It was late in the afternoon when I called Correy and Kincaide to the navigating room, where I had spent several hours charting our return course.
"I believe, gentlemen," I remarked, "that we can call on Mr. Fetter now. I'll ask you to remain in charge of the ship, Mr. Kincaide, while Mr. Correy and I--"
An attention signal sounded sharply to interrupt me. I answered it instantly.
"Sentry at exit, sir," said an excited voice. "Mr. Hendricks and the woman stowaway are here asking for you. They say it is very urgent."
"Bring them both here at once, under guard," I ordered. "Be sure you are properly relieved."
I turned to Correy and Kincaide, who were watching me with curious eyes. My excitement must have shown upon my face.
"Mr. Hendricks and Liane are at the exit, asking to see me," I snapped. "They'll be here in a moment. What do you suppose is in the air?"
"Hendricks?" muttered Correy, his face darkening. "It seems to me he has a lot of nerve to--"
There was a sharp tap on the door.
"Come!" I ordered quickly. The door opened and Liane, followed by Hendricks, hurried into the room.
"That will do," I nodded to the guard who had accompanied them. "You may go."
"You wonder why we're here, I suppose?" demanded Liane. "I'll tell you, quickly, for every instant is precious."
This was a very different Liane. She was no longer clad in diaphanous black; she was wearing a tunic similar to the one she had worn on board the Ertak, save that this one was torn and soiled. Her lips, as she talked, twitched with an insane anger; her amazing eyes were like those of a cornered beast of the wilderness.
"My council of wise old men turned against me when I told them my plans to marry the man of my choice. They said he was an outsider, an enemy, a foreigner. They would have none of him. They demanded that I give him to the Flame, and marry one of my own kind. They had not, of course, understood what I had said to you there in the great chapel of the Flame.
"I defied them. We escaped through a passage which is not known to any save myself, and the existence of which my father taught me years ago. We are here, but they will guess where we have gone. My old men are exciting my people against me--and for that shall all, down to the last one, know the embrace of the Flame!" She gritted her teeth on the words, her nostrils distended with rage.
"I--I am safe. I can command them; I can make them know my power, and I shall. The Flame will have much to feed upon in the days which are to come, I promise you. But my beloved would not be safe; at this moment I cannot protect him. So I have brought him back. I--I know he ... but I will not be weak. I am Liane!"
She faced Hendricks, who had stood there like a graven image, watching her. Her arms went about his neck; her lips sought his.
"My beloved!" she whispered. "Liane was but a woman, after all. Darling! Good-by!" She kissed him again, and hurried to the door.
"One more thing!" she cried. "I must master them myself. I must show them I--I, Liane--am ruler here. You promise? You promise me you will not interfere; that you will do nothing?"
Liane interrupted me before I could put my objections into words.
"Promise!" she commanded. "There are hundreds, thousands of them! You cannot slay them all--and if you did, there would be more. I can bend them to my will; they know my power. Promise, or there will be many deaths upon your hands!"
"I promise," I said.
"And you--all of you?" she demanded, sweeping Correy and Kincaide with her eyes.
"Commander Hanson speaks for us all," nodded Kincaide.
With a last glance at Hendricks, whose eyes had never left her for an instant, she was gone.
Hendricks uttered a long, quivering sigh. His face, as he turned to us, was ghastly white.
"She's gone," he muttered. "Forever."
"That's exceedingly unfortunate, sir, for you," I replied crisply. "As soon as it's perfectly safe, we'll see to it that you depart also."
The sting of my words apparently did not touch him.
"You don't understand," he said dully. "I know what you think, and I do not blame you. She came back; you know that.
"'You are coming with me,' she said. 'I care for you. I want you. You are coming with me, at once.' I told her I was not; that I loved her, but that I could not, would not, go.
"She opened a port and showed me one of her countrymen, standing not far away, watching the ship. He held something in his hand.
"'He has one of your hand bombs,' she told me. 'I found it while I was hidden and took it with me when I left. If you do not come with me, he will throw it against the ship, destroy it, and those within it.'
"There was nothing else for me to do. She permitted me to explain no more than I did in the note I left. I pleaded with her; did all I could. Finally I persuaded her to give you the word she did, there before the great flame.
"She brought me back here at the risk of her own life, and, what is even more precious to her, her power. In--in her own way, she loves me...."
It was an amazing story; a second or two passed before any of us could speak. And then words came, fast and joyous; our friend, our trusted fellow-officer had come back to us! I felt as though a great black cloud had slid from across the sun.
And then, above our voices, rose a great mutter of sound. We glanced at one another, wonderingly. Hendricks was the first to make a move.
"That's the mob!" he said, darting toward the door. We followed him swiftly to the exit of the ship, through the air-lock, out into the open.
Hendricks had spoken the truth. Liane was walking, very slowly and deliberately, her head flung back proudly, toward the city. Coming toward her, like a great ragged wave, was a mighty mass of humanity, led by capering old men--undoubtedly the lesser priests, who had turned against her.
"The portable projectors, sir!" begged Correy excitedly. "A pair of them, and that mob--"
"We're bound by our promise," I reminded him. "She's not afraid; her power is terrible. I believe she'll win without them. Look!"
Liane had paused. She lifted one hand in a gesture of command, and called out to the rabble. Correy translated the whole thing for me later.
"Halt!" she cried sharply. "Who moves upon the Chief Priestess of the Flame earns the embrace of the Flame!"
The crowd halted, cowering; then the old man shouted to them and gestured them onward. With a rush, the front ranks came on.
"So!" Liane called out to them. "You would disobey Liane? Yet even yet it is not too late; Liane gives you one chance more. You little know the Chief Priestess of the Flame if you think she will tolerate an encroachment of her power. Back! Back, I say, or you all shall feel the might of Liane!"
Before her tirade the mob faltered, but again the crazed old men led them on.
Liane turned, saw us, and made a regal gesture of farewell. From the bosom of her tunic she snatched a small black object, and swung it high above her head.
"The bomb!" shouted Hendricks. "She has it; she--"
At the very feet of the onrushing crowd the black object struck. There was a hollow roar; a blast of thundering air swept us backward to the ground.
When we scrambled to our feet, Liane was gone. The relentless mob had gone. Where they had been was a great crater of raw earth, strewn with ghastly fragments. Far back toward the city a few straggling figures ran frantically away from that scene of death.
"Gone!" I said. "Power was a mania, an obsession with her. Even her death was a supreme gesture--of power, of authority."
"Liane," Hendricks whispered. "Chief Priestess of the Flame ... Giver of Death...."
With Liane gone, and with her the old men who had tried to snatch her power from her hand, and who might have caused us trouble, the rebellion of the Lakonians was at an end.
Leaderless, they were helpless, and I believe they were happy in the change. Sometimes the old ways are better than the new, and Liane's regime had been merciless and rather terrible.
There are many kinds of women: great women, and women with small souls; women filled with the spirit of sacrifice; selfish women, good women and bad.
And Liane? I leave her for you to judge. She was a woman; classify her for yourself.
After all, I am an old man, and perhaps I have forgotten the ways of women. I do not wish to judge, on one hand to be called bitter and hard, on the other hand to be condemned as soft with advancing age.
I have given you the story of Liane, Chief Priestess of the Flame.
How, you clever and infallible members of this present generation, do you judge her?
OUT AROUND RIGEL.
By Robert H. Wilson
The sun had dropped behind the Grimaldi plateau, although for a day twilight would linger over the Oceanus Procellarum. The sky was a hazy blue, and out over the deeper tinted waves the full Earth swung. All the long half-month it had hung there above the horizon, its light dimmed by the sunshine, growing from a thin crescent to its full disk three times as broad as that of the sun at setting. Now in the dusk it was a great silver lamp hanging over Nardos, the Beautiful, the City Built on the Water. The light glimmered over the tall white towers, over the white ten-mile-long adamantine bridge running from Nardos to the shore, and lit up the beach where we were standing, with a brightness that seemed almost that of day.
"Once more, Garth," I said. "I'll get that trick yet."
The skin of my bare chest still smarted from the blow of his wooden fencing sword. If it had been the real two-handed Lunarian dueling sword, with its terrible mass behind a curved razor edge, the blow would have produced a cut deep into the bone. It was always the same, ever since Garth and I had fenced as boys with crooked laths. Back to back, we could beat the whole school, but I never had a chance against him. Perhaps one time in ten-- "On guard!"
The silvered swords whirled in the Earth-light. I nicked him on one wrist, and had to duck to escape his wild swing at my head. The wooden blades were now locked by the hilts above our heads. When he stepped back to get free, I lunged and twisted his weapon. In a beautiful parabola, Garth's sword sailed out into the water, and he dropped to the sand to nurse his right wrist.
"Confound your wrestling, Dunal. If you've broken my arm on the eve of my flight--"
"It's not even a sprain. Your wrists are weak. And I supposed you've always been considerate of me? Three broken ribs!"
"For half a cent--"
He was on his feet, and then Kelvar came up and laid her hand on his shoulder. Until a few minutes before she had been swimming in the surf, watching us. The Earth-light shimmered over her white skin, still faintly moist, and blazed out in blue sparkles from the jewels of the breastplates and trunks she had put on.
When she touched Garth, and he smiled, I wanted to smash in his dark face and then take the beating I would deserve. Yet, if she preferred him-- [TN-1]And the two of us had been friends before she was born. I put out my hand.
"Whatever happens, Garth, we'll still be friends?"
We clasped hands.
"Garth," Kelvar said, "it's getting dark. Show us your ship before you go."
"All right." He had always been like that--one minute in a black rage, the next perfectly agreeable. He now led the way up to a cliff hanging over the sea.
"There," said Garth, "is the Comet. Our greatest step in conquering distance. After I've tried it out, we can go in a year to the end of the universe. But, for a starter, how about a thousand light-years around Rigel in six months?" His eyes were afire. Then he calmed down. "Anything I can show you?"
[Note: Editor's Note: The manuscript, of which a translation is here presented, was discovered by the rocket-ship expedition to the moon three years ago. It was found in its box by the last crumbling ruins of the great bridge mentioned in the narrative. Its final translation is a tribute at once to the philological skill of the Earth and to the marvelous dictionary provided by Dunal, the Lunarian. Stars and lunar localities will be given their traditional Earth names; and measures of time, weight, and distance have been reduced, in round numbers, to terrestrial equivalents. Of the space ship described, the Comet, no trace has been found. It must be buried under the rim of one of the hundreds of nearby Lunar craters--the result, as some astronomers have long suspected and as Dunal's story verifies, of a great swarm of meteors striking the unprotected, airless moon.]
I had seen the Comet before, but never so close. With a hull of shining helio-beryllium--the new light, inactive alloy of a metal and a gas--the ship was a cylinder about twenty feet long, by fifteen in diameter, while a pointed nose stretched five feet farther at each end. Fixed in each point was a telescopic lens, while there were windows along the sides and at the top--all made, Garth informed us, of another form of the alloy almost as strong as the opaque variety. Running half-way out each end were four "fins" which served to apply the power driving the craft. A light inside showed the interior to be a single room, ten feet high at the center of its cylindrical ceiling, with a level floor.
"How do you know this will be the bottom?" I asked, giving the vessel a shove to roll it over. But it would not budge. Garth laughed.
"Five hundred pounds of mercury and the disintegrators are under that floor, while out in space I have an auxiliary gravity engine to keep my feet there."
"You see, since your mathematical friends derived their identical formulas for gravity and electromagnetism, my job was pretty easy. As you know, a falling body follows the line of least resistance in a field of distortion of space caused by mass. I bend space into another such field by electromagnetic means, and the Comet flies down the track. Working the mercury disintegrators at full power, I can get an acceleration of two hundred miles per second, which will build up the speed at the midpoint of my trip to almost four thousand times that of light. Then I'll have to start slowing down, but at the average speed the journey will take only six months or so."
"But can anyone stand that acceleration?" Kelvar asked.
"I've had it on and felt nothing. With a rocket exhaust shoving the ship, it couldn't be done, but my gravitational field attracts the occupant of the Comet just as much as the vessel itself."
"You're sure," I interrupted, "that you have enough power to keep up the acceleration?"