The Second Move

“What happened to him, though?” asked Wade, bewildered. “I haven’t yet figured it out. He went down in a heap, and he didn’t have any power. Of course, if he had his power he could have pulled out again. He could just melt and burn all the excess rock off, and he would be all set. But his rays all went dead. And why the explosion?”

“The magnetic beam is the answer. In our boat we have everything magnetically shielded, because of the enormous magnetic flux set up by the current flowing from the storage coils to the main coil. But⁠—with so many wires heavily charged with current, what would have happened if they had not been shielded?

“If a current cuts across a magnetic field, a side thrust is developed. What do you suppose happened when the terrific magnetic field of the beam and the currents in the wires of their power-board were mutually opposed?”

“Lord, it must have ripped away everything in the ship. It’d tear loose even the lighting wires!” gasped Wade in amazement.

“But if all the power of the ship was destroyed in this way, how was it that one of their rays was operating as they fell?” asked Zezdon Afthen.

“Each ray is a power plant in itself,” explained Arcot, “and so it was able to function. I do not know the cause of the explosion, though it might well have been that they had light-bombs such as the Kaxorians of Venus have,” he added, thoughtfully.

They landed, at Zezdon’s advice, in the city that their arrival had been able to save. This was Ortol’s largest city, and their industrial capital. Here, too, was the University at which Afthen taught.

They landed, and Arcot, Morey and Wade, with the aid of Zezdon Afthen and Zezdon Fentes worked steadily for two of their days of fifty hours each, teaching men how to make and use the molecular ships, and the rays and screens, heat beams, and relux. But Arcot promised that when he returned he would have some weapon that would bring them certain and easy salvation. In the meantime other terrestrians would follow him.

They left the morning of their third day on the planet. A huge crowd had come to cheer them on their way as they left, but it was the “silent cheer” of Ortol, a telepathic well-wishing.

“Now,” said Arcot as their ship left the planet behind, “we will have to make the next move. It certainly looks as though that next move would be to the still-unknown race that lives on world 3769⁠–⁠37, 478, 326, 894⁠–⁠6. Evidently we will have to have some weapon they haven’t, and I think that I know what it will be. Thanks to our trip out to the Islands of Space.”

“Shall we go?”

“I think it would be wise,” agreed Morey.

“And I,” said Wade. The Ortolians agreed, and so, with the aid of the photographic copies of the Thessian charts that Arcot had made, they started for world 3769⁠–⁠37, 478, 326, 894⁠–⁠6.

“It will take approximately twenty-two hours, and as we have been putting off our sleep with drugs, I think that we had better catch up. Wade, I wish you’d take the ship again, while Morey and I do a little concentrated sleeping. We have by no means finished that calculation, and I’d very much like to. We’ll relieve you in five hours.”

Wade took the ship, and following the course Arcot laid out, they sped through the void at the greatest safe speed. Wade had only to watch the view-screen carefully, and if a star showed as growing rapidly, it was proof that they were near, and nearing rapidly. If large, a touch of a switch, and they dodged to one side, if small, they were suddenly plunged into an instant of unbelievable radiation as they swept through it, in a different space, yet linked to it by radiation, not light, that were permitted in.

Zezdon Afthen had elected to stay with him, which gave him an opportunity he had been waiting for. “If it’s none of my business, just say so,” he began. “But that first city we saw the Thessians destroy⁠—it was Zezdon Fentes’ home, wasn’t it? Did he have a family?”

The words seemed blunt as he said them, but there was no way out, once he had started. And Zezdon Afthen took the question with complete calm.

“Fentes had both wives and children,” he said quietly. “His loss was great.”

Wade concentrated on the screen for a moment, trying to absorb the shock. Then, fearing Zezdon Afthen might misinterpret his silence, he plunged on. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize you were polygamous⁠—most people on Earth aren’t, but some groups are. It’s probably a good way to improve the race. But⁠ ⁠… Blast it, what bothers me is that Zezdon Fentes seemed to recover from the blow so quickly! From a canine race, I’d expect more affection, more loyalty, more.⁠ ⁠…”

He stopped in dismay. But Zezdon Afthen remained unperturbed. “More unconcealed emotion?” he asked. “No. Affection and loyalty we have⁠—they are characteristic of our race. But affection and loyalty should not be uselessly applied. To forget dead wives and children⁠—that would be insulting to their memory. But to mourn them with senseless loss of health and balance would also be insulting⁠—not only to their memory, but to the entire race.

“No, we have a better way. Fentes, my very good friend, has not forgotten, no more than you have forgotten the death of your mother, whom you loved. But you no longer mourn her death with a fear and horror of that natural thing, the Eternal Sleep. Time has softened the pain.

“If we can do the same in five minutes instead of five years, is it not better? That is why Fentes has forgotten.”

“Then you have aged his memory of that event?” asked Wade in surprise.

“That is one way of stating it,” replied Zezdon Afthen seriously.

Wade was silent for a while, absorbing this. But he could not contain his curiosity completely. Well, to hell with it, he decided. Conventional manners and tact don’t have much meaning between two different races. “Are you⁠—married?” he asked.

“Only three times,” Zezdon Afthen told him blandly. “And to forestall your next question⁠—no, our system does not create problems. At least, not those you’re thinking of. I know my wives have never had the jealous quarrels I see in your mind pictures.”

“It isn’t safe thinking things around you,” laughed Wade. “Just the same, all of this has made me even more interested in the ‘Ancient Masters’ you keep mentioning. Who were they?”

“The Ancient Ones,” began Zezdon Afthen slowly, “were men such as you are. They descended from a primeval omnivorous mammal very closely related to your race. Evidently the tendency of evolution on any planet is approximately the same with given conditions.

“The race existed as a distinct branch for approximately 1,500,000 of your years before any noticeable culture was developed. Then it existed for a total of 1,525,000 years before extinction. With culture and learning they developed such marvelous means of killing themselves that in twenty-five thousand years they succeeded perfectly. Ten thousand years of barbaric culture⁠—I need not relate it to you, five thousand years of the medieval culture, then five thousand years of developed science culture.

“They learned to fly through space and nearly populated three worlds; two were fully populated, one was still under colonization when the great war broke out. An interplanetary war is not a long drawn out struggle. The science of any people so far advanced as to have interplanetary lines is too far developed to permit any long duration of war. Selto declared war, and made the first move. They attacked and destroyed the largest city of Ortol of that time. Ortolian ships drove them off, and in turn attacked Selto’s largest city. Twenty million intelligences, twenty million lives, each with its aims, its hopes, its loves and its strivings⁠—gone in four days.

“The war continued to get more and more hateful, till it became evident that neither side would be pacified till the other was totally subjugated. So each laid his plans, and laid them to wipe out the entire world of the other.

“Ortol developed a ray of light that made things not happen,” explained Zezdon Afthen, his confused thoughts clearly indicating his own uncertainty.

“ ‘A ray of light that made things not happen,’ ” repeated Wade curiously. “A ray, which prevented things, which caused processes to stop⁠—The Negrian Death Ray!” he exclaimed as he suddenly recognized, in this crude and garbled description of its powers, the Negrian ray of anti-catalysis, a ray which tended to stop the processes of life’s chemistry and bring instant, painless death.

“Ah, you know it, too?” asked the Ortolian eagerly. “Then you will understand what happened. The ray was turned first on Selto, and as the whirling planet spun under it, every square foot of it was wiped clean of every living thing, from gigantic Welsthan to microscopic Ascoptel, and every man, woman and child was killed, painlessly, but instantly.

“Then Thenten spun under it, and all were killed, but many who had fled the planets were still safe⁠—many?⁠—a few thousand.

“The day that Thenten spun under that ray, men of Ortol began to complain of disease⁠—men by the thousands, hundreds of thousands. Every man, every woman, every child was afflicted in some way. The diseases did not seem all the same. Some seemingly died of a disease of the lungs, some went insane, some were paralyzed, and lay helplessly inactive. But most of them were afflicted, for it was exceedingly virulent, and the normal serums were helpless. Before any quantity of new serum was made, all but a slender remnant had died, either of starvation through paralysis, none being left to care for them, or from the disease itself, while thousands who had gone mad were painlessly killed.

“The Seltonians came to Ortol, and the remaining Ortolians, with their aid, tried to rebuild the civilization. But what a sorry thing! The cities were gigantic, stinking, plague-ridden morgues. And the plague broke among those few remaining people. The Ortolians had done everything in their power with the serums⁠—but too late. The Seltonians had been protected with it on landing⁠—but even that was not enough. Again the wild fires of that loathsome disease broke out.

“Since first those men had developed from their hairy forebears, they had found their eternal friends were the dogs, and to them they turned in their last extremity, breeding them for intelligence, hairlessness, and resemblance to themselves. The Deathless ones alone remained after three generations of my people, but with the aid of certain rays, the rays capable of penetrating lead for a short distance, and most other substances for considerable distances.” X-rays, thought Wade. “Great changes had been wrought. Already they had developed startling intelligence, and were able to understand the scheme of their Masters. Their feet and hands were being modified rapidly, and their vocal apparatus was changing. Their jaws shortened, their chins developed, the nose retreated.

“Generation after generation the process went on, while the Deathless Ancient Ones worked with their helpers, for soon my race was a real helping organization.

“But it was done. The successful arousing of true love-emotion followed, and the unhappy days were gone. Quickly development followed. In five thousand years the new race had outstripped the Ancient Masters, and they passed, voluntarily, willingly joining in oblivion the millions who had died before.

“Since then our own race has risen, it has been but a short thousand years, a thousand years of work, and hope, and continuous improvement for us, continual accomplishment on which we can look, and a living hope to which we could look with raised heads, and smiling faces.

“Then our hope died, as this menace came. Do you see what you and your world was meant to us, Man of Earth?” Zezdon Afthen raised his dark eyes to the terrestrian with a look in their depths that made Wade involuntarily resolve that Thet and all Thessians should be promptly consigned to that limbo of forgotten things where they belonged.