The Rainbow Jade
Originally printed in Weird Tales, September 1949
A priceless jewel; perhaps the answer to the Universe.
Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
THE bell clanged again. Shevlin heard its vibrating peal clearly in the crisp mountain air, two thousand feet above the sun-baked Taklamakan Desert. Its notes stirred tinkling echoes from snow-capped peaks and the fir-sheathed slopes of Tokosun Gorge. His brown face tightened, listening.
Very faintly, the gong was answered by a distant baying. There were animals here that responded to the call of that gong. Not dogs, not wolves. But something so like them, and yet so—unlike—that Shevlin shuddered.
He kicked the big Karasher stallion to full gallop. The sun was a scarlet hump on the horizon, and he wanted to get off this flat stretch before the moon came up from the Gobi. He touched the walnut handles of his Army revolver for reassurance.
Shevlin was an adventurer. He admitted it, when any of his friends accused him. He told them, “I’m out for what I can get. I’m big and I’m strong. I like the feel of a horse under me, and the smell of mountain air. I can’t afford that kind of thing unless I work at it. So I go out and get things for people. Things in out-of-the-way places. Maybe even things that don’t exist. Sometimes I chase legends.” His gray eyes lighted when he talked like that. His friends. knew he was remembering some piece of tissue thin blue porcelain he had brought out of a bandit’s lair for a millionaire; or perhaps the emerald that once had been in an emperor’s sword hilt, an emerald now gracing a woman’s finger in San Francisco.
When news of Pearl Harbor filtered across the Himalayas, Shevlin had stolen a horse and ridden a thousand miles to join Chennault. And when the surrender was completed on the deck of the Missouri, he threw his uniform into a trash bin and joined a nomad caravan headed for Paochi. He had met Talbot in Paochi, over a gin swizzle.
Talbot showed him a broken chip of yellow jade. The man’s eyes, already unnaturally bright with fever, blazed as he looked down at the translucent stone.
“Nothing like it anywhere, old man. Positively priceless. Found it back inside, around the Sin-kiang section. Rainbow jade. That’s what it is.” At Shevlin’s polite stare, Talbot chuckled. “S what I call it, you know. Deuced rainbow left it with Confucius, after he’d finished that hiao-king book.”
Talbot coughed, convulsing. He apologized, and added, “Go in back there for more of it myself if the flesh weren’t so weak. Got a mind to, anyhow. Not that I need the stuff. More pounds’n I know what to do with, thanks to the pater. I say, Shevlin! You do work like this. Finding stuff an’ things. Take a commission from me, old boy. What d’you say? Fifty pounds a month and a share-and-share split if you find the yellow stuff. Eh?”
He had agreed. Why not?
And, in Kashgar, after six months of fruitless search, he found Chi Ling.
SHE was leaning against the painted post of a temple, cool in thin shirt and riding breeches and boots. She was not white, nor Kirghiz, Uzbek or Tatar. Her lips were red and full, her hair black as the Ou-ni-yao vases. Her body was bigger than the Chinese, her breasts more full. She was the loveliest thing. Shevlin had ever seen, but it wasn’t her beauty that took his eye.
It was the yellow jade amulet in the form of a Crescent hanging about her throat. It matched the piece Talbot had shown him in Paochi. It was so transparent he could see the fabric of her blouse beneath it.
“Where did you get it?” he asked her. “I’ll buy it from you. Just tell me how much you want. I’ll buy information, too. Where’d—“
He got that far when she slapped him. She turned her back and walked away; but not before, deep down in the black pools of her eyes, he had seen that she was afraid; deadly afraid.
Shevlin followed her for two weeks before she spoke to him. One night he saw her coming out of the bazaar. There was a big man with her, a man with a hooked nose and the sharp, bright eye of an eagle. He was wrapped in a dirty sheepskin, but he wore it with the ease and grace of an emperor.
Shevlin said, “Look, my name’s Shevlin. The jade, now, I’ll pay you—“
The girl whispered harshly, “You want the jade, yes? You will pay for it? With two horses?”
Shevlin said, “Look, my name’s Shevlin.” The girl put out a pale white hand, touched his briefly. Her flesh tingled against his. Shevlin scowled. He had never bothered with women, except for an occasional Eurasian or White Russian emigre on the coast. Now this girl, with electric fingers and a face that was exquisite under Kashgar moonlight—
“Not money,” she told him. “Horses. You must buy them.”
Shevlin chuckled, and the girl stiffened. Political refugees of one sort of another! The frontier towns abounded with them. Then he shrugged. It was none of his affair. The jade was what he hunted. He said, “I’ll have horses. Two fleet mares. With food and water canteens. Now—tell me your name.”
She looked at him as a man for the first time. Shevlin let her study the brown planes of his face, the wide, thin mouth, the level gray eyes with the white scar above the left where a snow leopard on Anne Machin almost clawed it out. The scars on his leg and arm that the leopard had engraved tingled faintly as her eyes met his. He grinned, “Well, what about it? Do I get to know your name?”
She shook her head and touched the amulet. “No, that was not part of our bargain. Only the amulet. It will be yours.”
When he came back, thirty minutes later, she had the yellow jade in her palm, and her black hair was tucked up in a knot on her shapely head. She would ride swiftly, he thought. Somehow, he knew she was a good horsewoman.
She dropped the jade piece into his hand, swung up into the saddle. She looked down at him, laughing softly. “My name is—Chi Ling.” And then she was off in a clatter of hooves on the cobble stoned street.
Shevlin ran around the corner where his Karasher roan was jingling its bit impatiently, and mounted. He followed them easily. They made good targets in the moonlight.
He trailed them from a distance, across the alkali plains between Kashgar and Tihwa, into the valley of Ili and beyond, past wind-eroded ruins and bleached skeletons of men and horses. For more than four hundred miles he followed. He lost them in the Celestial Mountains, the first night he heard the bell, and the animals baying.
HE SAT in the light of his little camp… fire and checked his guns, an Army 45 and a Winchester .30.30. The wind came out of the firs, fragrant and cold. Shevlin drew his big cloth cape around his shoulders, looked up at the stars. The baying was very close, now. At times he could have sworn he heard a sniffling, at not too great a distance.
Shevlin reached for the rifle, took it across his knees. Something was moving in the little copse at the bottom of the hill where he was camped. It was big as a lion, judging from its shadow. And yet the head was that of a dog. A queer mixture. Shevlin thought of the Dogs of Fo that guarded the Chin temples.
Clannng, clanning, clanning. . . .
The bell was very near, alive and vibrant. It was somewhere up above him, hidden in one of the caves that dotted the mountains, where the Buddhists had placed their magnificent murals.
Shevlin came to his feet, swearing in amazement. The animals were in the clear now, bright in moonlight, coming for him. Dogs of Fo! Huge, tawny in Color, mouths slavering, that deep bay erupting from their throats.
He fired coolly. The high-powered rifle was as accurate as his skill and experience could make it. A dog—he had no other thought for it—dropped. Another fell, Crawled on toward him, dying. A third leaped high in the air, crashed on a rock.
Then the others were on him. There was no room to wield a rifle, no time to draw the Colt. He went back with white fangs and a red mouth gaping for his face . . .
Clanning — clanning Clanning – Clannng — clanning!. . .
The bell was fierce, now. Loud and pealing! Ordering, commanding; The dogs fell away, Sniffed at him, tongues lolling. Their real eyes shone green and brilliant in the darkness. The bell clanged again, louder and faster. Summoning! The dogs wheeled, trotted off.
Shevlin drew a deep breath, put his back against a rock and wriggled to his feet. His left arm was gashed and bloody. His cheek was furrowed.
“A minute more, and there wouldn’t have been anything to save. But thanks anyhow,” he muttered to the bell. He winced as his left arm throbbed. He had a medicine kit somewhere in his pack. He staggered toward it, knelt down.
“I think I can do it much better.”
She stood in a pool of silver light between two giant firs. No longer wore the shirt and riding breeches; instead, a silken sari clung to her, of scarlet and green and yellow. splashes that overlapped to form a weird, alien pattern. Her long black hair was bound in a startling coiffure with tiny hair horns protruding from her temple. Her sloe eyes stared at him out of the lovely creamy mask of her face.
Chi Ling moved gracefully. She strode freely, yet as easily as if she skimmed the grass-stops
She knelt, removed a yellow jade jar from the linked girdle. From the jar her long fingers cupped a fragrant balsam; applied it to the wounds with gentle strokes. It stung at first, then soothed.
Shevlin said, “Where did you get the gown? It isn’t silk or linen. Metallic.”
“The Shang-ti gave it to me. They have many unusual things.”
“Shang-ti? The heavenly ones. Never heard of them.”
“You will. They ordered that I bring you. to them. I had to plead for your life. They do not like—strangers. That is why they loose the half kalfi here. The animals who nearly killed you. They brought them with them when they came.”
Shevlin frowned. “You speak of them as if they came from … where do they come from?”
Chi Ling slid her eyes sideways at him. Her red lips quirked. Mischievously she lifted a finger, pointed star-ward. “From up there. From the stars.”
Shevlin snorted, laughed. The pain was lessening. He grinned, “If they gave you that salve, I’m half convinced already … if they come from the stars, where’s their space ship?”
Chi Ling laughed. “Space ships! Space ships are only for humans. The others, the Shang-ti, they do not need ships. They are different. They have been here a long time. Many centuries. Only a very few suspect. The Lama in Tibet, a scholar like, Charles Fort, a student or two who knows why Cambodia became a ghost city, why Mingoi was abandoned overnight — but they cannot Prove.
Shevlin stared into the glowing embers of his dying fire. He had read Fort, that collector of incredible and impossible news notices: lights seen on the moon, dark objects crossing the sun, tiny coffins found in Scotland, shadows cast by unseen bodies in the sky, huge glowing wheels plunging into oceans and later rising from them toward the sky.
He chuckled. “And flying discs over the States, and an aviator chasing a strange thing . . . absolutely white except for a streamer of red that appeared to be revolving before his ship disintegrated over Kentucky!”
Chi Ling eyed him warily. He reassured her, “Just something I was thinking about, in regard to Fort. But you—how come you’re so friendly with these Shang-ti?”
“I’ve been bred to serve them. My family for generations has been with them as they move from place to place, waiting. In their time here on Earth while they waited, they have dwelt in many places. Easter Island. Cambodia. Ming-oi. They have waited for such a long time. Soon now, they will be ready.”
“Ready? For what?”
“They will tell you if they want you to know. Come! We must go to them. I’ve stayed away too long already.”
Shevlin reached out, caught her wrist. “Suppose I don’t play it that way? Suppose …”
She shook her head at him. She said, “You will. The kalfi are still out there. If Come again, the gong may not call them off.”
Shevlin heard the sniffing, the panting. He shuddered and let her go. The girl arose calmly, brushing at her soft robe. Her black eyes smiled at him.
HE HAD heard of the Caverns in the Celestial Mountains from a warrior who had ridden with Ma Chung-ying. The Buddhists had sprawled their murals on rock walls in the doned hills, inside, caves that stretched back into darkness. The soldier told him that a few men had explored one cave and—had not come out.
Chi Ling took him up a tier of steps cut in the limestone, through a low-portaled cave into gray dimness. Her hand in his as guide, she led him through a series of interlinked caverns that broadened onto a smooth ramp. The ramp, twisted and spiraled gently downward.
There was no door, as such. One moment they stepped off the ramp into a dim grayness—
The next moment there was light and color and movement all around them. It was as if scales had been lifted from his eyes. Shevlin swore softly, staring.
There were giant caverns, many of them extending as far as he could see. Each was different. The one he was walking through, with Chi Ling a swaying gracefulness ahead, of him, was purple-walled, and floored with great plans and fungoid growths, giant creepers that lifted tangled vines and bronzine leaves toward the groined ceiling far above. It was a jungle of red and yellow and blue, of metallic bronzes and harsh silvers, of gold and amethyst and emerald.
The next cave was a liquid pool in whose depths queer transparencies flitted, where huge black bodies darted between trunks of coiled and rounded coral. On a slim path of stone, Chi Ling pattered between rippling waters. Shevlin followed, eyeing crystalline anemones and the mad coloring of fire sponge and golden Corals . . .
Under the arch of the third cavern, Shevlin cried out.
Chi Ling turned, nodding, “A museum of sorts.”
There were many races and men in the transparent, bio-plastic cases. A Roman in cuirass and graves. A half-naked Egyptian. A Tartar of the Mongol tribes, encased on the wooden saddle of his shaggy, pony, arrow notched to bowstring. A Polynesian, in white-feathered cape, stepping into a long canoe. On the far side Shevlin made out a Persian in chain-mail, scimitar dangling from his brown hand. Beyond him, a Crusader, red cross on his white surtout.
They went through that cavern, into one where statues and wooden carvings rioted against a backdrop of bright wall murals.
Chi Ling was hurrying. Shevlin caught no more than a glimpse of the following chambers . . .
“Here,” whispered Chi Ling. “Here now is the cavern of the Shang-ti!”
Her warm hand squeezed his, then she was thrusting aside an iridescent curtain, stepping onto a polished black floor of basalt. This hall was larger than the others. Its walls, seemed carved from mahogany, smoothed and polished with oil until they glittered. Tiny glowing ovals swirled and danced in-the-air currents high-above, shedding a pale bluish-white light that was almost daylight.
And on the tier of ebony blocks, vivid white against the black—Shang-ti!
A solid, shimmering cube of brilliance. Eight feet in height, coruscating light against the darkness, revolving pinpoints of light within it, a hard core of glittering, blinding opalescence at its heart. Awesome, strange, and—
Something deep inside him told him he had never known such cold. The white was the frost of a Siberian snow field, the glitter the shimmering feet of ice that rims the Alaskan glaciers. The movement inside the Cube was the fantastic swirl of Cosmic Snows, the imponderable, frozen sluggishness of the glacier. It moved and looped and shifted in the cube, that living cold. Moved—and was still.
Chi Ling pressed his hand with cool fingers. He went with her across the basalt floor to the ebony steps.
Chi Ling whispered: “Wait!”
She went up the steps, wide-eyed; arms open to the cube. Shevlin cried out, “Be careful! That thing must be cold as—“
The cube whirled, rotated; lifted and danced in the air with bright Coruscations.
Swept down on Chi Ling. Wrapped and enveloped her in the opalescent garment of white hoarfrost. Faintly there was the eerie tinkle, as if ice prong touched ice-blade A musical arpeggio, swirling up and up with Cold perfection of tone—
The cube was gone.
Chi Ling stood with her back to Shevlin, hands buried in her hair. Swiftly the hands worked, changing tresses, altering the coiffure. His skin whitened, glowed. Her body altered, mistily and as in a haze; blurred, grew, shrank, flattened . . .
The girl turned, stood looking down at Shevlin from the height of the ebony steps.
IT was Chi Ling, and it was not Chi Ling. The red mouth was there . . . and the green eyes framed by the raven hair — but the face was altered subtly, the eyebrows arched, a pixiness in the hollow of the white cheeks, mockery in the set of the full-lips, the slant of the eyes, and the flaring of the thin nostrils.
Shevlin choked: “How’d you—do that?”
The woman laughed. “You would not understand Unless—are you a scientist? Like Edison? Einstein? Lawrence?”
He shook his head. The Shang-ti woman came down the steps, moving with facile grace. She said: “Chi Ling may have told you a little of me, of our kind. She calls us the Shang-ti. It will do. We have come
from a very far distance, across fifty million light years, from a galaxy a dozen times the size of your own milky way.”
Shevlin licked his lips. He was an adventurer. He had faced a lot of odd things in the past, all the way from Nepal to northern Siberia. He told himself: Just another person, that’s all she is. Nothing else than that. Keep it in mind.
“We are different from your people. You are carbon life. We are a form of life based on “efficiency of energy.”
Shevlin looked blank. The Shang-ti woman laughed, crossed the room toward a row of ornate benches, Sank down on one, gesturing to Shevlin.
“I’ll try and explain. Your life form is based on matter, mine on energy. You know heat as energy, but to the Shang-ti, there is no such thing as heat. We are energy incarnate. Within ourselves there is no matter at all, only energy. Many eons ago, our life-forms came into being on a very distant planet. Pressures, a fantastic outpouring of incredible power from a blasted twin-sun, the right conditions Chi Ling shrugged, smiling; said simply, All that combined to form the Shang-ti.
“We exist at, what you would call absolute zero, two hundred and seventy degrees below Centigrade zero. Your men of science have never duplicated that temperature, can never hope to do so. It is at that temperature that all matter transforms into energy. If energy, and not matter. At absolute zero there is no pressure, and no molecular movement. There can be no gas, no matter, nothing at that coldness except—energy alone! Anything added to it becomes only more energy.”
Shevlin blinked. He said slowly, “But if were to use a flame-thrower on you, heat you—“
Her laughter caroled. “You can’t heat me, as you put it. You forget that I am nothingness. No gas, no flesh. Nothing. And—nothing will scarcely absorb heat, will it? You can’t multiply zero. Neither
can you heat what does not exist. And nothing exists within me except pure energy.”
“But that cube . . . the coldness. . . the whiteness … I saw you!”
“You saw only the frosting of the air that rimmed me. We allow that to be seen. We could always be invisible, if we chose. Permitting the air to frost also permits our intense cold to be felt.”
Shevlin leaned forward. “But Chi Ling! You entered her body. I saw that. If all that cold touched her, she’d die!”
Chi Ling toyed with a rich black link of hair, smiling at Shevlin’s excited face. “Of course she would, if matter that cold touched her. But only pure energy touched her, took over her body!”
“And you use her body to—“
THE woman brooded at him. “I am Chi Ling—at the moment. Her thoughts, her memories are mine. The Shang-ti can enter any human body. While we waited here on Earth, we have amused ourselves
from time to time by doing just that.”
Her green eyes mocked him. “Haven’t you ever wondered why science seems to spurt every once in a while? For a thousand years man will go along in the same old rut. There was Egypt, Crete and Phoenicia. Along came Athens with its brilliant upsurge of the arts and philosophy. The dark ages, and then—the Renaissance! DaVinci. Michelangelo. Bacon. Shakespeare.”
Her laughter was a tinkling triumph in the great ebony hall. “You never—suspected. Not once! None of your so termed wise men ever guessed. Columbus! Napoleon! The age of science then began in the last century. Electricity! Airplanes! Even—the Manhattan Project!
“It is something to do, to play chess with an entire world. To move races and nations like pawns—with a planet for a playing board!”
Shevlin thought: You can’t square a circle. An animal can’t eat itself. You can’t have a black white, or any other of a dozen or more paradoxes. He said: “But you—“
Chi Ling shrugged glistening white shoulders. The Shang-ti woman said, “Many millions of years ago, on our planet, a way was found. By Nature, in a subterranean vault where our first life forms were patterned. Cold life, Shevlin. So, cold that we are perfect trans-mutants. In us, matter becomes energy simultaneously. There is no matter. Only energy.”
“And energy,” said Shevlin thoughtfully, “can’t be destroyed.”
Chi Ling stood up, twirled so that her skirts flew out around her legs. She threw back her head, let the long hair float, in a spray of black fire. She whispered, “No one can destroy me, Shevlin. And as long as there is any matter anywhere to feed my energy … I will live! Life and living is a fine thing, Shevlin. You like life. I can read it in your face, in your eyes. You like Chi Ling, too …”
Shevlin grinned. He stood up. The Shang-ti woman slid away, laughing. “Shevlin, you might hate me if I told you why I am here, why others like me are here on Earth. Will you hate me, Shevlin?”
“No, I guess not. Not if there’s anything in it for me. I’m sorry. That’s the way I am. I try not to be honest about it. I was born in a city slum, grew up fighting and scratching for a piece of bread and a glass of water. It wasn’t easy. I hated the cities. When I found there were things like mountains and long stretches of steppe and tundra, and horses to carry me over them, I took adventure as my job. And I take what’s in it for me.”
The woman came close to Shevlin. Her green eyes flared at him. She whispered, “Soon I will let you know why we are here. And there will be something in it for you. Soon!”
Her arms were white fires around his neck. Her red mouth sank over him. She breathed, “It is fun to be human, Shevlin. I am almost sorry we are not . . . kiss me! Kiss me!”
SHEVLIN was given the freedom of the underground caverns. He swam in the depths of the blue pool, lay in the cavern of the suns, his skin drinking in the bluish radiance. He drank of cool green wines and ate of tiny honey cakes that were a succulent mixture of meat and flour and vegetables. He wandered amid great gardens where riotous blooms and bulbous flowers nodded swollen petals. He ran and exercised in a cavern where near-living vines fought him, wrestled and almost crushed him, before he could win free of them and stand panting, wet with sweat.
There was only one place he could not go. It was the last cavern, and there was an opaque veil across it that hid its interior. Once Shevlin touched that thin gossamer shroud: found it stone-hard and cool to his touch.
The Shang-ti woman shared his days, laughing and mocking and gently loving.
He asked her: “You aren’t Chi Ling. Yet you’re in her body. How do you do it?”
She lay on her back, a hand sheltering her eyes from the brilliance of the sun-balls above. She said softly, “All your carbon life forms are comprised of atoms. Building blocks. They’re held together by mesons. The binding stuff. Concrete between the blocks. At absolute zero, those mesons lose their adhesive strength. . weaken . . . let the atoms separate . . become other matter… or energy.”
“Being energy, we can merge in a form of osmosis with other energy as soon as the mesons have been weakened by the utter cold. Reshape that energy into material form . . . appear as Chi Ling . . . or Newton. . . . Bacon. . .”
Shevlin said dreamily, “Why me? How come I was allowed in here?”
The Shang-ti woman rolled over, faced him. “You were after the yellow jade. We do not have enough of us to maintain an elaborate spy system on Earth. We have to be very careful. While we cannot be destroyed, we could be set back in our—work—for countless years.
“We make that yellow jade. It’s a byproduct of our—work. So we wanted to make sure … just why you were sent here, who sent you … if you were sent.”
“You never asked.”
Her laughter, tinkled. “There was no reason to ask. You were observed, followed, when Chi Ling first reported your interest in the jade. She had been arranging for certain needed materials in Paochi. We let you follow Chi Ling. We know that no one came after you from Paochi. And besides—
“You are hard different from the men we’ve known. I thought it might be fun to know you better before—“
Shevlin asked, “Before—what?”
She put out pink fingertips, ran them across Shevlin’s lips. “We will take you back with us, Shevlin. Back to our mother planet. You will not perish. You see, we are going to smash the Earth. An experiment. As your own nation made an experiment at Bikini. This will be a cosmic Bikini. But a few life forms we will take back with us. You will be one of them.”
“In a bio-plastic case?” he asked dryly.
“Alive,” she laughed. “What good are you to Chi Ling or me—dead?”
“Chi Ling goes back, too?”
“Of course. And a few others. You humans are very interesting, Shevlin. So serious. Like children, sometimes, at play. It is fun, this being a human. I have learned to like it. Others of the Shang-ti will like it, too.”
Playthings. Toys. Animated slaves, to be inhabited and enjoyed as the spirit moves. Shevlin lay back and let the warm globes bathe him. So that was to be his fate! Transported across an unimaginable distance, to be a living toy. He would be bred to make more humans, more toys to be inhabited and used. Like pig or chicken!
Her slant green eyes were watching him. She mocked him softly, “Do you hate me very much?”
Easy, he told himself. Go easy here. It’s a tight spot, like the time the snow leopard cornered you on a ledge of the Amne Machin. His man-will had won against the snarling cat. He had not thought to come out of that alive. He knew the same dead, useless feeling now. You can’t kill pure energy as you do a snow leopard, he thought wearily.
He said, “I don’t know. I haven’t figured out my angle, yet. What do I get out of it?”
“You get immortality. And Chi Ling. And a life of ease or exploration with us. Adventure? I’ll take you with me to planets you haven’t dreamed of. I’ll show you sunsets on oceans wider than the sun. Or winters on planets that are rocks, where storms are so frightful they topple mountains. There are green planets like your Earth, without people. I’ll show you palaces built on planets so long ago, even the bones of the people who built them are dust.”
“Yes. That sounds good. That would be heaven for an adventurer. But destroying the Earth, now. Can’t you—
“The Earth must be smashed! It is an experiment.”
He recognized the determination in the cold voice. Unshakable. He was only a pawn to her. An enjoyable pawn, but still only a toy. Shevlin shrugged—
His big hands went out and closed on Chi Ling’s throat, tightened and clung! The muscles on his arms and back bulged and rippled.
Chi Ling went limp.
And the brilliant cube of coldness that was the Shang-ti stood sentient and brilliant, a few feet away. Flickering. Opalescent.
A voice in Shevlin’s brain mocked, “Let her be, Shevlin. She is only a carbon thing like you. She cannot hurt you. I am what you want to destroy—and can not!”
Shevlin moved a hand, dragged his revolver from its holster where he had flung it to bathe beneath the sun globes.
“Shoot!” ordered the voice.
He pumped three shells into the blinding cube. It glowed around them, absorbed them. Transformed them into energy as they ate into its heart of living cold.
“I could just as easily absorb the full fury of an atomic explosion, Shevlin. What do you know that can destroy me, Shevlin? Bullets? Explosives? Rays? Atomic blasts? Those things—all matter—I can blend with Absorb! Make mine!”
Shevlin stood by the sprawled body of Chi Ling. He said hoarsely, “I’m licked. What do I do now? Die?”
The voice said, “I told you I want you alive, Shevlin. You have a strong body. A good body for breeding.”
Shevlin repressed a shudder of repulsion, staring at the eight-foot-high cube of coldness. That thing in Chi Ling! An indestructible mass of cold, of sexlessness, of brain. Ready to use him, like a toy, for entertainment.
IT was dark in the last cavern. The sun globes were far away. Here there was only a dim grayness, like a London fog. Shevlin clutched Chi Ling’s smooth wrist, drew her, after him.
“Let me into that last room,” he told her. “Let me past that curtain! I have to see what’s in that room—what they’re going to do!”
“They’re going to smash the Earth. Don’t you understand that? You and I, we’ve got to stop them. Somehow. There must be a Way.
They are indestructible! Haven’t my people tried? Years ago they tried. The tale came down to me. They used many ways. And the Shang-ti only laughed at them. The Shang-ti let them. Allowed it. As a lesson.”
“Energy,” whispered Shevlin. “They’re pure energy. . . matter turns into energy at absolute zero. That’s what she . . it . . said. But lift the veil. Let me see into the room . . .”
Chi Ling whimpered in the dimness. She stretched out a hand, touched the shrouding veil moved her fingers in a queer pattern. The veil moved, drew back…
It was not as large as the other chambers. It was plain, austere. It held nothing but empty bio-plastic casings, arranged in rows, one after another, stretching into the darkness.
They were not empty!
Shevlin said hoarsely, “They each hold something . . . something alive! Yes, that’s it… each one has a Shang-ti inside it! You see? Those whitish cores…. very dim, as if the energy inside it were ebbing away . . .”
Chi Ling put a hand to her mouth. She shuddered. “Quick, Shevlin. Before it finds us here. Take one more look—“
Shevlin mused, “It wants to blow up the earth. Maybe create a tremendous unleashing of energy. Sure, sure. To feed those things, to bring ’em back to full life again. They’re dying. Almost dead. Hundreds of em, waiting here like patients in a hospital for a blood transfusion!”
The veil closed over the cavern. Chi Ling’s fingers quivered in his hands as she drew him after her. They went back through the caverns like frightened children waiting for a bogeyman, hand in hand.
It was Chi Ling who felt its presence, as they stepped into the cavern of the ebony dais. She drew closer to Shevlin, whimpering, her unbound black hair a dark nimbus about her pale, wide-eyes face.
“It’s here, Shevlin. Shang-ti! I—I can sense it. . . . feel it!”
Shevlin put a big hand on his gun, shrugged and let his fingers drop. You can’t kill pure energy, he thought wearily. He looked around the room. There was nothing visible.
A voice mocked him. “I told you I could move about unseen, Shevlin. I told you I was invisible, that I only allowed myself to be seen—like this!”
Ten feet in front of him the air-swirled, stirred as by a cyclonic force. Waves of sheer cold beat and bellowed, whitened, frosted. Snow crystals formed. The cube was there, shimmering in its blinding brilliance.
The girl moved forward, slow step by slow step, as if drugged. The cube stood still, let her walk into the frost crystals; absorbed her.
Shevlin cried out in horror. He could see through the cube faintly, see the glowing globes and the mahogany carved walls beyond it.
Chi Ling was gone!
“Come you too, Shevlin,” mocked the cube.
“No. I’ll be damned if I do!”
He choked out the words, taut with rage and the first fear that he had ever known. Even the snow leopard had never caused this fear. The scars on his left leg and arm tingled, as he remembered that battle, and the bloody claws of the giant white cat.
The cube was still, watching him. It said, “I am ready, Shevlin. Ready for the explosion that will smash your planet. The long years of planning, of preparing the planet for this moment—are over. I do not want you to die, Shevlin. I want to save you, show you those other worlds. You said you were an adventurer. I can show you many planets besides this. I—“
It was then that Shevlin leaped. A crazy, insane idea had sprung into his brain, suggested by the tingle of his long-healed scars. Bullets would not kill this thing. Nothing would that was matter. But Shevlin had one weapon left, a weapon as intangible as pure energy. If that failed—well, there was nothing left for anyone.
He went through the frost crystals, expecting the sheer cold to freeze him solid. Instead, he felt only a slight wrench throughout his body. It was as if a million tiny hands tugged at all his atoms, throwing them apart. He was man in one moment, nothingness the next. Yet he was more than nothing. He was still himself, a mind united with a will.
In the shadow of a Burmese temple, Shevlin had seen a zealot transfix his skin with needles without pain. He knew that psychosomatic medicine was trying to unravel the mystery of the mind’s effect on bodily diseases. A man could will himself to health, just as he could will himself to die. Shevlin had seen too many cases in native huts to doubt. There were medical case histories of cancers come and gone, banished by nothing but sheer will. The x factor of will, sometimes subconscious, was the curative agent. Army doctors had told him much, during the war.
After all, why not? What was a man but a will and an intellect linked to a lot of atoms?
He was dissolved, swept up into the white, whirling mistiness—that faded into nothingness. Faintly he could see the dancing ovals in the cavern. A mighty force buffeted at him, tried to beat him down, down into passive, unknowing submission.
That was the answer. It had to be. It was the only weapon left him. His body and his strength, that had choked the snow leopard to death in three hours of bloody nightmare, were gone; lost in the mad opalescence of the Shang-ti. His intellect was being swallowed, eaten piece-meal, by a brain eons old, educated in star-systems unknown to his world.
Just the will!
He held on. He—or whatever spark it was that remained of himself in that wild exhilaration—repeated endlessly, I will not yield! I will not yield! He fought the questing touch of that other mind, fought the grasp that would swallow him utterly.
And the Shang-ti weakened. Not by much. Just by a tiny fraction. But it was enough. It showed what he could do.
He never knew how long it took, there in the caverns beneath the Celestial Mountains. When it was over, he was alone in the cavern, invisible, a conqueror who would never be known. He realized that. He was Shang-ti, now. All its powers were his, all its knowledge. But brooding, lost some where within him, lay the sullen strength of the other. At the first sign of weakness, the Shang-ti would be back, to conquer. In the soul of him, Shevlin laughed bitterly. He had won—
He was forever chained here, in this cube of brilliance. There was no escape. But he put all that away from him. He whirled toward the cavern gateways; sealed them, one after another. In the last cavern, where the bio-plastic cases stood, he used his newfound powers.
He took dust from the floor and made energy from it and hurled it at the cases. They powdered in vivid white flashes, and the thunder of their going split the rocks.
Then, alone, he went up through the caverns to the fresh, clean air of earth, and stared upward at the stars. They would be his home now, those stars. For an adventurer, it was the supreme adventure. He wondered idly what they would be like. He wished for company—
It was faint, like a half-forgotten memory out of childhood. It was the voice of Chi Ling. She was lost, there in the whirling coldness of him: all her atoms, intellect and will. Perhaps, somewhere out in that
vast bowl of the heavens, he would find a planet and bring her back to life.
It was a good thought. He held it warm to his cold brilliance as he lifted with the dazzling speed of light toward the stars.