Avon Fantasy Reader/Issue 11/The Inheritors
by John Michel and Robert Lowndes
The test of existence is the ability of a species to adapt itself to a changing environment. The first law of existence would seem to be therefore the ability of each type of creature to combat the obstacles of nature successfully. Humanity is as subject to this as any other creature. Our success so far has been due entirely to our ability to outfox both the normal and abnormal attacks of nature. The greatest detriment to our struggle for survival has become in the past century our tendency to self-destruction. In this arresting and grim story, there is projected a climax to this struggle for existence. “The Inheritors” is a novelette from one of the minor pulps but it has already been hailed as a “lost classic” by fans in the know.
A GREAT BARE plain, misty, grey vapours swirling in endless writhing strings. Horizons in shadow, dimmed, seemingly limited but stretching everywhere to nowhere. Small, jagged ridges covered with a green slime from which pale streamers arose in slow ascent to the invisible sky.
Silence. Heavy, thick, interwoven with the mists, a part of them. Silence, broken by footsteps, the sound of metal on rock.
A shape looming up out of the darkness, human, bulbous. A figure in grey metal with fantastic eyes of glass, metal-clad arms pumping up and down. Then for a few moments the monotonous click of his footsteps leading forward. To where?
“Hayward! Hayward! Why don't you answer? Where are you? Hayward!”
The cry pierced through nothing but the ether and was absorbed into silence. The figure who uttered it stopped and swung about. One metal-gloved hand clutched frantically at the face-plate of the gasproof suit's helmet.
A face within pressed against the glass, eyes popping, striving to spear through the impenetrable mists. Again the cry. The fumbling hands fell limp. The figure fell inert to the slimy floor of the endlessly stretching room. Its roof, the hidden sky, gave back no answer. But again.
“Tom, Tom, I'm lost. Tom, where are you? Where am I?”
The metal-cased human raised itself on one elbow and clutched for support at a small hilly mound a foot away. The hand closed on its top—and pulled away. The rock was rotten, eaten away as was everything else in the world of shadows. With a viscous splash, the figures fell back into the muck. Again the cry.
“The air's going fast. Tom! Where's the Fortress, where's the council, where's the Fortress… The Fortress!” an hysterical laugh, “yes, where. Where's anything? Anything but this muck and mist? Tom! If you don't come back the engines will stop. You were so good at mending them. Tom!” the voice took on a crafty note of supplication, “you wouldn't let the City die. Not Tom Hayward! I might. I'm weak. Amos Bevin's weak, Tom. He's no good to the Fortress, but now, you, you Tom Hayward, you, you…”
The helmeted head slipped forward, buried itself in the green slime.
Rocks, earth, sky. All shifting vapours and unstable. No direction. No up or down. Merely a space between one nothingness and the next. No light but a wavering twilight, like evening seen through storm clouds. The earth a crushed vista of emptiness, without solidity, drowned in acid ooze. Silence, now, complete.
The precise spot occupied by the prostrate body had once been a farm in southern Ohio. Once—two hundred years before—it had borne green grass and laughing plants beneath a great, burning sun. The seasons had come and gone, the balmy Spring, Summer, the crisp Autumn, Winter. The land had remained the land. Sweet-smelling, green, drenched in light and sun and air. Southern Ohio. A mighty plain of waving wheat drinking from the warm, wet earth. Earth, damp with clean rain. Earth smelling of earth.
The wars came and changed this land. The metal monsters of guns and armored tanks swept over it and churned it and buried it. The seasons came and went and presently the land bore a new crop—of bones and rotting flesh and fragments of bombs. The sweet air was filled with the roar of cruelly clawed birds, birds that spat thunder and flame and obscured the sun. The rains came again and washed away the earth and exposed naked rock. And then the gas. The gas rolled in from the ocean and the northern lakes and from far above. It covered the land in thick clouds and buried it forever from the light of day and the light of night. It combined with the soil and the rocks and changed them into hissing slime. The people who used the land vanished. They went into the earth in giant steel fortresses and forgot the land and the smell of it and the sunlight and natural air. Because all this had been taken away. After a time they forgot what they were fighting for and fought blindly, fortress against fortress, with weapons mighty and irresistible. Presently nothing was left but a scarred surface and here and there at indistinguishable points, the fortress cities, immense masses of steel and glass, battered, pitted, buried away from even the gloomy ruins of the earth's surface, filled with complicated machinery that whirred and banged and filled the endless hours with endless roaring, powered by obscure energies, djinns pouring forth hour by hour and day by day instruments of warfare.
Earth was dead—a heaving ball of ooze-covered rock and water, bubbling eternally as the explosive weapons fired from the cities beneath and burst at the surface, aimed nowhere, directed by caricatures of humanity, men with but one intent and one purpose, to fight, to fight, to kill and destroy.
The fallen figure stirred again. It did not cry out, but from within the helmet came sounds of helpless sobbing. Raising itself painfully, it straightened and staggered off.
One foot up, one foot down, onward and onward. Onward into the unchanging gloom until it blindly struck another figure, prone on the ground. The other's arms were outstretched; still fingers clutched the handle of a great metal door, hinged like the top of a cistern and welded into the top of an almost buried metal cylinder some two yards across.
“Tom!” the moving figure's diaphragm burst the silence in a shriek of delight that was silenced almost immediately. Amos Bevin reached down and shook the metal-cased image of Tom Hayward. There was no response.
“Tom! You've found the exit-port! You've found it. Come on, we're home. It's the Fortress!”
Hayward was dead. The other knelt weakly and turned him over. Through the face plate he saw a picture of utter horror. The face was gone. In its place was a shapeless, frozen mass. Expressionless, a mask of utter vacuity, the eyes bulging and congested with solidified blood.
“Tom! You found the Fortress and you—found—what the others found.” A mad shriek of laughter, Bevin let the face plate drop and drew himself up. He shook a futile fist at the sky.
“You've taken him as you took the others! You devils! Who are you? What are you? Where are you? Oh, I felt you near. Tangible as steel and elusive as those damned mists. We need light to see them…”
He broke off with a shuddering gasp and dashed his arms in helpless rage against the steel door.
For a short while he stood stiffly, gazing unseeingly into the invisible distance. Then he gently disengaged Hayward's armored fingers from the steel handle of the door, turned it and sprang back as it opened with a chumming roar. He looked down at the inert form for an instant and without further ado jumped feet first into the blackness of the open well. Behind him the steel port clanged shut.
“He's waking. The stuff's good. Hadn't decayed yet, like the other. Weyman, lift him—so.”
Bevin heard the words through a lightening blackness. His ears were buzzing and his whole consciousness was nothing but a memory of that final moment on the outside when he had jumped through the exit-port and fainted while going down. Then the light shifted rapidly to the accustomed light grey of the Fortress' interior, and his eyes were open.
He shifted his glance upward and met the eyes of a tall, gaunt man who held a hypodermic whose needle was still dripping with a dark purple fluid. The tall man tossed the hypodermic to a male nurse who caught it deftly, and sat down on the bed beside Bevin.
"Well? What did you find?"
Bevin's eyes clouded with pain. He tried to turn them away but the others were insistent, commanding. He clenched his fists and held them tightly against his side.
"Nothing," he said flatly.
The three in attendance stared. The tall man laid a hand on his wrist. "Bevin. Wake up. What did you find?"
The inert figure groaned.
"Can't you stop that damn pounding?"
The other grunted and looked up at the two men standing beside the bed. "He'll be all right in a minute. What's that about pounding?"
The man addressed as Weyman smoothed out the front of his tunic the flat of his hand.
"It's the machinery. He feels it more than we do."
"Well, what do we do now?"
"Payton, we've got to wait. Wait until he can talk rationally." Weyman stared directly into the other's eyes, "We've got to know what's out there now. It took three this morning, two men and a woman, and among the best specimens we have," he raised a hand to his face, pale and tinged with a faint green. "Damn this air. It's getting foul." One of the men was an atmosphere expert. "The machine's broken down—"
Payton put out a warning hand.
"Wait," he's coming to again. Bevin! Tell us what you found."
The man on the bed woke to full consciousness. He made a faint gesture of hopelessness,
"I told you. Nothing. Hayward's dead. It got him. I left him outside at the shaft entrance," a fit of coughing shook him, "you might send somebody up after the suit. We haven't many left."
Payton arose and folded his arms disgustedly.
"Come on. Let's get over to the atmosphere plant. We've got to see about that machine," he put a hand to his mouth and masked a hacking cough, "before we all die of."
They went out, leaving Bevin attended by the male nurse.
Payton and Weyman walked along the big corridor slowly. Their gait was irregular and shifty. Neither of them seemed able to balance perfectly. Nor could anyone else in the fortress. A hundred years of confinement in the machinery-crammed City had resulted in the degeneration of the inhabitants' synapses. Most of them acted like people with locomotor ataxia. The atmosphere had been overloaded with exhaust gases and the by-products of the liberation of energy for so long that it had finally taken effect on their organisms.
The skins of the fortress people were a ghastly shade of green, except for the rims of the eyes which were dead white. The eyes themselves were completely colorless, the pupils shading into the oyster white of the irises. As a result of the introduction of synthetic food due to the loss of the earth's surface as source, their whole systems had become enervated and weakened. The physiological processes of life in the human animal had grown sluggish, almost inoperative. They found it impossible to synthesize several of the less important vitamins and were at the complete mercy of what were once minor respiratory infections. The life of the City, apart from its ceaseless production of materials for war, was a constant battle against disease and unconsciousness. Most of them were never completely aware of their environment. A sort of apathy tinged with resignation had gripped them, letting go only now and then to allow them to realize the full hideousness of their position.
None of them was brilliant. The intellectual minds among them had long ago vanished, leaving room for the sturdier and cruder, who organized the City into a military machine which operated in the main upon inertia and habit. The great weapons mounted upon the upper levels were loaded automatically. The men attending them had only to aim them somewhere above and touch off the charges. It had gone on like that for a very long time, aimlessly, by rote, an organized robotry that never slackened and seldom questioned. They were too full of poisons and toxins to think very clearly. The fortress was their whole life and it took every minute and used it relentlessly.
Far below the machines rumbled and roared. They filled the air with ceaseless noise and the odors of lubricating oils and heavy gases which were never completely dissipated and which further dimmed the feeble power of the illuminating system. Amidst the confusion the machines whirred on in their useless motions, converting energy into needed materials, immense quantities of explosives to feed the hungry juggernauts in the turrets above. And other machines growled and shook. Machines to make food. Machines to convert rock into air and light. Heaters, purifiers, filters, beakers, long lines of copper refrigeration coils, spinning dynamos, thumping ladles, tall rows of running belts, conveyor systems beyond comprehension. Power filled the spaces in the atmosphere left blank by the other elements and covered the steel walls and floors with crackling lightnings.
The machines were sick. Few knew their use and few could repair them. Coated with grime and oxides, deeply pitted, scarred, burnt, they whirled insanely until they broke down and were silent forever or were repaired by someone not yet sunk into complete apathy and forgetfulness. Alone in their majesty, they stood like gods and received homage: offerings of oil laid with tender care before them, polishing by the rhythmically moving hands of hundreds of dull-eyed humans, the adoration of those who came to watch and stood spellbound and helpless before them, eyes clouded by the lightnings, ears deafened by thunder, regarding the machines with supplication once hurled at the sun and moon.
The machines were everything. Their stirrings filled the universe.
Payton's universe was the City.
He stopped suddenly in the corridor and nudged Weyman weakly. He pointed to a rivet-studded door.
"Here it is."
He stumbled to the portal and pressed a button. Groaning and whining, the door swung inward and to one side. A blast of air shot out of the opening, nearly knocking him over. He held on to his companion and dragged himself through. The door closed.
A man clad in an oil-streaked and dust-laden tunic came up to him, looming up out of the darkness. He spoke in a high voice. The machines were here. Their voices filled the room.
"Over here!" he shouted into Payton's ear.
He led the two men to a metal slab on which rested three figures, two of men, the other of a woman.
Weyman clutched his arm for support. He turned to his friend.
"They found them this morning."
"How did they die?"
Weyman stood aside and pointed.
It wasn't a pretty sight; these people had died unpleasantly. The woman's body was rigid in death. A bluish foam lay on her lips. Her eyes, wide open, stared at the ceiling. Every muscle was tensed. One of the men exhibited similar symptoms. The other's skull had been crushed in and the blood had coagulated instantly. It lay in cracked lines over the remains of the face. One of the feet was similarly damaged.
Payton shuddered. Icy fear seized him. He spoke without turning.
"No one was near?"
The attendant answered.
"They were alone."
"The ones we find dead are always alone," whispered Weyman to the air before him.
Payton seated himself wearily on a metal stool nearby and dismissed the attendant.
"The machinery was damaged. Chewed," he said in a slow, strained voice, "chewed as though by teeth."
Weyman shrugged his shoulders.
"There are no such teeth in the City."
"There is something in the City."
"Weyman!" Payton clutched the edge of the stool. His thin hands were like the hands of a skeleton. "We must kill them before they kill us all! The council must meet now."
Somewhere in the murky distance the deep throat of a gong sounded insistently, rising out of the incessant hum of the machines. Again and again the warning timbre of it beat against the gloom until it seemed to penetrate the fibre and tissues of the defenders. And with that penetration something long dormant awakened within them, something that was as yet uncertain and questioning. The deep notes meant something, they knew, bore within them some urgent message. Yet, what was it. . . .
In the Synthesis room, where, amidst the litter of laboratory equipment, the defenders peered with tired, dull eyes into microscopes and beakers, half-aimlessly going through the monotonous routine of testing foods, a solitary woman looked up from her work. To her fellow-workers, Martha Fiske was still attractive, according to the degenerated standards of beauty within the fortress. Somewhere, sometime, she had heard that gong before, knew that it carried a message. She leaned against the workbench, gazing listlessly up at the far ceiling, trying to think. What was it? It was so hard to remember, to think of anything now.
"John," she murmured, "I think that means we are supposed to stop."
The man she addressed also looked up. His eyes, she noticed, were not quite as dulled as those of the others; there was still something in them that passed for vitality among the dwellers in the City. Perhaps, Martha thought, she should mate again. There were so few capable women left now, and she knew that, when the time came for the periodic examination, the medical head would most likely recommend that the council assign her another mate. If she acted of her own volition, she might have some choice in the matter. Her thoughts, she noticed, were a little more clear now.
"What is it, John?" she asked.
"I know," he said slowly, the ghost of a smile playing about his wan lips at the thought of rising above the gloom for a moment. "It is a summons to all of us. The council is meeting."
The others had stopped now, were slowly gathering around the two.
"Where does the council meet?" someone wanted to know. That would be Harvey Grant. There hadn't been a full meeting within the span of his eighteen years.
"Everyone make sure you have your side arms ready," commanded Stilson. "Check them now."
As if a solemn ritual were being observed, each member of the party returned to his bench and picked up the small pistol, firing tiny heat-expansion pellets, that was always at the side of every defender, and went through the motions of examining and withdrawing safety-catches. When this was done, they intoned in a low voice, as his eyes met them, "check."
Without a word, John Stilson turned and started toward the farther door. Martha hesitated a second, then walked quickly up beside him.
"Let me walk with you," she said. "I, too, know the way,"
In the large room where star shells were assembled, the last defender had murmured "check." Once this work had been done by machinery, but long before, so long that many had forgotten when it had occurred, the mechanisms had broken down and none had known how to repair them. This was a much larger body, situated at the very outskirts of the far-flung City. It was a precautionary measure that these operations took place here, although now had an accident occurred, nothing would have prevented a greater part of the city's being obliterated in a titanic burst of destruction.
The foreman, Crane, nodded and the party began to walk down the endless expanse of ill-lit corridors. They would have to traverse considerable lengths of darkness, and flashbeams were but few. That was why the older men, and the unmated youths, bore small, rapid-firing rifles and formed a solid knot around the couples. The lives of the younger women and healthy males of mating age were far too precious to permit any unnecessary risks—a somewhat mocking thing, now, for the demands of the City, with its unvarying program of production of material needs and production of defense and offense materials made any real semblance of adequate protection of any inhabitant questionable to say the least. But, to their weary thoughts, they were as safe as their resources could make them, and they walked on, in broken ranks, vaguely conscious of the overhanging menace that crept and crept upon them.
"Is it an attack?" asked one of the women, half tremulously.
For a moment or so no one answered.
"Hasn't been an attack that I can remember," volunteered one man, who walked with a limp.
"No," replied an old woman, old by the City's standards, "it isn't an attack. The alarm sounds then. It's a sharp ringing sound that you can never forget. This is something else."
"Do you remember an attack?" put in Crane.
"No. My father used to tell me about them many years ago. He heard the alarm once. . . . "
Jensen put down the wrenches slowly and crawled out onto the stone floor. His race bore the helpless look that was continually on the countenances of what few mechanics were left in the City. He wiped the grease on his hands on his trousers mechanically, and turned to his helpers.
"I guess we're wasting our time here," he stated at last. "This thing will never run again."
The others made no comment; no expressions of disappointment or despair lined their faces. This was a matter of course, something to be reported. The rarity was when the mechanic told them that he thought a machine might be made to work again.
Even here, the steady throb of the machines that were running could be heard. That is, it could have been heard by one newly entering the City. The defenders were aware of the incessant vibration only when it was altered by another unit ceasing work.
"What's that gong?" Olney wanted to know.
"Council meeting," quavered old Jep. "Somethin" happening. Ain't an attack because if they was, you'd feel that bell ringin' and a ringin' right through you."
Silently they checked their weapons and prepared to adjourn to the council chambers.
Old Jep's eyes showed that he was worried, as he trailed along behind Jensen and the other. They were coming to one of the dark corridors, where nothing was visible but a faint glow far in the distance which told of lights still in operation.
"Flashes on," spoke Jensen briefly. The three snapped the buttons on their pitifully tiny flashlights, bulbs barely capable of lighting dimly a few feet around them. Yet, to them, this was a good light and they felt a certain security in its pale glow.
At the end of the corridor, they met another, larger party, and the combined forces moved on to other expanses of darkness.
Old Jep's breathing became painfully apparent.
"Wait!" he cried out suddenly. "They's somethin' followin' us!"
At his cry, the entire party halted, as flashbeams were thrown in all directions and guns poised in readiness. Weak eyes strained themselves still further trying to pierce the ink blackness about them.
"Nothing there, pop," said Jensen finally.
"There is! There is!" the old man insisted. "I've felt it followin' us, an' now I just seen it. It ain't nothing human; it's a big patch of blackness, but I kin see it movin' behind us—like that critter the old people called a cat."
Startled murmurs resounded from the party at the old man's words, as expressionless faces lit up with fear.
"There!" the old man cried, pointing.
Again, the barrage of tiny lights flared.
"There's nothing there, Jep," stated Jensen kindly, but firmly. "Come, we have to move on."
"But I tell you—I seen—" protested the old man, then slumped limply into the arms of Olney. Quickly they laid him on the floor as a doctor examined him.
"Heart," was the laconic diagnosis. "Delirious at the end."
The party moved on.
In the gloomy corridors all leading to a central point they passed other groups moving in the same direction. All displayed the same degree of interested lassitude, all were headed by two or more individuals more awake and alive than the others. Their garb was generally the same, the utilitarian tunic, and leather and metal shoes. From their belts hung regulation heat-expansion pistols and the tiny flashlights. More often than not, both were rusted and useless. They had not been replaced for many years as the machines making them had broken down. Only the ammunition supply continued.
The fortress was constructed like a gigantic cylinder, several times as wide as it was high and with the rounded domed top through which protruded the immense cannon which fired endlessly and aimlessly at the world above. The mechanical operation of the City was centered mainly at the flat bottom and occupied several deep levels. The area at the top was designed entirely for the guns. Between were three levels set aside for living quarters, recreation, food supply manufacture and a small part of the atmosphere plant. Here too was a central hall which served as a crude sort of control point, crude because the ancient precision controls were mostly dead. The City itself was built entirely of steel and heavily insulated within. When the wires rusted and parted they could not be located. Slowly, control broke down and was replaced by an extremely inefficient human relay system operating sporadically and degenerating constantly. The process of relay took up the activities of over two-thirds of the inhabitants of the City, who stood silently at their posts and pressed swiches at the command of messengers who dashed from gloomy niche to gloomy niche and level to level in an endless round of activity. Generally the dullest of the brains were assigned to the relays.
The corridors were lined with them, each standing by his post. As the groups passed on and downward, they saluted feebly with a gesture reminiscent of the old military salute. It was not returned.
Accompanying the salute came a feeble cry: "The Chief!" This was answered.
It was the only rallying call left uttered by a human throat.
The Chief was the actual center of authority and power. An old, grizzled man of some sixty years of age, tough, gigantic in stature, thick-skinned and with darting, crafty eyes, he guided the affairs of the fortress according to his own lights. In the dim recesses of his mind which had once been keen and brilliant, he held to certain implanted ideas inherited from his predecessor who had been a man much like himself and had chosen him from among the others. The ideas were sketchy and retained only by the long exercise of discipline. They were also large and simple. Mainly they consisted of the single command spoken constantly in the back of the brain: "Keep the fortress going!" It was not as direct as that, of course, but it was there. The command dominated his every action, colored every thought. The Chief was a machine like the others, bulky, strong, unapproachable. He spoke only to the various section heads, who reported occasionally and generally brought bad news. He accepted it philosophically. He could have done nothing else. His imagination was dead.
At a table at one end of the central room he sat, flanked on both sides by his section heads, among whom were Payton and Weyman. His broad face, creased by innumerable wrinkles, was impassive. He looked neither to the right nor left. The big bland eyes stared through the murky light at the lines of metal stools several yards away. They held about as much expression as did his face.
Payton stirred finally. He had been sitting slumped on his chair—the few chairs left in the fortress were all behind the table, the last remnant of personal privilege—chin resting on the slanted palm of one hand. He raised his eyes and looked in front of him. Peering through the haze, illuminated by several badly blackened light bulbs in the low ceiling, he took in the scene of the chamber slowly filling. In twos and threes they filtered through the large door at the opposite side and seated themselves haphazardly.
He nudged Weyman who sat beside him.
"They're all here. Wake up," for Weyman was slumped wearily in his chair, dozing fitfully, "wake up."
Payton rose from his seat and faced the small throng. Their number was about two or three hundred, every human being in the fortress who still possessed some flicker of active intelligence. He raised his hand. Instantly the murmurs which had smothered the throbbing of the buried machinery for awhile died. He looked aside at the Chief who also rose and stood beside him. For a few moments the whole mass was silent and motionless. The the Chief raised his right hand and gave the ancient salute. This was enough. It was the symbol of his authority. Simultaneously he placed his other hand on Payton's shoulder. The transfer of power was complete. Momentary, but effective. All eyes turned on the tall gaunt figure of the nominal head of the atmosphere plant as the Chief resumed his seat and sat back, closing his eyes.
"The Chief has decided to call a meeting of all effectives to consider some means of combating the Enemy," Payton stated flatly. "Three were killed during the last twenty hours. The total number of effectives left is," he glanced down at a sheet of crumpled paper upon which he had been noting the number of arrivals, "two hundred and seventy-eight. This figure is divided almost equally between males and females. Steps must be taken, especially before the balance is further disturbed in favor of the males. Without sufficient females of gestating age the City cannot survive. As it is important first to correlate our forces, the Chief will now hear a report from each of the section heads. The first will be from myself," he paused and held a hand to his head for an instant, then continued tonelessly. "The atmosphere plant is operating at approximately twenty per cent of capacity as calculated according to the specifications of the City when built. The machinery is constantly failing at the rate of one-tenth of one percent every three hundred hours. As the atmosphere plant is the most necessary part of the fortress, it is obvious that at most we have not more than a hundred thousand hours left in which to devise a system of attack and better defense against the Enemy. Weyman, how about power?"
The other rose and faced the audience. His left hand twitched nervously.
"The power sources are infinite and the rate of collapse of the machinery is about twice as good as your section, Payton. Reduction of the amount of power generated will better that figure by almost a hundred percent. Any weapon devised to combat the Enemy which is constructed more efficiently than our heaviest cannon must be designed to utilize power at the most economical rate. We have nothing to fear from a power failure at the source. But the converters are limited. We have no experts left to repair them," he finished and sat down.
Payton crooked a finger at a small man at the opposite end of the table, who arose and stood against it, hands pressing, bunched, on its top. "Sellers, what about food?"
The little man's voice was loud, almost electric and staccato.
"Like Weyman's power. Infinite. We cannot of course keep on manufacturing the less important foods. The Enemy has destroyed over half of the remaining machinery which at the time was in excellent condition. As we make our food from gases the rate of degenerating from friction and heavy wear and tear is very low. The supply can be maintained at the present level until the power fails or the Enemy destroys more equipment. Payton, the question of light is more important than any, it seems to me. We have only a few thousand bulbs left in storage and we cannot manufacture any more. The filament ores cannot be synthesized."
"I know." Payton turned from Sellers and faced the audience. "From this moment on, light must be conserved. On your return switch off all unnecessary bulbs. Is that understood?"
The weary throng nodded a collective head. They stared at him intently, straining all of their feeble resources of energy to catch the import of everything he said.
Payton rested his own hands on the table.
"It is best that you all know that an instrument has been devised by Sellers which may—or may not—detect the Enemy. Itswill involve the expenditure of several hundred hours' work. All competent mechanics of both sexes will report to him after the conclusion of this meeting. In closing, I remind you that the Enemy is everywhere. They cannot be seen, nor felt—except by those they kill. Reports have reached the Chief that hysteria is breaking out among certain of the more sensitive operators. Resist these impulses of fear. The Enemy can and must be met and conquered. Do not surrender to fantasies. Be aware only of the City and your duties. If any of you are attacked it is the duty of others to report the facts. Try to observe. Strain every sense to detect from what source the attack comes," he paused and again held his temples tightly between the fingers of his hand. He looked up again after a moment, "Remember that we must survive."
They filed out listlessly, leaving the group at the table alone.
Payton turned to Sellers.
"Take us to your section," he said.
Sellers stood on a small metal stool and indicated the blueprints hung on the walls. Payton, Weyman and two other section heads watched the charts closely. The Chief sat in the background in a chair, resting, his eyes closed, the huge frame crumpled and listless.
"The whole point of the matter is that this machine is designed to detect any vibration in the ether from the outermost ranges of the macro waves to the tiniest of the micro. It is also sensitive to the whole band of the spectrum—as far as is known," Sellers stepped down from the stool and regarded the four men with sombre eyes, "the Enemy have thus far shown absolutely no physical indication of their presence save the effects of their attack." He broke off for an instant and pondered, "Since the very earliest days of the fortress we have not ceased ourselves to attack the surface above except on such occasions as scouts were sent out. Who and what the Enemy is has been forgotten. Once, apparently, they could be seen and hurt. Now the Enemy seems to have adopted different methods of attack. They are here, within the City—and yet they are nowhere."
"The Enemy is here," repeated Weyman stubbornly, "Our people are dying. They are killed in cearly understood ways—frozen, macerated, bisected along mathematically straight lines as if by gigantic saws, crushed. Some have even been found with no marks whatsoever of violence evidenced. You mean to imply that the force causing these deaths is not material?"
"I imply nothing of the kind. Aside from the psychic fear induced by the presence of the Enemy at the point of attack-—indeed, preceding the attack, we know that in some way they are very material. But how and in what way we do not know. It is a simple law of the ancient science that action begets reaction. The reaction in this case is death, a material fact. The action is unknown. Either we are the victims of some colossal purely psychological attack or else the laws of nature have altered."
What could remain unchanged in that hell above?"
Weyman impatiently thrust forward.
"Have you the necessary equipment to construct this apparatus?"
"We shall be forced to demolish some of the more delicate inter-level communications machinery. But inasmuch as most of this is not operating anyway, there is small loss. The main thing I have to worry about is the strain on my mechanics. There aren't many left and we are all weak. My original estimate of the time required for its construction is probably understated."
"Well," commented Payton, wearily, "let us lose no further time. You have the necessary equipment and men. Begin building at once."
They finished Seller's machine at the enormous expenditure of six hundred hours of work and the lives of four irreplaceable men who dropped from utter exhaustion at the gruelling labor. Slowly the atmosphere was becoming poisonously tainted. And the lighting system was beginning to break down beyond repair. The City was now illuminated by bulbs lit at emergency spots. Everything else but the control room was in murky darkness.
The first trial was conducted in the control room in the presence of the Chief and the section heads. Several mechanics rolled the heavy detector into position. For once the room was brilliantly illuminated. Under the rays of twenty tremendous lighting units, the group gathered about the intricate construction of tangled wiring and humming motors. Sellers got up in the operator's chair, masked his face with a pair of heavy goggles and turned on the power.
A rising whine began.
The Chief sat up in his chair and stared. His sleepy mind was awake at last. He gripped the arms of his chair tensely.
The whine grew shriller and more penetrating. Sellers reached out a hand and adjusted some small controls. Now a thin aura of electric blue gathered about the machine and its operator and deepened in hue. The motors spun and hummed and spat sparks. The smell of ozone made them cough.
"Sixty decillion per second," Sellers spoke slowly through the lower half of the mask, "nothing on the macro-waves." He depressed his seat and threw an arm back to shut off a small machine supported by a steel girder. The shrilling whine began to fade. Abruptly it stopped. Another noise began instead, and a steady and deepening beat progressed from a mere tap to what approximated thunder. The aura flashed and crackled. Seller's face became strained and worn. He hunched over the controls and spun them desperately. Now the throbbing was like a continuous earthquake. The metal walls shivered and quaked. Lightning played from floor to ceiling and outlined the scene in a hideous glare.
"Zero to micro!" screamed Sellers above the terrific clangor, "the spectrum is as empty as the ether. There's nothing here but us. . . ."
He glanced suddenly to one side. Abruptly his face became a congealed mass of horror beyond description. His eyes bulged to the bursting point. His fat hands fell to his sides and quivered like lumps of jelly. The others, startled, followed his gaze as the thunder died and the room was immersed in utter silence.
On the floor lay the prone body of the Chief. His head was missing.
Payton lifted his hand for silence and the murmurings of the defenders, assembled again in a body, died away.
"In accordance with the often-expressed wishes of the Chief, and with the sealed orders he left to be opened in the event of an emergency resulting in his death or disability, I am taking over the command."
He paused to let the words sink into the consciousness of the assembly, then sheafed through a many-paged document before him.
"This," he continued, "was apparently drawn up many years ago, yet there are matters in it which should be brought to the attention of all of us. I shall read those portions which seem to me to be applicable at the present time."
He cleared his throat, lifted the papers closer to his eyes and read aloud, slowly, "The entire function of the Chief's office has been and must continue to be such as can be outlined in the simple phrase: 'Keep the fortress going.' All other matters must be subordinated to this aim.
"However, there may come a time when the further pursuance of this aim would be sheer folly, when infinitely superior forces opposed to us make further resistance useless.
"In such a case, the only course is to determine if a peace, on terms acceptable to us as human beings, can be made with the Enemy. Ours is a struggle for survival and a possible ultimate victory. What military aims we may have had when the war started cannot now be determined, still a study of such history as is available to us shows that eventually one side in a war must prevail.
"So long as the Fortress can be successfully defended, then so long must our efforts continue unabated. But if at any time it becomes apparent that our maximal achievements are inadequate to the protection of the Fortress and its defenders, then the question of surrender must be considered.
"To my successor, therefore, I submit the proposition that the acceptance of defeat is more agreeable than total extinction, unless the Enemy's terms are so utterly barbarous and inhuman as to make such extinction preferable."
Payton laid down the paper and rubbed his eyes. "That is all," he said quietly. "Weyman will now give a report upon the situation that confronts us, and we will decide, as soon as possible, on the question of a temporary cessation of hostilities pending an attempt to contact the Enemy and learn his terms."
A deathly silence greeted Weyman as he arose. "There is very little to report except that the total failure of the detector shows that we are completely unable to strike back at the Enemy any longer.
"The Enemy has devised a form of attack which we cannot understand. We know the Enemy has penetrated the Fortress, but we cannot find any trace of him. My opinion is that he is using a weapon operated by remote control; he (or they) is not here physically—I mean," he fumbled a bit searching for words. "I do not think that the Enemy has any men inside our City."
He stood for a moment, blinking, as if trying to think of something else to add.
"That is all," he concluded.
One man stood up uncertainly. "Excuse me," he said hesitantly, "but what are we to do, then?"
"Cease hostilities," replied Payton, "send out a party to contact the Enemy, and turn our efforts to reconstructing the Fortress.
"I am ready to listen to any opposing arguments to this course."
Dead silence answered him. Nothing of this sort had occurred in the lifetimes of any of the defenders. The very thought of objecting or opposing any decision or suggestion of the Chief or the council was alien to them.
"If this policy is acceptable, then we shall proceed. The council will reassign all those now engaged in offense activities to reconstruction work."
Payton saluted the assembly as indication that the meeting was over and left the platform slowly. The full implications of the meeting had not struck him, nor had they occurred to the others. They were all too tired, too completely weary to understand what it meant. A few were capable of considering tasks of the next day, or a few days later, as part of the long-term program. These few usually found themselves in executive positions, eventually ending up as council members.
Peace? A truce? Contact the Enemy? The thoughts struck no responding chords in them. No more alertly would they have responded to the announcement that victory had been achieved and the Enemy destroyed. To the executives in the various offense departments, it meant that their departments would be put in order while they waited for further instructions. What would they do in the meantime? Rest perhaps. Or perhaps relieve the understaffed maintenance departments as well as they could.
It did not occur to any of them that the Enemy might continue to decimate them whether they continued the offense or not. Casualties had stopped meaning anything to them. Regularly men and women died, either from sickness, exhaustion, or in the mysterious, ghastly manner in which their numbers had been decimated in recent years. They were all capable of fear at times, but, so long as they were in the City, it was a temporary, local matter.
Individually, their awareness was too dull to be much afraid of sudden death. Grief and regret for the lost was almost unheard of. The only remnant of emotion that remained to them was sorrow that younger women felt when a mate or child was lost. And even this rarely found expression in weeping or audible exhibitions; the bereaved mother or mate was usually in a state of apathy which left her incapable of work for an indefinite period. Eventually this passed and she went on as before.
As their sorrows were pale, so were their individual joys, if the latter could be applied to them at all. It was noted, however, that among the younger men and women, there was usually a slight increase of efficiency and application for an indefinite period after mating. And a woman whose child was born reasonably healthy usually worked somewhat better than average after the confinement and rest period had passed.
Thus the decision to cease hostilities and attempt making peace with the Enemy aroused no burst of what, in their standards, might have been termed enthusiasm. Peace was a term that bore no meaning to them; was a term that meant little more. There was only the Fortress to be kept going and the Enemy to try to keep off.
Greyness. Greyness and mist and swirling vapours. The thin writhing fingers of mist reaching up to the hidden sky. Nothing moving on the barren plain. Nothing visible in the fog save the looming of giant mushroom-like growths, lifting their umbrellas upward.
Then, a faint, lifting motion. A metal door rising slowly. Again silence. Then a shape gradually rising out of the cavity beneath the door. A shape vaguely human, ponderously lifting itself out of the depths onto the surface. A figure in greyish metal standing upright, alone.
Now other figures, similar in appearance, cautiously emerging from the trap door until the entire party blends against the grey of outside. One stoops and closes the door while another unrolls a large chart, and another studies a compass-like instrument attached to its belt. All are bearing packs on their shoulders. The figure rolls up the chart and places it inside his pack, turns to the others. A brief moment of hesitation, then the party starts moving slowly away toward the shadowy horizon.
John Stilson awoke suddenly, startledly. Where was he? The utter intensity of the blackness around him made his heart hammer in a burst of fear. What had happened? An attack? Had the lights been destroyed?
Someone was calling him. "John," came the voice. "John, it's your watch."
Then he remembered. It was Martha Fiske calling him. They were outside. He rolled over, sat up. Lightly he felt the tap tap tap of rain against his helmet as it trickled down his metal suit. The storm must have nearly abated by now.
"What report, Martha?" he asked.
The complete stillness of outside still bothered him, made it difficult for him to sleep despite weariness. He found himself listening for the familiar throb of machinery and the effort hurt.
"Grant is missing."
That made their losses a total of four. One man vanished, apparently wandering astray in the gloom, the first day. Two more were found corroded after a rest period the second. And today, Grant disappeared.
"He was with us when we stopped?"
Stilson had commanded that the party attach themselves together with rope after Prentice had vanished. It made checkups easier, and they would know quickly if anyone got in trouble. Little pits and crevices were common on the surface. A man might easily fall and be lost to sight before the others noticed he was missing. They could not afford to search for the lost ones.
Assign Steevens to the rear guard then. As soon as the ropes are reassembled and everyone checked, report to me. We'll start again as soon as you've had your rest."
"I'm all right, John," she protested. "We can start right away."
"No. You must rest. The others need it, too. How is the weather?"
"Storm ran out about an hour ago."
"Rain stopped? Strange, I can still feel—"
"Those are drops coming from the mushroom."
They slept on the bare earth, their metal suits affording as much protection as was possible to attain on the surface. No comforts but those that they brought with them were to be had. Suits could be discarded for limited periods when sanitary needs required, but helmets must never be doffed. In a way, it was fortunate for them that imagination was a faculty well-nigh lost; could they have realized, even dimly, the utter hostility of outside they never could have endured so much as a single day.
John Stilson took out his precious flashlamp and studied the equally precious chart carefully. He had gone over it painstakingly with Payton—rather, the Chief. It was hard to realize that the strange, seemingly eternal man he and the others had known as the Chief was gone, now, and Payton, whom he and several of the others knew quite well, was now in the supreme position. They had estimated a two-week journey to the Enemy's fortress and had brought along supplies for five weeks. Food concentrates, batteries for their suits, flashlamps, and rope. Compasses and communicators, the latter also run by batteries. Yes, so far as he could make out, they were on the right course. He rolled up the chart and put it away.
"All right?" he asked as he saw Martha again beside him.
"Then rest now." He turned to start the round of sleepers.
"John," she called after him.
"What is it?" He came back under the towering mushroom, holding the flashlamp up to her helmet so that he could see her face.
"John—please be careful."
For a moment they gazed into each other's eyes, unspeaking.
"Rest well, Martha," he said simply as he turned away. The moon was sinking out of sight as he patrolled the sleeping figures, peering anxiously into the helmets of each one at regular intervals, checking, checking, checking.
Day after unvarying day punctuated by the black throat of night. Days spent tramping wearily along the fog-shrouded terrain, devoid of anything resembling life save the clusters of mushrooms, and other bits of fungi. And occasionally a pool of foul water surrounded by mold-growths. They came up fragments of metal and stone at times and upon crumbling bones, lost beneath fungus-like growths. The endless plain now and then gave way to slight upcroppings of blasted rock, rock strangely cleft as if by strokes of a titan's sword. One or two of the more curious in the party wanted to stop and examine these clefts, but Stilson urged them on. They could not afford to linger.
Onward, endlessly onward. They came to a large expanse of desert dotted with great patches of sheer glass where heat-bombs had fallen and fused the sand in solid masses. One man died here when his helmet burst open as he fell against the unyielding surface and the poisonous atmosphere filled his lungs. The glassy tracts too, were cleft in the same mysterious manner.
Day and night. Night and day. They marched on wordlessly, halting only to rest or to take nourishment, sleeping under the protection of mushrooms, or, if none were available, on the ground or sand itself. And the silent hand of the Enemy touched one here and one there so that they found the grim remains when they arose to go on. It seemed useless to keep watches at night, for never could they see what it was that menaced them, and never were they able to ward it off.
Stilson checked the chart and compass for the fifth time that day and turned to Sellers.
"We should be near, now. We'll try a message."
The older man nodded, understandingly, and withdrew the apparatus from his pack, assembling it quickly. He attached the batteries, then nodded to the leader who picked up the microphone and spoke into it slowly.
"Attention! Attention! We come in peace. We are unarmed and are proceeding to your fortress to make a treaty. Send a party out to guide us. We cannot find your fortress."
He repeated the message several times, then turned the power off. "If we are as near as we think we are, they probably heard us."
It did not occur to him that he could not expect his signals to be picked up in so short a broadcasting period, or that the Enemy might not be able to understand his spoken language. These, and other commonplace pointers had long been lost. The people of the City had long been in a state of thinking to be described only as naive.
They waited for the rest of the day, Stilson repeating his message every few hours. The long night came and passed without new casualties.
'Perhaps," suggested Martha as they started on, "they couldn't find us."
"But they must know where we are," protested Sellers. "We've been attacked constantly."
Further consideration of this point was interrupted by a call, through the party, from Steevens. He'd seen something way off to the left, he thought. They started off again in that direction, and, after a few moments, Stilson halted. "It's a dome," he said. "We're here."
He had never seen Martha like this, he thought, never seen her under a real light. Even now, when her brow was wrinkled in a worried expression there was something about her that made his breath catch inside him. He forced these thoughts aside; there were more important things to consider.
"Nothing here, either."
Martha Fiske leaned against a bench. "I can't understand it," she whispered. "First, we find an opening in the dome—unguarded. Then we find an elevator running right down to the inner lock, and that's unguarded, too.
"And now we can't find anyone here."
They stared about them bewilderedly. "They're far superior to us in the upkeep of their fortress. Better light, better atmosphere, more equipment. No wonder they beat us."
"But where are they?"
"They might be having a council meeting," suggested Sellers.
"Even so, we should have set off some alarms. No one could enter our City without setting off a barrage of alarms, and our men would be out with guns ready before they could get to the inner lock."
The party had been exploring the dome city for over an hour. In many ways it was like the Fortress, in other ways different. They continually came upon things they did not recognize, or indications of a city far in advance of theirs. The dome was merely an entrance and the layout of the city seemed to be that of a wheel, with domes, apparently, at various spokes.
"Well," Stilson arose, "we'd better be moving on. I don't see how this place can be deserted. We'll finish exploring this corridor, then decide what to do if we don't find anyone by that time." The light and atmosphere were doing things to him, he realized. Doing things to all of them. They seemed to be beginning to feel alive for the first time in their existences. Several of the men were already complaining of headaches from the light.
Down the long corridor, room after empty room.
"John!" exclaimed Martha suddenly. "If this place is deserted, why can't we take it for ourselves?"
"You mean—move here? All of us? Everyone in the Fortress?"
His hand closed on hers. "Perhaps . . . perhaps . . ."
Steevens called out something and Stilson looked up. "What is it?"
"I found a man. He's asleep, I think."
The words fell upon John Stilson like leaden weights. "Where?"
"Over here." They followed him over to the other side of the corridor, stood in the doorway. "There!"
Stilson knelt by the solitary man's side. "I think he's alive," he murmured.
Martha smoothed the sleeper's brow, felt the dryness of his skin. At her touch, the man stirred slightly, then his eyes snapped open, stark fear staring out of them. His mouth gaped open; he reached to one side convulsively but his hand fell short. Then, seeing the numbers in the room, he relaxed.
He tried to speak, but only a whisper came forth from his lips. Sellers drew a glass of water from a nearby tap and put it to his mouth. The man drank avidly, then leaned back, breathing heavily, his eyes closed. Finally he opened them again, a resigned expression on his emaciated face.
"You have won," he said simply. "I am the last." He seemed vaguely surprised that they did not fall upon him and rend him on the spot.
Breathing more calmly now, he continued. "Our scientists went mad trying to find a way of counteracting your weapon. They couldn't even find a way of detecting your force, let alone combatting it. All we could do was stand by helplessly while one after another of us died and our doctors strove vainly to discover how they died.
"So you are the Enemy. That is strange; you seem human. You are kind to me. We did not think that anyone who could kill and kill as you have done could be anything but monsters. The corroding death and the freezing death, and the silent decapitations—and the destruction of our machines one after another in such a way that they appeared to be eaten—well, it is all over now and I am glad.
"Our City is yours for the taking. Farewell." He raised his hand to his head in salute, then closed his eyes. The hand fell limply to his side and his head rolled toward the wall.
For the first time in her life, Martha Fiske wept.
Stilson crouched by the body of Steevens, shook it futilely. It would never respond, he knew; why did he waste his energy?
He shook the next figure. It arose and the voice of Sellers murmured sleepily.
"Sellers," he said desperately. "Sellers, tell me—you must have some idea. What is it? What are they? They're not human, are they?"
The man sat up. "When I was young," he began, "I studied such things as history and biology. There was still a little time for learning then.
"This world—outside—wasn't always as it is now, John. I suppose you realize that, have always realized it more or less. All of us do.
"Once it was clean and beautiful and men lived on it. They didn't have to go underground because they got plenty of light from the Sun—and heat, too. And the atmosphere was clear. You could see the sky most of the time and when night came, you could see the moon clearly. There are other things up there that you could see, too, and it never really got dark.
"Then the wars came and cities above the ground—that's where they used to have them—were destroyed, and all the—trees?—yes, trees and other growing things were destroyed, too. I think the color of the growing things was green and the sky was blue. But the wars changed all that. Poison gases of all kinds were dumped into the atmosphere and all over the ground. Bombs of all kinds blew the earth into bits and opened big holes in the earth, letting out more gases. Until at last the surface of the earth was just a big cloud of poison gas and fog like you see now."
"I was coming to that, John. This is only a theory—a guess on my part, because no one can be sure whether it's right or not. But I think all this made something happen on earth. It brought into being forces which weren't there before. And those forces reacted on each other and produced new forces and those in turn set other things going, until a new form of life appeared. A form particularly adapted for just such conditions as these. To this new form of life, all this is natural and clean and beautiful as the earth we once knew—the one none of us has ever seen, John—was to us.
"I remember a picture in one of the history books. It showed a strange looking thing called—let me think for a moment—called a dinosaur. There aren't any more of them—weren't any even in the old days when men had earth to themselves. Well, men are being wiped out just like the dinosaurs were. I mean, just as surely.
"This new form of life, John, is the coming race. It's so superior to us we just can't conceive of it. We can't see it or hear it or smell it or touch it. Or feel it. We just have an idea that it's there. And we know when it kills One of us. But it hasn't come yet. I mean, it's just in its primitive, animal stage now. Some day it'll be big, big as we were in our day."
He sat silently for a moment.
"I wonder if it'll wipe itself out with wars the way we did."
Stilson felt an emptiness inside him. "Sellers, what shall we tell them when we get back?"
"We'll tell them that the Enemy won't make peace. That we've got to keep fighting. Maybe—if I get back—if anyone gets back—it would be a good idea to put something in the water supply so that they all go to sleep painlessly and clean.
"Humanity's done for, John. There's no real sense in fighting or trying to go on. There's nothing here on this earth," and his hand swept over the night before them, "worth our living."
"I don't know," he said slowly. "Perhaps it's worth the trouble, at least, of moving our people to the domed city. At least death won't come in the dark and in poisoned atmosphere. And maybe—there, they can find a way—"
His words trailed off because he knew he had no faith in them. What could they do when the far superior dome dwellers had failed utterly?
He snapped on the flashlamp and went on from sleeper to sleeper, shining it in their faces, checking, wondering with a chill in his heart if Martha would awaken when it was time to go on. The night spread out about him, deep, pitiless. He could sense a deeper blackness within its ebon depths, moving, shifting, moving . . .