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Non sibi sed omnibus
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FOR five thousand years, since that nigh legendary figure Einstein wrote and thought in the far-off mists of time, the scientists endeavored to reduce life and the universe to terms of a mathematical formula. And they thought they had succeeded. Throughout the world, machines did the work of man, and the aristos, owners of the machines, played in soft idleness in their crystal and gold pleasure cities. Even the prolat hordes, relieved of all but an hour or two per day of toil, were content in their warrens—content with the crumbs of their masters.
Something in the many-faceted mind of the master machine spurs it to diabolical revolt against the authority of its human masters.
Then the ice began to move, down from the north and up from the south. Slowly, inexorably, the jaws of the great vise closed, till all that was left of the wide empire of man was a narrow belt about the equator. Everywhere else was a vast tumbled waste of cold and glaring whiteness, a frozen desert. In the narrow habitable belt were compacted the teeming millions of earth’s peoples.
In spite of the best efforts of the scientists among them, the crowding together of the myriads of earth’s inhabitants brought in its train the inevitable plagues of famine and disease. Even with the most intensive methods of cultivation, even with the synthetic food factories running day and night, there could not be produced enough to sustain life in the hordes of prolats. And with the lowering of resistance and the lack of sufficient sanitary arrangements, disease began to spread with ever increasing rapidity and virulence.
The aristos trembled, for they were few, and the prolats many. Already were arising loud and disheveled orators, inciting the millions to arise against their masters. The aristos were few, but they were not helpless. In the blackness of a moonless, clouded night there was a whispering of many wings, and from dark shapes that loomed against the dark sky, great beams swept over the tented fields where the prolats lay huddled and sleeping. And when the red sun circled the ice-chained earth he found in his path heaps of dust where on his last journey he had warmed the swarming millions.
The slaves thus ruthlessly destroyed could well be spared, for the machines did the work of the world, even to the personal care of the aristos’ pampered bodies. Only for direction, and starting and stopping, was the brain and the hand of man required. Now that the inhabited portion of the terrestrial globe was so straitly circumscribed, radio power waves, television and radio-phone, rendered feasible the control of all the machines from one central station, built at the edge of the Northern Glacier. Here were brought the scant few of the prolats that had been spared, a pitiful four hundred men and women, and they were set to endless, thankless tasks.
I was one of those few; and Keston, my friend, who was set at the head of the force. I was second in command. For a decade we labored, whipped our fellows to their tasks, that the aristos might loll careless in the perfume and silks of their pleasure palaces, or riot in wild revel, to sink at last in sodden stupor. Sprawled thus they would lie, until the dressing machines we guided would lift them gently from their damasked couches, bathe them with warm and fragrant waters, clothe their soft carcasses in diaphanous, iridescent webs, and start them on a new day of debauchery.
But the slow vengeance of an inscrutable Omnipotence they mockingly denied overtook them at last, and I saw the rendering and payment of the long past due account.
AS I entered the vast domed hall wherein all my waking hours were spent, the shrill whistle of an alarm signal told me that something had been wrong. Instinctively I looked toward the post of Abud. Three times in the past week had Keston or I been called upon for swift action to right some error of that dull witted prolat. On the oval visor-screen above the banked buttons of his station I saw the impending catastrophe. Two great freight planes, one bearing the glowing red star that told of its cargo of highly explosive terminite, were approaching head-on with lightning rapidity. The fool had them on the same level.
Abud was gaping now at the screen in paralyzed fright, with no idea of how to avoid the cataclysm. Just below I glimpsed the soaring towers of Antarcha. In a moment that gold and crystal pleasure city would be blasted to extinction, with all its sleeping thousands. Swift would be the vengeance of the aristos. Already I could see Abud and Keston and a hundred others melting in the fierce rays of the Death Bath!
But, even as my face blanched with the swift and terrible vision, the little controller’s car ground to a smoking stop at Abud’s back. With one motion Keston’s lithe form leaped from his seat and thrust aside the gaping prolat. His long white fingers darted deftly over the gleaming buttons. The red starred plane banked in a sudden swerve; the other dipped beneath. Distinct from the speaker beneath the screen came the whoosh of the riven air as the fliers flashed past, safe by a margin of scant feet. Another rippling play of the prolat chief’s fingers and the planes were back on their proper courses. The whistle ceased its piercing alarm, left a throbbing stillness.
Chief Keston turned to the brute faced culprit. Cold contempt tautened the thin, ascetic features of his face. Somehow I was at his side: I must have been running across the wide floor of the Control Station while the crisis had flared and passed. In measured tones, each word a cutting whip-lash, came his well merited rebuke:
“Don’t try me too far, Abud. Long before this I should have relieved you of your post, and ordered you to the Death Bath. I am derelict in my duty that I do not do so. By my weak leniency I imperil the lives of your comrades, and my own. It is your good fortune that a Council delegate has not been present at one of your exhibitions. But I dare not risk more. Let the warning whistle come from your station just once again and I shall report you as an incompetent. You know the law.”
I looked to see the man cringe in abasement and contrition. But the heavy jaw thrust forth in truculent defiance; hate blazed forth from the deep-set eyes; the florid features were empurpled with rage. He made as if to reply, but turned away from the withering scorn in Keston’s face.
“Ha, Meron, here at last.” A warm smile greeted me. “I’ve been waiting for you impatiently.”
“I’m an hour before my time,” I replied, then continued, exasperatedly: “Chief, I hope this latest imbecility will convince you that you ought to turn him in. I know it hurts you to condemn a prolat to the Death Bath, but if you let him go on, his mistakes will bring us all to that end.”
I glanced toward where a black portal broke the circle of switchboards, and shuddered. Behind that grim gate leaped and flared eternally the flame of the consuming Ray, the exhaust flue of the solar energy by which the machines were fed. Once I had seen a condemned man step through that aperture at the order of an aristo whom he had offended. For a moment his tortured body had glowed with a terrible golden light. Then—there was nothing.
My friend pressed my arm, calmingly. Again he smiled. “Come, come, Meron, don’t get all worked up. It isn’t his fault. Why, look at him. Can’t you see that he is a throwback, lost in this world of science and machines? Besides”—his voice dropped low—“it doesn’t matter any more. Man-failure will no longer trouble the even tenor of the machines. I’ve finished.”
A tremor of excitement seized me. “You’ve completed it at last? And it works?”
“It works. I tested it when the shifts changed at midnight; kept the oncoming force outside for five minutes. It works like a charm.”
“Great! When will you tell the Council?”
“I’ve already sent the message off. You know how hard it is to get them away from their wines and their women—but they’ll be here soon. But before they come, I’ve something to tell you. Let’s go back behind the screens.”
As we walked toward the huge tarpaulin-screened mass that bulked in the center of the great chamber, I glanced around the hall, at the thousand-foot circle of seated prolats. Two hundred men and women were there; two hundred more were sleeping in the dormitories. These were all that were left of the world’s workers. Before each operative rose the serried hundreds of pearl buttons, dim lit, clicking in and out under the busy fingers. Above each, an oval visor-screen with its flitting images brought across space the area the switches controlled. Every one of the ten score was watching his screen with taut attention, and listening to the voices of the machines there depicted—the metallic voices from the radio speakers broadcasting their needs.
The work was going on as it had gone on for ten years, with the omnipresent threat of the Death Bath whipping flagged, tired brains to dreary energy. The work kept going on till they dropped worn out at last in their tired seats. Only in Keston’s brain, and in mine, flamed the new hope of release. Tomorrow the work would be done, forever. Tomorrow, we would be released, to take our places in the pleasure palaces. To loll at ease, breathing the sweet perfume of idleness, waited on by machines directed by a machine.
For, as we stood behind the heavy canvas folds that Keston had drawn aside, there towered, fifty feet above me, halfway to the arching roof, a machine that was the ultimate flowering of man’s genius. Almost man-form it was—two tall metal cylinders supporting a larger, that soared aloft till far above it was topped by a many-faceted ball of transparent quartz. Again I had a fleeting, but vivid, impression of something baleful, threatening, about it. Small wonder, though. For the largest cylinder, the trunk of the man-machine Keston had created, was covered thick with dangling arms. And the light of the xenon tube that flooded the screened space was reflected from the great glass head till it seemed that the thing was alive; that it was watching me till some unguarded moment would give it its chance.
A long moment we stood, going again over each detail of the thing, grown so familiar through long handling as it was slowly assembled. Then my friend’s voice, low pitched as was its wont, dissipated the visions I was seeing. “Two hours ago, Meron, with none here but me to see, those arms were extended, each to its appointed station. And, as the sensitive cells in the head received the signals from the visor-screens and the radio-speakers the arms shot about the key-boards and pressed the proper buttons just as our men are doing now. The work of the world went on, without a falter, with only the master machine to direct it. Yet a year ago, when I first spoke to you of the idea, you told me it was impossible!”
“You have won,” I responded; “you have taken the last step in the turning over of the functions of man to machines—the last step but one. Routine control, it is true, can now be exercised by this—those fellows out there are no longer necessary—but there will still be the unexpected, unforeseen emergencies that will require human intelligence to meet and cope with them. You and I, I’m afraid, are still doomed to remain here and serve the machines.”
Keston shook his head, while a little smile played over his sharp-featured face, and a glow of pride and triumph suffused his fine dark eyes. “Grumbling again, old carper. What would you say if I told you that I have solved even that problem? I have given my master machine intelligence!”
My wide-eyed, questioning stare must have conveyed my thought to him, for he laughed shortly, and said, “No, I’ve not gone insane.”
“It was an accident,” he went on with amazing calm. “My first idea was merely to build something that would reduce the necessary supervisory force to one or two humans. But, when I had almost completed my second experimental model, I found that I was out of the copper filaments necessary to wind a certain coil. I didn’t want to wait till I could obtain more from the stores, and remembered that on the inside of the door to the Death Bath there was some fine screening that could be dispensed with. I used the wire from that. Whether the secret of life as well as of death lies in those waste rays from the sun, or whether some unknown element of the humans consumed in the flame was deposited on the screening in a sort of invisible coating, I do not know. But this I do know: when that second model was finished, and the vitalizing current was turned on, things happened—queer things that could be explained only on the ground that the machine had intelligence.”
He fell silent a moment, then his thin pale lips twisted in a wry smile. “You know, Meron, I was a little scared. The thing I had created seemed possessed of a virulent antagonism toward me. Look.” He bared an arm and held it out. A livid weal ran clear around the fore-arm. “One of the tentacles I had given it whipped around my arm like a flash. If I had not cut off the current at once it might have squeezed through flesh and bone. The pressure was terrific.”
I was about to speak, when from the screen nearest the entrance door a beam of green light darted out, vanished, came again. Once, twice, three times.
“Look, Chief, the signal. They’re coming. The Council will soon be here.”
“They’re over-prompt. My message must have aroused their curiosity. But listen:
“I incorporated my new thought coil, as I called it, in the large master machine. But I don’t know just what will happen when the current flows through that. So I shunted it. The machine will work, routinely, without it. There is a button that will bring it into action. When I shall have taken the proper precautions I will switch it on, and then we shall see what happens.”
We saw, sooner than Keston expected.
Again the green beam flashed out. The great portals slowly opened. Through them glided the three travel cars of the Supreme Council of the aristos.
It had been almost a year since I saw them, the Over Lords of the World, and I had forgotten their appearance. Sprawled on the glowing silks of their cushioned couches, eyes closed in languid boredom, they were like huge white slugs. Swollen to tremendous size by the indolent luxuriousness of their lives, the flesh that was not concealed by the bright hued web of their robes was pasty white, and bagged and folded where the shrunken muscles beneath refused support. Great pouches dropped beneath swollen eyelids. Full-lipped, sensual mouths and pendulous cheeks merged into the great fat rolls of their chins. I shuddered. These, these were the masters for whom we slaved!
As we bent low the gliding cars came to rest, and a warm redolence of sweet perfume came to me from the fans softly whirling in the canopies over the aristos’ heads. Strains of music rose and fell, and ceased as a flat, tired voice breathed: “Rise, prolats.”
I straightened up. The eyes of the Council were now opened, little pig’s eyes almost lost in the flesh about them. They glinted with a cold, inhuman cruelty. I shuddered, and thought of the night of terror ten years before. And suddenly I was afraid, deathly afraid.
Ladnom Atuna, head of the Council, spoke again. “We have come at your petition. What is this matter so grave that it has led you to disturb us at our pleasures?”
Keston bowed low. “Your Excellency, I would not have presumed to intrude upon you for a small matter. I have so greatly ventured because I have at length solved the final step in the mechanization of the world. I have invented a master machine to operate the switchboards in this hall and replace the workers thereat.”
The flabby faces of the aristos betrayed not the slightest interest, not the least surprise. Only Atuna spoke: “Interesting, if true. Can you prove your statement?”
Keston strode to the canvas screen and pulled a cord. The great canvas curtains rolled back. “Here is the machine, my Lords!” His face was lit with the glow of pride of achievement. His voice had lost its reverence. Rapidly he continued: “The head of this contrivance is a bank of photo and sono-electric cells, each facet focussed on one of the screens. Through a nerve-system of copper filaments any combination of lights and sounds will actuate the proper arm which will shoot out to the required bank of buttons and press the ones necessary to meet any particular demand. That is all the prolats are doing out there, and they make mistakes, while my master machine cannot. The—”
But Ladnom Atuna raised a languid hand. “Spare us these technical explanations. They bore us. All we desire to know is that the machine will do as you say.”
The chief flushed, and gulped. His triumph was not meeting with the acclaim he had expected. But he bowed. “Very well. With your gracious permission I shall demonstrate its operation.” Atuna nodded in acquiescence.
Keston’s voice rang out in crisp command. “Attention, prolats. Cease working.” The long circling row suddenly jerked around; their flying fingers halted their eternal dartings. “Quickly, down to the space in front of the door to the Death Bath.” A rush of hurried feet. These men and women were accustomed to instant, unquestioning obedience. “Absolute silence. Keep clear of the floor on peril of your lives.”
The chief wheeled to the master machine and pressed a button. Instantly, the hundreds of dangling arms telescoped out, each to a button bank where a moment before a prolat had labored. And, with a weird simulation of life, the ten forked ends of each arm commenced a rattling pressing of the buttons. Rapidly, purposefully, the metallic fingers moved over the key-boards, and on the screens we could see that the machines all over the world were continuing on their even course. Not the slightest change in their working betrayed the fact that they were now being directed by a machine instead of human beings. A great surge of admiration swept me at the marvelous accomplishment of my friend.
Not so the aristos. Expressionless, they watched as the maze of stretching tentacles vibrated through the crowded air. Yet not quite expressionless. I thought I could sense in the covert glances they cast at one another a crafty weighing of the implications of this machine; a question asked and answered; a decision made. Then their spokesman turned languidly to the waiting, triumphant figure of Keston.
“Evidently your claims are proven. This means that the force of prolat operatives are no longer necessary.”
“Yes, Your Excellency. They may now be released to a well earned reward.”
The aristo ignored the interruption. “We take it that only two will now be required to operate this Control Station, to supply the last modicum of human intelligence required to meet unforeseen emergencies.”
I saw that Keston was about to interrupt once more, to tell the Council of the thought coil, the most unbelievable part of the miracle he had wrought. But something seemed to warn me that he should not speak. Standing behind him I nudged him, while I myself replied: “Yes, Your Excellency.” The chief flung me a startled look, but did not correct me.
From the packed crowd of prolats at the other end of the hall I could hear a murmuring. While I could not make out the words, the very tones told me that in the hearts of those weary slaves new hope was rising, the same hope that glowed in Keston’s face. But I was oppressed by an unreasoning fear.
Atuna was still talking, in his cold, unemotional monotone. “This being so, hear now our decision. Keston and Meron, you will remain here to meet all emergencies. You others, your function is done. You have done your work well, you are now no longer needed to control the machines. Therefore,”—he paused, and my heart almost stopped—“therefore, being no longer of value, you will be disposed of.”
A click sounded loud through the stunned silence. Beyond the white crowd the huge black portal slid slowly open. A shimmering radiance of glowing vapors blazed from the space beyond.
“Prolats, file singly into the Death Bath!” Atuna raised his voice only slightly with the command. I glanced at Keston. He was livid with fury.
Incredible as it may seem, so ingrained was the habit of obedience to the aristos in the prolats that not even a murmur of protest came from the condemned beings. The nearest man to the flaming death stepped out into the void. His doomed body flared, then vanished. The next moved to his turn.
But suddenly a great shout rang out.
It was Keston’s voice, but so changed, so packed with fury and outrage, that I scarcely recognized it.
His spare, tall form was drawn tensely straight as he shook a clenched fist at the Council. He was quivering with anger, and his eyes blazed.
“Aristos, you do wrong! These men have served you faithfully and well. I demand for them the reward they have earned—rest and leisure, and the pleasures that for ten years they have seen you enjoy while they worked here for you. They have worked for you, I say, and now that I have released them you would destroy them. Aristos, I demand justice!”
For the first time I saw expression on the flaccid faces of the Council—surprise and astonishment that a prolat should dare dispute an aristo command. Then a sneer twisted Atuna’s countenance.
“What is this? Who are you to demand anything from us? We spared these prolats because we needed them: we need them no longer, hence they must die. What madness has seized you? Reward! Justice! For prolats! As well say we should reward the stone walls of our houses; dispense justice to the machines. Proceed, prolats!”
Keston made as if to spring for the aristo’s throat. I put out a hand to stop him. An invisible shield of death rays rimmed the platforms the Council used. It was suicide! But suddenly he turned and sprang to the master machine. He grasped a switch lever and threw it down.
A long tentacle left its keys and swished menacingly through the air. “Meron, prolats, under the key-boards!” came Keston’s shout. I dived to obey. Steel fingers clutched my jerkin and tore it loose as I landed with a thud against the wall. Keston thumped alongside of me. He was breathing heavily and his face was deathly pale.
“Look!” he gasped.
Out on the floor was a shambles. I saw one snakelike arm whip around the stout form of Atuna, then tighten. A shriek of agony rang through the hall. Another tentacle curled about the couch of a second aristo, pinning the occupant to it. Then couch and all were swung a hundred feet in the air to be crashed down with terrific force on the stone floor. Two arms seized the third at the same time….
“Too sluggish to get out of the way in time, damn them!” I heard Keston mutter. True, but not all the prolats had moved fast enough at the warning shout. Cowering under the saving key-boards, shrinking from the metallic arms not quite long enough to reach them, I could count only a score. The others—but what use to describe the slaughter out there! I see it in nightmares too often.
A thunder from the speakers grew till it drowned out the agonized shrieks in the great hall. On the screens horror flared. All over the world, it appeared, the machines had gone mad. I saw Antarcha crash as a dozen air freighters plunged through the crystal towers. I saw a huge dredge strip the roof from a great playhouse, and smash the startled crowd within with stones it plucked from an embankment. I saw untenanted land cars shooting wild through packed streets. Great ponderous tractors left the fields and moved in ordered array on the panic-stricken cities. Methodically they pursued the fleeing aristos, and crushed them beneath their tread like scurrying ants.
I realized that the scraping of the tentacles reaching for us had ceased, that the arms had all returned to the button banks. Then it dawned on me that Keston’s master machine was directing all the destruction I was watching, that the intelligence he had given it was being used to divert the machines from their regular tasks to—conquer the world. “You sure started something, Keston,” I said.
“Yes,” he gasped, white-faced, “something that I should have expected when that model machine went for me. Do you understand? I’ve given the machines intelligence, created a new race, and they are trying to wipe out the humans; conquer the world for themselves. The possibility flashed on me when I was half-mad with rage and disappointment at the callous cruelty of the aristo Council. I threw that switch with the thought that it would be far better for all of us to be wiped out. But now, I don’t know. After all, they are men, like ourselves, and it hurts to see our own race annihilated. If only I can get to that switch.”
He started to push out from under the scant shelter, but an alert tentacle hissed through the air in a swift stab at him, and he dodged back, hopelessly.
“Don’t be a damn fool,” I snapped at him. “Forget that mushy sentimentality. Even if you save the aristos, we’re due for extinction just the same. Better that the whole human race be wiped out together.”
Then a thought struck me. “Maybe we have a chance to get out of this ourselves.”
“Impossible. Where could we hide from the machines?” He waved a hand at the screens. “Look.”
“The Glacier, man, the Glacier!” He started. “There are no machines out there. If we can get to the ice we are safe.”
“But the aircraft will find us.”
“They won’t know we’re there. There are no microphones or radio-eyes in the wastes.”
A rough voice came from the cowering files behind us. “Hey, Keston, let’s get a move on. You’re the smart guy around here: get us out of this mess you’ve started.”
It was Abud. When so many better prolats had perished, he was alive and whole.
We got out, crawling under the key-boards till we could make a dash for the door. We emerged into a world ablaze with the light of many fires, and reverberating with the far off crashing of destruction. To the right we could see the tumbled remains of what a short hour before had been our barracks. Two digging machines were still ponderously moving about among the ruins, pounding down their heavy buckets methodically, reducing the concrete structure to a horrible dead level. Ten score prolats had been sleeping there when I left.
As we rushed into the open, the machines turned and made for us; but they had not been built for speed, and we easily outdistanced them. The rest of that day will always remain a dim haze to me. I can remember running, running, Abud’s broad form always in the lead. I can remember long minutes of trembling under tangled underbrush, while from above sounded the burring of an air machine searching ceaselessly for us. I can remember seeing at last the tall white ramparts of the Glacier. Then a blackness swallowed me up, hands tugged at me, and I knew no more….
The great white waste of hummocky ice dazzled under the blinding sun. My eyes were hurting terribly. There was a great void in my stomach. For two days I had not eaten.
Keston, tottering weakly at my side, was in an even worse state. His trembling hand could scarcely hold the primitive bone-tipped spear. God knows I had difficulty enough with mine.
Yet, tired, hungry, shivering as we were, we forced our dragging feet along, searching the interminable expanse for sign of polar bear or the wild white dogs that hunted in packs. We had to find flesh—any kind—to feed our shriveled stomachs—or go under.
Keston uttered a weak shout. I looked. From behind a frozen hummock a great white bear padded. He saw us, sniffed the air a moment, then turned contemptuously away. He must have sensed our weakness.
Almost crying in his eagerness, Keston raised his spear and cast it with what strength he had at the animal that meant food and warmth for our bodies.
The weapon described a slow arc, and caught the shaggy bear flush in the shoulder. But there had been no force behind the throw. The sharpened bone tip stuck in the flesh, quivered a bit, and dropped harmlessly to the ice.
Aroused, the creature whirled about. We caught a glimpse of small, vindictive eyes. Then, with a roar, it made for us.
“Look out!” I cried. Keston started to run, but I knew he could not match the wounded animal in speed. I threw my futile spear, but the bear shook it off as though it were a pin prick, and would not be diverted from his prey.
I ran after, shouting for help. Then Keston stumbled and went down in a sprawl on the rough gray ice. The bear was almost on him and there was nothing I could do.
Then the figure of a man darted from behind a sheltering mound. It was Abud, swathed in warm white furs, brawny of body, strong, well fed, heavy jowled. He swung easily a long spear, far heavier than ours, and pointed with keen barbs.
He stopped short at the sight of us, and his brutal features contorted in merriment. The desperate plight of my friend seemed to afford him infinite amusement. Nor did he make any move to help.
I shouted to him. “Quick, kill it before it’s too late!”
“So it is Abud you turn to now,” he sneered heavily. “Abud, whom you thought deserving of the Death Bath not so long ago. No, my fine friends, let me see you help yourselves, you two who thought you were king pins down in the valley. Men? Bah! Weaklings, that’s all you are!”
I ran blindly over the uneven ice, unarmed, some crazy notion in my mind of tackling the brute with bare fists, to drag him off my friend. Abud shouted with laughter, leaning on his spear.
For some strange animal reason, the mocking laughter enraged the bear. He had almost reached the motionless figure of Keston when he swerved suddenly, and made for Abud.
The ghastly merriment froze on the heavy jowled man. Like lightning he lifted his heavy lance, and drove it with a powerful arm squarely into the breast of the advancing brute. It sank a full foot into the blubbery flesh, and, while the stricken bear clawed vainly at the wound and sought to push himself along toward the man, Abud held the spear firmly as in a vise, so that the animal literally impaled itself. With a gush of blood, it sank motionless to the ground.
Abud plucked the spear away with a dexterous twist.
Keston was feebly groping to his feet. I was torn between joy at his deliverance and rage at the inhuman callousness of Abud.
The latter grinned at us hatefully.
“You see what poor weakling creatures you are,” he jeered. “Good for nothing but to push a lot of senseless buttons. Down there you were the bosses, the ones to look upon me as dirt. Here, on the ice, where it takes guts to get along, I am the boss. I let you live on my scraps and leavings, simply because it tickled me to see you cringe and beg. But I am growing weary of that sport. Henceforth you keep away from my camp. Don’t let me catch you prowling around, d’you hear? Let’s see how long you’ll last on the ice!”
“This animal is mine.” He prodded the carcass. “I killed it. I’ll make the prolats skin and, cut it up for me. Ho-ho, how they cringe and obey me—Abud, the dull one! Ho-ho!”
On this he strode away, still laughing thunderously.
I looked to Keston in blank dismay. What was to be our fate now, but death by cold and slow starvation!
Three-months had passed since we had escaped to the ice from the dreadful machines—a score of us. For a while it seemed that we had fled in vain. We were not fit to cope with the raw essentials of life: it was uncounted centuries since man fought nature bare handed. So we huddled together for warmth, and starved. Even Keston’s keen brain was helpless in this waste of ice, without tools, without machines.
Then it was that Abud arose to take command. He, dull brute that he was amid the complexities of our civilization, fairly reveled in this primitive combat with hunger and cold. He was an anachronism in our midst, a throwback to our early forebears.
It did not take him long to fashion cunning nooses and traps to catch the few beasts that roamed the ice. Once he pounced upon a wolf-like creature, and strangled it with bare hands. He fashioned with apt fingers spears and barbs of bone, curved knives from shin bones, and skinned the heavy fur pelts and made them into garments.
No wonder the prolats in their helplessness looked to him as their leader. Keston and I were thrust aside. But Abud did not forget. His slow witted mind harbored deadly rancor for former days, when we were in command. He remembered our contempt for his slow dull processes; for the many errors he was guilty of. By a queer quirk, the very fact that Keston had saved him from the Death Bath on several occasions but fed the flames of his hatred. Perhaps that was an ancient human trait, too.
So he set himself to twit and humiliate us. His jibes were heavy handed and gross. He refused to let us eat at the communal mess, but forced us to wait until all were through, when he tossed us a few scraps as though we were dogs.
Many times I started up in hot rage, ready to match my softened muscles against his brawn. But always Keston caught me in time and whispered patience. Some plan was taking shape in his mind, I could see, so I stopped short, and was content to bide my time.
Now we were through, discarded, as a last brutal gesture. What was there to be done now?
In utter silence I looked at Keston. To my great surprise he did not seem downcast. Quite the contrary. His eyes were sparkling, once more alive with the red fire. The weariness was gone from him; there was energy, decision stamped on his finely cut features.
“Now is our time to act,” he said. “I’ve been hesitating too long.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Abud forced my hand,” Keston explained. “You didn’t think we were going to live here in this fashion the rest of our lives? I’d rather die now than have such a future staring me in the face. No, we’re going down into the valley to fight the machines.”
I stared at him aghast. “Man, you’re crazy. They’d crush us in a minute!”
“Maybe,” he said unconcernedly. “But we have no time to lose. Abud will be back with the prolats, and we’ll have to clear out before then. Quick—cut off a few chunks of meat. We’ll need them.”
“But Abud will kill us when he finds out what’s been done.”
“And we’ll starve if we don’t.”
Which was an unanswerable argument. So with our bone knives we hacked off gobs of the still warm flesh, covered with great layers of fat.
Looking up from my task, I saw black figures coming toward us from the direction of the camp. They quickened into a run even as I noticed them—Abud and the prolats.
“Quick, Keston,” I cried, “they’re coming.”
Keston glanced around and started to run. I followed as fast as I could.
“They’ll catch us,” I panted. “Where can we hide?”
“Down in the valley.”
“But the machines will get us then.”
“Save your breath and follow me. I know a place.”
We were racing along as fast as our weakened legs could carry us, toward the edge of the Glacier. I looked back to see Abud, his brute face distorted with rage, gaining rapidly on us. The other prolats were being outdistanced.
Abud shouted threateningly for us to stop, but that only made us re-double our efforts. I knew he would kill us if he caught up with us. He had his spear and we were without ours.
The steep terminus of the great Northern Glacier hove into view. Far below was the broad fertile habitable belt, stretching as far as the eye could see. A lump rose in my throat as I ran. It was our earth, our heritage down there—and here we were, fleeing for our lives, dispossessed by bits of metal and quartz, machines that we had fashioned.
Hovering in the air, on a level with us, were scout planes, vigilant guardians of the frontier.
Once a prolat had become crazed by the eternal ice and cold, and had ventured down the side of the Glacier, to reach the warm lands his thin blood hungered for. As soon as he had painfully clambered to the bottom, within the area of the televisors, a plane had swooped and crushed him, while we, lining the edge, had witnessed the horror helplessly.
Yet Keston ran on confidently. Abud was just a little way behind, bellowing exultantly, when we came to the jumping-off place. He was sure he had us now.
Keston slid from view. It was sheer suicide to go down there, I knew; yet, to remain where I was, meant certain death. Abud’s spear was already poised to thrust. There was only one thing to do, and I did it. I threw myself over the rim, just where Keston had disappeared.
I landed with a thud on a narrow ledge of ice. The surface was glassy smooth, and I started slipping straight toward the outer edge, a sheer drop of a thousand feet to the valley below. I strove to recover my balance, but only accelerated my progress. Another moment and I would have plunged into the abyss, but a hand reached out and grabbed me just in time. It was Keston.
“Hold tight and follow me,” he whispered urgently, “we’ve no time to lose. The master machine is seeing us now in the visor screen, and will act.”
I had an impulse to turn back, but Abud’s face was leering down at us.
“I’ll get you for this!” he screamed, and let himself down heavily over the ledge.
Keston edged his way along the treacherous trail, I after him. It was ticklish work. A misstep, and there would be nothing to break our fall.
I heard a siren sound, then another; and another. I wasted a precious moment to look up. A scout plane was diving for us, on a terrific slant. The air was black with aircraft converging on us. The master machine had seen us! I sensed utter malevolence in the speed of these senseless metals, thrown at us by the thing my friend had created.
But there was no time for thought. In desperate haste, we inched our way along. Abud had seen the peril, too, and lost all his truculence in the face of the greater danger. He clawed after us, intent only on reaching whatever safety we were heading for.
I could hear the zoom of the great wings when the path took a sudden turn and we catapulted headlong into a black cavern thrusting into the ice.
We were not an instant too soon. For a giant shape swooped by our covert with a terrifying swoosh, inches away from Abud’s leg as he dived after us, and it was followed by a grinding crash. The machine had been directed too close to the ice and had smashed into bits.
We crouched there a moment, panting, struggling to regain our wind. Keston had regained the air of quiet power he had once possessed. Quietly he spoke to our enemy.
“Listen to me, Abud. Up there on the ice, you played the bully, relying on your brute strength. Here, however, we’re up against the machines, and your intelligence is of too low an order to compete with them. You need my brains now. If you expect to escape from them, and live, you’ll have to do exactly as I say. I’m boss, do you understand?”
I expected a roar of rage at Keston’s calm assertion, and quietly got in back of Abud ready to jump him if he made a threatening move.
But the big brute was a creature of abject terror, staring out with fear-haunted eyes. Quite humbly he replied: “You are right. You are the only one who can beat the machines. I’ll follow you in everything.”
“Very well, then. This cave leads through a series of tunnels down through the ice to the bottom of the valley. I explored it nights when you were all sleeping.”
I looked at him in amazement. I had not known anything about his midnight wanderings. He saw my glance.
“I’m sorry, Meron, but I thought it wiser to say nothing of my plans, even to you, until they had matured. Let us go.”
Outside hundreds of craft were hurtling across the opening. Escape that way was clearly impossible.
“No doubt the master machine is hurrying over high explosives to blast us out,” Keston said indifferently; “but we won’t be here.”
We started down a tortuous decline, crawling on hands and knees. We had not progressed very far when we heard a thud and a roar behind us, followed by a series of crashes.
“Just as I thought. The master machine is firing terminite into the cavern. What a high degree of intelligence that thing has! Too bad we’ll have to smash it.” He sighed. I verily believe he hated to destroy this brain child of his. Yet just how he was going to do it, I did not know.
There passed hours of weary, tortured stumblings, and slitherings, and sudden falls—down, always down, interminably. A pale glimmering showed us the way, a dim shining through the icy walls.
At last, faint with toil, bleeding and torn from glass-sharp splinters, we reached a level chamber, vaulted, surprisingly, with solid rock. It was good to see something of the earth again, something that was not that deadly, all-embracing ice. At the far end lay a blinding patch. I blinked.
“Sunlight!” I shouted joyously.
“Yes,” Keston answered quietly. “That opening leads directly into the valley on our land.”
Abud roused himself from the unreasoning dread he had been in. It was the first time he had spoken.
“Let us get out of here. I feel as though I’m in a tomb.”
“Are you mad?” Keston said sharply. “The visors would pick you up at once. You wouldn’t last very long.”
Abud stopped suddenly. There was a plaintive, helpless note to him. “But we can’t stay here forever. We’d starve, or die of cold. Isn’t there some way to get back to the top of the Glacier?”
“No—only the way we came. And that’s been blocked with terminite.”
“Then what are we going to do? You’ve led us into a slow death, you with your boasted brains!”
“That remains to be seen,” was the calm retort. “In the meantime, we’re hungry. Let us eat.”
And the amazing man drew out of his torn flapping furs the gobs of meat he had cut from the dead bear. I had quite forgotten them. With a glad cry, I too reached into my garments and brought out my supply.
Abud’s eyes glinted evilly. His hand stole stealthily to the bone knife in its skin sheath. His spear had been dropped long before.
“None of that,” Keston said sharply. “We’ll all share equally, even though you have no food. But if you try to hog it all, or use force, you’ll die as well as we. There’s only enough for a meal or two; and then what will you do?”
Abud saw that. He needed Keston’s brains. His eyes dropped, and he mumbled something about our misunderstanding his gesture. We let it go at that. We had to. He could have killed us both if he wished.
So we divided our food with painstaking fairness. How we gorged on the raw red flesh and thick greasy fat! Food that would have disgusted us when we lived and worked in the Central Station, now was ambrosia to our sharpened appetites. When not the least scrap was left, and we had slaked our thirst with chunks of ice from the cavern floor, I spoke.
“What is that plan you spoke of, Keston, for reconquering the earth from the machines?”
Abud looked up abruptly at my question, and it seemed to me that a crafty smile glinted in the small pig eyes.
Keston hesitated a moment before he spoke.
“I confess my plans have been materially impeded by this sudden predicament we find ourselves in, thanks to our good friend here.” He ironically indicated Abud.
The big prolat merely grunted.
“However,” Keston continued, “I’ll have to make the best of circumstances, without the aid of certain materials that I had expected to assemble.
“The idea is a simple one. You’ve noted no doubt how the terminus of the Glacier opposite the Central Control Station overhangs. The brow, over a thousand feet up, extends out at least a hundred feet beyond the base.”
I nodded assent, though Abud seemed startled. Many times had Keston and I speculated on the danger of an avalanche at this point, and wondered why the Station had been built in such an exposed place. Once indeed we had ventured to suggest to the aristo Council the advisability of removing the Central Control to some other point, but the cold silence that greeted our diffident advice deterred us from further pursuit of the subject.
“Now, you know as well as I,” Keston resumed, “that a glacier is merely a huge river of ice, and, though solid, partakes of some of the qualities of freely flowing water. As a matter of fact, glaciers do flow, because the tremendous pressure at the bottom lowers the melting point of ice to such a degree that the ice actually liquefies, and flows along.”
I followed him eagerly in these elementary statements, trying to glimpse what he was driving at, but Abud’s brute features were fixed in a blank stare.
“This glacier does move. We’ve measured it—a matter of an inch or two a day. If, however,”—Keston’s voice took on a deeper note—“we can manage to hasten that process, the Glacier will overwhelm the countryside.”
He paused, and that gave me a chance to interpose some objections.
“But hold on a moment. In the first place it is an absolute impossibility with the means at our command, or even with every appliance, to melt the face of the whole Northern Glacier. In the second place, even if we could, the whole world would be overwhelmed, and then where would we be?”
Keston looked at me a trifle scornfully. “Who said we were going to melt the entire glacier? Remember I spoke only of the place of the overhang. Set that in motion, and we don’t have to worry about the problem any further.”
“Why not?” I inquired incredulously. “Suppose you do wipe out all the machines in this particular vicinity, won’t there be tremendous numbers left all through the Equatorial Belt?”
“Of course,” he explained patiently, “and what if they are? What are all these machines but inanimate mechanisms, things of metal and rubber and quartz. What makes them the monsters they have become?”
I smote my forehead in anger. “What a fool! Now I see it. It’s the master machine you’re after.”
“Exactly,” he smilingly agreed. “Overwhelm, destroy this devilish creature of mine, with its unhuman intelligence, and the machines are what they were before: merely obedient slaves.”
I pondered that a moment. “And how, may I ask, are you going to force this old Glacier to move.”
His face clouded. “That’s the trouble. Up on the ice I was working on that problem, and had managed secretly to rig up a contrivance that would have done the trick. But we can’t go back for it. That way is blocked.” He mused, half to himself. “If only we could lay our hands on a solar disintegrating machine, the difficulty would be solved.”
At the name, Abud’s face, that had been a study in blank incomprehension, lit up.
“Solar disintegrating machine?” he inquired. “Why there’s one stationed not more than a few hundred yards away from here. This area, 2-RX, was my sector, you know.”
“Of course, of course,” shouted Keston, “I’d quite forgotten. The very thing. You’re not half bad, Abud, if you’d only stop trying to rely on brute strength instead of brains,” he concluded.
Abud said nothing, but I noticed a quick flash of hatred that passed in an instant, leaving a blank countenance. I thought to myself, “You’ll bear watching, my fine fellow. I don’t trust you at all.”
Keston was speaking. “We’ll have to wait until nightfall. The master machine won’t expect us down at the base, so I’m positive the search-rays won’t be focussed along the ground. We’ll sneak to the machine, smash its visor and radio units, so it won’t give the alarm, and haul it back. Then I’ll show you what’s next to be done.”
Night came at last, leaden footed, though we were burning with impatience. Very softly we crawled out of the cave, three shadows. Fortunately there was no moon. The great Glacier loomed ominously above us, dimly white. High overhead hovered the green signal lights of the machine planes, their search rays focussed in blinding glares on the rim of the upper ice.
It did not take us long to find the dark bulk of the disintegrator. It was a squat cylinder, for all the world like a huge boiler. At one end there up-ended a periscope arrangement which broadened out to a funnel. In the funnel was a very powerful lens, cut to special measurements. The light of the sun, or any light, for that matter, was concentrated through the lens onto a series of photo-electric cells, composed of an alloy of selenium and the far more delicate element, illinium. A high tension current was there created, of such powerful intensity that it disintegrated the atoms of every element except osmium and indium into their constituent electrons. Consequently the interior as well as the long slit nozzle orifice at the other end, were made of these resistant metals.
Through a special process the tremendously powerful current was forced through the wide-angled nozzle in a spreading thin plate ray that sheared through earth and rock and metals as if they were butter.
Such was the machine we were after.
It was but the work of a few seconds to smash the delicate television and sono-boxes placed on the top of every machine. Now we were sure no warning could be given the master machine as it sat in its metallic cunning at the control board, ceaselessly receiving its messages from the area apparatus focussed above it.
Quietly, very quietly, we trundled the precious instrument along on its wheel base. The green lights dotted the sky above: the search-rays were firmly set on the rim.
At last, without any untoward alarm, we reached the welcome shelter of the base, but not, as I had expected, back to our tunnel. On the contrary, Keston, who had directed the party, had led us almost a quarter mile away. I looked up again, and understood.
The great overhang of the Glacier was directly above us!
Without a word, with hardly a sound, we trundled the disintegrator into a natural niche we found in the icy surface. It was almost completely hidden; only the funnel with its lens protruded into the open. The nozzle orifice was pointing directly at the interior of the ice pack.
“Now everything is set properly,” Keston remarked with satisfaction as he straightened up from adjusting the various controls on the machine. “When the first ray of the morning sun strikes the lens, the disintegrator will start working. It will shear through a layer of ice over a radius of at least a mile. That huge crevasse, coupled with the terrific heat and the pressure from the mountain of ice above, will start the whole Glacier moving, or I’ll be very much mistaken.”
“Come, let us get back to our shelter before the alarm is given.”
As he started to move, a dark bulk loomed ominously in front of us—Abud. His voice was harsh, forbidding.
“Do you mean to say nothing further is to be done here—that the disintegrator will work without any attention?”
“That is just what I said,” Keston replied, somewhat surprised. “Step aside, Abud, and let us go. It is dangerous to remain here.”
But Abud made no move to comply. Instead he thrust back his great shaggy head and gave vent to a resounding laugh.
“Ho-ho, my fine friends! So you were the brainy ones, eh? And Abud, the obedient dull-wit again? How nicely you’ve been fooled! I waited until you accommodatingly evolved the plan to reconquer the world, and put it into effect.
“Now that you’ve done so, I’ve no further need for you.” The voice that heavily tried to be mocking, now snarled. “You poor fools, don’t you know that with you out of the way, I, Abud, will be the Lord of the World. Those prolats up there know better than to disobey me.”
“Do you mean you intend to kill us?” Keston asked incredulously.
“So you’ve actually grasped the idea!” was the sarcastic retort.
Meanwhile I was gradually edging to the side, my hand reaching for the bone knife in my bosom.
Abud saw my movement. “No, you don’t!” he roared, and sprang for me, his long gleaming knife uplifted. I tugged desperately at my weapon, but it was entangled in the ragged furs. In a moment he was on top of me. Involuntarily I raised my arm to ward off the threatened blow, raging despair in my heart.
The point fell, but Keston struck at the savage arm with all his might, deflecting the blade just in time. It seared my shoulder like a red hot iron, and in the next instant all three of us were a rolling, kicking, snarling trio of animals. We fought desperately in the dark. There were no rules of the game. Biting, gouging, kicking—everything went.
Keston and I, weakened as we were from long starvation and the biting cold, were no match for our powerful, huge-muscled opponent, well clad and well nourished as he was. Though we fought with the strength of despair, a violent blow from his huge fist knocked Keston out of the fight. Hairy fingers grasped my throat. “I’ll break your neck for you,” he snarled, and his hands tightened. I struggled weakly, but I was helpless. I could just see his hateful face grinning at my contortions.
I was passing out—slowly, horribly. Keston was still motionless. Colored lights danced before my eyes, little spots that flared and died out in crashing blackness. Then the whole world leaped into a flaming white, so that my eyeballs hurt. In the dim recesses of my pain-swept mind I thought that strangulation must end like this. The brightness held dazzlingly.
But suddenly a fiercer pain swept into my consciousness—the pain of gasping breath forcing air through a tortured gullet into suffocating lungs.
I struggled up into the fierce illumination. From a sitting position I saw Abud, now clearly visible as in midday, craning his head way back. I looked, too—and, in spite of my stabbing gasps for air, jumped to my feet. The search-rays from the scout planes were focussed directly on us!
I knew what that meant. The sight of us was even then being cast upon the 2-RX visor-screen in the Central Control Station. The devilish master machine was even then manipulating the proper buttons. We had not a second to lose!
My strangled throat hurt horribly, but I managed a hoarse yell, “Run!” and I tottered to where Keston yet lay, bathed in the deadly illumination, unmoving.
There was a snarl of animal fear from Abud, and he started to run, wildly, with never a backward glance at us.
Even in my own fear, expecting each instant the crash of terminite about me, I managed to hurl a last word at the fleeing figure. “Coward!” That relieved my feelings considerably.
I tottered over and tugged at Keston. He was limp. I looked up. Hundreds of planes were converging overhead; the night was a criss-cross of stabbing search-rays. I lifted my friend and slung him across my shoulder. Every exertion, every move, was accompanied by excruciating agony, but I persevered. Abud was already halfway to the tunnel, running like mad.
Then, what I had dreaded, happened. There came a swoosh through the night, a dull thud, a blinding flash and roar that paled the search-rays into insignificance. The first terminite bomb had been dropped!
For a moment the landscape was filled with flying rocks and huge chunks of ice. When the great clouds of violently upthrown earth had settled, there was no sign of Abud. He had been directly in the path of the explosion!
Staggering under my load, I headed as close to the ice pack as I could. There was no safety out in the open. I groaned heavily past the disintegrator, whose very existence I had forgotten in the crash of events.
A sizzling hum, a thin eddy of steam, halted me in my tracks. I stared. The machine was working! Even as I watched, a great wedge was momentarily being driven further and further into the ice—a great fan-shaped wedge. Clouds of steam billowed out, growing thicker and heavier. A rushing stream of unleashed water was lapping at my feet.
I was bewildered, frankly so. What had started the disintegrator in the dead of night? “Of course!” I shouted exultantly to the limp body on my shoulder.
For a search-ray was fixed steadily on the funnel. There it was. From that blinding light the machine was getting the energy it needed. If only the visor did not disclose that little bit of metal to the unwinking master machine! I looked again and took heart. It was almost undistinguishable against the dazzling blur of ice in the fierce white light. If those rays held, the salvation of the world was assured!
There was only one way to do it. I shrank at my own thoughts, yet there was no alternative: it must be done. I was hidden from the rays under a projection of ice, terminite bombs were dropping methodically over a rapidly devastated sector with methodical regularity. Sooner or later the master machine would feel that we were exterminated, and the search-rays switched off. That would mean that the disintegrator would cease working, and the whole plan fall through. In the morning light, the sector signalling apparatus, at the first sign of renewed activity, would give warning, and the unhuman thing of metal at the controls would discover and wreck our last hope.
No, I must walk boldly into the bombed area and discover myself as alive in the visors of the planes and make them continue to bomb and throw their search-rays on the scarred plain. That meant the disintegrator would receive the vital light.
But how about Keston? I couldn’t leave him there on the ground, motionless, while I deserted him. Nor could I take him with me. I was prepared to take my chances with almost certain death, but I could not trifle with his life so. I was in an agony of indecision.
Just then the form on my aching shoulder stirred, sighed, struggled a bit, and suddenly slid down to a standing position. Keston swayed unsteadily a moment, straightened, looked about him in amazement.
“What’s happening here?” he demanded.
“Why, you old war horse,” I shouted in my relief, “I thought you were out of the picture completely!”
“Not me,” he answered indignantly. “I’m all right. But you haven’t answered my question.”
A terminite bomb exploded not so far away from where we stood. I ducked involuntarily, Keston doing likewise.
“There’s the answer,” I grinned, “and a rather neat one, too. But I’ll explain.”
In a few words I sketched what had happened, and showed him the disintegrator spreading its deadly waves of destruction. By now there was a torrent enveloping us up to our knees. We would have to move soon, or be drowned in the slowly rising water.
Then, hesitatingly, I told him of my scheme to keep the search-rays in action. His lean face sobered, but he nodded his head bravely. “Of course, that is the only way to keep them at it. You and I will start at once, in separate directions, so that if they get one, the other will continue to draw the search-rays down on the plain, and into the disintegrator.”
“Not you, Keston,” I dissented in alarm. “Your life is too valuable. Your brain and skill will be needed to remodel the world and make it habitable for the few prolats that are left, after the machines are wiped out.”
“You’re just as valuable a man as I am,” he lied affectionately. “No, my mind is made up. We chance this together.” And to all my pleadings he was obdurate, insisting that we each take an equal risk.
I gave in at last, with a little choke in my throat. We shook hands with a steady grip, and walked out into the glare of light, on divergent paths. Would I ever see my friend again?
There was a pause of seconds as I walked on and on; came then an earth-shattering crash that flung me to the ground. The visors had caught the picture of me! I picked myself up, bruised and sore, but otherwise unharmed. I started to run.
The sky was a blaze of zooming planes that hurled destruction on the land below. Far off could be heard the rumbling roar of hurrying machines—tractors, diggers, disintegrators, levelers, all the mighty mobile masses of metal that man’s brain had conceived—all hurrying forward in massed attack to seek out and destroy their creators, obedient to the will of a master machine, immobile, pressing buttons in the Central Control System.
The night resolved itself into a weird phantasmagoric nightmare for me, a gigantic game of hide-and-seek, in which I was “it.” Gasping, choking, flung to earth and stunned by ear-shattering explosions, staggering up somehow, ducking to avoid being crushed beneath the ponderous treads of metal monsters that plunged uncannily for me, sobbing aloud in terror, swerving just in time from in front of a swinging crane, instinctively side-stepping just as a pale violet ray swept into nothingness all before it—I must have been delirious, for I retain only the vaguest memory of the horror.
And all the time the guiding search-rays biased down upon the torn and shattered fields, and the disintegrator, unnoticed in the vast uproar, steadily kept up its deadly work.
At last, in my delirium and terror, I heard a great rending and tearing. I looked up, and a tractor just missed me as it rolled by on swishing treads. But that one glance was enough. The ice cap was moving, flowing forward, a thousand-foot wall of ice! Great billowing clouds of steam spurted from innumerable cracks. The deed had been done! The world was saved for mankind!
Summoning the last ounce of strength, I set off on a steady run for the shelter of the rock cave, to be out of the way when the final smash-up came.
I was not pursued. The ponderous machines, thousands of them, were hastily forming into solid ranks directly in front of the tottering glacier wall. The master machine had seen its impending fate in the visors, and was organizing a defense.
Even in my elation, I could not but feel unwilling admiration for this monstrous thing of metal and quartz, imbued with an intelligence that could think more coolly and quickly than most humans.
Yet I did not stop running until I reached the cave. My heart gave a great bound. For there, peering anxiously with worn face into the growing dawn, stood the figure of Keston—my friend whom I had never expected to see alive again.
“Meron!” he shouted. “Is it you—or your ghost?”
“The very question I was about to ask you,” I parried. “But look, old friend: see what your genius has accomplished—and is now destroying.”
The mountain of ice was flowing forward, gathering speed on the way. At an invisible signal, the massed machines—thousands on thousands of them—started into action. Like shock troops in a last desperate assault they ground forward, a serried line that exactly paralleled the threatened break, and hundreds deep. This old earth of ours had never witnessed so awe-inspiring a sight.
They smashed into that moving wall of ice with the force of uncounted millions of tons. We could hear the groaning and straining of furiously turning machinery as they heaved.
Keston and I looked at each other in amazement. The master machine was trying to hold back the mighty Glacier by the sheer power of its cohorts!
A wild light sprang into Keston’s eye—of admiration, of regret. “What a thing is this that I created!” he muttered. “If only—” I truly believe that for a moment he half desired to see his brain-child triumph.
The air was hideous with a thousand noises. The Glacier wall was cracking and splitting with the noise of thunderclaps; the machines were whirring and banging and crashing. It was a gallant effort!
But the towering ice wall was not to be denied. Forward, ever forward, it moved, pushing inexorably the struggling machines before it, piling them up high upon one another, grinding into powder the front ranks.
And to cap it all, the huge overhang, a thousand feet high, was swaying crazily and describing ever greater arcs.
“Look!” I screamed and flung up my arm. Great freight planes were flying wing-to-wing, head-on for the tottering crag—deliberately smashing into the topmost point.
“Trying to knock it back into equilibrium!” said Keston, eyes ablaze, dancing about insanely.
But the last suicidal push did not avail. With screams as of a thousand devils and deafening rending roars, the whole side of the Glacier seemed to lean over and fall in a great earth-shattering crescendo of noise.
While we watched, fascinated, rooted to the ground, that thousand feet of glittering wall described a tremendous arc, swinging with increasing momentum down, down, down to the earth it had so long been separated from.
The clamoring machines were buried under, lost in a swirl of ice and snow. Only the Central Station remained, a few moments defiant under the swift onrush of its unfeeling foe.
With a crash that could have been heard around the world, the uppermost crag struck the Station. The giant Glacier wall was down. The earth, the sky, the universe was filled with ice, broken, shattered, torn, splintered, vaporized!
The ground beneath our feet heaved and tumbled in violent quake. We were thrown heavily—and I knew no more….
I weltered out of unconsciousness. Keston was chafing my hands and rubbing my forehead with ice. He smiled wanly to find me still alive. Weak and battered, I struggled to my feet.
Before me was a wilderness of ice, a new mountain range of gigantic tumbled blocks of dazzling purity. Of the embattled machines, of the Central Control Station, there was not a sign. They were buried forever under hundreds of feet of frozen water.
I turned to Keston and shook his hand. “You’ve won; you’ve saved the world. Now let’s get the prolats and start to rebuild.”
There was no trace of exultation in Keston’s voice. Instead, he unaccountably sighed as we trudged up a narrow winding path to the top. “Yes,” he said half to himself, “I’ve done it. But….”
“But what?” I asked curiously.
“That beautiful, wonderful machine I created!” he burst forth in sudden passion. “To think that it should lie down there, destroyed, a twisted mass of scrap metal and broken glass!”
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