The drugged drinks acted with startling rapidity. Scarcely a minute passed before the rodents' eyes clouded dully, their jaws dropped slackly open, and their bodies stiffened in almost complete rigidity.
The bonds were quickly stripped from the two stupefied creatures. The ceremonial rites apparently required that the victims go to their doom unbound and of their own volition. The guards maneuvered the two over to the rocky projection that jutted out over the pit.
Moving with the stiffly wooden steps of automatons, the two victims started out along the narrow projection, leaving the guards behind. On they marched, straight for the end of the rocky strip--and then, without a second's hesitation, they plunged on and over.
Their bodies crashed to the pit's floor squarely among the group of waiting crystals. One of the rat-men lay motionless. The other dazedly tried to struggle to his feet--but was too late.
From the side of the nearest Devil Crystal, some fifteen feet away from the dazed rat-man, a cone-shaped projection budded with startling swiftness.
A fraction of a second more and the projection had lengthened into a long slender arm of crystalline silver that streaked across the intervening space with the swiftness of a spear.
There was a crashing, tinkling sound as the point of the arm struck the furry body of the rat-man. Then the arm's point sprayed into a web of shining filaments that laced the rodent's body inexorably in their web.
The arm immediately contracted, jerking the victim irresistibly toward the waiting crystal. A second later the rat-man was pinned against the faceted crystalline side just under the opalescent nucleus.
The moment the furry body made contact with the crystal's side a terrifying phenomenon occurred. Crystals grew and spread all over its form with the lightning growth of water-glass. Faster and faster clustered the crystalline shroud, until the furry body was lanced through and through--and all the time the air was filled with eldritch music as of a thousand sheets of thinnest glass crashing, tinkling and shattering.
The crystal growths over the imprisoned body rounded their contours and merged together until they were in the form of a great crystalline egg. The outlines of the rodent's body blurred and vanished, melting swiftly until only a diamond-encrusted skeleton was left. The color of the great Devil Crystal began to gleam pink as the victim's flesh and blood were absorbed.
The egg-like excrescence under the nucleus turned in hue to pale translucent amber in whose depths the diamond skeleton gleamed with weird brilliance. Then there came a sudden twang, as of a violently plucked string on a bass viol, and the amber egg dropped from the faceted side. The Crystal's feast was over.
One of the most terrifying aspects of the whole thing had been its incredible speed. The entire tragedy had occurred in but little over two minutes from the time the lance-arm had first struck the rat-man.
In the meantime the body of the second rodent had been drawn in and devoured by another of the carnivorous crystalline monsters. There came a second twang now, as its skeleton in its amber shroud was discarded.
Powell's brain reeled as he saw the other crystals move sluggishly nearer the foot of the rocky projection in anticipation of the next victims.
The remaining two captive rat-men came next. They were swiftly drugged, unbound, and started on their dazed march. They trudged woodenly out the rocky projection to its end, then on and over; and again the grim tragedy of the Devil Crystal's feast was repeated, to the accompaniment of that eerily beautiful crashing, tinkling song.
The four Devil Crystals that had completed their gruesome feast moved sluggishly away, leaving the space clear for the two crystals that remained unfed. The score of guards closed in upon Joan and Powell.
With the crystalline doom at last staring them squarely in the face, Powell went berserk in a final desperate effort to gain even a moment's respite. He lashed out in a writhing, kicking flurry that almost cleared the space around them.
Then three of the rat-men slipped behind him, and a second later his feet were jerked from under him. His bound arms made him helpless to avert his fall, and he crashed heavily to the ground. Then a dozen of the powerful little beasts swarmed over him, completely overpowering him by their numbers.
Claw-like hands pried his set jaws apart. A cup of the cloudy white liquid was pressed to his lips. He choked; then, unable to help himself, he had to let the stuff pour down his throat. It had an acid taste faintly reminiscent of lemons. The rat-men apparently wanted to make sure of giving him enough, for they poured another full cup of the liquid down his throat before releasing him.
The guards then fell back and Powell stumbled to his feet. Joan was already up again, standing close beside him. From the wry expression upon her face, Powell knew that she had also been given the drugged potion.
For a long minute the two stood there with every nerve trembling as they helplessly waited for the paralyzing numbness to sweep over their bodies. The seconds passed slowly, and still their minds remained as clear as though the drug had been water. Another full minute elapsed without effect, before they could finally convince themselves of the amazing truth.
The drugged drink of the rat-men, instantly paralyzing to those of their own rodent race, was utterly harmless to the human being from another world!
Powell instantly realized the forlorn last chance their unexpected immunity to the drug gave them.
"Play 'possum, Joan!" he whispered tensely. "Then we'll make a break for the king and those Belts!"
Joan nodded slightly in quick understanding. Powell let his jaw drop slack and open, and stiffened his body in imitation of the stupor the rodent drug victims had shown. Joan promptly followed his lead. The alertly watching guards relaxed their tense vigilance in obvious relief.
The guards waited another minute to be sure of the drug's effects. Then, apparently satisfied, they stepped forward and unbound the two prisoners. Powell let his bonds drop from him without making a hostile move of any kind. He wanted first to wait until he was free of the encircling guards.
The rat-men maneuvered the two into position, and prodded them forward toward the projecting point of rock. They obediently began their march, simulating as best they could the wooden mechanical gait of the drug victims. Powell saw from the corner of his eye that Joan was tensely watching his face for a sign from him.
As the captives reached the narrow projection the guards dropped a couple of yards behind and halted to watch. It was the chance for which Powell had been waiting.
"Let's go!" he shouted to Joan. The girl, alert for his signal, was right beside him as they wheeled and dashed at break-neck speed for the rat-king and his sole lieutenant, some ten yards away.
They were upon the two startled rodent leaders before they even realized what was happening. Powell swept the squirming old king up in the air, tore the Silver Belts from about the monarch's shoulders, and flung the creature sprawling and senseless at the pit's edge.
The lieutenant leaped for Powell's throat in a belated effort at rescue, but Powell smashed a solid fist squarely into its snarling face, and the brute collapsed with a broken neck.
Snatching his gun-belt from the fallen rat-man, Powell crammed new clips of ammunition into the two guns and wheeled to confront the rest of the rat-men. The detachment of guards, demoralized by the dazzling speed of the captives' sortie, were milling in obvious uncertainty.
Behind them the thousands of the main horde were chattering and squealing in excited frenzy, dazed and bewildered by their king's swift overthrow. The whole clearing was a seething mob of excited beasts, stunned for the moment, but ready at any second to rally from their shock and surge forward in a furious charge that would sweep everything before it.
Powell menaced the rat-men with levelled guns while Joan, with fingers that shook from excitement and haste, quietly buckled one of the Silver Belts around each of them.
The guards rallied from their panic first. At a shrill command from their leader, they began cautiously edging forward toward Joan and Powell. The two gave ground slowly, working their way back over toward the projecting tongue of rock. Out on the end of that narrow strip, Powell knew that he could hold the horde at bay for a few moments at least.
They reached the rocky projection, and began backing slowly and carefully out toward its end. The guards, galvanized into action by their captives' retreat, suddenly came surging forward in a furious charge.
Powell emptied the two automatics in a crashing volley that nearly wiped out the charging guards. The few survivors turned and fled in panic back to the main horde. Powell reloaded his clips with feverish haste.
The thousands of rat-men in the main horde were now milling in what was apparently a last moment of hesitation before surging forward in an irresistible stampede toward the beleaguered two out on the rocky strip.
Several bolder individuals at the edge of the horde edged a step forward. Their example was followed by a hundred others. Another hesitant step or two--and then the whole horde was in motion.
Powell swept the front rank with a rain of lead from one of the automatics, holding the other as a reserve. The heavy bullets plowed murder into the close-packed furry bodies. The charge wavered momentarily. Then Powell felt Joan tugging frantically at his arm.
"Larry, the rocks under us are crumbling!" she cried. "We'll be hurled down into the pit!"
Even as she spoke, Powell felt the narrow strip of rock under them quiver and settle. He looked quickly down. All along its length, the narrow rocky projection, weakened by their weight, was breaking swiftly away from the pit's edge. And on the floor of the pit below them the two waiting Devil Crystals moved with musical, tinkling sounds as they waited restlessly for their prey to fall among them.
The horde of rat-men rallied and swept on forward in a wave that nothing could have stopped this time--but their charge was too late. The entire rocky projection collapsed with a final sickening lurch, and slid to the pit's floor, carrying Joan and Powell with it in a miniature avalanche of rocky rubble.
Even in the chaos of their wild descent, Powell retained his grip upon the loaded automatic in his hand. They struck the bottom and staggered half-dazed to their feet, to confront the two crystalline monsters rocking on their rounded bases scarcely ten feet away.
The fatal cone-shaped projection was already beginning to form upon the silver-faceted side of the nearest Devil Crystal. Before the lance-like arm of crystal could flash outward, Powell sent two bullets crashing into the crystal's side just over the opalescent nucleus.
The leaden missiles caromed harmlessly off, as though they had struck armor-plate, but the nucleus clouded momentarily and the cone-shaped projection dissolved back into the side.
With lightning speed Powell shifted his aim to the other crystal just as its partly-formed arm was flashing toward them. His bullet crashed into the silvery side squarely over the nucleus. Again the bullet's effect was the same. This crystal nucleus clouded murkily, and the lance-like arm telescoped back into the faceted bulk.
But the effect of the bullets was only momentary. Swiftly the nuclei of both crystals cleared. A deep blue film, apparently protective in nature, formed between the outer wall and each nucleus. The cones budded, and again the arms started forth.
Powell fired again, and this time uselessly. His bullet struck squarely, but the shock of its impact was apparently nullified by the protective blue film. He emptied his gun in a last crashing fusillade, but without effect of any kind upon the film-guarded nuclei of the giant crystals.
Their forming arms never wavered as they came lancing forward with deadly accuracy straight toward Joan and Powell. In a last effort to save Joan from the terrible doom of the crystal lances as long as possible, Powell flung his own body as a shield in front of the half-fainting girl. The tip of one of the crystalline arms struck his chest with a crashing tinkle of musical glass.
Instantly the tip sprayed into a web of fine filaments that laced on around his body. A tinkling shock raced through his every nerve from the contact with the weird life force of the great crystal.
The arm began contracting. Powell was helpless against the terrific power of the slender, diamond-hard lance of crystal. He felt himself irresistibly drawn toward the silver-faceted wall of the Devil Crystal.
His senses reeled in the babel of alien sounds--the crashing, glass-like music of the crystalline monsters and the snarling, squealing, paean of jubilant triumph from the thousands of rat-men now lining the rim of the pit above.
Then suddenly the pit, the Devil Crystals, and everything else in the nightmare world of Arret was blotted out in a vast swirling cloud of pulsing roseate flame that seemed to sweep him bodily up into the air and whirl him dizzily around.
His dazed brain staggered from the shock of the cataclysmic force that was disintegrating an entire world around him, but through the utter chaos one thought rang clear and exultant in his consciousness.
Benjamin Marlowe had finally broadcast the recall wave!
For what seemed endless eons of time Powell hurried through a limitless universe of swirling, tinted fires, while vibrations of a mighty force tingled with poignant ecstasy in every atom of his body.
Then the eddying clouds of flame began to coalesce and solidify with startling suddenness. A moment later, like the abrupt lighting of a room when an electric switch is snapped, the mists vanished and Powell felt firm footing again under his feet. Around him were the familiar objects of Benjamin Marlowe's laboratory.
He was standing upon the floor-plate in the center of the area bounded by the banked green tubes, and beside him stood Joan, sobbing with relief at their last-minute rescue from the Devil Crystals of Arret. And over by the control panel of the recall mechanism was the slight figure of old Benjamin Marlowe, with a great joy now shining in his faded eyes.
THE QUANTUM JUMP.
By ROBERT WICKS
Captain Brandon was a pioneer. He explored the far reaches of space and reported back on how things were out there. So it was pretty disquieting to find out that the "far reaches of space" knew more about what went on at home than he did.
Brandon was looking at the Milky Way. Through his perma-glas canopy, he could see it trailing across the black velvet of space like a white bridal veil. Below his SC9B scout-ship stretched the red dust deserts of Sirius Three illuminated by the thin light of two ice moons. He looked at the Milky Way.
He looked at it as a man looks at a flickering fireplace and thinks of other things. He thought of the sun, 52 trillion miles away, a pinpoint of light lost in the dazzle of the Milky Way--the Earth a speck of dust in orbit just as this planet was to its master, Sirius.
Nine light years away. Of course, thirteen years had passed on Earth since they had left, because the trip took four years by RT--relative time. But even four years is a long time to be shut up in Astro One with five other men, especially when one of them was the imperious Colonel Towers.
"A quantum jump--that's the way to beat the Reds," the colonel had said a thousand times. His well-worn expression had nothing to do with quantum mechanics--the actual change in atomic configuration due to the application of sufficient energy. Rather, it was a slang expression referring to a major advance in inter-planetary travel due to a maximum scientific and technological effort.
"Let 'em have Mars and Venus," the colonel would say--"Let 'em have the whole damn Solar System! We'll make a quantum jump--leap-frog ahead of 'em. We'll be the first men to set foot on a planet of another solar system."
Four years had gone by in the ship; thirteen years on Earth. Four years of Colonel Towers. Military discipline grew more strict each day. Space does funny things to some men. The "we'll be the first men" had turned into, "I'll be the first man."
But it was Captain Brandon who drew the assignment of scouting Sirius Three for a suitable landing place for Astro, of sampling its atmosphere and observing meteorological conditions. Even as Brandon climbed into the scout-ship, Towers had cautioned him.
"Remember, your assignment is to locate a firm landing site with ample protection from the elements. Under no circumstances are you to land yourself. Is that clearly understood?"
Brandon nodded, was launched and now was cruising one hundred thousand feet above the alien planet.
Brandon tilted the ship up on one wing and glanced down at the brick-red expanse of desert. Tiny red mists marked dust storms. Certainly this was no place to set down the full weight of Astro nor to protect the crew and equipment from abrasive dust.
He righted the ship. Far on the horizon was a bank of atmospheric clouds. Perhaps conditions were more promising there. He shoved the power setting to 90 per cent.
A fire warning indicator light blinked on. Instantly Brandon's eyes were on the instrument panel. The tailpipe temperature seemed all right. It could be a false indication. He eased back on the power setting. Maybe the light would go out. But it didn't. Instead he felt a surging rumble deep in the bowels of the ship. Luminous needles danced and a second red light flashed on.
He snapped the vidio switch and depressed the mike button.
"Astro One, this is Brandon. Over."
A steady crackling sound filled his earphones; a grid of light and shadow fluttered on the screen. A thought entered his mind. Maybe he had put too much planet curvature between Astro and himself.
"Astro One, this is Brandon. Come in, please."
A series of muffled explosions rocked the ship. He chopped the power back all the way and listened intently.
"May Day! May Day! Astro, this is Brandon. May Day!"
A faint voice sputtered in his ear, the face of Reinhardt, the radioman appeared before him. "Brandon, this is Astro One. What is your position? Over."
Brandon's voice sounded strange and distant as he talked to his oxygen mask. "Heading--one-eight-zero. Approximately six hundred miles from you. Altitude one hundred thousand feet."
"What is the nature of your trouble, Brandon?"
Before Brandon could answer, the face of Colonel Towers appeared beside the radioman's.
"Brandon, what're you trying to pull?"
"Engine trouble, sir. Losing altitude fast."
"Do you know the nature of the trouble?"
"Negative. Might have thrown a compressor blade. Got a fire indication, then a compressor surge. Chopped off the power."
Towers frowned. "Why didn't you use straight rocket power?"