It is nine months since we published a story by Mr. Rayer and we freely admit that we have missed his refreshing style and plot twists. As a technical radio man, however, he has been writing countless technical articles and fiction has had to wait its turn. The "turn" in this instance being a particularly interesting item of still life in the form of alien paintings
Powdery sand drifted across the rock walls, obscuring the ranks and lines of pictures. Ageless, unchanging, the painted forms seemed as eternal as the never-ending whisper of winds that had moaned over the Mountain of Narve since the planet began . . .
Chris Batley pushed up his goggles and wiped the sweat from his pale forehead. Fine sand left two rings where his goggles had rested, outlining eyes that were quick and with an odd disparity of colouring. One was dark blue, the other almost white. That, and his slight squint, had gained him the tag of bat-eyed Batley.
"Another mile will see us there," he said
He walked round the truck, which stood with rubber tracks half sunk in fine sand. Eighty miles of desert separated them from the little ship that had brought them to Narve- the Sunspot, four-man scout now resting on solid rock somewhere far in the dust-obscured east. The early part of the journey had been easy, over undulating rock. Then the sand had started. Now, upon rising slopes that terminated in the high peaks of the Mountains of Narve, it was growing less troublesome again.
"Hard rock ahead," Chris pointed out. "Suppose we radio the ship we're camping here at nightfall?"
"Suits me." His companion nodded in curt agreement. "Do it while I climb the rise to see what's there before it's dark."
Chris felt objections spring to his lips, but bit them into silence. The more he saw of Joe Emerald, the less he liked him. Emerald both looked and acted rough. He ordered his equals about unnecessarily, in Chris's estimation, and was lazy himself. Chris shrugged, turned up the dust flap, and established contact with the Sunspot.
"Dawn will see us there," he said after brief greetings. He squinted over the hand mike to where Emerald was toiling up the sandy slope, ankle deep at each step. "We're camping for the night. The light's going fast."
It was Telford's voice. Chris recalled that Telford and Smith had wished to draw lots to see who would go on the expedition, but Emerald had argued them out of it. Two go out; two stay with the ship. That was reasonable. But Emerald's overbearing manner in deciding who should go had been not only unreasonable. but unpleasant.
"Radio us in the morning, or when you've anything," Telford suggested.
The carrier died, and Chris stowed the equipment. Emerald had reached the top of the outcropping. His head moved slowly from side to side, as if surveying something beyond belief. Then he beckoned, gauntleted hand waving urgently. Chris jumped from the truck, scaling the slope with sliding steps.
Emerald continued to beckon.
It's more than old Sam Pullin said!
Chris gained his side. The outcropping gave an extended view over the ridge. Shifting sand had ceased to carpet the vale, and rocky shelves projected from it. Daylight was going, long shadows creeping across the exposed valley. But the expanses of rock which flanked both sides of the vale were still illuminated. Flat as carved tablets, they receded in vast perspective.
Upon them were painted row upon row and rank upon rank of figures, ill-assorted battalions of weird diversity. Tall, humanoid shapes stood- side by side with unimaginably strange creatures of many legs; beings that could have been men flanked those of alien and terrible aspect. There was no pattern, no regularity. Only painting beyond painting, creature beyond creature, receding into the obscured distance.
"Just as well we decided not to go further tonight!" Emerald stated.
He slapped a hip with a glove, and Chris noted the triumph in his voice.
"You feel we haven't come to Narve for nothing ?"
"Doesn't that prove it?" Emerald's arm took in the paintings. "Old Sam Pullin was never a man for lies. And he hadn't the imagination to invent that."
The light was going. The paintings were fading slowly into the dim, obscuring purple of coming night. Chris shivered, turning away. The wind seemed cold. His light left eye twitched, as always when he was under stress.
"You were a bit rough on Sam." he said.
Emerald grunted contempt. "He should have known better than to start a tale like his in my hearing, then dry up when the point was coming."
Half sliding down towards the truck, Chris kept his silence. He had learned that art while in Emerald's company. But it did not prevent him remembering. Old Sam Pullin had perhaps drunk a bit too much; but so did many a returning explorer. He had talked too much, also. So did most of them. But unfortunately Emerald had heard, and had pushed a few of Sam's remaining teeth down his gullet, to get the end of the story. It had not been pleasant.
"I'd have been a fool to let a man like Pullin keep it to himself," Emerald said, descending behind Chris.
"We could have let him in on a share..."
"A split too many is a fool's game!" Emerald spat in the dust, helping jerk out the canvas which covered the truck. Narve was quite far from a minor sun in the Gemini constellation, and nights were chill and often windy. "What's more, old Sam wouldn't have come if he'd had the chance. Something scared him!"
Yes, Chris thought. Something had scared old Sam. Getting enough out of him to locate the Mountains of Narve had fully taxed even Emerald's ability to bully.
They settled down to sleep in the truck. The wind moved round them with many voices, whispering of odd things, stirring the canvas with ghosts' fingers. Chris wondered if it were a good thing that alien rarities were the most valuable find a man could make- and that old Sam had said rarities beyond description lay in the Mountains of Narve. But at last he slept.
They awoke with dawn, radioed the Sunspot, removed the canvas and drove the truck up the slopes towards the valley. Emerald was openly bragging. Chris sat silently behind the wheel, hating him. Not for nothing had spaceport toughs called Emerald the jewel of roughs.
"You're too quiet, Batley," Emerald said sarcastically as they left the last of the loose sand behind. "Even a wall-eyed dog could see we're in money-" His confidence of easy riches had increased his overwhelming self-esteem.
Chris screwed up his lips. Once, he had argued with Emerald. Words had changed to blows. Chris had also lost two teeth, and had been knocked flat while Emerald kept him down with a foot on his back. At thirty, Chris had seen enough of rough-housing to know just what the full treatment could mean.
"If you think me that dumb, why didn't you choose Telford or Smith to come instead?" he demanded at last, stung by Emerald's words. Emerald chuckled. "Now I know why they call you bat-eyed. You can't see what's in front of your nose!" He paused significantly. "Likely enough Telford and Smith will want to see this show for themselves- after we've got back to the ship."
A chill spread in Chris's stomach. His left eye twitched You'd not-- not leave them--" Emerald laughed roughly. "Did I say so? But the Sunspot can be worked by two men. A cut two ways gives twice that of four ways. So consider yourself lucky you're here with me."
Chris's pale left eye glowed. At a pinch, the ship could be flown by one man at emergency controls! What was more Narve was too far from ordinary trade routes for anyone left behind to have one chance in ten million of survival. If one man flew the ship out, it would be Emerald.
The rise flattened, and the truck came upon the uppermost part of the slopes. The valley lay below, clear in the sun. Rank upon rank, the paintings stood silently. Each had an astonishing appearance of sustained life, imprisoned on the rocky walls by some master craftsman.
"That's painting, that is," Emerald said, voice hushed in amaze. " Assuming there's stuff we can shift, it'll make a fortune on Earth. Museums and collectors will bid to the sky."
The truck descended into the vale. Seen near at hand, the paintings were wonderfully vivid. The colours were clear and perfect, so durable that it was impossible to tell if they had just been completed, or had stood for uncounted ages. The dawn wind had brought thin trails of fine dust into the valley, but it was subsiding, leaving the air wonderfully clear. Chris halted the truck. getting out to view the nearer paintings.
A creature with large, round eyes, and brownish skin, stood delineated against a backdrop of tall reeds. It was painted in complete detail. One raised foot seemed about to descend upon the low herbage at the base of the reeds; two six- fingered hands were extended. The creature's mouth was open, as if in speech. Wonderfully lifelike, Chris thought. He studied the face. There was a hidden element of cruelty in it- something he could not quite define, associated with the eyes and lips.
"Ever seen anything like that?" Emerald demanded triumphantly.
Chris followed his gesture. A rounded, four legged creature was painted next to the brown-skinned being. Beyond it was a tall, almost human figure. Next came a full dozen similar creatures, all quite short, and dressed in blue garments laced across the breast. A tall being in some type of uniform followed.
Chris's gaze moved on, and on. Sometimes types were repeated, but not in any regular pattern. And each face was in some way repellant. Skinned or scaled, hairy or clean, all somehow recalled Emerald's expression. Despite their non-human appearance, all had the same spark of personal rapacity, the same greed. The faces were masks that did not quite conceal their owner's nature.
He turned suddenly from the fresco. "Let's get on. It may take longer than we think."
They reached the truck and drove down the valley. Sand, swept over the hills by the wind, had given a level floor to a surface once uneven. At one point Chris observed paintings only a trifle exposed, as if the drifting dust had buried them. The vehicle stuck abruptly, rubber shod tracks whining on something smooth. Chris tried reverse, failed to move the truck, and got out. It was axle deep in dust and the spinning tracks had thrown back loose sand, revealing metal.
Emerald descended heavily, grumbling, hands in his jerkin belt. Other fragments of metal showed ahead, projecting through the sand. Chris eyed them.
"Seems we walk from here," he said. "Looks to me like a lot of abandoned machinery."
The projecting fragments could have been anything. At this narrow point, they blocked the valley to its sheer walls, and pitted circles that could have been wheels stood exposed. The abandoned machinery or vehicles had clearly rested undisturbed for a very long time.
They left the truck standing axle deep in the sand. It was Emerald's decision that they leave digging out until they had explored on foot. Chris regretted that it was the only truck, or other means of transport, the Sunspot carried. Telford and Smith could never make the valley on foot, from the ship, even if they tried. Which was unlikely, he thought. If the truck did not return, Telford and Smith would cut their losses, and fly out, possibly caring no more for the pair in the truck, than Emerald would for them.
A good marching speed could not be maintained over the ridged sand. Chris's food pack hung heavily on his shoulders, and he began to drop slowly behind Emerald, whose giant's strength matched his build. Once Emerald paused.
"I'm not staying in this valley more than one night, Batley If you get left behind that's your fault!"
Chris slogged on, lips compressed, his mind a tight knot of hate. Emerald always brought out the worst in him. Chris let his mind dwell on what old Sam Pullin had said. Somewhere in the Mountains of Narve survived a people who passed down age-old wisdom and knowledge from generation to generation- the Painters. Old Sam had shivered at the name.
"We've not seen - anyone," Chris said uneasily at last. Emerald looked back momentarily. "The Painters?, I've been thinking of them, too." He slapped his lined jerkin. "I can stop any trouble- if they make it!"
A gun, Chris thought. Emerald was armed. And not only for self-defence, but to gain his own will.
"The Painters must have survived tens of thousands of years, Emerald." Chris studied the remarkable images as he walked. "Ever thought that could be odd?"
"No. They're in a backwater. Creatures in a backwater don't need the same means of protection as when there's competition. No one ever got this far before-"
"I'm not so sure. Old Sam got here."
"And ran for his life in fright!" Emerald sneered.
Chris let it pass. He suspected that Sam Pullin had only been following some other man's trail, just as they now followed Sam's.
The valley grew narrow; the frescoes ceased. Blank walls of rock loomed high above, as if awaiting further paintings. A deep silence had crept over them. The air was motionless, compressed within the vale by its sloping sides, which drew closer until a gap only wide enough for a single man remained.
They were twenty paces from the opening when a figure rose behind it. Majestic, a trifle taller than a man, he stood with folded arms. A simple cloak of many hues hung from his shoulders, reminding Chris of a painter's palette. It was, he realised, a symbol of his work. He was a Painter of Narve. He could have been a man, except for the cat-like luminescence and slope of his eyes. They were infinitely sad, kind, yet alive with inner strength.
"We want pictures- curios- rarities-"
The Painter did not move. Only his expression, and his stillness, showed that there was no passage. Emerald unbuttoned his jerkin, and Chris saw he was indeed armed.
"Move aside." Emerald's voice held unease, but also over-bearing determination. When Emerald decided, he acted. He had courage, even if of the wrong sort, Chris would admit.
The Painter's eyes were sad. His lips moved in alien, incomprehensible speech. But the manner was definite. There was no passage. As he finished speaking one arm rose and he began to draw across a metal grille.
Emerald swore and his gun spoke. The Painter's arm dropped; he swayed and sank upon the rock at the foot of the half-closed grille.
"That's what the others will get, too!" Emerald growled Chris gripped his arm, halting him.
"We're only two- they may be hundreds!"
Emerald laughed roughly. "I back one blaster against a hundred paint-brushes any day-"
"But we may not be able to get back this way!"
"We'll make sure we can. I'll go on. You stay here. If anyone tried to close the grille, shoot him!"
Chris wavered, frightened for his own life. "I'm not armed."
Emerald thrust a second weapon into his hand. "I can spare one!"
He slid through the half open gate, eyes alert and gun drawn. Chris watched him go, watched him pass from view round a curve in the almost vertical wall . . .
Half an hour had passed when shots rang faintly far ahead, echoed, fading. Silence returned. Chris stirred uneasily, looking back along the vale for the hundredth time. It was peopled only by the paintings.
Minutes crept on again. Odd that the beings depicted by the paintings were so dissimilar, Chris thought. They could have been the inhabitants of a hundred planets scattered through a score of galaxies. And the ruined machinery back in the valley- Chris's lips grew suddenly white. His pale left eye twitched. It was odd that they had parked the sand truck just where the machinery had stood.
Suppose there had been other vehicles . . . suppose the truck was parked just where other self-seeking explorers from other worlds had parked. Suppose alien beings from alien worlds had come, left their vehicles, investigated this valley . . . In his imagination, Chris saw scores of races driving scores of vehicles, each parked finally- endlessly- where the truck now stood...
A fusillade of shots sounded, nearer, then silence. Chris knew, now, that they should not have come. But it was too late. There had been no hate on the dead Painter's face, only pity. Singularly different were the painted faces on the rock.
Emerald came running along the path. In his left hand he held something which appeared to be a woven casket. In his right, the smoking weapon. Behind him came a dozen Painters, unarmed, but running to catch him. Emerald paused, turning, and Chris knew that he was going to shoot, laying into the dust as many Painters as his bullets would take.
Chris's finger twitched. The motion was half unconscious. The weapon kicked once and a neat hole appeared in Emerald's back. Emerald spun, astonishment and an oath frozen on his lips, then fell. The woven casket flew into the dust.
From amid the Painters came a dim luminescence that surrounded Chris, taking the strength from his muscles so that his weapon fell unheeded. His legs gave, rubbery, and a quietness settled over him.
Dim images moved in the stillness, questioning. Infinitely wise minds probed into his, enquiring, seeking out his motives, Finding his hate, his avarice. He had been with Emerald because he coveted wealth. He did not wish to kill, but had. Chris had killed once before, when a companion had tried to take from him his half of stolen money. A deep regret seemed to fill the luminous cloud, and come from other minds into Chris's.
The motion ceased; the stillness congealed. About him, unknown forms moved upon unknown business, working. Then the motion seemed to cease, to lose significance . . . Darkness had fallen, then dawn had come. The dawn had frozen, windless, locked into endless sameness, like a stopped clock.
Chris gazed upon the dawn, mind not realising its unchanging aspect. Away across the vale, painted forms looked back at him. No wind stirred. Nor did any cloud move in the sky, which was frozen into the stillness of a picture . . .
Powdery sands drifted across the broad faces of rock, thin trails momentarily obscuring the ranks and lines of pictures painted there. Ageless, never changing, they formed part of a vast fresco, durable as the Mountains of Narve themselves. As ages moved slowly on, dust covered a truck which stood like a skeleton upon the sand. Moving grains had long since abraded away every fragment of rubber tread and anything not steel. Dust crept slowly higher, but no man came.
Occasionally, a Painter would pass, bent upon his work, or immersed in reflections upon his age-old knowledge, important because it was his means of protection against the invaders of any planet. Dust trails whispered over the painting of a man, fairly tall, perhaps thirty, slight, with one blue eye, and one strangely white. He stood with a look of expectancy, as if awaiting a dawn which never came. Painters who kept their timeless watch in the valley sometimes looked at him, and at the other rows of figures . . .
Francis G. Rayer