III "You've killed us both," Mikah said with his face strained and white but his voice under control.
"Not quite," Jason told him cheerily.
"But I have killed the jump control so we can't get to another star. However there's nothing wrong with our space drive, so we can make a landing on one of the planets—you saw for yourself that there is at least one suitable for habitation. "Where I will fix the jump drive and continue the voyage to Cassylia.
You will have gained nothing. "Perhaps," Jason answered in his most noncommittal voice, since he did not have the slightest intention of continuing the trip, no matter what Mikah Samon thought.
His captor had reached the same conclusion.
"Put your hand back on the chair arm," he ordered, and locked the cuff into place again. He stumbled as the drive started and the ship changed direction. "What was that?" he asked. "Emergency control.
The ship's computer knows that something drastic is wrong, so it has taken over. You can override it with the manuals, but don't bother yet. The ship can do a better job than either of us with its senses and stored data. It will find the planet we're looking for, plot a course and get us there with the most economy of time and fuel. When we get into the atmosphere you can take over and look for a spot to set down. "I don't believe a word you say now," Mikah said grimly.
"I'm going to take control and get a call out on the emergency band. Someone will hear it." As he started forward the ship lurched again and all the lights went out. In the darkness flames could be seen flickering inside the controls. There was a hiss of foam and they vanished. With a weak flicker the emergency lighting circuit came on. "Shouldn't have thrown the Ramon Lull book," Jason said.
"The ship can't stomach it any more than I could. "You are irreverent and profane," Mikah said through his clenched teeth, as he went to the controls.
"You attempt to kill us both. You have no respect for your own life or mine. You're a man who deserves the worst punishment the law allows. "I'm a gambler," Jason laughed.
"Not at all as bad as you say. I take chances—but I only take them when the odds are right. You were carrying me back to certain death. The worst my wrecking the controls can do is administer the same end. So I took a chance. There is a bigger risk factor for you of course, but I'm afraid I didn't take that into consideration. After all, this entire affair is your idea. You'll just have to take the consequences of your own actions and not scold me for them. "You're perfectly right," Mikah said quietly.
"I should have been more alert. Now will you tell me what to do to save both our lives. None of the controls work. "None!
Did you try the emergency override? The big red switch under the safety housing. "I did.
It is dead, too. Jason slumped back into the seat.
It was a moment before he could speak. "Read one of your books, Mikah," he said at last. "Seek consolation in your philosophy. There's nothing we can do. It's all up to the computer now, and whatever is left of the circuits. "Can't we help—repair anything?
"Are you a ship technician?
I'm not. We would probably do more harm than good. It took two ship-days of very erratic flight to reach the planet.
A haze of clouds obscured the atmosphere. They approached from the night side and no details were visible. Or lights. "If there were cities we should see their lights—shouldn't we?
Mikah asked. "Not necessarily.
Could be storms. Could be enclosed cities. Could be only ocean in this hemisphere. "Or it could be that there are no people down there.
Even if the ship should get us down safely—what will it matter? We will be trapped for the rest of our lives on this lost planet at the end of the universe. "Don't be so cheerful," Jason interrupted.
"How about taking off these cuffs while we go down. It will probably be a rough landing and I'd like to have some kind of a chance. Mikah frowned at him.
"Will you give me your word of honor that you won't try to escape during the landing? "No.
And if I gave it—would you believe it? If you let me go, you take your chances. Let neither of us think it will be any different. "I have my duty to do," Mikah said.
Jason remained locked in the chair. They were in the atmosphere, the gentle sighing against the hull quickly climbed the scale to a shrill scream.
The drive cut out and they were in free fall. Air friction heated the outer hull white-hot and the interior temperature quickly rose in spite of the cooling unit. "What's happening?
Mikah asked. "You seem to know more about this. Are we through—going to crash? "Maybe.
Could be only one of two things. Either the whole works has folded up—in which case we are going to be scattered in very small pieces all over the landscape, or the computer is saving itself for one last effort. I hope that's it. They build computers smart these days, all sort of problem-solving circuits. The hull and engines are in good shape—but the controls spotty and unreliable. In a case like this a good human pilot would let the ship drop as far and fast as it could before switching on the drive. Then turn it on full—thirteen gees or more, whatever he figured the passengers could take on the couches. The hull would take a beating, but who cares. The control circuits would be used the shortest amount of time in the simplest manner. "Do you think that's what is happening?
Mikah asked, getting into his acceleration chair. "That's what I hope is happening. Going to unlock the cuffs before you go to bed? It could be a bad landing and we might want to go places in a hurry. Mikah considered, then took out his gun.
"I'll unlock you, but I intend to shoot if you try anything. Once we are down you will be locked in again. "Thanks for small blessings," Jason said, rubbing his wrists.
Deceleration jumped on them, kicked the air from their lungs in uncontrollable gasps, sank them deep into the yielding couches.
Mikah's gun was pressed into his chest, too heavy to lift. It made no difference, Jason could not stand nor move. He hovered on the border of consciousness, his vision flickering behind a black and red haze. Just as suddenly the pressure was gone.
They were still falling.
The drive groaned in the stern of the ship and relays chattered.
But it didn't start again. The two men stared at each other, unmoving, for the unmeasurable unit of time that the ship fell. As the ship dropped it turned and hit at an angle.
The end came for Jason in an engulfing wave of thunder, shock and pain. Sudden impact pushed him against the restraining straps, burst them with the inertia of his body, hurled him across the control room. His last conscious thought was to protect his head. He was lifting his arm when he struck the wall. There is a cold that is so chilling it is a pain not a temperature.
Cold that slices into the flesh before it numbs and kills. Jason came to with the sound of his own voice crying hoarsely.
The cold was so great it filled the universe. Cold water he realized as he coughed it from his mouth and nose. Something was around him and it took an effort to recognize it as Mikah's arm; he was holding Jason's face above the surface while he swam. A receding blackness in the water could only have been the ship, giving off bubbles and groans as it died. The cold water didn't hurt now and Jason was just relaxing when he felt something solid under his feet. "Stand up and walk, curse you," Mikah gasped hoarsely.
"I can't ... carry you ... can't carry myself...." They floundered out of the water, side by side, four-legged crawling beasts that could not stand erect.
Everything had an unreality to it and Jason found it hard to think. He should not stop, that he was sure of, but what else could he do? There was a flickering in the darkness, a wavering light coming towards them. Jason could say nothing, but he heard Mikah cry out for help. Nearer came the light, some kind of a flare or torch, held high.
Mikah pulled to his feet as the flame approached. It was a nightmare.
It wasn't a man but a thing that held the flare. A thing of angles, sharp corners, fang-faced and horrible. It had a clubbed extremity it used to strike down Mikah. The tall man fell wordlessly and the creature turned towards Jason. He had no strength to fight with, though he struggled to climb to his feet. His fingers scratched at the frosted sand, but he could not rise, and exhausted with this last effort he fell forward face down. Unconsciousness pulled at his brain but he would not submit. The flickering torchlight came closer and the scuffle of heavy feet in the sand; he could not have this horror behind him. With the last of his strength he levered himself over and lay on his back, staring up at the thing that stood over him, with the darkness of exhaustion filming his eyes.