Title: The Monster That Threatened the Universe
Author: R. R. Winterbotham
Illustrator: Don Lynch
Release date: April 19, 2020 [eBook #61870]
Credits: Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
From Chaos a space-consuming creature reached
slimy tentacles toward trembling planets. And
no man of the old fighting breed remained on
effete Earth to battle the invulnerable monster.
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Spring 1941.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Limio hugged the dying fires of Chaos. He was not cold, for the fires that burned in the center of the cold star were not dead, only dying. But they were the source of life to the monster who lived in the depths of a black hole of space.
The Black Hole, about thirty degrees from the solar quadrant in the terrestrial galaxy, was not dark, but twilight to Limio, whose eyes were sensitive to infra-red radiation. These eyes, hundreds of them floating on huge cranial bumps that dotted the thousands of miles of his massive body, caught the ruddy glow of a rocket ship entering The Black Hole.
Limio grunted. These iron creatures were hard to crack, but inside their hulls were juicy tidbits of carbon and oxygen in various combinations. It had seemed to Limio that these tasty morsels were alive; that they might even possess intelligence. Of course, it would be hard to conceive of anything so small having much intelligence, but Limio had run across strange things in the universe in his millions of years of existence.
Limio had come to Chaos a single spore. He had grown into a slimy, reptilian, nauseating mass, the supreme hideosity in a warp of creation. His body lacked form, except as a tenuous syrupy blanket covering a fourth of the surface of Chaos. Here and there in the skin of this monster were toothed craters ready to devour any carbon molecule that might fall from space. Food was not important to Limio, for it only made him grow. The energy of the inner fires of Chaos supplied the needs of his existence. He ate simply to destroy, for Limio wanted no competitive form of life on Chaos. Competition might mean death and Limio loved his immortality.
The rocket ship drew nearer. Limio saw that it had guns. Limio knew these guns. Once before he had met a rocket ship equipped with neutron blasters. Limio had received a hole in his body that had taken a century to heal. Limio had been unprepared then, but this time he was ready.
He tapped the inner fires of energy. A warm glow softened his body. The network of nerves that formed his brain threw out a web of magnetic energy. The toothed craters in his skin yawned expectantly.
The intelligence behind the controls of the ship spotted Chaos. It circled the dying sun. Searchlights stabbed downward toward the surface. Limio's sensitive nerves tingled as radio energy lashed out rhythmically from the craft. It was signaling, probably.
Suddenly from the surface of the star a long, tenuous arm shot out. It was fifty miles long and five miles in diameter. It leaped from the surface with mile a second velocity, aiming a blow at the space ship that could have pounded it to junk, had it landed.
But the pilot saw the blow and dodged out of the way. The tentacle snapped back. Again Limio tingled with radio energy. His brain caught the rhythm and deciphered the thought:
"It is a living world. It seems to be a vicious animal. Just now it attacked—"
"And I will attack again!" whispered Limio's brain in the same magnetic rhythm of the impulses that flowed from the ship.
Again the arm shot out toward the ship's hull. Once more the alert pilot dodged in time.
"Who are you?" asked the space ship, in the rhythm Limio had begun to understand.
"I am Limio," replied the monster. "Who are you, metal monster?"
"This ship is the Burnt Atom, from earth in the solar system."
"I have never heard of the solar system, but I have seen others like you in my time. I have never had trouble destroying one of your kind. Go away. Leave me alone, or I shall kill you."
"That is not our policy. We are men. We have principles. Our principles demand that you be destroyed as a menace to space navigation."
"Because you interfere with progress. We know now why ships that enter The Black Hole never return. We intend to put an end to this wanton and useless destruction."
"If you do not go away, I will kill you," said Limio. "But if you creatures who call yourselves men leave me alone, I will leave you alone."
"We can't leave you alone because your principles are not the same as ours. You stand in the way of progress. You are hideous. You are a monster. You must be destroyed."
"You are unbeauteous yourself, but no doubt you are in your early stages of development. But I do not kill for esthetic reasons. I simply want to be left alone. Go away."
"No!" came from the Burnt Atom. "There is no room in the universe for enemies of progress. Besides, our studies reveal that your planet has rare minerals on its surface."
Limio studied the assertion. It was evident to him that the intelligence directing the Burnt Atom had room for progress. There was nothing wrong in wanting to progress, except that rapid progress was self-evidently a bad policy. Progress was inevitable, according to Limio's way of looking at things, but it should be avoided, because progress would seek one out. Limio's ultimate destruction would be due to progress. He would grow until Chaos was too small to keep his bodily processes in operation. Limio could not stop growth, because carbon molecules and spores fell continually on the surface of Chaos. But he did not invite food to come to his planet. That was why he asked the men to go away.
"Perhaps your idea of progress is different from mine," Limio said. "To me, progress is synonymous with growth."
"To us, progress means growth of mind; development of resources; betterment of human institutions and relationships."
"Then your idea of progress is nothing at all," Limio said. "I have seen many forms of life, even some of your own forms, and I have never seen a mind whose growth was not limited by hereditary conditions which tend to progress in nature's own way; nature alone can develop resources—you simply take them away from nature; and if human relations are governed by this philosophy it is better that the human race does not progress, although it will in spite of itself. Now that we understand each other, please go away."
In reply the yellow flame of a neutron gun streaked from the Burnt Atom.
But Limio had met men before and he was prepared for the niceties of their means of destruction. His web-like brain cast off magnetic force to shield his body. The magnetism swerved the neutrons from their path, doubled them back on their course until the yellow flame touched the sides of the space ship itself.
There was a single explosive puff. The darkness of The Black Hole returned.
Commander General Adstrom, president of the terrestrial Congress, surveyed the two men who stood in front of him. One was an officer in uniform, while the other was a pale-faced, poorly dressed person.
The commander general addressed the officer.
"Is—is this a—a criminal?" he asked.
The pale-faced young man watched with evident amusement.
"The gland extracts have been most effective during the past ten years, sir," the officer said. "This is the only law violator we've been able to find."
Commander General Adstrom shook his head. "We should have known when to stop with those gland extracts," he declared. "We sought to destroy criminality and we did. But we also destroyed creativeness, originality, individuality. I hoped that the gland extract would not affect everyone. I expected that some individualists would remain and that we could find him among the criminal classes. But there are no criminal classes!"
"This man is a criminal. His name is Marmaduke Karns. Perhaps you remember the trial not long ago. It was quite a sensation."
"Marmaduke Karns? The name is familiar." The commander general appraised the young man. "What crime did he commit?"
"He synthesized teakwood without a permit, sir."
"I got thirty days, too!" Marmaduke Karns added proudly. "They treated me royally in jail. It was the first job the jailer has had in ten years."
"Did you take the gland extract?" Commander General asked.
"There's something funny about that, too, sir," the officer interrupted. "Karns was given a test in jail and the gland extract was found in his veins, but there also was a trace of another substance. An antidote, sir!"
Marmaduke's face grew paler. The commander general eyed his prisoner seriously.
"You know it's a capital offense to take an antidote to the extract?" the commander general asked.
"I'm standing on my Constitutional rights," Marmaduke said. "I want a lawyer."
"I didn't know there was an antidote," the commander general said. "It seems that the antidote probably will be, in your case, a great boon to the universe. Have you got any more of it?"
"I'm still standing on my Constitutional rights," Marmaduke said. "The stuff—and I'm not admitting anything—is a secret."
"You can feel perfectly free to talk," the commander general said. "Nothing you say will go beyond these walls. Furthermore, one difficulty we are up against is that of finding an executioner, even if you were convicted and sentenced to death for manufacturing an antidote to the extract. There's not a human being on earth who would take another man's life, even legally."
"I know," Marmaduke said. "That's why I invented the stuff and took it. Now I'm in the position of a superman. I've got a monopoly on originality, individuality and creativeness in the world. If I revealed my antidote, I'd not have a monopoly."
"We can still put you in jail," the commander general reminded.
"The world would beat a pathway to my cell," Marmaduke replied. "I wouldn't stay in jail long."
Commander General Adstrom was confronted with a serious problem. Marmaduke Karns represented a one-man revolution that could not be suppressed. The commander general might call out the army, the navy, the airforce and the spaceforce, but not a human being would kill Karns, because the gland extract had made it psychologically impossible for one human being to kill another. As long as Karns were alive, whether he be in jail or free, Karns was bound to climb to the top of the heap.
The commander general played his final trump.
"I plead with you in the name of human progress," he said, "to thrust aside your personal ambitions and put your self-bestowed gift of individuality in the service of mankind!"
"When you put it that way," Karns said, "I'd be a heel to refuse."
"Ah!" Commander General Adkins drew a deep sigh.
Briefly he explained his proposition. He told of the radio reports received from the Burnt Atom indicating that a creature existed in the middle of The Black Hole that blocked progress in developing Chaos.
"There was an interruption of signals and then silence," Adstrom continued. "We have not heard from the Burnt Atom since and there's no doubt that this terrible creature, Limio, destroyed the ship. Now we human beings have learned a few lessons in our millions of years of existence. One of them is that a rotten place on the world or in the universe spreads. We must someday come to death grips with Limio and we believe we can tackle him better now than later on."
"At present he is confined to only one planet—or star, for we believe Chaos is simply a burnt-out star. As he grows he will become desperate, just as mankind grew desperate when the earth became overpopulated. Limio, sooner or later, will find a way to move Chaos out of The Black Hole. By that time he will be large enough to join other planets to his own. The eventual conclusion will be that Limio will absorb every atom of carbon in the universe, including the human race, and the whole universe will be occupied by a single living creature."
"It sounds rather absurd," Marmaduke said.
"It's not half as absurd as some other theories about the end of the world and it's just as logical."
"I suppose you want me to destroy this monster?"
"We've tried our best weapons against him and failed to hurt him," the commander general pointed out. "You've got to invent a weapon to conquer Limio. You're the only man in the world with genius enough to do it."
"May I see the reports from the Burnt Atom?"
"The resources of the world are at your command."
"Then I'll take the job," Marmaduke said. "But when I get back, it's every man for himself. Either you abdicate, or I'll overthrow you."
Commander General Adstrom smiled. "I'll abdicate," he said.
The door of the room opened and a slender figure dressed in slacks entered.
"Oh, it's you, Sandra!" Commander General Adstrom said. He turned to Marmaduke. "This is Sandra, my daughter; Sandra, this is Marmaduke Karns, the world's foremost public enemy."
Sandra stepped forward and took the hand of the prisoner in a friendly clasp.
"I read about your trial! It was so exciting! I've always wanted to meet a bad man."
Marmaduke Karns grinned bashfully. "You're Sandra Adstrom! I've had your pictures from the rotogravure section pasted all over my cell!"
It was Sandra's turn to blush. She noted that if Marmaduke had more color he wouldn't be so bad looking, even if he were a little underweight.
"Karns is going to lead an expedition into The Black Hole," Commander General Adstrom explained. "He's going to invent a weapon to conquer Limio."
"Oh!" Sandra caught her breath. "How soon?"
"Not for a few weeks," Marmaduke explained. "I've got to invent the weapon first."
"Oh, then you could drop over to my house for tea," Sandra smiled. "Some of my friends would like to meet you. Perhaps you could autograph their copies of the court records of your trial."
Karns quickly accepted the invitation. The officer showed him out of the room.
The commander general turned to his daughter.
"Nice work, child," he said. "No man will execute Karns, but Limio has no such limitations. The fool did not even suspect that he was under a death sentence the minute our scientists found the antidote for the extract in his veins."
"It seems such a shame, too," Sandra said. "But after all, I suppose he's a public enemy."
Marmaduke, at Sandra's party, strutted like a rooster among a dozen of her close friends. The sight sickened Sandra, but it made her glad at the same time. There was not another man in the world with conceit. The gland extract had eliminated man's worst failing.
When the others left, Sandra turned on her guest of honor.
"I don't think you were very modest," she said. "In old times a criminal didn't crow about his crimes, he was ashamed. You acted like a national hero."
"After all, I am, am I not?"
"You didn't need to date up all of my friends!"
A slow smile crept across Marmaduke's face. He looked nicer even than he had in Commander General Adstrom's office. There was more color in his cheeks and he had gained weight. There was a trace of devilishness in his eyes. Somehow, Sandra felt sorry to find it there. She was part of the plot to bring about this criminal's execution.
"So that's it, is it?" Marmaduke asked.
"You conceited fool!" Sandra said. She did not appear to be angry, and in fact she was not, for the gland extract had eliminated anger in her temperament. She was simply stating facts.
Marmaduke took her in his arms and planted a kiss on her lips. She tried to break away, but he kissed her again, very firmly. She ceased resisting and kissed him.
"After all," said Sandra, "you're the only male left in the world who has the remotest resemblance to what a man should be. I'll have no part in this thing. You must not go to The Black Hole!"
"If you mean you're afraid your father's plan to use Limio as an executioner will work, you needn't worry."
"You know—about that?"
"Of course! I knew when I was brought before Old Monkeyface—pardon, I mean your father—that the antidote in my veins had been discovered and that I would be sentenced to death. I was curious as to how he was going to execute me."
"Now you know. You can't kill Limio! The monster is invulnerable."
"Sandra, dear," Marmaduke said, "everyone thinks the gland extract is foolproof. But look! You're aiding and abetting a criminal, giving me a chance to escape after warning me that I face death."
"Oh! I'm a criminal, too."
"Yes. It seems as though love is an antidote for a lot of things, including the extract. Of course, my antidote is not a love potion, but it works just as well as love to overcome the extract. Now all I have to do is to meet Limio and show he's not invulnerable. I'll do it, too."
In her mind Sandra doubted, but in her heart she hoped.
The terrestrial Congress, anxious for law enforcement, commandeered a laboratory for Marmaduke Karns, who intended to use it to construct a chemical weapon to use against Limio. Marmaduke argued that if the human race could be completely subdued by a shot or two of extract, Limio could be made docile. Commander General Adstrom didn't care whether Karns was successful or not. If successful, Karns would have won a pardon from his death sentence; if not, the death penalty would have been carried out and the laws enforced. Adstrom couldn't lose.
The work was completed at last. Tank after tank of liquid was stored aboard the Burnt Atom II, the space ship destined to take Karns into The Black Hole. The craft was loaded with provisions and fuel and then it shot into space and beyond the solar system at a speed many times the velocity of light.
At the edge of The Black Hole, Karns' radio receiver crackled.
"Commander General Adstrom calling!"
This was remarkable. The radio signals had no right to catch up! True, the signals could be sent through the time dimension and traverse space at a pace more rapid than light, but this signal from earth shouldn't have reached Karns for several days.
"Hello, Adstrom!" spoke Karns.
"You're under arrest. Halt. You've kidnaped my daughter!"
"But I haven't got your daughter, sir!" Karns said.
"Oh, yes, you have!"
The four words came, not from the receiver, but from the storeroom of the space ship. There in the doorway stood Sandra.
"Aha!" came from Adstrom.
"I hope you don't mind having a stowaway," said Sandra.
"I'm training a battery of neutron guns on your ship," Adstrom called. "Surrender my daughter or I'll fire."
Karns swung to the microphone. "You won't fire," he said. "You're primed with too much extract and even if you weren't, you wouldn't want to destroy your daughter along with the kidnaper." He turned to Sandra. "There's a lifeboat in the hold. Get in it and take off."
"You're afraid to take me with you! Haven't you faith in your weapon?"
"There's always a certain amount of danger."
"Then I'll share it with you!"
Karns glanced at the pursuing ship. It was overtaking him. He didn't dare wait. He touched the controls and nosed into The Black Hole. He flew toward the shadow of the star that was silhouetted in darkness in the center of the whirlpool of space.
"Limio! Limio!" he called into the radio.
At last a reply came from the monster.
"Go away, earthman. Go away before I kill you."
"There's no reason for me to kill you. Why can't terrestrials and you get along?"
Limio's answer was simple.
"If I don't kill you, you'll kill me. It's the law of life. I don't want to be killed, so I kill you."
"If you kill me, my atoms will fall to your planet. You'll absorb them and grow. Other men will come to avenge my death and you'll kill them. You will eat their atoms and grow some more. Some day you'll be too big for Chaos. You'll die. By killing me, you kill yourself."
"If I don't kill you, you'll kill me," Limio repeated.
"You don't trust me, Limio. Listen. I don't come to kill, I came to bring peace."
"You are a fool, man, but I'm not. Go away, while you are in one piece."
"I offer you a long life and a more exciting one!"
As he spoke Karns glanced behind him. Adstrom's ship was circling above, ready to dive. It would try to disable Burnt Atom II, board the ship and rescue Sandra, and then leave Karns to Limio's mercy.
"The last earthman to come here talked of progress," Limio said. "You speak of other gifts. What—"
"Not a gift, Limio, but a price! We terrestrials wish to buy precious minerals you guard on Chaos."
"What has happened of progress on earth?"
"The minerals represent our ideal of progress."
"Do the minerals make you grow?"
"Then there is no progress. Progress is purely a matter of size."
"But even to you, growth means death and destruction. On our planet we grow in numbers. When the world is overpopulated, enough people die to leave it under-populated again. The human race, in a sense, is more immortal than you, Limio."
Karns saw Adstrom's ship in a dive. He jerked the controls and sent his own craft forward out of the way. The action was mistaken by Limio as an attack. The huge, fifty-mile tentacle shot out toward the Burnt Atom II. Karns twisted the controls again and dodged, so that the blow barely missed his ship.
Adstrom, however, was not so lucky. As he attempted to follow Karns' maneuver, his craft came directly in line with the piston-like plunge of the tentacle. He swerved his ship, but he swerved too late. The tentacle caught Adstrom's ship a glancing blow.
The ship bounced upward out of control. But it was caught by the gravity of Chaos and it tumbled back, like a falling leaf, toward the surface of the planet.
A roar came from Limio.
Adstrom's ship tumbled close to the ground before the commander fired the rockets. Even with the fuel blast, he was unsuccessful in keeping the craft off the ground, but he managed to steer it to a safe landing on a rocky cliff some distance from the huge body of Limio.
Sandra screamed as she saw a thousand-foot wave of flesh roll across the rocky planet toward her father.
Karns already was nosing his craft down in a dive.
There were two courses open. He might leave Adstrom to his fate and try to flee, in which case Limio most certainly would bring him down with a blow from the tentacle. Or, Karns might try to land, hoping to fool Limio into thinking he had damaged both craft. Limio might not attack Karns in belief that Karns was a lame duck.
Karns chose the second course, not only as the safest, but as a means of bringing Limio under control. Adstrom did not deserve to be rescued, perhaps, but after all he was Sandra's father.
Besides, it was a battle between a monster and man, and Adstrom was on Karns' side.
The space ship tumbled to the foot of the rocky cliff. As it fell, Karns gave the tubes just enough fuel to keep the landing bump from being too severe. As the ship crashed, he opened the cockpit of the tanks containing the fluid he intended to use upon Limio.
"Follow me, Sandra!" he called, running toward the locks.
They leaped from the craft into an atmosphere surprisingly pleasant and sweet. It was only slightly frosty, but the terrestrials were well clad.
They began scrambling up the sides of the cliff. Below they heard the rumbling of the monster's body.
Limio roared as his processes splashed into the sweet liquid that washed the gulleys at the foot of the cliff.
Sandra screamed as one of the processes struck a rock a few feet from her.
"It isn't working!" she cried. "It can't work. The extract simply prevents crime and individualism. You can't prevent individualism when there is only one individual in a species; and there can be no crime without fellow creatures to harm!"
"Hurry, Sandra!" Karns urged. "Save your breath. It wasn't the extract I gave him, but the antidote!"
A huge tentacle raised above the fleeing pair. Sandra closed her eyes. She couldn't escape this blow.
The tentacle did not fall. Instead it snapped back to Limio's body, landing with the crack of a whip.
Suddenly Limio seemed to writhe in pain. Sparks flew from the rocks. The planet shook as if it was in the throes of dissolution. Searchlights from Adstrom's craft flickered down into the valley to reveal a billowing ocean of flesh struggling with itself, fighting itself.
At the top of the cliff Karns and Sandra paused for breath.
"His mind was in unity, now it is in discord," he said. "His evolution was different from ours. He grew as one individual, while life on our planet resolved itself into countless individuals. The antidote served to separate the individuals of his being for the first time in history. Every nerve cell in his body now has individuality. Limio is a billion intellects instead of one."
"In other words, he is crazy!"
"Only in the sense that he is one creature. If we look at him as the whole creation of a world—many creatures—he is not so crazy. He is simply conservative. He is bound to progress and that progress is going to be the kind that lasts, because it was won in a struggle."
"What on earth is progress?" Sandra asked. "It looks to me, if that is progress, that it's a rather crazy thing—"
"Progress is simply the settlement of a lot of arguments. Every time we settle one argument we find another and progress goes on. At home, progress was blocked by the extract, which made all minds in unison, blocked all argument, ended criminality, made the whole race one individual. The antidote which I gave myself preserved progress by allowing one individual, at least, a different viewpoint. I proved my individuality by getting thrown in jail. You fell in love and became an individualist by warning me of a plot to kill me. Progress continued when your father chased me into The Black Hole—"
"Hello! Hello out there! Are you all right?" Adstrom's voice boomed from the locks of his space ship.
"Perfectly!" Karns replied.
"Ah! A moment ago I wanted to kill you! Now, strangely enough, I feel very grateful toward you for—er—saving Sandra. You will be pardoned of all your crimes."
"He didn't kidnap me, Father," Sandra explained as they entered the ship.
"He has done plenty to the earth! He connected his laboratory with a food factory so that the antidote he made has been spread all over the world in food! He's destroyed the unity of the world! He ought to go to jail, but the jailer's resigned because he had too much to do."
"Marmaduke has brought progress back to the world, Father!"
"Progress! Bah! He's turned the world into a turmoil! The whole population is fighting. The planet's in an uproar. I'll abdicate rather than rule the mess. Let Marmaduke try to straighten it out!"
"Sir," Marmaduke said, "it's every man for himself. You've better qualifications for the office and I can swing some votes your way. You couldn't swing a barn door mine."
The damaged ship had been repaired. They soared earthward. Limio, too busy with his own problems, made no move to stop them. In fact, he might be disturbed enough now to enter into commercial agreement with other planets—parts of his brain trading with other creatures at the expense of other parts. Progress, human style, had come to Chaos.