ARIS CX13 perched precariously atop a gleaming white boulder as she watched the strange rider's approach. A ferocious shaggy gray pack of wolfish grals clawed futilely at the rock's smooth base, fighting to gorge their gaunt bellies on her tender flesh.
Her scanty black tunic hung in ribbons, shredded by clawing blanches as she had raced to escape their keen fangs long hours before, and her long raven hair streamed unbound down about her shoulders.
Less than two miles away, upon the rocky upper plateau, the dozen dome cities of her people gleamed in the afternoon sunlight. Two miles, or a thousand parsecs distant--she knew there would be no rescue from that source. Only this morning Krath GDT8 had announced that she must soon be exiled from the plateau, to live out her life among the miserable wretches who eked out a precarious existence in Numark's inner swamplands.
Aris CX13 was an atavistic throwback to some primitive ancestor--a shapely, beautiful reversion to the ancestral type. She walked, a giantess, among the scrawny bald men of Numark. They regarded with disgust her graceful rounded body, and her gleaming white teeth filled them with horror--beastly fangs! But for her father, kindly old Hed CX12 the scientist, she would have been destroyed many years before.
Eagerly now Aris watched the rider from beyond the horizon reach the cliff's tree-clad rim and ride toward her along a narrow game-trail.
She could see now that he was a barbarian, a tall giant of a man, well-muscled and straight. Here was no shambling hairy outcast! Here was a man!
A great bow of yellow wood thrust above his bronzed shoulder, the polished shaft of his stout, quartz-tipped spear beside it. At his side a knife of soft, hammered iron, its handle bound about with shrunken leather bands, swung in its sheath. He wore no garment save a simple g-string of tanned leather, and clumsy looking moccasins of zarp-hide were upon his feet. His hair was long--a tawny yellow--and the flame of his deep-set eyes made startling sparks of blue in the darkness of his lean features.
He came full upon the grals as he rounded a turn in the trail. He pulled up his horse and unslung the bow, nocking the bowstring in place with one swift motion. Then his bow bent; one--two--three the arrows flashed, and three of the lank-ribbed beasts kicked out their lives on the uneven grassy ground.
The snarling pack melted away before this new deadly foe, seeking shelter among the jutting rocks and the clumps of brush that sparsely dotted the lower plateau's grassland. In a moment the last of their shadowy shapes were gone.
Aris slid down from her rough-surfaced seat atop the great rock and was gingerly rubbing a portion of her bruised anatomy as the stranger rode up beside her. Aris faced him proudly but the color was high in her cheeks and her heart was thudding fast. He slid from the muddy gray blanket that did service as his saddle, not three feet away.
"I am Toam Blak," he announced stiffly.
"I am grateful to you, Toam Blak, for driving away the grals," Aris replied. "I am called Aris CX13."
"I look for the hills of ice," Toam said, "and for the little demons who dwell within them. I wish to see them breathe fire from their nostrils."
"Do you wish to die?" exclaimed Aris. "I live in the domes of Numark and I speak the truth. The little bald men destroy any barbarian or swamp-dweller found on their plateau. You must not go near their domes or the robot guards will kill you."
"I must see the demons," insisted Toam stubbornly, "and the shining hills of ice. I have journeyed far across the swamps. I have battled the slim zarps that come from the sea, and I have beaten off the attacks of the scaly, winged thulars. I have come to see the demons and take one, captive, back to Yark. I will not turn back now."
"Well, " said Aris breathlessly, "why not take me back to Yark with you. I can teach your people many things. I have studied the ancient books that gather dust in musty vaults beneath the domes. I can show you how to build machines. I can teach you to read."
"You," laughed Toam, "are not a demon. You are a woman like my sister, Elner. But you can come to Yark with me--when I have captured a demon."
"Good!" cried Aris. "I will help you capture one of the little men, Krath GDT8 if possible--the heartless old wretch. I will meet you tonight outside the domes. My robot can easily carry double and it will not tire as does your four-legged beast."
"I can trust you, I think," said Toam slowly, his piercing eyes intent upon her face. "Yes, you are speaking words of truth. You are unhappy living with the demons. That is why you wander here alone."
FOR A LONG time they sat in the lengthening shade of the giant white boulder and made their plans. Aris tried to explain to the simple barbarian that the dome-dwellers were really men and not demons, but Toam would not be convinced.
"Our legends tell us that Dawan, the great Erth god, carried us from our ancient homeland in a vast boat," he said. "Out of the Great Sea only a single barren rock lifted. There was no sunlight. But Dawan carried water from the ocean and made a moon, and when the water was gone the islands appeared.
"Our people and the demons lived together on the great rock in the hills of ice. But the demons would not let Toam, my ancestor, mate with the woman he wanted; so he took some of his friends and their women in a boat and went to the island of Yark."
"Men did come to this planet, Venus, in a spaceship," admitted Aris, "and they landed on the level top of the upper plateau, the only exposed bit of land on this watery world. They built great domes and grew their food in hydroponic vats. Later they discovered the catalyst that frees the energy of copper atoms, in a deep-buried meteor. They constructed several mattercasters like those used on distant Earth for the transmission of matter from station to station, and set the spaceship spinning in an orbit about Venus.
"Then the transmission of water from the Great Sea to the tiny artificial moon began. Centuries passed and ice built up about the spaceship into a miniature satellite. More mattercast receivers were constructed on the moon and its bulk grew swiftly. The Great Sea's level constantly lowered and the higher islands appeared. Vegetation spread out across the mud flats. Animals escaped from the domes to run wild and multiply in the dankness of the swampy jungles.
"Your ancestor, Tom Blake, was a biologist in Dome 7. He rebelled against the rigid code that forbade him to mate with a woman from outside his own classification. He declared that mankind would grow decadent and perish if such over-specialization of mental types were long continued. And the passing centuries have shown how right he was....
"The little men with the bulging hairless heads are the final product of that code. All the human traits of love, kindness, and curiosity have been carefully and scientifically bred out of them. They have become impractical students of useless abstractions, creating nothing new or worthwhile. Long ago they halted the transmission of water to the moon. They were content with the artificial life of the domes where the temperature was always even and robots did all the work. Every year their number dwindles. They are doomed. . ."
"Your legend is silly," laughed Toam. "Our story is of course the true one. The demons have told lies to you."
"I read all that I have told you in the books of the historians," cried Aris indignantly. "But, of course, a barbarian like you could not read. When we are in Yark I will teach you to read. Then you will know the truth."
"You are pretty when your eyes flash lightning," said Toam unexpectedly, "and your mouth puckers so. I like you very much, I think."
Aris smiled. She gathered the shreds of her tunic about her closer and got up from the flat stone where they had been sitting.
"Time that I was leaving, I fear," she told him.
Then she hurried away toward the chalky white cliffs that rimmed the upper plateau.
Toam watched her go, a quizzical half-smile rifting his dark features. Then he knelt on the grassy ground beside the flat rock, his fingers busy with the contents of the beaded leather bag laced inside his loincloth. His eyes sought the eastern horizon where lay Yark and his lips moved slowly as they framed silent words. He bowed his head down to the pouch again and again as though he were listening to the faint voice of some unseen spirit.
"It is good," he said after a time. "I will meet the girl tonight outside the domes. We will escape across the marshes."
Carefully Toam stowed the little bag in its accustomed place and laced it firmly there. To lose that beaded bit of leather and its precious contents would be worse than losing an arm. It was a very potent amulet.
He ate a hard black strip of dried meat, a handful of grain kernels, and several of the wrinkled yellow fruit that grew on a low bush near at hand. The girl was gone from sight by this time, so he took his weapons and set out upon her trail.
TOAM TOPPED the last steep slope of the rocky trail and crept cautiously into the welcome shelter of a stunted clump of brush. The red flame of the twilight outlined his surroundings with a brush of deepest crimson.
The upper plateau was a barren thick U, roughly five miles in diameter, an unlovely broken stretch of jumbled rock and layered shale. At the base of the U sheer crags of gleaming black rock butted their serrated spines sharply against the clouds; while into the empty center of the plateau there stretched a finger of the Great Sea. In this natural bay, choking its shoreline, lay the swamplands inhabited by exiled dome-dwellers. And along either side of the great U glistened the vast transparent domes of the little bald men--a dozen of them squatted there upon the drab gray rocks.
There was no growing thing within a hundred yards of any of the domes, nor were there any concealing ridges of shale. The ground was levelled smooth and hard--blackened as though by fire--close up to them. Only under shelter of night could he hope to reach those looming half-globes.
The pale icy disc of the moon was riding close down to the horizon's rim when Toam came at last to the barren stretch of rock before the dome. He crouched behind a low cluster of rock fragments, his eyes searching that curving smooth wall for an opening. This was the dome that Aris had entered he knew, but he could see no door leading inside.
The click of metal against rock behind him gave belated warning that he was not alone. Swiftly Toam launched his body forward out into the blackened zone, and his knife flashed in his hand as he turned to face this unknown foe.
Eight broad shapes, taller than the tallest man, lumbered from behind shadowy rocks on either hand. Ponderously they moved forward, their great arms outstretched ready to block any attempt at escape. Toam slid his knife back into its sheath and fitted an arrow to his bow.
The feathered shaft rebounded with a metallic clang from the body of the nearest giant. A second, and a third arrow suffered a like fate, their slender shafts shattering against unyielding metal. The mighty shapes loomed nearer now, closing grimly in about him.
Toam dropped his bow and swung his heavy spear, point foremost, like a club at the nearest monster's head. Down it crashed and splintered across the narrow head of the giant. Then harsh, unyielding fingers of metal clamped about his body and a hard something crashed with stunning power against his skull. He struggled hopelessly in that iron grip for a moment.
Two of the shadowy giants lifted his limp body. Dimly Toam remembered being carried through a circular port that somehow opened in the blank dome-wall and thumping violently down upon a cold stone floor. Then his senses failed him and the misty grayness that clouded his vision darkened into impenetrable inky blackness....
TOAM CAME abruptly back to consciousness with the realization that all was not well. His head seemed to expand like a balloon with every beat of his heart. His eyes felt raw and puffy and his limbs were rigid and senseless. Numbness pressed close about his body as though metal bands were slowly constricting his vitals.
His eyelids slitted open a minute fraction of an inch. He was bound, strapped into a massive chair of some glossy gray material. Shining white metal bands were locked across his arms and legs, and three similar bands were about his middle.
Toam felt another pressure, like a heavy helmet of bone or metal, that flattened the long hair against his skull. He was held rigidly upright, pinned, like some impaled insect, against the smooth hardness of the chair's back.
His eyes widened slowly, taking in a constricted view of the narrow gray-walled room and its furnishings. Strange apparatus and intricate machines, most of them in dusty disrepair, cluttered the floor-space. A great globe of light, festooned with dark cobweb streamers, was set flush with the low-arched ceiling overhead.
Suddenly Toam laughed.
Clustered about him on low padded chairs, their owlish watery eyes oddly distorted by the transparent helmets that reached to the level of their meager nostrils, sat a half-dozen spindly-legged, corpse-skinned little men. They wore baggy dark tunics that almost covered their knobby little knees, and tiny, slipper-like sandals were on their stunted feet. Their hairless blue-veined heads, clammy-skinned bulbous caricatures of normal human skulls, perched like some toothless living puffball atop a stalk-like scrawny neck. When they stood erect they were little more than three feet in height. But they stood on their puny feet rarely. The impassive robots that stood rigidly behind each little seat carried them where they directed.
Toam did not laugh as he regarded the robots. Great eight-foot bodies of dull-sheened metal and tough plastic were theirs, stronger than the combined muscles of ten fighting men. The things that captured him outside the dome must have been giant machines like these. He studied their thick cylindrical bodies and the many-eyed knobs of metal that jutted above them. No wonder that his hard-driven arrows had shattered!
One of the little monsters seated before Toam leaned toward him, peering near-sightedly up into his face. Then the dome dweller spoke, in a dull rasping monotone that made Toam's flesh crawl, asking Toam whence he had come.
"You are not a swamp-dweller," he said. "Perhaps you are an ape."
"I am a man!" cried Toam, breaking his stubborn silence. "It is you who are the monsters, the little demons of our fables. No wonder my ancestors escaped from your ugly presence."
A chill gleam of some emotion-- hatred or triumph, Toam could not tell which--came into the eyes of his questioner.
"It can talk," he muttered to the others, and they nodded.
"Tell me," he commanded, "have you great stores of the copper catalyst on your island?"
"Cat List?" exclaimed Toam, "The magic stones? No we have none of them."
"Come now, barbarian," snarled the little man impatiently, "there is no use denying that you have the catalyst. Must I have a robot twist off an arm before you tell us the truth?"
"We have none of the magic stones," replied Toam firmly.
A little man whom Toam had not seen before spoke from a corner of the room where he huddled over an instrument board, flanked by many glowing tubes and dusty coils of wire.
"He speaks the truth, Krath GDT8," he informed Toam's inquisitor. "The dectors linked with the metallic plates against his skull and those running from the bands upon his arm indicate that he is not deceiving you."
"I had not finished questioning him, Hed CX12," almost screamed Krath GDT8. "Now it is useless to question him further. He will not answer so we can discover whether he tells the truth or not.
"Drag him away," he ordered one of the robots, "and feed him to the zarps penned beneath the dome. They must have food."
Robot fingers, hard and cold, unstrapped Toam's unfeeling body from the chair. He could not stand upright, his blood starved muscles refused to function; so the mechanical man draped Toam's limp body across his thick arm and carried him from the room.
TOAM LAY on a narrow shelf of stone rimming about the shallow filth-scummed pool of water at the cell's center. Floating on the dark surface were the bloated, rubbery-hided shapes of two amphibian monsters, the terrible shark-jawed zarps that lurk in the marshy pools and muddy coves of island-spotted Venus. Shapeless they were as a seal is shapeless, but their hides were mottled purple and yellow--hideous and slimy as a wet toad to the touch....
When the man from Yark was tossed through a quickly opened cell-door and landed with a splash in the waist-deep pool of stinking water his strength had almost fully returned. Cautiously he had waded through the water until his outstretched hand brushed a damp wall of masonry and he had climbed up to a slimy stone shelf barely a foot above water level.
Hardly had he reached this poor refuge when the sucking slither of rubbery wet hide warned him of a zarp's dragging approach. His eyes had gradually accustomed themselves to the gray twilight of the underground cell, its only illumination a distant corridor globe; so now he could see the gaping maw of the hideous monster that crawled, on stubby flippers, toward him.
Toam had flung himself forward to the zarp's slippery back and his thumbs had sought, and found, those twin, red-rimmed eyes. The monster roared--a bellowing, shrill, pain-wracked cry--and slid, blinded, back into the shallow murk of the pool. Toam leaped from his back, in time to witness the arrowing approach of a second swimming zarp.
The sightless zarp had felt the movement of that other bulk and had shuttled swiftly about, his four rows of sharply serrated teeth sinking into the fat-armored side of his fellow. In a moment the pool had become a whirlpool of slashing, fighting bodies locked in combat to the death....
Now Toam lay silently beside the narrow door of latticed metal, waiting patiently for the coming of some robot attendant. If he could smash the scanning lenses of the robot with the bit of stone he had wrenched from the wall he might escape.
The sound of cautious footsteps outside his cell brought him crouching silently to his feet. He gripped the stone tighter.
"Toam," a voice whispered, "are you alive?"
"Aris!" exclaimed Toam gladly. "Unlock the door."
"Just a moment," came the reply and a key rattled thunder-loud in the echoing corridor.
A zarp bellowed his weird whistling cry of warning from a nearby cell and his penned fellows echoed his challenge. Then the door swung slowly open and Toam crossed its threshold to the girl's side. Her hand touched his fingers and clung.
"I feared for your life, Toam," she whispered, an involuntary shudder wracking her slim body. "Those terrible creatures....
"We must escape through Hutson Bay," she went on. "My father, Hed CX12, is going with us. Krath GDT8 has ordered that he be exiled among the swamp people because he protested my own exile.
"I know the ancient ways that descend from the dome to the inner swamplands where the exiles live," she finished. "We can steal a boat from them and escape to the Great Sea."
"Good," agreed Toam.
HALFWAY ALONG the ancient dusty tunnel that angled downward from the lower levels of the great dome they overtook a giant robot carrying a bulging-browed little man in his padded chair. Toam recognized him, the man who had come from the corner to say that he told the truth--a scientist he must be. Toam smiled. He would bring a wise little demon back to Yark after all.
They came out through a ragged cave entrance into the swamplands and followed an ancient oozy trail that wound outward toward the open waters of the bay. Finally they came to a raised hummock of solid earth where a grove of low, thick-stemmed trees bulked like some grotesque woodcut against the background of silvery moonlight.
Aris pointed to the trees. "Swamp dwellers," she said.
Toam saw a score or more jumbled masses of poles and mud, interwoven with swamp grasses and weeds, that perched shoulder-high above the ground. He snorted his disgust. Even the zarps constructed better nests out of mud and reeds for their newly laid eggs.
They hurried through the ugly tree-village and came to the muddy rim of the bay. A dozen crude dugouts were drawn up on the shore, and of these Toam selected the most seaworthy.
The robot he seated in the stern while Aris and her father sat in the boat's middle. Then he waded alongside the ungainly craft until they were afloat on the smooth surface of the bay and sprang aboard. He showed the robot how to handle the clumsy paddle; took another for himself, and the boat drove erratically away from shore.
They had paddled barely ten canoe-lengths when a great uproar arose from the direction of the tree-village. A string of mechanically striding robots advanced to the water's edge and came to a halt. Carefully they set five little chairs, and their dwarfish occupants, on the ground. One of the little men, Krath it must have been, spoke a sharp word of command, and three of the metal giants pointed their right arms toward the escaping boat.
Three pencils of bluish flame lanced out across the water. Water hissed and boiled into steam as they struck, but the range was too great and the occupants of the dugout were unharmed. Hed CX12 drew an ovoid object from beneath the heavy cape that he wore over his tunic and pointed it back toward shore. Greenish light flamed for a moment and two of the foremost robots dissolved into scattered scraps of metal and plastic.
"Hurry!" cried the girl, "before the other dome-cities are warned of our attempt to leave Numark. Once outside the bay their heat projectors cannot reach us."
The robot in the stern had rapidly learned how to paddle. The little dugout leaped ahead and Toam was hard put to it to keep the craft on its course. Swiftly they raced across the heaving swells of the sheltered bay toward the frowning cliffs guarding the watery road to the Great Sea.
Then Aris shouted something to Toam and pointed back the way they had come. He turned and a grim smile tightened his lips. Four more dugouts were moving slowly in their wake, methodical robot arms forcing them along!
ALL THAT NIGHT they raced before those untiring pursuers. Toam's muscles ached and his hands were raw with blisters, but the robot in the stern paddled steadily ahead, the scorched smell of overheated oil in his bearings alone telling of the strain he had endured.
Despite all their efforts to escape, the pursuing boats were slowly closing the gap between. Numark had long since vanished below the horizon but ahead a thin black line of land showed. Once ashore Toam felt sure that he could evade the dome dwellers and their mighty robots; so he had headed toward that smudge of darkness.
But now he realized that they were trapped. The low, wave-drenched bow of a crescent-shaped mud flat lay ahead, closing pincher-like arms in on either hand. Already the pursuing boats had spread out to block any sudden dash for the open sea again.
"Perhaps," he told Aris, "we can slide the boat across the mud banks to the opposite side and so escape."
The girl nodded doubtfully and took the paddle that he handed her.
Toam's hands found the little beaded pouch that the little men had not troubled to remove from inside his loin cloth. A rapt expression came across his face as he knelt above it. He seemed to be listening. Hed CX12 watched curiously as his fingers fumbled inside the bag.
At last Toam heaved a sigh of relief and restored the bag to its hiding place. He caught Hed's curious glance and laughed exultantly.
"We will be rescued," he said. "With the little bag I have summoned aid."
Hed grimaced bitterly. These superstitious barbarians with their blind faith in fetishes and medicine bags! He clamped his chilled tiny fingers about the ovoid of silvery metal. Only that now lay between them all and destruction.
The low mud flat loomed closer and suddenly the boat's uneven bottom ploughed through soft ooze and came to rest. The robot continued to churn up the water into a muddy froth until Aris commanded him to stop.
Toam climbed over the dugout's side into waist-deep, clinging mud. Five short steps he waded and then suddenly plunged to his neck in a crawling pit of quicksand. Aris stretched her paddle to him and slowly dragged him back to safety.
"No use," he panted as he climbed back aboard.
"Then we're doomed!" cried the girl.
"Maybe not," disagreed Toam. "Remember your father's weapon."
Hed CX12 lifted his weapon as the boats closed in about them. Green flame spat from its narrow mouth and one of the enemy dugouts fell apart. Brilliant blue flashes hissed from the remaining three boats but all fell short. They drew back out of range.
Then the sea about the shattered boat was filled with writhing scaly monsters. An unearthly shriek of mortal terror burst from the throat of a struggling little man, and choked off abruptly. Aris shuddered and covered her eyes with clenched little fists.
Another boat ventured within range after a time and Hed sent a spear of green toward it. Unexpectedly a low splutter of sound came from the metal ovoid and it swiftly turned to red. Hed dropped the weapon and stared tragically at his burned fingers.
"Burned-out!" he exclaimed. "The salt air or faulty insulation."
"The finish, I'm afraid," said Toam, and the girl's hand squeezed his blistered palm hard. "If only...."
And then, behind the central boat that bore Krath GDT8 and his six robots, a great black bulk smoothly emerged from beneath the waves. A long black object on its back swivelled around toward Krath's dugout, its hollow black tip dropping lower and lower.
Boom! A stab of flame roared out from the object's hollow snout and Krath's boat dissolved into torn splinters of fire-scarred wood.
"Good work, Jonesy," shouted Toam Blak, standing up in the grounded dugout. "Blast 'em out of the water."
"What does this mean?" cried Aris, her eyes wide and eager. "You are no barbarian! That is--a--a submarine!"
MOONLIGHT LAID a silvery sheen across the placid harbor of Yark, capital city of half Venus, outlining sharply her jutting towers and soaring domes. The sound of soft music drifted from the building behind them and the voices of other couples, strolling like themselves in the garden, came faintly to their unheeding ears.
"Beautiful moon," said Aris in an awed voice. "But for that moon Venus would be a watery, cloud-mantled, dead world. All this beauty would be impossible."
"That is right," agreed Toam. "We must be kind to the dome dwellers. That is why, while we have duplicated the civilization of Earth in more distant islands, we have left Numark alone. They carried on the work started by our common ancestors, for many centuries. Now, in their last days of decadence, their supplies of the copper catalyst all but gone, they are doomed to final extinction."
"Toam," whispered Aris softly, "why did you come to Numark?"
"We wanted to know more about the machines and weapons of the dome dwellers," Toam told her, "before they became extinct. I disguised myself as a native and planned, somehow, to slip inside the domes. Once there I thought that I could carry away some of their text-books or kidnap one of them."
"And the leather pouch?" Aris wanted to know.
"Contained a tiny radio receiver and transmitter," laughed Toam. "A sacred little dot and dash affair."
Then they were silent and the moonlight outlined the sharp blackness of one shadow where two had been before.