They must be a scrappy people. Almost every male citizen carried a gun. His own wouldn't be noticed, then.
Before a huge building, the truck stopped. The end of the journey. Case hopped off, nodded his thanks for the lift and started walking.
Those three towers were at the edge of the city. Case made his way through a crowded square, turned down a fern-lined street and headed for them. From behind him a light breeze came, wafting a familiar aroma to his nostrils.
Cigarette smoke! But until now he had seen nobody smoking. Acting on impulse, Case drifted over to one side of the walk and bent as though to tie his shoe.
Men walked past. Case straightened up, got a look at the backs of their necks, and gasped. White--as white as his own skin. These were no inhabitants of this world, but men of his own kind!
There were three of them. And now, as they finished lighting up, they were talking plain Earth English with as little concern as though they were strolling down the street of any Earth city.
"By the time we get back, there ought to be news," one of the men said.
"Yeah. That last one should have brought them around."
The second voice was another surprise. It stirred memories. Somewhere, Case had heard that coarse tone before. He thought hard.
Sure, now he had it. Pete Engels, hotshot engineer cashiered out of the space fleet and turned adventurer bum. The other two men Case didn't know.
"I'd give plenty for a look at Davisson's face now," Engels was saying. Davisson was commander of the moon base, to which Engels had been attached.
"He's probably running around in circles," one of Engels' companions laughed.
"Yeah. And don't think he ain't number one on my list when we take over."
A sudden humming filled the air as they drew closer to the three towers, and Case stopped listening to the conversation for a moment. The man ahead had paused briefly, but they were now moving on.
Pedestrian traffic had fallen off, Case noticed. He and the three ahead were the only ones heading for the towers. It looked like the towers were out of bounds for most citizens. A moment later he was certain of that, when he saw the number of armed guards around the entrance gate.
But the guards didn't stop Engels and the pair with him. They jerked their heads in a brief greeting and walked right through the cordon. Case paused, let them get inside the building.
Here goes, he thought. Nothing like a bold front in a spot like this. He stepped forward briskly.
But the bold front wasn't working. Hostile eyes swung his way. Fingers came down to rest on triggers that could send death winging.
Case looked up, pretended to be startled. A foolish grin spread over his face. Would they believe he'd been day-dreaming? They would. He was turning around and walking back the way he'd come and nobody was stopping him.
He cursed under his breath. Somehow he had to get inside that tower Pete Engels had entered. But how?
An inviting doorway yawned back along the avenue, and Case stepped inside. He looked at his watch. A few hours left until the next blast. He'd have to move fast.
Fighting his way into the tower was absolutely out of the question. He'd never get past the guards. Maybe not, but he was sure going to try. This time the grin on his face was far from foolish.
Case Damon had an idea, and he wasn't one to let time slip by before he acted on it. The idea was simple, so simple it might even work.
An orange dye had gotten him into Kanato. But it would never get him into that tower. Yet, Pete Engels and his pals had walked right in. Maybe that was one place where an Earth complexion would turn the trick.
Case got out his handkerchief, spit on it a few times and started rubbing. It was slow work, but he'd better not leave any telltale streaks.
When he came out of the doorway a few minutes later, he had left behind him a handkerchief and as much of the dye as he could remove. Lucky he'd always been an outdoor man. Whatever was left would be too faint to show against his tan skin.
His walk was not too slow, not too fast. His step was the step of a man who knew he wasn't going to have any trouble. The guards looked up and saw him coming.
Case kept his head down as though in deep thought. They could see his color, but not his face. His right hand swung close to his holster. Now a booted foot came into his line of vision.
The foot moved toward him. Case bobbed his head up and down briefly, much as Engels had done, and kept walking. The guard hesitated, stepped out of his way. He was through the cordon and going up through the entrance.
Then the yelling came from behind him. They had caught on.
One leap took Case through the doorway. Over his head, a pellet burst. They were shooting now. Somewhere in the building, a warning whistle cut loose.
He ran down a long corridor, saw figures pop out of a room ahead. But there was a corridor running crossways. Case skidded, made a fast turn and pounded along that one. Plenty of shouting now. It sounded like he had an army after him.
These halls were too long. He was a dead pigeon if he didn't find a place to hide soon. There were plenty of doors, but he didn't know which one to try. Then a series of the deadly pellets broke around him and made up his mind. The next door was the one.
It opened into a big room filled with electrical equipment. Case barged around something that looked like a big transformer, and headed for a door at the other end. The door swung toward him, disclosing a mass of men.
His gun was in his hand now and spitting death. But there were too many. Their corpses blocked the doorway. He couldn't get around them.
Something heavy cracked against the base of his skull and knocked him to his knees. Half dazed, he turned and tried to fire and was buried beneath an avalanche of charging men. The gun was knocked out of his hand.
"Hey!" A startled voice came through the roaring in Case Damon's ears. "Hey! This guy is white!"
Rough hands twisted his arms behind Case and other hands hauled him to his feet. He shook his head to clear it and found himself facing Pete Engels. There was instant recognition.
"Case Damon. Well, I'll be! I told Yuna to warn those guards, but I didn't really think you'd make it."
"I didn't, did I?" Case said bitterly.
"What is it?" A voice said from behind Engels. "What is going on?"
That was in Earth English, but with a heavy accent. The voice belonged to an orange skinned man who came through as the guards parted. This was someone of importance, Case realized. His metallic suit gleamed with the lustre of spun gold, and it filled his big body as though it had been moulded to it.
"Meet Case Damon," Engels said with mock ceremony. "Damon, this is Yuna, ruler of Kanato and soon to be half ruler of the Earth."
Haughty yellow eyes flashed at Engels and stilled his tongue. Then the eyes swung back to Case and gave him a thorough scrutiny.
"So this is the one of whom we were warned," Yuna said. "I can see why the Earthlings do not surrender so quickly."
"They'll surrender all right," Engels snarled.
Case saw an opening and lashed out with his foot. The kick caught Engels low in the belly and drew a yell of pain. A fist thudded against Case's jaw.
"You rat," Case said through drawn lips. "You'd sell out your own mother."
"For the right price," Engels admitted, cheerfully. He turned to Yuna. "What'll we do with him?"
"Put him with the rest. We can dispose of them later."
As a cell it was not too bad. But there was a stench that was nauseating. Case adjusted his eyes to the gloom and looked about.
There were bunks along one wall, a few of them occupied. With the shutting of the door behind Case, men stirred. Two thin legs swung over the top of a bunk, followed by an equally thin body.
"Take your gloating elsewhere, Engels," a sharp voice said.
"The name is not Engels. It's Case Damon."
There were more legs now, four pairs. Men were spluttering excitedly. Thin bodies slid out of bunks and feet came toward Case. There was one man he knew, Burnine, the pilot of the Mars-Venus liner which had vanished.
"Case Damon! I knew sooner or later someone would get through."
"Don't let your hopes run away with you," Case said. "I'm the only one, and it looks like I'll be the last."
Burnine was crying, definitely and without shame. He fought to bring himself under control.
"They're going to get away with it," he said, brokenly. Long imprisonment had broken him down.
"Maybe," Case said. "It all depends on what the chances are of getting out of this cell before the next blast. The Council hasn't given up yet."
"I know. But that humming means they're building up voltage for the next shot. It won't be long."
"How do you know?"
"Engels. He comes down here every couple of days to tell us we're chumps for not coming over to his side. Meanwhile, we've learned what goes on. In a year you can learn a lot if you keep your ears open."
"A year," Case mused. "Since those liners disappeared."
"Yeah. Engels and his pals were on the one I was piloting. They stuck guns in our ribs and took over and brought us here."
"There are a couple of things I've got to know," Case said. "First, what kind of weapon are they using? Second, where are we?"
"I can't quite answer the first. And I don't know exactly where we are, but I know how we got here. Maybe that will help.
"It seems that someone on Earth was experimenting with a new force. He discovered that he could put a crack in the curvature of space. Once he got through that crack and found Yuna, he realized that with this weapon of Yuna's he could take over the Earth. I don't know who this person is, but Engels is working for him. So are a lot of other people."
"What about these towers?"
"They work automatically. Two of them contain the apparatus for building up energy. The blast is fired from this one. It's all timed to fit with the machine on Earth. That's why it takes exactly twelve hours."
"Do you know where the main works are?"
"On the level below this one. But what's the difference? We'll never get out of here."
"Maybe not. But we can sure try. Are you game?"
Burnine stared at him, looked around at the other three. Their thin shoulders had lost some of the sag. A spark had been kindled in their eyes.
"What can we lose?" Burnine said.
They could tell when Engels started down the corridor outside their cell. His feet made a heavy sound. There were several guards with him.
"What do you guys want?" Engels shouted through the door.
"I've got a message for your boss," Case shouted back.
"Go ahead. I can hear you."
"It's in writing," Case called.
Engels laughed sourly. "This better not be a trick. You're a dead tomato if it is. Back away from the door."
He came through, closely followed by four guards. All of them carried guns in their hands, but when they saw Case in the middle of the room with the men behind him, they put up the weapons and moved forward.
"Where is it?" Engels asked.
"Here." Case put his hand out and Engels reached.
Too late, Engels and the guards realized that there were only three men behind Case. From behind the open door, Burnine's frail body hurtled and crashed into the guards, knocking them off balance.
Engels was thrown forward, his chin meeting Case's fist on its way upward. There was the crack of a neck breaking. Case had put all his strength into that punch.
Burnine kicked at a guard's head, dropped down to one knee and came up with a gun. The other guards didn't have a chance. Burnine peppered them with pellets that ate away flesh wherever they hit.
"Let's go," Case snapped. "You take the lead. And don't stop to argue if anyone gets in our way."
Then they were racing down the long corridor toward a heavy door at the end. A pair of guards looked up and saw them coming and died before their hands could reach their guns. Case paused to pick up a heavy weapon that leaned against a wall.
Another guard stuck his head out of a side room and popped it back in. Within a second, warning whistles pierced the air. But over the whistles Case could still hear a hum.
"Not much time," Burnine panted. He was completely winded.
A stairway made a dark opening and they plunged downward through it. The sound of motors pounded up toward them. They were in darkness for long minutes. And then the darkness gave way to light and they were racing into a vast chamber filled with scurrying men.
Case brought up the heavy gun he was carrying, triggered it and was gratified by the streak of flame that issued from the muzzle. But other guns were popping steadily. Behind Case, a man went down.
There was a sharpshooter behind a bank of instruments, and Case took steady aim. The sharpshooter dropped. Meanwhile, Burnine and the other two had not been idle. They had both flanks cleared.