Richard L. Tierney and Kevin L. O'Brien
John Taggart stared about in silent awe at the colossal Hall of the Galaxy. Never had he beheld anything so stupendous outside the works of nature. The floor of that titanic hall stretched away limitlessly in all directions, like a vast plain of faintly luminous metal. That metal was arranged in great squares, so that Taggart felt he was standing in the midst of a monstrous grid. The straight-line perspective, vanishing into fathomless distances, was dizzying. Far away rose golden walls in titanic, pillared verticalness, towering thousands of feet above the metal floor. The ceiling was far beyond sight -- lost in a luminous, silvery haze of distance.
Taggart glanced at his nine companions, noticing how utterly tiny they seemed in the midst of this canyon-vast architecture. Even the two Zarrians, massive twin titans eight feet and more in height, seemed like ants on the floor of this vast hall; their dark blue skins seemed a shade lighter than usual in the glow that suffused the place, while their round eyes glared from their domed heads. Those eyes, emotionless though they were, yet seemed to harbor an intense, alien quality that was somehow disturbing. The merciless, distant chill of fathomless space -- the flickering blue fires of latent menace -- such were the closest things to human emotions that Taggart could sense in the eyes of the Zarr.
Besides himself, there was only one human in the group -- a tall, lean man who wore black garments and dark-rimmed spectacles.
The other beings were of various weird shapes and, though of generally upright stature, differed from humanity radically in all other respects. There were two of each kind -- like creatures that should have missed Noah's boat. . . . Immediately Taggart wondered how many of the things might have caught his thought telepathically and resented it.
He watched them uneasily, wondering at the diversity of shapes that could house intelligence. All stood silent in the vast chamber as if waiting for something. None seemed to have reacted to his rather disparaging thought. The Zarrians, he knew, often communicated telepathically, but more usually in ringing verbal tones like the soundings of great iron bells; at any rate, they considered themselves too vastly superior to the human race to be able to take offence at the random thoughts of one of its members -- a specimen they themselves had picked, at that. The two yellow, spiky-headed dwarves -- representatives of a race that had colonized Titan, Saturn's greatest moon -- were not telepathic, he knew; but the remaining two pairs of creatures were unknown to him.
The silence -- a silence as deep and boundless as that of a vast, lonely canyon -- was suddenly stirred by a low hum that swelled softly into being, then grew louder and louder still, until at last it seemed to fill the entire cyclopean vastness of the artificial expanse. The air seemed charged with expectancy. Taggart felt a strange thrill vibrate along his nerves. He glanced briefly at his black-clad human companion, and noticed that the man's hard blue eyes glittered with a strange intensity.
"Pitts . . ." Taggart's hesitant utterance did not even echo in that stupendous hall. The man in black stood motionless, as though he had not heard; there was a grim tenseness in his tight mouth -- in the lines about his eyes -- in the long fingers that clenched and unclenched nervously at his sides.
Taggart sighed -- largely to keep his own nervousness from mastering him. He knew that if Pitts managed to get his way in the next hour, the human race was doomed.
Then there came a distant, measured clang of metal against metal and Taggart saw, afar off in the golden-lit chamber, a great figure of vaguely humanoid configuration approaching with smooth and powerful strides. As it drew closer he could see that its body was of a dull gray metal, and was aware of being in the presence of a vast, inhuman power. Ten feet tall the entity towered, smooth and featureless save for a black, horizontal slit across the front of its domed head; from within that slit gleamed two unflickering points of light, like eyes that could freeze or burn at will -- cold eyes, intent yet dispassionate. . . .
The watchers all stood silent as the thing halted mere yards away and confronted them, motionless as a statue. None of them had ever before seen a Galactic face to face.
I KNOW WHY YOU HAVE COME, it said. I SENSE THE REQUESTS YOU ARE ABOUT TO MAKE. THEY WILL NOT BE GRANTED.
Taggart's mind spun dizzily. The thoughts of a Galactic were hard for a human mind to bear. Yet relief flooded his being at the creature's unspoken words. He saw Pitts standing rigid, scowling tensely, his long fingers clenched at his sides.
Then one of the two Zarrians stepped forward and confronted the metallic giant.
We request nothing -- we state our intentions. The glowing blue disc held on Taggart's brow by a band of woven metal strands—a device of Zarrian manufacture—enabled the man to catch the alien being's every projected thought. Our desires are moderate and rational: when you know them, you will not oppose us. We desire only the land surface of a tiny planet near the fringe of your galaxy.
THE PLANET IS INHABITED BY A RACE ON THE VERGE OF INTELLIGENCE, said the Galactic. THAT RACE MUST DIE OUT NATURALLY OR ANNIHILATE ITSELF IN WARS OF ITS OWN MAKING BEFORE ANOTHER POWER MAY LAY CLAIM TO ITS WORLD.
A second creature scuttled forward to join the Zarrian, and Taggart could not repress a shudder at the sight of it in motion, often as he had seen it before. It was a dark, brown sphere roughly four feet in diameter with two black, bulging, expressionless eyes; it writhed across the floor on a mass of slender, whiplike tentacles, making Taggart think simultaneously of an octopus and a rubber spider.
What of the watery portions of the planet, then? it demanded in powerful thought-tones. The race you speak of breathes air.
AS DOES YOURS, said the Galactic, EVEN THOUGH YOU THRIVE IN WATER, ALSO. WE KNOW YOUR HISTORY -- A GALACTIC REVOLUTION AGO WE AND THE GREAT RACE HAD TO DRIVE YOU FROM THAT WORLD BECAUSE YOU WOULD NOT LIMIT YOUR CONQUESTS. WE KNOW, TOO, THAT YOU STILL MAINTAIN POPULOUS OUTPOSTS ON THE OCEAN-BOTTOMS OF THE GLOBE IN QUESTION, AS WELL AS ON THE FORTH PLANET OF THE SAME SOLAR SYSTEM. YOU MUST ABANDON THOSE OUTPOSTS.
A yellow, spiky-headed creature about three feet tall now stepped quickly forward and said, My race makes a simple and harmless request. We ask only the mineral rights to certain radioactive substances in the crust of the planet in question. Our mining operations would take place only in remote areas and would not disturb the world's present occupants. . . .
The rasping sounds that issued from the creature's wide, lipless mouth seemed to Taggart ludicrously in contrast with the powerful thoughts that came to him through the Zarrian disc on his brow. Yet he did not smile, for he knew that this dwarfish being was the ambassador of a race whose mighty underground city on Titan, Saturn's greatest moon, was but the remote outpost of an empire that threaded its tendrils through many constellations.
NO, said the Galactic. THE NATIVE RACE HAS THE RIGHT TO ALL RESOURCES ON ITS OWN WORLD. I KNOW THAT YOUR RACE HAS ALREADY CARRIED ON EXTENSIVE MINING IN REMOTE LOCATIONS ON THAT GLOBE. HEREAFTER YOU MUST DESIST.
Taggart now regarded the fourth pair of creatures, wondering what demand or proposition they were about to make. Except for their nearly human size and their ciliated, spindle-shaped heads, they reminded him somewhat of reddish lobsters in configuration. They did not speak in any way that Taggart's thought-receptor could interpret, but their eyeless heads changed color in strange patterns, varying from bright orange to dull red. . . .
NO, said the Galactic presently. YOUR REQUEST IS THE MOST IMPOSSIBLE TO GRANT OF ALL.
Taggart felt his tension subside somewhat as he listened. Things seemed more hopeful than he had dared to anticipate. He wondered briefly what sort of monstrous demand had been advanced by the lobster-fungoid creatures. Of all the races represented, they were the most alien of all, and perhaps the most powerful. Their link with the solar system was tenuous -- Taggart knew that they had established outposts on the dark, distant world men called Pluto and, like the spiky-headed Titanians, had undertaken secret mining operations in remote areas on the earth -- but their area of influence was far-reaching indeed, extending tenuously across countless light-millennia of space, embracing thousands of galaxies and perhaps even certain distant quasars. No race in the galaxy to which Earth belonged knew the origins of these creatures -- not even the mighty Zarr, who had conquered every world of the hundred billion suns comprising the galaxy which the astronomers of Taggart's world called the Andromeda Nebula. . . .
Suddenly Pitts stepped forward and spoke, "I am a member of the race in question," he said, "but I speak in favor of the Zarr and these others."
I SEE A PICTURE IN YOUR MIND, said the Galactic, BUT IT IS COLORED WITH STRONG AND ADVERSE EMOTIONS.
Pitts's fists clenched at his sides and he trembled visibly, yet his voice was even and dispassionate as he continued, "The human race has several thousand years of recorded history. I sense you are not familiar with that history, but I will not attempt to detail it. I will say only that the last century has seen three global wars, each more widespread and destructive than the last. The most recent was fought with nuclear weapons and destroyed nearly a billion people -- over a fifth of the earth's population."
Taggart started. He wondered how Pitts could present such precise data. For his own part, the post-atomic days had been a wild, chaotic struggle for survival -- until he had been miraculously rescued from that chaos by the Zarr. Had Pitts been instrumental in that rescue? Taggart more than suspected so. He had known Pitts before, during those far-off years when universities and other centers of learning had existed on earth. While Taggart had engaged himself in the study of the human mind in an effort to unravel the strange curse that seemed to forever bar mankind from any genuine happiness or fulfillment, Pitts's estrangement had taken the form of an intense study of geology, evolution, and especially astronomy -- subjects seemingly chosen for the purpose of keeping humanity at a comfortable distance. Finally there had come the time when Pitts had vanished into the vast, forested Canadian wilderness for a purpose never openly stated -- and, when after many years he and Taggart met once again, it had been under very strange conditions. . . .
"The next war will probably ruin the planet," Pitts was saying. "Now, I propose this: since the human race is bound to annihilate itself sooner or later, let us wipe them out ourselves, now -- with weapons that will leave the planet itself unspoiled. Thus the world will be saved for more deserving races to utilize."
YOUR ASSUMPTIONS STAND UNSUPPORTED, said the Galactic. THIS LAST WAR MAY BE THE TURNING POINT AT WHICH YOUR RACE WILL MATURE. I CANNOT CONDONE INTERFERENCE -- IF THE FATE OF YOUR RACE IS SELF-ANNIHILATION, THEN IT MUST COME NATURALLY, OF ITS OWN ACCORD.
"Even if we know their self-destruction is inevitable?" said Pitts.
WE DO NOT KNOW THAT SUCH IS THE CASE. IF WE DID, WE COULD POSSIBLY GRANT YOUR REQUESTS.
I submit that you have not studied the planet in question, said one of the Zarrians.
TRUE. WE HAVE MILLIONS OF MORE IMPORTANT WORLDS TO OBSERVE WITHIN OUR GALAXY -- WORLDS WHOSE RACES HAVE REACHED A CERTAIN MATURITY OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND TECHNOLOGY THAT QUALIFY THEM TO RECEIVE OUR ATTENTION.
Then I suggest you allow us to gather detailed data on this planet, said the Zarrian. We are willing to undertake the task ourselves. If we can prove that the native race will never reach maturity -- that it is inherently suicidal -- then perhaps you will not interfere in what we intend to undertake in any case.
The Galactic stood silent, unperturbed. Presently it said, YOUR DATA MUST BE GATHERED IN SUCH A WAY THAT YOU DO NOT INTERFERE WITH THE PLANET'S INHABITANTS OR EVEN LET THEM KNOW OF YOUR EXISTENCE.
"I'll gather the data," said Pitts. "I can pass unnoticed on the planet."
YOUR EMOTIONS ARE BIASED, said the Galactic. YOUR RESEARCHES WOULD BE USELESS. MOREOVER, EVERY RACE REPRESENTED HERE HAS A STAKE IN THE ISSUE AND THEREFORE CANNOT BE IMPARTIAL.
Taggart knew it was time for him to act. He clutched his briefcase nervously and stepped forward. "I'll do it," he said.
The Galactic's cold, burning eyes were on him now and he found it hard to face their emotionless, indifferent glow. The eyes of all the other beings were on him, too -- the huge black orbs of the brown tentacled spheroids, the dark almond slits of the yellow Titanians, the round expressionless eyes of the Zarrians and -- not least disturbing -- the glittering blue eyes of Pitts glaring distortedly through the thick lenses of his dark-rimmed spectacles. Even the fungoid-lobster creatures seemed to watch him in some visionless manner, the short cilia on their convoluted, spindle-shaped heads vibrating strangely.
"I may be biased in my own way," Taggart continued uneasily. "I suppose every intelligent creature is biased somehow -- but I think I can separate fact from opinion reasonably well. I don't think humanity is inevitably doomed, as Pitts and these others claim. I'd like to undertake the proposed operation -- for my own interest primarily -- and if it seems to me that mankind is hopeless, I'll try not to suppress it or gloss it over in any way."
YOU ARE A STUDENT OF THE MIND OF YOUR RACE, stated the Galactic.
"Yes," said Taggart -- startled, as always, by the unnatural objectivity and percipience of these unhuman beings. "I was an experimental psychologist before the nuclear war. Perhaps that's one reason the Zarr chose me as one of their human representatives. I realize that most of the history of our race has been only a blind, senseless floundering in darkness, with cruelty the main diversion to our boredom -- yet, I feel that in our last century a light was dawning that would have set our race on the path of a rational and yet compassionate awareness. There were humans who were daring every path into the darkness of their own minds -- people like Jung, Horney, Perls, Fromm, Masolw, Wilson, Laing, Janov, Frankl, and a thousand more -- humans reaching out for a truth by which to live no matter how great the agony or how high the cost. And I think they were on the brink of a great discovery that would have transformed our race into a higher order of being -- but for the nuclear war which came to shatter their dreams. . . ."
Taggart could not go on. His voice faltered, and he felt the unaccustomed sting of tears In his eyes. How many years had it been since he had allowed himself a single tear? . . .
YOU HAVE STUDIED THE MENTALITY AND MOTIVATIONS OF YOUR RACE, said the Galactic, AND YOU ARE REASONABLY OBJECTIVE. THAT IS GOOD. YOURS IS THE ONLY MIND PRESENT THAT IS QUALIFIED TO CARRY OUT THE INVESTIGATION THAT HAS BEEN SUGGESTED. ANY SUCH PROJECT MUST BE UNDER YOUR DIRECTION, WITH NO INTERFERENCE. IF THE ZARR AGREE, I DESIGNATE YOU TO GO TO THE PLANET IN QUESTION AND OBSERVE AND EVALUATE THE SITUATION THERE. WRITTEN RECORDS WILL NOT BE NECESSARY: WHEN YOU RETURN, I WILL DRAW SUCH INFORMATION AS I NEED FROM YOUR MIND, EVEN SUCH DETAILS AS YOU MAY FORGET. The Galactic then turned to the rest of the group and said, YOU HAVE HEARD MY JUDGEMENT; ACCEPT OR REJECT IT NOW, AND GO YOUR WAY.
To Taggart's surprise one of the Zarrians announced, We accept the .judgement.
And, even more surprising, he heard Pitts's human voice saying, "Fair enough!"
Then, without another thought, the Galactic turned and strode away into the luminous vastness, receding gradually into the horizon-vast distances of the Hall of the Galaxy, till at last it was lost from sight in the titanic, golden-lit expanse.
The shriek of wind against the wings of his craft brought Taggart's mind back to consciousness. He realized at once that he had blacked out -- it was that initial drop through empty space that had done it. He did not worry, however -- the Zarrian airship was on automatic descent.
In a moment he was able to sit up and take in the view. Beneath the sleek, triangular wings of the Zarrian reconnaissance craft he saw the broad face of the Earth outspread, green and cloud-flecked, with a barely perceptible curve to the horizon. . . .
Earth! Its curved, mottled expanse had a strange, alien quality seen through the blue-tinted quartz window of the Zarrian ship. Taggart had not seen it since the days of the nuclear war, when his life had been miraculously saved by the intervention of the Zarr. Unwilling to risk the possibility of losing the coveted planet altogether to the destructive forces of a second and greater war, the Zarr had organized a diplomatic mission to the Galactics, the race of metallic beings who supervised the entire island-universe to which the earth belonged. Why the earth was so important to the Zarr, who had already conquered the worlds of the hundred billion suns of their own galaxy and now seemed intent on extending their conquests limitlessly, Taggart could not guess -- but important it certainly seemed to be. Every race with an interest in Earth's solar system had been represented at that conference in the Hall of the Galaxy, including even the human race.
It seemed miraculous to Taggart that he had been one of the two humans chosen by the Zarr to represent his own kind. The fact that all the representatives of every race had been male (where sexuality was a factor) was less miraculous. Taggart knew that the Zarr, during their two million years of recorded history, had reduced the females of their originally bisexual species to mere gastroid organisms kept alive in their laboratories by artificial means, to be used as necessary to keep the race in existence. Since each Zarrian had a life-span of nearly two thousand years, and could command a great number of artificial metal subordinates, biological reproduction was at a minimum, and the population of living entities governing an entire galactic empire was only slightly larger than the human population of Earth. Moreover, variation of personal characteristics was at a minimum among members of the Zarrian race, so that it was hard for Taggart to distinguish individuals; this undoubtedly made for great efficiency in the attainment of the unquestioned Zarrian goals -- conquest, and the never-ending expansion of the empire of the Zarr throughout limitless space. Evidently all softer impulses -- if any such had ever existed in the Zarrian race -- had long ago been subordinated to the desire for universal dominion and the expansion of their power. . . .
And now Taggart wondered, for the first time: were the Galactics the products of a similar race? For all their vast power and intelligence, they seemed to be fundamentally robots, policing the galaxy and keeping it in order. Was this the inevitable course of evolution -- that each galaxy should eventually produce a dominant race that would expand, conquer, lose its sense of feeling, and finally replace itself with a mechanical race of superb efficiency and godlike intellect that would regulate things flawlessly according to built-in, unquestioned values? Was this why Earth had never till now been overtly contacted by any of the many intelligent races in the same galaxy? . . .
Earth! The sight of his home planet once again drew Taggart's mind back from the many mysteries of the universe he could not solve. It seemed only weeks since he had last seen Earth -- but actually, he knew, years had passed, perhaps decades. The trip to the center of the galaxy and back had been accomplished at nearly the speed of light and, according to the principles of relativistic physics, Taggart knew he had aged only a month or two whereas every human on earth must have lived through many years. How many years had passed he did not know -- it was just possible that everyone he had ever known was dead and that an entirely new generation had come into being. . . .
The wings of the airship, shrieking against the thickening atmosphere, began to glow a dull red. Taggart did not worry; it was cool inside the craft. He glanced back through the blued silica-glass of the observation dome, trying to catch a glimpse of the mile-long starship of the Zarr, but that ship had already passed from sight behind the curvature of the horizon. Still, the control panel gave out a low hum of power, reassuring him that he still had contact with the parent ship.
The earth had now lost its convex aspect and had taken on the appearance of a huge, shallow dish. Taggart passed the time picking out recognizable geographical features; in less than two hours he had completely circled the earth in a polar orbit and had decreased his speed and altitude tremendously. Finally he switched off the automatic control and began to consider where he should land. Behind him lay the north polar cap, a line of white on the far horizon; to the right sprawled a dark, rugged land-mass that he knew must be Iceland. The craft was descending in a south-southeasterly direction. . . .
"Looks like England will be the best bet," he muttered to himself, stroking his month's growth of scrubby beard. He felt a slight sense of relief; at least he would be able to speak the language.
Land appeared on the horizon ahead, and presently the rugged terrain of Scotland was unfurling beneath. The air speed of Taggart's ship was now only a few hundred miles per hour, and steadily slackening. . . .
Suddenly a point of light far below attracted Taggart's attention. There was something strange about it. . . . Yes -- it seemed to be moving -- even as he watched it seemed to grow larger and brighter. Taggart removed his spectacles and carefully cleaned the dust-specks from them -- but when he replaced them the fiery blot seemed closer still. Now it resembled the flame from an acetylene torch with a small, black cinder silhouetted in its midst. Then suddenly, startlingly, it expanded in its upward rush into a silvery, needle-nosed cylinder trailing a wake of flame.
Too late, Taggart realized what it was -- a missile interceptor. He punched the controls frantically and the airship screamed sideways at a steep angle. There was a deep, swishing vibration as the missile swept by toward the zenith -- then the world burst into a chaos of light and thunder. He was thrown from his chair and the floor slammed hard against his chest, and for a moment he lay there, stunned. There was a whirling, falling sensation which he knew was not due to dizziness. . . . Fear forced him back to full consciousness. He staggered up and saw the horizon tilting at a crazy angle; a thin crack, like a lightning-streak, had appeared across the wide, bottle-blue quartz view-panel. The controls would not respond to his touch.
He swore. His craft, even though the force-screen had kept it essentially intact, had been knocked out of commission by the missile's blast. Small comfort it was then to know that any aircraft of human manufacture would doubtless have been completely annihilated by the blast. . . .
Desperately he punched the stud that would fire the forward rockets. There was a drone, a roar, and then a jolt that slammed him roughly against the control panel. Recovering himself with a terrific effort, Taggart groped to the rear of the control room and wrenched open the door to the shock-chamber. Just as he crawled inside he glanced back and glimpsed, through the broad quartz window, a vast city outspread and expanding as if rushing up to meet him and, in its midst, four massive step-pyramid structures that dwarfed all the surrounding buildings. . . .
Then Taggart slammed shut the door and lay still in the padded cylinder, waiting for the impact.
It came. The jolt was terrific, but the shock-absorbing effect of the force-field around the chamber made it bearable. Taggart did not even lose consciousness.
For several moments he lay still, making sure he had no broken bones. Then he slowly rose to his knees, forced open the hatch and crawled out into the control-room.
The panel was a shambles, but the outside hull did not seem even dented and the silica dome showed only that single crack across its width. Through the wide expanse of that curved window Taggart could see the rubble of a demolished building and the rising dust of pulverized brick and plaster.
"A fine start I've made," he muttered, wondering anxiously if anyone had been hurt.
He began to turn the knob that would open the hatch in the floor. Air began to hiss into the chamber -- the air breathed by humans, bearing the scents of dust and smog, humid and heavy compared to the similar but clean and rarified atmosphere breathed by the Zarrians. Taggart felt the pressure mounting in his ears.
Then he paused, thinking of possible danger, and strapped a Zarrian force-belt about his waist. The belt supported a holster, and Taggart felt slightly comforted by the weight of the Zarrian blaster within it.
Wrenching open the hatchway, he found it nearly blocked by rubble. It was a struggle to get through the debris, but in a short time he crawled out from beneath the hull of the ship, feeling somehow like a rat in a junk pile. A few shabbily-dressed people were rising from the nearby sidewalks and gutters, slowly and as if dazed; some were staring at him incredulously.
Taggart scrambled to the edge of the rubble and stood uneasily on the littered sidewalk, wondering what he should do next. His crash-landing seemed to have demolished a building; perhaps many people had been killed. The buildings across from him were of old brick, grimy with soot-black. He seemed to be in a slum.
A movement in the rubble nearby caught his attention; he saw that someone was lying there amid the fragments of brick and plaster. Then with a pang of compassion Taggart realized that it was a young woman; her clothes were so covered with dust that he had not even seen her until she had happened to stir.
"God -- I've done it now!" he hissed involuntarily. Was this the beginning and ending of his altruistic mission to justify the existence of the human race? . . .
Anxiously he knelt at the woman's side, lifting her carefully to a sitting position. The girl moaned softly, only half-conscious.
"Are you hurt?" Taggart asked involuntarily -- then immediately felt the banality of his question. The girl moaned again. She settled back fluidly in his arms, and for an instant her plaster-grimed cheek brushed against his.
"Franklyn!" she murmured softly; "Franklyn!"
A crowd of drab spectators was gathering -- a dingy group that hardly showed the excitement the event seemed to merit. Taggart read only a sullen apathy in their faces.
"'E's lucky 'e wasn't killed," he heard a fat woman remark in a shrill, gravely voice. "'E must 'ave been nearly under the miss'l!"
"But why aint 'e dusty, like the girl is?" cried a man standing nearby.
Taggart looked more closely at the people gathering around. They were all coarse and slatternly; some even wore dirty rags wrapped about their feet in place of shoes; a few were barefoot, their feet dark with dirt, scabs, and sores.
"Blimy -- that's no scrammer!" shouted a coarse-voiced fat man suddenly. "It's a bleedin' airplane!"
Taggart turned away from the people, feeling a vague disgust. The girl was moving feebly in his arms, trying to rise. Suddenly he realized she was conscious and regarding him with a pair of light brown eyes.
"You're not Franklyn," she said, her voice trembling slightly. "Who are you?"
"You're not hurt, I hope," Taggart countered, wondering uneasily if someone named Franklyn lay buried under the rubble of the demolished building.
"I don't think so." The girl brushed back her short, dark hair nervously, and Taggart noticed a series of short, ragged scars on her wrists and lower arms. They were not fresh, but apparently had been healed for some time. The sight of them startled him; they looked like the wounds from an attempted suicide.
He helped the girl to her feet, and for a moment she stood shakily beside him, brushing the dust from her coveralls with short, nervous strokes. There was a bewildered, helpless look in her eyes.
The squalid crowd suddenly began to hurry away. Taggart looked up and saw a group of five black-uniformed men coming toward him. The men carried short clubs of dark wood or metal. The crowd dissolved away into alleys and dark doorways, and in a moment the street was vacant save for the approaching men in black.
The menacing figures halted about a dozen paces away from Taggart and the girl; one of them drew a revolver from a shiny black holster, leveled it, and said in a steely, matter-of-fact voice: "Move away from her, citizen."
Taggart edged back against a shattered brick wall, anxious to let none of the men get behind him.
"Where did you get that pistol?" snapped the man, eyeing Taggart's Zarrian blaster. "That could be a death sentence, you know. Don't reach for it -- put your hands behind your heads, both of you -- that's right. Stand still -- don't move a muscle."
Three of the men now converged on the girl, who was quivering like a leaf and shaking her head from side to side. Taggart heard her hoarse protest: "Not back there -- no! Please, not back there!"
"You were a fool, Judith," said the man with the gun, never taking his aim from Taggart for a second. He motioned slightly with his other hand and one of the men confronting the girl nodded back -- then drove his club forcefully into the girl's stomach. The girl doubled up with a strangled cry and fell to the street, where she lay squirming amid the rubble.
Taggart barely kept from moving or crying out; the gun of the man in black was leveled squarely at his belly; his narrowed eyes were hard. He seemed watching for an excuse to shoot.
"Very well, citizen," he said after a moment, "now your pistol. Lower your hands slowly. . . . That's right! Now, unbuckle your belt and let it fall."
Taggart touched the clasp of the broad, metallic belt about his waist. Instead of unbuckling it, he pressed a small circle of light that glowed on its surface. Immediately a sphere of dim blue radiance sprang into being about him.
"I said, drop that gun!" snarled the man in black.
Taggart shook his head. "Go away," he said, "and leave that girl alone."
The black-clad man lowered his aim, sighted on Taggart's knee and fired; the bullet glanced from the glowing force-screen and went whining down the alley. Taggart drew his Zarrian blaster from its holster as the black-uniformed man fired again and yet again without effect.
Panic gleamed in the man's eyes. He shifted his aim to the girl who lay on the pavement. "Drop the gun," he yelled, "or -- !"
A glaring lance of blue-white flame -- a blast of blinding, violet light -- a concussion like lightning ripping the air with thunder. . . .
Then a cloud of white dust was slowly settling. The man in the black uniform lay writhing on the concrete several yards from where he had stood; both his legs were gone, and a red stain was spreading from their stumps; intestines spilled from his torn abdomen, black and split like fried sausages. . . .
Taggart faced the other black-uniformed men. "Get away from her," he repeated, his voice quiet but tense. But the men stood silent, gaping at him like frozen statues.
Taggart fired again, and a square yard of pavement erupted into dust and violet flame. The men yelled, turned tail, and fled down the street, finally vanishing around the corner of a brick building at the end of the block.
A sudden weakness made Taggart tremble as he realized how close to death he had been. His position as agent of the Galactics and the Zarrians meant that he was the most important human alive, if the survival of the human race meant anything -- yet there had been a moment when the bullet of a uniformed thug could have sent him to his doom like any other man, beast, or insect. . . .
The girl had struggled to her knees. She was gasping for breath, one hand supporting her while the other clutched her stomach. Taggart clamped an iron shield down on his fears, switched off the force-screen, and knelt to help her rise to her feet.
"You killed him!" muttered the girl, staring with a dull incredulity at the torn and charred corpse on the street. "You killed one of the Sons of Light!"
"I want to talk to you," said Taggart, "but if I read this situation right there'll be more of those thugs coming soon. We've got to get away from here. Where can we hide?"
"Hide?" The girl's eyes widened hopelessly. "There is no place to hide. There are eavesdrops everywhere -- spycams on every corner, heatseers and owleyes for at night, raycams to see through walls. . . . They're watching us even now -- listening to us talk. They'll torture both of us for years --"
The girl's voice was rising. Taggart shook her roughly by the shoulders. "Get hold of yourself!" She quieted and stared at him blankly with wide brown eyes. "Come on," said Taggart, "we can't stay here."
He took her hand and began to lead her down the street, away from the wreckage and the charred body on the pavement. She let him set the pace, obedient to his urgings for haste, yet somehow listless, as if uncaring about her fate or knowing she was inevitably doomed. They broke into a trot and hurried down dingy alleys, through cobbled courts surrounded by walls of grimy brick, while shabby loungers met them with bleary stares and sneering grins wherever they went. After a few moments Taggart realized the futility of this frantic flight. He ducked into a dim alley, dragging the girl with him, and they leaned, panting, against the grime-darkened brick wall.
Taggart fingered his Zarrian belt-clasp, ready to switch on the force-screen again at the slightest sign of danger. "I think we're safe for the moment," he muttered.
The girl suddenly clamped her hand over Taggart's mouth and shook her head. She seemed less apathetic now -- perhaps the exertion had roused her instinct for survival. Her eyes were frightened.
"Don't speak above a whisper," she murmured. "There are eavesdrops everywhere."
"What?" he ejaculated, surprised by the girl's abrupt change in manner.
"Eavesdrops," she said in a low whisper, "listening devices, microphones . . . you know."
She paused, looked around, then continued, "We're not safe. They know exactly where we are. We must have passed a dozen spycams. A hundred massers must have seen us running. Raycams are searching for us, if they haven't found us already. The Sons of Light will be here any moment to take us away --"
Spycams -- must be spy cameras, Taggart thought. But, "What the hell are 'massers' and 'raycams'?" he demanded -- realizing even as he spoke that his abruptness was due to fear as much as to anger.
The girl stared at him as if in amazement. "The Sinful Masses -- the people you saw all around us as we ran. And raycams are cameras that use x-rays to see through solid objects."
"Oh!" Taggart eyed the girl more closely, noticed consciously for the first time the light blue coverall uniform she wore. "But you're not a . . . a masser. You don't talk or dress like they do --"
"I was one of the Elect," said the girl, "until I ceased to exist."
Taggart swore softly. He decided to ask no more questions for the time being -- the girl seemed half-crazy with terror of the black-uniformed men she called the "Sons of Light." Her fear of them seemed almost supernatural. . . . He stood silent for a moment, feeling very uneasy -- and suddenly perceived the reason why. Across the alley hung a huge sheet of plastic, perhaps twelve feet high, slightly warped and grimed against the brick wall. In the sunlight an image seemed to float just in front of it, sharp and strikingly clear by contrast with the dingy plastic; in a moment of shock Taggart recognized it as a primitive form of holograph. It portrayed an enormous moralistically scowling fat-faced man, clean-shaven, with piercing blue-gray eyes -- eyes that seemed to glare directly into his own. Beneath the face a caption stated in large golden letters:
Taggart stared back at the huge, silent face, feeling an odd sense of deja vu gathering inside him. The certainty grew that he had surely seen that face before, but he just could not place it; all he knew was that he found the stare disturbing. Impulsively, Taggart took a few steps forward, pulled out the blaster, pointed it at that glaring, overbearing visage, and burned the center out of the plastic sheet.
At that instant there came the roaring of an engine, and the front of an armored truck darkened the end of the alley. Taggart leaped back to the girl's side, drew her close and pressed the glowing inset on his belt-clasp. A bluish glow immediately blinked into being, surrounding the two of them.
"Stay close," muttered Taggart. "They can't hurt you."
Four black-uniformed men climbed out of the truck; the tramp of heavy boots sounded in the narrow alley. Each man carried a sub-machine gun; their faces seemed hard, expressionless masks, devoid of human emotion but full of grim purpose. Taggart recognized them as the same men who had fled from him earlier; they had not given up, after all.
Without warning all four of the men leveled their submachine-guns and fired; the alley was filled for several seconds with a reverberating thunder, while ricocheting bullets whined back from the blue force-screen and chipped brick-dust from the grimy walls. . . .
Then the hammering thunder ceased, and four dark shapes lay twitching spasmodically on the concrete in widening pools of blood.
"They cut their own throats that time," said Taggart grimly.
"You killed them!" The girl's voice was scarcely more than a whisper. "You killed them all --"
"No, they saved me the trouble. But we've got to get out of here." He glanced at the four dead men in black. "A uniform -- I'll need one of their uniforms. If I can drive away from here in their truck, with you apparently my prisoner, we may stand a chance yet!"
Taggart switched off his force-screen, strode over to the four dead men and began to strip the uniform from one of them. A ricocheting slug had demolished the man's face, but there was less blood on his garments than on those of the others. The girl stood by quietly as Taggart changed clothes with the dead policeman; her apathy seemed to have returned. There was a dull, sad hopelessness in her eyes.
"Get into the truck," said Taggart. The girl complied listlessly. Taggart paused to pick up one of the fallen submachine-guns, then climbed into the driver's seat, handing the gun across to the girl as he did so. She clutched the object close to her as if it were a wooden doll, her brown eyes staring into space.
"Remember, if anyone asks, you're my prisoner," said Taggart. "How -- what's the quickest way out of the city?"
"It's no use -- it won't work. The Sons of Light will know the truth."
Taggart felt irritated at the girl's apathy. "They won't if you keep that gun out of sight. Put it on the floor. And if anyone stops us, keep your hands behind your back as if you're handcuffed. I don't want to kill any more of them -- I've been responsible for too many deaths already."
"They already know," said the girl listlessly. "They've heard every word we've spoken and are watching our every move."
Taggart's impulse to swear was nullified by the look in the girl's eyes. He had sensed from the start that there was something lacking in her will or spirit; now he knew it. Something terrible had been done to her. He suddenly felt a deep sadness he could not understand. Gently he took the gun from the girl's limp hands and laid it on the floor, then carefully backed the truck out of the alley.
There was no traffic to avoid, and Taggart suddenly realized that the truck he drove was the only vehicle he had seen so far. He could make no sense out of the world he had returned to -- he realized only that, so far, his mission had been a terrible failure. Within minutes of his catastrophic arrival he had killed five men. Evidently the government controlling England was a repressive and belligerent one, if the missile that had wrecked his craft and the bullying, black-uniformed men were any true indication.
So, now, there was nothing to do but hide. He dared not return to his demolished ship -- very likely there would already be troops, tanks, and artillery converging on it. All he could do now was hole up for two or three days, activate a micro-transmitter and wait for the Zarr to notice his lack of communication. . . .
"Turn left at the next corner," said the girl suddenly, "and drive where I tell you. I know a quick way out of the city."
Startled, Taggart glanced at the girl's face. Her eyes were less apathetic than before, her expression more animated. She made him think of a sleepwalker on the verge of awakening, dreaming still, yet stirred by some waking memory.
The girl's directions were brief and concise. Taggart drove without difficulty, since the streets continued to be devoid of traffic. He saw a few parked vehicles, but even these were mostly horse-drawn carts; the few autos he saw were new and shiny and invariably bore official-looking insignias of one sort or another. Shabby massers lounged here and there, but even they were sparse; evidently most of the population stayed inside the grimy, dilapidated buildings, not daring or caring to venture forth. The buildings seemed depressingly old; though their architecture was mostly nineteenth century, they seemed coated with the dark grime of centuries -- and on every corner, starkly vivid against the dark brickwork, huge holograph plates flaunted a flabby, scowling, moralistic face and, beneath it, the caption:
The glade was shady and cool, and a soft breeze made the leaves on the trees rustle softly. Grass grew in the small clearing -- grass so thick and lush that it resembled a smooth, green carpet fit to sleep on.
Taggart climbed from the truck, walked round to the other door, and helped the girl out. She seemed withdrawn, as if her mind were still largely elsewhere.
"You picked a good spot," said Taggart. "They certainly won't find us here."
"Oh, they'll find us -- but they may choose to wait a few hours before they do."
She sat down on the grass for a moment, fidgeting and twining her fingers together nervously. Then she rose to her feet again.
"I hear a stream in the forest," she said. "I feel so dirty -- I'm going to wash in the stream. Please take off that uniform before I come back -- I can't stand the sight of it!"
She turned and ran off toward the sound of the brook. To Taggart it almost seemed she was choking back a sob -- except that there was little expression on her face and her movements were stiff and puppet-like, jerky and crazy. Once again he had that feeling of horror, as if he was in the presence of a suffering he could not quite comprehend.
He removed the black uniform and donned again his nondescript khakis. Then he lay down on the grass, stretched lazily, and tried to relax. He had little success. He wondered about the world he had returned to and the girl he had just taken under his wing. Nothing made much sense so far, but one thing seemed pretty certain: England lay under a dictatorship that used surveillance to keep track of its citizens and a brutal police force to keep order. The black-uniformed "Sons of Light" were disturbingly reminiscent of Hitler's SS thugs. . . .
The girl returned presently, looking much improved. Her face, now clean of grime and dust, seemed almost pretty; her short, dark hair, damp from recent washing, seemed jet black. Even her faded blue coverall uniform seemed cleaner; probably she had beaten the dust out of it as well as she could. There was a soft attractiveness about her that Taggart had not noticed before -- an attractiveness that came through in spite of a certain stiff tenseness in her bearing, as though she were cringing perpetually from an expected blow. But the scars on her arms stood out more starkly than ever.
She sat down, closed her eyes, and leaned back against a tree-trunk, sighing deeply.
"It's been a rough day," said Taggart, hoping to draw her out. "I sense we were lucky to escape the city so easily -- I'm surprised my crash-landing didn't draw a much bigger crowd."
The girl scowled faintly and put a hand to her brow. "Why should it surprise you? Scrammers always hit London two or three times a day -- you know that."
"You know -- SCRAM missiles, and that's what you do when you hear one."
Taggart scowled; it sounded like a slogan, something taught to schoolchildren, like "duck and cover" before the nuclear war. "Is England at war, then?"
The girl stared at Taggart incredulously. "Yes, but . . . but didn't you know? . . ."
"No. I just arrived here -- on the missile."
"And the war -- you really didn't know about it?"
"No. This is the first news I've heard for years."
The girl's brown eyes were very wide. "I don't understand. And England -- that's the old name!"
"Oh? Then what's this country called now?"
The girl drew back, a pained distrust dawning in her dark eyes. "You're one of them," she muttered tensely. "You're playing a game with me --"
"I'm not," said Taggart, gripping the girl's shoulders and facing her squarely. "Now, look -- I know a lot of things I say must sound crazy to you, but there are good reasons for that. I can't tell you everything now, but I want you to know that you've nothing to fear from me. I want to be your friend. Moreover, I need all the information you can give me."
"What do you want to know?" Taggart was gratified that the girl's voice, though tense, had lost its rising note of panic.
"Almost everything you take for granted -- your customs, the laws that govern your civilization . . ." He paused, realizing how ridiculous his statements must sound. "Please bear with me," he went on. "I'll start by asking your name."
"Judy," said the girl.
"Judy. And your last name? . . ."
The girl knit her brows in puzzled thought. His spine prickling, he asked in an attempt to jog her memory, "The first thug I killed, the one with the revolver, called you Judith; is that what Judy stands for?"
"I don't know," she said finally. "I'm Judy . . . just Judy."
Taggart felt a strange chill; once again he had the strange, sad feeling that something was missing from this girl. . . .
"Can't you remember?"
"No -- I can't!" Judy's lip trembled; there seemed to be a desperate appeal in her eyes. "I'm sorry -- I just can't! They've taken so much from me. . . ."
"Who has?" demanded Taggart.
"The Sons of Light."
The words made Taggart feel once more that strange, sad horror. The scars on the girl's arms stood out lividly.
"They tortured you," he said.
The girl nodded.
"Can you remember why, Judy?"
"Yes!" The girl's voice was a tense whisper. "I couldn't remember until today. Then the scrammer came and the rubble fell on me, and when you pulled me out and our faces touched I thought you were . . . you were . . ."
"Franklyn? You called me Franklyn."
"Yes! I thought you were Franklyn."
"And who is he?"
"He was . . . we . . ."
"You were friends?"
"Yes." The admission seemed to come painfully. Judy was silent for a long moment.
Created: October 28, 2006