Highwayman Of The Void
By DIRK WYLIE
Ironic destiny had brought outlaw Steve Nolan
across the star lanes to icy Pinto and tangled
his life again with the man he had sworn to
kill. Once more he was trapped in a maze of
Galactic intrigue that reached far back into
his past—and forward to his death.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Fall 1944.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Steve Nolan was three years dead, pyro-burned in the black space off Luna when a prison break failed. But Nolan had a job to do. Nolan came back.
Where the Avalon Trail bends across Annihilation Range, a thousand icy miles from Pluto’s northern stem, Nolan stopped and closed the intake valve of his helmet. Count five seconds, and he unhooked the exhausted tank of oxygen; count ten more and it was spinning away, end over end over Pluto’s frozen surface, and a new tank was already in place. He slipped the pressure valve and inhaled deeply of the new air.
He’d come ten miles by the phosphorescent figures on the nightstone markers beside the trail. Fifteen more miles to go.
His cold black eyes stared absently at the east, where the pseudo-life of the great Plutonian crystals rolled in a shifting, tinkling sea. He noted the water-avid crystals, and noted the three crablike crawlers that munched a solitary clump of metallic grass. You don’t walk, talk and breathe after a Tri-planet Lawman has declared you dead unless you note everything around you and react to what may be dangerous.
But he was looking beyond the familiar Plutonian drear, to the eastern horizon where faint lights gleamed in the dark. That was Port Avalon. That was where Steve Nolan was bound.
Woller was in Avalon. The Alan Woller who had made him an outlaw, roaming the star trails from Pluto to the Satellites, never daring to return to the inner worlds where Tri-planet kept order.
There was a slow pulse mounting in Nolan’s throat as he walked on, savagely kicking a crab-shelled crawler from his path. He’d seen the newssheet, months old, in a rickety old port on one of the Satellites—Io? Ganymede?—when he was down to forty credits and a friendly bartender. It hadn’t been much of an item. The kind a country editor throws into his finance column when he unexpectedly loses an ad and has to fill space.
“The new shipping company, which expects to do much for improving commercial relations with the outer planets, is headed by Alan Woller, formerly with the Interplanetary Telenews Company. Woller is remembered as the prosecution’s star witness in the trial of Steve Nolan, the Junta agent indicted for treason three years ago. Nolan, sentenced to life imprisonment in Luna Cave, was killed while attempting to escape.
“The new company is capitalized at over a billion dollars, and has already taken options on bases in….”
The drink had drained out of Steve Nolan when he saw that. And the bartender had been too friendly for his own good. He’d been a soft touch for five hundred credits.
That had been rocket fare to Pluto for Nolan.
He felt the drumming with the soles of his feet, a hard, grinding sensation against his metal boots. He jumped off the trail quickly and whirled to watch for the approaching skid.
It was moving slowly, chugging along on a single jet.
Clogged feeders, Nolan thought as he felt the uneven vibrations. If he doesn’t watch out he’ll have a backblast.
The skid faltered past him, no faster than he could run. He looked away from the incandescent flare of the one tail jet, then that stopped too. Tall as a man, a dozen feet long, the skid lay waiting on the trail.
Waiting for Steve Nolan?
Anything was better than walking. Nolan walked up to the skid, not fast, and kicked solidly at the entrance. It slid open with a creaking noise and he was in the tank, sealing the outer door behind him.
The inner door didn’t open. A female voice from a speaker said, “Who are you?”
Steve waited till he saw the pressure and temperature gauges shoot up to normal, then swung open his faceplate. “Matthews is the name,” he lied easily, out of three long years of practice. “I thought you were waiting for me. Say the word and I’ll get out again if I was wrong.”
“Oh, no.” The girl’s voice hesitated a second. “What are you doing out here?”
“I’m on my way to Avalon, out of Aylette. A skid bus took me across the Ice Plains, then I caught a lift on a prospector’s skid. He turned off ten miles back and I decided to walk the rest of the way.”
“Do you know anything about skids? Mine isn’t working very well. I’ll pay you if you can—”
“I’m not a mechanic,” Nolan said wearily.
“Oh. Then you can’t fix it.”
“I didn’t say that. You can’t pay me for it. I’ll take a lift to Avalon, though.”
“A lift? But I don’t know you from Adam.”
Nolan sighed. “Lady, I don’t know you either. Believe me, all I want is a ride. It’ll take me four hours to walk to Avalon. I can’t spare the time if I can help it.” He waited a second. No answer. He shrugged and finished his speech. “I’ll make you a proposition. Let me in and I’ll fix your jets. We’ll be in Avalon in twenty minutes, I’ll get out and we’ll never see each other again. Don’t let me in and I’ll tear these ignition wires right out of the lock. Then we’ll both hitchhike.”
The girl’s voice came with controlled anger. “You win,” she said. “Come in.” There was a soft click, and the inner door yielded under Nolan’s hand. He stepped in.
“No hard feelings,” he said mildly. “I really wanted the ride. One thing you might remember in the future, though—there are no ignition wires in an air lock.”
She was pretty, she was small, she was blue-eyed and brunette. But she didn’t say a word to him. She kept to her seat at the controls, watching him lift the top off the distributing chamber, prod around in the gummy mess inside for a second, then replace it and nod.
“You can start it up now, lady,” he said. He glanced over her shoulder through the plastic panel, to where Avalon’s lights were glowing. Where Woller was. “And the quicker,” he said, “the better.”
The girl looked at him curiously but said nothing. She turned and fingered the controls. The song of power that came out of the skid’s jets brought a quick, slight smile to her lips. Nolan caught a glimpse of her eyes reflected back at him from the plastic panel. Appreciative eyes.
He averted his look. Would there be another time when he could meet the gaze of a decent girl and answer it?
When Woller’s dead, his subconscious answered him. Until then you’re not a man, Nolan. You’re a weapon!
The skid was climbing, hugging the side of one of the vast foothills to Annihilation Range itself, a hundred-foot chasm on one side and the cliff on the other. Nolan watched the girl’s hands for a sharp second, then relaxed. She knew what she was doing. Unerringly the skid split the center of the trail, following its many turns as though on a track. But—
A sudden high sound escaped her lips. Her foot trod hard on the back-jet pedal. The skid slewed crazily, its side crunching against the cliff as it halted.
“What the—” snarled Nolan, hand leaping to the concealed pyro he wore under his shirt. Then he saw.
Ahead of them was an immense rounded bulk, dome-shaped, black as the frozen night. A crawler … but what a crawler! Its horny shell was half again the height of a man, filling the trail from cliff to chasm brink. There was no passing that beast. No wonder there had been no traffic from Avalon!
Mutely the girl turned to Nolan. He grinned sourly, then clambered into the heat suit he’d just put off.
He eyed the girl for a second. “I’m going to have to trust you. I have to get to Avalon, so I have to get this misbegotten monstrosity out of my way. And I have to leave the skid to do it. That gives you a fair, clear chance.”
The girl shook her head. “I’ll take you to Avalon. I owe you that much. But—but how—”
“Watch,” Nolan said curtly, and climbed into the tank. Before he closed the door a thought struck him.
He poked his head out at her. “If anything should go wrong,” he said, “and I find myself scattered all over that valley down there, you’d better stay put. Keep the crawler away with the brake jet. And wait for someone to come along. You’re not the skidster to back this crate all the way down the trail, with just a brake jet.”
Then he slammed the inner door, sealed his helmet, pushed his way out.
The crawler was even bigger than he’d thought. Standing within ten feet of it, he felt tiny and weak, a toy before this massive brute. Like ancient Earth dinosaurs, the crawlers kept growing as long as they lived. Tiny as the palm of a man’s hand, foot-high creatures like those Nolan had kicked out of his way an hour before or monstrosities like the one before him—all three types existed side by side. Only seldom did they grow as great as this. Invulnerable though they were, they perished of starvation, when their bulk grew too much for their thousands of tiny legs to carry.
Out of the ebon hulk of the thing came poking a minute head, goggle-eyed, with a luminous halo of green tendrils surrounding it. It blinked weakly at Nolan. He waited patiently. If the thing was convinced he was harmless.
It was. Recovering from the shock of the skid’s arrival it began to prepare for motion again. The head poked out toward the skid on a long, scrawny neck, examined it minutely. The big carapace shivered and rose slightly off the ground as the multitude of tiny legs took up the task of carrying it forward.
Nolan stood motionless. The creature moved ponderously toward him, ignoring him. In the dull mind of the creature an object as tiny as a man was nothing. Even the skid was merely another sort of boulder, against which it could lean, send it hurtling over to destruction, out of its way.
It moved forward till the hard horn almost touched him. Then Nolan leaped.
This was the moment of decision. He circled the long neck with one lashing arm, clamped on it all the pressure he could bring to bear. It was the one sensitive spot the creature had—and protected, normally, by armor battleship-thick.
Nolan strained the muscles of his arm, cursing the cushion of air inside his suit that made a pillow for the beast. The slippery flesh coiled and writhed in his grip; the beast exhaled a great, whistling screech of agony and the snakelike neck curved around. The popeyed head darted in at him, tiny mouth distended to show raw, red flesh inside. It battered ineffectually against the heavy plastic faceplate of his suit.
The crawler vented its whistling sigh again and staggered drunkenly away. Away from the remorseless pressure on its sore spot, away from the agonizing weight of him. Its tiny legs carried it rocking sidewise.
Then abruptly they tried to halt it, gave sharp warning to the tiny brain. It was too late.
The scrambling legs flailed for a foothold and found vacuum. Nolan gave a final heave, felt the thing slide away from him, leaped back. Just in time. He himself was teetering on the brink of the chasm as the crawler, tiny head darting frantically, soundlessly around, slid over and disappeared.
He didn’t look down. The clattering and crashing vibrations from below told what happened. He turned, shook himself and headed for the skid.
The girl was waiting for him. Nolan was mildly surprised. She looked at him curiously as he entered.
“A dirty job,” she offered tentatively.
He shrugged. “Yes,” he said. “Let’s get moving.”
She turned without a word. All the way back to Avalon, her back was a silent reproach. Friendship, it said, had been offered—and rebuffed.
Nolan had his private thoughts, and dwelt in them. Except for the muffled blast of the rockets there was no sound in the skid until they’d jetted into the great cargo lock in Avalon’s crystal dome and the handlers had come to slide the skid into a parking space.
Then, as they got out, she smiled suddenly.
She said, “I guess I misjudged you, Mr. Matthews. I’m sorry I was discourteous, but a girl can’t be too careful. Let me take you to dinner for an apology.”
Nolan paused and stared at her soberly. Then, “No, thanks,” he said. “I meant it when I said I wasn’t interested in you. I have things on my mind already.” He ignored her outstretched hand, turned to leave, then stopped. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Thanks for the ride.”
He walked cumbrously over to a storage cubicle without looking back. He stripped off his heat suit and checked it with a stout man in Pluto-city green.
It was time to plan his next move. There was a pilot’s hangout, he remembered, a saloon called the Golden Ray. He took a worn notebook from his shirt pocket, thumbed it to the forgotten address and held the page up for the checking attendant to see.
“How do I get there?”
The man’s eyes widened a fraction as he took the address in. He shrugged imperceptibly. “Any slidewalk going north,” he said. “Get off at the Hub and you’ll be within a couple blocks of it.”
Nolan nodded and headed for a moving sidewalk. The notebook went back into the pocket of his open-necked black shirt, and the hand that put it there paused a second to touch reassuringly the weight of a slim-barreled pyro that swung beneath his armpit, out of sight. It was nice to know it was there, even though he didn’t need it—yet.
He paused in a robot restaurant to eat. Saloons like the Golden Ray don’t sell much food—particularly to those who have tasted it once. It was getting on toward night.
The slidewalks were fast, and the first man he stopped at the Hub told him all he needed to know to find the saloon. Once he got within a block of it, it all began to come back. It had been years since he’d been there, but the place hadn’t changed.
A blast of sound struck him as he clawed his way through thick tobacco smoke and sweet Martian hop-incense fumes to the bar. He nodded his head, and the short motion yanked a fat bartender to him.
The man’s slitted eyes peeped surprisedly through the surrounding tallow.
“Gunner!” he whispered, amiable but hoarse. “Thought you were somewhere around Jupe. What’ll it be?”
“It’ll be nothing right now,” Nolan said. “I thought Petersen might be here. I want to see him.”
“Oh, sure,” the bartender said. “He’s dealin’ red-dog at one o’ the tables in the back.”
Nolan was called “Gunner” by those who knew him by his alias—He’d never taken the trouble to think up a first name for “Matthews.” He nodded and stepped away.
It wasn’t hard to find Petersen when you knew his habits. The wrinkled little man always sat in the noisiest spot he could find. This time it was a table right behind the four-piece orchestra, pride of the proprietor’s heart.
Nolan stood silently for a moment behind the little man’s chair to watch the play. He marveled at the ease with which Petersen’s gnarled fingers handled the flying pasteboards. As usual, Petersen’s pile of chips was low, and the set of his back was discouraged.
Nolan grinned. It was part of Petersen’s stock-in-trade to look like the tail end of a losing streak. The sucker trade stays away from a winning gambler. But they flocked to Petersen—and his pockets were always clinking.
Petersen’s gambler’s sixth sense was functioning. He twitched his shoulders uncomfortably, then turned around, glaring up. “Say,” he began, “who the hell are—Oh, Gunner!”
Nolan nodded. “Hey there, Peter,” he said.
Petersen grinned and blinked. He looked with regret at his top card, then at Nolan. “No?” he asked wistfully.
Nolan shook his head. “No.”
The little man shrugged and flipped his cards away. “Okay,” he said cheerfully, shoveling his chips into his clanking pockets. “Lead on, Gunner.”
Nolan led on, to a more secluded corner where the clamor of the alleged orchestra was less deafening. He sent a waiter off for a bottle of sealed Terrestrial Scotch, then turned to Petersen.
“Where’s Woller?” he asked.
Petersen scowled. “Listen, Steve,” he begged, “stay out of trouble. Woller’s big here.”
“Don’t call me Steve,” Nolan said mildly. Two living men knew that Nolan and Matthews were the same. Petersen was one of them—Nolan himself the other. “I manage my own affairs. I want to see Woller.”
“Okay,” Petersen groaned. “He’s at the Elena. The big hotel near South Lock.”
Nolan nodded. “Good enough,” he said. “I’ll take care of my business with him right away.”
The greasy-aproned waiter came back with the Scotch. Nolan inspected the seal critically, then broke it and poured two generous slugs. “How!” he said. “What’ve you been doing with yourself, Pete?”
Petersen swallowed his Scotch, grimaced non-committally. “Following the prospectors,” he said. “Making money and losing it. It’s been a long time since you were here.”
Nolan ignored the implied question. “Pretty long,” he agreed. “I wasn’t figuring on coming, but I heard Woller was here.”
Petersen nodded his head sadly. “You’re aching for trouble,” he observed. “Woller’s no man to buck up against. He’s got money behind him.”
“I dunno. Some Martian syndicate, they say. He’s come a long way since he was your boss at Telenews.”
“Not so long I couldn’t follow him.”
Petersen cocked an eyebrow, then poured another round. “You followed him into a bad spot,” he said slowly. “This whole town is be-jittered. He’s doing about what he likes and nobody says boo.”
Petersen frowned. “‘Cause they’re scared, it looks. Scared of the Junta. Talk is there are Junta men around. I wouldn’t have to remind you, I guess, of what Woller can say about you if he sees you.”
Nolan nodded. “He won’t see me—in time for it to do him any good.”
Petersen shivered. “You’re building up trouble,” he repeated. “Woller’s pretty near running this place.”
“‘A louse,'” Nolan quoted, “‘enthroned in luxury, will still a loathsome insect be.’ That’s Woller.”
Petersen’s wizened little troll-face gaped at him. “Lice bite,” he said succinctly.
Nolan said soberly, “Live ones do. After tonight Woller may not be able to bite anybody. Dead lice have no friends.”
Steve Nolan was deceptively slender in his open-necked, black military shirt and trim khaki slacks. In the half-hearted illumination thrown by Avalon’s old gasglow lights, he looked almost boyish.
But he didn’t look like the pale youth he’d been three years before. The good-natured roundness of his face had contracted to show the hard bone underneath. There was the ghost of a scar close to an eye, and the seared mark of a pyro burn where neck joined his right shoulder. The long fingers that once had twirled the toggles of a field newscaster’s walky-talky now were better acquainted with the groves of a pyro butt.
“For the last time,” he said, “you’re better off home in bed. I think there may be trouble.”
Petersen looked sour. “Good thinking,” he said. “I have a hunch that way, too. I’m going to stick around.”
Nolan shrugged. He eyed the Hotel Elena, towering almost up to the crystal dome, directly across the street from him. “It’s your neck,” he said. “You can catch me when I fly out.” He glanced quickly at a wrist-chrono. “A quarter after four,” he said. “If I’m not out in half an hour don’t wait up. I may be detained.”
Before Petersen could answer he was crossing the street, entering the hotel. The Elena was large, and the night clerk couldn’t be expected to know every guest. He glanced up as Nolan entered, then went back to nodding over his magazine. Nolan walked to the grav-well and stepped in.
Nolan let the curiously soothing grav-currents flow over him, carrying him up till he’d ascended twelve floors. That was where Woller was, by the best information Petersen had been able to give him. He reached out a hand and swung himself out of the flow, into a silent corridor.
Not quite silent. Nolan listened and smiled. There was a party somewhere overhead; a vise-box blared briefly in one of the rooms on this corridor as a sleepless guest hunted music. From the grav-well came the low humming of the generators.
That was fine. If it were necessary to make any noise it might be confused with the vise-box, or the singing from overhead.
Woller’s door was locked, of course. Nolan bent over the keyhole for a second. There was a tinny, springy click, and the door drifted open under the slow pressure of his hand.
The room was large and empty. A library, perhaps, as well as he could judge by the intermittent blood-tinted light that filtered in from an advertising stereolume across the street. Nolan flipped his cigarette lighter out, held it aloft and pressed the button. In the dim glow it shed he saw twin doors. After a moment’s hesitation, he chose one, opened it gently, slipped through into a bedroom.
A night light glowed softly on the wall, revealing nothing. Nolan sniffed the air curiously, then wrinkled his nose. Perfume! Woller had added a new vice to his character. Nolan grimaced contemptuously, then moved toward the indistinct figure on the bed. His right hand dipped inside his shirt, came away with the slim pyro protruding from his fist.
“Woller,” he said. “Wake up. You’ve got company.”
There was a rustle from the bed, a gasp, a metallic click. Nolan jumped back, cursing. He flung an arm over his head as the overhead lumes burst into blinding light. But he’d caught a quick, stunning glimpse of what was on the bed and, quicker than starflight, his pyro jutted toward the lumes, flared wickedly. All lights died as the blast shorted the wires.
It had been a girl in the bed, blinking up sleepily, mouth a taut line of surprise. The girl—the one from the skid, the one he’d encountered in Annihilation Range! She had no more of a look at him than he at her, and she had been sleep-dazed, staring up at the light. Perhaps she hadn’t recognized him—
“Hold still,” he hissed—there is no personality to a whisper. “Where’s Alan Woller?”
“Who are you?” the girl’s voice came, a trifle unsteady. Good—she hadn’t recognized him!
Nolan laughed voicelessly. “I’m the man with the gun,” he replied. “I ask the questions. Where’s Woller?”
“None of your business,” the girl said. There was a note of confidence in her voice, and suddenly Nolan felt a furtive movement from the bed. Was there an alarm—a bell to summon servants?
“Hold it!” he whispered sharply. “One wrong move and I’ll kill you. I mean business—and I want an answer.”
The girl’s voice was even now. “I won’t give one.”
Nolan’s brows drew down over his eyes. What was this girl to Woller? Whatever the connection was, by rights he should take no chances. The girl was a danger to him—and the life of no woman on Woller’s string should be permitted to stand between him and the chance for vengeance on the man who had framed him.
“I’ll give you ten seconds,” he whispered harshly.
But already he was stepping silently backward, concealed in the abyss-black gloom of the chamber. He reached noiselessly behind him for the knob of the door. He was being a fool and he knew it. But he had seen honesty in her eyes, back on the skid, and even the yearning for revenge couldn’t make him blot that out with pyro-flame.
He opened the door, slid out, closed it softly behind him. The girl said nothing, perhaps had not known he had gone. Nolan cast a quick longing glance at the other door, but there was no time. In seconds the girl would discover she was alone. There would be an alarm, surely.
A dim thread of light showed him the door to the hall. Catlike he crossed to it, then halted, petrified. Men were coming down the hall, several of them by the voices. He caught a snatch of a rasping complaint: “Old man Woller’s tin soldiers, that’s us. Who the hell does he—”
Nolan swore lividly under his breath. The end of the trail had come.
But he stepped back a pace and stood there, pyro up-tilted and ready. He would have a split-second’s advantage. If only there were no more than two or three of them—
And then the sound was drowned out. A sharp, moaning screech came from outside. A harsh metallic wail that climbed for the frigid heavens above, louder than the screaming trumpets of Ragnarök.
The alarm sirens! There was a break in the crystal dome that held the life of Avalon!
Meteorite, accident or simple fatigue—the dome had cracked. Air and heat would vanish. Death would tenant the city.
There was a sudden, sharp babble from the men outside, then the pounding of footsteps, halting as they dove into the grav-shaft. Nolan’s chance! But he froze in his tracks, then whirled. He ran to the door behind him and wrenched it open.
“Get a heat suit!” he bawled to the girl on the bed. “Dome’s cracked! You’ve got maybe twenty minutes—less, if it’s a bad break!”
His voice was a bellow—there was no time for whispers. No time, and perhaps no need. If the dome had gone, Avalon might be a city of corpses, heat suits or none, before help could arrive with fresh oxygen tanks from far-away Aylette. Disguise would hardly matter then.
But he wasted no time in thought. He was out the door, down the hall and dropping into the cushioning grav-web of the descending shaft in seconds. Guests were waking in their rooms. The corridors were filling with shouting men and women. The shriek of emergency trucks filtered in from the street, and the hoarse bellow of the alarm sirens multiplied the havoc done to the peace of the night.
If he could get to a ship—?
But the slidewalks would be jammed with panicky humans, all with the same thought. A heat suit was his only chance. And the nearest ones he knew of were at South Lock, at the base of the dome itself!
He swung himself out of the shaft, raced across the lobby, which was already beginning to fill with people intent on escape. He was out the door with the van of them, racing across a still empty street toward South Lock.
A slim, pale figure darted across in front of him. He moved to dodge past, then slowed momentarily as he saw who it was.
“Steve!” Only one man knew that name—Petersen!
“Pete! What are you waiting for? Come on—get a suit!”
Petersen sighed, touched Nolan’s shoulder to halt him. “There’s no hurry, pal,” he said mildly.
“No hurry! The dome alarm—”
Petersen shook his head. “Forget it,” he said. “I turned the alarm in myself.”
Toward what passed for morning in Avalon, the confusion died down. The emergency cars were off the streets, the sirens had long since stopped wailing and the last irate citizen had retired for what remained of a night’s sleep.
Petersen came back from the window of his shabby little one-room apartment and reported on progress to Nolan.
“All quiet,” he said. “Sure you won’t change your mind and lie down for a while? You’ll be needing sleep pretty soon.”
Nolan swallowed the rest of his coffee, stubbed out a cigarette and shook his head. “No time,” he said. He glanced at his chrono. “I figure on leaving in twenty minutes. You’re sure Woller’s going to be on that ship?”
Petersen grinned. “Pretty sure,” he said. “I have my ways.”
“You looked good on the deal last night,” Nolan said. “You and your hammy ideas. I would have got out without all that.”
Petersen was serious. “Not alive, no. When I saw those apes coming down the street I was pretty sure something was up. So I got on a phone—I got a friend works for Woller’s company, and he reads the boss’ mail—and that’s what he told me. Woller has to get back to the Inner Planets in a hurry. He’s sent a bunch of his company guards to pick up some stuff at his apartment. The only thing I could think of was to turn in the alarm and hope you’d get out in the confusion. You’re a smart boy, but you ain’t Dead-eye Dick, friend. You couldn’t of fought it out with five of Woller’s finest.”
Nolan inclined his head. “Maybe you’re right. You say something big seems to be up?”
“What else? He gets a red-hot sealed teleflash from Aylette. Sealed, mind you—my friend can’t listen in. He cancels the orders of the only ship his new company has in Avalon—cancels all the cargo contracts—and takes off in it in the middle of the night for Aylette. He’ll be back here this morning, they say, to pick up those papers. Then they’re off again, deep space, this time. The clearance says Mars.”
Nolan nodded. His face was impassive, but a slight crinkling of the lines around his lean nose showed thought. What was Woller up to?
It was curiously difficult to concentrate on Woller. Absently, he found himself saying. “And you don’t know who the girl was?”
“My information don’t go that far,” Petersen admitted. “He has a daughter some place, but she ain’t supposed to be here now. But what’s your guess about this she?”
“My guess is you’re right,” Nolan agreed reluctantly. There was something about soft blue eyes and silk-fine black hair that did not fit in the same picture with Woller.
Petersen was looking at him shrewdly, with a dim light of understanding glowing in his eyes and a hint of pity. As Nolan looked at him, Petersen looked away, began fumbling inside his waist-band.
“What’re you doing?” Nolan asked curiously.
“You’ll need money,” said Petersen. He finished unbuckling and dragged out an oiled-silk money belt. Without opening it, he tossed it to Nolan. “Here. You’ll have to bid high to get passage on Woller’s ship. This’ll help.”
Nolan nodded. “Thanks,” he said. “Look, I—”
Petersen waved a hand airily. “Forget it. As long as there’s enough radium on Pluto for prospectors to find, I’ll have plenty money.”
“Sure,” said Nolan. “But the thanks still goes.” He closed his eyes for a second, rubbed them. Then he blinked rapidly, took out his pyro and checked it. Full clip, save the one shell he’d used on the light last night. Twenty-three shots. He deftly slipped another cartridge in to make the full two dozen, then replaced the gun in its shoulder holster.
“You’re going to get into trouble with that thing,” Petersen prophesied.
Nolan shrugged. “I’ve got a name to live up to. A gunner has to have a gun—and I kind of think I’m going to need this one.” He glanced at the chrono again and stood up, stretching.
“Well, good-by,” he said casually. “I owe you a bunch of favors. You won’t have to remind me.”
“Course not,” Petersen agreed. “Wouldn’t do much good. But I’ll sort of mention it to your heirs.”
At the Operations lock of the Avalon spaceport Nolan opened the money belt Petersen had given him for the first time. He peered inside and whistled.
The cards had been with Petersen, all right. The little man had carried a young fortune around with him. He tucked the belt in a pocket with a mental resolve to pay it back some day, if he lived long enough, and went into the observation room.
Through the crystal dome he could see the ship, the only one on the field. It was a beauty—brand-new and glistening. By the look of her, she was the latest type. Pure gravity drive, the rocket jets used only for landing. It had a name, limned phosphorescent on a dark panel in the glittering hull: Dragonfly.
He turned and walked over to the port clearance officer. “I have to get to Mars,” he said. “I hear this ship’s bound there. Who do I see about booking passage?”
The port official scratched his bony head. “It’s an unscheduled run,” he said, “and I dunno if they’re taking any passengers. But over there—” he waved a hand—”is the second mate. He might help you.”
“Thanks.” Nolan walked over, eyeing the pallid, short-bodied Venusian indicated. The man was staring glumly out of the observation panel.
“You the second on the ship out there?” Nolan asked.
The man turned slowly and looked him up and down. “Yeah,” he said finally. “What about it?”
Nolan allowed his eyes to narrow conspiratorially. “I hear you’re bound for Mars,” he said, lowering his voice. “Any chance of taking a passenger?”
Nolan tapped a pocket. “Listen,” he said, “it isn’t just that I want a ride. I have to get to Mars. I’ll pay.”
The Venusian laughed sharply and Nolan thought, not for the first time, how superior environment is to heredity. The Venusians, like most of the System’s intelligent life, were descended from Earthmen all right, but the adjective that described them best was “fishy.”
The second said, “Pay? You haven’t got enough money to get you into the lock of that ship.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Nolan said easily. He took the money belt out of his pocket, flashed the contents for a second. “I meant it,” he said. “I have to get to Mars. Name your price—I’ve got it.”
The Venusian’s eyes widened. Nolan saw, from the corner of his eye, a skid rocketing across the field. It halted by the Dragonfly, and the ship’s lock opened. Two bulky, heat-suited figures hurried out of the skid, into the ship.
“What do you say?” Nolan persisted, accelerated by the sight of the figures. One of them would be Woller’s thug with the apparently vital papers. That would be the big one—the smaller might be a clerk from his office.
“Okay,” the mate capitulated. “Tell you what. It’ll cost you ten thousand credits. If it’s worth that to you, all right.”
Nolan shrugged wryly. “It’s worth my neck,” he grinned confidentially.
The Venusian grinned moistly back. “Payable in advance,” he specified. “Now. Give it to me and I’ll go out and arrange the deal with the captain.”
Keeping a percentage of course, Nolan thought; but he only nodded and silently counted out the money. The Venusian grabbed it without checking the count. He said, “Okay, I’ll be back in a minute,” and left.
Nolan watched him struggle into his suit and clamber across the frigid soil of the field. The lock opened for him, then closed again. Nolan sensed a sudden uneasiness. He almost jumped when the port officer came up behind him and said:
“Wouldn’t take you, huh?”
Nolan turned. “Sure,” he said. “He had to go arrange it with the captain. I’ll go out with him when he comes back for his clearance papers.”
“Clearance papers!” the official barked. “Good Lord, man, they’ve had those for hours. That man isn’t coming back!”
Nolan, swearing incandescently, flung his heat-suit voucher at the officer, grabbed the first suit in the rack and was in the main lock, waiting for the inner door to close, before he put it on. He had already sealed the suit and stepped out on the field when he noticed what the excited hammering of the port official on the lock door should have told him.
The suit had only a single oxygen tank in its clip—and the gauge showed “empty”!
He hesitated only a moment. His eye caught a glimpse of the Dragonfly, etched sharply against the black horizon by the field’s blazing floodlights. Its smooth lines were suddenly blurred and indistinct. The grav-web was building up around it. In a moment it would be gone!
“Damn!” yelled Nolan, to the sole detriment of his own eardrums. Already the slight amount of air in his suit was nearly used up. But as soon as the web reached full focus the Dragonfly would blast off and Woller would be beyond reach for a long time!
Nolan swore fervently, then sealed his writhing lips to save air. He set off in a slow, heavy trot for the shimmering spaceship. He was breathing pure carbon dioxide and staggering nicely by the time he pushed his way through the thickening resistance of the grav-web to the massive outer door of the lock.
His bulging eyes caught the lever that opened the lock, guarded by a scoop-shaped streamshield. He yanked it blindly, saw the heavy panel roll aside, stumbled in.
Some member of the crew must have been watching—someone with compassion, unexpected enough in a ship of Woller’s. The lock door clanged shut behind him and clean air hissed in. Nolan tore frantically at his faceplate and gulped deeply, dizzyingly.
The metal flooring shuddered. He felt an intolerable weight drag at his water-weak body as the ship took off. He hadn’t made it by much, at that. A couple of seconds more and he would have been left.
“Boy!” Nolan gasped. “Somebody sure doesn’t want me along on this ride.”
The inner door was sliding open. Nolan stepped out into a well lit corridor, almost colliding with the flabby bulk of the Venusian.
The mate glared at him darkly, the hand on his waist poised suggestively above the butt of a pyro.
Before he could speak, Nolan said mildly, “You’re a thieving louse. But I’m on the ship, and I won’t hold it against you. Only—don’t try that again.”
The mate flushed. “The captain didn’t want to take you,” he mumbled. “I was going to send your dough back soon’s we touched ground.”
“Sure,” Nolan agreed. “Having my full name and address the way you do, it’d be easy. Well, skip it. Where’s my cabin?”
You wouldn’t call it exactly hospitable, the way the mate stalled as long as he could, obviously trying to cudgel his feeble Venusian brain into some plan for getting rid of the unwanted passenger. But Nolan finally got his cabin.
It was the smallest and worst on the ship, of course, but the ship was a beauty. Nolan smiled in real appreciation when he saw the room. The furniture was glow-tinted plastic; the bed was covered with Earth silk.
“Beat it,” he told the mate, and watched the door close behind him. Then he sat down to chart a course.
Woller might recognize him.
That was the first danger. True, Nolan had been reported dead and Woller knew nothing to the contrary. It was only a miracle that Nolan wasn’t dead, in fact. Only the incredible chance of his being picked up in midspace, where he floated helplessly, one shoulder brutally pyro-scarred and half the air gone from his suit, had saved him then.
That had been one miracle, for even the ranging, avid patrol boats hadn’t been able to find him after his mad leap from a lock of the ship that was carrying him to the Moon.
But that miracle had occurred. And the second miracle was that the pleasure craft that saved him was piloted by a man who lived outside the law but had an iron-clad code of honesty—who wouldn’t turn Nolan in for the bounty money on fugitives. Pete Petersen’s scrawny shoulders bore no wings, but he’d seemed like an angel to Nolan that desolate day, when he’d seen the flare of Nolan’s desperate signal rocket and swung round in a wide arc to pick him up, eventually to take him to the lawless safety of the Belt.
To everyone but Petersen, Steve Nolan was dead. And the little shots of gray now running through Nolan’s dark hair, the scar that crossed one tanned cheek, gave him a new personality. He looked slender and dangerous as a lunging rapier, and every bit as cold.
But Woller would have good cause to remember Nolan. Woller had sat there in the courtroom, back on Earth. He’d sat there the whole dragging week of the trial, with Nolan’s eyes on him every minute. He looked directly at Nolan, even while he was in the chair, telling the lies that linked Nolan with the Junta—the secret, revolutionary group of outer-planet malcontents that sought to overthrow Tri-planet Law’s peace and order.
Nolan’s lips contorted savagely as he recalled that. A traitor! His sole crime had been that he knew too much about Woller, his boss!
Woller had been clever about it. The law itself had removed Nolan, a menace to his lawless schemes. When Nolan, on his own initiative, had talked and bribed his way into seeing a confessed and condemned saboteur of the Junta for an interview, he’d found to his sick astonishment that the man was one he had seen in Woller’s own office, not two months before.
He’d been childishly simple about it, had confronted Woller and demanded an explanation. Woller had put on his friendliest face and promised one—later….
And then Woller had turned the dogs loose.
Within an hour Nolan was in jail for the bribery of the prison officials. The next morning came the incredible indictment: Sabotage for the Junta!
Nolan grimaced, recalled the careful, hideous network of lies and forgeries, the distorted evidence, the perjuries. But he had been one man, and Woller represented vast power.
Then abruptly there was a knock on the door. Jolted out of his thoughts, Nolan started, then called: “Just a minute.”
This was the moment—and he had no plan. His pyro slid out into his hand. He broke it, stared at the twenty-four potent heat charges. They would be plan enough for him, if he got a clear shot at Woller. But if he should be disarmed, if Woller should suspect.
A moment later, the pyro hidden beneath his shirt again, he opened the door. It was the Venusian second, as before.
“Captain wants to see you,” he growled. “Come on.”
The Dragonfly was a single-deck craft, the captain’s cabin located topside of the deck and amidships. Nolan looked around curiously, despite his internal tension, as he followed the Venusian along. The plastic keel panel underfoot showed an infinity of stars. There was one, large and bright, outstanding among the lesser stars. Nolan recognized it—the Sun, parent star to the farflung planet they’d just left. Now it was dim and feeble, but by the time they got within sight of the Inner Worlds it would be a ravenous thing, reaching out to destroy them with lethal radiations.
Out of curiosity, he asked. “When are you going to opaque?”
“Huh?” The Venusian looked startled for a second; then his blubber-drowned little eyes became shrewd. “Oh, about Orbit Saturn, I guess.”
Nolan suppressed a sudden frown. He asked carefully, “Say, how do you do it on these new-type ships anyhow? All the ones I’ve been on, you had to have the panels filter-shuttered before they lifted gravs.”
“Paint,” the mate said curtly. “Okay, here we are.”
He stood aside, pointed to a door with a glowing golden star embossed on it. Nolan nodded and entered, but his thoughts were racing.
Paint the panels! It would take the whole crew, and they’d never get it off. If they opaqued with paint the ship would be blind for weeks. The filter shutters—great strips of polarized colloid—were the only solution to the problem of keeping out the worst of the sun’s dread radiations, but admitting enough light to guide the ship. But they had to be put on externally, before the ship took off. Mars? This ship, ports transparent as they were, would never dare approach the sun’s blinding energies closer than Jupiter!
No wonder they didn’t want me, Nolan thought grimly. They’re not going within a hundred million miles of Mars!
The thought froze in Nolan’s mind as he entered the captain’s cabin. First he saw the captain, a tall, demon-black Martio-Terrestrial, standing before his own desk. Then his eyes flicked past, toward the florid-faced man who sat behind the desk, fumbling with a cigarette lighter.
And then, for the first time in three years, he was face to face with Alan Woller.
Nolan might have showed a flicker of emotion in his face. Heaven knows, the blast of iron hatred that surged up through his body was powerful enough. But Woller was lighting a cigarette. The second that it took him to finish it and look up was time enough for Nolan to freeze.
“Vincennes is my name,” the captain was saying. “What’s yours?”
“Matthews. I’m sorry to have forced my way onto your ship, but I had to get to Mars.”
Woller looked up then, and a sudden trace of consternation flashed into his eyes. It died away, but a doubt remained.
He stared intently at Nolan, then said: “Why?”
Nolan smiled easily. “A lot of reasons—all of them personal. Who are you?”
Woller stood up. “I own this ship,” he said coldly. “I didn’t ask you aboard. Now that you’re here, you’ll answer my question or get off.”
The time for a showdown had arrived. Well, Nolan thought, it had to come some time. He was strangely relaxed.
He shrugged. “You’ve got a point there,” he admitted. “Well—”
He frowned and raised his hand as though to scratch his head, changed the motion in mid-air. And with the speed of a hopped-up narcophene smoker, the thin-snouted pyro was in his fist, slowly traversing a lethal arc that covered both men.
His voice was taut as he spoke. “It’s your ship, Woller, but I’m taking it over. Woller—Alan Woller—look at me. Do you know who I am?”
Woller stared deep into the icy eyes confronting him. The doubt flared again in his own. His jaw dropped slack. His brows lifted and he whispered, “Nolan!”
Nolan didn’t bother to nod. He said grimly, “Your hands—hold them where they are. You, too, Vincennes. I’ve come a long way for this and I don’t mind killing. You taught me that, Woller. A man’s life is nothing. Mine was nothing to you, when it endangered the dirty little treacheries you were working.”
The life seemed to have gone out of Woller and left only a hulking, pallid carcass, propped up by the internal pressure of its own fear. There was murky horror crawling in his eyes.
Steve Nolan looked at him and his thin lips curled into a snarling grin. But those were only his lips. Strangely, there was no triumph in his heart, none of the fierce pleasure he’d dreamed of all those dreary years. There was only dull disgust, and the hint of a long-dead hope for rest again. Rest, and the common things of life on the Earth which was forbidden to him.
Woller could die before him now, and he would be avenged. But Woller alive could say the words that would wipe out the banishment, would return him to the green star that was home. Woller could be made to confess—
“I ought to blast you now,” he said in a soft, chill tone that was like a whip to Woller, jerking him upright. “I ought to, and I will if I must. But you can live if you want to.”
Woller was licking his lips, his face a mask, only his panic-stricken eyes alive.
“You can live,” Nolan repeated. “A full statement about the Junta frame, in writing. Write it out and thumbprint it, and we’ll telestat it to the nearest TPL station. Then you can have the lifeboat, Woller, and as much of a start as TPL gives you. Are you willing to pay that much for your life, Woller?”
Woller’s lips were stiff but he forced the words through. “Go to hell.”
Nolan nodded, and the deadly weariness settled down over him again. “I see your point, of course,” he said slowly. “Tri-planet doesn’t come out here much and a man is reasonably safe from them. But you, Woller—power’s your life blood. And a man on the run can’t have much power. I know.”
His finger curled on the trigger of the pyro and Woller, staring avidly, desperately, whitened at the mouth. His lips moved as though about to form words—
Nolan’s trigger-sharp senses caught a hint of movement behind him. Fool! he thought desperately. The door! He tried to hurl his body aside, out of the way of the door that opened behind him. But he couldn’t do that and keep the pyro leveled on the two men at the desk. He saw Woller, exultant hatred leaping into his purpled face, plunging for a drawer of the desk; saw the door opening and someone stepping through. Then, just as he was leveling the gun on Woller again, he saw the flashing swing of the other man in the room. Forgotten Vincennes—with a heavy nightstone paperweight held bludgeon-like in his hand, leaping in at him. He had no chance even to try to turn. The weight was coming down on the side of his head. All he could do was try to roll with it.
But the momentum was immense and the heavy weight struck him down to the floor, drove him headlong into unconsciousness….
Somebody was kicking him. Nolan groaned once, then compressed his lips as he remembered where he was.
He opened his eyes and rolled over. The blubbery Venusian second was standing over him, face sullen but eyes glinting with perverse pleasure. He raised his heavy spaceman’s boot again—
“Hold it,” said Woller from the desk. They were still in the cabin.
Woller got up, came over, looking down at Nolan. His bearing was confident again; he exuded an aura of brutal power.
“You should have killed me, Nolan,” he said. “You only get the one chance, you see.”
Nolan silently pushed himself erect. His ribs were agonized where the second had booted them, and a blinding throb in the skull reminded him of the captain’s blow. He was conscious that his armpit holster hung light. The pyro was gone.
Vincennes had left. Only Woller and the Venusian second were in the cabin with him. “My only doubt,” Woller was saying, “is whether to blast you now or save you for a little later, when I’ll have more time.”
“Sure,” said Nolan tonelessly. “If you want my vote, it’s for now. Get it over with.”
Woller nodded. “That would be much pleasanter for you. I think I’ll save you.” He nodded slowly. Then, to the mate, “Take him below!”
Back down the corridor, the mocking stars still bright through the crystal underfoot. Back and down, till they came to the gray room, where the pulsing, whining generators spun their web of anti-gravitational power.
“We don’t have a brig,” the mate apologized. “But I think this will hold you in.”
Eyes warily on Nolan, he circled him and opened a round metal door. It was an unused storeroom, bare except for rows of vacant metal shelves.
“In you go,” said the Venusian, and Nolan complied. The door slammed behind him and was bolted.
There was a whine in the air, he noticed. The singing of the grav-generators. It was not unpleasant … at least, not unbearable, he corrected himself. But how it persisted! It was constant as the keening of a jammed frequency-modulator, high as the wail of a banshee.
He let his aching body slip to the floor, lay there without even trying to think. He raised his head for a searching second, but there was nothing to see. Bare walls, bare shelves.
He was helpless. His chance might come when the second let him out. Till then, he would sleep.
When had he slept last? Save for the few minutes of unconsciousness, it was easily thirty hours. He pillowed his head on his arm….
He moved his head uncomfortably, burrowed his ear deeper into his biceps. That damned keening! He shifted restlessly, stopped his exposed ear with his other hand. That movement racked the beaten ribs, but the shrilling, soft and remorseless, kept on. It was enough to drive a man mad! It was—
He sat bolt upright, eyes flaring angrily. That was what Woller had planned!
It was torture—subtle, undramatic, simple. But pure, horrid torture.
Nolan’s face was gray with strain. It was incredible that a sound, a noise, could become a threat. He’d heard the same sound a million times before, though never at such close range, or from such titanic generators. But now—
He began trying to fill his mind with other things, but there was no room for thought in a brain that was brimming with naked sound. Snatches of school-days poetry, long columns of multiplication tables—They jumbled in his brain. The lines ran together and muddled, were drowned out by the wail of the generators. He gave up and sat there, forcing himself to be still, while the sound hovered in the atmosphere all around him, his jaw muscles taut enough to bite through steel, a great pulse pounding in his temples….
Flesh could stand only so much. After a while—he didn’t know when—he was mercifully unconscious.
A volcano erupted under him and awoke. His whole body was a mass of flame now, head throbbing like the jets of a twenty-ton freight skid, chest and ribs as sore as though they were flayed. A sickening weight held him crushed against the metal floor.
The roaring from without was the sound of the rockets, loud enough to drown out the whine that had nearly killed him. The ship was landing. And at once there was a gentle jar, then a dizzying vertigo as the grav-web was cut off abruptly. The rockets died down and were silent.
Everything was silent. The change was fantastic, a dream. Nolan, lying there, thought the silence was the finest thing he had ever heard.
It didn’t last. There were footsteps outside, and the Venusian second mate entered. “On your feet,” he said curtly. “The boss is ready for you.”
Nolan stood up cautiously. His feet were shaky, but he could use them. He stepped over the rounded sill and followed the Venusian’s directions. There were men in the corridor, some of them in heat suits. Nolan wondered where they were. Neptune was on the other side of the sun—could they be as far in as Uranus? How long had he been unconscious!
“Get moving,” repeated the second, and Nolan moved.
The blessed stillness! He was grinning to himself as he walked along the corridor, listening for the lethal whine that wasn’t there any more. When they got to where Woller, space-suited and bloated, was directing a crew of men in the moving of a bulky object, Woller noted the grin. He was not pleased.
“Enjoying yourself, Nolan?” he asked, unsmiling. “That will have to stop.”
A grin stayed on Nolan’s face, but it was not the same one. It was a savage threat. Woller looked at it, and looked hastily away.
“Stand him over in the corner,” he said to the Venusian second. “I’ll attend to him right away. Business first.”
The second jerked a thumb at the corner formed by the airlock door and the wall of the corridor. Nolan looked in the direction indicated, and a sudden tic in his brows showed a thought that had come to him. The red signal light winked out as he watched; the inner door had closed.
He stared through the transparency at what was beyond. Darkness was all he could see—darkness, and the light-dotted outline of buildings in the distance. Just beyond the lock was something that looked like a skid, with men’s figures around it. His forehead puckered, and his eyes returned to the signal light, now dark—
The Venusian second watched Nolan limp slowly over to the indicated position. His eyes narrowed. “Hey, what’s the matter?” he asked surlily.
Nolan shook his head. “Something in my shoe,” he said. He halted and balanced himself on one foot, poking into the offending footgear. “A button, I guess,” he said as drew out, concealed, something that he knew quite well was not a button.
He breathed a silent prayer, and it was answered. The Venusian grunted and turned away. Nolan walked quickly over to the wall, by the lock light, turned and stood surveying the scene without interest. His hands apparently were linked idly behind him—but behind his back they were moving swiftly, dexterously. A clink of glass sounded, and Nolan winced as a sharp sliver cut his thumb. Then he stood motionless, waiting.
The men were shock-wrapping a long, casket-like object. To judge by the care they were using, the contents were delicate and the handling would be rough, Nolan noted absently. Explosives, perhaps?
The last loop of elastic webbing went around it, and the Venusian second pulled it taut. “All right,” he grunted. “Take it away.”
“Lock!” bawled Woller as the men picked up the bundle. That was Nolan’s signal.
As slowly as he could manage he stepped idly away from the lock, away from the signal light, hugging the wall.
A deckhand, not troubling to look at the warning light across the corridor—Nolan mentally thanked his gods—touched the release that opened the lock door. And—
Ravenous flame lashed out from the wall.
Nolan was in motion before the incandescent gases had died. The half-dozen men who had been in the corridor were either down on the floor or blindly reeling about. Even without a proton-reflector behind it to focus its fierce energies, a pyro charge exploded on unarmored men can do a lot of damage.
Nolan blessed the hunch that had warned of trouble, the remembrance of an old spacer’s trick that had led him to hide a pyro charge in his shoe, back there in the stateroom. Still it had been luck, pure and simple, that gave him the chance to open the signal light socket, take out the lume and put the pyro pellet between the contacts. When he’d got out of range and the automatic warning as the lock opened had touched it off—
Catastrophe. He’d known when to close his eyes, where to stand for safety. The others hadn’t. And so the others were blind.
He grabbed a pyro from a writhing wretch on the floor—there was horror in him as he saw the seared face that had once been that of the Venusian second. He picked a heat suit out of the cubby, and was into it and in the lock before the blinded men who had escaped the full flare could recover themselves.
The lock doors took an eternity to work, but at last he was out in the cold, black open. A hasty glance at the landscape told him nothing. Uranus or Pluto—it had to be one of them. That was all.
A man was just coming out of the skid, perhaps twenty feet away. Nolan clicked on his radio, waited for the inevitable question—but it didn’t come. The man’s transparent faceplate merely turned incuriously to Nolan for a second, then bent to examination of the fastenings of the skid’s lock. Nolan turned calmly and strode off along the side of the ship. When he rounded the stern he broke into a run, heading straight out across charred earth to a chain of hummocks that promised shelter.
How long would pursuit be delayed? Late or soon, it would come. Nolan realized that he had no plan. But he had life, and freedom.
He topped the first of the hummocks, scrambled down into the trough behind it. He was relatively safe there, as he cautiously elevated his head to examine the ship and what lay behind it.
Already—it had been scant minutes since the carnage in the lock corridor—the search for him had begun. He saw a perfectly round spot of brilliance fall on the side of the ship, then dance away. Through the ice-clear Plutonian night he could make out the figure of a man with a hand light scanning the belly of the ship, looking to see if Nolan had hidden himself there. They would quickly learn the answer to that—and know what he had done.
Beyond the ship were a few dim lights, distorted by a crystal dome. It was another city—or not quite a city, but a domed settlement out here in the wilderness.
Without warning a sun blossomed on the side of the ship. Nolan stood frozen for a split second, then dropped, cursing. They’d seen him, somehow, had turned the ship’s powerful landing beam on him. But how?
A soundless bolt of lightning that splashed against a higher hill behind him drove speculation out of his mind. Nolan frowned. The ship was armed—he hadn’t known that. Installation of pyros in interplanetary craft was the most forbidden thing of the starways. But there was no time for wonder.
As another blast sheared off the crest of a hill, Nolan, keeping low, scuttled away behind the shelter of the hummocks. His only safety was in flight. Armor he had none. The frozen gases that comprised the hummocks would never stop the dread thrust of a properly-aimed pyro.
He fled a hundred yards, then waited. Silence. He risked a quick look, saw nothing, retired behind the shelter of the hill to consider. They’d suspended fire—did they think him dead? Did they know he had escaped?
Or was there a hidden danger in this? It might be a ruse. They could be waiting for him to move, to show himself….
Nolan shivered, and absently turned up the heat control of his suit. He felt suddenly hopeless. One man against—what? His thoughts, unbidden, reverted to the girl he had left in Avalon, and to the sordid fear that she might be what she seemed. Nolan’s cheek muscles drew tight, and his face hardened. Woller, partly protected by his heat suit, undoubtedly had lived through the instant inferno when the pyro charge went off. That was one more thing against him—the girl. Nolan sighed.
And a faint reverberation on the soles of his feet brought him stark upright, staring frantically over the sheltering mound of ice. A skid was racing down on him.
Before he could move its light flared out, spotted him.
And a tiny voice within his helmet said, “Don’t move, Nolan. You can’t get away now. You’ll die if you try. Next time you play hide-and-seek with me, Nolan—don’t leave your helmet radio on!”
If Woller had burned with rage before, now he was frozen. He was a blind man there before Nolan, his eyes swathed in thick white bandages. But the hulking Earthman with the pyro who stood by his side, and lean black Captain Vincennes at the controls, were eyes enough for him.
“But I wish I could see you myself,” Woller said softly, his fingers drumming idly against the wide fabric arm of his cushioned passenger’s chair. “The ship’s surgeon says it may be weeks before I see again. If I could afford to keep you alive that long—” He sighed regretfully. “No, I can’t afford it,” he concluded. “There are more important things, though nothing—” his voice shook but kept its chill calm—”that would give me more pleasure than to see you die.”
“We could save him, Woller,” Vincennes said. “Pickle him in a sleep-box like—”
“Be still, Vincennes!” Woller’s voice was sharp. “I’ll ask for advice when I want it!”
A sleep-box—Nolan remembered suddenly what they were. Small coffins, large enough for a man, equipped with an atomic-powered generator that kept the occupant in a sort of half-death, not breathing or able to move, but capable of existing almost indefinitely without food.
Nolan wondered absently what they were doing with sleep-boxes, then gave it up. It didn’t matter. He cursed the carelessness that had led him to leave the radio on in his suit. It had been simple for the Dragonfly’s radio-man to tune in on its carrier wave, get a radio fix on his position.
The skid swerved abruptly in a sloppy turn, and the surly earth man at the controls halted it and looked around. “Okay,” he grunted. “Here we are.”
Woller nodded. “Take me out,” he ordered. “Nolan, too.”
Nolan peered out the window. Absorbed in self-recrimination, he hadn’t paid attention to their trip. He was surprised to find gleaming metal all around the skid. They were in a heat lock—they had come to the domed settlement.
The Martian Vincennes went first. As soon as the pressure gauge showed he was safely outside the Earthman gestured to Nolan. He wedged himself wearily into the air chamber, closed the door. He was ready for a break when the outer portal opened … but there was no break. Not with Vincennes and his ready pyro there.
Woller, stumbling and cursing, followed, and the Earthman. Vincennes opened the main lock and they went into the dome.
There were two great ships inside, dimly lighted by a string of pale lumes overhead. Nolan looked at the mass of them, at the rodlike projections clustered around the nose, and knew them for what they were. Warships!
Scaffolding was still around them. They were not yet ready for launching, not ready for whatever mission of treason Woller had planned them for. But by the look of them the day was close. And Nolan was—awaiting execution.
One look at Woller’s iron countenance under the tape showed that. Vincennes’ hand, tight-knuckled around the butt of his gun, was ample confirmation.
But the moment had not yet come. Woller said, “Are they waiting?”
Vincennes’ glance sped to a lighted door at the far side of the hangar. “Looks that way,” he said. “Shall I attend to Nolan first? He’s tricky—”
Woller laughed softly. “He’s used up all his tricks. We’ll take him with us, alive. He might come in handy. He’s been out of sight for three years now. I’m just a bit curious where he’s been. Perhaps it’s somewhere we should know about.”
He groped for Vincennes’ arm, found it. “Let’s go,” he said. “We can’t keep the chief waiting.”
Nolan was first through the door. He was in a small room where four or five ordinary-looking people were siting around at ease. One was in uniform, the others the perfect example of quite successful businessmen.
“Is he here yet?” whispered Woller. The Martian looked around the room before he answered.
“Not yet. Cafferty—Lieutenant Brie—Searle—Vremczyk. That’s all.”
The dumpling-shaped soldier in the gray-green of Pluto’s militia stared at Woller. “What the devil’s the matter with your face?” he spluttered.
Woller answered before Vincennes could. “I had an accident, Brie,” he snapped. “Keep your fat nose out of it.”
The dumpling turned purple. But he said nothing, and Nolan realized Woller’s importance in this gathering. This gathering of—what?
Nolan looked around quickly, and the answer raced to his brain. An officer of Pluto’s defense forces—two or three well-dressed men, apparently wealthy, with something about them that shrieked “politico”—and Woller, once overlord of the System’s greatest news-dissemination agency, still a man of vast influence. It looked like the back room of a political convention—or the gathering of a cabal.
It had to be the Junta.
What they were saying began to make sense. A tall man in dove gray was speaking.
“We’re not satisfied, candidly,” he was saying. “Woller, you’ve had more money than our resources can afford. Everything you’ve asked for you got. And what have you to show for it? Three ships—not one of them fit to fly.”
Woller laughed contemptuously. “Candidly, Cafferty,” he mimicked, “I don’t care how you feel. My money’s gone right along with yours. Warships cost money.”
“So do thousand-acre Martian estates,” shot the little lieutenant. “How much of your money is in these ships—and how much of ours is in your pockets?”
Woller turned his blind eyes toward the lieutenant and stood motionless for a second. Then, softly, “Once again, Brie—keep your fat face shut. You are not indispensable.”
The pudgy soldier glared and opened his mouth to speak—but an interruption halted the quarrel. The door opened without warning, and another man entered.
What he looked like Nolan could not guess. He wore a heat suit with the helmet down. The polar-plastic faceplate was set for one-way vision. Even his voice was muffled and distorted as he spoke.
“Are we all here?” he asked. The others seemed to note nothing odd about his incognito—did he always disguise himself, Nolan wondered? “Where’s Orlando?”
Brie answered. “He was on Mars, on the other side of the sun. He’s on his way.”
The mirror-faced helmet bobbed as its owner nodded. Then it turned toward Nolan. “What’s this?” he asked, advancing.
Vincennes gestured with the pyro. “His name is Nolan,” he said. “He tried to get rough with Mr. Woller. He’s dangerous.”
“Dangerous!” The blurred voice was angry. “Then why is he here? We have enough danger as it is. Give me that pyro!”
This was it, Nolan knew, and he tensed his body for the leap he had to attempt, though he knew it was useless. The man in the heat suit reached for Vincennes’ pyro. In the moment while the gun was passing from hand to hand there might be a chance….
There were shouts from outside, and the sound of running feet. The man in the heat suit whirled. “Bolt that door!” he shouted. “Bolt it! Now!”
Brie, dazed for a second, sprang to obey. Then he turned, his plump, pale face damp with sudden sweat. “What is this, Chief?” he asked. “Are we—is there trouble?”
Chief! thought Nolan. So this hooded stranger was the leader of the conspiracy. Masked, disguised like the bandit chief of a flamboyant operetta.
The Chief was laughing. “Lots of trouble,” he answered. The dull shouting from outside continued, rising to a crescendo as whoever was without pounded against the door and found it locked. Then abruptly it subsided. The huge telescreen on the desk buzzed sharply. The solid little man seated beside it automatically clicked the switch that turned it on.
“Turn it off!” bellowed the man in the heat suit. But it was already working. The prismatic flare on the screen showed no vision impulses were coming in, showed that whoever was calling was using a sound transmitter only—a portable set like those in a heat suit. A voice said sharply:
“Attention, Junta! The man who claims to be the Chief is a masquerader. Kill him! This is the Chief speaking now!”
Doubt sprang into the eyes of every man present. It lasted only a second—for the masquerader’s action proved the charge against him.
He grappled the pyro from dazed Vincennes, sprang back, fired a warning blast that smashed the telescreen.
“Don’t move, anybody!” he ordered. “Nolan—take their guns!”
Nolan threw questions to the winds, sped to obey. He found a business-like little heat pencil in the inner pockets of the chunky man, a pearl-handled burlesque of the service pyro in the gaudy gemmed holster Lieutenant Brie dangled from his belt. Nothing else—and his search was thorough.
“All set,” he reported.
“Good enough. Searle—are there heat suits in this room?”
The chunky man looked stricken. He nodded. “In that locker,” he said dizzily, pointing to the wall.
“Get them out, Nolan. Give one to every man and put one on yourself. Those outside will take their chances.”
Nolan raced to comply. The stillness outside the door was menacing. While he was dragging the suits out, throwing them at the men, while they were putting them on, the man called Searle was staring at the masquerader with dawning comprehension.
“What are you going to do?” he whispered. “Are you—”
The man in the heat suit laughed sharply. “Get your suit on,” he said. “You know what I’m going to do. All set?” Every man was garbed, helmets down. “Ten seconds to seal them. One, two, three—”
He counted slowly and Nolan watched him with fascination. At five the gauntleted left hand came up to the butt of the pyro, worked the tiny chambering lever half a dozen times. Nolan gasped in spite of himself. There were seven lethal pyro charges in the chamber of that gun—enough to blast down a mountain!
The count was finished. Through Nolan’s helmet radio, automatically turned on, the man’s calm voice ordered, “All right, Nolan. Open the door and let them in!”
Nolan moved. As his hand was on the lock, just as it turned and the door swung loosely inward—
Blam! the impostor swung and fired the massive charge in his pyro at the thin wall that kept air and life in the dome!
They were running over icy ground. At most there was a minute or so of advantage—less, if the men they’d left in the room had other weapons concealed somewhere. And still Nolan didn’t know who his savior was.
“All right, now,” he panted over the helmet phone. “Give. Who are you?”
The answer was a chuckle, mixed with gasping as the smaller man strove to match his speed. “Tell you later,” he panted.
“Hold it!” Nolan broke in, suddenly recalling the oversight that had been so disastrous before. “Don’t tell me. Show me—and turn off your radio. They’ve got tracers.”
There was a snort of sudden comprehension from the phone, then silence. Nolan looked to see the figure spurt into the lead, gesture ahead. They were rounding the dome. The bulk of the Dragonfly appeared, with a big cargo skid drawn up beside it. The gesticulating arm of the other man pointed directly at it.
Nolan glanced around. There was no one following—yet.
The men hadn’t had weapons, then—and those who had been outside would not be pursuing anybody. He tried to thrust from his mind the recollection of what had happened when the sucking rush of escaping air had thrown wide open the door he had unlocked, and the tug of naked vacuum gripped the men behind it. A dozen of them there had been, hulking brutes from the flight sheds of a system’s blowsiest ports, and one man in a heat suit, faceplate mirrored like that of the man Nolan ran beside. It is not pleasant to see a strong man try to shriek in agony, and fail because the air has bubbled from his lungs.
The outer door of the skid was open, and the impostor trotted in. When Nolan was beside him he leaned on the lock control. Ever so slowly, the outer door closed; slowly the inner opened.
They burst into a chamber where a man was just rising from a telescreen, face contorted with consternation and hate, hand bringing up a pyro from a drawer in the chart table.
The pseudo-chief’s gun spoke first, and the head and shoulders of the other disappeared in a burst of flame and sickening smoke. There was no time for delicacy. Ruthlessly shoving the seared corpse away, the stranger dove for the controls, touched the jet keys.
The ungainly skid shuddered, then drove forward. The stranger opened all jets to the limits of their power. Creaking and groaning, the skid responded. The dial of the speed indicator showed mounting acceleration, far beyond what the ship was designed for.
Nolan, clinging with one arm to a floor-bolted chair, threw back his helmet and yelled: “I’m ready any time! What’s the story? Who the devil are you?”
The impostor waved a hand impatiently. His muffled voice came: “Take a look in there. There may be more aboard!”
Nolan grimaced and nodded. He picked his way over the jolting floor, blaster out, to the threshold. His groping hand encountered the lume switch, flooded the cargo hatch with light. It was almost empty. A few crates, the long casket-like object he had seen in the ship. Nothing behind which a man could hide.
Nolan turned to see the masquerader unzipping the folds of his heat suit with one hand while he guided the careening skid with the other. He brought out a tiny black box, opened it to show a key and a lever. He thumbed the lever open, braced the box between his knees, began tapping the key rhythmically. A curious shrill staccato came from the box. Dee dideedeedit didideedit deedeedit deedeedee didee didididit—
After a second he stopped, waited. Then faintly an answer came back from the box. Deedeedee dideedidit—
And silence. Satisfied, the man closed the box, slowed the skid to a point where its guidance no longer required complete attention. They had reached the ring of ice hummocks that surrounded Woller’s dome. The skid bounded over the first rise, zoomed through that trough and the next; then the man kicked the rudder jets. It spun along the trough to where the hummocks were highest; then he cut the jets.
He turned to Nolan, threw back his helmet.
“My God,” gasped Nolan. “Pete!”
Petersen grinned. “You called it, boy,” he admitted. “Don’t I get around though?”
Nolan closed his eyes and tightened his grip on the back of his chair. “The story,” he said. “Quick.”
Petersen shrugged. “How can I tell it quick? It’s long…. Maybe if I tell you one thing you can fill in the details.”
“What’s the one thing?”
“I work for TPL.”
TPL—Tri-planet Law! That explained—
Nolan exhaled slowly. “I begin to see,” he said. “I always did think you knew too much for a guy that made his living at cards.”
Petersen laughed. “My biggest trouble,” he said wryly. “I can’t win at cards. Whatever I do. It’s been quite a drawback to my career. You can see how people would get suspicious of a professional gambler who always loses. I had to keep on the move.”
Nolan’s brain was beginning to work again. “But listen,” he said. “How come you didn’t turn me in when you picked me up—right after I escaped? If you worked for the Law—”
Petersen’s face grew serious. “Boy,” he said, “you gave us a lot of trouble. You and your escapes. We weren’t planning to keep you in jail, Steve. Any fool could see you were being framed—fixed court, semi-pro witnesses. But TPL couldn’t step in, out in the open. We didn’t know enough for a showdown. So you were going to be summoned to Mars for further questioning. When we found out all you knew you were to be taken care of some way or other. Given a new identity, kept undercover until we were ready to move.”
“And I jumped the gun.”
Petersen nodded. “I was in the neighborhood, heading for Earth. The TPL man on the ship called Earth Base; they called me. The ship had you spotted, but they decided not to pick you up. Base figured that if you thought you were being hunted you’d keep yourself under cover and we wouldn’t have to bother. And if I picked you up I could pump you myself.”
Nolan grinned. “How did you do?”
“Fine. You talked more than a ventriloquist with a two-tongued dummy…. Then you turn up on Pluto, just when things are getting hot.”
“After three years of hiding in third-grade ratholes for fear of the law.” There was no bitterness in Nolan’s voice. Just a calm statement of an unpleasant fact.
Petersen’s voice was level, too, but his eyes were alert as he watched Nolan. “That couldn’t be helped, Steve. You know what was at stake.”
Abruptly the grin returned. “The whole damned System, that’s all,” Nolan said a little proudly. “Well … go ahead with your story.”
Petersen shrugged. He looked a little relieved as he spoke. “You know most of it. Oh—one part you don’t know. Woller’s daughter—her name’s Ailse—knew about what he was doing. She just found out about it. We had a maid working in her home in Aylette—she didn’t generally stay with Woller; they didn’t get along.”
Nolan’s brows lifted. “Oh?”
“Yep. Ailse was worried silly. She even talked to the maid—not much, just enough that we could figure out what was happening. It seemed she was going to confront Woller with what she knew, try to talk him out of treason.”
“A real good idea,” Nolan remarked. “Knowing Woller—”
“That’s how we knew where this base was. She told the maid. Oh, you do know where you are, don’t you? On Pluto. The wildest section there is, north of Annihilation Range.”
“How about this cockeyed disguise of yours? Who is this Chief you were supposed to be?”
Petersen frowned. “Don’t know, exactly,” he admitted. “There are three men it could be—they’re all connected with the Junta, we’re pretty sure. They’re all on Saturn, and we got word that they were rendezvousing here. We knew the boss kept his identity hidden by wearing this get-up, so I was detailed to cut in.”
Nolan nodded. Then, his thoughts reverting, he said. “Where’s the—where’s Ailse now?”
Petersen looked unhappy. “Uh—I don’t know. After you left we sent for her, just to see what she knew that might help. The maid went after her—and couldn’t find her. She’d gone out of town, wasn’t expected back for some time. We couldn’t wait. All the leaders of the Junta meeting here—it was too big a chance.”
Nolan said, “Well, what are we doing about it? They’re all there, and they’re warned. And we’re out here, parked on the edge of nowhere, waiting for them to get up a scout party and grab us.”
Petersen turned to look out the window in the direction of the dome. He scanned the skies carefully, then pursed his lips.
“Well, no, Steve,” he said, pointing. “Take a look.”
Arrowing lines of fire were swooping down from far into the blackness. Three trails of white flame showed where three ships were plummeting to the surface. Nolan turned to Petersen with a startled question in his eyes.
“Watch,” Petersen advised. “This’ll be worth seeing!”
Down and down they drove, faster than meteor ever fell. A mile above the ground the jets behind died, and yellow flame burst ahead of them, flaring quickly to white. They slowed, poised, and then, in perfect unison, spun off to one side. They came around in a great circle and dived at the ground again. And repeated the operation, over and over.
And abruptly Nolan saw what was happening. He was witnessing the systematic annihilation of the domed settlement! Immense bursts of fire from ship-sized pyros were blazing into the ground. The hummocks prevented a dear view, but Nolan could see from the reflected glare on the mountainsides behind that the destruction was frightful.
“I called them,” Petersen said softly. “You saw me call them. That black box—it’s a telesonde.”
Nolan didn’t turn, fascinated by the sight. “What’s a telesonde?” he asked absently.
“A radio that carries neither voice nor vision. Only one note short or long depending on how long the key is held down. Your great-great-grandfather knew about it. It was the first method of wireless communication. Now it’s so completely forgotten that when TPL researchers dug it up it was adopted as the most secret method of communication available.”
Nolan nodded his head. The ships came around again, and down. This time the forward jets were delayed. When they flared out they persisted, while the ships dropped gently out of sight. They were landing.
The destruction of the dome was complete.
Nolan turned away. “Quite a sight,” he said slowly. “They deserved to die, of course….”
Nolan’s eyes narrowed suddenly. He looked at Petersen. “Yes?”
Petersen, for once, seemed almost at a loss for words. He licked his lips before he spoke. “Steve—there are one or two other things. Did you know that Ailse wasn’t Woller’s daughter by blood?”
Nolan looked at him unbelievingly. “Not his daughter?”
Petersen shook his head. “Woller married a widow. A wealthy one, with a daughter. They didn’t get along too well. The woman died. Some people thought it might be suicide.”
The quick joy flooded up in Nolan. Petersen saw it and his face grew somber. “That’s one of the things, Steve,” he said. “The other one—Hell, this is hard to say.”
Nolan stood up and the joy was gone from his face. “Damn you, Pete,” he said emotionlessly. “Don’t break things gently to me.”
Petersen shrugged. “Ailse wasn’t anywhere we could find her—and we know a lot of places to look in. The ship left to come here. She was at Woller’s home till just before then. Woller sent men to bring something from his apartment to the ship. I thought it was papers at the time—but it could have been a girl. So—where does that leave Ailse?”
Where? Nolan stood rocklike as the thought trickled through the automatic barrier his mind had set up. Where did it leave Ailse?
A charred fragment of what had once been beauty. A castoff target for TPL’s searching pyros.
“I’ll say it again, Steve. You know what was at stake. If the Junta had time—Well, we didn’t know what kind of weapons they had there. That was one reason why I was sent ahead in that crazy disguise. If I had had time to scout around it might have been possible to do things less bloodily. I didn’t have time. We couldn’t take chances.”
There was no anger in Nolan, no room for it. He sat there, waiting for Petersen to start the jets and send them back to the dome. He knew how he would scour the ashes, hoping against hope. And he knew what he would find.
It would have been better, he thought, almost to have died under Woller’s pyro, or the TPL ships’. If he’d stayed behind—if Woller had put him in the sleep-box as Vincennes had suggested, and he had shared obliteration with her….
The sleep-box! The casket!
It took Petersen a full second to recover from his surprise when the frozen face of Nolan suddenly glowed with hope, when he leaped up and dashed into the cargo hatch. It took him minutes to follow him. Minutes spent in making the difficult decision of whether or not he should prevent a man from taking his own life.
The decision was wasted, he found. Behind the scattered boxes of pyro shells, wedged into a corner of the hold, Nolan knelt beside a long, narrow casket. Fiber shock-wrapping was scattered about. Nolan’s fumbling fingers were working the latch of the casket, lifting the lid….
The shout that left his lips was deafening in the small hold. Petersen looked closer, tiptoed up—
And all the way back to the waiting ships of the TPL Petersen was grinning to himself. Though his hands guided the ship skillfully as ever, though his gaze was outward at the flowing terrain beneath, he saw but one thing.
The tableau as he had approached the casket and seen Nolan, face indescribably tender, shutting off the sleep currents, reaching for the ampoule of stimulant that would revive the unconscious dark-haired girl within.