The Rhal touched the fingertips of both hands to his forehead in the Arrillian gesture of greeting, and Tyndall did the same. He noticed several male Arrillians standing near the back of the room, although the servant had bowed and retired.
"Well, Tyn-Dall, how do you enjoy the hospitality of Ahhreel?" He, of course, gave the native pronunciation to the name which was almost Teutonic in sound and unpronounceable for Tyndall because of the sound given to the double aspirate, for which he knew no equivalent.
"Your English, Dheb Rhal, has improved greatly since our last meeting," commented Tyndall guardedly, using the Arrillian prefix of extreme respect.
The old man smiled. "Your friends were kind enough to lend me books and also the little grooved disks that make voice." He gestured toward an old-fashioned wind-up type phonograph which Tyndall recognized at once as being standard aboard interstellar vessels, and for just such a purpose. The Rhal continued, "For teaching English very fine. How are you enjoying our hospitality, I ask again?"
Tyndall was stuck on Arrill and he knew it. There was no need to cook his own goose by being deliberately offensive. "I appreciate the hospitality of Arrill, I express my thanks for the consideration of my hosts but--if I may ask a question?"
"What, in the wisdom of the Dheb Rhal, is the reason for my--er--detainment?"
"To answer that, Tyn-Dall, I must tell you something of the past of Ahhreel, and of her destiny." At these words, the other Arrillians in the room drew closer, and the Rhal motioned them to a couch at his feet and nodded toward Tyndall, requesting that he join them. Tyndall noticed that the others were gazing up into the old man's face with an expression of raptness, even of reverence. He knew that the Rhal did not possess an especially exalted position politically, even though he was head of the city. He guessed therefore that the Rhal must be the religious ruler of Arrill as well.
The Rhal began, intoning the words as though he were reciting a ritual, "There was a time, many thousands of Khreelas ago, when the kingdom of Ahhreel was not one small city, as you see it now, but a mighty empire, girdling the world in her vastness. But the people of Ahhreel had become evil in their ways, and her cities were black with sin. It was then that Xheev himself left his kingdom in paradise and appeared to the people of Ahhreel, and he told them that he was displeased, and that bad times would fall upon Ahhreel, and that her people would dwindle in number, and became exceedingly few, and the jungle would reclaim her emptied cities. One city, and only one, would survive and prosper, and the people of that city would be given the chance to redeem Ahhreel, and remove the heavy hand of Xheev's terrible punishment.
"All this came to pass, and in the dark Khreelas that followed, all of Ahhreel vanished except this city. Now, for many, many thousands of Khreelas, the people of this city have striven to redeem Ahhreel by obeying the sacred laws of Xheev.
"Xheev had promised that when the punishment was ended, he would send a sign, and his sign would be that a great silver shell should fall from the heavens, and within would be Xheev's own emissary, who must wed the ranking priestess of Xheev, establishing again the rapport between the kingdom of paradise and the world of Ahhreel."
When the Rhal had finished, the other Arrillians in the room fastened the same look of reverence upon Tyndall which they had formerly reserved for the Rhal.
Tyndall chose his words carefully. "But there were many aboard my vessel. Why did you, Dheb Rhal, select me as the emissary of Xheev?"
"Xheev selected you, I recognized you, as of all your companions, you and you alone have the sun-colored hair, which is the sacred color of Xheev."
Tyndall was able to question the Rhal almost coolly, the trap was already sprung, the ship was gone. Now, he only wanted to know the how, and the why. An accident of pigmentation, only that had brought him to this. Sun-colored hair!
"But, Dheb Rhal, did my friends and I not often tell you of ourselves, of the place from which we came? A world, a world like your own?"
The old man smiled. "Do not think me naive, Tyn-Dall. I am quite aware that you are but a man, a man from another world, although quite an incredible world it must be. I know also that you were, until this hour, unaware of your destiny. I knew that when my priest reported that you ignored the Ritual Of The Time, until literally forced to obey. That is why we had to use ... devious means to make certain that your companions would not prevent the fulfillment of the prophesy. Now, of course, you understand.
"I do not think the priestess Lhyreesa will make you unhappy, Tyn-Dall."
This was not Earth and these people were not Earthmen. The thought now did not bring the bitter pain it had at first, right after the ship left. Earth already was becoming hazy in Tyndall's mind, a lovely globe of green somewhere ... somewhere far, and home once, a long time ago.
No, the Arrillians were not Earthmen, but they were human, and an attractive, gracious race. Life would not be bad, among the Arrillians, especially as the espoused of the ranking priestess of Arrill. Tyndall fingered the rich material of his Arrillian robe; he thought of the food, the wine, the servants. No, he decided, not bad at all. One thing, though--this priestess Lhyreesa ...
"I have, then, but one request to make, Dheb Rhal, I would like to see the priestess Lhyreesa."
The old man almost chuckled, "That is understandable, Tyn-Dall, but it is not yet The Time."
Tyndall, reveling in the strength of his position, grew bolder. "I would like very much, Dheb Rhal, to see her now."
The Rhal's face darkened. "Very well, Tyn-Dall, but I warn you, do not enter the Grove. There is death there, death that even I am powerless to prevent. The Guardians will not harm her, but any stranger ... will not live many minutes in the Grove."
"I will not enter, Dheb Rhal."
"Tyn-Dall, The Time is very soon, possibly this very hour. Will you not wait?"
"I prefer not to wait, Dheb Rhal."
The Rhal gestured to a young Arrillian. "Bheel, show Tyn-Dall to the Grove of the priestess Lhyreesa."
The younger man protested, "But, Dheb Rhal, so near The Time, what if ..."
"Do as I command," snapped the Rhal.
Bheel turned silently, motioning for Tyndall to follow. The young Arrillian led Tyndall the length of the corridor, back to the patio he had stepped onto by mistake earlier in the day. Bheel stepped respectfully aside. Tyndall looked out into the garden: the sun was beginning to set, the long shadows stretched across the dim recesses of tropic greenery. The huge insect-like thing was still there, stretched out in a narrow strip of sunlight, catching the last failing waves of warmth from the sinking sun.
Tyndall turned to the Arrillian. "Where might I find the priestess Lhyreesa?" he asked.
"There, Dheb Tyn-Dall."
"I see no one. Where do you say?"
Bheel pointed. "There, Dheb Tyn-Dall, where I point, you see the priestess Lhyreesa taking the late afternoon sun ... unless your eyesight is exceedingly bad, Dheb Tyn-Dall, you cannot fail to see...."
Tyndall's eyesight was exceedingly good. He followed that pointing finger, past the pillar that supported the roof of the patio, past the first row of alien green plants, past the second and third rows, to the clearing, to the little patch of sunlight, to the thing lying there. That monstrous, misshapen Bug.... The Bug.... The Priestess Lhyreesa!
Tyndall felt a pounding, skull-shattering madness closing in on him. This was a joke, of course. No, no joke. A dream then? No, not that either. In only a few split seconds it happened. Tyndall had leapt the rail around the patio, and was streaking through the Grove, heading for its outer boundary. The city--if he could get out of the Grove, there would be places to hide in the city. Narrow streets, empty cellars, dim, dim alleys. They'd never find him there! Run now, run before he was overtaken!
But he was not being pursued. Bheel still stood on the patio, transfixed with horror. He heard the Arrillian's terrified cry "Dheb Tyn-Dall...!" And then a rope shot out and grabbed him by the ankles. Not a rope really, a green something, and there were others around his arms, his chest, his hips, wrapping him in their sticky green embrace. The Guardians! He tried to cry out but one of the verdant fronds enveloped his throat so tightly he could not utter a sound. The innocent green things of the Grove were vigilant guardians indeed. They seemed to be merely holding him immobile, but Tyndall realized with sick horror that their pressure was increasing, so little at a time, but so steadily.
And something was happening out there in the sunlight too. The creature had convulsively grasped the branch of a bush and was clinging weakly to it, great tremors wracking its body. It seemed to be struggling, suffering, dying ... even as he was. In his agony, Tyndall laughed.
"A Time! A Time!" The voice came from the patio. Tyndall saw Bheel throw himself face down on the floor, covering his eyes with his hands. He heard the cry echoed within the palace, and then like a mighty roar outside in the city. And then there was silence, silence broken only by the sound of his own breathing as he dragged his tortured lungs across his shattered ribs.
He saw the Bug give a great heave, and then it seemed to split open, the entire skin splitting in a dozen places and a hand ... A HAND reached from within that dying hulk and grasped the bush to which it clung. A white slender hand on a fragile wrist, and then the arm was free, a woman's arm, a beautiful arm.
Tyndall began, dimly, and too late, to understand.
A leg kicked free ... the slender ankle ... the amply fleshed thigh.
Tyndall clung to consciousness doggedly. The Guardian was crushing the last dregs of life out of him now, and even the pain seemed to recede. His mind was very, very clear. So that was it. A word once heard in a long forgotten classroom, and then the scientists of the expedition. Metamorphosis ... he had meant to ask them what ... but he remembered now ... what it meant. A passing from one form into another.... Had he failed a biology test once because he didn't know what metamorphosis meant ... dimly ... dimly ... he saw ...
The last thing Tyndall ever saw was the Priestess Lhyreesa as she stepped out of the empty hulk, kicking it away with a disdainful toe. Breathless from her ordeal, she sank to the grass, her breasts heaving with exhaustion.
She sat there for a few minutes in the sunlight, then she tossed her head and spread her long raven hair out on her shoulders, the better to dry it in the waning sun.
By Harl Vincent
The blood of the Van Dorn's ran in Karl's veins. He rode the skies like an avenging god.
Beneath the huge central arch in Cooper Square a meeting was in progress--a gathering of the gray-clad workers of the lower levels of New York. Less than two hundred of their number were in evidence, and these huddled in dejected groups around the pedestal from which a fiery-tongued orator was addressing them. Lounging negligently at the edge of the small crowd were a dozen of the red police.
"I tell you, comrades," the speaker was shouting, "the time has come when we must revolt. We must battle to the death with the wearers of the purple. Why work out our lives down here so they can live in the lap of luxury over our heads? Why labor day after day at the oxygen generators to give them the fresh air they breathe?"
The speaker paused uncertainly as a chorus of raucous laughter came to his ears. He glared belligerently at a group of newcomers who stood aloof from his own gathering. Seven or eight of them there were, and they wore the gray with obvious discomfort. Slummers! Well, they'd hear something they could carry back with them when they returned to their homes!
"Why," he continued in rising tones, "do we sit at the controls of the pneumatic tubes which carry thousands of our fellows to tasks equally irksome, while they of the purple ride their air yachts to the pleasure cities of the sky lanes? Never in the history of mankind have the poor been poorer and the rich richer!"
"Yah!" shouted a disrespectful voice from among the newcomers. "You're full o' bunk! Nothing but bunk!"
An ominous murmur swelled from the crowd and the red police roused from their lethargy. The mounting scream of a siren echoed in the vaulted recesses above and re-echoed from the surrounding columns--the call for reserves.
All was confusion in the Square. The little group of newcomers immediately became the center of a melee of dangerous proportions. Some of the more timid of the wearers of the gray struggled to get out of the crowd and away. Others, not in sympathy with the speaker, rushed to the support of the besieged visitors. The police were, for the moment, overwhelmed.
The orator, mad with resentment and injured pride, hurled himself into the group. A knife flashed in his hand; rose and fell. A scream of agony shrilled piercingly above the din of the fighting.
Then came the reserves, and the wielder of the knife turned to escape. He broke away from the milling combatants and made speedily for the shadows that lay beyond the great pillars of the Square. But he never reached them, for one of the red guards raised his riot pistol and fired. There was a dull plop, and a rubbery something struck the fleeing man and wrapped powerful tentacles around his body, binding him hand and foot in their swift embrace. He fell crashing to the pavement.
A lieutenant of the red police was shouting his orders and the din in the Square was deafening. With their numbers greatly augmented, the guards were now in control of the situation and their maces struck left and right. Groans and curses came from the gray-clad workers, who now fought desperately to escape.
Then, with startling suddenness, the artificial sunlight of the cavernous Square was gone, leaving the battle to continue in utter darkness.
Cooper Square, in the year 2108, was the one gathering place in New York City where the wearers of the gray denim were permitted to assemble and discuss their grievances publicly. Deep in the maze of lower-level ways seldom visited by wearers of the purple, the grottolike enclosure bore the name of a philanthropist of the late nineteenth century and still carried a musty air of certain of the traditions of that period.
In Astor Way, on the lowest level of all, there was a tiny book shop. Nestled between two of the great columns that provided foundation support for the eighty levels above, it was safely hidden from the gaze of curious passersby in the Square. Slumming parties from afar, their purple temporarily discarded for the gray, occasionally passed within a stone's throw of the little shop, never suspecting the existence of such a retreat amidst the dark shadows of the pillars. But to the initiated few amongst the wearers of the gray, and to certain of the red police, it was well known.
Rudolph Krassin, proprietor of the establishment, was a bent and withered ancient. His jacket of gray denim hung loosely from his spare frame and his hollow cough bespoke a deep-seated ailment. Looking out from behind thick lenses set in his square-rimmed spectacles, the watery eyes seemed vacant; uncomprehending. But old Rudolph was a scholar--keen-witted--and a gentleman besides. To his many friends of the gray-clad multitude he was an anomaly; they could not understand his devotion to his well-thumbed volumes. But they listened to his words of wisdom and, more frequently than they could afford, parted with precious labor tickets in exchange for reading matter that was usually of the lighter variety.
When the fighting started in the Square, Rudolph was watching and listening from a point of vantage in the shadows near his shop. This fellow Leontardo, who was the speaker, was an agitator of the worst sort. His arguments always were calculated to arouse the passions of his hearers; to inflame them against the wearers of the purple. He had nothing constructive to offer. Always he spoke of destruction; war; bloodshed. Rudolph marveled at the patience of the red police. To-day, these newcomers, obviously a slumming party of youngsters bent on whatever mischief they could find, were interfering with the speaker. The old man chuckled at the first interruption. But at signs of real trouble he scurried into the shadows and vanished in the blackness of first-level passages known only to himself. He knew where to find the automatic sub-station of the Power Syndicate.
Returning to the darkness he had created in the Square, he was relieved to find that the sounds of the fighting had subsided. Apparently most of the wearers of the gray had escaped. He skirted the avenue of pillars along Astor Way, feeling his way from one to another as he progressed toward his little shop. Peering into the blackness of the square he saw the feeble beams of several flash-lamps in the hands of the police. They were searching for survivors of the fracas, maces and riot pistols held ready for use. A sobbing gasp from close by set his pulses throbbing. He crept stealthily in the direction from which the sound had come.
"Steady now," came a whispered voice. "My uncle's shop is close by. He'll take you in. Here--let me lift you."
There was a shuffling on the opposite side of the pillar at which Rudolph had halted; another grunt of pain.
"Karl!" hissed the old man. It was his nephew.
"Uncle Rudolph?" came the guarded response.
"Yes. Can I help you?"
The old man was around the huge base of the column in an instant. He groped in the darkness and his hands encountered human bodies.
"Who is it?" he breathed.
"One of the hecklers, Uncle. A young lad; and of the purple I think. He's been knifed."
Together they dragged the inert form into the shelter of the long line of pillars. There was a trampling of many men in the square. That would be a second detachment of reserves. A ray of light filtered through and dancing shadows of the giant columns made grotesque outlines against the walls of the Way. A portable searchlight had been brought to the scene. They must hurry.
Impeded by the dead weight of their burden, they made sorry progress and several times found it necessary to halt in the shadow of a pillar while the red police passed by in their search of the Square. It was with a sigh of relief that Rudolph opened the door of his shop and with still greater satisfaction closed and bolted it securely. His nephew shouldered the limp form of the unconscious youth and carried it to his own bed in one of the rear rooms.
"Ugh!" exclaimed old Rudolph as he ripped open the young man's shirt, "it's a nasty cut. Warm water, Karl."
The gaping wound was washed and bound tightly. Rudolph's experienced fingers told him the knife had not reached a vital spot. The youth would recover.
"But Karl," he objected, "he wears the purple. Under the gray. See! It'll get us in trouble if we keep him."
He was stripping the young man of his clothing to prepare him for bed. Suddenly there was revealed on the white skin a triangular mark. Bright scarlet it was and just over the right hip. He made a hasty attempt to hide it from the watching eyes of Karl.
"Uncle!" snapped his nephew, "--the mark you call cursed! He has it, too!"
The tall young man in gray was on his knees, tearing the hands of the old man away. He saw the mark clearly now. There was no further use of attempting to conceal it. Rudolph rose and faced his angered nephew, his watery eyes inscrutable.
"You told me, Rudolph, that it was a brand that cursed me. I have seen it on him, too. You have lied to me."
The old man's eyes wavered. He trembled violently.
"Why did you lie?" demanded Karl. "Am I not your nephew? Am I not really cursed as you've maintained? Tell me--tell me!"
He had the old man by the shoulders, shaking him cruelly.
"Karl--Karl," begged the helpless ancient, "it was for your good. I swear it. You were born to the purple. That's what that mark means--not that you're degraded to the gray, as I said. But there's a reason. Let me explain."