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Hour of the Horde

Gordon R. Dickson

  Hour of the Horde

  Gordon R. Dickson

  The voracious and merciless Horde roved the galaxies, stripping whole star systems of all life. As they advance on the Milky Way, a galaxy-wide force is hastily arrayed to stop them. But Miles Vander, the warrior sent by Earth to join the defense, must first convince his alien crewmembers that he is just as good a soldier as they.

  Hour of the Horde

  by Gordon R. Dickson


  It had happened again. That primitive, unconquerable power in him that he could not seem to deny had reached out once more, savagely, down the muscles of his good arm and hand, to take over his painting.

  Exhausted, Miles Vander threw the number four brush he held, now bloodily tipped with alizarine red, back into the pint fruit jar of muddy turpentine holding the other long, yellow-handled brushes. A feeling of dull exhaustion and frustration dropped on him like the doubled folds of some heavy blanket.

  All at once he was aware again of his own starved-looking body, his bent shoulders, his uselessly hanging left arm that polio had crippled six years ago. The paralyzed hand was now tucked into his left pants’ pocket, out of sight, and the loose sleeve of his white shirt, billowing about the wasted arm in the late sunlight of the warm spring afternoon, disguised for the moment its unnatural thinness. But he was suddenly, grimly, once more aware of it just the same.

  For a few hours, caught up in his painting, he had forgotten both his crippling and the stubborn artistic search he had never stopped these last five years. Now emptied and worn-out, he stood with the aftertaste of one more failure, staring at his canvas, as the freshening breeze of the late afternoon blew the white shirt coldly about him, molding it to his cooling body.

  The painting showed the scene before him—only, it did not. He stood on the parkway grass above the west bluff over the Mississippi River. Rippleless below him, between high rock walls narrowly footed with green park lawn, the three-hundred-yard width of the upper river flowed darkly blue, with picture-postcard calmness, beneath the white concrete of a freeway bridge bearing a glassed-in overhead walkway for students moving between the east and west campuses of the university.

  These things made up the landscape he had been painting for three and a half hours. And he had set them all down on canvas—the tall gray-brown river bluffs, the grass-covered flats at the foot of the bluffs, even the white-paddle-wheeled steamboat that was the university’s theater-on-the-river moored below the bridge. He gazed at them now, and at the large, heavily leaved old elm trees, the reddish-brown brick of the student union and the university hospital on top of the far bluff, and the blue, near-cloudless sky above them all.

  These things lay, as they had lain all through the hours of his painting, bathed in the gentle sunlight of late May—making a warm, even comforting, scene. But this was not the way his brushes had reproduced them on canvas.

  On the now wetly gleaming, color-laden three-by-four-foot square of cloth he had painted not what he faced, but that old savage animal instinct of man to which he could not seem to close his eyes—ever. Into the soft, living greens and blues and browns of the scene across the river had crept the icy bleakness of oil-based ultramarine blue hardened with gray. Into the soft yellow sunlight had come the smouldering fire of alizarine red, raising a sullen reddishness like the color of spilled blood.

  The resulting painting showed the works of man, by which man was himself to be judged, grayed and brooding, stripped down, and hardened and stained with the bloody marks of savage guilts and primitive failures.

  Miles felt exhausted, weak—even a little dizzy. He had emptied himself once more of his inner creative energy. But once more he had made—not the image of the world he wished to show, but only that image’s other face; like the other side of a coin, its devil face. Wearily he began cleaning his brushes and packing his paints for the return to his room.

  Midway across the glassed-in walkway above the freeway bridge he stopped to rest for a minute, propping his now-covered canvas and heavy paint box upon the railing that protected the glass side of the walkway. While he caught his breath, he stared down once more at the scene of his painting.

  Back the way he had come was the top of the bluff on which he had set up his easel, and facing him now was the bluff’s rugged, near-vertical face of gray limestone rock, roughened, cracked, and gullied by weather, standing above the lower strip of parkway greensward at its foot. As always, the sight of that bluff-face pumped new strength and purpose into him. What he had done once, he could do again. A little warmth woke in him again.

  He had been defeated once more this afternoon, but not conquered, after all. Already, drawing strength from the sight of the gray-brown cliff face, the thoughts began to kindle of the next time he would put brush to canvas. There was still time for him to succeed. After all, if he was a failure, at least he was a failure, so far, only in his own eyes.

  His painting, even as it was, had won him the unusual attention of his instructors at the university school of art. It had also won him, now that he was graduating, a grant which would let him spend the next two years in Europe, moving about and painting as he liked. Then free at last from academic distractions, painting, painting, and continually painting, he would finally win out over that savage, primitive bleakness of viewpoint which seemed determined to express itself in everything he did.

  The slight dizziness from the long afternoon’s effort made him giddy again for a moment. He leaned against the railing. But then he stiffened.

  The day had darkened. He looked up swiftly at the sun.

  It was as if a heavy orange filter had been drawn across its surface. Rolling, enormous and sullen, it burned with a flaming redness just above the western horizon, so dimmed that he could stare directly into it without squinting. Moreover, as he looked down again, unbelieving, he saw the landscape had also changed. It was coated and darkened and shadowed, now, by the all-pervading redness of the sunlight. The color of alizarine red, which was the shade of his own inner, primitive fury, seemed to have escaped from his painting to stain the real landscape now—all earth and sky and water—with the angry color of spilled blood.


  Miles stood motionless.

  A giant’s hand seemed to close powerfully about his chest, squeezing the breath out of him. Not breathing, he stared at the changed sun and the red-washed landscape, and an old, old fear dating back to the polio attack—fear of his own traitorous body’s finding some way to jail him a second time, before his work could be accomplished—woke inside him.

  Grimly he forced himself to breathe and move. He leaned his upper thighs against the heavy shapes of his paint box and cloth-covered painting, pressing them hard against the railing to keep from falling. He rubbed his eyes viciously with the fingers of his good hand and for a painful moment blinked through watery tears at blurred surroundings. But when his gaze cleared again, the redness of sun and land was unchanged, and the fear began to grow into unreasoning anger, like a bubble of fire expanding under his breastbone.

  His doctor at the university hospital had told him last month that he was working too hard. His landlady and even Marie Bourtel, who loved him and understood him better than anyone else, had pleaded with him to slow down. So, to be sensible, he had forced himself to get at least six hours’ sleep a night these last two weeks—and still this false and untrustworthy body had failed him, after all.

  With brutal fingers he rubbed his eyes once more. But the color of light and sun would not change. Furiously, helplessly, he looked around the walkway for a phone booth.

  Probably, he thought, he should stop using his eyes immediately, so that they would not get any worse. He would phone his doctor…

  But the
walkway bookstore, holding the only phone in the long passageway, was locked up behind glass doors because it was Sunday. Maybe he could get somebody to help him…

  Because it was Sunday, the walkway was all but deserted. But looking now, Miles saw three other figures near its far end. The nearest of them was a tall, thin, black-haired girl hugging an armful of books to her nearly breastless front. Beyond the girl were a squarely built, blue-suited older man who looked like one of the academic staff and a stocky, sweatered young man with the brown leather scabbard of a slide rule hanging at his belt. Miles started toward them, lugging his paints and canvas.

  But then, suddenly, hope leaped faintly within him. For the other three were also staring around themselves with a dazed air. As he watched, they moved toward each other, like people under a huddling instinct in a time of danger. By the time he reached them they were close together and already talking.

  “But it has to be something!” the girl was saying shakily, hugging her books to her as if they were a life belt and she afloat on a storm-tossed sea.

  “I tell you, it’s the end!” said the older man. He was stiff and gray in the face, and he spoke with barely moving, gray lips, holding himself unnaturally erect. The reddened sunlight painted rough highlights on his bloodless face. “The end of the world. The sun’s dying…”

  “Dying? Are you crazy?” shouted the sweatered young man with the slide rule. “It’s dust in the atmosphere. A dust storm south and west of us maybe. Didn’t you ever see a sunset—”

  “If it’s dust, why aren’t things darker?” asked the girl. “Everything’s clear as before, even the shadows. Only it’s red, all red—”

  “Dust! Dust, I tell you!” shouted the young man. “It’s going to clear up any minute. Wait and see…”

  Miles said nothing. But the first leap of hope was expanding into a sense of relief that left him weak at the knees. It was not him then. The suddenly bloody color of the world was not just a subjective illusion caused by his own failing eyesight or exhausted mind, but the result of some natural accident of atmosphere or weather. With the sense of relief, his now-habitual distaste for wasting precious time in social talk woke in him once more. Quietly he turned away and left the other three still talking.

  “I tell you,” he heard the sweatered young man insisting as he moved off, “it’ll have to clear up in a minute. It can’t last…”

  But it did not clear up, as Miles continued on across the east campus toward his rooming house in the city beyond. On the way he passed other little knots of people glancing from time to time up at the red sun and talking tensely together. Now that his own first reaction to the sun change was over, he found a weary annoyance growing in him at the way they all were reacting.

  To a painter, a change in the color values of the daylight could be important. But what was it to them, these muttering, staring people? In any case, as the sweatered young man had said, it would be clearing up shortly.

  Pushing the whole business out of his mind, Miles slogged on homeward, feeling the tiredness creeping up in him as the working excitement drained out of him, and his one good arm, for all its unusual development of muscle, began to weary with the labor of lugging canvas and paint box the half mile to his rooming house.

  But the subject of the sun change was waiting for him even there. As he walked in the front door of his rooming house at last, he heard his landlady’s television set sounding loudly from the living room of her ground-floor apartment.

  “No explanation yet from our local weather bureau or the U.S. Meteorological Service…” Miles heard, as he passed the open living-room door. Through it, he had a glimpse of Mrs. Arndahl, the landlady, sitting there with several of the other roomers, silently listening, “No unusual disturbances in the sun or in our own atmosphere have been identified so far, and the expert opinion believes such disturbances could not have taken place without…”

  There was a stiffness, an aura of alarm about those watching and listening to the set, that woke annoyance again in Miles. Everyone around him, it seemed, was determined to get worked up about this purely natural event. He stepped by quickly but quietly on the brown carpet before the open door and mounted the equally worn carpet of the stairs to the silence and peace of his own large second-floor room.

  There he gratefully laid down at last his canvas and painting tools in their proper places. Then he flopped heavily, still dressed, back down on his narrow bed. The white glass curtain fluttered in the breeze from his half-open window. Weariness flooded through him.

  It was a satisfying weariness, in spite of the failure of the afternoon’s work—a deep exhaustion, not merely of body and mind, but of imagination and will as well, reflecting the effort he had put into the painting. But still… frustration stirred in him once more—that effort had still been nothing more than what was possible to any normal man. It had not been the creative explosion for which he searched.

  For the possibility of that explosion was part of his own grim theory of art, the theory he had built up and lived with ever since that day when he had been painting at the foot of the west bluff, four years ago. According to the theory, there should be possible to an artist something much more than any painter had ever achieved up to now. Painting that would be the result of the heretofore normal creative outburst many times multiplied—into an overpassion.

  To himself, more prosaically, he called this overpassion “going into overdrive,” and it should be no more impossible than the reliably recorded displays of purely physical ability shown by humans under extreme emotional stress—in that phenomenon known as hysterical strength.

  Hysterical strength, Miles knew, existed. Not merely because he had evidence of it, but also in the thick manila envelope of newspaper clippings he had collected over the last four years. Clippings like the one about the distraught mother who had lifted the thousands of pounds of her overturned car in order to pull her trapped baby from underneath the vehicle. Or the instance of the bedridden old man in his eighties who had literally run to safety, as cleverly as any slack-wire performer, across a hundred feet of telephone wire to a telephone pole to escape from the third floor of a burning apartment building.

  He did not need these things to believe in hysterical strength, because he had expressed it. Himself.

  And what the body could do, he told himself again now, wrapped in exhaustion on his bed, the creative spirit should be able to do as well. Someday yet he would tap it artistically—that creative overdrive. And when he did, he would at last tear himself free of that bitterness in him that saw old animal guilts and angers, all the primitive limitations of man—mirrored in everything he tried to reproduce on canvas.

  When that moment came, he thought, dully and pleasantly now, sinking into drowsiness, a scene like the one he had painted today would show the future, the promise of Man—instead of a human past of bloody instinct and Stone Age violence underlying all that civilization had built.

  The exhaustion lapping around him sucked him slowly down into sleep, like a foundering boat. He let himself sink, unresisting. It was an hour before he was due to meet Marie Bourtel off campus for dinner. Time enough for him to rest a few minutes before washing and dressing to go out. He lay, his thoughts flickering gradually into extinction…

  Sleep took him.

  When he woke, Miles could not at first remember what time of day it was or why he had wakened. And then it came again—a pounding on his door and the voice of his landlady was calling through it to him.

  “Miles! Miles !” Mrs. Arndahl’s voice came thinly past the door, as if she were pushing it through the crack underneath the door. “Phone call for you! Miles, do you hear me?”

  “It’s all right. I’m awake,” he called back. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

  Groggily he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat upright. The single window of his room was a square of night blackness, with the shade not drawn above it. His eyes went to the large round face of the windup alar
m clock that stood before the mirror on his dresser. The hands stood at five minutes to ten. He had been asleep at least four hours.

  In the mirror his sleep-tousled dark hair, fallen down over his forehead, gave him a wild and savage look. He shoved the hair back and forced himself to his feet. He stumbled across the room, stepped out of the door, and walked numbly down the hall to the upstairs extension phone, which was lying out of its cradle. He picked it up.

  “Miles!” It was the soft voice of Marie Bourtel. “Have you been there all this time?”

  “Yes,” he muttered, still too numb from sleep to wonder why she asked.

  “I called a couple of times for you earlier, but Mrs. Arndahl said you hadn’t come in yet. I finally had her check your room anyway.” The usually calm, gentle voice he was used to hearing on the phone had an unusual edge to it. An edge of something like fear. “Didn’t you remember you were going to meet me for dinner at the Lounge?”

  “Lounge?” he echoed stupidly. He scrubbed his face with the back of his hand that held the phone, as if to rub memory back into his head. Then contrition flooded him. He remembered the plan to have dinner with Marie at six thirty at the Lounge, which was an off-campus restaurant on the east bank of the river. “Sorry, Marie—I guess I did it again. I was painting this afternoon, and I came back and lay down. I must’ve fallen asleep.”

  “Then you’re all right.” There was relief in Marie’s voice for a second; then tension returned. “You don’t know what’s been happening?”


  “The sun’s changed color! About five o’clock this afternoon—”

  “Oh, that?” Miles rubbed the back of his hand again over his sleep-numbed face. “Yes, I saw it change. I’d just finished painting—what about it?”

  “What about it?” Marie’s voice held a sort of wonder. “Miles, the sun’s changed color !”