The Martians had a formula for taking over the Earth: "Don't bother with the armies or navies. Conquer only the new-born infants"
TED MALONE settled his hard muscular shoulders more firmly into the jacket, straightened the knot in his tie and rang the bell again. He cleared his throat and went over the speech he had prepared: "Darling, last night we talked about many things, and among those things were: one...." He shook his head and grunted. "Nah," he said aloud. "Sound like an old fuddy-duddy saying that. Why don't you just say: 'Honey I love you and you love me. So let's not waste any time and see the man who lies the knot officially?'"
The words trailed off and he was suddenly looking into a pair of worn faded eyes. He smiled sickly, then composed himself. "Oh- oh! Hello, Mrs. Purvis. Is Anita home?"
"Just missed her, Ted. Couple of seconds. Young feller rang the bell and asked for her. There was another waiting on the sidewalk, and after a minute Anita came down and got her coat and came down and went off with them." The woman's eyes were oddly strained now. "Had the funniest feeling she didn't want to go...."
"Well, didn't she say anything? She knew I was coming. Why, I called her only an hour ago. Told her to wait for me, that I had something very important to tell her. I don't understand."
The thin dry lips settled into a straight line and the eyes became sharper. She said with spirit: "Well. If I were you, and the girl I wanted to marry went off without a by-your-leave or even a word of explanation, I'd get off the stoop and after her. They went around the corner up Belden Street. Watched 'em through the window, I did."
Ted had walked calmly up the four steps but now he took them in a single leap downward. A small dog snapped in a quick sidewise movement, then scurried out of the man's way as he ran and a couple of youngsters shouted something after him as he almost knocked them into the street, rounding the corner. But he was completely unaware of children or dog.
They couldn't have gotten very far, he reasoned. His wild run slowed to a swift walk. They couldn't have gotten very far, unless, of course, they had a car. He kept moving swiftly. Couple of seconds' start... His eyes lighted suddenly. He had caught sight of her!
HE WAS going at a full run when he came up to them. She was between a tall wide-shouldered man in a tan slip-over and dark brown slacks, and another, shorter, slimmer man, in a lightweight gabardine suit.
They stopped at the sound of the voice behind them. The girl turned, and at sight of the heart-shaped face whose wide brown eyes, gentle as a fawn's, had always turned his heart to jelly, Ted breathed a sigh of relief.
The two men with the girl stepped in front of her, barring Ted's path. The smaller man did the talking. "Something you wanted...?"
"I'll send you a card," Ted said. He moved forward the three steps separating them until the three men were inches apart. He sized them up quickly. About his own age, twenty-five, the tall one had a tough, muscular face with a ridge of gristle over the right eye, as if from being hit there a number of times. His nose looked broken, though not flattened. He had flat grey eyes in which anything and nothing could be read. The smaller one, about the same age, had a rather plump face, pleasant features and a wide smiling mouth. His eyes were intense, dark, curling at the corners. Inspection over, Ted said, "Out of my way!"
The big one put out a pair of hands not much smaller than those of a gorilla and held them flat against Ted's chest.
"Not right now," the small one said. "She'll see you later."
"I'll buy that," Ted said, "when she sells it to me."
"Areeta... Tell him."
She came forward and put her hand against one of the big man's wrists. The flat eyes looked down at the slender fingers with a blank expression. Then the eyes came up to meet those of the small man. Abruptly the hands fell away from Ted's chest.
"Thank you," the girl said softly. "I'm sorry, Ted. But I have to go with these men. Something I can talk about later. Not right now and here. It's all right. Believe me!"
Ted's shoulders jerked in a movement of helplessness. He saw she was under no compulsion. Her lips and eyes were smiling, asking understanding from him. He could do no less than grant her that. His smile was crooked, hurt but forgiving. "Okay, baby I just thought something was wrong...."
"No. Everything is quite all right."
His shoulders sagged as he watched them move off. They only went a few feet and turned toward a Ford tudor parked at the curb. The small man got in first, Anita followed and the big man bent forward to get in. It might have been something else Ted saw but he could have sworn there was a gun on the big guy's hip. The Ford moved smoothly away. He caught a last glimpse of Anita as it sped out of sight. Her hand was waving at him....
THERE were two men standing on the narrow stoop at the top of the four steps of Mrs. Purvis' boarding house. Mrs. Purvis was shaking her head to something one of them was saying. She looked away and spotted Ted.
"Ted! Did you find Anita?" The faded eyes were wide and frightened.
He had decided, for no reason other than he could think of no other place to go at the moment, to go back to Anita's boarding house. He bounded up the stairs in a single leap. There was no questioning the urgency in the woman's voice.
"Why? What's wrong?"
"These two fellas here said Anita was supposed to wait for them...."
Ted sized them up quickly. One, stocky, middling height, dark- featured, had the look of a mechanic about him. The other was slender, trim, wore shell-rimmed glasses behind which a pair of grey eyes searched Ted's own in sharp scrutiny.
"Look, fella," the one with glasses said. "We don't have time to explain. The lady tells us you're Anita's fiance. Good enough. Did you find her?"
"I asked what's wrong!" Ted's anger surged to the surface.
"We think she's been kidnapped!" The words were explosives tearing at Ted's brain. "Don't waste time. Did you see her?"
"Yeah! Two guys, one big, looked like a fighter; the other, smaller, sharp, clever. The little guy was boss. And now I'm sure the big one had a gun."
The two looked quickly at each other. Without a word they turned and jumped the steps and ran toward a Plymouth coupe parked a few doors down. The stocky one was the driver. But swift as they were Ted was no less so. He was a step behind the second man as he slid in the coupe.
"I'm coming too," Ted announced. He didn't wait for a reply but shoved himself alongside the other.
The car started off with a speed Ted believed it incapable of. He was rammed back against the seat, then slammed against the door as the driver took the corner on two wheels.
"Where to?" the driver asked without turning.
"Where we spotted them this morning. Jedor has listening head on their office. It's the headquarters all right. Damn!"
"What's wrong?" the driver asked. He was calm, almost casual as he sent the Plymouth screaming around another corner at sixty miles an hour.
"They're armed. It's going to make it harder because they'll kill Areeta if they even dream of pursuit."
"So we'll beat 'em to it," the driver said. "That is, if we don't get picked up by a squad."
"To hell with the squad cars. Let's get to Anita. Which is her name, by the way. What's with this Areeta deal?" Ted said.
"Also her name," the one with glasses said. He pinched a lip between straight white teeth. "Pass me the tele-set...."
Ted looked blank.
"Oh. Sorry. Open the glove compartment."
There was a small box inside, about ten inches long by six wide by three or four deep. Ted gave it to the other, who opened it and pulled out a something that looked like a hearing aid. Wires ran from it to a panel on which small tubes stuck up like small glass needles. There was a grill on the near side of the box.
It was a hearing aid, but not the kind Ted had in mind.
THE stranger screwed it into an ear, fiddled with the two dials on the face of the panel until suddenly the tubes glowed purple, then lifted the box to his lips and spoke into the grill.
"Jerry-on... Jerry-on... Coming in. Hagars have Areeta... Hagars have Areeta. Keep Jedor on the listening head. We're following men who have Areeta...." The tubes went dark as he switched the dials; the tiny ear phone went back into the box, and the lid snapped down again.
"Thank you," the man said. He gave the box to Ted and motioned for him to replace it in the glove compartment.
"What the hell kind of gimmick was that?" Ted asked.
"Something Manthorp invented. What sort of car did they have?"
"Huh? Oh. Grey Ford tudor, late model. I didn't get the plate numbers."
The driver grunted a wordless something.
"What was that, Manthorp?"
"Nothing, Jerry," the driver said. "There must be a thousand of them. Look!"
Ted turned and was surprised to see they were on the Outer Drive. He hadn't noticed that the driver had turned into Fullerton Avenue and into the drive. Now he followed the driver's pointing hand. Within sight were six grey Ford tudors. Ted grinned wryly. A fine chance of spotting the others.
The stop light at Oak Street caught them.
It gave Ted the chance he had been waiting for. The questions bubbling on his lips broke into words: "I'll take your word you're Anita's friends. Okay! But who are the Hagars? Why did they grab her? And what did you mean they would kill her? Why? What has she done? What is all this, anyway? Anita and I have been going steady for five years now, and I don't know any Hagars, or you or your friend, either, for that matter. What gives?"
The light changed and the cop on the corner waved Manthorp to make a left turn. Jerry waited until they had made the turn before replying.
"I'm afraid you'll have to wait for the answers. Some of them, well, all of the answers are unbelievable. You came along without asking us..."
"I said Anita's my fiancee!" Ted broke in sharply. "So don't give me that guff about coming along without a by-your-leave. If she's in danger why the hell don't we go to the police about it?"
"And tell them a band of Martians kidnapped her?" Jerry asked. He looked straight ahead, as if not wanting to meet the other's eyes.
"Mar-Martians kidnapped her," Ted faltered.
"You see... What is more I would have to tell them about Areeta and the plan, also. We would all end up in an asylum for the incurably insane. This way..."
"This way...?" Ted asked in a hollow voice.
"We have a chance of getting her away. Later, when she is safe, she can explain."
Silence. A well of it. Something into which a man's thoughts fall, swim around in futility and drown. Silence.
"...If you had only stayed back there," Jerry's voice came as from a distance. "But you didn't. You're looking for some clue, a form on which to hang a belief in my words, but none are at hand. I have to throw words at you and you must accept or reject them. We, Manthorp and Areeta and the Hagars, are Martians. We've known it for five years. You find it impossible to believe because we don't look or talk or act like any preconceived notion you might have. Think! There is nothing in the book which says we can't be. Man's evolution, no matter where it takes place, ends with man as man."
Ted fastened on some of the words. Areeta knew of the Hagars. Why did she go with them, then?
The answer was simple, to Jerry at least: "It seems only we know them. Some strange faculty given us and not Areeta. They must have given her a story she had to believe so she went along. I can't think of any other reason."
Jerry turned and went into a whispered consultation with the driver. They were now on car tracks, Indiana Avenue....
Ted's thoughts revolved on the other's talk. Areeta, a Martian, as were the others. Menaced, like some heroine in a pulp story, by men from another planet. One absurdity added to another. Somewhere there had to, be reality. But where? Proof: A portable walkie-talkie of superior design? Nuts! He looked up, suddenly aware they had stopped....
DINGY tenements and huge warehouses; children ragged and dirty, playing intensely, wildly, at their game, were playing hide-and-seek around a grey Ford tudor....
"That's it," Ted said thoughtfully. "Let's, make sure," Jerry said. "Those kids will be able to tell us."
It was the car all right. The children remembered the two men and the pretty girl who had gotten out and walked into the factory building.
Jerry stroked his long upper lip with his finger while he looked over the face of the building. Manthorp leaned against the peeling brick and scrubbed his nails with his flat thumb. They both looked as if they hadn't a care in the world. Ted fidgeted, his glance darting from one to another, until finally he couldn't take their silence and inaction any longer.
"Well. Do we stand out here and wait for them to come out?"
"No. We don't stand out here, as you say. We go inside. I was just planning what we do when we get inside. The trouble is the description you gave us was not the kind I would have liked to have."
Now it's riddles, Ted thought. Reason was beginning to return. Already he had begun to rationalize his position and those of the two with him. The first suspicion he had that this whole thing was some sort of practical joke had been dissipated in the excitement of the chase and worry for Anita. Now it returned to plague him.
"You see," Jerry explained, "the second man didn't fit. He should have looked like the tall man, who was a Hagar, an Assassin. There is no mistaking, the clan whether they are short or tall, lean or fat. They all have that strange flat look in their eyes, the same kind of broken faces, as if someone had been hammering at them. The second complicates matters."
"Yeah?" Ted decided to play along with them for just a while longer. "How?"
"We could handle the Hagars; they are muscle men, and we for the most part have science with us. But if there are others like the slim one, then they have brains among the brawn. Makes the rescue of Areeta more complex."
"I get it," Ted wasn't too successful keeping the irony out of his voice. "They might have ray guns or atomic weapons, huh?"
The caressing finger clamped down and dimpled the upper lip. Then Jerry took it away and looked at it with distaste. "I do think I detect a note of sarcasm, my friend. Please keep in mind that you came of your own volition. If you think it's a game we're playing, why, you've got feet. Use them."
"Yes," Ted got hot then. "I think it's a game! And not so damn funny, either. And don't give me that 'feet' talk because the way I feel right now I'd just as soon punch you in the nose as not. I said Anita's my fiancee. If she..."
Jerry stepped in front of Ted with an abrupt move. He teetered back and forth on his heel, hands thrust deep in trouser pockets. "This isn't a game, as you call it. Murder never is. And it could turn that far. You don't believe us, something which cannot be helped, nor did I expect it. Now you've got two choices. You can go back and wait for Areeta or stay. But if you stay you'll have to take orders from me."
"Why do I have to take orders from anybody?"
Jerry ignored the question. He turned away from Ted and walked up to Manthorp, still lost in polishing his nails. He said something to him, then turned to Ted again. "Okay. We're going in now. Do what you like."
TED'S features settled into lines of deep, troubled thought. The smooth line of his forehead became rumpled with crooked wrinkles, and his lips turned downward at the corners so that the dimple in his chin spread across the whole lower jaw.
His lips moved in low speech, a habit of talking aloud he could never overcome: "Sure. The whole thing is some sort of game. And you'd be the dumbest goon to fall in with that Martian talk. A practical joke. And pretty elaborately played. Anita wasn't kidnapped; she went willingly and even said she'd see me later, which only proves it...." A small box in which wires led to a mysterious something within, tubes tiny as glass needles, a hearing aid... The picture of it stood before him suddenly. He shook it off with a physical gesture. "...Nuts! A fake. Just something to make it look real."
But why, came the irritating thought, did they have to go to all that trouble just to convince him? He meant nothing to them!
Ted stopped thinking then and went into action.
The heavy door closed gently behind him and he was confronted by a series of steel stairs. He paused, listening for a clue to their whereabouts. Up ahead he heard the faint tapping of their shoes. He took the stairs three at a time. The race ended on the third landing.
They waited for him at the door which opened onto the corridor. Jerry's shrewd eyes searched his face for an instant. Ted shook his head, his own eyes veiled.
"I'll ride along," he said. "And take orders. But only till we get Anita out of..." he was going to use the word "clutches", but instead said, "...their hands."
"Okay. Come on...."
There were only three firms on the third floor. The legend on the frosted glass before which they paused finally, said: Greyland Co. And in smaller print, Electronic Specialties.
Manthorp's dark brows met over the bridge of his nose. "I don't like that," he whispered hoarsely. "That name. Spells trouble."
Jerry seemed to agree with him. It was obvious he was worried. He kept stroking his chin and shaking his head. His voice was also low and hoarse. "But we've got to trust Jedor's words. He said the outer office had nothing in it except some office equipment and the glimpse he had of the workroom showed nothing of importance. No! I think it's going to be us against them, with maybe a gun as odds against us. Let's go."
Whoever Jedor was, Ted thought, he had been right. A small PBX board, two desks and three stands of files. That was all there was to be seen in the outer office. They tip-toed to the door leading to the workroom. Jerry held up a cautioning hand and listened at the door. A broad smile lighted his face....
Ted placed his cheek against the cool wood. Voices came dimly from beyond.
"... They should be here shortly," one of the voices said.
Ted recognized it. That was the slim one talking.
"...I don't like it," a second voice said.
"...I'm not interested in your likes or dislikes," the first voice spoke sharply on a rising note. "Is she tied securely?"
"...Yeah. She can't get out. I made sure of that,"
"...Good! I don't want her getting loose..."
Jerry's eyes narrowed. He shook his head once in a silent signal and motioned Ted away from the door. His hand turned the knob slowly and with infinite patience. He was rewarded by having the door swing silently open.
Confronting them was a barrier of crates between which a single aisle led to the rear. Light streamed toward them from a pair of windows at the back. They advanced slowly and with caution. Ted had the impression, although it was an obscure one, that a tiny blue light had blinked off on their entrance.
They paused and waited in a pool of silence. Words dropped into the pool....
"...Well. I don't think they'll come. Might as well get rid of the girl..."
Jerry started off first. But it was Ted who came onto the scene first. He skidded to a halt. To his right Anita was tied to a post, her hands behind her back. Directly in front of them stood the two who had taken her off with them. The smaller of the two was standing quite still. He seemed to be waiting for something. The larger one was bent forward slightly, hands in a fighting pose. Then everything dissolved into action.
Jerry and Manthorp dove at the big guy. As though the action had been scripted and Ted were following stage directions, he found himself swinging at the face of the slim one. Only the face wasn't there. Instead, something exploded with sickening force against Ted's mouth and chin.
He staggered backward and shook his head free of the blood- haze which had fallen like a veil in front of him. He could hear Anita's voice though he couldn't make out the words. Then his vision cleared and the face of the other showed clear. The sardonic grin was still on the other's lips and eyes. They demanded taking care of, Ted realized. No one ought to look like that and not be taken care of....
Once more something exploded against his face, the side of the jaw this time. There was a slight difference, however. The shock was not in this punch, for one thing, and for another, Ted had moved his head slightly. But the important thing was the counter punch Ted had delivered the same instant the other had landed. That counter punch staggered the slim man.
It was all Ted needed. His head crawled down between his shoulders and onto his chest and his arms came up high, just as the boxing coach in college had taught him. And his left leg moved slightly forward and his body weaved easily from side to side. Then he was on the other, rights and lefts stabbing, hooking, chopping. He took also but he wasn't aware of the blows. There was only one thing on his mind, to beat the other into submission. Then, abruptly, there was nothing before him.
ONLY the sound of Anita's voice: "Ted! Darling! Quickly. Untie me..."
He threw a quick glance over his shoulder as he stopped at Anita's side. The big guy was making it pretty hard on Jerry and Manthorp. He kept dancing away, jabbing and stabbing with both hands. Jerry kept shouting advice: "Get her out of here! Get her out!"
The rope fell away from her wrists. It had been tied rather loosely altogether. Had it been himself who had been tied that way he would have gotten free, Ted knew. He pulled her erect, whispered, "Okay, honey?" She nodded, her face white, her nostrils pinched as though with fear. "Good! Get out now. Stay in the hall...wait there."
Two steps and Ted was at Manthorp's side. Moving swiftly, Ted whirled the little stocky man to one side, then, with the same swift motion, he grabbed Jerry and whirled him out of the way of the big guy.
"My meat," Ted said. "Get 'Nita downstairs... Hurry up, now..."
The wide flat features were still, and only the pinched nostrils showed the tension of the moment for the big guy. His left hand stuck out a foot from him and the right was cocked, ready to lash out in a hook or cross. But Ted wasn't interested in boxing lessons. The other man was still out but how long the status quo would remain Ted had no idea. Nor was he concerned with it. He had one thought in mind; get this guy out of the way.
He moved in swiftly and surely and the other came to meet him. Head to head they stood and lashed each other with their fists. It was Ted who gave first. But only to gain a second wind. Then he came in again, feinting for the first time. The big guy fell for it and caught a terrific blow to the side of the jaw for his error. It knocked him sideways and back against one of the crates. Ted read in the other's eyes what he intended doing and came in before the hand came quite all the way out of the hip pocket.
TED lashed the other with a left hook, staggering him again, then pivoted inward and fastened both hands to the wrist of the gun hand. But even with both hands on it Ted was finding difficulty in holding on. And to make it worse the wrist was slick with sweat.
The big guy yelped as Ted bent his head and fastened his teeth in the wrist. The gun dropped to the floor, to be kicked out of harm's way. It was an animal, snarling like one, fighting like one, that fastened his fingers in Ted's hair and pulled backward, bending Ted down with him toward the floor.
Ted's hand went behind him, felt the cloth of the trousers and what lay behind and fastened on to the cloth and flesh and squeezed until his fingers seemed to meet in the palm of his hand. While above him a mewing, sobbing sound rose from the big guy's throat. The fingers in Ted's hair fell away and Ted staggered forward to his feet. He got to the open door and turned for a last look.
The big guy was sitting, head bent forward, fingers clutched about the groin. Above the tortured sob of his own breathing Ted heard the grunted sounds of a man in terrible pain. And from the far end of the room on the wall between the two windows a tiny bulb, like that on a Christmas tree, burned a deep blue....
TED was puffing windily as he staggered up to the Plymouth. The children had stopped their game at sight of him. It wasn't till Jerry handed him a kerchief that he knew why they had looked so wide-eyed at him.
Her fingers were on his arm, then one hand stole to his cheek, turning his face toward her. "You're—you're hurt!"
He dabbed at his mouth which suddenly felt three times its size and oddly numb. He looked down and saw the front of his shirt and jacket were bright red. Droplets of blood fell to join the redness. He brought the kerchief up to cover his nose and mouth again.
"...We'd better get back to the others," Jerry said. "They'll be waiting."
Manthorp wasted no time in getting away. Once more they were on the Drive, heading north again. Anita's curling brown hair tickled Ted's chin. Her head lay against his shoulder. A cooling lake breeze dried the sweat on his face, though he felt the irritating wetness of it under his jacket. Once more he took the kerchief away and breathed in shallow gasps. No more blood from his sore nostrils.
Anita stirred and leaned away from him. "It's stopped. Oh, darling! I didn't know... They said they were members and that they were bringing me to meet the rest."
More double talk, Ted thought. Now she's doing it. Might as well hang on just a little while longer until they could be alone. One thing he knew. They were going to have it out about this foolishness. Getting beat-up this way was not to his liking.
She went on, suddenly conscious of the empty look in his eyes and the set face profiled away from her: "I only learned of it last night, darling. I was going to tell you after I returned."
"Tell me what?"
"That—Well, you're going to find this hard to believe..."
He put his hand on her arm. "Please don't! Don't say it. I'm prepared to lay down my life for you. I mean that's part of formula, I believe. One is supposed to lay one's life down. Or get beaten up or swallow anything handed to him. Formula! But I'm not a formula guy, Anita. And you know that. So don't tell me I won't believe it. Of course I don't. I just think that when a practical joke involves the use of guns and men who would use them it's time those jokes stopped. Speaking for myself, I feel like hell; my mouth is so swollen I find it hard to talk; my nose..."
HE stopped and looked toward her to find that she had withdrawn from him and sat curled up in a corner. Her eyes were narrowed and her nostrils had the pinched look of anger in them. The sight of her anger stirred the flames of his own higher.
"...You look mad. What the heck have you got to be mad about? These characters are taking you for a silly, or worse, foolhardy ride and you're angry. Don't give me that, 'Nita. I'm not in a mood for it the way I feel."
"If you're not in a mood for it," she turned sweet suddenly, "we can drop you off somewhere. Anywhere. But quickly. I couldn't stand the sound of your silly, muffled voice, or the look of that ridiculous nose and mouth for very long, Ted. Really I couldn't. I've been through a very trying time. And I'm trying to act like I'm supposed to though I would rather act a woman and have myself a good cry...."
"Now why don't both of you relax?" Jerry's voice broke in on them.
"And why don't you mind your own business?" Ted asked bitterly.
"From now on it is my business," Jerry replied.
"That's a nice cryptic remark. Just like all your remarks. I keep looking for the hidden meanings and wind up beating my skull against a blank wall. Somebody's going to tell me something, provide the code for me, a little later."
"Well! If you'd listen instead of acting the usual bullheaded Ted Malone you might learn something. But not you! The instant someone tries to explain you blow your top. Oh, be quiet and listen!" It was a long speech for her and when she was done she sat back and turned her face away from him.
"I think perhaps it would be best we wait until he meets the others," Jerry said. "We're almost there."
TED looked to the right and saw they had parked beside a tavern. A door to the right of the tavern bore the legend Findley's Halls. Jerry and the driver got out and made for the door. Ted started to follow but stopped at the sound of the small voice behind him: "Aren't you going to help me, Ted? Is that it?"
She was still curled up in the corner. She looked like a little girl who had been caught being naughty. Ted shook his head in weariness. It was impossible to stay angry with her. His hand went out to her and she curled her fingers in his and a small smile curved upward from both corners of her mouth.
"All right," he said. "You win, I'll play along the rest of the way."
"I knew you would," she said. "There are still one or two things I don't know, either. I've an idea we'll both know before the day is over."
He looked to the West and saw it would soon be night. "Guess I can wait that long."
The room had no raised platform for the speaker. Just a flat table. A couple of dozen folding chairs were scattered about. Ted's first impression of the group was one of youth, the next impression was of mixture. There was a small group clustered about a wall telephone. The phone was not in use but it was obvious they were awaiting a call. Here and there others sat or stood in small groups of two and three. Altogether, Ted counted eighteen men. Anita was the only woman.
Only the group at the phone remained on the entrance of Jerry and the rest. The others rushed forward and surrounded the girl and her companions. Jerry held out a hand for quiet and said: "She's all right. We got there in time, and thanks to our friend here, we got her out safely... What's wrong?"
Ted had seen their worried brows and eyes and had wondered about the reason for them. One of them, a blond youth in a sport coat fit for any track in the country spoke up:
"Hank Jedor! He's in the hospital. Someone crashed into his bike while he was listening in on the head. Larry Gregg is with him. That's why we are waiting at the phone. Nothing definite, yet."
Jerry paled at the news and Anita clutched Ted's hand in a quivering grasp.
"So they knew," Jerry said. His eyes were narrowed behind their frames. "One of the two was not a Hagar. There might be more of those. H'mm! We've got to get out of here, that's obvious. Ted Nailer... Over here, fella..."
TED felt a hand on his arm. He turned and saw the face of Manthorp, brows knitted in thought, mouth turned quizzically at the corners, and eyes, oddly observant, peering into his own. "Looks like more excitement," Manthorp said. "Come on. Let's sit for a minute or two; Jerry and the rest will be busy. Might as well straighten you out on things. If I can, that is, Okay?"
Ted saw that Anita had moved toward Jerry and the others. He followed Manthorp to a couple of chairs and fell into one, suddenly grateful that he could sit at ease.
"Hurt much?" Manthorp asked, nodding toward Ted's face.
"I'll live. What's the story? And make it good."
"I will," the other promised. "Jerry's a real brain. But sometimes he goes about things the wrong way. Course I suppose he had no choice as far as you were concerned. We didn't expect you to jump in the car the way you did.
"Tell me, do you read science-fiction?"
"Huh? You mean those pulp things?"
"Okay. Those pulp things."
"Well, maybe I shouldn't sound so superior. I remember at school one of the fellas who later got a fellowship at Chicago was always reading one of those paper backs. I never did."
"You know Anita did," Manthorp went on gravely.
Ted's mind went back to one of the minor grievances he had against Anita. She was always reading them. Particularly one called Startling Fantasy Stories. They once had a quarrel about it; he had said her mind was too good for that stuff and she had said his was too small for it. "Yes. I know."
"I just wanted to get things straight for you, a sort of orientation, as it were. Well, that's how Anita and the rest of us discovered our destiny and who we are."
Destiny... Who they were. Was this going to be more double-talk?
"...We still don't know about Anita, and you'll notice I've been giving her the name you use, although to us she's always been Areeta. We just know that she very definitely belongs and that at the proper time her place in our orbit will be made known to us. Look. Suppose you were five, and on your fifth birthday you suddenly found a need for an erector set. But suddenly. And on your eighth birthday a need for a chem-set, and on your tenth birthday a need for a child's lab set. And so on until you were twenty..."
Ted opened his mouth to talk but Manthorp held up his hand in a gesture of restraint.
"...I know what you're going to say but let me finish. Then on your twentieth birthday you found that there was only one thing you wanted, a subscription to Startling Fantasy Stories. You got the first issue and the first thing you turned to was the Get-together column by Joe Burton. You knew there was going to be some-thing there of great importance to you. There was. Joe answers all mail. And there it was. A letter from a fan asking would all those who at five got erector sets for their birthday, and eight got... Ah! It's beginning to make sense, eh?"
"Some. But I'm still in the dark about this Mars business."
"We'll get there. The letter asked for correspondence. Twenty of us got together. And Anita. Five years ago almost to the day. Matter of fact at midnight it will be exactly five years ago. She came because she said she wanted to meet some of the fans....
"I'm going to skip a bit because we don't have too much time. Now then. Know much about science?"
"No. I'm a business man. Mathematics and economics. I'm a coordinator for a large women's-wear house. I see to it that the various stores in the chain get the proper kind of merchandise to sell. I don't think that has too much to do with science."
"In its own way. Well. I'll try to make it simple. You find it impossible to believe that we are Martians because you've had a preconceived notion on appearances, on the impossibility of space travel and other things. Further, you've been conditioned, by your reading, into a state where you know such things are ridiculous. Right?"
Ted shook his head.
"We compared notes at our first meeting and came to the only conclusion possible, especially after Jerry told us of the machine he had designed. Someone, or plural, had broadcast certain messages on the brain wave length of twenty new-born children, messages and instructions. Then, at regular intervals, predetermined by the broadcasters on Mars, these messages and instructions would come to us, unbidden. Understand?"
"I think a certain amount of light has been shed," Ted announced jubilantly. He had been so engrossed in Manthorp's talk he had quite forgotten the others. He turned and saw they were still in a group around Anita and Jerry. He turned back again and went on: "Yeah. I read somewhere that the brain is like a switchboard sending and receiving set combined. It has its own wave length. And, as I remember, the article went on to say that telepathy is possible if we could determine the person's wave length."
"Right. But on the nose! Twenty infants were chosen in an area whose radius is about fifty miles from Chicago. Only these infants had the wave length desired. Now get this. We know the messages came from Mars because..." he paused, took a deep breath and plunged ahead: "The machine Jerry has designed is a converter-beam. It converts matter into energy or light and at the same instant sends that light out into space to be picked up by a receiver which in turns transposes the light into matter again. That receiver is on Mars. A simple mathematical calculation proved that. Now do you believe?"
"I believe. But it doesn't prove you are Martians."
"You should have said, unless..." Manthorp was talking faster now. He had noticed the group breaking up. "We were told we were. And that the converter-beam is our means of space travel. But I think we'd better get back to Jerry. He's through."
"WE can't stay here any longer," Jerry explained. "We'll give Larry another five minutes to call and whether he does or not we'll leave for Ted's place in Lake Geneva."
Jerry and Manthorp wandered off to a corner, leaving Ted and Anita alone. She looked at him, questioningly.
"I feel like I've been entangled in some sort of web," he said. "I—I've never felt so helpless. Just a couple of hours ago, I came running over to you. I had the whole thing all set in mind. Anita, I was going to say, will you marry me? Words to that effect, anyway. Now..."
"Now," she prompted.
"Now. Oh. Of course. Will you marry me, Anita? And I don't care if you are a Martian or not. I love you. And..."
Once more she had to prompt: "... And..."
"It won't make any difference whether we go to Mars or get a flat here in town. Just so that we'll be together. Will you?"
"I can't answer," she said gravely. "I still don't know what my mission is, or who I really am. When I learn that I will give you your answer."
"Here we go again," Ted said wryly. "Just being dragged around whether I like it not. I said I'll stick until the end. But I never thought I'd wind up in Lake Geneva."
His last word echoed the sharp ring of the phone. It was the long-awaited call from Larry. Jerry answered and sharp lines of pain and anger were etched in his face as he gave Larry his instructions in a low voice. He turned to the silent group and there was no need for him to talk.
"Hank died. Never regained consciousness. I told Larry to drive out to Ted's place. Well. Let's be on our way..."
ONCE more the Plymouth. Ted was beginning to feel a kinship with the small car. It seemed the real part of his life was involved in its traveling. Now he was going to Lake Geneva in it.
Jerry and Manthorp in the front seat were silent, as was Anita at his side. She shook, as though ridding herself of a physical something. She sighed.
"I have the feeling," she said, "that it's all going to end at Ted's place."
"What do you mean?"
"The final instructions will come to us there. I—I know I shouldn't, yet I have the strangest feeling of dread. As though we are rushing to destruction."
"Ye-es. And something else. Though they are bad enough."
"By the way. Manthorp explained many things. The Hagars he forgot to explain. What goes with those characters?"
She smiled at the words. "We don't really know too much about them. Jedor saw two of them and that's how we found out they were here on Earth. All we know is that the instant one of them comes into the range of consciousness we are filled with hate and the desire to kill. Jedor told Jerry and another after he had trailed them to that warehouse where they took me. And Jerry and the other also got that feeling.
"Jerry is a leader of some sort. At least he is more advanced than the rest of them. He got the message from Mars. According to him the Hagars are a group of Assassins. And that they were placed here in the same manner we were. He also thinks it is because of me they were placed here."
Ted nodded and turned away from her. They were driving on a car line where there were traffic lights every few blocks. Red lights, green lights, red lights, blue lights, green lights, blue lights.
There were no blue lights! But there had been. At the warehouse. A blue light that winked on when a person stood in the open doorway. A signal light.
"Jerry!" Ted shouted.
The sudden sound made Jerry's head turn swiftly toward Ted. "Yeah?"
"Listen! They knew we were coming for Anita. There was a light flashed on when I opened the door to leave. The whole thing was a put-up job. But why?"
Jerry's eyes narrowed in a long moment of speculation. Then his lips clamped shut. "I think I know. They don't know where the converter-beam is. Either they have a listening head and heard or they are following us. In either case it will be a showdown battle. Step on it, pal. We've got to beat them to Ted's!"
THE Nailer place in Lake Geneva was really an estate rather than just a summer home like so many along the shore. The Plymouth wound around a fine-gravelled roadway for a full minute before they came within sight of the huge house set amidst architecturally laid-out rows of flower beds.
There were three other cars in the concrete driveway, one of them the long red-roadster Ted Malone noticed Nailer drive away in.
Jerry explained: "Ted's parents are both dead. We used his place for the construction of the converter-beam because of the privacy." They were walking along, Jerry to the left of Anita and Ted to her right. Manthorp had gone on ahead. "This is really your first visit here, isn't it Areeta?"
"Uh huh. We drove here one night but I stayed in the car."
Ted felt an unreasoning jealousy. These people seemed to have something in common with Anita which somehow he couldn't compete with. A planetary companionship....
"Oh. By the way, Jerry," Ted broke in suddenly. "I don't think Anita has had the chance to tell you, but I'm going along on this Mars excursion. One way or another, Anita and I are getting married."
Jerry gave him a sidelong look. The darkness made it impossible to read what lay in his eyes. "So you've made your minds up to it?"
"Ted has," the girl said.
"You mean..." Ted stopped short. His voice was sharp, demanding.
"I mean the same thing I meant before. Until I know who and what I am and why I'm here I can't answer." And once again Jerry poured oil on the troubled waters: "She's right, Ted. Nor am I saying you're wrong. If things work out well there certainly isn't any reason for our not sending you along with the rest. Let's leave it at that."
Fortunately Ted saw the good sense of his remarks. Besides he was filled with a deep inner excitement now that their goal was at hand. He took the few steps separating them and, as one, the three entered the door to the Nailer place.
Manthorp and several of the early arrivals were in the wide entrance hall, awaiting them.
"Ted's upstairs with some of the fellas," Manthorp announced. "So we go up now or wait for the others?"
"I don't see any reason for all of us waiting. Gil and Harry can wait for the rest and we can go on up. There are some features to the machine I'll want to explain to Ted, who'll have to help me in the operation of it."
The machine, it turned out, was on the topmost floor. Ted Malone understood why when he saw the whole upper floor was an observatory. But though he looked about his eyes came back inevitably and finally, to the ma-chine standing squat and dark, like an unornamented and unpainted Coca-Cola vending machine, in the center of the room.
Jerry had immediately gone up to join Nailer and those with him. Anita slipped her hand into Ted's and said, "Like to have a closer look, honey?"
IT was the first word of endearment she had given him that afternoon. He grinned happily and shook his head. The machine was as mysterious at close hand as it was from a distance. A snout- like funnel of what seemed to be frosted glass stuck out for some two feet and pointed straight for the opening in the dome. Beyond the opening a star-speckled segment of the hemisphere of night showed.
"What are you thinking of?" Anita asked, noticing his air of preoccupation.
"I suppose I should give it a trite flavor," he replied. "Something like, I'll wake up and find it was all a dream. No. It isn't a dream, though. Yet there are so many dream-like qualities about it. I've accepted the fact you are all Martians. Then I look around and I see Manthorp, who looks like nothing more than a mechanic, even to the oil under his finger nails. Or that fellow talking to Jerry. Sharp suit, suede shoes, Windsor knot in his tie; he looks like a shoe clerk. Or that other chap alongside Nailer; dark somber clothes, the narrow face of a minister—brooding, intense. Even Jerry; the arch-type of the scholar, with the ever-questioning eyes hidden behind shell- framed glasses." He sighed, then turned to her with a wide grin. "Or yourself. You are the most unbelievable of all. I suppose because I have known you for five years. You're all woman, lovely, wondrous."
"You do say the nicest things," she observed. "I wonder whether you will forget to say them on Mars?"
"Then you are taking me along?" She turned serious again and he was sorry he had said what he did. But not for long. "Our love has nothing to do with planets. I can't imagine, or would want to, a life without you. Am I being unreasonable?"
He closed the issue with his lips on hers and all the urgency and strength of his love in a kiss. And in the passionate return of her answering caress was the answer to all his questions. The only answer he wanted to hear.
He took his mouth away and, still holding her close, bent his head away from her. "My love, my queen," he whispered.
And from all the others in the room came the echo, "My queen!"
Anita's eyes were wide. He turned his head to follow the line of her glance and let his hands fall from about her. They were all, Jerry, Nailer, every one, on one knee, the right hand extended upward, away from the body, the head bent to the chest, all of them saying again the fateful two words, "My Queen!"
"WE must have all received the message at the same time," Jerry said. "The whole thing is now quite clear although, like all the other messages, it's as though it came in capsule form, implanted there to be dropped into the receiver of our consciousness at the right time. We are the chosen ones, brought up to the performance of certain tasks, self-taught in our duties, twenty of us to act as Honor Guard for our Queen Areeta.
"The war is a stalemate. With Queen Areeta in our midst we hold the symbolic trump of victory. The odds will shift to our side on her appearance. They could not risk her birth on Mars, so implanted the germ of her conception in an Earth woman. These are the words of the message I received."
Ted looked at the slip of a girl he had known for so long. His eyes went wide in awe when he saw the sudden transfiguration which had taken place in her in the seconds of Jerry's talking. It wasn't a physical change but rather one of spirit. Strength, assurance, moral height and breadth, a kind of godliness; all these seemed to shine from her eyes. She was a queen in reality now....
They were all standing now, eyes fastened to her face, awaiting her slightest move, listening for the smallest word.
"My Chosen Ones," she said at last. "My Guard of Honor. It is I who am honored..."
Low murmurs of dissent.
"...The plan is clear, the mission in its last phase. The time is soon at hand."
Time, Ted thought in abstract silence. Symbolic of what? He looked at his watch. Thirty seconds to midnight. Five hours before he had to run up the stairs of Mrs. Purvis' boarding house, in his mind a plan of proposal of marriage. Now he was in an observatory, waiting for something to happen.... His eyebrows hooked down in a sudden V across his nose. The itch of an unbearable something had to be scratched.
He scratched. And paled at what came to his mind. The answers to many questions... The Hagars had held Areeta prisoner yet had not killed her? Why? Because if she were dead the stalemate would continue. Then they wanted her alive. Again why? But first other things. The Hagar and the scientist with him. The something which had bothered Ted from the beginning no longer did. It was clear now. The scientist had not talked like a man of education at any time. He acted and spoke smoothly, yet not as Jerry, for instance, did, from a scientific background. Words like 'fellas', 'get rid of the girl'. The slim one knew there were strangers in the outer office. He had talked to be heard. By whom?
AND the Hagar. An ex-pug, maybe a bouncer in a tavern in his spare time. It meant nothing or could mean everything. The man had a gun yet had not used it on Areeta. Was he in the habit of carrying a gun for other purposes?
He looked at Jerry. The slender scientist was talking to Ted Nailer again. As if Jerry felt his eyes, the man turned and looked him straight in the face. There was suddenly the muted sound of a clock striking the hour....Nine - ten - eleven - twelve. Midnight!
It was all clear now. Everything. There were no Hagars. Thed, King of the Hudars, needed no Hagars. He turned to find Areeta moving away from him, in slow, sleepwalking steps. On her face was a look of utter horror. His hand shot out and grasped her wrist and brought her close again. And at the sullen sound of angry voices he whirled to face them....
"Stand!" he called in strident tones.
"Thed," their voices beat against him. "Enemy! Thed, the King of the Hudars."
"Aye. I did not know until now, until this very second. But one among you knew. Eh, Jerry?"
Light glinted dully from the dark steel barrels of the pistols which had suddenly appeared in Jerry's hands. He was moving slowly toward Thed and Areeta, smiling all the while.
"The message was implanted within my brain also. But I did not become twenty-five until midnight. Jerry knew, or at least had an idea. For someone was going to appear soon or late. There was no King of the Hudars, one had to be born and on Earth.
"You were all fools, stupid fools'" the man who was once Ted Malone bellowed. "He took you in from the very beginning. He became leader and led you around by your noses. He designed the machine but you built it. He did not have the know-how; Manthorp and the others did. Areeta was not to be beamed to her people, was she Jerry...?"
Jerry was at Thed's side now. The guns menaced them all.
"The dirty son-of-a..." Manthorp growled. "No wonder we made that trip one night. He said he wanted to make the final adjustment on the beam. Sure he did. The smallest degree off...."
"Tell them about the Hagars," Thed continued. "Go on."
"It was rather simple," Jerry's voice was low, conversational. "They accepted my leadership, Mighty Thed." He gave Thed a sidelong look from which nothing could be read. "It was I who told them about the Hagars and how we would know them in our consciousness. I hired a few men, pugs, toughs, and, finally, a smoothie. Jedor saw the tough hanging out in front of the hall and from then they fell in with my scheme like lambs to the slaughter. Imagination, if backed by other factors, is a wonderful thing. Knowing they were Martians made them believe many things not so. But they took my leadership without question, although the simple fact remained that they should have received the same messages I did, simultaneously with me."
"Stupid fools!" Thed bellowed again. He was enjoying himself immensely. He pulled Areeta closer to him. "You should have known the whole plot when Areeta was not killed. The stalemate on Mars would have continued with her death. Even my coming will mean nothing. It is Areeta they want. Right, Jerry?"
"Right! And I think the time is come to place her in the machine, Mighty Thed."
"Don't you think I should go first, Jerry?"
"First Areeta... Stand still, Nailer! That's better. Keep in mind I can kill her if I have to."
THED was smiling to himself. The others, watching, wondered at the smile. "First Areeta, eh, Jerry? Then who...? Jerry?"
Jerry's lips parted in a twisted leer. He took several backward steps then stepped quickly to Areeta's side but slightly behind her and Thed. "Yes. Then me. The Hudars will have their King, and a Queen to boot. But the King will not be Thed! All right, Areeta. In the machine."
He had unlocked the door of the machine while he was talking and snapped on a switch.- Light gleamed from a hidden source and illumined the interior, and reflected from all the metal and glass within. There were coils within coils, tubes of all sizes, and, last, a two-pronged affair from which wires ran to a board. The prongs were pointed directly at a metal chair placed in the very center of the machine.
Jerry nudged the girl with one of the guns. She seemed frozen to the floor. Jerry growled laughter from his throat. "What's wrong, Areeta? A second ago you shrank from him. Now you don't want to leave his side. It's a shame but can't be helped. I knew he was to appear some day. That was why I rushed the building of the machine and the kidnapping. I planned this to happen tonight. He came along at the wrong time. Now, come on!"
There was suddenly the blurred sound of voices from the doorway. All eyes turned involuntarily toward the sound, even Jerry's. A half dozen figures stood at tense attention in and out of the frame. And in that second Thed acted.
He left his feet in a dive. Straight at the man with the guns!
There was the dull, booming roar of explosions over Thed's head! But his arms were around Jerry's waist. And then Thed's hand was chopping down at the wrist to his left. Again the roar of pistol fire. Something streaked a line of pain down his side, but one of the guns now lay on the floor.
Thed tried to work his hands up toward the other's throat but someone was pounding his skull with a hammer. Once, twice, and again, the hammer fell against his skull. A familiar red haze fell in front of Thed's eyes. Just one, just one sock at that leering kisser.
There was the confused sound of voices. He was on his hands and knees. Something cold and metallic lay in his hand. He looked up. The figure on the chair within the machine was not clear. He had to shoot, though. Once more there was the roar of a gun—this time it seemed to come from the tips of his fingers. The figure in the chair swayed and a spurt of blood streaked the light jacket. The figure reached forward and closed the door, just as Thed fired again. Too late.
There was the sound of glass breaking. He wondered whether he had shot out a window. He started to laugh. And soft hands and arms cradled his head, warm flesh was pressed close to him and a voice keened in his ear: "Darling. Oh, darling. You've got to be all right. For me, your Anita!"
SHE was bathing his aching skull with a wet rag Ted Nailer had brought up from the bathroom. Manthorp was looking down at him, the usual dark face even darker than its wont.
Manthorp said: "I threw the chair before he got to the switch, wounded as he was."
"And by breaking the glass cone...?" Ted Malone asked wearily.
"There were direction coils in the cone, like the rifling on a gun barrel. He was dematerialized into light and went off into space. But without direction, a goal, the energy he is now will dissipate eventually into—nothingness!" There was utter finality in Manthorp's voice.
The others stood about, silent and watchful, waiting for something. Ted gave them a crooked smile. He patted Anita's hand, then said: "Jerry told you without a Queen there is a stalemate on Mars. Peace also: I can't stop you from building another machine. Nor from sending Areeta..."
"I won't go!" she broke in.
He continued patting her hand. "But what have we to do with Mars, we who were born on Earth and have lived here all our lives? Let the stalemate remain. It will become a fixed thing. As for me, I want none of it, nor does Areeta. I want to be known as Ted Malone, coordinator for the Gerner chain. And as for her, I want to marry her and live as man and wife with her, not as King and Queen...."
Once more Manthorp acted as spokesman. Nor did the others stop him: "We've all had a very hard day. Why don't you let me take you and Anita home, Ted?"
The Plymouth was riding smoothly.
Anita had her head cradled on Ted's shoulder. Suddenly she sighed. "Did you say you were going to ask me something, Ted Malone?"
"I was, honey. But let's wait until later, huh?"
"Okay. But just keep in mind what happened when you delayed this last time. Don't let it happen again."
"I haven't forgotten. Slow down, Manthorp. Ah, hah! I thought I saw the sign on our way up!"
The sign was small, but the letters were big as life: They said, simply, Justice Of The Peace....