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I remember hearing somewhere that freezing to death is an easy way to go; but the guy that said that never tried it. I'd found myself a little hollow where a falling-down stone wall met a dirt-bank, and hunkered down in it; but the wall wasn't high enough to keep the wind off or stop the sleet from hitting my neck like buckshot and running down cold under my collar. There were some moldy leaves drifted there, and I used the last of my lighter fluid trying to get a little blaze going, but that turned out like everything else I'd tried lately: a fizzle. One thing about it: My feet were so numb from the cold I couldn't feel the blisters from the eighteen miles I'd hiked since my last ride dumped me at a crossroads, just before dawn.

I had my collar turned up, for what good that might do, which wasn't much; the coat felt like wet newspaper. Both elbows were out of it, and two of the buttons were gone. Funny; three weeks ago it had been decent-looking enough to walk into a second-class restaurant in without attracting more than the usual quota of hostile stares. Three weeks: That's all it took to slide from a shaky toehold in the economic cycle all the way to the bottom. I'd heard of hitting the skids, but I never knew before just what it meant. Once you go over that invisible edge, it's downhill all the way.

It had been almost a year since I'd quit school, when Uncle Jason died. What money I had went for the cheapest funeral the little man with the sweet, sad smile could bear to talk about. After that, I'd held a couple of jobs that had wafted away like the morning mist as soon as the three months "tryout" was over and the question of regular wages came up. There'd been a few months of scrounging, then; mowing lawns, running errands, one-day stands as a carpenter's helper or assistant busboy while the regular man was off. I'd tried to keep up appearances, enough not to scare off any prospective employers, but the money barely stretched to cover food and what the sign said was a clean bed. Then one day I'd showed up looking just a little too thin, a little too hungry, the collar just a little too frayed.

And now I was here, with my stomach making whimpering sounds to remind me of all the meals it hadn't had lately, as far as ever from where I was headed—wherever that was. I didn't really have a destination. I just wanted to be where I wasn't.

And I couldn't stay here. The wall was worse than no protection at all, and the wind was blowing colder and wetter all the time. I crawled out and made it back up the slope to the road. There were no headlights in sight; it wouldn't have helped if there were. Nobody was going to stop in a sleetstorm in the middle of nowhere to give a lift to a hobo like me. I didn't have any little sign to hold up, stating that I was a hardship case, that comfortable middle-class conformity was my true vocation, that I was an honest young fellow with a year of college who'd had a little hard luck lately; all I had were the clothes I stood in, a bad cough, and a deep conviction that if I didn't get out of the weather, fast, by morning I'd be one of those dead-of-exposure cases they're always finding in alleys back of cut-rate liquor stores.

I put my back to the wind and started off, hobbling on a couple of legs that ended somewhere below the knee. I didn't notice feeling tired anymore, or hungry; I was just a machine somebody had left running. All I could do was keep putting one foot in front of the other until I ran down.





I saw the light when I came up over a rise, just a weak little spark, glowing a long way off in the big dark beyond the trees. I turned and started off across the open field toward it.

Ten minutes later, I came up behind a big swaybacked barn with a new-looking silo beside it and a rambling two story house beyond. The light was shining from a ground-floor window. There was a pickup parked in the side yard near the barn, and a late-model Cadillac convertible, with the top down. Just looking at it made me ten degrees colder. I didn't have any idea of knocking on the door, introducing myself: "Billy Danger, sir. May I step inside and curl up in front of the fire?"—and being invited to belly up to a chicken dinner. But there was the barn; and where there were barns, there was hay; and where there was hay, a man could snuggle down and sleep, if not warm, at least not out in the freezing rain. It was worth a try.

The barn door looked easy enough: just warped boards hanging on big rusted-out hinges; but when I tried it, nothing budged. I looked closer, and saw that the hinges weren't rotted after all; they were just made to look that way. I picked at a flake of paint on the door; there was bright metal underneath. That was kind of strange, but all it meant to me then was that I wouldn't be crawling into that haystack after all.

The sleet was coming down thicker than ever now. I put my nose up and sniffed, caught a whiff of frying bacon and coffee that made my jaws ache. All of a sudden, my stomach remembered its complaint and tried to tie itself into a hard knot. I went back through tall weeds past some rusty iron that used to be farm machinery, and across a rutted drive toward the silo. I didn't know much about silos except that they were where you stored the corn, but at least it had walls and a roof. If I could get in there, I might find a dry spot to hide in. I reached a door set in the curved wall; it opened and I slid inside, into dim light and a flow of warm air.

Across the room, there was an inner door standing open, and I could see steps going up: glass steps on chrome-plated rails. The soft light and the warm air were coming from there. I went up, moving on instinct, like the first fish crawling out on land, reached the top and was in a room full of pipes and tubes and machinery and a smell like the inside of a TX set. Weary as I was, this didn't look like a place to curl up in.

I made it up another turn of the spiral stair, came out in a space where big shapes like cotton bales were stacked, with dark spaces between them. There was a smell like a fresh-tarred road here. I groped toward the deepest shadow I could find, and my hand touched something soft. In the faint light from the stairwell it looked like mink or sable, except that it was an electric-blue color. I didn't let that worry me. I crawled up on top of the stack and put my face down in the velvety fluff and let all the strings break at once.





In the dream, I was a burglar, holed up in somebody else's house, hiding in the closet, and in a minute they'd find me and haul me out and ride me into town in a police car to sit under the lights and answer questions about every unsolved chicken-stealing in the county in the past five years. The feet were coming up the stairs, coming closer. Somebody said something and a woman's voice answered in a foreign language. They went away and the dream faded. . . .

. . . And then the noise started.

It was a thin, high-pitched shrilling, like one of those whistles you call the dog with. It went right between my bones and pried at the joints. It got louder, and angrier, like bees boiling out of a hive, and I was awake now, and trying to get up; but a big hand came down and mashed me flat. I tried to get enough breath in to yell, but the air had turned to syrup. I just had time to remember the day back in Pineville when the Chevy rolled off the rack at Uncle Jason's gas station and pinned a man under the back bumper. Then it all went red and I was someplace else, going over Niagara Falls in a big rubber balloon, wearing a cement life jacket, while thousands cheered.






When I woke up, I heard voices.

" . . . talking rot now. It's nothing to do with me." This was a man's voice, speaking with an English accent. He sounded as if he were a little amused by something.

"I mark well t'was thee I charged with the integrity o' the vessel!" This one sounded big, and mad. He had a strange way of talking, but I could understand most of the words all right. Then a girl spoke, but in another language. She had a nice, clear, sweet voice. She sounded worried.

"No harm done, Desroy." The first man gave a soft laugh. "And it might be a spot of good luck, at that. Perhaps he'll make a replacement for Jongo."

"I don't omit thy ill-placed japery, Orfeo! Rid me this urchin, ere you vex me out of all humor!"

"A bit of a sticky wicket, that, old boy. He's still alive, you know. If I nurse him along—"

"How say you? What stuff is this! Art thou the parish comfort, to wax chirurgeonly o'er this whelp?"

"If he can be trained—"

"You o'ertax my patience, Orfeo! I'd make a chough of as deep chat!"

"He'll make a gun-boy, mark my words."

"Bah! You more invest the misadventure than a marketplace trinket chafferer! In any case, the imp's beyond recovery!"

Part of me wanted to just skip over this part of the dream and sink back down into the big, soft black that was waiting for me, but a little voice somewhere back behind my eyes was telling me to do something, fast, before bad things happened. I made a big effort and got one eyelid open. Everything looked red and hazy. The three of them were standing ten feet away, near the door. The one with the funny way of speaking was big, built solid as a line-backer, with slicked-back black hair and a little moustache. He wore a loose jacket covered with pockets; he looked like Clark Gable playing Frank Buck.

The other man was not much older than me; he had a rugged jawline, a short nose, curly reddish-brown hair, wide shoulders, slim hips in a form-fitting gray coverall. He was pretty enough to be a TV intern.

The girl . . . I had to stop and get the other eyelid up. No girl could be that pretty. She had jet black hair and smoky gray eyes big enough to go wading in; an oval face, mellow ivory-colored skin, features like one of those old statues. She was wearing a white coverall, and the form it fit was enough to break your heart.

I made a move to sit up and pain broke over me like a wave. It seemed to be coming mostly from my left arm. I took hold of the wrist with my other hand and got up on one elbow with no more effort than it takes to swing a safe in your teeth.

Nobody seemed to notice; when the whirly lights settled down, they were still standing there, still arguing.

" . . . a spot of bother, Desroy, but it's worth a go."

"Methinks sloth instructs thee, naught else!" The big fellow turned and stamped off. The young fellow grinned at the girl.

"Just twisting the old boy's tail. Actually, he's right. You nip off and soothe him down a bit. I'll attend to this."

I slid over the edge of my nest and kind of fell to the floor. At the noise, they both whirled on me. I got hold of the floor and swung it around under me.

"I just came in to get out of the weather," I meant to say, but it came out as a sort of gargly sound. The man took a quick step toward me and over his shoulder said, "Pop off now, Milady." He had a hand on a thing clipped to his belt. I didn't need a set of technical specifications to tell me it was some kind of gun. The girl moved up quickly and put her hand on his arm.

"Orfeo—the poor creature suffers!" She spoke English with an accent that made it sound like music.

He moved her around behind him. "He might be dangerous. Now do be a good child and toddle off."

"I'm . . . not dangerous," I managed to get the words out. The smile was less successful. I felt sick. But I wasn't going to come unfed in front of her. I got my back against the pile of furs and tried to stand up straight.

"So you can talk," the man said. He was frowning at me. "Damn me if I know what to do with you." He seemed to be talking to himself.

"Just . . . let me rest a few minutes . . . and I'll be on my way . . ." I could hear my pulse thudding in my ears like bongo drums.

"Why did you come aboard?" The man snapped the question at me. "What did you think you'd find here?"

"I was cold," I said. "It was warm here—"

He snorted. "Letting yourself in for a devilish change of scene, weren't you?"

His first words were beginning to filter through. "What is this place?" I asked him.

"You're aboard Lord Desroy's yacht. He's not keen on contraband holed up in the aft lazaret—"

"A boat?" I felt I'd missed something somewhere. The last I remembered was a farmhouse, in the middle of nowhere. "You must be fooling me." I tried to show him a smile to let him know I got the joke. "I don't feel any waves."

"She's a converted ketch, stressed-field primaries, ion-pulse auxiliaries, fitted with full antiac and variable G gear, four years out of Zeridajh on a private expedition. Every square inch of her is allocated to items in specific support of her mission in life, which brings us back to you. What's your name?" He asked that last in a businesslike tone.

"Billy Danger. I don't understand all that about a catch . . ."

"Just think of her as a small spaceship." He sounded impatient. "Now, Billy Danger, it's up to me to—"

"Spaceship? You mean like they shoot astronauts off in?"

Orfeo laughed. "Astronauts, eh? Couple of natives paddling about the shallows in a dugout canoe. No, Billy Danger, this is a deep-space yacht, capable of cruising for many centuries at multiple-light velocities. At the moment, she's on course for a world very distant from your native Earth."

"Walt a minute," I said; I wanted everything to slow down for just a second while I got caught up with it. "I don't want to go to any star. I just want out of here." I tried a step and had to lean against the bale beside me. "Just let me off, and I'll disappear so quick you'll think you dreamed me—"

"I'm afraid that's not practical." Orfeo cut me off short. "Now you're here, the question is what to do with you. As you doubtless heard, Lord Desroy's in favor of putting you out the lock. As for myself, I have hopes of making use of you. Know anything about weapons? Hunted much?"

"Just let me off," I said. "Anywhere at all. I'll walk home."

"You must answer my questions promptly, Billy Danger! What becomes of you depends on how well you answer them."

"I never hunted," I said. My breath was short, as if I'd run a long way.

"That's all right. Nothing to unlearn. How old are you?"

"Nineteen, next April."

"Amazing. You look younger. Are you quick to learn, Billy Danger?"

"It's kidnaping," I said. "You can't just kidnap a man. There's laws—"

"Mind your tongue, Billy Danger! I'll tolerate no insolence, you'd best understand that at the outset! As for law, Lord Desroy makes the law here. This is his vessel; with the exception of the Lady Raire and myself, he owns every atom aboard her, including stowaways."

A sudden thought occurred to me, like an icepick through the heart. "You're not . . . Earthmen, are you?"

"Happily, no."

"But you look human; you speak English."

"Of course we're human; much older stock than your own unfortunate branch. We've spent a year on your drab little world, going after walrus, elephant, that sort of thing. Now, that's enough chatter, Billy Danger. Do you think you can learn to be a proper gunbearer?"

"How long—before we go back?"

"To Earth? Never, I trust. Now, see here! Don't fret about matters out of your control! Your job is to keep me happy with you. If you can do that, you'll stay alive and well. If not . . ." He let the rest hang. "But then, I'm sure you'll try your best, eh, Billy Danger?"

It was crazy, but the way he said it, I believed every word of it. The thing I had to do right now was stay alive. Then, later, I could worry about getting home.

"Sure," I said. "I'll try."

"Right. That's settled, then." Orfeo looked relieved, as if he'd just found an excuse to put off a mean chore. "You were lucky, you know. You took eight gravities, unprotected. A wonder you didn't break a few bones."

I was still holding my left arm by the wrist; I eased it around front, and felt the sharp point poking out through my sleeve.

"Who said I didn't?" I asked him, and felt myself folding like a windblown newspaper.


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