"That did it. Get the gun!" The voice was high, almost girlish. A young boy?
A slightly heavier voice said, "Got it. Keep an eye on him while I find out why the fan stopped working."
"He's going no place. You were right. That bromine stuff really did the business. Lookit his face. Sure it won't kill him?"
"Don't care if it does now. We got the door open."
"What is this bromine, anyhow? Boy it sure stinks!"
"It's a chemical element like chlorine, only it's a liquid. It fumes if you don't keep it covered with water, and the fumes really get you. They used it in gas bombs in the war."
"That was chlorine."
"They used bromine, too. I read it."
"Air!" Neff rasped.
"Help yourself if you call this stinkin' stuff in your warehouse air."
From the vault the deadened voice came. "This must be the switch. The other switch is for the lights."
"Look out! When you turn it on don't get dosed yourself."
"I only dumped a few drops in. There. It'll blow out in a few--phew, let me outta here. That stuff does--God, it's worse than the dose I got in the chem lab!" The voice grew, coughing and cursing. "Better wait a minute or two. How's our big brave dog-killer doing?"
On his hands and knees, Neff was on the verge of passing out, but doggedly he tried to place the voices. Highschool kids? Bromine. Sounded like a chemical they might filch from the highschool laboratory.
A kick in the ribs reminded him he was still helpless. "All right, get back in there." They aimed him through the vault door and kept kicking him until he went. They hauled him up into his chair. He tried to strike out blindly, but his chest was full of licking flames that spread pain out to his shoulders.
Now rope whipped around his feet, hands, chest and neck, jerking his body hard against the castered desk-chair and cramping his head back. "Tie him good. No way to lock him in with this door."
Neff opened his eyes. The boys were wet blurs rummaging through his desk. "Look! Just look at that! We can't carry all that."
"Get one of those burlap sacks out there. By the door."
Footsteps went and returned. "Now, just the small bills. Up to twenty. No, Jerry, leave the big stuff alone. Who'd take one from a kid?"
"Okay, let's make tracks."
"Wait!" Neff said desperately. "My legs and hands. You've cut off the circulation!"
Something hard like the barrel of a gun rapped down on the top of his head. "I ought to blow your dirty brains out. Killing my little sister's dog, damn you. Damn you, I think I will kill you. Damn you, damn you!" the voice crested.
"Wait a minute Jerry," the other voice cut in. "I got a better idea. Here. Look at this."
Short silence. "Yeah! Yeah, that's just dandy. Look how thin he is. That's just what the doctor ordered. Okay, the top's loose. Stand by the door and don't let him get by you. Wait. Got your flash? Good! In the dark. That's real good. Which switch is it?"
"Throw them both."
"Okay. Flash it over here. Look out, here I come!"
"Hurry up! Look at that hungry, black-eyed little devil. That ought to fix up the son-of-a--" ...Thunk! The compression rammed heavily into Neff's ears. The bolts shot solidly into place from the outside, and the combination knob rang faintly as it was spun. Silence.
They'd go out the same way they came in and tack the board back in place. How long before anybody would miss him? Twenty-four hours? Hell, no. Nobody would bust a gut worrying that soon. Two days? Some weeks he was gone several days making the rounds of his loan offices.
A week? Maybe. Girls at the Palace would get suspicious. Tell Collin Burns.
But a week! They'd cut off the blower when they threw both switches. No ventilation. No air.
Neff strained at the ropes. His legs were pulled under the seat so tightly that his feet were turning numb. Hands were tingling, too. Dirty little sadists. Turning John loose thinking-- He had to get loose. Less than one day's air, then-- "John!" Thank God John wasn't an ordinary rat.
"John, come over to me. These ropes. Chew them, John. Come on, John. Come on, boy."
No sound at first, then a faint motion in the old newspapers.
"John, say the alphabet!"
"That's right. Go on!"
"Fih----jih----" The squeaking stopped.
"Come over to me, John. Come to me, boy."
He held his breath. The beating of his heart was so loud he couldn't be sure that John was moving. The silence was long. Even the rat was blind in this blackness. He must be patient.
Sweat began oozing and trickling down his face, his armpits, his back--even his left leg. No, wait! That wasn't sweat!
The throbbing in his legs was greatest at his left knee. The trickle was blood from the gash. It ran freely, now, the ropes backing up arterial pressure. Never mind that!
The coffee can tipped over, and the racket made Neff start against his bonds. The rope sawed his Adam's apple.
"Leave that damned wheat alone, John. Come over to me, boy. I'll give you a whole bag full when you chew off these ropes. Hear that, John? And a chicken foot. I'll bring you a whole chicken. A live one. I'll tie her down so she won't peck you. That's what I'll do, John."
He was breathing heavily now. "Do you get me, John? Would you like a live chicken?"
The crunching resumed for a minute then stopped. Neff remembered, there had been only a dozen or so grains of wheat left. John would still be hungry. The thought of a chicken should do it. If not, he could threaten him.
Neff waited. Relax! There was all night to work this out.
Finally, he felt something at his ankles. "That's the boy, John. Up here and down my arms. They're behind me. Get the rope off my hands first. Come on boy."
It was John, all right. Neff could feel the little claws coming up his left leg.
"Come on, hurry up, John. Tell you what. I'll bring you a nice, fat female, just like yourself. A live one. You can live in the cage togeth----John, don't stop there!"
The claws had paused near his knee and were clinging to the blood-soaked cloth.
"No, no, John! Don't! I'll stick you with the fork. I'll stick you--I'll kill you! John, we got to get out of here or we'll both die. Die, do you hear! We'll suffocate! Don't do that. Stop. Stop or I'll--"
Neff's threats beat hard into the rat's brain, and now as the slanting incisors tore at the cloth and chewed the luscious, blood-smothered, hot meat, Neff's screams sent tremors through the skinny, voracious body, and the tail tucked down. The words made John nervous, but it was dark. And there was food, such wonderful food, so much food!
They were harsh words, terrible, screaming words: but words are words and food is food, and after all-- John was only a rat.
By Stephen Marlowe
Nobody at the Interstellar Space School had ever heard of Earth so naturally they treated Smith with contempt--or was it an innate fear?...
Someone in the crowd tittered when the big ungainly creature reached the head of the line.
The creature swayed back and forth foolishly, supporting the bulk of his weight first on one extremity and then on the other. His face which had a slight rosy tint anyway got redder.
"Come, come. Planet? Name?" The registrar was only a machine, but the registrar could assume an air of feminine petulance. "We want to keep the line moving, so if you will please--"
The creature drew a deep breath and let the two words come out in a rush. "Earth, Smith," he said. Being nervous, he could not modulate his voice. Unable to modulate his voice, he heard the words come out too deep, too loud.
"Did you hear that voice?" demanded the man who had tittered. "On a cold wet night they say the karami of Caulo boom like that. And look at Earthsmith. Just look at him. I ask you, what can they accept at the school and still call it a school? Hey you, Earthsmith, what courses will you take?"
"I don't know," the creature confessed. "That's what I'm here for. I don't even know what they teach at the school."
"He doesn't know." More tittering.
The registrar took all this in impassively, said: "What planet, Earthsmith?"
The creature was still uncomfortable. "Earth. Only my name is not Earthsmith. Smith--"
The titterer broke into a loud guffaw. "Earthsmith doesn't even know what planet he's from. Good old Earthsmith." He was a small thin man, this titterer, with too-bright eyes, vaguely purple skin, and a well-greased shock of stiff green hair.
Smith squared his wide shoulders and looked into the colored lights of the registrar. "It's a mistake. My name is Smith."
"What planet, Smith?"
"Earth. The planet Earth." Smith had a rosy, glistening bald head and a hairless face. A little bead of sweat rolled into his left eye and made him blink. He rubbed his eye.
"Age?" The machine had a way of asking questions suddenly, and Smith just stared.
"Tell me your age. Age. How old are you?"
Smith wanted to sit down, only there were no chairs. Just the room with its long line of people behind him, and the machine up front. The registrar.
"You asked me my age. I'm twenty-seven years old, and three months."
Except for the clicking of the machine, there was a silence. The voice of the machine, feminine again, seemed confused when it spoke. "I cannot correlate years, Smith of Earth. How old are you?"
It wasn't an ordeal, really, but Smith felt more uncomfortable every moment. Was the machine making fun of him? If it were, then it had an ally in the crowd, because the man who had tittered was laughing again, the green shock of hair on his head bobbing up and down.
"Earthsmith doesn't even know how old he is. Imagine."
The machine, which was more feminine than not, asked Smith how far the planet Earth was from its primary, and what the orbital speed of the planet was. Smith told her, but again the terminology was not capable of correlation.
"Unclassified as to age, Smith. It's not important. I wonder, are you dominant or receptive?"
"I'm a man. Male. Dom--"
"That doesn't matter. Smith, tell me, how long has it been since anyone from the planet Earth has attended the school?"
Smith said he didn't know, but, to his knowledge, no one from Earth had ever been here. "We don't get around much any more. It's not that we can't. We just go and then we don't like it, so we come back to Earth."
"Well, from the looks of you I would say you are a receptive. Very definitely receptive, Smith." Given sufficient data, the registrar could not be wrong. Given sufficient data the registrar could tell you anything you wanted to know, provided the answer could be arrived at from the data itself. "The male and female distinction no longer holds, of course. On some planets the female is dominant, on some she's not. It's generally according to the time of colonization, Smith. When was Earth colonized?"
"What do you mean, it wasn't?"