The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iv Part 113

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He pursued her as she ran, bowling over or trampling on the fear-stricken prisoners as they tried to scramble out of his way, men and women alike. But she made up in agility what she lacked in strength, lifting up the hem of her robe so that her legs twinkled bare, ducking under Gore's outstretched arms, or leaping over the fallen form of some stumbling, panic-stricken unfortunate.

Only in her eyes was there a true picture of her terror. Gore's uncertain temper was changing again, and in a few moments he was cursing foully, his little red-rimmed eyes glistening, as he dashed after her with short, boar-like rushes.

Again she skimmed past where Quirl cowered in simulated fear, and the look she gave him struck straight at the disguised officer's heart. So it was that when she slipped and fell to her knees, and Gore charged in with a triumphant laugh, Quirl met him with no thought of anything, no feeling but the joy of battle, the delight of a strong man when he meets a foe whom he hates. And to that heady, feral emotion was added the unforgettable picture of a lovely face whose obvious fear was somehow tempered by hope and confidence--in him!

As Gore lunged past, Quirl struck him. It was a short, sharp, well-timed jab that would have knocked out an ordinary man. But Gore was by no means ordinary. The blow laid open his cheek against the jawbone, but Gore scarcely slowed as he swerved. With a bellow of rage, he came straight at Quirl, arms outstretched.

Philosophers have said that no matter how far the human race advances in the sciences, its fundamental reactions will still be atavistic. Gore could have dispatched Quirl in a second with his ray weapon, with perfect safety. Yet it is doubtful that the weapon even entered his mind. As he came to the battle he was driven only by the primitive urge to fight with his hands, to maim, to tear limb from limb like the great simians whom he resembled.



To Quirl, coolly poised, the picture of Gore did not inspire terror. In the pa.s.sengers, it did. They saw a brutal giant, gorilla-like, and roaring like a beast, charging at a half-naked youth apparently only half his size. It seemed that those tremendous arms must break him at the first touch.

But the grasping hands slipped off the lithe body as if it were oiled, leaving only angry red welts along Quirl's ribs. As the officer edged away he planted two blows on Gore's nose, which began to bleed freely.

Again Gore rushed, and spat! spat! two seemingly light blows landed on his face, opening a cut above his eye and another on his cheek bone. In a few seconds of battling he had become a shocking sight, with his features almost obscured by welling blood.

Again Quirl measured him, and this time, instead of evading the grasp of the mate's eager arms, he stepped right between them. Like a wraith he slipped into their embrace, and before they could grasp him, standing so close that his chest almost touched his adversary's, he whipped a right to Gore's jaw. It was the kind of punch that makes champions, a whiplike lash of the forearm, with relaxed muscles that tighten at the moment of impact. A punch with "follow-through" fit to knock out ninety-nine men out of a hundred.

But it did not knock out Gore, and Quirl had to pay dearly for his error. Gore was staggered, but his mighty arms closed, hugging his slighter opponent to his hairy chest so that the breath was choked out of him, and the metal studs on his harness gouged cruelly into Quirl's flesh. His face was blue before he could work his arm loose, and begin to prod with stiffened fingers at Gore's throat. Gore had to let go then, and Quirl broke away, boxed for a few moments until he had recovered, and then proceeded to chop Gore's face beyond any semblance of humanity.

The mate had dropped his ray weapon, and now searched for it with blinded eyes. He flung his riot club, and it flew wide of the mark. It was obvious that he was going to be beaten into insensibility.

The guard on the platform, seeing the trend of the battle, shouted hoa.r.s.ely up the well, and in a few minutes four men, hard-bitten, villainous looking fellows, tumbled down the ladder and joyously joined in the fray. It was then only a matter of seconds before Quirl lay on the floor-plates, battered and bleeding, but still feebly fighting, while Gore sat astride him, seeking with vicious fingers for Quirl's eyes. At the same time his men were kicking at the helpless man's body wherever they could reach him.

At the sight of this brutality the other prisoners, forgetting for the moment their own cowed condition, set up such a bedlam of noise that the guard began to look furtively up the pa.s.sage, and to shout at the ruffians.

Suddenly he was whirled aside, and a figure in uniform, moving with uncanny speed for a man so ma.s.sive, appeared upon the platform and bounded down the ladder. He was among the struggling men on the floor in a moment, and became a maze of flailing arms and legs. Like ten-pins the pirates scattered, and the giant pulled off the mate. Gore could not see, but as he writhed he knew he was in the grip of the pirate captain. Captain Strom's harsh, ascetic face was dangerous, and his steely gray eyes compelling. The men managed slovenly salutes.

"Gore," Strom snapped, "have your men get some water and mop up this blood. How many times have I told you to quit mauling the prisoners? D'ye think I'm in this business to provide amus.e.m.e.nt for you? Henceforth keep out of this hold. Hear?"

"Yes, sir," Gore muttered sullenly.

"Took five of you b.u.ms to handle him, did it?" Strom remarked sardonically, stooping to pick up the unconscious Quirl. He carried him easily, up the ladder. As they disappeared Strom's voice boomed out: "Dr. Stoddard! Stoddard! Messenger, have Stoddard report at my cabin."

The mate was wiping the blood off his face with a rag.

"I tried to call yer," the guard whined.

"That tears it!" Gore exclaimed fiercely, bursting into a string of abuse. But one of his henchmen nudged him.

"Keep yer tongue in yer face, Gore, till the time comes."

Gore said nothing, but glared savagely at the prisoners.

"Get the buckets and mops!" he snarled at his men, and they fled precipitately.

A long, wailing noise came through the hatch: "Soopson! S-o-o-pson!"

"Here comes yer grub, d.a.m.n you," Gore growled at the prisoners in general. A shuffling sound followed the singsong call, and then a "galley boy" of forty years or so, badly crippled by club-feet, shuffled up to the hatch and laboriously let himself down to the platform. The huge bowl of stew he was carrying was far too heavy for him, and his strained, thin face was beady with sweat.

"Get a move on, Sorko!" Gore bellowed up at him. "Get your swill down here. Some o' these swine are goin' short this time, anyway."

Sorko set the big bowl down at the top of the steps and began to descend backward. Then he resumed his burden.

But he was nervous, and had barely started when his crippled feet, far too big for his thin shanks, became entangled. He gave a giddy shriek and fell over backward, landing on his back, and lay still. His pale, freckled face became greenish.

But the bowl, filled to the brim by its greasy, scalding hot contents, flew in a sweeping parabola, tipping as it fell, so that the entire contents cascaded on Gore, drenching him from head to foot. Howling with rage and pain he danced around. He was utterly beside himself. When he was able to see he rushed for Sorko, who was moaning with returning consciousness, and picked up the frail body to hurl it against the floor.

"Stop, or you're dead!"

That voice, so incisive and clear, was a woman's. Gore found himself looking into the little twin funnels of his own ray projector. They were filled with a milky light, and the odor of ozone was strong. The girl had only to press the trigger and a powerful current would leap along the path of those ionizing beams. And Gore would murder no more.

Stupidly, he let Sorko slide to the floor, where the poor fellow recovered sufficiently from his paralyzing fright and his fall to scuttle away.

Looking past the menacing weapon, Gore saw the girl, Lenore Hyde. Her limpid eyes under their straight brows were blazing, and he read in them certain death for himself.

"Up that ladder!" she ordered sharply, "and stay out! Guard, when this beast is gone I will give you this weapon. Now, connect up your skipper."

Too surprised to disobey, the guard threw the televisor switch, and in a moment Strom's stern face appeared on the screen. He comprehended the situation immediately.

"Do as she says," he ordered brusquely. "Stoddard is coming to take care of that man of hers that Gore beat up."

A few minutes later she was tearfully a.s.sisting the s.h.i.+p's doctor to put the man with the dislocated shoulders on a stretcher.

"Your husband?" asked Stoddard, who resembled a starved gray rat.

"My brother," she exclaimed simply.

"Want to take care of him?" And at her eager a.s.sent, he said, "Can't afford to let him die. Your family got money?"

"Yes, yes! They will pay anything--anything--to get him back safely."

The doctor grinned with satisfaction.

Memory returned to Quirl with the realization that he was lying on a metal bunk in an outside stateroom, where he could see the orderly procession of the stars through the floor ports as the s.h.i.+p rotated. His body was racked with pain, and his head seemed enormous. His sensation, he discovered, was due to a thick swathing of bandages.

As he stirred something moved in an adjoining bunk, and Dr. Stoddard's peaked face came into view.

"How do you feel?" he asked professionally.

"Rotten!"

"We'll fix that." He left, returning a few minutes later with a portable apparatus somewhat resembling its progenitor, the diathermy generator. He disposed a number of insulated loops about Quirl's body and head, connecting them through flexible cables to his machine. As a gentle humming began, Quirl was conscious of an agreeable warmth, of a quickening all over his body. A great la.s.situde followed, and he slept.

When he awoke again Captain Strom was standing beside him. He had taken off his coat, and his powerful body filled the blouse he was wearing. He had evidently just come off duty, for he still had on his blue trousers, with the stripes of gold braid down the sides.

"It may interest you, Mr. Finner, that I have selected you as one of the chosen," he remarked casually.

"One of the chosen what?"

"The chosen race. You didn't take me for an out-and-out d.a.m.ned pirate, did you?"

"Excuse me if I seem dumb!" Quirl hoisted himself on his elbow. "Yes, I figure you're a pirate. What else?"

Strom's stern face relaxed in a smile. It was a strange smile, inscrutably melancholy. It revealed, beneath the hardness of a warrior, something else; the idealism of a poet. When he spoke again it was with a strange gentleness: "To attain one's end, one must make use of many means, and sometimes to disguise one's purpose. For instance, it is perfectly proper for an officer of the I.F.P. to disguise himself like a son of the idle rich in order to lay the infamous 'Scourge' by the heels, isn't it?"

Quirl felt himself redden. And a cold fear seemed to overwhelm him. He realized that Strom was a zealot, and he knew he would not hesitate to kill. This prompt penetration of his disguise was something he had not bargained for.

"What makes you think," he asked shortly, "that I'm an I.F.P. man?"

"The fight you gave Gore and his men. Do you expect me to think that a coupon clipper could have done that? I know the way of--"

He checked himself. Quirl said: "My people have money. I don't know what you mean about--"

"Oh, yes, you do," Strom interrupted. "If you were what you claim to be perhaps I would let you go for the ransom, though you took my eye from the first."

"The ransom will be paid."

"It will not. You will be one of those who do not return. There is only one price I will accept from you."

"Yes? What is that?"

"The formula of the new etheric ray."

"I don't know the I.F.P. secrets. I told you that."

"You know how to operate the ray. All its men do. I want you to tell me what you know. I can deduce the rest."

Quirl thought rapidly. Strom was right. The I.F.P. had developed a new ray that was far superior to the ionizer ray, for the latter required an atmosphere of some kind for its operation, while the new one would work equally well in a vacuum.

"I never heard of any," he lied stubbornly. "Anyway, what do you want a ray for? Your guns, with no gravity to interfere and no air to stop the bullets, have just about unlimited range, haven't they?"

"Spoken like a soldier!" Again Strom permitted himself a brief triumphant smile. "And we have the further advantage of invisibility. The s.h.i.+p is surrounded by a net of wires that create a field of force which bend light rays around us. That explains why your men have never caught us. But to get back to our subject. I will tell you something. Do you know who I am?"

Quirl looked at him. Strom appeared to be at least sixty years old. But the fine, erect figure, the rugged features told nothing.

"Did you ever hear of Lieutenant Burroughs?" Strom asked casually.

"Burroughs--the man without a planet!" Quirl e.j.a.c.u.l.a.t.ed. "Are you Burroughs, the traitor?" Immediately he regretted his heedlessness. Strom's face darkened in anger, and for a moment the pirate captain did not reply. When he did he was a little calmer.

"Traitor they called me!" he exclaimed vehemently. "I a traitor--the most loyal man in the solar system guard. Surrounded by rottenness and intrigue-- "But you wouldn't know. You were but a lad learning to fly your first toy helics when that happened. Years later the Martian Cabal was exposed, and the leading plotters--the traitors--were punished. But that was not till later, and the court's irreversible decree against me had been carried out. I, the unsuspecting messenger, the loyal, eager dupe, was made the cat's-paw. I was put on an old, condemned freighter, with food and supplies supposed to last me a lifetime, but with no power capsules and no means of steering the s.h.i.+p. I was set adrift in a derelict on a lonely orbit of exile around the sun--the man without a planet!

"Picture that, lad. That rusty, dead old cylinder, coursing around and around the sun, and inside, sitting on his bales and boxes, a young man like you. A young man in the pride and prime of his life, expiating the treason that had betrayed him. Day after day, through the thick ports, I saw the same changeless scene. And every two years, when I drew near the Earth, I watched the beautiful green ball of it, with what bitter longings! As I watched it dwindle away again into the blackness of s.p.a.ce, I thought of the fortunate, selfish, stupid and cruel beings who lived on it, and hated them. They had banished me, an innocent man, to whirl forever and ever around the sun, in my steel tomb!

"But that cruel judgment was never executed. Seven years ago this Gore found me. He is an escaped convict, and he came in a little five-man rocket he had stolen. We loaded up all of the supplies the little s.h.i.+p would hold, for Gore had no food, and escaped to t.i.tan, landing on an island on the side opposite to where the mines are.

"Gore wanted to become a pirate, and as he could get men, I consented. He sc.r.a.ped them up, fugitives from justice, every one of them. We built this s.h.i.+p, and I invented the invisibility field of force--"

"Just a moment," Quirl interrupted, vastly interested. "I saw your s.h.i.+p through the ports that day."

"True. The presence of your s.h.i.+p in the field distorted it so much that it was ineffective. But at all other times--right now--we are utterly invisible. One of the I.F.P. patrols may pa.s.s within a mile of us and never see us.

"As we raided the interplanetary commerce, I began to weed out the people we captured. Those that showed the highest intelligence, sense of justice and physical perfection I selected to be the nucleus of a new race, to be kept on t.i.tan for a time and then to be transplanted to a new planet of one of the nearer solar systems.

"My princ.i.p.al trouble is with the crew. They can collect ransom only on those I reject, and there are constant clashes between me and Gore. It is now my intention to let them go their way, and to fit out a new s.h.i.+p, with a new crew. I offer you the place of first mate."

"No!" Quirl replied crisply. "You say you understand the honor of the Force, and then offer me a job pirating with you. No, thanks!"

Strom, or Burroughs, made no attempt to conceal his disappointment. The recital of his wrongs had brought out the bitter lines of his face, and the weariness of one who plays his game alone and can call no one friend.

"I should have known better," he said quietly. "There was none more loyal to the I.F.P. than I--when I still belonged to it. Yet, I thought if I laid all my cards before you--You realize what this means?"

"Yes," Quirl replied soberly. "It means you will never dare to let me be ransomed nor to free me among your selected people. It means--death!"

"Not death! I will parole you."

Quirl felt an overmastering surge of sympathy. He saw this pirate as later historians have come to see him--a man of lofty and n.o.ble purpose who was made the victim of shrewder, meaner minds in the most despicable interplanetary imbroglio ever to disgrace a solar system. The thought of his own fate, should he refuse the offer, did not depress Quirl as much as the necessity of heaping more disappointment on this deeply wronged "man without a planet."

"Captain," he said slowly, with deep regret. "You remember the I.F.P. oath?" And at the other's flush he hurried on. "Knowing that oath you know what my answer must be. Put me in irons or kill me!"

"I know," Strom added wistfully. "Would you--if I could just once more shake the clean hand of a brave man and a gentleman--"

Quirl's hand shot out and gripped the long, powerful fingers of the pirate captain.

Quirl was willing to compromise to the extent of not revealing anything to the other pa.s.sengers, for the privilege of being kept in the prison hold rather than in solitary confinement. Here he would be under the vigilant eye of a guard, with possibly less chance of effecting an escape in some way, but he felt a great desire to be near the girl Lenore, and to know that she was safe and in good spirits.

They fastened him by means of a light chain and hoop that locked around his waist to a staple set in the floor near one wall. The other prisoners regarded him as a hero, for since the day of the epic fight the mate had kept away, and they had been treated with tolerable decency. Quirl was able to cheer them up with predictions that the most of them would be eligible to ransom. But as he looked at the pale beauty of Lenore he felt grave misgivings, for he knew that a man of Strom's discernment would want her for his projected Utopia without question.

She did not speak to him while the hero-wors.h.i.+pping crowd were fluttering about him to their heart's content. When they finally left him alone she came up to him silently, and sat on the floor beside him.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iv Part 113

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