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when my two callers arrived, I sat them down before a meal such as cost

a tenth [Footnote: Since Mercury had no moon, its people never coined a

word to correspond with our "month," and for the same reason they never

had a week. Their time was reckoned only in days, years, and fractions

of the two.] of my year's salary.

I served not only the usual products of the field, variously prepared,

but as a special gift from the emperor's own stock, a piece of mulikka

meat, frozen, which had been found in the northland by some geologists a

few years aback. It had been kept in the palace icing-room all this

time, and was in prime condition. Maka and I enjoyed it overmuch, but

Edam would touch it not.

He was a slightly built lad, not at all the sturdy man that I am, but of

less than half the weight. His head, too, was unlike mine; his forehead

was wide as well as tall, and his eyes were mild as a slave's.

"Ye are very young to be a prophet," I said to him, after we were

filled, and the slaves had cleared away our litter. "Tell me: hast

foretold anything else that has come to pass?"

"Aye," he replied, not at all boldly, but what some call modestly. "I

prophesied the armistice which now stands between our empire and

Klow's."

"Is this true?" I demanded of Maka. The old man bowed his head gravely

and looked upon the young man with far more respect than I felt. He

added:

"Tell Strokor the dream thou hadst two nights ago, Edam. It were a right

strange thing, whether true or no."

The stripling shifted his weight on his stool, and moved the bowl

closer. Then he thrust his pipe deep into it, and let the liquid flow

slowly out his nostrils. [Footnote: A curious custom among the

Mercurians, who had no tobacco. There is no other way to explain some of

the carvings. Doubtless the liquid was sweet-smelling, and perhaps

slightly narcotic.]

"I saw this," he began, "immediately before rising, and after a very

light supper; so I know that it was a vision from Jon, and not of my own

making.

"I was standing upon the summit of a mountain, and gazing down upon a

very large, fertile valley. It was heavily wooded, dark green and

inviting. But what first drew my attention was a great number of animals

moving about IN THE AIR. They were passing strange affairs, some large,

some small, variously colored, and all covered with the same sort of

fur, quite unlike any hair I have ever seen."

"In the air?" I echoed, recovering from my astonishment. Then I laughed

mightily. "Man, ye must be crazy! There is no animal can live in the

air! Ye must mean in the water or on land."

"Nay," interposed the star-gazer. "Thou hast never studied the stars,

Strokor, or thou wouldst know that there be a number of them which,

through the enlarging tube, show themselves to be round worlds, like

unto our own.

"And it doth further appear that these other worlds also have air like

this we breathe, and that some have less, while others have even more.



From what Edam has told me," finished the old man, "I judge that his

vision took place on Jeos, [Footnote: The Mercurian word for earth.] a

world much larger than ours according to my calculations, and doubtless

having enough air to permit very light creatures to move about in it."

"Go on," said I to Edam, good-humoredly. "I be ever willing to believe

anything strange when my stomach is full."

The dreamer had taken no offense. "Then I bent my gaze closer, as I am

always able, in visions. And I saw that the greenery was most remarkably

dense, tangled and luxuriant to a degree not ever seen here. And moving

about in it was the most extraordinary collection of beings that I have

ever laid these eyes upon.

"There were some huge creatures, quite as tall as thy house, Strokor,

with legs as big around as that huge chest of thine. They had tails, as

had our ancient mulikka, save that these were terrific things, as long

and as big as the trunk of a large tree. I know not their names.

[Footnote: Probably the dinosaur.]

"And then, at the other extreme, was a tiny creature of the air, which

moved with a musical hum. It could have hid under thy finger-nail,

Strokor, yet it had a tiny sharp-pointed bill, with which it stung most

aggravatingly. And between these two there were any number of creatures

of varying size and shape.

"But nowhere was there a sign of a man. True, there was one hairy,

grotesque creature which hung by its hands and feet from the tree-tops,

very like thee in some way, Strokor; but its face and head were those of

a brainless beast, not of a man. Nowhere was a creature like me or thee.

"And the most curious thing was this: Although there were ten times as

many of these creatures, big and little, to the same space as on our

world, yet there was no great amount of strife. In truth, there is far

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more combat and destruction among we men than among the beasts.

"And," he spoke most earnestly, as though he would not care to be

disbelieved, "I saw fathers fight to protect their young!"

I near fell from my stool in my amaze. Never in all my life had I heard

a thing so far from the fact. "What!" I shouted. "Ye sit there like a

sane man, and tell me ye saw fathers fight for their young?"

He nodded his head, still very gravely. I fell silent for want of words,

but Maka put in a thought. "It would appear, Strokor, that it be not so

much of an effort for beings to live, there on Jeos, as here. Perchance

'tis the greater amount of vegetation; at all accounts, the animals need

not prey upon one another so generally; and that, then, would explain

why some have energy enough to waste in the care of their young."

"I can understand," I said, very slowly. "I can understand why a mother

will fight for her babes; 'tis reasonable enough, no doubt. But as for

fathers doing the same--Edam, dost mean to say that ALL creatures on

Jeos do this?"

"Nay; only some. It may be that fewer than half of the varieties have

the custom. Howbeit, 'tis a beautiful one. When the vision ended I was

right loath to go."

"Faugh!" I spat upon the ground. "Such softness makes me ill! I be glad

I were born in a man's world, where I can take a man's chances. I want

no favoring. If I am strong enough to live, I live; if not, I die. What

more can I ask?"

"Aye, my lad!" said Maka approvingly. "This be a world for the strong.

There is no room here for others; there is scarce enough food for those

who, thanks to their strength, do survive." He slipped the gold band

from off his wrist, and held it up for Jon to see. "Here, Strokor, a

pledge! A pledge to--the survival of the fittest!"

"A neat, neat wording!" I roared, as I took the pledge with him. Then we

both stopped short. Edam had not joined us. "Edam, my lad," spake the

old man, "ye will take the pledge with us?"

The stripling's eyes were troubled. Well he knew that, once he refused

such an act, he were no longer welcome in my house, nor in Maka's. But

when he looked around it were bravely enough.

"Men, I have neither the strength of the one nor the brains of the other

of ye. I am but a watchmaker; I live because of my skill with the little

wheels.

"I have no quarrel with either of ye." He got to his feet, and started

to the door. "But I cannot take the pledge with ye.

"I have seen a wondrous thing, and I love it. And, though I know not

why--I feel that Jon has willed it for Jeos to see a new race of men, a

race even better than ours."

I leaped to my feet. "Better than ours! Mean ye to say, stripling, that

there can be a better man than Strokor?"

I full expected him to shrink from me in fear; I was able to crush him

with one blow. But he stood his ground; nay, stepped forward and laid a

hand easily upon my shoulder.

"Strokor--ye are more than a man; ye are two men in one. There is no

finer--I say it fair. And yet, I doubt not that there can be, and will

be, a better!"

And with that such a curious expression came into his face, such a glow

of some strange land of warmth, that I let my hand drop and suffered him

to depart in peace--such was my wonder.

Besides, any miserable lout could have destroyed the lad.

Maka sat deep in thought for a time, and when he did speak he made no

mention of the lad who had just quit us. Instead, he looked me over,

long and earnestly, and at the end he shook his head sorrowfully and

sighed:

"Thou art the sort of a son I would have had, Strokor, given the wits of

thy father to hold a woman like thy mother. And thou didst save my

life."

He mused a little longer, then roused himself and spake sharply: "Thou

art a vain man, Strokor!"

"Aye," I agreed, willingly enough. "And none has better cause than I!"

He would not acknowledge the quip. "Thou hast everything needful to

tickle thy vanity. Thou hast the envy of those who note thy strength,

the praise of them who love thy courage, and the respect of they who

value thy brains. All these thou hast--and yet ye have not that which is

best!"

I thought swiftly and turned on him with a frown: "Mean ye that I am not

handsome enough?"

"Nay, Strokor," quoth the star-gazer. "There be none handsomer in this

world, no matter what the standard of any other, such as Edam's Jeos.

"It is not that. It is, that thou hast no ambition."

I considered this deeply. At first thought it was not true; had I not

always made it a point to best my opponent? From my youth it had been

ever my custom to succeed where bigger bodies and older minds had

failed. Was not this ambition?

But before I disputed the point with Maka, I saw what he meant. I had no

FINAL ambition, no ultimate goal for which to strive. I had been content

from year to year to outdo each rival as he came before me; and now,

with mind and body alike in the pink of condition, I was come to the

place where none durst stand before me.

"Ye are right, Maka," I admitted, not because I cared to gratify his

conceit, but because it were always for my own good to own up when

wrong, that I might learn the better. "Ye are right; I need to decide

upon a life-purpose. What have ye thought?"

The old man was greatly pleased. "Our talk with Edam brought it all

before me. Know you, Strokor, that the survival of the fittest is a rule

which governs man as well as men. It applies to the entire population,

Strokor, just as truly as to me or thee.

"In fine, we men who are now the sole inhabitants of this world, are

descended from a race of people who survived solely because they were

fitter than the mulikka, fitter than the reptiles, the fittest, by far,

of all the creatures.

"That being the case, it is plain that in time either our empire, or

that of Klow's, must triumph over the other. And that which remains

shall be the fittest!"

"Hold!" I cried. "Why cannot matters remain just as they now are--and

forever?"

"That" he said rapidly, "is because thou knowest so little about the

future of this world. But I am famed as a student of the heavens; and I

tell thee it is possible, by means of certain delicate measuring

instruments, together with the highest mathematics, to keep a very close

watch upon the course of our world. And we now know that our year is

much shorter than it was in the days of the mulikka."

I nodded my head. "Rightly enough, since our days are become steadily

longer, for some mysterious reason."

"A reason no longer a mystery," quoth Maka. "It is now known that the

sun is a very powerful magnet, and that it is constantly pulling upon

our world and bringing it nearer and nearer to himself. That is why it

hath become slightly warmer during the past hundred years; the records

show it plain. And the same influence has caused the lengthening of our

day."

He stopped and let me think. Soon I saw it clearly enough; a time must

come when the increasing warmth of the sun would stifle all forms of

vegetable life, and that would mean the choking of mankind. It might

take untold centuries; yet, plainly enough, the world must some day

become too small for even those who now remained upon it.

Suddenly I leaped to my feet and strode the room in my excitement. "Ye

are right, Maka!" I shouted, thoroughly aroused. "There cannot always be

the two empires. In time one or the other must prevail; Jon has willed

it. And--" I stopped short and stared at him--"I need not tell ye which

it shall be!"

"I knew thou wouldst see the light, Strokor! Thou hast thy father's

brains."

I sat me down, but instantly leaped up again, such was my enthusiasm.

"Maka," I cried, "our emperor is not the man for the place! It is true

that he were a brave warrior in his youth; he won the throne fairly. And

we have suffered him to keep it because he is a wise man, and because we

have had little trouble with the men of Klow since their defeat two

generations agone.

"But he, today, is content to sit at his ease and quote platitudes about

live and let live. Faugh! I am ashamed that I should even have given ear

to him!"

I stopped short and glared at the old man. "Maka--hark ye well! If it be

the will of Jon to decide between the men of Klow and the men of

Vlamaland, then it is my intent to take a hand in this decision!"

"Aye, my lad," he said tranquilly; and then added, quite as though he

knew what my answer must be: "How do ye intend to go about it?"

"Like a man! I, Strokor, shall become the emperor!"

III

THE THRONE

A small storm had come up while Maka and I were talking. Now, as he was

about to quit me, the clouds were clearing away and an occasional stroke

of lightning came down. One of these, however, hit the ground such a

short distance away that both of us could smell the smoke.

My mind was more alive than it had ever been before. "Now, what caused

that, Maka? The lightning, I mean; we have it nearly every day, yet I

have never thought to question it before."

"It is no mystery, my lad," quoth Maka, dodging into his chariot, so

that he was not wet. "I myself have watched the thing from the top of

high mountains, where the air is so light that a man can scarce get

enough to fill his lungs; and I say unto you that, were it not for what

air we have, we should have naught save the lightning. The space about

the air is full of it."

He started his engine, then leaned out into the rain and said softly:

"Hold fast to what thy father has taught thee, Strokor. Have nothing to

do with the women. 'Tis a man's job ahead of thee, and the future of the

empire is in thy hands.

"And," as he clattered off, "fill not thy head with wonderings about the

lightning."

"Aye," said I right earnestly, and immediately turned my thoughts to my

new ambition. And yet the thing Maka had just told me kept coming back

to my mind, and so it does to this very day. I know not why I should

mention it at all save that each time I think upon Maka, I also think

upon the lightning, whether I will or no.

I slept not at all that night, but sat [Footnote: It seems to have been

the custom among the soldiers never to lie down, but to take their sleep

sitting or standing; a habit not hard to form where the gravitation was

so slight. No doubt this also explains their stunted legs.] till the

dawn came, thinking out a plan of action. By that time I was fair

convinced that there was naught to be gained by waiting; waiting makes

me impatient as well. I determined to act at once; and since one day is

quite as good as the next, I decided that this day was to see the thing

begun.

I came before the emperor at noon and received my decorations. Within

the hour I had made myself known to the four and ninety men who were to

be my command; a picked company, all of a height and weight, with bodies

that lacked little of my own perfection. Never was there a finer guard

about the palace.

My first care was to pick a quarrel with the outgoing commander. Twere

easy enough; he was green with envy, anyhow. And so it came about that

we met about mid afternoon, with seconds, in a well-frequented field in

the outskirts.

Before supper was eaten my entire troop knew that their new captain had

tossed his ball-slinger away without using it, had taken twenty balls

from their former commander's weapon, and while thus wounded had charged

the man and despatched him with bare hands! Needless to say, this

exploit quite won their hearts; none but a blind man could have missed

the respect they showed me when, all bandaged and sore, I lined them up

next morning. Afterward I learned that they had all taken a pledge to

"follow Strokor through the gates of Hofe itself!"

'Twere but a week later that, fully recovered and in perfect fettle, I

called my men together one morn as the sun rose. By that time I had

given them a sample of my brains through ordering a rearrangement of

their quarters such as made the same much more comfortable. Also, I had

dealt with one slight infraction of the rules in such a drastic fashion

that they knew I would brook no trifling. All told, 'tis hard to say

whether they thought the most of me or of Jon.

"Men," said I, as bluntly as I knew, "the emperor is an old man. And, as

ye know, he is disposed to be lenient toward the men of Klow; whereas,

ye and I well know that the louts are blackguards.

"Now, I will tell ye more. It has come to me lately that Klow is

plotting to attack us with strange weapons." I thought best, considering

their ignorance, not to give them my own reasons. "Of course I have told

the emperor of it; yet he will not act. He says to wait till we are

attacked."

I stopped and watched their faces. Sure enough; the idea fair made them

ache. Each and every one of these men was spoiling for a fight.

"Now, tell me; how would ye like to become the emperor's body-guard?" I

did not have to wait long; the light that flared in their faces told me

plainly. "And--how would ye like to have me for your emperor?"

At that their tongues were loosed, and I hindered them not. They yelled

for pure joy, and pressed about me like a pack of children. I saw that

the time was ripe for action.

"Up, then!" I roared, and, of course, led the way. We met the emperor's

guard on the lower stairs; and from that point on we fair hacked our way

through.

Well, no need to describe the fight. For a time I thought we were gone;

the guards had a cunningly devised labyrinth on the second floor, and

attacked us from holes in a false ceiling, so that we suffered heavily

at first. But I saw what was amiss, and shouted to my men to clear away

the timbers; and after that it was clear work. I lost forty men before

the guard was disposed of. The emperor I finished myself; he dodged

right spryly for a time, but at last I caught him and tossed him to the

foot of the upper stairs. And there he still lies for none of my men

would touch him, nor would I. We covered him with quicklime and some

earth.

As soon as we had taken care of those who were not too far gone, I

called the men together and caused a round of spirits to be served. Then

we all feasted on the emperor's store, and soon were feeling like

ourselves.

"Men," I said impressively, "I am proud of ye. Never did an emperor have

such a dangerous gang of bullies!"

At that they all grinned happily, and I added: "And 'tis a fine staff of

generals that ye'll make!"

Need I say more? Those men would have overturned the palace for me had I

said the word. As it was, they obeyed my next orders in such a spirit

that success was assured from the first.

First, using the dead emperor's name, I caused the various chiefs to be

brought together at once to the court chamber. At the same time I

contrived, by means I need not go into here, to prevent any word of our

action from getting abroad. So, when the former staff faced me the next

morning, they learned that they were to be executed. I could trust not

one; they were all friends of the old man.

With the chiefs out of the way, and my own men taking their commands,

the whole army fell into my hands. True, there were some insurrections

here and there; but my men handled them with such speed and harshness

that any further stubbornness turned to admiration. By this time the

fame of Strokor was spread throughout the empire.

And thus it came about that, within a week of the night that old Maka

first put the idea into my head, Strokor, son of Strok, reigned

throughout Vlamaland. And, to make it complete, the army celebrated my

accession by taking a pledge before Jon:

"To Strokor, the fittest of the fit!"

IV

THE ASSAULT

Now, out of a total population of perhaps three million, I had about a

quarter-million first-class fighters in my half of the world. Klow, by

comparison, had but two-thirds the number; his land was not a rich one.

But he had the advantage of knowing, some while in advance, of the new

ruler in Vlama; and shortly my spies reported that his armories were

devising a new type of weapon. 'Twas a strange verification of my own

fiction to my men. I could learn nothing, however, about it.

Meanwhile I caused a vast number of flat-boats to be built, all in

secret. Each of them was intended for a single fighter and his supplies;

and each was so arranged, with side paddle wheels, that it would be

driven by the motor in the soldier's chariot, and thus give each his own

boat.

Again discarding all precedent, I packed not all my forces together, as

had been done in the past, but scattered them up and adown the coast

fronting the land of Klow; and at a prearranged time my quarter-million

men set out, a company in each tiny fleet. Some were slightly in advance

of the rest, who had the shorter distance to travel. And, just as I had

planned, we all arrived at a certain spot on Klow's coast at practically

the same hour, although two nights later.

'Twas a brilliant stroke. The enemy looked not for a fleet of water-

ants, ready to step right out of the sea into battle. Their fleet was

looking for us, true, but not in that shape. And we were all safely

ashore before they had ceased to scour the seas for us.

I immediately placed my heavy machines, and just as all former

expeditions had done, opened the assault at once with a shower of the

poison shells. I relied, it will be seen, upon the surprise of my attack

to strike terror into the hearts of the louts.

But apparently they were prepared for anything, no matter how rapid the

attack. My bombardment had not proceeded many moments before, to my

dismay, some of their own shells began to fall among us. Soon they were

giving as good as we.

"Now, how knew they that we should come to this spot?" I demanded of

Maka. I had placed him in my cabinet as soon as I had reached the

throne.

The old man stroked his beard gravely. "Perchance it had been wrong to

come to the old landing. They simply began shelling it as a matter of

course."

"Ye are right again," I told him; and forthwith moved my pieces over

into another triangle. (Previously, of course, all my charioteers had

gone on toward the capital). However, I took care to move my machines,

one at a time, so that there was no let-up in my bombardment.

But scarce had we taken up the new position before the enemy's shells

likewise shifted, and began to strike once more in our midst. I swore a

great oath and whirled upon Maka in wrath.

"Think ye that there be a spy among us?" I demanded. "How else can ye

explain this thing? My men have combed the land about us; there are none

of the louts secreted here; and, even so, they could not have notified

Klow so soon. Besides, 'tis pitch dark." I were sorely mystified.

All we could do was to fling our shells as fast as our machines would

work and dodge the enemy's hail as best we could. Thus the time passed,

and it were near dawn when the first messengers [Footnote: Messengers;

no telegraph or telephone, much less wireless. In a civilization as

strenuous as that of Mercury, there was never enough consideration for

others to lead to such socially beneficial things as these, no more than

railroads or printing presses. Civilization appears to be in exact

proportion to the ease of getting a living, other conditions being

equal.] returned.

"They have stopped us just outside the walls of the city," was the

report. It pleased me that they should have pushed so far at first; I

climbed at once into my chariot.

"Now is the time for Strokor to strike!" I gave orders for the staff to

remain where it was. "I will send ye word when the city is mine."

But before I started my engine I glanced up at the sky, to see if the

dawn were yet come; and as I gazed I thought I saw something come


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