"Girls! Hurry with your packing! Girls!"
Sighing, Matilda Moriarity subsided. The girls, obviously, were in no hurry. That would have been out of character.
Matilda Moriarity sighed again. She was short, stocky, fifty-two years old and the widow of a fabulously wealthy interstellar investment broker. She had a passion for classical music and, now that her husband had been dead three years, she had decided to exercise that passion. But for Matilda Moriarity, a very out-going fifty-two, exercising it had meant passing it on. The outworlds, Matilda had told her friends, lacked culture. The highest form of culture, for Matilda, was classical music. Very well. She would bring culture to the outworlds.
Triton was her first try and even now sometimes she had to pinch herself so she'd know the initial attempt had been a smashing success. She didn't delude herself completely. It had been a brainstorm selecting only girls--and pretty young things, at that--for the Interstellar Symphony. On a world like Triton, a world which played host to very few women and then usually to the hard types who turned up on any frontier in any century, a symphony of a hundred pretty girls was bound to be a success.
But the music, Matilda Moriarity told herself. They had listened to the music. If they wanted to see the girls in their latest Earth-style evening gowns, they had to listen to the music. And they had listened quietly, earnestly, apparently enjoying it. The symphony had remained on Triton longer than planned, playing every night to a full house. Matilda had had the devil's own time chaperoning her girls, but that was to be expected. It was their first taste of the outworlds; it was the outworlds' first taste of them. The widow Moriarity had had her hands full, all right. But secretly, she had enjoyed every minute of it.
"They say the bell means a prison break!" First Violin squealed excitedly. First Violin was twenty-two, an Earth girl named Jane Cummings and a student at the conservatory on Sirtus Major on Mars, but to the widow Moriarity she was, and would remain, First Violin. That way, calling the girls after their instruments, the widow Moriarity could convince herself that her symphonic music had been of prime importance on Triton, and her lovely young charges of secondary importance.
"How many times do I have to tell you to hurry?"
"But these gowns--"
"Will need a pressing when you return to Mars anyway."
"And a prison break. I never saw a prison break before. It's so exciting."
"You're not going to see it. You're just going to hear about it. Come on, come on, all of you."
At that moment the room phone rang.
"Hello?" the widow Moriarity said.
"This is Jenkins, ma'am, desk. The spaceport called a few minutes ago. I'm not supposed to frighten you, but, well, they're rather worried about the prison break. The escaped convict, they figure, will head for the spaceport. Disguised, he could--"
"Let him try masquerading as a member of my group!" the widow Moriarity said with a smile.
"All the same, if you could hurry--"
"We are hurrying, young man."
The widow Moriarity hung up. "Gi-irls!"
The girls squealed and laughed and dawdled.
House Bartock felt like laughing.
He'd just had his first big break, and it might turn out to be the only one he needed. On an impulse, he had decided to strike out directly for the spaceport. He had done so, and now stood on the dark tarmac between the manifest shed and the pilot-barracks. And, not ten minutes after he had reached the spacefield a cordon of guards rushed there from Interstelpen had been stationed around the field. Had Bartock arrived just a few minutes later, he would have been too late, his capture only a matter of time. As it was now, though, he had a very good chance of getting away. Circumstances were in his favor.
He could get so far away that they would never find him.
It was simple. Get off Triton on a spaceship. Go anyplace that had a big spaceport, and manage to tranship out in secret. Then all the police would have to search would be a few quadrillion square miles of space!
But first he had to leave Triton.
From the activity at the port, he could see that three ships were being made ready for blastoff. Two of them were purely cargo-carriers, but the third--Bartock could tell because he saw hand-luggage being loaded--would carry passengers. His instinct for survival must have been working overtime: he knew that the third ship would be his best bet, for if he were discovered and pursued, hostages might make the difference between recapture and freedom.
Bartock waited patiently in the darkness outside the pilot-barracks. The only problem was, how to discover which pilot belonged to which ship?
The cordon of police from Interstelpen had set up several score arc-lights on the perimeter of the field. The spaces between the lights were patrolled by guards armed, as Bartock was, with blasters. Bartock could never have made it through that cordon now. But it wasn't necessary. He was already inside.
The barracks door opened, and a pilot came out. Tensing, ready, Bartock watched him.
The three ships were scattered widely on the field, Venus Bell to the north, Star of Hercules to the south, Mozart's Lady to the east. Venus Bell and Star of Hercules were straight cargo carriers. Mozart's Lady--what a queer name for a spaceship, Bartock couldn't help thinking--had taken in hand luggage. So if the pilot who had just left the barracks headed east, Bartock would take him. The pilot paused outside, lit a cigarette, hummed a tune. The scent of tobacco drifted over to Bartock. He waited.
The pilot walked east toward Mozart's Lady.
"Ready, Mrs. Moriarity. But couldn't we--well--sort of hang around until we see what happens?"
"You mean the escaped convict?"
"Yes, ma'am." Hopefully.
"They'll catch him. They always catch them."
"Aw, gosh, Mrs. Moriarity."
"I said, come on."
Reluctantly, the hundred girls trooped with their chaperone from the hotel.
Bartock struck swiftly and without mercy.
The blaster would make too much noise. He turned it around, held it by the barrel, and broke the pilot's skull with it. In the darkness he changed clothing for the second time that night, quickly, confidently, his hands steady. In the darkness he could barely make out the pilot's manifest. The man's ship was Mozart's Lady, all right. Outbound from Triton City for Mars. Well, Bartock thought, he wouldn't go to Mars. Assuming they learned what ship he had boarded, they would be guarding the inner orbits too closely.
He would take Mozart's Lady daringly outward, beyond Neptune's orbit. Naturally, the ship wouldn't have interstellar drive, but as yet Bartock wasn't going interstellar. You couldn't have everything. You couldn't expect a starship on Triton, could you? So Bartock would take Mozart's Lady outward to Pluto's orbit--and wait. From the amount of hand luggage taken aboard, Mozart's Lady would be carrying quite a number of passengers. If that number were reduced--drastically reduced--the food, water and air aboard would last for many months. Until the fuss died down. Until Bartock could bring Mozart's Lady, long since given up for lost, in for a landing on one of the inner planets....
Now he dragged the dead pilot's body into the complete darkness on the south side of the pilot-barracks, wishing he could hide it better but knowing he didn't have the time or the means.
Then he walked boldly across the tarmac, wearing a pilot's uniform, toward Mozart's Lady.
Fifteen minutes later, House Bartock watched with amazement while a hundred pretty young women boarded the ship. Of all the things that had happened since his escape, this came closest to unnerving him, for it was the totally unexpected. Bartock shrugged, chain-smoked three cigarettes while the women boarded slowly, taking last-minute looks at dark Triton, the spaceport, the cordon of guards, the arc-lights. Bartock cursed impotently. Seconds were precious now. The pilot's body might be found. If it were....
At last the port clanged shut and the ground-crew tromped away. Since even an over-age ship like Mozart's Lady was close to ninety percent automatic, there was no crew. Only the pilot--who was Bartock--and the passengers.
Bartock was about to set the controls for blastoff when he heard footsteps clomp-clomping down the companionway. He toyed with the idea of locking the door, then realized that would arouse suspicion.
A square woman's face over a plump middle-aged figure.
"I'm Mrs. Moriarity, pilot. I have a hundred young girls aboard. We'll have no nonsense."
"No, sir. I mean, no ma'am."
"Well, make sure."
"And I want an easy trip, without fuss or incidents. For half of our girls it's the second time in space--the first being when they came out here. You understand?"
"What happened to the pilot who took us out?"
"Uh, pressed into service last week on a Mercury run. I'm surprised the control board didn't tell you."
"They didn't. It doesn't matter. You do your job, and that's all."
"Yes, ma'am," House Bartock said. "Just my job."
A few moments later, Mozart's Lady blasted off.
"Stop! Hey, wait!" Pitchblend Hardesty bawled at the top of his voice. But it didn't do any good. The police rushed up behind Pitchblend, not daring to fire.
Moments before, they had found the dead pilot's body.
They knew at once what it meant, of course. They had been not more than a minute too late.
"Call Central Control on Neptune," a police officer said. "We'll send a cruiser after them."
"Won't do any good," Pitchblend Hardesty groaned.
"What are you talking about, fellow?"
"Unless the cruiser's brand new."
"On Neptune? Don't be silly. Newest one we've got is ten years old."
"Like I said, won't do any good. I worked that ship over, mister. I know what she's like inside. She may look like an over-age tub on the outside, but don't let that fool you. She's got power, mister. She's probably the fastest thing this side of the Jovian moons, except for those experimental one-man rocket-bombs down at Neptune Station. But chasing a big tub in a one-man space-bound coffin--" here Pitchblend used the vernacular for the tiny one-man experimental ships--"ain't going to do anybody any good. Best thing you can do is track Mozart's Lady by radar and hope she'll head sunward. Then they could intercept her closer in."
But Mozart's Lady did not head sunward. Radar tracking confirmed this moments later. Mozart's Lady was outward bound for Pluto's orbit. And, with Pluto and Neptune currently in conjunction, that could even mean a landing, although, the police decided, that wasn't likely. There were no settlements on Pluto. Pluto was too weird. For the strangest reason in a solar system and a galaxy of wonders, Pluto was quite uninhabitable. More likely, Mozart's Lady would follow Pluto's orbit around, then make a dash sunward....
The radar officer threw up his hands. "I give up," he said. "She's heading for Pluto's orb all right. Call Neptune Station."
"Neptune Station, sir?"
"You bet. This job's too big for me. The brass will want to handle it."
Seconds later, sub-space crackled with energy as the call was put through from Triton City to Neptune Station.
Whatever else history would write about him, it would certainly call Johnny Mayhem the strangest--and literally most death-defying--test-pilot in history. Of course, testing the sleek experimental beauties out of Neptune Station and elsewhere wasn't Mayhem's chief occupation. He was, in a phrase, a trouble-shooter for the Galactic League. Whenever he had a spare few weeks, having completed an assignment ahead of schedule in his latest of bodies, he was likely to turn up at some testing station or other and volunteer for work. He was never turned down, although the Galactic League didn't approve. Mayhem was probably the galaxy's best pilot, with incredible reflexes and an utter indifference toward death.
For the past two weeks, having completed what turned out to be an easier-than-expected assignment on Neptune, he had been piloting the space-bound coffins out of Neptune Station, and with very satisfactory experimental results.
A few minutes ago he had been called into the station director's office, but when he entered he was surprised to see the Galactic League Firstman of Neptune waiting for him.
"Surprised, eh?" the Firstman demanded.
"I'll bet you want me to quit test-flying," Mayhem said with a smile which, clearer than words, told the Firstman his advice would be rejected.
The Firstman smiled too, "Why, no, Mayhem. As a matter of fact, I want you to take one of the coffins into deep space."
"Maybe something's wrong with my hearing," Mayhem said.
"No. You heard it right. Of course, it's up to you. Everything you do, you volunteer."
"Let's hear it, Firstman."
So the Firstman of Neptune told Johnny Mayhem about Mozart's Lady which, six hours ago, had left Triton for Pluto's orbit with an eccentric wealthy widow, a hundred girls, and a desperate escaped killer.
"The only thing we have out here fast enough to overtake them, Mayhem, is the one-man coffins. The only man we have who can fly them is you. What do you say?"
Mayhem's answer was a question, but the question didn't really require an answer. Mayhem asked: "What are we waiting for?"
The Firstman grinned. He had expected such an answer, of course. The whole galaxy, let alone the solar system, knew the Mayhem legend. Every world which had an Earthman population and a Galactic League post, however small, had a body in cold storage, waiting for Johnny Mayhem if his services were required. But of course no one knew precisely when Mayhem's services might be required. No one knew exactly under what circumstances the Galactic League Council, operating from the hub of the Galaxy, might summon Mayhem. And only a very few people, including those at the Hub and the Galactic League Firstmen on civilized worlds and Observers on primitive worlds, knew the precise mechanics of Mayhem's coming.
Johnny Mayhem, a bodiless sentience. Mayhem--Johnny Marlow, then--who had been chased from Earth, a pariah and a criminal, eight years ago, who had been mortally wounded on a wild planet deep within the Saggitarian Swarm, whose life had been saved--after a fashion--by the white magic of that planet. Mayhem, doomed now to possible immortality as a bodiless sentience, an elan, which could occupy and activate a corpse if it had been frozen properly ... an elan doomed to wander eternally because it could not remain in one body for more than a month without body and elan perishing. Mayhem, who had dedicated his strange, lonely life to the service of the Galactic League because a normal life and normal social relations were not possible for him....
"One thing, Mayhem," the Firstman said, now, on Neptune. "How much longer you have in that body of yours?"
"Five days. Possibly six."
"That doesn't give you much time. If you're caught out there when your month is up--"
"I won't be. We're wasting time talking about it."
"--it would mean your death."