The Time-Techs of Kra by Max C. Sheridan

THE TIME-TECHS OF KRA
By MAX SHERIDAN
The elusive technical knowledge of eons,
past and future, was held captive by the mighty
Kralons—learned giant insects that seined the
stream of Time for the great Truth that would
mold them into unrivalled masters of the universe.

[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Fall 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

The little gray man peered timidly over gold-rimmed spectacles at the great black hole which yawned hungrily almost at his feet. He edged back cautiously from the massive steel lattice which guarded its circumference, then plucked timidly at the sleeve of the blue-uniformed guard who stood impressively erect before the barrier’s huge gate.

“I—I beg your pardon. Could you tell me when the next one leaves?” he asked in a voice as colorless as his thin, nondescript features.

The guard catalogued the speaker with a glance, and a superior smile lifted the corners of his lips.

“Not figuring on making the Big Drop, are you, Uncle?” he asked in obvious amusement.

“Well, I—”

Then the gilt epaulets on the guard’s padded shoulders jerked as he came suddenly to a respectful attention.

“Next Diamvator leaves promptly at 2:30 P.M., sir. Arrives at the Antipodes at 6:30 P.M. Central Standard Time, sir.”

The obsequious reply brought a veil of mild surprise to the little man’s pale gray eyes.

Then it was replaced with a twinkle of understanding as he saw the Terminal Agent approaching.

J. B. Andrews, the big bluff Supervisory Agent of Earth-Tube, Incorporated, cast a cursory glance at the little gray man, then turned to the guard.

“The ‘Vator will leave at 2:35 P.M. today, Jamieson. Five minutes later than schedule. You will act accordingly.”

As the Agent turned to leave, the little gray man cleared his throat and said timidly, “I—I’d like to ask about your round trip rate to—to the other side.”

The Terminal Agent looked appraisingly at the little man for a moment, then said courteously, “Glad to answer any questions. If you will step over to my office I’ll give you one of our brochures which describes in detail the advantages of the Diamvator over surface travel.”

When the door had dosed behind them in the Agent’s office, the little man’s appearance changed subtly. His drooping shoulders were suddenly squarer, and his pale eyes seemed to darken to the color of the granite blocks of the floor.

“Randall is my name, Mr. Andrews. Willard Randall,” he said, and his thin, colorless voice seemed to have gained the depth and assurance of a man who is confident of his ability to meet any situation.

Andrews’ jaw sagged, and a startled ejaculation burst from his lips.

“You—Randall? I—” The Agent paused, then recovered his usual composure and apologized. “I’m sorry, Mr. Randall. I guess I had expected a—well, a larger man,” he completed lamely.

“I understand,” Randall said, smiling at Andrews’ evident embarrassment. “I don’t look exactly like the popular conception of an International Investigation Agent, you mean. But, you see, the less we look like IIA’s, the more likely we are to catch someone off-guard.”

“That’s probably true,” Andrews agreed doubtfully, “but—”

“But can I deliver the goods?” Randall completed with a smile. “That’s what’s worrying you, isn’t it?”

Without waiting for an answer from the embarrassed Andrews, Randall continued, “Now, about your trouble. If you’ll please outline the whole affair. Absolutely everything you know about it, whether it seems relevant or not.”

The Agent for Earth-Tube, Inc. hesitated a moment, then began.

“As you probably know, it was in 1996 that the International Federation of Nations was formed, supplanting the United Nations. At that time all countries were consolidated under a single unified government.

“Because the consolidation definitely obviated the possibility of war, and because the economic situation necessitated a governmental boost, the leaders conceived the idea of utilizing the excess man-power in sinking a huge shaft to investigate the hypothesis that the Earth’s core is a vast treasure house of metal.

“The results of the gargantuan undertaking were, from one standpoint, considerably less than miraculous. After penetrating almost four thousand miles to the very center of the Earth, it was found that the major part of the core was metal, alright, but only nickel-iron, which could be mined much more cheaply nearer the Earth’s surface.

“There seemed to be no higher a proportion of the rarer metals in the core than on the surface.

“Although somewhat disgruntled at the results of their investigation, the governmental heads knew that they must keep busy the thousands of men thrown out of employment by the dissolution of armies and navies. So, having nothing better in mind, this fantastic WPA was commissioned to put the shaft on through to the other side of the Earth.”

Randall nodded impatiently. “I am familiar with the historical data,” he said. “Now if you will give me a resumé of the circumstances which have an immediate bearing on the trouble—”

Andrews colored at the little man’s tone, and said gruffly, “I was only reviewing the data from the beginning, because there have been several developments in the past which may well have a bearing on our present difficulty.”

The Investigation Agent nodded. “Make the historical review as brief as possible, then.”

“After the shaft was completed,” Andrews continued, more than a little piqued, “the question arose as to what should be done with the hundred billion dollar hole in the ground, now that it was finally completed.

“Some engineers advised salvaging the incredibly heat-resistant fifty-foot thick cellular caisson of Tungalloy, which alone had made possible the penetration through thousands of miles of molten material under tremendous pressure.

“Others maintained that the cost of removing it would be far in excess of the caisson’s value.

“While the battle was raging, J. T. Weller, president of Metals, Inc. came to the fore with an offer for a concession on the Earth-Tube.

“He proposed to construct a tubular car or cage which would traverse the almost eight thousand miles in only four hours—more than twenty four hours less than the time required for a trip to the Antipodes by stratosphere plane.

“His argument for the success of the undertaking lay, not so much in the time saved on the trip, but in the novelty of the method of travel, and its value for giving people a taste of what weightless travel in space ships would be like. His imagination capitalized on the fact that Man is always on the alert for some new and strange way of cheating his perambulatory equipment of its needed exercise.

“Before advancing his proposition, he’d had his engineers draw up complete plans and specifications of the proposed cage and the necessary auxiliary equipment.

“The cage itself was to be a zeppelin-shaped projectile—But come, the Diamvator itself is due in five minutes.”

Andrews arose and led the way to the terminal gate, and for the next few minutes Randall unobtrusively strolled around the circumference of the Earth-Tube, examining its massive steel barrier. He completed his circuit and was peering timidly through the steel lattice, when a long-drawn “whoooosh” and a metallic click sounded from the black depths.

He turned inquiringly to Andrews, who hastened to explain. “Closing of the air-locks,” he said. “You see, the air is only partially exhausted from the Earth-Tube, so that the Diamvator will be held from the Tube sidewall during its free fall. Thus it does not attain the full acceleration of a freely falling body in a vacuum by a great deal. Consequently it does not approach its full pendular ascent from the Earth’s center against gravitation.

“It lacks ‘falling’ to the surface of the Earth by over ten thousand feet, so some means had to be provided for propelling the Vator on up to the surface. To accomplish this, automatic air-locks were installed in the tube almost three hundred miles from either end, with other locks every few miles from there to the surface.

“When the Vator has passed a lower lock, both that one and the lock above it close, and air is admitted under high pressure below the Vator and exhausted above it, thus pushing the car up to the surface, where it is grasped and held by interlocking steel arms—”

Andrews was interrupted by a second “whoooosh” as the upper lock opened, followed immediately by the appearance of the bullet-shaped nose of the Diamvator.

Slowly the tube car ascended until its nose towered far above the heads of the milling crowd which by this time surrounded the terminal. Suddenly a harsh click told that the steel arms had gripped the Vator. Friction rollers whined as they rotated the car until its massive door coincided with the barrier gate.

As Andrews and Randall watched, the guard unlocked the gate and slid it into its slot, then unbarred the Vator door and pushed it open.

“All out for American Terminus, Ladrigo, Brazil,” he called in a routine monotone.

Not a sound came from the interior of the Diamvator. The guard hesitated a moment, then stepped through the door into the tube car.

Within ten seconds he reappeared, fright etched on drawn features.

“Mr. Andrews!” he rasped from stiff lips. “It—it’s happened again!”

Andrews’ heavy features sagged. “No!” he said huskily. “No, it couldn’t!”

Then with a bound he was through the Vator door with Randall at his heels. Inside, it took a moment for Randall’s eyes to accommodate to the dimmer light. Then he saw that the interior of the Diamvator was remarkably like a comfortable drawing room in a luxurious home.

Several beautifully inlaid walnut tables occupied the central portion of a mirror-like floor. Gleaming chrome and leather chairs were spaced around them. Luxurious davenports and huge easy chairs ringed the circumference of the room, and the whole inviting scene was softly but pleasantly illumined by high-frequency tubes set flush in the domed ceiling.

Randall’s glance made the complete circuit of the room before the astounding fact crashed through to his mind that there was not a single person in the room!

Randall stood stock still for a moment, cataloguing the details of the room, and trying to assimilate the facts of this strange enigma.

Then he turned to Andrews and asked, “How many passengers left the Antipodes in the Vator?”

“Ten,” Andrews said huskily. “That’s three times in the last month this has happened. I—I don’t know what—”

“How about cargo?” Randall interrupted, his pale eyes glowing with a newly awakened fire. “Any valuable shipment?”

Andrews shook his head vehemently. “That’s what makes it even more inexplicable! Each time this thing has happened there has been nothing but baggage scheduled. The mail and most of our insured expressage goes out on the 6:30 A.M. trip. I—”

“Any idea how anything could possibly disappear from the Diamvator during its trip? Don’t you have radio contact with the car?”

Again the Earth-Tube supervisor shook his head. “How anything or anyone could leave the Vator during the trip, even with the aid of its passengers, is more than a mystery. It’s impossible! As for contact, we have no communication with the Vator from the time it leaves one side until it reaches the other. You see, the Earth’s metal core entirely absorbs and blankets Hertzian waves, making radio communication impossible from car to surface.”

Randall nodded. “Do you have a steward on the Tube Car during the trip?”

“Yes,” Andrews said wearily. “This is the third we’ve lost. I don’t—”

“That’s queer,” said Randall suddenly. He pointed to the clock on the mantel above the imitation fireplace. “Over two hours slow,” he mused, glancing at his wrist watch. “It’s a wonder you fellows wouldn’t supply the Vator with a good timepiece.”

Andrews’ jaw sagged. “Why, that’s the same thing that happened the other two times!” he said in amazement. “The first time it was almost six hours fast. The second time, over eight hours slow. And now, two hours slow!”

“Well?” prompted Randall.

“There’s something queer about that. The last time I radioed the Antipodes and made sure the clock was correct just before the Vator left!”

Randall was silent for a moment. “Well,” he said at last. “There’s only one way to track this thing down. And that’s to get the information first hand. Andrews, you can book my passage on your next trip.”

The Earth-Tube supervisor gasped. “You aren’t going in the face of what’s happened!”

“Someone has to,” Randall returned. “I’ll go as your steward.”

II

Two hours later Randall stood stiffly at attention in his somewhat oversized steward’s uniform while eleven passengers filed into the Diamvator, chattering in excitement over their coming adventure.

Randall wondered with a wry smile what their reactions would be if they knew what had happened to the Diamvator’s passengers on three preceding trips. The secret agent had not been entirely in agreement with his Chief’s orders that the mysteries be suppressed and that passengers still be accepted. But he saw the logic of keeping the trap baited. And Randall realized, with a warm feeling inside, that his Chief depended upon him to protect the eleven lives which were the bait in a trap which he hoped fervently would not close upon those who set it!

Slowly the chattering passengers took their places in the comfortable chairs. After the yard-thick door had swung ponderously shut, and the outside bar had been thrust home, Randall cautioned the passengers to keep their seats, then found his own place.

There came a sudden breathless drop as the upper lock opened, and the steel arms released the Vator upon the cushioning column of air above the next lower lock. A sibilant hiss sounded through the room as twelve people fought for breath when the Vator floor tried to drop from beneath them.

Two women screamed in high thin voices that tore at the agent’s ears. The fat traveling salesman from New Orleans clapped his plump hands to his throat, and his eyes looked like pale blue marbles. The bronzed big game hunter looked as if he were face to face with a lion crouched for attack. The white-haired professional gentleman colored as if he had swallowed a chameleon.

Slowly the falling sensation faded, and a vast sigh of relief sounded through the room. Then a second chorus of gasps arose from eleven throats. The young engineer on his way to the uranium mines in Borneo rasped out in a choked voice: “Just—passing through the lower lock—into—near vacuum!”

Randall nodded with effort and waited breathlessly until finally the Vator had attained an almost constant acceleration.

When the eleven passengers had lost a little of their pallor, and a few had even begun to laugh and talk among themselves, Randall arose and strolled around the room.

He quietly examined the massive door which could be opened only from the outside. Then he turned and strolled about the room, carefully but covertly scrutinizing every person aboard.

There were four middle-aged school teachers who were trying to recover the vicarious thrills of vanished youth.

A young couple with the obvious devotion of honeymooners occupied the lounge across the room.

A reserved old gentleman with a mane of white hair and a professional mien sat in the big Morris chair to the right of the newlyweds. Randall immediately catalogued him as a doctor, or perhaps a scientist of some sort.

On the other side of the four school ma’ms was a chap Randall couldn’t quite analyze. He was tall and spare and lithe, with the bronze of the sun in his cheeks, and a thousand tiny wrinkles like ripples surrounded the deep blue of his eyes.

Randall instinctively liked the chap. He looked wholesome and true-blue. He looked like a man who’d seen a lot of the world and liked most of it.

The young engineer, the lion hunter, and the fat traveling salesman completed the list of passengers.

The trouble was, Randall concluded, there wasn’t a person in the Vator who looked as if he could be guilty of any real crime, much less the wholesale kidnappings, which had evidently taken place.

But if the enigma of the Earth Tube were not instigated by some one in the Vator, how in the name of a thousand mysteries could it happen at all?

Randall shrugged. It looked as if a philosophical approach was worse than hopeless.

He’d have to map out a plan of direct action. A plan that would tell him more of the true characters of his eleven companions.

He looked at the clock on the mantel. It’s dial showed a little after 4:00 P.M., so according to the schedule, the Vator should be rapidly nearing the center of the Earth.

Randall started toward the professional gentleman in the big chair. He had completed four steps when sudden catastrophe blasted all plans from his mind.

The women didn’t scream this time. It all happened too quickly. There wasn’t even time for Randall to complete the step he had started.

Thunder with a thousand toneless voices echoed through his mind. Lightning with the hues of alien spectra shot blindingly into his eyes. He felt as though he had suddenly grasped the two poles of an electric circuit. His muscles contracted spasmodically and numbness clutched with deadly anesthesia at his groping mind.

When the stupor finally began to retreat from Randall’s bewildered consciousness, the first sounds he identified were the delayed screams of the four school ma’ms and the bride.

He cautiously opened his smarting eyes and looked around. What he saw was far from reassuring, for it was vividly apparent that they were no longer in the Diamvator. In fact, there was no sign whatever to be seen of the Tube Car!

Randall blinked, looked again. He and his eleven companions were suspended like fallen acrobats in a huge net constructed of closely-woven metallic strands.

A dozen feet above his head was a coruscating sheet of stratified radiance that arched across like a miniature sky, forming a hemispherical dome of light over the great net.

Randall cleared his throat noisily. He had stalked desperate criminals into their hiding places.

He had daringly matched cunning with determined dope rings. He had stood face-to-face with armed murderers, but never as now had he felt so completely at a loss. Never had he been so neatly and easily trapped.

But what was behind it all? And how had it been done? What earthly—or other—agency could contrive to tear twelve people from the interior of a locked metal car traveling in excess of two thousand miles an hour?

Randall shrugged and turned to examine his eleven charges.

The newlyweds, Charles and Evelyn McMahon, were clutching each other frantically as if their very salvation lay in their proximity.

Blake Garnet, the lion hunter, had cautiously gained his feet and was edging gingerly across the net toward Randall.

The four school ma’ms were trying frantically to sit up, clutching each other as if separation spelled death.

Randall remembered their names because they were so thoroughly, almost ludicrously American. Retta Shields, Laura Hanks and Sarah Nelson were the three thin ones, and Mamie Wilson was the plump, good-natured one.

Paul Gerard, the white-haired professional gentleman, was interestedly gazing up at the coruscating hemisphere of radiance.

Angus McClellan, the lean whimsical chap whom Randall hadn’t been able to catalogue, was talking in low tones with Gordon Malherne, the young engineer.

Randall started forward to meet Blake Garnet, when suddenly the net began to sink beneath his feet.

Down and down it sank, until Randall felt a firm foundation under his feet. Then the edges of the net were pulled up and over until the twelve humans were rolled pell-mell together in the bottom of a huge woven bag. A huge eye peered in at the twelve startled humans. An eye that glinted light from a thousand separate facets.

Randall heard his own gasp amid the bedlam of mingled screams and shouts from the passengers. Then a huge clawed arm reached down through the opening at the top of the net bag. Reached straight for the huddled humans.

Randall felt the chitinous limb slide past his body, then a frenzied scream dinned in his ears.

The kicking thrashing body of Evelyn McMahon was lifted high in the air to disappear through the opening above.

Her husband had clutched her until she was torn from his grasp, and now, with a low cry of anguish he started climbing frantically up the strands of the net.

He had clambered half the distance when the chitin-covered limb appeared again, and Charles McMahon went to join his bride.

Randall was heartsick. He could do nothing, absolutely nothing, and he knew it was only a matter of seconds until that huge claw would return for another struggling, screaming human.

He hoped frantically that he would escape the horrible suspense; that he himself would be the next victim. However, he wasn’t. He had to wait until two of the school teachers and the young engineer were gone before the opposing claws closed around him.

He waited for the crushing violence of those great talons, but instead, there was only a gentle pressure as he felt himself lifted smoothly and easily from the net.

In another moment he was set free in a small open field covered with a thick carpet of grass. A tall stockade constructed of foot-thick wooden piling, sharpened at the upper ends, enclosed fifteen or twenty acres of field.

He looked around and saw Charles McMahon trying to calm his sobbing bride, and Gordon Malherne, the engineer, chafing the hands of the two school teachers who had preceded him.

Randall started toward the group, when a shadow passed over him, and Doctor Gerard was released from the great claw almost beside him. The white-haired scientist scrambled to his feet and turned toward Randall with a grimace.

“Nice business,” he said. “I used to consider Entomology a respectable profession, and I fancied myself quite capable in my line. But from the looks of our captor, I guess my job has grown too big for me!”

Randall tried to smile at the other’s joke, but his grin wasn’t very successful. “Let’s see what we can do for the women folk,” he suggested.

Their work was immediately complicated by the arrival of the other two teachers in quick succession. They were finally beginning to have a little success in quieting the trembling women, when the claw again appeared, depositing Jerome Jackson beside them.

The fat little salesman scrambled to his feet with a squall of fear. His cheeks quivered like twin puddings, and his eyes seemed almost to be growing on stalks.

“Wha—what was it?” he quavered.

Randall almost smiled. “Doctor Gerard seems to think it’s somewhat buggy,” he replied. “You can draw your own conclusions.”

Jackson was about to reply when the claw again descended, and Blake Garnet was released.

His black eyes were inky pools of consternation, and his healthy bronze had faded a dozen shades. He recovered his composure quickly when he saw his companions, and a thin smile fought through.

“Looks like a one-bug plague to me,” he remarked. “—Whoops, here comes our cowpuncher!”

Angus McClellan still had his one-sided grin as he shook his long lanky body and looked quizzically at the disheveled group of humans.

“Never had anything like that around Sidney,” he said. “Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t allow it. What’s the next installment anyway of the ‘Clue of the Chitin Claw’?”

Randall shook his head. “That’s all of us, I guess. Anybody hurt?”

Everyone looked around, and finally all shook their heads.

“That is, if you don’t count a damaged ego and a completely wrecked peace of mind,” added Blake Garnet. “Now what, for heaven’s sake?”

“May as well look around,” suggested Randall. “I see some kind of buildings across the field.”

The others followed the Agent’s gesture; saw several dozen low, domed structures squatting in even rows a few hundred yards away.

Randall started toward them, the others following cautiously. When they were within a dozen yards of the structures, a door in the first one opened and a man stepped out.

He was a magnificent figure of a man. And his splendid body was a fitting support for the god-like head, broad of brow, features finely chiseled.

“Wel-come,” he said in queer blurred accents. “Wel-come to the Time Tribe.”

He advanced toward them, extending his hand. “I am Zor Ala, a 40B-7 type from the 43rd Century, according to the ancient reckoning of Anno Domini. And you—?”

Randall spoke for the group, his mind fumbling for the meaning of the man’s words. “We’re a group of passengers who were somehow snatched from our passage through the Earth-Tube. But what—”

“Oh, yes,” interrupted Zor Ala reminiscently. “That strange and useless hole through the Earth that finally collapsed around 3000 A.D. We have a number of other Earth-Tube passengers here with us. But from what period did you come?”

Randall replied wonderingly, “Why from this,—2062 A.D. of course!”

Zor Ala shook his head slowly, a strange smile on his lips. “But this is far from being 2062, my friend,” he said softly. “As closely as we have been able to reckon it, we are now living in what you would call the Carboniferous Period, probably in the latter part.”

He waited a moment for his words to take effect, then continued: “And that would place our present era—” He nodded at Doctor Gerard. “Yes, my friend, I see that you understand we are now, amazingly enough, living in a time which preceded our births by approximately two hundred million years!”

Doctor Gerard turned to face his companions. “Yes,” he said slowly. “I had guessed at something like this. The color and brilliance of the sun, the type of grasses, and the size and shape of the flora visible over the stockade. Yes, I’d thought of this possibility, but couldn’t bring myself to really believe it!”

“But our captors,” interjected Randall. “What are they? How did they trap us? And what do they intend to do with us?”

“They’re just what they appear to be,” said Zor Ala solemnly. He looked at Randall, and his fine eyes were bleak. “They are a species of insect which has apparently progressed both in size and in intellect far beyond any other life form of this period. And unlike the insects of my time, and undoubtedly of yours, these things act through intelligent reasoning rather than through a set pattern of instincts.”

“But,” interrupted Doctor Gerard, “according to the theory of most Entomologists of my time, it would be impossible for an insect to attain the size of these creatures! Their bodily structure is wrong. They couldn’t support their own weight. And if they could, their inefficient breathing tubes and trachea couldn’t furnish their bodies with sufficient oxygen, nor remove the waste products!”

Zor Ala smiled tolerantly. “The proof of possibility is their existence,” he said. “Your contemporaries’ theory is obviously incorrect.

“How can one deny the possibility of huge insects without knowing the strength of materials in their supporting structure? Do the gigantic Sequoias in North America collapse because of their almost four hundred foot height, as a Balsa undoubtedly would if it attained the same size?

“Is it philosophically logical that, because insects of your day possessed an exoskeleton incapable of supporting larger creatures, that these creatures must also possess those exact characteristics? Such an argument is absurd. Evolution fits the strength of the supporting structure to the weight it must support. And naturally the means for oxygenation and elimination are likewise accommodated.”

Doctor Gerard was still unconvinced, but Randall got in the next word.

“How many more of you are there?” he asked. “Have you any more companions from your own Age?”

Zor Ala shook his head. “No more from my own time, but there are more than a hundred humans from other ages,” he said. “Come, they are anxious to meet the new arrivals.”

He led them to a large structure which bulked in a central position, surrounded by the smaller buildings.

An oddly-assorted but unquestionably colorful group of humans greeted their entrance in a dozen different tongues. They gathered around the new arrivals with a hundred excited queries.

“A minute, my friends,” Zor Ala cautioned in his queer, blurred English. “These people are come from the year 2062. They were captured during a passage through the ancient Earth-Tube by the Kralons’ Time Net, just as you were dragged from your own various Ages for the Kralons’ selfish plans.”

In the bewildering hours that followed, the Vator companions learned the answers to some of their enigmatic experiences. But they learned also of strange and horrible things which even the more advanced of the queer colony did not understand.

III

Among their new acquaintances was a stocky, pop-eyed physicist with a fringe of hair like stiff iron wire, who introduced himself as Gordo Lanson. In the year 2076 he had been experimenting with a new super-cyclotron and inadvertently had been caught in the almost inconceivably strong magnetic field used for the acceleration of electrons in the vast atom smasher.

He had felt a moment of intense vertigo, a wrenching, dimensional sort of straining of every cell, then he, like the Vator passengers, had found himself suspended in the huge net.

There were also a dozen orientals, some from Hiroshima and some from Nagasaki. They had been here since the days of the atomic blasts.

Then there was a thin, dark-skinned chap with strange eyes. He had been flashing through space on an exploratory trip to Jupiter, when suddenly his ship had spun into an etheric vortex, one of those enigmatic whirlpools of magnetic flux which were so deadly to space travel. He, Dar Mikol, had been torn from 3122, the year of the great space war between Earth-colonized Mars and its parent planet.

There was a Russian peasant who had been plowing his field in 1688 when a lightning bolt split the lowering skies and threw him through time and space to land in the Kralons’ net.

There were also fifteen other people from Randall’s own time; the missing Vator passengers of prior trips.

There were a hundred or so more humans in the strange colony, and all had been drawn to this strange primeval world through some esoteric passage induced by the Kralons’ Time Trap.

“But what is the reason behind it?” Randall asked Zor Ala in bafflement. “Why do they want us? What do they do with us?”

Before Zor Ala had a chance to reply, a loud click sounded from a small diaphragm on the wall, then a harsh voice rasped out a dozen words in crudely accented English.

Randall didn’t catch the meaning. He turned questioningly to Zor Ala.

The future man sighed. “The Kralons want to interview the new arrivals,” he said. “You are to wait at the West gate in the stockade.”

“And if we don’t?” Randall asked.

“I would,” Zor Ala said soberly.

Randall shrugged and led his companions across the field.

Jerome Jackson was shaking even more violently than the four school ma’ams. The fat little salesman’s plump cheeks quivered, and his pale eyes rolled in their sockets.

“Wha—what are they going to do with us now?” he quavered.

Randall examined the man pityingly. “Apparently nothing very serious,” he said. “Because our new companions over there are still very much alive.”

However, Randall didn’t know the full extent of the Kralons’ inhumanity. Zor Ala hadn’t had time to tell him that not all the human arrivals in the world of the Kralons were still in the stockade. There hadn’t been time to discuss the fate of sixteen humans who had never come back from their appointments with their strange captors!

Just then the stockade door opened and a harsh voice rasped: “First human will come now.”

The companions looked at each other, then Randall started to step forward, but Blake Garnet was ahead of him. The hunter stepped through the door, head held high, a saturnine grin on his rugged features.

“Just my meat,” he called back. “An ant with Elephantiasis should be fair prey for a big game hunter.”

When the door had closed behind Garnet, Angus McClellan grinned a little wryly at Randall.

“A great a’nt is sometimes okay,” he drawled, “if her name is Sarah, and she leaves you a pile of jack.”

Randall grinned back at him. He recognized the other’s wisecracking as an attempt to keep up the morale of the party.

“Which species do you prefer?” he asked.

The lanky Australian squinted. “Wa—al,” he said. “Don’t know but what I’d prefer the Kralons to Aunt Sarah, when she had her dander up.”

The companions grinned feebly. It was hard to even attempt cheerfulness, when God alone knew what might lie on the other side of that bare metal door.

It seemed hours that they waited for Blake Garnet to come back. But he never came. Instead, again the door opened, and a harsh voice rasped: “One more now.”

Randall was first this time, with McClellan close at his heels. The voice rasped sharply: “Only one at a time.” And McClellan turned back slowly.

Randall found himself on a hard smooth path outside the stockade, and waiting for him was a smaller edition of the gigantic creature he had glimpsed while he and his companions were in the net.

This Kralon was not much larger than Randall, but the agent shuddered instinctively at its repulsive appearance, and at the strange, nauseating odor it exuded.

The creature turned and led the way down the path. Randall followed.

The weird creature led the way into a great high-domed structure of gray stone. It led Randall down a huge hallway from which hundreds of openings diverged to lesser corridors leading to other parts of the massive building. Then the hall they were following evolved into a great central chamber, lighted with a weird blue glow which emanated from the walls and ceiling of the huge room.

In a semicircle, facing Randall, sprawled ten enormous Kralons, their huge mandibles clacking like monstrous telegraph keys. But it was the central figure which held Randall’s attention.

In the center of the semicircle, the eleventh Kralon crouched before a massive instrument of wood and metal. And as Randall and his guide entered the room, the monster started to finger a yard-long keyboard surprisingly similar to that of a huge pipe-organ.

A crudely-accented voice asked in uneven tempo: “What is your name, and what is your Time Era?”

Randall didn’t answer. He hadn’t even heard. He was staring with horrified fascination at the hands of the monster at the keyboard. Hands which each had four tapering fingers and a thumb, instead of two opposing claws; hands the delicate hue of old ivory, instead of the brownish black of the other Kralons’ chitinous limbs!

“What is your name, and your Time Era?”

“Randall,” he answered, his voice thin and colorless in the huge room. “Willard Randall. And I’m from the twenty-first Century, A.D.”

The mandibles of the huge creatures clacked spasmodically for a moment, then the Kralon at the instrument, which Randall had recognized as a sort of Voder, ran those weird, incongruous fingers over the keyboard, and the instrument spoke again.

“We’re sorry,” it said. “We had hoped to draw from the more distant future, when more intelligence could be expected.”

“Sorry,” said Randall in his flat voice. “Awfully sorry to disappoint you.”

The creature at the instrument looked at him, and Randall wondered whimsically whether it had recognized the sarcasm.

Then the voice continued, “However, there is the satis—satis—” Even this fantastic Voder could not cope with the hissing sibilance of an “F,” so the creature finally substituted: “consolation that our Time Net is working so well. In the end, the law of averages will bring us what we want.”

“May I ask,” Randall said, “just what it is you want from us? Why you were seining the stream of Time, dragging us back into your own age?”

“We want knowledge,” it said. “Our race has found that the method of gleaning information from the future is far preferable to the painstaking and laborious task of slowly gaining that knowledge through millennia of blind searching.

“We want to make our civilization the greatest that ever has or ever will exist. We want to forestall the evolutionary phenomenon in one phase of the future which apparently brought about a retrograde change in our race, and an astounding evolutionary development and ascendance of your species of warm-blooded vertebrates!”

Randall frowned. He couldn’t quite grasp the inference of those words. He had read fantastic stories to Time Travel, to be sure. But this was something else again. This was a wholesale pilfering of precious knowledge which only millions of years of miraculous evolution and heartbreaking effort would in the future eventually produce!

And the Kralon spoke of the future, Randall’s future, as only a phase of the Times to Come. Did the creature mean that the past controlled the future at will? That if the past were altered, his, Randall’s future, could be wiped out, and a fantastic future of insect supremacy be substituted?

Randall snorted. It was the age-old paradox of the Time Traveler who goes into the past and kills his grandfather. Only in this case, the Kralons were gleaning from a future civilization the knowledge which would prevent the development of that same civilization!

Sublime absurdity! Things which had sprung into being from Time’s capacious womb could not be relegated to oblivion merely by the selfish ambitions of the Kralons or any other creatures!

Then Randall remembered with a pang of fear that his own presence in this fantastic world of the past was apparently a contradiction to that same logic. If he and his companions could be catapulted into a time preceding their birth by millions upon millions of years, was it then so fantastic that the Kralons could alter a future which now existed only as a memory of Randall and his companions?

He closed his eyes for a moment, then turned again to the huge creatures who were waiting for him to speak.

“And if we refuse to give you the information you desire?” he asked tonelessly.

The Voder sputtered in an expression of wrath.

“In that case,” it said in response to the Kralon’s flying fingers, “In that case, we can still make use of those who wish to be obstinate!”

“What do you want to know?” he asked.

“We want the secret of atomic power,” was the reply. “And the process for neutralizing gravitation. We want the data on methods for varying electronic and nuclear structure of atoms, transmutation of elements, as you call it. We want—”

“But I know nothing of these things!” interrupted Randall. “Even the most brilliant physicists of my time had just learned the rudiments of atomic fission and fusion, and they had as yet not even touched the theory of gravitational neutralization! How can I help you, when apparently your knowledge is greater than mine?”

“We know,” was the reply. “Zor Ala seems to be the only one we have thus far trapped in our Time Net who came from an era in which those phenomena were understood. And so far we have been unable to persuade him to reveal that knowledge.”

Apparently the interview was over insofar as Randall was concerned, and the small Kralon returned and led the agent out another door. Randall followed his guide back to the stockade where he was met with a storm of questions from his companions who still waited at the gate. His eyes searched for Blake Garnet.

When he saw that the man who had preceded him to the interview with the Kralons was not among them, he went in search of Zor Ala.

The future-man winced when Randall asked him if he had seen Garnet.

“No,” he said in a low voice. “Blake Garnet has not returned. He will never return.”

Randall’s thin brows lifted. “What do you mean?”

Zor Ala’s dark eyes mirrored a world of emotion. “The hunter was a magnificent physical specimen,” he replied. “The Kralons have use for such as he.”

Then Zor Ala told of the sixteen human beings who had not returned from the interviews; told him of the suspicions he had concerning the fate of those humans at the hands of the Kralons.

Throughout the long afternoon Randall kept a check on his companions.

When Jerome Jackson, the last called, finally returned, Randall spoke up.

“Friends,” he said. “Twelve of us went to a forced interview with these fantastic creatures of a long-dead Age. Nine of us have returned. Missing are Blake Garnet, Charles McMahon, and his bride, Evelyn McMahon.”

Randall paused, then said softly, “I am calling for volunteers.”

Angus McClellan took a step forward which carried him half across the room. Gordon Malherne, the young engineer, wasn’t far behind him, and the white-haired Doctor Gerard was surprisingly agile for his sixty-odd years.

Jackson, the salesman, was quivering in indecision, when Laura Hanks, the tallest of the teachers, stepped forward.

“You can count me in,” she said firmly, her angular chin set in determination.

The instant protest from the men goaded Jackson, and he stepped sheepishly forward to join the others.

“All right,” said Randall briskly. “Here’s the setup. As soon as it’s dark we’ll form a human chain and go over the stockade on the side furthest from the gate. I have an automatic and an extra clip of ammunition. Are any of the rest of you armed?”

All shook their heads.

“No matter,” Randall continued. “I’ll go over first to cover the rest of you.”

“But what’ll we do then?” protested Jackson. “Why don’t we get some of the rest of the people to help?”

Randall examined the fat little man coldly. “Circumstances determine the move,” he said. “As for enlisting the aid of the rest of the colony, one man in the enemy’s castle is worth a thousand storming the ramparts. We’ll leave here at an appointed time and proceed by different routes, all meeting directly across the enclosure from the gate. Now we’d all better get some rest.”

IV

That evening when a thin crescent crept wanly into the sky, five figures faded into the ebon night and slunk across the broad field.

When the five had met in the dim shadow of the towering stockade, Randall whispered softly: “When I’m over the barrier, I’ll let you know if the coast is clear, then step on it! We’re going to try to make it as far as the entrance to the big building. Then we’ll decide on our next step. Okay, let’s go.”

Gordon Malherne braced his hands against the stockade, motioned Jackson to climb on his shoulders. When the salesman was set, Doctor Gerard clambered to his shoulders, and Randall followed up the human ladder with Angus McClellan close behind.

When the two reached the top of the stockade, they wedged themselves between the sharpened ends of two piling, reached down and grasped the Doctor’s hand and pulled him up. Then Randall removed his belt, asked for Gerard’s. He buckled them end to end into a strap long enough to reach Jackson’s clawing hands. The salesman clung while the engineer scrambled over his body and up the strap, then the three men hauled the perspiring Jackson to the top.

After a quick look below him, the little agent swung over the sharpened ends of the piling, hung by his hands for a moment, then dropped to the ground outside the stockade. In a moment he signalled the others to follow.

Silently they scurried through the night toward the massive central building which McClellan had dubbed “The Hive.” Safe in the deeper gloom of its entry, they paused at Randall’s whispered command.

“Here’s the plan,” Randall said softly. “There are half a hundred corridors branching from the main hallway. We’ll each explore one corridor, and if anyone finds any clue as to what has happened to Garnet or the McMahons, he’ll return to the main hallway at once and wait for the rest. Satisfactory?”

Everyone nodded but Jackson. “That’s all very well for you,” the fat man protested. “You’re armed, but how about the rest of us?”

Randall silently extended his automatic, butt first. Jackson lost any possible remaining respect his companions might have possessed for him when he accepted the gun and turned sheepishly down one of the corridors.

Randall found himself in a narrow, arched passage dimly illuminated by small glowing studs set in the walls. He glanced quickly behind him, then started on a soundless trot down the passage, staying close to the right wall, and pausing occasionally to listen at the frequent panels which broke the monotony of the walls.

Once a panel slid open a hundred feet down the hall ahead of him, and one of the diminutive Kralons emerged and, luckily, started down the corridor away from Randall.

Randall waited until the creature had gained a considerable lead, then followed cautiously. At length he came to an open arch at the end of the corridor, and, in what appeared to be a lounging salon, he saw a number of the small Kralons busy at enigmatic occupations, their mandibles clacking in weird conversation.

Randall shrugged, turned and made his way back along the corridor. When he arrived at the main hallway, he found Angus McClellan crouched back in the darkness of the entry, waiting for him. The lank Australian grinned weakly.

“Found somethin’,” he said huskily. “Don’t know what, but I heard human voices. Screams, rather. We’d better hurry.”

Randall thought wistfully of his automatic, then nodded and followed McClellan down the corridor until the Australian stopped before a panel and jerked a thumb. Randall put his ear to the panel. For a moment he heard nothing. Then came a scream, a human scream that told of extreme agony; anguish beyond the unbearable pain of the ancient rack!

Randall’s face was chalky white as he turned, looked at McClellan for a split second, then rasped, “Let’s go!”

Together, they stepped back, then threw their combined weight against the panel.

When Jerome Jackson left his companions and crept sheepishly down the dim corridor with Randall’s automatic clutched tightly in one pudgy hand, he came closer to hating himself than he ever had before in all his introverted, cowardly existence.

His mind skimmed back over the miserable pages of his life. Born on the wrong side of the tracks in a mid-western city, he had lacked the innate ability and courage to grow above his inheritance. Rather, he had allowed his childhood handicaps to reduce the advantages of a series of lucky breaks to an extremely mediocre existence. He was a reasonably successful salesman only by virtue of a perpetual hang-dog look which brought a momentary feeling of magnanimity to his prospective customers.

All in all, Jerome Jackson could not under any circumstance be expected to make the most of any situation, much less this almost foolhardy venture which Randall had precipitated.

Jackson realized his own limitations as he crept miserably down the dim corridor, and was actually regretting that he, rather than Randall had the revolver, when he heard a sound behind one of the panels. Leaning close, he heard the low throb of massive machinery and the high-pitched whine of generators.

He stopped and peered at the panel searchingly. He noticed a glowing stud set in the casement, and after a moment’s hesitation he pressed it. The panel slid back smoothly. Jackson looked up and down the hallway, then stepped cautiously through the door.

He found himself in a great high-domed room filled with ordered ranks of mighty but absolutely incomprehensible machinery, all humming enigmatic paens of power. Far down the serried ranks of gargantuan equipment he saw a light glinting on mighty crystal tubes.

With hypnotic fascination, Jackson advanced slowly through the maze of humming mechanisms. The closer he came to those enigmatic tubes, the wider his pale eyes opened, until, as he stood at the base of the rod-high crystal cylinders, he looked like a puppet registering amazement and consternation.

Doctor Gerard held neither Jerome Jackson’s cowardly fear of danger, nor Randall’s contempt for it. While there were important scientific facts to be learned, danger didn’t count. It just didn’t exist insofar as he was concerned.

Consequently it wasn’t at all surprising that Gerard stepped right into a regular hornet’s nest of trouble.

The little Doctor had been counting doors on his way down the corridor, more from scientific habit than anything else, and on the seventh door to his right, he noticed a very strange insignia. It was a weird diagrammatic inscription which immediately caught his interest.

Emblazoned in the central panel in glowing outline was a triangle enclosing a huge multi-faceted eye. As Gerard stared at the weird orb in its geometrical figure he suddenly recalled that a similar figure had been used by ancient necromancers and later by hypnotists, as a symbol of their questionable accomplishments.

Puzzledly he wondered whether its use here in this fantastic world of the past held any esoteric connection with its meaning in the far-distant future. Without stopping to consider potential consequences, he pushed the stud which opened the panel, and stepped inside.

When his eyes finally became accustomed to the even deeper gloom, he saw that the room was filled with a number of coffin-like glass cabinets and an equal number of switchboards crowded with dials and levers. Slowly he edged toward one of the crystal cabinets and peered down into its dimly illumined interior.

He saw a number of oval white objects resting on tiered trays, for all the world like eggs in an incubator. Then Gerard realized that was exactly what these instruments were. Incubators! But they were Kralon eggs, not chicken eggs. Furthermore, it was obvious that the elaborate instruments which adjoined the incubators had a far more involved function than merely maintaining the eggs at incubation temperature.

Doctor Gerard’s grizzled eyebrows lifted in interest as he turned back to examine the dials. Both the design of the controls and the hieroglyphics engraved upon them were entirely incomprehensible to him.

He shrugged his shoulders, then began to turn every triangular control on the panel to its extreme limit.

Nothing untoward happened during the alteration of the first two settings, but when Gerard threw over the third, all hell broke loose in that dim crypt!

Violet light danced between the poles of circuit breakers and ate away the metal like butter. Great gongs dinned a cacophony of sound through the lurking dusk of the room, then were suddenly silent as brilliant lights flashed on.

Meanwhile, Gordon Malherne had also engineered something for which his text books had provided no solution.

After leaving his four companions, he had started down the corridor furthest to the right.

“Always go right,” he told himself whimsically as he crept noiselessly down the dim hallway. “And you’ll never go wrong.”

However, this must have been the exception which proved the rule, for Malherne hadn’t gone a dozen yards when things started to happen.

A double panel just ahead and to his left slid open and a column of small worker Kralons, two abreast, started marching into the corridor.

The two leaders saw the engineer almost simultaneously, and both started for him with mandibles clacking furiously.

Malherne started on a dead run for the “Hive” entrance. Behind him he heard the harsh rustle of chitin-clad limbs.

It seemed for a moment as though he were gaining, then the foremost insect lunged and caught his jacket. It threw Malherne off stride, and he caromed against the wall of the corridor. He regained his balance almost instantly, but he had lost ground, and he felt another limb clutch his right arm.

He jerked to a stop, pivoted suddenly in an attempt to dislodge the hold. His motion threw the foremost Kralon into the one immediately behind, and the human and the two huge insects went down in a heap.

When Malherne hit the floor under a tangle of limbs, he reached in his pocket and pulled out a knife, snapping the spring blade open in the same motion.

He slashed viciously at everything which touched him, and was rewarded with a raucous clatter of mandibles and the sticky feel of a warm liquid which spattered his hands and face and rendered his knife almost too slippery to hold.

He pulled free from the two mangled Kralons, slashed at a third which had hooked through the fabric of his sleeve. Then he went down as a heavy blow caught him in the temple.

When consciousness pushed through the haze, Malherne found himself back in the stockade. He was lying on a crude bed in the main hut. Zor Ala was bending over him.

“How do you feel?” the man from the 43rd century asked solicitously. “It appears that you encountered a little trouble.”

Malherne gingerly felt the lump on his temple. “So I did,” he grimaced. “But how did I get here? Did those entomological nightmares really let me live, even after I carved them up?”

Zor Ala nodded somberly. “For awhile, at least,” he said. “They intend to drain all knowledge possible from any of the ‘fish’ they catch from the future before the—” He shrugged, left his sentence unfinished.

“But your companions,” he continued. “Where are they?”

Malherne winced. “Still somewhere in the Hive, I guess. I got caught before I got started. Let’s hope the others have better luck. I’m still alive, though,” he added thoughtfully. He stretched painfully, then sat up, grimacing as the wrenched muscles responded.

“Zor Ala,” he said, “how does it happen that these insects are so much further advanced way back here in time, while in my day insects apparently have nothing but complex instincts? Seems as though they should have progressed up the evolutionary scale the same as everything else.”

The future-man shook his head, sat down on the crude bench. “No one knows what happened to the Kralons after the Carboniferous Period,” he said. “Nor does anyone understand why later insects retrogressed from the logical thinking of the Kralons’ level of intellect, back to a mere set of complex instincts.

“We do know that the Kralons made a mighty stride ahead of the rest of Earth life many millions of years ago. They’ve admitted to me that they have not progressed at all for untold ages now, and they’re very worried. They don’t know why they do not progress in an evolutionary sense as the rest of the life forms seem to be doing.

“And they are exceedingly worried about the future, for we have let them know that apparently the Kralon race vanished around the end of the Carboniferous Period, leaving only diminutive descendants with instinct rather than intelligence to show that their race might ever have existed.

“Of course, we of the future know that there is another similar parallel in the disappearance of the dinosaurs. As you probably have read in paleontological treatises, those huge reptiles seemed to have had everything their own way through the late Triassic, the Jurassic and the Cretaceous Periods.”

The engineer nodded. “I remember a paragraph from Gamow’s ‘Biography of the Earth’ which I learned by heart,” he said. “It went like this: ‘The kingdom of giant reptiles, with its innumerable representatives on the land, in the sea, and in the air, was certainly the most powerful and most extensive animal kingdom during the entire existence of life on the Earth, but it also had a most tragic and unexpected end. During a comparatively short period toward the end of the Mesozoic era the tyrannosaurus, stegosaurus, ichthyosaurus, plesiosaurus, and all the other ‘sauri’ disappeared from the surface of the Earth as if wiped away by some giant storm, leaving the ground free for miniature mammals that had awaited this opportunity for more than 100 million years.'”

Malherne paused, reached in his jacket pocket and pulled out the half packet of cigarettes he had been hoarding. He offered them to Zor Ala, and when the other refused, he lit one and inhaled gratefully.

“Then, in conclusion,” Malherne continued, “Gamow says that the causes leading to the elimination of all the dinosaurs in a very short period of time are obscure. There are many hypotheses which have been advanced by various scientists to account for it. One theory was that the rising of general ground levels destroyed the inland seas and marshes. But that wouldn’t have had any effect on the dinosaurs who had already fully adapted to dry land. Neither would it affect those reptiles who inhabited the oceans. So the whole episode has remained one vast mystery, without much chance of solution.”

Zor Ala nodded. “Even in my time we still didn’t know,” he said. “We had theories that perhaps the tiny mammals of the later Mesozoic were eating the eggs of the dinosaurs to an extent which brought about their eventual extinction. There was also the theory of ‘dilution of genetic stock’ in a very old race of any life form. That is, through millions of years of reproduction, the hereditary stock of any race eventually becomes so diluted that the cells become ‘tired’ of dividing. As a result, reproduction dwindles away, and the race dies out. But even that doesn’t satisfactorily explain the geologically sudden death of the dinosaurs.”

“Apparently quite a parallel to what must have happened to the Kralons,” Malherne observed. “How is it that we don’t find clear paleontological evidence of the existence of the Kralons?”

“No calcareous skeletal structure,” returned Zor Ala. “They have only a chitinous exoskeleton. Also, you must remember that the dinosaurs held sway for almost 100 million years, and invaded almost every part of the world. In all that time, with the animals existing by the billions in almost every clime, there were naturally a few ‘saurs’ who fell into asphalt pits or other unusual environments where their bones were preserved for us.

“That is not true of the Kralons, for they seem to have suddenly appeared as the first insect type, sometime during the latter half of the Carboniferous Period, and existed as a race for only a few million years.

“Furthermore, their distribution is apparently very limited. From what they have told me, there are only a few dozen community hives or nations like this one. Thus it is not at all surprising that such an extremely restricted species, possessing no calceous skeletal structure, left no paleontological evidence.”

Malherne considered this thoughtfully. “Then you believe that the insect types of the future are degenerated descendants of the Kralons?” he asked.

“Undoubtedly,” returned Zor Ala. “But without the size or the logical reasoning ability of the Kralons. You see, insects apparently arose suddenly during the Carboniferous Period, without any prior evidence of existence in the ages preceding. They seem to be an offshoot from the main line of evolutionary development, and their sudden appearance in geologic history is without precedence in the development of life forms.”

Malherne was nodding eagerly. “In connection with that, why is it that an insect goes along in its development, just like a common worm, until it reaches a certain size and age. Then it builds itself a cocoon or chrysalis, becomes a pupa, and starts a sort of ‘prenatal’ development all over again, but this time emerging as a full-fledged insect? Seems like they’ve been given a second crack at development which the other forms of life didn’t get.”

“That is substantially correct,” agreed Zor Ala. “And we of the future have suspected that a higher type of life from somewhere has intervened in the development of life on Earth, and has experimentally given a boost to one branch of Earth-life by showing it how to re-encyst in a secondary ‘egg’ as a pupa, and thus continue its progress toward a higher evolutionary form before it finally emerges as an adult type.”

“Whew!” Malherne ejaculated. “Whoever or whatever did that must really have been supermen!”

Zor Ala smiled. “At least,” he agreed.

Malherne was struck with a sudden inspiration. “Look, would it be possible that the Kralons had something to do with the disappearance of the Dinosaurs during the latter part of the Mesozoic?—I understand, of course,” he added hastily, “that this period where we find ourselves is around 100 million years before the time when the dinosaurs met their Waterloo. However, isn’t it possible that descendants of the Kralons could have retained sufficient intellectual development to have been a serious threat to the existence of the ‘saurs’?”

Zor Ala shook his head. “I’m afraid your theory won’t stand up,” he said. “For the Kralon race apparently only existed for a few million years, disappearing from the surface of the Earth around the end of the Carboniferous period.

“Thus the Kralons must have died out very nearly 100 million years before the dinosaurs’ catastrophe, and the giant insects were apparently supplanted by only small, unintelligent prototypes without their size or intellectual vigor. No, there is almost certainly some other reason for the disappearance of the huge reptiles.”

Malherne came to his feet suddenly. “Here I am discussing fantastic and fanciful theories, when four of my companions are somewhere in that hive of monsters! I’ve got to help them!”

“Calm down,” Zor Ala soothed. “You would do them far more harm than good, now that the Kralons are watching for you. The best thing to do is to stay here and let them work out their own salvation as best they can. I know it sounds rather calloused, but any interference on your part now will certainly not be helpful.”

“But I can’t just sit here!” objected Malherne.

Zor Ala nodded. “I know how you feel,” he said. “But you can do your friends far more good alive than—”

He left the sentence unfinished. Then, as if he had been considering something, he continued: “You’re an engineer, Malherne, and I think it’s time for you to have a talk with Gordo Lanson concerning an idea we have in mind. How do you feel by now?”

“A little creaky,” said Malherne, rising and stretching painfully. “But let’s get started.”

V

He followed Zor Ala out of the central hut and across to a smaller one. At Zor Ala’s knock, a voice called, “Come in.”

As they entered, Gordo Lanson looked searchingly at the two men, then through the open door beyond them. His expression became concerned.

“What happened to your companions?” he asked. “You ran into trouble?”

Malherne laughed rather embarrassedly. “I don’t know about the others,” he said. “But I stupidly picked a fight with a whole army of Kralons, and ended up back here, right where I started.”

The stocky physicist grimaced. “Well, I’m afraid your companions will have to look out for themselves,” he said. “You certainly can’t help them by doing something noble and frantic.”

“That’s what I’ve told him,” said Zor Ala, “and I think he is reluctantly in agreement.”

Then he continued, “Malherne is an engineer, Gordo, and I thought perhaps it might be wise to acquaint him with the rudiments of your theory on Time Flux, and to give him an idea of what we have in mind.”

Lanson nodded, shuffling the heap of crude parchmentlike sheets in front of him into a stack on the edge of the desk. He motioned toward one of the rough benches. Zor Ala and Malherne seated themselves, then waited for Lanson to speak.

“As an introduction,” the psysicist began, “are you familiar with the theory of Teleology?”

“Only that it has something to do with the future affecting the past,” said Malherne.

“That is a broad statement of its general implication,” Lanson agreed. “And this predicament in which we find ourselves makes it necessary for us to attempt a use of ramifications of that theory. Put it this way,” he continued. “If you were positive through an esoteric source of knowledge that a certain event definitely was to happen in the future, would it not affect your reactions to existing environment? Would it not influence your actions in working toward a goal? Would it not thus aid in the fulfillment of that occurrence?”

“You mean that the knowledge would give me courage and confidence to accomplish what I knew would eventually come to pass?” asked Malherne.

“That is one way of putting it,” said Lanson. “But it can be stated a trifle more scientifically. Let us say rather that the Teleomagnetic effect of such an occurrence induces a tendency in the past to evolve toward such an event.”

“I think I have it so far,” said Malherne, “but it’s getting shaky!”

Lanson laughed. “I’ll admit it’s a little like the perplexity of the ‘Flatlander,'” he said, “who was trying to find a way out of a circle which had been drawn around him. He proceeded to investigate his barrier through every dimensional direction known to Flatlanders, which of course were limited to two. He utilized movement through both of those as he followed around the interior of his barrier to the point where he had started.

“Being a very observant and discerning Flatlander, he finally realized he was getting exactly nowhere in his two-dimensional attempts to escape a three-dimensional barrier.” Lanson paused, grinned.

“We humans are faced with a somewhat similar difficulty in trying to solve a multi-dimensional problem with three-dimensional thinking. However, there is some precedence for hoping that we can surmount the obstacle. Remember that mankind, without ever being able to see the interior of an atom, was able to divine the number and function of its component parts, and was finally successful in inducing both fission and fusion of unstable atoms.”

Malherne nodded agreement. “But where does this lead us?” he asked rather impatiently. “How is this discussion of obscure theory going to help us escape from the world of the past, back into our own ages?”

Gordo Lanson nodded toward the stack of parchment sheets on the desk, covered with his meticulous figures. “That is an attempt,” he said, “to formulate a method for determining the amount of Teleomagnetic energy or influence required to bring about a given distortion in the Time-flux.”

Malherne considered this for a moment. “Oh. I think I’m beginning to see,” he said. “You are attempting to compute the amount of energy required to return us to the various ages from which we were pulled by the Kralon’s Time Trap.”

“Something of that sort,” nodded Gordo Lanson.

“To answer a question you are undoubtedly thinking,” interjected Zor Ala. “We have found, by laboriously gleaning bits of knowledge from the Kralons, the location of the equipment which induces the Teleomagnetic or gravitic energy which powers the Time Trap.”

“Where is it?” Malherne asked.

“In one of the laboratory rooms off the main corridor in the Hive,” returned Zor Ala. “The Time Net itself is supported on pylons situated outside the Hive building immediately adjoining the Time-Trap generator room.”

“What plan do you have in mind?” asked Malherne eagerly.

“Not a fully-formulated one at all,” returned Zor Ala. “But each of us is doing whatever he can to further his knowledge of the Kralon’s equipment, and all of us are trying to prepare to take advantage of any opportunity which may arise in the future.”

“But,” objected Malherne, “even the Kralons apparently can’t control the Time sector from which they get their victims. By their own admission, they are trying to gain knowledge by picking humans from as far in the future as possible. But apparently they have been only partially successful, for some of the people they have obtained are from a Time preceding mine. It seems that Gordo Lanson and Dar Mikol and you are three of the few from a period further in the future than my time.”

Gordo Lanson nodded. “That is the reason for all this,” he said, gesturing toward the stack of sheets on the desk. “I am attempting to formulate a method of controlling the point from which or to which the Time Trap gleans or delivers its victims. Apparently the Kralons have never accomplished that, but I think we can succeed in doing what they could not.”

“May the Lord grant that to be true!” said Malherne fervently.

“I regret,” said Zor Ala, “that Randall felt it necessary to make his foolhardy attempt to invade the Hive, but of course I understand and sympathize with his reasons.

“He feels entirely responsible for the passengers of the Diamvator, and considers himself obliged to attempt their rescue. However, I am very much afraid that his attempt will be ill-fated.”

Lanson nodded. “The Kralons are very intelligent,” he said. “And they will have no scruples whatsoever in dealing with troublesome humans. They resent the fact that their own race is to vanish from the surface of the globe in one phase of the future, and that man has supplanted them as the intelligent, governing form of life. And they intend to do something about it!”

Malherne nodded impatiently. “Yes,” he said, “but what can we do now? What can we do to help Randall and the rest of my companions? And how can we prepare to use Lanson’s theories concerning the Time Trap?”

Both Zor Ala and Gordo Lanson regarded the engineer understandingly. They realized his fear concerning his companions, and sympathized with his frustration in being unable to help them.

The physicist nodded toward the pile of sheets on the desk. “If you remember your calculus,” he said, “you could be of great help to us by checking my figures.”

Malherne looked uncertainly toward the desk. “I’ll do what I can,” he said.

When Randall and McClellan threw their combined weights against the panel in the Hive corridor, they had no idea what lay beyond.

The metal sheet bulged, then popped from its guides, and Randall sprawled through the opening, with McClellan atop him.

They found themselves in a room which was shining white from ceiling to floor. In the middle of the room was a flat white table over which several Kralons were absorbed.

Gathered around the central figures were a dozen or more Kralons, apparently spectators. And on the table lay something which Randall knew, from its outlines, had once been human.

Randall looked around for a weapon. A neat stack in one corner of the room caught his eye. There were a dozen or more foot-long metal bus-bars or ingots, apparently spares for fusing electrical circuits.

McClellan followed his glance. Simultaneously both men dove for the bars, each arming himself with one of the twenty-pound metal ingots.

Meanwhile, the room was in a furor. The metallic clack of Kralon conversation sounded furiously, and huge insect figures were converging from all sides.

“Back to back,” said Randall tersely, “and let ’em have it!”

The first Kralon who approached the Australian put up a protective foreleg, but the heavy ingot brushed it aside like a matchstick, and crushed the Kralon’s head to a pulp. It went down twitching, and the next insect had to scramble over the body to reach McClellan.

Meanwhile, Randall was flailing at two Kralons which were trying to reach him with their vicious claws. Whenever one got in the way, the heavy bar cracked the chitinous shell like that of a crab, and both Kralons drew back, nursing their injuries.

Randall spoke tersely over his shoulder. “Edge over toward the stack of bus-bars,” he told McClellan.

Back to back, still flailing with the heavy metal ingots, they worked their way to the corner of the room.

“Use them as missiles,” said Randall briefly. “Whenever one of the things starts for us, let him have it with an ingot!”

McClellan did, and, with great effect. The heavy metal bars, flying end-over-end toward attacking Kralons, soon convinced the huge insects that another method of attack should be formulated, and the remaining able individuals withdrew to an adjoining room.

Seizing this opportunity, Randall made sure that there was no life left in the form on the operating table, then he and McClellan dashed from the room, back into the main corridor.

A panel at their left opened suddenly, and a Kralon stepped into the corridor.

Randall sent his ingot flying end-over-end toward the huge insect. It was a perfect hit, and the Kralon went down, limbs twitching feebly.

“In here!” said Randall tersely, and McClellan followed him through the opening. They found themselves in a high-domed room filled with huge generators and other elaborate electrical equipment. Massive four-inch conduits led from the generators to a main cable, which in turn left the building through a sleeved opening in the wall.

Through a large window across the room, Randall saw the Time Net on which they had first made their appearance into this strange world. It was stretched like an acrobats’ net between four pylons just outside the building. The supporting pylons extended on above the net, forming four towers, between the crests of which was supported a complex skein of intermeshing heavy metallic strands with spherical nodules studding their length every few feet.

Randall nodded toward the massive equipment. “The mechanism for the Time Trap,” he said.

McClellan raised his metal ingot suggestively.

Randall shook his head. “Not yet,” he said. “We might have use for it.” Then he noticed that the generators were operating, and what appeared to be a huge rectifier was humming with a deep vibrant moan, violet light flashing in a dozen huge tubes which reached almost from ceiling to floor.

He nudged McClellan. “It’s running,” he said. “The Kralons must leave it in operation all the time in their effort to catch victims from the future.”

VI

While Randall and McClellan were deciding what should be done about the Time Trap, Jerome Jackson was standing in open-mouthed awe before the huge crystal cylinders in the room which he had entered.

In the first cylinder was a twelve-foot length of undulating livid flesh which looked exactly like a gigantic maggot.

Then his glance flicked to the next crystal cylinder. In it was a replica of the first.

That is, it was almost a replica. But the exterior covering seemed greyer and thicker, more like a shell than that of the first.

The third cylinder held still another monstrous larva. And its difference was even more apparent. The sickly gray covering was translucent, and through it Jackson could see that the interior of the thing was definitely undergoing metamorphosis.

Following on down the line of crystal tubes, it became quite apparent that these were steps in the pupation of Kralon larvae, for the inhabitant of the tube on the end of the row was our almost fully developed Kralon.

“Artificial cocoons!” thought Jackson. “I wonder if it is necessary for the Kralons to protect all the larvae of their race in this way during development?”

Then Jackson reached a sudden decision. “Why should I risk my neck, just because the rest of them don’t respect theirs?” he thought. “I’m going to get out of here!”

On his way from the room he paused curiously for a moment beside the huge control panel, with its myriad triangular controls and dials, but, unlike Dr. Gerard, he held too much esteem for his own safety to chance an impetuous action. Furthermore, destruction of Kralon property wasn’t in his plans now.

He left the laboratory room, closing the panel behind him. He scurried rapidly down the corridor to the main Hive entrance. There he looked about cautiously, then crept across the open space to the foot of the stockade.

He put two fingers to his lips, whistled loudly. “Kralons!” he shouted. “Kralons, can you hear me?”

There was no immediate response, and for several minutes Jackson alternately whistled and called out for the Kralons. Before long, one of the smaller worker insects came rapidly up the path from the Hive and stopped before Jackson.

Then the speaker above the main entrance to the Hive boomed a message. “You will follow the guide,” it said.

Jackson did so, and his Kralon guide led the way to a separate entrance a dozen yards south of the main Hive corridor. In a few moments, they again entered the conference room where the comrades had been questioned after their arrival in the world of giant insects.

A few of the council group were present, and the Kralon “Voderist” was ready at the keyboard of the mechanical voice. In answer to the insect’s flying fingers, a question sounded in metallic tones: “What do you want?” it asked. “Why are you calling the Kralons? And how did you leave the stockade?”

“I came to warn you,” said Jackson. “Four of my companions are hiding somewhere in the Hive, and they will try to do all the damage they can.”

The several council members conferred, mandibles clacking.

“We knew of one,” the Voder said. “We caught one of your companions in the corridor. After a fight with some of our workers, he was returned to the stockade.”

“Well,” said Jackson, “there are three more somewhere, and you’d better find them before they cause trouble.”

The Kralon who was apparently leader of the council, examined the salesman suspiciously with its many-faceted eyes. He spoke briefly to the Kralon at the keyboard, and the Voder asked: “Why are you telling us these things? Why are you betraying your companions?”

“They’re fools!” said Jackson contemptuously. “Even if they have no regard for their own welfare, I value mine. I’d like to make a deal with you.”

“What kind of a deal?”

“In return for my safety,” replied Jackson, “I will give you information on the activities of the group in the stockade.”

Again the Kralons conferred, then the question came: “How do we know that we can trust you?”

“Why not?” asked Jackson. “I have everything to gain and nothing to lose by cooperating with you.”

After another short conference, the Voder said: “We find your terms acceptable, and you will be returned to the stockade as if you had been apprehended in the Hive.”

Just then, warning gongs sounded brazenly in the conference room, and violet lights flashed a signal above the entry. The Kralons clacked furiously to each other for a moment, then scurried from the room, leaving the smaller guide to escort Jackson back to the stockade.

Back in the Incubator Room, Doctor Gerard watched in fascination the havoc his actions were producing.

Under the increased intensity of the heating elements and infra-red tubes which normally warmed the Kralon eggs to incubation temperature, disaster was slowly occurring.

The Doctor’s handiwork on the dials of the control panel had apparently inactivated the thermostatic controls, and now the eggs were bathed in vicious radiation overtaxed tubes and scorched by overloaded elements. The Doctor was literally cooking the Kralon eggs!

He knew that his interference had set off warning gongs and signal lights, so he discreetly turned from the room and down the main corridor.

When he was halfway to the Hive entrance he heard the metallic clatter of Kralon mandibles ahead of him. He spotted an open panel across the hall, stepped inside and touched the stud which closed the panel.

He found himself in the generator room, with Randall and McClellan looking at him in amazement.

“Hi!” Doctor Gerard said brightly. “What’s up?”

“Hi, yourself,” said the little gray agent. “Find anything interesting?”

Gerard nodded. “Just cooked the next generation of Kralons,” he said proudly. Then he told the two men what had happened in the incubator room.

“Oh—oh!” said McClellan. “The Hive will really be a hornet’s nest now!”

Randall nodded. “We’d better make ourselves scarce.”

“How?” asked Dr. Gerard.

Randall gestured toward the opening overlooking the Time Net. “Out that way,” he replied.

Hurriedly the three men pushed a low table over against the wall under the opening.

Randall climbed upon it. “Better hurry,” he said. “You first, Doctor.”

Dr. Gerard climbed upon the table, and with Randall’s and McClellan’s help, pulled himself up into the opening. He hung outside by his hands for a moment, then dropped to the ground below. McClellan was next, pulling his lanky body up to the opening, with Randall boosting.

Settling himself on the sill, he reached a hand down to Randall.

Just then a giant Kralon stepped into the room. Its faceted eyes regarded them for a moment in almost ludicrous surprise. It turned its head, clacked a message to companions in the hall, then scurried rapidly toward Randall, two more Kralons close behind it.

Randall had just touched McClellan’s hand when the foremost Kralon caught the table with a hooked foreleg, sliding it and Randall away from the opening.

“Hurry up!” he told McClellan. “Jump!”

McClellan hesitated.

“You can’t help me alone,” Randall urged. “Get back to the stockade and get help!”

McClellan was still undecided. He started to drop back into the room, then as if realizing the truth of Randall’s words, he turned and leaped from the opening to the ground below.

Randall stepped calmly from the table to the floor and held his hands above his head in universal gesture of surrender.

“Okay,” he said quietly. “Now what?”

The Kralons apparently understood. Without touching Randall, one of them motioned toward the corridor.

Doctor Gerard and McClellan scrambled to their feet outside the building.

“We’d better get help, fast!” said McClellan.

In Gordo Lanson’s hut, Lanson acquainted Dr. Gerard and McClellan with his theory, and told them of his tentative plans.

Dr. Gerard was faintly hopeful, but immediately voiced an objection. “How do you propose to escape the Kralons long enough to acquaint yourself with the operation of the Time Trap, and to perform the necessary experimentation?”

“We thought perhaps you could help us there, Dr. Gerard,” said Lanson.

“You’re a physiological chemist, are you not?”

“Used to be,” admitted Dr. Gerard. “But of late years I have concerned myself more with my avocation of Entomology. That is, it was an avocation until I met the Kralons.

“But that isn’t the thing of immediate importance,” he continued. “The Kralons have captured Randall. We’ve got to find some way of helping him!”

“That would be pretty hard to do now,” said Zor Ala. “The Kralons have turned the spotlights on the stockade, and apparently are sending out guards. I’m afraid Randall will have to take care of himself for the present.”

“Say, how about Jackson?” said McClellan.

“He’s back,” replied Lanson. “According to his story, he was caught in the Hive corridor.”

“Too bad,” remarked McClellan laconically, leaving a doubt as to what was too bad.

Zor Ala and Lanson grinned appreciatively, but McClellan was deeply absorbed in thought.

“We’ve got to do something to help Randall!” he insisted. “That’s why the doctor and I left him and came to the stockade.—To get help!”

“How?” asked Zor Ala.

McClellan shrugged helplessly.

Then his dilemma was solved by a voice outside the hut which asked: “May I come in?”

“Randall!” shouted McClellan exuberantly.

“How did you do it?” asked Dr. Gerard and McClellan simultaneously.

Randall shrugged. “I didn’t,” he said. “They just decided that I was entirely harmless, and brought me safely back to the stockade.”

McClellan eyed him suspiciously, remembering the agent’s flailing metal bar. “That isn’t all of it,” he accused darkly.

Randall grinned. “Well, not quite all,” he admitted. “When they took me to the conference room and questioned me, I inferred I had knowledge of what destroyed their race in the future. I told them that if they would return me to the stockade for consultation with my companions, I would give them that information later. They took me up on it.”

Zor Ala was the first to ask: “Do you really mean that you have an idea what destroyed the Kralons?”

Randall nodded. “I think so,” he said. “I believe there’s a good possibility that it was—”

Just then the door opened again, and Jackson stepped into the hut.

“Outside intervention,” completed Randall, regarding the new arrival with expressionless eyes.

Jackson looked at Randall sharply, as if wondering whether the last words applied to him.

“What’s up?” he asked. “When did you get back, Randall?—And Gerard and McClellan,” he added, seeing the other two men. “How did you make out?”

“Didn’t accomplish a thing, unfortunately,” said Randall. “How about you?”

Jackson shook his head. “I got caught in the corridor. What’s the conference about?”

“We were just discussing—” began Lanson, when Randall interrupted.

“Plans for the future,” he completed. “Now how about us all getting some sleep. The night is almost over, and none of us have had any rest.”

The others took the hint, and all agreed that it was far past bedtime.

Randall didn’t sleep much, but he did rest his weary body in preparation for the day to come.

VII

The hot yellow sun was just bulging over the eastern horizon as he dressed. He made his way to Lanson’s hut and tapped quietly.

After spending half an hour with the physicist, he went to Zor Ala’s hut and spent ten minutes with him. Then he went back to the shelter which he shared with McClellan.

“Up bright and early, aren’t you?” the Australian greeted him as he entered.

“Rather early, but none too brightly,” Randall replied. “I’m getting too old to be frolicking around with a bunch of overgrown ants.”

“You aren’t alone,” agreed McClellan ruefully. He stretched painfully, groaned, then quickly donned his clothes.

“What’s on the agenda for today?” he asked.

“Among other things,” replied Randall. “I’m going to find out what happened to McMahon and his bride. We already know what happened to Blake Garnet,” he added, memory of that silent form on the operating table still vivid in his mind.

Someone rapped sharply on the door, and Jackson stuck his head in. “Lanson asked me to tell you that Zor Ala is sick,” he said.

“What’s the trouble?” Randall asked.

Jackson shrugged. “He called in Dr. Gerard. He is afraid it’s serious.”

“Oh-oh!” said Randall. “We would be in a mess with an epidemic on our hands, wouldn’t we?”

Jackson’s eyes were frightened. “You mean it’s contagious?”

“I don’t know, of course,” Randall answered. “We’ll see what Dr. Gerard has to say.”

Within a few moments, the three men joined Lanson and Dr. Gerard outside Zor Ala’s hut.

“What do you think, Doc?” asked Randall.

“Can’t tell for sure,” Gerard replied. “My medical knowledge is definitely limited. Furthermore, I have no equipment to make tests, but my diagnosis is meningococcus—cerebrospinal meningitis.”

“Well, will the rest of us get it?” asked Jackson, edging away from the men who had been in Zor Ala’s shelter.

“Could be,” said Dr. Gerard seriously. “We’ll have to keep him isolated, but I’m afraid some of us have already been exposed. We may have real trouble on our hands.”

“What’s the remedy?” inquired McClellan.

“Well, sulfonilamide, if we had it,” replied Dr. Gerard. “But we don’t have any medicine at all.”

“What—what will we do?” asked Jackson apprehensively.

The doctor shrugged. “If I had access to a chemical laboratory,” he said, “I could synthesize some sulfa, but I doubt if the Kralons would let me use theirs.”

“They might, at that,” said Randall, watching Jackson out of the corner of his eye, “If they knew an epidemic might wipe out their entire colony of humans after all the work they’ve done in getting them from the future.”

“Maybe they would,” said Jackson eagerly. “Should I talk to them about it?”

“Couldn’t hurt anything,” replied Randall casually. “And it might help.”

Together the group made its way to the locked gate in the stockade wall. There they set up a disturbance until a Kralon guard came and unlocked the gate. At the same time the speaker blared: “One human will follow.”

Jackson stepped out from the group and followed the Kralon down the path and into the Hive.

“Do you really think the Kralons will let us have access to their chemical laboratory?” asked McClellan.

Randall shrugged. “They might,” he said, “if Jackson is convincing enough. I know they don’t want to lose all their human guinea pigs.”

In less than an hour Jackson was back. “The Kralons said that Dr. Gerard could use the laboratory,” he said. “And I’m to help him with his work.”

“Okay,” said the doctor briskly. “We’d better hurry.”

Together, the two men followed the guide back to the Hive.

A few moments later, Randall, McClellan and Lanson joined Malherne in Lanson’s hut. They seated themselves before the crude desk with its pile of figured sheets.

“How does it look?” asked Randall.

“Very good,” replied the physicist. “Malherne has checked my figures and they are apparently all right.”

“Just how does it all stack up?” asked McClellan.

Lanson ran a hand through his bristling thatch. “Well,” he said, “In the first place, from my computations it seems quite apparent that if we reverse the current through the mosaic mesh of the screen above the Time Net, the Teleomagnetic flux should create a stress in the opposite direction to that induced by the Kralons. Thus, theoretically, the direction of the Teleomagnetic or gravitic displacement, acting on anyone in the net, should be forward in Time, rather than backward.”

“How about selecting the proper spot in Time?” asked McClellan.

“That is accomplished by the amount of energy, figured in Teleomagnetic magnetons, and interpolated to dynes required to produce a given Time displacement or warp,” he answered.

“How about conversion to your system of the readings on the Kralon indicators and instruments?” asked Randall.

Lanson held up a flashlight which one of the humans had had among his possessions. “By checking the standard output of a dry cell against the instruments, and computing the indicator readings in our own terms,” he replied.

Randall nodded. “Looks as if you have done quite a thorough job,” he agreed. “Now, if Dr. Gerard can do his stuff we may have a chance.”

In the laboratory of the Kralons, Dr. Gerard was having his troubles. The various containers and their enigmatic labels were of course entirely foreign to him, and it was necessary for him to start a basic qualitative analysis, without knowing one reagent from another. However, it wasn’t too difficult for him to qualitatively identify sulfuric acid and a few other basic chemicals, and from then on his task was easier.

Jackson was a surprisingly good assistant, although he bothered Dr. Gerard frequently with questions about the degree of contagion of meningitis.

The doctor did nothing to ameliorate his fear. Rather he spurred Jackson to increased effort by conjecturing upon the havoc the disease could wreak if it reached epidemic proportions.

Twice he called upon the Kralons for more reagents and chemicals. The third time he was questioned at length concerning the quantity he was using.

His explanation was the admission of difficulty in reconciling his own and the Kralon terminology for materials. Thus it was easy to understand, he explained carefully, why he had inadvertently wasted several batches.

But all the time the quantity of white powder in a large cask in one corner of the room was growing steadily. When the cask was finally full, Dr. Gerard called a halt to their labor of synthesis.

“Seems as though that should be enough for an army,” remarked Jackson, examining the huge container full of the chemical powder.

“May have to use it on about that many,” replied Dr. Gerard brusquely.

While Jackson was busy filtering and running the last batch, Dr. Gerard had fabricated a Venturi tube and a spray nozzle from odds and ends of laboratory equipment. Working rapidly, he filled a large metal container with powder from the cask, then added enough liquid to fill the cask and to dissolve its contents.

Then, with Jackson’s help, he moved the cask over beside the air return of the air conditioning and recirculating system for the Hive. He pulled a small table over beside the cask, clamped the Venturi tube and spray nozzle in place, with the nozzle pointing into the return duct. Then he connected a hose from the laboratory water system to the Venturi, and a return hose back to the drain.

The spray worked beautifully, vaporizing the solution and spraying it as a fine mist into the air return duct.

“What’s that for?” asked Jackson suspiciously.

“Just arranging decontamination for the Hive so that it’ll be safe for us to come here.”

Jackson looked at Gerard sharply, but didn’t say anything.

It was evening again by this time, and Gerard asked Jackson to see whether the Kralons had some kind of portable lighting equipment, so that he could see to minister to Zor Ala and any others who might need attention.

While Jackson was gone, Dr. Gerard pulled a large carton over in front of his spray system, hiding it quite effectively from casual inspection. He closed the entrance panel, carefully inserting a wedge of metal in the guide which jammed it as it closed.

Then he started down the hall with a container of powder under his arm. Jackson met him in the corridor. The salesman was carrying two transparent globular jars slung from handles. The globes were apparently filled with highly phosphorescent matter, for they gave almost as much light as a lantern.

“How will these do?” Jackson asked.

“Fine,” said Dr. Gerard heartily. “Now let’s get going.”

Back in the stockade a few minutes later he left Jackson with a hurried excuse, conferred briefly with Randall, then went to Lanson’s shelter.

By this time things were beginning to add up in Jackson’s rather sluggish mental processes, and they didn’t come out even. Thoroughly he turned the whole sequence of events over in his mind, reached a decision, then decided to wait until the rest of the human colony had retired for the night, before making a move.

A little later Randall, McClellan, Gordo Lanson, Dr. Gerard and Malherne were gathered in Zor Ala’s hut for a final council meeting to outline timing and strategy for their next moves.

“Remarkable recovery you made, sir,” McClellan told Zor Ala with a grin.

The future-man smiled. “Yes,” he said. “I believe that Dr. Gerard’s medication is quite effective. It’s made me feel much better already, even though it’s the Kralons rather than I who are taking it!”

Then he turned to the little investigation agent. “Neat idea of yours, Randall, of synthesizing D.D.T. to fight the Kralons.”

“D.D.T.?” asked Malherne, who had not been a member of this particular phase of the intrigue. “What’s that?”

“Dichloro-diphenyl-trichlorethane, to use the generic term for the chemical,” replied Dr. Gerard. “It’s a chemical insecticide that’s quite specific for most insects.”

“Oh,” said the engineer in comprehension. “That’s what you were synthesizing instead of sulfonilamide!”

“Right,” said the little doctor. “But it is a remedy for our troubles, we hope,” he added in defense of the deceit they had practiced.

The group chuckled at Gerard’s righteousness, even in dealing with inhuman monsters.

“How long do you think it will take for the chemical to have a material effect on the Kralons?” inquired Lanson.

“Shouldn’t be too long,” interposed Dr. Gerard. “Unlike the insects of our own times, these creatures have had no opportunity to build up an immunity, nor time to mutate as a race to types resistant to chemical insecticides. Therefore its effect should be considerably more rapid than upon even the small insects of the future.”

Zor Ala nodded in satisfaction. “The floor is yours, Randall,” he said.

Randall stepped to the center of the group. “We are apparently all in agreement that the zero hour is to be set at 4:00 AM, or 1600 in universal time. That should give sufficient time for the DDT to accomplish its work, and we do not dare delay beyond then for fear that Dr. Gerard’s contrivance will be discovered in the morning, thus alerting the Kralons.”

He paused a moment, his pale gray eyes flicking from one member of the group to another. “It might be wise to keep an eye on Jackson in the meantime,” he said. “He undoubtedly has had time to think things over, and to have concluded that Dr. Gerard’s fake synthesis and subsequent actions weren’t quite plausible under the circumstances.”

“How did you happen to suspect him in the first place?” asked McClellan.

Randall smiled faintly. “It was quite obvious that the salesman lacked courage,” he replied. “We all were fully aware of that. Also, both by profession and inclination, Jackson was an opportunist.

“In my dealings with the renegades of society, I have always found that to be a deadly combination. A cowardly opportunist can almost always be expected to turn traitor to a cause which offers him any particular inconvenience. Also,” he added, “the Kralons asked me several questions about Jackson which set me thinking.”

Lanson nodded. “He very clearly gave his position away when he so willingly volunteered to contact the Kralons with our request,” he said. “We certainly have you to thank for preventing us from exposing our plans before him. You were particularly adroit in utilizing his treacherous contact with the Kralons to our advantage.”

As the other members nodded agreement, Randall shifted uneasily. “I didn’t do much,” he said briefly. “Dr. Gerard did all the work. But the hardest part is still ahead of us. The DDT, at best, is only going to make the Kralons lethargic and slow in the time we have allowed. Even if they don’t suspect something and vacate the Hive before the chemical-laden air affects them adversely. In any event we will have many problems to solve.

“Let us outline briefly the tasks assigned to each of us, and formulate a time schedule of action, starting with 4:00 AM as the zero hour.”

He turned to Zor Ala. “You are to make such contacts with the other humans of the colony as you feel advisable, and you will organize several parties from those you feel you can trust. Have them gather in small groups on either side of the main gate, staying in the shadows of the stockade wall. Be sure they are ready at one minute to four. Have the members armed with any weapons you can devise.”

Then he continued, outlining carefully the assigned plan of action and time schedule for each individual.

VIII

Outside, behind the low hut, Jackson strained his ears to catch Randall’s words. With an innate animal cunning, he had finally surmised most of the intricate plot, and had crept to his vantage point shortly after the meeting in Lanson’s shelter had begun.

However, Jackson was still faced with the problem of escaping the surveillance of his human companions long enough to contact the Kralons and acquaint them with the plot. He realized that if he made sufficient noise to attract the huge insects, he would be intercepted and subdued before he could accomplish his objective.

Then his dilemma was suddenly solved by the mechanical voice of the Voder. Amplified by the speaker, it called out in hesitant, somewhat garbled accents: “The hu-man called Jack-son will come to the gate immed-iately.”

With a glance around to see that none of his companions were close enough to intercept him, Jackson made a run for the gate. When he arrived there, the Kralon guide had already unlocked it and was waiting for him. Rapidly it led the way up the beaten path to the Hive entrance and down the long corridor to the conference room.

The Voderist sat ready at the instrument, and it was evident that the Kralon was maintaining its posture with difficulty. The DDT was apparently having a pronounced effect.

A number of the council members were present, and they too seemed to be showing effects from the chemical. But their multi-faceted eyes regarded the salesman with unmistakable enmity.

“Human,” said the Voder in tones as severe as possible for the mechanical contrivance, “what trickery have you and your companions used to poison the air of the Hive?”

“I didn’t,” denied Jackson, shrinking back from the virulence of those inhuman eyes and the very real menace of the huge pincers.

Back in the stockade, Randall and his council members had heard the Kralon voice, and had seen Jackson disappear with the guard. The agent was sick at heart, for he knew that this meant the destruction of all their carefully formulated plans.

If they had only had a few hours more, the DDT would certainly have rendered the Kralons vulnerable to attack.

Randall quickly conferred with his group. Following the directions the agent gave, Malherne ran back to one of the shelters and brought rope.

Randall handed the rope to McClellan without comment. The Australian silently improvised a hondo, made a loop, and twirled it skillfully. He tossed it over the top of one of the pilings, watched it settle into place, then tugged it tight.

Randall was halfway up the rope before anyone could object. He gained the top of the stockade, dropped to the ground on the other side. Hastily he located the massive bolt which barred the gate and stood on his toes to reach it. The Kralons had not constructed it for human manipulation, and Randall was having trouble.

As he glanced back over his shoulder he saw several Kralon guards start down the path toward him.

“Be ready for a fight,” he called through the wall to his companions, “as soon as I get the gate open. The guards are coming.”

It wasn’t until the Kralons were within a dozen yards that the bolt finally gave under Randall’s frenzied efforts, and the gate swung open. Then out streamed a motley mob of determined humans, with Dr. Gerard leading. He held his container ready, advancing toward the approaching Kralons. He waited until they were within a few feet, then dashed the contents of the container at their heads.

Randall never knew whether it was partially the effects of the insecticide or purely the virulence and vicious determination of the band of humans which finally overcame the Kralons. But as soon as he saw that both were down, limbs threshing, he led the group to the Hive entry and down the huge corridor.

He almost grinned as he thought of this ludicrous army storming the ramparts of a fantastic race in the dim forgotten past, for the motley human crowd from a dozen different ages brandished clubs, stones, and knives, and McClellan was twirling his improvised lariat.

Quickly the agent found the entry to the Time Trap laboratory and opened the panel. The Kralon guard didn’t have much chance, for it was already lethargic from the effects of the DDT, and the milling mob of humans soon swarmed over its prostrate figure.

Wasting no time, Gordo Lanson rapidly began his check tests with the drycell, calling out his readings to Malherne who noted them down on the white wall.

Meanwhile, Randall was determined to find out definitely what had happened to the McMahons. Calling McClellan, he left the Time Trap laboratory and led the way to the operating room. No trace of any form there.

From room to room they searched. Finally they arrived at the council room door. Randall opened it and stepped in, McClellan close behind him. What he saw brought the gorge to his throat, inured though he was to dealing in violence.

It was quite apparent that Jackson had failed to sell the Kralon Council the truth of his innocence. Their final acts had been to exact retribution.

Slowly the two men turned away, then continued their search for some sign of the McMahons. And Randall knew then, with a sudden flash of insight, that the phase of the future to which he and his companions would soon return would not know the names of Blake Garnet, Jerome Jackson, or Charles and Evelyn McMahon. He knew with an esoteric knowledge that in that particular future there would have been just seven Diamvator passengers and himself scheduled on the historic trip. And he was somehow sure that the passenger check list would substantiate that count.

For it would be an alternate phase of the future, rather than the one in which those people had, or might have existed. Those four personalities would henceforth exist only as a memory in his mind. And perhaps it wouldn’t even be strictly a memory. Perhaps it would be a dream; an ephemeral and elusive link between alternate potential Time phases.

There was a fantastic thought! Perhaps all dreams were but vague links between Time potentials or alternate phases.

Then Randall impatiently thrust aside the fanciful theories and turned to the search.

The room he and McClellan now entered was quite obviously a genetics research laboratory. And it was there that they found unmistakable evidence of the two young McMahons.

They examined the grisly proof that the young couple had been victimized by vicious Kralon experiments. Apparently the research was aimed at the use of human gene-determinants in synthesizing a greater Kralon race.

In the next room Randall found a case filled with metallic sheets covered with hieroglyphics. Feeling that the records might hold information of value to Zor Ala and Lanson, the agent removed the first sheet and took it with him.

Back in the Time Trap room he called it to Zor Ala’s attention, and while Lanson and Malherne were busily completing their transpositions and calibrations, the future-man excitedly examined the record.

“It’s written in Ulla!” he cried. “The Universal written language adopted in the 30th Century for documentary purposes. Where did you find it?”

Randall led the way back to the room where he had found the records. Zor Ala avidly began to read the information contained in the file, making notes from time to time on his mechanical pocket recorder.

Meanwhile Randall wandered from room to room, finding that the DDT had done a thorough job, for nowhere did he find a sign of life in the motionless Kralon corpses.

When he finally returned to the vault, Zor Ala looked up from his work and took a deep breath.

“Randall,” he said, his fine eyes shining with an almost evangelical light, “this is a summary of the most magnificent revelation in the history of the universe!”

On the way back to the generator room Randall plied him with questions, but Zor Ala was so deep in thought that he didn’t even hear them.

As they re-entered the Time Trap laboratory, Malherne and Lanson looked up from their work. At Zor Ala’s gesture they paused in their labor, and the rest of the humans waited for his words.

“Friends,” he said, his splendid head held proudly, and his deep voice rich with the surge of mighty emotion, “before we again return to our various ages, it is important that all of us know the most astounding story that it has ever been the privilege of mortal men to hear.”

While the crowd fell silent within the room, and those in the corridor crowded closer to hear his words, Zor Ala continued:

“It is the story of Man in all his glory! It is the story of a superb race of men who exist so far in the future that my own age is antediluvian by comparison. It is the stupendous history of that race’s realization of the ultimate goal of Life; a goal so tremendous that its concepts were staggering, even to those supremely mature minds!”

Zor Ala paused, drew a deep breath, then went on.

“Those far distant future-men knew that goal to be far more important than any one life or any one race or any galaxy. They knew that no effort should be spared in its ultimate accomplishment.

“That infinite purpose transcended even individual or racial survival, and this almost divinely intelligent and benevolent race knew that the history of Life’s development must be reviewed; must be re-examined to determine whether Mankind was the most suitable vehicle for its eventual attainment.

“Following this postulate, they developed the science of Dimensional Time, and devised equipment for investigating the past. There, their first test of Man’s fitness for the ultimate purpose was to aid forms of life other than Man.

“First they set up elaborate scientific equipment to provide an artificial evolutionary leap ahead for one form which had diverged from the main stem.

“Knowing full well that if this life-form progressed, Man’s whole future would undoubtedly be replaced by an alternate future of insect supremacy, this super-race without hesitation continued its work of producing a tremendous artificial advancement for the rudimentary invertebrates.

“They accomplished this objective by inducing a re-encystment or pupation which carried the invertebrates up the evolutionary ladder countless millions of years in a single stride!

“They fully realized that if their help was successful in aiding this life-form to reach ascendance, that Man’s phase—their phase of the future—would no longer exist. But they knew that the infinite importance of the ultimate goal must be placed above all else!

“Thus the Kralons sprang suddenly from low invertebrate stock which had strayed off as a branch of the main evolutionary stem. But they were an artificial race, raised to their pedestal among other life-forms by outside help, rather than through sturdy, solid evolutionary progress.”

Zor Ala paused while his audience looked at each other soberly, all realizing that the Kralons had failed the splendid chance which had been offered them by the almost divine race of the far distant future.

And then they realized that they themselves had played a part in the cosmic scheme which once again was assuring Man of his place in Life. They had helped to forge another link in the chain of evidence pointing toward the conclusion that Man and Man alone was to be selected to reach that ultimate goal!

Zor Ala continued!

“The investigators assigned by the super-race were not content with testing only this single life-form against Man’s development. They combed the infinite past, selecting various promising genera to aid; hoping, always hoping in their hearts that Man himself would emerge from the tests as the chosen species, but never allowing that hope to influence their work.

“They helped man, very many species with well-planned steps; a help which Man’s progenitors never had. They implanted determinant genes in a certain reptilian branch which eventually produced the mighty dinosaurs’ great size; reasoning that the advantage of protective size might allow this life-type to evolve toward the heights.

“But the reptiles also failed their chance, possibly even as the Kralons are failing theirs. Perhaps, like the Kralons they were not satisfied with all the help the future had already given them. Perhaps they, like the selfish insects, again reached forward in Time for more and more unearned information, thus bringing back the elements of their own destruction!”

The listening humans exhaled almost as one. This was a concept so vast that it was almost mentally painful; yet so glorious in its implications for Man that every heart felt the surge of a mighty emotion.

Randall looked around at his companions. On every face he saw the glory of tremendous purpose.

No longer would they blunder through Life with fumbling and despairing uncertainty. No more would hollow frustration gnaw at searching minds which eternally wondered: “Why survive? For what purpose? What is our destiny?”

Now they knew! Now the distant view of a magnificent purpose would be always before them, filling them with a vast serenity coupled with a mighty incentive. Whence now, little man? Onward!