"You're the fool!" Eric said. He laughed as he leaped forward.
Abbot's eyes went wide suddenly; he tried to dodge, gave a little grunt, and went limp in Eric's grasp.
Eric laughed again, swung Abbot into the ship and leaped in himself. The old race and its violence had never been nearer.
He slammed the door shut, bolted it, and turned back to where the councilman was struggling to his feet.
"Now will you let us go?" Eric said softly. "Or must we take off now, with you--for the stars?"
For a long moment Abbot looked at him, and then his lips trembled and his whole body went slack in defeat.
"The ship is yours," he whispered. "Just let me go."
Outside the ship, Walden chuckled wryly.
The Vacuum Suit was strange against Eric's body, as strange as the straps that bound him to the couch. He looked over at Lisa and she too was unrecognizable, a great bloated slug tied down beside him. Only her face, frightened behind the helmet, looked human.
He reached for the controls, then paused, glancing down through the view screens at the ground, at the people two hundred feet below, tiny ants scurrying away from the ship, running to shelter but still looking up at him. He couldn't see his parents or Walden.
His fingers closed about the control lever but still he stared down. Everything that had been familiar all his life stood out sharply now, because he was leaving and it would never be there again for him. And he had to remember what it was like....
Then he looked up. The sky was blue and cloudless above him, and there were no stars at all. But he knew that beyond the sky the stars were shining.
And perhaps, somewhere amid the stars, the old race waited.
He turned to Lisa. "This may be goodbye, darling."
"It may be. But it doesn't matter, really."
They had each other. It was enough. Even though they could never be as close to each other as the new race was close. They were separate, with a gulf always between their inmost thoughts, but they could bridge that gulf, sometimes.
He turned back to the controls and his fingers tightened. The last line of the poem shouted in his mind, and he laughed, for he knew finally what the poet had meant, what the old race had lived for. We have cast off the planets like outgrown toys, and now we want the stars....
He pulled the lever back and the ship sprang free. A terrible weight pressed against him, crushing him, stifling him. But still he laughed, because he was one of the old race, and he was happy.
And the meaning of his life lay in the search itself.
They stood staring up at the ship until it was only a tiny speck in the sky, and then they looked away from it, at each other. A wave of perception swept among them, drawing them closer to each other in the face of something they couldn't understand.
"Why did they go?" Abbot asked, in his mind.
"Why did any of the old race go?" Walden answered.
The sunlight flashed off the ship, and then it was gone.
"It's not surprising that the old race died," Abbot said. "They were brilliant, in their way, and yet they did such strange things. Their lives seemed so completely meaningless...."
Walden didn't answer for a moment. His eyes searched the sky for a last glimpse of the ship, but there was nothing at all. He sighed, and he looked at Abbot, and then past him, at all the others.
"I wonder," he said, "how long it will be before some other race says the same thing about us."
No one answered. He turned and walked away from them, across the trampled flowers, toward the museum and the great empty vault where the starship had waited for so long.
By Sewell Peaslee Wright There was no sense to the note. There was no sense to anything that Vic Butler did, for that matter. Where he hid away his vast scientific knowledge in that rattle-brained, red-haired head of his has always been a mystery to me. The note read: Dear Pete: If you get this, I'm in a jam that promises some action.
Drive out, if plane-peddling is palling on you, and bust into the lab. I'm leaving another note there for you, old son, and after you read it you can let your conscience be your guide.
Bring a gat along, and plenty of ammo. Hope's away, at Aunt Cleo's, so don't get in touch with her and spoil her visit.
Vic I had a hot prospect lined up for a demonstration that morning, but I didn't even stop to give him a ring. Vic and I had been buddies ever since we were kids--and, besides, he was Hope's brother.
Vic's place was out on the river, about ten miles from town, and that little tan roadster of mine made it in just about ten minutes. The traffic in the business district slowed me up a bit.
There was nothing at all pretentious about the place; it was a rambling, lazy-looking house built largely of native stone, stretching its length comfortably in the shade of the big maples. Perrin, Vic's man-of-all-work, came hurrying out of the house to greet me as I locked my wheels on the drive before the door.
"I'm glad you're here, sir!" he exclaimed breathlessly. "I was just about to phone for the police; I was for certain, sir. Such goings on, I don't know what to think!"
"What's the matter, Perrin? Where's Mr. Butler?"
"That's it, sir! That's exactly it. Where's Mr. Butler? And--"
"Just a moment, please! Cut it short, Perrin. What's happened?"
"I don't know. Yesterday afternoon Mr. Butler leaves a letter for me, which I'm to mail early this morning, special delivery. It's to you. I reckon you got it, sir?"
"That's why I'm here. Go on."
"Well, after that, he locks himself up in his workroom, so Mrs. Perrin says, she being housekeeper, as you know, sir, leaving word not to disturb him for dinner.
"We don't think so much of that, Mr. Butler being took with streaks of working at all hours, as you know. But when Miss Hope came home unexpected this morning--"
"She cut her visit a few days short, her aunt having other house guests turn up unexpected like, and Miss Hope arrives first thing this morning, being here when I return from town after mailing the letter to you, sir.
"Mrs. Perrin had just told her about the master, and Miss Hope looks into his room. He isn't there, and the bed hasn't been slept in. 'The poor dear,' she says, 'he's worked himself half to death, and dropped off on that horrible cot he keeps in his laboratory,' says Miss Hope. 'I'll let him sleep.'
"But just a few minutes ago, just before you arrived, sir, she became nervous like, and rapped on the door. There wasn't a sound. So she went up to the master's room and found a key, and went in. And now she don't answer, and we were just about ready to call the police!"
"Let's go inside!" I hurried by Perrin and through the cool, quiet hall to the broad door that opened into the big room at the back of the house, which was Vic's laboratory.
"Vic! Hope!" I pounded as hard as I could, shouting their names. There was no response.
"Is there another key, Perrin?" I snapped.
"No, sir; none that I know of. The master was mighty fussy about his workroom."
"Can we get in through the windows?"
"No. They're barred, if you remember rightly, and fitted with this frosted glass, so you can't see in, even."
"Then get me an ax!" I commanded. "Quick!"
"An ax?" hesitated Perrin.
"An ax--and be quick about it!"
Perrin mumbled a protest and hurried away. I turned to Mrs. Perrin, who had come up to determine the result of my shouting.
"How long is it since Miss Hope went in there?"
"How long, sir? I'd say about twenty minutes before you came. Maybe twenty-five. I wasn't paying any particular attention, sir. She just got the key and went in. After a few minutes I heard something buzzing in there, and I thought maybe Mr. Butler was showing her some new gadget of his, like he was always doing. Then there was a telephone call for him, and I couldn't make neither of them answer; that's when Mr. Perrin and I began to get worried."
"I see." Perrin came hurrying up with the ax, and I motioned them aside. I swung the ax, and the head of the weapon crashed against the lock. The knob dropped to the floor with a clatter, but the door gave not at all.
I brought the ax down again, and something cracked sharply. The third blow sent the door swinging wide.
Cautiously, fearing I know not what, I entered the familiar room. Nothing, apparently, had been disturbed. There was no sign of disorder anywhere. The blankets on the narrow cot in the corner of the room had not been unfolded.
But neither Vic nor Hope were anywhere in sight.
"You and Mrs. Perrin stay there by the door," I suggested. "I don't know what's wrong here, but something's happened. There's no need for all of us entering."
My second glance around the room was more deliberate. To my right were the big generators and the switchboards, gleaming with copper bus-bar, and intricate with their tortuous wiring. Directly before me was the long work-bench that ran the full length of the room, littered with a dozen set-ups for as many experiments. At my left was a sizable piece of apparatus that was strange to me; on a small enameled table beside it was a rather large sheet of paper, weighted down with a cracked Florence flask.
In a sort of panic, I snatched up the paper. Vic had said in his note, that he would leave another note for me here. This was it, for in a bold scrawl at the top was my name. And in hardly decipherable script, below, was his message: Dear Pete: First of all, let me say that you've no particular call to do anything about this. If I'm in a jam, it's my own doing, and due to my bull-headedness, of which you have so often reminded me.
Knowing your dislike for science other than that related to aeronautics, I'll cut this pretty short. It'll probably sound crazy to you, anyway.
You know that there's sound above the frequencies to which the human ear will respond. You know there are light rays that the human eyes can't perceive. Some work I've been doing the last five or six months indicates that there's a form of life about us, all around us, which isn't perceptible to our senses--which doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.
Well, I'm going to do a little exploring. I'm going to take a whirl at what I'll call the Infra-Median existence. What I'll find there, I don't know. Life of some kind, however, for my experiments prove that. Possibly not friendly.
All this being so, there's an off chance that I'll find myself tangled with something I can't anticipate. And if you are called upon to read this, then something has gone wrong with my plans.
Should you wish to take a flier after me, stand in the center of the square outlined by the four uprights of the device beside which this little table stands. Be sure your weapon--I told you to bring a gat--is on your person.
There's a small instrument board set on one of the posts. Turn the upper of the two dials until the hand of the meter beside it moves up to 2700 exactly. Wait a moment, until you're sure you have the exact reading. Then turn the second dial until the two red lines coincide, and as you do so, mark the time. The thing is set to operate the reverse cycle at three-hour intervals exactly. When you come down, you'll start a new cycle, and it might be important for us to know at just what minute we can get back to our own plane.
If you decide to try it, tell Perrin to do nothing for at least a week. If the law started experimenting on this equipment, we never could climb back. And leave word with them for Hope; tell her I'll scramble out somehow--that we will, if you decide to try your luck.
Vic Underneath, in Hope's clear, purposeful hand, was this: Peter dear: Not knowing when you'll arrive, I'm going on ahead. We must give Vic a hand--mustn't we?
Naturally, I didn't understand Vic's jargon about frequencies and light-rays, for I thought more about football than physics in college, but two things were clear to me. One was that Vic had plunged into some sort of wild experiment, and the other was that Hope had followed him. The rest didn't matter very much.
"Perrin! Mr. Butler and Miss Hope are safe. Everything is explained in this note. You and Mrs. Perrin are to leave me here, and not disturb anything. Do nothing at all for at least a week. If we aren't all back here before that time ... take any action you see fit. Understand?"
"No-no, sir. Where--"
"You understand the orders, anyway. That's all that's necessary. Close the door--and keep it closed at least a week!" I glared at him, and Perrin closed the door.
The apparatus Vic had mentioned was my first thought. It consisted primarily of four tall, slim posts, set in the form of a square, about a yard apart, and supported by heavy copper brackets mounted on a thick base of insulating material, and each post bore at its top, like a stalk with a single drooping flower, a deep, highly polished reflector, pointing inward and downward. The whole effect was not unlike the skeleton of a miniature skyscraper.
I strode between two of the high, slim black pillars and glanced upward. All four of the reflectors seemed pointed directly at my face, and I could see that each held, not the bulb I had expected, but a crudely shaped blob of fused quartz.
There was nothing to be gained by examining the peculiar machine, and therefore the one quick glance sufficed. If Vic and Hope had gone this route, I was anxious to follow. I glanced down at the papers in my hand, and slowly turned the first dial on the little instrument board, narrowly watching the hand of the meter beside it, as Vic had instructed.
The hand moved slowly, like the hand of an oil-gauge in which the pressure is gradually built up. Twenty-one ... twenty-five ... twenty-six ... twenty-seven.
I waited a moment, conscious only of the faint hum of a generator at the other end of the room, and the quivering hand of the meter. I turned the dial back an imperceptible degree, and the hand steadied down exactly upon the numerals "2700." Then I touched the next dial.
This second dial was no more than a thin disk of hard rubber or bakelite, with a red scratch-mark on one side. On the panel itself, far to the right of the dial's zero point, was the red scratch-mark that matched it. When the two coincided--well, something happened.
I was conscious of a faint glow from above as I moved the dial slowly, so that its red mark approached the stationary one upon the panel. I glanced up swiftly.
Each of the little blobs of quartz was glowing; each with a light of different color. One was a rich amber, one a pale green, one a vivid, electric blue, and one was fiery red. The intensity of the light increased steadily as I moved the dial.
I could not only see the light; I could feel it. It beat upon my body; throbbed all around me. I had a feeling that the mingling rays of light conflicted with each other.
It seemed to me for a moment that I was growing as light as air; that my feet were drifting off the floor, and then, as the red line of the dial came closer to the indicated point, the feeling left, and I suddenly seemed very heavy. I could hardly support my own weight; my legs were trembling with the burden; sweat broke out over my whole body; the rays of light beat down upon me fiercely, overpoweringly....