The Project Gutenberg eBook of Doomsday on Ajiat

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Title: Doomsday on Ajiat

Author: Neil R. Jones

Illustrator: Leo Morey

Release date: October 14, 2022 [eBook #69158]

Language: English

Original publication: United States: Fictioneers, Inc, 1942

Credits: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at



By Neil R. Jones

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Astonishing Stories, October 1942.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


The Professor's Experiment

Professor Jameson had looked for a means of preserving his body forever—and he had found it. But it was not by the art of embalming, for, after all, the mummies of the Egyptians proved to be only horrible caricatures of their former likeness, and even these in the passing of untold millions of years must have been destroyed by some planetary stress had the picks of archeologists never unearthed them. The logic of the professor was more or less axiomatic. He realized that he could never employ one system of atomic structure, like embalming fluid, to preserve another system of atomic structure, such as the human body, when all atomic structure is universally subject to change, whether it be amazingly swift or infinitely protracted.

The problem absorbed much of his attention, and he considered various ways and means until one day the answer flashed upon him—leaving his mind a chaotic maelstrom of plans and possibilities. He would cast his body into the depths of space where it would remain unaffected and unchanged! Material of organic origin might exist indefinitely between worlds.

He built gradually from this theory, conceiving a space rocket for his cosmic coffin, a rocket propelled from the Earth by powerful thrusts of radium repulsion. Next came his plan to make the rocket another satellite of the Earth somewhere between the Earth and the Moon. The professor decided on sixty-five thousand miles from the earth, or a little more than a quarter of the distance to the moon.

He set about his plans at once, and having experimented with radium all his life, it did not take him long to construct a rocket capable of carrying his dead body into the depths of space. The rocket lay pointed skyward at the foot of a leaning tower on the hill of the Jameson estate, surrounded by four gleaming tracks and balanced by four stabilizer fins. Everything was complete, and the aged professor knew that he had not long to live.

He died on a bleak December morning, swirling snowflakes blanketing the earth which was to be cheated so dramatically of his dead body.

The professor had retained no confidant, and no one knew why the leaning tower projected from the center of the professor's laboratory, nor could they have guessed that the rocket lay inside, ready for its celestial journey.

The professor's nephew, Douglas Jameson, found himself sworn to secrecy in the instructions left him by his dead uncle. An immediate funeral service, according to those instructions, must follow his death. Relatives believed him to be in his dotage. Only nephew Douglas realized the significance of this quick funeral and removal to the vault.

Through the blanket of snow which had fallen that morning, Douglas Jameson stole quietly to the cemetery, unlocked the vault and removed the body of the professor. For a venture so colossal and unprecedented, the professor's corpse was given but small consideration. His nephew carried him from the cemetery to the rocket in a canvas sack—yet such had been the professor's instructions, obeyed to the letter by an astonished and dutiful nephew.

Douglas Jameson entered the leaning tower and found the rocket set firmly on its supports, its bullet nose pointing up the circular center of the shaft. Cylindrical, and tapering at its base, the rocket was fifteen feet long and five feet in diameter.

Opening a doorway in the hull, he peered inside at the luxurious upholstering, his hand sinking to the wrist in the deep, plush lining. The interior was just large enough to accommodate a human body, and he carefully placed his uncle's body inside, fastening a strap beneath his chin and more straps to his wrists and ankles. He closed the door firmly.

His eyes wandered to the lever at the base of the rocket near one of the stabilizer fins. He must pull the lever and leave quickly. A five-minute interval would elapse before the rocket took off. It was dangerous to remain. He hesitated a moment—then pulled the lever. He did not stay to watch its effect but ran up the stairs into the laboratory and out into the winter night.

The laboratory was isolated from the rest of the buildings. Clouds scudded across the face of the moon which lay well away from that quarter of the sky at which the rocket tower was aimed. This had been a part of the professor's instructions. He wanted the moon's attraction left out of his plans.

Five minutes never seemed so long before. Douglas watched the lazy second hand crawl its slow journey around the tiny dial four times, and after that his eyes never left the tower looming darkly against the night sky.

With a low, crackling hiss, the rocket finally made its appearance, breaking forth from the leaning tower, gaining rapid acceleration and leaving in its wake a blue, phosphorescent glow tinged with violet.

For a long time that night, Douglas Jameson stood and watched the starlit heavens turning imperceptibly upon the axis of Polaris. It was near dawn before he went to his bed in the silent and gloomy Jameson mansion.

Late the next day, the village fire volunteers of Grenville were called to the Jameson estate where they found the laboratory a seething mass of flames. The destruction of the tower and laboratory had been a part of the instructions left Douglas Jameson by his eccentric uncle.

As long as he lived, Douglas Jameson kept the secret. It was only after his death that the facts became known, and for a long time, until the discovery by the astronomer, Clement, in 1968, the story was doubted. True, the grave vault was found empty, but even at this late date it was reported as part of the hoax. It was Clement who established the existence of the Jameson satellite. It circled the earth every nine days.

The years passed. Changes moved slowly on the earth, while generation after generation vanished into forgotten obscurity.

Still the rocket satellite pursued its lonely way, a cosmic coffin. Fiery, scintillating stars formed Professor Jameson's funeral cortege. Millions of years went by. Mankind was replaced by other forms of life which in turn knew their day only to disappear. Earth's atmosphere became rare.

Forty million years after the day when his rocket had been hurled off the face of the earth, Professor Jameson's body still lay perfectly preserved.

Passing meteors were the only companions of the rocket satellite, and these the professor had recognized as dangerous. For that reason he had installed radium repulsion rays which were excited into automatic action by the proximity of approaching meteors.

Earth lay closer to the sun—which had cooled. Its rotation had ceased, and one side, like the moon, forever faced the sun. The professor's dream had been realized. He had remained unchanged for millions of years.

His ambitions, however, fell far short of the adventures which fate held in store for him. A strange spaceship, from the planet of a distant star, came exploring among the dead worlds of the solar system. They passed the aging Earth and found the professor's rocket satellite. Strange creatures of metal guided by organic brains, they stopped and examined the professor's rocket.

They were machine men from Zor. Once they had been organic creatures, but they had transposed their brains to the coned, metal heads which surmounted their cubed, mechanical bodies. The bodies were upheld by four metal legs and were equipped with six metal tentacles. They communicated by thought projection.

What the professor had accomplished in death, they had accomplished in life. They were undying just so long as no injury occurred to their metal heads housing the all-important brain. Any metal parts, such as legs, tentacles or body parts, were replaced when worn out. A complete circle of mechanical eyes were fitted into the coned heads, and one eye peered virtually from the apex. These were shuttered and could also be replaced.

The machine men took the professor's body from his rocket satellite and recalled his brain to life in order to learn his story. They placed the brain in one of the mechanical bodies.

The professor's astonishment on his revival can be imagined better than described. When he came to a full realization of what had actually happened, he told them his story and of the past glories of the earth up to the point when he had died.

He found that his revival made him the last living creature of the earth. With the machine men he visited the strangely changed surface of his home planet.

The Zoromes told him of their eternal adventures from world to world and asked him to join them. There was nothing on the now-lifeless Earth to keep him there—so he joined the machine men in their cosmic flight from system to system, exploring new planets and strange creatures of varying degrees of intelligence.

He came to be known among the Zoromes as 21MM392, and after their return to Zor he was given joint command with 744U-21 of a new expedition into space.

Since last leaving Zor, they had explored many curious worlds, and their adventures had been strange ones, often perilous.

They were now entering another system of worlds. Already, they had passed several of the outer planets on their side of the sun. They were barren and cold, too far from the sun to support life.


Heralds of Doom

"A planet or planetoid just off our course, 41C-98 reports," said 744U-21 to the professor. "We are now heading that way to discover what it may be. 41C-98 reports several peculiarities. For one thing, the sunshine strikes very dull against it, and for its apparent bulk our proximity detectors show a surprising lack of density."

As they moved nearer the mysterious body, they discovered that it was neither planet nor asteroid, nor did it move on an orbit. On the contrary, it pursued a course directly at right angles to an orbit. It was heading sunward.

The character of the celestial wanderer and its strange lack of density became understood when the spaceship of Zor approached close enough to reveal it as a meteoric swarm consisting of dust and cosmic debris. Many of the chunks were several miles in diameter. The professor's quick estimate placed the diameter of the swarm at seven thousand miles.

Rapid observations and computations were made. Growing suspicions of the machine men were verified. The mass was heading into the sun at a speed of several miles per second.

"You know what that means," said the professor, turning to those about him.

"Yes—a nova—an exploding star!"

"I never saw but one at close range during my entire existence as a machine man," said 6W-438.

"They are not unusual," 744U-21 observed. "Most every star, some time or other, goes through this phase. We see them often from afar, but they happen so quickly and without any warning that this is a rare coincidence that we should enter a system and find conditions preparatory to a nova. This meteoric mass will surely cause one when it strikes the sun."

"But I have understood that novas are not always caused by large bodies or meteor swarms colliding with a star," said the professor. "Popular theory supports a belief that often an internal solar disruption causes a star to explode.

"Such a cause as you mention generally promotes a greater disturbance, especially if it originates deep within the solar body. Contact with a meteoric swarm, as this case promises to be, rarely affects little more than the surface gases of a sun."

"Even so," observed 6W-438, "the cataclysm will be large enough to wipe out life on every world of this system and change the planetary surfaces.

"A terrific wave of heat will spread outward from the sun with the speed of the light which carries it. For the nearer planets, it will mean but a matter of a few minutes. Possibly a day or so later, tremendous waves of gases will sweep in the wake of the blinding, searing heat. They will be sufficiently tangible to slow the speed of the planets perceptibly upon their orbits. Terrific planetary disruptions will follow in the form of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and entire oceans will turn to steam and bury each world in a dense cloud blanket. Temporarily, the nova will outshine every star in its neighborhood and will loom visible countless light years distant.

"It will mean doomsday for all life in this system even though the sun returns once more to its normal condition within the next ten or twenty years."

"It will be well to check our figures," cautioned 6W-438. "We must plan not to be such close observers that the nova will reach us."

At the rate the meteoric mass was traveling sunward, Professor Jameson, as was his usual habit, figured that nearly twenty-three of his earthly days must elapse before the swarm of cosmic debris reached the sun.

Their first step was to examine all the planets and find what, if any, life they supported. They had already passed a few of the outer worlds and had found them apparently lifeless. The spaceship now approached another world, a planet so large that their proximity detectors remained oblivious to all else even while they were still far off.

"It is one of the larger worlds which we must avoid," Professor Jameson stated. "The gravity there is so strong we could move around only with difficulty and a superexpenditure of energy, and even if we landed safely, our spaceship would find it hard to leave."

"We shall make our observations entirely by telescope, then," answered 6W-438.

Glasses were trained upon the colossal world as the spaceship sped close to the giant world in a gradual curve to the sunward side. From afar, they had recognized the fact that the planet possessed an atmosphere. Observations confirmed the strange coloring of the planet as vegetation. Where the machine men found vegetation, they invariably found animal life as well. The topography of the huge world loomed nearer, so much nearer that 744U-21 cautioned 20R-654 not to navigate closer.

"I am not," came the startling announcement. "I am trying to get clear of the planet's grip. There is a slight drift of the spaceship, which I am having trouble counteracting."

The looming orb grew larger, swelling in diameter and obscuring a greater portion of the sky beyond. The difficulties of 20R-654 were becoming increased. Alarm spread among the machine men. The intense gravitation held their ship and was threatening to draw it down with a smashing blow.

"We are starting to fall! The ship is accelerating its descent!"

"Turn!" cried the professor. "Turn away and give it all the power we have!"

The course of the spaceship had been parallel to the planet's orbit. 20R-654 now turned the ship directly away from the looming world and unleashed a tremendous burst of power. Instruments showed a slackening of their descent, yet their fall continued.

"Something is wrong with the resisters!" 20R-654 explained. "That is why the ship came so much closer to the planet than I had intended!"

"We are still falling but not so fast as before!"

"At full repulsion, too!"

"Yes—we are too close, and the gravity is so great! Without the strength of the resisters we can only hope to come down as lightly as possible!"

The professor knew this latter statement to be nothing but hope. Their fall was rapid enough to smash them all to bits of wreckage when the spaceship crashed. And their precious brains would be scattered among the ruins.

The great world swelled on their vision, its proportions so vast that it filled the sky before them. Mountainous country reached giant fingers to receive them. On the horizon, the topography was obscured by cloud masses drifting in the great, dense sea of atmosphere. Already, they were able to feel the mighty attraction of the planet's gravity upon their metal bodies.

"Keep the reverse charges going until the last minute—until we strike!"

"The unusual density of the atmosphere may help slow our descent!"

This, they knew, was a long chance. The density of the atmospheric lower levels was commensurate with the planet's strong gravity.

A sobbing wail arose from outside the ship, swelling into a roar of many waterfalls. The spaceship throbbed and trembled, and every machine man realized that they had penetrated into the atmosphere at a tremendous speed. Anxiously, they consulted their instruments. Their mad fall was checked but slightly, and they realized their doom, for in the hundred miles or more left them, there was no possible chance of braking their speed to a safe maximum even with the increasing density of the atmosphere to help them.

It was in the professor's mind that a few of them might survive the crash—but to what purpose? What would there be left for a few machine men on a giant world with an irreparably wrecked spaceship and dead companions? Mechanically crippled, they would await the coming of the nova with the end it would bring. Such an outlook was even more dismal than direct annihilation.

A few of the machine men stared down from the falling ship at the fast approaching destruction, yet they were comparatively calm. Here was none of the terrified hysteria characteristic of organic creatures. Most of them had lived many lifetimes compared to their original existence.

Down they swept to inevitable doom, their reverse charges beating helplessly against the awful drag of the planet's bulk. Professor Jameson, engrossed in gloomy introspection, was suddenly swept off his feet and crashed against 744U-21 and 6W-438, who fell with him against the wall and into a corner. For a moment, they believed that the crash had come, but those who had been looking down at the giant world knew better.

There remained but a few miles between the ship and the surface. Machine men were sent tumbling in every direction. The gravity had changed suddenly from the floor of the ship to one side. The ship had turned over. Evidently 20R-654 had lost control. Their last hope, the continued expulsion charges from the ship, was gone!

Slowly, the gravity again changed to still another side of the ship, rolling them along into tangled piles. Expecting it at any moment, to the machine men it seemed that the crash was infinitely delayed. When it came, Professor Jameson felt himself hurled with terrific force against the opposite wall, and his consciousness left him in a bright glare of inner light as his head struck the wall.

His first thought on regaining consciousness was surprise that he had done so. Was he the only one left? There must have been others, a few at least. Active thought waves probed his brain, and he knew that he was not alone in having survived.

A clattering and scraping of metal reached him as a machine man came limping and stumbling over several quiet companions. It was 41C-98. Above him, the professor could see a side wall of the spaceship.

"Come, 21MM392, you do not seem badly damaged other than having bent a leg. Arise."

"How bad are things? How many of us are alive?"

"More than we ever expected. I suffered only a few mechanical injuries. There are many lying about still unconscious. I received calls from others in different parts of the ship, who are helpless to move. Even with a well-functioning body, it is hard to move against the strong gravity of this world."

The professor rose slowly to his feet and realized the truth of the statement. With difficulty, he stepped from the tangle of metal bodies surrounding him. It required several times more generated energy from his mechanical body than he had ever been forced to use to walk on a planet.

He wondered how 744U-21, 6W-438 and others with him when the crash came had fared. He probed their mental faculties and found them not dead but only quiescent. Mental radiations reached him from other parts of the ship, and with 41C-98 he went to investigate, proceeding with an effort.

"We should be equipped with super-powered bodies for this world," the professor told 41C-98.

In other chambers of the ship, their surprise was succeeded by wonder. Instead of twisted walls and warped wreckage, they found only signs of a severe fall. As fast as they could move, the machine men, joined by other bewildered Zoromes, went outside the ship and examined the hull.

They had crashed through a deep tangle of vegetation. Several seams in the hull gaped open and appeared to be the greatest damage done the ship in its fall. At first, they were inclined to believe that the fall through the vast tangle of vegetation had saved them, yet somehow this explanation did not seem adequate.

Not until 20R-654 came to his senses did they learn the truth.

"I saw that we were going to crash and destroy both the spaceship and ourselves in spite of the full reverse charges. So at the last moment, while we were still several miles above the surface, I shut off the reverse charges and let loose a side charge which turned us sideways to the surface.

"Then I released charges on our side facing the surface and once more loosed our reverse charges, so that we fell on a long slant which used up much of the speed of our fall. We were lucky to strike this great mass of vegetation where so many giant creepers intertangle. Otherwise, fewer of us would be left."

More of the machine men returned to their senses. The others were examined and found to be suffering from mental shock from which they would eventually recover. The casualties were the first ones to occur in a long time—and there were two. In a compartment next to the ruptured hull were found 250Z-42 and 4F-686, their heads battered.

"We are saved but temporarily from a fate such as theirs," said the professor gravely, "for unless we can get the ship repaired within the time left us before the meteoric mass strikes the sun, we shall be annihilated with everything else on the face of this world when the sun explodes and the nova spreads swiftly throughout this system of planets."

"How can we ever leave here—even if the necessary repairs are made in time?" asked 119M-5. "We are unable to escape the power of this world's gravitation from a distance, so how are we to get free now that we are upon its surface?"

"Our gravitational resisters were faulty and were overcome and broken down by the mighty strain of this planet's pull," 20R-654 explained. "They must be reconditioned, and, besides repairing the hull, new parts must be made which will give us a greater lifting power when we take off. Starting from a dead stop on this giant world will require tremendous forces we have never previously required because we have never visited planets of this size."


Caught By the Giants

The machine men lost no time in exploring the region where they had come down. Moving at great expense of energy, they radiated in a circle from the great tangle of vegetation until one of them found a break in the forest.

A level expanse stretched away to mountains that loomed in the background. Tiny specks flew high in the sky. These puzzled the machine men until they saw one of them drop low above the forest and veer toward the fallen spaceship in curiosity.

It was an enormous bird with an animal-like snout. Four legs and the wing tips ended in talons.

"What monsters!" exclaimed 744U-21. "The bird is fully half as long as our spaceship from one wing tip to the other!"

"Forms of life would have a tendency to run to size here," Professor Jameson remarked. "Creatures on this planet must of necessity be uncommonly strong, too."

They came to refer to the giant world as Ajiat, expressing the mental thought of the spoken word they had known in their organic lifetimes back on Zor. The word referred to anything huge or colossal.

With specially designed apparatus they carried for just such emergencies, the machine men quickly located and commenced mining the various ores and minerals they required in repairing the ship. When helium was discovered in large quantities, the professor was seized with an inspiration.

"Let us discover more about this world now that we are on it. From on high, we can look over a great deal of the surrounding country."

"But how shall we get up there?"

"The helium," Professor Jameson voiced his hidden thought. "We can make a balloon and rise on its lifting power."

For observation purposes, a metal globe was quickly fashioned, the basket of the balloon made of light metal framework and covered with wood from the surrounding forest. Firmly anchored to the ground with metal hawsers, the globe was filled with helium. The basket carried four machine men with their equipment. With him, Professor Jameson took 6W-438, 12W-62 and 29G-75.

"From what we know of the atmosphere, the amount of helium in the globe should carry us four miles or higher."

"The birds will probably attack you," warned 119M-5.

"We expect as much. It is why we have three power guns installed."

Once the hawsers were loosed, they shot off the ground like an arrow. Not until their ascent became slowed did the professor and his companions cast out the large stones they carried for ballast.

One of the great birds dropped down to meet them and was blasted from the sky. Another flew croaking from their path in alarm. They were nearly six miles above the ground before the balloon stopped rising.

With powerful glasses, they examined the terrain for several hundred miles in every direction except towards the mountains. A pall of cloudy mist hung among the peaks. In the opposite direction, their horizon was far-flung due to the enormous size of the planet.

With their scientific apparatus, they gathered data which they were unable to obtain from the ground and had been too involved and disinterested to notice during their perilous descent.

A bevy of the huge birds came to investigate, interrupting their observations to circle, growl and chatter at them. One of the winged monstrosities made a purposeful lunge at the metal ball above their heads, and they blew him to fragments with rapid and well-directed fire. Another met the fate of the first, before the others winged away in screaming anger and alarm in the direction of the mountains.

"Do you think we could deal with them if they attacked us in large numbers?" 12W-62 queried.

"Not if they attacked us in a mass," the professor replied. "But we can descend by freeing some of the helium if they become too numerous or troublesome."

A sudden gust of air swayed the basket. The breeze had freshened, and they found that they had been drifting towards the mountains.

Like stately spires, the mountain peaks loomed before and above them. Those in the background were lost in a gray fog which had crept among them since the machine men had risen in their balloon.

Hundreds of the great birds could be seen darting and wheeling above the mountainside. As the balloon was carried nearer by the rising wind, they spread on the wing and flapped about the strange invader, voicing their weird cries and veering menacingly about the metal globe and basket. Several of them attacked and were destroyed.

The others became a bit cautious, yet they never abandoned their gliding vigil. They, too, finally swept down upon the balloon. More of the birds came swarming to take their place, and the machine men soon found themselves busy protecting their skycraft.

"They probably have their nests in the mountains close by," said the professor, "and they suspect us. That is why they have grown more ferocious and daring since we neared the mountains."

The wind was quickening. More of the great birds came to replace each one killed. One came so close that a wing brushed the basket, knocking the machine men off their feet. They were finding it difficult to defend the balloon against so many of them. They were in danger of being wrecked!

Dark clouds had settled over the mountains—which were now so near that the machine men could distinctly see objects such as trees and rocks. The wind had risen to a gale, and they were being carried on it.

"We are rising!" 6W-438 exclaimed. "The wind is carrying us above the mountains and into that approaching storm area!"

"Let out part of the helium!"

"We cannot do that now," the professor told them. "The force of the wind would dash us against the mountainside!"

A dull flush of pink lit the drifting depths of the cloud masses momentarily, and the terrific roar which followed shook the balloon and made the metal globe hum with strange music.

With the advent of the storm, the birds gave up the attack and winged off to their lofty retreats in screeching alarm.

The wind continued to carry the balloon at a great speed, and soon they were over the mountains and into the dense, angry masses of clouds. Then they were buffeted by cross winds and freak air currents, falling, to be lifted up once again and tossed around like a leaf.

Roaring crashes of thunder threatened to split the sky apart, and great blades of lightning stabbed through the clouds. The storm grew worse, and the machine men entangled themselves in the hawsers holding the metal ball to the basket, to keep from being tossed out by the storm's fury. The basket was threatening to part from the metal globe that supported it.

The winds wrenched and tore at them, hurling gusts of rain like spray—fine and hard. Lightning flashed dangerously near, and the farther they were swept into the storm area, the blacker it grew. Had it not been for the lightning which played almost constantly, it would have seemed like night.

The four machine men lost all sense of direction as they were whirled and thrown viciously about. The basket finally broke away from the ball of helium, leaving them clinging to the strong wire hawsers hanging from the globe.

Here they swung and clashed against each other and against the metal ball, slowly gathering the slack in the hawsers about their metal bodies and creeping closer to the globe which was whirled and tossed more freely since it had lost its restraining basket.

To the machine men, it seemed that the storm raged for hours. The first intimation of its cessation came with a lessening of the gloom and fewer shafts of lightning.

"I am near a valve," 29G-75 reported. "Shall we release some of our helium and come down?"

"As soon as we see where we are."

"We shall soon come down whether we choose or not," said 12W-62. "There is a slow leak in the globe not far from me."

When the clouds lifted, the machine men found themselves on the other side of the mountain. More mountains loomed in the distance. Below them stretched a level plain. They were descending slowly. As more helium escaped, their descent became faster, yet they landed safely.

"We must not get too far from the mountain," the professor said. "If we cannot find some way of getting back over it, we must wait until 744U-21 sends us help."

"We may stay and see the nova," said 6W-438 grimly. "It will be a wonderful sight."

"A better way to die than those who were killed when our spaceship crashed. Doomsday on Ajiat will usher in a beautiful morning of flaming brilliance."

"Followed by a gloomy night of desolation and death."

The machine men walked slowly back in the direction of the mountain. Night fell. Still they kept on their way.

Their progress was forced. They knew that their mechanical parts would never stand the strain of climbing up the mountain. Their energies would soon be exhausted by the strain, parts would wear out, and they could neither be refueled nor repaired in the absence of the spaceship. They could only remain in a conspicuous and advantageous position near the mountain, waiting for the help they knew 744U-21 would send if they could be found.

Through the night, fire suddenly lit the sky ahead of them. There was first a dull, soft glow. This grew to towering proportions in a single, leaping flame. The fire was no farther than half a mile ahead of them, and soon they were able to distinguish black, shadowy forms which passed between them and the fire.

The professor called a halt. Several times they saw large fire brands carried. From the size of these, and the height at which they were carried, and from what they were able to see of the black shadows, the machine men knew the creatures to be veritable giants.

"Quite in keeping with this world," Professor Jameson observed. "It goes without saying that they are unusually strong. We shall do well to remain undiscovered."

With the coming of morning, the fears of the professor were justified. From afar, the machine men could see more distinctly the lofty, bulking figures which had been etched in silhouette against the campfires of the night before.

The creatures moved with large, easy bounds at several times the best speed the machine men had been able to attain on worlds much smaller than Ajiat. They covered the ground with such amazing swiftness that the machine men were scarcely aware of their danger before several colossal forms grew upon their vision and suddenly they found themselves surrounded.

The things towered fully fifty feet in the air. That was the professor's first impression. His second one conveyed the fact that they were of little intelligence. They stood on legs which resembled a small forest of tree trunks suddenly grown up about the four Zoromes. Two in number, these legs terminated in three long claws spread equidistant on tough, layered pads.

Jaws armed with long fangs featured the physiognomy of the things, while most curious were the eyes which projected on short, thick pedicles and were over-arched and protected by a rough, bony protuberance.

The professor was suddenly seized and lifted close to one of the terrifying faces for an inquisitive inspection!

The creature sniffed at him with flat, distended nostrils. Huge fingers, seven in number, clutched him tightly. He saw that the thing had two arms and that their hairless bodies were roughly criss-crossed with deep lines.

Another interesting feature next claimed his attention. A web of elastic membrane extended halfway down each arm to the body. A muttering gabble issued from these gargantuans of Ajiat as they examined the machine men.

"Do not act alive," the professor radiated, "and they may become disinterested in us."

Although subtracting from the interest of the great brutes, this plan did not prevent their seizure. One of the things emitted a bellowing roar, which the machine men found themselves at a loss to properly interpret. The creature turned and dashed away in the direction from which the machine men had come.

Far off, the huge beast had seen the gleaming, metal ball which had contained the helium. The others waited patiently, gently pulling at the legs and tentacles of the strange, metal contraptions they had found, until he returned with it.

Then they all set out at whirlwind speed to join the main body, setting up a cloud of dust behind them and passing by the black, smoking embers of last night's fire.

With the rest, they made their way to the mountain, climbing up to a plateau. Cliffs loomed on two sides, and in tunnels and rocky defiles splitting into the side of the mountain, these creatures made their homes.


A Race With the Nova

The machine men were given over for inspection by hundreds of the great creatures which they had automatically designated as Ajirs. Tiring of the inspection, the brutes handed them back to their original owners.

Professor Jameson was carried into a cavern and unceremoniously thrown on a rocky ledge with a strange collection of objects which had evidently caught the fancy of the Ajir.

There were bright bits of fused metal, evidently of volcanic origin, and odd-shaped bones littered the ledge. Most curious of all was an entire skeleton about twice the professor's size. As soon as the cavern's owner went out and left him alone, he fell to examining it. The skeleton was entire, each bone loosely interlocking with another so that it was impossible to remove one of them, except by force. The skeleton had been that of a four-legged animal.

The professor found that his companions had met with fates similar to his own. They communicated with one another and decided that for the present it was best to bide their time—never letting the Ajirs know that they were living creatures—and watch for the first good chance to escape.

In the several days that followed, the machine men learned many things about their captors and the world on which they lived.

The Ajirs were partly vegetarians. They sometimes set traps for the great birds which came down from the mountain heights. The Ajirs voiced a syllable in reference to the birds which the machine men interpreted as Quar, and from that time on they referred to the birds collectively as Quari.

The Ajirs possessed hardly any language at all, and their minds were so simple and elementary that the machine men rarely took the trouble to trace their thoughts.

When they were left alone, the machine men looked out upon many things scurrying back to their proper places when their owners approached the caves.

Once, the professor was not quick enough, and he lay still on the floor. The Ajir picked him up and placed him on the ledge, thinking, as the professor had expected he would, that the machine man had fallen off the ledge.

6W-438 was caught out on the plateau once. One of the Ajirs accused another of theft, and a terrific battle ensued between the two.

Meanwhile, the anxiety of the machine men grew. The days before the nova was expected were becoming fewer, and still they found no means of escape. 12W-62 argued that escape meant little unless they were found and taken back to the spaceship.

The Ajirs continued the routine of their simple yet turbulent lives, blissfully ignorant of the impending doom to all life on Ajiat and the sister worlds of the system. They had little time to live, but they were living it ignorantly and happily.

It was the hope of all four Zoromes that another helium ship would be sent out by their companions and that the mental detectors would find them. Unless they escaped in time, there would be a battle with the Ajirs, but the machine men doubted the ability of the fearsome monsters to survive a barrage of the power guns.

More days passed, and still no help reached them as they remained prisoners of the Ajirs. The machine men were now rarely handled by their captors—the novelty having worn off. They watched everything that went on, and they saw parties of the monsters come and go. Once there was a battle with a raiding party from another village.

At another time, the monotony was relieved by an unusually large bevy of Quari that flew down from their mountain aeries, drawn by the meat of the baited snares laid by the Ajirs. The monsters rushed out to beat them to death with great clubs as several of them were trapped and fought viciously to escape.

The large numbers of the Quari stayed and fought loyally with their snared brethren until the latter broke free or else fell exhausted by their efforts and by the blows from the Ajirs. Several of the great brutes were severely injured by the Quari, and bled deeply from gashes inflicted by teeth and talons. One of them died as the price for the four Quari which were taken.

Out of this exciting episode, which all four machine men watched from their various coverts, Professor Jameson conceived not only a plan of escape but a possibility, as well, of returning near the neighborhood of the spaceship. The machine men heard his plan and waited for night to fall.

"We must hide among the snares and attach ourselves to one of the Quari when they come for the bait. We shall be carried up into the mountains and perhaps part way down the other slope. As soon as darkness falls, let us creep out and meet by the traps."

"But suppose the bird is trapped?"

"Then I shall free it with the heat ray in my fore tentacle," Professor Jameson replied. "We can use the lines from the snares to fasten ourselves to the bird's legs."

"We may be shaken off or torn away."

"Possibly, but we must run the risks involved. Time grows too short. We must get back to the spaceship!"

During the night, after all was quiet, the machine men crept from their caves and met on the plateau. There was a tendency for their metal feet to create noise against the rock, and they found it necessary to move slowly as well as cautiously. Their situation would be a precarious one if the Ajirs awakened to find their metal possessions suddenly come to life!

On one side of the plateau, large hunks of meat loomed about the machine men like boulders. The birds would come at dawn.

The machine men waited as the stars swung across the sky and satellites of Ajiat came and went. Dawn came. With the first, faint flush of light upon the tallest peaks, the Quari commenced to circle and fly down from their heights.

Sounds of stirring and awakening Ajirs reached the machine men. They were glad that the snares were away from the caves and near the precipice. The bait was so large as to afford them easy concealment.

With the coming of dawn and activity among the Ajirs, the professor burnt several lines from the snares to be used in fastening their metal bodies to one of the Quari. Previously, he had not dared risk the glare of light produced in the darkness for fear a waking Ajir might see it.

With mingled excitement and relief, the four machine men saw several black specks from on high swoop lower. The birds circled above the tempting morsels. The machine men remained quiet so as not to excite their suspicions. They settled, and the voices of the Ajirs who had also watched their coming were hushed.

One great bird settled to rest by a chunk of bait which sheltered three of the Zoromes. They were instantly joined by 12W-62, and all four fastened themselves about the legs of the Quar.

The bird jumped a bit in alarm but did not abandon the chunk of bait. The machine men had freed this particular piece of bait, among others, from the snares, and as the bird seized it, and was not caught, a subdued cry of disappointment arose from the watching Ajirs.

Other birds were caught and battled to get free. The one to which the machine men clung, pecked at them ineffectually a few times, and seized upon the bait once more as onrushing Ajirs came with clubs lifted.

The bird flapped its wings, and with cries of surprise the Ajirs saw and recognized the four metal things they had found. They stared at them, entangled about the legs of the slowly rising bird.

A swishing blow of the foremost brute just grazed a talon of the bird and left the wind of its passage upon 29G-75. Up they rose, swifter, as the broad wings of the Quar belabored the air.

They soared higher, the plateau with its fighting Ajirs and Quari dwindling away into obscurity. They were soon among the peaks and flying above them. The machine men wondered when the bird would light. It was like riding upon the landing gear of a mighty airplane.

The bird was carrying the chunk of meat to its nest, and they were glad for every mile that the bird was covering in the direction of the opposite mountainside. Yet, they hoped that its nest was not on the face of an inaccessible cliff.

Soon, the other slope of the mountain loomed into view, and they enthused at the familiar panorama beyond. Professor Jameson could see, far off, the territory of forest into which the spaceship had crashed.

Would the bird take them closer to that spot? It was too much to hope for, he knew. Chance on choosing this particular Quar had taken them far already in the right direction. Even as the professor turned these thoughts over in his mind, the bird headed for a rocky crag.

There was no single nest here, but a continuous series of pits and hollows formed of branches lined with grasses and other materials. There were young birds in many of these—while others were empty. A few adults had already come back with food in the way of small animals and smaller birds.

The Quar headed for one of the empty hollows and swooped gently to rest. That the bird had felt harassed in its flight over the mountain, by the four machine men, was plainly evident as the bird set down its piece of meat and bit viciously at them, sharp teeth grating and sliding against their metal bodies.

A tentacle of 12W-62 became wedged between two teeth, and the machine man disentangled himself with difficulty. The professor and 6W-438 were wrenched from their self-made bonds as the Quar screeched, in rage. Talons freed the two more encumbrances from the bird's legs.

Meanwhile, as the Quar continued in its efforts to bite the professor and 12W-62, 29G-75 freed himself and made a discovery.

"There are openings in the bottom of the nest where we can climb through!"

He was soon down out of reach of the Quar, and he waited for his companions to get free. 6W-438 was first to join him. An application of the professor's heat ray caused the screeching Quar to loose him and 12W-62 long enough for them to slide down through the tangle of tree branches.

The four machine men found themselves in a maze of dead branches through which they threaded their way with difficulty, often finding the way before them too impenetrable and closely woven for passage.

The professor now and then had to use his heat ray.

They struck the rock foundation of the continuous nest thirty feet down, and they followed a devious route to the edge of the crag. They found a long, steep descent, dangerous and treacherous.

Luckily, none of the Quari returned to attack them until they were safely at the bottom of the looming crag.

"It is a long way down the mountain and then to the spaceship," said the professor, "but we must try and make it in what little time we have left."

"If nothing detains us, it will be enough, I believe."

From what they knew of Ajiat's rotation—they had all made separate computations while prisoners of the Ajirs—they had come to the same conclusion regarding the time left before the sun exploded.

Now, there were only three of Ajiat's rotations left before the meteoric mass struck the sun!

All that day, they kept moving down the mountain, and though they were going downhill, they nevertheless felt the effects of the strong gravity. They occasionally reached ledges or precipices which had to be avoided.

Once, 29G-75 fell over one of these ledges, and although the fall was a relatively short one for a machine man to sustain—the mighty attraction of Ajiat drew him down so forcefully that he bent a leg in under him in his fall.

All day long, at intervals, the Quari came to bother them, generally desisting when they found that they were not edible. At night, although they used their body lights, their progress slowed somewhat.

Dawn came, and they increased their pace once more. Untiring, they knew no cessation until a vital part wore out. This, the professor and his companions constantly feared.

Again, the sharp eyes of the Quari saw them from on high and came to harass them again. Sometimes the professor managed to drive them off with his heat ray. The machine men also struck them with lashing tentacles, but they were so large that this had little effect on them.

Shortly after noon, disaster stalked them. Earlier fears were realized. The leg which 29G-75 had bent in his fall finally wore so bad at the joint with his metal body that it became useless. This slowed their descent of the mountain. Up to this point, the professor had figured themselves well ahead of the impending, solar catastrophe.

Night fell again. They kept on, assisting the slightly unbalanced 29G-75 over difficult stretches.

Then, without warning, something went wrong with the inner workings of 12W-62's metal cube so that he suffered lapses of control. He kept on going when he should have stopped, and sometimes he stopped entirely and seemed to have no ability to move again. These periods of inactivity, brief at first, became prolonged. The machine men knew the symptoms and were not surprised when the inevitable happened.

The mechanism of 12W-62 went entirely dead! The excessive requirements of Ajiat had exhausted his energy supply which could only be recharged at the spaceship. There was only one thing to do, which they accomplished with as little loss of time as possible.

They removed the head of 12W-62 from his useless body and carried it with them. 29G-75 was quickly outfitted with one of the metal legs, and they carried the other three with them in case of emergency.

The race against time tightened. Their slight advantage had been lost. Professor Jameson kept the doubts in his mind hidden from his companions.

They were nearly to the foot of the mountain, and the distance from there to the spaceship was well within a day's walk. They gained level ground shortly before dawn.

They had covered less than a mile of distance when 6W-438 fell over suddenly and could not rise. More time was lost in removing his head.

As dawn broke, Professor Jameson collapsed, and even as 29G-75 stooped to help him and ascertain the extent of his trouble, he, too, lost his ability to move!

He stood quiet and useless on his four metal legs above the fallen body of the professor. Each of the two machine men carried the head of a companion.

"This looks to be the end," said 6W-438. "We still have today. Shortly after dark, if our calculations are not wrong, the nova will take place."

The sky above them grew brighter. Idle and impassive, they watched the birds commencing to fly far up the side of the nearby mountain. The sun, that dangerous furnace which was destined to explode before another full rotation of Ajiat, crept over the horizon. Doom shone upon the machine men.

Somewhere not far from that flaming, incandescent mass, the vast conglomeration of meteoric fragments sped like a racing powder train on a grim errand to purge all the worlds of that system of life, spreading an all-destroying heat wave to the outermost realms of the farthest orbit with the speed of light.

A small swarm of birds caught their attention. The Quari had evidently sighted them and were descending to investigate.

"This time they will find no resistance," said the professor.

"Do you think they will carry us away?"

"It is doubtful—when they find that we are not good to eat."

The birds were acting strangely, as if they were fighting over something among themselves. Their manner of descent was strange, too. The machine men had never seen them come down so directly before. Generally, they flew down in long, swinging loops. This time, their turns were shorter and took less distance.

Not until they were within a few hundred feet from the ground did the machine men find the reason for their strange maneuvers. They saw a gleaming ovoid of metal which had previously been hidden by the Quari who were attacking it.

The machine men now saw birds disappearing from time to time, and burned fragments of them came floating down. The help for which they had despaired had come at last!

With a sudden barrage, which caused great havoc among the Quari and sent the survivors winging away, the metal skycraft descended the remaining distance.

There was no attached basket, but a gondola of metal was built into the bottom of the globe. Propellers and steering gear were also visible. Out of the gondola raced 47X-09 and 22K-501.

"You are found, finally!" cried 47X-09. "And none too soon, either!"

"Shortly before dawn came, we saw your body lights shining near the foot of the mountain," 22K-501 told them as they were gathered up and taken aboard the gondola. "We were far off and high in the sky. We lost track of you for a while when it grew light, and then we had to fight off the birds. It was during their attack that we again located you with the mind detectors."

"Tell me about the spaceship," the professor implored. "Is it all right and ready for flight?"

"That we hope. It will call for a tremendous repulsion to free it of Ajiat's powerful grip. 20R-654 and 744U-21 are not entirely satisfied with the super-resisters which have been built, and so they have enlisted another strong ally to help the ship on its start."

"The helium!"

"Yes, 21MM392," 47X-09 vindicated the professor's inspiration. "The spaceship is not only filled to capacity with it, but several tanks have been built around the ship and are filled, ready for our flight. Of course, it will be useless after we once pass the atmosphere, but it is only for initial momentum."


Thirteen Minutes

They were soon back to the spaceship, and the search was at an end. For many days, two airships had searched both sides of the mountain and beyond. Vegetation had been cleared all around the ship for a distance of a hundred yards.

The spaceship was entirely surrounded with a network of metal hawsers which secured it to the ground against the mighty pull of the helium.

Entrance was gained to the ship by means of a helium lock.

With the return of the four machine men, no further time was lost. They were to make one supreme effort. Success or failure hung in the balance. Failure meant a flaming death when the nova struck Ajiat in its swelling glare.

"Every one of us must be securely fastened to a part of the ship," 744U-21 told them. "Our rise will be very sudden."

The fateful moment arrived. Several machine men made a last minute inspection of the hawsers holding the ship. By a specially arranged device, they were to be cast off simultaneously. When all was ready, the hawsers were loosed.

Like a shot out of a gun, the spaceship darted skyward, accelerating rapidly as the helium sought a natural level aided by the power releases of the spaceship. The climb was so rapid as to leave the machine men dizzy.

Eight Zoromes sat securely fastened near the ship's controls, and the first one who recovered his mental balance forced the super-resisters into action.

Night, with its flaming stars, replaced daylight, yet the noonday sun still shone upon them. They had cleared the atmosphere and were in space—but were far from being free of Ajiat. Their battle with the planet's mighty attraction had just begun.

They were forced to accept one discouraging fact with fatalism. They were heading off Ajiat straight for the sun which was shortly to explode! To have waited for Ajiat to rotate would have lost for them more precious time.

In space, they still maintained the speed of their initial rise, yet they realized that their speed must be increased if they were to win free of the giant world.

In suspense, they watched the speed gauges and waited. 20R-654 gave the ship every advantage he had learned in his long career of space navigation.

Their speed gradually increased, yet dangerously slow in acceleration even though they were winning free. The nova would spread with the speed of light and catch them in their battle against the strong gravity of Ajiat! In free space, the flight of the spaceship exceeded that of light several times over, but within the grip of Ajiat their speed was appallingly small. They were gaining more speed and were now sure of escaping Ajiat, but if the computations were correct they knew they would not escape the nova.

They were heading straight for the sun and dared not wheel in another direction until they were free of Ajiat's attraction.

The remaining hours fled. Minutes were left.

The machine men knew that a respite of thirteen minutes would be granted them from the time the explosion took place on the sun until the bright, hot flare of light reached them. The flaming gases to follow would reach Ajiat about a day and a half later.

They kept onward until it was agreed that with the little time left them they might turn at an angle of forty-five degrees from their course, then gradually turn this angle into a curve away from both the sun and the orbital course of Ajiat. They were speeding upon this curve when Professor Jameson announced that the meteoric mass they had passed in space before coming to Ajiat was probably, at that moment, hurling its provocative bulk into the sun.

"We shall not see the nova until it is upon us," he said, "for it travels with the speed of light. That is what adds to the uncertainty of our calculations, for there is just a possibility that a smaller body in this system, of which we know so little, might have bent the course or slowed the speed of the meteoric mass. Unless such a long chance has occurred, we have only thirteen minutes before the nova reaches us."

In the estimated time left, they reached the end of their curve and straightened out on a tangent from the sun and Ajiat. They were rapidly approaching the speed of light and safety when the ship was suddenly enveloped by a blinding glare.

"The nova!"

"It has overtaken us!"

Nothing could be seen outside but that awful brilliance. The sides of the ship grew hot. A terrific explosion rocked the ship in its flight and threw the machine men staggering against each other. One of the attached helium tanks had overheated and burst. Another report jarred the ship and was followed by several more concussions.

"Eject the helium from the ship!" 744U-21 directed. "We must have a vacuum!"

The order was quickly executed, and the helium spurted from the vents opened for its release. The hull of the spaceship grew hotter. That side facing the sun turned a lurid crimson.

The speed of the ship picked up rapidly as the malign power of Ajiat grew less. Soon, they were in free space, yet the hull of the ship grew hotter, and the terrible light which had swallowed them, remained intense.

The speed of the ship crept up to the speed of light, then passed and exceeded it. At that rate, the machine men hoped to outrace the dazzling hell which had closed upon them.

The sunward side of the ship waxed white hot, and metal plates were rapidly fastened over this danger zone, the plates becoming red hot in turn.

There also existed a vague fear among many that they were not heading directly out of the nova. The shock of the exploding helium tanks had made the proximity detectors perform queer antics. Meanwhile, their speed increased.

The spaceship suddenly shot out of the nova and into the darkness of space.

"We have outsped the nova!" Professor Jameson exclaimed. "Its light has not yet reached this far. We are looking at the sun and at Ajiat as they were just before the nova took place."

Nor did the machine men again see the nova until they were far beyond the doomed system of planets and the estimated limits of the nova's spread.

Each planet, when overtaken, glowed brilliantly. The sun swelled and grew so large that at that far distance they could not bear to look upon it except with veiled lenses.

"The nova is now reaching a point where it overtook us in the spaceship," said the professor.

They watched until they saw the nova reach its maximum proportions. A hotter and more compact globe of gases was spreading gradually from the sun, and the machine men lingered in the vicinity and closely approached the outermost limits of the mammoth spectacle until they saw the inner planets reached by the spreading gases. These, they knew, were in the state of volcanic eruption, their oceans turning to dense, vaporous envelopes.

The light had ended all life in the system, and now the slower moving gases were completing the destruction. They saw smaller satellites of the planets explode into myriad fragments, their lesser bulk lacking the resistance of larger companions. The spectacle was grand—yet terrible.

"Millions of light years away, this astronomic catastrophe will be visible," Professor Jameson philosophized, "and millions of years from now peoples on the planets which will witness it shall look upon a new star swelling into sudden brilliance for a brief period, and they will wonder."