Then it was I saw where he was sending us! Thirty feet below the platform there swung a small cabin, attached by cables and reached by a swinging steel ladder. As I looked a door in the roof slid back. "Climb down!" ordered Fraser again. There was nothing to do but obey. Accustomed as I was to flying, inured as I had become to great heights, my head reeled and my hands grew icy as I swung myself through that trap door and felt for a footing on the swinging ladder. Suppose Fraser turned the ray back on us as we climbed down? Suppose he cut the ladder? But instantly my good sense told me he would do neither. If he had meant to kill us he could have done it easier than this. No, somewhere in his mad head, he had a reason for sending us down to this swinging cabin.
Five minutes later Foulet and I stared at each other in the cramped confines of our prison. The tiny door in the roof, through which we had dropped, was closed. The steel ladder had been pulled up. We were alone. Alone? Were there no eyes that watched us still, or ears that listened to what we might say? Foulet evidently shared my sense of espionage, for, without even a glance at me, he lay down on the hard floor of our bare little cabin and, to all intents and purposes, fell asleep.
For a few minutes I stood staring at him, then followed his example. As I relaxed I realized I was tremendously weary. The cumulative exhaustion of the past thirty-six hours seemed to crowd upon me with a smothering sense of physical oppression. I looked at my watch and wound it. Five o'clock. Through the narrow slits near the roof of our swinging cell I could see the changing light of dawn, melting in with the rosy glow from the magnetic rays. My eyelids drooped heavily....
When I awoke Foulet was standing near me, his arms folded across his chest, scowling thoughtfully. He nodded as he saw my open eyes, but when I started to speak he shook his head sharply. With his gesture there flooded back to me the feeling that we were watched--even through the walls of our aerial prison and the floor of the platform above us.
I sat up and, clasping my knees with my hands, leaned against the wall. There must be a way out of this for us! All my life I had worked on the theory that if you thought hard enough there was a way out of any difficulty. But this seemed so hopeless! No matter how hard we thought the mad mind of Fraser would always be one jump ahead of us! And maybe we didn't dare even think! If Fraser were able to read minds--as I was nearly sure he was--then hadn't we better keep our minds blank even down here? But an instant's thought showed me the flaw in my logic. Fraser could, without much doubt, read minds--when those minds were close to him. If he could read minds at a distance then he wouldn't need to ask us for information.
But why had he put us here? I burrowed around for the answer. Had he guessed we had outwitted Doctor Semple and not taken the mad serum after all, and was this punishment? No, if Fraser had guessed that he would simply have given us more serum, as he had Brice. Brice! Where was poor Brice now? Was he an idiot, with blank face and shiny, soulless eyes? My mind shuddered away from the thought, taking refuge in my first question: Why were we here? What was Fraser going to do with us?
We lost all track of time. In spite of my winding it my watch stopped and the hours slipped by uncounted. Night came, and another dawn and another night. Twice our roof was lifted and our tiny swinging cell filled with the orange light of the nourishment ray. But we saw no one nor did anyone speak to us. The third day passed in the same isolated silence. Occasionally Foulet or I would utter a monosyllable; the sound of our voices was comforting and the single words would convey little to a listener.
But as the hours of the third night slowly passed the atmosphere in our tiny swinging cell grew tense. Something was going to happen. I could feel it and I knew by Foulet's eyes that he felt it too. The air was tight, electrical. Standing on tiptoe, I glued my eyes to the narrow slit which was our only ventilation. But I could see nothing. The brilliant rosy glow blinded me. I couldn't even see the huge platform floating above our heads.
Then, suddenly, our roof slid back. The magnetic ray was deflected. Above us, in the opening of the trap-door, leered the bright, mad eyes of Fraser.
"Good evening," he said mockingly. "How do you feel?" We smiled hesitantly. Something in his voice made me feel he was addressing us as sane men and not idiots. But why? Weren't we supposed to be idiots when he put us down there?
"You ought to feel all right," Fraser went on critically. "The first dose of that serum lasts only three days. It's cumulative," he added with his professional air. "In the beginning an injection every three days. Then once a week and so on. There's a man who has been with me for three years who needs treatment only once every three months. Well, are you ready to talk?"
So that was it! He had put us down here till the supposed effects of that serum had worn off; and now we were to talk; tell him everything his agents had been risking their lives to find out! We were to sell out our countries to him; betray all the secrets we had sworn by eternity to keep! If we did as he demanded both France and the United States would be at his mercy--and he had no mercy! He was not a man; he was a cruel, power-loving, scientific machine. I clamped my teeth. Never would I talk! I had sworn to protect my country's secrets with my life--and my vow would be kept!
"You will talk?" Fraser asked again, his voice suddenly suave and beseeching. "For those who talk there are--rewards."
"Let down the ladder," said Foulet, in a quiet, conversational tone. "It will be easier to discuss this--"
Fraser's eyes narrowed to gleaming slits. He smiled craftily. "The ladder will be let down--when you talk."
"And if," suggested Foulet, "we don't wish to talk?"
Fraser's lips stretched in a wider grin. His white teeth gleamed. His shiny black eyes glittered. In that warm, rosy light he looked like a demon from hell. He held out his hand. In it shone a long, slender instrument.
"This knife," he said softly, "Will cut the steel cables that connect you to this platform--as if they were cheese! You will talk?" Beside me I heard Foulet gasp. Swiftly my imagination conjured up the picture of our fate. Our determined refusal to divulge the secrets of our respective countries; the severing, one by one, of the four cables holding us to the platform; the listing of our swinging cell; the tipping, the last, terrible plunge two thousand feet. But it would be swift. The power of the magnetic ray would give us no time to think--to suffer. It would be a merciful end....
"Let us up," bargained Foulet. "We will talk." Fraser laughed.
"None of that," he said slyly. "You talk from there and if your information doesn't dove-tail with what I already know--" he flourished the steel knife suggestively.
We were caught! No amount of bluff would save us now. Fraser demanded that truth, facts, actual information--and he wouldn't be fooled by anything spurious. Foulet's shoulder touched mine as we peered up through the roof of our cell at our mad captor. We spoke together: "There is nothing to say."
The assured smile left Fraser's lips. His eyes glittered red. His whole mad face was contorted with fury. A volley of oaths poured through his twisted mouth. With a gesture of insane rage he pulled the nearest cable to him and slashed it with the knife!
Our cell tilted. Foulet and I were thrown in a heap on the floor. We sprang up to face Fraser again through the roof. His mad eyes glared down at us, soul-chilling, maniacal.
"Talk!" he snarled. "Talk--or I'll slice another!" He drew the second cable to him, holding it in readiness.
I clenched my teeth. Beside me I could see the muscles of Foulet's jaw working. Talk? Never!
"Talk!" screamed Fraser. "Talk!" Our silence and our white faces were his only answer. There was a gleam of the knife in the rosy light. Our cell lurched, quivered, then caught. Would it hold with only two cables? It was hanging on its side. We were standing on what had been the wall. Through the opening in the roof we could see nothing but rosy light and distant stars. How strong were the cables? Could they hold against the pull of the magnetic ray? We could feel the pull now; feel the strain on the cables above us. If Fraser cut the third one-- "Talk!" his voice came, hoarse with fury. "Talk now! You can't see me," he went on; "but I'm pulling the third cable toward me. I'm raising the knife. Will you talk?"
Standing on that quaking wall Foulet and I stared at each other. How long would it be? One second? Half a minute? Thank God it would be quick! This was the worst now. This eternity of waiting.... "I'm cutting it!" yelled Fraser--and with his words the cell lurched, swung, whirled like a spinning top. Foulet and I were tossed around like dried peas in a pod.
Suddenly the thing steadied. Two steel hooks were clamped on the edge of the opening in what had been the roof, and Brice stared at us through the aperture!
"Quick!" he gasped. "There's not a second to lose. Don't stare! Quick, I say. I've got the ladder here. It's steel and it'll hold. Climb up."
Dumbly we obeyed. Our heads were whirling, our bodies bruised and mashed by the shaking up. Blindly, dizzily we climbed up the ladder, scrambled out on the platform. Solid footing again! As Brice loosed the ladder and pulled it up, there was a snap. The last cable had gone! The cell shot down to earth with a speed that must have reduced it to a powder. Foulet and I stared after it, dazed, unbelieving. Brice's whisper hissed in our ears.
"Listen carefully," he gripped our shoulders. "I'm not mad. They shot the stuff into me, but I found an antidote in Semple's office and used it right away. Now listen to me! Our plane is over there," he pointed across the platform. "It's all ready to take off. They think they're sending me off on an errand for them at dawn. It's ready for a long trip. Go there; get in; and if any one questions you tell them it's orders. They won't, though. No one gives orders here but Fraser." Brice nodded toward a dark heap beside the trap-door.
"You killed him?" asked Foulet.
"Stunned him," said Brice. "He may come to at any moment and if he does--"
"Suppose we bind him and take him in the plane?" I suggested.
Brice shook his head. "Leave him here. It's safer. Now go. Get in the plane and take off--"
"And not wait for you?" I gasped, "You're crazy--"
"I'll be there. You can pick me up later. There's no time to explain--but you'll know. Take off; then circle around and come back. But watch out!" He gave us both a shove toward the plane, the dim shadow of which we could see across the platform.
We took a step toward it, and then turned back. How could we go without Brice? But he had vanished. And in the shadow of the trap door Fraser groaned.
We waited no longer. To hesitate was to court death. Deliberately, as if we were acting under orders, we walked toward the plane. As Brice had said, it was in readiness. Evidently he was to have started at once. We climbed in, our hearts in our throats. A mechanic stepped forward. The propeller roared. But, above the roar of the propeller we heard a yell of fury--and Fraser, dazed and reeling, came stumbling across the platform toward us!
Foulet took the controls. The plane taxied across the platform, swooped into space. But it was not till it had risen and steadied that I realized the complete idiocy of our forlorn hope of escape. What fools we were! And Brice--Brice must, in truth, be mad! How could we get away? How could we ever escape the terrific power of the magnetic ray? That ray that Fraser worked himself from his laboratory--the ray that had drawn us first across the desert to this floating island of madness! It would be a matter of seconds before Fraser would reach it and turn it on us. There was no escape--none!
In despair I looked back at the platform. To eyes ignorant of its horror it would have been an amazing and gorgeous sight. The crimson lamps of the magnetic ray bloomed like huge desert flowers on the sand two thousand feet below us; the rays flamed up with the glory of an Italian sunset and, poised in space like a dark butterfly, floated the huge platform bathed in its rosy light. It was beautiful. It was unbelievable. It was horrible. I gazed, fascinated. When would Fraser reach the lamp? When would he turn it on? I stared at the dark shadow that I knew was the laboratory building. My eyes strained through the growing distance. When would the glow come? That glow that meant our death!
Suddenly I gasped. The light had gone! The great lamps down on the desert floor were out! Darkness, swift, comforting, wrapped us in velvet folds.
"Brice!" I yelled. "Brice has cut off the lamps--he's released the platform. God! Look--Foulet!" My voice tore through my throat; my eyes burned with sudden, blinding emotion. In the soft darkness of the starry night I could see the platform waver, topple, rise! It rose straight up, tilting and swaying in the light breeze. What was it Fraser had said? If it was released it would go straight to the stars! It was on its way!
But Brice! Where was Brice? Was he on that terrible rising island? I strained my eyes through the darkness. Already Foulet had banked the plane--we were circling; turning back. A tiny white speck took shape beneath the rising island. A parachute! Brice was safe!
Ten minutes later we slid along the hard desert sand and came to a stop. Brice came running over toward us. Foulet and I climbed out of the plane to meet him. Silently we gripped hands. It was a solemn moment. Beside us reared the great plane that would take us back to safety--back to the familiar life we knew and loved. Around us stretched the trackless wastes of the Great Arabian Desert--and above, somewhere between us and the stars, soared the floating island of madness.
"They believed I was mad," said Brice as we climbed back into the plane. "I watched Fraser. I spied on the men. There were about thirty up there, and finally I saw where they regulated those lamps. The rest was easy--all except the minute when I found Fraser kneeling beside that trap-door slicing the cables. For a second I thought it was all up."
"You got us just in time," I muttered. But you can't be grateful with an Englishman. They won't stand for it.
"Oh, bosh," Brice murmured, as the plane swung its nose toward that far distance that was home. "Well, it's all over--but it's a story that can never be told. The fate of Mad Fraser will have to remain a mystery--for no one would believe us if we told them!"
THE EGO MACHINE.
By Henry Kuttner
When a slightly mad robot drunk on AC, wants you to join an experiment in optimum ecology--don't do it! After all, who wants to argue like Disraeli or live like Ivan the Terrible?
Nicholas Martin looked up at the robot across the desk.
"I'm not going to ask what you want," he said, in a low, restrained voice. "I already know. Just go away and tell St. Cyr I approve. Tell him I think it's wonderful, putting a robot in the picture. We've had everything else by now, except the Rockettes. But clearly a quiet little play about Christmas among the Portuguese fishermen on the Florida coast must have a robot. Only, why not six robots? Tell him I suggest a baker's dozen. Go away."
"Was your mother's name Helena Glinska?" the robot asked.
"It was not," Martin said.
"Ah, then she must have been the Great Hairy One," the robot murmured.
Martin took his feet off the desk and sat up slowly.
"It's quite all right," the robot said hastily. "You've been chosen for an ecological experiment, that's all. But it won't hurt. Robots are perfectly normal life forms where I come from, so you needn't--"
"Shut up," Martin said. "Robot indeed, you--you bit-player! This time St. Cyr has gone too far." He began to shake slightly all over, with some repressed but strong emotion. The intercom box on the desk caught his eye, and he stabbed a finger at one of the switches. "Get me Miss Ashby! Right away!"
"I'm so sorry," the robot said apologetically. "Have I made a mistake? The threshold fluctuations in the neurons always upset my mnemonic norm when I temporalize. Isn't this a crisis-point in your life?"
Martin breathed hard, which seemed to confirm the robot's assumption.
"Exactly," it said. "The ecological imbalance approaches a peak that may destroy the life-form, unless ... mm-m. Now either you're about to be stepped on by a mammoth, locked in an iron mask, assassinated by helots, or--is this Sanskrit I'm speaking?" He shook his gleaming head. "Perhaps I should have got off fifty years ago, but I thought--sorry. Good-bye," he added hastily as Martin raised an angry glare.
Then the robot lifted a finger to each corner of his naturally rigid mouth, and moved his fingers horizontally in opposite directions, as though sketching an apologetic smile.
"No, don't go away," Martin said. "I want you right here, where the sight of you can refuel my rage in case it's needed. I wish to God I could get mad and stay mad," he added plaintively, gazing at the telephone.
"Are you sure your mother's name wasn't Helena Glinska?" the robot asked. It pinched thumb and forefinger together between its nominal brows, somehow giving the impression of a worried frown.
"Naturally I'm sure," Martin snapped.
"You aren't married yet, then? To Anastasia Zakharina-Koshkina?"
"Not yet or ever," Martin replied succinctly. The telephone rang. He snatched it up.
"Hello, Nick," said Erika Ashby's calm voice. "Something wrong?"
Instantly the fires of rage went out of Martin's eyes, to be replaced by a tender, rose-pink glow. For some years now he had given Erika, his very competent agent, ten percent of his take. He had also longed hopelessly to give her approximately a pound of flesh--the cardiac muscle, to put it in cold, unromantic terms. Martin did not; he put it in no terms at all, since whenever he tried to propose marriage to Erika he was taken with such fits of modesty that he could only babble o' green fields.
"Well," Erika repeated. "Something wrong?"
"Yes," Martin said, drawing a long breath. "Can St. Cyr make me marry somebody named Anastasia Zakharina-Koshkina?"
"What a wonderful memory you have," the robot put in mournfully. "Mine used to be, before I started temporalizing. But even radioactive neurons won't stand--"
"Nominally you're still entitled to life, liberty, et cetera," Erika said. "But I'm busy right now, Nick. Can't it wait till I see you?"
"Didn't you get my message?" Erika demanded.
"Of course not," Martin said, angrily. "I've suspected for some time that all my incoming calls have to be cleared by St. Cyr. Somebody might try to smuggle in a word of hope, or possibly a file." His voice brightened. "Planning a jailbreak?"
"Oh, this is outrageous," Erika said. "Some day St. Cyr's going to go too far--"
"Not while he's got DeeDee behind him," Martin said gloomily. Summit Studios would sooner have made a film promoting atheism than offend their top box-office star, DeeDee Fleming. Even Tolliver Watt, who owned Summit lock, stock and barrel, spent wakeful nights because St. Cyr refused to let the lovely DeeDee sign a long-term contract.
"Nevertheless, Watt's no fool," Erika said. "I still think we could get him to give you a contract release if we could make him realize what a rotten investment you are. There isn't much time, though."
"I told you--oh. Of course you don't know. He's leaving for Paris tomorrow morning."
Martin moaned. "Then I'm doomed," he said. "They'll pick up my option automatically next week and I'll never draw a free breath again. Erika, do something!"
"I'm going to," Erika said. "That's exactly what I want to see you about. Ah," she added suddenly, "now I understand why St. Cyr stopped my message. He was afraid. Nick, do you know what we've got to do?"
"See Watt?" Nick hazarded unhappily. "But Erika--"
"See Watt alone," Erika amplified.
"Not if St. Cyr can help it," Nick reminded her.