The Ethical Engineer Part 18

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Now the reaction of the human body, while remarkably fast, need certain finite measures of time and have been measured over and over again with a great deal of accuracy. The commands of the brain, speedy as they may be, must be carried by sluggish nerves and put into operation by inert lumps of muscle. Therefore to say that Jason's reactions were instantaneous is to tell a lie, or at least exaggerate.

Only to his watchers did his actions appear to take place that fast; they were older, and less alert, and had not had the advantage of Pyrran survival training. So to their point of view the sacred portal was opened and Jason vanished in a flurry of activity. Two lightning blows sent his guardians spinning, and before they had fallen to the floor their supposed captive was through the door and it was slammed in their faces. Before the first dumfounded Persson could jump forward the bolt grated home inside and the door was sealed.

Things were a little more complex than that to Jason. When the door opened he had had a good view of the inside of the room, of a slave cranking the handle on a crude collection of junk that could only have been a generator. Thick wires looped across the room from the thing to a man who stood before some blades of copper pus.h.i.+ng at them with a wooden stick, while above his head fat sparks leaped the gap between two bra.s.sy spheres. As if to complete this ill.u.s.tration for a bronze-age edition of "First Steps in Electricity" another cable twisted up from the spark gap and vanished out a small window. The entire thing might have been labeled "How to Generate A Radio Signal in the Crudest Manner." As Jason reached this conclusion in the smallest fraction of a second, and at almost the very same instant, he heard the sound.

What he heard could have been distant thunder, an earthquake, a volcano or some giant explosion. It rumbled and rolled, m.u.f.fled by distance, yet still clear. It resembled none of these things to Jason, but made him think only of a high alt.i.tude rocket or jet, cleaving through the atmosphere.

It must have been the juxtaposition of these two things, occurring as they did at the same time, the view of a radio transmitter, no matter how crude, and the thought that there might be a civilized craft or some kind up there containing men who would come to his aid if he could only contact them. The idea was an insane one, but even as he realized that fact he was through the door and bolting it behind him.

Perhaps he did it because he had been pushed around entirely too much and felt like pus.h.i.+ng someone else for a change. In any case it was done, insane or not, and he might as well carry through.

The generator slave looked up, startled, but when Jason glanced at him he lowered his eyes and kept cranking. The man who had been working the transmitter spun about, startled by the slam of the door and the m.u.f.fled pounding and shouts that followed instantly from the other side. He groped for his dagger when he saw the stranger, but before it was clear of the scabbard Jason was on him and after a few quick Pyrran infighting blows the man lost all interest in what was happening and slid to the floor. Jason straddled his body, picked the stick up, nodded to the slave who began cranking faster, and began to tap out a message.

S-O-S ... S-O-S ... he sent first, then as fragments of code came back to him he spelled out J-A-S-O-N D-A-L-T H-R-E.... N-E-E-D A-I-D....

R-I-C-H.... R-E-W-A-R-D ... F-O-R ... H-E-L-P....

He varied this a bit, repeated his name often, and tried other themes appealing for off-world aid. It was a slim chance that he had heard a rocket, and even slimmer chance that they would pick his message out of the static if they happened to be listening. He had no evidence that any off-worlders were in contact with this planet, merely hope.

He tapped on and the slave ground away industriously. His arm was growing tired by the time the old guard in the other room found something heavy enough to swing and broke the door down. Jason stopped tapping and turned to face the apoplectic Hertug, rubbing his tired wrist.

"Your equipment works fine, though it could use a lot of improvements."

"Kill him.... Kill!" the Hertug sputtered.

"Kill me and there goes your _caroj_, as well as your telephone system and your only chance to wrap up all the industrial secrets in one big bundle," Jason said, looking around for something heavy to swing.

A gigantic explosion slammed into the room; a crack appeared in one wall and dust floated down from the ceiling. There was a sound of snapping small arms fire in the distance.

"It worked!" Jason shouted with unrestrained glee and hurled a heavy roll of wire at the startled men in the doorway and followed instantly after it in a headlong dive. There was a flurry of action, most of the damage being done by his boots, then he was through and running out of the throne room with the men bellowing in pursuit.

A small war seemed to be raging ahead, the sharp explosions of gunfire being mixed with the heavier thud of bombs and grenades. Walls were down, doors blasted open while confused soldiers rushed in panic through the clouds of dust. One of them tried to stop Jason who kept on going, carrying the man's club with him. Sunlight shone ahead and he dived through a riven wall and landed, rolling in the open ground next to the dock. A s.p.a.ces.h.i.+p's lifeboat stood there, still glowing hot from the speed of descent, and next to it stood Meta keeping up a continuous fire with her gun, happily juggling micro-grenades with her free hand.

[Ill.u.s.tration]

"What were you waiting for," she snapped. "I have been in orbit over this planet for a month now, waiting for some word from you. There are dozens of radio transmitters on this continent and I have been monitoring them all." She fired a long burst at an upper story where some bowmen had been foolish enough to appear, then ran to Jason, eyes wet with tears. "Oh, darling, I was so worried."

She held him--with her grenade-throwing arm--and kissed him fiercely.

She kept her eyes open while she was doing this but only had to fire once.

"Jason!" a voice called and Ijale appeared, half-supporting the still dazed Mikah.

"Who is this?" Meta snapped, the chill back in her voice.

"Why--just someone I know," Jason answered, smiling insincerely. "You should recognize the man, he's the one who arrested me."

"Here is a gun, you will want to kill him yourself."

Jason took the gun, but used it to clear a nearby roof-top, the powerful kick of the Pyrran automatic was like a caress on the heel of his hand.

"I don't think I want to kill him. He saved my life once, though he has tried to lose it for me a dozen times since. Let's get upstairs to the s.h.i.+p and I'll tell you about it. There are more healthy spots than this to have a conversation."

XII

Washed, shaved, scrubbed, cleaned, filled with good food and slightly awash with alcoholic drink, Jason collapsed into the acceleration couch and firmly swore that life was worth living after all.

"You can't appreciate the simple things of life until you have gone without them for a while. Or the better things either." He reached out and took Meta's hand. She pulled it away and fed more digits into the computer.

"How did you find me?" he asked, trying to discover a subject that she might warm to.

"That should be obvious. We saw the markings on the s.h.i.+p that took you away and charted a directional trace before it went into jump-s.p.a.ce.

We identified the markings and I went to Ca.s.sylia, but the s.h.i.+p had never arrived there. I back-tracked the straight-line course and found three possible planets near enough to have registered in the s.h.i.+p during jump-s.p.a.ce flight. Two are highly organized with modern s.p.a.ceports and would have known if the s.h.i.+p had landed. It hadn't.

Therefore you must have forced the s.h.i.+p down on the planet we just left. And once you were there you would find one of the radios to send a message. Which is what you did. It is obvious. Who is she?" The final words were in a distinctly chillier tone of voice, and there could be only one she, Ijale, who crouched across the room, obviously unhappy and wide-eyed with fear at this voyage in a s.p.a.ces.h.i.+p, not understanding the language the others spoke.

"I've told you before--just a friend. She was with us, and helped us, too. I couldn't let her go back to the life in the desert, it's more brutal than you can possibly imagine. There is an entire planetful of slaves back there, and of course I can't save them all. But I can do this much, take out the one person there who would rather see me live than die."

"What do you intend to do with her?" The sub-zero temperature of Meta's voice left no doubt as to what she wanted to do with her. Jason had already given this a good deal of thought, and if Ijale was going to live much longer she had to be separated as soon as possible from the deadly threat of female Pyrran jealousy.

"We stop at the next civilized planet and let her off. I have enough money to leave a deposit in a bank that will last her for years. Make arrangements for it to be paid out only a bit at a time, so no matter how she is cheated she will still have enough. I'm not going to worry about her, if she was able to survive in the _krenoj_ legion she can get along well anywhere on a settled world."

He could hear the complaints on when he broke the news to Ijale, but it was for her own survival.

"I shall care for and lead her in the paths of righteousness," a remembered voice spoke from the doorway. Mikah stood there, clutching to the jamb, a turban of bandages on his head.

"That's a wonderful idea," Jason agreed enthusiastically. He turned to Ijale and spoke in her own language. "Did you hear that? Mikah is going to take you home with him and look after you. I'll arrange for some money to be paid to you for all your needs, he'll explain to you what money is. I want you to listen to him carefully, note exactly what he says, then do the exact opposite. You must promise me you will do that and never break your word. In that way you may make some mistakes and will be wrong sometimes, but all the rest of the time things will go very smoothly."

"I cannot leave you! Take me with you--I'll be your slave always!" she wailed.

"What did she say?" Meta snapped, catching some of the meaning.

"You are evil, Jason," Mikah declaimed, getting the needle back into the familiar groove. "She will obey you, I know that, so no matter how I labor she will always do as you say."

"I sincerely hope so," Jason said fervently. "One has to be born into your particular brand of illogic to get any pleasure from it. The rest of us are happier bending a bit under the impact of existence, and exacting a mite more pleasure from the physical life around us."

"Evil I say, and you shall not go unpunished." His hand appeared from behind the door jamb and it held a pistol that he had found below. "I am taking command of this s.h.i.+p. You will secure the two women so that they can cause no trouble, then we will proceed to Ca.s.sylia for your trial."

Meta had her back turned to Mikah and was sitting in the control chair a good five meters from him with her hands filled with navigational notes. She slowly raised her head and looked at Jason and a smile broke across her face.

"You said once you didn't want him killed."

"I still don't want him killed, but I also have no intention of going to Ca.s.sylia." He echoed her smile and turned away.

He sighed happily and there was a sudden rush of feet behind his back.

No shots were fired but a hoa.r.s.e scream, a thud and a sharp cracking noise told him that Mikah had lost his last argument.

The Ethical Engineer Part 18

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The Ethical Engineer Part 18 summary

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