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DAVID WRIGHT O'BRIEN

THE STRANGE VOYAGE
OF HECTOR SQUINCH

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RGL e-Book Cover 2017

First published in Fantastic Adventures, August 1940
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version Date: 2017-10-31
Produced by Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan

The text of this book is in the public domain in Australia.
All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

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Fantastic Adventures, August 1940 with "The Strange Voyage of Hector Squinch"



THE STRANGE VOYAGE OF HECTOR SQUINCH

Illustration


"I DON'T know why I ever married you, Hector Squinch!" For a moment the shrewish voice ceased while a pair of exasperated eyes swept their gaze scornfully up and down Hector's quaking form. Then the voice went on:

"Go and see your silly science exhibits," it stormed. "Here's sixty cents for your dinner. I'm going to see things for myself. And mind you, meet me here at six o'clock. If you don't..."

"Yes, Cynthia," Hector said meekly, properly awed by the unvoiced threat in her voice. He well knew what the "if" meant; he'd gone through two-week sessions of re-enacting the life of a worm many times before. "I'll be here, I promise I will."

"You'd better!" Cynthia snapped and swept majestically away into the crowd.

When she had vanished, Hector leaned against a statue just inside the Hall of Science, and tried to assume an air of nonchalance he didn't feel. Short and slight-shouldered, Hector was not the jaunty type. And as he peered rather wistfully at the happy throngs milling through the turnstiles for the opening day of the 1940 World's Fair, he looked even more like what he actually was—one of Life's pipsqueaks.

Hector began to make plans for his two hours of freedom.

There was a bubble dancer at the Parisian Inn—Hector closed his eyes and sighed—whom he was sure Cynthia would not approve of. And then there was his hobby. He fancied himself as something of an Edison, or maybe a Newton. At any rate he liked science. Cynthia didn't approve of science either. So Hector planned to kill two birds with one stone. He was going to drink in all the science he could, for an hour, and then he would seek out the bubble dancer. He felt almost devilish.

Joining the sluggishly moving line of spectators, Hector Squinch, pale eyes beginning to glint enthusiastically behind his horn-rimmed spectacles, drank in the glories he beheld. Whirling gadgets, bubbling tubes of multi-colored liquids, fascinating charts and wires—all these received his excited study. He didn't have much idea of what any of them were about. But they were all quite scientific. That was all that mattered.

He was leaving the "Woman of the Future" exhibit when he saw it.

For a moment the little man almost fainted from sheer excitement. It was incredible. It was magnificent. It was glorious. It was a rocket ship, part of the "Transportation of the Future" exhibit. The mere implications of the huge, bullet-like vessel sent Hector's imagination scurrying feverishly to Elysian fields. A rocket ship!

Crowds jostled by him, pushing, elbowing, but Hector was totally unaware of anything save the ravishing beauty of the metal monster. A space ship, a real life-size, space ship!

It left Hector Squinch very breathless, and for more than half an hour he stood with skeptical audiences listening to a uniformed attendant's lectures on the craft. After the conclusion of each lecture, the guide conducted a brief tour of inspection through the huge ship. Hector followed dazedly along on each of these inspections.

The inside of the rocket ship was very similar—except for gadgets—to the inside of a giant transport plane. There were rows of seats, separated by a tiny aisle, which faced the nose of the ship where there was a sort of pilot's seat. On each inspection, when the audience was invited to sit down, Hector edged timidly further forward—wishing that he had the courage to try the pilot's seat, to sit in it, to pretend he was—in fact—the pilot.

Instead, however, he contented himself with the regular seats where, unnoticed, he could close his eyes and conjure visions of exciting interplanetary voyages and furious battles with Martians. In each of these day-dreams Hector Squinch was the hero, and a sharp-voiced woman named Cynthia was noticeably absent.

Hector was bidding adieu to a beautiful Martian woman, whom he had just rescued from peril by means of blazing rocket pistols. Then, in spite of the bravado of his dream, the danger of his position frightened him into wakefulness. He opened his eyes abruptly. Looking wildly about, he became aware that he had dozed, that the inspection party had left the ship. He was alone.


FOR an awful instant his stomach had the uneasy sensation that follows a swift drop in an elevator. He glanced quickly at his watch. It was 6:30. He had been napping for over a half hour! Looking out the window beside him, he could see that the attendant was gone, more than likely to dinner, and that the crowds around the exhibit had vanished. Hector was grateful. He would have no embarrassing explanations to make to the guide or spectators. Standing up, he moved down the aisle to the door.

Tugging at the knob, Hector pulled inward, then out. It seemed to be stuck. Putting all his strength into the effort, he tried again. It was stuck!

Feverishly Hector threw his shoulder against the door, wincing as he was rewarded with only a sharp pain for his trouble. Quite suddenly it came to Hector that he was locked in. Beads of sweat trickled down his brow. He gazed owlishly through the thick window. He wished now that there was someone outside, remembering as he did, that it was dinner time. He banged futilely on the window.

Hector sat down and thought of suffocation. He thought, too, of Cynthia. The thought of suffocation was more pleasant, so he returned to it, remembering the stories he'd read in newspapers about such things.

"I must not lose my head," Hector told himself firmly.

Somewhere he had read something about doors that opened from the inside as well as the outside. You pushed a button and they opened. Hector began to search for buttons. He found all sorts of them.

With every button he pushed, Hector rushed to the door and tried it. After the tenth unsuccessful button, Hector was growing frankly terrified.

"I must be calm," he said aloud.

But supposing he ran out of buttons? The thought was terrifying. He shuddered and began a search for more buttons, working up toward the nose of the ship.

It happened very suddenly. He had pressed a large red button to the right of the pilot's seat, and was running back to try the door, when hell broke loose.

He felt the floor rising violently to meet his face, and heard a shattering, splattering roar at the same instant. The Hall of Science was still reverberating to the crescendo of rockets exploding when a blazing streak of silver screamed skyward, leaving a ragged gap in the roof of the exhibition hall. Hector was riding in the blazing streak. He'd pressed the wrong button!


MINUTES later, still dazed and with a bloody nose, Hector pulled himself painfully to his feet, vaguely aware that something had happened. Supporting himself with one hand on the back of a seat, he leaned over to the window, momentarily afraid that people would be descending on him from all corners of the hall. He had a feeling that he might have blown a fuse—or something.

Hector looked blankly out the window for perhaps three full seconds before he grew conscious of what he was gazing at. Instead of the familiar surroundings of the Hall of Science, he was staring out at a frighteningly dark emptiness.

Far back in the distance a ball, very much like the tiny globe of the earth which he kept in his bedroom at home, was fading into nothingness. The realization of his plight didn't descend on his consciousness gradually. It hit with the speed and force of a mule kick. He was speeding through space, that was the only possible explanation!

Hector didn't waste time. He fainted promptly.


HECTOR didn't know how long he'd been lying on the floor of the rocket ship, but as consciousness came flooding back to him he recalled instantly what had happened.

For a moment he crouched trembling on the floor, not daring to rise to a level that would enable him to look out the windows. At last, steeling himself against another swoon, he rose to his feet and made his way unsteadily forward to the nose of the rocket. Uneasily, he took a seat in the pilot's compartment, his eyes fixed determinedly on the floor. Hector recalled that workers on tall buildings never looked down.

He wished he knew what the gadgets on the instrument panel before him meant.

Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, Hector thought again of Cynthia. He shuddered at the picture of his wife's face. She would be terribly angry with him when he returned.

When he returned. He almost choked on the thought. Would he return?

Hector wished fervently that he knew where he was going. Then he'd be able to tell if there would be any returning. Hysterically, it occurred to him that he might be headed for Mars. He shuddered violently, remembering the famous Welles broadcast.

After a while—how long he couldn't tell—time had become a vague blur to Hector Squinch. His watch had been broken as he fell to the floor when the ship shot from the exhibition hall. After what seemed to be an eternity, Hector felt his eyelids growing heavy. Then he was asleep.


IT was daylight when the dipping of the ship threw the fast slumbering Mr. Squinch to the floor. Waking instantly, Hector perceived what was happening. The ship, which had been climbing before, was now pointing downward. There was no doubt of this in his mind as he worked his way forward to the front porthole of the rocket and peered out through the thick-paned glass.

A ball, still very much like the globe on his desk at home, was rushing headlong at the ship—or vice versa!

Nearer and nearer came the globe, growing larger with every passing second. There didn't seem to be any way of avoiding a collision. Frantically, Hector realized that the ship and the object were due to collide within a very few minutes. In desperation the little man fought his way to the rear of the ship. There he clutched in a frenzy of hysteria to one of the cushioned seats, bracing himself for the shock he knew was coming. Hector closed his eyes and prayed.


"WHAT'S he muttering?" asked the bland, plump little man in the ridiculous-looking nightshirt.

"Now I lay me down to sleep," replied the bronzed young man kneeling next to the body.

"Funny thing to be muttering," mused the plump little man. "They usually say 'where am I' or something equally unoriginal." He looked across the field at the huge steel bullet-like ship, which had landed like an arrow, nose in the mud.

At that instant Hector Squinch regained consciousness. He sat bolt upright, looking about in amazement.

"Where am I?" he asked.

A series of groans came from the crowd.

"You shouldn't have said that," said a handsome young face bending over him.

Hector looked at the face, then at the body under the face. The fellow was dressed in something resembling a Grecian toga. To his amazement everyone else in the group standing around him was similarly garbed. Everyone, that is, with the exception of the rotund little bald man in the nightshirt, who advanced toward him and spoke.

"Welcome to Olympus," said the nightshirted gentleman.

"Olympus?" Hector was baffled.

"Olympus," repeated the nightshirt firmly, "welcome to it."

"Who are you?" Hector managed to gasp.

"The Civic Betterment Bureau and Chamber of Commerce Greeting Committee for the Planet Olympus," said the little man, with no apparent loss of breath.

"We, the citizens of Olympus, welcome you to our fair planet," the night-shirted chap continued. "Consider each and every one of us at your service during your stay here."

He reached into his nightshirt, which, Hector noted, was equipped with pockets, and drew forth a large key.

"Allow me," he murmured pleasantly, "to present the key to the planet."

Bewildered, Hector took the key and stood up. Suddenly it was snatched from his grasp. To his astonishment he saw that the plump little fellow had taken it back.

"Thank you," said the man in the nightshirt coldly. "You aren't supposed to keep it, y'know. It's merely a gesture. It's the only key we have. Besides, it doesn't open anything."

The plump little man put one hand behind his back, one foot forward, and cleared his throat. He opened his mouth to speak.

"Come on!" The bronzed young man seized Hector by the arm. "This is where we came in. He's starting his welcome speech."

Swiftly he propelled Hector across the field to a nearby road. The rest of the group also took flight, leaving the little man in the nightshirt quite to himself. But apparently the rotund little nut didn't mind, for he kept right on speaking.

"And we can point with pride," were the last of his words which Hector heard before they were out of hearing.


"PLEASE," said Hector as he sat in the back of a sleek limousine whipping swiftly along a country road, "what's all this about? Who are you people? Where am I? Who was the man in the nightshirt? What's all that talk about Olympus?"

The bronzed young man, now sitting on his right, smiled disarmingly.

"Whoa! One question at a time. To begin with, you're on the Planet Olympus. We are, as we said before, citizens of Olympus."

Hector Squinch felt that he might be going insane. He took a grip on himself.

"Olympus," he said as evenly as he could, "is inhabited by the gods."

"That's right!" The bronzed young man was beaming.

"Then you, you people, are gods?" Hector bleated.

"Sure. Why not?"

Hector could think of no answer to that.

The young man continued. "My name, incidentally, is Bacchus. I'm the god of wine and rioting, y'know. You'll like it here, I think," he went on. "That pudgy fellow in the nightshirt was Morpheus, god of sleep. He's the local bore. Makes all the speeches at banquets, commencements, etc."

"Is he the chief greeter?" ventured Hector.

"Self-appointed," explained Bacchus. "Never misses a chance to run off at the mouth."

Hector looked at the assorted personalities draped in and around the limousine in which they rode.

"Are all these other people with us gods?" he whispered timidly.

"For the most part," Bacchus replied. "You'll get to meet more of them later. First of all, however, we have to take you down to the city hall to meet the mayor."

"The mayor?" Hector was startled.

"Sure," Bacchus declared. "The Big Shot, Jove. Chief of the planet."

The reception at the city hall was in keeping with the tenor of everything else that had occurred to Hector during the previous half hour. There was a drive through the city, motorcycle escort, cheering crowds lining the streets, and finally old Jove, himself, standing genially at the steps to greet him. He reminded Hector of pictures he had seen of General Grant.

With Bacchus to guide him, Hector posed for photographers. He shook hands with Jove, shook hands with Bacchus, shook hands with everybody and anybody while the flash bulbs popped. It was all very confusing.


SOMEHOW, he was finally seated across a mahogany desk in the mayor's office, facing Jove. The old man was speaking cheerfully about the weather, horse racing, and topics of a general nature, when he suddenly stroked his long black beard reflectively, stood up, and walked quickly over to the door. He paused there for a moment, listening with his finger to his lips.

"Good," he said finally, crossing the room and resuming his seat. "I was afraid someone was listening."

"No one is?" said Hector.

"Of course! Scads of people are outside eavesdropping on us," Jove declared happily. "Spies. All sorts of them."

Hector was completely bewildered. "You like that?"

"Why not?" Jove answered. "Shows I'm still important. When I get to the point where people don't even bother spying on me, I'll certainly have become unimportant. I'd hate to be unimportant."

Jove then reached behind his desk and pulled forth a box of cigars. "Have one," he offered.

"I'm afraid I don't smoke," Hector confessed.

"Damned fine thing," Jove said cheerfully. "There was only one left in the box, anyway." His voice took on a confidential note. "How are you fixed for insurance?"

"Insurance?" Hector fairly bleated in astonishment.

"Sure. Life insurance. Good thing. I've a double-indemnity job here that'll be just the thing for the wife and kids. Got any kids?"

"No," said Hector. "I'm afraid I can't afford any now. That is, I'm afraid I can't afford any insurance."

"Oh," said Jove dismally, "if that's the way you feel about it." He pushed the sheaf of papers back in his drawer. "No harm in asking."

"But why do you sell insurance?" persisted Hector,

Jove waved a hand at the ornate furnishings of his office. "Don't let all these trappings fool you. Sure, I know, I'm mayor of Olympus. But times are tough. My salary isn't what it used to be. Been cut four times in the last six centuries. A chap just has to have a side racket to keep going."

"But life insurance on Olympus," stammered Hector. "I always thought the gods were immortal!"

Jove hushed his voice confidentially. "That's the hell of this racket," he admitted sadly.

With a flourish, Jove rose to his full six feet ten inches, pressed a buzzer on his desk, and smiled warmly at Hector.

"You're more than likely worn out from that trip. Want to get some rest. I've taken the liberty of arranging rooms for you at the Acropolis Hotel. One of our best."

Bacchus stepped into the room in response, apparently, to the buzzer.

Jove turned to the handsome, slightly dissipated young man.

"Bacchus, I want you to take care of Mr.—" he paused, turning to Hector. "What name are you using?"

"Squinch, Hector Squinch."

"Fine," boomed Jove heartily. "Take care of Mr. Pinch, then, Bacchus. See that he gets around, sees the sights."

He paused to wink knowingly at Hector. "Bacchus," he explained, "is almost as fast as I used to be when I was younger."

Hector was being led dazedly from Jove's chambers when he and Bacchus almost ran into a beautiful blond woman, who was headed in the opposite direction.

"Hello, toots," Bacchus winked.

"Howzit, Big Boy," the blond answered. Then she was moving on, and they were walking down the hall.

"That blond girl," Hector stammered bewilderedly.

"Oh, her." Bacchus grinned. "That's Venus. She's private secretary to Jove." He nudged Hector slyly. "Some looker, eh?"

"Yes, yes she is, indeed," Hector agreed slightly hysterically, "but how can she be a secretary, how can she type, without any arms?"

Bacchus smiled. "She doesn't have to. Jove just likes her to sit in his lap and keep him company."

Hector walked on in shocked silence.


THE Acropolis Hotel was like nothing Hector had ever seen outside of the movies. It looked like a producer's dream of the Grand Hotel and the Ritz thrown together, with an annex built on. There was pride in the glance Bacchus gave him as they walked into the lobby. "Nice joint, eh?"

"Nice," gasped Hector, "it's magnificent!"

They walked for what seemed to Hector to be several miles over deep, rich rugs to the registration desk. The clerk, a young toga-clad chap wearing severe spectacles, gazed frostily at Hector and his guide.

"Well?" He gave Hector a look that turned his knees to water.

Bacchus, however, was quite in stride.

"What sort of accommodations do you have in this flea-trap?" he demanded.

Taken aback, it was the clerk's turn to gasp.

Bacchus pinched Hector's arm.

"This gentleman would like your finest suite." He looked at Hector. "How many rooms, ten or twenty?"

"T-t-t-t-t-t-t-," Hector began.

"Twenty," said Bacchus to the clerk. "And make it snappy."

The clerk disappeared and Hector, now thoroughly awed, turned to Bacchus.

"How will I ever pay for such rooms?"

Bacchus frowned.

"Pay? Pay? Why, you don't, of course. All one has to do around this planet is sign an I.O.U."

"An I.O.U.?"

"Naturally. We did away with money years ago. It seemed as though no one ever had enough of it to suit them. So Jove got a brainstorm and established the I.O.U. system. Whenever anyone wants anything, he just has to sign an I.O.U. Now everyone who cares to be, is rich as hell."

Hector was dazed. Dazed but determined. He tried one last query.

"But what about the financial structure of Olympus? How can it hold up?"

"It doesn't hold up," Bacchus replied patiently. "It collapses once every week. But what difference does it make? No one has any money to lose. Jove calls in all the I.O.U.'s every Saturday, tears 'em up, and Monday we start all over again."

Hector didn't understand. It was too simple. There was no sense in arguing in the lace of such stupendous simplicity.


FOR more than an hour Hector wandered about his twenty-room suite. Bacchus had left him, saying he'd be back around supper time. And now Hector was finding his sanity in definite need of strengthening.

Hector bathed and Hector ate. Then Hector bathed again and ate again. The bathroom was the size of a gymnasium, the tub the proportions of a pool. The breakfast nook, in which Hector dined, must have been planned for a banquet hall.

In one of the rooms Hector found a radio. He turned it on and, much to his surprise, heard dance music flooding from it. He didn't recognize the tunes but they seemed nice enough. At the end of the dance program there was a fifteen-minute news broadcast, which turned out to be that of a gossip columnist.

"What local belle," the columnist asked, "was very put out at a local night spot when a jealous girl friend turned her hair into snakes?"

Hector's jaw hung aghast as the Olympian Winchell continued his banter. He was even more amazed at the tune-off lines.

"You have just heard fifteen minutes of red hot news brought to you through the courtesy of the Morpheus Mattress Company," the announcer stated. "Tune in again tomorrow night for the showdown and the lowdown from the lips of the Oracle of Delphi." Hector staggered to a chair and collapsed gratefully into its depths.

As if delayed until this moment, the tremendous wallop carried in what had happened to him during the past twenty-four hours descended on Hector Squinch. He began to realize things. And, as he did so, he began to think.

In the little man's mind, wheels were spinning, making necessary adjustments.

There was no question now of either accepting or rejecting his fate. The situation was as it was. Nothing could change it. It existed. He was on Olympus, God knows how far from earth, and there was nothing he could do about it. He had to resign himself to circumstances. And resigning himself to circumstances was the easiest thing in the world for Hector. He couldn't have been married to Cynthia for fifteen years without learning how to do so.

Suddenly another thought struck him. For a moment its stunning implications left him breathless. Did he really want to return to earth? Was there anything on earth which was worth returning to?

Picking at the back of his mind was a sharp insistent devil. What about his duty to Cynthia?

Yes, that was true. He did have a certain duty to Cynthia. He couldn't forget her completely. No one who had ever lived fifteen years in the same house with Cynthia could ever completely forget her.

But she could get along. Trust Cynthia to get along. Was there anything else on earth he wanted? People on earth didn't know he existed. They had never paid the slightest attention to Hector Squinch. He was a nonentity. But here on Olympus he was important. Why, he couldn't tell. But he was. That was what mattered.

Hector faced the facts, met the summing up. There was nothing on earth to which he cared to return!

Wondering hazily if he had found Paradise, Hector Squinch fell peacefully asleep.


TWO hours later, Bacchus shook him out of his slumber. The handsome young god had returned clad in a beautiful dark red toga, evidently Olympian evening wear. He was grinning broadly, as usual, and holding a newspaper in his hand.

"Hello," said Hector pleasantly. "I must have dozed off. What time is it?"

"Time to start the evening," Bacchus replied. Then he threw the newspaper into Hector's lap. "They certainly gave you a lot of ink."

Puzzled, Hector glanced over the front page. There was his picture plastered beneath the top headline. Then his eyes popped wide at the screaming black type on the streamer, reading,


CHAMP FROM MARS ARRIVES FOR TILT WITH ACHILLES!


For a moment Hector was stupefied. He read the headline over again. Then he re-read it. His lips moved silently over it a third time, his veins rapidly filling with ice as a premonition of what it all meant crept up his spine.

He, Hector Squinch, was labeled as the "Champ From Mars!"

Bacchus was still grinning. "Sorry your identity had to get out so soon. But one of the newshounds pumped Jove. Your arrival was expected, more or less, for the past two weeks anyhow."

Hector didn't know what to say. He turned back to the paper, reading the news story with mingled amazement and horror.


In accordance with the time honored policy of settling interplanetary disputes in the prize ring, Olympus today welcomed a gladiator from Mars who has come to battle the local champion, Achilles, in the centuries-old rivalry between Mars and Olympus.

The representative chosen by Mars, traveling incognito under the absurd pseudonym of Hector Squinch, arrived at noon and was rushed immediately to the city hall, where he was formally greeted by Jove and other local dignitaries.

Slugger Squinch, "The Martian Mauler" as he has already been dubbed by advance notices, will take quarters immediately in the Acropolis Hotel, where a twenty-room suite has been engaged for him.

Achilles, when asked for a statement concerning his first impression of "The Martian Mauler," was terse but serene.

"Too bad he has to be immortal," said Achilles, "The Axe," "he looks like a cinch to murder."

Although Slugger Squinch is far from formidable in appearance, local sports authorities are not in the least deceived. They are certain that he must have something on the ball, else he would never have been selected by Mars to represent that planet in the interplanetary championship bout.


HECTOR finished the article, letting the paper slide from his nerveless grasp. His brain was whirling madly. So that was why he had been received with such fanfare! Hector "Slugger" Squinch!

The little man shuddered violently. This was awful. This was incredible. This was terrible. It had to be set right, set right immediately!

He opened his mouth to speak to Bacchus, but it was almost a minute before the words would come. They were cracked, shaky, when they did.

"Look," said Hector in a half-bleat, "we have to get this straightened out immediately. I am not'The Martian Mauler.' There has been a mistake. A grave mistake. I might say there has been a horrible mistake. I have never been to Mars in my life. I am Hector Squinch, formerly of the U.S.A.!"

Bacchus grinned tolerantly. "I can never understand you Martians. You always insist on going around under assumed names, hiding every movement in deepest secrecy. That's what your fighter said three years ago. Told us he was from Juno, can you imagine that?

"I can see the psychology of it, however. Mars knows that if his fighter gets licked incognito, he can always swear he never sent a fighter. But the first time one of his incognito battlers wins, just watch him claim victory!"

Bacchus laughed pleasantly, as though sharing a good joke. "Okay, Martian Mauler. Have it any way you want. If it makes you feel any better I'll tell people to pretend that they don't see through your disguise."

Something in the tone of his voice, something in the way he stood there grinning, convinced Hector that he would never be able to make Bacchus believe he was anyone but the Martian Mauler. Hector sighed. His breath trembled with despair.

"Come on," said Bacchus. "Let's get going."

"Where?" Hector inquired resignedly.

"Out and around the town," Bacchus declared with a vague wave of his hand. "You want to see the sights while you're still in one piece."

There was a queasy feeling in Hector's knees, cotton in his mouth, as he replied.

"I-I'd rather not, if you don't mind. I don't feel very good. No. I don't feel very good at all. In fact I feel sick."

"Tush," admonished Bacchus. "I know just the thing to fix you up."

So saying, he seized Hector Squinch by the arm, propelling him easily from the room. Pushing the elevator button, Bacchus turned to wink knowingly at his charge.

"We'll hit the high spots," he promised.


WHEN Bacchus declared they'd hit the high spots he was guilty only of understatement. Hector Squinch knew of night clubs, knew of them from the picture weeklies back in the U.S. But he wasn't ready for the Olympian brand.

The Centaur Club, their first stop, was all the famous night spots of the world rolled into one. It was colossal, packed to the ceiling with wildly celebrating Olympian socialites. They were led to a table near the dance floor, near the excellent rhumba band.

Suddenly a voice spoke from behind their table. It was a high, nasal, querulous voice, and Hector turned to face the speaker.

"Hello, Bach," the voice repeated. "Introduce me to the new celebrity."

Bacchus was on his feet instantly, his face wreathed in a wide grin.

"Mercury!" he exclaimed. "You old son-of-a-gun." His hand slapped the startled Hector on the back.

"Meet Hector Squinch. Hector, meet Mercury!"

The nasal-voiced young man removed his winged hat and stretched out a paw in cheerful greeting. He had a wide, cherubic face, spotted by a Milky Way of freckles and topped by a tawny thatch of uncombed hair.

Glancing swiftly at his shoes, Hector was both surprised and relieved to see that, sure enough, Mercury was wearing winged sandals. Noticing his glance, Mercury grinned.

"Yeah," he said, "just the type of shoes I'm supposed to wear. Can't disappoint the public, y'know. But they're hellish when it comes to dancing."

With that, the young god took a seat next to Bacchus, waving an impatient hand at the waiter. He didn't give Bacchus, or Hector, a chance to say a word before he started chattering again.

"Here's luck, all right," he began. "All night, ever since I heard that you dropped in on Olympus, I've been worrying what sort of odds I can get on your scrap with Achilles. Now I'll have a chance to size you up personally. Never make a bet unless you know the dope, that's what I always say."

Bacchus broke in momentarily.

"Mercury is quite a gambler," he explained to Hector. "The races are his specialty, but he puts his notes down on any fairly sure prospect."

"Oh?" said Hector noncommittally, "oh?"

"Yeah," Mercury went on. "Just like Bacchus says, I know the dope before I place my bets. That's what I'm getting at now." He paused to wink confidentially at Hector. "Tell me frankly, old man, what do you think your chances with Achilles will be?"

Hector paled. Momentarily he had been able to forget Achilles, and now the mention of the name was enough to give him another queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"Please," he began, "don't wager anything on my... ah... er... battle with Achilles. That is, I mean, don't bet on me."

Bacchus winked broadly at Mercury.

"He's modest," he said by way of explanation.

"Oh! Heh —heh —heh." Mercury laughed metallically. "Why, of course. That's right. I forgot. Like the papers say, he's modest." He lapsed into a disappointed silence.


SOMETHING inside Hector's mind was insisting that he scream out to these odd young men. Scream out the truth. Tell them that he wasn't planning to fight anyone, let alone the most powerful god on Olympus. Something else wouldn't let him speak. He held his tongue, and a moment later the waiter came up to their table bearing a tray of slim stemmed cocktails. "What," asked Hector when one of the glasses had been set before him, "is this?"

"A drink, of course," Bacchus frowned. "What does it look like?"

Hector remembered that Cynthia had never approved of him drinking, even if he had ever had the chance. He felt embarrassed, uneasy, and a little frightened. Hector had never tasted anything alcoholic before.

"Is, is it alcoholic?" Hector stammered.

He saw Mercury look sharply at Bacchus, and Bacchus returned the glance with one to equal it. They both turned to Hector.

"That's good," Bacchus chortled. "Capital. Very funny. Of course not. Ha—ha—ha. Drink it, pal."

Hector did as he was commanded, hurrying himself because of the imperative glances that the two young gods fixed upon him. Although he almost choked on the too great quantity of liquid trying to pass down his throat in one swallow, the stuff tasted like nothing he had ever experienced before in his life.

It tasted heavenly. That was the only word he could think of. Sweet, cool, fresh, splendid. And heavenly. He said so.

"That, that was heavenly!" Hector declared in amazement. "What was it?"

"Nectar," Mercury replied. "It's all we serve up here."

"Actual, honest-to-goodness nectar of the gods?" breathed Hector, who was already beginning to feel a strange glow about him.

"That's right," said Bacchus. "Made in my very own distillery. I control the liquor rackets up here."

The waiter reappeared, placed more glasses before the trio. "Try another," ordered Bacchus with pride in his voice. "Each tastes better than the last."

Bacchus, Hector, and Mercury raised their glasses as one, draining them in a gulp.

Hector noted, with pride, that he didn't choke on the second. He also was beginning to realize the truth of Bacchus' boast. The second drink did taste better than the first—an apparently impossible feat.

Five drinks later, the seventh in all, Hector was vaguely aware that life seemed incredibly merry. Bacchus was laughing. Mercury was laughing. And Hector was laughing louder than either of them, and talking more, too. It was all very rosy, very splendid.

"Lesh ha' 'nother," Hector cried gaily.

The waiter brought the eighth.

Five minutes later the ninth had vanished down three eager throats.

At the fifteenth drink somebody was teaching somebody how to yodel. Hector, after peering owlishly around to see who was guilty of singing in public, realized that he himself was the yodeler. Bacchus and Mercury were his pupils.

"Yodelllleeeoooo," sang Hector.

"Yodelllllayyyyyyhheeee," echoed Bacchus.

"YodeleoleoleOoooo," Mercury finished.


THEY moved on, then, to another and even more pretentious night spot. How they arrived there, Hector wasn't exactly sure. But they found themselves at another table, in another club, in something less than fifteen minutes.

People were coming over to the table, and Hector was exceedingly busy — what with rising to say hello, sitting to gulp a nectar, and rising to say hello. He thought fuzzily that this was good. Exercise was just what Cynthia had always wanted him to have. He was getting plenty.

Some of the people who stopped at their table stayed to drink with them, and the waiter kept adding more and more chairs and tables to the group until finally it was comparable to a small banquet.

Hector was supremely happy. Mercury was his pal. Bacchus was his pal. People all listened while he sang. They seemed interested while he expounded thoroughly, if thickly, on third term ideas, tariff questions, and the rising price of corn.

Hector was happy. Happy as he had never been before in all his life. People liked him.

It was while he recited the "Shooting of Dan McGrew"—between glasses of nectar—that the sudden death-like silence fell over the table. Hector had gone on into the third verse before he realized anything was wrong. Then he stopped abruptly, reading something in the eyes of those at the table.

He turned. Looked in the direction in which the others gazed. A large, superbly-muscled, animalish-looking man was crossing the dance floor toward their table. Even loose toga lines failed to hide the lithe, incredible strength of the man. Hector heard a goddess whisper in hushed awe to her companion.

"Achilles," the goddess whispered.

And then Achilles was at the table, smiling crookedly down at the assembled revelers, looking at last at Hector, who stood, glass in hand, staring open mouthed at him.

"Hello, folks," Achilles purred. "Who's the lily standing there with the glass in his hand?"

"He's looking for trouble," Bacchus whispered hoarsely into Mercury's ear.

Hector felt the eyes of all assembled searching his face, as if waiting for him to handle the situation. He took a deep breath.

"Who," he inquired of Bacchus, while pointing disdainfully at Achilles, "is this ugly ape?"

"Achilles," Bacchus muttered, "meet Hector. Hector, meet Achilles."

"Thug," said Hector weaving slightly and reaching for another drink. "He's as stupid a thug as it has ever been my acute displeasure to gaze upon."

Then, smirking happily at all present, Hector pointed a none too steady finger at Achilles again.

"I can hardly wait," he said loudly and fuzzily, "to get him into the ring with me."


ACHILLES, apparently possessed of even less intelligence than Hector gave him credit for, stood shocked and spluttering before them. He obviously didn't know quite what to make of it. Hector wasn't quailing. Yet he looked like a man born to quail.

The attention of the entire night club was now focused on their table. Even the orchestra had stopped playing. A dropping feather would have sounded like falling timber at that moment.

Then Bacchus was on his feet, grinning widely, applauding wildly.

"Atta boy, Hector. You'll mow him down." Turning to those at the table: "Three cheers for Hector!"

The group at the table responded with drunken enthusiasm, while the bewildered Achilles stood gaping stupidly at the scene. Hector, between effusive bows to the cheerers, gulped another glass of nectar and moved out from the table toward Achilles.

Hector held up his hands to silence the cheers, and when they had subsided he weaved tipsily for a moment before the mammoth, mighty-muscled god. He peered at Achilles intently, speaking at last.

"Correction," he said to Bacchus. "I'm not going to mow this gargantuan goon down—I'm going to murder him!"

More cheers rang in Hector's happy head, and he bowed so low, so enthusiastically, that he tipped over flat on his face. Bacchus helped him to his feet, pulled him back to the table while the cheering went on unabated.

Infuriated, bewildered, and thoroughly maddened, Achilles stamped away from the table, in cadence to the crying catcalls of all present.

"And furthermore," Hector screamed after him, "you're nothing but a no-good bum!"

Mercury was slapping him on the back, while the wild confusion continued.

"It's a cinch. Now I know who to put my notes on. It's a cinch. You're the guy who's gonna pin that big baboon's ears back for him. You'd never have had the nerve to tell him off, if you didn't have plenty on the ball!"

Bacchus banged loudly on the table with his palm. And when a half-silence was attained, he spoke loudly to all within hearing.

"Gods and goddesses," he began. "Olympus has at last found its savior. Our friend, Hector Squinch, will lead us from the wilderness into the golden era of pugilism we have so long desired. He will give Achilles the fight of his life!"

Hector, reaching for another drink, was pleased. But he was also puzzled. He spoke. "Whash thish?" he demanded.

"At last we will have the sort of sport we of Olympus have tried to get. We are betting on you, Hector Squinch, to win!"

Hector frowned. "Don't get it. Achilles is an Olympian. Supposed to fight for Olympus, supposed to lick me." He reached for another drink.

Bacchus was grinning. "We don't care who is champ, just so he is a real champ. If you win, it will give the fight world a new life. Achilles can always come back in a return match—if he's good enough to do it!"

Even through his fuzzy skull, Hector, began to see the light. He nodded.

"You mean the game's been kinda off-color lately; fighters taking 'dives' and things like that?"

"That's it. Not that you could blame them. Mars has been sending a lot of palookas, and Achilles is quite a mountain. Nobody had the courage to stand up to him and slug. Why I remember one guy who pedaled around the ring for eleven rounds before Achilles managed to catch up with him.

"But we know you'll put up a fight. It'll bring public interest right back to the fight game with a bang!"

Hector rose unsteadily to his feet. "I am for you fine people here on Olympus. I'll lick Achilles if it's the last thing I do!" Then, quietly, with dignity and amid wild cheering, Hector passed out —utterly.

Bacchus was on his feet. "Three cheers for Hector Squinch," he cried loudly. "He's here to put the fight game back on its feet."

"Hip-hip, hooray!" the crowd responded.

"Hip-hip, hooray!" Mercury added.

"Hip-hip, hooooray!" Hector concluded, coming out of his coma for but an instant and passing out again a moment later.


WHEN Hector woke the following morning the sun already had climbed above his window ledge, revealing the fact that Mercury slept on one side of him and Bacchus on the other.

Hector felt his swollen head, running a thick tongue over his cottonish lips.

"Oooooh," Hector moaned.

It was enough to wake his sleeping companions.

"What's up?" said Mercury, waking with a start.

"Hector," Bacchus answered, sitting up also.

"How do you feel, pal?" they both inquired of the suffering Hector.

"Oooooh," Hector repeated. "Oooooh!"

"Gotta feel in shape," Mercury stated.

"Yeah, gotta fight tonight," Bacchus added. "Must be in shape to meet Achilles."

Sitting there in bed, head pillowed in his hands, Hector let the room stop spinning around. And as its giddy whirl subsided, he began to recall, with horrible remorse, the events of the previous evening. They were all there, in terrible clarity.

"I'm not going to fight anyone," Hector moaned.

"Don't be silly," Bacchus snapped. "Merc and I have put down wads on you. You can't fail us."

"No," Mercury agreed. "We're your friends. Can't fail your friends."

"Haven't enough time to train for it," Hector said in a desperate attempt to lie his way out.

"Train?" said Mercury.

"Train?" repeated Bacchus.

"Uhhuh," Hector replied, suspecting the worst.

"You don't train for fights up here. Nobody trains," Bacchus was explaining. "Besides, even if you wanted to train, wanted to break a sacred tradition among our dissipated pugilists, you wouldn't have time for it. You fight tonight."

"Tonight?" Hector's voice was a horrified squeak.

"Tonight," Mercury repeated firmly.

"Ohhhhhhh," said Hector Squinch, collapsing in a heap on his pillow.

"Don't let it worry you, pal," Bacchus reminded him. "It's gonna be a cinch, after the way you told Achilles off last night!"

"Ohhhhh," said Hector, who had been trying very hard to forget that incident. "And I was just beginning to enjoy it so up here!"

"Get some sleep," Mercury advised, "and you'll feel a lot better about the whole thing."

"Yes," agreed Bacchus, climbing out of bed. "Get some shut-eye. You'll be needing it when Achilles is chopping at you."

Then Mercury and Bacchus were gone.


AFTER an anguished half hour of tossing about in his bed, Hector forced himself to rise. He forced himself to dress, and forced himself to face himself in the mirror.

His head wasn't nearly as large as it felt at the moment. His tongue, when he extended it, didn't have nearly the thick covering of moss he suspected it had.

He noticed, however, the trembling in his hands as he tied his cravat. Noticed, and wondered if the trembling could be blamed on the night before or the night at hand.

"There won't be any night at hand," he told himself aloud. But even as his quavering voice split the silence, he knew that he lied to himself. There wasn't any way out of his predicament.

"I could run away," he thought desperately.

"But where?" the face in the mirror answered. "Where could you run to? Besides, Bacchus and Mercury are your pals. You've never had pals before. Pals don't let pals down. It just isn't done."

"But I'll be murdered," Hector told his reflection.

The reflection wiped away the start of a tear from a rheumy eye and answered, "You just can't let them down. They believe in you. No one has ever believed in you before. It's too late."

"Yes," Hector agreed with himself. "It's too late. There's nothing I can do."

Suddenly, from out of the gloom and dejection which hung about him like a shroud, there came a ray of hope. A faint, wan ray, but hope, nevertheless.

"The real Martian Mauler might appear in time to save me!" Both Hector and his reflection spoke as one.

Hector repeated the wish all day long. But as night came, he knew it was a futile thing. Bacchus called for him at seven.

They took a cab to the Colosseum, where the bout was to be held. Mercury, it seemed, had been delayed at the last minute. Something had come up. But he would get to the arena before the battle, Bacchus assured Hector cheerfully.

Several times during the journey Hector was on the verge of breaking down, of making a more or less hysterical confession to Bacchus, a plea that would save him from Achilles. But something held the little man back.

He was scared. Scared as hell, and jittery. Bacchus saw it in his every gesture. He commented on it, bewilderedly.

"What's up?" he asked. "Haven't got the jitters?"

Hector couldn't admit shame before Bacchus. Bacchus was a friend. Bacchus was a pal. They all were. He couldn't let them down. Somehow, he couldn't do it.

This was Hector's first opportunity in life to come through. And he was determined, with a fierce burning emotion, that he'd not fail them. Even if it killed him.

"Don't mind me," he said in a trembling falsetto. "I always seem frightened before a fight. It's just a nervous reaction. Makes me all the more like a killer when I climb into the ring."

"Oh," Bacchus said, his voice heavy with relief.

They lapsed into silence for the rest of the journey.

In the dressing room of the Colosseum, Hector was herded over to a locker by three stalwart bald-headed attendants. There his clothes were swiftly removed from him, and a loin cloth substituted instead. It was a gaudy affair, made of some silky substance, and striped with horrible orange and purple lines.

Bacchus, Hector was relieved to note, had gone to take care of the details of the match.

Then, when his feet had been shod in the many-thonged Grecian sandals that were thrust upon him, Hector stood up. The attendants, who hadn't been particularly noticing his physical dimensions previously, stepped back aghast.

"Wow," ejaculated one of the three bald-heads, "look at th' phizzick on the punk!"


HECTOR blushed, painfully conscious of his washboard ribs, toothpick arms, pale, hairless body, and thin, knock-kneed legs. He was acutely aware that he was not at his best in such attire. The loin cloth had been tailored for a chap twice as large as himself, and hung dejectedly from his scrawny body —as though ashamed of the wearer.

By now the bald-heads were bent in gales of laughter. Loud uncontrollable, painfully embarrassing derision rent the dressing room. Head bowed, crimson cheeked beneath the scorn of the attendants, Hector thought bitterly that execution was bad enough, but such a shameful execution was almost past bearing.

Bacchus entered the room, and the bald-heads fled in rapid confusion before his icy glare.

"Well," said Bacchus, looking long and thoughtfully at Hector. "Well, well!"

"Hello," said Hector Squinch.

Bacchus, not being the dullest of gods, perceived the shame that poured forth from the little man's eyes. He decided to take a stab at cheering him up.

"Well, anyway, no one can accuse us of having fattened you for the kill."

The words had the opposite effect on Hector from that which Bacchus had intended. He shuddered violently, remembering the gigantic, bone-crushing stature of Achilles. Nevertheless, he bit his lip. He was determined Bacchus should think him nervous rather than afraid.

"Remember," chattered Hector, "I'm always this way just before a fight."

"Buck up," pleaded Bacchus. "What's it matter? Brains are what count, little fellow, not brawn."

Hector said nothing, but the expression on his face indicated that he refused to be consoled. He put his hands behind his back and began to pace back and forth very dramatically—a gesture that lost its drama when he tripped himself up on his oversized sandals.

Bacchus helped him to his feet.

"Come on. You're to go on in five minutes. We might as well get started. The preliminary matches are just about over."


THE roar of the mob gathered in the Colosseum drifted down to the dressing room corridors, loud to their ears. Yes, the last bout before Hector's was apparently ending in wild excitement.

Bacchus found a cloak which he draped over Hector's thin shoulders, giving the little man some respite from the embarrassment he felt.

"There now," Bacchus said. "The cloak will keep you warm. Don't let all this get you down. It won't last long."

"Which," said Hector starting out of the dressing room, "is about as pretty an exit line as I've ever heard."

As they walked down the long tunnel-like corridor leading to the arena, Hector paled, the noise of the crowd becoming bedlam, growing louder and louder while they approached.

Then, suddenly, the noise subsided. All was quiet for an instant, then a hoarse, frenzied screaming broke from thousands of throats. Hector stopped dead in his tracks.

"What," he muttered thickly, "has happened?"

Bacchus shrugged amiably. "Just the end of the last preliminary fight, I guess."

Less than two minutes later, when they were nearing the opening that led into the arena, Hector observed a panorama that proved the accuracy of Bacchus' guess.

Four trainers, carrying a body awkwardly down the aisle of the arena, were approaching. As they entered the tunnel, Hector and Bacchus were forced to step to one side. The two caught a glimpse of the fighter being carted back to the dressing room.

One look at the bloody, twisted, pulverized features of the gladiator was enough for Hector. He grabbed tightly to Bacchus' arm. Grabbed tightly to keep from fainting.

Emerging from the tunnel opening into the brightly lighted arena, Hector and Bacchus were met with a swift and spontaneous burst of cheering. Somehow, as they walked down the aisle to the ring, Hector felt less lonely, a little warmer.

Bacchus, grinning, clapped him on the back. "That's for you. The crowd likes you, Hector."

"Like me in the all-concealing raiment," Hector corrected him. "Wait until I have to remove it for the battle."

Then they were at the ringside, climbing the steps. There were many men there, officials, reporters, photographers, guards, but Hector was too dazed to notice any of them.

Someone was pushing him into a corner. He looked up wildly to see that it was Bacchus, still wearing his perpetual grin, saying words that Hector couldn't catch above the roar of the crowd and the pounding of his heart. He knew it didn't make any difference. Nothing that anyone said would make any difference now.

His vision focused more clearly as he calmed somewhat, and he looked swiftly across the ring, to the opposite corner, to see if Achilles had arrived yet. The Killer Giant of Olympus was not yet in the ring. But Hector's relief was momentary, for he knew Achilles could be depended upon to arrive at any instant.

Not less than ten seconds later, bedlam let loose over the packed Colosseum. Achilles was making his triumphal entry into the arena. Somewhere in the gallery, a band struck up Entrance of the Gladiators, and the tune brought nostalgic pangs to Hector. It was the air they had played when he, as a kid in Iowa, watched the circus entertainers parade into the Big Tent.

But this was no chorus. This was Achilles.

Hector glimpsed his shaven skull gleaming under the huge lights, bobbing down the aisle toward the ring. There were rows and rows of handlers following the massive giant, reaching out to pat him on the back, shouting loud encouragement.

Achilles grinned cockily at all this, waving clasped hands above his head, nodding, bowing, flexing his tremendous muscles for the adulation of the multitude.

Hector winced, trying to draw his eyes from the fascinating animal grace of his opponent.

Then Achilles was climbing into the ring, moving panther-like around it, waving to his backers, smiling with his big yellow dog teeth. Men were clearing the ring until at last Achilles took his position in the corner opposite Hector, and there was no one left in the squared canvas except the gladiators, the referee, and an announcer.

Bacchus stopped grinning. A frown creased his forehead.

"Can't understand what's happened to Mercury," he muttered.

A hush fell over the arena while the referee stepped to the center of the ring and held his hands aloft for silence.

"Layyyyyydeeeze and Gemp'men," he roared. "We are here tonight to see the interplanetary rough-and-tumble , champeenship!" He looked at Hector. "We hope," he added, dubiously.

The outburst that followed took a full ten minutes to quell. Men shouted, women screamed, children yelped, and the Colosseum went mad.

At last the referee was moving toward Hector, who was still clutching frantically to his cloak. The referee pointed a finger at him, then grabbed one of his hands.

"In dis corner we got the representatiff from Mars." Cheers. "One Slugger Squinch, de Martian Mauler!" Good natured laughter and more enthusiastic cheers.

Bursts of additional cheering carried on for several minutes, indicating that there are always people willing to champion the underdog.

"Squinch weighs," the referee began, then looked quizzically at Hector. "Squinch weighs..." he began again.

Then, disgusted, "Oh, well, folks. It don't make no difference wot his weight is." He looked curiously at Hector, shook his head again, as if troubled by grave doubts.

Then he strode across the ring to the corner occupied by Achilles. Stopping within three feet of the muscular giant, he pointed his finger dramatically.

"An' in dis corner," he paused for emphasis, "in dis corner we got the champeen of da woild, universe, an' incidental solar systems, Achilles—da Axe!"


THE volume of sound that split the silence was deafening, pouring down on the ring from every corner of the arena.

Achilles danced nimbly to the center of the ring, holding his hands clasped aloft and grinning—like a wolf before the kill.

Hector made for the ropes and tried to crawl through them to the safety of the aisle. He wanted to leave, rapidly.

Bacchus, however, seized him gently but firmly by the collar of his oversized cloak, forcing him back on his stool.

"Be calm," ordered Bacchus. "This could be worse."

"How?" Hector inquired logically enough.

A hush that was as terrifying as it was sudden, fell over the arena. Hector, heart hammering furiously against his thin chest, knew that the battle was about to start. Bacchus was tugging at the cloak around his shoulders, and before he could prevent it, Hector felt it slide free—leaving him in his much-too-big lorn cloth and absurdly large sandals.

"I don't have to give you any advice," Bacchus was speaking rapidly into Hector's ear. "You ought to be able to size him up in a round. Then you can get to work on him. Don't forget, it's rough-and-tumble. No holds are barred. Good luck, pal!"

The bell clanged simultaneously with the movement of Hector's stool being jerked from under him. He was forced to hang to the ropes until strength returned to his knees.

Achilles, the man-eating, giant-killing Achilles, was advancing across the ring toward him. The fight was on!

The fight was on. Achilles was moving down on him. And Hector was as yet unable to move a muscle. The little man was paralyzed by fear!

The screams of the crowd had settled to a dull unnoticed din in his ears, had become merely a background. Achilles was less than five feet away, but advancing cautiously toward him—a little bit wary of the man who had nerve enough to tell him off just the night before.

Achilles, three feet from Hector, gathered himself for the spring. The screams of the crowd were ear-splitting. And still the little man in the absurdly oversized toga didn't move.

It happened as one motion. Achilles leaped, launching his gargantuan hulk through the air, covering the remaining distance to Hector. It happened at the same instant that Hector's knees gave out completely and he sagged to the floor.

The crowd went mad. Hector could hear them going mad as he lay there on the canvas wondering why he was still unharmed.

Opening his eyes he saw the reason.

HIS swoon had been as perfectly timed as a swift ducking under the leap might have been—and Achilles had hurtled past him. Hurtled past him and out through the ropes of the ring, into the press row!

The referee was counting, for Achilles, who was still trying to clamber back into the ring. Hector, somehow, had risen weakly to his feet, was backing toward the other end of the ring, staring at his gigantic opponent with unconcealed amazement.

Then, for but a second, the din of the crowd registered on Hector's consciousness once again. They were cheering. They were cheering for him. They were cheering for Hector Squinch. Slugger Squinch!

Hector's eyes were misty, and his knees grew strong again. But his soul was stronger. The cheers of the crowd had given strength to the absurd little gladiator.

Hector spit on his hands.

The crowd roared.

Hector beckoned to Achilles, laughed at him, beckoned once more. The crowd went crazy.

In the back of Hector's mind there was a thought. A small but terribly important thought. It concerned a legend—about Achilles' heel. He wondered why he had never remembered it until this moment. Achilles was tough. But he was a sucker for a tap on the heel!

His plan was straight in his mind as he saw Achilles climb back into the ring, bellowing with rage, and advance upon him. Hector knew he wouldn't have the strength to go after the heel tooth and nail. He remembered the Japanese. Win by yielding.

He would yield. He would let Achilles bounce him around a bit, working to get his hands on that heel!

Achilles rushed. Hector, like the first of the ancient martyrs, stepped forth to meet him.

The next few minutes were impossible agony. Three times Achilles lifted Hector's frail body into the air. Three times he sent it smashing to the canvas. At last he fell full length on the little man—the little man who was bleeding from ears and nose, but whose battered mouth was smiling.

Achilles reached for a leg-lock on Hector, which put Achilles' legs in position before Hector's face. This was it!

The pain was unbearable, but somehow Hector fought off the swimming nausea that seemed to cloud his brain. He had to get that heel. Had to get it before he passed out.

His small hands clutched around the giant's ankle, drew the foot toward him. Brought the foot to his face. Hector bared his teeth. He was going to bite that heel as it had never been bitten before.

But even as he saw the foot, Hector paled. Both of Achilles' sandals were made with thick copper plates to protect his heels!

Blackness descended on Hector. Somewhere in the distance he heard a gong ringing, loudly.


BACCHUS was talking, and Hector was back on his stool.

"Good work," Bacchus said. "You almost had him, if you hadn't gone unconscious. Wear him out. Dodge the brute. Like you did at the start. You're a master at that technique. Capitalize on it. Don't tussle with him."

"What about his heel?" Hector said, pushing the ammonia bottle away from his nose. "I have to get his heel."

"Forget his heels," Bacchus advised. "He's kept them well protected for centuries, ever since he lost a decision on one of them. That's an old gag. He's wise to it."

Hector was silent. But he knew that, somehow, he had to get Achilles's heel plate off. It was his only chance. He wasn't a master dodger. He'd been lucky when he swooned. Bacchus didn't know that.

Then the gong rang again, and the comforting stool was jerked from beneath Hector. Another round. The bell had saved him in the last one. If he didn't get that heel plate off, nothing would save him in this one.

Never in his life had Hector been so spent, so utterly weary. He wasn't a strong man to begin with. And Achilles had put him through every conceivable torture. He couldn't stand much more, Hector knew. This would be his last effort.

But first he would need a few seconds more of rest. He watched Achilles moving confidently in on him. Then he darted to the other side of the lumbering giant.

With a bellow of rage, Achilles turned, making for him again. Hector artfully skipped around him once more.

The crowd screamed.

Hector ran, and continued to run, in spite of the rage that Achilles thundered after him, in spite of the fact that the noise from the crowd was beginning to be sprinkled with boos.

He faced Achilles at last. Savagely, the huge Olympian rushed in on him, lifted him shoulder high. Hector winced, as he felt the canvas smashing up at him. But it was going to be worth it. It had to be.

They were down again, and through the maze of pain that racked his brain and body, Hector knew that Achilles was atop him once more, in the same position as before.

Hector grabbed the foot. But he didn't bother with the heel. It was the sandal he was after. The heel plates were attached to the sandal. Remove the sandal and you had the heel.

Hector worked feverishly on the sandal lacings. Achilles, busily engaged in tying Hector's own legs into pretzels, apparently didn't notice him.

The crowd had evidently sensed Hector's objective, for they were screaming frenziedly. He couldn't distinguish what the crowd was saying, for blackness was slipping over him once more. He fought it off. He had to keep conscious. The sandal was almost off.

At last, the sandal came loose in his hand!

Hector wasted no time. He brought the bare heel of Achilles up to his face. Furiously, he sunk his teeth into that heel. Achilles, if the legend was true, would collapse!

But Achilles didn't. He kept right on tying Hector's legs into pretzels. And as Hector glanced at Achilles other sandal, the one he hadn't removed, he saw a tiny lock at the top of the lacings.

Despair flooded the very soul of Hector Squinch. He knew now what the crowd had been trying to tell him. He'd been working on the wrong heel!

A cloud of blackness rushed over Hector again.


HE was on his stool. Two people were talking. One was Mercury, the other, of course, Bacchus. Mercury must have arrived.

"Is it all over?" Hector murmured through bloody lips.

"No. You were in luck, pal," Mercury was saying. "Saved by the bell again."

"Saved," Hector said bitterly. "Saved!"

"Don't talk," Bacchus advised him. Then Mercury placed something to his lips. It was nectar. Hector swallowed great gulps of the refreshing stuff. He drank the whole bottleful. He reeled in his seat.

The bell rang again. The stool was gone. Somehow he was on his feet once more. But he was through. Hector knew he was through. He'd never have a chance to get that other sandal off, even if he were able to open the lock. But he laughed happily. He felt like bouncing. He felt like flying. He spread his arms like wings.

Hector saw Achilles lunging at him. Hector grinned and waited. Best to get it over with quickly while he was happy.

Achilles seized him about the waist, lifted him high, slammed him down to the canvas.

Hector bounced up like a streak! He got dizzy when he stayed down!

Hector was "out on his feet" in any man's language. But an inner exhilaration was still forcing him up from the canvas every time Achilles downed him. He felt no pain, and he rather liked the bouncing.

Hector lost track of the number of times in the past seven rounds that Achilles had bounced him to the canvas. Maybe a hundred. Maybe two hundred. What did it matter, he couldn't feel it.

The crowd was hysterical. Never had they seen such courage, never had they suspected that the beaten, bloody, tortured little absurdity in the ring had such guts. It was incredible. He refused to be downed!

Achilles was wearying. Smashing a man to the canvas can become terribly monotonous. Especially if he keeps getting up, when by all the laws of God and man he should stay down.

But Achilles, weary as he was, was not to be daunted. He resolved to try again.

Disinterestedly Hector watched the big fellow moving across the ring toward him, felt again those massive hands lifting his bruised and battered body high into the air.

He crashed to the canvas. The jarring almost ripped him apart. Something tinkled beside him.

Hector's outstretched hand closed around a metal plate.

And then Hector sobered. He felt wracked with pain. He was being killed! The nectar Mercury had given him had dulled his senses. But now, he could feel again. Once more would kill him— he knew it!

Achilles dropped to his knees beside the prostrate Hector, grinning wolfishly to see that the little man was apparently down for good this time.

And something clicked in Hector's brain. In his hand was a copper plate! Achilles heel plate!

Hector turned himself over painfully, reached desperately with his closed hand for Mercury's sandal. The big man laughed at. his absurd efforts to reach the heel. Even extended it mockingly.

Hector grabbed it and bit—deep— with all his last remaining strength.

And Achilles, the Axe, the Killer, the Great, howled with pain!

The crowd which had become hushed in an awed tribute to the last stand of Hector Squinch, heard that bellow. Heard that bellow of pain and rose to its feet shouting madly.

Hector had Achilles on the run!

The gigantic battler was on his feet, or one foot, for he was hopping along holding his heel, screaming. Hector dragged himself up from the canvas by sheer will power, setting out after his massive opponent.

Achilles wasn't used to hopping about on one foot. And when he fell sprawling to the canvas a moment later, Hector threw himself upon the giant, sank his teeth once more into the heel.

Achilles passed out cold!

Hector teetered to his feet, smiling foggily at the screaming, maddened crowd. The referee was holding his hand aloft. People were swarming into the ring, lifting him to their shoulders.

Then Hector, too, passed out completely.


THE long tables were crowded with brilliantly-attired people. Hector had lost the first self-consciousness he felt with the opening speeches in his honor. Jove was talking now.

"And we wish to welcome dear Hector Squinch a second time. Not as a visitor, but as a brother and permanent resident of Olympus. As Mayor of this planet I can heartily say that all of us here are honored to have such a chap in our midst."

Loud cheers, clacking of knives on table tops.

Tears ran unashamed down the cheeks of Hector Squinch. He smiled warmly at Mercury who sat on his right, and Bacchus who occupied the seat to the left of him. He, Hector Squinch, had found his place in the world. Well, maybe not in the world, exactly, but in the cosmos, anyway.

Jove was about to continue when there was a sudden interruption at the far end of the banquet hall. A voice was heard, ringing stridently.

"I'm sorry, I have to get in," said the voice.

Jove looked up.

"Who is it?" he bellowed.

There was a flurry, and a tall, thin old man with a wrinkled face and kindly eyes, dressed in a toga and carrying a staff, entered.

"Charon," the name exploded from Jove's lips.

"What brings you here, Charon?" someone shouted.

The old man advanced to the side of Jove.

"There is an alien in our midst," he announced.

"Charon is the immigration boss on the river Styx," Mercury whispered into Hector's ear.

Then Charon was pointing a gnarled finger at Hector.

"You, sir. Are you Hector Squinch?"

Hector rose, an awful premonition clutching at his heart.

"Yes," he gulped. "Yes, I am."

"I'm sorry," said Charon, and Hector felt sure the old man was sincere. "But you'll have to come with me. Achilles insisted that I look you up. I had to do it. Found out you aren't from Mars. Found out you're from Earth, from the United States. I found out you aren't even immortal !"

There was a gasp from the assemblage, a gasp of shock, sorrow, and surprise.

Jove looked at Hector. "Is this true, Heck?"

"Yes," Hector admitted, voice choking. "I'm afraid it is."


CHARON reached into his toga and was holding a sheaf of papers. "I'm sorry," he said fumbling apologetically with his papers, "but the law says you'll have to leave, now, with me. Only immortals have a place on Olympus. Can't do anything about the law. You haven't died yet, y'know, so you can't be immortal."

"This is outrageous!" Jove bellowed. "Heck is an all right guy. I'll vouch for him!"

Charon shook his aged head. "Sorry, Jove, but you know the law as well as I do."

Jove fell silent, a huge tear trickling down his face onto his black beard. The bottom had fallen out for Hector. In the space of twenty-four hours he had held utter happiness in his hands. And now it was gone. He had to leave. Had to return to Earth, to Cynthia, to a mad, stupid, heartless world—where people hated, and thieved, and fought among themselves. A world that had no place for Hector Squinches.

His eyes were affected with a dimness that made the room seem to swim before him. Faces looked up sympathetically at him from the long banquet tables. Faces of friends, people who liked him for what he was, and loved him for what he wasn't.

His voice, when he turned to Charon, was husky, off-key.

"I guess you're right," he conceded. "I'm not an immortal. Just a Squinch, a Hector Squinch, at that. I'd better be going with you."

He turned, then, and made his way slowly along the banquet hall, shaking hands with the friends he might never see again.

"I'll save you some nectar," Bacchus said huskily.

"When you come back, I'll give you some sure bets," Mercury promised him, then turned to hide his watery eyes.

"Don't worry," said Jove. "I've got some influence. I'll do all I can."

He was at the door, waving to them all for the last time, when voices broke forth, led by the faltering basso of Jove.

"For he's a jolly good fellow, for he's a jolly good fellow. For he's a jolly good felloooooooow, which nobody can deny!"


HECTOR SQUINCH blinked back the tears and walked slowly from the room. Charon, staff in hand, followed mournfully behind him.

They were at the Styx, pausing on the bank, for one last look at Olympus. Hector turned to Charon.

"It's been fine," he said softly. "More than fine." A moment of silence, then, "I don't suppose I'll ever see it again."

"When you die," Charon reminded him, "they'll get you back here. Jove has influence."

"Jove. Good old pompous blustering well-meaning Jove." Hector smiled in remembrance.

"He is a bit of an ass, isn't he?" Charon agreed clumsily.

"But you couldn't want a better Mayor." They both spoke the words at the same instant, stopped short, then smiled. Charon extended his hand.

"Don't usually fraternize with my passengers but I want to say goodbye to you. I couldn't help what happened. Forgive it."

"I know," Hector nodded in understanding. Then he stepped into the little boat at the bank.

"Think you can make it alone?" Charon asked.

"Yes, I think I can make it alone."

Then the boat was drifting out on the current, toward a whirlpool in the center of the stream. Charon, standing on the bank, waved once in final farewell. Hector replied. A moment later the craft was sucked into the whirlpool.

Everything was enveloped in darkness... roaring filled his ears... sparks and dancing visions... hands reaching out... more noise and confusion... falling... falling through space... endlessly... then a brilliant flashing searching light.


HECTOR was standing. He could feel the ground beneath his feet. It was solid, cement, a sidewalk. Hector opened his eyes against a brilliant sun. Traffic roared past him, trucks, buses, taxies, private limousines. He was on the corner of Times Square. The sign above his head told him as much. Back on Earth!

Funny. It was so simple. A minute before he'd been on Olympus. And now he was at Times Square. With trucks dashing past, and buses. Hector knew what had to be done. There wasn't any sense in wasting time.

He lighted a cigarette unhurriedly, deliberately. For a moment he dragged deep on it—this little man whose soul had grown out of proportion to his body.

Then he, smiled, quite happily.

"Now let's see what sort of influence Jove can muster in my behalf," he said aloud. He stepped out into the traffic.

He stood directly in the path of a speeding truck.

It was too late for the driver to apply his brakes. Hector knew it would be too late. But that was the way he wanted it to be.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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