The Currents of Space (Page 14)

TUE PORT'S LIGHTS brightened evenly as the twilight deepened. At no time did the over-all illumination vary from that to be expected of a somewhat subdued late afternoon. At Port 9, as at the other yacht ports of Upper City, it was daylight throughout Florina's rotation. The brightness might grow unusually pronounced under the midday sun, but that was the only deviation.

Markis Genro could tell that the day proper had passed only because, in passing into the port, he had left the colored night lights of the City behind him. Those were bright against the blackening sky but they made no pretense of substituting for day.

Genro paused just inside the main entrance and seemed in no way impressed by the gigantic horseshoe with its three dozen hangars and five take-off pits. It was part of him, as it was part of any experienced yachtsman.

He took a long cigarette, violet in color and tipped with the filmiest touch of silvery kyrt, and put it to his lips. He cupped his palms about the exposed tip and watched it glow to greenish life as he inhaled. It burned slowly and left no ash. An emerald smoke filtered out his nostrils.

He murmured, "Business as usual!"

A member of the yacht committee, in yachting costume, with only a discreet and tasteful lettering above one tunic button to indicate that he was a member of the committee, had moved up quickly to meet Genro, carefully avoiding any appearance of hurry.

"Ah, Genro! And why not business as usual?"

"Hello, Doty. I only thought that with all this fume and fuss going on it might occur to some bright boy to close the ports. Thank Sark it hasn't."

The committeeman sobered. "You know, it may come to that. Have you heard the latest?"

Genro grinned. "How can you tell the latest from the next-to-the-latest?"

"Well, have you heard that it's definite now about the native? The killer?"

"You mean they've caught him? I hadn't heard that."

"No, they haven't caught him. But they know he's not in Lower City!"

"No? Where is he then?"

"Why, in Upper City. Here."

"Go on." Genro's eyes widened, then narrowed in disbelief. "No, really," said the committeeman, a little hurt, "I have it for a fact. The patrollers are swooping up and down Kyrt Highway. They've got City Park surrounded and they're using Central Arena as a co-ordination point. This is all authentic."

"Well, maybe." Genro's eyes roved carelessly over the hangared ships. "I haven't been at g for two months, I think. Are there any new ships in the place?"

"No. Well, yes, there's Hjordesse's Flame Arrow."

Genro shook his head. "I've seen that. It's all chromium and nothing else. I hate to think I'll have to end by designing my own."

"Are you selling Comet VP'

"Selling it or junking it. I'm tired of these late models. They're too automatic. With their automatic relays and trajectory computers, they're killing the sport."

"You know, I've heard others say the same thing," agreed the committeeman. "Tell you what. If I hear of an old model in good condition on the market, I'll let you know."

"Thanks. Mind if I wander about the place?"

"Of course not. Go ahead." The committeeman grinned, waved, trotted away.

Genro made his siow rounds, his cigarette, half gone, drooping from one side of his mouth. He stopped at each occupied hangar, appraising its contents shrewdly.

At Hangar 26 he displayed a heightened interest. He looked over the low barrier and said, "Squire?"

The call was one of polite inquiry, but after a pause of several moments he had to call again, a little more peremptorily, a little less politely.

The Squire who emerged to view was not an impressive sight. For one thing, he was not in yachting costume. Secondly, he needed a shave, and his rather repellent-looking skullcap was yanked down in a most unfashionable manner. It seemed to cover half his face. Lastly, his attitude was one of peculiarly suspicious overcaution.

Cenro said, "I'm Markis Genro. Is this your craft, sir?"

"Yes, it is." The words were slow and tense.

Genro disregarded that. He tilted his head back and looked over the yacht's lines carefully. He removed what was left of his cigarette from between his lips and flicked it high in the air. It had not yet reached the high point of its arc when, with a little flash, it vanished.

Genro said, "I wonder if you'd mind my coming in?" The other hesitated, then stepped aside. Genro entered.

He said, "What kind of motor does the craft carry, sir?"

"Why do you ask?"

Genro was tall, skin and eyes were dark, hair crisp and cut short. He topped the other by half a head, and his smile showed white, evenly spaced teeth. He said, "To be very frank, I'm in the market for a new ship."

"You mean you're interested in this one?"

"I don't know. Something like it, maybe, if the price is right. But anyway, I wonder if you'd mind my looking at the controls and engines?"

The Squire stood there silently.

Genro's voice grew a trifle colder. "As you please, of course." He turned away.

The Squire said, "I might sell." He fumbled in his pockets. "Here's the license!"

Genro looked at each side with a quick, experienced glance. He handed it back. "You're Deamone?"

The Squire nodded. "You can come in if you wish."

Genro looked briefly at the large port-chronometer, the lumi

nescent hands, sparking brightly even in the daylight illumination, indicating the beginning of the second hour after sunset.

"Thank you. Won't you lead the way?"

The Squire rummaged his pockets again and held out a booklet of key slivers. "After you, sir."

Genro took the booklet. He leafed through the slivers, looking at the small code marks for the "ship stamp." The other man made no attempt to help him.

Finally he said, "This one, I suppose?"

He walked up the short ramp to the air-lock balcony and considered the fine seam at the right of the lock carefully. "I don't see-- Oh, here it is," and he stepped to the other side of the lock.

Slowly, noiselessly, the lock yawned and Genro moved into the blackness. The red air-lock light went on automatically as the door closed behind them. The inner door opened and as they stepped into the ship proper white lights ffickered on over all the length of the ship.

Myrlyn Terens had no choice. He no longer remembered the time, long since, when such a thing as "choice" had existed. For three long, wretched hours, now, he had remained near Deamone's ship, waiting and helpless to do anything else. It had led to nothing till now. He did not see that it could lead to anything but capture.

And then this fellow had come with an eye to the ship. To deal with him at all was madness. He could not possibly maintain his imposture at such close quarters. But then he could not possibly remain where he was, either.

At least within the ship there might be food. Strange that that had not occurred to him before.

There was.

Terens said, "It's close to dinnertime. Would you like to have something?"

The other had scarcely looked over his shoulder. "Why, later, perhaps. Thank you."

Terens did not urge him. He let him roam the ship and applied himself thankfully to the potted meat and cellulitewrapped fruit. He drank thirstily. There was a shower across the

corridor from the kitchen. He locked its door and bathed. It was a pleasure to be able to remove the tight skullcap, at least temporarily. He even found a shallow closet from which he could choose a change of clothing.

He was far more master of himself when Genro returned.

Genro said, "Say, would you mind if I tried to fly this ship?"

"I have no objection. Can you handle this model?" asked Terens with an excellent imitation of nonchalance.

"I think so," said the other with a little smile. "I flatter myself I can handle any of the regular models. Anyway, I've taken the liberty of calling the control tower and there's a take-off pit available. Here's my yachtsman's license if you'd like to see it before I take over."

Terens gave it as cursory a glance as Genro had given his. "The controls are yours," he said.

The ship rolled out of the hangar like an air-borne whale, moving slowly, its diamagnetized hull clearing the smooth-packed clay of the field by three inches.

Terens watched Genro handling the controls with finger-tip precision. The ship was a live thing under his touch. The small replica of the field that was upon the visiplate shifted and changed with each tiny motion of every contact.

The ship came to a halt, pinpointed at the lip of a take-off pit. The diamagnetic field strengthened progressively towards the ship's prow and it began tipping upward. Terens was mercifully unaware of this as the pilot room turned on its universal gimbals to meet the shifting gravity. Majestically, the ship's rear flanges fitted into the appropriate grooves of the pit. It stood upright, pointing to the sky.

The duralite cover of the take-off pit slipped into its recess, revealing the neutralized lining, a hundred yards deep, that received the first energy thrusts of the hyperatornic motors.

Genro kept up a cryptic exchange of information with the control tower. Finally, "Ten seconds to take-off," he said.

A rising red thread in a quartz tube marked off the disappearing seconds. It made contact and the first surge of power tore backward.

Terens grew heavier, felt himself pressing against the seat. Panic tore at him.

He grunted, "How does it handle?"

Genro seemed impervious to acceleration. His voice had almost its natural timbre as he said, "Moderately well."

Terens leaned back in his chair, trying to relax with the pressure, watching the stars in the visiplate turn hard and bright as the atmosphere vanished from between himself and them. The kyrt next to his skin felt cold and damp.

They were out in space now. Genro was putting the ship through its paces. Terens had no way of telling that first hand but he could see the stars march steadily across the visiplate as the yachtsman's long, slim fingers played with the controls as though they were the keys of a musical instrument. Finally a bulky orange segment of a globe filled the visiplate's clear surface.

"Not bad," said Genro. "You keep your craft in good condition, Deamone. It's small but it has its points."

Terens said carefully, "I suppose you'd like to test its speed and its jumping capacity. You may, if you like. I have no objection."

Genro nodded. "Very well. Where do you suggest we take ourselves? What about-" He hesitated, then went on, "Well, why not to Sark?"

Terens breathed a little more quickly. He had expected that. He was on the point of believing himself to be living in a world of magic. How things forced his moves, even without his connivance. It would not have been difficult to convince him that it was not "things" but design that prompted the moves. His childhood had been steeped in the superstitions that the Squires fostered among the natives and such things are hard to outgrow. On Sark was uk with his returning memories. The game was not over.

He said wildly, "Why not, Genro?"

Genro said, "Sark it is then."

With gathering speed, the globe of Florina slanted out beyond the visiplate's view and the stars returned.

"What's your best time on the Sark-Florina run?" asked Genro.

"Nothing record-breaking," said Terens. "About average."

"Then you've done it in better than six hours, I suppose?"

"On occasion, yes."

"Do you object to my trying to shave five?"

"Not at all," said Terens.

It took hours to reach a point far enough from star-mass distortion of the space fabric to make a jump possible.

Terens found wakefulness a torture. This was his third night with little or no sleep and the tensions of the days had exaggerated that lack.

Genro looked at him askance. "Why don't you turn in?"

Terens forced an expression of liveliness onto his sagging facial muscles. He said, "It's nothing. Nothing."

He yawned prodigiously and smiled in apology. The yachtsman turned back to his instruments and Terens' eyes glazed over once again.

Seats in a space-yacht are comfortable by very necessity. They must cushion the person against accelerations. A man not particularly tired can easily and sweetly fall asleep upon them. Terens, who could, at the moment, have slept on broken glass, never knew when he passed the border line.

He slept for hours; he slept as deeply and as dreamlessly as ever in his life.

He did not stir; he showed no single sign of life other than his even breathing when the skullcap was removed from his head.

Terens woke blearily, slowly. For long minutes he had not the slightest notion of his whereabouts. He thought he was back in his Townman's cottage. The true state of affairs seeped back in stages. Eventually he could smile at Genro, who was still at the controls, and say, "I guess I fell asleep."

"I guess you did. There's Sark." Genro nodded toward the large white crescent in the visiplate.

"When do we land?"

"About an hour."

Terens was awake enough now to sense a subtle change in the other's attitude. It was an icy shock to him that the steel-gray object in Genro's hand turned out to be the graceful barrel of a needle-gun.

"What in Space-" began Terens, rising to his feet.

"Sit down," said Genro carefully. There was a skullcap in his other hand.

Terens raised a hand to his head and his fingers found themselves clutching sandy hair.

"Yes," said Genro, "it's quite obvious. You're a native."

Terens stared and said nothing.

Genro said, "I knew you were a native before I ever got on poor Deamone's ship."

Terens' mouth was cotton-dry and his eyes burned. He watched the tiny, deadly muzzle of the gun and waited for a sudden, noiseless flash. He had carried it so far, so far, and had lost the gamble after all.

Genro seemed in no hurry. He held the needle-gun steady and his words were even and slow.

"Your basic mistake, Townman, was the thought that you could really outwit an organized police force indefinitely. Even so, you would have done better if you hadn't made the unfortunate choice of Deamone as your victim."

"I didn't choose him," croaked Terens.

"Then call it luck. Aistare Deamone, some twelve hours ago, was standing in City Park, waiting for his wife. There was no reason, other than sentiment, for him to meet her there of all places. They had met in that very spot originally, and they met there again on every anniversary of that meeting. There's nothing particularly original about that sort of ceremony between young husbands and wives, but it seems important to them. Of course Deamone did not realize that the comparative isolation of the spot made him an appropriate victim for a murderer. Who would have thought that in Upper City?

"In the ordinary course of events the murder might not have been discovered for days. Deamone's wife, however, was on the scene within half an hour of the crime. The fact that her husband was not there astonished her. He was not the type, she explained, to leave in a fury because she herself was a trifle late. She was often late. He would more or less have expected that. It occurred to her that her husband might be waiting for her inside 'their' cave.

"Deamone had been waiting outside 'their' cave, naturally. It was the nearest one to the scene of the assault, consequently, and the one into which he was dragged. His wife entered that cave and found-well, you know what she found. She managed to relay the news to the Patrol Corps through our own Depsec offices, although she was almost incoherent with shock and hysteria.

"How does it feel, Townman, to kill a man in cold blood, leaving him to be found by his wife at the one spot most steeped with happy memories for them both?"

Terens was choking. He gasped out, through a red mist of anger and frustration, "You Sarkites have killed millions of Florinians. Women. Children. You've grown rich out of us. This yacht-" It was all he could manage.

"Deamone wasn't responsible for the state of affairs he found at birth," said Genro. "If you had been born a Sarkite, what would you have done? Resigned your estates, if any, and gone to work in the kyrt fields?"

"Well then, shoot," cried Terens, writhing. "What are you waiting for?"

"There's no hurry. There is plenty of time to finish my story. We weren't certain as to the identity of either the corpse or the murderer, but it was a very good guess that they were Deamone and yourself respectively. It seemed obvious to us from the fact that the ashes next to the body were of a patroller uniform that you were masquerading as a Sarkite. It seemed further probable that you would make for Deamone's yacht. Don't overestimate our stupidity, Townman.

"Matters were still rather complex. You were a desperate man. It was insufficient to track you down. You were armed and would undoubtedly commit suicide if trapped. Suicide was something we did not wish. They wanted you on Sark and they wanted you in working order.

"It was a particularly delicate affair for myself and it was quite necessary to convince Depsec that I could handle it alone, that I could get you to Sark without noise or difficulty. You'll have to admit that is just what I'm doing.

"To tell you the truth, I wondered at first if you were really our man. You were dressed in ordinary business costume on the yacht-port grounds. It was in incredibly bad taste. No one, it seemed to me, would dream of impersonating a yachtsman without the proper costume. I thought you were being deliberately sent in as a decoy, that you were trying to be arrested while the man we wanted escaped in another direction.

"I hesitated and tested you in other ways. I fumbled with the ship's key in the wrong place. No ship ever invented opened at the right side of the air lock. It opens always and invariably at the left side. You never showed any surprise at my mistake. None at all. Then I asked you if your ship had ever made the Sark-Florina run in less than six hours. You said you had-occasionally. That is quite remarkable. The record time for the run is over nine hours.

"I decided you couldn't be a decoy. The ignorance was too supreme. You had to be naturally ignorant and probably the right man. It was only a question of your falling asleep (and it was obvious from your face that you needed sleep desperately), disarming you and covering you quietly with an adequate weapon. I removed your hat more out of curiosity than anything else. I wanted to see what a Sarkite costume looked like with a red-haired head sticking out of it."

Terens kept his eyes on the whip. Perhaps Genro saw his jaw muscles bunch. Perhaps he simply guessed at what Terens was thinking.

He said, "Of course I must not kill you, even if you jump me. I can't kill you even in self-defense. Don't think that gives you an advantage. Begin to move and I'll shoot your leg off."

The fight went out of Terens. He put the heels of his palms to his forehead and sat rigid.

Genro said softly, "Do you know why I tell you all this?"

Terens did not answer.

"First," said Genro, "I rather enjoy seeing you suffer. I don't like murderers and I particularly don't like natives who kill Sarkites. I've been ordered to deliver you alive but nothing in my orders says I have to make the trip pleasant for you. Secondly, it is necessary for you to be fully aware of the situation since, after we land on Sark, the next steps will be up to you."

Terens looked up. "What!"

"Depsec knows you're coming in. The Floriian regional office sent the word as soon as this craft cleared Florina's atmosphere.

You can be sure of that. But I said it was quite necessary for me to convince Depsec that I could handle this alone and the fact that I have makes all the difference."

"I don't understand you," said Terens desperately.

With cornposui'e, Genro answered, "I said 'they' wanted you on S ark, 'they' wanted you in working order. By 'they' I don't mean Depsec, I mean Trantorl"