[Transcriber's Notes: This etext was produced from Amazing Stories April 1949. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
Misspellings have been corrected.]
VALLEY of the CROEN
By LEE TARBELL
There was a mysterious golden statue that always pointed one way—and it led to sudden death in the valley where flying disks landed.
They say cross-eyed men are bad luck. He stood there, in my doorway, eyeing me up and down with those in-focused black eyes.
His face was hideous even if the eyes had been normal. He was slashed with a wide cicatrice of livid scar tissue from one cheekbone across his nose and down to the button of his jaw on the other side.
He was big, and he looked like bad news to me. I inadvertently moved the door as if to close it, then he spoke:
"You Keele, the mining man?"
I nodded, wondering at the mild voice from the huge battered figure.
"Been looking for you. I've run across something I wouldn't tell just anyone. But I've heard of you, that you are on the level. Here in Korea, you're known already."
I still didn't step back and swing the door wide. But he had aroused my curiosity as well as my natural desire to acquire things. I had made two fortunes and lost both in mining ventures. My present not small income came from an emerald mine in the Andes. It had been a very dirty and very sick Indio who had led me to that emerald mine. You never know!
"I'm pretty busy, could you give me some idea...." I hedged. It doesn't do to seem too anxious or eager in any business deal. Too, the sight of his burly figure, even without the nightmare face, was not exactly reassuring. That bulge under the native quilted coat, I knew was nothing but a gun too big for even his bulges to conceal completely. But a man needed a gun, here. Especially if he had something valuable, such as the whereabouts of gold.
He grinned, and the white, even teeth, and the wrinkles around his eyes took away the sense of impending catastrophe brought by those crossed eyes. I stepped back then, and he walked in. I sat down at my desk. He sat down across from me, and fumbled in one pocket. He lay on the desk an object in wrappings of dirty rags. These he peeled off slowly, his eyes seeming to dart here and there, never looking where they should. As he peeled, he talked:
"I just landed off a ship from Fusan, up-coast. Y' ever been in Fusan?"
I shook my head, watching his fingers work at the knots of the strings around his mysterious object.
"Korea is a funny place. As long as people have been living here, you'd think it would be settled. But it isn't! There're immense forests, great mountains, where no man has gone, places no one enters. They're so dumb they don't even have compasses; they get lost! Think my compass is magic, wonder how I know where to go next, and not get lost. Superstitious, scared to go into the great, dark, damp forests. Scared of the mountains no one has ever climbed. That kind of country is a prospector's meat!"
I nodded. He had the wrappings off, and I leaned forward, a little breathless at the beauty of the thing in his hand. A curiously wrought little statuette about eight inches high, of gold. It was set with real emeralds, for eyes. About the neck and waist of the exquisite female figure were inset jewels, simulating girdle and necklace. A little golden woman goddess! It was very finely wrought, and what surprised me, it was not oriental, not any style of art I could place. Yet it was alien and ancient. I reached for it. He let me take it in my hands, and as I touched it, an electric tingle of surprise, a thrill of utter delight, ran up my arm, as if the image contained a strong little soul intent upon enslaving me with admiration.
"Potent little female, isn't she?"
His crossed eyes were on mine with that queer stare of the cross-eyed. I could make nothing of the facial expressions of this man. He would have been disturbing to play poker against. I would have said he was afraid of that little figure! Afraid, yet very much attached to it. I set it down and he wrapped it up again.
"Strange thing! Tell me about it."
"You know we split Korea with Russia, after the war. I thought I'd take a look around. I have done quite a bit of that. It wasn't hard. Up near the Russian line I found something."
He stopped, looked at me. Whether, he was trying to gauge my credulity or my depth, I don't know.
"You're young. You're not yet thirty, Keele; you've got time left to enjoy a fortune such as I'm letting you in on. And I saw such women among these unknown people as no man would believe. I spent a lot of time spying on them."
I figured he was lying about the women to get me to help him finance the trip. But just the same, the hint of unknown and unspoiled beauty of some hidden, weirdly alien tribe of people aroused my curiosity—the old lure of the Savage Princess from kid days, I guess. I hadn't had a real vacation in years—and what would I enjoy more than a jaunt through untouched forests? Toward what didn't matter as long as the hunting was good. And it sounded good!
"Unknown people, virgin forest, beautiful women and plenty of gold. Sounds too good to be true!"
He squinted at me, bared his fine teeth. He leaned forward, almost whispered trying to impress me:
"The people who made that statue are still there. It isn't ancient—they still make them!"
Now I knew he was lying, but still I was hooked. I had to know! For that statue was an infinite evidence of a refinement of art culture rare on earth! If such a race still remained untouched by white man's modern rot—I could pick up a fortune in art objects. I wasn't too dumb to know what they'd bring in New York. I nodded, and he went on.
"I found a cache of valuable gold, jewels, and other things. Things I can't understand. I could be better educated, Mr. Keele. That's why I've come to you. I want some help."
I leaned back. If he found gold, he should have the wherewithal to get in there and back without my help. So he was lying. I determined to find out why, and just what the lie was.
"Go ahead," was all I said. Give a liar enough rope and he'll trip himself.
But he didn't! He didn't ask for money! He only wanted me for advice, for the names of experienced men of the kind he needed, to help him go back there. Men willing to fight if needed. Or else he was too clever. At the end he had me. I was committed to supervising and accompanying that expedition. Or was it the wise emerald eyes of the little golden Goddess that trapped me? I didn't know, then.
Finally I got it out of him. He hadn't brought back the gold. He had to cross bandit territory, and he didn't have to tell me why he didn't carry his fortune with only his own rifle to guard it.
I picked two well-known men who were available just then. Hank Polter had led more than one hunting party through country I wouldn't have picked—and come out safe. He knew what a gun was for, and when to use it. And that's the most important part of handling a gun, knowing when you have to shoot, and then doing it first. The man that shoots before he has to is going to get you into more trouble than he can get you out of.
Lean and tough, he knew the ropes. Around thirty, just under six feet, not bad looking, he was making the most of Seoul's wide-open hot spots. Nearly broke, he jumped at our offer.
Seoul is the capital of Korea, in case you don't know. Everyone did pretty much as they pleased, for there were few restrictions from the so-recently installed government. There are a number of gold mines around Seoul, which was why I was there. Like the cross-eyed Jake Barto, I knew that something would turn up worth owning where governments have changed three times in as many years.
Frans Nolti, the other hunter we hired, was more of a fortune hunter, by appearance, than one who knew his way in the jungles of the world. Handsome in his Italian way, he was suave, apparently well educated, very quick in his movements. He gave the impression of extreme cleverness, of intellect held in reserve behind a facade of worldliness, of light clever talk.
Both of them knew their Orient, far better than I. Which was one reason I wanted them.
Barto had at first wanted a large party, at least a score of "white" men of the western school, able to fight and smart enough to know how. But I had talked him out of it.
"You see, Jake, with two like these, we can travel fast. If there's treachery, if they aren't satisfied with the cut we're offering, why it's two against two—you and I have an even chance. With a larger party, we might pick up some scoundrels who will try to murder us and make off with the treasure. Providing we get the treasure!"
Jake eyed me, in that maddeningly unreadable cross-eyed expression of cold ferocity which the scars gave his ugly face. We had agreed on one-third each, the other two to split the other third between them. I was footing the bills, Jake was nearly broke. He had found the stuff, and tried to hold out for half, me a quarter, the other two to split a quarter. I said nothing doing.
"No, Jake, this first trip, it's got to be this way. If it's like you say it is, there'll be more. What we can carry won't be all the value. There'll be more to be gotten out of that ruin than the stuff you found. You'll have the money to do it, after this, and it's your find. We'll be out, after this one trip."
We sailed up the east coast of Korea from Fusan to the village of Leshin. By native cart from there to the ancient half-ruined city of Musan. That's close to the Manchurian border. There we hired eight diminutive Korean ponies and four men to "go along" as Barto put it, for they didn't want to go, and didn't appear like men of much use for anything but guides. And Barto knew the way. But I didn't want to be wandering around without any native interpreters, without contact of any kind possible with the people we might encounter. None of them had been more than a few miles into the wilderness. They were sad looking men when we started northward. But Koreans manage to look pretty sad much of the time. With their history, that's easy to understand.
Something about the burly, ugly Barto's behavior began to worry me. He didn't know where he was going. He had told a lie, but just what the lie was I couldn't figure out. I watched him covertly. Whenever we came to the end of a march, instead of sighting his landmarks, making sure of his bearings—he would go off by himself. Next day, he would know exactly where he wanted to go—but sometimes the "way" would be across an impassable gorge, a rapids, or straight into a cliff.
One night, the fourth day and well into the wilderness, we were moving up a broad valley through a forest of larch. I sighted a deer, and called a halt while I stalked it. I got it, and came back ahead of the rest, who were cutting up the deer. I moved quietly in the woods—it's a good habit. I came upon Barto, and he was oblivious of me. He had the little golden girl in his hands, talking to it.
"Now, tell me the way, girl, tell me the way." Then he held the girl loosely in his hand, as I watched, it gave me an eerie feeling to see the little figure turn, its outstretched hand pointing northward like a compass. Was Jake Barto a madman? Or did the little figure act as a compass? If so, why did Barto have to rely on the pointing figure's hand for directions? If he didn't get that figure from the place we were heading, where did he get it? How did he know there was anything of value in the place we were headed for?
These questions tormented me, for I could not ask them without revealing to Jake that I knew he was lying. And that meant a showdown. I might have to kill him. Still, I had to get the truth out of him, or let a madman lead us on and on into an untracked wilderness, if that is what he was.
For several days we did not see a sign of life, after that deer.
The forest became denser at every mile, with more and more swamps and surface water. Time after time our ponies mired and had to be lifted out of the mud. Lush ferns and rank grass made walking dangerous. The trees were interlaced with draping festoons of gray "Spanish moss," forming a canopy overhead which let through only a gloomy half-light. No sounds broke the stillness except the half-awed calls of the men. No birds, not even a squirrel. Then it began to rain.
That drizzle continued for a week! The men became frightened at the gloomy stillness and exhausted by the strenuous work of keeping the ponies moving.
Then in the night my four Koreans deserted. They didn't take any ponies, just what grub they could pack. We all felt better off without them, but I often wonder if they ever found their way out of that morass.
The next day there came a break. We sighted a majestic mountain about two days' march ahead. It looked like a gloomy cloud that had settled to earth for a moment's rest. But no cloud ever managed to look so rocky, so windswept, or so welcome. And no patch of blue sky ever looked so good as that sky above the mountain, swept clean of the rain curtain by the updraft.
Jake seemed to recognize that mountain, gave an audible sigh of relief when we sighted it. My suspicions quieted.
We went hunting that day. It was the first dry camp in a long time, the first signs of game; we needed a rest. As usual, Barto stayed at camp to guard the ponies and camp equipment.
We were on the trail of a bear when we saw a strange object in the sky. It looked like a doughnut or a saucer, and it settled to the earth on the far side of the great white mountain at whose foot we had made camp. It seemed only an hour's walk to a point where we could overlook the landing place of the strange object, and Hank and Frans pushed ahead, curious and a little frightened. I had read in the American newspapers the accounts of "disk ships" and knew they would not be able to get close to it, and I wanted to watch Hank. I let them get out of sight, then turned back to camp. Quietly, I was nearing our camp, when the scream of a woman in pain came to me!
It was the answer to all my apprehensions about the ugly Barto, a sudden materialization of the vague distrust I had felt all along! I broke into a run, crashing through the young, white birches and larches, to the clearing.
A chuckle reached me, a gloating heavy laugh of triumph.
Barto had the girl prone, one arm bent near to breaking, her knees caught beneath his weight. I caught him by the shoulders, heaved backward, sent him sprawling across the young grass. He sat up, glared for an instant, then went for his gun. Before it came out of the holster, my foot caught him beside the jaw. He was too big for any other method I might have chosen to be effective. The kick stretched him unconscious; my heel had struck the button.
I turned, to see the girl disappearing among the brush. She had darted away instantly she was free. That she would bring her people down on us I had no doubt. I did doubt their ability to hurt us. Unless she belonged to a band of Manchurian bandits hanging out here in the wilderness, they would not have arms. In the case she was of the bandits, we might be wiped out in our sleep.
I bent over Jake, hoping I had not broken his neck. He looked as though he would be out for some time. I picked up his heavy .45, shoved it in my belt. I wished Hank and Frans would return soon. The four of us might be able to handle her people.
I turned—and she stood there, looking at me!
* * *
That such as she existed among the usually ugly Koreans and Manchurians was impossible! I gasped a little in unbelief. Her clothing was like nothing on this earth.
Soft green leather was clasped low on her hips with a narrow gold band, set with jewels. It was a skirt, I suppose, but it hung with a diagonal hem-line running from hip to knee, it was beaded in an intricate pattern, not Oriental, somehow reminding me of American Indian bead work.
On her feet leather sandals, laced like the ancient Greek sandal nearly to the knee. In her hand a bow of horn, small and powerful. Around her shoulders a short leather cape similarly beaded and fringed. Around her brows a jeweled circlet set like a diadem, and it crowned a young queen, proud and knowing very well her beauty and its power.
Her features were neither Caucasian nor Oriental, certainly not the heavy-boned native stock. I couldn't pin them down to any race. Her nose was straight, the nostrils neither wide nor narrow, but strong and firm. Her eyes were too wide-set and heavy-lidded to be Aryan, but they were not tilted; they were level. Her hair was not black, but chestnut and curled or naturally very wavy. Her glance was tawny and aflame with anger and excitement, furious upon the prostrate Barto. They were very light-colored eyes, and they caught the sun in a blaze that made them seem yellow.
Striking, she was a figure not of any ordinary kind. Her every aspect told that she came of a culture unknown to me. She was evidently not ignorant, but of a different way of life.
Looking into her eyes, appraising her interest in myself that had brought her back, drinking in the immense appeal of her strangeness and her evident gentility—the evidences of a past of cultivated living as strange as her attire—I forgot the unconscious man at my feet.
Her skin was whiter than my own! Her arms were bruised purple where Barto had clutched her. Then she spoke, in halting Korean:
"Is he dead?"
"No," I answered.
"Then he will live to meet a far worse fate! I know why you are here, stranger, and I warn you! You are on a fool's errand! The Golden Goddess is death for such as you!"
I was bewildered.
"What Golden Goddess?"
"The Golden Goddess whose symbol led him here. He does not know what it is. He stole it by murdering one of our own messengers for it. He did not know at all; he only heard the tales that some relate about her. They are false tales."
"Did he tell you how he got it?"
"He was boasting to me, trying to get me to tell what I knew about her dwelling-place. I would not, that is why he hurt me."
"Why did you come back, whatever-your-name?"
"My name is Nokomee, and I came back to tell you something you need to know. Leave these others, and you will live! Stay with them, you will be slain with them. We do not allow such as he to come among us, golden girl or no."
"I cannot leave my comrades because of danger. What kind of man do you think me?"
"I do not care! I can only tell you. This is a secret place, where we remain hidden from the men of earth. I know what happens to those who stray upon our secrets! Go, and think no more to pry into treasure tales of this mountain land. It is not for such as you. Go, before it is too late. I cannot hold back the death from you."
I laughed. I thought of the Koreans who had deserted, of their talk about the fires at night, of demons and haunted mountains ahead.
"We came a long way on the track of Barto's tale of treasure from which he brought the golden girl. It will take more than words to frighten us away."
"Do not laugh! I try to save you from something even worse than death that can come to you. I want to return to you the favor that you did me. If you do not listen to me, how can I help you?" Her voice took on a plaintive, charming note; she smiled a half-smile of complete witchery.
A high, keening cry came suddenly from the slopes above us, and she raised on her toes as if to spring away.
"They come, my friends! I must leave you. I can only tell you to stay close by your fire at night. I cannot say what fate will strike you. I cannot help you. Go back, friend who would live, go back!"
She turned and sprang lightly up the slope toward the sound of the cry, half human, half beast-like, that she had called "her friends." It had sounded to me like the cry of a wolf, or a cat-man, anything but human. But people can make odd sounds, and imitate beasts. Still it had been an eerie sound that gave me a foreboding, added to her warning words. What kind of people were these, who wore leather and jewels and used bows that might have come off an Assyrian wall painting?
Came a tumult above, the high clear blast of some horn, a dozen eerie cries hardly human—a rush and a pounding in the earth as though a party had ridden off on heavy, full-size horses. No Manchurian pony ever made such a sound on soft ground!
Polter and Noldi came back about an hour later. I had dragged the big Barto into a tent and made him comfortable. He was snoring peacefully. Polter squatted down beside me, folding his long form like a jackknife.
"That thing was a ship, Keele," he said. There was a husky excitement, repressed but still obvious about him. I grunted.
"It landed among some big timber on the south end of the mountain. We got pretty close, enough to see the sides of the thing. Men busy around it, we couldn't get too close, afraid they'd see us."
I started, a pulse of unreasoning fear, of terrific interest, ran through me. I asked in a voice I couldn't keep calm, "What kind of men, Hank? I saw reports of such ships in the papers, no one got close enough to see that much. Newspapers called them illusions!"
"They're not our kind of men; they are something very different. I don't know just how to tell you, besides I couldn't be sure. But they seem to be a people—" He stopped. "I'd rather you'd see it yourself. You wouldn't believe me."
Noldi came out of the tent where Barto was still snoring. He came over and squatted across the fire, eyeing me strangely.
"What happened to the big jerk, Carl?" he asked, a little tremor of anger in his voice.
"I've got to tell you fellows we're in trouble," I began. I did not believe that the girl's people would ignore Jake's attack upon her.
Hank looked at the slender man from New York's East Side. "What's the matter with Barto?"
"S'got a bruise on his jaw the size of a goose-egg. Like a mule kicked him. Scratched up quite a bit. I just wondered. He's unconscious, too; I couldn't wake him up."
"We may be in for it," I went on. "When I got back to camp, Hank had a girl. He'd thrown her down, was struggling with her. I had to put him asleep to stop it. Didn't want trouble with her people."
Noldi glanced at the torn place in the soft sod where the scuffle had taken place. I had unconsciously nodded toward it. He got up, walked over, picked something out of the grass.
"Some girl, wearing this kind of stuff!"
He handed the glittering bauble to Polter. It was a necklace of emeralds, with a pendant of gold in which was set a big blue stone that I couldn't recognize, maybe a diamond, maybe something else. It looked almighty valuable, each stone was as big as a man's thumbnail. It had snapped, lain there unnoticed by either of us.
Noldi looked at me a little venomously.
"Looks as if you were a little premature, letting her go. We should have found out where she gets this kind of sparkle first!"
"Seemed the safest thing to do. We are only four, how could we handle her friends?"
"Bah, they wouldn't have known where she was. We could have kept her till we were good and ready to let her go."
I stood up, took out my pipe and filled it.
"What about this ship you saw, and the people around it. That's important, not this girl and her jewelry."
"We couldn't see much except that it was a ship and that it landed in the trees where it couldn't be seen from the sky. It's pretty big, and there are men moving around it. That's all."
"That's plenty! If we run into them, there is no knowing what they'll do. That ship was never built on this planet."
Noldi didn't smile or laugh. He just looked at me. Serious, puzzled, and a little scared.
"You think it's a space ship, eh, Keele?"
"What else could it be?"
"What's it doin' out here in no man's land?" Polter asked. "You'd think strangers like that would land near a city, try to make some kind of official contact."
"If you were landing on a strange world, would you land near a city?" I asked.
"I guess you hit it. They don't know whether they'd be welcome or not. Scared, eh?"
"Just careful, I'd say. We don't know anything about them. But ships like that have been reported off and on for hundreds of years. Don't be surprised if you never see a trace of it again, and if no one else but me ever believes you when you mention it. I don't think we'll have to worry about the flying saucer."
"What the hell do they want, then?" Noldi didn't know what I meant, exactly.
"Nobody knows, Frans. Nobody ever saw them as close as you just did today."
* * *
Watching Jake Barto next morning, I saw that the little image in his hand pointed right across the center of that cloud-topping mountain. That meant we had to go around it, for we were not equipped for such climbing, nor would there have been any sense in it. Jake figured on circling to the left, and I was glad, for I for one wanted no parts of that disk ship that Polter and Noldi had seen in the other direction. Jake ignored me. He was unpredictable!
It was a long mountain, and we traveled along one side, toward the north, figuring on crossing to the east wherever a pass appeared. After a time a faint trail showed, and we followed it. It drew us higher, until we were moving perilously along a ledge of rock, with precipitous walls above and a sharp drop below. Higher and higher, above the tree-line now, the path went on, and there were signs of travel along it that worried me.
Polter was in the lead, and as we rounded a shoulder of rock, gave a cry of wonder. We hurried after, to see the trail breaking over a low crest of the mountain, and leading now downward. This shoulder of rock outthrust here marked the place where the trail we were following crossed the ridge of the mountain crest at its lowest point. But it also marked something else, which was what had caused Polter's cry.
A line of dust across the trail and along the near-bare rocks stirred and lifted and fell fitfully, as if the air was barred passage by some invisible wall, and there were the skeletons of birds that had flung themselves against the invisible wall and died, falling there. There was the skeleton of a goat half across the trail; and at one side, what had once been a man! All these dead—and the bones could be seen here and there along the far line of the dust—had gone so far and no farther. Polter had stopped fearfully ten feet from the clearly marked line—and I for one had no desire to add my skeleton to the others.
For a few minutes none of us had anything to say, then reason reasserted itself, and I pressed past Polter, knowing that the thing was an illusion born of coincidence and wind currents. Some baffling current of wind around the mountain formed here a wall of air cleavage, and the skeletons were merely coincidence. I pushed up to the strange line of lifting and falling dust, a little roll showing the magic of invisible force, and pressed on, as if to cross.
Behind me a cry gave me pause. I turned, looking for that cry's source, for it seemed to me the cry was the girl I had rescued from Barto. That saved me, for the little horse behind me pressed on across the strange line—and faltered, gave a horse-scream of terror, fell dead before me.
We stopped, terror of the unknown in our breasts, wondering—afraid to put the wonder into words. We did not look at each other or discuss the thing, we just accepted it, and stared dumbly at it like animals. I tossed a rock across the body of the now quite motionless pack animal, the rock reached the wall beneath which my animal lay dead—slowed, curved sharply to the ground, did not roll, but lay as if imprisoned in invisible jelly!
There was a wall of invisible and deadly force there, and there was no known explanation for it!
I growled at Barto, all the suspicion and distrust that had been building up in me toward him in my voice.
"What does your golden girl tell you now, Jake?"
Jake surprised me. He walked ahead toward that frightening manifestation of the unknown, holding the little statuette before him like a sword, his ugly face rapt in some listening beyond me. As the little statue crossed the line, he sang out:
"Listen, Goddess of the Golden forces, listen and heed! We come from afar to pay our worship, to give to you our devotion, and we are met with this wall of death! Is that the way you greet your friends?"
Jake waved the statuette in a circular motion, then crossed the circle twice with the waving gold. He stood there, his crossed eyes darting here and there along the line of force, and after a long minute, after a time that seemed filled with a distant chuckling, like thunder too far off to be heard clearly—the lift and fall of the dust on the baffled wind stopped, the strict line of the wind's stoppage began to disappear, the line of demarcation was gone!
Jake reached out an arm, feeling cautiously for the invisible wall, and after a minute, his face lightened from its habitual gloom, he stepped across the line, and did not stagger and fall as had the horse. The wall was gone! Jake turned, said calmly:
"Come on, our friends have decided to let us in."
My mind in a whirl at the unexpected display of knowledge beyond me, of forces beyond the power of any rifle bullet to overcome, of strange hidden things here—I stepped across the line, keeping close to the tracks left by Jake's big feet. Polter and Noldi followed and the horses plodded after. We trudged on, but not the same. We were afraid, and we were conscious of a vast ignorance, of a fear that we did not belong here, that the only wise thing for us to do was to turn back and give up this Jake Barto and his cross eyes and his mumbo jumbo statue to his own doom.
At least that's the way I felt, but something stronger than curiosity drew me on. I wanted to know why I was so drawn when reason kept demanding I give up this quest. I wanted to know why a golden statue pointed always to one point on the horizon, and why that wall of force had obeyed Jake's injunction to go away. Or was I unable to think, really? Was I shocked out of my ability to reason and act on my reason's dictates?
Ahead, as the trail dipped low, a vast panorama of valley and hill and hollow, of eerie rocky spires, lay outspread. Here and there were cultivated fields, and figures at work on the fields. In the distance shone a stream. It flowed meandering into a wide lake. There were two villages, not clear in the haze. At the distant lake, some kind of larger structure lifted tall towers, shining with prismatic glitter, a city of strange appearance.
We had crossed a barrier, and we had entered a land of the living—but it was unclear before us. The drifting mountain mists, the sun-glitter and the haze of noon kept the scene from striking through to our brains with its true significance. For there was an eerie difference about the scene; it was not a land below us such as any of us had ever seen. I felt that and yet I could not think clearly about it. We moved along like zombies, not thinking—just accepting the unusual and the unknown as casually as if we were travelers who could not be astounded. But inside, my mind was busily turning the significance and the meaning of this wall of force. I had heard of such walls before—upon Shasta in California, and in Tibet, and in ancient times in Ireland, and there were other instances of a similar wall in the past, and in the present in other places. But what it could really mean, that was what I did not know.
After crossing that invisible barrier, things began to happen in a sequence, of a strangeness and with a rapidity such that I was unable to analyze or to rationalize. From there on I was like a man on a tightrope, hounded by invisible tormentors trying to shake me off. I had not time to wonder whether it was true that spirits existed. What I did think was that some of these Korean primitives had a Devil Doctor who surpassed all others in trickiness, and was amusing himself at our expense. But I did not think it, I clung to the idea to save my reason from tottering over the brink.
The first thing after the wall that could not exist but did—after we had passed on over the ridge and half way down the mountain side—was a gully along the mountain side, up which Barto turned. I assumed he was still following the pointing of the magnetic statuette, but I was vaguely conscious that none of us were really conscious—were under a kind of spell in which our actions and our thoughts were predetermined—inevitable! I knew it, but I could not shake it off, nor put my finger on any reason why I should shake it off and call a halt to the strange, wordless, silent following of Jake and his eerie talisman.
The faint trail led along the bottom of the gully, and after twenty minutes of downward progress, led into a dark overhang of rock, the sky hardly visible where the rocks almost met overhead. Down the semi-cavern we went; still silent, zombie-like; and I felt ever more strongly the compulsion that made us so move and so unable to do otherwise.
Jake was striding rapidly now, his dark ugly face aflame with weird eagerness, my own heart pounding with alarm at the strangeness and the irrationality of the whole proceeding. He held the statuette out stiffly, it seemed fairly to leap in his hands, as if tugging with an ecstatic longing to reach the dark place ahead. The rocks closed completely overhead; the dimness changed to stygian darkness. I got out my flashlight, sent the beam ahead. But Jake was pressing on through the darkness, directly in the center of the trail.
Quite suddenly the cavern turned, opened ahead, wider and wider—and before us lay a room of jeweled splendor, the temple of some forgotten—or was it forgotten?—cult of worship.
The golden statue in the center of the big round chamber drew our eyes from the splendor of the peculiarly decorated walls, from the strange crystal pillar on the tall dais at the far wall, from the weird assemblages of crystals and metals that had an eerie resemblance to machines—to a science entirely unknown to modern men. All these details of that chamber I remember now, looking back, but then—my attention and that of the others was entirely drawn to the beauty of the tall, golden woman who stood in frozen metallic wonder at the center of the forgotten crypt.
Jake, his ugly face in a transport, had fallen to his knees, was crawling forward to the statue abjectly, mouthing phrases of worship and self-abnegation. Close on his heels came Polter and Noldi, eyes rapt, movements mechanical. I stopped, some last remnant of sense remaining in my head, and by a strong effort of will held my limbs motionless.
As Jake reached the statue, the little golden replica of the life-sized woman of gold seemed to leap out of his reaching hands, and clung against the metallic waist of the golden woman as a lodestone to the mother lode.
Even as Barto's hands touched the statue, he slumped, lay there outstretched, his fingertips touching the metal hem of the golden skirt; and whether he was unconscious from unsupportable ecstasy or for what mad reason, I did not know, but I did not want to know.
Undeterred by Jake's condition, the two men following in his steps also reached out hands to touch the golden metal—and fell flat on their faces beside Jake Barto, unconscious, or dead!
I stood, numb and with a terrific compulsion running through my nerves, which I resisted with all my will. I drew my eyes from the strangely pleasant magnetic lure of the metal woman with an effort and examined that strange chamber.
The walls were covered with a crystalline glittering substance, like molten glass sprayed on and allowed to harden. Behind this glasseous protective surface, paintings and carvings spread a fantasy of strange form and color, but the light was too dim to make much of it, except that it was alien to my experience, and exceedingly well done, speaking of a culture second to none.
Beyond the central form of the strange golden statue, was the dais which I had noticed at once, and now my eyes picked out the fact that on it was also a glasseous protective sheath about a form—another statue, I thought.
Thoughtfully I prowled along the rim of the room, examining the wall frescoes foot by foot, seeing on them a strange depiction of semi-human forms, of crab-men and crab-women, of snake-men and snake-women, of men half-goat and half-man, of creatures hardly human with great jaws that looked like rock-cutters, with hands like moles on short powerful arms, fish people with finned legs and arms, their hands engaged in catching great fish and placing them in nets, a nightmare of weird half-human shapes that gradually brought to me a message that I could not accept.
If that rock painting was telling a true story and not some allegorical fantasy—these people who had built this place had been a race who knew the secrets of life so intimately they could manipulate the unborn child into shapes intended to give it powers and physical attributes fitting it for amphibious life, for the underground boring life of a mole, for the tending of flocks in the goat-legged men—the whole gamut of these monstrous diversions from the normal human seemed to me designed—purposely—to build a race which, like ants, has a shape fitted to its trade.
I threw off the illusion of a deformed past race the wall art gave me, and passed on to examine the crystalline pillar on the dais. I stood a long time, before the dais, drinking in the beauty of the form locked within the prisoning glass.
No human, no earth woman—she was different from anything I had ever even imagined.
Female, vaguely human in form she was, with an unearthly beauty; but four-armed, with a forehead that went up and up and ended in a single tall horn, as on the fabled unicorn.
Her eyes were closed, if she had eyes beneath the heavy purple-veined lids, so like the petals of some night-flower, pungent with perfume.
Naked the figure was, except for a belt of what looked iron chain around the waist, black and corroded with time, holding her with a great bolt and link to the side of that crystalline prison.
Her hair, black as night, was pressed tight to the skull by the pressure of the crystal, which must have been poured about her in a molten or liquid state.
As I stood there agaze at the strangeness and wonder of her, a voice at my shoulder made me whirl in surprise. A soft, silky familiar voice:
"Do you find the dead Goddess so fascinating, stranger from the world of men?"
It was the girl of the forest, no longer in hunting garb, but dressed in Turkish trousers, vest and slippers with upturned toes. Jewels glittered about her waist and neck and arms, her wrists jangled with heavy bangles, in her ears two great pendants swayed—her eyelids were darkened and her lips reddened. She was a ravishing houri of the harem, and I gasped a little at the change.
"Have you put on such clothes for my benefit?" I asked, for I really thought perhaps she had.
She frowned and stamped her foot in sudden anger.
"I come here to save you from what has happened to your friends, and you insult me. Don't you want to live? Do you want to become what they are going to become?" She pointed to the bodies of Jake and Noldi and Polter.
I turned where she pointed, to see a thing that very nearly made me scream out in revulsion.
I shuddered, shrank back; for several creatures were bending over the three, lifting them, bearing them away.
It was the strange, revolting difference from men in them that caused my fear. Once they may have been men, their far-off ancestors, perhaps—or in some other more recent way their bodies had been transformed, made over into creatures not human, not beast, not ghoul. What they were was not thinkable or acceptable by me. I turned my face away, shuddering.
They were men such as the wall-paintings pictured, something that had been made from the main stock of mankind, changed unthinkably into a creature who bore his tools of his trade in his own bone and flesh. Mole-men, men with short heavy arms and wide-clawed hands, made for digging through hard earth. They bore my friends away on their hairy-naked shoulders, and I stood too shocked to say a word. Three mole-men, accompanied by three tall, pale-white figures, figures inexpressibly alien—even through the heavy white robes—that moved with an odd hopping step that no human limb could manage, turned their paper-white, long, expressionless faces toward me for an instant, then were gone, on the trail of the mole-man. Beneath those robes must have been a body as attenuated as a skeleton, as different as an insect's from man's. Within those odd egg-shaped heads must have been a mind as alien to mine as an ant's mind.
"Why do your people take my companions?" I managed, when I had regained my composure.
"They are not my people; they are of the enemies of the Dead Goddess." The girl gestured to the figure in the crystal pillar. "My people have no time for them, but neither have we power over them. They go their way, and we go ours. Once, long ago, it was different, but time has made us a people divided."
"What will become of the three men?"
"They will become workmen of one kind or another. Everyone works, in their life-way. But it is not our way! They guard our land from such intruders; we let them. It is an ancient pact we have with them."
"Why did they not seize me, I am an intruder as much as the others?"
"Because I signed to them to let you stay. You did not see, whatever-your-name-is...."
"Call me Carlin Keele, Carl for short. What is your name, and what is your race, and why are you so different from people as I know them?"
"My name is Nokomee, as I told you before. You are still confused from the magic that led you here. I have saved you once, and now we are even; my debt to you is paid. You will never see your friends again, and if you do, you will be sorry that you saw them, for they will have become beasts of burden. Now go, before it is too late. This is not your kind of country."
Something in her eyes, something in the sharp peremptory tone she used, told me the truth.
"You don't really want me to go, Nokomee. I don't want to go. Many things make me want to stay—your beauty is not the least attraction. I could learn so much that my people do not know, that yours seem to know."
"I would not want my beauty to lead you to your death." Nokomee did not smile, she only looked at me, and I saw there a deep loneliness, a tender need for companionship and sympathy that had never been filled in her life. She looked at me, and her lower lip trembled a little, her eyes suddenly averted from mine.
"Nokomee, there is so much we would have to tell each other, you of your life, and I of the great country of which you have never heard. Would you not like to see the great cities of my country?"
She shook her head, turned on me with sudden fierce words:
"When you came and struck down that hideous cross-eyed man, my heart went out to you in gratitude. Go, while my heart remains soft, it is not so often that the heart of a Zerv is soft toward any outlander. Go, I cannot protect you from this place."
"I will stay," I said.
"Stubborn fool!" She stamped her foot prettily, imperiously, vexed at my refusal to go out of that weird place the way I had entered. "Stay then, but do not expect me to keep off the slaves of the Goddess. This place can be most evil to those who do not know what it is, nor why it is secret."
She turned, walked behind the great dais of the crystal sarcophagus, and I followed just in time to see her disappear behind a hanging curtain of leather. I hastened after, my hand on my gun, for I had no wish to be left alone where I had seen my three companions stricken down with no enemy in sight.
Behind the curtain a passage led, along the passage were several doors. She sped past these lightly, almost running. I followed, she must have heard me, but she did not look back. The doors along the passage were curtained. Through the gaps of the curtain I could see they were empty of life. The curtains were rotted as if long unused, dirty and blotched with mould staining the leather.
Though she had spoken to me in Korean, and I had answered in the same tongue, I knew she was no native, for she spoke it differently, perhaps no better than myself. I was no judge; what she used may have been a dialect different from that I had heard previously.
I followed as she emerged from the long tunnel into the blaze of sunlight. She stood for a moment letting her eyes adjust to the glare. I stumbled to her side, half-blinded, stood looking down at the scene which seemed to engross her.
Gradually it came clear, like a television screen coming into perfect tune—the immense inner valley that the mountain of cloud-like snow enclosed. In the center of the encircled valley a lake shimmered blue as the sky, and about that lake was a city.
My eyes refused, at first, to accept what they were seeing. My mind rebelled, but after a minute of staring and making sure—I gasped.
Alien to this earth it was, but beautiful! Towers, and round-based dwellings braced together in one single unit of structural strength, a designed whole such as our architects dream of and never achieve. Walled with white marble, the city was a fortress, but a lovely fortress. Yet there was a coldness, an angularity, that told me these Zervs, as Nokomee had called her race, lacked true sympathy for life forms, lacked emotion as we know it in art. Yet it was beautiful, if repellent because so alien, so pure in design, so lacking in the sympathetic understanding of man's nature. This was a city no earthman could ever call home. It lacked something. There were no dogs, no strolling women or running children, it lay silent and waiting—for what?
Nokomee waved a hand.
"Titanis, our first earth colony. But it is no longer ours. The Schrees have taken it from us. That is why it is silent."
I did not understand. There were plodding lines of people, disciplined, carrying burdens, no bigger than ants at this distance. There was an ominous horror about the quiet beauty of the place. It was somehow like a beautiful woman lying just slain. Yet I could see no wounds of war, no reason for the feeling that I had, like the sudden shrinking one might have at sight of the stump of a man's arm just amputated.
I looked into Nokomee's face, and there were tears in her eyes. My heart sank. I felt a vast sympathy for her sorrow, though I could not understand.
"We planned so much with our new freedom here in your wilderness. Then came the raiders, to freeze our Queen in her sleep, to drive us into your forests, to make of us that remained mindless slaves and maimed horrors. I cannot bear it, stranger. I cannot...."
She turned and wept, her head on my chest. I patted her head, feeling entirely incompetent to console her for what injuries I could not imagine.
"What raiders, Nokomee? Tell me. Perhaps there is a way I can help. Who knows?"
"We are so few now, who were so many and so strong—and every day fewer. There is no hope. Do not try to wake it in me. It would be madness."
"Tell me. Perhaps that alone would help you."
"How can I tell you the long history of my home world, the immortal wisdom of our Queen, the strange science her immortal family gave her, of how we fought to protect her from our own tyrants and at last fled into space with her? How can I tell you of what she is? How could you understand the ages of struggle on our own world that reduced her kind to but a dozen, and left our kind, the mortals, at the mercy of the Schrees? You ask, but it is impossible for you to believe things you do not know about."
"Perhaps if I told you of my people and their life, you would understand that I could understand what you think is impossible for me. I am not ignorant as the others of earth people you have met. And my nation is numerous, the greatest of this earth."
"Our ways are too strange to you. But I will try. You need not try to tell me of your people; we examined your earth carefully before we chose this valley for our retreat. Here we built and raised the force wall to keep out inquiring interlopers like yourself who might bring the powers of your nation in ignorant war against us. But from our home world the Schrees were sent on our trail, and they found us. They were too many. Our only hope was in safe hiding, and they found us out. We did not know they could find us, or we would never have built. We thought pursuit had long been abandoned, but they are driven by single-minded hate, not by logic. It has been a lifetime of wandering they have followed us. It has been all my lifetime, making this home here, thinking ourselves safe—and then they came and destroyed all our work."
As she talked, she had quieted. We had resumed walking along the ledge of the mountainside. Suddenly from ahead a man leaped out, his strange weapon trained on my breast. I stood, not daring to move, while Nokomee shouted a string of shrill alien syllables at him. He thrust the weapon back in his belt, and fell in behind us as we passed. I could not help staring at him, and at the thing he had pointed at me.
It was a tapering tube about a foot long, triggered on the thumb side with a projecting stud, with a hand-grip shaped with finger grooves. I knew it was a weapon with a long history of development behind it by the simplicity of the lines, the entire efficiency of its appearance. The small end was a half-inch, perhaps, in bore, the big end perhaps three inches or less. He handled it as though it weighed but a trifle. I did not ask what it was.
The man himself was no taller than Nokomee, though much more solidly built, with thick, slightly bowed legs and heavy black brows on bulging bone structure, his eyes deep-set beneath. His ears, like Nokomee's, were high and too small to be natural. His teeth were larger than normal on earth, and the incisors smaller and more pointed, the canines heavier and longer. There was a point to his chin, heavy-angled and thick-boned as it was, it was not an earthman's chin. His neck was long, more supple and active, he kept moving his head in an unnatural watchfulness like a wild animal's. I wondered what other differences, small in themselves, but adding up to complete strangeness of aspect, I would find in time.
"That is Holaf," murmured Nokomee in Korean to me. "He is a chief among us now, since the fall of our strength. He is good, but young and always too impetuous. He needs long experience, and it looks as if he would get it, now."
"You have more than one leader?" I asked.
"We have three chiefs left to us, who rule their families—their clans. We have but one real leader. He is an old wise man left us by good fortune. He is our lone scientist. The chiefs of the clans listen to the leader, but they argue. Things look bad for us all."
"You are too few to reconquer the city?"
"Too few, yes. And time plays against us, for with the coming of the ships from our home planet—that I should call that tyrant's nest home!—there will be even more of the Schrees, then. We are a lost people now. There is no hope, eventually we will be hunted down as you earthmen will be hunted down, like animals. Made into slaves—and worse than slaves. You will learn what I mean when next you see your three friends."
It was too much for me. I asked:
"Why don't you leave this place, and go on to another?"
"On your little world? It is not big enough to hide ourselves from them. And we have lost our ships, we cannot get others."
"You think that they mean to conquer our whole planet?"
"In time they will do so. Not yet, but when they are many, they will spread, slaughter all who fight them, and enslave all who do not. They are very terrible creatures, not men at all, you know."
"Not like you and I?"
"Not at all. You will see, soon. Hurry, it is late, and we have council to attend."
There was a deep passion in her words, quick and sharp and strange on her lips as they were, a passion of anger and hopeless effort that somehow roused me into desire to help her and these strange people of hers. Too, if what she said was true, these raiders who had despoiled her people would in time engulf the world with a war of conquest, even if they were less able to defeat us than she estimated. I resolved to make the most of this opportunity to learn the worst of this hidden threat to men everywhere. I felt a kinship with Nokomee and her friend, silent and alert beside me, and I realized it could well be that I had in my hands the future of mankind, and that it behooved me not to let it fall through carelessness.
Lapsed now into silence, we reached the end of the trail along the ledge. We came out upon a broad shelf, with several cave mouths opening along its cliff-side. Gathered here in the twilight were some two-score men and women, bearing weapons; some the short powerful bow I had seen in Nokomee's hands; others weapons like Holaf's tapered tube; still others bearing small, round metal shields embossed with weird designs that meant nothing to me. Squatted here, without fire, they fell silent at our approach, eyeing me with curiosity and the beginnings of anger at my intrusion. Nokomee began to talk swiftly in that rattling, high-pitched tongue of theirs. I squatted down on my heels, took out my pipe, lit it. At the flare of my match Holaf struck it from my hand. I realized it had been a blunder, even a spark might attract attention to their presence on the hillside. Still, the incident told me Nokomee had not been lying to me.
Holaf pointed at the city far below, now glowing here and there with lights, and at the match on the ground. Then he motioned to a cave mouth, and I followed him. Inside there was a fire burning, furs strewn about the floor, metal urns and even mirrors hung on the rough stone walls. I sat on a rude wooden bench of newly-hewed wood, lit my pipe again without interference. But I was sorry to miss that conference outside in the open air. I wanted to hear, even if I could not understand. Holaf still remained by my side, and his hand did not leave the oddly-carved butt of the tapered tube-gun.
I sat there, feeling very much alone, with Holaf watching me somberly, the only light a flickering amber from the fire. I started to my feet as a musically pitched, almost singing voice questioned Holaf in their tongue. I looked about for the source, then saw her moving toward me in the half-light, and I stepped back in a kind of awe and embarrassment, for this was new.
She was as tall as myself, shaped with slender Amazonian strength, but curved and soft and subtly aware of her feminine allure, strongly interested and pleased at the awe and pleasure in my face. Her, rounded, fully adult body was sketched over with a web of silkily gleaming black net, light and unsubstantial as a dream, clinging and wholly revealing. Her eyes were dark-lidded and wide-set, her brow high and proud, and about her neck hung a web of emeralds set in a golden mesh of yielding links.
She came on, moving on shoes like Japanese water shoes, completely mystifying as to how she balanced on the stilt-like soles. Stepping thus in little balancing steps like a dancer, she moved very close, peering into my eyes, so that I blushed deeply at the nearness and the nudity of her, and she laughed, amusedly, as at a child. Her long, gemmed hand reached out and touched me, and she talked to Holaf excitedly, her face all smiles and interest; I was a wholly fascinating new toy he had brought her, it seemed. Then she sank to the bench, crossing her lovely knees over her hands, clasped together as if to make sure they behaved. To me she was wholly cultured and I some strange boor who had never been in a drawing room. I felt the impact of that culture in her interested eyes and in the sleek, smart bearing of her utterly relaxed body. She stretched a hand to gesture me to be seated, and I tried Korean on her.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, lady. If I but knew who you were, and how to speak properly, there is much we could find of interest to discuss."
"I am sure of it, stranger. First you must tell me of yourself, and then later we will talk of what is familiar to me. I cannot put off the curiosity which burns me. Please tell me all about your people and yourself!" Her voice was hard to follow, she handled the clumsy Korean with a bird-like quickness and an utter disregard for the nature of the language. Her eyes burned into my own, and I sat embarrassed beside her, tongue-tied, while Holaf smiled quietly and kept his hand on his weapon.
So I talked about New York, about my home town in Indiana, about my mine in South America, about anything and everything, and she listened, rapt eyes encouraging me, hanging on every stumbling, mispronounced, difficult word. I would have given an arm to have been able to talk expertly in her own tongue.
Thus engaged, and engrossed by her, I glanced up absently to note Nokomee's eyes blazing into my own in fury, and spaced about the room in a listening circle, a score of others. I stopped abruptly, and Nokomee lashed out at the woman beside me with a string of alien expletives that made her face flame with an anger as great as Nokomee's own. I wondered vaguely what I had done....
Their strange, grim faces, all watching me, seeming to peer inside me, trying to gauge me as an enemy or a friend. I stood up, for the exciting near-nude body of the woman who had caused Nokomee's outburst was too close, too intimately relaxed.
Abruptly Nokomee took me by the hand, led me out and along the ledge on the cliff. Into another cavern entrance she led me, to a smaller chamber, where another fire burned, and another bench invited to its warmth. She half pushed me to a seat, and busied herself in the next adjoining chamber, rattling dishware, and now and again giving a sharp exclamation as of extreme disgust.
I gathered I had been guilty of falling for the Zerv equivalent of a vamp. How wrong I was in this deduction I was to learn. It was not the woman's beauty that Nokomee feared, but something vastly more dangerous. I was very ignorant then. The Zervs were an ancient people and their ways were strange entirely. For the net-clad beauty had been a "Zoorph." I asked Nokomee, as she repeated the word again.
"What is a Zoorph, that makes you so angry? I thought she was very charming. I saw no harm in talking to her!"
Nokomee thrust her head out of the curtained doorway, from which the smell of food told me I had not eaten since morning.
"A Zoorph dear child of earth, is a creature not good for man or beast! Only a Zerv would be fool enough to keep so dangerous an animal about! If I told you, you would not believe it."
"Tell me anyway, Nokomee."
The girl came, bearing food on a tray. She squatted at my feet, putting the tray on the bench, and holding a large graceful urn of some liquid to replenish my cup. Very prettily she did this, yet I gathered that it was something which would have overwhelmed me with the honor if I had understood. I did appreciate her service, and I tried to say so, but she silenced me.
"Never mind, one day you will understand how proud we are, that in our own world and in our own society you would be less than a worm. Yet I serve you, who am more above you than a princess would be in your world. Thus does the world change about one, and one adjusts. But do not think of it. It must be, or some terrible thing like the Zoorph would seize upon you here among us."
I laughed a little, for I was sure she was telling a lie, to warn me against the "vamp" in the only words she could think of in the alien tongue.
Her face flushed deep red at my laughter, and she half rose as if to leave, but restrained her anger.
"A Zoorph is worse than a disease, it has enervated my people until they have lost everything, and still they are among us. They are children raised by a secret cult on my own world, trained into strange practices. It is somewhat like a witch or sorcerer would be to you, but much, much different. You could not understand unless you were raised among us. When men are tired of life, they go to a Zoorph. It is not nice to speak of, what they are and what they do. To us, it is like death, only worse. Yet we have them, as ants have pets, as dogs have lice, as your people have disease. It is a custom. It is a kind of escape from life and life's dullness—but it is escape into madness, for the Zoorph has an art that is utter degradation, and few realize how bad they are for us. You must never go near her again!"
Days passed into weeks, and every day I learned a few words of the Zerv language, every day I picked up a little more insight into their utterly different ways and customs and standards—their scale of values. It was a process replete with surprises, with revelations, with new understanding of nature itself as seen through the alien eyes.
I remained as a kind of semi-prisoner, tolerated because of Nokomee's position and her affection for me. Nokomee, I learned, was "of the blood," though there were few surviving of her family to carry on the power and prestige she would have inherited. Yet, she was "of the blood" and entitled to all the respect and obedience the Zervs gave even to their old ruler.
He was an attenuated skeleton of a man, with weary eyes and trembling hands, and I grew more and more sure that the inactivity against their usurpers visible in the valley beneath was due more to his age and timorous nature than to any inability to turn the tables. They seemed to hold the "Schrees" in contempt, yet never took any action against them, so that I wondered if the contempt were justified or was an inherited, sublimated hatred.
The supplies, rifles and ammunition which had been left on our horses when we entered the cavern of the golden image, had been brought to Nokomee's cavern and locked in a small chamber before my eyes. It was all there. As the time dragged on, I chafed at the inactivity, fought against the barriers of language and alien custom that separated me from these people, struggled to overcome their indifference and their, to me, impossible waiting for what I did not understand.
Finally I could wait no longer. In the night, I burst the lock of the closet with a bar, took out a rifle and .45 and two belts of cartridges. I slid over the lip of the ledge that hid us from the city's eyes. I was going to see for myself what we were hiding from, what we were waiting for, was going to take my chances with the dangers in that place they had built and from which they now hid. I had pressed Nokomee for explanations and promises of future participation in their life and activities, and I had been refused for the last time! Like a runaway, I slid down the steep cliff face, putting as much space between the Zervs and myself as rapidly as I could.
The night was dark as pitch. I had left Nokomee asleep in her chamber. I had avoided Holaf, who still kept a kind of amused watch over my activities, and I was free. Free to explore that weird city of plodding lives, of strange unexplained sounds, of ominously hidden activity!
Scrambling, sliding, worrying in the dimness, I finally reached the less precipitous slopes of the base of the cliff. As I stopped to get a bearing on the direction of the city, above me came a slithering, a soft feminine exclamation, and down upon me came a perfumed weight, knocking me sprawling in the grass.
My eyes quickly adjusted, I crawled to the dim shape struggling to her feet. Her face was not Nokomee's, as I had at first thought. Those enormous shadowed eyes, that thin lovely nose, the flower-fragile lips, the mysterious allure—were the woman whom Nokomee had described as a "Zoorph" and whom she had both feared and despised. I spoke sharply in the tongue of the Zervs. I had learned enough under Nokomee's tutelage to carry on a conversation.
"Why do you follow me, Zoorph?"
"Because I am weary of being cooped up with those who do not trust me, just as you. I want to find a new, exciting thing; just as do you. Even if it is death or worse, I want it. I am alive, as are you."
I put down the dislike and distrust the girl Nokomee had aroused in me against her. Perhaps she had been merely jealous of her.
"Don't you know what could happen in the city?" To me it was curious that she should want to go where the others feared to go.
"I know no better than you what awaits there, and I do not believe what they have told me of the Schrees. They are not wholly human, but neither are they evil wholly, as the Zervs suppose."
"Why do the Zervs wait, instead of trying to do something for themselves? They speak of the threat of these raiders, yet they do not try to help me bring others of my people here to stop the threat they speak of so fearfully. I do not understand."
"The old ruler thinks the ships will come and drive them off from his city. But he is wrong, they will never come. It is like waiting for the moon to fall. The raiders' ships will return, and they will be stronger than ever. But not a ship of the Zervs remains in neighboring space to succor us. Yet he hopes, and his followers wait. It is foolish, and he cannot trust you or men like you to get help for him. He is too old to meet new conditions and to understand."
Few of the Zervs had shown the rapt interest in me and my people that this Zoorph had made so plain. I thought backward on how carefully she and I had been kept apart since our first meeting, and I realized there was more to it than Nokomee's words of anger.
"What is a Zoorph, and what is your name? Why did Nokomee warn me against all Zoorphs?"
"A Zoorph is a member of a cult; a student of mysteries not understood by the many. The others have a superstition about us, that we destroy souls and make others slaves to our will. It is stupid, but it is like all superstitions—hard to disprove because so vague in nature." She flickered impossible eyelashes at me languishingly, in perfect coquetry. "You don't think me dangerous to your soul, do you?"
I didn't. I thought her a very charming and talented woman, whom I wanted to know much better. I said so, and she laughed.
"You are wiser than I thought, to see through their lies. They are good people, but like all people everywhere, they have their little insanities, their beliefs and their intolerances."
Yet within me there was a little warning shudder borne of the strange power of her eyes on my own, of the chill of the night, of many little past-observed strangenesses in her ways, in the fear the Zervs bore for her ... I reserved something of caution. She saw this in my eyes and smiled sadly, and that sad and understanding smile was perfectly calculated to dispel my last doubt of her. I slid closer across the grass, to lie beside her.
"What could I gain by a knowledge of what lies in the city, Zoorph?" I asked.
"My name is Carna, stranger. In that city you can learn whether there is danger for your people in what the Schrees plan on earth. We could not tell that, for we do not know enough about your own race's abilities. You could steal a vehicle to take you to your own rich cities. And as for me, I could go with you, to practice my arts in your cities and become rich and famous."
"What are your arts, Carna?"
"Nothing you would call spectacular, perhaps. I can read thought, I can foretell the future, and I can sometimes make things happen fortunately, if I try very hard. Such things, very unsubstantial arts, not like your gun which kills. Subtle things, like making men fall in love with me, perhaps."
She laughed into my eyes and I got abruptly to my feet. She was telling the truth in the last sentence, and I did not blame Nokomee for fearing her power.
"Let us see, then, Carna, what the night can give us. I cannot wait forever for chance to bring me freedom. Come," I bent and helped her to her feet, very pleasant and clinging her grasp on my arm, very soft and utterly smooth the flesh of her arm in my hand, very graceful and lovely her swift movement to rise. My heart was beating wildly, she was a kind I understood, but could not resist any the better for knowing. Or was I unkind, and she but starved for kindness and human sympathy, so long among a people who disliked and feared her?
We walked along in the darkness, the distant moving lights of that city closer each step, and a dread in my breast at what I would find there, a dread that grew. Beside me Carna was silent, her face lovely and glowing in the night, her step graceful as a deer's.
We circled the high wall of white marble keeping some twenty feet away, where the grass gave knee-high cover we could drop into instantly. We came around to the far side from the cliff, and stopped where a paved highway ran smooth, like pebbled glass, straight across the valley. I glanced at Carna, she gestured toward the open gate in the wall, and smiled a daring word.
"In!" I answered, and like two kids, hand in hand, we stole through the shadowed gateway, sliding quickly out of the light, standing with our backs to the wall, looking up the long, dim-lit way along which a myriad dark doorways told of life. But it was seemingly deserted. Carna whispered softly:
"When it was ours, the night was gay with life and love, now—it is death!"
"Death or taxes, we're going to take a look."
We stole along the shadowed side of the street, the moon was up, shedding much too bright a light now for comfort. Perhaps a hundred yards along that strange street we went, I letting the Zoorph lead the way, for I had an idea she must know the city and have some plan, or she would not be here. If she meant to use me to escape into my world, I was all for her.
Then, from ahead, came the sound of feet, many of them in unison. We darted into a doorway, crouched behind a balustrade. Nearer came the feet, and I peered between the interstices of the screening balustrade. The feet came on; slow, rhythmic, marching without zest or pause or break, perfection without snap. As the first marching figure came into sight in the moonlight, I shuddered to the core with something worse than fear.
For they were men who were no longer men! When Barto and Polter and Noldi had been carried off unconscious, Nokomee had told me:
"They are not my people. They go their way and we go ours. Time has made us a people divided. Time, and a cruel science."
These were the mole-men, the crab-men, the creatures built for specific purposes as tools are built. Each thing bore on his back a bale of goods, or a bar of metal, a burden sizeable enough for two ordinary men. They were strong, and they were silent and smooth-moving as machines. I realized they were machines—made out of flesh.
"Are these slaves, or what?" I asked Carna.
"These were once the slaves, or workmen of the race of Zervs. They now serve the Schrees, for they are mindless, in a way. They are not important. It is those who guard and guide them I wait to see. I have not yet seen a Schree, but only heard the Zervs describe them."
The nightmare procession went on for minutes, long minutes that were to me a nightmare. Yet I realized that if I had been raised to the idea of humankind made into machines, it would not be revolting—not after they had been hereditarily moulded for centuries into what they were. Yet what a crime it was, what they might have been if left to develop as nature intended, rather than as man cruelly mal-intended. They must have been once specially selected for strength as well as beauty, for about them was a sad and terrible grace, a remainder of noble chiseling of brow and nostril, distorted as by a fiend into the horror that it was—these had once been a noble race!
"Do you feel the terrible horror of this sight?" I asked Carna.
"Always I have felt the horror that was done to them in the past. It is still done to man. Look, there are the three who came with you, and fell into the hands of the priests. They are the thing that the Zervs really fear, yet they live with it, and have done so for centuries. They can despise the Schrees, but they are as bad themselves—look!"
I followed with my eye her pointing finger. Yes, that figure was hulking Barto, and I almost yelled "Jake, snap out of it!" before I remembered my own peril.
Then he came into the full light, and passed not twenty feet away. I leaned against the railing of stone, sick as a dog and retching. They had made him over, with some unknown aborted science of an evil world! Jake was clubfooted, lumbering, with his jaws grown into great jowls of bone, his arms elongated and ending in hooks. Two of the fingers, or the thumb and finger had been enlarged or grafted into a bone-like semblance of a crab's claw. What he was going to be when they got through, I didn't know, but neither did Jake. He didn't know anything! He clumped along, his crossed eyes unmoving, his back bent with a weight heavy for even his broad shoulders—a man no longer, but a mindless zombie. A cross-eyed zombie!
I cursed silently, tearing my hands against the stone as I resisted the impulse to fire and fire again upon those hopping, thin, white things that came after.
"Just what are those hopping things?"
"They are a separate race, who have lived with both Zervs and with Schrees. They are a part of our life. You have dogs, horses, machines. We have Jivros—that is, priests—and we have the workmen we call Shinros, and too, we have the Zoorphs!" She laughed a little as I stared at her. "Do not worry, the Zoorphs are not really so different. But the Schrees and Shinros are different."
"Damned, beastly, demoniac life it must be."
"To you, who expect things to be like your knowledge tells you it must be. To us, it is our way. For a Zerv, or for a Schree, it is a good way. The Jivros do the supervisory work, the Shinros do the hard work, and the Schrees take it easy and enjoy life. Why do you have machines?"
"Machines are not alive. That is different."
"Neither are the Shinros alive, they only seem so. They do not know what they have lost—it is much as if they had died.
"But come, I must show you where we can get a ship to take us away from this and into your world. I have a life to live, I want to live it! You—have a message to deliver to your people, or they will become the Shinros of the whole race of Schrees. I do not like to think what can happen to your world!"
I followed her again on our furtive way among the shadows. She was swift and sure, and made good time. She knew where she was going. It was a broad open space deep within the city. On three sides were wide closed doors like hangar doors. The fourth was a massive structure of rose granite, beetling above us, a monstrous shape in the dimness, throwing a shadow half across the paved space. We raced across the shadow toward the nearest doorway, flattened against it, listening for life inside. Carna worked on the catch of the door, after a second slid the door aside slowly, carefully. Inside I could see a shimmering smoothness, round, higher than my head, a top-shaped object. I guessed that this was the ship she meant to steal from the Schrees. Suddenly the door she was sliding open scraped, and emitted a shrill, high-pitched sound. I did not know if it was an alarm activated by the opening door or just rust on the rails and wheels of the door mechanism. Carna cried:
"Hurry, get into the ship, we must take off at once. They will come; they must have heard that sound!"
I ducked into the darkness, circled the bulging shape, looking for an opening. Smooth, there seemed no way I could find.
"Here it is, help me open it," Carna panted behind me.
I leaped to her side. She was twisting at an inset handle around which faint lines indicated the door edge. I pulled her aside, took hold of the handle, twisted hard. It bent, then gave, and the door swung easily open in my hands. We tumbled in. Carna raced through the first chamber, and even as I got the door closed, the floor lifted under my feet easily, drifted out of the wide doorway, shot upward so quickly I was thrown to the floor. I lay there, the increasing acceleration pressing me hard against the cool metal. After a time I struggled up, made my way to the woman's side.
Ahead was the moonlit range of mountains. Carna was setting a course straight along the ridge of them, heading southward.
"How far will this thing fly?" I asked.
"It will fly around your world many times, if I want it to."
"What kind of fuel does it use?" I asked incredulously.
"I don't know what that is. It uses a substance we call Ziss. It is a good fuel."
"It must be!"
I looked back along the ridge of the mountain's top toward the valley we had left. We were in a bubble on the top of the flat, circular ship; one could see in any direction. Back there a series of glowing round shapes shot upward, came after us in a long curve that would bring them ahead of us on our course. Carna changed her course to parallel the pursuit, and they changed again, to intercept her new direction. Again she changed, circling farther west.
But it was no use! Rapidly they overhauled us.
"Can't you get more speed out of it?" I shouted at her, for they were very close.
"We have been unlucky, my friend. This ship is not in good shape. There is something wrong with it. I cannot make it go as it should, or there is something I do not know...."
Swiftly they came up with us, over us, and beams of light shot from them down upon us. The ship was held now, rigid. One could feel the acceleration cease. Like a bird on a string we followed as they swung back toward the valley. Minutes later we were being lowered into the open space we had just left. I clicked the safety off my rifle, loosened the gun in my holster. I covered the door, shielding myself behind the round shape of a machine. But Carna put a hand on my weapon, shook her head.
"If you kill some of them, they will make of you a Shinro. If you submit meekly, it may be I can talk to someone and save you. I have ways. I understand them. They will be glad to get me, and I will tell them you know many things they need to know. I can save your life. Later we can try again, in another ship. Next time we will not be so unlucky."
It sounded like sense, and I looked into her deep eyes searchingly. She meant well. Perhaps she could do what she said. I did not know these aliens; she was almost one of them.
As the door opened in the side, I lay the rifle down, stood with crossed arms as the thin, hopping horrors came near.
These things had never been men. They had faces that were empty of features, just flat, shiny, gray eyes, two holes where they breathed, no mouth that I could see. There was a long neck around which the collar of their white robe was gathered in folds. Their hands were horny, like an insect's claws. They were not human, they were only four-limbed, and walked—or hopped—in an erect position. There the resemblance ceased.
They led us out, Carna rattling off a series of sounds I could hardly follow. Something about:
"We had to flee from the Zervs, we did not believe you would take us in, we had to steal a ship. I am Carna, a Zoorph of the first grade, and this man is a native of the United States, the greatest country of this earth. Do not harm him, he can help you if he wishes."
Her words must have had quite an effect, for the weird, insect-like men examined me with their eyes as we hurried along, across the hangar space, into the big building of rose granite. Within twenty minutes we were entering a tremendous room, and Carna nudged me.
"Their boss, Carl! Look impressed."
It was easy to look impressed. I was mightily impressed by the She on the throne!
* * *
I had no eyes for the score or so of Schrees that surrounded the massive carved chair, even though I was curious about their difference from men. Above them were her sleepy eyes, wide almonds, molten and wise, incandescent with intense inner fire above a mouth that was a wide, scarlet oval torn into the whitely-glowing face.
A great black pelt softened the harsh lines of the throne, framed her chalk-white body so that it curved starkly sensual, dominating the great chamber with beauty. It was a beauty one knew this woman used as a tool, a weapon, keen and polished and ready, and it struck at me swift as a great serpent, the fires behind her eyes driving the blow.
She wore a kind of sark of shadowy black veil, sewn over with sparkling bits of gem. It was in truth but an effective ornament for the proud firm breasts, the narrow waist, the arch of the hips and the curves of her thighs. Inadvertently I let out a low whistle of approbation and astonishment. Carna, beside me, nudged me sharply, and I snapped out of it.
The purple, lazy lids of her eyes moved, the slow weary-wise gaze centered on me, her hand moved. In two strides a man from the throne-side had me by the arm, and another seized my other, tugged me forward to her feet, thrust me down on my knees. Still, I looked. Curiosity and something more held me in a grip I couldn't shake.
This was more than a woman, I sensed. There was an awe of her throbbing in me. Not fear—something deeper, something one feels before the unexplainable, something one feels gazing at the moon and wondering; an ominous, deep, thrilling and unexplainable emotion.
Closer, I could see her firm flesh was dusted over with a glittering powder, the soft curves of her hair swept back to mingle and lose themselves in the black fur of the pelt so that the night-black hair seemed to spread everywhere about her and melt into the shadows.
Her hands were sinuous as serpents, the fingers tapering, the nails very long like the Chinese. Her nose was exquisite, but thin-edged, and with a cruel line on each side that vanished when she spoke.
"It is death to strangers in this valley...." she mused, not speaking to me or to anyone, but with a cruel intent to toy with me in the words, mocking, waiting for me to answer.
"I have been long on the way," I answered, in much the same tone, as though we were speaking of some one not present.
"The way to death is sometimes long, and sometimes short. And, too, there are things worse than death. But what was it you came here seeking?"
"I did not know, until just now," I answered, still looking at her eyes, which glanced at me, then away, then back again. She was interested in spite of her apparent weariness with routine—or perhaps with life itself.
"Now that you know, will you tell me?" She smiled a little, not a good smile, but a secret jest with herself. An appearance of extreme evil sat for a moment on her face, then went again, like the wind. Her voice was grave, careless, yet modulated with an extreme care as if she spoke to a child.
"I seek the wisdom I see in your eyes, to know what is and why it wearies you. I want to know a great many things, about your people and what they do here, what they mean to mine, what your plans may be—a great many things I need now."
The sleepiness left her eyes, and she bent toward me with the grace of a great cat and the shadows circling her eyes lifted a little. Wise, aloof, indifferent, yet she did not know what I was, or what I meant, and she meant to find out.
"So you know...." she mused, as if to herself.
"I know you are from space. I know it has been a long long time since you first touched here; your people, that is. I know that you drove the Zervs from this city and took it for your own. But that is all."
"It is too much. You cannot leave here." Her voice was sharp, and I was surprised to learn that she had even considered letting me go free. It was encouraging, after the dire pictures the Zervs and Nokomee had drawn for me of these Schrees.
I looked curiously at them, the Zervs had called them "not human." They were different, as a negro is different from a white, or an Oriental from a Finn. Their eyes were wide-set and a little prominent, their ears thinner and smaller, their necks very long and supple—different still from the Zervs. Yet they were a human race. I had misunderstood—or I had not yet met those whom the Zervs called Schree.
Carna had knelt beside me, and I murmured to her:
"Are these the Schrees, or something else?"
"These are the high-class Schrees, they are very like the Zervs in appearance. The other classes of the Schrees at sometime in the past were changed by medical treatments into a different appearance. It was a way of fixing the caste system permanently—understand?" She answered me swiftly, in a whisper, and the woman on the throne frowned as she noticed our conversation.
Her eyes fixed ours as she said, with a curiously excited inflection, no longer bored with us: "Take these two to the place of questioning. I will supervise the proceeding. I must know what these two intended here, whether others of this man's people understand us."
"We're in for it!" said Carna, and I knew what she meant. Jerked to our feet, we were hurried from the big throne room, down a corridor, through a great open door which closed behind us.
That place! It was a laboratory out of Mr. Hyde's nightmares.
Up until now I had accepted the many divergencies and peculiarities of the Zervs, the priestly insect-men, the monstrous workers—all the variance of this colony from space—as only to be expected of another planet's races. I had consciously tried to resist the impact of horror on my mind, had tried to put it aside as a natural reaction and one which did not necessarily mean that this expedition from space was a horrible threat to men. I had tried to accept their ways as not necessarily monstrous, but as a different way of life that could be as good a way as our own if I once understood it. There were attractive points about the Zervs and even about these Schrees' rulers which bore out this impulse toward tolerance in me.
But in this laboratory—or abattoir—some nameless, ominous aura or smell or electric force—what it was I know not—struck at my already staggering understanding with a final blow.
Now at last I met the real Schrees! I knew without asking. They seemed to me to be an attempt by the peculiar insect-like "priests" to make from normal men a creature more like themselves in appearance. Perhaps it had been done from the natural urge to have about them beings more like themselves than men ... and it was plain that the race of the insect-like creatures and of men had become inextricably linked—become a social unity in the past. It was also increasingly plain that the four-limbed insect creatures had in the beginning been the cultured race, been the fathers of the science and culture of this race, had through the centuries lost their dominance to the Zervs and the Schree's upper classes—had retained the "priest" role as their own place in society. It was perhaps at that time that their science had brought the Schree type into existence. There were perhaps a hundred of them at work in the big chamber—a chamber bewilderingly filled with hanging surgical non-glare lights, filling the place with a shadowless illumination, revealing great, gurgling bottles of fluid with tubes and gleaming metal rods; pulsing elastic bulbs; throbbing little pumps, with row on row of gauges and dials and little levers along the walls.
There were a score of ominous-looking operating tables, some occupied, some empty, about them gathered group after group of white-masked Schrees. These were taller than men, near seven feet, with very bony arms and legs, a skeletal structure altered into attenuation, with high, narrow skulls, great liquid eyes, no brows, hairless skulls showing bare and pointed above the white surgical masks.
Very like the Jivro caste, yes, but different as men are different from insect. They walked with a long graceful stride, not hopping as the priests' class. Their eyes were mournful and liquid with a dog-like softness, their hands were snake-quick and long, they looked like sad-faced ghouls busy about the dismemberment of a corpse—a corpse of someone they had loved, and they appearing very sad about the necessity. Such was their appearance; mournful, ghoulish, yet human and warm in a repressed, frustrated way.
The tall, sad-eyed Schrees turned from the preparation of two rigs like dental chairs, except that they were not that at all, but only similarly surrounded with gadgetry incomprehensible to me. We had stood isolated, waiting, with four guards between us and the door.
As we were each placed in one of these chairs, our wrists and ankles fastened with straps of metal, I expected almost any horrible torture to be inflicted upon us.
They shot a beam of energy through my head and I heard words, sentences, a rapid expounding of alien grammar and pronunciation which sank deep into my brain. My memory was being ineradicably written upon with all the power needed to make of me whatever they wanted. But apparently their only purpose now was to give me a complete understanding of their language. An hour, two, swept by, and now the heretofore almost unintelligible gibberish about me became to my ears distinct and understandable words. I was now acquainted with the tongue of the Schrees, far better than little Nokomee had taught me the somewhat different tongue of the Zervs.
Then they wrapped about my waist and chest a strong net of metal mesh, and I knew that now something strenuous was going to occur, for I could not move a muscle because of the complete wrapping of metal mesh.
Now a metal disk was set to swinging in front of my nose so that I could not see what they were doing to my companion. I watched the metal disk, and saw behind it the tall swaying figure of the Queen enter and approach. She stopped a few feet from my chair, and her eyes were intent upon me. Then a light flashed blindingly in the reflecting disk, it went back and forth faster and faster, and I felt a strong vibration of energy pass in a beam through my head, throbbing, throbbing ... darkness engulfed me. It was a darkness that was a black whirlwind of emotion. The sense of the desertion by humankind, by God and mercy and rationality swept through me and overwhelmed my inner self. I will never forget the utter agony of shrieking pain and loss that formed a whirling ocean of darkness into which I dived....
In this maelstrom of seeming destruction I lost all grip, had no will, was at sea mentally. Into this shrieking hurricane of madness a calm voice intruded. I recognized a familiar note—it was the ruler herself, her voice no longer bored, but with a cruel curiosity that I knew meant to be satisfied if it killed me.
"Tell me what your people intend to do about the flying saucers they speak of in their newspapers?"
"They do not believe they exist; they are told they are delusions," I heard myself answering. I was surprised to hear my voice, for it came with no conscious volition on my part.
"That is for the public; that is a lie. But what do the powers behind the scenes intend to do about them?"
"They are searching for them, to learn all they can about them. They do not understand where they come from, but they have some information. They suspect they are from space, and are afraid of them."
"And they sent you here to learn what you could. They brought you the golden statuette to help you gain an entry, did they not?"
I tried to resist the impulse to tell the truth, for I could realize that if she thought I had the power of my government behind me, my fate might be different than if I did not. I tried to say "yes, they sent me," but I could not! I answered like an automaton:
"No, my government has no knowledge of my expedition. I came purely to get gold and for no other reason. Mining is my business."
She gave a little exclamation of frustration. Then after a pause she asked:
"Do you think our way of life and your own could live together in peace, could grow to be one?"
Again I made futile efforts to hide my revulsion and fear of them all. It was no use. The flood of force pouring through my head was more effective than any truth serum.
"No, to me you are horrors, and my people would never consent to live at peace with you. You could never conquer us. Until the last of our cultured members were dead they would resist the horrible practices of your culture."
"That is as I surmised," she mused. "But I would have you tell me why this is so. What is it you find so revolting about us."
"What have you done to my companions? Do you think men want that to happen to them?"
"That was a punishment for entering here without permission. That would not happen to any but enemies."
"Men could never accept the altering of the shapes of workers, the tinkering with the hereditary form of their children, the artificial grafting upon our race of revolting and unnecessary form changes. Your whole science is a degeneration of wisdom into evil, tampering with life itself. You are horrors, and you do not know it."
I could hear her steps as she turned and left, tapping angrily upon the floor. After her I could hear the shuffling, heavier tread of her retinue. As the flood of vibration ceased, I began to curse aloud for the undiplomatic truths I had been forced to utter. In seconds my arms were free, and I was led out, a tall grim-faced guard on each side, with a firm grip on my arms. I wondered what was happening to the lovely Zoorph, but I did not get a chance to look. I was thrown into a cell, and the heavy wooden door shut. The thud of a bar dropped in place punctuated the evening's experience with a glum finality.
* * *
I lay for hours with my mind in a whirl from the effects of the truth ray. Jivros, or insect-priests, moved phantom-like before my sleepless eyes, watching from the dark and waiting. Gradually my thinking became more normal, and I began a systematic analysis and summing up of what I had learned of these people. There were but a few members of the ruling groups, and it was evident the rule was split between the Jivro caste of the insect men and some normal-appearing groups who had divided the power with them in the past. Under these were the Schrees, and under these the malformed working caste or castes. The Schrees had contact with some space-state, the Zervs were outcasts of the ruler caste who had been driven from that space-state—perhaps more than one planet—sometime in the past and had hid out upon earth until recently located by the power that ruled on their home planets. Now they were fugitive and nearly powerless, and I knew the Zervs were few in number from my own observation. There were perhaps a hundred, perhaps two hundred. They had contact with some of the Jivros with whom they were familiar, but the appearance of Jake and Noldi and Polter among the workmen in the city told me that these Jivros could be traitors to them, could be giving new allegiance to the conquerors of the Zervs. My mind centered on two facts. The Jivro caste were the real source of the evil in these people. It was their unnatural attitude toward human life which had made this race the horror it was, and they were still exercising that evil influence.
Morning came through a high barred window, and after a while food came, slid beneath the door. I did not see the bearer of the food, though I called out in curiosity. He did not answer, only shuffled wearily away.
The morning crawled past, the sun mounted until I could see the golden orb near zenith. Then came what I dreaded, the tread of a number of feet. The bar was lifted; I saw four armed guards and a waiting white-robed Jivro, his protruding pupiless eyes moving as he ran his gaze over my figure. I could not help shrinking from the horror of his examination, brief though it was, for I realized he might be deciding just what freak of nature he could make out of me.
I was marched out, down the corridor, up a long ramp, a turn, along two other corridors, up another ramp. The tour ended before a wide metal door, the guards spaced themselves at each side, the door was opened by the agile, hopping Jivro. I went in ahead of it.
There were but four beings in the room, and I stood before the long, foot-high table behind which the four reclined upon cushioned couches.
They were four divergent creatures. One was the queen, whose name I had yet to hear spoken. One was a very old Jivro, his skin ash-white and covered with a repulsive scale, like leprosy. The third was a mournful-eyed Schree, clad in an ornamented smock-like garment, from which his thin limbs thrust grotesquely. The fourth was a handsome, long-necked male who resembled the queen. He lounged negligently some distance from the three, as if in attendance upon her. I deduced he was her paramour, husband or close relative, perhaps a brother.
I stood eyeing them silently, waiting. I gathered the three heads of the government were here, and the extra one represented the balance of power in the hands of the queen. His negligent lack of interest seemed to me to be an evident giving of his voice to the queen, if he was a part of this gathering.
The queen's voice had lost its sleepy, mocking tones, was sharp, incisive:
"You present a problem new to us, earthman. Sooner or later, if we decide to remain upon this planet permanently, we will have to meet and conquer, or meet and engage in commerce with the other members of your race. You are the first educated member of your race who has fallen into our hands. We must study your people, and we would like your willing cooperation. Will you give it willingly? Or must we put you to death? Which would perhaps symbolize, even indicate directly, our future attitude toward your races."
"I am quite willing," I said, before I had a chance to bungle it worse, "quite willing to exchange information on your people for the same about my own. However, I doubt that your people will find this planet congenial to an invader who ignores the natives as you have done."
"We did not come here to colonize, earthman. We came in pursuit of renegades from our law, fugitives who fled when their plots were uncovered. But we are considering the possibility of a permanent colony here, and you could help us...."
For an instant her eyes dwelt upon mine with a peculiar warning expression, as evident as a wink, and the expression was evanescent as a breath. I caught on, and made my face agreeable and subservient. Immediately her own reassumed a harsh, proud set, her voice became even more incisive and cold.