"This is it," Burnine gasped. "Good thing Engels liked to brag. That big panel is the converter."
He reached out a bony hand for a maze of wires, but Case stopped him.
"Wait. We don't want to do just a temporary job. And we don't want to die here either. There's a debt I've got to settle on Earth. What are our chances of getting a ship?"
"Not much," Burnine told him. "The liner we came in is in a hangar beyond the last tower."
"Close enough," Case snapped. "You four watch the doors. They've got a tank of atomic fuel here, and if I know my stuff I ought to be able to rig up something that will do a permanent job on this installation."
Only two of them came up out of the lower level--Burnine and Case Damon. Behind them, they left a pile of corpses. Burnine was kept going by sheer strength of will, lugging a shoulder gun that weighed half as much as he.
The corridor on the main level was packed with armed men, but they cleared it by keeping a blast of fire always before them. Men melted away into side rooms, slid down intersecting halls. But at the entrance, the big door was closed.
"Looks like we're stuck," Burnine grunted. "We can't burn our way through that. And if we move, we'll have a hundred men popping out again behind our backs."
"We'll try one of these rooms back here," Case said. "Always the chance of it having a window."
The first room they tried was a blank. So were the next couple. While Case kept the corridor cleared, Burnine stuck his head inside and investigated.
"This one," he said at his fourth try. "Bars on the window, but maybe we can burn them off. Looks like a council room."
They darted inside, slammed the door behind them. Outside there was the pounding of many feet. While Burnine watched the door, Case turned his fire on the barred windows.
One of the bars turned red, glowed bright and started to melt. But it was going to be a long job. And they hadn't much time now. Case snatched a quick look at his watch and saw there was but an hour left.
"Damon!" That was from the corridor. Yuna's voice. Too calm, Case thought. Yuma had a card up his sleeve. "Better give up!"
"Make us," Case called.
"There is a telecast machine in the room," came the reply. "Turn it on."
Yuna wasn't just wasting time. He knew something. Case hesitated, looked around and sighted the machine. It was the familiar kind, but with an unfamiliar attachment. He fiddled with it, got it going.
"Damon," said a voice he remembered but could not identify. "Turn up the video."
There was a threat in the words. But Case Damon was beyond being frightened. He had nothing to lose. Only curiosity made him flick the switch.
There was that room again, with its unpainted walls. There was the couch. And there was Karin!
"We decided to save her on the chance you'd get through," said the voice. A moment later, a man walked into view.
It was Vargas. Somehow, Case was not surprised. It all made sense. Vargas had not wanted to join the Council. He'd held out for concessions, and those concessions had included a certain freedom from supervision of his country.
"Listen," Vargas said. "It is possible you have managed to do some harm there. If so, undo it at once."
His hand dipped into his pocket and came out with a gun. He calmly pointed it at Karin's head. With a sinking heart, Case realized that this time there would be no interference, this time Vargas would go through with it.
"All right," Case said. "You win."
He turned away from the video, and swung his gun around at Burnine. He hated to do this, but it had to be done. His eyes avoided Burnine's as he said: "Open that door."
But before Burnine could comply with the order, there was a shout from the machine. Case whirled, startled. The room in the fishing cabin had erupted into a maelstrom of struggling men. He saw Vargas go down, smothered by blue-jacketed men of Earth Intelligence.
And then there was Cranly, his broad back bent over Karin's figure on the couch. He straightened with a length of rope in his hands. She was free. Cranly turned and his face filled the screen.
"Nice going, Case. I had a hunch Vargas was behind this, but I couldn't move until I had him dead to rights. But it was you who helped me to fight the Council for the time I needed."
"How much time have I got?" Case wanted to know.
"Not much. The Council can't take a chance on having another city blasted. Within fifteen minutes they will destroy the machine Vargas built."
"That's time enough," Case said. "Give me a look at Karin."
He got his look, and then turned to Burnine. Yuna and his men had got the news elsewhere, apparently, for they were hammering at the door. But the lock was holding.
Together now, Case and Burnine turned their guns on the bars of the window. It went faster now. One bar melted away, another, still another. There was room enough for Burnine, then room enough for Case's broad shoulders.
They dropped through and hit the ground, running. With Burnine leading the way and Case keeping him covered from behind, they raced around the edge of the tower, cut down a pair of surprised guards who weren't expecting them here, and skirted the outside tower.
Then the hangars were only yards away and they were sprinting toward them. Now there were no more men to block their way. Only time was the enemy.
And time ticked away on Case's watch as he and Burnine strapped themselves into their seats. Five minutes was all the time they could hope for. With his own ship that would have been enough, but this space liner was not built for speed.
Case had deliberately spoken with more confidence than he'd felt. If that was to be his last look at Karin, he'd wanted her to have a smile on her face.
"All set," Burnine said. His skin was drawn tight over the long bones in his face.
They took off with all jets wide open. From stem to stern, the big liner shuddered. Even with all power on, they lifted slowly. From overhead, a small attack ship flashed in. Fire darted at them, slid harmlessly off the liner's duralloy plates.
"Wish that was our biggest worry," Case said. He could still grin weakly.
Now their speed was mounting steadily. The altimeter climbed past 60,000 and kept going. Case kept his eyes glued to the vision plate.
Now was the time. Thunder rumbled, roared in their ears. Far, far below and behind them there was another roar. Then came the single blinding flash that spelled the end of Kanato, and afterward a billowing mushroom cloud. It was the end of Yuna and his devilish weapon.
Over them, in the heart of the brightness, there was a black speck. It grew larger as they roared toward it. It was a black cleft in the azure. Case flashed a desperate glance at his watch. Seconds left, that was all.
With a prayer in their hearts, and with all jets blazing, they aimed for the blackness. It grew smaller, almost too small. There was a rumble of thunder. And they were through, into a black sky dotted with a myriad of stars.
Case reached up and flicked on the liner's telecast. It warmed up slowly, first the click coming through, and then the audio. Last of all, and best of all, the video.
Karin's face filled the screen. She was smiling, none the worse for her experience. Her hair was in disorder but it still looked like spun gold to Case. He could almost taste those velvety lips.
"Be with you soon, honey," Case said. "We've got a honeymoon to finish."
Her face beckoned him Earthward.
FEET OF CLAY.
By Phillip Hoskins
"The problem," said Cassidy, "would seem to be simple." He thumped his outsized knuckles against the desk. "Almost too simple."
"Why?" The other was a wearer of the black and silver uniform of Extrasol Traders; a short man, made shorter by the beer-barrel shape of his body and the extreme width of his shoulders. His head was capped with close-cropped gray curls.
"Why?" he repeated. "I've been studying it ever since it first cropped up, and I must admit that it's been beyond me."
"I must confess, Dillon," said Cassidy, "I wonder how you ever rose to the managerial ranks of Extrasol. I find it hard to imagine a personnel man stupid enough to put you in charge of even a backwater planet like this Kash. Surely somebody in the home office must know how dumb you are?"
"My dumbness is not the subject of this conversation," said Dillon, grimly. "I didn't like the idea of calling in a trouble-shooter. I liked it even less when I found out it was to be you."
Cassidy grinned. "You mean my wonderful personality hasn't made an impression on you? I'm cut to the quick."
"I put up with you for only one reason. You know aliens, far better than I could ever hope to. You're about the best in the field."
"Only about? Really, Dillon, if you knew of someone better than me, why didn't you get them?"
"All right!" He shouted the words. "You're the best! But you still haven't explained why the problem seems simple to you." He pulled out a cigarette, and bit down savagely on the end, only to spit out the loose tobacco amidst a sputter of curses.
"The misfortunes of being feeble-minded," sighed Cassidy. "But for your sake, I'll take you by the hand, and try to lead you down the road of intelligence. But first, you better go over the situation once more.
"We are on Kash," said Dillon, visibly controlling his patience. "It's the fourth world of a G-type sun of the periphery, unnamed in the catalogues. For that reason, we have assigned it the native name. Kash is their term for both the star and the planet, and roughly translates as 'home of the Gods'.
"The planet was first contacted during the great galactic expansion of 2317, when the sole native language was taped. The planet is approximately two-thirds the size of Earth, but its density is somewhat less, so the gravity is about half that of Earth. It is moonless, and so far from galactic center that scarcely a hundred stars are visible in the sky. Thus a trained observer can usually pick out the other five planets of the system with no trouble at all." He paused, and took a drink of water.
"Six months ago it was contacted by Unit 317 of Extrasol Traders...."
"Namely you," said Cassidy.
"Me. A month was spent mapping the planet and searching out native villages. I then returned to base and picked up supplies necessary for setting up an outpost. Two months ago I returned.
"And all Hell broke loose...."
Night fell quickly, and with little relief on Kash, for the stars were few and far between, and shed little light. Dillon stepped out of the office that was doing double-duty as living quarters until separate quarters could be set up, and started for the nearby well. He cursed as he realized his flashlight still lay on the desk, but the light pouring from the open door was enough to see by, and he decided against returning.
As he walked, he breathed deeply of the tangy night air, and sighed with satisfaction. This world was infinitely more pleasurable than the last he had posted, and he intended to enjoy his stay.
He let his thoughts ramble as he walked and so almost ran down the waiting alien before he saw him. The native's huge eyes gleamed softly in the spill of light from the office, and the gray down that covered his body and head, except for the face, seemed soft and alive.
"Tarsa, Bila," said the Earthman, using the native greeting.
"Tarsa, starman. May the Gods shine their eternal light on you."
"And on you," Dillon said, observing the ritual. "But what brings you here at night?"
"The night is beautiful, is it not, starman? It shines with a glory all its own. At times it would seem to outdo its brother, the day."
"Indeed," he agreed. "Your world is one of the loveliest I have yet seen, and my travels have led me over as many stars as there are waves on the sea. But surely you did not come to talk merely of the night and its beauty."
"Alas, no," sighed the native. "My task is a most unhappy one, for sorrow hangs heavy over the village. The women and children are weeping, and the men know not what to do in the face of calamity. It seems as though the Gods themselves have turned against my people." He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
"What would you with me, Bila?" asked the Earthman. "Surely I cannot be of any assistance?"
"As a man from the sky, surely you have met the Gods in open battle before!" cried the alien. "And just as surely you must have defeated them, else you would not be here this night."
"I am flattered, Bila. It is true that the Gods of the universe and I are not total strangers. Exactly what is wrong?"
"It is Toll, the son of Kylano. He has fallen from a cliff, and the bones of his arm are broken and need curing."
"But isn't that a job for the priest?"
"Aye. But our priest has been on a pilgrimage these past ten days, and is to be gone another thirty or more. There is no one left with the necessary knowledge. You will come?"
"I'll come, Bila. But first I must get a bag from the office. With it I may be able to help the boy."
"Ah, you too have an herb basket like the priest's? Truly you are a friend of the Gods."
"Not quite like the priest's," said Dillon, smiling. "But it serves much the same purpose." He hurried up the path and into the shack, emerging a moment later with the first-aid bag that was standard equipment for all men isolated from the services of a doctor.
"That's where you made your first mistake," said Cassidy. "Regulation 1287-63C, paragraph 119 states 'no man shall give medical aid to alien races unless a team of certified specialists has checked out all such medicines with respect to such race and certified them safe. Penalty for breaking rule: Revocation of any licenses; restriction to home world for three years; and/or five thousand dollars fine.' You really did things up right. You should have left that bag in the safe where it belonged."
"Well, I didn't," said Dillon. "And it's too late now to talk of what I should have done. At any rate...."
"Where is the boy, Bila?" asked Dillon as he came up to the alien again.
"At my village, starman. Come." He slipped down the path and was soon swallowed by the darkness. The Earthman hurried after, afraid of being lost in the almost impenetrable night.