The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iv Part 114

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"I want to thank you," she said quietly, clearly, "for what you did for me and my brother, Mr.--"

"Finner. Quirl Finner. I have thought of you as Lenore, and wondered how you were. How long has it been since they took me out? You see--" he grinned, "I was asleep."

"Five days. At least, they turned off the lights five times for the sleeping periods."

"The man who fought for you--how is he?"

"My brother--is dead!"



Quirl looked away so that he should not see the quick tears springing to her eyes. But a few moments later he felt her cool hand on his scarred forehead, and she was smiling bravely.

"Tragedies such as these, Quirl, were common in the lives of our ancestors. They were able to bear them, and we can bear them. All his life my poor brother has lived as a gentleman, sheltered, protected by cla.s.s barriers. When he died of pneumonia caused by the jagged end of a broken rib--so Dr. Stoddard says--I think he had a lively sense of satisfaction that he should end in such a way. If it had not been for me--"

She came to him often, after that, to sit quietly by his side, and to bring his food to him from the big community bowl which even the most fastidious of the prisoners had come to look forward to. She told of her life as the daughter of a capitalist who owned large mine holdings on t.i.tan. It would be about time for the Celestia to reach t.i.tan, and her non-arrival would be causing anxiety to Lenore's father awaiting her there. The void would be swarming with I.F.P. patrols, but as the pirate s.h.i.+p was invisible nothing would be found but the mysteriously looted and abandoned Celestia.

There was no longer any reason for concealing from her the fact that he himself was a member of the I.F.P., and Quirl told Lenore of the adventurous life he and his companions had led. Of forays to far-away and as yet undisciplined Pluto, of tropical Venus and Mercury, where the rains never cease, of the hostile and almost unknown planet of Aryl, within the orbit of Mercury, where no man has ever seen a true image of the landscape because of the stupendous and never-ending mirages.

As time pa.s.sed they were drawn together by the bonds of propinquity and mutual interest--this obscure police officer and the daughter of one of the most powerful men in the solar system. But Quirl did not name his love, for always there was the grim present of their captivity, the ghastly uncertainty of the future.

The little "galley boy" Sorko seemed daily more frail. Apparently the fall he had sustained had done him some internal injury. Often the guard, with many a ribald comment, had to help him get his emptied bowl back up the ladder.

One day he seemed overcome by great weakness. Staggering, he held his hand to his sweat-dewed forehead. Erratically he waltzed across the floor, to crumple in a heap where Quirl and the girl were sitting. Moved by compa.s.sion, Lenore composed his body in a more comfortable position, and with a bit of handkerchief moistened the pirate's wrinkled, old-young face with some of Quirl's drinking water. The guard looked on indifferently.

"Guard!" Quirl shouted. "He's going to die. Come and take him to the lazaret."

"Sez you!" returned the guard callously. "Me, I stay on post till relieved. Sorko'll be all right. He's been throwin' them fits right regular."

Sorko's lips moved feebly, and Lenore bent down to catch his words. They were barely audible: "I'm all right, lady. You done me a good turn when you made Gore put me down, and I'm doin' you one now. I wouldn't do this for no one else." He gasped.

"Water!" Lenore exclaimed sharply, and Quirl handed her the rest of his cup.

"Ain't water he wants," the amused guard observed. "The blighter's playin' for a good chew of merc.l.i.te!"[1]

[Footnote 1: Merc.l.i.te, a highly stimulating gum. It was prohibited by interplanetary proclamation, but was always obtainable through the surrept.i.tious channels of a highly profitable traffic.]

"I ain't as bad as I'm makin' out," Sorko whispered. "Got to do it to tell you this, 'cause you was square with me. Gore is fixin' to have a mut'ny. Kill captain, kill all these dubs here--this guy of yourn, too. He wants to take you for his--" the weazened little face twisted in unwonted shy delicacy--"take you for him, pretty lady. I don't want him to. I'm not--a--bad feller--"

"What the h.e.l.l, Sorko!" the puzzled guard exclaimed over the delay. "You bandy-legged rat, get up there, or I'll give you a jolt."

Lenore looked up, indignant.

"You heartless wretch! Would you let this man--"

"Comin'!" Sorko scrambling to his feet, shuffling to the table, where he retrieved his bowl. Quirl and Lenore watched his painful progress up the ladder, until at last he disappeared into the pa.s.sage.

"Quirl," she murmured, as her hand sought his, "take this."

He felt a small bit of metal, and looking at it cautiously, saw that he had a rough key, filed out of a piece of flat metal.

"The key to that hoop around your waist. He copied it from the one the captain has, I suppose."

His hopes high all at once, Quirl sought the compact little lock in the small of his back. It took a long time to get the key in, and then it would not turn. It had been unskillfully made, and was probably not a true reproduction. Nevertheless, by constant effort, he succeeded at last in turning it, and was rewarded by hearing a faint click. He tested the hoop, felt it slip, and knew that at any time he chose he could free himself.

"Lenore, dear," he told her. "Go with the other women now. We must do nothing to make the guard suspicious. We don't know when this mutiny is to come off, but we are close to Saturn now; it can't be long. Go now."

"Good-by, dear. Be careful!"

It seemed an eternity until the emanation disk became dim and went out and the prisoners made sleepy sounds. A relief guard took station, and the s.h.i.+p became silent, so that one could hear the rumbling of the propelling rockets. As there were no ports in this hold, there was no light whatever except the faint glow that came from the central pa.s.sage above the platform. Against this the pirate was outlined as he sat on his stool. As Quirl's eyes became accustomed to the darkness he could see the play of faint highlights on his muscular torso, and so he waited.

He thought over the situation. The safest and easiest course would be to create such a disturbance that Captain Strom would be attracted to the scene. This would probably not involve anything more than a severe beating for himself, and he would then find opportunity to acquaint Strom with the projected mutiny somehow. That Strom would know how to deal with it he never doubted. Lenore might then still be forcibly impressed as a citizen of Strom's new planet, but at least she would not be exposed to the infinitely worse fate of becoming the plaything of Gore and his villainous crew.

The flaw of this plan was that Quirl himself would still be under practical sentence of death. Strom would not let his grat.i.tude carry him so far as to release a man who knew as much as Quirl did, and who would not promise to keep his secrets.

The preferable, though far more dangerous course was to strike before the mutineers could. Quirl knew something about the structure of the s.h.i.+p. It was built around the tubular pa.s.sage, and every hold or group of rooms opened on this well, from the bow where the navigators were to the stern where the rockets were located. Somewhere there would be a generating room where the invisibility field was being produced. If he could find this and wreck the generators one of the I.F.P. s.h.i.+ps with which this part of s.p.a.ce doubtless swarmed, would sight them, and after that everything was in the hands of fate.

Quirl nervously waited for the guard to nod. At any moment he expected to hear a h.e.l.lish bedlam break loose--the beginning of the mutiny. And the guard seemed alert. There was nothing to do but take a chance.

Quirl sighed as if he were turning in his sleep, so that the clink of the released chain would not seem out of place. The guard did not stir. Slowly, very slowly, Quirl crept across the floor. He had been robbed of all his clothing except his torn silk trousers; and his boots were gone, so he was able to move as quietly as a cat.

With tense silence he ascended the ladder, praying that his weight would not send up a warning vibration. But his luck held. He was nearly at the top before it broke.

"Take him off! Take him off!" It was an eery, strangled shriek from one of the male prisoners in the throes of a nightmare. With a startled curse the guard thudded to his feet, peered tensely into the darkness, his weapon sending twin milky beams of the powerful ionizing ray toward the source of the sound.

The dreamer had awakened, still gasping in the grip of fear, and other disturbed sleepers were grumbling.

"Better go easy, you fools," the pirate warned them. "Yer just in luck that I didn't let loose a couple bolts on ye. Got a good notion to do it, anyway." He played the dangerous little spots of light around, amused as the prisoners scrambled for safety, but with no real intention of releasing the deadly electric charge along the paths provided for it. This cruel pleasure cost him his life. As he turned his back Quirl leaped. His iron-hard forearm rose and fell, and the edge of his hand came down on the back of the pirate's thick neck. There was a m.u.f.fled crack and he slumped to the platform grating.

Quickly the officer stripped off the man's harness and buckled it around his own naked chest. The electrogun had been uninjured, and hooked to the belt was also the riot club, a truly appalling thing at close quarters. Quirl carried the body down, laid it p.r.o.ne in the corner he had occupied, snapped on the waistlock, and threw a ragged old blanket over the hairy legs. In the forthcoming disturbance, if anyone looked in, he would think the inert form a sleeping prisoner, and that the guard had deserted post.

Quirl had feared an outbreak among the prisoners, but they were so apathetic that they paid little attention. Perhaps they thought it was Quirl who had been killed, and he did not dare even a whispered farewell to the girl he knew was watching somewhere in the darkness.

Much to Quirl's delight, the long, tubular pa.s.sage was deserted. Here the centrifugal gravity was less than it had been in the hold. A weird place, this central tube, where every direction was down, and a man could walk on his ceiling, his floor, his walls with equal facility. No top nor bottom--just a long, smooth tube with numerous enigmatic doors leading to--where?

At least it was easy to tell where the bow of the s.h.i.+p was. A light shone through a transom over the door to the navigating room. Should he try to hold up the navigating officer? He decided against that. There would be at least three men in there, and it was the custom to keep those quarters locked.

"If only I knew where they generate the invisibility field!" he muttered, as he stood irresolute.

Opportunity came at that moment. A crack of light appeared along the pa.s.sage. A door was opening there. A moment later a head and shoulders showed. Someone was climbing up. Swiftly the officer ran to the place. The pirate did not even suspect anything wrong until he felt the spots of milky light on his face. He showed his terror plainly.

"Get up!" Quirl hissed. The man obeyed with alacrity. Quirl glanced down. He saw tiers of bunks, evidently one of the crew's dormitories.

He now turned to the cowering pirate.

"I'd as soon kill you as not!" Quirl snarled.

"You got me wrong, brother!" the pirate whined. "I'm with Gore in this deal. Lay off!"

"Where you bound for?"

"I have to relieve Burke at the ventilating turbines."

"Let Burke wait. Lead on to the invisibility generators."

"Oh, I can't do that, mister! I got to have a pa.s.s. Say, mister, I was just kidding about being one of Gore's men. I'm for the cap'n, yes, sir!"

"You lying sc.u.m!" Quirl barked impatiently. "Get going!"

The white-faced and bewildered pirate led the way down the tube to the after end. He unlatched a door and tried to enter, but as soon as he had dropped through to the platform he was met by a guard with leveled ionizer.

"This gem'man," he started to explain. But Quirl dropped after him and gave him a powerful shove, so that he crashed into the guard. The latter pulled the trigger, and the unfortunate pirate crashed over the platform's edge to the floor. Quirl had out his own electrogun and dispatched the guard. At the same time he felt a stunning shock. His senses reeled, but the grating had taken part of the discharge loosed by a pirate electrician at the foot of the ladder. Quirl threw his riot club and followed that up with another lightning bolt.

He was then the only living person in the room, in which two generators hummed softly. Connected to them was a bank of U-shaped tubes, each as tall as a man, which were filled with silent livid fire. Quirl picked up a wrench and started hammering at the thick tubes until the gla.s.s cracked. Each time he was engulfed by a wave of heat, and the tube became black. The great generators idled and automatically came to a stop. Quirl was certain now that the pirate s.h.i.+p would be visible, but the position of the captives was still desperate. He hoped that none of the surviving pirates would think of calling at the generator room, or find out in some other way that they were now visible in the eternal day of s.p.a.ce.

Quietly he climbed back to the pa.s.sage and closed the hatch. He cast about for his next move. He was looking toward the bow, but on hearing the subdued clink of metal on metal, he turned.

A dozen of the pirates were coming toward him.

It would have been useless to draw his weapon. Theirs were out and could have burned him to a crisp before he could move. Silently and with deadliness apparent in every move they approached him.

"Hope they try to capture me alive!" he thought. "What a dog-fight that'll be!"

Now they were nearly up to him.

"Come along, you fool!" barked the leader of the group as they were all around him. "Sapheads like you'll give the whole game away."

Quirl could have laughed. This was evidently part of the mutineers' crew bent on their errand of murder. In the dim light they had taken him for one of their number. He went with them, meekly.

"Unlocked!" The leader whom Quirl had not seen before, exclaimed with satisfaction. He pulled the hatch open softly and the hinges had been oiled. Quietly as panthers they descended the ladder. They stood at the bottom. Still another door barred the way. Quirl now realized that they were attacking the captain's quarters. But the leader produced a key, and silently swung the door open.

"So, you dogs! You've come!"

Like an infuriated bull Captain Strom charged them, a riot club in each hand. He could have killed them all with a ray, but he chose to vent in physical action his consuming anger at their treachery, which he had in some way antic.i.p.ated. Three or four went sprawling under his mighty blows. The others sought shelter behind tables and chests, and began stabbing at him with their electroguns. Electricity crackled, and the air became pungent with ozone. A pair of the twin rays struck the captain's gold braid, and he went down. With a triumphant yell a man dashed at him, murderous club up-raised. But Quirl was faster, and the pirate fell dead with a crushed skull.

Strom was up again, fighting beside Quirl. The pirates remaining fell under their furious blows, and the two dashed out. Strom said nothing, and Quirl was not sure that he had been recognized. The captain charged straight for the navigating bow. Here, unless he should be attacked by the I.F.P. he could still control the situation. He was perhaps still ignorant of the s.h.i.+p's visibility.

But Quirl made for the prisoners' hold. They would be cowering there, probably in darkness, not knowing what was going on. It was his intention to rally them, provide them with the weapons of the fallen pirates, and so be in a position to advantageously make terms with whoever was victorious in this battle.

He saw, as he approached that the light was on. He was hardly a dozen feet away when the door was darkened. Quirl did not have to hear her cry to know that Gore had Lenore.

Running with remarkable speed, the mate carried his prize toward the after end of the tube. A hatch stood open there, and he dropped through, slamming it after him.

Quirl picked up a bar that someone had dropped. It was but a matter of moments to break the lock and pull open the hatch. The hold was lighted, and empty. In its middle, holding the helpless Lenore, stood Gore, the electrogun in his hand covering the platform.

"Boy scout to the rescue again!" Gore sneered. He was even more repulsive than before, with the marks Quirl had left on him in the last battle. But he was fearless and utterly reckless. "Well, m'lad, I know when I'm done. And when a fellow's done he don't care what happens. So here's the lay: When I get out of here, I'll be dead. And she'll be dead, or you'll wish she was. Get it? She'll be killed, too, if you jolt me--the shock'll pa.s.s to her. And the first man-jack who crosses that grating'll get his from me. Now then, go ahead and pull! Goin' to kill us both, or leave her to me?" He laughed defiantly, like one who counts himself already dead.

Quirl tentatively placed one foot on the platform. Instantly a fat spark jumped from the metal to his foot, and sent him sprawling into the tube. He saw Strom coming toward him. He had killed his enemies in the control room and was now on the hunt for more.

"Thanks for what you did," he grunted. As a forlorn hope, Quirl explained the situation. Strom smiled a rare smile.

"That's all right," he said mildly. "Quirl, you're a square man, and I'd rather do something for a square enemy than a false friend. Oh, I can do it cheaply. The jig's up for me, anyway!"

Quickly he dropped through the door and launched himself. Gore saw him coming, and Strom's body shuddered as the bolt struck squarely. He was dead when he hit, but his great weight knocked Gore down.

Quirl had time to jump after him, knocking the wind out of Gore before he could rise. Lenore picked up Gore's weapon, but dared not use it for fear of injuring her lover. As the two fighting men circled warily, seeking openings in this battle that must be fatal to one of them, they did not see the slight, shadowy figure that dropped down to them. There was a flash, and Gore slumped, a knife in his back.

"I done it! I done for him!" chattered Sorko. "The dirty, lousy--"

"Come, Lenore, let's get up to the bow before the pirates think of it." They dashed up the ladder. Some more of the disks were out, and it was nearly dark. Three sinewy forms pounced on Quirl the moment he entered the pa.s.sage. The girl, too, was caught, though she fought and bit.

"Lights! Let's have some lights!" commanded an authoritative voice.

"Coming, sir!" came a far-away answer.

The pa.s.sage became bright, and Quirl looked into the faces of his captors, in the uniforms of the I.F.P.

"Got you, you dirty pirate!" gloated the husky young man on his chest.

"Mike!" Quirl gasped, "don't you know me? How'd you get here?"

"Dog-gone! Finner! Leggo his legs, you eggs."

"Trailed you," he added. "Glommed our magnets on the navigating bow. Expected a fight, but some big guy let us in through an airlock. Well, he'd done plenty of sc.r.a.pping--all the clothes torn off him. Half a dozen dead pirates in there. Who is he?"

Quirl thought of the stiffening body of Lieutenant Burroughs, alias Captain Strom, who had just purchased his life and that of Lenore at the cost of his own. Was his undeserved shame now to follow him to his grave? Quirl was no lawyer, and he decided not to take any chances with the law's mercy. He said: "I don't know his name. A prisoner from some other s.h.i.+p, I think. He was very homesick for Earth, and I'll see he gets a decent grave on Earth. He died to save me."

"As for the lady," he added, "let her go. She's a captive. And, anyway, I think she is the future Mrs. Quirl Finner."

She smiled, and the men of the Force looked somewhat enviously at Quirl.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iv Part 114

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