The Project Gutenberg eBook of Look to the Stars, by Willard Hawkins
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Title: Look to the Stars
Author: Willard Hawkins
Release Date: April 13, 2021 [eBook #65075]
Language: English
Character set encoding: UTF-8
Produced by: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at


By Willard Hawkins

The sky is filled with lonely stones—planets
waiting for the first breath of life to warm them.
N'urth was such a world—and the Gods smiled on it.

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy
October 1950
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

"Tell me, my queen mother, the story of the gods."

"Do you never tire, son, of those ancient legends? But no—let this not seem a reproof. It is well that a prince of the royal line should ponder much on those mighty ones, who came from the sun, where dwells El-Leighi, the source of all, to create a fair world—the world in which some day you will reign. Shall I speak, then, of Solin-Ga-Ling, patron of husbandry and Lord of the North, or would you hear of the gentle Maha-Bar-Astro, sweet goddess who fashions the dreams of childhood? Or would you know of the mysterious Noor-Ah-Mah, who died twice, lived thrice, and was both male and female by turns?"

"Tell me of them all; but first, mother, who was the mightiest of the gods?"

"Hush, child! Among beings so exalted it would be presumptuous for mortals to regard one above the other. But know this—for it concerns you and your pride of race: Splendid legends relate to the strength and virtues of Maha-Ra-Lin, Lord of the South, sometimes called the Life-giver. For it was he who created Noor-Ah-Mah from a rock by the sea, and breathed his own life into her nostrils."

"But, mother, was he not defeated in battle?"

"It was a battle beyond our understanding—of forces that we cannot comprehend, and for a purpose beyond our knowledge—though it is said that in some manner the strife arose over the sex to be awarded the newly created Noor-Ah-Mah. Maha-Ra-Lin would have endowed the partly formed being with the attributes of a god, but Bar-Doo-Chan, Lord of the West, contended for a goddess. In their mighty clash of wills, the heavens were rent with lightning, the seas were churned, mountains were heaved by the all-powerful ones across the land. Legend has it that a single moon shone from the heavens before that event, but a lightning bolt hurled by Maha-Ra-Lin at his antagonist failed of its mark. It smote the moon by chance, splitting the heavenly body in twain, so that two moons now circle the continents of N'urth."

"Then Bar-Doo-Chan, who defeated Maha-Ra-Lin, was the mightiest."

"Nay, that you must not say. True, at the end of three days Maha-Ra-Lin acknowledged himself defeated. Yet it is written that he nobly abandoned the fray out of pity for the helpless creatures of N'urth, and for the newly created Noor-Ah-Mah, knowing that if the battle continued they would all be destroyed. And so Noor-Ah-Mah became a goddess, and in that aspect she is depicted by our sculptors as a mighty huntress, running with upraised spear cheek-by-cheek with Bar-Doo-Chan. But Maha-Ra-Lin, the Life-giver, could not wholly undo his original design, so that at times she reverted to the form of a male. That is why, in ancient carvings, we sometimes find Noor-Ah-Mah pictured as a god, carrying lightnings of destruction in his clenched hand."

"Then, after all, Maha-Ra-Lin was the greatest?"

"He was a mighty being, son. Yet how can any be considered greater than Pi-Ruh-Al, to whom even the other gods and goddesses turned for counsel? Pi-Ruh-Al, the great mother, goddess of beauty, of wisdom, creator of mortal life...."


The rain settled into a steady downpour. Drenched to the marrow, Dave Marlin struggled on through the darkness and mire. At times he stumbled away from the wagon trail and floundered through sodden verdure that tangled his feet, clutched with slimy tendrils at his clothing, or lashed his face. Occasionally he stopped to curse the road, the darkness, the storm; again to heap maledictions on the truck driver who had dumped him off on this byway to nowhere.

He should have kept to the paved highway. A light blinking through the rain, seemingly not far up the mountainside, had lured his feet. It had long since been lost to view, yet he struggled on. The trail surely must lead somewhere, even if only to a deserted sawmill or mine shaft.

His feet slipped and he went down cursing. As he struggled out of the puddle, gouging grit and slime from eyes and nostrils, he became aware of a deeper black looming ahead.

It was the rear of an old-style open roadster. Through the swish of waters his ears caught the sound of hammering on metal.

Feeling his way along the side, he came to a man who was muttering to himself with bitter emphasis while doing things to the engine under the upraised hood.

"Trouble, buddie?" demanded Marlin.

The other jerked up his head so suddenly that it struck the hood. He snarled an epithet; then: "Who the devil?"

"Just a wayfarer," Marlin answered. "Just a wayfarer, buddie, out for a stroll on this beautiful moonlit evening."

"Lay off the comedy!" snarled the other, again diving under the hood. "And get goin' if you can't help."

"Why don't you turn on the lights?"

"Because she ain't got no lights—that's why."

"Battery dead?" asked Marlin. Receiving no answer, he edged back to the instrument panel. As he started searching beneath it for possible ends of disconnected wires, he became aware of a squirming movement under the hand which rested on the seat.

"Take your paws off me, you slimy fish!" came a tense feminine voice. When he made no move to comply, the figure which had been slumped down in the seat became a sudden bundle of fury.

"Easy, sister!" he protested, deftly capturing the small hands in his muscular grasp. "No use getting excite—" He paused. "What's this? Iron bracelets?"

The other man sloshed toward him threateningly. "Get out of what ain't none of your business!" he snapped. "You was headin' up the road. Just keep goin'—and you'll stay outa trouble."

Marlin felt the slender wrists grow tense within his grasp. The short length of chain connecting the handcuffs tinkled.

"Sorry, bo," he said softly. "The lady's jewelry intrigues me."

A hard object pressed sharply into his side. "Scram!"

With panther-like quickness, Marlin twisted. The gun barked as his arm knocked it away. Then the two were down in the sodden grass, flailing and squirming for advantage.

Either because he was the stronger or because luck favored him in the slippery rough-and-tumble, Marlin arose with the automatic in his possession.

"This," he commented, "is better. I've never been good at taking orders." He considered a moment. "If the car won't start, it won't. That leaves two courses open to us. We can sit and wait till some one comes along—which isn't likely—or we can hoof it until we come to something better. I saw a light up beyond."

"I'm tired of sitting in the car," the girl put in. "Anything's better than freezing here."

"Maybe you don't know, smart guy," her companion growled, "that you're tangling with the law." He tapped his chest.


"Yeah," the girl cut in, "and don't forget to tell him about your phony stunt—kidnaping me across the state line without extradition papers."

Marlin studied them for a moment. He had no desire to run up against the law. But if this officer was out of his jurisdiction—

"I get it," he said. "You're pulling something shady—that's why you tried to make it on this back trail. All right, brother—take off the jewelry."

Grudgingly, the detective removed the handcuffs.

"Try any funny stuff," he observed, "and it'll go hard with the both of you. This is Sally Camino," he informed Marlin. "Wanted for workin' a con game. I can turn her over to the authorities here if I have to. Won't be no trouble to get extradition papers. I'm just tryin' to save the state money."

"What's your name?" demanded Marlin.

"Len McGruder. What you so nosey for?"

"Just getting acquainted. Mine's Dave Marlin. Come on, Sal. Any baggage?"

"This jerk wouldn't even give me a chance to pack a toothbrush," she returned vindictively.

Fortunately, she was dressed in slacks. After a futile attempt to negotiate the mud in her high-heeled shoes, she left them sticking in the ooze.

"I'll take it bare-footed," she observed philosophically.

Less from chivalry than curiosity, Marlin helped her when she stumbled and assisted her over the deeper puddles. He decided, in the process, that she was firm-fleshed and well-formed. After the first few yards she refused his help.

"Keep your muddy paws off of me!" she snapped. "You too!" as McGruder attempted to thrust his bulk between them.

They plodded on through the mud and drizzle. The road climbed upward at an agonizing grade. Marlin no longer cursed. In the presence of companions in misery, he became tauntingly ironical. It was they who were buffeted and tormented—he was the strong man, unaffected by the elements, able to "take it."

"We shoulda stayed in the car," growled McGruder.

"Only room for two of us," returned Marlin. "Want to go back with me, Sal?"

"Not if I know what I'm doing!" the girl snapped, brushing a lock of wet hair out of her eyes.

Topping a steep rise, they came unexpectedly upon the shelter.


A light gleamed feebly through a small window. Closer approach revealed that it was set in a wall which formed the front of a dwelling partly extending back into the cliff.

They pressed their faces against the dripping pane. Beside a fireplace in which a few dying embers glowed faintly, a robust man with a flowing beard was nodding over a book. A kerosene lamp flickered on the table beside him.

They felt along the wall for a door and rapped. After a moment, it opened. The beard was thrust forward and the man behind it stood regarding them from beneath bushy eyebrows.

"We're lost," began Marlin. "What's the chance—?"

"Eh?" the bearded man craned his neck, peering beyond them. "So you're the ones we've been waiting for. Where's the other?"

"There's only the three of us."

With a slightly puzzled manner, he allowed them to enter. Marlin crossed to the fireplace. "Mind if I build this up?"

Not waiting for a reply, he heaped on chunks of pine log from the half-filled woodbox and soon had a rousing fire. McGruder and the girl knelt gratefully in front of the blaze—the girl shivering. Not bad, Marlin decided, at his first sidelong glimpse of her face—or wouldn't be, when her wet hair was fixed up. Then he growled at himself and abruptly turned away.

Their host stood with folded arms, surveying the mud-smeared trio with evident distaste. Experiencing a vague sense of alien presences, Marlin suddenly whirled, his hand clutching at the pocket in which McGruder's automatic reposed.

A door, apparently leading to the interior of the mountain, was partly open. Peering from the narrow aperture were three curiously repellent faces and one of singular beauty.

Sally and the detective, crouching before the fire, turned at his smothered exclamation. The three faced the barrage of eyes in silence until the bearded man gestured peremptorily.

"Shut the door," he ordered.

"Come in if you must."

As they trooped into the room, Marlin caught a glimpse of a dark passageway. The unmistakable earthy smell of a mine shaft or tunnel reached his nostrils.

They were a nondescript group. At first glance, three of the newcomers had appeared to be men. Marlin saw now that one was a woman. She had a bulbous nose, bleary red eyes, and a scar that twisted one corner of her mouth into the semblance of a grin. Her gaunt figure was swathed in a dingy robe.

One of the men was powerful and well-knit—he looked to be a match for Marlin himself. The other was wizened and under-sized, with a shrewd, weasel face. Strands of greasy hair overhung his eyes, forcing him to cock his head like a poodle in order to see. Both men had made shift to pull their trousers over their underwear before putting in an appearance.

In contrast to these was the fourth—a girl of perhaps eighteen with a sweetly innocent face framed in a shimmering halo of golden hair. In her long white robe she was a vision of ethereal loveliness. The eyes of Marlin and McGruder instinctively fastened upon her.

The woman with the twisted grin cackled. "Look your fill, smarties, for that's all you'll get. Pearl ain't for the likes of you, so don't get ideas."

The weasel-faced man sidled forward, extending a clammy hand. "Wukkum to our dump," he said ingratiatingly. "Meet the gang. My name's Link—Percival B. Link for the blotter, Slinky Link to my frien's." He jerked a thumb toward the woman. "Maw Barstow. This overgrown hunk of meat is Bart DuChane, alias Chaney the Great. Just finished doing a stretch for manslaughter. Oughta stuck to his crystal gazing."

The eyes of the man thus introduced glittered venomously, but his lips forced a smile. He spoke in a controlled voice.

"I might suggest that people who discuss others too freely sometimes meet with accidents."

Marlin studied him with a sense of taking the measure of an adversary. "My name is Dave Marlin," he acknowledged.

"Who's your frien's?" demanded Link.

The detective replied, nodding toward the girl who had worn the handcuffs. "Sally Camino—slickest floozie in the con-game racket. My name's McGruder. D. A.'s office," he added significantly.

Link peered through his thatch of hair. "McGruder," he said reflectively. "Ain't you the Len McGruder that was kicked off the force in Columbus for hijacking? Sure! I know you!"

Marlin swung on the detective. "You're no law officer," he said. "Let's see that badge."

"Keep your hands offa me!" the detective snarled, clutching his coat.

Sally Camino faced him in sudden fury. "You rat!" she spat at him. "You're an even bigger phony than I guessed. Taking me across the state line so's you could put the screws on the gang. Well, let me tell you, fake copper, when Briscoe hears of this—"

"You one of the Briscoe mob?" demanded Link. "Why I was practic'ly lined up with Briscoe—before I got sent up the last time. It's a small world, ain't it?"

The girl glanced at him with repugnance. "Yeah? That just about makes us pals, don't it?"

The irony was wasted. "Sure does," he grinned.

"How about her?" McGruder indicated the golden-haired girl.

"That's Pearl," explained Link. "She ain't all there."

"A lot you know about it!" retorted Maw Barstow. "Pearlie's brighter than you think. Is these the ones that was comin', dearie?" she demanded.

The girl's lips parted in a beatific smile.

"Has vishuns," explained Link. He tapped his forehead to indicate a mysterious form of mental activity. "The old guy—he's nuts too."

This confidence was imparted in a lowered voice, but hardly low enough to avoid being overheard.

"Who is he?" demanded McGruder.

"The name," responded the vibrant voice of the bearded man, "is Elias Thornboldt. And your informant is perfectly correct when he assures you that I am crazy."

The newcomers stared.

"What of it!" Thornboldt demanded, his voice rising in pitch. "I have brains, even if they are addled. I have respectability. I should associate with scientists—decent citizens—instead of scum. Thieves, murderers, pickpockets, harlots—you are not nice people, not any of you!"

He glared at the group as if challenging denial.

"With my brains," he went on, breathing heavily, "I should create a wonderful space ship—instead of a monstrosity that was never intended on heaven or earth. Fortunately, I know I am mad. The rest of you do not know what vermin you are!"

Marlin felt a hand plucking at his sleeve. He glanced down to meet the eyes of Link peering through strands of dank hair.

"We better ooze out," the creature said. "When the old gink gets started like that he'll keep it up all night."

The passage, as Marlin had surmised, was a tunnel through the rock. Bart DuChane led the way with a flashlight. A narrow plank walk marked its length for something like a hundred feet. They emerged on what seemed to be a ledge of the open mountainside. The rain was still pouring, but an outcropping overhead partly protected the ledge. Across the way, a rim of tall pines could be discerned against the murky sky.

"It's the hollow of an ancient crater," DuChane volunteered. "That dark mass in the pit below—but why spoil your anticipation? Tomorrow you'll see for yourselves." He laughed unpleasantly. "These are the bunkhouses—ladies to the left, men to the right. Maw is a stickler for the proprieties."

They entered a narrow shack—apparently one of several along the ledge. There were two lower and two upper bunks. Since the lower had been appropriated by DuChane and Link, the late comers climbed into the upper tier.

"Looks almost as if they was expecting us—or somebody," commented McGruder. "The old goof sorta hinted—"

"They were," chuckled DuChane. "You'd be surprised."


Dave Marlin stood on the ledge in the chill air of early morning, looking into the sodden depths below. The rain had ceased, but the rays of the newly risen sun as yet had scarcely found their way into the crater.

He turned, shivering, as DuChane sauntered toward him. "What's that thing down below?"

"What does it look like?"

"Like a huge ball of clay. But the scaffolding and building equipment—these bunkhouses—indicate human handiwork. The old duffer said something about a space ship. This couldn't be—"

"There's little enough I can tell you," responded DuChane. "I've been here less than a week. Slinky and I lost our bearings in a storm. It's a good hideout—and we're seemingly expected to stick around. The dipsomaniac and her queer companion have been here longer. She used to cook for the construction crew.

"Whatever that thing is—" he indicated the huge mud-colored ball in the pit below—"was practically in that condition when we arrived. The self-styled scientist, Thornboldt, seems to have started out with the idea of pioneering in space travel. My information comes chiefly from an article in a scientific magazine that I ran across in his shack, denouncing him as a charlatan. Near as I can gather, he evolved certain theories about nullifying gravity by atomic polarization—if that means anything to you. Claimed to do it by creating violent stresses within a magnetic field. The attacking author—some scientific duck by the name of Lamberton—acknowledged that there was a mathematical basis for Eli's conception, but pointed out that inconceivable power would be required to demonstrate the theory. Do I bore you?"

Marlin started. "Far from it." Then: "You're an educated man," he commented irrelevantly.

Bart DuChane threw back his head and laughed, the sound echoing from the opposite cliffs.

"Same to you," he retorted. "I recognized the Harvard accent. Like old Eli, it is a shame that we should be associating with scum—except that—as he so charmingly puts it—we are scum ourselves." He paused, then, lowering his voice: "Slinky didn't exaggerate. I have engaged in many shady pursuits, not the least of which is bilking the credulous by the ancient and phony art of crystal gazing. The manslaughter rap was the result of a tavern brawl. I have a weakness for low company."

His frankness was a pointed invitation for similar confidences. Marlin hesitated, then, with a shrug: "Not much of interest to tell about myself. My degree isn't from Harvard—nevertheless, it is from a university of good standing. It just happens that there are more openings for a bruiser than a scholar. I wasn't doing so badly in professional football, filling in with wrestling exhibitions and some boxing. Then I fell for a dame—fell hard. A guy without money was mud to her—so I had to get money. Hooked up with a smuggling mob, trucking the stuff over the border. Eventually we had a run-in with revenue officers, and a couple of them were so unfortunate as to stop lead. I got a minimum sentence, but it was plenty long."

"When you got out, naturally, the dame hadn't bothered to wait."

Marlin made no attempt to answer. DuChane nodded.

"It bears out old Goofus. We are not nice people. I wonder what the eighth will be like."

"The eighth?"

"There's to be another, according to legend. You saw the girl, Pearl. It seems she has prophetic spells. According to predictions which Maw claims the girl dropped, eight of us are due to show up, in addition to Eli—four male, four female. What is to happen then is rather vague, but Maw drops dark hints about a mysterious journey. She and Pearl were here first; then came Link and I. Thus you and your friends were more or less expected."

"Surely," expostulated Marlin, "you don't believe—"

"Believe? Without proof, I neither believe nor disbelieve. It's as bigoted to do one as the other. However, we need only one more arrival—female, of course—to complete the prophecy. I hope she turns out to be a good-looker—though I'll admit your friend Sal isn't bad."

Marlin turned away, somehow annoyed.

"Is there such a custom around here as breakfast?"

DuChane sniffed the air. "Maw Barstow seems to have anticipated your question. The eating shack is beyond the bunkhouses."

The fare produced was abundant if not choice. The whole group evinced hearty appetites, even Pearl, who, despite a soiled ill-fitting gown, seemed scarcely less lovely than she had under the flickering lamplight. She smiled amiably but spoke not at all.

While eating, Marlin let his eyes rove speculatively over the group.

The waif who had crouched beside him, shivering and disheveled, over the fire last night now looked somewhat more the part of an underworld moll. Sally had made an attempt to do her hair, but the dab of color applied to her lips accentuated the wary hardness of her expression.

Len McGruder, bull-necked, furtive-eyed, loose-lipped, inspired in Marlin a deep antipathy. "A man who would sell his best friend down the river," was his mental summation.

Maw Barstow, referred to by DuChane as a dipsomaniac, was probably not as old as she looked. Her unsavory appearance seemed due more to disfigurement than to disposition. A rather sentimental but plain-spoken person, she was unquestionably devoted to Pearl.

Slinky Link, with his ingratiating yet repellent manner, was a parasitic type of petty criminal—not particularly dangerous—not particularly anything.

DuChane, as Marlin sensed him, was a man at war with himself. "In a way," reflected Marlin, "He's too much like me."

The thought occurred that if he were looking at himself through other eyes, he would not be more favorably impressed than by the others. "I'd see a poker-faced lug with a cauliflower ear and the body of a stevedore," he reflected. "It'd be pretty hard to guess that a hard-looking egg like me ever dabbled in science and still has a yen to find out what fascinating stuff is hidden in the covers of every book—even if that book is only a human face."

It was difficult to account for the oldster, Elias Thornboldt. Danish, Marlin judged him to be. Apparently he was providing food and shelter for the gathering, much as he despised them all. He sat at the head of the table, coldly aloof, consuming food in enormous mouthfuls.

When his appetite was appeased, Thornboldt stalked from the cookshack, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. A few moments later, Marlin found him standing on the ledge, moodily staring down at the huge ball of clay.

"Still it moves!" he muttered. "It moves and rolls and grows."

"What moves?" demanded Marlin sharply. "That thing down there? And what is it?"

The older man turned as if to speak. But he only glared at the group surrounding him and abruptly walked away.

"It's a fact," DuChane commented. "If you watch patiently you can see it. The ball seems to be resting in a bed of ooze—a sort of tarry substance. As the sun rises, it softens under the heat, and when the heat is withdrawn, it hardens. The alternate expansion and contraction seems to impart a rotation to the ball. It's more than a hundred feet across, yet in the time I've been here, I'll swear it's turned half way over. And that isn't all. Care to take a trip down?"

Presently they stood on a precarious scaffolding close to the huge sphere. The bed of ooze could be discerned engulfing its base. Already, under the heat of the sun, a steaming effluvium was rising from the surface. The outside of the ball was caked with a grayish crust of the stuff.

"Feel it," urged DuChane. "Hard?"

"Yes, it's hard," admitted Marlin. "Like stone."

"Now look." DuChane caught up a crowbar and drove it into the bulging wall. It pierced the crust and sank a short distance into the interior.

"Push on it," he directed.

Marlin tested the resistance to the bar. Under pressure it sank deeper. He could even twist it slowly.

"Seems kind of—rubbery—inside," he commented.

"Pull it out."

He did so. Immediately the hole filled with a flowing exudation similar to the ooze below him. It spread over the edges and began to harden.

"Acts like the stuff they used to put in bicycle tires to make them puncture-proof," commented Marlin. "Is it solid clear through?"

DuChane stared. He was breathing more heavily than his recent exertion seemed to warrant.

"I forgot you don't know. This is Thornboldt's space ship. Or was. He built it in the form of a metal sphere, girded and braced inside, all equipped with dynamos and machinery. Had a big crew of workmen. When it was just about finished—even provisioned—his backers decided that the whole thing was crazy and shut off his money supply. Articles like that one by Lamberton finished them. To cap the climax, the thing broke through its scaffold and sank into this pit."

"Funny place to build in the first place."

"His idea was to keep the construction a secret from the general public. This crater-like depression, with its only entrance through the old mine tunnel, was far enough out of the way to accomplish the purpose, even though it must have enormously increased the cost of assembling materials. Anyway, after it fell into the pit, the creeping rotation commenced and the shell has gradually taken on this coating of lava—or whatever the stuff is. It's at least four feet thick by this time. Somewhere inside is an entrance port, but there's no way of locating it. The whole thing is so incomprehensible that it's driven him crazy. At least he thinks it has."

"You think otherwise?"

DuChane glanced at his companion. "Possibly his theories are ridiculous, but no one can deny that the ball actually moves and is coating itself with a thick layer of this lava-like stuff. It's just one of those accidental freaks of nature."

Marlin brushed at a swarm of insects and leaned over to follow the flight of a bird into the depths below.

"Two to one it never comes up," DuChane offered. "The stuff is like flypaper. The smell seems to have a fatal attraction for birds and small animals—chipmunks and the like. Or perhaps they're drawn by the seeds that blow in and stick to the surface. Sometimes they escape, but if the consistency is right, it sucks them in, like quicksand. Maw Barstow claims she lost a flock of chicks that way. And if you can believe her, several dogs, and a cat or two, have been trapped by the ooze during her time. There's even a story about some calves and sheep that wandered over the ledge and never could be located, the inference being...."

They were interrupted by the arrival of Thornboldt, followed reluctantly by Link and McGruder. He was carrying pick and shovel and seemed unexpectedly imbued with energy.

"Get tools," he commanded tersely. "You can't stand around here like drones. I have valuable equipment in there. It must be saved."

He attacked the shell with furious strokes of the pick. After a moment, Marlin joined his efforts with the crowbar.

There was no room for the others to participate, even if they had felt inclined to help. They stood watching curiously as Marlin and Eli broke through the crust. This was the easiest part of the undertaking. From a depth of two or three inches below the surface, the substance was a sticky, rubbery mass, which inexorably flowed back to fill the gap made by each blow of pick or crowbar.

"You ain't gettin' nowhere," volunteered Link, peering through his hair.

Eli paused long enough to glare at him. "What would you suggest?" he demanded, then scathingly added, "Loafer!"

"If you had something you could push through. A pipe—or—or something."

The scientist dropped his pick.

"Is it out of the mouths of fools and nit-wits I must get ideas!" he exploded. "Come!"

The rest following, he picked his way over scaffolding, rocks, and heaps of construction material. He stopped, frowningly studying a section of drain pipe some two feet across and five feet long.

"We will try this," he decided.


They managed to get the cylinder up on the scaffolding and to insert one end in the opening gouged in the outer shell. Slow but steady progress toward penetrating the gummy mass was achieved by imparting a rotary motion to the pipe section. By mid-morning, Marlin had rigged up a crude leverage device of timbers, on the principle of a pipe wrench, which expedited the process of screwing the cylinder into the interior.

From time to time it was necessary to shovel out the accumulation of ooze. DuChane called Marlin's attention to a dead field mouse in one of the shovel loads.

"No calves?" queried Marlin.

"Not yet, but you can't tell."

By nightfall they had made definite progress. The pipe was buried at least two feet in the sphere. Tired and not a little out of sorts, they returned to the cookshack. "Me, I'm through," growled McGruder. "I'm hittin' the trail first thing tomorrow—and what's more, sis, you're comin' with me," he stared at Sally.

"That's what you think!" she responded disdainfully.

But a plentiful breakfast, or perhaps curiosity, altered the detective's plans. When operations were resumed, he showed up tardily to take a hand.

By mid-afternoon, they had succeeded in screwing the pipe some four and a half feet into the interior, when an obstacle was encountered.

Marlin straightened his weary back. "Dig the stuff out," he instructed. "We've struck the shell—I hope."

When the message was relayed to Eli that the shell had been reached, he came plunging through the tunnel.

"Do nothing till I come!" he shouted from the ledge above. With utter disregard for safety, he hurtled down the slope and drew up panting on the platform.

"We will cut through," he announced. "It needs a small man." He looked at Link appraisingly. "Can you handle a blowtorch?"

When the slinky one was safely at work under Marlin's direction, Eli impatiently herded the others away.

"You are doing no good here. Come—help with the things I must take."

The group eyed him with astonishment.

"Take where?" demanded DuChane. "You don't expect this contraption actually to fly?"

"What I think is my own affair!" Thornboldt's beard trembled with the vehemence of his indignation. "Who are you to question my intentions—you who cannot even comprehend my scientific principles!"

With raised eyebrows, DuChane glanced at Marlin. Then, accompanied by McGruder, he followed the scientist up the winding trail while Link continued his blowtorch operations. Whatever the inventor's intentions might be, Marlin felt an insatiable curiosity to view the interior of the incredible sphere.

"Got her!" presently came the muffled announcement from the depths of the pipe. Link wriggled out, holding the blowtorch gingerly at arm's length.

"Melted away like butter," was the little man's comment. "Now a safe I cut into oncet—"

Marlin lost the rest by starting up the hill to lend Sally Camino a hand with a heavy chest she was carrying.

"He's got us all working," she observed, as Marlin took the burden. "We've been packing stuff all morning." Absently she dislodged a pebble from between her bare toes. "What's he going to do, bury himself in that thing?"

"You've got me." Marlin shrugged.

By the time he had deposited the chest on the platform, McGruder and DuChane appeared, carrying a long packing case between them. Maw Barstow followed, also burdened, and after her Eli himself. Smiling serenely, but empty-handed, Pearl brought up the rear.

"I must be the first inside," insisted Eli. "Bring the other boxes."

They did not depart until the scientist, heaving and puffing, and by dint of wholehearted shoving on the part of those outside, had managed to squeeze his bulk through the pipe. They heard the sound of rending fabric, accompanied by agonized imprecations, as he worked his way over the jagged metal edges. Then followed a heavy "plop."

"Are you hurt?" Marlin called.

"Naturally I am hurt! I am killed!" came the dark response. "But no matter. Pass me those boxes."

At Marlin's suggestion, Link first crawled through with the blowtorch and trimmed away the jagged metal. Then the boxes were pushed through and they returned for more.

Marlin glanced curiously around Thornboldt's recent living quarters. The shack was nearly stripped. Books, apparatus, provisions, bedding—everything except the larger pieces of furniture—had been packed.

"The old rascal is nuts, all right," was Marlin's comment to Sally. The others had departed with their loads. "Think we've got all he wants?"

Before she could answer, a staccato volley of shots interrupted. The sounds appeared to come from the slope below.


Both hurried to the single window. Where the wagon trail skirted the base of the rocky hillside, a half dozen crouching figures came into view. Armed with rifles and pistols, they were creeping cautiously up the incline.

A single shot from above caused some of the group to drop flat. Others dodged into the brush. There was a movement among the lengthening shadows at the left.

"What goes on!" demanded Sally. "Gang war?"

"They're not shooting at each other," Marlin asserted, after watching the cautious maneuvers of the two groups. "Looks as if they were closing in on some one. Sheriff's posse, I guess."

Another shot directed their eyes to the rock behind which the fugitive or fugitives must be hiding.

From its concealment, a figure edged into view. There appeared to be only one.

"Poor devil—sure is done for," commented Marlin. "Must be public enemy number one, to judge by the number in the posse. Look! There he goes!"

Crouching close to the ground, the overalled figure dodged from cover to cover, each fleeting appearance bringing a fusillade of shots from the converging squads. He replied with a couple of bursts from his own weapon, then fell on his stomach behind a rock and commenced reloading.

Perhaps it was because their experience had prejudiced them against all forces of law; perhaps it was merely sympathy with the underdog, that impelled Sally and Marlin to pull mentally for the fugitive.

"That's no protection!" breathed Sally. "They'll have him between a crossfire. Why doesn't he make a dash for it?"

"Where'll he dash?" queried Marlin.

For answer, Sally opened the door a crack and called sharply, "Here!"

The outlaw glanced desperately over his shoulder, then, crouching and dodging, he made a zig-zag retreat up the hill. A rattle of shots accompanied this daring retreat. It was incredible that such an open target could escape the murderous bullets coming from all directions.

A final spurt and the fugitive fell sprawling across the threshold. Marlin dragged him inside as Sally slammed and bolted the door. Blood spurted from a neck wound and the outlaw clutched at his side, groaning.

"Done for—Thanks!" he gasped. "You better—" The effort at speech ended in a gasp.

The sound of running boots on the gravel, followed by a peremptory knock, indicated the arrival of the posse.

"Open up! This is the law!" an imperative voice called.

Sally tugged at the wounded man. "Stall 'em off!" she whispered tensely. "I'll get him back inside."

With a hopeless gesture, Marlin tried to restrain her. "We'll only get ourselves in dutch—We can't hope to—"

Her look of scorn checked the protest. Shrugging, he lifted the desperately wounded man and supported him into the tunnel. Once erect, the outlaw seemed able to stumble along by leaning heavily on the bare-footed girl. Marlin closed the door and gave attention to the increasing demands from out in front.

He unlatched the swinging window.

"What's up?" he demanded.

A stocky figure detached itself from the group of twelve or fifteen bunched around the door.

"You're obstructing the law! Open that door!"

"Easy now," returned Marlin. "I'm not obstructing any law. I just want to know what it's all about? Who are you?"

"Sheriff Bates of Grinnell County. You're harboring an outlaw—the Picaroon Kid."

"Never heard of him. What'd he do?"

"Held up a bank, for one thing," snapped the sheriff. "Wanted for other jobs and for killing two deputies. You gonna open that door?"

"Sure, I'll open it," Marlin spoke slowly, trying to give Sally time. "The poor devil's carcass is full of lead—no danger of his getting away."

Withdrawing, Marlin methodically fastened the window, then had an ostentatiously difficult time manipulating the door lock.

"Cut out that stalling!" called the sheriff furiously. "Are you gonna open up, or do we smash our way in?"

Marlin opened the door. With an impatient grunt, the sheriff brushed past him, glaring around uncertainly.

"Where'd you hide him?"

The outlaw's gun lay on the floor where it had been dropped in his fall, and a trail of blood led across the board floor. The sheriff snatched up the weapon, then crossed the room in a stride, flinging open the inner door. He peered down the tunnel.

"Some hideout!" he commented. "We'll look into this. Come on, men."

Marlin moved ahead of them, managing to delay progress by feeling his way with extreme caution through the dark passage. Eventually, they emerged on the shelving ledge.

"Where'd he go?" demanded the sheriff, surveying the scene.

"You know as much as I do."

A hasty search of bunkhouses and cook shack was sufficient to show that they were unoccupied. Two or three of the posse discovered a continuation of the blood trail, and they followed it to the descent which led to the sphere. Marlin's anxious eyes caught a glimpse of a bare foot disappearing in the entrance pipe. No one else was in sight.

"What's that big ball?" demanded the sheriff, staring.

"You've got me."

The blood trail led unmistakably toward the sphere. Soon the sheriff was peering curiously through the opening.

"The Kid's inside all right. Blood smears all down the pipe. Somebody climb in after him."

The men looked uncertainly at one another. It would be a simple matter for any armed person inside to put a bullet through the first head that showed itself. The sheriff evidently had no relish for the prospect and did not care to designate any one for the job. He turned to Marlin.

"You go in there," he ordered.

"Tell your buddies they'll save trouble by bein' reasonable. Tell 'em to pass the Kid out. If they don't we'll toss a few tear gas bombs inside. You gonna do it?"

"What else can I do?"

With some forcible assistance from behind, Marlin worked his way down the tube. At the inner edge, hands grasped him by the shoulders and helped him to land on a floor of some kind.

"You tell 'em what I said!" came the sheriff's voice. "No stalling!"

His eyes unaccustomed to the darkness, Marlin allowed himself to be guided along some sort of a wooden platform. It slanted at an angle which made walking difficult. The guiding hands proved to be DuChane's.

"This is a hell of a mess," the latter breathed. "What's to be done?"

"Give up the outlaw. We're trapped in here like rats," Marlin answered. "If we don't come through, they'll toss in tear bombs. Can any of you imagine what that would be like in this place?"

"Leave it to that fool Sally!" McGruder said harshly.

The girl turned on him with a spiteful retort as an impatient call reached them from outside. Marlin raised his voice.

"Give me a chance!" he bellowed.

The words echoed through the hollow interior. "It's dark in here. I've got to find 'em, haven't I?" He dropped his voice to a whisper. "How's the wounded jasper?"

"Passed out," DuChane informed him. "I'll lead you to him."

Feeling their way, they emerged in a box-like enclosure partly filled with tools. Maw Barstow, holding a feeble flashlight, squatted beside a huddled mass which was evidently the wounded man. Cradling his head in her lap was Pearl. An accidental shifting of the flashlight beam revealed her tranquil, madonna-like smile as she gazed down at the blood-smeared face.

"Sorry," Marlin announced. "We've got to get rid of this bad bozo. How's he doing?"

"You ain't gonna move the pore critter!" countered Maw fiercely.

Protest was futile. DuChane settled the argument by seizing the shrieking woman and holding her while Marlin gathered up the unconscious outlaw and felt his way back toward the opening. He was nearly thrown from his feet once as the platform—apparently the whole sphere—gave an unexpected lurch.

"Where's the place?" he demanded, sensing figures in the darkness surrounding. "I can't see the light."

Sally's laugh reached him shrilly. "And what's more, you won't."

He paused, uncomprehending. Link's squeaky voice brought the explanation.

"They can't get us now. McGruder and me levered the pipe out with a board. You oughta see the stuff pour in."

The full enormity of this was slow in penetrating Marlin's mind.

"What's that!" called DuChane, his voice rising in alarm. He came stumbling toward them in the darkness. "Now isn't that fine! It isn't enough that we're trapped in here, but we've got to make the trap foolproof by blocking the only way out!"

Unmindful of the stormy exchange of insults and recriminations that surged around him, Marlin picked his way back to the tool room and deposited his groaning charge at Maw Barstow's feet.

"Better dress the wounds," he commented. "Where's Eli?"

"Somewhere down there," Maw replied vaguely. "Pearlie, darlin', help me get this bloody shirt offen the pore dear."


Returning to the others, Marlin found DuChane holding forth in a profane diatribe which included not only McGruder, Link, and Sally, but all their antecedents.

"There's nothing to get excited over," Marlin interposed, calmly. "What difference does it make?"

"Difference?" DuChane roared. "Has it occurred to you that we've no possible way to get out of here? That ooze must have filled up the opening solidly by now."

"But the pipe is still projecting from the outside. Our sheriff friend will probably have gumption enough to force it in, just as we did. He'll be plenty mad by the time he finishes the job, but as far as I can see this merely delays our coming-out party for a few hours."

"And makes it tougher," growled DuChane. Marlin's words, nevertheless, seemed to have a quieting effect on his anger. His mood changed.

"We're in for it, but they can't pin anything on me. I served the rap for my little accident with a gun. Slinky here is likely to go up for a stretch, just on general principles. McGruder—now that baby has a bad conscience or he wouldn't have been so anxious to close the entrance. It wouldn't surprise me if—"

"Mind your own business!" snarled the detective. "Loud-mouthed blabbers like you is like to wake up with a knife in their ribs."

"So! A killer! One of the breed that sticks a knife in your back! What say, Dave—shall I teach him a lesson?"

There was a scuffle in the dark. "You lemme go!" roared McGruder. "I'll—" The words ended in a jolting gasp as two bodies struck the floor.

The thrashing limbs and bodies flailed for a moment, eliciting a wholehearted round of abuse from Sally as they almost knocked her feet from under. After a minute, DuChane arose.

"No weapons," he reported. "Bad boys shouldn't make threats unless they've got something to back 'em up with. Next time," he added ominously, "I'll cave your teeth in."

There was a faintly muttered response as McGruder retired to a safer distance.

"Where's Eli?" again demanded Marlin.

"He left us here," DuChane replied, "saying he was going down to the control room. Wonder if he has any way of lighting this—Oh, hello!"

A sudden radiance engulfed them. Blinking, they stared at each other—at their surroundings.

The tilted surface on which they stood was apparently nothing more than a scaffolding in the unfinished portion of the sphere. The boxes and crates they had loaded were distributed around the closed entrance-hole. Peering upward, they looked into a network of girders, bracing the huge expanse, weirdly lighted here and there with single bulbs—evidently a temporary lighting arrangement for the workmen.

Below the level of their vision, also on a slant, was a partly enclosed portion of three or four levels, resembling a ship's superstructure. The humming noise of a dynamo accompanied the establishment of light service. Thornboldt emerged from a doorway and stood with head tilted back, surveying the bleak interior.

"Close the opening," he called out, catching sight of the group on the platform.

An involuntary laugh greeted the order.

Annoyed at the failure of his command to produce activity, the scientist worked his way up to the platform, emerging between the end-shafts of a ladder. At the point in the hull where the pipe had penetrated, a bulging mass of the lava-like substance was slowly hardening.

He grunted. "Temporarily that will do. Later it must be covered with metal."

DuChane winked at Sally. "Anchors aweigh!" he sang. "Heave ho and a bottle of rum! Stand by for the good ship Thornboldt. But look here, Eli, what about the eight?"


"Seems to me Pearl predicted we'd make our start when there were four men, four gals, beside yourself. According to my reckoning, it doesn't count out."

"You ask me to take stock in such superstition? Am I a scientist or a Hottentot?"

Another lurch caused them all to grasp at near objects for support.

"What makes it do that?" demanded Sally, nervously. "Ever since we climbed in it's been acting like a horse with the heaves."

"It's the sphere turning and settling," DuChane informed her. His arm encircled her waist and she struggled—though not too violently, Marlin thought—to break away. "Notice the floor's tilting? Won't be long before it stands straight up."

"Four and four," muttered the Dane into his beard. "There should be eight instead of seven. Where is that girl?"

Catching a glimpse of Pearl in the tool enclosure, he strode toward it.

"Oh no—he isn't superstitious!" commented DuChane.

"If we could rig up a periscope—push it through the soft part inside of the pipe—we might stand a chance of observing what goes on outside," Marlin suggested.

Without enthusiasm, DuChane agreed that it was a good idea. Releasing his hold on Sally, he followed Marlin down the ladder and they began an investigation of the more nearly finished section of the interior.

Some of the machinery they found understandable, much of it was strange. All loose objects had been tumbled into corners-probably had rolled around the circumference of whatever confined space they happened to be in, as the sphere slowly accomplished its rotation. But the supplies for the most part had been packed in anticipation of severe jolts. There was a really enormous supply of canned goods and other food items in sealed containers, but as yet no bunks had been erected in the doorless staterooms.

In one compartment they found a disarray of packing cases heaped together along one side-wall. One box had been crushed, revealing a gleaming cylinder.

"What are you doing there?" demanded Thornboldt from the doorway.

"If these happen to be instruments, perhaps you can tell us if there's a periscope in the lot," returned DuChane.

Eli fell to examining the boxes. "Try this one," he suggested. "Yes, that's a good idea. Very good." He hurried away, leaving them wondering at his unusual good spirits.

The instrument they unearthed was all that could be desired. "I believe," Marlin commented, "we can get this through by encasing it in a protective sheath."

"How'll we get the sheath off?"

"It can be done. We need a tube large enough to admit passage of the instrument. It can be just a rolled strip of sheet iron. We'll streamline it by welding the end to a point. When we've worked it through the mass far enough to project beyond the large pipe, we'll slide in the periscope. Last of all, we take a good solid rod, attach it to the rear projection of our sheath, and shove. When the sheath has cleared the top, it'll drop off, leaving the periscope head exposed."

"Might work," DuChane acknowledged. "You've an ingenious mind. But we'd better wait until dark. Less chance of being observed by the august forces of law and order."

"It'll be well along in the night before we've finished," returned Marlin. He caught hold of a door post as the sphere gave another shuddering lurch.

In their quest for material, they came upon Eli in the lower level of the superstructure. He was making adjustments throughout a bank of coils which seemed to constitute the major element of his apparatus. Pausing curiously, DuChane demanded:

"What's that for?"

Eli grunted, but the pride of an inventor won out over disdain.

"You could not understand," he informed them ungraciously. "Locked in these coils is a power that will make the name of Elias Thornboldt outstanding in history. A magnetic field in which occurs such a stress as the atom has never known causes polarization of the repulsion plates below this floor which is—how can I express it—the opposite of magnetism, of attraction, of the force of gravity."

"In other words," retorted DuChane, "anti-gravity." He nudged Marlin. "Professor Lamberton says your conclusions are unsound—that it would be impossible to build up a sufficiently strong magnetic field to accomplish the results you claim."

"That nincompoop!" exploded the scientist. "That stuffed piece of shirt! What does he know about atomic stress? Nothing! Yet he presumes—" Eli paused suspiciously. "Who told you about Lamberton?"

"Oh, we get around!"

The bearded scientist snorted. "Why bandy words? To show up Lamberton in all his stupidity, I have only to do this—"

With a dramatic gesture, he thrust home the prongs of a huge switch which occupied the central panel of a control board in front of the coils. Involuntarily, Marlin braced himself for a shock. Nothing happened. Nothing, at least, beyond a faint hum which emanated from the towering apparatus.

"Well?" queried DuChane impudently.

Eli shook his beard impatiently. "What did you expect? First it is necessary to build up a magnetic potential. Then, with this lever, I release the current through the repulsion plates." He caressed the device but refrained from demonstrating. "Naturally, I will make the first tests with utmost caution. The lever acts as a rheostat, by which the power is applied in any degree required, governing the acceleration. If I should move it to the extreme limit we would be hurled away from the earth with such violence as to crush every bone."

"How about steering?" queried Marlin. "Wouldn't you be condemned to travel in a straight line from any object which the plates happened to be facing at the start?"

"Do you take me for a numskull? Naturally the plates are segmented. They can be turned like a—like a—"

"Like the sections of a Venetian blind," interposed DuChane. "I get you. And—er—when do you start?"

Eli frowned. "I shall not delay long. All essentials are in place—the storage batteries, fully charged to furnish current for at least seven months, the dynamos, the conversion coils. First comes the trial flight. It will be brief—but sufficient to astonish the world. Then, when I have enjoyed the sight of Lamberton and those imbecile financiers groveling in the dust, I shall finish the sphere—without their assistance—and go—who knows where? To the moon, the planets—"

His grandiloquent vision was interrupted by another of the periodic lurches, which caused them all to grasp for support. Overhead, the girders groaned as they accommodated themselves to a new stress. Somewhere, a heavy object fell.

DuChane suddenly doubled up with mirth.

"Look!" he chortled. "Oh, this is good!"

Marlin followed the direction of his pointing finger. Involuntarily, he smiled.

"By rights," he commented grimly, "our bones ought to be crushed to powder. Well, that settles that."

Thornboldt stared blankly at the rheostat lever. His body, flung against it by the upheaval of the sphere, had pushed it to the extreme limit which he had warned would produce dire results.

"It means nothing!" he protested hollowly. "One faulty connection could make the whole thing a failure. Besides, how can you expect a lifting power that was intended for a hollow sphere to lift hundreds of tons of mud? Leave me alone. How can I work with such imbecile interruptions?"

They withdrew, leaving him staring with frowning contemplation at the ineffective starting lever.

"The old coot had me wondering at that," Marlin confided, as he and DuChane set about their task of installing the periscope. "I'm glad to have it settled."

They worked steadily into the night, pausing only to take part in a meal concocted from the ship's stores.

The outlaw had been made as comfortable as possible in one of the doorless staterooms, but was tossing in semi-delirium. He had been struck by at least six bullets, as reported by Sally. "Hmm!" grunted Marlin, busy with his welding torch. "Not much chance of his pulling through."

"Pearl says he will," returned Sally. She spoke with an air of amusement—almost of mystery. "Know what that girl had us do? She insisted on our puncturing the blister over that opening in the shell and drawing off about a quart of that gummy stuff for poultices. Since the idea came from Pearl, Maw thinks it must be the berries."

"Sounds unsanitary, to say the least."

"Oh, I don't know," DuChane disagreed. "Certain clays are used medicinally for drawing out inflammation. Come to think of it, this stuff resembles antiphlogistin as much as anything."

"If it works," observed Marlin, "we might put the goo on the market and make our fortunes."

The others had all turned in when Marlin and DuChane finished their task. As nearly as they could judge, the panoramic sight would be a success, although little could be discerned through it in the darkness except the outline which separated the blackness below the crater rim from the somewhat brighter hue of the sky.

"Frankly, now that we've accomplished the job, I don't know what good it's going to do," DuChane grumbled, as they turned to seek out their sleeping pallets. "If the sheriff starts to dig his way in, or if he chooses to do it just for meanness—he can snap the head off in a second."

Marlin grunted. The same thought had occurred to him, but he had kept it to himself. It had seemed better for the morale of the group to offer a show of activity.

As it was, their example had inspired even McGruder and Link to chip in toward opening packing cases, distributing the bedding, and otherwise providing temporary living quarters. All were sufficiently tired to sleep. Marlin dropped off almost instantly from exhaustion when he rolled himself in his blankets.


He woke with a stifling sense of oppression. In that indefinite period between sleeping and waking, he struggled with a terrified conviction that the whole mass of the enclosing sphere was caving in on him, smothering, crushing his chest, grinding him against the floor. For some minutes, he seemed unable to move. Eventually, his head clearing somewhat, he struggled up, gasping for breath and fighting a surge of nausea. The crushing sensation had been so vivid that it was several minutes before he could overcome it.

From an adjoining cubicle, the moans of the wounded outlaw penetrated his consciousness. He rose painfully, mindful of sore and stiffened muscles, and stumbled out onto the ramp.

Overhead, the scattered lights which gave a faint illumination to the network of girders, were casting weird, swaying shadows, as they did after every lurch of the sphere. It was such a lurch, Marlin realized, that probably woke him. The floor, he noticed, had returned more nearly to level.

Maw Barstow had spread her pallet across the bare opening of the outlaw's room, and lay there like a watchdog—anything but a lovely sight with her upturned face and open mouth. She was making hard work of sleep and did not stir when Marlin stepped over her and knelt beside the suffering figure inside.

A rag was immersed in a pan of water at the side of the pallet. Surmising its purpose, he squeezed a little between the feverish lips and then wiped off the drawn face. The muddy stuff of the poultice had oozed out around the neck wound. Marlin wiped some of it away and adjusted the bandage, then pulled down the cover to see if other bandages needed similar attention.

The outlaw, though wiry, seemed to have a rather frail physique. His face was smooth and boylike, almost sensitive, despite the hard set of the mouth. A tight bandage swathed the chest, but as Marlin's fingers felt along its edge he was struck by the soft, pliable texture of the flesh beneath.

For a minute, he paused, considering the faintly moaning figure. For some strange reason, chills raced up his spine.

Deliberately, he drew down the cover, until he could view the outstretched body. Then, very carefully, he restored the blanket to its place, tucking it carefully around the sleeping figure. The figure that was not a man—but a girl ...

When he rose to leave a moment later, Pearl was framed in the doorway, her lips parted in the enigmatic smile which belied the innocent vacuity of her eyes.

Marlin stepped over Maw Barstow's sleeping body and took the white-gowned girl gently by the arm.

"Better get back to your covers," he advised; then, softly: "Girl, oh girl! Maybe you've got something after all!"

When Marlin next awakened, it was to the rude shock of rough hands shaking him excitedly. He struggled up, his first impulse to strike out in resentment. It was DuChane.

"Wake up, Dave! For God's sake, wake up! I've got something to show you!"

Still half asleep, Marlin followed the other toward the ladder which led to the scaffold by which they had first entered. He felt strangely lightheaded, nauseated, wobbly on his feet, and his muscles ached. Unsteadily, he followed the other up to the scaffold.

DuChane applied his eye to the periscope, then gestured.

"Look!" His voice was scarcely more than a whisper.

Marlin crouched before the eyepiece. He peered through it with vague bewilderment at first, then with growing interest—concern—amazement.

He spoke at last—His voice strained and unfamiliar.

"There's nothing out there! No ground—no hillside—no crater—no scaffolding—nothing! Nothing but stars. Stars and blackness."

DuChane moistened his lips.

"It's an illusion," whispered Marlin. "We can't be—"

He glanced up at the girders. The shadows were still shifting in a weird dance to the cadence of swaying lights.

"I know when it happened," he breathed hoarsely. "I woke up—a little past midnight—with a terrible sense of oppression. Felt as if I were being crushed. It must have been the acceleration."

DuChane swallowed. "Nothing like that now. In fact, it's just the opposite—a touch of weightlessness. We'd better find Eli—have it out with him."

The bearded scientist was snoring furiously on his pallet in the control room. They woke him without ceremony.

DuChane interrupted the diatribe that trembled on the older man's lips.

"What right had you to do this?" he accused. "How do you know you can get us back safely? Damn it all!" DuChane's anger rose as the full enormity of the situation broke over him. "How do you expect to steer the crazy thing—find your way back—land it? That dinky periscope is about as useful for guidance as a cigarette lighter in a blizzard!"

Eli stiffened. "If you gentlemen will kindly explain what you are talking about!"

"Why, you—!" DuChane broke off. "Mean to tell us you don't know?"

The scientist's blank stare continued.

"We're in space," Marlin informed him tersely.

The older man seemed unable to comprehend. A momentary triumph lighted in his eyes, then faded into suspicion.

"Go away!" he ordered gruffly. "I have no mood for silly jokes."

Still, he submitted as they assisted him to his feet and hustled him toward the periscope.

A few moments later, racing back to the control room, he began a feverish examination of instruments and dials.

"I understand now. Yes—it is clear. I should have known, but in dealing with new forces—one lacks the guidance of experience. Lamberton—that imbecile? How I shall laugh. Charlatan eh! Yes, yes. It was necessary to build up a sufficient potential—to do that naturally took a great deal longer—"

"Look here," interrupted DuChane. "Isn't it possible that the coating on the sphere somehow acted as a storage reservoir into which your current poured until it built up this—this terrific potential you've mentioned? I mean—well, perhaps this storing up of power multiplied the current generated by your dynamos, until they overcame the objection Lamberton pointed out—that of obtaining sufficient power to produce the atomic stress."

"Nonsense!" Eli retorted reddening. "That imbecile has not the brains to grasp even my basic theory. There is no connection between my conversion coils and the mud coating!"

"You have a ground of some sort, haven't you?"

"Certainly. The steel shell of the sphere—" The inventor paused abruptly. "That dense outer coating of clay—Yes, yes. It might so act." He paused in exasperation. "Gentlemen! Please kindly go away! Is it not enough that I have great responsibilities, but you must come around with your childish theorizing?"

By this time, the others had been awakened by the commotion, and were crowding around the control room entrance.

"Wha—what's up?" demanded Link.

Marlin looked at DuChane; DuChane returned the look.

"Somebody has to break the news," said Marlin grimly. His eyes swept the gathering. "You may as well have it straight. We're no longer on earth; we're in space."

"Whadda you mean—space?" Link was bewildered.

"This is a space vessel isn't it—built to rise from the earth and fly off into the void? Well, contrary to expectations, it's doing just that. How far above earth we are, there's no way of telling—but I'm inclined to think it's one hell of a long way."


In an ordinary group, such an announcement might have brought hysterical outbursts from the women and at least some kind of clamor from the men. Eli's motley guests were either slower of comprehension or else hardened to vicissitudes. McGruder turned a rather ghastly color, murmured "Jees!" and sat down heavily on a packing box. No one else evinced more than bewilderment.

"So what?" queried Sally Camino. "Where are we going and how do we get back? Whose bright idea was this anyway?"

"Nobody's," Marlin informed her. "Eli left the forcefield in operation and accidentally pushed the starting lever last night. Since nothing happened, it never occurred to him to swing it back. The explanation seems to be that when enough power had accumulated, the anti-gravity polarization occurred, and we parted company with Mother Earth."

Link greeted this with a snicker.

"I was just thinkin'," he explained when the others focused puzzled eyes upon him, "what a su'prise that sheriff an' his dep'ties is gonna have when they find the old mud-ball gone this mornin'. Maybe some of 'em was on guard when it whooshed up into the sky afore their eyes."

No one laughed.

"No use kidding ourselves," Marlin commented. "We're in a tough predicament. We don't know where the sphere is headed; there's nothing but that hopelessly inadequate periscope to guide it by, and personally, I don't see the ghost of a chance of our landing anywhere. We're just a mote of dust in the void of space."

"It's just like Pearlie said, ain't it dearie?" cackled Maw Barstow unexpectedly. "We are all goin' on a long journey. Pearlie never makes a mistake."

"Oh, I don't know!" retorted DuChane, slyly. "I could cite an instance. Or maybe it's just faulty arithmetic. There were to be four and four, not three and five—at least 'that's the way I heard it.'"

"And that's all you know, smarty," chuckled Maw.

Sally winked at the older woman, while Marlin controlled his features with an effort.

"Ask her when we're gonna land—and where at?" suggested Link, peering hopefully.

"Pearlie will tell us everything in her own good time," retorted Maw, grandly. "Won't you darlin'? Don't you want to tell us where we're goin'?"

The girl smiled sweetly, and uttered the first words Marlin had heard from her lips.

"There are so many stones."

McGruder laughed hoarsely. Maw checked him with a ferocious look. "Go on, dearie," she urged. "Tell us more?"

The girl stared upward, as if visioning something in the distance. Her words slurred together; she seemed only half aware of speaking them.

"The world is a stone. There are many stones. So many lonely stones."

Marlin again experienced the uncanny sense of chills spiraling up his back—for no reason that he could comprehend. He looked uncertainly from one face to another. All were staring at the Sybil of the strange voyage.

Maw spoke with vague conviction. "That means something, and don't you mistake it. We'll have to figger it out. Pearlie don't always talk in plain words fer just ever'body to understand."

From behind the huge bank of coils, Elias Thornboldt emerged. He glowered in annoyance.

"Go away!" he ordered. "None of you are permitted in this room." He looked them over with sudden awareness and spoke bitterly. "What a crew for the pioneer flight into space! Instead of a distinguished gathering of world-famous scientists and statesmen, what do I have? Criminals! Go! Out of my sight!"

As they straggled out, DuChane observed with a show of resentment: "We might remind him that if it wasn't for a device rigged up by some of his despised crew, he wouldn't even know his contraption was off the ground."

Burning questions raced through Marlin's mind, but he frankly doubted the scientist's ability to answer them. A genius in his line Thornboldt might be; nevertheless, he was singularly impractical in other directions. One of Marlin's questions related to the persistence of almost normal gravity within the sphere. The explanation, DuChane suggested, must lie in the repulsion plates. While one surface exercised this force, the opposite surface compensated for it by exercising attraction. Though he tentatively accepted this theory for want of a better, Marlin was dissatisfied with it.

Another question related to the direction of their flight. Were they speeding toward or away from the sun? Was there danger of crashing into some planet, moon, or meteoric body, and if so could they avoid such a fate? Observations through the periscope might presently solve the question of direction. Possibly Eli had instruments which would help.

The days that followed settled down to a dull, monotonous routine. There was nothing—almost literally nothing—to do but eat, sleep, and chafe at the helplessness of their position.

Lacking any measurement of time in the uniform semi-gloom of the sphere, they established an arbitrary day of twenty-four hours. They slept and ate in accustomed routine and kept track of the days of the week.

The initial feeling that something must be done—and done immediately—toward getting out of the predicament, gradually gave way to a sense of hopeless resignation. When they goaded Eli with the necessity for action, he flew into violent rages. They realized at length that he was as much at a loss as any of the party.

How could they guide their course, when the limited observations possible through the periscope scarcely told them whether they were traveling toward the sun or away from it? They might, indeed, be hanging inert in space. Marlin contended that they were moving away from the sun.

"It's a cinch we started in that direction, since our ascent took place at night, when the sun was on the opposite side of the earth."

"If that's correct," growled DuChane, "it means that instead of roasting to death, we're doomed to perish of cold, when this hunk of dough gets so far away that there aren't any more of the sun's rays for it to absorb."

"We'll be dead of starvation long before that," Marlin added moodily.

The store of provisions seemed enormous at first glance. Now, faced by stern questions of survival, they calculated that it would actually last them not more than five months, and a careful rationing was instituted.

The water tanks would supply them for a period somewhat longer. Bathing and washing were restricted but not altogether denied, for the equipment included an efficient settling tank as well as an electric incinerator and an air-purifying system that was a credit to Eli's foresight.

"Evidently we'll starve to death before we have a chance to perish of thirst," was DuChane's comforting observation. "Unless the goo of our outside shell proves to be edible. It seems to have about every other property we could ask. Storage battery, heat absorber and distributor, healing agent, and waste converter."

He referred to their discovery that the waste products discharged through locks were seemingly absorbed by the clay-like outer coating. "I believe it digests the stuff. Remember how the pit absorbed those birds and small animals that became imbedded in it?" reminded DuChane. "I sometimes feel as if—"

"As if what?" demanded Marlin, looking at him curiously.

"Nothing. I couldn't put it into words if I tried."


Curiosity centered for a while upon the outlaw, who was making a slow recovery. She—for after a few days her sex had become general knowledge—kept moodily to herself, having little to do with the other women and regarding the men with suspicion.

She gave her real name as Norma Hegstrom. DuChane, by persistent questioning, elicited the additional fact that she had escaped from some institution—possibly a school of correction—and adopted her masquerade on coming West in order to elude the search.

"The way I've got it figured out," he confided to Sally and Marlin, as they sat listlessly on the platform under the periscope, "in order to make good in her boy's disguise and to offset her underlying feminine appearance, she had to act tougher than any of the roughnecks she was thrown with. So, by degrees, she was drawn into the career of an outlaw.

"You'd almost think," he added reflectively, "that Earth spewed out this gang because we're a bunch of what the sociologists call unassimilable elements."

"What do you mean by that?" snapped Sally.

"With all respect to those present, I suppose we could be spared about as well as any you could mention. Nobody here seems to have any home ties. There's no one back on Earth whose life will be affected by our departure. We haven't contributed anything constructive to society—in fact, on the average, we've been just general nuisances."

Marlin looked at him curiously. "You're implying—"

"I'm not implying a thing," DuChane evaded. He twisted around and picked up a jagged disc of metal. "We've got more serious problems to face. Recognize this?"

"It's the piece Slinky cut out of the opening with the blowtorch."

"Ever look at it?"

Marlin studied the other's face under the swinging shadows. Then he took the metal disc and peered at it closely.

Sally glanced from one serious face to the other. "Well," she demanded, "what's it all about?"

Without a word, Marlin passed her the fragment.

"Link said the blowtorch cut through it like butter," DuChane remarked grimly. "We've noticed how the clay covering digests waste material—tin cans included."

Sally turned the piece over curiously, ran her fingers over the serrated surface, held it up to the light.

"So that's all there is between us and—" She hesitated. "Why it's half eaten through in places—like something rusted. Is it my imagination, or can you see through it?"

"Imagination," assured Marlin. He took the fragment and held it before his eyes. "No, by thunder! A couple of pinpoint holes have been eaten clear through it."

After a moment, Sally slowly rose.

"No use saying anything to the others," Marlin suggested, noting the listless drag of her bare feet as she started toward the ladder.

She glanced over her shoulder disdainfully.

"What do you take me for?"

But the secret was not long in becoming general property. Len McGruder, who seemed to prefer devious and furtive ways of accomplishing even obvious things, must have been listening from one of many possible hiding places, or at least observing from a distance, for he produced the steel fragment at the next mealtime gathering.

"What's this about the old ball goin' to pieces?" he demanded. "What're you tryin' to put over?"

Marlin eyed him with distaste. "As far as you are concerned," he said slowly, "nothing. There's only one reason why I denied myself the pleasure of letting you know the fate in store for you—and that's because I knew you were so yellow you'd spill it and frighten the rest."

"Yellow, eh!" McGruder jumped to his feet in a rage. He appealed to the group. "What do you think of this bird—and a couple of others I could mention—" he glanced meaningly at DuChane and Sally—"gettin' their heads together to figger out a way of savin' theirselves while the rest of us is left to rot in this stinkin' blob of mud? How's that for yellow?"

DuChane laughed mirthlessly.

"If there's any comfort in the knowledge," he said, "there'll be no escape for any of us. The mud coating has a faculty of digesting every inert substance it contacts. Very convenient for taking care of our waste products—but unfortunate because it applies also to our habitation."

"You mean it's gonna eat through the shell?" demanded Link, his weasel eyes glittering.

Marlin shrugged.

"But we gotta do something! Does Eli know?"

The slinky one peered around the table, finding no reassurance in any of the blank faces. He gulped and subsided.

Later, he and McGruder constituted themselves a delegation to lay the problem before the scientist. Eli had practically barricaded himself in the control room. At his bellowed command meals were brought to him at irregular intervals by Maw Barstow. He rarely appeared outside of his retreat, except when he ventured forth briefly for a peep through the periscope.

"What'd he say?" demanded DuChane, when the two returned from their self-imposed mission.

"None o' your business!" McGruder snarled.

"The old coot don't seem to get it," complained Link. "All he done was to rant about how they gypped him when they sold him the steel."

The pale-featured outlaw girl, Norma, taking a listless turn along the ramp in a robe provided from Maw Barstow's meager store, was an inadvertent listener to this exchange. She seemed inclined to brush by, but suddenly her deep-set eyes glowed with fire.

"It's a joke!" she contributed unexpectedly. "You save me from the law, doctor up my carcass—and for what?"

"Does seem rather futile," agreed Marlin, sympathetically. He reflected that as her hair grew longer she was becoming a great deal more feminine in appearance. The wound in her neck was by now little more than a scar.

Under his scrutiny, her lips tightened and she abruptly walked away.

DuChane's eyes followed until she disappeared behind the curtain which served as a doorway for her sleeping compartment.

"Y'know," he volunteered, "there's something about that kid I could almost tumble for."

"Cut it out!" was Marlin's sharp response.

"What do you mean?"

Marlin did not answer. He was, in fact, puzzled to know why he had spoken.

"I'll tell you what you mean!" DuChane said heatedly. "You've got your eyes on this dame, same as you've had 'em on Sally. Anything that looks like competition gets your nanny. Well, Marlin, I'm serving notice that where women are concerned I do my own picking. The other man's claim-stakes mean nothing to me."

"That's the talk!" approved McGruder. "What the hell! There's enough to go around, not countin' old Eli, and we don't know what's gonna happen tomorrow. I got my eye on that little—"

"Shut up!" blazed Marlin.

He eyed the ex-detective with burning distaste.

He could have reminded them that he was in a position to enforce his edicts, being in possession of the only weapon. They knew this, however, and it was already a source of mounting antagonism.

What had caused him to bristle at signs of interest toward the feminine portion of the party? It wasn't that he wanted any of them for himself, though he sensed a challenge in Sally's eyes and acknowledged that she was desirable in her way. Norma, too, gave promise of becoming attractive as she regained her vitality. But his attitude was inspired by something deeper.

Perhaps it was an instinctive prescience that man-woman rivalry would inevitably bring trouble. This and a very special feeling that Pearl must be protected in her childlike innocence. The covetous looks with which McGruder regarded her were unmistakable. The very thought of them rankled in Marlin like a sacrilege. Maw Barstow was an efficient watchdog, but the shady detective would stop at nothing he thought he could get away with.

From this time, DuChane mockingly defied Marlin's half-expressed edict, by ostentatiously "making a play" for both Sally and Norma. His eyes taunted Marlin to do something about it. And Marlin, knowing that he had no reasonable excuse for interfering, could only chafe inwardly and pretend to have no interest in the matter.

The result was that he withdrew more and more into himself, holding aloof from the others, becoming increasingly morose and distant.


Seemingly least imaginative of them all, it was odd that Link should be the first to crack under the strain.

From the time of the disclosure that their hull was slowly corroding under the chemical action of the clay, he had appeared frightened and morose. Once or twice, as Marlin approached him on isolated portions of the superstructure, he slunk away in a peculiar manner. One day—for they still called their alternation of sleeping and waking periods a "day"—he failed to show up for meals.

When he did not appear the second day, the group aroused from its apathetic indifference sufficiently to institute a search.

He was crouching behind some packing boxes in the store room, and fled with wild shrieks on being discovered.

He managed to hide himself again, and the search was dropped. Some hours later they discovered him furtively clamboring among the girders overhead.

From this time on, the girders became his abode. His weasel face, nearly hidden by the long growth of hair, peered down at them from odd angles with alert suspicion. He resembled an unkempt monkey clad in tattered shirt and trousers. If they attempted to approach or tried to lure him down, he shrieked and chattered at them, and retreated to more precarious heights, until they desisted, fearful of making him fall.

"Hunger'll bring him down," DuChane said. And it did. During one of the sleep periods, he raided the store room and created such havoc that Maw Barstow formed a habit of leaving his ration of food and water on a box in plain sight.

When all were apparently asleep, he would stealthily slip down and snatch the food, wolfing it like a wild creature, ready to scamper for safety at the slightest noise.

Watching from concealment, Marlin saw him do this a couple of times, but made no effort to trap him.

And for Marlin, there were more important concerns. Isolated from the rest, he sat for hours at a time before the periscope, trying to arrive at some theory regarding their position in space.

One thing was established by now. The sphere had developed a lazy rotation of its own, presenting its two hemispheres alternately to the sun and giving the surface on which the periscope projected a "day" of about five hours.

Even without visual observation, the shifting heat areas within the globe would have led to the same conclusion. The clay-like coating seemed to have the property of diffusing the sun's rays throughout its mass. Possibly it would have been burned to a crisp on one side without such rotation. The side which was receiving the direct rays radiated a gentle heat through the walls, and this area of radiation traveled slowly around the circumference.

To Marlin, this rotation seemed to deny the activity of the anti-gravity plates, yet the maintenance of gravity indicated that at least they retained some of their function. To account for this seeming paradox and others, he evolved a set of theories. Some he was able to verify.

From the first, he had found it difficult to swallow DuChane's surmise that gravity was maintained within the sphere through some mysterious reaction from the obverse surfaces of the repulsion plates. To satisfy his doubts, he wormed his way through a narrow opening between the hull and girders supporting the superstructure, until he reached the edge of a segmented bank of repulsion plates.

He found them heavily insulated on the upper side, as if to prevent the force from exerting its full strength in that direction. By lying in a cramped position, he was able to extend an arm through a narrow crevice and to touch the under side of the plates.

His exploring fingers contacted a fragment of some sort—a pebble or hardened lump of clay. Detaching it from the surface, he fingered it exploringly. When his fingers relaxed, the lump escaped and instantly snapped back to the plate, as if held by a taut rubber band. He recovered the fragment and tried the same thing experimentally, with the same result.

There was no mistake. Objects released below the anti-gravity plates dropped toward them, just as did objects released from above. If anything, the attraction of the underside was stronger. In point of fact, the supposed anti-gravity plates were gravity plates.

Convinced of something he had vaguely suspected, Marlin retired to his usual vantage point—the observation scaffold—to think matters out.

He was vaguely disturbed when Sally clambered up the ladder and joined him.

"You're up to something?" she accused. "Tell Sally what it's all about."

"I'd only bore you."

"What's the difference? I'm bored anyway."

She sat beside him on the edge of the platform, bare feet protruding from her threadbare slacks. Marlin was quite certain that she wouldn't resist if he put his arm around her, but he squelched any such impulse. Too many times he had seen DuChane's arm occupying that position.

"All right," he observed. "You asked for it." He told her what he had discovered.

"Well," she asked, "what of it?"

"This is the way I'd explain it. I think the criticism of Thornboldt's principle, advanced by orthodox scientists, was probably justified. Such an enormous application of energy would be needed to effect the stress required for anti-gravity polarization, that it was a practical impossibility. Yet somehow this enormous power was generated for the brief moment which marked the plunge of our vessel into outer space."

"I think we ought to christen the old ball," she remarked irrelevantly. "How about calling it what Bart suggested—the Thornboldt?"

"I suppose the inventor is entitled to some credit," Marlin agreed absently. "But to figure this out: Let's assume a generator or storage battery capable of delivering current of one ampere strength for a hundred hours. Suppose it should release the same amount of current within a single hour. The strength of the current would obviously be multiplied a hundred times, wouldn't it? Suppose the same current were released in a single minute. It would be multiplied six thousand times. Suppose it were released in a second, what would be its strength?"

"I'm no good at figures," replied Sally, fidgeting.

"Thirty-six thousand amperes!" Marlin told her impressively. "That's a lot of stepping up. Eli claims his batteries are capable of supplying current for several months, and while I don't know their capacity, it must be considerable. Suppose most of this potential current was drained off by the shell of our vessel, acting like a Leyden jar or accumulator, and then released in one titanic discharge. Don't you see? This must have accomplished the near-impossible—the polarization of the repulsion plates, resulting in the anti-gravity reaction."

"You sure deal out jawbreakers when you get started," Sally shrugged.

"All right," he went on imperturbably. "The intense discharge probably lasted only a moment—but that was sufficient. It shot our sphere away from the earth as if it had been fired from a cannon—sent it with an initial momentum which took us far beyond Earth's attraction and must still be continuing undiminished in the vacuum of space."

Sally yawned and rose. "What you need is a classroom," she said. "I'll pass the word along in case any of the rest feel the need of brushing up on their education."

Her departure scarcely disturbed Marlin's train of thought. His theory, of course, gave birth to other perplexing problems. How account for the fact that neither sphere nor passengers were crushed by the enormous acceleration?

He had an answer for that one.

Logically, he reasoned, they owed their salvation to the fact that they, too, were subject to the momentary repulsion of the activated plates. Repulsion hurled them violently away—acceleration pressed them back. The two forces practically cancelled out. Possibly the insulation on the upper surfaces of the plates gave acceleration a slight edge, causing the crushing sensation Marlin had felt at the onset of their flight.

But the anti-gravity force was no longer in effect—probably had lasted not more than a few seconds. What had caused the plates to become imbued with an opposite force—an attractive force akin to gravity?

To answer this, Marlin found himself seeking analogies in the realm of electrical phenomena.

A magnet, he reflected, is a bar of iron in which the movements of the molecules are so organized as to keep the lines of their magnetic axis parallel—all the molecular north poles pointing toward the same end of the bar. It is accomplished by placing the bar in a larger magnetic field, and it is made permanent by tempering—which fixes the molecules in permanent alignment.

Thornboldt's atomic polarization principle must be similar. Under terrific stress, the molecules of the repulsion plates, and their constituent atoms, were polarized in such a way that they exercised the force of repulsion. But when the stress was released, there would be no tempering to maintain the molecular set. They would—in a manner of speaking—snap back, like rubber bands released from tension, not quite to their original condition, but to a condition tending toward the opposite of that occasioned by the stress.

The attractive property now inherent in the plates, in other words, was a reaction from the terrific stress of their momentary anti-gravity polarization.

It was notable that there had been no interruption of the electrical power which supplied current for cooking and waste incineration, operated the air-purifying apparatus and refrigeration plant, and kept their lighting system in force. Evidently, Marlin decided, the storage batteries—if they had been drained of their charges prior to the impulse which hurled them into space—must have recovered, as batteries do when given a rest. He inclined also to the opinion that the sphere itself generated electricity through the expansion and contraction of the outer coating as it slowly revolved.

Sally appeared to avoid him after this encounter—or so Marlin imagined. He had a notion that she had been piqued by DuChane's pursuit of Norma, and wanted to show the man a thing or two by giving Marlin an opportunity to make love to her. His failure to rise to the bait had not endeared him to her.

He told himself that he did not care—but, in truth, he felt his isolation. It was comforting even to have Pearl creep up to the periscope ledge beside him, as she did at rare intervals. He fell into the habit of talking to her, as a relief from the close-mouthed silence that had grown upon him. It was better, at any rate, than talking to himself, and helped him to orient his ideas.

"Sometimes, Pearl," he confided, "I have a feeling that you sense what I'm trying to say better than I understand it myself. It's cockeyed—but a fellow develops queer fancies in a weird situation like this."

She smiled amiably.

"I even find myself assuming that you know what's behind all this. I suppose it's your air of calm assurance—or the lucky way you seemed to hit things back there on Earth. And here I go, with another screwy idea—that there is something behind it all."

He applied his eye to the periscope. It was on the night side, and only an impenetrable expanse of blackness, studded with bright, unblinking points of light, rewarded his gaze. Relaxing, he faced the girl.

"Reason tells me that we're the victims of a freakish accident. Yet I find myself assuming—"

He checked the sentence, glancing around self-consciously for possible eavesdroppers. With a dreamy expression Pearl was looking at—or beyond him.

"It's a comfort to talk to you," he confessed. "You make it easier to express the inexpressible. What was I saying? Oh, yes."

He frowned. "I get to fancying sometimes that the crew of us were brought together, herded into this incredible monstrosity, and then spewed forth in accordance with some age-old plan. It's almost as if the little world we're in had a life of its own and had been sent forth with the blessings of the parent Earth to work out its own destiny. What do you think, Pearl? In your infinite wisdom—or simplicity—tell me. At least it could be true."

The girl's lips parted. "It could be true," she echoed.

He shrugged. Often you could get a response from her by making an emphatic effort, but it was usually like this—some amiable repetition of the words you put in her mouth.

"All right," he retorted, as if she had contradicted him, "say that I'm screwy! But tell me—what do we know about other possible states of consciousness? We think we understand human consciousness—because we're experiencing it. We credit animals with consciousness because they act in a limited way like humans. But how do we know there aren't other phases of consciousness? How do we know that a tree isn't a conscious entity, or a rock, or this globe—or the Earth? How do we know?"

"How do we know?" parroted the girl. She smiled up at his tense features, as if trying to please him. Beyond her, in the shadowy obscurity of the girders, he caught a glimpse of Link's monkey-like face peering furtively down at them.

He broke off abruptly. "You're a bad influence, Pearl. You encourage a fellow to voice crazy ideas. First thing I know, I'll be swinging around on girders myself."


McGruder, who as a rule evinced little interest in matters beyond eating, sleeping, and following the feminine members of the party with pig-like, calculating eyes, was the one who made the discovery.

He had climbed to the observation scaffold and peeped idly through the periscope. His yell of dismay reverberated through the interior of the vessel.

"We're gonna hit the moon!" he shouted, as the others scrambled into view.

Marlin gained the platform. "What's the idea!" he demanded sharply. "We aren't within a million miles of the moon."

McGruder gulped, gesturing toward the periscope.

Marlin remained glued to the instrument until DuChane cut in roughly: "Give someone else a chance. What's out there?"

Marlin relinquished his post. His voice sounded unnaturally strained. "See for yourself."

It did look like a shrunken version of the old familiar moon—a gleaming disc shining brilliantly against the inky blackness of space.

"We're approaching a solar body of some sort," Marlin told the others, who had struggled up to the platform. His eyes inadvertently sought Pearl. "Maybe this is the answer to—" He broke off.

DuChane straightened from the eyepiece.

"Two to one it means a crackup," he commented. "Unless Eli knows how to guide this shebang—and I don't believe he does."

Nevertheless, they reported the approaching crisis to the inventor. Eli had grown more eccentric as the voyage continued. His hair and beard were wilder; he talked incoherently.

When he had assured himself that they were actually approaching a stellar body, he displayed a great deal of energy, rushing from periscope to control room and back again; but they had no way of knowing the result of this activity, and received scant satisfaction from his impatient responses to questions.

"My private opinion," Marlin observed, later, "is that his instruments have no more control over this vessel than if we'd left them in that pit back on Earth. All connections must have burned out in that incredible burst of power that hurled us into space."

But at least, Eli made a great show of adjusting his switches and levers. Whether he planned to effect a landing or was trying to avoid the approaching body, was a secret locked in his own dome-like head.

In time this new menace became common-place and life lapsed into its dull routine, with Marlin alone spending a great deal of time observing their progress toward the stellar body. On one occasion, Pearl paid him one of her infrequent visits.

He looked up as the girl climbed from the ladder.

"Better run along," he said abruptly. "It's considered bad medicine for you to chin with me."

She stopped beside him and cocked her head on one side, for all the world like a bird listening for a worm.

"It is so lonely," she said yearningly.

"You—lonely?" he repeated in surprise. "Didn't know you ever felt that way."

With a suggestion of impatience, she touched the bulging crust of clay surrounding the original entrance-hole.

"So lonely," she insisted. "Please let it out."

Not quite sure of her meaning, he picked up a crowbar and tapped the hardened crust. This seemed to be what she desired, for she stood aside expectantly. Cracking the surface, he dislodged a section and allowed the gummy interior substance to flow out.

The girl smiled her pleasure, then cupped both hands over the soft mass, working them below the surface almost lovingly.

"So lonely," she murmured, in a crooning voice.

When she withdrew her hands, smeared with the gummy exudation, she held a small lump of some kind in her palms. As she rubbed the clay away, Marlin saw with a start that it was a dead field mouse.

This was one of the numerous creatures that had been enmeshed in the sticky clay, he realized. But how had the girl known it was there—close to the surface at this point?

"Better throw it into the incinerator," he advised gently. "Nasty thing. Dead."

Shrinking from his outstretched hand, she cuddled the mire-covered little body to her breast and almost furtively escaped down the ladder.

She had cleaned the bedraggled little corpse and was still cuddling it happily, when Marlin descended to obtain his share of the meager rations. He was struck by the madonna-like expression of the girl's features. Wonderful—the mother instinct—he reflected. Wonderful, yet sometimes pitiful.

DuChane stared as he took his packing-box seat at the table. "Where'd the kid get that?"

"Never you mind," bristled Maw. "She can keep it if she wants to. What harm's it doing, I'd like to know?"

DuChane sniffed the air, as if in anticipation. "About this time tomorrow—if there is such a thing—you'll need no urging. If there's any stink more potent than an over-ripe rodent, I'd hate to find out about it."

"How does it happen," demanded Sally, "that the stuff out there didn't act the way it does when we throw things away?"

"That's a thought!" DuChane agreed. "Whatever we throw away, the shell digests—tin cans, refuse, scraps. But this—" He shrugged. "Just one of those freakish accidents, I suppose."

The strange aftermath was that when they gathered for another meal, after the usual sleep period, the mouse was standing on its tiny hind legs, daintily nibbling crumbs from Pearl's hand.

"This thing gets more uncanny," DuChane growled. "We were wondering how the stuff came to leave the creature intact. Now we find that it knows the difference between inert objects and those potentially alive. Not only that, but it seems to know how to keep the creatures in suspended animation."

"You talk as if the ship was something alive," observed Sally sharply.

"It's quite possible," Marlin suggested, "to conceive of chemicals in the clay which attack dead tissue, but to which live cells are resistant."

"Intelligent chemicals! That's a hot one!" retorted the girl.

Marlin eyed her calmly. "It's not so farfetched. I can name one chemical right off the bat—just plain water. Put dead vegetation in a damp spot and it decays. Live vegetation draws nourishment and thrives under the same condition."

McGruder eyed with distaste the slender rations set out before him, then glanced up longingly at the enclosing sphere.

"There must be a mess of them dead animals out in that clay. I wouldn't mind havin' a little fresh meat, even if it was only a chipmunk."

The suggestion was received apathetically, but Marlin found himself reflecting that this might offer a not impossible solution of their food problem—presuming that they survived the dwindling stock of canned provisions.


For the most part, the vessel had proceeded without producing any sense of motion. A violent shift would have dislodged everything loose in the shell—the scaffolding, ladders, the temporarily secured electric lights—and yet there had been nothing of the sort. Once in a while, they felt a trembling jar. This probably was caused by the impact of a meteorite. But thus far, no such bodies had pierced the heavy insulation of resistant clay.

There was now, however, quite definite indication that they were moving in space. Observations taken at intervals showed that the "moon" was coming closer. Presently, the irregularities on the edge of the disc were apparent to the eye, and shadowy configurations on its rocky surface could be discerned.

After some days, Marlin developed a new suspicion.

He checked his observations carefully. There was no doubt about it. They were no longer approaching the mass but were drifting in an orbit around it—either that, or it was rotating around the sphere. And about this time he made a further discovery. A second body had appeared in the heavens—and presently there was a third.

"There's only one explanation," he reported tersely at a mealtime gathering. "We're in the asteroid belt."

DuChane alone seemed to know what this meant.

"Dave seems to be jumping at conclusions, but assuming that he's right, we've swung out beyond the orbit of Mars—somewhere between it and Jupiter. There's a region of small planets, masses of rock, ranging up to four or five hundred miles in diameter. Supposed to be fragments of a planet that broke up somehow."

"Or didn't quite jell in the making," corrected Marlin. "I believe that's the modern scientific view. More than nine hundred of them have been charted though I've no doubt there must be innumerable smaller fragments."

"What's the chance of our gettin' through without bein' hit?" demanded McGruder.

"How should I know? As a matter of fact, I don't think we're on our way through. Looks as if we've established an orbit—at least around that big one."

"Anything we can do about it?"

Marlin regarded him impersonally.

"Nothing," he said. "Exactly nothing. We've no more control over our fate at present than we've had since we started."

Sally gave a mirthless laugh. "That makes it swell! All we've got to do is wait—and wait—and see what this old ball intends to do with us."

Pearl volunteered a remark which, in its unexpectedness, caused them all to look at her.

"So many stones," she breathed. "Lonely stones."

DuChane leaped to his feet.

"The girl knew!" he shouted. "She knew! We thought she was talking gibberish, but she was telling us where we'd wind up. Stones! Lonely stones! Asteroids!"

"Of course Pearl knows!" crowed Maw Barstow. "Didn't I tell you?"

Norma rarely took part in their discussions. She spoke now with bitter conviction. A flush of intensity lighted her wan features.

"It was all intended! I could feel it when I lay there in my stupor—just as if I was a part of it and knew where we were going and why. It's a soulless thing! We don't mean anything to it—not any more than grubs. This is only the beginning—it's going to be more and more terrible. We'll be ground to fragments—"

She closed her lips and stared, shudderingly, as if into space.

McGruder eyed her with resentment. "It's a lot of hogwash," he asserted with hollow confidence.

The nine days' wonder of it gradually became common-place to the rest, but Marlin spent a greater share of his waking time at the observation post. The three moons were joined by more. There were presently a number of gleaming bodies revolving around the sphere, the count increasing almost at every revolution. At one time, Marlin counted eighteen of fairly good size and no doubt several were out of range of the periscope.

The strangeness of it was slowly borne upon him.

"Why should these planetoids be revolving around us?" he questioned. "They're reputed to have eccentric orbits, but we seem to have barged in on a small system revolving around one common center. And the most cockeyed thing of all is that we're apparently that center."

There might be some other explanation, but the reasonable one seemed to be that the vessel was swinging through the vast planetoid belt, "picking up" stellar bodies as it approached them. Each rock concretion drawn into the ever-growing system increased its mass attraction for other bodies, and thus the accumulation grew, like an immense snowball.

Theoretically, there was support for the assumption. The plates within the sphere exercised an attraction which approximated Earth gravity. Normally, the attraction of so small an object in space would have been slight, but thus augmented, it might act as a magnet, drawing much larger bodies out of their natural orbits.

"Still, if that's the case," he reasoned, "they'd keep drawing closer. They'd eventually crush our sphere by the very force of its own gravity."

His mind pictured a churning mass of mountainous and smaller rocks, rolling round and round each other in ever-narrowing orbits, crashing and grinding together, probably generating heat in the process, eventually fusing into a solid mass.

"Nice prospect," he reflected with a shudder. "Where'll we be when that takes place? Somewhere near the center, from all indications."

The prospect revealed through the periscope was awe-inspiring, but increasingly fearsome. For one exciting hour, Marlin watched while two planetoids collided and slowly ground each other to fragments. On another occasion, a huge mass lazily crossed his field of vision so close that he could discern great areas of what looked like ice, mingled with towering spires of rock. He could easily imagine himself looking down on a mountain glacier.

"Why not?" he reflected. "There's no reason why there shouldn't be frozen water in this debris. Presumably the general mass is constituted of the same rock, minerals, and gases as the other planets, including Earth. Some of it could be frozen air—or its constituent gases—considering the absolute zero out there."

He recalled reading the contention of Halbfass that some earth hailstorms originate in outer space. The scientist had produced considerable data in support of his theory that such bombardments may be of stellar origin. There was the case of an iceberg twenty feet in diameter, reported from Dharwar, India, in 1838, and a still earlier case of a block of ice "as big as an elephant" which reputedly fell in the same region during the days of Tippoo Sahib.

Unless Marlin was mistaken there were celestial icebergs among the growing mass of planetary debris circling the sphere.

The picture he had envisioned of the planetoid bodies closing in on the sphere, with its augmented gravitation, had seemed at first fantastic. It was taking on more and more the aspect of grim, threatening reality.

Collisions between bodies in the surrounding space became more frequent as their orbits definitely spiraled inward. Once a fragment drifted so close that it almost seemed to graze the sphere. As Marlin tensed for the seemingly inevitable impact, it passed by. But on its return would it not be materially closer?

That particular fragment did not return. Perhaps it collided with another and was pulverized or deflected from its course. But the sphere might not escape so easily the next time.

Occasionally, his vision would be obscured by what seemed to be a cloud of dust. It was undoubtedly just that—a field of particles from the grinding and colliding of rock masses, settling toward the gravitational pull of the sphere. On another occasion, the obscuring cloud appeared to be sleet—a mass of iceberg fragments, or perhaps more tenuous gas in solidified form.

Since that one shuddering outburst, Norma had seemingly regained her self-control. She appeared only occasionally at meal times, tight-lipped, reserved. Often Marlin saw her standing on a secluded part of the superstructure, wrapped in her moody thoughts. She climbed one day to the observation platform beside him.

"What can you see through that thing?" she asked.

"Take a look," he invited. "It's terrifying, but inspiring too—when you reflect that mortal eyes never looked upon it before."

She studied the awesome prospect for a minute, then drew away, shivering as if with cold.

"Give it to me straight," she demanded. "What's the payoff? Here we are in a thin-shelled bubble floating through a tumble of jagged rocks and icebergs. They're drawing closer all the time, aren't they?"

He temporized. "My biggest worry right now is that the dust fragments, settling down on us, will bury the periscope head. That will be the last of our observations."

"I said give it to me straight," she retorted.

"All right. Your guess is as good as mine. Frankly, it looks like the end. But it looked like the end when we shot off into space. Somehow we've existed up to now." He spoke impersonally, trying to keep the sympathy he felt out of his voice: "Come to think, Norma, I'm puzzled—"

He stopped, but she finished for him.

"You can't understand why a person who's been through what I have should get the willies now. I'm not afraid of something I can fight. I'm not afraid of dying. It's eerie things you can't fight that get me. Hearing that girl Pearl talk gives me the creeps. She calls this a 'little world.' What does she mean?"

Marlin started. He had used the term himself; probably that was how it came to fall from Pearl's lips.

"I know what she means," Norma answered her own question vehemently. "It is a little world. I was a part of it, I tell you, while I lay there between life and death. I sensed things through its consciousness—if you can imagine such a thing. I knew what all of you were doing, just as if you were maggots crawling around inside of me. I had a feeling of what it was bound for—this grinding and crushing and churning in space. And we're no more to it than the mice and bugs that happened to get mired in the sticky clay while it was forming."

Marlin looked at her blankly. Despite her vehemence, she had herself under control—though at the cost of what effort he could only guess. The strange thing was that he himself had been subject to like fancies.

"Natural forces are—rather impersonal," he conceded.

"I hate natural forces! I hate this little world and everybody in it! Why did you help pull me back to life? I never wanted to live. I could have kicked off in a gunfight and had no beef. But here we're helpless like rats in a trap. Why don't we all kill ourselves and get it over with?"

Marlin shrugged. It was pleasanter talking to Pearl. Her unruffled poise almost amounted to an assurance that nothing could happen which particularly mattered.

On her next visit, with Norma's outburst fresh in mind, he reverted to the subject Pearl had once inspired.

"That idea about the world having a consciousness of its own may not be altogether screwy," he told her. "It would explain a lot of things that we take for granted. As an entity, it might very logically take a hand in the involvement of beings in its sphere of influence. Our surface life—the flora and fauna, including man—no doubt play an essential part in its evolution. The Earth entity, with its natural forces—the winds, tides, changes of temperature, volcanic eruptions, and such like—could easily direct the spread of these forms.

"Come to think—that's just what it has been doing, from the dawn of life. The only question is whether it happened by intention. Of course, I'm too much of a reasoning creature to believe such rot."

He stopped, half-awaiting the echoed response, "Such rot," but it was not forthcoming. From a pocket in the girl's soiled dress where she kept her strangely revived pet, a pair of beady eyes looked out at him brightly.

"All right, maybe I shouldn't have said a reasoning creature, but a skeptical creature. After all, it's as unreasonable to disbelieve as to believe—when you have no proof either way. Well, let's assume that you're right."

"Pearlie is right," she assured him.

"H'mm. Maybe so. Well, assuming all this, I suppose the same entity could carry the process further and cause all the activities of so-called civilization. It could stir up the restlessness that sends explorers and colonists to distant parts of the globe. It could inspire persecutions, such as those that drove the Pilgrim fathers across the ocean. It could drive men through greed, lust of conquest—any number of urges. War—perhaps that's Nature's way of purging elements she wants to get rid of, or preparing for some new stage of development. Which brings the topic down to us."

He glanced at her, half expecting a response, but she merely smiled in her vaguely knowing way.

"We all seemed to be free agents," he went on, "but somehow we drifted toward old Eli's shelter—a bunch of misfits that weren't of any particular use in Earth's economy. What financiers not under some strange influence would have invested in Eli's wild theories? And that pit of encrusted mire where the old coot was led to build his sphere. Who knows what substances were brought together by what we call natural forces, and mixed into the right composition to protect us for this dash across space?"

The sphere gave a trembling lurch. Something had brushed its surface, but in his intensity he scarcely noticed.

"There are only two ways of looking at it," he declared, breathing heavily. "Either the whole thing was a freakish combination of accidents, or—it was consciously directed. I'm just sufficiently space-struck to entertain the possibility that it might be conscious purpose. What do you say, Pearl? Accident—or purpose?"

"Or purpose," she assured him dutifully.

He gave a short laugh. "That was hardly fair. I should have phrased it the other way around, knowing your fondness for repeating last words."


Marlin regretted afterward that he had not attempted to offer Norma some antidote for her moody thoughts on her visit to his observation point. He might have tried to put in words his own fatalistic point of view. Possibly it would have helped to sustain her. If only he had been less preoccupied—

But it was useless to regret, when they found the girl stretched out on her sleeping pallet with eyes rigidly staring upward.

They gathered in silence around the inert form. Death had been their constant companion from the start, but this was the first time it had shown its grim face.

Maw Barstow began a low wailing. Sally also wept. McGruder moistened his lips and looked furtively around, cowering slightly as he saw the eerie features of Link peering from the shadows above. DuChane stood stricken but expressionless. Pearl alone, of those who looked down at the still face, was seemingly unmoved.

"I seen her pokin' around in the medicine cabinet," McGruder recalled. "She musta swallowed some kinda dope."

They searched through the cabinet, but there was no clue as to what the girl had taken. Several bottles contained drugs which could have caused death.

"Oughta be given a decent burial," McGruder commented.

No move was made at the time to carry out his suggestion. The only burial possible was through the locks provided for eliminating waste products. The thought was abhorrent.

"She talked kind of wild about ending it all," gulped Sally. "Said she could almost hate me for being the one to save her for this. Gosh! I even came back at her with a wisecrack—something about its being a good idea. To end it all, I mean."

DuChane spoke for the first time. "Moody sort of kid," he commented hesitantly. "Didn't seem to have a real interest in life."

"You tried hard enough to give her one!" Sally retorted with pent-up bitterness. "Too bad she wouldn't tumble."

DuChane opened his lips as if to reply, swallowed, then, with a lingering glance at the dead girl, turned away.

Eli was not among the silent group. No one bothered to tell him that his passenger list had been reduced by one.

The event seemed to do something to the morale of the survivors—something beyond producing the inevitable shock that follows in the wake of death.

Marlin felt it keenly. Until now—though he had imagined himself to be impersonal and philosophical about the whole matter—he had been sustained by a feeling that they were being carried on this strange journey for a purpose. There had been Pearl's predictions and their apparent realization—the uncanny fortuitousness of natural forces which had preserved them thus far. It had seemed to presage intention of some kind—suggesting that they bore charmed lives.

Now, it seemed, the charm was not inviolate. They were no longer the favorites of some mysterious destiny. One had been snuffed out—the others could be. There was no purpose back of it—none, at any rate, which concerned them. As Norma had said, they were like insects caught up in the mud-ball. It was merely by chance that any had survived thus far.

The question of what to do with the dead girl's body was settled by the decision to cremate it. The waste incinerator was electrically heated and connected with a lock, originally intended to open into space, through which ashes and solid residue could be forced into the clay outer coating.

Though Maw Barstow protested and wailed, she had no counter suggestion to offer. DuChane held aloof from the discussion, but when Marlin called on McGruder to pick up one end of the blanket-swathed figure, DuChane thrust himself between them and gathered the body in his arms.

"I'll take care of this," he said gruffly.

A sense of bleak desolation swept over Marlin, as he watched the other man, with his somber burden, slowly ascend the ramp toward the blackened door of the incinerator.

At this moment the blow struck.

The concussion was so terrific that it sent Marlin sprawling the full length of the ramp. He brought up against a hard surface, dazed and gasping, and lay inert for a period that might have been minutes, vaguely aware of the darkness, of shrieks, and the crash of falling bodies.

Painfully, at length, he picked himself up.

As the sphere continued to heave and vibrate from the impact, someone fell against him. Clutching arms caught at him and a voice—Sally's—sobbed convulsively in his ears.

He disengaged the clinging arms.

"Cut it out!" he said gruffly. "We're still alive—I don't know why. Let's see if we can find any lights."

Half dragging the girl after him, he made his way to the storeroom. He remembered a drawer containing flashlights. Several were broken, but he located a couple in working order.

Above the general clamor, the howls of someone apparently in agony rose with monotonous regularity. With the aid of the flashlights, he stumbled toward the sound, Sally following. Overhead the girders groaned and clanked with metallic reverberations. Several of them must have been fractured.

By the feeble radiance of the torches, he located the source of the agonized howls. Above the level of the observation scaffold—now a mass of tumbled wreckage—the gummy substance of the outer coating was issuing inexorably through a rent in the shell. Trapped in the deluge was Slinky Link—his face distorted with animal-like terror, one free arm pawing helplessly at the engulfing tide.

Marlin hastily sought a way of reaching him, but before he could salvage a ladder the demented creature was beyond help. His howls abruptly ended in a gurgle as the eruption relentlessly closed over him.

Sally was suddenly very sick.

McGruder, and then DuChane stumbled toward the light.

"Wha—what happened?" came the befuddled question.

"We were struck, of course. Help me get Sally back to her bunk. The stuff—swallowed up Link. Where are the others?"

They found Pearl sitting in a corner with Maw's head in her lap. She was gently smoothing the older woman's brow, which bore an ugly welt. Maw was groaning, but apparently more in fright than pain.

Marlin swept his flashlight over them, decided they were in need of no immediate attention. "Let's see whether we can restore the lights."

In the control room, they came upon Eli's body wedged between two banks of coils, his head twisted in a ghastly fashion. He must have died instantly, his neck broken by the concussion.

Tentative efforts to restore electrical current were without avail. They located a few more undamaged flashlights and inspected the vessel.

The first assumption had been that the dent knocked in their hull by impact with the asteroid occurred at the point where Link had been overtaken by the flood. It became apparent, however, that the blow had struck on the opposite side of the vessel, where a much greater inundation had occurred—was, in fact, still in process of spreading over the interior surface like a great blister.

Link must have been flung against the hull from the girders on which he was roosting. His body broke through the weakened shell, and once the ooze had him it closed over him with implacable greed.

The utter hopelessness of their position weighed on the three men like a pall.

Any lingering faith that they were protected by a special providence was shattered. Already, three of their number had proved that death could strike as aimlessly and without warning in the space vessel as elsewhere.

The ooze was working in through innumerable cracks in the rotten shell. From serving as their protection against the cold of outer space and the burning heat of the sun's rays, the covering had assumed the guise of a soulless monster, spreading its ravening tentacles to smother and devour them.

DuChane's memory of the concussion was vague. The dead girl's body, wrested from his arms, must have hurtled against the shell, breaking through and being swallowed up in the same manner as Link's.

"Probably better that way," he observed gruffly. "More like a human burial. Wonder if any of that hooch escaped."

There had been an unwritten law that the small stock of liquor among the stores should be preserved for emergencies. Surreptitious violations there might have been, particularly by Maw Barstow, but no open drinking. Marlin shrugged.

"I guess we all feel pretty shaky and exhausted," he acknowledged.

The bottled items in the larder had been packed to withstand shocks. While there was some breakage, most of the liquor had survived.

The three downed a couple of rounds in gloomy silence; then, with scarcely a word, they stumbled to their bunks.


Marlin woke with a smothering sensation and a foreboding. Fumbling for his flashlight, he sought the others.

Maw Barstow was snoring stertoriously in her cubbyhole. Pearl, who should have occupied the pallet next to her, was gone. Sally, pale from the retching she had endured, was sleeping fitfully.

In the storeroom, he found DuChane, lying in a stupor beside an empty bottle. There were several empties, in fact. DuChane and McGruder must have returned to make a night of it. But McGruder was nowhere in sight.

With a grunt of distaste, Marlin turned his attention to the hull. It was progressively deteriorating. The blow had ruptured the corroded shell-plates in numerous places, and they were constantly giving way under the shifting stresses.

His thoughts returned to Pearl. Strange that he had not come across the girl. He made an unavailing search of the staterooms, storerooms, the control room, and all passages and aisles of the unsteady superstructure.

A taut feeling constricted his chest. She was so defenseless in her childish simplicity. She might have wandered out in the dark and fallen from any one of a dozen or more points of danger he could imagine. Memory of the fate that had overtaken Link, and presumably Norma's body, caused him to shudder.

From searching the likely places, he fell to searching the unlikely ones. His flashlight beam unexpectedly picked up the two of them—Pearl and McGruder—in a segment between the outcurving hull and the end-wall of the cabin-like structure containing their sleeping compartments. The narrow crevice between the corner of the straight wall and the hull made it an almost inaccessible retreat.

In the brief glimpse Marlin caught before McGruder turned his startled, snarling face toward the flashlight, the whole story was apparent.

McGruder had pursued the girl and finally cornered her. She was struggling to escape from his grasp.

The man cringed away from the light. "Get outa here!" he yelled hoarsely. "This don't concern you."

"No?" Marlin spoke with deadly intensity. "Take your hands off that girl."

"Says who?"

"I've still got the gun, McGruder—and I don't mind admitting that I've itched all along for an excuse to use it on your carcass. Let go, damn you!"

McGruder jerked the girl roughly around so that she offered a shield for his body.

"Come ahead—shoot!" he taunted.

Marlin pocketed his gun. "I'm coming after you."

The lower part of the crevice was too narrow to admit his body, but it widened out above, where the hull sloped away from the wall. Pearl could have squeezed through at the floor level, but McGruder must have had to inch himself up a couple of feet before he could follow her. Methodically, Marlin set out to do the same.

The feat required both hands, and McGruder seized the opportunity, when Marlin had squirmed himself part way up, to release the girl and plunge toward him with clenched fist. Marlin saved himself from a paralyzing blow in the midriff by leaping backward.

He snatched for the gun, but before he could recover it, McGruder was well back inside, again using Pearl for a shield.

"Smart guy!" he yelled tauntingly. "Coming in, are you!"

This time, Marlin held his flashlight in one hand and the automatic in the other, training both on McGruder, while he slowly worked himself up the angle formed by the two walls by pressure of his out-thrust knees and elbows.

McGruder, eyes glittering, backed away, still holding the bewildered girl before him. Slowly, keeping the gun and flashlight trained upon him, Marlin squeezed his bulk through the crevice.

The vessel gave one of its now frequent lurches, groaning with the strain on yielding hull and weakened girders. In that instant, Marlin felt a movement of the two steel walls as they spread apart. He would have fallen if he had not involuntarily spread his elbows and shoulders to maintain his position. The next instant, the walls closed in on him, crushing—crushing—squeezing the life out of his body.

Even in that agonized moment, a horrified gasp escaped his lips, at what was revealed by the stabbing ray of the flashlight.

The heaving side of the vessel tightened cruelly, then released him from its vice-like grip. Limp with pain, Marlin dropped heavily to the floor within the narrow enclosure.

He lay for a moment gasping for breath, neither knowing nor caring whether any bones were cracked. Then he gathered himself for a supreme effort. His body was one solid ache as tortured muscles strained to obey his will.

"Look!" he gasped hoarsely, flashlight pointing. "Look—behind—!"

McGruder, struggling dazedly to his feet with the girl still clutched in his embrace, swung around at the warning, but it was already too late. A great seam had opened in the hull directly behind him, and a mass of ooze was pouring in, like a surge of lava.

Caught off-balance, he stumbled and slipped on one knee in the encroaching tide. As he floundered a bellow like that of a mired bull escaped his distorted lips. He was gripped tenaciously by the pitiless exudation. His eyes roved frantically. Then, as Marlin dragged himself partly erect, he saw McGruder do an incredible thing.

Desperately, the detective twisted himself half around, with the girl in his arms, and forced her into the viscous tide. She struggled in a faintly bewildered manner. Bracing himself against her body, he gained a leverage which enabled him to release, first one foot and then the other. As he stumbled free, the girl was engulfed, almost before she could cry out.

In that moment of horror, Marlin was conscious only of a consuming rage—a lust to kill that obliterated all else. Forgetful of the automatic, he dived toward McGruder, with hands that had suddenly become claws.

"Don't! Don't! We've got to squeeze out of here! Before it catches—"

McGruder's screaming protest was strangled as ruthless fingers closed around his windpipe.

When the smothering ooze closed over both heaving bodies, Marlin was scarcely aware, through the red fury of his demoniac rage, that the end had come....

... "But, mother, the goddesses were all beautiful, were they not?"

"Yes, son, but Pi-Ruh-Al was the most beautiful."

"Then why do the carvings always show Sa-Hala-Lee with a face, while Pi-Ruh-Al has none? I would think—"

"Hush child! The beauty of Pi-Ruh-Al was so dazzling that no mortal might look upon it. Even the gods could scarce endure its splendor, and no sculptor has dared presume to represent her features. Not so with Sa-Hala-Lee, who is the goddess of N'urthly beauty and constancy. A touching legend relates to the manner by which she was wooed by Mah-Gurru-Dah, Lord of the East, patron of the forge. He was forced to wound her sore unto death with a lightning bolt forged in his smithy before she yielded—but thereafter she remained loyal with a faithfulness beyond mortal understanding. Yea, though it is reputed that both Maha-Ra-Lin and Bar-Du-Chan sought her because of her siren-like allure, she repulsed them with scorn.

"Thus wrote the prophets of old: 'In the beginning was El-Leighi, dweller in the sun, who looked upon the sea of space and saw that it was a void, barren of all things. And El-Leighi hurled forth his thunderbolt and created a sphere of matter within that void. And he cast his thunderbolts again and yet again until he had created many spheres which circled slowly through the emptiness of space.

"'El-Leighi looked upon his work, yet was not satisfied. Four of his bolts had formed spheres revolving so close to the sun that its rays scorched them with heat unbearable. Others—the mightiest bolts of all—formed planets immeasurably far away, lost in frigid coldness.

"'So once again El-Leighi gathered his forces and hurled a thunderbolt into space. And on that thunderbolt rode great beings—gods inferior only to El-Leighi himself—whom he commanded to create a world on which life might exist.

"'When the thunderbolt shattered, in a temperate region of space beyond the fourth planet, these gods fulfilled their destiny by gathering its fragments and out of them creating a new world....'"


From a narrow strip of shore that fringed a murky sea, sheer cliffs rose—black, beetling, forbidding. In one direction the rampart lost itself in the haze of a bleak horizon; in the other it merged into a rocky but sloping ascent.

The sea itself was of a muddy hue, reflecting feebly the rays of a sun which seemed to begrudge what little warmth it spared. The sky, gray though nearly cloudless, seemed overcast with a dusty haze.

Where the sea washed into a narrow inlet at the foot of the last great promontory along the line of ramparts, a boulder—distinguished from others because it seemed grayer, smoother, more friable—contributed to the muddiness of the sea.

Each time the tide rose and the waters swept over it, they softened and dissolved some of its outer coating. As the tides receded, they left a blob of mud, which slowly hardened through exposure to the sun, only to soften and disintegrate a trifle more at the next return of the tide.

It was an irregular tide. Its surges occurred in unpredictable cycles and in varying degrees of intensity. On a few occasions its high level reached a mark far up the cliff; on others it forgot to recede for a time; and yet again it was such a feeble tide that it barely washed the base of the boulder, which was in reality a clod of hard-baked clay.

Now and again, after the tide receded, some furry object lay gasping in the sun, and presently scuttled toward the less precipitous stretch of shore. Or a bird fluttered to the rampart, or a cricket vented a dismal chirp and sought the damp underside of a rock. In a nearby cleft, a scattering of seeds had been caught in the backwash of tide and blades of grass clung tenaciously to a meager deposit of soil.

How long the sea had washed this blob of clay could only have been estimated by some observer who noted its size when it was first carried down to water level in a rock slide, and watched the progress of its disintegration. But there was no observer to note these things.

There came a day—a day like many another, cloudless, murky, cold—when it would have been apparent, had such an observer existed, that imbedded within the blob of mud was a foreign object. It might have been a log, for all the amorphous outlines revealed. Whatever it was, the water continued to wash at intervals over the coating, and gradually carried it away. As this continued, the uncovered portions of whatever lay within gradually seemed to lose their gray, desiccated look.

And there came another day when the coating was gone, and after the tide had receded and the sun had poured its rays down with unusual warmth for some hours, a quiver ran through the outstretched object.

The tide returned. As it gently lapped the figure on the sands, some instinct of preservation stirred in that which had been nothing but a core of foreign matter in a blob of clay. It shivered slightly and squirmed to a higher position on the shore.

When the tide next returned, the creature, born of a mud clod was hunched in a sitting position, gazing with dull, uncomprehending eyes at the bleak prospect which was coming into focus before it.

... Just when awareness of himself returned to Dave Marlin, he could not have told. There was a borderline phase in which a bewildered, naked creature stumbled along the rocky shore with only vague consciousness of self. Memories of the past mingled fantastically with the present. Impressions of an endless journey, of a huddled group within a shadowy interior, of black, star-studded vistas, were intertwined with breaking waves, a sense of chill discomfort, and a dull yearning toward the coppery disc that hung in the mist overhead.

Gnawing hunger in his vitals gradually thrust the present into dominance. He dropped down and drank thirstily of the lapping fresh water sea. This partly appeased the discomfort, but a grub which he pounced upon a moment later satisfied it more. Eagerly he set about finding other objects to still that ever-present hunger.

Instinctively the man had turned toward the less precipitous region. Grim and forbidding though it was, it bore some evidence of life—increasingly more evidences on the rocky hillocks that receded from the barren shore. There were clumps of grass and bushes, an occasional bird winging overhead and here and there glimpses of squirrels, chipmunks, and other small animals.

A tawny streak flashed through the bush. At the squeal of its victim, Marlin dived toward the spot, frightened the creature from its kill, and hungrily appropriated the squirrel. In the moment of satisfying his ravenous hunger with the warm bleeding flesh, he was troubled by no memories of the process to which flesh was subjected before eating, in that shadowy former existence.

Somehow he lived, aimlessly wandering, sleeping, when darkness came, in the shelter of the moment, constantly alert for something to appease the gnawing within him. More frequently than not, he went hungry, for the region was sparse in its vegetation and niggardly in sentient life. He chewed on roots, eagerly pounced on insect larvae, now and then caught or killed with rocks some of the small animals and birds that his unceasing search flushed from cover.

It is doubtful whether he at any time thought clearly, "I am Dave Marlin, a man, who once lived on a planet called Earth." His mind was far behind his body in recovering from the paralysis of disuse.

A new excitement stirred him one day. Farther inland, a thin column of smoke was rising. Smoke! The ascending smudge wakened something within him. Smoke was connected with that former life. It meant the presence of his own kind!

He climbed toward it with frantic eagerness and presently looked down into a sheltered cleft of a valley. By his former standards it would have seemed a barren strip indeed, but in comparison with the terrain surrounding, it was an Eden.

Grass and scraggly bushes struggled for foothold on the hillsides. A brook trickled through the bottom and its banks revealed crude attempts at cultivation. Stunted growths that looked like corn stalks straggled across a narrow field. A gaunt heifer was tethered on one slope.

The smoke rose from a smoldering fire on a blackened area in front of the cave. In the mouth of the cave squatted a woman, clothed in a shapeless garment of skins, suckling a scrawny infant.

Incoherent choking sounds came from Marlin's throat as he descended upon this scene of domestic tranquility. At his approach, the woman glanced up, gave a shrill cry, and disappeared into the cave.

From a crevice beyond appeared a man, likewise clad in skins, brandishing a crooked stick. At sight of Marlin, he stopped in his tracks, then scampered toward the cave, turning at the entrance as if to make a last desperate stand.

Marlin came on with eager stride, but he stopped a few feet away and the two looked at each other.

The cave dweller was under-sized, bearded, and shaggy. His arms and legs protruded in ungainly fashion from the ill-fashioned skin garment. Something about the manner in which the sharp eyes gleamed at him through a tangle of overhanging hair struck a chord in Marlin's memory.

"You're—you're Link!" he said thickly. The words came with difficulty from unaccustomed lips. "Slinky Link! Remember? I'm—Marlin."

The woman's head emerged cautiously from behind her man. The scarred lip again prompted Marlin's memory.


"What you want?" demanded Link. The words were thickly spoken, as if he, too, rarely used his speech organs.

Truly Marlin did not know what he wanted. Nothing, perhaps, beyond the association of his own kind. For the first time he realized that he was cold. He approached the smoldering embers and knelt over them, gratefully warming himself in the glow.

The other two eyed him resentfully, but when the sun sank low they prepared a frugal meal and grudgingly offered him a portion. He ate greedily of the hard, gritty cake of ground corn and morsel of half-cooked flesh; smacked his lips over the swallow or two of thin milk which they allowed him to drink from a crudely formed earthen cup.

The urge to talk was strong within Marlin—to exchange views with these, perhaps the only members of his kind in all the region. But memories of the old life and speculations as to the manner of their arrival seemed to have little reality in the minds of the two. Maw was brooding and taciturn, wrapped in an animal-like concern for her scrawny infant. Link vaguely recalled that they had wandered until they came to this valley, where it was somehow easier to wrest an existence than on the outer slopes.

He had found two half-starved cattle, captured one, and Maw made him keep it alive for its milk. The other was a bull, but so far it had eluded his attempts at capture. He had learned to make fire, the primitive way, through striking certain kinds of rock together.

These were his preoccupations. He quickly tired of the conversation and crawled into the cave to sleep.

In the morning, there was less to eat. When Marlin sought to help himself to the fresh milking, Maw snatched the clay vessel and scuttled with it into the cave.

Link thrust a piece of stringy meat into Marlin's hands, then caught up his stick and brandished it threateningly.

"This is our place," he snarled. "You go."

Marlin crammed the partly cooked flesh into his mouth.

"Why?" he demanded.

"Eat too much," was the laconic response.

Marlin reflected on this. He had not eaten much, but the little tasted good, and he wanted to stay.

"Go," insisted Link, prodding with his stick. He added as an afterthought, "You're uncovered—don't look nice."

Marlin looked down at his sun-browned body. In that vaguely remembered former existence he had worn clothes. Now he was naked. The thought shamed him. Disconsolately, he turned and plodded away.

Thereafter, the recovery of his brain cells was more rapid. The old earth life still seemed incredibly remote—as detached as though it belonged to another person—but upon its vague memories he drew in order to create a more satisfying existence.

He fashioned crude cutting implements and spears by chipping stones and fitting them to handles made from tough growths of brush. He learned deft ways of making fire, and usually cooked his meat. He pieced together an abbreviated garment of skins. Each day he developed new adaptations to the harsh environment.

Usually, he was too tired to think of anything beyond the physical needs of the moment, but now and then, after a meal of unusual repletion, he lay on his back and gazed thoughtfully at the coppery sun, or at the two small moons which, with their uncoordinated orbits, created such eccentricity in the tides. Then he recalled incidents of the past, of the strange journey in the clay-covered sphere, and speculated as to the mystery of his coming to this bleak new world—of the manner of its creation.

Waking one morning, he was startled to find that a fire had been built and there was an odor of scorching meat. Erect in one bound, he stared incredulously at the other man who was nonchalantly making free with his camp.

"Kinda surprised—eh?"

For a moment, Marlin did not know the long-haired, bearded, skin-clad stranger. He peered uncertainly.

"You're—you're DuChane, aren't you?"

"The old maestro himself," grinned the other. "Came across your trail two days ago. Campfires—footprints. Nearly caught up with you last night, but the dark overtook me. Guess we're the sole survivors."

"No," Marlin told him. "Maw Barstow and Link—I ran across them back there." He waved an arm vaguely.

"Maw and Slinky Link!" DuChane laughed uproariously. "That's good. Is the little shrimp still balmy?"

Marlin scratched his head. "I'd forgotten that. Guess he got over it, in a way. They've got a kid—and a cow. Kicked me out on my ear."

It was good to have companionship. Talking things over made things clearer. For one thing, he hadn't been able to understand at all how he came to be wandering over the face of this strange planet. "Last thing I remember was struggling with someone—and the ooze closing over. Then I found myself stumbling along this coastline."

DuChane stared. "Don't you know?"

He took Marlin down to a sheltered cove. "There's a type of clay formation—you get so you can spot it by the color—and where there's one chunk you'll usually find several. Look for them above the tide level. Most of those below that line have been dissolved away. Here's a sample."

He took the small lump of clay—it seemed as hard-baked as earthenware—and immersed it in a pool.

"It'll take some time. We might look for more."

In the end, they deposited several of the fragments in the pool, and late in the day small objects began drifting to the surface.

"The clay dissolves. Seems to be somewhat porous and the moisture seeps through to what's inside. Recognize this?" He fished in the pool and laid an inert insect on the bank.

"Cricket," observed Marlin. "I remember—" His thoughts reverted to a small creature that someone—he could not quite recall who—had resurrected from the sticky ooze back in that shadowy interior.

"This'll do the same," declared DuChane. "See. Its legs are twitching already. Here's something larger." He fished out a bedraggled bird.

"Then this is how it all came about?" queried Marlin. He swept the landscape with an inclusive gesture. "These birds—squirrels—Link's cow and the bull. You and I?"

"Sure thing. And the vegetation. The clay is rich in seeds. Everything that blew into that pit stuck." DuChane raked the surface of the water and held the gathered scum in his palm so that Marlin could see. "Seeds. Insects and larvae. Must have been washing out and drying and blowing over the landscape—taking root—for years."

"How many?"

DuChane shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. I think we'll find that the shell broke up along this stretch of coastline and all the life of the planet is concentrated here. It must have commenced releasing the life it brought as soon as the water reached it."

"But before that—how long—? The clay is hard as rock!"

"Dave—that's something to think about. I've an idea it was terribly long. That earth of ours—for all we know man finished his evolution there—billions of our kind were born and died—while we lay in the chrysalis waiting for conditions to ripen. Worlds aren't finished in a day—unless you're thinking of cosmic days. Not even when it's a case of gathering up the debris of an asteroid belt and molding it into a planet—a New Earth."

Marlin stared. His mind sought to envision the slow natural processes that would achieve such a result.

"It's not hard to conceive," continued DuChane reflectively. "Earth scientists generally agreed that the original life spores reached our system from distant parts of the galaxy. When you think of the distances and eons of time they had to traverse, our little moment of suspended existence fades into insignificance."

"You've been awake—longer than I have," Marlin confessed dazedly. "My rusty brain can't follow you."


They wandered down the coastline, the two together faring better in the hunt for small game and edible growths than either had succeeded in doing alone.

Whenever he found a scattering of the baked clay fragments, or even isolated lumps, Marlin made it a point to carry them down to the water's edge, where in due course they would add to the life of the planet. It would be splendid to locate some larger pieces. There might be something to those stories of goats and sheep trapped by the ooze. A dog would be a find.

DuChane was off hunting by himself when Marlin came upon the largest deposit of clay fragments he had yet encountered. One of the lumps was of boulder size. He studied it with mounting excitement. It might prove entirely barren, as many of the fragments did, or it might prove to contain only tiny creatures. On the other hand, it could be the chrysalis of a fairly good-sized animal.

Transporting it to the water's edge was out of the question, but Marlin solved the problem by dredging a channel through the sand and rock debris which had isolated the deposit. When the next tide rose, it poured through the channel, immersing the clay boulder, and when the tide receded, the greater part of the water remained in the pool.

He did not tell DuChane of his discovery when they returned to camp at sundown. It would be a thrill to surprise him, if the find proved worth while.

Beyond assuring himself at intervals that the clay boulder was covered with water, there was little that Marlin could do to assist nature. From morning to morning, on various pretexts, he opposed DuChane's restless desire to move camp, while he watched the slow disintegration of the clay. Now and then he fished small creatures out of the water; others floated to the edge and revived of themselves. He was beginning to fear that the large blob contained no more than a sprinkling of such life, when, peering through the murky water, he saw a streak of lighter coloration along one side.

That it might be a human limb he refused even to hope. It seemed hairless, but often the small animals were bald in spots when they emerged, presenting a pathetically moth-eaten appearance. He could do nothing all day but watch. At sundown, DuChane made caustic observations upon his failure to contribute to their larder. Marlin scarcely bothered to offer an excuse.

Early next morning, he was back at the pool. By this time, the body within the partly disintegrated chrysalis was so definitely outlined that he could almost be certain of its human shape. The exposed portions were still hard and rigid to the touch. He restrained his impatience to break away the encrusting clay. Experience had shown that attempts to hasten the process usually resulted in injury or death to the enclosed creature. Yet by mid-afternoon enough of the deposit had dissolved to assure Marlin, not only that the body was human, but that it was quite probably feminine. The head and upper portion were still encrusted with the clay. He could only hope that they would be free by morning.

Had it not been for questions it would arouse in DuChane's mind, he would have remained all night by the pool. When he forced himself to return to camp, DuChane regarded him sourly. Suspicion mounted as Marlin set about unaccustomed preparations.

Selecting the sharpest of his stone implements, he ground it to a still keener edge. Then, painfully and methodically, he began scraping his beard. The coming of darkness made little difference, since he was working by sense of touch. When the growth had been removed from his face, after a fashion, he hacked at his tangled locks until something that might be termed a haircut had been achieved.

Long before he had finished, DuChane was snoring, but in the morning he looked at his companion with undisguised amusement.

"Why the beauty treatment?"

"We're civilized beings," retorted Marlin defensively. "Why look like savages?"

Restraining his impatience until he was sure DuChane had gone his own way, he gathered some food and all the animal skins they had accumulated between them and hastened to the pool.

A tide had risen and ebbed during the night, leaving the water comparatively clear. The body of the girl was floating on the surface, face and shoulders entirely freed of clay but submerged.

A desperate fear clutched Marlin's vitals. He should have been there when the last of the clay dissolved, ready to drag her clear of the water. What if the delay had allowed her to drown?

Dropping his armful of skins on a flattened rock, he plunged into the pool and bore her to the improvised couch. The skins with the softer fur he spread beneath, and with those remaining he covered the slender body.

Not until then did he look at the wan face with any impulse of curiosity. It had not especially mattered who she was. It was enough that she was a member of the human species—a girl.

Now he realized that she was Norma, the moody outlaw maiden. And with the realization came a stab of dismay.

Norma had been dead before the crash. The barest accident alone had saved her body from the incinerator. The life-maintaining clay had closed over her too late to preserve a vital spark already fled. No wonder she lay so inert and motionless.

With leaden heart, he looked down at the still features—so cold and immobile. Not until then did he realize how vehemently he had counted on bringing her into his world—how he had needed and yearned for such companionship. It had not seemed to matter who the girl was; but now he realized that he wanted Norma—that life would never be complete without her.

He touched the cheeks, the hands, the scarred neck. They were cold—cold as the stone on which she lay. And yet a sense of perplexity assailed him.

Not one fragment of inorganic life had been preserved in the clay, as far as he had discovered. It seemed to maintain all forms of life or potential life; other substances had invariably been consumed.

His clothing and everything he carried had succumbed to the disintegration, yet his body had emerged from its clay entombment unscathed—not only that, but strengthened, purified, adapted to its new environment, so that he experienced no great discomfort in a climate markedly colder than Earth's. He and DuChane had discussed this and decided that the body metabolism had been altered, making them definitely coldblooded.

If the purifying clay could do this, could it not also have drawn the poison from Norma's system, maintaining a spark of life that still persisted despite her seeming death? From the mere fact that her body was preserved, what other conclusion was it possible to draw?

With renewed hope, Marlin set frantically about trying to establish respiration by artificial means. Was it imagination, or did he feel a slight surge of warmth in the limp body? As a last resort, he bent over the still face and blew his breath into the delicate nostrils.

A long drawn, quivering shudder swept the form. Stilling his excitement, he blew again and yet again, slowly working the arms back and forth. And presently, beyond doubt, she was breathing naturally, her flesh was taking on a glow of warmth, the long-lashed eyes opened for a second.

Throughout the morning, Marlin nursed his charge. From time to time, he moistened the pale lips with water and allowed a trickle to run into her mouth. When the sun reached its zenith, she made an effort as if to rise, and he helped her to a sitting posture.

She looked around blankly, scarce seeming to know what she saw, and aware of Marlin only as an object that moved.

She was not beautiful by Earth standards, but those standards were far away. To Marlin, her very presence was intoxicating. He could have knelt and worshipped her.

How long he had been observed, in his preoccupation, he had no way of knowing. When he glanced up at an overhanging rock-ledge above the pool, DuChane was regarding him with sardonic amusement.

"I figured you were up to something," the man called down. "So this was the inspiration for the shave."

Marlin licked his lips, stifling a wave of apprehension.

"She's mine," he said.

DuChane circled the ledge until he found a place to descend. Making his way down slowly, he strode toward the girl—would have touched her but for a warning gesture from Marlin.

He turned abruptly.

"We may as well get this settled." His voice was harsh—his eyes had grown hard. "One of us gets her—the other doesn't."

"She's mine," Marlin repeated doggedly. "I found her—opened the channel to the tide—brought her to life."

"You want her," returned DuChane, "because she's a woman. I want her because—she's the one. I'd come to feel that way about her back in the space ark."

Filled with a blind rage, Marlin plunged toward him. DuChane carried a spear, and he raised it in defense, but in the fury of his onslaught Marlin brushed it aside and heard it clatter on the rock.

He landed a fist squarely on the other's jaw and followed it with flailing blows on face and body.

DuChane made a quick recovery. He lowered his head and bored through the barrage to get a strangle hold on Marlin's neck.

Forced to adopt similar tactics, Marlin struggled for his opponent's throat. They fell together, thrashing over the rocky slope.

With an unexpected twist, DuChane wrenched free. Attempting to follow him, Marlin slipped on the wet rock and fell with a resounding splash into the pool. By the time he could scramble out, DuChane had recovered his spear and was warily bearing down upon him, the stone point poised for a deadly thrust.

Before the sure death presaged by the snarling features, Marlin cautiously retreated. By this time, his mind had regained its alertness. For all his rage, he realized that, unarmed, he was no match for DuChane while the latter possessed the spear.

Whirling suddenly, he made a dash for freedom. Before DuChane could hurl his shaft, he had scrambled over the edge of the embankment and was running toward camp.

Quickly, Marlin gathered all the spears belonging to their combined store. Thus fortified, he warily circled the higher ground which overlooked the pool.

DuChane was squatting before the girl, but his preoccupation was not so intent that he failed to glimpse the movement above. Instantly he was erect, spear in hand.

Poising his best shaft, Marlin flung it straight toward the other's breast. DuChane leaped aside, and the spear struck a rock behind him a glancing blow. The head shattered, while the shaft rebounded, striking the girl.

Sick with dismay, Marlin saw her recoil and then bewilderedly attempt to rise. DuChane caught her in his arms and forced her down on the bed of skins, then turned vindictively toward the man above.

Defeated for the moment, Marlin withdrew. He could not risk throwing more spears while DuChane remained near the girl.

Throughout the rest of the day, he stalked the other. DuChane was too wary to be taken off guard. He was even supplied with rations—the delicacies Marlin had brought from camp with which to feed the girl when she regained consciousness. He saw DuChane put occasional morsels into her mouth. She swallowed, mechanically but eagerly.

Toward evening, Marlin was sure he heard her utter a few hesitant syllables in answer to DuChane's low-voiced remarks.

He kept up the siege through the night, hoping to slip down unobserved and creep up on the other man, but the night happened to be one in which the moons were both in evidence. Their radiance was sufficient to give the alert DuChane warning of his approach.

The one thing to his advantage was an unusually high tide. It drove DuChane and his charge up the slope to a position beneath the overhanging ledge. Studying the situation by the first rays of the morning sun, Marlin decided on a plan of action.

He gained a vantage point as nearly as possible above the two. By hurling himself over the ledge, he might be able to overcome the other in a surprise attack.

Waiting until the murmur of voices below indicated that DuChane was at least partly off guard, he poised himself, spear in hand, then leaped.

It was a fall of a good twelve feet. He landed on all fours on the sloping descent, the jar breaking his hold on his spear. A sharp pain stabbed up one leg.

DuChane sprang to his feet, spear upraised, but Marlin charged toward him without hesitation.

The jagged point of the spear pierced his side, but he plowed on, forcing the other back up the slope by sheer fury of the onslaught.

Again they were at close grips, gouging, tearing, surging back and forth across the slope. Once DuChane gained a strangle hold on Marlin's throat. Fingers, hard and cruel as talons, sank deep into his windpipe. Mustering all his energy, Marlin broke the hold by forcing the other back against the rock wall and pounding his head against the jagged surface.

They broke apart, Marlin gasping for breath, DuChane shaking his shaggy head to clear it. Then, with the fury of desperation, Marlin stumbled back to the fray.

This time DuChane met the attack by hurling his body down upon him with the force of a catapult.

They hurtled down the slope together, but Marlin was beneath, and the crash of landing knocked the breath from his body.

DuChane scrambled for his spear, but when Marlin tried to rise, he found his muscles too weak to obey the demand of his will. He was faint from loss of the blood which gushed from his torn side, and the pain stabbing up from his ankle was rising to the threshold of consciousness with unbearable intensity.

With glazing eyes, he looked up to see DuChane poised for the kill.

The spear-arm hesitated. Through a throbbing haze of waning consciousness, Marlin heard the other man's voice.

"I don't want to kill you—Dave. What about it? Will you go your way and leave us in peace?"

Then blackness blotted out the scene.


Marlin regained consciousness in the camp. He was stiff and weak and sick with the pain of his ankle. DuChane and the girl stood over him.

"Sorry, old man," DuChane said regretfully. "You put up a good fight, but I had the advantage."

Marlin made no reply. But in the days that followed, while slowly regaining his strength, he observed the pair. It was clear that he was definitely out of the picture. The girl, Norma, taciturn as ever, nevertheless followed DuChane with her eyes and seemed to dwell on his every word. Daily she accompanied him on the hunt, becoming as adept as a man with spear and club.

Sometimes she returned early to prepare the evening meal. On one such occasion Marlin abruptly asked:

"You like him? You're satisfied?"

The girl, in her single brief garment of skins, dropped down beside him. She was tanned and strong-looking now, and a new radiance had replaced the old sullen look on her face.

"You found me, didn't you?" she said slowly. "It was you who gave me back to life—and I've never thanked you."

Marlin gingerly flexed his injured ankle. "Forget the thanks," he returned gruffly.

"It seems funny," she went on, "to thank you for saving me. I used to reproach you for saving me the first time, and I tried to fling away the life you'd given back. But somehow, now, it's different. I want to live! I feel somehow that I've found the place where I belong—a world where living is real and glorious, as it should be."

He looked at her thoughtfully.

"I guess you're right. Everything's as it should be."

As soon as he could walk with but a slight limp, he gathered up his spears and implements.

"I've a notion there's better hunting farther south," he observed.

DuChane avoided his eyes. Norma said nothing, but it was apparent that she wished to be alone with her man.

"I'll drop around sometimes—keep in touch with you," Marlin assured them cheerfully. "So long."

Thus casually, he set out alone in the wilderness.

For weeks he hunted along the shore of the murky sea. One day he picked up a shaft in which was bound a spearhead unlike any that either he or DuChane had fashioned. It was a crudely hammered thing of metal—and the red stain with which it was encrusted revealed that the metal was iron.

While he stood looking at it, a shrill vituperation startled his ears, and two figures came dashing over the ridge beyond. In the brief glimpse he had before the pursuer felled the one in advance, he was sure the victim was a woman.

She had fallen beneath the blow, but in an instant was on her feet, screaming, struggling, and scratching. Before the fury of her attack, the man retreated, and finally broke away, waving his spear ominously when she threatened to follow up the advantage.

Both became aware of Marlin at the same instant.

He walked toward them slowly.

"Sally!" he called out, and then, doubtfully: "Len McGruder?"

Eyes riveted on Marlin's face, the girl approached, slowly, almost like one groping in the dark. She touched his cheeks diffidently with both hands.

"You're Dave! Dave Marlin!" she gasped.

McGruder eyed them with fierce resentment, then lunged forward and thrust Sally away.

"Damned slut!" he growled. "Get back to your brats."

She swung on him furiously. "Shut Up! I'll stay where I please."

Marlin noticed with sickened comprehension that there was an ugly welt on her temple and many bruises showed on the exposed parts of her body. But then, there were scratches and welts on McGruder that might not have been due altogether to entanglement with brush.

"You'll stay with us tonight," Sally informed Marlin. "You'll be surprised at what a good housekeeper I am."

There was no second to the invitation from McGruder, but Marlin cheerfully accompanied them home.

Their refuge, like that of Maw and Link, was a cave. In an improvised enclosure, two naked children rolled contentedly in the dirt—one about two, the other a babe in the crawling stage. Cute little brats, Marlin thought, and Sally appeared to be casually proud of them.

There was no evidence that they had attempted to cultivate growing things, but they had a fire, and Marlin was interested in the forge McGruder grudgingly showed him. He had fashioned other things besides spearheads—crude knives and an attempt at an axe—but he jealously refused to divulge the location of his metal deposits.

As a special treat, Sally cooked a delectable stew of meat and edible roots.

During the evening, the pair staged a bitter quarrel over some trifle, in the course of which McGruder sent Sally reeling with a cuff on the side of the head and she came back tooth and nail to retaliate. Marlin refrained from taking a hand. The girl seemed able to take care of herself.

When the embers of the fire burned low, Sally carried her offspring into the cave. McGruder, with a snarling remark that might have been taken for a goodnight followed her. Marlin made himself as comfortable as possible under a ledge some distance away.

He wakened at the sound of crunching sand. In an instant, Sally was beside him, her arms circling his neck. She was sobbing.

"Take me away, Dave!" she moaned. "I can't stand it. He beats me—he's a beast! It's been a living hell."

He stroked her hair gently, reveling in the soft tangle. He did not blame her for wanting to leave a brute like McGruder. In point of fact, she was voicing a thought which he had been pondering as he fell asleep.

Her lips sought his and clung, deliciously.

"Your kids," he suggested presently. "You wouldn't want to leave them. How'll we manage—?"

"I've thought it all out," she told him breathlessly. "In the morning you'll start down the coast. If he thinks you're out of the way, he'll go hunting as usual. Then you can come back and we'll slip away together."

"Suppose he follows. With two children we can't travel very fast."

"What if he does! You're strong, Dave—and unafraid. I've always admired you. He found me wandering around alone, frightened and starved, and we—well, there just wasn't anybody else. You know how it is."

"Sure," he agreed. "I don't blame you, kid."

Another clinging kiss, and she slipped away.

Marlin lay contentedly thinking of the morrow. He'd found the companionship he craved, at last. Sally was an attractive kid. In this new world, for all its hardships, she had blossomed in a full-bosomed, satisfying way. Her kisses were pleasant to recall. Now he could establish a home and live the way a man was meant to live.

That she was already encumbered with two children did not disturb him in the least. Hungering for companionship, he liked the idea of having others dependent upon him—others for whom he could work and hunt, and to whom he would mean something.

True, they were another man's children. Presumably McGruder had some feeling for them; he couldn't be entirely lacking in human traits. Probably even cared for Sally in his way. But a scurvy brute who didn't know how to treat a woman deserved to have her run away with another man.

Involuntarily, Marlin strove to put the thought in different words. The idea of running away was repellent. Why do it by stealth? He wasn't afraid of McGruder.

Why not go up to him and say: "I'm making off with your wife and kids. What are you going to do about it?" That was better.

McGruder would put up a howl. Marlin hoped he'd be man enough to fight. Somehow, you didn't feel quite so mean about taking a man's possessions if you proved you were entitled to them by right of superior prowess.

But whether you took them by stealth or force, you'd have occasional moments of remorse. It wasn't as if—

Impatiently, Marlin twisted to his other side and tried to sleep. Thinking about it didn't help. Perhaps Sally's idea was better, after all. It wasn't the fight he wanted to avoid—it was the accusation he'd feel in the other man's eyes. Even a rat like McGruder could have moral right on his side....


Morning found Marlin many miles down the coast and still feverishly pushing on. Too bad he couldn't have left some word for Sally; but she'd probably understand.

His failing to show up for breakfast would be the tipoff. She'd realize that he must have decided that he couldn't do this thing.

In the long run, she'd be glad that the father of her children still had the responsibility of caring for them. What if he did beat her occasionally? Recollection of the fight they'd staged last evening recurred to mind, and he grinned. Sally gave as good as she took. He half suspected that she enjoyed the excitement.

Still, there were her kisses and her warm vital body. Most of all, there was the hunger for companionship. It was just as well to put a lot of distance between himself and these ever-tempting possibilities.

Perhaps, if he was doomed to be alone, he might find some creature of the wild for company. The section of the shore which he was approaching really promised well.

He had supposed that the center from which most of the vegetation sprang was somewhere in the neighborhood of his emergence. Probably just a fellow's egotistical way of regarding himself as the center of the universe. Now it began to look as if this region to the south was relatively a garden spot, the older section—so far as growth was concerned.

The bushes were more luxuriant; there were even some fledgling trees. Wild life was more abundant. He caught glimpses of rabbits and of a distant creature that might have been one of the legendary sheep which were supposed to have been trapped in the ooze before the sphere took its plunge into space.

It seemed to Marlin that even the sun shone brighter; his skin felt a gentle warmth in place of the ever-present chill. It was almost like coming home.

More and more frequently he came upon things that gladdened his spirit. Sheep there undoubtedly were, back among those rocks, and stalks of corn, not nearly as stunted as those which Link had painstakingly cultivated. Bees hummed around the blossoms of occasional flowers. At the base of a huge rock outcropping he found a nest hollowed out in a pocket of dry leaves, and in the nest were eggs—pullet eggs.

On the slope of a hillside rising from the other side of the rock was a small flock of clucking hens, scratching industriously under the supervision of a strutting cock. Off to the right a pair of goats raised their heads and blatted at him in mild astonishment.

A well-defined trail led to the crest of the outcropping. Trembling with anticipation of he knew not what, Marlin plodded up the path. Reaching the top, he paused. Something constricted his throat.

Calm and tranquil, like an aloof goddess, she sat on a boulder in a grassy knoll overlooking the sea. She wore a knee-length garment which seemed to be woven of plaited grass. Her long golden hair hung in loose braids over her shoulders, and she cuddled a chick to her breast, cupping it in both hands while the mother hen, with the rest of her brood, clucked at her feet. On the slope above, a black and white pup paused in the act of worrying a stick, and stood looking at the newcomer with one ear comically cocked.

Marlin stared entranced. He had no impulse to approach, but only to fill his eyes with the lovely picture she made—to feed his starved soul with the tranquility of her unconscious pose. Mature, brooding, poised—a veritable part of it she seemed—an expression of the universal mother-spirit.

When she glanced up from the fluffy thing cuddled in her hands, she seemed scarcely surprised at seeing him, but her full lips broke into a smile of pleased welcome.

As she deposited the fledgling on the ground among its mates, he took a diffident step toward her, then another.

"Pearl!" he muttered in a choked voice, and dropped on his knees beside her.

She looked down understandingly. Extending both hands, she clasped them behind his head and drew his face gently to the warm hollow where the chick had nestled.

"... Thus N'urth came into being. But it was a fearsome planet—barren—devoid of life. Then the gods who had created it turned to Pi-Ruh-Al, the all-knowing, and besought her to make their creation more pleasing to the sight of El-Leighi.

"For know you, my son, that so great was the wisdom of this lovely goddess that for long periods she sealed her lips in mercy, lest she reveal truths too vast for mind to comprehend. Yet was she also the most tender and understanding of the Great Beings.

"In her wisdom, Pi-Ruh-Al gathered a handful of soil from the barren planet, and breathed upon it, and moistened it in the sea. And she scattered the soil and it became seeds, which blossomed into grass and flowers and all things growing, so that N'urth was converted into a place of beauty riding upon the void.

"And again Pi-Ruh-Al gathered rock fragments which she moistened in the sea and breathed upon and scattered abroad, and the rocks gave forth living things, so that the world teemed with birds and tiny creatures that crawl and fly and burrow, and with all animals that we know, from the least to great herds which feed upon the hillsides.

"With all of this the gods were pleased, but in time they again grew dissatisfied, they knew not why. And Pi-Ruh-Al smiled, for the cause of their sorrow was known to her even before they voiced it. So she removed the seal from her lips and told them they were grieved because none of their kind would enjoy the beauty of this world or remain to husband its teeming life, when they returned to their home in the sun. And she commanded them to people N'urth with beings in their own image—children of their loins, who should hold their heads high and walk erect with understanding, as befitted the mortal children of gods.

"And the Mighty Ones knew that Pi-Ruh-Al spoke wisdom, and they obeyed her command. And now, from their far-off home in the sun, they look out upon the fair planet which they formed and peopled with life, and declare that it is good."

"Is it not true, Mother, that our own race—my race—came from the greatest of these?"

"We believe it is true, son—and ever should. For it is said that from Maha-Ra-Lin and Pi-Ruh-Al descended our splendid race, which peoples nearly half the continents of N'urth. Yet it is but natural for the other races to think highly of those from whom they sprang. All were gods—stupendous beings of high courage and noble aims, who rode the thunderbolt across the void, brought life from stones, and molded for us a world in which it is pleasant to dwell."

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