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The Derelict

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The Maid had served Northwest Smith and Yarol the Venusian well for many runs from world to world, seeming almost to jeer at Patrol ships as she flashed past them and vanished in a glittering cloud of drive-dust. But for a ship to run outside of the law and evade the Patrol forever, she needs not merely speed, not merely skilled piloting, not merely expert repairs, but luck. And as all spacemen know, luck is the one commodity than cannot be bought or sold or bargained for, but only cursed when it at last runs out.

The Maid’s luck ran out as the luck of ships and spacemen so often does, on a run that should have been routine. When they emerged from drive by the far side of Titan, it was in the center of an entire Patrol fleet. Yarol cursed in his rippling native tongue and bent urgently over the controls, trying to evade and set a new course at once, while Smith manned the guns.

The fast little ship darted and dipped, dodging every shot and dealing out death in its own part, until some Patrol ship fired the blast that had the Maid’s name written in fiery letters. Yarol’s pale hand was already reaching for the final lever when they were hit. The ship jolted and half the lights went out, but Yarol jerked the lever down. The Maid slipped into drive, leaving behind the wreckage of three Patrol ships and a cloud of glittering dust.

“Sorry, N.W.,” said Yarol. The young Venusian’s cherubic countenance was downcast as he unclenched his hand from the lever. “I was slow.”

Smith shook his head. His colorless eyes gleamed in the dimming lights. “One more hit, and we’d be dust. You got us out just in time. How bad is it?”

Yarol bent over the glowing screen, his black eyes serious for once. “It’s bad. We took a direct hit to the engine, and the drive malfunctioned. I was aiming for Mars, but we’re nowhere near. We’re in some asteroid field, Pharol knows where. And the oxy-moss got exposed to vacuum. We’ve got about two hours left before it starts getting hard to breathe. After that…” He shrugged. “Maybe another two hours, if we keep still and don’t talk.”

Smith and Yarol had been in tight spots before, but nothing struck fear into the heart of a spaceman like the prospect of being trapped in a drifting hulk, with the air slowly running out.

Smith too peered at the glowing screen, then set it to show a view of the asteroid field. “What’s that?”

Yarol’s back straightened. “Another ship!” His nimble fingers danced over the controls, then he slumped in disappointment. “A derelict. See, it’s drifting.”

“It’s our best shot,” said Smith. “Maybe we can cannibalize its parts, and get the Maid running again. Can we get to it?”

Yarol worked the controls, then nodded. “Barely.”

Yarol’s deft hands steered the halting Maid to the derelict ship. Closer up, it was like nothing Smith had ever seen before: not like the sleek military lines of Earth ships, nor the organic curves of Venusian crafts, nor the sharp angles of Martian vessels. This ship, painted an ominous pitch-black, was a slim needle shape, with no visible engine or gun or landing gear: a vessel like a drawn blade.

“Wonder how big the beings who made that are?” Yarol mused. “I don’t think even I could stand up in that.”

Smith, who was taller, winced at the thought. “Do you see an entrance?”

Yarol squinted, then nodded. “Helps if you can see into the ultraviolet.”

He guided the Maid deftly up, then locked on. “Here goes nothing. Hit it, Smith.”

Smith opened the Maid’s airlock, and applied the controls that pried open the airlock of the strange derelict. To his relief, the air, though stale, was breathable.

The interior glowed with a strange light— colored, but not a color Smith could name. He could not even identify it as warm or cool. A dark light, he thought, and then realized that this was what it was— an eerie, paradoxical darkness which allowed him to see.

At his side, Yarol’s eyes narrowed. “That look as odd to you as it does to me, Smith?”

Smith nodded. “It must be an alien craft. But it’s got light— well, it’s got something we can see by, anyway— and that means it’s got power. And air. If the parts won’t work in the Maid, maybe we could fly this ship out.”

Yarol ran his fingers through his yellow curls. “Depends why it’s a derelict. Hope it’s not plague.”

Smith repressed a shudder, then bent low to enter the craft, with Yarol close behind him. The strange un-light made his friend look alien, even sinister. They edged down the corridor, backs bent and guns in hand. The floor and walls seemed to ripple, though they were smooth when Smith touched them.

The corridor terminated in a featureless, doorless room, with a ceiling just high enough for Smith to stand up straight. A human body clad in spaceman’s leathers lay sprawled on the floor, face down. Smith knelt before the still figure and touched at the pulse-points, though he had seen enough death to recognize it at a glance. There was no warmth or movement beneath his fingers, but the flesh was still firm and supple. The man must have died only a little while before Smith and Yarol had ventured into his ship. A touch of regret briefly tugged at Smith— perhaps they could have saved this man, a fellow traveler in space, if they had only come a few hours earlier. He rolled the body over on to its back.

“By Pharol!” Yarol gasped.

The dead man’s eyes bulged wide open, and his teeth were bared in a hideous grimace, as if he had died in a state of madness. A slip of cloth protruded from his clenched fist.

Smith eased out the cloth. It was streaked and smeared with blood— no, it was written in blood. The dead spaceman’s fingernails were caked with gore, his wrists scored and his shirt torn. He had written this final testament with the only pens, ink, and paper he had. Smith puzzled out the man’s last words, while Yarol listened.

“This ship is madness and death. This ship is glory. I regret nothing.”

The words ended in an unreadable blot of blood. As Smith read those shaky letters in that dark un-light, he heard his own voice sound strangely against the walls of the room. It was as if, rather than echoing, his words were sucked into the walls and out of his hearing as soon as they left his lips.

“I say we break down the ship for parts,” Yarol said abruptly. “I don’t want to suffocate in the Maid, but I don’t like that talk of madness and death, and I don’t like this ship.”

Smith dropped the cloth down on the dead man’s chest and wiped his hands, as if he could clean away the taint of death. “I don’t either. Can you see any doors? There must be an engine room somewhere.”

Yarol frowned, studying the blank black walls of the room. Then he reached out and touched a wall. Instantly, a control panel appeared, drawn on the wall— drawn in shapes and colors of un-light. Yarol yanked his hand away. But the damage had been done. The ship began to shudder, and a painfully high whine sounded, not in Smith’s ears, but inside his head. He clapped his hands over his ears, but that did nothing to block the sound.

“It’s taking off!” Yarol gasped. “Come on, N. W.!”

He grabbed Smith by the arm, but it was too late. The whine rose to an excruciating shriek. The airlock sealed with a thud, and the alien ship pulled away from the Maid. In the space between heartbeats, it leaped into drive.

An ordinary ship, like the Maid, pops into drive and out in a flash. It is somewhere, and then it is elsewhere, without even a breath in between. The dreamy Mercurians claim to be able to perceive drive space, but even they say it passes too quickly to be felt as more than a shudder through the body, a flash of light, and a haunting sensation like a note of music half-remembered. But an ordinary ship travels within a single solar system— no great distance, in the vastness of space. This ship passed into drive space. And stayed there.

To Yarol, with his Venusian perceptions, drive space was pain like he had never experienced before, though he knew well the white-hot agony of rayburn, the stab of the Venusian stiletto, and the slowly building torment of the Jovian acid whip. He felt as if his skin, his flesh, his nerves, his very bones were all being slowly pulled apart from each other. He fell to his knees, certain he was dying, his mouth working in an instinctive attempt to call out to the Gods of his innocent childhood, now long abandoned and near-forgotten.

But to Northwest Smith, drive space was ecstasy like none he had ever known. He was no longer a man, bound by gravity and trapped within his own flesh, limited to thoughts a man could think and senses a man could experience. In drive space, Northwest Smith was the ship itself, piercing the very fabric of space-time, bound by nothing. He arrowed through the galaxies, glorying in sensations no man could feel, attaining— and experiencing— a speed that nothing made of fragile flesh and bone could dream of. He was a being of alien metal and formless energy, caring for nothing but the joy of doing what he had been created to do— journeying through the infinite vastness of space. As a man, he had devoted his entire life to reaching toward a pale echo of that pure fierce purpose, the ecstasy of movement, of travel, of exploration, of being one with space itself. Now, at last, he felt that true glory.

How long he reveled in drive space, he never knew. Perhaps time itself had no meaning there. But some noise called a small part of him back to humanity. Most of his consciousness was enraptured in the depths of space, but some part of him returned to the control room, where he saw a tall scarred man in spaceman’s leathers standing still as death, his colorless eyes wide and dreaming, and a young Venusian curled up on the floor, his every shallow breath rent with agony.

The ship that was Northwest Smith did not care about its passengers. True, an intelligent mind could wake it from slumber or direct it in its course. But the ship could also fly by itself. It needed nothing and no one. It did not matter if the Earth man went mad or the Venusian died.

But the small part of Smith that was still a man thought that it did matter. The young Venusian… Yarol, his name was… should not be allowed to die in pain. He should not be allowed to die at all. Drive was killing him— the ship must drop out of drive.

The ship did not wish to leave drive. It was no clumsy man-made vessel to toddle slowly about in ordinary space. It had awakened, and it did not wish to sleep again. Its will pushed at that small part of Smith, expecting to crush it. But that small part of Smith pushed back. Far from being crushed, opposition gave it strength. Smith thrived on battle, and asserting his will against that of the ship brought more of him back to himself. That steely part of him that was born to fight fought the ship, and with the fighting came memories— drinking red segir-whiskey with Yarol in drytown bars, Yarol pulling him from Shambleau’s deadly embrace, Yarol sweet-talking a Patrol official out of inspecting the Maid, their first meeting, when they had come within seconds of killing each other and had decided to partner up instead…

With his ship’s senses, Smith saw that neither of the living beings within the ship could bear drive space for long. The Venusian’s heart would give out, and the human’s mind. Only the ship was built for drive.

With every ounce of will that Smith had, with every last measure of his strength, Smith forced the ship to a destination he chose. As he thought it, they were there— out of drive and screaming through the thin Martian atmosphere, to suddenly decelerate and land lightly as a feather settling, in the red desert a mile or two outside of Lakkdarol town.

Northwest Smith was abruptly a man again, flesh and bone and sluggish blood, with eyes that saw only visible light and ears that heard only sound. He dropped to the ground, weighted down by gravity and loss, feeling blind and deaf and senseless.

Once they were out of drive, Yarol recovered quickly, as Venusians do. He opened his long-lashed eyes, saw Smith sprawled on the floor, and hauled him to his feet. “Come on, Smith. We have to get out of this thing before it takes off again.”

“No!” Smith gasped. “You go— leave me.”

“You won’t slow me down that much,” Yarol said. “We can both make it.”

Yarol dragged the still-dazed Smith out of the room, down the low corridor, and, with a deep breath of relief, out of the alien ship and on to the familiar red sands of Mars. He kept going, glancing over his shoulder at the menacing ship, meaning to put as much distance as possible between it and them before he stopped to rest.

But before he’d gotten more than a canal’s width-distance away, Smith dug in his feet, crying out, “I only came here to save you! I have to get back to the ship!”

Their forward progress was halted, but Yarol kept a firm grip on his friend. “That thing was killing us. Don’t you remember? Or did you pass out?”

Smith shook his head. “I remember everything. It was killing you. For me, it was glory.”

“That sounds familiar,” Yarol mused. “N.W., remember that dead man we found? It may be glory, but it’s death, too.”

Smith shook off Yarol’s hands. “I don’t care!”

He bolted back toward the ship. But before he had taken ten steps, a sudden impact and pain burst through his head, and then a darkness like the depths of space.

Smith woke up with a splitting headache. He opened his eyes, blinking against the clear Martian light. He was lying on the desert sands, with Yarol crouched over him. The ship was gone.

“I had to throw a rock at you,” Yarol said, not sounding in the least remorseful. “You were going to get back into that death-trap.” He gave Smith a sidelong glance. “It’s gone. Took off all by itself, then vanished. There wasn’t any cloud, but I guess it went into drive. I hope we’ll never see it again.”

Smith sat up slowly, rubbing the lump on his head. “I would have done anything to have flown through space again.”

Yarol gave him a strange look. “Well, we will, N.W. I remember where we left the Maid. We’ll buy parts for repairs, hire a ship to get us back, patch up the Maid, and next thing you know, we’ll be flying again.”

Smith knew that he would never again fly as he had— never again feel the glory of space as a ship does. He wished they had never found the derelict, so that he could have flown the Maid for the rest of his life and never known what he was missing.

“Come on, Smith. Lakkdarol’s just a few miles away.” Yarol stuck his hands in his pockets and jingled a few coins. “Segir’s on me.”

They walked through the red sands, toward the town. It was just past dawn, and looking to be a beautiful day. Smith kept his gaze on his friend, shading his eyes from the sky.