A plague of Demons And Other Storiesby Keith Laumer



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Chapter SixI was sitting on the edge of a wooden chair, listening to a thin humming in my head."Tell me when the sound stops," Felix said. His voice seemed to be coming from a distance, even though I could see him standing a few feet away, looking hazy, like a photograph shot through cheesecloth. The buzzing grew fainter, faded . . . I pressed the switch in my hand. Felix's blurred features nodded."Good enough, John. Now come around and let's check those ligament attachments."I relaxed the muscles that had once been used to prick up the ears, thus switching my hearing range back to normal. I made a move to rise, and bounded three feet in the air."Easy, John." Felix had emerged from the cubicle with the two-inch-thick armorplast walls. "We can't have you springing about the room like a dervish. Remember your lessons."I balanced carefully, like a man with springs tied to his shoes. "I remember my lessons," I said. "Pain has a way of sticking in my mind.""It's the best method when you're in a hurry.""How did the test go?""Not badly at all. You held it to .07 microbel at 30,000 cycles. How was the vision?""About like shaving with a steamed mirror. I still get only blacks and whites.""You'll develop color discrimination after a while. Your optic center has been accustomed to just the usual six hues for thirty-odd years; it can't learn to differentiate in the ultraviolet range overnight.""And I can't adjust to the feeling that I weigh half an ounce, either, dammit! I dance around on my toes like a barefooted hairdresser on a hot pavement."Felix grinned as though I'd paid him a compliment. "In point of fact, you now weigh three hundred and twenty-eight pounds. I've plated another five mills of chromalloy onto the skeletal grid. Your system's shown a nice tolerance for it. I'm pulling one more net of the number nine web over the trapezius, deltoids, and latissimi dorsi—""The tolerances of my metabolism are not to be taken as those of the management," I cut in. "These past six weeks have been a vivisectionist's nightmare. I've got more scars than a Shendy tribesman, and my nerves are standing on end, waving around like charmed snakes. I'm ready to call it a day, and try it as is."Felix nodded soberly. "We're about finished with you. I know it's been difficult, but there's no point in taking anything less than our best to the fray, is there?""I don't know why I don't ache all over," I grumbled. "I've been sliced, chiseled, and sawed at like a side of beef in a butcher's college. I suppose you've got me doped to the eyebrows; along with all the other strange sensations, a little thing like a neocaine jag would pass unnoticed.""No—no dope; hypnotics, old boy.""Swell. Every day in every way I'm hurting less and less, eh?"I took a breath, more from habit than need; the oxygen storage units installed under the lower edge of my rib-cage were more than half charged; I could go for another two hours if I had to. "I know we're in a hell of a spot—and it's better to sail in with grins in place and all flags flying than sit around telling each other the crisis has arrived. But I'm ready for action."Felix was looking at papers, paying no attention at all."Surely, old man. Gripe all you like," he said absently. "Just don't get friendly and slap me on the back. I'm still made of normal flesh and blood. Now, I'd like another check on the strain gauges."I closed my mouth and went across to the Iron Man—a collection of cables and bars that looked like an explosion in a bicycle factory."The grip, first."I took the padded handle, settled my hand comfortably, squeezed lightly to get the feel of it, then put on the pressure. I heard a creak among the levers; then the metal collapsed like a cardboard in my hand.I let go. "Sorry, Felix—but what the hell, thin-gauge aluminum—""That's a special steel tubing, cold-extruded, two tenths of an inch thick," Felix said, examining the wreckage. "Try a lift now."I went over to a rig with a heavy horizontal beam. I bent my knees, settled my shoulders under it with a metal-to-wood clatter. I set myself, slowly straightened my legs. The pressure on my shoulders seemed modest—about like hefting a heavy suitcase. I came fully erect, then went up on my toes, pushing now against an almost immovable resistance."Slack off, John," Felix called. "I believe I'll consider you've passed your brute-strength test. Over twenty-nine hundred pounds—about what a runabout weighs—and I don't think you were flat out at that.""I could have edged a few ounces more." I flexed my shoulders. "The padding helped, but it wasn't quite thick enough.""The padding was two inches of oak." He looked at me, pulling at his lower lip. "Damned pity I can't take you along to the next Myoelectronics Congress; I could make a couple of blighters eat two-hour speeches saying it wasn't possible."I took a turn up and down the room, trying not to bounce at each step."Felix, you said another week, to let the incisions heal. Let's skip that; I'm ready to go now. You've been in town every day and haven't seen any signs of abnormal activity. The alarm's died down.""Died down too damned quickly to suit me," he snapped. "It's too quiet. At the least, I'd have expected someone out to check over the house. You'll recall that the former tenant, my alter ego, turned in a report on missing men and head wounds. But they haven't been near the place. There's been nothing in the papers since the first day or two—and I daresay it wouldn't have been mentioned then, except that a crowd of idlers saw you kill Julius.""Look, Felix; I've got so damned much microtronics gear buried in my teeth I'm afraid to eat anything tougher than spaghetti; I've got enough servo-motors bolted to my insides to power an automatic kitchen. Let's skip the rest of the program and get going. I may have new stainless-steel knuckles, but it's the same old me inside. I'm getting the willies. I want to know what those hell-hounds are doing up there.""What time is it?" Felix asked suddenly.I glanced at the black-and-white wall clock. "Twenty-four minutes after nine," I said.Felix raised his hand and snapped his fingers—I felt a slight twitch—as though everything in the room had jumped half an inch. Felix was looking at me with a quizzical smile."What time did you say it was?""Nine twenty-four.""Look at the clock."I glanced at it again. "Why, is it—" I stopped. The hands stood at ten o'clock."Clock manipulation at a distance," I said. "How do you do it—and why?"Felix shook his head, smiling. "You've just had another half-hour session in deep hypnosis, John. I want another couple of days to reinforce that primary personality fraction I've split off, before I tie it in with a mnemonic cross-connection. We want your alter ego to be sure to swing into action at the first hint of outside mental influences.""Speaking of psychodynamics, how are you coming along with your own conditioning?""Pretty well, I think. I've been attempting to split off a personality fraction for myself. I'm not sure how effective my efforts have been. Frankly, autohypnosis was never my strong suit. Still, there are a few facts that I can't afford to expunge from my mind completely—but on the other hand, I can't afford to let the enemy have them. I've buried them in the alternate ego, and keyed them to a trigger word. The same word is tied to my heart action.""In other words—if anyone cues this information, it's suicide for you.""Correct," Felix said cheerfully. "I need the basic power of the survival instinct to cover this information. I've given you the key word under hypnosis. Your subconscious will know when to use it.""Pretty drastic, isn't it?""It's tricky business, trying to outguess a virtually unknown enemy; but from their interest in brains, it's a fair guess that they know a bit about the mechanics of the human mind. We can't rule out the possibility that they possess a technique for controlling human mental processes. I can't let them control mine. I've got too many secrets."I chewed that one over. "You may be right. That tank driver didn't behave like a man who was running his own affairs. And whatever it was that hit him—and the major—""It could have been an amplified telepathic command—to stop breathing, perhaps—or shutting off the flow of blood through the carotid arteries. From the fact that it didn't affect you, we can assume that their technique is selective; it probably requires at least a visual fix on the object, for a start.""We're assuming a hell of a lot, Felix. We'd better do some more fieldwork before we reason ourselves right out onto the end of a long limb."Felix was looking thoughtful. "It shouldn't be too difficult to arrange shielding around the personality center area; a platinum-gauge micro-grid with a filament spacing of about—""Oh-oh. This sounds like another expedition into the seat of what I once thought of as my intelligence."Felix clucked. "I can handle it with a number 27 probe, like building a ship in a bottle. It could make a great difference—if it works.""There's too much guesswork here, Felix.""I know." He nodded. "But we've got to extract every possible ounce of intelligence on the enemy from the few fragments of data we have. I don't think we're going to have much in the way of a second chance.""We'll be doing well if we have a first one.""You are getting nervous.""You're damned right! If I don't get going soon, I may funk the whole act and retire to a small farm near Nairobi to write my memoirs."Felix cackled. "Let's dial ourselves a nice little entrecôte avec champignons and a liter or two of a good burgundy, and forget business for an hour or two. Give me three more days, John; then we'll make our play—ready or not."* * *The night air was cold and clean; gravel crunched under my feet with a crisp, live sound. Felix tossed our two small bags in the boot of the car, paused to sniff the breeze."A fine night for trouble," he said briskly.I looked up at the spread of fat, multicolored stars. "It's good to be out, after fifty days of stale air and scalpels," I said. "Trouble or no trouble." I slid into my seat, taking care not to bend any metal."We'll have to register you as a lethal weapon when this caper is over," Felix said, watching me gingerly fasten my seat belt. "Meantime, watch what you grab if I take a corner a trifle too fast." He started up, pulled off down the drive, turned into the highway."It's not too late to change plans and take the Subsea Tube to Naples," I said. "I have a negative vibration when it comes to rocket flights; why not go underground, the way the Lord intended us to travel?""I won the deck-cut, old boy," Felix said. "For myself, I've had enough of the underground life; I want a fast transit to New York.""I feel a little exposed right now," I said. "Too bad we don't have two OE suits.""Wouldn't help if we did; you couldn't wear one aboard an aircraft, tube, or anything else without showing up on a dozen different monkey-business detectors. But we'll be all right. They aren't looking for me—and your own mistress wouldn't know you now. You're good-looking, boy!""I know; I'm just talking to keep myself occupied.""You have our prize exhibit all cozy in your trick belt?""Yep."We drove in silence for the next mile. The city lights glowed on our right as we swung off on the port road. We pulled into a mile-wide lot under banked poly-arcs, then rode a slipway to the rotunda—a glass-walled arena under a paper-thin airfoil, cantilevered out in hundred-yard wings from supporting columns of ferro-concrete twelve feet thick at the base. I concentrated on walking without hopping, while Felix led the way across to an island of brighter lights and polished counters, where showgirls in trim uniforms stamped tickets and gave discouraging answers to male passengers with three-hour layovers to kill.I watched the crowd while he went through the formalities. There were the usual fat ladies in paint and finger rings; slim, haughty women with strange-looking hats; bald businessmen with wilting linen and a mild glow expensively acquired at the airport bar; damp-looking recruits in rumpled uniforms; thin official travelers with dark suits, narrow shoulders, and faces as expressive as filing cabinets.Once I spotted a big black and tan German shepherd on a leash, and I twitched; my foot hit a parked suitcase, sent it cannonballing against the counter. Felix stepped in quickly, soothed the fat man who owned the mishandled luggage, and guided me toward a glass stairway that swept up to a gallery lined with live-looking palms. We headed for a pair of frosted glass doors under three-foot glare-letters reading Aloha Room in flowing script."We have nearly an hour before takeoff; time for a light snack and a stirrup cup." Felix seemed to be in the best of spirits now; the fresh air had revived me, too. The sight of the normally milling crowds, the air of business-like bustle, the bright lights made the memories of stealthy horrors seem remote.We took a table near the far side of the wide, mosaic-floored, softly-lit room. A smiling waitress in leis and a grass skirt took orders for martinis. Across the room, a group of dark, bowlegged men with flamboyant shirts and large smiles strummed guitars.Felix glanced around contentedly. "I think perhaps we've overestimated the opposition, John." He lit up a dope-stick, blew violet smoke toward an ice-bucket by the next table. "Another advantage of rocket travel is the champagne," he remarked. "We can be nicely oiled by the time we fire retros over Kennedy—""While we're overestimating the enemy, let's not forget that he has a number of clever tricks we haven't quite mastered yet," I put in. "Getting out of Tamboula is a start, but we still have the problem of contact when we reach the States. We won't accomplish much hiding out in back rooms over tamale joints, sneaking out at night for a pictonews to find out what's going on."Felix nodded. "I have some ideas on that score. We'll also need a quick and inconspicuous method of identifying 'human' aliens. I think I know how that can be done. We can work with the radar albedo of the alien skin, for example; it must be a rather unusual material to withstand puncturing steel doors."He was smiling again, looking happy. He leaned toward me, talking against a strident voice from the next table."I've been working for twenty years, preparing for what I've termed a 'surreptitious war,' based on the premise that when the next conflict took place, it would be fought not on battlefields, or in space, but in the streets and offices of apparently peaceful cities—a war of brainwashing techniques, infiltration, subversion, betrayal. It's been in the air for a hundred years: a vast insanity that's kept us flogging away, nation against nation, race against race—with the planets at our fingertips . . ."Something was happening. The music was changing to a sour whine in my ears. The chatter at the tables around me was like the petulant cries of trapped monkeys in vast, bleak cages.Felix was still talking, jabbing with a silver spoon to emphasize his points. My eyes went to the double doors fifty yards distant across the brittle-patterned floor. Beyond the dark glass, shapes moved restlessly, like dim shadows of crawling men . . . I pushed my chair back. "Felix!" I croaked." . . . could have established a permanent colony of perhaps five thousand. Carefully picked personnel, of course—""The door!" My voice was choking off in my throat. The air in the room seemed to darken; tiny points of light danced before me."Something wrong, old boy?" Felix was leaning forward, a concerned expression on his face. He looked as unreal now as a paper cutout—a cardboard man in a cardboard scene.Far across the room, the doors swung silently open. A staring corpse-pale face appeared, at the level of a man's belt. It pushed into the room, the long, lean bristled body pacing on legs like the arms of apes, the fingered feet slapping the floor in a deliberate rhythm. A second beast followed, smaller, with a blacker coat and a grayish ruff edging the long-toothed face. A third and fourth passed through the door, both rangy, heavy, their long bodies sagging between humped shoulders and lean flanks. The leader raised his head, seeming to sniff the air."Felix!" I pointed.He turned casually, let his gaze linger a moment, then glanced at me with a slight smile."Very attractive," he said. "You must be recovering, John, for a pretty face to excite you—""Good God, Felix! Can't you see them?"He frowned. "You're shouting, John. Yes, I saw them." I was aware of faces turning toward me at the surrounding tables, eyebrows raised, frowns settling into place. I reached out, caught Felix's arm; his face contorted in a spasm of agony."Felix—you've got to listen. What do you see coming through that door?""Four young women," he said in a choked voice, "very gay, very sweet. Would that I had time . . ." His face was paling. "John, you're breaking my arm—"I jerked my hand back. "They're aliens, Felix! The dog things I saw in the ravine! Look again! Try to see them!"The leading demon had turned toward us now; the white face was fixed on me as it came on, steadily, relentlessly, stalking unnoticed along the aisle between the tables where diners laughed and talked, forking food into overfed mouths.Felix turned, stared. "They're coming toward us," he said in a voice thin with strain. "The first young lady is dressed in yellow—""It's a thing like a tailless dog; a skull-face, stiff black hair. Remember the ear?"Felix tensed; an uncertain expression crept over his face. He turned toward me."I—" he started. His features went slack; his head lolled, eyes half-open. The music died with a squawk. Conversation drained into silence.The first of the monstrosities quickened its pace; its head came up as it headed straight for me. I leaned toward Felix, shouted his name. He muttered something, slumped back, stared vacantly past me."Felix, for God's sake, use your gun!" I jumped up, and my knee caught the table; it went flying against the next one. Felix tumbled back, slammed to the floor. I caught a momentary impression of dull-faced patrons, sitting slackly at tables all around. There was a quickening slap of beast-hands now as the leading thing broke into a clumsy gallop, closing now, red eyes glinting, the black tongue lolling from the side of the wide jaws as it cleared the last few yards, sprang.With a shout of horror, I swung my right fist in a round-house blow that caught the monster squarely in the neck, sent it crashing across a table in an explosion of silver, glasses, and laden plates to go down between tables in a tangle of snowy linen. Then the second demonic thing was on me. I saw dagger-teeth flash, ducked aside, caught a thick forearm, feeling the flesh tear under my hand as I hurled it aside. The beast whirled, squealing thinly, reared up seven feet tall—I struck at it, saw its face collapse into pulped ruin. It fell past me, kicking frantically. The last two attackers split, rushed me from both sides. I ran toward the one on the left, missing a swing at its head, felt the impact of its weight like a feather mattress, the clamp of teeth on my arm. I staggered, caught myself, slammed blows at the bristled side; it was like pounding a saddle. I struck for the head then, saw skin and flesh shear under the impact, struck again, knocked an eye from its socket—And still the thing clung, raking at me with its pale hands like minstrel's gloves. I reached for its throat with my free hand, whirled to interpose its body between me and the last of the four creatures as it sprang; the impact knocked me back a step, sent the attacker sprawling. It leaped up, slunk around to the left of a fallen table to take me from the side.At that moment, to my horror, the music resumed. I heard a tinkle of laughter, an impatient call for a waiter. Beyond the crushed head at my arm, with its single hate-filled eye, I caught a glimpse of the animated faces of diners, busy forks, a raised wine-glass—"Help me, for the love of God!" I roared. No one so much as glanced in my direction. I ripped at the locked jaws on my arm, feeling bone and leather shred and crumble. With a sound like nails tearing from wood, the fangs scraped clear, shredding my sleeve; the long body fell back, slack. I threw it aside, turned to face the last of the monsters. Baleful red eyes in a white mask of horror stared at me across a table ten feet away where a man with a red-veined nose sniffed a glass thoughtfully. On the floor at my feet, Felix lay half under the body of a dead demon.Now the last of the four creatures moved in. Beyond it, I saw a movement at the entrance; the door swung wide. Two demons came through it at a run, then another—The thing nearest me crouched back, wide mouth gaping. It had learned a measure of caution now; I took a step back, looked around for a route of escape—"Now!" a silent voice seemed to shout in my mind. "Now . . . !"I took my eyes from the death's head that snarled three yards away, fixed my eyes on Felix's face."Ashurbanipal!" I shouted.Felix's eyes opened—dead eyes in a corpse's face."The Franklin Street Postal Station in Coffeyville, Kansas," he said in a lifeless monotone. "Box 1742, Code—"There was a rasp of horny fingers on the floor, a blur of movement as the demon sprang; it landed full on Felix's chest, and I saw its boned snout go down . . . I threw myself at it, grappled the bristled torso to me, felt bones collapse as we smashed against a table, sent it crashing. I kicked the dead thing aside, scrambled up to see a pack of its fellows leaping to the attack, more boiling through the open doors. I caught a glimpse of Felix, blood covering his chest—then I leaped clear and ran.Far across the wide room, tall glass slabs reared up thirty feet to the arched ceiling. Tables bounded to left and right as I cut a swath across the crowded floor. Ten feet from the wall, I crossed my arms over my face, lowered my head, and dived.There was a shattering crash as the glass exploded from its frame; I felt a passing sting as huge shards tumbled aside. There was a moment of whipping wind; then I slammed against the concrete terrace as lightly as a straw man. I rolled, came to my feet, sprinted for the darkness beyond the lighted plaza.Behind me, glass smashed; I heard the thud of heavy bodies spilling through the opening, the scrabble of feet. People whirled from my path with little screams, then I was past them, dashing across a spread of lawn, then crashing through underbrush like spiderwebs and into the clear. In the bright moonlight the stony desert stretched to the seacliffs a mile distant.Behind me, I heard the relentless gallop of demonic pursuers. In my mind was the image of the comrade I had left behind—the incomparable Felix, dead beneath a tidal wave of horrors.I ran—and the Hounds of Hell bayed behind me. Chapter SevenI huddled in a sea-carved hollow at the base of a crumbling twenty-foot cliff of sandy clay, breathing in vast gulps of cold, damp air, hearing the slap and hiss of the surf that curled in phosphorescent sheets almost to my feet. Far out on the black Mediterranean, gleaming points of light winked on the horizon—ships lying to anchor in the road-stead off Tamboula.I pulled my coat off, peeled my blood-stiffened shirt from my back. By the light of the moon I examined the gouges across my left forearm, made by the demon's teeth. Tiny gleaming filaments of metal showed in the cuts; the thing's fangs had been as hard as diamond.Cold night wind whipped at me. Felix hadn't thought to install any insulation in the course of the remodeling. I tore a sleeve from my shirt, bound up my arm. There were cuts on my face and shoulders from the glass; not deep, and thanks to Felix's hypnotic commands, not painful—but blood was flowing freely. I got to my feet and waded out ankle-deep, scooped cold salt water on my wounds, then pulled my shirt and coat back on. It was all I could do in the way of first aid. Now it was time to give my attention to survival.I didn't know how many miles I had run—or how far behind the dog-things trailed me. I keened my hearing, breath stopped, hoping there would be nothing but the sigh of the wind . . . Far across the plain, I heard the slap of galloping beast-hands—how many, I couldn't tell. There was a chance that if I stayed where I was, in the shelter of the cliff, they might pass me by—but they had come unerringly to me as I sat in the bright-lit restaurant with Felix . . . I wouldn't wait here, to be cornered in the dark; better to meet them in the open, kill as many as I could before they pulled me down.There was a narrow strip of wet, boulder-dotted beach running along the base of the sheer wall behind me. I went a few yards along it, splashing through shallow pools; an earth-fall had made a shelving slope to the level ground above.At the top, I lay flat, looked out across the plain. I saw that I was at the tip of a tongue of desert thrusting out into the sea, a narrow peninsula no more than a hundred yards wide at its base. Far away, the city was a pink glow against the sky; near at hand, I saw dark shapes that could have been rocks—or crouching enemies.I squinted down hard to trigger my visual booster complex. The desert sprang into instant, vivid clarity. Every stone fragment, mesquite bush, darting ground rat, stood out as under a full moon . . . A hundred yards away, a long, dark-glistening creature bounded from the shelter of a rock slab, swinging its pale, snouted face from right to left as it ran. Over the roar of the surf, the distant whir and clatter of night-locusts, the pad of its feet was loud; its breathing was a vile intimacy in my ears.When the thing was fifty feet away, it stopped abruptly, one white hand raised. Its gleaming eyes turned toward my hiding place. It leaped straight toward me.I came to my feet, caught up a head-sized rock that seemed as light as cork, threw it. It slammed off the creature's flank with a sound like a brick hitting a board fence, knocked it off its feet—but the thing was up in an instant, leaping across the last few yards . . . I leaned aside, swung a kick that went home with a thud, then chopped a bone-smashing blow behind the shoulder ruff, felt the spine shatter. The thing struck heavily, rolled, lay for a moment, stunned. Then the head came up; it moved feebly, scrabbling with its front legs. I felt the skin prickle along the back of my neck."What are you?" I called hoarsely. "Where do you come from? What do you want?"The ruby eyes held on my face; the broken body lunged forward another foot."You understand me—can't you speak?"Still it dragged itself on, its jaws smiling their skull-smile. The smell of its blood was a poison-chemical reek. I looked back toward the city. Far away, I saw movement—low shapes that galloped silently. From all across the barren plain they streamed toward the point of land where I stood, summoned by the dying creature at my feet.I stood at the edge of the cliff above the breaking surf, watching them come. It was useless to run any farther. Even if I escaped the trap I had entered, there was no refuge along the coast; Algiers was sixty miles to the east. To the west, there was nothing between me and Oran, over a hundred miles away. I could run for half an hour, cover perhaps twenty miles, before oxygen starvation would force me to stop; but the aliens would follow with the patience of death.Out across the dark water, the nearest ship lay no more than two miles offshore. The dog-things were close now. I could see them silhouetted against the lesser sky-glow, like some evil swarm of giant rats piped from their lair by the music of hell—a plague of demons. The leaders slowed, coming on cautiously, dozens of them, almost shoulder to shoulder . . . I turned, leaped far out toward the black surf below. I felt the icy waters close over me. Swimming just above the muddy bottom, I struck out for deep water, heading out to sea.* * *The ocean floor by night was a magic land of broken terrain, darting schools of many-colored fishes, waving screens of green, translucent weed. A hundred feet from shore, the bottom fell away, and I swept out over a dark chasm, feeling the chill currents of deep water as I angled downward. The small fish disappeared. A great, dark, lazy shape sailed toward me out of the blackness, was swallowed up in the gloom. There were noises; grunts, shrill whistles, the grind and thud of tide-stirred rocks on the bottom, the distant, mechanical whirring of a propeller-driven boat.After twenty minutes, my vision began to blur; I was feeling the strain in my arms, and the first stifling sensations of oxygen starvation. I angled upward, broke the surface, and saw the low silhouette of a half-submerged vessel a quarter of a mile away across rippled ink-and-silver water, streaked with the winking reflections of her deck lights.I trod water, looking around; a bell-buoy clanged a hundred yards away. Farther off, a small boat buzzed toward shore from a ship in the distance. There was a smell of sea-things, salt, a metallic odor of ship's engines, a vagrant reek of oil. There was no sign of pursuit from the shore.I swam on toward the ship, came up on her from the starboard quarter, and made out the words EXCALIBUR—New Hartford in raised letters across her stern. There was a deck-house beyond a low guard rail, a retractable antenna array perched atop it with crimson and white lights sparkling at the peak.Farther forward, small deck cranes poised over an open hatch like ungainly herons waiting for a minnow. I caught a faint sound of raucous music, a momentarily raised voice. The odor of petroleum was strong here, and there was a glistening scum on the water. She was a tanker, loaded and ready to sail, to judge from the waterline, a foot above her anachronistic plimsoll.I pulled myself up on the corroding hull-plates, inched my way to the rail, crossed to the deck-house. The door opened into warmth, light, the odors of beer, tobacco smoke, unlaundered humans. I took a great, grateful lungful; this was familiar, reassuring—the odor of my kind of animal.* * *Steep stairs led down. I followed them, came into a narrow corridor with a three-inch glare-strip along the center line of the low ceiling. There were doors set at ten-foot intervals along the smooth, buff-colored walls. Voices muttered at the far end of the corridor. I stepped to the nearest door, listened with my hearing keened, then turned the handle and stepped inside.It was an eight-by-ten cell papered with photo-murals of Central Park, chipped and grease-stained at hand level. There was a table, a metal locker, a hooked rug on the floor, a tidy bunk, a single-tube lamp clamped to the wall above it beside a hand-painted plaster plaque representing a haloed saint with a dazed expression.Footsteps were coming along the corridor. I turned to the door as it opened, and nearly collided with a vast, tall man in a soiled undershirt bulging with biceps, blue trousers worn low to ease a paunch that looked slight against his massive bulk.He stared down at me, frowning; he had curly, uncut hair, large, dull-brown eyes, a loose mouth. There was a deeply depressed scar the size of an egg on the side of his forehead above his left eye. He raised a hand, pointed a thick finger at me."Hey!" he said, in a startlingly mellow tenor. He blinked past me at the room. "This here is my flop.""Sorry," I said. "I guess I kind of stumbled into the wrong place." I started past him. He moved slightly, blocking the door."How come you're in my flop?" he demanded. He didn't sound mad—just mildly curious."I was looking for the Mate," I said. "He must be down the hall, eh?""Heck, no; the Mate got a fancy place aft." He was looking me over now. "How come you're all wet?""I fell in the water," I said. "Look, how are you fixed for crew aboard this ship?"The giant reached up, rasped at his scalp with a fingernail like a banjo pick."You want to sign on?""Right. Now—""Who you want to see, you want to see Carboni. Oh, boy . . ." the loose mouth curved in a vast grin. "He'll be surprised, all right. Nobody don't want to sign on aboard the 'Scabbler.""Well, I do. Where do I find him?"The grin dropped. "Huh?""Where can I find Mr. Carboni—so I can sign on, you know?"The grin was back. He nodded vigorously. "He's prob'ly down in the ward room. He's prob'ly pretty drunk.""Maybe you could show me the way."He looked blank for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah. Hey." He was frowning again, looking at my shoulder. "You got a cut on ya. You got a couple cuts. You been in a fight?""Nothing serious. How about Mr. Carboni?"The finger was aimed at me like a revolver. "That's how come you want to sign on the 'Scabbler. I betcha you croaked some guy, and the cops is after ya.""Not as far as I know, big boy. Now—""My name ain't Big Boy; it's Joel.""Okay, Joel. Let's go see the man, all right?""Come on." He moved out of the doorway, started off along the corridor, watching to be sure I was following."Carboni, he drinks a couple of bottles and he gets drunk. I tried that, but it don't work. One time I drank two bottles of booze but all it done, it made me like burp.""When does the ship sail?""Huh? I dunno.""What's your destination?""What's that?""Where's the ship going?""Huh?""Skip it, Joel. Just take me to your leader."* * *After a five-minute walk along crisscrossing passageways, we ducked our heads, stepped into a long, narrow room where three men sat at an oilcloth-covered table decorated with a capless ketchup bottle and a mustard pot with a wooden stick. There were four empty liquor bottles on the table, and another, nearly full one.The drinker on the opposite side of the table looked up as we came in. He was a thick-necked fellow with a bald head, heavy features, bushy eyebrows, a blotchy complexion. He sat slumped with both arms on the table encircling his glass. One of his eyes looked at the ceiling with a mild expression; the other fixed itself on me. A frown made a crease between the eyes."Who the hell are you?" His voice was a husky whisper; someone had hit him in the windpipe once, but it hadn't improved his manners.I stepped up past Joel. "I want to sign on for the cruise."He swallowed a healthy slug of what was in the glass, glanced at his companions, who were hitching around to get a look at me."He says it's a cruise," he rasped. "He wants to sign on, he says." The eye went to Joel. "Where'd you pick this bird up?"Joel said, "Huh?""Where'd you come from, punk?" The eye was back on me again. "How'd you get aboard?""The name's Jones," I said. "I swam. What about that job?""A job, he says." The eye ran over me. "You're a seaman, eh?""I can learn.""He can learn, he says.""Not many guys want to sign on this tub, do they, Carboni?" Joel asked brightly."Shut up," Carboni growled without looking at him. "You got blood on your face," he said to me.I put a hand up, felt a gash across my jaw."I don't like this mug's looks," one of the drinking buddies said, in a voice like fingernails on a blackboard. He was a long-faced, lanky, big-handed fellow in grimy whites. He had a large nose, coarse skin, long, discolored teeth with receding gums."A chain-climber. I got a good mind to throw him to hell off back in the drink where he come from. He looks like some kind of cop to me.""Do I get the job or not?" I said, looking at Carboni."I'm talking to you, mug," the long man said. "I ast you if you're a cop.""Who runs this show?" I said, still watching Carboni. "You or this talking horse?" I jerked a thumb at the second man. He made an explosive noise, started up from the bench."Sit down, Pogey," Carboni snarled. The lanky man sank back, talking to himself."That's a pretty good swim out from shore," Carboni said. "You musta been in a pretty big hurry to leave town."I didn't say anything."Cops after you?""Not that I know of.""Not that he knows of, he says." Carboni grinned. He had even white teeth; they looked as though they had cost a lot of money."Any papers?"I shook my head."No papers, he says.""You want me I should pitch 'im over the side, Carboni?" the third man asked. He was a swarthy man with stubby arms and a crooked jaw, like a dwarfed giant."Cap'n wouldn't like that," Joel said. "Cap'n said we needed crew—""Up the Captain's," the horsey man said. "We don't need no—""Pogey." Carboni rolled the eye over to bear on him. "You talk too much. Shut up." He jolted his chair back, turned, lifted a phone off a wall bracket, thumbed a call button. The glass eye was rolled over my way now, as though watching for a false move."Skipper, I got a bird here says he's a seaman," Carboni said into the instrument. "Claims he lost his papers . . ." There was a pause. "Yeah," Carboni said. "Yeah . . ." He listened again, then hitched himself up in the chair, frowning. He glanced toward me."Yeah?" he said.I let my gaze wander idly across the room, and switched my hearing into high gear. Background noises leaped into crackling presence; the hum of the phone was a sharp whine. I heard wood and metal creak, the thump of beating hearts, the glutinous wheeze of lungs expanding, the heavy grate of feet shifting on the floor—and faintly, an excited voice:" . . . UN radio . . . a guy . . . bumped off somebody . . . Maybe a couple . . . try for a ship, they said. Cripes, looks like . . ." Felix had said that with a little concentration, I could develop selectivity. I needed it now. I strained to filter the static, catch the words:" . . . handle him?"Carboni looked my way again. "Can a kid handle a lollipop?""Okay . . . look . . ." The voice was clearer now. " . . . lousy local cops . . . we turn this guy in . . . reward, peanuts . . . their problem. We need hands. Okay, we work this boy . . . get there . . . Stateside cops . . . a nice piece of change . . ." "I see what you mean, Skipper," Carboni said. He had a corner of his mouth lifted to show me a smile that I might have found reassuring if I'd been a female crocodile."Get him down below . . . Anchors in in an hour and a half. Shake it up.""Leave it to me, Skipper." Carboni hung up, swung around to give me the full-face smile. The bridgework wasn't too expensive after all—just old-style removable plates."Well, I decided to give you a chance, Jones," he croaked. "You're on. You'll sign papers in the morning.""Hey, okay if he helps me out in the hot-room and stuff?" Joel asked. He sounded like a ten-year-old asking for a puppy.Carboni thrust out his lips, nodded. "All right, Jones; for now, you help the dummy. Take the flop next to his.""By the way, where's this tub headed?" I asked."Jacksonville. Why? You choosy or something?""If I was, would I be here?"Carboni snorted. "Anchors in in an hour." He leveled the eye on Joel. "Get moving," he barked. "What do you think this is, a rest home for morons?""Come on." Joel tugged at my arm. I followed him out, along corridors to a door. He opened it, flipped on a light, showed me a room identical with his own except that it lacked the plaster saint and the hooked rug. He opened the locker, tossed sheets and a blanket on the bed. I pulled off my wet jacket. Joel puckered his mouth, looking at me."Hey, Jones, you better get Doc to fix them cuts you got."I sat on the bunk. I felt weak suddenly, sucked as dry as a spider's dinner. There was a humming in the back of my head, and my face felt hot. I pulled the sodden, makeshift bandage from the arm the dog-thing had chewed. There were four deep gouges, half a dozen shallower ones—all inflamed, swelling. The arm was hot and painful."Can you get me some antiseptic and tape?" I asked."Huh?""Is there a first-aid kit around?"Joel pondered, then went into the corridor, came back with a blue-painted metal box.In it, I found a purple fluid that bubbled when I daubed my wounds. Joel watched, fascinated. At my request, he applied some to the cuts on my back, working with total concentration, his mouth hanging open. If he saw the glint of metal filaments in the torn skin, he made no comment.I folded gauze; Joel helped me tape it in place. When we finished, he stood back, smiling. Then he frowned."Hey, Jones—how come you didn't get Doc to fix you up?""I'll be okay," I said.Joel nodded, as though I had clarified a difficult point. He looked at me, frowning. He was thinking again."How come Carboni's scared of you?" he asked."He's not scared of me, Joel," I said. "He took a shine to me on sight."Joel thought that one over. "Yeah," he said. "But look; we got stuff we got to do. We got to get a move on."I stood up, acutely aware of fatigue, and wounds, and a sensation similar to a ticking bomb behind my eyes. Felix's posthypnotic anesthetic had been a big help while it lasted, but the withdrawal symptoms evened the score."I want to go up on deck a minute," I said. Joel blinked, followed me. I stepped out onto the deck, shivered in my wet clothes as the freshening wind hit me. There were no lights on the shore opposite; half a mile to the left, there was a faint gleam from the windows of the beach shacks. Farther along, the great arc of the dredged harbor was a line of jewels against the night.I tensed the eye-squint muscles, saw the black water snap into gray, misty clarity. On its surface, nothing stirred. I attuned my hearing to pick up the softest of night sounds. There were the thousand pings and thumps from the ship, the creak of the anchor cables, and the crump! and hiss of the distant surf. If the demons were close, they were well hidden. For the moment, it seemed, I was safe. 
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