Mr. Meek Plays Polo
By CLIFFORD D. SIMAK
Mr. Meek was having his troubles. First, the
educated bugs worried him; then the
welfare worker tried to stop the Ring Rats’ feud
by enlisting his aid. And now, he was a drafted
space-polo player—a fortune bet on his ability
at a game he had never played in his cloistered life.
[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.]
The sign read:
Atomic Motors Repaired. Busted
Plates Patched Up. Rocket Tubes
Relined. Wheeze In, Whiz Out!
It added, as an afterthought, in shaky, inexpert lettering:
We Fix Anything.
Mr. Oliver Meek stared owlishly at the sign, which hung from an arm attached to a metal standard sunk in solid rock. A second sign was wired to the standard just below the metal arm, but its legend was faint, almost illegible. Meek blinked at it through thick-lensed spectacles, finally deciphered its scrawl:
Ask About Educated Bugs.
A bit bewildered, but determined not to show it, Meek swung away from the sign-post and gravely regarded the settlement. On the chart it was indicated by a fairly sizeable dot, but that was merely a matter of comparison. Out Saturn-way even the tiniest outpost assumes importance far beyond its size.
The slab of rock was no more than five miles across, perhaps even less. Here in its approximate center, were two buildings, both of almost identical construction, semi-spherical and metal. Out here, Meek realized, shelter was the thing. Architecture merely for architecture’s sake was still a long way off.
One of the buildings was the repair shop which the sign advertised. The other, according to the crudely painted legend smeared above its entrance lock, was the Saturn Inn.
The rest of the rock was landing field, pure and simple. Blasters had leveled off the humps and irregularities so spaceships could sit down.
Two ships now were on the field, pulled up close against the repair shop. One, Meek noticed, belonged to the Solar Health and Welfare Department, the other to the Galactic Pharmaceutical Corporation. The Galactic ship was a freighter, ponderous and slow. It was here, Meek knew, to take on a cargo of radiation moss. But the other was a puzzler. Meek wrinkled his brow and blinked his eyes, trying to figure out what a welfare ship would be doing in this remote corner of the Solar System.
Slowly and carefully, Meek clumped toward the squat repair shop. Once or twice he stumbled, hoping fervently he wouldn’t get the feet of his cumbersome spacesuit all tangled up. The gravity was slight, next to non-existent, and one who wasn’t used to it had to take things easy and remember where he was.
Behind him Saturn filled a tenth of the sky, a yellow, lemon-tinged ball, streaked here and there with faint crimson lines and blotched with angry, bright green patches.
To right and left glinted the whirling, twisting, tumbling rocks that made up the Inner Ring, while arcing above the horizon opposed to Saturn were the spangled glistening rainbows of the other rings.
“Like dewdrops in the black of space,” Meek mumbled to himself. But he immediately felt ashamed of himself for growing poetic. This sector of space, he knew, was not in the least poetic. It was hard and savage and as he thought about that, he hitched up his gun belt and struck out with a firmer tread that almost upset him. After that, he tried to think of nothing except keeping his two feet under him.
Reaching the repair shop’s entrance lock, he braced himself solidly to keep his balance, reached out and pressed a buzzer. Swiftly the lock spun outward and a moment later Meek had passed through the entrance vault and stepped into the office.
A dungareed mechanic sat tilted in a chair against a wall, feet on the desk, a greasy cap pushed back on his head.
Meek stamped his feet gratefully, pleased at feeling Earth gravity under him again. He lifted the hinged helmet of his suit back on his shoulders.
“You are the gentleman who can fix things?” he asked the mechanic.
The mechanic stared. Here was no hell-for-leather freighter pilot, no be-whiskered roamer of the outer orbits. Meek’s hair was white and stuck out in uncombed tufts in a dozen directions. His skin was pale. His blue eyes looked watery behind the thick lenses that rode his nose. Even the bulky spacesuit failed to hide his stooped shoulders and slight frame.
The mechanic said nothing.
Meek tried again. “I saw the sign. It said you could fix anything. So I….”
The mechanic shook himself.
“Sure,” he agreed, still slightly dazed. “Sure I can fix you up. What you got?”
He swung his feet off the desk.
“I ran into a swarm of pebbles,” Meek confessed. “Not much more than dust, really, but the screen couldn’t stop it all.”
He fumbled his hands self-consciously. “Awkward of me,” he said.
“It happens to the best of them,” the mechanic consoled. “Saturn sweeps in clouds of the stuff. Thicker than hell when you reach the Rings. Lots of ships pull in with punctures. Won’t take no time.”
Meek cleared his throat uneasily. “I’m afraid it’s more than a puncture. A pebble got into the instruments. Washed out some of them.”
The mechanic clucked sympathetically. “You’re lucky. Tough job to bring in a ship without all the instruments. Must have a honey of a navigator.”
“I haven’t got a navigator,” Meek said, quietly.
The mechanic stared at him, eyes popping. “You mean you brought it in alone? No one with you?”
Meek gulped and nodded. “Dead reckoning,” he said.
The mechanic glowed with sudden admiration. “I don’t know who you are, mister,” he declared, “but whoever you are, you’re the best damn pilot that ever took to space.”
“Really I’m not,” said Meek. “I haven’t done much piloting, you see. Up until just a while ago, I never had left Earth. Bookkeeper for Lunar Exports.”
“Bookkeeper!” yelped the mechanic. “How come a bookkeeper can handle a ship like that?”
“I learned it,” said Meek.
“You learned it?”
“Sure, from a book. I saved my money and I studied. I always wanted to see the Solar System and here I am.”
Dazedly, the mechanic took off his greasy cap, laid it carefully on the desk, reached out for a spacesuit that hung from a wall hook.
“Afraid this job might take a while,” he said. “Especially if we have to wait for parts. Have to get them in from Titan City. Why don’t you go over to the Inn. Tell Moe I sent you. They’ll treat you right.”
“Thank you,” said Meek, “but there’s something else I’m wondering about. There was another sign out there. Something about educated bugs.”
“Oh, them,” said the mechanic. “They belong to Gus Hamilton. Maybe belong ain’t the right word because they were on the rock before Gus took over. Anyhow, Gus is mighty proud of them, although at times they sure run him ragged. First year they almost drove him loopy trying to figure out what kind of game they were playing.”
“Game?” asked Meek, wondering if he was being hoaxed.
“Sure, game. Like checkers. Only it ain’t. Not chess, neither. Even worse than that. Bugs dig themselves a batch of holes, then choose up sides and play for hours. About the time Gus would think he had it figured out, they’d change the rules and throw him off again.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” protested Meek.
“Stranger,” declared the mechanic, solemnly, “there ain’t nothing about them bugs that make sense. Gus’ rock is the only one they’re on. Gus thinks maybe the rock don’t even belong to the Solar system. Thinks maybe it’s a hunk of stone from some other solar system. Figures maybe it crossed space somehow and was captured by Saturn, sucked into the Ring. That would explain why it’s the only one that has the bugs. They come along with it, see.”
“This Gus Hamilton,” said Meek. “I’d like to see him. Where could I find him?”
“Go over to the Inn and wait around,” advised the mechanic. “He’ll come in sooner or later. Drops around regular, except when his rheumatism bothers him, to pick up a bundle of papers. Subscribes to a daily paper, he does. Only man out here that does any reading. But all he reads is the sports section. Nuts about sports, Gus is.”
Moe, bartender at Saturn Inn, leaned his elbow on the bar and braced his chin in an outspread palm. His face wore a melancholy, hang-dog look. Moe liked things fairly peaceable, but now he saw trouble coming in big batches.
“Lady,” he declared mournfully, “you sure picked yourself a job. The boys around here don’t take to being uplifted and improved. They ain’t worth it, either. Just ring-rats, that’s all they are.”
Henrietta Perkins, representative for the public health and welfare department of the Solar government, shuddered at his suggestion of anything so low it didn’t yearn for betterment.
“But those terrible feuds,” she protested. “Fighting just because they live in different parts of the Ring. It’s natural they might feel some rivalry, but all this killing! Surely they don’t enjoy getting killed.”
“Sure they enjoy it,” declared Moe. “Not being killed, maybe … although they’re willing to take a chance on that. Not many of them get killed, in fact. Just a few that get sort of careless. But even if some of them are killed, you can’t go messing around with that feud of theirs. If them boys out in sectors Twenty-Three and Thirty-Seven didn’t have their feud they’d plain die of boredom. They just got to have somebody to fight with. They been fighting, off and on, for years.”
“But they could fight with something besides guns,” said the welfare lady, a-smirk with righteousness. “That’s why I’m here. To try to get them to turn their natural feelings of rivalry into less deadly and disturbing channels. Direct their energies into other activities.”
“Like what?” asked Moe, fearing the worst.
“Athletic events,” said Miss Perkins.
“Tin shinny, maybe,” suggested Moe, trying to be sarcastic.
She missed the sarcasm. “Or spelling contests,” she said.
“Them fellow can’t spell,” insisted Moe.
“Games of some sort, then. Competitive games.”
“Now you’re talking,” Moe enthused. “They take to games. Seven-toed Pete with the deuces wild.”
The inner door of the entrance lock grated open and a spacesuited figure limped into the room. The spacesuit visor snapped up and a brush of grey whiskers spouted into view.
It was Gus Hamilton.
He glared at Moe. “What in tarnation is all this foolishness?” he demanded. “Got your message, I did, and here I am. But it better be important.”
He hobbled to the bar. Moe reached for a bottle and shoved it toward him, keeping out of reach.
“Have some trouble?” he asked, trying to be casual.
“Trouble! Hell, yes!” blustered Gus. “But I ain’t the only one that’s going to have trouble. Somebody sneaked over and stole the injector out of my space crate. Had to borrow Hank’s to get over here. But I know who it was. There ain’t but one other ring-rat got a rocket my injector will fit.”
“Bud Craney,” said Moe. It was no secret. Every man in the two sectors of the Ring knew just exactly what kind of spacecraft the other had.
“That’s right,” said Gus, “and I’m fixing to go over into Thirty-seven and yank Bud up by the roots.”
He took a jolt of liquor. “Yes, sir, I sure aim to crucify him.”
His eyes lighted on Miss Henrietta Perkins.
“Visitor?” he asked.
“She’s from the government,” said Moe.
“Nope. From the welfare outfit. Aims to help you fellows out. Says there ain’t no sense in you boys in Twenty-three all the time fighting with the gang from Thirty-seven.”
Gus stared in disbelief.
Moe tried to be helpful. “She wants you to play games.”
Gus strangled on his drink, clawed for air, wiped his eyes.
“So that’s why you asked me over here. Another of your danged peace parleys. Come and talk things over, you said. So I came.”
“There’s something in what she says,” defended Moe. “You ring-rats been ripping up space for a long time now. Time you growed up and settled down. You’re aiming on going over right now and pulverizing Bud. It won’t do you any good.”
“I’ll get a heap of satisfaction out of it,” insisted Gus. “And, besides, I’ll get my injector back. Might even take a few things off Bud’s ship. Some of the parts on mine are wearing kind of thin.”
Gus took another drink, glowering at Miss Perkins.
“So the government sent you out to make us respectable,” he said.
“Merely to help you, Mr. Hamilton,” she declared. “To turn your hatreds into healthy competition.”
“Games, eh?” said Gus. “Maybe you got something, after all. Maybe we could fix up some kind of game….”
“Forget it, Gus,” warned Moe. “If you’re thinking of energy guns at fifty paces, it’s out. Miss Perkins won’t stand for anything like that.”
Gus wiped his whiskers and looked hurt. “Nothing of the sort,” he denied. “Dang it, you must think I ain’t got no sportsmanship at all. I was thinking of a real sport. A game they play back on Earth and Mars. Read about it in my papers. Follow the teams, I do. Always wanted to see a game, but never did.”
Miss Perkins beamed. “What game is it, Mr. Hamilton?”
“Space polo,” said Gus.
“Why, how wonderful,” simpered Miss Perkins. “And you boys have the spaceships to play it with.”
Moe looked alarmed. “Miss Perkins,” he warned, “don’t let him talk you into it.”
“You shut your trap,” snapped Gus. “She wants us to play games, don’t she. Well, polo is a game. A nice, respectable game. Played in the best society.”
“It wouldn’t be no nice, respectable game the way you fellows would play it,” predicted Moe. “It would turn into mass murder. Wouldn’t be one of you who wouldn’t be planning on getting even with someone else, once you got him in the open.”
Miss Perkins gasped. “Why, I’m sure they wouldn’t!”
“Of course we wouldn’t,” declared Gus, solemn as an owl.
“And that ain’t all,” said Moe, warming to the subject. “Those crates you guys got wouldn’t last out the first chukker. Most of them would just naturally fall apart the first sharp turn they made. You can’t play polo in ships tied up with haywire. Those broomsticks you ring-rats ride around on are so used to second rate fuel they’d split wide open first squirt of high test stuff you gave them.”
The inner locks grated open and a man stepped through into the room.
“You’re prejudiced,” Gus told Moe. “You just don’t like space polo, that is all. You ain’t got no blueblood in you. We’ll leave it up to this man here. We’ll ask his opinion of it.”
The man flipped back his helmet, revealing a head thatched by white hair and dominated by a pair of outsize spectacles.
“My opinion, sir,” said Oliver Meek, “seldom amounts to much.”
“All we want to know,” Gus told him, “is what you think of space polo.”
“Space polo,” declared Meek, “is a noble game. It requires expert piloting, a fine sense of timing and….”
“There, you see!” whooped Gus, triumphantly.
“I saw a game once,” Meek volunteered.
“Swell,” bellowed Gus. “We’ll have you coach our team.”
“But,” protested Meek, “but … but.”
“Oh, Mr. Hamilton,” exulted Miss Perkins, “you are so wonderful. You think of everything.”
“Hamilton!” squeaked Meek.
“Sure,” said Gus. “Old Gus Hamilton. Grow the finest dog-gone radiation moss you ever clapped your eyes on.”
“Then you’re the gentleman who has bugs,” said Meek.
“Now, look here,” warned Gus, “you watch what you say or I’ll hang one on you.”
“He means your rock bugs,” Moe explained, hastily.
“Oh, them,” said Gus.
“Yes,” said Meek, “I’m interested in them. I’d like to see them.”
“See them,” said Gus. “Mister, you can have them if you want them. Drove me out of house and home, they did. They’re dippy over metal. Any kind of metal, but alloys especially. Eat the stuff. They’ll tromp you to death heading for a spaceship. Got so I had to move over to another rock to live. Tried to fight it out with them, but they whipped me pure and simple. Moved out and let them have the place after they started to eat my shack right out from underneath my feet.”
Meek looked crestfallen.
“Can’t get near them, then,” he said.
“Sure you can,” said Gus. “Why not?”
“Well, a spacesuit’s metal and….”
“Got that all fixed up,” said Gus. “You come back with me and I’ll let you have a pair of stilts.”
“Yeah. Wooden stilts. Them danged fool bugs don’t know what wood is. Seem to be scared of it, sort of. You can walk right among them if you want to, long as you’re walking on the stilts.”
Meek gulped. He could imagine what stilt walking would be like in a place where gravity was no more than the faintest whisper.
The bugs had dug a new set of holes, much after the manner of a Chinese checker board, and now were settling down into their respective places preparatory to the start of another game.
For a mile or more across the flat surface of the rock that was Gus Hamilton’s moss garden, ran a string of such game-boards, each one different, each one having served as the scene of a now-completed game.
Oliver Meek cautiously wedged his stilts into two pitted pockets of rock, eased himself slowly and warily against the face of a knob of stone that jutted from the surface.
Even in his youth, Meek remembered, he never had been any great shakes on stilts. Here, on this bucking, weaving rock, with slick surfaces and practically no gravity, a man had to be an expert to handle them. Meek knew now he was no expert. A half-dozen dents in his space armor was ample proof of that.
Comfortably braced against the upjutting of stone, Meek dug into the pouch of his space gear, brought out a notebook and stylus. Flipping the pages, he stared, frowning, at the diagrams that covered them.
None of the diagrams made sense. They showed the patterns of three other boards and the moves that had been made by the bugs in playing out the game. Apparently, in each case, the game had been finished. Which, Meek knew, should have meant that some solution had been reached, some point won, some advantage gained.
But so far as Meek could see from study of the diagrams there was not even a purpose or a problem, let alone a solution or a point.
The whole thing was squirrely. But, Meek told himself, it fitted in. The whole Saturnian system was wacky. The rings, for example. Debris of a moon smashed up by Saturn’s pull? Sweepings of space? No one knew.
Saturn itself, for that matter. A planet that kept Man at bay with deadly radiations. But radiations that, while they kept Man at a distance, at the same time served Man. For here, on the Inner Ring, where they had become so diluted that ordinary space armor filtered them out, they made possible the medical magic of the famous radiation moss.
One of the few forms of plant life found in the cold of space, the moss was nurtured by those mysterious radiations. Planted elsewhere, on kindlier worlds, it wilted and refused to grow. The radiations had been analyzed, Meek knew, and reproduced under laboratory conditions, but there still was something missing, some vital, elusive factor that could not be analyzed. Under the artificial radiation, the moss still wilted and died.
And because Earth needed the moss to cure a dozen maladies and because it would grow nowhere else but here on the Inner Ring, men squatted on the crazy swirl of spacial boulders that made up the ring. Men like Hamilton, living on rocks that bucked and heaved along their orbits like chips riding the crest of a raging flood. Men who endured loneliness, dared death when crunching orbits intersected or, when rickety spacecraft flared, who went mad with nothing to do, with the mockery of space before them.
Meek shrugged his shoulders, almost upsetting himself.
The bugs had started the game and Meek craned forward cautiously, watching eagerly, stylus poised above the notebook.
Crawling clumsily, the tiny insect-like creatures moved about, solemnly popping in and out of holes.
If there were opposing sides … and if it were a game, there’d have to be … they didn’t seem to alternate the moves. Although, Meek admitted, certain rules and conditions which he had failed to note or recognize, might determine the number and order of moves allowed each side.
Suddenly there was confusion on the board. For a moment a half-dozen of the bugs raced madly about, as if seeking the proper hole to occupy. Then, as suddenly, all movement had ceased. And in another moment, they were on the move again, orderly again, but retracing their movements, going back several plays beyond the point of confusion.
Just as one would do when one made a mistake working a mathematical problem … going back to the point of error and going on again from there.
“Well, I’ll be….” Mr. Meek said.
Meek stiffened and the stylus floated out of his hand, settled softly on the rock below.
A mathematical problem!
His breath gurgled in his throat.
He knew it now! He should have known it all the time. But the mechanic had talked about the bugs playing games and so had Hamilton. That had thrown him off.
Games! Those bugs weren’t playing any game. They were solving mathematical equations!
Meek leaned forward to watch, forgetting where he was. One of the stilts slipped out of position and Meek felt himself start to fall. He dropped the notebook and frantically clawed at empty space.
The other stilt went, then, and Meek found himself floating slowly downward, gravity weak but inexorable. His struggle to retain his balance had flung him forward, away from the face of the rock and he was falling directly over the board on which the bugs were arrayed.
He pawed and kicked at space, but still floated down, course unchanged. He struck and bounced, struck and bounced again.
On the fourth bounce he managed to hook his fingers around a tiny projection of the surface. Fighting desperately, he regained his feet.
Something scurried across the face of his helmet and he lifted his hand before him. It was covered with the bugs.
Fumbling desperately, he snapped on the rocket motor of his suit, shot out into space, heading for the rock where the lights from the ports of Hamilton’s shack blinked with the weaving of the rock.
Oliver Meek shut his eyes and groaned.
“Gus will give me hell for this,” he told himself.
Gus shook the small wooden box thoughtfully, listening to the frantic scurrying within it.
“By rights,” he declared, judiciously, “I should take this over and dump it in Bud’s ship. Get even with him for swiping my injector.”
“But you got the injector back,” Meek pointed out.
“Oh, sure, I got it back,” admitted Gus. “But it wasn’t orthodox, it wasn’t. Just getting your property back ain’t getting even. I never did have a chance to smack Bud in the snoot the way I should of smacked him. Moe talked me into it. He was the one that had the idea the welfare lady should go over and talk to Bud. She must of laid it on thick, too, about how we should settle down and behave ourselves and all that. Otherwise Bud never would have given her that injector.”
He shook his head dolefully. “This here Ring ain’t ever going to be the same again. If we don’t watch out, we’ll find ourselves being polite to one another.”
“That would be awful,” agreed Meek.
“Wouldn’t it, though,” declared Gus.
Meek squinted his eyes and pounced on the floor, scrabbling on hands and knees after a scurrying thing that twinkled in the lamplight.
“Got him,” yelped Meek, scooping the shining mote up in his hand.
Gus inched the lid of the wooden box open. Meek rose and popped the bug inside.
“That makes twenty-eight of them,” said Meek.
“I told you,” Gus accused him, “that we hadn’t got them all. You better take another good look at your suit. The danged things burrow right into solid metal and pull the hole in after them, seems like. Sneakiest cusses in the whole dang system. Just like chiggers back on Earth.”
“Chiggers,” Meek told him, “burrow into a person to lay eggs.”
“Maybe these things do, too,” Gus contended.
The radio on the mantel blared a warning signal, automatically tuning in on one of the regular newscasts from Titan City out on Saturn’s biggest moon.
The syrupy, chamber of commerce voice of the announcer was shaky with excitement and pride.
“Next week,” he said, “the annual Martian-Earth football game will be played at Greater New York on Earth. But in the Earth’s newspapers tonight another story has pushed even that famous classic of the sporting world down into secondary place.”
He paused and took a deep breath and his voice practically yodeled with delight.
“The sporting event, ladies and gentlemen, that is being talked up and down the streets of Earth tonight, is one that will be played here in our own Saturnian system. A space polo game. To be played by two unknown, pick-up, amateur teams down in the Inner Ring. Most of the men have never played polo before. Few if any of them have even seen a game. There may have been some of them who didn’t, at first, know what it was.
“But they’re going to play it. The men who ride those bucking rocks that make up the Inner Ring will go out into space in their rickety ships and fight it out. And ladies and gentlemen, when I say fight it out, I really mean fight it out. For the game, it seems, will be a sort of tournament, the final battle in a feud that has been going on in the Ring for years. No one knows what started the feud. It has gotten so it really doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that when men from sector Twenty-three meet those from sector Thirty-seven, the feud is taken up again. But that is at an end now. In a few days the feud will be played out to its bitter end when the ships from the Inner Ring go out into space to play that most dangerous of all sports, space polo. For the outcome of that game will decide, forever, the supremacy of one of the two sectors.”
Meek rose from his chair, opened his mouth as if to speak, but sank back again when Gus hissed at him and held a finger to his lips for silence.
“The teams are now in training,” went on the newscaster, the happy lilt in his voice still undimmed, “and it is understood that sector Twenty-three has the advantage, at the start at least, of having a polo expert as its coach. Just who this expert is no one can say. Several names have been mentioned, but….”
“No, no,” yelped Meek, struggling to his feet, but Gus shushed him, poking a finger toward him and grinning like a bearded imp.
“… Bets are mounting high throughout the entire Saturnian system,” the announcer was saying, “but since little is known about the teams, the odds still are even. It is likely, however, that odds will be demanded on the sector of Thirty-seven team on the basis of the story about the expert coach.
“The very audacity of such a game has attracted solar-wide attention and special fleets of ships will leave both Earth and Mars within the next few days to bring spectators to the game. Newsmen from the inner worlds, among them some of the system’s most famous sports writers, are already on their way.
“Originally intended to be no more than a recreation project under the supervision of the department of health and welfare, the game has suddenly become a solar attraction. The Daily Rocket back on Earth is offering a gigantic loving cup for the winning team, while the Morning Spaceways has provided another loving cup, only slightly smaller, to be presented the player adjudged the most valuable to his team. We may have more to tell you about the game before the newscast is over, but in the meantime we shall go on to other news of Solar int….”
Meek leaped up. “He meant me,” he whooped. “That was me he meant when he was talking about a famous coach!”
“Sure,” said Gus. “He couldn’t have meant anyone else but you.”
“But I’m not a famous coach,” protested Meek. “I’m not even a coach at all. I never saw but one space polo game in all my life. I hardly know how it’s played. I just know you go up there in space and bat a ball around. I’m going to….”
“You ain’t going to do a blessed thing,” said Gus. “You ain’t skipping out on us. You’re staying right here and give us all the fine pointers of the game. Maybe you ain’t as hot as the newscaster made out, but you’re a dang sight better than anyone else around here. At least you seen a game once and that’s more than any of the rest of us have.”
“I don’t know what’s the matter with you,” declared Gus. “You’re just pretending you don’t know anything about polo, that’s all. Maybe you’re a fugitive from justice. Maybe that’s why you’re so anxious to make a getaway. Only reason you stopped at all was because your ship got stoved up.”
“I’m no fugitive,” declared Meek, drawing himself up. “I’m just a bookkeeper out to see the system.”
“Forget it,” said Gus. “Forget it. Nobody around here’s going to give you away. If they even so much as peep, I’ll plain paralyze them. So you’re a bookkeeper. That’s good enough for me. Just let anyone say you ain’t a bookkeeper and see what happens to him.”
Meek opened his mouth to speak, closed it again. What was the use? Here he was, stuck again. Just like back on Juno when that preacher had thought he was a gunman and talked him into taking over the job of cleaning up the town. Only this time it was a space polo game and he knew even less about space polo than he did about being a lawman.
Gus rose and limped slowly across the room. Ponderously, he hauled a red bandanna out of his back pocket and carefully dusted off the one uncrowded space on the mantel shelf, between the alarm clock and the tarnished silver model of a rocket ship.
“Yes, sir,” he said, “she’ll look right pretty there.”
He backed away and stared at the place on the shelf.
“I can almost see her now,” he said. “Glinting in the lamplight. Something to keep me company. Something to look at when I get lonesome.”
“What are you talking about?” demanded Meek.
“That there cup the radio was talking about,” said Gus. “The one for the most valuable team member.”
Meek stammered. “But … but….”
“I’m going to win her,” Gus declared.
Saturn Inn bulged. Every room was crowded, with half a dozen to the cubicle, sleeping in relays. Those who couldn’t find anywhere else to sleep spread blankets in the narrow corridors or dozed off in chairs or slept on the barroom floor. A few of them got stepped on.
Titan City’s Junior Chamber of Commerce had done what it could to help the situation out, but the notice had been short. A half-dozen nearby rocks which had been hastily leveled off for parking space, now were jammed with hundreds of space vehicles, ranging from the nifty two man job owned by Billy Jones, sports editor of the Daily Rocket, to the huge excursion liners sent out by the three big transport companies. A few hastily-erected shelters helped out to some extent, but none of these shelters had a bar and were mostly untenanted.
Moe, the bartender at the Inn, harried with too many customers, droopy with lack of sleep, saw Oliver Meek bobbing around in the crowd that surged against the bar, much after the manner of a cork caught in a raging whirlpool. He reached out a hand and dragged Meek against the bar.
“Can’t you do something to stop it?”
Meek blinked at him. “Stop what?”
“This game,” said Moe. “It’s awful, Mr. Meek. Honestly. The crowd has got the fellers so worked up, it’s apt to be mass murder.”
“I know it,” Meek agreed, “but you can’t stop it now. The Junior Chamber of Commerce would take the hide off anyone who even said he would like to see it stopped. It’s more publicity than Saturn has gotten since the first expeditions were lost here.”
“I don’t like it,” declared Moe, stolidly.
“I don’t like it either,” Meek confessed. “Gus and those other fellows on his team think I’m an expert. I told them what I knew about space polo, but it wasn’t much. Trouble is they think it’s everything there is to know. They figure they’re a cinch to win and they got their shirts bet on the game. If they lose, they’ll more than likely space-walk me.”
Fingers tapped Meek’s shoulders and he twisted around. A red face loomed above him, a cigarette drooping from the corner of its lips.
“Hear you say you was coaching the Twenty-three bunch?”
“Billy Jones, that’s me,” said the lips with the cigarette. “Best damn sports writer ever pounded keys. Been trying to find out who you was. Nobody else knows. Treat you right.”
“You must be wrong,” said Meek.
“Never wrong,” insisted Jones. “Nose for news. Smell it out. Like this. Sniff. Sniff.“
His nose crinkled in imitation of a bloodhound, but his face didn’t change otherwise. The cigarette still dangled, pouring smoke into a watery left eye.
“Heard the guy call you Meek,” said Jones. “Name sounds familiar. Something about Juno, wasn’t it? Rounded up a bunch of crooks. Found a space monster of some sort.”
Another hand gripped Meek by the shoulder and literally jerked him around.
“So you’re the guy!” yelped the owner of the hand. “I been looking for you. I’ve a good notion to smack you in the puss.”
“Now, Bud,” yelled Moe, in mounting fear, “you leave him alone. He ain’t done a thing.”
Meek gaped at the angry face of the hulking man, who still had his shoulder in the grip of a monstrous paw.
Bud Craney! The ring-rat that had stolen Gus’ injector! The captain of the Thirty-seven team.
“If there was room,” Craney grated, “I’d wipe up the floor with you. But since there ain’t, I’m just plain going to hammer you down about halfway into it.”
“But he ain’t done nothing!” shrilled Moe.
“He’s an outsider, ain’t he?” demanded Craney. “What business he got coming in here and messing around with things?”
“I’m not messing around with things, Mr. Craney,” Meek declared, trying to be dignified about it. But it was hard to be dignified with someone lifting one by the shoulder so one’s toes just barely touched the floor.
“All that’s the matter with you,” insisted the dangling Meek, “is that you know Gus and his men will give you a whipping. They’d done it, anyhow. I haven’t helped them much. I haven’t helped them hardly at all.”
Craney howled in rage. “Why … you … you….”
And then Oliver Meek did one of those things no one ever expected him to do, least of all himself.
“I’ll bet you my spaceship,” he said, “against anything you got.”
Astonished, Craney opened his hand and let him down on the floor.
“You’ll what?” he roared.
“I’ll bet you my spaceship,” said Meek, the madness still upon him, “that Twenty-three will beat you.”
He rubbed it in. “I’ll even give you odds.”
Craney gasped and sputtered. “I don’t want any odds,” he yelped. “I’ll take it even. My moss patch against your ship.”
Someone was calling Meek’s name in the crowd.
“Mr. Meek! Mr. Meek!”
“Here,” said Meek.
“What about that story?” demanded Billy Jones, but Meek didn’t hear him.
A man was tearing his way through the crowd. It was one of the men from Twenty-three.
“Mr. Meek,” he panted, “you got to come right away. It’s Gus. He’s all tangled up with rheumatiz!”
Gus stared up with anguished eyes at Meek.
“It sneaked up on me while I slept,” he squeaked. “Laid off of me for years until just now. Limped once in a while, of course, and got a few twinges now and then, but that was all. Never had me tied up like this since I left Earth. One of the reasons I never did go back to Earth. Space is good climate for rheumatiz. Cold but dry. No moisture to get into your bones.”
Meek looked around at the huddled men, saw the worry that was etched upon their faces.
“Get a hot water bottle,” he told one of them.
“Hell,” said Russ Jensen, a hulking framed spaceman, “there ain’t no such a thing as a hot water bottle nearer than Titan City.”
“An electric pad, then.”
Jensen shook his head. “No pads, neither. Only thing we can do is pour whiskey down him and if we pour enough down him to cure the rheumatiz, we’ll get him drunk and he won’t be no more able to play in that game than he is right now.”
Meek’s weak eyes blinked behind his glasses, staring at Gus.
“We’ll lose sure if Gus can’t play,” said Jensen, “and me with everything I got bet on our team.”
Another man spoke up. “Meek could play in Gus’ place.”
“Nope, he couldn’t,” declared Jensen. “The rats from Thirty-seven wouldn’t stand for it.”
“They couldn’t do a thing about it,” declared the other man. “Meek’s been here six weeks today. That makes him a resident. Six Earth weeks, the law says. And all that time he’s been in sector Twenty-three. They wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. They might squawk but they couldn’t make it stick.”
“You’re certain of that?” demanded Jensen.
“Dead certain,” said the other.
Meek saw them looking at him, felt a queasy feeling steal into his stomach.
“I couldn’t,” he told them. “I couldn’t do it. I … I….”
“You go right ahead, Oliver,” said Gus. “I wanted to play, of course. Sort of set my heart on that cup. Had the mantel piece all dusted off for it. But if I can’t play, there ain’t another soul I’d rather have play in my place than you.”
“But I don’t know a thing about polo,” protested Meek.
“You taught it to us, didn’t you?” bellowed Jensen. “You pretended like you knew everything there was to know.”
“But I don’t,” insisted Meek. “You wouldn’t let me explain. You kept telling me all the time what a swell coach I was and when I tried to argue with you and tell you that I wasn’t you yelled me down. I never saw more than one game in all my life and the only reason I saw it then was because I found the ticket. It was on the sidewalk and I picked it up. Somebody had dropped it.”
“So you been stringing us along,” yelped Jensen. “You been making fools of us! How do we know but you showed us wrong. You been giving us the wrong dope.”
He advanced on Meek and Meek backed against the wall.
Jensen lifted his fist, held it in front of him as if he were weighing it.
“I ought to bop you one,” he decided. “All of us had ought to bop you one. Every danged man in this here room has got his shirt bet on the game because we figured we couldn’t lose with a coach like you.”
“So have I,” said Meek. But it wasn’t until he said it that he really realized he did have his shirt bet on Twenty-three. His spaceship. It wasn’t all he had, of course, but it was the thing that was nearest to his heart … the thing he had slaved for thirty years to buy.
He suddenly remembered those years now. Years of bending over account books in the dingy office back on Earth, watching other men go out in space, longing to go himself. Counting pennies so that he could go. Spending only a dime for lunch and eating crackers and cheese instead of going out for dinner in the evening. Piling up the dollars, slowly through the years … dollars to buy the ship that now stood out on the field, all damage repaired. Sitting, poised for space.
But if Thirty-seven won it wouldn’t be his any longer. It would be Craney’s. He’d just made a bet with Craney and there were plenty of witnesses to back it up.
“Well?” demanded Jensen.
“I will play,” said Meek.
“And you really know about the game? You wasn’t kidding us?”
Meek looked at the men before him and the expression on their faces shaped his answer.
He gulped … gulped again. Then slowly nodded.
“Sure, I know about it,” he lied.
They didn’t look quite satisfied.
He glanced around, but there was no way of escape. He faced them again, back pressed against the wall.
He tried to make his voice light and breezy, but he couldn’t quite keep out the croak.
“Haven’t played it much in the last few years,” he said, “but back when I was a kid I was a ten-goal man.”
They were satisfied at that.
Hunched behind the controls, Meek slowly circled Gus’ crate, waiting for the signal, half fearful of what would happen when it came.
Glancing to left and right, he could see the other ships of Sector Twenty-three, slowly circling too, red identification lights strung along their hulls.
Ten miles away a gigantic glowing ball danced in the middle of the space-field, bobbing around like a jigging lantern. And beyond it were the circling blue lights of the Thirty-seven team. And beyond them the glowing green space-buoys that marked the Thirty-seven goal line.
Meek bent an attentive ear to the ticking of the motor, listening intently for the alien click he had detected a moment before. Gus’ ship, to tell the truth, was none too good. It might have been a good ship once, but now it was worn out. It was sluggish and slow to respond to the controls, it had a dozen little tricks that kept one on the jump. It had followed space trails too long, had plumped down to too many bumpy landings in the maelstrom of the Belt.
Meek sighed gustily. It would have been different if they had let him take his own ship, but it was only on the condition that he use Gus’ ship that Thirty-seven had agreed to let him play at all. They had raised a fuss about it, but Twenty-three had the law squarely on its side.
He stole a glance toward the sidelines and saw hundreds of slowly cruising ships. Ships crammed with spectators out to watch the game. Radio ships that would beam a play by play description to be channeled to every radio station throughout the Solar system. Newsreel ships that would film the clash of opposing craft. Ships filled with newsmen who would transmit reams of copy back to Earth and Mars.
Looking at them, Meek shuddered.
How in the world had he ever let himself get into a thing like this? He was out to see the solar system, not to play a polo game … especially a polo game he didn’t want to play.
It had been the bugs, of course. If it hadn’t been for the bugs, Gus never would have had the chance to talk him into that coaching business.
He should have spoken out, of course. Told them, flat out, that he didn’t know a thing about polo. Made them understand he wasn’t going to have a thing to do with this silly scheme. But they had shouted at him and laughed at him and bullied him. Been nice to him, too. That was the biggest trouble. He was a sucker, he knew, for anyone who was nice to him. Not many people had been.
Maybe he should have gone to Miss Henrietta Perkins and explained. She might have listened and understood. Although he wasn’t any too sure about that. She probably had plenty to do with starting the publicity rolling. After all, it was her job to make a showing on the jobs she did.
If it hadn’t been for Gus dusting off the place on the mantelpiece. If it hadn’t been for the Titan City Junior Chamber of Commerce. If it hadn’t been for all the ballyhoo about the mystery coach.
But more especially, if he’d kept his fool mouth shut and not made that bet with Craney.
Meek groaned and tried to remember the few things he did know about polo. And he couldn’t think of a single thing, not even some of the things he had made up and told the boys.
Suddenly a rocket flared from the referee’s ship and with a jerk Meek hauled back the throttle. The ship gurgled and stuttered and for a moment, heart in his throat, Meek thought it was going to blow up right then and there.
But it didn’t. It gathered itself together and leaped, forcing Meek hard against the chair, snapping back his head. Dazed, he reached out for the repulsor trigger.
Ahead the glowing ball bounced and quivered, jumped this way and that as the ships spun in a mad melee with repulsor beams whipping out like stabbing knives.
Two of the ships crashed and fell apart like matchboxes. A third, trying a sharp turn above the field of play, came unstuck and strewed itself across fifty miles of space.
Substitute ships dashed in from the sidelines, signalled by the referee’s blinking light. Rescue ships streaked out to pick up the players, salvage ships to clear away the pieces.
For a fleeting moment, Meek got the bobbing sphere in the cross-hairs and squeezed the trigger. The ball jumped as if someone had smacked it with his fist, sailed across the field.
Fighting to bring the ship around, Meek yelled in fury at its slowness. Desperately pouring on the juice, he watched with agony as a blue-lighted ship streamed down across the void, heading for the ball.
The ship groaned in every joint, protesting and twisting as if in agony, as Meek forced it around. Suddenly there was a snap and the sudden swoosh of escaping air. Startled, Meek looked up. Bare ribs stood out against star-spangled space. A plate had been ripped off!
Face strained behind the visor of his spacesuit, hunched over the controls, he waited for the rest of the plates to go. By some miracle they hung on. One worked loose and flapped weirdly as the ship shivered in the turn.
But the turn had taken too long and Meek was too late. The blue-lamped ship already had the ball, was streaking for the goal line. Jensen somehow had had sense enough to refuse to be sucked out of goalie position, and now he charged in to intercept.
But he muffed his chance. He dived in too fast and missed with his repulsor beam by a mile at least. The ball sailed over the lighted buoys and the first chukker was over with Thirty-seven leading by one score.
The ships lined up again.
The rocket flared from the starter’s ship and the ships plunged out. One of Thirty-seven’s ships began to lose things. Plates broke loose and fell away, a rocket snapped its moorings and sailed off at a tangent, spouting gouts of flame, the structural ribs came off and strewed themselves along like spilling toothpicks.
Battered by repulsor beams, the ball suddenly bounced upward and Meek, trailing the field, waiting for just such a chance, played a savage tune on the tube controls.
The ship responded with a snap, executing a half roll and a hairpin turn that shook the breath from Meek. Two more plates tore off in the turn, but the ship plowed on. Now the ball was dead ahead and Meek gave it the works. The beam hit squarely and Meek followed through. The second chukker was over and the score was tied.
Not until he was curving back above the Thirty-seven goal line, did Meek have time to wonder what had happened to the ship. It was sluggish no longer. It was full of zip. Almost like driving his own sleek craft. Almost as if, the ship knew where he wanted it to go and went there.
A hint of motion on the instrument panel caught his eye and he bent close to see what it was. He stiffened. The panel seemed to be alive. Seemed to be crawling.
He bent closer and froze. It was crawling. There was no doubt of that. Crawling with rock-bugs.
Breath whistling between his teeth, Meek ducked his head under the panel. Every wire, every control was oozing bugs!
For a moment he sat paralyzed by the thoughts that flickered through his brain.
Gus, he knew, would have his scalp for this. Because he was the one that had brought the bugs over to the rock where Gus lived and kept the ship. They thought, of course, they had caught all of them that were on his suit, but now it was clear they hadn’t. Some of them must have gotten away and found the ship. They would have made straight for it, of course, because of the alloys that were in it. Why bother with a spacesuit or anything else when there was a ship around.
Only there were too many of them. There were thousands in the instrument panel and other thousands in the controls and he couldn’t have brought back that many. Not if he’d hauled them back in pails.
What was it Gus had said about them burrowing into metal just like chiggers burrow into human flesh?
Chiggers attacked humans to lay their eggs. Maybe … maybe….
A battalion of the bugs trooped across the face of an indicator and Meek saw they were smaller than the ones he had seen back on Gus’ rock.
There was no doubt about it. They were young bugs. Bugs that has just hatched out. Thousands of them … millions of them, maybe! And they wouldn’t be in the instruments and controls alone, but all through the ship. They’d be in the motors and the firing mechanisms … all the places where the best alloys were used.
Meek wrung his hands, watching them play tag across the panel. If they’d had to hatch, why couldn’t they have waited. Just until the game was over, anyhow. That would have been all he’d asked. But they hadn’t and here he was, with a couple of million bugs or so right smack in his lap.
The rocket flared again and the ships shot out.
Bitterness chewing at him, Meek flung the ship out savagely. What did it matter what happened now. Gus would take the hide off him, rheumatism or no rheumatism, as soon as he found out about the bugs.
For a wild moment, he hoped he would crack up. Maybe the ship would fall apart like some of the others had. Like the old one hoss shay the poet had written about centuries ago. The ship had lost so many plates that even now it was like flying a space-going box-kite.
Suddenly a ship loomed directly ahead, diving from the zenith. Meek, forgetting his half-formed hope of a crackup a second before, froze in terror, but his fingers acted by pure instinct, stabbing at keys. Although in the petrified second that seemed half an eternity, Meek knew the ships would crash before he even touched the keys. And even as he thought it, the ship ducked in a nerve-rending jerk and they were skinning past, hulls almost touching. Another jerk and more plates gone and there was the ball, directly ahead, with the repulsor beam already licking out.
Meek’s jaw fell and a chill ran through his body and he couldn’t move a muscle. For he hadn’t even touched the trigger and yet the repulsor beam was flaring out, driving the ball ahead of it while the ship twisted and squirmed its way through a mass of fighting craft.
Hands dangling limply at his side, Meek gaped in terror and disbelief. He wasn’t touching the controls, and yet the ship was like a thing bewitched. A split second later the ball was over the goal and the ship was curving back, repulsor beam snapped off.
“It’s the bugs!” Meek whispered to himself, lips scarcely moving. “The bugs have taken over!”
The craft he was riding, he knew, was no longer just a ship, but a collection of rock-bugs. Bugs that could work out mathematical equations. And now were playing polo!
For what was polo, anyhow, except a mathematical equation, a problem of using certain points of force at certain points in space to arrive at a predetermined end? Back on Gus’ rock the bugs had worked as a unit to solve equations … and the new hatch in the ship was working as a unit, too, to solve another kind of problem … the problem of taking a certain ball to a certain point despite certain variable and random factors in the form of opposing spaceships.
Tentatively, half fearfully, Meek stabbed cautiously at a key which should have turned the ship. The ship didn’t turn. Meek snatched his hand away as if the key had burned his finger.
Back on the line the ship wheeled into position of its own accord and a moment later was off again. Meek clung to his chair with shaking hands. There was, he knew, no use of even pretending he was trying to operate the ship. There was just one thing that he was glad of. No one could see him sitting there, doing nothing.
But the time would come … and soon … when he would have to do something. For he couldn’t let the ship return to the Ring. To do that would be to infest the other ships parked there, spread the bugs throughout the solar system. And those bugs definitely were something the solar system cold get along without.
The ship shuddered and twisted, weaving its way through the pack of players. More plates ripped loose. Glancing up, Meek could see the glory of Saturn through the gleaming ribs.
Then the ball was over the line and Meek’s team mates were shrieking at him over the radio in his spacesuit … happy, glee-filled yells of triumph. He didn’t answer. He was too busy ripping out the control wires. But it didn’t help. Even while he was doing it the ship went on unhampered and piled up another score.
Apparently the bugs didn’t need the controls to make the ship do what they wanted. More than likely they were in control of the firing mechanism at its very source. Maybe, and the thought curled the hair on Meek’s neck, they were the firing mechanism. Maybe they had integrated themselves with the very structure of the entire mechanism of the ship. That would make the ship alive. A living chunk of machinery that paid no attention to the man who sat at the controls.
Meanwhile, the ship made another goal….
There was a way to stop the bugs … only one way … but it was dangerous.
But probably not half as dangerous, Meek told himself, as Gus or the Junior Chamber or the Thirty-seven team … especially the Thirty-seven team … if any of them found out what was going on.
He found a wrench and crawled back along the shivering ship.
Working in a frenzy of fear and need for haste, Meek took off the plate that sealed the housing of the rear rocket assembly. Breath hissing in his throat, he fought the burrs that anchored the tubes. There were a lot of them and they didn’t come off easily. Rockets had to be anchored securely … securely enough so the blast of atomic fire within their chambers wouldn’t rip them free.
Meanwhile, the ship piled up the score.
Loose burrs rolled and danced along the floor and Meek knew the ship was in the thick of play again. Then they were curving back. Another goal!
Suddenly the rocket assembly shook a little, began to vibrate. Wielding the wrench like a madman, knowing he had seconds at the most, Meek spun two or three more bolts, then dropped the wrench and ran. Leaping for a hole from which a plate had been torn, he caught a rib, swung with every ounce of power he had, launching himself into space.
His right hand fumbled for the switch of the suit’s rocket motor, found it, snapped it on to full acceleration. Something seemed to hit him on the head and he sailed into the depths of blackness.
Billy Jones sat in the office of the repair shop, cigarette dangling from his lip, pouring smoke into his watery eye.
“Never saw anything like it in my life,” he declared. “How he made that ship go at all with half the plates ripped off is way beyond me.”
The dungareed mechanic sighted along the toes of his shoes, planted comfortably on the desk.
“Let me tell you, mister,” he declared, “the solar system never has known a pilot like him … never will again. He brought his ship down here with the instruments knocked out. Dead reckoning.”
“Wrote a great piece about him,” Billy said. “How he died in the best tradition of space. Stuff like that. The readers will eat it up. The way that ship let go he didn’t have a chance. Seemed to go out of control all at once and went weaving and bucking almost into Saturn. Then blooey … that’s the end of it. One big splash of flame.”
The mechanic squinted carefully at his toes. “They’re still out there, messing around,” he said, “But they’ll never find him. When that ship blew up he was scattered halfway out to Pluto.”
The inner lock swung open ponderously and a spacesuited figure stepped in.
They waited while he snapped back his helmet.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” said Oliver Meek.
They stared, slack-jawed.
Jones was the first to recover. “But it can’t be you! Your ship … it exploded!”
“I know,” said Meek. “I got out just before it went. Turned on my suit rocket full blast. Knocked me out. By the time I come to I was halfway out to the second Ring. Took me awhile to get back.”
He turned to the mechanic. “Maybe you have a second hand suit you would sell me. I have to get rid of this one. Has some bugs in it.”
“Bugs? Oh, yes, I see. You mean something’s wrong with it.”
“That’s it,” said Meek. “Something’s wrong with it.”
“I got one I’ll let you have, free for nothing,” said the mechanic. “Boy, that was a swell game you played!”
“Could I have the suit now?” asked Meek. “I’m in a hurry to get away.”
Jones bounced to his feet. “But you can’t leave. Why, they think you’re dead. They’re out looking for you. And you won the cup … the cup as the most valuable team member.”
“I just can’t stay,” said Meek. He shuffled his feet uneasily. “Got places to go. Things to see. Stayed too long already.”
“But the cup….”
“Tell Gus I won the cup for him. Tell him to put it on that mantelpiece. In the place he dusted off for it.”
Meek’s blue eyes shone queerly behind his glasses. “Tell him maybe he’ll think of me sometimes when he looks at it.”
The mechanic brought the suit. Meek bundled it under his arm, started for the lock.
Then turned back.
“Maybe you gentlemen….”
“Yes,” said Jones.
“Maybe you can tell me how many goals I made. I lost count, you see.”
“You made nine,” said Jones.
Meek shook his head. “Must be getting old,” he said. “When I was a kid I was a ten goal man.”
Then he was gone, the lock swinging shut behind him.#ENGLISH