"Hold him!" shouted Colonel Sagen. "Don't let him run loose."
"We got gas pills, colonel," suggested the space cop Lance had bowled over. The man was rising to his feet.
Lance started to run. Over his shoulder, he saw the guard reach inside a small pocket in his webbed pistol belt. The man gestured to the others to duck back out of harm's way. Then, his throwing arm reared back and sent a pellet sailing in a high arc. It landed at Lance's feet and burst instantly. Yellowish gas billowed out. Its acrid fumes penetrated Lance's throat and nostrils. He began coughing. Then, all the fight suddenly ebbed from him. His knees buckled. He was stumbling, falling. The sky reeled.
And very indistinctly, from far away, came the colonel's voice, barking: "Put him in the brig until he recovers. I repeat, let nobody see him. And another thing--I declare everything that's happened here today classified information. If a single word leaks out, I'll have every man-jack among you placed in solitary and held for court-martial."
Then, Lance knew nothing more.
When at last he recovered consciousness and was able to sit up in a kind of groggy stupor, Lance found himself, for the first time in fifteen service-devoted years, on the inside of a guardhouse looking out.
With sardonic melancholy, he recalled times on his O.D. and O.G. tours when he had inspected various prison areas, peered into the cells, and often felt mildly sorry for some poor spaceman doing time for some minor infraction. There had never been very many offenders. Discipline on space bases was not a pressing problem: the corps was an elite branch and intransigent candidates were weeded out quick.
Well, now he was a prisoner, himself. He, Lance Cooper, Major, Space Service, stood behind bars. And no matter how hard his face pressed against those bars, he could only see as far as the corridor extended in either direction.
It wasn't far enough.
Nor would anybody talk to him. He couldn't even get the time of day.
Not since his probation as a plebe, had he consorted with such a bunch of "hush-mouths." Had he no rights as a commissioned officer and a world citizen? He still didn't know why he was incarcerated, or what regulation he had broken.
But that wasn't his most nagging worry.
What preyed on his mind most was Carolyn.
Where was she?
Where? Where? WHERE?
He could have lowered his head and pounded it to a pulp against the wall, in his rage and frustration at being confined. But banging his brains out wouldn't help. Besides, he was going to stand deeply in need of his gray matter, if he hoped to get out of this one.
At evening time, a guardhouse trusty brought him his supper on a tray. Also, the man tossed him half a pack of cigarettes when Lance sought to bum just one. But when the pilot started pitching questions back, the trusty looked scared and unhappy and quickly limped away.
The night dragged on, as unending seemingly as one of Luna's two-week darkouts. Lance smoked, paced the cell from wall to wall, occasionally plopped down on his cot and went over everything that had happened, trying to find some pattern to it.
But there was no pattern.
Next morning, he splashed up and shaved beard away from a tired, red-eyed face in the mirror. Then, he waited. No one came.
Finally, at noon a new officer checked in for duty at the guardhouse. Lance recognized him as a young ordinance captain he'd met before. He called out to the man. The officer, striding down the hallway, wheeled at the sound of his name and came back to the cell. His eyes bugged slightly, when he saw Lance: "Holy smoke, major! What've they got you in for?"
"Search me." Lance was overjoyed to find someone, at last, who didn't dummy up. "I thought maybe you might have a notion."
"I just came on duty. But if there's a charge sheet lying around, I might dig up something from it."
"Would you try?"
The captain held up two fingers and grinned. "No sweat."
Lance waited some more.
The captain did not come back, however, until several hours later. After Lance's evening meal, in fact. His face bore a puzzled frown.
Lance stood at his cell door, gripping the bars. "Well?"
"I checked. Seems the brass are holding you for observation until some headshrinker gets in from HQ. A specialist in hyperspace medicine."
"Then, how come I'm not in a regular hospital? Why the jailhouse?"
"Beats me, major. I can tell you this, though. You're not the first hype-pilot who's been dragged in here screaming."
"But I wasn't screaming! I was perfectly calm and collected, when I climbed down out of my ship. All I did was ask about Carolyn."
"Carolyn Sagen. Old Hard-Head's daughter." Lance felt a sinking feeling. He stopped, cocked a wary eye at the other officer. "Don't look at me that way, man."
The captain had been staring hard at Lance. Now, he began shaking his head back and forth, slowly and sadly.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Lance asked.
"It means Colonel Sagen doesn't have a daughter."
Lance snorted. "Don't tell me that. I'm engaged to her."
"Sorry, major. I've been around the colonel and his wife since I was a kid. He got me the appointment to the Academy. They've never had any children of their own."
"Why, you--" Lance reached through the bars and grabbed the captain by his shirt collar, jerking him against the bars. "It's a lie! A conspiracy! Maybe you think I'm nuts. But I'm not!" He commenced pummeling the captain with his free fist. Then he thought of something better. He snatched the captain's gun from his holster and leveled it.
"I'm getting out of here," Lance announced. "Open up this door--or take the consequences!"
The captain, his face ashy white, submitted and unlocked the cell door. Lance stepped out, got behind the officer, and prodded him into the cell. Tearing a sheet into strips, he tied the man to the cot and gagged him. It took a very short time.
Then, he softly padded down the hallway. He caught the sergeant of the guard napping in his chair. In a moment, the sergeant, too, was trussed up, gagged, and whisked into a spare cell. Lance then tucked the captain's pistol inside his shirt and ventured outside.
It was a moonlit night. A patrol jeep was parked on the drive, begging to be commandeered. Lance hopped in. There was something he had to find out for himself, and only one way to do it: Go to the place where they kept the answers.
Wheeling the jeep along the military street fast as he dared, Lance headed for the base housing area. Colonel Sagen's trim two-story brick residence was where he hoped to pay a call. He knew the route by heart. He'd been a guest there often enough.
The colonel's driveway was empty of cars, he was happy to notice, when he reached the house. He parked, sprinted up to the porch, and knocked on the door.
Presently, footsteps sounded inside and the door opened a few inches. But it was not Carolyn whom Lance saw peeping out at him. It was another woman, older. He recognized Mrs. Sagen.
Lance was blunt. "I've got to see Carolyn, and I haven't much time. You'd better let me in."
An apprehensive, almost shocked expression briefly flitted across the face of Carolyn's mother. It was as if she had never set eyes on Lance Cooper before. Even the gold oak leaves on his shoulders seemed to reassure her but slightly. She kept the door chain in place between them.
"I'm sorry, major. I'm not sure that I understand you."
"Don't malarky me, please. You know who I am and who I want. Carolyn, your daughter."
"Oh," said Mrs. Sagen. It was said in a way that revealed nothing.
"Look," said Lance, impatiently. "You do have a daughter. I've dated her. So, all right," he waved his hands, "she's been spirited away for some reason. I still think I've got a right to know why."
"Oh, my!" said Mrs. Sagen, and her hand flew to her face. "You must be that scout-ship pilot who showed up yesterday. The one who--"
"Yeh, the one everybody figures for psycho. But I'm not, Mrs. Sagen. You know I'm not." Lance took a deep breath. "Can I come in? I just want some facts. After all, this crazy farce can't go on forever."
The colonel's wife still looked doubtful, but Lance Cooper had a way of pressing a point hard when his interests were at stake. He began talking rapidly and convincingly.
He got in.
The light indoors was better. Lance's eyes squinted, as they adjusted from the gloom of the porch. Somehow, Mrs. Sagen didn't look quite as he remembered. Her hair was much darker now; he was sure of that. Maybe she had dyed it. Yet her features were certainly harder and bonier. More like a replica of her husband's. And her breath smelled alcoholic. Could a mere month have made that much difference?
The house had been refurnished too, Lance noticed. The living-room decor was more severe and functional. And the pictures on the wall were garish. Not Mrs. Sagen's type, at all.
Hey, wait a minute! he told himself; speaking of pictures--his glance skipped to the far corner of the room. A triptych of photos of Carolyn had always been on display on the mantelpiece. They would prove that-- Lance's jaw dropped.
The photos had been removed.
"Can I get you anything?" Mrs. Sagen inquired. A little nervously, Lance thought. "A cup of coffee?"
"No, thanks. I'd rather hear about Carolyn."
"Coffee won't take a minute. I was just making some fresh in the kitchen."
Lance shrugged. "Well, O.K., if you've already got it ready."
Mrs. Sagen's mouth managed a fleeting smile; then she disappeared through a swinging door. Lance sat down in a wrought-iron chair. Finding it not comfortable, he sprang back to his feet and paced the floor. There sure was something wrong about the colonel's house. Something very oddly wrong. But he couldn't quite put his finger on it.
Suddenly, his quickened hearing caught the faint murmur of a human voice. Was it Carolyn? The talk seemed to be issuing from the kitchen--where her mother had gone. Lance tiptoed across the room, pushed the door slightly open.
Mrs. Sagen was on the phone. Her voice was excited; she was obviously straining to keep it at a low level. "I'm telling you, he's here! Right in our living room. And he insists I know somebody named Carolyn ... Yes, that's right. But do hurry ... Please. He's acting much odder than the others did."
Lance had eavesdropped enough. He turned away, glided rapidly out the front door and into the night.
Where should he go next? The jeep would serve to hustle him around the base for a while--but eventually he would be chased down and recaptured. And as for crashing any of the exit gates and thus attaining to greater freedom, he knew they would all be barricaded and heavily manned by now.
Lance was still burning over Mrs. Sagen's double-cross. Did he want coffee? she had asked. Coffee! his mind repeated, disgusted. What he needed was something stronger. A good stiff drink.
That was it! The Officers Club. Casey would be on duty at this hour. Lance would ask him to mix him a double for old times' sake. Then, he'd meekly surrender and quietly go crazy in his cell, until the headshrinker came and confirmed it for real.
The pilot got back in the jeep and drove on. When he reached the Club, he wheeled the vehicle around to a rear entrance where bushes made the grounds shadier. Parking, he got out, strolled into the building as sneakily as if he'd been an inspector-general paying a surprise call from out of Space Service Headquarters.
Few officers lounged about. Most were at tables and engrossed in their own imbibing. Lance strode up to the bar, perched himself on a high stool. Casey, whose hair was red as a Martian desert, was rinsing glasses. He stopped at his task and came over, wiping the counter with a wet towel. "What'll it be, major?"
"One of your Specials, Casey, my friend."
"You know--one of your Casey Specials. Where you start off with half a glass of Irish whisky, add a dash or two of absinthe, a drop of--"
"I don't stock no absinthe, major." Casey's freckled face was abruptly hostile. "You know that. It's against regulations."
Lance fought down a tremor. Everybody was in on it. Everybody. He compromised for a minute: "Give me a slug of Teacher's on the rocks, then."
Casey measured out the drink for him.
Lance downed it. His hand gripped the edge of the bar. "Casey, do you know me?"
He watched Casey study him. The thick reddish eyebrows knit. "It's a pretty big base, major. Lots of faces. Sometimes, I kind of forget the names."
Lance's blood pressure gave a spurt. "I'm Major Lance Cooper! Hell, you've rung up my chits often enough!"
And his mind added: How could you forget?
"Major." Casey's eyes narrowed, while the uneasy suspicion in them grew. "We don't have no chit system at this club."
Lance's head felt like it would explode. He could take no more.
"You're lying!" he shouted. His big hands reached over the mahogany counter and shook the bartender like a squawk-box that had refused to function properly. "Tell me you're lying in your teeth. If you don't, I'll push them down your throat--"
Suddenly, Lance sensed people behind him. A firm hand clamped down heavily on his shoulder.
The pilot stretched his neck around. What now? His hands did not relax their murderous grip on his victim.
The arresting party had entered the club quietly. Now, they were ganged up around him: Colonel Sagen, his two aides, a fourth man Lance recognized as Major Carmody, the base legal officer--and a fifth man too, who wore the insignia of the Space Surgeon-General's Department. A psychiatrist.
"Better come peacefully, major," rasped Colonel Sagen. "You've been 'cleared' for an explanation--and if you're smart, you'll listen to the spiel and play ball."
The way it was said made Lance feel he could trust the Old Man for that long. Anyhow, what choice did he have?
"It's about time," Lance sighed. He set Casey down, to the latter's greatly exhaled relief. "Only how come all the suspense?"
"It was very necessary," broke in Major Carmody.
"Was it? Well, you had me about to crack--if that was your object. Now then, would any of you mind easing my worries about Carolyn. She's O.K., isn't she?"