Tim Crockett should never have sneaked into the mine on Dornsef Mountain. What is winked at in California may have disastrous results in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. Especially when gnomes are involved.
Not that Tim Crockett knew about the gnomes. He was just investigating conditions among the lower classes, to use his own rather ill-chosen words. He was one of a group of southern Californians who had decided that labor needed them. They were wrong. They needed labor—at least eight hours of it a day.
Crockett, like his colleagues, considered the laborer a combination of a gorilla and The Man with the Hoe, probably numbering the Kallikaks among his ancestors. He spoke fierily of down-trodden minorities, wrote incendiary articles for the group’s organ, Earth, and deftly maneuvered himself out of entering his father’s law office as a clerk. He had, he said, a mission. Unfortunately, he got little sympathy from either the workers or their oppressors.
A psychologist could have analyzed Crockett easily enough. He was a tall, thin, intense-looking young man, with rather beady little eyes, and a nice taste in neckties. All he needed was a vigorous kick in the pants.
But definitely not administered by a gnome!
He was junketing through the country, on his father’s money, investigating labor conditions, to the profound annoyance of such laborers as he encountered. It was with this idea in mind that he surreptitiously got into the Ajax coal mine—or, at least, one shaft of it— after disguising himself as a miner and rubbing his face well with black dust. Going down in the lift, he looked singularly untidy in the midst of a group of well-scrubbed faces. Miners look dirty only after a day’s work.
Domsef Mountain is honeycombed, but not with the shafts of the Ajax Company. The gnomes have ways of blocking their tunnels when humans dig too close. The whole place was a complete confusion to Crockett. He let himself drift along with the others, till they began to work. A filled car rumbled past on its tracks. Crockett hesitated, and then sidled over to a husky specimen who seemed to have the marks of a great sorrow stamped on his face.
“Look,” he said, “I want to talk to you.”
“Inglis?” asked the other inquiringly. “Viskey. Chin. Vine. Hell.” Having thus demonstrated his somewhat incomplete conunand of English, he bellowed hoarsely with laughter and returned to work, ignoring the baffled Crockett, who turned away to find another victim. But this section of the mine seemed deserted. Another loaded car rumbled past, and Crockett decided to see where it came from. He found out, after banging his head painfully and falling flat at least five times.
It came from a hole in the wall. Crockett entered it, and simultaneously heard a hoarse cry from behind him. The unknown requested Crockett to come back.
“So I can break your slab-sided neck,” he promised, adding a stream of sizzling profanity. “Come outa there!”
Crockett cast one glance back, saw a gorillalike shadow lurching after him, and instantly decided that his stratagem had been discovered. The owners of the Ajax mine had sent a strong-arm man to murder him—or, at least, to beat him to a senseless pulp. Terror lent wings to Crockett’s flying feet. He rushed on, frantically searching for a side tunnel in which he might lose himself. The bellowing from behind re-echoed against the walls. Abruptly Crockett caught a significant sentence clearly.
“—before that dynamite goes off!”
It was at that exact moment that the dynamite went off.
Crockett, however, did not know it. He discovered, quite briefly, that he was flying. Then he was halted, with painful suddenness, by the roof. After that he knew nothing at all, till he recovered to find a head regarding him steadfastly.
It was not a comforting sort of head—not one at which you would instinctively clutch for companionship. It was, in fact, a singularly odd, if not actually revolting, head. Crockett was too much engrossed with staring at it to realize that he was actually seeing in the dark.
How long had he been unconscious? For some obscure reason Crockett felt that it had been quite a while. The explosion had—what?
Buried him here behind a fallen roof of rock? Crockett would have felt little better had he known that he was in a used-up shaft, valueless now, which had been abandoned long since. The miners, blasting to open a new shaft, had realized that the old one would be collapsed, but that didn’t matter.
Except to Tim Crockett.
He blinked, and when he reopened his eyes, the head had vanished. This was a relief. Crockett immediately decided the unpleasant thing had been a delusion. Indeed, it was difficult to remember what it had looked like. There was only a vague impression of a turnip-shaped outline, large, luminous eyes, and an incredibly broad slit of a mouth.
Crockett sat up, groaning. Where was this curious silvery radiance coming from? It was like daylight on a foggy afternoon, coming from nowhere in particular, and throwing no shadows. “Radium,” thought Crockett, who knew very little of mineralogy.
He was in a shaft that stretched ahead into dimness till it made a sharp turn perhaps fifty feet away. Behind him—behind him the roof had fallen. Instantly Crockett began to experience difficulty in breathing. He flung himself upon the rubbly mound, tossing rocks frantically here and there, gasping and making hoarse, inarticulate noises.
He became aware, presently, of his hands. His movements slowed till he remained perfectly motionless, in a half-crouching posture, glaring at the large, knobbly, and surprising objects that grew from his wrists. Gould he, during his period of unconsciousness, have acquired mittens? Even as the thought came to him, Crockett realized that no mittens ever knitted resembled in the slightest degree what he had a right to believe to be his hands. They twitched slightly.
Possibly they were caked with mud—no. It wasn’t that. His hands had—altered. They were huge, gnarled, brown objects, like knotted oak roots. Sparse black hairs sprouted on their backs. The nails were definitely in need of a manicure—preferably with a chisel.
Crockett looked down at himself. He made soft cheeping noises, indicative of disbelief. He had squat bow legs, thick and strong, and no more than two feet long—less, if anything. Uncertain with disbelief, Crockett explored his body. It had changed—certainly not for the better.
He was slightly more than four feet high, and about three feet wide, with a barrel chest, enormous splay feet, stubby thick legs, and no neck whatsoever. He was wearing red sandals, blue shorts, and a red tunic which left his lean but sinewy arms bare. His head— Turnip-shaped. The mouth—Yipe! Crockett had inadvertently put his fist clear into it. He withdrew the offending hand instantly, stared around in a dazed fashion, and collapsed on the ground. It couldn’t be happening. It was quite impossible. Hallucinations. He was dying of asphyxiation, and delusions were preceding his death.
Crockett shut his eyes, again convinced that his lungs were laboring for breath. “I’m dying,” he said. “I c-can’t breathe.”
A contemptuous voice said, “I hope you don’t think you’re breathing air!”
“I’m n-not—” Crockett didn’t finish the sentence. His eyes popped again. He was hearing things.
He heard it again. “You’re a singularly lousy specimen of gnome,” the voice said. “But under Nid’s law we can’t pick and choose. Still, you won’t be put to digging hard metals, I can see that. Anthracite’s about your speed. What’re you staring at? You’re very much uglier than I am.”
Crockett, endeavoring to lick his dry lips, was horrified to discover the end of his moist tongue dragging limply over his eyes. He whipped it back, with a loud smacking noise, and managed to sit up. Then he remained perfectly motionless, staring.
The head had reappeared. This time there was a body under it.
“I’m Gru Magru,” said the head chattily. “You’ll be given a gnomic name, of course, unless your own is guttural enough. What is it?”
“Crockett,” the man responded, in a stunned, automatic manner.
“Stop making noises like a frog and—oh, I see. Crockett. Fair enough. Now get up and follow me or I’ll kick the pants off you.”
But Crockett did not immediately rise. He was watching Gru Magru — obviously a gnome. Short, squat and stunted, the being’s figure resembled a bulging little barrel, topped by an inverted turnip. The hair grew up thickly to a peak—the root, as it were. In the turnip face was a loose, immense slit of a mouth, a button of a nose, and two very large eyes.
“Get up!” Gru Magru said.
This time Crockett obeyed, but the effort exhausted him completely. If he moved again, he thought, he would go mad. It would be just as well. Gnomes— Gru Magru planted a large splay foot where it would do the most good, and Crockett described an arc which ended at a jagged boulder fallen from the roof. “Get up,” the gnome said, with gratuitous bad temper, “or I’ll kick you again. It’s bad enough to have an outlying prospect patrol, where I might run into a man any time, without— Up! Or—”
Crockett got up. Gru Magru took his arm and impelled him into the depths of the tunnel.
‘Well, you’re a gnome now,” he said. “It’s the Nid law. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth the trouble. But I suppose it is—since gnomes can’t propagate, and the average population has to be kept up somehow.”
“I want to die,” Crockett said wildly.
Gru Magru laughed. “Gnomes can’t die. They’re immortal, till the Day. Judgment Day, I mean.”
“You’re not logical,” Crockett pointed out, as though by disproving one factor he could automatically disprove the whole fantastic business. “You’re either flesh and blood and have to die eventually, or you’re not, and then you’re not real.”
“Oh, we’re flesh and blood, right enough,” Gru Magru said. “But we’re not mortal. There’s a distinction. Not that I’ve anything against some mortals,” he hastened to explain. “Bats, now—and owls—they’re fine. But men!” He shuddered. “No gnome can stand the sight of a man.”
Crockett clutched at a straw. “I’m a man.”
“You were, you mean,” Gru said. “Not a very good specimen, either, for my ore. But you’re a gnome now. It’s the Nid law.”
“You keep talking about the Nid law,” Crockett complained.
“Of course you don’t understand,” said Gru Magru, in a patronizing fashion. “It’s this way. Back in ancient times, it was decreed that if any humans got lost in underearth, a tithe of them would be transformed into gnomes. The first gnome emperor, Podrang the Third, arranged that. He saw that fairies could kidnap human children and keep them, and spoke to the authorities about it. Said it was unfair. So when miners and such-like are lost underneath, a tithe of them are transformed into gnomes and join us. That’s what happened to you. See?”
“No,” Crockett said weakly. “Look. You said Podrang was the first gnome emperor. Why was he called Podrang the Third?”
“No time for questions,” Gru Magru snapped. “Hurry!”
He was almost running now, dragging the wretched Crockett after him. The new gnome had not yet mastered his rather unusual limbs, and, due to the extreme wideness of his sandals, he trod heavily on his right hand, but after that learned to keep his arms bent and close to his sides. The walls, illuminated with that queer silvery radiance, spun past dizzily.
“W-what’s that light?” Crockett managed to gasp. ‘Where’s it coming from?”
“Light?” Gru Magru inquired. “It isn’t light.”
“Well, it isn’t dark—”
“Of course it’s dark,” the gnome snapped. “How could we see if it wasn’t dark?”
There was no possible answer to this, except, Crockett thought wildly, a frantic shriek. And he needed all his breath for running. They were in a labyrinth now, turning and twisting and doubling through innumerable tunnels, and Crockett knew he could never retrace his steps. He regretted having left the scene of the cave-in. But how could he have helped doing so?
“Hurry!” Gru Magru urged. “Hurry!”
“Why?” Crockett got out breathlessly.
“There’s a fight going on!” the gnome said.
Just then they rounded a corner and almost blundered into the fight. A seething mass of gnomes filled the tunnel, battling with frantic fury. Red and blue pants and tunics moved in swift patchwork frenzy; turnip heads popped up and down vigorously. It was apparently a free-for-all.
“See!” Gm gloated. “A fight! I could smell it six tunnels away. Oh, a beauty!” He ducked as a malicious-looking little gnome sprang out of the huddle to seize a rock and hurl it with vicious accuracy. The missile missed its mark, and Gru, neglecting his captive, immediately hurled himself upon the little gnome, bore him down on the cave floor, and began to beat his head against it. Both parties shrieked at the tops of their voices, which were lost in the deafening din that resounded through the tunnel.
“Oh—my,” Crockett said weakly. He stood staring, which was a mistake. A very large gnome emerged from the pile, seized Crockett by the feet, and threw him away. The terrified inadvertent projectile sailed through the tunnel to crash heavily into something which said, “Whoo-doof!” There was a tangle of malformed arms and legs.
Crockett arose to find that he had downed a vicious-looking gnome with flaming red hair and four large diamond buttons on his tunic. This repulsive creature lay motionless, out for the count. Crockett took stock of his injuries—there were none. His new body was hardy, anyway.
“You saved me!” said a new voice. It belonged to a—lady gnome. Crockett decided that if there was anything uglier than a gnome, it was the female of the species. The creature stood crouching just behind him, clutching a large rock in one capable hand.
“I won’t hurt you,” the other howled above the din that filled the passage. “You saved me! Mugza was trying to pull my ears off—oh! He’s waking up!”
The red-haired gnome was indeed recovering consciousness. His first act was to draw up his feet and, without rising, kick Crockett clear across the tunnel. The feminine gnome immediately sat on Mugza’s chest and pounded his head with the rock till he subsided.
Then she arose. “You’re not hurt? Good! I’m Brockle Buhn. . . Oh, look! He’ll have his head off in a minute!”
Crockett turned to see that his erstwhile guide, Gru Magru, was gnomefully tugging at the head of an unidentified opponent, attempting, apparently, to twist it clear off. ‘What’s it all about?” Crockett howled. “Uh—Brockle Buhn! Brockle Buhn!”
She turned unwillingly. “What?”
“The fight! What started it?”