The main lights on d-deck were out when Dirk Phillips came off watch, and only the dim glo pups whiled away their half-lives behind the moldings above. Far down in the ebb of the Telechus the geotrons purred, a deep, sonorous sound, somehow vaguely comforting. Dirk was not comforted. Things were too quiet, and too much swell was waiting to pop somewhere along the Long Arc. Down the corridor the blank doors of the deluxe suites regarded him, and from behind one of them came a muffled feminine giggle. Dirk scowled and increased his pace. The empty-headed whinny followed him as he rounded a corner. "You'll giggle out of the other side of your mouth if you get in Jason's hands!" Dirk muttered
Dirk hated the passengers on D-Deck on principle. They were his charges, but no more so than the thousand Centurion laborers and their families packed into the cubicles down in Supercargo- pioneers, bound for a world that hadn't even been named yet: 61 Cygni C-I. These gilded loungers topside were the spectators, the pleasure-palace builders, the representatives of the big power andmining cartels . . . people who could pay two thousand credits for a D-Deck suite only because of the sweating of people like the ones below.
It would be nice, Dirk reflected idly, if the Teleachus could be split horizontally up her middle, sending the Centurions on to their epochal job of establishing Earth's second interstellar colony-and leaving the top two decks behind, floundering in sub space, waiting for the man who called him self Jason. Or perhaps to let Jason himself pick over the moneyed cream for ransom- no, that wouldn't work. Jason would simply pitch the poorer people out the airlocks, for they had no one back home who might pay ransom for them; that was S.O.P. with Jason.
Voices murmured ahead of him. He stepped over the low doorway into the Star Deck: the big bubble forward of center, on the midline of the ship. It was an odd hour for anyone to be looking at the scenery; but then, few passengers ever got oriented to the twenty-hour Ship's Day. Third Watch might be sleepy-time for Dirk, but for a passenger it might just as easily be the equivalent of 9:30 A. M. Earth time, or 14:50 Centurion. He recognized one of the figures at once -Jerry Sanders, the new Third Mate. There was a girl with him, and a stocky, broad-shouldered man in civies. The man saw Dirk at the same time and gestured. "There's another officer-maybe he knows. I say, Commodore.''
For a moment Dirk was tempted to go on without answering. Among the people on D-Deck whom he would cheerfully dunk in boiling wine every time they hailed him as if he were a bell-hop. However, he couldn't pretend that he hadn't heard the summons. It had rung like a bell through the big dome-and rank discourtesy to a passenger would be out of character. Grudgingly he swerved and walked over to the little group.
"What can I do for you?" he said mildly.
"Couple of questions," the heavy man said, with bluff heartiness. "Mr. Sanders here can't seem to make them quite clear. We're on overdrive now, aren't we?"
"Certainly. You can hear the geotrons."
"Aha, that's what I said. Now then: how does it happen that things don't look any different?" He gestured through the clear stellite, including the whole universe in his category of "things." "Shouldn't there be warping, or some thing ?"
"There is," Dirk said, a little stiffly. "But it takes some knowledge of the stars to recognize it. Had you been up here when overdrive first went on, you'd have seen the starfield scramble itself thoroughly."
"But shouldn't there be some color changes, too?"
"Yes and no. You're not seeing by light, you know. You're looking at what might be called the backsides of the stars-not the components which exist in free space, but the considerable masses of their cores which are extruded into subspace.''
"Rather disappointing," the big man said. "I expected something more, ah, unusual."
"Such as the 'nameless hues' the 'vision writers prate about? Well, those hues are probably there-but your eyes can't see them. That's why they're nameless; they don't need names."
The big man laughed. "That settles that" he said jovially. "Eh, Nadya? If some of the scripters back home could hear their boss told off like that-"
Dirk stiffened momentarily. Their boast There was only one man on Earth or Centaurus who could call himself Bhat This burly bird must be James Henry Stapledon, king pin of the visicast net works of two systems. Evidently he was on his way to extend, his empire over a third. The girl was probably his secretary- Dirk became aware suddenly that the girl was watching him with dark-eyed amusement. He swung angrily on Jerry. "Mr. Sanders, aren't you aware that the next watch is yours? If we run into any trouble, you'll wish you'd had your sleep."
Sanders flushed. "My off-watch time's my own."
"Oh, come now, don't be hard on the lad," Stapledon protested. "He's here at my request. Anyhow, what trouble could we encounter out 3 ere?"
The questions seemed rhetorical; surely the 'vision magnate knew all there was to know about Jason. "Knock off, Jerry," Dirk said. "You've got four hours left to go, and I don't relish the idea of a shaky hand at the boards up front."
"Yes sir," Sanders said sullenly. It was obvious that he hated to be ordered to bed in front of the girl, but he had no choice. Dirk watched him until his slender back vas framed against the glo-pup shimmer in the levitator shaft; then he turned to the two passengers.
"Sorry," he said. "But we're a little on edge this trip. There's a lot at stake. If Jason's greed stops this third wave of colonization, there may never be another; we can't any of us afford a moment's in attention."
"Quite right, quite right," Stapledon said. "We appreciate the attention, Commodore. Goodnight."
"Goodnight," Dirk said through suddenly clenched teeth. He turned his back on tllcm and strode off. Just as he was enterillg the shaft, the girl laughed. The silvery sound cascaded through the dome. Dirk felt himself flushing and cut off the air conditioning for their deck.
It had been nearly a century since the first interstellar passenger liner had turned back toward Earth, only a quarter of the way along toward Centaurus III, with a cargo of madness and death. It had happened, according to the few surviving crewmen, when the lights had been turned off for the second Watch. Dozens of learned tomes had been written about it since then, but no-one had ever gotten much beyond the simple facts.
The lights had gone off, and the passengers had rioted. There was something about being driven between the stars at nine times the speed of light which was different from ordinary interplanetary flight: it was a lightless cabin the darkness closed in, you were horribly, uniquely alone, pitching headlong into a pit of absolute emptiness . . .
Perhaps-just perhaps-that was the way it was. Those who had come sane through the first blackout could not be sure; they had been lucky enough to be on duty, near a source of light. Those who had been in the cabins had gone mad within a few moments. After that, the switchless, in extinguish able glo-pups had been installed by Act of Council, and the General Orders on Blackouts had become a part of the Space ways Manual. There was even a glo-pup at the head of every bed, next to the visitape screen, casting its dim radiance up toward the ceiling. On the ledge next to the pillow there was also a mask for the glo-pup, but most of the masks gathered dust.
Dirk stripped off his jacket, took off his shoes and socks, and put the mask over the light. He was as afraid of the interstellar pit as any spaceman, but he had sense enough to know that half his fear was of something he knew to be harmless while he was alone: the fear of what other people might do while he could not see them.
On this flight, there was no telling who or what might be watching wherever there was light . . . In the stifling darkness he groped to his locker and spun the combination, working with fingers which had often conquered tougher puzzles than an ordinary baggage locker. Inside, behind his gaudy dress jacket, was a worn holster with a heavy cyclast in it.
It was a tough starman's boast that he slept in the dark, and the man who was telling the truth had little to fear from marauders-it took something more than guts to walk into a totally black room out here-but Dirk slept with the cyclast all the same. There was no telling what was due to happen this trip- His fingers found the holster. The heat stained, familiar weapon was gone.
The shock of surprise was doubled and redoubled in the boundless gloom. Fighting down his panic, he ran quick fingers through his jacket, along the floor of the locker. Gone, all right. Of course it was illegal for an officer to maintain arms outside the ship's arsenal, but nobody on the bridge had any reason to be pawing through Dirk's effects- Sanders ? Ridiculous. Dirk had hardly spoken to Sanders until tonight.
The fledgling resentment the Third Mate might have felt at being packed off to his crib couldn't have taken wing this quickly. There was only one answer. There was someone on board who was an agent of Jason. Dirk went back to his bunk and sat down, rubbing the blond stubble on his chin. It fitted; almost it seemed as if it fitted too patly to be true.
After the Centrale-Ganymede war, some units of the Ganymedian Navy had been sold as surplus to private firms, before the Centrale Council could get a complete inventory of what it had won. Among the sold ships had been several heavy sub-cruisers.
The man who called himself Jason had some how had the liquid cash to buy one; he'd turned it to piracy, and had made a good thing of intercepting the big, clumsy liners on the interstellar runs. Except that a ship on overdrive was supposed to be undetectable. Every physicist in the system swore that it was impossible to pirate a sub-ship, no matter how big it was. So the obvious conclusion was that the piracies had been inside jobs; and the theft of Dirk's cyclast, on this trip of all trips, seemed to point the same way.
Disgusted, he reached for the glo-pup. A soft knock at the door arrested his hand in mid-air. There was a kangaroo-shiv in the belt of his dress jacket; but it was a dueling weapon, and he decided against fighting.
"Yes?" he said. The door opened hesitantly. It was the girl. Modeled against the hazy glow, she was startlingly lovely. She peered helplessly into the unexpected darkness, one hand at her throat, one smooth knee bent.
Dirk's hand resumed its arrested arc, and the glo-pup once more stared innocently at the ceiling. He leaned on one elbow and studied his visitor. He'd hardly gotten a glance at her before-and she was something to look at. Her hair was a waterfall of black silk, with blue highlights in it, and her eyes were violet and slightly slanted-not enough to suggest the Oriental, yet giving her face a piquancy that was hard to resist.
The fashionable Centurion toga, with its slit from waist to toe and its heavy golden shiv-chain locking the waist, wouldn't have been tolerated on tabu ridden Earth-but then, there were few women left on Earth who could wear such clothing successfully. The active, lithe bodied people who roamed the interstellar frontier were almost a different race. Dirk noticed wryly that the shiv-chain wasn't empty; the massive handle of the weapon itself lay across one gently rounded hip.
"That's me," he said, somewhat belatedly. Then, "You're armed."
The girl bit her lip and reached for the clasp of the golden chain. Dirk raised his hand quickly.
"Please don't. Those damned togas look like nightgowns when they're unbound, and I'm not sure I could stand the shock. What do you want?"
"May I close the door?" she said stiffly. "It's your reputation, not mine. Get on with it. Sanders may want to lose sleep off watch, but I don't."
"You're very gracious," she said. She shut the door and leaned against it, her hands behind her back. "I'm Nadya Storm."
Dirk's eyebrows shot up. "I wish I'd had a chance to look at the passenger list! First Stapledon and now the daughter of Kurt Storm, top Centrale Council wooden head! And to think I took you for a Centurion. I should have known better."
"Oh ?" Nadya said coldly. "Why ?"
"Because the real Centurions are flown in Supercargo-not lolling around on D Deck at two thousand per." She shrugged. "I'm going to Cygni for the same reason they are-to work. I'm covering the colonization for ITN; the D-Deck rooms were Mr. Stapledon's idea . . . but that doesn't matter. You seem to be spoiling for a fight. If you can't stop fencing, I'll take my questions to Captain Muir."
"You'll get short shrift there, Staple don notwithstanding, I promise you."
Dirk relaxed a little. It was hard not to he curious over what had brought her here at this ihour, and harder still to resist the sheer beauty of her. "Well, maybe I have been a bit brusque. But the Long Arc is a dangerous one, and I haven't had much time for polishing up my manners. Go ahead."
She straightened, with an impossibly graceful, flowing motion, and walked over to the single chair, her slim leg kicking the toga into a swirl about her knees. "Why is it so dangerous?" she said. "This Jason, whoever he is, has worked out a way to pirate an overdrive ship. But surely it would be possible to give merchant vessels an escort-or even arm them. We did both during the war:"
"Sure, it's possible. The ship is ,armed-you didn't know that? Can't you see it from S1 Deck? There is a turret with two synchrons in it under the ship's belly, and murder-guns- pom-poms-all along 'her periphery. But during the war those guns were manned by Patrol crews who knew their business.
Now the Patrol's being demobbed, and if we get into trouble we'll have to put ordinary merchant ratings into the turret. Our gunnery officer's a good man, but he can't be in the turret and on the bridge at the same time. As for a convoy-forget about it. Your father and his egg-headed young crony Paul Haagen were the first Councilmen to call for eternal peace and prosperity-and the reduction of the Patrol to a fifth of its normal strength.
The Patrol has its hands full now just enforcing the Spaceways Act in the System, let alone having monitors to spare this far out." He saw her delicate eyebrows arch in puzzlement, and added, "This Jason has a demobbed Ganynedian cruiser. A screen of smaller vessels wouldn't do us a bit of good; he could immobilize them by threatening to blast us when the others fired on him. It takes a bigger vessel than a heavy to beat a heavy to the punch; a battle plane will do, but a monitor's better."
"But monitors are too big to use except outside the asteroids. Surely there must be some to spare out here?" She asked.
Dirk laughed. "Sure. But there's a mass limit on overdrive. The liners are just under that limit. Monitors are 'way over it. With a monitor escort, it'd take IIS about 11.02 years to get to 61 Cygni from Centaurus, with everybody sick from acceleration pressure most of the time."
The girl frowned and was silent. Dirk said, "May I ask some questions?"
"Why do you want to know all this ?"
"I'm a 'vision announcer, as I said," Nadya replied abstractly. "We're going to do a take on the first landing, and we wanted details about the dangers of the trip. I'm not sure I can use much of this, though-the political element is touchy."
"Why do you carry a Shiv ?" Dirk asked suddenly.
"It's fashionable" she said. Abruptly She stood up, swung to the door, and stepped out into the corridor. At the last instant she looked back at him and smiled.
"Mine," she said, "has a propelling charge in it."
The next instant she was gone, leaving Dirk with his jaw hanging. The smile had been gorgeous, but that final speech certainly didn't go with it. He'd been pumped out thought, and shived where it counted. He had half a mind to drag her in again and demand an accounting-
A sudden, choking pall of darkness dropped over his head and shoulders, cutting the thought off. It took him nearly a second to accept what had happened. The glo-pup had gone out! In the thick blackness, Dirk churned his way to the locker and into the dress blouse. The shiv, at least, was still in it. He zipped the heavy cloth closed with nervous fingers and jerked the blouse roughly into order. The shoes could sit where they were-whatever had happened, the silence of bare feet might be useful.
It was anything but silent in the corridor. The deck shuddered to the running of scores of feet, and doors banged in their slots. There were shouts and frantic scramblings and scattered screams. The glo-pups were out in the corridor, too; probably all over the ship. It was impossible, but they were out.
Blackout ! Someone thudded into Dirk's shoulder and grabbed at him. Hands locked around his throat, heavy shoes kicked at his shins. He balled one fist over the other and drove his arms up with all his strength. The man hanging onto him bowled and tumbled backwards.
Grimly Dirk plowed through the struggling mob. Thirty meters ahead there was a companionway to the bow-if he could reach it. He wondered if Nadya had managed to reach her cabin before- Btsii~rrrrrmrr ! He threw himself flat against the cold metal of the deck. The shiv ricocheted and went racketing down the corridor, yowling blue murder. Someone stepped on Dirk's right hand, hard. Someone was lying next to him. He dug his bare toes against the metal and tried to swim away from under the trampling feet. A small, wiry hand dug into his biceps.
"Lie still!" Nadya's voice hissed. "Or I'll put a shiv in your kidneys-"
Dirk didn't stop to bow from the waist; not exactly, anyhow. He doubled himself up suddenly, catching the girl a sickening blow in the solar plexus. Then he caught the suddenly-relaxed hand on his arm and dragged her after him. If he could get them both over against the wall- Somehow, he made it. His captive was beginning to struggle again. He took her by the hair and dragged her ear over against his mouth.
"Stop it," he growled. The girl bucked once, but the cruel blow Dirk had dealt her had taken its toll.
"It's me-Phillips. This is a Blackout; there's worse to come. Don't attract any attention."
He locked his free arm about her. Under them, the deck shuddered spasmodically. A second later the wild howling of the General Alarm rang through the tubes. Dirk's lips skinned back from his teeth. Leave it to Muir ! Nothing like a siren to pile madness on top of madness ! The mob surged toward the levitator shafts, every last man trying to claw up to Star Deck where there was at least an illusion of open spaces. After several eternities, B-Deck was quiet, except for a hopeless moaning somewhere astern. Dirk loosened his hold on the girl.
"All right," he said. "Let's go and make it fast."
"I'm quite all right, she said angrily. "No thanks to you and your educated knees; If you'll let go of me I'll go to my cabin.
"You little fool, D-Deck is a madhouse now. Every one's trying to jam up there. The only safe place in this whole ship is on the bridge. Travel 1"
He drove her forward to the stairwell at the Telemachunose. There was a light there, and Dirk felt a vague shame at the surge of relief that went through him when he saw it. Two of the crewmen were high up in the well, heat-rifles at the ready; and the beam of a dismounted banding-light poured down the shaft. As Dirk propelled the girl into the column of light, both rifles snapped up.
"Ahoy, up there!" he called. "At ease. This is First Mate Phillips." The flared muzzles did not waver.
"We know who you are," one of the space men said. "Point is, are you potty?" "Nah, he ain't potty," the other one said. "He sleeps in the dark, ain't you heard? Come on up, sir."
Dirk went up the winding ladder, supporting the exhausted girl. At the port which let out onto Star Deck a red-headed little man in civies crouched with his back to the wall, a tape-like jammed through the Judas. He was cursing exultantly. Dirk stopped and stared at him. "Hey, you-"
"It's Johnny Hask," Nadya said.
"Cameraman. Johnny-" The red-head waved them both away !with his free hand. "Don't muss me up," ! he said. "Don't muss, see ? What a picture! Two Thousand Passengers Riot in Interstellar Void ! Terror On the Long Arc! What a picture! Go 'way, Nadya, you'll get your crack at it when we dub in the commentary." Dirk grinned. However the little 'vision man had gotten here, he was obviously having the time of his life. He took the girl's arm again.
On the bridge, Muir was jabbing at the power-boards and roaring anathema's at chicken-livers who were afraid of a little darkness. The glow of a jury-rigged ethon-tube gleamed on his bald head. The navigator's desk was empty; Dirk let the girl slump into the empty seat and yanked the G. A. switch out of its blades. The siren wow-wowed away into silence like a damned soul dwindling into hell.
"That the-" Muir bellowed. Then, "Oh, it's you, Phillips! Get me an orbit check, fast, and cut that alarm in again!"
Dirk fed tape into the big Intergraph UI'd advise against the alarm, sir. Every body's at stations that can get to them in this ink. The siren doubles the terror among the passenger"
"The passengers !" Muir looked stunned, as if the passengers were things he had forgotten until now.
"They should have been gassed ten minutes ago."
Dirk automatically grabbed for his nose. The filters weren't there; he'd actually forgotten that there'd been no gas.
"That damned Sanders-"
"Here, sir," the Third Mate's voice said. He came through the D-Deck hatch, with Stapledon, the 'vision boss, at his heels. Both of them looked considerably mussed up.
"What is this, a game" Muir said. "A fine bunch of officers Interstellar gives me -too busy rescuing their favorite civilians to remember their General Orders. I suppose you wouldn't pull the gas 'til you had this man on the bridge, eh ?"
"No, sir," Sanders said, swallowing. "I mean, yes, sir, I did But nothing happened. I pulled toggles at every station from my cabin to here, and didn't get any gas."
"Eh ? No gas, no lights-I hope to Heaven we've got power Phillips"
"We're still on course, sir," Dirk said. "All right. Sanders, get a party and run down the trouble in the main lighting line."
The Captain's blunt hands reached for the geotron cutout. At the same instant, Dirk hurled himself from the integraph in a flying tackle. Muir came down with a heavy thud, but he struck fighting. He was a big man, and a hard one. It was like trying to wrestle a lion. A swift haymaker to the mid chest and a judo kick and Dirk smashed into the far wall and Muir had a shiv pointed at his middle.
"Now then, Mr. Phillips," Muir said, breathing heavily. "Since you're the big, brave man who sleeps in the dark, we can't assume that you've got the madness. Explain yourself, and make it good."
Dirk fought for breath. Nadya was watching him with wide, terrified eyes. Sanders snatched a heat shiv from the rack and aimed wildly . "The geotrons," Dirk gasped. "Don't cut them-"
"And why not, Mister? You Know the General Order on Blackouts-gas the passengers, cut the overdrive, send out visicarner. My God, you've had that stuff pounded into us ever since we were oilers."
"This is different Jason's in the vicinity." The shiv did not move.
"Jason!" Muir said. "If he's around, overdrive won't do us any good. I'd sooner be in free space where I could maneuver." He picked up the intercom mike. "Synchros!"
"Hello, Sims, I thought you'd been; trampled. Battle stations. Report down the line on the murder guns."
Begging your pardon, sir," the inter phone said, "but I don't have any handlers, or any power. If yon could give me a rig from the accumulators I could man handle the turret."
Muir swore. "All right," he said. "Good by. Build a field, quick." His blunt fingers clacked plungers, banking the accumulators into the synchrotron circuits.
"You'll never make it," Dirk said flatly. "The pom-poms are pea-shooters even if you do get them manned, and Sims can beat a cruiser to the draw without handlers. You can't fight , Captain."
"I mean to try, Mister," Muir said. "I won't surrender my ship, fat pig as she is. And if Jason is out there, you can explain to a summary court-martial how you knew about it beforehand."
He grasped the big jackknife handle. The twin plungers of the overdrive switch leapt out of their sockets. - The humming of the geotrons died. In the forward viewplate the stars swirled like dustmotes in a sunbeam, changing colors with impossible rapidity, skyrocketing up into the violet, blinking out, reappearing at the red end of the spectrum and running the gamut again.
It was as if a god's dream of stellar order had been broken and dispersed by some cosmic alarrn-clock. Muir watched, his fists clenching and opening. Dirk tensed for a new spring, but Sanders had the heat-rifle on him. The Third Mate was biting his lip, keeping his eyes off the plate by sheer funk. It was not pleasant to be a green officer in a space-bound madhouse . . .
Against the swirling stars, a ghostly ship formed. there was a sobbing breathe from Stapledon. He stumbled to the bulk head, yanked the hatch open. It was dark beyond the hatch, but Stapledon suddenly did not appear to care. He went out, his ragged breathing merging with the surf of terrified moaning beating up from below. The ghost ship solidified: a long, turret-knotted torpedo scarcely ten miles away. The stars scuttled to their proper places and froze.
"Well?" Dirk said grimly.
Muir spun on him. "That's the Argo 11, all right. And she's already got her turrets coming to bear on us." He glared at Dirk like an infuriated bear.
"Talk!" Dirk shrugged.
"Simple enough, Captain. It's impossible to pirate a ship on overdrive. We have to assume that; the main body of evidence-not all of it, but most of it-points that way, and to assume the opposite is to leave ourselves without any jumping-off place."
"I didn't ask for a lesson in logic, Mister !"
"Consequently," Dirk said evenly, "it followed that the liners Jason pirated were in free space-not on overdrive. Why? What reason could a liner have for cutting overdrive?"
"They had a blackout' Sanders whispered.
"Yes. They cut their geotrons. General Orders require. Jason evidently knew in advance when the lights would go out, and could manage to be nearby, on matched course. Then, the moment the liner appeared in free space, his detectors spotted it, and he got there in nothing flat on his own overdrive. If the liner sent out an SOS as the Orders require, why, so much the better. It led Jason to his victim practically by the nose.
"Very pretty." Muir frowned. Obviously Dirk's sudden assault upon his authority was hard to reconcile with his view of the situation. Yet if the Telemachus was actually under threat of piracy- After a long moment, he jammed his shiv back into its scabbard. "I'll have to trust you, Phillips, though God knows you could have engineered the Blackout as well as anyone else on board. But I need you to fight the ship. Put up that rifle, Mr. Sanders, and muster me some pom-pom crews."
As if in answer, twin bolts of greenish light leapt from the Argo II's dorsal turret. The Telemachus boomed like a cracked bass drum. The concussion knocked them all to the deck. The alarm siren cut it again. Muir surged to his knees and glowered at the blinkers.
"Aft cargo hold," he said. His nose was bleeding, but he didn't look a bit funny. "Where the hell-ah!" A ragged comb of death swept along the port side of the Telemachus. The murder guns-some of them, anyhow. Dirk touched Nadya's shoulder reassuringly and squeezed himself into the gunnery officer's chair.
There was a chance-Jason might not have expected the liner to be in any shape to fight back- A bright, blue-white flower burst into bloom on the Argo Il's flank. One of the thermite-loaded pom-pom shells had found a home. With a grin of satisfaction Muir threw the Telemachus' helm up and over. The big ship rose clumsily on her jets.
Dirk watched his cross-hair and prayed that the lone man in the W l turret had time to build a field. If it had been even barely possible, Sims was the man to get it done. But with no handlers- The pirate's synchros fountained deutrons again, but this time there was no answering crash. In space, the target booms, not the guns; silence meant a clean miss.
The cross-hair slid toward the image of the gray cruiser. Dirk's hand tensed above the firing key- Jarnes Henry Stapledon,'s voice said, "I wouldn't touch that, if I were you, Mr. Phillips." Dirk froze. After a moment he turned his head, slowly. Stapledon was standing in the darkness of the open hatch, smiling lazily. From behind him the dull horror of the passengers still rose and fell. Cradled in his arms was Dirk's cyclast.
The heavy sub-cruiser lay off, its guns centered watchful on the Telemachus. From the boarding-launch at the liner's keel airlock, arrogant, greedy eyed men with blasters filed along the corridors, and a few seconds later the main lights came on again. In the shambles on Star Deck, passengers looked at each other and at what they had done. Some of them wept. Some of them were beyond all tears. The rest were dead. Jason had to bend low to get through the hatch to the bridge.
He was a tall man, with the mild, weak face of a momma's darling. With him was an entity even taller than he was, a ten-foot figure with tattered eared like a mongrel dog. A Martian.
"This," Jason said, waving his hand at the Outlander, "is my First Mate, Willie Peng. If he gives any orders in my absence, jump or you'll bloat. Now then. Who's Captain Muir ?"
"Me," Muir said disgusted. "Oho; the surly type. Take his shiv, Willie-and you might lighten these other heroes of their loads, too."
Stapledon shifted to keep the others in line of fire while the Martian blocked Jason's blaster. The pirate's eyes encountered the girl, and his almost-invisible eye brows kinked. "My dear girl !" he said. "What a shame !" Nadya said, "Hello, Paul." Dirk stared at them both. Paul ? The raider's face was familiar- "I see," he said slowly. "Paul Haagen. No wonder you were in such a hurry to demobilize the Patrol." Another thought crept unbidden into his mind. There had been another Councilman who had been strong for "letting the boys go home"- Kurt Storm, Nadya's father.
"I'm really quite sorry," Jason was saying, rather too smoothly. He did not seem to notice that Dirk existed. "I'd supposed you'd be back there, among the rabble; you could have been ransomed and no one would have been the wiser. Now-"
"Now," Nadya said, "you'll have to kill me along with the officers ?"
Stapledon stirred. "I say," he protested. "Look, Paul, there's a limit. I can't continue to romanticize your exploits if you victimize my best stars-"
"Be quiet," Jason said sharply.
"No, I don't think I'll do that, Nadya. Contrariwise, you can't go free. Hmm. A nice problem." The hashed-out blue eyes scanned her speculatively.
"All got, chief," Willie Peng said. He threw the shivs in a corner. "Female got one, too. Rf ?"
"It's ornamental; no propellant; Centurion fashion," Jason said.
Willie looked puzzled, but his Captain's indifference was clear enough. "Muir, where's the mail stored ?"
"Six paces from the nearest firing squad," Muir said. "Take a look."
"I shall. Willie, the passenger list is probably in that locker over there. You know the names to look for."
Dirk felt his muscles cording. The locker, unlike the baggage-safes below, had a tough five-tumbler electrolock on it. If Willie, like most Outlanders, was short on patience. He was. He fumbled and swore in his own hoarse language. Then he turned his blaster on the lock. A blaster in a confined space kicks up quite a fuss- Dirk threw himself tackle style into Willies legs. Stapledon shouted incoherently. Dirk's head butted into Jason's middle. The pirate's clubbed baster glanced stunningly off Dirk's left temple.
The deck hit him on the forehead. He ground his teeth and fought to his knees, spitting blood. The toe of a hard-driven space boot crashed into his side. On the edge of the tangle Stapledon scuttled, trying to get in position to blast Dirk and still cover Muir and Sanders.
The Martian's weapon would take about eighty seconds to recharge; Willie threw it at Dirk and went around the other way. Sanders stuck a foot out and the ten-foot dog-man came down on the deck like a scarecrow. Jason kicked Dirk again and brought the muzzle of his own blaster into line- Ptsiirr-tchkt
Jason dropped the blaster and grabbed at his throat. Blood cascaded down the front of his jacket. A half-inch of shiv-blade protruded from his Adam's apple; it had nearly taken this Head off. Dirk retched and snatched at the weapon on the deck, but it wasn't needed.
As Stapledon swung on Dirk, Muir lobbed a balled fist as big as a grapefruit into his ear. He dropped as if stoned. That left Willie Peng. He had a shot, but when Dirk dropped the blaster and snatched the cyclast from the fallen 'vision magnate, Willie laid back his ears, bared his teeth, and dived under the chart table.
A man will face up to a blaster or a heat-rifle, but a cyclast is something else again; nobody likes to feel his flesh rotting fluidly off his bones . . .
"Nice going, Nadya," Dirk gasped.
The girl was crying convulsively. "I had to do it," she sobbed. "When I think what a fool he made of Dad-and, the awful thing down below-"
"Cripes," Dirk said, "We're still full up with boarders. quick, Sanders, pull the gas-they've got the lights back on, and money says the same short was what cut the gas-toggles."
The Third Mate jumped to the wall toggle and pulled it. It cut the alarm siren in again, but for once Dirk was glad to hear it. The gas was out. Under the wailing alarm he could I hear it hissing beyond the open hatch. He slammed the hatch shut.
Muir was already at the interphone. "Sims !" he roared. "You still cooking?"
"Yissir," the intercom said. "What the hell's going on? I've been sitting on my key for twenty minutes. Isn't anybody going to fire these damned guns?"
Muir grinned savagely. "Keep sitting." He gestured Dirk to the firing table. The single vertical cross-hair was a little to the left of the image of the Argo ; if Sims had his key down, it meant that his own horizontal cross-hair was still on the pirate Muir fired a short burst from the port jets and the subcruiser's image began to sputter.
When the vertical cross-hair split it fairly across the middle, Dirk put down the bridge key. Under the Telemnchus' belly the synchros screamed triumphantly. A silent burst of white-hot gas jetted away from the Argo Irs middle. Dirk held the key down as her image continued to drift. The cancer of destruction ate its way forward.
The big cruiser jerked spasmodically, but before she could get underway the blast of deutrons reached her bridge. One side of the Argo II, just forward of the overdrive assembly, fell away, and a lifeship clawed spaceward.
Muir shook a fist at it. "Small fry," he snarled, "but I hate to see a one of 'em stay alive-" At the nose , a single pom-pom spouted. Some crewman had kept his head long enough to remember his nose-filters.
The murder gun was coming into its own. The life-ship ran head on into a thermit shell. After that it drifted . As an afterthought, Dirk dragged Willie Peng out from under the chart table and chucked him out the hatch into the gas.
"A sleeping prisoner," he said to no one in particular, "is a good prisoner." Sanders said unsteadily, "One thing I don't get. How did Stapledon get into it"
"Remember his editorials last year about peace and plenty" Dirk said. "His chain supported Haagen and Storm in the demobilization campaign. And he financed Jason. He had every reason to want this colonization stopped. Earth's empire was getting too big for him. As things stood, he could sway public opinion, control Council decisions, get things played the way he wanted them. But every new star system conquered made his hold more tenuous. Jason, he hoped, would terrorize the colonists, ruin all chance of the Cygni system or any other new system being settled. The people he couldn't manipulate. “
"I can see why," Muir said. "What I want to know is how."
"That's easy.” Dirk said. “Stapledon was the only person who could have bollixed up the ship's circuits that way. There's a 'vision set in every room. His techs had plenty of opportunity to disconnect the gas-trips at the same time they installed the sets and plenty of time to take out the real glo-pup. The radioactive ones, that never go out and install colored ethons instead. They were spliced onto the regular lighting circuit.
When Jason wanted a Blackout, all his henchman had to do was cause a short somewhere, and blooey ! What chance would we have of finding where the short was in the middle of a riot? He felt his kicked side tenderly. But they had to have light to work by when they boarded us. They knew where the short was, and fixed it. The vision techs had no chance to disconnect the gas toggle on the bridge, and depended on the pirates to incapacitate the bridge. When that failed, they were sunk-nobody but the Patrol knows how to make gas proof nose pieces, and Jason couldn't steal a tenth as many as he'd need to equip his creation" Dirk continued.
"It's no wonder Jason owned a heavy sub-cruiser. He had Stapledon behind him to put up the two million or so it took to buy the ship from Ganymede. Two million's a lot of credits, but they probably got it back in the first attack- not that the money itself interested Staple don any. He probably let Jason keep it .We figured that might be the story, but 'til now we had no proof; and the demobbing left us without enough men to put marines aboard every ship"
"We?" Muir said suspiciously. "Who's we ?"
Dirk grinned. "Intelligence; who else? Commander John H. Dalton, at your service."
"Not," Sanders said, on cue, "not Jack Dalton of the Centrale Patrol !"
"Sir, the very sarne." Dirk looked at the girl. She smiled.