These were the mole-men, the crab-men, the creatures built for specific purposes as tools are built. Each thing bore on his back a bale of goods, or a bar of metal, a burden sizeable enough for two ordinary men. They were strong, and they were silent and smooth-moving as machines. I realized they were machines--made out of flesh.
"Are these slaves, or what?" I asked Carna.
"These were once the slaves, or workmen of the race of Zervs. They now serve the Schrees, for they are mindless, in a way. They are not important. It is those who guard and guide them I wait to see. I have not yet seen a Schree, but only heard the Zervs describe them."
The nightmare procession went on for minutes, long minutes that were to me a nightmare. Yet I realized that if I had been raised to the idea of humankind made into machines, it would not be revolting--not after they had been hereditarily moulded for centuries into what they were. Yet what a crime it was, what they might have been if left to develop as nature intended, rather than as man cruelly mal-intended. They must have been once specially selected for strength as well as beauty, for about them was a sad and terrible grace, a remainder of noble chiseling of brow and nostril, distorted as by a fiend into the horror that it was--these had once been a noble race!
"Do you feel the terrible horror of this sight?" I asked Carna.
"Always I have felt the horror that was done to them in the past. It is still done to man. Look, there are the three who came with you, and fell into the hands of the priests. They are the thing that the Zervs really fear, yet they live with it, and have done so for centuries. They can despise the Schrees, but they are as bad themselves--look!"
I followed with my eye her pointing finger. Yes, that figure was hulking Barto, and I almost yelled "Jake, snap out of it!" before I remembered my own peril.
Then he came into the full light, and passed not twenty feet away. I leaned against the railing of stone, sick as a dog and retching. They had made him over, with some unknown aborted science of an evil world! Jake was clubfooted, lumbering, with his jaws grown into great jowls of bone, his arms elongated and ending in hooks. Two of the fingers, or the thumb and finger had been enlarged or grafted into a bone-like semblance of a crab's claw. What he was going to be when they got through, I didn't know, but neither did Jake. He didn't know anything! He clumped along, his crossed eyes unmoving, his back bent with a weight heavy for even his broad shoulders--a man no longer, but a mindless zombie. A cross-eyed zombie!
I cursed silently, tearing my hands against the stone as I resisted the impulse to fire and fire again upon those hopping, thin, white things that came after.
"Just what are those hopping things?"
"They are a separate race, who have lived with both Zervs and with Schrees. They are a part of our life. You have dogs, horses, machines. We have Jivros--that is, priests--and we have the workmen we call Shinros, and too, we have the Zoorphs!" She laughed a little as I stared at her. "Do not worry, the Zoorphs are not really so different. But the Schrees and Shinros are different."
"Damned, beastly, demoniac life it must be."
"To you, who expect things to be like your knowledge tells you it must be. To us, it is our way. For a Zerv, or for a Schree, it is a good way. The Jivros do the supervisory work, the Shinros do the hard work, and the Schrees take it easy and enjoy life. Why do you have machines?"
"Machines are not alive. That is different."
"Neither are the Shinros alive, they only seem so. They do not know what they have lost--it is much as if they had died.
"But come, I must show you where we can get a ship to take us away from this and into your world. I have a life to live, I want to live it! You--have a message to deliver to your people, or they will become the Shinros of the whole race of Schrees. I do not like to think what can happen to your world!"
I followed her again on our furtive way among the shadows. She was swift and sure, and made good time. She knew where she was going. It was a broad open space deep within the city. On three sides were wide closed doors like hangar doors. The fourth was a massive structure of rose granite, beetling above us, a monstrous shape in the dimness, throwing a shadow half across the paved space. We raced across the shadow toward the nearest doorway, flattened against it, listening for life inside. Carna worked on the catch of the door, after a second slid the door aside slowly, carefully. Inside I could see a shimmering smoothness, round, higher than my head, a top-shaped object. I guessed that this was the ship she meant to steal from the Schrees. Suddenly the door she was sliding open scraped, and emitted a shrill, high-pitched sound. I did not know if it was an alarm activated by the opening door or just rust on the rails and wheels of the door mechanism. Carna cried: "Hurry, get into the ship, we must take off at once. They will come; they must have heard that sound!"
I ducked into the darkness, circled the bulging shape, looking for an opening. Smooth, there seemed no way I could find.
"Here it is, help me open it," Carna panted behind me.
I leaped to her side. She was twisting at an inset handle around which faint lines indicated the door edge. I pulled her aside, took hold of the handle, twisted hard. It bent, then gave, and the door swung easily open in my hands. We tumbled in. Carna raced through the first chamber, and even as I got the door closed, the floor lifted under my feet easily, drifted out of the wide doorway, shot upward so quickly I was thrown to the floor. I lay there, the increasing acceleration pressing me hard against the cool metal. After a time I struggled up, made my way to the woman's side.
Ahead was the moonlit range of mountains. Carna was setting a course straight along the ridge of them, heading southward.
"How far will this thing fly?" I asked.
"It will fly around your world many times, if I want it to."
"What kind of fuel does it use?" I asked incredulously.
"I don't know what that is. It uses a substance we call Ziss. It is a good fuel."
"It must be!"
I looked back along the ridge of the mountain's top toward the valley we had left. We were in a bubble on the top of the flat, circular ship; one could see in any direction. Back there a series of glowing round shapes shot upward, came after us in a long curve that would bring them ahead of us on our course. Carna changed her course to parallel the pursuit, and they changed again, to intercept her new direction. Again she changed, circling farther west.
But it was no use! Rapidly they overhauled us.
"Can't you get more speed out of it?" I shouted at her, for they were very close.
"We have been unlucky, my friend. This ship is not in good shape. There is something wrong with it. I cannot make it go as it should, or there is something I do not know...."
Swiftly they came up with us, over us, and beams of light shot from them down upon us. The ship was held now, rigid. One could feel the acceleration cease. Like a bird on a string we followed as they swung back toward the valley. Minutes later we were being lowered into the open space we had just left. I clicked the safety off my rifle, loosened the gun in my holster. I covered the door, shielding myself behind the round shape of a machine. But Carna put a hand on my weapon, shook her head.
"If you kill some of them, they will make of you a Shinro. If you submit meekly, it may be I can talk to someone and save you. I have ways. I understand them. They will be glad to get me, and I will tell them you know many things they need to know. I can save your life. Later we can try again, in another ship. Next time we will not be so unlucky."
It sounded like sense, and I looked into her deep eyes searchingly. She meant well. Perhaps she could do what she said. I did not know these aliens; she was almost one of them.
As the door opened in the side, I lay the rifle down, stood with crossed arms as the thin, hopping horrors came near.
These things had never been men. They had faces that were empty of features, just flat, shiny, gray eyes, two holes where they breathed, no mouth that I could see. There was a long neck around which the collar of their white robe was gathered in folds. Their hands were horny, like an insect's claws. They were not human, they were only four-limbed, and walked--or hopped--in an erect position. There the resemblance ceased.
They led us out, Carna rattling off a series of sounds I could hardly follow. Something about: "We had to flee from the Zervs, we did not believe you would take us in, we had to steal a ship. I am Carna, a Zoorph of the first grade, and this man is a native of the United States, the greatest country of this earth. Do not harm him, he can help you if he wishes."
Her words must have had quite an effect, for the weird, insect-like men examined me with their eyes as we hurried along, across the hangar space, into the big building of rose granite. Within twenty minutes we were entering a tremendous room, and Carna nudged me.
"Their boss, Carl! Look impressed."
It was easy to look impressed. I was mightily impressed by the She on the throne!
I had no eyes for the score or so of Schrees that surrounded the massive carved chair, even though I was curious about their difference from men. Above them were her sleepy eyes, wide almonds, molten and wise, incandescent with intense inner fire above a mouth that was a wide, scarlet oval torn into the whitely-glowing face.
A great black pelt softened the harsh lines of the throne, framed her chalk-white body so that it curved starkly sensual, dominating the great chamber with beauty. It was a beauty one knew this woman used as a tool, a weapon, keen and polished and ready, and it struck at me swift as a great serpent, the fires behind her eyes driving the blow.
She wore a kind of sark of shadowy black veil, sewn over with sparkling bits of gem. It was in truth but an effective ornament for the proud firm breasts, the narrow waist, the arch of the hips and the curves of her thighs. Inadvertently I let out a low whistle of approbation and astonishment. Carna, beside me, nudged me sharply, and I snapped out of it.
The purple, lazy lids of her eyes moved, the slow weary-wise gaze centered on me, her hand moved. In two strides a man from the throne-side had me by the arm, and another seized my other, tugged me forward to her feet, thrust me down on my knees. Still, I looked. Curiosity and something more held me in a grip I couldn't shake.
This was more than a woman, I sensed. There was an awe of her throbbing in me. Not fear--something deeper, something one feels before the unexplainable, something one feels gazing at the moon and wondering; an ominous, deep, thrilling and unexplainable emotion.
Closer, I could see her firm flesh was dusted over with a glittering powder, the soft curves of her hair swept back to mingle and lose themselves in the black fur of the pelt so that the night-black hair seemed to spread everywhere about her and melt into the shadows.
Her hands were sinuous as serpents, the fingers tapering, the nails very long like the Chinese. Her nose was exquisite, but thin-edged, and with a cruel line on each side that vanished when she spoke.
"It is death to strangers in this valley...." she mused, not speaking to me or to anyone, but with a cruel intent to toy with me in the words, mocking, waiting for me to answer.
"I have been long on the way," I answered, in much the same tone, as though we were speaking of some one not present.
"The way to death is sometimes long, and sometimes short. And, too, there are things worse than death. But what was it you came here seeking?"
"I did not know, until just now," I answered, still looking at her eyes, which glanced at me, then away, then back again. She was interested in spite of her apparent weariness with routine--or perhaps with life itself.
"Now that you know, will you tell me?" She smiled a little, not a good smile, but a secret jest with herself. An appearance of extreme evil sat for a moment on her face, then went again, like the wind. Her voice was grave, careless, yet modulated with an extreme care as if she spoke to a child.
"I seek the wisdom I see in your eyes, to know what is and why it wearies you. I want to know a great many things, about your people and what they do here, what they mean to mine, what your plans may be--a great many things I need now."
The sleepiness left her eyes, and she bent toward me with the grace of a great cat and the shadows circling her eyes lifted a little. Wise, aloof, indifferent, yet she did not know what I was, or what I meant, and she meant to find out.
"So you know...." she mused, as if to herself.
"I know you are from space. I know it has been a long long time since you first touched here; your people, that is. I know that you drove the Zervs from this city and took it for your own. But that is all."
"It is too much. You cannot leave here." Her voice was sharp, and I was surprised to learn that she had even considered letting me go free. It was encouraging, after the dire pictures the Zervs and Nokomee had drawn for me of these Schrees.
I looked curiously at them, the Zervs had called them "not human." They were different, as a negro is different from a white, or an Oriental from a Finn. Their eyes were wide-set and a little prominent, their ears thinner and smaller, their necks very long and supple--different still from the Zervs. Yet they were a human race. I had misunderstood--or I had not yet met those whom the Zervs called Schree.
Carna had knelt beside me, and I murmured to her: "Are these the Schrees, or something else?"
"These are the high-class Schrees, they are very like the Zervs in appearance. The other classes of the Schrees at sometime in the past were changed by medical treatments into a different appearance. It was a way of fixing the caste system permanently--understand?" She answered me swiftly, in a whisper, and the woman on the throne frowned as she noticed our conversation.
Her eyes fixed ours as she said, with a curiously excited inflection, no longer bored with us: "Take these two to the place of questioning. I will supervise the proceeding. I must know what these two intended here, whether others of this man's people understand us."
"We're in for it!" said Carna, and I knew what she meant. Jerked to our feet, we were hurried from the big throne room, down a corridor, through a great open door which closed behind us.
That place! It was a laboratory out of Mr. Hyde's nightmares.
Up until now I had accepted the many divergencies and peculiarities of the Zervs, the priestly insect-men, the monstrous workers--all the variance of this colony from space--as only to be expected of another planet's races. I had consciously tried to resist the impact of horror on my mind, had tried to put it aside as a natural reaction and one which did not necessarily mean that this expedition from space was a horrible threat to men. I had tried to accept their ways as not necessarily monstrous, but as a different way of life that could be as good a way as our own if I once understood it. There were attractive points about the Zervs and even about these Schrees' rulers which bore out this impulse toward tolerance in me.
But in this laboratory--or abattoir--some nameless, ominous aura or smell or electric force--what it was I know not--struck at my already staggering understanding with a final blow.
Now at last I met the real Schrees! I knew without asking. They seemed to me to be an attempt by the peculiar insect-like "priests" to make from normal men a creature more like themselves in appearance. Perhaps it had been done from the natural urge to have about them beings more like themselves than men ... and it was plain that the race of the insect-like creatures and of men had become inextricably linked--become a social unity in the past. It was also increasingly plain that the four-limbed insect creatures had in the beginning been the cultured race, been the fathers of the science and culture of this race, had through the centuries lost their dominance to the Zervs and the Schree's upper classes--had retained the "priest" role as their own place in society. It was perhaps at that time that their science had brought the Schree type into existence. There were perhaps a hundred of them at work in the big chamber--a chamber bewilderingly filled with hanging surgical non-glare lights, filling the place with a shadowless illumination, revealing great, gurgling bottles of fluid with tubes and gleaming metal rods; pulsing elastic bulbs; throbbing little pumps, with row on row of gauges and dials and little levers along the walls.
There were a score of ominous-looking operating tables, some occupied, some empty, about them gathered group after group of white-masked Schrees. These were taller than men, near seven feet, with very bony arms and legs, a skeletal structure altered into attenuation, with high, narrow skulls, great liquid eyes, no brows, hairless skulls showing bare and pointed above the white surgical masks.
Very like the Jivro caste, yes, but different as men are different from insect. They walked with a long graceful stride, not hopping as the priests' class. Their eyes were mournful and liquid with a dog-like softness, their hands were snake-quick and long, they looked like sad-faced ghouls busy about the dismemberment of a corpse--a corpse of someone they had loved, and they appearing very sad about the necessity. Such was their appearance; mournful, ghoulish, yet human and warm in a repressed, frustrated way.
The tall, sad-eyed Schrees turned from the preparation of two rigs like dental chairs, except that they were not that at all, but only similarly surrounded with gadgetry incomprehensible to me. We had stood isolated, waiting, with four guards between us and the door.
As we were each placed in one of these chairs, our wrists and ankles fastened with straps of metal, I expected almost any horrible torture to be inflicted upon us.
They shot a beam of energy through my head and I heard words, sentences, a rapid expounding of alien grammar and pronunciation which sank deep into my brain. My memory was being ineradicably written upon with all the power needed to make of me whatever they wanted. But apparently their only purpose now was to give me a complete understanding of their language. An hour, two, swept by, and now the heretofore almost unintelligible gibberish about me became to my ears distinct and understandable words. I was now acquainted with the tongue of the Schrees, far better than little Nokomee had taught me the somewhat different tongue of the Zervs.
Then they wrapped about my waist and chest a strong net of metal mesh, and I knew that now something strenuous was going to occur, for I could not move a muscle because of the complete wrapping of metal mesh.
Now a metal disk was set to swinging in front of my nose so that I could not see what they were doing to my companion. I watched the metal disk, and saw behind it the tall swaying figure of the Queen enter and approach. She stopped a few feet from my chair, and her eyes were intent upon me. Then a light flashed blindingly in the reflecting disk, it went back and forth faster and faster, and I felt a strong vibration of energy pass in a beam through my head, throbbing, throbbing ... darkness engulfed me. It was a darkness that was a black whirlwind of emotion. The sense of the desertion by humankind, by God and mercy and rationality swept through me and overwhelmed my inner self. I will never forget the utter agony of shrieking pain and loss that formed a whirling ocean of darkness into which I dived....
In this maelstrom of seeming destruction I lost all grip, had no will, was at sea mentally. Into this shrieking hurricane of madness a calm voice intruded. I recognized a familiar note--it was the ruler herself, her voice no longer bored, but with a cruel curiosity that I knew meant to be satisfied if it killed me.
"Tell me what your people intend to do about the flying saucers they speak of in their newspapers?"
"They do not believe they exist; they are told they are delusions," I heard myself answering. I was surprised to hear my voice, for it came with no conscious volition on my part.
"That is for the public; that is a lie. But what do the powers behind the scenes intend to do about them?"
"They are searching for them, to learn all they can about them. They do not understand where they come from, but they have some information. They suspect they are from space, and are afraid of them."
"And they sent you here to learn what you could. They brought you the golden statuette to help you gain an entry, did they not?"
I tried to resist the impulse to tell the truth, for I could realize that if she thought I had the power of my government behind me, my fate might be different than if I did not. I tried to say "yes, they sent me," but I could not! I answered like an automaton: "No, my government has no knowledge of my expedition. I came purely to get gold and for no other reason. Mining is my business."
She gave a little exclamation of frustration. Then after a pause she asked: "Do you think our way of life and your own could live together in peace, could grow to be one?"
Again I made futile efforts to hide my revulsion and fear of them all. It was no use. The flood of force pouring through my head was more effective than any truth serum.
"No, to me you are horrors, and my people would never consent to live at peace with you. You could never conquer us. Until the last of our cultured members were dead they would resist the horrible practices of your culture."
"That is as I surmised," she mused. "But I would have you tell me why this is so. What is it you find so revolting about us."
"What have you done to my companions? Do you think men want that to happen to them?"
"That was a punishment for entering here without permission. That would not happen to any but enemies."
"Men could never accept the altering of the shapes of workers, the tinkering with the hereditary form of their children, the artificial grafting upon our race of revolting and unnecessary form changes. Your whole science is a degeneration of wisdom into evil, tampering with life itself. You are horrors, and you do not know it."
I could hear her steps as she turned and left, tapping angrily upon the floor. After her I could hear the shuffling, heavier tread of her retinue. As the flood of vibration ceased, I began to curse aloud for the undiplomatic truths I had been forced to utter. In seconds my arms were free, and I was led out, a tall grim-faced guard on each side, with a firm grip on my arms. I wondered what was happening to the lovely Zoorph, but I did not get a chance to look. I was thrown into a cell, and the heavy wooden door shut. The thud of a bar dropped in place punctuated the evening's experience with a glum finality.
I lay for hours with my mind in a whirl from the effects of the truth ray. Jivros, or insect-priests, moved phantom-like before my sleepless eyes, watching from the dark and waiting. Gradually my thinking became more normal, and I began a systematic analysis and summing up of what I had learned of these people. There were but a few members of the ruling groups, and it was evident the rule was split between the Jivro caste of the insect men and some normal-appearing groups who had divided the power with them in the past. Under these were the Schrees, and under these the malformed working caste or castes. The Schrees had contact with some space-state, the Zervs were outcasts of the ruler caste who had been driven from that space-state--perhaps more than one planet--sometime in the past and had hid out upon earth until recently located by the power that ruled on their home planets. Now they were fugitive and nearly powerless, and I knew the Zervs were few in number from my own observation. There were perhaps a hundred, perhaps two hundred. They had contact with some of the Jivros with whom they were familiar, but the appearance of Jake and Noldi and Polter among the workmen in the city told me that these Jivros could be traitors to them, could be giving new allegiance to the conquerors of the Zervs. My mind centered on two facts. The Jivro caste were the real source of the evil in these people. It was their unnatural attitude toward human life which had made this race the horror it was, and they were still exercising that evil influence.
Morning came through a high barred window, and after a while food came, slid beneath the door. I did not see the bearer of the food, though I called out in curiosity. He did not answer, only shuffled wearily away.
The morning crawled past, the sun mounted until I could see the golden orb near zenith. Then came what I dreaded, the tread of a number of feet. The bar was lifted; I saw four armed guards and a waiting white-robed Jivro, his protruding pupiless eyes moving as he ran his gaze over my figure. I could not help shrinking from the horror of his examination, brief though it was, for I realized he might be deciding just what freak of nature he could make out of me.
I was marched out, down the corridor, up a long ramp, a turn, along two other corridors, up another ramp. The tour ended before a wide metal door, the guards spaced themselves at each side, the door was opened by the agile, hopping Jivro. I went in ahead of it.
There were but four beings in the room, and I stood before the long, foot-high table behind which the four reclined upon cushioned couches.
They were four divergent creatures. One was the queen, whose name I had yet to hear spoken. One was a very old Jivro, his skin ash-white and covered with a repulsive scale, like leprosy. The third was a mournful-eyed Schree, clad in an ornamented smock-like garment, from which his thin limbs thrust grotesquely. The fourth was a handsome, long-necked male who resembled the queen. He lounged negligently some distance from the three, as if in attendance upon her. I deduced he was her paramour, husband or close relative, perhaps a brother.
I stood eyeing them silently, waiting. I gathered the three heads of the government were here, and the extra one represented the balance of power in the hands of the queen. His negligent lack of interest seemed to me to be an evident giving of his voice to the queen, if he was a part of this gathering.
The queen's voice had lost its sleepy, mocking tones, was sharp, incisive: "You present a problem new to us, earthman. Sooner or later, if we decide to remain upon this planet permanently, we will have to meet and conquer, or meet and engage in commerce with the other members of your race. You are the first educated member of your race who has fallen into our hands. We must study your people, and we would like your willing cooperation. Will you give it willingly? Or must we put you to death? Which would perhaps symbolize, even indicate directly, our future attitude toward your races."
"I am quite willing," I said, before I had a chance to bungle it worse, "quite willing to exchange information on your people for the same about my own. However, I doubt that your people will find this planet congenial to an invader who ignores the natives as you have done."
"We did not come here to colonize, earthman. We came in pursuit of renegades from our law, fugitives who fled when their plots were uncovered. But we are considering the possibility of a permanent colony here, and you could help us...."
For an instant her eyes dwelt upon mine with a peculiar warning expression, as evident as a wink, and the expression was evanescent as a breath. I caught on, and made my face agreeable and subservient. Immediately her own reassumed a harsh, proud set, her voice became even more incisive and cold.