House Bartock balled his fist and hit her. Three of the girls caught her as she fell. None of them tried to do anything about Bartock, who had levelled his blaster at Jane Cummings.
Trembling, she went down the companionway with him.
A fierce cold wind blew as they opened the airlock door.
It looked like a sea-serpent floundering in the snow.
Only, it was caught in the act of floundering, like an excellent candid shot of a sea-serpent floundering in snow.
Its movements were too slow for Mayhem's eyes to register.
Which meant, he realized gratefully, that he hadn't begun to slow down yet.
He had to be careful, though. If he were Bartock he would make immediately for the scout-ship. It would be his only hope.
Realizing this, Mayhem had gone through deep snow for what he judged to be fifteen minutes, until he had reached a spine of rock protruding from the snow. Then he had doubled back, now leaving no footprints, along the spine. He was waiting in the first low range of hills not four hundred yards from the scout-ship, his blaster ready. When Bartock prowled into view, Mayhem would shout a warning. If Bartock didn't heed it, Mayhem would shoot him dead.
It seemed like an airtight plan.
And it would have been, except for two things. First, Bartock had a hostage. And second, Pluto-time was beginning to act on Mayhem.
He realized this when he looked at the sea-serpent again. The long neck moved with agonizing slowness, the great gray green bulk of the monster, sixty feet long, shifted slowly, barely perceptibly, in the snow. Mountains of powdery snow moved and settled. The spade-shaped head pointed at Mayhem. The tongue protruded slowly, hung suspended, forked and hideous, then slowly withdrew.
The neck moved again, ten feet long, sinuous. And faster.
Faster? Not really.
Mayhem was slowing down.
Then he saw Bartock and the girl.
They were close together. Bartock held her arm. Walking toward the scout-ship, they were too far away and too close together for Mayhem to fire. Bartock would know this and wouldn't heed any warning.
[Illustration: Mayhem was blocked. The gun was useless.]
So Mayhem didn't give any warning. He left the spine of rock and rushed down through the snow toward the space-bound coffin.
A low rumble of sound broke the absolute stillness.
It was the monster, and now that his own hearing had slowed down, Mayhem was able to hear the slower cycles of sound. How much time had really passed? He didn't know. How much time did he have left before death came swiftly and suddenly because he had been too long in his temporary body? He didn't know that either. He sprinted toward the scout-ship. At least it felt like he was sprinting. He didn't know how fast he was really moving. But the sea-serpent creature was coming up behind him, faster. No place near what would have been its normal apparent speed, but faster. Mayhem, his breath coming raggedly through his mouth, ran as fast as was feasible.
So did Bartock and the girl.
It was Bartock, spotting Mayhem on the run, who fired first. Mayhem fell prone as the raw zing of energy ripped past. The sea-serpent-like-creature behind him bellowed.
It didn't look like a sea-serpent any longer. It looked like a dinosaur, with huge solid rear limbs, small forelimbs, a great head with an enormous jaw--and speed.
Now it could really move.
Subjectively, time seemed normal to Mayhem. Your only basis was subjective: time always seemed normal. But Mayhem knew, as he got up and ran again, that he was now moving slower than the minute hand on a clock. Slower ... as objective time, as measured in the solar system at large, sped by.
He tripped as the creature came behind him. The only thing he could do was prop up an elbow in the snow and fire. Raw energy ripped off the two tiny forelimbs, but the creature didn't falter. It rushed by Mayhem, almost crushing him with the hind limbs, each of which must have weighed a couple of tons. It lumbered toward Bartock and Jane Cummings.
Turning and starting to get up, Mayhem fired again.
His blaster jammed.
Then the bulk of the monster cut off his view of Bartock, the girl and the scout-ship. He heard the girl scream. He ran toward them.
Jane Cummings had never been so close to death. She wanted to scream. She thought all at once, hysterically, she was a little girl again. If she screamed maybe the terrible apparition would go away. But it did not go away. It reared up high, as high as a very tall tree, and its fangs were hideous.
Bartock, who was also frightened, raised his blaster, fired, and missed.
Then, for an instant, Jane thought she saw someone running behind the monster. He had a blaster too, and he lifted it. When he fired, there was only a clicking sound. Then he fired again.
Half the monster's bulk disappeared and it collapsed in the snow.
That was when Bartock shot the other man.
Mayhem felt the stab of raw energy in his shoulder. He spun around and fell down, his senses whirling in a vortex of pain. Dimly he was aware of Bartock's boots crunching on the snow.
They fired simultaneously. Bartock missed.
And collapsed with a searing hole in his chest. He was dead before he hit the snow.
The girl went to Mayhem. "Who--who are you?"
"Got to get you back to the ship. No time to talk. Hurry."
"But you can't walk like that. You're badly hurt. I'll bring help."
"... dangerous. I'll take you."
He'd take her, flirting with death. Because, for all he knew, his time on Pluto, objectively, had already totalled forty-eight hours. If it did, he would never live to get off Pluto. Once his thirty days were up, he would die. Still, there might be danger from other animals between the scout-ship and Mozart's Lady, and he couldn't let the girl go back alone. It was almost ludicrous, since she had to help him to his feet.
He staggered along with her, knowing he would never make it to Mozart's Lady and back in time. But if he left her, she was probably doomed too. He'd sacrifice his life for hers....
They went a hundred yards, Mayhem gripping the blaster and advancing by sheer effort of will. Then he smiled, and began to laugh. Jane thought he was hysterical with pain. But he said: "We're a pair of bright ones. The scout-ship."
Inside, it was very small. They had to lie very close to each other, but they made it. They reached Mozart's Lady.
Mayhem didn't wait to say good-bye. With what strength remained to him, he almost flung the girl from the scout-ship. The pain in his shoulder was very bad, but that wasn't what worried him. What worried him was the roaring in his ears, the vertigo, the mental confusion as his elan drifted, its thirty days up, toward death.
He saw the girl enter Mozart's Lady. He blasted off, and when the space-bound coffin pierced Pluto's heavyside layer, he called the Hub.
The voice answered him as if it were mere miles away, and not halfway across a galaxy: "Good Lord, man. You had us worried! You have about ten seconds. Ten seconds more and you would have been dead."
Mayhem was too tired to care. Then he felt a wrenching pain, and all at once his elan floated, serene, peaceful, in limbo. He had been plucked from the dying body barely in time, to fight mankind's lone battle against the stars again, wherever he was needed ... out beyond Pluto.
Forever? It wasn't impossible.
THE HITCH HIKERS.
By Vernon L. McCain
The Rell, a great and ancient Martian race, faced extinction when all moisture was swept from their planet. Then, one day, a lone visitor--a strange, two-legged creature composed mostly of water--landed on Mars...
The dehydration of the planet had taken centuries in all. The Rell had still been a great race when the process started. Construction of the canals was a prodigious feat but not a truly remarkable one. But what use are even canals when there is nothing to fill them?
What cosmic influences might have caused the disaster baffled even the group-mind of the Rell. Through the eons the atmosphere had drifted into space; and with it went the life-giving moisture. Originally a liquid paradise, the planet was now a dry, hostile husk.
The large groups of Rell had been the first to suffer. But in time even the tiny villages containing mere quadrillions of the submicroscopic entities had found too little moisture left to satisfy their thirst and the journey ever southward toward the pole had commenced.
The new life was bitter and difficult and as their resources were depleted so also did their numbers diminish.
Huddled at their last retreat the Rell watched the ever smaller ice cap annually diminish and lived with the knowledge they faced extinction. A mere thousand years more would see even this trifling remainder gone.
Oh, you might say there was hope ... of a sort. There might be Rell in the northern hemisphere. The canals girdled the globe and a similar ice cap could well exist at the opposite pole. Rell perhaps survived there also.
But this was scant comfort. The fate of the Rell in the South was sealed. What hope of any brighter future for those in the North? And if they survived a few hundred thousand years longer ... or if they had perished a similar period earlier, what actual difference did it make?
There was no one more aware of this gloomy future than Raeillo/ee13.
In the old days a single unit of the group-mind of the Rell would have possessed but a single function and exercised this function perhaps a dozen times during his life. But due to the inexorable shrinkage only the most important problems now could command mind-action and each unit had been forced to forsake specialization for multi-purpose endeavors.
Thus Raeillo/ee13 and his mate Raellu//2 were two of the five thousand units whose task was to multiply in any group-mind action involving mathematical prediction. Naturally Raeillo/ee13 and Raellu//2 did not waste their abilities in mundane problems not involving prediction. Nor did they divide, add, or subtract. That was assigned to other units just as several million of the upper groups had the task of sorting and interpreting their results. Raeillo/ee13 and Raellu//2 multiplied only. And it must be admitted they did it very well. It is a pity the Rell could not have multiplied physically as easily as Raeillo/ee13 and Raellu//2 multiplied mentally.
With the exception of an occasional comet or meteor the Rell were seldom diverted by anything of a physical nature. The ice cap was their sole concern.
But one afternoon a rare physical phenomenon was reported by a bank of observer Rell.
"In the sky's northwest portion," an excited injunction came through. "Observe that patch of flaming red!"
More observer Rell were quickly focused on the novel sight and further data was rapidly fed into the interpretive bank.
The Rell were justifiably proud of their interpreters. With the race shrinkage it had proved impossible to properly train new interpreters. So, not without a great deal of sacrifice, the old interpreters, dating back to when the canals still flowed with water, had been kept alive.
They were incredibly ancient but there was no doubt as to their ability. It was a truism among the Rell that the interpretive banks arrived at their conclusions faster than any other group and that these conclusions could be checked to hundreds of decimal places without finding inaccuracy.
So it was no surprise to have the interpretive bank respond almost instantly, "It is quite odd but the flame appears to be of artificial origin."
"Artificial!" came the rough and questing probe of the speculative bank. "But how could Rell possibly be out there?"
"Who mentioned Rell?" was the interpretive bank's smug answer. They were not utterly averse to demonstrating their superior mental abilities on occasion.
The speculative bank replied, "Artificial implies intelligence, and intelligence means Rell..."
"Does it?" the interpretive bank interrupted. The speculative bank waited but the interpretive bank failed to enlarge on the provocative query.
The Rell had found certain disadvantages accrued to abnormal prolongation of life and thus were not unused to the interpretive bank's occasional tendency to talk in riddles.
"Perhaps not," the speculative bank replied after a quick check with the logical formulae held in reserve by the historical bank. "It is theoretically possible that Rell-like individuals might have developed elsewhere, and perhaps even have developed intelligence, although, according to the historical bank, such an idea has never before been subjected to consideration. But what is the flame doing?" they continued, a trifle resentful at having been left to do work properly in the interpretive bank's province.
The observation and interpretive banks once more came into play, studying the situation for several minutes. "The flame appears to be the exhaust of a fairly crude vessel," the interpretive bank finally reported, "propelled by ignition of some gaseous mixture."
"Is it moving?"
"Where is it going?"
This called into play the prophecy division of the mind and Raeillo/ee13 and Raellu//2, who had been merely interested onlookers before, hurriedly meshed themselves with the other forty nine hundred odd of their fellows. (It was impossible to say at any given time just how many there were in their computer section, as several births and deaths had occurred among the group since beginning the current observations. These would be suspended for the next several moments, however, as there was a strict prohibition against anyone being born, dying, or otherwise engaging in extraneous activity while their particular bank was either alerted or in action.) Raeillo/ee13 and Raellu//2 felt the group discipline take hold much more firmly than the free-and-easy mesh which each unit enjoyed with the complete group-mind during periods of leisure.
With a speed that would have been dizzying and incomprehensible to any individual unit, the observing banks relayed huge masses of extraneous data to the interpretive bank. They strained out the salient facts and in turn passed these to the computing:prediction section. Here they were routed to the groups who would deal with them. Raeillo/ee13 and Raellu//2 found their own talents pressed into service a dozen or more times in the space of the minute and a half it took the computing:prediction and interpretive banks to arrive at the answer.
"It's aimed here," the interpretive bank reported.
"Here!" a jumble of incoherent and anarchistic thoughts resounded from many shocked and temporarily out-of-mesh units.
"Order!" came a sharp command from the elite corp of three thousand disciplinary units.
As stillness settled back over the group-mind the speculative bank once more came in. "By here ... do you mean right here?"
"Approximately," replied the interpretive bank with what would have sounded suspiciously like a chuckle in a human reply. "According to calculations the craft should land within half a mile of our present location."
"Let's go there then and wait for it!" That thought from the now seldom used reservation of impulse.
The speculative bank murmured, "I wonder if there would be any danger. How hot is that exhaust?"