Alcos raised his eyes to the splendour of the weltering sunset that banded heaven in its undying glory of crimson flame. His admiring gaze shifted to the distant sea in which black plankton bloomed and fed the monstrous squid-like beasts of its ebon depths; then touched the bleak and jagged teeth of coastal mountains over which screamed the incessant wind - a cyclonic gale driven by differential heating of the atmosphere between Vokor's hemispheres of endless boiling day and eternal freezing night.
The man shivered slightly. Vokor was a harsh world, bleak and forbidding. Life was confined to the twilight zone, hemmed in by fire and ice, blasted by seething ultraviolet radiation from the half hidden sun in its night dark sky. Living things clung to the tortured soil -- low, creeping vines as black as onyx hugged the wind scoured ground, eking out their existence in patches of shallow soil. Armoured invertebrates crept with mindless instinct among these tangled, stunted plant-forms, eating and being eaten, living and dying in a meaningless, timeless existence.
But there was an exception to these creatures, an exception that was as exceptional as it was mysterious. And that was the Vokorri -- the humanoid aborigines of this twilight sphere of impressive contrasts, and Alcos' reason for being sent to this distant world by the ICS, his employer -- the International Cosmographic Society, an organization dedicated to the furtherance of knowledge of the universe and its myriad worlds.
"Have you no speech from your colleagues?"
The voice broke in upon Alcos' contemplation of Vokor's wild and alien panorama, and he turned to smile upon Sylsa as she left the dome's spiral stair and moved towards him with easy grace.
The girl was a Vokorri and daughter of Thun, the local chief who had appointed her as a kind of ambassador to work with the ICS exploration team. Sylsa's lithe body, like that of all her people, was as black as the darkness between the stars, and her skin, capable of a process akin to photosynthesis that provided her with sustenance, was composed of a strange element - a form of living matter that combined the properties of suppleness and strength that rendered her virtually invulnerable to harm.
"No," replied Alcos in her native speech. "And I'm worried. Jim and Alex went to investigate those energy emissions near your village some time ago. The strange radiation has steadily increased and, although harmless to living things, is jamming our normal communication instruments. I can no longer raise them, and don't know what's happening. I hope they're okay."
The girl placed a consoling hand upon his shoulder. Her touch was gentle, but concealed superhuman strength that could crush rocks to dust. Her gesture also hid the deadly claws in her fingertips that could be extended like a cat's, and inject lethal venom like a serpent's fang.
Sylsa's silver eyes, which were as silver as the short fur upon her head and loins, regarded him with kindness and he warmed to her compassionate smile. At first she had seemed quite alien to him and her nudity a source of constant embarrassment, for there were no materials upon this world suitable for the fashioning of even a simple loincloth.
But after six weeks of knowing her he had discovered she was remarkably human despite the differences between them. Too human, in fact; and that was the mystery the ICS was trying to solve -- how could evolution, working in an alien environment such as Vokor's, produce intelligent beings whose minds and appearance so closely resembled that of Man?
"I will go and see what has happened," volunteered the girl.
Alcos hesitated to accept her offer. He would have gone himself but the rest of the exploration team was investigating Vokor's dark side, and with the weird radiation sending the instruments crazy he felt duty bound to stay and do what he could, though he was here in the capacity of a journalist rather than an ICS scientist. He did regular journals for that fine old site, Interplanetary Geographic. The ICS approved this, as it gave him cover which was, at times, necessary.
The Vokorri had a Bronze Age technology. Nothing they possessed could cause this outpouring of strange energy. Could the radiation have a natural source? Alcos wasn't certain, but he could sense trouble as surely as he could smell an open sewer. A gut feeling told him something very bad was in the wind.
The girl guessed his concern and extended her claws. They were large, serrated, and glittered silver in the dome's soft lights. Beads of venom gleamed with sinister wetness at their tips.
"I can take care of myself," she grinned. "I have hunted the monstrous sea creatures of Vokor's ocean, and fought the savage warriors of the mountain tribes."
"All right," he agreed with sombre reluctance as he withdrew a wristwatch-like device from his utility belt and handed it to her. "This is a miniature transplex communicator I brought with me from Earth. It's a recent invention and not yet widely available. The radiation can't interfere with its hyper-dimensional transmissions. Take it with you and keep in constant touch with me. Yell for help at the slightest sign of danger."
Sylsa nodded, and after Alcos showed her how to operate the device they descended from the dome. He watched with worried eyes as she passed through the complex's main airlock. The crystal portal liquefied as the girl touched it. It flowed around her like a viscous fluid as she stepped into it, and hardened again as she emerged into the raging alien environment beyond the placid atmosphere of the base.
In moments Sylsa had merged into the brooding windswept darkness. The suckers on the soles of the girl's feet clung to the stony ground, and combined with her tremendous strength, enabled her to stroll through the eternally howling gale as if it were a summer breeze.
The time it took Sylsa to walk to her home was spent in amiable chatter with Alcos. No untoward incident marred her trek, and within half an hour she had arrived at the low range of hills behind which the Vokorri settlement had been established. The girl commenced her ascent of the slope. Shortly, she was looking down upon the village and gasped in horror and disbelief at what she saw.
"Marc," she gasped in alarm. "Something is attacking my people. I. . . I've never seen anything like it before. Our warriors have surrounded it. They hurl their spears." Sylsa groaned. "The spears bounce off it like stones hurled against a mountain." The girl swore. "It has crushed several warriors. The others attack bravely, but to no avail. . . I see my father in the fray. I'm going down to help."
"Keep back," cried Alcos in alarm.
Sylsa ignored him. She plunged madly down the hill, disregarding his frantic pleas to keep out of danger.
Suddenly, the girl screamed. Then silence, more terrifying than her wild cry of pain, descended like a falling guillotine.
Alcos stiffened. His blood seemed to freeze in his veins. He paled and the strength drained from his body in a frightful rush that left him horribly weak. The man reeled and clutched a bank of instruments for support as his mind was swamped by a tidal wave of fear.
"Sylsa," he yelled. "Sylsa."
Only grim silence answered his anguished cries.
The man quickly rallied his wits and strength. The ICS often sent its employees into deadly situations on distant and hostile worlds, and because of this made sure that no weak and indecisive milksops were on their payroll.
Alcos rapidly fed the coordinates of Sylsa's village into the quantum supercomputer of his standard issue universal body suit, or UBS as it was commonly called. The equipment resembled a diver's wetsuit. It was dark blue in colour, and covered in a rhomboid pattern of thick silver wires that sprouted small hemispheres where the metal strands intersected.
Within seconds the UBS' transplex generator hummed to life, and the man experienced a gut twisting sensation as the transition field wrenched him into the fifth superstring dimension of the twelve that comprise reality. For a nanosecond he was outside time and space as we know it, then he plunged back into the space-time continuum of everyday existence.
He staggered slightly due to the sudden disorientation, then his senses steadied and he found himself at a safe distance on the outskirts of the Vokorri village, for to materialize in the same place occupied by another object would be fatal. The wind howled around him like a demented demon, and if it hadn't been for the gravity magnets in the soles of his boots anchoring him to the ground, and his UBS' power assist units that gave him tremendous strength, he would have been bowled over by the torrent of rushing air.
The Earthman's sharp eyes quickly scanned the village. The chenna -- the igloo shaped houses of the Vokorri, which were made of blocks of diamond-like crystal -- appeared deserted. Fear gripped him. The place seemed as lifeless as a graveyard.
Alcos dashed within the settlement and began frantically searching the chenna, working his way along the line of houses, looking for someone, anyone, who could tell him what had befallen Sylsa. Grim faced, he paused by mangled bodies that looked as if an immense weight had crushed them. The missing girl was not among the dead. But this only added to his sense of desperation and fear for her.
After about ten minutes of mad and fruitless questing he reached the last chenna. Here, at the village's furthest end, Alcos' darting gaze caught movement in the distance - a line of hazy figures was vanishing into the twilight gloom.
Were they the villagers? Was Sylsa with them? His hand darted for the controls of the transplex unit in preparation to make an overtaking jump; then halted when he glimpsed two still forms lying sprawled upon the ground some yards away.
An oath exploded from his throat, for by their suits he knew it was Jim Coburn and Alex Miles that lay before him -- the two scientists who had set out to investigate the strange radiation emissions. He dashed towards the pair, knelt and quickly examined both men. Alcos' visage grew hard with wrath, and his fists knotted into tight balls of rage.
Coburn's sightless eyes stared him in the face. The life support unit of his UBS had taken a direct hit from some kind of energy weapon. But it wasn't the blast that had killed him - he had died from asphyxiation in Vokor's oxygen poor atmosphere.
Miles was alive but unconscious. His suit had also been badly damaged by ray-fire. The life support unit was still functioning, but the UBS' force-screen was flickering alarmingly. If it failed he'd be exposed to the deadly cosmic rays that easily penetrated the planet's thin atmosphere and weak magnetic field.
The man groaned feebly as Alcos, all too aware of the extreme danger, quickly hauled him across his shoulders and sprinted for the nearest chenna. The Earthman knew the crystalline blocks from which it was built made excellent shielding, and he rapidly dragged his friend inside to safety.
Laying the man on the sunken floor of the abandoned chenna, Alcos administered a stimulant from the medical kit attached to his utility belt. He waited anxiously for Miles to regain consciousness. With every second that passed Sylsa and her fellow villagers were being taken further and further away to an unknown fate by their mysterious abductors.
The thought brought an agony of worry upon him. He wanted to dash madly after the girl to rescue her, but couldn't leave his friend until he was certain the man hadn't sustained serious injuries.
"Damn it, Alex," he muttered savagely. "Come on man. Wake up!"
As if on command Miles groaned again. His eyelids flickered open. He was conscious and not baldy hurt, but there was a dazed expression on his usually intelligent face. Alcos shook him none too gently.
"Jim's dead," he grated savagely. "The villagers are missing. Quickly now, tell me what happened."
Miles gathered his scattered wits. His voice was a little shaky when he spoke, which was understandable, but he was coherent.
"We found the energy source," he explained. "It's in the cliffs behind the village -- a cavern concealed by a camouflaged door near a rock shaped like a horse's head. The door swung open and a huge robot sprang out. Before we knew what was happening the devilish machine had grabbed us.
"It carried us into an underground laboratory. There's an old fellow in there by the name of Elias Wiss. He claims to have invented the machine and created the Vokorri. He seems deranged to me -- gave us a rambling lecture about how he was the god of the aborigines, how he created them as avenging warriors to punish Earth.
"Jim and I managed to escape, but he pursued riding on the back of his monstrous machine. We made for the village to warn the Vokorri of the danger, but were cut down just as we reached here."
There was a savage glint in Alcos' eyes as he slowly stood. "I'm going after that madman," he snarled. "I dread to think what he'll do to the natives, not to mention Earth if he gets the chance. I've got to stop him."
Miles held up a restraining hand. "You can't transplex into or out of Wiss' lair. The radiation is so intense there that the transition field becomes distorted. That's why Jim and I had to make our break on foot. Also, we haven't any guns -- you know the ICS policy as well as I, and the madman's robot is incredibly strong and armed with lasers."
Alcos grinned devilishly. "You don't think a little thing like that will stop me, do you?" he said over his shoulder as he crawled out of the chenna. He didn't hear Miles' muttered questioning of his sanity as he emerged into Volkor's storm wracked gloom.
Alcos wasn't a fool despite his flippant remark. He knew he was up against a deadly enemy and that the odds were heavily against him. Nonetheless, he knew he had to try and save Sylsa and her people if he could.
The Earthman set off at a brisk pace and soon arrived at the towering rock Miles had described. His eyes scanned the rugged cliff face and his heart sank. There was no sign of any door, which must have been closed by either Wiss or his machine. Despair struck Alcos like a blow. In his eagerness to reach the madman's lair he hadn't considered the possibility the entrance might be sealed.
Alcos uttered a low curse and firmed his resolve. He hadn't come all this way to fail at the last moment. Again, he swept his searching gaze across the towering rock wall before him. His renewed scrutiny was soon rewarded -- a very faint light was seeping from a long vertical crack in the stone.
He dashed towards the illumination and grinned for luck was with him. Unnoticed by Wiss, the opening of the portal had caused a small landslide which had piled up detritus at the base of the door, and had prevented it from closing properly upon his return.
There was just enough room for Alcos to thrust his gloved hands into the crack. He strained mightily at the door. The UBS' power assist mechanisms whined dangerously. The portal opened a little more. Sweat lay heavily upon the man's brow as he hauled with all his might upon the recalcitrant barrier. The suit's servos shrilled in angry protest. The door groaned wide with agonizing slowness -- six inches, twelve, twenty four. The Earthman wedged his body into the gap. He heaved with the dregs of strength. The breach widened further. He stumbled inside and collapsed on the floor as the portal hissed shut behind him.
Alcos slowly recovered his breath as he looked warily around. He was lying in a dimly lit tunnel that had been hewed into the bedrock of the cliff. It was deserted, but voices came faintly to him from up ahead. Grimly, he rose to his feet, picked up a fist sized stone that had rolled into the entrance, and stealthily traversed the length of the gloomy passage.
Shortly, he arrived at the end of the corridor, which debouched into a spacious cavern whose walls were lined with complex machinery of unimaginable purpose. He crouched in the shadows at the entrance to the chamber, and his lips thinned in anger at what his narrowed eyes beheld.
The villagers were in a huddled and cowering group. Wiss stood before them. His wispy hair and beard were in a state of straggly disarray. An antique spacesuit clad his bony frame and his thin face, clearly visible through the transparent bell-shaped helmet, was alight with madness and fanaticism as he harangued his captive audience in shrill and wild tones.
Alcos' heart seemed to miss a beat. He gave no heed to the crazed scientist's words for his eyes were drawn to the towering robot that stood behind him. The mechanism's grey barrel-shaped torso was surmounted by a dome from which protruded two compound eyes affixed to the ends of metallic tentacles. The body was supported by four sturdy spider-like legs, and four long arms sprouted from the sides of the automaton, each equipped with an industrial mining laser mounted just behind claw-like hands.
The robot was frighteningly impressive, but it was not this alone that had drawn the Earthman's angry gaze, for the thing's four metallic hands gripped Sylsa by the wrists and ankles, holding her spreadeagled in midair.
"I am your god, Thun," cried the renegade scientist. "This is your last chance. Agree to help me or I'll have my robot torture your daughter, Sylsa."
The madman's frightening words suddenly penetrated Alcos' brain like red hot needles. Burning anger seared hard lines upon his face. He half rose from his crouch in preparation to charge out and attack the fellow, but managed to hold himself in check. Any rash action on his part could prove fatal for the girl. He waited tensely for an opportune moment to intervene.
Thun, chief of the Volkorri, was also a very worried fellow. The madman held Sylsa hostage and so he'd been forced to order the entire tribe to follow. But if he continued to obey Wiss he'd be leading his people into a suicidal confrontation with Earth. On the other hand if he disobeyed then Sylsa's life would be in peril. Thun's mind spun with futile plans to save his daughter and his tribe. The chief silently cursed. He could think of none that would prove effective, so he spoke in a desperate bid to play for time:
"We are few in number," he explained. "There are not enough of us to punish the people of an entire world that drove you into exile. "If you want warriors why didn't you build more metal men like the one behind you?"
"Bah," spat Wiss. "Robots are mindlessly obedient. They lack the initiative that is one of the essential qualities of a good soldier. All I need is a small number of super-warriors with which to seize control of the World Parliament in Geneva. With Earth's nerve centre firmly in my hands I can control the entire planet. But I see that you are mindlessly disobedient. You wish to argue with me? Perhaps this will convince you to do as I command," he cried as he signalled to his automaton.
Sylsa screamed in agony as the metallic monster, far stronger than any Volkorri, began to stretch her limbs like a torturer racking his victim. Wiss laughed madly. Thun cried in horrified dismay. Alcos had seen enough. Cursing wildly, he sprang from concealment and hurled the rock he clutched tightly in his hand at Wiss.
The stony missile struck Wiss' helmet with a resounding clang. The madman tumbled to the floor. Alcos ran at him like a charging tiger. When he got hold of the renegade he'd force him to release the girl.
Wiss staggered dazedly to his feet. He saw Alcos, a ferocious look upon his face, racing at him. The scientist's ears were ringing from the blow. His helmet was cracked and his mind was in a startled panic.
"Kill the intruder," he screamed as he pointed shakily at the hurtling figure of the Earthman.
The hulking robot dropped Sylsa who crashed in a groaning heap upon the floor. The machine lumbered forward. Volkorri scattered before its ponderous tread. It swung a huge fist at Alcos. The descending limb seemed to fall on him like the club of an enraged giant. He leapt aside and a ton of steel crashed against the floor in an explosive spray of shattered stone and dust.
Alcos madly dashed between its legs. The clanking mechanism turned around. This time it swung two fists at him in a pincer movement. He Jumped back, but caught a glancing blow on the shoulder. Though the UBS' force screen absorbed most of the terrific impact, the Earthman was flung through the air like a rag doll and crashed heavily to the floor.
A galaxy of stars swam before Alcos' eyes. He glimpsed the hulking mechanism bearing down upon him through this haze of pain. It raised its massive steel foot above the man. Alcos frantically rolled aside just in time to avoid being crushed as the robot's metal hoof smashed down in a ringing clash of metal on stone.
The Earthman staggered to his feet. He knew he couldn't keep this up forever. His luck would eventually run out and he'd be crushed to bloody ruin by the thing. But how could he stop this towering steel giant? He was unarmed and Wiss had made a stumbling retreat to the far side of the cavern, and was out of reach of everyone. It seemed hopeless, yet he refused to give up hope.
Again, the robot attacked, this time swinging all four fists at him. Alcos barely managed to avoid death by diving between its legs. He rolled to his feet and glimpsed something he had missed before -- a ladder on the mechanism's back led to a platform just beneath its dome shaped head.
Instantly an idea sprang to mind. The Earthman made a desperate leap for the ladder and caught the lowest rung with one hand. The machine turned. Alcos swore - he nearly lost his hold as his body swung outwards under the impetus of centrifugal force. The robot stopped. Its synthetic brain was momentarily confused by the sudden disappearance of its target.
Alcos seized the rung in both hands and, ignoring the lancing pain in his shoulder, shot up the ladder with the speed of a monkey whose tail was on fire. He knew it wouldn't take the robot long to figure out where he was, and he was right. Its eyes, fixed to the ends of metallic tentacles, suddenly whipped over its head. The mechanism spotted him. It swung all four hands behind its back like a human swatting at a pesky fly.
The man uttered a profanity. He twisted his body sideways on the ladder, and the machine's claw-like fingers crashed down on either side of him, crushing several rungs and missing him by inches. He scrambled up the mangled ladder, sweating with fear and exertion as the robot drew back its hands in preparation for another assault. He reached the platform with a final rush of speed.
Metallic hands swung at him, rushing at his head like vast wings of steel. Alcos hurled himself at a switch and threw his palm against the crimson button. The hurtling fingers brushed his head as they halted, and the Earthman fell to the platform, trembling, exhausted and slightly stunned by the glancing blow. Only a split second had separated him from a sudden and very messy death.
Slowly, he regained his composure and then, when his strength was whole and his limbs no longer shook, he descended the ladder of the inert machine and rushed to Sylsa's side. Thun had managed to carry his daughter to safety whilst Alcos had been battling the monster machine. The girl had regained consciousness and was struggling to stand. Both men assisted her to her feet and Alcos looked her over with worried eyes.
She gave him a weak grin; then allayed his fears: "We Vokorri are a tough people. My muscles ache, but that's all. My pain was nothing compared to my fear for you. I was sure that metal man would be your doom. How did you defeat it?"
Alcos smiled, relieved that she wasn't badly hurt. Then he explained:
"Robots, as Wiss said, lack initiative. You have to tell them exactly what to do. He told the thing to kill me, but not how to do it. It could have easily cut me down in an instant with its powerful lasers, but didn't because it wasn't ordered to. I guess the blow I dealt Wiss left him too stunned to think clearly. I knew Wiss rode the thing, and I figured it would have an emergency shutdown switch. Luckily, I found it just in time."
Thun grunted. "What of the madman? He lies over there. But whether he is dead or alive I do not know. None dared go near him for fear of being trampled by his metal man."
Alcos lead them to Wiss' still form. The other natives trailed behind him, giving the inert robot a wide detour. The renegade scientist was still alive. His cracked helmet was leaking air and the lack of oxygen had caused him to faint. The Earthman knelt and caulked the leak with sealant, then restrained the madman by using the adhesive to glue his hands behind his back.
"You're saving him?" asked Thun, incredulously. "If he were one of my people I'd feed him to the sea monsters."
"My people prefer to cure criminals rather than kill them," explained Alcos. "Wiss will be transplexed back to Earth where his mind will be healed by our physicians, and his incredible knowledge and skills used to benefit society. I vaguely recall reading about this fellow at university.
"Wiss worked for a dictator (whose name I can't recall) who funded his illegal experiments in human genetic engineering until a violent revolution toppled the tyrant's oppressive regime. Wiss, however, escaped in a spaceship of his own design. All this happened three hundred years ago.
"My guess is that after building this secret laboratory with the aid of his robot and then creating your ancestors, he placed himself in a state of suspended animation, and waited for your people to breed up to sufficient numbers for his purpose. In those days we didn't have transplex units that can almost instantly transport people and materials to other worlds. Travel between the stars had to be made in spaceships, and the voyages often lasted for decades. The loneliness and isolation must have unhinged Wiss' already fragile mind and pushed him over the brink of madness."
Alcos looked worriedly at the surrounding Vokorri, who had been intently listening to him. "How do you feel," he asked, "knowing that this man created you?"
Sylsa shrugged. "My parents created me more surely than this man ever did, but I do not worship them. All that we have accomplished -- our culture, our way of life -- is of our own doing. We owe this man nothing."
"Well spoken, daughter," approved Thun. "Look," he continued as he stooped and gathered the madman in his thickly muscled arms "Wiss is regaining consciousness. I will take him to our village, have him well guarded by my warriors, and then turn him over to your people when they return from their exploration of the dark side."
The Vokorri chieftain departed with his people and as Alcos made to follow, Sylsa placed a restraining hand upon his arm.
"Now that the mystery of my people's origin has been solved," she sadly said, "I suppose the ICS will depart, and you with them."
"There's still much to document concerning Vokor's ecology and the culture of your people," he replied with a smile. "Not to mention finding which one of Wiss' machines is generating the jamming radiation. My colleagues will be here for a lengthy stay, as will I."
Sylsa grinned. "That is good, for I will have much time to properly thank you for saving me."
The girl pressed her face to the transparent oval mask of Alcos' suit. The crystalline substance liquefied as her skin touched it and flowed fluid-like around her countenance. Their lips met. Sylsa's were warm and passionate. It was a kiss he would long remember.