The immensity of space would be terrifying to a lonely spaceclad man floating in the void — what chance of help could he expect from a silent, drifting, alien spaceship, whose crew had been dead a millenium ?
Illustrated by HUNTER
KONRAD opened his eyes slowly, blinking at the streaks of light which met his gaze. His head still ached from the concussion of the explosion, but he knew they were real. They ran in vivid vertical lines from the top of the helmet visor to his nose plate. One, a hundred times stronger than the others, formed a broad band of light. Towards the sides the streaks became arcs, and the arcs circles, pivoting about a motionless, remote speck.
Konrad closed his eyes. Those spots were distant stars on the axis of his rotation. His somersaulting and persistence of vision made the other stars into complete lines. Despite his twelve stone there was no sensation of weight —nothing to show that he was not still, with the whole universe revolving about him.
It had been as quick as that. One moment he had been clambering along the hull of the old Angriffo, anxious to look at the stern tubes. The next there had been a tremendous concussion and the ship had leapt from beneath his feet, tubes flaming red. A dim memory of blinding light and inky darkness had followed, until unconsciousness blotted even that out. Before then Konrad had known what had happened. Everart, second-in-command, had thought it a splendid chance to gain control. A simple entry in the log-book would cover it, and no questions asked.
“1715 hours, 14th May, 1975. First-in-command lost in space when examining tubes.”
Konrad laughed bitterly, his angular face twisted. That was it, he was lost — a tiny, living mote spinning like a top in space where there was no gravity or salvation. He, who had been among the first men to leave Earth.
The laugh echoed loudly in the helmet of his space-suit and there was a hysterical note behind it. He stopped, forcing himself to think sanely.
FLEXING his limbs, Konrad decided he was unharmed. The Angriffo had sped on and the rocket-blast had caught him obliquely, sending him spinning. But it had broken no bones and the suit appeared undamaged.
As he felt himself, his gloved hand touched a thong, and his eyes followed it. It extended outwards from his waist and a few feet away, captive at its end, floated his blast gun. He knew that centrifugal force was retaining it there, and he drew it in. At the other side of the belt his torch still rested in its loop. There was nothing else except the suit radio, useless here. The Earth was too distant and Everart would never reply. The oxygen indicator. under a lens an inch from his nose, showed he had approximately twenty-one hours’ supply. Twenty-one hours to live, thought Konrad.
He must try to stop his rotation, he decided. It was confusing although there was no sensation of movement. Perhaps the recoil of the blast gun would help.
The motion of the stars near his axis of movement showed he was pitch-poling head-first. Stretching to his full six feet, he held the weapon above his head and pressed the firing button.
A blue shaft sprang from the muzzle out into space. The recoil was slight, but it was there, gently pushing back on his hand. The blast-beam did not seem to move, but Konrad knew that to an observer it would appear to be flying round and round like a firework on a pin.
Several minutes passed before the streaks that were stars began to appear less ribbon-like. By quick eye-work Konrad could follow them.
Five minutes later he had stopped firing and was hanging in a world of nothingness. The stars shone unblinkingly, brilliant pinpricks of light that slowly circled because he was now rotating about an axis in line with his body. Konrad did not try to stop it. It enabled him to survey the whole heavens.
There was no moving spark visible that might have been the Angriffo’s rockets. Konrad released a few short bursts from the blast gun, stopping his rotation so that he was facing the sun.
It was brilliant and distant. The Earth had been visible at the time when he had left the Angriffo and Konrad spent ten minutes locating it. It looked like a moon, but much smaller. Nearby was Luna, a tiny marble illuminated at one side.
As he looked at the Earth, the hopelessness of his position was driven home. He could neither save himself nor summon aid. He was adrift in space, utterly alone and isolated. There could be no going back to Earth— ever.
The thought made Konrad bite his lips. It was a possibility he knew every space-man must face, but now it had become reality it was frightening. It was so very different from the rather romantic anticipation of such things, which saw all the adventure and none of the horror.
Never to go back to Earth. He had smiled as he had entered the old Angriffo, waving his hand because he had fixed a date with a red-head. Now that was gone. Everything was gone except life, and that was running out with the oxygen, like sand trickling through an hour-glass which held all the things he loved at one end and the frigid vastness of space at the other.
PUTTING the thought away, he turned himself, taking the sun from view. The movement brought his gaze upon something that glimmered weakly. He could not judge its distance, but it was approaching, floating slowly up, steadily as a piece of thistle-down. The sun’s rays glinted on it, throwing jagged corners into relief.
As it came closer, Konrad experienced a shock. It was a piece of metal several feet long and on one side bolt-heads projected. He knew immediately it had been torn from one of the inner bulkheads of the Angriffo.
Konrad stared as it floated towards him. This must mean the rocket-trouble had been genuine. Soon after the ship had sped from under his feet she had blown up ; the metal piece had been thrown in his direction, overtaking him. That showed he was careering through space at great speed as the fragment must have been given a high velocity by the explosion.
The twisted metal was almost opposite him now, drifting past a few yards away. Abruptly Konrad dragged his blast gun from its holster and took a long shot in the opposite direction. The floating lump seemed to become still, and then to drift back towards him as he overtook it.
He put the gun away. A few seconds later his fingers caught the corner of the metal. The relative inertia of the lump pulled on his arm and he began to turn again, circling round and round on an axis lying midway between the metal and himself.
“Like a blessed bi-luminary !” grunted Konrad.
Holding the edge of the sheet, he took a few shots into space at careful angles. The rotation ceased and they were hanging motionless in space.
Konrad released the lump and let it remain unmoving a foot before his nose. Rather to his surprise he noted one hour’s oxygen had already gone. The knowledge was not encouraging. He should have some definite plan — yet what plan was possible ? he wondered. The Angriffo had already perished, he knew. That made his plight worse.
Soon he found that by turning the metal in the opposite direction he could make himself face any part of the heavens at will. He examined the Earth, too distant for the remotest detail to be seen. It was impossible to judge the distance, but he knew he was too far away for its gravitation to have any significant effect. Perhaps that was as well, he reflected grimly. To crash down upon terra would be a hectic finish.
He turned the fragment and looked in the other direction. For the first time he felt just how immense space was. When one was in a ship, with companions and walls, it was different. . . .
Konrad frowned, screwing up his eyes. Had he been mistaken, or was there some object far, far away to the left ?
As he stared, he became certain that he was not mistaken. There was something — something that should not, by all reasonable expectations — have been there at all.
It tapered to a perfect point at each end and shone dully from the sun as it moved at a tangent which must soon make it cross his path and disappear in the distance. It was perhaps half a mile away and receding.
FOR some moments Konrad could not credit his eyes. What was such a vessel doing here? Every moment it was slipping away, silent as a wraith, into the blackness between the stars. And it was moving rapidly — too rapidly for the reaction of the blast gun to drive him up to it soon enough. Could he jump? he wondered. Without taking his eyes from the mysterious ship, Konrad bent double and got the metal lump under his feet. He had to manoeuvre, balancing his inertia against that of the fragment and helping with the blast gun, before he got into the position he wanted. The long, thin cigar-shaped vessel, glinted faintly, was then directly above his head, and his knees were bent.
Hoping his judgement was right, Konrad pushed downwards with all his strength on the fragment. Its resistance was slight as he kicked it into space, but he knew that he had given himself an almost equal velocity in the opposite direction.
The strange ship was drawing nearer now. No light showed from it and there was no suggestion that any drive was operating. Konrad did not know his own velocity, or that of the fragment which had been blown from the Angriffo, but he felt the vessel was only floating in space, its relative speed lower than his now he had cast the broken bulkhead away.
He drifted nearer until a row of shining discs which Konrad knew must be bolts was visible. The row was broken by an entrance lock. It gaped wide, a circular space like a black well in the flank of the vessel. The ship was large, running to a slender point at each end which gave no hint of the method of propulsion, if indeed there were any.
As he drew close Konrad realised with dismay that he would pass several yards to one side unless he acted quickly. There was only one way to change his course quickly enough — throw something. His hands went to his belt. Which should it be, the gun or the torch ? He would not feel safe without a weapon, yet without illumination he could not see inside the ship.
Abruptly he dragged the blast gun from its thong and flung it with all his strength into space. His course changed, converging on the ship. A few seconds later his hands touched the side and his fingers lapped round the edge of the entrance.
Konrad dragged himself in and turned on his torch. The roving beam showed the entrance was large enough for a dozen men. Walls and floor curved to match the doorway so that he was standing in a gigantic tube. The tube was of metal similar to the hull and a slot showed where the door had been withdrawn to rest. Circular rings ran along each side of the tube about level with his head and he pulled himself hand over hand towards the heart of the ship.
The torch beam showed another passage at right angles to the first. It was circular and Konrad turned down it at random. There were rings along the whole of the tubular corridor and he progressed steadily, shining the torch before him.
After a few yards he stopped abruptly, the breath hissing between his teeth.
In front, bars stretched completely across the passage. They were thicker than his wrist and perhaps a foot apart. Yet it was not the bars themselves, but the way they were bent which halted Konrad.
They had been opened — he could think of no other word to describe it. Opened — just as a strong man would open a space between iron bars no thicker than a pencil by forcing them apart. A gap fully five feet wide loomed between the bars, which were crumpled back at each side like so much wire.
Konrad turned hurriedly and went back the way he had come, alarmed by the sight. The passage was long and progress slow. At numerous points small corridors, each circular, gave off from the one along which he dragged himself. He did not investigate any of them, but kept straight ahead. Several times he looked back nervously, but nothing moved.
THE corridor ran into a large chamber shaped like a squat tube of large diameter. Rings ran along the walls, and near one end there was a raised platform with three circular objects fixed before it.
Reaching the platform, Konrad gazed about. The circular objects resembled egg-cups about three feet in diameter. The centre one was slightly raised, and immediately before it, projecting through the platform, was a single lever. It was topped by a cup almost as large as a basin. Konrad noted the lever was gimballed at its base so that it could be moved in any direction.
Puzzled, he looked at the giant egg-cups. Each was empty. No, he was mistaken. Something glinted in the bottom of the centre one.
Bending over, he took it up. It was a circle of bronze-coloured metal, perhaps six inches in diameter. The outside was engraved with a delicate pattern, intermingled with symbols which he could not understand. The inside was smoothed, like an amulet. As he turned it over, something on his gloves caught his eyes. It was dust. An extremely fine grey dust, flaky and repulsive.
The bottom of the centre cup held perhaps an inch of it. Looking in the other cups, Konrad found they were clean. He drew back, repelled. Whatever the dust was, it had lain there undisturbed by air movement or alien attention for many, many years. What kind of beings had these been ? wondered Konrad. What had tom its way from the cage back there, making the crew panic ? Most of all he wondered what vast stretches of time would have to elapse before nothing but dust remained. Disruption would be infinitely slow unless the body of the thing he knew had sat in that cup was of a sub- stance which could evaporate even in those conditions. How long would he himself last, before time itself crumbled away the suit ?
The thought brought back his own position. Two hours had passed since he had caught the fragment of the old Angriffo, if the oxygen indicator was to be believed.
He retraced his way and explored the side corridors. They led into rooms that had apparently held stores. In one was a covering of dust littered with slender, barbed spikes that might have served as nails or screws. The others were empty. One circular door would not open.
Konrad returned to the main corridor, grasping one of the rings. The calamity that had swept through the ship chilled him, although it had taken place endless ages previously. He looked at the cage, where the bars sagged. then down the long drain-like passage to where the mysterious cups remained. For some reason unknown, he shivered.
After pondering he returned to the large chamber. The three cups looked grotesque. Passing them, he noted for the first time that at each side of the projecting lever was a small conical depression. Nothing else was visible.
Tentatively he put a hand in the depression and pushed, gripping one of the cups so that he was not thrust upwards. The side portion of the platform slid down, opening along imperceptible cracks. Below lay an assortment of controls and cross-bars, apparently forming some sort of navigating instrument. The symbols on the controls told Konrad nothing. About one row of projecting spindles faint rings of dust lay, as if insulated control knobs had faded to nothing with the passing millenniums.
He opened the panel upon the other side of the lever. There were no controls or apparatus, only a screen of some translucent material with a centre hair-line. Dotted over its dark surface were tiny flecks of light; as Konrad watched they moved slowly. At the first glance Konrad knew here was a view of the heavens, provided by some optical collecting system which could function indefinitely.
He pondered. This was obviously the control-room, but where were the controls ? One single lever, with a depression such as these creatures had seemed to find necessary, was little enough with which to pilot a space-ship. Would it be dangerous to try ? Perhaps, but this was not the time to hesitate at such possibilities, he decided. There was barely enough oxygen left for eighteen hours.
The control moved easily under Konrad’s hand, scarcely resisting his touch. He pressed it forward.
Nothing happened. There was no vibration of concealed machinery; no tug of acceleration that betokened movement. Disappointment replaced his excitement, giving way to astonishment as his eyes strayed to the star-screen.
The specks of light were moving downwards, crossing the screen with slowly increasing velocity. For a moment he stared, then he dragged the lever back well past its central position. Again there was no sensation of movement, but the images on the screen gently stopped. After a few seconds they began to float upwards. Konrad hastily returned the lever to neutral.
What forces lay here ? he wondered. What drove this ship through the heavens when there were no rocket-tubes or apparent means of propulsion ? And what mysterious force so neutralised his inertia as to leave no indication of their breathless acceleration ?
THE star-pattern was still moving slowly from their momentum. Grasping the lever, Konrad moved it gently to one side. The pattern began to turn, wheeling slowly so that each spot formed an arc. Then there was a click, sensed rather than felt, and the lever went free. At the same moment a picture impinged on Konrad’s mind. It was wordless and distorted as if recorded on some apparatus which time had almost destroyed, but its purport was unmistakable.
“ You have done well. I am the Captain but can never personally fulfil my mission. You are physically suitable for our purpose, and your action prove you are highly intelligent."
The picture faded. It had been vivid as a dream, and the sense remained, appalling Konrad by its significance.
He wrenched at the lever, twisting and pulling on it fiercely. It moved freely under his hand but without result. Automatic apparatus had taken over the control of the ship — for what purpose he could only yet guess — and the lever was disengaged. The screen showed the vessel was settling to a course heading away from the sun.
Dragging himself awkwardly down the corridor, Konrad gained the port He paused in the circular opening. Panic and the fear of the unknown urged him on, but reason held him in the doorway. If he sprang out into space it would be the end.
Panting, he stood in the opening. A slight vibration trembled through his suit and flashing his torch around he saw the circular door was slowly closing, impelled by hidden machinery. If he waited too long there would be no chance of flight.
As he stared something long and slender snaked out of the gloom. Konrad jumped back, sweat starting to his brow, then smiled crookedly. It was a space-man’s line of a type he had seen a thousand times before. It could only mean there were other survivors from the Angriffo, thrown in the same direction by the explosion.
He grasped a ring and tugged in the rope. At the end a big man in a red space-suit swung awkwardly, a second and smaller individual clinging desperately to one leg. They were barely in the circular corridor when the door closed, shutting out the wheeling stars.
KONRAD coiled up the halyard slowly as the newcomers gained their feet. The big man was Everart; his action in firing the rockets had been calculated murder. Konrad almost wished he had let his second-in-command drift past to be lost for ever.
Everart was shaken, but his brutish self-confidence was visibly returning. He stared at Konrad, all the mock subservience he had shown in the Angriffo gone.
“Saw your torch flashing about and drifted ourselves in with gun-blasts.’’ Everart eased the weapon on his hip and Konrad saw the dark eyes glint as they noted he himself had no blast gun. With more arrogance he continued; “What is this ship, anyway ?”
Konrad shook his head, weighing up the men. Everart was dangerous. The other was a subordinate, overawed by Everart’s bulk and probably not to be trusted. Both had their blast guns and torches.
“Beats me,” said Konrad quietly. “It’s under automatic control. There’s nothing to indicate the destination.”
Something prevented him adding more. The other two could learn for themselves.
“We’ll see,” grated Everart. He slapped a hand on the small man’s shoulder. “Come on, O’Connor. Stick by your boss !”
They moved off awkwardly down the corridor, Everart’s discordant laugh still coming to Konrad’s ears over the suit radio. He shrugged, following slowly. Everart’s manner would change when he found they were prisoners in the ship and there was no way to turn it for Earth.
In the control room Everart was already juggling with the lever. He faced Konrad angrily.
“How does this condamned thing work ?”
“It doesn’t,” replied Konrad evenly. “We’re flying under the control of automatic apparatus. I may be wrong, but I suspect the creators of that apparatus died more years ago than we can count. If so, the end of this voyage will be a strange affair.”
Some time passed while Everart stormed and tried unavailingly to find some means of controlling the ship. Konrad followed them on a careful exploration through the vessel. Blank walls met them everywhere. There was no indication of where the automatic apparatus might be located, or sign of a bulkhead behind which the engines might lie. Konrad had begun to note the passing of time by the oxygen indicator. It showed him there was seventeen hours supply left when they halted before the single locked door.
“I’m going to have a look behind here,” growled Everart. “Stand back.”
He looped a hand in one of the rings along the passage and adjusted his blast gun for heat. There was a tiny star-shaped indentation which could only be a key-hole near one edge of the circular door and the metal round it began to glow from the fierce heat beam. It turned white, then began to stretch like jelly as hidden springs pulled on the door. With a snap which sent globules of molten metal floating round them, the circular panel flew back.
Konrad peeped through the opening. The light from his torch glimmered on a score of tiny reflecting orbs which sparkled and moved like eyes in the dark. With a curse Everart drew back, his gun held ready.
FROM the depths of the compartment the eyes followed the movement. Konrad made out a row of tiny creatures, but they did not advance. Their bodies gleamed like black enamel; their eyes shone vividly with life and intelligence, turning from one man to the other with jerky swiftness. As he stared at them Konrad instinctively knew they were beings of high intellect and reason. Their stillness proved it. They realised the power of the weapon Everart held and their unblinking, crystalline eyes seldom strayed from it for long.
“Is it t-their ship ?” asked O’Connor uneasily.
Konrad looked at the man’s narrow face, pasty-white behind his visor.
“No. They’re too small to even move the lever up for’ard. They’re captives, like us and the thing which was imprisoned back there.” He jerked a thumb down the corridor. “This ship was made for some peculiar purpose I can only guess at. The thing in the cage was not suitable for that purpose, nor these tiny creatures. We are.”
Everart looked back quickly. “What in hades do you mean ? What purpose ?”
“That we’ll learn — if the oxygen lasts,” retorted Konrad. He nodded towards the group of eyes, now watching him fixedly. “They might be clever but they’re too small. Perhaps the thing in the cage was big enough but unintelligent. We’re a balance of brains and brawn — just what this ship set out to find.”
He turned abruptly and began to pull himself back along the corridor. He did not want to confess it, but there was a singing in his ears and his eyes felt heavy. Alone in the control room he examined the suit for a flaw and found none. Yet something was wrong. The singing seemed to be in his very brain, rising and falling rhythmically. His forehead felt constricted, so that he longed to snatch off the helmet.
Near one of the giant cups he stopped, scarcely able to move. He cursed. It was dangerous to feel like this with Everart prowling the ship. He had something Everart coveted and would want to take — oxygen for seventeen hours.
As he stood there, wondering why the pulsating rhythm sang in his head, Konrad suddenly realised the appearance of the control room had changed. Beyond the lever a panel had opened, revealing apparatus that cast a luminous radiance, rising and falling like violet shadows. Behind the intricate tubes and connections an enormous balance wheel moved slowly, as if it had beaten out thousands of years and could continue until the end of time.
Konrad stared, dimly he realised that the rhythm echoing in his brain was more intense when the violet light was brightest. The apparatus itself was beating out this strange, semi-sonic metre, sweeping away his consciousness so that nothing remained but the singing in his head. As his consciousness began to slip Konrad knew it was no use fighting. Here was something he could not hide from or defeat. He had become the tool of some destiny greater than man.
Besides the fused circular door Everart and O’Coimor sagged motionless. Everart’s gloved hand was still grasped round the butt of his blast gun; O’Connor’s arms were outstretched, as if he had been about to scramble down the corridor when consciousness went.
From inside the chamber eyes blinked, staring at one man and then the other. As time passed a movement ran through the creatures, then they began to creep slowly towards the door, their legs finding grip where a man’s eyes could have seen none. In the corridor they stopped of one accord, their bodies tilting in unison as their gaze passed over the motionless humans. They remained thus for several moments, then a wave of uneasiness passed through them as if some extra sense told them of the endless void outside and they knew they could never return to the world which had given them life.
KONRAD’S first conscious thought was to look at the oxygen indicator under its lens. Seventeen hours supply. He could not believe it. Some unconscious sense told him a long, long period had elapsed since the rhythmic vibration had enfolded his senses in forced sleep.
"So you’ve come round."
Turning, Konrad met Everart’s eyes. In their sulky depths regret showed.
“We’ve been awake an hour or more,” continued Everart. “Guess you had a stronger dose of — whatever it was.”
Konrad took that in slowly. It meant some kind of suspended animation had been induced in them. While unconscious they had not breathed. That meant he now had one hour’s oxygen more than Everart and O’Connor. Before he could speak Everart added an oath.
“And those damned things took my blast gun ! Can’t find it anywhere.”
Konrad felt relieved. His difficulties were great enough without an armed tough to contend with. He noted O’Connor still had his weapon, and that the little man watched Everart warily. A guarded truce had come into being between them, with O’Connor sullen and antagonistic, the only man armed. The creatures had known O’Connor was not dangerous, Konrad realised. But he might become so now — if Everart did not take his weapon first.
The thought brought others. The complex machinery was still functioning and if they had been allowed to awake that meant the end of the voyage was near. With a shock Konrad realised gravity was now holding his feet firmly to the curved floor. He looked at the star-screen. It showed a long sloping ramp of dusty grey colour, flanked by low buildings of similar hue.
“We landed some minutes back,” growled Everart, following Konrad’s astonished gaze. “Don’t like going out unarmed.”
His beady eyes flickered to O’Connor’s weapon. O’Connor drew back a pace, hostility contorting his face.
“Don’t try anything, either of you, or you’ll regret it,” he grated.
Konrad shrugged. Brushing past them he made his way along the corridor, to halt in the circular door, which was now open. A great curiosity encompassed him. Was he now about to learn the meaning of that mysterious and rather frightening picture-message ? he wondered.
The ramp stretched away into the distance in each direction. A great furrow lay in the direction they had come and Konrad blinked in amazement as he looked around.
A layer of fine dust many inches thick spread over everything within view.
He stepped out of the port, sinking in to his ankles as if in powdery sand. The dust stretched undisturbed to the buildings. Neither in them nor the higher constructions jutting up behind, perhaps half a mile away, was there any sign of movement. As he looked round Konrad thought nothing could be more desolate. Even the sky was a uniform steely-grey, cloudless and chilling. Had the strange vessel fulfilled its quest too late ? he wondered.
AT the sound of curses and rasping breath he turned. Everart was adjusting his helmet and his voice was a queer mixture of anger and self-pity as it came over the reproducer.
“Damned air’s unbreathable !” he gasped. “We’ll have to keep to the suits.”
Konrad’s spirits sank. He had perhaps sixteen hours supply left. Everart and O’Connor had one hour less.
He made his way slowly towards the low buildings. A double row of tinted windows looked flatly at him. Nowhere in the whole scene was there the slightest movement.
At a gap directly opposite the ship he stopped. His brows rose and excitement stirred his blood. Between the buildings was a trail. The roadway was visible, smooth and pink where the dust had been brushed aside. The trail ended level with the buildings. As he looked at it Konrad felt there was only one explanation — something had come from the buildings behind and made its way to the junction. It had looked out upon the ramp, as if expecting to see the ship waiting there. Then, its mission fruitless, it had turned and retraced its way. During years uncounted it had done that, keeping a narrow way clear through the accumulating dust. The knowledge made him feel very small. During countless centuries that thing must have come slowly down towards the ramp, looked out, seeking the ship, then slewed about and returned whence it came.
“There’s something coming,” declared O’Connor’s voice nervously behind him.
Lifting his gaze Konrad saw an object had just turned into view and was advancing down the pathway it had made. The size of a man, it ran erect on overlapping wheels. Three jointed arms were folded symetrically round its middle and a single pellucid disc near the top faced directly towards Konrad.
Slowly, as if the operating mechanism was almost worn-out, it brushed between the flanking slopes of dust. Instinctively Konrad drew back and the machine halted where it had halted so many times before. Its single eye stared towards the vessel and it turned slowly from side to side. Looking down , Konrad saw endless repetitions of that movement during the ages before the return of the ship had worn a saucer-shaped depression in the roadway.
Then the robot quivered, long-disused mechanisms clicking into action. One arm stretched out jerkily, dislodging a tiny heap of dust which had rested between it and the body. At the same time a second wordless picture impinged on Konrad’s mind. The images were abstract, but somehow he understood. The message was one of overjoyed welcome, relief and thank-fulness.
Konrad smiled against his will. The robot seemed glad he was there ; he felt it was more than a mere machine running to some complicated pattern impressed on its mechanisms.
“Lead the way !’’ he said, pointing in the direction the robot had come.
Behind, Everart plucked at his arm. “You’re not going with that walking tin-can ? If I had my gun I’d melt it to scrap.’’
The robot had turned and drawing himself away Konrad followed. The machine turned right at the end of the road, passing through a door which opened automatically. Following closely, Konrad found himself in a large building. He had expected no other moving thing, either living or mechanical, and there was none.
They stopped before a closed door. Konrad waited attentively, expecting what was to follow. Pictures began to form in his mind, explaining many things which had puzzled him. They spoke of a strange race approaching a state of perfection when further advance would be difficult. They showed machinery complex beyond his understanding and populous cities where life was as near perfect as it could be. Then they showed a split in the race, when one branch devoted itself to mental pursuits and problems and the other to supporting their more intellectual fellows and cultivating physical well-being. Long periods followed until the divergence created two races. Konrad saw organisms that were little more than gigantic brains, cared for in every way by the second branch of the original race. Then he saw an unknown pestilence sweep over the planet, killing the creatures of fine physique while the helpless, immobile brain-creatures remained unharmed. He saw the last survivors of the physical race build a robot and set off in a space ship. Then followed an endless period of waiting, terminating in an image of himself and joy.
HE understood. Some things were not yet clear, but he realised the brain-creatures could not live for ever without outside care. The second branch had perished, so the ship had been sent on a lone, desperate quest, searching through the universe for beings which could save the intellectual branch from death. It had been a long search.
A new picture broke into his thoughts. He knew he was now to be taken into the presence of the creatures themselves. At the same moment the robot made a beckoning gesture and the door slid open.
Konrad found himself in a spotlessly clean hall with tinted windows admitting a soft, warm light. At one side was a row of deserted cups similar to those in the vessel. Turning his gaze from them, Konrad found his attention riveted by something in the centre of the chamber. Although expecting it, he still felt surprise.
A cluster of globes lay in cradles. Tubes and wires ran from them into some hidden apparatus behind. Konrad stepped closer. The transparent globes were filled with a chocolate-coloured substance which pressed tightly up against the container in convolution after convolution. Little tremors and movements ran through the substance continually; near the bottom was a dark mass of rudimentary limbs and organs.
The robot touched Konrad lightly on the shoulder and pointed to one side. There was a strange mechanism of pads on articulated arms. At the same moment an image of himself with the pads pressed about his head and body sprang into his brain. A picture of intricate recording apparatus within the robot followed, then a vivid scene in which the robot and he conversed verbally without hesitation.
He nodded, moving towards the apparatus. It was some kind of psycho-recorder, he decided. After it had been applied to him the robot would understand his language and communication would be complete.
Rather gingerly he took his place under the machine and the arms dropped until he was surrounded by discs. A picture of himself speaking and thinking came into his mind, and he gave his tongue and imagination free rein. As he spoke and thought, the words and ideas seemed to be whisked away, like moisture being absorbed by a blotter. . .
EVERART stood outside the door, looking into the chamber. A few yards behind him O’Connor peeped round the big man’s body; his face was lined and his lips twitched. Not for many seconds was his hand removed from the blast gun. A queer expression crossed Everart’s face as Konrad took his place under the machine and the pads hid him from view.
“What’s happening ?" mumbled O’Connor.
Everart shrugged his heavy shoulders and turned his back to the scene. “Don’t know or care. Our plan is to get out of here. We’ll take the space ship."
“But we can’t fly it,” objected O’Connor.
“Maybe we can find how to. Or that walking can will show us how.” He jerked his head towards the robot, which was waiting motionless before the psycho-machine. “It seems to know most everything. We can grab it and threaten to melt it down if tricks won’t work. The sooner the better, so long as he’s out of the way.”
O’Connor glanced towards Konrad nervously. “You — you’re not going to leave him behind ?”
“Why not ? Everart laughed harshly. “Nothing could suit us better. Just as soon as I can fix it we start back — and there’ll only be two on the trip that way, believe me !”
Everart finished with a chuckle and stood, hands on hips, his brow furrowed in thought and his eyes devouring the scene. For a long time his gaze rested on the motionless robot, as if weighing up its weaknesses and capabilities.
His stance was arrogant and behind him O’Connor drew himself up, drawing confidence from the strength of the giant before him.
“That is all,’’ said the robot. “We shall be able to understand each other very clearly now.”
The discs withdrew and Konrad stepped out from beneath them. He noticed that Everart and O’Connor were not in sight, then turned his attention to the machine that had addressed him.
“You have been very willing and we shall always be grateful,” it continued. “I am glad to speak to you. I was made with many abilities but there are many things I cannot do. Often I had despaired anyone would come. I had looked for the vessel many times before it returned.”
KONRAD thought of the trail through the dust and wondered for just how many years the machine had searched for the ship as it ran to the complicated pattern its creators had arranged.
“I’m ready to help all I can,” he stated. “What’ll I do ? Time’s limited, though.” He cast an eye on his ojcygen indicator. It showed a little over fourteen hours supply remained.
“Why ?” asked the robot.
“Because I breathe oxygen. When my supply is gone I die.”
“Die,” repeated the robot. “That is what happened to my masters' brothers. On all our planet there is nothing such as you call oxygen. We have no machinery to make such things.”
“Then let’s get to work.” Konrad stifled the disappointment he felt. It had been foolish to hope for food and breathable air on a planet as utterly unlike Earth as this one was, he realised.
“Very well.” The robot turned and began to roll smoothly across the glassy, tinted floor. “Follow me. It is a simple thing my masters wish. My masters’ brothers gave me an electronic voice so that I could speak and a brain that could remember all things, but my arms are too crude.” It waved them round and Konrad saw each ended with a simple pincers arrangement. “The ship was gone too long.”
“Tell me about it,” interrupted Konrad quickly. “I’ve been wondering how long it was since it started off.”
“How long.” The robot echoed the words and was silent. Then it continued: “It is best you never know. You could not comprehend. We will simply say it was a very long time.”
Konrad nodded. He knew an immeasurable period had elasped and that if he could realise its full immensity it would form a cloud in his mind he could never forget.
“And the ship itself ?” he asked.
“It took all the manual ability of my masters’ brothers to build it after my masters had thought for many years upon its form. It had automatic mechanisms to guide it if the crew should die.”
And a test to find some creature of sufficient mental and physical ability, thought Konrad. The lever had been that. After the crew had died the ship had sped on, perhaps landing when its mechanisms showed the proximity of a planet, to wait a certain period before shooting off again on its quest. He had tripped new machinery when he had moved the lever; its purpose accomplished, the ship had sped for home. Suddenly Konrad realised he did not know how long that journey had taken.
“How far is it to Earth ?” he asked quietly.
“Very, very far.”
Something in the voice which issued from the tiny grilled opening expressed more than the mere words. In a flash Konrad knew — beyond all doubt — what those words meant. Very, very far, the robot said. Much,, much farther than could be travelled with fourteen hours oxygen supply, it might have added.
“I see.” Konrad licked his lips.
He followed the robot silently. They passed by the globular vessels in which the convoluted substances moved slowly, circling towards the end of the hall where pieces of machinery lay. Konrad jerked a thumb towards the globes.
“What does that — stuff do ?”
The robot turned its single eye, following his movement. “The masters ? They think.”
TO Konrad there seemed nothing more to say. They halted before the machinery. Large parts of it were assembled, but many smaller items obviously remained to be fitted. The robot waved one arm over the mechanisms.
“Long, long ago the masters thought out a machine which would work for them for ever, providing all they required. That was after their last brothers had left in the ship. For centuries I worked on that machine, following their instructions. But my hands are ill-suited for delicate adjustment.” It shaped one of its pincers expressively. “A time came when I could do no more. Nor could I build a machine which would continue for me, or change my own arms to ones more suited. So now the masters wish you to complete this task.”
Konrad nodded understandingly. “They knew how they wanted the thing but couldn’t do it themselves and had no one to do it for them. But that wasn’t the real idea when the ship was sent out.”
“Possibly not,” agreed the robot. “The ship was sent for any beings which could replace the masters’ brothers. The masters knew a time would come when they needed aid. They are helpless.”
Under the robot’s direction Konrad began to assemble the remaining parts. He found it scarcely more difficult than putting a watch together when his outside gauntlets had been removed. Once, as he rested, he saw Everart peer in at the door, to withdraw after a few moments’ hesitation.
After a time he began again, not trying to understand the purpose of the components he assembled, even if that were possible with no knowledge of the larger parts already completed. The robot stood besides him, giving instructions crisply. Sometimes Konrad’s gaze strayed from the work to the oxygen indicator. When the last part was finished barely eleven hours supply remained. He sighed and sank back on his heels, wondering what Everart and O’Connor had been doing. He envied them the hours they must have spent exploring. Yet the robot and its masters appeared singularly harmless and he did not feel justified in causing their destruction by refusing to co-operate.
“I am pleased,” said the robot when Konrad turned. “This machine will provide larger containers for my masters. It will nurture their growth and it can build other machines like itself, or to patterns the masters think out. The masters can exist for always now, without their brothers or the aid of any living thing.”
“But why ?” demanded Konrad, “What can they do ?”
“They do that which satisfies them beyond all else. They think.”
The robot rolled towards the globes and came to rest between two discs.
“What are you doing?" asked Konrad curiously as it turned to face him.
“It is through these discs my masters speak to me.” The machine was silent for some moments. “They are pleased and grateful,” it continued.
“Then ask them to get me back to Earth !” said Konrad.
After a few moments the robot made a negative gesture. “They say they have no use for mobile life. It is a low form which must die from the universe. My masters say that even I have fulfilled my purpose, and that a thing without a purpose is superfluous.”
AS the robot finished electric fire began to arc up and down between the discs. Before Konrad’s stupified eyes the robot seemed to twitch and strain, its eye flashing red and its internal mechanisms groaning. He realised it was being destroyed before his gaze and the knowledge made him spring to activity. Two steps took him to it. With a gloved hand he grasped one wheel and heaved the machine out from between the discs. The flash and crackle of the arcs ceased.
The robot made a few jerky movements. “You have not let me be destroyed,” it said, an odd note in its voice. “I am grateful.”
“I judge they can’t touch you unless you’re between the plates,” grunted Konrad. “Am I right ?”
“Then leave ’em to stew in their own juice and you’re all right.”
He turned about and strode for the door. The thought of the faithful machine — even if it was nothing more — being destroyed had repelled him. He did not want to see the giant brain-creatures, who looked upon mere thinking as the ultimate activity of living beings; he did not want to watch the robot, in case some force impelled it back to the discs and destruction.
FROM behind a flanking wall Everart watched Konrad stride out of the building. In his big hand O’Connor’s blast gun rested. O’Connor’s oxygen had replenished his supply so that Everart now had nearly twenty-two hours store in his containers. An ugly grin twisted his face and he began to follow Konrad, moving silently through the dust and keeping in the shadows which were beginning to huddle about the buildings as the sky turned from grey to black.
Konrad walked on unsuspectingly, the insoluble problem of escape occupying his mind. If he entered the ship he could not fly it, he knew. If he could fly it the ten hours’ oxygen remaining would be hopelessly inadequate. Difficulty had been added to difficulty until this was the end.
The ship, tapering and slender, shone dully on the ramp. Konrad wondered at the powerful creature which had been trapped in the cage, and the tiny, intelligent animals whose horny bodies had not suffered from lack of air. They had tumbled from the ship behind him, burrowing through the dust and vanishing.
“Stick up your hands and don’t try anything funny !’’
The abruptness of the order made Konrad jump. He spun round to find a blast gun a foot from his chest. Above it Everart’s lips curled in a snarl behind the visor.
“I’m going to take your oxygen containers,” Everart continued coldly. “You’ll die anyway, but a few extra hours supply may be all I need.”
Konrad did not move. It would be suicide to do so.
“You’ll never get back,” he said quietly. “You can’t fly the ship.”
“I can try. Perhaps I can persuade the juggernaut you’ve been such pals with to give me a few hints.”
In his heart Konrad knew argument was useless. He might shoot at any moment. But behind him the robot itself was silently coming up, moving with difficulty through the dust.
“Thirty hours’ oxygen won’t get you back to Earth,” said Konrad, one eye on Everart and one on the robot. “You’ll die with blood on your hands but it won’t save you.”
EVERART’S face paled. His lips drew back in a snarl and he raised the weapon, aiming.
“I’ll chance that.”
He had scarcely spoken when a metal arm flashed round his body. Pincers closed over his wrist so that he screamed. A second arm snapped round the blast gun and flung it fifty yards away into the dust. Gasping and cursing, Everart was tossed aside.
“You saved me from destruction, master,” Konrad saw the robot was addressing him. “I am grateful.”
Then its arms closed round his waist, gently but firmly lifting him. Whirring quietly, it rolled up the entry into the ship. The door closed behind it, although Konrad was sure it had touched nothing. It dropped him in the control room by the giant cups.
“Now home to Earth,” it said.
Konrad watched while the machine adjusted apparatus behind a panel. Apparently a full knowledge of the vessel had been impressed on the robot’s mind and it was adjusting the controls so that the ship would re-trace its course. In a few moments the screen showed they were moving; the ageless buildings began to drop below in the gloom, very small.
“You’re forgetting I haven’t enough oxygen to last the journey,” murmured Konrad as the robot finished.
It turned, its eye regarding him placidly. “I will turn on the long sleep during which you do not breathe.” It touched a control and the radiance Konrad had seen before began to rise and fall. “Do not be afraid. I am watching and am grateful.”
As the musical, hypnotic sound began to rise and fall in Konrad’s mind he knew he could trust this machine completely. It had lived so long ; it had felt gratitude and that made it more than a mere robot. Only one question remained in his mind as consciousness began to slip, and he knew he would soon know the answer to that.
Would days, months, or years have elapsed on this mysterious journey ? When he reached Earth he would know. . . .
Francis G. Rayer.
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