The Five Hells Of Orion
by Frederick Pohl
Out in the great gas cloud of the Orion Nebula McCray found an ally—and a foe!
His name was Herrell McCray and he was scared.
As best he could tell, he was in a sort of room no bigger than a prison cell. Perhaps it was a prison cell. Whatever it was, he had no business in it; for five minutes before he had been spaceborne, on the Long Jump from Earth to the thriving colonies circling Betelgeuse Nine. McCray was ship's navigator, plotting course corrections—not that there were any, ever; but the reason there were none was that the check-sightings were made every hour of the long flight. He had read off the azimuth angles from the computer sights, automatically locked on their beacon stars, and found them correct; then out of long habit confirmed the locking mechanism visually. It was only a personal quaintness; he had done it a thousand times. And while he was looking at Betelgeuse, Rigel and Saiph ... it happened.
The room was totally dark, and it seemed to be furnished with a collection of hard, sharp, sticky and knobby objects of various shapes and a number of inconvenient sizes. McCray tripped over something that rocked under his feet and fell against something that clattered hollowly. He picked himself up, braced against something that smelled dangerously of halogen compounds, and scratched his shoulder, right through his space-tunic, against something that vibrated as he touched it.
McCray had no idea where he was, and no way to find out.
Not only was he in darkness, but in utter silence as well. No. Not quite utter silence.
Somewhere, just at the threshold of his senses, there was something like a voice. He could not quite hear it, but it was there. He sat as still as he could, listening; it remained elusive.
Probably it was only an illusion.
But the room itself was hard fact. McCray swore violently and out loud.
It was crazy and impossible. There simply was no way for him to get from a warm, bright navigator's cubicle on Starship Jodrell Bank to this damned, dark, dismal hole of a place where everything was out to hurt him and nothing explained what was going on. He cried aloud in exasperation: "If I could only see!"
He tripped and fell against something that was soft, slimy and, like baker's dough, not at all resilient.
A flickering halo of pinkish light appeared. He sat up, startled. He was looking at something that resembled a suit of medieval armor.
It was, he saw in a moment, not armor but a spacesuit. But what was the light? And what were these other things in the room?
Wherever he looked, the light danced along with his eyes. It was like having tunnel vision or wearing blinders. He could see what he was looking at, but he could see nothing else. And the things he could see made no sense. A spacesuit, yes; he knew that he could construct a logical explanation for that with no trouble—maybe a subspace meteorite striking the Jodrell Bank, an explosion, himself knocked out, brought here in a suit ... well, it was an explanation with more holes than fabric, like a fisherman's net, but at least it was rational.
How to explain a set of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? A space-ax? Or the old-fashioned child's rocking-chair, the chemistry set—or, most of all, the scrap of gaily printed fabric that, when he picked it up, turned out to be a girl's scanty bathing suit? It was slightly reassuring, McCray thought, to find that most of the objects were more or less familiar. Even the child's chair—why, he'd had one more or less like that himself, long before he was old enough to go to school. But what were they doing here?
Not everything he saw was familiar. The walls of the room itself were strange. They were not metal or plaster or knotty pine; they were not papered, painted or overlaid with stucco. They seemed to be made of some sort of hard organic compound, perhaps a sort of plastic or processed cellulose. It was hard to tell colors in the pinkish light. But they seemed to have none. They were "neutral"—the color of aged driftwood or unbleached cloth.
Three of the walls were that way, and the floor and ceiling. The fourth wall was something else. Areas in it had the appearance of gratings; from them issued the pungent, distasteful halogen odor. They might be ventilators, he thought; but if so the air they brought in was worse than what he already had.
McCray was beginning to feel more confident. It was astonishing how a little light made an impossible situation bearable, how quickly his courage flowed back when he could see again.
He stood still, thinking. Item, a short time ago—subjectively it seemed to be minutes—he had been aboard the Jodrell Bank with nothing more on his mind than completing his check-sighting and meeting one of the female passengers for coffee. Item, apart from being shaken up and—he admitted it—scared damn near witless, he did not seem to be hurt. Item, wherever he was now, it became, not so much what had happened to him, but what had happened to the ship?
He allowed that thought to seep into his mind. Suppose there had been an accident to the Jodrell Bank.
He could, of course, be dead. All this could be the fantasies of a cooling brain.
McCray grinned into the pink-lit darkness. The thought had somehow refreshed him, like icewater between rounds, and with a clearing head he remembered what a spacesuit was good for.
It held a radio.
He pressed the unsealing tabs, slipped his hand into the vacant chest of the suit and pulled out the hand mike. "This is Herrell McCray," he said, "calling the Jodrell Bank."
No response. He frowned. "This is Herrell McCray, calling Jodrell Bank.
"Herrell McCray, calling anybody, come in, please."
But there was no answer.
Thoughtfully he replaced the microphone. This was ultrawave radio, something more than a million times faster than light, with a range measured, at least, in hundreds of light-years. If there was no answer, he was a good long way from anywhere.
Of course, the thing might not be operating.
He reached for the microphone again—
He cried aloud.
The pinkish lights went out. He was in the dark again, worse dark than before.
For before the light had gone, McCray had seen what had escaped his eyes before. The suit and the microphone were clear enough in the pinkish glimmer; but the hand—his own hand, cupped to hold the microphone—he had not seen at all. Nor his arm. Nor, in one fleeting moment of study, his chest.
McCray could not see any part of his own body at all.
Someone else could.
Someone was watching Herrell McCray, with the clinical fascination of a biochemist observing the wigglings of paramecia in a new antibiotic—and with the prayerful emotions of a starving, shipwrecked, sailor, watching the inward bobbing drift of a wave-born cask that may contain food.
Suppose you call him "Hatcher" (and suppose you call it a "him.") Hatcher was not exactly male, because his race had no true males; but it did have females and he was certainly not that. Hatcher did not in any way look like a human being, but they had features in common.
If Hatcher and McCray had somehow managed to strike up an acquaintance, they might have got along very well. Hatcher, like McCray, was an adventurous soul, young, able, well-learned in the technical sciences of his culture. Both enjoyed games—McCray baseball, poker and three-dimensional chess; Hatcher a number of sports which defy human description. Both held positions of some importance—considering their ages—in the affairs of their respective worlds.
Physically they were nothing alike. Hatcher was a three-foot, hard-shelled sphere of jelly. He had "arms" and "legs," but they were not organically attached to "himself." They were snakelike things which obeyed the orders of his brain as well as your mind can make your toes curl; but they did not touch him directly. Indeed, they worked as well a yard or a quarter-mile away as they did when, rarely, they rested in the crevices they had been formed from in his "skin." At greater distances they worked less well, for reasons irrelevant to the Law of Inverse Squares.
Hatcher's principal task at this moment was to run the "probe team" which had McCray under observation, and he was more than a little excited. His members, disposed about the room where he had sent them on various errands, quivered and shook a little; yet they were the calmest limbs in the room; the members of the other team workers were in a state of violent commotion.
The probe team had had a shock.
"Paranormal powers," muttered Hatcher's second in command, and the others mumbled agreement. Hatcher ordered silence, studying the specimen from Earth.
After a long moment he turned his senses from the Earthman. "Incredible—but it's true enough," he said. "I'd better report. Watch him," he added, but that was surely unnecessary. Their job was to watch McCray, and they would do their job; and even more, not one of them could have looked away to save his life from the spectacle of a creature as odd and, from their point of view, hideously alien as Herrell McCray.
Hatcher hurried through the halls of the great buried structure in which he worked, toward the place where the supervising council of all probes would be in permanent session. They admitted him at once.
Hatcher identified himself and gave a quick, concise report:
"The subject recovered consciousness a short time ago and began to inspect his enclosure. His method of doing so was to put his own members in physical contact with the various objects in the enclosure. After observing him do this for a time we concluded he might be unable to see and so we illuminated his field of vision for him.
"This appeared to work well for a time. He seemed relatively undisturbed. However, he then reverted to physical-contact, manipulating certain appurtenances of an artificial skin we had provided for him.
"He then began to vibrate the atmosphere by means of resonating organs in his breathing passage.
"Simultaneously, the object he was holding, attached to the artificial skin, was discovered to be generating paranormal forces."
The supervising council rocked with excitement. "You're sure?" demanded one of the councilmen.
"Yes, sir. The staff is preparing a technical description of the forces now, but I can say that they are electromagnetic vibrations modulating a carrier wave of very high speed, and in turn modulated by the vibrations of the atmosphere caused by the subject's own breathing."
"Fantastic," breathed the councillor, in a tone of dawning hope. "How about communicating with him, Hatcher? Any progress?"
"Well ... not much, sir. He suddenly panicked. We don't know why; but we thought we'd better pull back and let him recover for a while."
The council conferred among itself for a moment, Hatcher waiting. It was not really a waste of time for him; with the organs he had left in the probe-team room, he was in fairly close touch with what was going on—knew that McCray was once again fumbling among the objects in the dark, knew that the team-members had tried illuminating the room for him briefly and again produced the rising panic.
Still, Hatcher fretted. He wanted to get back.
"Stop fidgeting," commanded the council leader abruptly. "Hatcher, you are to establish communication at once."
"But, sir...." Hatcher swung closer, his thick skin quivering slightly; he would have gestured if he had brought members with him to gesture with. "We've done everything we dare. We've made the place homey for him—" actually, what he said was more like, we've warmed the biophysical nuances of his enclosure—"and tried to guess his needs; and we're frightening him half to death. We can't go faster. This creature is in no way similar to us, you know. He relies on paranormal forces—heat, light, kinetic energy—for his life. His chemistry is not ours, his processes of thought are not ours, his entire organism is closer to the inanimate rocks of a sea-bottom than to ourselves."
"Understood, Hatcher. In your first report you stated these creatures were intelligent."
"Yes, sir. But not in our way."
"But in a way, and you must learn that way. I know." One lobster-claw shaped member drifted close to the councillor's body and raised itself in an admonitory gesture. "You want time. But we don't have time, Hatcher. Yours is not the only probe team working. The Central Masses team has just turned in a most alarming report."
"Have they secured a subject?" Hatcher demanded jealously.
The councillor paused. "Worse than that, Hatcher. I am afraid their subjects have secured one of them. One of them is missing."
There was a moment's silence. Frozen, Hatcher could only wait. The council room was like a tableau in a museum until the councillor spoke again, each council member poised over his locus-point, his members drifting about him.
Finally the councillor said, "I speak for all of us, I think. If the Old Ones have seized one of our probers our time margin is considerably narrowed. Indeed, we may not have any time at all. You must do everything you can to establish communication with your subject."
"But the danger to the specimen—" Hatcher protested automatically.
"—is no greater," said the councillor, "than the danger to every one of us if we do not find allies now."
Hatcher returned to his laboratory gloomily.
It was just like the council to put the screws on; they had a reputation for demanding results at any cost—even at the cost of destroying the only thing you had that would make results possible.
Hatcher did not like the idea of endangering the Earthman. It cannot be said that he was emotionally involved; it was not pity or sympathy that caused him to regret the dangers in moving too fast toward communication. Not even Hatcher had quite got over the revolting physical differences between the Earthman and his own people. But Hatcher did not want him destroyed. It had been difficult enough getting him here.
Hatcher checked through the members that he had left with the rest of his team and discovered that there were no immediate emergencies, so he took time to eat. In Hatcher's race this was accomplished in ways not entirely pleasant to Earthmen. A slit in the lower hemisphere of his body opened, like a purse, emitting a thin, pussy, fetid fluid which Hatcher caught and poured into a disposal trough at the side of the eating room. He then stuffed the slit with pulpy vegetation the texture of kelp; it closed, and his body was supplied with nourishment for another day.
He returned quickly to the room.
His second in command was busy, but one of the other team workers reported—nothing new—and asked about Hatcher's appearance before the council. Hatcher passed the question off. He considered telling his staff about the disappearance of the Central Masses team member, but decided against it. He had not been told it was secret. On the other hand, he had not been told it was not. Something of this importance was not lightly to be gossiped about. For endless generations the threat of the Old Ones had hung over his race, those queer, almost mythical beings from the Central Masses of the galaxy. One brush with them, in ages past, had almost destroyed Hatcher's people. Only by running and hiding, bearing one of their planets with them and abandoning it—with its population—as a decoy, had they arrived at all.
Now they had detected mapping parties of the Old Ones dangerously near the spiral arm of the galaxy in which their planet was located, they had begun the Probe Teams to find some way of combating them, or of fleeing again.
But it seemed that the Probe Teams themselves might be betraying their existence to their enemies—
The call was urgent; he hurried to see what it was about. It was his second in command, very excited. "What is it?" Hatcher demanded.
Hatcher was patient; he knew his assistant well. Obviously something was about to happen. He took the moment to call his members back to him for feeding; they dodged back to their niches on his skin, fitted themselves into their vestigial slots, poured back their wastes into his own circulation and ingested what they needed from the meal he had just taken.... "Now!" cried the assistant. "Look!"
At what passed among Hatcher's people for a viewing console an image was forming. Actually it was the assistant himself who formed it, not a cathode trace or projected shadow; but it showed what it was meant to show.
Hatcher was startled. "Another one! And—is it a different species? Or merely a different sex?"
"Study the probe for yourself," the assistant invited.
Hatcher studied him frostily; his patience was not, after all, endless. "No matter," he said at last. "Bring the other one in."
And then, in a completely different mood, "We may need him badly. We may be in the process of killing our first one now."
"Killing him, Hatcher?"
Hatcher rose and shook himself, his mindless members floating away like puppies dislodged from suck. "Council's orders," he said. "We've got to go into Stage Two of the project at once."
Before Stage Two began, or before Herrell McCray realized it had begun, he had an inspiration.
The dark was absolute, but he remembered where the spacesuit had been and groped his way to it and, yes, it had what all spacesuits had to have. It had a light. He found the toggle that turned it on and pressed it.
Light. White, flaring, Earthly light, that showed everything—even himself.
"God bless," he said, almost beside himself with joy. Whatever that pinkish, dancing halo had been, it had thrown him into a panic; now that he could see his own hand again, he could blame the weird effects on some strange property of the light.
At the moment he heard the click that was the beginning of Stage Two.
He switched off the light and stood for a moment, listening.
For a second he thought he heard the far-off voice, quiet, calm and almost hopeless, that he had sensed hours before; but then that was gone. Something else was gone. Some faint mechanical sound that had hardly registered at the time, but was not missing. And there was, perhaps, a nice new sound that had not been there before; a very faint, an almost inaudible elfin hiss.
McCray switched the light on and looked around. There seemed to be no change.
And yet, surely, it was warmer in here.
He could see no difference; but perhaps, he thought, he could smell one. The unpleasant halogen odor from the grating was surely stronger now. He stood there, perplexed.
A tinny little voice from the helmet of the space suit said sharply, amazement in its tone, "McCray, is that you? Where the devil are you calling from?"
He forgot smell, sound and temperature and leaped for the suit. "This is Herrell McCray," he cried. "I'm in a room of some sort, apparently on a planet of approximate Earth mass. I don't know—"
"McCray!" cried the tiny voice in his ear. "Where are you? This is Jodrell Bank calling. Answer, please!"
"I am answering, damn it," he roared. "What took you so long?"
"Herrell McCray," droned the tiny voice in his ear, "Herrell McCray, Herrell McCray, this is Jodrell Bank responding to your message, acknowledge please. Herrell McCray, Herrell McCray...."
It kept on, and on.
McCray took a deep breath and thought. Something was wrong. Either they didn't hear him, which meant the radio wasn't transmitting, or—no. That was not it; they had heard him, because they were responding. But it seemed to take them so long....
Abruptly his face went white. Took them so long! He cast back in his mind, questing for a fact, unable to face its implications. When was it he called them? Two hours ago? Three?
Did that mean—did it possibly mean—that there was a lag of an hour or two each way? Did it, for example, mean that at the speed of his suit's pararadio, millions of times faster than light, it took hours to get a message to the ship and back?
And if so ... where in the name of heaven was he?
Herrell McCray was a navigator, which is to say, a man who has learned to trust the evidence of mathematics and instrument readings beyond the guesses of his "common sense." When Jodrell Bank, hurtling faster than light in its voyage between stars, made its regular position check, common sense was a liar. Light bore false witness. The line of sight was trustworthy directly forward and directly after—sometimes not even then—and it took computers, sensing their data through instruments, to comprehend a star bearing and convert three fixes into a position.
If the evidence of his radio contradicted common sense, common sense was wrong. Perhaps it was impossible to believe what the radio's message implied; but it was not necessary to "believe," only to act.
McCray thumbed down the transmitter button and gave a concise report of his situation and his guesses. "I don't know how I got here. I don't know how long I've been gone, since I was unconscious for a time. However, if the transmission lag is a reliable indication—" he swallowed and went on—"I'd estimate I am something more than five hundred light-years away from you at this moment. That's all I have to say, except for one more word: Help."
He grinned sourly and released the button. The message was on its way, and it would be hours before he could have a reply. Therefore he had to consider what to do next.
He mopped his brow. With the droning, repetitious call from the ship finally quiet, the room was quiet again. And warm.
Very warm, he thought tardily; and more than that. The halogen stench was strong in his nostrils again.
Hurriedly McCray scrambled into the suit. By the time he was sealed down he was coughing from the bottom of his lungs, deep, tearing rasps that pained him, uncontrollable. Chlorine or fluorine, one of them was in the air he had been breathing. He could not guess where it had come from; but it was ripping his lungs out.
He flushed the interior of the suit out with a reckless disregard for the wastage of his air reserve, holding his breath as much as he could, daring only shallow gasps that made him retch and gag. After a long time he could breathe, though his eyes were spilling tears.
He could see the fumes in the room now. The heat was building up.
Automatically—now that he had put it on and so started its servo-circuits operating—the suit was cooling him. This was a deep-space suit, regulation garb when going outside the pressure hull of an FTL ship. It was good up to at least five hundred degrees in thin air, perhaps three or four hundred in dense. In thin air or in space it was the elastic joints and couplings that depolymerized when the heat grew too great; in dense air, with conduction pouring energy in faster than the cooling coils could suck it out and hurl it away, it was the refrigerating equipment that broke down.
McCray had no way of knowing just how hot it was going to get. Nor, for that matter, had the suit been designed to operate in a corrosive medium.
All in all it was time for him to do something.
Among the debris on the floor, he remembered, was a five-foot space-ax, tungsten-steel blade and springy aluminum shaft.
McCray caught it up and headed for the door. It felt good in his gauntlets, a rewarding weight; any weapon straightens the back of the man who holds it, and McCray was grateful for this one. With something concrete to do he could postpone questioning. Never mind why he had been brought here; never mind how. Never mind what he would, or could, do next; all those questions could recede into the background of his mind while he swung the ax and battered his way out of this poisoned oven.
Crash-clang! The double jolt ran up the shaft of the ax, through his gauntlets and into his arm; but he was making progress, he could see the plastic—or whatever it was—of the door. It was chipping out. Not easily, very reluctantly; but flaking out in chips that left a white powdery residue.
At this rate, he thought grimly, he would be an hour getting through it. Did he have an hour?
But it did not take an hour. One blow was luckier than the rest; it must have snapped the lock mechanism. The door shook and slid ajar. McCray got the thin of the blade into the crack and pried it wide.
He was in another room, maybe a hall, large and bare.
McCray put the broad of his back against the broken door and pressed it as nearly closed as he could; it might not keep the gas and heat out, but it would retard them.
The room was again unlighted—at least to McCray's eyes. There was not even that pink pseudo-light that had baffled him; here was nothing but the beam of his suit lamp. What it showed was cryptic. There were evidences of use: shelves, boxy contraptions that might have been cupboards, crude level surfaces attached to the walls that might have been workbenches. Yet they were queerly contrived, for it was not possible to guess from them much about the creatures who used them. Some were near the floor, some at waist height, some even suspended from the ceiling itself. A man would need a ladder to work at these benches and McCray, staring, thought briefly of many-armed blind giants or shapeless huge intelligent amoebae, and felt the skin prickle at the back of his neck.
He tapped half-heartedly at one of the closed cupboards, and was not surprised when it proved as refractory as the door. Undoubtedly he could batter it open, but it was not likely that much would be left of its contents when he was through; and there was the question of time.
But his attention was diverted by a gleam from one of the benches. Metallic parts lay heaped in a pile. He poked at them with a stiff-fingered gauntlet; they were oddly familiar. They were, he thought, very much like the parts of a bullet-gun.
In fact, they were. He could recognize barrel, chamber, trigger, even a couple of cartridges, neatly opened and the grains of powder stacked beside them. It was an older, clumsier model than the kind he had seen in survival locker, on the Jodrell Bank—and abruptly wished he were carrying now—but it was a pistol. Another trophy, like the strange assortment in the other room? He could not guess. But the others had been more familiar; they all have come from his own ship. He was prepared to swear that nothing like this antique had been aboard.
The drone began again in his ear, as it had at five-minute intervals all along:
"Herrell McCray, Herrell McCray, Herrell McCray, this is Jodrell Bank calling Herrell McCray...."
And louder, blaring, then fading to normal volume as the AVC circuits toned the signal down, another voice. A woman's voice, crying out in panic and fear: "Jodrell Bank! Where are you? Help!"
Hatcher's second in command said: "He has got through the first survival test. In fact, he broke his way out! What next?"
"Wait!" Hatcher ordered sharply. He was watching the new specimen and a troublesome thought had occurred to him. The new one was female and seemed to be in pain; but it was not the pain that disturbed Hatcher, it was something far more immediate to his interests.
"I think," he said slowly, "that they are in contact."
His assistant vibrated startlement.
"I know," Hatcher said, "but watch. Do you see? He is going straight toward her."
Hatcher, who was not human, did not possess truly human emotions; but he did feel amazement when he was amazed, and fear when there was cause to be afraid. These specimens, obtained with so much difficulty, needed so badly, were his responsibility. He knew the issues involved much better than any of his helpers. They could only be surprised at the queer antics of the aliens with attached limbs and strange powers. Hatcher knew that this was not a freak show, but a matter of life and death. He said, musing:
"This new one, I cannot communicate with her, but I get—almost—a whisper, now and then. The first one, the male, nothing. But this female is perhaps not quite mute."
"Then shall we abandon him and work with her, forgetting the first one?"
Hatcher hesitated. "No," he said at last. "The male is responding well. Remember that when last this experiment was done every subject died; he is alive at least. But I am wondering. We can't quite communicate with the female—"
"But I'm not sure that others can't."
The woman's voice was at such close range that McCray's suit radio made a useful RDF set. He located her direction easily enough, shielding the tiny built-in antenna with the tungsten-steel blade of the ax, while she begged him to hurry. Her voice was heavily accented, with some words in a language he did not recognize. She seemed to be in shock.
McCray was hardly surprised at that; he had been close enough to shock himself. He tried to reassure her as he searched for a way out of the hall, but in the middle of a word her voice stopped.
He hesitated, hefting the ax, glancing back at the way he had come. There had to be a way out, even if it meant chopping through a wall.
When he turned around again there was a door. It was oddly shaped and unlike the door he had hewn through, but clearly a door all the same, and it was open.
McCray regarded it grimly. He went back in his memory with meticulous care. Had he not looked at, this very spot a matter of moments before? He had. And had there been an open door then? There had not. There hadn't been even a shadowy outline of the three-sided, uneven opening that stood there now.
Still, it led in the proper direction. McCray added one more inexplicable fact to his file and walked through. He was in another hall—or tunnel—rising quite steeply to the right. By his reckoning it was the proper direction. He labored up it, sweating under the weight of the suit, and found another open door, this one round, and behind it—
Yes, there was the woman whose voice he had heard.
It was a woman, all right. The voice had been so strained that he hadn't been positive. Even now, short black hair might not have proved it, and she was lying face down but the waist and hips were a woman's, even though she wore a bulky, quilted suit of coveralls.
He knelt beside her and gently turned her face.
She was unconscious. Broad, dark face, with no make-up; she was apparently in her late thirties. She appeared to be Chinese.
She breathed, a little raggedly but without visible discomfort; her face was relaxed as though she were sleeping. She did not rouse as he moved her.
He realized she was breathing the air of the room they were in.
His instant first thought was that she was in danger of asphyxiation; he started to leap up to get, and put her into, the small, flimsy space suit he saw slumped in a corner. At second thought he realized that she would not be breathing so comfortably if the air were full of the poisonous reek that had driven him out of the first room.
There was an obvious conclusion to be drawn from that; perhaps he could economize on his own air reserve. Tentatively he cracked the seal of his faceplate and took a cautious breath. The faint reek of halogens was still there, but it was not enough even to make his eyes water, and the temperature of the air was merely pleasantly warm.
He shook her, but she did not wake.
He stood up and regarded her thoughtfully. It was a disappointment. Her voice had given him hope of a companion, someone to talk things over with, to compare notes—someone who, if not possessing any more answers than himself, could at least serve as a sounding-board in the give-and-take of discussion that might make some sort of sense out of the queerness that permeated this place.
What he had instead was another burden to carry, for she was unable to care for herself and surely he could not leave her in this condition.
He slipped off the helmet absently and pressed the buttons that turned off the suit's cooling units, looking around the chamber. It was bare except for a litter of irrelevant human articles—much like the one in which he himself had first appeared, except that the articles were not Jodrell Bank's. A woven cane screen, some cooking utensils, a machine like a desk calculator, some books—he picked up one of the books and glanced at it. It was printed on coarse paper, and the text was in ideographs, Chinese, perhaps; he did not know Oriental languages.
McCray knew that the Jodrell Bank was not the only FTL vessel in this volume of space. The Betelgeuse run was a busy one, as FTL shipping lanes went. Almost daily departures from some point on Earth to one of the colonies, with equal traffic in the other direction.
Of course, if the time-lag in communication did not lie, he was no longer anywhere within that part of the sky; Betelgeuse was only a few hundred light-years from Sol, and subspace radio covered that distance in something like fifty minutes. But suppose the woman came from another ship; perhaps a Singapore or Tokyo vessel, on the same run. She might easily have been trapped as he was trapped. And if she were awake, he could find out from her what had happened, and thus learn something that might be of use.
Although it was hard to see what might be of use in these most unprecedented and unpleasant circumstances.
The drone from Jodrell Bank began again: "Herrell McCray, Herrell McCray, Herrell McCray, this is Jodrell Bank responding—"
He turned the volume down but did not dare turn it off. He had lost track of time and couldn't guess when they would respond to his last message. He needed to hear that response when it came. Meanwhile, what about his fellow-captive?
Her suit was only a flimsy work-about model, as airtight as his but without the bracing required for building jet propulsors into it. It contained air reserves enough, and limited water; but neither food nor emergency medical supplies.
McCray had both of these, of course. It was merely one more reason why he could not abandon her and go on ... if, that is, he could find some reason for going in one direction preferably to another, and if a wall would conveniently open again to let him go there.
He could give her an injection of a stimulant, he mused. Would that improve the situation? Not basically, he decided, with some regret. Sleep was a need, not a luxury; it would not help her to be awakened chemically, when body was demonstrating its need for rest by refusing to wake to a call. Anyway, if she were not seriously injured she would undoubtedly wake of her own accord before long.
He checked pulse and eye-pupils; everything normal, no evidence of bleeding or somatic shock.
So much for that. At least he had made one simple decision on his own, he thought with grim humor. To that extent he had reestablished his mastery of his own fate, and it made him feel a touch better.
Perhaps he could make some more. What about trying to find a way out of this place, for instance?
It was highly probable that they would not be able to stay here indefinitely, that was the first fact to take into account. Either his imagination was jumpy, or the reek of halogens was a bit stronger. In any case there was no guarantee that this place would remain habitable any longer than the last, and he had to reckon with the knowledge that a spacesuit's air reserve was not infinite. These warrens might prove a death trap.
McCray paused, leaning on the haft of his ax, wondering how much of that was reason and how much panic. He knew that he wanted, more than anything to get out of this place, to see sky and stars, to be where no skulking creatures behind false panels in the walls, or peering through televiewers concealed in the furnishings, could trick and trap him. But did he have any reason to believe that he would be better off somewhere else? Might it not be even that this place was a sort of vivarium maintained for his survival—that the leak of poison gases and heat in the first room was not a deliberate thrust at his safety, but a failure of the shielding that alone could keep him alive?
He didn't know, and in the nature of things could not. But paradoxically the thought that escape might increase his danger made him all the more anxious to escape. He wanted to know. If death was waiting for him outside his chamber, McCray wanted to face it—now—while he was still in good physical shape.
While he was still sane. For there was a limit to how many phenomena he could store away in the back of his mind; sooner or later the contradictions, the puzzles, the fears would have to be faced.
Yet what could he do with the woman? Conceivably he could carry her; but could he also carry her suit? He did not dare take her without it. It would be no kindness to plunge her into another atmosphere of poison, and watch her die because he had taken her from her only hope of safety. Yet the suit weighed at least fifty pounds. His own was slightly more; the girl, say, a hundred and thirty. It added up to more mass than he could handle, at least for more than a few dozen yards.
The speaker in his helmet said suddenly: "Herrell McCray, this is Jodrell Bank. Your transmission received. We are vectoring and ranging your signal. Stand by. We will call again in ten minutes." And, in a different tone: "God help you, Mac. What the devil happened to you?"
It was a good question. McCray swore uselessly because he didn't know the answer.
He took wry pleasure in imagining what was going on aboard Jodrell Bank at that moment. At least not all the bewilderment was his own. They would be utterly baffled. As far as they were concerned, their navigator had been on the bridge at one moment and the next moment gone, tracelessly. That in itself was a major puzzle; the only way off an FTL ship in flight was in the direction called "suicide." That would have been their assumption, all right, as soon as they realized he was gone and checked the ship to make sure he was not for some reason wandering about in a cargo hold or unconscious in a closet after some hard-to-imagine attack from another crewman. They would have thought that somehow, crazily, he had got into a suit—there was the suit—and jumped out of a lock. But there would have been no question of going back to look for him. True, they could have tracked his subspace radio if he had used it. But what would have been the good of that? The first question, an all but unanswerable one, would be how long ago he had jumped. Even if they knew that, Jodrell Bank, making more than five hundred times light-speed, could not be stopped in fewer than a dozen light-years. They could hardly hope to return to even approximately the location in space where he might have jumped; and there was no hope of reaching a position, stopping, casting about, starting again—the accelerations were too enormous, a man too tiny a dust-mote.
And, of course, he would have been dead in the first place, anyway. The transition from FTL drive to normal space was instantly fatal except within the protecting shield of a ship's engines.
So they would have given him up and, hours later—or days, for he had lost track of time—they would have received his message. What would they make of that?
He didn't know. After all, he hardly knew what he made of it himself.
The woman still slept. The way back was still open. He could tell by sniffing the air that the poisons in the atmosphere were still gaining. Ahead there was nothing but blank walls, and the clutter of useless equipment littering the floor. Stolidly McCray closed his mind and waited.
The signal came at last.
"Mac, we have verified your position." The voice was that of Captain Tillinger, strained and shaking. "I don't know how you got there, but unless the readings lie you're the hell of a long way off. The bearing is identical with Messier object M-42 and the distance—" raggedly—"is compatible. About a thousand light-years from us, Mac. One way or another, you've been kidnaped. I—I—"
The voice hesitated, unable to say what it could not accept as fact but could not deny. "I think," it managed at last, "that we've finally come across those super-beings in space that we've wondered about."
Hatcher's detached limbs were quivering with excitement—and with more than excitement, because he was afraid. He was trying to conceal from the others just how afraid he was.
His second in command reported: "We have the second subject out of consciousness. How long do you want us to keep her that way?"
"Until I tell you otherwise! How about the prime subject?"
"We can't tell, Hatcher. But you were right. He is in communication with others, it seems, and by paranormal means." Hatcher noted the dismay in what his assistant said. He understood the dismay well enough. It was one thing to work on a project involving paranormal forces as an exercise in theory. It was something else entirely to see them in operation.
But there was more cause for dismay than that, and Hatcher alone knew just how bad the situation was. He summoned one of his own members to him and impressed on it a progress report for the Council. He sent it floating through the long warrens of his people's world, ordered his assistants back to their work and closed in his thoughts to consider what had happened.
These two creatures, with their command of forces in the paranormal—i.e., the electromagnetic—spectrum, seemed able to survive in the environments prepared for them. That was step one. No previous team had done as well. This was not the first time a probe team of his race had snatched a warmblooded biped from a spaceship for study—because their operation forces, psionic in nature, operated in non-Euclidean ways, it was easiest for them to make contact with the crew of a ship in the non-Euclidean space of FTL drive.
But it was the first time that the specimens had survived. He reviewed the work they had already done with the male specimen. He had shown himself unable to live in the normal atmospheric conditions of Hatcher's world; but that was to be expected, after all, and the creature had been commendably quick about getting out of a bad environment. Probably they had blundered in illuminating the scene for him, Hatcher conceded. He didn't know how badly he had blundered, for the concept of "light" from a general source, illuminating not only what the mind wished to see but irrelevant matter as well, had never occurred to Hatcher or any of his race; all of their senses operated through the mind itself, and what to them was "light" was a sort of focusing of attention. But although something about that episode which Hatcher failed to understand had gone wrong, the specimen had not been seriously harmed by it. The specimen was doing well. Probably they could now go to the hardest test of all, the one which would mean success or failure. Probably they could so modify the creature as to make direct communication possible.
And the other specimen?
Hatcher would have frowned, if he had had brow muscles to shape such an expression—or a brow to be shaped. The female specimen was the danger. His own people knew how to shield their thoughts. This one evidently did not. It was astonishing that the Old Ones had not already encountered these bipeds, so loosely guarded was their radiation—when they radiated at all, of course, for only a few of them seemed to possess any psionic power worth mentioning.
Hatcher hastily drove that thought from his mind, for what he proposed to do with the male specimen was to give him that power.
And yet there was no choice for Hatcher's people, because they were faced with disaster. Hatcher, through his communications from the Council, knew how close the disaster was. When one of the probers from the Central Masses team disappeared, the only conclusion that could be drawn was the Old Ones had discovered them. They needed allies; more, they needed allies who had control of the electromagnetic forces that made the Old Ones so potent and so feared.
In the male and female they had snatched out of space they might have found those allies. But another thought was in Hatcher's mind: Suppose the Old Ones found them too?
Hatcher made up his mind. He could not delay any longer.
"Open the way to the surface," he ordered. "As soon as possible, take both of them to where we can work."
The object Captain Tillinger had called "M-42" was no stranger to Herrell McCray. It was the Great Nebula in Orion, in Earth's telescopes a fuzzy patch of light, in cold fact a great and glowing cloud of gas. M-42 was not an external galaxy, like most of the "nebulae" in Messier's catalogue, but it was nothing so tiny as a single sun either. Its hydrogen mass spanned dozens of light-years. Imbedded in it—growing in it, as they fed on the gas that surrounded them—were scores of hot, bright new suns.
New suns. In all the incongruities that swarmed around him McCray took time to consider that one particular incongruity. The suns of the Orion gas cloud were of the spectral class called "B"—young suns, less than a thousandth as old as a Sol. They simply had not been in existence long enough to own stable planetary systems—much less planets which themselves were old enough to have cooled, brewed chemical complexes and thus in time produced life. But surely he was on a planet....
McCray breathed a deep sigh and for one more time turned his mind away from unprofitable speculations. The woman stirred slightly. McCray knelt to look at her; then, on quick impulse, opened his medical kit, took out a single-shot capsule of a stimulant and slipped it neatly into the exposed vein of her arm.
In about two minutes she would be awake. Good enough, thought McCray; at least he would have someone to talk to. Now if only they could find a way out of this place. If a door would open, as the other door had, and—
He paused, staring.
There was another door. Open.
He felt himself swaying, threw out an arm and realized that he was ... falling? Floating? Moving toward the door, somehow, not as though he were being dragged, not as though he were walking, but surely and rather briskly moving along.
His feet were not touching the ground.
It wasn't a volitional matter. His intentions had nothing to do with it. He flailed out, and touched nothing; nor did he slow his motion at all. He fought against it, instinctively; and then reason took over and he stopped.
The woman's form lifted from the floor ahead of him. She was still unconscious. From the clutter on the floor, her lightweight space suit rose, too; suit and girl, they floated ahead of him, toward the door and out.
McCray cried out and tried to run after them. His legs flailed and, of course, touched nothing; but it did seem that he was moving faster. The woman and her suit were disappearing around a bend, but he was right behind them.
He became conscious of the returning reek of gases. He flipped up the plate of his helmet and lunged at the girl, miraculously caught her in one hand and, straining, caught the suit with the other.
Stuffing her into the suit was hard, awkward work, like dressing a doll that is too large for its garments; but he managed it, closed her helmet, saw the flexible parts of her suit bulge out slightly as its automatic pressure regulators filled it with air.
They drove along, faster and faster, until they came to a great portal, and out into the blinding radiance of a molten copper sky.
Gathered in a circle were a score or more of Hatcher's people.
McCray didn't know they were Hatcher's people, of course. He did not know even that they were animate beings, for they lacked all the features of animals that he had been used to. No eyes. No faces. Their detached members, bobbing about seemingly at random, did not appear to have any relation to the irregular spheres that were their owners.
The woman got unevenly to her feet, her faceplate staring toward the creatures. McCray heard a smothered exclamation in his suit-phones.
"Are you all right?" he demanded sharply. The great crystal eye turned round to look at him.
"Oh, the man who spoke to me." Her voice was taut but controlled. The accent was gone; her control was complete. "I am Ann Mei-Ling, of the Woomara. What are—those?"
McCray said, "Our kidnappers, I guess. They don't look like much, do they?"
She laughed shakily, without answering. The creatures seemed to be waiting for something, McCray thought; if indeed they were creatures and not machines or—or whatever one might expect to find, in the impossible event of being cast away on an improbable planet of an unexplored sun. He touched the woman's helmet reassuringly and walked toward the aliens, raising his arms.
"Hello," he said. "I am Herrell McCray."
He half turned; the woman watching him. "I don't know what to do next," he confessed.
"Sit down," she said suddenly. He stared. "No, you must! They want you to sit down."
"I didn't hear—" he began, then shrugged. He sat down.
"Now lie stretched out and open your face mask."
"Here? Listen—Ann—Miss Mei-Ling, whatever you said your name was! Don't you feel the heat? If I crack my mask—"
"But you must." She spoke very confidently. "It is s'in fo—-what do you call it—telepathy, I think. But I can hear them. They want you to open your mask. No, it won't kill you. They understand what they are doing."
She hesitated, then said, with less assurance, "They need us, McCray. There is something ... I am not sure, but something bad. They need help, and think you can give it to them. So open your helmet as they wish, please."
McCray closed his eyes and grimaced; but there was no help for it, he had no better ideas. And anyway, he thought, he could close it again quickly enough if these things had guessed wrong.
The creatures moved purposefully toward McCray, and he found himself the prisoner of a dozen unattached arms. Surprised, he struggled, but helplessly; no, he would not be able to close the plate again!... But the heat was no worse. Somehow they were shielding him.
A tiny member, like one of the unattached arms but much smaller, writhed through the air toward him, hesitated over his eyes and released something tinier still, something so small and so close that McCray could not focus his eyes upon it. It moved deliberately toward his face.
The woman was saying, as if to herself, "The thing they fear is—far away, but—oh, no! My God!"
There was a terrible loud scream, but McCray was not quite sure he heard it. It might have been his own, he thought crazily; for that tiny floating thing had found his face and was burrowing deep inside; and the pain was beyond belief.
The pain was incredible. It was worse than anything he had ever felt, and it grew ... and then it was gone.
What it was that the spheroidal aliens had done to his mind McCray had no way of learning. He could only know that a door had been open. An opaque screen was removed. He was free of his body.
He was more than free, he was extended—increased—enlarged. He was inside the body of an alien, and the alien was in him. He was also outside both, looking at them.
McCray had never felt anything like it in his life. It was a situation without even a close analogue. He had had a woman in his arms, he had been part of a family, he had shared the youthful sense of exploration that comes in small, eager groups: These were the comparisons that came to his mind. This was so much more than any of these things. He and the alien—he and, he began to perceive, a number of aliens—were almost inextricably mingled. Yet they were separate, as one strand of colored thread in a ball of yarn is looped and knotted and intertwined with every other strand, although it retains its own integrity. He was in and among many minds, and outside them all.
Hatcher would have laughed—if he had lips, larynx or mouth to laugh with. He would have laughed in pure exultation, and, indeed, his second in command recognized the marionette quivering of his detached limbs as a shout of glee. "We've done it," cried the assistant, catching his delight. "We've made the project work!"
"We've done a great deal more than that," exulted Hatcher. "Go to the supervisors, report to them. Pass on the word to the Central Masses probe. Maintain for the alien the pressure and temperature value he needs—"
"And you, Hatcher?"
"I'm going with him—out in the open! I'm going to show him what we need!"
Hatcher. McCray recognized that this was a name—the name of the entity closest to himself, the one that had somehow manipulated his forebrain and released the mind from the prison of the skull. "Hatcher" was not a word but an image, and in the image he saw a creature whose physical shape was unpleasant, but whose instincts and hopes were enough like his own to provide common ground.
He saw more than that. This Hatcher was trying to persuade him to move. To venture farther. To come with him....
McCray allowed himself to be lead and at once he was outside not only of his own body but of all bodies. He was free in space.
The entity that had been born of Herrell McCray was now larger than a sun. He could see, all around him, the wonder and beauty of the great gas cloud in which his body rested, on one tiny planet of one trivial star. His sense of time was not changed from what it had been—he could count the pulses of his own body, still thudding in what, however remote, was his ear—but he could see things that were terribly slow and vast. He could see the friction of the streamers of gas in the cloud as light-pressure drove them outward. He could hear the subtle emanations of ion clashing with hurtling ion. He could see the great blue new suns tunneling through the cloud, building their strength out of the diffuse contaminated hydrogen that made the Orion nebula, leaving relatively clear "holes" behind them. He could see into the gas and through it. He could perceive each star and gassy comet; and he could behold the ordered magnificence of the galaxy of stars, and the universe of galaxies, beyond.
The presence beside him was urging him to look beyond, into a denser, richer region of suns. McCray, unsure of his powers, stretched toward it—and recoiled.
There was something there which was terrifying, something cold and restless that watched him come toward it with the eyes of a crouched panther awaiting a deer.
The presence beside him felt the same terror, McCray knew. He was grateful when Hatcher allowed him to look away from the central clusters and return to the immediate neighborhood of his body.
Like a child's toy in a diminishing glass, McCray could see the planet he had left.
But it was no planet. It was not a planet, but a great irregular sphere of metal, honeycombed and warrened. He would have thought it a ship, though huge, if it had had engines or instruments.... No. It was a ship. Hatcher beside him was proof that these creatures needed neither, not in any Earthly sense, at least. They themselves were engines, with their power to move matter apart from the intervention of other matter. They themselves were instruments, through the sensing of force, that was now within his own power.
A moment's hesitant practice, and McCray had the "planet" in the palm of his hand—not a real palm, not a real hand; but it was there for his inspection. He looked at it and within it and saw the interior nests of Hatcher's folk, found the room where he had been brought, traced his course to the surface, saw his own body in its spacesuit, saw beside it the flaccid suit that had held the strange woman's body....
The suit was empty.
The suit was empty, and in the moment of that discovery McCray heard a terrible wailing cry—not in his ears, in his mind—from the aliens around him. The suit was empty. They discovered it the same moment as he. It was wrong and it was dangerous; they were terrified. The companion presence beside him receded into emptiness. In a moment McCray was back in his own body, and the gathering members let him free.
Some hundreds of light-years away, the Jodrell Bank was making up lost time on its Betelgeuse run.
Herrell McCray swept the long line from Sol to Betelgeuse, with his perceptions that were not his eyes and his touch that was not of matter, until he found it. The giant ship, fastest and hugest of mankind's star vessels, was to him a lumbering tiny beetle.
It held friends and something else—something his body needed—air and water and food. McCray did not know what would happen to him if, while his mind was out in the stars, his body died. But he was not anxious to find out.
McCray had not tried moving his physical body, but with what had been done to his brain he could now do anything within the powers of Hatcher's people. As they had swept him from ship to planet, so he could now hurl his body back from planet to ship. He flexed muscles of his mind that had never been used before, and in a moment his body was slumped on the floor of the Jodrell Bank's observation bubble. In another moment he was in his body, opening his eyes and looking out into the astonished face of Chris Stoerer, his junior navigator. "God in heaven," whispered Stoerer. "It's you!"
"It is," said McCray hoarsely, through lips that were parched and cracked, sitting up and trying the muscles of the body. It ached. He was bone-weary. "Give me a hand getting out of this suit, will you?"
It was not easy to be a mind in a body again, McCray discovered. Time had stopped for him. He had been soaring the star-lanes in his released mind for hours; but while his mind had been liberated, his body, back on Hatcher's "planet," had continued its slow metabolism, its steady devouring of its tissues, its inevitable progress toward death. When he had returned to it he found its pulse erratic and its breathing ragged. A grinding knot of hunger seethed in its stomach. Its muscles ached.
Whatever might become of his mind, it was clear that his body would die if it were left unfed and uncared-for much longer. So he had brought it back to the Jodrell Bank. He stood up and avoided Chris's questions. "Let me get something to eat, and then get cleaned up a little." (He had discovered that his body stank.) "Then I'll tell you everything you want to know—you and the captain, and anybody else who wants to listen. And we'll have to send a dispatch to Earth, too, because this is important.... But, please, I only want to tell it once." Because—he did not say—I may not have time to tell it again.
For those cold and murderous presences in the clustered inner suns had reached out as casually as a bear flicking a salmon out of a run and snatched the unknown woman from Hatcher's planet. They could reach anywhere in the galaxy their thoughts roamed.
They might easily follow him here.
It was good to be human again, and McCray howled with pain and joy as the icy needle-spray of the showers cleansed his body. He devoured the enormous plates of steak and potatoes the ship's galley shoved before him, and drank chilled milk and steaming black coffee in alternate pint mugs. McCray let the ship's surgeon look him over, and laughed at the expression in the man's eyes. "I know I'm a little wobbly," he said. "It doesn't matter, Doc. You can put me in the sickbay as long as you like, as soon as I've talked to the captain. I won't mind a bit. You see, I won't be there—" and he laughed louder, and would not explain.
An hour later, with food in his belly and something from the surgeon's hypospray in his bloodstream to clear his brain, he was in the captain's cabin, trying to spell out in words that made sense the incredible story of (he discovered) eight days since he had been abducted from the ship.
Looking at the ship's officers, good friends, companions on a dozen planetside leaves, McCray started to speak, stumbled and was for a moment without words. It was too incredible to tell. How could he make them understand?
They would have to understand. Insane or not, the insane facts had to be explained to them. However queerly they might stare, they were intelligent men. They would resist but ultimately they would see.
He settled his problem by telling them baldly and plainly, without looking at their faces and without waiting for their questions, everything that had happened. He told them about Hatcher and about the room in which he had come to. He told them about the pinkish light that showed only what he concentrated on—and explained it to them, as he had not understood it at first; about Hatcher's people, and how their entire sense-world was built up of what humans called E.S.P., the "light" being only the focusing of thought, which sees no material objects that it is not fixed on. He told them of the woman from the other ship and the cruel, surgical touch on his brain that had opened a universe to him. He promised that that universe would open for them as well. He told them of the deadly, unknowable danger to Hatcher's people—and to themselves—that lay at the galaxy's core. He told them how the woman had disappeared, and told them she was dead—at the hands of the Old Ones from the Central Masses—a blessing to her, McCray explained, and a blessing to all of them; for although her mind would yield some of its secrets even in death, if she were alive it would be their guide, and the Old Ones would be upon them.
He did not wait for them to react.
He turned to the ship's surgeon. "Doc, I'm all yours now, body and soul ... cancel that. Just body!"
And he left them, to swim once more in space.
In so short a time McCray had come to think of this as life, and a sort of interregnum. He swept up and out, glancing back only to see the ship's surgeon leaping forward to catch his unconscious body as it fell and then he was in space between the stars once more.
Here, 'twixt Sol and Betelgeuse, space was clear, hard and cold, no diffuse gas cloud, no new, growing suns. He "looked" toward Hatcher's world, but hesitated and considered.
First or last, he would have to look once more upon the inimical presences that had peered out at him from the Central Masses. It might as well be now.
His perceptions alert, he plunged toward the heart of the galaxy.
Thought speeds where light plods. The mind of Herrell McCray covered light-millenia in a moment. It skipped the drifty void between spiral arms, threaded dust clouds, entered the compact central galactic sphere to which our Earth's sector of the galaxy is only a remote and unimportant appendage. Here a great globular cluster of suns massed around a common center of gravity. McCray shrank himself to the perspective of a human body and stared in wonder. Mankind's Sol lies in a tenuous, stretched-out arm, thinly populated by stellar standards: if Earth had circled one of these dense-clustered suns, what a different picture of the sky would have greeted the early shepherds! Where Man's Earthbound eyes are fortunate to count a thousand stars in a winter sky, here were tens of thousands, bright enough to be a Sirius or a Capella at the bottom of a sink of atmosphere like Earth's—tens of billions of stars in all, whirling close to each other, so that star greets star over distances that are hardly more than planetary. Sol's nearest neighbor star is four light-years away. No single sun in this dense, gyrating central mass was as much as one light-year from its fellows.
Here were suns that had been blazing with mature, steady light when Sol was a mere contracting mass of hydrogen—whose planets had cooled and spawned life before Earth's hollows cupped the first scalding droplets that were the beginnings of seas.
On these ancient worlds life existed.
McCray had not understood all of what Hatcher had tried to communicate to him, but he had caught the terror in Hatcher's thoughts. Hatcher's people had fled from these ancients many millenia before—fled and hidden in the heart of the Orion gas cloud, their world and all. Yet even there they were not safe. They knew that in time the Old Ones would find them. And it was this fear that had led them to kidnap humans, seeking allies in the war that could not forever be deferred.
Hatcher's people were creatures of thought. Man was the wielder of physical forces—"paranormal" to Hatcher, as teleportation and mind-seeing were "paranormal" to McCray. The Old Ones had mastered both.
McCray paused at the fringe of the cluster, waiting for the touch of contemptuous hate. It came and he recoiled a thousand light-years before he could stop.
To battle the Old Ones would be no easy match—yet time might work for the human race. Already they controlled the electromagnetic spectrum, and hydrogen fusion could exert the force of suns. With Hatcher's help—and his own—Man would free his mind as well; and perhaps the Old Ones would find themselves against an opponent as mighty as themselves.
He drew back from the Central Masses, no longer afraid, and swept out to see Hatcher's planet.
It was gone.
In the great gas cloud the tunneling blue suns swept up their graze of hydrogen, untroubled by planets. Themselves too young to have solid satellites, Hatcher's adopted world removed again, they were alone.
It was for a moment, a panicky thought. McCray realized what they had done. Hatcher's greatest hope had been to find another race to stand between his people and the Old Ones. And they had found it!
Now Hatcher's world could hide again and wait until the battle had been fought for them.
With a face light-years across, with a brain made up of patterns in the ether, McCray grinned wryly.
"Maybe they made the right choice," he thought, considering. "Maybe they'd only be in the way when the showdown comes." And he sought out Jodrell Bank and his body once more, preparing to return to being human ... and to teach his fellow-humans.
The Five Hells Of Orion by Frederick Pohl