The streets were utterly deserted, and when we came close to the building I saw why. The whole populace was gathered there; they were drawn up around the building in orderly groups, with a great lane opened to the mighty entrance.
There were women waiting there, thousands of them, the most beautiful I have ever seen, and in my younger days I had eyes that were quick to note a pretty face.
Through these great silent ranks we passed majestically, and I felt very foolish and very much bewildered. Every head was bowed as though in reverence, and the chanting of the men behind us was like the singing of a hymn.
At the head of the procession, we entered the great domed, lozenge-shaped building, and I stared around in amazement.
The structure was immense, but utterly without obstructing columns, the roof being supported by great arches buttressed to pilasters along the walls, and furnished with row after row of long benches of some polished, close-grained red wood, so clear that it shone brilliantly.
There were four great aisles, leading from the four angles of the lozenge, and many narrower ones, to give ready access to the benches, all radiating from a raised dais in the center, and the whole building illuminated by bluish globes of light that I recognized from descriptions and visits to scientific museums, as replicas of an early form of the ethon tube.
These things I took in at a glance. It was the object upon the huge central dais that caught and held my attention.
"Hendricks!" I muttered, just loud enough to make my voice audible above the solemn chanting. "Are we dreaming?"
"No, sir!" Hendricks' eyes were starting out of his head, and I have no doubt I looked as idiotic as he did. "It's there."
On the dais was a gleaming object perhaps sixty feet long--which is a length equal to the height of about ten full-sized men. It was shaped like an elongated egg--like the metal object surmounting the staffs of the pennon-bearers!
And, unmistakably, it was a ship for navigating space.
As we came closer, I could make out details. The ship was made of some bluish, shining metal that I took to be chromium, or some compound of chromium, and there was a small circular port in the side presented to us. Set into the blunt nose of the ship was a ring of small disks, reddish in color, and deeply pitted, whether by electrical action or oxidization, I could not determine. Around the more pointed stern were innumerable small vents, pointed rearward, and smoothly stream-lined into the body. The body of the ship fairly glistened, but it was dented and deeply scratched in a number of places, and around the stern vents the metal was a dark, iridescent blue, as though stained by heat.
The chanting stopped as we reached the dais, and I turned to our guide. He motioned that Hendricks and I were to precede him up a narrow, curving ramp that led upwards, while the three Zenians who accompanied us were to remain below. I nodded my approval of this arrangement, and slowly we made our way to the top of the great platform, while the pennon-bearers formed a close circle around its base, and the people, who had surrounded the great building filed in with military precision and took seats. In the short space of time that it took us to reach the top of the dais, the whole great building filled itself with humanity.
Artur turned to that great sea of faces and made a sweeping gesture, as of benediction.
"Toma annerson!" His voice rang out like the clear note of a bell, filling that vast auditorium. In a great wave, the assembled people seated themselves, and sat watching us, silent and motionless.
Artur walked to the edge of the dais, and stood for a moment as though lost in thought. Then he spoke, not in the language which I understood, but in a melodious tongue which was utterly strange. His voice was grave and tender; he spoke with a degree of feeling which stirred me even though I understood no word that he spoke. Now and again I heard one recognizable sequence of syllables, that now familiar phrase, "toma annerson."
"Wonder what that means, sir?" whispered Hendricks. "'Toma annerson?' Something very special, from the way he brings it out. And do you know what we are here for, and what all this means?"
"No," I admitted. "I have some ideas, but they're too wild for utterance. We'll just go slow, and take things as they come."
As I spoke, Artur concluded his speech, and turned to us.
"John Hanson," he said softly, "our people would hear your voice."
"But--but what am I to say?" I stammered. "I don't speak their language."
"It will be enough," he muttered, "that they have heard your voice."
He stood aside, and there was nothing for me to do but walk to the edge of the platform, as he had done, and speak.
My own voice, in that hushed silence, frightened me. I would not have believed that so great a gathering could maintain such utter, deathly silence. I stammered like a school-child reciting for the first time before his class.
"People of Strobus," I said--this is as nearly as I remember it, and perhaps my actual words were even less intelligent--"we are glad to be here. The welcome accorded us overwhelms us. We have come ... we have come from worlds like your own, and ... and we have never seen a more beautiful one. Nor more kindly people. We like you, and we hope that you will like us. We won't be here long, anyway. I thank you!"
I was perspiring and red-faced by the time I finished, and I caught Hendricks in the very act of grinning at his commander's discomfiture. One black scowl wiped that grin off so quickly, however, that I thought I must have imagined it.
"How was that, Artur?" I asked. "All right?"
"Your words were good to hear, John Hanson," he nodded gravely. "In behalf----"
The hundreds of blue lights hung from the vaulted roof clacked suddenly and went out. Almost instantly they flashed on again--and then clicked out. A third time they left us momentarily in darkness, and, when they came on again, a murmur that was like a vast moan rose from the sea of humanity surrounding the dais. And the almost beautiful features of Artur were drawn and ghastly with pain.
"They come!" he whispered. "At this hour, they come!"
"Who, Artur?" I asked quickly. "Is there some danger?"
"Yes. A very great one. I will tell you, but first--" He strode to the edge of the dais and spoke crisply, his voice ringing out like the thin cry of military brass. The thousands in the auditorium rose in unison, and swept down the aisles toward the doors.
"Now," cried Artur, "I shall tell you the meaning of that signal. For three or four generations, we have awaited it with dread. Since the last anniversary of his coming, we have known the time was not far off. And it had to come at this moment! But this tells you nothing.
"The signal warns us that the Neens have at last made good their threat to come down upon us with their great hordes. The Neens were once men like ourselves, who would have none of Him"--and Artur glanced toward the gleaming ship upon the dais--"nor His teachings. They did not like the new order, and they wandered off, to join those outcasts who had broken His laws, and had been sent to the smaller land of this world, where it is always warm, and where there are great trees thick with moss, and the earth underfoot steams, and brings forth wriggling life. Neen, we call that land, as this larger land is called Libar.
"These men of Neen became the enemies of Libar, and of us who call ourselves Libars, and follow His ways. In that warm country they became brown, and their hair darkened. They increased more rapidly than did the Libars, and as they forgot their learning, their bodies developed in strength.
"Yet they have always envied us; envied us the beauty of our women, and of our cities. Envied us those things which He taught us to make, and which their clumsy hands cannot fashion, and which their brutish brains do not understand.
"And now they have the overwhelming strength that makes us powerless against them." His voice broke, he turned his face away, that I might not see the agony written there.
"Toma annerson!" he muttered. "Ah, toma annerson!" The words were like a prayer.
"Just a minute, Artur!" I said sharply. "What weapons have they? And what means of travel?"
He turned with a hopeless gesture.
"They have the weapons we have," he said. "Spears and knives and short spears shot from bows. And for travel they have vast numbers of monocars they have stolen from us, generation after generation."
"Monocars?" I asked, startled.
"Yes. He Who Speaks gave us that secret. Ah, He was wise; to hear His voice was to feel in touch with all the wisdom of all the air!" He made a gesture as though to include the whole universe.
There were a score of questions in my mind, but there was no time for them then. I snatched my menore from its clip on my belt, and adjusted it quickly. It was a huge and cumbersome thing, the menore of that day, but it worked as well as the fragile, bejeweled things of today. Maybe better. The guard posted outside the ship responded instantly.
"Commander Hanson emanating," I shot at him. "Present my compliments to Mr. Correy, and instruct him as follows: He is to withdraw the outside guard instantly, and proceed with the Ertak to the large domed building in the center of the city. He will bring the Ertak to rest at the lowest possible altitude above the building, and receive further orders at that time. Repeat these instructions."
The guard returned the orders almost word for word, and I removed the menore with a little flourish. Oh, I was young enough in those days!
"Don't worry any more, Artur," I said crisply. "I don't know who He was, but we'll show you some tricks you haven't seen yet! Come!"
I led the way down the ramp, Hendricks, Artur, and the three Zenians following. As we came out into the daylight, a silent shadow fell across the great avenue that ran before the entrance, and there, barely clearing the shining roof of the auditorium, was the sleek, fat bulk of the Ertak. Correy had wasted no time in obeying orders.
Correy could smell a fight further than any man I ever knew.
From her emergency landing trap, the Ertak let down the cable elevator, and the six of us, Hendricks, Artur, the three Zenians of the crew, and myself, were shot up into the hull. Correy was right there by the trap to greet me.
"What are the orders, sir?" he asked, staring curiously at Artur. "Is there trouble brewing?"
"I gather that there is, but we'll talk about that in a moment--in the navigating room." I introduced Artur and Correy as we hurried forward, and as soon as the door of the navigating room had closed on the three of us, I turned to Artur with a question.
"Now, where will we find the enemy, these Neens? Have you any idea?"
"Surely," nodded Artur. "They come from their own country, to the south. The frontier is the narrow strip of land that connects Libar with Neen, and since the alarm has been sounded, the enemy is already at the frontier, and the forces of my people and the enemy are already met."
"I don't know anything about the set-up," put in Correy, "but that sounds like poor management to me. Haven't you any advance guards, or spies, or outposts?"
Artur shook his head sadly.
"My people are not warlike. We who spread His teachings have tried to warn the masses, but they would not listen. The land of the Neens was far away. The Neens had never risen against the Libars. They never would. So my people reasoned."
"And you think there is fighting in progress now?" I asked. "How did the word come?"
"By phone or radio, I presume," said Artur. "We are in communication with the frontier by both methods, and the signal of the lights has been arranged for generations. In the day, all lights were to flash on three times; at night, they were to be darkened three times."
So they had telephones and radios! It was most amazing, but my questions could wait. They would have to wait. Correy was shuffling his feet with anxiety for orders to start action.
"All right, Mr. Correy," I said. "Close the ports and ascend to a height that will enable you to navigate visually. You are sufficiently familiar with the country to understand our objective?"
"Yes, sir! Studied it coming down. It's that neck of land that separates the two continents." He picked up the microphone, and started punching buttons and snapping orders. In twenty seconds we were rushing, at maximum atmospheric speed, toward the scene of what, Artur had told us, was already a battle.
Artur proved to be correct. As we settled down over the narrow neck of land, we could see the two forces locked in frenzied combat; the Libars fighting with fine military precision, in regular companies, but outnumbered at least five to one by the mob-like masses of brown Neens.
From the north and from the south slim, long vehicles that moved with uncanny swiftness were rushing up reserve forces for both sides. There were far more monocars serving the Libars, but each car brought but a pitifully few men. And every car shot back loaded with wounded.
"I thought you said your people weren't fighters, Artur?" I said. "They're fighting now, like trained soldiers."
"Surely. They are well trained, but they have no fighting spirit, like the enemy. Their training, it is no more than a form of amusement, a recreation, the following of custom. He taught it, and my people drill, knowing not for what they train. See! Their beautiful ranks crumple and go down before the formless rush of the Neens!"
"The disintegrator beams, sir?" asked Correy insidiously.
"No. That would be needless slaughter. Those brown hordes are witless savages. An atomic bomb, Mr. Correy. Perhaps two of them, one on either flank of the enemy. Will you give the order?"
Correy rapped out the order, and the ship darted to the desired position for the first bomb--darted so violently that Artur was almost thrown off his feet.
"Watch!" I said, motioning to Artur to share a port with me.
The bomb fled downward, a swift black speck. It struck perhaps a half mile to the west (to adopt Earth measures and directions) of the enemy's flank.
As it struck, a circle of white shot out from the point of impact, a circle that barely touched that seething west flank. The circle paled to gray, and settled to earth. Where there had been green, rank growth, there was now no more than a dirty red crater, and the whole west flank of the enemy was fleeing wildly.
I said the whole west flank; that was not true. There were some that did not flee: that would never move again. But there was not one hundredth part of the number that would not have dissolved into dust with one sweep of the disintegrator ray through that pack of striving humanity.
"The other flank, Mr. Correy," I said quietly. "And just a shade further away from the enemy. A little object lesson, as it were!"
The battle was at a momentary standstill. The Neens and the Libars seemed, for the moment, to forget the issue; every face was turned upward. Even the faces of the runners who fled from a disaster they did not understand.
"I think one more will be enough, sir," chuckled Correy. "The beggars are ready to run for it right now." He gave a command, and as though the microphone itself released the bomb, it dropped from the bottom of the Ertak and diminished swiftly as it hurtled earthward.
Again the swift spread of white that turned to gray; again the vast red crater. Again, too, a flank crumpled.
As though I could see the faces of the brown men, I saw terror strike to the heart of the Neens. The flanks were melting away, and the panic of fear spread as flame spreads on a surface of oil. Correy has a good eye for such things, and he said there were fifty thousand of the enemy massed there. If there were, in the space that it takes the heart to tick ten times, fifty thousand Neens turned their back to the enemy and fled to the safety of their own jungles.
The Libars made no effort to pursue. They stood there, in their military formations, watching with wonderment. Then, with crisp military dispatch, they maneuvered into great long ranks, awaiting the arrival of transportation.
"And so it is finished, John Hanson," said Artur slowly, his eyes shining with a light that might almost be called holy. "My people are saved! He spoke well, as always, when He said that those who would come after Him would be our friends if we were their friends."
"We are your friends," I replied, "but tell me, who is this one of whom you speak always, but do not name? From what I have seen, I guess a great deal, but there has been no time to learn all the story. Will you tell me, now?"
"I will, if that is your wish," said Artur, "but I should prefer to tell you in the Place. It is a long story, the story of toma annerson, the story of He Who Speaks, and there are things you should see, so that you may understand that story."
"As you wish, Artur." I glanced at Correy and nodded. "Back to the city, Mr. Correy. I think we're through here."
"I believe we are, sir." He gave the orders to the operating room, and the Ertak swung in a great circle toward the gleaming city of the Libars. "It looked like a real row when we got here; I wouldn't have minded being down there for a few minutes myself."
"With the Ertak poised over your head, dropping atomic bombs?"
Correy shook his head and grinned.
"No, sir!" he admitted. "Just hand to hand, with clubs."
Artur and I were together in the great domed building he called "the Place." There were no others in that vast auditorium, although outside a multitude waited. Artur had expressed a wish that no one accompany me, and I could see no valid reason for refusing the request.