Sunday, May 22, 2011

Children of Zeus

This week’s QuasarDragon presents is another story from the “golden age” of science fiction, “Children of Zeus” by E. A. Grosser, from Astonishing Stories Vol. 1 No. 3 (June 1940).

Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publications was renewed.

The story of the madness of an invisible Student, the watchfulness of his invisible Scribe, and the twin wives of Kels Norton.

By E. A. Grosser

LANKY, hard-bitten Kels Norton was afraid. It showed in the tenseness around his mouth and his quick effort to sit up. Then he lay back with a groan. The grating pain from his right arm told him that it was broken.

The pitiless Antarctic cold congealed little icicles from his breath and they hung from the fur of his parka like tiny fingers. Dimly he remembered the sudden lurch as the snow cruiser broke the frozen crust over a giant crevasse then the long drop downward. He lifted his head and looked around. It seemed to him that it was becoming lighter . . . and there was a curious sense of floating.

He saw four motionless bodies in the dim twilight of the control cabin of the snow cruiser. Short, fat Lacy Hoff lay in a corner with his body curiously shrunken. Jack Kelly, red-headed and Irish-tempered, and somber-eyed Niels Lachmann, both of whom should have been aft with the engines, lay on the floor. And beyond them lay Louis Fusari, the dignified but explosively tempered doctor of medicine who had from the first objected to this sneak prospect.

But Fusari's objections had been smothered by the enthusiasm of the others when Kelly had come back from checking the weather station on Mt. Maddux with his pockets full of quartz that was threaded thickly with wire-gold. They had taken the snow cruiser and sped to Mt. Maddux, found the quartz vein Kelly had discovered on a bare, wind-swept flank of the mountain. In three days they had blown down all the picture rock they could carry. They had even jettisoned food to provide more space for the precious quartz. Then, on the return trip to the base, they had found the crevasse.

With his left hand, he hooked the fingers of his right in his clothing, then painfully dragged himself from one to the other of his companions. It was no use. All four were stiff and cold with death.

The cruiser heeled over with a jolt, then was still. Even the sensation of floating was gone. Norton looked around nervously.

"Please continue," said a strange voice. "I became tired of waiting, so I assisted you out of the crevasse." Norton stared around. There was no one that could have spoken.

"Scribe! Please note—Mentally inflexible!"

"Yes. 'Mentally inflexible !'"

"—and unadaptable," added the strange voice.

"And unadaptable," echoed the other.

Norton sat perfectly still, staring into nothingness. He had gone mad! The word echoed and re-echoed in his mind like the tolling of a bell. Again he felt that he was under observation.

"No. You are not mad," assured the voice. "In fact, I don't think that is possible. It would be—Well, in words that you might use—It would be like trying to short circuit a dead battery. As for my being able to speak your language, both my Scribe and I found your mind easy to pick. Please continue !"

Norton leaned back against the wall, but otherwise was motionless.

"Just as a matter of record, will you tell me how you intended to extricate yourself from that crevasse. It appears to be quite impossible with that crude machine."

"What the hell!" Norton exploded. "Do you think we did that on purpose?"

"Didn't you ?"

"Awww," The sound faded into silence and Norton's face showed his disgust of himself. Talking to himself already! It was too bad he couldn't have died peacefully and sane as had his companions. He regarded their unmoving bodies with something akin to envy.

"Scribe ! Note !" The strange voice sounded excited. "Accidents still happen . . . positive proof of a low order of intelligence !"

THE other voice repeated the words and to Norton they were positive proof of his own madness. He wondered if everybody felt as alone and as mad just before dying as he did now. He wished that he could hurry the process of dying. There was absolutely no hope for life, and these last minutes were becoming unpleasant. The end, and oblivion, would be a welcome relief.

"Do you mean to think," asked the strange voice, "that death is extinction for you?"

"Certainly," Norton chuckled. "How about you?"

"Certainly not!" was the reply. "That is, unless I wish it to be. Death is merely a momentary indisposition. My friends re-assemble and re-animate me. It has happened twice already, and I am as yet only a student.

"Scribe! Note: Death to them is a matter of the utmost finality and, therefore, never having lived after they have died, they can not be said to have lived at all.

"Can you imagine that, Scribe? Living, or calling it that, and having no memories of the supreme thrills of dissolution and resolution."

"I am positive that they are as far below us as inanimate stones are below them," was the reply of the Scribe.

"Exactly!" agreed the first. "My thoughts on the matter exactly—and very nicely put, too. Record that, please."

"Yes, sir. Shall I credit you with having said it?"

"Of course."

"You are both wrong," Norton objected, laughing. "I said it. I imagined both of you, so anything you say is to be credited to me. I insist that I be credited."

"Hmmm. Delusions," cogitated one voice. "I wonder if he can be dying, as he so crudely put it a few minutes ago."

"Quite unlikely," offered the Scribe. "He has only a broken arm, and that doesn't look as though it could be fatal."

"Hmmm. Scribe, you have accompanied students before, haven't you?"

"Often," was the dry answer. "Ambition is not rare, though realization and acceptance into the Minority, is."

"Then, with your experience, what would you do if you were in my position?"

"Transport them back to their base," was the prompt reply. "Heal this man—he is an unsatisfactory subject as he is—and revivify the others. They are even more unsatisfactory."

"True! Very true! Assist me, please."

The snow cruiser lurched upward, then rocked gently, though Norton had the impression that it was traveling at a great speed. He dragged himself up to his feet and peered out the windshield, then crumpled to the floor and lay still. The cruiser was traveling at a great speed, but a thousand feet in the air above the frozen surface of the Antarctic continent.

WHEN he awoke, he was in his own bunk. Somewhere in the darkness another person was snoring lustily. He remembered the trip to Mt. Maddux, the gold, the return—and the crevasse. His stomach ached at the memory of the fall. He remembered four dead bodies. Then, for God's sake, who was snoring?

He threw his blankets back and sat up. As he swung his feet to the floor, the door opened. Lacy Hoff came in. He looked at Norton and a grin bisected his moon-face.

"Better get some more sleep." he suggested. "You look terrible."

Norton watched, open-mouthed. while Hoff went to the oil heater and checked the fuel intake valve. Then the chubby man looked at Norton again. Norton's mouth opened and closed as though he were speaking, but all that came forth was a choking, gasping sound.

The fat man's eyes grew serious with concern.

"I'll send Doc," he said, and dashed out of the room.

"Gh-ghosts !" Norton's lips coordinated with his thoughts for a brief moment. Then he hastily pulled on his clothes and stumbled into the passageway with but a single thought in his mind. He jerked open the door of the hospital room, selected a bottle from one of the cases, pulled the cork and applied the neck of the bottle to his lips.

The choking burn of the fiery liquid brought tears to his eyes, but it also brought warmth to his stomach. He regarded the bottle fondly. He knew now that either one of two things had happened: Either they had fallen into the crevasse and everybody but himself had died, and he had in someway made his way back to base—in which case Hoff and that snorer were ghosts ; or he had dreamed the whole damned thing. In either case those voices he remembered were not real. That's what happened to a man when he spent two years in Antarctica. He shrugged philosophically and up-ended the bottle again.

The gurgling of the bottle was beginning to sound hollow when a voice interrupted.

"Quit chiseling !" it snapped.

He looked around and saw red-headed Jack Kelly standing in the doorway, rubbing his knuckles raspingly over a red stubbly beard and watching him with reproachful eyes.

"G'way," Norton waved, and returned his attention to the bottle. That, at least, was satisfyingly real.

Kelly snatched the bottle away. Norton watched him pound the cork back into its neck. The red-head was real, also—dissatisfyingly so.

"It was a dream," Norton mumbled. "All a dream."

Kelly looked at him sharply. "Come on, Kels ! Snap out of it! We all owe you a hell of a lot for pulling us out of that crevasse. Do your damnedest to hang onto yourself for another twenty-four hours, and we'll be in Magallanes. Lachmann has decided we can take our ore to the States. The plane is already loaded."

Norton stared at the red-head. "Then we did find a bunch of gold "ore?"

Kelly nodded, but his eyes showed a new doubt.

"Then it wasn't a dream!" Norton exploded.

Slim, dark-haired, olive-skinned Louis Fusari stalked into the small room and took the bottle from Kelly's hand.

"Hoff said you were sick," he said to Norton, accusingly, as he replaced the bottle in the case, "But you look drunk. Did you get all that whiskey, or did Kelly have time to swipe some?"

"He got it all," Kelly announced a trifle mournfully.

Fusari looked Norton over carefully. Norton flushed under the penetrating eyes, then straightened his shoulders with the realization that they must both be ghosts.

"Yes," Fusari agreed. "He looks it." Norton chuckled, then stopped with a hiccup. A moment later he began to laugh. "Quite obshervant," he approved heartily. "Very good. Very good—for a ghost. Now vanish, please!"

He waited for them to comply with his request, but they weren't so inclined. They stared at him. He was getting a wallop from the whiskey and suddenly their expressions seemed very funny. He laughed.

That made things seem even funnier, so he continued to laugh.

Kelly and Fusari looked at one another, then leaped at him and grasped his arms. Norton struggled angrily. But he couldn't quit laughing.

He was still laughing, but rather shrilly, when they took him to Lachmann.

Lachmann gave him one searching glance, sniffed the air, and said, "Confine him in the bunkroom until we are ready to leave."

Kelly and Fusari shoved him into the dimly-lighted bunkroom, then locked the door on him. The heater took care of the temperature so they were sure he wouldn't freeze to death as long as he stayed there. Norton reeled across the room, then leaned against his bunk and looked around the room. At last he concluded that the snorer must have been Kelly, and he dropped onto his bunk and shut his eyes to see if that would make the room stop spinning.

"I wish you would co-operate," complained the strange voice. "Your perversity is really ingratitude when you consider that I mended your arm and restored your friends."

Norton's eyes snapped open. He had forgotten that broken arm. He moved it experimentally. Nothing wrong with it now, anyway. He closed his eyes contentedly. That proved the whole thing was a dream. But there was a tinge of regret to his content. It was too bad that the gold wasn't real.

"I only wish to study you," continued the voice persuasively.

"Why?" Norton asked unthinkingly.

"Every student must submit some contribution to the totality of our knowledge of the universe before he can be admitted to the Minority. This planet has been investigated before, but as this, the most attractive portion, was uninhabited, it was assumed that the rest was a heat-withered waste. I can be sure of acceptance to the Minority if I merely can submit a full report."

Norton decided he was drunk, tucked the blankets around himself with an exaggerated care. And closed his eyes with a determination to go to sleep.

"If kindliness won't secure your assistance I can use force," the voice offered threateningly. "I can—"

"It's all a lie," Norton stated carefully, "but if you're still hanging around when I wake up, I'll be glad to . . . only too glad . . . to . . . help . . . you." Hardly had the last word passed his lips when he was sound asleep.

HE WOKE with an aching, throbbing head and sat on the edge of the bunk to cradle it tenderly in his hands. The ache was like a round ball of fire in the base of his skull, but with every heartbeat the ball of fire burst like a rocket and spread all through his head.

He groaned. The last time he had gone off the deep end like this had been the night before leaving New York. That was the night Joan had promised to wait for him, and the next morning she had helped by giving him some concoction of wine and egg. Boy! What he could do to one of those now!

Someone knocked on the door and he lifted his head groggily with surprise. Then came the strange voice: "I hold you to your promise. You have assisted me immeasurably already by thinking of the female. I had concluded that you reproduced asexually.

"Scribe ! Have you finished the energy-matter conversion?"

"If you would trouble to look, you would see that the result of the energy-matter conversion is at the present moment beating her knuckles on the portal."

"Please refrain from sarcasm," requested the first voice. "I shall of course, include that remark in my report."

"Please do," the Scribe countered. "It will corroborate my report of your lapse from infallibility. You have been taught that direct observation is more reliable than hearsay evidence. Why do you disregard that teaching ?"

"You presume to question my conduct ?"

"And why not? I am one of the Minority, and the one appointed to judge your fitness, if any."

"Attaboy !" Norton approved. "Give him hell ! I don't like the way he talks, either."

"Give who hell?" asked a cool voice from the doorway.

Joan Witmer stood in the doorway, her dark blue eyes snapping angrily in spite of the coolness of her voice. Beside her stood grinning, moon-faced Lacy Hoff. Joan extended her arm, offering him a glass of thick, dark yellow liquid. He took it numbly and stared at her stupidly.

"Well, drink it !" she scolded. "You asked for something to straighten you out and that'll make you feel better in the end, though you don't deserve to. Why must you make such a fool of yourself?"

Norton had been holding the glass, quite undecided whether to treat her as a new acquaintance or an old friend. Now lie gulped the drink down hastily. The bitter brown taste of the vile fluid spread through his mouth and throat, making him shudder as he passed the glass blindly back to Joan. When he could see again he found that they were watching him expectantly.

He wondered why. Then ceased to wonder a moment later and brushed them aside to dash for the lavatory. When he returned he was weak and pale, but the headache had receded to a dull throbbing.

"That was a dirty trick," he reproached. "Joan would never have done a thing like that."

"Well, I did," stated the false Joan sturdily, "and it served you right."

Round-faced Lacy Hoff's fat cheeks showed two angelic dimples from his broad smile. "A punishment to fit the crime," he rumbled with evident satisfaction. "How do you feel now?"

"Hungry," Norton snapped. "Well, maybe Joan will cook you something."

Joan prepared a breakfast for Norton, then sat down across the table. She watched, chin in hands, while he ate. After a few minutes, with the edge of his hunger dulled, her steady gaze made him nervous.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

"Kels. Do you still feel the same about me as you did when we were in New York?"

He looked at the stillness of her oval face, framed by her small hands and brown hair, as she waited for an answer. He replied huskily:

"Joan, if anything, being away from you has made me love you more." Her eyes glowed with pleasure, then became puzzled. "What do you mean? 'Away from me.'"

"Well—ah—" Dammit ! How did a person go about telling a ghost she wasn't real?

Joan's eyes widened with fright. Jack Kelly stepped quietly into the room. His arm went around her protectively as she covered her face with her hands in an attempt to hold back the tears that were close. Norton started up angrily, then sat down again, grumbling.

After all, it wasn't really Joan. He was sure of that. Joan wouldn't have given him an emetic. The real Joan was fun-loving and had a well-developed sense of humor, while this facsimile was pretty much of a prude.

He remembered that they were soon to start back to civilization. He would soon see the real Joan—be able to hold her in his arms. The thought did wonders for his appetite and he finished his breakfast with silent satisfaction.

"THE experiment is proceeding splendidly," the bodiless voice began again exultantly. "But don't do anything which will cause them to imprison you again."

Norton conquered his momentary, instinctive fright. "Are you real?" he asked. "Or am I mad?"

Norton was aware of the presence of the disapproving Scribe as the voice replied : "We are inhabitants of a world far out in interstellar space, a dark, sunless world which broke away from its primary ages ago, and of which your astronomers have not the slightest knowledge. Life is one of the stubbornest, mot adaptable elements in the galaxy. As the changes to my world were gradual, life accustomed itself to them. As our sun cooled we were forced to become less dependent on the natural production of foods, and with the gradual darkening we developed new senses. To a person with all your corporeal restrictions we are invisible. We are living energy, instead of energized matter."

"But, my friends ?" Norton pressed. "And Joan ? How did they get here. My friends died. I was injured. And I left Joan in New York."

"You say your friends died, but do you know when is death—the dividing line past which restoration is impossible? I healed their injuries, as I did yours, and restarted the life processes. So they live.

"She whom you call Joan was more difficult. The intense heat of your world hampered me severely."

Kelly stepped into the doorway and looked at Norton. Norton watched him while the strange entity continued speaking.

"But I succeeded in securing a pattern and was able to convert energy into the required matter."

"Correction: I did," interrupted the Scribe.

"Please!" the first voice begged of its companion, then continued, "And in the minds of all of them I impressed memories that would make their presence logical to themselves. And in the case of Joan, it was necessary to erase the memories of the time between your departure and the present."

Norton was sure from Kelly's expression that the redhead couldn't hear the stranger. Then the stranger answered his thought.

"And to them I am non-existent. It is necessary to my report that they act naturally, which they wouldn't do other-wise. Theirs is the normal reaction to comparative normality ; yours, the comparatively normal reaction to abnormality."

Kelly was watching suspiciously, then he spoke : "Come on. Lachmann asked me to get you. We are ready to leave." His tone said that he would have liked to leave Norton to someone else; that he didn't relish escorting a man he considered mad. And there was something else in his manner, an evident dislike that hadn't been there before, that caused Norton to wonder if the stranger had further experiments in human behavior in mind.

A trifle more than a little uneasy he followed Kelly to the plane. The others were already aboard. Hoff was at the controls with Lachmann at his side. Fusari and Joan were seated in the cabin. Joan looked up when they entered and seemed to expect Norton to take possession of the unoccupied seat at her side. He did.

"Are you feeling better?" she asked.

"Fine," Norton lied.

The motors roared to a louder song of power and the plane nudged forward. Then Lachmann turned her loose and they darted over the laboriously smoothed snow. There was a sudden smoothness of motion and Norton knew that they were in the air. Hoff pulled the plane into a rapid climb and they headed into the north.

Norton looked down at the vast snow-bound continent below. Of one thing he was sure—he would never return. He had found enough trouble this time. He was forced to the conclusion that wine and song were essential to his mental well-being. He looked at Joan's primly held head and knew that women were not.

THE STRANGER had said it had pressed logical memories in the minds of the created and recreated beings. The statement persisted in recurring to his mind until it had acquired a troubling note of threat.

"How did you get the Antarctic?" he asked at last.

"Why, I stowed away," she said as though reminding him. "Jack found me the first day out. You see, after we were married, I couldn't bear the thought of having you leave me for years."

"Married !" Norton echoed. Oh, God! And another Joan awaiting him in New York!

"You haven't forgotten that too, have you?" she asked.

He saw Kelly and Fusari look at one another. Kelly nodded and Fusari got to his feet and went to speak with Lachmann.

"Have you?" Joan repeated.

"Oh, no—no," he assured her. Damn that stranger, anyway. He was too logical. "I just forgot—uh—I mean so many things have been happening that I don't know what is true and what isn't."

She still regarded him with suspicious eyes, but he hardly noticed. There was another question that bothered him.

"Have you — we any children?" he asked bluntly. She shook her head negatively, but didn't speak. She was staring at him with frightened eyes. She paled and looked appealingly to Kelly.

Norton felt sorry for her. He put out his hand to comfort her, but she leaped to her feet with a shriek.

"Don't touch me! You're mad!"

She hurried to Kelly who took her in his arms.

"Oh, Jack!" she moaned. "You were right. He is mad. Don't let him touch me."

"I won't," Kelly promised. Norton stood up slowly, eyes blazing angrily. So Kelly had been shooting off his mouth ! And to Joan, or rather the false Joan. But it was just as bad. Kelly thought she was his wife.

Kelly shoved Joan behind him and crouched to meet Norton's advance.

Norton lashed out and felt his knuckles become satisfyingly numb as they contacted Kelly's chin. Kelly staggered backward and fell to the floor.

Joan knelt at his side, crying. But he pushed her away and climbed back to his feet. Norton stepped closer, drove a fist toward the other's head, but Kelly caught it on his forearm and countered with a left that drilled through Norton's guard and exploded in his midriff.

Norton folded over and went to his knees. While he struggled to get a little air into his deflated lungs, he heard the Scribe say angrily to the strange student, "Stop it ! This is your third mistake."

"Third mistake?" repeated the stranger questioningly.

"Third," the Scribe said again. "First, you interfered with the natural course of events on a planet not your own; second, you assumed credit for what you had not done; third, you have incited violence. You have failed!"

Norton saw Fusari coming with a hypodermic. He scrambled to his feet. Kelly thought he was returning to the attack and pushed a heavy fist at him. Norton took it because he had to, and offered one of his own. Kelly accepted ungraciously with a grunt, then clinched.

Fusari was right beside them and Norton felt the prick of a hypodermic needle in his arm. He struggled to free himself, but Kelly clung tightly to his arms.

"No! No! I cannot have failed!" he heard the strange voice object. "It is impossible."

"But true," insisted the Scribe. "Your report alone probably would have been satisfactory, but your conduct is execrable."

Norton agreed silently, but heartily.

"But you say I have interfered. I can efface the results of that interference." "And now you would destroy. No!"

Norton was unresisting as Fusari and Kelley forced him toward a seat, made him sit down.

"Then," said the strange voice, "if my report alone would have been satisfactory —it shall be. You and they shall be destroyed!"

THE plane lurched, then shot downward like a leaden weight. He caught one glimpse of the sky and saw it blaze with color. Red and green sheets of color intermixed with all the other colors of the spectrum and some hues Norton could not identify, gathered at the zenith, then extended in pulsing waves to the horizon.

The gray water of the ocean below was coming closer with every passing second. The cabin of the plane was a shambles. Hoff and Lachmann fought the controls, but though the motors roared throatily with power, they couldn't pull the plane out of the terrifying dive.

A cyclopean laugh reverberated throughout the plane . . . a laugh of madness. Then the fall ended with a wrenching jerk and the mad laugh became a shriek of hate.

"They must be destroyed! And you must be destroyed. All must be destroyed. No one shall live to thwart me!"

But the plane was lifted as rapidly upward as a moment before it had fallen. The voice of the unseen stranger became a mad gibber of hate. Norton felt the clash of titanic forces. The colors in the sky became more vivid and writhed as though with pain.

Then at the zenith a red globe formed. The mad gibbering died immediately and the plane settled to an even flight toward the north. The redness of the globe high above shaded to a violent crimson. The globe floated slowly downward.

The colors flickered out of the sky as the red sphere settled to the ocean. As the vast ball of color touched the water it disappeared abruptly. Seconds later the plane rocked to a gigantic explosion.

"I am sorry," said the voice of the Scribe. "My companion was entirely unfit. I was forced to destroy him."

The danger had held off the effects of the drug Fusari had administered, but now it was taking effect with paralyzing speed. Norton's eyes drooped, but he forced them open again.

"You may proceed in perfect safety," assured the Scribe. "There are so many worlds in the galaxy that it is extremely unlikely that I, or any like myself, shall ever visit you again."

Norton mumbled a thankful prayer, then saw Joan at Kelly's side. "But what about me ?" he asked. "This Joan thinks she is married to me and another one waits for me in New York."

The Scribe chuckled. "My companion created a love between these two which is real unless I remove it. Choose the one you wish and I will arrange matters. Norton took one look at the prim, humorless face of the woman at Kelly's side, and said, "I want the real Joan."

"This creation of my companion lacks something which appeals to you?" it laughed. "He lacked the same thing. Well, sobeit! I erase all memory of her having been married to you. It was only a memory of something that never happened. Goodbye."

Norton tried to answer, but before he could force his sleepy mind to form the farewell, he had an abrupt sense of loss and knew that the Scribe was gone. His eyelids closed and he sank into a drugged slumber.

WHEN he awoke he was lying in a bed—the first he had seen in over two years. It was much more comfortable than a bunk. And someone stood at the bedside. He turned to see who it was.

It was Joan. But which one?

"Are you real?" he asked, then knew that was no good. They both would naturally think they were real. "Where's everybody?" he asked quickly. "And where am I?"

"Hmmmm," the young woman hummed speculatively. "I guess they were right. You are mad. Worse than usual."

"Say! What is real, and what isn't ?" he demanded.

"Well, I'm real." She stooped to kiss his lips and prove it. He caught and held her. When she had released herself she announced a little breathlessly, but certainly, "And you are real."

"How about that gold? Or was that a dream?"

"The customs men seemed to think it was real—and the treasury," she said.

He stared at her. A mocking smile curved her lips. She sat on the edge of the bed.

"How's Kelly ?" he asked anxiously. "Fine—but he's married. Good-looking girl though, even if she can't see a joke."

"Conceited," Norton taunted, forgetting himself.

She looked at him innocently.

"I just can't believe it. Are you really real."

She straightened suddenly, and the glow in her eyes was not good humor. "Kels! Stop that!" she said angrily. "I'll slap your face if you pinch me again."


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