We were both expecting soldiers to come pouring from the transmitter. But no one came through the open panel. Instead, a voice spoke. A woman’s voice, cool, clear, level.
“Ira?” it said. “Mr. Cortland? Colonel Murray, are you there?”
Dr. Essen! I thought. Letta Essen! An instant later Topaz came alone across the threshold.
It was Topaz and yet—it was Letta Essen too, more clearly than I had ever seen her before in the girl’s amazingly adaptable features.
“I expected this,” Belem said with perfect calm. “I didn’t even send for her, I was so sure she would have to come. It’s the pattern, Cortland. It’s working itself out faster and faster now, beyond our control, I think. Is she Letta Essen?”
I nodded in bewilderment. The voice was not Dr. Essen’s, of course, for it came from the vocal cords of Topaz, but it was not Topaz’s voice either. It was cool, emotionless, nobody’s voice. Dispassion speaking aloud. And the face was Topaz’s face but changed, different.
I had seen the almost fluid mobility with which every emotion altered those lovely features but I had not been prepared for a change like this. And the ego, the soul, of Topaz was submerged. A tight, wary blackness was all that showed now—that and a sort of bright alarm.
“The soldiers!” she was saying a little breathlessly now, as she hurried toward us across the dust which was her own disintegrated body. “They’re following me, Ira. It is Ira?” Her eyes were questioning on Belem’s face.
The Mechandroid nodded. “They’re following you?” he demanded. “How much do they know? Never mind—you can tell us later. Activate your machine—quickly!” And he gestured toward it.
She dropped to her knees beside the metal plate, hesitated, touched it doubtfully. “The connections have been changed,” she said. “I can put them back in order but”—she glanced up—“it may take time.”
“Too long.” She looked from face to face, a little of Topaz’s facile despair coming through the calm. “The soldiers—” Belem’s breath hissed through his teeth. We turned, seeing the panel in the wall opening again. Bright uniforms gleamed through the gap.
Belem’s hands flashed with blinding speed above the crystal egg. Then a tower of golden light shot up like a fountain and spread out above us. It thinned as it spread, came showering down again into an enclosing hemisphere. Its brightness faded until we were looking through amber glass at the soldiers who came swarming from the transmitter, more and more with every opening and closing of the panel. Their weapons spat fire at us.
A burst of starry light sparkled on the amber of our shield and died. Another nova flared and faded against the screen. And another.
“We’re safe,” Belem said calmly. “For a few days, until the power dies. By then the second-stage Mechandroid should waken. But meanwhile, Dr. Essen—you had better repair your machine if you can.”
She nodded, the bright curls tumbling. Then she rose and stepped carefully around the motionless, glittering tree toward the milky egg that was projecting our temporary salvation.
“I can’t remember—very clearly,” she said. “There was light—and then suddenly I knew I was myself—with some memories of a girl called Topaz.” She frowned. “Maybe it would be clearer if—may I see your projector, Ira? Belem? Which are you, now?” She looked searchingly into his face.
“I am Belem,” the Mechandroid said. “Do you know what it was that roused you out of the Topaz-state and reawakened the Essen mind? We are nearly sure now that, in the moment the time-axis shell and the sleeping bodies inside it crumbled, their sleeping minds merged with the minds of the physical duplicates. Why is not yet known. Why the minds of Paynter, Topaz and myself remained dominant while Cortland’s submerged the mind of his host is still—”
He paused. For Topaz—Dr. Essen—was bending above the luminous egg. Now she seized it, lifted it high, and with one smooth gesture smashed it against the rocky floor.
It was Topaz, of course—not Letta Essen, never Letta Essen.
The amber shell above us began to rift and shimmer into tatters. Beyond it the armed men pressed forward, shouting. A lance of hot white light shot past Belem’s head and spattered fire from the rocky wall behind him. Topaz laughed, a shrill, high sound of pure excitement.
Then Belem moved.
He fell to one knee beside the shattered globe from which amber light was dying swiftly. His hands settled down over it, heedless of the sharp, cutting edges of the broken crystal. And his body began to glow.
Swiftly the rifted light in the shell above us began to mend itself. The amber shining spread, met, joined. The armor strengthened, was solid again.
I could feel the tremendous energy pouring out of the Mechandroid’s mind and body. It made the air quiver inside the hemisphere. As a man may suicidally bridge a gap between two charged electric wires, so Belem was using himself now. I saw him shudder as that frightful energy poured through him.
Paynter, forgotten in the melee, suddenly stirred beside us. I saw him take an uncertain step forward, then another, the blankness fading from his face. Belem’s mind was losing control over his. Released from the hypnosis, active now, our enemy—he emerged from his paralysis.
From outside the shell that was our only hope the confused shouts of the soldiers came thinly. One voice rose above the rest, an officer’s voice, full of urgent command.
“Topaz!” it shouted. “Topaz—stop the Mechandroid!”
Her quick response made double clear what had been clear enough before. She was wholly their tool. She had never been Letta Essen. Their integrators had worked out the truth as quickly as the Mechandroids had fathomed it and Topaz was a ready instrument to their hands. She was still their most dangerous weapon and she had not failed yet.
I heard her high, clea laughter, in response to the call and I whirled in time to see her snatch out a tiny, glittering weapon exactly like that rubber-lipped paralyzer Paynter had once turned upon me. This was smaller and it glittered with jewels and the flexible ring of its muzzle was fantastically colored. But it was no toy. I saw the lips suck in as she pressed its trigger, ready to send out a web of paralyzing force upon Belem.
The Mechandroid neither saw nor heard. All his mind was concentrated on keeping the force-field active. He was depending wholly on me.
I flung out an arm just in time to throw Topaz off balance. The bright-lipped weapon spat out its web, which floated just clear of Belem and flared into violent oblivion against the amber shell around us. Topaz hissed savagely at me and fought to level her weapon again at Belem. She was lithe and astonishingly strong, a protean shape that writhed snake-like in my arms.
There wasn’t anything I could do about Paynter. He was almost fully awake, and reaching half dazedly for the gun at his belt. Topaz, twisting furiously, was trying now to center her paralyzing weapon on me. Above us the shell of force began to tatter again. There was a limit to Belem’s powers.
My mind, ranging wildly for an answer, stumbled upon the mad thought of re-hypnotizing Paynter. I knew I had not the power but—suddenly my glance fell upon the glittering little tree at my feet. There in its base was the switch I had once seen De Kalb press, a thousand years ago.
After three tries I reached it with my toe. Topaz was a furiously writhing burden in my arms, almost overbalancing us both. But the jeweled branches lighted, began slowly to move.
“Paynter!” I barked. “Look at that—look at it!”
He was not yet fully out of his hypnosis. He turned, startled, saw the branches that were spinning now with a dizzying blur of brightness. He grimaced and looked away.
Recklessly I let go of Topaz with one arm to point at the whirling tree.
“Look!” I yelled insistently. “Paynter, look.”
My own eyes were averted but I could see his head turn as he glanced at the hypnotic spinning. His head turned away again, slightly—but not his eyes. They stayed fixed, focused on lie tree.
Slowly, slowly his head swung back, till he stood facing the circling lights. Intelligence faded from his stare. His hand dropped from his belt.
Simultaneously I realized that Topaz was no longer fighting me. She too was watching the tree.
Hypnotized—both of them.
Paynter said in a dazed voice, “Cortland—Cortland, is that you? De Kalb? What’s happening?”
“Murray?” I said, softly, tentatively. I knew it was probably a trick and yet—under the hypnosis of the tree the submerged mind of Murray might be wakening.
Belem let out a long, shuddering sigh. His body slumped. And the amber force-field about us seemed to run down like water and vanished. Across the suddenly cleared space the soldiers stared at us, caught for a second by surprise. Their eyes sought Paynter’s.
But they met Murray’s eyes. “Wait!” he barked at them sharply. “Halt!”
Confused, they fell back a little. They would obey him—for a moment. So long as they thought he was Paynter.
Was he Paynter?
He turned a bewildered gaze to me, murmuring thickly, “Cortland, what’s happened? I’ve been dreaming, haven’t I? Dreaming I was a man named Paynter?”
There was a restless surge among the soldiers. They were muttering to their officers, uncertain, ready to be swayed one way or the other. Paynter—Murray—turned back to them.
“Halt!” he shouted again. “Wait for your orders!”
It worked—for awhile. But they would not wait long. Commands could not stop them from thinking. And I knew that if Murray told them to drop their weapons their indecision would crystallize into disobedience.
But the solution was very simple after all.
A gray light flickered around us, vanished, steadied again. A thin humming began. The light seemed to gather upon every dust-mote in the air, thickening in veil beyond veil. The soldiers faded into misty ghosts ...
Belem lifted his head wearily. “We’re all here now,” he said. “Cortland, Murray—”
“—Dr. Letta Essen—”
Only then did I turn my head. Kneeling beside the original force-field device was Topaz, her fingers flickering over its controls.
Not Topaz, I thought. Not now. The face was hers, and the body, but when she glanced up and smiled it was Letta Essen’s keen gray eyes that met mine. Hypnosis had released her, as it had released Murray, from the prison of the alien bodies, the alien minds.
“Now I will join you,” Belem said, and turned to face the spinning tree.
There was silence under the dome of gray light.
When the Mechandroid turned he was still a man-machine but it was De Kalb who looked at us out of the metal eyes. He smiled. “Goodbye to Belem,” he said. “We’re here again, all of us.”
“But why did it happen—why?” Letta Essen spoke with the voice of Topaz but it was unmistakably her own mind framing the thought and the words.
“I think I can guess,” De Kalb said, through Belem’s lips. “It was no accident that stranded us temporarily in this era. We set out to fight a battle, the four of us against the nekron. Well, I think we have fought that battle. I think what happened was a testing-field in which each of us was tried and found—useful. Now we go on to the final battle.”
“And the nekronic killer with us,” I said.
“The killer too. That is part of the pattern, I think.”
“But wait a minute,” Murray said. “What’s become of this fellow Paynter? Where’s Belem? Where’s Topaz? And Cortland, were you always yourself?”
“The others are recessive in our minds, I think,” De Kalb said. “Just as once we were recessive in theirs. Cortland’s alter ego has always been recessive. Only he hasn’t changed—except in that he changed bodies, as we all did. Why that had to happen I don’t know—yet. Remember, Cortland has always been our catalyst. When he enters the picture things happen!”
“There’s one thing that isn’t going to happen,” I said. “We can’t get our bodies back, can we? These we borrowed. Or stole, if you want the accurate truth. The real owners are sleeping, maybe. But will we ever dare sleep? Will we ever be sure well waken as ourselves? Each of us is a double mind in a single body now. If we come out alive from the world of the Face, what’s going to happen then?”
“We’ll know that,” De Kalb said firmly, “when we wake again. We will sleep, Cortland. And whichever ego wakes at the end of the world will be the ego that was predestined to wake.”
He hesitated briefly. “Now we must go,” he said. “Look at the tree, Cortland. Murray, Letta—watch the tree. We will know the real truth—but later, much later—when we waken at the end of the world. When we look into the Face of Ea.”