The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol V Part 41

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"Birken!" he shouted. "For the last time! Do you want me to send them to drag you back here?"

Birken stopped at that. He regarded the motionless Tepoktans with a derisive sneer.

"They don't look too eager to me," he taunted.

Kinton growled a Tepoktan expression the meaning of which he had deduced after hearing it used by the dam workers.

He whirled to run toward the helicopter. Hardly had he taken two steps, however, when he saw startled changes in the carefully blank looks of his escort. The constable half raised his heavy weapon, and Klaft sprang forward with a hissing cry.



By the time Kinton's aging muscles obeyed his impulse to sidestep, the spear had already hurtled past. It had missed him by an error of over six feet.

He felt his face flus.h.i.+ng with sudden anger. Birken was running as best he could toward the s.p.a.ces.h.i.+p, and had covered nearly half the distance.

Kinton ran at the Tepoktans, brus.h.i.+ng aside the concerned Klaft. He s.n.a.t.c.hed the heavy weapon from the surprised constable.

He turned and raised it to his chest. Because of the shortness of Tepoktan arms, the launcher was constructed so that the b.u.t.t rested against the chest with the sighting loops before the eyes. The little rocket tubes were above head height, to prevent the handler's catching the blast.

The circles of the sights weaved and danced about the running figure. Kinton realized to his surprise that the effort of seizing the weapon had him panting. Or was it the fright at having a spear thrown at him? He decided that Birken had not come close enough for that, and wondered if he was afraid of his own impending action.

It wasn't fair, he complained to himself. The poor slob only had a spear, and a man couldn't blame him for wanting to get back to his own sort. He was limping ... hurt ... how could they expect him to realize--?

Then, abruptly, his lips tightened to a thin line. The sights steadied on Birken as the latter approached the foot of the ladder leading to the entrance port of the s.p.a.ces.h.i.+p.

Kinton pressed the firing stud.

Across the hundred-yard s.p.a.ce streaked four flaring little projectiles. Kinton, without exactly seeing each, was aware of the general lines of flight diverging gradually to bracket the figure of Birken.

One struck the ground beside the man just as he set one foot on the bottom rung of the ladder, and skittered away past one fin of the s.h.i.+p before exploding. Two others burst against the hull, scattering metal fragments, and another puffed on the upright of the ladder just above Birken's head.

The s.p.a.ceman was blown back from the ladder. He balanced on his heels for a moment with outstretched fingers reaching toward the grips from which they had been torn. Then he crumpled into a limp huddle on the yellowing turf.

Kinton sighed.

The constable took the weapon from him, reloaded deftly, and proffered it again. When the Terran did not reach for it, the officer held out a clawed hand to receive it. He gestured silently, and the constable trotted across the intervening ground to bend over Birken.

"He is dead," said Klaft when the constable straightened up with a curt wave.

"Will ... will you have someone see to him, please?" Kinton requested, turning toward the helicopter.

"Yes, George," said Klaft. "George...?"

"Well?"

"It would be very instructive--that is, I believe Dr. Chuxolkhee would like to--"

"All right!" yielded Kinton, surprised at the harshness of his own voice. "Just tell him not to bring around any sketches of the various organs for a few months!"

He climbed into the helicopter and slumped into his seat. Presently, he was aware of Klaft edging into the seat across the aisle. He looked up.

"The police will stay until cars from town arrive. They are coming now," said his aide.

Kinton stared at his hands, wondering at the fact that they were not shaking. He felt dejected, empty, not like a man who had just been at a high pitch of excitement.

"Why did you not let him go, George?"

"What? Why ... why ... he would have destroyed the s.h.i.+p you worked so hard to build. There is no safe path through the Dome of Eyes."

"No predictable path," Klaft corrected. "But what then? We would have built you another s.h.i.+p, George, for it was you who showed us how."

Kinton flexed his fingers slowly.

"He was just no good. You know the murder he did here; we can only guess what he did among my own ... among Terrans. Should he have a chance to go back and commit more crimes?"

"I understand, George, the logic of it," said Klaft. "I meant ... it is not my place to say this ... but you seem unhappy."

"Possibly," grunted Kinton wrily.

"We, too, have criminals," said the aide, as gently as was possible in his clicking language. "We do not think it necessary to grieve for the pain they bring upon themselves."

"No, I suppose not," sighed Kinton. "I ... it's just--"

He looked up at the pointed visage, at the strange eyes regarding him sympathetically from beneath the sloping, purple-scaled forehead.

"It's just that now I'm lonely ... again," he said.

Contents

AFTER A FEW WORDS.

by Randall Garrett

This is a science-fiction story. History is a science; the other part is, as all Americans know, the most fictional field we have today.

He settled himself comfortably in his seat, and carefully put the helmet on, pulling it down firmly until it was properly seated. For a moment, he could see nothing.

Then his hand moved up and, with a flick of the wrist, lifted the visor. Ahead of him, in serried array, with lances erect and pennons flying, was the forward part of the column. Far ahead, he knew, were the Knights Templars, who had taken the advance. Behind the Templars rode the mailed knights of Brittany and Anjou. These were followed by King Guy of Jerusalem and the host of Poitou.

He himself, Sir Robert de Bouain, was riding with the Norman and English troops, just behind the men of Poitou. Sir Robert turned slightly in his saddle. To his right, he could see the brilliant red-and-gold banner of the lion-hearted Richard of England--gules, in pale three lions pa.s.sant guardant or. Behind the standard-bearer, his great war horse moving with a steady, measured pace, his coronet of gold on his steel helm gleaming in the glaring desert sun, the lions of England on his firm-held s.h.i.+eld, was the King himself.

Further behind, the Knights Hospitallers protected the rear, guarding the column of the hosts of Christendom from hara.s.sment by the Bedouins.

"By our Lady!" came a voice from his left. "Three days out from Acre, and the accursed Saracens still elude us."

Sir Robert de Bouain twisted again in his saddle to look at the knight riding alongside him. Sir Gaeton de l'Arc-Tombe sat tall and straight in his saddle, his visor up, his blue eyes narrowed against the glare of the sun.

Sir Robert's lips formed a smile. "They are not far off, Sir Gaeton. They have been following us. As we march parallel to the seacoast, so they have been marching with us in those hills to the east."

"Like the jackals they are," said Sir Gaeton. "They a.s.sail us from the rear, and they set up traps in our path ahead. Our spies tell us that the Turks lie ahead of us in countless numbers. And yet, they fear to face us in open battle."

"Is it fear, or are they merely gathering their forces?"

"Both," said Sir Gaeton flatly. "They fear us, else they would not dally to ama.s.s so fearsome a force. If, as our informers tell us, there are uncounted Turks to the fore, and if, as we are aware, our rear is being dogged by the Bedouin and the black hors.e.m.e.n of Egypt, it would seem that Saladin has at hand more than enough to overcome us, were they all truly Christian knights."

"Give them time. We must wait for their attack, sir knight. It were foolhardy to attempt to seek them in their own hills, and yet they must stop us. They will attack before we reach Jerusalem, fear not."

"We of Gascony fear no heathen Musselman," Sir Gaeton growled. "It's this h.e.l.lish heat that is driving me mad." He pointed toward the eastern hills. "The sun is yet low, and already the heat is unbearable."

Sir Robert heard his own laugh echo hollowly within his helmet. "Perhaps 'twere better to be mad when the a.s.sault comes. Madmen fight better than men of cooler blood." He knew that the others were baking inside their heavy armor, although he himself was not too uncomfortable.

Sir Gaeton looked at him with a smile that held both irony and respect. "In truth, sir knight, it is apparent that you fear neither men nor heat. Nor is your own blood too cool. True, I ride with your Normans and your English and your King Richard of the Lion's Heart, but I am a Gascon, and have sworn no fealty to him. But to side with the Duke of Burgundy against King Richard--" He gave a short, barking laugh. "I fear no man," he went on, "but if I had to fear one, it would be Richard of England."

Sir Robert's voice came like a sword: steely, flat, cold, and sharp. "My lord the King spoke in haste. He has reason to be bitter against Philip of France, as do we all. Philip has deserted the field. He has returned to France in haste, leaving the rest of us to fight the Saracen for the Holy Land leaving only the contingent of his va.s.sal the Duke of Burgundy to remain with us."

"Richard of England has never been on the best of terms with Philip Augustus," said Sir Gaeton.

"No, and with good cause. But he allowed his anger against Philip to color his judgment when he spoke harshly against the Duke of Burgundy. The Duke is no coward, and Richard Plantagenet well knows it. As I said, he spoke in haste."

"And you intervened," said Sir Gaeton.

"It was my duty." Sir Robert's voice was stubborn. "Could we have permitted a quarrel to develop between the two finest knights and warleaders in Christendom at this crucial point? The desertion of Philip of France has cost us dearly. Could we permit the desertion of Burgundy, too?"

"You did what must be done in honor," the Gascon conceded, "but you have not gained the love of Richard by doing so."

Sir Robert felt his jaw set firmly. "My king knows I am loyal."

Sir Gaeton said nothing more, but there was a look in his eyes that showed that he felt that Richard of England might even doubt the loyalty of Sir Robert de Bouain.

Sir Robert rode on in silence, feeling the movement of the horse beneath him.

There was a sudden sound to the rear. Like a wash of the tide from the sea came the sound of Saracen war cries and the clash of steel on steel mingled with the sounds of horses in agony and anger.

Sir Robert turned his horse to look.

The Negro troops of Saladin's Egyptian contingent were thundering down upon the rear! They clashed with the Hospitallers, slamming in like a rain of heavy stones, too close in for the use of bows. There was only the sword against armor, like the sound of a thousand hammers against a thousand anvils.

"Stand fast! Stand fast! Hold them off!" It was the voice of King Richard, sounding like a clarion over the din of battle.

Sir Robert felt his horse move, as though it were urging him on toward the battle, but his hand held to the reins, keeping the great charger in check. The King had said "Stand fast!" and this was no time to disobey the orders of Richard.

The Saracen troops were coming in from the rear, and the Hospitallers were taking the brunt of the charge. They fought like madmen, but they were slowly being forced back.

The Master of the Hospitallers rode to the rear, to the King's standard, which hardly moved in the still desert air, now that the column had stopped moving.

The voice of the Duke of Burgundy came to Sir Robert's ears.

"Stand fast. The King bids you all to stand fast," said the duke, his voice fading as he rode on up the column toward the knights of Poitou and the Knights Templars.

The Master of the Hospitallers was speaking in a low, urgent voice to the King: "My lord, we are pressed on by the enemy and in danger of eternal infamy. We are losing our horses, one after the other!"

"Good Master," said Richard, "it is you who must sustain their attack. No one can be everywhere at once."

The Master of the Hospitallers nodded curtly and charged back into the fray.

The King turned to Sir Baldwin de Carreo, who sat ahorse nearby, and pointed toward the eastern hills. "They will come from there, hitting us in the flank; we cannot afford to ama.s.s a rearward charge. To do so would be to fall directly into the hands of the Saracen."

A voice very close to Sir Robert said: "Richard is right. If we go to the aid of the Hospitallers, we will expose the column to a flank attack." It was Sir Gaeton.

"My lord the King," Sir Robert heard his voice say, "is right in all but one thing. If we allow the Egyptians to take us from the rear, there will be no need for Saladin and his Turks to come down on our flank. And the Hospitallers cannot hold for long at this rate. A charge at full gallop would break the Egyptian line and give the Hospitallers breathing time. Are you with me?"

"Against the orders of the King?"

"The King cannot see everything! There are times when a man must use his own judgment! You said you were afraid of no man. Are you with me?"

After a moment's hesitation, Sir Gaeton couched his lance. "I'm with you, sir knight! Live or die, I follow! Strike and strike hard!"

"Forward then!" Sir Robert heard himself shouting. "Forward for St. George and for England!"

"St. George and England!" the Gascon echoed.

Two great war horses began to move ponderously forward toward the battle lines, gaining momentum as they went. Moving in unison, the two knights, their horses now at a fast trot, lowered their lances, picking their Saracen targets with care. Larger and larger loomed the Egyptian cavalrymen as the horses changed pace to a thundering gallop.

The Egyptians tried to dodge, as they saw, too late, the approach of the Christian knights.

Sir Robert felt the shock against himself and his horse as the steel tip of the long ash lance struck the Saracen horseman in the chest. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Sir Gaeton, too, had scored.

The Saracen, impaled on Sir Robert's lance, shot from the saddle as he died. His lighter armor had hardly impeded the incoming spear-point, and now his body dragged it down as he dropped toward the desert sand. Another Moslem cavalryman was charging in now, swinging his curved saber, taking advantage of Sir Robert's sagging lance.

There was nothing else to do but drop the lance and draw his heavy broadsword. His hand grasped it, and it came singing from its scabbard.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol V Part 41

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