Lilith, weaponless save for stones and her wooden knife, simply huddled at his side as they backed slowly toward the beach. Their progress was maddeningly slow, and Carver began to note apprehensively that the shadows were stretching toward the east, as if to welcome the night that was sliding around from that half of the world. Night meant--destruction.
If they could attain the beach, and if Lilith's pack could hold the others at bay until Carver could build a fire, they might survive. But the creatures that were allied with Lilith were being overcome. They were hopelessly outnumbered. They were being slain more rapidly with each one that fell, as ice melts more swiftly as its size decreases.
Carver stumbled backward into orange-tinted sunlight. The beach! The sun was already touching the coral spit, and darkness was a matter of minutes---brief minutes.
Out of the brush came the remnants of Lilith's pack, a half dozen nondescripts, snarling, bloody, panting, and exhausted. For the moment they were free of their attackers, since the catlike fiends chose to lurk among the shadows. Carver backed farther away, feeling a sense of doom as his own shadow lengthened in the brief instant of twilight that divided day from night in these latitudes. And then swift darkness came just as he dragged Lilith to the ridge of the coral spit.
He saw the charge impending. Weird shadows detached themselves from the deeper shadows of the trees. Below, one of the nondescripts whined softly. Across the sand, clear for an instant against the white ground coral of the beach, the figure of the small devil with the half-human posture showed, and a malevolent sputtering snarl sounded. It was exactly as if the creature had leaped forward like a leader to exhort his troops to charge.
Carver chose that figure as his target. His gun flashed; the snarl became a squawl of agony, and the charge came.
Lilith's pack crouched; but Carver knew that this was the end. He fired. The flickering shadows came on. The magazine emptied; there was no time now to reload, so he reversed the weapon, clubbed it. He felt Lilith grow tense beside him.
And then the charge halted. In unison, as if at command, the shadows were motionless, silent save for the low snarling of the dying creature on the sand. When they moved again, it was away--toward the trees!
Carver gulped. A faint shimmering light on the wall of the forest caught his eye, and he spun. It was true! Down the beach, down there where he had left his box of supplies, a fire burned, and rigid against the light, facing toward them in the darkness, were human figures. The unknown peril of fire had frightened off the attack. He stared. There in the sea, dark against the faint glow of the West, was a familiar outline. The Fortune! The men there were his associates; they had heard his shots and lighted the fire as a guide.
"Lilith!" he choked. "Look there. Come on!"
But the girl held back. The remnant of her pack slunk behind the shelter of the ridge of coral, away from the dread fire. It was no longer the fire that frightened Lilith, but the black figures around it, and Alan Carver found himself suddenly face to face with the hardest decision of his life.
He could leave her here. He knew she would not follow, knew it from the tragic light in her honey-hued eyes. And beyond all doubt that was the best thing to do; for he could not marry her. Nobody could ever marry her, and she was too lovely to take among men who might love her--as Carver did. But he shuddered a little as a picture flashed in his mind. Children! What sort of children would Lilith bear? No man could dare chance the possibility that Lilith, too, was touched by the curse of Austin Island.
He turned sadly away--a step, two steps, toward the fire. Then he turned.
"Come, Lilith," he said gently, and added mournfully, "other people have married, lived, and died without children. I suppose we can, too."
The Fortune slid over the green swells, northward toward New Zealand. Carver grinned as he sprawled in a deck chair. Halburton was still gazing reluctantly at the line of blue that was Austin Island.
"Buck up, Vance," Carver chuckled. "You couldn't classify that flora in a hundred years, and if you could, what'd be the good of it? There's just one of each, anyway."
"I'd give two toes and a finger to try," said Halburton. "You had the better part of three days there, and might have had more if you hadn't winged Malloa. They'd have gone home to the Chathams sure, if your shot hadn't got his arm. That's the only reason they made for Macquarie."
"And lucky for me they did. Your fire scared off the cats."
"The cats, eh? Would you mind going over the thing again, Alan? It's so crazy that I haven't got it all yet."
"Sure. Just pay attention to teacher and you'll catch on." He grinned. "Frankly, at first I hadn't a glimmering of an idea myself. The whole island seemed insane. No two living things alike! Just one of each genus, and all unknown genera at that. I didn't get a single clue until after I met Lilith. Then I noticed that she differentiated by smell. She told good fruits from poisonous ones by the smell, and she even identified that first cat-thing I shot by smell. She'd eat that because it was an enemy, but she wouldn't touch the dog-things I shot from her pack."
"So what?" asked Halburton, frowning.
"Well, smell is a chemical sense. It's much more fundamental than outward form, because the chemical functioning of an organism depends on its glands. I began to suspect right then that the fundamental nature of all living things on Austin Island was just the same as anywhere else. It wasn't the nature that was changed, but just the form. See?"
"Not a bit."
"You will. You know what chromosomes are, of course. They're the carriers of heredity, or rather, according to Weissman, they carry the genes that carry the determinants that carry heredity. A human being has forty-eight chromosomes, of which he gets twenty-four from each parent."
"So," said Halburton, "has a tomato."
"Yes, but a tomato's forty-eight chromosomes carry a different heredity, else one could cross a human being with a tomato. But to return to the subject, all variations in individuals come about from the manner in which chance shuffles these forty-eight chromosomes with their load of determinants. That puts a pretty definite limit on the possible variations.
"For instance, eye color has been located on one of the genes on the third pair of chromosomes. Assuming that this gene contains twice as many brown-eye determinants as blue-eye ones, the chances are two to one that the child of whatever man or woman owns that particular chromosome will be brown-eyed--if his mate has no marked bias either way. See?"
"I know all that. Get along to Ambrose Callan and his notebook."
"Coming to it. Now remember that these determinants carry all heredity, and that includes shape, size, intelligence, character, coloring--everything. People--or plants and animals--can vary in the vast number of ways in which it is possible to combine forty-eight chromosomes with their cargo of genes and determinants. But that number is not infinite. There are limits, limits to size, to coloring, to intelligence. Nobody ever saw a human race with sky-blue hair, for instance."
"Nobody'd ever want to!" grunted Halburton.
"And," proceeded Carver, "that is because there are no blue-hair determinants in human chromosomes. But--and here comes Callan's idea--suppose we could increase the number of chromosomes in a given ovum. What then? In humans or tomatoes, if, instead of forty-eight, there were four hundred eighty, the possible range of variation would be ten times as great as it is now.
"In size, for instance, instead of the present possible variation of about two and a half feet, they might vary twenty-five feet! And in shape--a man might resemble almost anything! That is, almost anything within the range of the mammalian orders. And in intelligence--" He paused thoughtfully.
"But how," cut in Halburton, "did Callan propose to accomplish the feat of inserting extra chromosomes? Chromosomes themselves are microscopic; genes are barely visible under the highest magnification, and nobody ever saw a determinant."
"I don't know how," said Carver gravely. "Part of his notes crumbled to dust, and the description of his method must have gone with those pages. Morgan uses hard radiations, but his object and his results are both different. He doesn't change the number of chromosomes."
He hesitated. "I think Callan used a combination of radiation and injection," he resumed. "I don't know. All I know is that he stayed on Austin four or five years, and that he came with only his wife. That part of his notes is clear enough. He began treating the vegetation near his shack, and some cats and dogs he had brought. Then he discovered that the thing was spreading like a disease."
"Spreading?" echoed Halburton.
"Of course. Every tree he treated strewed multi-chromosomed pollen to the wind, and as for the cats--Anyway, the aberrant pollen fertilized normal seeds, and the result was another freak, a seed with the normal number of chromosomes from one parent and ten times as many from the other. The variations were endless. You know how swiftly kauri and tree ferns grow, and these had a possible speed of growth ten times as great.
"The freaks overran the island, smothering out the normal growths. And Callan's radiations, and perhaps his injections, too, affected Austin Island's indigenous life--the rats, the bats. They began to produce mutants. He came in 1918, and by the time he realized his own tragedy, Austin was an island of freaks where no child resembled its parents save by the merest chance."
"His own tragedy? What do you mean?"
"Well, Callan was a biologist, not an expert in radiation. I don't know exactly what happened. Exposure to X-rays for long periods produces burns, ulcers, malignancies. Maybe Callan didn't take proper precautions to shield his device, or maybe he was using a radiation of peculiarly irritating quality. Anyway, his wife sickened first--an ulcer that turned cancerous.
"He had a radio--a wireless, rather, in 1921--and he summoned his sloop from the Chathams. It sank off that coral spit, and Callan, growing desperate, succeeded somehow in breaking his wireless. He was no electrician, you see.
"Those were troubled days, after the close of the War. With Callan's sloop sunk, no one knew exactly what had become of him, and after a while he was forgotten. When his wife died, he buried her; but when he died there was no one to bury him. The descendants of what had been his cats took care of him, and that was that."
"Yeah? What about Lilith?"
"Yes," said Carver soberly. "What about her? When I began to suspect the secret of Austin Island, that worried me. Was Lilith really quite human? Was she, too, infected by the taint of variation, so that her children might vary as widely as the offspring of the--cats? She spoke not a word of any language I knew--or I thought so, anyway--and I simply couldn't fit her in. But Callan's diary and notes did it for me."
"She's the daughter of the captain of Callan's sloop, whom he rescued when it was wrecked on the coral point. She was five years old then, which makes her almost twenty now. As for language--well, perhaps I should have recognized the few halting words she recalled. C'm on, for instance, was comment--that is, 'how?' And pah bo was simply pas bon, not good. That's what she said about the poisonous fruit. And lay shot was les chats, for somehow she remembered, or sensed, that the creatures from the eastern end were cats.
"About her, for fifteen years, centered the dog creatures, who despite their form were, after all, dogs by nature, and loyal to their mistress. And between the two groups was eternal warfare."
"But are you sure Lilith escaped the taint?"
"Her name's Lucienne," mused Carver, "but I think I prefer Lilith." He smiled at the slim figure clad in a pair of Jameson's trousers and his own shirt, standing there in the stern looking back at Austin. "Yes, I'm sure. When she was cast on the island, Callan had already destroyed the device that had slain his wife and was about to kill him. He wrecked his equipment completely, knowing that in the course of time the freaks he had created were doomed."
"Yes. The normal strains, hardened by evolution, are stronger. They're already appearing around the edges of the island, and some day Austin will betray no more peculiarities than any other remote islet. Nature always reclaims her own."
DEVIL CRYSTALS OF ARRET.
By Hal K. Wells
Facing a six-hour deadline of death, young Larry raids a hostile world of rat-men and tinkling Devil Crystals.
Benjamin Marlowe and his young assistant, Larry Powell, opened the door of the Marlowe laboratory, then stopped aghast at the sight which greeted their startled eyes.
There on the central floor-plate directly in the focus of the big atomic projector stood the slender figure of Joan Marlowe, old Benjamin Marlowe's niece and Larry Powell's fiancee.
The girl had apparently only been awaiting their return to the laboratory for around her gray laboratory smock was already fastened one of their Silver Belts, and a cord was already in place running from her wrist to the main switch of the projection mechanism.
Joan's clear blue eyes sparkled with the thrill of high adventure as she swiftly raised a slender hand in a gesture of warning to the two men.
"Don't try to stop me," she warned quietly. "I can jerk the switch and be in Arret, before you've taken two steps. I'm going to Arret, anyway. I was only waiting for you to return to the laboratory so I'd be sure of having you here to bring me back to Earth again before I have time to get into any serious trouble over there."
"But, Joan," Benjamin Marlowe protested, "this is sheer madness! No one can possibly guess what terrible conditions you may confront in Arret. We've never dared to send a human being across the atomic barrier yet!"
"We've sent all kinds of animals across, though," Joan retorted calmly, "and as long as we recalled them within the twelve-hour limit they always came back alive and unhurt. There's no reason why a human being should not be able to make the round trip just as safely. Ever since our Silver Belts first came back with the weird plant and mineral fragments which proved that there really is such a place as Arret, I've been wild to see with my own eyes the incredible things that must exist there."
Joan waved her hand in gay farewell. "Good-by, Uncle Ben and Larry! I know that you'll drag me back just as quickly as you can possibly dash over to the recall switch, but I'll at least have had a few precious seconds of sightseeing as Earth's first human visitor to Arret!"
Larry Powell was already sprinting for the mechanism as Joan jerked the cord that ran to the switch, but he was barely half-way across the intervening space when the big atomic projector flared forth in a brilliant gush of roseate flame.
For a fraction of a second Joan's slender figure was outlined in the very heart of the ruddy glow, then vanished completely. There was left only a short length of the switch cord to indicate that the girl had ever stood there.
Powell reached the mechanism and shut off the projector's flame, then turned swiftly to the control-panel of the recall mechanism. As he closed the switch on this panel, three banks of tubes set in triangular form around the floor-plate upon which Joan had stood glowed a brilliant and blinding green.
Shielding his eyes from the glare with an upraised forearm, Powell began stepping a rheostat up to more and more power. In his anxiety, he increased the power far too quickly. There was a sudden gush of blue-white flame from the heart of the mechanism, together with the hissing crackle of fusing metal. The green light in the tubes promptly died.
Benjamin Marlowe was bending over the apparatus almost instantly. A moment later he raised a face that had suddenly gone white. There was terror in his eyes as he turned to his assistant.
"The entire second series of coils is burned out, Larry!" he gasped in consternation. "Joan is marooned over there in Arret--marooned in that grim unknown land as completely beyond our reach as though she were upon one of the moons of Mars!"
For a long moment the two men gazed at each other with horror-stricken faces, dazed and shaken. Then they quickly drew themselves together again and set about the herculean task of making the necessary repairs to the damaged mechanism in time to rescue Joan before the twelve-hour limit should doom the girl to forever remain an exile in that land of alien mystery beyond the atomic barrier.
Their previous experiments with animals had proved that no living creature from Earth could be brought back after it had been in Arret over twelve hours. After that time the change in the atoms constituting living tissues apparently became permanently Arretian, for the Silver Belts returned without any trace of their original wearers.
The necessary repairs to the damaged coils were of such an exacting and intricate nature that any great speed was impossible. Hours passed while the two men bent to their work with grim concentration. Neither of them dared think too much of what nameless dangers might be confronting Joan during those weary hours. Their actual knowledge of Arret was so pitiably slight.
Some months ago, while they were experimenting upon apparatus for reversing the electrical charges of an atom's electrons and protons, they had first stumbled upon the incredible fact that such a place as Arret really existed. They found that it was another world occupying the same position in space as Earth, with the fundamental difference in the two interwoven planes of existence lying in the electrical make-up of the atoms that constituted matter in each plane.
On Earth all atoms are composed of small heavy protons that are always positive in charge, and larger lighter electrons that are always negative. In Arret the protons were negative, and the electrons positive. The result was two worlds occupying the same space at the same time, yet with matter so essentially and completely different that each world was intangible to the other. They had named the unseen world Arret, the reverse of Terra.
Finding it impossible to work directly upon most forms of matter, the experimenters had finally evolved a silver alloy that served as a medium both for sending objects into Arret and then bringing them back to Earth. By focussing the flame of the projection apparatus upon a Silver Belt of this alloy, the electrical charges of the Belt's atoms were reversed, automatically causing the Belt to vanish from Earth and materialize in Arret. At the same time the atoms of any object within the Belt's immediate radius were similarly transformed, and that object was taken into Arret with the Belt.
The recall mechanism functioned by broadcasting a power wave that again reversed the atomic charge of the Belt and its contained object back to that of Earth. At the same time the recall wave exerted an attractive force that drew the atoms back to a central point in the laboratory, where they were re-materialized upon the same floor-plate from which they had originally been sent.
The twelve-hour time limit was half up when Benjamin Marlowe and Larry Powell finally straightened up wearily from their work over the recall mechanism, their repairs completed. It had been one o'clock in the afternoon when Joan Marlowe vanished from Earth in the roseate flare of the projector. It was now nearly seven o'clock.
With nerves tense from anxiety, the two men crossed over to the control-panel of the recall apparatus. This time they donned goggles of dark glass to shield their eyes from the blinding green glare. Marlowe threw the main switch, and the banked tubes came to life in a flood of vivid emerald light.
Marlowe began stepping the rheostat up gradually to more power, advancing it with cautious slowness to avoid any chance of a repetition of the previous accident. The green radiance streaming from the tubes in every direction began to throb with an electric force that the two men could feel pulsing through their own bodies.
There was a click as the rheostat struck the last notch. The green radiance was now a searing flame that half-blinded them even through the thick dark glass of their protective goggles, while the vibrant force of the green rays was sweeping through their bodies with a tingling shock that nearly took their breath away.
Tensely the two men stared at the metal floor-plate in the center of the area bounded by the flaming green tubes. Just over the plate the green radiance seemed to be thickening and swirling oddly. The swirling eddy became a small dense cloud of darker green light. Then abruptly, like the fade-in on a moving picture screen, from the cloud over the plate the misty outlines of an object swiftly cleared and solidified into a bizarre something at whose unfamiliar aspect both Marlowe and Powell gasped in amazement.
Marlowe snapped the switch off, and the green radiance vanished. Stripping the dark goggles from their eyes, the two men hurried over for a closer view of the thing that rested quiescent and apparently lifeless there on the metal floor-plate.
It was shaped like a huge egg, a little over a yard long, and was apparently composed of a solid lump of some unknown crystalline substance that closely resembled very clear, pale amber. Embedded in the heart of the strange egg were clearly visible objects which caused Marlowe and Powell to gasp in mingled horror and amazement.
Chief among the things imprisoned in that amber shroud was the Silver Belt that Joan had worn, but the Belt was now looped over the bony shoulder of a skeleton that by no possible stretch of the imagination could ever have been that of a creature of this Earth.
The skeleton was still perfectly articulated, and gleamed through the crystalline amber as though its bony surfaces were encrusted with diamond dust. The bones were apparently those of a creature that in life had been half dwarf-ape and half giant rat.
The beast had stood a little under a yard in height. The legs were short, powerful, and bowed. The long arms ended in claw-like travesties of hands. The skull was relatively small, with a sharply sloping forehead and projecting squirrel-like teeth that were markedly rodent.
Around the skeleton's neck there was a wide band of some strange gray metal, with its smooth outer surface roughly scratched in characters that resembled primitive hieroglyphics.
Marlowe's face was white with grief as he turned to Powell. "Joan must be dead, Larry," he said sadly. "Otherwise, she would surely never have allowed her Silver Belt to pass into the possession of--this! She knew that the Belt represented her only hope of ever being brought back to this world."
For a moment Powell stared intently into the heart of the crystalline egg without answering. Then suddenly he straightened up with marked excitement upon his face.
"There's a small sheet of paper entwined in the coils of that Belt!" he exclaimed. "It may be a message from Joan!"
Swiftly the two men lifted the amber egg up to the top of a workbench. Powell took a small hammer to test the hardness of the strange translucent substance.