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´╗┐Title: The Black Tide
Author: Stangland, Arthur G., 1908-1990
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Black Tide" ***

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                         Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from IF Worlds of Science Fiction March 1953.
    Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed.


                            The BLACK TIDE


                        By Arthur G. Stangland


                     Illustrated by Ed Valigursky


     _Space in its far dark reaches can be fickle with a man; it
      can shatter his dreams, fill him with fear and hate. It can
      also cure a man--if he is strong enough._

       *       *       *       *       *



It filled all the ebony depths of space. Twirling slowly in awesome
majesty, the meteor scintillated like a massive black diamond. And
with its onrush came a devastating sense of doom. He looked
everywhere. To the front, to the side, and below--there was no escape.
Transfixed, he stared at the great rock flashing in the fire of myriad
suns as it--

Bill Staker, passenger rocket captain for Interplanetary Lines, came
fully awake in his New York hotel room. For a minute, he lay unmoving
on his bed, savoring the delicious sensation of weight. No queazy
stirring in the pit of his belly for lack of gravity, no forced
squinting because of muscular re-orientation.

With a muttered curse he unwound himself from his covers and sat up.
For a moment he rested his head in his hands, thinking, only a
nightmare, thank God, only a nightmare.

He lifted his head, and found cold sweat on his hands. Then sighing in
relief he swung his feet over the edge of his bed.

A glance at the clock showed 10:45 p.m. Monday, June 10th, 2039.
Heavily, he clumped across the room in the peculiar flat-footed gait
of a spaceman accustomed to magnetic contact shoes. Cigarette in hand
he sank into a heavy chair, touched a button on the arm, then sat back
to watch the telescreen.

It was a rehash of the day's news. In nasal tones a senator was
accusing the Republicrats of raising taxes. Then followed scenes from
a spectacular fire. Suddenly, Bill's drooping eyelids popped open.

[Illustration: _The small meteor ripped through the_ Space Bird's
_crew compartment, blinding the radar scope and severing communication
with Earth_.]

A commentator was saying, "... the two rockets of the Staker Space
Mining Company, ready for a scouting trip to the asteroid Beta
Quadrant."

A close-up of Tom Staker followed. Tall, rangy, with blond hair like
straw in the wind. Bill laid his cigarette in a tray and with critical
interest leaned forward to look at his brother.

"We figure to find uranium," Tom was saying, with a glance toward the
vertical rockets, "all through the Beta Quadrant. Our departure is
waiting on the return of my brother, Bill, from his Mars-to-Earth
run."

A reporter asked Tom, "Private enterprise is unique in these days of
virtual monopolies. What's the story behind it?"

"Well, our great-grandfather, George Staker, believed passionately in
private enterprise," Tom began. "Somewhere around 1952 or 1953 he
established a trust fund for his third generation descendants to
finance any project they think worthwhile. And he got an ironclad
guarantee from the government that the trust fund for private
enterprise would be honored in the future. You see, my ancestor was
quite a romanticist. In one of his books entitled 'The Philosophy of
Science' he says 'People of this dawning Atomic Age little realize
they are living in a vast dream. A dream that is slowly taking
objective shape. A tool here, a part there, a plan on some drafting
table. Men of ideas are pointing the way, structuring the inner dream
world of a generation. Even today's science fiction literature
contains important ideas for the dreams-become-reality of tomorrow.'"
Tom finished up, "With our Project Venture, Bill and I are going to
bring a dream into reality--making a little on the side, of course!"

The commentator ended his interview with: "And so, we await with great
interest the carrying out of George Staker's dream, a man whose
Twentieth Century ideas of private enterprise have blown a breath of
fresh air into an age of dull dreams and little imagination."

Bill Staker pressed the control button, darkening the screen. "Dream
boy. Tom, you damned fool." He got up and scuffed into the bathroom to
stare into the mirror. Twenty-five years old, and already lines were
grooving both sides of his nostrils. Tousled black hair like brush
hanging over a high bank, and ridged creases in his forehead. Little
lumps of flesh bulging over the corners of his mouth from constant
tension. The tension of outwitting space on each trip 'tween the
planets. But worst of all was the look in his gray eyes. The look that
never went away anymore. The look of a man who has spent too much time
staring into the enigma of the Universe and--thinking.

"I'm scared--scared as hell!" he blurted at his reflection. "And if I
don't get hold of myself, I'm through--washed up!"

Space was no place for a man with imagination--too much imagination.
You stared into the empty blackness here, you stared into the inky
blackness there, behind you the Earth a tiny pinpoint, the Earth that
meant rock solid footing, the caress of wind and land in all
directions. But out there in the aching void you raced for Mars like a
mouse scuttling across a lighted floor. Raced because of what you
couldn't see, couldn't fathom. Yet, you knew _It_ was out there,
staring back inscrutably.

He rubbed the flat of his hand across his right cheek, sighing from
emotional weariness. Then he scuffed back into the room. On the way he
collected a bottle of bourbon, mixer and glass, and dropped into the
big chair.

As he worked on the bottle, all the anxiety and apprehension in him
faded. Once he stared at the bottom of his empty glass. Funny how a
guy could panic all of a sudden. He remembered it clearly now. Riding
into town yesterday from the rocket port, he started brooding over
details of Project Venture. Suddenly, an overwhelming black tide of
fear worse than he had ever experienced confronted him. Like a man on
the verge of insanity he licked his dry lips, staring about him and
feeling as if something strange and terrible were taking possession of
his mind. And in the middle of his spell a cloud blacker than space
itself started reaching for him. That was when he yelled to the
startled bus driver to let him out at this hotel. Maybe he could get
hold of himself here.

Now, his arms sprawled over the sides of the heavy chair, he drifted
off into a snoring stupor.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the morning he awoke to a splitting headache. Somehow it helped to
hold his head between both hands and swear at it in a running mutter.
Finally he roused himself to go to the bathroom for a cold shower.
Afterward, donning his powder blue Captain's uniform, he went down to
breakfast.

He dawdled over crisp bacon and eggs, glanced at morning editions, and
all the while the ashes of last night's emotional holocaust drifted
through him. Drifted in fitful vagrant thoughts. He should have said
no that first day a year ago. The big law firm made a great to do over
the old document from his ancestor. Unique, they said. The chance of a
lifetime. And by the end of the first meeting Tom was all fired up.
Mining atomic power metals in the asteroid belt would bring the
biggest returns, he said. They would be the only ones allowed to
compete with the Asteroid Mining Corporation monopoly. And now Tom was
building up public excitement in the venture, as if it were a circus.
The damned fool. Why had he let his brother talk him into--

Suddenly, his line of thought snapped, and he was acutely aware of
staring eyes.

He looked to his left, then felt a warm flush technicolor his cheeks.

"Christy!"

Her blond curls making a soft halo around her jauntily raked hat, the
space hostess from his ship gave him a warm smile. She was adequately
stacked, Bill reflected, but there was levelheaded firmness and
resolution in her too. That was why she was hard to handle.

"Good morning, Bill."

He didn't like the accusing gleam in her eye but he was glad to see
her.

"Sit down, Christy. Have some coffee." He held her hands a moment,
then eased her into the opposite chair.

He tried disarming her with a show of great enthusiasm. But the way
she settled herself into the seat, all the while regarding him with
those clear penetrating blue eyes, told him she was going on no snipe
hunt.

"When you kissed me goodbye at the port yesterday, Bill, you said you
were going directly to the field to be with Tom." It wasn't a
statement--it was an accusation.

With an elaborate show of casualness he shrugged his shoulders. "Well,
I was fagged out from this last trip. Decided I'd do better getting a
full night's rest by myself at a hotel."

The waiter brought her coffee, and she left it to cool. She folded her
long tapering fingers on the table, and a delicate lift to her fine
brows gave her an expression of sympathetic concern.

Her smile was regretful. "Rocket men don't drink, Bill. You know it
too. Bad for muscular coordination."

He said in some surprise, "You mean it's that loud?"

"Uh-huh." Christy leaned forward. "What is it, Bill? You haven't been
yourself for weeks. You looked haggard yesterday and when you left the
ship you were almost running, as if trying to escape from something.
And now this strange avoidance of Tom. He got hold of me this morning
early, wanting to know where you were. And I guess it's pretty
important that he sees you, Bill. Seems there's been trouble at the
field."

It was as if someone had prodded him in an agonizingly sore place and
he reacted instinctively. He let his knife clatter on his plate, aware
that he was dramatizing himself.

"When I'm ready for a woman's sticking her nose into my affairs, I'll
send her a special invitation!"

Christy's delicate nostrils flared, and her bosom rose and fell
rapidly. Then she seemed to get hold of herself. "I'm sorry if you got
that impression, Bill. I was only trying to help you both."

Cherishing his irritation, Bill went on, "Seems to me you're bending
over backward helping Tom, playing messenger, private eye--"

Christy broke in with a catch in her throat, "Oh, Bill, please! Let's
not quarrel as soon as we get back."

Bill shoved his dishes aside, the tone of her voice reaching into him
to dampen down the fires of anger. Then he managed a slow faint grin.

"Okay, Christy." He reached for the check, saying, "Well, if you can
stand my company, would you like to come along out to the field?"

With her eyes glistening, she answered, "I'd love to."

       *       *       *       *       *

The private rocket landing field of the Staker Space Mining Company
was an hour's drive north of the city. Three miles from the field they
made out the two gleaming snouts of the rockets pointing skyward. Then
as they approached the edge of the field, Bill turned off toward a two
story frame structure that served as office and warehouse.

Bill said, "Might as well check to see if Tom is in the office
first."

At the door Bill poked his head in and shouted up the stairwell,
"Hi--Tom?"

A chair scraped, and footsteps sounded across the upstairs floor.
"Yeah--that you, Bill? C'mon up!"

They found Tom at a desk before a wide window view of the field. On
the office walls hung big graphs of fuel consumption curves,
trajectory plots from Earth to the asteroid belt, ballistics
computations, oxygen consumption curves per unit metabolism per man.

Christy looking at the rockets, said, "Gee, Tom, they look beautiful.
Like monsters straining their tethers."

Tom looked up at the girl's profile, and to Bill who was watching, he
bore the look of a man savoring what he saw.

"Yes, they are. That first one's mine, the _Space Bird_. The other is
Bill's, the _Space Dragon_."

Bill cast a professional eye over the charts and graphs on the wall,
while far down in his subconscious a sharp twinge of jealousy
fulminated, tangling with his fears of space in a hybrid monstrosity.
Then like lava in a plugged volcano his obsession found a new outlet.
The fear of space now came up disguised as hatred for Tom.

In an unusually calm voice Bill said, "Well, I see you have everything
just about completed."

"Yeah," Tom glanced up with a significant look. "Someone else was
interested in those charts and graphs too the other day. Someone who
didn't bother to use the door."

"What d'you mean--somebody break in?"

Tom nodded. "Yep. Jimmied a window downstairs. But I don't think they
got anything, because the door to the office was still locked when the
watchman surprised them. They got away in the dark."

Christy's eyes grew large and round. "Who do you suppose it was?"

Hitching his long body erect, Tom said with a gesture of his right hand,
"Well, there's only one outfit interested in our destination--and that's
Asteroid Mining."

"Good heavens," Christy said in great surprise. "You don't mean a big
corporation like that would stoop so low?"

Tom smiled at her. "With a monopoly on power metals Asteroid has been
gouging the world. People have become resigned to the situation. But
if we can supply uranium ore cheaper there's going to be a clamor for
private enterprise again. Under the present system private enterprise
has been withering on the vine. This is our big chance and the public
is pulling for us."

Bill's hold on his temper slipped another notch. "Yeah, I saw that
interview with the television news you had. Saw it last night." He
folded his arms across his chest. "If that's your conception of
winning support for our venture then you better take up circus
advertising."

For a moment Tom looked like a man who's taken a bucket of ice water
in the face. Then his feet hit the floor. "Say, now, wait a minute,
Bill!" he said, half in anger. "Who d'you think's been shouldering the
big share of Project Venture--while you've hung on to your job and a
pretty salary?"

"Didn't we agree you'd spend full time on the Project while I acted
as consultant between trips?" Bill shot back.

"Yeah, I quit a fair job as first officer on a freighter to handle
it."

"And you are guaranteed fair wages and a fat slice of any profits we
make," Bill snapped. "The thing I didn't like in that interview of
yours was that starry-eyed eyewash about our ancestor being a man of
vision, a philosopher and a dreamer. That's a helluva tag to put on
us--'The Dream Boys'! Good God!"

Tom stood up, facing his brother in icy silence. Finally he said, "Is
that all you've got to offer--a lotta carping criticism?"

The planes of Bill's cheeks flattened under the downward pull at his
mouth corners. The black ugly tide was running in him now and he could
not stop its sweep. His fear of space, the frantic will to escape from
it again, all the irritation and anger were deep currents and he was a
mere piece of flotsam tossing on the advancing wave of the black tide.

He said, "No, damn you. I've got something else in my craw too. It's
Christy. I've seen the way you look at her, and I know that whenever
my back is turned you're doing your damnedest to break us up!"

Tom's face turned gray and suddenly his eyes were wide open. Knots
stood out on the points of his jaws.

In a strange half choked voice he said, "That's a blasted lie--and you
know it. It's an excuse to cover up for your own peculiar behavior
lately. I think--"

Christy broke in with. "Bill--Tom, for heaven's sake stop it!" Her
beseeching eyes were glancing sharply from one to the other in growing
panic.

Bill stood lightly on his feet, his fingers curling and uncurling into
balled fists.

Tom went on, a bleak look in his eyes. "I think you've been in a soft
berth too long. The monopoly you work for has softened you, taken out
the guts a man needs to stand on his own feet--"

Bill suddenly stiffened. His right shot out in a hard, sharp blow that
crashed against Tom's chin. Tom grunted, a surprised look in his eyes,
and sagged to the floor.

For a moment Bill stood over him, nostrils flaring, his whole body
tense and waiting. But Tom was too groggy to get up.

"Oh, Bill, how could you!" Christy cried out, dropping to her knees
beside Tom.

Bill strode with measured step to the door. There he turned, and
looking back with a sneer, said, "Sweet dreams, Dream Boy!"

       *       *       *       *       *

In a luxurious office of Asteroid Mining Corporation on the
twenty-third floor of a Manhattan skyscraper a furious official of the
corporation faced an uncomfortable underling.

"I've heard of some pretty crude tricks in my time, Heilman, but
breaking into the Staker Company's office like a common house thief
takes the tin medal for low grade brains!" the official ranted,
pounding his desk. "I suppose you thought that was an excellent way to
advance yourself in the corporation, eh? Finesse, Heilman, finesse.
That's what it takes in matters like this. Asteroid Mining, before it
got the monopoly, stopped competition, but not by common
housebreaking--"

"But--but I thought," Heilman explained lamely, "that we could get a
copy of their trajectory and then deal with them after they got out to
the quadrant. You know, fire a 'meteor' at them, blanket them with
radio jamming, ruin their radar sighting--"

The official snorted and leaned disgustedly back in his leather chair.
"No, no you big dumb ox! You're retired from the team, benched. Now
you can sit on the sidelines and watch how the first string fix Staker
and Company."

       *       *       *       *       *

When Bill asked for his key, the clerk handed him the key and a
faintly lavender tinted envelope.

Mystified by the feminine handwriting, Bill sat in a lobby chair, and
tore open the jasmine scented envelope.

The note was brief. It said, "Dear Captain Staker: Please call on me
at your earliest convenience, Apt. 5B. It is a matter of utmost
importance to both of us. Margo."

Ever since leaving Tom's office, Bill's mind had been spinning about a
center of hatred and ugly rumination. But now the stimulus of the
jasmine fragrance struck a spark of adventure on the edge of his
churning mind. The tangential path led off into inviting mysterious
shadows and he was going to follow.

The elevator stopped at the apartment floor of the hotel's north
Tower. In the softly lighted corridor his feet fell soundlessly on the
deep pile rug. He turned a corner, then walked up a short flight of
steps to the door of Apt. 5B.

In response to his knock the door was opened by a vision in white
satin. She was startlingly beautiful. Dark heavy lashes, creamy skin,
white even teeth in a flashing smile, a lithe body poised with the
ease of a jungle cat. She was fulsome and high breasted, and as she
followed Bill's quick appraising glance, she seemed to smile knowingly
that all he saw was displayed to best advantage.

Hat in hand Bill said, "I'm--I'm Captain Staker."

With a throaty laugh that could have been carefully timed, she said,
"And I'm Margo. Come right in Captain."

Bill walked onto a white rug, and unobtrusively took in the rich
furniture Twenty First Century Modern, the warm brown of the logarithm
ruled walls, paintings in the style of Van Gogh, sharply angled table
lamps, the gold drapes at the windows.

"It was kind of you to come so promptly," Margo continued, settling
into a chair.

Bill brought his glance back to her. "Well, frankly, I was curious to
know what a perfect stranger could have in common with me."

She laughed indulgently. "Nasty of me, wasn't it?--taking advantage of
a human weakness." She gestured at Scotch and bourbon on the coffee
table. "I'll let you do us the honors, Captain. Bourbon for me."

Presently, glass in hand and a spreading warmth in him, Bill fixed
the girl with a quizzical look. "Tell me, Margo, just what is this
matter of utmost importance to both of us?"

She put her glass on the table, then sat back and Bill felt the full
impact of her dark lustrous eyes. "It's a business matter, Captain.
You've been recommended as a man of high purpose and dependability. As
the heir to my father's controlling interest in Intercontinental Lines
I am badly in need of a man with your experience to handle traffic
details."

Bill lifted a brow. "Intercontinental Lines? Never heard of it.
Exclusively airline traffic on Earth?"

"It's a new company formed under monopoly regulations. Of course, I
realize you're a spaceman, but staying on Earth would have its
compensations. You can name your own salary."

Bill leaned forward and mixed another drink. This was something
unexpected and pretty tempting too. No more fighting his fear of
space. He downed the drink in a few gulps, then stood up.

"Well, I--I'd like to think things over," he said with hesitation,
walking slowly to the window.

Margo followed, saying, "I don't mean to rush you, Bill--yet the
situation needs your experienced hand."

"I know, but my brother and I are all set to make a scouting trip to
Beta Quadrant."

Margo leaned against the window drapes, smiling with frank admiration.
"I know you are. How in the world you can take off from Earth and hit
a target far out in space is beyond me. Is it something like firing
artillery?"

The warm glow already suffusing Bill's senses took on added lustre
when he looked into her questioning eyes. Expansively, he began
drawing diagrams, and explaining the elements of space navigation.

"Now here's the trajectory my brother and I are planning to use," he
went on, drawing a complex curve with loading figures and fuel
consumption and point of contact with the Beta Quadrant.

When he paused once, Margo touched the gold sunburst emblem on his
arm. "That's fascinating, Bill, but making a trip like yours is all a
gamble. I'm not offering you a gamble. I'm offering you a sure thing."

"Yes, I realize that." Bill got to his feet. "But just the same I want
to think your proposition over, Margo."

She leaned toward him putting her hands on his lapels. "Bill, don't
risk your neck out there in space. I need you desperately in the
company."

Suddenly, Bill was electrically aware of cool, smooth arms sliding up
and around his neck and her soft red mouth within fragrance distance.

And he was exquisitely aware of the full soft length of her pressing
against him. The scent of jasmine reached him with bewitching stealth.
That was when he closed the gap to her mouth in a sudden rush.

Bill came out of a whirling state of pure feeling to hear the
visiphone buzzing insistently.

"The phone," he mumbled.

Margo opened her eyes dreamily, then comprehended. She walked over to
the phone, picked up the receiver.

After a moment she turned around looking at him questioningly. "It's
for you, Bill."

He took the phone and said, "Captain Staker speaking."

The desk clerk said, "A gentleman to see you, sir. Shall I send him to
Apt. 5B?"

"No," Bill answered. "I'll be down to my room in a few moments and see
him there."

He turned to Margo. "I guess business comes before idyll, Margo. I've
got to go."

Her lustrous dark eyes searched his face intently. "How long must I
wait for an answer, Bill?"

"Can you wait until Thursday--three days?" Time enough to thresh
things out with Tom.

"I guess I can," Margo said, touching him with an inviting glance,
"but do I have to wait that long before I see you again?"

Bill grinned and shook his head in wonder. "My lord, what persistence!
I got an idea any visiting would not be entirely social. Somewhere
along the line business would rear its shaggy head. Okay, how about
dinner at the Wedgewood Room tomorrow night?"

"Wonderful!"

Later at his own floor to his surprise he found Tom pacing the
corridor. In a strained voice he said, "The clerk said a gentleman--"

Tom came back in a conciliatory tone, "And I don't fit the
description, eh? Well, anyway, Bill, we got things to talk over. How
about it?"

Bill shrugged noncommittally, unlocked his door and the two entered.
Perched on the arm of a chair, Bill lighted a cigarette and pulled
deeply of it.

"Well, what is it?" He glanced coolly at his brother sitting with his
left leg dangling over the arm of his chair.

Tom cleared his throat and said, "I--er, came to see how we're
stacking up, Bill. After all we got a big show on our hands and the
whole world is waiting for the curtain to go up. But we can't be
squabbling between ourselves when we go on stage. Let's settle matters
now and get on with our job--after all we both got a lot at stake in
the company."

Bill studied the end of his cigarette a long moment. "I guess you
might as well count me out, Tom. I'm quitting the show."

Furrows appeared above Tom's brows. "Quitting! And after all you've
put into the venture? Bill, have you gone nuts?" He stopped a moment.
Then he said, "Oh, I guess I see the light. Christy, eh? Well, Bill,
honest--and I really mean this--you can have all the profits of the
trip if I'm guilty of trying to take Christy away from you. You've got
the wrong slant on things."

Bill shrugged, saying, "It's not that--and I still am not
convinced--it's just that I'm considering another proposition."

Tom got to his feet in agitation, looking down at Bill incredulously.
"My God, Bill, you sure have changed! What about all those bull
sessions we had reading and rereading the George Staker philosophy of
free enterprise? The world needs an object lesson to show how far it
has strayed from those first wonderful days of the Atomic Age. We are
heirs, Bill by special franchise, Old George saw the shape of things
to come pretty clearly, and it's up to us to carry out his vision of
things as they should be."

Bill ground out his cigarette in a tray. His underlip crowded out
stubbornly. "I'm not going."

For a moment Tom stared hard at Bill, and a heavy singing silence lay
between them. Then Tom strode to the door and opened it. "All right,
Bill--you and I are through!"

The door slammed. For awhile Bill sat looking at it, wondering why the
slammed door reminded him of looking at his reflection in the bathroom
mirror and telling himself "I'm scared--scared as hell. And if I don't
get hold of myself, I'm through--washed up!"

       *       *       *       *       *

The next day when he was busily dressing, the ultrafax popped out the
breakfast edition.

"_Space Bird_ takes off for Beta Quadrant. Tom Staker gambles all."

Bill stared at the pictures of the rocket climbing savagely at the
head of a column of fire. The crazy, stubborn fool. Going it alone,
risking his neck and everybody else's aboard. Well, let him go out
there and break his blasted neck on the Asteroid Belt.

For the next three days Bill saw much of Margo. She was the most
exciting thing he had ever discovered, and he indulged her laughingly
when she took to speaking of his position in Intercontinental Lines as
an accomplished fact.

On the third day he took Margo to lunch, a Margo with shining eyes,
for this was Bill's day of decision. She had done her work well.

He ordered for them, and added, "Also a bottle of champagne."

The waiter brought the champagne first. There was no doubt on Margo's
features what this was about, even though it had always been "if",
"maybe" "possibly" in Bill's discussions with her about the new job.

In the midst of picking up his glass and proposing a toast, "Here's to
my new--" Bill stopped. The ultrafax had popped out a sheet. Carefully
putting the glass down, he said, "That's a special bulletin."

Picking it up he read aloud, "Staker Rocket in serious trouble. Home
field reports damage by small meteor. Crew on emergency air bottles.
Mysterious emanations blind radar scope and disrupt communication with
Earth."

Tom--and the others, out there fighting for their lives against
suffocation and intense cold. Their quarrel seemed like the antics of
teenagers now. He had to get out to the field, see if he could help.

"What are you going to do?" Margo was watching him intently, the
knuckles of her small hands white.

"I'm going to the field."

"But--but what about that toast you were making to your new--job,
that's what you were going to say, wasn't it?" Her eyes were intense
spots of jet.

"I guess that'll have to wait, Margo," he told her. "I can't stand by
when Tom needs help."

Margo clutched his hands convulsively. "Bill, don't take a rocket up
or you'll die in the same trap he's dying in!" The words rushed out as
if through a trapdoor she could not control.

Bill glanced at her with sharp, new interest. "How do you know it's a
trap, and how do you know he's going to die?"

Tears began to well up in her large eyes. "All I can tell you is don't
go out there, Bill. I don't want to lose you--now."

Dawning realization filled Bill with horror. "Margo--Margo, for God's
sake, what kind of a game have you been playing with me!"

Margo's shoulders sagged, and she began to sob out her story. "Bill,
please, please believe me. I love you. That was not my part of the
agreement with Asteroid Mining--to fall in love with you. Yes. I was
hired to separate you and your brother, break up your company."

Before Bill could snarl an answer to that, a hotel service clerk came
with a portable phone.

"Call for you, sir."

With his eyes fixed steadily on Margo, he spoke into the transmitter,
"Captain Staker."

Christy's strained and tearful voice came over the wire. "Bill, oh,
Bill, we're getting terrible news here at the field. Tom's ship is
losing oxygen!"

"Yes, I know," he answered. "I just got the Ultra on it. I'll be right
out, Christy."

As he replaced the phone he looked at Margo with a grim, loathing
expression. "A female trick as old as the universe and I had to fall
for it. You and your innocent questions about our Quadrant trajectory!
What a sucker I was!" He drew back his hand to slap her but decided
against it. She was crying when he left.

On the way to the field the familiar but forgotten black tide of fear
rose up like a spectre once more to scatter his gathering ideas for
helping Tom. Resigning himself to its power and pulling over to the
roadside, he sat still, gripping the wheel. Yes, he told himself
tensely, here I sit while Tom and the others drift in space needing
help. The realization of their need slowly gave him a greater
objective clarity than he had ever had before. He began to see himself
now for what he was--a cringing weakling stripped naked of all
manliness at the first show of evil. Though he perhaps had been worse
than the average, this was the trouble with his whole security minded
generation. They never dreamed great dreams like George Staker and his
era which wrested atomic power from the treasure house of nature. No,
this generation carefully followed safe, charted paths in the world of
ideas. It had given up its freedom to a world of government controlled
monopolies. And Tom, taking up the torch left by their creatively
imaginative ancestor, was trying to recapture a small facet of that
golden age.

       *       *       *       *       *

With the dawning in him of Mid-Twentieth Century mind, Bill felt a
thrilling sense of freedom as the black tide receded over the horizon
of his inner world. He took a new firm grip on the wheel, and took off
again at high speed.

Christy was at the field office waiting outside. As he stepped out of
the car, she threw her arms around him.

"Oh, Bill, what can you do for Tom now?"

He said gently, "I'll bring him back for you."

She drew back her head to look at him incredulously, "You still
think--! Oh, Bill, you foolish guy, you're the one I love, the one
I've always loved."

For a moment he searched her eyes and saw only a revelation of honest
feeling. A surging gladness flooded through him, releasing an
unconscious hard ball of tension inside.

"Christy, what a knothead I've been!" He gathered her up to kiss her
fervently. "So long, Christy. Old Staker was a piker at dreaming
compared to what I'm dreaming for you and me!"

The field men had the rocket fueled up and provisioned to go. "This'll
be no picnic, but there's a prize out there if we want it bad enough.
You'll all have a share in it, instead of handing it all over to the
government. Are you with Tom and me?"

"Sure, Bill. Let's go!"

"Yeah, let's open 'er wide up!"

They all clambered up the ship's access ladder in high spirits. In a
moment a warning red signal rocket shot into the sky and burst,
warning all local aircraft. Another five minutes and the rocket leapt
off the Earth with a long, shattering roar.

Bill kept the fissioning metals pouring through the atomic explosive
after-chambers until the men screamed at the acceleration. Finally he
eased it off to free flight and the _Space Dragon_ followed the
trajectory of the _Space Bird_.

All the way he hovered over the radar scope. Then after long hours of
fatiguing watching he crawled into his bunk.

Later he woke up to Radarman Jones' voice in his ear.

"Captain--wake up. We've picked up a ship on the scope!"

Bill piled out and forced his floating feet to magnetic contact with
the steel deck. He followed Jones down the short corridor to the
communications cabin.

At the radar scope Bill studied the ship, then gave orders
decelerating the _Space Dragon_.

"There's another ship!" Jones exclaimed, pointing at the edge of the
scope.

Bill peered at the new ship, studying its characteristics. Then he
nodded his head. "It's the _Space Bird_ all right. But that first
one--I got an idea it must be an Asteroid Mining ship. Margo must have
transmitted the _Space Bird_ trajectory to Asteroid Mining. I don't
see how anybody would know where to find us in such immense distances
as Beta Quadrant."

Stepping over to the communications panel he called the _Space Bird_.
No answer, and though he kept calling he could not raise the ship.

Then he called Staker Field on Earth.

"Caxton?"

The field came back. "Staker Field. Go ahead."

"Caxton, we've found the _Space Bird_ but can't speak to them, so I'm
cutting you in on communications with an Asteroid Mining ship that's
hanging around. Tape pictures and sound--the whole works."

"Okay."

Flipping another switch, Bill called the strange ship on the
all-interplanetary frequency.

Suddenly after long minutes of silence the dark screen lighted up with
the impassive features of a round faced, cold eyed man.

"Yeah? This is the _Pluton_. What d'you want--and who are you?"

"This is the _Space Dragon_--sister ship to the _Space Bird_ there in
your vicinity. What's the matter with our ship?"

The man's eyes darkened and his jaws tightened. "There's plenty wrong
with it, _Space Dragon_. And the same thing's going to be wrong with
your ship, too. A 'meteor' is going to hit your ship the same as hit
the _Space Bird_. Asteroid Mining doesn't like competitors horning in
their business!"

Bill shot back grimly, "I'm glad to hear your views on competition,
Mister. The whole world is interested in our Project Venture, and when
they hear what you said there's going to be hell to pay. Because, you
see, everything you say and how you look saying it is being recorded
back at Staker Field on Earth!"

The other man's impassive face suddenly turned into a ludicrous mask
of a man burning his fingers on hot chestnuts. The two way hook-up
abruptly ended. On the scope Bill and Jones watched the image of the
_Pluton_ begin to move across the scope and finally out of range in
the opposite direction toward Asteroid Mining's Omega Quadrant.

Hours later the _Space Dragon_ made physical contact with Tom's ship.
Bill was the first one through the communicating airlock.

Tom, his face drawn and haggard, met him as he emerged in the ship.
The rest of the crew were lying still to conserve air.

"Hi, Bill. Boy, are we glad to see you. That 'meteor' they threw at us
confined us on air bottles in the forward compartments."

Bill shook his hand warmly. "We got enough air for all of us. After we
patch things up here, let's start carving us a chunk of private
enterprise."

Tom's tired eyes lighted up. "Hm, say, you're so right! Our geigers
have found enough floating ore in Beta Quadrant already to make a big
nick in Asteroid's business."

Bill gave him a mock salute, "Okay, skipper. You've earned the title
of Head Dreamer, and I'll help make your dreams come true!"

THE END

       *       *       *       *       *





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