The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol I Part 24

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It reached the end of the rope, and he was jerked forward by the pull on his wrist. It dragged him a few feet and then stopped. Carson kept going, pulling himself towards it hand over hand along the rope. It stopped there, tentacles trying in vain to pull out the harpoon. It seemed to shudder and quiver, and then realized that it couldn't get away, for it rolled back towards him, clawed tentacles reaching out.

Stone knife in hand, he met it. He stabbed, again and again, while those horrid claws ripped skin and flesh and muscle from his body.

He stabbed and slashed, and at last it was still.

A bell was ringing, and it took him a while after he'd opened his eyes to tell where he was and what it was. He was strapped into the seat of his scouter, and the visiplate before him showed only empty s.p.a.ce. No Outsider s.h.i.+p and no impossible planet.

The bell was the communications plate signal; someone wanted him to switch power into the receiver. Purely reflex action enabled him to reach forward and throw the lever.



The face of Brander, captain of the Magellan, mother-s.h.i.+p of his group of scouters, flashed into the screen. His face was pale and his black eyes glowing with excitement.

'Magellan to Carson,' he snapped. 'Come on in. The fight's over. We've won!'

The screen went blank; Brander would be signalling the other scouters of his command.

Slowly, Carson set the controls for the return. Slowly, unbelievingly, he unstrapped himself from the seat and went back to get a drink at the coldwater tank. For some reason, he was unbelievably thirsty. He drank six gla.s.ses.

He leaned there against the wall, trying to think.

Had it happened? He was in good health, sound, uninjured. His thirst had been mental rather than physical; his throat hadn't been dry.

He pulled up his trouser leg and looked at the calf. There was a long white scar there, but a perfectly healed scar; it hadn't been there before. He zipped open the front of his s.h.i.+rt and saw that his chest and abdomen were criss-crossed with tiny, almost unnoticeable, perfectly healed scars.

It had happened!

The scouter, under automatic control, was already entering the hatch of the mother-s.h.i.+p. The grapples pulled it into its individual lock, and a moment later a buzzer indicated that the lock was airfilled. Carson opened the hatch and stepped outside, went through the double door of the lock.

He went right to Brander's office, went in, and saluted.

Brander still looked dazed. 'Hi, Carson,' he said. 'What you missed; what a show!'

'What happened, sir?'

'Don't know, exactly. We fired one salvo, and their whole fleet went up in dust! Whatever it was jumped from s.h.i.+p to s.h.i.+p in a flash, even the ones we hadn't aimed at and that were out of range! The whole fleet disintegrated before our eyes, and we didn't get the paint of a single s.h.i.+p scratched!

'We can't even claim credit for it. Must have been some unstable component in the metal they used, and our sighting shot just set it off. Man, too bad you missed all the excitement!'

Carson managed a sickly ghost of a grin, for it would be days before he'd be over the impact of his experience, but the captain wasn't watching.

'Yes, sir,' he said. Common sense, more than modesty, told him he'd be branded as the worst liar in s.p.a.ce if he ever said any more than that. 'Yes, sir, too bad I missed all the excitement....'

Contents

ATOM BOY.

By RAY c.u.mMINGS

Retired and rusticating Pete McLean, former policeman, sees something new in crime-fighting in a rural setting!

MY NAME'S Pete McLean, and I've been mixed up in a few gunfights in my time as a member of the police force in a big city. But when a fellow gets to be seventy, even though he's still hale and hearty, the idea of taking things easy is pretty attractive.

So I retired and brought my granddaughter Effie along to this quiet little Vermont place. Effie, who is twenty-three, was married at twenty, and after about a year she had to call it quits. After her divorce, she came back to me; so she was in the mood, too, for peace and quiet.

You can rusticate grand up here with the Green Mountains all around. If that's what you want. It came hard for me, at first. You know, the captain of a precinct in a big city gets used to action.

The nearest village is Hewlett Corners, hidden from us behind a hill. There's nothing here but woods, a field, a brook, and an undulating white stretch of highway with our little house beside it. It didn't take me long to discover that farming wasn't in my line. I had to do something, so this being one of the main highways through Rutland, I put in a little gas station. The new cars were all coming in now; there was quite a bit of traffic and I did nicely.

It was a Sat.u.r.day, about sundown. Hot as blazes. It had been a busy afternoon and I was glad when it began to slacken up a bit. I was seated on a stool in front of the little service room behind the gas pump. The house is about a hundred feet to one side, with a white picket fence and tiny garden between it and the road. Effie was there, getting supper.

A car came around a curve from the direction of Hewlett Corners. It slackened, turned into the driveway and pulled up in front of me. It was a big open car, one of the flashy kind, with a New York tag. The back seat was empty; three young fellows sat in front.

"Hiya, grandpop," the driver said.

"What'll you have?" I asked, getting up.

"Eight gallons. Maybe she'll take ten."

All three of them got out and looked around. There's plenty of their kind in a big city. You know, the slick-haired, wise-guy type, who think they know everything. One of them stood near me at the pump and lighted a cigarette.

"Take it easy," I said. "Watch it."

He grinned, but I didn't.

"Okay, grandpop," he said. He tossed it away.

I gave them eight gallons, checked their oil and tires, and filled the radiator. The driver, a dark- haired, sallow fellow without much chin, handed me a ten-dollar bill. I'd spotted them for the kind that inspires you to give a second look at their money to be sure it isn't phony. This picture of Hamilton looked okay. The slim, smallish driver and one of his companions followed me in to the cash register. This other fellow was a husky lad with a dished-in nose.

Maybe premonitions have some sense to them. Anyway, the big one blocked the doorway and the other stood close beside me. As I opened the register, I had an uneasy feeling that it was too bad there was so much cash in it. I saw the rat-faced fellow dart a look over my shoulder at the stack of tens and a couple of twenties I had. Then another car sounded outside. Maybe nothing would have happened at all; or maybe that car came just in time. Anyway, the fellow in the doorway moved out. I closed the register, handed over the change, and the rat-faced youth and I went outside.

"Nice place you got here, grandpop," he said. "You do pretty well, eh?"

"Fair enough," I said. "Well, see you again, boys. Have a good trip."

The car that had come up had paused but hadn't turned in. Evidently the people in it had changed their mind, for now they were driving off.

The big, ugly fellow had gotten into the front seat of the open car.

"Come on, George," he called. "Let's get goin'."

But George lingered. "You open late Sat.u.r.days?" he wanted to know.

"Sometimes," I said. "Sometimes not."

He nodded and climbed in back of the wheel.

"Come on, Pete," he called.

Pete, the third one, was a blond fellow in a flashy checked suit and sport s.h.i.+rt. He had been standing over by the picket fence gazing at the house. He turned and came to the car.

"What's that you got?" he asked. "A shop?"

Effie had a sign that maple sugar and syrup were for sale. And from a couple of elderly spinsters in Hewlett Corners, she got some candlewick bedspreads on consignment. A few of them were hanging now over the porch railing.

"A shop?" I said. "Well, sort of."

"Girl in there," the checked-suit fellow said as he climbed in beside the others. "Just you two here? Lot of work for you, ain't it, grandpop?"

I skipped it. They started up their motor, and as Effie came out on the verandah, one of them yelled, "Hiya, sister." Then they were gone.

Well, that was that. Hindsight is easy, but I must say that at the time I didn't think much about it.

And the next day young Albert Carter came to live with us. Which was quite an event, believe me.

It was a hot Sunday morning, and there wasn't much traffic. Effie was in the kitchen while I loafed on the verandah. A tall, rather thin figure came trudging along the highway from the direction of Little Creek Junction. He was carrying two suitcases, a small, battered leather one and a large, square box-like affair, and he looked dusty, hot and tired.

Seeing me on the porch, he waved a friendly greeting. Then at the gate he hesitated, pushed it open and came up the path.

"Good morning," he said cheerily.

He put his suitcases down and stood between them, fanning his flushed face with his hat and pus.h.i.+ng his curly brown hair back from his wet forehead. He wasn't the husky type; he looked rather studious. I guessed he was twenty-eight or thirty. But he was certainly tired and uncomfortable, although you couldn't tell it by the expression on his face. He was smiling as though everything in the world was just right. That smile was contagious. I grinned.

"h.e.l.lo," I said.

He motioned vaguely toward where the highway curves around the hill.

"I hope there's a town that way," he said. "It's four miles the other way."

"Hewlett Corners," I said. "About a dozen houses, if you call that a town."

He was. .h.i.tchhiking to Rutland, he told me.

"I thought I was all set," he said. "But the fellow petered out on me." He gestured toward Little Creek Junction. "I had to desert him--he turned south at the crossroads back there."

Effie had heard our voices and came to the verandah door, where she stood wiping her hands on her ap.r.o.n. My granddaughter is good-looking, if I do say it myself--trim and pretty, with her tousled brown hair framing her oval face. She took one look at this young fellow and he took one look at her. That seemed to be enough. Anyway, after that I wasn't exactly in charge of things.

"Why, h.e.l.lo," he said brightly, with that winning smile.

"h.e.l.lo," Effie said. She came out beside me and took another look at him. "Won't you come up and rest a while. You look so tired--"

He smiled at me, with a sort of deferential questioning to be sure it was all right with me. You couldn't help liking this fellow.

"Get him a gla.s.s of water, Effie," I said. "Or maybe you've got a bottle of pop?"

Well, that's how we met Albert Carter; and the upshot was, I hired him to help me around the place. It promised to work out fine, too.

There wasn't much to tell about himself, aside from the fact that he had no family and was a college graduate. He'd been wounded in the service, and was hospitalized for quite a while so that now he wasn't too strong. Farming was Greek to him, and he didn't know the first thing about servicing an automobile. After I taught him all I knew, he was as good as me. Better, in one way. That grin of his charmed the customers into wanting all the gas and oil their cars would carry. And by Tuesday he was talking them into buying maple sugar and candlewick spreads.

Effie and I hadn't realized how lonely we were. Having Bert around brought a lot of cheer to the place which we hadn't known we needed. But Bert had one peculiarity that wasn't so good, and we found out about it that first Sunday evening. Our first intimation was a weird smell that drifted down from his attic room. I rushed up and found Bert with test tubes, chemicals and what-not spread all around. There was a little explosion just as I got there.

"Well, great heavens," I said.

"It's okay," he said with a laugh. "I hoped it would do that."

It seems Bert was a nut on chemistry. He'd been a research chemist with the Bureau of Standards in Was.h.i.+ngton when the war broke. He'd quit it, and enlisted. Now he was trying to land a job with some big chemical company. Meanwhile, he couldn't let the stuff alone. Whenever his work with me was done, up to the attic he'd go. Our house sometimes smelled like a glue factory. Sometimes, at night, strange red, green and pink glows would show on the attic stairs. The electric fuses of the house wiring blew out occasionally. And there were frequent explosions.

Effie thought it was wonderful, so my feeble protests didn't make much impression. But after one big blast, which by luck didn't set the house on fire, I dashed up to Bert.

"Hey, listen," I yelled, "what's the idea? Do you do this for fun?"

"Sure," he said. "Partly. I'm just experimenting, you know. It is fun, and there's always a chance I might fall into something important."

"You're not trying to improve the atom bomb by any chance, are you?"

"No," he laughed. "Nothing like that. Besides, the atom bomb is a problem of physics, not chemistry."

I might have gotten used to Bert's chemistry, if he'd kept it in the attic. But by Wednesday or Thursday of that same week, he began to spread it out. Effie found her teakettle steaming with no fire under it. No water in it either, for that matter, just some fool chemical which was evaporating into a white vapor. And at supper that night he poured me a gla.s.s of water which turned a sickly green in my gla.s.s. Then he poured one for the delighted Effie. Only hers didn't turn green, it blazed up with fire.

Effie was thrilled. "However did you do that?" she said. "Bert, you're so clever--"

He winked at me. "Magic," he said to Effie. And to me: "Nothing at all but a little sliver of white metallic sodium, which perfectly naturally-- from the chemical point of view, that is--blazes when it gets wet. But don't tell her. I want her to think I'm smart."

"Stop that stuff," I said, "before somebody gets killed around here."

It sure gave you an uneasy feeling being around Bert, who had heaven knows what in his pocket. I began to be afraid to light my pipe for fear snakes would come out of it.

Anyway, Sat.u.r.day came, just a week after those three crooks had stopped and looked us over. I hadn't thought of them, but now somehow, just at sundown, memory of them popped into my head. Looking back to it, I could see how smoothly they had done everything, as though they had planned it ahead of time. One had moved over toward the house, to watch the road and to make sure n.o.body came out of the house. One of the others had blocked the little doorway of the service station room. A third had followed me to the cash register. They hadn't pulled anything, but they certainly had the proper setup, smooth as silk.

Then I shrugged away the thoughts. You can't spend your time thinking about what might have happened, but didn't. I got busy with two or three cars arriving at once, and forgot it.

After supper, as darkness came, things slackened. It had been a red-hot day, one of those breathless, oppressive days when you wished for a good snappy thunderstorm to clear things up. Sure enough, in mid-evening, there were distant clouds coming and a bit of wind that made the heat more comfortable. Between cars, I sat on the verandah.

Bert and Effie were in the kitchen, doing the dishes. I could hear them laughing. They were getting along famously. Bert, as it happened, had had an experience about like Effie's. He'd left his young bride and gone to war; and soon after he got back he found that all was not well. It wasn't Bert's style to be violent or dramatic. He just quietly told the lady off and got a divorce.

"Couldn't be helped, I guess," he told Effie and me. "Anyway, if at first you don't succeed--get what I mean? He flung Effie a glance, not brash because it had his queer sort of shyness mixed up in it. Effie had blushed.

They could have been talking like that now, out in the kitchen. Two cars came, but I didn't bother to call Bert; I handled them myself. After all, even at seventy you can remember when you were young.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol I Part 24

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