HEALING RAYS IN SPACE
By J. HARVEY HAGGARD
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Comet March 41.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
The big library was of platinum-and-teakwood. There were two occupants, a monstrous man who wore expensive vitrilex, and a wisp of a girl in a wheel chair. One entire wall space was taken up by a chart of the solar system. Below the chart was the label: Marshall Space Lines, 1990 to 2055, First In Astral Commerce.
Spaceports, marked by red pins, dotted the entire chart. The large man was humming as he thrust other scarlet pins into Ceres, Pallas and Juno with such a savagery as one might use in thrusting swords.
“Feel better, dad?” The wisp of a girl was speaking. Misty locks of sheeny hair lay on the back of the invalid chair like starclouds on a summer night. A beautiful frame for a picture of lifeless, transparent features.
“I ought to! It took fifty years to scalp the Thallin Starways!” gloated Keith Randolph Marshall, looking proudly at the carmine clusters that marked new interspace commerce lanes. “You bet! Fifty years to skin old Rufus Thallin’s hide! Why, every ship he owns is mine now.
“He’s going to come and beg! I’ve got it figured out. He’ll come today, before the foreclosure. He’ll be on his knees and I’ll like it. He’ll want more time on his notes, the ones I bought from mortgage owners long ago. That’s another little surprise for him. Right now my secretary is waiting down below, and will send him up.”
“You must be very proud,” said the girl listlessly, and the leonine man brought his pacings up very short. Pain marked the tycoon’s face. Deepening lines went snaking from his puckered brows.
“Eh? I’m proud enough, but I’ll never be really happy! That’s the bitter edge of crushing an enemy, I guess. I’d give everything I ever owned, turn over every red copper, if I could only make you well again, cure you from the Venus plague. You know that, darling.”
Wistful eyes glimmered moistly, and her feeble hands pressed his monstrous one against her cheek.
“As a last resort,” bellowed a new voice, “I’d even take you up on that, Marshall! I believe you were expecting me!”
Marshall spun and his gray mane quivered. It angered him to be caught off guard. Glaring past the glistening pyrite cases of interplanetary souvenirs, he saw the doorway. In it stood a man garbed roughly as are those accustomed to space travel, a great fellow fully as large as himself, who had to stoop to get in.
Stalking forward grimly came the mastodonic spaceman, while wellworn asteroid boots cut insolent gashes in the varnished teakwood floors, leaving scars that struck sparks in the owner’s outraged eye as he watched the careless advance.
A spectacled secretary thrust his head in at the doorway, panting in an effort to overtake the caller.
“Mr. Rufus Thallin to call upon you,” he gasped and withdrew apologetically.
“Mister who?” demanded Marshall.
“Rufus Thallin was my father,” announced the young giant softly, and his grey eyes kindled. “They put him away yesterday, scattered his ashes to the infinities he loved. He made me promise to keep the old Thallin Starways going, whatever I did. That’s why I’m here.”
There was a small space-ship on Marshall’s desk, spindle-shaped, a model of the latest Marshall anti-gravity spacer. It was a symbol of power, of survival of the fittest in space. Marshall was shocked by the news, but pretended a sudden interest in the miniature.
He stared through a window over his acres of a vast California rancho. So old Rufe Thallin, lean of girth, leathery of visage, was dead. Queer that he would never face him again. The executive went over to his desk and plopped down in a chair.
“Have a seat, son,” he said in a quavering voice that surprised himself. He knew at once it was the wrong tone. Young Rufus had straightened, had scuffed new chicken tracks into the polished floor.
“Don’t call me son!” burst out the young man angrily. “My father told me all about how you’ve hounded him, underbid all of his contracts, drove his spacers out of business. I’m warning you I’ll do anything, anything at all, to get back at you. That’s how I feel about it!”
The young whippersnapper! This was more like it. Marshall was glad he wouldn’t have to waste sympathy on the young pup.
“Have a stogie, kid,” he growled condescendingly, “and don’t get huffy! Your old man stuck to out-moded rocket pushers, and I graduated with anti-gravity wings. He always was hard-headed!”
With two clattering steps young Rufus stalked forward and slammed fists down on the desk before Marshall.
“Listen, Marshall!” he snorted. “I know all about that! Don’t go over that and rub it in. What do you think I’ve been doing at California Astro-Tech? I’ve studied up some good stuff that will make your gravity wings look like rowboats. I’ve got a propulsion system that will knock weeks off the regular schedule. All I need is a try! I’m asking that you give me a few months’ time. With that new drive in performance I’ll raise money and pay you back.”
In another few minutes this young devil would be on his knees, promising anything, even his soul.
“Too bad, Thallin,” said the astral magnate with cold satisfaction. “Can’t do a thing for you. We’re not flying kites! You played and lost. Take it like a man. If you’ve really got something good, and can put on a demonstration, I’ll handle it at a profit for you—”
He wasn’t prepared for the next move. The blonde caller of Nordic dimensions seemed to leap over his desk. One big hand grabbed the lighted cigar and ground it to shreds. The other seized his shirt front.
“You’d like it that way!” he challenged. “Then I’d be penniless, and you could make an easy steal! Nothing doing. I’m not out of the game yet. If I thought I was I’d grab your spindly old neck in my hands and wring it, right now. We’d both go out in grand style.”
Sweat popped out on Marshall’s forehead. It was hard to tell just how far the young jackanapes would go. Then the wheel chair lurched forward.
“Get back, Thallin,” commanded Marshall as a frail hand thrust a flame gun at his caller’s middle. “Or I’ll tell Alyce to sear you. You’re going a little too far with your threats!”
Rufus glanced at the muzzle of the electronic gun, flushed and backed away. The girl, already panting with the exhaustion brought on by excitement and the scant action, let the weapon fall back into her lap. It was hard to think of this shadow of a woman as that young and beautiful society débutante whose pictures had been plastered over all the pleasure bars from Mercury to Pluto. Venus plague strikes without mercy! In less than a year she was but a ghost of that former self.
“Guess I kind of forgot myself,” admitted the young man sheepishly. “I sort of owe you an apology, Miss.”
“You ought to be jailed,” stormed Marshall uncertainly, rising partly to his feet. His big visitor did not cringe.
“You’re big and strong,” scoffed young Rufus scornfully. “And all puffed up with your own importance. Like a robber baron! Lots of power in your hands, and worlds to tremble at your decisions, but there’s some things you’re weak at. One thing—”
He looked suggestively at the limp little being in the wheel chair, so pallid and impassive. Her handling of the gun had been almost mechanical and quite without feeling. Marshall swayed, and young Rufus knew he had struck a vital spot.
“Thallin, I’ll kill you for that!” he promised brokenly.
“She’s your daughter, isn’t she?” demanded the blond giant ruthlessly. “And a year ago she was queen of the interplanetary cafés. The doctors that attend her say she’ll die in six months. What will you give for her life, Marshall?”
Falling back loosely into the seat, Keith Randolph Marshall began to quiver in every muscle of his body. Because he knew by the other’s manner that he was serious.
“I’ve studied all the tricks of modern medicine,” continued Rufus goadingly, “and know all the late practices and kinks. I’m not such a fool at that as I may be at running spacelines in the void!”
“I’ll tell you,” whispered Marshall savagely, his soul bare for the other’s gaze. “And I’ll tell you the truth! I’d give every cent I ever owned if she were sound and well. I’d give every space-ship I’ve got if she had the vitality of your oxlike body.”
Whirling around, young Rufus pounced without warning, snapped up the flame-gun from the girl’s lap, and held it before him. Then he began to rock with wild bursts of laughter.
“There’s only one chance for her,” he chuckled. “It’s a cure most doctors, even now, are afraid to speak much about. But I’ve seen it happen. Out in space, a person’s body is permeated with lots of solar rays you never get on Earth. Sometimes unhealthy tissue will heal like magic. The chances are slim, one in a hundred, but they’re better than nothing.”
Now Marshall’s eyes were glazing with horror, and he seemed too paralyzed to move. The other’s mockery drove him frantic.
“You wouldn’t dare!” he gasped. “The physicians have said the shock on going to space will kill Alyce. It would be plain—murder!”
“You’re a man of your word,” yelled young Rufus. “I’ll take that word. Don’t forget that, Marshall! If I ever come back, it’ll be to collect!”
With the flame-gun held expertly he leaned and scooped the girl’s fragile body up in one powerful arm, then backed slowly away. Reaching the doorway, he leaped out of sight. His pounding feet echoed from down the hallway.
TWO LIVES ARE GAMBLED
Staggering toward his desk, Keith Randolph Marshall began to jab at buttons affixed on its top. When servants appeared, he began screaming orders to pursue and apprehend the kidnapper.
Almost unable to breathe from sheer horror, he slumped at a window and gazed into a courtyard below. The big man was springing lightly across the lawn, and the puny wisp of the girl looked a light burden in his massive arms. A last leap, and they went through the open port of the moored space-flyer.
Spurts of flame came from smoky rear jets. A sound like thunder rolled into being, shaking the house and rattling the windows. For an instant the space-flyer was cushioned on a turmoil of flames. Jets beneath the prow tilted the nose upward. Then it darted swiftly into the heavens.
People over the solar system called the grizzled old man a dictator of the spacelanes, yet it would have been hard, even for a close acquaintance, to recognize Keith Randolph Marshall in the broken man who now stooped over the tele-panels, pleading for a wireless connection with the Space Police Bureau.
His next connection went through to a Dr. Haliburton, in the Medical Towers Building of San Francisco. Marshall was calmer now, but controlled himself only with an effort.
The mirror cleared to reveal a tall man in a laboratory apron, bent absorbedly over a retort. As the features turned to Marshall, a look of surprise gleamed behind gold-rimmed glasses and he tugged at the point of a distinguishing Van Dyke beard.
“What’s wrong, Mr. Marshall?” he demanded. “Is Alyce ill—”
“Everything!” gasped Keith Randolph Marshall. “I’ll explain later. Tell me, do you know young Rufus Thallin?”
“Indeed I do,” responded the scientist with a frown. “I’ve been in private practise for several years since leaving the faculty of California School of Technology. An excellent pupil. Aptness for medicine. A future for him there, if he wants it….
“Since you speak of it,” went on Dr. Haliburton curiously, “he was here only yesterday to talk over old times.”
Marshall was tense as spring steel now and trying hard to conceal his extreme excitement.
“Then he’s pretty good in a medical way?” he wanted to know savagely.
“Pretty good is no word for it!” exclaimed Dr. Haliburton. “Why, I saw him do a plastic operation once that would have stumped an old hand at surgery. It was on a Venus expedition of the faculty, and a man had become drunk and staggered into a grove of leper-plants. The flesh was peeling from both hands, and Rufus operated—with only a native dirk, mind you! He grafted plastic protoplasm to the tendons and saved both hands. An exceptionally fine bit of surgery….”
“Just what,” demanded the dictator of spacelanes, “does he know about the Venus plague?”
Dark eyes narrowed and sparkled through the transparent lenses.
“Blue virus!” he exclaimed. “He’s very interested. We discussed it at length, and also went over the records of your daughter’s case. I gave her six months to live, as you know, and he—”
“That damned devil!” snorted Marshall in uncontrolled rage. “He was planning it all the time. Now he’s kidnapped her and taken her to space.”
For a moment the physician was stunned. He went quietly to a cabinet case and jerked open a drawer. His face above the beard became ashen.
“Her case records are gone,” he said dazedly. “You must be right.”
Incoherently, Marshall poured forth the story, and the savant listened incredulously, tugging at his trim beard.
“If she dies,” shouted Marshall, swinging his fist, “he’ll pay for it in the atomic blast chamber, with his life.”
When the telecaster was silent, Dr. Haliburton stood for a long while, merely staring.
“No other would have dared!” he whispered awedly. “And there is a chance, a tiny chance. He risked his life on it. How I wish I had his courage!”
Rufus Thallin was afraid neither of his pursuers nor of their bullets as he fled from the Marshall manor. Not as long as the precious little bundle in his arms held the dim spark that was heir to the Marshall millions. Widely opened blue eyes were peering up at him, but not with fear. Only with a strange wonder that bordered on mental stupor.
“Don’t be frightened,” said young Rufus as they lumbered into the port aperture of the space-flyer. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
He laid her on a pendant space cushion and she did not struggle.
“I’m not frightened,” she said in a leaden tone. “All you could do is kill me. And I am not afraid of death. Neither would you harm me bodily, since I am no longer attractive as other girls are.”
Hand on the controls, Rufus faltered, looking back at the tumbled maze of glinty hair.
“Whoever told you that?” he demanded, feeling poignantly sorry for her for the first time. Up until the present instant, he had considered her impersonally, rather as a key or possible solution for his own troubles. It made him aware of the tremendous risks he was taking with her life. Yet it was too late to back out now.
Under his guidance, the space-flyer lurched up at the sky, hurled itself through the thinning blue stratosphere and smoked a fast trail for the outer depths of space.
Strange, or was it?—that up till now he had thought only of that final memory of his gaunt death-beckoned father, of the promise he had made looking into the stern exactness of fading eyes.
When young Rufus swore he would keep the Thallin Starways going, would preserve that proud tradition that went back to former times when the first gallant rocket-ships bellowed like fire-breathing monsters and hurtled fearlessly into the void, he had meant every word of it.
His feelings changed. Again the girl was only a pawn. Everything else had failed. He had seized upon her and the sickness that lay prey to her body as a means toward an end. He felt that there was a good chance of her being cured when exposed to the healing rays of the void. He was gambling not only her life, but his own as well. For if he failed in his mission the Space Police would hound him to an eventual ignoble end.
In the visor screens, earth was falling away swiftly. As he watched a scattering of dots appeared, drifted slowly across the face of the globe, into space. Police craft, of course.
The girl’s pale face was watching and he knew that she also was aware of the pursuit. To those who followed their space-ship could be but a dwindling mote that floated out of place in the pattern of encircling stars.
Yet they had him! He read that conviction deep in her listless eyes. The jaws of a gigantic trap were closing down about him in space. With the superior speed of the Marshall gravity-impelled speedsters, overhauling was certain, and then it would be a mere matter of clamping him in magnetic grapples and making up a forced boarding party in space toggings.
He pushed the controls down, built the discharge blasts to their limit, and mopped sweat from his brow.
“They’ll catch you, won’t they?” He was surprised at the limpid words. Alyce was lying on the swinging spring-couch, watching him in a detached lethargy.
“Good girl!” he exclaimed jubilantly. Her faint interest was evidence that there was still sap left in her body. “No, I don’t think they’ll catch us. Now, don’t move around and exert yourself. Just remember that I’m your doctor now, and a pretty good doctor at that.”
Right now those radiant, penetrating rays might be going through the hulls of the ship, passing through diseased cell tissue, rearranging the cellular patterns. He was determined not to frighten her. Words might soothe her. So he pointed to the dots in the rear vision screens, which were becoming larger.
“They’re getting closer! That’s because they’re using the gravity repulsion system, and I’m still using rockets. The rockets are on full blast. There are about ten police ships hot on my trail. If I depended entirely on rocket blasts, I’d never get away from anti-gravity chasers.”
As he spoke he was engrossed in making changes on the oval mechanism board.
“My new drive doesn’t use an explosive blast,” he explained. “The fuel doesn’t explode, but changes into primitive radiation! This radiation shimmers away—at almost the speed of light. Due to its increased mass with its enormous velocity, it will exert an enormous force in the opposite direction.”
An instrument on the board cackled, and he flipped a switch. A telescreen began to lighten. Those pursuit spacers were dangerously close now. Close enough to see uniformed men standing on their bridges, peering through glassite. From the nearest cylindrical shape a long tentacle was shot forth.
Magnetic grapple! It slithered past the front cowling of his space flyer, looped out and whipcracked back. If it had fastened to the outer berylumin hull, escape would have become impossible. Through transparent ports on all sides he saw the bulky noses of the Space Police ringing him in. Many eyes were watching him over the sights of grapple rockets.
Big Rufus Thallin grinned, turned and waved goodbye through the nearest port, then slammed a power throttle down.
“So long…. Howling Jupiter! What a jolt!”
Long trailers of flame vanished behind his jets. Now only a shimmering column of radiant force appeared. Rufus was jerked back against the seat. It was as though the space-flyer had just scooted into motion from a standstill.
One startled glance told him that the girl had passed into a coma. Jerking himself upright, he began to fight the throttle, which was jammed to the last notch and held there by the motion of swift acceleration.
In the nearest police craft a top-notch pilot was staring with popping eyes as the fugitive craft leaped ahead.
“Great blazing Antares!” exploded the “ace” spaceman, following the departing space-ship with his eyes. “Where’d he get that power? Lordy me, what speed!”
“Feed the juice into this star wagon!” groaned a Space Police commander, deeply chagrined. “He’s got some new propelling force that has everything beat.”
“They’re getting away,” gritted the pilot bitterly. “They’re getting away, and we can’t do a thing. All we can do is stand here and watch while that crazy man escapes to space with the poor girl.”
In the craft ahead, Rufus’ body was pulling away from the throttle. Blood was clogging up in his respiratory system. Though his breathing was smothered he held on grimly. The throttle snapped and he catapulted in a wild heap across the control room, smashing against a wall.
A sickening knowledge swept him. The lever had snapped at a crystallized joint, and was of no use now. He dropped it and went crawling across the floor on all fours.
Alarmed by the smoothness of the space-flyer’s motion, he shot a fearful glance up at the accelerometer, to find the needle floating at zero. The power-thrust of radiant force had ceased as quickly as it had come into being.
It took little effort to get to his feet now. The police craft had kept on his trail and were gaining again. Automatically he reached out and snapped the rocket blasters into action to steady his space-ship. With the new propulsor disabled, he could only coast along with his newly gained momentum. The police ships were getting big again on the visor screens.
AN OLD FRIEND
He reached for the flame-gun at his belt, then glanced at the pale features of the girl on the swinging couch. No, it wouldn’t do. He wouldn’t resist when they boarded. They’d get him in the end and it would only endanger her life foolishly.
A chattering of the space-wireless signal told him he was being contacted for communication.
Heart sinking, he plugged in, cutting in a serried bank of glowing tubes. Static rattled, and a mottled picture began to form.
“That’s odd!” he told himself. “They didn’t try to contact me before. And odd because those police are blue devils for radio wizardry. I’ve never seen their power so low!”
A pleased chuckle came from an amplifier.
“Don’t worry none, Doc,” the hoarse voice continued. “It ain’t th’ coppers! Hell, my televiz panel’s not so hot, but I like ’em that way.”
Murky on the reforming mirror, he saw a dark visage with keen piercing eyes, a tiny mustache over a cruel hyphen of a mouth. The features were vaguely familiar.
“Who are you?” he demanded of his mysterious caller. “And where are you calling from?”
“My name’s Frenchy Logrieux!” spoke the black image. “We’re up ahead of you, some fifty space-ships, and every one a battler. The police won’t dare come up to us, so just head your space-flyer into our middle, Doc. Look here, Doc, remember these!” Great hamlike hands were thrust before the televisor screen. Scarred and misshapen, the flesh had obviously been grafted back to the tendons.
“Venus Colony!” exclaimed Rufus Thallin amazedly. “And the leprous fang-weeds. Now I remember you, Frenchy.”
“Sure you do,” grinned the slit of a mouth. “And I ain’t never forgot a young doc by the name of Thallin. When I hears the police broadcast, giving out that you’d kidnapped ye a wench and made off wid her, I says, now he’s after yer own heart, Frenchy. I got a bit of sparkle for romance in me blood, and here’s a good half hundred stout space-ships flyin’ the skull and crossbones that’ll see you through, Doc, till high hell freezes over.”
“Okay,” returned Rufus Thallin. “I’ll make a run for you. Give me your position, and I’ll split right through.”
He sighted the cluster of dark hulks against a darker background of space, but he also sighted the police craft, moving near again and preparing to fire out their magnetic hooks. Pushing a starboard jet-throttle down, Rufus corrected his angle of flight, losing a precious bit of momentum as he did so, heading his space-flyer straight for the pirate craft.
The space police were drifting away in the rear. Temporarily, their pursuit would be ended. It was impossible that they had not noticed the large flotilla of piratical space-ships ahead. To have tried to break through would have been sheer folly.
The black spindular hulls held a rough circle formation. Rufus aimed the prow of his spacer through them and flashed beyond. Ahead of them was the dull grayness of open space.
He was hardly aware that the furtive image of Frenchy Logrieux was still on an upper panel, and that the keen piercing eyes were flashing rapidly over the interior, coming to rest at last on the motionless shape of Alyce Marshall.
“Right nice little space-flyer ye got there, Doc,” chuckled the space buccaneer. “Care to join up with a bunch of me hearties?”
“No thanks, Frenchy,” answered Rufus Thallin, waving farewell. “This makes us even.”
“Sure thing, Doc,” said Frenchy Logrieux, smirking significantly toward the bed. “I got a streak for frills meself. Happy voyage, Doc, and I can’t say I care much for yer taste fer wenches.”
The image faded and Rufus Thallin said nothing. He had no relish for the idea of being obligated to a pirate. He was glad that his score was even with Frenchy Logrieux.
Ahead of him, a black planet was swimming out of the void. Dark and foreboding, that lustreless sphere had an evil repute throughout the solar system. It was a barren, lifeless world, and one to be avoided by living creatures. Rufus Thallin headed the spacer in that direction. He knew that it was Pluto.
Repairs were made, and Pluto was far in the shimmering wake of the improved radiotron—again an opalescent beam of pure radiation hurled the space-flyer into the astral depths at speeds his accelerometer was incapable of registering.
The outside planets, discovered only during the last decade, came and went. Tiny Minerva, like an icy pearl under its coating of liquid air, whisked by. The black spongy mass of huge Siegfried, a burned-out hulk of a world, lumbered to the rearward. Then at last huge Hermes, the outer guardian, with its monstrous satellite Cerberus, hove into view. A sentinel and his watch-dog.
Now they were in open space, with only the vast abysses beyond. Days flickered by rapidly. The sunlight, so much fainter now, was collected by huge mirrors and thrown into the front compartment of the space-flyer, where Rufus Thallin had rigged curtains to give the girl privacy when she slept. Days were marching by unmarked—for here in space there was no beginning and no end—only the roll and sway of the space-ship as it plunged on and on.
Rufus Thallin was fighting the battle of his life, despite the extraspacial serenity. Not with actual, living opponents. That was what made his struggle so hard. He couldn’t get his big fists on the blue virus that made diseased flesh look like jelly in a strong sunlight.
Always there was the grim knowledge that behind them the pursuit would never end. Though the Space Police had been thrown off the trail, they would be questing even now for new leads, new spoors that might send them speeding in the wake of the space-flyer, even here in this Stygian depth of outer space.
Of course he had a watch to measure hours. He used it to plot a diet of synthetic foods for the girl, and followed it religiously. He was not so careful with his own.
Her spark of life was still glowing, though dimly. It needed kindling. New energies must build that spark to a flame, but those energies could not be fed from the outside.
He could take a microscope and look deep into her body, see the arteries pulsate, watch the slow rivers of great veins heading back toward her heart. But the virus, if such it was, remained invisible, a skulking menace he could only sense. A menace vulnerable, as he knew, only to the mysterious radiations that came out of the macrocosmos.
Yet before nature began its healing work that inner spark, the vital “will” to live, must be nurtured. The body itself would only respond when her desire to continue life had been instilled. And that would never be when she lay in that perpetual coma, not caring whether she lived or died.
He began to plot desperately, knowing that this twilight state would not last forever. Perhaps the sound of a loved one’s voice, the awakening of old memories of earth, would reach through the gloom and arouse her lethargic brain. At least it was worth a chance.
The curtains across the control room were shoved back against the wall. He was sitting nonchalantly before the mechanisms when the space-wireless began to sputter, roar harsh words.
“This is ZIX, Earth Space Station in San Francisco!” shouted the amplifier. “Tonight we are cutting into our regular programs so that a frightened, sick old man can make a last desperate appeal over the ether. To ships of space, and especially to one pirate craft on whose board is a kidnaper, we give you the voice of Keith Randolph Marshall!”
The thin face against the coverlet had moved. The eyes were wide and staring, watching him. He hoped desperately that she was listening as well.
Over the space-wireless a familiar voice began speaking, vibrantly but brokenly.
“I am hoping that Rufus Thallin, kidnaper of my daughter, will hear me now. If you do, you will know that your crime will be forgotten if you return my little girl to me. She is all that I have, all that I have ever loved. Somehow, against my better judgment, I feel that she is still alive. Bring her back to me, and you may have my pledge. Every spacer of the Marshall Spacelines will be turned over to you.”
The announcer’s voice, booming and sympathetic, cut back in, “So you have heard the final plea of a tired old man, whose health has been broken and is under the constant care of doctors, who is hoping against hope that a miracle may be achieved, and the hard heart of a criminal softened by a father’s plea….”
Alyce was moving. He didn’t dare look, as he pretended to deliberate the words from the radio, then stalked across the metal floor slowly. He snapped the switch on the announcer’s voice, then wheeled about.
She was standing there, a frail phantom, but her eyes were like jets of flame. Terrible hate burned from the wasted contours. Now she was tottering toward a wall, with one hand reaching where a holstered flame-gun was hung. The weapon was too high. Upon this realization, she collapsed.
Rufus caught her in his arms, returned her to the couch. There he administered a sleeping gas. Even after that brief exertion she must have rest.
But he was exuberant. Seized with unbearable emotions of delight, he grabbed the controls and sent the space-flyer in dizzy spirals and crazy patterns while the girl lay sleeping.
His scheme had been triumphant, though not as he had expected. A tiny mechanism, unrolling a strip of celluloid film, had been buried on the space-wireless, and a beam of light had carried his clever imitation of voices from the supposed broadcast.
The spark of life was being fanned, not by an emotion aroused from the sound of a familiar voice, but from hate. She had seen him standing there, uncaring, with a grin on his face, and she had wanted to kill him. Wanted to do it so badly that she had wasted her last bit of strength when her eye chanced to fall on the flame-gun.
Rufus Thallin chuckled. He hadn’t planned that she should hate him so terribly, but that would do just as well. It would give her a reason for living.
There was a terrestrial calendar in the bottom of a cabinet drawer. At its top was a picture of a nearly nude beautiful girl, poised over the waters of a moonlit lake. Laughing hoarsely, the earthman began ripping the months away, one by one. At last he came to a sheet encircled by a ring of crimson. That meant death for Alyce. That was the deadline set by the physicians who had made their examinations on earth.
His big hand continued to jerk away at the month sheets, until the calendar year was bare, and only the picture of the alluring girl beckoned at him from the calendar. It would be a great joke on those brilliant savants. For the six months had gone by—and as many more.
And Alyce Marshall had just learned to hate.
SPACE THE HEALER
There were a hundred ways to build hate in the mind of the convalescent, and Rufus Thallin used them all. He circled back among the worlds of the planetary system, and began skirting the habitable planets to arouse her curiosity. That was the way he encountered Frenchy Logrieux again.
Luck had not gone well with the little pirate. Several rash encounters with armed merchantmen had cost many piratical lives. There had been no plunder, and much grumbling had ensued among the remaining buccaneers. The ships began to split up into small groups and drift apart. Finally his own quarter-deck was the scene of a bloody mutiny. His officers had been butchered and Frenchy Logrieux was abandoned on Cerberus.
He was sitting on the edge of a big spire of glassy rock, overhanging a gulf, when the space-flyer landed. Weeks of exposure to the weather, of living on fruits and tubers, had given him the appearance of a wild man.
“Nom du Nom,” he had screamed with delight, flinging himself bodily against a glassite porte. “But it’s me old friend, the Doc! How’s the kidnaper? And this little wench that ye—”
He paused uncertainly, having lurched over the threshold, for the woman sitting quietly on the edge of the bed was surely not that wretched, pitiable slip of a human being he had glimpsed on the sick-bed months ago. To Frenchy’s mind, this was a creature of Heaven’s fashioning, a graceful feminine being such as he had never seen outside of Paris, and he could never return there. Such of her rounded limbs as he saw were flushed with glowing health. The eyes were of a cerulean blue as seen only on earth. Yet the cascading wealth of cloudy hair was the same.
“This lydee, I mean,” he stammered. “Why, where’d ye get her, Doc? She’s class, she is! A beauty if I ever see one—jes’ like a dream, if ye don’t mind my sayin’—”
Rufus Thallin rose from his seat and frowned irritably. He had seen the pleased smile flicker over the woman’s face. It might have been hard for him to explain his own irritation.
“I’m certain the lady doesn’t care to hear of it,” he said gruffly. Alyce shot him a malignant glance.
“Oh, but I do!” she cried indignantly. “And the man is human, just as I am human, though you treat me like a dog.”
“Come on outside, Frenchy,” snapped Rufus angrily. “I want to talk to you.” The amazed pirate followed him into the chilled gloom of the Cerberusian landscape.
“She hates me!” he explained hurriedly. “And it’s necessary that she keeps on hating me. Sometimes she tries to kill me, and she always keeps plotting—”
“Oh yeh?” grated Frenchy Logrieux, bringing his big doughy hands up in a strangling motion. “Whyn’t ye give her this, Doc? The best lookin’ wench in the world, won’t do that to Frenchy. I’ll fix her up good and proper, Doc, if ye’ll only get me back to a little asteroid I know of—”
“Keep your hands off her!” commanded Rufus, shuddering a bit as the scarred hands fell on his metallin shirt. “And we’ll see about the other.”
Shaved and freshly clothed, Frenchy Logrieux was handsome in a dark furtive way. His gallantry and thinly veiled compliments seemed to amuse Alyce Marshall, yet they drove Rufus Thallin into a silent fury. He resolved that the space-flyer would leave Cerberus without Frenchy Logrieux, and that was all there was to it.
He needed a fresh water supply for the space-flyer. It had landed in a big valley of tremendous naked rocks. Each night it rained on Cerberus and the water flowed into a large crystal pool at the other end of the valley. Frenchy showed him a path leading down to the water.
“Ought to do, after it’s distilled,” commented Rufus, bending over to examine the chemical rings deposited on the rock by higher water levels. It was Frenchy’s opportunity. Rufus saw the swart features in the pool’s reflection, then felt the shock of a blow that hurled him down into the deep pool.
He sank swiftly, for the water was not as heavy as that of earth. Long arms pumped like pistons, stirring up filmy clouds of white silt from the submarine floor. But he quit struggling. No use trying to swim in that thin fluid. He’d have to climb!
Lungs near to bursting, he jammed his hands into the crevices of the precipitous walls and began to pull upward. His fingers tore on knife-edged formations of lime and silicate, leaving crimson smears in the water below, but he kept climbing.
At last his head broke water and he gulped in precious lungfuls of rarefied atmosphere. Frenchy Logrieux was nowhere in sight. The thin air was being split by a clap of thunder. Rocket blasts!
Dripping water, he lurched up along the trail, his bleeding fists clenched at his sides. Young Rufus Thallin had cast off his exhaustion with his first few lungfuls of air, and as he raced up the broken trail of glassen fragments his grim face became as dark as a thundercloud.
He saw the space-flyer, cushioned on its jets of rocket blasts, could make out Frenchy’s dark face hovered over the controls. Then the flames died away with a final swoosh and the space cruiser settled. The pirate was fighting the controls insanely, his nervous fingers flying everywhere in an effort to get a response from the rockets.
Rufus darted across the blackened rock, still warm from those first flame spurts, and his big fingers searched deftly along the outer rim of the airlock. Both the inner and outer doors of the airlock slammed open. The girl was lying on the bed, her arms and legs having been bound hurriedly from strips of her torn skirt.
Now he halted in the doorway, shouted for the pirate to come out.
“I’ve got a gun, Frenchy!” he yelled. “Come out with your flippers in the air, if you want to live! You didn’t think I’d leave the space-flyer so you could run it, did you?”
A roaring figure came out suddenly. Frenchy had a knife in one large crooked hand and was going to chance the ray. Rufus pulled the trigger of the flame-gun, but it had become jammed with silt in the sandy floor of the pool. He used it to parry the metal that darted down toward his heart.
Arms interlocked, they went hurtling from the airlock to the black table of lavalike rock. The smashing jar of collision wrenched their bodies apart. For a moment the pirate seemed about to flee, and Rufus would have let him go. Then the beady eyes fastened upon the space cruiser, and he came for Rufus swinging. One of them would go back to earth with the girl. Frenchy Logrieux didn’t intend to spend the rest of his life as a castaway.
So the pirate came forward furiously, hacking the air before him with the long knife, and big Rufus Thallin backed slowly away. He was not fool enough to walk in close where Frenchy’s snaking blade could find a vital spot. He was being backed up a slow incline to the edge of the precipitous spire where the pirate had been perched when they came. His footing narrowed to a mere ledge, with precarious depths to either side. Soon he would be able to retreat no more.
Glancing hurriedly about, he saw another parallel spire jutting over the gulf, some ten feet away. Poising quickly, Rufus leaped across the intervening gulf and landed catlike. Then he began to run down the incline toward the cruiser.
Frenchy Logrieux’s blade was out of reach now, but he took a chance, poised for a moment, and hurled his weapon in a glittering streak. Expecting this move, young Rufus dragged his toe in the rugged slope, fell to his hands and knees. The blade clattered off into lower depths.
It is the unexpected that counts for most in a struggle. That was why Rufus Thallin spun around and again leaped the gulf between the twin glassy spires that overlooked the precipice. As he landed, his big fist shot out like a hammer, landing squarely on the swarthy chin.
Crumpling slowly, Frenchy tottered over into the depths and disappeared.
Crumpling slowly, Frenchy Logrieux toppled into the depths of the abyss and disappeared.
When Rufus went back up the trail he saw Alyce Marshall, standing in the outer porte. She had managed to free herself of the hasty bonds and was watching him strangely. He shook her away as she came to help apply bandages to a bleeding gash on his arm.
Alyce Marshall stamped a slender foot and her face became livid with cold fury.
“You heartless devil!” she shrieked. “I wish he’d killed you! He at least had the desire to be a decent, respectable citizen again, even if you—”
Rufus had frozen as the import of her words reached his mind, was watching her. She gasped to a stop, looked startled. He came closer to her, his eyes narrowed and suspicious. She glanced fleetingly toward the space-wireless, and that stopped his advance.
“The dirty rat!” he cried wrathfully. “He communicated with the space police. Offered to sell me out, if they’d give him a fresh start. He did that, didn’t he, and they made a deal with him? Of course they’d do that!”
She was not retreating and her little head was held high.
“Other people besides you can make bargains!” she cried. “And they’d have kept them with Frenchy Logrieux, even as my father would keep your bargain. Why don’t you take me back to earth now? I’m not ill any longer, and I’m certain you can buy any number of sleek space-ships in return for my body.”
“Well, why shouldn’t I?” demanded Rufus furiously. “That’s what I intended to do when we came here. If your father lives up to his word that is just what is going to happen!”
“Don’t worry about my father!” burst out Alyce Marshall proudly. “He’ll pay everything he promised. And I don’t like to hear you cast evil reflections about him in everything you say. He said he’d give every space cruiser he had if I were sound and well again, and he’ll do it, if you ask him to.”
“What makes you think I won’t?” demanded Rufus, striding for the controls. “At least I’m not going to be fool enough to wait here for the space police to come and trap me.”
Long crater shadows were crawling across the dead seas of Luna. In the very edge of those long shadows which moved so slowly, tiny phosphorescent wrigglers, the only form of life on the satellite, kept pace with the strange twilight of this slow dusk.
A cold, frigid world was the moon, passing into the dusk of existence, even as the month-old day was passing from the dead seas.
From out of space something moved, a silver dart that came twisting out of the reflected sunlight and levelled out in a long gravitational glide over the dead Sea of Serenity.
At last it swooped down, landed on a high ledge that was almost obscured by jetty walls that went ever higher and higher, to end brokenly where the last lingering rays of moonset made crowns of foamy refraction.
A man in a fat, grubby spacesuit of metallin came from a porte, gazed around, and having sighted a dim glow of light, went warily toward where the black wall was indented with a deep grotto. He stepped on the threshold, saw an atomic lantern glowing in the hand of a waiting figure, also clad in spacetogs.
“Rufus!” called the newcomer excitedly. “That you, Rufus?”
“Yes, Dr. Haliburton,” returned Rufus Thallin. “Where’s Marshall? Wouldn’t he come?”
“Oh, yes,” replied Dr. Haliburton, who was having the dickens of a time keeping his gold-rimmed spectacles on inside of his helmet. “He came all right. But he wanted me to make certain you were here.”
“Go bring him,” said Rufus Thallin. “I trust you, Dr. Haliburton, but I’m not so certain about Keith Randolph Marshall. Did he come prepared to complete the—bargain?”
The space-clad man turned. He saw the academic features of the physician but dimly.
“He came with a property deed to every space-ship he has,” said Dr. Haliburton. “I think you’ll find that Marshall is a man who always keeps his word, no matter how the bargain is made.”
Rufus Thallin made no answer but stood holding the atomic lantern until two space-clad figures walked from the space-flyer and came toward him. The faceplate of the larger helmet was turned into the lantern’s glow and he made out the massive, aquiline countenance of Keith Randolph Marshall, glaring at him.
“You remember our bargain?” he asked curtly through the space-phones.
Marshall shook a leathern pack of documents in his metal-gloved hand.
“I remember,” he muttered hoarsely. “And if Alyce is completely recovered, as you say she is, I will sign every space-liner I own over to you.”
“Very well,” said Rufus Thallin. “Follow me.”
He led them down a curving corridor carved from solid volcanic rock, and at length emerged into a gigantic cavern. The floor of the cavern ended abruptly in a ledge that fell sheer into black depths. Perched on the brink of the black abyss was Rufus Thallin’s space-flyer. No hint as to how it had been transported here could be gained from the black unfathomable shadows that girded it around.
Alyce was waiting inside. She was beautiful in that happy moment of reunion, vastly more beautiful than mere words could have told, and her blue eyes were radiant with expectant joy. The tall space-clad man ran ahead eagerly and clambered through the aperture of an airlock.
Rufus felt Dr. Haliburton’s gauntleted hand on his arm.
“Perhaps they’d rather be left alone,” he said. “Remember, they’ll be like strangers almost, meeting for the first time.” Through a port they could see the big man, now without the upper portion of his space suiting, and the girl sobbing on his shoulder.
“You have done a wonderful thing,” said Dr. Haliburton enviously. “Alyce is completely transformed. Rufus, there is some magical quality about the outer rays of cosmic space. If we could pin it down, we’d make enormous strides in preserving eternal health for the human body.”
The young giant was looking up into black vaults. When he spoke his eyes were dreamy.
“I can see them now,” he whispered. “Big cruisers, done over with the new radiotron drive, whisking across the gulfs as though they were nothing. The Thallin Starways will blaze an eternal trail across interplanetary space. Dad would have liked it that way.”
Dr. Haliburton sighed. “If only you’d think more of science, and not of—”
Rufus Thallin was no longer listening. He had whirled around and was peering into the indigo blackness of the cavern from which they had come.
“My nerves,” he said at length. “I guess I’m jumpy. Let’s go in now. I want a talk with Keith Randolph Marshall.”
He waited for the slighter figure of the doctor to enter the airlock, waited until the inner sigh of atmosphere told he was inside. All of the while, Rufus stood tense, peering into a blackness that was so thick it was like a cushion. Then he, too, went through the airlock.
His metal arms moved swiftly, unfastening the middle of his space togging. Keith Randolph Marshall was signing a bunch of papers against a berylumin strut.
“Here,” he grunted, screwing up his fountain pen and returning it to his coat pocket, “They’re yours, every space scuttler! The Marshall lines are yours, lock, stock and barrel.”
“I told you father would keep his bargain,” said Alyce Marshall, clinging to the arm of the erstwhile dictator of the spacelanes. “I only hope he never regrets it.”
“He won’t,” said Rufus drily. “He won’t, because I’ll never get hold of them.”
Another helmet fastening came loose and the slender upper body of Dr. Haliburton appeared. He adjusted his glasses hurriedly and glared at Rufus Thallin. A strange smile of triumph lingered on the heavy lips of Keith Randolph Marshall.
“Don’t mind him, Alyce,” said Marshall. “I’ve kept my bargain. Next week, after you’ve rested, I’m going to stage a coming out party for you. He has the papers, hasn’t he? Come on. Let’s get out.”
“Wait a minute!” cried Rufus sharply. “Yes, I have the papers. But they’d never let me file them, not with charges of kidnaping against me. And once convicted, a thing your lawyers could see to, it would be illegal for me to own any property in space! Isn’t that true, Marshall?”
The space commerce king shrugged his shoulders.
“Its truth does not concern our bargain,” he began evasively.
“Nor do the space police who followed you,” went on Rufus calmly.
“What’s that?” demanded Dr. Haliburton. “I assure you, we came in utmost secrecy, and that—” He stopped, having seen the plain guilt on the face of Keith Randolph Marshall.
“Oh, damn the man!” stormed Marshall angrily. “What if I did? I’m a man of my word, and he’s a man of his. Yes, your jig is up! You might as well give yourself up quietly, Rufus.”
Marshall’s hand came up from the lower part of his space suiting, holding a flame-gun that was pointed at Rufus Thallin, but that young man was no longer there. Leaping with all of his strength, he dove clear across the room. His shoulders struck the metal suiting and the gun flew from Marshall’s hand.
One balled fist came up to a defensive position, kept on going. Rufus followed it with another, a straight punch that carried his full weight behind it. Keith Randolph Marshall went down. He wasn’t out, but when he looked into the face of the man standing over him, he stayed down.
“Get out!” snorted Rufus furiously. “Get your spacetogs on and get out before I really do commit murder. Go out to your precious, skulking space coppers. And just let them try to take me—alive!”
He picked up the flame-gun where Marshall had dropped it and watched the three of them as they fastened space toggings about their bodies. Marshall was the first to go through the airlock. Dr. Haliburton, looking slightly dazed, went next. There was only room for one of them at a time.
Alyce Marshall stood hesitant, waiting for the hiss of escaping gas that would be the signal for her turn. As she did Rufus Thallin stalked to her side, wrenched loose the upper fastening of her spacetogs. When her face came free he brushed back her tangled hair and kissed the exposed lips savagely.
“That wasn’t in the bargain either!” he ground out furiously, and spun on his heel.
She was gone. He sat at the controls and waited. She would be going from the outer door of the lock now, and the space police would be creeping nearer. Perhaps Alyce would tell them how he had gained entrance to the cavern, but by that time, it would be too late.
His hand flickered over the controls. A low thunder shook the space-flyer. On the outside a seething cushion of flames would be supporting it. Through the glassite he glimpsed retreating figures, saw the cavern abruptly become as light as day.
The space-flyer floated out over the edge of the abyss and dropped. It descended straight for three miles, then followed the curl of the titanic crevice toward the horizontal. Ancient civilized men had shaped the upper cavern, men of a lost generation, but this titanic lower abyss was a fault created by nature herself.
Rocket flames cast a weird illumination on the monstrous grotto, sent grotesque shadows leaping far ahead. The volcanic walls fell away from either side and were gone. Overhead he glimpsed crusty stars that twinkled like diamonds. On all sides were high black walls. The space-flyer had emerged in the giant crater called Copernicus.
The down-lash of flames became more furious, lifted the spacer high. Prow jets spat additional flames and sent the nose of the space-flyer angling vertically toward the dim, dark regions of outer space.
It held poised on the maelstrom of unleashed flame for an instant like a living thing of metal. He reached down, snapped on the radiation propulsion beam. Instantly the space-flyer began to accelerate.
The dark side of the moon was cleft asunder by a puff of high flame that lingered for a moment and then was gone. Only a thin column of shimmering light rose, slim and tall and straight. On its peak a space-flyer was hurtling on its way.
Rufus Thallin leaned back in his leathern pilot seat and relaxed. He felt very, very tired. A clicking sound aroused him. He turned to see a space-clad figure emerging from the airlock.
The helmet came away and she emerged from the spacesuit like a butterfly from a cocoon.
“You—you didn’t give me time,” said Alyce Marshall, evading his eyes.
“Look here!” snorted Rufus Thallin. “There was plenty of time to get out of the lock. What were you doing in there all of that time?”
“Thinking,” answered Alyce, folding the spacesuit neatly and putting it into place on a nearby rack. “And it was your own fault, Rufus Thallin. It was on account of what you did just before—before—
“Anyway, I was thinking that you had deliberately made me hate you all along. But you overdid it, Rufus. Did anyone ever tell you how closely related are the emotions of extreme hate and the emotions of extreme—”
“Extreme what?” demanded Rufus Thallin in incredulous amazement.
“We can pull through anything, Rufus, if we hold out—together.”
“Together, Alyce?” he whispered. “You mean it that way? Why, together we could lick the universe.”