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   Chapter 20 No.20

Islands of Space By Jr. John W. Campbell Characters: 17612

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

For two days, the Ancient Mariner lay hidden in the hills. It was visible all that time, but at least two of the men were watching the sky every hour of the day. Torlos himself was, they knew, perfectly trustworthy, but they did not know whether his people were as honorable as he claimed them to be.

Arcot and Wade were in the control room on the afternoon of the second day-not Earth days, but the forty-hour Nansalian days-and they had been quietly discussing the biological differences between themselves and the inhabitants of this planet.

Suddenly, Wade saw a slowly moving speck in the sky.

"Look, Arcot! There's Torlos!"

They waited, ready for any hostile action as the tiny ship approached rapidly, circling slowly downward as it came nearer. It landed a few hundred feet away, and Torlos emerged, running rapidly toward the Earth ship. Arcot let him in through the airlock.

Torlos smiled broadly. "I had difficulty in convincing the Council that my story was true. When I told them that you could go faster than light, they strongly objected. But they had to admit that you had certainly been able to tear down the mountain very effectively, and they had received reports of the destruction of the Satorian capitol.

"It seems you first visited the city of Thanso when you came here. The people were nearly panic-stricken when they saw you rip that mountain down and uproot the magnetic ray station. No one ship had ever done that before!

"But the fact that several guards had seen me materialize out of thin air, plus the fact that they knew you could make yourselves invisible, convinced them that my story was true.

"They want to talk to you, and they say that they will gladly grant your requests. But you must promise them one thing-you must stay away from any of our people, for they are afraid of disease. Bacteria that do not bother you very much might be deadly to us. The Supreme Council of Three is willing to take the risk, but they will not allow anyone else to be exposed."

"We will keep apart from your people if the Council wishes," Arcot agreed, "but there is no real danger. We are so vastly different from you that it will be impossible for you to get our diseases, or for us to contract yours. However, if the Council wants it, we will do as they ask."

Torlos at once went back to his ship and headed toward the city.

Arcot followed in the Ancient Mariner, keeping about three hundred feet to the rear.

When they reached the magnetic screen of the city, one of the beam stations cut its power for a few moments, leaving a gap for the two ships to glide smoothly through.

On the roofs of the buildings, men and women were collected, watching the shining, polished hull of the strange ship as it moved silently above them.

Torlos led them to the great central building and dropped to the huge landing field beside it. All around them, in regular rows, the great hulls of the Nansal battleships were arranged. Arcot landed the Ancient Mariner and shut off the power.

"I think Wade is the man to go with me this time," Arcot said. "He has learned to communicate with Torlos quite well. We will each carry both pistols and wear our power suits. And we'll be in radio communication with you at all times.

"I don't think they'll start anything we don't like this time, but I'm not as confident as I was, and I'm not going to take any useless chances. This time I'm going to make arrangements. If I die here, there's going to be a very costly funeral, and these men are going to pay the costs!

"I'll call you every three minutes, Morey. If I don't, check up on me. If you still don't get an answer, take this place apart because you won't be able to hurt us then.

"I'm going to tell Torlos about our precautions. If the building shields the radio, I'll be listening for you and I'll retrace my steps until I can contact you again. Right? Then come on, Wade!" Arcot, fully equipped, strode down the corridor to the airlock.

Torlos was waiting for them with another man, whom Torlos explained was a high-ranking officer of the fleet. Torlos, it seemed, was without official rank. He was a secret service agent without official status, and therefore an officer had been assigned to accompany the Earthmen.

Torlos seemed to be relaxing in the soft, warm sunlight of his native world. It had been years since he had seen that yellow sun except from the windows of a space flier. Now he could walk around in the clear air of the planet of his birth.

Arcot explained to him the precautions they had taken against trouble here, and Torlos smiled. "You have certainly learned greater caution. I can't blame you. We certainly seem little different from the men of Sator; we can only stand on trial. But I know you will be safe."

They walked across the great court, which was covered with a soft, springy turf of green. The hot sun shining down on them, the brilliant colors of the buildings, the towering walls of the magnificent edifice they were approaching, and, behind them, the shining hull of the Ancient Mariner set among the dark, needle-shaped Nansalian ships, all combined to make a picture that would remain in their minds for a long time.

Here, there were no guards watching them as they were conducted to the meeting of the Supreme Council of Three.

They went into the main entrance of the towering government building and stepped into the great hall on the ground floor. It was like the interior of an ancient Gothic cathedral, beautiful and dignified. Great pillars of green stone rose in graceful, fluted columns, smoothly curving out like the branches of some stylized tree to meet in arches that rose high in pleasing curves to a point midway between four pillars. The walls were made of a dark green stone as a background; on them had been traced designs in colored tile.

The whole hall was a thing of colored beauty; the color gave it life, as the yellow sunlight gave life to the trees of the mountains.

They crossed the great hall and came at last to the elevator. Its door was made of narrow strips of metal, so bound together that the whole made a flexible, but strong sheet. In principle, the doors worked like the cover of an antique roll-top desk. The idea was old, but these men had made their elevator doors very attractive by the addition of color. In no way did they detract from the dignified grace of the magnificent hall.

Torlos turned to Arcot. "I wonder if it would not be wise to shut off your radio as we enter the elevator. Might not the magnetic force affect it?"

"Probably," Arcot agreed. He contacted Morey and told him that the radio would be cut off for a short while. "But it won't be more than three minutes," Arcot finished. "If it is-you know what to do."

As they entered the elevator, Torlos smiled at the two Earthmen. "We will ascend more gradually this time, so that the acceleration won't be so tiring to you." He moved the controls carefully, and by gentle steps they rose to the sixty-third floor of the giant building.

As they stepped out of the elevator, Torlos pointed toward an open window that stretched widely across one wall. Below them, they could see the Ancient Mariner.

"Your radio contact should be good," Torlos commented.

Wade put in a call to Morey, and to his relief, he made contact immediately.

The officer was leading them down a green stone corridor toward a simple door. He opened it, and they entered the room beyond.

In the center of the room was a large triangular table. At a place at the center of each side sat one man on a slightly raised chair, while on each side of him sat a number of other men.

Torlos stopped at the door and saluted. Then he spoke in rapid, liquid syllables to the men sitting at the table, halting once or twice and showing evident embarrassment as he did so.

He paused, and one of the three men in command replied rapidly in a pleasant voice that had none of the harsh command that Arcot had noticed in the voice of the Satorian Commanding One. Arcot liked the voice and the man.

Judging by Earth standards, he was past middle age-whatever that might be on Nansal-with crisp black hair that was bleaching slightly. His face showed the signs of worry that the making of momentous decisions always leaves, but although the face was strong with authority, there was a gentleness that comes with a feeling of kindly power.

Wade was talking rapidly into the radio, describing the scene before them to Morey. He described the great table of dark wood, and the men about it, some in the blue uniform of the military, and some in the loose, soft garments of the civilian. Their colored fabrics, individually in good taste and harmony, were frequently badly out of harmony with the c

ostume of a neighbor, a difficulty accompanying this brightly tinted clothing.

Torlos turned to Arcot. "The Supreme council asks that you be seated at the table, in the places left for you." He paused, then quickly added: "I have told them of your precautions, and they have said: 'A wise man, having been received treacherously once, will not again be trapped.' They approve of your policy of caution.

"The men who sit at the raised portions of the table are the Supreme Three; the others are their advisors who know the details of Science, Business, and War. No one man can know all the branches of human endeavor, and this is but a meeting place of those who know best the individual lines. The Supreme Three are elected from the advisors in case of the death of one of the Three, and they act as co-ordinators for the rest.

"The man of Science is to your left; directly before you is the man of Business, and to your right is the Commander of the Military.

"To whom do you wish to speak first?"

Arcot considered for a moment, then: "I must first tell the Scientist what it is I have, then tell the Commander how he can use it, and finally I will tell the Businessman what will be needed."

Arcot had noticed that the military officers all wore holsters for their pneumatic pistols, but they were conspicuously empty. He was both pleased and embarrassed. What should he do-he, who carried two deadly pistols. He decided on the least conspicuous course and left them where they were.

Arcot projected his thoughts at Torlos. "We have come a vast distance across space, from another galaxy. Let your astronomer tell them what distance that represents."

Arcot paused while Torlos put the thoughts into the words of the Nansalian language. A moment later, one of the scientists, a tall, powerfully built man, even for these men of giant strength, rose and spoke to the others. When he was seated, a second rose and spoke also, with an expression of puzzled wonder.

"He says," Torlos translated, "that his science has taught him that a speed such as you say you have made is impossible, but the fact that you are here proves his science wrong.

"He reasoned that since your kind live on no planet of this system, you must come from another star. Since his science says that this is just as impossible as coming from another galaxy, he is convinced of the fallacy in the theories."

Arcot smiled. The sound reasoning was creditable; the man did not label as "impossible" something which was proven by the presence of the two Earthmen.

Arcot tried to explain the physical concepts behind his space-strain drive, but communication broke down rapidly; Torlos, a warrior, not a scientist, could not comprehend the ideas, and was completely unable to translate them into his own language.

"The Chief Physicist suggests that you think directly at him," Torlos finally told Arcot. "He suggests that the thoughts might be more familiar to him than to me." He grinned. "And they certainly aren't clear to me!"

Arcot projected his thoughts directly toward the physicist; to his surprise, the man was a perfect receiver. He had a natural gift for it. Quickly, Arcot outlined the system that had made his intergalactic voyage possible.

The physicist smiled when Arcot was finished, and tried to reply, but he was not a good transmitter. Torlos aided him.

"He says that the science of your people is far ahead of us. The conceptions are totally foreign to his mind, and he can only barely grasp the significance of the idea of bent emptiness that you have given him. He says, however, that he can fully appreciate the possibility that you have shown him. He has given your message to the Three, and they are anxious to hear of the weapons you have."

Arcot drew the molecular pistol, and holding it up for all to see, projected the general theory of its operation toward the physicist.

To the Chief Physicist of Nansal, the idea of molecular energy was an old one; he had been making use of it all his life, and it was well known that the muscles used the heat of air to do their work. He understood well how it worked, but not until Arcot projected into his mind the mental impression of how the Earthmen had thrown one sun into another did he realize the vast power of the ray.

Awed, the man translated the idea to his fellows.

Then Arcot drew the heat pistol and explained how the annihilation of matter within it was converted into pure heat by the relux lens.

"I will show you how they work," Arcot continued. "Could we have a lump of metal of some kind?"

The Scientist spoke into an intercom microphone, and within a few minutes, a large lump of iron-a broken casting-was brought in. Arcot suspended it on the molecular beam while Wade melted it with the heat beam. It melted and collapsed into a ball that glowed brilliantly and flamed as its surface burned in the oxygen of the air. Wade cut off his heat ray, and the ball quickly cooled under the influence of the molecular beam until Arcot lowered it to the floor, a perfect sphere crusted with ice and frost.

Arcot continued for the better part of an hour to explain to the Council exactly what he had, how they could be used, and what materials and processes were needed to make them.

When he was finished, the Supreme Three conferred for several minutes. Then the Scientist asked, through Torlos: "How can we repay you for these things you have given us?"

"First, we need lead to fuel our ship." Arcot gave them the exact specifications for the lead wire they needed.

He received his answer from the man of Business and Manufacturing. "We can give you that easily, for lead is cheap. Indeed, it seems hardly enough to repay you."

"The second thing we need," Arcot continued, "is information. We became lost in space and are unable to find our way home. I would like to explain the case to the Astronomer."

The Astronomer proved to be a man of powerful intelligence as well as powerful physique, and was a better transmitter than receiver. It took every bit of Arcot's powerful mind to project his thoughts to the man.

He explained the dilemma that he and his friends were in, and told him how he could recognize the Galaxy on his plates. The Astronomer said he thought he knew of such a nebula, but he would like to compare his own photographs with Arcot's to make sure.

"In return," Arcot told him, "we will give you another weapon-a weapon, this time, to defeat the astronomer's greatest enemy, distance. It is an electrical telescope which will permit you to see life on every planet of this system. With it, you can see a man at a distance ten times as great as the distance from Nansal to your sun!"

Eagerly, the Astronomer questioned Arcot concerning the telectroscope, but others were clamoring for Arcot's attention.

The Biologist was foremost among the contenders; he seemed worried about the possibility of the alien Earthmen carrying pathogenic bacteria.

"Torlos has told us that you have an entirely different internal organization. What is it that is different? I can't believe that he has correctly understood you."

Arcot explained the differences as carefully as possible. By the time he was finished, the Biologist felt sure that any such creature was sufficiently far removed from them to be harmless biologically, but he wanted to study the Man of Earth further.

Arcot had brought along a collection of medical books as a possible aid in case of accident. He offered to give these to Nansal in exchange for a collection of Nansalian medical texts. The English would have to be worked out with the aid of a dictionary and a primary working aid which Arcot would supply. Arcot also asked for a skeleton to take with him, and the Biologist readily agreed.

"We'd like to give you one in return," Arcot grinned, "But we only brought four along, and, unfortunately, we are using them at the moment."

The Biologist smiled back and assured him that they would not think of taking a piece of apparatus so vitally necessary to the Earthmen.

The Military Leader was the man who demanded attention next. Arcot had a long conference with him, and they decided that the best way for the Military Leader to learn the war potential of the Ancient Mariner was to personally see a demonstration of its powers.

The Council decided that the Three would go on the trip. The Military Commander picked two of his aides to go, and the Scientist picked the Astronomer and the Physicist. The head of Business and Manufacturing declined to bring any of his advisors.

"We would learn nothing," he told Arcot, "and would only be in the way. I, myself, am going only because I am one of the Three."

"Very well," said Arcot. "Let's get started."

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