It was in the thirty-fourth century that the dark star began its famous conquest, unparalleled in stellar annals. Phobar the astronomer discovered it. He was sweeping the heavens with one of the newly invented multi-powered Sussendorf comet-hunters when something caught his eye--a new star of great brilliance in the foreground of the constellation Hercules.
For the rest of the night, he cast aside all his plans and concentrated on the one star. He witnessed an unprecedented event. Mercia’s nullifier had just been invented, a curious and intricate device, based on four-dimensional geometry, that made it possible to see occurrences in the universe which had hitherto required the hundreds of years needed for light to cross the intervening space before they were visible on Earth. By a hasty calculation with the aid of this invention, Phobar found that the new star was about three thousand light-years distant, and that it was hurtling backward into space at the rate of twelve hundred miles per second. The remarkable feature of his discovery was this appearance of a fourth-magnitude star where none had been known to exist. Perhaps it had come into existence this very night.
On the succeeding night, he was given a greater surprise. In line with the first star, but several hundred light-years nearer, was a second new star of even more brightness. And it, too, was hurtling backward into space at approximately twelve hundred miles per second. Phobar was astonished. Two new stars discovered within twenty-four hours in the same part of the heavens, both of the fourth magnitude! But his surprise was as nothing when on the succeeding night, even while he watched, a third new star appeared in line with these, but much closer.
At midnight he first noticed a pin-point of faint light; by one o’clock the star was of eighth magnitude. At two it was a brilliant sun of the second magnitude blazing away from Earth like the others at a rate of twelve hundred miles per second. And on the next evening, and the next, and the next, other new stars appeared until there were seven in all, every one on a line in the same constellation Hercules, every one with the same radiance and the same proper motion, though of varying size!
Phobar had broadcast his discovery to incredulous astronomers; but as star after star appeared nightly, all the telescopes on Earth were turned toward one of the most spectacular cataclysms that history recorded. Far out in the depths of space, with unheard-of regularity and unheard-of precision, new worlds were flaming up overnight in a line that began at Hercules and extended toward the solar system.
Phobar’s announcement was immediately flashed to Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, the other members of the Five World Federation. Saturn reported no evidence of the phenomena, because of the interfering rings and the lack of Mercia’s nullifier. But Jupiter, with a similar device, witnessed the phenomena and announced furthermore that many stars in the neighborhood of the novæ had begun to deviate in singular and abrupt fashion from their normal positions.
There was not as yet much popular interest in the phenomena. Without Mercia’s nullifier, the stars were not visible to ordinary eyes, since the light-rays would take years to reach the Earth. But every astronomer who had access to Mercia’s nullifier hastened to focus his telescope on the region where extraordinary events were taking place out in the unfathomable gulf of night. Some terrific force was at work, creating worlds and disturbing the positions of stars within a radius already known to extend billions and trillions of miles from the path of the seven new stars. But of the nature of that force, astronomers could only guess.
Phobar took up his duties early on the eighth night. The last star had appeared about five hundred light-years distant. If an eighth new star was found, it should be not more than a few light-years away. But nothing happened. All night Phobar kept his telescope pointed at the probable spot, but search as he might, the heavens showed nothing new. In the morning he sought eagerly for news of any discovery made by fellow-watchers, but they, too, had found nothing unusual. Could it be that the mystery would now fade away, a new riddle of the skies?
The next evening, he took up his position once more, training his telescope on the seven bright stars, and then on the region where an eighth, if there were one, should appear. For hours he searched the abyss in vain. He could find none. Apparently the phenomena were ended. At midnight he took a last glance before entering on some tedious calculations. It was there! In the center of the telescope a faint, hazy object steadily grew in brightness. All his problems were forgotten as Phobar watched the eighth star increase hourly. Closer than any other, closer even than Alpha Centauri, the new sun appeared, scarcely three light-years away across the void surrounding the solar system. And all the while he watched, he witnessed a thing no man had ever before seen--the birth of a world!
By one o’clock, the new star was of fifth magnitude; by two it was of the first. As the faint flush of dawn began to come toward the close of that frosty, moonless November night, the new star was a great white-hot object more brilliant than any other star in the heavens. Phobar knew that when its light finally reached Earth so that ordinary eyes could see, it would be the most beautiful object in the night sky. What was the reason for these unparalleled births of worlds and the terrifying mathematical precision that characterized them?
Whatever the cosmic force behind, it was progressing toward the solar system. Perhaps it would even disturb the balance of the planets. The possible chance of such an event had already called the attention of some astronomers, but the whole phenomenon was too inexplicable to permit more than speculation.
The next evening was cloudy. Jupiter reported nothing new except that Neptune had deviated from its course and tended to pursue an erratic and puzzling new orbit.
Phobar pondered long over this last news item and turned his attention to the outermost planet on the succeeding night. To his surprise, he had great difficulty in locating it. The ephemeris was of absolutely no use. When he did locate Neptune after a brief search, he discovered it more than eighty million miles from its scheduled place! This was at one-forty. At two-ten he was thunderstruck by a special announcement sent from the Central Bureau to every observatory and astronomer of note throughout the world, proclaiming the discovery of an ultra-Plutonian planet. Phobar was incredulous. For centuries it had been proved that no planet beyond Pluto could possibly exist.
With feverish haste, Phobar ran to the huge telescope and rapidly focused it where the new planet should be. Five hundred million miles beyond Neptune was a flaming path like the beam of a giant searchlight that extended exactly to the eighth solar planet. Phobar gasped. He could hardly credit the testimony of his eyes. He looked more closely. The great stream of flame still crossed his line of vision. But this time he saw something else: at the precise farther end of the flame-path a round disk--dark!
Beyond a doubt, a new planet of vast size now formed an addition to the solar group. But that planet was almost impervious to the illuminating rays of the sun and was barely discernible. Neptune itself shone brighter than it ever had, and was falling away from the sun at a rate of twelve hundred miles per second.
All night Phobar watched the double mystery. By three o’clock, he was convinced, as far as lightning calculations showed, that the invader was hurtling toward the sun at a speed of more than ten million miles an hour. At three-fifteen, he thought that vanishing Neptune seemed brighter even than the band of fire running to the invader. At four, his belief was certainty. With amazement and awe, Phobar sat through the long, cold night, watching a spectacular and terrible catastrophe in the sky.
As dawn began to break and the stars grew paler, Phobar turned away from his telescope, his brain awhirl, his heart filled with a great fear. He had witnessed the devastation of a world, the ruin of a member of his own planetary system by an invader from outer space. As dawn cut short his observations, he knew at last the cause of Neptune’s brightness, knew that it was now a white-hot flaming sun that sped with increased rapidity away from the solar system. Somehow, the terrible swathe of fire that flowed from the dark star to Neptune had wrenched it out of its orbit and made of it a molten inferno.
At dawn came another bulletin from the Central Bureau. Neptune had a surface temperature of 3,000° C, was defying all laws of celestial mechanics, and within three days would have left the solar system for ever. The results of such a disaster were unpredictable. The entire solar system was likely to break up. Already Uranus and Jupiter had deviated from their orbits. Unless something speedily occurred to check the onrush of the dark star, it was prophesied that the laws governing the planetary system would run to a new balance, and that in the ensuing chaos the whole group would spread apart and fall toward the gulfs beyond the great surrounding void.
What was the nature of the great path of fire? What force did it represent? And was the dark star controlled by intelligence, or was it a blind wanderer from space that had come by accident? The flame-path alone implied that the dark star was guided by an intelligence that possessed the secret of inconceivable power. Menace hung in the sky now where all eyes could see in a great arc of fire!
The world was on the brink of eternity, and vast forces at whose nature men could only guess were sweeping planets and suns out of its path.
The following night was again cold and clear. High in the heavens, where Neptune should have been, hung a disk of enormously greater size. Neptune itself was almost invisible, hundreds of millions of miles beyond its scheduled position. As nearly as Phobar could estimate, not one hundredth of the sun’s rays were reflected from the surface of the dark star, a proportion far below those for the other planets. Phobar had a better view of the flame-path, and it was with growing awe that he watched that strange swathe in the sky during the dead of night. It shot out from the dark star like a colossal beam or huge pillar of fire seeking a food of worlds.
With a shiver of cold fear he saw that there were now three of the bands: one toward Neptune, one toward Saturn, and one toward the sun. The first was fading, a milky, misty white; the second shone almost as bright as the first one previously had; and the third, toward the sun, was a dazzling stream of orange radiance, burning with a steady, terrible, unbelievable intensity across two and a half billions of miles of space! That gigantic flare was the most brilliant sight in the whole night sky, an awful and abysmally prophetic flame that made city streets black with staring people, a radiance whose grandeur and terrific implication of cosmic power brought beauty and the fear of doom into the heavens!
Those paths could not be explained by all the physicists and all the astronomers in the Five World Federation. They possessed the properties of light, but they were rigid bands like a tube or a solid pillar from which only the faintest of rays escaped; and they completely shut off the heavens behind them. They had, moreover, singular properties which could not be described, as if a new force were embodied in them.
Hour after hour humanity watched the spectacular progress of the dark star, watched those mysterious and threatening paths of light that flowed from the invader. When dawn came, it brought only a great fear and the oppression of impending disaster.
In the early morning, Phobar slept. When he awoke, he felt refreshed and decided to take a short walk in the familiar and peaceful light of day. He never took that walk. He opened the door on a kind of dim and reddish twilight. Not a cloud hung in the sky, but the sun shone feebly with a dull red glow, and the skies were dull and somber, as if the sun were dying as scientists had predicted it eventually would.
Phobar stared at the dull heavens in a daze, at the foreboding atmosphere and the livid sun that burned faintly as through a smoke curtain. Then the truth flashed on him--it was the terrible path of fire from the dark star! By what means he could not guess, by what appalling control of immense and inconceivable forces he could not even imagine, the dark star was sucking light and perhaps more than light from the sun!
Phobar turned and shut the door. The world had seen its last dawn. If the purpose of the dark star was destruction, none of the planets could offer much opposition, for no weapon of theirs was effective beyond a few thousand miles range at most--and the dark star could span millions. If the invader passed on, its havoc would be only a trifle smaller, for it had already destroyed two members of the solar system and was now striking at its most vital part. Without the sun, life would die, but even with the sun the planets must rearrange themselves because of the destruction of balance.
Even he could hardly grasp the vast and abysmal catastrophe that without warning had swept from space. How could the dark star have traversed three thousand light-years of space in a week’s time? It was unthinkable! So stupendous a control of power, so gigantic a manipulation of cosmic forces, so annihilating a possession of the greatest secrets of the universe, was an unheard-of concentration of energy and knowledge of stellar mechanics. But the evidence of his own eyes and the path of the dark star with flaming suns to mark its progress, told him in language which could not be refuted that the dark star possessed all that immeasurable, titanic knowledge. It was the lord of the universe. There was nothing which the dark star could not crush or conquer or change. The thought of that immense, supreme power numbed his mind. It opened vistas of a civilization, and a progress, and an unparalleled mastery of all knowledge which was almost beyond conception.
Already the news had raced across the world. On Phobar’s television screen flashed scenes of nightmare; the radio spewed a gibberish of terror. In one day panic had swept the Earth; on the remaining members of the Five World Federation the same story was repeated. Rioting mobs drowned out the chant of religious fanatics who hailed Judgment Day. Great fires turned the air murky and flame-shot. Machine guns spat regularly in city streets; looting, murder, and fear-crazed crimes were universal. Civilization had completely vanished overnight.
The tides roared higher than they ever had before; for every thousand people drowned on the American seaboards, a hundred thousand perished in China and India. Dead volcanoes boomed into the worst eruptions known. Half of Japan sank during the most violent earthquake in history. Land rocked, the seas boiled, cyclones howled out of the skies. A billion eyes focused on Mecca, the mad beating of tom-toms rolled across all Africa, women and children were trampled to death by the crowds that jammed into churches.
“Has man lived in vain?” asked the philosopher.
“The world is doomed. There is no escape,” said the scientist.
“The day of reckoning has come! The wrath of God is upon us!” shouted the street preachers.
In a daze, Phobar switched off the bedlam and, walking like a man asleep, strode out, he did not care where, if only to get away.
The ground and the sky were like a dying fire. The sun seemed a half-dead cinder. Only the great swathe of radiance between the sun and the dark star had any brilliance. Sinister, menacing, now larger even than the sun, the invader from beyond hung in the heavens.
As Phobar watched it, the air around him prickled strangely. A sixth sense gave warning. He turned to race back into his house. His legs failed. A fantastic orange light bathed him, countless needles of pain shot through his whole body, the world darkened.
Earth had somehow been blotted out. There was a brief blackness, the nausea of space and of a great fall that compressed eternity into a moment. Then a swimming confusion, and outlines which gradually came to rest.
Phobar was too utterly amazed to cry out or run. He stood inside the most titanic edifice he could have imagined, a single gigantic structure vaster than all New York City. Far overhead swept a black roof fading into the horizon, beneath his feet was the same metal substance. In the midst of this giant work soared the base of a tower that pierced the roof thousands of feet above.
Everywhere loomed machines, enormous dynamos, cathode tubes a hundred feet long, masses and mountains of such fantastic apparatus as he had never encountered. The air was bluish, electric. From the black substance came a phosphorescent radiance. The triumphant drone of motors and a terrific crackle of electricity were everywhere. Off to his right purple-blue flames the size of Sequoia trees flickered around a group of what looked like condensers as huge as Gibraltar. At the base of the central tower half a mile distant Phobar could see something that resembled a great switchboard studded with silver controls. Near it was a series of mechanisms at whose purpose he could not even guess.
All this his astounded eyes took in at one confused glance. The thing that gave him unreasoning terror was the hundred-foot-high metal monster before him. It defied description. It was unlike any color known on Earth, a blinding color sinister with power and evil. Its shape was equally ambiguous--it rippled like quicksilver, now compact, now spread out in a thousand limbs. But what appalled Phobar was its definite possession of rational life. More, its very thoughts were transmitted to him as clearly as though written in his own English:
Phobar’s mind did not function--but his legs moved regularly. In the grasp of this mental, metal monster he was a mere automaton. Phobar noticed idly that he had to step down from a flat disk a dozen yards across. By some power, some tremendous discovery that he could not understand, he had been transported across millions of miles of space--undoubtedly to the dark star itself!
The colossal thing, indescribable, a blinding, nameless color, rippled down the hall and stooped before a disk of silvery black. In the center of the disk was a metal seat with a control board near-by.
Phobar sat down, the titan flicked the controls--and nothing happened.
Phobar sensed that something was radically wrong. He felt the surprise of his gigantic companion. He did not know it then, but the fate of the solar system hung on that incident.
Abruptly the giant stooped, and Phobar shrank back, but a flowing mass of cold, insensate metal swept around him, lifted him fifty feet in the air. Dizzy, sick, horrified, he was hardly conscious of the whirlwind motion into which the giant suddenly shot. He had a dim impression of machines racing by, of countless other giants, of a sudden opening in the walls of the immense building, and then a rush across the surface of metal land. Even in his vertigo he had enough curiosity to marvel that there was no vegetation, no water, only the dull black metal everywhere. Yet there was air.
And then a city loomed before them. To Phobar it seemed a city of gods or giants. Fully five miles it soared toward space, its fantastic angles and arcs and cubes and pyramids mazing in the dimensions of a totally alien geometry. Tier by tier the stupendous city, hundreds of miles wide, mounted toward a central tower like the one in the building he had left.
Phobar never knew how they got there, but his numbed mind was at last forced into clarity by a greater will. He stared about him. His captor had gone. He stood in a huge chamber circling to a dome far overhead. Before him, on a dais a full thousand feet in diameter, stood--sat--rested, whatever it might be called--another monster, far larger than any he had yet seen, like a mountain of pliant thinking, living metal. And Phobar knew he stood in the presence of the ruler.
The metal Cyclops surveyed him as Phobar might have surveyed an ant. Cold, deadly, dispassionate scrutiny came from something that might have been eyes, or a seeing intelligence locked in a metal body.
There was no sound, but inwardly to Phobar’s consciousness from the peak of the titan far above him came a command:
“What are you called?”
Phobar opened his lips--but even before he spoke, he knew that the thing had understood his thought: “Phobar.”
“I am Garboreggg, ruler of Xlarbti, the Lord of the Universes.”
“Lord of the Universes?”
“I and my world come from one of the universes beyond the reach of your telescopes.” Phobar somehow felt that the thing was talking to him as he would to a new-born babe.
“What do you want of me?”
“Tell your Earth that I want the entire supply of your radium ores mined and placed above ground according to the instructions I give, by seven of your days hence.”
A dozen questions sprang to Phobar’s lips. He felt again that he was being treated like a child.
“Why do you want our radium ores?”
“Because they are the rarest of the elements on your scale, are absent on ours, and supply us with some of the tremendous energy we need.”
“Why don’t you obtain the ores from other worlds?”
“We do. We are taking them from all worlds where they exist. But we need yours also.”
Raiders of the universe! Looting young worlds of the precious radium ores! Piracy on a cosmic scale!
“And if Earth refuses your demand?”
For answer, Garboreggg rippled to a wall of the room and pressed a button. The wall dissolved, weirdly, mysteriously. A series of vast silver plates was revealed, and a battery of control levers.
“This will happen to all of your Earth unless the ores are given us.”
The titan closed a switch. On the first screen flashed the picture of a huge tower such as Phobar had seen in the metal city.
Garboreggg adjusted a second control that was something like a range-finder. He pressed a third lever--and from the tower leaped a surge of terrific energy, like a bolt of lightning a quarter of a mile broad. The giant closed another switch--and on the second plate flashed a picture of New York City.
Then--waiting. Seconds, minutes drifted by. The atmosphere became tense, nerve-cracking. Phobar’s eyes ached with the intensity of his stare. What would happen?
Abruptly it came.
A monstrous bolt of energy streaked from the skies, purple-blue death in a pillar a fourth of a mile broad crashed into the heart of New York City, swept up and down Manhattan, across and back, and suddenly vanished.
In fifteen seconds, only a molten hell of fused structures and incinerated millions of human beings remained of the world’s first city.
Phobar was crushed, appalled, then utter loathing for this soulless thing poured through him. If only--
“It is useless. You can do nothing,” answered the ruler as though it had grasped his thought.
“But why, if you could pick me off the Earth, do you not draw the radium ores in the same way?” Phobar demanded.
“The orange-ray picks up only loose, portable objects. We can and will transport the radium ores here by means of the ray after they have been mined and placed on platforms or disks.”
“Why did you select me from all the millions of people on Earth?”
“Solely because you were the first apparent scientist whom our cosmotel chanced upon. It will be up to you to notify your Earth governments of our demand.”
“But afterwards!” Phobar burst out aloud. “What then?”
“We will depart.”
“It will mean death to us! The solar system will be wrecked with Neptune gone and Saturn following it!”
Garboreggg made no answer. To that impassive, cold, inhuman thing, it did not matter if a nation or a whole world perished. Phobar had already seen with what deliberate calm it destroyed a city, merely to show him what power the lords of Xlarbti controlled. Besides, what guarantee was there that the invaders would not loot the Earth of everything they wanted and then annihilate all life upon it before they departed? Yet Phobar knew he was helpless, knew that the men of Earth would be forced to do whatever was asked of them, and trust that the raiders would fulfill their promise.
“Two hours remain for your stay here,” came the ruler’s dictum to interrupt his line of thought. “For the first half of that period you will tell me of your world and answer whatever questions I may ask. During the rest of the interval, I will explain some of the things you wish to learn about us.”
Again Phobar felt Garboreggg’s disdain, knew that the metal giant regarded him as a kind of childish plaything for an hour or two’s amusement. But he had no choice, and so he told Garboreggg of the life on Earth, how it arose and along what lines it had developed; he narrated in brief the extent of man’s knowledge, his scientific achievements, his mastery of weapons and forces and machines, his social organization.
When he had finished, he felt as a Stone Age man might feel in the presence of a brilliant scientist of the thirty-fourth century. If any sign of interest had shown on the peak of the metallic lord, Phobar failed to see it. But he sensed an intolerant sneer of ridicule in Garboreggg, as though the ruler considered these statements to be only the most elementary of facts.
Then, for three quarters of an hour, in the manner of one lecturing an ignorant pupil, the giant crowded its thought-pictures into Phobar’s mind so that finally he understood a little of the raiders and of the sudden terror that had flamed from the abysses into the solar system.
“The universe of matter that you know is only one of the countless universes which comprise the cosmos,” began Garboreggg. “In your universe, you have a scale of ninety-two elements, you have your color-spectrum, your rays and waves of many kinds. You are subject to definite laws controlling matter and energy as you know them.
“But we are of a different universe, on a different scale from yours, a trillion light-years away in space, eons distant in time. The natural laws which govern us differ from those controlling you. In our universe, you would be hopelessly lost, completely helpless, unless you possessed the knowledge that your people will not attain even in millions of years. But we, who are so much older and greater than you, have for so long studied the nature of the other universes that we can enter and leave them at will, taking what we wish, doing as we wish, creating or destroying worlds whenever the need arises, coming and hurtling away when we choose.
“There is no vegetable life in our universe. There is only the scale of elements ranging from 842 to 966 on the extension of your own scale. At this high range, metals of complex kinds exist. There is none of what you call water, no vegetable world, no animal kingdom. Instead, there are energies, forces, rays, and waves, which are food to us and which nourish our life-stream just as pigs, potatoes, and bread are food to you.