"The First Rull" (1978) by A. E. van Vogt

by A. E. van Vogt

Rulls are deadly enemies of mankind who have sent a team of spies to Earth to recover an anti-gravity raft that the humans have recuperated without (so far) realizing the enormous potential of the superior technology it contains.

The Rulls are ruthless beings who, although they can and do adapt their appearance perfectly to look like humans, are in fact wormlike nasties with a hearty appetite whose favourite dish is … us.

But they are not perfect and they do make mistakes, even though the level of competence in the major university campus housing their precious craft – where sexual considerations weigh highly in the scheme of things – is almost beneath contempt.

First published in van Vogt’s late (1978) anthology Pendulum [1], this was a worthy extension of the excellent golden-age stories about Rulls written some thirty years earlier: Co-Operate Or Else! (1942) and The Rull (1948).

Those stories had been published together with a number of other tales about aliens – mostly rebaptized for the occasion as Rulls – in the well-known and often-republished “fix-up” novel The War Against the Rull in 1959.

That novel was re-issued, with the addition of this story and the new “golden-age” cover artwork by Hubert Rogers shown here [2], much later, in 1999.


e-book versions of this story are available for downloading below.


THE FIRST RULL

AS HE SAW the photographic plate, the Rull, who reflected the human appearance of a man called Zebner whom he had killed, found himself in a losing battle with an impulse.
No, you’ve got more important things to do. A bigger fish to catch.
His thought was actually that colloquial, a product of his enormous effort since his arrival on earth to project not only the dead Zebner’s body image but also his verbal and mental mannerisms.
Outwardly, the Zebner body made no apparent move; did not turn, seemed not to be concerned if anyone else was around. But, in fact, the Rull perceptive system made a lightning survey of the big university laboratory, peering with more than just ordinary intensity and awareness through the energy screen from behind which he operated with a tireless vigilance. What he saw seemed incredible. Emptiness. Not a soul in sight. Hard to accept, but after a moment he realized why.
– This is Saturday afternoon. Nobody here but us saboteurs ... One saboteur only, of course. Himself.
Again, poised there, the Rull argued against his desire to take advantage of his accidental noticing of the photographic plate. He realized fully what a fantastic, neglectful thing somebody had done. He recognized the plate as one of a recent series brought back from a distant space experiment costing in the millions, which he could nullify totally by simply appearing to put out one human hand ‑
He manipulated the human image so that the hand and arm seemed to reach out.
– Picking up the plate.
A Rull feeler grasped the plate, though the human hand appeared to be doing the lifting and holding. And dropping it forcefully into the empty, metal wastepaper basket, and applying energy.
It dropped, propelled by a hard shove from the feeler.
The crash, as the negative shattered into dozens of pieces, was like a signal. A girl entered the door farthest away and started along one of the aisles heading in the general direction of the Rull spy.
Furious, the Rull swerved and walked rapidly off toward an opposite door. As he hurried down a back stairs, then outside, then close to a wall, then other roundabouts, his human face reflected nothing of the self-reproach he was experiencing. On the face was a smile.
But the thought was Unwise. A foolish action. Now, there would have to be cover-up acts. And alibis, most likely.

Still thinking thus a few minutes later, he knocked at the door of Peter Gilstrap. The small man who answered the knock hesitated as he saw who it was, then reluctantly stepped aside. The creature entered, giving Zebner’s heartiest hello, and sat down beside a desk that had textbooks and notebooks spread out on it.
Carefully imitating Zebner’s somewhat harsh voice, he explained that he had not recently noticed Gilstrap, and was everything all right? As he completed the question, it occurred to the Rull that the words had an unfortunate connotation. There was an implication that he was seeing Gilstrap for the first time in a long period. A wrong admission.
Mentally, he retraced his words. He analyzed that his approach should have been more casual. No mention of time. Perhaps even assume that they had daily contact ... The Rull emerged from his self-absorption with the awareness that Gilstrap had said something, and he had no idea what.
Act as if he had, of course. Move verbally forward, past the human being’s remark. ’How’s the homework coming?’ The Zebner imitation voice boomed in the small room. The image of Zebner’s hand motioned at the desk, where the books were.
The reply to that should have been, and was, ordinary enough. Gilstrap was getting along all right in everything except physics. Dr. Lowery was a difficult teacher; fortunately, not impossibly so.
They had discussed the subject before, and the Rull had always been careful not to reveal his growing hatred of the physics professor. Rull science was in every way superior to human, and yet a master of that science was on the verge of being flunked by an Earth college teacher.
The recollection seemed to take its mind off into a corner – for moments only. Yet, when he came to awareness, it was to the sound of the Zebner voice raging, ’That stupid fool. The science of physics is a thousand years old, but finally there comes Herman Lowery, the teacher who alone knows how it should be. And nothing else will do but that we must learn it with his special imprint. The way of atoms and molecule complexes -’ he finished scathingly, ’strained through his sickly, egotistical brain.’
He stopped the ranting because there was an expression of surprise on Gilstrap’s somewhat heavy countenance. The Rull forced the smile back on Zebner’s face. Before he could apologize, the little man said, ’What other way is there to teach physics?’
Nothing, of course, to say to that. He should never have allowed his emotion to show. These students were experiencing physics for the first time. They couldn’t make a comparison as could a Rull science master.
Again, an error. Striving for recovery, the Rull glanced at the image of a human-made wrist watch, consulted his own inner time sense in relation to Earth, made the Zebner face frown and the Zebner voice say, ’Oh, my gosh, it’s nearly three –’
It was actually after three. But if he could put over that he had been here ... earlier ... during the event in the lab –
He was on his feet. As he strode - that was the appearance - to the door, he called over his shoulder loudly, ’Great to see you, old man. Glad all is well. But it’s back to homework for both of us. Dr. Lowery is a fierce tyrant of the classroom, as you may have guessed from my loud and painful squealing.’
Outside, still reacting to his unanticipated outburst of rage, the Rull headed down the street to his own quarters. He laid the powerful wormlike body on the bed, put the Zebner image into the appearance of sleep, and considered the problem he had created for himself.
Final decision: since it was still weekend, he could very likely sneak back into the lab, carry the wastebasket to a trash receptacle and thus dispose of the shattered photographic plate before anyone found it and discovered that the tough material had been subjected to a specific energy flow.
Solution not too satisfactory. But, still, it was weekend, that period of time when all student life flowed past the classrooms instead of into them. In fact, one of the difficulties was that he might be one of only a few in the gigantic network of corridors and buildings.
It was a chance that would have to be taken. Tomorrow, Sunday ... Having made the decision, he got up and forced himself to sit down to do his homework. He did it carefully, trying to remember the exact format of presentation required by that mad genius, Dr. Lowery. For a time – a dangerously long time – he had resisted the method until he had aroused in the older (than Zebner) man’s paranoid instruc­tional brain the antagonism that had now twice earned him a D-minus.
... Really ridiculous. Naturally, the Rull high command had sent a very special science master on this first exploratory trip to Earth.
Sunday came. The Zebner image entered the laboratory door which was partly open. He went boldly into the museum-like unoccupied vastness straight to the wastebasket, bent over it to pick it up, and saw that the basket was empty.
Dismay. Momentarily came the wonder Wrong basket? The Rull calmed his inner disturbance while he hastily measured distances and sized up his surroundings. On such details his perceptive system was infallible. This was the one. Unquestionably.

He made his way unseen back to his room and he was, he told himself, pleased. To have gone and looked was right.
Two possibilities, it seemed to the Rull, existed for the disappearance of the plate. The girl who had entered Saturday had seen, at a distance, somebody demolish it, and had rescued the destroyed object and transported it to some unknown receptacle. Or else the university maintenance department had, in the course of routine disposition of the contents of wastebaskets, disposed of those fragments, also.
Both possibilities had encouraging elements for a saboteur. If it was the girl, she had not recognized Zebner, else the police would already have been to his rooms. The other possibility, the emptying of the basket by the men in white, offered no problems at all.
During the rest of Sunday afternoon and evening, the alien being allowed himself an occasional moment of relaxed mind and body as these reassurances repeated in his mind. The good feeling collapsed during the first Monday class, when the English instructor handed him a sealed letter, which, when opened, revealed a note from Dr. Lowery requesting ’Mr. Zebner’ to report to the doctor’s private office during his lunch hour.
That had never happened before.
As he entered the office, the Rull saw the angular, seated Dr. Lowery, and beyond him, seeming quite nervous, a pretty senior student named Eileen Davis. She was a girl who was in two of Zebner’s classes, and she had, in the past, always avoided him.
During his initial investigation into the back­grounds of all of the class members of his various classes, he had discovered that she belonged to a student commune. Moreover, on instructions of her commune leader, she occasionally – about once a month – slept with Professor Lowery. Also, she had other sexual activities going forward on a regular basis.
It was actually a lucky activity for her. Because the Zebner-Rull had toyed with the possibility of duplicating the image of one of the young women, and his first impulse, when he detected her instant dislike of him, had been to duplicate her . . . Impossible, of course, the moment he realized how many intimate associations the girl had.
Eileen did not really care for the duty stint with the physics professor, but it was part of the commune’s con on behalf of those of its members who were in Lowery’s class. She was the good guy who got everybody good grades. On that basis, she was glad to do the job that no other girl wanted. But her face was now pale, and she was gazing steadily off to one side.
The gangling professor, with the streaks of raw, purple-red color in his cheeks, must have motioned Zebner into a chair on the opposite side of the desk, because that was where he was suddenly sitting. From that unhappy position, he was able to observe Dr. Lowery and to realize that all was not well.
The older man was in a severe state. His lower lip trembled. When he picked up a pen, which he did for a doodling, not a rational, reason, his fingers couldn’t seem to grasp it firmly. He held the pen awkwardly, as a small child might.
Strong, regressive tendencies, thought the Rull.
Instantly, he felt a strain. He had, by now, seen several people who had had their defenses broken down. And all his experiences with such persons had been unpleasant.
With a visible grimace, the older man seemed to recover. ’Mr. Zebner,’ he began, ’a valuable photo­graphic plate was destroyed in the laboratory on Saturday, and Miss Davis says that she saw you destroy it. That is a very serious offense, and I am going to be compelled to call the authorities unless you can quickly explain the circumstances of the destruction.’
It was attack, the direct approach. Typical of the stubborn, stupid fellow. In fact, it was so direct that the Rull, though he had been bracing himself all morning, flinched.
Nevertheless, after a moment he managed to say his prepared first reaction, ’What did you say I did?’
Lowery repeated his accusation . . . and Eileen Davis changed the direction of her stare. Some of the white of her cheeks yielded to a touch of color. Abruptly, she seemed doubtful.
The Rull noticed, and said firmly, ’But, sir, I was not in this building on Saturday.’
’Miss Davis says she saw you.’
’That’s impossible,’ Zebner’s voice was positive. ’I’m sure I can prove that I was somewhere, though right off I don’t recall all my movements.’ He frowned. ’When was this?’
Thus, the dialogue proceeded along the channels that he had laid down for himself.
Just where Miss Davis interrupted, the Rull was not afterwards quite clear. But she made a sound. It was a sound without direct meaning. Inarticulate. Yet somehow it was a statement.
The Rull had been observing the girl with his wide-range perception. At this moment, an amazing complex of energy waves emitted from her. Seen on the level of Zebner’s limited vision, her face was brick red. But at the other levels came an additional message: she was showing awareness of her dislike of Zebner. And she was thinking – a whole band of infra­red frequencies showed it – that she had allowed personal animosity to lead her to a positive identification in an area where she had merely jumped to a conclusion.
The fact that her identification of Zebner in that single, distant glance, was correct was no help to her in this moment of her agonizing doubt.
As these side reactions occurred, the Rull arrived verbally at the point where, suddenly, he considered it convenient to remember where he had been Saturday afternoon:
’Oh, yes, I dropped in and chatted with my fellow student, Gilstrap, who lives down the street from me. Now, I remember –’
After these words, there was little more to say. Dr. Lowery formally dismissed Zebner, murmuring something about checking into the matter further.
As the Rull walked out the door, the girl was still sitting in the chair beside the professor’s desk. Since he would see them both in his last class of the day, the physics class, the alien did not linger. With his insides like stinging jelly, he flowed toward his first afternoon class.

What bothered the Rull as he retreated was that he should have known. The professor had, by his colossal need to subordinate physics to his own ego and make it a sort of sub-branch of the super-science of Lowery-ology, had, by that continuous madness, actually made visible the severity of his mental state to anyone who could detect such things.
And I let his conceit hurt my feelings ... He had taken it for granted that he would be an A-student, somehow recognized by the instructor as a peer – you stupid fool! The Rull raged at himself.
During Lowery’s class, the Rull studiously avoided the glances Eileen sent in Zebner’s direction. But he had his own intuition that her tattling on Zebner had achieved for him and her a relationship – temporary, yes, but definite.
So, as the class adjourned, he intercepted her and asked her in a low voice, a neutral, non-antagonistic tone, ’What happened after I left?’
She gave him her first warmth, a direct look which had in it gratitude that he was not angry, an anxiety to communicate conciliatory information. ’I told him I must have been mistaken,’ she said.
Having thus wiped away her sin, she brightened and said in a friendly voice, ’Dan would like to know if you’d care to join our group?’
The Rull happened to know that Dan was the leader of her commune, and so this was a victory of sorts of which, of course, he could not take immediate advantage. Later, he thought, the intimacy that is being offered will give me an opportunity to consume this girl. But at the moment, her offer seemed like another way to confuse Professor Lowery, so his outward response was a Zebner smile, instant acceptance, and the words, ’Can you come to my rooms tonight and get acquainted?’
The girl’s color was high. It was clearly hard for her to accept Zebner even in a love-everybody commune situation. But she said, ’What time?’
’Oh, about 10 o’clock.’
She arrived on time, and she had evidently braced herself. She was bright, cheerful, smiling. Her black hair gleamed. She said, ’You stay here, and I’ll call you!’ and she marched straight into his bedroom and closed the door.
It took awhile, but presently her voice came with a lilting sweetness in it. When the disguised Rull entered, there she was in his bed, with a thin sheet pulled up as far as her waist. Her nude body was tanned, and so far as the alien could make out, was a good example of human female pulchritude. ’I’ve got a lot of homework still to do tonight. So let’s get this first time over with. Okay?’
The Rull sat down across the room from her and had the Zebner face smile at her. ’I just thought we’d get acquainted tonight,’ the Zebner voice said.
It actually took several minutes to convince the unbelieving girl. Finally, swallowing, she said, ’Can I use your phone? I want to call my commune leader.’
She talked briefly to ’Dan’ and then laid the instrument down on the bed. ’Dan wants to talk to you,’ she said. As the Rull came over, she slipped out of the far side of the bed and began to get dressed.
Dan’s voice was a soft baritone. He said, ’Zeb, I told Eileen to include you in her harem, and she agreed. So what’s the problem?’
The Rull was at ease and instantly responded to the intimacy of tone. ’Look, Dan,’ he said, ’this girl doesn’t like me. So I’d rather take a little extra time, not rush her, and get her over this feeling that I’m a – whatever. And maybe, presently, get a real response from her.’
There was silence at the other end when those words had been spoken. Then a slow whistle. Finally, Okay, Zeb, put her back on.’
The conversation between Dan and Eileen was brief. They seemed to agree that it was an odd reaction, but not wrong.
Zebner went downstairs with her and walked her to her car. When she had driven off, he went across the street to another car. At his approach, Dr. Lowery raised himself up from the fiat position to which he had ducked when Eileen and Zebner emerged. The expression on his face, as seen in the half-light, was not easy to evaluate.
Nevertheless, the Rull repeated the brilliant idea that had provided such a perfect explanation for Eileen Davis’s naming him as the destroyer of the photographic plate, and which had motivated him to phone Dr. Lowery as soon as he realized the girl was actually going to come over to his apartment.
’And to think,’ he concluded, ’that I thought my little sweetheart was too naive for me. Immediately on my rejecting her, she goes to you and makes this wild accusation. So I thought I’d better win her back as you saw, until I find out what’s going on.’
’And what did she tell you?’ asked Dr. Lowery.
’Alas, womanlike, she refused to discuss the matter. I dared not press her this first after-time. So may I ask a question?’
If Dr. Lowery indicated yes or no, the Rull did not hear it or see it, so he rushed on without waiting, ’What is the history of that photo plate being in that lab and not in its proper protective vault?’
The dim figure in the car seemed to stiffen. From the darkness of the car, Dr. Lowery said in a formal tone, ’All information about a classified matter is itself classified, Mister Zebner.’
’But,’ Zebner protested anxiously, ’since I’ve been accused, I should be allowed some clue -’
He was cut off. ’For an intimate friend,’ said the older man scathingly, ’Miss Davis doesn’t seem to have communicated very intimately with you.’
’You mean, she knows something? –’
The Zebner-Rull stopped because he had detected an odd note in Dr. Lowery’s voice. Jealous, he thought. I’ll be damned. He would have liked to have been in that bed tonight with Eileen . . . He swallowed a deep breath, then said in his best sly voice, ’Now, sir, as one man to another, you must know from your own marital and extra-marital associations that a woman will never admit anything that puts her in the wrong.’
Dr. Lowery was silent. He sat for a long moment in the shadowy depths of his car there under the tree, and then he leaned forward. The Ishmael engine, with its systematic opposites - molecule against molecule purred. The machine leaped against the brake.
The Rull was suddenly frantic. He had the despairing feeling that he had not achieved the final ending of the affair that he had hoped for. He yelled, ’Is there anything more I can do, any help I can give?’
The motor was roaring, a shuddering sound - the brake was still on. Above that roar he thought he heard the words, ’We’ll check further into your story and then call you -’
With a lurch, the automobile surged forward, breaking Zebner’s hold on the front door. Helpless, he watched the entire configuration of moving vehicle, with its headlights probing the night street and its rear lights receding.
Silently, he cursed his impulse to destroy a mere multi-million dollar program. By doing so, he had jeopardized his mission to this planet, the final act of which was intended to be the recovery of a lost Rull space vehicle.

The Zebner-Rull arose at six next morning. He had remembered what Dr. Lowery had said the previous night, ’Check further!’ And he was realizing that the only place they could check was Gilstrap.
Seen in retrospect, his attempt to achieve an alibi looked more blatant than it had appeared to be at the time. More obviously a scheme. At the time, of course, he had simply tried to make it appear that he was casually stopping in at Gilstrap’s quarters.
He had actually cultivated Gilstrap for some such purpose, but he had not had enough spare moments to cultivate him properly. Instead, Dr. Lowery’s study requirements had kept him in his own room, hard at work into the wee hours translating the truth of science into the twisted presentation method that Lowery’s distorted ego had devised for his students.
With a grimace of Zebner’s heavy face, he shifted his mind away from the instant rage that surged. Again he realized, it was a dangerous alibi, and perhaps the only thing that remained against him.
Unfortunately, there was not time to plan a subtle accident. The act of killing had to be tough and direct, and before they checked Gilstrap’s story.
In a way, of course, it was not a severe problem. A dozen human beings had already died in this exploratory mission to Earth. The dead included the original Zebner, whom he had simply eaten, bones and all. Rulls had a high metabolism and were hungry almost all the time. Thus, he had disposed of Zebner in four days, and later he gobbled several other victims in the same way. But there was no time for that today. And, besides, he had become dutifully cautious and now ate beef and other purchasable items.
As he waited for Gilstrap, the scene was pleasantly anonymous at the campus level. An uncountable number of students had, minutes before, emerged from their classrooms. They were now walking, jogging, running, hurrying to what, for each individual, was undoubtedly a destination. But the details of that goal for each were available in the minds of a small number of persons - the student himself, and a few classmates, and was available also in administrative files. Nowhere else.
Report said that accepted registration totaled over 24,000, and that was a comfortable figure to contemplate. The largeness of the number was like a concealment of a special type. It equated with a dark night where, unseen, unnoticed assailants could attack without fear of being observed or afterwards recognized.
There’s Gilstrap!
The little man emerged from the corridor exactly on schedule. His class ended, he was heading with 24,000 others to some logical place.
’Hi, there, Gil.’ Zebner spoke heartily. ’May I have a word with you?’
He didn’t wait for permission, but fell in step with the little guy and, as the other hesitated, caught his arm and said, ’Just thirty seconds!’ Whereupon, Gilstrap relaxed and allowed himself to be guided into the selected death area.
’This way,’ said the Rull triumphantly.
The victim was so unsuspecting that he even permitted himself to be turned away from the gun, which was now discharged into his left side.
The explosion was, of course, like the thunder of all guns. But Zebner trusted to the darkness of numbers, and, as Gilstrap staggered and fell, he swerved back the way he had come.
As he came swiftly to the entrance, a figure of a man loomed up in front of him. It was a young man. He stood there just inside the otherwise deserted alcove. His face was distorted with shock. His eyes were wide and staring.
’Hey!’ he blurted, ’that was murder. What? –’
The Rull darted past him, whirled into a door, ran along a corridor past several students who did not even glance at him, out of another door, across a patio, down some steps, another patio, up some steps, into a second door, across to a distant exit, and there, breathing hard, he slowed, emerging at a walk in time to go into his next class.
After he had sat down in his careful fashion – it had to be careful because, of course, he actually had to get the Rull body into the seat while maintaining Zebner’s image – he tried to recall what the witness had looked like. When he couldn’t, he felt reassured.
Near the end of the third period, a messenger came to the door and handed a note to the instructor who, as the class ended, discreetly slipped it to Zebner. The shock of seeing the white envelope was relieved only by the Rull’s argument to himself that it couldn’t be anything important.
If they’re after me, really, they’ll come with guns he told himself. And thus calmed after leaving the room, he examined the envelope.
It had the words, Administrative Office, printed on the back flaps. That was shaking. And when he manipulated it open, the little note inside requested that he report to a Mr. Andrew Josephs during the lunch hour.
Mr. Josephs turned out to be a man with stiff body and grave manner. The Rull could not recall ever having seen him before, so he was relieved and courteously introduced himself, then waited with an outward air of equally courteous interest.
The big man stroked his jaw. ’I have two or three important pieces of news for you, Mr. Zebner. One of them is very sad. You may be interested to know that Miss Eileen Davis has definitely withdrawn her accusation against you. She is now convinced that you are not the person she saw.’
The Rull had the feeling that if the Zebner image so much as moved a muscle, the spell would be broken and he would find himself back in a world where people didn’t alter their stories; where they did remember the truth, and told it fearlessly.
Mr. Josephs was continuing, ’Also, this morning we questioned your friend, Gilstrap and, of course, he verified your story of having been to his quarters on Saturday before three o’clock which, of course, is the decisive time.’
’He did?’ said the Rull. But he said it deep inside the Zebner image field.
’Now, comes the sad part,’ the man went on. ’This morning, after his first class, I have to tell you, this friend of yours was assassinated.’
It was evidently a very disturbing thing for him to report for he took out a large white handkerchief and blew his nose. Then he said, earnestly, ’Mr. Zebner, somebody has tried very hard to pin this unpleasant matter on you. And, of course, the police will now make a full investigation. But I want to assure you that we all exceedingly regret the inconveniences this has caused you.’
Whereupon, he held out his hand.
Naturally, the Rull pretended not to see it. After all, the untouchability of the original Zebner, the almost outcast status, was what had made the man his chosen victim. Close contact he dared not have, so he said, ’I’d better eat, sir, and get ready for my next class.’
’Yes, yes,’ agreed Mr. Josephs, lowering his outstretched hand. He went on, ’We’re baffled by the motive for these crimes, Mr. Zebner. What is puzzling us is that no secret work is being done at this college.’ He concluded, ’When the police are ready, you will be called -’
The Rull went out into the corridor with those words echoing unhappily inside him. No question. He’d have to wind up his mission without having completed his study of human beings. It was time to make major decisions.
Along with several other Rulls, he had been sent to Earth for two reasons. One, who are these two-legged beings that we Rulls have suddenly become aware of as we encroached on this new area of space? And, more important, what is the state of their technology? Purpose Two was the result of an unfortunate accident. On a remote solar meteorite, a human exploratory scientific group had found a lost Rull antigravity raft. Men still didn’t know what a treasure they had. Fortunately, its damaged control box had been triggered when it was moved into the Earth spaceship. The fantastic machine had, of course, automatically transmitted a signal to its remote mother ship, reporting its position. Stunned Rull engineers traced its movements as it was taken to Earth.
The raft had been assigned to this university’s physics department for research purposes, so the Rull had discovered, and a Professor Dr. Herman Lowery had succeeded in having the research on it assigned to him during his next vacation period, now slightly less than two months away.
Thus, after a careful survey of the physics department students, the Rull agent had chosen to imitate Zebner, a lackluster individual without friends.
Alas, Zebner was now a marked person.
The Rull skipped his afternoon classes and left the campus. Shortly before dusk, he headed for a designated rendezvous. At a certain hour every day, one of his Rull colleagues was supposed to come there in case of need.
The second Rull arrived on schedule, displaying the image of a very plain, unkempt human being; exactly the type of person that people would normally avoid. The two Rulls talked in their human voices, and the Zebner-Rull’s decision was affirmed.

Tonight – act!
The Zebner-Rull thereupon returned to his apart­ment to get the equipment he had stored in his bedroom clothes closet for the time of destruction. He was intent. He was thinking about how he would transport it down to the garage, and so he was not wary. As he opened the door to the flat he sensed, for the first time, another presence in the interior. Instant attempt to pull back. Too late.
The voice of Professor Lowery said, ’I’ve got you covered. Get in here!’
Reluctantly, the Zebner image moved through the door and inside. His tentative plan was Maybe as soon as I get across the threshold, I can move sideways into the blackness at Rull speed.
’Careful!’ came the inexorable voice. ’Reach over slowly and push the light switch.’
No choice. He deduced he was being watched through night-vision glasses.
The light revealed a Dr. Lowery with the night-vision glasses, watery eyes behind them, and a tormented face.
The instructor’s heat-prod urged the Rull over to the breakfast nook. When he arrived there, the older man’s hand indicated a paper that lay on the table. ’That,’ he said harshly, ’is a confession. Sign it!’
Zebner was genuinely curious. ’What am I confessing to?’
’The truth. Sign it!’
Not so fast thought the Rull. A t this moment you need my signature ... Until he inscribed his name, he could count on that fact to exercise a small restraint on Lowery’s trigger finger.
While he considered what he should do with Lowery, and without waiting for permission, he moved over, bent over, and read the paper:

I, Phillip Zebner, having made up my mind to commit suicide, wish to rectify the harm I have caused. My most severe guilt concerns a very able person, my physics professor, Dr. Herman Lowery. Because of an emotional involvement with another student, Eileen Davis, and after a quarrel with her, I destroyed a certain photo­graphic plate knowing it had been given into her care by Dr. Lowery –

At that point, having absorbed the import of the thing, the Rull said, ’Tell me why you entrusted Miss Davis with the photo plate.’
’I didn’t know –,’ mumblingly, ’that the person she wanted it for was one of her boy friends. I agreed he could do his B.A. thesis on the set. The fool carelessly laid one of the plates on another table off to one side. And so, when Eileen brought them back to me, that one was missing. That’s when she returned to get it. I thought –’ Lowery stopped, a sudden vagueness in his manner.
The Rull correctly interpreted that the unfinished sentence was not related to the explanation. ’You thought she was only fornicating with you?’
’Yes,’ sighed the older man. He seemed bewildered.
The Rull asked quickly, ’How many people do you have to pass to have her?’
’When she finally admitted her situation to me,’ Lowery sighed, ’it turned out that her commune leader, Dan, is so busy with his commune duties – I’m giving him an A.’ He broke off, bitterly. ’They didn’t take the breaking of the photo plate seriously.’
That’s it! thought Zebner. He’d been listening every instant for something to grab onto and twist to his own purposes. ’Listen,’ his human voice box spoke the thought, ’I’ll admit that Eileen was my girl friend, but that she destroyed the plate –’ He rushed on, ’The commune will assign you another one of their whores, but she’s got to take the blame. I’ll leave immediately and go back where I came from, and you send me an A rating there.’
’You’ll get an A, don’t worry. You’re actually a good student, Zebner.’
Now, he tells me!
’Get me a sheet of paper from my work desk over there!’ the Rull commanded.
Professor Lowery got the paper.
’Now, stand back!’ That was because even in his overheated state, Lowery might notice how peculiarly Zebner wrote.
The confession, when completed, was as he had outlined it to Lowery but, of course, contained no suicide clause.
A considerably unglued, but grateful, Dr. Lowery accepted it and staggered out of the apartment. Zebner waited only until the man had had time to leave the building, then he boldly carried his equipment down the back elevator and into his car. He met no one, and he was relieved when he had driven safely out onto the street and was on his way, intending never to return.
Still later, when darkness had already settled over the great campus and enormous hive-like patterns of light brightened every building, the Rull drove into the parking lot of the research center. His companion was waiting for him there.
Darkness was probing everywhere when the two Rulls waylaid the stocky, baldheaded man who drove into the lot a few minutes later. They were remorselessly bold, killing him with energy flows from their own true bodies. There were bright flashes of light in that far corner of the lot where the guard had put his car and apparently no one saw. It would have made no difference. On this night they were prepared to kill all witnesses.
Hurriedly, the two aliens stuffed the dead body into the trunk of the guard’s own car, and then the second Rull did his image duplication of the man. He walked into the lobby and took over from the man on the previous shift. That individual departed at once.
There was now a quick examination of the sign-in book. It turned out there were eight people in the building. They locked the outer doors, then went from room to room and killed all eight with body energy discharges.
Still operating at top speed, the two experts brought in Zebner’s destruct equipment and set it up where it would ignite the building best.
First, of course, they examined the disabled Rull anti-gravity raft. As expected, the problem was minor. The computer which, during power-on, reeducated the atoms, had decided that it required maintenance and had shut itself off. It turned on again immediately, on manual control, and was then good for many hours of trans-light operation. Enough.
In his physics class, the Rull had discovered that Earth science was just beginning to be aware that there were ways of modifying the behavior of particles. Earth had an anti-gravity technique based on simple, colossal power. It was not a system to be despised. By its means, great ships could lift routinely from the surfaces of ordinary planets, and with additional power-unit attachments, could also depart heavier planets.
It was pretty good, but not in the same class as the Rull method. Long ago it had been discovered that atoms could be ’persuaded’ to ’believe’ that nearby masses (like a planet) did not exist. Accordingly, it and its fellow ’student’ atoms were trained to ignore large bodies in space at the push of a button, to whatever degree was desired.
With the two Rulls aboard, the anti-gravity ’raft’ floated up from the roof of the research center into the night sky. As soon as they were at a safe distance, the Zebner-Rull triggered the destruct system down inside the building, waited the exact number of seconds, and –
Nothing happened!
’That girl,’ he analyzed finally, ’when she went into my bedroom to undress yesterday . He should have realized when it took her so long. She must have searched the place, and, being a physics student herself, realized what was in the closet and removed the interior connectors.
He explained to his companion, ’I’ll go back to my apartment and phone her to come over. Act as if I’m ready to have my affair with her. We’ll take her along and eat her.’
It was important. There should be no clear evidence that the raft was missing. A fiery inferno would leave hundreds of metal hulks, sufficient to confuse a search for missing objects. And the girl’s body, with the two already aboard ... food!
Down they went, onto the roof of his apartment building. From that roof, the Zebner-Rull made his way down a dark staircase to the upper inhabited level, and then down to his own apartment.
First, he thought, I’ll search the clothes closet ... Hard to believe that he could have been so careless as to leave anything behind. But, still, check that. And then phone Eileen.
As he opened the door a minute later, pushed it wide and entered, at the final split-instant he had the horrifying realization that he had done it again. Impossible, but true! A Rull caught twice by the same situation.
At the moment of opening the door, the apartment was pitch dark. Then, as he stepped across the threshold, all the lights went on.
Now, when it was too late, his perception was swift. But it succeeded only in establishing at high speed that there were in the room five young men and one girl. The girl was Eileen, and three of the five young men held weapons. The weapons were the type that operated by induction. Near a wire, through which current was flowing, an electrical flow could also be induced in the little devices by pulling a trigger which merely made a connection between two plates. The induced current, thereupon, instantly discharged into whatever the instrument pointed at within 25 feet. The shock from one such weapon could jar a horse. And from three could kill a human being - and probably a Rull.
Deadly was the word. And so, reluctantly, he came further into the room. And then, at the command of a handsome young man with blond hair, pushed the door shut.
The blond man spoke again. ’I’m Dan,’ he said. ’We’ve been checking into your background, Zeb. You’re from one of the Sirius planet colonies?’
That was certainly the fact for the true Philip Zebner, and so there was no problem about admitting that.
’Zeb,’ continued Dan, ’the destruction of that photographic plate ruined an $8,500,000 particle experiment. Eileen, after being sure it was you who destroyed it, decided she wasn’t sure. So we want you to sign a confession.’
The realization had already come to the Rull that these people also felt threatened by the destruction of the plate. And so, now again, that fateful act of his was once more feeding back trouble and confusion.
’Zeb,’ continued the blond man, take awhile before all this is settled. Meanwhile, if you leave the planet right away, we’ll persuade Lowery to see that you get a degree. You can be safe in Sirius before there are any repercussions.
’I guess I have no choice,’ agreed the Rull.
’Too bad in a way. I got kind of interested in you for our group when Eileen reported all that equipment you had in your closet. We can maybe use a guy with a bunch of destruct stuff, particularly now that we have all the connectors. Yeah,’ he grinned, ’it won’t work as it is. Where’d you take it? We looked, and it was gone.’
He could have blasted them all with his body energy. But there was a chance that one of them might have time to squeeze the transforming trigger.
The Rull said, ’Let’s get the confession signed. That other stuff I hid when I discovered the connectors were missing. Forget about it!’
They were instantly accepting. And, after the new confession was signed, they trooped out in a friendly fashion. ’Goodbye, Zeb.’ Have a good trip, Zeb!’
In a minute, he was alone. And beginning to feel better, himself. It was unfortunate that he couldn’t remain to see what would happen when the two confessions were presented to the authorities. And unfortunate, in a way, that Lowery might lose his job. The man was a Rull asset, with his twisted method of teaching. Given the opportunity, and more time, he might successfully damage thousands more students of physics.
But the truth was, there were probably other Lowery types. And other communes getting passing grades for their members. This was the human race in daily life action.
The Zebner-Rull was back on the raft, as he had these thoughts. He was resigned now, to the human beings discovering that the raft was missing, but it no longer seemed like a menacing thing.
He had a prescient thought - that nobody on earth would guess that the mighty Rull enemy had come to their chief planet. Looked them over. And departed safely.

And that, in due course, the Rull would be back. In force.


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Footnotes

[1Pendulum was van Vogt’s unique anthology containing only stories never-before published in any form.

[2taken from the October 1948 cover of Astounding Science Fiction, featuring van Vogt’s The Players of Null-A.