The month that Earani stipulated before the search for Andax commenced was passing swiftly. Dundas used the interval for making all necessary arrangements of his private affairs for an absence that might be prolonged or brief as circumstances fell out. He found it imperative that he should leave “Cootamundra” occasionally, but the greater part of his time was passed with Earani.
They prepared for their journey by hours of work in the great machinery gallery, where, under Earani’s supervision, they gathered together for removal to the surface the parts of the vessel that would bear them to their destination. It was a task that fascinated and bewildered Dundas. It seemed to him that the vessel itself was one of the greatest wonders of the gallery. When completed, she would be over a hundred feet long, yet each part was so made that it could be easily handled by two people, and with a little difficulty, by one, if necessary. Its torpedo-shaped hull was a marvel of enormous strength, combined with lightness. The plans of the completed vessel showed no propellers, nor, indeed, any projection outside the hull. The power generators occupied only a fraction of the interior space. Earani showed Dundas how the pull of gravitation from the earth was first neutralised until the hull and contents, weighing perhaps eighty tons, could be lifted by one hand, and then the attractive force from bodies millions of miles away from the earth’s orbit was used to obtain both vertical and lateral movement, so that almost incredible speeds could be obtained — speeds that were only limited by the heating of the vessel through atmospheric friction. She demonstrated how they would speed on their journey at the rate of about three hundred miles an hour, and how special vessels built to reduce the friction on the hull could be sent flashing through the air at almost twice that speed.
Best of all, she showed him how to adjust to his body the specially made machines that, fitted to chest and back, enabled him to fly birdlike round the galleries. Perhaps “birdlike” is a somewhat inaccurate description, for his first attempts in the air were somewhat akin to a skater’s first attempts on the ice. That he flew was true; to say that he flew with either grace or comfort would be wide of the mark, and with Earani floating beside him in his sprawling progress, they made the galleries ring with unrestrained mirth. But with infinite patience she taught him how to poise his body for the flight, and how, with a touch of his fingers, to counteract any unexpected stress or strain, until with their hands locked they were able to sway together from the ground and float from gallery to gallery with perfect ease. At the same time, she forbade him any attempt to use the new-found sport above ground until she would be able to escort him. There was no fear of failure once he left the ground; the danger lay for the novice in getting beyond control, and being snatched to levels above the earth’s surface, where intense cold and thin atmosphere would be fatal before help, even if it were available, could reach him.
The principal work connected with the airship was carried out in the galleries, and all the parts were assembled and tested, so that when the time came for them to start, it would take not more than a day to bring the material to the surface, and but little longer to put it together.
They had already decided on the day on which they would start, and Earani had spent no little time immersed in calculations over maps and charts, until at length she called Alan to her side. Before her was spread a map of Northern India, and on it she had marked a tiny red cross on which she put her pencil point.
“Alan,” she said, looking at him, “if your maps are true, that red cross marks our destination. Look, 36 deg. 32 min. north and 74 deg. 18 min. east. Do you know anything of the country?”
Dundas bent over the map and sighed. “Faith, Earani, I could have wished that your friends had chosen another spot. Yes, I know a little of it. It is one of the wildest and most desolate countries in the world: almost unknown, and such inhabitants as are there are about the most savage and uncivilised on earth. It is in the heart of the world’s most mountainous country. The elevation will be over twenty thousand feet amongst eternal snow.” He paused and looked over the map carefully. “I should say it is about fifty miles north from Gilgit. Our people may have an outpost at that place. I think they have. I know we have been fighting in that country during the past decade, but it is a terrible country. Why did they select such a spot?”
Earani smiled. “The spot has become what it is since he was put there. In our time it was an easily accessible plateau. Things have happened since then. I remember it as one of the most populous parts of the world with a most perfect climate.” She folded the map and put it aside. “However, it makes no difference. It may mean a few hours’ delay, and he has waited so long.”
“Are you absolutely sure, Earani, that your calculation is correct?” asked Dundas.
She nodded emphatically. “So sure that I will be able to land exactly on the spot, and even if we were a little at fault, this,” and she put her hand on an instrument beside her, “would detect the fault and rectify it for us.”
She lay back on her couch. “We must make the most of our ease now, Alan, for we have some hard days before us.”
He laughed. “The prospect doesn’t seem to worry you much. Most wonderful! The women that I know would be rather scared of such an undertaking.”
“Why should I worry?” she answered. “Indeed, I’m looking forward to it. Think, for the first time since I’ve known him Andax will be in the position of being my pupil, and will be obliged to learn from me. If you knew him as well as I do you would see how humorous that will be.” She laughed lightly. “He won’t like it a bit, but he won’t show it.”
Dundas looked at her reflectively. “And how long, Earani, will your superiority last?”
She pursed her lips thoughtfully. The action was too tempting for Dundas to pass it unnoticed, and he moved towards her with intention, to be waved away unceremoniously. “Go away, bad man! How can I think when you distract me like that? No — sit still.” He obeyed reluctantly. Then she went on, “My superiority will last perhaps two months, perhaps three, but not much longer. After that — well, Andax will know more, perhaps, than the two of us put together. But sufficient unto the day. I will have had my little triumph.” She looked across at him smiling, and relented, and at the glance he flew to her. She made a place for him beside her, and he bent over fondly.
“Sometimes, dear one, it makes my heart stand still to think how easily I could have missed you,” he said, holding her hands in his. “It was a mere chance that I started to dig where I did. Indeed, at first I meant to start much further away.”
Her big, grave eyes looked up into his. “It was written, Alan. You of all men were chosen. It had to be so.”
“Listen,” he said, “and I will tell you a tale they tell to children”; and he told her the old, old story of the Sleeping Beauty and how the Prince came in the end. “I think,” he said, “that that story was in my mind when I first stood beside you, dear heart; and yet ——” he paused.
“And yet?” she asked mockingly.
“I have thought sometimes, supposing I had missed you, and another had come. Supposing you had been found, not by me, but if the world were different, and someone had come of a race unfitted to be helped. The danger could not have been foreseen. What then? Oh! I know I am absurd. But if ——”
She drew one hand from his clasp and let it fall over the edge of the couch. “Such a risk was foreseen and guarded against. Look beside you, Alan.”
He turned and looked. Where her hand had rested a small panel, a few inches square, had opened in the side of the couch. “What is it?” he asked, looking round at her.
She smiled up at him, her hand still resting beside the opening. “Can you see anything there, Alan?” she asked.
“Just a disc and a button,” he answered.
She nodded her head, “Just a disc and a button, as you say; but,” she slipped the panel closed again, “do you know what would happen if my finger pressed that button?”
He shook his head. “Can’t guess,” he answered
“Well,” she went on, “high above our heads, in the body of the sphere, are two cisterns filled with fluid. If I pressed that button, the contents of the two cisterns would drop into a third, and the moment they did the whole sphere would be transformed into a molten mass, with everything it contained. It would be over in a second.”
Dundas recoiled, “Good Heavens, Earani, why?”
She answered thoughtfully, “Just for the reason you have given. It was recognised that everything here under certain conditions might have proved a curse rather than a blessing when the time came. To each of us the right was given, that if when we woke from our sleep we judged that it would be better, then we might resign our trust and our life together.”
“And you would have done it?” he asked.
She nodded in answer. “Far rather that way, than have what is here fall into the hands of the unfit. Indeed,” and she paused thoughtfully, “if Andax or I were not here to guide, it would be better if everything went. Your world is not ready to use with wisdom all of what is hidden here.”
“You have a poor opinion of us, Earani,” he said smiling.
She answered gravely. “No, I have not really. There is very much here that I know would be used wisely and well, but again there are other things that might be misused. Take, for instance, that cylinder that did so much damage in the machinery gallery. Ah! Alan, that time you missed death by a very little. Now, although that was first invented for us as a weapon of warfare, it subsequently became one of our greatest engineering assets. It could be used for the purpose of excavating canals and similar works. If properly used it would do more work in a day than your engineers could carry out in a year, or perhaps two, but it could still be used as a weapon.”
“And as a weapon?” asked Dundas.
“It could be made to devastate a country for a radius of a hundred miles, and not only would it blot out all living things, but it would leave the country it covered a blackened desert. It was called in our language by a word that means ‘the devastator’ in yours. Tell me, Alan, would you like the secret of such an engine to become the property of any nation in your world?” Dundas shook his head. “No, that is unthinkable. At the first quarrel one or all would use it.”
“So you see,” Earani went on, “it would be better to lose all than to run a risk of that kind unless there were a power to check the dangerous element amongst you, and that is only one instance. There are a score of things in the galleries that might be misapplied just as disastrously. To be of any use their secret must be more or less widely known, and without the guiding hand the whole race might be easily obliterated.”
Dundas was silent for a while. “No doubt you are right, Earani. It would be a catastrophe to entrust such powers as you speak of to any one people or to all without some restraining influence. The temptation to bid for supremacy would be irresistible if the powers were held by one people, and if by two or more it would amount to the obliteration of any two that quarrelled.”
“So you see, Alan, that the sacrifice of all that is here would not be too great to prevent such a thing happening. However, thank goodness, the responsibility will be on the shoulders of Andax before long. And now, dear one, I am going to ask you a question. What is troubling you?” She held a finger to his lips to check a denial. “Listen; you went into Glen Cairn two days ago; since then you have had something on your mind. What?”
Dundas laughed. “You — What shall I say, most wonderful? I shall have to walk circumspectly when we are married. I flattered myself that my general behaviour did not show that I was annoyed, and yet you knew all the time.”
She nodded smiling. “It did not need any magic to find that out. Tell me?”
He looked at her thoughtfully. “Could you find out if I did not tell?” he asked.
“I could, of course, but I would not unless you gave me permission,” she answered.
“Then I do give you permission,” he said.
She took his hand in hers, and looked into his eves a moment before she spoke. “So,” she said at length, “it is Dick, and I was right.”
“Yes, it is Dick. I cannot understand him. I went to get his final answer about coming with us. He refused.”
“I expected it,” she answered. “Did he give a reason?”
“He gave a reason,” replied Dundas, “but I doubt if it were the real one. Dick has changed.” He paused.
“Tell me what passed between you,” she asked.
“I went to him at the hospital. When I told him that I must know then if he intended to come with us, he at first asked me to give up the idea. I told him our plans were fully made, and I could see no reason for altering them. Then he said that he had work in hand that would prevent him from joining us at present. He could get no one to relieve him. He seemed to evade my questions about the work, and in the end I felt that what you said was right — that he was hostile to our going.”
Earani listened with interest. “Yes, I was right, Alan. I have felt the hostility to me for a long time. Dick would tie my hands if he only knew how. But he has a vague idea of my powers, and he cannot think of a way out. We need not worry. If he cried all he knows to the world he could do nothing. But he might cause us trouble by forcing me to show unmistakably how helpless he is. It would not suit my plans to use force at present to exact obedience from him or from any authority he might attempt to put into action.”
Dundas interrupted. “We have his word, Earani, and I do not think for a moment that Dick will break his pledge. He doubts, perhaps he fears Andax. But I cannot doubt his loyalty.”
“Ah, well, Alan, we need not trouble. I am sorry, for I liked Dick. Perhaps later he will understand. Remember, he has only been here twice since the day I went to Glen Cairn, and I do not think that public opinion has kept him away. Still,” and she paused, turning the question over in her mind, “I will watch, nevertheless. I do not want trouble just yet. Let us go to the river for a while. I tire of being so much away from the world.”
Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925), pages 336-345
[Editor: Changed “a few hours, delay” to “a few hours’ delay”; “disasterously” to “disastrously”. Added a double quotation mark after “to our going.”]