By CLIFFORD D. SIMAK
Adventure flamed in Mr. Meek’s timorous heart,
the surge of battle and singing blades. And so,
with a rocket-ship for his steed and a ray-gun
for his sword, he sallied forth … carrying
cavalier justice to the resentful shining stars.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Summer 1944.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Now that he’d done it, Oliver Meek found the thing he’d done hard to explain.
Under the calm, inquiring eyes of Mr. Richard Belmont, president of Lunar Exports, Inc., he stammered a little before he could get started.
“For years,” he finally said, “I’ve been planning a trip….”
“But, Oliver,” said Belmont, “we would give you a leave of absence. You’ll be back. There’s no reason to resign.”
Oliver Meek shuffled his feet and looked uncomfortable, a little guilty.
“Maybe I won’t be back,” he declared. “You see, it isn’t just an ordinary trip. It may take a long, long time. Something might happen. I’m going out to see the Solar System.”
Belmont laughed lightly, reared back in his chair, matching fingertips. “Oh, yes. One of the tours. Nothing dangerous about them. Nothing at all. You needn’t worry about that. I went on one a couple of years ago. Mighty interesting….”
“Not one of the tours,” interrupted Meek. “Not for me. I have a ship of my own.”
Belmont thumped forward in his chair, looking almost startled.
“A ship of your own!”
“Yes, sir,” Oliver admitted, squirming uncomfortably. “Over thirty years I’ve saved for it … for it and the other things I’ll need. It sort of got to be … well, an obsession, you might say.”
“I see,” said Belmont. “You planned it.”
“Yes, sir, I planned it.”
Which was a masterpiece of understatement.
For Belmont could not know and Oliver Meek, stoop-shouldered, white-haired bookkeeper, could not tell of those thirty years of thrift and dreams. Thirty years of watching ships of the void taking off from the space port, just outside the window where he sat hunched over ledgers and calculators. Thirty years of catching scraps of talk from the men who ran those ships. Men and ships with the alien dust of far off planets still clinging to their skins. Ships with strange marks and scars upon them, and men with strange words upon their tongues.
Thirty years of reducing high adventure to cold figures. Thirty years of recording strange cargoes and stranger tales into accounts. Thirty years of watching through a window while rockets, outbound, dug molten pits into the field. Thirty years of being on the edge, the very fringe of life … but never in it.
Nor could Belmont have guessed or Meek formed in words the romanticism that glowed within the middle-aged bookkeeper’s heart … a thing that sometimes hurt … something earthbound that forever cried for space.
Nor the night classes Oliver Meek had attended to learn the theory of space navigation and after that more classes to gain an understanding of the motors and controls that drove the ships between the planets.
Nor how he had stood before the mirror in his room hour after hour, practicing, perfecting the art of pistol handling. Nor of the afternoons he had spent at the shooting gallery.
Nor of the nights he had read avidly, soaking up the lore and information and color of those other worlds that seemed to beckon him.
“How old are you, Oliver?” asked Belmont.
“Fifty next month, sir,” Meek answered.
“I wish you were taking one of the passenger ships,” said Belmont. “Now, one of those tours aren’t so bad. They’re comfortable and …”
Meek shook his head and there was a stubborn glint in the weak blue eyes behind the thick lensed glasses.
“No tour for me, sir. I’m going to some of those places the tours never take you. I’ve missed a lot in these thirty years. I’ve waited a long time and now I’m going out and see the things I’ve dreamed about.”
Oliver Meek pushed open the swinging doors of the Silver Moon and stepped timidly inside. Just through the door he stopped and stared, for the place hit him squarely in the face … the acrid smoke of Venusian leaf, the high-pitched laughter of the Martian dancing girls, the soft whirr of wheels, the click of balls as they bounced around the spinning wheels, the clatter of poker chips, the odor of strange liquors, the chirping and growling of a dozen tongues, the strange, exotic music of Ganymede.
Meek blinked through his heavy lenses, moved forward cautiously.
In the far corner of the place stood a table occupied by one man … an old, grizzled veteran of the Asteroids with his muzzle in a flagon of cheap beer.
Meek sidled toward the table, drew out a chair.
“Do you mind if I sit here?” he asked and Old Stiffy Grant choked on a mouthful of beer in his amazement.
“Go ahead, stranger,” he finally croaked. “I don’t give a dang. I don’t own the joint.”
Meek sat down on the edge of the chair. His eyes swept the room. He smelled the smoke, the raw liquor, the sweat-stained clothing of the men, the cheap perfumery of the dancing girls.
He shifted his gun belt so the two energy pistols hung more easily, and cautiously slid farther back upon the chair.
So this was Asteroid City on Juno. The place he’d read about. The place the pulp paper writers used as background for their more lurid tales. This was the place where guns flamed and men were found dead in the streets and a girl or a game of chance or just one spoken word could start a fight.
The tours didn’t include places such as this. They took one to the nice, civilized places … towns like Gusta Pahn on Mars and Radium City on Venus and out to Satellite City on Ganymede. Civilized, polished places … places hardly different than New York or Chicago or Denver back home. But this was different … here one could sense something that made the blood run faster, made a thrill scamper up one’s spine.
“You’re new here, ain’t you?” asked Stiffy.
Meek jumped, then recovered his composure.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I am. I always wanted to see this place. I read about it.”
“Ever read about an Asteroid Prowler?” asked Stiffy.
“I believe I have somewhere. In a magazine section. A crazy story….”
“It ain’t crazy,” protested Stiffy. “I saw one of them … this afternoon. Right here on Juno. None of these dad-blamed fools will believe me.”
Furtively, Meek studied the man opposite him. He didn’t seem to be such a bad fellow. Almost like any other human being. A little rough, maybe, but a good fellow just the same.
“Say,” he suggested impulsively, “maybe you’d have a drink with me.”
“You’re dang tootin’,” agreed Stiffy. “I never turn down no drinks.”
“You order it,” said Meek.
Stiffy bawled across the room. “Hey, Joe, bring us a couple snorts.”
“What kind of an animal was this you were speaking of?” asked Meek.
“Asteroid Prowler,” said Stiffy. “Most of these hoodlums don’t think there is one, but I know different. I saw him this afternoon and he was the dad-blamest thing I ever laid my eyes on. He boiled right out from behind a big rock and started coming after me. I let him have one in the face but that didn’t even nick him. Full-power, too. When that happened I didn’t waste no more time. I took it on the lam. Got to my ship and got out of there.”
“What did he look like?”
Stiffy leaned across the table and wagged a forefinger solemnly. “Mister, you won’t believe me when I tell you. But it’s the truth, so help me. He had a beak. And eyes. Danged if them eyes weren’t something. Like they were reaching out and trying to grab you. Not really reaching out, you know. But there was something in them that tried to talk to you. Big as plates and they shimmered like there was fire inside of them.
“These dod-rotted rock-blasters here laughed at me when I told them about it. Insinuated I held the truth lightly, they did. Laughed their fool heads off.
“It’s pretty near as big as a house … that animal, and it’s got a body like a barrel. It’s got a long neck and a little head with big teeth. It’s got a tail, too, and it’s kind of set close to the ground. You see, I was out looking for the Lost Mine.”
“Sure, ain’t you ever heard of the Lost Mine?”
Stiffy blew beer in amazement.
Oliver Meek shook his head, feeling that probably he was the victim of tales reserved for the greenest of the tenderfeet, not knowing what he could do about it if he were.
Stiffy settled more solidly in his chair.
“The Lost Mine story,” he declared, “has been going around for years. Seems a couple of fellows found it a few years after the first dome was built. They came in and told about it, stocked up with grub and went out. They never did come back.”
He leaned across the table.
“You know what I think?” he demanded gustily.
“No,” said Meek. “What do you think?”
“The Prowler got ’em,” Stiffy said, triumphantly.
“But how could there be a lost mine?” asked Meek. “Asteroid City was one of the first mining domes built out here. There was no prospecting done until about that time.”
Stiffy shook his head, waggling his beard.
“How should I know,” he defended himself. “Maybe some early space traveler set down here, dug a mine, never got back to Earth to tell about it.”
“But Juno is only one hundred and eighteen miles in diameter,” Meek argued. “If there had been a mine someone would have found it.”
Stiffy snorted. “That’s all you know about it, stranger. Only one hundred and eighteen miles, sure … but one hundred and eighteen miles of the worst danged country man ever set a boot on. Mostly up and down.”
The drinks came, the bartender slapping them down on the table before them. Meek gasped first at their price, then choked on the drink itself. But he smothered the choke manfully and asked:
“What kind of stuff is this?”
“Bocca,” replied Stiffy. “Good old Martian bocca. Puts hair on your chest.”
He gulped his drink with gusto, blew noisily through his whiskers, eyed Meek disapprovingly.
“Don’t you like it?” he demanded.
“Sure,” lied Meek. “Sure I like it.”
He shut his eyes and poured the liquor into his mouth, gulped fiercely, desperately, almost strangling.
Said Stiffy: “Tell you what let’s do. Let’s get into a game.”
Meek opened his mouth to accept the invitation, then closed it, caution stealing over him. After all, he didn’t know much about this place. Maybe he’d better go a little easy, at least at first.
He shook his head. “No, I’m not very good at cards. Just a few games of penny-ante now and then.”
Stiffy looked his disbelief. “Penny ante,” he said, then guffawed as if he sensed humor in what Meek had said. “Say, you’re good,” he roared. “Don’t s’pose you can use them lightnin’ throwers of yours either.”
“Some,” admitted Meek. “Practiced in front of a looking glass a little.”
He wondered why Stiffy rolled in his chair with mirth until tears ran down into his whiskers.
Stiffy held a full house … aces with kings … and his eyes had the look of a cat stalking a saucer full of cream.
There were only two in the game, Stiffy and an oily gentleman called Luke. As the stakes mounted and the game grew hotter the others at the table dropped out.
Standing behind Stiffy, Oliver Meek watched in awe, scarcely breathing.
Here was life … the kind of life one would never dream of back in the little cubby hole with its calculators and dusty books at Lunar Exports, Inc.
In the space of an hour, he had seen more money pass across the table than he had ever owned in all his life. Pots that climbed and pyramided, fortunes gambled on the flip of a single card.
But there was something else too … something wrong about the dealing. He couldn’t figure quite what it was, but he had read an article about how gamblers dealt the cards when they didn’t aim to give the other fellow quite an even break. And there had been something about Luke’s dealing … something that he had read about in that article.
Across the table Luke grimaced.
“I’ll have to call you,” he announced. “I’m afraid you’re too strong for me.”
Stiffy slapped down his hand triumphantly.
“Match that, dang you!” he exulted. “The kind of cards I been waiting for all night.”
He reached out a gnarled hand to rake in the coins but Luke stopped him with a gesture.
“Sorry,” he said.
He flipped the cards down slowly, one at a time. First a trey, then a four and then three more fours.
Stiffy gulped, reached for the bottle.
But even as he did, Oliver Meek reached out and placed his hand upon the money on the table, fingers wide spread. He’d remembered what he had read in that article….
“Just a minute, gentlemen,” he said. “I’ve remembered something….”
Silence thudded in the room.
Meek looked across the table straight into the eyes of Luke.
Luke said: “You better explain yourself, mister.”
Meek suddenly was flustered. “Why, maybe I acted too hastily. It really was nothing. I just noticed something about the deal….”
Luke jerked erect, kicking his chair away with the single motion of rising. The crowd suddenly surged away, out of the line of fire. The bartender ducked behind the bar. Stiffy flung himself with a howl out of his chair, skidded along the floor.
Meek, suddenly straightening from the table, saw Luke’s hand streaking for the gun at his belt and in a split second he realized that here he faced a situation that demanded action.
He didn’t think about those days of practice in front of the mirror. He didn’t call upon a single iota of the gun-lore he had read in hundreds of books. His mind, for a bare instant, was almost a blank, but he acted as if by instinct.
His hands moved like driving pistons, snapped the twin guns from their holsters, heaved them clear of leather, grabbed them in mid-air.
He saw Luke’s gun muzzle swinging up, tilted down the muzzle of his own left gun, pressed the activator. There was a screeching hiss, a streak of blue that crackled in the air and the gun that Luke held in his hand was suddenly red hot.
But Meek wasn’t watching Luke. His eyes were for the crowd and even as he pressed the firing button he saw a hand pick a bottle off the bar, lift it to throw. The gun in his right hand shrieked and the bottle smashed into a million pieces, the liquor turned to steam.
Slowly Meek backed away, his tread almost cat-like, his weak blue eyes like cold ice behind the thick-lensed spectacles, his hunched shoulders still hunched, his lean jaw like a steel trap.
He felt the wall at his back and stopped.
Out in the room before him no one stirred. Luke stood like a statue, gripping his right hand, badly burned by the smoking gun that lay at his feet. Luke’s face was a mask of hatred.
The rest of them simply stared. Stared at this outlander. A man who wore clothing such as the Asteroid Belt had never seen before. A man who looked as if he might be a clerk or even a retired farmer out on a holiday. A man with glasses and hunched shoulders and a skin that had never known the touch of sun in space.
And yet a man who had given Luke Blaine a head start for his gun, had beaten him to the draw, had burned the gun out of his hand.
Oliver Meek heard himself speaking, but he couldn’t believe it was himself. It was as if some other person had taken command of his tongue, was forcing it to speak. He hardly recognized his voice, for it was hard and brittle and sounded far away.
It was saying: “Does anyone else want to argue with me?”
It was immediately apparent no one did.
Oliver Meek tried to explain it carefully, but it was hard when people were so insistent. Hard, too, to collect his thoughts so early in the day.
He sat on the edge of the bed, white hair tousled, his night shirt wrinkled, his bony legs sticking out beneath it.
“But I’m not a gun fighter,” he declared. “I’m just on a holiday. I never shot at a man before in all my life. I can’t imagine what came over me.”
The Rev. Harold Brown brushed his argument aside.
“Don’t you see, sir,” he insisted, “what you can do for us? These hoodlums will respect you. You can clean up the town for us. Blacky Hoffman and his mob run the place. They make decent government and decent living impossible. They levy protection tribute on every businessman, they rob and cheat the miners and prospectors who come here, they maintain vice conditions….”
“All you have to do,” said Andrew Smith brightly, “is run Blacky and his gang out of town.”
“But,” protested Meek, “you don’t understand.”
“Five years ago,” the Rev. Brown went on, disregarding him, “I would have hesitated to pit force against force. It is not my way nor the way of the church … but for five years I’ve tried to bring the gospel to this place, have worked for better conditions and each year I see them steadily getting worse.”
“This could be a swell place,” enthused Smith, “if we could get rid of the undesirables. Fine opportunities. Capital would come in. Decent people could settle. We could have some civic improvements. Maybe a Rotary club.”
Meek wiggled his toes despairingly.
“You would earn the eternal gratitude of Asteroid City,” urged the Rev. Brown. “We’ve tried it before but it never worked.”
“They always killed our man,” Smith explained, “or he got scared, or they bought him off.”
“We never had a man like you before,” the Rev. Brown declared. “Luke Blaine is a notorious gunman. No one, ever before, has been able to beat him to….”
“There must be some mistake,” insisted Meek. “I’m just a bookkeeper. I don’t know a thing….”
“We’d swear you in as marshal,” said Smith. “The office is vacant now. Has been for three months or more. We can’t find anyone to take it.”
“But I’m not staying long,” protested Meek. “I’m leaving pretty soon. I just want to try to get a look at the Asteroid Prowler and scout around to see if I can’t find some old rocks I read about once.”
The two visitors stared open mouthed at him. Meek brightened. “You’ve heard about those old rocks, maybe. Some funny inscriptions on them. Fellow who found them thought they had been made recently, probably just before Earthmen first came here. But no one can read them. Maybe some other race … from somewhere far away.”
“But it won’t take you long,” pleaded Smith. “We got warrants for all of them. All you got to do is serve them.”
“Look,” said Meek in desperation, “you have got me wrong. It must have been an accident, shooting that gun out of Mr. Blaine’s hand.”
Meek felt dull anger stirring within him. What right did these people have of insisting that he help them with their troubles? What did they think he was? A desperado or space runner? Another gangster? Just because he’d been lucky at the Silver Moon.
“By gosh,” he declared flatly, “I just won’t do it!”
They looked pained, rose reluctantly.
“I suppose we shouldn’t have expected that you would,” said the Reverend Brown bitingly.
The Silver Moon was quiet. The bartender was languidly wiping the top of the bar. A Venusian boy was as languidly sweeping out. The dancing girls were gone, the music was silent.
Stiffy and Oliver Meek were among the few customers.
Stiffy gulped a drink and blew fiercely through his whiskers.
“Oliver,” he said, “you sure are a ring-tailed bearcat with them guns of yours. I wonder, would you tell me how you do it?”
“Look here, Mr. Grant,” said Meek. “I wish you’d quit talking about what I did. It was just an accident, anyhow. What I’m mainly interested in is this Asteroid Prowler you were telling me about. Is there any chance I might find him if I went out and looked?”
Stiffy choked, almost purple with astonishment.
“Good gravy,” he said, “now you want to go out and tangle with the Prowler!”
“Not tangle with him,” Meek declared. “Just look at him.”
“Mister,” Stiffy warned, “the best way to look at that thing is with a telescope. A good, powerful telescope.”
The swinging doors swung open and a man walked in.
The newcomer walked directly toward the table occupied by Stiffy and Meek. He halted beside it, black beard jutting fearsomely, eyes bleakly cold.
“I’m Blacky Hoffman,” he said. “I suppose you’re Meek.” He disregarded Stiffy.
Meek stood up and held out his hand.
“Glad to know you, Mr. Hoffman,” he said.
Blacky took the proffered hand in some surprise.
“Seems I should know you, Meek, but I don’t. Should have heard of you at some time or other. A man like you would get talked about.”
Meek shook his head. “I don’t think you ever have. I never did anything to get talked about.”
“Sit down,” said Hoffman and it sounded like a command.
“I got to be going,” Stiffy piped, already halfway to the door.
Hoffman poured out a drink and shoved the bottle at Meek. Meek gritted his teeth and poured a short one.
“No use beating around the bush,” said Blacky. “We may as well get down to cases. I guess we understand one another.”
Oliver Meek didn’t know what the other meant, but he had to say something.
“I guess we do,” he agreed.
“All right, then,” said Hoffman. “I’ve built up a sweet little racket here and I don’t like fellows butting in.”
Meek essayed to down his liquor, succeeded, gasped for breath.
“But I could use a man like you,” said Hoffman. “Luke tells me you are handy with the blasters.”
“I practice sometimes,” Meek admitted.
A smile twitched Hoffman’s bearded lips. “We have the town just where we want it. The officials can’t do a thing. Scared to. Marshals always eat rock or skip town. Maybe you would like to throw in with us. Not much to do, easy pickings.”
“I’m sorry,” said Meek, “but I can’t do that.”
“Listen, Meek,” warned Hoffman, “you’re either with us or you aren’t. We don’t like chiselers here. We know what to do with guys who try to muscle in. I don’t know who you are or where you come from, but I’m telling you this … straight. If you don’t come in, all right … but if you stick around after tonight I can’t promise you protection.”
Meek was silent, mulling the threat.
“You mean,” he finally asked, “that you’re ordering me out if I don’t join your gang?”
Hoffman nodded. “That, big boy, is just exactly what I mean.”
Slow anger and resentment ate at Meek. Who was this Hoffman to order him out of Asteroid City? This was a free Solar System, wasn’t it? No wonder the Rev. Brown was jittery. No wonder the decent people wanted a clean-up.
Meek’s anger mounted, a cold deadly anger that shook him like a frigid hand. An anger that almost frightened him, for very seldom in his life had he been really angry.
He rose slowly from the table, hitched his gun belt to a comfortable position.
“The town’s been without a marshal for a long time, hasn’t it?” he asked.
Hoffman’s laugh boomed out. “You bet it has. And it’s going to stay that way. The last one took it on the lam. The one before that got killed. The one before that sort of disappeared….”
Meek spoke slowly, weak eyes burning.
“Horrible condition,” he said. “Something’s got to be done about it.”
The streets were deserted, quiet, a deadly quiet that lurked and hovered, waiting for something to happen.
Oliver Meek polished his marshal’s star with his coat sleeve, glanced up at the dome. Stars glittered, their light distorted by the heavy quartz. Stars in a dead black sky.
Bathed in the weak starlight, the mighty walls of the canyon reared above the dome. A canyon, the only sort of place where a city could rise on one of the planetoids. For the walls protected the dome against the deadly barrage of whizzing debris that continually shrieked down from space. Those mighty cragged mountains and dizzy cliffs were pocked with the blows dealt, through long eons, by that hail of armor-piercing projectiles.
Meek returned his gaze to the street, saw the lights of the Silver Moon. Nervously he felt of the papers in his inside pocket. Warrants for the arrest of John Hoffman for murder, Luke Blaine for murder, Jim Smithers for reckless shooting, Jake Loomis for assault and battery, Robert Blake for robbery.
And suddenly, Oliver Meek was afraid. For death waited him, he knew, inside the swinging doors of the Silver Moon. A death preluded by this quiet street.
Almost as if he were awaking from a dream, he found questions filling his brain. What was he doing here? Why had he gotten himself into a jam like this? What difference did it make to him what happened to Asteroid City?
It had been anger that had made him do it … that unaccountable anger which had flared when Hoffman told him to get out.
After all, what difference would a few days make? He was going to leave anyhow. He’d seen about all there was to see in Asteroid City. He wanted to see the Prowler and the stones with the strange inscriptions on them, but they were sights he could get along without.
If he turned around and walked the other way he could reach his space ship in just a few minutes. There was fuel enough to take him to Ganymede. No one would know until he was already gone. And after he was gone, what would he care what anybody thought?
He stood irresolutely, arguing with himself. Then he shook his head, resumed his march toward the Silver Moon.
A figure stepped from a dark doorway. Meek saw the threatening gleam of steel. His hands streaked toward his gun-butts, but something prodded him in the back and he froze, fingers touching metal.
“All right, marshal,” said a mocking voice. “You just turn around and walk the other way.”
He felt his guns lifted from their holsters and he turned around and walked. Footsteps crunched beside him and behind him, but otherwise he walked in silence.
“Where are you taking me?” he asked, his voice just a trifle shaky.
One of the men laughed.
“Just on a little trip, marshal. Out to take a look at Juno. It’s a right pretty sight at night.”
Juno wasn’t pretty. For the most part, there was little of it one could see. The stars shed little light and the depressions were in shadow, while the cragged mountain tops seemed like shimmering mirages in the ghostly starlight.
The ship lay on a plateau between a needle-like range and a deep, shadowed valley.
“Now, marshal,” said one of the men, “you stay right here. You’ll see the Sun come up over that mountain back there. Interesting. Dawn on Juno is something to remember.”
Meek started forward, but the other waved him back with his pistol.
“You’re leaving me here?” shrieked Meek.
“Why sure,” the man said. “You wanted to see the Solar System, didn’t you?”
They backed away from him, guns in hand. Frozen in terror, he watched them enter the ship, saw the port close. An instant later the ship roared away, the backwash of its tubes buffeting Meek to the ground.
He struggled to his feet, watching the blasting tubes until they were out of sight. Clumsily he stepped forward and then stopped. There was no place to go … nothing to do.
Loneliness and fear swept over him in terrible waves of anguish. Fear that dwarfed any emotion he had ever felt. Fear of the ghostly shimmer of the peaks, fear of the shadow-blackened valley, fear of space and the mad, cold intensity of unwinking stars.
He fought for a grip on himself. It was fear such as this that drove men mad in space. He’d read about that, heard about it. Fear of the loneliness and the terrible depths of space … fear of the indifference of endless miles of void, fear of the unknown that always lurked just at elbow distance.
“Meek,” he told himself, “you should have stayed at home.”
Dawn came shortly, but no such dawn as one would see on Earth. Just a gradual dimming of the stars, a gradual lifting of the blacker darkness as a larger star, the Sun, swung above the peaks.
The stars still shone, but a gray light filtered over the landscape, made the mountains solid things instead of ghostly shapes.
Jagged peaks loomed on one side of the plateau, fearsome depths on the other. A meteor thudded somewhere to his right and Meek shuddered. There was no sound of the impact but he could feel the vibrations of the blow as the whizzing mass struck the cliffs.
But it was foolish to be afraid of meteors, he told himself. He had greater and more immediate worries.
There were less than eight hours of air left in the tanks of his space suit. He had no idea where he was, although he knew that many miles of rugged, fearsome country stretched between him and Asteroid City.
The space suit carried no food and no water, but that was of minor moment, he realized, for his air would give out long before he felt the pangs of thirst or hunger.
He sat down on a massive boulder and tried to think. There wasn’t much to think about. Everywhere his thoughts met black walls. The situation, he told himself, was hopeless.
If only he hadn’t come to Asteroid City in the first place! Or having come, if he had only minded his business, this never would have happened. If he hadn’t been so anxious to show off what he knew about card dealing tricks. If only he hadn’t agreed to be sworn in as marshal. If he’d swallowed his pride and left when Hoffman told him to.
He brushed away such thoughts as futile, took stock of his surroundings.
The cliff on the right hand side was undercut, overhanging several hundred feet of level ground.
Ponderously, he heaved himself off the boulder, wandered aimlessly up the wider tongue of plateau. The undercut, he saw, grew deeper, forming a deep cleft, as if someone had furrowed out the mountain side. Heavy shadows clung within it.
Suddenly he stopped, riveted to the ground, scarcely daring to breathe.
Something was moving in the deep shadow of the undercut. Something that seemed to glint faintly with reflected light.
The thing lurched forward and, in the fleeting instant before he turned and ran, Oliver Meek had an impression of a barrel-like body, a long neck, a cruel mouth, monstrous eyes that glowed with hidden fires.
There was no speculation in Oliver Meek’s mind. From the description given him by Stiffy, from the very terror of the thing, he knew the being shambling toward him was the Asteroid Prowler.
With a shriek of pure fear, Meek turned and fled and behind him came the Prowler, its head swaying on the end of its whip-like neck.
Meek’s legs worked like pistons, his breath gasping in his throat, his body soaring through space as he covered long distances at each leap under the influence of lesser gravity.
Thunderous blasts hammered at the earphones in his helmet and as he ran he craned his head skyward.
Shooting down toward the plateau, forward rockets braking, was a small spaceship!
Hope rose within him and he glanced back over his shoulder. Hope died instantly. The Prowler was gaining on him, gaining fast.
Suddenly his legs gave out. Simply folded up, worn out with the punishment they had taken. He threw up his arms to shield his helmet plate and sobbed in panic.
The Asteroid Prowler would get him now. Sure as shooting. Just at the minute rescue came, the Prowler would get him.
But the Prowler didn’t get him. Nothing happened at all. Surprised, he sat up and spun around, crouching.
The ship had landed, almost at the edge of the plateau and a man was tumbling out of the port. The Prowler had changed his course, was galloping toward the ship.
The man from the ship ran in leaping bounds, a pistol in one gloved hand, and his yelp of terror rang in Meek’s earphones.
“Run, dang you. Run! That dad-blamed Prowler will be after us any minute now.”
“Stiffy,” yelled Meek. “Stiffy, you came out to get me.”
Stiffy landed beside him, hauled him to his feet.
“Dang right I came to get you,” he panted. “I thought them hoodlums would be up to some dirty tricks, so I stuck around and watched.”
He jerked at Meek’s arm.
“Come on, Oliver, we got to get along.”
But Meek jerked his arm away.
“Look what he’s doin!” he shouted. “Just look at him!”
The Prowler seemed to be bent on systematic destruction of the space ship. His jaws were ripping at the steel plating…. Ripping at it and tearing it away, peeling it off the frame as one might peel an orange.
“Hey,” howled Stiffy. “You can’t do that. Get out of there, you danged….”
The Prowler turned to look at them, a heavy power cable in its mouth.
“You’ll be electrocuted,” yelped Stiffy. “Danged if it won’t serve you right.”
But, far from being electrocuted, the Prowler seemed to be enjoying himself. He sucked at the power cable and his eyes eyes glowed blissfully.
Stiffy flourished his pistol.
“Get away,” he yelled. “Get away or I’ll blister your danged hide.”
The Prowler whirled from the shattered ship.
Almost playfully the Prowler minced away from the ship, feet dancing.
“He did it!” said Meek.
“Did what?” Stiffy scowled bewilderedly.
“Got away from that ship, just like you told him to.”
Stiffy snorted. “Don’t ever kid yourself he did it because I told him to. He couldn’t even hear me, probably. Living out here like this, he wouldn’t have anything to hear with. Probably he’s just trying to decide which one of us he’ll catch first. Better be ready to kick you up some dust.”
The Prowler trotted toward them, head bobbing up and down.
“Get going,” Stiffy yelled at Meek and brought up his pistol. A blue shaft of light whipped out, smacked the Prowler in the head, but the Prowler didn’t even falter in his stride. The energy charge seemed to have no power at all. It didn’t even spatter … it looked as if the blue pencil of raging death was boring straight into the spread of forehead between the monstrous eyes.
“Run, you danged fool,” Stiffy screeched at Meek. “I can’t hold him off.”
But Meek didn’t run … instead he sprang straight into the Prowler’s path, arm upraised.
“Stop!” he yelled.
The Prowler skidded to a stop, his metal hooves leaving scratches on the solid rock.
For a moment the three of them stood stock still, Stiffy’s jaw hanging in astonishment.
Meek reached out a hand and patted the Prowler’s massive shoulder.
“Good boy,” he said. “Good boy.”
“Come away from there!” Stiffy yelled in sudden terror. “Just one good gulp and that guy would have you.”
“Ah, shucks,” said Meek, “he won’t hurt anybody. He’s only hungry, that’s all.”
“That,” declared Stiffy, “is just what I’m afraid of.”
“You don’t understand,” insisted Meek. “He isn’t hungry for us. He’s starved for energy. Give him another shot from the gun.”
Stiffy stared at the gun hanging in his hand.
“You’re sure it wouldn’t make him sore?” he asked.
“Gosh, no,” said Meek. “That’s what he wants. He soaks it up. Didn’t you notice how the beam went right into him, without spattering or anything. And the way he sucked that power cable. He drained your ship of every drop of energy it had.”
“He did what?” yelped Stiffy.
“He drained the ship of energy. That’s what he lives on. That’s why he chased you. He wanted you to keep on shooting.”
Stiffy clapped a hand to his forehead.
“We’re sunk for certain, now,” he declared. “There might have been a chance to get back with just a few plates ripped off the ship. But with all the energy gone….”
“Hey, Stiffy,” yelled Meek, “take a look at this.”
Stiffy moved nearer, cautiously.
“What you got now?” he demanded irritably.
“These marks on his shoulder,” said Meek. His gloved finger shook excitedly as he pointed. “They’re the same kind of marks as were on those stones I read about in the book. Marks no one could read. Fellow who wrote the book figured they were made by some other race that had visited Juno. Maybe a race from outside the Solar System, even.”
“Good gravy,” said Stiffy, in awe, “you don’t think….”
“Sure, I do,” Meek declared with the air of a man who is sure of his knowledge. “A race came here one time and they had the Prowler along. For some reason they left him. Maybe he was just a robot and they didn’t have room for him, or maybe something happened to them….”
“Say,” said Stiffy, “I bet you that’s just what he is. A robot. Attuned to thought waves. That’s why he minds you.”
“That’s what I figured,” Meek agreed. “Thought waves would be the same, no matter who thought them … human being or a … well … or something else.”
A sudden thought struck Stiffy. “Maybe them guys found the Lost Mine! By cracky, that would be something, wouldn’t it? Maybe this critter could lead us to it.”
“Maybe?” Meek said doubtfully.
Meek patted the Prowler’s rocky shoulder gently, filled with wonder. In some unguessed time, in some unknown sector of space, the Prowler had been fashioned by an alien people. For some reason they had made him, for some reason they had left him here. Abandonment or purpose?
Meek shook his head. That would be something to puzzle over later, something to roll around in his brain on some monotonous flight into the maw of space.
Space! Startled at the thought clanging on his brain he jerked a quick glance upward, saw the bleak stars staring at him. Eyes that seemed to be laughing at him, cruel, ironic laughter.
“Stiffy,” he whispered. “Stiffy, I just thought of something.”
“Yeah, what is it?”
Stark terror walked in Meek’s words. “My oxygen tank is better than half gone. And the ship is wrecked….”
“Cripes,” said Stiffy, “I guess we just forgot. We sure are behind the eight ball. Somehow we got to get back to Asteroid City. And we got to get there quick.”
Meek’s eyes brightened. “Stiffy, maybe…. Maybe we could ride the Prowler.”
Stiffy backed away. But Meek reached out and grasped his arm. “Come on. It’s the only way, Stiffy. We have to get there and the Prowler can take us.”
“But … but … but….” Stiffy stammered.
“Give me a leg up,” Meek ordered.
Stiffy complied and Meek leaped astride the broad metal back, reached down and hauled Stiffy aboard.
“Get going, you flea-bitten nag!” Meek yipped, in sudden elation.
There was reason for elation. Not until that moment had he stopped to consider the Prowler might object to being ridden. Might consider it an insult.
The Prowler apparently was astonished, but that was all. He shook his head in bewilderment and weaved his neck around as if he wasn’t quite sure just what to do. But at least he hadn’t started to take the place apart.
“Giddap!” yelled Stiffy, bringing the butt of his pistol down.
The Prowler jigged a little, then gathered himself together and started. The landscape blurred with speed as he leaped a mighty boulder, skipped along a narrow ledge around a slick-faced mountain, skidded a hairpin turn.
Meek and Stiffy fought desperately to hang on. The metal back was slick and broad and there weren’t any handholds. They bounced and thumped, almost fell off a dozen times.
“Stiffy,” yelled Meek, “how do we know he’s taking us to Asteroid City?”
“Don’t fret about that,” said Stiffy. “He knows where we want to go. He read our mind.”
“I hope so,” Meek said, prayerfully.
The Prowler whished around a right angle turn on a narrow ledge and the distant peaks wheeled sickeningly against the sky.
Meek lay flat on his belly and hugged the Prowler’s sides. The mountains whistled past. He stole a look at the jagged peaks on the near horizon and they looked like a tight board fence.
Oliver Meek fought manfully to get back his composure as the Prowler pranced down the main street of Asteroid City.
The sidewalks were lined with hundreds of staring faces, faces that drooped in astonishment and disbelief.
Stiffy was yelling at someone. “Now, doggone you, will you believe there is a Prowler?”
And the man he yelled at didn’t have a word to say, just stood and stared.
In the swarm of faces, Meek saw those of the Reverend Harold Brown and Andrew Smith and, almost as if in a dream, he waved jauntily to them. At least, he hoped the wave was jaunty. Wouldn’t do to let them know his knees were too weak to hold him up.
Smith waved back and shouted something, but the Reverend Brown’s jaw hung open and he seemed too wonder-struck to move.
This, thought Meek, is the kind of things you read about. The conquering hero coming home astride his mighty charger. Only the conquering hero, he remembered with a sudden twinge, usually was a young lad who sat straight in the saddle instead of an old man with shoulders hunched from thirty years of poring over dusty ledgers.
A man was stepping out into the street, a man who carried a gun in hand and suddenly Meek realized they were abreast of the Silver Moon.
The armed man was Blacky Hoffman.
Here, thought Meek, is where I get it. This is what I get for playing the big shot … for being a smart alec, for remembering how cards shouldn’t be dealt and for shooting a man’s gun out of his hand and letting myself be talked into being a marshal.
But he sat stiff and as straight as he could on the Prowler and kept his eyes on Hoffman. That was the only way to do. That was the way all the heroes did in the stories he had read. And doggone, he was a hero. Whether he liked it or not, he was one.
The street was hushed with sudden tension and the very air seemed to be crackling with the threat of direful happenings.
Hoffman’s voice rang crisply through the stillness.
“Go for your blasters, Meek!”
“I have no blasters,” Meek told him calmly. “Your hoodlums took them from me.”
“Borrow Stiffy’s,” snapped Hoffman, and added, with a nasty laugh: “You won’t need them long.”
Meek nodded, watching Hoffman narrowly. Slowly he reached back for Stiffy’s gun. He felt it in his hand, wrapped his fingers tightly around it.
Funny, he thought, how calm he was. Like he had been in the Silver Moon that night. There was something about a gun. It changed him, turned him into another man.
He didn’t have a chance, he knew. Hoffman would shoot before he could ever get the gun around. But despite that, he felt foolishly sure….
Hoffman’s gun flashed in the weak sunlight, blooming with blue brilliance.
For an instant, a single fraction of a second, Meek saw the flash of the beam straight in his eyes, but even before he could involuntarily flinch, the beam had bent. True to its mark, it would have drilled Meek straight between the eyes … but it didn’t go straight to its mark. Instead, it bent and slapped itself straight between the Prowler’s eyes.
And the Prowler danced a little jig of happiness as the blue spear of energy knifed into its metal body.
“Cripes,” gasped Stiffy, “he draws it! He ain’t satisfied with just taking it when you give it to him. He reaches out and gets it. Just like a lightning rod reaching up and grabbing lightning.”
Puzzlement flashed across Hoffman’s face, then incredulity and finally something that came close to fear. The gun’s beam snapped off and his hands sagged. The gun dropped in the dust. The Prowler stood stock still.
“Well, Hoffman?” Meek asked quietly and his voice seemed to run all along the street.
Hoffman’s face twitched.
“Get down and fight like a man,” he rasped.
“No,” said Meek, “I won’t do that. Because it wouldn’t be man to man. It would be me against your entire gang.”
Hoffman started to back away, slowly, step by furtive step. Step by step the Prowler stalked him there in the silent street.
Then Hoffman, with a scream of terror, broke and ran.
“Get him!” Meek roared at the Prowler.
The Prowler, with one lightning lunge, one flip of its whip-like neck, got him. Got him, gently, as Meek had meant he should.
Howling in mingled rage and terror, Hoffman dangled by the seat of his pants from the Prowler’s beak. Neatly as any circus horse, the Prowler wheeled and trotted back to the Silver Moon, carrying Hoffman with a certain gentle grace that was not lost upon the crowd.
Hoffman quieted and the crowd’s jeers rang against the dome. The Prowler pranced a bit, jiggled Hoffman up and down.
Meek raised a hand for silence, spoke to Hoffman. “O.K., Mr. Hoffman, call out your men. All of them. Out into the middle of the street. Where we can see them.”
Hoffman swore at him.
“Jiggle him some,” Meek told the Prowler. The Prowler jiggled him and Hoffman bawled and clawed at empty air.
“Damn you,” shrieked Hoffman, “get out into the street. All of you. Just like he said.”
No one stirred.
“Blaine,” yelled Hoffman. “Get out there! You, too Smithers. Loomis. Blake!”
They came slowly, shame-faced. At a command from Meek they unholstered their blasters and heaved them in a pile.
The Prowler deposited Hoffman with them.
Meek saw Andrew Smith standing at the edge of the sidewalk and nodded to him. “There you are, Mr. Smith. Rounded up, just like you wanted them.”
“Neat,” said Stiffy, “but not gaudy.”
Slowly, carefully, bones aching, Meek slid from the Prowler’s back, was surprised his legs would hold him up.
“Come in and have a drink,” yelled a dozen voices all at once.
“Bet your life,” agreed Stiffy, licking his chops.
Men were slapping Meek on the back, yelling at him. Yelling friendly things, calling him an old he-wolf.
He tried to thrust out his chest but didn’t succeed too well. He hoped they wouldn’t insist on his drinking of lot of bocca.
A hand tugged at Meek’s elbow. It was the Reverend Brown.
“You aren’t going to leave that beast out here all alone?” he asked. “No telling what he might do.”
“Ah, shucks,” protested Stiffy, “he’s gentle as a kitten. Stands without hitching.”
But even as he spoke, the Prowler lifted his head, almost as if he were sniffing, started down the street at a swinging trot.
“Hey,” yelled Stiffy, “come back here, you cross-eyed crow-bait!”
The Prowler didn’t falter in his stride. He went even faster.
Cold fear gripped Meek by the throat. He tried to speak and gulped instead. He’d just thought of something. The power plant that supplied Asteroid City with its power and light, the very oxygen it breathed, was down that way.
A power plant and an alien robot that was starved for energy!
“My stars!” gasped Meek.
He shook off the minister’s hand and galloped down the street, shrieking at the Prowler. But the Prowler had no thought of stopping.
Panting, Meek slowed from a gallop to a trot, then to a labored walk. Behind him, he heard Stiffy puffing along. Behind Stiffy trailed practically the entire population of Asteroid City.
Far ahead came the sound of rending steel and crashing structure as the Prowler ripped the plant apart to get at the juice.
Stiffy gained Meek’s side and panted at him. “Cripes, they’ll crucify us for this. We got to get him out of there.”
“How?” asked Meek.
“Danged if I know,” said Stiffy.
One side of the plant was a mass of tangled wreckage, surrounding a hole out of which protruded the Prowler’s hind quarters. Terrified workers and maintenance men were running for their lives. Live wires spat and crackled with flaming energy.
Meek and Stiffy halted a half block away, breath whistling in their throats. The Prowler’s tail, protruding from the hole in the side of the plant, twitched happily. Meek regarded the scene with doleful thoughts.
“I wish,” Stiffy declared, “we’d stayed out there and died. It would have been easier than what’s liable to happen to us now.”
Feet thumped behind them and a hand grabbed Meek’s shoulder, grabbed it. It was Andrew Smith, a winded, apoplectic Andrew Smith.
“What are you going to do?” he shouted at Meek.
Meek swallowed hard, tried to make his voice even. “Just studying over the situation, Mr. Smith. I’ll figure out something in a minute.”
“Sure he will,” insisted Stiffy. “Leave him alone. Give him time. He always does what he says he’ll do. He said he’d round up Blacky for you, and he did. He went out single-handed and captured the Prowler. He …”
“Yeah,” yelled Smith, “and he said the Prowler would stand without hitching, too. And did he stand? I ask you …”
“He didn’t say that,” Stiffy interrupted, testily, “I said that.”
“It don’t make a bit of difference who said it,” shrieked Smith. “I got stock in that plant there. And the Prowler’s ruining it. He’s jeopardizing the life of this whole city. And it’s all your fault. You brought him here. I’ll sue you, the both of you, so help me….”
“Ah, shut up,” snapped Stiffy. “Who can think with you blabbering around?”
Smith danced in rage. “Who’s blabbering? I got a good mind to….”
He doubled up his fist and started toward Stiffy.
And once again Oliver Meek did something he never would have thought of doing back on Earth. He put out his gloved hand, deliberately, and pushed Smith in the face. Pushed hard, so hard that Smith thumped down in the dust of the street and sat there, silenced by surprise.
Without even looking back, Meek strode purposefully down the street toward the Prowler. What he meant to do he did not know. What he possibly could do he had no idea. But anything was better than standing there while the crowd screamed at him and men shook their fists at him.
Why, they might even lynch him! He shivered at the thought. But men still did things like that. Especially when someone monkeyed around with the very things they depended on for life out here in naked space. Maybe they’d turn him out on Juno with only an hour or two of oxygen. Maybe they’d….
Stiffy was yelling at him. “Come back, you danged old fool….”
Suddenly the ground leaped and bucked beneath Meek’s feet. The power plant reeled before his startled eyes and then, somehow, he was on his back, watching the dome wheel and weave above him.
Fighting for breath that had been knocked out of him, he clawed his way to his knees, tried to stand erect, but the ground still was crawling with motion.
It was like an earthquake, he told himself, startled that he could even think. But it couldn’t be an earthquake. Juno didn’t have earthquakes, there was no reason for Juno to have earthquakes. The little planetoid eons ago had cooled through and through, each rock, each strata had found its place. Juno was dead, dead as the reaches of space itself, and earthquakes don’t happen on dead planets.
Out of the corner of his eyes he saw the Prowler had backed out of the hole in the power plant, was standing with four legs spread wide, bracing himself. His long neck was stretched high in the air and the ugly, toothy head had the look of quick alertness.
Meek gained his feet, stood tottering, keeping upright by some fancy footwork. The Prowler started toward him, legs gathering speed, heading down the street.
With a hoarse whoop, Meek steadied himself, half crouched and held his breath, leaped, leaped so hard he almost vaulted over the beast’s broad back. Sprawling, he scrambled into position astride the running robot, saw Stiffy leaping at him. Quickly he shot out a hand, grasped Stiffy and hauled him aboard.
Ahead of them the crowd rushed for safety, leaving a broad avenue for the storming Prowler and his two riders.
“Get the locks open,” yelled Stiffy. “Here we come!”
The crowd took up the shriek. “Get the locks open!”
The Prowler swept down the street, hoofs clattering like hammer blows. Ahead of them the inner lock swung open. As the Prowler bulleted into the entrance tunnel, the outer lock swung out and for a few wild seconds air screamed and howled, rushing from the city into the vacuum of space.
In frantic haste, Meek and Stiffy worked with their helmets, getting them clamped down. Then they were out in the open, the gleaming city behind them.
Less than half a mile away loomed a massive boulder towering a hundred feet or more above the level of the canyon floor. The Prowler made a beeline for it.
“Oliver,” yelled Stiffy, “that thing wasn’t there before. Look, it almost blocks the canyon!”
The boulder was black but it crawled with a greenish glow, a faint network of somber fire.
The breath caught in Meek’s throat.
“Stiffy,” he whispered.
Behind him, Stiffy almost sobbed in excitement. “Yeah, I know. It’s a meteor. And it’s lousy with radium.”
“It just fell,” said Meek, voice unsteady. “That’s what shook up the place. Wonder is it didn’t crack the dome wide open.”
“We better jump for it,” urged Stiffy, “if we don’t want to get plumb burned. Can’t go near that thing without lead sheathing.”
Meek flung himself sidewise, throwing up his arms to shield his helmet, struck on his shoulders and rolled. Slowly, benumbed from the fall, he crept out of the shadow of a high rock wall into the starlight.
Stiffy was sitting on the ground, rubbing his shins.
“Barked them up some,” he admitted.
Up the valley the Prowler was arching its back and rubbing against the green-glowing boulder.
“Just like a dad-blamed cat that has found some catnip,” said Stiffy. “Must sort of like that radium.”
He rose slowly, dusted off his suit.
“Well,” he suggested, “let’s you and me go into action.”
“Sure. Let’s go back and file us a claim on that meteor. Don’t need to worry about anybody else jumping it, cause every dad-blamed one of them is scared speechless of the Prowler. They won’t go near the meteor long as he’s around.”
Meek stared at the meteor speculatively. “That’s worth a lot of money, isn’t it, Stiffy? Filled with radium like that.”
“Bet your boots,” said Stiffy cheerfully. “We go fifty-fifty on her. Split equal ways. We’re pardners.”
“Tell you what you do,” Meek said slowly. “You take it all. Just take out enough to fix up the damage back there and call that my share.”
Stiffy’s jaw drooped. “Say, what you getting at?”
“I’m leaving,” said Meek.
“Good gravy! Leaving! And just when we made us a strike.”
“You don’t understand,” said Meek. “I didn’t come out here to find radium. Or to arrest gangs. Or even to capture an Asteroid Prowler. I just came out to look around. Nice and quiet. Didn’t want to bother anybody. Didn’t want anybody to bother me.”
“Doggone it,” said Stiffy, “and I was just figuring maybe, soon as we cleaned up the radium, we might get that Prowler to lead us to the Lost Mine.”
Meek brightened. “I have a hunch I know where that Lost Mine is, Stiffy. Remember there was a cut-back in the cliff near where we found the Prowler. Well, when I first saw him, he was in that place. Got a hunch maybe that’s the mine.”
Stiffy grinned. “So you’re sticking with me.”
Meek shook his head. “No, I’m still leaving.”
“Just like that?” said Stiffy.
Stiffy held out his hand, “O.K., if that’s what you want to do. I’ll bank your half in the First Martian back on Earth. Leave my address there. Might want to get in touch with me some time.”
Meek gripped his hand. “You don’t need to do that. Take all of it. Just see the plant’s fixed up.”
Stiffy’s eyes shone queerly, moistly in the starlight. “Shucks, there’s enough for both of us. More than enough.” His voice was rough. “Now get along with you.”
Meek started to walk away.
“Goodbye, Stiffy,” he called.
“So long,” Stiffy shouted.
Meek hesitated. It seemed there should have been more he could have said. Some way to let Stiffy know he liked him. Some way to tell him he was a friend in a life which had known few friends.
He tried to think of ways to put what he felt in words, but there wasn’t any way, none that didn’t sound awkward and sentimental.
He wheeled about, headed for the space port. His feet went faster and faster, until finally he was running.
He had to get out of here, he told himself, before he got into another jam. His luck was stretched too thin already. A fellow just couldn’t go on having luck like that.
And besides, there was all of space to roam in, other places to see. That was what he had set out to do. To see the Solar System in his own ship, to do all the things he’d dreamed about back in the cubby hole at Lunar Exports, Inc.
And he was going to do just that, he promised himself. Although he hoped the next stop would be more peaceable.
Oliver Meek sighed happily—this was the life.