Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Frederic Brown: Sand

Frederic Brown, Sand, Relatos de misterio, Tales of mystery, Relatos de terror, Horror stories, Short stories, Science fiction stories, Anthology of horror, Antología de terror, Anthology of mystery, Antología de misterio, Scary stories, Scary Tales, Salomé Guadalupe Ingelmo



CARSON OPENED HIS EYES, and found himself looking upwards into a flickering blue dimness.
It was hot, and he was lying on sand, and a rock embedded in the sand was hurting his back. He rolled over to his side, offthe rock, and then pushed himself up to a sitting position.
‘I’m crazy,’ he thought. ‘Crazy -- or dead -- or something.’ Te sand was blue, bright blue. And there wasn’t any such thing as bright blue sand on Earth or any of the planets. Blue sand under a blue dome that wasn’t the sky nor yet a room, but a circumscribed area -- somehow he knew it was circumscribed and finite even though he couldn’t see to the top of it.
He picked up some of the sand in his hand and let it run through his fingers. It trickled down on to his bare leg. Bare?
He was stark naked, and already his body was dripping perspiration from the enervating heat, coated blue with sand wherever sand had touched it. Elsewhere his body was white.
He thought: then this sand is really blue. If it seemed blue only because of the blue light, then I’d be blue also. But I’m white, so the sand is blue. Blue sand: there isn’t any blue sand. Tere isn’t any place like this place I’m in.
Sweat was running down in his eyes. It was hot, hotter than hell. Only hell -- the hell of the ancients -- was supposed to be red and not blue.
But if this place wasn’t hell, what was it? Only Mercury, among the planets, had heat like this and this wasn’t Mercury. And Mercury was some four billion miles from ... From?
It came back to him then, where he’d been: in the little one-man scouter, outside the orbit of Pluto, scouting a scant million miles to one side of the Earth Armada drawn up in battle array there to intercept the Outsiders.
Tat sudden strident ringing of the alarm bell when the rival scouter -- the Outsider ship -- had come within range of his detectors!
No one knew who the Outsiders were, what they looked like, or from what far galaxy they came, other than that it was in the general direction of the Pleiades.
First, there had been sporadic raids on Earth colonies and outposts; isolated battles between Earth patrols and small groups of Outsider spaceships; battles sometimes won and sometimes lost, but never resulting in the capture of an alien vessel. Nor had any member of a raided colony ever survived to describe the Outsiders who had leftthe ships, if indeed they had leftthem.
Not too serious a menace, at first, for the raids had not been numerous or destructive. And individually, the ships had proved slightly inferior in armament to the best of Earth’s fighters, although somewhat superior in speed and man~uvrability. A sufficient edge in speed, in fact, to give the Outsiders their choice of running or fighting, unless surrounded.
Nevertheless, Earth had prepared for serious trouble, building the mightiest armada of all time. It had been waiting now, that armada, for a long time. Now the showdown was coming.
Scouts twenty billion miles out had detected the approach of a mighty fleet of the Outsiders. Tose scouts had never come back, but their radiotronic messages had. And now Earth’s armada, all ten thousand ships and half-million fighting spacemen, was out there, outside Pluto’s orbit, waiting to intercept and battle to the death.
And an even battle it was going to be, judging by the advance reports of the men of the far picket line who had given their lives to report -- before they had died -- on the size and strength of the alien fleet.
Anybody’s battle, with the mastery of the solar system hanging in the balance, on an even chance. A last and only chance, for Earth and all her colonies lay at the utter mercy of the Outsiders if they ran that gauntlet -- Oh yes. Bob Carson remembered now. He remembered that strident bell and his leap for the control panel. His frenzied fumbling as he strapped himself into the seat. Te dot in the visiplate that grew larger. Te dryness of his mouth. Te awful knowledge that this was it for him, at least, although the main fleets were still out of range of one another.

Tis, his first taste of battle! Within three seconds or less he’d be victorious, or a
charred cinder. One hit completely took care of a lightly armed and armoured one-man
craft like a scouter.
Frantically -- as his lips shaped the word ‘One’ -- he worked at the controls to keep
that growing dot centred on the crossed spiderwebs of the visiplate. His hands doing that,
while his right foot hovered over the pedal that would fire the bolt. Te single bolt of
concentrated hell that had to hit -- or else. Tere wouldn’t be time for any second shot.
‘Two.’ He didn’t know he’d said that, either. Te dot in the visiplate wasn’t a dot now.
Only a few thousand miles away, it showed up in the magnification of the plate as though
it were only a few hundred yards off. It was a fast little scouter, about the size of his.
An alien ship, all right!
‘Tr -- ‘ His foot touched the bolt-release pedal.
And then the Outsider had swerved suddenly and was offthe crosshairs. Carson
punched keys frantically, to follow.
For a tenth of a second, it was out of the visiplate entirely, and then as the nose of his
scouter swung after it, he saw it again, diving straight towards the ground.
Te ground?
It was an optical illusion of some sort. It had to be: that planet -- or whatever it was --
that now covered the visiplate couldn’t be there. Couldn’t possibly! Tere wasn’t any planet
nearer than Neptune three billion miles away -- with Pluto on the opposite side of the
distant pinpoint sun.
His detectors! Tey hadn’t shown any object of planetary dimensions, even of asteroid
dimensions, and still didn’t.
It couldn’t be there, that whatever-it-was he was diving into, only a few hundred miles
below him.
In his sudden anxiety to keep from crashing, he forgot the Outsider ship. He fired the
front breaking rockets, and even as the sudden change of speed slammed him forward
against the seat straps, fired full right for an emergency turn. Pushed them down and held
them down, knowing that he needed everything the ship had to keep from crashing and
that a turn that sudden would black him out for a moment.
It did black him out.
And that was all. Now he was sitting in hot blue sand, stark naked but otherwise
unhurt. No sign of his spaceship and -- for that matter -- no sign of space. Tat curve
overhead wasn’t a sky, whatever else it was.
He scrambled to his feet.
Gravity seemed a little more than Earth-normal. Not much more.
Flat sand stretching away, a few scrawny bushes in clumps here and there. Te bushes
were blue, too, but in varying shades, some lighter than the blue of the sand, some darker.
Out from under the nearest bush ran a little thing that was like a lizard, except that it
had more than four legs. It was blue, too. Bright blue. It saw him and ran back again under
the bush.
He looked up again, trying to decide what was overhead. It wasn’t exactly a roof, but it
was dome-shaped. It flickered and was hard to look at. But definitely, it curved down to
the ground, to the blue sand, all around him.
He wasn’t far from being under the centre of the dome. At a guess, it was a hundred
yards to the nearest wall, if it was a wall. It was as though a blue hemisphere of something
about two hundred and fifty yards in circumference was inverted over the flat expanse of
the sand.
And everything blue, except one object. Over near a far curving wall there was a red
object. Roughly spherical, it seemed to be about a yard in diameter. Too far for him to see
clearly through the flickering blueness.
But, unaccountably, he shuddered.
He wiped sweat from his forehead, or tried to, with the back of his hand.
Was this a dream, a nightmare? Tis heat, this sand, that vague feeling of horror he felt
when he looked towards that red thing?
A dream? No, one didn’t go to sleep and dream in the midst of a battle in space.
Death? No, never. If there were immortality, it wouldn’t be a senseless thing like this, a
thing of blue heat and blue sand and a red horror.
Ten he heard the voice.
Inside his head he heard it, not with his ears. It came from nowhere or everywhere.
‘Trough spaces and dimensions wandering,’ rang the words in his mind, ‘and in this
space and this time, I find two peoples about to exterminate one and so weaken the other
that it would retrogress and never fulfil its destiny, but decay and return to mindless dust
whence it came. And I say this must not happen.’
‘Who ... what are you?’ Carson didn’t say it aloud, but the question formed itself in his
brain.
‘You would not understand completely. I am -- ‘Tere was a pause as though the voice
sought -- in Carson’s brain -- for a word that wasn’t there, a word he didn’t know. ‘I am the
end of evolution of a race so old the time cannot be expressed in words that have meaning
to your mind. A race fused into a single entity, eternal.
‘An entity such as your primitive race might become’ -- again the groping for a word --
‘time from now. So might the race you call, in your mind, the Outsiders. So I intervene in
the battle to come, the battle between fleets so evenly matched that destruction of both
races will result. One must survive. One must progress and evolve.’
‘One?’ thought Carson. ‘Mine or
‘It is in my power to stop the war, to send the Outsiders back to their galaxy. But they
would return, or your race would sooner or later follow them there. Only by remaining in
this space and time to intervene constantly could I prevent them from destroying one
another, and I cannot remain.
‘So I shall intervene now. I shall destroy one fleet completely without loss to the other.
One civilization shall thus survive.’
Nightmare. Tis had to be nightmare, Carson thought. But he knew it wasn’t.
It was too mad, too impossible, to be anything but real.
He didn’t dare ask the question -- which? But his thoughts asked it for him.
‘Te stronger shall survive,’ said the voice. ‘Tat I cannot -- and would not -- change. I
merely intervene to make it a complete victory, not’ -- groping again -- ‘not Pyrrhic
victory to a broken race.
‘From the outskirts of the not-yet battle I plucked two individuals, you and an
Outsider. I see from your mind that, in your early history of nationalisms, battles between
champions to decide issues between races were not unknown.
‘You and your opponent are here pitted against one another, naked and unarmed,
under conditions equally unfamiliar to you both, equally unpleasant to you both. Tere is
no time limit, for here there is no time. Te survivor is the champion of his race. Tat race
survives.’
‘But -- ‘ Carson’s protest was too inarticulate for expression, but the voice answered it.
‘It is fair. Te conditions are such that the accident of physical strength will not
completely decide the issue. Tere is a barrier. You will understand. Brain-power and
courage will be more important than strength. Most especially courage, which is the will
to survive.’
‘But while this goes on, the fleets will -- ‘
‘No, you are in another space, another time. For as long as you are here, time stands
still in the universe you know. I see you wonder whether this place is real. It is, and it is
not. As I -- to your limited understanding -- am and am not real. My existence is mental
and not physical. You saw me as a planet; it could have been as a dust-mote or a sun.
‘But to you this place is now real. Whatyou suffer here will be real. And ~fyou die
here,your death will be real. Ifyou die,your failure will be the end ofyour race. Tat is
enough for you to know.’
And then the voice was gone.
Again he was alone, but not alone. For as Carson looked up, he saw that the red thing,
the sphere of horror that he now knew was the Outsider, was rolling towards him.
Rolling.
It seemed to have no legs or arms that he could see, no features. It rolled across the
sand with the fluid quickness of a drop of mercury. And before it, in some manner he
could not understand, came a wave of nauseating hatred.
Carson looked about him frantically. A stone, lying in the sand a few feet away, was the
nearest thing to a weapon. It wasn’t large, but it had sharp edges, like a slab of flint. It
looked a bit like blue flint.
He picked it up, and crouched to receive the attack. It was coming fast, faster than he
could run.
No time to think out how he was going to fight it; how anyway could he plan to battle
a creature whose strength, whose characteristics, whose method of fighting he did not
know? Rolling so fast, it looked more than ever like a perfect sphere.
Ten yards away. Five. And then it stopped.
Rather, it was stopped. Abruptly the near side of it flattened as though it had run up
against an invisible wall. It bounced, actually bounced back.
Ten it rolled forward again, but more cautiously. It stopped again, at the same place.
it tried again, a few yards to one side.
Ten it rolled forward again, but more cautiously. It stopped again, at the same place.
It tried again, a few yards to one side.
Tere was a barrier there of some sort. It clicked, then, in Carson’s mind, that thought
projected by the Entity who had brought them there:
-- accident of physical strength will not completely decide the issue. Tere is a barrier.’
A force-field, of course. Not the Netzian Field, known to Earth science, for that glowed
and emitted a crackling sound. Tis one was invisible, silent.
It was a wall that ran from side to side of the inverted hemisphere; Carson didn’t have
to verify that himself. Te Roller was doing that, rolling sideways along the barrier,
seeking a break in it that wasn’t there.
Carson took half a dozen steps forward, his left hand groping out before him, and
touched the barrier. It felt smooth, yielding, like a sheet of rubber rather than like glass,
warm to his touch, but no warmer than the sand underfoot. And it was completely
invisible, even at close range.
He dropped the stone and put both hands against it, pushing. It seemed to yield, just a
trifle, but no farther than that trifle, even when he pushed with all his weight. It felt like a
sheet of rubber backed up by steel. Limited resiliency, and then firm strength.
He stood on tiptoe and reached as high as he could and the barrier was still there.
He saw the Roller coming back, having reached one side of the arena. Tat feeling of
nausea hit Carson again, and he stepped back from the barrier as it went by. It didn’t stop.
But did the barrier stop at ground-level? Carson knelt down and burrowed in the
sand; it was soft, light, easy to dig in. And two feet down the barrier was still there.
Te Roller was coming back again. Obviously, it couldn’t find a way through at either
side.
Tere must be a way through, Carson thought, or else this duel is meaningless. --
Te Roller was back now, and it stopped just across the barrier, only six feet away. It
seemed to be studying him although, for the life of him, Carson couldn’t find external
evidence of sense organs on the thing. Nothing that looked like eyes or ears, or even a
mouth. Tere was though, he observed, a series of grooves, perhaps a dozen of them
altogether, and he saw two tentacles push out from two of the grooves and dip into the
sand as though testing its consistency. Tese were about an inch in diameter and perhaps
a foot and a half long.
Te tentacles were retractable into the grooves and were kept there except when in
use. Tey retracted when the thing rolled and seemed to have nothing to do with its
method of locomotion; that, as far as Carson could judge, seemed to be accomplished by
some shifting -- just how he couldn’t imagine -- of its centre of gravity.
He shuddered as he looked at the thing. It was alien, horribly different from anything
on Earth or any of the life forms found on the other solar planets. Instinctively, he knew
its mind was as alien as its body.
If it could project that almost tangible wave of hatred, perhaps it could read his mind
as well, sufficiently for his purpose.
Deliberately, Carson picked up the rock that had been his only weapon, then tossed it
down again in a gesture of relinquishment and raised his empty hands, palms up, before
him.
He spoke aloud, knowing that although the words would be meaningless to the
creature before him, speaking them would focus his own thoughts more completely upon
the message.
‘Can we not have peace between us?’ he said, his voice strange in the stillness. ‘Te
Entity who brought us here has told us what must happen if our races fight -- extinction of
one and weakening and retrogression of the other. Te battle between them, said the
Entity, depends upon what we do here. Why cannot we agree to an eternal peace -- your
race to its galaxy, we to ours?’
Carson blanked out his mind to receive a reply.
It came, and it staggered him back, physically. He recoiled several steps in sheer horror
at the intensity of the lust-to-kill of the red images projected at him. For a moment that
seemed eternity he had to struggle against the impact of that hatred, fighting to clear his
mind of it and drive out the alien thoughts to which he had given admittance. He wanted
to retch.
His mind cleared slowly. He was breathing hard and he felt weaker, but he could think.
He stood studying the Roller. It had been motionless during the mental duel it had so
nearly won. Now it rolled a few feet to one side, to the nearest of the blue bushes. Tree
tentacles whipped out of their grooves and began to investigate the bush.
‘O.K.,’ Carson said, ‘so it’s war then.’ He managed a grin. ‘If I got your answer straight,
peace doesn’t appeal to you.’ And, because he was, after all, a young man and couldn’t
resist the impulse to be dramatic, he added, ‘To the death!’
But his voice, in that utter silence, sounded silly even to himself. It came to him, then,
that this was to the death, not only his own death or that of the red spherical thing which
he thought of as the Roller, but death to the entire race of one or the other of them: the
end of the human race, if he failed.
It made him suddenly very humble and very afraid to think that. With a knowledge
that was above even faith, he knew that the Entity who had arranged this duel had told the
truth about its intentions and its powers. Te future of humanity depended upon him. It
was an awful thing to realize. He had to concentrate on the situation at hand.
Tere had to be some way of getting through the barrier, or of killing through the
barrier.
Mentally? He hoped that wasn’t all, for the Roller obviously had stronger telepathic
powers than the undeveloped ones of the human race. Or did it?
He had been able to drive the thoughts of the Roller out of his own mind; could it
drive out his? If its ability to project were stronger, might not its receptivity mechanism be
more vulnerable?
He stared at it and endeavoured to concentrate and focus all his thought upon it.
‘Die,’ he thought. ‘You are going to die. You are dying. You are -- ‘
He tried variations on it, and mental pictures. Sweat stood out on his forehead and he
found himself trembling with the intensity of the effort. But the Roller went ahead with its
investigation of the bush, as utterly unaffected as though Carson had been reciting the
multiplication table.
So that was no good.
He felt dizzy from the heat and his strenuous effort at concentration. He sat down on
the blue sand and gave his full attention to studying the Roller. By study, perhaps, he could
judge its strength and detect its weaknesses, learn things that would be valuable to know
when and if they should come to grips.
It was breaking offtwigs. Carson watched carefully, trying to judge just how hard it
worked to do that. Later, he thought, he could find a similar bush on his own side, break
offtwigs of equal thickness himself, and gain a comparison of physical strength between
his own arms and hands and those tentacles.
Te twigs broke off hard; the Roller was having to struggle with each one. Each
tentacle, he saw, bifurcated at the tip into two fingers, each tipped by a nail or claw. Te
claws didn’t seem to be particularly long or dangerous, or no more so than his own
fingernails, if they were leftto grow a bit.
No, on the whole, it didn’t look too hard to handle physically. Unless, of course, that
bush was made of pretty tough stuff. Carson looked round; within reach was another bush
of identically the same type.
He snapped offa twig. It was brittle, easy to break. Of course, the Roller might have
been faking deliberately but he didn’t think so. On the other hand, where was it
vulnerable? How would he go about killing it if he got the chance? He went back to
studying it. Te outer hide looked pretty tough; he’d need a sharp weapon of some sort. He
picked up the piece of rock again. It was about twelve inches long, narrow, and fairly sharp
on one end. If it chipped like flint, he could make a serviceable knife out of it.
Te Roller was continuing its investigations of the bushes. It rolled again, to the
nearest one of another type. A little blue lizard, many-legged like the one Carson had seen
on his side of the barrier, darted out from under the bush.
A tentacle of the Roller lashed out and caught it, picked it up. Another tentacle
whipped over and began to pull legs offthe lizard, as coldly as it had pulled twigs offthe
bush. Te creature struggled frantically and emitted a shrill squealing that was the first
sound Carson had heard here, other than the sound of his own voice.
Carson made himself continue to watch; anything he could learn about his opponent
might prove valuable, even knowledge of its unnecessary cruelty -- particularly, he
thought with sudden emotion, knowledge of its unnecessary cruelty. It would make it a
pleasure to kill the thing, if and when the chance came.
With half its legs gone, the lizard stopped squealing and lay limp in the Roller’s grasp.
It didn’t continue with the rest of the legs. Contemptuously it tossed the dead lizard
away from it, in Carson’s direction. Te lizard arced through the air between them and
landed at his feet.
It had come through the barrier! Te barrier wasn’t there any more! Carson was on his
feet in a flash, the knife gripped tightly in his hand, leaping forward. He’d settle this thing
here and now! With the barrier gone -- but it wasn’t gone. He found that out the hard way,
running head on into it and nearly knocking himself silly. He bounced back and fell.
As he sat up, shaking his head to clear it, he saw something coming through the air
towards him, and threw himself flat again on the sand, to one side. He got his body out of
the way, but there was a sudden sharp pain in the calf of his leftleg.
He rolled backwards, ignoring the pain, and scrambled to his feet. It was a rock, he
saw now, that had struck him. And the Roller was picking up another, swinging it back
gripped between two tentacles, ready to throw again.
It sailed through the air towards him, but he was able to step out of its way. Te Roller,
apparently, could throw straight, but neither hard nor far. Te first rock had struck him
only because he had been sitting down and had not seen it coming until it was almost
upon him.
Even as he stepped aside from that weak second throw Carson drew back his right
arm and let fly with the rock that was still in his hand. If missiles, he thought with elation,
can cross the barrier, then two can play at the game of throwing them.
He couldn’t miss a three-foot sphere at only four-yard range, and he didn’t miss. Te
rock whizzed straight, and with a speed several times that of the missiles the Roller had
thrown. It hit dead centre, but hit flat instead of point first. But it hit with a resounding
thump, and obviously hurt. Te Roller had been reaching for another rock, but changed
its mind and got out of there instead. By the time Carson could pick up and throw another
rock, the Roller was forty yards back from the barrier and going strong.
His second throw missed by feet, and his third throw was short. Te Roller was out of
range of any missile heavy enough to be damaging.
Carson grinned. Tat round had been his.
He stopped grinning as he bent over to examine the calf of his leg. A jagged edge of
the stone had made a cut several inches long. It was bleeding pretty freely, but he didn’t
think it had gone deep enough to hit an artery. If it stopped bleeding of its own accord,
well and good. If not, he was in for trouble.
Finding out one thing, though, took precedence over that cut: the nature of the
barrier.
He went forward to it again, this time groping with his hands before him. Holding one
hand against it, he tossed a handful of sand at it with the other hand. Te sand went right
through; his hand didn’t.
Organic matter versus inorganic? No, because the dead lizard had gone through it, and
a lizard, alive or dead, was certainly organic. Plant life? He broke offa twig and poked it at
the barrier. Te twig went through, with no resistance, but when his fingers gripping the
twig came to the barrier, they were stopped.
He couldn’t get through it, nor could the Roller. But rocks and sand and a dead
lizard.... How about a live lizard?
He went hunting under bushes until he found one, and caught it. He tossed it against
the barrier and it bounced back and scurried away across the blue sand.
Tat gave him the answer, so far as he could determine it now. Te screen was a
barrier to living things. Dead or inorganic matter could cross it.
With that off his mind, Carson looked at his injured leg again. Te bleeding was
lessening, which meant he wouldn’t need to worry about~ making a tourniquet. But he
should find some water, if any was available, to clean the wound.
Water -- the thought of it made him realize that he was getting awfully thirsty. He’d
have to find water, in case this contest turned out to be a protracted one.
Limping slightly now, he started offto make a circuit of his half of the arena. Guiding
himself with one hand along the barrier, he walked to his right until he came to the
curving sidewall. It was visible, a dull blue-grey at close range, and the surface of it felt just
like the central barrier.
He experimented by tossing a handful of sand at it, and the sand reached the wall and
disappeared as it went through. Te hemispherical shell was a force-field, too, but an
opaque one, instead of transparent like the barrier.
He followed it round until he came back to the barrier, and walked back along the
barrier to the point from which he’d started.
No sign of water.
--
Worried now, he started a series of zigzags back and forth between the barrier and the
wall, covering the intervening space thoroughly.
No water. Blue sand, blue bushes, and intolerable heat. Nothing else.
It must be his imagination, he told himself that he was suffering that much from thirst.
How long had he been there? Of course, no time at all, according to his own space-time
frame. Te Entity had told him time stood still out there, while he was here. But his body
processes went on here, just the same. According to his body’s reckoning, how long had he
been here? Tree or four hours, perhaps. Certainly not long enough to be suffering from
thirst.
Yet he was suffering from it; his throat was dry and parched. Probably the intense heat
was the cause. It was hot, a hundred and thirty Fahrenheit, at a guess. A dry, still heat
without the slightest movement of air.
He was limping rather badly and utterly fagged when he finished the futile exploration
of his domain.
He stared across at the motionless Roller and hoped it was as miserable as he was. Te
Entity had said the conditions here were equally unfamiliar and uncomfortable for both of
them. Maybe the Roller came from a planet where two-hundred-degree heat was the
norm; maybe it was freezing while he was roasting. Maybe the air was as much too thick
for it as it was too thin for him. For the exertion of his explorations had lefthim panting.
Te atmosphere here, he realized, was not much thicker than on Mars.
No water. Tat meant a deadline, for him at any rate. Unless he could find a way to
cross that barrier or to kill his enemy from this side of it, thirst would kill him eventually.
It gave him a feeling of desperate urgency, but he made himself sit down a moment to
rest, to think.
What was there to do? Nothing, and yet so many things. Te several varieties of
bushes, for example; they didn’t look promising, but he’d have to examine them for
possibilities. And his leg -- he’d have to do something about that, even without water to
clean it; gather ammunition in the form of rocks; find a rock that would make a good
knife.
His leg hurt rather badly now, and he decided that came first. One type of bush had
leaves -- or things rather similar to leaves. He pulled offa handful of them and decided,
after examination, to take a chance on them. He used them to clean offthe sand and dirt
and caked blood, then made a pad of fresh leaves and tied it over the wound with tendrils
from the same bush.
Te tendrils proved unexpectedly tough and strong.
Tey were slender and pliable, yet he couldn’t break them at all, and had to saw them
offthe bush with the sharp edge of blue flint. Some of the thicker ones were over a foot
long, and he filed away in his memory, for future reference, the fact that a bunch of the
thick ones, tied together, would make a pretty serviceable rope. Maybe he’d be able to
think of a use for rope.
Next, he made himself a knife. Te blue flint did chip. From a foot-long splinter of it,
he fashioned himself a crude but lethal weapon. And of tendrils from the bush, he made
himself a rope-belt through which he could thrust the flint knife, to keep it with him all
the time and yet have his hands free.
He went back to studying the bushes. Tere were three other types. One was leafless,
dry, brittle, rather like a dried tumbleweed. Another was of soft, crumbly wood, almost
like punk. It looked and felt as though it would make excellent tinder for a fire. Te third
type was the most nearly woodlike. It had fragile leaves that wilted at the touch, but the
stalks, although short, were straight and strong.
It was horribly, unbearably hot.
He limped up to the barrier, felt to make sure that it was still there. It was. He stood
watching the Roller for a while; it was keeping a safe distance from the barrier, out of
effective stone-throwing range. It was moving around back there, doing something. He
couldn’t tell what it was doing.
Once it stopped moving, came a little closer, and seemed to concentrate its attention
on him. Again Carson had to fight offa wave of nausea. He threw a stone at it; the Roller
retreated and went back to whatever it had been doing befor~e.
At least he could make it keep its distance. And, he thought bitterly, a lot of good that
did him. Just the same, he spent the next hour or two gathering stones of suitable size for
throwing, and making several piles of them near his side of the barrier.
His throat burned now. It was difficult for him to think about anything except water.
But he had to think about other things: about getting through that barrier, under or over
it, getting at that red sphere and killing it before this place of heat and thirst killed him.
Te barrier went to the wall upon either side, but how high, and how far under the
sand?
For a moment, Carson’s mind was too fuzzy to think out how he could find out either
of those things. Idly, sitting there in the hot sand -- and he didn’t remember sitting down
-- he watched a blue lizard crawl from the shelter of one bush to the shelter of another.
From under the second bush, it looked out at him.
Carson grinned at it, recalling the old story of the desert-colonists on Mars, taken
from an older story of Earth -- ‘Pretty soon you get so lonesome you find yourself talking
to the lizards, and then not so long after that you find the lizards talking back to you....’
He should have been concentrating, of course, on how to kill the Roller, but instead he
grinned at the lizard and said, ‘Hello, there.’
Te lizard took a few steps towards him. ‘Hello,’ it said.
Carson was stunned for a moment, and then he put back his head and roared with
laughter. It didn’t hurt his throat to do so, either; he hadn’t been that thirsty.
Why not? Why should the Entity who thought up this nightmare of a place not have a
sense of humour, along with the other powers he had? Talking lizards, equipped to talk
back in my own language, if I talk to them -- it’s a nice touch.
He grinned at the lizard and said, ‘Come on over.’ But the lizard turned and ran away,
scurrying from bush to bush until it was out of sight.
He had to get past the barrier. He couldn’t get through it, or over it, but was he certain
he couldn’t get under it? And come to think of it, didn’t one sometimes find water by
digging?
Painfully now, Carson limped up to the barrier and started digging, scooping up sand
a double handful at a time. It was slow work because the sand ran in at the edges and the
deeper he got the bigger in diameter the hole had to be. How many hours it took him, he
didn’t know, but he hit bedrock four feet down: dry bedrock with no sign of water.
Te force-field of the barrier went down clear to the bedrock.
He crawled out of the hole and lay there panting, then raised his head to look across
and see what the Roller was doing.
It was making something out of wood from the bushes, tied together with tendrils, a
queerly shaped framework about four feet high and roughly square. To see it better,
Carson climbed on to the mound of sand he had excavated and stood there staring.
Tere were two long levers sticking out of the back of it, one with a cup-shaped affair
on the end. Seemed to be some sort of a catapult, Carson thought.
Sure enough, the Roller was lifting a sizable rock into the cup-shape. One of his
tentacles moved the other lever up and down for a while, and then he turned the machine
slightly, aiming it, and the lever with the stone flew up and forward.
Te stone curved several yards over Carson’s head, so far away that he didn’t have to
duck, but he judged the distance it had travelled, and whistled softly. He couldn’t throw a
rock that weight more than half that distance. And even retreating to the rear of his
domain wouldn’t put him out of range of that machine if the Roller pushed it forward to
the barrier.
Another rock whizzed over, not quite so far away this time.
Moving from side to side along the barrier, so the catapult couldn’t bracket him, he
hurled a dozen rocks at it. But that wasn’t going to be any good, he saw. Tey had to be
light rocks, or he couldn’t throw them that far. If they hit the framework, they bounced off
harmlessly. Te Roller had no difficulty, at that distance, in moving aside from those that
came near it.
Besides, his arm was tiring badly. He ached all over.
He stumbled to the rear of the arena. Even that wasn’t any good; the rocks reached
back there, too, only there were longer intervals between them, as though it took longer to
wind up the mechanism, whatever it was, of the catapult.
Wearily he dragged himself back to the barrier again. Several times he fell and could
barely rise to his feet to go on. He was, he knew, near the limit of his endurance. Yet he
didn’t dare stop moving now, until and unless he could put that catapult out of action. If
he fell asleep, he’d never wake up.
One of the stones from it gave him the glimmer of an idea. It hit one of the piles of
stones he’d gathered near the barrier to use as ammunition and struck sparks.
Sparks! Fire! Primitive man had made fire by striking sparks, and with some of those
dry crumbly bushes as tinder...
A bush of that type grew near him. He uprooted it, took it over to the pile of stones,
then patiently hit one stone against another until a spark touched the punklike wood of
the bush. It went up in flames so fast that it singed his eyebrows and was burned to an ash
within seconds.
But he had the idea now, and within minutes had a little fire going in the lee of the
mound of sand he’d made. Te tinder bushes started it, and other bushes which burned
more slowly kept it a steady flame.
Te tough tendrils didn’t burn readily; that made the fire-bombs easy to rig and throw;
a bundle of faggots tied about a small stone to give it weight and a loop of the tendril to
swing it by.
He made half a dozen of them before he lighted and threw the first. It went wide, and
the Roller started a quick retreat, pulling the catapult after him. But Carson had the others
ready and threw them in rapid succession. Te fourth wedged in the catapult’s framework
and did the trick. Te Roller tried desperately to put out the spreading blaze by throwing
sand, but its clawed tentacles would take only a spoonful at a time and its efforts were
ineffectual. Te catapult burned.
Te Roller moved safely away from the fire and seemed to concentrate its attention on
Carson. Again he felt that wave of hatred and nausea -- but more weakly; either the Roller
itself was weakening or Carson had learned how to protect himself against the mental
attack.
He thumbed his nose at it and then sent it scuttling back to safety with a stone. Te
Roller went to the back of its half of the arena and started pulling up bushes again.
Probably it was going to make another catapult.
Carson verified that the barrier was still operating, and then found himself sitting in
the sand beside it, suddenly too weak to stand up.
His leg throbbed steadily now and the pangs of thirst were severe. But those things
paled beside the physical exhaustion that gripped his entire body.
Hell must be like this, he thought, the hell that the ancients had believed in. He fought
to stay awake, and yet staying awake seemed futile, for there was nothing he could do
while the barrier remained impregnable and the Roller stayed back out of range.
He tried to remember what he had read in books of archaeology about the methods of
fighting used back in the days before metal and plastic. Te stone missile had come first,
he thought. Well, that he already had.
Bow and arrow? No; he’d tried archery once and knew his own ineptness even with a
modern sportsman’s dura-steel weapon, made for accuracy. With only the crude, pieced-
together outfit he could make here, he doubted if he could shoot as far as he could throw a
rock.
Spear? Well, he could make that. It would be useless at any distance, but would be a
handy thing at close range, if he ever got to close range. Making one would help keep his
mind from wandering, as it was beginning to do.
He was still beside one of the piles of stones. He sorted through it until he found one
shaped roughly like a spearhead. With a smaller stone he began to chip it into shape,
fashioning sharp shoulders on the sides so that if it penetrated it would not pull out again
like a harpoon. A harpoon was better than a spear, maybe, for this crazy contest. If he
could once get it into the Roller, and had a rope on it, he could pull the Roller up against
the barrier and the stone blade of his knife would reach through that barrier, even if his
hands wouldn’t.
Te shaftwas harder to make than the head, but by splitting and joining the main
stems of four of the bushes, and wrapping thejoints with the tough but thin tendrils, he
got a strong shaftabout four feet long, and tied the stone head in a notch cut in one end. It
was crude, but strong.
With the tendrils he made himself twenty feet of line. It was light and didn’t look
strong, but he knew it would hold his weight and to spare. He tied one end of it to the
shaftof the harpoon and the other end about his right wrist. At least, if he threw his
harpoon across the barrier, he’d be able to pull it back if he missed.
He tried to stand up, to see what the Roller was doing, and found he couldn’t get to his
feet. On the third try, he got as far as his knees and then fell flat again.
‘I’ve got to sleep,’ he thought. ‘If a showdown came now, I’d be helpless. He could come
up here and kill me, if he knew. I’ve got to regain some strength.’
Slowly, painfully, he crawled back from the barrier.
Te jar of something thudding against the sand near him wakened him from a
confused and horrible dream to a more confused and horrible reality, and he opened his
eyes again to blue radiance over blue sand.
How long had he slept? A minute? A day?
Another stone thudded nearer and threw sand on him. He got his arms under him
and sat up. He turned round and saw the Roller twenty yards away, at the barrier.
It rolled off hastily as he sat up, not stopping until it was as far away as it could get.
He’d fallen asleep too soon, he realized, while he was still in range of the Roller’s
throwing. Seeing him lying motionless, it had dared come up to the barrier. Luckily, it
didn’t realize how weak he was, or it could have stayed there and kept on throwing stones.
He started crawling again, this time forcing himself to keep going until he was as far as
he could go, until the opaque wall of the arena’s outer shell was only a yard away.
Ten things slipped away again....
When he awoke, nothing about him was changed, but this time he knew that he had
slept a long while. Te first thing he became aware of was the inside of his mouth; it was
dry, caked. His tongue was swollen.
Something was wrong, he knew, as he returned slowly to full awareness. He felt less
tired, the stage of utter exhaustion had passed. But there was pain, agonizing pain. It
wasn’t until he tried to move that he knew that it came from his leg.
He raised his head and looked down at it. It was swollen below the knee, and the
swelling showed even half-way up his thigh. Te plant tendrils he had tied round the
protective pad of leaves now cut deeply into his flesh.
To get his knife under that imbedded lashing would have been impossible.
Fortunately, the final knot was over the shin bone where the vine cut in less deeply than
elsewhere. He was able, after an effort, to untie the knot.
A look under the pad of leaves showed him the worst: infection and blood poisoning.
Without drugs, without even water, there wasn’t a thing he could do about it, except die
when the poison spread through his system.
He knew it was hopeless, then, and that he’d lost, and with him, humanity. When he
died here, out there in the universe he knew, all his friends, everybody, would die too.
Earth and the colonized planets would become the home of the red, rolling, alien
Outsiders.
It was that thought which gave him courage to start crawling, almost blindly, towards
the barrier again, pulling himself along by his arms and hands.
Tere was a chance in a million that he’d have strength left when he got there to throw
his harpoon-spear just once, and with deadly effect, if the Roller would come up to the
barrier, or if the barrier was gone.
It took him years, it seemed, to get there. Te barrier wasn’t gone. It was as impassable
as when he’d first felt it.
Te Roller wasn’t at the barrier. By raising himself up on his elbows, he could see it at
the back of its part of the arena, working on a wooden framework that was a half-
completed duplicate of the catapult he’d destroyed.
It was moving slowly now. Undoubtedly it had weakened, too.
Carson doubted that it would ever need that second catapult. He’d be dead, he
thought, before it was finished.
His mind must have slipped for a moment, for he found himself beating his fists
against the barrier in futile rage, and made himself stop. He closed his eyes, tried to make
himself calm.
‘Hello,’ said a voice.
It was a small, thin voice. He opened his eyes and turned his head. It was a lizard.
‘Go away,’ Carson wanted to say. ‘Go away; you’re not really there, or you’re there but
not really talking. I’m imagining things again.’
But he couldn’t talk; his throat and tongue were past all speech with the dryness. He
closed his eyes again.
‘Hurt,’ said the voice. ‘Kill. Hurt -- kill. Come.’
He opened his eyes again. Te blue ten-legged lizard was still there. It ran a little way
along the barrier, came back, started off again, and came back.
‘Hurt,’ it said. ‘Kill. Come.’
Again it started off, and came back. Obviously it wanted Carson to follow it along the
barrier.
He closed his eyes again. Te voice kept on. Te same three meaningless words. Each
time he opened his eyes, it ran off and came back.
‘Hurt. Kill. Come.’
Carson groaned. Since there would be no peace unless he followed the thing, he
crawled after it.
Another sound, a high-pitched, squealing, came to his ears. Tere was something
lying in the sand, writhing, squealing. Something small, blue, that looked like a lizard.
He saw it was the lizard whose legs the Roller had pulled off, so long ago. It wasn’t
dead; it had come back to life and was wriggling and screaming in agony.
‘Hurt,’ said the other lizard. ‘Hurt. Kill. Kill.’
Carson understood. He took the flint knife from his belt and killed the tortured
creature. Te live lizard scurried off.
Carson turned back to the barrier. He leaned his hands and head against it and
watched the Roller, far back, working on the new catapult.
‘I could get that far,’ he thought, ‘if I could get through. If I could get through, I might
win yet. It looks weak, too. I might -- ‘
And then there was another reaction of hopelessness, when pain sapped his will and
he wished that he were dead, envying the lizard he’d just killed. It didn’t have to live on and
suffer.
He was pushing on the barrier with the flat of his hands when he noticed his arms,
how thin and scrawny they were. He must really have been here a long time, for days, to
get as thin as that.
For a while he was almost hysterical again, and then came a time of deep calm and
thought.
Te lizard he had just killed had crossed the barrier, still alive. It had come from the
Roller’s side; the Roller had pulled offits legs and then tossed it contemptuously at him
and it had come through the barrier.
It hadn’t been dead, merely unconscious. A live lizard couldn’t go through the barrier,
but an unconscious one could. Te barrier was not a barrier, then, to living flesh, but to
conscious flesh. It was a mental protection, a mental hazard.
With that thought, Carson started crawling along the barrier to make his last
desperate gamble, a hope so forlorn that only a dying man would have dared try it.
He moved along the barrier to the mound of sand, about four feet high, which he’d
scooped out while trying -- how many days ago? -- to dig under the barrier or to reach
water. Tat mound lay right at the barrier, its farther slope half on one side of the barrier,
half on the other.
Taking with him a rock from the pile nearby, he climbed up to the top of the dune and
lay there against the barrier, so that if the barrier were taken away he’d roll on down the
short slope, into the enemy territory.
He checked to be sure that the knife was safely in his rope belt, that the harpoon was
in the crook of his leftarm and that the twenty-foot rope fastened to it and to his wrist.
Ten with his right hand he raised the rock with which he would hit himself on the head.
Luck would have to be with him on that blow; it would have to be hard enough to knock
him out, but not hard enough to knock him out for long.
He had a hunch that the Roller was watching him, and would see him roll down
through the barrier, and come to investigate. It would believe he was dead, he hoped -- he
thought it had probably drawn the same deduction about the nature of the barrier that he
had. But it would come cautiously; he would have a little time -- He struck himself.
Pain brought him back to consciousness, a sudden, sharp pain in his hip that was
different from the pain in his head and leg. He had, thinking things out before he had
struck himself, anticipated that very pain, even hoped for it, and had steeled himself
against awakening with a sudden movement.
He opened his eyes just a slit, and saw that he had guessed rightly. Te Roller was
coming closer. It was twenty feet away; the pain that had awakened him was the stone it
had tossed to see whether he was alive or dead. He lay still. It came closer, fifteen feet
away, and stopped again. Carson scarcely breathed.
As nearly as possible, he was keeping his mind a blank, lest its telepathic ability detect
consciousness in him. And with his mind blanked out that way, the impact of its thoughts
upon his mind was shattering.
He felt sheer horror at the alienness, the differentness of those thoughts, conveying
things that he felt but could not understand or express, because no terrestrial language
had words, no terrestrial brain had images to fit them. Te mind of a spider, he thought,
or the mind of a praying mantis or a Martian sand-serpent, raised to intelligence and put
in telepathic rapport with human minds, would be a homely familiar thing, compared to
this.
He understood now that the Entity had been right: Man or Roller, the universe was
not a place that could hold them both.
Closer. Carson waited until it was only feet away, until its clawed tentacles reached
out....
Oblivious to agony now, he sat up, raised and flung the harpoon with all the strength
that remained to him. As the Roller, deeply stabbed by the harpoon, rolled away, Carson
tried to get to his feet to run after it. He couldn’t do that; he fell, but kept crawling.
It reached the end of the rope, and he was jerked forward by the pull on his wrist. It
dragged him a few feet and then stopped. Carson kept going, pulling himself towards it
hand over hand along the rope. It stopped there, tentacles trying in vain to pull out the
harpoon. It seemed to shudder and quiver, and then realized that it couldn’t get away, for
it rolled back towards him, clawed tentacles reaching out.
Stone knife in hand, he met it. He stabbed, again and again, while those horrid claws
ripped skin and flesh and muscle from his body.
He stabbed and slashed, and at last it was still.
A bell was ringing, and it took him a while after he’d opened his eyes to tell where he
was and what it was. He was strapped into the seat of his scouter, and the visiplate before
him showed only empty space. No Outsider ship and no impossible planet.
Te bell was the communications plate signal; someone wanted him to switch power
into the receiver. Purely reflex action enabled him to reach forward and throw the lever.
Te face of Brander, captain of the Magellan, mother-ship of his group of scouters,
flashed into the screen. His face was pale and his black eyes glowing with excitement.
‘Magellan to Carson,’ he snapped. ‘Come on in. Te fight’s over. We’ve won!’
Te screen went blank; Brander would be signalling the other scouters of his
command.
Slowly, Carson set the controls for the return. Slowly, unbelievingly, he unstrapped
himself from the seat and went back to get a drink at the coldwater tank. For some reason,
he was unbelievably thirsty. He drank six glasses.
He leaned there against the wall, trying to think.
Had it happened? He was in good health, sound, uninjured. His thirst had been
mental rather than physical; his throat hadn’t been dry.
He pulled up his trouser leg and looked at the calf. Tere was a long white scar there,
but a perfectly healed scar; it hadn’t been there before. He zipped open the front of his
shirt and saw that his chest and abdomen were criss-crossed with tiny, almost
unnoticeable, perfectly healed scars.
It had happened!
Te scouter, under automatic control, was already entering the hatch of the mother-
ship. Te grapples pulled it into its individual lock, and a moment later a buzzer indicated
that the lock was airfilled. Carson opened the hatch and stepped outside, went through the
double door of the lock.
He went right to Brander’s office, went in, and saluted.
Brander still looked dazed. ‘Hi, Carson,’ he said. ‘What you missed; what a show!’
‘What happened, sir?’
‘Don’t know, exactly. We fired one salvo, and their whole fleet went up in dust!
Whatever it was jumped from ship to ship in a flash, even the ones we hadn’t aimed at and
that were out of range! Te whole fleet disintegrated before our eyes, and we didn’t get the
paint of a single ship scratched!
‘We can’t even claim credit for it. Must have been some unstable component in the
metal they used, and our sighting shot just set it off. Man, too bad you missed all the
excitement!’
Carson managed a sickly ghost of a grin, for it would be days before he’d be over the
impact of his experience, but the captain wasn’t watching.
‘Yes, sir,’ he said. Common sense, more than modesty, told him he’d be branded as the
worst liar in space if he ever said any more than that. ‘Yes, sir, too bad I missed all the
excitement....’

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