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´╗┐Title: A Coffin for Jacob
Author: Ludwig, Edward W.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Coffin for Jacob" ***

                          A Coffin for Jacob

                          By EDWARD W. LUDWIG

                          Illustrated by EMSH

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                   Galaxy Science Fiction May 1956.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

               With never a moment to rest, the pursuit
               through space felt like a game of hounds
              and hares ... or was it follow the leader?

Ben Curtis eased his pale, gaunt body through the open doorway of the
Blast Inn, the dead man following silently behind him.

His fear-borne gaze traveled into the dimly illumined Venusian gin
mill. The place was like an evil caldron steaming with a brew whose
ingredients had been culled from the back corners of three planets.

Most of the big room lay obscured behind a shimmering veil of tobacco
smoke and the sweet, heavy fumes of Martian Devil's Egg. Here and
there, Ben saw moving figures. He could not tell if they were Earthmen,
Martians or Venusians.

Someone tugged at his greasy coat. He jumped, thinking absurdly that it
was the dead man's hand.

"_Coma esta, senor?_" a small voice piped. "_Speken die Deutsch?
Desirez-vous d'amour? Da? Nyet?_"

Ben looked down.

The speaker was an eager-eyed Martian boy of about ten. He was like
a red-skinned marionette with pipestem arms and legs, clad in a torn
skivvy shirt and faded blue dungarees.

"I'm American," Ben muttered.

"Ah, _buena_! I speak English _tres_ fine, _senor_. I have Martian
friend, she _tres_ pretty and _tres_ fat. She weigh almost eighty
pounds, _monsieur_. I take you to her, _si_?"

Ben shook his head.

       *       *       *       *       *

He thought, _I don't want your Martian wench. I don't want your opium
or your Devil's Egg or your Venusian kali. But if you had a drug that'd
bring a dead man to life, I'd buy and pay with my soul._

"It is deal, _monsieur_? Five dollars or twenty _keelis_ for visit
Martian friend. Maybe you like House of Dreams. For House of Dreams--"

"I'm not buying."

The dirty-faced kid shrugged. "Then I show you to good table,--_tres
bien_. I do not charge you, _senor_."

The boy grabbed his hand. Because Ben could think of no reason for
resisting, he followed. They plunged into shifting layers of smoke and
through the drone of alcohol-cracked voices.

They passed the bar with its line of lean-featured, slit-eyed
Earthmen--merchant spacemen.

They wormed down a narrow aisle flanked by booths carved from Venusian
marble that jutted up into the semi-darkness like fog-blanketed

Several times, Ben glimpsed the bulky figures of CO_{2}-breathing
Venusians, the first he'd ever seen.

They were smoky gray, scaly, naked giants, toads in human shape.
They stood solitary and motionless, aloof, their green-lidded eyes
unblinking. They certainly didn't look like telepaths, as Ben had heard
they were, but the thought sent a fresh rivulet of fear down his spine.

Once he spied a white-uniformed officer of Hoover City's Security
Police. The man was striding down an aisle, idly tapping his neuro-club
against the stone booths.

_Keep walking_, Ben told himself. _You look the same as anyone else
here. Keep walking. Look straight ahead._

The officer passed. Ben breathed easier.

"Here we are, _monsieur_," piped the Martian boy. "A _tres_ fine table.
Close in the shadows."

Ben winced. How did this kid know he wanted to sit in the shadows?
Frowning, he sat down--he and the dead man.

He listened to the lonely rhythms of the four-piece Martian orchestra.

The Martians were fragile, doll-like creatures with heads too large for
their spindly bodies. Their long fingers played upon the strings of
their _cirillas_ or crawled over the holes of their flutes like spider
legs. Their tune was sad. Even when they played an Earth tune, it still
seemed a song of old Mars, charged with echoes of lost voices and
forgotten grandeur.

For an instant, Ben's mind rose above the haunting vision of the dead
man. He thought, _What are they doing here, these Martians? Here, in
a smoke-filled room under a metalite dome on a dust-covered world?
Couldn't they have played their music on Mars? Or had they, like me,
felt the challenge of new worlds?_

He sobered. It didn't matter. He ordered a whiskey from a Chinese
waiter. He wet his lips but did not drink. His gaze wandered over the
faces of the Inn's other occupants.

_You've got to find him_, he thought. _You've got to find the man with
the red beard. It's the only way you can escape the dead man._

       *       *       *       *       *

The dead man was real. His name was Cobb. He was stout and flabby and
about forty and he hated spacemen.

His body was buried now--probably in the silent gray wastes outside
Luna City. But he'd become a kind of invisible Siamese twin, as much a
part of Ben as sight in his eyes.

Sometimes the image would be shuffling drunkenly beside him, its lips
spitting whiskey-slurred curses.

Again, its face would be a pop-eyed mask of surprise as Ben's fist
thudded into its jaw. More often, the face would be frozen in the
whiteness of death. The large eyes would stare. Blood would trickle
from a corner of the gaping mouth.

You can forget a living man. You can defeat him or submit to him or
ignore him, and the matter is over and done. You can't escape from a
memory that has burned into your mind.

It had begun a week ago in Luna City. The flight from White Sands had
been successful. Ben, quietly and moderately, wanted to celebrate.
He stopped alone in a rocketfront bar for a beer. The man named Cobb
plopped his portly and unsteady posterior on the stool next to him.

"Spacemen," he muttered, "are getting like flies. Everywhere, all you
see's spacemen."

He was a neatly dressed civilian.

Ben smiled. "If it weren't for spacemen, you wouldn't be here."

"The name's Cobb." The man hiccoughed. "Spacemen in their white monkey
suits. They think they're little tin gods. Betcha you think you're a
little tin god." He downed a shot of whiskey.

Ben stiffened. He was twenty-four and dressed in the white,
crimson-braided uniform of the _Odyssey's_ junior astrogation officer.
He was three months out of the Academy at White Sands and the shining
uniform was like a key to all the mysteries of the Universe.

He'd sought long for that key.

       *       *       *       *       *

At the age of five--perhaps in order to dull the memory of his parents'
death in a recent strato-jet crash--he'd spent hours watching the night
sky for streaking flame-tails of Moon rockets. At ten, he'd ground
his first telescope. At fourteen, he'd converted an abandoned shed on
the government boarding-school grounds to a retreat which housed his
collection of astronomy and rocketry books.

At sixteen, he'd spent every weekend holiday hitchhiking from Boys
Town No. 5 in the Catskills to Long Island Spaceport. There, among
the grizzled veterans of the old Moon Patrol, he'd found friends who
understood his dream and who later recommended his appointment to the
U. S. Academy for the Conquest of Space.

And a month ago, he'd signed aboard the _Odyssey_--the first ship, it
was rumored, equipped to venture as far as the asteroids and perhaps

Cobb was persistent: "Damn fools shoulda known enough to stay on Earth.
What the hell good is it, jumpin' from planet to planet?"

_The guy's drunk_, Ben thought. He took his drink and moved three
stools down the bar.

Cobb followed. "You don't like the truth, eh, kid? You don't like
people to call you a sucker."

Ben rose and started to leave the bar, but Cobb grabbed his arm and
held him there.

"Thas what you are--a sucker. You're young now. Wait ten years. You'll
be dyin' of radiation rot or a meteor'll get you. Wait and see, sucker!"

Until this instant, Ben had suppressed his anger. Now, suddenly and
without warning, it welled up into savage fury.

His fist struck the man on the chin. Cobb's eyes gaped in shocked
horror. He spun backward. His head cracked sickeningly on the edge of
the bar. The sound was like a punctuation mark signaling the end of

He sank to the floor, eyes glassy, blood tricking down his jaw.

Ben knew that he was dead.

Then, for a single absurd second, Ben was seized with terror--just as,
a moment before, he'd been overwhelmed with anger.

He ran.

       *       *       *       *       *

For some twenty minutes, he raced through a dizzying, nightmare world
of dark rocketfront alleys and shouting voices and pursuing feet.

At last, abruptly, he realized that he was alone and in silence. He saw
that he was still on the rocketfront, but in the Tycho-ward side of the

He huddled in a dark corner of a loading platform and lit a cigarette.
A thousand stars--a thousand motionless balls of silver fire--shone
above him through Luna City's transparent dome.

He was sorry he'd hit Cobb, of course. He was not sorry he'd run.
Escaping at least gave him a power of choice, of decision.

_You can do two things_, he thought.

_You can give yourself up, and that's what a good officer would do.
That would eliminate the escape charge. You'd get off with voluntary
manslaughter. Under interplanetary law, that would mean ten years in
prison and a dishonorable discharge. And then you'd be free._

_But you'd be through with rockets and space. They don't want new
men over thirty-four for officers on rockets or even for third-class
jet-men on beat-up freighters--they don't want convicted killers. You'd
get the rest of the thrill of conquering space through video and by
peeking through electric fences of spaceports._


There were old wives' tales of a group of renegade spacemen who
operated from the Solar System's frontiers. The spacemen weren't
outlaws. They were misfits, rejectees from the clearing houses on Earth.

And whereas no legally recognized ship had ventured past Mars, the
souped-up renegade rigs had supposedly hit the asteroids. Their
headquarters was Venus. Their leader--a subject of popular and
fantastic conjecture in the men's audiozines--was rumored to be a
red-bearded giant.

_So_, Ben reflected, _you can take a beer-and-pretzels tale seriously.
You can hide for a couple of days, get rid of your uniform, change your
name. You can wait for a chance to get to Venus. To hell with your
duty. You can try to stay in space, even if you exile yourself from

After all, was it right for a single second, a single insignificant
second, to destroy a man's life and his dream?

       *       *       *       *       *

He was lucky. He found a tramp freighter whose skipper was on his last
flight before retirement. Discipline was lax, investigation of new
personnel even more so.

Ben Curtis made it to Venus.

There was just one flaw in his decision. He hadn't realized that the
memory of the dead man's face would haunt him, torment him, follow him
as constantly as breath flowed into his lungs.

But might not the rumble of atomic engines drown the murmuring dead
voice? Might not the vision of alien worlds and infinite spaceways
obscure the dead face?

So now he sat searching for a perhaps nonexistent red-bearded giant,
and hoping and doubting and fearing, all at once.

"You look for someone, _senor_?"

He jumped. "Oh. You still here?"

"_Oui._" The Martian kid grinned, his mouth full of purple teeth. "I
keep you company on your first night in Hoover City, _n'est-ce-pas_?"

"This isn't my first night here," Ben lied. "I've been around a while."

"You are spacemen?"

Ben threw a fifty-cent credit piece on the table. "Here. Take off, will

Spiderlike fingers swept down upon the coin. "_Ich danke, senor._ You
know why city is called Hoover City?"

Ben didn't answer.

"They say it is because after women come, they want first thing a
thousand vacuum cleaners for dust. What is vacuum cleaner, _monsieur_?"

Ben raised his hand as if to strike the boy.

"_Ai-yee_, I go. You keep listen to good Martian music."

The toothpick of a body melted into the semi-darkness.

Minutes passed. There were two more whiskeys. A ceaseless parade of
faces broke through the smoky veil that enclosed him--reddish balloon
faces, scaly reptilian faces, white-skinned, slit-eyed faces, and
occasionally a white, rouged, powdered face. But nowhere was there a
face with a red beard.

A sense of hopelessness gripped Ben Curtis. Hoover City was but one of
a dozen cities of Venus. Each had twenty dives such as this.

He needed help.

But his picture must have been 'scoped to Venusian visiscreens. A
reward must have been offered for his capture. Whom could he trust? The
Martian kid, perhaps?

Far down the darkened aisle nearest him, his eyes caught a flash of
white. He tensed.

Like the uniform of a Security Policeman, he thought.

His gaze shifted to another aisle and another hint of whiteness.

And then he saw another and another and another.

Each whiteness became brighter and closer, like shrinking spokes of a
wheel with Ben as their focal point.

_You idiot! The damned Martian kid! You should have known!_

       *       *       *       *       *

Light showered the room in a dazzling explosion. Ben, half blinded,
realized that a broad circle of unshaded globes in the ceiling had been
turned on.

The light washed away the room's strangeness and its air of brooding
wickedness, revealing drab concrete walls and a debris-strewn floor.

Eyes blinked and squinted. There were swift, frightened movements and
a chorus of angry murmurs. The patrons of the Blast Inn were like
tatter-clad occupants of a house whose walls have been ripped away.

Ben Curtis twisted his lean body erect. His chair tumbled backward,

The white-clad men charged, neuro-clubs upraised.

A woman screamed. The music ceased. The Martian orchestra slunk with
feline stealth to a rear exit. Only the giant Venusians remained
undisturbed. They stood unmoving, their staring eyes shifting lazily in
Ben's direction.

"Curtis!" one of the policemen yelled. "You're covered! Hold it!"

Ben whirled away from the advancing police, made for the exit into
which the musicians had disappeared.

A hissing sound traveled past his left ear, a sound like compressed air
escaping from a container. A dime-sized section of the concrete wall
ahead of him crumbled.

He stumbled forward. They were using deadly neuro-pistols now, not the
mildly stunning neuro-clubs.

Another hiss passed his cheek. He was about twelve feet from the exit.
_Another second_, his brain screamed. _Just another second--_

Or would the exits be guarded?

He heard the hiss.

It hit directly in the small of his back. There was no pain, just a
slight pricking sensation, like the shallow jab of a needle.

       *       *       *       *       *

He froze as if yanked to a stop by a noose. His body seemed to be
growing, swelling into balloon proportions. He knew that the tiny
needle had imbedded itself deep in his flesh, knew that the paralyzing
mortocain was spreading like icy fire into every fiber and muscle of
his body.

He staggered like a man of stone moving in slow motion. He'd have
fifteen--maybe twenty--seconds before complete lethargy of mind and
body overpowered him.

In the dark world beyond his fading consciousness, he heard a voice
yell, "Turn on the damn lights!"

Then a pressure and a coldness were on his left hand. He realized that
someone had seized it.

A soft feminine voice spoke to him. "You're wounded? They hit you?"

"Yes." His thick lips wouldn't let go of the word.

"You want to escape--even now?"


"You may die if you don't give yourself up."

"No, no."

He tried to stumble toward the exit.

"All right then. Not that way. Here, this way."

Heavy footsteps thudded toward them. A few yards away, a flashlight
flicked on.

Hands were guiding him. He was aware of being pushed and pulled. A
door closed behind him. The glare of the flashlight faded from his
vision--if he still had vision.

"You're sure?" the voice persisted.

"I'm sure," Ben managed to say.

"I have no antidote. You may die."

His mind fought to comprehend. With the anti-paralysis injection,
massage and rest, a man could recover from the effects of mortocain
within half a day. Without treatment, the paralysis could spread to
heart and lungs. It could become a paralysis of death. An effective
weapon: the slightest wound compelled the average criminal to surrender
at once.

"Anti ... anti ..." The words were as heavy as blobs of mercury forced
from his throat. "No ... I'm sure ... sure."

He didn't hear the answer or anything else.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ben Curtis had no precise sensation of awakening. Return to
consciousness was an intangible evolution from a world of black
nothingness to a dream-like state of awareness.

He felt the pressure of hands on his naked arms and shoulders,
hands that massaged, manipulated, fought to restore circulation and
sensitivity. He knew they were strong hands. Their strength seemed to
transfer itself to his own body.

For a long time, he tried to open his eyes. His lids felt welded
shut. But after a while, they opened. His world of darkness gave way
to a translucent cloak of mist. A round, featureless shape hovered
constantly above him--a face, he supposed.

He tried to talk. Although his lips moved slightly, the only sound was
a deep, staccato grunting.

But he heard someone say, "Don't try to talk." It was the same gentle
voice he'd heard in the Blast Inn. "Don't talk. Just lie still and
rest. Everything'll be all right."

_Everything all right_, he thought dimly.

There were long periods of lethargy when he was aware of nothing. There
were periods of light and of darkness. Gradually he grew aware of
things. He realized that the soft rubber mouth of a spaceman's oxygen
mask was clamped over his nose. He felt the heat of electric blankets
swathed about his body. Occasionally a tube would be in his mouth and
he would taste liquid food and feel a pleasant warmth in his stomach.

Always, it seemed, the face was above him, floating in the obscuring
mist. Always, it seemed, the soft voice was echoing in his ears:

"Swallow this now. That's it. You must have food." Or, "Close your
eyes. Don't strain. It won't be long. You're getting better."

_Better_, he'd think. _Getting better...._

At last, after one of the periods of lethargy, his eyes opened. The
mist brightened, then dissolved.

He beheld the cracked, unpainted ceiling of a small room, its colorless
walls broken with a single, round window. He saw the footboard of his
aluminite bed and the outlines of his feet beneath a faded blanket.

Finally he saw the face and figure that stood at his side.

"You are better?" the kind voice asked.

       *       *       *       *       *

The face was that of a girl probably somewhere between twenty-five
and thirty. Her features, devoid of makeup, had an unhealthy-looking
pallor, as if she hadn't used a sunlamp for many weeks. Yet, at the
same time, her firm slim body suggested a solidity and a strength. Her
straight brown hair was combed backward, tight upon her scalp, and
drawn together in a knot at the nape of her neck.

"I--I am better," he murmured. His words were still slow and thick. "I
am going to live?"

"You will live."

He thought for a moment. "How long have I been here?"

"Nine days."

"You took care of me?" He noted the deep, dark circles beneath her
sleep-robbed eyes.

She nodded.

"You're the one who carried me when I was shot?"



Suddenly he began to cough. Breath came hard. She held the oxygen mask
in readiness. He shook his head, not wanting it.

"Why?" he asked again.

"It would be a long story. Perhaps I'll tell you tomorrow."

A new thought, cloaked in sudden fear, entered his murky consciousness.
"Tell me, will--will I be well again? Will I be able to walk?"

He lay back then, panting, exhausted.

"You have nothing to worry about," the girl said softly. Her cool hand
touched his hot forehead. "Rest. We'll talk later."

His eyes closed and breath came easier. He slept.

When he next awoke, his gaze turned first to the window. There was
light outside, but he had no way of knowing if this was morning, noon
or afternoon--or on what planet.

He saw no white-domed buildings of Hoover City, no formal lines of
green-treed parks, no streams of buzzing gyro-cars. There was only a
translucent and infinite whiteness. It was as if the window were set on
the edge of the Universe overlooking a solemn, silent and matterless

The girl entered the room.

"Hi," she said, smiling. The dark half-moons under her eyes were less
prominent. Her face was relaxed.

She increased the pressure in his rubberex pillows and helped him rise
to a sitting position.

"Where are we?" he asked.


"We're not in Hoover City?"


He looked at her, wondering. "You won't tell me?"

"Not yet. Later, perhaps."

"Then how did you get me here? How did we escape from the Inn?"

       *       *       *       *       *

She shrugged. "We have friends who can be bribed. A hiding place in the
city, the use of a small desert-taxi, a pass to leave the city--these
can be had for a price."

"You'll tell me your name?"


"Why did you save me?"

Her eyes twinkled mischievously. "Because you're a good astrogator."

His own eyes widened. "How did you know that?"

She sat on a plain chair beside his bed. "I know everything about you,
Lieutenant Curtis."

"How did you learn my name? I destroyed all my papers--"

"I know that you're twenty-four. Born July 10, 1971. Orphaned at four,
you attended Boys Town in the Catskills till you were 19. You graduated
from the Academy at White Sands last June with a major in Astrogation.
Your rating for the five-year period was 3.8--the second highest in a
class of fifty-seven. Your only low mark in the five years was a 3.2 in
History of Martian Civilization. Want me to go on?"

Fascinated, Ben nodded.

"You were accepted as junior astrogation officer aboard the _Odyssey_.
You did well on your flight from Roswell to Luna City. In a barroom
fight in Luna City, you struck and killed a man named Arthur Cobb, a
pre-fab salesman. You've been charged with second degree murder and
escape. A reward of 5,000 credits has been offered for your capture.
You came to Hoover City in the hope of finding a renegade group of
spacemen who operate beyond Mars. You were looking for them in the
Blast Inn."

He gaped incredulously, struggling to rise from his pillows. "I--don't
get it."

"There are ways of finding out what we want to know. As I told you, we
have many friends."

He fell back into his pillows, breathing hard. She rose quickly.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't have told you yet. I felt so happy
because you're alive. Rest now. We'll talk again soon."

"Maggie, you--you said I'd live. You didn't say I'd be able to walk

She lowered her gaze. "I hope you'll be able to."

"But you don't think I will, do you?"

"I don't know. We'll try walking tomorrow. Don't think about it now.

He tried to relax, but his mind was a vortex of conjecture.

"Just one more question," he almost whispered.


"The man I killed--did he have a wife?"

She hesitated. He thought, _Damn it, of all the questions, why did I
ask that?_

Finally she said, "He had a wife."


"Two. I don't know their ages."

She left the room.

       *       *       *       *       *

He sank into the softness of his bed. As he turned over on his side,
his gaze fell upon an object on a bureau in a far corner of the room.

He sat straight up, his chest heaving.

The object was a tri-dimensional photo of a rock-faced man in a
merchant spaceman's uniform. He was a giant of a man with a neatly
trimmed _red beard_!

Ben stared at the photo for a long time. At length, he slipped into
restless sleep. Images of faces and echoes of words spun through his

The dead man returned to him. Bloodied lips cursed at him. Glassy eyes
accused him. Somewhere were two lost children crying in the night.

And towering above him was a red-bearded man whose great hands reached
down and beckoned to him. Ben crawled through the night on hands and
knees, his legs numb and useless. The crying of the children was a
chilling wail in his ears.

His head rose and turned to the red-bearded man. His pleading voice
screamed out to him in a thick, harsh cackle. Yet even as he screamed,
the giant disappeared, to be replaced by white-booted feet stomping
relentlessly toward him.

He awoke still screaming....

A night without darkness passed. Ben lay waiting for Maggie's return, a
question already formed in his mind.

She came and at once he asked, "Who is the man with the red beard?"

She smiled. "I was right then when I gave you that thumbnail biog. You
_were_ looking for him, weren't you?"

"Who is he?"

She sat on the chair beside him.

"My husband," she said softly.

He began to understand. "And your husband needs an astrogator? That's
why you saved me?"

"We need all the good men we can get."

"Where is he?"

She cocked her head in mock suspicion. "Somewhere between Mercury and
Pluto. He's building a new base for us--and a home for me. When his
ship returns, I'll be going to him."

"Why aren't you with him now?"

"He said unexplored space is no place for a woman. So I've been
studying criminal reports and photos from the Interplanetary Bureau of
Investigation and trying to find recruits like yourself. You know how
we operate?"

He told her the tales he'd heard.

       *       *       *       *       *

She nodded. "There are quite a few of us now--about a thousand--and a
dozen ships. Our base used to be here on Venus, down toward the Pole.
The dome we're in now was designed and built by us a few years ago
after we got pushed off Mars. We lost a few men in the construction,
but with almost every advance in space, someone dies."

"Venus is getting too civilized. We're moving out and this dome is only
a temporary base when we have cases like yours. The new base--I might
as well tell you it's going to be an asteroid. I won't say which one."

"Don't get the idea that we're outlaws. Sure, about half our group is
wanted by the Bureau, but we make honest livings. We're just people
like yourself and Jacob."

"Jacob? Your husband?"

She laughed. "Makes you think of a Biblical character, doesn't it?
Jacob's anything but that. And just plain 'Jake' reminds one of a
grizzled old uranium prospector and he isn't like that, either."

She lit a cigarette. "Anyway, the wanted ones stay out beyond the
frontiers. Jacob and those like him can never return to Earth--not even
to Hoover City--except dead. The others are physical or psycho rejects
who couldn't get clearance if they went back to Earth. They know
nothing but rocketing and won't give up. They bring in our ships to
frontier ports like Hoover City to unload cargo and take on supplies."

"Don't the authorities object?"

"Not very strongly. The I. B. I. has too many problems right here to
search the whole System for a few two-bit crooks. Besides, we carry
cargoes of almost pure uranium and tungsten and all the stuff that's
scarce on Earth and Mars and Venus. Nobody really cares whether it
comes from the asteroids or Hades. If we want to risk our lives mining
it, that's our business."

She pursed her lips. "But if they guessed how strong we are or that we
have friends planted in the I. B. I.--well, things might be different.
There probably would be a crackdown."

Ben scowled. "What happens if there _is_ a crackdown? And what will you
do when Space Corps ships officially reach the asteroids? They can't
ignore you then."

"Then we move on. We dream up new gimmicks for our crates and take them
to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto. In time, maybe, we'll be
pushed out of the System itself. Maybe it won't be the white-suited
boys who'll make that first hop to the stars. It _could_ be us, you
know--if we live long enough. But that Asteroid Belt is murder. You
can't follow the text-book rules of astrogation out there. You make up
your own."

       *       *       *       *       *

Ben stiffened. "And that's why you want me for an astrogator."

Maggie rose, her eyes wistful. "If you want to come--and if you get
well." She looked at him strangely.

"Suppose--" He fought to find the right words. "Suppose I got well and
decided not to join Jacob. What would happen to me? Would you let me

Her thin face was criss-crossed by emotion--alarm, then bewilderment,
then fear. "I don't know. That would be up to Jacob."

He lay biting his lip, staring at the photo of Jacob. She touched his
hand and it seemed that sadness now dominated the flurry of emotion
that had coursed through her.

"The only thing that matters, really," she murmured, "is your walking
again. We'll try this afternoon. Okay?"

"Okay," he said.

When she left, his eyes were still turned toward Jacob's photo.

He was like two people, he thought.

Half of him was an officer of the Space Corps. Perhaps one single
starry-eyed boy out of ten thousand was lucky enough to reach that goal.

He remembered a little picture book his mother had given him when she
was alive. Under the bright pictures of spacemen were the captions:

"A Space Officer Is Honest" "A Space Officer Is Loyal." "A Space
Officer Is Dutiful."

Honesty, loyalty, duty. Trite words, but without those concepts,
mankind would never have broken away from the planet that held it
prisoner for half a million years.

Without them, Everson, after three failures and a hundred men dead,
would never have landed on the Moon twenty-seven years ago.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ben sighed. He had a debt to pay. A good officer would pay that debt.
He'd surrender and take his punishment. He'd rip the crimson braid from
his uniform. He'd prevent the Academy for the Conquest of Space from
being labeled the school of a murderer and a coward.

And by doing these things, the haunting image of a dead man would
disappear from his vision.

But the other half of Ben Curtis was the boy who'd stood trembling
beneath a night sky of beckoning stars.

The eyes in Jacob's photo seemed to be staring at the boy in him, not
at the officer. They appeared both pleading and hopeful. They were
like echoes of cold, barren worlds and limitless space, of lurking
and savage death. They held the terror of loneliness and of exile, of
constant flight and hiding.

But, too, they represented a strength that could fulfill a boy's dream,
that could carry a man to new frontiers. They, rather than the neat
white uniform, now offered the key to shining miracles. That key was
what Ben wanted.

But he asked himself, as he had a thousand times, "If I follow Jacob,
can I leave the dead man behind?"

He tried to stretch his legs and he cursed their numbness. He smiled
grimly. For a moment, he'd forgotten. How futile now to think of stars!

What if he were to be like this always? Jacob would not want a man
with dead legs. Jacob would either send him back to Earth or--Ben
shuddered--see that he was otherwise disposed of. And disposal would be
the easier course.

       *       *       *       *       *

This was the crisis. He sat on the side of the bed, Maggie before him,
her strong arm about his waist.

"Afraid?" she asked.

"Afraid," he repeated, shaking.

It was as if all time had been funneled into this instant, as if this
moment lay at the very vortex of all a man's living and desiring. There
was no room in Ben's mind for thoughts of Jacob now.

"You can walk," Maggie said confidently. "I _know_ you can."

He moved his toes, ankles, legs. He began to rise, slowly, falteringly.
The firm pressure around his waist increased.

He stood erect. His legs felt like tree stumps, but here and there were
a tingling and a warmth, a sensitivity.

"Can you make it to the window?" Maggie asked.

"No, no, not that far."

"Try! Please try!"

She guided him forward.

His feet shuffled. Stomp, stomp. The pressure left his waist. Maggie
stepped away, walked to the window, turned back toward him.

He halted, swaying. "Not alone," he mouthed fearfully. "I can't get
there by myself."

"Of course you can!" Maggie's voice contained unexpected impatience.

Ashamed, he forced his feet to move. At times, he thought he was going
to crash to the floor. He lumbered on, hesitating, fighting to retain
his balance. Maggie waited tensely, as if ready to leap to his side.

Then his eyes turned straight ahead to the window. This was the first
time he'd actually seen the arid, dust-cloaked plains of the second
planet. He straightened, face aglow, as though a small-boy enthusiasm
had been reborn in him.

His tree-stump legs carried him to the window. He raised shaking hands
against the thick glassite pane.

Outside, the swirling white dust was omnipresent and unchallenged. It
cut smooth the surfaces of dust-veiled rocks. It clung to the squat
desert shrubbery, to the tall skeletal shapes of Venusian needle-plants
and to the swish-tailed lizards that skittered beneath them.

The shrill of wind, audible through the glassite, was like the
anguished complaint of the planet itself, like the wail of an entity
imprisoned in a dark tomb of dust. Venus was a planet of fury,
eternally howling its wrath at being isolated from sunlight and
greenery, from the clean blackness of space and the warm glow of
sister-planet and star.

The dust covered all, absorbed all, eradicated all. The dust was
master. The dome, Ben felt, was as transitory as a tear-drop of fragile
glass falling down, down, to crash upon stone.

"Is it always like this?" he asked. "Doesn't the wind ever stop?"

"Sometimes the wind dies. Sometimes, at night, you can see the lights
from the city."

       *       *       *       *       *

He kept staring. The dome, he thought, was a symbol of Man's littleness
in a hostile universe.

But, too, it was a symbol of his courage and defiance. And perhaps
Man's greatest strength lay in the very audacity that drove him to
build such domes.

"You like it, don't you?" Maggie asked. "It's lonely and ugly and wild,
but you like it."

He nodded, breathless.

She murmured, "Jacob used to say it isn't the strange sights that
thrill spacemen--it's the thoughts that the sights inspire."

He nodded again, still staring.

She began to laugh. Softly at first, then more loudly. It was the kind
of laughter that is close to crying.

"You've been standing there for ten minutes! You're going to walk
again! You're going to be well!"

He turned to her, smiling with the joyous realization that he had
actually stood that long without being aware of it.

Then his smile died.

Standing behind Maggie, in an open doorway, was a gray, scaly, toadlike
monster--a six-and-a-half-foot Venusian. He was motionless as a statue,
his green-lidded eyes staring curiously at Ben. His scaly hand was
tight about the butt of an old-fashioned heat pistol holstered to his

Maggie suppressed a smile. "Don't be frightened, Ben. This is
Simon--Simple Simon, we call him. His I. Q. isn't too high, but he
makes a good helper and guard for me. He's been so anxious to see you,
but I thought it'd be better if he waited until you were well."

Ben nodded, fascinated by the apparent muscular solidity of the
creature. It hadn't occurred to his numbed mind that he and Maggie were
not the sole occupants of the dome.

But Maggie had acted wisely, he thought. His nightmares had been
terrifying enough without bringing Simple Simon into them.

"Shake hands with Ben," she told the Venusian.

Simple Simon lumbered forward, then paused. His eyes blinked. "No," he

Maggie gasped. "Why, Simple Simon, what's the matter?"

The gray creature rasped, "Ben--he not one of us. He thinks--different.
In thoughts--thinks escape. Earth."

       *       *       *       *       *

Maggie paled. "He _is_ one of us, Simon." She stepped forward and
seized the Venusian's arm. "You go to your room. Stand guard. You guard
Ben just like you guard me. Understand?"

Simple Simon grunted, "I guard. If Ben go--I stop him. I stop him
good." He raised his huge hands suggestively.

"No, Simon! Remember what Jacob told you. We hurt no one. Ben is our
friend. You help him!"

The Venusian thought for a long moment. Then he nodded. "I help Ben.
But if go--stop."

She led the creature out of the room and closed the door.

"Whew," Ben sighed. "I'd heard those fellows were telepaths. Now I

Maggie's trembling hands reached for a cigarette. "I--I guess I didn't
think, Ben. Venusians can't really read your mind, but they see your
feelings, your emotions. It's a logical evolutionary development,
I suppose. Auditory and visual communication are difficult here, so
evolution turned to empathy. And that's why Jacob keeps a few Venusians
in our group. They can detect any feeling of disloyalty before it
becomes serious."

Ben remembered Simple Simon's icy gaze and the way his rough hand had
gripped his heat pistol. "They could be dangerous."

"Not really. They're as loyal as Earth dogs to their masters. I mean
they wouldn't be dangerous to anyone who's loyal to us."

Silently, she helped him back to his bed.

"I'm sorry, Maggie--sorry I haven't decided yet."

She neither answered nor looked at him.

Grimly, he realized that his status had changed. He was no longer a
patient; he was a prisoner.

A Venusian day passed, and a Venusian night. The dust swirled and wind
blew, as constant as the whirl of indecision in Ben's mind.

Maggie was patient. Once, when she caught him gazing at Jacob's photo,
she asked, "Not yet?"

He looked away. "Not yet."

       *       *       *       *       *

He learned that the little dome consisted of three rooms, each shaped
like pieces of a fluffy pie with narrow concrete hallways between.

His room served as a bedroom and he discovered that Maggie slept on a
pneumatic cot in the kitchen. The third room, opening into the airlock,
housed a small hydroponics garden, sunlamp, short-wave visi-radio, and
such emergency equipment as oxygen tanks, windsuits, and vita-rations.
It was here that Simple Simon remained most of the time, tending the
garden or peering into the viewscreen that revealed the terrain outside
the dome.

Maggie prepared Ben's meals, bringing them to him on a tray until he
was able to sit at a table. As his paralysis diminished, he helped
her with cooking--with Simple Simon standing by as a mute, motionless

Occasionally Maggie would talk of her girlhood in a small town in
Missouri and how she'd dreamed of journeying to the stars.

"'Stars are for boys,' they'd tell me, but I was a queer one. While
other gals were dressing for their junior proms, I'd be in sloppy
slacks down at the spaceport with Jacob."

She laughed often--perhaps in a deliberate attempt to disguise the
omnipresent tension. And her laughter was like laughter on Earth,
floating through comfortable houses and over green fields and through
clear blue sky. When she laughed, she possessed a beauty.

Despite her pale face and lack of makeup, Ben realized that she was no
older than he.

_If I'd only known her back on Earth_, he thought. _If I_--And then he
told himself, _You've got enough problems. Don't create another one!_

Finally, except for a stiffness in his leg joints, he'd fully recovered.

"How much time do I have?" he asked.

"Before you decide?"


"Very little. Jacob's ship is on its way. It'll be here--well, you
can't tell about these things. Two or three Earth days, maybe even
tomorrow. It'll stay in Hoover City long enough to discharge and load
cargo. Then it'll stop here for us and return to--to our new base."

"What do you think Jacob would do if I didn't want to go with him?"

       *       *       *       *       *

She shook her head. "You asked me that before. I said I didn't know."

Ben thought, _I know a lot about you, Jacob. I know you're based on an
asteroid. I know how many men you have, how many ships. I know where
this dome is. I know you have men planted in the I. B. I. Would you
let me go, knowing these things? How great is your immunity from the
law? Do you love freedom so much that you'd kill to help preserve it?_

Fear crawled through his mind on icy legs.

"Maggie," he said, "what would Jacob do if he were me?"

She looked amused. "Jacob wouldn't have gotten into your situation. He
wouldn't have struck Cobb. Jacob is--"

"A man? And I'm still a boy? Is that what you mean?"

"Not exactly. I think you'll be a man after you make your decision."

He frowned, not liking her answer.

"You think the dream of going into space is a boy's dream, that it
can't belong to a man, too?"

"Oh, no. Jacob still has the dream. Most of our men do. And in a
man, it's even more wonderful than in a boy." Then her face became
more serious. "Ben, you've got to decide soon. And it's got to be a
_complete_ decision. You can have no doubt in your mind."

He nodded. "On account of Simon, you mean."

She motioned for him to come to the window in his room. He gazed
outward, following the line of her finger as she pointed.

He saw a man-sized mound of stones, dimly visible beneath the
wind-whipped dust.

A grave.

"He was a man like you," Maggie said softly. "God knows Simon didn't
_try_ to kill him. But he was escaping. He--he made the decision not to
join us. Simon sensed it. There was a struggle. Simon's hands--well, he
doesn't realize--"

She didn't have to explain further. Ben knew what those mighty scaly
paws could do.

       *       *       *       *       *

The moments were now like bits of eternity cloaked in frozen fear.
Somewhere in the blackness of interplanetary space, Jacob's rocket was
streaking closer and closer to Venus. How far away was it? A million
miles? Fifty thousand? Or was it now--right now--ripping through the
murky Venusian atmosphere above the dome?

A _complete_ decision, Maggie had said.

Jacob didn't want a potential deserter in his group. And you couldn't
_pretend_ that you were loyal to Jacob--not with monstrosities like
Simple Simon about.

Soon Jacob, not Ben, might have to make a decision--a decision that
could result in a second cairn of stones on the wind-swept desert.

Ben shivered.

Before retiring, he wandered nervously into the supply room. Maggie
was poised over the visi-radio. Simple Simon was intently scanning the
night-shrouded terrain in the viewscreen.

"Any news?" Ben asked Maggie.

The girl grunted negatively without looking up.

Ben's gaze fell upon the array of oxygen masks, windsuits,
vita-rations. Then, on a littered shelf, he spied a small Venusian

Almost automatically, his hand closed over it. His brain stirred with
a single thought: _A compass could keep a man traveling in a straight

Simple Simon restlessly shifted. He turned to Ben, blinking in the
frighteningly alien equivalent of a suspicious scowl.

Ben's hand tightened about the compass. He tried to relax, to force all
thought of it from his mind. He stared at the viewscreen, concentrating
on the ceaseless drift of dust.

The Venusian's eyes studied him curiously, as if searching his mind for
the illusive echo of a feeling that had given him alarm.

"I think I'll turn in," yawned Ben. "'Night, Maggie."

Simon frowned, apparently frustrated in his mental search. "Ben--not
one of us. I--watch."

       *       *       *       *       *

Without answering, Ben returned to his room, the compass hot and moist
from the perspiration in his hand.

He took a deep breath.

Why had he taken the compass? He wasn't sure. Perhaps, he reflected,
his decision had already been made, deep beneath the surface of

He stood before the window, peering into the night. He knew that to
attempt to sleep was futile. Sleep, for the past few days an ever-ready
friend, had become a hostile stranger.

_God_, his brain cried, _what shall I do?_

Slowly, the dust outside the window settled. The scream of wind was no
longer audible. His startled eyes beheld dim, faraway lights--those of
Hoover City, he guessed.

It was as if, for the space of a few seconds, some cosmic power had
silenced the Venusian fury, had guided him toward making his decision.

He whipped up his compass. He barely had time to complete the

"Sixty-eight degrees," he read. "Northeast by east."

Fresh wind descended onto the plain. Dancing dust erased the vision of
the lights.

"Sixty-eight, sixty-eight," he kept muttering.

But now there was nothing to do--except try to sleep and be ready.

Strong hands shook him out of restless sleep. He opened his eyes and
saw complete darkness. He thought at first that his eyesight had failed.

"Ben! Wake up!" Maggie's voice came to him, crisp, commanding. "The
rocket's coming. I've decoded the message. We only have a few minutes."

The girl snapped on a small bulkhead light. She left him alone to dress.

He slid out of bed, a drowsiness still in him. He reached for his
clothing. Abruptly, the full implication of what she had said struck

Jacob's rocket was coming. This was the time for decision, yet within
his taut body there was only a jungle of conflicting impulses.

       *       *       *       *       *

Maggie returned, her face hard, her eyes asking the silent question.

Ben stood frozen. The slow seconds beat against his brain like waves of

At last she said, "Ready, Ben?" She spoke evenly, but her searching
gaze belied the all-important significance of her words.

In the dim light, the photograph of Jacob was indistinguishable, but
Ben could still see the image of the dead man.

He thought, _I can't run away with Jacob like a selfish, cowardly kid!
No matter how bright the stars would be, that brightness couldn't
destroy the image of a dead man with staring eyes. No matter what Jacob
and Simon do to me, I've got to try to get back to Earth._

He suddenly felt clean inside. He was no longer ashamed to hold his
head high.

"Maggie," he said.


"I've made my decision."

Outside the window, a waterfall of flame cascaded onto the desert,
pushing aside the dust and the darkness. The deep-throated sound of
rocket engines grumbled above the whining wind. The floor of the dome

"The rocket's here!" Maggie cried.

The flaming exhaust from the ship dissolved into the night. The rocket
thunder faded into the wind.

The alarm on the dome's inner airlock bulkhead rang. Maggie ran like a
happy child through the concrete corridor, Ben following. She bounded
into the supply room, pushed Simple Simon aside, stopped before a
control panel. Her fingers flew over switches and levers.

The airlock door slid open. A short, stubble-bearded man clad in
windsuit and transparalite helmet stomped in. He unscrewed the face
plate of his helmet. His ears were too big and he looked like a fat

"We're ready for you, Mrs. Pierce," he said.

Maggie nodded eagerly. She whirled back to Ben. "_Hurry!_ Get your
helmet and suit on!"

She spun back to the big-eared little man. "Cargo unloaded? All set for
the flight home?"

_Home_, Ben thought. _She calls a place she's never seen home._

"Cargo's unloaded."

"No trouble with the I. B. I.? No investigation?"

"Not yet. We're good for a few more hauls, I guess."

       *       *       *       *       *

Ben slipped on his windsuit. He glanced at the control panel for the
airlock. Yes, he could manipulate it easily. He contemplated the heat
pistol at Simple Simon's hip. A tempting idea--but, no, he wanted no
more of violence.

Then he bit his lip. He cleared his mind of all thought.

Simple Simon evidently had not noted the impulse that flicked his
adrenals into pumping.

The big-eared man stared strangely at Maggie. "Mrs. Pierce, before we
go, I'd better tell you something."

"You can do that on the rocket."

Maggie stepped forward to seize her helmet. The man blocked her

"Mrs. Pierce, your husband--Jacob--was on the rocket."

"What?" The girl released a broken, unbelieving little laugh. "Why, he
wouldn't dare! That idiot, taking a chance like--" Alarm twisted her
features. "He--he wasn't captured--"

"No, he wasn't captured. And he took no chance, Mrs. Pierce."

A moment of silence. Then she sucked in her breath.

Ben understood. Words echoed in his mind: "Jacob and those like him can
never return to Earth, not even to Hoover City--except dead."

Maggie swayed. Ben and the big-eared little man jumped to her side,
guided her back into the compartment used as a kitchen. They helped her
to a chair. Ben turned on the fire beneath a coffee pot. Simple Simon
watched silently.

Her eyes empty and staring, Maggie asked, "How did it happen?"

"We were heading into a clump of baby asteroids the size of peas. The
radar warning was too slow. We couldn't pull away; we had to stop. The
deceleration got him--crushed him. He lived for five minutes afterward."

The little man produced a folded paper from a pocket of his suit.
"Jacob said he had some ideas he had to get down on paper. God knows
why, but during those five minutes he drew up this plan for improving
our deceleration compensator."

"Plans for--" she gasped.

"He was a spaceman, Mrs. Pierce." The man handed her the paper. Ben
caught a glimpse of scribbled circuits, relays, cathodes.

"When he finished," the man continued, "he said to tell you that he
loved you."

She started to hand the paper back.

The spaceman shook his head. "No, the original is yours. I've made
copies for our own ships and for the brass in Hoover City."

       *       *       *       *       *

Maggie kept talking to the little man, lost in the world he was
creating for her. Ben was excluded from that world, a stranger.

Then Ben saw his opportunity.

Simple Simon's face was expressionless, but tears were zig-zagging down
his gray, reptilian features. Ben stared for several seconds, wondering
if his vision had deceived him. Till this instant, he'd somehow assumed
that the big Venusian was devoid of emotion.

But Simple Simon was crying.

It was unlikely that the creature would peer into his mind at a moment
like this.

Step by step, Ben backed toward the open door in the rear of the
compartment. Silently, he slipped through it. He attempted to move
automatically, without feeling.

He darted into the supply room. The continued drone of voices told him
his action had not been observed.

He didn't like it at all. Escaping this way was like crumpling Maggie's
grief into an acid ball and hurling it into her face. But he had no
other choice.

A few seconds later, he was dressed in windsuit and oxygen helmet. A
can of vita-rations was strapped to his back and his compass was in his

Heart refusing to stop pounding, he threw the levers and switches to
open the airlock. He cringed under the grinding, scraping noise, as
loud to him as the ringing clash of swords.

But the murmur of voices continued.

He stepped outside. The airlock door clanged shut. He was caught by the
biting dust and the shrill banshee wind. He fell, then scrambled erect.

To his right, he saw the silver sheen of Jacob's rocket shining behind
a row of golden, eyelike portholes. Beneath it were black outlines of
moving, helmeted figures.

He bent low to study the luminous dial of his compass.

Behind him was a grating and a sliding of metal. A movement in the

He turned.

Dimly illuminated by the glow from the rocket ports was the grim, stony
face of Simple Simon.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Venusian was like a piece of the night itself, compressed and
solidified to form a living creature. The impression was contradicted
only by the glowing whiteness of his eyes.

The reptilian body shuffled forward. The scales on his great face
and chest reflected the lights from the rocket like Christmas tree
ornaments dusted with gold.

His hands reached out.

Words thundered in Ben's memory: _God knows Simon didn't try to kill
him. Simon's hands--well, he doesn't realize--_

Ben hopped away from the groping hands, slipped the compass into his
pocket, balled his fists. The wind caught at his body. He stumbled,
then recovered his balance.

Despite the wind and his suit's bulkiness, he was surprised at his own
agility. He recalled that the gravitational pull of Venus was only
four-fifths of Earth's. That was an advantage.

Crouching against the wind, he stepped to his left, away from the
rocket. He was reluctant to enter an area of greater darkness, but
neither did he want to risk observation by the men he'd seen near
Jacob's ship.

Simple Simon followed. He moved like an automaton, functioning with
awkward, methodical slowness. His hands, speckled with reflected light,
rose up out of the darkness.

Ben stepped back, wiped the dust from his clouded face-plate. One swoop
of those hands, he knew, could shatter his helmet, destroy his oxygen
supply, leave him choking on deadly methane and carbon dioxide.

But, so far, Simon seemed bent on capture, not destruction. That fact
gave Ben a second advantage.

Scaly fingers, moving now with greater swiftness, closed over the
shoulder of his suit. Ben felt himself being pulled forward, a child
in the grasp of a giant. His brief surge of confidence vanished. Cold
terror swept upon him.

He lashed out wildly. His right fist found his target, found it so well
that the skin split on his gloved knuckles.

Simon's head snapped back. The grasping fingers slipped from Ben's suit.

But still the Venusian lumbered ahead, an irresistible juggernaut, the
hands continually groping. Ben ducked and slipped aside. The can of
vita-rations was ripped from his back.

He crouched low, fighting the wind, maneuvering for another blow.
His lungs ached, but he had no opportunity to increase his helmet's
oxygen flow. His weak leg muscles were beginning to pain as though with
needles of fire.

       *       *       *       *       *

The hands crashed down upon his shoulders. This time, his fist found
Simon's stomach. The creature released a grunt audible above the
howling of wind. His body doubled up.

Ben struck again and again. His lungs throbbed as if they'd break
through his chest. A fresh layer of dust coated his face-plate, nearly
blinding him. He fought instinctively, gauntleted fists battering.

Simple Simon fell.

Ben brushed away the dust from his face-plate, turned up his helmet's
oxygen valve. Then he knelt by the fallen creature.

A new fear came to Ben Curtis--a fear almost as great as that of being
caught in Simon's crushing grip. It was the fear that he had killed

But even in the near-darkness, he could distinguish the labored rise
and fall of the massive chest.

_Thank God_, he thought.

From the direction of Jacob's ship, a flash of light caught his eye.
The black shapes of helmeted men were becoming larger, nearer.

Ben tensed. The spacemen couldn't have heard sounds of the struggle,
but they _might_ have noticed movement.

Puffing, Ben plunged into the darkness to his left, slowing only long
enough to consult the dial of his compass.

"Sixty-eight degrees," he breathed.

The compass dial was now his only companion and his only hope. It was
the one bit of reality in a world of black, screaming nightmare.

       *       *       *       *       *

At first Ben Curtis fought the wind and the dust and the night. His
fists were clenched as they had been while struggling with Simon. Each
step forward was a challenge, a struggle and--so far, at any rate--a

But how far was the city? Five miles? Ten? How could you judge distance
through a haze of alien sand?

And were Simple Simon or Jacob's men following? How good was a
Venusian's vision at night? Would the scaly hands find him even now,
descending on him from out of the blackness?

He kept walking, walking. Sixty-eight degrees.

Gradually his senses grew numb to the fear of recapture. He became
oblivious to the wailing wind and the beat of dust against his
face-plate. He moved like a robot. His mind wandered back through time
and space, a pin-wheel spinning with unforgettable impressions, faces,

He saw the white features of a dead man, their vividness fading now and
no longer terrifying.

_A Space Officer Is Honest. A Space Officer Is Loyal. A Space Officer
Is Dutiful._ The words were like clear, satisfying music.

He cursed at the image of a pop-eyed Martian boy. _A tres fine table,
monsieur. Close in the shadows._

And yet, he told himself, the boy really didn't do anything wrong. He
was only helping to capture a murderer. Maybe he was lonesome for Mars
and needed money to go home.

Ben thought of Maggie: _While other gals were dressing for their junior
proms, I'd be in sloppy slacks down at the spaceport with Jacob.... If
I'd only known her back on Earth--_

Maggie, sitting alone now with a wrinkled paper and its mass of
scrawled circuits. Alone and hollow with grief and needing help. Ben's
throat tightened. Damn it, he didn't want to think about that.

What was it the little big-eared man had said? _I've made copies for
our own ships and for the brass in Hoover City._

Why had he said that? Why would renegades give their secrets to the
Space Corps? The Corps would incorporate the discoveries in their
ships. With them, they'd reach the asteroids. Jacob's group would be
pushed even further outward.

Ben stopped, the wind whipping at his suit and buffeting his
helmet--but not as hard as the answer he had found.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jacob and his men had an existence to justify, a debt to pay. They
justified that existence and paid that debt by helping humanity in its
starward advance.

Maggie had said, _We carry cargoes of almost pure uranium and tungsten
and all the stuff that's getting scarce on Earth and Mars and Venus. If
we want to risk our lives getting it, that's our business.... The dome
we're in now was designed and built by us a few years ago. We lost a
few men in the construction, but with almost every advance in space,
someone dies._

The wind pressed Ben back. The coldness of the Venusian night was
seeping into his suit. It was as if his body were bathed, at once, in
flame and ice.

He slipped, fell, his face turned toward the sandy ground. He did not
try to rise.

Yet his mind seemed to soar above the pain, to carry him into a
wondrous valley of new awareness.

Man would never be content to stay on nine insignificant globes-not
when his eyes had the power to stare into a night sky and when his
brain had the ability to imagine. There would have to be pioneers to
seek out the unknown horror, to face it and defeat it. There would have
to be signposts lining the great road and helping others to follow
without fear.

For all the brilliancy of their dreams, those men would be the lonely
ones, the men of no return. For all the glory of their brief adventure,
they would give not only their cloaks, but ultimately their lives.

Ben lay trembling in the darkness.

His brain cried, _You couldn't rig up a radar system or a deceleration
compensator, but you could chart those asteroids. You can't bring a man
named Cobb back to life, but you could help a thousand men and women to
stay alive five or ten or twenty years from now._

Ben knew at last what decision Jacob would have made.

The reverse of sixty-eight on a compass is two-forty-eight.

       *       *       *       *       *

Like flashing knitting needles, strong hands moved about his
face-plate, his windsuit, his helmet. Then they were wiping
perspiration from his white face and placing a wet cloth on the back of
his neck.

"You were coming back," a voice kept saying. "You were coming back."

His mouth was full of hot coffee. He became aware of a gentle face
hovering above him, just as it had a seeming eternity ago.

He sat up on the bed, conscious now of his surroundings.

"Simon says you were coming back, Ben. _Why?_"

He fought to grasp the meaning of Maggie's words. "Simon? Simon found
me? He brought me back?"

"Only a short way. He said you were almost here."

Ben closed his eyes, reliving the whirlwind of thought that had whipped
through his brain. He mumbled something about pioneers and a scrawled
paper and a debt and a decision.

Then he blinked and saw that he and Maggie were not alone. Simple Simon
stood at the foot of his bed--and was that a trace of a smile on his
reptilian mouth? And three windsuited spacemen stood behind Maggie,
helmets in their hands. One was a lean-boned, reddish-skinned Martian.

Simple Simon said, "Ben--changed. Thinks--like us. Good now.

The little big-eared man stepped up and shook hands with Ben. "If Simon
says so, that's good enough for me."

A blond-haired Earthman helped Ben from the bed. "Legs okay, fellow?
Think you're ready?"

Ben stood erect unassisted. "Legs okay. And I'm ready."

He thought for a moment. "But suppose I wasn't ready. Suppose I didn't
want to go with you. I know a lot about your organization. What would
you do?"

The blond man shrugged untroubledly. "We wouldn't kill you, if that's
what you mean. We'd probably vote on whether to take you with us anyway
or let you go." His smile was frank. "I'm glad we don't have to vote."

Ben nodded and turned to Maggie. "You're still coming with us?"

She shook her head, a mist shining in her sad eyes. "Not on this trip.
Not without Jacob. I'll get one of our desert taxis back to Hoover
City. Then I'll be going to Earth for a while. I've got some thinking
to do and thinking is done best on Earth. Out here is the place for
_feeling_." Her eyes lost a little of their pain. "But I'll be back.
Jacob wouldn't stay on Earth. Neither will I. I'll be seeing you."

The big-eared man put his hand on Ben's shoulder.

"Think you can get us back to Juno?" he asked.

Ben looked at Maggie and then at the big-eared man. "You're as good as
there," he said confidently.

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Coffin for Jacob" ***

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