Fawzi was horrified. "Why, that's more firepower than the whole Air Patrol. Look, the Government won't like our having anything like that."
"They're giving her to us, aren't they?" Menardes asked.
"Gehenna with what the Government likes!" the old Rebel swore. "If they'd put a few of those ships into commission, they could wipe out these outlaws and a private company wouldn't need an armed ship."
"May I use your screen, Kurt?" Conn asked.
When Fawzi nodded, he punched out the combination of the operating office at Tenth Army, and finally got his father on. He told him about the ship.
"There's talk about tearing the armament out," he added.
"Is that so, now? Well, I'll call Lester Dawes before he can get started on it. I think I'll go in to Storisende tomorrow and see the ship for myself. See what I can do about ammunition for those guns, too."
"But, Rod," Fawzi protested, joining the conversation, "we don't want to start a war."
"No. We want to stay out of one. You don't do that by disarming. We're taking that ship down into the Badlands. Remember?" Rodney Maxwell said. "Ever hear the name Blackie Perales?"
Fawzi had. He stopped arguing about armament. Instead, he began worrying about how much the civic clean-up campaign was costing Litchfield.
"You think we really need that, Rod?"
"Of course we do. You'd be surprised how much labor we're going to need, and how hard up we're going to be for capable supervisors. This thing's a training program, Kurt, and we'll need every man we train on it."
"But it's costing like Nifflheim, Rod. We're going to bankrupt the city."
"Worse than it is now, you mean? Oh, don't worry, Kurt. As soon as we find Merlin, everything'll be all right."
Franz Veltrin came in, shortly after Rodney Maxwell was off the screen. He dropped his audiovisual camera and sound recorder on the table, laid his pistol-belt on top of them and took a drink of brandy, downing it with the audible satisfaction of a thirsty horse at a trough. Then he looked around accusingly.
"Somebody's been talking!" he declared. "I've had all the news services on the planet on my screen today; they all want the story about what's happening here. They've heard we know where Merlin is; that Conn Maxwell found out on Terra."
"They just put two and two together and threw seven," Conn said. "A Herald-Guardian ship-news reporter interviewed me when I got in, and found out I'd been studying cybernetics and computer theory on Terra. What did you tell them?"
"Complete denial. We don't know a thing about Merlin. Naturally, they didn't believe me. A bunch of them are coming out here tomorrow. What are we going to tell them? We'll all have to have the same story."
"I," said Judge Ledue, "am not going to be interviewed, I am leaving town till they're gone."
"Why don't you steer them onto Wade Lucas?" Conn asked. "If you want anything denied, he'll do it for you."
Everybody thought that was a wonderful idea, except Klem Zareff, and he waited until Conn was ready to go and rode up to the landing stage with him.
"Conn, I know this Lucas is going to marry your sister," he began, "but how much do you know about him?"
"Not much. He seems like a nice chap. I don't hold what he said at the meeting against him. I suppose if I'd come from off-planet, I wouldn't believe in Merlin either."
"Hah! But doesn't he believe in Merlin?"
"He makes noises like it."
"You know what I think?" Klem Zareff lowered his voice to a whisper. "I think he's a Federation spy! I think the Federation's lost Merlin. That's why they haven't come back to get it long ago."
"Pretty big thing to mislay."
"It could happen. There'd only be a few scientists and some high staff officers who'd know where it was. Well, say they all went back to Terra on the same ship, and the ship was lost at space. Sabotage, one of our commerce raiders that hadn't heard the War was over, maybe just an ordinary accident. But the ship's lost, and the location of Merlin's lost with her."
"That could happen," Conn agreed seriously.
"All right. So ever since, they've had people here, listening, watching, spying. This Lucas; he showed up here about a year after you went to Terra. And who does he get engaged to? Your sister. And what does he do here? Goes around arguing that there is no Merlin, getting people to argue with him, getting them mad, so they'll blurt out anything they know. I'm an old field officer; I know all the prisoner-interrogation tricks in the book, and that's always been one of the best."
"Then why did he act the way he did at the meeting? All he did there was cut himself off from learning anything more from any of us. In his place, would you have done that? No; you'd have tried to take the lead in hunting for Merlin yourself. Now wouldn't you?"
Zareff was silent, first puzzled, and then hurt. Now he would have to tear the whole idea down and build it over.
Flora was quite friendly when she came home from school. She'd found out, somewhere, that Conn had been the originator of the municipal face-lifting project. He was tempted, briefly, to tell her a little, if not all, of the truth about the Maxwell Plan, then decided against it. The way to keep a secret was to confide it to nobody; every time you did, you doubled, maybe even squared, the chances of exposure.
He told his father, when Rodney Maxwell came in from the dig, about his talk with Klem Zareff.
"How long's he been like that, anyhow?" he asked.
"As long as I've known him. When it comes to melons and wine and bossing tramp labor and taking care of his money and coming in out of the rain, Klem Zareff's as sane as I am. But on the subject of the Terran Federation, he's crazy as a bedbug. What is a bedbug, anyhow?"
"They have them on Terra, in places like Tramptown. They have places like Tramptown on Terra, too."
"Uhuh. I suppose, in Klem's boots, I'd be just as crazy as he is," Rodney Maxwell said. "One minute, he had a wife and two children in Kindelburg, on Ashmodai, and the next minute Kindelburg was a puddle of radioactive slag."
"That was in '51, wasn't it? I read about it," Conn said. "It was a famous victory."
That was from a poem, too.
Rodney Maxwell flew to Storisende early the next morning. Conn rode back to Tenth Army on an empty scow and pitched into the job of getting the stores and equipment out of the underground shelters. More farm-tramps arrived, and had to be pounded into obedience and taught the work. At the same time, Litchfield was getting a steady influx of job-seekers, and a secondary swarm of thugs, grifters and gangsters who followed them. Klem Zareff, having gotten all his melons pressed, came out to Tenth Army, where he selected fifty of the best men from the work-gangs and began drilling them as soldiers to guard the next operation. The manual of arms, drill and salute he taught them was, of course, System States Alliance.
A week later, the ship arrived from Storisende; a hundred and sixty feet, three thousand tons, small enough to be berthed inside a hyperspace transport, and fast enough to get a load of ammunition to troops at the front, unload, and get out again before the enemy could zero in on her, and armed to fight off any Army Air Force combat craft. The delay had been in recruiting officers and crew. The captain and chief engineer were out-of-work shipline officers, the gunner was a former Federation artillery officer, and the crew looked more like pirates than most pirates did.
They christened her the Lester Dawes, because Dawes had secured her and because the name began with the initials of Litchfield Exploration & Salvage. From then on, it was a race to see whether the Tenth Army attack-shelters would be emptied before the wine was all pressed, or vice versa.
Fifty-two years before, they had come to the mesa in the Badlands and dug a pit on top of it, a thousand feet in diameter and more than five hundred deep, and in it they built a duplicate of the headquarters for Third Fleet-Army Force Command. They built a shaft a hundred feet in diameter like a chimney at one side, and they ran a tunnel out through solid rock to the head of a canyon half a mile away. Then they buried the whole thing. Twelve years later, when the War was over, they sealed both entrances and went away and left it.
For a month each winter, cold rains from the east lashed the desert; for the rest of the year, it was swept by windblown sand. Wiregrass sprouted, and thornbush grew; Nature, the master-camoufleur, completed the work of hiding the forgotten headquarters. Little things not unlike rabbits scampered over it, and bigger things, vaguely foxlike, hunted them. Hunted men came, too, their aircars skimming low. None of them had the least idea what was underneath.
The mesa-top came suddenly to life, just as the sun edged up out of the east. Conn and his father and Anse Dawes came in first, in the recon-car with which they had scouted and photographed the site a few days before. They circled at a thousand feet, fired a smoke bomb, and then let down near where Conn's map showed the head of the vertical shaft. The rest followed, first a couple of combat cars that circled slowly, scanning the ground, and then the Lester Dawes with her big guns and her load of equipment, and behind a queue of boats and scows and heavy engineering equipment on contragravity and troop carriers full of workmen and guards, flanked by air cavalry, which circled above while everything else landed, then scattered out over a fifty-mile radius. Occasionally there was a hammering of machine guns, either because somebody saw something on the ground that might need shooting at or simply because it was a beautiful morning to make a noise.
The ship settled quickly and daintily, while Conn and Anse and Rodney Maxwell sat in the car and watched. Immediately, she began opening like a beetle bursting from its shell, large sections of armor swinging outward. Except for the bridge and the gun turrets, almost the whole ship could be opened; she had been designed to land in the middle of a battle and deliver ammunition when seconds could mean the difference between life and death. Jeeps and lifters and manipulators and things floated out of her. Scows began landing and unloading prefab-hut elements. A water tank landed, and the cook-shed began going up beside it; a lorry came in with scanning and probing equipment, and a couple of men jumped off and huddled over a photoprint copy of one of Conn's maps.
Conn lifted the car again and coasted it half a mile to where the cleft in the mesa started. There were half a dozen claw-armed manipulators already there, and two giant power shovels. Jerry Rivas and one of the engineers Kurt Fawzi had hired had gotten out of a jeep and were looking at another photoprint of the map. Rivas pointed to the head of the canyon, where a mass of rock had slid down.
"That's it; you can still see where they put off the shots."
The canyon was long enough and wide enough for the Lester Dawes to land in it; she could be loaded directly from the tunnel. The manipulators began moving in, wrestling with the larger chunks of rock and dragging or carrying them away. Power shovels began grunting and clanking and rumbling; dust rose in a thick column. Toward midmorning, the troop carriers which served as school buses in Litchfield arrived, loaded with more workmen. A lorry lettered STORISENDE HERALD-GUARDIAN came in, hovered over the canyon, and began transmitting audiovisuals. More news-folk put in an appearance.
The earth and rock at the top of the tunnel entrance fell away, revealing the vitrified stone lintel; everybody cheered and dug harder. More aircars arrived, getting in each other's and everybody else's way. Raymond Fitch, Lester Dawes, Lorenzo Menardes and Morgan Gatworth. Dolf Kellton, playing hookey from school. Kurt Fawzi; he landed in the canyon and watched every shovelful of rock lifted, as though trying to help with mental force. Tom Brangwyn, with a score of the Home Guard to reinforce the Company Police. Klem Zareff called in his air cavalry to help control the sightseers. Nobody was making trouble; they were just getting in the way.
At eleven, Rodney Maxwell went aboard the Lester Dawes to use the radio and telescreen equipment. By then, two time zones west in Storisende, the Claims Office was opening; he filed preliminary claim to an underground installation with at least two entrances in uninhabited country, and claimed a ten-mile radius around it. By that time, the gang working on top had uncovered a vitrified slab over the hundred-foot circle of the vertical shaft and were cracking it with explosives. According to the scanners, it was full of loose rubble for a hundred feet down. Below that, the microrays hit something impenetrable.
Toward midafternoon, the tunnel in the canyon was cleared. It had been vitrified solid; the scanners reported that it was plugged for ten feet. A contragravity tank let down in front of it, with a solenoid jackhammer mounted where the gun should have been, and began pounding, running a hole in for a blast shot. There were more explosions topside; when Conn took a jeep up to observe progress there, he found the vitrified rock blown completely off the vertical shaft, exposing the rubble that had been dumped into it. The gang on the mesa-top had discovered something else; a grid of auro-copper bussbars buried four feet underground. Ten to one, radio and telescreen signals would be transmitted to that from below, and then probably picked up and rebroadcast from a relay station on one or another of the high buttes in the neighborhood. Time enough to look for that later. He returned to the canyon, where the lateral tunnel was now almost completely open.
When it was clear, they sent a snooper in first. It was a robot, looking slightly like a short-tailed tadpole, six feet long by three feet at the thickest. It transmitted a view of the tunnel as it went slowly in; the air, it found, was breathable, and there were no harmful radiations or other dangers. According to the plans, there should be a big room at the other end, slightly curved, a hundred feet wide by a hundred on either side of the tunnel entrance. The robot entered this, and in its headlight they could see reconnaissance-cars, and contragravity tanks with 90-mm guns. It swerved slightly to the left, and then the screen stopped receiving, the telemetered instruments went dead and the robot's signal stopped.
"Tom," Rodney Maxwell said, "you keep the crowd back. Klem, stay with the screens; I'll transmit to you. I'm going in to see what's wrong."
He started to give Conn an argument when he wanted to accompany him.
"No," Conn said. "I'm going along. What do you think I went to Terra to study robotics for?"
His father snapped on the screen and pickup of the jeep that was standing nearby. "You getting it, Klem?" he asked. "Okay, Conn. Let's go."
Half a mile ahead, at the other end of the tunnel, they could see a flicker of light that grew brighter as they advanced. The snooper still had its light on and was moving about. Once they caught a momentary signal from it. As Rodney Maxwell piloted the jeep, Conn kept talking to Klem Zareff, outside. Then they were at the end of the tunnel and entering the room ahead; it was full of vehicles, like the one on the bottom level at Tenth Army HQ. As soon as they were inside, Klem Zareff's voice in the radio stopped, as though the set had been shot out.
"Klem! What's wrong? We aren't getting you," his father was saying.
The snooper was drifting aimlessly about, avoiding the parked vehicles. Conn used the manual control to set it down and deactivate it, then got out and went to examine it.
"Take the jeep over to the tunnel entrance," he told his father. "Move out into the tunnel a few feet; relay from me to Klem."
The jeep moved over. A moment later his father cried, "He's getting me; I'm getting him. What's the matter with the radio in here? The snooper's all right, isn't it?"
It was. Conn reactivated it and put it up above the tops of the vehicles.
"Sure. We just can't transmit out."
"But only half a mile of rock; that set's good for more than that. It'll transmit clear through Snagtooth."
"It won't transmit through collapsium."
His father swore disgustedly, repeating it to Zareff outside. Conn could hear the old soldier, in the radio, make a similar remark. They should have all expected that, in the first place. If the Third Force High Command was expecting to sit out a nuclear bombardment in this place, they'd armor it against anything.
"Bring the gang in; it's safe as far as we've gotten," his father said. "We'll just have to string wires out."
Conn used his flashlight and found the power unit for the room lights; all the overhead lights were wired to one unit, if wired were the word for gold-leaf circuits cemented to the walls and covered with insulating paint. For the heavy stuff, like the ventilator fans, they'd have to find the central power plant. He looked around the big room, poking into some of the closets that lined it. Radiation-proof clothing. Tools. Arms and ammunition. First-aid kits. Emergency rations. All the vehicles were plated in shimmering collapsium.
The crowd started coming in: the work-gangs selected for the first exploration work, most of them old hands of Rodney Maxwell's; the engineers they had recruited; Mohammed Matsui—he had a gang of his own, the same one he had been using in tearing down the converter at Tenth Army; the stockholders and officials; the press. And everybody else Tom Brangwyn's police hadn't been able to keep out.
The power plant was at the extreme bottom; Matsui began looking it over at once. Above it they found the service facilities—air-and-water plant; pumps for the artesian well; sewage disposal. Then repair ships, and a laboratory, and laundries and kitchens above that.
"Where do you suppose it is?" Kurt Fawzi was asking. "Up at the very top, I suppose. Let's go up and work down; I can't wait till we've found it."
Like a kid on Christmas Eve, Conn thought. And there was no Santa Claus, and Christmas had been abolished.
The place was built in concentric circles, level above level. Combat equipment nearest the tunnel exit and nearest the vertical shaft, and ambulances and decontamination units and equipment for relief and rebuilding next. Storerooms, mile on circular mile of them. Not the hasty packrat cramming he'd seen at Tenth Army; everything had been brought in in order, carefully piled or racked, and then left. More stores for the next three levels up; then living quarters. Enlisted men's and women's quarters, no signs of occupancy. Enlisted kitchens and mess halls, untouched.
Most of the officers' quarters were similarly unused, but here and there some had been occupied. A sloppily made bed. A used cake of soap in the bathroom. An empty bottle in a closet. Officers' commissary stores had been used from and replaced; the officers' mess hall and kitchen had been in constant use, and the officers' club had a comfortably scuffed and lived-in look. There had been a few people there all the time of the War.
"Men and women, all officers or civilians," Klem Zareff said. "Didn't even have enlisted men to cook for them. And we haven't found a scrap of paper with writing on it, or an inch of recorded sound-tape or audiovisual film. Remember those big wire baskets, down at the mass-energy converters? Before they left, they disintegrated every scrap of writing or recording. This is where Merlin is; they were the people who worked with it."
And above, offices. General Staff. War Planning, with an incredibly complex star-map of the theater of war. Judge Advocate General. Inspector General. Service of Supply. They were full of computers, each one firing the hopes of people like Fawzi and Dolf Kellton and Judge Ledue, but they were only special-purpose machines, the sort to be found in any big business office. The Storisende Stock Exchange probably had much bigger ones.
Then they found big ones, rank on rank of cabinets, long consoles studded with lights and buttons, programming machines.
"It's Merlin!" Fawzi almost screamed. "We've found it!"
One of the reporters who had followed them in snatched his radio handphone from his belt and jabbered, then, realizing that the collapsium shielding kept him from getting out with it, he replaced it and bolted away.
"Hold it!" Conn yelled at the others, who were also becoming hysterical. "Wait till I take a look at this thing."
They managed to calm themselves. After all, he should know what it was; wasn't that why he'd gone to school on Terra? They followed him from machine to machine, first hopefully and then fearfully. Finally he turned, shaking his head and feeling like the doctor in a film show, telling the family that there's no hope for Grandpa.
"This is not Merlin. This is the personnel-file machine. It's taped for the records and data of every man and woman in the Third Force for the whole War. It's like the student-record machine at the University."
"Might have known it; this section in here's marked G-1 all over everything; that's personnel. Wouldn't have Merlin in here," Klem Zareff was saying.
"Well, we'll just keep on hunting for it till we do find it," Kurt Fawzi said. "It's here somewhere. It has to be."
The next level up was much smaller. Here were the offices of the top echelons of the Force Command Staff. They, unlike the ones below, had been used; from them, too, every scrap of writing or film or record-tape had vanished.
Finally, they entered the private office of Force-General Foxx Travis. It had not only been used, it was in disorder. Ashtrays full, many of the forty-year-old cigarette ends lipstick tinted. Chairs shoved around at random. Three bottles on the desk, with Terran bourbon labels; two empty and one with about an inch of whisky left in it. But no glasses.
That bothered Conn. Somehow, he couldn't quite picture the commander and staff of the Third Fleet-Army Force passing bottles around and drinking from the neck. Then he noticed that the wall across the room was strangely scarred and scratched. Dropping his eye to the floor under it, he caught the twinkle of broken glass. They had gathered here, and talked for a long time. Then they had risen, for a final toast, and when it was drunk, they had hurled their glasses against the wall and smashed them.
Then they had gone out, leaving the broken glass and the empty bottles; knowing that they would never return.
Before they returned to the lower level into which the lateral tunnel entered, Matsui and his gang had the power plant going; the ventilator fans were humming softly, and whenever they pressed a starting button, the escalators began to move. They got the pumps going, and the oxygen-generators, and the sewage disposal system. Until the communication center could be checked and the relay station found, they ran a cable out to the Lester Dawes, landed in the canyon, and used her screen-and-radio equipment. Before the Claims Office in Storisende closed, Rodney Maxwell had transmitted in recorded views of the interior, and enough of a description for a final claim. They also received teleprint copies of the Storisende papers. The first story, in an extra edition of the Herald-Guardian, was headlined, MERLIN FOUND! That would have been the reporter who bolted off prematurely when they first saw the personnel record machines. Conn wondered if he still had a job. A later edition corrected this, but was full of extravagant accounts of what had been discovered. Merlin or no Merlin, Force Command Duplicate was the biggest abandoned-property discovery since the Third Force left the Trisystem.
The camp they had set up on top of the mesa was used, that night, only by Klem Zareff's guards. Everybody else was inside, eating cold rations when hungry and, when they could keep awake no longer, bedding down on piles of blankets or going up to the barracks rooms above.
The next day they found the relay station which rebroadcast signals from the buried aerial—or wouldn't one say, sub-terrial—on top of the mesa. As Conn had expected, it was on top of a high butte three and a half miles to the south; it had been so skillfully camouflaged that none of the outlaw bands who roamed the Badlands had found it. After that, Force Command Duplicate was in communication with the rest of Poictesme.
They moved into the staff headquarters at the top; Foxx Travis's office, tidied up, became the headquarters for the company officials and chief supervisors. The workmen quartered themselves in the enlisted barracks, helping themselves liberally to anything they found. The crowds of sightseers kept swarming in, giving Tom Brangwyn's police plenty to do. Tom himself turned the marshal's office in Litchfield over to his chief deputy. Klem Zareff insisted on more men for his guard force. A dozen gunboats, eighty-foot craft mounting one 90-mm gun, several smaller auto-cannon and one missile-launcher, had been found; he took them over immediately, naming them for capital ships of the old System States Navy. It took some argument to dissuade him from repainting all of them black and green. He kept them all in the air, with a swarm of smaller airboats and combat-cars, circling the underground headquarters at a radius of a hundred miles. These patrols reported a general exodus from the region. At least a dozen outlaw bands, all with fast contragravity, had been camped inside the zone. Some fled at once; the rest needed only a few warning shots to send them away. Other bands, looking like legitimate prospecting parties, began to filter into the Badlands. Zareff came to Rodney Maxwell—instead of Kurt Fawzi, the titular head of the company, which was significant—to find out what policy regarding them would be.
"Well, we have no right to keep them out, as long as they stay outside our ten-mile radius," Conn's father said. "And as we're the only thing that even looks like law around here, I'd say we have an obligation to give them protection. Have your boats investigate them; if they're legitimate, tell them they can call on us for help if they need it."
Conn protested, privately.
"There's a lot of stuff around here, in small caches," he said. "Equipment for guerrilla companies, in event of invasion. When work slacks off here, we could pick that stuff up."
"Conn, there's an old stock-market maxim: 'A bear can make money sometimes, and a bull can make money sometimes, but in the long run, a hog always loses.' Let the other people find some of this; it'll all help the Plan. Fact is, I've been thinking of leaking some information, if I can do it without Fawzi and that gang finding out. Do you know a good supply depot or something like that, say over on Acaire, or on the west coast? Big enough to be important, and to start a second prospectors' rush away from us."
"How about one of those hospitals?"
"No; not a hospital. We might use them to talk Wade Lucas into joining us. A lot of medical stores would be a good bait for him. I'm afraid he's going to make trouble if we don't do something about him."
"Well, how about engineering and construction equipment? I know where there's a lot of that, down to the southwest."
"That's farming country; that stuff'll be useful down there. I'll do that."
The next morning, Rodney Maxwell scorched the stratosphere to Storisende in his recon-car. The day after he got back, there was a big discovery of engineering equipment to the southwest and, as he had anticipated, a second rush of prospectors. They had the vertical shaft clear now, and the Lester Dawes was shuttling back and forth between Force Command Duplicate and Storisende. Other ships were coming in, now, mostly privately owned freighting ships. They bought almost anything, as fast as it came out.
The stock market had been paralyzed for a couple of days after the discovery of Force Command; nobody seemed to know what to sell and what to hold. Now it was going perfectly insane. Twenty or thirty new companies were being formed; unlike Litchfield Exploration & Salvage, they were all offering their stock to the public. A week after the opening of Force Command, the Stock Exchange reported the first half-million-share day since the War. A week after that, there were two million-share days in succession.
Some of the L. E. & S. stockholders who had come out on the first day began drifting back to Litchfield. Lester Dawes was the first to defect; there was nothing he could do at Force Command, and a great deal that needed his personal attention at the bank. Morgan Gatworth and Lorenzo Menardes and one or two others followed. Kurt Fawzi, however, refused to leave. Merlin was somewhere here at Force Command, he was sure of it, and he wasn't leaving till it was found. Neither were Franz Veltrin or Dolf Kellton or Judge Ledue. Tom Brangwyn resigned as town marshal; Klem Zareff was too busy even to think of Merlin; he had almost as many men under his command, and twice as much contragravity, as he had had when the System States Alliance Army had surrendered.
Conn flew to Litchfield, and found that the public works project had come to a stop at noon of the day when Force Command was entered, and that nothing had been done on it since. The cold vitrifier was still standing in the middle of the Mall, and topside Litchfield was littered in a dozen places with forsaken equipment and half-completed paving. There was no one in Kurt Fawzi's office in the Airlines Building, and the employment office was jammed with migratory workers vainly seeking jobs.
He hunted up Morgan Gatworth, the lawyer.
"Can't some of you get things started again?" he wanted to know. "This place is worse than it was before they started cleaning up."
"Yes, I know." Gatworth walked to an open window and looked down on the littered Mall. "But everybody just dropped everything as soon as you opened Force Command. Kurt Fawzi's not been back here since."
"Well, you're here. Lester Dawes and Lorenzo Menardes are here. Why don't you just take over. Kurt Fawzi couldn't care less what you do; he's forgotten he is mayor of Litchfield. He's forgotten there is a Litchfield."
"Well, I don't like to just move into the mayor's office and take over...."
From somewhere below, a submachine gun hammered. There were yells, pistol shots, and the submachine gun hammered again, a couple of short bursts.
"Some of the farm-tramps who can't get jobs, trying to steal something to eat, I suppose," Conn commented. Gatworth was frowning thoughtfully. He'd only need one more, very slight, push. "Why don't you talk to Wade Lucas. He's got brains, and he's honest—nobody but an honest man would have made himself as unpopular as Lucas has. If you pretend to be disillusioned with this Merlin business it might help convince him."
"He was blaming you and your father for what's been going on here in the last two weeks. Yes. He'd help get things straightened out."
At home, he found his mother simply dazed. She was happy to see him, and solicitous about his and his father's health. It seemed at times, though, as if he were somebody she had never met before. Events had gotten so far beyond her that she wasn't even trying to catch up.
Flora, returning from school, stopped short when she saw him.
"Well! I hope you like what you've done!" she greeted him.
"For a start, yes."
"For a start! You know what you've done?"
"Yes. I don't know what you think I've done, though. Tell me."
"You've turned everything into a madhouse; you've sent this whole world Merlin-crazy. Look at the stock market...."
"You look at it. All I can see is a pack of lunatics playing Russian roulette with five chambers loaded out of six. Some of this so-called stock that's being peddled around isn't worth five millisols a share—Seekers for Merlin, Ltd., closed today at a hundred and seventy. You notice, there isn't any L. E. & S. being traded. If you don't believe me, talk to Lester Dawes; he'll tell you what we think of this market."
"Well, it's your fault!"
"In part it's my fault that any of these quarter-wits have any money to play the market with. They wouldn't have money enough to play a five-centisol slot machine if we hadn't gotten a little business started."
There was just a little truth to that, too. A few woolen socks were coming out from under mattresses, and a few tin cans were being exhumed in cellars, since the new flood of Federation equipment and supplies had gotten on the market. He'd seen a freshly lettered sign on Len Yeniguchi's tailor shop: QUARTER PRICE IN FEDERATION CURRENCY.
That night, however, he had one of the nightmares he used to have as a child—a dream of climbing up onto a huge machine and getting it started, and then clinging, helpless and terrified, unable to stop it as it went faster and faster toward destruction.
Klem Zareff's patrols were encountering larger outlaw bands, the result of gang mergers. They were fighting with prospecting parties, and prospecting parties were fighting one another. Much of this was making the newscasts. One battle, between two regularly chartered prospecting companies, lasted three days, with an impressive casualty list.
Public demands were growing that the Planetary Government do something about the situation; the Government was wondering what to do, or how. There were indignant questions in Parliament. Finally, the Government dragged a couple of armed ships off Mothball Row—a combat freighter like the Lester Dawes, and a big assault transport—and began trying to get them into commission.
And, of course, the market boom was still on. The newscasts were full of that, too. He had started worrying about if a bust came; now he was worrying about what would happen when it did. Another good reason for wanting to get to Koshchei and getting a hypership built; when the bust came, he and his father would want one, very badly.
In any case, it was time to begin getting an expedition ready for Barathrum Spaceport. Quite a few of the new companies had large contragravity craft, and the nascent Planetary Air Navy was approaching a state of being. He wanted to get out there before anybody else did.
Maybe if they got the hypership built soon enough, it would start a second, sound boom that would cushion the crash of the present speculative market when it came, as come it must.
He talked to Klem Zareff about borrowing a couple of the eighty-foot gunboats. Zareff's attitude was automatically negative.
"We mustn't weaken our defense-perimeter; we'd be inviting disaster. Why, this whole country in here is simply swarming with outlaws. They fired on one of our gunboats, the Werewolf, yesterday."
He'd heard about that; somebody had launched a missile from the ground, and the Werewolf had detonated it with a counter-missile. It had probably been some legitimate prospecting company who'd taken the L. E. & S. craft for a pirate.
"And there was a battle down in the Devil's Pigpen day before yesterday."
That had been outlaws; they had been annihilated by something calling itself Seekers for Merlin, Ltd., whose stock was still skyrocketing on the Exchange. He mentioned that.
"These other prospecting companies are doing a lot of our outlaw-fighting for us, and as long as the country's full of small independent parties, the outlaws go after them and leave us alone."
"Yes, and I have my doubts about a lot of these prospecting companies, and a lot of the outlaws, too," Zareff said. "I think a lot of both are Federation agents; they're waiting till we find Merlin, and then they'll all jump us."
"Well," Conn adjusted his argument to the old Rebel's obsession, "I'll admit that, as a possibility. If so, we'll need heavier weapons than we have. This spaceport on Barathrum might be just the place to get them."
"Yes. It might. Defense armament, and stored ships' weapons. Say, if we grab that place and move all the heavy guns and missiles here, we could stand off anybody." The thought of a fight with minions of the Terran Federation seemed to have shaved ten years off his age in a twinkling. "You take the Lester Dawes, and, let's say, three of these gunboats. Let me see. Goblin, Fred Karski. And Vampire, Charley Gatworth. And Dragon, Stefan Jorisson. They're all good men. Home Guard; trained them myself."
"Aren't you coming, Colonel?"
"Oh, I'd like to, Conn, but I can't. I don't want to be away from here; no telling what might happen. But you keep in constant screen-contact; if you get into any trouble, I'll come with everything I can put into the air."
Barathrum was a grim land, naked black and gray. Spines and crags of bare rock jutted up, lava-flows like black glaciers twisting among them. It was split by faults and fissures, pimpled with ash-cones. Except for the seabirds that nested among the cliffs and the few thin patches of green where seeds windblown from the mainland had taken root, it was as lifeless as when some ancient convulsion had thrust it up from the sea, Barathrum was a dead Inferno, untenanted even by the damned; by comparison, the Badlands seemed lushly fertile.
The four craft crossed above the line of white breakers that marked the division of sea and land; the gunboat Goblin in the lead, her sisters, Vampire and Dragon to right and left and a little behind, and the Lester Dawes a few miles in the rear. Fred Karski was at the Goblin's controls; Conn, beside him, was peering ahead into the teleview screen and shifting his eyes from it to the map and back again.
Somebody behind him was saying that it would be a nice place to be air-wrecked. Somebody else was telling him not to joke about it. From the radio, his father was asking: "Can you see it, yet?"
"Not yet. We're on the right map-and-compass direction; we should before long."
"We're picking up radiation," Fred Karski said. "Way above normal count. I hope the place isn't hot."
"We're getting that, too," Rodney Maxwell said. "Looks like power radiation; something must be on there."
After forty years, that didn't seem likely. He leaned over to look at the omnigeiger, then whistled. If that was normal leakage from inactive power units, there must be enough of them to power ten towns the size of Litchfield.
"Something's operating there," he said, and then realized what that meant. Somebody had beaten them to the spaceport. That would be one of the new companies formed after the opening of Force Command. He was wishing, now, that he hadn't let himself be talked out of coming here first. Older and wiser heads indeed!
Fred Karski whistled shrilly into his radio phone. "Attention everybody! General alert. Prepare for combat; prepare to take immediate evasive action. We must assume that the spaceport is occupied, and that the occupants are hostile. Captain Poole, will you please make ready aboard your ship? Reduce both speed and altitude, and ready your guns and missiles at once."
"Well, now, wait a minute, young fellow," Poole began to argue. "You don't know—"
"No. I don't. And I want all of us alive after we find out, too," Karski replied.
Rodney Maxwell's voice, in the background, said something indistinguishable. Poole said ungraciously, "Well, all right, if you think so...."
The Lester Dawes began dropping to the rear and going down toward the ground. Conn returned to the teleview screen in time to see the truncated cone of the extinct volcano rise on the horizon, dwarfing everything around it. Fred Karski was talking to Colonel Zareff, back at Force Command, giving him the radiation count.
"That's occupied," the old soldier replied. "Mass-energy converter going. Now, Fred, don't start any shooting unless you have to, but don't get yourself blown to MC waiting on them to fire the first shot."
The dark cone bulked higher and higher in the screen. It must be seven miles around the crater, and a mile deep; when that thing blew out, ten or fifteen thousand years ago, it must have been something to see, preferably from a ship a thousand miles off-planet. It was so huge that it was hard to realize that the jumbled foothills around it were themselves respectably lofty mountains.
When they were within five miles of it, something twinkled slightly near the summit. An instant later, the missileman, in his turret overhead, shouted:
"Missile coming up; counter-missile off!"
"Grab onto something, everybody!" Karski yelled, bracing himself in his seat.
Conn, on his feet, flung his arms around an upright stanchion and hung on. Fred's hand gave a twisting jerk on the steering handle; the Goblin went corkscrewing upward. In the rearview screen, Conn saw a pink fireball blossom far below. The sound and the shock-wave never reached them; the Goblin outran them. Dragon and Vampire were spiraling away in opposite directions. The radio was loud with voices, and a few of the words were almost printable. A gong began clanging from the command post on top of the mesa on the mainland.
"Be quiet, all of you!" Klem Zareff was bellowing. "And get back from there. Back three or four miles; close enough so they won't dare use thermonuclears. Take cover behind one of those ridges, where they can't detect you. Then we can start figuring what the Gehenna to do next."
That made sense. And get it settled who's in command of this Donnybrook, while we're at it, Conn thought. He looked into the rear and sideview screens, and taking cover immediately made even more sense. Two more fireballs blossomed, one dangerously close to the Dragon. Guns were firing from the mountaintop, too, big ones, and shells were bursting close to them. He saw a shell land on and another beside one of the enemy gun positions—115-mm's from the Lester Dawes, he supposed. He continued to cling to the stanchion, and the Goblin shot straight up, and he was expecting to see the sky blacken and the stars come out when the gunboat leveled and started circling down again. The mountainside, he saw, was sending up a lightning-crackling tower of smoke and dust that swelled into a mushroom top.
Klem Zareff, on the radio, was demanding to know who'd launched that.
"We did, sir; Dragon," Stefan Jorisson was replying. "We had to get rid of it. We took a hit. Gun turret's smashed, Milt Hennant's dead, and Abe Samuels probably will be before I'm done talking, and if we get this crate down in one piece, it'll do for a miracle till a real one happens."
"Well, be careful how you shoot those things off," his father implored, from the Lester Dawes. "Get one inside the crater and we won't have any spaceport."
The Lester Dawes vanished behind a mountain range a few miles from the volcano. The Dragon, still airborne but in obvious difficulties, was limping after her, and the Vampire was covering the withdrawal, firing rapidly but with doubtful effect with her single 90-mm and tossing out counter-missiles. There was another fireball between her and the mountain. Then, when the Dragon had followed the Lester Dawes to safety, she turned tail and bolted, the Goblin following. As they approached the mountains, something the shape of a recon-car and about half the size passed them going in the opposite direction. As they dropped into the chasm on the other side, another nuclear went off at the volcano.
When Conn and Fred left the Goblin and boarded the ship, they found Rodney Maxwell, Captain Poole, and a couple of others on the bridge. Charley Gatworth, the skipper of the Vampire, Morgan Gatworth's son, was with them, and, imaged in a screen, so was Klem Zareff. One of the other screens, from a pickup on the Vampire, showed the Dragon lying on her side, her turret crushed and her gun, with the muzzle-brake gone, bent upward. A couple of lorries from the Lester Dawes were alongside; as Conn watched, a blanket-wrapped body, and then another, were lowered from the disabled gunboat.
"Fred, how are you and Charley fixed for counter-missiles?" Zareff was asking. "Get loaded up with them off the ship, as many as you can carry. Charley, you go up on top of this ridge above, and take cover where you can watch the mountain. Transmit what you see back to the ship. Fred, you take a position about a quarter way around from where you are now. Don't let them send anything over, but don't start anything yourselves. I'm coming out with everything I can gather up here; I'll be along myself in a couple of hours, and the rest will be stringing in after me. In the meantime, Rodney, you're in command."
Well, that settled that. There was one other point, though.
"Colonel," Conn said, "I assume that this spaceport is occupied by one of these new prospecting companies. We have no right to take it away from them, have we?"
"They fired on us without warning," Karski said. "They killed Milt, and it's ten to one Abe won't live either. We owe them something for that."
"We do, and we'll pay off. Conn, you assume wrong. This gang's been at the spaceport long enough to get the detection system working and put the defense batteries on ready. They didn't do that since this morning, and up to last evening they neglected to file claim. I'll assume they're on the wrong side of the law. They're outlaws, Conn. All the raids along the east coast; everybody's blamed them on the Badlands gangs. I'll admit they're responsible for some of it, but I'll bet this gang at the spaceport is doing most of it."
That was reasonable. Barathrum was closer to the scene of the worst outlaw depredations than the Badlands, not more than an hour at Mach Two. And nobody ever thought of Barathrum as an outlaw hangout. People rarely thought of Barathrum at all. He liked the idea. The only thing against it was that he wanted so badly to believe it.
They brought the body of Milt Hennant aboard, and Abe Samuels, swathed in bandages and immobilized by narcotic injections. A few more of the Dragon's six-man crew had been injured. Jorrisson, the skipper, had one trouser leg slit to the belt and his right thigh splinted and bandaged; he took over the Lester Dawes' missile controls, which he could manage sitting in one place. Fred Karski and Charley Gatworth went aboard their craft and lifted out.
For a long time, nothing happened. Conn got out the plans of the volcano spaceport and the photomaps of the surrounding area. The principal entrance, the front door of the spaceport, was the crater of the extinct volcano itself. It was ringed, outside, with launching-sites and gun positions, and according to the data he had, some of the guns were as big as 250-mm. How many outlaws there were to man them was a question a lot of people could get killed trying to answer. The ship docks and shops were down on the level of the crater floor, in caverns, both natural and excavated, that extended far back into the mountain. There were two galleries, one above the other, extending entirely around the inside of the crater near the top; passages from them gave access to the outside gun and missile positions.
With a dozen ships the size of the Lester Dawes, about five thousand men, and a CO who wasn't concerned with trivialities like casualties, they could have taken the place in half an hour. With what they had, trying to fight their way in at the top was out of the question.
There was another way in. He had known about it from the beginning, and he was trying desperately to think of a way not to utilize it. It was a tunnel two miles long, running into some of the bottom workshops and storerooms back of the ship berths from a big blowhole or small crater at the foot of the mountain. According to the fifty-year-old plans, it was big enough to take a gunboat in, and on paper it looked like a royal highway straight to the heart of the enemy's stronghold.
To Conn, it looked like a wonderful place to commit suicide. He'd only had a short introductory course, in one semester, in military and protective robotics, just enough to give him a foundation if he wanted to go into that branch of the subject later. It was also enough to give him an idea of the sort of booby-traps that tunnel could be filled with. He knew what he'd have put into it if he'd been defending that place.
Colonel Zareff had sent one last message from Force Command when he lifted off with a flight of recon-cars. After that, he maintained a communication blackout. It was an hour and a half before he got close enough to be detected from the outlaw stronghold. Immediately, the volcano began spewing out missiles. Poole hastily took the Lester Dawes ten miles down the rift-valley in sixty seconds, while Stefan Jorisson put out a nuclear-warhead missile and left it circling about where the ship had been. From their respective positions, Fred Karski and Charley Gatworth filled the airspace midway to the volcano with counter-missiles, each loaded with four rockets. There were explosions, fireballs in the air and rising cumulus clouds of varicolored smoke and dust. Only about half the enemy missiles reached the Lester Dawes' former position.
When their controllers, back at the volcano, couldn't see the ship in their screens, the missiles bunched together. Immediately, Jorisson sent his missile up to join them and detonated it. Including his own, eight nuclear weapons went off together in a single blast that shook the ground like an earthquake and churned the air like a hurricane. Klem Zareff came on-screen at once.
"Now what did you do?" he demanded. "Blew the whole place up, didn't you?"
Rodney Maxwell told him. Zareff laughed. "They might just think they got the ship; all the pickups would be smashed before they could see what really happened. You're about ten miles south of that? Be with you in a few minutes."
They got a screen on for his rearview pickup. Zareff had with him a dozen recon-cars, some of them under robo-control; six gunboats followed, and behind them, to the horizon, other craft were strung out—airboats, troop carriers, and freight-scows. They could see enemy missiles approaching in Zareff's front screen; counter-missiles got most of them, and a couple of pilotless recon-cars were sacrificed. The Lester Dawes blasted more missiles as they crossed the top of the mountain range. Then Zareff's car was circling in and entering at one of the ship's open cargo-ports. Zareff and Anse Dawes got out.
"Gunboats are only half an hour behind," Zareff said. "Get some screens on to them, Anse; you know the combinations. Now let's see what kind of a mess we're in here."
It was almost a miracle, the way the tottering old man Conn had seen on the dock at Litchfield when he had arrived from Terra had been rejuvenated.
The rest of the reinforcements arrived slowly, sending missiles and counter-missiles out ahead of them. Zareff began worrying about the supply; the enemy didn't seem to be running short. By 1300—Conn noted the time incredulously; the battle seemed to have been going on forever, instead of just four hours—the Lester Dawes had moved halfway around the volcano and was almost due west of it, and the eight gunboats were spaced all around the perimeter. Then one stopped transmitting; in the other screens, there was a rising fireball where she had been. The radio was loud with verbal reports.
"Poltergeist," Zareff said, naming half a dozen names. One or two of them had been schoolmates of Conn's at the Academy; he knew how he'd feel about it later, but now it simply didn't register.
"They're launching missiles faster than we can shoot them down," he said.
"That's usually the beginning of the end," Zareff said. "I saw it happen too often during the War. We've got to get inside that place. It's a lot of harmless fun to send contragravity robots out to smash each other, but it doesn't win battles. Battles are won by men, standing with their feet on the ground, using personal weapons."
"We'll have to win this one pretty soon," Rodney Maxwell said. "The amount of nuclear energy we've been releasing will be detectable anywhere on the planet by now. The Government has a ship like the Lester Dawes in commission; if this keeps on, she'll be coming out for a look."
"Then we'll have help," Captain Poole said.
"We need Government help like we need the polka-dot fever," Rodney Maxwell said. "If they get in it, they'll claim the spaceport themselves, and we'll have fought a battle for nothing."
Well, that was it, then. The spaceport was essential to the Maxwell Plan. He'd gotten seven men killed—eight, if the recon-car that was taking Abe Samuels to the hospital in Litchfield didn't make it in time—and it was up to him to see that they hadn't died for nothing. He spread the photo-map and the spaceport plans on the chart table.
"Look at this," he said.
Klem Zareff looked at it. He didn't like it any better than Conn had. He studied the plan for a moment, chewing his cigar.
"You know, it's possible they don't know that thing exists," he said, without too much conviction. "You'll be betting the lives of at least twenty men; fewer than that couldn't accomplish anything."
"I'll be putting mine on the table along with them," Conn said. "I'll lead them in."
He was wishing he hadn't had to say that. He did, though. It was the only thing he could say.
"You better pick the men to go with me, Colonel," he continued. "You know them better than I do. We'll need working equipment, too; I have no idea what we may have to take out of the way, inside."
"I won't call for volunteers," Zareff said. "I'll pick Home Guards; they did their volunteering when they joined."
"Let me pick one man, Colonel," Anse Dawes said. "I'll pick me."
They sent a snooper in first; it picked up faint radiation leakage from inactive power units of overhead lights, and nothing else. The tunnel stretched ahead of it, empty, and dark beyond its infrared vision. After it had gone a mile without triggering anything, the jeep followed Anse Dawes piloting and Conn at the snooper controls watching what it transmitted back. The two lorries followed, loaded with men and equipment, and another jeep brought up the rear. They had cut screen-and-radio communication with the outside; they weren't even using inter-vehicle communication.
At length, the snooper emerged into a big cavern, swinging slowly to scan it. The walls and ceiling were rough and irregular; it was natural instead of excavated. Only the floor had been leveled smooth. There were a lot of things in it, machinery and vehicles, all battered and in poor condition, dusty and cobwebbed: the spaceport junkheap. A passage, still large enough for one of the gunboats, led deeper into the mountain toward the crater. They sent the snooper in and, after a while, followed.
They came to other rectangular, excavated caverns. On the plans, they were marked as storerooms. Cases and crates, indeterminate shrouded objects; some had never been disturbed, but here and there they found evidence of recent investigation.
Beyond was another passage, almost as wide as the Mall in Litchfield; even the Lester Dawes could have negotiated it. According to the plans, it ran straight out to the ship docks and the open crater beyond. Anse turned the jeep into a side passage, and Conn recalled the snooper and sent it ahead. On the plan, it led to another natural cavern, half its width shown as level with the entrance. The other half was a pit, marked as sixty feet deep; above this and just under the ceiling, several passages branched out in different directions.
The snooper reported visible light ahead; fluoroelectric light from one of the upper passages, and firelight from the pit. The air-analyzer reported woodsmoke and a faint odor of burning oil. He sent the snooper ahead, tilting it to look down into the pit.
A small fire was burning in the center; around it, in a circle, some hundred and fifty people, including a few women and children, sat, squatted or reclined. A low hum of voices came out of the soundbox.
"Who the blazes are they?" Anse whispered. "I can't see any way they could have gotten down there."
They were in rags, and they weren't armed; there wasn't so much as a knife or a pistol among them. Conn motioned the lorries and the other jeep forward.
"Prisoners," he said. "I think they were hauled down here on a scow, shoved off, and left when the fighting started. Cover me," he told the men in the lorries. "I'm going down and talk to them."
Somebody below must have heard something. As Anse took the jeep over and started floating it down, the circle around the fire began moving, the women and children being pushed to the rear and the men gathering up clubs and other chance weapons. By the time the jeep grounded, the men in the pit were standing defensively in front of the women and children.
They were all dirty and ragged; the men were unshaven. There was a tall man with a grizzled beard, in greasy coveralls; another man with a black beard and an old Space Navy uniform, his head bandaged with a dirty and blood-caked rag; another in the same uniform, wearing a cap on which the Terran Federation insignia had been replaced by the emblem of Transcontinent & Overseas Shiplines and the words CHIEF. And beside the tall man with the gray beard, was a girl in baggy trousers and a torn smock. Like the others, she was dirty, but in spite of the rags and filth, Conn saw that she was beautiful. Black hair, dark eyes, an impudently tilted nose.
They all looked at him in hostility that gradually changed to perplexity and then hope.
"Who are you?" the tall man with the gray beard asked. "You're none of this gang here."
"Litchfield Exploration & Salvage; I'm Conn Maxwell."
That meant nothing; none of them had been near a news-screen lately.
"What's going on topside?" the man with the bandaged head and the four stripes on his sleeve asked. "There was firing, artillery and nuclears, and they herded us down here. Have you cleaned the bloody murderers out?"
"We're working on it," Conn said. "I take it they aren't friends of yours?"
Foolish Question of the Year; they all made that evident.
"They took my ship; they murdered my first officer and half my crew and passengers...."
"They burned our home and killed our servants," the girl said. "They kidnapped my father and me...."
"They've been keeping us here as slaves."
"It's the Blackie Perales gang," the tall man with the gray beard said. "They've been making us work for them, converting a blasted tub of a contragravity ship into a spacecraft. I beg your pardon, Captain Nichols; she was a fine ship—for her intended purpose."
"You're Captain Nichols?" Anse Dawes exclaimed. "Of the Harriet Barne?"
"That's right. The Harriet Barne's here; they've been making us work on her, to convert her to an interplanetary craft, of all idiotic things."
"My name's Yves Jacquemont," the man with the gray beard said. "I'm a retired hyperspace maintenance engineer; I had a little business at Waterville, buying, selling and rebuilding agricultural machinery. This gang found out about me; they raided and burned our village and carried me and my daughter, Sylvie, away. We've been working for them for the last four months, tearing Captain Nichols' ship down and armoring her with collapsium."
"How many pirates are there here?"
That started an argument. Nobody was quite sure; two hundred and fifty seemed to be the highest estimate, which Conn decided to play safe by accepting.
"You get us out of here," Yves Jacquemont was saying. "All we want is a chance at them."
"How about arms? You can't do much with clubs and fists."
"Don't worry about that; we know where to get arms. The treasure house, where they store their loot. There's plenty of arms and ammunition, and anything else you can think of. They've used us to help stow the stuff; we know where it is."
"Anse, you remember those scows we saw, in the big room before we came to the broad passage? Take four men in the jeep; have them lift two of them and bring them here. Then, you get out to the end of the tunnel and call the Lester Dawes. Tell them what's happened, tell them they can get gunboats all the way in, and wait to guide them when they arrive."
When Anse turned and climbed into the jeep, he asked Yves Jacquemont: "Why does this Perales want an interplanetary ship?"
"He's crazy!" Jacquemont swore. "Paranoid; megalomaniac. He talks of organizing all the pirates and outlaws on the planet into one band and making himself king. He's heard that there are Space Navy superweapons on Koshchei—I suppose there are, at that—and he wants to get a lot of planetbusters and hellburners and annihilators." He lowered his voice. "Captain Nichols and I were going to fix up something that'd blow the Harriet Barne up as soon as he got her out of atmosphere."
He talked for a while to Jacquemont and his daughter Sylvie, and to Nichols and the chief engineer, whose name was Vibart. There was evidently nothing else at the spaceport of which a spaceship could be built, but there were foundries and rolling-mills and a collapsed-matter producer. The Harriet Barne was gutted, half torn down, and half armored with new collapsium-plated sheet steel. It might be possible to continue the work on her and take her to space.
Then the two scows floated over the top of the pit and began letting down. They got the prisoners into them, the combat-effective men in one and the women and children in the other. At the top, he took over the remaining jeep, getting Jacquemont, his daughter, and the two contragravityship officers in with him.
"Up to the top," Jacquemont said. "Take the middle passage, and turn right at the next intersection."
As they approached the section where the pirates stored their loot, the sound of guns and explosions grew louder, and they began picking up radio and screen signals, all of which were scrambled and incomprehensible. The pirates, in different positions, talking among themselves. With all that, it ought to be safe to use their own communication equipment; nobody would notice it.
The treasure room looked like a giant pack rat's nest. Cases and crates of merchandise, bales, boxes, barrels. Machinery. Household and industrial robots. The prisoners piled out of the two scows and began rummaging. Somebody found a case of cigarettes and smashed it open; in a moment, cartons were being tossed around and opened, and everybody was smoking. The pirates evidently hadn't issued any tobacco rations to their prisoners.
And they found arms and ammunition, began ripping open cases, handing out rifles, pistols, submachine guns. The prisoners grabbed them even more hungrily than the cigarettes. Sylvie Jacquemont took charge of the ammunition; she had three men opening boxes for her, while she passed out boxes of cartridges and made sure that everybody had ammunition to fit their weapons. A ragged man who might have been a farm-tramp or a rich planter before his capture had gotten a bale of cloth open and was tossing rags around while the chief engineer inspected weapons and showed people how to clean out the cosmoline and fill their spare magazines.
Conn collected a few of his own party.
"Let's look these robots over," he said. "Find about half a dozen we can load with blasting explosive and send ahead of us on contragravity."
They found several—an electric-light servicer, a couple of wall-and-window washers, a serving-robot that looked as if it had come from a restaurant, and an all-purpose robo-janitor. In the passage outside, they began loading the lorries with bricks of ionite and packages of cataclysmite, packing all the scrap-iron and other junk around the explosives that they could. As soon as they had weapons, the prisoners came swarming out, making more noise than was necessary and a good deal more than was safe. Sylvie Jacquemont, with a submachine gun slung from one shoulder and a canvas bag of spare magazines from the other, came over to see what he was doing.
"Well, look what you're doing to him!" she mock-reproached. "That's a dirty trick to play on a little robot!"
He grinned at her. "You and my mother would get along. She always treats robots like people."
"Well, they are, sort of. They aren't alive—at least, I don't think they are—but they do what you tell them, and they learn tricks, and they have personalities."
That was true. He didn't think robots were alive, either, though biophysics professors tended to become glibly evasive when pinned down to defining life. Robots could learn, if you used the term loosely enough. And any robot with more than five hundred hours service picked up a definite and often exasperating personality.
"I've been working with them, and tearing them down and fixing them, ever since I was in pigtails," she added.
The half-dozen natural leaders among the prisoners—Jacquemont and his daughter, the two Harriet Barne officers, and a couple of others—bent over the photoprinted plans Conn had, located their position, and told him as much as they could about what lay ahead. Sylvie Jacquemont could handle robots; she would ride in the front seat of the jeep while he piloted. Vibart, the chief engineer, and Yves Jacquemont would ride behind. Nichols would ride in the scow with the fighting men. One lorry of his own party would follow the jeep; the other would bring up the rear.
He snapped on the screen and punched the ship combination. Stefan Jorisson appeared in it.
"Hi, Conn! You all right?" He raised his voice. "Conn's on-screen!"
His father appeared at Jorisson's shoulder and, a moment later, Klem Zareff.
"Well, we're in, all right," he said. "We just picked up an army, too." He swung the jeep to get the crowd in the pickup, explaining who they were. "Did you hear from Anse?"
"Yes, he just screened in," Rodney Maxwell said. "He said a gunboat can get in."
"That's right; clear into the crater."
"Well, we're going to put three of them inside," Zareff told him. "Werewolf, Zombi, and Dero. And a troop carrier with fifty men; flamethrowers, portable machine guns, bomb-launchers; regular special-weapons section. What can you do where you are?"
"Here? Nothing. We're going to work around to the other side of the crater, and then find a vertical shaft and go up topside and make as much disturbance as we can."
"That's it!" Zareff approved. "Pull them off balance; as soon as we get in, we'll go straight to the top. Look for us in about an hour; it's going to take time getting to the tunnel-mouth without being spotted from above."
He lifted the jeep and started off; the lorry, and the scows and the other lorry followed; the snooper and the bomb-robots went ahead like a pack of hunting dogs. They went through great chambers, dark and silent and bulking with dusty machines. Jacquemont explained that the prisoners had never gotten into this section; the Harriet Barne was a mile or so to their right. Conn turned left, when the noise of firing from outside became plainer. A foundry. A machine-shop which seemed to have been abandoned in the middle of some rush job that hadn't really been necessary. They came to a place even the snooper couldn't enter, choked to the ceiling with dead vegetation, hydroponic seed-plants that had been left untended to grow wild and die. They emerged into outside light, in vast caves a mile high and open onto the crater, and looked across the floor that had been leveled and vitrified to the other side, three and a half miles away.
He didn't know whether to be more awed by the original eruption that had formed the crater or by the engineering feat of carving these docks and ship-berths, big enough for the hugest hyperspaceship, into it.
At first, he had been afraid of getting into position too soon before the task force from outside could profit by the diversion. Then he began to worry about the time it was taking to get halfway around the crater. He could hear artillery thundering continuously above. Except at the very beginning of the battle, there had been little gunfire. He wondered if both sides were running out of lift-and-drive missiles, or if the fighting had gotten too close for anybody to risk using nuclear weapons.
He was also worrying about the women and children among the released prisoners.
"Why did the pirates bother with them?" he asked Sylvie.
"They used the women and some of the old men to do housekeeping chores for them," she said. "Mostly, though, they were hostages; if the men didn't work, Perales threatened to punish the women and children. I wasn't doing any housework; I'm too good a mechanic. I was helping on the ship."
"Well, what'll I do with them when the fighting starts? I can't take them into battle."
"You'll have to; it'll be the safest place for them. You can't leave them anywhere and risk having them recaptured."
"That means we'll have to detach some men to cover them, and that'll cut our striking force down." He whistled at the sound-pickup of his screen and told his father about it. "What do I do with these people, anyhow?"
"You're the officer in command, Conn," his father told him. "Your decision. How soon can you attack? We're almost through to the crater."
"There's a vertical shaft right above us, and a lot of noise at the top. We'll send up a couple of bomb-robots to clear things at the shaft-head and follow with everything we have."
"Noncombatants and all?"
He nodded. "Only thing we can do." An old quotation occurred to him. "'If you want to make an omelet, you have to break eggs.'"
He wondered who'd said that in the first place. One of the old Pre-Atomic conquerors; maybe Hitler. No, Hitler would have said, "If you want to make sauerkraut, you have to chop cabbage." Maybe it was Caesar.
"We'd better send Gumshoe Gus up, first," Sylvie suggested.
"You handle him. Take a quick look around, and then pull him back. We'll need him later." It was the first time he'd ever caught himself calling a robot "him," instead of "it." He thought for a second, and added: "Give your father and Mr. Vibart the controls for the two window-washers; you handle the snooper."
He gave more instructions: Yves Jacquemont to turn his bomb-robot right, Vibart to turn his left; the two lorries to follow the jeep up the shaft, the scows to follow. Then he leaned back and looked at the screens that had been rigged under the top of the jeep. A circle of light appeared in one, growing larger and brighter as the snooper approached the top of the shaft; two more came on as the bomb-robots followed.
"All right; follow me," he said into the inter-vehicle radio, and started the jeep slowly up the shaft.
The snooper popped out of the shaft, onto a gallery that had been cut into the solid rock, fifty feet high and a hundred and fifty across, with a low parapet on the outside and the mile-deep crater beyond. There were a few grounded aircars and lorries in sight, and a medium airboat rested a hundred or so feet on the right of the shaft-opening. Fifteen or twenty men were clustered around it, with a lifter loaded with ammunition. They looked like any crowd of farm-tramps. Suddenly, one of them saw the snooper, gave a yell, and fired at it with a rifle. Sylvie pulled it back into the shaft; her father and the chief engineer sent the two bomb-robots up onto the gallery. The right-hand robot sped at the airboat; the last thing Conn saw in its screen was a face, bearded and villainous and contorted with fright, looking out the pilot's window of the airboat. Then it went dead, and there was a roar from above. On the other side, several men were firing straight at the pickup of the other robot; it went dead, too, and there was a second explosion.
In the communication screen, somebody was yelling, "Give them another one for Milt Hennant!" and his father was urging him to get in fast, before they recovered.
In peace or war, screen communication was a wonderful thing. The only trouble was that it let in too many kibitzers.
The gallery, when the jeep emerged onto it, was empty except for casualties, a few still alive. The side of the airboat was caved in; the lifter-load of ammunition had gone up with the bomb. He moved the jeep to the right of the shaft and waited for the vehicles behind him, suffering a brief indecision.
Never divide your force in the presence of the enemy.
There had been generals who had done that and gotten away with it, but they'd had names like Foxx Travis and Robert E. Lee and Napoleon—Napoleon; that was who'd made that crack about omelets! They'd known what they were doing. He was playing this battle by ear.
There was a lot of shouting ahead to the right. That meant live pirates, a deplorable situation which ought to be corrected at once. The communication screen was noisy, now; his father had gotten to the top gallery with the three gun cutters, and was meeting resistance. He formed his column, his jeep and one of the lorries in front, the scows next, and the second lorry behind, and started around the gallery counterclockwise, the snoopers and the three remaining bomb-robots ahead. They began running into resistance almost at once.
Bullets spatted on the armor glass in front of him, spalling it and blotching it with metal until he found that he could steer better by the show-back of his view-pickup. He used that until the pickup was shot out. Then his father began wanting to know, from the communication screen, what was going on and where he was. A bomb or something went off directly under the jeep, bouncing it almost to the ceiling; he found that it was impossible to lift it again after it settled to the floor of the gallery, and they all piled out to fight on foot. Sommers and his gang from the number one lorry were also afoot; their vehicle had been disabled. He saw them lifting wounded into one of the scows.
They blew up the light-service robot to clear a nest of pirates who had taken cover ahead of them. They sent the robo-janitor up a side passage and exploded it in a missile-launching position on the outside of the mountain; that produced a tremendous explosion. They began running out of cartridges, and had to stop and glean more from enemy casualties. They expended their last bomb-robot, the restaurant server, to break up another pirate resistance point.
At length he found himself, with Sylvie and her father and one of the Home Guardsmen from Sommers' lorry, lying behind an aircar somebody had knocked out with a bazooka, with two dead pirates for company and a dozen distressingly live ones ahead behind an improvised barricade. Behind, there was frantic firing; the rear-guard seemed to have run into trouble, probably from some gang that had come down from the upper level. He wondered what his father was doing with the gunboats; since abandoning the jeep, he had lost his only means of contact.
Suddenly, the men in front jumped up from their barricade and came running toward him. Been reinforced, now they're counterattacking. His rifle was empty; he drew his pistol and shot one of them, and then he saw that they were throwing up their hands and yelling for quarter. This was something new.
He looked around quickly, to make sure none of the liberated prisoners except Jacquemont and his daughter were around, and then called to a couple of his own men to come up and help him. While they were relieving the pirates of their pistol belts and cartridge bandoliers, more came up, their hands over their heads, herded by a combat car from which Tom Brangwyn covered them with a pair of 12-mm machine guns. Tom hadn't put in an appearance before he had taken his commando force into the tunnel; he hadn't even known the chief of Company Police was on Barathrum.
"Well, nice seeing you," he greeted. "How did you get in?"
"Over the top," Brangwyn told him. "Everything's caved in on the other side. We have a quarter of the top gallery, and half of this one. Your father's cleaning up above. Klem's got some men working along the outside."
Sylvie was tugging at his arm. "Hey, look! Look at that!" she was clamoring. "Who's she belong to?"
He looked; the Lester Dawes was coming over the edge of the crater.
"She's ours," he said. "It's all over but the mopping up. And counting the egg breakage."
The shooting died down to occasional rattles of small arms, usually followed by yells for quarter. An explosion thundered from across the crater. The Lester Dawes fired her big guns a few times. A machine gun stuttered. A pistol banged, far away. It took two hours before all the pirates had been hunted out of hiding and captured, or killed if found by their former captives, who were accepting no surrender whatever.
Blackie Perales had been one of the latter; he had been found, his clothes in rags and covered with dirt and grease, hiding under a machine in one of the shops back of the dock in which the Harriet Barne was being rebuilt. He had tried to claim that he was one of the pirates' prisoners who had eluded the roundup at the beginning of the battle and had been hiding there since. As soon as the real prisoners saw and recognized him, they had fallen upon him and clubbed, kicked and stamped him out of any resemblance to humanity. At that, what he got was probably only a fraction of what he deserved.
The egg breakage had been heavy, and not at all confined to the bad eggs. A third gunboat, the Banshee, had been destroyed with all hands during the final attack from outside; in addition, a dozen men had been killed during the fighting in the galleries. Everybody was shocked, except Klem Zareff, who had been in battles before. He was surprised that the casualties had been so light.
At first glance, the spaceport looked like a handsome prize of victory. The docks and workshops were all in good condition; at worst, they only needed cleaning up. There was a collapsium plant, with its own mass-energy converter. There were foundries and machine-shops and forging-shops and a rolling-mill, almost completely robotic. At first, Conn thought that it might be possible to build a hyperdrive ship here, without having to go to Koshchei at all.
Closer examination disabused him of this hope. There was nothing of which the framework of a ship could be built, and no way of producing heavy structural steel. The rolling-mill was good enough to turn out eighth-inch sheet material which when plated with a few micromicrons of collapsium would be as good as a hundred feet of lead against space-radiations, but that was the ship's skin. A ship needed a skeleton, too. The only thing to do was go on with the Harriet Barne.
It was sunset before he finished his tour of inspection and let his jeep down in a vehicle hall off the lower gallery outside what had originally been the spaceport officers' club. It was crowded, and a victory celebration seemed to be getting under way. He saw his father with Yves Jacquemont, Sylvie, Tom Brangwyn, and Captain Nichols. Nichols had gotten clean clothes from the pirates' store of loot, and had bathed and shaved. So had Jacquemont, though he had contented himself with trimming his beard. It took him a second or so to recognize the young lady in feminine garb as his erstwhile battle comrade, Sylvie.
"Well, our pay goes on from the day we were captured," Nichols was saying. "My instructions are to resume command of the ship. Tomorrow, they're sending a party out to go over her."
Conn stopped short. "What's this about the ship?"
"Captain Nichols was in screen contact with his company's office in Storisende," Rodney Maxwell said. "They're continuing him in command of her."
"But ... but we took that ship! We lost three gunboats and about twenty-five men...."
"She still belongs to Transcontinent & Overseas," his father said. "That's been the law on stolen property as long as there's been any law."
Of course; he should have known that. Did know it; just didn't think.
"We broke an awful lot of eggs for no omelet; fought a battle for nothing."
"Well, of course, I'm prejudiced," Sylvie said, "but I don't think getting us out of the hands of that bloodthirsty maniac and his cutthroats was nothing."
"Wiping out the Perales gang wasn't nothing, Conn," Tom Brangwyn said. "You got no idea at all how bad things were, the last couple of years."
"I know. I'm sorry." He was ashamed of himself. "But I needed a ship, and now we have no ship at all."
"A ship means something to you?" Yves Jacquemont asked.
"Yes." He told him why. "If we could get to Koshchei, we could build a hypership of our own, and get our brandy and things to markets where we could get a decent price for them."
"I know. I was in and out of Storisende on these owner-captain tramps for a couple of years before I decided to retire and settle here," Jacquemont said. "The profit on a cargo of Poictesme brandy on Terra or Baldur is over a thousand percent."
"Well, don't give up too soon," Nichols advised. "You can't keep the Harriet Barne, of course, but you're entitled to prize-money on her, and that ought to buy you something you could build a spaceship out of."
"That's right," Jacquemont said. "Everything else besides the frame can be made here. Look, these pirates burned me out; except for the money I have in the bank, I lost everything, home, business and all. As soon as I can find a place for Sylvie to stay, I'll come back and go to work for your company building a spaceship. And a lot of the men who were working here are farm-tramps and drifters, one job's as good as another as long as they get paid for it. And I know a few good men in Storisende—engineers—who'd be glad for a job, too."
"You think it would be all right with Mother and Flora if Sylvie stayed with us?" Conn asked.
"Of course it would; they'd be glad to have her." Rodney Maxwell turned to Yves Jacquemont. "Let's consider that fixed up. Now, suppose you and I go into Storisende, and...."
The Transcontinent & Overseas people arrived at Barathrum Spaceport the next morning; a rear-rank vice-president, a front-rank legal-eagle, and three engineers. They were horrified at what they saw. The Harriet Barne had been gutted. Bulkheads and decks had been ripped out and relocated incomprehensibly; the bridge and the control room under it were gone; she had been stripped to her framework, and the whole underside was sheathed in shimmering collapsium.
"Great Ghu!" the vice-president almost howled. "That isn't our ship!"
"That's the Harriet Barne," her captain said. "She looks a little ragged now, but—"
"You helped these pirates do this to her?"
"If I hadn't, they'd have cut my throat and gotten somebody else to help them. My throat's more valuable to me than the ship is to you; I can't get anybody to build me a new one."
"Well, understand," one of the engineers said, "they were converting her into an interplanetary ship. It wouldn't cost much to finish the job."
"We need an interplanetary ship like we need a hole in the head!" The vice-president turned to Rodney Maxwell. "Just how much prize-money do you think you're entitled to for this wreck?"
"I wouldn't know; that's up to Sterber, Flynn & Chen-Wong. Up to the court, if we can settle it any other way."