The Honored Prophet, p.1William E. Bentley
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This etext was produced from If Worlds of Science Fiction November 1954. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
THE HONORED PROPHET
BY WILLIAM E. BENTLEY
_Illustrated by Virgil Finlay_
_The black dwarf sun sent its assassin on a mission which was calculated to erase the threat to its existence. But prophesies run in strange patterns and, sometimes, an act of evasion becomes an act of fulfillment...._
* * * * *
The ruler of a planet with a black dwarf sun had called a meeting ofthe council. It was some time before they were assembled, and hewaited patiently without thought.
When the patchwork of mentalities was complete he allowed theconclusions of the prognosticator to occupy his mind. A wall ofunanimous incredulity sprang up. The statement was that when theinhabitants of a distant planet achieved space flight they would cometo this planet, and use a weapon invented by an individual to destroyit. The prognosticator could not lie, and soon the facade dissolvedinto individual reactions as acceptance became general. Anger, fear,resignation, and greedy little thoughts of self-aggrandizement. Thosethoughts were replaced by a quiescent, questioning receptivity. Thequestioning grew out of proportion, became hysterical, assumed thepanic shape. Self-preservation demanding that there be a solution.Minor prophecies had been evaded before. Details of the individual hadbeen supplied, could not something be done?
The Assassin was summoned.
The pattern of Dr. Simon Cartwright's encephalic emanations, and theapproximate position of the center of these emanations were impressedon its mind. And in a strangely bulbous ship it plunged outward fromthat eternally dark and silent planet towards Earth.
* * * * *
A man was walking along a road. A high road. A silent, dark road.Below him on both sides of the road flat marshland swept away, and alittle wind caressed him with chill fingers. His tiny world of roadbeneath him, darkness around him, sky above him, contained only thesound of his footsteps--and one other. A regular, liquid sound. Hethought it was a sound from the marsh. He listened to it, and wonderedhow long it had been with him. It was close behind him on the road. Hestopped, turned round in small curiosity, and bellowed in greathorror. He threw up his hands against an immense bulk, a frog-likeshape, a lurching, flowing movement. Then it was upon him, and stilledhis futile writhings, and passed over him, and left him dead.
The Assassin continued along the road. It was aware that it hadkilled, but it could not contemplate the fact. It possessed all themental powers of its race, but its conditioning had focused them inone direction, the assassination of Dr. Cartwright. It could consideronly those factors which had a direct relation to that purpose.
Daylight was one of those factors.
It was not aware of the passage of time, but when the sensitive patchon its back began to contract it left the road and went to the marsh.There it burrowed into the slime until green-flecked water closed overit. And deeper until a depth of mud protected it from the sun.
Dr. Cartwright groaned and sat up in bed. He silenced the ringingtelephone by putting the receiver to his ear.
"Do you know what time it is?" he asked, aggrieved.
"Hello? Doctor Cartwright? This is the police."
"It is half-past seven," continued Simon. "For me, the middle of thenight. I am in no fit state to measure a drunk's reactions."
"I'm sorry, sir, but there's been an accident. On the WavertonHighway. A man is dead, Inspector Andrews is in charge of the case."
"Inspector Andrews? Is mayhem suspected? Never mind, I'll get downthere, right away."
He put the receiver down and got out of bed. His wife mutteredsomething unintelligible and wrapped his share of the blankets roundher. Simon went downstairs. He made a cup of coffee and drank it whilehe dressed. The engine of his car was cold, but his house was on ahill and he was able to coast down to the Highway.
The road was level and straight, and after a few minutes driving alittle tableau came into sight--two cars, a group of uniforms.Inspector Andrews, tall, thin, dyspeptic, greeted him with a limphandshake. "Something funny about this," he said. "See what youthink."
Simon went down on one knee beside the body and began to undo theclothing. After a time he looked up into the sky. "This is verystrange," he murmured.
"I know," grunted Andrews. "Can they take the body now?"
Simon stood up and nodded. He remained staring out across the marshuntil the body had been removed, and the ambulance a distant object.Then he went and sat in his car. Andrews finished giving instructionsto his Sergeant, and joined him. "I'll let you give me breakfast," hesaid.
"You're very kind," said Simon absently, and released the brake.
"Any use asking for the cause of death?" asked Andrews.
"Oh, the cause of death was crushing, but the cause of the cause ofdeath--" Simon shook his head. "There wasn't an unbroken bone in hisbody. Could he have been dropped from an airplane?"
Andrews shook a ponderous head. "He was a bus driver on his way towork without an enemy in the world. And I've a feeling his death isgoing to keep me awake at nights. Anyway, Sergeant Bennet is goingover the area with a magnifying glass. We'll put up a pretty goodshow. Can you suggest anything?"
"It wasn't a car," said Simon carefully. "The skin was unbroken,except from the inside. I can only imagine something like arubber-covered steam-roller."
* * * * *
That night the Assassin killed two people.
When it grew dark it heaved itself up out of the slime. A longbusiness of bodily expansion and contraction. Two men were on the roadand heard the noise it made.
"Somethin' out there."
"Stray cow, maybe."
They stood and peered into the dark, trying to see a familiar shape.The Assassin approached them, and was too big for them to see. Theystood in its path and looked for a familiar object in the blackness ofits body. So the instant of apprehension was small, the panic andexertion soon over. Without pausing the Assassin moved over them andcontinued on its way.
A little later Inspector Andrews found them. He was in a radio patrolcar, and he was moving in the same direction as the Assassin. With himin the car were three large men carrying automatic rifles. Andrewsstopped the car, and one of the men got out and knelt by the bodies.Andrews watched him somberly for a moment then reached for themicrophone. He spoke to the station sergeant.
"Inspector Andrews here. Send an ambulance out here, will you, andphone Doctor Cartwright. Tell him the steam-roller's loose again. Itmay be on the road heading his way. Yes, steam-roller. He'llunderstand."
He put the microphone down, called to the man on the road. "I'mleaving you here, Roberts. There's an ambulance on its way. Go backwith it. Get in Sergeant Bennet's car and both of you join us upahead."
He closed the car window and released the brake. The empty road beganto unwind slowly into the area of light ahead.
Simon put the receiver down and looked at his wife. She wasconcentrating on a sock by the fire. He went over and kissed the topof her head. "Goodbye," she said.
"Listen," he said quietly. "When I'm gone lock the door behind me anddon't go out. If you hear any funny noises go down to the cellar.Understand?"
She was a little frightened. "Honey, what is it?"
He smiled. "It's nothing. Long John Andrews is out hunting. I'm g
He took his shot-gun off the mantle and stuffed his pockets withcartridges.
"I'll bring you back a rabbit," he said. "So long."
He drove down slowly. He was scared, but he was still young enough tofind it exhilarating. The loaded shot-gun was a great help.
He turned on to the highway, and slowed to walking pace. He staredinto the darkness ahead until his eyes burned, and imagination peopledhis surroundings with writhing shapes.
Then he saw it, and the muscles across his chest trembledconvulsively. Fear clutched his stomach. He slammed his foot down onthe brake and gaped up at it. It was standing still in the middle ofthe road, a giant, pear shaped body, looking something like a mankneeling upright. At the front, turned inwards, were a number ofarm-like appendages.
The shot-gun was ridiculous now, the car made of paper. To get out andrun was impossible, and he longed to be able to sit still and donothing. And the seconds dragged by. Time for contemplation built up,and a strange realization dropped into his seething mind. He sensedsomething about its attitude. A cringing, a withdrawal. "God," hewhispered. "It doesn't like the light."
He might have relaxed then, but it moved. One of its arms unfolded,swung outward holding something metallic. Simon yelled. He grabbed theshot-gun, shoved the door catch down, threw his weight sideways. Helanded on his shoulder and kept on rolling. He reached the other sideof the road, straightened up, and saw the roof of the car fly off witha roar. He fired then, from a crouching position and without takingaim. A lucky shot that hit the end of the weapon arm and shattered it.Then he ran, and the Assassin followed.
He ran in the direction he'd been heading, and gave himself up toterror. He was primaeval man fleeing from sabre-tooth. He was living anightmare. His brain reeled, air burnt his lungs, and his poundingheart echoed in his temples. Then he was running into a blaze oflight, between headlights that enfolded him like a mother's arms, andhe was clinging to a radiator cap. Dimly he heard the crash of highpowered rifles about him. A black figure came into his haven of light,began to loosen his tie.
"Get out of the light," he gasped. "It doesn't like the light."
"Who invited you?" grunted Andrews. He put Simon's arm round his neck,and half carried him round to the side of the car, pushed him into thefront seat.
"I'll be all right in a minute," said Simon.
"Yeah," said Andrews, and left him.
After a little while the trembling in his limbs began to subside,breathing became easier. He leaned forward and watched a strangebattle. The Assassin was about seventy yards ahead, moving slowlynearer. Two men stood on the right hand side of the car, pumpingbullets into the grey, indistinct mass. Andrews stood watching withhis hands in his jacket pockets. Suddenly he said, "All right, let go.You're only wasting bullets."
Simon looked at him in alarm. "Hey, you're not just going to standthere. It doesn't like the light, but light can't kill it."
"Lie down on the floor," said Andrews dourly, without looking at him.
Andrews ignored him, stepped two paces forward. The Assassin was abouttwenty yards away now, seeming to have to fight against the stream oflight. Andrews took his hands from his pockets. Simon saw what he washolding, and dived for the floor. He clasped his hands over the backof his neck as the night exploded with a gigantic crash.
When his ears had stopped screaming he got up. Andrews, an elbow onthe window ledge, was watching him expressionlessly.
"You might have left me something to dissect," complained Simon."Somebody's got to, you know."
"I'll mop you up a sponge full," said Andrews.
"Oh, no, you won't. You and your men stay back here. It's probablycrawling with alien bacteria."
Actually, quite a lot of the Assassin was left, but decomposition wasvery rapid. Simon did the best he could with a magnifying glass and apenknife. He found that the body was almost entirely composed of boneand flesh in a honey-comb like structure. The bone being highlyflexible, and the cavities filled with grey flesh. Flesh which quicklyliquified and drained away from the bone. There was no blood, andSimon could find no trace of internal organs.
While he worked two more cars drove up, and gave him a little morelight, but soon he had to give up. As he walked slowly back aspotlight sprang suddenly to life, and a pleasant authoritative voicespoke.
"Will you stay where you are, please, Doctor Cartwright."
Simon obeyed. Hell, he thought wearily. Officialdom has arrived. Heshaded his eyes against the light, but he could see nothing.
"Who's that?" he asked.
"Commanding officer in charge of operations in this emergency. You'vemade an examination?"
"As far as I could. There's complete decomposition now."
"Oh, I see." A slight pause, then; "Perhaps I'd better put you in thepicture. This is armed aggression, Doctor Cartwright. In any languageit says war. Do you understand? We're at war, now.
"We found the vessel your friend came in several days ago. It was inthe sea, twenty miles from here. Its discovery was kept secret becausewe weren't sure of its point of origin. Our people are engaged infinding the method of propulsion. They say it will give us the abilityto travel in space. They also say that they can find the approximateposition of its home planet. All that is top priority, of course, butin the meanwhile we must have an emergency line of defence againstthese things. We want to know how to find them and how to destroy themwith the least possible expenditure of life and material. Youunderstand?"
"Yes. I've got an idea about light waves. I fired a shot at it backthere. The bone structure--"
"Don't tell me," interrupted the voice sharply. "Remember it. Yourealize, Doctor Cartwright, that you are just about the most importantman alive. You know how fast it can move. You have fought it, youhave examined it. So you can be sure that very good care will be takenof you."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm sorry, but you must see that you have to go into strictquarantine now. We dare not risk a plague. After quarantine you willgo to work with our people. Now will you please get into the car atthe extreme right, and follow the police."
"Where am I going?"
"Please hurry. There is a team of incendiaries waiting to clear thearea."
"Oh, damnation," sighed The Most Important Man Alive, and walkedtowards the waiting car.
* * * * *
When the ruler consulted the prognosticator again, after theAssassin's failure had been recorded, he found that a qualificationhad been added. The prophecy was now being fulfilled. He consideredthis dispassionately. He visualised the complex pattern of implicationalmost with pleasure. Was the machine alive? Certainly it couldcontemplate itself. It had calculated the effect of its existence, andhad used the knowledge to destroy them. Or had they condemnedthemselves? By losing the ability to question. For the information onwhich the prophecy was based could have been available to them. Or wasthe machine only obeying a greater Fate? A Decree, stating that anylife-form that surrendered itself to the dictates of a machine wasdoomed.
One thing alone was left to him. A choice. Without haste he began thepreliminaries to thinking himself to death.
* * * * *
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