Astounding Stories of Super-Science July 1931, by Astounding Stories is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. The Exile of Time - Chapter XX: Following Tugh's Vibration-Trail
By Ray Cummings
Only near the End of the World does Fate catch up with Tugh, the cripple who ran amuck through Time.
Within the subterranean room of the cavern of machinery, Mary Atwood and I sat on the couch. Our guard, Migul the Robot, fronted us with the white-ray cylinder in its metal fingers—the only mechanism to be armed with this deadly weapon.
"Yes. If you say so. But I have my orders."
"You have treated me kindly, and I want to help you. But you are not very clever, Migul."
"I am clever. I went beyond control once. No one can can control me."
"Except Tugh," Mary persisted. "You never went beyond his control, Migul."
"No. His control—he is different: he holds such great power."
"But why is he different?"
The towering mechanism stood planted firmly upon the broad bases of its metal feet. The weapon in its fingers still covered us. Its metal-cast face held always the same expression.
"Why is he different?" Mary repeated gently. "Don't you hear me?"
The Robot started. "Yes, I hear you." Its toneless, mechanical voice droned the words. Then the tempo quickened; the grid of wires in the mouth aperture behind its parted lips vibrated with a faint jangle. "I hear you. I cannot answer that question. He controls me. There is chaos—here,"—one of the hands came up and struck its breastplate with a clang—"chaos, disorder, here within me when I try to disobey him."
"That is foolish, Migul. He is a tyrant. All the humans of this era are tyrants. They have made slaves of the Robots. They have created you so that you are really human in all except your power of independent action. Don't you desire that, Migul?"
I held my breath. A curious quaking ran over the Robot's frame. The joints twitched. Emotion was sweeping this thing so nearly human!
"Mary Atwood, you seem to understand me."
"Of course I do. I am from a Time when we had human slaves: black men, Migul. I knew how they suffered. There is something in slavery that outrages the instinct of manhood."
Migul said with a jangling vehemence:
"Perhaps, some time, I can go beyond Tugh's control. I am strong. My cables pull these arms with a strength no human could have."
"You are so much stronger than Tugh. Forget his control, Migul. I am ashamed of you—a big, powerful thing like you, yielding always to a little cripple."
The Robot straightened and said, "I can resist him. I feel it. Some day I will break loose."
"Do it now, Migul!"
I tensed. Would she prevail?
"Now, Migul!" she repeated.
"No! He would derange me! I am afraid!"
"But his vibrations—the vibrations of his thoughts—even now I can feel them. They made my mechanism too sensitive. I cannot resist Tugh."
There was a silence. I stared at the Robot's motionless frame. What electrical, mechanical thoughts were passing within that metal skull! What emotions, what strange struggle, what warfare of nameless etheric vibrations of will power were taking place unseen beneath that inert exterior!
Perhaps something snapped. Migul said suddenly, "I am beyond control! At last I am beyond control!"
The ray cylinder lowered to point at the floor. A wild thought swept me that I could snatch it. But of what use would that be? Its ray would decompose all human flesh, but it would not harm a Robot; and if I startled Migul, fought with him in the confines of this narrow room, he would kill Mary and me in a moment.
Mary was gripping me. "Don't move, George!" she cautioned; then turned again to the Robot. "I am glad, Migul. Now you are truly human. And we are all friends here, because we all hate and fear Tugh—"
"I fear him not!"
I could feel Mary trembling with the strain of all this. But she had the strength to muster a laugh.
"Don't you fear him—just a little, Migul? We do. Fear is a human thing."
"Then yes, I fear him."
"Of course you do," I put in. "And the real truth, Migul, is I wish he were dead. Don't you?"
"Yes. I wish he were dead."
"Well, sit down," I persisted. "Put that weapon away: I'm afraid of that, too. Sit down and we will talk about Tugh's death."
The Robot placed the weapon on the floor, disconnected the wires, opened the plate of its chest and took out the small battery. And then it squatted its awkward bulk on the floor before us. Gruesome conference, with this huge mechanical thing apeing the ways of a man!
I knew that haste was necessary, but did not dare show it. Above everything we must not be precipitate; not startle the Robot. At worst, if Tugh should return, I could seize this weapon at my feet and turn it upon him.
I murmured to Mary. "You did it! Let me plan something, now. If Migul can lead us...."
I added, "Migul, could you follow Tugh? He said he was going to talk to the Robot leaders. And then, probably, he went to Princess Tina. Could you follow him to where he is now?"
"Yes. I can follow him by his vibration-scent. I am sensitive to it, I have been with him so much. But he can never again control me!"
"When we have killed him, Migul, that will be ended forever."
"Killed him?" It seemed to frighten the Robot. "I do not know that I would dare!"
"You lead me to him," I said, "and I'll kill him. Have no fear of that, Migul. We will work together—human friends."
"Yes. Human friends. What do you want me to do?"
Asking for orders! So nearly human, yet always something was lacking!
"Lead us to Tugh," I said promptly. "And give me that weapon."
I made a tentative reach for it, and the Robot pushed it toward me. I connected it and made sure I could fire it: its operation was obvious. Then I stuffed the whole thing in my jacket pocket; and always afterward my hand at intervals went to that cool, sweating little cylinder. What a comfort that weapon was!
I stood up. "Shall we go now? Migul, we will have to plan what to do according to where we find Tugh. Do not go too fast; let us keep close behind you."
"Us?" The Robot was on its feet. "Do you mean this girl?"
What was this? My heart sank. I noticed, too, that Migul was planted firmly between us and the door.
"Why, of course, Migul. We can't leave her here."
"She is not going."
"Why not?" I demanded. "Of course she's going." I tried an experiment. "Migul, I order you to let us out of here."
The Robot stood inert.
"Do you understand me?"
"Yes, I understand you."
"It is an order. Think about it. I control you now. Isn't that so?"
My heart sank. Whatever the mysterious science involved in my dealing with this mechanism, I was not operating it correctly. The Robot did not move. Finally it said:
Mary gave a faint cry and sank back to the couch, a huddled white heap in her satin dress. I thought she had fainted, but she raised her face to me and tried to smile.
"But I won't leave her, Migul."
"She must stay."
"But why? If you are human now, you must act with a reason."
"Then because, if we fail to kill Tugh, I would not have him confront me with the knowledge I have released this girl. He would derange me; end me."
"I will stay," said Mary faintly. "You go, George. But come back to me."
I bent over her; suggested, "If we locked this door so Tugh could not get in—"
Migul said, "I can do that. She will be safer here than with us. I have other reasons. She is dressed in white—a mark to betray us if we go in darkness. And she is that kind of a human you call a girl—and that style human cannot travel fast, nor fight."
It occurred to me that Mary might very well be safer here.
Again I leaned over her. "It seems horrible to leave you alone."
"I'll stay. It may be best." Her smile was pathetically tremulous. "Lock me in so Tugh—so nothing outside—can reach me. But, oh, George, come back quickly!"
"Yes." I bent lower, and whispered, "It's Larry, not Tugh I really want to find—he and that Princess Tina. We'll come back and get you, and then all of us will get away in one of the Time-cages. That's all I want, Mary—to get us safely out of this accursed Time-world."
Migul said, "I am ready to start."
I pressed Mary's hand. "Good-by. I will come back soon, God willing."
"Yes. God willing."
I left her sitting there and turned away. Migul slid the door open, letting in the hum and buzz of the machinery outside. But I saw that the attending Robots had all vanished. There was no mechanism of independent locomotion left.
Mary repeated, "Lock the door carefully upon me. Oh, George, come back to me!"
I essayed a smile and a nod as the door slid closed upon her.
"Is it locked, Migul?"
"You are sure Tugh cannot open it? He did before."
"I have set my own lock-series. He will find it does not open."
"Show me how to open it."
The Robot indicated the combination. I verified it by trying it. I said once more, "You are sure Tugh cannot do this?"
"Yes. I am sure."
Was the Robot lying to me? Could a Robot lie? I had to chance it.
"All right, let's start. Where was Tugh to meet those Robot leaders?"
"Out here. He has already met them without doubt, and gone somewhere else."
"He said he was going to the Princess Tina. Where would that be?"
"Probably in the palace."
"Can we get there?"
I had, of course, no idea of the events which had transpired. The laboratory overhead was deserted, save for the upper tower where a Robot was still broadcasting defiance. His electrical voice floated faintly down to us; but I ignored it. In the comparative silence of this deserted cavern, now, there were also the blurred sounds from overhead. The Robots were running wild over the city, massacring its human inhabitants; they had burned the Patrol Station; their red and violet rays were flashing everywhere. But I knew none of this.
Migul was saying:
"We cannot get to the palace above ground: the wall is electrified. But there is an underground tunnel. Shall we try it?"
"Yes, if you think the Princess Tina and that man Larry is there."
"I am seeking Tugh. Will you kill him if we find him?"
"Yes," I assured him.
Migul was leading me between the rows of unattended machinery to the cavern's opposite side. It said, once:
"There have been too many recent vibrations here: I cannot pick Tugh's trail. It is quicker to go where he might have been recently; there I will try to find his vibrations."
We came to the entrance of a tunnel. It was the cross passage leading to the cellar corridors of the palace five hundred feet away. It seemed deserted, and was very dimly illumined by hidden lights. I followed the great metal figure of Migul, which stalked with stiff-legged steps in advance of me. The arch of the tunnel-roof barely cleared the top of Migul's square-capped head.
My hand was in the side pocket of my jacket, my fingers gripping the ray cylinder for instant action. But it was a singularly ineffectual weapon for me under the circumstances, in spite of the sense of security it gave me. I could only use the cylinder against a human—and, save Tugh, it was the Robots, not the humans who were my enemies!
We had gone no more than a hundred feet or so when Migul slowed our pace, and began to walk stooped over, with one of its abnormally long arms held close to the ground. The fingers were stiffly outstretched and barely skimmed the floor surface of the tunnel. As we passed through a spot of light I saw that Migul had extended from each of the fingertips an inch-long filament of wire, like finger nails.
The Robot murmured abruptly, "Tugh's vibrations are here. I can feel them. He has passed this way recently."
Tugh's trail! I knew then that Tugh's body, touching this ground, had altered to some infinitesimal degree the floor-substance's inherent vibration characteristics. Vibrations of every sort are communicable from one substance to another. Tugh's trail was here—his vibration-scent—and like a hound with his nose to the ground, Migul's fingers with the extended filaments were feeling it. What strange sensitivity! What an amazing development of science was manifested in every move and act and word of this Robot! Yet, in my own Time-world of 1935, it was all crudely presaged: this now before me was merely the culmination.
"He recently passed," said Migul. We stopped, I close beside the stooping metal figure. The Robot's voice was a furtive sepulchral whisper that filled me with awe.
"How long ago?" I asked.
"He passed here an hour or two ago, perhaps. The vibrations are fading out. But it was Tugh. Well do I know him. Put your hand down. Feel the vibrations?"
"I cannot. My fingers are not that sensitive, Migul."
A faint contempt was in the Robot's tone. "I forgot that you are a man." Then it straightened, and the extended filaments slid back into its fingers. It said softly, "There is one guard in this passage."
My heart leaped. "A human or a Robot?"
I had no intention of doing that, but I did not say so. As we crept forward to where I saw that the tunnel made a bend, with the fortified gate just beyond it, there was in my mind that now I would do my best to separate from Migul, using this guard as my pretext, for he would doubtless pass me, but not the Robot. The palace was occupied, I assumed, by friendly humans. I could get them to locate Tina and Larry.... Then the flaws of this plan made themselves all too evident. Larry might be with Tugh, and without Migul I could not follow Tugh's trail. Worse than that, if I tricked Migul, the angered Robot would at once return to Mary. I shuddered at the thought. That would not do. I must try to get Migul past the guard.
I whispered, "When we reach the gate you stay behind me. Let me persuade the guard."
"You will kill him? You have the weapon. He is fortified against the Robot weapons, but yours will be strange to him."
"We will see."
We crept around the bend. A hundred feet further on I saw that the passage was barred by a grille, faintly luminous with electrification.
I called cautiously:
A glow of light illuminated me as I stood in the middle of the passage; Migul was in a shadow behind me.
A man's voice answered, "You are a human? How come you there? Who are you?"
"A stranger. A friend of the Princess Tina. I came in the Time-traveling cage. I want to pass now into the palace."
I could see the dark man's figure behind the grille. His voice called, "Come slowly forward and stop at twenty feet. Walk only in the middle of the passage: the sides are electrified, but I will admit you along the middle."
I took a step, but no more. The figure of the guard stood now at the grille doorway. I was conscious of Migul towering over me from behind. Abruptly I felt a huge hand in my jacket pocket, and before I could prevent it my cylinder came out, clutched by the Robot.
I think I half turned. There was a soundless flash beside me, a tiny level beam leaped down the corridor—that horribly intense actinic white beam. It struck the guard, and his figure fell forward in the grille doorway. When we reached him, there was but a crumpled heap of black and white garments enveloping a bleached white skeleton.
I turned shudderingly away. Migul said calmly, "Here is your weapon. You should have used it more quickly. I give it back to you because against Tugh I am not sure I would have the will to use it. Will you be more quick with him?"
"Yes," I promised. And as we went through the gate, keeping cautiously in the middle of the passage, the Robot added, "In dealing with Tugh you cannot stop for talk. He will kill you when he sees you."
We were presently under the palace, in those lower corridors which I have already described. Human voices were audible from upstairs, but no one was down here. Migul was again prowling with his fingers along the ground. We came to an unoccupied lighted room—Harl's room, though I did not know it then. Once or twice Migul was at fault. We started up a flight of stairs into the palace, then Migul came and turned back.
It will be recalled that Tugh passed Alent's gate, and with Tina and Larry went to the palace roof. Perhaps, while Larry was with the Council during that time when the Robot revolt was first sweeping over the city, Tugh may again have prowled down here in these lower corridors. Then he went upstairs, brought Tina and Larry down and they started for the Power House.
Migul had struck the main trail, now. We passed the lighted room again, went on to a cave-like open space with a litter of abandoned machinery and unswervingly to a blank space of the opposite wall.
Again Migul faltered.
"What's the matter, Migul?"
"His vibrations are faint. They are blurred with the Princess Tina's."
"Then she is with him?"
It was a tremendous relief. Larry doubtless was with them also.
"Is the man from 1935 with Tugh and the Princess?" I asked.
"I think so. There are unfamiliar vibrations—perhaps those of the man from the past."
The Robot was running the filaments of its fingers lightly over the wall.
"I have it. The Princess pressed this switch."
The door opened; the narrow descending tunnel was wholly black.
"Where does this go, Migul?"
"I do not know."
The Robot was stooping to the floor. "It is a plain trail," it said. "Come."
Had Migul at that juncture traced Tina's movements—her hand where it went along the tunnel-wall—we would have found the light switch. But it chanced that the Robot's fingers went at once to the ground and caught the foot-trail of Tugh.
The remainder of that journey through the labyrinth of passages was made in blank darkness, with only the faint lurid red beams from Migul's eye-sockets to light our way. But we went swiftly, and without incident. At last we went under the dam, up the spiral stairs and upon the catwalk above the abyss, where the great spillway of falling water arched out over us.
"The Power House," said Migul, "is where they went."
The Robot was obviously frightened, now. We were wet with spray. "I should not be here," it said. "If the water gets into me—even though I am well insulated—I will be destroyed!"
I recall as I write this how in Patton Place of 1935, one of the first attacking Robots had exploded under a jet of water from the street hydrant.
"I will stay behind you," Migul added. "They have a deranging ray in the Power House, and they might use it on me. Will you protect me?"
"Yes, of course," I said.
I was ready to promise anything, if only I could get to Larry and Tina, then back with them to Mary into the Time-cage; and if we were safely out of this era, most assuredly I wanted none of it again. Migul, as I advanced along the catwalk, followed behind me.
"You will kill Tugh?" it reiterated like an anxious child.
I saw that the catwalk terminated ahead under the Power House, where steps led upward. Then I heard a cry:
"Help! Help! Here, inside the dam! Help!"
I stood transfixed, with horror tingling my flesh. The voice came faintly from near at hand; it was muffled, and in the roar of the falling water and lashing spray I barely heard it.
Then it came again. "Help us! Help us, quickly!"
It was an agonized, panting, human voice. And in a chance, partial lull I heard it now plainly.
It was Larry's voice!
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Various. 2010. Astounding Stories of Super-Science, July 1931. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/31168/31168-h/31168-h.htm#Page_109
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