17. The World of Belem
Had I been expecting something semi-miraculous I should have been disappointed. I had seen similar passages under Grand Central Station. Here there was nothing at all unusual—simply a white corridor, empty and silent.
“In your day,” the Mechandroid told me, “this would have been a grouping of thick doors and locks. The Subterrane is the arsenal of the government. It isn’t on Earth. Walk forward.”
I obeyed. I felt a brief tingling, a rather pleasant vibration that passed and was gone.
“You have just passed between a cathode and anode that would have disrupted the brain of any Mechandroid. The pattern is keyed so that it’s harmless to humans. No Mechandroid has ever been permitted in the Subterrane—till now.”
So they were vulnerable after all.
“Why, yes,” Belem remarked, surprised. “Every existing thing is capable of negation—of altering its condition to non-existence. The less adaptable an organism, the easier it is to destroy. But this cathode-anode device is not portable and its field is quite limited.
“It is useful only for defense—not for offense. You would be destroyed, too, if you hurled yourself on a sharpened stake. The other devices are aimed at human beings who aren’t wearing the protective helmets. Luckily—”
I wasn’t in a corridor any more. Not a normal corridor. Planar geometry had suddenly and empirically been disproved. My eyes, conditioned to normal perspective, went dizzily out of focus as abruptly as gravity itself seemed to alter.
You can’t describe the indescribable. Lines of perspective meet at the vanishing point—sure. So they say. But the walls and floor and ceiling of the white-lit tunnel curved in insanely a few feet ahead of me, crossed somehow and re-extended themselves toward me like a tapering cone. Such distortions of matter may be normal at the end of the universe but you shouldn’t be able to reach out and touch—Touch? But I couldn’t even do that. Gravity had gone wrong, too. I suspected there was a riptide in the semicircular canals of my ears. Because I felt that I was falling, no matter in what direction I looked.
There was no corridor. There was only white emptiness. Dead white and featureless except for the cone that pointed accusingly at me. I tried to move forward and a horrible, sick, giddiness loosened my muscles and then tightened them again as I strained to stand rigid. As long as I didn’t move an inch I might not fall.
“Walk forward!” the voice in my mind insisted. I shut my eyes and walked forward. At Belem’s annoyed command, I reopened them and either fell or ran toward the white cone that was the corridor itself extended beyond infinity and in geometric reversal. As I moved I found myself curving away, along the line of the distortion, so that without knowing how it had happened I was hurrying in the opposite direction with my back to the cone.
“I can’t do this too often without resting,” Belem said. “Open your mind. Relax. Let me control your muscles. This illusion is for human eyes only. I can screen it out and see the right way.”
It took tremendous effort on my part to keep my eyes open and my muscles relaxed. That disgusting falling sensation kept growing stronger and every sane instinct I had reacted violently at what my optic nerves described. I was walking into a vanishing point—that was the only way to describe it. I walked right into the point of the white cone and through it—don’t ask me how, because it was an illusion—and then I was in the white corridor again.
I took ten unsteady steps, and came out into a wider tunnel that stretched, curving, to left and to right. Belem guided me to the left.
There were hieroglyphics on the walls at regular intervals but I didn’t realize they indicated doors until the Mechandroid told me to stop. All I had to do was touch the wall and a shutter opened like a cat’s-eye, slitted, then oval, enlarging till I could step through into the room beyond. Behind me the panel closed noiselessly.
It was a large room and there was a matter-transmitter in a corner. The walls were banked with paneling carrying the most complicated set of controls I had ever seen. On a glassy pillar in the center of the floor was a transparent box, small enough to hold in my palm, and it was bathed in a sparkle of glittering lights that poured out from two pencil-like cylinders embedded in the pillar, one on each side of the box.
Within the box was a golden marble.
“I know,” I said dizzily. “It’ll grant me three wishes.”
“That type of humor is a defense mechanism against fear,” Belem told me unsympathetically. “Here is the main reason why I chose the difficult and dangerous method of entering your mind. No men of this age would have gone with me this far. They’re all conditioned against Mechandroids.
“You were the only one who could and would have got into the Subterrane. In that transparent box is, I think, the only weapon against which we have no defense at all. As long as it’s within the field of radiation, as it is now, it’s harmless. Remove it and, within two minutes, it, becomes activated.”
“What is it?”
“A complicated pattern of energies. It’s positively charged now. When it’s activated, it becomes negatively charged. Then it creates a dead field for nearly a mile around it, in which no matter-transmitters will operate.”
“That doesn’t seem so dangerous. You can get along without matter-transmitters long enough to walk a mile, can’t you?”
“Not if we’re under siege. You saw our laboratory. Warfare is still a matter of siege unless one wants to wipe everything out and they don’t. They’ll want to inspect our work. With matter-transmission you can’t besiege a place.
“Everyone inside would simply leak away and escape, taking all their important work with them. This one weapon here is the only completed matrix available at this time. It takes a long while to complete the necessary energy-pattern. So, if we eliminate it, we can stand off a siege long enough to clear out the laboratory.”
“Eliminate it how?”
“Set the matter-transmitter controls to—anywhere. Some obsolete receiver at the edge of the galaxy, maybe. Pick up that box and—fast!—put it in the transmitter, before the radiation dies and it activates. Then the box will appear at the edge of the galaxy and paralyze energy facilities there.”
“For how long?”
“I don’t know. Long enough. It wouldn’t harm humans but they’d have to walk to a station outside its field. The box can’t be moved, incidentally, or you could just carry it to a spot beyond the range of the nearest transmitter. After it’s activated it has almost absolute inertia. Right now, though, it’s portable. Can you touch it?”
I put out a tentative hand that was stopped in mid-air about a foot above the box. I pushed against nothing. I couldn’t pass the invisible barrier.
“I thought so,” Belem said. “That stud in the pedestal—try pressing it.”
I did. I reached for the box again. This time I could do it. The defense field, whatever it had been, was gone. The box was not very heavy. I set it down again with care.
“All right,” I said. “Fine. But what about me? Why should I help you?”
“Paynter will kill you if you don’t,” Belem said patiently. “If he doesn’t his superiors will as soon as it’s established that you’re a carrier of that nekronic killer, whatever it is. And I think I know. If you help me I believe I can solve that problem too.
“There are two obvious reasons why I’ll protect you. First, I can’t get out of your brain until you’re in physical contact with me again. If you’re killed before then the psychic rapport impact may kill me too. After we finish this job you’ll get in the transmitter and return to the world where I am now—the one where you first saw me. As for the second reason—”
A sudden, violent contraction of all my muscles, like a simultaneous cramp in every limb, doubled me up without the slightest warning. I fell forward—saw the floor hurtling toward me—and felt my rebellious muscles relax again just in time to save myself from a crash. I was so startled that I scarcely noticed the lance of gauzy light, tendriled like a cobweb, that floated in the spot from which I had just been hurled. But Belem’s thought said, “Paralysis projector!”
What happened after that took almost no time at all.
When I got my feet under me I whirled and faced the opened door-panel and the man standing there in arrested motion, weapon lifted. It was Paynter, his pale eyes glittering, his mouth drawn down in a grimace of anger and surprise. The weapon had a basket-hilt and a muzzle that looked like rubbery lips, puffing in and out petulantly.
Belem had sensed his presence before I did. It was the Mechandroid’s control of my motor reflexes that had jerked me forward in a spasmodic dodge that barely cleared the blast of the puffing weapon.
I had no weapon of my own. Paynter was centering his on me for a second, more accurate shot. I hadn’t the ghost of an idea how to avoid it.
“What do I do now?” I demanded in desperation of the mind in my brain.
“I don’t know—be quiet, I’m trying to think!” was all Belem had to offer.
I sought Paynter’s eyes, trying to put hypnosis into my own, saying, “Now wait a minute, Paynter! Hold on! I—”
He did not answer in words. He raised the weapon and took deliberate aim at me. I wondered whether he had been following from the first, how much he knew—why he chose to kill me now, without hearing a word of defense. He wasn’t even curious about how I’d got here.
The puffy mouth of his weapon sucked in deeply and began to pout out again. In another second a web of light would shoot out at me and there was no room here even to dodge again, without colliding with that pedestal upon which the marble in its glass box rested. If I dodged I’d hit it.
If I dodged I’d—
That was the answer, of course. So obvious neither of us had seen it. It was the simplest answer in the world. I almost laughed as I snatched the glass box from its resting place and, in the same quick motion, hurled it straight at Paynter’s face.
No one can say he wasn’t fast. His mind recognized the danger I had dropped in his hands in the same instant his muscles reacted. There was only one possible thing to do, and he did it. He dropped his gun and caught the precious and terribly dangerous box in mid-air.
I didn’t stop to watch. I was already halfway through the door of the matter-projector by the time Paynter’s weapon hit the floor. I slammed the door shut with one kick and put my hands on the wall where the dials were.
“Belem!” I thought urgently.
On the other side of the slammed door, Paynter would be rushing the box back into place, back into its bath before the two-minute interval elapsed that would activate the thing and stop all matter-transmission for a cubic mile. If he fumbled it I was stuck here—unless Belem moved fast.
Luckily he moved. My fingers, without my own volition, were hastily spinning the verniered dials. Tarnished metal walls flashed into view around me.