That black mark, that dot, is one-dimensional. Extend a line from that point to another dot. The line is also one-dimensional. Let us put the pencil on the line, supersede the line with the pencil. Since the pencil has three dimensions, so does the line—for the pencil is the line.
“Suppose an n-dimensional object. Supersede the pencil with the n-dimensional object and we have an n-dimensional line. It is an n-dimensional space of n-dimensional points, instead of our original definition of a line as a single dimensioned space of points set in a row.
“Ordinary space is called three-dimensional because it is occupied by three-dimensional things. Planes, for instance. But if we speak of lines of spheres or circles, we can easily step into the realm of n-dimensionality.
“The drawback is that we can’t see it. We can’t envision n-dimensionality.
“Consequently, we have always been intrigued by many-dimensionality because we can’t picture it to ourselves. But the calcatryte rays weren’t hindered by a lack of imagination. They just zoomed off into an n-dimensional space, and wound up near Neeoorna. They were lines, remember, straight lines. And lines can be n-dimensional.”
Dr. Wooden rubbed his chin and said, “Could be, could be. But how does hyperspace solve your problem?”
“A dot inside a circle can go outside that circle without crossing its circumference. Likewise, I could pass from the inside to the outside of a sphere without going through the surface of a four-dimensional object.
“Those calcatryte rays beamed out from your lab into hyperspace, passing through ordinary space without touching it, and appeared billions of miles away. When I entered the shadows, I followed their course.”
Dr. Wooden drew a deep breath, saying, “If I hadn’t seen you materialize out of thin air—” and broke off, laughing.
“Seeing does enter it, doesn’t it? But the attempts that were made to fight the shadows! Why were the attackers always destroyed? Unless—unless their weapons backfired on them—”
“That’s my thought. They were shooting three-dimensional objects at an n-dimensional space. The three-dimensional objects never got anywhere. They didn’t even leave their source. They expended their frightful energy right where they began.”
“Well,” muttered Dr. Wooden. “You could talk for hours and not prove anything.”
He broke off, looking at Jonathan. He lifted a wooden mallet and held it out to him.
“Destroy it,” he said simply. “If it’s that much of a danger to the universe, it deserves obliteration.”
Jonathan put out his hand, brushed the mallet aside.
He bent over the table, setting both hands on it, partially supporting his weight.
The calcatryte in the metal cradles began to quiver as though made of soluble, moving liquid. Their veins ran into channels of color, red and green and blue and yellow. The blocks hazed over, writhing.
The calcatryte was fading, bit by bit.
Jonathan stood up. He looked worn, but his lips smiled.
“It’s done,” he whispered.
“You won’t stay?”
A smile came and dwelt on Jonathan’s lips.
“No,” he said. “No, I won’t stay. I am going back to Neeoorna, and then to Zarathza—to look at a sunrise coming up over the waters of the Jaralayan Sea.”
He went out, and the door closed behind him, softly.#ENGLISH