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   Chapter 2 No.2

Tarrano the Conqueror By Ray Cummings Characters: 14766

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Warning

It must have been nearly nine o'clock when a personal message came for me. Not through the ordinary open airways, but in the National Length, and coded. It came to my desk by official messenger, decoded, printed and sealed.

Jac Hallen, Inter-Allied News. Come to me, North-east Island at once, if they can spare you. Important. Answer.

Dr. Brende.

Our Division Manager scanned the message curiously and told me I could go. I got off my answer. I did not dare call Dr. Brende openly, since he had used the code, but sent it the same way. I would be up at once.

With a word of good-bye to Greys, I shoved aside my work, caught up a heavy jacket and cap and left the office. The levels outside our building were still jammed with an excited throng. I pushed my way through it, up to the entrance to the Staten Bridge. The waters of the harbor beneath me had a broad band of moonlight upon them, dim in the glare of the city lights. I glanced upward with satisfaction. A good night for air-traveling.

My small personal air-car was on the stage near the bridge entrance. The attendant was there, staring at me as I dashed up in such haste. He handed me my key from the rack.

"Going far, Jac? What a night! They'll be ordering them off if many more go up.... Going north?"

"No," I said shortly.

I was away, rising with my helicopters until the city was a yellow haze beneath me. I was going north-to Dr. Brende's little private island off the coast of Maine. The lower lanes were pretty well crowded. I tried one of the north-bound at 8,000 feet; but the going was awkward. Then I went to 16,000.

But Grille, the attendant back at the bridge, evidently had his finder on me, out of plain curiosity. He called me.

"They'll chase you out of there," came his voice. "Nothing doing up there tonight. That's reserved. Didn't you know it?"

I grinned at him. In the glow of my pitlight I hoped he could see my face and the grin.

"They'll never catch me," I said. "I'm traveling fast tonight."

"Chase you out," he persisted. "The patrol's keeping them low. General Orders, an hour ago. Didn't you know it?"

"No."

"Well, you ought to. You ought to know everything in your business. Besides, the lights are up."

They were indeed; I could see them in all the towers underneath me. I was flying north-east; and at the moment, with a following wind, I was doing something over three-fifty.

"But they'll shut off your power," Grille warned. "You'll come down soon enough then."

Which was also true enough. The evening local-express for Boston and beyond was overhauling me. And when the green beam of a traffic tower came up and picked me out, I decided I had better obey. Dutifully I descended until the beam, satisfied, swung away from me.

At 8,000 feet, I went on. There was too much traffic for decent speed and the directors in every pilot bag and tower I passed seemed watching me closely. At the latitude of Boston, I swung out to sea, off the main arteries of travel. The early night mail for Eurasia,[4] with Great London its first stop, went by me far overhead. I could make out its green and purple lights, and the spreading silver beam that preceded it.

Alone in my pit, with the dull whir of my propellers alone breaking the silence of the night, I pondered the startling events of the past few hours. Above me the stars and planets gleamed in the deep purple of an almost cloudless sky. Venus had long since dropped below the horizon. But Mars was up there-approaching the zenith. I wondered what the Martian helio might be saying. I could have asked Greys back at the office. But Greys, I knew, would be too busy to bother with me.

What could Dr. Brende want of me? I was glad he had sent for me-there was nowhere I would rather have gone this particular evening. And it would give me a chance to see Elza again.

I could tell by the light-numerals below, that I was now over Maine. I did not need to consult my charts; I had been up this way many times, for, the Brendes-the doctor, his daughter Elza, and her twin brother Georg-I counted my best friends.

I was over the sea, with the coast of Maine to my left. The traffic, since I left the line of Boston, had been far less. The patrols flashed by me at intervals, but they did not molest me.

I descended presently, and located the small two-mile island which Dr. Brende owned and upon which he lived.

It was 10:20 when I came down to find them waiting for me on the runway.

The doctor held out both his hands. "Good enough, Jac. I got your code-we've been waiting for you."

"It's crowded," I said. "Heavy up to Boston. And they wouldn't let me go high."

He nodded. And then Elza put her cool little hand in mine.

"We're glad to see you, Jac. Very glad."

They took me to the house. Dr. Brende was a small, dark man of sixty-odd, smooth-shaven, a thin face, with a mop of iron-grey hair above it, and keen dark eyes beneath bushy white brows. He was usually kindly and gentle of manner-at times a little abstracted; at other times he could be more forceful and direct than anyone with whom I had ever had contact.

At the house we were joined by the doctor's son, Georg. My best friend, I should say; certainly, for my part, I treasured his friendship very highly. He and Elza were twins-twenty-three years old at this time. I am two years older; and I had been a room-mate with Georg at the Common University of the Potomac.

Our friendship had, if anything, grown closer since my promotion into the business world. Yet we were as unlike as two individuals could possibly be. I am dark-haired, slim, and of comparatively slight muscular strength. Restless-full of nervous energy-and, they tell me, somewhat short of temper. Georg was a blond, powerful young giant. A head taller than I-blue-eyed, from his mother, now dead-square-jawed, and a complexion pink and white. He was slow to anger. He seldom spoke impulsively; and usually with a slow, quiet drawl. Always he seemed looking at life and people with a half-humorous smile-looking at the human pageant with its foibles, follies and frailties-tolerantly. Yet there was nothing conceited about him. Quite the reverse. He was generally wholly deprecating in manner, as though he himself were of least importance. Until aroused. In our days of learning, I saw Georg once-just once-thoroughly angered.

"... Came up promptly, didn't you?" Georg was saying. He was leading me to the house doorway, but I stopped him.

"Let's go to the grove," I suggested. We turned down from the small viaduct, passed the house, and went into the heavy grove of trees nearby.

"He's hungry," Elza declared. "Jac, did you eat at the office tonight?"

"Yes," I said.

"Did you really?"

"Some," I admitted. In truth the run up here had brought me a thoroughly hearty appetite, which I just realized.

"I was pretty busy, you know," I added. "Such a night-but don't you bother."

But she had already scurried away toward the house. Dear little Elza! I wished then, for the hundredth time, that I was a man of wealth-or at least, not as poor as a tower timekeeper. True, I made fair money-but the urge to spend it recklessly dominated me. I decided in that moment, to reform for good; and lay by enough to justify asking a woman to be my wife.

We reclined on a mossy bank in the gr

ove of trees, so thick a grove that it hid the house from our sight.

The doctor extinguished the glowing lights with which the tree-branches were dotted. We were in the semi-darkness of a beautiful, moonlit night.

"Don't go to sleep, Jac!"

I became aware that Georg and his father were smiling at me.

I sat up, snapping my wits into alertness. "No. Of course not. I guess I'm tired. You've no idea what the office was like tonight. Roaring."

"I can imagine," Georg said. "You were at Park Sixty when the President fell, weren't you?"

"Yes. But I wasn't supposed to be. I wasn't assigned to that. How did you guess?"

"Elza saw you. She had our finder on you-I couldn't push her away from it." His slow smile was quizzical.

"On me? In all that crowd. She must have searched about very carefully to--"

I stopped; I could feel my cheeks burning, and was glad of the dimness there under the trees.

"She did," said Georg.

"I sent for you, Jac," Dr. Brende interjected abstractedly, "because--"

But Georg checked him. "Not now, father. Someone-anyone-might pick you up. Your words-or read your lips-there's light enough here to register on a finder."

The doctor nodded. "He's afraid-you see, Jac, it's these Venus--"

"Father-please. It's a long chance-but why take any? We can insulate in the house."

The chance that someone who shouldn't be, was tuned to us as we sat there in that lonely grove! With the doctor's widespread reputation-his more than national prominence-it did not seem to me to be such a long chance either, on this, of all nights.

"As you say, no use in putting private things into the public air," I remarked; and I felt then as though a thousand hostile eyes and ears were watching and listening. "We can talk of what everybody knows," Georg commented. "The Martian Ruler of the Little People was assassinated an hour ago. You heard that coming up?"

"No," I said; but I had imagined as much. "Did they say-"

"They said nothing," Dr. Brende put in. "The flash of a dozen helioed words-no more."

"It went dark, like Venus?"

"No. Just discontinued. I judge they're excited up there-the Bureau disorganized perhaps-I don't know. That was the last we got at the house, just before you came down. There may be something in there now-you Inter-Allied people are pretty reliable."

The ruler of the Venus Central State, the leading monarch of Mars, and our three chief executives of Earth-murdered almost simultaneously! It was incredible-any one of the murders would have been incredible-yet it was true.

There had been times-in the Inter-Allied Office, particularly-when I had been insulated from aerial eavesdropping. But never had I felt the need of it more than now. A constraint fell over me; I seemed afraid to say anything. I think we all three felt very much like that; and it was a relief when Elza arrived with my dainty little meal.

"Any word from Mars, Elza?" her father asked.

She sat down beside me, helping me to the food.

"I did not look," she answered.

She did not look, because she was busy preparing my meal! Dear little Elza! And because of my accursed extravagance-my poverty-no word of love had ever passed between us!

I thought I had never seen Elza so beautiful as this moment. A slim little thing, perfectly formed and matured, and inches shorter than I. Thick brown hair braided, and hanging below her waist. A face-pretty as her mother's must have been-yet intellectual as her father's.

I had taken Elza to the great music festivals of the city, and counted her the best dressed girl in all the vast throng. Tonight she was dressed simply. A grey-blue, tubular sort of skirt, clinging close to the lines of her figure and split at the side for walking; a tight-fitting bodice, light in color (a man knows little of the technicalities of such things); throat bare, with a flaring rolled collar behind-a throat like a rose-petal with the moonlight on it; arms bare, save for the upper, triangular sleeves.

It must suffice; I can only say she was adorable. Almost in silence I ate my meal, with her beside me.

Georg went into the house once, to consult the news-tape. It was crowded with Earth events-excitement, confusion everywhere-inconsequential reports, they seemed, by comparison with what had gone before. But of helios from Mars, or Venus, there were none reported. Of Venus, the tape said nothing save that each of our westward stations was vainly calling in turn, as the planet dropped toward its horizon.

I finished my meal-too leisurely for Georg and the doctor; and then we all went into the house, to the insulated room where at last we could talk openly.

As we entered the main corridor, we heard the low voice of the Inter-Allied news-announcer, coming from the disc in a room nearby.

"And Venus--"

The words caught our attention. We hurried in, and stood by the Inter-Allied equipment. Georg picked up the pile of tape whereon the announcer's words were being printed. He ran back over it.

"Another helio from Venus!" he exclaimed. "Ten minutes ago."

And then I saw his lips go tight together. He made no move to hide the tape from Elza, but she was beside him and already reading it. Her fingers switched off the announcer's droning voice.

"Pacific Coastal Station," Elza read. In the sudden silence of the room her voice was low, clear, and steady, though her hands were trembling. "P.C.S. 10.42 Venus helio. 'Defeat! Beware Tarrano! Notify your Dr. Brende in Eurasia, danger.'"

We men stared at each other. But Elza went on reading.

"P.C.S. 10.44 Venus helio. 'Lost! No more! Smashing apparatus!' The Venus sending station went dark at 10.44.30. Hawaiian station will call later, but have little hope of re-establishing connection. Tokyohama 10.46 Official, via Potomac National Headquarters. Excitement here continues. Levels crowded--"

Elza dropped the tape. "That's all of importance. Venus Central Station warning you, father."

A buzz across the room called the doctor to his personal receiver. It was a message in code from Potomac National Headquarters. We watched the queer-looking characters printing on the tape. Very softly, in a voice hardly above a whisper, Georg decoded it.

"Dr. Brende, see P.C.S. 10.42, warning you, probably of Venus immigrants now here. Do you need guard? Or will you come to Washington at once for personal safety?"

"Father!" cried Elza.

Georg burst out. "Enough of this. We cannot-dare not talk in here. Father, come--"

We went out into the corridor again, across which was the small room insulated from all aerial vibrations. In the corridor a figure was standing-the one other member of the Brende household-the maid-servant, a girl about Elza's age. I knew her well, of course, but this evening I had forgotten her existence. She was standing in the corridor. Did I imagine it, or had she been gazing up at the mechanism ten feet above the floor-the mechanism controlling the insulated room?

"You wish me, Miss Elza? I thought I heard you call."

"No, Ahla, not 'til later."

With a gesture of respect, the girl withdrew, passing from our sight down the incline which led to the lower part of the house.

It was a very small incident, but in view of what was transpiring, it gave me a shock nevertheless.

For Elza's maid was a Venus girl!

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