The interruption was dismissed with a wave of Thompson's hand.
"Your government was informed by George Fisher."
"George Fisher!" Harry gulped.
"You see, Mr. Fisher ... that wasn't really his name, you understand ... was one of us ... a member of our observation team. After we arrived here ... well, you might say he defected, gave your government the benefit of his somewhat limited knowledge."
Harry whistled. "And because of him your mission is no longer observational."
"That remains to be seen."
Harry leaned forward on the sofa. "You have any ideas, Mr. Thompson, about why he defected? I'm curious to know why a man is unhappy enough with his own lot to run away and put himself in the hands of a civilization that is in every way alien to him."
Thompson's answer was brief and deliberately ambiguous. "Mr. Fisher was a traitor. What more can be said of him?"
"So he didn't commit suicide," Harry muttered.
"That's right, Mr. Payne."
"I take it you're not sure of how much Fisher told the government before you got to him."
"Mr. Fisher's limitations were familiar to us. It is the potential of your own scientists now that they have his information that we are most concerned with."
Keep stalling, Harry reminded himself ... keep speculating, guessing, theorizing, anything for time.
"So you know the project that Weapons Development is working on but you don't know how much progress has been made. And you want to place one of your own people in there to find out."
"Thanks to you, we have succeeded in doing just that." Thompson smiled with satisfaction, having kept his part of a bargain. "Now about those recordings...."
"I'm not through asking questions."
"But I'm through answering them, Mr. Payne. Tell us where the recordings are."
Harry studied the clean, smooth surface of Thompson's face. There was a gentleness in his large, round eyes. There was also an unfriendliness. Harry had to keep stalling. He knew any answer he gave them would shorten his life expectancy by about thirty-five years.
"You've gotten me into a mess of trouble, Mr. Thompson. I think you owe me a little more. My memory might prove clearer if I knew what was going on at Weapons Development."
Thompson glanced at his two companions. They showed no sign of dissent.
"Very well, Mr. Payne. For some years now our people have been working on a method of reversing the polarity of the atom. We have tried to create an electro-magnetic field which would repel rather than attract. Once we are able to accomplish this we can develop an instrument capable of disturbing the molecular structure of any object in the universe."
"In other words ..." Harry frowned at him, "a weapon capable of disintegration?"
Harry sat there, stunned. A few moments seemed hardly enough to digest the knowledge that Weapons Development was working on the most incredibly advanced weapon of all time. And Mr. Thompson and company were out to sabotage it. Their people could not afford to allow another world to beat them to the punch. Who controlled this weapon controlled the universe. Stalling the aliens was more important than ever now. He couldn't heighten the danger to his own life. It wasn't worth a lead nickel anyway. If it had been, Thompson wouldn't have consented to tell him this much.
Someone else had wired Paula's apartment. It was reasonable to assume it was someone on his side.
"The recordings, please!!" Boles was becoming very impatient.
Harry looked up and found a gun at his head. "The recordings are at my office," he lied.
Thompson walked to the telephone table and brought the instrument to him. "You will call your secretary," he said, "and tell her you have been detained at lunch. You are sending Mr. Chase to pick up the recordings."
Harry glanced around the room. Paula was sulking at the bar near the door. Drowning her conscience, he thought. They must have paid her a fortune to sell out her own people. Boles and Chase both had their guns poised. Thompson picked up the receiver and extended it to him.
There was no way out, no stalling them any longer. To make a break for it would be suicidal. In the state of confusion his mind was in, he could think of only one thing to do. When he reached Miss Conway, he would have to warn her somehow--a few desperate words and pray that she would be alert enough to realize he was in trouble and get the information to the authorities.
He took the phone and dialed. He gave the Fort Dickson operator his office extension. He waited. The phone rang. It rang again. Then three more times. Damn that girl! Her coffee breaks were extended vacations!
Finally the phone was picked up. But the voice that answered was male.
"Who is this?" Harry demanded.
The voice replied, "Colonel Waters."
"This is Harry. I'm at Paula Ralston's apartment ... emergency...!"
The three men were on top of him. Chase smashed the butt of his gun across Harry's knuckles. The receiver fell to the floor. Harry let out a pained groan as Boles' gun butt struck him on the temple. Thompson replaced the receiver. Harry was on the floor. He put his hands to his head for protection as Chase savagely kicked at him. His vision blurred but he managed to see that Paula was still at the bar sipping a drink, sadistically enjoying the whole show.
"He's no longer any use to us," Thompson declared. "You may do your job!"
Harry shook his head, fighting to stay conscious. His vision cleared long enough to see Chase and Boles standing over him, their guns pointed at either side of his head.
There was a volley of deafening shots. There was smoke, voices, people running in every direction. More gunfire. Glass shattering. Furniture knocked over.
But Harry felt no pain.
When he looked again Chase and Boles were no longer to be seen. He caught a glimpse of Thompson running for another position of cover. A final gunshot brought him to the floor.
Harry struggled to a sitting position. Then he saw Chase and Boles dead on the floor beyond the sofa. Half a dozen soldiers were in the process of subduing a swearing, clawing Paula Ralston.
And in the doorway he saw Miss Conway.
She looked incongruous as hell with a smouldering revolver in her hand. She crossed the room and knelt beside him. She pulled him around to let his head rest on the sofa.
"Harry! Harry," she whispered, brushing his hair back, "are you hurt badly? What did they do to you?"
He tried to get up.
"You stay right where you are, honey." Her voice was soothing and gentle. There was a soft, compassionate light in her eyes. No longer that dumb stare. She leaned over and kissed him. "There. You're going to be all right."
"What the hell are you doing here?" Harry bellowed.
"Now you just sit back and relax. I'm just doing my job."
"Your jo ..." A low steady wail rolled off his lips. "Oh, no! Say it isn't so. Tell me I'm really dead. I know I deserve to be."
"I may be the world's lousiest secretary, but I'm considered not bad in the counter-intelligence department."
Harry repeated the wail.
"We were afraid from the time George Fisher turned himself over to the government," she continued, "that his days were numbered. But the longer he remained alive the more apprehensive his people would become. We figured one day they'd make a wrong move. And that would be their big mistake. Well, their move was to kill George Fisher and try to get one of their own agents into Weapons Development. That meant exposing themselves. It also meant you had to be watched ... among others. That's where I came in."
"And playing it about as dumb as I've ever seen."
She laughed. "Sounds like I played the part a little too convincingly."
She stood up and helped him to his feet. "You're coming with me."
"Where to? Hey, what are you doing?"
"There's something about this place that I don't like. I'm no sultry brunette, but I'm not a dumb blonde either." She kissed him, then took a last look at Paula's place and led him out the door.
GROVE OF THE UNBORN.
by LYN VENABLE
Bheel still stood on the patio, transfixed with horror. He heard the terrified cry "Dheb Tyn-Dall"--and then the vigilant Guardians got him....
Tyndall heard the rockets begin to roar, and it seemed as though the very blood in his veins pulsated with the surging of those mighty jets. Going? They couldn't be going. Not yet. Not without him! And he heard the roaring rise to a mighty crescendo, and he felt the trembling of the ground beneath the room in which he lay, and then the great sound grew less, and grew dim, and finally dissipated in a thin hum that dwindled finally into silence. They were gone.
Tyndall threw himself face down on his couch, the feel of the slick, strange fabric cold and unfriendly against his face. He lay there for a long time, not moving. Tyndall's thoughts during those hours were of very fundamental things, that beneath him, beneath the structure of the building in which he was confined, lay a world that was not Earth, circling a sun that was not Sol, and that the ship had gone and would never come back. He was alone, abandoned. He thought of the ship, a silver streak now in the implacable blackness of space, threading its way homeward through the stars to Sol, to Earth. The utter desolation which swept over him at the impact of his aloneness was more than he could endure, and he forced himself to think of something else.
Why was he here then? John Tyndall, 3rd Engineer of the starship Polaris. It had been such a routine trip, ferrying a group of zoologists and biologists around the galaxy looking for unclassified life-supporting planets. They had found such a world circling an obscure sun half way across the galaxy. An ideal world for research expedition, teeming with life, the scientists were delighted. In a few short months they discovered and cataloged over a thousand varieties of flora and fauna peculiar to this planet, called Arrill, after the native name which sounded something like Ahhrhell. Yes, there were natives, humanoid, civilized and gracious. They had seemed to welcome the strangers, as a matter of fact they had seemed to expect them.
The Arrillians had learned English easily, its basic sounds not being too alien to their own tongue. They had quite a city there on the edge of the jungle, although, in circling the planet before landing, the expedition had noted that this was the only city. On a world only a little smaller than Earth, one city, surrounded completely by the tropical jungle which covered the rest of the world. A city without power, without machinery of any kind, and yet a city that was self-sufficient.
Well-tilled fields stretched to the very edge of the jungle, where high walls kept out the voracious growth. The fields fed the city well, and clothed it well. And there were mines to yield up fine metal and precious gems. The Earthmen had marveled, and yet, it had seemed strange. On all this planet, just one city with perhaps half a million people within its walls. But this was not a problem for the expedition.
The crew of the Polaris and the members of the expedition had spent many an enjoyable evening in the dining hall of the palace-like home of the Rhal, who was something more than a mayor and something less than a king. Actually, Arrill seemed to get along with a minimum of government. All in all, the Earthmen had summed up the Arrillians as being a naive, mild, and courteous people. They probably still thought so, all of them, that is, except Tyndall.
Of course, now that he looked back upon it, there has been a few things ... that business about the Bugs, as the Earthmen had dubbed the oddly ugly creatures who seemed to occupy something of the position of a sacred cow in the Arrillian scheme of things. The Bugs came in all sizes, that is all sizes from a foot or so in length up to the size of a full human.
The Bugs were not permitted to roam the streets and market places, like the sacred cows of the Earthly Hindus. The Bugs were kept in huge pens, which none but a few high-ranking priests were permitted to enter, and although the Earthmen were not prevented from standing outside the pens and watching the ugly beasts munching grass or basking in the sun, the Arrillians always seemed nervous when the strangers were about the pens. The Earthmen had shrugged and reflected that religion was a complexity difficult enough at home, needless to probe too deeply into the Arrillian.
But The Time had been something else again, bringing with it, the first sign of real Arrillian fanaticism and the first hint of violence. Tyndall and four companions were strolling in a downtown section of the city, when all at once a hoarse cry in Arrillian shattered the quiet hum of street activity.
"What did he say?" asked one of Tyndall's companions, who had not learned much Arrillian.
"I--I think, 'A Time! A Time!' What could ..." he never finished the sentence, all about them Arrillians had prostrated themselves in the rather dirty street, covering their faces with their hands, lying face down. The Earthmen hesitated a moment, and a priest of Arrill appeared as though from nowhere, a wicked scimitar-like weapon in his hand and a face tense with anger.
"Dare you," he hissed in Arrillian, "dare you not hide your eyes at A Time!" He pushed one of the Earthmen with surprising strength, and the latter stumbled to his knees. All five men hastened to ape the position of the prostrate Arrillians; they knew better to risk committing sacrilege on a strange planet. As Tyndall sank to the ground and covered his eyes, he heard that priest mutter another sentence, in which his own name was included. He thought it was "You, Tyn-Dall ... even you."
A few moments later a bell sounded from somewhere, and the buzzing of conversation began around them, along with the shuffling, scraping sound of many people getting to their feet at once. A hand touched Tyndall's shoulder and an Arrillian voice, laughing now, purred, "Up stranger, up, The Time is past."
The Earthmen got to their feet. Everything about them was the same as though nothing had happened, people strolling along the street, going in and out of shops, stopping to chat.
"I guess that was the all-clear," commented one wryly.
The others laughed nervously, but Tyndall was strangely troubled, he was thinking of the strange words of the priest, "You, Tyn-Dall, even you." Why should he have known, and not the others? He tried to forget it. Arrillian was a complex tongue with confusing syntax, perhaps the priest had said something else. But Tyndall knew one thing for certain, the mention of his name had been unmistakable.
The mood hung on, and quite suddenly Tyndall had asked, "I wonder about the children. Why do you suppose it is?"
One of the men laughed, "Maybe they feed them to the Bugs." At no time, during their stay on Arrill, had they seen a single child, or young person under the age of about twenty-one. The crew had speculated upon this at great length, coming to the conclusion that the youngsters were kept secluded for some reason known only to the Arrillians, probably some part of their religion. One of them had made so bold as to ask one of the scientists who politely told him that since his group was not composed of ethnologists or theologists, but of biologists and zoologists, they were interested neither in the Arrillians, their offspring nor their religion, but merely in the flora and fauna of the planet, both of which seemed to be rather deadly. The expedition had had several close calls in the jungle, and some of the plants seemed as violently carnivorous as the animals.
It was just a few days after the incident that the Arrillians kidnapped Tyndall. It had been a simple, old-fashioned sort of job, pulled off with efficiency and dispatch as he wandered a few hundred feet away from the ship. It was late, and he had been unable to sleep, so he had strolled out for a smoke. The nightwatch must have been somewhere about on patrol, probably only a few hundred feet away, on the other side of the ship. It happened suddenly and silently, the hand clapped over his mouth, the forearm constricting his windpipe, his legs jerked out from under him, and a rag smelling sickly-sweet shoved under his nose, bringing oblivion.
When he came to consciousness, he found himself in this room, and he knew that since then, many days and nights had passed. His wants were meticulously attended to, his bath prepared, his food brought to him regularly, delicious and steaming, with a generous supply of full-bodied Arrillian wine to wash it down. Fresh clothes were brought to him daily, the loose-flowing, highly ornamented robe of the Arrillian noble. Tyndall knew he was no ordinary prisoner, and somehow, this fact made him doubly uneasy.
And then, tonight, the ship had blasted off without him. Tyndall could easily reconstruct what had happened when his crewmates had inquired about him, at the palace and in town. "Tyn-Dall?" Then, a sorrowful expression, a shrugging of the shoulders, a pointing toward the death-infested jungle, and a mournful shaking of the head, sign language which in any tongue meant, "Tyn-Dall wanders too far from your ship. He becomes lost. Alas, he does not know our jungle and its perils." Those who spoke a little English would make some expression of sympathy.
Maybe the crew was a little suspicious, maybe they thought there was something fishy about the thing, and then they thought of the unhappy results of what was commonly referred to as an "interplanetary incident." Ever since the people of the second planet of Alpha Centauri, in the early days of extraterrestrial exploration, had massacred an entire expedition because the captain had mortally insulted a tribal leader by refusing a sacred fruit, such incidents had been avoided at all costs.
And so, they dared not offend the Arrillians by questioning the veracity of their statements. And the jungle was deadly, so they looked a little longer, and asked a few more questions. After a little while, the scientists had completed their work and were anxious to get home, and so, the ship blasted off, without him.
All this had passed kaleidoscopically in Tyndall's mind as he lay on the couch in his luxurious prison, too numb to weep or even curse. His reverie was broken by the clicking of the lock and he raised up to see the door opening. An Arrillian servant stood there, his silver hair done up in the complicated style which denoted male house servants. He was unarmed. The houseman smiled, roared in imitation of a rocket, made a swooping gesture with one hand to indicate the departing ship, then pointed at Tyndall and at the open door. The servant bowed and departed, leaving the door slightly ajar. Now that the ship was gone, he was free to leave his room.
Tyndall stepped cautiously out of the room and found himself in a long hall, with many doors opening from it on either side, much like a hotel corridor. One end of the hall seemed to open out onto a garden and he started in that direction.
The doorway opened out into a patio which overlooked a vast and perfectly tended garden. The verdant perfection of the scene was marred only by one of the Bugs, sunning itself and gnawing on the stem of a flower. Tyndall was impressed again with the repulsive ugliness of the thing. This one was the size of a small adult human, and even vaguely human in outline, although the brownish armored body was still more suggestive of a big bug than anything else known to him. There were even rudimentary wings furled close to the curving back, and the underside was a dirty, striped gray. Tyndall shuddered, wondering why the Arrillians, who so loved to surround themselves with beauty, should choose so horrendous a creature as the object of their worship, or protection.
He heard running footsteps behind him, and turned to see the Arrillian houseman, breathless, with an expression of greatest concern on his face. The servant bowed respectfully before Tyndall, then gestured at the garden, shook his head vigorously from side to side and tugged at the Earthman's sleeve.
"Forbidden territory, eh? Okay, old fellow, what now?"
The servant motioned for Tyndall to follow him, and ushered him down the hall from whence he had just come, and into another of the rooms opening off from it. The very old man reclining upon the low, Roman-like couch, Tyndall recognized at once as his host, the Rhal of Arrill.