"They don't know how to operate the negatron."
"Don't they? I might mention that they seem to know everything that Sarkoff knew. And Hal certainly knew how that negatron operated. He could take it apart and put it back together blind-folded."
"That's so," Nielson admitted. For a second unease showed on his lean face. "Well, that only means we will have to lick them before they can get that negatron into operation. One thing is certain--we have to have the ship."
"You're right on that score," Usher grimly said.
Seconds ticked away into minutes. The group busy about the ship had no intimation they were about to be attacked. They were careless to the point of foolhardiness. No sentries had been posted, no effort had been made to hide the vessel.
"What are they, really?" Hargraves thought. He wondered if they were some strange form of water-dwelling life that lived in the lakes of this planet. Perhaps that was what they were! Perhaps the transition from the fish to the mammal had never been made on this planet, the fish-form developing keen intelligence. Certainly there was intelligence on this world. But it seemed to be an intelligence humans could not comprehend.
The signal for the attack sounded. Fierce shouts came from the other side of the ship. The shouters were hidden, but there was no mistaking the sounds. They came from human throats.
"Give 'em hell, boys!"
"Tear 'em to pieces!"
The harsh throbbing of vibration pistols split the quiet air.
"Steady!" Nielson said. "Wait until they go to see what's happening."
The group busy around the ship raised startled faces from their task. They seemed to listen. Then they turned and ran around the bow of the vessel.
"Come on!" cried Nielson, leaping from concealment.
There wasn't a person left in sight to oppose them. Fifty yards to cross. Fifty yards to the ship! Fifty yards to a fighting chance for life!
Under their racing feet the soft turf was soundless.
Twenty-five yards to go now. Ten yards. Ten feet to the open lock.
Thulon appeared in the lock. He looked in surprise at the charging men.
Except for the rough staff that he carried he was weaponless.
Nielson didn't give the command to fire, didn't need to give it. Every vibration pistol had been drawn long before the men leaped from cover. Every pistol came up at the same instant, every index finger squeezed a trigger.
Only Thulon stood between them and a fighting chance for life. They came of warrior races, these men. No bugles urged them on. They needed no bugles.
A howling vortex of radiation smashed at the figure in the lock.
One vibration pistol would destroy a man, smash him to bloody bits. More than a dozen pistols were centered on the figure standing before them.
Thulon stood unharmed.
Staff in front of him he stood facing the fingers of hell reaching for him. The flaming fingers grasped, and did not touch him.
The shooting stopped as abruptly as it began. The charge stopped. Hargraves saw Nielson staring dazedly from the figure in the lock to the pistol in his hand as if the two were irreconcilable. The pistol ought to have destroyed Thulon. It hadn't destroyed him. For a mad moment, Hargraves felt sorry for the new captain. He, too, had run headlong into a logical impossibility.
All sounds were suddenly stilled, all shouting stopped, all noises died away.
Around the bow of the ship Hal Sarkoff came running. He saw the group and looked bewildered. "Hey! How did you guys get here?"
"Blast him!" Nielson said, centering his pistol on this new target.
From the staff in Thulon's hand came a soft tinkle, a bell-like sound. Nothing seemed to happen but Nielson staggered as if he had been hit a sharp blow. The pistol flew out of his hand and landed twenty feet away.
"Listen, you apes," Sarkoff shouted at the top of his voice. "I'm Hal Sarkoff. I've always been Hal Sarkoff. I'll never be anybody else but Hal Sarkoff. Do you get it?"
They didn't get it.
"If you--" Nielson whispered. "If you are really Sarkoff, then who--what--is he?" He pointed toward Thulon still standing in the lock.
"Him?" The grin on the craggy face belonged to Hal Sarkoff and to no one else. "Meet a god," he said.
"A god?" That was Usher speaking now, his voice a tense whisper.
Sarkoff continued grinning. "Well, he resurrected me when I was deader than hell. I guess that makes him a god."
"You--you know you were dead?"
"Yep. At least I guess I know it. The last thing I remember is trying to get back to the control panel when we got that hole knocked in the ship, so I could cut the drivers back in. After that everything gets kind of hazy. The next thing I remember is my pal here," he gestured toward Thulon, "and a lot of his buddies chirping like sparrows while they worked over me. And believe me, they were working me over plenty. I felt like I had been turned inside out, wrung out, hung out to dry, then stuffed all over again."
"But when you came back to the ship," Hargraves spoke, "you said you remembered everything that had happened, the crash of the ship, our hiding her. If you were dead, how did you learn these things?"
"He told me," Sarkoff answered, nodding toward Thulon. "He filled out my memory for me with dope he had taken from your mind while you were talking. Reading minds is one of that old boy's minor accomplishments."
"Then why didn't you tell us the truth?" Hargraves exploded. "You said you had been sent out scouting. Why didn't you tell us what had really happened?" Mentally he added, "If it happened!"
"Because you apes wouldn't have believed me!" Sarkoff answered. "To your knowledge--mine, too, until it happened--dead men don't get up out of their graves and walk. If I had told you the truth, you wouldn't have believed a word of it. If I told you something you knew wasn't true, that you had sent me out on a scouting trip, you would know I was lying, you would figure it was a trick of some kind, and you would wait around and try to discover the trick. While you were waiting around trying to catch me, I could get in some missionary work on Ron Val. I knew I could convert him, if I had a chance to talk to him. With him on my side, we could convince the rest of you. It would have worked too. All it needed was a little time for you boys to get used to the idea of a dead man coming back to life." He looked at Nielson. "Remind me to black that other eye of yours one of these days."
"What?" said Hargraves. "What's this?"
"Our pal Nielson," Sarkoff said. "If you think before you act, he acts before he thinks. You had no sooner gone chasing off to see if I was really where you had buried me, which was what I thought you would do, until Nielson comes poking into where Ron Val and I were holding a conference. Nielson had a gun. He had it out ready to use. He figured the only safe thing to do was to shoot me. So," Sarkoff shrugged, "I had to smack him. He had forced my hand."
[Illustration: Fists lashed out, weapons appeared, and cries of fury rent the air]
There was a slight stir among the group. This was news to all of them.
"Is this true?" Hargraves said.
"Yes," said Nielson defiantly. "And I was right. I should have killed him. He isn't Hal Sarkoff. He isn't telling the truth about coming back to life. Sarkoff is dead."
Sarkoff glanced up at Thulon who was still standing in the lock looking down at the men before him. There was a ghost of a smile on his face.
"See!" said Sarkoff, addressing Thulon. "I told you we couldn't tell these boys anything. They have to see, they have to feel, they have to be shown."
"Well," the thought came from Thulon to everyone. "Why don't you show them?"
"Okay," Sarkoff answered. "Nevins!" he shouted. "Reese! Come out of that ship."
Nevins and Reese were the two engineers who had died with Sarkoff.
Thulon moved a little to one side. Nevins and Reese came out of the ship. They were grinning.
"Feel us!" Sarkoff shouted. "Pinch us. Cut off a slice of skin and examine it under a microscope. Make blood tests. Use X-rays. Do whatever you damned please." He shoved a brawny arm under Nielson's nose. "Here. Pinch this and see if you think it's real."
Nielson shrank away.
Nevins and Reese passed among the men, offering themselves in evidence. Startled voices called softly in answer to other startled voices. "They're real."
"This is no lie. This is the truth."
"I've known this man for years. This is Eddie Nevins."
"And this is Sam Reese."
Hargraves heard the voices, saw the conclusion they were reaching.
"One moment," he said.
The voices went into silence. Eyes turned questioningly to him.
"Even if these men are really Hal Sarkoff and Eddie Nevins and Sam Reese, if they are the companions we knew as dead who have miraculously been returned to us, there are still facts that do not fit into a logical pattern. Even here on this world the laws of logic must hold true."
Silence fell. Men looked at him and at each other. Where there had been wonder on their faces, new doubts were appearing.
"What facts, Jed?" Sarkoff questioned.
"The sphere that attacked us, that attempted to destroy us, without warning. This is a fact that does not fit."
"The sphere?" Uncertainty showed on Sarkoff's face. Then he grinned again and turned to Thulon. "You tell him about that sphere."
"Gladly," Thulon's thoughts came. "As you know, Vega has two planets. Long ago we were at war with the inhabitants of this other planet. Part of our defenses around our own planet were floating fortresses. The war is done but we have left guards in the sky to protect us if we are attacked. The sphere that attacked you was one of our automatic forts which we had left in the sky."
"Ah!" said Hargraves. The cold logic of his mind sought a pattern that would include fortresses in the sky. Presuming war between two planets, such fortresses were logical. But-- "The construction of such a sphere indicates vast technical knowledge, tremendous workshops. I have seen no laboratories and no industrial centers that could produce such a fortress. I have, moreover, seen no civilization that will serve as a background for such construction."
He waited for an answer. Usher, the archeologist, looked suddenly at him, then looked at Thulon.
"The fortresses were built long ago," Thulon said. "In those past milleniums we had industrial centers. We no longer need them and we no longer have them."
"Then there is another stage!" the archeologist gasped. "You are past the city stage in your evolutionary process. You are beyond the metal age. What--" Usher eagerly asked. "What comes after that?"
"We are beyond the age of cities," Thulon answered. "The next but possibly not final stage is a return to nature. We live in the groves and the fields, beside the lakes, under the trees. We need no protection from the elements because we are in unison with them. There are no enemies on this world, no dangers, almost no death. In your thinking you can only describe us as gods. Our activities are almost entirely mental. Our only concession of materialism is this." He lifted the staff. "When you fired at me, this staff canceled your beams. It would have canceled them if they had been a thousand times stronger. When one of you attempted to destroy Sarkoff, force went out from this staff, knocking the weapon from his hand. There are certain powers leashed within this staff, certain arrangements of crystals that are very nearly ultimate matter. Through this staff my will is worked. Some day," he smiled, "we will even be able to discard the staff. That is the goal of our evolution."
The thoughts went into soft silence and Thulon looked down at them. "Does that satisfy you?" His eyes went among the group, came to rest on Hargraves. "No, I see it does not. There is still one fact that you cannot fit into your pattern."
"Yes," said Hargraves. "If all that you have told us is true, why was the ship stolen?"
"Everything has to fit for you?" Sarkoff answered. "Well, that's why you are our leader. I can answer this question. I took the ship so I could have it repaired. Then, when I brought it back to you, fit to fly again, all of us would have evidence that we could not deny. You might doubt my identity, you might doubt me, but you would not doubt a ship that had been repaired. Thulon," Sarkoff ended, "will you do your stuff?"
Standing a little apart from the rest Hargraves watched. Thulon and his comrades brought metal from the vessel. How they used the tripod he could not see but in some way they seemed to use it to melt the metal. This was magna steel. They worked it as if it were pure tin. It didn't seem to be hot but they spread sheets of it over the gaping hole in the hull. They closed the hole. He knew the ship had been repaired but still he did not move. On the ground before him was something that looked like an ant hill. He watched this, his mind reaching out and grasping a bigger problem. The ants, he could see, were swarming.
Nielson detached himself from the group at the ship and came to him.
"Jed," he said hesitatingly.
"Jed, what Hal said about me attacking him was right. I thought--I thought he wasn't Sarkoff. I thought I was doing what was right."
"I don't doubt you," Hargraves answered. His mind was not on what Nielson was saying.
"What is it?"
"Jed, will you take over command again?" The words came fast. "I--"
"Huh? Take over command? Don't you like the job?"
Nielson shivered. "No. I'm not ready for it yet. Jed, will you take it over, please?"
"Huh? Oh, sure, if that is what the fellows want."
"They want it. So do I."
"Okay then." Hargraves was scarcely aware that Nielson had left. Nor did he notice Ron Val approaching.
"Jed, I've been talking to Thulon." The astro-navigator's voice was trembling with excitement. "Jed, do you know that Thulon and his people belong to our race?"