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«Slan», A. Van Vogt

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Original Arkham cover (1946)

Berkley edition cover

Chapter One

His mother's hand felt cold, clutching his.

Her fear as they walked hurriedly along the street was a quiet, swift pulsation that throbbed from her mind to his. A hundred other thoughts beat against his mind, from the crowds that swarmed by on either side, and from inside the buildings they passed. But only his mother's thoughts were clear and coherent – and afraid.

"They're following us, Jommy," her brain telegraphed. "They're not sure, but they suspect. We've risked once too often coming into the capital, though I did hope that this time I could show you the old slan way of getting into the catacombs, where your father's secret is hidden. Jommy, if the worst happens, you know what to do. We've practiced it often enough. And, Jommy, don't be afraid, don't get excited. You may be only nine years old, but you're as intelligent as any fifteen-year-old human being."

Don't be afraid. Easy to advise, Jommy thought, and hid the thought from her. She wouldn't like that concealment, that distorting shield between them. But there were thoughts that had to be kept back. She mustn't know he was afraid also.

It was new and exciting, as well. He felt excited each time he came into the heart of Centropolis from the quiet suburb where they lived. The great parks, the miles of skyscrapers, the tumult of the throngs always seemed even more wonderful than his imagination had pictured them – but then size was to be expected of the capital of the world. Here was the seat of the government. Here, somewhere, lived Kier Gray, absolute dictator of the entire planet. Long ago – hundreds of years before – the slans had held Centropolis during their brief period of ascendancy. Jommy, do you feel their hostility? Can you sense things over a distance yet?"

He strained. The steady wave of vagueness that washed from the crowds pressing all around grew into a swirl of mind clamor. From somewhere came the stray wisp of thought:

"They say there are still slans alive in this city, in spite of all precautions. And the order is to shoot them on sight."

"But isn't that dangerous?" came a second thought, obviously a question asked aloud, though Jommy caught only the mental picture. "I mean a perfectly innocent person might be killed by mistake."

"That's why they seldom shoot on sight. They try to capture them and then examine them. Their internal organs are different from ours, you know, and on their heads are – "

"Jommy, can you feel them, about a block behind us? In a big car! Waiting for reinforcements to close in on us from in front. They're working fast. Can you catch their thoughts, Jommy?"

He couldn't! No matter how hard he reached out with his mind and strained and perspired with his trying. That was where her mature powers surpassed his precocious instincts. She could span distances and disentangle remote vibrations into coherent pictures.

He wanted to turn around and look, but he didn't dare. His small, though long, legs twinkled underneath him, half running to keep up with his mother's impatient pace. It was terrible to be little and helpless and young and inexperienced, when their life demanded the strength of maturity, the alertness of slan adulthood.

His mother's thoughts stabbed through his reflections: "There are some ahead of us now, Jommy, and others coming across the street. You'll have to go, darling. Don't forget what I've told you. You live for one thing only: to make it possible for slans to live normal lives. I think you'll have to kill our great enemy, Kier Gray, even if it means going to the grand palace after him. Remember, there'll be shouting and confusion, but keep your head. Good luck, Jommy."

Not until she had released his hand, after one quick squeeze, did Jommy realize that the tenor of her thoughts had changed. The fear was gone. A soothing tranquillity flowed from her brain, quieting his jumping nerves, slowing the pounding of his two hearts.

As Jommy slipped into the shelter made by a man and a woman walking past them, he had a glimpse of men bearing down on the tall figure of his mother, looking very ordinary and very human in her slacks and pink blouse, and with her hair caught up in a tightly knotted scarf. The men, dressed in civilian clothes, were crossing the street, their faces dark with an expression of an unpleasant duty that had to be done. The thought of that unpleasantness, the hatred that went with it, was a shadow in their minds that leaped out at Jommy. It puzzled him even in this moment when he was concentrating on escape. Why was it necessary that he should die? He and this wonderful, sensitive, intelligent mother of his! It was all terribly wrong.

A car, glittering like a long jewel in the sun, flashed up to the curb. A man's harsh voice called loudly after Jommy: "Stop! There's the kid. Don't let that kid get away! Stop that boy!"

People paused and stared. He felt the bewildering mildness of their thoughts. And then he had rounded the corner and was racing along Capital Avenue. A car was pulling away from the curb. His feet pattered with mad speed. His abnormally strong fingers caught at the rear bumper. He pulled himself aboard and hung on as the car swung into the maze of traffic and began to gather speed. From somewhere behind came the thought: "Good luck, Jommy."

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