OH, I HAD PLANS. I SPENT THAT BIT
OF JULY IN 1983 WRITING LIKE MAD. WAY LEADS ONTO WAY AND I DIDN'T
CONTINUE WRITING AS MUCH. IT IS A CRYING SHAME. I AM A CRYIN'
My clipboard that I had when I was ten years old and the
Planet Commandos that I wrote in 1983. See the date? July 14th.
It wasn't such a good novelette but I could tack it onto my
50,000-word PLANET BUSTERS to make it 80,000 words.
I STILL USE MY 1961 Clipboard! You see where I bent the little
over left and right? I stepped on it when I was ten and it poked
foot so I made it safer.
You know this is just what the clipboard looks like today. I still
use it and replace the essay. A memory of a fracaso.
The whole operation had taken only five minutes.
risk really -- unless I was caught in the act. I'd pack up and be
planet within the hour.
I left the evidence at the scene of the crime, at
first recapping the paint can and laying the brushes neatly at its
side, then reconsidering and dashing the remaining paint across the
wall. That action was really beneath my dignity, but I had special
reasons to treat this house differently.
I left the mesh ladder pinned up there on the
Saul Tillinghass, galactic flatfoot and bourgeois
enemy of the masses, would be mad as a hornet come sun-up. Even now
starlight my handiwork could be seen clearly for some distance. I
chuckled as I admired the yard-high letters so neatly done in
style-- a first-rate piece of professional vandalism that read:
That caper gave me some measure of satisfaction,
in all I was not happy with my work. The first thing I did when the
shuttle pilot put me aboard the Seychelles was to knock twice hard
the director's door and walk in.
Harry Cardip sat at his desk, head down absorbed
some paperwork. All I could see of him was the top of his bald head,
his hunched shoulders, and horn rimmed glasses under which his
thin mustache danced as he silently counted out figures. I tapped my
foot, cleared my throat, and at length Cardip looked up from his
and said: "Good work, Jenkins. The report came in just after your
assignment had been completed. "Nearly flawless."
"Nearly?" I asked. I knew Cardip. "Nearly" was
news by his standards. Cardip rose from his chair, motioned at me
one hand. "Close the door, please," he said. "Yes, nearly. You
the slogan we assigned you."
The door banged metallically as it shut. I turned
and looked at Cardip. "Didn't forget." Wrote my own. You know,
"I know how special this case was," Cardip said,
flopping back into his chair with a crashing symphony of ancient
springs. "Have a seat, now. I want to talk to you. Important."
"That's good," I replied, sitting. "I came to
to you about something anyway. I hate my job. I think I quit. Lousy
and no chance for advancement-- in fact, I've been demoted-- from
revolutionary planet buster first class to some kind of raspberry
expert specializing in crank telephone calls, petty vandalism, and
other lightweight stuff. What gives?"
"You are valuable to us."
"And you don't want me killed?"
I threw my hands up. "Oh, brother! Now I've heard
all. My last assignment was practically a suicide mission. You put
up to it too, Cardip. You've got hundreds of agents with more
than I, and they're out risking their necks all over the galaxy. Now
you tell me that you can't afford to have me killed?"
"You seem awfully eager to be," observed Cardip.
"Not really-- in fact, the thought terrifies me--
and my poor wife would carry on so-- I think. But I don't appreciate
the assignments I'm getting, and I want to know why you're giving
"I've already told you."
"Come off it!" I snapped.
Cardip merely grinned. "I mean it," he said. "You
mentioned hundreds of other agents. You know that I used to have
"So they were killed trying to complete the same
assignment you had some months ago."
"And hundreds succeeded as I did. What does that
Cardip thought for a moment, pulled open his desk
drawer, and extracted a sheet of paper. He looked it over quickly
handed it to me. "What does that prove?" he parroted.
The sheet was simply a list of numbers:
"I don't even know what it is," I answered.
"Surely you do," Cardip laughed. "It's a list of
mercenaries obtained in our special recruitment program. Each figure
represents the number of men conscripted by each agent."
"And?" I asked irritably.
"And you top the list!" he congratulated,
extending his hand.
I frowned, shook his hand across the desktop
warily. "So where's my commission?"
"We don't award commissions, as you well know.
rank. That's how you moved from private to staff sergeant in a
I snorted. "And how thrilling it was. There's
just something about that uniform."
"Which you never wear," Cardip reminded.
"And look like a fed?" I sneered. I lowered my
eyes. "Where's your dance set anyway, general?"
"I outrank every general in the Alliance and
therefore dress as I choose," he said matter of factly. "You may,
Actually, uniforms and even rank itself are optional. We've found
promotion in title is a good work incentive for many of our
"Not for me," I said.
"But that's what makes you so special to us, my
"I'm special because I brought you back more
recruits than anyone else. Your affection is purely mercenary,
"Perhaps," he confessed. "But you haven't
examined the list closely enough."
"What's to examine? A list of numbers, from
largest to smallest--"
"But the spread--" Cardip was getting impatient.
"Here, here, " he muttered irritably, pulling the sheet from my
"Don't be so dense. Yes, 56,487 is the top of the list. The next
highest is only 16,111. The difference is substantial -- no,
-- especially remarkable when you see the dozens of pitifully
"I picked a good planet," I explained. "The
people there are aggressive, like to fight, easy to enlist."
"Easier to anger," Cardip countered. "Yet you
survived. You produced. And there's more-- yes, there's much more.
nothing you became Prime Chancellor of Marion, the most successful
non-federal world the galaxy has ever produced. And the feds still
can't figure out its success -- even though they conquered it."
"All my late father's doing," I reminded,
becoming wary of this praise.
"But you helped-- you helped" Cardip maintained,
waving me to silence. He seemed unwilling to consider any facts to
contradict whatever theory he was developing. Irrational at best but
flattering-- and he was right I had been elected as Prime Chancellor
Marion. I had busted the planet Tuukar and simultaneously converted
over 50,000 stone-age savages to our revolutionary cause.
"You were saying?"
"Things like that simply do not take place by
chance. It takes a special gift."
"I think I understand what that gift is now," he
continued. "At least I think I do." He hesitated a moment and then
in a sober tone that nobody could ever have faked: "You were born
"So I knew your worth! The only thing left to
determine was loyalty and..."
Cardip stood from his chair and pointed a finger
my nose. "Because of your promising background, I for one am sorry
find that you are sadly lacking in that aspect of service!"
"Shut up!" Cardip exploded. "You had your orders!
You were to write a scientifically-researched and specially-composed
slogan. Where is it?" He rummaged through a pile of papers on his
"Where-- ah, here: Proletariats of the World , Unite. That slogan
5,000 man hours to develop. What did you write?"
"Something quite different," I admitted. "A
description of the dwelling's inhabitant."
Cardip scowled, and nodded accusingly. "You mean
"You know who I mean," I told him.
"Just because he bombed your planet to
smithereens and exiled you, you would hold a grudge?"
"I'm like that."
"Insubordinate. Are you like that?" Cardip
his fist on the table. "You get orders, and you interpret them to
out your own vendettas! I don't require blind obedience, Jenkins.
restraint and professionalism-- those I do require!"
I leaned back in my chair. "I thought it might be
something like that," I said. "It really couldn't have been very
other things. Not loyalty. Professionalism-- interesting."
Cardip gaped. "What are you saying?"
I laughed in his face. "When you assigned me Saul
Tillinghass's personal residence for vandalizing, did you think for
minute I wouldn't wonder why? I knew I was being tested!"
"You did? So why did you deliberately fail the
"I passed with flying colors. Look!" I reached
my pocket, produced a heavy adjustable gas grenade, and tossed it in
the center of Cardip's desk. It landed with a thump and rolled to
side, its yellow lettered dialsetting within Cardip's view. "I had
on me when I painted the wall."
Cardip looked down at the army green lump of iron
on his desk. "Lord!" he breathed.
"I wanted to write something personal to
of course -- not just a slogan -- but I wanted much more to flip
old fashioned dial-o-matic through his window. I also wanted to pass
your test. That's why I brought the grenade in the first place. If
was restraint or professionalism you were testing, I have passed.
grenade stayed in my pocket. You can also see that I have exactly
kind of keen if twisted mind you need for some of your more
operations. You shouldn't be so niggling just because I got in a
harmless bite against an arch enemy of mine while carrying out your
"But you changed the words," Cardip argued "And
as I said over 5,000 man hours -- "
"Were never ever needed for your
slogan." I interrupted. "I looked it up myself in the Encyclopedia
Universial. Proletariats of the World, Unite-- a witless chant taken
by practitioners of an ancient and ridiculous social system called
communism, which professed that people should give everything they
to the feds while the feds repay them by dictating what color socks
they wear-- red ones if I understood the article.
"I passed your test, Cardip. Now, what happens
Cardip blanched, picked
up the gas grenade, and shook it in my face. "You should be
grateful that you are part of an organization that detests slogans.
We've never taught you any and haven't used any to recruit. The
organization that does falls only too quickly into brainwashing and
members take on a glazed, fish-like quality. But this!" He opened
palm to let the gas grenade lie in more complete view. "This is
your professionalism flew out the window. You took a wide-range gas
grenade onto a federal planet?"
"I said I did."
"Jenkins, you know why we gave you some
duties down there. If you got nabbed defacing a wall, our lawyers
present it as a prank, not a crime. You'd be out of jail in two
Couldn't even extradite you. The grenade, however-- "
"Is a dial-o-matic, as you can see," I
interjected. "Set on the harmless rotten egg mode."
"But this grenade has other settings," Cardip
insisted. "From simple smoke signals to a city-destroying nerve
I shook my head. "Incorrect. Look again. That
small tab next to the dial."
Cardip turned the grenade over, inclined his head
to peer through his bifocals. "A weld!"
"And the whole pineapple frozen as a simple stink
Cardip dropped the grenade on the desk. "Not good
enough, Jenkins. The prosecution would argue that this device could
rearmed by simply breaking the weld. You'd pull fifteen years,
I rather doubt that. Insurgent lawyers are top
flight. Covalent dipole weld. Couldn't break it with a jackhammer.
Stink bomb. Prank. Out of jail in two hours." I smiled at the
"Come on, Cardip. Concede defeat. I'm better at this kind of
than you are. That's why you hired me -- for that and my money!--
tell me all about the new assignment you've planned out for me."
"Please. Your character test was given for a
You've got something lined up for me. Something big. I can almost
it. Don't rush. Tell me about it slowly; I want to savor each
The man's dossier was enough to qualify him for
Cardip's position, probably much more than enough. It was a thick,
aluminum-bound collection of documents describing the life and works
one late George Seek, Colonel, espionage expert, and top-rated
commando. I flipped to the last page, closed the dossier, and handed
across the desk to Cardip.
"Impressed?" Cardip asked.
"As impressed as I ever am when I read about a
dead man I never heard of."
Cardip frowned, nothing more. He knew it was my
nature to be difficult when information was trickled out to me in
way. "That part of the report was, of course, falsified. Seek is
alive and at work on deeds quite in keeping with the grandness of
dossier." Without elaborating further, Cardip slid some blueprints
across the desk. "Recognize these?"
I scanned the papers and said: "P-657,
battlesled, world cruncher. One of those huge ships the feds have."
Correct," Cardip said. "So huge that the typical
blueprint page contains a scale of miles."
"And so huge that the feds do not dare use them
the effect it would have on public opinion." I added. "Why are you
showing me these things? If battleships that size were used, the
federal state would have revolution on a thousand worlds that
wave their banner. Don't tell me we're worried about them now."
"We have to be," Cardip said abruptly. "George
Seek has requisitioned one!"
For a moment I just stared. Then, I couldn't help
but grin. Cardip kept a deadpan face, but I didn't recognize it for
what it meant. "A P-657?" I finally blurted out, wanting to laugh. I
could hardly believe it. "This is great news! The federal police
be scared out of their wits, and the Special Task Force, those
planet-busting hoodlums, will be outgunned by us Insurgents! I can
back to Marion! Yay!"
"Stop it!" Cardip snarled. "Do you think we would
ever try to commandeer a thing like that? This was not a sanctioned
operation. Colonel Seek did it all on his own."
"Even so," I replied. "You couldn't really blame
him if the opportunity presented itself."
Cardip snorted. "I'll blame him all right." He
muttered heatedly. "He made his own opportunity. A goddamned
one-man army. Thought he knew how to run things better than his
superiors. You may have wondered why I've been so touchy about
subordinates doing things their way instead of the way they are
"I noticed," I said, for some reason feeling
nervous. "But I was a step ahead of you, if you remember. No harm
I knew your graffiti assignments were a test and not important to
"You did? Well, then you're mighty presumptuous.
Since when is it your place to decide what is good for anything? You
"Well, yes sir!" I cried, throwing him a crisp
salute. "What happened to the comradely state of semi-equality that
made this underground revolution business tolerable?"
"It's right where it always has been. You obey
orders because you agree to. If you deviate, it throws everything
of whack. Cooperation helps one and all." Cardip took off his
and looked directly at me. "Administration sticks in my craw. This
Alliance may be the only example in history where the administrators
weren't the moral and intellectual dregs of an organization. I made
sure of that by sending anyone with administrative ambition to the
front lines. That kind of artificial selection may someday help to
purify the human race. In the meantime, however, I have to live with
own duties -- some of which are pretty tough -- like sending those
pathetic dolts with pretensions of an administrative nature to
"Did they ever guess why they were winding up as
"Hell, I told them up front!"
"And they went along with it?"
Cardip stared at me. "Are you kidding? They quit
to the last man. And good riddance!"
"I didn't think it was like you to have anybody
eliminated. Not so cold-bloodedly, at any rate."
"I may yet," said Cardip. "At least when I think
about people like Seek."
"I'll bet your wrath will be tempered somewhat by
the sight of that battle wagon. It's one heck of a bargaining chip."
Cardip put his glasses back on, took a deep
and let the air escape. He shook his head as he observed me with
seemed to be pity. "Jenkins Basil Lai," he intoned. "You may be a
smooth-tongued and capable if lucky man, but you have no grasp of
"I never professed to be an administrator," I
countered, looking directly at him.
"Just a huckster?"
Again a sigh. "A battlesled is a problem,
not an asset. It represents a responsibility no one in his right
wants or needs."
"'But' nothing! If the feds are afraid to use one
those monsters, then what the hell am I going to do with one?
yourself as a discontented yet placated Federal Worlder. The
makes life dull, but if you tow the line, you and the members of
family are left alone. You can even advance to a certain stage
your path to a higher-paying job is blocked by federal nepotism. You
probably don't approve of the fact that the government is stomping
devil out of defenseless thirdworlders-- but those thirdworlders
join the glorious federation, so that's the way they want it,
"I know it's wrong, and you know it's wrong-- but
what does your average federal world inhabitant know?"
"He knows nothing!" Cardip affirmed with
"-- and he's the one we'd like to convince of our sincerity and
decency. For all the information he gets, his government hasn't done
anything drastic without the most severe provocation. Nobody sane
those world crunchers, yet it's an historical fact that the feds
haven't so much as killed a mosquito with one in over four-hundred
years. The Federation's half-loyal subjects have noted that fact.
condition do you think their nerves will be in when they learn that
some mad revolutionary group has stolen the means to lay planets to
waste at will?"
"Frazzled, I should think."
"And they'll demand that the government do
and everything possible to reestablish the status quo--
Cardip broke off and looked at me with a pained
"Including what?" I asked irritably. "Don't tell
me you are straying onto a classified topic."
"No," he said. "I just hate talking about it-- or
even thinking about it. Including the use of L-80 proximity
directed at the Seychelles herself ."
This caught me by surprise. "The Seychelles?" I
sputtered. "They know about us?"
"Of course," Cardip said with an indifferent
"They always have, you know. We've avoided trouble by playing hide
seek. Our crew simply punches the ship into ultra drive and makes
random turns on our way to any particular destination. The feds
catch us that way, but they often can guess our general location."
"But they can't just detonate L-80 proximity
I've read about them. Not bombs, really; a field, rather, which when
activated, appears anywhere in the galaxy, instantly destroying all
matter within one to two parsecs. And the aim is haywire. To get us,
they'd have to risk punching holes through shipping lanes and
out worlds and worldlets all over the galaxy."
Cardip shrugged and smiled wryly. "Drastic
circumstances require drastic measures," he said simply. "Which
you rather have: a calculated risk or a madman doing the unexpected?
I'll answer for you: you'd pick the known evil over the unknown, and
you'd be right. Just as the feds would be right in destroying us."
"Destroy us?" I gasped. Yet I knew exactly what
Harry Cardip meant. One does much to trust a government duly
dictatorship? Never. Revolutionaries? They could be trusted in
times, reluctantly. But who could be trusted with such power?
That was the problem since the first atom bomb.
Cardip seemed to have read my thoughts. "The feds
should have destroyed the P-657's centuries ago. They preferred
to parade those hideous engines of destruction around for political
purposes, underscoring the glorious achievements of the Federation.
honestly believe that in recent times they have all but forgotten
those lethal machines are weapons. The ships became more like
of technological accomplishment. Now I believe the feds have finally
seen them for what they are and regret very much that they exist--
"But this is our chance!" I shouted. "We can at
least destroy one of them. Pack it full of explosives. You can
publicize the event. The galaxy made safer-- and all in the name of
Insurgents' Alliance of Sovereign Worlds!"
"What?" I thought he must not have been
listening. "Why the hell not?"
"Because George Seek will not surrender the ship.
He's giving the feds all kinds of ultimatums and threatening to blow
half the galaxy-- all, as you say, in our name."
It was six days later, and I had the beginnings
plan worked out in my head. I had succeeded rather spectacularly
by relying on a certain caliber of man to aid me, and what had
then just might do so again. Cardip had pulled out all stops, and
agent was expected to drop everything and go after Colonel Seek with
he put it, "Whatever resources are possessed." Well, it just so
happened that there were some resources I needed. The Director was
enthusiastic about my plan, however.
"Heliox?" Cardip exclaimed. "Why in the hell
would you want to go back there?"
"I have my own good reasons," I told him.
"Reasons? What reasons?" he railed. "Are you
George Seek is not on Heliox. How do you expect to stop him by going
where he isn't? Go where he is for God's sake!"
"Where is he?" I challenged.
"He's-- well, out there somewhere else. Go get
I winked and stared down at him slouched in his
chair. "Mind if I sit, Chief?"
"Since when did you ever ask permission to do
anything you felt like?"
"Thank you." I sat, crossed my legs, and lighted
cigarette. Cardip reached under his desk and flipped a switch. There
was a whirling sound just above my head. I exhaled and watched the
cone-shaped cloud disintegrate and vanish almost instantly. The
emanating from the tip of the cigarette was a perfectly vertical
thread, web-like and rising. Even some of my hair was standing
up. Evidently, Cardip had installed some new equipment after my last
visit. But I pretended not to notice. "I intend to 'get him' as you
say, but only in the way that I think is best. It's my neck after
"I thought you had given up that filthy habit."
Cardip complained, wrinkling his nose in my direction with
"I did. I started again. The custom is still
quite in vogue on Heliox, you know."
"Which shows what an intellectual hinterland the
place is. But that would appeal to you. Now, answer my
"Why are you going there?"
"I like that," I said. "'Why are you?'" not 'Why
you want to?' It shows that you have resigned yourself to the fact
my going and-- "
"Answer my question!" Cardip stormed. His face
red and laced with tiny blue blood veins which contrasted nicely
the large ones on either side of his neck. Those stood out
I thought of the vessels unseen within his cranium and decided to
cooperate a bit. I preferred him flustered, not dead.
"I need men for the job, Harry," I explained
The Director's face cleared somewhat, and he
swallowed almost gratefully before he spoke. "Men? I told you I
supply you with men. I'll give you a veritable army of them. When do
you want them? Just say when, and you'll have them. Then, you will
out after Colonel Seek and never come back to bother me!"
"I want them now, if you please," I answered.
have a list of them right here for your convenience." I handed the
to him, and he tilted his head, peered through his bifocals, and
immediately gave it back.
"You can't have those guys, and you know it," he
"Why not? I worked with them before and we
practically conquered the planet Tuukar together."
"They are under different leadership now." Cardip
told me. "I believe you can guess whose."
"Dave McKellen's, right?"
"Correct," he affirmed. "And you ought to agree
that it's only fair since he recruited them himself."
"But who trained them---"
"Yeah, but who gave them the real field
experience that they needed? Answer me that."
Cardip sighed. "I'll admit that you did. Now it's
your turn to admit that those men were only under your command as a
loaner. McKellen recruited every one of them."
I mulled this over for a moment, then had
inspiration. "Every one?" I cried. "Not quite, my friend. That list
alphabetical. Whose name appeared last?"
A cough escaped Cardip. It had nothing to do with
cigarette, which I had butted out on the arm of my chair. I lighted
another one. "You can't mean Zallaham?" he sputtered. "The warlord
Huria himself?" The Director snorted derisively.
"What's so funny?" I protested. "He's mine. I
found him. I got him. I brought him to you!"
Cardip grinned. "Zallaham yours ?" he asked
"In a word, yes. Mine!"
"You had better hope he doesn't hear you saying
that, you know," Cardip warned nervously. He seemed to be fighting
the impulse to look over his shoulder. "For Pete's sake, even
McKellen has to keep up his guard with that powerhouse around."
"So you won't give him back to me?" I fumed. "I
my neck to bring you a one-in-a-million stone-age military genius
muscleman. And you think he's just too plain good for me and give
to somebody else."
"You know he's too good for you, Jenkins," said
Cardip, mincing no words. "But I didn't say I wouldn't give him back
you. He's yours. Go tell him."
I stood up and leaned over his desk, pushing my
close to his. "Listen, you. You're not going to wiggle away that
easily. You assigned Zallaham to McKellen, and you'll personally
him back to me or I'll know the reason why."
Cardip was leaning way back in his chair now,
anxious to be away from my face and cigarette halitosis. "Agreed,"
said quickly. "Just sit the hell back down."
I sat smiling. "That's nice. That's very nice.
It's also too easy. What's the catch?"
Cardip shrugged. "None," he replied. "You have no
right to ask for the others on the list, of course. They are simply
of the question. To Zallaham, however, I agree you have some tenuous
"So you'll order him to report back to me?"
"I'll ask him," said Cardip. "One does not give
orders to the likes of him, as you must already know."
"Good enough." I got up and shook Cardip's hand.
"I'll collect him when I get back."
"From Heliox, I presume?"
"Of course. I know that the soldiers you would
me are nothing more than company climbers in permanent high gear.
They're ambitious and will resent any directions I give them."
"Can't stand the competition, eh?"
"I can stand it all right, thank you." I told
"But I hardly think it's useful. An operation needs only one
to run at all. And with your guys, let's face it: we'd practically
"I don't know whether they would appreciate being
characterized as such," Cardip parried. "But if that's your only
complaint, I think I can offer a solution to your dilemma. There is
still a virtual multitude of Zallaham's Tuukarian infantrymen whom I
would be more than happy to assign to you. I can promise you that
will not be overly ambitious."
"Nor overly bright either." I countered. "I, of
people, don't think much of those who degrade the natives of third
world planets, but I think it's fair to note that McKellen's boys
Heliox made chumps out of the lot of them. Took them for what little
wealth they possessed using the most transparent bait and switch
schemes imaginable. I think I'll pass."
"So it's off to Heliox, then?"
"That's right. I don't need competitive
equals, and I don't need unambitious morons. I'll tell you what I
I need savvy bastards who were just plain born to lose. Men with
brains but no higher intelligence -- and no pretentions. The
criminal type. And, by God, Heliox is one place I can find them!"
I left Cardip to his devices and walked through
open galleries of the Seychelles. It was a way I had of unwinding.
There was something in the raw utilitarian rusticity of the ship
relaxed me. Once, it had been perhaps the greatest luxury liner ever
built. It had grown older but never obsolete. Passengers clamored to
get tickets aboard. But the Federation overplayed its hand trying to
dip into the coffers, the result being an uprising that played a
in Insurgent history. Our organization was on hand to aid the
aggrieved crew, and the organizers of the rebellion were more than
happy to fall in with our cause. For one thing, the Federation's
penalty for mutiny was harsh indeed and the rebels needed our
sanctuary. Now, the fabulous Seychelles had been requisitioned and
souped up. It had also been stripped down to its bare rivets and
fleeced of its finery. The ship was simply a shell of what it had
I didn't agonize over that as some people did.
Cardip had once confided that he had hidden the great oak banisters,
the gleaming chandeliers, and all the rest of what was truly the
Seychelles in some unheard-of place. When the revolution was over,
planned to put a great team of craftsmen and artisans to work
the ship. After that would follow one whale of a celebration on
When I got back to my quarters, Lourdes was not
I noticed that she had put up some extra pictures: seascapes, virgin
dunes, and an exquisite panorama of Marion's Norsano Desert. Perhaps
that was her way of dealing with her lost home, but I wished she
done that. It just made me homesick for my beach retreat on the
"Like them, Jenkins?" It was Lourdes. She had
come in so quietly that I hadn't even heard her.
"Lovely, indeed!" I had to humor her. "Soon we'll
back there soaking up that sun, not a care in the world, an honest
day's work only a hateful memory."
Lourdes stepped over and straightened a seascape.
"Have you been following the news about Colonel Seek?" she asked.
Federation Broadcasting Network is making real hay of the whole
debacle. It's a smart move on their part. They know that that man
ruin us in about ten seconds flat."
"He could," I agreed. "But don't call him
think a more proper title would be "lunatic." At any rate, I plan to
catch him, drag him back here, and strip off his medals along with
much of his hide as happens to come off with them."
"Don't work yourself up," Lourdes warned,
"You know how you get. All puffed up and not a wink of sleep for a
get that way before a major assignment." I told her.
Lourdes scowled. "Always?" she asked. "You've had
exactly one to date, and it was I who lost sleep in the end. I was
never so surprised in my life when you came back alive from that
"It was awful, I'll have you know. And to tell
the truth, I was a bit surprised to get away with some of the stunts
pulled myself. I just hope you weren't disappointed."
"I wasn't. Just surprised. Grateful too. The
Federation in taking over Marion made us involuntary citizens, and
such we are subject to its antiquated laws -- whenever we decide to
start obeying them, that is. The Federation is not a community
state, and in addition it exacts a hefty inheritance-type tax on the
property of a deceased spouse. A widow today I would not like to
"I knew it was only my half of the estate that
you cared about..."
Lourdes looked at me sternly. "Tell me the truth.
You were joking just now when you said you were going after Colonel
Seek, weren't you?"
For a moment I thought of lying, but at the last
second I thought better of it. Lying to Lourdes was madness,
She always found out and then there was literal hell to pay. I
down on the bed. I had to admit it; there was no other way.
Lourdes didn't take the truth well. I almost
I had lied after all -- or maybe just fibbed a little. She was
I would leave her a widow, I would ruin her life, I would do this
that..... "But Lourdes," I tried to explain. "Everyone who is anyone
going out to have a crack at Seek. We have to. If that psychopath
pushes the wrong button, it's the end of our revolution. We would
have to pack it in and wait another four-hundred years for our time
get ripe again."
"And what about me, then?" Lourdes asked. "I just
sit in our quarters aboard ship and wait and worry? You say
going. Well, fine. I've had every bit as much training as you,
"Well, yes." I snorted. "More so in fact."
"You want to come with me?" I asked in surprise.
"It's better than waiting around here and trying
manage your harebrained business enterprises, ninety percent of
"Ninety percent of everything does," I reminded
"It's the ten percent that's the charm," I said. "But I didn't know
wanted to go."
"What else is there for me to do?" she asked. "I
hated every minute of waiting the last time you were out. And if I
to stay aboard this glorified flying trash can this time, I'll go
absolutely crazy. What's more, I never liked that bible-thumping
Seek anyway. It'd be a pleasure to haul him back kicking and
I'll hold him and you can kick. We'll leave the screaming to him."
"You know the rat?"
"Not personally. However, when you were out
across the frozen plains of Tuukar with your felons at large and
legions of bad-tempered Eskimos, I attended a few presentations
ship. One was given by Seek. It was the last I attended. Couldn't
stomach the topic."
"What was it? Military strategy? Weapons
"It started out dealing with similar themes, but
soon regressed into something less attractive. Colonel Seek, it
believes in a supreme being."
"I'm afraid so, Jenkins. He went on and on about
woman evolving from the rib of a man and a galaxy-wide intrusion of
hydrogen and oxygen in a two-to-one solution that killed all life in
its path. It was real scary and I left."
I shook my head. "Well, if that don't beat all."
"Now," said Lourdes. "Am I going with you, or do
I go after the bum myself?"
I protested, of course. I said everything that a
concerned husband would say. She would get hurt. Heliox, combat,
space-- bad for woman! But my heart wasn't really in it. The fact
I wanted her to go. I hated being without her to the point that it
almost jeopardized my last mission. And it wasn't as though she
couldn't take care of herself. For her size she was at least as
as any man. To tell the truth, I felt pretty sure she could beat me
if she really put her mind to it.
I didn't express to her directly how I felt, of
course. When I left her, I made it clear in no uncertain terms that
mere woman would never accompany me on an assignment, but Lourdes
that I did not mean it. The belief in male superiority was an
aberration of the stone-age. And what kind of woman would marry a
who believed in such a thing? (Woman evolving from a rib indeed!) In
reality, with her willing to go, I had an entirely new outlook on
It didn't take long to find out I had made the
decision. I ran into Cardip about an hour later. "Good news," he
"I talked to both Zallaham and Dave McKellen. Zallaham has been
reassigned to you ."
"Good. You work fast Chief." I responded.
Cardip started to walk away, then did a little
double take and spun on his heel. "Er, there's just one problem." He
"Zallaham refuses to have anything to do with
and McKellen says he's going to knock you around some the next time
I heard the commotion inside the room even before
opened the door. I took a deep breath, turned the knob, and
strolled in casually. The noise did not abate for even a moment, and
that did not bode well for me. My appearance there was unexpected
should have produced a communal gasp and a scrambling rush of
to conceal the mischief followed by sheepish grins and a chorus of
ingratiating if affected salutations.
Instead, the boys from Heliox ignored me
They shouted the foulest obscenities at one another and continued to
make boisterous side bets on the outcome of something truly
In the center of the Formica table was a
plank upon which sat a floppy-eared creature known as a Grangorian
rabbit. Biffer, a thin whiplash of a chiseler, was directing some
of ray at the animal's head while his companions roared with
excitement, sheaves of the inflated paper currency of Heliox
tightly in their hands. There was a long trough of liquid in front
the rabbit and just beyond it was a spindle upon which was impaled a
rather moldy potato. An uncapped jug beneath the table read: 25M
It didn't take me long to figure out the game.
trough, of course, contained sulfuric acid, and the ray that Biffer
dutifully administering to the creature's cranium was undoubtedly
designed to stimulate the hunger center of the lagomorph's brain.
the ray had worked up a colossal appetite within the rabbit, the
luckless animal would leap with uncharacteristic voracity toward the
potato. And, of course, land directly in the acid. A stopwatch would
click and those having correctly predicted the time of the event
divide the pot.
Of course, they could have played without the
There was a sudden splash followed by an enormous
mishmash of outcries. The throaty groans and curses of those who had
lost were all but drowned out by the ear-splitting whoops of
from the winners.
Biffer was fast at work at the trough with a
fork with which he first skimmed the fur off the top of the acid,
fished out the bleached and disintegrating skeleton.
Things were plainly getting out of hand. I had
simply started out too loose with these boys. Now came the
business of tightening things up. "Who's the big winner here today?"
said cheerfully, putting on a greasy, almost lewd smile that this
understood only too well -- or thought they did. Kroin, the biggest
ugliest of the bunch stepped forward, eager to claim the honor.
Perfect. I had been hoping it would be him.
"Me," he said stupidly, and motioned to a cage
against the wall. "Win more later, too. Got ten rabbits left."
"One of them's getting away," I told him and when
he looked to see, I punched him directly in the teeth.
Kroin screamed gagging in pain and staggered
the room in circles. The rest of the company gaped in surprise, then
grinned in anticipation as Kroin regained his senses and turned his
attention from his splintered teeth to me. "Ahrgg!" he screeched and
bounded toward me.
I stood firm, feet planted well apart. It didn't
take a genius to foresee his intentions. Kroin halted about two
from me and kicked with all the savage intensity he possessed in his
rage. The man's heavy number-twelve boot caught me directly in the
groin, the force of it practically lifting me from the ground. To
surprise of the onlookers, however, it was Kroin, not I, who fell
squalling in agony.
I knew the kind of ruffian I would be dealing
here on Heliox and had made preparations in the form of a stainless
steel scrotal cup. I also took my precautions a bit beyond the
by taking this protective garment to the Seychelles metal shop where
welded on a two-inch dock spike where it would do the most good. Now
the cup not only protected the wearer, but also quite effectively
punished the offender. I was surprised at how well it worked.
Kroin lay groaning in pain, dividing his
between the ruins of his teeth and his punctured metatarsus. In the
center of his right boot was a quarter-inch hole from which oozed a
thin trickle of blood. Around the fallen giant lay a scattering of
red-backed federal guilders. I scooped these up with a sudden,
aggressive motion and Kroin cringed quickly in alarm. I peeled off a
couple of bills and tossed them at him. "Here's a hundred bucks," I
said. "I recommend J. Patrick Gambles. He's a dentist." But I hadn't
finished. I smiled sarcastically at the others, then began to kick
Kroin where he lay. He yelped in pain and scrambled frantically
the room. I pursued him doggedly until he was finally able to escape
through an open doorway.
From the hallway echoed the desperate and uneven
clomping sound of his new and unaccustomed stumbling gait. "He'll be
beating time with that good left pin for at least a month," I
with just the correct mixture of amusement and contempt. "Anyone
here bet I can't do the same to them?" I made a fast move in their
direction and the lot of them shrank backward, mouths forming little
O's, wrists clutched to their breasts. "Good. I'll be back in an
and when I am, this room had better be immaculate. I want this whole
place licked clean."
I could not help but laugh when I related what
happened to Lourdes. She didn't find my description of the day's
particularly humorous. I had to explain that I had merely inflicted
pain and had done so for a very good reason. True, Kroin's smile had
suffered somewhat, but he never smiled much anyway. And modern
dentistry could undo what I had done, though why anyone would want
restore any part of Kroin's ape-like visage would be unfathomable.
Frankly, I felt my pummeling had improved his appearance to a
although it would certainly have been Kroin's right to disagree with
on that point. However, far from unwarranted and inexcusable, my
preemptive assault was a necessary, sane, and in some ways humane
action. Punishment under the rules of Heliox's roughnecks was most
often far worse. In perspective, Kroin had gotten off lightly. And I
had no choice in the matter anyway. I knew the men I was dealing
and I knew a fate far worse than Kroin's was awaiting me if I failed
gain their respect.
Lourdes seemed to understand me better when I
her what happened to the Grangorian rabbit. She was hardly a
heart, but like anyone else knew there was something fundamentally
wrong with people who torture animals or other people to death for
money. She tried to lump me in with their ilk, but I hastily pointed
out that I hadn't actually killed Kroin -- just badly wounded him,
no tender had changed hands.
Now she was interested in the immediate future.
house I had rented on Heliox was a dilapidated two-story vermin run,
and my wife seemed eager to move out of it. I rather liked it
had reserved the entire second floor for Lourdes and me. We'd fixed
up a bit and it was livable. Downstairs, the ruffians had been
to swagger however they liked, which had only spoiled them. The
public thrashing of Kroin had ended all that. And there were other
changes soon to come. Yet Lourdes was impatient. "Look, Jenkins,"
complained as we sat at our upstairs dinner table. We had finished a
nice cut of steak and were enjoying a cup or two of coffee. "You did
all right I suppose in getting Kale Soldat, your old buddy from your
Tuukar days, to give you a list of ex-felons and two-time losers
you could contact on Heliox. You've collected about thirty of the
here simply by offering them the unfamiliar luxury of a roof over
worthless heads. Those few who are of more account have been offered
the most ludicrous and unlikely rewards for throwing in with you. In
the meantime, George Seek has disappeared from sight and may decide
any moment to demolish the greater part of the galaxy. If I may be
bold; just what in the hell do you think you're doing?"
"I have an answer to that question," I said. "And
part of it has to do with those materials I asked you to review for
"I reviewed them," she said. "But I don't know
Only one item seemed to have any bearing on Seek and his
She set her coffee mug down, got up, and took some papers from the
nearby desk. I noticed the compu##ter on-off light still glowing
So did Lourdes. She snapped it off and sat back down at the table
perused the papers. "These are the print-outs from the data you gave
me. That little Marion-made computer works like a charm, although I
still can't understand how you got it through spaceport customs.
is famed for its hard line on imported technology."
Not all of my talents were lost on my wife, I
see. "Heliox is a federal planet," I explained. "Its limited
is assured provided that the populace behaves. If they don't, out
good ole King Caleb, usurped by a genuine Federation lackey. Caleb
wouldn't like that. So he's as careful as he is brutal.
can make the work of rebellion easier, and like all such tools, they
are strictly regulated here. But the more rules imposed, the more
people become set on circumventing them. Most of those people in the
end are officials, and officials of corrupt governments everywhere
practice a common trade: la mordida."
"La mordida, the bribe," I replied. "The one and
only cooperative interchange between official and common citizen on
such worlds. Both are victims of the government, and in a mutually
helpful spirit both benefit by thwarting the desires of the greater
enemy, the despot himself-- in this case King Caleb."
"Okay," Lourdes sighed. "So you greased a palm or
two to get the computer in, and you are grateful. But you know very
well that the official is usually committing extortion when he
bribe -- so enough for your cooperative spirit nonsense. What
language is "mordida?"
"Spanglo," I said, as though the answer couldn't
have been more obvious. "I'm surprised you don't know it, Lulu
Lourdes looked at me. " Please?"
"It's your name; it's Spanglo! Lourdes Garza
means Lulu Crane."
"That's nice. Is there some reason why I should
"Because if my hunch is right, where we're going,
your name will fit right in. Mine won't, so I'll have to change it.
does Jaime Loro sound?"
"Asinine," she said bluntly. "I don't think I'm
going to like that language. But don't tell me; I can see that you
think that our friend Colonel Seek is at this very moment lurking on
some planet where Spanglo is the official tongue."
"I do, indeed."
"And the reason for your belief has to do with
the information that I processed and analyzed for you?"
"Yes," I replied. "I need a second opinion to be
sure that the theory I have formulated merits investigation. You
haven't told me what you discovered yet, so I'd like your analysis.
said that there was one item that could pertain to his location."
"There was one -- and only one; I didn't know
the rest of the data were all about," Lourdes said. "Anyway, the
battleship that Seek filched from the Federation was one that hadn't
been fueled in one-hundred years or so. Both its propulsion and
armament systems operate at only thirty percent power."
"That information, of course, was not expressly
stated in the six million pages of public relations information
included in the data I gave you."
"No, but it is a fact as deduced from the
discrimination software in the Marion computer."
"The Federation did not try very hard to conceal
that particular datum, did it?" I noted.
"Why should they have? What was someone supposed
do with that kind of information -- use it to steal a world
"Seek may have," I remarked.
"Yes," said Lourdes. "But you wanted to know how
this could relate to his whereabouts. Frankly, the link is not
particularly tantalizing. It is only this: if Seek were so inclined,
might take steps to acquire fuel to develop full power for his
and arms. He'd have a problem, of course; those super-sized fighters
are ancient things and some of their technology was hopelessly
antiquated even at the time they were built."
"They're powered with simple 20th century
atomics." I said.
Lourdes nodded. "Yes, so gassing up a ship like
is no simple matter; the Federation itself waits fifty to
years to bother with it. And Seek knows full well that the feds will
keeping a wary eye on their fuel dumps. To conclude, the analysis
us that he might possibly be mining fissionable material.
"That's it," I exclaimed. I poured us each an
cup of coffee. "That's what he is doing. He has to. He must mine."
Lourdes sipped her coffee and frowned. "Has to?
Must?" She questioned. "That is not my conclusion. My conclusion is
that he will not mine. Why should he? He can run that P-657 for
hundred years and demolish a dozen planets a day every day. That
"It won't," I stated flatly. "That is the mistake
that the Federation and the Alliance are both making. They assume
he is moderately content with something less than a full-blown world
cruncher. I contend that he is not."
Lourdes set down her mug. "Content he may have to
be. Mining the fuel would be a tremendously complicated and
business. It would probably also compromise his security to wait
instead of striking while the advantage was his. And powering up a
like that from raw materials would also take forever. Jenkins, he
won't do it."
"Six months," I disagreed. "With machinery in
now, it could take even less. There is a library aboard that ship.
won't be bored. He's the type that could happily spend that time
rubbing his hands together and laughing maniacally."
"It's a longshot..."
"No, it's not. And the argument is simpler than
that," I said. "Either he will mine that fuel or he won't; those are
the only two possibilities."
"And I say he won't." Lourdes said stubbornly.
"Fine," I scoffed. "And by limiting your thinking
that way, you, like the Federation and the Alliance, stop dead in
tracks without a clue as to where the criminal might be. If, on the
other hand, you had embarked on a different train of thought -- one
based upon the opposite assumption -- you would inevitably have been
led to the same corpus of facts and circumstantial evidence that has
revealed to me his intentions as well as his location."
"What information could possibly give you all
that?" Lourdes asked disbelievingly.
I only grinned and stirred my coffee sagely. "I
sum up that body of evidence with two words: Armageddon and
She started to protest, but I raised my hand and waved her to
"Yes, I know you have never heard of the former. It's an obscure
reference. Armageddon refers to the upheaval that Colonel Seek's
benevolent supreme being has planned for everyone who isn't exactly
mentally unhinged as he. Fire, brimstone, gnashing of teeth, bloody
horse flesh on the highways, that sort of thing. Don't laugh, now.
doctrine has actually been written down, and Seek believes it. I
checked. Carnotite is...."
"A rather complex yellow mineral which contains
uranium," Lourdes said quickly. "I could recognize it in the field
I was ten, so don't assume it's also something new to me. I thought
gave me the job of analyzing data on that and other minerals because
you were a lousy chemist -- which you are. Now, I see that you are
double-checking your own conclusions again."
"Nothing wrong with being thorough, is there?" I
"No, but what you gave me on carnotite makes no
sense," she answered. "I can see that you are developing some theory
that Seek will try to mine fuel from carnotite."
"He will. I'm almost sure of that."
"But that's ridiculous," she objected. "Carnotite
comparatively poor for such a purpose. There are much better and
plentiful ores for the uranium he needs."
"I had already surmised that when I gave you the
data," I responded. "That's why I asked you to establish the
of a place where large deposits of carnotite are present in
with rich natural reserves of more usable uranium ore."
"I did so. There are three worlds that stand out
above thousands of others."
"Which of the three has the most carnotite?"
"I knew it!" I shouted. "That's where we're
I then told Lourdes the facts uncovered in an
investigation that I had conducted even before leaving the
for Heliox. My study concerned the character of the man, George
went over his academic transcripts and found a Ph.D.. in physics
Syrius Tech, no slouch degree that. But his post doctorate
record was spotty. Just some uninspiring papers in the journals on
carnotite and its affinity to other minerals on various worlds --
actually a subject well outside his field. On a hunch, I did a
scan of unrelated publications. I was checking to see whether he had
strayed even farther afield. I had guessed right, and what I found
chilling. His name appeared predominantly in the most obscure
publications: magazines with titles like Sweltering Disciple, Holy
Infarction, and Blessed Gazette. Again, the subject was carnotite,
his treatment of the topic had taken a bizarre theological turn,
relating the "music of the spheres" and a supreme being with the
chemical properties of carnotite and its associated minerals.
That may sound silly, but Seek was deadly
He did meticulous studies of the decay of radioactive isotopes in
Carnotite, attempting to prove that the fossils so often associated
with the mineral were recent relics of an intragalactic deluge
to somewhere in written dogma. It was his opinion that carnotite had
been placed in the universe as evidence for the great design of the
His presentation was always kind of oblique and
fuzzy and left out the most blatantly obvious and pertinent facts
would destroy his arguments in an instant. But it was fascinating
reading because it went beyond most of the other articles in these
The other magazine pieces relied heavily on the
tactics of omission and slight of hand. But they were composed by
mental midgets, who were much too demented to see their own self
deception even as they passed their delusions on to their readers.
These contributors reveled in using block-long words that they
really understand, and the subscribers, most of whom would have to
consult a dictionary to spell the word, "cat", were, of course, none
Seek was much different. His constructs and
dichotomies seemed directed straight from the subconscious. His
reader was simply an intellectual chucklehead or suffering from
moderate to rather severe mental illness. Seek, however, was truly
This had dawned on me as I read in the Seychelles
library some weeks earlier. And I almost recoiled at the revelation
when it struck because I knew that George Seek was capable of
and that his vision of Armageddon could very well be a prophesy
he intended to fulfill himself.
It was obvious that for a proper doomsday he
feel absolutely compelled to get the ship up to full power. He would
mine that fuel, all right. And he would use as much carnotite as he
I could read him like a book.
Both Lourdes and I recognized the necessity of
ridding ourselves of better than half the roughnecks I had gathered
together. Many of them fell short in the intelligence category,
others simply could not be trusted under any circumstances. We only
needed about eight of them, but we figured with the group we had, we
would have to take on ten. If we took any fewer, long standing
and cronies would be parted, and these partnerships were important
As for the purpose of the trip, I at first
considered concocting some story of gold and looting on Ancho. That
would keep the boys interested and loyal enough. But it would also
involve a lot of interruptions and lawbreaking along the way,
of which was particularly desirable. In addition, sneaking up on
on some third world planet without his getting suspicious would be
enough without the constant pressure of maintaining the trappings of
farcical mission. Instead, I decided to pay them outright, with
bonuses in cash for meritorious service as well as promised shares
whatever treasure or booty was to be divvied out.
No, I wouldn't stop talking about looting or
racketeering around this group. They were pirates and would only be
happy if pirating were a part of the activities to come. But if they
asked what I was doing on Ancho, they would be told to mind their
business. In exchange for money, I felt sure they would lose their
That I was paying cash would not sour them on the
project either. And it was fine with me. Cardip had opened the
Seychelles vaults and every penny requested was being granted for
purpose of apprehending Colonel Seek. I had enough money to finance
just about anything and didn't feel guilty about it either; after
a tremendous amount of that wealth was actually mine.
Lourdes reviewed my analysis of Seek's wild-eyed
publication record and agreed with me that Ancho was the place to
for him. She had another concern, however.
We were in our upstairs apartment packing, which
not a difficult job. The computer would simply be abandoned and the
kind of clothes we would need for Ancho would have to be bought
elsewhere. Most of what I was putting in my suitcase was money.
"Jenkins," Lourdes said seriously. "I assume you have notified the
Alliance of this Ancho business. After thinking about it, I have to
admit that it is not as completely crazy a notion as I first
"I've had that feeling all along," I told her.
that reason, I went directly to Cardip himself before we even came
and showed him everything I had on Seek."
"He didn't agree with me," I said. "It's that
"But surely this is better than the hit-and-miss
strategy the Alliance is pursuing now. We at least have some reasons
for believing Seek could be on Ancho. What is the Alliance's game
All I see now is an organization with an army of mavericks chasing
leads with no direction at all."
"I'm not sure," I replied. "Cardip wouldn't tell
There is an Alliance strategy, however; I know that for a fact.
didn't want me in on it. He let me know in no uncertain terms that I
was to have nothing to do with it."
Lourdes let out a sigh. "The evidence we have is
strong," she said after a pause. "But it is interesting. It's smart
look into it. And Cardip is too smart to ignore it."
"Oh, but he's not ignoring it," I stated, trying
clarify. "He's got me -- and now you -- on the project. Get this:
to report in by O-X radio, apparently the only restriction on us.
got an O-X packed in some of the luggage we haven't bothered to
"Cardip offered just the radio and no personnel?"
"I tried to get Alliance back-up logistical
but he scoffed. Others high up didn't think much of my ideas either,
though they were less derisive."
"So for manpower we've got nothing but your
"Yeah," I said. "These guys are perfect. They
how to run from a fight without making it look like running. Yet,
are also quite willing and able to slug it out if they have to.
most important asset, however, is their look."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Simply that if and when we run into the Ancho
version of the Heliox hooligan, the two groups will instantly
their off-world counterparts. Instead of an outright attack, there
be a bit of he-buck strutting and positioning and raised hair-- it's
the same on every world. Usually harmless enough. Some headbutting
the least and maybe a little knife play, but the heat will be off
and me whatever happens. That's important; Ancho is a rough world in
many places, and I intend to do some traveling right out in the
"That's good as far as it goes," said Lourdes.
I wish we had some Alliance support. I still can't understand the
administration's inability to anticipate Seek. Can't they see what
schiz is likely to do?"
"Perhaps they would be able to if not for the
religious element," I offered. "They come from modern worlds where
does not see much of the old-style fundamentalist zeal."
"That could explain it," Lourdes admitted. "Now,
however, you and I are stuck with the job of going to Ancho. We'd
better keep our fingers crossed."
"That Seek is or is not there?" I asked.
"I haven't decided that," she answered.
Dumping the twenty-odd ruffians whom I didn't
was child's play. I began by telling them that I intended to ditch
others. Then, I pulled a switcheroo. I'll never forget their faces
they watched the shuttle bus to the starport rumble by without them.
They stood stupidly at the curbside, bags in hand, gaping at the
grinning faces pressed against the windows of the bus. I tossed them
the tiniest wave just before the shuttle rounded the corner out of
Among the ten from Heliox were: Biffer, the wiry
thin huckster with a face so evil that his own mother must have
him; Marlow, a transplanted Grangorian who was on Heliox simply to
escape his creditors; Nils, a tall blondish chap whose penchant for
liquor made him fairly unusable for stretches of time; Hardiman,
with engines and better with his fists -- a temper to match, too;
variety of other more featureless alley cats among whom was the
Kroin, who bore me no malice for the thrashing I had given him; he
more like a dog whose master has beaten it and relented: all waggy
and eager to please. Kroin had not taken my advice and consulted a
dentist and could now spit and whistle simultaneously through the
gap in the front of his mouth, a fact that seemed to give him joy.
is easy to amuse a simple mind. He still possessed the limp I had
predicted, and I hoped that that wouldn't prove to be a problem; I
planned to do some hiking before we saw the last of Ancho.
When the twelve of us boarded the commercial
to Draconis, we looked more like nursery school conventioneers than
anything else. I had instructed the boys in how to dress. They were
spiffed up in the latest three-piece suits, complete with diamond
cufflinks and gold tie clasps. We had some very expensive forged
passports that could pass muster anywhere, but I wanted no overly
officious customs officer to have any reason to give us as much as a
second glance. There was no telling what crimes these gentlemen were
presently wanted for. And aiding and abetting a criminal on Heliox
just as bad as committing the crime yourself. I mean that quite
literally. King Caleb had blurred the distinctions normally made
differing crimes on most civilized worlds. The penalty for
for instance, was the same as that for first degree murder. It was
mandatory execution by firing squad whether you lifted a pack of
cigarettes or assassinated the local magistrate.
The liner was nothing like the cruisers that low
level businessmen could rent. It was strictly first class and was
equipped with Ultradrive. In other words, it got us where we wanted
go in a couple of days instead of a few weeks. The ship was also
comfortably furnished. Each of us had a tiny sleeper. During waking
hours there was room to move about and there was even a quiet lounge
where the lot of us would retire daily for a drink or two. I was
surprised at how the roughnecks held their liquor and refrained from
bullying or arguing with the other passengers. These boys were
housebroken, but with those expensive suits, no one would have
Draconis was a hub world. Flights to a large
of little-known planets originated here. Ancho was one such
destination. In the urban areas surrounding the starport were
of different commercial neighborhoods, each vying to the indigene of
particular planet. Our party headed for "Little Ancho." It was a
of rank smells and urban squalor. Ear-splitting blasts from the
of busses and ground cars sounded everywhere. Vendors hawked their
wares screeching with strident voices, while in hundreds of
cafes, busy cusiniers grilled, boiled, and fried an amazing
of items, some not generally considered edible elsewhere.
Here, the litter bag was an invention of the
future. Smoke from the cooking fires rolled over the shops and
and rumbling diesel-powered busses pumped out petroleum fumes into
streets. And as the traffic passed, discarded wrappers and
whirled in the dusty alleyways, settled, and whirled again.
It would not be a comfortable place to live, but
we didn't mind visiting at all.
For a reasonable price, we got outfitted in the
latest Ancho fashions, which were pretty primitive. For men, the
consisted of a pair of old-fashioned trousers and an unpressed white
shirt. These items were effectively concealed by a large
blanket with a hole cut in its center. The wearer's head protruded
from the hole. We were told by the salesman that it was
to use the sarape, as this garment was called, as one might use a
regular blanket for sleeping in the wilds. For shoes we were offered
huaraches , a kind of jury-rigged sandal with tire tread as a sole.
They were not particularly comfortable, but I doubted that we'd wear
them out in a hurry. Hats also came with the package. They were
and round and woven of straw with a single dingleball hanging from
rear brim of each. They would also be quite useful; Ancho was known
be a hot world.
Lourdes did not at first fare as well as the men
our party. She quickly found herself wearing a hideous black and
yellow dress with razor sharp pleats over every inch of it. It was a
sartorial nightmare. A series of solidly starched petticoats rustled
noisily underneath and flared the garment out like some huge open
umbrella. And the shoes she was given were high-heels, which made
look as though she were trying to climb out of the dress -- which I
guess she was. "Don't say a word," she warned frostily, her raised
clenched in my face. "If you so much as open your mouth, I'll kill
with my bare hands."
I bit my lip. It took a tremendous effort not to
laugh, but somehow I managed it. Soon Lourdes was being fitted for
something a bit -- well different. It was a low-cut, deep maroon
which barely covered her knees and clung to her like honey. The high
heels remained a part of the ensemble and were adorned by a pair of
black nylon stockings that glistened like silk. The effect of this
against the backdrop of her black hair and dark brown eyes was
"That's a definite improvement," I said with a
hungry leer. "But there's a name for the kind of woman you look like
We didn't have to change her attire much to fix
things; I confess that I didn't really want to change it all that
We simply added a ladies' version of the sarape which concealed
of the dress to keep the wolf whistles under control.
The purpose of the clothing was to thwart any
arrangements Colonel Seek might have made to intercept Federal or
Alliance busybodies. The last thing I wanted was for us to show up
some dusty port on Ancho decked out in those three-piece suits. If
had effected surveillance of the major points of ingress to Ancho,
which he might very well have done, twelve well-dressed off-world
strangers would be exceedingly conspicuous. I wanted us to look like
gang of backwoods Anchoan entrepreneurs who had been moderately
successful in something or other and were well-to-do enough to be
taking the occasional interstellar flight.
The only problem was a linguistic one; none of us
spoke Spanglo well enough to pass as native. In the University of
Centarus IV, I had studied the language along with a half dozen
for an undergraduate degree. I spoke it fluently, yet my accent,
never fool anyone. Aside from that one problem, however, I thought
fit the part well enough to proceed.
We outfitted ourselves with a few Ancho-made
knapsacks. Afterwards, we rented rooms in a medium-priced hotel in
Little Ancho. The boys from Heliox went out to carouse around the
while Lourdes and I stayed in the hotel and caught up on some long
neglected true gravity sleep.
In the morning, I visited the public library.
had a pretty good one here on Draconis, and it was close enough to
Ancho to have some current data on the place. I wasn't really sure
what I was looking for. Things had progressed so rapidly on the
Seychelles and on Heliox, that I never really had the chance to do
background work that was needed.
There was quite a lot on Ancho in the library:
tourist brochures, coffee table books, and histories. I needed
up-to-date geological surveys, and there were plenty of them as
They gave me a pretty good idea of where Seek might want to mine.
His ship, of course, would not be visible. Miles
across, the battlesled could never hide behind anything smaller than
planet or large asteroid. For this reason, it possessed cloaking
devices that would make it completely invisible. I believed that
somewhere on Ancho that great ship sat, its mining tubes buried in
earth beneath it, digging, tunneling, and processing, and concealing
the project from all the world. I knew that a magnetic survey or
mass detectors would not reveal the presence of the ship; its
technology was too far advanced to permit that. But I also felt that
there had to be a way to pinpoint its location.
I evaluated everything I could on the geology of
Ancho and found the planet so loaded with likely carnotite mining
that to investigate them all would take a lifetime. Just the same, I
continued research in the library, waiting for inspiration to
It did, but only after two days of reading and thinking. I had made
way through half the important historical works on Ancho when I
up one of the coffee table volumes for a little break. It was a
lavishly illustrated tome which dealt with the popular sport of
craft aviation on Ancho. I perused in relaxation, my mission and the
revolution completely forgotten, and suddenly it dawned on me how I
could locate George Seek.
Five days later, we were already aboard a slow
cruiser to Ancho.
It was a large ship and definitely a budget
spaceliner. Most of the passengers were small-time Anchoan
who dressed and cursed like nineteenth century sheepherders and
quarreled in loud voices over trifles. They tried to direct some of
their complaints to us, but after Biffer gave them an evil stare
was full of menace, they confined their reproaches to members of
Taking these boys along was already beginning to
We had more room to move around on this ship, but
the week-and-a- half journey to Ancho under standard drive seemed
The starport was in a large city called Tecolote.
was one of half a dozen cities with interstellar commerce, but I
it because I had reasons to believe it might be closest to George
On arrival at Ancho Starport III, we breezed through the crowds and
found a cheap hotel where we could all stretch out and relax.
The rooms were clean enough but only because they
were hosed out after each vacancy. The floors were cement and each
possessed a drain to aid in mopping up or in the event of accidental
flooding. When I looked at the plumbing fixtures, I realized why
were set up this way. Each hosebib, inside and out of the building,
caked with rust and dripped and drizzled away unchecked. This
was by no means restricted to our low class lodgings; even the
hotels were stained red by the oxidizing iron of dilapidated air
conditioners and leaky swamp boxes. The faucets in our bathroom were
different. They sat in the centers of large, rusty rings and
two lumps of pumice. And when I ran a test on the water in the
rushed to warn even the iron-stomached Helioxians.
But it wasn't just the plumbing that was
substandard. Each time a bus passed on the street below, the entire
building quaked and the bedsprings groaned -- and the food and
were atrocious. I found the whole place fascinating; the entire city
seemed stricken by the same malady. High and low class alike shared
most aspects of this squalor: the unsanitary streets, the crumbling
sidewalks, the polluted air, the noise, and the general disorder.
was much like its facsimile on Draconis.
The real thing, however, was bigger and dirtier,
in addition there were many brown-uniformed police in the streets.
This, of course, was very much an unsettling difference. The cops
us the once over whenever we passed, and I felt that they were
for some pretext to extort some of our cash. Lourdes and I
that we were perhaps too well-dressed for such treatment. Our
though plain, were quite new, and the slightly higher class usually
enjoyed some kind of privilege on planets like this.
Lourdes and I took in most of what sights
us in about two hours and then returned to our room. I hung my hat
the rack inside the door and began unpacking some papers, which I
spread out on the floor. Lourdes came over and kneeled down with me
the cement. "This," I said, "is the reason we have come to Ancho via
Starport III here in Tecolote."
What lay before me was a series of weather maps
printed on nearly transparent onion skin paper so that the daily
changing isoglosses could be viewed. It was an odd weather pattern
Ancho. What seemed to be a solid low pressure area had remained over
the same geographical area ever since Colonel Seek had disappeared
sight. "This could be the battlesled," I told Lourdes, indicating a
roughly circular area some three-hundred miles in diameter. It was
impressively illustrated collection of papers with plenty of
overlapping colors and numbers. I had jazzed it up some on the
library's color graphics computer.
Lourdes simply leafed through the papers
did not have the impression that she was deeply impressed. Finally,
sighed, turned the last page, and looked up at me. "It's clear why
insisted on waiting to show me this," she stated tiredly. "I could
easily find anomalies more convincing than these. Of course, they
be equally meaningless. About all these papers prove is that you
found a stationary low that is roughly the size of Seek's ship."
"You forget that I have found this anomaly on
Ancho," I responded. "And I've found it above a rich layer of
overlying a deposit of the hottest uranium ore on the planet."
Lourdes was not overawed. "If it is the hottest
deposit, then it is merely a coincidence," she said, undaunted. "I
don't dismiss your ideas without cause; there is a compelling reason
doubt the significance of your observations. It is this: Seek would
disguise any weather that could reveal his presence to anyone."
"Would he?" I asked. "I folded my papers up and
tucked them back in my suitcase. "Do you honestly think anyone would
attribute a stubborn low pressure zone to the presence of a P-657?"
"Yes," Lourdes answered, with a smile. "You
So, there's your answer. Seek would leave no traces of his position.
Why would he if he didn't have to?"
I took a folder from the suitcase and opened it.
contained several pages photocopied from the coffee table volume on
small aircraft. I handed it to her. She looked at the documents for
few moments without joy and handed them back. "Tell," she finally
"What do you remember about the weather maps you
just viewed?" I inquired. I motioned toward my suitcase. "Tell me
a small aircraft pilot's point of view."
Lourdes began counting off on her fingers. "Winds
knots, with conditions prime for airframe icing, not to mention
carburetor ice. Instrument flight rules every inch of the way, wind
shear, too, and the density altitude around that low would give a
plane all the flying characteristics of a grand piano. In all, I'd
"Fine. What would happen if a private airplane
to navigate through weather like that on Marion? Assuming, of
that private aviation is still permitted under the present Federal
occupation." I asked.
Lourdes shrugged, obviously getting bored. "It
easily turn up missing. A civil patrol would be sent out to
investigate. The regular full investigation would ensue."
"Aha!" I shouted. "That's exactly what George
Seek would want, isn't it?"
"Don't be sarcastic," Lourdes replied, annoyed.
Clearly, that is the exact opposite of what he would want -- but
won't happen because..." She broke off, realizing what she was about
I grinned. "If you don't mind, I'll finish that:
because no pilot in his right mind would fly into such a mess." I
the photocopies in the suitcase with the other papers. "Seek has
himself vulnerable in a way that no one could ever have foreseen. A
battleship like his is usually highly mobile. If someone comes by,
simply moves somewhere else. That makes the ship next to impossible
locate. With his mining project in operation, however, Seek is
solid, and his presence open to betrayal in the most inadvertent and
uncomplicated way: someone could run into him!"
I knew the dimensions of Seek's ship. It was
saucer-shaped and one hundred and fifty miles in radius. If reduced
the size of a coin, it would be an almost wafer-thin disk, but on
Ancho, its uppermost point would still top 30,000 feet and perhaps
covered with a thick layer of snow. It would present a terrible
navigation hazard for aircraft of any kind. The presence of that
ship would also directly affect the weather, and George Seek could
any alterations he felt were necessary to discourage flight through
area. He could even, I imagined, quietly blow an errant aviator out
the vicinity by creating headwinds too strong for a plane to drive
At the same time, I knew that a man or party of
could walk beneath the ship unobstructed. I had read the specs on
mining equipment Seek possessed and knew the ship would be supported
(figuratively only) by a single column jutting from its hub. This
column contained mining tubes, drills, and refining equipment and
anchored in the earth.
I don't think Lourdes was sold, but at least she
didn't find my ideas completely idiotic. I radioed Cardip that
and told him what we were doing. He was very businesslike and simply
said to keep him posted. I was somewhat disappointed that he didn't
seem as excited about my hunches as I was, but I knew he had a lot
on his mind than what I had to say.
The O-X radio itself was a miracle to say nothing
more. Its transmissions were instantaneous and secure and only
governments could afford them. The tiny transmitter I carried with
was not expensive, of course, but the receiving equipment aboard the
Seychelles put the Alliance at an even par with the Feds
communications-wise. It just so happened that an O-X master unit was
being transported aboard the Seychelles when the Alliance
her. Without that bit of luck, the Alliance would be fighting for
unsecured subspace channels along with every third world inhabitant
the galaxy -- and waiting anywhere from ten minutes to an hour
The O-X was tiny as well; I'd have no problem
packing it into any place I wanted to go. Other supplies, however,
not so readily available on Ancho as I would have liked. There were
outfitter's stores specializing in what I needed, so I was forced to
put together our provisions piecemeal. I kept things as simple as I
could: first, a better pair of shoes for Lourdes and canteens
around. A good coffee pot, coffee and sugar. There were a lot of
smaller items that I needed to buy and pack: flashlights, matches,
water purification tablets, rope, a good camp knife and compass. We
wouldn't need to carry much food; it was simple for me to plot
course that crossed through tiny peasant settlements where we could
barter for our evening
meal. The line on my map didn't even zigzag much. Just the
the less hiking the better. I had the twelve of us board a single
diesel-powered bus to the train station. We'd take the train, get
at a place called "Desbocado," and travel over land by foot after
The station was located in the direct center of
Tecolote, not far from Starport III. I made sure we arrived in
plenty of time to pick up the tickets before they were sold out.
didn't work out very well however, for although I was the very first
line and had my money and the correct words in Spanglo ready, I was
able to get a single ticket. The people crowding in behind me, arms
outstretched and faces straining with insistence were simply served
tickets over my shoulders and head until the last seat on the train
been taken. I hollered and bleated red-faced while this was
-- but it made no difference. I was thoroughly outclassed by this
It was already dark when I came back with
rest of the crew. I didn't intend to be culturally sensitive. I
those tickets. There was another train arriving in fifteen minutes
there was not much time to get them. If I lacked the necessary
assertiveness, I doubted I these apes from Heliox did.
Lourdes and I pushed our way to the front of the
line -- or mob; it really wasn't any kind of line you'd ever
seen. Biffer and Nils came up behind, and turned, arms folded,
facing backward. The crowd was taken aback by this and showed the
desired signs of intimidation.
Old habits die hard, however, and when the ticket
window rattled open, there was an eager surge and an attempt by some
squeeze in front of Lourdes and me.
Nils would have none of it. He gave the first to
reach him a powerful block that set the interloper back on his
Many of the others also took a step backward. Nils was not as big as
Kroin, who stood nearby, but he was certainly a head taller and a
width broader than anybody else in the crowd. He was now leveling an
ugly stare at the people before him.
I turned to the window with my money. The cashier
appeared at first somewhat mystified. He must never have seen a
face alone in the window. He had also likely never seen money over
counter that was not clutched in a waving half fist -- much less
on the counter laid out in twelve neat piles. "Doce boletos a
Desbocado." I told him.
There was a long beat as the cashier tried to
sense out of what he was seeing. Then, he came awake and handed over
the tickets. Nodding, with a smile, I said, "Mil gracias, cuado." I
turned to the others "Vmanos muchachos!"
But that was not the end of it. Biffer, guarding
left flank, was set upon by a tall man who was not very much like
others in the crowd. This was what one might call in Spanglo "un
pachuco." He wore a kind of flat, low-lying hat with only the
visor in place of the sun-blocking brims the rest of us wore. Dark
glasses covered his eyes. His face was lined with deep creases that
not have been worry lines but real scars and his build was wiry like
Biffer's. He looked dangerous.
Biffer did not possess the simple imposing bulk
Nils did. He was shorter even than I. Now he was being challenged by
the approaching Anchoan.
Nils himself was a good three paces away.
"I've got the tickets, boys." I said loudly.
"Side step him, Biffer. No need to get rough."
Biffer tried once to obey. Yet while stepping
the other, he was shouldered once hard. There was nothing I could
Biffer reacted as expected: he returned the man's offense with a
forceful open-handed push. "Pendejo!" he hissed. Spanglo --
interesting, I thought.
Nils acted then, too late, taking the beginnings
a step to back up Biffer. But the Anchoan had already pulled out a
weapon. It was a black spring-loaded folding knife that snapped
suddenly open to reveal a gleaming six-inch blade. Biffer only
whipped out a bone handled straight razor and cut open the man's
in a curving incision following the scalp line from widow's peak to
It was a painful wound. I knew this by the
screams of agony that escaped the Anchoan. He clutched his head as
blood spurted between his fingers and over the knife that he held
forgotten in his hand. Nils was on hand then to act -- and he
so prudently; instead of beating the man over the head, he only
snatched the knife and pocketed it. The wounded pachuco was now
kneeling on the train station floor, still holding his head.
"No se muevan!" I turned to see an approaching
constable. He was a brown-uniformed policeman, middle-aged and
overweight. At his side he carried an immense silver-plated
which he was desperately tugging from its holster.
"Beautiful," Lourdes snarled. "Just beautiful."
"No se muevan!" the cop repeated, puffing
as he trotted belaboredly toward us. The pistol was halfway out of
holster now. "Manos arribas, o cuelgo los pellejos en.......uhn!"
Nils had moved faster this time. The policeman
unconscious on the floor, his nose bleeding slightly and one eye
rapidly swelling shut. Nils stooped to pick up the pistol and looked
at the now gaping crowd. Evidently they irritated him. "Get outta
here!" he snapped ferociously, waving the pistol in their faces. The
crowd vanished -- instantly; one minute they were there and the next
they were just gone.
"Get his ammunition belt, while you're at it." I
Lourdes glowered at me. "Now what, bigshot?"
I pointed toward the platform. "The train."
Lourdes grasped my arm fiercely. "Are you
out of your mind? The police will simply be waiting for us in
"Let 'em wait," I answered, as I took the pistol
and ammunition from Nils and stuffed them in my pack.
There was an approaching rumble followed by a
high-pitch screech of brakes and a drawn-out wheezing hiss that
with the single blast of a locomotive's horn. "Come on!" I yelled.
In the distance, at the platform, the train
We ran. The conductor appeared to be nothing more
than mildly pleased at the relatively small number of boarders. He
one last look down the station walkway, saw nothing more than what
appeared to be a couple of drunks lying in stupor, shrugged his
shoulders, and cried "Viajeros al tren!"
As I passed, he remarked happily in Spanglo,
"Tonight we arrive early in Desbocado!" I did not understand his
had heard about planets like this one, and the conductor must have
known as well as I that the train would simply continue to make its
rounds for the next week or so, arriving a little earlier at every
each day until finally it would be late again as usual.
Inside, Lourdes slumped into a vacant seat with a
moan. The train lurched once and then rolled into motion, picking up
speed. "Oh, brother are we in for it now." She took off her back
and set it on the seat next to her.
I sat behind her, leaned forward and said, "You
worry too much."
Lourdes glanced back. She looked more tired than
angry. "Bringing your Heliox roughnecks has really begun to pay
"Hey, we got the tickets, didn't we?"
"Yeah, except they are now stamped with the
'Free Passage to Ancho Federal Prison.' I'm sure that'll be
"Nobody's going to prison." I assured her.
"Desbocado is not the only town on Ancho. I have plenty of alternate
"Great," Lourdes muttered. "Tell that to the
when you step off the train in Desbocado and they pounce on you."
I sighed. "Lourdes, do you honestly think that
going to show up within fifty miles of Desbocado? I'm going to avoid
that burg like the plague."
"This train is an express. Plan to jump out the
I smiled. "Is that all that's bothering you? Yes,
this train is an express. It also just so happens that it has a
whistlestop in thirty minutes. The place is called Ratn, and it's
small and poor to have any paying customers. There's an inspection
station there manned by a couple of bookish clerks who will hardly
inclined to rumble with the Helioxans. A highway runs along the
and turns north at Ratn. We'll catch a bus to Aquas Podridas. From
there we'll go over land as planned."
I timed our passage with my wristwatch. Time
to drag. I wondered if they'd radio the engineer and call some train
security team to manacle us before we reached Desbocado. It seemed
doubtful. Why should they bother? By now a call had undoubtedly
been made ahead of us and the police in Desbocado were surely
their chops in anticipation of our arrival.
Lourdes and I waited patiently, noted when the
thirty-minutes had passed, and watched in sudden dismay as the few
lights of Ratn flashed by the window and disappeared in the
The train had not even slowed down.
Lourdes stared at me in consternation. Her eyes
questioning. I touched the sleeve of a passing conductor. "Por qu no
paramos en Ratn?" I asked.
"The conductor gave me a surprised glance. He
his head. "Esto no es un tren de mercancas," he said and
"Only the freight trains have to stop in Ratn," I
told Lourdes. "But don't worry; I still have another plan, slightly
more drastic -- " And in mid-sentence I stood up and grasped the
emergency brakeline. I gave it a terrific jerk, and the train
once mightily and then seemed to gain momentum. I looked down at my
hand to see that the frayed cord had been pulled completely free of
mounting. Cheap construction.
"Try the other side," Lourdes suggested, resigned
to her fate.
I spun. There -- above the opposite row of
windows -- another cord.
To the right, I could also see the conductor
charging furiously between the seats directly at me. He evidently
not appreciate what I doing and looked ready to kill me. He never
the chance, however; Hardiman stuck
a foot out in the aisle and he fell on his face. I got hold of
the cord and yanked, hard -- but not hard enough to break
This time the train really jumped. There was a
tremendous bang! and everyone was thrown practically to the ceiling.
The car seemed filled with bodies and flying luggage. The screams of
fear and pain were hardly heard over the shrieking wheels -- wheels
which were trying to fuse to the very tracks they rode upon but
couldn't for the sheer power of a one-hundred mile-an-hour velocity
multiplied by one half the mass squared of a one-hundred-car
train. Outside the windows, the air was thick with a shower of
blinding white sparks.
"Wow," I managed to say in a nervous croak.
The car in front of ours began an explosive
and I looked in astonishment as the doors connecting the two cars
ripped completely away revealing the departing front three quarters
Somehow our brakes were still holding while the
of the train had broken free and surged forward. The locomotive horn
sounded once long and eerily far ahead of us as the better part of
train rumbled away in the shadowy distance.
Meanwhile, those of us left behind continued our
high speed deceleration. It didn't take much longer. For
few moments the wheels screeched and squealed deafeningly against
tracks raising a solid curtain of brilliant sparks, and then we came
a shuddering halt. I looked at Lourdes, who was picking herself up
the floor. She didn't appear to be hurt. She was giving me one of
"I had no idea that train was going so fast," I
explained quickly and apologetically.
"You might have guessed that the safety
devices on an Anchoan train were nothing to fool with."
I nodded wryly. "I wonder if the engineer even
noticed what happened. He's now happily driving on to Desbocado
half a train."
"Who can say?" Lourdes shrugged. "He
knew enough to blow the horn."
The lights inside the car had flickered out and
was difficult to locate our gear. It was hard to see, but I took a
quick head count and found all twelve of us to be present. The other
passengers still seemed dazed and (luckily) unsure of whom to blame
the accident. None was badly hurt.
We found all our packs, and Lourdes, myself, and
the Helioxans stepped off the train into the countryside.
On the tracks, there was a pronounced hush -- a
stark contrast to the pandemonium we had just witnessed. The only
to disturb the quiet was the stir of a hot wind blowing along the
tracks. The air smelled of coal tar from the railroad's crossties.
I motioned to the others and we started out
the bush-studded land. We would head north for a time and then turn
east hoping to meet the highway to Aquas Podridas.
We walked the better part of the night before we
dozed fitfully under our sarapes. We had gone north for a few miles
then made an eastward turn to intercept the highway. That was the
leg of the journey. It would be early afternoon before we reached
highway itself. By that time the day had grown fairly hot. We sat
the shade of a spiny, narrow-leafed tree at the side of the road and
watched the occasional small truck roll by.
Another hour passed before a bus appeared. It was
ancient vehicle, much of it painted by hand in a variety of gaudy
colors, with a chrome horse as a hood ornament. This coach had
obviously been designed for city transit; its bench seats and sturdy
unstreamlined design were not well suited for long passages or very
high speed, but none of us was going to complain; it was a relief
to be aboard looking out the windows at a landscape of gently
green hills overlain by a multitude of squat, dark trees.
Aquas Podridas was not much to look at. It had
perhaps 5000 inhabitants and was in essence a miniature version of
Tecolote. The bus pulled up to a crumbling brick building -- the
station -- and we disembarked.
Everyone wanted to grab a room in whatever flea
motel we could find, but I forbade it. When the police in Desbocado
failed to find their fugitives aboard the train, there would be some
disappointed frowns all around and a measure of collective
and unhappy brow-knitting. Investigation would eventually disclose
fact that a goodly part of the train and its other passengers had
arrived either. Then, it would occur to someone to backtrack and the
balance of the cars and riders would be found minus the twelve
passengers originally sought. This would further vex the police, and
the search would widen to towns and cities along the highway. A call
would go out to Aquas Podridas, hotel registers would be examined,
if the quarry were still not found, there would be other searches
in cities farther along. Then, the frustrated police would lose
interest and forget about it completely.
I saw no need to wait for things to cool off.
would never be any heat in the tiny villages where there was little
traffic and possibly no organized local law enforcement. And that is
where I intended to go without so much as a pause in Aguas Podridas.
Hardiman took exception to this. "I been walking
half the night and most of the day," he declared. "Now, there's a
chance to put my dogs up on a footstool an' maybe have a drink, and
say I gotta keep walking."
"There will be time to rest your feet and have
drink," I assured him. "But I suspect that there are few footstools
the local pokey and no liquor at all."
"How far are we goin'?" he wanted to know.
"It's a ways in that direction," I admitted,
pointing west. "But griping doesn't make any sense. You can't
stay in this town, so you should be happy that I'm paying you to
it -- pretty good wages, too. And all just for getting some exercise
and taking in the sights."
The others also grumbled, but obediently followed
Lourdes and me as we walked out of town, crossing the single stone
bridge that spanned a slow flowing red river. A sign on the bridge
said, Arroyo Moribundo -- Dead Man Wash. That did not seem
and I did not translate it for Lourdes.
The town I sought, Chiquitito, was obscure and
isolated to the extreme. Only by primitive footpaths could it be
reached from outlying unpaved roads -- roads which themselves did
really seem to connect to any true highways. I doubted that we need
fear the police in such a place -- at least not for the simple
Biffer and Nils had committed in Tecolote. I assumed that the
brown-suited patrolmen did not work out there. I wondered what kind
constabulary existed in the rural areas. Perhaps a kindly marshall
or a gang of hooligans. I looked over at my sour-faced escort. I was
ready for hooligans.
The Helioxans were a sight. Kroin, hardly limping
anymore, was too dumb to have any complaints and Biffer seemed
smug and content; he, after all, had tasted blood within recent
But an aura of bad humor seemed to radiate from the rest. These men
were not cut out to be the hardy campers that I had hoped they might
be. I'd have to remember to loosen the leash a bit when we got to
Chiquitito. I just hoped they wouldn't attempt a sacking of the town
and turn the populous against us.
The dirt road which we followed veered north and
had to take to some primitive trails to maintain our westward
The trails were winding and it was only by constantly checking my
compass that I could determine that we were headed in the right
direction. The sky darkened and there began a fairly heavy and
drizzle. We now traveled parallel to the river, whose tortuous
had intercepted us some miles ago. The rain-pelleted Moribundo lay
the east and the trail alternately followed its bank and drifted
off its flood plain before returning again to the water's edge. We
our sarapes and covered them with waterproof plastic.
We finally viewed Chiquitito in the dark of
night. It was a town of dirt streets and crumbling squalor. The
of the buildings shone with the oily yellow light of kerosene lamps
and, indeed, the very austerity of the place made even the plain
flashlights that had illuminated our way along the path seem out of
In the shadows, leaning against the wall, was a
figure. I trained my light on it to reveal a thin, hungry-looking
dressed in kakki. He had an ammunition belt wrapped across his
He also shouldered a heavy bolt-action carbine. "Viva la causa," he
said quietly with a toothless grin. "Viva la revolucin."
"Good evening," I said in Spanglo.
The soldier grinned and replied: "You look for
posada, no? A place to stay on a rainy night. There are few soldiers
"Where is the posada?"
"I walk with you, mano , and show you," was the
reply. He hefted his gun and motioned with one hand. "This way."
We followed a bit cautiously. The town itself
peaceful enough. The local villagers were out in small numbers,
along the unlighted cobble and dirt streets and standing in small
groups chatting in dimly lit doorways and other gathering spots.
The posada was a large, unadorned building, and
there appeared to be no charge for staying there. A proprietor
led us inside and showed us a large barracks-like room and a number
smaller sparsely-furnished alcoves. In addition to our escort, there
were only two rather scrawny men staying in the barracks. They, too,
were dressed in kakki and observed us with a decided lack of
"Lourdes and I are going to take one of the
rooms and get some rest," I told the Helioxans. "Hardiman, it's time
for that drink you wanted. Check out the local nightlife. Have fun.
stay out of trouble. We'll be leaving early tomorrow morning."
Lourdes and I were awakened in the pitch black
of early morning by the obnoxious voices of ten drunken cons from
Heliox. There was some unmelodious singing and protracted oaths and
boasting and finally a dearly bought silence as the inebriated men
unconscious on their bunks downstairs.
So, there was a nightlife in Chiquitito.
The next morning, their high spirits were
somewhat by nagging, twelfth-magnitude hangovers. Most of the boys
wandered back to the drinking hall to pick up some more of the
that had corrupted them the night before. They needed something to
the pain, and the hair of the dog that had bitten them was the only
The drink was a milky fluid called pulque and had
the potency of a strong ale. I tried a little myself -- just a
knew I'd be tempted to take the day off if I had any more than that.
was somewhat a connoisseur of fermented beverages, but knew my
limitations -- or at least I knew them when I did not drink. When I
did, I could be a holy terror.
"Stay away from that," Lourdes scolded. I was
standing in the barracks leaning over a wooden shelf protruding from
the plaster wall. Biffer stood at my side measuring out a portion of
the pulque into a cup from a gourd pitcher. "You can drink after the
revolution is over for whatever good it'll do you."
"Over?" came a loud voice in fluent Galactellano.
"That kind of talk is not appreciated here."
Behind us stood a man in his early forties
red bandanna and a necklace with various symbols and talismans
from it. He wore no uniform, but was dressed in a plain white shirt
dark trousers. He stuck out his hand. "Al Rawson," he said.
I shook the hand. "Jaime Loro."
The other man smirked. He didn't believe for a
minute that that was my name. It was ill-advised of me to use it,
particularly while speaking Galactellano, but I had no other name
except my own, which for some time I had been reluctant to use even
under the best of circumstances.
"I don't take your group to be one of Guglielmo's
detachments," he said, the benign smirk still on his face. "Nor one
"We're neither," I affirmed wondering just who in
the hell Guglielmo and Baldonado were. "We are.... free merchants,
to assess the marketing conditions for interplanetary commer...."
"That's crap and you know it," he interrupted.
I was learning slowly. This Rawson fellow wasn't
buying anything I said, a sensible policy since I was doing my best
lie through my teeth. My problem was getting caught at it.
"If there is anything like a free agent on Ancho,
I'm him," he said, poking his thumb into his breastbone arrogantly.
leaned close. "You guys stand out like a whore in a church. You
What in the hell are you doing here?"
I thought for a moment, and realized I had no
story to tell him but the
truth, which I wasn't about to talk about. I think he took my
silence for surliness. "Speak Spanglo?" he asked, puffing on a
cigarette. He offered one to me, and I took it. Lourdes frowned.
"Some," I replied, accepting a light and taking
I hoped looked like an unconcerned pull at the white, filterless
"That's good. It's also bad if you use that
to say the revolution will ever end. Someone could overhear you.
around here that's heresy. Revolution is all these people has got;
what makes the place run."
"I was referring to our own revolution," Lourdes
Rawson looked at Lourdes, nodded, and turned back
me. "Oh, you have your very own, do you? Funny; you don't look the
-- none of you do. Listen, there is only one revolution in Ancho and
goes on all the time. Here in el campo, you're either in it or you
aren't here at all."
"So you're in it?"
"Up to my ears." He tossed the cigarette to the
ground, and lighted another while waiting for a man in kakki who was
passing to move out of earshot. "See that guy?" he said. "He's a
mean really. That's no soldier. He just dresses that way. Bullets
fakes. The gun doesn't even shoot or he wouldn't be allowed to carry
around. Someone would just take it away from him. Probably hit him
the head with it, too. Chiquitito is hardly a boom town, so what
does he have to do but play soldier and maybe get enough crumbs from
their table to make life a bit more comfortable?"
"I notice you don't want him to overhear you."
"Perhaps he can get some choice crumbs if he
someone what he hears," replied Rawson. "I don't know. But that
concern you more than it does me."
I just stared and took another drag off the
cigarette. Rawson motioned to us all to move outside. We followed
into the street.
Outside he began his lecture again with more
fervor. It was clear we didn't know enough about Anchoan
It seemed that some forty years ago the Anchoan
federal government and the rebels got tired of fighting. All the
wanted was a hefty tribute in the form of agricultural goods. All
rebels wanted, in reality, was to be the ones in power over los
campesinos , the peasants. The rebels made a two-party system: the
groups of soldiers under the leadership of Generalisimos Baldonado
Guglielmo. They only pretended to duke it out. The fiction of a
continuing struggle kept the revolutionary zeal alive -- even though
they pretended to fight each other instead of the state.
Lourdes said, "I take it we were not to have been
in there with the soldiers."
"God, no," Rawson said, wincing. "And you
weren't; there was nothing but bums in there last night.
"That's the truth," Lourdes replied, looking at
"I'm Centaran. I'd rather not say just why I left
Centarus. But I know exactly what you're doing here, so I don't mind
telling you why I'm here; your knowing is the least of my problems."
took a long drag off his cigarette. "The Anchoan feds have to be
to let the revolutionaries rule here in el campo. The campesinos
their tribute up to the highways and load it onto trucks right out
the bush. There ain't but dirt for roads connecting the two sides
"What's the tribute?"
"Dope. What else?"
"So where do you fit in?"
"That's simple. I've arranged for the truckers to
"Ah," I said, eyebrows raised knowingly. "They
the cargo manifest for you," I said. "Part of the difference is your
Rawson slowly shook his head, with a wry smile.
catch on fast," he said. He took another slow pull from his
"There is a slight problem, though. My little business undermines
very essence of the social order here. Should the Anchoan government
become discontent with the way the tribute is being doled out, it
decide to reestablish itself as the controlling body. Los seores
Baldonado and Guglielmo would not like that."
I whistled. "Brother, you've got your nerve to
me how to conduct my affairs. You're living right on the edge
"That's true," Rawson admitted, seeming to become
slightly nervous at the thought. "But a well greased palm is a poor
instrument for strangulation, as I've always said. I've done my best
apply the grease widely and liberally. And I still think I can offer
you some worthwhile advice."
"Please do," Lourdes said.
"All right. Get the hell out of here. That's
enough, isn't it? Just go back the way you came and abandon any
dope smuggling project you had planned out here."
"Dope smuggling!" Lourdes blurted out. "You're
the big drug dealer and you said so yourself."
"Wrong! My trade is strictly graft. Wholesome and
virtuous. Do I look suicidal?"
"What makes you think we're interested in
narco-bucks?" I asked.
"Don't make me laugh. Everyone is. And I've seen
enough of you small-time offworlders come in here for a piece of the
pie. I'll tell you something else, too: I never saw any of them
either. Not in a healthy live condition anyway." He stared at me.
"Christ! I just can't stand it. "Look at those dingleballs hanging
there. No campesino would be caught dead wearing that."
"You don't look much like a Anchoan yourself," I
"You are missing the point," said Rawson. "You
those khaki-clad dopers to take you for a city slicker? The
and the campesinos are supposed to be isolated. When it even looks
they are mixing, people, get uncomfortable -- very uncomfortable.
I look fine compared to you. I sound fine, too. Got a real off-world
growl when I speak Spanglo."
"What would you do if you were us?" I was digging
my pocket for my jackknife. I was going to cut off that dingleball.
"Friend, if I were you, I would be somewhere else
probably having my head examined." He glanced at the dingleball that
now lay on the floor. His face looked pained. "Oh, I just can't bear
it! For God's sake, throw the whole damned hat away, and if you
on staying here, then at least keep clear of the posadas and
"For starters you could stay out of the
entirely. If you need provisions, send in a pair who can keep their
mouths shut, get what is needed and get out -- " He glanced over at
Helioxans who were vociferously arguing over the portioning out of
pulque. Hardiman was standing with his face about an inch from
Biffer's. Both looked ready to go for their blades. "Well...." he
continued, "with the crowd you've got, you might have to take care
that yourself. Which direction are you headed -- or have you even
Rawson rubbed his chin. "Might not be so bad to
west." He paused a moment and then went on, "Don't take any high
traffic paths. Usually, there are several running in more or less
same direction. Take the least used of these -- you'll meet fewer
soldiers that way."
"What happens if we do meet the soldiers?"
"If I were you, I'd drop the campesino ruse like
bad habit. It just won't wash. Tell 'em you are here from off planet
visit your grandmother -- anything! -- and use your worst Spanglo
you do it. Also -- " He broke off, listening intently with a wave at
to remain silent. "Soldiers coming. I hear their boots. " He
us across the street. "Now here's some advice I hope you will take.
There's no percentage in staying here. If I were you I would leave.
I wasn't going to argue. The Helioxans were in no
condition to fight anybody today. A loud noise would destroy them,
the idea of any kind of fracas was unthinkable. They retrieved their
packs and we started out of town.
"Go on up the butte there," Rawson suggested.
"Good path. Soldiers never take it. Plenty of cover."
"How about you?" I asked.
"Rawson grinned nervously. "Another day, another
palm to grease. Don't worry about me. I probably know the guys. If
-- " He patted his wallet.
Rawson had been right about the path going up the
hill. The plants overgrowing it made it practically a tunnel. We
reached the top of the butte in a matter of minutes and sat at the
summit well hidden in tall grass. The soldiers had arrived in the
street in front of the posada . I wondered what they were doing.
"Lourdes, where's that pair of field glasses?"
"In your pack."
I dug into my knapsack and found the binoculars.
They were no bigger than a pair of opera glasses, but had advanced
optics and were powerful. I trained them on the scene below. I could
see clearly all that was taking place below. In a moment, I put the
binoculars away. I motioned to the others to follow me over the
and down the butte's opposite side.
I said nothing as we made our way to the west. I
thought it was best to keep quiet and not tell the others that I had
seen Al Rawson through the binoculars with a bayonet sticking out of
I enforced a four-day march straight to the west.
had little in the way of provisions. Lourdes and I took Rawson's
and risked entering a village by day and securing some salted meat,
dried beans, and parched corn. These foods were compact enough to
us a while and the piquant spices that were sold along with them
the resulting meals fairly palatable.
The Helioxans were not pleased with the general
of events, however. I was forced to brighten their spirits some by
offering bonuses from the plentiful supply of money I carried with
I did a lot of "This'll break me, you bastards" just in case they
it into their heads that I had more than was good for me .
On the fifth day, I saw some signs that suggested
had begun to walk beneath Seek's ship. The sun was only a dully
orb through a dreary thousand-foot ceiling. The overcast sky and
cloud-cowled sun would be an convenient illusion for someone in
position; it would be easy to manufacture and maintain and would fit
well with the weather consistent with a low pressure zone.
It was then that I began to do some fine tuning
my compass. I had no stars at night to navigate by, so the best I
do was to follow the adjusted westerly magnetic heading exactly from
now on. I wished I had been more careful before; the roughness of
trails we followed did not lend themselves to a well-tracked course.
to now, any inaccuracies were small enough to be insignificant for
purposes. All I needed to do was to meet the central hub of the
to verify its existence. That column standing in the earth was
miles in circumference, yet I knew I could still miss it. I had no
sectional map at all and my dead reckoning was crude to say the
We were once again in a land of rolling green
interspersed with short, heavy trees. We had practically forgotten
danger of the soldiers; this area was much too wild and off the
tract to worry unduly about them. We set up camp and waited for
to close in, and as expected no star pierced the cloud cover. It
somehow seemed more and more likely that what we saw above was an
artificial view manufactured by Colonel Seek for the benefit of any
might wander below.
The night was just cool enough for us to really
the sarapes. I was sleeping soundly, Lourdes at my side, when I
awakened without apparent cause. Then I heard it -- or rather I both
felt and heard it -- or thought I did. It was the faintest rumbling
sound mixed with an almost imperceptible high-pitched hum. I didn't
know if I was imagining these sounds.
BOOM! Now, I was really awake. So were the
There was a burst of nervous chatter: "What the hell was that?" "Who
took my knife?" "I'll get you for that, Kroin!"
"Quiet!" I hissed. "You dopes want to give
yourselves away? That's probably the army -- or a dinosaur with very
large feet -- so shut up."
"Where did that noise come from?" whispered
from the darkness some yards away. Then, a bit too eagerly: "If you
don't know how to use that pistol, I can...."
I threw a handful of dirt in his direction. There
was a cough and some spitting, then the sound of someone lurching to
his feet. "You..."
"I've got the pistol all right," I said quickly.
"And I'm sitting to the west of you with the barrel pointed east.
do you like that? Sit down, hot shot."
I heard a curse and the sound of Hardiman sitting
down. Everyone knew that I had got the jump on Kroin, and I was sure
they all imagined they could fare better if tested against me. But
Hardiman wasn't going to argue with a gun.
"That's better," I said soothingly. "You've
another bonus -- cash money in return for a little dirt in the face
plus a bit more for the insult." I was overdoing the bonuses.
Lourdes said, "Will you throw anything if I ask a
"I would never dream of...."
"Shut up, yourself, then," she said acidly. "This
time I want to know exactly what you plan to do. I don't intend to
follow around blindly while you walk right into Colonel Seek's
clutches. Can't you recognize that sound?"
I didn't want to admit that I couldn't. "It will
take but a moment to clear my head of cobwebs. Then, I shall
"Think! The Brine River on Marion."
"Yes, of course! Your very own gravel works under
the employ of Cooley Construction Company."
It was Seek. There was no longer any doubt in my
mind. "He's cracking pebbles," I said quietly. "The guy is mining on
the flood plain of the Moribundo." The sound was diagnostic. There
nothing quite like the crashing explosion of a hundred tons of
shattering river boulders. Seek was processing a lot of dirt, and
boulders were getting sucked in with all the rest. The battleship
old, and like the equipment we had used on Marion, his machines
combined the hardness of thick steel and the power of hydraulics
the force of good old gravity to break even the most durable
megaliths into fragments. The result was invariably gravel and noise
and plenty of both.
"I think you had better call Cardip -- now,"
Lourdes said emphatically.
It took only a few seconds to pull the O-X from
my pack and begin to set it up.
A light stabbed across the camp and I shouted,
that damned thing off, you!" The flashlight glowed orangely under a
sarape and then went out. I connected the thin wire leads to the
battery hook-up and put the headset in place. The single green
indicator light twinkled and I heard the electronic squeal of the
There was no return signal from the master unit
aboard the Seychelles. I didn't even have to try again; I knew what
happened. The O-X was working perfectly. And Seek was blocking the
I waited for a few moments before telling Lourdes
plan. There was nothing left for me to do. It was obvious that Seek
here and didn't care if we knew it. He could easily have muted the
sound of his work but chose not to. And that he had blocked the O-X
transmission plainly showed that he would not let us simply return
way we had come.
He was waiting for us.
Lourdes agreed with me. That is not to say that
was happy. No one likes to be caught in a trap. But the fact
that there was little for us to do except go and see what Seek
We packed and waited for sunrise. It never came.
hours of the night passed and if the sun had indeed risen, it was so
shrouded under the cover of clouds real or manufactured that it was
dark as night. Twice more during this time we heard the
crash of stone. The Helioxans were somewhat unnerved by this and I
nothing to comfort them with. I had overdone the bonus business and
they were forced to solace themselves by bickering. I broke up two
fights before I ordered a westward march in the darkness.
I no longer had any compunctions about using the
flashlights. Seek appeared to be well aware of us now anyway -- and
didn't particularly like the idea of accidentally falling over some
cliff in the dark. I mused somewhat unhappily that I preferred to
over one in broad daylight and on purpose. You were born lucky!
had said, and his theory was being put to the test again.
The occasional crashing boom of the mining
was a far better navigational aid than any compass. We walked in
file across the rolling land for an hour or more and heard the sound
disintegrating stone every fifteen minutes. It was getting louder.
Then, there was a half hour break in the pattern. When we next heard
the sound, it was as though it were taking place in our heads. The
Helioxans fell prone, holding their palms to their ears. I fell, too
to my knees, but quickly rose and walked forward. I collided with a
thump against something unseen. I knew I had reached the hub.
"Lourdes," I whispered.
Lourdes came to my side and grasped my arm. With
free hand she reached forward and touched the slightly curving wall
the mining tube. "The ship," was all she said.
The Helioxans regained their feet and also
collided with the wall. They fell back, perplexed and uncertain.
I pointed my flashlight before me and saw a
void. The beam was powerful, but could not reveal the opposite side
the tube. What it did reveal was a vast blackness that extended deep
down into the earth of Ancho. Almost instinctively we all drew back
step. It is virtually impossible for a person to stand at the brink
such an abyss even with the knowledge that an invisible metal wall
stands between him and the depths.
The sudden ear-splitting burst of noise that
now was even louder than the last. The sight of the gaping crater
awoken a primordial fear of heights in all of us. This, coupled with
terror of the unknown and punctuated by the nerve-shattering
completely unhinged the Helioxans. A couple of them broke and ran,
I directed the beam of my flashlight at them. "Come back here, you
chicken livered, no good...." They stopped -- but not voluntarily;
had crashed headlong into something unyielding. At first they fell
hollering. But in an instant they were back on their feet and trying
get past whatever was blocking their way.
It was no use. Seek had put a second wall
around us -- this one made not of invisible metal but of some simple
invisible force through which nothing could pass. The men combatting
this force did not let up, however. They screamed and clawed against
even as it began to push them-- inward toward Lourdes and me and the
edge of the void.
Now, they were really screaming. They thought
were going over the side. They didn't. They were bulldozed to no
than ten feet from the edge where Lourdes and I stood.
We were ringed in.
There was still another BOOM! But by now our
nerves were so shot that we hardly noticed. The next thing we
knew the whole world came ablaze with light. I nearly closed
eyes then, for I could now clearly see the size of the hole in front
us. It was miles across, capped by a crown of river sediments, and
layered below with thick Anchoan strata: limestone, sandstone,
and rock injected with sills and dikes of basalt and ancient
pegmatite surrounded by marbled bands of gneiss and schist.
It was at least a mile in depth.
The vast, incredible vista before us began to
The banded walls on the far side of the pit became less distinct and
finally invisible in a haze. The haze itself began to resolve and
shape, at first as a misty column in the direct center of our
The column then, too, misted and was obscured as angular mechanical
shapes took form about it.
"The tube is becoming visible," Lourdes said.
The result was mesmerizing. The P-657 mining tube
was bursting into view from the center out. We stood enthralled as
unfolding cross-section after another appeared to materialize. And
our vantage point we would see it all, layer by layer: the bulkheads
and walkways, cooling tubes, engine houses and mile-long
boxes. There were forests of cables and relays and storage rooms
with supplies and vast drums loaded with ore. It was hard to believe
that there was time in the universe to rivet together such a huge
There was a moment of shock when the closer parts
the machine began to appear. It gave the terrifying illusion of a
million tons of machinery rushing directly toward us. The effect was
convincing that the Helioxans broke and ran once more. The force
stopped them from getting anywhere.
The onrushing walls and machines seemed so
unstoppable that I was fairly rattled myself. But I wasn't going to
miss the last of this. I stood directly where I was, my nose only a
inches from the tube itself.
The vision came to a silent halt, but it was
impossible not to flinch as the final beams of the support structure
and layers of insulation rushed in my face. Of course, nothing hit
The final wall of the tube merely appeared and a layer of gray
spread across it. A split second later, a final coat of thick black
paint snapped into view.
More than just a wall had appeared. And I
now why the tube was made visible: Seek knew that we had to be able
see the door before us before we could be coaxed to enter it.
"Paid to keep my mouth shut," Hardiman growled.
know what you've been planning. I'll tell you right now that I want
nothing to do with sticking the feds. That's no locally-made
contraption up there -- it's a damned P-657!"
The others groaned. They still couldn't see the
ship. The top of the column was lost in the swirling cirrus clouds
above us. The tube itself, however, was too big to be a part of
anything else. That much was obvious even to the Helioxans.
The door in the wall of the tube was open and the
interior glowed with a stark electric brilliance. It was not
"Let's see what he wants," I told Lourdes. She nodded unhappily and
two of us stepped inside.
"It isn't a 'he,'" Biffer hollered after us.
'them,' -- the feds. I've heard they are fond of torture."
I stuck my head out. "I'll tell you about the
I told him. "They've outlawed torture. When they kill you, they make
quick; I've seen 'em. Does that make you feel better?"
"Well, get in here!"
"I'll wait for you here," Biffer said. "See
you later. So long."
Hardiman added: "I, too, will stand guard here
and -- akk!"
We were all inside now. The force field had
contracted around the men and thrown them inside. The door slammed,
that was that.
"Change your minds?" I asked, grinning.
"Shut up!" Hardiman roared.
A series of rungs led upward to a metal
We took turns clambering up it. The stairs themselves were wide
to scale as a group. After only a few flights, we came to another
It opened into what was clearly a freight elevator. "Are we going to
argue about going in there?" I asked the men.
Hardiman shrugged, somewhat indifferently, an
which seemed to sum up the attitude of the others as well. They had
given up the idea of resisting.
We all filed into the elevator.
ENTER! came a terrific booming voice. ENTER! AND
BE SPARED THE WRATH OF THE BENEVOLENT ONE!
I looked at Lourdes and she nodded. "It's him. I
recognize the pomposity as well as the voice."
We all glanced around for the speakers but saw
The door slammed violently and the elevator
MANY WHO SEEK ANSWERS ASK HOW ONE MAY RECONCILE
THE SPIRITUAL AND THE CONCRETE. I SHALL EXPLAIN.....
"My god, he is going to torture us."
.....MANY SCIENTISTS ARE BEGINNING TO WITNESS AND
GIVE FREELY THEIR MARVELOUS TESTIMONY.....
"Name one that doesn't make bubbles when he
talks," I replied to myself gloomily.
Evidently I was overheard and the elevator
once again, this time viciously. It was a nine-G take-off. Straight
THE FOLLOWING SUBJECTS ARE NOW DEEMED NULL AND
PHYSICS AND THE TEACHINGS OF THE HERETIC Einstein; GEOLOGY AND ITS
BASTARD SONS SEDIMENTOLOGY, MINERALOGY, AND PALEONTOLOGY; ALL OF
CHEMISTRY ALONG WITH ITS TALK OF LONG-DECAYING ISOTOPES; BIOLOGY AND
THE DEVIL-SPAWNED TWIN DEMONS OF ORGANIC EVOLUTION AND EVOLUTIONARY
GENETICS. IN PLACE THERE HAVE BEEN ORDAINED TRUE SCIENCES YET TO BE
"It's all that damned elucidation that makes
so frustratingly difficult," I grumbled. My head was pressed to the
floor and already cracking like a coconut. But after my remark, Seek
added a little boost in acceleration that made me feel like my
were oozing out my ears.
"Why don't you keep your mouth shut just once,
Jenkins?" Lourdes gritted in cold fury.
I shut up, but by that time I really had no
choice. I was redding out.
My next awareness came with abrupt and surprising
clear-headedness. The ascent was suddenly arrested and the twelve of
vaulted halfway to the roof before landing in a heap. The door slid
open with a swish and I crawled for the opening, feeling the pain of
what I hoped were nothing more than simple bruises.
In the hallway outside was no sign of activity.
was quiet except for the normal faint hum of shipboard
air-conditioning. I rose to my feet and motioned to the others to
We walked. The hallway was long and wide.
spaced doors lined the passage. They were windowless and, we
found, locked. After a moment, the large door to a barracks broke
pattern. We stopped, and Lourdes pushed gently against it. The door
swung open soundlessly.
I dug into my pack and pulled out the automatic.
"Let me look first," I said.
Lourdes nodded. The others stood unashamedly
behind. They had heard stories of the troops aboard P-657's.
Such soldiers were infamous for sheer brutality
brutality that was perhaps to be expected from the type of man
for such duty. The job was for life, and the man who was so
was destined to serve as one of the most luckless pariahs of history
perhaps a fitting role for one whose personality qualified him for
They were also exceptionally trained. No one
be expected to believe that the simple projectile weapon I held
prove effective against such a soldier -- much less a whole room
But I had to look.
Nothing stirred inside. The room was large and
with the expected large number of bunks, each neatly draped with
linen. There was something else: a cloying smell that seemed oddly
alarming. I stepped further inside and noticed a sharp drop in
temperature. It was near zero degrees within the barracks. I felt a
twinge of fear. The bunks ahead loomed strangely. I took only a step
more before I started in horror. I understood: formaldehyde. That
the smell. But there was more than that. The linen in each bed was a
shroud. And visible within each from shoulders up was a soldier
peaceful repose might have been mistaken for slumber if not for the
fixed, sallow mask of death upon the face.
For an instant a panic struck me and I raced from
the room running into the others. I felt suddenly drained. I
slumped to the floor. The automatic clattered a few feet across the
hall and Lourdes picked it up.
"What was it?" she asked.
"Tell," Hardiman said.
I looked up at them. "Bad case of necromania."
"He killed them?" whispered Lourdes.
"In a word: yes. They're dead."
"How many?" asked Hardiman.
I didn't know and I didn't want to guess, but
Lourdes said: "Each P-657 carries one hundred and fifty thousand
THE SPIRIT DOES NOT DIE. came Seek's voice. THESE
MEN WILL AWAKE AND WALK AGAIN. I MYSELF HAVE DONE SO.
"But why?" I managed to ask.
COME. I SHALL EXPLAIN AND MINISTER TO THE ONE
MOST IN NEED.
He meant me, and he was not making a request.
Seek did not wait for me to oblige. A field
me propelled me down the corridor and around the place where it
into an adjacent hallway.
There, another open elevator waited. I was pushed
inside whereupon the doors crashed immediately shut and the
shot upwards. It was a very short ride. The elevator screeched to a
halt and another jolt from behind slammed me into the doors before
had completely opened. Eager to see me, Seek? I thought.
I fell into the hallway, staggered to my feet,
was promptly bulldozed before one more open doorway. The force field
then departed, and left me standing on my own, seemingly free to go
forward or flee.
Seek was playing games. I knew very well that if
went anywhere but directly through that door, I could expect to be
shoved again from behind. But I waited a few moments and caught my
breath before I went inside.
The room was well-lighted and furnished like an
expensive suite. The walls were wood-paneled and decorated with
original pieces of art. The floor was carpeted.
George Seek sat stiffly behind an executive desk.
knew that Seek was a monstrously fat man, but just the same the
of his corpulence surprised me. His face was porcine and his eyes
bulged slightly. He was dressed not in a military style, but in the
simple fashion of the common man: his shirt was white and unpressed,
its buttonless collar flat against the shoulders. On the desktop his
large, doughy hands were clasped as if he were making a prayer.
"Welcome to my temple," he said in a low voice.
is also your temple, and I sit before you humbly to explain and
you, help you see the light."
My fear of him ebbed and vanished, yet it was
replaced with a kind of dread. The words. They were somehow
entirely his. Oh, he composed them all right; I'd read enough of his
hackwork to recognize the author. But I knew somehow this single fat
man was not in control here.
"It's a tomb," I said.
"A tomb," I repeated. "Your temple. Isn't that
what it is?"
There was a pause and then Seek moved in his
"Should the chosen be fortunate enough to rise
from a crypt, that crypt becomes a temple," he said slowly.
That doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but I
suppose it's been written somewhere?"
"Not written," answered Seek. "But do you doubt
Seek grinned. Involuntarily I moved backward.
smile was not one of Seek's inventions. Another had composed it. The
grin was the whites-showing kind, histrionic and so poorly acted
anyone could see that it had been designed to appeal to a primitive
fear of the supernatural. Yet, this theater was so bad that I knew
Seek was not a part of it. I did not fear the bad acting; I feared
whoever was directing it.
Seek rose from his seat slowly, and with that
the air in the room stirred and brought to me once again the faint
scent of formaldehyde. His pudgy hands reached for his waist,
the tucked-in shirt, and tugged. The shirt came free. His immense
The hands now held more than the shirt. Seek now
also grasped a heavy white mound of abdominal flesh, which when
revealed itself as the wedged flap of a huge and wicked V-shaped
incision. From the cavity underneath wafted, as if gasped outward,
deathly odor of formaldehyde. Within that opening could be seen the
pink of his insides. Except there were no insides.
Seek had been disemboweled.
I simply stared. The man was dead and I did not
For a moment the exaggerated grin clung fast to
Seek's face. In a moment, the slightest vestige of a pained grimace
began to overlie it. Seek stiffened once, as if struggling against
internal antagonist, and the grin disappeared to be replaced by his
intimate and aloof expression of false piety. Then, he collapsed
backward, toppling the chair as he fell.
Explosions sounded from within the ship. I left
room and made my way to the elevator. Inside, I could hear the
blast of Z-pistols and the muffled pop of small arms.
The elevator controls gleamed to life. I ignored
numbers and pressed the control marked "Former Floor." In a moment I
was in the hallway branching from the one where I had left Lourdes
The corridor was alive with noise. Guns roared in
the adjoining rooms and hallways and armed men shouted orders as
ran past. They ignored me utterly.
Hardiman, Kroin, and Biffer were sprinting
towards me from well down the hall.
They weren't stopping.
"Where's Lourdes?" I shouted.
"Aliens! Aliens!" They all screamed, and, indeed,
behind them I could see white, semi-humanoid forms flying at the
of the ceiling.
The flying beings moved at great speed which they
might well have been expected to do, for they were not attacking the
Helioxans but fleeing the pursuit a dozen armored soldiers.
Hardiman had just reached me when the first of
flyers overtook him. A gunshot cracked once loudly behind him, and
being smashed against a wall and tumbled fluttering down the
The Helioxans fell to the floor as bullets and
Z-rays tore into the aliens overhead. One of them landed hard on the
floor in front of me. It was half the size of a man and equipped
pair of undersized feathered wings on the ends of which protruded
grasping, bat-like hands. From one hand grew a long, curving nail,
razor sharp along its length and serrated at the tip. An ugly piece
The face, however, was entirely different. It was
startlingly human-like -- too human. My God, I thought. It was a
child's face. A sweet face, the face of a cherub.
As I observed it, the wounded creature made a
vicious slash at me with its knife-like talon, missed, and was blown
pieces by a soldier's Z-ray.
Another soldier in a powered suit stood a few
from me. He held the tiny transmitter to his mouth and said, "Group
one. We got all ours."
I looked and saw the crumpled forms of the aliens
lying scattered along the length of the corridor. One thing was
Those tiny wings didn't do the flying.
The soldier stepped over to me. "Get up," he said
gruffly. He was a huge man made to look larger still by the heavy
I rose, and he pulled off his helmet and face
"Zallaham!" I exclaimed.
The warlord's thick black hair was still shoulder
length, but he had shaved the sides of his head about an inch above
each ear. I could also see that he wore the insignia of a field
commander. Pretty good for a third-world barbarian -- but he was not
just any barbarian.
Zallaham chuckled. "I thought I would find you
alive," he said. "Cardip has told me that you think I am under your
command. I laugh."
Zallaham gave a couple of coded orders over the
radio and added: "The aliens were good fighters. It was not easy to
beat them. Your wife killed two of them."
"Projectile weapon." He reached into a pocket and
pulled out the automatic.
"What are you doing with that?"
"I liked it. She gave it to me," said Zallaham.
"Wait! -- " Zallaham touched his ear. He was getting something on
"Put it on PA," I told him.
Zallaham frowned and flipped a switch on his
This is Group Four to Central. There are more of
them in the shuttle holds on the port side.
There are? Well, blast your way in!
We're trying, sir. It'll take a minute.
This is Group Eight to Central and Group Four.
got 'em trapped, in the Shuttle hangars starboard. Blasting away.
"Is that Harry Cardip talking from Central?" I
This is Central. Cease fire. The shuttle bay
are opening both port and starboard. Let 'em go. We'll catch them on
Group Four roger.
Group Eight wilco.
The aliens got away.
Harry Cardip stared at me with his usual
scowl. He didn't have much to be irritated about; in fact, this was
occasion to celebrate. About fifty guests had met in the Seychelles
Number 6 Lab to hoist a few glasses and toast our success. We'd
the P-657 out of the ground and had her off Ancho before the feds
knew what had happened. The rebels had suffered only moderate
casualties. A staggering victory and cause enough for me to take a
short hop off the wagon.
True, the two alien ships had escaped -- but that
was nothing. The galaxy was safe from a madman.
No mistaking it, though; Cardip was not pleased.
just sat at the lab console in front of a monitor and gave me the
eye. He hadn't even touched the drink we left there for him.
"Do you honestly think that you deserve to be
to every facet of the Alliance's operations?" he asked crankily.
"I only wanted to know -- "
"You wanted to know whether you're running this
revolution. Well, you're not. I am!"
"I think his feelings are hurt, Harry," said
I ignored her. "I am aware that I am not in
here," I said, unruffled. "Still, if facts are kept from me -- "
"If facts are kept from you, we can get something
done!" snapped the director. "What the blazes is it to you if we
include you in planning the actual assault on the battleship? Hell,
had to wait for you to find it before we could plan anything. And
should you know the exact extent of our stealth technology?"
"To answer your first question: I would have been
saved several years of worry-induced aging had I known the Alliance
stood in readiness to support me. I would also have proceeded with
greater alacrity and -- "
"Baloney! You would have bullheaded your way
Ancho stomping your feet, taking even more outrageous risks, and
putting the entire operation in jeopardy. I know that whatever it is
that makes you fall in the sewer and come up with diamonds is
I am simply not going to interfere with. You were born lucky, and I
intend to take advantage of it."
Now, I was beginning to steam. "Perhaps, Harry,
once you could give me credit where credit is due." I told him. "You
might consider the very real possibility that it is what I have up
-- " I tapped my forehead " -- and not blind chance that has once
put the revolution back on its feet."
"All right, all right," the director conceded.
admit that your hunches may have some cerebral merit. And I suppose
could call it at worse serendipitous insight that led you to see
Seek might be hiding. But look at the situation I was in. I knew you
were onto something. I also knew that I had only two tools at my
disposal: secret stealth technology and your -- " I thought he would
choke on the words " -- your... unusual abilities."
"Thank you," I said. "And with respect to the
stealth, it is not my argument that I should have known every
think, however, that just a little hint if nothing more was in
"Would you have liked it better if Seek had had
a little hint? We could never have sneaked up on the ship if he had
known. Well, I didn't tell him, and he outranked you!"
"Seek didn't pay for it!" I yelled. I pointed at
him. "I've heard the scuttlebutt about how you finance things.
and stealth purchases have been financed exclusively from my bank
account. What's worse, you've been feeding me some line about
the Seychelles into Ultra and making random turns to escape
I've actually told people that I believed this. You're not only
my military education but my reputation as well!"
"Your bad reputation has always been your own
-- not mine, Jenkins, but if you want a military education look at
I looked and saw that what rocketed out of the
shuttle bays were craft the likes of which no one had seen. They
perhaps no faster than the Alliance ships, although there was no way
be sure of that. The quality that distinguished them from both
and rebel vessels was simply defensive maneuver. They came out of
holds pinwheeling, gyrating, and turning at right angles and indeed
reversing upon themselves as a ship might do were its controls set
random and its throttle at full. But no ship I had ever heard of
turn back on itself without losing velocity. And Cardip explained
the movement was hardly random.
"I've run an exhaustive analysis of their actions
from our gunsight videos. The alien craft were reacting
to any move we made. How they could do any of this is impossible to
know. Of these aliens we know absolutely nothing." He pointed at the
screen. "Take a look. See? The two ships have met in the center of
screen. Now, they are moving wildly but in unison. Now, they're
"I've played it over and over again. I can't
tell. Neither can the computers."
"Can't tell what?"
Cardip paused and looked up. "I saw a shimmer.
Some other lights. A lot of other lights."
"Lighten up, Harry. You can sort it out later.
"Isn't it enough for now that we don't have to worry about George
Lourdes said: "George Seek never stood a chance
against the aliens. He was never our real problem."
"I'm not so sure about that," I responded. "Oh, I
think they controlled him zombie-like in the end. The little
with me was for the aliens' benefit; they were trying to find out
about us, about our reactions to things in general. Maybe how to
us. But Seek had already allied himself with them against us."
Lourdes frowned. "Then, you don't know. You
haven't made the connection. You of all people."
"I said that he never had a chance against them.
was powerless to resist them. He met them somehow -- somewhere. It
only by the most ridiculous coincidence that they encountered the
person most vulnerable to them."
"Vulnerable? Why was Seek especially vulnerable?"
"You saw them. What do you think?"
"Sweetie pies with built-in switchblades."
"And wings, white wings."
"Angels," Lourdes explained.
Cardip interrupted her irritably.
"Forget Seek! We have other work to consider!"
"Work?" I mouthed the word with disdain. I
Cardip in the shoulder. "Drink up, Chief. I've already planned what
do with the P-657, if that's what's bothering you. We pack her with
explosives and blow her up on prime time TV. The galaxy made safer
and all in the name of the Insurgents' Alliance of Sovereign
Cardip just turned back to the screen and stared
the flickering white lights against a backdrop of brightly shining
stars. "I wouldn't blow up the ship right away," he said.