Help via Ko-Fi

This drama—bitter and deadly, yet tenderly beautiful—was flayed against a backdrop of icy mountains by a race returned finally to Earth from—

A Home
The Stars


HARDER was still a quarter of a mile away when the converted DC-3 took off.

He didn't stop running forward. Running was purely reflex now, and behind the reflex was the grim fact that Harder's life depended on reaching the plane before the jato take-off bottles sent it racing forward across the snow on its runners and up into the cold Antarctic sky.

Harder staggered to where the plane had been. He could smell the jato in the cold air, and at once he was engulfed by a swirling backlash of Antarctic snow as dry as confetti. For a while as Harder had covered the last few hundred yards, it had looked as if circumstances, for once, were on his side. He had come on foot across twenty miles of Antarctic wilderness to the U. S. Geophysical Year base where the last converted DC-3 of the expedition waited. He had no notion how long it had taken: time ceased to exist in a world of terrible cold, fierce winds and blinding flurries of ground-snow. Then, at last, he had seen the DC-3. Mather, he knew, would be the pilot, the last pilot of the last plane before Antarctica became snowy wilderness once more, waiting changelessly for the next expedition. And the plane seemed to stand still, as if it were going to wait for Harder. But the propellers were spinning and the jato bottles emitted exhaust plumes. For one long moment the DC-3's runners were stuck fast in the snow; then in a blinding, explosive roar, all the remaining jato bottles were fired simultaneously, the two-engined plane shuddered like a stricken animal, the runners broke free and the plane roared forward swiftly and was airborne in a few seconds. It streaked out of sight.

Harder waved frantically although he knew it was useless. They would never see him in the swirling backlash of snow.

He was marooned at the bottom of the world.

He stopped waving when the plane was a small dot against the immensity of Antarctic sky. With surprising objectivity he wondered how long he could survive alone. Cold, of course, would be his problem, for although the insulated Quonsot huts hadn't been disassembled, there probably was no oil for the heaters. There was plenty of food which had been left, as it always was, for the next expedition. And water was no problem with five million square miles of snow all around him. But the next expedition wasn't coming for two years—and, Harder thought with a wry smile, by then he would be quite dead and as perfectly preserved in the cold dry air as the sides of beef which had been left behind.

At least if I knew why, Harder thought, walking toward the nearest of the Quonsots. The door wasn't locked: there were no marauders to lock out in Antarctica. Harder went inside but did not remove his insulated parka. The dim interior of the Quonsot—Harder saw that it was Major Mather's flight headquarters—was deceptively warm. But it was warm only by comparison with the minus fifty degrees outside. A thermometer on the inside wall, the line of mercury pale in the dim light, gave Harder his death sentence. The mercury stood at five degrees above zero, and it was going down.

Harder went to the oil heater first. The fuel chamber, as he expected, was dry. He spent a fruitless half hour searching for oil, but didn't find any.

So that's it, he thought. The end of Jim Harder, meteorologist. He sat down, wondering how long it would take for him to die. The big danger, of course, was sleeping. If he went to sleep he probably would never wake up, despite the insulated parka, because the insulation of the parka was designed to keep in body heat generated by activity. A day? A week maybe, with all the food he wanted? The strangest part of it was, he didn't feel very cold. But he could explain that: he was a weather expert. He didn't feel cold because the humidity stood near zero—and dry cold can be killingly deceptive.

Yet he couldn't just surrender to the inevitable—it wasn't his nature to do so. He spent several thorough hours searching the six other huts in the compound. There was plenty of food as he had expected. There was absolutely no oil. There was no point in leaving behind oil which would become as sluggish as molasses in the fierce cold.

Harder sat down in Major Mather's flight hut. He should have been exhausted from his trek, but wasn't. Restlessly, he got up and prowled around from one corner to another.

Not expecting to, he was surprised when he found Mather's log. Then he decided it wasn't so unusual after all: Mather, probably, had sensibly made a copy, deciding to leave the log here in the event that anything it contained could be of value to the members of the next weather expedition two years from now. Idly, Harder flipped the pages. The log was typed on loose-leaf. One entry toward the end stopped him cold. He read:

"Scoby came back from the weather station on Byrd Peak today. He wasn't very lucid. Exposure had nearly got him, but Doc says he will be all right. He told a grim story, and thank God he was lucid enough to tell it so we wouldn't have to send out a search party after Jim Harder. Poor Harder died in a snow fall.

It happened just under Byrd Peak, Scoby says. A word of warning to those who come after us: these snow avalanches are pretty nearly soundless and can fall without warning from the slopes of the steeper mountains.

"Funny, if I had to name one member of this expedition who seemed damn near indestructible, it would have been Jim Harder. There was something about the man—I don't know what." Harder smiled as he read: he had not realized Major Mather was so observant. He read on: "For one thing, Harder's of that vanishing breed, a loner. According to his Form 20 card, he doesn't have any relatives. And, while he isn't anti-social, he hasn't been as close as the other men. If he had one friend down here, it was Scoby, but even Scoby more than once told the base psychologist in the routine interviews that it was difficult to find anything under the surface in Harder. Anyhow, he was killed under Byrd Mountain, buried alive by snow. He was a strange sort of fellow, and lonely—but a good man. The world needs more of his type." The last pertinent entry on that page made Harder smile grimly. It said: "Scoby was quite broken up by his death."

There was one more relevant entry—on the final page of the log book. By then the letters of Major Mather's typewriter were faint, but since it was the last entry he hadn't bothered to change the ribbon. Harder read:

"... leave in about thirty minutes. I still can't stop thinking about Jim Harder's death. At least about the circumstances. It isn't Harder that bothers me: Harder's dead, and there's nothing more you can do for a dead man. It's Scoby. Harder's death affected him strangely. Scoby doesn't remember. Oh, it would be understandable enough if Scoby merely forgot the incidents of Harder's death, for Scoby, so he told us when he first came back, very nearly died out there himself.

"But—Scoby has forgotten Harder completely! It's as if, as far as Scoby's concerned, Harder never existed at all. He remembers taking a dogsled out to the weather station near Byrd, but he thinks he went alone. I asked him about Harder, and he said, 'Harder? Who is Harder?' I didn't press it. When we reach Tierre del Fuego, though, I'm going to ask the psychologist to have a look at Scoby. Poor guy, he must have some kind of repressed guilt feelings, or whatever terms the headshrinkers use. But of course neither Scoby nor anyone in the world could have helped Harder in a snow avalanche. The DC-3..."

Harder closed the book. His fingers were numb with cold. His smile was bleak: so that was Scoby's story, and, conveniently, Scoby had forgotten it.

What, actually, had been Scoby's motives? Harder couldn't answer that question, and since his life was already forfeit, the answer hardly mattered. If he had to guess, though, he would have said that Scoby just didn't have any motives. As Mather had written, Harder was a loner, the last of a dying breed. He liked Scoby as well as he liked any man, but he had never formed any close alliances. He was too busy searching.

Searching—all his life. He never knew for what. But he was restless, he couldn't remain long in one place, he wasn't happy unless he was constantly on the move and, instinctively, as soon as he reached a place he knew this wasn't the nameless thing he had been seeking. The searching, which dominated Harder's life and which finally had killed him because it had brought him down to Antarctica on the geophysical expedition and now he must surely die, was compulsive. If he had a specific goal it was in his unconscious mind: he had never been able to ferret it out. Yet he had had to go on. Looking, looking...

But Scoby's story amazed him as much as Scoby's behavior, for it hadn't happened that way at all—

But they had cleaned out the small weather station near Byrd without too much trouble. Scoby a young New Englander, had seemed cheerful enough. It was hard to tell in the cold, for faces were reduced to eye-slits and breathing holes, but at least Scoby hadn't seemed sullen. Nor, certainly, had he reason for a grudge against Harder. It had all happened utterly without motivation.

"About finished, huh?" Scoby had said cheerfully inside the small weather-hut.

"Just about," Harder had replied. "Think the dogs're hungry?"

"Brother, aren't they always?"

"O. K. You check the gear on the sled, Scoby, and I'll go feed Fido."

Feeding Fido, as Harder had termed it, was a job. The frozen cakes of dogfood which the huskies ate, for one thing, had a rotten-fish smell which became apparent as soon as the cakes began to thaw. Also, Fido—a collective term standing for the team of fierce huskies which pulled their sled—could be mighty unpredictable during feeding.

Harder finished the job and went back to find Scoby, who had been busy at the unharnessed sled. The sled was packed and ready to go—but Scoby wasn't there.

Harder frowned. "Scoby?" he called. "Hey, Scoby, where are you?"

Then, instinctively, he looked up. He saw the ice-gleaming buttress of Byrd Mountain, the vane atop the small weather station, the dazzling white expanse of snow—and a shadow.

The shadow stretched out along the snow with the low slanting rays of the sun—this was the beginning of Antarctica's six month long summer, for the weather expedition had been a winter one—and then the shadow moved. Harder whirled and saw Scoby.

But he did not whirl fast enough.

If he lived another fifty years, which certainly didn't seem likely, he would never forget the look on Scoby's face. Almost, he wished it had been a look of hatred or malice. But it wasn't. There was a dreamlike look on Scoby's face, the vague, troubled but not unhappy stare of the sleepwalker.

Then Scoby struck with the locking bar of the weatherstation door. The door was locked because it was exposed to ninety-mile-an-hour winds; the bar was ten inches of hard black steel.

For Harder the world exploded with the dazzling whiteness of eons of Antarctic snow.

When he regained consciousness, Scoby was with him. They were inside the small weather hut, and Harder was bound hand and foot. Scoby still looked—dreamily happy.

"What the hell kind of crazy stunt was that?" Harder roared, straining at his bonds.

"Fm really sorry, Harder. It wasn't my idea."

"No? Then just who the hell's was it?"

"I don't know," Scoby said promptly and almost cheerfully.

"You're going to leave me here?"

"You'll be all right. You ought to be able to free yourself of those ropes in a few hours. But by the time you walk back to the base, we'll all begone."

"You've gone Arctic-batty," Harder said. The snow and the isolation, he knew, could actually destroy a man's mind. But the expedition's psychologist, in his weekly checkups, was supposed to find and eliminate weak spots...

"Oh, no," Scoby contradicted him coolly, as if leaving Harder bound and helpless near Byrd Mountain didn't matter. "I'm not crazy. It isn't me doing this, you see. I've been ordered."

"Who by?" Harder asked sarcastically. "Major Mather?"

Scoby hadn't answered him. He got up, zipped his parka, and opened the door. The winds howled. "Well, this is goodbye, then," he said, extending his mittened hand as if he were going for a short vacation trip, and then withdrawing it stiffly, almost with embarrassment.

"At least tell me why," Harder had urged.

"I—it's orders. I don't know why."

"Whose orders?"

"I don't know whose orders."

"Nor why?"

"No, nor why."

"Scoby, I feel sorry for you. You're sick."

"No. I'm not sick. I'm under order. I know that much."

Then the door had closed and faintly Harder heard Scoby giving his orders to the dogteam. After that the Antarctic silence closed in. Except for the keening of the wind, there was nothing.

It took Harder six hours to release himself, and another hour to restore the circulation to his arms and legs. Then he started out in Scoby's tracks...

To arrive moments too late at the base, in time to see the final plane take off without him.

Now, in Major Mather's hut, Harder smiled bleakly. He was thirty-one years old, healthy and strong, and he enjoyed life although—or perhaps because—his had been a strange one.

He had packed a great deal of living into his thirty-one years. He was an orphan and had absolutely no relatives that he knew of. He had never formed any attachements which could keep him from his strange quest: strange because although he was compelled to search, knew that the search, somehow, was the meaning of his life, he never knew what he was searching for. He knew this, though—when he found it, whatever it was, he would know. He would know.

For a moment he thought of Scoby. In a way, Scoby leaving him to die had been like that. Scoby had no motive, yet Scoby had acted from some strange—inner?—compulsion. Like the compulsion which had been driving Harder all his life...

He remembered it all now, as if this were the moment before death. World War II. The beaches at Guadalcanal. The Japanese prison camp. Then, after the war, the back pay he had put into a secondhand sloop and the months of labor which had made it seaworthy and the years spent in the South Seas, exploring, beachcombing, searching... Papete, Santa Ana, Tahite, Mau, New Caledonia, the tawny bare girls on glistening coral beaches, the whisper of the wind through palms, the incredibly clear tropic nights, the stars, the brief languid times which always preceded a renewal of the strange search...

And then Korea. He had volunteered, of course, almost as if the thing he had been searching for was death. But death didn't claim him and the war, like all wars, had ended.

Harder's quest hadn't. After Korea, he had wandered around the Orient. A year in Hong Kong and Macao, another in Japan, then finally the unexpected decision that it was time he settled down, at least to some kind of profession. For some reason he couldn't fathom, he had selected meteorology.

And once, six months ago, the reason had seemed clear. It had excited him. Meteorology was one of the few professions which could get him down to Antarctica: he might wander the world over and never see Antarctica otherwise; it was as if the lifelong search, incredibly, had been leading him there. He'd been assigned by the Government Weather Service to the Geophysical expedition, and for the first time in his strange life he had really been excited, thinking—and not knowing why—that the long, so far fruitless search would end at the bottom of the world.

But the six months with the expedition had been a fiasco. Antarctica was snow, cold, endless night, endless waiting. It had been, Harder admitted ruefully to himself, a mistake. He had been angry with himself, too. The long endless wait in Antarctica, the enforced inactivity for weeks on end, with only occasional jobs to do, had left him with too much time for thinking. His search, he decided, was an unconscious ruse: he wasn't searching for anything. He had spent his years seeing the world—and avoiding life. The search had ended in Antarctica, all right, and Harder thought he at last knew why he'd never been able to glimpse the goal. Why he couldn't even come close.

Because, ironically, there wasn't any. Harder had been avoiding responsibility, and that was all.

Now he thought: or was it? What about Scoby? Wasn't Scoby's motiveless action part of a bigger picture? Especially since Scoby really seemed to have forgotten, as if not an inside but an outside power had commanded him to do what he had done to make sure Harder remained in Antarctica...

But that was nonsense. Harder was going to die, and nothing he could do would change that. If the quest had been, anti-climatically, a quest for death, wasn't this the long way around?

Harder slept.

When he awoke, it was too numbing cold and the realization that sleep should have meant death, but hadn't.

The door was open.

Outside, the wind howled.

Harder didn't feel cold.

And he wasn't alone.

The thing was a glowing, radiant cone as tall as a man. Harder felt the hackles on the back of his neck rising in atavistic fear, as if knowledge of the radiant cone existed in racial memory.

A voice told him: "You have nothing to fear."

Harder didn't believe it. The cone glowed and waited. Patiently?

Harder made a break for the door.

The glowing cone didn't try to stop him. The door slammed behind him and the wind swept him along. He had never felt such unreasoning fear before: he even got the notion that the fear like Scoby's strange attack on him, was directed from outside. But that didn't stop him from running.

He stumbled in the snow. There was no place to go, really, and certainly no place to hide. He looked back. He hadn't heard the door of Major Mather's hut opening, but the glowing cone was outside now, looking like gold against the white background. Harder got up, breathing hard, and kept running.

He stopped in his tracks. The glowing cone was now in front of him. He turned, doubling back, but the wind on the high Antarctic plateau suddenly swept down at him, and it was like running on a treadmill.

"Stop!" the voice called. Harder assumed—somehow—that it was the voice of the glowing cone. "You can't get away from me. I wanted to prove that. Actually, you don't want to try."

Harder's lungs were on fire—he couldn't run any more. He stopped, panting, reeling in the wind, and, with a sudden odd detachment, wondering where the fear came from. It wasn't like him at all. His life had been spent searching out new things, so unreasoning fear wasn't part of his makeup.

"Is this better?" the glowing cone said.

Even as Harder stared at it, the cone was transformed into a parka-clad man. The man had no face that Harder could see, or perhaps the wind-whipped snow hid his face from view. But whatever the reason, fear drained from Harder with the transformation.

"Come. It isn't far."

"Where are we going?"

"Come. I will explain later."

"Who—what are you?"

"Come. I serve you. I only serve."

A rope was produced, and climbing equipment. The wind died down, as if the glowing cone—now a man—could control it.

Harder suddenly was aware of an ice-ax in his hand. He moved forward, and felt the tug of the stranger's weight behind him.

He could not understand what happened next. The Geophysical base had been constructed on the broad midAntarctic plateau. The only nearby mountain was Byrd, yet almost at once they began to climb. The going should have been difficult, but was not. Harder chopped foot-holds in the ice with his ax. They climbed rapidly.

The whiteness dissolved.

Cresting a rampart of ice, Harder saw a valley—green, humid, with mists rising from it. He had read about such things—the mysterious warm valleys in the Antarctic. No one could explain them. They were like oases in a desert, and the best theory was that hot springs kept them warm and humid.

In the center of the valley was a round globe as big as a house. Nearby, water trickled. Above the freezing point? It seemed likely. Harder began to sweat, and unzipped his parka.

"Wait," the other man on the rope said.

"What is it?"

"Wait. I can tell you now."

"Did you make Scoby do what he did?" Harder guessed.

"I had to. It was the only way I could be sure you'd stay."

"What for?"

"Because you've finished your work. Because you're going home."


"But there's something we have to do. Another has been—waiting. Come."

With reluctance, Harder left the warm valley of the mists.

They climbed again through a defile in the snowy mountains. Harder, in the lead, rounded a bluff of ice. And saw a vision.

No, it wasn't a vision. It was real. It was there. Harder ran forward.

Trapped in a block of transparent ice was a girl. Her eyes were open and she watched Harder as he approached. She was quite the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, and there was a serenely patient expression on her face, as if she had been waiting for him all his life and would have, if necessary, gone on waiting indefinitely.

In a frenzy, Harder began to hack at the block of ice with his ax. Ice chips flew, blinding him. Behind him he heard laughter. "She—she'll suffocate in there!" he protested.

"Really? Look at her clothing."

Harder looked. The lovely girl wore a gown which might have swept across the marble floor of a dancehall in Victorian times.


"She's been there eighty years. We've been waiting for you. Can you control the fear this time?"

"What do you mean?"

"I'm going to turn into the cone of light again. The fear isn't your fault, you see. Although this was the most deserted spot on Earth, we didn't want anyone coming near it, finding us—or the ship. Well?"

"I'll try."

The man faded. The cone appeared, and Harder's hackles rose. With an effort he forced himself to stand still. Then he stepped back as the radiant cone bore down on the block of ice. The cone hit it apex first, and streams of water gushed away. The block of ice dissolved.

Almost, Harder acted too late. He didn't realize the radiant cone's mistake until the damage had been done. The block of ice split, the girl started to fall—where there had been solid ice there now was an abyss hundreds of feet deep beneath her feet.

Harder dove after her, at the same time seeking solid ice with his ax. The ax caught and held, but the torrents of water rushed over it and it would not hold for very long. With his free hand Harder caught the girl's arm before she could be swept down into the abyss. His own arm was wrenched almost from his socket. The ice ax slipped. The girl looked up at him with mute fear and hope mingled in her expression. This was no game the radiant cone was playing: the girl's life depended on what Harder did.

Slowly he raised his arm. If he moved it too quickly, he might lose his hold on the girl. If he was too slow, his ice ax might not hold. Yet as he looked down at her he knew wordlessly, as if time stood still and a music like the music of the spheres sang the message to him, that this girl was a part—a very large part—of what he had been searching for.

He felt his hand slipping, but the look of fear and hope on the girl's face had been replaced by one of trust—and love.

With his last remaining strength, Harder pulled her to safety. By then the radiant cone was a man again, and was waiting with his climbing rope to take them both to the valley of the mists.

There were others inside the round structure. It might have been, Harder thought with wonder, a fancy dress ball. For the people within the globe seemed to be wearing costumes from all the ages of human civilization. He saw a Greek wearing tunic and mantle; a beardless Roman in a toga; a glowering, fierce-bearded ancient Briton in blue paint; Islanders in almost nothing; Renaissance Italians in tight hose and fancy jackets and plumed hats; the whole gamut of human civilization.

The girl held his hand and smiled up at him. "You saved my life," she said.

His mouth was dry. His tongue felt swollen. "All my life I've been searching for—"

"This place. You found it. It is inevitable that you did. It was your mission, as it was all of ours."

"Who are you?"

She was still smiling. "Well, I am Marie and I am a lady of the emperor's court in Vienna. I—disappeared—on an Alpine excursion in 1877. Or, if you prefer—"

"But who are you?"

The girl merely said: "We are going home."

The radiant cone entered the metal structure behind them. It floated to a bank of machinery on the far wall. None of the others seemed afraid. It touched the machinery, merged with it—and disappeared.

"It won't return," the girl said. "It had no sentience of its own. It was a robot—to help us find the way."

"But why?"

"I told you. We are going home."

"We... don't belong here?"

"No. Haven't you guessed what this structure is?"

"No. Tell me."

"We came—a long time ago. We each lived a life. We searched—and we will remember."

"What were we looking for?"

"Nothing. Or perhaps everything. There's a long journey ahead of us. You can get the details later. We came a long time ago, I said. We are human—as the inhabitants of this planet, this Earth, are human. An age ago, we planted them here. As we planted colonies—everywhere. We came to study them. Through the ages, we studied. That's why you seemed to be searching for something, always searching. So that you would get to see, and know, and later understand, so much of your world, your century. When we return home, when all our information is tabulated, considered, studied—an answer will be found."

"What answer, Marie? What answer?"

"We are a peaceful people. For some reason we can't fathom, the colonists on all the outwrlds are not peaceful. They want war. They kill each other. When their science permits them to reach space—in the case of this planet, in another fifteen or twenty years—they must either seek the ways of peace, or they will bring the holocaust of war with them. It is hoped that with what we have found the mistake will be remedied, the error found, and one day soon one of us will return with the answer this world needs, the answer, inherent in its own qualities, that will bring it eternal peace. When that answer is found one of us will return with it."

"Who? Who will return?" But strangely, Harder already knew the answer.

"The only one who can. The one who knows this final century. You will return with it. But first, the trip home."

"Then, is it home for me? And where is it?"

"It is a world you never heard of. It is home for you, yes. But so is this Earth. You belong to this world too."

"When I come back, will I have to return alone?"

Her fingers returned the pressure of his hand. "No," she said softly. "Not alone, Jim Harder. Not alone."

There was a throbbing roar. With them and all the others from all the generations in it, all the searchers, the spaceship blasted off and sped toward its destination.