Back | Next
"What we need is a mine fieldlike the one planted around Headquarters," Ross said at last.
"Mine field?" repeated the man Kelgarries had called Wilson. Then he said again, "Mine field!"
"Got something?" demanded the major.
"Not a mine field," Wilson corrected. "We could fix it for those brutes to blow themselves up, all right, but they'd take the ship with them. However, a sonic barrier now"
"Run it around the ship outside your work fieldyes!" The major was eager again. "Would it take long to get it in?"
"We'd have to bring a lot of equipment through. Say a daymaybe more. But it is the only thing I can think of now which might work."
"All right. You'll get all the material you needon the double!" promised Kelgarries.
Wilson chuckled. "Just like that, eh? No howls about expense? Remember, I'm not going to sign any orders I have to defend with my lifeblood about two years from now before some half-baked investigating committee."
"If we pull this off," Kelgarries returned with convincing force, "we'll never have to defend anything before anyone! Manyou get that ship through intact and our whole project will have paid for itself from the day it was nothing but a few wishful sentences on the back of an old envelope. This is itthe big pay-off!"
That was the beginning of a hectic period in Travis' life which he was never able to sort out neatly in his head afterward. With Ashe and Ross he patrolled a wide area of hill and valley, keeping watch upon the camps of the wandering hunters, marking down the drifting herds of animals. For two days men shuttled back and forth and then erected a second time transfer within the valley of the smaller ship.
Wilson's sonic barrieran invisible yet nerve-shattering wall of high-frequency impulseswas in place around the ship. And while its signals did not affect human ears, the tension it produced did reach any man who strayed into its influence. The mammoth family withdrew into the small woodland from which they had come. The men working on the globe did not know whether that retreat was the result of the vibrations or notbut at least the beasts were gone.
Meanwhile more sonic broadcasters were set up on every path in and out of the valley, sealing it from invasion. Kelgarries and his superiors were throwing every resource of the project into this one job.
About the ship arose a framework of bars as fast as the men could fit one to another. Travis, watching the careful deliberation of the fitting, understood that delicate and demanding work was in progress. He learned from overheard comments that a new type of time transfer was in the process of being assembled here. One so large had never been attempted before. If the job was successful, the globe would be carried intact through to his own era for detailed study.
In the meantime another small crew of experts explored the ship, taking care not to activate any of its machines, and also made a detailed study of the remains of the crew. Medical men did what they could to discover the cause for the mass death of the space men. And their final verdict was a sudden attack of disease or food poisoning, for there were no wounds.
Three daysfourTravis, weary to his very bones, dragged back from a scouting trip southward. He hunched down by the fire in the camp the three field men kept on the heights above the crucial valley. A metallic taste in the air rasped throat and lungs when he breathed deeply. For the past two days volcanic activity in the north had intensified. During the previous night they had all been awakened by a displayluckily miles awayin which half a mountain must have blown skyward. Twice torrents of rain had hit, but it was warm rain and the sultriness of the air made conditions now almost tropical. He would be very glad when that fretwork of bars was in place and they could leave this muggy hotbox.
"See anything?" Ross Murdock tossed aside the hide blanket he had pulled about head and shoulders. He coughed raspingly as one of the sulphur-tinged breezes curled about them.
"MigrationI think," Travis qualified his report. "The big bison herd is already well south and the hunters are following it."
"Don't like the fireworks, I suppose." Ross nodded to the north. "And I don't blame them. There's a forest burning up there today."
"Seen anything more of the mammoths?"
"Not around here, I was northeast anyway."
"How long before they'll be through down there?" Travis went to look down at the ship. There was a murky haze gathering about the valley and it was spoiling the clearness of the view. But men were still aloft on the scaffolding of rodshurrying to the final capping of the skeleton enclosure around the sphere.
"Ask one of the brains. The other crewthe medicsfinished their poking this afternoon. They went through transfer an hour ago. I'd say tomorrow they'll be ready to throw the switch on that gadget. About time. I have a feeling about this place . . ."
"Maybe rightly." Ashe loomed out of the growing murk. "There's trouble popping to the north." He coughed, and Travis suddenly noted that the mat of wig was missing from the older man's head. He saw that there was a long red burn mark down Ashe's shoulder, crossing the white seam of an earlier scar. Ross, seeing it too, jumped to his feet and turned Ashe toward the light of the fire to inspect that burn closer.
"What did you dotry to play boy on the burning deck?" His voice held an undernote of concern.
"I miscalculated how fast a stand of green timber can burnwhen conditions are right. The top of a mountain did blow off last night, and it may have an encore soon. We're moving down nearer to the transfer. And we may have visitors"
"Hunters? I saw them moving south"
Ashe shook his head in answer to Travis.
"No, but we may have been too clever about rigging that sonic screen. Those mammoths have been holed up in a small sub-valley to the north. If the hell I'm expecting now breaks loose, sonics won't hold them back, but breaking through such a barrier will make them really wild. They might just charge straight down through here. Kelgarries will have to try his big transfer if that happens."
The scouts reached the floor of the valley in time to see the technicians dropping from the grillwork and hurrying to the time transfer. But they had not gotten to the grill when the world went mad. With flame, noise and thunder from the north, a great surge of fire leapt up to scorch the underside of lowering clouds. Travis was thrown off his feet as the ground crawled sickeningly. He saw the grid sway around the globe, heard cries and shouts.
"quake!" The volcanic outburst was being matched by earthquake. Travis stared up at the grid fascinated, expecting every moment to see the rods fly apart and come crashing down on the dome of the ship. But although the framework swayed, it did not fall.
In the thickening murk Kelgarries drove his men to the personnel transfer. Travis knew that he should join that line, but he was simply too amazed by the scene to stir. The smoke grew denser. Out of it arose a shout in a familiar voice. Getting to his feet, he ran to answer that plea for help.
Ashe lay on the ground. Ross was bending over him, trying to get him to his feet. As Travis blundered up, his spears thrown away, the smoke closed in and provoked strangled coughing. Travis' sense of direction faltered. Which way was the time transfer? Light ashes drifting through the air blurred air and ground alike. It was like being caught in a snowstorm.
He heard a scream of sheer terror, scaling up. A black shape, bigger than any nightmare, pounded into sight. The mammoths were charging down-valley as Ashe had feared.
"get out!" Ross pulled Ashe to the right. Now the older man was between them, stumbling dazedly along.
They skirted the wall of rods about the globe and squeezed through to the ball. A mammoth trumpeted behind them. There was little hope now of reaching the personnel transfer in time. Ashe must have realized that. He pulled free of the other two and staggered around the ship, one hand on its surface for guide.
Travis guessed his reasonAshe wanted to find the ladder which led to the open port, use the ship as a refuge. He heard Ashe call, and slipped behind him to find that the other held the ladder.
Ross gave his officer a boost, then followed after him, while Travis steadied the dangling ladder as best he could. He had started to ascend when he saw Ashe, only a dark blot, claw through the port above. Again he heard a mammoth trumpet and wondered that the beasts had not already smashed into the framework surrounding the ship. Then Travis in turn scrambled through the port, and lay inside gasping and coughing as the irritation carried in the fog bit into his nose and throat.
"Shut it!" Someone shoved Travis roughly away from the door and pushed past him. The outer hatch closed with a clang. Now the fog was only a wisp or two, and utter silence took the place of the bedlam outside.
Travis drew a long breath, one that did not rasp in his throat. The bluish light from the walls of the ship was subdued, but it was bright enough to reveal Ashe. The older man lay half propped against a wall. A bruise was beginning to raise on his forehead, which was no longer covered by any wig. Ross returned from the outer hatch.
"Kind of close quarters here," he commented. "We might as well spread out some."
They went out the inner door of the lock. Murdock swung that shut behind them, a move which was to save their lives.
"In here" Murdock indicated the nearest door. The barriers which had been tightly closed on their first visit to the ship had been opened by the technicians. And the cabin beyond was furnished with a cross between a bunk and a hammock. It was both fastened to the wall and swung on straps from the ceiling. Together they guided Ashe to it and got him down, still dazed. Travis had time for no more than a quick glance about when a voice rang down the well of the stair.
"Hey! Who's down there? What's going on?"
They climbed to the control cabin. In front of them stood a wiry young man in technician's coveralls, who stared at them wide-eyed.
"Who are you?" he demanded, as he backed away raising his fists in defense.
Travis was completely bewildered until he caught sight of a reflection on the shiny control boarda dirty, nearly naked savage. And Ross was his counterpartthe two of them must certainly look like savages to the stranger. Murdock peeled off his ash-encrusted wig, a gesture Travis copied. The technician relaxed.
"You're time agents." He made that recognition sound close to an accusation. "What's going on, anyway?"
"General blowup." Ross sat down suddenly and heavily in one of the swinging chairs. Travis leaned against the wall. Here in this silent cabin it was difficult to believe in the disaster and confusion outside. "There's a volcanic eruption in progress," Murdock continued. "And the mammoths chargedjust before we made it in here"
The technician started for the stairwell. "We've got to get to the transfer."
Travis caught his arm. "No getting out of the ship now. You can't even seeash too thick in the air."
"How close were they to taking this ship through?" Ross wanted to know.
"All ready, as far as I know," the technician began, and then added quickly, "d'you mean they'll try to warp her through nowwith us inside?"
"It's a chance, just a chance. If the grid survived the quake and the mammoths." Ross's voice thinned. "We'll have to wait and see."
"We can seea little." The technician stepped to one of the side panels his hand going to a button there.
Ross moved, leaping from his seat in a spring which rivaled a sabertooth's for quickness. He struck the other, sending him sprawling on the floor. But not before the button was pressed home. A flat screen rose from the board, glowing. Then, over the head of the angry technician who was still on his knees, they beheld swirling ash-filled vapor, as if they were looking through a window into the valley.
"You fool!" Ross stood over the technician, and the menace Travis had seen in him at their first meeting was very much alive. "Don't touch anything in here!"
"Wise guy, eh?" The technician, his face flushed and hard, was getting up, his fists ready. "I know what I'm doing"
"Lookout there!" Travis' cry broke them apart before they tangled.
The fogged picture still held. But there was something else to see there now. Yellow-green lines of light built up, bar by bar, square by square, bright and brutal as lightning. The pattern grew fast, superimposed on the gray of the drifting ash.
"The grid!" The technician broke away from Ross. Grasping the back of one of the swinging seats, he leaned forward eagerly to watch the screen. "They've turned the power on. They're going to try to pull us through!"
The grid continued to glowto scream with light. They could not watch it now because of its eye-searing brilliance. Then the ship rocked. Another earthquakeor something else? Before Travis could think clearly he was caught up in a fury of sensation for which no name was possible. It was as if his flesh and his mind were at war with each other. He gasped and writhed. The brief discomfort he had felt when he used the personnel transfer was nothing compared to this wrenching. He groped for some stability in a dissolving world.
Now he was on the floor. Above him was the window on the outside. He lifted his head slowly because his body felt as if he had been beaten. But that window displaythere was no gray nowno ashes falling as snow. All was blue, bright, metallic bluea blue he knew and that he wanted above him in safety. He staggered up, one hand stretching toward that promise of blue. But that feeling of instability remained.
"Wait!" The technician's fingers caught his wrist in a hard, compelling grasp. He dragged Travis away from the screen, tried to push him down in one of the chairs. Ross was beyond, his scarred hand clenched on the edge of a control panel until the seams in the flesh stood out in ugly ridges. Losing that look of cold rage, his expression grew wary.
"What's going on?" Ross asked harshly.
It was the technician who gave a sharp order. "Get in that seat! Strap down! If it's what I think, fella" He shoved Ross back into the nearest chair. The other obeyed tamely as if he had not been at blows with the man only moments earlier.
"We're through time, aren't we?" Travis still watched that wonderful, peaceful patch of blue sky.
"Surewe're through. Only how long we're going to stay here . . ." The technician stumbled to the third chair, that in which they had discovered the dead pilot days earlier. He sat down with a suddenness close to collapse.
"What do you mean?" Ross's eyes narrowed. His dangerous look was coming back.
"Dragging us through by the energy of the grid did something to the engines here. Don't you feel that vibration, man? I'd say this ship was preparing for a take-off!"
"What?" Travis was half out of his seat. The technician leaned forward and shoved him back into the full embrace of the swinging chair. "Don't get any bright ideas about a quick scram out of here, boy. Just look!"
Travis followed the other's pointing finger. The stairwell through which they had climbed to the cabin was now closed.
"Power's on," the other continued. "I'd say we're going out pretty soon."
"We can't!" Travis began and then shivered, knowing the futility of that protest even as he shaped it.
"Anything you can do?" Ross asked, his control once more complete.
The technician laughed, choked, and then waved his hand at the array on the control board. "Just what?" he asked grimly. "I know the use of exactly three little buttons here. We never dared experiment with the rest without dismantling all the installations and tracing them through. I can't stop or start anything. So we're off to the moon and points up, whether we like it or not."
"Anything they can do out there?" Travis turned back to that patch of blue. He knew nothing about the machines, even about the science of mechanics. He could only hope that somewhere, somehow, someone would end this horror they faced.
The technician looked at him and then laughed again. "They can clear out in a hurry. If there's a backwash when we blast off, a lot of good guys may get theirs."
That vibration, which Travis had sensed on his revival from the strain of the time transport, was growing stronger. It came not only from the walls and floor of the cabin, but seemingly from the very air he was gulping in quick, shallow breaths. The panic of utter helplessness sickened him, dried his mouth and gripped his middle with twisting pain.
"How long?" he heard Ross ask, and saw the technician shake his head.
"Your guess is as good as mine."
"But why? How?" Travis asked hoarsely.
"That pilot, the one they found sitting here . . ." The technician rapped the edge of the control board with his fingers. "Maybe he set automatic controls before he crashed. Then the time transferthat energy triggered action somewhere . . . But I'm only guessing."
"Set automatic controls for where?" Ross's tongue swept over his lips as if they were dry.
"Home, maybe. This is it, boysstrap in!"
Travis fumbled with the straps of the seat and pulled them across his body clumsily. He, too, felt that last quiver of extra vibration.
Then a hand, an invisible force as large, as powerful as a mammoth's foot, crushed down upon him. Under his body the seat straightened out into a swaying bed. He was fastened on it, unable to breathe, to think, to do more than feel, endure somehow the pain of flesh and bone under the pressure of that take-off. The blue square was one moment before his aching eyesand then there was only blackness.
Back | Next