“On Eros?” thought Nat. “This is the year 2044,” he answered. “You’ve been dreaming, my friend. We’ve had our new world-order, and it’s not in the least like the one you and your friends anticipated.”
“Gott!” screamed the old man. “Gott, you’re lying to me, bourgeois! You’re lying, I tell you!”
So Eros was their destination! Eros, one of the asteroids, those tiny fragments of a broken planet, lying outside the orbit of Mars. Some of these little worlds, of which more than a thousand are known to exist, are no larger than a gentleman’s country estate; some are mere rocks in space. Eros, Nat knew, was distinguished among them from the fact that it had an eccentric orbit, which brought it at times nearer Earth than any other heavenly body except the Moon.
Also that it had only been known for thirty years, and that it was supposed to be a double planet, having a dark companion.
That was in Nat’s mind as he ascended the bridge to where Axelson was standing at the controls, with one of the graybeards beside him. The door of his stateroom was open, and suddenly there scuttled out of it one of the most bestial objects Nat had ever seen.
It was a Moon woman, a dwarfish figure, clothed in a shapeless garment of spun cellulose, and in her arms she held a heavy-headed Moon baby, whose huge chest stood up like a pyramid, while the tiny arms and legs hung dangling down.
“Here is the bourgeois, Kommandant,” said Nat’s captor.
Axelson looked at Nat, eye meeting eye in a slow stare. Then he relinquished the controls to the graybeard beside him, and motioned Nat to precede him into the stateroom.
Nat entered. It was an ordinary room, much like that of the captain of the ether-liner now stranded on the Moon. There were a bunk, chairs, a desk and a radio receiver.
Axelson shut the door. He tried to speak and failed to master his emotion. At last he said:
“I am prepared to offer you terms, Nathaniel Lee, in accordance with my promise.”
“I’ll make no terms with murderers,” replied Nat bitterly.
Axelson stood looking at him. His great chest rose and fell. Suddenly he put out one great hand and clapped Nat on the shoulder.
“Wise men,” he said, “recognize facts. Within three weeks I shall be the undisputed ruler of Earth. Whether of a desert or of a cowed and submissive subject-population, rests with the Earth men. I have never been on Earth, for I was born on Eros. My mother died at my birth. I have never seen another human woman until to-day.”
Nat looked at him, trying to follow what was in Axelson’s mind.
“My father fled to Eros, a little planet seventeen miles in diameter, as we have found. He called it a heavenly paradise. It was his intention to found there a colony of those who were in rebellion against the tyrants of Earth.
“His followers journeyed to the Moon and brought back Moon women for wives. But there were no children of these unions. Later there were dissensions and civil war. Three-fourths of the colony died in battle with one another.
“I was a young man. I seized the reins of power. The survivors—these old men—were disillusioned and docile. I made myself absolute. I brought Moon men and women to Eros to serve us as slaves. But in a few years the last of my father’s old compatriots will have died, and thus it was I conceived of conquering Earth and having men to obey me. For fifteen years I have been experimenting and constructing apparatus, with which I now have Earth at my mercy.
“But I shall need assistance, intelligent men who will obey me and aid me in my plans. That is why I saved you and the other officers of your ether-lines. If you will join me, you shall have the highest post on Earth under me, Nathaniel Lee, and those others shall be under you.”
Axelson paused, and, loathing the man though he did, Nat was conscious of a feeling of pity for him that he could not control. He saw his lonely life on Eros, surrounded by those phantom humans of the past, and he understood his longing for Earth rule—he the planetary exile, the sole human being of all the planetary system outside Earth, perhaps, except for his dwindling company of aged men.
“To-day, Nathaniel Lee,” Axelson went on, “my life was recast in a new mould when I saw the woman you have brought with you. I did not know before that women were beautiful to look on. I did not dream that creatures such as she existed. She must be mine, Nathaniel Lee.
“But that is immaterial. What is your answer to my offer?”
Nat was trying to think, though passion distorted the mental images as they arose in his brain. To Axelson it was evidently incomprehensible that there would be any objection to his taking Madge. Nat saw that he must temporize for Madge’s sake.
“I’ll have to consult my companions,” he answered.
“Of course,” answered Axelson. “That is reasonable. Tell them that unless they agree to join me it will be necessary for them to die. Do Earth men mind death? We hate it on Eros, and the Moon men hate it, too, though they have a queer legend that something in the shape of an invisible man raises from their ashes. My father told me that that superstition existed on Earth in his time, too. Go and talk to your companions, Nathaniel Lee.”
The Black Caesar’s voice was almost friendly. He clapped Nat on the shoulder again, and called the graybeard to conduct him back to his prison.
“Oh, Captain Lee, I’m so glad you’re back!” exclaimed Madge. “We’ve been afraid for you. Is he such a terrible man, this Black Caesar?”
Nat sneered, then grinned malevolently. “Well, he’s not exactly the old-fashioned idea of a Sunday-school teacher,” he answered. Of course he could not tell the girl about Axelson’s proposal.
The little group of prisoners stood on the upper deck of the black ship and watched the Moon men scurrying about the landing-stage as she hovered to her position.
Axelson’s father had not erred when he had called the tiny planet, Eros, a heavenly paradise, for no other term could have described it.
They were in an atmosphere so similar to that of Earth that they could breathe with complete freedom, but there seemed to be a lightness and a vigor in their limbs that indicated that the air was supercharged with oxygen or ozone. The presence of this in large amounts was indicated by the intense blueness of the sky, across which fleecy clouds were drifting.
And in that sky what looked like threescore moons were circling with extraordinary swiftness. From thirty to forty full moons, of all sizes, from that of a sun to that of a brilliant planet, and riding black against the blue.
The sun, hardly smaller than when seen from Earth, shone in the zenith, and Earth and Mars hung in the east and north respectively, each like a blood-red sun.
The moons were some of the thousand other asteroids, weaving their lacy patterns in and out among each other. But, stupendous as the sight was, it was toward the terrestrial scene that the party turned their eyes as the black ship settled.
A sea of sapphire blue lapped sands of silver and broke into soft lines of foam. To the water’s edge extended a lawn of brightest green, and behind this an arm of the sea extended into what looked like a tropical forest. Most of the trees were palmlike, but towered to immense heights, their foliage swaying in a gentle breeze. There were apparently no elevations, and yet, so small was the little sphere that the ascending curve gave the illusion of distant heights, while the horizon, instead of seeming to rise, lay apparently perfectly flat, producing an extraordinary feeling of insecurity.
Near the water’s edge a palatial mansion, built of hewn logs and of a single story, stood in a garden of brilliant flowers. Nearer, beyond the high landing-stage, were the great shipbuilding works, and near them an immense and slightly concave mirror flashed back the light of the sun.
“The death ray!” whispered Brent to Nat.
Axelson came up to the party as the ship settled down. “Welcome to Eros,” he said cordially. “My father told me that in some Earth tongue that name meant ‘love’.”
Never, perhaps, was so strange a feast held as that with which Axelson entertained his guests that day. Dwarfish Moon men passed viands and a sort of palm wine in the great banquet-room, which singularly resembled one of those early twentieth century interiors shown in museums. Only the presence of a dozen of the aged guards, armed with ray-rods, lent a grimness to the scene.
Madge sat on Axelson’s right, and Nat on his left. The girl’s lightheartedness had left her; her face grew strained as Axelson’s motives—which Nat had not dared disclose to her—disclosed themselves in his manner.
Once, when he laid his finger for a moment against her white throat, she started, and for a moment it seemed as if the gathering storm must break.
For Nat had talked with his men, and all had agreed that they would not turn traitor, though they intended to temporize as long as possible, in the hope of catching the Black Caesar unawares.
Then slowly a somber twilight began to fall, and Axelson rose.
“Let us walk in the gardens during the reign of Erebos,” he said.
“Erebos?” asked Nat.
“The black world that overshadows us each sleeping period,” answered Axelson.
Nat knew what he meant. The dark companion of Eros revolves around it every six hours; the day of Eros would therefore never be longer than six hours, this without reckoning the revolution of Eros around the sun. But owing to its small size, it was probable that it was bathed in almost perpetual sunshine.
The sweet scent of the flowers, much stronger than of any flowers on earth, filled the air. They walked across the green lawn and entered a jungle path, with bamboos and creeping plants on either side, and huge palmlike trees. Behind them stalked the guards with their ray-rods.
A lake of deepest black disclosed itself. Suddenly Madge uttered a scream and clung to Nat. “Look, look!” she cried. “It’s horrible!”
Suddenly Nat realized that the lake swarmed with monsters. They were of crocodilian form, but twice the size of the largest crocodile, and sprawled over one another in the shallows beside the margin. As the party drew near, an enormous monster began waddling on its clawed feet toward them.
A mouth half the length of the creature opened, disclosing a purplish tongue and hideous fangs. Madge screamed again.
“Ah, so fear exists on Earth, too?” asked Axelson blandly. “That makes my conquest sure. I suspected it, and yet I was not sure that science had not conquered it. But there is no cause for fear. A magnetic field protects us. See!”
For the waddling monster suddenly stopped short as if brought up sharply by the bars of a cage, and drew back.
Axelson turned and wheezed in the Moon language—if the gibbering of the dwarfs could be called speech—and one of the guards answered him.
“These primitive dwellers on Eros I have preserved,” said Axelson, “as a means of discipline. The Moon animals are afraid of them. I keep a supply of those who have transgressed my laws to feed them. See!”
He turned and pointed. Two guards were bringing a gibbering, screeching, struggling Moon man with them. Despite his strength, he seemed incapable of making any resistance, but his whole body quivered, and his hideous face was contorted with agony of terror.
At a distance of some fifty feet they turned aside into a little bypath through the jungle, reappearing close beside the Lake upon a raised platform. And what happened next happened so swiftly that Nat was unable to do anything to prevent it.
The guards disappeared; the Moon man, as if propelled by some invisible force, moved forward jerkily to the lake’s edge. Instantly one of the saurians had seized him in its jaws, and another had wrenched half the body away, and the whole fighting, squirming mass vanished in the depths.
And from far away came the screeching chant of the Moon men, as if in invocation to some hideous deity.
And, moving perceptibly, the huge black orb of Eros’s dark satellite crept over the sky, completely covering it.
Axelson stepped forward to where Nat stood, supporting Madge in his arms. The girl had fainted with horror at the scene.
“Your answer Nathaniel Lee,” he said softly. “I know you have been postponing the decision. Now I will take the girl, and you shall give me your answer. Will you and these men join me, or will you die as the Moon man died?” He spoke wheezily, as if he, like Nat, had a cold.
And he put his arm around Madge.
Next moment something happened to him that had never happened in his life before. The Black Caesar went down under a well-directed blow to the jaw.
He leaped to his feet trembling with fury and barked a command. Instantly the old guards had hurled themselves forward. And behind them a horde of Moon men came, ambling.
While the guards covered their prisoners with their ray-rods, two Moon men seized each of them, imprisoning him in their unbreakable grasp.
Axelson pointed upward. “When the reign of Erebos is past,” he said, “you become food for the denizens of the lake, unless you have agreed to serve me.”
And he raised Madge in his arms, laughing as the girl fought and struggled to resist him.
“Madge!” cried Nat, trying to run toward her.
So furious were his struggles that for a moment he succeeded in throwing off the Moon men’s grasp. Then he was caught again, and, fighting desperately, was borne off by the dwarfs through the shadows.
They traversed the border of the lake until a small stone building disclosed itself. Nat and the others were thrust inside into pitch darkness. The door clanged; in vain they hurled themselves against it. It was of wood, but it was as solid as the stone itself, and it did not give an inch for all their struggles.
here is your Kommandant?” The whisper seemed in the stone hut itself. “Your Nathaniel Lee. I must speak to him. I am the guard who brought him to the Black Caesar on board the ship.”
“I’m here,” said Nat. “Where are you?”
“I am in the house of the ray. I am on guard there. I am speaking into the telephone which runs only to where you are. You can speak anywhere in the hut, and I shall hear you.”
“Well, what do you want?” asked Nat.
“You love the Earth woman. I remember, when I was a boy, we used to love. I had forgotten. There was a girl in Stamford…. Tell me, is it true that this is the year 2044 and that the proletariat has not yet triumphed?”
“It’s true,” said Nat. “Those dreams are finished, We’re proud of the World Federation. Tell me about Madge Dawes—the Earth woman. Is she safe?”
“He has taken her to his house. I do not think she is harmed. He is ill. He is closely guarded. There are rumors afoot. I do not know.”
“What do you want, then?”
“If the Black Caesar dies will you take me back to Earth again? I long so for the old Earth life. I will be your slave, if only I can set foot on Earth before I die.”
“Can you rescue us?” Nat held his breath.
“The Moon men are on guard.”
“They have no ray-guns and you have.”
“The penalty would be terrible. I should be thrown to the monsters.”
“Can you get us each a ray-gun? Will you risk it, to get back to Earth?” asked Nat.
A pause. Then, “My friend, I am coming.”
Nat heard Benson hissing in his ear, “If we can surprise them, we can get possession of the black ship and return.”
“We must get Madge Dawes.”
“And smash the mirror,” put in Brent.
After that there was nothing to do but wait.
The door clicked open. An indistinct form stood in the entrance. It was already growing light; the dark satellite that eclipsed Eros was passing.
“Hush! I have brought you ray-rods!” It was the old man with whom Nat had spoken on the boat. Under his arm he held five metallic rods, tipped with luminous glass. He handed one to each of the prisoners. “Do you know how to use them?” he asked.
Nat examined his. “It’s an old-style rod that was used on earth fifty years ago,” he told his men. “I’ve seen them in museums. It came into use in the Second World War of 1950 or thereabouts. You slip back the safety catch and press this button, taking aim as one did with the pistol. You fellows have seen pistols?”
“My father had an old one,” said the chief mate, Barnes.
“How many times can they be fired without reloading?” Nat asked the old guard.
“Ten times; sometimes more; and they were all freshly loaded yesterday.”
“Take us to where Axelson is.”
“First you must destroy the guards. I sent the one on duty here away on some pretext. But the others may be here at any moment. Talk lower. Are you going to kill them?”
“We must,” said Nat.
The old fellow began to sob. “We were companions together. They seized us and imprisoned us together, the capitalists, years ago. I thought the proletariat would have won, and you say it is all different. I am an old man, and life is sad and strange.”
“Listen. Is Axelson in the house?” demanded Nat.
“He is in his secret room. I do not know the way. None of us has ever entered it.”
“She was with him. I do not know anything more.” He sank down, groaning, broken.
at pushed his way past him. It was fast growing light now. A ray of sunshine shot from beneath the edge of the dark sphere overhead, which still filled almost all the heavens. At that moment the hideous face and squat body of one of the Moon men came into view at the end of the path. The creature stopped, gibbering with surprise, and then rushed forward, mewing like a cat.
Nat aimed his ray-rod and pressed the button. The streak of light, not quite aimed, in Nat’s excitement, sheared off one side of the Moon man’s face.
The creature rocked where it stood, raised its voice in a screech, and rushed forward again, arms flailing. And this time Nat got home. The streak passed right through the body of the monster, which collapsed into a heap of calcined carbon.
But its screech had brought the other dwarfs running to the scene. In a moment the path was blocked by a score of the hideous monsters, which, taking in what was happening, came forward in a yelling bunch.
The ray-rods streaked their message of death into the thick of them. Yet so fierce was the rush that some parts got home. Arms, legs, and barrel chests, halves of men, covering the five with that impalpable black powder into which their bodies were dissolving. Nat remembered afterward the horror of a grinning face, apparently loose in the air, and a flailing arm that lashed his chest.
For fifteen seconds, perhaps, it was like struggling with some vampire creatures in a hideous dream. And then, just when it seemed to Nat that he was going mad, he found the path free, and the huddled remnants of the Moon men piled up about him on every side.
He emptied two more ray-shots into the writhing mass, and saw it cease to quiver and then dissolve into the black powder. He turned and looked at his companions. They, too, showed the horror of the strain they had undergone.
“We must kill the guards now,” Nat panted. “And then find Madge and save her.”
“We’re with you,” answered Brent, and together the five rushed into the sunlight and the open.
There were no guards on duty at the entrance of the house, and the door stood wide open. Nat rushed through the door at the head of his men. A single guard was in the hall, but he only looked up as they came in. And it was evident that he was in no condition to resist, for he was in the grip of some terrible disease.
His features were swollen so that they were hardly recognizable, and hoarse, panting breaths came from his lungs. He was so far gone that he hardly registered surprise at the advent of the five.
“Where’s Axelson?” demanded Nat.
The guard pointed toward the end of the corridor, then let his arm fall. Nat led his men along the half-dark passage.
At the end of the corridor two more guards were on duty, but one was collapsed upon the floor, apparently unconscious, and the other, making a feeble attempt to draw his ray-rod, crumbled into ashes as Brent fired. The five burst through the door.
They found themselves in the banquet-hall. The remnants of the meal were still upon the table, and three Moon men, looking as if they had been poisoned, were writhing on the floor. At the farther end of the hall was another door.
This gave upon a central hall, with a door in each of its four sides, and a blaze of sunlight coming through the crystal roof. The five stopped, baffled. Then of a sudden Axelson’s voice broke the silence—his voice, yet changed almost beyond recognition, hoarse, broken, and gasping:
“Try the doors, Nathaniel Lee. Try each door in turn, and then go back. And know that in an instant I can blast you to nothingness where you stand!”
And suddenly there came Madge’s voice, “He can’t! He can’t, Nat. He’s dying, and he knows it. I won’t let him, and he hasn’t got the strength to move.”
“Which door?” cried Nat in desperation.
“None of the doors. They’re a trick,” came Madge’s voice. “Go forward and press the grooved panel upon the wall in front of you.”
Nat stepped forward, found the panel, and pressed it. The wall swung open, like two folded doors, revealing another room within, perfectly circular.
It contained a quantity of pieces of apparatus, some glowing with light, some dark, and a radio transmitting set; it was evidently the secret lair of the Black Caesar. And there he was, trapped at last by the mortal illness that had overtaken him!
He was lying upon the couch, his great form stretched out, his features hideously swollen by the same disease that had attacked the guards.
Nat raised his ray-rod, but Axelson feebly put up his hand, and Nat lowered the weapon. And, as the five gathered about the dying man, again Nat felt that strange sense of pathos and pity for him.
He had never known Earth life, and he was not to be measured by the common standards applicable on Earth.
“Don’t fire, Nat,” said Madge in a shaky voice. She was seated beside Axelson, and—the wonder of it—she was sponging the foam from his lips and moistening his forehead. She raised a crystal that contained some fluid to his lips, and he drained it greedily.
“So—Earth wins, Nathaniel Lee,” whispered Axelson hoarsely. “I am dying. I know it. It is the same dreaded disease that came to the Moon at the time of my father’s landing there. Three-fourths of the Moon animals died. It is mortal. The lungs burn away.
“My father told me that on Earth it is not mortal. He called it ‘cold’—but I am burning hot.”
Then only did Nat understand, and the irony of it made him catch his breath and grit his teeth to check his hysterical laughter. The Black Caesar, the terror of Earth, was dying of a common cold which he himself had given him.
The coryza germ, almost harmless on Earth, among a population habituated to it for countless generations, had assumed the potency of a plague here, where no colds had ever been known—among the Moon men, and even among the guards, after their lifetime in the germless climate of Eros.
“I’ve failed, Nathaniel Lee,” came the Black Caesar’s voice. “And yet that hardly troubles me. There is something more that I do not understand. She is a creature like ourselves—with will and reason. She is not like the Moon women. She told me that she did not wish to be queen of the Earth because she did not love me. I do not understand. And so—I am glad to go.”
A gasp came from Axelson’s throat as he raised his head and tried to speak, but the death-rattle was already in his throat. A slight struggle, and the massive form upon the couch was nothing but inanimate clay.
Madge rose from beside him, and the tears were streaming down her face.
“He wasn’t a bad man, Nat,” she said. “He was—gentle with me. He didn’t understand; that was all. When I refused to be his queen, he was overcome with bewilderment. Oh, Nat, I can never, never write this story for the Universal News Syndicate.”
Nat led her, sobbing, from the room.
Soon he succeeded in getting into teleradio communication with Earth. He broadcast the news that the Black Caesar was dead, and that his power for evil was at an end forever.
Then, in the few hours of daylight that remained, he set his men to work to smash the ray outfit that had destroyed China. There was some principle involved which he did not altogether understand, though Brent professed to have a clue to it, but it was evident that, except for the ray, Axel son had possessed no knowledge superior to that of the Earth scientists.
Of the guards, a few were already recovering, principally those of comparatively younger age. Not a Moon man, on the other hand, had survived the epidemic. As soon as Nat had got the guards out of the house, he reduced it to ashes by the aid of an old-fashioned box of phosphoric matches.
As the dark satellite was again creeping over Eros, the black ship set sail.
Out of the return journey to the Moon, where they transferred to their own ship, of their landing at New York, and of the triumphal reception that was accorded them, this is no place to speak. Nat’s journey with Madge from the center of the city, in what was the old Borough of Westchester, to his home in the suburb of Hartford, was a continual ovation.
Crowds lined the air-route, and every few miles, so thick was the air-traffic, he was forced to hover and address the cheering multitudes. Hartford itself was en fete, and across the main road the City Bosses had hung an old-fashioned banner, strung from house to house on either side, bearing the legend: For World President: NATHANIEL LEE!
Nat turned to Madge, who was seated beside him silently. “Ever hear of ‘getting married?'” he asked.
“Of course I’ve heard of it,” replied the girl indignantly. “Do you think I’m as dumb as that, Nat Lee? Why, those old-fashioned novels are part of the public schools’ curriculum.”
“Pity those days can’t come back. You ought to be a World Presidentess, you know,” said Nat. “I was thinking, if we registered as companionates, I could take you into the White House, and you’d have a swell time there taking X-rays on visiting days.”
“Well,” answered Madge slowly. “I never thought of that. It might be worth trying out.”