To the east he could see the lights of Fort Mudge where the railroad cut through on its way to Jacksonville. He had planned to ride the freight into Jacksonville but by now they were stopping every train and searching along every foot of the railroad right of way. In the distance he heard the eerie keen of a train whistle, and visualized the scene as it was flagged down and searched from engine to caboose.
Directly before him loomed the forbidding northern boundary of the Okefenokee Swamp. Unconsciously he strained his ears, then shuddered at the night noises that issued from the noisome wilderness. A frenzied threshing, then a splash, then ... silence. What drama of life and death was being played out in that strange other-world of perpetual shadows?
In sudden panic he jerked erect and cupped his palm round his ear. Far off; muted by distance, but still unmistakable; he heard the baying of bloodhounds. Then this was the end. A sob broke from his throat. What was he, an animal; to be hunted down as a sport? Tears of self-pity welled to his eyes as he thought back to a party and a girl and laughter and cleanliness and the scent of magnolias, like a heady wine. But that was so long ago--so long ago--and now.... He looked down at his sweating, lacerated body; his blistered calloused palms; the black broken nails; the cheap workshoes with hemp laces; the shapeless gray cotton trousers, now wet to the knees.
He pulled back his shoulders and resolutely faced west toward the river, but stopped short in horror as he heard the sudden cacophony of barks, yelps and howls of a pack of bloodhounds that senses the beginning of the end. He turned in panic. They couldn't be over half a mile away. In a panic of indecision he turned first east then west, then facing due south he hesitated a moment to take one last look at the clear open skies, and with a muffled prayer plunged into the brooding depths of the Okefenokee.
JUNE 13, 427th Year GALACTIC ERA The building still hummed and vibrated with the dying echoes of the alarm siren as the biophysicist hurried down the corridor, and without breaking stride, pushed open the door to the Director's office.
The Director shuffled the papers before him and sighed heavily. His chair creaked protestingly as he shifted his bulk and looked up.
"He got away clean," said the biophysicist.
"Any fix on the direction?"
"None at all, sir. And he's got at least a two hours' start. That takes in a pretty big area of space."
"Hm-m-m! Well there's just a bare chance. That experimental cruiser is the fastest thing in space and it's equipped with the latest ethero-radar. If we get started right away, we just might--"
"That's just it," interrupted the biophysicist. "That's the ship he got away in."
The Director jumped angrily to his feet. "How did that happen? How can I explain to the board?"
"I'm sorry, sir. He was just too--"
"You're sorry?" He slumped back in his chair and drummed the desk top with his fingernails, worrying his lower lip with his teeth. He exhaled loudly and leaned forward. "Well, only one thing to do. You know the orders."
The biophysicist squirmed uncomfortably. "Couldn't we send a squadron of ships out to search and--"
"And what?" asked the Director, sarcastically. "You don't think I'd risk a billion credits worth of equipment on a wild-goose chase like that, do you? We could use up a year's appropriation of fuel and manpower and still be unable to adequately search a sector one-tenth that size. If he just sat still, a thousand ships couldn't find him in a thousand years, searching at finite speeds. Add to that the fact that the target is moving at ultra-light speed and the odds against locating him is multiplied by a billion."
"I know, but he can't stay in space. He'll have to land somewhere, sometime."
"True enough--but where and when?"
"Couldn't we alert all the nearby planets?"
"You know better than that. He could be halfway across the galaxy before an ethero-gram reached the nearest planet."
"Suppose we sent scout ships to the nearer planets and asked them to inform their neighbors in the same way. We'd soon have an expanding circle that he couldn't slip through."
The Director smiled wryly. "Maybe. But who's going to pay for all this. By the time the circle was a thousand light-years in diameter there would be ten thousand ships and a million clerks working on recapturing one escaped prisoner. Another thing; I don't know offhand what he's been sentenced for, but I'll wager there are ten thousand planets on which his crime would not be a crime. Do you think we could ever extradite him from such a planet? And even if by some incredible stroke of fortune one of our agents happened to land on the right planet, in which city would he begin his search. Or suppose our quarry lands only on uninhabited planets? We can't very well alert the whole galaxy in the search for just one man."
"I know, but--"
"But what?" interrupted the Director. "Any other suggestions?"
"N ... no--"
"All right, he asked for it. You have the pattern, I presume. Feed it to Fido!"
"Yes, sir, but well ... I just don't--"
"Do you think I like it?" asked the Director, fiercely.
In the silence that followed, they looked at each other, guiltily.
"There's nothing else we can do," said the Director. "The orders are explicit. No one escapes from Hades!"
"I know," replied the biophysicist. "I'm not blaming you. Only I wish someone else had my job."
"Well," said the Director, heavily. "You might as well get started." He nodded his head in dismissal.
As the biophysicist went out the door, the Director looked down once more at the pile of papers before him. He pulled the top sheet closer, and rubber-stamped across its face--CASE CLOSED.
"Yes," he mused aloud. "Closed for us, but--" He hesitated a moment, and then sighing once more, signed his name in the space provided.
AUGUST 6, 430th Year GALACTIC ERA Tee Ormond sat morosely at the spaceport bar, and alternately wiped his forehead with a soggy handkerchief, and sipped at his frosted rainbow, careful not to disturb the varicolored layers of liquid in the tall narrow glass. Every now and then he nervously ran his fingers through his straight black hair, which lay damply plastered to his head. His jacket was faded and worn, and above the left pocket was emblazoned the meteor insignia of the spaceman. A dark patch on his back showed where the perspiration had seeped through. He blinked and rubbed the corner of his eye as a drop of perspiration ran down and settled there.
A casual look would have classified him as a very average looking pilot such as could be found at the bar of any spaceport; i.e. if space pilots can ever be classified as average. Spacemen are the last true adventurers in an age where the debilitating culture of a highly mechanized civilization has pushed to the very borders of the galaxy. While most men are fearful and indecisive outside their narrow specialties the spacemen must at all times be ready to deal with the unexpected and the unusual. The expression--"Steady as a spaceman's nerves"--had a very real origin.
A closer look at Tee would have revealed the error of a quick classification. He gripped his drink too tightly, and his eyes darted restlessly from side to side, as though searching, searching; yet dreading to find the object of their search. His expressive face contorted in a nervous tic each time his eyes swept by the clock hanging behind the bar. He glanced dispiritedly out the window at the perpetually cloudy sky and idly watched a rivulet of water race down the dirty pane. He loosened his collar and futilely mopped at his neck with the soggy handkerchief, then irritably flung it to the floor.
"Hey, Jo," he yelled to the bartender. "What's the matter with the air-conditioning? I'm burning up."
"Take it easy," soothed the bartender, consulting a thermometer on the wall behind him, "it's eighty-five in here. That's as low as the law allows. Can't have too much difference in the temperature or all my customers'd pass out when they go outside. Why don't you go into town? They keep it comfortable under the dome."
"Don't this planet ever cool off?" asked Tee.
The bartender chuckled. "I see you don't know too much about Thymis. Sometimes it drops to ninety at night, but not too often. You ought to be here sometime when the clouds part for a minute. If you're caught outside then, it's third-degree burns for sure."
He glanced down at the nearly empty glass. "How about another rainbow? If you get enough of them in you, you won't notice the heat--you won't notice anything." He laughed uproariously at the hoary joke.
Tee looked at him disgustedly and without answering bent to his drink once more. He felt someone jostle his elbow and turned sideways to allow the newcomer access to the bar. After a moment he wiped his forehead on his sleeve. The bartender placed another rainbow before him.
"Hey, I didn't order that," he cried.
The bartender nodded toward the next stool. "On him."
Tee turned and saw a barrel-chested red-haired giant holding up a drink in the immemorial bar toast. He raised his own glass gingerly, but his trembling hand caused the layers to mix and he stared ruefully at the resultant clayey-looking mess.
The redhead laughed. "Mix another one, Jo."
"But--" Tee's face got red.
"I came in here to talk to you anyway," said the giant. "You own the Starduster, don't you?"
"Yeah, what about it?"
"Like to get her out of hock?"
"Who says she's in hock?"
"Look," said the redhead. "Let's not kid each other. Everybody around this port knows you blew in from Lemmyt last month and can't raise the money to pay the port charges, much less the refueling fee. And it's no secret that you're anxious to leave our fair planet." He winked conspiringly at Tee.
The redhead glanced at the bartender who was busy at the other end of the bar. He leaned closer and whispered. "I know where the Elen of Troy is."
"The Elen of Troy?"
"Oh, that's right, you wouldn't know about her. Eight months ago she crashed on an uninhabited planet somewhere in this sector. So far they've been unable to find her." He leaned closer. "She was carrying four million in Penryx crystals."
"What's that to me?"
The redhead looked around briefly to make sure no one was in hearing distance, then whispered softly, without moving his lips. "I told you, they can't find her, but I know where she is."
"You know? But how--"
"Look," said the giant, frowning, "I didn't ask you why you're so anxious to leave."
"I'll clear your ship and we can pick up the crystals for the salvage fee. A million each, and all nice and legal. We can leave by the end of the week and be back in probably six months."
"Six months!" Tee stood up. "Sorry!"
The redhead grabbed his arm in a hamlike palm. "A million each in six months; what's wrong with that?"
Tee jerked out of his grasp. "I ... I just can't do it."
"I don't know what you're running from," persisted the redhead, "but with a million credits you can fight extradition for the rest of your life. This is your big chance, can't you see that. Besides, this planet has some interesting customs." He winked at Tee. "I can introduce you--"
"I can't stay here," interrupted Tee. "You just don't understand."
"Look," cried the redhead exasperatedly, "I'm offering you a full partnership on a two million credit salvage deal and you want to back out because it'll take six months. On top of that you're broke and stranded and your hangar bill gets bigger every day. If you don't take me up on this deal, you'll still be sitting here six months from now wondering how to get your ship out of hock--if you don't get caught first. What do you say? What've you got to lose?"
What did he have to lose? Tee gripped the edge of the bar till his knuckles showed white. "No! I just can't do it. Why don't you get someone else?"
"The slow tubs around this port would take years for the trip. I can see the Starduster has class."
"Fastest thing in the galaxy," said Tee, proudly. Then earnestly, "I'm sorry, you'll just have to find some other ship."
"Think it over," said the redhead. "I'll wait. When you change your mind look me up. Name's Yule Larson." He slapped Tee heavily on the back and swaggered toward the door. He turned and looked back. "Better go along with me. After six months they can auction off your ship to pay for the port charges, you know." The door swung shut behind him.
Tee sat down again and bent his head, nursing his drink. His eyes darted nervously around the room and came to rest on the clock. A shudder ran through him and he lowered his eyes quickly. As he sipped his drink his eyes returned to the clock continually, as though drawn there against their will. As he watched, the minute hand jerked downward and an involuntary gasp escaped his lips.
The bartender turned quickly. "Anything wrong?"
"N ... no, nothing." As he spoke, the minute hand moved again and Tee started nervously, upsetting his drink. He sat for a moment watching the bartender mop up the spreading liquid, then abruptly got up and tossed a half-credit piece on the bar. He hurried outside, steeling himself to keep from running. He paused just outside the door.
Stand still, he told himself. Mustn't run! Mustn't run! No use anyway. If I only knew when. If I just could stop and rest. If I had the time ... Time! Time! That's what I need. Light-years of time ... But when? When? If only I could be sure. He looked up slowly at the murky canopy of clouds. If I only knew when! He looked indecisively up and down the field, then squaring his shoulders resolutely, set out for the administration building.
At this hour the office was deserted except for a wispy-haired little man who sat at a desk fussing with some papers. He looked up questioningly as Tee came in.
"Is my ship re-charged and provisioned?" asked Tee.
"Uh, what's the name please?"
"Tee Ormond. I own the Starduster."
The clerk pulled a card from a file on the desk and studied it. "Ah, yes, the Starduster."
"I'd like to pay my bill and clear the Starduster for immediate departure."
"Uh, very good, Mr. Ormond." He consulted the card again. "That'll be fourteen hundred and eleven credits." He beamed. "We included a case of Ruykeser's Concentrate, compliments of the management." He handed a circular to Tee. "This is a list of our ports and facilities on other planets. Our accommodations are the finest, and we carry a complete line of parts." He smiled professionally.
"What about my key?" asked Tee, pulling out his wallet.
"Uh, let's see, number thirty-seven." The clerk started for a numbered board hanging on the wall. He never got there.
Tee whipped a stun-gun from inside his jacket and waved it at the clerk's back. It caught him in mid-stride, and unbalanced, he crashed heavily to the floor. Tee glanced briefly down as he stepped over the paralyzed form, avoiding the accusing eyes, and snatched the magnetic key off the hook. He forced himself to walk calmly across the field toward the hangar that housed the Starduster.
A uniformed guard stopped him at the hangar door. "May I see your clearance, sir?" he asked, politely.
Tee hesitated for a moment. "Oh, I'm just going to get something out of my ship," he said, smoothly. "The clerk said it was roj."
"The clerk said? But he can't--" The guard tensed. "Mind if I check, sir? Orders, you know." He bent his head slightly as he pressed a knob on his wrist radio. As his eyes turned downward, Tee swung the stun-gun in an arc that ended on the back of the guard's head. As he leaped into the Starduster he was sorry for a moment that he hadn't had time to recharge the gun, and hoped he hadn't struck too hard.
OCTOBER 11, 433rd Year GALACTIC ERA Tee stepped out of the hangar and surveyed the twin suns. The pale binaries sat stolidly on the horizon, forty degrees apart. Their mingled light washed down dimly on the single continent of the planet, Aurora.
He started, as a man walked around the corner of the hangar. The man looked at Tee searchingly for a moment, then asked, "Anything troubling you, Tee?"
"Why ... why, no, Mr. Jenner. You just startled me, that's all."
"Well, how's everything coming?"