21. Infection Spreading
And that was when the last defense of all went down. There was a blazing flash of crimson that seemed to lick every corner of the room. It died and the white-lit air trembled a little in its wake. But only for an instant.
Then, from somewhere outside, a spear of red light drove at us and, almost concurrently, a steel piston, ten feet thick, shot out like a battering-ram after it. I had a single glimpse of that blank solid-steel muzzle rushing forward like a Titan’s fist—then it crashed through the wall of the building, with a thunderous impact and a shriek of torn and twisted metal, and ripped an irresistible path through the great girders.
That cylinder of metal must have been more than half a mile long. Thirty feet of it extended through the riven wall into the chamber where we stood.
The blank muzzle opened like a shutter. Through a transparent wall I saw a little room banked with intricate control boards, and Paynter in a bucket-seat, his eyes shielded by darkened lenses, his mouth drawn down in a grimace as his hands moved swiftly across the panel before him.
A section of the cylinder dropped away. From its interior came leaping men, hooded and armored ‘by light-colored suits of webbing. Each carried one of the basket-hilted paralysis-weapons.
I risked a look behind me. Far away, down a long vista of arched girders, I could see the Mechandroids gathered in a little group about the floating platform on which the second-stage Mechandroid lay and I thought that quick flashes of light were moving there—the same knife-like stabs of brightness I had seen when Belem divided his experimental sphere.
But the soldiers of Paynter were getting dangerously close—more than a score of them, inhuman and frightening in their hoods and protective suits.
Deliberately Belem turned his back on the soldiers running toward us and looked at me.
Twice before I had had this experience. But it wasn’t a trick you could get used to—the quicksilver eyes expanding, rushing forward, slipping, inside your head—and, impossibly, moving into place like supplementary lenses so that Belem was looking out through my own eyes, from within my mind.
I felt his will grip mine with paralyzing strength. Perhaps he thought I might resist. Certainly I would have, had I known what he intended.
Then he had control of my brain as well as my body. Belem’s thought? But they were my own thoughts—superimposed, directing—
He was using my mind, as he might use a telegraph-key, to send out a message—a summons.
I had time only to realize what it was Belem was calling. There was no time to react, to fight the summons—for the answer came almost upon the heels of the call.
From high above the great room I could see that answering shadow sweep into sight. It came out of nowhere, literally out of nowhere, springing into being and moving for– ward with a speed so blinding I could not focus upon it. I had again that instant of recognition, of revulsion—that knowledge of its burning speed.
And then the nova of pure energy exploded outward, as it had done so many times before, from somewhere in the center of my consciousness.
But this time it was different. Never before had the thing been deliberately summoned. Whatever it was, from wherever it came, it had always before struck of its own will. Now it struck through mine—through Belem’s, speaking with my mind. And that gave it a significance and a quality of culmination which its coming had never had before. This time it meant something. This time, perhaps, I would know. The shock of energy blinded me. I waited for the fading to begin.
There was no fading. Instead a second shock followed close upon the first, then another and another—wave after rising wave, tide upon tide of devouring violence. Nothing like this had ever happened before. I was too sick and shaken with the overloading of my nerves, the staggering blows of sensation that battered me. I could not think or reason. I only knew that this time I was lost, drowned in the bursting violence.
It would not cease. It would never cease. It would go on forever ...
I saw the shadow of violence fade from a face. Across what seemed to be wide distances I saw the reflection of unimaginable violence ebb. Yes—the mind behind that face had known the staggering onrush of inhuman tides as deeply as my own.
In the control room of the great steel cylinder Paynter met my gaze—and I read sick horror in his eyes.
I could not move. Every nerve in my body felt burned out, short-circuited. I could see and hear a little; that was all. I saw Belem clambering up into the hollow side of the huge piston.
In a moment he appeared behind Paynter. Paynter, I thought, tried to move. His stare broke away from mine. But the Mechandroid’s hands darted out, touching Paynter’s neck, his head, his spine. Belem spoke a word and took Paynter’s shoulder as the latter rose.
Belem’s quicksilver eyes were no longer within my mind, I realized.
But I wasn’t thinking clearly. I had forgotten the armored soldiers.
Now I saw them. They were quite dead, all of them. I saw how they had died. I remembered the chain of bursting explosions as the killing shadow had swept down from above.
It was gone now—but it had fed well.
Belem and the silent obedient figure of Paynter came toward me. I felt the Mechandroid’s fingers reach out and probe deeply into my flesh. There was brief pain, then I could move again. But I still could not think very clearly. Belem seemed to be listening to a voice I couldn’t hear, He said, as if to himself, “There isn’t much time—“ and urged both of us forward. Now that I turned, I could see that the matter-transmission chamber at the other end of the room was empty. The crowding Mechandroids with their slowly waking Sleeper had gone. They had stepped, in so many instants, from this place to some other planet that might be anywhere at all in the immeasurable vastness of the Galaxy.
“Come,” Belem said and we moved toward the matter-transmitter.
The rusted metal walls shimmered around us, faded, vanished.
Across the depths of space the atoms that made us up dispersed, drew out, reintegrated again. Bright alloy plates shimmered into being. We had stepped again from one world to another.
Belem pushed the panel open. We stepped out—into a cavern of dusty rock.
On the floor at our feet a little glittering tree stood motionless, beside it a flat metal sheet with wire bars. Belem sighed with satisfaction.
“I didn’t think they could do it,” he said. “Word went out to one of us in the laboratories to get these things replaced but I didn’t really think—well, there just isn’t much time. Cortland, bring Paynter here, please.”
I obeyed, moving in a curious dreamlike state, the aftermath perhaps of that monstrous rapport with the slaying shadow. Belem was kneeling beside the barred device dial Dr. Essen had used to create the vibratory matrix that had isolated us from space.
“Useless,” he said. “As I half suspected.” I looked up at the enclosing walls of stone, beyond which my own home planet stretched. It was curiously comforting to know that the rock overhead and the rock underfoot were the native structure of Earth. Here, on this uneven floor, my own body had fallen to dust.
I wondered if the drifts in which our feet left prints had once been—
“This is the cave of the time-axis, then,” I said slowly. “And it’s no good. Not if you can’t work the machine Dr. Essen used. Is it too complicated even for you, Belem? I should have thought—”
“That isn’t the problem. It’s comparatively simple, really. The trouble amounts to personalized mental mutation. We could understand how a thing as simple as a Neanderthaler’s battle hammer worked but we couldn’t use it—we don’t have the same muscular training and balance. And mental habits are far more subtle.
“An invention, in practical application, fits its age and the people of that age. By studying this apparatus, I could work back to the basic principle and construct something similar that would operate in my hands. But only Dr. Essen could use the device that’s so completely hers. In effect it’s an extension of her mind. And we’re in a hurry. I’ve had to make other plans.”
He glanced toward the closed panel of the transmitter and before he had finished speaking, it began to open. I think there was some mental warning which Mechandroids could exchange over considerable distances. Belem put a restraining hand on my arm as a second Mechandroid stepped into the cavern. He came directly from some world of dust and wind, for his hair was wildly blown and a reddish dust shook from his garments as he moved. He carried very carefully in both hands a milky-white crystalline egg.
Without a word he came forward, put it in Belem’s hands and turned back to the transmitter. It sighed shut behind him and he was gone—back, perhaps, to the wind and dust of his unknown world.
Gingerly Belem laid the crystalline globe on the floor between the glass tree and the useless Essen device.
“This will do what has to be done,” he said, looking down at it. “Give us a temporary force-field. It doesn’t tap the basic cosmic energies as Dr. Essen’s does but I hope it will protect us long enough. After the second-stage Mechandroid wakes we’ll be safe. He can take over.”
“And do what?” I asked, a little rebelliously. “Keep us asleep, set up a matrix to guard us—sure. And then send us in to the future? Maybe I don’t want to go any more. What good could I do there alone? De Kalb’s gone. Dr. Essen’s gone. Even Murray would have been more help than nobody. As it is, I’d rather stay right here. It looks like an interesting world, what little I’ve managed to see of it. If you hadn’t interfered I think I could have got along very well with Paynter.”
“Except for one thing,” he said calmly. “You’re a carrier of the nekronic infection, as I think the People of the Face may have planned from the beginning. As a spur to prevent just what you’ve suggested.”
“Why are you going, then?” I demanded. “It has nothing to do with you.”
“Yes, it does have. Two things. First—I don’t know why I’m going. The order came and I must obey it.”
“From the second-stage Mechandroid?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes. The second reason is”—He looked up at me over his shoulder. He was kneeling to puzzle over the Essen machine, and gave me a sudden cool smile. “I go under orders,” he said. “You go because of the nekronic spur. Do you know why Paynter must go too?”
“Because you’ve got him hypnotized,” I said. “Why else?”
“Paynter is infected too.” I gaped at him.
“Of course he is. Why else did he fail to kill you when he knew the danger you carried wherever you went? But suppose he had killed you—and the murders went on? The authorities would have had to look further—they would have found Paynter himself. So long as you lived, you were the obvious scapegoat.”
“All right,” I said slowly. “It adds up. Is that the reason why he has to go with us? Does your second-stage age Mechandroid care about that?”
“Of course not.” Belem had turned from the mystifying Essen machine and was working carefully with the milky-crystal globe now, his large fingers moving over it with the same clumsy deftness I had watched so often in De Kalb’s identical fingers.
“Of course not. The real reason is very different. You’ve probably guessed it already. Do you not know, really, why you have trusted me so far? If your mind had put up any real opposition, I couldn’t have done all I did with it. Don’t you know why you and I must go on to the world of the Face together—as you first set out to do?”
I stood there in the dusty cavern, in perfect silence, not surprised to find that I was trembling a little as his metal eyes met mine. After a long time I said, very softly, in a shaken, questioning voice, “De Kalb—De Kalb?”
“I think so,” he said calmly. Then he reached out and with one finger stirred the heavy dust on the floor. He looked at me, smiling wryly. “De Kalb is there. De Kalb is that. But here—” He struck his head a light rap, “Here I think he still lives. Latent. In abeyance. But still here.”
I sat down suddenly, in the dust that may once have been Jerry Cortland. I was remembering the sudden oblivion hat had briefly overtaken all of us who were duplicates of the sleepers in the cave as those original bodies fell apart.
“There would be no reason for you to go on to the World of the Face alone,” he said, “if you went alone. But you won’t. You can’t. You never have been alone, have you, in his era? Always Topaz—who is Dr. Essen, asleep—or Paynter, who is Murray, asleep, or I—who am De Kalb—were with you. None of us knew. All of us have been moving along the lines of some pattern vaster than we can guess. Only now it begins to emerge a little.”
As I drew a breath to speak, the sound of the opening panel startled us both. Only Paynter, standing motionless in be grip of his hypnosis, did not move. My quick start was futile but Belem’s two hands covered the crystal globe, ready, I think, to activate it and throw out the temporary force-field that would isolate us from attack—for awhile.