"Don't talk stupidly," Kerk said as he punched for a duplicate order of steak. "There are much simpler ways of committing suicide. Don't you realize that you're a millionaire now? With what you have in your pocket you can relax the rest of your life on the pleasure planets. Pyrrus is a death world, not a sightseeing spot for jaded tourists. I cannot permit you to return with me."
Gamblers who lose their tempers don't last long. Jason was angry now. Yet it showed only in a negative way. In the lack of expression on his face and the calmness of his voice.
"Don't tell me what I can or cannot do, Kerk Pyrrus. You're a big man with a fast gun—but that doesn't make you my boss. All you can do is stop me from going back on your ship. But I can easily afford to get there another way. And don't try to tell me I want to go to Pyrrus for sightseeing when you have no idea of my real reasons."
Jason didn't even try to explain his reasons, they were only half realized and too personal. The more he traveled, the more things looked the same to him. The old, civilized planets sank into a drab similarity. Frontier worlds all had the crude sameness of temporary camps in a forest. Not that the galactic worlds bored him. It was just that he had found their limitations—yet had never found his own. Until he met Kerk he had acknowledged no man his superior, or even his equal. This was more than egotism. It was facing facts. Now he was forced to face the fact that there was a whole world of people who might be superior to him. Jason could never rest content until he had been there and seen for himself. Even if he died in the attempt.
None of this could be told to Kerk. There were other reasons he would understand better.
"You're not thinking ahead when you prevent me from going to Pyrrus," Jason said. "I'll not mention any moral debt you owe me for winning that money you needed. But what about the next time? If you needed that much lethal goods once, you'll probably need it again some day. Wouldn't it be better to have me on hand—old tried and true—than dreaming up some new and possibly unreliable scheme?"
Kerk chewed pensively on the second serving of steak. "That makes sense. And I must admit I hadn't thought of it before. One failing we Pyrrans have is a lack of interest in the future. Staying alive day by day is enough trouble. So we tend to face emergencies as they arrive and let the dim future take care of itself. You can come. I hope you will still be alive when we need you. As Pyrran ambassador to a lot of places I officially invite you to our planet. All expenses paid. On the condition you obey completely all our instructions regarding your personal safety."
"Conditions accepted," Jason said. And wondered why he was so cheerful about signing his own death warrant.
Kerk was shoveling his way through his third dessert when his alarm watch gave a tiny hum. He dropped his fork instantly and stood up. "Time to go," he said. "We're on schedule now." While Jason scrambled to his feet, he jammed coins into the meter until the paidlight came on. Then they were out the door and walking fast.
Jason wasn't at all surprised when they came on a public escalator just behind the restaurant. He was beginning to realize that since leaving the Casino their every move had been carefully planned and timed. Without a doubt the alarm was out and the entire planet being searched for them. Yet so far they hadn't noticed the slightest sign of pursuit. This wasn't the first time Jason had to move just one jump ahead of the authorities—but it was the first time he had let someone else lead him by the hand while he did it. He had to smile at his own automatic agreement. He had been a loner for so many years that he found a certain inverse pleasure in following someone else.
"Hurry up," Kerk growled after a quick glance at his watch. He set a steady, killing pace up the escalator steps. They went up five levels that way—without seeing another person—before Kerk relented and let the escalator do the work.
Jason prided himself on keeping in condition. But the sudden climb, after the sleepless night, left him panting heavily and soaked with sweat. Kerk, cool of forehead and breathing normally, didn't show the slightest sign that he had been running.
They were at the second motor level when Kerk stepped off the slowly rising steps and waved Jason after him. As they came through the exit to the street a car pulled up to the curb in front of them. Jason had enough sense not to reach for his gun. At the exact moment they reached the car the driver opened the door and stepped out. Kerk passed him a slip of paper without saying a word and slipped in behind the wheel. There was just time for Jason to jump in before the car pulled away. The entire transfer had taken less than three seconds.
There had been only a glimpse of the driver in the dim light, but Jason had recognized him. Of course he had never seen the man before, but after knowing Kerk he couldn't mistake the compact strength of a native Pyrran.
"That was the receipt from Ellus you gave him," Jason said.
"Of course. That takes care of the ship and the cargo. They'll be off-planet and safely away before the casino check is traced to Ellus. So now let's look after ourselves. I'll explain the plan in detail so there will be no slip-ups on your part. I'll go through the whole thing once and if there are any questions you'll ask them when I'm finished."
The tones of command were so automatic that Jason found himself listening in quiet obedience. Though one part of his mind wanted him to smile at the quick assumption of his incompetence.
Kerk swung the car into the steady line of traffic heading out of the city to the spaceport. He drove easily while he talked.
"There is a search on in the city, but we're well ahead of that. I'm sure the Cassylians don't want to advertise their bad sportsmanship so there won't be anything as crude as a roadblock. But the port will be crawling with every agent they have. They know once the money gets off-planet it is gone forever. When we make a break for it they will be sure we still have the goods. So there will be no trouble with the munition ship getting clear."
Jason sounded a little shocked. "You mean you're setting us up as clay pigeons to cover the take-off of the ship."
"You could put it that way. But since we have to get off-planet anyway, there is no harm in using our escape as a smokescreen. Now shut up until I've finished, like I told you. One more interruption and I dump you by the road."
Jason was sure he would. He listened intently—and quietly—as Kerk repeated word for word what he had said before, then continued.
"The official car gate will probably be wide open with the traffic through it. And a lot of the agents will be in plain clothes. We might even get onto the field without being recognized, though I doubt it. It is of no importance. We will drive through the gate and to the take-off pad. The Pride of Darkhan, for which we hold tickets, will be sounding its two-minute siren and unhooking the gangway. By the time we get to our seats the ship will take off."
"That's all very fine," Jason said. "But what will the guards be doing all this time?"
"Shooting at us and each other. We will take advantage of the confusion to get aboard."
This answer did nothing to settle Jason's mind, but he let it slide for the moment. "All right—say we do get aboard. Why don't they just prevent take-off until we have been dragged out and stood against a wall?"
Kerk spared him a contemptuous glance before he returned his eyes to the road. "I said the ship was the Pride of Darkhan. If you had studied this system at all, you would know what that means. Cassylia and Darkhan are sister planets and rivals in every way. It has been less than two centuries since they fought an intra-system war that almost destroyed both of them. Now they exist in an armed-to-the-teeth neutrality that neither dare violate. The moment we set foot aboard the ship we are on Darkhan territory. There is no extradition agreement between the planets. Cassylia may want us—but not badly enough to start another war."
That was all the explanation there was time for. Kerk swung the car out of the rush of traffic and onto a bridge marked Official Cars Only. Jason had a feeling of nakedness as they rolled under the harsh port lights towards the guarded gate ahead.
It was closed.
Another car approached the gate from the inside and Kerk slowed their car to a crawl. One of the guards talked to the driver of the car inside the port, then waved to the gate attendant. The barrier gate began to swing inwards and Kerk jammed down on the accelerator.
Everything happened at once. The turbine howled, the spinning tires screeched on the road and the car crashed open the gate. Jason had a vanishing glimpse of the open-mouthed guards, then they were skidding around the corner of a building. A few shots popped after them, but none came close.
Driving with one hand, Kerk reached under the dash and pulled out a gun that was the twin of the monster strapped to his arm. "Use this instead of your own," he said. "Rocket-propelled explosive slugs. Make a great bang. Don't bother shooting at anyone—I'll take care of that. Just stir up a little action and make them keep their distance. Like this."
He fired a single, snap-shot out the side window and passed the gun to Jason almost before the slug hit. An empty truck blew up with a roar, raining pieces on the cars around and sending their drivers fleeing in panic.
After that it was a nightmare ride through a madhouse. Kerk drove with an apparent contempt for violent death. Other cars followed them and were lost in wheel-raising turns. They careened almost the full length of the field, leaving a trail of smoking chaos.
Then the pursuit was all behind them and the only thing ahead was the slim spire of the Pride of Darkhan.
The Pride was surrounded by a strong wire fence as suited the begrudged status of her planetary origin. The gate was closed and guarded by soldiers with leveled guns, waiting for a shot at the approaching car. Kerk made no attempt to come near them. Instead he fed the last reserves of power to the car and headed for the fence. "Cover your face," he shouted.
Jason put his arms in front of his head just as they hit.
Torn metal screamed, the fence buckled, wrapped itself around the car, but did not break. Jason flew off the seat and into the padded dash. By the time Kerk had the warped door open, he realized that the ride was over. Kerk must have seen the spin of his eyeballs because he didn't talk, just pulled Jason out and threw him onto the hood of the ruined car.
"Climb over the buckled wire and make a run for the ship," he shouted.
If there was any doubt what he meant, he set Jason an example of fine roadwork. It was inconceivable that someone of his bulk could run so fast, yet he did. He moved more like a charging tank than a man. Jason shook the fog from his head and worked up some speed himself. Nevertheless, he was barely halfway to the ship when Kerk hit the gangway. It was already unhooked from the ship, but the shocked attendants stopped rolling it away as the big man bounded up the steps.
At the top he turned and fired at the soldiers who were charging through the open gate. They dropped, crawled, and returned his fire. Very few shot at Jason's running form.
The scene in front of Jason cranked over in slow motion. Kerk standing at the top of the ramp, coolly returning the fire that splashed all about. He could have found safety in an instant through the open port behind him. The only reason he stayed there was to cover Jason.
"Thanks—" Jason managed to gasp as he made the last few steps up the gangway, jumped the gap and collapsed inside the ship.
"You're perfectly welcome," Kerk said as he joined him, waving his gun to cool it off.
A grim-jawed ship's officer stood back out of range of fire from the ground and looked them both up and down. "And just what is going on here?" he growled.
Kerk tested the barrel with a wet thumb, then let the gun slide back into its holster. "We are law-abiding citizens of a different system who have committed no criminal acts. The savages of Cassylia are too barbarous for civilized company. Therefore we are going to Darkhan—here are our tickets—in whose sovereign territory I believe we are at this moment." This last was added for the benefit of the Cassylian officer who had just stumbled to the top of the gangway and was raising his gun.
The soldier couldn't be blamed. He saw these badly wanted criminals getting away. Aboard a Darkhan ship as well. Anger got the best of him and he brought his gun up.
"Come out of there, you scum. You're not escaping that easily. Come out slow with your hands up or I'll blast you—"
It was a frozen moment of time that stretched and stretched without breaking. The pistol covered Kerk and Jason. Neither of them attempted to reach for their own guns.
The gun twitched a bit as the ship's officer moved, then steadied back on the two men. The Darkhan spaceman hadn't gone far, just a pace across the lock. This was enough to bring him next to a red box set flush with the wall. With a single, swift gesture he flipped up the cover and poised his thumb over the button inside. When he smiled his lips peeled back to show all of his teeth. He had made up his mind, and it was the arrogance of the Cassylian officer that had been the deciding factor.
"Fire a single shot into Darkhan territory and I press this button," he shouted. "And you know what this button does—every one of your ships has them as well. Commit a hostile act against this ship and someone will press a button. Every control rod will be blown out of the ship's pile at that instant and half your filthy city will go up in the explosion." His smile was chiseled on his face and there was no doubt he would do what he said. "Go ahead—fire. I think I would enjoy pressing this."
The take-off siren was hooting now, the close lock light blinking an angry message from the bridge. Like four actors in a grim drama they faced each other an instant more.
Then the Cassylian officer, growling with unvoicable frustrated anger, turned and leaped back to the steps.
"All passengers board ship. Forty-five seconds to take-off. Clear the port." The ship's officer slammed shut the cover of the box and locked it as he talked. There was barely time to make the acceleration couches before the Pride of Darkhan cleared ground.