Jeter went through the doors into the plane. In a few seconds the propeller kicked over, hesitated, kicked again. Then the motor coughed, coughed again, and broke into a steady roaring.
High Chaos The plane moved forward. Its tail swung around. Its wheels headed for the door. They dropped through, into the faces of the foremost pursuers, all of whom were thus effectually blocked off.
The plane was held as in a vise. The propeller vanished in a blur as Jeter let the motor out. It was humming an even, steady note. The doors came open again.
Jeter came out, his eyes glowing.
"We haven't the chance of the proverbial celluloid dog chasing the asbestos cat," he shouted to be heard above the roar of the motor. "But grab your high altitude suit, oxygen container, and parachute, and let's get as far away from this plane as we can. Who knows? When the end comes we may get a break at that!"
They ran until the bulge of the inner globe all but hid the plane from them. They could see only the top wing. They did not go farther because they wished to make sure that the enemy did not dislodge the plane and nullify all their work.
"They won't be able to," said Jeter, "for that motor is pulling against the wheels and holding them so tight against the side of that door that a hundred men couldn't budge the plane. But we can't take chances."
Quickly the partners slipped into their suits, adjusted their oxygen tanks and parachutes. Then Jeter slipped back the elastic sleeve of his suit and motioned Eyer to do the same. The manacles were brought into view again. They looked at each other. Eyer grinned and held out his left hand. Jeter snapped the second cuff to Eyer's wrist.
The act was significant.
Whatever happened to them, would happen to both in equal measure. It was a gesture which needed no words. If they were slain when their friends--if their theory was correct--finally saw the space ship, they would die together. If by some miracle they were hurled into outer space and lived to use their parachutes--well, the discomfort was a small price to pay to stay together.
Now they devoted all their attention to their own situation. Four planes still spun warily above the space ship. Wang Li was patently trying with all his might to get all four of them before the Jeter-Eyer plane, by shattering the rind, disclosed the inner core to the bombs of the remaining planes.
"Lucian!" said the fingers of Eyer. "Can you tell whether anything is happening to the rind?"
Jeter hesitated for a long time. There was a distinct and almost nauseating vibration throughout all the space ship. And was there not something happening to the rind over a wide area, directly above the Jeter-Eyer plane?
They could fancy the snapping of ice on a forest lake in mid-winter.
They couldn't hear, in their suits. They could only feel. But all at once the outer rind, above their plane, vanished. At the same instant the plane itself, propeller still spinning, rose swiftly up through the hole in the rind. The air inside the globe was going out in a great rush.
The partners looked at each other. At that moment the four planes swooped over the space ship....
Jeter and Eyer knew that the inner globe had at last become visible, for from the bellies of the four planes dropped bomb after bomb. They fell into the great aperture. Jeter and Eyer flung themselves flat. But the bombs had worked sufficient havoc. They had removed all protection from the low-pressure stratosphere. The air inside the space ship went out with a rush. Jeter and Eyer, hearing nothing, though they knew that the explosions must have been cataclysmic, were picked up and whirled toward that opening, like chips spun toward the heart of a whirlpool.
But for their space suits they would have been destroyed in the outrush of air. Out of the inner globe came men that flew, sprawled out, somersaulting up and out of apertures made by the crashing bombs. Ludicrous they looked. Blood streamed from their mouths. Their faces were set in masks of agony. There were Sitsumi and, one after another, the Three.
Then fastened together by the cuffs, the partners were being whirled over and over, out into space. Their last signals to each other had been: "Even if you're already dead, pull the ripcord ring of your chute!"
Crushed, buffeted, they still retained consciousness. They sought through the spinning stratosphere for their rescuers. Thousands of feet below--or was it above?--they saw them. Yes, below, for they looked at the tops of the planes. Their upward flight had been dizzying. They waited until their upward flight ceased.
Then, as they started the long fall to Earth, they pulled their rings and waited for their chutes to flower above them.
Soon they were floating downward. Side by side they rode. Above them their parachutes were like two umbrellas, pressed almost too closely together.
They looked about them, seeking the space ship.
The devastation of its outer rind had been complete, for they now could see the inner globe, and it too was like--well, like merely part of an eggshell.
The doomed space ship--gyroscope still keeping the ray pointed Earthward--describing an erratic course, was shooting farther upward into the stratosphere, propelled by the ghastly ray which, now no longer controlled by Wang Li, drove the space ship madly through the outer cold.
Far below the partners many things were falling: broken furnishings of mad dreamers' stratosphere laboratories, parts of strange machines, whirling, somersaulting things that had once been men.
The partners looked at each other.
The same thought was in the mind of each, as the four remaining planes came in toward them to convoy them down--that when the lords of the stratosphere finally reached the far Earth, only God would know which was Sitsumi and who were the Three.
By EVERETT B. COLE
A strong man can, of course, be dangerous, but he doesn't approach the vicious deadliness of a weakling--with a weapon!
Naran Makun looked across the table at the caravan master.
"And you couldn't find a trace of him?"
"Nothing. Not even a scrap of his cargo or so much as the bones of a long-neck. He just dropped out of sight of his whole train. He went through this big estate, you see. Then he cut back to pick up some of his stops on the northern swing. Well, that was all. He didn't get to the first one." The other waved a hand.
"Weird situation, too. Oh, the null was swirling, we know that, and he could have been caught in an arm. It happens, but it isn't too often that an experienced man like your brother gets in so deep he can't get out somehow--or at least leave some trace of what happened." The man picked up his cup, eying it thoughtfully.
"Oh, we've all had close ones, sure. We've all lost a long-neck or so, now and then. Whenever the null swirls, it can cover big territory in a big hurry and most of that northern swing is null area at one time or another. One of those arms can overrun a train at night and if a man loses his head, he's in big trouble." He sipped from his cup.
"Young caravan master got caught that way, just a while back. A friend of mine, Dr. Zalbon, was running the swing after the null retracted. He found what was left."
"Told me he ran into a herd of carnivores. Fifteen or twenty real big fellows. Jaws as long as a man. He killed them off and then found they'd been feeding on what was left of Dar Konil's train."
He shook his head. "It's not a nice area."
"Hold everything." Naran leaned forward. "You said my brother went through this big estate. Anyone see him come out?"
Dar Girdek smiled. "Oh, sure. The Master of the Estates, Kio Barra, himself. He saw him to the border and watched him go on his way."
Naran looked doubtful. "And what kind of a character is this Barra?"
"Oh, him!" Dar Girdek waved a hand. "Nothing there. In the first place, he holds one of the biggest estates in the mountain area. So what would he want to rob a freight caravan for?" He laughed.
"In the second place, the guy's practically harmless. Oh, sure, he's got a title. He's Lord of the Mountain Lake. And he wears a lot of psionic crystalware. But he's got about enough punch to knock over some varmint--if it's not too tough. Dar Makun might be your weak brother, but he'd have eaten that guy for breakfast if he'd tried to be rough."
"Psionic weakling, you mean? But how does he manage to be a master Protector of an Estate?"
Dar Girdek smiled wryly. "Father died. Brother sneaked off somewhere. That left him. Title's too clear for anyone to try any funny business."
"I see." Naran leaned back. "Now, what about this null?"
"Well, of course you know about the time the pseudomen from the Fifth managed to sneak in and lay a mess of their destructors on Carnol?"
"I might. I was one of the guys that saw to it they didn't get back to celebrate." Naran closed his eyes for an instant.
"Yeah. Way I heard it, you were the guy that wrapped 'em up. Too bad they didn't get you on the job sooner. Maybe we wouldn't have this mess on our hands now." Dar Girdek shrugged.
"Anyway, they vaporized the city and a lot of area around it. That was bad, but the aftereffect is worse. We've got scholars beating their brains cells together, but all they can tell us is that there's a big area up there just as psionically dead as an experimental chamber." He grinned.
"I could tell 'em that much myself. It's a sort of cloud. Goes turbulent, shoots out arms, then folds in again.
"We'd by-pass the whole thing, but it's right on the main trade route. Only way around it is plenty of days out of the path, clear down around the middle sea and into the lake region. Then you have to go all the way back anyway, if you plan to do any mid-continent trading. And you still take a chance of getting caught in a swirl arm."
Naran tilted his head. "So? Suppose you do get into a swirl? All you need to do is wait." He smiled.
"You know. Just sort of ignore it. It'll go away."
"Uh huh. Sounds easy enough. It's about what we do when we have to. But there are things living there. They can be hard to ignore."
"You mean the carnivores?"
"That's right. If you meet one of those fellow out in normal territory, he's no trouble at all. You hit him with a distorter and he flops. Then you figure out whether to reduce him to slime or leave the carcass for his friends and relations." He smiled.
"From what your brother said, you wouldn't need the distorter."
Naran smiled deprecatingly. "That's one of the things they pay me for," he remarked. "We run into some pretty nasty beasties at sea."
"Yeah. I've heard. Big, rough fellows. Our varmints are smaller. But what would you do if you ran into twenty tons or so of pure murder, and you with no more psionic power than some pseudoman?"
Naran looked at him thoughtfully. "I hadn't thought of that," he admitted. "I might not like it. Jaws as longs as a man, you said?"
The other nodded. "Longer, sometimes. And teeth as long as your hand. One snap and there's nothing left.
"When they kill a long-neck, they have a good meal and walk away from whatever's left. But people are something else. They just can't get enough and they don't leave any crumbs." He waved a hand.
"There've been several trains caught by those things. A swirl arm comes over at night, you see, and the caravan master loses his head. He can't think of anything but getting out. Oh, he can yell at his drivers. They've got a language, and we all know it. That's easy. But did you ever try to get a long-neck going without psionic control?"
"I see what you mean. It could be a little rough."
"Yeah. It could be. Anyway, about this time, everybody's yelling at everybody else. The long-necks are squealing and bellowing. Drivers are jerking on reins. And a herd of carnivores hears the commotion. So, they drop around to see the fun. See what I mean?"
Naran nodded and Dar Girdek went on.
"Well, that's about it. Once in a great while, some guy manages to get into a cave and hide out till the null swings away and another caravan comes along. But usually, no one sees anything but a little of the cargo and some remains of long-necks. No one's ever come up with any part of man or pseudoman. As I said, one snap and there's nothing left."
Naran smiled wryly. "Tough to be popular, I guess." He leaned forward.
"But you've been over the trail several times since he disappeared. And you said you've seen nothing. No trace of the train. That right?"
The other shook his head. "Not even a cargo sling."
"You're making up a train now, aren't you? I'd like to go along on this next trip. Fact is, I've been thinking some nasty thoughts. And I'm going to be uneasy till I find out whether I'm right or not."
Dar Girdek rubbed his chin. "Want to buy in, maybe?"
"No, I don't think so. I'll work my way--as your lead driver."
"Oh, no!" Dar Girdek laughed. "You don't put a psionic on some long-neck. Lead driver's pseudoman, just like the rest." He sobered.
"Oh, sure. You could handle the drivers, but it just isn't done."
Naran smiled. "Oh, as far as the other drivers'll know, I'm just another pseudoman. I've been a ship's non-psi agent, remember? We earn our keep by dealing with the people in non-psi areas."
"It won't work." The caravan master shook his head. "These drivers can get pretty rough with each other. You'd have to set two or three of them back on their heels the first day. It would be either that, or get a lot of bruises and end up as camp flunky."
"Could be," Naran told him. "Tell you what. You turn me loose in an experimental chamber so I can't fudge. Then send your toughest driver in and tell him to kick me out of there. I'll show him some tricks I learned from the non-psi's overseas and he'll be a smarter man when he wakes up."
Leuwan, Kio Barra, Lord of the Mountain Lake, Master of the Estates Kira Barra, and Protector of the Common Good, stood examining the assortment of crystals in a cabinet. He hesitated over a large, brilliantly gleaming sphere of crystallized carbon, then shook his head. That one would be pretty heavy going, he was sure. The high intensity summary said something about problems of the modern world, so it could be expected to be another of those dull reports on the welfare of the Commonwealth.
Why, he wondered, did some projection maker waste good time and effort by making up things like that? And why did they waste more time and effort by sending them around? When a man wanted to relax, he wanted something to relax with. What he was looking for was something light.
He turned his attention to other crystals, at last selecting a small, blue prism. He held it up, regarding it, then nodded and placed it on the slender black pedestal near his chair, where he could observe without undue effort.
He turned, examining each corner of his empty study, then took his sapphire-tipped golden staff from under his arm, placing it carefully on a rack built into his chair arm, where it would be convenient to his hand should the need arise.
One could never be too careful, he thought. Of course, he could deal with any recalcitrant slave by other means, but the distorter was convenient and could be depended upon to give any degree of pressure desired. And it was a lot less trouble to use than to concentrate on more fatiguing efforts such as neural pressure or selective paralysis.
One must conserve one's powers for times when they might be really needed.
Too, there was the remote possibility that some lackland wanderer might come by and find a flaw in the protection of the Estates--even somehow penetrate to the Residence. Barra shuddered at that thought, then shrugged it off. Kira Barra was well protected, of that he had made sure. Ever vigilant surrogates were deposited in all the strategic spots of the Estates--not only to allow quick observations of the condition of the lands, but also to give automatic warning of the approach of anyone of inimical turn of mind.
He eased his bulk into the chair, twisted about for a few moments as it adjusted to fit his body, then leaned back with a sigh of relaxation and directed his thoughts to the crystal before him.