It becomes an extremely difficult problem when your enemies can assume any shape at will — even that of inanimate objects. Trouble is to short-circuit them into rearranging their atomic structure.
Illustrated by CLOTHIER
FROM BEYOND the slope, a distant murmur shook the ground with pulsating throbs. It came from the gigantic factory which was being built to mark the dawn of the 21st century — the beginning of an age of new mechanical and scientific wonder. The concussion quivered to the very feet of a man and girl who were following a narrow path along the side of the vale. To the man, the rhythmic sound throbbing through the evening air was a song which stirred his blood. Born into an age of mechanical perfection, he still marvelled at the machines back in the factory. So often they seemed more than human, with their precise power, overwhelming strength, yet superb lightness of touch when it was required.
But there was a problem in his mind and he knew the girl pacing lightly at his side was experiencing the same undercurrent of disquiet. Back at the factory, where machines whined and hammered tirelessly, strange things had happened. Of late they had happened more frequently, although there were few things he could put a finger on.
As he wondered, turning the facts over in his mind, the girl turned her head towards him. Her dark hair glinted in the moonlight and her eyes shone from the oval of her face as she spoke.
“I don’t understand it, Duncan.” Her voice was clear and crisp on the cool evening air which stirred slowly down the vale. “Work on the new wing for the factory was going ahead so smoothly until a week or so ago. There’d been no misunderstandings or hint of any kind of trouble. Yet now things are happening no one seems to understand.”
“You’re right, Nina.” Duncan nodded, shooting a glance from his piercing grey eyes at the girl. She was very young, and slender as a sylph beside his own broad-shouldered toughness, but he had a great respect for her intellect. If she could tell him anything of the mysteries at the factory, he was eager to listen. “Yet if the things which are happening didn’t seem so entirely without cause I’d dismiss them.”
He dropped silent, staring moodily in front of him. Far down the end of the vale, trees and bushes made a dark patch in the moonlight. Beyond the slope rose steeply to a glow on the sky-line which marked the place where the new wing of the factory would be. It also marked the place where the only trouble the Construex Company had experienced with its men had arisen. Although they worked under ideal conditions, a feeling of restlessness and fear was becoming visible. Equipment was moved, no one knew why or how things vanished, or appeared where they should not be. And it was the very inexplicableness of the occurrences which played on the men’s nerves and seemed to give an undercurrent of menace.
THEY WALKED for some distance in silence before the girl made any response. When she did speak it was imperatively. She was staring down the vale towards the trees. A look of intense surprise had come to her eyes and she grasped Duncan’s arm.
“Look! Whatever’s that by the copse?”
Following her pointing finger, Duncan stared through the gloom. The grass looked silvery by the moonlight and the trees cast inky shadows. At first he saw nothing, but as he blinked his eyes caught something which made him halt abruptly, whistling. The light and shadow was deceiving, but he could distinguish something which forced an exclamation to his lips.
“By Copernicus! what is it?”
A circle of green light had appeared by the trees. In its centre rested a globular shape, perhaps fifty feet in diameter and of a dull finish. It looked rather like a soapy bubble which had floated down into a pool of light — but he was sure this thing, whatever it was, had not floated down. It had simply materialized. One second there had been nothing but a growing glimmer. The next the globe rested tranquilly there, as featureless and motionless as a gigantic marble.
Duncan groped for words, swallowing. “It must be some kind of a vessel !” Quickly he took in the shape. There was no prow or stem; nothing to show the object might be meant to travel in any particular direction. “It’s certainly not a space-ship,” he continued as Nina did not speak. “There’s no tubes, ports, or anything!”
As he finished the appearance of the globe suddenly changed. Like an eye flicking open, a black oblong appeared in its side. No light shone from within, but Duncan saw with amazement that it was indeed some kind of vessel, and that it had not come empty. For there was a scutter of moving figures from the black oblong, like creatures pouring from a burrow. Before his eyes could follow them they had vanished into the shadows of the trees, leaving a dream-like memory of grotesquely-shaped bodies and limbs.
The the door snapped shut. Like an exploding bubble shrinking to nothing the vessel faded from sight. The green light which had shimmered round the trees wavered, then vanished as if a switch had been turned off. Only the trees and bushes, dark in the moonlight, remained before their startled eyes.
Duncan sprang into activity after the surprise of the totally unexpected. “Come on!” he cried. “God knows what it is, but we’ll soon find out.”
He spurted down the path, stones rattling from his flying feet. Behind him the girl ran, her hair streaming, trying to stop him.
“Wait, Duncan ! There may be danger! Those things will be hiding in the wood!”
He hesitated, then stopped. “You’re right! They’re about somewhere, and may be dangerous.” He considered quickly, adding: “Fetch men with weapons — heat-guns, or anything. I’ll go on. Bring them after me!”
Nina nodded quickly, turning and running back the way they had come. Duncan went on down the path, slowly now, his eyes searching the area where the mysterious vessel had appeared. As he neared the spot trees and bushes offered cover and he crept, senses keyed for he knew not what, towards the scattered copse.
FORMS moving in the deceiving patches of moonlight and shadow caught his eye. He was within twenty yards of them now, but whenever he thought he had one marked down, a second glance showed there was nothing unusual there. Puzzled but relieved, he pressed on. At least the things did not seem dangerous, he thought. And if he waited for help he might miss the lot.
He stepped out from cover, hurrying forward. A moving black shape caught his attention and he sprinted towards it, stumbling on the uneven ground.
His arms grabbed — then he gave a muffled curse. He was holding a tottery old tree-stump which wobbled at his touch.
He released it, gaze slewing round. There was nothing, only the trees and bushes, intermingling with stones and logs. Yet somewhere had been at least fifty creatures!
Voices along the vale could be heard now and with relief he saw a line of men spreading out. Nina was first, breathless and anxious. Behind her came her brother, heat-gun in hand. Duncan shrugged as he met them.
“There doesn’t seem to be anything here now!”
“Then the whole thing seems like a weak joke to me,” said Gael.
The girl turned on her brother, eyes sparking. “You know us better than that! There was something here, I tell you!”
Duncan nodded. “Let’s comb the wood. Tell the men to move in a line straight through.”
With the girl by his side he began to pace forward and the others slipped into position. Questions which had been pushed to the back of his mind by the chase returned. Whence had the vessel come? And why could they find no trace of the creatures it had carried?
“Perhaps they slipped straight through,” murmured Nina.
Side by side they moved on. Rotten sticks cracked under their feet and there was a tenseness in the air. In places torch beams stabbed through the deceiving darkness; in every hand a weapon was ready.
Abruptly, far to the left, there was a shout. It was followed by the rasping crackle of a heat-ray and a purple-red flash seared among the trees. A man was yelling with frantic urgency.
“Quick! Quick — I’ve got one!”
They stampeded left. Hot air left by the ray tickled their nostrils and the smell of scorched wood followed. Duncan spurted through the trees, but the man was standing foolishly, his gun in his hand.
“I saw something move — I swear it. But when I shot all I got was this!” With a curse he held up a stunted bough, lopped off as if by lightning.
Concealing his disappointment Duncan took the bough. There appeared nothing unusual about it and he dropped it to the ground. “Guess we’ve missed them! We’ll get a cordon round and a general alarm given.”
They retraced their steps. “They couldn’t just vanish like the vessel,” said Nina as they emerged from the copse. “Somehow they’ve hidden.”
Duncan felt inclined to agree. But the whole affair had been so sudden, so totally unexpected, that he did not know what to say. A ship had come and gone — but its occupants were nowhere to be found.
HIGH IN the central offices of the Construex Company Duncan stopped his pacing to look out on the scene below. Row upon row of high, well-ventilated buildings met his gaze. East was the new area where more factories were being built; welders glowed mauve and equipment came trundling in relentlessly; a slowly-moving spray-car was painting a new half-acre of gently sloping roof erected since dawn and everywhere was activity. And it was from that area the mysterious disturbing reports had come — reports which had increased with the appearance of the vessel by the copse.
“You’re right,” said a voice behind him. “There’s something at work out there we don’t understand.”
Duncan turned his eyes to meet Gael’s. “Yes, and what exactly do the reports amount to?” He crossed to a file flanking one wall and shot back a slide. “One of the best men disappears. He was happy here and content at home. He can’t be traced. Then there’s a quarrel because 20 XM-unit machines are delivered which the foreman says aren’t wanted.” He turned over papers. “At that date we saw the object in the vale. Then there was a row because another load of XM-units were dumped in the second building before the flooring was completed. And two more men — again the best — vanish.” Gael groaned, screwing up his face. “Those are only the concrete factors of things which are working on the men’s nerves. A nightwatchman reports someone prowling — and there’s no-one there. Machines seem to be moved, kit missing. And it all ties up to just nothing.”
“Or perhaps it ties up with a branch in a copse,” muttered Duncan, slapping shut the file.
“What do you mean?”
“Perhaps we’ll know when Nina brings the information I’ve asked for.” They waited. It was three days since they had seen the vessel, Duncan recalled, yet nowhere had any of its occupants been traced. The cordon thrown round the area had found nothing, and it was certain no alien being could have left the neighbourhood. Yet nothing unusual could be found in the vale or elsewhere. Coupled with the trouble in the factory it was mystifying. Why he had gone back for the stump the heat-ray had seared off Duncan did not know, unless it had been some subconscious prompting which made him feel the branch was not all it appeared.
Soon Nina entered. Her smouldering eyes were puzzled, her lips puckered. “They’ve worked on it,” she stated flatly, “and it proves your suspicions." Duncan felt excitement. “You mean it isn’t just a branch?”
Nina bit her lower lip, hesitating before replying. “They say in the lab it looks as if it had been thrown together in a lump, instead of growing year by year. It’s got every attribute of wood, down to bark and rings, but they say it could not have grown on a tree. That’s all. What it means, if anything, is up to you, they say.”
Gael gave an exclamation. “You’re not thinking it’s a piece off one of those — those visitants!”
“I’m not.” Duncan’s voice was emotionless. “Walking trees can’t be — there’d be no muscles. I thought it might help, but we shall have to take another line.”
“And what do you suggest that should be?” demanded Gael.
Duncan raised his wide shoulders expressively. “For these creatures it’s been a success. We’ve caught none of them, don’t even know what they’re up to, or where. Everything’s fine — so they’ll send more.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from Nina. “And their appearance by the copse has been successful.”
“Exactly! So I’m going to keep watch there and follow the newcomers.” It was probably dangerous, Duncan knew. But when tracing things which vanished like sprites once they escaped observation what could they do? And new visitants should come to back up their forerunners’ success.
A DRAB overall and encircling bushes concealing his presence, Duncan crouched at the fringe of the copse. The red of the setting sun was fading from the sky, shadows deepening and creeping down the vale. Wind stirred through the trees, whispering and pattering the leaves. Duncan felt for his heat-gun, stirring uncomfortably. Could he trust himself to wake in time if he should fall asleep, he wondered.
Certainly it was tiring, with no guarantee anything would happen. He relaxed, wondering about the vessel. It had appeared as if from nowhere, as if slipping from another dimension or time to theirs. And how did it concern the trouble in the new factory. . .?
He awoke to full consciousness of his surroundings with a green light shining through the trees. It spread, luminous and quivering, over the area where he had seen it before. He slipped to his knees, staring and ready for what he knew would follow. Then, in the blink of an eyelid, the vessel was there, a dull globe in the light.
He waited. His purpose was to follow the creatures secretly. The vessel seemed not to rest fully on the earth, he noted, then two doors shot open and his eyes could turn to nothing but the beings emerging.
It was obvious that they were highly intelligent and highly organised. But he had expected that. What made the breath hiss between his teeth was their diversity. Some were squat, some taller than a man. Yet as they slipped out on legs perfectly adapted for walking they seemed to become more uniform, scurrying for cover, their great eyes searching the gloom.
When the last had passed noiselessly by, the vessel disappeared. Then the radiance wavered and was gone, leaving only a rising moon sloping across the vale.
Duncan rose to his feet. Among the trees he could see shadowy forms, all moving in one direction, and he crept after them. Before he had gone many yards he realised they were heading straight for the new factory. So there was a connection! Weapon in hand, he crept on.
They slipped through the copse, up a slope and to the outskirts of the factory. As he followed Duncan’s hand felt for his radio alarm. He waited while the creatures vanished into the silent building, then pressed the button taking his place besides the door with heat-ray ready as he did so.
There was a bare second’s silence, then a siren shrilled from the Construex central building. Automatic lighting flared on, throwing every comer into relief. Men’s voices and hurrying feet echoed through the night.
Duncan advanced to the door; looked through. A whistle came between his lips. In the whole long building nothing stirred. Machines stood everywhere but there was little cover. There were no windows, and as he advanced men came pouring in through the opposite door. Baffled, he halted.
Gael was among the first to reach him. “Where are they?”
Duncan shook his head. “I followed a gang in here — now there’s nothing !’ ’
“Well, they couldn’t get past us!” grated Gael. “They’ve vanished.”
“Things don’t vanish. They just — disappear!”
They walked along the lines of XM-units standing in motionless array . Nowhere was there sign of living thing; the shapes he had followed into the factory had vanished as if they had ceased to exist.
“THEY’VE got us beaten,” said Duncan to Gael later, as they were trying to fathom the mystery. “My guess that more would come— and will — is the only line we have.”
It seemed he was right. The next day the acting foreman who had been working in the new building disappeared. Duncan cursed, but when a report came that through some misunderstanding more XM-units than were required had been delivered to the new factory, something like comprehension dawned in his eyes. He thummed a bell, summoned Gael and Nina, and closed the door after they had entered.
“These things from the vessel haven’t actively attacked us yet,” he said, turning to face them across his desk. “Where they came from we don’t know yet. But we can guess why they came, if not to attack us.”
Nina, swinging one trousered leg from the comer of the desk, nodded, her dark eyes sparkling with understanding. “Because their own locality leaves no further room for expansion.”
“Exactly! And if that is so they must have taken advantage of every possible environmental circumstance — must, in fact, have been able to adapt themselves to every kind of living conditions. An amphibious being would have the advantage over both sea and land animals, being at home in both elements.”
There was a whistle from Gael. Reaching out, Duncan pressed a second push. A man entered and he thrust an envelope into his hands. “See these orders are carried out immediately.”
The man nodded, withdrawing, and Duncan returned his attention to the others. “I just wanted to make sure you agreed with me,” he stated. “Don’t forget creatures which establish themselves in a new field eventually crowd out the old inhabitants if the struggle is intense enough. The Earth’s history shows that a hundred times. These creatures from the vessel have been too successful for my liking so far!”
Gael pursed his lips, his black eyes flickering to his sister and back. “But what was in that envelope?”
Before answering Duncan turned and stared from the window. Already men were moving towards the new building of the Construex Co. Satisfied, he swung round.
“Have you realised there are too many XM-units in the new factory? And the XM-units, being designed to merely reproduce facsimiles throughout the works for reproduction is a smallish machine with few external features. Those orders state merely that a corner is to be cut from the case, of each unit, and those samples analysed.”
“My God !” Gael’s face had whitened. “You don’t mean that — that these beings are so adaptable they’re imitating the XM-units?”
“It seems possible.” Duncan chose his words with care. This was a logical supposition, yet one so surprising he could understand disbelief. “High adaptability required that every advantage be seized — a great advantage for physically weak creatures is self-concealment. A chameleon changes its colour; other things go farther and there’s no knowing where such an ability might ultimately lead.”
Nina moved uneasily as he stopped. “It’s logical — but I don’t believe it.”
“Soon we shall know. I’ve tied it up with the appearance of too many XM-units. And that may be a coincidence. If it is I’m wrong. In that case I’ll wait in the copse again.”
They became silent, each straightening his own thoughts. To Duncan each minute dragged. Would the report show that — that the corners of many of the covers was something other than metal? Would the creatures know they were discovered, or was it only chance that made the facsimile reproducers too numerous?
FROM THE new building men were trouping now, bearing the samples. They passed from sight. Duncan felt himself tensing. Minutes dragged, then abruptly the communicator from the analytical wing whirred. With a finger he could not keep from trembling Duncan flicked up the switch.
"We’ve the report, sir. Every sample is the normal mild-steel compound.”
Duncan bit his lips. The other two had released low whistles. “Are you sure?” he rasped.
“Yes sir. Every sample is the standard alloy. The analysis can be repeated, if you wish.”
“Don’t bother.” Duncan struck down the switch, his broad shoulders sagging slightly. So he had been wrong! Yet in spite of the report, which he would have verified, he felt he had been on the right track.
“So that’s that!” said Gael flatly. “And what about the disappearance of Rhodes — the acting foreman?”
“Lord knows! I wouldn’t give it a second thought with this new trouble if I didn’t feel they related to each other.”
“So you’re due for another session in the copse,” said Nina with forced lightness, moving towards the door. “What approach this time?”
Duncan shrugged helplessly, but he was saved an answer by the abrupt opening of the door. A man stood there. Tall, in a blue overall, his eyes were wide and glaring, his lips twisted. In an instance Duncan recognised him as the missing acting foreman — but something unknown had worked a great change in his appearance.
Rhodes advanced into the room. There was a new arrogance about him and when he spoke his voice held a new loudness.
“You’re just the men I want to speak to!”
“We also,” retorted Duncan, eyeing him coldly. “Where’ve you been? And what is the meaning of this?”
Rhodes laughed without mirth. “Where I’ve been can keep. The meaning is you’re bust!”
“And what do you mean by that?” demanded Gael, stepping forward towards the man.
“Just that!” Rhodes eyed his superior unflinchingly. “Construex Co’s done — and bigger things than the company will go too. They’re unbeatable — and men with sense are on their side now.”
“You know! They’re waiting, but you haven’t spotted them yet! I’ve come to offer terms.”
“Offer terms!” Duncan swore roundly. “They haven’t beaten us yet.”
“But they will!” retorted Rhodes. “You haven’t a foot to stand on against them! I advise you to come to terms.”
“Terms be damned!” Duncan swooped, his wiry arms winding round the acting foreman’s waist. Gael jumped after him and they bore the struggling man down. Then one at each side they jerked him up to his feet. “There’s a pen waiting for you,” continued Duncan. “And if we ever do come to terms with a lot of super chameleons, or what the devil they are, we won’t ask you!”
IT WAS quiet under the starlit sky. Duncan waited, sure that he would again witness the materialization of the mysterious vessel. And this time he had a more daring plan. He never had been one to wait, and now, he felt, was the time to take the initiative. The time had gone when he would curb his desire to be up and fighting.
Waiting among the shadowy trees, he wondered how the creatures had contacted Rhodes, and where they were. His failure to prove all the XM-units were not all they appeared had moved him more than he had shown. And at the same time it had turned his hazy idea to certainty. He would go back in the vessel. Only that way could he reach the heart of things and be baffled no longer. He had a heat-gun, food capsules and a radio hook-up with Gael in the central offices. He would not be helpless.
To reassure himself he put his lips by the lapel microphone. “Nothing showing yet.”
Gael’s voice came back strongly. “It’s almost on the time of the other appearances.” Then there was a pause and Nina’s voice came: “Your idea’s too foolhardy, Duncan. Give it up!”
“Ssst!” Duncan had caught the first glimmer of green through the trees. “It’s coming! I’ll be sending from now on so stand by.”
The light was becoming stronger and he edged towards it. Just as before, it shimmered by the edge of the copse. Then all at once the vessel appeared. Not daring to speak, he waited while the performance of the previous night was repeated. Doors snapped back; dark beings scampered through the glow and into the concealing copse without a backward glance. The moment the last one was out he was on his feet and running. From behind came a shrill screech, but he flung himself into the circle of light. It struck him with a warm, tingling sensation, but he stumbled forward and through a door even while the panel was sliding shut. It fastened with a snap and he was cut off from the world outside.
He panted at the mike. “I’m in!”
“Good. Take care!” Gael’s words were backed up by Nina, but what she was going to say he never knew. Like a blanket falling the radio went silent. Cursing, Duncan looked round. His line of communcation had gone!
The interior of the vessel was illuminated with soft light from a source he could not find. No controls were visible, but the walling off of one semi-circular section suggested a power-room. A glance showed him the chamber in which he was occupied the remainder of the ship’s interior. There was no sound — no seats or fitments, and he wondered how so many beings could crowd into so small a space.
He walked to the centre of the saucer-like floor, trying the radio again. It was silent. At that his eyes glinted — a complete cut-off like that could mean only one thing ! Time travel. He had simply been shot out of the period in which Gael was transmitting.
Minutes passed. He had expected no trouble from the creatures in the copse. This was a semi-automatic service and they could not communicate with their fellows until the next evening. By then he would have seen much — and much would have happened. He scowled, a new thought striking him. How could he get back to Gael in this vessel, when it was crowded with the creatures on its outward journey?
TENSELY he waited. There was no feeling of movement, but all at once the light faded, leaving inky darkness, utter and complete. Then there was the slightest of bumps; with a click doors opened and the familiar green radiance shone in from outside.
“This is where I get off!”
He edged for one of the doors, peeping out. The green light seemed to hem him in, but it suddenly disappeared and the surroundings became visible.
The vessel was resting on a copper dais. Looking up, he saw that above was a huge copper disc, crystalline tubes of unknown purpose leading away from it to a gigantic apparatus at the end of the chamber. Besides the apparatus loomed the mouth of a tunnel, and twin rails stretched from the edge of the dais to it. There was no sign of life, and the monotonously swinging bob of a pendulum seen behind a crystal panel in the apparatus suggested the coming and going of the ship was automatically controlled.
Duncan looked through the opposite doorway, but there was no way out of the chamber visible. The roof was high, supported on feathery girders so interlaced that it was obvious there was no way out for the ship that way.
He returned his eyes to the dark mouth of the tunnel, and as he did so there was a click from the interior of the apparatus besides it. Immediately the vessel quivered beneath his feet, turned slightly, then began to glide along the rails towards the tunnel. Startled, Duncan was about to jump out, but something restrained him. Who knew what colossal electrical stresses might not exist between the dais and disc above, or even between vessel and dais? It might mean death to emerge from the ship, he realised. If not, why was it obvious no living being came into this chamber, where the sphere was despatched on its journeys? No, the crystalline apparatus, the enormously insulated connections and the lack of any controlling being pointed to the chamber being a terminal where inexpressible energy might be liberated. Breathing deeply to remove the chill which gripped him, Duncan remained within the shelter of the doorway.
The sphere slipped smoothly into the tunnel, plunging the interior into darkness. After a few seconds during which Duncan was conscious of acceleration, it emerged again into light. He saw the vessel was speeding along rails on a high, slender bridge of great length. The chamber he had left was in a circular building standing apart. As it slipped away he saw the whole base of the building was formed of some transparent plastic, and the bridge itself was of the same material. Around the building shone a dim aureola of wavering purplish streamers, as if the colossal potential of it caused a continuous electrical discharge into the air.
Soon the vessel began to lose momentum. Giving him a last glimpse of the central building, standing on its insulated base in a mile-wide clearing, it slipped into a second tunnel. Almost imperceptibly it came to rest with the open doors level with twin platforms. Realising every moment was vital, Duncan jumped from the globe and ran lightly across the chamber to one of the open doors visible.
There were abrupt noises the other side of the sphere as he reached the exit. Slipping through he looked back. A body of the creatures was approaching. Of uniform size and appearance, they resembled men closely except for the largeness of their eyes. Yet there was about them something inhuman which chilled him. As he watched, a second group entered, shepherding the others. They moved towards the vessel, their legs making a curious horny rustling as they walked.
“The ship has come back. Change from Regression 5th to Regression 9th.”
Duncan spun round, his hand flying to his heat-gun, thinking someone had spoken behind him. But as he turned he realised it was no voice, but merely wordless sense-impressions beating on his brain, conveying information as clearly as if in a language he had used since birth. With a muttered exclamation he forced down the panic which had gripped him. The creatures had adapted themselves to telepathy ! That was what it meant, he realised. And perhaps they’d pick up his tumbling thoughts if he didn’t keep hold of himself!
Motionless, he watched while one of the beings crossed to the sphere and opened a door which he realised must give into the sealed part of the ship. Meanwhile the second group of creatures was herding their captives into the vessel. Soon the one emerged from the control-room and Duncan felt his thoughts spreading out across the chamber.
“Regression 9th ready. Finish loading the prisoners.”
He watched, fascinated, while the captives were forced inside and the doors closed. Then the sphere began to move, slithering away down the tunnel. He saw it flash on to the bridge, streaking away towards the central building, there to vanish into the blackness of the second tunnel.
The leader of the creatures made a gesture with a metallic-looking arm, his thoughts floating out. “Good. Prepare the next load of exportees for the next trip."
All the creatures turned smartly together and marched from the chamber, their feet clattering hollowly.
Duncan licked his lips, turning his eyes back to the vacant platforms. Where the vessel had gone he knew not — but clearly not back to the copse. That was “Regression 5th.” If it were time travel, then the travellers were being set down in groups at different periods down the ages, each being given twenty four hours to consolidate the position before the next appeared. It had been Regression 5th he had come on, and on that he must return — did he ever have the opportunity!
TURNING, he emerged on to a balcony overlooking the vacant space where the solitary building of the time-ship jutted. For the first time he noticed the ribbon-like bridge was supported on pillars which appeared to be merely columns of purplish light. All round the clearing, as far as his eye could see, high buildings extended. Vehicles came and went noiselessly on bridges tiered one above the other between the skyscrapers. He was, he decided, in the centre of a gigantic city, compact and teeming.
Noting his position, he walked along the balcony. Suddenly he realised that now he had penetrated to the heart of the enemy he could do nothing. He was helpless, outnumbered ten million to one, and every time one of the creatures passed along one of the many balconies extending from building to building, he could only crouch in what shelter he could find. Often wordless thoughts beat into his mind from some being passing near.
“We have received bad news from no regression yet," one of a group near two intersecting balconies was thinking.
Another made a tiny gesture with its compact, metallic head. “ Yes. That is because we are so adaptable no conditions can prove foreign! We can live anywhere where any form of life can be supported!"
“That is so. Perhaps some of the first transportees will be sacrificed, but where they really establish themselves a real colony can follow .”
The group passed on and Duncan let his mind relax from the inactivity he had forced on it. The impressions he had gathered had told him much, and it was backed up by the teeming congestion of the city, where building abutted on building, and block on block, with a score of road-levels between. Every- where the creatures came and went, on foot or in vehicles which moved with only a faint purplish glow behind, as if the same power-beams which held up the great bridge propelled them.
They claimed to be adaptable, he realised. And adaptability to conditions would result in a high degree of survival. That must eventually bring such over-crowding as was everywhere manifest. That would force more variations until there was simply no more living space. Circling the balcony, he saw that indeed the whole visible horizon was covered with a city of the most elaborate complexity, maze-like in its intricacy. Only round the building of the sphere was there vacant space, as if for an earthed object to be too close might cause a thunderbolt discharge, working havoc from its searing voltage.
From one of the doors at a little-frequented corner he watched while two further loads of prisoners were herded into the chamber, to be forced into the vessel when it appeared periodically from the tunnel. At hourly intervals he saw the sphere flashing across the bridge, and visualised its repeated journeys into the past.
Night brought myriads of bright lights into action, lighting up the tracery of bridges and roads, unstilled even now in their swarming activity. Crouching in his corner, he waited for the dawn, drowsing and wondering whence these creatures had come. Were they an alien life-form which had arisen and supplanted man? Or had some scientist created an adaptable protoplasm which could seize every advantage of environment and evolve out of control. Or was it possible some space-ship bearing them had plummetted out of the void on to unsuspecting Earth? He realised he would never know, and slept at last.
“THESE are the 5th Regression transportees.”
The thought, echoing like an unspoken order in his mind, awoke him. On the balcony below a group was passing, followed by guards.
The 5th Regression! That was his!
As soon as the group had passed from view he sprinted round the balcony back to the door where he had left the chamber. The sphere was already resting between the platforms, ready for loading. Creatures were streaming towards it from the opposite doorway and even as he ran Duncan pulled out his gun. He sent a searing heat-bolt scorching across the chamber into the midst of the enemy. Immediately a bedlam of terrified thoughts slammed into his mind, almost halting him. Other thoughts, purposive, giving orders. followed: “A stranger! Kill him! Some of you go round to the other doors quickly!'”
The creatures split, but Duncan did not pause. Instead he raced for the vessel, praying its action was as automatic as he supposed and thinking back fiercely, “ You're scared! Get out! I'll kill you all!” To emphasise it he took a snap shot from the hip. The bolt shattered into the midst of the enemy, sending bodies flying, scorched and writhing.
He sprang to the platform, jumping through the door. The creatures were advancing in a wavering line. One by the exit was waving its arms excitedly. “ Turn off the apparatus! Stop him going. . .!” Duncan shot him down, then flared a wide beam across the chamber and to the other door, where other creatures were scurrying in. At that moment there was a click and he drew back just in time to avoid being trapped by the sliding doors of the sphere.
Then there was a feeling of motion and the whisk of metal on metal as he shot into the tunnel and across the bridge. He felt his pace slowing, then with a jerk he stopped. That would be on the copper dais !
THERE was nothing he could do now, anyway, and he wiped the perspiration from his forehead with the back of his hand. He pictured the giant pendulum swaying; the automatic apparatus waiting to project him through the ages There was no sense of movement now. He put away the heat-gun.
Had he made it? he wondered. Or had they turned off the apparatus before the vessel had been transmitted from the dais? Would the doors snap back to reveal the enemy encircling him? Or to reveal the copse in the vale?
He waited tensely as minutes passed. He had reached the heart of the enemy city, and was, he hoped, now escaping. But that didn’t clear the trouble back at the factory. What would they be doing there? he wondered. Half unconsciously, he turned on his receiver, and was surprised to hear a voice repeating over and over again.
“Gael calling. Can you hear? Why don’t you reply? Gael calling.”
Duncan gave a grunt of relief and felt for his microphone. “I’ve been cut off! See you soon.”
Gael’s reply came, full of sudden relief. “Thank God!”
Then with a click the light in the ship went out. Knowing what was to come, Duncan waited. Soon the door slid open and with a heartfelt sigh he stepped out into the cool evening air of the vale. The green light was all around and he stalked towards the copse, stopping once to look back just in time to see the mysterious vessel disappear on its trip back to the great central tower.
“SO YOU see why they’re lying low,” concluded Duncan. “They’re waiting until they can decide on the best move, and there are more of them. Their attempt to come to terms through Rhodes was only a feeler and they’ll work secretly until some devastating plan is ready. We must clean them out and make sure no more come.”
“And how can we do that?” demanded Gael, who looked tired from his long vigil at the transmitter.
“We can stop them coming and wipe out the whole building I saw. That’ll make Regression 5th, as they call it, so unhealthy they’ll never try it again, even if they re-build! And I’m thinking we can turn their very adaptability to our advantage.”
Duncan stopped, trying to clear his ideas. There had been a branch which could not have grown on a tree. And the samples of the facsimile reproducers had all been metal! That gave him a line, but he could not tell the others. The creatures were near at hand — and they might be sucking up human thoughts like sponges. The more Gael and the others knew, the more chance was there that the creatures would find out and the plan misfire. The decision made, he faced Gael across the desk.
“I want a bomb — any kind, but light and powerful — with a five-minute time fuse taken down to the copse. Then I want the induction heaters from the furnace wing fitted each side the space leading from the new building.”
“So that any metal in the space can be melted?” asked Gael incredulously.
“Yes! Now I’ve a test to make!”
Duncan left the office, ignoring the other’s queries, and took a lift to ground-level. Thence he walked slowly towards the new building, his mind awake with the new knowledge he had gained.
The XM-units, box-like and drab, stood in motionless rows. A slight discoloration on each showed where the metal samples had been removed. But he did not think of that. Instead he tried to keep his mind empty, receptive to the short-range telepathy the creatures had used. Once he thought a mental impression came: “They'll never find us. Our time will soon come!” but it was so slight he could not be sure it was not a wish-fulfilment rising from his subconscious.
But when he had left the new factory well behind he laughed. There were about two score more XM-units in the shop than the previous day — and although he had not ordered more samples to be taken each had its top right hand corner scarred like the others !
“Some mimicry!” he murmured.
Outside, the giant inductors which would make metal run like mercury were being fitted up. Gael approached him, a frown on his face.
“Why the secrecy?” he demanded with impatience.
“Because stray thoughts are dangerous,” replied Duncan. “We must keep even the method of our attack secret. Otherwise the creatures may adapt themselves to it. If they had the chance to do that they’d be practically indestructible.”
“But why these heaters?”
“Because a man can walk between them unharmed while metal is turned white hot from the eddy-currents induced in it!”
“I know, and it’s still as clear as mud!” grunted Gael. “The time bomb is ready, as well.”
“Good. Zero hour is tonight. Have all the men from the furnace wing ready up here. They’re to be ready as if for work — no metal buttons, knives or anything. Understand?”
Scarcely waiting for the reply, Duncan turned across the yard towards the copse. It would be best to look for the right position by daylight, he decided. Then all would go smoothly, provided the creatures didn’t get even a bare second’s warning of what was to come.
LATER, he waited behind bushes with the bomb in his hand. It had been set for five minutes, which he judged was the time of the time-vessel’s transition from the vale to the copper dais. It was a hefty bomb, with handle and button to start the fuse, but as he flexed his great muscles Duncan knew he could do his part.
Darkness came, and a little after the green radiance. He watched it grow until it cast grotesque shadows from the trees. Then the vessel appeared. Its doors opened and another body of the unwanted immigrants from some time strata they would never be able to trace emerged, scampering through the copse to the factory.
When the last had gone Duncan sprang to his feet, running forward. He pressed the button on the handle and heaved the bomb inside just as the door was closing. Then with satisfaction he watched the vessel disappear and the light fade. This would be the last time its controllers would try to sample Regression 5 ! But the most critical part of his plan was yet to come. And if the creatures had time to get on the offensive there was no knowing what havoc they might work.
“There’s been the dickens of a blow-up in the adaptibles’ time station by now!” he told the waiting Gael and Nina. “Everything ready?”
“We follow that,” said Gael, “but not this next move.”
His sister nodded assent. “Why not tell us?”
“Because I dare not — until after!” Duncan turned from them to the waiting workmen. “I want you to go into the new factory and load every XM-unit there on your trollies. A new kind of flooring is to be fitted and they are to remain in this yard until it’s done.”
“A new floor!” stuttered Gael.
Duncan made an explosive sound. “They’ve got to think that for safety!”
The workmen disappeared into the factory and he led the way to where the master switch of the heating inductors had been fitted. He waited, with Gael and Nina besides him, until trollies bearing the XM-units began to emerge. Within a few minutes every one was in the square.
“Never saw so many facsimile machines in my life!” growled Gael.
“They’re not all machines.” . .
Gael swore. “But the analysis proved it!”
“It didn’t!” objected Duncan. “It only proved they all had the molecular characteristics of metal — the ultimate adaptability which gave them the final advantage. But now it’ll be their undoing. It’s a pity a few real units have to be destroyed as well!” And he pressed the master switch.
The result was a spectacular demonstration of the power of induced currents. A brain-searing wave of panic drove the blood from his heart. “We’re tricked! It’s hot — hot — o-o-o!”
The chaotic thoughts shut off. The units on the trollies were glowing red-hot; rapidly they changed to white heat while the unharmed workmen drew back from the scorching glare. Then the metal crumbled, melting down into formless blobs.
Duncan turned off the switch and wiped the perspiration from his brow. The others were white, but comprehension was in their eyes.
“So that’s why the branch was wood, yet never came from a tree!” murmured Nina. “They had the power of ultimate adaptability. It gave them everything — and death this time!”
Francis G. Rayer.
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