He gestured through the translucent skin of the Dome, and I felt sick. There was a little heap of bones lying there, looking oddly bright against the redness of the sands. They were the dried, parched skeletons of Earthmen. Bits of cloth and plastic, once oxymasks and suits, still clung to them.
Suddenly I remembered. There had been a pattern there all the time. We didn't much talk about it; we chalked it off as occupational hazards. There had been a pattern of disappearances on the desert. I could think of six, eight names now. None of them had been particularly close friends. You don't get time to make close friends out here. But we'd vowed it wouldn't happen to us.
"You've been hunting Geigs?" I asked. "Why? What've they ever done to you?"
He smiled, as calmly as if I'd just praised his house-keeping. "Because I hate you," he said blandly. "I intend to wipe every last one of you out, one by one."
I stared at him. I'd never seen a man like this before; I thought all his kind had died at the time of the atomic wars.
I heard Val sob, "He's a madman!"
"No," Ledman said evenly. "I'm quite sane, believe me. But I'm determined to drive the Geigs--and UranCo--off Mars. Eventually I'll scare you all away."
"Just pick us off in the desert?"
"Exactly," replied Ledman. "And I have no fears of an armed attack. This place is well fortified. I've devoted years to building it. And I'm back against those hills. They couldn't pry me out." He let his pale hand run up into his gnarled hair. "I've devoted years to this. Ever since--ever since I landed here on Mars."
"What are you going to do with us?" Val finally asked, after a long silence.
He didn't smile this time. "Kill you," he told her. "Not your husband. I want him as an envoy, to go back and tell the others to clear off." He rocked back and forth in his wheelchair, toying with the gleaming, deadly blaster in his hand.
We stared in horror. It was a nightmare--sitting there, placidly rocking back and forth, a nightmare.
I found myself fervently wishing I was back out there on the infinitely safer desert.
"Do I shock you?" he asked. "I shouldn't--not when you see my motives."
"We don't see them," I snapped.
"Well, let me show you. You're on Mars hunting uranium, right? To mine and ship the radioactives back to Earth to keep the atomic engines going. Right?"
I nodded over at our geiger counters.
"We volunteered to come to Mars," Val said irrelevantly.
"Ah--two young heroes," Ledman said acidly. "How sad. I could almost feel sorry for you. Almost."
"Just what is it you're after?" I said, stalling, stalling.
"Atomics cost me my legs," he said. "You remember the Sadlerville Blast?" he asked.
"Of course." And I did, too. I'd never forget it. No one would. How could I forget that great accident--killing hundreds, injuring thousands more, sterilizing forty miles of Mississippi land--when the Sadlerville pile went up?
"I was there on business at the time," Ledman said. "I represented Ledman Atomics. I was there to sign a new contract for my company. You know who I am, now?"
"I was fairly well shielded when it happened. I never got the contract, but I got a good dose of radiation instead. Not enough to kill me," he said. "Just enough to necessitate the removal of--" he indicated the empty space at his thighs. "So I got off lightly." He gestured at the wheelchair blanket.
I still didn't understand. "But why kill us Geigs? We had nothing to do with it."
"You're just in this by accident," he said. "You see, after the explosion and the amputation, my fellow-members on the board of Ledman Atomics decided that a semi-basket case like myself was a poor risk as Head of the Board, and they took my company away. All quite legal, I assure you. They left me almost a pauper!" Then he snapped the punchline at me.
"They renamed Ledman Atomics. Who did you say you worked for?"
I began, "Uran--"
"Don't bother. A more inventive title than Ledman Atomics, but not quite as much heart, wouldn't you say?" He grinned. "I saved for years; then I came to Mars, lost myself, built this Dome, and swore to get even. There's not a great deal of uranium on this planet, but enough to keep me in a style to which, unfortunately, I'm no longer accustomed."
He consulted his wrist watch. "Time for my injection." He pulled out the tanglegun and sprayed us again, just to make doubly certain. "That's another little souvenir of Sadlerville. I'm short on red blood corpuscles."
He rolled over to a wall table and fumbled in a container among a pile of hypodermics. "There are other injections, too. Adrenalin, insulin. Others. The Blast turned me into a walking pin-cushion. But I'll pay it all back," he said. He plunged the needle into his arm.
My eyes widened. It was too nightmarish to be real. I wasn't seriously worried about his threat to wipe out the entire Geig Corps, since it was unlikely that one man in a wheelchair could pick us all off. No, it wasn't the threat that disturbed me, so much as the whole concept, so strange to me, that the human mind could be as warped and twisted as Ledman's.
I saw the horror on Val's face, and I knew she felt the same way I did.
"Do you really think you can succeed?" I taunted him. "Really think you can kill every Earthman on Mars? Of all the insane, cockeyed--"
Val's quick, worried head-shake cut me off. But Ledman had felt my words, all right.
"Yes! I'll get even with every one of you for taking away my legs! If we hadn't meddled with the atom in the first place, I'd be as tall and powerful as you, today--instead of a useless cripple in a wheelchair."
"You're sick, Gregory Ledman," Val said quietly. "You've conceived an impossible scheme of revenge and now you're taking it out on innocent people who've done nothing, nothing at all to you. That's not sane!"
His eyes blazed. "Who are you to talk of sanity?"
Uneasily I caught Val's glance from a corner of my eye. Sweat was rolling down her smooth forehead faster than the auto-wiper could swab it away.
"Why don't you do something? What are you waiting for, Ron?"
"Easy, baby," I said. I knew what our ace in the hole was. But I had to get Ledman within reach of me first.
"Enough," he said. "I'm going to turn you loose outside, right after--"
"Get sick!" I hissed to Val, low. She began immediately to cough violently, emitting harsh, choking sobs. "Can't breathe!" She began to yell, writhing in her bonds.
That did it. Ledman hadn't much humanity left in him, but there was a little. He lowered the blaster a bit and wheeled one-hand over to see what was wrong with Val. She continued to retch and moan most horribly. It almost convinced me. I saw Val's pale, frightened face turn to me.
He approached and peered down at her. He opened his mouth to say something, and at that moment I snapped my leg up hard, tearing the tangle-cord with a snicking rasp, and kicked his wheelchair over.
The blaster went off, burning a hole through the Dome roof. The automatic sealers glued-in instantly. Ledman went sprawling helplessly out into the middle of the floor, the wheelchair upended next to him, its wheels slowly revolving in the air. The blaster flew from his hands at the impact of landing and spun out near me. In one quick motion I rolled over and covered it with my body.
Ledman clawed his way to me with tremendous effort and tried wildly to pry the blaster out from under me, but without success. I twisted a bit, reached out with my free leg, and booted him across the floor. He fetched up against the wall of the Dome and lay there.
Val rolled over to me.
"Now if I could get free of this stuff," I said, "I could get him covered before he comes to. But how?"
"Teamwork," Val said. She swivelled around on the floor until her head was near my boot. "Push my oxymask off with your foot, if you can."
I searched for the clamp and tried to flip it. No luck, with my heavy, clumsy boot. I tried again, and this time it snapped open. I got the tip of my boot in and pried upward. The oxymask came off, slowly, scraping a jagged red scratch up the side of Val's neck as it came.
"There," she breathed. "That's that."
I looked uneasily at Ledman. He was groaning and beginning to stir.
Val rolled on the floor and her face lay near my right arm. I saw what she had in mind. She began to nibble the vile-tasting tangle-cord, running her teeth up and down it until it started to give. She continued unfailingly.
Finally one strand snapped. Then another. At last I had enough use of my hand to reach out and grasp the blaster. Then I pulled myself across the floor to Ledman, removed the tanglegun, and melted the remaining tangle-cord off.
My muscles were stiff and bunched, and rising made me wince. I turned and freed Val. Then I turned and faced Ledman.
"I suppose you'll kill me now," he said.
"No. That's the difference between sane people and insane," I told him. "I'm not going to kill you at all. I'm going to see to it that you're sent back to Earth."
"No!" he shouted. "No! Anything but back there. I don't want to face them again--not after what they did to me--"
"Not so loud," I broke in. "They'll help you on Earth. They'll take all the hatred and sickness out of you, and turn you into a useful member of society again."
"I hate Earthmen," he spat out. "I hate all of them."
"I know," I said sarcastically. "You're just all full of hate. You hated us so much that you couldn't bear to hang around on Earth for as much as a year after the Sadlerville Blast. You had to take right off for Mars without a moment's delay, didn't you? You hated Earth so much you had to leave."
"Why are you telling all this to me?"
"Because if you'd stayed long enough, you'd have used some of your pension money to buy yourself a pair of prosthetic legs, and then you wouldn't need this wheelchair."
Ledman scowled, and then his face went belligerent again. "They told me I was paralyzed below the waist. That I'd never walk again, even with prosthetic legs, because I had no muscles to fit them to."
"You left Earth too quickly," Val said.
"It was the only way," he protested. "I had to get off--"
"She's right," I told him. "The atom can take away, but it can give as well. Soon after you left they developed atomic-powered prosthetics--amazing things, virtually robot legs. All the survivors of the Sadlerville Blast were given the necessary replacement limbs free of charge. All except you. You were so sick you had to get away from the world you despised and come here."
"You're lying," he said. "It's not true!"
"Oh, but it is," Val smiled.
I saw him wilt visibly, and for a moment I almost felt sorry for him, a pathetic legless figure propped up against the wall of the Dome at blaster-point. But then I remembered he'd killed twelve Geigs--or more--and would have added Val to the number had he had the chance.
"You're a very sick man, Ledman," I said. "All this time you could have been happy, useful on Earth, instead of being holed up here nursing your hatred. You might have been useful, on Earth. But you decided to channel everything out as revenge."
"I still don't believe it--those legs. I might have walked again. No--no, it's all a lie. They told me I'd never walk," he said, weakly but stubbornly still.
I could see his whole structure of hate starting to topple, and I decided to give it the final push.
"Haven't you wondered how I managed to break the tangle-cord when I kicked you over?"
"Yes--human legs aren't strong enough to break tangle-cord that way."
"Of course not," I said. I gave Val the blaster and slipped out of my oxysuit. "Look," I said. I pointed to my smooth, gleaming metal legs. The almost soundless purr of their motors was the only noise in the room. "I was in the Sadlerville Blast, too," I said. "But I didn't go crazy with hate when I lost my legs."
Ledman was sobbing.
"Okay, Ledman," I said. Val got him into his suit, and brought him the fishbowl helmet. "Get your helmet on and let's go. Between the psychs and the prosthetics men, you'll be a new man inside of a year."
"But I'm a murderer!"
"That's right. And you'll be sentenced to psych adjustment. When they're finished, Gregory Ledman the killer will be as dead as if they'd electrocuted you, but there'll be a new--and sane--Gregory Ledman." I turned to Val.
"Got the geigers, honey?"
For the first time since Ledman had caught us, I remembered how tired Val had been out on the desert. I realized now that I had been driving her mercilessly--me, with my chromium legs and atomic-powered muscles. No wonder she was ready to fold! And I'd been too dense to see how unfair I had been.
She lifted the geiger harnesses, and I put Ledman back in his wheelchair.
Val slipped her oxymask back on and fastened it shut.
"Let's get back to the Dome in a hurry," I said. "We'll turn Ledman over to the authorities. Then we can catch the next ship for Earth."
"Go back? Go back? If you think I'm backing down now and quitting you can find yourself another wife! After we dump this guy I'm sacking in for twenty hours, and then we're going back out there to finish that search-pattern. Earth needs uranium, honey, and I know you'd never be happy quitting in the middle like that." She smiled. "I can't wait to get out there and start listening for those tell-tale clicks."
I gave a joyful whoop and swung her around. When I put her down, she squeezed my hand, hard.
"Let's get moving, fellow hero," she said.
I pressed the stud for the airlock, smiling.