Something was rubbing against his leg, pricking it through his anklets. Kay looked down. A lady porcupine, with tiny new quills, was showing recognition, even affection, if such a spiny beast could be said to possess that quality.
Somehow the presence of the beast restored Kay’s mind to normal.
“Well, he’s left us both in the lurch, Susie,” he said. “Good luck to you, beastie, and may you find a secure hiding place until your quills have grown.”
Drowning men catch at straws. Kay snatched out his watch, and the illuminated dial showed that it was already two quintets past horometer 13. He darted back to the cabin. The door was unfastened, and his torch showed him that, though Cliff had evidently departed, and taken his things, the interior was much as it had been. When Kay picked up the telephotophone, the oblong dial flashed out. The instrument was in working order.
He turned the crank, and swiftly a succession of scenes flashed over the dial. On this little patch of glassite, Kay was actually making the spatial journey to Albany, each minutest movement of the crank representing a distance covered. The building of the New York Division appeared, and its appearance signified that Kay was telephonically connected. But there was no automatic voice attachment, an expense that Kay and Cliff had decided would be unjustified. He had to rely upon the old-fashioned telephone, such as was still widely in use in rural districts. He took up the receiver.
“Sub-Station F, Loyalist Registration, please,” he called.
“Speaking,” said a girl’s voice presently.
“I want the Z numbers. All from Z5 to ZA,” said Kay.
And thus, in the dark hut, he listened to the doom pronounced, miles away, by a more or less indifferent operator. When the fatal number was read out, he thanked her and hung up. He released the crank, which moved back to its position, putting out the light on the dial.
For a moment or two he stood there motionless, in a sort of daze, though actually he was gathering all his reserves of resolution for the task confronting him. Simply to find Ruth among the hundred thousand victims, and die with her. A task stupendous in itself, and yet Kay had no doubt that he would succeed, that he would be holding her in his arms when the tide of hell flowed over them.
He knew the manner of that death. The irresistible onset of the giant masses of protoplasm, the extrusion of temporary arms, or feelers, that would grasp them, drag them into the heart of the yielding substance, and slowly smother them to death while the life was drained from their bodies. It had been said the death was painless, but that was Government propaganda. But he would be holding Ruth in his arms. He’d find her: he had no doubt of that at all.
And, strangely enough, now that Kay knew the worst, now that not the slightest doubt remained, he was conscious of an elevation of spirits, a sort of mad recklessness that was perfectly indefinable.
Kay turned his torch into a corner of the kitchen. Yes, there was the thing subconsciousness had prompted him to seek. A long-shafted, heavy woodsman’s ax, a formidable weapon at close quarters. Because it is the instinct of homo Americanus to die with a weapon in his hands, rather than let himself be butchered helplessly, Kay snatched it up. He ran back to his plane. The gas tank was nearly empty, but there was petrol in the ice house beside the lake.
Kay wheeled the machine up to it, and filled up with gas and oil. All ready now! He leaped in, pressed the starter, soared vertically, helicopter wings fluttering like a soaring hawk’s. Up to the passenger air lane at nine thousand: higher to twelve, the track of the international and supply ships; higher still, to the fourteen thousand ceiling of the antiquated machine. He banked, turned southward.
It was freezing cold up there, and Kay had no flying suit on him, but, between the passenger lane and the lane of the heliospheres, at thirty thousand, there was no air police. And he could afford to take no chances. The Government police would be on the lookout for a score such desperate men as he, bent on a similar mission. He drove the plane toward the Atlantic till a red glow began to diffuse itself beneath him, an area of conflagration covering square miles of territory.
Swooping lower, Kay could hear the sound of detonations, the roar of old-fashioned guns, while through the pall of lurid smoke came the long, violet flashes of atomic guns, cleaving lanes of devastation. New York was burning.
The frenzied populace had broken into revolt, seized the guns stored in the arsenals, and attacked the great Bronx fortress that stood like a mighty sentinel to protect the port.
A swarm of airships came into view, swirling in savage fight. Kay zoomed. It was not his battle.
Now New York lay behind him, and he was winging southward over the Atlantic. All night he flew. At dawn he came down in a coast hamlet for bootleg petrol and oil.
“You come from New York?” asked the Georgian. “Hear there’s war broke out up there.”
“My war’s down in Brazil,” muttered Kay.
“Say, if them Giants comes up here yuh know what us folks is going to do? We’re going to set the hounds on ’em. Yes, sirree, we’ve got a pack of bloodhounds, raised for jest that purpose. I guess that’s something them wisecrackers at Washington ain’t thought of. They took two little fellers from Hopetown, but they won’t take nobody from here.”
Kay fuelled up and resumed his flight southward.
After that it was a nightmare. The sun rose and set, alternating with the staring moon and stars. Kay crossed the Caribbean, sighted the South American coast, swept southward over the jungles of Brazil. He drank, but no food passed his lips. He had become a mechanism, set for on special purpose—self-immolation.
It was in a wide savannah among the jungles that he first caught sight of the monsters. At first he thought it was the rising dawn mist; then he began to distinguish a certain horrible resemblance to human forms, and swooped down, banking round and round the opening in the jungle until he could see clearly.
There were perhaps a score of them, an advance guard that had pushed forward from one of the main divisions. Men? Anthropoids, rather, for their sex was indistinguishable! Human forms ranging from a few feet to a hundred, composed apparently of a grayish jelly, propelling themselves clumsily on two feet, but floating rather than walking. Translucent, semi-transparent. Most horrible of all, these shadowy, spheroid creatures exhibited here and there buds of various sizes, which were taking on the similitude of fresh forms. And among them were the young, the buds that had fallen from the parent stems, fully formed humans of perhaps five or six feet, bouncing with a horrible playfulness among their sires.
As Kay soared some three hundred feet overhead, a young tapir came leaping out of the jungle and ran, apparently unconscious of their presence, right toward the monsters. Suddenly it stopped, and Kay saw that it was already encircled by coils of protoplasm, resembling arms, which had shot forth from the bodies of the devils.
Swiftly, despite its struggles and bleatings, the tapir was drawn into the substance of the monsters, which seemed to fuse together and form a solid wall of protoplasm in all respects like the agglutination of bacteria under certain conditions.
Then the beast vanished in the wall, whose agitated churnings alone gave proof of its existence.
For perhaps ten minutes longer Kay remained hovering above the clearing. Then the bodies divided, resuming their separate shapes. And the white bones of the tapir lay in a huddled mass in the open.
Kay went mad. Deliberately he set down his plane, and, hatchet in hand, advanced upon the sluggish monsters. Shouting wildly, he leaped into their midst.
The fight that followed was like a nightmare fight. He lopped off the slow tentacles that sought to envelop him, he slashed the devils into long ribbons of writhing jelly, slashed until the substance blunted the ax; wiped it clean and leaped into their midst again, hewing until he could no longer raise his arm. Then he drew back and surveyed the scene before him.
It was dreadful enough to drive the last remnants of sanity from his brain. For every piece that he had cut from the monsters, every protoplasmic ribbon was reorganizing before his eyes into the semblance of a new creature. Where there had been a score, there were now five hundred!
Kay ran back to his plane, leaped in, and soared southward. His face was a grotesque mask of madness, and his cries rang out through the ether.
The victims were no longer chained to stakes. The Federation, which always acted with complete secrecy, had gone one better. It had engaged electrical engineers, kept them housed in secret places, transported them to Golgotha; and there a vast electrified field had been established, an open space whose boundaries were marked out by pillars of electron steel.
Between these pillars ran lines of electric force. To attempt to pass them meant—not death, for dead boys and girls were spurned by the devils—but a violent shock that hurled one backward.
On this great plain the hundred thousand victims sat huddled in the open. Food they had none, for no purpose was to be served by mitigating their last agonies. No shelter either, for the sight of buildings might delay the final phase. But high above the doomed there floated the flag of the Federation, on a lofty pole, a touch of ironic sentimentality that had commended itself to some mind at Washington.
Over a square mile of territory, ringed with jungle the victims lay. The majority of them ringed this terrain; that is to say, attempting to escape, they had been hurled back by the electrical charge, and, having no strength or will remaining, they had dropped where they had been hurled, and lay in apathetic resignation.
There had been screams and cries for mercy, and piteous scenes when the Government airships had deposited them there and flown away, but now an intense silence had descended upon the doomed. Resigned to their fate, they sat or lay in little silent groups, all eyes turned toward the gloomy jungle.
And everywhere within this jungle a wraith-like mist was forming at this dawn hour. From a thousand miles around, the devils were mustering for their prey, agglutinating, in order that the meal of one might become the meal of all.
Wisps of protoplasmic fog were stealing out through the trees, changing shape every instant, but always advancing: now presenting the appearance of an aligned regiment of huge, shadowy men, now nothing but a wall of semi-solid vapor. And still, with eyeballs straining in their sockets, the victims watched.
Suddenly all were seized with the same spasm of mad terror. Again they hurled themselves against the electrified lines, and again they were hurled back, masses of boys and girls tumbling against one another, and screaming in one wail that, could it have been heard in Washington, would have driven all insane. Again and again, till they fell back, panting and helpless. And solidly the wall of devils was creeping up from every side.
Ruth Deane, one of the few who had themselves in control, lay some distance back from the electrified field. From the moment when she was surprised in her apartment by the Government representatives, she had known that there was no hope of escape.
She had slipped the ring off her finger, snapped the plastic metal, and attached it to a thread torn from her dress. She had managed to insert it in the door, hoping that Kay would find it. It would serve as a last message of love to him.
Every removal of a selected victim was in the nature of a kidnapping. At dead of night her apartment had been opened. She had been ordered to dress. Nothing could be written, no arrangements made. She was already considered as one dead.
She had been hurried out of the upper entrance to the monorail, which conveyed her in a special car to the landing station. A few minutes later she had been on her way to join the camp of other victims, a hundred miles away. Within two hours she was on her way southward.
Stunned by the tragedy, none of the victims had made much of an outcry. They had been given water by the airship police. No food for boys and girls already dead. Days and nights had passed, and now she was here, faint from exhaustion, and wondering at the despair shown by those others. What difference would it make in half an hour? Besides, that Government pamphlet had insisted that this death was painless!
But an immense longing to see Kay once more came over her. There had been a time when she thought she loved Cliff; then Kay had come into her life, and she had known that other affair was folly. She had never told Kay of the bitter scene between Cliff and herself, how he had raved against Kay and sworn to win her in the end.
Cliff had calmed down and apologized, and Ruth had never seen him again. She wished he had not taken it like that. But above all she wanted to see Kay, just to say good-by.
And she tried to send out her whole heart to him in an unspoken message of love that would surely somehow convey itself to him.
The wall of devils was creeping up on every side, slowly, lethargically. The monsters took their time, because they knew they were invincible. The sobs and shrieks had died away. Collected into a mass almost as rigid as that of the Earth Giants, the victims waited, palsied as a rabbit that awaits the approach of the serpent.
A humming overhead. An airplane shooting down from the sky. Rescue? No. Only a solitary pilot, armed with a woodsman’s ax.
Kay drifted down, touched ground, leaped to his feet. Chance had brought him within five hundred yards of where Ruth was standing. But Ruth had known who that lone flyer must be. She broke through the throng; she rushed to meet him. Her arms were around him.
“Kay, darling Kay!”
“I knew you’d come.”
“I’ve come to die beside you!”
It was perhaps odd that it did not enter the head of either as a possibility that Kay should simply place Ruth in the plane and fly away with here to safety. Had the thought occurred to Kay, he might have been tempted. But such black treachery was something inconceivable by either. So long as the Federation remained, so long as man moved in an organized society, he was bound to his fellows, to fight, suffer, and die with them.
“Stand by me, Ruth. We’re going down fighting.”
They moved back toward the throng, which, momentarily stirred to hope by Kay’s appearance, had fallen into the former apathy of despair. And now the monsters were beginning to enter the electrified zone at one point. As they passed the line of posts, the high tension current made their bodies luminous, but it had no appreciable effect upon them. They moved on, inevitably.
A score or so of semi-human forms, agglutinated into a mass, and yet individually discernible. They bore down slowly upon the crowd of victims, who pressed backward as they advanced. On the other sides, though they almost encircled the field of death, the monsters were making no maneuvers to entrap their prey. Their sluggish minds were incapable of conceiving anything of the kind. But for the electrified zone, the great majority of the victims could have effected their escape. The monsters were simply pressing forward to their meal; they did not interpret its capture in terms of strategy at all.
A new frenzy of horror seized the crowd. They fled, struggling back until the foremost in flight reached the other side of Golgotha, to be repulsed by the electrified zone there. They fell in tumbled heaps. Appalling shrieks rang through the air.
Another line of the monsters was seeping forward, converging toward the first. As the two lines met, they coalesced into a wall of protoplasm, a thousand feet in length by a hundred high. A wall out of which leered phantasmal faces, like those in a frieze.
Kay stood alone, his arm around Ruth. To follow the flying mob would but prolong the agony. He raised the ax. He looked into the girl’s eyes. She understood, and nodded.
One last embrace, one kiss, and Kay placed her behind him. He sprang forward, shouting, and plunged into the very heart of the wall.
And Ruth, watching with eyes dilated with horror, saw it yield with a sucking sound, and saw Kay disappear within it.
She saw the hideous mass fold itself upon him, and a hundred extruded tentacles wave in the air as they blindly grappled for him. And then Kay had broken through, and was hewing madly with great sweeps of the ax that slashed great streamers of the amorphous tissue from the wall of protoplasm.
It recoiled and then folded once more, and Kay’s mighty sweeps were slashing phantom limbs from phantom bodies; and lopping off tentacles that curled and coiled, and put forth caricatures of hands and fingers, and then, uniting with other slashed off tentacles, began to mould themselves into the likeness of dwarf monsters. Kay’s struggle was like that of a man fighting a fog, for again and again he broke through the wall, and always it reunited.
And behind it another wall of protoplasm was pressing forward, and on another side a wall was drifting up. As Kay stopped, panting, and momentarily free, Ruth saw that they were almost encircled.
She saw the nature of that fight. Inevitably that wall would close about them; and, though the bones of last year’s victims had been gathered up and carried away by the Federation, she guessed what would occur.
She ran to Kay and dragged him back through the closing gap. It met behind them, and again they stood face to face with the devils. Only this time, instead of a wall of protoplasm, it was a veritable mountain that confronted them, and there could be no more breaking through.
Kay thought afterward that the one touch of absolute horror was that the reforming monsters, the young ones growing visibly before his eyes, had the gamboling instinct of young lambs or other creatures. They were much more lively than the parent creatures.
By this time perhaps a third of the space within the electrified lines had been occupied by the devils. The wall was slowly and sluggishly advancing, and a fresh infiltration was drifting in on another side. As the victims were pressed closer and closer together in their flight, half of them seemed to go insane. They raced to and fro, laughing and screaming, flinging their arms aloft in extravagant gestures. One young fellow, rushing across the ground, hurled himself like a bolt from a catapult into the heart of the grisly mass, which opened and received him.
There was a struggle, a convulsion; then the mass moved on.
Kay wiped his ax. He stood beside Ruth, gathering strength and breath to fight again. What else was there to do?
Suddenly a humming sound came to his ears. Still some little distance from the monsters, he glanced back. The victims were shouting, staring upward. Over the tops of the jungle trees Kay saw a second airplane flying toward them, a larger one than the plane which he had flown.
It opened its helicopter wings and drifted downward. Kay saw a single pilot, and, in the baggage compartment something that at first he did not recognize. Then he recognized both this object and the aviator.
“It’s Cliff,” he whispered hoarsely. “He’s brought the top!”
The crowd was milling about Cliff as he stepped out of the plane. Kay broke through their midst, shouting to them to clear a space, that it was their chance, their only chance. They heard him and obeyed. And Cliff and Kay clasped hands, and there was Ruth beside them.
The two men carried the top out of the baggage compartment and set it up.
“Thank God I came in time,” Cliff hissed. “How long have we got, Kay?”
“Five minutes, I think,” Kay answered, glancing at the oncoming wall. “They’re slow. Will it work, Cliff? God, when I found you’d gone last night—”
Cliff did not answer. Ignoring Kay’s offer of assistance, he fitted the top tightly into its socket of craolite, much heavier than the former one. Beneath this, three heavy craolite legs formed a sort of tripod.
“I looked forward to this possibility, Kay,” said Cliff, as he adjusted the top and turned the clamps that held it in position. “Sorry I had to deceive you, but you we’re so set on the cosmic rays, and I knew the psenium emanations wouldn’t appeal to you. You wouldn’t have believed. I had a hunch Ruth would draw one of those numbers…. How long?“
The swaying masses of gray jelly were very near them. Cliff worked feverishly at the top.
“Let me help. Cliff!”
“No! I’m through! Stand back!” shouted Cliff.
Even then—he regretted it afterward, and knew that he would regret it to his dying day—even then the thought flashed through Kay’s mind that Cliff wanted all the glory. Behind him the milling, screaming crowd was huddling, as if for protection. Slowly a wisp-like tentacle protruded from the advancing wall. Kay swung his ax and lopped it from the phantom body. But the wall was almost upon them, and from the other side it was advancing rapidly.
“I’m ready! Stand back!” Cliff turned upon Kay, his face white, his voice hoarse. “I’ve one request to make, Kay. Keep everybody back, including you and Ruth. Nobody is to come within twenty-five yards of this machine!”
“That shall be done,” said Kay, a little bitterness in his tone.
“Ruth, I think I’m going to save you all.” Cliff looked into the girl’s face for a moment. “Please stand back twenty-five yards,” he repeated.
Kay took Ruth by the arm and drew her back. The crowd moved back, their pressure moving back the vast multitudes behind them. The vast mob was almost packed into the quarter of the Golgotha; there was scarcely room to move.
Kay saw Cliff press the lever.
Slowly the giant top began to whirl. Faster … faster…. Now it was revolving so fast that it had become totally invisible. But Cliff was almost surrounded by the wall of jelly. Only his back could be seen, and then space was narrowing fast.
Kay gripped Ruth’s arm tightly. He held his breath. The crowd, of whom only a small part knew what was taking place, was screaming with terror as the mass of jelly on the other side pressed them inexorably backward. And Cliff had almost vanished. Would the machine work? Was it possible that the psenium emanations would succeed where the Millikan rays, the W-ray had failed?
Then of a sudden the air grew dark as night. Kay began to sneeze. He gasped for air. He was choking. He could see nothing, and he strained Ruth to him convulsively, while the terrified multitudes behind him set up a last wail of despair.
He could see nothing, and he stood with the ax ready for the onset of the monsters, more terrible now, in their invisibility, than before. Then of a sudden there sounded subterranean rumblings. The ground seemed to open almost under Kay’s feet.
He leaped back, dragging Ruth with him. Slowly the dust was settling, the darkness lessening. A faint, luminous glow overhead revealed the sun. Kay was aware that Cliff had swung the top, so that the psenium rays were being brought to bear upon the second mass of the monsters on the other side.
The sun vanished in appalling blackness. Again the dust-choked air was almost unbreathable. The shrieks of the crowd died away in wheezing gasps; and then a wilder clamor began.
“The earthquake! The earthquake!” a girl was shrilling. “God help us all!”
Kay stood still, clutching Ruth tightly in his arms. He dared not stir, for all the world seemed to be dissolving into chaos.
Slowly the dust began to settle again. Perhaps five minutes passed before the sunbeams began to struggle through. A cloud of grey dust still obscured everything. But the wall of protoplasm was gone!
Cliff’s voice came moaning out of the murk, calling Kay’s name.
Kay moved forward cautiously, still holding Ruth. He seemed to be skirting the edge of a vast crater. At the edge of it he found the top, revolving slowly. And Cliff’s voice came from beside the top.
“Kay, we’ve won. Don’t look at me. Don’t let Ruth see me! Look down!”
Kay looked down into the bottomless pit, extending clear across the plain to the distant jungle. An enormous canyon cloven in the earth, filled with the slowly settling cloud of dust.
“They’re there, Kay. Don’t look this way!”
But Kay looked—and could see nothing except a pile of debris, from the bottom of which Cliff’s voice issued.
“Cliff, you’re not hurt?”
“A—a little. You must listen while I tell you how to clean up the monsters. It’s the psenium emanation. It has the same effect when our method is applied to it. It disintegrates everything inorganic—not organic.
“I thought, if I couldn’t get them, I’d crumble the earth away—bury them. They’re underneath the debris, Kay, a mile deep, buried, beneath the impalpable powder that represented the inorganic salts and minerals of the earth. They’ll never get out of that. Protoplasm needs oxygen. They’ll trouble us no more.
“You must take the top, Kay. Use our old method. You’ll find its application to the psenium emanation written in a book fastened beneath the hood. Wipe out the rest of them. If any more come, you’ll know how to deal with them.”
“Cliff, you’re not badly hurt?” Kay asked again.
“Don’t look, I tell you! Keep Ruth away!”
But the dust was settling fast, and suddenly Ruth uttered a scream of fear.
And a strangled cry broke from Kay’s throat as he looked down at what had been Cliff Hynes.
The man seemed to have become resolved into the same sort of protoplasm as the Earth Giants. He lay, a little heap, incredibly small, incredibly distorted. Flesh without bones, shapeless lumps of flesh where arms and legs and body frame should have been.
Cliff’s voice came faintly. “You remember the leakage through the rubber and analektron container, Kay. The W-rays even fused the craolite socket. The psenium rays are stronger. They destroy even bone. They’re fatal to the man who operates the machine, unless he follows the directions. I’ve written them out for you, but I had—no time—to apply them.”
His voice broke off. Then, “Good luck to you and—Ruth, Kay,” he whispered, absent inaudibly. “Don’t let—her—look at me.”
Kay led Ruth gently away. “Did you hear that?” she whispered, sobbing. “He died to save us Kay.”
It was like a return from the grave for the amazed boys and girls who—since the onset of the monsters had destroyed the electric lines—poured out of the plain of Golgotha to life and freedom.
Many of them had gone mad, a few had died of fright, but the rest would come back to normal, and the world was saved.
Hunger was their greatest problem, for, despite Kay’s hurried flight to the nearest occupied post, it was difficult to convince the Federation officials that the devils were really gone, buried beneath a mile of crumbled earth. And Kay had to be back to mop up other, smaller bands that had spread through the forests.
It was six months before the last of the monsters had been obliterated, and then Kay, now one of the highest officials in the Federation’s service, was granted a lunarian’s leave of absence pending his taking command of an Antarctic expedition for the purpose of destroying the remaining monsters in their lair.
He took this opportunity to be married to Ruth, in the church in his native town, which was en fête for the occasion.
“Thinking of Cliff?” Kay asked his bride, as she settled in his plane preparatory to their starting for the honeymoon in the Adirondacks. “I think he would be happy if he knew. He saved the world, dear; he gave his best. And that was all he wanted.”