"There will be a ship waiting to pick her up as soon as she is out of sight of the Jivros who will accompany us. I have sent it already. It waits in the hills by the barrier. With you along, you can contact the remaining Zervs. They will augment your power. I can send more ships manned with my men, later. We have been preparing for this a long time."
"Aren't you doing a lot of talking? Walls have ears, you know, and those Jivros of yours look pretty shifty to me."
"It is the hour of their sleep. They are creatures of regularity, like ants, you know. They live by routine. There are only guards awake. I know exactly where every one of them stands at this moment, where every one of them sleeps. I have not been inactive."
We filed out of the city gate, a party of nearly fifty, a score of them bearers of a big palanquin-like vehicle in which they proposed to carry the Croen's inert body.
I was remembering the brief examination of her that I had made when I entered the cavern of the golden statue.
A four-armed female of near-human aspect, but with a single horn on her forehead. A member of a race from distant space, alien even to these visitors to earth. She had been utterly different from anything I had even imagined as human--yet somewhere, somehow the origin of that race had been similar to our own. I wondered if space was peopled with such near-human races, all descendant from some ancient space-traveling race who had colonized--then passed on into forgotten time?
The party wound on, taking that same trail by which I had entered the cavern with Hank and Jake and Frans. Silently I blessed the fate that had spared me the things that had been done to them. Their only release, I imagined, could be death.
Overhead the rocky walls began to close, the light grew dim, ahead came that eerie glow from the magnetic statue. The prince's eyes caught mine in a swift, silent order to be ready, and the two of us drew ahead of the column. In my jacket pocket I held the hypodermic, one of Schree design, different from a modern medical hypodermic only in that it was decorated with incut figures of glorified Jivros, carved in the crystalline cylinder, and the metal was of gold.
There were only two of the repellent insect-men with us. I surmised they were there only as observers, but that was not the case. They were there because they had to be. I could see an unusual agitation on their blank, bulge-eyed faces, if those insect masks could be called faces. They were afraid of this Croen female, even in her inert condition.
The tall, graceful Schree warriors followed us into the cavern, and last of all came the two hopping Jivros. The intense attraction of the statue drew me, but I remembered how I had avoided it before, and kept my eyes averted. Like light on a moth's eyes, the power of it seemed to strike into the will only when the eyes were upon it.
We gathered around the column of crystal. The Schrees attached a loop of rope to the top, pulled it carefully from the base. When it was stretched out horizontal upon the floor, the two Jivros set to work with little spinning metal disk-saws, cutting a line entirely around it lengthwise. Then they tapped it with small hammers, and the cut cracked through. Lifting off the top section like the lid of a sarcophagus, the Croen lay exposed to the light of day.
I stood entranced by the exquisite beauty and majesty of the naked creature until Prince Genner nudged me with an elbow. Even as he did so, he whirled, pointed, cried out: "There, through that doorway, one of the traitorous Zervs spies upon us. Catch him, my warriors, before they bring the others down upon us!"
As if drilled or awaiting this order, the tall Schrees set off as one man, running through the same doorway by which I had followed the angry Nokomee.
The prince and I were left alone with the two Jivros, who stood beside the nude figure of the alien Croen. They eyed us, their eyes jerking nervously from our faces to the body of the Croen. Quite calmly the Prince tugged a vibro-gun, very like the weapon Holaf had worn at his waist, from his belt and trained it upon the two horrors.
"This day will come for all the Jivros," cried the prince in a triumphant voice, and shot a terrible blue bolt of force into the body of each of them. The second had snapped a little weapon from his breast, hidden in the folds of his white robe, and as he fell, the beam of it cut a long smoking channel in the floor rock. The prince calmly picked it up, pressed the trigger lever, handed the thing to me. I pocketed it, then stepped over to the nude body of the Croen. I inserted the needle carefully in the artery at her inner elbow, pushed the plunger slowly home, my eyes on her face with a deep awe.
The prince bent beside me, watching her face intently, and both of us stood rapt, waiting for I knew not what except that it would be more marvelous to meet such a god-like creature as this face to face than anything else that had ever happened to me.
But a sound of feet up the corridor made Prince Genner spring to his feet.
"Quick, man, help me get these dead horrors out of sight! I do not trust all those warriors, though most of them are in sympathy with us."
We sprang to the dead things. I bent and picked one up by the shoulders. Surprisingly, frighteningly light they were, as if filled with cotton. Their limbs were truly skeletal, and curiously I tugged the white robe from the strange insect body as I followed the prince. The thorax, the wasp-waist, the long pendulous abdomen, the atrophied center limbs folded across the wasp-waist--the whole thing was like a great white wasp without wings. As we flung them into an empty chamber, I turned the burden face down, and on the back were two thin wisps of residual wings. Once these things had been winged!
We sped back to the side of the sleeping Croen.
I stopped ten feet from the giant figure, surprise, awe, a thrill of admiration filling me! She was sitting up, her hands at her temples, peering about with her great eyes distracted. On her face, even in this condition of tension, still unaware of her surroundings, was the greatest evidence of intelligence I had ever sensed. This Croen race, I realized, was something truly beyond an earthman's understanding.
But the prince had no time for the awed, stupefied condition into which sight of her had struck me.
"Come, Cyane, great one, we have released you, but you must flee at once. I know how weak you must be, but if you can, please rise and flee. This man will accompany you. He is alien to us, and it is better that he be out of the hands of the Jivros as quickly as possible. Go, dear one, swiftly, swiftly--we will find you later!"
The great body moved, gathered itself, stood tottering, gazing wildly about. The prince pointed at the cavern entrance where our footprints still showed in the dust. To me he cried: "Go up the rocky side as far as you can when you reach the slopes. The north side, earthman. Keep going, and conceal yourselves in the bush. I will guide the search away from you."
I ran ahead of the tottering figure and she followed, her steps gathering strength. Faster she followed until we raced along the dim cavern way. The rocky roof opened out and the blue sky showed overhead. The prince had gestured to me when we had entered to a ledge that angled upward from the gully, and I knew now what he had meant.
I could not keep up with the great strides of the now fully aroused Croen goddess. She turned back, picked me up like a child, and in great leaps bounded up the side of the canyon along the ledge. Up and up and over, and still she ran, untiring. I was not rescuing, I was being rescued!
As we ran beneath the shadow of the trees, a figure rose suddenly up before us. I was astounded to see it was Holaf, whom I had thought the Jivros had already dealt with.
"I await you, Cyane, great one, to guide you to safety. The prince has sent me," he cried.
The great striding creature slowed, spoke to me with a voice full of a deep music.
"Do you trust this man?"
"He may be trusted in this case. He has already risked his life to set you free."
She set me down. I looked at Holaf, who was too excited to be amused.
"Hasten, we must get under cover at once. A place awaits, and many men, arms, tools. We have long fought for this day, Cyane!" Holaf was wholly ecstatic to see the success of his plans. I realized the prince had made an ally of him with the same kind of interview the queen had granted me.
Holaf led us around the side of the mountain, keeping in the shelter of the trees, and by a back route to the same hideaway in the mountainside where I had first met him.
I greeted Nokomee with a glad smile, but her smile was not so glad and my heart was hurt to find she was angry with me. But the great Croen creature left us no time for argument.
The caves where the two hundred or so Zervs had hidden for so long were quite numerous and confusingly branched. There was room there to hide an army if needed.
I went at once to the small chamber where Nokomee had placed the packs and camping equipment from the horses, and took out one of Hank's big old forty-fives, belted it on. The old-fashioned belt was filled with cartridges. I also took my own Winchester Model .70. I had a plentiful supply of 130-grain Spitzer-point bullets, a high-velocity, long-range killer that I might get a chance to use. I filled my pockets with cartridges, took a knapsack and filled that. So, burdened down with lethal equipment, I hurried back to Cyane's side. I didn't want to miss a move of that visitor from far space. I wanted to learn, and I had an idea she would show plenty of science if she got into action. The prince wasn't gambling on her for nothing, not with that glorious sister of his in jeopardy.
She had seated herself on that same big bench where I had first met the Zoorph, Carna, and the Zervs were coming and going to her rapidly-given orders. A dozen of the older Zervs were assembling apparatus under her direction, and if I expected to learn something, I saw I was going to be disappointed, for the stuff was inexplicable to me.
I went on outside to the ledge from which the city could be seen. I was worried about how Genner had explained to the Jivros the death of the two who had accompanied him. I had taken a pair of small binoculars from my packs, and seeing activity near the gates of the wall, I trained the lenses upon the wall.
I gave a cry which brought the Zervs speeding to me. I handed the focused glasses to Holaf, pointed at the gates. He put them to his eyes, then he too gave a cry of warning, and raced back to the Croen.
For, filing out of the gates and spreading out across the valley was the vanguard of an army. The glass had shown the streets filled with marching men.
For a few minutes I could not understand exactly what had happened, then I guessed. The prince had asked for permission to use the entire forces of the city in a search for the Croen! The strategy of the man was exquisite. He was playing on the Jivro fear of the Croen to get the military power fully in his hands!
Even as the great limbs of the Croen woman brought her to my side, as I handed her the glasses, round disk ships began to rise from the center of the city one after the other until at least five score of the smaller type were in the sky. After them came two of the larger craft that I knew were really space ships with huge inner chambers in the bottom where the small craft nested.
An all-out search for the Croen was on in earnest!
But now quite suddenly an astonishing thing happened. One of the great mother ships swung in a circle, came alongside the other, and from the great center bulge of the upper surface a blue beam lashed out, struck the other in a slicing flare and sheared off the entire upper bulge in one blow. The great ship faltered for an instant, then began to fall. It struck the ground near the wall with a blinding explosion. As the great mushroom of white smoke began to lift up, the stem of the mushroom blew away, and where the ship had fallen was only a hole, surrounded by bits of shattered metal. The wall near the explosion was breached in a fifty-foot-wide break, and the bodies of men could be seen through the breach, killed by concussion.
From the city a blazing yellow beam lanced here and there in pursuit of the traitor disk, but it darted like a dragonfly, up, down, and zig-zag. The pursuing beam came nowhere near it. Somehow I knew the prince, and perhaps Wananda too, were in that ship, and my heart was in my throat as I thought of the queen in that ship, being shot at by the repulsive insect men.
The army deploying on the plain kept right on marching, columns slanting outward from the center, forming three columns that spread out like the extending prongs of a trident. I could make nothing of it.
Several dogfights had broken out among the smaller disk ships since the fall of the mother disk, but these were quickly over, and the flight came on, swift as arrows.
The remaining mother disk settled to earth on the level land directly below our hiding place, and the smaller disk settled now around it. The army marched on, nearer and nearer.
I looked at Holaf, handed him the glasses.
"I don't know whether we are lost, or, whether the prince has joined us, deserting the Jivros in the city you Zervs built."
"None but Prince Genner knew our hiding place, and who else would place themselves under our fire range, knowing we were here?" Even as he spoke, the door opened in the side of the great disk, and the prince sprang out, turning to assist his sister to the ground.
The Croen, Cyane, standing beside me, suddenly leaped off the ledge, her long limbs making easy going of the sloping detritus below. Seconds later she was running easily across the plain toward the ship, and I was surprised to see the prince and the queen bow their knees to her, kneel before her as if praying to a goddess. She touched the bowed heads with her fingertips, and the three figures then entered the disk and the door closed. The ship lifted, took off alone in a southerly direction, flying higher and higher and out of sight. Even as it disappeared, another great disk lifted from the city, set out in the same direction in pursuit.
But the smaller ships below lifted at once as they sighted this pursuit, set out after the second mother disk.
"I guess we're going to miss the fighting," I said to Holaf.
"We can get into it when the time is right. We've got to move at once. The Jivros know our location now. Come on!"
Holaf strode back into the cavern that had been the Zerv's hideout for so long. I followed, stopping curiously to examine the apparatus which the Croen had abandoned on the advent of the prince. It was a kind of still, bubbling now with a wick lamp under the red fluid, and nearly a gallon of the end product had collected in a big jar.
"What was this distillation all about?" I asked Holaf.
"It was a medicine she was making for the Shinro. She said that an injection into their blood would increase their perceptions to a human range of intelligence, and that then we could use their resulting rage against their mutilators. It is only a temporary effect. It will wear off in a day, leave them again to the stupidity the Jivros gave them. Now, she's gone, I don't even know the dosage. It is useless, the prince took her from us."
"We can use it, if it is complete. I have the needle I used to revive the Croen. Bring the stuff; we'll try it."
"We could circle the army, get into the city...." said Holaf, his eyes glittering on mine.
"Let's go," I cried, getting his idea.
We were near a hundred and fifty young Zerv fighters, and perhaps as many women and old men and children. We wound through the passages of the tunnels in the mountain, came out on the far side from the valley. Along the mountainside we traveled, and I realized we were at the mercy of any force we met, being too few and too hampered with baggage and the helpless members of the Zerv families.
But Holaf knew what to do. He pointed out a trail toward the wilderness to the thin little column, told them where to take cover and await his return. Then with myself and a dozen of his best warriors, he turned his face again toward the Jivro stronghold.
We circled the valley, marching hard, crossing the upper narrow end. Coming toward the city, twilight was closing down, and we made the last few miles in complete darkness.
Near the walls, Holaf chopped a thirty-foot sapling, which we carried to the wall. A young Zerv swarmed up the pole, let down a rope to help the ascent of the others. I climbed the rough pole after him. I hadn't the athletic ability of these Zervs who seemed to like to climb ropes hand over hand. So over and down into the silent city we went, drawing up pole and rope after us, hiding them in the shadows of the wall.
Like shadows we stole along the streets, and after long minutes heard the unmistakable feet of the Shinros. They came with that ghastly mechanical rhythmic tread, eyes staring, backs burdened. I guessed that now their burdens were materials for the defense of the wall. We followed, and not far distant from the breach of the explosion of the disk ship, found our chance. They were accompanied by four of the hopping Jivros, and upon the back of each a young Zerv sprang, silent as stalking cats, striking them down, crushing their skulls with vibro-gun barrels.
Holaf and I set to work immediately on the mindless Shinros, injecting shots of the red fluid into their veins one by one, varying the shots to gauge the effect. But it was potent stuff, and before I had the third man under the needle, the first was speaking in a hoarse, angry voice.
"What has happened to me, what--what?"
Holaf said: "These are almost all graft jobs, were once captives and normal men. The result, if this shot works, is going to be a thoroughly angry man, fighting mad for the blood of the Jivros." Then he raised his voice to the newly revived Shinro.
"You were made into a beast of burden by the Jivro insects! Tonight you will get your revenge. This shot of sense we are giving you will last only till daylight, so your life does not matter--it will revert to the beast in the morning. Go and spend your time where it will hurt the Jivros most--spill their blood. Their power is ending this night! This is the beginning of the end for all the Jivro parasites of our race. What we begin tonight will not stop till every Jivro in the ancient Schree group of planets is dead and gone!"
As we completed our injections, the column stood waiting, but a column of sane men, ready to shed Jivro blood for their revenge.
"Go as if to get more burdens of stone to repair the wall. When the Jivros show themselves, kill, get weapons, do not stop killing until they are gone or you are dead. You have but this night; make the most of it."
The column plodded off, in the same apparent condition we had first met them. But in their brains was boiling, enraged sanity, in a condition of complete rebellion, of murderous intent.
"They'll sell their lives for something worthwhile, tonight," said Holaf into my ear, as we set off on their trail. We intended to make the most of any opening the revived Shinros made for us.
Two more columns of toiling Shinros we liberated with injections, then our supply of fluid was exhausted. Just what more to do to hurt the Jivros we didn't know.
"How many ships do those Jivros have? Why are they always in hiding? Since I've been around here I haven't seen a dozen of 'em at one time!" I asked Holaf, my feet tired from sneaking along the deserted streets.
"They never come out in the open except for some express reason, such as driving the Shinros to work. They still have probably a score of ships."
"Twenty of those big disks?" I asked.
"Yes, I would say that many. But they will not bring them out to battle unless there is no other way. A Jivro never does anything he can get a human to do. Now that they have only the Shinros in the city, with the army out there searching for the Croen--and maybe the most of it deserting to some rendezvous the prince sent them word about--they will do nothing unless they must. You know how a spider hides when it senses danger?"
"There are many insects that hide when they are in fear."
"They have that trait, but they also have courage when desperation drives them. Now they are holed up in their strongholds, waiting developments. They will only come out to fight if they see an opportunity to crush their opposition, or if they are driven forth."
Suddenly the long beam of a searchlight lanced across the night sky above, then another and another. For an instant a huge disk showed in the beam. It tilted and drove abruptly sideways out of the light. The beam danced after. It was not seen again, and still more beams winked on, began to search, systematically quartering the sky.
"I would say our friends, the Jivros, were in for it. The prince and the Croen are attacking," I said to Holaf.
"I didn't expect it so soon. They do not have the strength in ships. But the Croen must have some stunt figured out to equalize their power."
We moved along pretty rapidly, keeping to the shadows, and soon were again at the side of that flat, paved place from which the disk ships took off. Overhead loomed the beetling walls of the palace from which the prince had led his people in revolt--manned now by the Jivros. I wondered how it felt to them to have to do their own fighting.
The beams moving about from the top of the building lit the streets about us with a distinct glow. It was no place to remain. We moved back along the parallel street, and I had an idea. Whatever was I carrying all this weight of heavy game rifle and knapsack of cartridges, and not even getting in position for a shot? I gestured to Holaf and tapped the rifle, pointing up.
He got the idea, led me to a dark doorway and we entered the building, made our way to the roof. Lying prone along the parapet of the roof, I adjusted the sights for two hundred yards, and swung the rifle sight slowly across the flat roof of the palace. The reflections of the big searchlights made the surface quite bright, and about each light was a group of the tall white-robed Jivros. They made perfect targets!
I began to fire, taking my time, centering each figure exactly. At each shot, one Jivro fell. I had fired but a score of times, and the white-robed creatures began to leave the lights, to cluster about the archway over the roof stair.
Grouped as they now were, I did not need to aim. I fired four more clips as rapidly as I could load them. Then the remaining Jivros began to swing the great beams in a frantic search for the deadly fire. As the beam swung toward us, Holaf seized my head, pushed it beneath the parapet. The beam swept on without pausing. I raised my head and kept on firing.
All of the beams but two were now stationary and unattended. I could not reach these, the angle of fire was wrong; but I could see the base of the lights, and as they swung again toward me, I fired into the center of the beam. It blinked out. Holaf clapped me on the shoulder.
"Get the rest of the lights, man, never mind the damned insects! The Croen will take care of them soon enough."
One by one I put out the search beams, the sky overhead grew dark again.
"These are the creatures who expect to conquer the earth!" I cried out scornfully to Holaf. "They could be bested by a bunch of boy scouts with twenty-twos!"
"They have never fought! They are only priests, not warriors. They are not thinking of conquering anything now, without their willing servants. They are fighting only for life!"
Overhead still wheeled the circle of guarding disks, manned, I knew, by the inexperienced priest-like insect men. I took a careful aim at the glowing transparent bulge in the center of the nearest, hoping the alien plastic was as soft as the earth plastics. But there was no way to tell if it had pierced the shell of plastic, or if it had done any harm.
Fumbling in my pockets, I pulled out a loaded clip, lay there pondering with the clip in front of my nose. Absently I noted the black band around the nose of the bullets, indicating it was a high-velocity, armor-piercing cartridge, manufactured by the U.S. Army for exactly such emergencies as I faced. I did not know if it would prove too big a powder-charge for my rifle, I did not know then even how I came to have the cartridges. Polter had bought some Army ammunition and these must have been among his things. I may have been firing them steadily and not known the difference.