When long minutes had passed without result, it occurred to Conrad that the man might have run, in the grip of madness, far from where he had been working. In sudden anger at his own stupidity he stepped back and hurled his hatchet to the floor.

There was a hollow boom.

Conrad stood for an instant like a statue. Then he was on hands and knees levering at the metal plates under him. His fingertips located a small depression in one of the plates, and Yanderman, peering closely at it, asked for the tool found in the skeleton’s grasp. It fitted the depression exactly, and when twisted caused the plate to rise on smooth counterweights … exposing a white board bearing a row of red switches.

Almost crying with relief, Conrad wiped his face; his skin was clammy with the sweat of tension.

“All right,” Yanderman said. “Which of these is the one?”

Conrad half-extended his arm, then drew it back. Paling, his eyes riveted on the switches, he whispered, “I–I don’t know. It could be any of them!”

Keefe made a strangled noise. The others exchanged glances of alarm.

“But we must find out!” Conrad exploded, and reached for the first switch. He had pushed it home before anyone could stop him.

There was a grinding sound. They looked up. Huge metal panels were swinging down towards them from the direction of the roof, ringing as they struck aside thick branches of creeper. A slow, tired-sounding voice spoke out of nowhere.

“Emergency transit operation due. Remain still.”

Convulsively Conrad forced the switch to its old position. The voice stopped. The metal panels hung like folded bats’ wings in the gloom above. The air seemed to congeal with tension.

“Try the one at the opposite end,” Yanderman muttered. Conrad complied.

At once there was another voice, equally tired. But this one said, “Emergency power reduction now in force. All travelways are now unpowered. All inessential services are withdrawn. No transits are possible until the system is fully restored.”

There was a grinding sound, and afterwards silence.

“Did you hear that?” Conrad whispered, getting to his feet. “Did it say what I thought it said?”

Yanderman nodded, his face set in a mask of awe. “It said something about emergency power reduction, and no transits being possible.”

“No transits!” Keefe echoed, almost shaking with excitement. “Does that mean no more monsters?”

“It must!” Conrad blurted.

And at that very instant the alarm which gave them warning of the arrival of such a monster blared deafeningly.

Somebody screamed. At once there was a panicky rush from the platform. Only Conrad, Yanderman and Keefe stood their ground: Keefe from sheer astonishment, Yanderman in much the same predicament but lifting his heatbeam as though determined to face any monster that might appear, and Conrad because he could not believe he had been wrong.

One or two of the fleeing men paused to hurl curses at him. Then they were gone, and there was a fearful hush.

“A-a fault in the system?” Yanderman suggested from a leather-dry throat.

“There can’t be a fault! Or a mistake!” Conrad passed his hand over his face dizzily, his mind churning with crazy images of Nestamay and Idris, Yanderman and Maxall, Lagwich and the sterile desert of the barrenland.

“Where do the things appear, do you know?” Keefe barked. “We do at least have a heatbeam! We might be able to trap it!”

“There, somewhere.” Conrad pointed past the bulky sphere of the cortex. “We ought to be able to see the- uh-the arrival area there.”

“I’ll make sure!” Yanderman snapped, and hoisted the heatbeam, resting it on the curious twisted crystal structure Conrad had found. A sweep with the beam, and another, cleft the masking creepers and laid bare a path downwards to a dim hollow space hundreds of feet on a side; like a needle hunting a splinter, the beam of Conrad’s handlight stabbed the opening into the gloom.

“Nothing,” he breathed after a minute’s silence. “The alarm must have been-”

“No, look there,” Yanderman whispered. “To the left. Isn’t something moving among the plants?”

Conrad’s heart hammered. Yes, plainly to be seen in the beam of the handlight there was movement. The leaves swayed wildly, as though a thing were about to emerge into view.

“Use the heatbeam!” Keefe begged. Yanderman nodded and pressed the activating switch.

And the beam died in the same instant as it began.

“No more power,” Yanderman said emptily. “Now what will they do? Without heatbeams, if it gets to the exterior of the dome …” He let the words trail away, gazing accusingly at Conrad, who felt sick with horror and shame at what he had brought about.

So this was the inevitable fate of Conrad, visionary, brave explorer of the barrenland, best soapmaker in Lagwich, unraveller of the mystery of the Station … He closed his eyes, his mind reeling as it had done under the impact of the signal from the organochemic cortex.

It wasn’t for a long time that he realised his companions had begun to make noises. They were laughing-or weeping? Which? Or both together! Yes!

He snapped his eyes open and stared at them. They were embracing each other, making meaningless, hysterical sounds, waving, dancing up and down, trying to sing. Uncomprehending, Conrad turned from them to the slanting hole cut by the last flicker of the heatbeam into the heart of what he had taken to be the arrival area.

And there he saw the thing for which the alarm had sounded.

A man.

A man in strange shiny garments, his head covered with a crystal helmet, his gauntleted hands stretched out as though in acclamation of a miracle-reaching up towards him, Conrad, standing on the platform beside the looming shell of the cortex.

And shouting.

“Earth! Earth! We’ve got through! We reached Earth again!”

And not one man only, but another, and another, and another pouring from the concealment of the alien plants, to stand in a shouting group and laugh and cry and wave at the laughing, crying, waving Conrad and his companions on the platform above.

After four and a half centuries, he, Conrad, had unwittingly opened the way, and the isolated children of Earth had found it possible to return.

Вы читаете To Conquer Chaos
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