Dictator of Time by Bond, Nelson S.
DICTATOR OF TIME
_An Exciting Novel_
By NELSON S. BOND
Humanity against the Arch-Brain of the Future! Twentieth-Century Larry Wilson and Sandra Day lead the Armageddon of the Ages against Harg, crafty, vain monster-intellect bent on warping Man to his Inhuman Will!
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Planet Stories Spring 1940. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Larry Wilson was going to miss his train. He swung from his cab at Philadelphia's Broad Street Station, glanced swiftly at his wrist-watch, tossed a bill in the general direction of the cabby, then dashed for the staircase that led to the train platform. His watch showed exactly 10:59. The New York express was scheduled to leave at eleven sharp.
Behind him, morning traffic made its customary din in the streets of the Quaker City. Automobile horns _whonked_ belligerently. Radio loudspeakers blared from the doorways of tiny Market Street shops. A newsboy bellowed headlines on the European war situation. A bus chugged into the station, disgorged its cargo of human freight, lumbered ponderously on down the street. A vendor offered dried lavender; his whine was a thin, discordant note in the hum of a busy city.
But Larry Wilson, intent only on gaining the train platform above, did not notice these things. He brushed by a puffing matron at the foot of the stairs, steamed past a descending red-cap, and noticed with only casual interest as he took the steps three at a time a silken-clad calf before him. He might make it yet, he thought hopefully, if--
Then, suddenly, something was indefinably _wrong_!
Larry had ascended these stairs dozens of times in the past, both leisurely and, as now, at top speed. But at no time had they ever been like this! His stride faltered; then, even as the first, tiny fingers of wonderment plucked at his bewildered brain, he realized that the bright electric lights that limned the staircase had vanished. That in their place was a dull, unearthly, grayish glow that seemed to emanate equally from the walls, the staircase, and from the roof above him.
His foot, reaching for the next step, encountered no support. He staggered, thrown off balance, and stumbled forward to his hands and knees. Yet he was not bruised. As he fell he realized, with numb astonishment, that the steps were no longer there!
Wildly he scrambled to save himself. His shoulder collided with something fragrantly yielding. His outthrust hand clutched warm, firm flesh cased in sheer silk. Then he was falling helplessly, headlong, dizzily, down a dim tunnel of spinning grayness--and he was rolling over and over on a warm, grassy turf. The scent of flower-laden air was in his nostrils.
And a voice was saying indignantly, "Well, really! _If_ you don't mind--!"
* * * * *
In one hand Larry still clutched his bag. In the other--. He flushed, relaxed his grip in swift embarrassment. The girl was the one whom he had glimpsed before him on the steps of the Broad Street Station. It was her ankle that, in his moment of blind groping, his hand had clutched.
"I--I'm sorry!" gulped Larry. "I didn't mean to be--" Then he stopped, staring about him transfixed. "But what's this? Where the he--I mean, where in blazes are we?"
They were lying on a grassy plain horizoned by a forest of towering trees that reached aimlessly toward a wan and cloudless sky. The girl, her own blue eyes wide in astonishment, forgot her pique in amazement that matched his.
"I don't know. I was running for the train--"
"So was I. I saw you on the steps. Just then the staircase seemed to become strangely gray--"
"And it moved!" added the girl. "I remember now. Something like a _ripple_ passed over it--"
"I didn't see that," admitted Larry. "I was too busy running. But--but where are we, anyway?"
A touch of panic flickered in the girl's eyes.
"We--we couldn't be dead?"
Larry shook his head. "I thought of that. But it isn't likely. Not both of us. One of us might have fallen down the steps and broken a neck--but not two, together. And there was no explosion or anything like that. I don't see--"
Suddenly the girl gasped, clutching his arm.
"Look! Over there in the trees!"
Larry looked--and moved swiftly. With a jerk, he ripped open his bag, pawed through its contents, and came up with a snub-nosed automatic.
"Get behind me!" he shouted. "I don't know what's going on here, but--"
"Don't shoot!" The girl's hands tightened swiftly about his wrist, dragged it down as he drew a careful bead on the towering beast that, from the edge of the grassy glen, surveyed the two through tiny, myopic eyes.
An incredible mountain of flesh it was. More than eighty feet long with a rubbery, elephantine hide that draped its ugly carcass in sinewy ripples. Its long neck, surmounted by a ridiculously minute head, twitched nervously from one side to the other as its inadequate nostrils strove to identify this strange, tantalizingly foreign scent.
As Larry watched spellbound, the gigantic monster broke into lumbering motion. Its huge feet created thunder as it crashed blindly through the forest, leaving in its wake a swath of broken young trees and trampled underbrush.
"It won't attack us," explained the girl in answer to Larry's questioning stare. "It's herbivorous. That is, if it's what I think it is. It was probably more frightened than we were. But how it ever got here, in _this_ age--"
"For Pete's sake, what was it?"
The girl shook her head. "Unless," she answered slowly, "I've gone completely mad--and I may easily have done so--it was a brontosaurus! An ancient reptile of the Mesozoic Age. _The last one should have died over a hundred million years ago!_"
"Preposterous!" gasped Larry.
"I know it's preposterous. But we saw it. Which means--" The girl turned a puzzled face to him. "Do you know anything about Time?"
"Time?" Larry glanced at his watch. "Why, it's exactly 10:59. Say, that's funny! It was just 10:59 when I was running up those steps."
"I don't mean that kind of time. Though that may have something to do with it. I mean, do you know anything about the scientific theory of Time? For if our experience means anything ... if that really was a brontosaurus we saw ... and if your wrist-watch has stopped at 10:59...."
"Yes?" said Larry.
"Then," said the girl solemnly, "somehow or other you and I have experienced a temporal shift outside the ken of Earthly physics. We are lost in Time!"
* * * * *
"Neatly put, young lady!" said a quiet, approving voice. "Very neatly decided. I should not have expected such quick intelligence from one of your era."
Larry and the girl turned swiftly. Standing near them was a tiny man, no higher than Larry's shoulders. He wore a curious one-piece garment of woven metal fabric, on the belt or harness of which depended a host of studded instruments, pouches, and oddly shaped tools or ornaments.
Upon his overlarge, almost bulbous head was a sort of cap which completely covered his scalp and ears. Strange telescopic glasses, covering his bulging eyes, lent his face an elfin quality. There was a pleased smile on his lips--one which disclosed a pale, double ridge of cartilage in his upper and lower jaws where his teeth should have been. His face was smooth and hairless.
"Who," demanded Larry, "are you? And how did you get here?"
"You were so engrossed in the brontosaurus," said the diminutive stranger, "that you did not notice my approach. Permit me to introduce myself. I am Harg-Ofortu, Chief Archeologist of the Planetary Museum. And you?"
"Larry Wilson. Civil engineer. And this is Miss--Miss--"
"Sandra Day," supplied the girl. "I am--or was--assistant curator of the Philadelphia Museum."
"So?" The little man nodded delightedly. "Don't tell me, now. Let me guess!" He placed a wizened finger on his temple, studied the two carefully. "Those garments ... and that antique firearm ... your early Amerglish speech ... I should judge you to be from that period just preceding the Communal World State. About the year--let me see--the year 2000 A.D. Is that right?"
"You know damned well it's right!" snorted Larry. "This is the year 1940, of course. What's the gag?"
"Gag?" repeated Harg wonderingly. "Oh, yes--gag! A jest; a trick. Why, there is no--er--gag. I was merely attempting to place your position in the world line. You see, _this_ is the year M-62. You would call it--" He pondered briefly. "You would call it--25,983 A.D."
"What!" Larry's fingers crept tighter about the butt of his automatic. "Hey, Sandra, let's get out of here! This guy's nuts!"
Harg smiled upon the young engineer benignly, but his hand toyed with one of the metallic studs on his harness. "I shouldn't attempt anything--er--rash, if I were you," he suggested quietly. "I believe the young lady is beginning to comprehend. Am I not right, Miss Day?"
"I--I think so," nodded the girl faintly. "Larry, this really is the two-hundred-and-sixtieth century. Harg is not fooling us. Through some incredible accident ... or maybe by design...."
Harg rubbed his wee hands together triumphantly.
"But by design!" he cried. "Oh, most assuredly by design! _I_ brought you here! I, Harg-Ofortu! You are the results of my experiments."
"Experiments?" Larry didn't like the sound of the word. His eyes narrowed.
"Yes. The results of my experiments with the Time warp. Surely you know that Time can be warped? But, yes--of course you do. Even in your unenlightened era men had begun to recognize that fact. Still, it has taken all these intervening millenia for a human brain to unravel the problem of utilizing this knowledge. And I, Harg-Ofortu, have done it! I have brought you here, alive and unharmed, as a living proof of my genius."
"And now that we're here--?" began Sandra.
"Ah, the glory that is yours! You most fortunate children of a slumbrous past. From you we shall learn many things, things to fill gaps in our history of mankind. From your infantile brains we can extract racial memories stretching back to the early simian beginnings. From your bodies we can learn the history of man's early structure.
"You have hair! Teeth! Ears! It would not even surprise me to find that you have rudimentary gills. Maybe vermiform appendices! Oh, what marvelous subjects you will make for the dissecting table!"
Sandra's color fled; her breath hissed sharply.
"Dissecting table! But surely you can't mean to use us for--"
Harg silenced her with a tiny gesture. "Come, now. Let us waste no more time in idle chatter. We have delayed long enough, and I am afire with impatience. We will go to the laboratory."
* * * * *
Until this morning, Larry had maintained an incredulous silence. But now, with a sudden movement, he stepped before Sandra, his automatic leveled.
"Not us, fella!" he rapped. "I'm not such a keen student of this Time business, but I know when I'm behind the little black ball numbered eight. You got us here, you say? Okay--we've had a nice visit but we don't like the climate. So we'll be toddling off now. Send us back where we belong. And--" He jiggled the gun threateningly. "And get working on it before I make you look like a second-hand punch-board."
"My dear aborigine!" laughed Harg softly. His tiny fingers sought and pressed one of his metal studs. A golden glow diffused about him, forming a radiant mesh of shimmering light about his body. "Certainly you do not think to harm _me_ with your elementary weapon of destruction? Now, come, before I am compelled to use force."
"You," said Larry grimly, "asked for it!" And his finger tightened on the trigger. The automatic barked leaden death directly at Harg's breast. The little man of time yet-to-be smiled maddeningly. Before Larry's stupefied gaze, a flattened, shapeless blob of lead _splatted_ against the golden haze, fell dully to the ground!
Again Larry fired. This time Harg moved slightly. The bullet glanced off the lustrous force-armor, ricocheted from the ochre web to fly screaming into the woods beyond. Larry flung his impotent weapon away.
"Well, if that won't do it, maybe _this_--" And he stepped toward the smirking scientist, fists clenched. His arms touched the thin mist, then his heaving chest.
And, strangely, his head was aswim with an overwhelming giddiness. His limbs were numb with a creeping impotence that suffused his body, dulled his senses. The gray sky above seemed to recede far, far into the distance. There was mocking laughter in his ears, darkness gathering before his eyes. The last sound he heard as he sank, weak and helpless, into the swirling haze of unconsciousness, was the cry of Sandra Day--
First all was blackness, then in that blackness was a spot of light that grew larger and larger and ever larger until the world was filled with roaring light. And now the dim, fluttering sounds began to make sense, and a voice was saying, "I see the young man is awakening. Good. Now we will take a little trip through my laboratories."
This was Larry Wilson's welcome to the incredible surroundings in which he found himself.
He was lying on a small pallet. Or, rather, two small pallets which had been placed end to end to accommodate his six-foot frame. Above him was a silken coverlet, beneath his head a soft pillow cased in the same material. He moved an arm experimentally and discovered that his rough, English tweed business suit was missing, as were his heavy leather brogues. While he had been unconscious, someone had replaced his Twentieth Century garments with those of Harg's era.
A soft and pliable leather harness fitted snugly about his waist--but as he stretched himself up from his cot he saw that his gear lacked the multitude of cryptic studs and instruments with which the scientist's had been decked.
Then, "Larry--you're all right?"
Sandra Day, who had leaped to her feet as Larry stirred, flew across the room. Her clothing, too, had been supplanted by that of the later era. Her harness differed from Larry's only in the addition of a cupped breast-girdle similar to that once worn by Egyptian women. Leather, soft and white and pliant, clung closely to her slim, lithe body. As Larry looked at her, she faltered. A slow flush mantled her cheeks. Harg moved forward, a delighted gleam in his protruding eyes.
"Modesty!" he said in a tone of enchantment. "Sex shame! Imagine! And we had believed that it died out long before the Machine Era. It would be interesting to mate you two young people and--" He stroked his temple thoughtfully. "But we will think of that later. Come, my dear young savages. Let me show you my _other_ experiments."
Larry's eyes, smoldering rebellion, sought those of Sandra. The girl's cheeks still flamed with a high pride, but she nodded almost imperceptibly, cautioning him to cause no immediate trouble. He grunted, "Okay, let's go. What is there to see?"
The chamber in which he had awakened was a square box of metal, lighted from above by concealed globes of cold light. No windows or doors marred the smooth luster of the walls. But as Harg stepped forward and touched his fingers to a spot on the wall briefly, a section slid back, exposing a brilliantly lighted corridor beyond.
Silently the three moved into the passage, Larry bringing up the rear. As he passed through the portal, he studied it cautiously. If he could only learn the secret of the operation of that door....
"It would do you," Harg interrupted his scrutiny, "no good, of course. This is but one of many inner chambers. There are many other doors and many guards to pass. Moreover, you cannot return to your Time ever--without my help."
Larry started guiltily. The man was uncanny! He seemed to be able to read thoughts!
"Now, here--" said Harg, "are the results of some of my earlier attempts to bring life-samples through the Time warp."
They had turned a corner and entered into a long chamber walled into sections. In each section there was an animal of some sort. So lifelike were the postures of these beasts that Larry half expected a cacaphony of protest to greet their entrance. But the creatures were stiff, silent. Harg smiled his white-gummed, toothless smile.
"Dead," he said regretfully. "All of them. Their bodies survived the passage through the Time warp. But when they arrived, the spark had gone. We have identified most of them. But some still puzzle us."
* * * * *
He pointed to the motionless figures in the cages as, one by one, they passed them. "A cow," he said, "which I brought through from the Fiftieth Century. Notice the exaggerated udders. The result of centuries of cross-breeding for milk. Somewhat different from the same beast of your day, I presume.
"This next is a pterodactyl from the Jurassic Age. I am glad to say it lived two whole weeks after coming down through the warp. The hardier animals were the only ones to survive at all--until I perfected my process. You have already seen my brontosaurus. A harmless thing. We allow it to roam freely, but we had to destroy the dinosaur that came after it....
"You recognize this sabre-toothed tiger? And the kangaroo? An interesting subject, by the way. I brought it through from the year 12,000. It had reached a high stage of development and could converse in simple phrases. A far cry from man's estate, however."
"You mean," said Sandra, "it could talk?"
"Oh, yes. But then many of the lower animals _do_ speak, you know. Of course I use the ancient meaning of the word. I mean they employ the vocal organs. They have not _this_!" He tapped the skull covering which both Larry and the girl had noticed before.
"That?" said Larry wonderingly. "What is it?"
But the little man was wringing his hands in exasperation. "Now, I declare!" he cried. "All this time, you have been opening and closing your mouths while we were communicating, and I thought it was caused by some physical disturbance! _You_ use vocal converse, too!"
"But of course," said the girl.
"It is quite unnecessary!" snapped the scientist. "With the _menaudo_, I can understand your thoughts clearly--and communicate my own to you, as well. In the future, both of you will be kind enough to think without speaking!"
"Why?" asked Larry bluntly. "Miss Day and I aren't mind-reading big-brains like you. If we wish to speak to each other--"
For the first time since they had met him, Harg's ever-present smile faded. A trace of his annoying superiority, self-confidence, seeped away. In his eyes there was a groping expression oddly akin to fear.
"There is nothing you need tell her!" he ordered. "I do not care to risk my--" He stopped suddenly, cannily. When he spoke again, it was in a milder tone. "You may, if you wish, converse with your mouths when I am not present. But in my presence I require you to think your conversation."
A sudden suspicion began to form in Larry's mind. He stifled it instantly; thrust it from him lest Harg grasp that faint, half-formed thought. Hastily he changed the subject.
"This other beast--" he began aloud. Then, remembering Harg's warning, he stopped and rephrased the query in his mind. "This other strange beast," he thought. "What is it?"
He knew, then, why Harg had taunted him for his interest in the mechanism of the door. For swift as an arrow the answer formed itself in his brain.
"A phoenix," replied Harg, "of the late Stone Age. A most curious creature; half animal, half bird. Originally it was a native of the planet Mars. It adapted itself to utter cold and airlessness when that planet's atmosphere waned. A few phoenix migrated to Earth, but failed to survive in our heavy atmosphere."
"That explains," cried Sandra, "the legend of the phoenix prevalent in our day. It was believed that the bird destroyed itself in fire to rise again, reborn."
"An amusing misapprehension," nodded Harg. "No doubt it was founded on someone's having seen a phoenix pass unscathed through flame. The creature was quite immune to temperature changes. But not to disease. It was this that, finally, caused its extinction.
"Now, in this next chamber--" He paused, obviously piqued. "I must confess, we have been unable to classify this beast. It is utterly unknown to our science. Apparently it does not breed true, nor can we determine its age--"
Larry and Sandra stared once at the quadruped in the booth, then broke into a duet of long and hearty laughter. Harg stared at them annoyedly. "Well?" he snapped. "Well?"
Larry said solemnly, "Harg, you've caught a rare beast there. There are none left in your day and age except the two-legged variety."
Harg said, "You know it, then? Its name, quickly!"
"We call it," Larry told him, grinning, "the jackass!"
* * * * *
The tour of inspection completed, Harg returned his two captives to the cell they shared. When the door closed behind him, Larry turned swiftly to Sandra.
"Now what? I'm not sure I understand just what's going on around here, but whatever it is, it means trouble. Spelled with a capital 'Harg.' That little monkey didn't knock me cold with his yellow fuzz just for the hell of it. He means business."
"I'm afraid," said Sandra seriously, "he intends to do just what he said--and in just as offhand a manner as that in which he mentioned it. To probe our brains for race memories, then dissect us for biological knowledge."
"But why?" demanded Larry. "For Lord's sake, why? We're human beings, the same as he. He couldn't kill us in cold blood, just to--"
"To him," said Sandra, "we are nothing but a pair of savages. He is not being deliberately cruel, no more so than a Twentieth Century scientist who practices vivisection to add to his knowledge. He is proud of us as an acquisition. May even like us in some cold, inhuman fashion, as we like cats and dogs. But we represent a scientific problem to be solved--and there is no thought in his mind of mercy."
"Then," said Larry forcefully, "we've got to pull our freight. Get out of here. But how? That's the rub."
"We're helpless against him," mused the girl, "on all save one point. That is the subject he wanted to avoid. Hearing. Larry--Harg can't hear! Not as we understand the word. His ears have atrophied. Or, perhaps--" A sudden light shone in her eyes. "I have it! His ears are--"
"Wait a minute!" broke in Larry excitedly. "For once I beat you to the draw. I guessed it in the museum. These jaspers of the 260th Century are not only _unable_ to hear, they're _afraid_ to hear! They wear those leather headgears because they have to. Because something had made them extremely sensitive to percussion."
"And I know," chimed in the girl positively, "what caused it. It was the change!"
"Yes. You've noticed the sky, haven't you? Didn't you see something strange about it?"
Larry thought for a moment. Then, "The sun! There isn't any sun."
"There is a sun," cried the girl, "but you can't see it. It's concealed behind a huge dome of _impervite_--a sort of leaded, polarized glass. Harg told me all about it while you were unconscious.
"In the year 17,000 A.D., or thereabouts, there was a terrible catastrophe on Earth. Man's constant drainage of electrical energy created a rupture in the Heaviside layer, and the layer collapsed. As you know, the Heaviside layer is Earth's only protection against potentials from space, from the undiluted strength of the Milliken rays.
* * * * *
"Without that protection, life on Earth was doomed. So large areas were domed over with this sixty-foot-thick layer of _impervite_. And--"
"And in the meantime," interrupted Larry, "intense subjection to cosmic radiation, along with the increasing use of telepathy, turned the human race's hearing apparatus from a useful organ into a vestigial one."
"And one," agreed the girl, "sensitive as the nerve of a tooth. It must be that. It couldn't be anything else. So there is Harg's weakness. Now, if we can only find some way to play upon it--"
Larry said gloomily, "But he still is the only one who can return us to our own time."
Sandra's hand touched his swiftly, confidently.
"We'll find some way to make him," she whispered. "We'll do it, you and I--"
Even under these circumstances Larry Wilson found the touch of that hand thrilling, the confidence of Sandra's voice, with its "you and I," endearing. It was a jest of the gods that this new glory should have come to him at last in such a situation. But the year mattered little. Time or no Time, he knew, and he thought she knew--
"Sandra," he said, "there is one thing--"
"Shhh!" she cautioned suddenly. "Footsteps!"
The metallic doorpane slid back, and once again Harg entered the room, this time accompanied by a pair of diminutive companions garbed in plainer, cruder harness than that of the scientist. Larry made an effort to expunge all thought from his mind, fearful that the man of the future might read his new determination. But Harg smiled easily.
"You will come with me now, Miss Day."
Instantly Larry was on the alert. "Where are you taking her?"
"It is not yours to ask, savage," said Harg curtly. "But reassure yourself. She will come to no harm."
Sandra's eyes pleaded with Larry; silently she let the attendants lead her away. After the door had closed behind them, Larry began to pace the floor angrily. His mind was tumultuous with conflicting thoughts and emotions. Damn them! he thought. If this was the world of the future, it would be better that the future never come! Anyway, he knew he wanted none of it! He wanted to be back in the good old Twentieth Century where men were men, not callous, grinning little sawed-off runts.
But--how to get there?
* * * * *
A scraping sound from the farther wall of his cell interrupted his angry reverie. Instantly Larry was again a man of action. On silent feet he tiptoed toward the mysterious sound. The scratching persisted. Larry drew a deep breath, then pounded on the metal with his bare fist.
Immediately the noise ended. Larry waited breathlessly. Was this a trap of some kind? Or was it just some experiment of Harg's, designed to test him as laboratory students test the reaction of rats in a maze?
His footsteps deliberately loud, he stomped away from the wall. Then he stole back quietly. After a brief moment of waiting, the gentle, fumbling sound resumed. Larry pressed his ear to the metal wall. He could hear a faint noise as of someone breathing deeply. He leaned closer....
Then, suddenly, the wall before him slid away, and he was catapulted forward against a flesh-and-blood body that grunted under the impact of his weight!
Larry regained his balance; came up with doubled fists. But his fists, like his mouth, dropped open abruptly as he stared in astonishment at his antagonist. This was no puny dwarfling such as he had expected. This was a _man_--a man whose stature was greater even than his own! A mighty, bronzed, strong-thewed giant with a shock of silvery-white hair capped by the _menaudo_ of the future folk!
The great one's face was etched with bitter lines of disappointment. But the look faded as his eyes swept up Larry's six foot frame, noted the breadth of shoulder and the lean, hard muscles of arm and thigh. The stranger rose, and his full lips parted in a smile of greeting.
And, "Peace, friend!" he said in a deep, resonant voice, "I, too, am a captive!"
Sandra Day, seated in an inner chamber of Harg's laboratories, watched curiously as the little scientist busied himself with cryptic recording devices. Two assistants silently performed the tasks allotted them. Save for these three, the room was innocent of humans. Harg turned to one of the assistants.
"Where is the _menaudo_ for our subject?" he snapped.
The man stared stupidly. "In the vaults, Master. I did not know you would want one."
"Fool! You should have known. Let me have yours."
The assistant paled. "No, no, Master! I will get another one quickly. See, I run--"
"You will not be harmed, dolt!" said Harg coldly. "You may get another for yourself immediately--but now I need one for Miss Day. Come, the _menaudo_!"
Reluctantly, fearfully, the assistant stripped the telepathic device from his hairless pate, passed it to Harg. Harg handed it to Sandra. "You will put this on. While my _menaudo_ allows us to converse normally, the experiment we are about to try requires complete flux between both minds. This is only possible when each person wears the _menaudo_."
Sandra understood, now, why her innermost thoughts, her conversations with Larry, had not been intercepted. Telepathy was a matter of willed direction. Thought beams, being electrical, radiated only toward a focused object. Harg could only receive the messages she allowed him to get.
Her eyes flickered lightly over the assistant who had already started for the door. Now was the time to test her theory. She scraped one sandalled foot raspingly across the rung of her chair. The noise was a tiny, grating squeak, barely audible--but the assistant's face contorted in swift agony. His eyes bulged with alarm; he clapped his hands to his ears and raced from the chamber.
"Hurry, woman!" Harg was growing impatient. Subduing her smile of triumph with an effort, Sandra buckled on the _menaudo_. As she did so, a wild giddiness assailed her; she grasped the arms of the chair for support. A powerful wave length of forces unsuspected burst through her brain. She caught the faint, amused hauteur of the assistant across the room; felt Harg's keen, scalpel-like mentality probing the depths of her mind. The giddiness passed as she became accustomed to the strange sensation. The turmoil in her brain settled, from its chaos came clear-cut order.
"You must relax now. Clear your mind of all extraneous thought. I wish to learn something of your former existences...."
Strange that Harg's eyes should be so large. They were like a large light glowing deep into the dark recesses of her brain. A light that kept her awake when she was so tired ... so tired....
If she could but rest, now. Sleep for a while and let the dizzy years slip by ... and the strange sounds ... and the strange scenes ... for surely this could not be she? But it was she ... and she was standing by the open fireplace in a medieval castle, facing a knight in full battle-armor.... Her heart was filled with nameless anguish....
* * * * *
"Prithee, lass," he was saying, "take this parting not to heart. Ere the moon wanes our work shall be at an end, the king avenged and the foul despoiler wrenched from the arms of his scuttish lady. Mordred hath said--"
"Mordred! Mordred!" she cried bitterly. "Even now it is Mordred you speak of. Yet aforetime didst thou call him a prince's brat and a lickspittle. Pray, Gawaine, my love, forswear this mad fancy and flee now to the defense of our lady Guenevere ere it be too late!"
"Nay, sweet," was his answer. "If Arthur be not shamed of his own cuckolddry, then must the Table Round avenge the pride of Britain for him. But, hark! Gareth calls. I must leave thee, love. Farewell. I return soon."
He strode from the hall, proud and straight in his armor. She wept and could not tell why. "Gawaine, my lord!" she sobbed. "There bodes in me a sense that nevermore shall we twain meet...."
"_Go back!" a voice was whispering in Sandra's mind. "Back farther still. To the days of the past...._"
The _daryeb_ glided, soft as the wing of a moth, upon the smooth blue waters of the Nile. The golden cascade of the sun baked the _sudd_ that floated on the water's surface. She raised her finger imperiously and the boatsman obediently turned the light craft to the shore.
As the Nubian reefed the sail, a young man ran down from the portal of the observatory to the edge of the beach. He grasped her hands eagerly. "Belia!" He bent and smothered a kiss in her perfumed hair. She drew away, pouting.
"Now, by Set," she swore prettily, "thou are more ardent than the bulls of Anubis--when the sun shines. But at night where art thou? In there--star-gazing!" She glanced distastefully at the massive pyramid built by the Pharoah Cheops for his astronomers.
Her lover's bronzed face sobered.
"Great things betoken, lovely Belia. Things thou wouldst scarce understand." He pointed to the blinding orb that blazed above them. "Hear, now--ever has man thought that Ra drives his golden chariot about our mother Earth. But now I, silent and alone, have learned a greater truth. It is not the sun that moveth--but _we_! Ra's abode is the hub about which our tiny mote revolveth! This message have I sent, with my proofs thereof, to the great Pharoah. When he has read them, glory and fame will be my lot!"
A swift fang of fear, sharper than the sting of the scorpion, knifed her heart. Her voice was deep and low.
"You speak sacrilege, my love! What have you done? Not fame will be thy lot--but swift death! This thing cannot be so...."
"_Into the years beyond," came the whispered command. "Project yourself still further backward, woman from the past. Back ... and back ... and back...._"
Dank, steamy rain splattered on her crouched back, plastering the long, coarse hair to her naked body. A tongue of flame ripped from the thunderous vault above and the gods roared in mighty anger. She was Thaa, daughter of Gor, mate of Bab the Hungry One.
Hunkered against the farthest wall of their cave, she shivered with cold and fright as she clutched her mewling newborn to her downy breast. Ten days had the god-tears fallen, now, turning the world into a morass of water. The time of Great Cold approached, when meat was scarce and comfort scarcer. Thaa shivered.
Again the gods hurled a shaft of forked light down the skies. Bab, glowering at the cave mouth, called to her.
She sidled to him, forgotting her coldness in the strange sight that greeted her eyes. In the plain below was a round and shining ball. A cave stood open in the sides of the ball; from this cave issued creatures. Not men, like themselves, nor animals like Tran the Long-Toothed or Shur the Swinger. But odd creatures dressed in silver hair that glistened. Hastily she swung behind Bab as he clambered down the side of the cliff, intent on plumbing this marvel.
* * * * *
Fearlessly they approached the shining ball. One of the creatures raised his voice in strange, fluent, meaningless syllables. Others of the Shining Ones came running. They raised hands in token of friendship. Bab and Thaa responded. Thaa shivered in awe as she watched the strange beings. Were they gods? she thought.
One of the visitors saw her shiver, moved forward.
"Poro methe eus?" he asked.
Thaa gazed at him dumbly; her eyes adoring. The tongue of the gods was not for mortals to know. She bowed. The young visitor turned to one of his elders.
"The creature is cold, but knows not that I have asked her so. What shall I do?"
The elder nodded sadly.
"What matters it? Let them live or die, sad brutes, as you think best. When I consider the waste, the futility, of our tedious voyage across the emptiness of space to find _these_ as our neighbors--" He sighed.
"Yet some day," mused the younger one, "may evolve from these beasts men like ourselves. Who knows? Our world is older than theirs, and wiser. Yet even now our planet is dying. By the time they have become intelligent enough to return this visit, we may be dead, our civilization ended.
"Poor brutes! I am minded to show them kindness. They should live. We can give them at least one comfort--"
From his pocket he drew a glittering toy. As Thaa watched he pressed it. A ruddy, wavering tongue licked from its mouth. "Poro methe eus?" he repeated gently. He handed the tiny cylinder to Bab. Bab's clumsy fingers fumbled with the button, once more the tongue of fire leaped forth. Bab dropped the bauble, howling, and scampered for the refuge of his cave.
But Thaa retrieved the little gift. She too pressed the release, and a pleasure-look passed over her features. Here was warmth! Here was a god-gift against the time of the Great Cold. With this to protect them, their cave would be always comfortable. She raised her eyes gratefully.
"Poro-pro--" Her brute tongue mouthed the god-words awkwardly. "Pro--methe--eus--"
"_Back ... back ..." whispered the insistent command. "Back farther still. To the very dawn of life...._"
_She heard the voice but could not obey. Her mind was a vast sea of swirling blackness, her senses shrieked in rebellion against intolerable pain. "Back--" Mad pictures imaged on her brain, fled howling. There was one brilliant burst of coruscating light--then darkness and peace._
Harg-Ofortu frowned impatiently, fingered his subject's pulse, and snapped off a switch. He motioned to his assistant. "The woman," he said, "has fainted. Take her away. We will continue our experiments later."
* * * * *
When Sandra wakened at last, it was to find Larry bending over her, chafing her wrists, looking down into her eyes anxiously. There was a lingering warmth on her lips; short seconds ago might have found his face even closer to hers. He sighed with relief as her eyes opened. The sigh became an oath.
"Damn his rotten little hide! I thought you were out for keeps. What did he do, Sandy? Are you all right?"
She was all right. A little rocky. She discovered that when she tried to rise and her head ached wickedly. But she was all right. She told him her memories of the experiment. "It was like a horrible dream, Larry. But it was more than a dream. It was true. I have lived those scenes before ... somewhere ... sometime. They were so clear, so vivid." She shuddered. "But I hate to think of going through that again. I won't be able to stand it. I could feel my brain tottering on the brink of insanity toward the end."
Larry said savagely, "You won't have to go through it again!"
Sandra touched his hand, smiling wanly. "It's no use pretending, Larry. We're caught in a trap, you and I. Fate has destroyed us; thrust us forward into a Time when man is without mercy. Humanity is dead. All that remains is a race of grinning, scientific demons."
"That," interrupted Larry feverishly, "is where you're wrong, youngster! I haven't been sitting around twiddling my thumbs while you were gone. I've had a visitor."
Larry told her, then, of the silver-haired giant who had forced entrance into the cell. "His name was Sert. He was a man and a friend. He was one of the Underlings."
"The Underlings?" repeated Sandra.
"Yes. This world we are in is not peopled only by cold-blooded creatures like Harg. There are two mutant races of humanity. One tall and strong, as we always dreamed the future-man might be; the other spindling, puny, and viciously intelligent.
"These latter, Harg and his fellows, are the descendants of those men whose brains, for some reason more receptive to the stimulus of ultra-short wave radiation, were spurred to great heights during the period of the Great Catastrophe.
"The cosmic bombardment had three types of result. Either it killed outright--and Sert tells me that millions died--or it damaged the brain and did not harm the body, or it impaired the physique and stimulated the brain. During the era of chaos which preceded the building of the _impervite_ domes, the highly activated dwarfs seized the reins of leadership. They have held them ever since. The Underlings are their workers, their slaves, their servants."
Sandra said despairingly, "But I don't see how it can profit us to join forces with dull-witted slaves--"
"Slaves, yes! But they are dull-witted no longer. Generations have erased the madness from the Underlings' brains. The Masters hold them in subjection now only because they have superior armament. The golden force-ray, for one thing.
"But rebellion is stirring amongst the Underlings. Sert is one of the leaders of a secret rebel party. He was stealing through the building, seeking new converts, when he accidentally entered our cell."
Some of Larry's excitement communicated itself to the girl. She said, "But what are we going to do?"
"Sert," Larry told her, "taught me how to open the doors around this joint. It's not hard when you get the hang of it. Every wall has a door-lock. The locks work on a network of selenium cells imbedded in the metal; these are controlled automatically by body-radiation emanating from the fingertips. Ever hear of anything like that before?"
Sandra said dazedly, "Mitogenic radiation!"
"Yes. That's what Sert called it, too. Well, all you have to do is discover the proper way to touch the doors. The right combination and bingo! If your fingers are sensitive, you can do it without much fumbling. I learned easily."
"You still haven't told me what we're going to--"
"We're pulling out of this coop--tonight! In the machine shops, Sert has a gang of a half hundred rebels. We will join them."
"Then," said Larry tightly, "we'll figure out some way to clean out this rat's nest. We're going to give Earth back to the Men again. And I do mean 'men!'"
Larry Wilson tossed a grin over his shoulder to the girl behind him. His fingers moved swiftly, deftly, twisting into strange, unnatural angles as he sought the combination that would open the smooth wall before him.
"Some fun, hey?"
Sandra said anxiously, "How much farther, Larry?"
"We're almost there now. Sert told me there were nine chambers between the one we were in and the machine room. They're all supposed to be unoccupied, too."
"But--if they're not?"
"Then our plans go up the creek. But Sert wouldn't be likely to make a mistake. He has more at stake than we--Ah! There she blows!"
Larry's fingers had finally moved into the right combination. The smooth wall slid back. The pair from the past moved into the next room of the labyrinth of the future. The door closed behind them, and Larry moved immediately to the wall fronting them.
"One more small chamber, and then--"
He stopped, shocked and alarmed. For just as his hand touched the wall, it moved backward and a figure loomed before him. Sandra screamed a little scream of fright. To be so near success, and then--
But the voice that spoke was that of a friend.
"Ah, Larry Wilson! You were long in coming. So I came to find you. But, come! Our council awaits you."
The three entered, then, the final and largest of the chambers. During the working hours of the day it was a machine shop in which Underlings toiled under the harsh supervision of their Master overseers. Now it was deserted save for rather more than twoscore conspirators similar in physique and coloring to the leader, Sert.
Introductions were a brief formality. It was evident that some of the Underlings could not comprehend the anomaly of Sandra and Larry's presence. But what these rebel serfs lacked in intellect they made up for in their lust for freedom. And the two young Americans, hailing from a land that, in its time, had been the bulwark of this precious inheritance, felt a kinship with the suppressed uprisers.
At length Sert said, "--so that is as far as our plans have gone, Larry Wilson. You see how pitifully inadequate they are.
"Not only do the Masters outnumber us, but theirs is the possession of the golden force-ray which no armament can pierce. None, that is, of the feeble type we own. The force of our greater strength ... tools converted into crude swords...."
He looked hopelessly at the massive machinery surrounding them. "Could we but find a way to destroy their protective force-field, we would tear these machines into bits to mold weapons for ourselves. But we cannot."
Larry said, "I've been thinking about that problem. And I've got an idea that may or may not work. Sert, it is only the Masters whose ears are sensitive to sound, isn't it? There's nothing wrong with your hearing?"
"That is right, Larry Wilson."
"Then sound--" began Larry.
Sert shook his head. "Do you forget the _menaudo_, my friends? The Masters wear it at all times. It blocks out the sound waves that would torture them, drive them mad."
"I haven't forgotten it," grunted Larry. "I'm trying to think of a way to pour sound over 'em without making 'em remove the football helmet. And I think I know how to do it. Strangely enough, you have to make them turn on the golden force-ray before it will work!"
"I don't understand," said Sert. Others edged in curiously as Larry explained.
"When the force ray surrounds them," he explained, "their bodies become, in effect, a helical core. Such a core can be made responsive to musical tones by what, in my day, we called C.E.M.F.--counter electromotive force. I suppose you know the method of manufacture of the force ray?"
"Not the details. But the purely mechanical part, yes. We wind the relays in this shop--"
"Then," said Larry crisply, "you've got 'em licked! We'll get to work--_now!_--and build an electrical resonator. One that shoots out plenty of noise on the wave length to which their force-fields are attuned. When this howler gets going, the force-field will act as a conductor, leading the sound directly into their bodies!"
Sert's face broke in a huge grin. "And if they turn off the force-field--" he howled.
"Right! You work out on them with whatever you can lay your hands on." Larry was suddenly all work. "Give me one or two technicians and I'll rig up the electrical siren in jig-time. The rest of you start gathering weapons. This rebellion starts the minute they find out what we're cooking up!"
* * * * *
Thus, for the next couple of hours, the room became once more a place of strenuous labor--but this time there was gladness and will in the way the Underling rebels went to work. With ruthless disregard for assigned uses, they tore apart a brace of mighty machines. Bellows sighed, lathes screamed, as rods, bars, balanced shafts became blunt-edged swords, lances and maces.
Meanwhile, in one corner, Larry Wilson cudgeled his brain to remember almost forgotten college physics. Finally his task was done. Before him lay a box some two feet square; within it were two tubes, a slide condenser, and an armature turning on a "howler" disc, pierced with circles of varying diameter. Larry lugged the contraption to Sert's side and crossed his fingers.
"Here it is," he said. "Salvation or the bum's rush in one small package. It'll work as a radio, I know that, but I'm not sure it will pull the trick against the force-field. I've rigged a rheostat control which gives a certain choice of wave-lengths. But if the field blocks 'em all out--"
He shook his head ruefully. But Sert laid a hand on his shoulder. "It will work, my friend," he said. "It will work because--it must! And, now--" He turned to the others gathered about him. "And, now we will strike! For freedom!"
Larry turned to Sandra Day. "This," he said, "is going to be no place for you, darling. Not in a few minutes. So grab yourself a box-seat in the background somewhere and after the fireworks are over I'll--"
The girl said, "L-Larry--what did you say?"
"Beat it. Over in one of the other chambers--"
"No. I mean before that. You called me--" She flushed. That was one thing, Larry discovered, about these clothes of the future. A flush was a real flush, no halfway thing. It started from--
He said, suddenly gentle, "I called you 'darling.' Do you mind--darling?"
"I think," she replied softly, "it's the prettiest word I ever heard." Then she applied that fine feminine attribute for which there is no allowance in man's equations; a woman's logic. "But it is _not_ the word to make me get out of here. I stay, Larry. Beside you--where I belong."
Larry protested, "Now, look here, Sandy--"
She merely smiled sweetly. "How," she asked, "do you operate this gadget? I might need to know, later on."
Larry gave up. Grinning, he showed her.
The other Underlings knew their parts in the short play soon to be enacted. It was a play with a simple plot. It required two stooges; two who, daring swift annihilation, would go forth into the frequented parts of the giant building of which this laboratory was but a section, beard the Masters in their dens, and bring them down to this place.
Already such a pair had been selected from the number--the full fifty, it had warmed Larry's heart to notice--who had volunteered. The rest of the men were waiting ... just waiting. Hopefully. Uncertainly. But hopefully.
Sert came to Larry's side.
"They have been gone a full ten minutes. Do you think, Larry Wilson, we should send out others? Perhaps--"
Then he stopped abruptly. There was the sound of a commotion in one of the corridors leading to the chamber, the scrape of running feet, the clash of metal on metal. Larry grinned, his eyes bright, but there was no humor in his grin.
"There's your answer, Sert!" he roared--and bent to his wave-length howler. As he did so, the two messengers came flying into the machine room. One was unharmed, but the other had, Larry noticed with a swift, sickening distaste, lost an arm completely. It had not been cut off. It had just vanished--and there hung from the man's shoulder a short knob of flesh, seared and crisp at the point of cicatrice. So the Masters, Larry thought, had other weapons in their bag? This must be a needle-sharp heat ray--
* * * * *
There came a sharp impingement of thought on the brains of Larry and Sandra; a command that was so clear and forceful that for a moment Larry's hand stayed in its journey to the rheostat. "Surrender, rebels! Surrender or you die!"
Then the Masters were racing into the room after their prey. A handful of them at first, then more and more until they were a veritable avalanche of tiny, gnome-like, nervous figures with bulbous heads, curiously shaped guns in their wee, gnarled hands. It must have been a rare thing, indeed, to find two rebellious subjects; the very rarity had drawn a horde of dwarflings in full pursuit.
The Masters burst into the room and stopped stock-still, amazed, to find that the loft harbored not two but a half hundred rebels!
It was this moment of shock that released Larry's hand from its motionlessness. The Masters' thoughts died into confusion, and Larry's brain was free. It would remain so, too, he promised himself. Not again would he relax his vigilance thus.
Then, with a wild cry, "For freedom!" the Underlings, led by their chieftain, Sert, sprang forward on their foes! For a split second the Masters' surprise held; the little men stepped backward in stark fear, and a half dozen went down beneath sledgehammer blows of crude weapons clutched by Underlings.
But this moment passed too swiftly. Wee hands flew to studded belts, and suddenly the room was brilliant with the shimmering glow of the Masters' force-fields. Instantly the tide of battle turned. Here, where some steel lever-handle, converted into a mace, was halfway to a Masters' skull, the rod suddenly flew from its wielder's hands, clanging useless across the floor. There an Underlings, grappling with a Master, suddenly slumped into an inert heap. The retreat ended; the Masters, assured again, and confident, stepped forward vengefully. Sert cast a pleading glance at Larry.
"Swiftly, Larry Wilson, or we all perish!"
But Larry was already twisting the vernier; inside his box the howler disc was spinning one way, the armature another, and from the mouth of the electric siren was shrieking an unearthly wail. It ripped and tore at Larry's own eardrums. Surely it would do the same--and worse--to those delicate organs of the Masters if he could but find--
And suddenly he had it. Sandra gripped his shoulder with fingers that bit and clung. "There, Larry! There!"
He stopped his frantic dialing. For now the menacing advance of the Masters had indeed stopped. As one man, they had raised arms to their heads, were pawing wildly at outraged ears tormented despite the _menaudo_. Weapons fell from unheeding fingers; weapons which the Underlings gathered up eagerly.
And now one Master, eyes bulging, the faint froth of madness whitening his lips, opened his mouth and screamed with vocal cords never before used. It was a piteous mewling sound; the first and the last the man ever uttered. For as he cried out he turned off his force-field--and the nearest Underling split him from crown to navel with one slash of a mighty blade.
Nor was he the only one to die thus. All about the room Masters were stumbling, reeling, falling like men overdrunk with the grape of sonic torment. And wherever one succumbed to the temptation of turning off his force-field current--there was death waiting for him. If he did not turn it off, there was death anyway. Hideous and mind-blasting death from Larry's screaming box.
Reinforcements came, stared once into the bloody chamber of rebellion--and fled, hands clutching their ears. A few scattered remnants of the first retribution party managed to escape the debacle. And finally there came a moment when there were no Masters left alive in the room. The battle was over--and the Underlings had won!
* * * * *
Then came Sert to Larry once again, and there was mingled joy and sadness on his face as he held out his hand to the Earthman from long ago.
"The field is ours, Larry Wilson. And it is you who made it so."
Larry said, "Mmm," absently, and turned off the now useless howler. He looked about the room. "How many men did we lose, Sert?"
"Nine dead," replied his friend, "a few injured--but all before you found their force-field's wave-length. A glorious victory, even at such a cost. In the years to come the names of those who died here tonight will be worshipped by a race of free men who were once Underlings."
Larry, brooding thoughtfully, brushed off his final words. "Skip the flag-waving, pal. You sound like a politician back home. This scrap's not over by a damn sight. I think you underestimate the Masters."
Sert said proudly, "And you underestimate our people, Larry Wilson. The news of this battle will spread, and before the next work-period thousands will flock to our standard. We will build more sonic machines, perhaps portable ones, and--"
"Sure. And what are the Masters going to be doing while all this goes on? I'll give even money that right now they're herding in the Underlings from other parts of this city for a little wholesale slaughter. It _is_ a city, isn't it?"
"Yes. One large city-state under a single _impervite_ dome operated from a control chamber."
"Operated?" repeated Larry.
"But, certainly. It can be opened for fresh air to be admitted, or for the egress and entrance of aircraft--"
"Larry!" It was Sandra who interrupted. "There's our answer, Larry. Life is impossible without the protection of the dome. Whoever possesses the dome control chamber holds the whip hand. We must take that!"
Sert's face brightened. "She is right, Larry Wilson. We must take the dome chamber--"
"Wait a minute!" Larry had been thinking swiftly. "Sandy's got something there. But there are angles. First of all, we've got to seize the control chamber, yes. But we also need more men. If we don't get reserve strength--and good, strong fighting men, at that--sooner or later they'll starve us and our little rebellion right out of our cubby-holes.
"Right now the odds are temporarily balanced. We have fewer men, but our men are more powerful. Theirs are the best weapons, but our single weapon makes theirs useless. They control the dome--a point in their favor. But we are fighting for life and freedom--a point in ours.
"So it's a stalemate. And one that will turn into defeat for us unless we move swiftly. Before they recognize our pitiful weakness." He gazed sharply at Sandra. "Sert is needed here, to rally recruits. So it's up to you and me to get control of the dome chamber. I see one way to win. It's a dangerous way, but--"
And he told them. When he had finished speaking, there was a heavy flush on Sert's forehead. He cried, "But no, Larry Wilson! I will not let you and this girl bear the burden of my oppressed race. We must find another way."
"There is," Larry told him, "no other way. Sandy?"
The girl placed her hand in his. "It is the only way, Larry," she said. "Darling," she added--and smiled.
It took but a short time to make their final preparations. Larry taught a half dozen Underlings how to operate his howler, also taught them how to build others like it.
"Now get to work," he told them grimly. "Make as many of these gadgets as you can. And make 'em light and small, portable, so you can carry them around with you."
He turned to Sert. "Well, this is it, pal. Keep your eye peeled for the signal. 'One if by land and two if by sea.'"
Sert said puzzledly, "What's that?"
"Skip it. What I mean is, watch the dome. If you smell something funny, that'll be fresh air, and it'll mean Sandy and I have taken the fort. Attack then. We'll be in a position to crack a whip over the runts." He held out his hand. "Be seein' you, guy! Let's go, Sandy."
Together they made their way through the labyrinth of chambers to their own cell. This time Larry fumbled less with the mitogenic locks that barred their progress; it took them but a few minutes to make the journey.
Yet even at that they barely returned in time. As they came through the chambers, Larry reminded Sandra, "We're banking on the fact that Harg doesn't know we've been out of our coop. That's our story and we're stuck with it. If by any chance he or a guard happened in while we were out, we're sunk, but--"
"It's a chance worth taking," nodded the girl.
"Yes. The big idea is to get to that control chamber. I think we can do it because Harg, big-shot as he may be, has one bad failing. Human vanity. So remember, play up to whatever I say."
"Okay, boss!" said Sandra meekly. But there was a crinkle of laughter in her eyes.
Then they were back in their own cell, the door behind them was sliding closed--and almost immediately the one before them was sliding open to admit Harg-Ofortu and a brace of armed guards!
There was fretfulness on the little scientist's face, fretfulness that turned to swift suspicion as Larry and Sandra started guiltily. His eyes swept the room, returned to Larry. Larry felt the raw demand of Harg's first directed thought, "Can these two--?" then he felt the tenuous fingers of Harg's probing mentality seeking information from his mind. With an effort he forced himself to think of simple, unimportant things. He concentrated on the tag end of an old nonsense rhyme--
/P "Oh, do I is? And am I be? Or couldn't I have used to be? Oh, cruel fate, which was to me; I used to ain't!" P/
--and chuckled inwardly to catch the shocked repercussion of Harg's amazed, "Incredible! These barbarians are simple minded children!" Then Harg spoke. Or directed a thought to the Twentieth Century couple, his equivalent of speech.
"You will come with me!"
Larry pretended alarm. "Why? We are comfortable here. We don't want to--"
"I am doing," Harg advised him crisply, "that which is best for you. There has been a little--er--disturbance in the city. I am removing you to safer quarters. I will not have my experiments upset by--"
"By--?" prodded Larry.
"That is not your concern. Come!"
* * * * *
Harg led the way through the corridors. Larry and Sandra followed docilely. With suspicious alacrity, had the little man but known it. As they walked, Larry deliberately made his thoughts clear that Harg might interpret them. "He can't be anyone important around here. He's just one of the small fry. Obviously, he isn't very intelligent--"
Harg heard--he could not help but hear. And he understood. He could not help but understand. His wizened cheeks gained an unexpected color. He turned to Larry angrily.
"It might interest you to learn, my dear savage," he snapped, "that your thoughts are crystal clear to me. I take it you doubt my importance?"
Larry made a good job of looking embarrassed. So Sandra might know what was going on he mumbled aloud, "Well, I just couldn't help thinking--I mean, I figured you aren't really the big man around these parts. All this talk about a Time warp machine, and all--"
Harg said crisply, "Then you don't believe there is such a thing? Well, you err, barbarian. There is. And it was the genius of Harg-Ofortu that constructed it. I--"
Here Sandra stepped in with a word to Larry.
"It's all nonsense, Larry. Don't believe a word he says. He's done nothing but lie since we've met him. He told me the most impossible tale about a 'dome' and a 'dome control chamber.' Of course such things are absurd!"
"So!" Harg's thought had the crackle of audible sound. "Know, then, my two young innocents, that you choose to mock genius. Genius never lies. Behold!" He turned abruptly from the course they were traveling, led them down a side corridor, fingered open a door and showed them, glistening across a wide expanse of metal flooring, a turret-like structure from which emanated, like the sprawling arms of an octopus, vast cables. From the hemispherical roof of this turret emanated a wide, unwavering cone of light, blinding in its brilliance.
"Behold," mocked Harg, "the dome control chamber in which you presumed to disbelieve. From this heart emanates the life of our city-state--and I am its sole supervisor. Even so, it is a tiny thing compared with the greater invention which was, and is, my own. The Time-warp machine. You still doubt? Let me show you, that you may marvel at the brain of Harg--About, guards! We return to the laboratory!"
One of the guards blinked the thick soft lids of his bulging eyes, said nervously, "But, Master of Masters--"
"We return, I said!" Harg was icy cold, even more nettled because a guard had dared question his decision, determined to exact admiration from his audience.
They turned about, began to retrace their steps. Larry marked carefully the corridor which led to the control turret. He would not forget it, nor how to reach it. And as they walked he caught Sandra's eye for a brief moment. Harg did not see the swift wink that passed between them, nor the way Sandra's hands clenched before her in a delighted gesture of approbation....
But he did see, and gloried in, the amazement mirrored in the eyes of Sandra and Larry when at last they stepped into the chamber which housed the Time-warping machine. It was a huge structure, its inner chamber alone being large enough to house a battalion of men. But its core was small, being an oddly shaped, angular object spinning endlessly on a bar of crystalline material.
Displaying all the vanity Larry had hoped for, the little scientist pointed to the twirling object first, then at a great, banked keyboard like that of some gigantic organ.
"The end product of man's genius," he boasted vaingloriously, "for a thousand millenia! The machine which can span Time. You do not comprehend the object which spins upon the bar, no? I fear it is beyond your puny concept, friends from an unenlightened age. It is a tesseract; the infinite cube of four dimensions. Your eyes see but a cross section of its fullness, which is beyond seeing. Yet I, Harg-Ofortu, conceived and built it!
* * * * *
"These banks control the ages that Have-Been and the ages that are Yet-to-Be. Through their relays are disrupted the world-line of any given thing at any given time. I would demonstrate, but terrific power is expended each time I bring a new object from the past; I would not now waste power to convince such savages as you.
"Yet by pressing a button--so--and deflecting a lever--so!--I can, if I will, bring across the negation or Time-that-Was-Not creatures like yourselves from any period of time. The ages in which I angle are clearly marked here; the position on this sphere called 'Earth' from which I draw my experiments I determine by means of this mapped globe."
He paused, smirking with pride, so blinded with self-glory that he did not even notice the studiousness of Sandra's and Larry's eyes. But when he spoke again, it was to say words that dragged Larry back to earth with a start.
"And it will interest you to know, Sandra Day, that a great tribute is shortly to be paid to you."
Sandra said, "A--a tribute?"
A faint shadow flickered across the diminutive one's face. "A recent disturbance," he proclaimed, "amongst slaves whom we call the 'Underlings' has wakened in us, the Masters, recognition that for too many generations we have allowed our brains to expand whilst our bodies failed in strength.
"We now find this to be an unworthy situation. We have decided to once again become a prolific race--but in so doing we are going to breed in such a way that our children will retain our keen intellects and the perfect bodies of men from the past. After some thought on the matter, and with an enticing example to help solve the question--" Here he fastened a greedily appreciative eye on Sandra, "--we have decided that we shall draw the mothers of our new race from _your_ period!"
"But--but you can't do that! They won't want to leave their own age, mate with strangers--"
"What," demanded Harg icily, "are the petty desires of barbarians to the Masters of Earth? Yes, my charming aborigine, soon you will have companionship with many women from your own Time. It will be pleasant company for you, I know." He paused. Then, in an expectant tone, "You may express your thanks, if you wish."
Sandra was speechless. But the words made a sort of sense to Larry; the kind of sense he did not care for. In a grating voice he demanded, "Thanks? Thanks for what?"
The little scientist smiled serenely, arching his brows.
"Because now," he answered, "she will not become a subject for the dissecting table. Her life will be spared. Yet an even greater glory is in store for her. She will not be mated to one of the lesser Masters. She will become the first and favored mate of myself, the great Harg-Ofortu!"
* * * * *
For a moment, a vast and terrible rage shook Larry Wilson. Then it evaporated, dissipated before another emotion. His fists unclenched, the frown that had sprung to his brow disappeared in a network of crinkles, and laughter bellowed from his throat, shook him, exhausted him, doubled him.
Sandra laughed, too, hysterically at first, then as completely giving way to amusement as Larry. Harg looked at first one, then the other. He was alternately surprised and startled; then, as the full import of their laughter burst upon him, he became a diminutive phial of wrath.
His goitrous eyes flamed with bitterness, his tiny body stiffened, and his hands jerked toward the studs on his harness. His thought, a maelstrom of vitriolic hatred, became a seething hell that stifled the young couple's mirth.
"You are amused? That is interesting. Perhaps you will be the less so when you lie upon the table beneath the scalpel, screaming, pleading for the boon of death I can give or withhold!" Harg's mouth was twisting with venom. "When that moment comes, O fool, remember that as your life ebbs new life will spring within this woman--Well, what is it?"
He turned and shot the final query to the pair of guards who had appeared in the doorway. The foremost stepped forward, dragging into view a pair of manacled Underlings.
"We found these two rebels skulking about the laboratory, Master. We brought them that you might put them to the question."
"Take them away!" fumed Harg. "I have no time for them now. Destroy them as a lesson to all rebels."
"But, Master, they may know--"
Harg, thoroughly enraged now, stamped his foot in sheer spite. "Destroy them, I told you! Cast them outside the dome!"
Larry and Sandra looked at each other in swift relief. They had seen, if Harg had not, the quick recognition in the captives' eyes as they entered the room; had feared that under the questioning their part in the rebellion would be learned. Then all, indeed, would have been in vain. It was unfortunate that two Underlings must die, but it was better that two should perish than that a plan should fail.
"Well, get along!" Harg told the guards. "Throw them through the Ground Gate--No, wait a minute!" He glared malevolently at Larry. "Take this savage with you; let him behold the agony of their destruction. It will teach him that one does not safely taunt Harg-Ofortu! The woman stays with me."
Sandra's glance stayed Larry's movement. Her lips moved silently but he caught their message. He allowed the guards to lead him, with the two captives, out of the room and down one of the interminable passages of the labyrinth.
Even here he continued to count turnings, memorize passages, so that he might know his way back to the laboratory and--more important still--to the dome control turret. They walked in silence, coming at last to the huge, doubly barred and intricately locked door which was deepset in the _impervite_ perimeter of the Dome.
Here, for the first time, the proud hauteur of the captive Underlings broke. Until this time they had maintained their courage; now, as one guard disengaged the locks, a glazed look of fear crept into their eyes. The great door swung open, a tendril of outside air, chill and thin as hoar frost, stirred the fusty atmosphere of the labyrinth. And one of the captives cried out desperately, fell to his knees groveling, pleading, pawing at the guard's spindling shanks with futile hands.
"Down, slave!" came the guard's contemptuous command. But it was not his words that salvaged the blubbering Underling. It was the other Underling who stepped to his comrade's side, laid a firm hand on his shoulder. And--
"Come, Borl!" he said quietly. "Let us die as men should die--that our Cause may live!"
* * * * *
Beneath his touch the other calmed. The febrile terror left his eyes and something new glistened there. He rose, nodded, straightened his shoulders. Then proudly, almost triumphantly, the two exiles strode into the tunneled path to death. They turned there, boldly, and their voices joined in a single cry, "For freedom!"
Then the door clanged shut, and through the adjacent _impervite_ transparency Larry Wilson saw two staunch figures march boldly down the tunnel to the barren world beyond.
Beside him one of the guards commented wonderingly to the other, "Remarkable! They are the first I ever saw go through the Ground Gate so gallantly--to death."
Larry asked, "But is it death? The outside atmosphere surrounded them the moment they stepped through the gate. Yet they walked away."
The guard answered tauntingly, "It is death. Make no mistake about that. The ancient archives will tell you that. It was Outside that our ancestors died. No man has yet returned who dared venture beyond the Gate." He stirred himself. "Now let us return this one to the Master Scientist and be about our work. The Underlings still--"
Then Larry stumbled. And as he did so one swiftly outthrust hand caught in the harness of the nearest guard, tugged, ripped. The studded belt snapped at the catch, flew halfway across the corridor.
The man scrambled after it, alarmed. But even as he took his first step, Larry wheeled and threw one hundred and eighty pounds of bone and muscle at his companion's face. Puny jawbones splintered, blood spurted, and the guard went down as if pole-axed. Momentum swept Larry over his prostrate body to the weaponless guard; his fist raised and fell once--and that was all!
He rose, stripped both hairless pates of their precious _menaudos_, slung both studded belts over his shoulder. Armed now, he oriented himself and set off at top speed for the control turret.
Only once was his progress threatened; then but for an instant. The single Master who met him racing down a side corridor had neither time to give alarm, draw his heat-ray pistol, or snap on his force-shield. Larry's reflexes worked at lightning speed, and this was no time for stupid mercy. He sheared a crisp and smoking hole in the Master's breast with a single blast of his gun and sped on toward his goal.
That moment while his fingers sought the mitogenic combination of the turret lock was the longest he had ever lived through. It turned out to be the most elaborate he had yet encountered; ultimately operated on the placement of the fingers of both hands. While he sought the responsive chord he was dangerously exposed to any who might come near.
But Fate, for once, rolled him a natural. He broke into the control turret, stared once wildly, bewilderedly, at the dazzling array of levers and studs therein, then tugged desperately at that which seemed largest, most impressive....
Then sprang to the still open doorway and looked at the leaden-gray roof of _impervites_ above him. And as he looked, a great quartered section of the roof slid back, disclosing a bright blue sky in which the sun rode, gold and dazzling!
But only for an instant did he leave open that vent to the treacherous skies above. Harg and Sert had said--nor was there any reason to disbelieve them--that horrible death poured from the heavens in this later age, in the form of intense cosmic radiation. It would be a hollow victory to save a race and destroy a world.
He let the vent remain open but a few seconds, knowing that Sert's army, scattered and ready now, in a thousand secret nooks throughout the domed city-state, would see the signal, know that the dome turret was in friendly hands, and attack the Masters.
And he was right. Even as the _impervite_ section slid back into its accustomed position he heard the Underling siren sound from one distant corridor--then another sounded, and another, and another, until from every weaving tunnel of the labyrinth that was this future city Larry heard the ear-splitting tumult that was madness and death to the Masters.
Then a small company of Underlings burst from one tunnel. Larry leaped from the turret, grasped the leader, thrust him into the control room and shouted, "Guard this! I have a little job to take care of!"
Jaw set, eyes hard, he was off toward the laboratory where--if the gods were good to him--he would find the girl he loved and the miserable parody of a man whom he most certainly did not love.
As he ran, his footsteps followed the tempo of an ever-increasing volume of sound. Never before, he thought, since the creation of the world had begun in the high celestial music of the spheres, had mankind ever fought a life-and-death battle with such an accompaniment.
All about him--it seemed from every corridor, out of each vibrant metal wall, through every air duct that fed the gigantic new world labyrinth--came the hideous howling of the electrosonic intensifiers which had been his invention.
His trip was not a short one, and as he sped toward the laboratory he saw many men, both friends and antagonists. The Underlings, straight-shouldered with a confidence born of the up-reaching hope for liberty, were moving ever onward and onward against the foes. Armed with lances, crude swords, whatever tools and instruments they could lay hands on, they were pouring from the recesses of the city-state to charge upon the heart of the city, where dwelt the Masters.
And in the van of each group was one Underling who carried as his weapon a small, square box in which a whirling disc made music of madness.
Larry saw no pitched battles. This was a strange warfare; one in which the Masters possessed superior armaments--but could not use them. Time and again a lone Master would break from some cubicle to face, for a moment, the advancing host of erstwhile slaves. For seconds his heat-ray gun would pour scorching death into their fore, blasting into blackened hulks those who led.
But ever and again the Master, snapping on his golden force-field as protection against the meaner weapons of the Underlings, would fall prey to the ear-bursting delirium of the howler; would stagger, would scream and reach for his _menaudo_, would die in a mist of shrieking madness.
And then, suddenly, Larry was near his goal, and from a side corridor a familiar figure was racing toward him. It was Sert, and the Underling chieftain's face was radiant with joy.
"You have succeeded, Larry Wilson! Soon the day will be ours!"
Larry shouted, "You're driving them back, Sert--but to where? They're not standing and fighting."
"No. They'll concentrate at the central plaza. But our number is growing each minute. Come with us and be in at the death--"
Larry shook his head.
"This," he said, nodding toward the laboratory now in sight, "is where I get off. I've got a private score to settle with a grinning little ape named Harg. Give 'em hell, fella! See you later!"
And alone he burst into the room in which, a short time before, he had left Harg and Sandra.
* * * * *
Sandra was there, and in the excitement of the moment it did not seem strange to Larry that at the sight of him she should spring forward to throw her arms about him, drawing his face down to hers; nor did it seem strange that his lips should find hers of their own volition. He knew now, that since first they had met on the grassy plain that outskirtcd the ultra-world city-state this was inevitable.
Then harsher thoughts dominated him. There was a man's task yet to be accomplished. He drew away from her, demanded, "Harg! Where is he?"
Sandra's face clouded.
"Gone to rally the Masters to a defense. News of the Underling advance came to us here. He alone knew a way to combat--"
Larry laughed grimly. "There is no way. The sonic amplifier is killing the Masters off like flies. Sert's men will soon hold the city."
"But Harg," the girl cried, "has issued orders that all Masters must turn off their force-fields. He guessed the secret of the sonic weapon. With no force-field to act as a conductor, our sound-weapons will be useless. The Masters are gathering in the central plaza. From there they plan to ray into extinction all Underlings who venture near them--at distance too great for hand-to-hand conflict!"
"And they outnumber the Underlings!" This was bad news. Larry saw, now, the one factor that would spell defeat to his friends. There were too many Masters. By holding the Underlings at a distance, destroying them with heat-rays, not permitting a close attack--
"But there is another way, Larry!" Sandra was crying. "I thought of it after Harg left. And--I have already set the machine into operation."
Larry cried desperately, "I don't know what you're talking about, Sandy. There is no other way. We're licked, and only because they outnumber us. I must find Sert, tell him to sound the retreat before all are killed--" He turned, sped for the doorway. Sandra's voice followed him.
"But, Larry, all will be well! I'm--"
"Later!" he shouted back. Then once again he was racing through the tortuous corridors of the domed metropolis. He caught up to Sert's little band on the very edge of the spacious clearing which was the central plaza of the city. That circular area must have been a full mile in diameter, into it fed literally hundreds of corridors. This was the heart of the future-city; the main aorta which fed to the smaller outlying sections.
"Sert!" Larry's cry stopped the Underling leader's upraised arm from falling. "Sert, do not lead an advance!"
Sert turned, wonderingly.
"But why not, Larry Wilson? See, they huddle in the center of their doomed city like kine awaiting the knife. In a few minutes the city will be ours."
"Look again! Do you see their force-shields? No. They've turned them off. They're waiting there for you to attack. If you do--Good Lord!"
Larry stopped, horrified. For as he spoke a group of exhuberant Underlings burst from a tunnel at the other end of the plaza, charged, three dozen strong, down upon the huddled, waiting group of Masters in the center. Their electrosonic machine was shrieking its high note and the Underlings raced forward confidently, expecting to see the dwarflings cringe and fall before the blasts of that potent weapon.
But instead, from the ranks of the Masters came a withering blast of white radiation. The concentrated fury of a thousand heat-ray handguns. There was a brief puff of smoke, the abbreviated scream of agony from Underling throats--then silence! A small untidy heap of charred refuse dotted the spot where gallant men had died instantly.
Sert's face paled. In a shaken voice he said, "It is again a stalemate, Larry Wilson! We lack the man-power to storm that central group."
Larry said hollowly, "Not a stalemate, Sert. Taps! They've beaten us by the oldest of warfare's means--superior numbers."
"You see no hope?"
"I see," Larry shook his head sorrowfully, "no--"
* * * * *
Then, where a temporary awed silence had fallen over the Underlings, there arose a mighty shout that shook the dome overhead! There came strange sounds, the clash of metal upon metal, the sharp bark of musketry, the clatter of shod hoofs, bellowings and trumpetings Larry could not begin to guess the reason for. Stranger still, the sound of crying bugles--and grating commands in tongues harsh and foreign!
And from the corridors to right and left, main arteries of the plaza, spewed an amazing host!
In the fore were a horde of short, dark men garbed in leathern kirtles, with great golden greaves glittering on swart and hairy calves, with burnished shields before them, with broad-swords raised in brandishment as they plunged toward the startled central knot of Masters.
And immediately behind these came, trumpeting and thundrous-hoofed, a dozen elephants in war-trappings of Byzantine splendor! At express-train speed the pachyderms lumbered down upon the shrinking knot before them.
From another corridor spilled yet another incredible host. Four score of men, bearded and moustached, gay-uniformed in the blue and crimson of the _francs-tireurs_, the bitter guerrilla invaders who struck terror into Prussia in 1870. Horse-mounted were these, and their mounts' nostrils quivered with the ancient lust for battle as they hurtled ever forward.
In an endless stream, then, came the man-power that alone could win this battle! And never a stranger host had taken a single field. Here, on swift, hairy ponies, rode a handful of wild-eyed Huns clad in ragged furs. There, from another corridor, burst a clanking foot-legion that rallied beneath the banner of Darius. Behind these, pressing to get through and into the thick of the fray, came a troop of butternut-uniformed musketeers beneath a barred and starred red banner. Their rebel yell sounded shrill and deadly above the tumult.
Sert's face was blank with astonishment, but his fighting heart knew but one thing. That here, by a miracle, were the reinforcements he needed. With a great cry, "For freedom!" he raised his arm--and from their separate tunnels broke forth the Underlings to do battle, shoulder to shoulder, with those who fought their cause!
Not easily was that cause won. After their first instant of shock, the Masters raised their weapons against the diverse foe. Flaming death answered the barks of muskets, colored rays of potency unspeakable poured destruction into the close-pressed ranks of those who stormed the plaza.
But here were a hundred legions, all trained to war and inured to the fact of impending death. Where one man fell another took his place. Spears, arrows, even flaming projectiles filled the air. From somewhere came the biting chatter of a Gatling gun, pouring its slow racket of death into the ranks of the dwarflings.
Force-fields went on--and Masters died as the Underlings' sonic torture burst their brains. Force-fields went off--and Masters died beneath barbaric weapons from ages long forgotten. The metal floor ran red with blood, blood was grit when mingled with charred ashes that had been men.
There could be but one result. It came at last when a cowering Master leader threw both arms skyward, pleading a truce, acknowledging a defeat!
* * * * *
Larry found himself in the front rank of the attackers. How he had gained that spot he did not know, nor did he ever afterward remember. He had a confused recollection of having raced forward, Sert on his left side, his right flank guarded by a huge, blond Viking warrior in scarlet casque and birnie; he found that the smoking heat-ray gun in his hand was exhausted. And he knew his eyes were still seeking the one Master on whom he had pledged his personal vengeance. But that one Master, the Master of Masters, Harg-Ofortu, was not to be found.
Perhaps he was one of those headless bodies who had fallen beneath the short-swords of the Carthaginians, or he might have been one of those impaled by the lances of Attila's wayward horde. Possibly even--but Larry hated to remember the typically feminine way in which that tiny band of Amazon allies had treated their foes....
And then Sandra was beside him, sharing with him the triumph of the Masters' surrender. And to her he turned for an answer.
"You did this, Sandra?"
"I tried to tell you, Larry. It was the only thing I could think of. From Harg we learned how to operate the Time-warp machine. I set its dials, brought these warriors through to aid our cause."
"But the language! They speak a thousand tongues!"
Sandra smiled, and for the first time Larry noticed that she, like himself, was now wearing the _menaudo_ of the Masters. "And with this, so do I."
Sert was addressing the forlorn leader of the beaten Masters. "A new order rules. From this day henceforth there shall be peace beneath our Dome. No longer will there be Underlings, you Masters. Acknowledge this truth and your fellows will be spared. Together we will build a new civilization to surpass the old."
The Master nodded humbly. "So be it!" he said.
But in the moment of armistice came the last and greatest blow. A droning sounded throughout the vast arena, and the voice of Harg filled the plaza.
"Think you that you have won, barbarian from the past?"
Sandra's eyes filled with alarm. She clutched Larry's arm tensely. "Harg! But where does he speak from?"
As if in answer to her words, Harg spoke again, his voice rage-choked and malevolent.
"Know then, fools, that in a few moment's time the last Master dies--and with him dies the civilization of this accursed planet! When I draw back this lever--"
"The dome control turret! He has taken it again!"
Within arm's reach were a half-dozen riderless mounts of those who had died in battle. To the back of one of these Larry leaped. His nearest companion was an olive-skinned son of antique Persia. He glanced wonderingly at the white-complexioned six-footer beside him, but only for an instant. In this strange meeting place of the ages, existed no lingual difficulties. Larry wore the _menaudo_, and that headgear spoke in the one universal tongue, the language of thought.
Now, succinctly, he broadcast the meaning of this threat to the allies out of time.
"Only the Dome above protects us all from dreadful death. The greatest rogue of all has escaped, and has taken refuge in the chamber that controls that dome. If he pulls the main lever, he can bring it and the world crashing into ruin about us--"
As he thought, he rode, and as he rode a wide path opened before him. Others turned their mounts to follow, and the corridors of the domed city rang with the hoofbeats of a host salvation-bent. There was but one chance--to reach the turret and destroy Harg before he could pull that lever.
Larry was aware that behind him, beside him now, was Sandra. Her thoughts, incoherent, pleading, woman-like, reached him.
"No, Larry! Don't try to storm the turret. We'll take our chances with the Time machine. Try to go back to our own time through _it_--"
"And leave a dead world behind us?" That was his answer. It was enough.
Harg's vainglorious farewell broadcast still went on.
"--Such a little time to live! Breathe deeply of the air, O invaders from another time. Taste its sweetness with longing, for all too soon the Dome will fall, letting in the blasting radiation of the dying universe. Then you, too, with it, will perish--"
Then suddenly his voice altered subtlely.
"But what is this? You approach? You would storm the turret, save your petty skins?"
For already the first of the attacking party was drawing into the final corridor, preparing to break into the great room that housed the control turret.
The command came, clear and incisive. Larry knew it was too late to win now. Harg knew of their coming; a touch of his hand would destroy them all. He raised his arm, halted the pell-mell advance of his diverse army with a gesture. "Let us hear what he has to say!" he ordered.
Harg's bargain reached him clearly. From where he sat, on the very lip of the tunnel that disgorged into the turret room, Larry could see the control chamber, could even glimpse the figure of the tiny scientist standing with one hand poised on a small red lever.
"Larry Wilson, warrior from a savage age, I speak to you, for it is you who led this revolt against my world. I offer you peace or death. It is yours to decide."
Larry's lips were white lines, grim and tight.
"First, I demand that the warriors you brought out of the past be returned to their own times."
"Next, I demand that the Underlings lay down their arms and once more acknowledge fealty to the Masters."
Here a roar of rumbling dissent rose from the ranks of those Underlings who had joined the rescue party. Larry silenced them. "Anything else?"
"And finally," Harg's command bore a snarling vindictiveness, "I require that the woman, Sandra Day, step forward to this turret as hostage until all these other things be accomplished!"
Sandra whisked the thought-revealing _menaudo_ from her head, whispered pleadingly, "Yes, Larry! Say yes! It is the only way to save us all. We'll find another time--"
Larry trembled in an agony of indecision. There was truth in Sandra's words. Harg held them all at the edge of a sword now. Later, perhaps--But could he trust the little man's bargain? Might it not be another falsehood?
* * * * *
And then, suddenly, the decision was made for him. From the colorful knot on his right burst three riders, gay in blue and crimson. Handsome, perfumed, dashing riders with the eyes of hawks, the hands of falcons, the hearts of gallantry. Men to whom the worship of our lady in domnei was a life-long creed. And--
"Make no bargains," cried one gloriously, "with a shrinking rat! _Comrades! Pour la femme!_"
Before Larry could stay them they had broken past the barrier, were swooping down on the turret chamber. As they rode, their rifles spoke; bullets screamed against the sturdy metal. One pellet found its mark, and Larry glimpsed Harg's body staggering backward, sliding, falling.
Harg's last thought came to them all feebly.
"I die, then. But with me ... dies ... the world...."
Larry shouted then. In a voice of thunder he roared, "Back! Back, everyone! For your very lives!"
For Harg's falling body pressed the fateful lever. Just in time the gallant _francs-tireurs_ wheeled their horses, streaked back to the tunnels and safety. Then, with a roar like that of a thousand Niagaras, the broad, conical beam that splayed from the roof of the turret flared into jagged lightning. Earth trembled with the repercussion, up above that blast of pure energy struck the center of the Dome and smashed it into a million bits!
Then came the deluge; the frightful deluge of tons of broken _impervite_, crashing down upon the control room in world-shaking shards, deafening the ears with its tumultuous thunder, burying the tiny turret beneath sixty feet of broken dome. Thus died Harg, Master of Masters....
* * * * *
In the outer corridors, Sert sought Larry's side. His face was working bitterly, but he tried to control it. He said in a somber voice, "This is farewell, Larry Wilson. It is good to know that there were once men like you, and it is pitiful to know that so dies a world."
Sandra was crying, her body twisting with great, uncontrollable sobs. "Larry, isn't there anything we can do? Anything?"
He shook his head sadly. "I'm afraid not, Sandy. This is the pay-off. I don't know how long it takes for the radiation to work out on the human body, but I guess, it doesn't take long. We've got a little while, perhaps, and then--"
He stopped. For from the far end of the corridor came a sound strange in that moment of sorrow. The sound of men cheering, laughing, hysterical with joy insurmountable. All turned and looked. There appeared a group of the Underlings, bearing upon their shoulders two men whom Larry recognized and a half dozen others, bearded, clad in rough garments, complete strangers.
Sert stepped forward swiftly.
"What is the meaning of this? Know you not that we are all doomed? Think you this is the moment for such unseemly laughter?"
But one of the Underlings laughed in his face; a carefree laugh of heart-filled happiness.
"Doomed, my leader? We have but _begun_ to live! Behold--the two whom the Masters thrust through the Ground Gate five full hours since!"
Larry nodded. It was they, all right. Borl, who had been terrified, and his companion who had cheered him. He said, "Then in five hours the radiation did not destroy them?"
It was Borl who answered.
"In five hours? Nay, not in five years! Behold, my brothers, those have lived on the Outside for these past ten or more years. Remember you Treg ... and Daiv ... and our friend Mundro?"
Sert said dazedly, "I do! It is they. There is no doubt about it. But how--?"
Sandra said, "Don't you see? It is true that the Heaviside layer once broke down under the strain of excess drainage. But that was centuries, millenia, ago. And ever since that time, men have been living beneath the domes. The Heaviside, being nothing but a gigantic field of force, regained its full potential, became once more an efficient shield between Earth and the deadly radiation from beyond.
"But within the domes, the Masters dared not venture outside to discover this thing. They exiled over-bold Underlings to their supposed death--and when the Underlings never returned, they assumed the radiation still existed. Actually, the men were glad to be free--"
The one named Mundro laughed heartily. "But naturally! Why should we return to slavery when we had a wide and beautiful world in which to live?
"There are thousands like us outside. Free men, breathing the fresh air, feeling the mother Earth beneath our feet. Long years have we hoped and prayed that one day we might be strong enough to deliver you, our imprisoned brethren, from slavery. But until today, when these two were exiled, we thought there was no chance.
"Then, when we saw the Dome fall, we knew all was well. We shall rebuild a new world under the clear skies. The clear and beautiful skies. See, brethren, what I mean?"
He pointed skyward toward the gaping rent in the Dome. It was twilight now, and high above their heads shone a single star, white, white, piercing white against the dark sapphire of the heavens. Fighting man though Larry was, he felt something clutch at his heart, and his throat was oddly thick. At his side he felt Sandra's hand steal into his, and heard her whispering, "I know now what he meant--"
"Dante," replied the girl softly. "When he returned from the nethermost pits of hell, he had but one greeting for the world he loved. He said, 'Thence we came forth--and saw the stars again--'"
* * * * *
It was a silent group that met in the laboratory a short time later. Sert was there, Sandra and Larry, Mundro and the French lieutenant whose gallant defense of Sandra had so unexpectedly turned stalemate to victory. Sert spoke for them all when he asked, "Then you must go, Larry Wilson? Can you not stay here and help us remold a world near to our heart's desire?"
"We must go, Sert," Larry told him simply. "Behind us we left friends, loved ones. It is best that we should return to the Twentieth Century. You others, I suppose, will follow."
He spoke to the _franc-tireur_. But the swaggering horseman shook his head, smiled, his teeth gleaming beneath his waxed mustache.
"Not I, _mon vieux_! This is a world to my liking. Besides, are there not legends on earth of troops of fighting men who disappeared strangely? There are none who returned. I think me this is a natural thing. This new world needs new blood, fighting blood, strong men. And anyway"--he twisted his mustache roguishly--"did you notice those Amazon maidens? Sturdy baggages, but--_aaah, mon cher_, ravissante!"
"Perhaps you're right," acknowledged Larry. And for the last time he gave his hand to Sert. "This is a one-way passage, my friend. We go back to our own time, but--"
"Yes, Larry Wilson?"
Sandra answered for both of them.
"What Larry means to say is--if the occasion ever arises when you should need us, do not hesitate to send for us. Yours is the means of bringing us to your world. And we'll always be ready and waiting."
She paused a moment, then blushed. "It shouldn't be hard to find us," she ventured. "Because I think that we are going to be together--from now on. Isn't that right, Larry?"
"You forgot," said Larry, "the 'darling' part." He led her into the Time-warp field. They waved once more to their friends. Then Sert pressed a button. A shimmering field built up about them, cutting off their view. It was gray and weird, and the passage twisted and curved. Again, as long before, Larry experienced that wild, topsy-turvy sense of bottomlessness ... of falling ... of clutching for some support. His hand found something soft and warm that gripped his own....
* * * * *
He opened his eyes to find a black face peering into his; great white eyes staring with fright. A soft hand was under his armpit, raising him; a liquid Negro voice was demanding, "Yo' awright, boss? Yo' hurt yo'se'f? Ah di'n't see you fall till--boom! Theah you was! Yo' awright?"
Larry said, "Yes, I'm all right." Then he remembered. He turned swiftly. "The girl--where is she? Sandy!"
And Sandra was at his side. Both of them were on the steps in the Broad Street Station in Philadelphia. They were being stared at by curious eyes; a little crowd had gathered. Larry looked swiftly at his wrist-watch. The hands stood at 10:59 on the dot.
He said confusedly, "We--we're back where we started from, Sandy? Everything's the same, only--"
"Only," finished the girl, "everything's different, now." And she stood on tiptoe to kiss him. Somebody in the crowd sniggered. A veteran trainman chuckled and nudged a neighbor.
"Newlyweds?" he said. "You can spot 'em every time. Oh, well--nothin' like bein' young!"
Larry looked at Sandra, and a smile touched his lips. "We're not," he said, "what he thinks. But--it's a damn good idea."
Once more, to the vast amusement of their audience, their lips met. Then, arm in arm, they walked down the steps into the heat and confusion and bustling traffic of the world they knew....