Stinson lay still in the sand where he fell, gloating over the success of his arrival.
He touched the pencil-line scar behind his ear where the cylinder was buried, marveling at the power stored there, power to fling him from earth to this fourth planet of the Centaurian system in an instant. It had happened so fast that he could almost feel the warm, humid Missouri air, though he was light years from Missouri.
He got up. A gray, funnel-shaped cloud of dust stood off to his left. This became disturbing, since there was scarcely enough wind to move his hair. He watched it, trying to recall what he might know about cyclones. But he knew little. Weather control made cyclones and other climatic phenomena on earth practically non-existent. The cloud did not move, though, except to spin on its axis rapidly, emitting a high-pitched, scarcely audible whine, like a high speed motor. He judged it harmless.
He stood on a wide valley floor between two mountain ranges. Dark clouds capped one peak of the mountains on his left. The sky was deep blue.
He tested the gravity by jumping up and down. Same as Earth gravity. The sun--no, not the sun. Not Sol. What should he call it, Alpha or Centaurus? Well, perhaps neither. He was here and Earth was somewhere up there. This was the sun of this particular solar system. He was right the first time.
The sun burned fiercely, although he would have said it was about four o’clock in the afternoon, if this had been Earth. Not a tree, nor a bush, nor even a wisp of dry grass was in sight. Everywhere was desert.
The funnel of sand had moved closer and while he watched it, it seemed to drift in the wind--although there was no wind. Stinson backed away. It stopped. It was about ten feet tall by three feet in diameter at the base. Then Stinson backed away again. It was changing. Now it became a blue rectangle, then a red cube, a violet sphere.
He wanted to run. He wished Benjamin were here. Ben might have an explanation. “What am I afraid of?” he said aloud, “a few grains of sand blowing in the wind? A wind devil?”
He turned his back and walked away. When he looked up the wind devil was there before him. He looked back. Only one. It had moved. The sun shone obliquely, throwing Stinson’s shadow upon the sand. The wind devil also had a shadow, although the sun shone through it and the shadow was faint. But it moved when the funnel moved. This was no illusion.
Again Stinson felt the urge to run, or to use the cylinder to project himself somewhere else, but he said, “No!” very firmly to himself. He was here to investigate, to determine if this planet was capable of supporting life.
Life? Intelligence? He examined the wind devil as closely as he dared, but it was composed only of grains of sand. There was no core, no central place you could point to and say, here is the brain, or the nervous system. But then, how could a group of loosely spaced grains of sand possibly have a nervous system?
It was again going through its paces. Triangle, cube, rectangle, sphere. He watched, and when it became a triangle again, he smoothed a place in the sand and drew a triangle with his forefinger. When it changed to a cube he drew a square, a circle for a sphere, and so on. When the symbols were repeated he pointed to each in turn, excitement mounting. He became so absorbed in doing this that he failed to notice how the wind devil drew closer and closer, but when he inhaled the first grains of sand, the realization of what was happening dawned with a flash of fear. Instantly he projected himself a thousand miles away.
Now he was in an area of profuse vegetation. It was twilight. As he stood beside a small creek, a chill wind blew from the northwest. He wanted to cover himself with the long leaves he found, but they were dry and brittle, for here autumn had turned the leaves. Night would be cold.
He was not a woodsman. He doubted if he could build a fire without matches. So he followed the creek to where it flowed between two great hills. Steam vapors rose from a crevice. A cave was nearby and warm air flowed from its mouth. He went inside.
At first he thought the cave was small, but found instead that he was in a long narrow passageway. The current of warm air flowed toward him and he followed it, cautiously, stepping carefully and slowly. Then it was not quite so dark. Soon he stepped out of the narrow passageway into a great cavern with a high-vaulted ceiling.
The light source was a mystery. He left no shadow on the floor. A great crystal sphere hung from the ceiling, and he was curious about its purpose, but a great pool of steaming water in the center of the cavern drew his attention. He went close, to warm himself. A stone wall surrounding the pool was inscribed with intricate art work and indecipherable symbols.
Life. Intelligence. The planet was inhabited.
Should he give up and return to earth? Or was there room here for his people? Warming his hands there over the great steaming pool he thought of Benjamin, and Straus, and Jamieson--all those to whom he had given cylinders, and who were now struggling for life against those who desired them.
He decided it would not be just, to give up so easily.
The wide plaza between the pool and cavern wall was smooth as polished glass. Statues lined the wall. He examined them.
The unknown artist had been clever. From one angle they were animals, from another birds, from a third they were vaguely humanoid creatures, glowering at him with primitive ferocity. The fourth view was so shocking he had to turn away quickly. No definable form or sculptured line was visible, yet he felt, or saw--he did not know which senses told him--the immeasurable gulf of a million years of painful evolution. Then nothing. It was not a curtain drawn to prevent him from seeing more.
There was no more.
He stumbled toward the pool’s wall and clutched for support, but his knees buckled. His hand slid down the wall, over the ancient inscriptions. He sank to the floor. Before he lost consciousness he wondered, fleetingly, if a lethal instrument was in the statue.
He woke with a ringing in his ears, feeling drugged and sluggish. Sounds came to him. He opened his eyes.
The cavern was crowded. These creatures were not only humanoid, but definitely human, although more slight of build than earth people. The only difference he could see at first sight was that they had webbed feet. All were dressed from the waist down only, in a shimmering skirt that sparkled as they moved. They walked with the grace of ballet dancers, moving about the plaza, conversing in a musical language with no meaning for Stinson. The men were dark-skinned, the women somewhat lighter, with long flowing hair, wide lips and a beauty that was utterly sensual.
He was in chains! They were small chains, light weight, of a metal that looked like aluminum. But all his strength could not break them.
They saw him struggling. Two of the men came over and spoke to him in the musical language.
“My name is Stinson,” he said, pointing to himself. “I’m from the planet Earth.”
They looked at each other and jabbered some more.
“Look,” he said, “Earth. E-A-R-T-H, Earth.” He pointed upward, described a large circle, then another smaller, and showed how Earth revolved around the sun.
One of the men poked him with a stick, or tube of some kind. It did not hurt, but angered him. He left the chains by his own method of travel, and reappeared behind the two men. They stared at the place where he had been. The chains tinkled musically. He grasped the shoulder of the offender, spun him around and slapped his face.
A cry of consternation rose from the group, echoing in the high ceilinged cavern. “SBTL!” it said, “ZBTL ... XBTL ... zbtl.”
The men instantly prostrated themselves before him. The one who had poked Stinson with the stick rose, and handed it to him. Still angered, Stinson grasped it firmly, with half a notion to break it over his head. As he did so, a flash of blue fire sprang from it. The man disappeared. A small cloud of dust settled slowly to the floor.
Stinson’s face drained pale, and suddenly, unaccountably, he was ashamed because he had no clothes.
“I didn’t mean to kill him!” he cried. “I was angry, and...”
Useless. They could not understand. For all he knew, they might think he was threatening them. The object he had thought of as a stick was in reality a long metal tube, precisely machined, with a small button near one end.
This weapon was completely out of place in a culture such as this. Or was it? What did he know of these people? Very little. They were humanoid. They had exhibited human emotions of anger, fear and, that most human of all characteristics, curiosity. But up to now the tube and the chain was the only evidence of an advanced technology, unless the ancient inscriptions in the stone wall of the pool, and the statues lining the wall were evidences.
There was a stirring among the crowd. An object like a pallet was brought, carried by four of the women. They laid it at his feet, and gestured for him to sit. He touched it cautiously, then sat.
Instantly he sprang to his feet. There, at the cavern entrance, the wind devil writhed and undulated in a brilliant harmony of colors. It remained in one spot, though, and he relaxed somewhat.
One of the women came toward him, long golden hair flowing, firm breasts dipping slightly at each step. Her eyes held a language all their own, universal. She pressed her body against him and bore him to the pallet, her kisses fire on his face.
Incongruously, he thought of Benjamin back on earth, and all the others with cylinders, who might be fighting for their lives at this moment. He pushed her roughly aside.
She spoke, and he understood! Her words were still the same gibberish, but now he knew their meaning. Somehow he knew also that the wind devil was responsible for his understanding.
“You do not want me?” she said sadly. “Then kill me.”
“Why should I kill you?”
She shrugged her beautiful shoulders. “It is the way of the Gods,” she said. “If you do not, then the others will.”
He took the tube-weapon in his hands, careful not to touch the button. “Don’t be afraid. I didn’t mean to kill the man. It was an accident. I will protect you.”
She shook her head. “One day they will find me alone, and they’ll kill me.”
She shrugged. “I have not pleased you.”
“On the contrary, you have. There is a time and place for everything, though.”
Suddenly a great voice sounded in the cavern, a voice with no direction. It came from the ceiling, the floor, the walls, the steaming pool. It was in the language of the web-footed people; it was in his own tongue. “No harm must come to this woman. The God with fingers on his feet has decreed this.”
Those in the cavern looked at the woman with fear and respect. She kissed Stinson’s feet. Two of the men came and gave her a brilliant new skirt. She smiled at him, and he thought he had never seen a more beautiful face.
The great, bodiless voice sounded again, but those in the cavern went about their activities. They did not hear.
“Who are you?”
Stinson looked at the wind devil, since it could be no one else speaking, and pointed to himself. “Me?”
“I am Stinson, of the planet Earth.”
“Yes, I see it in your mind, now. You want to live here, on this planet.”
“Then you must know where I came from, and how.”
“I do not understand how. You have a body, a physical body composed of atoms. It is impossible to move a physical body from one place to another by a mere thought and a tiny instrument, yet you have done so. You deserted me out in the desert.”
“I deserted you?” Stinson cried angrily, “You tried to kill me!”
“I was attempting communication. Why should I kill you?”
He was silent a moment, looking at the people in the cavern. “Perhaps because you feared I would become the God of these people in your place.”
Stinson felt a mental shrug. “It is of no importance. When they arrived on this planet I attempted to explain that I was not a God, but the primitive is not deeply buried in them. They soon resorted to emotion rather than reason. It is of no importance.”
“I’d hardly call them primitive, with such weapons.”
“The tube is not of their technology. That is, they did not make it directly. These are the undesirables, the incorrigibles, the nonconformists from the sixth planet. I permit them here because it occupies my time, to watch them evolve.”
“You should live so long.”
“Live?” the wind devil said. “Oh, I see your meaning. I’d almost forgotten. You are a strange entity. You travel by a means even I cannot fully understand, yet you speak of time as if some event were about to take place. I believe you think of death. I see your physical body has deteriorated since yesterday. Your body will cease to exist, almost as soon as those of the sixth planet peoples. I am most interested in you. You will bring your people, and live here.”
“I haven’t decided. There are these web-footed people, who were hostile until they thought I was a God. They have destructive weapons. Also, I don’t understand you. I see you as a cone of sand which keeps changing color and configuration. Is it your body? Where do you come from? Is this planet populated with your kind?”
The wind devil hesitated.
“Where do I originate? It seems I have always been. You see this cavern, the heated pool, the statues, the inscriptions. Half a million years ago my people were as you. That is, they lived in physical bodies. Our technology surpassed any you have seen. The tube these webfoots use is a toy by comparison. Our scientists found the ultimate nature of physical law. They learned to separate the mind from the body. Then my people set a date. Our entire race was determined to free itself from the confines of the body. The date came.”
“I do not know. I alone exist. I have searched all the levels of time and matter from the very beginning. My people are gone. Sometimes it almost comes to me, why they are gone. And this is contrary to the greatest law of all--that an entity, once in existence, can never cease to exist.”
Stinson was silent, thinking of the endless years of searching through the great gulf of time. His eyes caught sight of the woman, reclining now on the pallet. The men had left her and stood in groups, talking, glancing at him, apparently free of their awe and fear already.
The woman looked at him, and she was not smiling. “Please ask the Sand God,” she said, “to speak to my people again. Their fear of him does not last. When He is gone they will probably kill us.”
“As for the webfoots,” the wind devil, or Sand God, said, “I will destroy them. You and your people will have the entire planet.”
“Destroy them?” Stinson asked, incredulously, “all these people? They have a right to live like any one else.”
“Right? What is it--’right?’ They are entities. They exist, therefore they always will. My people are the only entities who ever died. To kill the body is unimportant.”
“No. You misunderstand. Listen, you spoke of the greatest law. Your law is a scientific hypothesis. It has to do with what comes after physical existence, not with existence itself. The greatest law is this, that an entity, once existing, must not be harmed in any way. To do so changes the most basic structure of nature.”
The Sand God did not reply. The great bodiless, directionless voice was silent, and Stinson felt as if he had been taken from some high place and set down in a dark canyon. The cone of sand was the color of wood ashes. It pulsed erratically, like a great heart missing a beat now and then. The web-footed people milled about restlessly. The woman’s eyes pleaded.
When he looked back, the Sand God was gone.
Instantly a new note rose in the cavern. The murmur of unmistakable mob fury ran over the webfoots. Several of the men approached the woman with hatred in their voices. He could not understand the words now.