ITARI WAS the last of its race. There was no one else, No; there had been no others for hundreds and hundreds of years. Itari had lost count of time dwelling alone amid the marble halls of the ancient city, but it knew that much. There were no others.
Only Itari stood alone.
It moved now along the ebony flooring, past the white marble walls hung with golden drapes that never withered or shed their crystal luster in the opalescent mists that bathed the city in shimmering light. They hung low, those wispy tendrils of mist, clasping everything in their clinging shelter, destroying dust and germs. Itari had discovered the midst many years ago when it was too late to save its kind.
It had flung a vast dome of transparent metal above this greatest of the cities of Mars and filled it with the mist, and in it, it had stored the treasures of its people. From Bar Nomala, from Faryl, and from the remote jungle city of Kreed had it brought the riches of Mars and set them up here. Itari enjoyed beauty, and it enjoyed work. It was the combination of both that kept it alive.
Toward a mighty bronze doorway it went, and as its body passed an invisible beam, the bronze portals slid apart, noiselessly, opening to reveal a vast circular chamber that hummed and throbbed, and filled with a pale blue luminescence that glimmered upon metal rods and bars and ten tall cones of steelite.
In the doorway, Itari paused and ran its eyes about the chamber, sighing.
This blue hum and throb were its life work. Those ten cones were lifting their disc tips toward a circular roof, bathed in and drew their power from, a huge block of radiant white matter that hung suspended between the cones in midair. All power did the cones, and the block possess. It was another discovery that came too late to save Mars.
Itari moved across the room. It pressed glittering jewels inset in a control panel on the wall, one after another, in proper sequence.
The blue opalescence deepened, grew dark and vivid. The hum broadened into a hoarse roar. And standing out, startlingly white against the blue, was the brilliant block of shining metal, shimmering and pulsating.
Itari drew itself upwards, slowly turning, bathing in the quivering bands of cobalt that sped outward from the cones. It preened its body in their patterns of color, watching it splash and spread over its body. Where it touched, a faint tingle lingered; then spread outwards, all over its massive form.
Itari was immortal, and the blue light kept it so.
"There, I've completed my last task," it whispered to itself. "Now for another oval, I can roam all Mars as I will, for the life spark in me has been cleansed and nourished.”
It touched the jeweled controls, shutting the power to a low murmur. It turned to the bronze doors, passed through and into the dark halls.
“I must speak,” Itari said as it moved along the corridor. “I have not talked for many weeks. I must exercise my voice, or lose it. That is the law of nature. It would atrophy, otherwise.
“Yes, I will use my voice tonight, and I will go out under the dome and look up at the stars and the other planets that swing near Mars, and I will talk to them and tell them how lonely Itari is.”
It turned and went along a hall that opened into a spacious balcony which stood forth directly beneath a segment of the mighty dome. Itari stared upwards, craning all its eyes to see through the darkness pressing down upon it.
"Stars," it whispered, "listen to me once again. I am lonely, stars and the fame of Itari means nothing to the walls of my city, nor to the Chamber of Cones, nor even—at times—to Itari itself.”
It paused, and its eyes widened, staring upwards.
“By the Block," it said to the silence about it. "There is something up there that is not a star, nor a planet, nor even a meteor."
It was a spaceship.
EMERSON took her hands from the controls of the massive ship that hurtled through space and wiped her sweaty palms on her thighs. Her gray eyes bored like a steel awl downward at the mighty dome raised from the planet's surface.
"This is the last territory in this sector," she breathed. “Maybe it has some uradium?”
“Yes," whispered the man beside her, wetting his lips with his tongue. "No use to think of failure. If it hasn't, we'll die down there.”
So suddenly had uradium and the sickness come to the Mars Station Leon 3.
The sickness spread and ravaged the peoples of three planets.
Hospitals were set up, and precious uradium used for the fight. But the uradium was hard to find. There was just not enough for the job.
They built a ship, the fastest vessel ever made by humans. Designed for speed. It made the swiftest interplanetary craft seem a lumbering barge by comparison. Emerson Valentine took it out among the stars to find the precious uradium in sufficient quantities to cure the sickness.
It had not been easy to find a crew. The three worlds knew the crew was going to their doom. It would be a miracle if ever they ever found enough uradium, if they did not perish of the sickness first.
Carson Kruder, whose wife and children had died of the sickness, begged for the chance. A murderer convicted to the prison salt mines, Karl Dorfmeister, grudgingly agreed to go along on the promise that he won a pardon if he ever came back. With Dorfmeister went a little, mocking faced man named Tilford Gunner, who was a wizard in front of a seismic spectroscope, but used his gift for the wrong organizations. The two seemed inseparable.
Now Emerson was breathing softly, "Yes, it had better be there, or else we die.”
She ran quivering fingers over her forearm, felt the strange lumps that heralded sickness. Involuntarily, she shuddered.
Steps clanged on the metal runway beneath them. Dorfmeister pushed up through the trap and got to his feet. He was bigger than Emerson, bulky where Emerson was lithe, granite where Emerson was chiseled steel. His hair was black, and his brows shaggy. A stubborn jaw shot out under thin, hard lips.
“There it is, Dorfmeister,” said Kruder. “Start hoping.”
Dorfmeister scowled darkly and spat.
"A hell of a way to spend my last days," he growled. "I'm dying on my feet, and I've got to be a martyr to a trillion people who don't know I'm out here.”
“Do you know a better way to die?” replied Emerson.
“You bet I do. There's a sweet little redhead on Venus. She'd make dying a pleasure. In fact," he chuckled softly, “that's just the way I want to die.”
EMERSON snorted, glancing down at the controls. Beneath her steady fingers, the ship side slipped into the gravity tug of the looming dome, shuddered a moment, then eased downward.
"Tell Gunner to come up,” ordered Emerson. “No need for him to be below.”
Dorfmeister dropped to the floor lowered his shaggy head through the open trap and bellowed. A reply from the depths of the ship answered him. A moment later, Gunner stood with the others: a little man with a mocking smile twisting his features to a hard mask.
"Think she's got the stuff we need, Val?" he asked Emerson.
“The spectroscope'll tell us. Break it out.”
"Aye, Aye, VAL!" Gunner snickered.
Emerson looked back over her shoulder at Gunner. Scowling. She hated being called Val.
The ship rocked lightly as Emerson set it down on a flat, rocky plain between two high, craggy mountains that rose abruptly from the small valley. It was just lighting as the faint rays of the suns that served this planet nosed their way above the peaks. Like a silver needle on a floor of red rock, the spacecraft bounced once, twice; then landed with stillness.
Within her gleaming walls, the crew bent with hard faces over gleaming bands of color on a spectroscopic screen. With quick fingers, Gunner twisted dials and flipped a few switches.
“Hell!" exploded Dorfmeister. "I might have known it. Not a trace.”
Emerson touched her forearm gently and shuddered.
Kruder bit his lips, and thought of Marge and the kids; Gunner licked his lips with a dry tongue and kept looking at Emerson's chest.
With one sweep of his brawny arm, Dorfmeister sent the apparatus flying against the far wall to shatter into shards.
No one said a word.
Something whispered in the ship. The crew jerked their heads up, stood listening. The faint murmuring swept all about them, questioning, curious. It came again, imperative and suddenly demanding.
"Gawd," whispered Gunner. "What is it, Val?"
Emerson shook her head, frowning, suddenly glad that the others had also heard it.
"Maybe somebody is trying to speak to us.” stated Kruder.
The whispers grew louder and harsher. Almost in anger.
"Calm down,” yelled Dorfmeister savagely. “We don't know what you're saying. How can we answer you, you stupid thing?”
Gunner giggled hysterically, “We can't even understand our own language some days.”
The rustle ceased. The silence hung eerily in the ship. The crew looked at one another, curious and somehow a little nervous.
“What a set of lungs it must have," said Emerson softly. "The metal of our hull is its loudspeaker. That's why we heard it in all directions.”
“We'll see what its next move is,” he muttered. "If it gets too naughty, we'll zap it with a sun-blaster.”
The ship began to glow softly in a flushing soft, delicate green light. The light bathed the interior, turning the crew a ghastly hue. Gunner shivered and looked at Emerson, who went to the port window; stood staring out, gasping.
"Wot's happenin' now, Val?" choked Gunner.
“Whatever it is, it's pulling on us.”
The others crowded around her, looking out. Here the green was more vivid and intense. They could feel its surging power tingling on their skin. Beneath them, the jagged peak of the mountain almost grazed the hull. Spread out under their eyes was the panorama of a dead city.
“A city," yelled Kruder. "The place is inhabited. Thank God, thank God—“
Dorfmeister erupted in laughter.
"For what? How do we know who they are? An inhabited planet doesn't mean humans, you idiot.”
“We can hope," said Emerson sharply. "Maybe they have some uradium, stored so that our spectroscope couldn't pick it up.”
The mighty dome that hung over the city glimmered in the morning sun. Beneath it, the red towers and spires of the city reared in alien loveliness above elegant buildings and rounded roofs. A faint mist seemed to hang in the empty city streets.
"It's empty," said Kruder heavily. “Deserted.”
"Something's alive,” protested Emerson. "Something that spoke to us, that is controlling this green beam.”
A SECTION of the dome slid back, and the spaceship moved through the opening and then closed after the ship entered.
"They have us now,” grunted Dorfmeister. He slid his fingers onto the transparent window, pressing hard, the skin showing white as his knuckles lifted. He said swiftly, “I'm getting myself a sun-blaster. Two of them. I'm not going to be caught limp when the time for action comes.”
He swung through the trap and out of sight. They heard him running below; listened to the slam of opened doors, the withdrawal of the guns. They could imagine him buckling them about his waist.
"Bring me one," cried Emerson suddenly, and turned again to look out the window.
The spaceship settled down on the white tiling of a large square. Suddenly the green beam was gone. The uncanny silence of the place pressed in on them.
"Think it's safe to go out?” asked Kruder.
"Try the atmospheric recorder," said Emerson. "If the air's okay, I'd love to stretch my legs.”
Kruder twisted some knobs and flipped two switches, staring at a red line that wavered on a glassy screen, then straightened abruptly and rigid.
“Hey!!" yelled Kruder excitedly. “It's pure. I mean pure. No germs. No dust. Just clean air!”
Emerson leaped to his side, staring, frowning.
“No germs. No dust. Why—that means there's no disease in this place. No sickness.”
She began to laugh, then caught herself.
"No sickness,” she whispered, “and every one of us is going to die of the sickness.”
Dorfmeister came up through the trap and passed out the sun-blasters. They buckled them around their waists while Dorfmeister swung the bolts of the door. He threw it open, and clean air and faint tendrils of whitish mist came swirling into the ship.
Kruder took a deep breath and his boyish face split with a grin.
"It smells and feels like a Spring day back on New Earth. You know with the sun beating down on you. You felt good. You were young. Healthy! I feel like that now.”
They grinned and went through the door, dropping to the white tiled landing pad.
It was coming across the Square, flowing along on vast black tentacles towering over twenty feet high, with a great torso seemingly sculpted out of living black marble. A head that held ten staring eyes looked down at them. Six arms thrust out of the torso, moving like tentacles, fringed with cilia thick as fingers.
"Lord," whispered Dorfmeister. “What is it?"
"Don't know," said Emerson. "Maybe it's friendly—“
"Friendly?" challenged Dorfmeister harshly. “That doesn't know the meaning of the word! I'm going to let it taste a blast—“
His hand dove for the sun-blaster in his holster, yanked it free and upward, firing brilliant yellow jets as he jerked the trigger.
“Look out!” yelled Emerson.
The thing twisted sideways with an eerie grace, dodging the amber beams of solar power that sizzled past its bulbous head. As it moved, its tentacled arms and legs slithered out with incredible rapidity, then they fell and wrapped around Dorfmeister.
The big Earthman was lifted high into the air, squeezed until his lungs nearly collapsed, he hung limply in a huge tentacle as Emerson ran to one side, trying for a clean shot without hitting Dorfmeister. But the thing was diabolically clever. It held Dorfmeister aloft, between itself and Emerson, while its other arms stabbed out at Gunner and Kruder, catching them up and shaking them as a cat shakes a mouse.
"Hold on,” called Emerson, dodging and twisting, gun in hand, looking for a clear shot.
The thing dropped all three of her crew suddenly; its legs gathered beneath it and launched it fully at Emerson. Caught off guard, she lifted her sun-blaster felt it ripped from her fingers, knew a dense blackness was thrashing down at her. She went backward, filled with fear—
ITARI STARED at the things that lay on the white flagging. Strange beings they were, unlike anything Itari, had ever conceived. Only two legs, only two arms. And such weak little limbs. Why a Martian cat would make short work of them if a Martian cat still existed, and Itari had never rated cats very highly.
It looked at the spaceship, ran exploring feelers over it. It cast a glance back at the creatures again and shook its head. Strange beings they might be, but they had mastered interplanetary travel. Well, it always maintained that life would be different on other worlds. Life here on Mars took different patterns.
Itari bent to wrap long arms about the strange beings, lifting them. Its eyes were caught suddenly by the lumps protruding from their arms and legs, face and chest. They are sick! That was bad, but Itari knew a way to cure it. Itari knew a way to cure anything.
It slid swiftly across the square and onto a flat, glittering ramp that stretched upward toward an arched doorway set like a jewel of light in a long, low building next to the large, round Chamber of Cones. It carried these creatures quickly, without trouble. The ease of its passage gave it time to think.
Itari found gladness in the search for these creatures. They were someone to converse with after centuries of loneliness. But as it approached them there in the Square, calling out gladly to them, they could not hear it. Its voice was pitched eight vibrations to the second. It wondered idly if that was beyond the hearing range of these two-legged things. It ought to check that, to be sure. Still, they had heard it on their ship. It had caught a confused, angry murmur on the radiation recorder. Perhaps the metal of the hull had in some manner made its voice amplified to them, sped up the vibrations to twelve or fifteen a second.
Then there was the matter of the sickness. Itari could eliminate that quickly enough in the Chamber of Cones. But first, they would have to be prepared. And the preparation—hurt. Well, better a few moments of agony than a death through a worse fate.
And if it could not speak to them, they could talk to Itari, through their minds. Once unconscious, it could tap their memories with an electrographic scope. That should be absorbing. It made Itari happy, reflecting upon it, and Itari had not known happiness for a long time.
From the passage, it hurried into a large white room, fitted with glass vials and ovules and glittering metal instruments, so many in number that the room seemed a jungle of metal. Down on flat, smooth tables, Itari dropped its burdens. With quick tendrils, it adjusted straps to them, bound them securely. From a small, wheeled vehicle it took a metal rod and touched it to their foreheads. As it met the flesh, it hummed once faintly.
"It's a short process. It will circulate through their nervous systems for a while, absorbed the electric charges all intelligent beings cast,” Itari said aloud, glad at this chance to exercise its voice. “They won't be able to feel for some time. When the worst pain has passed, they will recover. And now to examine their minds—“
Itari fitted metal clamps over their heads and screwed them tight. It wheeled forward a glassy screen; plugged in the cords that dangled from its frame to the metal braces.
“I wonder if they’ve perfected this,” Itari mused. "They must be aware that the brain gives off electrical waves. Perhaps they can chart those waves on graphs. But do they know that each curve and bend of those waves represents a picture? I can translate those waves into pictures—but can they?"
Itari slouched a little on its tentacles, squatting, gazing at the screen as he flipped up a lever.
A picture quivered on the screen; grew nebulous, then cleared. Itari found itself staring at a city far larger than anything on Mars. Grim white towers peaked high into the air, and broad, flat ramps circled them, interwoven like ribbons in the sunlight. On the tallest and largest buildings were vast fields of metal painted a dull luster, where strangely wrought flying ships landed and took off.
The scene changed suddenly. It looked into a hospital room and watched a pretty young woman smiling up at it. She too had the sickness. Now it beheld the mighty salt mines where naked men swung huge picks at the crusted crystals, sweating and dying under a strange sun. Even these remnants of humanity festered with the growth.
A tall, lean man in white looked out at Itari. His lips moved, and Itari read their meaning. This man spoke to one named Emerson, commissioning her with a spaceship, reciting the need of uradium, the dread of the sickness. The thoughts of this Emerson were coming in clearer, as Itari in sudden interest, flipped on different dials. The unspoken thoughts pouring from her brain through the screen continued. The words it did not understand, but the necessity for uradium, and the danger of the sickness it did. The pictures jumbled and grew chameleonesque—
Itari stared upward at a colossal figure graven in lucent white marble. It made out the letters chiseled into the base: GEORGE WASHINGTON. It wondered idly what this George Washington had done, to merit such undying fame. He must have done something amazing for his people. Itari wished there were still Martians alive to build a statue to it, like the one these people had done for George Washington..
Itari rose suddenly, standing upright on its tentacles, swaying gently, Why, it had the power to make itself immortal! These creatures would gladly build statues to Itari! True, it could not create a nation—but it could save it!
Itari unfastened clamps and rolled the screen aside. It reached to a series of black knobs inset in the wall and turned them carefully. Turning, it saw the figures of the four crew members stiffen to rigidity as a red aura drifted upward from the table-top, passing through them as if they were mist, rising upwards to dissipate in the air near the ceiling.
"That will prepare their bodies for the Chamber of Cones," Itari said. “When they realize that I am their friend, they will gladly hear my counsel!”
Itari passed through the doorway of the laboratory to leave the crew to the preparation rays.
IT WAS the sweat of agony trickling down her forehead and over her eyes and cheeks that woke Emerson. She opened her eyes, then clamped them shut as her body recoiled in pain.
"Oh, Lord!" She whimpered, bloodying her mouth where her teeth sank into her bottom lip.
In every fiber of her body sharp lancets cut and dug. In arms, legs, and chest they twisted and tore. Into the tissues beneath her skin, all along the muscles and the bone, the fiery torment played. She could not stand it; she could not—
Emerson flipped her head to the right, to the left; saw the others stretched out and strapped even as she. They were unconscious. What right had they to ignore this agony? Why didn't they share it with her? She opened her mouth to shriek and then bit down hard again.
Kruder screamed suddenly, his body aching.
It woke the others. They too bellowed and screamed and sobbed, and their arms and legs twisted like wild things in a trap.
"Gotta get free." Emerson panted, straining against the wristbands. The hard muscles of her arms rigid with effort, but the straps held. She dropped back, sobbing.
“That fiend,” yelled Dorfmeister. "That ten eyed, octopus-legged, black-hearted spawn of a mismatched monster did this to us. Damn it! Damn that thing! When I get lose, I'll cut its heart out and make it eat it.”
"Maybe—maybe he's vivisecting us.” moaned Gunner. “With rays or—or something—aagh! I can't stand it!"
"Hang on, guys,” gritted Emerson, fighting the straps. "I think it's lessening. Yeah, yeah—it is. It doesn't hurt so much now.”
Dorfmeister grunted in astonishment.
"You're right. It is lessening. And—hey, one of my arm buckles is coming loose. It's torn a little. Maybe I can work it free."
They turned their heads to watch, biting their lips, the sweat standing in colorless beads on their pale foreheads. Dorfmeister's full arm bulged its muscles as he wrenched and tugged, panting. A buckle swung outward, clanging against the table-top as it ripped loose. Dorfmeister held his arm aloft and laughed a harsh triumph.
"I'll have you all loose in a second,” he grunted, ripping straps from his body.
He leaped from the table and stretched. He grinned into their faces.
"You know, it's funny—but I feel great. Huh, I must've sweated all the aches out of me. Here, Gunner—you first."
When Gunner was free, Dorfmeister came to stand over Emerson, looking down at her. His eyes narrowed suddenly. He grinned a little, twisting his lips.
"Maybe you guys ought to stay tied up," he said. "In case that—that thing comes back. It won't blame us all for the escape we're making.”
"Not on your life,” said Emerson.
But Dorfmeister shook his head, and his lips tightened.
"No. No, I think it's better this way."
"Don't be a fool, Dorfmeister,” snapped Emerson savagely. “It isn't your place to think, anyhow. That's mine. I'm Commander of this crew. What I say is an order.”
Dorfmeister grinned dryly. Into his eyes came a glint of hot, sullen anger.
“You were our commander—out there, on that spaceship. We're on Mars now. Things are different. I want to learn the secret of those mists, Emerson. Something tells me I'd get a fortune for it, on New Earth.”
Emerson squirmed helplessly, cursing him, saying, “What's gotten into you?”
"Nothing new. Remember me, Karl Dorfmeister? I'm a convict; I'm a salt mine prisoner. I'd have done anything to get out of that boiling hell. I volunteered to go with you for the uradium. Me and Gunner. Kruder doesn't count. He came on account of his wife and kids. We were the only two who'd come. Both of us are just convicts.”
Dorfmeister drew air into his lungs until his ribs showed against the rips in his jacket.
He went on slowly, "All along I've thought that if we ever did discover uradium in any quantity to cure the people, we'd be famous. I want to be somebody, Emerson. With my pardon and that profit, I could be a boss on New Earth. And you know what it's like to be a boss on New Earth.”
Emerson writhed in her straps, wrenching and twisting until her muscles crackled, seeking freedom. Her lips snarled promises at the huge criminal.
"If I ever get out of this, I'll teach you who's boss—right here!”
Dorfmeister laughed with confidence, "Don't worry. You won't. Those straps are pretty secure. I'm lucky one of mine was ripped."
The big man turned to Gunner; looked down at him, curiously.
"You're with me, Gun.”
Gunner looked at Emerson; looked up at Dorfmeister, nodding.
"I think we got a chance, brother,” he muttered softly. "Them mists that don't have germs. They're worth lots. People will pay plenty for air without germs.”
The big man and the little man swung toward the door. They paused at the threshold and glanced back.
“We'll give you a chance to think it over, Emerson,” Dorfmeister grated. "You can use a few billions, same as us. We aren't hogs. We're willing to share—“
"Get out!" Emerson spat.
Dorfmeister shrugged and followed Gunner into the corridor, carefully closing the door behind him. He glanced both ways frowning.
“We don't know this place," he said slowly. "Stick close to me, Gun. We might meet some more of that beast's family. He's too much for us physically, but damned if I don't believe we got more gray matter than it and its whole tribe if we use it right!”
They went along the black marble flooring for a long minute. The thick drapes along the walls muffled their footsteps, but they cast anxious glances behind them. The eerie silence that overhung the place scratched at their uneasy nerves.
Dorfmeister's hand grabbed on Gunner until the little man whimpered.
Behind them, there was a slow shuffle of a powerful body.
"In here,” snapped Dorfmeister, drawing Gunner with him into a niche sculpted in the marble wall. They pressed back, pulling the drapes about them. Biting on their tongues, they held their breaths.
The massive black body trod past, stirring the drapes and uncovering the feet of the Earthmen. But he did not glance aside. Dorfmeister and Gunner let their breath out slowly, releaved. They did not know that Itari was the last of its race, that it was used to loneliness, that it was not looking away from its objective.
They peered out: saw the monster nearing two great bronze doors sculpted with forms of strange beauty. Watching breathlessly, they saw the doors slide open untouched.
"Light beam," whispered Dorfmeister. They caught a glimpse of the Chamber of Cones through the doorway; regarded with awe the magnificent block of glimmering white, pulsing with an inner fire. The ten glittering cones with their rings of shimmering light made them gape.
They eased forward and halted at the doors.
The black thing was pulling levers, working them swiftly. The large cones began to hum softly, began to throb. They could feel that terrible power pulsating through the room, making them quiver in rhythm though they stood beyond its range. The faint azure haze darkened; grew deeper, a dark blue. In broad bands of light, the blue color leaped from the cones, poured outward over the room.
Itari too, they saw. It lifted itself to its full height, turning and pirouetting gracefully despite its bulk. It bathed in the light, and it sprayed over and covered Itari.
"It's drinking that stuff in,” croaked Gunner in hoarse excitement. "It's getting drunk on that stuff, whatever it is. Look at him. Like it was champagne he was swallowin' down. Gawd—I could stand a snootful of that myself?”
He swiftly leaped before Dorfmeister could stop him.
Past the big man's outstretched arm he charged, full into the beating bands of blue.
"Oh good Lord!” whispered Dorfmeister.
BEFORE his eyes little Gunner stiffened in unbearable agony, straight up, rigid. He hung that way for one long instant, immobile.
Dorfmeister blinked and looked. His little partner had been right before him an instant ago. Now where he had been was nothing but those pulsing ribbons on cobalt, pounding, beating, throbbing.
He's vanished right in front of my eyes, Dorfmeister thought. Evaporated. Into thin air. No, not into the air. Into that blue stuff. It just absorbed him, like a sponge soaks up a spill!
Dorfmeister shuddered in severe fright. He whirled and ran, straight up the corridor toward the laboratory door. It shot back before the thrust of his arms. He leaped for the white tables as Emerson and Kruder stared at him, wondering at his pale face.
Big brown hands seized on the straps that held Emerson, fighting to burst them.
"Calm down, man,” said Emerson evenly. "If those things could break, I'd have broken them, Undo the buckles.
"Yeah, yeah. You're right," sobbed the big convict.
“What happened to you?"
"Not to me. To Gunner. Little Gunner. Gone. That—that damned black beast killed him with his blue rays. Right in front of my eyes. It's going to take all of us to lick him. That's why I came back.”
“What are you babbling about?” said Emerson softly. "Take your time, man. What blue rays?”
"In the big room up the corridor. There was a deep roar and splashes of this dim light, as dark as a sapphire. Caught him, it did. Melted him into nothing at all. I—I can't forget it.”
He unsnapped the last buckle and silently stood as Emerson got up and stretched. Her chest heaved as she gasped for air.
She said suddenly, “We might as well get out of here while we can. If that thing wants to experiment on us anymore—to hell with it. Let's go, and fast."
Emerson was freeing Kruder, smiling thinly, “What about your fortune, Dorfmeister? What about being a boss on New Earth?”
Dorfmeister licked his lips, whispering, "To hell with that. I just want to get away from here, that's all. That black thing has a power we've never seen or dreamed of. I tell you, those blue rays—“
Emerson whirled, reaching for her sun-blaster.
Itari stood in the doorway, brooding at them. Almost it seemed to shake its large head, sadly.
"Stop him, one of you," babbled Dorfmeister, striving to get past them. "Maybe one of us can get away.”
The thing stretched out its tentacles so swiftly that Emerson rasped curses as her gun arm was clapped and held tight against her side. Kruder writhed beside her in another vise-like arm. Dorfmeister had fainted.
Looking down at him, Emerson Smiled thinly, and said to Kruder, “Whatever happened to Gunner must have been pretty bad. They told me on New Earth that Karl Dorfmeister was pretty tough."
"Yeah," whispered Kruder.
Emerson looked up at the thing, studying it, thinking: maybe I can get it to listen to me. Maybe it will even let us go free if I can communicate with it.
“What're you going to do with us?” she questioned as calmly as she could.
The thing looked at her, and the thin mouth moved, but Emerson Valentine heard no sound. The thing shook its head again, Sadly.
ITARI COULD NOT make these beings understand that it was helping them, Itari realized. They cannot hear my voice because it is pitched lower than their ears can detect. And even if they heard me, they would not understand. I shall cure them of their sickness. By that act, they will know I am friendly. Time enough then to discuss other matters like the building of an enormous statue to Itari, as the greatest of all Martians.
It carried them into the Chamber of Cones; set them down gently.
The large one with the black hair and the Shaggy brows was Screaming Something. Dorfmeister was undergoing an emotion: anger. And fright, too. Yes, the black haired one was frightened. More frightened than he was angry. Itari watched him curiously. He must have seen the little one blasted when the Cones were pulsing.
It was too bad about that, Itari thought as it trussed them up, these beings are so impetuous, almost childlike in their emotional hysteria. He could not let them know that the Cones were set to pulse in rhythm with his body, not theirs. And anything foreign to that strange vibration—perished. It just ceased to exist, wiped out by the flood of power loosed by the white block.
Itari twisted dials on the instrument panel. It knew the rhythm of these creatures and adjusted to allow for it. This time the blue rays would not harm them. Instead, they would blast the growth disease into nothingness that was slowly eating away their lives.
There was a danger for Itari, too, in this. It could not remain in the Chamber to watch them. It must leave. Itari set the automatic regulators to begin in five para-zaw, last for one a-zaw, then switch back. After that time, it could safely return, for the dark blue light and the roaring hum would cease, and the cones would be idle.
Itari glanced at the three beings. The black-haired one still raved, but the others lay silent, watching him. He nodded approval. The black-haired being was trying to loosen within the others the storms of emotions that held his thrall, but they were of different stuff.
Itari went through the doors, and the doors slid shut.
EMERSON rasped, "Shut up!" They lay silent for long moments. Emerson was studying the white block and the cones and the spiraling, gleaming rings. She frowned, trying to imagine their use. A great powerhouse, of some sort. Probably atomic power sucked from the white rock in some strange manner. The Atomic power that beat outward from the cones in bands of visible color. Could it be a bath of uradium, bombarding everything in the room?
Dorfmeister snarled, "I tell you he's going to do away with us like he did with Gunner.”
"Don't be a fool, man,” answered Emerson wearily. “He wouldn't go to all this trouble just to kill us. One quick wrench with those tentacles of his, and we'd be dead ducks. It got us in here for some reason. I'm not denying it may be experimenting on us. But there ought to be others joining with him in it. Funny, we haven't seen any others like it.”
"Look," said Kruder abruptly.
The white block was radiating, pulsing, casting forth bluish beams that swept to the cones and fled outward in ever expanding arcs to splash against the walls. The blue light deepened, grew violet. It pulsed faster, swifter. And the humming of the cones was deafening.
“I don't feel anything,” said Emerson. “I can still see you guys. Whatever happened to Gunner isn't happening to us.”
She turned; found herself free of the straps, sat up. She clambered to her feet and looked around.
"The straps that held us are gone. Disappeared. Like Gunner."
Dorfmeister murmured oaths, but he too got to his feet, asking, “What do we do now?”
"Stay here and see what's next on the program. I still don't believe that thing's out to harm us.”
“Ahh, you always were a soft-hearted fool.” Dorfmeister snarled. "Why's he going to all this bother to save us? It doesn't add up. This is some fool scheme of its mad brain. Not that black octopus. Gawd, what a shape!"
Kruder smiled wryly, "I believe we're just as peculiar to her as she is to us. She talks, and we can't even hear her voice. She may hear us, but it's a cinch she doesn't know what we're talking about. Huh, it's somewhat of a never the two shall meet angle. East and West, and that sort of thing.”
“Why do you think it's a she?” Dorfmeister rails.
“I don't know. Maybe because she's taking care of us, or something,” replies Kruder.
"Or something,” agreed Emerson, walking toward the intricate control panels on the wall. She stretched an arm toward a dial—
She paused, staring.
My arm. Good Lord, my arm!
"Kruder! Dorfmeister," she shouted, leaping for them. "Let me see your arms, your faces. Yes, you know? Mine, too. Free. Free of the lumps. They're gone. The bumps that mean sickness—gone. We're cured!"
They stared in awed fascination at themselves. Kruder ripped at his jacket, pulled it open, ran exploring hands over his skin, he sobbed suddenly; began hysterically to cry, shoulders shaking.
“Whatever it is, she cured us," whispered Emerson, turning to stare upwards at the great glittering cones, that towered high above him.
“Ada and the kids." Kruder sobbed. “If only they were here we could have cured them too."
"The world can be freed from the sickness." Emerson breathed.
“A fortune,” grinned Dorfmeister, eyes glinting.
Emerson said, “If we knew how this thing worked, we could set it up on New Earth and duplicate it.”
Dorfmeister slid a hand over the butt of his sun-blaster. He Smiled grimly. "At a price, commander. Think of it. We'll be billionaires. That girl on New Earth—hah! I could have ten girls like her, just throwing themselves all over me.”
“We came to do a job." Emerson said flatly, "and we're going to see it through."
Dorfmeister lugged at his gun, lifting it, aiming it at the cleavage showing up through Emerson's broad chest.
"I'm tired of these damned ideas of yours.” he grinned savagely. "You'll never change. Neither will I. The time for words is past. I'm acting—“
His finger tightened on the trigger.
And Emerson dove in at him, like a fullback at the line.
The bolt of yellow never left the muzzle of the gun. It smothered in a cobalt-dark spray of angry color. With a color that sizzled.
EMERSON brought her fist up hard, caught Dorfmeister alongside his jaw, snapping his head back viciously. With hard lefts and rights, Emerson banged her fists mercilessly, swarming over Dorfmeister, bruising his ribs, thudding home her fists on jaw and belly.
Dorfmeister dropped, rolled over, and then lashed upward with both feet.
Emerson's fists battered Dorfmeister's jaw again, turning his head from side to side. Her knuckles gashed the firm skin and drew blood. Dorfmeister staggered dizzily and pitched forward as Emerson hammered his head again.
"I put up with you long enough,” she spat at the stretched out man. "After this, when I give an order, you—obey!”
Emerson bent, ripped the gun from Dorfmeister; thrust it into her belt.
“But this is what we came to get,” Kruder said. “This means life—security—wealth—freedom from sickness—for all the people on New Earth, Venus, and Mars.”
"I know,” Emerson nodded. “We'll have to take it.”
She glanced up at the cones and shook her head. They were far too vast to carry on the spaceship. She might duplicate them if she knew how they worked, though.
"Quick," she rasped at Kruder. "Start hunting for plans—blue-prints—anything that might tell what this apparatus is and how it works!”
They sprang about the room, searching the scrolls that hung on the walls, the inscriptions graven in stone and metal. Off in one corner, a great metal casket lay in a niche. It was Emerson who found it, and her yelp of delight brought Kruder running.
"It's here, all here. This looks like a diagram and these have to be some sort of calculations. They don't use our system, but it'll be easy enough to decipher theirs. We've got it, Kruder!"
Kruder stood with head bent, lips soundlessly moving.
"It's uradium power, all right,” assured Emerson, “with that block as its source. But Lord, what tremendous advances from the uradium power we know. The block acts upon by the cones which cause it to send out streams of uradium-active atoms, throwing them back to the cones that take them up, in turn, to hurl them all around the room. If the matter vibrates at a different rate than the atoms, the atoms destroy it. The straps that bound us are gone, but our clothes are unaffected. Perhaps that's because the things we wear are tuned in some manner to our own vibratory rate. Maybe it's because what we wear comes from New Earth, and things from New Earth have their peculiar structure.
I'm not sure, yet. But I do know anything that's in this room when the cones are set at a particular pulse either vibrates in harmony with that pulse or wiped out of existence by the atoms that hit it. Like Gunner. Like the sickness cells that vibrated differently from our otherwise healthy bodies.”
“The block," whispered Kruder. “We'll need the block!”
“Certainly. It’s pure uradium, in all probability—perhaps treated in some manner we don't know of. But we can take it. It'll fit into this box. The box was made for it. It's lead.”
The doors were opening soundlessly. Warned by eyes upon her, Emerson whirled and dove for the cone controls; she set a hand on a lever and turned to face the thing.
"I don't know whether you can hear me, buddy," she grated, "But this thing is tuned to our bodies now, not yours. We want that block—“ jerking her head toward the shimmering white square, “—to take with us. If you don't step aside—you die!”
"Kill him anyhow," whispered Kruder.
“Yes, you stubborn bitch,” snarled Dorfmeister through swollen, cut lips from the floor. “Pull the lever and do away with IT!”
Emerson shook her head, still looking at the thing that stood so still in the doorway, staring back at her with all ten eyes.
"That would be murder. It's an intelligent being. If it doesn't interfere, it stays alive.”
The black monster turned and moved off down the corridor. Emerson exhaled with relief and found her palm wet and sticky. She rubbed it on her thigh, moving on to the others.
"Snap into it," she barked. "Get off the floor, Dorfmeister, and give Kruder a hand. Lug that metal box between the cones, beneath the block. I'm going to release the pressure that keeps it suspended. We want that block. We need it. We can build the cones and the rings back on Earth, but there isn't anything like that block anywhere else in all the Universe!"
THEY worked feverishly, sliding the box across the floor. Emerson studied the control panels, sweat beading her brow with the effort of her concentration. She summoned the years of her tutelage under the world's greatest physicists at New Earth University, the years of knowledge acquired in laboratory and spaceship on New Earth and the Mars Station Leon 3. She only had one chance here. It had to be successful. If she made a mistake, she was like to draw on them the concentrated fury of a trillion annihilating atoms.
She touched the controls hesitantly, frowning, striving to remember the diagrams etched in metal on the box. Here, this one. This should be it? She wrapped her fingers carefully about the gleaming white knob, turned it with infinitesimal slowness, looking at the great white block. She saw it quiver, settle slowly to the floor.
"It's in.” yelled Kruder, slamming the metal cover down and locking it.
It took the three of them to budge it, to slide it across the floor.
“Hell," panted Dorfmeister. “We'll never make it. Once we get it into the corridor, that black fiend’ll be on top of us again."
Somehow they got it out of the Chamber and scraped it along the hallway. Luckily, the way was level, and the ramp that led from the Chamber of Cones to the great square was smooth. But in the square, they ran into an insurmountable difficulty. There was no way to lift it into the spaceship.
“We can't do it," acknowledged Emerson glumly. "It would take a crane to lift that.”
Dorfmeister kicked at the box and swore. Kruder ran quivering fingers through his hair, trembling.
Then Emerson started to grin.
"A crane, sure. We have one here if we can only make it work. The thing, the black thing. It's as strong as any crane I ever have seen!”
“Think he'll do it?" asked Dorfmeister. "I can try. Maybe a threat to use the sun-blasters on it will do the trick.”
She didn't think so, recalling the way the black being had sidestepped the bolts before; but it was their only hope. She pulled her two blasters and turned; stopped short, staring.
The black creature was coming down the ramp, slithering its vast bulk towards them. It ignored them, heading directly toward the leaden box.
Itari lifted the leaden casket in three of its rippling tentacles, balancing it. Itari moved toward the spaceship, thrust the box through the open door.
Emerson frowned. She went to the thing, touching it and looking upward into its eyes.
The thing looked down at Emerson unblinking. It pointed to the transparent dome above, then patted Emerson on her wrist with a force that nearly snapped it.
"She's going to open the dome for us. She's going to set us free!”
ITARI WATCHED the ship twinkle to a glittering dot high in the heavens. Sadly it turned and moved back along the empty corridors, once again alone.
Itari wished they were still here, even though it never could understand them. At least they were beings who moved, and talked among themselves, showed emotions. They came from a strange world. The world where heroes are worshiped, where tall, big statues are built to the great humans of their race. Itari liked that idea, though it was foreign to Martians. It rather thought there would be a statue to Itari, there on that planet called New Earth. Yes, for the beings would tell how Itari helped them, how it gave them the white block that would save them from extinction, even though it eventually meant its death.
Itari was happy. There was no doubt of it. There would be a statue to Itari on that distant planet. Itari, the savior of the human race. A hero to humankind, to be worshiped. It wistfully wished that it could have been there to see it. But it was afraid of unleashing those creatures' terror. They might even have done something rash to themselves if it had crowded its bulk into the spacecraft.
No, it was better this way.
AND in the spaceship, Emerson, Kruder, and Dorfmeister squatted over the metal casket, commenting on it, copying the alien symbols and designs for study.
Emerson frowned thoughtfully, choosing her words.
"As near as I can judge, it's a form of a uradium bombardment of matter. Suppose its rate of vibration is adjusted to matter a. Anything other than matter a, such as foreign substance b, is hit so swiftly and so often by those hurtling atoms that they only wipe it out of existence.
"But this block and the cones seem to be the ultimate perfection of that idea. Maybe atoms possess some degree of intellect, for all we know. We'll never really be sure. They do have a power of attraction, and appear to be drawn to the danger spot as though magnetized to it.”
They were silent and thoughtful.
"Yeah," said Dorfmeister at last. "It begins to trickle through. Gunner wasn't in harmony with that black beast, so he went out of existence immediately. Gunner was human, and the other thing wasn't.”
Emerson nodded, and her eyes widened.
“My God!" she whispered. "This block and the cones could make us immortal!”
Dorfmeister gagged; laughed Suddenly.
"Then why did that thing let us cart it off right from under its nose? Why did he even help us.”
"I wish I knew,” with a troubling stare out the bay window. "I wish I knew.”
Dorfmeister scowled; looked at her sideways, clearing his throat.
"I'm sorry I went off my nut back there,” he mumbled. "The thought of all the money this thing was worth sort of slapped me sideways. Why, just to be free of the sickness Val—and hell! They'll give us what ever we want for this cube.” He bent his head. “I'm sorry.”
"Skip it," said Emerson. "That black thing was enough to make us all jittery. He seemed a good enough creature, though. But I was a little disappointed in him. He sure was bluffed when I touched that lever. Boy, he turned tail fast enough.”
"Maybe she was just what she looked like, Val,” murmured Kruder thoughtfully. "A creature—left by the real builders of the Cones, to turn it over to someone like us, with a use for it.”
“Sure,” nodded Dorfmeister. “That's what he was. Kruder's mailed it. Just a big animal who knew enough to work the cube and cone things, and no more.”
Itari was alone and cold. It would get steadily colder for it, without the block to feed its body. But Itari kept smiling. It was a hero. There would be a statue to Itari.
Again it wished that it could see it. But it knew it would never be happy on New Earth. There would always be the fear that the Earthmen seemed to have. To Itari, it appeared to be a silly sort of fright. They were always on the verge of harming themselves. As in the Chamber of Cones when that one had placed her hand on the lever to lose the fury of the cones. Why had she done that? And those others urging her to pull it! Did fear turn those beings into madmen? Didn't they know that they would have blasted themselves to nothingness? They must have known that the controls would automatically shift back to its vibratory rate, not theirs. The design of the machine is for Itari.
It had been afraid for them, and so had gone away, leaving them to slide the box as best they could. Itari had meant to carry it for them since it was best that a race carries on instead of one lone Martian. For Itari would die without the block. Well, it was like exchanging one form of immortality for another. But Itari still wished it could have seen that statue.
"An animal,” said Emerson heavily. “Well, maybe you're right. Just an animal, scared of four humans. Let's forget him and get this cube home.”
It was alone again—