However, I must have made myself partially understood, at least, for the chief of the nine uttered a whispered command to one of the beings who had borne us to the large cavern, and motioned with a writhing gesture of one tentacle that I was to place the menore upon this creature's head.
"The old boy's playing it safe, sir," muttered Correy, chuckling. "Wants to try it out on the dog first."
"Right!" I nodded, and, not without difficulty, placed the other menore upon the rounded dome of the individual selected for the trial.
Both instruments were adjusted to full power, and I concentrated my mental energy upon the simple pictures that I thought I could convey to the limited mentality of which I suspected these creatures, watching his fishy eyes the while.
It was several seconds before he realized what was happening; then he began talking excitedly to the waiting nine. The words fairly burned themselves in my consciousness, but of course were utterly unintelligible to me. Before the creature had finished, a lash-like tentacle shot out from the chief of the nine and removed the menore; a moment later it reposed, at a rather rakish slant, on the shining dome of its new possessor.
"Get anything, sir?" asked Correy in a low voice.
"Not yet. I'm trying to make him see how we came here, and that we're friends. Then I'll see what I can get out of him; he'll have to get the idea of coming back at me with pictures instead of words, and it may take a long time to make him understand."
It did take a long time. I could feel the sweat trickling down my face as I strove to make him understand. His eyes revealed wonderment and a little fear, but an almost utter lack of understanding.
I pictured for him the heavens, and our ship sailing along through space. Then I showed him the Ertak coming to rest on the plateau, and he made little impatient noises as though to convey that he knew all about that.
After a long time he got the idea. Crudely, dimly, he pictured the Ertak leaving this strange world, and soaring off into vacant space. Then his scene faded out, and he pictured the same thing again, as one might repeat a question not understood. He wanted to know where we would go if we left this world of his.
I pictured for him other worlds, peopled with men more or less like myself. I showed him the great cities, and the fleets of ships like the Ertak that plied between them. Then, as best I could, I asked him about himself and his people.
It came to me jerkily and poorly pictured, but I managed to piece out the story. Whether I guess correctly on all points, I am not sure, nor will I ever be sure. But this is the story as I got it.
These people at one time lived in the open, and all the people of this world were like those in the cavern, possessed of opaque bodies and great strength. There were none of the ghost-like creatures who had captured us.
But after a long time, a ruling class arose. They tried to dominate the masses, and the masses refused to be dominated. But the ruling classes were wise, and versed in certain sciences; the masses were ignorant. So the ruling classes devised a plan.
These creatures did not eat. There was a tradition that at one time they had had mouths, as I had, but that was not known. Their strength, their vitality, came from the powerful mineral vapor which came forth from the bowels of the earth. The ruling classes decided that if they could control the supply of this vapor, they would have the whip hand, and they set about realizing this condition.
It was quickly done. All the sources of supply, save one, were sealed. This one source of supply was the cavern in which we stood. These were members of the ruling class, and outside was the rabble, starved and unhappy, living on the faint seepage of the vital fumes, without which they became almost bodiless, and the helpless slaves of those within the cavern.
These creatures, then, were boneless; as boneless as sponges, and, like sponges, capable of absorbing huge quantities of a foreign substance, which distended them and gave them weight. I could see, now, why the rotund bodies sagged and flattened at the base, and why six short, stubby legs were needed to support that body. There was only tissue, unsupported by bone, to bear the weight!
This chief of the nine went on to show me how ruthlessly, how cruelly those within the cavern ruled those without. The substance that fed the flame had to be gathered and a great reservoir on the side of the mountain kept filled. Great masses of dry, sweet grass, often changed, must be harvested and brought to the entrance of the cavern, for bedding. A score of other tasks kept the outsiders busy always--and the driving force was that, did the slaves become disobedient, the slight supply of mineral vapor available in the outside world would be cut off utterly, and all outside would surely die, slowly and in agony.
Those within the cavern were the rulers. They would always remain the rulers, and those outside would remain the slaves to wait upon them. And we--how strangely he pictured us, as he saw us!--were not to return to our queer worlds, that we might bring many other ships like the Ertak back to interfere. No.
The pupils of his eyes contracted, and the leafy structure of his nose fluttered as though with strong emotion.
No, we would not go back. He would give a signal to those of his creatures who stood behind us--a sort of soldiery, I gathered--and our heads, our legs, our arms, would be torn from our bodies. Then we would not go back to bring-- * * * * *
That was enough for me.
"Men!" I spoke softly, but with an intensity that gave me their instant attention, "it's going to be a fight for life. When I give the signal, make a rush for the entrance by which we came in. I'll lead the way. Use your pistols, and your bombs if necessary. All right--forward!"
Correy's great shout rang out after mine, and I flung my menore in the face of the nearest guard. It bounced off as though it had struck a rubber ball. Behind me, one of the men called out sharply; I heard a sharp crunch of bone, and with a pang realized that the Ertak's log would have at least one death to record.
A dozen tentacles lashed out at me, and I sprayed their owners with pellets from my atomic pistol. The air was filled with the shouts of my men and the whispers of our enemies. All around me I could hear the screaming of ricochets from our pistols. Twice atomic bombs exploded not far away, and the solid rock shook beneath my feet. Something shot by close to my face; an instant later a limp bundle in the blue and silver uniform of our Service struck the rock wall of the cavern, thirty feet away. The strength in those rubbery tentacles was terrible.
The pistols seemed to have but little effect. They wounded, but they did not kill unless the pellet struck the head. Then the victim rolled over, rocking idiotically on its middle.
"In the head, men!" I shouted. "That downs them! And keep the bombs in action. Throw them against the walls of the cavern. Take a chance!"
A ragged cheer went up, and I heard Correy's voice raised in angry conversation with the enemy: "You will, eh? There!... Now!... Ah!--right--through--the--eye. That's--the place!"
A score of times I was grasped and held by the writhing arms of the angry horde whispering all around me. Each time I literally shot the tentacle away with my atomic pistol, leaving the severed end to unwrap itself and drop from my struggling body. The things had no blood in them.
Steadily, we fought our way toward the doorway, out of the cavern, down the passageway, pressed into a compact, sweating mass by the pressure of the eager bodies around us. I have never heard any sound even remotely like the babel of angry, sibilant whispering that beat against the walls and roof of that cavern.
I had saved my own bombs for a specific purpose, and now I unslung them and managed to work them up above my shoulders, one in either hand.
"I'm going to try to blow the entrance clear, men," I shouted. "The instant I fling the bombs, drop! The fragments will be stopped by the enemy crowding around us. One ... two ... three ... drop!"
The two bombs exploded almost simultaneously. The ground shook, and all over the cavern masses of stone came crashing to the floor. Bits of rock hummed and shrieked over our heads. And--yes! There was a draft of cooler, purer air on our faces. The bombs had done their work.
"One more effort and we're outside, men," I called. "The passage is open, and there are only a few of the enemy before us. Ready?"
"Ready!" went up the hoarse shout.
It was easy to give the command, but hard to execute it. We were pressed so hard that only the men on the outside of the group could use their weapons. And our captors were making a terrible, desperate effort to hold us.
Two more of our men were literally torn to pieces before my eyes, but I had the satisfaction of ripping holes in the heads of the creatures whose tentacles had done the beastly work. And in the meantime we were working our way slowly but surely to the entrance.
I glanced up as I dodged out into the open. That soft humming sound was familiar, and properly so. There, at an elevation of less than fifty feet, was the Ertak, with Hendricks standing in the exit, leaning forward at a perilous angle.
"Ahoy the Ertak!" I hailed. "Descend at once!"
"Right, sir!" Hendricks turned to relay the order, and, as the rest of the men burst forth from the cavern, the ship struck the ground before us.
"All hands board ship!" I ordered. "Lively, now." As many years as I have commanded men, I have never seen an order obeyed with more alacrity.
I was the last man to enter, and as I did so, I turned for a last glance at the enemy.
They could not come through the small opening my bombs had driven in the rock, although they were working desperately to enlarge it. Leaping back and forth between me and the entrance I could see the vague, shadowy figures of the outside slaves, eagerly seeping up the life-giving fumes that escaped from the cavern.
"Your orders, sir?" asked Hendricks anxiously; he was a very young officer, and he had been through a very trying experience.
"Ascend five hundred feet, Mr. Hendricks," I said thoughtfully. "Directly over this spot. Then I'll take over.
"It isn't often," I added, "that the Service concerns itself with economic conditions. This, however, is one of the exceptions."
"Yes, sir," said Hendricks, for the very good reason, I suppose, that that was about all a third officer could say to his commander, under the circumstances.
"Five hundred feet, sir," said Hendricks.
"Very well," I nodded, and pressed the attention signal of the non-commissioned officer in charge of the big forward ray projector.
"Ott? Commander Hanson speaking. I have special orders for you."
"Direct your ray, narrowed to normal beam and at full intensity, on the spot directly below. Keep the ray motionless, and carry on until further orders. Is that clear?"
"Perfectly, sir." The disintegrator ray generators deepened their purr as I turned away.
"I trust, sir, that I did the right thing in following you with the Ertak?" asked Hendricks. "I was absolutely without precedent, and the circumstances were so mysterious--"
"You handled the situation very well indeed," I told him. "Had you not been waiting when we fought our way into the open, the nearly invisible things on the outside might have--but you don't know about them yet."
Picking up the microphone again, I ordered a pair of searchlights to follow the disintegrator ray, and made my way forward, where I could observe activities through a port.
The ray was boring straight down into a shoulder of a rocky hill, and the bright beams of the searchlights glowed redly with the dust of disintegration. Here and there I could see the shadowy, transparent forms of the creatures that the self-constituted rulers of this world had doomed to a demi-existence, and I smiled grimly to myself. The tables would soon be turned.
For perhaps an hour the ray melted its way into the solid rock, while I stood beside Ott and his crew, watching. Then, down below us, things began to happen.
Little fragments of rock flew up from the shaft the ray had drilled. Jets of black mud leaped into the air. There was a sudden blast from below that rocked the Ertak, and the shaft became a miniature volcano, throwing rocky fragments and mud high into the air.
"Very good, Ott," I said triumphantly. "Cease action." As I spoke, the first light of the dawn, unnoticed until now, spread itself over the scene, and we witnessed then one of the strangest scenes that the Universe has ever beheld.
Up to the very edge of that life-giving blast of mineral-laden gas the tenuous creatures came crowding. There were hundreds of them, thousands of them. And they were still coming, crowding closer and closer and closer, a mass of crawling, yellowish shadows against the sombre earth.
Slowly, they began to fill out and darken, as they drew in the fumes that were more than bread and meat and water to us. Where there had been formless shadows, rotund creatures such as we had met in the cavern stood and lashed their tentacles about in a sort of frenzied gladness, and fell back to make room for their brothers.
"It's a sight to make a man doubt his own eyes, sir," said Correy, who had come to stand beside me. "Look at them! Thousands of them pouring from every direction. How did it happen?"
"It didn't happen. I used our disintegrator ray as a drill; we simply sunk a huge shaft down into the bowels of the earth until we struck the source of the vapor which the self-appointed 'ruling class' has bottled up. We have emancipated a whole people, Mr. Correy."
"I hate to think of what will happen to those in the cavern," replied Correy, smiling grimly. "Or rather, since you've told me of the pleasant little death they had arranged for us. I'm mighty glad of it. They'll receive rough treatment, I'm afraid!"
"They deserve it. It has been a great sight to watch, but I believe we've seen enough. It has been a good night's work, but it's daylight, now, and it will take hours to repair the damage to the Ertak's hull. Take over in the navigating room, if you will, and pick a likely spot where we will not be disturbed. We should be on our course by to-night, Mr. Correy."
"Right, sir," said Correy, with a last wondering look at the strange miracle we had brought to pass on the earth below us. "It will seem good to be off in space again, away from the troubles of these little worlds."
"There are troubles in space, too," I said dryly, thinking of the swarm of meteorites that had come so close to wiping the Ertak off the records of the Service. "You can't escape trouble even in space."
"No, sir," said Correy from the doorway. "But you can get your sleep regularly!"
And sleep is, when one comes to think of it, a very precious thing.
Particularly for an old man, whose eyelids are heavy with years.
NO MOVING PARTS.
By Murray F. Yaco
Hansen was sitting at the control board in the single building on Communications Relay Station 43.4SC, when the emergency light flashed on for the first time in two hundred years.
With textbook-recommended swiftness, he located the position of the ship sending the call, identified the ship and the name of its captain, and made contact.
"This is Hansen on 43.4SC. Put me through to Captain Fromer."
"Fromer here," said an incredible deep voice, "what the devil do you want?"
"What do I want?" asked the astonished Hansen. "It was you, sir, who sent the emergency call."
"I did no such thing," said Fromer with great certainty.
"But the light flashed--"
"How long have you been out of school?" Fromer asked.
"Almost a year, sir, but that doesn't change the fact that--"
"That you're imagining things and that you've been sitting on that asteroid hoping that something would happen to break the monotony. Now leave me the hell alone or I'll put you on report."
"Now look here," Hansen began, practically beside himself with frustration, "I saw that emergency light go on. Maybe it was activated automatically when something went out of order on your ship."