"Right on schedule. We'll be ready for the final test by the end of the week."
"By the way," asked Jenner, speculatively, "how come you ordered the ship stocked and provisioned, for the test?"
"Why ... why I think she should be tested under exactly the same conditions as she'll encounter in actual use."
"We could have done it a lot cheaper by just using ballast," said Jenner. "After this, I want to personally see any voucher for over a hundred credits before it's cleared."
"Yes, sir, but I just didn't want to bother you with details."
"An expenditure of over two thousand credits isn't just detail; but let it pass. It's already done. Anyway, on the drawing board she's the fastest thing in the galaxy." He smiled. "If she lives up to expectations, she'll make your ship look like an old freighter. We've got four million sunk in her so far, so she'd better check out roj."
He put his hand on Tee's shoulder. "You're not worried about testing her, are you? You've been jumpy lately."
"Oh, no, nothing like that, Mr. Jenner. I'm just ... well, I've been up all night watching them install the gyroscopes. Think I'll get some sleep." He yawned.
Jenner cupped his chin in his palm and stood staring after the retreating figure. As Tee turned and looked back nervously, Jenner entered the hangar office. He spoke softly into the visiphone and in a moment the screen lit up.
"Is this the prison administrator?" asked Jenner.
"What can I do for you?"
"My name is Jenner; Consolidated Spacecraft."
"Suppose an escaped prisoner from Hades landed on Aurora?"
"No one escapes from Hades Prison."
"Well, just suppose one did?"
"I never receive information about escapees."
"But you're the administrator here."
"My job, as the title implies, is purely administrative. I merely arrange transportation for our annual shipment of prisoners to Hades, and see that the records are kept straight."
"But whom would they contact in the event of an escape?"
The administrator pursed his lips in impatience. "Hades has six billion prisoners at any given time. If one did manage to escape, they couldn't very well alert a million planets."
"You mean you wouldn't do anything?"
"As I said before, my job is purely administrative. Out of my jurisdiction entirely. Each planet has its own police force and handles its internal crime in its own way. What's legal on Aurora might very well be illegal on ten thousand other planets, and vice versa."
"I see. Thank you." Jenner cut the connection slowly. He flicked the switch open again, hesitated, and then closed it.
He walked out to where his gyrocar was parked, and in a few minutes set it down on the roof of Tee's hotel. Tee was just entering the lobby as Jenner came in and they went up to his room together.
"I'll come right to the point, Tee," he said, as soon as the door had closed. "I just talked to the local prison administrator for Hades." He looked closely at Tee.
"What's that got to do with me?" asked Tee, belligerently.
"Wait until I finish," said Jenner, curtly. "I hired you to test-hop our new ship because you were the best pilot available. I'm not interested in your past, but most of the company's resources are sunk in that ship. If something goes wrong because the test pilot is disturbed or nervous, the company will be bankrupt. I'm not saying you're an escaped prisoner, but if you were, you'd have nothing to worry about."
"What do you mean?"
"The administrator told me he has no jurisdiction over escaped prisoners, so you see, if you had escaped, you'd have nothing to fear here. You're out of their jurisdiction."
Tee began to laugh wildly. "Out of their jurisdiction! Out of their jurisdiction! So that's the way they put it. Out of their jurisdiction!"
"Stop it!" said Jenner, sharply. "Do you want to tell me now?"
Tee drew in a gasping breath and sobered. "What would I have to tell you? So I'm the nervous type. So you hired me to test-hop your new ship. So I'll test-hop it. That's all we agreed on. What more do you want?"
Jenner sighed. "Roj, Tee, if that's the way you want it, but I wish--"
The visiphone buzzed, and when Tee flipped the switch, the worried face of the chief mechanic sprang into focus. "Oh, there you are, Mr. Jenner. Glad I caught you before you left. We've run into trouble."
"Well, out with it," barked Jenner. "What is it?"
The mechanic cleared his throat nervously. "We were testing the main gyroscope when it threw a blade."
"How bad is it?" asked Jenner.
"Pretty bad, I'm afraid. It tore up the subetherscope unit so bad we'll have to replace it. We can't get any on Aurora either. We'll have to send to Lennix, and that'll take close to a month."
"Roj! Knock off until I get there," barked Jenner. He slammed over the switch, viciously. "Of all the rotten luck!"
"Can't you get some plant here on Aurora to hand tool one for you?" asked Tee.
"No, that's just it," replied Jenner. "It's a special alloy. The owners of the process wouldn't give us any details on the manufacture. Anyway, even if we knew how, we couldn't duplicate it without their special machine tools."
"Does that mean--"
"I'm afraid so. The ship won't be ready for a month, now."
"A month! I can't wait a month."
"You can't wait a month? We've got four million tied up in that ship and you tell me you can't wait a month."
"Look, Mr. Jenner, I'll test it without the unit."
"That's impossible. The ship would vibrate into a billion pieces as soon as it went into subspace. No! We'll just have to wait."
"I can't wait," cried Tee. "You'll have to get another pilot."
"Just a minute! You can't walk out on your contract. If it's a matter of credits--"
Tee shook his head. "That's not it at all. I just can't stay that long."
Jenner looked at him angrily. "Well, your contract isn't up till the end of the week anyway. We'll see what we can do about a replacement then."
After Jenner had left, Tee sat smoking in the darkness. He placed his elbow on the couch arm and cupped his chin in his palm. Then restlessly, he snuffed out his cigarette and rubbed his hands together. They felt moist and clammy. He jerked nervously as a click sounded out in the hall. Only a door opening across the way. He bit the fleshy part of his middle finger and then began to worry his ring with his teeth. He lit another cigarette and dropped it into the disposal almost immediately.
He got up and began to pace the room. Six steps forward. Turn. Six steps back. Turn. Six steps forward--or was it five this time? The walls seemed to be closing in, constricting. His head felt light and his tongue and palate grew dry. He tried to swallow, and a feeling of nausea came over him. His throat grew tight and he felt as though he were choking. Rubbing his forehead with the back of his hand it came away wet with perspiration. He rushed to the window and struggled futilely with it, forgetting it was sealed shut in the air-conditioned hotel. He flung himself at the door, wrenching it open and took the escalator three steps at a time falling to his knees at the ground floor. A surface cab was sitting outside just beyond the entrance. He flung himself in, breathing heavily and fumbling to drop a coin in the slot, pulled the control lever all the way over.
Twenty minutes later, the Starduster hovered for a moment over Aurora, then shimmered and vanished as it went into subspace.
OCTOBER 2, 435th Year GALACTIC ERA The Starduster materialized just outside the atmosphere of the planet Elysia, and fluttered erratically downward, like a wounded bird. A hundred feet from the surface, the ship hesitated, shuddered throughout her length, then dropped like a plummet, crashing heavily into a grove of trees.
For Tee there was a long period of blessed darkness, of peace, of non-remembering, then his mind clawed upward toward consciousness. The fear and uncertainty were with him again--nagging, nibbling, gnawing at his reason.
He fought to close his mind and drift back down into the darkness of peace and forgetting, but contrarily the past marched in review before his consciousness: The twin worlds of Thole revolving about each other as he fled down the shallow ravine before the creeping wall of lava, while the ancient mountain grunted and belched, and coughed up its insides. The terrible pull of the uncharted black star as it tugged at the feeble Starduster. The enervating heat and humidity of perpetually cloudy Thymis. Pyramids of gleaming penryx crystals piled high as mountains, and Yule Larson towering above the landscape, draining gargantuan rainbows at a single gulp; striding like Paul Bunyan across the land in mile-long strides and kicking over the pyramids of crystals, laughing uproariously at the sport. And Jenner, grinning idiotically, pointing a thick finger at him and repeating over and over: "Out of their jurisdiction! Nothing to fear! Nothing to fear! Nothing to fear! Noth--"
"Stop it! Stop it!" cried Tee, and a brilliant burst of light like a thousand sky-rockets seemed to go off in his head. He shrieked like an animal in agony, then fell back sobbing, bathed in perspiration.
Something cool touched his forehead and he pulled away violently, then as his head cleared he opened his eyes slowly. A blur of shadows and light shimmering indistinctly, then suddenly like the picture on a visiphone the blurs coalesced and formed a clear image, and everything was normal again, the fear still hovering close, but pushed back for the time being.
A girl stood before him smiling rather uncertainly. The sweetness and cleanness of that smile after his recent ordeal washed over his tortured mind like a cooling astringent, and he smiled gratefully up at her. She put a cool palm on his forehead and as she started to withdraw it he clutched it in an emaciated fist and mumbled indistinctly through cracked dry lips.
She smiled down at him and smoothed back his damp hair. She pulled up a chair beside the bed and continued to stroke his hair until his eyes closed in sleep.
He awoke ravenous and thirsty, but lay quietly for a time, luxuriating in the feel of the clean soft sheets. He was in a simply but tastefully decorated room. Three of the walls were made of transparent glass and the warm golden rays of a type G sun bathed the room. Outside he could see green rolling meadowland, broken here and there by sylvan groves. A brilliantly colored bird swooped down and preened itself for a moment, then raised its head and flooded the silence with melody. Faintly from a grove of trees came an answering treble. The songbird cocked its head to the side, listening, then swooped upward on wings of flashing color. A small squirrellike creature bounded nervously up to the transparent wall and sat on its haunches, surveying the room with bright beady eyes. As Tee's ears attuned themselves he was suddenly aware of chirpings, trebles, clearpitched whistles, and from somewhere in the depths of the grove, a deep-pitched ga-rooph, ga-roomph.
A chubby little man with a round face and alert twinkling eyes entered the room. He seemed to radiate happiness and contentment. "Well, I see the patient's finally come around," he said, cheerfully.
"What happened?" asked Tee.
"Your ship crashed just beyond that grove."
Tee clutched at him. "The ship! How bad is it?"
"I think you were in worse shape than your ship. You must have had it under control almost to the end, though how you stayed conscious with space fever is beyond me."
"Space fever? So that's it. I remember getting sick and light-headed and just before I passed out I flipped out of subspace and the automatic finder, of course, took the ship to the nearest planet. I must have landed by reflex action. I sure don't remember anything about it."
"Well," the man laughed, "I have seen better landings, but not when the pilot had a temperature of one-o-five. Anyway, you're safe now. Welcome to Elysia."
There it was again. Safe! Safe! Tee raised up, then fell back weakly.
"Is anything wrong?" asked the little man, alarmed.
"N ... nothing, I just ... nothing!"
The man was looking at him questioningly.
"Elysia," mused Tee. "I seem to remember an old old myth brought from the original Earth." He waved toward the sylvan setting, outside.
The little man smiled. "Yes, the old settlers named our planet well." He caught himself. "Oh, I'm sorry; I'm Dr. Chensi. This is my home."
Tee smiled. "Well at least you'll have to admit I showed good judgment crashing next to a doctor's house." Then more seriously, "Thanks, doc, thanks for everything."
"My degrees aren't in medicine," replied Dr. Chensi. "I'm afraid I had little to do with your recovery. My daughter's the one who nursed you. Oh, here she is now." He raised his voice. "Come in, Lara."
Since Dr. Chensi was using the only chair she sat down on the edge of the bed.
"Here," said the doctor, teasingly, "what kind of nurse are you, mussing up your patient's bed?"
She pouted prettily. "He's my patient." Then looking down at Tee with a smile, "You'll be up and around in no time now."
"Time!" cried Tee, raising up. "What's the date? I've got to know!"
"You've been delirious for two weeks," answered the doctor. "Another two weeks of convalescence and you ought to be as good as new."
"But two weeks, I can't--"
"Can't leave before then anyway," replied the doctor calmly. "I knew you'd want your ship repaired so I had it hauled to the port. Won't be ready for two more weeks. So you might as well relax."
Tee bit his lip, and clenched his fists to keep from trembling. It was a moment before he could trust himself to speak without a quaver in his voice. "Nothing else I can do, I guess. Thanks, anyway. And by the way, there's enough credits in the ship's safe to pay for the repairs, I'm sure."
"I think we should start the patient walking tomorrow," said Lara, in a mock-professional voice. She punched the ends of Tee's pillow. "Now you'd better get some sleep. You're still very weak, you know."
The days that followed were like an idyll for Tee. With Lara he wandered through the parklike wooded groves. They sat near shaded pools and ate wild berries while she told him stories of the founding of Elysia. They held hands and ran exuberantly across the grassy meadows, and waded like children in the clear brooks.
A thousand times, a word, an endearing term, sprang to his lips, and each time the fear clamped his tongue in a vise of steel. A thousand times he wanted to touch her, feel the silkiness of her hair, the warmth of her lips, but each time the fear and uncertainty stood between them like twin specters of doom, pointing and saying, "Fool! Why torture yourself?"
In the daytime when Lara was with him it wasn't so bad, but at night the fear and uncertainty crowded to the fore and blanked out everything else. It was then he prayed for the courage to kill himself, and despised the weakness that made him draw back from the thought. If only he could stop thinking. Make his mind a blank. But that was death, and death was what he feared. How long ago was it when he'd first realized that hope was an illusion, a false god that smiled and lied, and held out vain promises only to prolong the torture?
Then one day the word came that his ship was repaired. As though the word were a catalyst the terrible fear overwhelmed him, drowning out every other thought, and he knew he had to leave. When he had no means of leaving the planet he could partially close off his dread and wait resignedly. But now that the ship was ready, every moment he remained was an agony.
He led Lara to their favorite spot by a quiet pool. She looked radiant, and smiled to herself, as though at a secret. He steeled himself and finally blurted out, "Lara, I'm leaving tomorrow." He hesitated and bit his lip. "And ... thanks for everything."
"Thanks?" She choked on the words.
"I'm sorry--" he trailed off, lamely.
"But ... but I thought--" She looked down.