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by Arthur J. Burks
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Deep in the heart of South America's jungles, explorers Leyson and Horton found the source of the fantastic rumors which had been alarming government officials. And the facts they found were stranger than the wildest stories they had heard, for here were a race of metal men, the New People. And here, behind the scenes, was Von Glauber, sworn follower of the swastika, making a madman's dream come true. For the metal giants had been made to rise and conquer, and have dominion over the entire world! First published in Science Fiction Stories, July 1943
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks, Science Fiction Stories
eBookwise Release Date: April 2010
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [97 KB]
Reading time: 58-82 min.
"Holy mother!" said Roger Horton, coming to a halt and spreading his legs wide apart to keep from going down. "Take a look at that, will you!"
Jack Leyson looked in his turn, and in spite of the terrific heat of the jungle, went icy cold. Whatever he had expected to find up here, it certainly hadn't been something out of a madman's nightmare. Nightmarish creatures of fang and claw, yes--but nothing like this. He could hear the chattering of Roger Horton's teeth, and it wasn't, this time, because of the fever that had gripped them both for the past three weeks, since they had lost all their duffel--since their carriers had vanished like wraiths, and they had been forced to live off the country.
Both agents stared at the apparition. It looked as though it might have come out of a clothing store window on Fifth Avenue. It was a white man, but one who seemed to wear a mask over his face, so empty of emotion was it. The silent one was dressed in skin-tight clothing, wore queer, square-toed shoes, and a hat that looked like a fireman's helmet with the brim cut off almost all the way around.
He was perhaps six feet tall and his eyes had an eerie shine to them, in the shadows of the teeming forest. He carried no weapons. He merely stood and confronted the two agents. But an aura of menace seemed to flow out of him; Jack Leyson could feel it, like nothing he had ever experienced in all his contact with strange peoples. Roger Horton was plainly frightened. He wouldn't have been, had the stranger been armed and openly antagonistic. It was the man's silence that grated most. Jack Leyson was on the point of asking the stranger what the devil it was all about, when Roger Horton lost control of himself.
Leyson heard the safety catch click on Horton's automatic, but before the fact could register, Horton had leveled his weapon. The forest roared with the sounds of the explosions, three of them in quick succession. Leyson, staring in horror at the pasty-faced apparition, distinctly heard the bullets strike, and the sound of their striking added to the creeping terror in his heart. The man did not go down, did not even seem to feel the bullets. Roger Horton was a dead shot; moreover, Leyson had heard those bullets smash into the stranger.
Now, after a moment's hesitation, during which Leyson had heard the automatic drop from the nerveless hand of Horton, the stranger spoke. There was a peculiar, guttural quality in his voice.
"You are my prisoners, gentlemen. You will offer no resistance. You will follow me!"
What sort of a man was this, anyway? Leyson asked himself. No sooner had he spoken than he turned, presenting his back squarely to the two half-dead U. S. government agents, and started off through the forest.
"He doesn't even disarm us!" said Roger Horton, through chattering teeth. "Jack, what on earth is this, anyway?"
"I don't know, Rog, but we haven't much choice."
"You are quite right, gentlemen," replied the stranger, without turning his head. "You have no choice. Rather, you have the choice you have had all along: finding a place where you can rest, unmolested, or dying in the jungle. You must know that you can't last much longer."
"Wait a minute!" said Leyson hoarsely. "What if we don't choose to be your prisoners?"
"Then you can die. You are hopelessly lost."
"What if we decide to fight it out with you?"
"Hopeless, gentlemen, I assure you. I can kill you both with my hands. Your rifles and automatics are useless against me."
"But who are you? What are you?"
"One of the New People," said the stranger. "Call me Zehn, if you must have a name. And by the way," the stranger had turned when Leyson called to him, "what are your names? You will save time if you tell me."
"My name," said Horton, "is Roger Horton. My partner is John Leyson."
"I thought as much," said Zehn. "Then you are the two gentlemen who have been expected! Follow me. It is not too far."
The people who have been expected! That glacial chill still possessed the fever-wracked body of Jack Leyson. He could still hear the chattering of Roger Horton's teeth. How could the two of them possibly be expected by anyone? For all the world knew they were merely a couple of explorers, engaged in that perennial will-o'-the-wisp hunt which had engaged the curiosity of so many explorers: the finding of Colonel Fawcett, or information as to how he had died. That was their publicly avowed purpose.
In reality they had come into the jungles to discover whether certain whispers of secret bases, far inland, were true. Neither had believed it, but they had started to carry out their duty. And had had hard luck from the start.
Darts from the blow-tubes of unseen marauders had killed two of their carriers, three weeks before. Three others had wandered into the jungles, hunting agouti for food; they had never returned. The boats had been lost in the rapids of a nameless river.
Finally, the remaining carriers refused to go further, fearing cannibalistic Indians who were supposed to abound in these parts. The terrified carriers had simply run away.
With only their guns left the two had doggedly set out to go through with their work, planning to live off the country, even though they knew next to nothing about it. And now, this!
"Notice how he spoke English?" asked Roger Horton. "Guttural!"
"And you must have missed him with all three shots!" said Leyson.
"No! No, I didn't. I hit him squarely in the chest. Didn't even stagger him. And his eyes, Jack! Did you notice what they looked like?"
"Yes, like the eyes of a bushmaster, only larger. They glowed, just like the eyes of a cat in the dark,."
"But who and what is he? I never heard of any white people in here. He carries no weapons...."
"I think," said Leyson softly, "that the New People, whatever they are, don't need weapons. Rog, we've bumped into something that will make people's hair stand on end."
"Mine already feels like it. What do we do?"
"Take things as they come, until we find out what the answer is--and hope we get it before dark. If we don't, I'm going to be a gibbering idiot before morning. Watch Zehn take the jungles!"
"Zehn?" said Horton. "Zehn? Zehn is German for ten, Jack. Is that a clue, or a coincidence?"
"Take things as they come, Rog, keep your head and your nerve; we'll see what happens. But save your slugs. The guy must wear armor plate under his clothes. And what strange clothes!"
The stranger ahead, who moved through the liana-strangled aisles of the forest like an Indian, finding a way which no white man--though he himself seemed to be white--could possibly have seen, called back to them.
"Please be good enough not to talk. It hurts!"
Now what the devil did the fellow mean by that? Horton started to ask, but Zehn seemed to read his thought, for he added,
"I meant it, definitely! If you do not remain silent I shall be forced to silence you. Your lives are in my hands; you should know it, if you really have the intelligence your government must have thought you had."
"And how," whispered Leyson, "do you like them potatoes?"
The two Americans had been well chosen for their job. Both had been agents for Uncle Sam for five years, entrusted with dangerous and important missions, all over the world. Always together, they seldom disagreed. They might have been blood-brothers as well as brothers in arms. Roger Horton was five feet nine inches tall; he had a waistline when he entered the jungles, a waistline which had vanished so definitely that his clothes hung on him like gunny sacks. Jack Leyson was over six feet in height, muscle and steel and endurance--three words which applied also to Roger Horton.
But fever, bad water, insect bites, sleeplessness, had knocked most of the endurance out of them. Three days ago they had agreed that they couldn't last forty-eight hours longer. That they had so far lasted seventy-two hours both regarded as a kind of miracle.
"Watch Zehn!" said Leyson, not with words, but by clutching Horton's arm, pinching it, pointing.
Leyson himself could scarcely take his eyes off the mysterious Mr. Zehn. That worthy moved easily through the woods, never for a second being at loss for the proper direction to--wherever he was taking them. He did not use his hands to ward off branches. Smaller ones slapped against his face, to his complete unconcern. Larger ones he avoided by ducking his head, just enough to escape them. He never seemed to look down at his feet, as every traveler in the Amazon watershed must, if he is to escape dying by snake-bite. Insects, both men noticed, disregarded the stranger, though they still attacked Leyson and Horton with ferocity. Both men had long ago given up trying to battle mosquitoes, chiggers, mosquito-worms. It was a hopeless fight against impossible odds.
"I never before," whispered Horton, "saw a man immune to the critters!"
"Horton!" said the guttural voice. "If you speak again, even to whisper, I shall kill you! Do you understand? I tell you, it hurts!"
Horton exchanged glances with Leyson. What did the fellow mean? How could words hurt, especially whispers? Did he mean that he was afraid they were plotting against him, to overpower him? No, they knew he didn't mean that....
The sun was dropping swiftly down the western sky, and the way led sharply upward, as it had led for the last two weeks. There had been times when Horton and Leyson had to scale cliffs. But not now, not with this stranger leading them. There seemed always to be a way up. A ravine here, a crevasse there. The stranger seemed to know every foot of the ground. Where ever was he leading them? The jungle itself seemed to be awaiting the answer to that.
Horton suddenly put his hand on Leyson's arm. But Leyson had seen it at the same time. The deadly sirucucu, fastest striking, most deadly of jungle reptiles. Raised half its length, it was set to strike at Mr. Zehn. Even as the two agents spotted the ghastly creature--which was all of ten feet long--it struck. They hadn't even a chance to call out a warning.
The bullet head of the animal hit. It slanted off. The reptile fell to the ground, threshing about....
Mr. Zehn calmly strode on, ignoring the most lethal reptile in the whole South American jungles! Moreover, Leyson and Horton saw the reptile do something they had never heard of it doing before; it wriggled off into the jungle without renewing the attack. They breathed a sigh of relief, because they would have to pass the spot where it had fallen, to keep on the heels of Mr. Zehn. And from the mouth of Mr. Zehn came a sound that set the hackles of both men raising, a grim, satanic chuckle, like no chuckle they had ever heard before! Mr. Zehn marched straight on. A minute passed. Mr. Zehn spoke,
"If that snake had struck one of you gentlemen, you would have another minute of life left, wouldn't you? Oh, don't answer, please. I still am hurt more by talk than by snake venom, far more! If you are expecting me to start looking at the palms of my hands, for blood and pus, the usual result of such a bite, you're doomed to disappointment. I shall suffer no ill effects whatever!"
"The devil!" thought Leyson. "The man simply is not human!"
"Correct, Mr. Leyson," said Mr. Zehn. "I am not human, literally, not human. You should have discovered that, long ago!"
Again the two explorers exchanged glances. As the shadows deepened in the forest a strange, eerie radiance seemed to grow about the body of Mr. Zehn. He appeared to have a sort of inner light of his own. Even this early, before dusk, Leyson had the fearful suspicion that he could follow Mr. Zehn in the dark, by Mr. Zehn's own light. There was sheer horror in the implications of all this that might have unseated the reason of a man new to the jungles--even Leyson himself, had he encountered him three weeks before. But in three weeks he had seen too much, experienced too much. Nothing now could do aught to his brain.