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as the sergeant leveled a slender tube at the young giant in gray.

Karl ducked instinctively at sight of the weapon, but the spiteful
crackle of its mechanism was too quick for him. A faintly luminous ray
struck him full in the breast and stopped him in his tracks. A thrill of
intense cold chased up his spine and a thunderbolt crashed in his brain.
The captain caught his stiffened body as he fell.

* * * * *

Karl - refusing to think of himself as Peter Van Dorn - came to his senses
as from a troubled sleep. His head ached miserably and he turned it
slowly to view his surroundings. Then, in a flash, he remembered. The
paralyzing ray of the red police! They never used it in the lower
levels; but overhead - why, the swine! He sat suddenly erect and glared
into a pair of green eyes that regarded him curiously.

A quick glance showed him that he was in a small padded compartment like
that of the pneumatic tube cars. At one end there was an amazing array
of machinery with glittering levers and handwheels - a control board on
which numberless tiny lights blinked and flickered in rapid succession.
At these controls squatted the twisted figure of a dwarf. A second of
the creatures sat at his side and stared with those horrible green
eyes.

"Lord!" he muttered. "Am I still asleep?"

"No," smiled the dwarf, "you're awake, Peter Van Dorn." The misshapen
creature did not seem unfriendly.

"Then where am I, and who are you?"

"You're in one of the Zar's rocket cars, speeding toward Dorn. We are
but two of the Zar's servants - Moon men."

"Rocket car? Moon men?" Karl was aghast. He wanted to pinch himself. But
a hollow roar to the rear told him he was in a rapidly moving vessel of
some sort. Certainly, too, these dwarfs were not figments of his
imagination.

"You've been kept completely ignorant?" asked the dwarf.

"It - it seems so." Karl was bewildered. "You mean we are out in the
open - traveling in space - to the Moon perhaps?"

* * * * *

The dwarf laughed. "No, I wish we were," he replied. "But we are about
halfway to the capital of the Continental Empire, greatest of world
powers. We'll be there in an hour."

"But I don't understand."

"Stupid. Didn't you ever hear of the rocket ships that cross the ocean
like a projectile, mounting a thousand miles from the surface and making
the trip in two hours?"

"No!" Karl was aghast. "Are we really in such a contraption?" he
faltered.

"Say! Are you kidding me?" The dwarf was incredulous. "Do you mean to
tell me you know so little of your world as that? Have you never read
anything? The news broadcasts, the thought exchangers - don't you follow
them at all?"

Karl shook his head in growing wonder. Truly Rudolph had kept him in
ignorance. Or was it his own fault? He had refused to dig into the
volumes old Krassin had begged him to read. The broadcasts and the
thought machines - well, only those of the purple had access to those.

"Hey, Laro!" called the dwarf to his companion, "this mole is as dumb as
can be. Doesn't know he's alive hardly. And a Van Dorn!"

The two laughed uproariously and Karl raged inwardly. Mole! So that's
what they called wearers of the gray! He clenched his fists and rose
unsteadily to his feet.

"Sorry," apologized his tormentor. "Mustn't get sore now. It seems so
funny to us though. And listen, kid, you'll never have another chance to
hear it all. So, if you'll sit down and calm yourself a bit I'll give
you an earful."

* * * * *

Mollified, Karl listened. A marvelous tale it was, of a disgruntled
scientist of the Eastern Hemisphere who had conquered that portion of
the world with the aid of the inhabitants he had found on the outer side
of the Moon; of the scientist who still ruled the East - Zar of the
Continental Empire. A horrible war - in 2085, the year of his own
birth - depopulated the countries of Asia, Europe and Africa and reduced
them to subjection. There was no combatting the destructive rays and
chemical warfare of the Moon men. The United Americas, still weakened
from a civil war of their own, remained aloof and, for some strange
reason, the Zar left them in peace, contenting himself with his conquest
of practically all of the rest of the world. Now, it seemed, the two
major powers were as separate as if on different planets, there being no
traffic between them save by governmental sanction; and that was rarely
given.

It grew uncomfortably warm in the compartment as the rocket car entered
the lower atmosphere but Karl listened spellbound to the astounding
revelations of the Moon man. There came a pause in the discourse of the
dwarf as a number of relays clicked furiously on the control board and
the vessel slackened its speed perceptibly.

"But," said Karl, thinking aloud rather than meaning to interrupt,
"what has all this to do with me? Why does the government of this Zar
want me?"

The dwarf bent close and eyed him cautiously. "Poor kid!" he whispered,
"it doesn't seem right that you should suffer for something that
happened when you were born; something you know nothing about. But the
Zar knows best. You - "

There came a stabbing pencil of light from over Karl's shoulder and the
green eyes of the dwarf went wide with horrified surprise. He clutched
at his breast where the flame had contacted, then slowly collapsed in a
pitiful, distorted heap. Karl recoiled from the odor of putrefaction
that immediately filled the compartment. He whirled to face the new
danger but saw nothing but the padded walls.

Then they were in darkness save for the blinking lights of the control
board. He was thrown forward violently and the piercing screech of
compressed air rushing past the vessel told him they had entered the
receiving tube at their destination and were being retarded in speed for
the landing. This much he had gathered from the explanations of the now
silenced dwarf.

Laro, the other Moon man, remained mute at the controls. His companion
evidently had talked too much.

* * * * *

The vessel had stopped and a section of the padded rear wall of the
compartment moved back to reveal a second chamber. There were three
other occupants of the ship and Karl knew now at whose hands the
talkative Moon man had met his death. One of the three - all wearers of
the purple - still held the generator of the dazzling ray in his hands.
He decided wisely that resistance was useless and followed meekly when
he was led from the ship.

Endlessly they rode upward in a high-speed lift, dismounting finally at
a pneumatic tube entrance. A special car whisked them roaring into the
blackness. Then they were shot forth into the open and Karl saw the
light of the sun for the first time in many years. They were on the
upper surface of a great city, Dorn, the capital of the Continental
Empire.

The air was filled with darting ships of all sorts and sizes, most of
them being pleasure craft of the wearers of the purple. To Karl it was
the sudden realization of his dreams. He was one of them. He, too,
should be wearing the purple. Then his heart sank as one of his guards
prodded him into action. His dream already was shattered for they stood
at the entrance to a great crystal pyramid that rose from the flat
expanse of the roofs of Dorn. It was the palace of the Zar.

It seemed then that fairyland had opened its gates to the young man in
gray denim. He immediately fell under its influence when they traversed
a long lane between rows of brightly colored growing things which filled
the air with sweet odors. Feathered creatures fluttered about and
twittered and caroled in the sheer joy of being alive. It was sweeter
music than he had ever believed possible or even imagined as existing.
Again he forgot the menace of the imperial edict which had brought him
from the other side of the world.

* * * * *

Then rudely, he was brought back to earth. He was in the presence of the
mighty Zar and his three escorts were bowing themselves from the huge
room in which the wizened monarch sat enthroned. They had finished their
duties.

A shriveled face; beady eyes; trembling hands with abnormally large
knuckles; a cruel and determined mouth - these were the features that
most impressed Karl as he stared wordlessly at this Zar of the Eastern
Hemisphere. The magnificence of the royal robe was lost on the young
wearer of the gray.

"Well, well, so this is Peter Van Dorn, my beloved nephew." The Zar was
speaking and the chilly sarcasm in which the words were uttered belied
the friendliness they otherwise might have implied.

"That's what I'm told," replied Karl, "though I didn't know I'm supposed
to be the nephew of so great a figure as yourself."

Not bad that, for an humble wearer of the gray.

"Oh, yes, yes, indeed. Why else should I have sent for you?"

"I have wondered why - and still wonder."

"Oh, you wonder, eh?" The Zar inspected him carefully and then broke
into a cackle of horrible laughter. "A Van Dorn in gray denim!" he
chortled. "A mole of the Americas! And to think that even the Zar has
been unable to find him in all these years!"

"Stop!" bellowed Karl. "I'll not have your ridicule. Come to the point
now and have it over with. Kill me if you will, but tell me the story!"
He had seen the slender tube in the Zar's hand.

* * * * *

An expression of surprise, almost of admiration, flickered in the beady
eyes of the Zar and was gone. He spoke coldly.

"Very well, I shall explain. You, Peter, are actually my nephew. Your
father, Derek Van Dorn, was my brother; he a king of Belravia and I a
poor but experienced scientist. He scorned me and he paid, for I learned
of the ancient race of the other side of the Moon, the side we can not
see from the earth. I went to them and enlisted their aid in warring
upon my brother. When we returned to carry on this war I learned that I
had a son. So, too, did Derek. But my son was born in obscurity and
Derek's son - you, Peter - in the lap of luxury. The war was short and, to
me, sweet. Belravia was first to fall, and I had your father removed
from this life by the vibrating death."

"You monster!" cried Karl. But the slender rod menaced him.

"A moment, my hot-headed nephew. I vowed I'd have your life, Peter, but
your father had a few friends and one of these spirited you away. So
temporarily you escaped. But now I have you where I can keep that vow.
You, too, shall die. By the vibration. But first - ha! ha! - I'll give you
a taste of the purple. Just so the going will be harder."

Karl kept his temper as best he could. He thought, conscience-stricken,
of old Rudolph, that good friend of his father. Then he thought of that
youth he had taken from the Square.

"Your son?" he asked gently. "Has he the triangular brand?"

The Zar was taken aback. "He has, yes. Why?" he asked.

"I have seen him in the Americas. He now lies wounded and in peril of
his life. What do you think of that?"

Karl was triumphant as the Zar paled.

"You lie, Peter Van Dorn!"

* * * * *

But the beady eyes saw that the young man was truthful. Sudden fury
assailed the monarch of the East. A bell pealed its mellow summons and
three Moon men entered the Presence.

"Quick, Taru - the radiovision! Our ambassador in the Americas!" The Zar
was on his feet, his hard features terrible in fear and anger. "By God!"
he vowed, "I'll lay waste the Americas if harm has come to my son. And
you" - turning to Karl - "I'll reserve for you an even more terrible fate
than the vibrating death!"

The radiovision was wheeled in and in operation. A frightened face
appeared in its disc: the Zar's ambassador across the sea.

"Moreau - my son!" snapped the Zar. "Where is he?"

"Majesty! Have mercy!" gasped Moreau. "Paul has eluded us. He was
skylarking - in the lower levels of New York. But our secret agents are
combing the passages. We'll have him in twenty-four hours. I promise!"

The rage of the Zar was terrible to see. Karl expected momentarily that
the white flame would lay him low, for the anger of the mad ruler was
directed first at Moreau, then at himself. But a quick, evil calm
succeeded the storm.

"You, Peter," he stated, in tones suddenly silky, "shall have that
twenty-four hours - no more. If Moreau has not produced my son in that
time you shall be dismembered slowly. A finger; an ear; your tongue; a
hand - until you reveal the whereabouts of the heir to my throne!"

"Never! You scum!" Karl was on the dais in a single bound. He had the
Zar by the throat, his fingers twisting in the flabby flesh. Might as
well have it over at once. "Fratricide - murderer of my father, I'll take
you with me!"

* * * * *

But it was not to be. The throne room was filled with retainers of the
mad emperor. Strong hands tore him away and he was borne, struggling and
fighting, to the floor. A sharp pain in his forearm. A deadening of the
muscles. He was powerless, save for the painful ability to crawl to his
knees, swaying drunkenly. A delicious languor overcame him. Nothing
mattered now. He saw that a tall man in the purple had withdrawn the
needle of the hypodermic and was replacing the instrument in its case.
Ever so slowly, it seemed.

The Zar was laughing. That horrible cackle. But Karl didn't care. They'd
have their sport with him. Let 'em! Then it'd be over. Lord! If only he
had been a little quicker. He'd have torn the old Zar's windpipe from
its place!

"My word," laughed the Zar. "The sacred word of a Van Dorn. I gave it.
He'll wear the purple for a day. Take him from my sight!"

Karl was walking, quite willingly now. The effects of the drug were
altering. His muscular strength returned but his mental state underwent
a complete change. Always he'd wanted a taste of the purple. For years
he'd listened to the orators of the Square, to the conflicting
statements of old Krassin. But now he'd see. He'd know the joys of the
upper levels; the pleasure cities, perhaps. For one day. But what did it
matter? He found himself laughing and joking with his companion, a
heavy-set wearer of the purple. They were in a luxurious apartment.
Servants! Moon men all of them, but so efficient. They stripped him of
his gray denim; discarded it contemptuously. Karl kicked the heap into a
corner and laughed delightedly. His bath was waiting.

* * * * *

Much can happen in a day. Clothed in the purple, Karl - Peter Van Dorn,
he was, now - expanded. Turgid emotions surged through his new being. He
was a new man. In his rightful place. He was delighted with the
companionship of his new friend of the purple, Leon Lemaire. An
euphonious name! A fine fellow! Fool that the Zar must be, to leave him
in the care of so amiable a man. Why, Leon couldn't hold him! None of
them could. He'd escape them all - if he wished. Twenty-four hours,
indeed!

They were in the midst of a gay company. Wine flowed freely, and Leon
had attached to their party a pair of beautiful damsels, young, and easy
to know. There was music and dancing. Lights of marvelous color played
over the assemblage in the huge hall, swaying their senses at the will
of some expert manipulator. Peter was a different person now. He was
exhilarated to the point of intoxication, but not by the wine. Somehow
he couldn't bear the taste of the amber fluid the others were imbibing
with such gusto. The effects of the drug had left a coppery taste in his
mouth. But no matter! Rhoda, his lovely companion at the table leaned
close. Her breath was hot at his throat. He swept her into his arms.
Leon and the other girl laughed approvingly.

There were many such places in the upper levels of Dorn and they
traveled from one to another. Now their party was larger, it having
been augmented by the appearance of other of Leon's friends. Fine
companions, these men of the purple, and the women were incomparable.
Especially Rhoda. They understood one another perfectly now. It was all
as he had pictured it.

Someone proposed that they visit the intermediate levels. It would be
such a lark to watch the mechanicals. They made the drop in a lift. A
laughing, riotous party. And Peter was one of them! He felt that he had
known them for years. Rhoda clung to his arm, and the languorous glances
from under her long lashes set the blood racing madly in his veins.

* * * * *

In the levels of the mechanicals they romped boisterously. To them the
strange robots - creatures of steel and glass and copper - were objects of
ridicule. Poor, senseless mechanisms that performed the tasks that made
the wearers of the purple independent of labor. Here they saw the
preparation of their synthetic food, untouched by human hands. In one
chamber a group of mechanicals, soulless and brainless, engaged in the
delicate chemical compounding of raw materials that went into the making
of their clothing. Here was a nursery, where tiny tots born to the
purple were reared to adolescence by unfeeling but efficient mechanical
nurses. The mothers of the purple could not be bothered with their
offspring until they had reached the age of reason. The whirring
machinery of a huge power plant provided much amusement for the feminine
members of the party. It was all so massive; throbbing with energy. But
dirty! Ugh! Lucky the attendants could be mechanicals.

"We have visited the lower levels," whispered Rhoda in his ear, "but not
often. It isn't pleasant. Ignorant fools in the gray denim - too many of
them. I don't know why we permit their existence. Fools who will not
learn. Education made us as we are, and they won't take it. Sullen
looks and evil leers are all that they have for us. Hope nobody suggests
going down there now."

"Me, too," said Peter. He had forgotten that once he was Karl Krassin, a
wearer of the despised gray.

Someone in the party was becoming restless. They must move on.

"Where to?" asked Peter.

"Sans Dolor, sweet boy. A pleasure city within a hundred kilometers of
Dorn. You'll love it, Peter."

A pleasure city! Fondest dream of the wearers of the gray! In the dim
past, when he was Karl, he had dreamed it often. Now he was to visit
one!

* * * * *

They were atop the city now and the crystal palace of the Zar shimmered
in the sunlight off there across the flat upper surface of Dorn. But it
seemed so far away that Peter did not give it a second thought. He was
living in the present.

A swift aero took them into the skies and they roared out above the
wilderness that was everywhere between the great cities of earth. Funny
nobody thought of leaving the cities and exploring the jungles of the
outside. But, of course, it wasn't necessary. They had everything they
needed within the cities. All of their wants were supplied by the
mechanicals and by the few toilers in the gray who still persisted in
ignorance and in some perverse ideas that they must work in order to
live. Besides, the jungle was dangerous.

Sans Dolor loomed into view, a great island floating in the air a
thousand meters above the tossing waters of the ocean. Peter gave not a
thought to the forces that kept it suspended. Dimly he recalled certain
words of old Rudolph, words regarding the artificial emanations that had
been discovered as capable of counteracting the force of gravity. But
his mind was intent on the pleasures to come.

They were over the city. Carefully tended foliage lined its streets and
a smooth lagoon glistened in its center. Its towers and spires were
decorated with gay colors. The streets were filled with wearers of the
purple and the nude bodies of bathers in the lagoon gleamed white in the
strong sunlight.

He sensed anew the nearness of Rhoda. Her soft warm hand nestled in his
and she responded instantly to his sudden embrace.

There came a shock and the party was stilled in dismay. The aero
careened violently and the pilot struggled with controls that were dead.
Sans Dolor dropped rapidly away beneath them. They were shooting
skyward, drawn by some inexplicable and invisible energy from above.

* * * * *

Rhoda screamed and held him close, trembling violently. All of the women
screamed and the men cursed. Leon arose to his feet and stared at Peter.
The friendliness was gone from his features and he spat forth an
accusation. A glistening mechanism appeared in his hand as if by magic.
A ray generator! He had been appointed by the Zar to guard this upstart
and, whatever happened, he'd not let him escape with his life. The girl
shuddered at sight of the weapon and extricated herself from his arms.
Her affection too had been a pose.

Peter's mind was clearing from the effects of the drug. He had not the
slightest idea of what might have caused the quick change in the
situation but he resolved he would die fighting, if die he must. Leon
fumbled with the catch of the generator. It refused to operate. The
force that was drawing them upward had paralyzed all mechanisms aboard
the little aero. Flinging it from him in disgust he sprang for Peter.

Their minds befuddled, the rest of the men watched dully. The women
huddled together in a corner, whimpering. They were a sorry lot after
all, thought Karl. He was no longer Peter Van Dorn, and he thrilled to
the joy of battle.

* * * * *

Leon Lemaire was no mean antagonist. His flailing arms were everywhere
and a huge fist caught Karl on the side of his head and sent him
reeling. But this only served to clear his mind further and to fill him
with a cold rage. He bored in unmercifully and Lemaire soon was on the
defensive. A blow to his midsection had him puffing and Karl hammered in
rights and lefts to the now sinister face that rocked his opponent to
his heels. But the minion of the Zar was crafty. He slid to the floor as
if groggy, then with catlike agility, dove for Karl's knees, bringing
him down with a crash.

The air whistled by them as the ship was drawn upward with ever-increasing
speed. The other passengers cowered in fright as the two men rolled over
and over on the floor, banging at each other indiscriminately. Both
were hurt. Karl's lip was split, and bleeding profusely. One eye was
closing. But now he was on top and he pummeled his opponent to a pulp.
Long after he ceased resisting them, the blows continued until the
features of Leon Lemaire were unrecognizable. The infuriated Karl did not
see that one of the members of the party was creeping up on him from
behind. Neither was he aware that the upward motion of the aero had
ceased and that they now hung motionless in space. A terrific blow at
the base of his skull sent him sprawling. Must have been struck by a
rocket, one of those funny ships that crossed the ocean so quickly. A
million lights danced before his aching eyeballs.

Lying prone across the inert body of his foe, dimly conscious and
fingers clutching weakly, he knew that the cabin was filled with people.
Alien voices bellowed commands. There was the screaming of women; the
sound of blows; curses ... then all was silence and darkness.

* * * * *

It was a far cry to the little book shop off Cooper Square, but Karl was
calling for Rudolph when he next awoke to the realization that he was
still in the land of the living. His head was bandaged and his tongue
furry. A terrible hangover. Then he heard voices and they were
discussing Peter Van Dorn. He opened one eye as an experiment. The other
refused to open. But it might have been worse. At least he was alive; he
could see well enough with the one good optic.

"Sh-h!" whispered one of the voices. "He's recovering!"

He looked solemnly into the eyes of an old man; a pair of wise and
gentle eyes that reminded him somehow of Rudolph's.

"Quiet now, Peter," said the old man. "You'll be all right in a few
minutes. Banged up a bit, you are, but nothing serious."

"Don't call me Peter," objected Karl. He loathed the sound of the name;
loathed himself for his recent thoughts and actions. "I am Karl
Krassin," he continued, "and as such will remain until I die."

There were others in the room and he saw glances of satisfaction pass
between them. This was a strange situation. These men were not of the
purple. Neither were they of the gray. Their garments shone with the
whiteness of pure silver. And that's what they were; of finely woven
metallic cloth. Was he in another world?



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Online LibraryVariousAstounding Stories of Super-Science, December 1930 → online text (page 10 of 19)