He reached out and gently touched her cheek. "Can't you see I want to stay?" he pleaded.
"Then why? Why?" She was crying now.
"I ... I just can't. It's no good." He stood up.
She reached out and caught his hand. "Then take me with you. I've heard you at night pacing in your room. I don't know what it is that drives you on and on, but if space is what you want, let me go with you. I can help you, darling. You'll see. And some day when you grow tired of space, we can come back to Elysia." She was babbling now.
He pulled roughly away. "No! It's no good. I'm--If only I could stay." He brushed her hair softly with his palm and as she reached out toward him he turned and walked swiftly toward the house, pitying and hating himself by turn, while Lara sat forlornly by the pool looking after him.
He began to sweat before he reached the house and his knees began to tremble so, he had to stop for a moment, to keep his balance. Determinedly he started forward again and continued on past the house to the highway that wound by half a kilometer away. There he hailed a passing ground car and rode to the spaceport, where a few judiciously distributed credits facilitated his immediate clearance. Before the ship had even left the atmosphere he rammed in the subspace control.
MAY 4, 437th Year GALACTIC ERA Tantalus lay far out on a spiral arm, well away from the main stream of traffic that flowed through the galaxy. It was a fair planet boasting an equable climate, at least in the tropic zone. But as yet the population was small, consisting mostly of administrative officials who served their alloted time and thankfully returned to their home planets closer to the center of population.
Tee entered the towering building and after consulting a wall directory stepped into the antigrav chute and was whisked high up into the heart of the building. He stepped out before a plain door and as he advanced the center panel fluoresced briefly with the printed legend--GALACTIC PRISON AUTHORITY, Ary Mefford, Administrator for Tantalus.
He hesitated for a moment, then squaring his shoulders stepped forward, and as he crossed the beam the door swung open before him. The gray-haired man sitting at the desk studying a paper, looked up and smiled politely. He indicated a chair with a nod then bent his head again. After a moment he shoved the paper aside and looked questioningly at Tee.
"I want to give myself up," blurted Tee.
"I'm the administrator for Hades," said the man calmly. "I think you want the local authorities."
"You don't understand. I escaped from Hades."
"No one escapes from Hades," replied the administrator.
"I escaped!" insisted Tee. "Ten years ago. You can check. I'm tired of running. I want to go back."
"This is most unusual," said the administrator in a disturbed voice. He looked unbelievingly at Tee. "Ten years ago you say?"
"Yes! Yes! And I'm ready to go back, before it's too late. Can't you understand?"
The administrator shook his head pityingly. "It's already too late. I'm sorry." He bent his head guiltily and began to fumble with the papers on his desk.
Tee started to say something, but the administrator raised his head and said slowly, "It was too late the day you left Hades. Nothing I can do." He looked down again. Tee turned and slowly walked out the door. The administrator didn't look up.
As Tee walked aimlessly down the deserted corridor, his footsteps echoed hollowly like a dirge. A line from an old poem sprang to his mind: "We are the dead, row on row we lie--" He was the dead, but still he chased the chimera of hope, yet knowing in his heart it was hopeless.
JUNE 11, 437th Year GALACTIC ERA The Starduster, pocked and pitted from innumerable collisions with dust particles, sped out and out. The close-packed suns of the central hub lay far behind. Here at the rim of the galaxy the stars lay scattered, separated by vast distances. A gaunt hollow-eyed figure sat in the observation bubble staring half-hopefully, half-despairingly at the unimaginable depths beyond the rim.
JUNE 12, 437th Year GALACTIC ERA On and on past the thinning stars raced the patient electronic bloodhound; invisible, irreversible, indestructible; slowly, but inexorably accelerating. It flashed by the planet Damocles at multiples of the speed of light, and sensing the proximity of the prey on which it was homed, spurted into the intergalactic depths after the receding ship, intent on meshing with and thereby distorting the encephalograph pattern of its target. It was quite mindless, and the final pattern its meshing would create would be something quite strange, and not very human.
VALLEY of the CROEN By LEE TARBELL
There was a mysterious golden statue that always pointed one way--and it led to sudden death in the valley where flying disks landed.
They say cross-eyed men are bad luck. He stood there, in my doorway, eyeing me up and down with those in-focused black eyes.
His face was hideous even if the eyes had been normal. He was slashed with a wide cicatrice of livid scar tissue from one cheekbone across his nose and down to the button of his jaw on the other side.
He was big, and he looked like bad news to me. I inadvertently moved the door as if to close it, then he spoke: "You Keele, the mining man?"
I nodded, wondering at the mild voice from the huge battered figure.
"Been looking for you. I've run across something I wouldn't tell just anyone. But I've heard of you, that you are on the level. Here in Korea, you're known already."
I still didn't step back and swing the door wide. But he had aroused my curiosity as well as my natural desire to acquire things. I had made two fortunes and lost both in mining ventures. My present not small income came from an emerald mine in the Andes. It had been a very dirty and very sick Indio who had led me to that emerald mine. You never know!
"I'm pretty busy, could you give me some idea...." I hedged. It doesn't do to seem too anxious or eager in any business deal. Too, the sight of his burly figure, even without the nightmare face, was not exactly reassuring. That bulge under the native quilted coat, I knew was nothing but a gun too big for even his bulges to conceal completely. But a man needed a gun, here. Especially if he had something valuable, such as the whereabouts of gold.
He grinned, and the white, even teeth, and the wrinkles around his eyes took away the sense of impending catastrophe brought by those crossed eyes. I stepped back then, and he walked in. I sat down at my desk. He sat down across from me, and fumbled in one pocket. He lay on the desk an object in wrappings of dirty rags. These he peeled off slowly, his eyes seeming to dart here and there, never looking where they should. As he peeled, he talked: "I just landed off a ship from Fusan, up-coast. Y' ever been in Fusan?"
I shook my head, watching his fingers work at the knots of the strings around his mysterious object.
"Korea is a funny place. As long as people have been living here, you'd think it would be settled. But it isn't! There're immense forests, great mountains, where no man has gone, places no one enters. They're so dumb they don't even have compasses; they get lost! Think my compass is magic, wonder how I know where to go next, and not get lost. Superstitious, scared to go into the great, dark, damp forests. Scared of the mountains no one has ever climbed. That kind of country is a prospector's meat!"
I nodded. He had the wrappings off, and I leaned forward, a little breathless at the beauty of the thing in his hand. A curiously wrought little statuette about eight inches high, of gold. It was set with real emeralds, for eyes. About the neck and waist of the exquisite female figure were inset jewels, simulating girdle and necklace. A little golden woman goddess! It was very finely wrought, and what surprised me, it was not oriental, not any style of art I could place. Yet it was alien and ancient. I reached for it. He let me take it in my hands, and as I touched it, an electric tingle of surprise, a thrill of utter delight, ran up my arm, as if the image contained a strong little soul intent upon enslaving me with admiration.
"Potent little female, isn't she?"
His crossed eyes were on mine with that queer stare of the cross-eyed. I could make nothing of the facial expressions of this man. He would have been disturbing to play poker against. I would have said he was afraid of that little figure! Afraid, yet very much attached to it. I set it down and he wrapped it up again.
"Strange thing! Tell me about it."
"You know we split Korea with Russia, after the war. I thought I'd take a look around. I have done quite a bit of that. It wasn't hard. Up near the Russian line I found something."
He stopped, looked at me. Whether, he was trying to gauge my credulity or my depth, I don't know.
"You're young. You're not yet thirty, Keele; you've got time left to enjoy a fortune such as I'm letting you in on. And I saw such women among these unknown people as no man would believe. I spent a lot of time spying on them."
I figured he was lying about the women to get me to help him finance the trip. But just the same, the hint of unknown and unspoiled beauty of some hidden, weirdly alien tribe of people aroused my curiosity--the old lure of the Savage Princess from kid days, I guess. I hadn't had a real vacation in years--and what would I enjoy more than a jaunt through untouched forests? Toward what didn't matter as long as the hunting was good. And it sounded good!
"Unknown people, virgin forest, beautiful women and plenty of gold. Sounds too good to be true!"
He squinted at me, bared his fine teeth. He leaned forward, almost whispered trying to impress me: "The people who made that statue are still there. It isn't ancient--they still make them!"
Now I knew he was lying, but still I was hooked. I had to know! For that statue was an infinite evidence of a refinement of art culture rare on earth! If such a race still remained untouched by white man's modern rot--I could pick up a fortune in art objects. I wasn't too dumb to know what they'd bring in New York. I nodded, and he went on.
"I found a cache of valuable gold, jewels, and other things. Things I can't understand. I could be better educated, Mr. Keele. That's why I've come to you. I want some help."
I leaned back. If he found gold, he should have the wherewithal to get in there and back without my help. So he was lying. I determined to find out why, and just what the lie was.
"Go ahead," was all I said. Give a liar enough rope and he'll trip himself.
But he didn't! He didn't ask for money! He only wanted me for advice, for the names of experienced men of the kind he needed, to help him go back there. Men willing to fight if needed. Or else he was too clever. At the end he had me. I was committed to supervising and accompanying that expedition. Or was it the wise emerald eyes of the little golden Goddess that trapped me? I didn't know, then.
Finally I got it out of him. He hadn't brought back the gold. He had to cross bandit territory, and he didn't have to tell me why he didn't carry his fortune with only his own rifle to guard it.
I picked two well-known men who were available just then. Hank Polter had led more than one hunting party through country I wouldn't have picked--and come out safe. He knew what a gun was for, and when to use it. And that's the most important part of handling a gun, knowing when you have to shoot, and then doing it first. The man that shoots before he has to is going to get you into more trouble than he can get you out of.
Lean and tough, he knew the ropes. Around thirty, just under six feet, not bad looking, he was making the most of Seoul's wide-open hot spots. Nearly broke, he jumped at our offer.
Seoul is the capital of Korea, in case you don't know. Everyone did pretty much as they pleased, for there were few restrictions from the so-recently installed government. There are a number of gold mines around Seoul, which was why I was there. Like the cross-eyed Jake Barto, I knew that something would turn up worth owning where governments have changed three times in as many years.
Frans Nolti, the other hunter we hired, was more of a fortune hunter, by appearance, than one who knew his way in the jungles of the world. Handsome in his Italian way, he was suave, apparently well educated, very quick in his movements. He gave the impression of extreme cleverness, of intellect held in reserve behind a facade of worldliness, of light clever talk.
Both of them knew their Orient, far better than I. Which was one reason I wanted them.
Barto had at first wanted a large party, at least a score of "white" men of the western school, able to fight and smart enough to know how. But I had talked him out of it.
"You see, Jake, with two like these, we can travel fast. If there's treachery, if they aren't satisfied with the cut we're offering, why it's two against two--you and I have an even chance. With a larger party, we might pick up some scoundrels who will try to murder us and make off with the treasure. Providing we get the treasure!"
Jake eyed me, in that maddeningly unreadable cross-eyed expression of cold ferocity which the scars gave his ugly face. We had agreed on one-third each, the other two to split the other third between them. I was footing the bills, Jake was nearly broke. He had found the stuff, and tried to hold out for half, me a quarter, the other two to split a quarter. I said nothing doing.
"No, Jake, this first trip, it's got to be this way. If it's like you say it is, there'll be more. What we can carry won't be all the value. There'll be more to be gotten out of that ruin than the stuff you found. You'll have the money to do it, after this, and it's your find. We'll be out, after this one trip."
We sailed up the east coast of Korea from Fusan to the village of Leshin. By native cart from there to the ancient half-ruined city of Musan. That's close to the Manchurian border. There we hired eight diminutive Korean ponies and four men to "go along" as Barto put it, for they didn't want to go, and didn't appear like men of much use for anything but guides. And Barto knew the way. But I didn't want to be wandering around without any native interpreters, without contact of any kind possible with the people we might encounter. None of them had been more than a few miles into the wilderness. They were sad looking men when we started northward. But Koreans manage to look pretty sad much of the time. With their history, that's easy to understand.
Something about the burly, ugly Barto's behavior began to worry me. He didn't know where he was going. He had told a lie, but just what the lie was I couldn't figure out. I watched him covertly. Whenever we came to the end of a march, instead of sighting his landmarks, making sure of his bearings--he would go off by himself. Next day, he would know exactly where he wanted to go--but sometimes the "way" would be across an impassable gorge, a rapids, or straight into a cliff.
One night, the fourth day and well into the wilderness, we were moving up a broad valley through a forest of larch. I sighted a deer, and called a halt while I stalked it. I got it, and came back ahead of the rest, who were cutting up the deer. I moved quietly in the woods--it's a good habit. I came upon Barto, and he was oblivious of me. He had the little golden girl in his hands, talking to it.
"Now, tell me the way, girl, tell me the way." Then he held the girl loosely in his hand, as I watched, it gave me an eerie feeling to see the little figure turn, its outstretched hand pointing northward like a compass. Was Jake Barto a madman? Or did the little figure act as a compass? If so, why did Barto have to rely on the pointing figure's hand for directions? If he didn't get that figure from the place we were heading, where did he get it? How did he know there was anything of value in the place we were headed for?
These questions tormented me, for I could not ask them without revealing to Jake that I knew he was lying. And that meant a showdown. I might have to kill him. Still, I had to get the truth out of him, or let a madman lead us on and on into an untracked wilderness, if that is what he was.
For several days we did not see a sign of life, after that deer.
The forest became denser at every mile, with more and more swamps and surface water. Time after time our ponies mired and had to be lifted out of the mud. Lush ferns and rank grass made walking dangerous. The trees were interlaced with draping festoons of gray "Spanish moss," forming a canopy overhead which let through only a gloomy half-light. No sounds broke the stillness except the half-awed calls of the men. No birds, not even a squirrel. Then it began to rain.
That drizzle continued for a week! The men became frightened at the gloomy stillness and exhausted by the strenuous work of keeping the ponies moving.
Then in the night my four Koreans deserted. They didn't take any ponies, just what grub they could pack. We all felt better off without them, but I often wonder if they ever found their way out of that morass.
The next day there came a break. We sighted a majestic mountain about two days' march ahead. It looked like a gloomy cloud that had settled to earth for a moment's rest. But no cloud ever managed to look so rocky, so windswept, or so welcome. And no patch of blue sky ever looked so good as that sky above the mountain, swept clean of the rain curtain by the updraft.
Jake seemed to recognize that mountain, gave an audible sigh of relief when we sighted it. My suspicions quieted.
We went hunting that day. It was the first dry camp in a long time, the first signs of game; we needed a rest. As usual, Barto stayed at camp to guard the ponies and camp equipment.
We were on the trail of a bear when we saw a strange object in the sky. It looked like a doughnut or a saucer, and it settled to the earth on the far side of the great white mountain at whose foot we had made camp. It seemed only an hour's walk to a point where we could overlook the landing place of the strange object, and Hank and Frans pushed ahead, curious and a little frightened. I had read in the American newspapers the accounts of "disk ships" and knew they would not be able to get close to it, and I wanted to watch Hank. I let them get out of sight, then turned back to camp. Quietly, I was nearing our camp, when the scream of a woman in pain came to me!
It was the answer to all my apprehensions about the ugly Barto, a sudden materialization of the vague distrust I had felt all along! I broke into a run, crashing through the young, white birches and larches, to the clearing.
A chuckle reached me, a gloating heavy laugh of triumph.
Barto had the girl prone, one arm bent near to breaking, her knees caught beneath his weight. I caught him by the shoulders, heaved backward, sent him sprawling across the young grass. He sat up, glared for an instant, then went for his gun. Before it came out of the holster, my foot caught him beside the jaw. He was too big for any other method I might have chosen to be effective. The kick stretched him unconscious; my heel had struck the button.
I turned, to see the girl disappearing among the brush. She had darted away instantly she was free. That she would bring her people down on us I had no doubt. I did doubt their ability to hurt us. Unless she belonged to a band of Manchurian bandits hanging out here in the wilderness, they would not have arms. In the case she was of the bandits, we might be wiped out in our sleep.
I bent over Jake, hoping I had not broken his neck. He looked as though he would be out for some time. I picked up his heavy .45, shoved it in my belt. I wished Hank and Frans would return soon. The four of us might be able to handle her people.
I turned--and she stood there, looking at me!
That such as she existed among the usually ugly Koreans and Manchurians was impossible! I gasped a little in unbelief. Her clothing was like nothing on this earth.
Soft green leather was clasped low on her hips with a narrow gold band, set with jewels. It was a skirt, I suppose, but it hung with a diagonal hem-line running from hip to knee, it was beaded in an intricate pattern, not Oriental, somehow reminding me of American Indian bead work.
On her feet leather sandals, laced like the ancient Greek sandal nearly to the knee. In her hand a bow of horn, small and powerful. Around her shoulders a short leather cape similarly beaded and fringed. Around her brows a jeweled circlet set like a diadem, and it crowned a young queen, proud and knowing very well her beauty and its power.
Her features were neither Caucasian nor Oriental, certainly not the heavy-boned native stock. I couldn't pin them down to any race. Her nose was straight, the nostrils neither wide nor narrow, but strong and firm. Her eyes were too wide-set and heavy-lidded to be Aryan, but they were not tilted; they were level. Her hair was not black, but chestnut and curled or naturally very wavy. Her glance was tawny and aflame with anger and excitement, furious upon the prostrate Barto. They were very light-colored eyes, and they caught the sun in a blaze that made them seem yellow.
Striking, she was a figure not of any ordinary kind. Her every aspect told that she came of a culture unknown to me. She was evidently not ignorant, but of a different way of life.
Looking into her eyes, appraising her interest in myself that had brought her back, drinking in the immense appeal of her strangeness and her evident gentility--the evidences of a past of cultivated living as strange as her attire--I forgot the unconscious man at my feet.
Her skin was whiter than my own! Her arms were bruised purple where Barto had clutched her. Then she spoke, in halting Korean: "Is he dead?"
"No," I answered.
"Then he will live to meet a far worse fate! I know why you are here, stranger, and I warn you! You are on a fool's errand! The Golden Goddess is death for such as you!"
I was bewildered.
"What Golden Goddess?"