By JOSEPH E. KELLEAM
ILLUSTRATED by FINLAY
In Kansas, spring usually falls on the day before summer. It had been such a day, and now at midnight I was sitting at my desk. Both hands of the clock were pointing to the ceiling—and to the limitless stars beyond. My wife and daughter had long been asleep. I had stayed up to write a few letters but it was not a night for working. Although it was a bit chilly outside, the moon was bright and a bird was singing a glad and plaintive song about the summer that was coming and all the summers that had passed and all that would be. Adding, here and there, a bit of melody about all the good things that happen to birds and men without their knowing why.
Both hands of the clock were pointing upward. And I was half-asleep, and half-dreaming. Remembering all the friends I had—most of them scattered to the four winds by now. And that best friend of all, Doctor Jack Odin! I wondered where he was and how he had fared since he disappeared into that dark cave in Texas.
Suddenly I became aware of a flickering light above me. I looked up. I had thought that the lights were winking, but they were not. The room was lit by a reading lamp, and the ceiling was so shadowy that at first I could see nothing at all. Then I saw the light—or the ghost of a light—gleaming faintly upon—or through—the ceiling. It was the faintest yellow, neither a bull's eye nor a splotch. Instead, it seemed to be a tiny whirlpool of movement—the faintest nebula in miniature with spirals of light swiftly circling a central core. For a second I thought I could see through the roof, and the stars swarmed before me. It was as though I was at the vortex of a high whirlwind of dancing, shining specks of light. Then that sensation was gone, and there were two faint coiling spirals of yellow light upon the ceiling.
The lights began to whisper.
"We are Ato and Wolden," they said. "Remember us?"
I remembered them from the notes that I had pieced together to tell the story of my old friend, Doctor Jack Odin, and his adventure in the World of Opal. It seemed impolite to tell them that we had never met. So I listened.
"Wolden's work has succeeded," the whispering continued. "We have reduced time and space to nothing. You see us as lights, or as we once put it, 'as flame-winged butterflies,' but we are neither. We are Ato and Wolden. By adding ourselves to another dimension we are hardly recognizable to you. Actually, we are at our starting point billions of miles away! We are traveling through space toward you at a speed which would make the speed of light look like a glow-worm crawling across the dark ground; and at the same time, we are there in your room. Do you understand?"
I didn't, but I have learned that a man can live quite comfortably by merely keeping his mouth shut. So I kept still.
* * * * *
My little daughter had been playing in the room before she had unwillingly gone to bed. She had left a red rubber ball upon my desk.
"Look at the ball," the voices whispered. "We will give you an idea of the time-space in which we live."
I looked. Suddenly the little ball twitched, vanished and reappeared. I gazed in wonder. It had been red. Now it was white. I picked it up and a white powder rubbed off upon my fingertips.
"See." The lights whispered. "We have turned it inside out—"
The whispering continued.
* * * * *
"We are bringing you a gift. Our last gift, probably, because we are weary of your world and the affairs of men. Pygmies! Now, stand back from your desk—"
It was such a command that I fairly leaped out of my chair and drew away from the desk. Still leaning upon it I stared in wonder at the shadow which was forming itself upon the cleared space by the side of my typewriter. At first it was merely a dark square. Then it was a shadowy cube, growing denser all the time until it became a dim shape. The shape grew brighter. There was a tiny spitting sound, like two hot wires being touched together. There was a smell in the room, not unpleasant but not pleasant either—a completely alien smell. A wave of cold air struck me, and passed by, leaving me shivering. Our furnace came on with a start.
Then the lights were gone and I was looking in wonder at a leaden box, about a foot square. It had a hinged lid, and around the middle of it the figure of a snake was excellently carved. It held its tail in its mouth, locking the box securely. Its eyes were two great moonstones that appeared to look up at me with half-blind amusement—winking at the wisdom they had forgotten and the fear that I was feeling.
I touched the box and drew my hand away in pain. It was colder than cold. Desolate, burning cold.
It was two hours before the box became warm enough—or cool enough—to touch. Then, after several experiments I got the snake's mouth open and the lid swung upward on chilled hinges.
Within it was a manuscript. As soon as I looked at it I recognized the handwriting of my old friend, Doctor Jack Odin.
Well, it was just as before. It was more of a series of notes and jottings than a story. It took months to piece it together. Several pages were badly burned and spotted. It was hard work and slow work—
And this is the tale that Jack Odin sent me—from Somewhere.
Jack Odin descended into the cavern—or what Keefe had called the Hole—for less than a hundred yards before his strong flashlight sent its lancing beam into a stone wall. At his feet was a crevice which went straight down as though it had been measured by a giant square. He got to his knees and looked over. Playing his light around he detected a few ledges like narrow steps far below. It was pitch-dark down there, and not even his strong light could reach to the bottom. He tried tossing a few pebbles into it; listening he heard the faint rattle of their fall, but could not be sure whether they had landed on one of the ledges or had reached bottom.
Looking about him, he found a weathered bit of limestone that thrust itself up like a small table. It did not look very substantial but it was his only hope. Odin had crammed his ammunition, food and canteen into a knapsack. Looping the rope through it and his rifle strap, he lowered them over until he felt the rope slacken as his gun and supplies rested upon the first ledge. Releasing one end of the rope he carefully drew it back.
* * * * *
Now he knotted the rope about the stone and let the two lengths of it trail down toward the ledge. He had kept his flashlight which he thrust into his belt. One other thing, a little miner's cap and light, now came into use. It was warm down there, and as soon as the cap with its lighted lamp was on his head, sweat began to pour down his neck. Suddenly he remembered a scene he had witnessed one morning in West Virginia—so long ago that it should have been forgotten. His car had stalled in a tiny town one evening. He had slept in the only hotel, but had got up before daybreak so he could start an early search for a mechanic. Looking up toward the hills he had seen a silent procession of lights going upward to some unknown mine. There was something grotesque about those climbing lights; the identity of the men was lost, and this was a crawling thing up there on the hillside. For a moment he felt himself feeling infinite pity for all the men everywhere who spent their days in the dark.
Then he laughed. Better feel a bit sorry for Jack Odin too. Getting ready to lower himself over a precipice, and not having the slightest idea when he would reach bottom. Or whether there was any bottom at all. The blackness beat at the little light. A startled bat left its upside-down perch and fluttered against his face, clicking its teeth in warning.
Well, one could stay here and think until doomsday. So, with a shrug of his big shoulders, he got a firm grip on his doubled rope and slid over the edge. He went down and down until his shoulders ached. Once he got his feet down on an outcropping but dared not brace himself there for fear of loosening his rope from its unsteady mooring above. Then, at last, he came to the ledge with only a few feet of his doubled rope to spare.
After resting the little cap and lamp in a secure cranny he lay flat on his stomach for a few minutes, gulping great draughts of air and trying to rub some feeling back into his aching shoulders. Then he got up and started looking about for some anchorage. Some twenty feet away, he found a little spur of rock.
The second ledge was negotiated in the same fashion as the first. It was scarcely four feet in width. Leaning over it, with his powerful flashlight spraying a beam of light downward, he saw that there were no more ledges between him and the floor of the crevice below. Not even a single out-cropping. The wall was smooth and glassy as though at one time, for ages and ages, water had flown down it and had left a glossy coating upon its face.
Moreover, when he awkwardly dangled his rope into the abyss with one hand, and kept his light upon it with the other, he found to his disappointment that not even a single length would reach to the dimly-seen floor below.
He sat there for a while, chewing at a bit of jerked beef, trying to get his strength back, racking his brains for a plan. But he could think of nothing except getting back to Opal. Then, at last, with a sigh and maybe a curse at the things that happen and maybe a bit of a prayer, he began to tie a loop, lasso fashion, in his rope. Finding another spur of rock became a problem. This ledge was smooth. But in time he found one and drew his loop tightly about it. Rolling the knapsack up into a ball and tying it securely, he threw it over the brink. Listening, he heard it land and bounce two or three times. The gun was slung over his shoulder. The miner's cap and lamp went back upon his head. He stuffed his pockets full of ammunition and slid over the edge. Once he nearly lost his grip on the single strand and slid downward for a yard or two with the rough coils taking the hide off his palms. But he held on. And at last he was dangling at the end of the rope like a plumb-bob. Carefully he tightened his grip with his right hand and let go with the left. His shoulder creaked, and fangs of pain struck at his wrist and elbow.
* * * * *
But he hung on. Playing the flashlight below him, he saw that the floor of the crevice was still many yards away. It seemed to be of sand, but he was not sure. Limestone could be deceiving. Putting the light back in his belt, he began feeling along the wall. It was smooth. Finally, reaching down as far as he could, he found a little hole scarcely large enough for one hand. There was no time left to consider. Getting his fingers into it he turned loose of the rope and dropped down. It felt as though his left shoulder was tearing loose, but he held his grip. Kicking about he found a toe-hold in the wall—and finally another grip for his hand.
In this way, Odin went down for nearly a dozen yards. But at last he could find neither a grip for his hands nor a rest for his feet. He did not care now. The pain in his shoulders was becoming unbearable. Taking one great gulp of air, he released his hold on the wall and thrust his body out into space. The little light in his cap went out. Odin fell through darkness. He fell into soft sand, doubling up as his feet touched it. Odin rolled over and over, losing both flashlight and gun as he tumbled. Then he came up against hard rock, with most of the wind knocked out of him, and lay there gasping, feeling about him with frantic hands for the light and the gun.
* * * * *
The old terror of the dark swept over him as he clutched this way and that and found nothing. Then he got a grip on himself and laughed at his fears—remembering that he had matches in his pockets.
The spurt of a match showed him his miner's cap not five feet away. He must have missed it by inches as he was clutching about in the dark. He lit it and soon found gun and flash.
Pointing his light upward, he could faintly see the knotted end of his rope swinging back and forth up there against the precipice. It was his only link with the outside world, and it was far out of reach. He shrugged and played the light about the cavern into which he had ventured.
The walls of the crevice into which he had fallen were never over ten feet apart and in spots were less than three. But the sandy bed sloped noticeably downward, so downward he went. Only pausing occasionally to take a mouthful of water from his canteen or eat a bite or two. His watch had been broken in that last fall. He threw it away.
The air grew hotter. So hot at last that Odin had to pause more often and rest upon the sand. But it too was hot, as though it had never known anything but this one temperature.
Stumbling along, his nostrils and chest burning, and something thumping in his ears, he finally fell to his knees. Jack Odin lay there for a long time. But the floor of the cavern still led downward. So, with nothing else left in his mind, he got to his knees and crawled on.
That last determination saved him. A cool breath of air struck him in the face. He toiled downward and was soon in a wider cavern that was so cold that he was shivering. He rested again and then went on. The cold grew worse.
Odin came to a tunnel of ice. The faint smell of ammonia set him to coughing. It was nearly as uncomfortable here as the heat had been a few hours before. But he kept on. Finally, there was no ice left on the walls about him. The air grew warmer.
Soon the walls opened out until he could scarcely see them with his flashlight. Playing it upward he could only get a faint reflection from the stalactites hundreds of feet away.
At length Odin came to a vast room where his light could reach neither walls nor ceiling. But in the center of it was a tiny pool, rimmed by white sand and a shell-like lip of limestone. He got to his knees and tested the water. It was clean—but old and old and old. Filling his canteen, he opened his knapsack and prepared a hearty meal. He was dog-tired but before he slept he walked around the little pool. He had heard of fish being found in underground caverns—or even the fossils of things that had once been there. But here Odin found no sign of life. Nothing except traces of the vast underground river that must have once swept through here long ago.
It was a desolate feeling to stand there with his beam of light pushing the dark away. Alone in a place which apparently had never known the beat of life before. And then Odin saw it—
A footprint. A small footprint which must have been made by someone who wore moccasins or sandals. He recognized it at once. He had seen hundreds of those footprints!
A Neebling had been there. How long before he did not know. But, certainly, Odin's theory had been right. The cavern led the way to Opal. Jack Odin was not sure how many times he ate and slept as he toiled his way downward. The long dead river had carved cunningly and beautifully upon the walls of the tunnel. And the dripping waters of centuries had fashioned pedestals, carvings, and statues that were beautiful indeed. Ordinarily he would have been interested in these, for Jack Odin was a man who loved beautiful things, but now he had but one idea: To go on.
Occasionally he found more footprints. But always near the scattered pools. The dwarfs must have kept against the walls and come out upon the sand only to quench their thirst. He wondered about that. And a possible answer came to him. They had been there without a light—feeling their way, almost—although he knew that they could see in the dark to a certain extent. He wondered at their courage. Here, with two lights, the staring darkness and the silent empty spaces were making him shaky.
The descent became sharper. At times he slid down long grades of limestone. Now and then he came to sharp drops where little waterfalls had once been. But there was usually sand below and he was able to leap down without much harm, other than a jolt or two.
But once he came to one of these drops that must have measured a hundred feet. He found a few rocky steps where the little precipice met the wall and clambered down, but it was rough going, and he had to make a jump for it at the last.
* * * * *
Picking himself up and dusting the sand from his clothes he thought he saw a white gleam over against the wall. His light found a squat skeleton sitting there grimacing at him. He touched the skull and it fell to powder. Here was one of the dwarfs—a Neebling—but the bones did not belong to this age; the poor fellow must have lain there for centuries.
Doctor Jack Odin was never able to get all of his medical training out of his mind. Examining the skeleton he found that both legs had been broken. Apparently, the little man had been climbing up or down the precipice Odin had just negotiated and had slipped and fallen. His legs shattered, and infection setting in, the Neebling had crawled against the wall to die. Odin could imagine him doing that last task silently. They were akin to the animals that they loved, the Neeblings. They did not complain.
* * * * *
Hours and hours later, as Odin toiled his way downward, he became aware of a growing stench in the stale air. Even this was welcome, for he was becoming obsessed with the idea that the cavern had not changed since the long-ago river had died, and that nothing in it could change. It was an odor of rottenness. Where there was decay, life had also been.
By the time he reached the next pool the putrescence which hung on the stale air was almost sickening. There he made his second discovery. A saurian of some sort, with squat legs and long, fanged mouth, had died there. Half-decayed, it made a little phosphor glowing in the dark and its long teeth flashed as he played a beam of light over it.
Noisome as it was, the sight of it made his heart quicken, for here was one of the things of Opal. It must have crawled up here from that silent sea. Then a feeling of gloom and dread swept over him. What had happened down there to make this thing leave its home and crawl here to die!
Odin went on and on, and the smell of the thing behind him slowly faded from the air.
Then, as he rounded a corner, Odin blinked his eyes. Far ahead of him was a red glow. Taking a deep breath, he thought he smelled smoke. Or was it sulphur? He had never been able to get one grim possibility out of his mind. What if some of the fires and lava streams of inner earth should lie between him and the world of Opal?
He had gone too far to turn back. So Odin went on cautiously. As he neared the red glow, he saw that it was only a campfire dying down to coals. But from the darkness came such a clamoring of hisses, groans, and screeches that he could feel goose-pimples popping out on his arms.
His rifle held a clamp for his flash. Making gun and light ready, he advanced cautiously, still unable to determine what was happening except that one hell of a fight was going on. Then a coal burst into quick flame and he could see the struggle. A broad-shouldered man, stripped to the waist, was fighting with one of the saurians. He had closed its long mouth with a huge hand and was striking again and again at the white throat with a broad-bladed knife. The thing was screeching and clawing at the man's arm. Its razored tail was lashing forward—and the man was dodging it as he kept backing in a circle and thrusting the head upward and backwards. Both brute and man were streaming blood. The man made no sound other than an occasional savage grunt as his blade struck deep through the horny hide of the thing. The Saurian became wilder with each blow.
It was a long shot. But Jack Odin made it. Both man and reptile quickened into momentary stone as his light centered its beam upon them. Odin aimed and fired. The heavy bullet shattered the top of the saurian's head.
Then Odin was running forward, calling out in the language of Opal. The broad-shouldered man kicked the wriggling carcass of the thing out of the way and threw a few sticks upon the coals. They flamed up. The man sat down calmly, though still gasping for breath, and began to wipe the blade of his knife upon his thigh.
He had regained some of his breath when Odin reached him. Rubbing a gashed forearm and smiling as though such a meeting were an every-day occurrence he called out cheerfully.
"Ho, Nors-King. I knew you would come. Sooner or later you would be here and we would go hunting together."
The man was Gunnar, successor to Jul, and Chief of the Neeblings!
Going to the pool, Gunnar began to wash his bleeding arms. "Yes, Old Gunnar knew you would be here, Jack Odin, for it was writ in runes of silver long ago that a man will go to the gates of death and brave Old Nidhug the dragon there to find his maid."
"And how is she, Gunnar? Where is she?"
But the dwarf did not answer for a few minutes. He stared moodily into the coals, and then feeling behind him in the dark he found a bright shirt and struggled into it. "I was getting ready to take a bath when the thing came at me," he explained simply.
"Gunnar! Where is Maya?"
Gunnar's big hand squeezed Odin's shoulder.
"Steady, lad. I wish I knew. I wish I knew. But you are here now, and we will go hunting together. For you are my friend and Maya is my friend. And I swore by my sword, the Blood-Drinker, to her father I swore it. And to Jul. That I would look after her. But I failed. And is my word no stronger than a puff of wind? I have sworn a new oath. I will find her. Even though we go farther than the graveyard of stars—or beyond the gates of hell, maybe—I will find her."
There was a sob in the squat man's throat and Jack Odin could see by the light of the flickering coals that Gunnar had aged. His face was more seamed. The knots of muscle at each jaw were larger. His hair was gray-streaked and thinner. But those huge shoulders were huger still, and the big gnarled hands kept closing and unclosing as though they were grasping at a throat.
"We will go together, then," Odin said. "But tell me—"
"Then swear it by my blade." And Gunnar took the long sword and harness up from the sand where he had left it.
"My people do not swear by the sword."
Gunnar cursed. "The tongues of your people are like two-edged knives. I have had enough of them. But you are not like them, Odin. I said before that you were a throwback to the men of old-time, when they went berserker together, or followed the whale's path in their dragon-headed ships. Here, swear by the sword, my sword."
* * * * *
And Jack Odin reached forward and touched the sword and swore that he would go with Gunnar even to the edge of the stars—
"Now," Odin pleaded. "Tell me what happened down there."
"It is a long story. And not a pretty one, either. Have you anything to eat?"
Odin produced some bread and jerked beef. As they sat there, with the coals winking red eyes at them, Gunnar told his tale between wolfish bites.
"Grim Hagen planned well." (So Gunnar began). "He planned well, and even yet I hope to kill him.
"That was an evil day when you and Maya decided to go back to outer-earth. An evil day. Some of Grim Hagen's men snared Maya with their thons. There was much fighting. We killed many but many got away.
"I should have known from the black scowl which Grim Hagen had worn those many months that he would not be stopped by one defeat. You will remember, Odin, how I told you of the little flying machines that we strapped on our backs in the old days and went sailing through the air. They were outlawed. But during the time that Grim Hagen held the tower he must have found the plans for the flying machine, or maybe even one of the machines. For when his men attacked us, each one had such a machine. And each man carried dozens of little glass eggs. When they threw them they exploded and dissolved nearly everything for twenty foot around.
"Oh, we fought. We killed many. But it is hard to fight the hawk. One by one they blew up our ships. Then, carrying Maya and a few other prisoners with them, they flew out to sea like a flight of evil birds—no, not birds, for not even the hawk is evil. What was the word that you used for the leather-winged, toothy things that live in the forest?"
"Dactyls," Jack Odin prompted.
"Yes, that's it," Gunnar said as he stared into the fire. "Dactyls. I like that word. It has an evil, bloody ring to it."
He stopped talking to take a huge bite of stale bread that nearly choked him. Then he continued his story.
"Meanwhile, in the city of the Scientists, the same kind of fighting had been going on. We learned later that when Grim Hagen's men winged their way in from the sea, his army had already retaken the Tower. Ato and his soldiers were scattered. Half of them were dead. So, after scattering their explosive eggs across the city, and killing the very old and the very young, Grim Hagen and his men took refuge in the Tower and prepared to withstand our siege. They had learned much from their first defeat, and this time they held it well.
"As soon as we could patch up our ships, we came a-following and joined forces with Ato's soldiers. We assaulted the Tower day after day. Until the ground and the walks around it were black with our dried blood. But they held out. Not once did they try a counter-attack. We should have guessed at what Grim Hagen was planing. But we didn't until one of the prisoners escaped. His name was Zol, and he was a friend of Maya's father. Poor fellow, he is dead now, but if we of Opal went in for monuments we would build one a mile high for Zol. He told us that Grim Hagen was readying the Old Ship for flight into space. Also, he planned to leave the sea gates open.
"Zol saved us. Or saved some of us and a part of Opal. Ato began training divers against the day when the tunnel would be flooded. We moved as many people as we could onto the ledges high up on the walls of Opal. We got our great pumps ready to cope with the flooding.
"Also, Ato and I renewed our assault upon the Tower. But they bested us. They had learned too many of the old secrets. Most of the young men of the Neeblings died there against the walls. That is how we keep our promises, Nors-King.
"But Old Gunnar had a trick or two left. Remember the tale that I read to you in the throne-room of Baldar. The first of the Brons to enter the world of Opal were soldiers sent from some blasted planet in outer space to find a new home. They could fly their ship, but they knew nothing of the science and the magic that had gone into it. We of the Neeblings learned that. And we Neeblings were their historians for a thousand years. Also, it was we who pieced together what little is known of their trip through space. And this is why:
"We of Opal have always kept up with the world above us. About thirty years ago there were some popular stories in your land about Tani of Ekkis[Footnote: Amazing Stories, c. 1929.] whose people came through the void in a spaceship. They traveled slow, and this is how they made the trip. They had discovered something which kept most of the crew under suspended animation for years upon years. That tale was not far from right. For the Brons too had a capsule, red like a ruby, which made them sleep for a score of years. There was an antidote, a yellow liquid like curdled flames. Three drops into the veins and the sleeper would awake. That is how they made the trip. Only a pilot, a co-pilot, a navigator, and a chief engineer were ever awake at one time. Their log-books were brief. But we of the Neeblings have them.
* * * * *
"So," (Gunnar continued, drawing a huge forearm across his moist blue eyes) "I persuaded Zol to go back to the Tower. I might as well have run him through, but he was our best and last hope. Wolden gave him a tiny cube, no larger than a ring-case. In it was a crystal with a number of silver wires woven into it, but it was a good transmitter. Better than yours, Jack Odin. For a week we heard from him daily.
"I say it was a week. We were working the clock around and our little sun was misbehaving again. It was a feverish week, not measured by day and night, for the sun would wink on and off as though it were getting ready to give up.
"For a week we heard from Zol. He gave the ruby capsule to Maya. She sleeps and will continue to sleep for twenty years unless the antidote which looks like curdled yellow flame is given to her. I have it. Grim Hagen may kill her or cast her adrift in space, but he cannot awaken her. That hound of hell can taunt her no more. She sleeps, until Gunnar stands by her side.
"Then Zol sent us his last message. Maya was sleeping. He was barricaded in one of the rooms of the Tower, and Grim Hagen and his men were battering down the door. From what we heard in the next few minutes, I suppose that the door gave way and Zol died. Then Grim Hagen's voice came to us, screaming in rage. He had all that he wanted. Even though our princess slept, he would take her into space with him. And she would awaken some day with the smoke of plundered worlds in her nostrils. Yes, she would awaken—to be his slave, even as he had promised us that night in Maya's home when we fought. And I wish I had killed the beast then. But Zol was dead and there was no sense in listening to this man's ravings, so we turned off our radio. And that is the last we ever heard from Grim Hagen.
"It was the next day when he opened the sea-gates and trundled the ship out upon the floor of the sea. We had done all that we could to be prepared. But it was not enough.
"The water came pouring in upon Opal. Half of the people died. Many had taken refuge in ships, and I doubt if a single ship survived that night. Yes, just as the water came flooding in, our little sun went out. We fought. The waters flooded both Valla and the Scientists' City. Here it rose nearly to the top of the Tower. There were only a few forests and meadows in the land that were not flooded. These were high up against the walls. As for the creatures of the deep, the reptiles and amphibians, most of them were dead. Many crawled into the ancient caves and fled upward. Most of them died.
"That is nearly all. We know now that Grim Hagen and his ship, with all his prisoners and loot, took off from the bed of the sea with a flourish which was just like Grim Hagen.
"Meanwhile, Ato and his crews got the gates closed and started the pumps. Only a few men of that crew are alive today, for the tunnel was radio-active at that time. It was weeks before the pumps could force the water back into the Gulf. Most of our plants were lost. My men and I have been foraging in the world above for these—and have helped ourselves to your cattle when we could.
"The waters are back to their old level, but they left a soggy, ruined world behind them. There is a deal of work to be done before it will be like the world that you knew. And our sun is of so little use that it can scarcely dry out the sloughs.
"Meanwhile, Wolden and his men are working on another ship. Even a larger ship than the one which Grim Hagen stole. They work day and night. Grim Hagen took his choice of our treasures. He stole our princess, and he killed millions. We are going after him, even if he drives to the edge of space. And I am going because of a promise I made long ago, and because of the love that I have for Maya. And because of you, Jack Odin. The sword is forged now. It is white-hot upon the anvil. The sparks leap out like stars as the hammer of the smith clangs down. And I will follow Grim Hagen as far as a man can go—even a league beyond the outer shell of space—or a day's journey beyond the grave." (So Gunnar's tale was ended. And the two sat there in silence, watching the coals wink out, and feeling the all-devouring dark coming back into the cavern.)
"Then I will go with you," Jack Odin told Gunnar. "To fight at your right side until we find my princess—"
"And until Grim Hagen is dead," Gunnar added. "For he is a noisome leaven that will pollute all of space that he touches."
The last coal went back to ashes. Odin turned on his light, and Gunnar blinked in pain at the sudden glare. Then they went onward and downward, past columns of limestone that were already old when the world was young.
Soon the floor of the cavern was slippery beneath their feet.
"The waters came up to here," Gunnar said. "Now, take a deep breath, Nors-King, for the air gets worse before it gets better."
He was right. The stench of dead things came crawling upward to meet them. Soon the floor was littered with the things from Opal's sea that had crept here to die. Huge, fanged saurians, lizards, toads, snakes. The cave was strewn with their carcasses, some half-decayed, others drying into hardened shells, others already reduced to stinking bones and sinew.
* * * * *
Gunnar kicked several out of the way as he made a trail for Odin to follow.
The short man did not tire. He went on and on at his steady shuffling gait which left the miles behind, while Odin's pack and rifle grew heavier and heavier. But Gunnar did not stop. So Jack gritted his teeth and stumbled after him, while the dead things grinned at them from the dark.
At last they saw a reddish light ahead.
Gunnar paused and pointed with a gnarled forefinger. "Opal ahead. All that is left of it."
They came out upon a narrow ledge high up in the cliff wall. Odin filled his lungs with clear air and gasped at the changes. Above them the little sun had dwindled to a red coal. The crimson-flecked clouds of Opal steamed and boiled beneath it. The sluggish sea was black now, and the long low waves were crested with bloody foam.
Something was choking in his throat. All the wealth of June-land had spilled over into the night. Gone, all gone! And for what reason? It was not enough to say that time, and gravity worked against the things of men's hands. It was not enough to say that all good things must pass. No, here was Old Loki the Mischief-maker at work. The one who destroyed for no reason at all—who ran through space like quicksilver and laughed as blossoms and leaves, towers and trees, the old and the young, fell before his senseless jests.
Tears came to Odin's eyes as he looked out there at the ruins and remembered the splendor that had been. As he thought of all who had died there, his hands were begging for the feel of Grim Hagen's throat. Darkling he stood there on that narrow ledge and thought how strange he and Gunnar must seem. Like two trolls peering out of Hell's Gate.
As though fanned by a tiny wind the red coal of a sun flamed up. Out there, far away, its red beams flashed upon the topmost turrets of the Tower. They bathed it in reddish light, and it loomed halfway out of the slate-black sea like something left alone in a ruined world. An emblem of man's pride and his love for beautiful things, it stood there bravely and held back the night.
There were tears in Gunnar's eyes also. Nearly two heads shorter than Odin, he stood beside him and clutched the taller man's forearm with a huge, gnarled hand.
"Over there," he said, pointing in a direction opposite from the Tower, "is where I was raised. Ah, it was good in those days, Odin. Very good. We of the Neeblings do not care for cities, but our farms and pastures were so arranged that there were several houses close together. And what fun the boys had hunting and fishing. Then I would straggle home for supper—and my mother, who wasn't old then, would be at the back door with a laugh and a joke to see that her Gunnar had come home whole, and to make him wash his hands properly. And the supper table, Odin! You ought to have seen it. It groaned. There was no end to our food in those days. And after supper, the younguns of the neighborhood would play outside until dark. One of our games was like one of yours. Some lad shut his eyes and counted while all of us hid. And then, after the counting was done, he came hunting us. And toward the last he would sing out for those who were still hiding: 'Bee, bee, bumblebee, all's out's in free.' It was a great game, and then the night would fall and we would hurry home. One had no trouble sleeping in those days." Gunnar paused to sigh a great sigh. "But it didn't work out. No one got in free. The homes, the pastures, the players, most of them are gone—and time took a heavy price. And only Gunnar is left to toss the last coin upon the counter. Well, I am ready to pay, so long as I get my hands on Grim Hagen."
Jack Odin gave him a playful punch on the shoulder, for Gunnar's thoughts seemed to be growing more dismal by the minute. "Well, little man, it was all a bright dream that went too fast. And are we to stay here on this ledge 'til doomsday while you try to re-spin the broken threads of the past?"
So Gunnar's thoughts came back to the present and his big shoulders heaved when he laughed. "Eh! Spoken like a Nors-King, Odin. I must be getting old. Well, there's a way from here to the sea. If we were cliff-swallows we could make it easily. But being men we had better trudge—"
* * * * *
He led the way along the ledge which did not appear to have much of a descent until they came to a place where a rocky slide had taken trail and all into the sea. The avalanche that had made it must have been a granddaddy of avalanches, for there was a steep slope of rocks and rubble from here to the water below. There, the stones had spilled out in all directions and the waves moiled over and about them for several hundred yards. Far out, the rocks had piled up into a little sea-wall, with gaps here and there where the breakers foamed through.
"We go down here now," Gunnar instructed. "But don't start anything rolling. The stones are loose, and we might end up in the water with a hundred feet of granite over us for a tombstone."
Gunnar led the way. Crawling backwards like a crab, he felt his way down the precarious slope. Odin followed. Once his foot slipped and he sent a shower of stones down upon the dwarf. Gunnar caught them like a juggler and held them in place so comically that Jack Odin laughed for the first time since he had started on this journey.
"And could you do better?" Gunnar grumbled. "Maybe I let you go first and we all go tumbling into the sea—"
"Oh, Gunnar, you did fine. But you reminded me of a cartoon back home where the cat's in the kitchen and has upset some pots and pans and is trying to catch them before they fall and make a clatter."
"And is this a time to talk about cats? A cat's place is in the woods. Tell me about dogs, maybe, but I have no time for cats. Besides, if you would throw that gun away you wouldn't be so clumsy. It's no good."
"No. I was here once without a rifle, and I needed it badly. One bullet between Grim Hagen's eyes and none of this would have happened."
Gunnar retorted: "I doubt if you could have changed one thread of the Spinners—"
"But didn't I save you back there in the tunnel with this same rifle?" Jack Odin answered.
"And nearly deafened me, too. Oh, well, I would probably have killed that thing anyway."
Odin shrugged. Gunnar's philosophy couldn't be shaken.
But the dwarf was serious about the rifle. "One shot would bring the rocks down upon us, Odin. Throw the thing away. It's no good."
"Not until I find a better weapon." Jack Odin shook his head.
At last they struggled through to the water's edge. It could not be called a beach, or even a landing, for the rocks came down at a sixty-degree angle.
"I have a boat over here," Gunnar said, and led the way.
Going parallel to the water was nearly as hard as coming down to it. Then Gunnar, who by now was a score of yards ahead, stopped and held up his hand.
When Odin came up he whispered, "We have a visitor."
Peering behind a huge rock Odin saw a tiny motorboat moored in a little inlet that was barely large enough to fit it. But the boat, curious as it was in Opal, was not the attraction.
* * * * *
A great sea-serpent had coiled up in it and was taking a nap. The thing was nearly a foot thick. Though it was coiled closely its tail hung over into the water. Its head looked very much like the head of an enlarged moccasin, except that there were long barbels about its mouth. And just below the throat were two limbs that were a bit like forearms, but were made up of long spikes joined by pulsing white skin.
Gunnar reached back of his shoulder and drew his huge broadsword from its scabbard. Then, with sword upraised, he advanced cautiously toward the sleeping snake.
A rock must have grated beneath his feet, for suddenly the snake awoke and its ugly head rose nearly ten feet into the air. It looked down upon the advancing dwarf with a hungry look and its long red tongue flicked in and out. Then with a devilish hiss it swept toward him, nearly capsizing the boat. Gunnar's sword went halfway through the thick, scaly neck, but with a leap it was upon him, its fore-limbs spread out fan-wise, flogging and clawing. The head opened. Long fangs gleamed as it struck. Gunnar ducked and dodged and the striking fangs missed. The head flashed over Gunnar's shoulder. The weight of it sent him to his knees, and his broadsword buried itself in the snake again. Blood spouted, but it seemed as alive and vicious as ever.
Jack Odin had unslung his rifle as Gunnar, went forward. Now he knelt and took aim at the swaying head that was rising above the dwarf.
The sound of the shot was deafening. Its backbone drilled just beneath the skull, the snake dropped upon Gunnar, burying him beneath its writhing folds. Then Gunnar was loose, and running to the boat. Above them the cliff was groaning as though it were tired of hanging there.
"Hurry, Nors-King, hurry! The rocks tremble."
The snake's writhing tail still lay athwart the boat. Gunnar swung his sword and severed it. It slid into the water and something that was mostly triangular teeth and mouth hit the water and seized it. Then it was gone, leaving a fading trail of froth and blood.
The boat was half-full of water. Gunnar climbed in and Odin came right behind him.
* * * * *
Gunnar struggled with the controls. The boat sputtered, moved, and then stopped. Odin was staring at the cliff above them. A huge layer of stone was cracking and leaning outward. The boat came to life. Gunnar swung it crazily through the rock-strewn water.
Looking back, Jack Odin watched the cliff coming down. Slowly, as though in a dream, the cracks grew larger—and then with a roar of pain the rocks parted and one huge section of the wall leaned outward, tore itself loose, and came at them like a waterfall of rumbling stones.
The rocks fell just a few feet short of the fleeing, sputtering boat. The huge wave that followed the settling of thousands of tons of stone into the water swiftly picked them up and hurled them through one of the gaps in the sea-wall.
Long after, while Odin was bailing water from the boat, and Gunnar was fiddling with the motor that had conked out again, the dwarf looked back at the cliff. It was shadowy now. Dust was still rising as it shook loose an occasional, crumbling ledge.
"Eh, Nors-King, we fight again," the squat man laughed. "You saved Gunnar's life once more—and you almost killed him, too." He paused to wipe sweat from his dripping face.
Odin grinned back at him. Then, without another word, he took up the expensive rifle and let it slip overboard. The ammunition that cost him so much trouble and pain as he lugged it all the way to Opal followed after. He watched the copper shells as they gleamed like a school of minnows and plunged out of sight.
"There, Gunnar. I have nothing left to fight with but my hands."
"Good-riddance to that thing," Gunnar smiled. "I will make you a blade that will slice through an anvil."
The motor coughed, sputtered—and began to purr.
The boat churned a wide arc in the water as Gunnar turned it and headed toward the Tower, which now loomed far ahead like a beacon.
As the boat sped over the water, leaving a churning wake behind it, Jack Odin remembered that first sea-voyage he had made on the seas of Opal. It was June-time then, and Maya had been with him. Perhaps they had thought that June would last forever. Perhaps they had thought that all of life would go by at five miles per hour. Remembering that slow, wonderful trip—almost like a voyage in a dream—he sighed as he held on to the skipping boat. They were now going well over sixty.
Gunnar seemed to sense his thoughts. "Wolden has ordered speed and more speed, my friend," he called over the roar of the motor. "The governors are all gone from the old machines. The smiths are turning out newer and faster ones all the time. Sometimes I think even the hands of the clocks are going faster."
Odin muttered a curse. What he had loved about this world was its leisure. What he had hated about his own world above was its constantly increasing speed. Like a squirrel caught in a cage, his world had gone faster and faster until reality had vanished into a mad blur of turning wheels and running feet. Oh, well, he thought, a man is like a pup. Contented enough until life takes him by the scruff of the neck and shakes him up and proves to him that things change and a pup's world changes and he had better accustom himself to new standards or be shaken up again.
So they sped on through the low waves while the Tower loomed nearer and taller before them. Gunnar was guiding with one hand while he talked into a little square box of gleaming metal.
He turned his head, and the boat careened into a trough that set it to shaking. "I have contacted Wolden and Ato," he called cheerfully. "They are meeting us at the dock. Not the old dock—it is still under water. The new one is farther up the street."
* * * * *
As they neared Orthe-Gard, Gunnar slowed the boat. Looking down into the murky water, Jack Odin could detect, now and then, the faintly-traced shadow of a roof or tower. Once as he looked down at a finely-carved weather-vane, a huge fang-fish rolled between him and his view. A white belly gleamed through the water, and a serrated mouth opened wide. Its jaws bent out of proportion by the refraction of the water, it reminded Odin of the old story of the Monster of Chaos rushing with gaping mouth to swallow the works of men.
Then they were at the dock, which was scarcely a dock at all but a place where the waters ended halfway up the sloping streets of the city.
One thing had not changed. To the last the people of Opal refused to take part in any governmental excitement. A car was there. A driver. Wolden was there looking much thinner and grayer. Beside him was his son, Ato, inches taller and perhaps a bit thicker in the shoulders and a bit thinner at the waist. These were all.
He had nearly broken his neck half a dozen times to get there, but Jack Odin was glad that the old idea had survived. Being reared so near to Washington, he had been puzzled for years over his country's mile-long processions and the spectacle of thousands rushing to watch a parade for some visiting celebrity or some current politician who would be forgotten before the next snow.
He and Wolden shook hands. Odin was surprised at the change in him. When last seen, Wolden had been a man just leaving the prime of life. Too much of a brain, perhaps. A bit too curious and a bit too fearful of the affairs of the world. But now the hand was weak—the face was thinner and grayer, although even nobler than it had been, but the eyes were sad and pained as though they had seen too much and had dreamed dreams beyond the comprehension of his fellows. Somehow, Odin found himself remembering a lecture about Addison, who probably knew as much as anyone about the hearts of men, but upon being made second-high man in his government could only stand tongue-struck in the presence of Parliament.
Then there was Ato. The months had changed him too. He stood tall and lean, and there was a deep line running from each cheekbone down his face. He looked older, but his eyes were piercing now, while his father's were somber. Strife and hard work had sweated all the fat from his bones. He seemed much stronger than when Odin had first met him. But here was something more than strength. Ato had developed into a first-class fighting man. Wolden could never have been a fighter.
There was something both terrifying and sad in the comparison. Ato looked like a man who could calmly send a hundred-thousand to their deaths for one objective, while Wolden would have theorized and rationalized until the objective was lost. The old comparison between the impulsive executive and the liberal arts man who has learned that there are only one or two positive decisions available in all the world of thinking.
But each in his own way was glad to see Odin, and welcomed him back to the ruins of Opal.
Then, just before the reunion was over, the clouds grew grayer and it began to rain. As they got into the little car, Wolden told Odin that they would have to circle the bay before going to the Tower on a ferry, since the lower stories were still under water. The city had once been beautiful with trees. Now they stood like gaunt skeletons, drowned by the sea water. Here and there a few limbs struggled to put out their leaves. The rain was cold, colder than Odin had ever felt in Opal before. He shivered, but there was something more than the cold dankness of the air to make him shiver.
Then they came to the ferry, and the ferryman was so old and bent that Odin looked twice at him to make sure that he wasn't one-eyed. He wasn't. So the ferry creaked its way out to the Tower—to an improvised landing just below the sixth-story windows. They climbed through the windows into a huge room that seemed to be carved of fairy-foam, and behind them the rain grew heavier and the thunder rolled in the distance and the lightning flashed like witch-fires across the jaded sky.
* * * * *
Three days had passed since Gunnar and Odin had returned to Opal. Doctor Jack Odin stretched out on a huge bed and felt the strength of the ultra-violet light upon the ceiling pour into his shoulders. In the next room, Gunnar was bathing and complaining about the sea water. Drinking-water in Opal was now at a premium.
Odin had been in the dumps. Now he was feeling better, although memory of the sodden ruins that he had seen in the last three days would never leave him.
"And are you howling, my strong little man?" he called out cheerfully. "In Korea I once bathed in a mud puddle and enjoyed the bath."
Gunnar's first few words were unprintable. "There was a river close to my house where the water ran silver over the stones of the ford. And there Gunnar used to bathe. This is slop, Nors-King. Nothing but slop."
Odin laughed again. "You are getting old, Gunnar. Did anyone ever guarantee that ford to you for always?"
Gunnar, dripping water, and with a towel wrapped around his middle, came dashing into the room. He stood there, his arms and shoulders flexed. "And does Gunnar look too old to fight?" he asked.
Odin blinked. Gunnar's muscular development had always amazed him. The short man stood an inch less than five feet. His chest and shoulders must have measured more than that, his muscles writhed like iron snakes as he moved. His biceps and forearms were those of a smith—which indeed Gunnar had been, for Gunnar had been many things. The huge torso slanted down to narrow waist and hips. Then his short legs propped him up like carved things of oak. Gunnar had once killed a bull with one blow of his fist. He had once snapped a man's back across those bulging, stubby thighs.
* * * * *
Gunnar disappeared in search of fresh clothing. Odin lay there, thinking of all the things he had seen since returning to Opal.
Although the water level was still high up on the Tower, the lower floors had been made water-tight and had been pumped dry. On his first trip to the Tower, Odin had little chance to survey the rooms. Now he knew something of what Opal had lost. Curtains, paintings, rugs, statues, the finest furniture. All these had been ruined or damaged by the flood. Each room of the Tower had been a work of art. Both Brons and Neeblings had contributed to it, back in the days when they were working shoulder to shoulder.
In spite of his thoughts for Maya, he could not help thinking that the Brons had brought this on themselves. When they tried to put the Neeblings in second place, that was when the bell had sounded. Even so, why had this splendor been reduced to ruin? Oh, there were jewels that could be salvaged. And statues. But the Tower was a work of art from top to bottom. The finest lace. China as thin as paper. Paintings. These were gone. One might as well salvage Mona Lisa's eyes and swear that they were the original. Higher up, where the water had not reached, the machines had been stored along with other treasures. But Opal's best had been water-logged.
And the trip that Odin had made with Wolden into the tunnel. That was the most heart-breaking of all. The Brons and the Neeblings had saved the treasures from the warring civilizations of the world above. The statues could be preserved. Some of the machines might possibly be restored. But the paintings, the art, and the books. All gone. Wolden especially mourned a Navajo sand-painting, which he compared to Goya. Not a trace was left of it.
Wolden had taken him into the tunnel, just as he had once before. It was dripping now, and the sound of the pumps throbbed through the ruins like the struggling heart of a wounded thing. Their little car moved slowly down the old tracks. Occasionally it had to stop, where some disintegrating pile of treasures had spilled out. One sack of diamonds had broken. Wolden stopped and kicked the stones away. An ancient Ford, with its back seat piled high with rotting and sprouting sacks of prize-winning oat seed, was both heart-breaking and ludicrous.
The Brons and the Neeblings had been the true antiquarians of the world. And they had taken centuries to gather their collection. A dinosaur skeleton stared at them. The salvaged carved prow of a galleon leaned against a gaping whale's jaw. A model of the first atomic pile supported a score of leaning spears, but the feathers and artwork on those spears were now stains and shreds. An English flag, delicately embroidered, drooped beside the dripping tatters of the Confederacy. A Roman eagle was lifted high beside the crudely beautiful banner of the Choctaws—on which Odin could barely make out the three arrows and the unstrung bow.
* * * * *
Chinese vases, thin as egg shells, most of them broken, lay in a tumbled pile beside ancient cradles and spinning wheels.
A Neanderthal skull was staring hungrily at a twelve foot skeleton of a giant bird. And a restoration of a tiny little equus was looking up like an inquisitive mouse at a huge ruined painting by Rosa Bonheur.
Thousands upon thousands of relics of the world above—some taken from the jetsam of the sea and others taken by exploring parties from Opal during those long glad years when the inner-world was as comfortable as Eden and almost as happy. Gems by the millions, gold and silver coins, trappings inlaid with diamonds, furs, silks, bone instruments and ivory carvings. A Stradivarius was warping apart, and a Gutenberg was swollen to twice its size, its moldy pages curling away from the parent-book. The books had fared worse. Great stacks of leather-covered libraries were turning into moldy, starchy mounds. Papyrus and lambskin scrolls were falling apart. Once, when they stopped for Wolden to thrust some moldy folds of Hindu thread-of-gold weaving from their path, Odin stopped and picked up the cover of a book. It was soggy and faded. But he could make out the title: "Poems by a Bostonian."
So they had gone on, but slower now than on their first journey into the tunnel which led to the floor of the Gulf. An odor of dankness and decay hung over everything. The air was cold and damp. And everywhere were the footprints and handprints of Death who had spared this galley for so long, but who had come back with his flashing scythe to claim his own. The stinking carcass of a hammer head shark, washed in by the flood, lay sprawled across the sodden sarcophagus of an Egyptian princess.
And a gloomy sickness fell upon Jack Odin there in the tunnel as he thought of all the splendor that had died here, and the ages and ages of sweat and blood that had gone into these treasures. A thousand, thousand treasures were trying to whisper their stories to him, but the dripping water was drowning them out. Thousands of men, some slaves and some kings, were trying to tell him what the jewels and books, and swords and cradles had meant to them—but the drip-drip-drip of the water choked the echoes of their voices. The darkness that was ever crowding in seemed to be filled with the shadows of beautiful women in fine laces, with flashing jewels about their throats, and pendants brushing their half-covered breasts. They were trying to smile out of the dark, but a cold fog was creeping from the walls of the tunnel, settling about the shadows, and driving them back, farther and farther into all pervading nothingness.
* * * * *
Seeing his misery, Gunnar had clutched Odin's arm. "These were things of the past, Nors-King, and the things of the past belong to the old dragon. Let us not complain if he has taken them at last. We have things to do and we cannot do them if we are sick at heart. Did I tell you that four of my children died in the flood?" The voice of the broad-shouldered dwarf sounded husky and far away.
"No, Gunnar. You never told me. Indeed, old friend, I am sorry. Very sorry. And ashamed that I sit here mourning the past and forgetting your troubles."
"Yes. They died. My Freida and the other three are coming here. And we will eat at the same table again—and I will tell them that their grand-sire and their great-grand-sires were men among men. And that Gunnar himself has often sat high at the councils. Then we will go out to find Grim Hagen—and Freida and the three will go back to rebuild the farm. For that is the way of things—and as long as there are strong ones left to rebuild, Loki cannot altogether destroy us."
The car moved slowly forward. The dismal fog grew heavier. Until at last they came to the place where the Old Ship had stood.
Now there was a new ship taking form within its huge cradles. Lights were everywhere. The red lights of the forge. The blue lights of the welding torches, the white light of the workbenches. The yellow lights that surrounded the high scaffolds went up and up to the top of the hour-glass figure.
"This is our second," Wolden explained. "Our first was much smaller. We had been working on a smaller model long before Grim Hagen got ambitious. Some of our scientists have already gone into space. We are in touch with them. They went quietly and noiselessly. There was no need for all the destruction and havoc that Grim Hagen worked. But this model is larger even than the Old Ship, and all the improvements that we once dreamed of are here. You see, Odin," Wolden continued, "the Old Ship was ours for centuries. We of Orthe-Gard have exploring minds. We went over the ship thousands of times. We knew where every bolt and pin was located. We improved it. In the beginning, when it brought our ancestors here, it must have been comparatively slow. But during the past forty years we learned much from your scientists about space. Einstein was the only thinker in a century gone mad from bickering. About ten years ago we perfected what I call The Fourth Drive. It would take days to explain it, but it can throw a ship into Trans-Einsteinian Space. We had equipped the Old Ship with the new invention. Our experimental ship was so equipped. And this newer, larger one will also have The Fourth Drive. But we have made a few improvements at the last."
* * * * *
It was all too deep for Odin. And there was so much to see that he did not ask any questions.
Workers and smiths were everywhere. They crawled over the scaffolding like ants. They hammered and pounded at the framework. They were bent over the furnaces and the anvils. The presses and the shapers were pounding away. Never before had Jack Odin seen so much activity in Opal.
"We are wrecking our buildings for this ship," Wolden mourned. "Given time, my experiments would have made worlds and space unnecessary. But it has been voted that we go after Maya and punish Grim Hagen, even though we drive to the edge of space. So be it. We are now building in weeks what it would once have taken years to do. Those on our experimental ship who have already gone out into space, they have helped us immensely. Daily they report the results of their tests to us. The good points—the bad ones—the improvements. Oh, when this is finished it will be a greater ship than we ever dreamed of. I did dream of such a ship when I was young. But now I find that I do not want it. Even so, I will go out among the stars. Wolden was never a coward, nor his fathers before him."
"So be it," Odin answered and he leaned his head back and looked high up at the scaffolding where the welders' torches flashed like stars. "So be it, Wolden. But I would have gone anyway."
And Gunnar spoke: "I would have gone beside you. My sword is thirsty."
High up on the hour-glass shape a bit of magnesium caught fire and burned brilliantly for a second, its sparks flashing out and down. A worker, who was no more than a shadow, smothered the flame.
The sparks drifted downward like lost suns seeking a course that they could find no more. They sparkled and burned. Then they winked out, and there was nothing left upon the scaffolding but lancing flames and scurrying shadows.
All about them now, the smiths were beating out old chanteys on the ancient anvils and the newer, clashing machines.
In the days that followed there was no time for rest. Thanks to the smaller prototype which had already gone into space, no elaborate tests were required of the new ship. Moreover, the scientists had taken centuries to go over the Old Ship, bolt by bolt, part by part, wire by wire. Improvements had been made, but these had been incorporated into the little prototype which was now successfully berthed within a cavern somewhere on the moon. Over thirty men and women had gone with it. Wolden was constantly in touch with them and daily growing more envious of their position.
Odin knew little of such matters, but he sat daily at the council table where progress reports and squawk-sheets were examined and discussed. The speed with which they were developing the new ship was amazing. There was one innovation to be noted.
Wolden referred to it as the Fourth Drive. Odin gathered that the Old Ship had been equipped with such a drive, but new principles and new mechanics had been added. Odin showed him a little book, which had been privately printed in the world above some fifteen years before. It was entitled: "Einstein and Einsteinian Space, with Conjectures upon a Trans-Einsteinian concept." Wolden said it had been written by a young refugee from the Nazis, and he doubted if over two or three copies of the manuscript were now in existence. Memories of concentration camps, poverty, and the internecine battles of the professors in a small college where the refugee was an assistant in the Physics Department, had finally driven the poor fellow to suicide.
"He was grasping at something new," Wolden explained. "His concept was only nascent. But such a mind! The book has been invaluable. Still, it is nothing but a starting point—but such a starting point!"
Time passed. It was like working in a dream, where no sooner was one task done than another was ready. Odin ached. His head spun with all the information that Wolden had given him—the basic principles behind those machines that had gone into the ship.
Then, at last, it was finished. A young girl who reminded him of Maya was hoisted up on a scaffold to the highest bulge of the hour-glass shaped craft. Workers and visitors stood below by the thousands while she spoke into a tiny microphone and swung a ruby-colored bottle against the ship.
"You are christened The Nebula," she cried. "Go out into space—"
They had used a bottle of red wine for the christening. A shower of ruby-glass and winedrops came sprinkling down. They fell slowly—like drops of blood, and the onlookers, who were by nature opposed to crowds, began to disperse.
"That girl," Odin grasped Gunnar's arm "Who is she?"
Gunnar looked at him curiously. "Her name is Nea. A distant cousin of Maya's. Also, a distant cousin to Grim Hagen."
Nothing else was said. But Odin suddenly realized that since the day he had been unwillingly carried back to the world above in the elevator he had not noticed any girl at all.
That night Jack Odin could not sleep, although he had never slept more than five hours at a time since returning to Opal. Getting up he found a little radio and turned it to a frequency which occasionally caught some of the stations above. A hill-billy band was playing, and a comic was singing: "So I kissed her little sister and forgot my Clementine."
He turned off the radio with a curse and finally got to sleep, and dreamed of star spaces and emerald worlds ruled by beautiful Brons girls who looked like Maya—or maybe a bit like Nea. Until the worlds streaked across the dark sky like comets. And Gunnar was shaking him by the arm and a streak of light was coming in at the window.
"Ho, sluggard. We start to load the ship today. How long have you waited for this? We were going to savor each moment, remember! And you lie here like a turtle in the sun."
Odin yawned. "The lists are ready. Everything is packed. I, myself, have checked the lists."
Gunnar laughed. "How much time have your people spent checking lists? You are the world's best list-checkers. And the worst. I wish we were just a handful of warriors going out for a fight. But whole families are coming along. Apparently the Brons intend to sow their seed among the stars. And with families. I'll wager that your lists are not worth a darning needle. Something will be left behind. A slice of some bride's wedding cake. Little Nordo's favorite toy. Papa's best pocket-knife. Mama's button-box." The strong little man made a wry face. "Bah, this is no trip for families. They want too much. They are never satisfied. With warriors it is much different. They can take things as they are and grumble a bit—or if they grumble too much, Gunnar can slap them silly. But families—on a trip like this. No!"
"Well, they're going," Odin retorted. "From what I hear, you were the only one who voted against them. So you had better get ready to listen to the patter of little feet, and squalling babies, and Mamas and Papas arguing over whose idea it was to make the trip anyway."
"Oh, well, it does not matter. I am not of the Brons, but I go because of a promise." Gunnar shrugged and his face appeared sad and seamed. "My Freida and the boys will be here today. I want you to meet them. I have spent over half my days a-wandering, Jack Odin, but now I have a sick feeling inside me. And I think to myself if I could go back to the farm with Freida and the boys, I could work there, and die an old, old man—as my father and his father did before me. But the wanderlust is heavy upon me. Freida understands. And I swore that I would go after Grim Hagen—and after Maya. But this way, I die up there among the stars some day, and no one unless it be you and Maya will think of Gunnar."
Odin slapped his arm across Gunnar's shoulders. "You are chief among the Neeblings. Stay here with your family. I will go out there to the stars, and I will always remember Gunnar. Faith, man, you owe us nothing. The debts are ours—"
But Gunnar shook his head. "I swore by my sword. And I go."
* * * * *
A few hours later, they stood at the water's edge and waited for Freida and the boys. It was not long before a boat hove into sight. And soon Gunnar was helping Freida and the three sons upon the landing.
Family meetings always made Odin ill at ease. He stood there, shuffling his feet.
Freida was a short, broad woman, with big breasts and broad hips. Her eyes, the palest blue, were still beautiful. Odin guessed that when she was young her face had matched her eyes. But the face was worn and the hand that she offered him was calloused. She was dressed in linsey-woolsey, and the overalls of the three sons were also home-spun.
The three lads, miniature copies of Gunnar, stood there solemnly. Each wore a new straw hat with a black and red band around it. They were barefooted. Odin guessed that the hats had been bought special for the occasion.
* * * * *
For the next three days Odin was kept busy by Ato. There were a million things to go on the ship. The Brons had done a wonderful job of warehousing. All was packaged and tagged. A place for each box or machine was already marked and numbered on the prints of The Nebula. The tunnel had been cleared for two lanes of trucks and tractors. Steadily the line of laden cars moved down to the ship and steadily another line came back for more supplies.
Odin was assigned to superintend one of the warehouses, and he was both annoyed and pleased to find that the girl Nea was his assistant. She was a hard worker and pleasant enough, though she said little to him. And the only time he saw her flustered was when she ordered a young man of the Brons out of the building. Jack felt a bit sorry for the fellow. He was scarcely out of his teens and was all shook up because Nea was going out there into space instead of staying here in Opal with him.
So the work went on at a furious pace, and before he realized that three days had gone he was back at the improvised docks with Gunnar and his family.
The parting was a quiet one. Gunnar told the boys to mind their mother and not stay out late at night. "Get strong muscles on your legs and shoulders," he told them. "A man is not too good at thinking, and he never knows what will happen next. The muscles will keep him going, and after the muscles are gone a fighting heart will carry him a little farther."
No tears were shed. They talked of little things, and laughed at old jokes that Gunnar's grandfather had told them. One of those family jokes that never seem very funny to an outsider.
After that, Freida worked the conversation around to the voyage that Gunnar would soon be making.
"They say it is cold out there," she ventured cautiously.
"Oh, yes. Very cold." Gunnar agreed.
"Then you wrap up good, Gunnar. We wouldn't want you to have a chill."
Gunnar scoffed, "I never had a chill in my life."
"Oh, such talk. Don't pretend to be so big. I have nursed you through many a chill." Then she produced her parting gift—a muffler that would have swathed poor Gunnar from chin to belt.
"You promise you wear this if it gets cold," she urged.
"I tell you, mama, I don't need such things. You don't know how tough old Gunnar is."
"Yes, I know. You promise to wear the muffler—"
Gunnar took it as he cast a sheepish look at Odin. "All right. All right. I'll take it—"
After Freida's boat had disappeared, Gunnar tried to joke about the muffler. But he was a bit proud of it too, and put it around his neck. The ends almost brushed the ground, but it was so warm that he soon had to roll it up and carry it with him.
The two went for a meal. But Gunnar ate little, grumbling at the food. Once he assured Odin that he had never had a chill in his life—that Freida was too thoughtful about him—
"Sure. Sure." Odin agreed.
Then, finally, Gunnar cleared his throat and spoke the things that were in his mind.
"Friend Odin," he began, looking down at his plate as though he expected to see an answer there. "I fear that I have seen my family for the last time. We are in for a trip beyond the dreams of men. Beyond Ragnarok—to the edge of the night where the mad gods make bonfires of worn-out suns—where space itself serves the mad squirrel."
Gunnar paused to mutter a few words to himself and then looked up at Odin with the old smile on his broad face. "Oh, well, a man must go as far as his heart will take him—"
* * * * *
But for all his big talk, Gunnar tossed and muttered that night. And once, Odin heard him cry out—"So, Hagen, the stars swing right at last, and you are mine for the taking. Oh, my lost little boys and my lost little girl—"
And Gunnar, the strong one, sobbed in his sleep.
* * * * *
The ship was loaded at last. The time for departure was near. The crew of The Nebula—over two hundred men, women and children—went quietly into the tunnel. Thousands of relatives and friends had come to the Tower to see them off. There was little weeping though most of the faces were sad and lined.
Ato and Wolden had some last words with the captains who were working upon the rebuilding of Opal.
"We can talk to you from the moon," Wolden was saying. "Beyond that, when we swing into the Fourth Drive, we cannot. May your work prosper."
The last man had filed up the ramp to the sphere at the center of the hour-glass shaped craft. The door was finally closed and sealed.
There were no portholes in the Nebula. But at least a dozen screens were mounted at convenient locations. These showed the outside world as clearly as a window.
The ship moved along its rails to the Great Door. The door opened. Then it closed behind them. The second door—the one that opened upon the sea—slowly parted and slid back into the walls of the tunnel. The water poured in. For a second or two, all that Odin could see was swirling bubbling water. Then water was all around them. Seaweed still swirled in mad little whirlpools. A fish swam close to an outside scanner, and seemed to peer closer and closer at them until there was only one great staring eye upon the screen. Then it flirted its tail at them and sped away.
The ship moved on. Far out upon the floor of the Gulf, it paused. There were twenty minutes of last-minute checking.
Then, swiftly, as a cork bobs upward, the Nebula arose through the parting waters.
Then the sea was below them and they were still rising. The scanner showed the sea receding. They were looking down at a segment of a curved world. Far away was land, and Odin saw two dark specks in the distance which he thought were Galveston and Houston. The world below them became half of a sphere that filled the viewer. And then it was a turning globe, growing smaller and smaller. As it diminished, the stars winked out on the screen's background.
The sensation of rushing upward was no worse than being in a fast elevator. And yet, as Odin watched the earth recede, he realized that they must have risen from the water at a speed much faster than a bullet.
Soon the earth appeared no larger than a basketball. The viewers were changed. The moon appeared upon it—a growing sphere, with its mountains and craters all silver and black in the reflected light.
Wolden turned to Odin. "See how it is done. We left there quietly. Not a drop of water entered Opal. We left so fast that I doubt if your world even noticed us. Grim Hagen always loved the sensational. There was no need for the havoc that he made—"
In less than an hour, the onrushing moon filled the screens. And with scarcely a quiver of excitement the Nebula circled it swiftly—and landed.
Wolden and Ato, acting as pilot and co-pilot, set The Nebula down with as much ease as a housewife putting a fine piece of china upon the drainboard.
There was no fuss and no noise. Jack Odin had seen B-47's come in with a great deal more hubbub and dithers than the Nebula had caused.
The screens were still on. Out there all was dark, and a wealth of stars was in the purple-black sky. They seemed larger and brighter. Wolden touched a knob and the stars on the screen before them slowly grew larger and larger. "An astronomer's paradise," he said to Odin. "Look closely and you can see Centauri's binary suns. Here, with no refraction, a small telescope can do as well as the best that your people have made. There is no telling what your large ones could do. Ah, the riddles that could be answered."
Odin shrugged. Like almost everyone else, he had often fancied how it would be to land on the moon. Now he was here, and the surface of the moon was blacker than the blackest night he had ever seen. Moreover, there had been no change in gravity. The Nebula had been built to take care of that.
As though sensing his thoughts, Wolden began to explain. "We are less than fifty miles from a spot where the earth could be seen. Not over a degree below the curvature. In fact, if the moon were full, there would be a bit of light here, for a strong light playing upon any globe always lights up over half of it. We are not far from the Heroynian Mountains and the Bay of Dew. Just a few miles within that other side of the moon which none of your people have ever seen before."
Odin remembered Jules Verne's account of a volcano spouting its last breath of life in that zone, but out there was nothing but the dark and the stars that smoldered like sapphires, rubies, and diamonds upon a black velvet sky. There were no shadows. The darkness was solid, as though it had frozen there since old and no spark had ever invaded it.
"Be patient, my friend," Wolden had sensed his thoughts again. "Before long, you will see more of the moon than men have ever known. We sent a smaller ship into space. Remember! Our scientists are here. In a place beyond your dreams. Look. They are coming now."
Wolden was adjusting the screen again. Far off, something like a long jointed bug with a single glaring light in its head was crawling toward them.
It drew nearer. Jack Odin saw that it was no more than a huge caterpillar tractor with several cars attached, armored and sheathed with sort of a bellows-type connection at each joint. As it neared the Nebula, it played its light around so that Odin got his first glimpse of the moon. Barren, worn, cindered. An ash-heap turned to stone. Puddles and splashes shaped like great crowns, as though liquid rock had congealed at the very height of its torment. Needles of rock, toadstools of rock, bubbles of rock, and glassy sheets of rock—this was the surface of the moon.
Then the crawling tractor with its cars lumbering along behind it on their endless tracks was below them and playing its single light upward.
* * * * *
An air-lock in the Nebula opened and a huge hose came slowly down. Odin watched it on the screen. It seemed to have been pleated and shoved together like an accordion. Now it opened out in little jerking movements, extending itself about two feet at each writhing twitch. As it grew longer it expanded and was nearly three feet across when it reached the top of the first car. A round door opened. Unseen hands reached the end of the big hose and fastened it securely.
Odin had often dreamed of landing on the moon. There, in the traditional space-suit, with a plastic bubble about his head, he would leap twenty feet into the air, and maybe even turn a somersault as a gesture of man's escape from the tiring tyranny of gravity. Compared to this dream, his arrival upon the moon was just a bit ridiculous. He and over a score of others simply slid down the inside of the long, slanting hose like a group of third-graders practicing on the fire-escape at the school house.
* * * * *
Larger than the others, Odin landed awkwardly upon the floor of the car. Before he could jump aside, another passenger piled upon him. It was a girl, and the perfume in her hair was the same that Maya had always used. He helped her to her feet and drew her aside just as another voyager came sliding down. The girl was Nea. Somehow, he had an odd feeling that Maya was here. He was just a bit annoyed at Nea, and wished to himself that she wasn't making the trip. She shook her black curls and thanked him softly.
"How awkward of me," she explained. "It wouldn't have happened if I had not been carrying this—"
She held up a little round satchel. It was exactly like the cases that people used in his country for carrying bowling balls. Odin was puzzled. And he assured himself that he would never understand women. Why would the girl be carrying a bowling ball with her into outer space?
Odin joined Wolden, Ato, and Gunnar in the "engine" of the bumpy little train. Here were real windows of quartz, and he could see more of the moon's surface as the tractor and its jointed cars wheeled about in a great circle and headed off in the direction from whence it had come.
Once there was a loud Ping upon the roof above them. The tractor shook.
"A meteorite," the driver explained. "They're thick tonight. Don't worry. There's a screen upon the roof that slows them down and melts 'em. The larger ones never reach us. Some of the tiny ones get through."
They came to a sheer mountain which in the beams of the tractor looked like a silver pyramid painted across a jet-black canvas.
As though answering an unheard vibration, a door opened and they lumbered in. The door closed behind them. For a moment they were in such darkness that even the beam from the tractor seemed alien. Then another door started to open before them and a widening shaft of light was there to greet them.
Odin was thinking that each race must have some craft at which it excels all others. If so, then the building of air-locks was certainly the Brons' highest art.
Then they advanced into a cavern where five tiny atomic suns were strung out at equal distances upon the ceiling. The cavern was geometrical. Roughly, it was a mile long, half a mile wide, and half a mile high. The floor was smooth; the walls were sheer. "As though they had been shaped by human hand," Odin thought, but he soon learned that other hands had sheered those walls.
In the very middle of the cavern was a little lake, shaped in the same proportion as the floor. It was surrounded by green grass, and at one corner was a profusion of water-lilies and cat-tails. There were no trees, but flowers were everywhere. A few small bushes. Here and there were great clumps of vines. Odin guessed them to be wild cucumber and trumpet vines, for they had grown riotously.
It was beautiful indeed, but there were other things to catch the eye. At least a hundred hemispheres—little igloos of porcelain—were scattered about the floor of the cave. Each one was a different color. They shimmered and glittered. Scarlet, mauve, mother-of-pearl, the blue Capri, and the blue of cobalt. Pinks, yellows, oranges. Every possible shade had gone into those porcelain igloos. And the lighted walls of the cavern were covered from floor to ceiling with numberless figures, marching, fighting, working, playing. At first, Odin thought it was a vast procession of armored knights with huge chests and closed visors. But none of them stood completely erect—and each of them had two sets of arms.
Straining his eyes at the windows to look up, Odin learned that the vast ceiling was completely covered by similar figures.
In contrast to these was one huge tower of rough stone which Odin guessed to be new.
So they came to the moon, and disembarked. And at last Odin felt the lightened pull of the moon's gravity. He felt so free that he laughed and leaped into the air and turned a somersault just as he had dreamed of doing. Then one of the Brons' scientists gave him a heavy pair of shoes—as if to remind him that no man can be altogether free.
As he glumly strapped the heavy shoes to his feet, Jack thought of something his father had told him: "No man was ever really free, unless it was Robinson Crusoe. Then Friday showed up and became Crusoe's servant, and Crusoe's freedom flew away."
* * * * *
Forty-eight hours had passed since they came to the cavern. Odin and Gunnar had gone with Wolden to visit the Scientist who had led the first expedition to the moon. The Scientist, whose name was Gor, was explaining: "—They were hardly out of the Iron Age. That was how we found this place. Our instruments detected a surplus of iron in this area. They must have developed fast—for life did not last long. Insectival, beyond a doubt. Also, they had what we call The Moon Metal. Their houses, practically everything they used, are made of that. It must have been an accident. In cooling, the moon spewed this new alloy out upon its surface. Yes, it looks like porcelain—but it is as hard as steel. It has strange vibrations. They had musical instruments—although they may have produced tingling vibrations instead of sound. When these people saw that all was lost, they retreated here and closed the cave.
"For over a thousand years, theirs was an economy of death and rottenness. Mushrooms and toadstools were their food. Banks of rotting mushrooms made their light. Also, it appears they had some rocks which gave out a dim glow. Even their dead went to feed the mushrooms. And so they lived. With time on their hands they covered the walls with paintings. Also, we think they must have developed their music to a high degree—though we may never know about that. Then their water and air gave out and they died."