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they think they're going across and annex the world."

He glanced upward again and laughed loudly for the benefit of those who
were watching him so closely. "Fine chance!" he said; "a fat chance!"
But in the deeper recesses of his mind he was shaken.

For themselves there was no hope. Well, that was all in a lifetime. But
the other - the conquest of the earth - he had to try with all his power
of will to keep from his mind the pictures of destruction these beastly
things could bring about.

* * * * *

The chief of this strange council made a gesture of contempt with the
grotesque hands that were so translucent yet ashy-pale against his
scarlet robe, and the down-drawn thin lips reflected the thoughts that
prompted it. The open opposition of Lieutenant McGuire failed to impress
him, it seemed. At a word the one who had brought them sprang forward.

He addressed himself to the circle of men, and he harangued them
mightily in harsh discordance. He pointed one lean hand at the two
captives, then beat it upon his own chest. "They are mine," he was
saying, as the men knew plainly. And they realized as if the weird talk
came like words to their ears that this monster was demanding that the
captives be given him.

An exchange of dismayed glances, and "Not so good!" said McGuire under
his breath; "Simon Legree is asking for his slaves. Mean, ugly devil,
that boy!"

The lean figures on the platform were bending forward, an expression of
mirth - distorted, animal smiles - upon their flabby lips. They
represented to the humans, so helpless before them, a race of thinking
things in whom no last vestige of kindness or decency remained. But was
there an exception? One of the circle was standing; the one beside them
was sullenly silent as the other on the platform addressed their ruler.

He spoke at some length, not with the fire and vehemence of the one who
had claimed them, but more quietly and dispassionately, and his cold
eyes, when they rested on those of McGuire and Sykes, seemed more
crafty than actively ablaze with malevolent ill-will. Plainly it was the
councilor now, addressing his superior. His inhuman voice was silenced
by a reply from the one on the throne.

He motioned - this gold-crowned figure of personified evil - toward the
two men, and his hand swept on toward the one who had spoken. He intoned
a command in harsh gutturals that ended in a sibilant shriek. And the
two standing silent and hopeless exchanged looks of despair.

They were being delivered to this other - that much was plain - but that
it boded anything but captivity and torment they could not believe. That
last phrase was too eloquent of hissing hate.

* * * * *

The creature rose, tall and ungainly, from his throne; amid the
salutations of his followers he turned and vanished through the arch.
The others of his council followed, all but the one. He motioned to the
two men to come with him, and the sullen one who had demanded the men
for himself obeyed an order from this councilor who was his superior.

He snapped an order, and four of his men ranged themselves about the
captives as a guard. Thin metal cords were whipped about the wrists of
each; their hands were tied. The wire cut like a knife-edge if they
strained against it.

The new director of their destinies was vanishing through an exit at one
side of the great hall; their guard hustled them after. A corridor
opened before them to end in a gold-lit portal; it was daylight out
beyond where a street was filled with hurrying figures in many colors.
With quavering shrieks they scattered like frightened fowls as an
airship descended between the tall buildings that reflected its passing
in opalescent hues.

It was a small craft compared with the one that had brought them, and
it swept down to settle lightly upon the street with no least regard
for those who might be crushed by its descent. Consideration for their
fellows did not appear as a marked characteristic of this strange
people, McGuire observed thoughtfully. They swarmed in endless droves,
these multicolored beings who made of the thoroughfare an ever-changing
kaleidoscope - and what was a life or two, more or less, among so many?
He found no comfort for themselves in the thought.

Shoulder to shoulder, the two followed where the scarlet figure of the
councilor moved toward the waiting ship. Only the professor paid further
heed to their surroundings; he marveled aloud at the numbers of the
people.

"Hundreds of them," he said; "thousands! They are swarming everywhere
like rats. Horrible!" His eyes passed on to the buildings in their glory
of delicate hues, as he added, "And the contrast they make with their
surroundings! It is all wrong some way; I wish I knew - "

They were in the ship when McGuire replied. "I hope we live long enough
to satisfy your curiosity," he said grimly.

The ship was rising beneath them; the opal and quartz of the city's
walls were flashing swiftly down.


CHAPTER IX

They were in a cabin at the very nose of the ship, seated on metal
chairs, their hands unshackled and free. Their scarlet guardian reclined
at ease somewhat to one side, but despite his apparent disregard his
cold eyes seldom left the faces of the two men.

Windows closed them in; windows on each side, in front, above them, and
even in the floor beneath. It was a room for observation whose
metal-latticed walls served only as a framework for the glass. And there
was much to be observed.

The golden radiance of sunlit clouds was warm above. They rose toward
it, until, high over the buildings' tallest spires, there spread on
every hand the bewildering beauty of that forest of minarets and sloping
roofs and towers, whose many facets made glorious blendings of soft
color. Aircraft at many levels swept in uniform directions throughout
the sky. The ship they were in hung quiet for a time, then rose to a
higher level to join the current of transportation that flowed into the
south.

"We will call it south," said Professor Sykes. "The sun-glow, you will
observe, is not directly overhead; the sun is sinking; it is past their
noon. What is the length of their day? Ah, this interesting - interesting!"
The certain fate they had foreseen was forgotten; it is not often given to
an astronomer to check at first hand his own indefinite observations.

"Look!" McGuire exclaimed. "Open country! The city is ending!"

* * * * *

Ahead and below them the buildings were smaller and scattered. Their new
master was watching with closest scrutiny the excitement of the men; he
whispered an order into a nearby tube, and the ship slowly slanted
toward the ground. He was studying these new specimens, as McGuire
observed, but the lieutenant paid little attention; his eyes were too
thoroughly occupied in resolving into recognizable units the picture
that flowed past them so quickly. He was accustomed, this pilot of the
army air service, to reading clearly the map that spreads beneath a
plane, but now he was looking at an unfamiliar chart.

"Fields," he said, and pointed to squared areas of pale reds and blues;
"though what it is, heaven knows. And the trees! - if that's what they
are." The ship went downward where an area of tropical denseness made a
tangled mass of color and shadow.

"Trees!" Lieutenant McGuire had exclaimed, but these forests were of
tree-forms in weirdest shapes and hues. They grew to towering heights,
and their branches and leaves that swayed and dipped in the slow-moving
air were of delicate pastel shades.

"No sunlight," said the Professor excitedly; "they have no direct rays
of the sun. The clouds act as a screen and filter out actinic rays."

McGuire did not reply. He was watching the countless dots of color that
were people - people who swarmed here as they had in the city; people
working at these great groves, crouching lower in the fields as the ship
swept close; people everywhere in teeming thousands. And like the
vegetation about them, they, too, were tall and thin, attenuated of form
and with skin like blood-stained ash.

"They need the sun," Sykes was repeating; "both vegetable and animal
life. The plants are deficient in chlorophyl - see the pale green of the
leaves! - and the people need vitamines. Yet they evidently have electric
power in abundance. I could tell them of lamps - "

* * * * *

His comments ceased as McGuire lurched heavily against him. The flyer
had taken note of the tense, attentive attitude of the one in scarlet;
the man was leaning forward, his eyes focused directly upon the
scientist's face; he seemed absorbing both words and emotions.

How much could he comprehend? What power had he to vision the
idea-pictures in the other's mind? McGuire could not know. But "Sorry!"
he told Sykes; "that was clumsy of me." And he added in a whisper, "Keep
your thoughts to yourself; I think this bird is getting them."

Buildings flashed under them, not massed solidly as in the city, yet
spaced close to one another as if every foot of ground not devoted to
their incredible agriculture were needed to house the inhabitants. The
ground about them was alive with an equally incredible humanity that
swarmed over all this world in appalling profusion.

Their horrid flesh! Their hideous features! And their number! McGuire
had a sudden, sickening thought. They were larvae, these crawling
hordes - vile worm-things that infested a beautiful world - that bred here
in millions, their numbers limited only by the space for their bodies
and the food for their stomachs. And he, McGuire, a _man_ - he and this
other man with his clear-thinking scientific brain were prisoners to
this horde; captives, to be used or butchered by those vile, crawling
things!

And again it was this world of contrast that drove home the conviction
with its sickening certainty. A world of beauty, of delicate colors, of
sweeping oceans and gleaming shores and towering cities with their grace
and beauty and elfin splendor yet a world that shuddered beneath this
devouring plague of grublike men.

* * * * *

They swept past cities and towns and over many miles of open land before
their craft swung eastward toward the dark horizon. The master gave
another order into the speaking tube and their ship shot forward, faster
and yet faster, with a speed that pressed them heavily into their seats.
Behind them was the glory of the sunlit clouds; ahead the gloomy
gray-black masses that must make a stygian night sky over this lonely
world - a world cut off by that vaporous shell from all communion with
the stars.

They were over the water; before them a dark ocean reached out in
forbidding emptiness to a darker horizon. Ahead, the only broken line in
the vast level expanse was a mountain rising abruptly from the sea. It
was a volcanic cone surmounting an island; the sunlight's glow reflected
from behind them against the sombre mass that lifted toward the clouds.
Their ship was high enough to clear it, but instead it swung, as McGuire
watched, toward the south.

The island drifted past, and again they were on their course. But to
the flyer there were significant facts that could not pass unobserved.
Their own ship had swung in a great circle to avoid this mountain. And
all through the skies were others that did the same. The air above and
about the grim sentinel peak was devoid of flying shapes.

McGuire caught the eyes of the councilor, their keeper. "What is that?"
he asked, though he knew the words were lost on the other. He nodded his
head toward the distant peak, and his question was plainly in regard to
the island. And for the first time since their coming to this wild
world, he saw, flashing across the features of one of these men, a trace
of emotion that could only be construed as fear.

The slitted cat eyes lost their look of complacent superiority. They
widened involuntarily, and the face was drained of its blotched color.
There was fear, terror unmistakable, though it showed for but an
instant. He had control of his features almost at once, but the flyer
had read their story.

Here was something that gave pause to this race of conquering vermin; a
place in the expanse of this vast sea that brought panic to their
hearts. And there came to him, as he stowed the remembrance away in his
mind, the first glow of hope. These things could fear a mountain; it
might be that they could be brought to fear a man.

* * * * *

The sky was clearing rapidly of traffic and the mountain of his
speculations was lost astern, when another island came slanting swiftly
up to meet them as their ship swept down from the heights. It was a tiny
speck in the ocean's expanse, a speck that resolved itself into the
squared fields of colored growth, orchards whose brilliant, strange
fruits glowed crimson in the last light of day, and enormous trees,
beyond which appeared a house.

A palace, McGuire concluded, when he saw clearly the many-storied pile.
Like the buildings they had seen, this also constructed of opalescent
quartz. There were windows that glowed warmly in the dusk. A sudden wave
of loneliness, almost unbearable, swept over the man.

Windows and gleaming lights, the good sounds of Earth; home!... And his
ears, as he stepped out into the cool air, were assailed with the
strange cackle and calling of weird folk; the air brought him scents,
from the open ground beyond, of fruits and vegetation like none he had
ever known; and the earth, the homeland of his vain imaginings, was
millions of empty miles away....

The leader stopped, and McGuire looked dispiritedly at the unfamiliar
landscape under dusky lowering skies. Trees towered high in the
air - trees grotesque and weird by all Earth standards - whose limbs were
pale green shadows in the last light of day. The foliage, too, seemed
bleached and drained of color, but among the leaves were flashes of
brilliance where night-blooming flowers burst open like star-shells to
fill the air with heavy scents.

Between the men and the forest growth was a row of denser vegetation,
great ferns twenty feet and more in height, and among them at regular
intervals stood plants of another growth - each a tremendous pod held in
air on a thick stalk. Tendrils coiled themselves like giant springs
beside each pod, tendrils as thick as a man's wrist. The great pods were
ranged in a line that extended as far as McGuire could see in the dim
light.

* * * * *

His shoulders drooped as the guard herded him and his companion toward
the building beyond. He must not be cast down - he would not! Who knew
how much of such feeling was read by these keen-eyed observers? And the
only thought with which he could fill his mind, the one forlorn ghost of
a hope that he could cling to, was that of an island, a volcanic peak
that rose from dark waters to point upward toward the heights.

The guard of four was clustered about; the figures were waiting now in
the gathering dark - waiting, while the one in scarlet listened and spoke
alternately into a jeweled instrument that hung by a slender chain about
his neck. He raised one lean hand to motion the stirring guards to
silence, listened again intently into the instrument, then pointed that
hand toward the cloud-filled sky, while he craned his thin neck to look
above him.

The men's eyes followed the pointing hand to see only the sullen black
of unlit clouds. The last distant aircraft had vanished from the skies;
not a ship was in the air - only the enveloping blanket of high-flung
vapor that blocked out all traces of the heavens. And then! -

The cloud banks high in the skies flashed suddenly to dazzling, rolling
flame. The ground under their feet was shaken as by a distant
earthquake, while, above, the terrible fire spread, a swift, flashing
conflagration that ate up the masses of clouds.

"What in thunder - " McGuire began; then stopped as he caught, in the
light from above, the reflection of fierce exultation in the eyes of the
scarlet one. The evil, gloating message of those eyes needed no words to
explain its meaning. That this cataclysm was self-made by these beings,
McGuire knew, and he knew that in some way it meant menace to him and
his.

Yet he groped in thought for some definite meaning. No menace could this
be to himself personally, for he and Sykes stood there safe in the
company of the councilor himself. Then the threat of this flaming blast
must be directed toward the earth!

* * * * *

The fire vanished, and once more, as Professor Sykes had seen on that
night so long ago, the blanket of clouds was broken. McGuire followed
the gaze of the scientist whose keen eyes were probing in these brief
moments into the depths of star-lit space.

"There - there!" Sykes exclaimed in awe-struck tones. His hand was
pointing outward through the space where flames had cleared the sky. A
star was shining in the heavens with a glory that surpassed all others.
It outshone all neighboring stars, and it sent its light down through
the vast empty reaches of space, a silent message to two humans,
despondent and heartsick, who stared with aching eyes.

Lieutenant McGuire did not hear his friend's whispered words. No need to
name that distant world - it was Earth! Earth!... And it was calling to
its own....

There was a flying-field - so plain before his mental eyes; men in khaki
and leather who moved and talked and spoke of familiar things ... and
the thunder of motors ... and roaring planes....

Some far recess within his deeper self responded strangely. What now of
threats and these brute-things that threatened? - he was one with this
picture he had visioned. He was himself; he was a man of that distant
world of men; they would show these vile things how men could meet
menace - or death.... His shoulders were back and unconsciously he stood
erect.

The scarlet figure was close beside them in the dusk, his voice vibrant
with a quality which should have struck fear to his captives' hearts as
he ordered them on. But the look in his crafty eyes changed to one of
puzzled wonder at sight of the men.

Hands on each other's shoulders, they stood there in the gathering dark,
where grotesque trees arched twistingly overhead. Their moment of
depression had passed; Earth had called, and they had heard it, each
after his own fashion. But to each the call had been one of clear
courage. No longer cast off and forlorn, they were one with their own
world.

"Down," said Professor Sykes with a whimsical smile; "down, but not
out!" And the lieutenant responded in kind.

"Are we down-hearted?" he demanded loudly. And the two turned as one man
to grin at the scarlet one as they thundered. "N-o-o!"


CHAPTER X

Two men grinned in derision at the horrible, man-shaped thing that held
their destinies in his lean, inhuman hands! - but they turned abruptly
away to look again above them where that bright star still shone through
an opening in the clouds.

"The earth! Home!" It seemed as if they could never tear their eyes away
from the sight.

Their captor whistled an order, and the guard of four tugged vainly at
the two, who resisted that they might gaze upon their own world until
the closing clouds should blot it from sight. A cry from one of the red
guards roused them.

The dark was closing in fast, and their surroundings were dim. Vaguely,
McGuire felt more than saw one of the red figures whirled into the air.
He sensed a movement in the jungle darkness where were groves of weird
trees and the tangle of huge vegetable growths. What it was he could not
say, but he felt the guard who clutched at him quiver in terror.

Their leader snatched at the instrument that hung about his neck and put
it to his lips; he whistled an order, sharp and shrill. Blazing light
that seemed to flame in the air was the response; the air was aglow with
an all-pervading brilliance like that in the car that had whirled them
from the landing field. The light was everywhere, and the building
before them was surrounded by a dazzling envelope of luminosity.

Whatever of motion or menace there had been ceased abruptly. Their
guard, three now in number instead of four, seized them roughly and
hustled them toward an open door. No time, as they passed, for more than
fleeting impressions: a hall of warm, glowing light - a passage that
branched off - and, at the end, a room into which they were thrown, while
a metal door clanged behind them.

* * * * *

These were no gentle hands that hurled the men staggering through the
doorway, and Professor Sykes fell headlong upon the glassy floor. He
sprang to his feet, his face aflame with anger. "The miserable beasts!"
he shouted.

"Take it easy," admonished the flyer. "We're in the hoose-gow; no use of
getting all fussed up if they don't behave like perfect gentlemen.

"There's a bunk in the corner," he said, and pointed to a woven hammock
that was covered with soft cloths; "and here's another that I can sling.
Twin beds! What more do you want?"

He opened a door and the splash of falling water came to them. A
fountain cascaded to the ceiling to fall splashing upon a floor of
inlaid, glassy tile. McGuire whistled.

"Room and bath," he said. "And you complained of the service!"

"I have an idea," he told the scientist, "that our scarlet friend who
owns this place intends to treat us decently, even though his helpers
are a bit rough. My hunch is that he wants to get some information out
of us. That old bird back there in the council chamber told me as plain
as day that they think they are going to conquer the earth. Maybe that's
why we are here - as exhibits A and B, for them to study and learn how to
lick us."

"You are talking what I would have termed nonsense a month ago,"
replied Sykes, "but now - well, I am afraid you are right. And," he said
slowly, "I fear that they are equally correct. They have conquered
space; they have ships propelled by some unknown power; they have gas
weapons, as you and I have reason to know. And they have all the
beastly ferocity to carry such a plan through to success. But I wonder
what that sky-splitting blast meant."

"Bombardment," the flyer told him; "bombardment of the earth as sure as
you're alive."

"More nonsense," said Sykes; "and probably correct.... Well, what are we
to do? - sit tight and give them as little information as we can? or - "
His question ended unfinished; the alternative, it seemed, was not plain
to him.

"There's only one answer," said McGuire. "We must get away; escape
somehow."

* * * * *

Professor Sykes' eyes showed his appreciation of a spirit that could
still dare to hope, but he asked dejectedly: "Escape? Good idea. But
where to?"

"I have an idea," the flyer said slowly. "An idea about an island." He
told the professor what he had observed - the fact that there was one
spot of land on this globe from which the traffic of these monsters of
Venus steered clear. This, he explained, must have some significance.

"Whatever is there, God only knows," he admitted, "but it is something
these devils don't like a little bit. It might be interesting to learn
more. We'll make a break for it; find a boat. No, we probably can't do
it, but we can make a try. Now what is our first step, I wonder."

"Our first step," said Professor Sykes, measuring his words as if he
might be working out some astronomical calculation, "is into the
inverted shower-bath, if you feel as hot as I do. And our next step,
when all is quiet for the night, is through the window I see beyond. I
can see the branches of one of those undernourished trees from here."

"Last one in is a lop-eared Venusian!" said McGuire, throwing off his
jacket. And in that strange room in a strange world, under the shadow of
death and of tortures unknown, the two men stripped with all the
care-free abandon of a couple of schoolboys racing to be first in the
old swimming hole.

* * * * *

It was some time later when the door opened and a long red hand pushed a
tray of food into the room. The tray was of unbreakable crystal - he
rattled it heedlessly upon the floor - and it held crystal dishes of
unknown foods.

They were sampling them all when Sykes remarked plaintively, "I would
like to know what under heaven I am eating."

"I've wished to know that in lots of restaurants," McGuire replied. "I
remember a place down on - " He stopped abruptly, then chewed in silence


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Online LibraryVariousAstounding Stories of Super-Science, December 1930 → online text (page 4 of 19)