David Starr Space Ranger (Page 4)

But that was as far as it went. The Earthmen of Mars considered themselves quite a separate and better breed, and the newcomer had a long way to go to be accepted by the Martian farmboy as anything more than a casual tourist of not much account.

David Starr found that out almost at once when he entered the Farm Employment Building. A little man was at his heels as he walked in. A really little man. He was about five feet two and his nose would have rubbed against David's breastbone if they had stood face to face. He had pale red hair brushed straight back, a wide mouth, and the typical open-collar, double-breasted overall and hip-high, brightly colored boots of the Martian farmboy.

As David headed for the window over which glowed the legend, "Farm Employment," footsteps rattled about him, and a tenor voice cried out, "Hold on. Decelerate your footsteps, fella."

The little man was facing him.

David said, "Is there anything I can do for you?"

The little man carefully inspected him, section by section, then put out one arm and leaned negligently against the Earthman's waistline. "When did you descend the old gangplank?"

"What gangplank?"

"Pretty voluminous for an Earthie at that. Did you get cramped out there?"

"I'm from Earth, yes."

The little man brought his hands down one after the other so that they slapped sharply against his boots. It was the f armboy gesture of self-assertion.

"In that case," he said, "suppose you assume a waiting position and let a native attend to his business."

David said, "As you please."

"And if you have any objection to taking your turn, you can take it up with me when we're through or any time thereafter at your convenience. My name is Bigman. I'm John Bigman Jones, but you can ask for me anywhere in town by the name of Bigman." He paused, then added, "That, Earthie, is my cognomen. Any complaints about it?"

And David said gravely, "None at all."

Bigman said, "Right!" and left for the desk, while David, breaking into a smile as soon as the other's back was safely turned, sat down to wait.

He had been on Mars for less than twelve hours, just long enough to register his ship under an assumed name in the large sub-surface garages outside the city, take a room for the night at one of the hotels, and spend a few hours of the morning walking through the domed city.

There were only three of these cities on Mars, and their fewness was to be expected in view of the expense required to maintain the tremendous domes and to supply the torrents of power necessary to provide the temperature and gravity of Earth. This, Wingrad City, named after Robert Clark Wingrad, the first man to reach Mars, was the largest.

It was not very different from a city on Earth; it was almost a piece of Earth cut out and put on a different planet; it was as though the men on Mars, thirty-five million miles away at the very nearest, had to hide that fact from themselves somehow. In the center of town, where the ellipsoidal dome was a quarter of a mile high, there were even twenty-story buildings.

There was only one thing missing. There was no sun and no blue sky. The dome itself was translucent, and when the sun shone on it, light was uniformly spread over all its ten square miles. The light intensity at any region of the dome was small so that the "sky" to a man in the city was a pale, pale yellow. The total effect, however, was about equivalent to that of a cloudy day on Earth.

When night came, the dome faded and disappeared into starless black. But then the street lights went on, and Wingrad City seemed more than ever like Earth. Within the buildings artificial light was used day and night David Starr looked up at the sudden sound of loud voices.

Bigman was still at the desk, shouting, "I tell you this is a case of blacklist. You've got me blacklisted, by Jupiter."

The man behind the desk seemed flustered. He had

fluffy sideburns with which his fingers kept playing.

He said, "We have no blacklists, Mr. Jones____________________ -"

"My name is Bigman. What's the matter? Are you afraid to exhibit friendship? You called me Bigman the first few days."

"We have no blacklists, Bigman. Farmhands just aren't in demand."

"What are you talking about? Tim Jenkins got placed day before yesterday in two minutes."

"Jenkins had experience as a rocket man."

"I can handle a rocket as well as Tim any day."

"Well, you're down here as a seeder."

"And I'm a good one. Don't they need seeders?"

"Look, Bigman," said the man behind the desk, "I have your name on the roster. That's all I can do. I'll let you know if anything turns up." He turned a concentrated attention on the record book before him, following up entries with elaborate unconcern.

Bigman turned, then shouted over his shoulder, "All right, but I'm sitting right here, and the next labor requisition you get, I'm being sent out. If they don't want me, I want to hear them say so to me. To me, do you understand? To me, J. Bigman J., personally."

The man behind the desk said nothing. Bigman took a seat, muttering. David Starr rose and appreached the desk. No other farmboy had entered to dispute his place in line.

He said, "I'd like a job."

The man looked up, pulled an employment blank and hand printer toward himself. "What kind?"

"Any kind of farm work available."

The man put down his hand printer. "Are you Mars-bred?"

"No, sir. I'm from Earth."

"Sorry. Nothing open."

David said, "Well, look here. I can work, and I need work. Great Galaxy, is there a law against Earthmen working?"

"No, but there isn't much you can do on a farm without experience."

"I still need a job."

"There are lots of jobs in town. Next window over."

"I can't use a job in town."

The man behind the desk looked speculatively at David, and David had no trouble in reading the glance. Men traveled to Mars for many reasons, and one of them was that Earth had become too uncomfortable. When a search call went out for a fugitive, the cities of Mars were combed thoroughly (after all, they were part of Earth), but no one ever found a hunted man on the Mars farms. To the Farming Syndicates, the best farmboy was one who had no other place he dared go. They protected such and took care not to lose them to the Earth authorities they half-resented and more than half-despised.

"Name?" said the clerk, eyes back on the form.

"Dick Williams," said David, giving the name under which he had garaged his ship.

The clerk did not ask for identification. "Where can I get in touch with you?"

"Landis Hotel, Room 212."

"Any low-gravity experience at all?"

The questioning went on and on; most of the blanks had to be left empty. The clerk sighed, put the blank into the slot which automatically microfilmed it, filed it, and thus added it to the permanent records of the office.

He said, "I'll let you know." But he didn't sound hopeful.

David turned away. He had not expected much to come of this, but at least he had established himself as a somewhat legitimate seeker after a farming job.

The next step____________________

He whirled. Three men were entering the employment office and the little fellow, Bigman, had hopped angrily out of his seat. He was facing them now, arms carried loosely away from his hips although he had no weapons that David could see.

The three who entered stopped, and then one of the two who brought up the rear laughed and said, "Looks as if we have Bigman, the mighty midget, here. Maybe he's looking for a job, boss." The speaker was broad across the shoulders and his nose was flattened against his face. He had a chewed-to-death, unlit cigar of green Martian tobacco in his mouth and he needed a shave badly.

"Quiet, Griswold," said the man in front. He was pudgy, not too tall, and the soft skin on his cheeks and on the back of his neck was sleek and smooth.

His overall was typical Mars, of course, but it was of much finer material than that of any of the other farmboys in the room. His hip-high boots were spiraled in pink and rose.

In all his later travels on Mars, David Starr never saw two pairs of boots of identical design, never saw boots that were other than garish. It was the mark of individuality among the farmboys.

Bigman was approaching the three, his little chest swelling and his face twisted with anger. He said, "I want my papers out of you, Hermes. I've got a right to them."

The pudgy man in front was Hennes. He said quietly, "You're not worth any papers, Bigman."

"I can't get another job without decent papers. I worked for you for two years and did my part."

"You did a blasted lot more than your part. Out of my way." He tramped past Bigman, approached the desk, and said, "I need an experienced seeder-a good one. I want one tall enough to see in order to replace a little boy I had to get rid of."

Bigman felt that. "By Space," he yelled, "you're right I did more than my part. I was on duty when I wasn't supposed to be, you mean. I was on duty long enough to see you go driving wheels-over-sand into the desert at midnight. Only the next morning you knew nothing about it, except that I got heaved for referring to it, and without reference papers____________________ "

Hennes looked over his shoulder, annoyed. "Gris-wold," he said, "throw that fool out."

Bigman did not retreat, although Griswold would have made two of him. He said in his high voice, "All right. One at a time."

But David Starr moved now, Ms smooth stride deceptively slow.

Griswold said, "You're in my way, friend. I've got some trash to throw out."

From behind David, Bigman cried out, "It's all right, Earthie. Let him at me."

David ignored that. He said to Griswold, "This seems to be a public place, friend. We've all got the right to be here."

Griswold said, "Let's not argue, friend." He put a hand roughly on David's shoulder as though to thrust him to one side.

But David's left hand shot up to catch the wrist of Griswold's outstretched arm, and his right hand straight-armed the other's shoulder. Griswold went whirling backward, slamming hard against the plastic partition that divided the room in two.

"I'd rather argue, friend," said David.

The clerk had come to his feet with a yell. Other desk workers swarmed to the openings in the partition, but made no move to interfere. Bigman was laughing and clapping David on the back. "Pretty good for a fellow from Earth."

For the moment Hennes seemed frozen. The remaining farmboy, short and bearded, with the pasty face of one who had spent too much time under the small sun of Mars and not enough under the artificial sun lamps of the city, had allowed his mouth to drop ridiculously open.

Griswold recovered his breath slowly. He shook bis head. His cigar, which had dropped to the ground, he kicked aside. Then he looked up, his eyes popping with fury. He pushed himself away from the wall and there was a momentary glint of steel that was swallowed up in his hand.

But David stepped to one side and brought up his arm. The small, crooked cylinder that ordinarily rested snugly between his upper arm and body shot down the length of his sleeve and into his gripping palm.

Hennes cried out, "Watch your step, Griswold. He's got a blaster."

"Drop your blade," said David.

Griswold swore wildly, but metal clattered against the floor. Bigman darted forward and picked up the blade, chortling at the stubbled one's discomfiture.

David held out his hand for it and spared it a quick glance. "Nice, innocent baby for a farmboy to have," he said. "What's the law in Mars against carrying a force-blade?"

He knew it as the most vicious weapon in the Galaxy. Outwardly, it was merely a short shaft of stainless steel that was a little thicker than the haft of a knife but which could still be held nicely in the palm. Within it was a tiny motor that could generate an invisible nine-inch-long, razor-thin force-field that could cut through anything composed of ordinary matter. Armor was of no use against it, and since it could slice through bone as easily as through flesh, its stab was almost invariably fatal.

Hennes stepped between them. He said, "Where's your license for a blaster, Earthie? Put it away and we'll call it quits. Get back there, Griswold."

"Hold on," said David, as Hennes turned away. "You're looking for a man, aren't you?"

Hennes turned back, his eyebrows lifting in amusement. "I'm looking for a man. Yes."

"All right. I'm looking for a job."

"I'm looking for an experienced seeder. Do you qualify?"

"Well, no."

"Have you ever harvested? Can you handle a sand-car? In short, you're just, if I may judge from your costume"-and he stepped back as though to get a better over-all view-"an Earthman who happens to be handy with a blaster. I can't use you."

"Not even," David's voice fell to a whisper, "if I tell you that I'm interested in food poisoning?"

Hennes's face didn't change; his eyes didn't flicker, He said, "I don't see your point."

"Think harder, then." He was smiling thinly, and there was little humor in that smile.

Hennes said, "Working on a Mars farm isn't easy."

"I'm not the easy type," said David.

The other looked over his rangy frame again. "Well, maybe you're not. All right, we'll lodge and feed you, start you with three changes of clothing and a pair of boots. Fifty dollars the first year, payable at the end of the year. If you don't work out the year, the fifty is forfeited."

"Fair enough. What type of work?"

"The only kind you can do. General helper at the chowhouse. If you learn, you'll move up; if not, that's where you spend the year."

"Done. What about Bigman?"

Bigman, who had been staring from one to the other, squawked, "No, sir. I don't work for that sand-bug, and I wouldn't advise you to, either."

David said over his shoulder. "How about a short stretch in return for papers of reference?"

"Well," said Bigman, "a month, maybe."

Hermes said, "Is he a friend of yours?"

David nodded. "I won't come without him."

"I'll take him too, then. One month, and he's to keep his mouth shut. No pay, except his papers. Let's get out of here. My sand-car's outside."

The five left, David and Bigman bringing up the rear.

Bigman said, "I owe you a favor, friend. You may collect at will."

The sand-car was open just then, but David could see the slots into which panels could slide in order that it might be enclosed against the drifting dust storms of Mars. The wheels were broad to minimize the tendency to sink when crossing the soft drifts. The area of glass was reduced to a minimum and, where it existed, merged into the surrounding metal as though they had been welded together.

The streets were moderately crowded, but no one paid any attention to the very common sight of sand-cars and f armboys.

Hennes said, "We'll sit in front. You and your friend may sit in back, Earthman."

He had moved into the driver's seat as he spoke. The controls were in the middle of the front partition, with the windshield centered above. Griswold took the seat at Hennes's right.

Bigman moved into the rear and David followed Mm. Someone was behind him. David half turned as Bigman called suddenly, "Watch out!"

It was the second of Hennes's henchmen who was now crouching in the car door, his pasty bearded face snarling and taut. David moved quickly, but it was far too late.

His last sight was that of the gleaming muzzle of a weapon in the henchman's hand, and then he was conscious of a soft purring noise. There was scarcely any sensation to it, and a distant, distant voice said, "All right, Zukis. Get in back and keep watch," in words that seemed to come from the end of a long tunnel. There was a last momentary feeling of motion forward, and then there was complete nothingness.

David Starr slumped forward in his seat, and the last signs of life about him vanished.