operation had taken only five minutes. No risk
really -- unless I was caught in the act. I'd
pack up and be off 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
I left the
mesh ladder pinned up there on the wall.
Tillinghass, galactic flatfoot and bourgeois
enemy of the masses, would be mad as a hornet
come sun-up. Even now by starlight my handiwork
could be seen clearly for some distance. I
chuckled as I admired the yard-high letters so
neatly done in freehand style-- a first-rate
piece of professional vandalism that read:
gave me some measure of satisfaction, but 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 on the
director's door and walk in.
sat at his desk, head down absorbed in 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 pencil thin
mustache danced as he silently counted out
figures. I tapped my foot, cleared my throat,
and at length Cardip looked up from his papers
and said: "Good work, Jenkins. The report came
in just after your assignment had been
completed. "Nearly flawless."
asked. I knew Cardip. "Nearly" was bad news by
his standards. Cardip rose from his chair,
motioned at me with one hand. "Close the door,
please," he said. "Yes, nearly. You forgot the
slogan we assigned you."
banged metallically as it shut. I turned and
looked at Cardip. "Didn't forget." Wrote my own.
You know, special case."
"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."
I replied, sitting. "I came to talk to you about
something anyway. I hate my job. I think I quit.
Lousy pay 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?"
valuable to us."
"And you don't
want me killed?"
I threw my
hands up. "Oh, brother! Now I've heard it all.
My last assignment was practically a suicide
mission. You put me up to it too, Cardip. You've
got hundreds of agents with more training 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?"
awfully eager to be," observed Cardip. "Are
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 them to me."
"Come off it!"
grinned. "I mean it," he said. "You mentioned
hundreds of other agents. You know that I used
to have many hundreds more."
"So they were
killed trying to complete the same assignment
you had some months ago."
succeeded as I did. What does that prove?"
for a moment, pulled open his desk drawer, and
extracted a sheet of paper. He looked it over
quickly and 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.
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
"And you top
the list!" he congratulated, extending his hand.
shook his hand across the desktop warily. "So
where's my commission?"
award commissions, as you well know. Only rank.
That's how you moved from private to staff
sergeant in a single bound."
"And how thrilling it was. There's just
something about that uniform."
never wear," Cardip reminded.
"And look like
a fed?" I sneered. I lowered my eyes. "Where's
your dance set anyway, general?"
every general in the Alliance and therefore
dress as I choose," he said matter of factly.
"You may, too. Actually, uniforms and even rank
itself are optional. We've found that promotion
in title is a good work incentive for many of
our soldiers, however."
"Not for me,"
what makes you so special to us, my friend."
because I brought you back more recruits than
anyone else. Your affection is purely mercenary,
excuse the pun."
confessed. "But you haven't examined the list
examine? A list of numbers, from largest to
spread--" Cardip was getting impatient. "Here,
here, " he muttered irritably, pulling the sheet
from my hands. "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,
remarkable -- especially remarkable when you see
the dozens of pitifully smaller numbers below."
"I picked a
good planet," I explained. "The people there are
aggressive, like to fight, easy to enlist."
anger," Cardip countered. "Yet you survived. You
produced. And there's more-- yes, there's much
more. From 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
"All my late
father's doing," I reminded, becoming wary of
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 of Marion. I had busted the planet
Tuukar and simultaneously converted over 50,000
stone-age savages to our revolutionary cause.
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 said in a sober tone that nobody could
ever have faked: "You were born lucky."
"So I knew
your worth! The only thing left to determine was
from his chair and pointed a finger at my nose.
"Because of your promising background, I for one
am sorry to find that you are sadly lacking in
that aspect of service!"
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 desk.
"Where-- ah, here: Proletariats of the World ,
Unite. That slogan cost 5,000 man hours to
develop. What did you write?"
quite different," I admitted. "A description of
the dwelling's inhabitant."
scowled, and nodded accusingly. "You mean Saul
"You know who
I mean," I told him.
he bombed your planet to smithereens and exiled
you, you would hold a grudge?"
"Insubordinate. Are you like that?" Cardip
slammed his fist on the table. "You get orders,
and you interpret them to carry out your own
vendettas! I don't require blind obedience,
Jenkins. But 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 many other things. Not loyalty.
"What are you saying?"
I laughed in
his face. "When you assigned me Saul
Tillinghass's personal residence for
vandalizing, did you think for one minute I
wouldn't wonder why? I knew I was being tested!"
"You did? So
why did you deliberately fail the test?"
"I passed with
flying colors. Look!" I reached into 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 one side, its
yellow lettered dialsetting within Cardip's
view. "I had this on me when I painted the
down at the army green lump of iron on his desk.
"Lord!" he breathed.
"I wanted to
write something personal to Tillinghass of
course -- not just a slogan -- but I wanted much
more to flip that 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 it was restraint or
professionalism you were testing, I have passed.
The grenade stayed in my pocket. You can also
see that I have exactly the kind of keen if
twisted mind you need for some of your more
challenging operations. You shouldn't be so
niggling just because I got in a harmless bite
against an arch enemy of mine while carrying out
changed the words," Cardip argued "And as I said
over 5,000 man hours -- "
"Were never ever needed for your dopey slogan."
I interrupted. "I looked it up myself in the
Encyclopedia Universial. Proletariats of the
World, Unite-- a witless chant taken up by
practitioners of an ancient and ridiculous
social system called communism, which professed
that people should give everything they own 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 after
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 its members take on a glazed,
fish-like quality. But this!" He opened his palm
to let the gas grenade lie in more complete
view. "This is where your professionalism flew
out the window. You took a wide-range gas
grenade onto a federal planet?"
"I said I
know why we gave you some unassuming duties down
there. If you got nabbed defacing a wall, our
lawyers would present it as a prank, not a
crime. You'd be out of jail in two hours.
Couldn't even extradite you. The grenade,
dial-o-matic, as you can see," I interjected.
"Set on the harmless rotten egg mode."
grenade has other settings," Cardip insisted.
"From simple smoke signals to a city-destroying
I shook my
head. "Incorrect. Look again. That small tab
next to the dial."
the grenade over, inclined his head to peer
through his bifocals. "A weld!"
"And the whole
pineapple frozen as a simple stink bomb."
the grenade on the desk. "Not good enough,
Jenkins. The prosecution would argue that this
device could be rearmed by simply breaking the
weld. You'd pull fifteen years, federal pen,
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 director. "Come on,
Cardip. Concede defeat. I'm better at this kind
of infighting than you are. That's why you hired
me -- for that and my money!-- now tell me all
about the new assignment you've planned out for
character test was given for a reason. You've
got something lined up for me. Something big. I
can almost taste it. Don't rush. Tell me about
it slowly; I want to savor each detail."
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 of one late George
Seek, Colonel, espionage expert, and top-rated
battle commando. I flipped to the last page,
closed the dossier, and handed it across the
desk to Cardip.
as I ever am when I read about a dead man I
never heard of."
frowned, nothing more. He knew it was my nature
to be difficult when information was trickled
out to me in this way. "That part of the report
was, of course, falsified. Seek is quite alive
and at work on deeds quite in keeping with the
grandness of his 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
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 for 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 presently wave their banner. Don't tell me
we're worried about them now."
"We have to
be," Cardip said abruptly. "George Seek has
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 will be scared out of their wits,
and the Special Task Force, those planet-busting
hoodlums, will be outgunned by us Insurgents! I
can go back to Marion! Yay!"
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
"Even so," I
replied. "You couldn't really blame him if the
opportunity presented itself."
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 told."
"I noticed," I
said, for some reason feeling nervous. "But I
was a step ahead of you, if you remember. No
harm done. I knew your graffiti assignments were
a test and not important to the cause."
Well, then you're mighty presumptuous. Since
when is it your place to decide what is good for
anything? You follow orders!"
sir!" I cried, throwing him a crisp salute.
"What happened to the comradely state of
semi-equality that made this underground
revolution business tolerable?"
where it always has been. You obey orders
because you agree to. If you deviate, it throws
everything out of whack. Cooperation helps one
and all." Cardip took off his glasses 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 my own duties -- some of
which are pretty tough -- like sending those
pathetic dolts with pretensions of an
administrative nature to dangerous places."
"Did they ever
guess why they were winding up as cannon
"Hell, I told
them up front!"
"And they went
along with it?"
at me. "Are you kidding? They quit to the last
man. And good riddance!"
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
"I'll bet your
wrath will be tempered somewhat by the sight of
that battle wagon. It's one heck of a bargaining
Cardip put his
glasses back on, took a deep breath, and let the
air escape. He shook his head as he observed me
with what seemed to be pity. "Jenkins Basil
Lai," he intoned. "You may be a very
smooth-tongued and capable if lucky man, but you
have no grasp of interplanetary politics."
professed to be an administrator," I countered,
looking directly at him.
Again a sigh.
"A battlesled is a problem, Jenkins-- not an
asset. It represents a responsibility no one in
his right mind wants or needs."
nothing! If the feds are afraid to use one of
those monsters, then what the hell am I going to
do with one? Picture yourself as a discontented
yet placated Federal Worlder. The government
makes life dull, but if you tow the line, you
and the members of your family are left alone.
You can even advance to a certain stage before
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 the
devil out of defenseless thirdworlders-- but
those thirdworlders don't 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?"
nothing!" Cardip affirmed with conviction. "--
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 loves 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. What 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
demand that the government do anything and
everything possible to reestablish the status
off and looked at me with a pained expression.
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 bombs directed at the Seychelles
This caught me
by surprise. "The Seychelles?" I sputtered.
"They know about us?"
Cardip said with an indifferent cough. "They
always have, you know. We've avoided trouble by
playing hide and seek. Our crew simply punches
the ship into ultra drive and makes random turns
on our way to any particular destination. The
feds can't catch us that way, but they often can
guess our general location."
can't just detonate L-80 proximity bombs. 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 knocking out
worlds and worldlets all over the galaxy."
shrugged and smiled wryly. "Drastic
circumstances require drastic measures," he said
simply. "Which would 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
I gasped. Yet I knew exactly what Harry Cardip
meant. One does much to trust a government duly
elected. A dictatorship? Never. Revolutionaries?
They could be trusted in troubled times,
reluctantly. But who could be trusted with such
power? Nobody. That was the problem since the
first atom bomb.
to have read my thoughts. "The feds should have
destroyed the P-657's centuries ago. They
preferred instead to parade those hideous
engines of destruction around for political
purposes, underscoring the glorious achievements
of the Federation. I honestly believe that in
recent times they have all but forgotten that
those lethal machines are weapons. The ships
became more like symbols of technological
accomplishment. Now I believe the feds have
finally seen them for what they are and regret
very much that they exist-- as I do."
"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 the Insurgents' Alliance of
thought he must not have been listening.
"Why the hell not?"
George Seek will not surrender the ship. He's
giving the feds all kinds of ultimatums and
threatening to blow up half the galaxy-- all, as
you say, in our name."
It was six
days later, and I had the beginnings of a plan
worked out in my head. I had succeeded rather
spectacularly before by relying on a certain
caliber of man to aid me, and what had worked
then just might do so again. Cardip had pulled
out all stops, and each agent was expected to
drop everything and go after Colonel Seek with
as he put it, "Whatever resources are
possessed." Well, it just so happened that there
were some resources I needed. The Director was
not enthusiastic about my plan, however.
Cardip exclaimed. "Why in the hell would you
want to go back there?"
"I have my own
good reasons," I told him.
reasons?" he railed. "Are you crazy? George Seek
is not on Heliox. How do you expect to stop him
by going where he isn't? Go where he is for
"Where is he?"
out there somewhere else. Go get him!"
I winked and
stared down at him slouched in his chair. "Mind
if I sit, Chief?"
did you ever ask permission to do anything you
"Thank you." I
sat, crossed my legs, and lighted a 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 smoke 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 all."
"I thought you
had given up that filthy habit." Cardip
complained, wrinkling his nose in my direction
"I did. I
started again. The custom is still quite in
vogue on Heliox, you know."
what an intellectual hinterland the place
is. But that would appeal to you. Now,
answer my question: "Why are you going there?"
"I like that,"
I said. "'Why are you?'" not 'Why do you want
to?' It shows that you have resigned yourself to
the fact of my going and-- "
question!" Cardip stormed. His face was red and
laced with tiny blue blood veins which
contrasted nicely with the large ones on either
side of his neck. Those stood out prominently. 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 simply.
face cleared somewhat, and he swallowed almost
gratefully before he spoke. "Men? I told you I
would 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 go out after Colonel Seek and never come
back to bother me!"
"I want them
now, if you please," I answered. "And I have a
list of them right here for your convenience." I
handed the list to him, and he tilted his head,
peered through his bifocals, and immediately
gave it back.
have those guys, and you know it," he said.
"Why not? I
worked with them before and we practically
conquered the planet Tuukar together."
under different leadership now." Cardip told me.
"I believe you can guess whose."
affirmed. "And you ought to agree that it's only
fair since he recruited them himself."
"Yeah, but who
gave them the real field experience that they
needed? Answer me that."
"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
was alphabetical. Whose name appeared last?"
escaped Cardip. It had nothing to do with my
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 of Huria
himself?" The Director snorted derisively.
funny?" I protested. "He's mine. I found him. I
got him. I brought him to you!"
grinned. "Zallaham yours ?" he asked
"In a word,
better hope he doesn't hear you saying that, you
know," Cardip warned nervously. He seemed to be
fighting back the impulse to look over his
shoulder. "For Pete's sake, even McKellen
has to keep up his guard with that powerhouse
"So you won't
give him back to me?" I fumed. "I risk my neck
to bring you a one-in-a-million stone-age
military genius and muscleman. And you think
he's just too plain good for me and give him to
"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 to you. He's yours. Go tell him."
I stood up and
leaned over his desk, pushing my face close to
his. "Listen, you. You're not going to wiggle
away that easily. You assigned Zallaham to
McKellen, and you'll personally assign him back
to me or I'll know the reason why."
leaning way back in his chair now, anxious to be
away from my face and cigarette halitosis.
"Agreed," he said quickly. "Just sit the hell
I sat smiling.
"That's nice. That's very nice. It's also too
easy. What's the catch?"
shrugged. "None," he replied. "You have no right
to ask for the others on the list, of course.
They are simply out of the question. To
Zallaham, however, I agree you have some tenuous
order him to report back to me?"
him," said Cardip. "One does not give orders to
the likes of him, as you must already know."
I got up and shook Cardip's hand. "I'll collect
him when I get back."
"Of course. I
know that the soldiers you would offer me are
nothing more than company climbers in permanent
high gear. They're ambitious and will resent any
directions I give them."
the competition, eh?"
"I can stand
it all right, thank you." I told him. "But I
hardly think it's useful. An operation needs
only one operator to run at all. And with your
guys, let's face it: we'd practically be peers."
"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 they will
not be overly ambitious."
bright either." I countered. "I, of all 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 from 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?"
I don't need competitive intellectual equals,
and I don't need unambitious morons. I'll tell
you what I need. I need savvy bastards who were
just plain born to lose. Men with street brains
but no higher intelligence -- and no
pretentions. The classical criminal type. And,
by God, Heliox is one place I can find them!"
I left Cardip
to his devices and walked through the open
galleries of the Seychelles. It was a way I had
of unwinding. There was something in the raw
utilitarian rusticity of the ship that 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 part 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 once been.
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,
he planned to put a great team of craftsmen and
artisans to work restoring the ship. After that
would follow one whale of a celebration on
When I got
back to my quarters, Lourdes was not in. 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 hadn't done that. It just made
me homesick for my beach retreat on the Paradise
Jenkins?" It was Lourdes. She had come in so
quietly that I hadn't even heard her.
indeed!" I had to humor her. "Soon we'll be back
there soaking up that sun, not a care in the
world, an honest day's work only a hateful
stepped over and straightened a seascape. "Have
you been following the news about Colonel Seek?"
she asked. "The Federation Broadcasting Network
is making real hay of the whole debacle. It's a
smart move on their part. They know that that
man could ruin us in about ten seconds flat."
"He could," I
agreed. "But don't call him Colonel. I 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 as much of
his hide as happens to come off with them."
yourself up," Lourdes warned, frowning. "You
know how you get. All puffed up and not a wink
of sleep for a week."
get that way before a major
assignment." I told her.
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 awful planet
"It was awful,
I'll have you know. And to tell you the truth, I
was a bit surprised to get away with some of the
stunts I pulled myself. I just hope you weren't
Just surprised. Grateful too. The Federation in
taking over Marion made us involuntary citizens,
and as such we are subject to its antiquated
laws -- whenever we decide to start obeying
them, that is. The Federation is not a community
property 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
"I knew it was
only my half of the estate that you cared
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, suicide. She always found out and then
there was literal hell to pay. I plopped down on
the bed. I had to admit it; there was no other
take the truth well. I almost wished I had lied
after all -- or maybe just fibbed a little. She
was adamant: I would leave her a widow, I would
ruin her life, I would do this and that.....
"But Lourdes," I tried to explain. "Everyone who
is anyone is 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
just have to pack it in and wait another
four-hundred years for our time to get ripe
about me, then?" Lourdes asked. "I just sit in
our quarters aboard ship and wait and worry? You
say everyone's going. Well, fine. I've had every
bit as much training as you, haven't I?"
"Well, yes." I
snorted. "More so in fact."
"You want to
come with me?" I asked in surprise.
than waiting around here and trying to manage
your harebrained business enterprises, ninety
percent of which fail miserably."
percent of everything does," I reminded her.
"It's the ten percent that's the charm," I said.
"But I didn't know you 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 have to stay aboard this glorified
flying trash can this time, I'll go absolutely
crazy. What's more, I never liked that
bible-thumping George Seek anyway. It'd be a
pleasure to haul him back kicking and screaming.
I'll hold him and you can kick. We'll leave the
screaming to him."
"You know the
personally. However, when you were out tromping
across the frozen plains of Tuukar with your
felons at large and your legions of bad-tempered
Eskimos, I attended a few presentations aboard
ship. One was given by Seek. It was the last I
attended. Couldn't stomach the topic."
"What was it?
Military strategy? Weapons deployment?"
out dealing with similar themes, but soon
regressed into something less attractive.
Colonel Seek, it seems, believes in a supreme
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."
Lourdes. "Am I going with you, or do I go after
the bum myself?"
of course. I said everything that a concerned
husband would say. She would get hurt. Heliox,
combat, deep space-- bad for woman! But my heart
wasn't really in it. The fact was, I wanted her
to go. I hated being without her to the point
that it had 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
tough as any man. To tell the truth, I felt
pretty sure she could beat me up if she really
put her mind to it.
express to her directly how I felt, of course.
When I left her, I made it clear in no uncertain
terms that a mere woman would never accompany me
on an assignment, but Lourdes knew 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 man 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 the undertaking.
It didn't take
long to find out I had made the right decision.
I ran into Cardip about an hour later. "Good
news," he said. "I talked to both Zallaham and
Dave McKellen. Zallaham has been reassigned to
work fast Chief." I responded.
to walk away, then did a little double take and
spun on his heel. "Er, there's just one
problem." He said offhandedly.
refuses to have anything to do with you, and
McKellen says he's going to knock you around
some the next time he sees you."
I heard the
commotion inside the room even before I 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 and should have produced a communal
gasp and a scrambling rush of activity to
conceal the mischief followed by sheepish grins
and a chorus of ingratiating if affected
boys from Heliox ignored me altogether. They
shouted the foulest obscenities at one another
and continued to make boisterous side bets on
the outcome of something truly disgusting.
In the center
of the Formica table was a foot-long plank upon
which sat a floppy-eared creature known as a
Grangorian rabbit. Biffer, a thin whiplash of a
chiseler, was directing some sort of ray at the
animal's head while his companions roared with
excitement, sheaves of the inflated paper
currency of Heliox clutched tightly in their
hands. There was a long trough of liquid in
front of the rabbit and just beyond it was a
spindle upon which was impaled a rather moldy
potato. An uncapped jug beneath the table read:
It didn't take
me long to figure out the game. The trough, of
course, contained sulfuric acid, and the ray
that Biffer was dutifully administering to the
creature's cranium was undoubtedly designed to
stimulate the hunger center of the lagomorph's
brain. When 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 would
divide the pot.
they could have played without the acid.
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 pleasure from the
fast at work at the trough with a smoking fork
with which he first skimmed the fur off the top
of the acid, then fished out the bleached and
plainly getting out of hand. I had simply
started out too loose with these boys. Now came
the unpleasant business of tightening things up.
"Who's the big winner here today?" I said
cheerfully, putting on a greasy, almost lewd
smile that this crowd understood only too well
-- or thought they did. Kroin, the biggest and
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
"One of them's
getting away," I told him and when he looked to
see, I punched him directly in the teeth.
gagging in pain and staggered about 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 paces 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 the 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 with 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 ordinary by taking
this protective garment to the Seychelles metal
shop where I 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.
groaning in pain, dividing his attentions
between the ruins of his teeth and his punctured
metatarsus. In the top 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
around the room. I pursued him doggedly until he
was finally able to escape through an open
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 snorted with just
the correct mixture of amusement and contempt.
"Anyone else 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 hour 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 events 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 to restore any part of Kroin's ape-like
visage would be unfathomable. Frankly, I felt my
pummeling had improved his appearance to a
degree, although it would certainly have been
Kroin's right to disagree with me 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 with, and I
knew a fate far worse than Kroin's was awaiting
me if I failed to gain their respect.
to understand me better when I told her what
happened to the Grangorian rabbit. She was
hardly a bleeding 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, and no tender had changed hands.
Now she was
interested in the immediate future. The 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 because I had reserved
the entire second floor for Lourdes and me. We'd
fixed it up a bit and it was livable.
Downstairs, the ruffians had been allowed to
swagger however they liked, which had only
spoiled them. The recent public thrashing of
Kroin had ended all that. And there were other
changes soon to come. Yet Lourdes was impatient.
"Look, Jenkins," she 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 whom you could contact on
Heliox. You've collected about thirty of the
bums here simply by offering them the unfamiliar
luxury of a roof over their 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 at any moment to demolish the greater
part of the galaxy. If I may be so 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 me today."
them," she said. "But I don't know why. Only one
item seemed to have any bearing on Seek and his
whereabouts." 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 redly. So did Lourdes. She snapped it
off and sat back down at the table and 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. Heliox is famed for its hard
line on imported technology."
Not all of my
talents were lost on my wife, I could see.
"Heliox is a federal planet," I explained. "Its
limited autonomy is assured provided that the
populace behaves. If they don't, out goes good
ole King Caleb, usurped by a genuine Federation
lackey. Caleb wouldn't like that. So he's as
careful as he is brutal. Computers 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."
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."
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 demands a
bribe -- so enough for your
cooperative spirit nonsense. What language is
said, as though the answer couldn't have been
more obvious. "I'm surprised you don't know it,
at me. " Please?"
name; it's Spanglo! Lourdes Garza means Lulu
Is there some reason why I should care?"
"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. How does Jaime Loro sound?"
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."
reason for your belief has to do with the
information that I processed and analyzed for
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. You
said that there was one item that could pertain
to his location."
"There was one
-- and only one; I didn't know what 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
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."
Federation did not try very hard to conceal that
particular datum, did it?" I noted.
they have? What was someone supposed to do with
that kind of information -- use it to steal a
have," I remarked.
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, he might take steps to
acquire fuel to develop full power for his
engines 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
powered with simple 20th century atomics." I
nodded. "Yes, so gassing up a ship like that is
no simple matter; the Federation itself waits
fifty to one-hundred years to bother with it.
And Seek knows full well that the feds will be
keeping a wary eye on their fuel dumps. To
conclude, the analysis tells us that he might
possibly be mining fissionable material.
"That's it," I
exclaimed. I poured us each an extra cup of
coffee. "That's what he is doing. He has to. He
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 another hundred
years and demolish a dozen planets a day every
day. That should satisfy him."
"It won't," I
stated flatly. "That is the mistake that the
Federation and the Alliance are both making.
They assume that he is moderately content with
something less than a full-blown world cruncher.
I contend that he is not."
down her mug. "Content he may have to be. Mining
the fuel would be a tremendously complicated and
unpleasant business. It would probably also
compromise his security to wait around instead
of striking while the advantage was his. And
powering up a ship like that from raw materials
would also take forever. Jenkins, he just won't
I disagreed. "With machinery in place now, it
could take even less. There is a library aboard
that ship. Seek won't be bored. He's the type
that could happily spend that time just rubbing
his hands together and laughing maniacally."
"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.
scoffed. "And by limiting your thinking in that
way, you, like the Federation and the Alliance,
stop dead in your 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."
information could possibly give you all that?"
Lourdes asked disbelievingly.
I only grinned
and stirred my coffee sagely. "I can sum up that
body of evidence with two words: Armageddon and
carnotite." She started to protest, but I raised
my hand and waved her to silence. "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
as mentally unhinged as he. Fire, brimstone,
gnashing of teeth, bloody horse flesh on the
highways, that sort of thing. Don't laugh, now.
This doctrine has actually been written down,
and Seek believes it. I checked. Carnotite
complex yellow mineral which contains uranium,"
Lourdes said quickly. "I could recognize it in
the field when I was ten, so don't assume it's
also something new to me. I thought you 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 just
double-checking your own conclusions again."
with being thorough, is there?" I asked.
"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
"He will. I'm
almost sure of that."
ridiculous," she objected. "Carnotite is
comparatively poor for such a purpose. There are
much better and more 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 location of a place where large deposits of
carnotite are present in conjunction 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 going, Lulu."
I then told
Lourdes the facts uncovered in an investigation
that I had conducted even before leaving the
Seychelles for Heliox. My study concerned the
character of the man, George Seek. I went over
his academic transcripts and found a Ph.D.. in
physics from Syrius Tech, no slouch degree that.
But his post doctorate publication 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
computer scan of unrelated publications. I was
checking to see whether he had strayed even
farther afield. I had guessed right, and what I
found was chilling. His name appeared
predominantly in the most obscure sectarian
publications: magazines with titles like
Sweltering Disciple, Holy Infarction, and
Blessed Gazette. Again, the subject was
carnotite, but 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
That may sound
silly, but Seek was deadly serious. 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
referred 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 supreme being.
presentation was always kind of oblique and
fuzzy and left out the most blatantly obvious
and pertinent facts that would destroy his
arguments in an instant. But it was fascinating
reading because it went beyond most of the other
articles in these publications.
magazine pieces relied heavily on the same
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 didn't really
understand, and the subscribers, most of whom
would have to consult a dictionary to spell the
word, "cat", were, of course, none the wiser.
Seek was much
different. His constructs and dichotomies seemed
directed straight from the subconscious. His
typical reader was simply an intellectual
chucklehead or suffering from moderate to rather
severe mental illness. Seek, however, was truly
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 anything, and that
his vision of Armageddon could very well be a
prophesy which he intended to fulfill himself.
It was obvious
that for a proper doomsday he would 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 possibly
I could read
him like a book.
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, while 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 buddies and cronies would be
parted, and these partnerships were important in
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,
neither of which was particularly desirable. In
addition, sneaking up on Seek on some third
world planet without his getting suspicious
would be hard enough without the constant
pressure of maintaining the trappings of a
farcical mission. Instead, I decided to pay them
outright, with added bonuses in cash for
meritorious service as well as promised shares
of whatever treasure or booty was to be divvied
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
own business. In exchange for money, I felt sure
they would lose their curiosity.
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 the purpose of
apprehending Colonel Seek. I had enough money to
finance just about anything and didn't feel
guilty about it either; after all, a tremendous
amount of that wealth was actually mine.
reviewed my analysis of Seek's wild-eyed
publication record and agreed with me that Ancho
was the place to look for him. She had another
We were in our
upstairs apartment packing, which was 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 thought."
"I've had that
feeling all along," I told her. "For that
reason, I went directly to Cardip himself before
we even came here and showed him everything I
had on Seek."
agree with me," I said. "It's that simple."
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 plan? All I
see now is an organization with an army of
mavericks chasing down leads with no direction
sure," I replied. "Cardip wouldn't tell me.
There is an Alliance strategy, however; I know
that for a fact. Cardip 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."
out a sigh. "The evidence we have is not
strong," she said after a pause. "But it is
interesting. It's smart to look into it. And
Cardip is too smart to ignore it."
"Oh, but he's
not ignoring it," I stated, trying to clarify.
"He's got me -- and now you -- on the project.
Get this: we're to report in by O-X radio,
apparently the only restriction on us. I've got
an O-X packed in some of the luggage we haven't
bothered to open."
offered just the radio and no personnel?"
"I tried to
get Alliance back-up logistical support, but he
scoffed. Others high up didn't think much of my
ideas either, though they were less derisive."
manpower we've got nothing but your gorillas."
said. "These guys are perfect. They know how to
run from a fight without making it look like
running. Yet, they are also quite willing and
able to slug it out if they have to. Their most
important asset, however, is their look."
"What is that
supposed to mean?"
if and when we run into the Ancho version of the
Heliox hooligan, the two groups will instantly
recognize their off-world counterparts. Instead
of an outright attack, there will be a bit of
he-buck strutting and positioning and raised
hair-- it's the same on every world. Usually
harmless enough. Some headbutting at the least
and maybe a little knife play, but the heat will
be off you 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 open."
as far as it goes," said Lourdes. "But I wish we
had some Alliance support. I still can't
understand the administration's inability to
anticipate Seek. Can't they see what that schiz
is likely to do?"
would be able to if not for the religious
element," I offered. "They come from modern
worlds where one does not see much of the
old-style fundamentalist zeal."
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.
decided that," she answered.
twenty-odd ruffians whom I didn't need was
child's play. I began by telling them that I
intended to ditch the others. Then, I pulled a
switcheroo. I'll never forget their faces as
they watched the shuttle bus to the starport
rumble by without them. They stood stupidly at
the curbside, bags in hand, gaping at the twelve
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 feared 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, good with engines
and better with his fists -- a temper to match,
too; and a variety of other more featureless
alley cats among whom was the giant Kroin, who
bore me no malice for the thrashing I had given
him; he was more like a dog whose master has
beaten it and relented: all waggy tail and eager
to please. Kroin had not taken my advice and
consulted a dentist and could now spit and
whistle simultaneously through the new gap in
the front of his mouth, a fact that seemed to
give him joy. It 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.
twelve of us boarded the commercial liner 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 was just as
bad as committing the crime yourself. I mean
that quite literally. King Caleb had blurred the
distinctions normally made among differing
crimes on most civilized worlds. The penalty for
shoplifting, 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
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 to 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 barely housebroken, but with
those expensive suits, no one would have
Draconis was a
hub world. Flights to a large number of
little-known planets originated here. Ancho was
one such destination. In the urban areas
surrounding the starport were hundreds of
different commercial neighborhoods, each vying
to the indigene of a particular planet. Our
party headed for "Little Ancho." It was a place
of rank smells and urban squalor. Ear-splitting
blasts from the horns of busses and ground cars
sounded everywhere. Vendors hawked their wares
screeching with strident voices, while in
hundreds of streetside cafes, busy cusiniers
grilled, boiled, and fried an amazing assortment
of items, some not generally considered edible
litter bag was an invention of the distant
future. Smoke from the cooking fires rolled over
the shops and diners, and rumbling
diesel-powered busses pumped out petroleum fumes
into the streets. And as the traffic
passed, discarded wrappers and papers 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.
reasonable price, we got outfitted in the latest
Ancho fashions, which were pretty primitive. For
men, the attire consisted of a pair of
old-fashioned trousers and an unpressed white
shirt. These items were effectively concealed by
a large multicolored 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 customary 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 large and
round and woven of straw with a single
dingleball hanging from the rear brim of each.
They would also be quite useful; Ancho was known
to be a hot world.
not at first fare as well as the men in our
party. She quickly found herself wearing a
hideous black and banana 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 her 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 fist clenched in my face.
"If you so much as open your mouth, I'll kill
you 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 dress 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 striking.
definite improvement," I said with a hungry
leer. "But there's a name for the kind of woman
you look like now, sweetie."
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 much. We simply added a ladies' version
of the sarape which concealed enough 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 in some dusty port
on Ancho decked out in those three-piece suits.
If Seek 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 a 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
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 others for an
undergraduate degree. I spoke it fluently, yet
my accent, would never fool anyone. Aside from
that one problem, however, I thought we fit the
part well enough to proceed.
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 town while Lourdes and
I stayed in the hotel and caught up on some long
neglected true gravity sleep.
morning, I visited the public library. They 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 of 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 the background work
that was needed.
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 well. They gave me a
pretty good idea of where Seek might want to
His ship, of
course, would not be visible. Miles across, the
battlesled could never hide behind anything
smaller than a 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 the earth beneath it,
digging, tunneling, and processing, and
concealing the project from all the world. I
knew that a magnetic survey or even mass
detectors would not reveal the presence of the
ship; its stealth technology was too far
advanced to permit that. But I also felt that
there had to be a way to pinpoint its location.
everything I could on the geology of Ancho and
found the planet so loaded with likely carnotite
mining sites that to investigate them all would
take a lifetime. Just the same, I continued
research in the library, waiting for inspiration
to strike. It did, but only after two days of
reading and thinking. I had made my way through
half the important historical works on Ancho
when I picked up one of the coffee table volumes
for a little break. It was a lavishly
illustrated tome which dealt with the popular
sport of small 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.
later, we were already aboard a slow cruiser to
It was a large
ship and definitely a budget spaceliner. Most of
the passengers were small-time Anchoan
businessmen 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 that was full of menace,
they confined their reproaches to members of
their own party.
boys along was already beginning to pay off.
We had more
room to move around on this ship, but the
week-and-a- half journey to Ancho under standard
drive seemed twice as long.
was in a large city called Tecolote. It was one
of half a dozen cities with interstellar
commerce, but I chose it because I had reasons
to believe it might be closest to George Seek.
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 room 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 things were set up this
way. Each hosebib, inside and out of the
building, was caked with rust and dripped and
drizzled away unchecked. This condition was by
no means restricted to our low class lodgings;
even the swankest hotels were stained red by the
oxidizing iron of dilapidated air conditioners
and leaky swamp boxes. The faucets in our
bathroom were no different. They sat in the
centers of large, rusty rings and resembled two
lumps of pumice. And when I ran a test on the
water in the pipes, I rushed to warn even the
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 service 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. Ancho was much
like its facsimile on Draconis.
thing, however, was bigger and dirtier, and in
addition there were many brown-uniformed police
in the streets. This, of course, was very much
an unsettling difference. The cops gave us the
once over whenever we passed, and I felt that
they were looking for some pretext to extort
some of our cash. Lourdes and I conjectured that
we were perhaps too well-dressed for such
treatment. Our clothes, though plain, were quite
new, and the slightly higher class usually
enjoyed some kind of privilege on planets like
Lourdes and I
took in most of what sights interested us in
about two hours and then returned to our room. I
hung my hat on 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 on the cement. "This," I said, "is the
reason we have come to Ancho via Starport III
here in Tecolote."
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 for Ancho. What
seemed to be a solid low pressure area had
remained over the same geographical area ever
since Colonel Seek had disappeared from sight.
"This could be the battlesled," I told Lourdes,
indicating a roughly circular area some
three-hundred miles in diameter. It was an
impressively illustrated collection of papers
with plenty of overlapping colors and numbers. I
had jazzed it up some on the library's color
leafed through the papers frowning. I did not
have the impression that she was deeply
impressed. Finally, she sighed, turned the last
page, and looked up at me. "It's clear why you
insisted on waiting to show me this," she stated
tiredly. "I could easily find anomalies more
convincing than these. Of course, they would be
equally meaningless. About all these papers
prove is that you have found a stationary low
that is roughly the size of Seek's ship."
that I have found this anomaly on Ancho," I
responded. "And I've found it above a rich layer
of carnotite overlying a deposit of the hottest
uranium ore on the planet."
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 to 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?"
answered, with a smile. "You would. 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. It
contained several pages photocopied from the
coffee table volume on small aircraft. I handed
it to her. She looked at the documents for a few
moments without joy and handed them back.
"Tell," she finally replied.
"What do you
remember about the weather maps you just
viewed?" I inquired. I motioned toward my
suitcase. "Tell me from a small aircraft pilot's
point of view."
counting off on her fingers. "Winds 55 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
small plane all the flying characteristics of a
grand piano. In all, I'd say really delightful."
would happen if a private airplane tried to
navigate through weather like that on Marion?
Assuming, of course, that private aviation is
still permitted under the present Federal
occupation." I asked.
shrugged, obviously getting bored. "It could
easily turn up missing. A civil patrol would be
sent out to investigate. The regular full
investigation would ensue."
shouted. "That's exactly what George Seek would
want, isn't it?"
sarcastic," Lourdes replied, annoyed. Clearly,
that is the exact opposite of what he would want
-- but that won't happen because..." She broke
off, realizing what she was about to say.
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 put the photocopies in the suitcase
with the other papers. "Seek has made himself
vulnerable in a way that no one could ever have
foreseen. A battleship like his is usually
highly mobile. If someone comes by, it simply
moves somewhere else. That makes the ship next
to impossible to locate. With his mining project
in operation, however, Seek is rooted 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 roughly
saucer-shaped and one hundred and fifty miles in
radius. If reduced to 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 be covered with a thick
layer of snow. It would present a terrible
navigation hazard for aircraft of any kind. The
presence of that huge ship would also directly
affect the weather, and George Seek could make
any alterations he felt were necessary to
discourage flight through the area. He could
even, I imagined, quietly blow an errant aviator
out of the vicinity by creating headwinds too
strong for a plane to drive against.
At the same
time, I knew that a man or party of men could
walk beneath the ship unobstructed. I had read
the specs on the 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 was
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 evening 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 more 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 wealthy governments could afford them. The
tiny transmitter I carried with me 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 requisitioned her.
Without that bit of luck, the Alliance would be
fighting for unsecured subspace channels along
with every third world inhabitant of the galaxy
-- and waiting anywhere from ten minutes to an
hour between transmissions.
The O-X was
tiny as well; I'd have no problem packing it
into any place I wanted to go. Other supplies,
however, were not so readily available on Ancho
as I would have liked. There were no 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
all 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 a
course that crossed through tiny peasant
settlements where we could barter for our
meal. The line on my map
didn't even zigzag much. Just the same, 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 off at a place
called "Desbocado," and travel over land by foot
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. Things didn't work
out very well however, for although I was the
very first in line and had my money and the
correct words in Spanglo ready, I was not able
to get a single ticket. The people crowding in
behind me, arms outstretched and faces straining
with insistence were simply served the tickets
over my shoulders and head until the last seat
on the train had been taken. I hollered and
bleated red-faced while this was happening --
but it made no difference. I was thoroughly
outclassed by this street-smart mob.
already dark when I came back with the rest of
the crew. I didn't intend to be culturally
sensitive. I needed those tickets. There was
another train arriving in fifteen minutes and
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 to squeeze in front of Lourdes
have none of it. He gave the first to reach him
a powerful block that set the interloper back on
his heels. 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 hand 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 quiet face alone in the window. He had
also likely never seen money over the counter
that was not clutched in a waving half fist --
much less money on the counter laid out in
twelve neat piles. "Doce boletos a Desbocado." I
There was a
long beat as the cashier tried to make 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 the left
flank, was set upon by a tall man who was not
very much like the 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
tiniest 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
may not have been worry lines but real scars and
his build was wiry like Biffer's. He looked
Biffer did not
possess the simple imposing bulk that Nils did.
He was shorter even than I. Now he was being
challenged by the approaching Anchoan.
was a good three paces away.
"I've got the
tickets, boys." I said loudly. "Side step him,
Biffer. No need to get rough."
once to obey. Yet while stepping around the
other, he was shouldered once hard. There was
nothing I could do. Biffer reacted as expected:
he returned the man's offense with a forceful
open-handed push. "Pendejo!" he hissed. Spanglo
-- interesting, I thought.
then, too late, taking the beginnings of 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 sneered, whipped out a bone
handled straight razor and cut open the man's
head in a curving incision following the scalp
line from widow's peak to ear.
It was a
painful wound. I knew this by the horrific
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 did 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.
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 automatic,
which he was desperately tugging from its
Lourdes snarled. "Just beautiful."
muevan!" the cop repeated, puffing mightily as
he trotted belaboredly toward us. The pistol was
halfway out of the holster now. "Manos arribas,
o cuelgo los pellejos en.......uhn!"
Nils had moved
faster this time. The policeman lay unconscious
on the floor, his nose bleeding slightly and one
eye socket rapidly swelling shut. Nils stooped
to pick up the pistol and looked up 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.
ammunition belt, while you're at it." I told
glowered at me. "Now what, bigshot?"
toward the platform. "The train."
grasped my arm fiercely. "Are you completely out
of your mind? The police will simply be waiting
for us in Desbocado."
wait," I answered, as I took the pistol and
ammunition from Nils and stuffed them in my
There was an
approaching rumble followed by a high-pitch
screech of brakes and a drawn-out wheezing hiss
that ended with the single blast of a
locomotive's horn. "Come on!" I yelled.
distance, at the platform, the train waited
We ran. The
conductor appeared to be nothing more than
mildly pleased at the relatively small number of
boarders. He took 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 joy. I 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 stop each day
until finally it would be late again as usual.
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 pack and set
it on the seat next to her.
I sat behind
her, leaned forward and said, "You worry too
glanced back. She looked more tired than angry.
"Bringing your Heliox roughnecks has really
begun to pay off."
"Hey, we got
the tickets, didn't we?"
they are now stamped with the words, 'Free
Passage to Ancho Federal Prison.' I'm sure
that'll be delightful."
going to prison." I assured her. "Desbocado is
not the only town on Ancho. I have plenty of
Lourdes muttered. "Tell that to the police when
you step off the train in Desbocado and they
pounce on you."
"Lourdes, do you honestly think that I'm 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 window?"
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 too small and poor to
have any paying customers. There's an inspection
station there manned by a couple of bookish
clerks who will hardly be inclined to rumble
with the Helioxans. A highway runs along the
tracks 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 seemed 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 already been made ahead of us and
the police in Desbocado were surely licking
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 darkness.
The train had
not even slowed down.
at me in consternation. Her eyes were
questioning. I touched the sleeve of a passing
conductor. "Por qu no paramos en Ratn?" I asked.
gave me a surprised glance. He shook his head.
"Esto no es un tren de mercancas," he said
and walked on.
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 lurched 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 its mounting. Cheap
"Try the other
side," Lourdes suggested, resigned to her fate.
I spun. There
-- above the opposite row of windows -- another
To the right,
I could also see the conductor charging
furiously between the seats directly at me. He
evidently did not appreciate what I doing and
looked ready to kill me. He never got 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 passenger train. Outside
the windows, the air was thick with a shower of
blinding white sparks.
managed to say in a nervous croak.
The car in
front of ours began an explosive bucking, and I
looked in astonishment as the doors connecting
the two cars ripped completely away revealing
the departing front three quarters of the train.
brakes were still holding while the rest 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 the train
rumbled away in the shadowy distance.
those of us left behind continued our high speed
deceleration. It didn't take much
longer. For a few moments the wheels
screeched and squealed deafeningly against the
tracks raising a solid curtain of brilliant
sparks, and then we came to a shuddering halt. I
looked at Lourdes, who was picking herself up
from the floor. She didn't appear to be hurt.
She was giving me one of her looks.
"I had no idea
that train was going so fast," I explained
quickly and apologetically.
might have guessed that the safety devices on an
Anchoan train were nothing to fool with."
wryly. "I wonder if the engineer even noticed
what happened. He's now happily driving on to
Desbocado pulling half a train."
say?" Lourdes shrugged. "He knew enough to
blow the horn."
inside the car had flickered out and it 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 for the accident. None was badly hurt.
We found all
our packs, and Lourdes, myself, and the
Helioxans stepped off the train into the
On the tracks,
there was a pronounced hush -- a stark contrast
to the pandemonium we had just witnessed. The
only thing 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
I motioned to
the others and we started out across 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 and then made an eastward turn
to intercept the highway. That was the long leg
of the journey. It would be early afternoon
before we reached the highway itself. By that
time the day had grown fairly hot. We sat under
the shade of a spiny, narrow-leafed tree at the
side of the road and watched the occasional
small truck roll by.
passed before a bus appeared. It was an 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 just to
be aboard looking out the windows at a landscape
of gently rolling green hills overlain by a
multitude of squat, dark trees.
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
wanted to grab a room in whatever flea bag 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 befuddlement and unhappy
brow-knitting. Investigation would eventually
disclose the fact that a goodly part of the
train and its other passengers had not 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, and if the quarry were still not
found, there would be other searches made in
cities farther along. Then, the frustrated
police would lose interest and forget about it
I saw no need
to wait for things to cool off. There 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.
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 you say I
gotta keep walking."
"There will be
time to rest your feet and have that drink," I
assured him. "But I suspect that there are few
footstools in the local pokey and no liquor at
"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 leave it -- pretty good
wages, too. And all just for getting some
exercise and taking in the sights."
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
auspicious, and I did not translate it for
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 not 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 battery Biffer and Nils had
committed in Tecolote. I assumed that the
brown-suited patrolmen did not work out there. I
wondered what kind of 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
were a sight. Kroin, hardly limping anymore, was
too dumb to have any complaints and Biffer
seemed somewhat smug and content; he, after all,
had tasted blood within recent memory. 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 we had to
take to some primitive trails to maintain our
westward heading. The trails were winding and it
was only by constantly checking my compass that
I could determine that we were headed in the
right general direction. The sky darkened and
there began a fairly heavy and constant drizzle.
We now traveled parallel to the river, whose
tortuous course had intercepted us some miles
ago. The rain-pelleted Moribundo lay to the east
and the trail alternately followed its bank and
drifted well off its flood plain before
returning again to the water's edge. We wore our
sarapes and covered them with waterproof
finally viewed Chiquitito in the dark of night.
It was a town of dirt streets and crumbling
squalor. The windows 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 place
shadows, leaning against the wall, was a figure.
I trained my light on it to reveal a thin,
hungry-looking man dressed in kakki. He had an
ammunition belt wrapped across his chest. He
also shouldered a heavy bolt-action carbine.
"Viva la causa," he said quietly with a
toothless grin. "Viva la revolucin."
evening," I said in Spanglo.
grinned and replied: "You look for the posada,
no? A place to stay on a rainy night. There are
few soldiers in Chiquitito tonight."
"Where is the
"I walk with
you, mano , and show you," was the reply. He
hefted his gun and motioned with one hand. "This
We followed a
bit cautiously. The town itself seemed peaceful
enough. The local villagers were out in small
numbers, walking along the unlighted cobble and
dirt streets and standing in small groups
chatting in dimly lit doorways and other
The posada was
a large, unadorned building, and there appeared
to be no charge for staying there. A proprietor
simply led us inside and showed us a large
barracks-like room and a number of 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 upstairs 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. But stay out of
trouble. We'll be leaving early tomorrow
Lourdes and I
were awakened in the pitch black hours 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 fell unconscious on their bunks
So, there was
a nightlife in Chiquitito.
morning, their high spirits were abridged
somewhat by nagging, twelfth-magnitude
hangovers. Most of the boys wandered back to the
drinking hall to pick up some more of the liquid
that had corrupted them the night before. They
needed something to kill 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 taste. I knew I'd be tempted to take the day
off if I had any more than that. I 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
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."
stood a man in his early forties wearing a red
bandanna and a necklace with various symbols and
talismans hanging from it. He wore no uniform,
but was dressed in a plain white shirt and dark
trousers. He stuck out his hand. "Al Rawson," he
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 ready
except my own, which for some time I had been
reluctant to use even under the best of
"I don't take
your group to be one of Guglielmo's
detachments," he said, the benign smirk still on
his face. "Nor one of Baldonado's."
neither," I affirmed wondering just who in the
hell Guglielmo and Baldonado were. "We are....
free merchants, here to assess the marketing
conditions for interplanetary commer...."
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 to 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. He leaned close. "You guys stand out
like a whore in a church. You crazy? 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.
replied, accepting a light and taking what I
hoped looked like an unconcerned pull at the
white, filterless tube.
It's also bad if you use that language to say
the revolution will ever end. Someone could
overhear you. Hell, around here that's heresy.
Revolution is all these people has got; it's
what makes the place run."
referring to our own revolution," Lourdes
at Lourdes, nodded, and turned back to me. "Oh,
you have your very own, do you? Funny; you don't
look the type -- none of you do. Listen, there
is only one revolution in Ancho and it goes on
all the time. Here in el campo, you're either in
it or you just aren't here at all."
"So you're in
"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 bum. I mean
really. That's no soldier. He just dresses that
way. Bullets are fakes. The gun doesn't even
shoot or he wouldn't be allowed to carry it
around. Someone would just take it away from
him. Probably hit him over the head with it,
too. Chiquitito is hardly a boom town, so what
else 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."
can get some choice crumbs if he tells someone
what he hears," replied Rawson. "I don't know.
But that should concern you more than it does
I just stared
and took another drag off the cigarette. Rawson
motioned to us all to move outside. We followed
him into the street.
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 feds wanted was a hefty tribute in the
form of agricultural goods. All the 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
and 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
"I take it we were not to have been in there
with the soldiers."
Rawson said, wincing. "And you weren't; there
was nothing but bums in there last night.
truth," Lourdes replied, looking at me.
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." He took a
long drag off his cigarette. "The Anchoan feds
have to be paid to let the revolutionaries rule
here in el campo. The campesinos carry their
tribute up to the highways and load it onto
trucks right out of the bush. There ain't but
dirt for roads connecting the two sides now."
"So where do
you fit in?"
simple. I've arranged for the truckers to bump."
"Ah," I said,
eyebrows raised knowingly. "They alter the cargo
manifest for you," I said. "Part of the
difference is your cut."
shook his head, with a wry smile. "You catch on
fast," he said. He took another slow pull from
his cigarette. "There is a slight problem,
though. My little business undermines the very
essence of the social order here. Should the
Anchoan government become discontent with the
way the tribute is being doled out, it could
decide to reestablish itself as the controlling
body. Los seores Baldonado and Guglielmo would
not like that."
"Brother, you've got your nerve to tell me how
to conduct my affairs. You're living right on
the edge yourself."
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 to apply the
grease widely and liberally. And I still think I
can offer you some worthwhile advice."
Get the hell out of here. That's simple enough,
isn't it? Just go back the way you came and
abandon any little dope smuggling project you
had planned out here."
smuggling!" Lourdes blurted out. "You're the big
drug dealer and you said so yourself."
trade is strictly graft. Wholesome and virtuous.
Do I look suicidal?"
you think we're interested in narco-bucks?" I
"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 leave, 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."
look much like a Anchoan yourself," I returned.
missing the point," said Rawson. "You want those
khaki-clad dopers to take you for a city
slicker? The urbanites and the campesinos are
supposed to be isolated. When it even looks like
they are mixing, people, get uncomfortable --
very uncomfortable. Hell, I look fine compared
to you. I sound fine, too. Got a real off-world
growl when I speak Spanglo."
you do if you were us?" I was digging in my
pocket for my jackknife. I was going to cut off
"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 insist on staying here, then at least
keep clear of the posadas and soldiers."
starters you could stay out of the towns
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 the
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 of that yourself. Which
direction are you headed -- or have you even
his chin. "Might not be so bad to the 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 the same
direction. Take the least used of these --
you'll meet fewer soldiers that way."
if we do meet the soldiers?"
"If I were
you, I'd drop the campesino ruse like a bad
habit. It just won't wash. Tell 'em you are here
from off planet to visit your grandmother --
anything! -- and use your worst Spanglo when you
do it. Also -- " He broke off, listening
intently with a wave at me to remain silent.
"Soldiers coming. I hear their boots. " He
directed 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. Just split."
I wasn't going
to argue. The Helioxans were in no condition to
fight anybody today. A loud noise would destroy
them, and 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."
you?" I asked.
grinned nervously. "Another day, another palm to
grease. Don't worry about me. I probably know
the guys. If not -- " He patted his wallet.
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?"
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 summit and down the butte's
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 his chest.
I enforced a
four-day march straight to the west. We had
little in the way of provisions. Lourdes and I
took Rawson's advice and risked entering a
village by day and securing some salted meat,
dried beans, and parched corn. These foods were
compact enough to last us a while and the
piquant spices that were sold along with them
made the resulting meals fairly palatable.
were not pleased with the general turn of
events, however. I was forced to brighten their
spirits some by offering bonuses from the
plentiful supply of money I carried with me. I
did a lot of "This'll break me, you bastards"
just in case they took it into their heads that
I had more than was good for me .
On the fifth
day, I saw some signs that suggested we had
begun to walk beneath Seek's ship. The sun was
only a dully glaring orb through a dreary
thousand-foot ceiling. The overcast sky and
cloud-cowled sun would be an convenient illusion
for someone in Seek's position; it would be easy
to manufacture and maintain and would fit in
well with the weather consistent with a low
It was then
that I began to do some fine tuning with my
compass. I had no stars at night to navigate by,
so the best I could do was to follow the
adjusted westerly magnetic heading exactly from
now on. I wished I had been more careful before;
the roughness of the trails we followed did not
lend themselves to a well-tracked course. Up to
now, any inaccuracies were small enough to be
insignificant for my purposes. All I needed to
do was to meet the central hub of the P-657 to
verify its existence. That column standing in
the earth was several 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 least.
We were once
again in a land of rolling green hills
interspersed with short, heavy trees. We had
practically forgotten the danger of the
soldiers; this area was much too wild and off
the beaten tract to worry unduly about them. We
set up camp and waited for night 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 who might
The night was
just cool enough for us to really need 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 others. There was
a burst of nervous chatter: "What the hell was
that?" "Who took my knife?" "I'll get you for
hissed. "You dopes want to give yourselves away?
That's probably the army -- or a dinosaur with
very large feet -- so shut up."
that noise come from?" whispered Hardiman 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. How do you like that? Sit down,
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.
better," I said soothingly. "You've earned
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.
"Will you throw anything if I ask a question?"
"I would never
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
Brine River on Marion."
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 was nothing quite
like the crashing explosion of a hundred tons of
shattering river boulders. Seek was processing a
lot of dirt, and the boulders were getting
sucked in with all the rest. The battleship was
old, and like the equipment we had used on
Marion, his machines combined the hardness of
thick steel and the power of hydraulics with the
force of good old gravity to break even the most
durable quartzite megaliths into fragments. The
result was invariably gravel and noise -- and
plenty of both.
"I think you
had better call Cardip -- now," Lourdes said
It took only a
few seconds to pull the O-X from my pack and
begin to set it up.
stabbed across the camp and I shouted, "Turn
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 O-X.
There was no
return signal from the master unit aboard the
Seychelles. I didn't even have to try again; I
knew what had happened. The O-X was working
perfectly. And Seek was blocking the
I waited for a
few moments before telling Lourdes my plan.
There was nothing left for me to do. It was
obvious that Seek was 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 the way we had
He was waiting
with me. That is not to say that she was happy.
No one likes to be caught in a trap. But the
fact remained that there was little for us to do
except go and see what Seek wanted.
We packed and
waited for sunrise. It never came. The 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 as dark
as night. Twice more during this time we heard
the characteristic crash of stone. The Helioxans
were somewhat unnerved by this and I had nothing
to comfort them with. I had overdone the bonus
business and they were forced to solace
themselves by bickering. I broke up two fist
fights before I ordered a westward march in the
I no longer
had any compunctions about using the
flashlights. Seek appeared to be well aware of
us now anyway -- and I didn't particularly like
the idea of accidentally falling over some cliff
in the dark. I mused somewhat unhappily that I
preferred to walk over one in broad daylight and
on purpose. You were born lucky! Cardip had
said, and his theory was being put to the test
crashing boom of the mining operation was a far
better navigational aid than any compass. We
walked in single file across the rolling land
for an hour or more and heard the sound of
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.
to my side and grasped my arm. With her free
hand she reached forward and touched the
slightly curving wall of the mining tube. "The
ship," was all she said.
regained their feet and also collided with the
wall. They fell back, perplexed and uncertain.
I pointed my
flashlight before me and saw a dizzying void.
The beam was powerful, but could not reveal the
opposite side of 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 a step. It is virtually impossible
for a person to stand at the brink of such an
abyss even with the knowledge that an invisible
metal wall stands between him and the depths.
ear-splitting burst of noise that sounded now
was even louder than the last. The sight of the
gaping crater had awoken a primordial fear of
heights in all of us. This, coupled with a
terror of the unknown and punctuated by the
nerve-shattering explosion, completely unhinged
the Helioxans. A couple of them broke and ran,
and I directed the beam of my flashlight at
them. "Come back here, you chicken livered, no
good...." They stopped -- but not voluntarily;
they had crashed headlong into something
unyielding. At first they fell back hollering.
But in an instant they were back on their feet
and trying to get past whatever was blocking
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 it even as it began to push them--
inward toward Lourdes and me and the edge of the
Now, they were
really screaming. They thought they were going
over the side. They didn't. They were bulldozed
to no more than ten feet from the edge where
Lourdes and I stood.
We were ringed
still another BOOM! But by now our nerves were
so shot that we hardly noticed. The next thing
knew the whole world came
ablaze with light. I nearly closed my eyes then,
for I could now clearly see the size of the hole
in front of 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.
incredible vista before us began to blur. 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 take shape,
at first as a misty column in the direct center
of our vision. 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 one unfolding cross-section after
another appeared to materialize. And from our
vantage point we would see it all, layer by
layer: the bulkheads and walkways, cooling
tubes, engine houses and mile-long transmission
boxes. There were forests of cables and relays
and storage rooms filled 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 structure.
There was a
moment of shock when the closer parts of the
machine began to appear. It gave the terrifying
illusion of a million tons of machinery rushing
directly toward us. The effect was so convincing
that the Helioxans broke and ran once more. The
force field stopped them from getting anywhere.
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 few inches from the tube
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 me. The final wall
of the tube merely appeared and a layer of gray
primer spread across it. A split second later, a
final coat of thick black paint snapped into
More than just
a wall had appeared. And I realized now why the
tube was made visible: Seek knew that we had to
be able to see the door before us before we
could be coaxed to enter it.
"Paid to keep
my mouth shut," Hardiman growled. "I 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!"
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
The door in
the wall of the tube was open and the interior
glowed with a stark electric brilliance. It was
not inviting. "Let's see what he wants," I told
Lourdes. She nodded unhappily and the two of us
"It isn't a
'he,'" Biffer hollered after us. "It's a 'them,'
-- the feds. I've heard they are fond of
I stuck my
head out. "I'll tell you about the feds," I told
him. "They've outlawed torture. When they kill
you, they make it quick; I've seen 'em. Does
that make you feel better?"
"Well, get in
wait for you here," Biffer said. "See you later.
added: "I, too, will stand guard here and --
We were all
inside now. The force field had quickly
contracted around the men and thrown them
inside. The door slammed, and that was that.
minds?" I asked, grinning.
A series of
rungs led upward to a metal staircase. We took
turns clambering up it. The stairs themselves
were wide enough to scale as a group. After only
a few flights, we came to another door. It
opened into what was clearly a freight elevator.
"Are we going to argue about going in there?" I
asked the men.
shrugged, somewhat indifferently, an action
which seemed to sum up the attitude of the
others as well. They had given up the idea of
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 none.
slammed violently and the elevator lurched
MANY WHO SEEK
ANSWERS ASK HOW ONE MAY RECONCILE THE SPIRITUAL
AND THE CONCRETE. I SHALL EXPLAIN.....
god, he is going to torture us." Lourdes said.
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.
was overheard and the elevator lurched once
again, this time viciously. It was a nine-G
take-off. Straight up.
SUBJECTS ARE NOW DEEMED NULL AND VOID: 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 ELUCIDATED.
"It's all that
damned elucidation that makes science 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 brains 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
awareness came with abrupt and surprising
clear-headedness. The ascent was suddenly
arrested and the twelve of us 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. All was quiet
except for the normal faint hum of shipboard
air-conditioning. I rose to my feet and motioned
to the others to follow me.
We walked. The
hallway was long and wide. Regularly spaced
doors lined the passage. They were
windowless and, we soon found, locked. After a
moment, the large door to a barracks broke the
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.
nodded. The others stood unashamedly behind.
They had heard stories of the troops aboard
were infamous for sheer brutality -- brutality
that was perhaps to be expected from the type of
man chosen for such duty. The job was for life,
and the man who was so conscripted was destined
to serve as one of the most luckless pariahs of
history -- perhaps a fitting role for one whose
personality qualified him for the post.
They were also
exceptionally trained. No one could be expected
to believe that the simple projectile weapon I
held would prove effective against such a
soldier -- much less a whole room full of them.
But I had to
stirred inside. The room was large and lined
with the expected large number of bunks, each
neatly draped with white 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 was 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 whose 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?"
I looked up at
them. "Bad case of necromania."
them?" whispered Lourdes.
"In a word:
yes. They're dead."
I didn't know
and I didn't want to guess, but Lourdes said:
"Each P-657 carries one hundred and fifty
thousand armored troops."
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 behind me
propelled me down the corridor and around the
place where it curved into an adjacent hallway.
open elevator waited. I was pushed inside
whereupon the doors crashed immediately shut and
the compartment 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 they had completely opened. Eager
to see me, Seek? I thought.
I fell into
the hallway, staggered to my feet, and 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
playing games. I knew very well that if I 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
sat stiffly behind an executive desk. I knew
that Seek was a monstrously fat man, but just
the same the sight 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. "It is also
your temple, and I sit before you humbly to
explain and console you, help you see the
My fear of him
ebbed and vanished, yet it was replaced with a
kind of dread. The words. They were
somehow not 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,"
"A tomb," I
repeated. "Your temple. Isn't that what it is?"
There was a
pause and then Seek moved in his chair.
chosen be fortunate enough to rise from a crypt,
that crypt becomes a temple," he said slowly.
make a whole lot of sense, but I suppose it's
been written somewhere?"
answered Seek. "But do you doubt it?"
Involuntarily I moved backward. That smile was
not one of Seek's inventions. Another had
composed it. The grin was the whites-showing
kind, histrionic and so poorly acted that 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 that 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 motion the air in
the room stirred and brought to me once again
the faint scent of formaldehyde. His pudgy hands
reached for his waist, clutched the tucked-in
shirt, and tugged. The shirt came free. His
immense belly rolled outward.
The hands now
held more than the shirt. Seek now also grasped
a heavy white mound of abdominal flesh, which
when raised revealed itself as the wedged flap
of a huge and wicked V-shaped incision. From the
cavity underneath wafted, as if gasped outward,
the deathly odor of formaldehyde. Within that
opening could be seen the pink of his insides.
Except there were no insides.
Seek had been
stared. The man was dead and I did not fear him.
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 some internal
antagonist, and the grin disappeared to be
replaced by his own intimate and aloof
expression of false piety. Then, he collapsed
backward, toppling the chair as he fell.
sounded from within the ship. I left the room
and made my way to the elevator. Inside, I could
hear the cracking blast of Z-pistols and the
muffled pop of small arms.
controls gleamed to life. I ignored the 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 and the others.
was alive with noise. Guns roared in the
adjoining rooms and hallways and armed men
shouted orders as they ran past. They ignored me
Kroin, and Biffer were sprinting towards me from
well down the hall.
Lourdes?" I shouted.
Aliens!" They all screamed, and, indeed, behind
them I could see white, semi-humanoid forms
flying at the level of the ceiling.
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.
just reached me when the first of the flyers
overtook him. A gunshot cracked once loudly
behind him, and the being smashed against a wall
and tumbled fluttering down the hallway.
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 with a 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 of work.
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 to pieces by a soldier's Z-ray.
soldier in a powered suit stood a few feet 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 clear. Those tiny wings didn't do the
stepped over to me. "Get up," he said gruffly.
He was a huge man made to look larger still by
the heavy armor.
I rose, and he
pulled off his helmet and face mask.
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.
chuckled. "I thought I would find you alive," he
said. "Cardip has told me that you think I am
under your command. I laugh."
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
weapon." He reached into a pocket and pulled out
"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 the radio.
"Put it on
PA," I told him.
frowned and flipped a switch on his suit.
This is Group
Four to Central. There are more of them in the
shuttle holds on the port side.
Well, blast your way in!
sir. It'll take a minute.
This is Group
Eight to Central and Group Four. We've got 'em
trapped, in the Shuttle hangars starboard.
"Is that Harry
Cardip talking from Central?" I asked.
Central. Cease fire. The shuttle bay doors are
opening both port and starboard. Let 'em go.
We'll catch them on the wing.
The aliens got
stared at me with his usual irritated scowl. He
didn't have much to be irritated about; in fact,
this was an 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
pulled the P-657 out of the ground and had her
off Ancho before the feds even 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.
it, though; Cardip was not pleased. He just sat
at the lab console in front of a monitor and
gave me the fish eye. He hadn't even touched the
drink we left there for him.
honestly think that you deserve to be privy to
every facet of the Alliance's operations?" he
"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 Lourdes.
I ignored her.
"I am aware that I am not in command 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 didn't include you in planning the
actual assault on the battleship? Hell, we had
to wait for you to find it before we could plan
anything. And why should you know the exact
extent of our stealth technology?"
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 -- "
would have bullheaded your way across 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 something 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, just 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 here -- "
I tapped my forehead " -- and not blind chance
that has once again put the revolution back on
all right," the director conceded. "I'll admit
that your hunches may have some cerebral merit.
And I suppose you could call it at worse
serendipitous insight that led you to see where
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...
"Thank you," I
said. "And with respect to the stealth, it is
not my argument that I should have known every
detail. I think, however, that just a little
hint if nothing more was in order."
have liked it better if Seek had had just 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!"
pay for it!" I yelled. I pointed at him. "I've
heard the scuttlebutt about how you finance
things. Armament and stealth purchases have been
financed exclusively from my bank account.
What's worse, you've been feeding me some line
about punching the Seychelles into Ultra and
making random turns to escape detection. I've
actually told people that I believed this.
You're not only ruining my military education
but my reputation as well!"
reputation has always been your own fault -- not
mine, Jenkins, but if you want a military
education look at this screen."
I looked and
saw that what rocketed out of the shuttle bays
were craft the likes of which no one had seen.
They were perhaps no faster than the Alliance
ships, although there was no way to be sure of
that. The quality that distinguished them from
both federal and rebel vessels was simply
defensive maneuver. They came out of the holds
pinwheeling, gyrating, and turning at right
angles and indeed reversing upon themselves as a
ship might do were its controls set on random
and its throttle at full. But no ship I had ever
heard of could turn back on itself without
losing velocity. And Cardip explained that the
movement was hardly random.
"I've run an
exhaustive analysis of their actions from our
gunsight videos. The alien craft were reacting
instantaneously 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 the screen.
Now, they are moving wildly but in unison. Now,
they're disappearing. There!"
it over and over again. I can't tell. Neither
can the computers."
and looked up. "I saw a shimmer. Some other
lights. A lot of other lights."
Harry. You can sort it out later. "Isn't it
enough for now that we don't have to worry about
George Seek anymore?"
"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 interview with me was for the aliens'
benefit; they were trying to find out more about
us, about our reactions to things in general.
Maybe how to scare us. But Seek had already
allied himself with them against us."
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. He was
powerless to resist them. He met them somehow --
somewhere. It was only by the most ridiculous
coincidence that they encountered the person
most vulnerable to them."
Why was Seek especially vulnerable?"
"You saw them.
What do you think?"
with built-in switchblades."
interrupted her irritably.
We have other work to consider!"
mouthed the word with disdain. I punched Cardip
in the shoulder. "Drink up, Chief. I've already
planned what to 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 Worlds!"
turned back to the screen and stared at the
flickering white lights against a backdrop of
brightly shining stars. "I wouldn't blow up the
ship right away," he said.