- Author: Edward W. Ludwig
Read book online «A Coffin for Jacob by Edward W. Ludwig (best memoirs of all time txt) 📕». Author - Edward W. Ludwig
By EDWARD W. LUDWIG
Illustrated by EMSH
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction May 1956.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
With never a moment to rest, the pursuit
through space felt like a game of hounds
and hares ... or was it follow the leader?
Ben Curtis eased his pale, gaunt body through the open doorway of the Blast Inn, the dead man following silently behind him.
His fear-borne gaze traveled into the dimly illumined Venusian gin mill. The place was like an evil caldron steaming with a brew whose ingredients had been culled from the back corners of three planets.
Most of the big room lay obscured behind a shimmering veil of tobacco smoke and the sweet, heavy fumes of Martian Devil's Egg. Here and there, Ben saw moving figures. He could not tell if they were Earthmen, Martians or Venusians.
Someone tugged at his greasy coat. He jumped, thinking absurdly that it was the dead man's hand.
"Coma esta, senor?" a small voice piped. "Speken die Deutsch? Desirez-vous d'amour? Da? Nyet?"
Ben looked down.
The speaker was an eager-eyed Martian boy of about ten. He was like a red-skinned marionette with pipestem arms and legs, clad in a torn skivvy shirt and faded blue dungarees.
"I'm American," Ben muttered.
"Ah, buena! I speak English tres fine, senor. I have Martian friend, she tres pretty and tres fat. She weigh almost eighty pounds, monsieur. I take you to her, si?"
Ben shook his head.
He thought, I don't want your Martian wench. I don't want your opium or your Devil's Egg or your Venusian kali. But if you had a drug that'd bring a dead man to life, I'd buy and pay with my soul.
"It is deal, monsieur? Five dollars or twenty keelis for visit Martian friend. Maybe you like House of Dreams. For House of Dreams—"
"I'm not buying."
The dirty-faced kid shrugged. "Then I show you to good table,—tres bien. I do not charge you, senor."
The boy grabbed his hand. Because Ben could think of no reason for resisting, he followed. They plunged into shifting layers of smoke and through the drone of alcohol-cracked voices.
They passed the bar with its line of lean-featured, slit-eyed Earthmen—merchant spacemen.
They wormed down a narrow aisle flanked by booths carved from Venusian marble that jutted up into the semi-darkness like fog-blanketed tombstones.
Several times, Ben glimpsed the bulky figures of CO2-breathing Venusians, the first he'd ever seen.
They were smoky gray, scaly, naked giants, toads in human shape. They stood solitary and motionless, aloof, their green-lidded eyes unblinking. They certainly didn't look like telepaths, as Ben had heard they were, but the thought sent a fresh rivulet of fear down his spine.
Once he spied a white-uniformed officer of Hoover City's Security Police. The man was striding down an aisle, idly tapping his neuro-club against the stone booths.
Keep walking, Ben told himself. You look the same as anyone else here. Keep walking. Look straight ahead.
The officer passed. Ben breathed easier.
"Here we are, monsieur," piped the Martian boy. "A tres fine table. Close in the shadows."
Ben winced. How did this kid know he wanted to sit in the shadows? Frowning, he sat down—he and the dead man.
He listened to the lonely rhythms of the four-piece Martian orchestra.
The Martians were fragile, doll-like creatures with heads too large for their spindly bodies. Their long fingers played upon the strings of their cirillas or crawled over the holes of their flutes like spider legs. Their tune was sad. Even when they played an Earth tune, it still seemed a song of old Mars, charged with echoes of lost voices and forgotten grandeur.
For an instant, Ben's mind rose above the haunting vision of the dead man. He thought, What are they doing here, these Martians? Here, in a smoke-filled room under a metalite dome on a dust-covered world? Couldn't they have played their music on Mars? Or had they, like me, felt the challenge of new worlds?
He sobered. It didn't matter. He ordered a whiskey from a Chinese waiter. He wet his lips but did not drink. His gaze wandered over the faces of the Inn's other occupants.
You've got to find him, he thought. You've got to find the man with the red beard. It's the only way you can escape the dead man.
The dead man was real. His name was Cobb. He was stout and flabby and about forty and he hated spacemen.
His body was buried now—probably in the silent gray wastes outside Luna City. But he'd become a kind of invisible Siamese twin, as much a part of Ben as sight in his eyes.
Sometimes the image would be shuffling drunkenly beside him, its lips spitting whiskey-slurred curses.
Again, its face would be a pop-eyed mask of surprise as Ben's fist thudded into its jaw. More often, the face would be frozen in the whiteness of death. The large eyes would stare. Blood would trickle from a corner of the gaping mouth.
You can forget a living man. You can defeat him or submit to him or ignore him, and the matter is over and done. You can't escape from a memory that has burned into your mind.
It had begun a week ago in Luna City. The flight from White Sands had been successful. Ben, quietly and moderately, wanted to celebrate. He stopped alone in a rocketfront bar for a beer. The man named Cobb plopped his portly and unsteady posterior on the stool next to him.
"Spacemen," he muttered, "are getting like flies. Everywhere, all you see's spacemen."
He was a neatly dressed civilian.
Ben smiled. "If it weren't for spacemen, you wouldn't be here."
"The name's Cobb." The man hiccoughed. "Spacemen in their white monkey suits. They think they're little tin gods. Betcha you think you're a little tin god." He downed a shot of whiskey.
Ben stiffened. He was twenty-four and dressed in the white, crimson-braided uniform of the Odyssey's junior astrogation officer. He was three months out of the Academy at White Sands and the shining uniform was like a key to all the mysteries of the Universe.
He'd sought long for that key.
At the age of five—perhaps in order to dull the memory of his parents' death in a recent strato-jet crash—he'd spent hours watching the night sky for streaking flame-tails of Moon rockets. At ten, he'd ground his first telescope. At fourteen, he'd converted an abandoned shed on the government boarding-school grounds to a retreat which housed his collection of astronomy and rocketry books.
At sixteen, he'd spent every weekend holiday hitchhiking from Boys Town No. 5 in the Catskills to Long Island Spaceport. There, among the grizzled veterans of the old Moon Patrol, he'd found friends who understood his dream and who later recommended his appointment to the U. S. Academy for the Conquest of Space.
And a month ago, he'd signed aboard the Odyssey—the first ship, it was rumored, equipped to venture as far as the asteroids and perhaps beyond.
Cobb was persistent: "Damn fools shoulda known enough to stay on Earth. What the hell good is it, jumpin' from planet to planet?"
The guy's drunk, Ben thought. He took his drink and moved three stools down the bar.
Cobb followed. "You don't like the truth, eh, kid? You don't like people to call you a sucker."
Ben rose and started to leave the bar, but Cobb grabbed his arm and held him there.
"Thas what you are—a sucker. You're young now. Wait ten years. You'll be dyin' of radiation rot or a meteor'll get you. Wait and see, sucker!"
Until this instant, Ben had suppressed his anger. Now, suddenly and without warning, it welled up into savage fury.
His fist struck the man on the chin. Cobb's eyes gaped in shocked horror. He spun backward. His head cracked sickeningly on the edge of the bar. The sound was like a punctuation mark signaling the end of life.
He sank to the floor, eyes glassy, blood tricking down his jaw.
Ben knew that he was dead.
Then, for a single absurd second, Ben was seized with terror—just as, a moment before, he'd been overwhelmed with anger.
For some twenty minutes, he raced through a dizzying, nightmare world of dark rocketfront alleys and shouting voices and pursuing feet.
At last, abruptly, he realized that he was alone and in silence. He saw that he was still on the rocketfront, but in the Tycho-ward side of the city.
He huddled in a dark corner of a loading platform and lit a cigarette. A thousand stars—a thousand motionless balls of silver fire—shone above him through Luna City's transparent dome.
He was sorry he'd hit Cobb, of course. He was not sorry he'd run. Escaping at least gave him a power of choice, of decision.
You can do two things, he thought.
You can give yourself up, and that's what a good officer would do. That would eliminate the escape charge. You'd get off with voluntary manslaughter. Under interplanetary law, that would mean ten years in prison and a dishonorable discharge. And then you'd be free.
But you'd be through with rockets and space. They don't want new men over thirty-four for officers on rockets or even for third-class jet-men on beat-up freighters—they don't want convicted killers. You'd get the rest of the thrill of conquering space through video and by peeking through electric fences of spaceports.
There were old wives' tales of a group of renegade spacemen who operated from the Solar System's frontiers. The spacemen weren't outlaws. They were misfits, rejectees from the clearing houses on Earth.
And whereas no legally recognized ship had ventured past Mars, the souped-up renegade rigs had supposedly hit the asteroids. Their headquarters was Venus. Their leader—a subject of popular and fantastic conjecture in the men's audiozines—was rumored to be a red-bearded giant.
So, Ben reflected, you can take a beer-and-pretzels tale seriously. You can hide for a couple of days, get rid of your uniform, change your name. You can wait for a chance to get to Venus. To hell with your duty. You can try to stay in space, even if you exile yourself from Earth.
After all, was it right for a single second, a single insignificant second, to destroy a man's life and his dream?
He was lucky. He found a tramp freighter whose skipper was on his last flight before retirement. Discipline was lax, investigation of new personnel even more so.
Ben Curtis made it to Venus.
There was just one flaw in his decision. He hadn't realized that the memory of the dead man's face would haunt him, torment him, follow him as constantly as breath flowed into his lungs.
But might not the rumble of atomic engines drown the murmuring dead voice? Might not the vision of alien worlds and infinite spaceways obscure the dead face?
So now he sat searching for a perhaps nonexistent red-bearded giant, and hoping and doubting and fearing, all at once.
"You look for someone, senor?"
He jumped. "Oh. You still here?"
"Oui." The Martian kid grinned, his mouth full of purple teeth. "I keep you company on your first night in Hoover City, n'est-ce-pas?"
"This isn't my first night here," Ben lied. "I've been around a while."
"You are spacemen?"
Ben threw a fifty-cent credit piece on the table. "Here. Take off, will you?"
Spiderlike fingers swept down upon the coin. "Ich danke, senor. You know why city is called Hoover City?"
Ben didn't answer.
"They say it is because after women come, they want first thing a thousand vacuum cleaners for dust. What is vacuum cleaner, monsieur?"
Ben raised his hand as if to strike the boy.
"Ai-yee, I go. You keep listen to good Martian music."
The toothpick of a body melted into the semi-darkness.
Minutes passed. There were two more whiskeys. A ceaseless parade of faces broke through the smoky veil that enclosed him—reddish balloon faces, scaly reptilian faces, white-skinned, slit-eyed faces, and occasionally a white, rouged, powdered face. But nowhere was there a face with a red beard.
A sense of hopelessness gripped Ben Curtis. Hoover City was but one of a dozen cities of Venus. Each had twenty dives such as this.
He needed help.
But his picture must have been 'scoped to Venusian visiscreens. A reward must have been offered for his capture. Whom could he trust? The Martian kid, perhaps?
Far down the darkened aisle nearest him, his eyes caught a flash of white. He tensed.
Like the uniform of a Security Policeman, he thought.
His gaze shifted to another aisle and another hint of whiteness.
And then he saw another and another and another.
Each whiteness became brighter and closer, like shrinking spokes of a wheel with Ben