He was sorry now that he hadn't thought to shoot cross-country to get Karin. Who knew for certain where the next blast would hit? He could have dropped her off at the moon base.
The moon was full in his vision plates now. He was close enough to tune in their local telecast to the moon colonies. The machine was ticking away and Case switched it onto the pitted satellite's local beam.
They had the news all right, and they were making preparations for an attack. The fleet base was assuring all colonists that it would furnish them all possible protection.
A fat lot of good that was going to do! Case had had enough time now to think this over, and he was beginning to see the ramifications of the thing.
Someone on Earth, someone inside the Council, wanted to take over. But with Earth supervision of military manufacture so thorough, he hadn't a chance to get started. So he must have enlisted the aid of some power from outer space.
But how? And what power? And who was the traitor inside the Council?
Case wasn't going at this blindly. That first question, for instance. There had been in the last year several strange disappearances. Two space liners from Mars to Venus had utterly vanished, without a trace. Smaller ships, too, had never reported back. They had last been heard from in that same area.
But space liners just didn't vanish. They had equipment for any emergency, were able to contact Earth at a moment's notice.
A hole in the sky, observers of the flash had said. Between Mars and Venus, Cranly had told him. It was beginning to add up. It was Case Damon's job to figure the total.
Now the moon was far behind. Case looked at his watch and saw that he was making real time. Another couple of hours was all he'd need.
He got out the chart Cranly had given him, set it up alongside his own navigation map, figured the time element and aimed his ship at a blankness in space. He would hit that empty space at exactly the right time.
After that? Case didn't know. But he wasn't the kind to cross bridges before he got to them.
What if Cranly was the traitor within the Council? That was hard to believe, but you could never tell what lust for power might do to a man. Cranly wasn't the type. Yet, there was a planet to be won. They said every man had his price. And Cranly was in charge of Earth's intelligence services.
The ticking of the telecast broke into his thoughts. There were breaks in the steady sounds. His code call.
Case switched on the video and got a blank. What the devil! Automatically he reached for his transmitter switch. And caught himself in the nick of time. It might be a trick to get him to reveal his position. Instead, he turned up the audio.
"Damon," a voice said. "Case Damon." It was not the same voice he had heard in the Council chambers. This was vaguely familiar, but definitely disguised.
"Better turn back, Damon," the voice said. "You almost tricked us. Don't let a small success go to your head. We cannot be defeated. Why sacrifice your life for a lost cause?"
"You know where you can go, brother," Case said aloud.
It had been bad psychology to use on a man who had never feared death anyway. Besides, if they were so omniscient, why bother to try to stop him with words?
The voice had tried to impress him with power. It had only succeeded in disclosing a weakness. They didn't know where Case Damon was, and they were worried.
Hours had become minutes, and the minutes were ticking away with the sweep of the hand on Case's watch. Ten minutes more to go. Using Cranly's figures and chart, he was only a thousand miles from that point in space.
He swung the ship around and cut speed, but held his hand ready at the throttle. There might not be much time to act. And the telecast was using his signal again. He didn't want to turn it up, but he wanted to hear that voice again.
"Damon," the voice said. "Case Damon. This is your last chance."
"Change your tune," Case snarled at the instrument.
But the voice was going on. "If your own life means nothing, perhaps you value another more. Turn on your video and you will see something of interest to you."
That got him, brought him bolt upright in his seat. The voice could mean only one thing--Karin! Somehow they had got to her!
Maybe this was a trick. Only five minutes or less now. They might be trying to distract him. But he couldn't take the chance. With fingers that were icy cold, Case Damon flicked on the video.
A wall was what he first saw. Only a wall. It was a trick. But wait. That wall was familiar, rough, unpainted. The focus was shifting to a section that showed a mounted fish. Now down the wall and across to a familiar couch. The fishing cabin!
"Karin!" Case blurted.
Then he was mouthing incoherent curses. Her figure had been flung across the screen, on the couch. She had put up a fight. Her face was scratched, her blouse ripped. There was a gag in her mouth and her hands were tied behind her.
"She dies unless you turn back!" the voice said. It meant every word.
Karin had guts. She was shaking her head, imploring him with her eyes not to turn back.
If he only had time to think! What did the rest of the world mean to Case Damon? Nothing, if it was a world without Karin. Yet, she was his own kind, this girl he had married. Were their positions reversed, it would have been Case who shook his head. Better to die than live in a world dominated by a murderous, merciless power.
And yet, she was ... Karin. Without her there was nothing. Already Case's hands were busy, throwing switches that would cut in the retarding jets, swinging the responsive craft about. He had to give in. He didn't have time to think.
"All right," he started to say.
His right hand reached out to turn on his transmitter. His lips framed the words again. But it was too late!
The video was distorting into a mass of wavy lines, the audio brought nothing but a jumble of sound. Interference was scrambling the telecast waves beyond hope of intelligibility. He couldn't get through. The first rumble rose to audibility and made the ship shiver.
"Too late," Case said, and was beyond cursing.
Too late to turn back now. But not too late to go ahead. Air waves were pitching the ship like a cork. He fought to control, and finally swung back on course.
Case took a last quick look at Cranly's chart, and flicked his eyes ahead to the vision plate. Only blackness yet, but the sound was growing and rising in pitch past the point where he could hear it. There was the sense of enormous strain, of the tug of unbelievably powerful and overwhelming contending forces.
And then the blackness split!
First, he could see only a pinpoint of light. It grew larger, widened, spread until it became a cleft in the void. Case flung his ship forward.
The last rumble of thunder was fading. He kept his eyes on that cleft in space, knowing what would come. Yet, when it came, he was almost blinded. A blast of light, a light so intense that it was a tangible, solid thing, roared through the cleft and hurtled Earthward.
Then the bolt was gone and the cleft was closing. The tug of forces was growing less. He had just seconds left to reach that diminishing crack in the blackness.
Like a streak of vengeance itself, Case sent his ship across the void. His lips moved in silent prayer. There were only seconds now. The crack was growing smaller, and that meant his speed was not great enough. To risk more power might blow the ship apart. But he had to get through. He must, he must....
He was through!
Case was through, through the cleft and beyond the thunder. He was hurtling out of blackness into a world of light. Frantically, he cut down his speed, not knowing whether he was going into open space or the side of a mountain, whether in this new world he would be going up or down.
His altimeter had switched on automatically. That was a relief. A quick glance showed the dial at 90,000 feet. The retarding jets were slowing his drop, and Case had time for a look at strange terrain below.
From his present height, it looked like rolling country. There were hills, valleys, a checkerboard of green and tan that might be cultivated ground, a river.
But most important of all, there was a city, a city of towers and pinnacles more impressive than any on Earth. Three of those towers interested Case. They stood apart, the center tower hundreds of feet higher than the two which flanked it, and all three were like fingers pointing directly at the place where the cleft had been.
Case made decisions rapidly. He had to get the ship out of the air before someone saw it. First, though, he'd have to make sure it would be air he stepped into when he got out. He had a space suit in the forward locker, but putting that on would slow him up.
An intake valve hissed away. Soon, there would be something to test. Then the hissing stopped. That was a good sign. Pressure outside the ship was almost the same as inside. There was an atmosphere.
But of what was that atmosphere composed? That was now the big question. Case set the controls and turned to the intake tank. With the turn of a petcock, there came another hiss. Case got out his cigarette lighter and flicked it into flame.
He held his breath as the flame wavered. The air in the ship was being forced away from it. But the flame did not die. Case sighed with relief. If the atmosphere supported combustion, it would support breathing.
With that important question answered, Case turned to others. Where the devil was he? He couldn't answer that, but perhaps he might discover a clue. The telecast was one way.
But the telecast had stopped ticking. Case ran the thing over the entire frequency range and got nothing. If that was a clue, it was a negative one.
He had to think it over even as he swung the ship into a long glide for a hill which looked like it might have a good deal of growth on it. Coming in low, Case saw that vegetation was sparse. But there was not another ship in these strange skies. He had to land soon.
Running his eyes over the landscape below, Case discovered tall vegetation along the base of another hill. It would have to do. He came in low over the green, and swooped in for a landing. Luckily, this ship could land on a handkerchief.
Strange trees, these which encircled the tiny clearing. They were all shades of green, taller and broader than sequoias, and yet more like ferns in the delicacy of their gigantic fronds.
Case stepped through the forward hatch into a warm, humid atmosphere that was quite comfortable. He had thought of waiting for darkness, but there was no way of knowing whether darkness ever came to this strange world which seemed to exist in nowhere.
Too bad his compass was no good here. There seemed to be no magnetic polarity. He'd have to trust to his sense of direction.
The city Case had seen was at least fifty miles away and past a couple of low-lying hills that hid it from sight. That made it a good hike, even for Case Damon's long and muscular legs.
And after he got there, if he got there? Case shrugged. Another bridge to be crossed later. He hitched at his holstered gun and started moving through the ferns.
He'd have to be careful; on closer scrutiny from a low level the land had proved to be cultivated. And that meant people about.
A humming drew his eyes skyward. Huge ships of weird design were crisscrossing the air above, obviously looking for something. Probably himself, Case thought grimly. They must have cleared the air for that blast. Now they're out in force. Still, there was a chance they'd thought him one of their own pilots who'd disobeyed. He'd come in too fast for anyone to have had a good look at his ship, he hoped.
He jumped five feet at an ear-splitting roar, whipped out his gun and had the stud under his fingertip for a quick blast. He felt foolish when the source of the roar turned out to be a purple bird that soared up out of the foliage overhead.
There were other sounds now, from small animals that scooted about on six legs and looked like fur-bearing armadillos. Then the ferns were behind him, and he was out onto a road that came over the hill.
Case got off the road in a hurry. Well tended fields lay on either side of it with spaced rows of grain that was taller than he. He could walk between the rows and be out of sight of the road.
He took a few quick steps, pushed aside a stalk of grain, and tripped. His gasp was involuntary but loud. For a second he lay still, then got to his feet. He had tripped over a root.
"Natsa!" a voice shouted. There was the thump of heavy feet behind him.
Case whirled. Just in time. A big orange-skinned man in a metallic suit came bursting out of the next row of grain. He took one look at Case, and reached for the holstered weapon at his side.
But few men could outdraw and out-shoot Case Damon. A flash of green played about his opponent's head. And then there was no head.
"Natsa to you," Case grunted at the body.
He was used to death in many forms, and it upset him not at all to handle the body. The fellow had been about his own size. At least he would now have a suit that wouldn't attract attention. He decided to keep his own gun rather than trust a strange one, but he exchanged holsters with the corpse.
"Now, if only Natsa doesn't show up, I'll make tracks out of here," Case said to himself.
But the Damon luck was wearing thin. There were shouts from along the road. More than one voice now, and all using a strange language. They must have come over from the field across the way, Case thought.
He flattened himself against the last row of stalks and took a deep breath. With the first sight of somebody coming through the row of grain, he stepped out and onto the road.
There were three of them, all big men, and none were looking his way. By the time their cries of consternation rose at sight of the body, Case was across the road and into the grain on the other side.
He ran until his heart began to hammer, and then he slowed to a fast walk. When the field curved around a bend, he breathed easier.
Along the road there was activity now, and the sound of vehicles moving fast. They were looking for him. Then the field ended, and Case was in a grove of wild fruit. Heavy brush caught at his face, but he stuck close to the road.
Voices drifted in toward him. He had to chance a look. Stretching himself full length, Case parted thick brambles and peered out. More men, all wearing the same metallic suits. This group was walking slowly, munching on the same sort of fruit that grew overhead.
Case thought it over. He didn't have a chance. His own tanned skin would stand out like a sore thumb against the orange brightness of these people.
But he was not without resources. The fruit had given him an idea. It dripped an orange liquid. If the stuff was good enough to eat, it certainly couldn't hurt to smear a little over his face and hands!
When he hit the road again, Case Damon was as orange as any man he'd so far seen in this new world. Maybe he wouldn't get away with it, but he had to try.
Vehicles sped by and nobody gave him a second glance. So far, so good. When he passed the group he had seen from the grove without drawing undue attention, he relaxed.
A long row of chugging trucks rumbled by, apparently loaded with produce for the city. Case looked up and a man on the back of the last one waved and shouted to him. Case waved back and the truck slowed.
He wished now that he hadn't waved. The truck had stopped, and the man in back was waiting to give him a hand up. Too late to back down now. Case took a short run and swung aboard and the truck moved on. The man who'd helped him up said something.
"Hmmm?" Case hummed. If this fellow made a suspicious move he'd have to slug him.
"Kanato?" the man said. It was a question. They came over the brow of a small hill and the man pointed to the city in the distance. He was asking if Case was bound for the city.
Case bobbed his head. He was going to play dumb. He pointed at his mouth and shook his head. His companion nodded understandingly, but wanted to get chummy anyway. Then he looked down and saw Case's holster and changed his mind.
Small cars of a strange sort were buzzing past them, going away from the city. They were filled with orange-skinned men carrying shoulder arms. Probably Kanato police on their way to investigate a very recent killing. Case gave silent thanks he had got this ride.
There was a tense moment at the gate of the city. Heavily armed men swarmed about. But produce trucks seemed to be exempt from close scrutiny.
Case's companion traded jeers and coarse laughter with the gendarmerie, and the truck rolled on down a wide avenue. The old feud between city dweller and rustic, Case guessed. He noticed that the citizens of Kanato wore clothing of high lustre and fine mesh.