David Starr Space Ranger (Page 15)

Hennes entered his bedroom in a haze compounded equally of weariness and anger. The weariness was simple. It was nearing 3 a.m. He had not had too much rest the last two nights or, for that matter, much relief of tension in the last six months. Yet he had felt it necessary to sit through the session this Dr. Silvers of the Council had had with Benson.

Dr. Silvers had not liked that, and that accounted for one bit of the anger that drenched and drowned him. Dr. Silvers! An old incompetent who came bustling down from the city thinking he could get to the bottom of the trouble in a day and a night when all the science of Earth and Mars had been exerting itself for months to no avail. And Hennes was angry at Makian as well for becoming as limp as well-oiled boots and nothing more than the simple lackey of the white-headed fool. Makian! Two decades ago he had been almost a legend as the toughest owner of the toughest farm on Mars.

There was Benson, too, and Ms interference with Hennes's plans for settling the interfering greenhorn, this Williams, in the quickest and easiest way. And Griswold and Zukis, who were too stupid to carry through the necessary steps that would have won over the weakness of Makian and the sentimentality of Benson.

He pondered briefly the advisability of a Soporite pill. On this night he wanted rest for the necessary keenness of the next day and yet his anger might keep sleep away.

He shook his head. No. He could not risk drugged helplessness in the event of some crucial turn of events in the night.

He compromised by throwing the toggle switch that magnetically bound the door in place. He even tested the door briefly to make sure the electromagnetic circuits worked. Personal doors, in the totally masculine and informal life of a farm dome, were so frequently locked that it was not uncommon to have insulation wear through, wires fall loose, without anyone being the wiser over the years. His own door had not been locked, to his knowledge, since he had first taken the job.

The circuit was in order. The door did not even tremble as he pulled at it. So much for that.

He sighed heavily, sat down upon the bed, and removed his boots, first one, then the other. He rubbed his ieet wearily, sighed again, then stiffened; stiffened so suddenly that he shot off the bed without really being aware of moving.

His stare was one of complete bewilderment. It couldn't be. It couldn't be! It would mean that William's foolish story was true. It would mean that Benson's ridiculous mournings about Martians might, after all, turn out to be....

No, he refused to believe that. It would be easier to believe that his lack-sleep mind was having a private joke.

Yet the dark of the room was alight with the cold blue-white brilliance that carried no glare with it. By it he could see the bed, the walls, the chair, the dresser, even his boots, standing where he had just placed them. And he could see the man creature with only a blaze of light where a head ought to be and no distinct feature elsewhere; rather a kind of smoke instead.

He felt the wall against his back. He had not been conscious of his retreat backward.

The object spoke, and the words were hollow and booming as though they carried an echo with them.

The object said, "I am the Space Ranger!"

Hennes drew himself up. First surprise over, he forced himself into calmness. In a steady voice he said, "What do you want?"

The Space Ranger did not move or speak, and Hennes found his eyes fastened upon the apparition.

The foreman waited, his chest pumping, and still the thing of smoke and light did not move. It might have been a robot geared to make the one statement of identity. For a moment Hennes wondered if that might be the case, and surrendered the thought as soon as it was born. He was standing next to the chest of drawers, and not all his wonder allowed him to forget that fact. Slowly his hand was moving.

In the light of the thing itself his motion was not invisible, but it paid no attention. Hennes's hand was resting lightly on the surface of the bureau in a pretense of innocent gesture. The robot, Martian, man, whatever it was, Hennes thought, would not know the secret of the bureau. It had hidden in the room, waiting, but it had not searched the room. Or if it had done so, it had been a most skillful job, since even now Hennes's flicking eye could note no single abnormal thing about the room; nothing misplaced; nothing where it should not be, except for the Space Ranger itself.

His fingers touched a little notch in the wood. It was a common mechanism and few farm managers on Mars lacked one. In a way it was old-fashioned, as old-fashioned as the imported wooden bureau itself, a tradition dating back to the lawless old days of the farming pioneers, but tradition dies hard. The little notch moved slightly under his fingernail and a panel in the side of the chest dropped outward. Hennes was ready for it, and the hand was a blur of motion toward the blaster which the moving panel had revealed.

He held the blaster now, aimed dead center, and in all that tune the creature had not moved. What passed for arms dangled emptily,

Hennes found confidence sweeping back. Robot, Martian, or man, the object could not withstand a blaster. It was a small weapon, and the projectile it hurled was almost contemptible in size. The old-fashioned "guns" of ancient days carried metal slugs that were rocks in comparison. But the small projectile of the blaster was far more deadly. Once set in motion, anything that stopped it tripped a tiny atomic trigger that converted a sub-microscopic fraction of its mass into energy, and in that conversion the object that stopped it, whether rock, metal, or human flesh, was consumed to the accompaniment of a tiny noise like the flick of a fingernail against rubber. Hennes said in a tone that borrowed menace from the blaster he held, "Who are you? What do you want?"

Once again the object spoke, and once again it said slowly, "I am the Space Ranger!"

Hennes's lips curved in cold ferocity as he fired.

The projectile left the muzzle, raced squarely at the object of smoke, reached it, and stopped. It stopped instantaneously, without touching the body that was still one quarter of an inch beyond its final penetration. Even the concussion of collision was not carried beyond the force-shield barrier which absorbed all the projectile's momentum, converting it into a flare of light.

That flare of light was never seen. It was drowned out in the intense blaze that was the blaster projectile exploding into energy as it stopped with no surrounding matter to shield the blast of light. It was as though a pin-sized sun existed in the room for a tiny fraction of a second.

Hennes, with a wild yell, threw his hands to his eyes as though to protect them against a physical blow. It was too late. Minutes later, when he dared open his eyelids, his aching, burning eyes could tell him nothing. Open or closed, he saw only red-studded blackness. He could not see the Space Ranger whirl into motion, pounce upon his boots, search their pockets with flying fingers, break the door's magnetic circuit, and slip out of the room seconds before the inevitable crowd of people with their confused cries of alarm had begun to gather.

Hennes's hand still covered his eyes when he heard them. He called, "Get the thing! Get him! He's hi the room. Tackle him, you Mars-forsaken, black-booted cowards."

"There's no one in the room," half-a-dozen voices called, and someone added, "Smells like a blaster, though."

A firmer, more authoritative voice said, "What's wrong, Hennes?" It was Dr. Silvers.

"Intruders," said Hennes, shaking in frustration and wrath. "Doesn't anyone see him? What's the

matter with all of you? Are you- " He couldn't

say the word. His blinking eyes were watering and blurred light was just beginning to make its way into them again. He couldn't say "blind."

Silvers asked, "Who was the intruder? Can you describe him?"

And Hennes could only shake his head helplessly. How could he explain? Could he tell them of a nightmare of smoke that could speak and against which a blaster bullet could only explode prematurely and without damage except to the man who sped it on its way?

Dr. James Silvers made his way back to his room in dull gloom. This disturbance that had routed him out of his room before he had completed preparation for bed, this aimless running about of men, the tongue-tied lack of explanation on the part of Hennes, all were to him nothing but a series of pinpricks. His eyes were fixed on tomorrow.

He had no faith in victory, no faith in the efficacy of any embargo. Let the food shipments stop. Let even a few on Earth find out why, or, worse still, invent their own theories therefor, and the results might be more frightful than any mass poisoning.

This young David Starr expressed confidence, but so far his actions inspired none in himself. His story of a Space Ranger was a poorly calculated one, fit only to arouse the suspicions of men such as Hennes and bringing him almost to his death. It was fortunate for the youngster that he, Silvers, had arrived at the proper time. Nor had he explained the reasons for such a story. He had merely expounded his plans for leaving the city and then secretly returning. Yet when Silvers had first received Starr's letter, brought by the little fellow, the one that called himself Big-man in tremendous defiance of the truth, he had quickly checked with Council headquarters on Earth. It had confirmed that David Starr was to be obeyed in all particulars.

Yet how could such a young man....

Dr. Silvers halted. That was strange! The door to his room, which he had left ajar in his haste, was still ajar, but no light shone out into the hall. Yet he had not put it out before leaving. He could remember its glow behind him as he had hastened down the hall toward the stairs.

Had someone put it out for him on some strange impulse toward economy? It seemed hardly likely.

There was no sound within the room. He drew his blaster, threw the door open, and stepped firmly to where he knew the light switch to be located.

A hand dropped over his mouth.

He squirmed, but the arm was a large and muscular one, and the voice in his ear was familiar.

"It's all right, Dr. Silvers. I just didn't want you to give me away by yelling in surprise."

The arm dropped away. Dr. Silvers said, "Starr?''

"Yes. Close the door. It seemed your room would be the best hiding place while the search goes on. In any case, I must speak to you. Did Hennes say what had happened?"

"No, not really. Were you involved in that?"

David's smile was lost in the darkness. "In a way, Dr. Silvers. Hennes was visited by the Space Ranger, and in the confusion I was able to reach your room with no one, I hope, having seen me."

The old scientist's voice rose despite himself. "What are you saying? I am in no mood for jokes."

"I am not joking. The Space Ranger exists."

"That will not do. The story did not impress Hennes and I deserve the truth."

"It impresses Hennes now, I am sure, and you will have the truth when tomorrow is done. Meanwhile, listen to me. The Space Ranger, as I say, exists, and he is our great hope. The game we play is a rickety one and though I know who is behind the poisoning, the knowledge may be useless. It is not a criminal or two, intending to gain a few millions by colossal blackmail, that we face, but rather a well-organized group that intends to gain control of the entire Solar System. It can carry on, I am convinced, even if we pick off the leaders, unless we learn enough of the details of the conspiracy to stop its workings cold."

"Show me the leader," said Dr. Silvers grimly, "and the Council will learn all necessary details."

"Never quickly enough," said David, just as grimly. "We must have the answer, all the answer, in less than twenty-four hours. Victory after that will not stop the death of millions upon Earth."

Dr. Silvers said, "What do you plan then?"

"In theory," said David, "I know who the poisoner is and how the poisoning was accomplished. To be met with anything but a flat denial on the part of the poisoner I need a bit of material proof. That I will have before the evening is over. To gain from him, even then, the necessary information, we must break his morale completely. There we must use the Space Ranger. Indeed, he has begun the process of morale-cracking already."

"The Space Ranger again. You are bewitched by this thing. If he does exist, if this is not a trick of yours in which even I must be a victim, who is he and what is he? How do you know he is not deceiving you?"

"I can tell no one the details of that. I can only tell you that I know him to be on the side of humanity. I trust him 'as I would myself, and I will take full responsibility for him. You must do as I say, Dr. Silvers, in this matter, or I warn you we will have no choice but to proceed without you. The importance of the game is such that even you may not stand in my way."

There was no mistaking the firm resolution of the voice. Dr. Silvers could not see the expression of David's face in the darkness, but somehow he did not have to. "What is it you wish me to do?"

"Tomorrow noon you will meet with Makian, Hennes, and Benson. Bring Bigman with you as a personal bodyguard. He is small, but he is quick and knows no fear. Have the Central Building protected by Council men, and I would advise that you have them armed with repeater blasters and gas pellets just in case. Now remember this, between twelve-fifteen and twelve-thirty leave the rear entrance unguarded and unobserved. I will guarantee its safety. Show no surprise at whatever happens thereafter."

"Will you be there?"

"No. My presence will not be necessary."


"There will be a visit from the Space Ranger. He knows what I know, and from him the accusations will be more shattering to the criminal."

Dr. Silvers felt hope arising in spite of himself. "Do you think, then, that we'll succeed?"

There was a long silence. Then David Starr said, "How can I tell? I can only hope so."

There was a longer silence. Dr. Silvers felt a tiny draft as though the door had opened. He turned to the light switch. The room flooded with light, and he found himself alone.