Hatcher’s second in command said: “He has got through the first survival test. In fact, he broke his way out! What next?”
“Wait!” Hatcher ordered sharply. He was watching the new specimen and a troublesome thought had occurred to him. The new one was female and seemed to be in pain; but it was not the pain that disturbed Hatcher, it was something far more immediate to his interests.
“I think,” he said slowly, “that they are in contact.”
His assistant vibrated startlement.
“I know,” Hatcher said, “but watch. Do you see? He is going straight toward her.”
Hatcher, who was not human, did not possess truly human emotions; but he did feel amazement when he was amazed, and fear when there was cause to be afraid. These specimens, obtained with so much difficulty, needed so badly, were his responsibility. He knew the issues involved much better than any of his helpers. They could only be surprised at the queer antics of the aliens with attached limbs and strange powers. Hatcher knew that this was not a freak show, but a matter of life and death. He said, musing:
“This new one, I cannot communicate with her, but I get–almost–a whisper, now and then. The first one, the male, nothing. But this female is perhaps not quite mute.”
“Then shall we abandon him and work with her, forgetting the first one?”
Hatcher hesitated. “No,” he said at last. “The male is responding well. Remember that when last this experiment was done every subject died; he is alive at least. But I am wondering. We can’t quite communicate with the female–“
“But I’m not sure that others can’t.”
* * * * *
The woman’s voice was at such close range that McCray’s suit radio made a useful RDF set. He located her direction easily enough, shielding the tiny built-in antenna with the tungsten-steel blade of the ax, while she begged him to hurry. Her voice was heavily accented, with some words in a language he did not recognize. She seemed to be in shock.
McCray was hardly surprised at that; he had been close enough to shock himself. He tried to reassure her as he searched for a way out of the hall, but in the middle of a word her voice stopped.
He hesitated, hefting the ax, glancing back at the way he had come. There had to be a way out, even if it meant chopping through a wall.
When he turned around again there was a door. It was oddly shaped and unlike the door he had hewn through, but clearly a door all the same, and it was open.
McCray regarded it grimly. He went back in his memory with meticulous care. Had he not looked at, this very spot a matter of moments before? He had. And had there been an open door then? There had not. There hadn’t been even a shadowy outline of the three-sided, uneven opening that stood there now.
Still, it led in the proper direction. McCray added one more inexplicable fact to his file and walked through. He was in another hall–or tunnel–rising quite steeply to the right. By his reckoning it was the proper direction. He labored up it, sweating under the weight of the suit, and found another open door, this one round, and behind it–
Yes, there was the woman whose voice he had heard.
It was a woman, all right. The voice had been so strained that he hadn’t been positive. Even now, short black hair might not have proved it, and she was lying face down but the waist and hips were a woman’s, even though she wore a bulky, quilted suit of coveralls.
He knelt beside her and gently turned her face.
She was unconscious. Broad, dark face, with no make-up; she was apparently in her late thirties. She appeared to be Chinese.
She breathed, a little raggedly but without visible discomfort; her face was relaxed as though she were sleeping. She did not rouse as he moved her.
He realized she was breathing the air of the room they were in.
His instant first thought was that she was in danger of asphyxiation; he started to leap up to get, and put her into, the small, flimsy space suit he saw slumped in a corner. At second thought he realized that she would not be breathing so comfortably if the air were full of the poisonous reek that had driven him out of the first room.
There was an obvious conclusion to be drawn from that; perhaps he could economize on his own air reserve. Tentatively he cracked the seal of his faceplate and took a cautious breath. The faint reek of halogens was still there, but it was not enough even to make his eyes water, and the temperature of the air was merely pleasantly warm.
He shook her, but she did not wake.
He stood up and regarded her thoughtfully. It was a disappointment. Her voice had given him hope of a companion, someone to talk things over with, to compare notes–someone who, if not possessing any more answers than himself, could at least serve as a sounding-board in the give-and-take of discussion that might make some sort of sense out of the queerness that permeated this place.
What he had instead was another burden to carry, for she was unable to care for herself and surely he could not leave her in this condition.
* * * * *
He slipped off the helmet absently and pressed the buttons that turned off the suit’s cooling units, looking around the chamber. It was bare except for a litter of irrelevant human articles much like the one in which he himself had first appeared, except that the articles were not _Jodrell Bank’s_. A woven cane screen, some cooking utensils, a machine like a desk calculator, some books–he picked up one of the books and glanced at it. It was printed on coarse paper, and the text was in ideographs, Chinese, perhaps; he did not know Oriental languages.
McCray knew that the _Jodrell Bank_ was not the only FTL vessel in this volume of space. The Betelgeuse run was a busy one, as FTL shipping lanes went. Almost daily departures from some point on Earth to one of the colonies, with equal traffic in the other direction.
Of course, if the time-lag in communication did not lie, he was no longer anywhere within that part of the sky; Betelgeuse was only a few hundred light-years from Sol, and subspace radio covered that distance in something like fifty minutes. But suppose the woman came from another ship; perhaps a Singapore or Tokyo vessel, on the same run. She might easily have been trapped as he was trapped. And if she were awake, he could find out from her what had happened, and thus learn something that might be of use.
Although it was hard to see what might be of use in these most unprecedented and unpleasant circumstances.
The drone from _Jodrell Bank_ began again: “Herrell McCray, Herrell McCray, Herrell McCray, this is _Jodrell Bank_ responding–“
He turned the volume down but did not dare turn it off. He had lost track of time and couldn’t guess when they would respond to his last message. He needed to hear that response when it came. Meanwhile, what about his fellow-captive?
Her suit was only a flimsy work-about model, as airtight as his but without the bracing required for building jet propulsors into it. It contained air reserves enough, and limited water; but neither food nor emergency medical supplies.
McCray had both of these, of course. It was merely one more reason why he could not abandon her and go on … if, that is, he could find some reason for going in one direction preferably to another, and if a wall would conveniently open again to let him go there.
He could give her an injection of a stimulant, he mused. Would that improve the situation? Not basically, he decided, with some regret. Sleep was a need, not a luxury; it would not help her to be awakened chemically, when body was demonstrating its need for rest by refusing to wake to a call. Anyway, if she were not seriously injured she would undoubtedly wake of her own accord before long.
He checked pulse and eye-pupils; everything normal, no evidence of bleeding or somatic shock.
So much for that. At least he had made one simple decision on his own, he thought with grim humor. To that extent he had reestablished his mastery of his own fate, and it made him feel a touch better.
Perhaps he could make some more. What about trying to find a way out of this place, for instance?
* * * * *
It was highly probable that they would not be able to stay here indefinitely, that was the first fact to take into account. Either his imagination was jumpy, or the reek of halogens was a bit stronger. In any case there was no guarantee that this place would remain habitable any longer than the last, and he had to reckon with the knowledge that a spacesuit air reserve was not infinite. These warrens might prove a death trap.
McCray paused, leaning on the haft of his ax, wondering how much of that was reason and how much panic. He knew that he wanted, more than anything to get out of this place, to see sky and stars, to be where no skulking creatures behind false panels in the walls, or peering through televiewers concealed in the furnishings, could trick and trap him. But did he have any reason to believe that he would be better off somewhere else? Might it not be even that this place was a sort of vivarium maintained for his survival–that the leak of poison gases and heat in the first room was not a deliberate thrust at his safety, but a failure of the shielding that alone could keep him alive?
He didn’t know, and in the nature of things could not. But paradoxically the thought that escape might increase his danger made him all the more anxious to escape. He wanted to know. If death was waiting for him outside his chamber, McCray wanted to face it–now–while he was still in good physical shape.
While he was still sane. For there was a limit to how many phenomena he could store away in the back of his mind; sooner or later the contradictions, the puzzles, the fears would have to be faced.
Yet what could he do with the woman? Conceivably he could carry her; but could he also carry her suit? He did not dare take her without it. It would be no kindness to plunge her into another atmosphere of poison, and watch her die because he had taken her from her only hope of safety. Yet the suit weighed at least fifty pounds. His own was slightly more; the girl, say, a hundred and thirty. It added up to more mass than he could handle, at least for more than a few dozen yards.
The speaker in his helmet said suddenly: “Herrell McCray, this is _Jodrell Bank_. Your transmission received. We are vectoring and ranging your signal. Stand by. We will call again in ten minutes.” And, in a different tone: “God help you, Mac. What the devil happened to you?”
It was a good question. McCray swore uselessly because he didn’t know the answer.
He took wry pleasure in imagining what was going on aboard _Jodrell Bank_ at that moment. At least not all the bewilderment was his own. They would be utterly baffled. As far as they were concerned, their navigator had been on the bridge at one moment and the next moment gone, tracelessly. That in itself was a major puzzle; the only way off an FTL ship in flight was in the direction called “suicide.” That would have been their assumption, all right, as soon as they realized he was gone and checked the ship to make sure he was not for some reason wandering about in a cargo hold or unconscious in a closet after some hard-to-imagine attack from another crewman. They would have thought that somehow, crazily, he had got into a suit- there was the suit–and jumped out of a lock. But there would have been no question of going back to look for him. True, they could have tracked his subspace radio if he had used it. But what would have been the good of that? The first question, an all but unanswerable one, would be how long ago he had jumped. Even if they knew that, _Jodrell Bank_, making more than five hundred times light-speed, could not be stopped in fewer than a dozen light-years. They could hardly hope to return to even approximately the location in space where he might have jumped; and there was no hope of reaching a position, stopping, casting about, starting again- the accelerations were too enormous, a man too tiny a dust-mote.
And, of course, he would have been dead in the first place, anyway. The transition from FTL drive to normal space was instantly fatal except within the protecting shield of a ship’s engines.
So they would have given him up and, hours later–or days, for he had lost track of time–they would have received his message. What would they make of that?
He didn’t know. After all, he hardly knew what he made of it himself.
The woman still slept. The way back was still open. He could tell by sniffing the air that the poisons in the atmosphere were still gaining. Ahead there was nothing but blank walls, and the clutter of useless equipment littering the floor. Stolidly McCray closed his mind and waited.
The signal came at last.
“Mac, we have verified your position.” The voice was that of Captain Tillinger, strained and shaking. “I don’t know how you got there, but unless the readings lie you’re the hell of a long way off. The bearing is identical with Messier object M-42 and the distance–” raggedly–“is compatible. About a thousand light-years from us, Mac. One way or another, you’ve been kidnaped. I–I–“
The voice hesitated, unable to say what it could not accept as fact but could not deny. “I think,” it managed at last, “that we’ve finally come across those super-beings in space that we’ve wondered about.”
* * * * *
Hatcher’s detached limbs were quivering with excitement–and with more than excitement, because he was afraid. He was trying to conceal from the others just how afraid he was.
His second in command reported: “We have the second subject out of consciousness. How long do you want us to keep her that way?”
“Until I tell you otherwise! How about the prime subject?”
“We can’t tell, Hatcher. But you were right. He is in communication with others, it seems, and by paranormal means.” Hatcher noted the dismay in what his assistant said. He understood the dismay well enough. It was one thing to work on a project involving paranormal forces as an exercise in theory. It was something else entirely to see them in operation.
But there was more cause for dismay than that, and Hatcher alone knew just how bad the situation was. He summoned one of his own members to him and impressed on it a progress report for the Council. He sent it floating through the long warrens of his people’s world, ordered his assistants back to their work and closed in his thoughts to consider what had happened.
These two creatures, with their command of forces in the paranormal–i.e., the electromagnetic–spectrum, seemed able to survive in the environments prepared for them. That was step one. No previous team had done as well. This was not the first time a probe team of his race had snatched a warm blooded biped from a spaceship for study–because their operation forces, psionic in nature, operated in non-Euclidean ways, it was easiest for them to make contact with the crew of a ship in the non-Euclidean space of FTL drive.
But it was the first time that the specimens had survived. He reviewed the work they had already done with the male specimen. He had shown himself unable to live in the normal atmospheric conditions of Hatcher’s world; but that was to be expected, after all, and the creature had been commendably quick about getting out of a bad environment. Probably they had blundered in illuminating the scene for him, Hatcher conceded. He didn’t know how badly he had blundered, for the concept of “light” from a general source, illuminating not only what the mind wished to see but irrelevant matter as well, had never occurred to Hatcher or any of his race; all of their senses operated through the mind itself, and what to them was “light” was a sort of focusing of attention. But although something about that episode which Hatcher failed to understand had gone wrong, the specimen had not been seriously harmed by it. The specimen was doing well. Probably they could now go to the hardest test of all, the one which would mean success or failure. Probably they could so modify the creature as to make direct communication possible.
And the other specimen?
Hatcher would have frowned, if he had had brow muscles to shape such an expression–or a brow to be shaped. The female specimen was the danger. His own people knew how to shield their thoughts. This one evidently did not. It was astonishing that the Old Ones had not already encountered these bipeds, so loosely guarded was their radiation–when they radiated at all, of course, for only a few of them seemed to possess any psionic power worth mentioning.
Hatcher hastily drove that thought from his mind, for what he proposed to do with the male specimen was to give him that power.
And yet there was no choice for Hatcher’s people, because they were faced with disaster. Hatcher, through his communications from the Council, knew how close the disaster was. When one of the probers from the Central Masses team disappeared, the only conclusion that could be drawn was the Old Ones had discovered them. They needed allies; more, they needed allies who had control of the electromagnetic forces that made the Old Ones so potent and so feared.
In the male and female they had snatched out of space they might have found those allies. But another thought was in Hatcher’s mind: Suppose the Old Ones found them too?
Hatcher made up his mind. He could not delay any longer.
“Open the way to the surface,” he ordered. “As soon as possible, take both of them to where we can work.”
* * * * *
The object Captain Tillinger had called “M-42” was no stranger to Herrell McCray. It was the Great Nebula in Orion, in Earth’s telescopes a fuzzy patch of light, in cold fact a great and glowing cloud of gas. M-42 was not an external galaxy, like most of the “nebulae” in Messier’s catalogue, but it was nothing so tiny as a single sun either. Its hydrogen mass spanned dozens of light-years. Imbedded in it–growing in it, as they fed on the gas that surrounded them- were scores of hot, bright new suns.
_New_ suns. In all the incongruities that swarmed around him McCray took time to consider that one particular incongruity. The suns of the Orion gas cloud were of the spectral class called “B”–young suns, less than a thousandth as old as a Sol. They simply had not been in existence long enough to own stable planetary systems–much less planets which themselves were old enough to have cooled, brewed chemical complexes and thus in time produced life. But surely he was on a planet….
McCray breathed a deep sigh and for one more time turned his mind away from unprofitable speculations. The woman stirred slightly. McCray knelt to look at her; then, on quick impulse, opened his medical kit, took out a single-shot capsule of a stimulant and slipped it neatly into the exposed vein of her arm.
In about two minutes she would be awake. Good enough, thought McCray; at least he would have someone to talk to. Now if only they could find a way out of this place. If a door would open, as the other door had, and–
He paused, staring.
There was another door. Open.
He felt himself swaying, threw out an arm and realized that he was … falling? Floating? Moving toward the door, somehow, not as though he were being dragged, not as though he were walking, but surely and rather briskly moving along.
His feet were not touching the ground.
It wasn’t a volitional matter. His intentions had nothing to do with it. He flailed out, and touched nothing; nor did he slow his motion at all. He fought against it, instinctively; and then reason took over and he stopped.
The woman’s form lifted from the floor ahead of him. She was still unconscious. From the clutter on the floor, her lightweight space suit rose, too; suit and girl, they floated ahead of him, toward the door and out.
McCray cried out and tried to run after them. His legs flailed and, of course, touched nothing; but it did seem that he was moving faster. The woman and her suit were disappearing around a bend, but he was right behind them.
He became conscious of the returning reek of gases. He flipped up the plate of his helmet and lunged at the girl, miraculously caught her in one hand and, straining, caught the suit with the other.
Stuffing her into the suit was hard, awkward work, like dressing a doll that is too large for its garments; but he managed it, closed her helmet, saw the flexible parts of her suit bulge out slightly as its automatic pressure regulators filled it with air.
They drove along, faster and faster, until they came to a great portal, and out into the blinding radiance of a molten copper sky.
* * * * *
Gathered in a circle were a score or more of Hatcher’s people.
McCray didn’t know they were Hatcher’s people, of course. He did not know even that they were animate beings, for they lacked all the features of animals that he had been used to. No yes. No faces. Their detached members, bobbing about seemingly at random, did not appear to have any relation to the irregular spheres that were their owners.
The woman got unevenly to her feet, her faceplate staring toward the creatures. McCray heard a smothered exclamation in his suit-phones.
“Are you all right?” he demanded sharply. The great crystal eye turned round to look at him.
“Oh, the man who spoke to me.” Her voice was taut but controlled. The accent was gone; her control was complete. “I am Ann Mei-Ling, of the _Woomara_. What are–those?”
McCray said, “Our kidnappers, I guess. They don’t look like much, do they?”
She laughed shakily, without answering. The creatures seemed to be waiting for something, McCray thought; if indeed they were creatures and not machines or–or whatever one might expect to find, in the impossible event of being cast away on an improbable planet of an unexplored sun. He touched the woman’s helmet reassuringly and walked toward the aliens, raising his arms.
“Hello,” he said. “I am Herrell McCray.”
He half turned; the woman watching him. “I don’t know what to do next,” he confessed.
“Sit down,” she said suddenly. He stared. “No, you must! They want you to sit down.”
“I didn’t hear–” he began, then shrugged. He sat down.
“Now lie stretched out and open your face mask.”
“_Here?_ Listen–Ann–Miss Mei-Ling, whatever you said your name was! Don’t you feel the heat? If I crack my mask–“
“But you must.” She spoke very confidently. “It is _s’in fo_—what do you call it–telepathy, I think. But I can hear them. They want you to open your mask. No, it won’t kill you. They understand what they are doing.”
She hesitated, then said, with less assurance, “They need us, McCray. There is something … I am not sure, but something bad. They need help, and think you can give it to them. So open your helmet as they wish, please.”
McCray closed his eyes and grimaced; but there was no help for it, he had no better ideas. And anyway, he thought, he could close it again quickly enough if these things had guessed wrong.
The creatures moved purposefully toward McCray, and he found himself the prisoner of a dozen unattached arms. Surprised, he struggled, but helplessly; no, he would not be able to close the plate again!… But the heat was no worse. Somehow they were shielding him.
A tiny member, like one of the unattached arms but much smaller, writhed through the air toward him, hesitated over his eyes and released something tinier still, something so small and so close that McCray could not focus his eyes upon it. It moved deliberately toward his face.
The woman was saying, as if to herself, “The thing they fear is–far away, but–oh, no! My God!”
There was a terrible loud scream, but McCray was not quite sure he heard it. It might have been his own, he thought crazily; for that tiny floating thing had found his face and was burrowing deep inside; and the pain was beyond belief.
* * * * *
The pain was incredible. It was worse than anything he had ever felt, and it grew … and then it was gone.
What it was that the spheroidal aliens had done to his mind McCray had no way of learning. He could only know that a door had been open. An opaque screen was removed. He was free of his body.
He was more than free, he was extended–increased–enlarged. He was inside the body of an alien, and the alien was in him. He was also outside both, looking at them.
McCray had never felt anything like it in his life. It was a situation without even a close analogue. He had had a woman in his arms, he had been part of a family, he had shared the youthful sense of exploration that comes in small, eager groups: These were the comparisons that came to his mind. This was so much more than any of these things. He and the alien–he and, he began to perceive, a number of aliens–were almost inextricably mingled. Yet they were separate, as one strand of colored thread in a ball of yarn is looped and knotted and intertwined with every other strand, although it retains its own integrity. He was in and among many minds, and outside them all. McCray thought: This is how a god must feel.
* * * * *
Hatcher would have laughed–if he had lips, larynx or mouth to laugh with. He would have laughed in pure exultation, and, indeed, his second in command recognized the marionette quivering of his detached limbs as a shout of glee. “We’ve done it,” cried the assistant, catching his delight. “We’ve made the project work!”
“We’ve done a great deal more than that,” exulted Hatcher. “Go to the supervisors, report to them. Pass on the word to the Central Masses probe. Maintain for the alien the pressure and temperature value he needs–“
“And you, Hatcher?”
“I’m going with him–out in the open! I’m going to show him what _we_ need!”
* * * * *
Hatcher. McCray recognized that this was a name–the name of the entity closest to himself, the one that had somehow manipulated his forebrain and released the mind from the prison of the skull. “Hatcher” was not a word but an image, and in the image he saw a creature whose physical shape was unpleasant, but whose instincts and hopes were enough like his own to provide common ground.
He saw more than that. This Hatcher was trying to persuade him to move. To venture farther. To come with him….
McCray allowed himself to be lead and at once he was outside not only of his own body but of all bodies. He was free in space.
The entity that had been born of Herrell McCray was now larger than a sun. He could see, all around him, the wonder and beauty of the great gas cloud in which his body rested, on one tiny planet of one trivial star. His sense of time was not changed from what it had been–he could count the pulses of his own body, still thudding in what, however remote, was his ear–but he could see things that were terribly slow and vast. He could see the friction of the streamers of gas in the cloud as light-pressure drove them outward. He could hear the subtle emanations of ion clashing with hurtling ion. He could see the great blue new suns tunneling through the cloud, building their strength out of the diffuse contaminated hydrogen that made the Orion nebula, leaving relatively clear “holes” behind them. He could see into the gas and through it. He could perceive each star and gassy comet; and he could behold the ordered magnificence of the galaxy of stars, and the universe of galaxies, beyond.
The presence beside him was urging him to look beyond, into a denser, richer region of suns. McCray, unsure of his powers, stretched toward it–and recoiled.
There was something there which was terrifying, something cold and restless that watched him come toward it with the eyes of a crouched panther awaiting a deer.
The presence beside him felt the same terror, McCray knew. He was grateful when Hatcher allowed him to look away from the central clusters and return to the immediate neighborhood of his body.
Like a child’s toy in a diminishing glass, McCray could see the planet he had left.
But it was no planet. It was not a planet, but a great irregular sphere of metal, honeycombed and warrened. He would have thought it a ship, though huge, if it had had engines or instruments…. No. It _was_ a ship. Hatcher beside him was proof that these creatures needed neither, not in any Earthly sense, at least. They themselves were engines, with their power to move matter apart from the intervention of other matter. They themselves were instruments, through the sensing of force, that was now within his own power.
A moment’s hesitant practice, and McCray had the “planet” in the palm of his hand–not a real palm, not a real hand; but it was there for his inspection. He looked at it and within it and saw the interior nests of Hatcher’s folk, found the room where he had been brought, traced his course to the surface, saw his own body in its spacesuit, saw beside it the flaccid suit that had held the strange woman’s body….
The suit was empty.
The suit was empty, and in the moment of that discovery McCray heard a terrible wailing cry- not in his ears, in his mind–from the aliens around him. The suit was empty. They discovered it the same moment as he. It was wrong and it was dangerous; they were terrified. The companion presence beside him receded into emptiness. In a moment McCray was back in his own body, and the gathering members let him free.
Some hundreds of light-years away, the _Jodrell Bank_ was making up lost time on its Betelgeuse run.
Herrell McCray swept the long line from Sol to Betelgeuse, with his perceptions that were not his eyes and his touch that was not of matter, until he found it. The giant ship, fastest and hugest of mankind’s star vessels, was to him a lumbering tiny beetle.
It held friends and something else–something his body needed–air and water and food. McCray did not know what would happen to him if, while his mind was out in the stars, his body died. But he was not anxious to find out.
McCray had not tried moving his physical body, but with what had been done to his brain he could now do anything within the powers of Hatcher’s people. As they had swept him from ship to planet, so he could now hurl his body back from planet to ship. He flexed muscles of his mind that had never been used before, and in a moment his body was slumped on the floor of the _Jodrell Bank’s_ observation bubble. In another moment he was in his body, opening his eyes and looking out into the astonished face of Chris Stoerer, his junior navigator. “God in heaven,” whispered Stoerer. “It’s you!”
“It is,” said McCray hoarsely, through lips that were parched and cracked, sitting up and trying the muscles of the body. It ached. He was bone-weary. “Give me a hand getting out of this suit, will you?”
It was not easy to be a mind in a body again, McCray discovered. Time had stopped for him. He had been soaring the star-lanes in his released mind for hours; but while his mind had been liberated, his body, back on Hatcher’s “planet,” had continued its slow metabolism, its steady devouring of its tissues, its inevitable progress toward death. When he had returned to it he found its pulse erratic and its breathing ragged. A grinding knot of hunger seethed in its stomach. Its muscles ached.
Whatever might become of his mind, it was clear that his body would die if it were left unfed and uncared-for much longer. So he had brought it back to the _Jodrell Bank_. He stood up and avoided Chris’s questions. “Let me get something to eat, and then get cleaned up a little.” (He had discovered that his body stank.) “Then I’ll tell you everything you want to know–you and the captain, and anybody else who wants to listen. And we’ll have to send a dispatch to Earth, too, because this is important…. But, please, I only want to tell it once.” Because–he did not say–I may not have time to tell it again.
For those cold and murderous presences in the clustered inner suns had reached out as casually as a bear flicking a salmon out of a run and snatched the unknown woman from Hatcher’s planet. They could reach anywhere in the galaxy their thoughts roamed.
They might easily follow him here.
* * * * *
It was good to be human again, and McCray howled with pain and joy as the icy needle-spray of the showers cleansed his body. He devoured the enormous plates of steak and potatoes the ship’s galley shoved before him, and drank chilled milk and steaming black coffee in alternate pint mugs. McCray let the ship’s surgeon look him over, and laughed at the expression in the man’s eyes. “I know I’m a little wobbly,” he said. “It doesn’t matter, Doc. You can put me in the sickbay as long as you like, as soon as I’ve talked to the captain. I won’t mind a bit. You see, I won’t be there–” and he laughed louder, and would not explain.
An hour later, with food in his belly and something from the surgeon’s hypospray in his bloodstream to clear his brain, he was in the captain’s cabin, trying to spell out in words that made sense the incredible story of (he discovered) eight days since he had been abducted from the ship.
Looking at the ship’s officers, good friends, companions on a dozen planetside leaves, McCray started to speak, stumbled and was for a moment without words. It was too incredible to tell. How could he make them understand?
They would have to understand. Insane or not, the insane facts had to be explained to them. However queerly they might stare, they were intelligent men. They would resist but ultimately they would see.
He settled his problem by telling them baldly and plainly, without looking at their faces and without waiting for their questions, everything that had happened. He told them about Hatcher and about the room in which he had come to. He told them about the pinkish light that showed only what he concentrated on–and explained it to them, as he had not understood it at first; about Hatcher’s people, and how their entire sense-world was built up of what humans called E.S.P., the “light” being only the focusing of thought, which sees no material objects that it is not fixed on. He told them of the woman from the other ship and the cruel, surgical touch on his brain that had opened a universe to him. He promised that that universe would open for them as well. He told them of the deadly, unknowable danger to Hatcher’s people–and to themselves–that lay at the galaxy’s core. He told them how the woman had disappeared, and told them she was dead–at the hands of the Old Ones from the Central Masses–a blessing to her, McCray explained, and a blessing to all of them; for although her mind would yield some of its secrets even in death, if she were alive it would be their guide, and the Old Ones would be upon them.
He did not wait for them to react.
He turned to the ship’s surgeon. “Doc, I’m all yours now, body and soul … cancel that. Just body!”
And he left them, to swim once more in space.
* * * * *
In so short a time McCray had come to think of this as life, and a sort of interregnum. He swept up and out, glancing back only to see the ship’s surgeon leaping forward to catch his unconscious body as it fell and then he was in space between the stars once more.
Here, ‘twixt Sol and Betelgeuse, space was clear, hard and cold, no diffuse gas cloud, no new, growing suns. He “looked” toward Hatcher’s world, but hesitated and considered.
First or last, he would have to look once more upon the inimical presences that had peered out at him from the Central Masses. It might as well be now.
His perceptions alert, he plunged toward the heart of the galaxy.
Thought speeds where light plods. The mind of Herrell McCray covered light-millenia in a moment. It skipped the drifty void between spiral arms, threaded dust clouds, entered the compact central galactic sphere to which our Earth’s sector of the galaxy is only a remote and unimportant appendage. Here a great globular cluster of suns massed around a common center of gravity. McCray shrank himself to the perspective of a human body and stared in wonder. Mankind’s Sol lies in a tenuous, stretched-out arm, thinly populated by stellar standards: if Earth had circled one of these dense-clustered suns, what a different picture of the sky would have greeted the early shepherds! Where Man’s Earthbound eyes are fortunate to count a thousand stars in a winter sky, here were tens of thousands, bright enough to be a Sirius or a Capella at the bottom of a sink of atmosphere like Earth’s–tens of billions of stars in all, whirling close to each other, so that star greets star over distances that are hardly more than planetary. Sol’s nearest neighbor star is four light-years away. No single sun in this dense, gyrating central mass was as much as one light-year from its fellows.
Here were suns that had been blazing with mature, steady light when Sol was a mere contracting mass of hydrogen–whose planets had cooled and spawned life before Earth’s hollows cupped the first scalding droplets that were the beginnings of seas.
On these ancient worlds life existed.
McCray had not understood all of what Hatcher had tried to communicate to him, but he had caught the terror in Hatcher’s thoughts. Hatcher’s people had fled from these ancients many millennia before–fled and hidden in the heart of the Orion gas cloud, their world and all. Yet even there they were not safe. They knew that in time the Old Ones would find them. And it was this fear that had led them to kidnap humans, seeking allies in the war that could not forever be deferred.
Hatcher’s people were creatures of thought. Man was the wielder of physical forces- “paranormal” to Hatcher, as teleportation and mind-seeing were “paranormal” to McCray. The Old Ones had mastered both.
McCray paused at the fringe of the cluster, waiting for the touch of contemptuous hate. It came and he recoiled a thousand light-years before he could stop.
To battle the Old Ones would be no easy match–yet time might work for the human race. Already they controlled the electromagnetic spectrum, and hydrogen fusion could exert the force of suns. With Hatcher’s help–and his own–Man would free his mind as well; and perhaps the Old Ones would find themselves against an opponent as mighty as themselves.
He drew back from the Central Masses, no longer afraid, and swept out to see Hatcher’s planet.
It was gone.
* * * * *
In the great gas cloud the tunneling blue suns swept up their graze of hydrogen, untroubled by planets. Themselves too young to have solid satellites, Hatcher’s adopted world removed again, they were alone.
It was for a moment, a panicky thought. McCray realized what they had done. Hatcher’s greatest hope had been to find another race to stand between his people and the Old Ones. And they had found it!
Now Hatcher’s world could hide again and wait until the battle had been fought for them.
With a face light-years across, with a brain made up of patterns in the ether, McCray grinned wryly.
“Maybe they made the right choice,” he thought, considering. “Maybe they’d only be in the way when the showdown comes.” And he sought out _Jodrell Bank_ and his body once more, preparing to return to being human … and to teach his fellow humans to be gods.
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