Isaac Asimov: Azazel – The Two-Centimeter Demon

I met George at a literary convention a good many years ago, and was struck by the peculiar look of innocence and candor upon his round middle-aged face. He was the kind of person, I decided at once, to whom you would give your wallet to hold while you went swimming.

He recognized me from my photographs on the back of my books and greeted me gladly, telling me how much he liked my stories and novels which, of course, gave me a good opinion of his intelligence and taste.

We shook hands cordially and he said, “My name is George Bitternut.”

“Bitternut,” I repeated, in order to fix it in my mind. “An unusual name.”

“Danish,” he said, “and very aristocratic. I am descended from Cnut, better known as Canute, a Danish king who conquered England in the early eleventh century. An ancestor of mine was his son, born on the wrong side of the blanket, of course.”

“Of course,” I muttered, though I didn’t see why that was something that should be taken for granted.

“He was named Cnut for his father,” George went on, “and when he was presented to the king, the royal Dane said, ‘By my halidom, is this my heir?’ ”

“‘Not quite,’ said the courtier who was dandling little Cnut, ‘for he is illegitimate, the mother being the launderwoman whom you ‘

“‘Ah,’ said the king, ‘That’s better.’ And Bettercnut he was known from that moment on. Just that single name. I have inherited that name in the direct male line except that the vicissitudes of time have changed the name to Bitternut.And his blue eyes looked at me with a kind of hypnotic ingenuousness that forbade doubt.

I said, “Would you join me for lunch?” sweeping my hand in the direction of the ornate restaurant that was clearly intended only for the fat-walleted.

George said, “Don’t you think that that bistro is a bit garish and that the lunch counter on the other side might – ”

“As my guest,” I added.

And George pursed his lips and said, “Now that I look at the bistro in a better light, I see that it has a rather homelike atmosphere. Yes, it will do.”

Over the main course, George said, “My ancestor Bettercnut had a son, whom he named Sweyn. A good Danish name.”

“Yes, I know,” I said, “King Cnut’s father’s name was Sweyn Forkbeard. In modern times, the name is usually spelled Sven.”

George frowned slightly and said, “There is no need, old man, to parade your knowledge of these things. I accept the fact that you have the rudiments of an education.”

I felt abashed. “Sorry.”

He waved his hand in grand forgiveness, ordered another glass of wine and said, “Sweyn Bettercnut was fascinated by the young women, a characteristic all the Bitternuts have inherited, and he was very successful with them, I might add – as we have all been. There is a well-attested tale that many a woman after leaving him would shake her head admiringly and say, ‘Oh, what a Sweyn that is.’ He was an archimage, too.He paused, and said abruptly, ?o you know what an archimage is?

“No,” I lied, not wishing to parade my knowledge offensively yet again. “Tell me.”

“An archimage is a master magician,” said George, with what certainly sounded like a sigh of relief. “Sweyn studied the arcane and hidden arts. It was possible to do it then, for all that nasty modern skepticism had not yet arisen. He was intent on finding ways of persuading the young ladies to behave with that kind of gentle and compliant behavior that is the crown of womanhood and to eschew all that was froward and shrewish.”

“Ah,” I said, sympathetically.

“For this he needed demons, and he perfected means for calling them up by burning certain sweet shrubs and calling on certain half-forgotten names of power.”

“And did it work, Mr. Bitternut?”

“Please call me George. Of course it worked. He had demons in teams and shoals working for him for, as he often complained, the women of the time were mule-headed and obstinate who countered his claim to be the grandson of a king, with unkind remarks about the nature of the descent. Once a demon did his thing, however, they could see that a natural son was only natural.”

I said, “Are you sure this is so, George?”

“Certainly, for last summer I found his book of recipes for calling up demons. I found it in an old English castle that is in ruins now but that once belonged to my family. The exact shrubs were listed, the manner of burning, the pacing, the names of power, the intonations. Everything. It was written in Old English – Anglo-Saxon, you know – but I am by way of being a linguist and – ”

A certain mild skepticism made itself felt. “You’re joking,” I said.

His glance was haughty. “Why do you think so? Am I tittering? It was an authentic book. I tested the recipes myself.”

“And got a demon.”

“Yes, indeed,” he said, pointing significantly to the breast pocket of his suit coat.

“In there?”

George touched the pocket and seemed on the point of nodding, when his fingers seemed to feel something significant, or perhaps failed to feel something. He peered inside.

“He’s gone,” he said with dissatisfaction. “Dematerialized. – But you can’t blame him, perhaps. He was with me last night because he was curious about this convention, you know. I gave him some whiskey out of an eyedropper and he liked it. Perhaps he liked it a little too much, for he wanted to fight the caged cockatoo in the bar and began squeaking opprobrious names at it. Fortunately he fell asleep before the offended bird could retaliate. This morning he did not seem at his best and I suppose he has gone home, wherever that might be, to recover.”

I felt a touch rebellious. Did he expect me to believe all this? “Are you telling me you had a demon in your breast pocket?”

“Your quick grasp of the situation,” said George, “is gratifying.”

“How big was he?”

“Two centimeters.”

“But that’s less than an inch.”

“Perfectly correct. An inch is 2.54 centimeters.”

“I mean, what kind of a demon is two centimeters tall?”

“A small one,” said George, “but as the old saying goes, a small demon is better than no demon.”

“It depends on his mood.”

“Oh, Azazel – that’s his name – is a friendly demon. I suspect he is looked down upon in his native haunts, for he is extraordinarily anxious to impress me with his powers, except that he won’t use them to make me rich, as he should out of decent friendship. He says his powers must be used only to do good to others.”

“Come, come, George. Surely that’s not the philosophy of hell.”

George put a finger to his lips. “Don’t say things like that, old man. Azazel would be enormously offended. He says that his country is kindly, decent, and highly civilized, and he speaks with enormous respect of his ruler whom he won’t name but whom he calls merely the All-in-All”

“And does he indeed do kindnesses?”

“Whenever he can. Take the case of my goddaughter, Juniper Pen – ”

“Juniper Pen?”

“Yes. I can see by the look of intense curiosity in your eye that you wish to know the story and I will gladly tell it to you.”

Juniper Pen [said George] was a wide-eyed sophomore at college when the tale I tell you opened – an innocent, sweet girl fascinated by the basketball team, one and all of whom were tall, handsome young men.

The one of the team upon whom her girlish fancies seemed most fixed was Leander Thomson, tall, rangy, with large hands that wrapped themselves about a basketball, or anything else that was the size and shape of a basketball, which somehow brings Juniper to mind. He was the undoubted focus of her screaming when she sat in the audience at one of the games.

She would speak to me of her sweet little dreams, for like all young women, even those who were not my goddaughters, she had the impulse to confide in me. My warm but dignified demeanor invited confidence.

“Oh, Uncle George,” she would say, “surely it isn’t wrong of me to dream of a future with Leander. I see him now as the greatest basketball player in the world, as the pick and cream of the great professionals, as the owner of a long-term, large-sized contract. It’s not as if I ask for much. All I want out of life is a little vine-covered mansion, a small garden stretching out as far as the eye can see, a simple staff of servants organized into squads, all my clothing arranged alphabetically for each day of the week, and each month of the year, and – ”

It was forced to interrupt her charming prattle. “Little one,” I said, “there is a tiny flaw in your scheme. Leander is not a very good basketball player and it is unlikely that he will be signed up for enormous sums in salary.”

“That’s so unfair,” she said, pouting. “Why isn’t he a very good basketball player?”

“Because that is the way the universe works. Why do you not pin your young affections on someone who is a good basketball player? Or, for that matter, on some honest young Wall Street broker who happens to have access to inside information?”

“Actually, I’ve thought of that myself, Uncle George, but I like Leander all by himself. There are times when I think of him and say to myself, Is money really all that important?”

“Hush, little one,” I said, shocked. Women these days are incredibly outspoken.

“But why can’t I have the money too? Is that so much to ask?”

Actually, was it? After all, I had a demon all my own. It was a little demon, to be sure, but his heart was big. Surely he would want to help out the course of true love, in order to bring sweetness and light to two souls whose two hearts beat as one at the thought of mutual kisses and mutual funds.

Azazel did listen when I summoned him with the appropriate name of power. – No, I can’t tell you what it is. Have you no sense of elementary ethics? – As I say, he did listen but with what I felt to be a lack of that true sympathy one would expect. I admit I had dragged him into our own continuum from what was an indulgence in something like a Turkish bath, for he was wrapped in a tiny towel and he was shivering. His voice seemed higher and squeakier than ever. (Actually, I don’t think it was truly his voice. I think he communicated by telepathy of some sort, but the result was that I heard, or imagined I heard, a squeaky voice.)

“What is basket ball?” he said. “A ball shaped like a basket? Because if it is, what is a basket?”

I tried to explain but, for a demon, he can be very dense. He kept staring at me as though I were not explaining every bit of the game with luminous clarity.

He said, finally, “Is it possible for me to see a game of basketball?”

“Certainly,” I said. “There will be a game tonight. I have a ticket which Leander gave me and you can come in my pocket.”

“Fine,” said Azazel. “Call me back when you are ready to leave for the game. Right now I must finish my zymjig,” by which I suppose he meant his Turkish bath – and he disappeared.

I must admit that I find it most irritating to have someone place his puny and parochial affairs ahead of the matters of great moment in which I am engaged – which reminds me, old man, that the waiter seems to be trying to attract your attention. I think he has your check for you. Please take it from him and let me get ahead with my story.

I went to the basketball game that night and Azazel was with me in my pocket. He kept poking his head above the edge of the pocket in order to watch the game and he would have made a questionable sight if anyone had been watching. His skin is a bright red and on his forehead are two nubbins of horns. It is fortunate, of course, that he didn’t come out altogether, for his centimeter-long, muscular tail is both his most prominent and his most nauseating feature.

I am not a great basketball aficionado myself and I rather left it to Azazel to make sense out of what was happening. His intelligence, although demonic rather than human, is intense.

After the game he said to me, “It seems to me, as nearly as I could make out from the strenuous action of the bulky, clumsy and totally uninteresting individuals in the arena, that there was excitement every time that peculiar ball passed through a hoop.”

“That’s it,” I said. “You score a basket, you see.”

“Then this protege of yours would become a heroic player of this stupid game if he could throw the ball through the hoop every time?”

“Exactly.”

Azazel twirled his tail thoughtfully. “That should not be difficult. I need only adjust his reflexes in order to make him judge the angle, height, force – ” He fell into a ruminative silence for a moment, then said, “Let’s see, I noted and recorded his personal coordinate complex during the game … Yes, it can be done.

– In fact, it is done. Your Leander will have no trouble in getting the ball through the hoop.”

I felt a certain excitement as I waited for the next scheduled game. I did not say a word to little Juniper because I had never made use of Azazel’s demonic powers before and I wasn’t entirely sure that his deeds would match his words. Besides, I wanted her to be surprised. (As it turned out, she was very surprised, as was I.)

The day of the game came at last, and it was the game. Our local college, Nerdsville Tech, of whose basketball team Leander was so dim a luminary, was playing the lanky bruisers of the Al Capone College Reformatory and it was expected to be an epic combat.

How epic, no one expected. The Capone Five swept into an early lead, and I watched Leander keenly. He seemed to have trouble in deciding what to do and at first his hands seemed to miss the ball when he tried to dribble. His reflexes, I guessed, had been so altered that at first he could not control his muscles at all.

But then it was as though he grew accustomed to his new body. He seized the ball and it seemed to slip from his hands – but what a slip! It arced high into the air and through the center of the hoop.

A wild cheer shook the stands while Leander stared thoughtfully up at the hoop as though wondering what had happened.

Whatever had happened, happened again – and again. As soon as Leander touched the ball, it arced. As soon as it arced it curved into the basket. It would happen so suddenly that no one ever saw Leander aim, or make any effort at all. Interpreting this as sheer expertise, the crowd grew the more hysterical.

But then, of course, the inevitable happened and the game descended into total chaos. Catcalls erupted from the stands; the scarred and broken-nosed alumni who were rooting for Capone Reformatory made violent remarks of a derogatory nature and fistfights blossomed in every corner of the audience.

What I had failed to tell Azazel, you see, thinking it to be selfevident, and what Azazel had failed to realize was that the two baskets on the court were not identical: that one was the home basket and the other the visitors’ basket, and that each player aimed for the appropriate basket. The basketball, with all the lamentable ignorance of an inanimate object, arced for whichever basket was nearer once Leander seized it. The result was that time and again Leander would manage to put the ball into the wrong basket.

He persisted in doing so despite the kindly remonstrances of Nerdsville coach, Claws (“Pop”) McFang, which he shrieked through the foam that covered his lips. Pop McFang bared his teeth in a sigh of sadness at having to eject Leander from the game, and wept openly when they removed his fingers from Leander’s throat so that the ejection could be carried through.

My friend, Leander was never the same again. I had thought, naturally, that he would find escape in drink, and become a stern and thoughtful wino. I would have understood that. He sank lower than that, however. He turned to his studies.

Under the contemptuous, and even sometimes pitying, eyes of his schoolmates, he slunk from lecture to lecture, buried his head in books, and receded into the dank depths of scholarship.

Yet through it all, Juniper clung to him. “He needs me,” she said, her eyes misting with unshed tears. Sacrificing all, she married him after they graduated. She then clung to him even while he sank to the lowest depths of all, being stigmatized with a Ph.D. in physics.

He and Juniper live now in a small co-op on the upper west side somewhere. He teaches physics and does research in cosmogony, I understand. He earns $60,000 a year and is spoken of in shocked whispers, by those who knew him when he was a respectable jock, as a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize.

Juniper never complains, but remains faithful to her fallen idol. Neither by word nor deed does she ever express any sense of loss, but she cannot fool her old godfather. I know very well that, on occasion, she thinks wistfully of the vine-covered mansion she’ll never have, and of the rolling hills and distant horizons of her small dream estate.

“That’s the story,” said George, as he scooped up the change the waiter had brought, and copied down the total from the credit-card receipt (so that he might take it off as a tax-deduction, I assume). “If I were you,” he added. “I would leave a generous tip.”

I did so, rather in a daze, as George smiled and walked away. I didn’t really mind the loss of the change. It occurred to me that George got only a meal, whereas I had a story I could tell as my own and which would earn me many times the cost of the meal.

In fact, I decided to continue having dinner with him now and then.

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H.P. Lovecraft – The tomb

In relating the circumstances which have led to my confinement within this refuge for the demented, I am aware that my present position will create a natural doubt of the authenticity of my narrative. It is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of humanity is too limited in its mental vision to weigh with patience and intelligence those isolated phenomena, seen and felt only by a psychologically sensitive few, which lie outside its common experience. Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them; but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of supersight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empricism.

My name is Jervas Dudley, and from earliest childhood I have been a dreamer and a visionary. Wealthy beyond the necessity of a commercial life, and temperamentally unfitted for the formal studies and social recreation of my acquaintances, I have dwelt ever in realms apart from the visible world; spending my youth and adolescence in ancient and little known books, and in roaming the fields and groves of the region near my ancestral home. I do not think that what I read in these books or saw in these fields and groves was exactly what other boys read and saw there; but of this I must say little, since detailed speech would but confirm those cruel slanders upon my intellect which I sometimes overhear from the whispers of the stealthy attendants around me. It is sufficient for me to relate events without analyzing causes.

I have said that I dwelt apart from the visible world, but I have not said that I dwelt alone. This no human creature may do; for lacking the fellowship of the living, he inevitably draws upon the companionship of things that are not, or are no longer, living. Close by my home there lies a singular wooded hollow, in whose twilight deeps I spent most of my time; reading, thinking, and dreaming. Down its moss-covered slopes my first steps of infancy were taken, and around its grotesquely gnarled oak trees my first fancies of boyhood were woven. Well did I come to know the presiding dryads of those trees, and often have I watched their wild dances in the struggling beams of a waning moon but of these things I must not now speak. I will tell only of the lone tomb in the darkest of the hillside thickets; the deserted tomb of the Hydes, an old and exalted family whose last direct descendant had been laid within its black recesses many decades before my birth.

The vault to which I refer is of ancient granite, weathered and discolored by the mists and dampness of generations. Excavated back into the hillside, the structure is visible only at the entrance. The door, a ponderous and forbidding slab of stone, hangs upon rusted iron hinges, and is fastened ajar in a queerly sinister way by means of heavy iron chains and padlocks, according to a gruesome fashion of half a century ago. The abode of the race whose scions are here inurned had once crowned the declivity which holds the tomb, but had long since fallen victim to the flames which sprang up from a stroke of lightning. Of the midnight storm which destroyed this gloomy mansion, the older inhabitants of the region sometimes speak in hushed and uneasy voices; alluding to what they call ‘divine wrath’ in a manner that in later years vaguely increased the always strong fascination which I had felt for the forest-darkened sepulcher. One man only had perished in the fire. When the last of the Hydes was buried in this place of shade and stillness, the sad urnful of ashes had come from a distant land, to which the family had repaired when the mansion burned down. No one remains to lay flowers before the granite portal, and few care to brave the depressing shadows which seem to linger strangely about the water-worn stones.

I shall never forget the afternoon when first I stumbled upon the half-hidden house of death. It was in midsummer, when the alchemy of nature transmutes the sylvan landscape to one vivid and almost homogeneous mass of green; when the senses are well-nigh intoxicated with the surging seas of moist verdure and the subtly indefinable odors of the soil and the vegetation. In such surroundings the mind loses its perspective; time and space become trivial and unreal, and echoes of a forgotten prehistoric past beat insistently upon the enthralled consciousness.

All day I had been wandering through the mystic groves of the hollow; thinking thoughts I need not discuss, and conversing with things I need not name. In years a child of ten, I had seen and heard many wonders unknown to the throng; and was oddly aged in certain respects. When, upon forcing my way between two savage clumps of briars, I suddenly encountered the entrance of the vault, I had no knowledge of what I had discovered. The dark blocks of granite, the door so curiously ajar, and the funeral carvings above the arch, aroused in me no associations of mournful or terrible character. Of graves and tombs I knew and imagined much, but had on account of my peculiar temperament been kept from all personal contact with churchyards and cemeteries. The strange stone house on the woodland slope was to me only a source of interest and speculation; and its cold, damp interior, into which I vainly peered through the aperture so tantalizingly left, contained for me no hint of death or decay. But in that instant of curiosity was born the madly unreasoning desire which has brought me to this hell of confinement. Spurred on by a voice which must have come from the hideous soul of the forest, I resolved to enter the beckoning gloom in spite of the ponderous chains which barred my passage. In the waning light of day I alternately rattled the rusty impediments with a view to throwing wide the stone door, and essayed to squeeze my slight form through the space already provided; but neither plan met with success. At first curious, I was now frantic; and when in the thickening twilight I returned to my home, I had sworn to the hundred gods of the grove that at any cost I would some day force an entrance to the black, chilly depths that seemed calling out to me. The physician with the iron-grey beard who comes each day to my room, once told a visitor that this decision marked the beginning of a pitiful monomania; but I will leave final judgment to my readers when they shall have learnt all.

The months following my discovery were spent in futile attempts to force the complicated padlock of the slightly open vault, and in carefully guarded inquiries regarding the nature and history of the structure. With the traditionally receptive ears of the small boy, I learned much; though an habitual secretiveness caused me to tell no one of my information or my resolve. It is perhaps worth mentioning that I was not at all surprised or terrified on learning of the nature of the vault. My rather original ideas regarding life and death had caused me to associate the cold clay with the breathing body in a vague fashion; and I felt that the great and sinister family of the burned-down mansion was in some way represented within the stone space I sought to explore. Mumbled tales of the weird rites and godless revels of bygone years in the ancient hall gave to me a new and potent interest in the tomb, before whose door I would sit for hours at a time each day. Once I thrust a candie within the nearly closed entrance, but could see nothing save a flight of damp stone steps leading downward. The odor of the place repelled yet bewitched me. I felt I had known it before, in a past remote beyond all recollection; beyond even my tenancy of the body I now possess.

The year after I first beheld the tomb, I stumbled upon a worm-eaten translation of Plutarch’s Lives in the book-filled attic of my home. Reading the life of Theseus, I was much impressed by that passage telling of the great stone beneath which the boyish hero was to find his tokens of destiny whenever he should become old enough to lift its enormous weight. The legend had the effect of dispelling my keenest impatience to enter the vault, for it made me feel that the time was not yet ripe. Later, I told myself, I should grow to a strength and ingenuity which might enable me to unfasten the heavily chained door with ease; but until then I would do better by conforming to what seemed the will of Fate.

Accordingly my watches by the dank portal became less persistent, and much of my time was spent in other though equally strange pursuits. I would sometimes rise very quietly in the night, stealing out to walk in those church-yards and places of burial from which I had been kept by my parents. What I did there I may not say, for I am not now sure of the reality of certain things; but I know that on the day after such a nocturnal ramble I would often astonish those about me with my knowledge of topics almost forgotten for many generations. It was after a night like this that I shocked the community with a queer conceit about the burial of the rich and celebrated Squire Brewster, a maker of local history who was interred in 1711, and whose slate headstone, bearing a graven skull and crossbones, was slowly crumbling to powder. In a moment of childish imagination I vowed not only that the undertaker, Goodman Simpson, had stolen the silver-buckled shoes, silken hose, and satin small-clothes of the deceased before burial; but that the Squire himself, not fully inanimate, had turned twice in his mound-covered coffin on the day after interment.

But the idea of entering the tomb never left my thoughts; being indeed stimulated by the unexpected genealogical discovery that my own maternal ancestry possessed at least a slight link with the supposediy extinct family of the Hydes. Last of my paternal race, I was likewise the last of this older and more mysterious line. I began to feel that the tomb was mine, and to look forward with hot eagerness to the time when I might pass within that stone door and down those slimy stone steps in the dark. I now formed the habit of listening very intently at the slightly open portal, choosing my favorite hours of midnight stillness for the odd vigil. By the time I came of age, I had made a small clearing in the thicket before the mold-stained facade of the hillside, allowing the surrounding vegetation to encircle and overhang the space like the walls and roof of a sylvan bower. This bower was my temple, the fastened door my shrine, and here I would lie outstretched on the mossy ground, thinking strange thoughts and dreaming strange dreams.

The night of the first revelation was a sultry one. I must have fallen asleep from fatigue, for it was with a distinct sense of awakening that I heard the voices. Of these tones and accents I hesitate to speak; of their quality I will not speak; but I may say that they presented certain uncanny differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, and mode of utterance. Every shade of New England dialect, from the uncouth syllables of the Puritan colonists to the precise rhetoric of fifty years ago, seemed represented in that shadowy colloquy, though it was only later that I noticed the fact. At the time, indeed, my attention was distracted from this matter by another phenomenon; a phenomenon so fleeting that I could not take oath upon its reality. I barely fancied that as I awoke, a light had been hurriedly extinguished within the sunken sepulcher. I do not think I was either astounded or panic-stricken, but I know that I was greatly and permanently changed that night. Upon returning home I went with much directness to a rotting chest in the attic, wherein I found the key which next day unlocked with ease the barrier I had so long stormed in vain.

It was in the soft glow of late afternoon that I first entered the vault on the abandoned slope. A spell was upon me, and my heart leaped with an exultation I can but ill describe. As I closed the door behind me and descended the dripping steps by the light of my lone candle, I seemed to know the way; and though the candle sputtered with the stifling reek of the place, I felt singularly at home in the musty, charnel-house air. Looking about me, I beheld many marble slabs bearing coffins, or the remains of coffins. Some of these were sealed and intact, but others had nearly vanished, leaving the silver handles and plates isolated amidst certain curious heaps of whitish dust. Upon one plate I read the name of Sir Geoffrey Hyde, who had come from Sussex in 1640 and died here a few years later. In a conspicuous alcove was one fairly well preserved and untenanted casket, adorned with a single name which brought me both a smile and a shudder. An odd impulse caused me to climb upon the broad slab, extinguish my candle, and lie down within the vacant box.

In the gray light of dawn I staggered from the vault and locked the chain of the door behind me. I was no longer a young man, though but twenty-one winters had chilled my bodily frame. Early-rising villagers who observed my homeward progress looked at me strangely, and marveled at the signs of ribald revelry which they saw in one whose life was known to be sober and solitary. I did not appear before my parents till after a long and refreshing sleep.

Henceforward I haunted the tomb each night; seeing, hearing, and doing things I must never recall. My speech, always susceptible to environmental influences, was the first thing to succumb to the change; and my suddenly acquired archaism of diction was soon remarked upon. Later a queer boldness and recklessness came into my demeanor, till I unconsciously grew to possess the bearing of a man of the world despite my lifelong seclusion. My formerly silent tongue waxed voluble with the easy grace of a Chesterfield or the godless cynicism of a Rochester. I displayed a peculiar erudition utterly unlike the fantastic, monkish lore over which I had pored in youth; and covered the fly-leaves of my books with facile impromptu epigrams which brought up suggestions of Gay, Prior, and the sprightliest of the Augustan wits and rimesters. One morning at breakfast I came close to disaster by declaiming in palpably liquorish accents an effusion of Eighteenth Century bacchanalian mirth, a bit of Georgian playfulness never recorded in a book, which ran something like this:

Come hither, my lads, with your tankards of ale,

And drink to the present before it shall fail;

Pile each on your platter a mountain of beef,

For ’tis eating and drinking that bring us relief:

So fill up your glass,

For life will soon pass;

When you’re dead ye’ll ne’er drink to your king or your lass!

Anacreon had a red nose, so they say;

But what’s a red nose if ye’re happy and gay?

Gad split me! I’d rather be red whilst I’m here,

Than white as a lily and dead half a year!

So Betty, my miss,

Come give me kiss;

In hell there’s no innkeeper’s daughter like this!

Young Harry, propp’d up just as straight as he’s able,

Will soon lose his wig and slip under the table,

But fill up your goblets and pass ’em around

Better under the table than under the ground!

So revel and chaff

As ye thirstily quaff:

Under six feet of dirt ’tis less easy to laugh!

The fiend strike me blue! l’m scarce able to walk,

And damn me if I can stand upright or talk!

Here, landlord, bid Betty to summon a chair;

l’ll try home for a while, for my wife is not there!

So lend me a hand;

I’m not able to stand,

But I’m gay whilst I linger on top of the land!

About this time I conceived my present fear of fire and thunderstorms. Previously indifferent to such things, I had now an unspeakable horror of them; and would retire to the innermost recesses of the house whenever the heavens threatened an electrical display. A favorite haunt of mine during the day was the ruined cellar of the mansion that had burned down, and in fancy I would picture the structure as it had been in its prime. On one occasion I startled a villager by leading him confidently to a shallow subcellar, of whose existence I seemed to know in spite of the fact that it had been unseen and forgotten for many generations.

At last came that which I had long feared. My parents, alarmed at the altered manner and appearance of their only son, commenced to exert over my movements a kindly espionage which threatened to result in disaster. I had told no one of my visits to the tomb, having guarded my secret purpose with religious zeal since childhood; but now I was forced to exercise care in threading the mazes of the wooded hollow, that I might throw off a possible pursuer. My key to the vault I kept suspended from a cord about my neck, its presence known only to me. I never carried out of the sepulcher any of the things I came upon whilst within its walls.

One morning as I emerged from the damp tomb and fastened the chain of the portal with none too steady hand, I beheld in an adjacent thicket the dreaded face of a watcher. Surely the end was near; for my bower was discovered, and the objective of my nocturnal journeys revealed. The man did not accost me, so I hastened home in an effort to overhear what he might report to my careworn father. Were my sojourns beyond the chained door about to be proclaimed to the world? Imagine my delighted astonishment on hearing the spy inform my parent in a cautious whisper that I had spent the night in the bower outside the tomb; my sleep-filmed eyes fixed upon the crevice where the padlocked portal stood ajar! By what miracle had the watcher been thus deluded? I was now convinced that a supernatural agency protected me. Made bold by this heaven-sent circumstance, I began to resume perfect openness in going to the vault; confident that no one could witness my entrance. For a week I tasted to the full joys of that charnel conviviality which I must not describe, when the thing happened, and I was borne away to this accursed abode of sorrow and monotony.

I should not have ventured out that night; for the taint of thunder was in the clouds, and a hellish phosphoresence rose from the rank swamp at the bottom of the hollow. The call of the dead, too, was different. Instead of the hillside tomb, it was the charred cellar on the crest of the slope whose presiding demon beckoned to me with unseen fingers. As I emerged from an intervening grove upon the plain before the ruin. I beheld in the misty moonlight a thing I had always vaguely expected. The mansion, gone for a century, once more reared its stately height to the raptured vision; every window ablaze with the splendor of many candles. Up the long drive rolled the coaches of the Boston gentry, whilst on foot came a numerous assemblage of powdered exquisites from the neighboring mansions. With this throng I mingled, though I knew I belonged with the hosts rather than with the guests. Inside the hall were music, laughter, and wine on every hand. Several faces I recognized; though I should have known them better had they been shriveled or eaten away by death and decomposition. Amidst a wild and reckless throng I was the wildest and most abandoned. Gay blasphemy poured in torrents from my lips, and in shocking sallies I heeded no law of God, or nature.

Suddenly a peal of thunder, resonant even above the din of the swinish revelry, clave the very roof and laid a hush of fear upon the boisterous company. Red tongues of flame and searing gusts of heat engulfed the house; and the roysterers, struck with terror at the descent of a calamity which seemed to transcend the bounds of unguided nature, fled shrieking into the night. I alone remained, riveted to my seat by a groveling fear which I had never felt before. And then a second horror took possession of my soul. Burnt alive to ashes, my body dispersed by the four winds, I might never lie in the tomb of the Hydesi Was not my coffin prepared for me? Had I not a right to rest till eternity amongst the descendants of Sir Geoffrey Hyde? Aye! I would claim my heritage of death, even though my soul go seeking through the ages for another corporeal tenement to represent it on that vacant slab in the alcove of the vault. Jervas Hyde should never share the sad fate of Palinurus!

As the phantom of the burning house faded, I found myself screaming and struggling madly in the arms of two men, one of whom was the spy who had followed me to the tomb. Rain was pouring down in torrents, and upon the southern horizon were flashes of lightning that had so lately passed over our heads. My father, his face lined with sorrow, stood by as I shouted my demands to be laid within the tomb, frequently admonishing my captors to treat me as gently as they could. A blackened circle on the floor of the ruined cellar told of a violent stroke from the heavens; and from this spot a group of curious villagers with lanterns were prying a small box of antique workmanship, which the thunderbolt had brought to light.

Ceasing my futile and now objectless writhing, I watched the spectators as they viewed the treasure-trove, and was permitted to share in their discoveries. The box, whose fastenings were broken by the stroke which had unearthed it, contained many papers and objects of value, but I had eyes for one thing alone. It was the porcelain miniature of a young man in a smartly curled bag-wig, and bore the initials ‘J. H.’ The face was such that as I gazed, I might well have been studying my mirror.

On the following day I was brought to this room with the barred windows, but I have been kept informed of certain things through an aged and simple-minded servitor, for whom I bore a fondness in infancy, and who, like me, loves the churchyard. What I have dared relate of my experiences within the vault has brought me only pitying smiles. My father, who visits me frequently, declares that at no time did I pass the chained portal, and swears that the rusted padlock had not been touched for fifty years when he examined it. He even says that all the village knew of my journeys to the tomb, and that I was often watched as I slept in the bower outside the grim facade, my half-open eyes fixed on the crevice that leads to the interior. Against these assertions I have no tangible proof to offer, since my key to the padlock was lost in the struggle on that night of horrors. The strange things of the past which I have learned during those nocturnal meetings with the dead he dismisses as the fruits of my lifelong and omnivorous browsing amongst the ancient volumes of the family library. Had it not been for my old servant Hiram, I should have by this time become quite convinced of my madness.

But Hiram, loyal to the last, has held faith in me, and has done that which impels me to make public at least part of my story. A week ago he burst open the lock which chains the door of the tomb perpetually ajar, and descended with a lantern into the murky depths. On a slab in an alcove he found an old but empty coffin whose tarnished plate bears the single word: Jervas. In that coffin and in that vault they have promised me I shall be buried.

Dan Simmons – Metastasis

On the day Louis Steig received a call from his sister saying that their mother had collapsed and been admitted to a Denver hospital with a diagnosis of cancer, he promptly jumped into his Camaro, headed for Denver at high speed, hit a patch of black ice on the Boulder Turnpike, flipped his car seven times, and ended up in a coma from a fractured skull and a severe concussion. He was unconscious for nine days. When he awoke he was told that a minute sliver of bone had actually penetrated the left frontal lobe of his brain. He remained hospitalized for eighteen more days, not even in the same hospital as his mother, and when he left it was with a headache worse than anything he had ever imagined, blurred vision, word from the doctors that there was a serious chance that some brain damage had been suffered, and news from his sister that their mother’s cancer was terminal and in its final stages.

The worst had not yet begun.

It was three more days before Louis was able to visit his mother. His headaches remained and his vision retained a slightly blurred quality, as with a television channel poorly tuned, but the bouts of blinding pain and uncontrolled vomiting had passed. His sister Lee drove and his fiancée Debbie accompanied him on the twenty mile ride from Boulder to Denver General Hospital.

“She sleeps most of the time but it’s mostly the drugs,” said Lee. “They keep her heavily sedated. She probably won’t recognize you even if she is awake.” “I understand,” said Louis.

“The doctors say that she must have felt the lump … understood what the pain meant… for at least a year. If she had only … It would have meant losing her breast even then, probably both of them, but they might have been able to…” Lee took a deep breath. “I was with her all morning. I just can’t … can’t go back up there again today,

Louis. I hope you understand.”

“Yes,” said Louis.

“Do you want me to go in with you?” asked Debbie.

“No,” said Louis.

Louis sat holding his mother’s hand for almost an hour. It seemed to him that the sleeping woman on the bed was a stranger. Even through the slight blurring of his sight, he knew that she looked twenty years older than the person he had known; her skin was gray and sallow, her hands were heavily veined and bruised from IVs, her arms lacked any muscle tone, and her body under the hospital gown looked shrunken and concave. A bad smell surrounded her. Louis stayed thirty minutes beyond the end of visiting hours and left only when his headaches threatened to return in full force. His mother remained asleep. Louis squeezed the rough hand, kissed her on the forehead, and rose to go.

He was almost out of the room when he glanced at the mirror and saw movement.

His mother continued to sleep but someone was sitting in the chair Louis had just vacated. He wheeled around.

The chair was empty.

Louis’s headache flared like the thrust of a heated wire behind his left eye. He turned back to the mirror, moving his head slowly so as not to exacerbate the pain and vertigo. The image in the mirror was more clear than his vision had been for days. Something was sitting in the chair he had just vacated.

Louis blinked and moved closer to the wall mirror, squinting slightly to resolve the image. The figure on the chair was somewhat misty, slightly diffuse against a more focused background, but there was no denying the reality and solidity of it. At first

Louis thought it was a child, the form was small and frail, the size of an emaciated ten-year-old, but then he leaned closer to the mirror, squinted through the haze of his headache, and all thoughts of children fled.

The small figure leaning over his mother had a large, shaven head perched on a thin neck and even thinner body. Its skin was white, not flesh white but paper white, fish-belly white, and the arms were skin and tendon wrapped tightly around long bone. The hands were pale and enormous, fingers at least six inches long, and as Louis watched they unfolded and hovered over his mother’s bed-clothes. As Louis squinted he realized that the figure’s head was not shaven but simply hairless, he could see veins through the translucent flesh, and the skull was disturbingly broad, brachycephalic, and so out of proportion with the body that the sight of it made him think of photographs of embryos and fetuses. As if in response to this thought, the thing’s head began to oscillate slowly as if the long, thin neck could no longer support its weight. Louis thought of a snake closing on its prey.

Louis could do nothing but stare at the image of pale flesh, sharp bone and bruise-colored shadows. He thought fleetingly of concentration camp inmates shuffling to the wire, of week-dead corpses floating to the surface like inflatable things made of rotted white rubber. This was worse.

It had no ears. A rimmed, ragged hole with reddened flanges of flesh opened directly into the misshapen skull. The eyes were bruised holes, sunken blue-black sockets in which someone had set two yellowed marbles as a joke. There were no eyelids. The eyes were obviously blind, clouded with yellow cataracts so thick that Louis could see layers of striated mucus. Yet they darted to and fro purposefully, a predator’s darting, lurking glare, as the great head moved closer to his mother’s sleeping form.

In its own way, Louis realized, the thing could see.

Louis whirled around, opened his mouth to shout, took two steps toward the bed and the suddenly empty chair, stopped with fists clenched, mouth still straining with his silent scream, and turned back to the mirror.

The thing had no mouth as such, no lips, but under the long, thin nose the bones of cheeks and jaw seemed to flow forward under white flesh to form a funnel, a long tapered snout of muscle and cartilage which ended in a perfectly round opening that pulsed slightly as pale-pink sphincter muscles around the inner rim expanded and contracted with the creature’s breath or pulse. Louis staggered and grasped the back of an empty chair, closing his eyes, weak with waves of headache pain and sudden nausea. He was sure that nothing could be more obscene than what he had just seen.

Louis opened his eyes and realized that he was wrong.

The thing had slowly, almost lovingly, pulled down the thin blanket and top sheet which covered Louis’s mother. Now it lowered its misshapen head over his mother’s chest until the opening of that obscene proboscis was scant inches away from the faded blue-flower print of her hospital gown. Something appeared in the flesh-rimmed opening, something gray-green, segmented, and moist. Small, fleshy antennae tested the air. The great, white head bent lower, cartilage and muscle contracted, and a five-inch slug was slowly extruded, wiggling slightly as it hung above Louis’s mother.

Louis threw his head back in a scream that finally could be heard, tried to turn, tried to remove his hands from their death grip on the back of the empty chair, tried to look away from the mirror. And could not.

Under the slug’s polyps of antennae was a face that was all mouth, the feeding orifice of some deep-sea parasite. It pulsed as the moist slug fell softly onto his mother’s chest, coiled, writhed, and burrowed quickly away from the light. Into his mother.

The thing left no mark, no trail, not even a hole in the hospital gown. Louis could see the slightest ripple of flesh as the slug disappeared under the pale flesh of his mother’s chest.

The white head of the child-thing pulled back, the yellow eyes stared directly at Louis through the mirror, and then the face lowered to his mother’s flesh again. A second slug appeared, dropped, burrowed. A third.

Louis screamed again, found freedom from paralysis, turned, ran to the bed and the apparently empty chair, thrashed the air, kicked the chair into a distant corner, and ripped the sheet and blanket and gown away from his mother.

Two nurses and an attendant came running as they heard Louis’s screams. They burst into the room to find him crouched over his mother’s naked form, his nails clawing at her scarred and shrunken chest where the surgeons had recently removed both breasts. After a moment of shocked immobility, one nurse and the attendant seized and held Louis while the other nurse filled a syringe with a strong tranquilizer.

But before she could administer it, Louis looked in the mirror, pointed to a space near the opposite side of the bed, screamed a final time, and fainted.

“It’s perfectly natural,” said Lee the next day after their second trip to the Boulder Clinic. “A perfectly understandable reaction.”

“Yes,” said Louis. He stood in his pajamas and watched her fold back the top sheet on his bed.

“Dr. Kirby says that injuries to that part of the brain can cause strange emotional reactions,” said Debbie from her place by the window. “Sort of like whatshisname … Reagan’s press secretary who was shot years ago, only temporary, of course.”

“Yeah,” said Louis, lying back, settling his head into the tall stack of pillows. There was a mirror on the wall opposite. His gaze never left it.

“Mom was awake for a while this morning,” said Lee. “Really awake. I told her you’d been in to see her. She doesn’t … doesn’t remember your visit, of course. She wants to see you.”

“Maybe tomorrow,” said Louis. The mirror showed the reversed images of the three of them. Just the three of them. Sunlight fell in a yellow band across Debbie’s red hair and Lee’s arm. The pillowcases behind Louis’s head were very white.

“Tomorrow,” agreed Lee. “Or maybe the day after. Right now you need to take some of the medication Dr. Kirby gave you and get some sleep. We can go visit Mom together when you feel better.”

“Tomorrow,” said Louis, and he closed his eyes.

He stayed in bed for six days, rising only to go to the bathroom or to change channels on his portable TV. The headaches were constant but manageable. He saw nothing unusual in the mirror. On the seventh day he rose about ten A.M., showered slowly, dressed in his camel slacks, white shirt, and blue blazer, and was prepared to tell Lee that he was ready to visit the hospital when his sister came into the room red-eyed.

“They just called,” she said. “Mother died about twenty minutes ago.”

The funeral home was about two blocks from where his mother had lived, where Louis had grown up after they had moved from Des Moines when he was ten, just east of the Capitol Hill area where old brick homes were becoming rundown rentals and where Hispanic street gangs had claimed the night.

According to his mother’s wishes there would be a “visitation” this night where Denver friends could pay their respects before the casket was flown back to Des Moines the next day for the funeral Mass at St. Mary’s and final interment at the small city cemetery where Louis’s father was buried. Louis thought that the open casket was an archaic act of barbarism. He stayed as far away from it as he could, greeting people at the door, catching glimpses only of his mother’s nose, folded hands, or rouged cheeks.

About sixty people showed up during the two-hour ordeal, most of them in their early seventies, his mother’s age, people from the block whom he hadn’t seen in fifteen years or new friends she had met through Bingo or the Senior Citizens Center. Several of Louis’s Boulder friends showed up, including two members of his Colorado Mountain Club hiking group and two colleagues from the physics labs at C.U. Debbie stayed by his side the entire time, watching his pale, sweaty face and occasionally squeezing his hand when she saw the pain from the headache wash across him.

The visitation period was almost over when suddenly he could no longer stand it.

“Do you have a compact?” he asked Debbie.

“A what?”

“A compact,” he said. “You know, one of those little make-up things with a mirror.”

Debbie shook her head. “Louis, have you ever seen me with something like that?” She rummaged in her purse. “Wait a minute. I have this little hand mirror that I use to check my…”

“Give it here,” said Louis. He raised the small plastic-backed rectangle, turning toward the doorway to get a better view behind him. About a dozen mourners remained, talking softly in the dim light and flower-scented stillness. Someone in the hallway beyond the doorway laughed and then lowered his voice. Lee stood near the casket, her black dress swallowing light, speaking quietly to old Mrs. Narmoth from across the alley.

There were twenty or thirty other small figures in the room, moving like pale shadows between rows of folding chairs and dark-suited mourners. They moved slowly, carefully, seeming to balance their oversized heads in a delicate dance. Each of the child-sized forms awaited its turn to approach the casket and then moved forward, its pale body and bald head emitting its own soft penumbra of greenish-grayish glow. Each thing paused by the casket briefly and then lowered its head slowly, almost reverently.

Gasping in air, his hand shaking so badly the mirror image blurred and vibrated, Louis was reminded of lines of celebrants at his First Communion … and of animals at a trough.

“Louis, what is it?” asked Debbie.

He shook off her hand, turned and ran toward the casket, shouldering past mourners, feeling cold churnings in his belly as he wondered if he was passing through the white things.

“What?” asked Lee, her face a mask of concern as she took his arm.

Louis shook her away and looked into the casket. Only the top half of the lid was raised. His mother lay there in her best blue dress, the make-up seeming to return some fullness to her ravaged face, her old rosary laced through her folded fingers. The cushioned lining under her was silk and beige and looked very soft. Louis raised the mirror. His only reaction then was slowly to lift his left hand and to grasp the rim of the casket very tightly, as if it were the railing of a ship in rough seas and he were in imminent danger of plunging overboard.

There were several hundred of the slug-things in the coffin, flowing over everything inside it, filling it to the brim. They were more white than green or gray now and much, much larger, some as thick through the body as Louis’s forearm. Many were more than a foot long. The antennae tendrils had contracted and widened into tiny yellow eyes and the lamprey mouths were recognizably tapered now.

As Louis watched, one of the pale, child-sized figures to his right approached the casket, laid long white fingers not six inches from Louis’s hands, and lowered its face as if to drink.

Louis watched as the thing ingested four of the long, pale slugs, the creature’s entire face contracting and expanding almost erotically to absorb the soft mass of its meal. The yellow eyes did not blink. Others approached the casket and joined in the communion. Louis lowered the angle of the mirror and watched two more slugs flow effortlessly out of his mother, sliding through blue material into the churning mass of their fellows. Louis moved the mirror, looked behind him, seeing the half-dozen pale forms standing there, waiting patiently for him to move. Their bodies were pale and sexless blurs. Their fingers were very long and very sharp. Their eyes were hungry.

Louis did not scream. He did not run. Very carefully he palmed the mirror, released his death grip on the edge of the casket, and walked slowly, carefully, away from there. Away from the casket. Away from Lee and Debbie’s distantly heard cries and questions. Away from the funeral home.

He was hours and miles away, in a strange section of dark warehouses and factories, when he stopped in the mercury-arc circle of a streetlight, held the mirror high, swiveled 360 degrees to ascertain that nothing and no one was in sight, and then huddled at the base of the streetlight to hug his knees, rock, and croon.

“I think they’re cancer vampires,” Louis told the psychiatrist. Between the wooden shutters on the doctor’s windows, Louis caught a glimpse of the rocky slabs that were the Flatirons. “They lay these tumor-slugs that hatch and change inside people. What we call tumors are really eggs. Then the cancer vampires take them back into themselves.”

The psychiatrist nodded, tamped down his pipe, and lighted another match. “Do you wish to tell me more … ah … details … about these images you have?” He puffed his pipe alight.

Louis started to shake his head and then stopped suddenly as headache pain rippled through him. “I’ve thought it all out in the last few weeks,” he said. “I mean, go back more than a hundred years and give me the name of one famous person who died of cancer. Go ahead.”

The doctor drew on his pipe. His desk was in front of the shuttered windows and his face was in shadow, only occasionally illuminated when he turned as he relit his pipe. “I can’t think of one right now,” the doctor said, “but there must be many.”

“Exactly,” said Louis in a more excited tone than he had meant to use. “I mean, today we expect people to die of cancer. One in six. Or maybe it’s one in four. I mean, I didn’t know anyone who died in Viet Nam, but every-body knows somebody, usually somebody in our family, who’s died of cancer. Just think of all the movie stars and politicians. I mean, it’s everywhere. It’s the plague of the Twentieth Century.”

The doctor nodded and kept any patronizing tones out of his voice. “I see your point,” he said. “But just because modern diagnostic methods did not exist before this does not mean people did not die of cancer in previous centuries. Besides, research has shown that modern technology, pollutants, food additives and so forth have increased the risk of encountering carcinogens which…”

“Yeah,” laughed Louis, “carcinogens. That’s what I used to believe in. But, Jesus, Doc, have you ever read over the AMA’s and American Cancer Society’s official lists of carcinogens? I mean it’s everything you eat, breathe, wear, touch, and do to have fun. I mean it’s everything. That’s the same as just saying that they don’t know.

Believe me, I’ve been reading all of that crap, they don’t even know what makes a tumor start growing.”

The doctor steepled his fingers. “But you believe that you do, Mr. Steig?”

Louis took one of his mirrors from his shirt pocket and moved his head in quick half-circles. The room seemed empty. “Cancer vampires,” he said. “I don’t know how long they’ve been around. Maybe something we did this century allowed them to come through some … some gate or something. I don’t know.”

“From another dimension?” the doctor asked in conversational tones. His pipe tobacco smelled vaguely of pine woods on a summer day.

“Maybe,” shrugged Louis. “I don’t know. But they’re here and they’re busy feeding

… and multiplying…”

“Why do you think that you are the only one who has been allowed to see them?” asked the doctor brightly.

Louis felt himself growing angry. “Goddammit, I don’t know that I’m the only one who can see them. I just know that something happened after my accident…”

“Would it not be … equally probable,” suggested the doctor, “that the injury to your skull has caused some very realistic hallucinations? You admit that your sight has been somewhat affected.” He removed his pipe, frowned at it, and fumbled for his matches.

Louis gripped the arms of his chair, feeling the anger in him rise and fall on the waves of his headache. “I’ve been back to the Clinic,” he said. “They can’t find any sign of permanent damage. My vision’s a little funny, but that’s just because I can see more now. I mean more colors and things. It’s like I can see radio waves almost.”

“Let us assume that you do have the power to see these … cancer vampires,” said the doctor. The tobacco glowed on his third inhalation. The room smelled of sun warmed pine needles. “Does this mean that you also have the power to control them?”

Louis ran his hand across his brow, trying to rub away the pain. “I don’t know.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Steig. I couldn’t hear…”

“I don’t know!” shouted Louis. “I haven’t tried to touch one. I mean, I don’t know if

… I’m afraid that it might … Look, so far the things … the cancer vampires, they’ve ignored me, but…”

“If you can see them,” said the doctor “doesn’t it follow that they can see you?”

Louis rose and went to the window, tugging open the shutters so the room was filled with late afternoon light. “I think they see what they want to see,” said Louis, staring at the foothills beyond the city, playing with his hand mirror. “Maybe we’re just blurs to them. They find us easily enough when it’s time to lay their eggs.”

The doctor squinted in the sudden brightness but removed his pipe and smiled.

“You talk about eggs,” he said, “but what you described sounded more like feeding behavior. Does this discrepancy and the fact that the … vision … first occurred when your mother was dying suggest any deeper meanings to you? We all search for ways to control things we have no power over, things we find too difficult to accept. Especially when one’s mother is involved.”

“Look,” sighed Louis, “I don’t need this Freudian crap. I agreed to come here today because Deb’s been on my case for weeks but…” Louis stopped and raised his mirror, and stared.

The doctor glanced up as he scraped at his pipe bowl. His mouth was slightly open, showing white teeth, healthy gums, and a hint of tongue slightly curled in concentration. From beneath that tongue came first the fleshy antennae and then the green-gray body of a tumor slug, this one no more than a few centimeters long. It moved higher along the psychiatrist’s jaw, sliding in and out of the muscles and skin of the man’s cheek as effortlessly as a maggot moving in a compost heap. Deeper in the shadows of the doctor’s mouth, something larger stirred.

“It can’t hurt to talk about it,” said the doctor. “After all, that’s what I’m here for.”

Louis nodded, pocketed his mirror, and walked straight to the door without looking back.

Louis found that it was easy to buy mirrors cheaply. They were available, framed and unframed, at used furniture outlets, junkshops, discount antique dealers, hardware stores, glass shops and even in people’s stacks of junk sitting on the curb awaiting pickup. It took Louis less than a week to fill his small apartment with mirrors.

His bedroom was the best protected. Besides the twenty-three mirrors of various sizes on the walls, the ceiling had been completely covered with mirrors. He had put them up himself, pressing them firmly into the glue, feeling slightly more secure with each reflective square he set in place.

Louis was lying on his bed on a Saturday afternoon in May, staring at the reflections of himself, thinking about a conversation he had just had with his sister Lee, when Debbie called. She wanted to come over. He suggested that they meet on the Pearl Street Mall instead.

There were three passengers and two of them on the bus. One had been in the rear seat when Louis boarded, another came through the closed doors when the bus stopped for a red light. The first time he had seen one of the cancer vampires pass through a solid object, Louis had been faintly relieved, as if something so insubstantial could not be a serious threat. He no longer felt that way. They did not float through walls in the delicate, effortless glide of a ghost; Louis watched while the hairless head and sharp shoulders of this thing struggled to penetrate the closed doors of the bus, wiggling like someone passing through a thick sheet of cellophane.

Or like some vicious newborn predator chewing its way through its own amniotic sac.

Louis pulled down another of the small mirrors attached by wires to the brim of his Panama hat and watched while the second cancer vampire joined the first and the two closed on the old lady sitting with her shopping bags two rows behind him. She sat stiffly upright, hands on her lap, staring straight ahead, not even blinking, as one of the cancer vampires raised its ridged funnel of a mouth to her throat, the motion as intimate and gentle as a lover’s opening kiss. For the first time Louis noticed that the rim of the thing’s proboscis was lined with a circle of blue cartilage which looked as sharp as razor blades. He caught a glimpse of gray-green flowing into the folds of the old lady’s neck. The second cancer vampire lowered its ponderous head to her belly like a tired child preparing to rest on its mother’s lap.

Louis stood, pulled the cord, and got off five blocks before his stop.

Few places in America, Louis thought, showed off health and wealth better than the three outdoor blocks of Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall. A pine-scented breeze blew down from the foothills less than a quarter of a mile to the west as shoppers browsed, tourists strolled, and the locals lounged. The average person in sight was under thirty-five, tanned and fit, and wealthy enough to dress in the most casual pre-washed, pre-faded, pre-wrinkled clothes. Young men dressed only in brief trunks and sweat jogged down the mall, occasionally glancing down at their watches or their own bodies. The young women in sight were almost unanimously thin and braless, laughing with beautifully capped teeth, sitting on grassy knolls or benches with their legs spread manfully in poses out of Vogue. Healthy looking teenagers with spikes of hair dyed unhealthy colors licked at their two-dollar Dove bars and three-dollar Haagen-Dazs cones. The spring sunlight on the brick walkways and flower beds promised an endless summer.

“Look,” said Louis as he and Debbie sat near Freddy’s hot dog stand and watched the crowds flow past, “my view of things right now is just too goddamn ugly to accept. Maybe everybody could see this shit if they wanted to, but they just refuse to.” He lowered two of his mirrors and swiveled. He had tried mirrored sunglasses but that had not worked; only the full mirror-reversal allowed him to see. There were six mirrors clipped to his hat, more in his pockets.

“Oh, Louis,” said Debbie. “I just don’t understand…”

“I’m serious,” snapped Louis. “We’re like the people who lived in the villages of Dachau or Auschwitz. We see the fences, watch the trainloads of loaded cattle cars go by every day, smell the smoke of the ovens … and pretend it isn’t happening. We let these things take everybody, as long as it isn’t us. There! See that heavyset man near the bookstore?”

“Yes?” Debbie was near tears.

“Wait,” said Louis. He brought out his larger pocket mirror and turned at an angle. The man was wearing tan slacks and a loose Hawaiian shirt that did not hide his fat. He sipped at a drink in a red Styrofoam cup and stood reading a folded copy of the Boulder Daily Camera. Four child-sized blurs clustered around him. One closed long fingers around the man’s throat and pulled himself up across the man’s arm and belly.

“Wait,” repeated Louis and moved away from Debbie, scuttling sideways to keep the group framed in the mirror. The three cancer vampires did not look up as Louis came within arm’s length; the fourth slid its long cone of a mouth toward the man’s face.

“Wait!” screamed Louis and struck out, head averted, seeing his fist pass through the pale back of the clinging thing. There was the faintest of gelatinous givings and a chill numbed the bones of his fist and arm. Louis stared at his mirror.

All four of the cancer vampires’ heads snapped around, blind yellow eyes fixed on Louis. He sobbed and struck again, feeling his fist pass through the thing with no effect and bounce weakly off the fat man’s chest. Two of the white blurs swiveled slowly toward Louis.

“Hey, goddammit!” shouted the fat man and struck at Louis’s arm.

The mirror flew out of Louis’s left hand and shattered on the brick pavement. “Oh, Jesus,” whispered Louis, backing away. “Oh Jesus.” He turned and ran, snapping down a mirror on his hat as he did so, seeing nothing but the dancing, vibrating frame. He grabbed Debbie by the wrist and tugged her to her feet. “Run!” They ran.

Louis awoke sometime after two A.M., feeling disoriented and drugged. He felt for Debbie, remembered that he had gone back to his own apartment after they had made love. He lay in the dark, wondering what had awakened him.

His nightlight had burned out.

Louis felt a flush of cold fear, cursed, and rolled over to turn on the table lamp next to his bed. He blinked in the sudden glare, seeing blurred reflections of himself blink back from the ceiling, walls, and door.

Other things also moved in the room.

A pale face with yellow eyes pushed its way through the door and mirror. Fingers followed, finding a hold on the doorframe, pulling the body through like a climber mastering an overhang. Another face rose to the right of Louis’s bed with the violent suddenness of someone stepping out of one’s closet in the middle of the night, extracted its arm, and reached for the blanket bunched at the foot of Louis’s bed.

“Ah,” panted Louis and rolled off the bed. Except for the closet there was only the single door, closed and locked. He glanced up at the ceiling mirrors in time to see the first white shape release itself from the wood and glass and stand between the door and him. As he stared upward at his own reflection, at himself dressed in pajamas and lying on his back on the tan carpet, he watched wide-eyed as something white rippled and rose through the carpet not three feet from where he lay: a broad curve of dead grub flesh followed by a second white oval, the back and head of the thing floating up through the floor like a swimmer rising to his knees in three feet of water. The eye sockets were close enough for Louis to touch; all he had to do was extend his arm. The scent of old carrion came to him from the thing’s sharp circle of a mouth.

Louis rolled sideways and back, scrambled to his feet, used a heavy chair by his bed to smash the window glass and threw the chair behind him. The rope ladder tied to the base of his bed had been left behind by a paranoid ex-roommate of Louis’s who had refused to live on a third floor without a fire escape.

Louis looked up, saw white hands converging, threw the knotted rope out the window and followed it, bruising knuckles and knees against the brick wall as he clambered down.

He looked up repeatedly but there were no mirrors in the cold spring darkness and he had no idea if anything was following.

They used Debbie’s car to leave, driving west up the canyon into the mountains. Louis was wearing an old pair of jeans, green sweatshirt, and paint-spattered sneakers he had left at Debbie’s after helping to paint her new apartment in January.

She owned only a single portable mirror, an eighteen by twenty-four inch glass set into an antique frame above the fireplace, and Louis had ripped it off the wall and brought it along, checking every inch of the car before allowing her to enter it.

“Where are we going?” she asked as they turned south out of Nederland on the Peak to Peak Highway. The Continental Divide glowed in weak moonlight to their right. Their headlights picked out black walls of pine and stretches of snow as the narrow road wound up and around.

“Lee’s cabin,” said Louis. “West on the old Rollins Pass road.”

“I know the cabin,” said Debbie. “Will Lee be there?”

“She’s still in Des Moines,” he said. He blinked rapidly. “She called just before you did this afternoon. She found a … lump. She saw a doctor there but is going to fly back to get the biopsy.”

“Louis, I…” began Debbie.

“Turn here,” said Louis.

They drove the last two miles in silence.

The cabin had a small generator to power lights and the refrigerator but Louis preferred not to spend time filling it and priming it in the darkness out back. He asked Debbie to stay in the car while he took the mirror inside, lit two of the large candles Lee kept on the mantel, and walked through the three small rooms of the cabin with the mirror reflecting the flickering candle flame and his own pale face and staring eyes. By the time he waved Debbie inside, he had a fire going in the fireplace and the sleeper sofa in the main room was pulled out. In the dancing light from the fireplace and candles, Debbie’s hair looked impossibly red. Her eyes were tired.

“It’s only a few hours until morning,” said Louis. “I’ll go into Nederland when we wake up and get some supplies.”

Debbie touched his arm. “Louis, can you tell me what’s going on?”

“Wait, wait,” he said, staring into the dark corners. “There’s one more thing. Undress.”

“Louis…”

“Undress!” Louis was already tugging off his shirt and pants. When they were both out of their clothes, Louis propped the mirror on a chair and had them stand in front of it, turning slowly. Finally satisfied, he dropped to his knees and looked up at Debbie. She stood very still, the firelight rising and falling on her white breasts and the soft V of red pubic hair. The freckles on her shoulders and upper chest seemed to glow.

“Oh, God,” said Louis and buried his face in his hands. “God, Deb, you must think I’m absolutely crazy.”

She crouched next to him and ran her fingers down his back. “I don’t know what’s going on, Louis,” she whispered, “but I know that I love you.”

“I’ll tell you…” began Louis, feeling the terrible pressure in his chest threaten to expand into sobs.

“In the morning,” whispered Debbie and kissed him softly.

They made love slowly, seriously, time and their senses slowed and oddly amplified by the late hour, strange place, and fading sense of danger. Just when both of them felt the urgency quickening, Louis whispered, “Wait a second,” and lay on one side, running his hand and then his mouth under the folds of her breasts, up, licking the nipples back into hardness, then kissing the curve of her belly and opening her thighs with his hand, sliding his face and body lower.

Louis closed his eyes and imagined a kitten lapping milk. He tasted the salt sweetness of the sea while Debbie softened and opened herself further to him. His palms stroked the tensed smoothness of her inner thighs while her breathing came more quickly, punctuated by soft, sharp gasps of pleasure.

There was a sudden hissing behind them. The light flared and wavered.

Louis turned, sliding off the foot of the bed onto one knee, aware of the pounding of his heart and the extra vulnerability his nakedness and excitement forced on him. He looked and gasped a laugh.

“What?” whispered Debbie, not moving.

“It’s just the candle I set on the floor,” he whispered back. “It’s drowning in its own melted wax. I’ll blow it out.”

He leaned over and did so, pausing as he moved back to the foot of the bed to take in a single, voyeuristic glance in the mirror propped on the chair.

Firelight played across the two lovers framed there, Louis’s flushed face and Debbie’s white thighs, both glistening slightly from perspiration and the moisture of their lovemaking. Seen from this angle the dancing light illuminated the copper tangle of her pubic hair and roseate ovals of moist labia with a soft clarity too purely sensuous to be pornographic. Louis felt the tides of love and sexual excitement swell in him.

He caught the movement in the mirror out of the corner of his eye a second before he would have lowered his head again. A glimmer of slick gray-green between pale pink lips. No more than a few centimeters long. Undeterred by the dim light, the twin polyps of antennae emerged slowly, twisting and turning slightly as if to taste the air.

“I didn’t know you had an interest in oncology,” said Dr. Phil Collins. He grinned at Louis across his cluttered desk. “I thought you rarely came out of the physics lab up at the University.”

Louis stared at his old classmate. He was much too tired for banter. He had not slept for 52 hours and his eyes felt like they were lined with sand and broken glass. “I need to see the radiation treatment part of chemotherapy,” he said.

Collins tapped manicured nails against the edge of his desk. “Louis, we can’t just give guided tours of our therapy sessions every time someone gets an interest in the process.”

Louis forced his voice to stay even. “Look, Phil, my mother died of cancer a few weeks ago. My sister just underwent a biopsy that showed malignancy. My fiancée checked into Boulder Community a few hours ago with a case of cervical cancer that they’re pretty sure also involves her uterus. Now will you let me watch the procedure or not?”

“Jesus,” said Collins. He glanced at his watch. “Come on, Louis, you can make the rounds with me. Mr. Taylor is scheduled to receive his treatment in about twenty minutes.”

The man was forty-seven but looked thirty years older. His eyes were sunken and bruised. His skin had a yellowish cast under the fluorescent lights. His hair had fallen out and Louis could make out small pools of blood under the skin.

They stood behind a lead-lined shield and watched through thick ports. “The medication is a very important part of it,” said Collins. “It both augments and complements the radiation treatment.”

“And the radiation kills the cancer?” asked Louis.

“Sometimes,” said Collins. “Unfortunately it kills healthy cells as well as the ones which have run amok.”

Louis nodded and raised his hand mirror. When the device was activated he made a small, involuntary sound. A brilliant burst of violet light filled the room, centering on the tip of the X-ray machine. Louis realized that the glow was similar to that of the bug-zapper devices he had seen in yards at night, the light sliding beyond visible frequencies in a maddening way. But this was a thousand times brighter.

The tumor slugs came out. They slid out of Mr. Taylor’s skull, antennae thrashing madly, attracted by the brilliant light. They leaped the ten inches to the lens of the device, sliding on slick metal, some falling to the floor and then moving back up onto the table and through the man’s body again to reemerge from the skull seconds later only to leap again.

Those that reached the source of the X-rays fell dead to the floor. The others retreated into the darkness of flesh when the X-ray light died.

“…hope that helps give you some idea of the therapy involved,” Collins was saying.

“It’s a frustrating field because we’re not quite sure of why everything works the way it does, but we’re making strides all of the time.”

Louis blinked. Mr. Taylor was gone. The violet glow of the X-rays was gone. “Yes,” he said. “I think that helps a lot.”

Two nights later, Louis sat next to his sleeping sister in the semi-darkness of her hospital room. The other bed was empty. Louis had sneaked in during the middle of the night and the only sound was the hiss of the ventilation system and the occasional squeak of a rubber-soled shoe in the corridor. Louis reached out a gloved hand and touched Lee’s wrist just below the green hospital identity bracelet.

“I thought it’d be easy, kiddo,” he whispered. “Remember the movies we watched when we were little? James Arness in The Thing? Figure out what kills it and rig it up.” Louis felt the nausea sweep over him again and he lowered his head, breathing in harsh gulps. A minute later he straightened again, moving to wipe the cold sweat off his brow but frowning when the leather of the thick glove contacted his skin. He held Lee’s wrist again. “Life ain’t so easy, kiddo. I worked nights in Mac’s high energy lab at the University. It was easy to irradiate things with that X-ray laser toy Mac cobbled together to show the sophomores the effects of ionizing radiation.”

Lee stirred, moaned slightly in her sleep. Somewhere a soft chime sounded three times and was silenced. Louis heard two of the floor nurses chatting softly as they walked to the staff lounge for their two A.M. break. Louis left his gloved hand just next to her wrist, not quite touching.

“Jesus, Lee,” he whispered. “I can see the whole damn spectrum below 100 angstroms. So can they. I banked on the cancer vampires being drawn to the stuff I’d irradiated just like the tumor slugs were. I came here last night, to the wards, to check on it. They do come, kiddo, but it doesn’t kill them. They flock around the irradiated stuff like moths to a flame, but it doesn’t kill them. Even the tumor slugs need high dosages if you’re going to get them all. I mean, I started in the millirem dosages, like the radiation therapy they use here, and found that it just didn’t get enough of them. To be sure, I had to get in the region of 300 to 400 roentgens. I mean, we’re talking Chernobyl here, kiddo.”

Louis quit talking and walked quickly to the bathroom, lowering his head to the toilet to vomit as quietly as possible. Afterward he washed his face as best he could with the thick gloves on and returned to Lee’s bedside. She was frowning slightly in her drugged sleep. Louis remembered the times he had crept into her bedroom as a child to frighten her awake with garter snakes or squirt guns or spiders. “Fuck it,” he said and removed his gloves.

His hands glowed like five-fingered, blue-white suns. As Louis watched in the mirrors snapped down on his hat brim, the light filled the room like cold fire. “It won’t hurt, kiddo,” he whispered as he unsnapped the first two buttons on Lee’s pajama tops. Her breasts were small, hardly larger than when he had peeked in on her emerging from the shower when she was fifteen. He smiled as he remembered the whipping he had received for that, and then he laid his right hand on her left breast.

For a second nothing happened. Then the tumor slugs came out, antennae rising like pulpy periscopes from Lee’s flesh, their gray-green color bleached by the brilliance of Louis’s glowing hand.

They slid into him through his palm, his wrist, the back of his hand. Louis gasped as he felt them slither through his flesh, the sensation faint but nauseating, like having a wire inserted in one’s veins while under a local anesthetic.

Louis counted six … eight of the things sliding from Lee’s breast into the blue-white flaring of his hand and arm. He held his palm flat for a full minute after the last slug entered, resisting the temptation to scream or pull his hand away as he saw the muscles of his forearm writhe as one of the things flowed upward, swimming through his flesh.

As an extra precaution, Louis moved his palm across Lee’s chest, throat, and belly, feeling her stir in her sleep, fighting the sedatives in an unsuccessful battle to awaken.

There was one more slug, hardly more than a centimeter long, which rose from the taut skin just below her sternum, but it flared and withered before coming in contact with his blue-white flesh, curling like a dried leaf too close to a hot fire.

Louis rose and removed his thick layers of clothes, watching in the wide mirror opposite Lee’s bed. His entire body fluoresced, the brilliance fading from white to blue-white to violet and then sliding away into frequencies even he could not see.

Again he thought of the bug lights one saw near patios and the blind-spot sense of frustration the eye conveyed as it strained at the fringes of perception. The mirrors hanging from the brim of his hat caught and scattered the light.

Louis folded his clothes neatly, laid them on the chair near Lee, kissed her softly on the cheek, and walked from room to room, the brilliance from his body leaping ahead of him, filling the corridors with blue-white shadows and pinwheels of impossible colors.

There was no one at the nurse’s station. The tile floor felt cool beneath Louis’s bare feet as he went from room to room, laying on his hands. Some of the patients slept on. Some watched him with wide eyes but neither moved nor cried out. Louis wondered at this but glanced down without his mirrors and realized that for the first time he could see the brilliance of his heavily irradiated flesh and bone with his own eyes. His body was a pulsing star in human form. Louis could easily hear the radio waves as a buzzing, crackling sound, like a great forest fire still some miles away.

The tumor slugs flowed from their victims and into Louis. Not everyone on this floor had cancer, but in most rooms he had only to enter to see the frenzied response of green-gray or grub-white worms straining to get at him. Louis took them all. He felt his body swallow the things, sensed the maddened turmoil within. Only once more did he have to stop to vomit. His bowels shifted and roiled, but there was so much motion in him now that Louis ignored it.

In Debbie’s room, Louis pulled the sheet off her sleeping form, pulled up the short gown, and laid his cheek to the soft bulge of her belly. The tumor slugs flowed into his face and throat; he drank them in willingly.

Louis rose, left his sleeping lover, and walked to the long, open ward where the majority of cancer patients lay waiting for death.

The cancer vampires followed him. They flowed through walls and floors to follow him. He led them to the main ward, a blazing blue-white pied piper leading a chorus of dead children.

There were at least a score of them by the time he stopped in the center of the ward, but he did not let them approach until he had gone from bed to bed, accepting the last of the tumor slugs into himself, seeing with his surreal vision as the eggs inside these victims hatched prematurely to give up their writhing treasure. Louis made sure the tumor slugs were with him before he moved to the center of the room, raised his arms, and let the cancer vampires come closer.

Louis felt heavy, twice his normal weight, pregnant with death. He glanced at his blazing limbs and belly and saw the very surface of himself alive with the motion of maggots feeding on his light.

Louis raised his arms wider, pulled his head far back, closed his eyes, and let the cancer vampires feed.

The things were voracious, drawn by the X-ray beacon of Louis’s flesh and the silent beckoning of their larval offspring. They shouldered and shoved each other aside in their eagerness to feed. Louis grimaced as he felt a dozen sharp piercings, felt himself almost lifted off the floor by nightmare energies suddenly made tangible. He looked once, saw the terrible curve of the top of a dead-child’s head as the thing buried its face to the temples in Louis’s chest, and then he closed his eyes until they were done.

Louis staggered, gripped the metal footboard of a bed to keep from falling. The score of cancer vampires in the room had finished feeding but Louis could feel his own body still weighted with slugs. He watched.

The child-thing nearest to him seemed bloated, its body as distended as a white spider bursting with eggs. Through its translucent flesh, Louis could see glowing tumor slugs shifting frantically like electric silverfish.

Even through his nausea and pain, Louis smiled. Whatever the reproductive-feeding cycle of these things had been, Louis now felt sure that he had disrupted it with the irradiated meal he had offered the tumor slugs.

The cancer vampire in front of him staggered, leaned far forward, and looked even more spiderish as its impossibly long fingers stretched to keep it from falling.

A blue-white gash appeared along the thing’s side and belly. Two bloated, thrashing slugs appeared in a rush of violent energy. The cancer vampire arched its back and raised its feeding mouth in a scream that was audible to Louis as someone scraping their teeth down ten feet of blackboard.

The slugs ripped free of the vampire’s shredded belly, dumping themselves on the floor and writhing in a bath of ultraviolet blood, steaming and shriveling there like true slugs Louis had once seen sprinkled with salt. The cancer vampire spasmed, clutched at its gaping, eviscerated belly, and then thrashed several times and died, its bony limbs and long fingers slowly closing up like the legs of a crushed spider.

There were screams, human and otherwise, but Louis paid no attention as he watched the death throes of the two dozen spectral forms in the room. His vision had altered permanently now and the beds and their human occupants were mere shadows in a great space blazing in ultraviolet and infrared but dominated by the blue-white corona which was his own body. He vomited once more, doubling over to retch up blood and two dying, glowing slugs, but this was a minor inconvenience as long as his strength held out and at that second he felt that it would last forever.

Louis looked down, through the floor, through five floors, seeing the hospital as levels of clear plastic interlaced with webs of energy from electrical wiring, lights, machines, and organisms. Many organisms. The healthy ones glowed a soft orange but he could see the pale yellow infections, the grayish corruptions, and the throbbing black pools of incipient death.

Rising, Louis stepped over the dying corpses of cancer vampires and the acid-pools  which had been thrashing slugs seconds before. Although he already could see beyond, he opened wide doors and stepped out onto the terrace. The night air was cool.

Drawn by the extraordinary light, they waited. Hundreds of yellow eyes turned upwards to stare from blue-black pits set in dead faces. Mouths pulsed. Hundreds more of the things converged as Louis watched.

Louis raised his own eyes, seeing more stars than anyone had ever seen as the night sky throbbed with uncountable X-ray sources and infinite tendrils of unnamed colors. He looked down to where they continued to gather, by the thousands now, their pale faces glowing like candles in a procession. Louis prayed for a single miracle. He prayed that he could feed them all. “Tonight, Death,” he whispered, the sound too soft for even him to hear, “you shall die.”

Louis stepped to the railing, raised his arms, and went down to join those who waited.

Richard Matheson – Duel

At 11:32 a.m., Mann passed the truck.

He was heading west, en route to San Francisco. It was Thursday and unseasonably hot for April. He  had his suit coat off, his tie removed and shirt collar opened, his sleeve cuffs folded back. There was sunlight on his left arm and on part of his lap. He could feel the heat of it through his dark trousers as he drove along the two-lane highway. For the past twenty minutes, he had not seen another vehicle going in either direction.

Then he saw the truck ahead, moving up a curving grade between two high green hills. He heard the grinding strain of its motor and saw a double shadow on the road. The truck was pulling a trailer. He paid no attention to the details of the truck. As he drew behind it on the grade, he edged his car toward the opposite lane. The road ahead had blind curves and he didn’t try to pass until the truck had crossed the ridge. He waited until it started around a left curve on the downgrade, then, seeing that the way was clear, pressed down on the accelerator pedal and steered his car into the eastbound lane. He waited until he could see the truck front in his rear-view mirror before he turned back into the proper lane.

Mann looked across the countryside ahead. There were ranges of mountains as far as he could see and, all around him, rolling green hills. He whistled softly as the car sped down the winding grade, its tires making crisp sounds on the pavement.

At the bottom of the hill, he crossed a concrete bridge and, glancing to the right, saw a dry stream bed strewn with rocks and gravel. As the car moved off the bridge, he saw a trailer park set back from the highway to his right. How can anyone live out here? he thought. His shifting gaze caught sight of a pet cemetery ahead and he smiled. Maybe those people in the trailers wanted to be close to the graves of their dogs and cats.

The highway ahead was straight now. Mann drifted into a reverie, the sunlight on his arm and lap. He wondered what Ruth was doing. The kids, of course, were in school and would be for hours yet. Maybe Ruth was shopping; Thursday was the day she usually went. Mann visualized her in the supermarket, putting various items into the basket cart. He wished he were with her instead of starting on another sales trip. Hours of driving yet before he’d reach San Francisco; Three days of hotel sleeping and restaurant eating, hoped-for contacts and likely disappointments. He sighed; then, reaching out impulsively, he switched on the radio. He revolved the tuning knob until he found a station playing soft, innocuous music.

He hummed along with it, eyes almost out of focus on the road ahead.He stared as the truck roared past him on the left, causing his car to shudder slightly. He watched the truck and trailer cut in abruptly for the westbound lane and frowned as he had to brake to maintain a safe distance behind it. What’s with you? he thought.

He eyed the truck with cursory disapproval. It was a huge gasoline tanker pulling a tank trailer, each of them having six pairs of wheels. He could see that it was not a new rig but was dented and in need of renovation, its tanks painted a cheap-looking silvery colour. Mann wondered if the driver had done the painting himself. His gaze shifted from the word flammable printed across the back of the trailer tank, red letters on a white background, to the parallel reflector lines painted in red across the bottom of the tank to the massive rubber flaps swaying behind the rear tires, then back up again. The reflector lines looked as though they’d been clumsily applied with a stencil. The driver must be an independent trucker, he decided, and not too affluent a one, from the looks of his outfit. He glanced at the trailer’s license plate. It was a California issue.

Mann checked his speedometer. He was holding steady at 55 miles an hour, as he invariably did when he drove without thinking on the open highway. The truck driver must have done a good 70 to pass him so quickly. That seemed a little odd. Weren’t truck drivers supposed to be a cautious lot? He grimaced at the smell of the truck’s exhaust and looked at the vertical pipe to the left of the cab. It was spewing smoke, which clouded darkly back across the trailer. Christ, he thought. With all the furore about air pollution, why do they keep allowing that sort of thing on the highways?

He scowled at the constant fumes. They’d make him nauseated in a little while, he knew. He couldn’t lag back here like this. Either he slowed down or he passed the truck again. He didn’t have the time to slow down. He’d gotten a late start. Keeping it at 55 all the way, he’d just about make his afternoon appointment. No, he’d have to pass.

Depressing the gas pedal, he eased his car toward the opposite lane. No sign of anything ahead. Traffic on this route seemed almost nonexistent today. He pushed down harder on the accelerator and steered all the way into the eastbound lane. As he passed the truck, he glanced at it. The cab was too high for him to see into. All he caught sight of was the back of the truck driver’s left hand on the steering wheel. It was darkly tanned and square-looking, with large veins knotted on its surface.

When Mann could see the truck reflected in the rear view mirror, he pulled back over to the proper lane and looked ahead again.

He glanced at the rear view mirror in surprise as the truck driver gave him an extended horn blast.

What was that? he wondered; a greeting or a curse? He grunted with amusement, glancing at the mirror as he drove. The front fenders of the truck were a dingy purple colour, the paint faded and chipped; another amateurish job. All he could see was the lower portion of the truck; the rest was cut off by the top of his rear window.

To Mann’s right, now, was a slope of shale like earth with patches of scrub grass growing on it. His gaze jumped to the clapboard house on top of the slope. The television aerial on its roof was sagging at an angle of less than 40 degrees. Must give great reception, he thought. He looked to the front again, glancing aside abruptly at a sign printed in jagged block letters on a piece of plywood: night crawlers-bait. What the hell is a night crawler? he wondered. It sounded like some monster in a low-grade Hollywood thriller.

The unexpected roar of the truck motor made his gaze jump to the rear view mirror. Instantly, his startled look jumped to the side mirror. By God, the guy was passing him again. Mann turned his head to scowl at the leviathan form as it drifted by. He tried to see into the cab but couldn’t because of its height. What’s with him, anyway? he wondered. What the hell are we having here, a contest? See which vehicle can stay ahead the longest?

He thought of speeding up to stay ahead but changed his mind. When the truck and trailer started back into the westbound lane, he let up on the pedal, voicing a newly incredulous sound as he saw that if he hadn’t slowed down, he would have been prematurely cut off again. Jesus Christ, he thought. What’s with this guy?

His scowl deepened as the odour of the truck’s exhaust reached his nostrils again. Irritably, he cranked up the window on his left. Damn it, was he going to have to breathe that crap all the way to San Francisco? He couldn’t afford to slow down. He had to meet Forbes at a quarter after three and that was that.

He looked ahead. At least there was no traffic complicating matters. Mann pressed down on the accelerator pedal, drawing close behind the truck. When the highway curved enough to the left to give him a completely open view of the route ahead, he jarred down on the pedal, steering out into the opposite lane.

The truck edged over, blocking his way.

For several moments, all Mann could do was stare at it in blank confusion. Then, with a startled noise, he braked, returning to the proper lane. The truck moved back in front of him. Mann could not allow himself to accept what apparently had taken place. It had to be a coincidence. The truck driver couldn’t have blocked his way on purpose. He waited for more than a minute, then flicked down the turn-indicator lever to make his intentions perfectly clear and, depressing the accelerator pedal, steered again into the eastbound lane.

Immediately, the truck shifted, barring his way.

“Jesus Christ!” Mann was astounded. This was unbelievable. He’d never seen such a thing in twenty-six years of driving. He returned to the westbound lane, shaking his head as the truck swung back in front of him. He eased up on the gas pedal, falling back to avoid the truck’s exhaust. Now what? he wondered. He still had to make San Francisco on schedule. Why in God’s name hadn’t he gone a little out of his way in the beginning, so he could have travelled by freeway? This damned highway was two lane all the way.

Impulsively, he sped into the eastbound lane again. To his surprise, the truck driver did not pull over. Instead, the driver stuck his left arm out and waved him on. Mann started pushing down on the accelerator. Suddenly, he let up on the pedal with a gasp and jerked the steering wheel around, raking back behind the truck so quickly that his car began to fishtail. He was fighting to control its zigzag whipping when a blue convertible shot by him in the opposite lane. Mann caught a momentary vision of the man inside it glaring at him.

The car came under his control again. Mann was sucking breath in through his mouth. His heart was pounding almost painfully. My God! he thought. He wanted me to hit that car head on. The realization stunned him. True, he should have seen to it himself that the road ahead was clear; that was his failure.

But to wave him on… Mann felt appalled and sickened. Boy, oh, boy, oh, boy, he thought. This was really one for the books. That son of a bitch had meant for not only him to be killed but a totally uninvolved passerby as well. The idea seemed beyond his comprehension. On a California highway on a Thursday morning? Why?

Mann tried to calm himself and rationalize the incident. Maybe it’s the heat, he thought. Maybe the truck driver had a tension headache or an upset stomach; maybe both. Maybe he’d had a fight with his wife. Maybe she’d failed to put out last night. Mann tried in vain to smile. There could be any number of reasons. Reaching out, he twisted off the radio. The cheerful music irritated him. He drove behind the truck for several minutes, his face a mask of animosity. As the exhaust fumes started putting his stomach on edge, he suddenly forced down the heel of his right hand on the horn bar and held it there. Seeing that the route ahead was clear, he pushed in the accelerator pedal all the way and steered into the opposite lane.

The movement of his car was paralleled immediately by the truck. Mann stayed in place, right hand jammed down on the horn bar. Get out of the way, you son of a bitch! he thought. He felt the muscles of his jaw hardening until they ached. There was a twisting in his stomach.

“Damn!” He pulled back quickly to the proper lane, shuddering with fury. “You miserable son of a bitch,” he muttered, glaring at the truck as it was shifted back in front of him. What the hell is wrong with you? I pass your goddamn rig a couple of times and you go flying off the deep end? Are you nuts or something? Mann nodded tensely. Yes, he thought; he is. No other explanation.

He wondered what Ruth would think of all this, how she’d react. Probably, she’d start to honk the horn and would keep on honking it, assuming that, eventually, it would attract the attention of a policeman. He looked around with a scowl. Just where in hell were the policemen out here, anyway? He made a scoffing noise. What policemen? Here in the boondocks? They probably had a sheriff on horseback, for Christ’s sake.

He wondered suddenly if he could fool the truck driver by passing on the right. Edging his car toward the shoulder, he peered ahead. No chance. There wasn’t room enough. The truck driver could shove him through that wire fence if he wanted to. Mann shivered. And he’d want to, sure as hell, he thought. Driving where he was, he grew conscious of the debris lying beside the highway: beer cans, candy wrappers, ice-cream containers, newspaper sections browned and rotted by the weather, a for sale sign torn in half. Keep America beautiful, he thought sardonically. He passed a boulder with the name Will Jasper painted on it in white. Who the hell is Will Jasper? he wondered. What would he think of this situation?

Unexpectedly, the car began to bounce. For several anxious moments, Mann thought that one of his tires had gone flat. Then he noticed that the paving along this section of highway consisted of pitted slabs with gaps between them. He saw the truck and trailer jolting up and down and thought: I hope it shakes your brains loose. As the truck veered into a sharp left curve, he caught a fleeting glimpse of the driver’s face in the cab’s side mirror. There was not enough time to establish his appearance.

“Ah,” he said. A long, steep hill was looming up ahead. The truck would have to climb it slowly. There would doubtless be an opportunity to pass somewhere on the grade. Mann pressed down on the accelerator pedal, drawing as close behind the truck as safety would allow.

Halfway up the slope, Mann saw a turnout for the east-bound lane with no oncoming traffic anywhere in sight. Flooring the accelerator pedal, he shot into the opposite lane. The slow-moving truck began to angle out in front of him. Face stiffening, Mann steered his speeding car across the highway edge and curved it sharply on the turnout. Clouds of dust went billowing up behind his car, making him lose sight of the truck. His tires buzzed and crackled on the dirt, then, suddenly, were humming on the pavement once again.

He glanced at the rear view mirror and a barking laugh erupted from his throat. He’d only meant to pass. The dust had been an unexpected bonus. Let the bastard get a sniff of something rotten smelling in his nose for a change! he thought. He honked the horn elatedly, a mocking rhythm of bleats. Screw you, Jack!

He swept across the summit of the hill. A striking vista lay ahead: sunlit hills and flatland, a corridor of dark trees, quadrangles of cleared-off acreage and bright-green vegetable patches; far off, in the distance, a mammoth water tower. Mann felt stirred by the panoramic sight. Lovely, he thought. Reaching out, he turned the radio back on and started humming cheerfully with the music.

Seven minutes later, he passed a billboard advertising chuck’s cafe. No thanks, Chuck, he thought. He glanced at a gray house nestled in a hollow. Was that a cemetery in its front yard or a group of plaster statuary for sale?

Hearing the noise behind him, Mann looked at the rear view mirror and felt himself go cold with fear. The truck was hurtling down the hill, pursuing him. His mouth fell open and he threw a glance at the speedometer. He was doing more than 60! On a curving downgrade, that was not at all a safe speed to be driving. Yet the truck must be exceeding that by a considerable margin, it was closing the distance between them so rapidly. Mann swallowed, leaning to the right as he steered his car around a sharp curve. Is the man insane? he thought.

His gaze jumped forward searchingly. He saw a turnoff half a mile ahead and decided that he’d use it. In the rear view mirror, the huge square radiator grille was all he could see now. He stamped down on the gas pedal and his tires screeched unnervingly as he wheeled around another curve, thinking that, surely, the truck would have to slow down here.

He groaned as it rounded the curve with ease, only the sway of its tanks revealing the outward pressure of the turn. Mann bit trembling lips together as he whipped his car around another curve. A straight descent now. He depressed the pedal farther, glanced at the speedometer. Almost 70 miles an hour! He wasn’t used to driving this fast!

In agony, he saw the turnoff shoot by on his right. He couldn’t have left the highway at this speed, anyway; he’d have overturned. Goddamn it, what was wrong with that son of a bitch? Mann honked his horn in frightened rage. Cranking down the window suddenly, he shoved his left arm out to wave the truck back. “Back!” he yelled. He honked the horn again. “Get back, you crazy bastard!”

The truck was almost on him now. He’s going to kill me! Mann thought, horrified. He honked the horn repeatedly, then had to use both hands to grip the steering wheel as he swept around another curve. He flashed a look at the rear view mirror. He could see only the bottom portion of the truck’s radiator grille. He was going to lose control! He felt the rear wheels start to drift and let up on the pedal quickly. The tire treads bit in, the car leaped on, regaining its momentum.

Mann saw the bottom of the grade ahead, and in the distance there was a building with a sign that read chuck’s cafe. The truck was gaining ground again. This is insane! he thought, enraged and terrified at once. The highway straightened out. He floored the pedal: 74 now-75. Mann braced himself, trying to ease the car as far to the right as possible.

Abruptly, he began to brake, then swerved to the right, raking his car into the open area in front of the cafe. He cried out as the car began to fishtail, then careened into a skid. Steer with it! screamed a voice in his mind. The rear of the car was lashing from side to side, tires spewing dirt and raising clouds of dust.

Mann pressed harder on the brake pedal, turning further into the skid. The car began to straighten out and he braked harder yet, conscious, on the sides of his vision, of the truck and trailer roaring by on the highway. He nearly sideswiped one of the cars parked in front of the cafe, bounced and skidded by it, going almost straight now. He jammed in the brake pedal as hard as he could. The rear end broke to the right and the car spun half around, sheering sideways to a neck-wrenching halt thirty yards beyond the cafe.

Mann sat in pulsing silence, eyes closed. His heartbeats felt like club blows in his chest. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath. If he were ever going to have a heart attack, it would be now. After a while, he opened his eyes and pressed his right palm against his chest. His heart was still throbbing labouredly. No wonder, he thought. It isn’t every day I’m almost murdered by a truck.

He raised the handle and pushed out the door, then started forward, grunting in surprise as the safety belt held him in place. Reaching down with shaking fingers, he depressed the release button and pulled the ends of the belt apart. He glanced at the cafe. What had its patrons thought of his break-neck appearance? he wondered.

He stumbled as he walked to the front door of the cafe. truckers welcome, read a sign in the window. It gave Mann a queasy feeling to see it. Shivering, he pulled open the door and went inside, avoiding the sight of its customers. He felt certain they were watching him, but he didn’t have the strength to face their looks. Keeping his gaze fixed straight ahead, he moved to the rear of the cafe and opened the door marked gents.

Moving to the sink, he twisted the right-hand faucet and leaned over to cup cold water in his palms and splash it on his face. There was a fluttering of his stomach muscles he could not control. Straightening up. he tugged down several towels from their dispenser and patted them against his face, grimacing at the smell of the paper. Dropping the soggy towels into a waste-basket beside the sink, he regarded himself in the wall mirror. Still with us, Mann, he thought. He nodded, swallowing. Drawing out his metal comb, he neatened his hair. You never know, he thought. You just never know. You drift along, year after year, presuming certain values to be fixed; like being able to drive on a public thoroughfare without somebody trying to murder you. You come to depend on that sort of thing. Then something occurs and all bets are off. One shocking incident and all the years of logic and acceptance are displaced and, suddenly, the jungle is in front of you again. Man, part animal, part angel. Where had he come across that phrase? He shivered.

It was entirely an animal in that truck out there.

His breath was almost back to normal now. Mann forced a smile at his reflection. All right, boy, he told himself. It’s over now. It was a goddamned nightmare, but it’s over. You are on your way to San Francisco. You’ll get yourself a nice hotel room, order a bottle of expensive Scotch, soak your body in a hot bath and forget. Damn right, he thought. He turned and walked out of the washroom.

He jolted to a halt, his breath cut off. Standing rooted, heartbeat hammering at his chest, he gaped through the front window of the cafe.

The truck and trailer were parked outside.

Mann stared at them in unbelieving shock. It wasn’t possible. He’d seen them roaring by at top speed. The driver had won; he’d won! He’d had the whole damn highway to himself! Why had he turned back?

Mann looked around with sudden dread. There were five men eating, three along the counter, two in booths. He cursed himself for having failed to look at faces when he’d entered. Now there was no way of knowing who it was. Mann felt his legs begin to shake.

Abruptly, he walked to the nearest booth and slid in clumsily behind the table. Now wait, he told himself; just wait. Surely, he could tell which one it was. Masking his face with the menu, he glanced across its top. Was it that one in the khaki work shirt? Mann tried to see the man’s hands but couldn’t. His gaze flicked nervously across the room. Not that one in the suit, of course. Three remaining. That one in the front booth, square faced, black-haired? If only he could see the man’s hands, it might help. One of the two others at the counter? Mann studied them uneasily. Why hadn’t he looked at faces when he’d come in?

Now wait, he thought. Goddamn it, wait! All right, the truck driver was in here. That didn’t automatically signify that he meant to continue the insane duel. Chuck’s Cafe might be the only place to eat for miles around. It was lunch time, wasn’t it? The truck driver had probably intended to eat here all the time. He’d just been moving too fast to pull into the parking lot before. So he’d slowed down, turned around and driven back, that was all. Mann forced himself to read the menu. Right, he thought. No point in getting so rattled. Perhaps a beer would help relax him.

The woman behind the counter came over and Mann ordered a ham sandwich on rye toast and a bottle of Coors. As the woman turned away, he wondered, with a sudden twinge of self-reproach, why he hadn’t simply left the cafe, jumped into his car and sped away. He would have known immediately, then, if the truck driver was still out to get him. As it was, he’d have to suffer through an entire meal to find out. He almost groaned at his stupidity.

Still, what if the truck driver had followed him out and started after him again? He’d have been right back where he’d started. Even if he’d managed to get a good lead, the truck driver would have overtaken him eventually. It just wasn’t in him to drive at 80 and 90 miles an hour in order to stay ahead. True, he might have been intercepted by a California Highway Patrol car. What if he weren’t, though?

Mann repressed the plaguing thoughts. He tried to calm himself. He looked deliberately at the four men. Either of two seemed a likely possibility as the driver of the truck: the square faced one in the front booth and the chunky one in the jumpsuit sitting at the counter. Mann had an impulse to walk over to them and ask which one it was, tell the man he was sorry he’d irritated him, tell him anything to calm him, since, obviously, he wasn’t rational, was a manic-depressive, probably. Maybe buy the man a beer and sit with him awhile to try to settle things.

He couldn’t move. What if the truck driver were letting the whole thing drop? Mightn’t his approach rile the man all over again? Mann felt drained by indecision. He nodded weakly as the waitress set the sandwich and the bottle in front of him. He took a swallow of the beer, which made him cough. Was the truck driver amused by the sound? Mann felt a stirring of resentment deep inside himself. What right did that bastard have to impose this torment on another human being? It was a free country, wasn’t it? Damn it, he had every right to pass the son of a bitch on a highway if he wanted to! “Oh, hell,” he mumbled. He tried to feel amused. He was making entirely too much of this. Wasn’t he?

He glanced at the pay telephone on the front wall. What was to prevent him from calling the local police and telling them the situation? But, then, he’d have to stay here, lose time, make Forbes angry, probably lose the sale. And what if the truck driver stayed to face them? Naturally, he’d deny the whole thing.

What if the police believed him and didn’t do anything about it? After they’d gone, the truck driver would undoubtedly take it out on him again, only worse. God! Mann thought in agony. The sandwich tasted flat, the beer unpleasantly sour. Mann stared at the table as he ate. For God’s sake, why was he just sitting here like this? He was a grown man, wasn’t he? Why didn’t he settle this damn thing once and for all?

His left hand twitched so unexpectedly, he spilled beer on his trousers. The man in the jump suit had risen from the counter and was strolling toward the front of the cafe. Mann felt his heartbeat thumping as the man gave money to the waitress, took his change and a toothpick from the dispenser and went outside. Mann watched in anxious silence.

The man did not get into the cab of the tanker truck.

It had to be the one in the front booth, then. His face took form in Mann’s remembrance: square, with dark eyes, dark hair; the man who’d tried to kill him. Mann stood abruptly, letting impulse conquer fear. Eyes fixed ahead, he started toward the entrance. Anything was preferable to sitting in that booth. He stopped by the cash register, conscious of the hitching of his chest as he gulped in air. Was the man observing him? he wondered. He swallowed, pulling out the clip of dollar bills in his right-hand trouser pocket. He glanced toward the waitress. Come on, he thought. He looked at his check and, seeing the amount, reached shakily into his trouser pocket for change. He heard a coin fall onto the floor and roll away. Ignoring it, he dropped a dollar and a quarter onto the counter and thrust the clip of bills into his trouser pocket.

As he did, he heard the man in the front booth get up. An icy shudder spasmed up his back. Turning quickly to the door, he shoved it open, seeing, on the edges of his vision, the square faced man approach the cash register. Lurching from the cafe, he started toward his car with long strides. His mouth was dry again. The pounding of his heart was painful in his chest.

Suddenly, he started running. He heard the cafe door bang shut and fought away the urge to look across his shoulder. Was that a sound of other running footsteps now? Reaching his car, Mann yanked open the door and jarred in awkwardly behind the steering wheel. He reached into his trouser pocket for the keys and snatched them out, almost dropping them. His hand was shaking so badly he couldn’t get the ignition key into its slot. He whined with mounting dread. Come on! he thought.

The key slid in, he twisted it convulsively. The motor started and he raced it momentarily before jerking the transmission shift to drive. Depressing the accelerator pedal quickly, he raked the car around and steered it toward the highway. From the corners of his eyes, he saw the truck and trailer being backed away from the cafe.

Reaction burst inside him. “No!” he raged and slammed his foot down on the brake pedal. This was idiotic! Why the hell should he run way? His car slid sideways to a rocking halt and, shouldering out the door, he lurched to his feet and started toward the truck with angry strides. All right, Jack, he thought.

He glared at the man inside the truck. You want to punch my nose, okay, but no more goddamn tournament on the highway.

The truck began to pick up speed. Mann raised his right arm. “Hey!” he yelled. He knew the driver saw him. “Hey!” He started running as the truck kept moving, engine grinding loudly. It was on the highway now. He sprinted toward it with a sense of martyred outrage. The driver shifted gears, the truck moved faster. “Stop!” Mann shouted. “Damn it, stop!”

He thudded to a panting halt, staring at the truck as it receded down the highway, moved around a hill and disappeared. “You son of a bitch,” he muttered. “You goddamn, miserable son of a bitch.” He trudged back slowly to his car, trying to believe that the truck driver had fled the hazard of a fistfight. It was possible, of course, but, somehow he could not believe it.

He got into his car and was about to drive onto the highway when he changed his mind and switched the motor off. That crazy bastard might just be tooling along at 15 miles an hour, waiting for him to catch up. Nuts to that, he thought. So he blew his schedule; screw it. Forbes would have to wait, that was all. And if Forbes didn’t care to wait, that was all right, too. He’d sit here for a while and let the nut get out of range, let him think he’d won the day. He grinned. You’re the bloody Red Baron, Jack; you’ve shot me down. Now go to hell with my sincerest compliments. He shook his head. Beyond belief, he thought.

He really should have done this earlier, pulled over, waited. Then the truck driver would have had to let it pass. Or picked on someone else, the startling thought occurred to him. Jesus, maybe that was how the crazy bastard whiled away his work hours! Jesus Christ Almighty! Was it possible?

He looked at the dashboard clock. It was just past 12:30. Wow, he thought. All that in less than an hour. He shifted on the seat and stretched his legs out. Leaning back against the door, he closed his eyes and mentally perused the things he had to do tomorrow and the following day. Today was shot to hell, as far as he could see.

When he opened his eyes, afraid of drifting into sleep and losing too much time, almost eleven minutes had passed. The nut must be an ample distance off by now, he thought; at least 11 miles and likely more, the way he drove. Good enough. He wasn’t going to try to make San Francisco on schedule now, anyway. He’d take it real easy.

Mann adjusted his safety belt, switched on the motor, tapped the transmission pointer into drive position and pulled onto the highway, glancing back across his shoulder. Not a car in sight. Great day for driving. Everybody was staying at home. That nut must have a reputation around here. When Crazy Jack is on the highway, lock your car in the garage.

Mann chuckled at the notion as his car began to turn the curve ahead.

Mindless reflex drove his right foot down against the brake pedal. Suddenly, his car had skidded to a halt and he was staring down the highway. The truck and trailer were parked on the shoulder less than 90 yards away.

Mann couldn’t seem to function. He knew his car was blocking the west-bound lane, knew that he should either make a U-turn or pull off the highway, but all he could do was gape at the truck. He cried out, legs retracting, as a horn blast sounded behind him. Snapping up his head, he looked at the rear view mirror, gasping as he saw a yellow station wagon bearing down on him at high speed. Suddenly, it veered off toward the eastbound lane, disappearing from the mirror. Mann jerked around and saw it hurtling past his car, its rear end snapping back and forth, its back tires screeching. He saw the twisted features of the man inside, saw his lips move rapidly with cursing.

Then the station wagon had swerved back into the westbound lane and was speeding off. It gave Mann an odd sensation to see it pass the truck. The man in that station wagon could drive on, unthreatened. Only he’d been singled out. What happened was demented. Yet it was happening. He drove his car onto the highway shoulder and braked. Putting the transmission into neutral, he leaned back, staring at the truck. His head was aching again. There was a pulsing at his temples like the ticking of a muffled clock.

What was he to do? He knew very well that if he left his car to walk to the truck, the driver would pull away and re-park farther down the highway. He may as well face the fact that he was dealing with a madman. He felt the tremor in his stomach muscles starting up again. His heartbeat thudded slowly, striking at his chest wall. Now what?

With a sudden, angry impulse, Mann snapped the transmission into gear and stepped down hard on the accelerator pedal. The tires of the car spun sizzlingly before they gripped; the car shot out onto the highway. Instantly, the truck began to move. He even had the motor on! Mann thought in raging fear. He floored the pedal, then, abruptly, realized he couldn’t make it, that the truck would block his way and he’d collide with its trailer. A vision flashed across his mind, a fiery explosion and a sheet of flame

incinerating him. He started braking fast, trying to decelerate evenly, so he wouldn’t lose control. When he’d slowed down enough to feel that it was safe, he steered the car onto the shoulder and stopped it again, throwing the transmission into neutral.

Approximately eighty yards ahead, the truck pulled off the highway and stopped.

Mann tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. Now what? he thought. Turn around and head east until he reached a cut-off that would take him to San Francisco by another route? How did he know the truck driver wouldn’t follow him even then? His cheeks twisted as he bit his lips together angrily. No! He wasn’t going to turn around!

His expression hardened suddenly. Well, he wasn’t going to sit here all day, that was certain. Reaching out, he tapped the gearshift into drive and steered his car onto the highway once again. He saw the massive truck and trailer start to move but made no effort to speed up. He tapped at the brakes, taking a position about 30 yards behind the trailer. He glanced at his speedometer. Forty miles an hour. The truck driver had his left arm out of the cab window and was waving him on. What did that mean? Had he changed his mind? Decided, finally, that this thing had gone too far? Mann couldn’t let himself believe it.

He looked ahead. Despite the mountain ranges all around, the highway was flat as far as he could see. He tapped a fingernail against the horn bar, trying to make up his mind. Presumably, he could continue all the way to San Francisco at this speed, hanging back just far enough to avoid the worst of the exhaust fumes. It didn’t seem likely that the truck driver would stop directly on the highway to block his way. And if the truck driver pulled onto the shoulder to let him pass, he could pull off the highway, too. It would be a draining afternoon but a safe one.

On the other hand, outracing the truck might be worth just one more try. This was obviously what that son of a bitch wanted. Yet, surely, a vehicle of such size couldn’t be driven with the same daring as, potentially, his own. The laws of mechanics were against it, if nothing else. Whatever advantage the truck had in mass, it had to lose in stability, particularly that of its trailer. If Mann were to drive at, say, 80 miles an hour and there were a few steep grades-as he felt sure there were-the truck would have to fall behind.

The question was, of course, whether he had the nerve to maintain such a speed over a long distance. He’d never done it before. Still, the more he thought about it, the more it appealed to him; far more than the alternative did. Abruptly, he decided. Right, he thought. He checked ahead, then pressed down hard on the accelerator pedal and pulled into the eastbound lane. As he neared the truck, he tensed, anticipating that the driver might block his way. But the truck did not shift from the westbound lane. Mann’s car moved along its mammoth side. He glanced at the cab and saw the name keller printed on its door. For a shocking instant, he thought it read killer and started to slow down. Then, glancing at the name again, he saw what it really was and depressed the pedal sharply.

When he saw the truck reflected in the rear view mirror, he steered his car into the westbound lane. He shuddered, dread and satisfaction mixed together, as he saw that the truck driver was speeding up. It was strangely comforting to know the man’s intentions definitely again. That plus the knowledge of his face and name seemed, somehow, to reduce his stature. Before, he had been faceless, nameless, an embodiment of unknown terror. Now, at least, he was an individual. All right, Keller, said his mind, let’s see you beat me with that purple silver relic now. He pressed down harder on the pedal. Here we go, he thought.

He looked at the speedometer, scowling as he saw that he was doing only 74 miles an hour. Deliberately, he pressed down on the pedal, alternating his gaze between the highway ahead and the speedometer until the needle turned past 80. He felt a flickering of satisfaction with himself. All right, Keller, you son of a bitch, top that, he thought.

After several moments, he glanced into the rear view mirror again. Was the truck getting closer? Stunned, he checked the speedometer. Damn it! He was down to 76! He forced in the accelerator pedal angrily. He mustn’t go less than 80! Mann’s chest shuddered with convulsive breath.

He glanced aside as he hurtled past a beige sedan parked on the shoulder underneath a tree. A young couple sat inside it, talking. Already they were far behind, their world removed from his. Had they even glanced aside when he’d passed? He doubted it.

He started as the shadow of an overhead bridge whipped across the hood and windshield. Inhaling raggedly, he glanced at the speedometer again. He was holding at 81. He checked the rear view mirror. Was it his imagination that the truck was gaining ground? He looked forward with anxious eyes. There had to be some kind of town ahead. To hell with time; he’d stop at the police station and tell them what had happened. They’d have to believe him. Why would he stop to tell them such a story if it weren’t true? For all he knew, Keller had a police record in these parts. Oh, sure, we’re on to him, he heard a faceless officer remark. That crazy bastard’s asked for it before and now he’s going to get it. Mann shook himself and looked at the mirror. The truck was getting closer. Wincing, he glanced at the speedometer, goddamn it, pay attention! raged his mind. He was down to 74 again! Whining with frustration, he depressed the pedal. Eighty!-80! he demanded of himself. There was a murderer behind him!

His car began to pass a field of flowers; lilacs, Mann saw, white and purple stretching out in endless rows. There was a small shack near the highway, the words field fresh flowers painted on it. A brown-cardboard square was propped against the shack, the word funerals printed crudely on it. Mann saw himself, abruptly, lying in a casket, painted like some grotesque mannequin. The overpowering smell of flowers seemed to fill his nostrils. Ruth and the children sitting in the first row, heads bowed. All his relatives-

Suddenly, the pavement roughened and the car began to bounce and shudder, driving bolts of pain into his head. He felt the steering wheel resisting him and clamped his hands around it tightly, harsh vibrations running up his arms. He didn’t dare look at the mirror now. He had to force himself to keep the speed unchanged. Keller wasn’t going to slow down; he was sure of that. What if he got a flat tire, though? All control would vanish in an instant. He visualized the somersaulting of his car, its grinding, shrieking tumble, the explosion of its gas tank, his body crushed and burned and-

The broken span of pavement ended and his gaze jumped quickly to the rear view mirror. The truck was no closer, but it hadn’t lost ground, either. Mann’s eyes shifted. Up ahead were hills and mountains.

He tried to reassure himself that upgrades were on his side, that he could climb them at the same speed he was going now. Yet all he could imagine were the downgrades, the immense truck close behind him, slamming violently into his car and knocking it across some cliff edge. He had a horrifying vision of dozens of broken, rusted cars lying unseen in the canyons ahead, corpses in every one of them, all flung to shattering deaths by Keller.

Mann’s car went rocketing into a corridor of trees. On each side of the highway was a eucalyptus windbreak, each trunk three feet from the next. It was like speeding through a high-walled canyon. Mann gasped, twitching, as a large twig bearing dusty leaves dropped down across the windshield, then slid out of sight. Dear God! he thought. He was getting near the edge himself. If he should lose his nerve at this speed, it was over. Jesus! That would be ideal for Keller! he realized suddenly. He visualized the square faced driver laughing as he passed the burning wreckage, knowing that he’d killed his prey without so much as touching him.

Mann started as his car shot out into the open. The route ahead was not straight now but winding up into the foothills. Mann willed himself to press down on the pedal even more. Eighty-three now, almost 84.To his left was a broad terrain of green hills blending into mountains. He saw a black car on a dirt road, moving toward the highway. Was its side painted white? Mann’s heartbeat lurched. Impulsively, he jammed the heel of his right hand down against the horn bar and held it there. The blast of the horn was shrill and racking to his ears. His heart began to pound. Was it a police car? Was it?

He let the horn bar up abruptly. No, it wasn’t. Damn! his mind raged. Keller must have been amused by his pathetic efforts. Doubtless, he was chuckling to himself right now. He heard the truck driver’s voice in his mind, coarse and sly. You think you gonna get a cop to save you, boy? Shee-it. You gonna die. Mann’s heart contorted with savage hatred. You son of a bitch! he thought. Jerking his right hand into a fist, he drove it down against the seat. Goddamn you, Keller! I’m going to kill you, if it’s the last thing I do!

The hills were closer now. There would be slopes directly, long steep grades. Mann felt a burst of hope within himself. He was sure to gain a lot of distance on the truck. No matter how he tried, that bastard Keller couldn’t manage 80 miles an hour on a hill. But I can! cried his mind with fierce elation. He worked up saliva in his mouth and swallowed it. The back of his shirt was drenched. He could feel sweat trickling down his sides. A bath and a drink, first order of the day on reaching San Francisco. A long, hot bath, a long, cold drink. Cutty Sark. He’d splurge, by Christ. He rated it.

The car swept up a shallow rise. Not steep enough, goddamn it! The truck’s momentum would prevent its losing speed. Mann felt mindless hatred for the landscape. Already, he had topped the rise and tilted over to a shallow downgrade. He looked at the rear view mirror. Square, he thought, everything about the truck was square: the radiator grille, the fender shapes, the bumper ends, the outline of the cab, even the shape of Keller’s hands and face. He visualized the truck as some great entity pursuing him, insentient, brutish, chasing him with instinct only.

Mann cried out, horror-stricken, as he saw the road repairs sign up ahead. His frantic gaze leaped down the highway. Both lanes blocked, a huge black arrow pointing toward the alternate route! He groaned in anguish, seeing it was dirt. His foot jumped automatically to the brake pedal and started pumping it. He threw a dazed look at the rear view mirror. The truck was moving as fast as ever! It couldn’t, though! Mann’s expression froze in terror as he started turning to the right.

He stiffened as the front wheels hit the dirt road. For an instant, he was certain that the back part of the car was going to spin; he felt it breaking to the left. “No, don’t!” he cried. Abruptly, he was jarring down the dirt road, elbows braced against his sides, trying to keep from losing control. His tires battered at the ruts, almost tearing the wheel from his grip. The windows rattled noisily. His neck snapped back and forth with painful jerks. His jolting body surged against the binding of the safety belt and slammed down violently on the seat. He felt the bouncing of the car drive up his spine. His clenching teeth slipped and he cried out hoarsely as his upper teeth gouged deep into his lip.

He gasped as the rear end of the car began surging to the right. He started to jerk the steering wheel to the left, then, hissing, wrenched it in the opposite direction, crying out as the right rear fender cracked into a fence pole, knocking it down. He started pumping at the brakes, struggling to regain control. The car rear yawed sharply to the left, tires shooting out a spray of dirt. Mann felt a scream tear upward in his throat. He twisted wildly at the steering wheel. The car began careening to the right. He hitched the wheel around until the car was on course again. His head was pounding like his heart now, with gigantic, throbbing spasms. He started coughing as he gagged on dripping blood.

The dirt road ended suddenly, the car regained momentum on the pavement and he dared to look at the rear view mirror. The truck was slowed down but was still behind him, rocking like a freighter on a storm-tossed sea, its huge tires scouring up a pall of dust. Mann shoved in the accelerator pedal and his car surged forward. A good, steep grade lay just ahead; he’d gain that distance now. He swallowed blood, grimacing at the taste, then fumbled in his trouser pocket and tugged out his handkerchief. He pressed it to his bleeding lip, eyes fixed on the slope ahead. Another fifty yards or so. He writhed his

back. His undershirt was soaking wet, adhering to his skin. He glanced at the rear view mirror. The truck had just regained the highway. Tough! he thought with venom. Didn’t get me, did you, Keller? His car was on the first yards of the upgrade when steam began to issue from beneath its hood. Mann stiffened suddenly, eyes widening with shock. The steam increased, became a smoking mist. Mann’s gaze jumped down. The red light hadn’t flashed on yet but had to in a moment. How could this be happening?

Just as he was set to get away! The slope ahead was long and gradual, with many curves. He knew he couldn’t stop. Could he U-turn unexpectedly and go back down? the sudden thought occurred. He looked ahead. The highway was too narrow, bound by hills on both sides. There wasn’t room enough to make an uninterrupted turn and there wasn’t time enough to ease around. If he tried that, Keller would shift direction and hit him head on. “Oh, my God!” Mann murmured suddenly.

He was going to die.

He stared ahead with stricken eyes, his view increasingly obscured by steam. Abruptly, he recalled the afternoon he’d had the engine steam cleaned at the local car wash. The man who’d done it had suggested he replace the water hoses, because steam cleaning had a tendency to make them crack. He’d nodded, thinking that he’d do it when he had more time. More time! The phrase was like a dagger in his mind.

He’d failed to change the hoses and, for that failure, he was now about to die.

He sobbed in terror as the dashboard light flashed on. He glanced at it involuntarily and read the word hot, black on red. With a breathless gasp, he jerked the transmission into low. Why hadn’t he done that right away! He looked ahead. The slope seemed endless. Already, he could hear a boiling throb inside the radiator. How much coolant was there left? Steam was clouding faster, hazing up the windshield.

Reaching out, he twisted at a dashboard knob. The wipers started flicking back and forth in fan-shaped sweeps. There had to be enough coolant in the radiator to get him to the top. Then what? cried his mind. He couldn’t drive without coolant, even downhill. He glanced at the rear view mirror. The truck was falling behind. Mann snarled with maddened fury. If it weren’t for that goddamned hose, he’d be escaping now!

The sudden lurching of the car snatched him back to terror. If he braked now, he could jump out, run, and scrabble up that slope. Later, he might not have the time. He couldn’t make himself stop the car, though. As long as it kept on running, he felt bound to it, less vulnerable. God knows what would happen if he left it.

Mann started up the slope with haunted eyes, trying not to see the red light on the edges of his vision. Yard by yard, his car was slowing down. Make it, make it, pleaded his mind, even though he thought that it was futile. The car was running more and more unevenly. The thumping percolation of its radiator filled his ears. Any moment now, the motor would be choked off and the car would shudder to a stop, leaving him a sitting target. No, he thought. He tried to blank his mind.

He was almost to the top, but in the mirror he could see the truck drawing up on him. He jammed down on the pedal and the motor made a grinding noise. He groaned. It had to make the top! Please, God, help me! screamed his mind. The ridge was just ahead. Closer. Closer. Make it. “Make it.” The car was shuddering and clanking, slowing down-oil, smoke, and steam gushing from beneath the hood. The windshield wipers swept from side to side. Mann’s head throbbed. Both his hands felt numb. His heartbeat pounded as he stared ahead. Make it, please, God, make it. Make it. Make it!

Over! Mann’s lips opened in a cry of triumph as the car began descending. Hand shaking

uncontrollably, he shoved the transmission into neutral and let the car go into a glide. The triumph strangled in his throat as he saw that there was nothing in sight but hills and more hills. Never mind! He was on a downgrade now, a long one. He passed a sign that read, trucks use low gears next 12 miles.

Twelve miles! Something would come up. It had to.

The car began to pick up speed. Mann glanced at the speedometer. Forty-seven miles an hour. The red light still burned. He’d save the motor for a long time, too, though; let it cool for twelve miles, if the truck was far enough behind.

His speed increased. Fifty… 51. Mann watched the needle turning slowly toward the right. He glanced at the rear-view mirror. The truck had not appeared yet. With a little luck, he might still get a good lead. Not as good as he might have if the motor hadn’t overheated but enough to work with. There had to be some place along the way to stop. The needle edged past 55 and started toward the 60 mark.

Again, he looked at the rear view mirror, jolting as he saw that the truck had topped the ridge and was on its way down. He felt his lips begin to shake and crimped them together. His gaze jumped fitfully between the steam obscured highway and the mirror. The truck was accelerating rapidly. Keller doubtless had the gas pedal floored. It wouldn’t be long before the truck caught up to him. Mann’s right hand twitched unconsciously toward the gearshift. Noticing, he jerked it back, grimacing, glanced at the speedometer. The car’s velocity had just passed 60. Not enough! He had to use the motor now!

He reached out desperately.

His right hand froze in mid-air as the motor stalled; then, shooting out the hand, he twisted the ignition key. The motor made a grinding noise but wouldn’t start. Mann glanced up, saw that he was almost on the shoulder, jerked the steering wheel around. Again, he turned the key, but there was no response. He looked up at the rear view mirror. The truck was gaining on him swiftly. He glanced at the speedometer.

The car’s speed was fixed at 62. Mann felt himself crushed in a vice of panic. He stared ahead with haunted eyes.

Then he saw it, several hundred yards ahead: an escape route for trucks with burned-out brakes. There was no alternative now. Either he took the turnout or his car would be rammed from behind. The truck was frighteningly close. He heard the high-pitched wailing of its motor. Unconsciously, he started easing to the right, then jerked the wheel back suddenly. He mustn’t give the move away! He had to wait until the last possible moment. Otherwise, Keller would follow him in.

Just before he reached the escape route, Mann wrenched the steering wheel around. The car rear started breaking to the left, tires shrieking on the pavement. Mann steered with the skid, braking just enough to keep from losing all control. The rear tires grabbed and, at 60 miles an hour, the car shot up the dirt trail, tires slinging up a cloud of dust. Mann began to hit the brakes. The rear wheels side slipped and the car slammed hard against the dirt bank to the right. Mann gasped as the car bounced off and started to fishtail with violent whipping motions, angling toward the trail edge. He drove his foot down on the brake pedal with all his might. The car rear skidded to the right and slammed against the bank again.

Mann heard a grinding rend of metal and felt himself heaved downward suddenly, his neck snapped, as the car plowed to a violent halt.

As in a dream, Mann turned to see the truck and trailer swerving off the highway. Paralyzed, he watched the massive vehicle hurtle toward him, staring at it with a blank detachment, knowing he was going to die but so stupefied by the sight of the looming truck that he couldn’t react. The gargantuan shape roared closer, blotting out the sky. Mann felt a strange sensation in his throat, unaware that he was screaming.

Suddenly, the truck began to tilt. Mann stared at it in choked-off silence as it started tipping over like some ponderous beast toppling in slow motion. Before it reached his car, it vanished from his rear window.

Hands palsied, Mann undid the safety belt and opened the door. Struggling from the car, he stumbled to the trail edge, staring downward. He was just in time to see the truck capsize like a foundering ship. The tanker followed, huge wheels spinning as it overturned.

The storage tank on the truck exploded first, the violence of its detonation causing Mann to stagger back and sit down clumsily on the dirt. A second explosion roared below, its shock wave buffeting across him hotly, making his ears hurt. His glazed eyes saw a fiery column shoot up toward the sky in front of him, then another.

Mann crawled slowly to the trail edge and peered down at the canyon. Enormous gouts of flame were towering upward, topped by thick, black, oily smoke. He couldn’t see the truck or trailer, only flames. He gaped at them in shock, all feeling drained from him.

Then, unexpectedly, emotion came. Not dread, at first, and not regret; not the nausea that followed soon. It was a primeval tumult in his mind: the cry of some ancestral beast above the body of its vanquished foe.

Catherine L. Moore – Black thirst

Northwest Smith leant his head back against the warehouse wall and stared up into the black night-sky of Venus. The waterfront street was very quiet tonight, very dangerous. He could hear no sound save the eternal slap-slap of water against the piles, but he knew how much of danger and sudden death dwelt here voiceless in the breathing dark, and he may have been a little homesick as he stared up into the clouds that masked a green star hanging lovely on the horizon–Earth and home. And if he thought of that he must have grinned wryly to him-self in the dark, for Northwest Smith had no home, and Earth would not have welcomed him very kindly just then.

     He sat quietly in the dark. Above him in the warehouse wall a faintly lighted window threw a square of pallor upon the wet street. Smith drew back into his angle of darkness under the slanting shaft, hugging one knee. And presently he heard footsteps softly on the street.
     He may have been expecting footsteps, for he turned his head alertly and listened, but it was not a man’s feet that came so lightly over the wooden quay, and Smith’s brow furrowed. A woman, here, on this black waterfront by night? Not even the lowest class of Venusian street-walker dared come along the waterfronts of Ednes on the nights when the space-liners were not in. Yet across the pavement came clearly now the light tapping of a woman’s feet.
     Smith drew farther back into the shadows and waited. And presently she came, a darkness in the dark save for the triangular patch of pallor that was her face. As she passed under the light falling dimly from the window overhead he understood suddenly how she dared walk here and who she was. A long black cloak hid her, but the lightfell upon her face, heart-shaped under the little three-cornered velvet cap that Venusian women wear, fell on ripples of half-hidden bronze hair; and by that sweet triangular face and shining hair he knew her for one of the Minga maids–those beauties that from the beginning of history have been bred in the Minga stronghold for loveliness and grace, as racehorses are bred on Earth, and reared from ear-liest infancy in the art of charming men. Scarcely a court on the three planets lacks at least one of these exquisite creatures, long-limbed, milk-white, with their bronze hair and lovely brazen faces–if the lord of that court has the wealth to buy them. Kings from many nations and races have poured their riches into the Minga gateway, and girls like pure gold and ivory have gone forth to grace a thousand palaces, and this has been so since Ednes first rose on the shore of the Greater Sea.

 

     This girl walked here unafraid and unharmed because she wore the beauty that marked her for what she was. The heavy hand of the Minga stretched out protectingly over her bronze head, and not a man along the wharf-fronts but knew what dreadful penalties wbuld overtake him if he dared so much as to lay a finger on the milkwhiteness of a Minga maid–terrible penalties, such as men whisper of fearfully over segir-whisky mugs in the waterfront dives of many nations–mysterious, unnamable penalties more dreadful than any
knife or gun-flash could inflict.
     And these dangers, too, guarded the gates of the Minga castle. The chastity of the Minga girls was proverbial, a trade boast. This girl walked in peace and safety more sure than that attending the steps of a nun through slum streets by night on Earth.
     But even so, the girls went forth very rarely from the gates of the castle, never unattended. Smith had never seen one before, save at a distance. He shifted a little now, to catch a better glimpse as shewent by, to look for the escort that must surely walk a pace or two behind, though he heard no footsteps save her own. The slight motion caught her eye. She stopped. She peered closer into the dark, and said in a voice as sweet and smooth as cream.
     “How would you like to earn a goldpiece, my man?” A flash of perversity twisted Smith’s reply out of its usual slovenly dialect, and he said in his most cultured voice, in his most perfect High Venusian, “Thank you, no.” For a moment the woman stood quite still, peering through the darkness in a vain effort to reach his face.
     He could see her own, a pale oval in the window light, intent, surprised. Then she flung back her cloak and the dim light glinted on the case of a pocket flash as she flicked the catch. A beam of white radiance fell blindingly upon his face.
     For an instant the light held him–lounging against the wall in his spaceman’s leather, the burns upon it, the tatters, ray-gun in itsholster low on his thigh, and the brown scarred face turned to hers, eyes the colorless color of pale steel narrowed to the glare. It was a typical face. It belonged here, on the waterfront, in these dark and dangerous streets. It belonged to the type that frequents such places, those lawless men who ride the spaceways and live by the rule of the ray-gun, recklessly, warily outside the Patrol’s jurisdiction. But there was more than that in the scarred brown face turned to the light. She must have seen it as she held the flash unwavering, some deepburied trace of breeding and birth that made the cultured accents of the High Venusian not incongruous. And the colorless eyes derided her.
     “No,” she said, flicking off the light. “Not one goldpiece, but ahundred. And for another task that Imeant.”
“Thank you,” said Smith, not rising. “You must excuse me.”
     “Five hundred,” she said without a flicker of emotion in her creamy voice. In the dark Smith’s brows knit. There was something fantastic in the situation. Why–? She must have sensed his reaction almost as he realized it himself, for she said, “Yes, I know. It sounds insane. You see–I knew you in the light just now. Will you?–can you?–1 can’t explain here on the street….”
    Smith held the silence unbroken for thirty seconds, while a light-ning debate flashed through the recesses of his wary mind. Then he grinned to himself in the dark and said, “I’ll come.” Belatedly he got to his feet. “Where?”
     “The Palace Road on the edge of the Minga. Third door from the central gate, to the left. Say to the door-warden–‘Vaudir.'”
     “That is–?”
     “Yes, my name. You will come, in half an hour?”
     An instant longer Smith’s mind hovered on the verge of refusal. Then he shrugged.
     “Yes.”
     “At the third bell, then.” She made the little Venusian gesture of parting and wrapped her cloak about her. The blackness of it, and the softness of her footfalls, made her seem to melt into the darknesswithout a sound, but Smith’s trained ears heard her footsteps very softly on the pavement as she went on into the dark.
     He sat there until he could no longer detect any faintest sound of feet on the wharf. He waited patiently, but his mind was a little dizzy with surprise. Was the traditional inviolability of the Minga a fraud? Were
the close-guarded girls actually allowed sometimes to walk unattended by night, making assignations as they pleased? Or was it some elaborate hoax? Tradition for countless centuries had declared the gates in the Minga wall to be guarded so relentlessly by strange dangers that not even a mouse could slip through without the knowledge of the Alendar, the Minga’s lord. Was it then by order of the Alendar that the door would open to him when he whispered “Vaudir” to the warden? Or would it open? Was the girl perhaps the property of some Ednes lord, deceiving him for obscure purposes of her own?
     He shook his head a little and grinned to himself. After all, time would tell.
     He waited a while longer in the dark. Little waves lapped the piles with sucking sounds, and once the sky lit up with the long, blinding roar of a spaceship splitting the dark. At last he rose and stretched his long body as if he had been sitting there for a good while. Then he settled the gun on his leg and set off down the black street. He walked very lightly in his spaceman’s boots.
     A twenty-minute walk through dark byways, still and deserted, brought him to the outskirts of that vast city-within-a-city called the Minga. The dark, rough walls of it towered over him, green with the lichenlike growths of the Hot Planet. On the Palace Road one deeply-sunk central gateway opened upon the mysteries within. A tiny blue light burned over the arch. Smith went softly through the dimness to the leftof it, counting two tiny doors half hidden in deep recesses. At the third he paused. It was painted a rusty green, and a green vine spilling down the wall half veiled it, so that if he had not been searching he would have passed it by.
     Smith stood for a long minute, motionless, staring at the green panels deep-sunk in rock. He listened. He even sniffed the heavy air. Warily as a wild beast he hesitated in the dark. But at last he lifted his hand and tapped very lightly with his fingertips on the green door. It swung open without a sound. Pitch-blackness confronted him, an archway of blank dark in the dimly seen stone wall. And a voice queried softly, “Qu’a to’ vat?”
     “Vaudir,” murmured Smith, and grinned to himself involuntarily. How many romantic youths must have stood at these doors in nights gone by, breathing hopefully the names of bronze beauties to door-men in dark archways! But unless tradition lied, no man before had ever passed. He must be the first in many years to stand here invited at a little doorway in the Minga wall and hear the watchman mur-mur, “Come.”
     Smith loosened the gun at his side and bent his tall head under the arch. He stepped into blackness that closed about him like water as the door swung shut. He stood there with quickened heartbeats, hand on his gun, listening. A blue light, dim and ghostly, flooded the place without warning and he saw that the doorman had crossed to a switch at the far side of the tiny chamber wherein he stood. The man was one of the Minga eunuchs, a flabby creature, splendid in crimson velvet. He carried a cloak of purple over his arm, and made a splash of royal colors in the dimness. His sidelong eyes regarded Smith from under lifted brows, with a look that the Earthman could not fathom. There was amusement in it, and a touch of terror and a certain reluc-tant admiration.Smith looked about him in frank curiosity. The little entry apparently hollowed out of the enormously thick wall itself. The only thing that broke its bareness was the ornate bronze door set in the far wall. His eyes sought the eunuch’s in mute inquiry.
     The creature came forward obsequiously, murmuring, “Permit me–” and flung the purple cloak he carried over Smith’s shoulders. Its luxurious folds, faintly fragrant, swept about him like a caress. It covered him, tall as he was, to the very boot-soles. He drew back in faint distaste as the eunuch lifted his hands to fasten the jeweled clasp at his throat. “Please to draw up the hood also,” murmured the creature without apparent resentment, as Smith snapped the fastening himself. The hood covered his sun-bleached hair and fell in thick folds about his face, casting it into deep shadow.
     The eunuch opened the bronze inner door and Smith stared down a long hallway curving almost imperceptibly to the right. The paradox of elaborately decorated simplicity was illustrated in every broad polished panel of the wall, so intricately and exquisitely carved that it gave at first the impression of a strange, rich plainness.
     His booted feet sank sensuously into the deep pile of the carpet at every step as he followed the eunuch down the hail. Twice he heard voices murmuring behind lighted doors, and his hand lay on the butt of the ray-gun under the folds of his robe, but no door opened and the hail lay empty and dim before them. So far it had been amazingly easy. Either tradition lied about the impregnability of the Minga, or the girl Vaudir had bribed with incredible lavishness or–that thought again, uneasily–it was with the Alendar’s consent that he walked here unchallenged. But why?
     They came to a door of silver grille at the end of the curved corri-dor, and passed through it into another hallway slanting up, as exquisitelyvoluptuous as the first. A flight of stairs wrought from dully gleaming bronze curved at the end of it. Then came another hail lighted with rosy lanterns that swung from the arched ceiling, and beyond another stairway, this time of silvery metal fretwork, spi-raling down again. And in all that distance they met no living creature. Voices hummed behind closed doors, and once or twice strains of music drifted faintly to Smith’s ears, but either the corridors had been cleared by a special order, or incredible luck was attending them. And he had the uncomfortable sensation of eyes upon his back more than once. They passed dark hallways and open, unlighted doors, and sometimes the hair on his neck bristled with the feeling of human nearness, inimical, watching.
     For all of twenty minutes they walked through curved corridors and up and down spiral stairs until even Smith’s keen senses were confused and he could not have said at what height above the ground he was, or in what direction the corridor led into which they at last emerged. At the end of that time his nerves were tense as steel wire and he restrained himself only by force from nervous, over-theshoulder glances each time they passed an open door. An air of languorous menace brooded almost visibly over the place, he thought. The sound of soft voices behind doors, the feel of eyes, of whispers in the air, the memory of tales half heard in waterfront dives about the secrets of the Minga, the nameless dangers of the Minga. Smith gripped his gun as he walked through the splendor and the dimness, every sense assailed by voluptuous appeals, but his nerves strained to wire and his flesh crawled as he passed unlighted doors.
     This was too easy. For so many centuries the tradition of the Minga had been upheld, a byword of impregnability, a stronghold guarded by more than swords, by greater dangers than the ray-gun–and yet here he walked, unquestioned, into the deepest heart of the place,here he walked, unquestioned, into the deepest heart of the place, his only disguise a velvet cloak, his only weapon a holstered gun, and no one challenged him, no guards, no slaves, not even a passer-by to note that a man taller than any dweller here should be strode unquestioned through the innermost corridors of the inviolable Minga.
     He loos-ened the ray-gun in its sheath.
The eunuch in his scarlet velvet went on confidently ahead. Only once did he falter. They had reached a dark passageway, and just as they came opposite its mouth the sound of a soft, slithering scrape, as of something over stones, draggingly, reached their ears. He saw the eunuch start and half glance back, and then hurry on at a quicker pace, nor did he slacken until they had put two gates and a length of lighted corridor between them and that dark passage.
     So they went or’, through halls half lighted, through scented air and
empty dimness where the doorways closed upon murmurous mysteries within or opened to dark and the feel of watching eyes.
     And they came at last, after endless, winding progress, into a hallway low-ceiled and paneled in mother-of-pearl, pierced and filigreed with carving, and all the doors were of silver grille. And as the eunuch pushed open the silver gate that led into this corridor the thing happened that his taut nerves had been expecting ever since the start of the fantastic journey. One of the doors opened and a figure stepped out and faced them.
     Under the robe Smith’s gun slid soundlessly from its holster. He thought he saw the eunuch’s back stiffen a little, and his step falter, but only for an instant. It was a girl who had come out, a slave-girl in a single white garment, and at the first glimpse of the tall, purple-robed figure with hooded face, towering over her, she gave a little gasp and slumped to her knees as if under a blow. It was obeisance, but so shocked and terrified that it might have been a faint. She laid her face to the very carpet, and Smith, looking down in amazement onthe prostrate figure, saw that she was trembling violently.
     The gun slid back into its sheath and he paused for a moment over her shuddering homage. The eunuch twisted round to beckon with soundless violence, and Smith caught a glimpse of his face for the first time since their journey began. It was glistening with sweat, and the sidelong eyes were bright and shifting, like a hunted animal’s. Smith was oddly reassured by the sight of the eunuch’s obvious panic. There was danger then–danger of discovery, the sort of peril he knew and could fight. It was that creeping sensation of eyes
watching, of unseen things slithering down dark passages, that had strained his nerves so painfully. And yet, even so, it had been too easy.
     The eunuch had paused at a silver door half-way down the hail and was murmuring something very softly, his mouth against the grille. A panel of green brocade was stretched across the silver door on the inside, so they could see nothing within the room, but after a moment a voice said, “Good!” in a breathing whisper, and the door quivered a little and swung open six inches. The eunuch genuflected in a swirl of scarlet robes, and Smith caught his eye swiftly, the look of terror not yet faded, but amusement there too, and a certain respect. And then the door opened wider and he stepped inside.
     He stepped into a room green as a sea-cave. The walls were paneled in green brocade, low green couches circled the room, and, in the center, the blazing bronze beauty of the girl Vaudir. She wore a robe of green velvet cut in the startling Venusian fashion to loop over one shoulder and swathe her body in tight, molten folds, and the skirt of it was slit up one side so that at every other motion the long white leg flashed bare.
    He saw her for the first time in a full light, and she was lovely beyond belief with her bronze hair cloudy on her shoulders and the pale, lazyface smiling. Under deep lashes the sidelong black eyes of her race met his.
    He jerked impatiently at the hampering hood of the cloak. “May I take this off?” he said. “Are we safe here?”
     She laughed with a short, metallic sound. “Safe!” she said ironically. “But take it off if you must. I’ve gone too far now to stop at trifles.” And as the rich folds parted and slid away from his leather brownness she in turn stared in quickened interest at what she had seen only in a half-light before. He was almost laughably incongruous in this jewel-box room, all leather and sunburn and his scarred face keen and wary in the light of the lantern swinging from its silver chain. She looked a second time at that face, its lean, leathery keenness and the scars that ray-guns had left, and the mark of knife and talon, and the tracks of wild years along the spaceways. Wariness and resolution were instinct in that face, there was ruthlessness in every line of it, and when she met his eyes a little shock went over her. Pale, pale as bare steel, colorless in the sunburnt face.~ Steady and clear and no-colored, expressionless as water. Killer’s eyes. And she knew that this was the man she needed. The name and fame of Northwest Smith had penetrated even into these mother-ofpearl Minga halls. In its way it had spread into stranger places than this, by strange and devious paths and for strange, devious reasons. But even had she never heard the name (nor the deed she connected it with, which does not matter here), she would have known from this scarred face, these cold and steady eyes, that here stood the man she wanted, the man who could help her if any man alive could. And with that thought, others akin to it flashed through her mind like blades crossing, and she dropped her milk-white lids over the swordplay to hide its deadliness, and said, “Northwest… Smith,” in amusing murmur.
     “To be commanded,” said Smith in the idiom of her own tongue, but a spark of derision burned behind the courtly words. Still she said nothing, but looked him up and down with slow eyes. He
said at last, “Your desire–?” and shifted impatiently.
“I had need of a wharfman’s services,” she said, still in that breath-ing
whisper. “I had not seen you, then.
… There are many wharf-men along the seafront, but only one of you,
oh man of Earth–” and she lifted her arms and swayed toward him
exactly as a reed sways to a lake breeze, and her arms lay lightly on
his shoulders and her mouth was very near.
Smith looked down into the veiled eyes. He knew enough of the
breed of Venus to guess the deadly sword-flash of motive behind
any-thing a Venusian does, and he had caught a glimpse of that
particular sword-flash before she lowered her lids.And if her thoughts
were sword-play, his burnt like heat-beams straight to their purpose.
In the winking of an eye he knew a part of her motive–the most
obvious part.
And he stood there unanswering in the circle of her arms.
She looked up at him, half incredulous not to feel a leather embrace
tighten about her.
“Qu’a lo’val?” she murmured whimsically. “So cold, then, Earth-man?
Am I not desirable?”
Wordlessly he looked down at her, and despite himself the blood
quickened in him. Minga girls for too many centuries had been bornand bred to the art of charming men for Northwest Smith to stand
here in the warm arms of one and feel no answer to the invitation in
her eyes. A subtle fragrance rose from her brazen hair, and the velvet molded a body whose whiteness he could guess from the flash of the
long bare thigh her slashed skirt showed. He grinned a little
crookedly and stepped away, breaking the clasp of her hands behind
his neck.
“No,” he said. “You know your art well, my dear, but your motive does
not flatter me.”
She stood back and regarded him with a wry, half-appreciative smile.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll have to know much more about all this before I commit myself as
far as–that.”
“You fool,” she smiled. “You’re in over your head now, as deeply as
you could ever be. You were the moment you crossed the door-sill at
the outer wall. There is no drawing back.”
“Yet it was so easy–so very easy, to come in,” murmured Smith.
She came forward a step and looked up at him with narrowed eyes,
the pretense of seduction dropped like a cloak.
“You saw that, too?” she queried in a half-whisper. “It seemed so– to
you? Great Shar, if I could be sure….” And there was terror in her
face.
“Suppose we sit down and you tell me about it,” suggested Smith
practically.
She laid a hand–white as cream, soft as satin–on his arm and drewShe laid a hand–white as cream, soft as satin–on his arm and drew
him to the low divan that circled the room. There was inbred, generations-old coquetry in the touch, but the white hand shook a little.
“What is it you fear so?” queried Smith curiously as they sank to the
green velvet. “Death comes only once, you know.”
She shook her bronze head contemptuously.
“Not that,” she said. “At least–no, Iwish I knew just what it is I do fear-
-and that is the most dreadful part of it. But I wish–I wish it had not
been so easy to get you here.” – “The place was deserted,” he said
thoughtfully. “Not a soul along the halls. Not a guard anywhere. Only
once did we see any other crea-ture, and that was a slave-girl in the
hail just outside your door.”
“What did she–do?” Vaudir’s voice was breathless.
“Dropped to her knees as if she’d been shot. You might have thought me the devil himself by the way she acted.”
The girl’s breath escaped in a sigh.
“Safe, then,” she said thankfully. “She must have thought you the –the
Alendar.” Her voice faltered a little over the name, as if she half
feared to pronounce it. “He wears a cloak like that you wore when he
comes through the halls. But he comes so very seldom…”
“I’ve never seen him,” said Smith, “but, good Lord, is he such a monster? The girl dropped as if she’d been hamstrung.”
“Oh, hush, hush!” Vaudir agonized. “You mustn’t speak of him so.
He’s–he’s-of course she knelt and hid her face. I wish to heaven I
had….”Smith faced her squarely and searched the veiled dark eyes with a
gaze as bleak as empty seas. And he saw very clearly behind the
veils the stark, nameless terror at their depths.
“What is it?” he demanded.
She drew her shoulders together and shivered a little, and her eyes
were furtive as she glanced around the room.
“Don’t you feel it?” she asked in that half-whisper to which her voice
sank so caressingly. And he smiled to himself to see how instinctively eloquent was the courtezan in her–alluring gestures though her
hands trembled, soft voice huskily seductive even in its terror.
“–always, always!” she was saying. “The soft, hushed, hovering menace! It haunts the whole place.
Didn’t you feel it as you came in?”
“I think I did,” Smith answered slowly. “Yes–that feel of some-thing
just out of sight, hiding in dark doorways… a sort of tensity in the air…”
“Danger,” she whispered, “terrible, nameless danger… oh, I feel it
wherever I go… it’s soaked into me and through me until it’s a part of me, body and soul….”
Smith heard the note of rising hysteria in her voice, and said quickly,
“Why did you come to me?”
“I didn’t, consciously.” She conquered the hysteria with an effort and
took up her tale a little more calmly. “I was really looking for a wharf man, as I said, and for quite another reason than this. It doesn’t matter, now. But when you spoke, when I flashed my light and saw
your face, I knew you. I’d heard of you, you see, and about the–theLakkmanda affair, and I knew in a moment that if anyone alive could
help me, it would be you.”
“But what is it? Help you in what?”
“It’s a long story,” she said, “and too strange, almost, to believe, and
too vague for you to take seriously.
And yet I know…. Have you heard the history of the Minga?”
“A little of it. It goes back very far.”
“Back into the beginning–and farther. I wonder if you can understand. You see, we on Venus are closer to our beginnings than you.
Life here developed faster, of course, and along lines more different
than Earthmen realize. On Earth civilization rose slowly enough for
the–the elementals–to sink back into darkness. On Venus–oh, it’s
bad, bad for men to develop too swiftly! Life rises out of dark and mystery and things too strange and terrible to be looked upon.
Earth’s civilization grew slowly, and by the time men were civilized
enough to look back they were sufficiently far from their origins not to
see, not to know. But we here who look back see too clearly,
sometimes, too nearly and vividly the black beginning…. Great Shar
defend me, what I have seen!”
White hands flashed up to hide sudden terror in her eyes, and hair in
a brazen cloud fell fragrantly over her fingers. And even in that terror
was an inbred allure as natural as breathing.
In the little silence that followed, Smith caught himself glancing
furtively over his shoulder. The room was ominously still…
Vaudir lifted her face from her hands, shaking back her hair. The
hands trembled. She clasped them on her velvet knee and went on.”The Minga,” she said, and her voice was resolutely steady, “began
too long ago for anyone to name the date. It began before dates. When Far-thursa came out of the sea-fog with his men and founded
this city at the mountain’s foot he built it around the walls of a castle
already here. The Minga castle. And the Alendar sold Minga girls to
the sailors and the city began. All that is myth, but the Minga had
always been here.
“The Alendar dwelt in his stronghold and bred his golden girls and
trained them in the arts of charming men, and guarded them with–
with strange weapons–and sold them to kings at royal prices. There
has always been an Alendar. I have seen him, once. .
“He walks the halls on rare occasions, and it is best to kneel and hide
one’s face when he comes by.
Yes, it is best…. But I passed him one day, and–and–he is tall, tall as
you, Earthman, and his eyes are like–the space between the worlds. I
looked into his eyes under the hood he wore–I was not afraid of devil
or man, then. I looked him in the eyes before I made obeisance, and
I–I shall never be free of fear again. I looked into evil as one looks
into a pool. Blackness and blankness and raw evil.
Impersonal, not malevolent. Elemental .
the elemental dreadfulness that life rose from. And I know very surely,
now, that the first Alendar sprang from no mortal seed. There were
races before man…. Life goes back very dread,fully through many
forms and evils, before it reaches the wellspring of its begin-ning.
And the Alendar had not the eyes of a human creature, and I met
them–and I am damned!”
Her voice trailed softly away and she sat quiet for a space, staring
before her with remembering eyes.”I am doomed and damned to a blacker hell than any of Shar’s
priests threaten,” she resumed. “No, wait–this is not hysteria. I
haven’t told you the worst part. You’ll find it hard to believe, but it’s
truth–truth–Great Shar, if I could hope it were not!
“The origin of it is lost in legend. But why, in the beginning, did the
first Alendar dwell in the misty sea-edge castle, alone and un-known,
breeding his bronze girls?–not for sale, then. Where did he get the
secret of producing the invariable type? And the castle, legend says,
was age-old when Far-thursa found it. The girls had a perfected,
consistent beauty that could be attained only by generations of effort.
How long had the Minga been built, and by whom? Above all, why? What possible reason could there be for dwelling there absolutely
unknown, breeding civilized beauties in a world half-savage? Sometimes I think I have guessed the reason…
Her voice faded into a resonant silence, and for a while she sat staring blindly at the brocaded wall.
When she spoke again it was with a startling shift of topic.
“Am I beautiful, do you think?”
“More so than any I have ever seen before,” answered Smith without
flattery.
Her mouth twisted.
“There are girls here now, in this building, so much lovelier than I that I
am humbled to think of them. No mortal man has ever seen them,
except the Alendar, and he–is not wholly mortal. No mortal man will
ever see them. They are not for sale. Eventually they will disappear. .”One might think that feminine beauty must reach an apex beyond
which it can not rise, but this is not true. It can increase and intensify
until–I have no words. And I truly believe that there is no limit to the
heights it can reach, in the hands of the Alendar.And for every beauty
we know and hear of, through the slaves that tend them, gos-sip says
there are as many more, too immortally lovely for mortal eyes to see.
Have you ever considered that beauty might be refined and intensified until one could scarcely bear to look upon it? We have tales
here of such beauty, hidden in some of the secret rooms of the Minga.
“But the world never knows of these mysteries. No monarch on any
planet known is rich enough to buy the loveliness hidden in the Minga’s innermost rooms. It is not for sale. For countless centuries
the Alendars of the Minga have been breeding beauty, in higher and
higher degrees, at infinite labor and cost–beauty to be locked in
secret chambers, guarded most terribly, so that not even a whisper of
it passes the outer walls, beauty that vanishes, suddenly, in a breath–
like that! Where? Why? How? No one knows.
“And it is that I fear. I have not a fraction of the beauty I speak of, yet a
fate like that is written for me–somehow I know. I have looked into the
eyes of the Alendar, and–I know. And I am sure that I must look again
into those blank black eyes, more deeply, more dread-fully… –I know-
-and I am sick with terror of what more I shall know, soon.
“Something dreadful is waiting for me, drawing nearer and nearer.
Tomorrow, or the next day, or a little while after, I shall vanish, and the
girls will wonder and whisper a little, and then forget. It has hap-pened
before. Great Shar, what shall I do?”
She wailed it, musically and hopelessly, and sank into a little silence.And then her look changed and she said reluctantly, “And I have
dragged you in with me. I have broken every tradition of the Minga in
bringing you here, and there has been no hindrance–it has been too
easy, too easy. I think I have sealed your death. When you first came I
was minded to trick you into committing yourself so deeply that
perforce you must do as I asked to win free again. But I know now
that through the simple act of asking you her. I have dragged you in
deeper than I dreamed. It is a knowledge that has come to me
somehow, out of the air tonight. I can feel knowledge beating upon me–compelling me. For in my terror to get help I think I have
precipitated damnation upon us both. I know now–I have known in my
soul since you entered so easily, that you will not go out alive–that–it-
-will come for me and drag you down too…. Shar, Shar, what have I
done!”
“But what, what?” Smith struck his knee impatiently. “What is it we
face? Poison? Guards? Traps?
Hypnotism? Can’t you give me even a guess at what will happen.”
He leaned forward to search her face commandingly, and saw her
brows knit in an effort to find words that would cloak the mysteries
she had to tell. Her lips parted irresolutely.
“The Guardians,” she said. “The–Guardians….”
And then over her hesitant face swept a look of such horror that his
hand clenched on his knee and he felt the hairs rise along his neck. It
was not horror of any material thing, but an inner dreadfulness, a terrible awareness. The eyes that had met his glazed and escaped his
commanding ~stare without shifting their focus. It was as if they
ceased to be eyes and became dark windows–vacant. The beauty of
her face set like a mask, and behind the blank windows, behind the
lovely set mask, he could sense dimly the dark command flowing in.She put out her hands stiffly and rose. Smith found himself on his feet,
gun in hand, while his hackles lifted shudderingly and something
pulsed in the air as tangibly as the beat of wings. Three times that
nameless shudder stirred the air, and then Vaudir stepped forward
like an automaton and faced the door. She walked in her dream of masked dreadfulness, stiffly, through the portal. As she passed him
he put out a hesitant hand and laid it on her arm, and a little stab of
pain shot through him at the contact, and once more he thought he felt
the pulse of wings in the air. Then she passed by without hesita-tion,
and his hand fell.
He made no further effort to arouse her, but followed after on cat-feet,
delicately as if he walked on eggs.
He was crouching a little, un-consciously, and his gun-hand held a
tense finger on the trigger.
They went down the corridor in a breathing silence, an empty corridor where no lights showed beyond closed doors, where no murmur
of voices broke the live stillness.
But little shudders seemed to shake in the air somehow, and his
heart was pounding suffocatingly.
Vaudir walked like a mechanical doll, tense in a dream of horror. When they reached the end of the hail he saw that the silver grille
stood open, and they passed through without pausing. But Smith
noted with a little qualm that a gateway opening to the right was
closed and locked, and the bars across it were sunk firmly into wallsockets. There was no choice but to follow her.
The corridor slanted downward. They passed others branching to
right and left, but the silver gateways were closed and barred acrosseach. A coil of silver stairs ended the passage, and the girl went
stiffly down without touching the rails. It was a long spiral, past many
floors, and as they descended, the rich, dim light lessened and
darkened and a subtle smell of moisture and salt invaded the
scented air. At each turn where the stairs opened on successive
floors, gates were barred across the outlets; and they passed so many of these that Smith knew, as they went down and down, that
however high the green jewel-box room had been, by now they were
descending deep into the earth. And still the stair wound downward.
The stories that opened beyond the bars like honeycomb layers
became darker and less luxurious, and at last ceased altogether and
the silver steps wound down through a well of rock, lighted so dimly at
wide intervals that he could scarcely see the black polished walls
circling them in. Drops of moisture began to appear on the dark
surface, and the smell was of black salt seas and dank underground.
And just as he was beginning to believe that the stairs went on and
on into the very black, salt heart of the planet, they came abruptly to
the bottom. A flourish of slim, shining rails ended the stairs, at the
head of a hallway, and the girl’s feet turned unhesitatingly to follow its
dark length. Smith’s pale eyes, searching the dimness, found no
trace of other life than themselves; yet eyes were upon him–he knew
it surely.
They came down the black corridor to a gateway of wrought metal set
in bars whose ends sank deep into the stone walls. She went
through, Smith at her heels raking the dark with swift, unresting eyes
like a wild animal’s, wary in a strange jungle. And beyond the great
gates a door hung with sweeping curtains of black ended the hall.
Somehow Smith felt that they had reached their destination. And
nowhere along the whole journey had he had any choice but to follow
Vaudir’s unerring, unseeing footsteps. Grilles had been lockedacross every possible outlet. But he had his gun. .
Her hands were white against the velvet as she pushed aside the
folds. Very bright she stood for an instant–all green and gold and
white–against the blackness. Then she passed through and the folds
swept to behind her–candle-flame extinguished in dark velvet. Smith
hesitated the barest instant before he parted the curtains and peered
within.
He was looking into a room hung in black velvet that absorbed the
light almost hungrily. That light radiated from a single lamp swinging
from the ceiling directly over an ebony table. It shone softly on a man–
a very tall man.
He stood darkly under it, very dark in the room’s darkness, his head
bent, staring up from under level black brows. His eyes in the half –
hid-den face were pits of blackness, and under the lowered brows
two pin-point gleams stabbed straight–not at the girl–but at Smith
hidden behind the curtains. It held his eyes as a magnet holds steel.
He felt the narrow glitter plunging bladelike into his very brain, and
from the keen, burning stab something within him shuddered away
involun-tarily. He thrust his gun through the curtains, stepped through
quietly, and stood meeting the sword-gaze with pale, unwavering
eyes.
Vaudir moved forward with a mechanical stiffness that somehow
could not hide her grace–it was as if no power existing could ever
evoke from that lovely body less than loveliness. She came to the man’s feet and stopped there. Then a long shudder swept her from
head to foot and she dropped to her knees and laid her forehead to
the floor.
Across the golden loveliness of her the man’s eyes met Smith’s, and
the man’s voice, deep, deep, like black waters flowing smoothly,said, “I am the Alendar.”
“Then you know me,” said Smith, his voice harsh as iron in the vel-vet
dimness.
“You are Northwest Smith,” said the smooth, deep voice dispassionately. “An outlaw from the planet Earth. You have broken your last
law, Northwest Smith. Men do not come here uninvited–and live.
You perhaps have heard tales…
His voice melted into silence, lingeringly.
Smith’s mouth curled into a wolfish grin, without mirth, and his gunhand swung up. Murder flashed bleakly from his steel-pale eyes. And
then with stunning abruptness the world dissolved about him. A burst
of coruscations flamed through his head, danced and wheeled and
drew slowly together in a whirling darkness until they were two
pinpoint sparks of light–a dagger stare under level brows. .
When the room steadied about him he was standing with slack arms,
the gun hanging from his fingers, an apathetic numbness slowly
withdrawing from his body. A dark smile curved smoothly on the
Alendar’s mouth.
The stabbing gaze slid casually away, leaving him dizzy in sudden
vertigo, and touched the girl prostrate on the floor. Against the black
carpet her burnished bronze curls sprayed out exquisitely. The green
robe folded softly back from the roundness of her body, and nothing
in the universe could have been so lovely as the creamy whiteness of
her on the dark floor. The pit-black eyes brooded over her
impassively. And then, in his smooth, deep voice the Alendar asked,
amazingly, matter-of-f actly, “Tell me, do you have such girls on
Earth?”Smith shook his head to clear it. When he managed an answer his
voice had steadied, and in the receding of that dizziness even the
sud-den drop into casual conversation seemed not unreasonable.
“I have never seen such a girl anywhere,” he said calmly.
The sword-gaze flashed up and pierced him.
“She has told you,” said the Alendar. “You know I have beauties here
that outshine her as the sun does a candle. And yet..
Smith met the questioning gaze, searching for mockery, but finding
none. Not understanding–a moment before the man had threatened
his life–he took up the conversation.
“They all have more than beauty. For what other reason do kings buy
the Minga girls?”
“No–not that charm. She has it too, but something more subtle than
fascination, much more desirable than loveliness. She has courage,
this girl. She has intelligence. Where she got it I do not un-derstand. I
do not breed my girls for such things. But I looked into her eyes once,
in the hallway, as she told you–and saw there more arousing things
than beauty. I summoned her–and you come at her heels. Do you
know why? Do you know why you did not die at the outer gate or
anywhere along the hallways on your way in?”
Smith’s pale stare met the dark one questioningly. The voice flowed
on.
“Because there are–interesting things in your eyes too. Courage and
ruthlessness and a certain–power, I think. Intensity is in you. And I
believe I can find a use for it, Earthman.”Smith’s eyes narrowed a little. So calm, so matter-of-fact, this talk.
But death was coming. He felt it in the air–he knew that feel of old.
Death–and worse things than that, perhaps. He remembered the
whispers he had heard.
On the floor the girl moaned a little, and stirred. The Alendar’s quiet,
pinpoint eyes flicked her, and he said softly, “Rise.” And she rose,
stumbling, and stood before him with bent head. The stiffness was
gone from her. On an impulse Smith said suddenly, “Vaudir!” She
lifted her face and met his gaze, and a thrill of horror rippled over him.
She had regained consciousness, but she would never be the same
frightened girl he had known. Black knowledge looked out of her
eyes, and her face was a strained mask that covered horror barely–
barely! It was the face of one who has walked through a blacker hell
than any of humanity’s understanding, and gained knowledge there
that no human soul could endure knowing and live.
She looked him full in the face for a long moment, silently, and then
turned away to the Alendar again.
And Smith thought, just before her eyes left his, he had seen in them
one wild flash of hope-less, desperate appeal. .
“Come,” said the Alendar.
He turned his back–Smith’s gun-hand trembled up and then fell
again. No, better wait. There was always a bare hope, until he saw
death closing in all around.
He stepped out over the yielding carpet at the Alendar’~ heels. The
girl came after with slow steps and eyes downcast in a horrible
parody of meditation, as if she brooded over the knowledge thatdwelt so ter-ribly behind her eyes.
The dark archway at the opposite end of the room swallowed them
up. Light failed for an instant–a breath-stopping instant while Smith’s
gun leaped up involuntarily, like a live thing in his hand, futilely against
invisible evil, and his brain rocked at the utter black-ness that
enfolded him. It was over in the wink of an eye, and he won-dered if it
had ever been as his gun-hand fell again. But the Alendar said
across one shoulder,
“A barrier I have placed to guard my–beauties. A mental barrier that
would have been impassable had you not been with me, yet which–
but you understand now, do you not, my Vaudir?” And there was an
indescribable leer in the query that injected a note of mon-strous
humanity into the inhuman voice.
“I understand,” echoed the girl in a voice as lovely and toneless as a
sustained musical note. And the sound of those two inhuman voices
proceeding from the human lips of his companions sent a shudder
thrilling along Smith’s nerves.
They went down the long corridor thereafter in silence, Smith treading
soundlessly in his spaceman’s boots, every fiber of him tense to
painfulness. He found himself wondering, even in the midst of his
strained watchfulness, if any other creature with a living human soul
had ever gone down this corridor before–if frightened golden girls
had followed the Alendar thus into blackness, or if they too had been
drained of humanity and steeped in that nameless horror before their
feet followed their master through the black barrier.
The hallway led downward, and the salt smell became clearer and the
light sank to a glimmer in the air, and in a silence that was not human
they went on.Presently the Alendar said–and his deep, liquid voice did nothing to
break the stillness, blending with it softly so that not even an echo
roused, “I am taking you into a place where no other man than the
Alendar has ever set foot before. It pleases me to wonder just how
your unaccustomed senses will react to the things you are about to
see. I am reaching an–an age”–he laughed softly–“where
experiment in-terests me. Look!”
Smith’s eyes blinked shut before an intolerable blaze of sudden light.
In the streaked darkness of that instant while the glare flamed through
his lids he thought he felt everything shift unaccountably about him, as
if the very structure of the atoms that built the walls were altered. When he opened his eyes he stood at the head of a long gallery
blazing with a soft, delicious brilliance. How he had got there he made no effort even to guess.
Very beautifully it stretched before him. The walls and floor and
ceiling were of sheeny stone. There were low couches along the walls
at intervals, and a blue pool broke the floor, and the air sparkled
unac-countably with golden light. And figures were moving through
that champagne sparkle. .
Smith stood very still, looking down the gallery. The Alendar watched
him with a subtle anticipation upon his face, the pinpoint glitter of his
eyes sharp enough to pierce the Earthman’s very brain. Vaudir with
bent head brooded over the black knowledge behind her drooping
lids. Only Smith of the three looked down the gallery and saw what moved through the golden glimmer of the air.
They were girls. They might have been goddesses–angels haloed
with bronze curls, moving leisurely through a golden heaven where
the air sparkled like wine. There must have been a score of them
strolling up and down the gallery in twos and threes, lolling on the
couches, bathing in the pool. They wore the infinitely gracefulVenusian robe with its looped shoulder and slit skirt, in soft, muted
shades of violet and blue and jewel-green, and the beauty of them
was breath-stopping as a blow. Music was in every gesture they made, a flowing, singing grace that made the heart ache with its
sheer loveli-ness.
He had thought Vaudir lovely, but here was beauty so exquisite that it
verged on pain. Their sweet, light voices were pitched to send little
velvety burrs along his nerves, and from a distance the soft sounds
blended so musically that they might have been singing together. The
loveliness of their motion made his heart contract sud-denly, and the
blood pounded in his ears. .
“You find them beautiful?” The Alendar’s voice blended into the
humming lilt of voices as perfectly as it had blended with silence. His
dagger-glitter of eyes was fixed piercingly on Smith’s pale gaze, and
he smiled a little, faintly. “Beautiful? Wait!”
He moved down the gallery, tall and very dark in the rainbow light.
Smith, following after, walked in a haze of wonder. It is not given to
every man to walk through heaven. He felt the air tingle like wine, and
a delicious perfume caressed him and the haloed girls drew back
with wide, amazed eyes fixed on him in his stained leather and heavy
boots as he passed. Vaudir paced quietly after, her head bent, and
from her the girls turned away their eyes, shuddering a little.
He saw now that their faces were as lovely as their bodies, languorously, colorfully. They were contented faces, unconscious of
beauty, unconscious of any other existence than their own–soulless.
He felt that instinctively. Here was beauty incarnate, physically, tangibly; but he had seen in Vaudir’s face–before–a sparkle of daring, a
tenderness of remorse at having brought him here, that gave her an
indefinable superiority over even this incredible beauty, soulless.They went down the gallery in a sudden hush as the musical voices
fell silent from very amazement.
Apparently the Alendar was a famil-iar figure here, for they scarcely
glanced at him, and from Vaudir they turned away in a shuddering
revulsion that preferred not to recognize her existence. But Smith was
the first man other than the Alendar whom they had ever seen, and
the surprise of it struck them dumb.
They went on through the dancing air, and the last lovely, staring girls
fell behind, and an ivory gateway opened before them, without a
touch. They went downstairs from there, and along another hallway,
while the tingle died in the air and a hum of musical voices sprang up
behind them. They passed beyond the sound. The hallway darkened
until they were moving again through dimness.
Presently the Alendar paused and turned.
“My more costly jewels,” he said, “I keep in separate settings. As
here–“
He stretched out his arm, and Smith saw that a curtain hung against
the wall. There were others, farther on, dark blots against the
dimness. The Alendar drew back black folds, and light from beyond
flowed softly through a pattern of bars to cast flowery shadows on the
opposite wall. Smith stepped forward and stared.
He was looking through a grille window down into a room lined with
dark velvet. It was quite plain.
There was a low couch against the wall opposite the window, and on
it–Smith’s heart gave a stagger and paused–a woman lay. And if the
girls in the gallery had been like goddesses, this woman was lovelier
than men have ever dared to imag-ine even in legends. She wasbeyond divinity–long limbs white against the velvet, sweet curves and
planes of her rounding under the robe, bronze hair spilling like lava
over one white shoulder, and her face calm as death with closed
eyes. It was a passive beauty, like ala-baster shaped perfectly. And
charm, a fascination all but tangible, reached out from her like a magic spell. A sleeping charm, magnetic, powerful. He could not
wrench his eyes away. He was like a wasp caught in honey. .
The Alendar said something across Smith’s shoulder, in a vibrant
voice that thrilled the air. The closed lids rose. Life and loveliness
flowed into the calm face like a tide, lighting it unbearably. That heady
charm wakened and brightened to a dangerous liveness–tug-ging,
pulling…. She rose in one long glide like a wave over rocks; she
smiled (Smith’s senses reeled to the beauty of that smile) and then
sank in a deep salaam, slowly, to the velvet floor, her hair rippling and
falling all about her, until she lay abased in a blaze of loveliness under
the window.
The Alendar let the curtain fall, and turned to Smith as the dazzlin
sight was blotted out. Again the pinpoint glitter stabbed into Smith’s
brain. The Alendar smiled again.
“Come,” he said, and moved down the hail.
They passed three curtains, and paused at a fourth. Afterward Smith
remembered that the curtain must have been drawn back and he must have bent forward to stare through the window bars, but the
sight he saw blasted every memory of it from his mind. The girl who
dwelt in this velvet-lined room was stretching on tiptoe just as the
drawn curtain caught her, and the beauty and grace of her from head
to foot stopped Smith’s breath as a ray-stab to the heart would have
done. And the irresistible, wrenching charm of her drew him forward
until he was clasping the bars with white-knuckled hands, unaware of
anything but her compelling, soul-destroying desirability. .She moved, and the dazzle of grace that ran like a song through
every motion made his senses ache with its pure, unattainable
loveliness. He knew, even in his daze of rapture, that he might hold
the sweet, curved body in his arms for ever, yet hunger still for the
fulfilment which the flesh could never wring from her. Her loveliness
aroused a hunger in the soul more maddening than the body’s hunger
could ever be.
His brain rocked with the desire to possess that intangible,
irresistible loveliness that he knew he could never possess, never
reach with any sense that was in him. That bodiless desire raged like madness through him, so violently that the room reeled and the white
outlines of the beauty unattainable as the stars wavered before him.
He caught his breath and choked and drew back from the intolerable, exquisite sight.
The Alendar laughed and dropped the curtain.
“Come,” he said again, the subtle amusement clear in his voice, and
Smith in a daze moved after him down the hail.
They went a long way, past curtains hanging at regular intervals along
the wall. When they paused at last, the curtain before which they
stopped was faintly luminous about the edges, as if something
dazzling dwelt within. The Alendar drew back the folds.
“We are approaching,” he said, “a pure clarity of beauty, hampered
only a little by the bonds of flesh.
Look.”
One glance only Smith snatched of the dweller within. And the
exquisite shock of that sight went thrilling like torture through everynerve of him. For a mad instant his reason staggered before the terrible fascination beating out from that dweller in waves that wrenched
at his very soul–incarnate loveliness tugging with strong fingers at
every sense and every nerve and intangibly, irresistibly, at deeper
things than these, groping among the roots of his being, dragging his
soul out…
Only one glance he took, and in the glance he felt his soul answer that
dragging, and the terrible desire tore futilely through him. Then he
flung up an arm to shield his eyes and reeled back into the dark, and
a wordless sob rose to his lips and the darkness reeled about him.
The curtain fell. Smith pressed the wall and breathed in long, shuddering gasps, while his heart-beats slowed gradually and the unholy
fascination ebbed from about him. The Alendar’s eyes were glittering
with a green fire as he turned from the window, and a nameless
hunger lay shadowily on his face. He said, “I might show you others,
Earthman. But it could only drive you mad, in the end–you were very
near the brink for a moment just now–and I have another use for
you…. I wonder if you begin to under-stand, now, the purpose of all
this?”
The green glow was fading from that dagger-sharp gaze as the Alendar’s eyes stabbed into Smith’s. The Earthman gave his head a little
shake to clear away the vestiges of that devouring desire, and took a
fresh grip on the butt of his gun. The familiar smoothness of it brought
him a measure of reassurance, and with it a reawakening to the peril
all around. He knew now that there could be no conceivable mercy for
him, to whom the innermost secrets of the Minga had been
unaccountably revealed. Death was waiting–strange death, as soon
as the Alendar wearied of talking–but if he kept his ears open and
his eyes alert it might not–please God–catch him so quickly that he
died alone. One sweep of that blade-blue flame was all he asked,now. His eyes, keen and hostile, met the dagger-gaze squarely. The
Alendar smiled and said,
“Death in your eyes, Earthman. Nothing in your mind but murder. Can
that brain of yours comprehend nothing but battle? Is there no
curiosity there? Have you no wonder of why I brought you here?
Death awaits you, yes. But a not unpleasant death, and it awaits all,
in one form or another. Listen, let me tell you–I have reason for desiring to break through that animal shell of self-defense that seals in
your mind.
Let me look deeper–if there are depths. Your death will be–useful,
and in a way, pleasant.
Otherwise–well, the black beasts hunger. And flesh must feed them,
as a sweeter drink feeds me. – Listen.”
Smith’s eyes narrowed. A sweeter drink.–Danger, danger–the smell
of it in the air–instinctively he felt the peril of opening his mind to the
plunging gaze of the Alendar, the force of those compel-ling eyes
beating like strong lights into his brain. . – “Come,” said the Alendar
softly, and moved off soundlessly through the gloom. They followed,
Smith painfully alert, the girl walking with lowered, brooding eyes, her mind and soul afar in some wallowing darkness whose shadow
showed so hideously beneath her lashes.
The hallway widened to an arch, and abruptly, on the other side, one
wall dropped away into infinity and they stood on the dizzy brink of a
gallery opening on a black, heaving sea. Smith bit back a startled
oath. One moment before the way had led through low-roofed tunnels deep underground; the next instant they stood on the shore of a
vast body of rolling darkness, a tiny wind touching their faces with the
breath of unnamable things.Very far below, the dark waters rolled. Phosphorescence lighted
them uncertainly, and he was not even sure it was water that surged
there in the dark. A heavy thickness seemed to be inherent in the
rollers, like black slime surging.
The Alendar looked out over the fire-tinged waves. He waited for an
instant without speaking, and then, far out in the slimy surges,
something broke the surface with an oily splash, something mercifully
veiled in the dark, then dived again, leaving a wake of spreading rippies over the surface.
“Listen,” said the Alendar, without turning his head. “Life is very old.
There are older races than man.
Mine is one. Life rose out of the black slime of the sea-bottoms and
grew toward the light along many diverging lines. Some reached maturity and deep wisdom when man was still swinging through the
jungle trees.
“For many centuries, as mankind counts time, the Alendar has dwelt
here, breeding beauty. In later years he has sold some of his lesser
beauties, perhaps to explain to mankind’s satisfaction what it could
never understand were it told the truth. Do you begin to see? My race
is very remotely akin to those races which suck blood from man, less
remotely to those which drink his life-forces for nourish-ment. I refine
taste even more than that. I drink–beauty. I live on beauty. Yes,
literally.
“Beauty is as tangible as blood, in a way. It is a separate, distinct
force that inhabits the bodies of men and women. You must have noticed the vacuity that accompanies perfect beauty in so many women
the force so strong that it drives out all other forces and lives
vampirishly at the expense of intelligence and goodness and conscience and all else.”In the beginning, here–for our race was old when this world began,
spawned on another planet, and wise and ancient–we woke from
slumber in the slime, to feed on the beauty force inherent in mankind
even in cave-dwelling days. But it was meager fare, and we studied
the race to determine where the greatest prospects lay, then selected
specimens for breeding, built this stronghold and settled down to the
business of evolving mankind up to its limit of loveliness. In time we
weeded out all but the present type.
For the race of man we have developed the ultimate type of
loveliness. It is interesting to see what we have accomplished on
other worlds, with utterly different races. .
“Well, there you have it. Women, bred as a spawning-ground for the
devouring force of beauty on which we live.
“But–the fare grows monotonous, as all food must without change.
Vaudir I took because I saw in her a sparkle of something that except
in very rare instances has been bred out of the Minga girls. FOr
beauty, as I have said, eats up all other qualities but beauty. Yet
somehow intelligence and courage survived latently in Vaudir. It
decreases her beauty, but the tang of it should be a change from the
eternal sameness of the rest. And so I thought until I saw you.
“I realized then how long it had been since I tasted the beauty of man.
It is so rare, so different from female beauty, that I had all but
forgotten it existed.And you have it, very subtly, in a raw, harsh way….
“I have told you all this to test the quality of that–that harsh beauty in
you. Had I been wrong about the deeps of your mind, you would have
gone to feed the black beasts, but I see that Iwas not wrong.
Behind your animal shell of self-preservation are depths of that forceand strength which nourish the roots of male beauty. I think I shall give
you a while to let it grow, under the forcing methods I know, before I–
drink. It will be delightful. – The voice trailed away in a murmurous
silence, the pinpoint glitter sought Smith’s eyes. And he tried halfheartedly to avoid it, but his eyes turned involuntarily to the stabbing
gaze, and the alertness died out of him, gradually, and the compelling
pull of those glittering points in the pits of darkness held him very still.
And as he stared into the diamond glitter he saw its brilliance slowly melt and darken, until the pinpoints of light had changed to pools that
dimmed, and he was looking into black evil as elemental and vast as
the space between the worlds, a dizzying blankness wherein dwelt
unnamable horror… deep, deep…
all about him the darkness was clouding. And thoughts that were not
his own seeped into his mind out of that vast, elemental dark…
crawling, writhing thoughts… until he had a glimpse of that dark place
where Vaudir’s soul wallowed, and something sucked him down and
down into a waking nightmare he could not fight…
Then somehow the pull broke for an instant. For just that instant he
stood again on the shore of the heaving sea and gripped a gun with
nerveless fingers–then the darkness closed about him again, but a
different, uneasy dark that had not quite the all-compelling power of
that other nightmare–it left him strength enough to fight.
And he fought, a desperate, moveless, soundless struggle in a black
sea of horror, while worm-thoughts coiled through his straining mind
and the clouds rolled and broke and rolled again about him.
Some-times, in the instants when the pull slackened, he had time to
feel a third force struggling here between that black, blind downward
suck that dragged at him and his own sick, frantic effort to fight clear,
a third force that was weakening the black drag so that he hadmoments of lucidity when he stood free on the brink of the ocean and
felt the sweat roll down his face and was aware of his laboring heart
and how gaspingly breath tortured his lungs, and he knew he was
fighting with every atom of himself, body and mind and soul, against
the intangible blackness sucking him down.
And then he felt the force against him gather itself in a final effort –he
sensed desperation in that effort–and come rolling over him like a
tide. Bowled over, blinded and dumb and deaf, drowning in utter
blackness, he floundered in the deeps of that nameless hell where
thoughts that were alien and slimy squirmed through his brain. Bodiless he was, and unstable, and as he wallowed there in the ooze more hideous than any earthly ooze, because it came from black,
inhuman souls and out of ages before man, he became aware that
the worm-thoughts a-squirm in his brain were forming slowly into monstrous meanings–knowledge like a formless flow was pouring
through his bodiless brain, knowledge so dreadful that consciously he
could not comprehend it, though subconsciously every atom of his mind and soul sickened and writhed futilely away. It was flooding over
him, drenching him, permeating him through and through with the very
essence of dreadfulness–he felt his mind melting away under the solvent power of it, melting and running fluidly into new channels and
fresh molds–horrible molds. .
And just at that instant, while madness folded around him and his mind rocked on the verge of annihilation, something snapped, and
like a curtain the dark rolled away, and he stood sick and dizzy on the
gallery above the black sea. Everything was reeling about him, but
they were stable things that shimmered and steadied before his
eyes, blessed black rock and tangible surges that had form and
body–his feet pressed firmness and his mind shook itself and was
clean and his own again.And then through the haze of weakness that still shrouded him a
voice was shrieking wildly, “Kill!…
kill!” and he saw the Alendar staggering against the rail, all his
outlines unaccountably blurred and uncertain, and behind him Vaudir
with blazing eyes and face wrenched hideously into life again,
screaming “Kill!” in a voice scarcely human.
Like an independent creature his gun-hand leaped up–he had
gripped that gun through everything that happened–and he was dimly
aware of the hardness of it kicking back against his hand with the
recoil, and of the blue flash flaming from its muzzle. It struck the
Alendar’s dark figure full, and there was a hiss and a dazzle. .
Smith closed his eyes tight and opened them again, and stared with
a sick incredulity; for unless that struggle had unhinged his brain after
all, and the worm-thoughts still dwelt slimily in his mind, tingeing all he
saw with unearthly horror–unless this was true, he was looking not at
a man just rayed through the lungs, and who should be dropping now
in a bleeding, collapsed heap to the floor, but at–at–God, what was
it? The dark figure had slumped against the rail, and instead of blood
gushing, a hideous, nameless, formless black poured sluggishly
forth–a slime like the heaving sea below. The whole dark figure of the man was melting, slumping farther down into the pool of black-ness
forming at his feet on the stone floor.
Smith gripped his gun and watched in numb incredulity, and the
whole body sank slowly down and melted and lost all form–hideously,
gruesomely–until where the Alendar had stood a heap of slime lay
viscidly on the gallery floor, hideously alive, heaving and rippling and
striving to lift itself into a semblance of humanity again. And as he
watched, it lost even that form, and the edges melted revoltingly and
the mass flattened and slid down into a pool of utter horror, and he
became aware that it was pouring slowly through the rails into thesea. He stood watching while the whole rolling, shim-mering mound melted and thinned and trickled through the bars, un-til the floor was
clear again, and not even a stain marred the stone.
     A painful constriction of his lungs roused him, and he realized he had been holding his breath, scarcely daring to realize. Vaudir had collapsed against the wall, and he saw her knees give limply, and stag-gered forward on uncertain feet to catch her as she fell.
     “Vaudir, Vaudir!” he shook her gently. “Vaudir, what’s happened?
Am I dreaming? Are we safe now?
Are you–awake again?”
      Very slowly her white lids lifted, and the black eyes met his. And he saw shadowily there the knowledge of that wallowing void he had dimly known, the shadow that could never be cleared away. She was steeped and foul with it. And the look of her eyes was such that involuntarily he released her and stepped away. She staggered a little and then regained her balance and regarded him from under bent brows. The level inhumanity of her gaze struck into his soul, and yet he thought he saw a spark of the girl she had been, dwelling in torture amid the blackness. He knew he was right when she said, in a faraway, toneless voice, “Awake?… No, not ever now, Earthman. I have been down too deeply into hell… he had dealt me a worse torture than be knew, for there is just enough humanity left within me to realize what I have become, and to suffer. .
     “Yes, he is gone, back into the slime that bred him. I have been a part of him, one with him in the blackness of his soul, and I know. I have spent eons since the blackness came upon me, dwelt for eterni-ties in the dark, rolling seas of his mind, sucking in knowledge . and as I was one with him, and he now gone, so shall I die; yet I willsee you safely out of here if it is in my power, for it was Iwho dragged you in. If I can remember–if I can find the way….”
     She turned uncertainly and staggered a step back along the way they had come. Smith sprang forward and slid his free arm about her, but she shuddered away from the contact.
     “No, no–unbearable–the touch of clean human flesh–and it breaks the chord of my remembering….
     I can not look back into his mind as it was when I dwelt there, and I must, Imust….” She shook him off and reeled on, and he cast one last look at the billowing sea, and then followed. She staggered along the stone floor on stumbling feet, one hand to the wall to support herself, and her voice was whispering gustily, so that he had to follow close to hear, and then almost wished he had not heard, “–black slime–darkness
feeding on light–everything wavers so–slime, slime and a rolling sea- -he rose out of it, you know, before civi-lization began here–he is age-old–there never has been but one Alen-dar…. And somehow–I could not see just how, or remember why –he rose from the rest, as some of his race on other planets had done, and took the man-form and stocked his breeding-pens….”
     They went on up the dark hallway, past curtains hiding incarnate loveliness, and the girl’s stumbling footsteps kept time to her stumbling, half-incoherent words. “–has lived all these ages here, breeding and devouring beauty– vampire-thirst, a hideous delight in drinking in that beauty-force–I felt it and remembered it when Iwas one with him–wrapping black layers of primal slime about–quenching human loveliness in ooze, sucking– blind black thirst…. And his wisdom was ancient and dreadful and fullof power–so he could draw a soul out through the eyes and sink it in hell, and drown it there, as he would have done mine if I had not had, somehow, a difference from the rest. Great Shar, I wish I had not! I wish I were drowned in it and did not feel in every atom of me the horrible uncleanness of–what I know. But by virtue of that hidden strength I did not surrender wholly, and when he had turned his power to subduing you I was able to struggle, there in the very heart of his mind, making a disturbance that shook him as he fought us both– making it possible to free you long enough for you to destroy the human flesh he was clothed in–so that he lapsed into the ooze again.
     I do not quite understand why that happened–only that his weakness, with you assailing him from without and me struggling strongly in the very center of his soul was such that he was forced to draw on the power he had built up to maintain himself in the man-form, and weakened it enough so that he collapsed when the man-form was assailed. And he fell back into the slime again–whence he rose– black slime–heaving–oozing. …”
     Her voice trailed away in murmurs, and she stumbled, all but fall-ing. When she regained her balance she went on ahead of him at a greater distance, as if his very nearness were repugnant to her, and the soft babble of her voice drifted back in broken phrases without meaning.
     Presently the air began to tingle again, and they passed the silver gate and entered that gallery where the air sparkled like champagne. The blue pool lay jewel-clear in its golden setting. Of the girls there was no sign.
     When they reached the head of the gallery the girl paused, turning to him a face twisted with the effort at memory.
     “Here is the trial,” she said urgently. “If I can remember–” She seized her head in clutching hands, shaking it savagely. “I haven’t thestrength, now–can’t–can’t–” the piteous little murmur reached his ears incoherently. Then she straightened resolutely, swaying a little, and faced him, holding out her hands.
     He clasped them hesitantly, and saw a shiver go through her at the contact, and her face contort painfully, and then a shudder communicated itself through that clasp and he too winced in revolt.
     He saw her eyes go blank and her face strain in lines of tensity, and a fine dew broke out on her forehead. For a long moment she stood so, her face like death, and strong shudders went over her body and her eyes were blank as the void be-tween the planets.
     And as each shudder swept her it went unbroken through the clasping of their hands to him, and they were black waves of dreadfulness, and again he saw the heaving sea and wallowed in the hell he had fought out of on the gallery, and he knew for the first time what tor-ture she must be enduring who dwelt in the very deeps of that uneasy dark. The pulses came faster, and for moments together he went down into the blind blackness and the slime, and felt the first wriggling of the worm-thoughts tickling the roots of his brain. And then suddenly a clean darkness closed round them and again everything shifted unaccountably, as if the atoms of the gallery were changing, and when Smith opened his eyes he was standing once more in the dark, slanting corridor with the smell of salt and antiquity heavy in the air.
     Vaudir moaned softly beside him, and he turned to see her reeling against the wall and trembling so from head to foot that he looked to see her fall the next moment.
– “Better–in a moment,” she gasped. “It took–nearly all my strength to–to get us through–wait. …”So they halted there in the darkness and the dead salt air, until the trembling abated a little and she said, “Come,” in her little whimpering voice. And again the journey began. It was only a short way, now, to the barrier of black blankness that guarded the door into the room where they had first seen the Alendar.
     When they reached the place she shivered a little and paused, then resolutely held out her hands. And as he took them he felt once more the hideous slimy waves course through him, and plunged again into the heaving hell. And as before the clean darkness flashed over them in a breath, and then she dropped his hands and they were standing in the archway looking into the velvet-hung room they had left–it seemed eons ago.
     He watched as waves of blinding weakness flooded over her from that supreme effort. Death was visible in her face as she turned to him at last.
     “Come–oh, come quickly,” she whispered, and staggered forward.
     At her heels he followed, across the room, past the great iron gateway, down the hail to the foot of the silver stairs. And here his heart sank, for he felt sure she could never climb the long spiral distances to the top. But she set her foot on the step and went upward resolutely, and as he followed he heard her murmuring to herself,
     “Wait–oh, wait–let me reach the end–let me undo this much–and then–no, no! Please Shar, not the black slime again… Earth-man, Earthman!”
     She paused on the stair and turned to face him, and her haggard face was frantic with desperation and despair.
     “Earthman, promise–do not let me die like this! When we reach the end, ray me! Burn me clean, or I shall go down for eternity into theblack sinks from which I dragged you free. Oh, promise!”
     “Iwill,” Smith’s voice said quietly. “Iwill.”
     And they went on. Endlessly the stairs spiraled upward and endlessly they climbed. Smith’s legs began to ache intolerably, and his heart was pounding like a wild thing, but Vaudir seemed not to notice weariness. She climbed steadily and no more unsurely than she had come along the halls. And after eternities they reached the top. And there the girl fell. She dropped like a dead woman at the head of the silver spiral. Smith thought for a sick instant that he had failed her and let her die uncleansed, but in a moment or two she stirred and lifted her head and very slowly dragged herself to her feet.
     “I will go on–I will, I will,” she whispered to herself. “–come this far– must finish–” and she reeled off down the lovely, rosily-lit hall-way paneled in pearl.
     He could see how perilously near she was to her strength’s end, and he marveled at the tenacity with which she clung to life though it ebbed away with every breath and the pulse of darkness flowed in after it. So with bulldog stubbornness she made her wavering way past door after door of carven shell, under rosy lights that flushed her face with a ghastly mockery of health, until they reached the silver gate-way at the end. The lock had been removed from it by now, and the bar drawn.
     She tugged open the gate and stumbled through. And the nightmare journey went on. It must be very near morning, Smith thought, for the halls were deserted, but did he not sense a breath of danger in the still air?.The girl’s gasping voice answered that half-formed query as if, like the Alendar, she held the secret of reading men’s minds.
     “The–Guardians–still rove the halls, and unleashed now–so keep your ray-gun ready, Earthman….”
     After that he kept his eyes alert as they retraced, stumbling and slow, the steps he had taken on his way in. And once he heard dis-tinctly the soft slither of–something–scraping over the marble pave-ment, and twice he smelt with shocking suddenness in this scented air a whiff of salt, and his mind flashed back to a rolling black sea.
– . . But nothing molested them.
     Step by faltering step the hallways fell behind them, and he began to recognize landmarks, and the girl’s footsteps staggered and hesitated and went on gallantly, incredibly, beating back oblivion, fighting the dark surges rolling over her, clinging with tenacious fingers to the tiny spark of life that drove her on.
     And at long last, after what seemed hours of desperate effort, they reached the blue-lit hallway at whose end the outer door opened. Vaudir’s progress down it was a series of dizzy staggers, interspersed with pauses while she hung to the carven doors with tense fingers and drove her teeth into a bloodless lip and gripped that last flicker of life. He saw the shudders sweep over her, and knew what waves of washing dark must be rising all about her, and how the worm-thoughts writhed through her brain… But she went on.
     Every step now was a little tripping, as if she fell from one foot to the other, and at each step he expected that knee to give way and pitch her down into the black deeps that yawned for her. But she went on.
– She reached the bronze door, and with a last spurt of effort she lifted the bar and swung it open. Then that tiny spark flickered out likea lamp. Smith caught one flash of the rock room within–and something horrible on the floor–before he saw her pitch forward as the rising tide of slimy oblivion closed at last over her head. She was dying as she fell, and he whipped the ray-gun up and felt the recoil against his palm as a blue blaze flashed forth and transfixed her in midair. And he could have sworn her eyes lighted for a flickering instant and the gallant girl he had known looked forth, cleansed and whole, before death–clean death–glazed them.
     She slumped down in a huddle at his feet, and he felt a sting of tears beneath his eyelids as he looked down on her, a huddle of white and bronze on the rug. And as he watched, a film of defilement veiled the shining whiteness of her–decay set in before his eyes and progressed with horrible swiftness, and in less time than it takes to tell he was staring with horrified eyes at a pool of black slime across which green velvet lay bedraggled.
     Northwest Smith closed his pale eyes, and for a moment struggled with memory, striving to wrest from it the long-forgotten words of a prayer learned a score of years ago on another planet. Then he stepped over the pitiful, horrible heap on the carpet and went on. In the little rock room of the outer wall he saw what he had glimpsed when Vaudir opened the door.
     Retribution had overtaken the eunuch. The body must have been his, for tatters of scarlet velvet lay about the floor, but there was no way to recognize what its original form had been. The smell of salt was heavy in the air, and a trail of black slime snaked across the floor toward the wall. The wall was solid, but it ended there…
     Smith laid his hand on the outer door, drew the bar, swung it open. He stepped out under the hanging vines and filled his lungs with pure air, free, clear, untainted with scent or salt. A pearly dawn wasbreaking over Ednes.