"Then let's get started."
The Firstman stared at him levelly. "You're a brave man, Mayhem."
"Let's say I'm not afraid to die. I've been a living dead man for eight years. Come on."
One of the so-called coffins, a tiny one-man ship barely big enough for a prone man, food concentrates and water, was already waiting at the station spacefield.
Ten minutes after hearing about Mozart's Lady, without fanfare, Mayhem blasted off in pursuit.
Maintaining top speed all the way, House Bartock brought Mozart's Lady across almost two billion miles of space from Neptune's to Pluto's orbit in three days. He was delighted with the speed. It would have taken the average space-tub ten days to two weeks and, since as far as Bartock knew there were nothing but average space-tubs on Neptune, that gave him a considerable head-start.
It was Jane Cummings-First Violin who discovered Bartock's identity. Bartock was studying the star-map at the time and considered himself safe from discovery because he kept the control door of Mozart's Lady locked. However, Jane Cummings had established something of a liaison with the pilot outward bound from Earth and Mars, so she had been given a spare key which she'd kept, secretly, all the time the symphony was on Triton. Now, curious about the new pilot for the same reason that the miners on Triton had been curious about the symphony, Jane made her way forward, inserted her key in the lock, and pushed open the control door.
"Hello there," she said.
House Bartock whirled. The turning of a key in the lock had so unnerved him--it was the last thing he expected--that he forgot to shut off the star-map. Its tell-tale evidence glowed on the wall over his head.
"What do you want?" he managed to ask politely.
"Oh, just to say hello."
"You already said it."
Jane Cummings pouted. "You needn't bite my head off. What's your name? Mine's Jane, and I play the violin. It wouldn't hurt you to be polite."
Bartock nodded, deciding that a little small talk wouldn't hurt if he could keep the girl from becoming suspicious. That was suddenly important. If this girl had a key to the control room, for all he knew there could be others.
"My, you have been hurrying," Jane said. "I could tell by the acceleration. You must be trying to break the speed records or something. I'll bet we're almost to Earth--"
Her voice trailed off and her mouth hung open. At first Bartock didn't know what was the matter. Then he saw where she was staring.
"We're not heading for Earth!" she cried.
Bartock walked toward her. "Give me that key," he said. "You're going to have to stay here with me. Give me that key."
Jane backed away. "You--you couldn't be our pilot. If you were--"
"The key. I don't want to hurt you."
Bartock lunged. Jane turned and ran, slamming the door behind her. It clanged, and echoed. The echo didn't stop. Bartock, on the point of opening the door and sprinting down the companionway after her, stopped.
It wasn't the echo of metal slamming against metal. It was the radar warning.
Either Mozart's Lady was within dangerous proximity of a meteor, or a ship was following them.
Bartock ran to the radar screen.
The pip was unmistakable. A ship was following them.
A ship as fast--or faster--than Mozart's Lady.
Cursing, Bartock did things with the controls. Mozart's Lady, already straining, increased its speed. Acceleration flung Bartock back in the pilot's chair. Pluto loomed dead ahead.
Johnny Mayhem knew at what precise moment he had been discovered, for suddenly the speed of Mozart's Lady increased. Since this had occurred an hour and a half after Mayhem had first got a clear pip of the bigger ship on his radar, it meant he'd been spotted.
Prone with his hands stretched forward in the coffin-like experimental ship, Mayhem worked the controls, exactly matching speed with Mozart's Lady.
He tried to put himself in the position of the escaped convict. What would he do? His best bet would be to swing in close around Pluto, as close as he dared. Then, on the dark side of the planet, to change his orbit abruptly and come loose of its gravitational field in a new direction. It was a dangerous maneuver, but since the escaped convict now knew for sure that the tiny ship could match the speed of Mozart's Lady, it was his only hope. The danger was grave: even a first-rate pilot would try it only as a last resort, for the gravitational pull of Pluto might upset Mozart's Lady's orbit. If that happened, the best the convict could hope for was an emergency landing. More likely, a death-crash would result.
Seconds later, Mayhem's thinking was confirmed. Mozart's Lady executed a sharp turn in space and disappeared behind the white bulk of Pluto.
Mayhem swore and followed.
"He's trying to kill us all!"
"He doesn't know how to pilot a ship! We're helpless, helpless!"
"Do something, Mrs. Moriarity!"
"Now girls, whatever happens, you must keep calm. We can only assume that Jane was right about what she saw, but since none of us can pilot a spaceship, we'll have to bide our time...."
"Bide our time!"
"We're all as good as dead!"
One of the girls began screaming.
Mrs. Moriarity slapped her. "I'm sorry, dear. I had to hit you. Your behavior bordered on the hysterical. And if we become hysterical we are lost, lost, do you understand?"
"Good. Then we wait and see what happens."
What was happening was an attempt at what test-pilots term planet-swinging. Moving in the direction of Pluto's orbit, Mozart's Lady swung in very close behind the planet. Then, as the rotation of Pluto on its axis hurled it forth again, as a sling-shot hurls a pellet, Mozart's Lady's rockets would alter the expected direction of flight. Unless a pursuing ship followed exactly the same maneuver, it would be flung off into space at top-speed in the wrong direction. It might be hours before the first ship's trail could be picked up again--if ever.
House Bartock, aware of all this--and one other factor--sat sweating it out at the controls.
The one other factor was closeness to Pluto. For if you got too close, and the difference was only a matter of miles covered in an elapsed time of mili-seconds, Pluto might drag you into a landing orbit. If that happened, traveling at tremendous speed, there'd be the double danger of overheating in the planet's atmosphere and coming down too hard. Either way the results could be fatal.
His hands sweating, Bartock struggled with the controls. Now already he could see Pluto bulking, its night-side black and mysterious, in the viewport. Now he could hear the faint shrill scream of its atmosphere. Now....
Trying to time it perfectly, he slammed on full power.
A fraction of a mili-second too late.
Mozart's Lady stood for an instant on its tail, shuddering as if it were going to come apart and rain meteoric dust over Pluto's surface. That had happened too in such a maneuver, but it didn't happen now.
Instead, Mozart's Lady went into a landing orbit.
But its speed was still terrific and, lowering, it whizzed twice around Pluto's fifteen thousand mile circumference in twenty minutes. Atmosphere screamed, the heat siren shrilled, and a cursing House Bartock applied the braking rockets as fast as he could.
Pluto's surface blurred in the viewport, coming closer at dizzying speed. Bartock stood Mozart's Lady on its tail a second time, this time on purpose.
The ship shuddered, and struck Pluto.
Bartock blacked out.
When Mayhem's radar screen informed him that Mozart's Lady had failed to break free of Pluto's field of gravity, Mayhem immediately went to work. First he allowed the tiny scout-ship to complete its planet-swing successfully, then he slowed down, turned around in deep space, and came back, scanning Pluto with radar scopes and telescope until he located the bigger ship. That might have taken hours or days ordinarily, but having seen Mozart's Lady go in, and having recorded its position via radar, Mayhem had a pretty good idea as to the landing orbit it would follow.
It took him three-quarters of an hour to locate the bigger ship. When he finally had located it, he brought it into close-up with the more powerful of the two telescopes aboard the scout.
Mozart's Lady lay on its side in a snow-tundra. It had been damaged, but not severely. Part of the visible side was caved in, but the ship had not fallen apart. Still, chances were that without extensive repairs it would not be able to leave Pluto.
There was no way, Mayhem knew, of making extensive repairs on Pluto. Mozart's Lady was there to stay.
The safe thing to do would be to inform Neptune and wait in space until the police cruisers came for House Bartock. The alternative was to planetfall near Mozart's Lady, take the convict into custody, and then notify Neptune.
If Bartock were alone the choice would have been an easy one. But Bartock was not alone. He had a hundred girls with him. He was desperate. He might try anything.
Mayhem had to go down after him.
The trouble was, though, that of all the worlds in the galaxy--not merely in Sol System--Pluto was the one most dangerous to Johnny Mayhem. He had been pursuing House Bartock for three days. Which meant he had two days left before it was imperative that he leave his current body. This would mean notifying the hub of the Galaxy by sub-space radio to pull out his elan, but Pluto's heavyside layer was the strongest in the solar system, so strong that sub-space radio couldn't penetrate it.
And that was not the only thing wrong with Pluto. It was, in fact, an incredible anomaly of a world. Almost four billion miles from the sun at its widest swing, it still was not too cold to support life. Apparently radioactive heat in its core kept it warm. It even had an Earth-type atmosphere, although the oxygen-content was somewhat too rich and apt to make you giddy. And it was a slow world.
Time moved slowly on Pluto. Too slowly. When you first landed, according to the few explorers who had attempted it, the native fauna seemed like statues. Their movement was too slow for the eye to register. That was lucky, for the fauna tended to be enormous and deadly. But after a while--how long a while Mayhem didn't know--the fauna, subjectively, seemed to speed up. The animals commenced moving slowly, then a bit faster, then normally. That, Mayhem knew, was entirely subjective. The animals of Pluto were not changing their rate of living: the visitor to Pluto was slowing down to match their laggard pace.
Two days, thought Mayhem. That was all he had. And, hours after he landed, he'd start to slow down. There was absolutely no way of telling how much time elapsed once that happened, for the only clocks that did not go haywire on Pluto were spring-wind clocks, and there hadn't been a spring-wind clock in the solar system for a hundred and fifty years.
Result? On Pluto Mayhem would slow down. Once he reached Pluto's normal time rate it might take him, say, ten minutes to run--top-speed--from point A to point B, fifteen yards apart. Subjectively, a split-second of time would have gone by in that period.
Two days would seem like less than an hour, and Mayhem would have no way of judging how much less.
If he didn't get off Pluto in two days he would die.
If he didn't land, House Bartock, growing desperate and trying to scare him off or trying to keep control of the hundred girls while he made a desperate and probably futile attempt to repair the damaged Mozart's Lady, might become violent.
Mayhem called Neptune, and said: "Bartock crash-landed on Pluto, geographical coordinates north latitude thirty-three degrees four minutes, west longitude eighteen degrees even. I'm going down. That's all."
He didn't wait for an answer.
He brought the space-bound coffin down a scant three miles from Mozart's Lady. Here, though, the tundra of Pluto was buckled and convoluted, so that two low jagged ranges of snow-clad hills separated the ships.
Again Mayhem didn't wait. He went outside, took a breath of near-freezing air, and stalked up the first range of hills. He carried a blaster buckled to his belt.
When he saw the scout-ship come down, Bartock didn't wait either. He might have waited had he known anything about what Pluto did to the time-sense. But he did not know. He only knew, after a quick inspection, that the controls of Mozart's Lady had been so badly damaged that repair was impossible.
He knew too that the scout-ship had reported his whereabouts. He had, on regaining consciousness, been in time to intercept the radio message. True, it would take any other Neptune-stationed ship close to two weeks to reach Pluto, so Bartock had some temporal leeway. But obviously whoever was pursuing him in the one-man ship had not come down just to sit and wait. He was out there in the snow somewhere. Well, Bartock would go out too, would somehow manage to elude his pursuer, to get behind him, reach the scout-ship and blast off in it. And, in the event that anything went wrong, he would have a hostage.
He went arearships to select one.
Went with his desperation shackled by an iron nerve.
And a blaster in his hand.
"... very lucky," Matilda Moriarity was saying, trying to keep the despair from her voice. "We have some cuts and bruises, but no serious casualties. Why, we might have all been killed."
"Lucky, she says! We're marooned here. Marooned--with a killer."
Before the widow Moriarity could defend her choice of words, if she was going to defend them, House Bartock came into the rear lounge, where the entire symphony and its chaperone was located. They would have locked the door, of course; they had locked it ever since they had learned who Bartock was. But the door, buckled and broken, had been one of the casualties of the crash-landing.
"You," Bartock said.
He meant Jane Cummings.
"Yes, you. We're going outside."
"That's what I said. Let's get a move on."
Jane Cummings didn't move.
The widow Moriarity came between her and Bartock. "If you must take anyone, take me," she said bravely.
Still the widow Moriarity didn't move.