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   Chapter 16 No.16

Islands of Space By Jr. John W. Campbell Characters: 15712

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Below the Ancient Mariner, the great buildings of the alien city jutted up in the gray light of this gray world; their massiveness seemed only to accentuate the depressing light.

On the broad roofs, they saw hundreds of people coming out to watch them as they moved across the city. According to Torlos, they were the first friendly strangers they had ever seen. They had explored all the planets of this system without finding friendly life.

The buildings sloped up toward the center of the city, and the mass of the great central building loomed before them.

The fleet that was leading the Earth ship settled down to a wide courtyard that surrounded the building. Arcot dropped the Ancient Mariner down beside them. The men from Torlos' ship formed into two squads as they came out of the airlocks and marched over to the great shining ship of Earth. They formed two neat rows, one on each side of the airlock.

"Come on, Morey," said Arcot. "We're wanted. Wade, keep the radio going at full amplification; the building may cut out some of the power. I'll try to keep you posted on what's going on, but we'll probably be busy answering questions telepathically."

Arcot and Morey followed Torlos out into the dim light of the gray sky, walking across the courtyard between the ranks of the soldiers from Torlos' ship.

Before them was a heavy gate of solid bronze which swung on massive bronze hinges. The building seemed to be made of a dense, gray stone, much like granite, which was depressing in its perfectly unrelieved front. There were no bright spots of color as there were on all Earthly and Venerian structures. Even the lines were grimly utilitarian; there seemed to be no decoration.

Through the great bronze door they walked, and across a small vestibule. Then they were in a mighty concourse, a giant hallway that went completely through the structure. All around them great granite pillars rose to support the mighty building above. Square cut, they lent but little grace to the huge room, but the floor and walls were made of a hard, light green stone, almost the same color as foliage.

On one wall there was a giant tablet, a great plaque fifteen feet high, made of a deep violet stone, and inlaid with a series of characters in the language of this world. Like English letters, they seemed to read horizontally, but whether they read from left to right or right to left there was no way of knowing. The letters themselves were made of some red metal which Arcot and Morey didn't recognize.

Arcot turned to Torlos and projected a thought: "What is that tablet?"

"Ever since the beginning of the war with the other planet, Nansal, the names of our mighty leaders have been inscribed on that plaque in the rarest metal."

The term "rarest metal" was definite to Torlos, and Arcot decided to question him further on the meaning of it when time permitted.

They crossed the great hall and came to what was evidently an elevator. The door slid open, and the two Earthmen followed Torlos and his lieutenant into the cubicle. Torlos pushed a small button. The door slid shut, and a moment later, Arcot and Morey staggered under the sudden terrific load as the car shot upward under an acceleration of at least three gravities!

It continued just long enough for the Earthmen to get used to it, then it snapped off, and they went flying up toward the ceiling as it continued upward under its own momentum. It slowed under the influence of the planet's gravitation and came to a stop exactly opposite the doorway of a higher floor.

"Wow! Some elevator!" exclaimed Morey as he stepped out, flexing his knees as he tried to readjust himself. "That's what I call a violent way of getting upstairs! It wasn't designed by a lazy man or a cripple! I prefer to walk, thanks! What I want to know is how the old people get upstairs. Or do they die young from using their elevators?"

"No," mused Arcot. "That's the funny thing. They don't seem to be bothered by the acceleration. They actually jumped a little off the floor when we started, and didn't seem to experience much difficulty when we stopped." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "You know, when Torlos was bending that crowbar back there in the ship, I picked up a curious thought-I wonder if-" He turned to the giant alien. "Torlos, you once gave me the thought-idea 'bone metal'; what is that?"

Torlos looked at him in surprise and then pointed mutely to a heavy belt he wore-made of closely woven links of iron wire!

"I was right, Morey!" Arcot exclaimed. "These men have iron bones! No wonder he could bend that crowbar! It would be as easy as it would for you or me to snap a human arm bone!"

"But, wait a minute!" Morey objected. "How could iron grow?"

"How can stone grow?" countered Arcot. "That's what your bones are, essentially-calcium phosphate rock! It's just a matter of different body chemistry. Their body fluids are probably alkaline, and iron won't rust in an alkaline solution." Arcot was talking rapidly as they followed the aliens down the long corridor.

"The thing that confirms my theory is that elevator. It's merely an iron cage in a magnetic beam, and it's pulled up with a terrific acceleration. With iron bones, these men would be similarly influenced, and they wouldn't notice the acceleration so much."

Morey grinned. "I'll be willing to bet they don't use cells in their prisons, here! Just magnetize the floor, and the poor guy could never get away!"

Arcot nodded. "Of course, the bones must be pure iron; their bones evidently don't retain any of the magnetism when they leave the field."

"We seem to be here," Morey interrupted. "Let's continue the discussion later."

Their party had stopped just outside a large, elaborately carved door, the first sign of ornamentation the Earthmen had seen. There were four guards armed with pistols, which, they discovered later, were powered by compressed air under terrific pressure. They hurled a small metal slug through a rifled barrel, and were effective over a distance of about a mile, although they could only fire four times without reloading.

Torlos spoke briefly with the guard, who saluted and opened the door. The two Earthmen followed Torlos into a large room.

Before them was a large, crescent-shaped table, around which were seated several men. At the center of the crescent curve sat a man in a gray uniform, but he was so bedecked with insignia, medals, ribbons, and decorations that his uniform was scarcely visible.

The entire assemblage, including the leader, rose as the Earthmen entered. Arcot and Morey, taking the hint, snapped to attention and delivered a precise military salute.

"We greet you in the name of our planet," said Arcot aloud. "I know you don't understand a word I'm saying, but I hope it sounds impressive enough. We salute you, O High Muckymuck!"

Morey, successfully keeping a straight face, raised his hand and said sonorously: "That goes double for me, bub."

In his own language, the leader replied, putting his hands to his hips with a definite motion, and shaking his head from side to side at the same time.

Arcot watched the man closely while he spoke. He was taller than Torlos, but less heavily built, as were all the others here. It seemed that Torlos was unusually powerful, even for this world.

When the leader had finished, Arcot smiled and turned to project this thoughts at Torlos.

"Tell your leader that we come from a planet far away across the vast depths of space. We come in peace, and we will leave in peace, but we would like to ask some favors of him, which we will repay by giving him the secret of our weapons. With them, he can easily conquer Nansal.

"All we want is some wire made from the element lead and some information from your astronomers."

Torlos t

urned and spoke to his leader in a deep, powerful voice.

Meanwhile, Morey was trying to get in communication with the ship. The walls, however, seemed to be made of metal, and he couldn't get through to Wade.

"We're cut off from the ship," he said quietly to Arcot.

"I was afraid of that, but I think it'll be all right. Our proposition is too good for them to turn down."

Torlos turned back to Arcot when the leader had finished speaking. "The Commanding One asks that you prove the possibilities of your weapons. His scientists tell him that it is impossible to make the trip that you claim to have made."

"What your scientists say is true, to an extent," Arcot thought. "They have learned that no body can go faster than the speed of light-is that not so?"

"Yes. Such, they say, is the fact. To have made this trip, you must, of necessity, be not less than twenty million years old!"

"Tell them that there are some things they do not yet know about space. The velocity of light is a thing that is fixed by the nature of space, right?"

Torlos consulted with the scientists again, then turned back to Arcot. "They agree that they do not know all the secrets of the Universe, but they agree that the speed of light is fixed by the nature of space."

"How fast does sound travel?" Arcot asked.

"They ask in what medium do you mean?"

"How fast does light travel? In air? In glass? The speed of light is as variable as that of sound. If I can alter the nature of space, so as to make the velocity of light greater, can I not then go faster than in normal space?"

"They say that this is true," Torlos said, after more conversation with the men at the table, "but they say that space is unalterable, since it is emptiness."

"Ask them if they know of the curvature of space." Arcot was becoming worried for fear his explanation would be unintelligible; unless they knew his terms, he could not explain, and it would take a long time to teach them.

"They say," Torlos thought, "that I have misunderstood you. They say space could not possibly be curved, for space is emptiness, and how could empty nothingness be curved."

Arcot turned to Morey and shrugged his shoulders. "I give up, Morey; it's a bad case. If they insist that space is nothing, and can't be curved, I can't go any further."

"If they don't know of the curvature of space," said Morey, "ask them how they learned that the velocity of light is the limiting velocity of a moving body."

Torlos translated and the scientists gave their reply. "They say that you do not know more of space than they, for they know that the speed of light is ultimate. They have tested this with spaceships at high speeds and with experiments with the smallest particles of electricity."

The scientists were looking at Arcot now in protest; they felt he was trying to foist something off on them.

Arcot, too, was becoming exasperated. "Well, if they insist that we couldn't have come from another star, where do they think I come from? They have explored this system and found no such people as we, so I must have come from another star. How? If they won't accept my explanations, let them think up a theory of their own to explain the facts!" He paused for Torlos to translate, then went on. "They say I don't know any more than they do. Tell them to watch this."

He drew his molecular ray pistol and lifted a heavy metal chair into the air. Then Morey drew his heat beam and turned it on the chair. In a few seconds, it was glowing white hot, and then it collapsed into a fiery ball of liquid metal. Morey shut off the heat beam, and Arcot held the ball in the air while it cooled rapidly under the influence of the molecular ray. Then he lowered it to the floor.

It was obvious that the scientists were impressed, and the Emperor was talking eagerly with the men around him. They talked for several minutes, saying nothing to the Earthmen. Torlos stood quietly, waiting for a message to relay.

The Emperor called out, and some of the guards moved inside the door.

Torlos turned to Arcot. "Show no emotion!" came his telepathic warning. "I have been listening to them as they spoke. The Commanding One wants your weapons. Regardless of what his scientists tell him about the possibility of your trip, he knows those weapons work, and he wants them.

"You see, I am not a Satorian at all. I'm from Nansal, sent here many years ago as a spy. I have served in their fleets for many years, and have gained their trust.

"I am telling you the truth, as you will soon see.

"These people are going to follow their usual line of action and take the most direct way toward their end. They are going to attack you, believing that you, despite your weapons, will go down before superior numbers.

"And you'd better move fast; he's calling the guards already!"

Arcot turned to Morey, his face calm, his heart beating like a vibrohammer. "Keep your face straight, Morey. Don't look surprised. They're planning to jump us. We'll rip out the right wall and-"

He stopped. It was too late! The order had been given, and the guards were leaping toward them. Arcot grabbed at his ray pistol, but one of the guards jumped him before he had a chance to draw it.

Torlos seized the man by one leg and an arm and, tensing his huge muscles, hurled him thirty feet against the Commanding One with such force that both were killed instantly! He turned and grabbed another before his first victim had landed and hurled him toward the advancing guards. Arcot thought fleetingly that here was proof of Torlos' story of being from Nansal; the greater gravity of the third planet made him a great deal stronger than the Satorians!

One of the guards was trying to reach for Arcot. Acting instinctively, the Earthman lashed out with a hard jab to the point of the Satorian's jaw. The iron bones transmitted the shock beautifully to the delicate brain; the man's head jerked back, and he collapsed to the floor. Arcot's hand felt as though he'd hit it with a hammer, but he was far too busy to pay any attention to the pain.

Morey, too, had realized the futility of trying to overcome the guards by wrestling. The only thing to do was dodge and punch. The guards were trying to take the Earthmen alive, but, because of their greater weight, they couldn't move quite as fast as Arcot and Morey.

Torlos was still in action. He had seen the success of the Earthmen who, weak as they were, had been able to knock a man out with a blow to the jaw. Driving his own fists like pistons, he imitated their blows with deadly results; every man he struck went down forever.

The dead were piling around him, but through the open door he could see reinforcements arriving. Somehow, he had to save these Earthmen; if Sator got their secrets, Nansal would be lost!

He reached down and grabbed one of the fallen men and hurled him across the room, smashing back the men who struggled to attack. Then he picked up another and followed through with a second projectile. Then a third. With the speed and tirelessness of some giant engine of war, he slammed his macabre ammunition against the oncoming reinforcements with telling results.

At last Arcot was free for a moment, and that was all he needed. He jerked his molecular ray pistol from its holster and beamed it mercilessly toward the door, hurling the attackers violently backwards. They died instantly, their chilled corpses driving back against their comrades with killing force.

In a moment, every man in the room was dead except for the two Earthmen and the giant Torlos.

Outside the room, they could hear shouted orders as more of the Satorian guards were rallied.

"They'll try to kill us now!" Arcot said. "Come on, we've got to get out of here!"

"Sure," said Morey, "but which way?"

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