A thin speck appeared in the visor plate and grew with sinister and terrifying speed. Bursts of flame began to play around the rocketing spaceship, the explosions hurtling it from side to side as it twisted and turned in a frantic effort to escape. Rogue Rogan, his vicious lips compressed, his glittering evil eyes narrowed, heart pounding, knew that this was it.
This was the day of retribution, he had so long feared...
Plato leaped to his feet and slid the book under the pillow. Then he seized a textbook at random, and opened it wide. His eyes fastened themselves to the print, seizing upon the meaningless words as if they would save him from a retribution that Rogue Rogan had never had to fear.
The dorm master frowned from the doorway. “Plato, didn’t you hear the Assembly bell?”
“Assembly?” Plato’s eyes looked up in mild astonishment. “No, sir, I didn’t hear any bell. I was so absorbed in my studying, sir--” He shut the book and placed it back with the others. “I’m sorry, sir. I’m willing to accept my punishment.”
The dorm master studied the little martyr’s expression. “You’d better be, Plato. Now live up to your name and show some intelligence. Run along to Assembly.”
Plato ran, but he also winced. How he had suffered from that miserable name of his! Even before he had known that the original Plato had been a philosopher, even before he had been capable of understanding what a philosopher was, he had been able to see the amused expression in the eyes of those who heard his name, and had hated them for it. “Show a little intelligence, Plato.” Why couldn’t they have given him a name like the others? There were so many ordinary, commonplace, manly names from which they might have chosen. Jim, Jack, George, Tom, Bill--anything would have been better than Plato. And infinitely better than what he was sometimes called by his equals--”Plato, the dopy philosopher.”
He slipped into his seat in the Assembly quietly, so as not to interrupt the droning of the principal. So they thought his name was funny, did they? Let them laugh at him. He was only ten now, but some day he would really act like a man. Some day it would be he himself, and not a fictional hero like Comets Carter, who would be adventuring on strange planets of unknown suns, tracking down the Rogans and the other criminals who sought refuge in the wide reaches of galactic space.
Some day--and then the thought burst on him like a nova exploding in his brain.
Why not now?
Why not indeed? He was smart; he could take care of himself. Even his masters admitted that, when they weren’t carping at him for his daydreaming. Take that model of a spaceship they had brought to school one day, with a retired astrogator to explain to the pupils how the thing was run, and how it avoided stray meteors. He had sat down at the controls, and even the astrogator had been surprised at how confidently he took over the role of pilot, how he got the idea at once.
He could do as well in real life. He was sure of it. Give him a really worthwhile problem to work on, instead of these silly questions about square roots and who discovered the third satellite of Mars, and he’d show them.
“Thus,” declaimed the principal, “you will be prepared to take up your duties--”
“Norberts to you,” thought Plato. “I’m going to run away.”
Where to? There were so many stars to go to, such a bewildering number of planets and asteroids.
Plato sat lost in thought. A planet whose habitation required a spacesuit was out of the question. Spacesuits his size were hard to get. The sensible thing would be to choose a place where the physical conditions, from gravity to atmospheric pressure and composition would tend to resemble those here on Venus or on Earth. But full of the most thrilling danger.
A boy’s voice said, “Get up, you dopy philosopher. It’s all over.”
He raised his head and realized that the principal had stopped droning from the platform, that all the pupils were standing up to leave. He stood up and marched out.
When the signal for lights out came that night, Plato lay motionless for a time in the dark, his mind racing far too rapidly for him to think of sleep. He had plans to make. And after a time, when the dormitory quieted down, he went to the well of knowledge for inspiration. He slipped on his pair of goggles and threw the special switch he himself had made. The infra-red light flared on, invisible to any one in the room but himself, and he drew his book from its hiding place and resumed his reading.
The ship curvetted in space like a prancing steed. Panic-stricken by the four-dimensional space-warp in which he was trapped, Rogue Rogan stormed at his terrified followers. “By all the devils of the Coal Sack,” he shouted, “the man doesn’t live who can take me alive! You’ll fight and die like men, you hen-hearted cowards...”
But they didn’t die like men. In fact, they didn’t die at all, and Plato permitted a slight sneer to play across his youthful features. Though he considered himself a passionate admirer of Comets Carter, even he felt dissatisfied with the story. When they were trapped, they were never really trapped. Comets Carter, sterling hero that he usually was, always showed weakness of intellect at the last moment, giving his deadly enemy an incredibly simple way out, one that Comets had, in his own incredibly simple way, overlooked.
Plato would never be guilty of such stupidity. He himself--and now he was Comets Carter, a quicker-thinker, smarter Carter, dealing out to Rogue Rogan a retribution many eons overdue. He was whistling through space at ten light-speeds. He was compressing light-centuries into a single second. He was--
He had just time to slip the goggles from his face before his eyes closed in sleep.
During the day, he continued to make his plans. There was a spaceport a hundred and forty miles away. At night, if the students poked their heads out of the window, they could see the distant ships as points of flame racing away into the darkness, like shooting stars in reverse. He would steal out of his room in the night, take a glider-train to the spaceport, and stow away. It would be as simple as that.
Of course, he needed money. He might travel at half fare, but even that would be expensive. And then there was the matter of food. He’d have to stay hidden until the spaceship took off and there was no turning back, and at the thought of crouching in some dark hold, motionless for hours, cramped, and with an empty stomach--
He wasn’t going to starve himself. Even Comets Carter couldn’t have gone without eating and got very far in his pursuit of Rogan. Plato would have to acquire money for flight, fare and food.
The book, of course, he couldn’t think of selling. It was only a decicredit novel in the first place, and somewhat worn at that. And the other students would have laughed at him for reading it. But his infra-red bedside lamp and his goggles and the space-receptor radio he had built out of spare parts--those should bring him enough to travel and live on for a few days.
He made his first sale in the free time that evening, to a young squirt in the neighboring dormitory who had a passion akin to his own. He liked to listen to tales of high adventure, of the kind the radiocasters loved and the teachers in the school frowned upon. Having arrived here from Earth only six months before, he had difficulty adjusting to the type of derring-do featured on the Venus stations, and he lacked a space-receptor that would bring him his favorites from the next planet. He snapped up, at the bargain price of ten credits, the receptor that Plato offered.
There was a little difficulty with the infra-red lamp and goggles. The customer Plato had selected turned out to be rather suspicious. He demanded, “Where did you steal them?”
Plato explained patiently, “I didn’t steal them. I made them myself.”
“That’s a lot of hot oxo-nitrogen. You hooked them some place, and if they ever find out--”
“Okay,” said Plato, “if you don’t want them, you don’t have to take them. I can sell them to somebody else.”
He allowed the young skeptic to try the goggles on and read by the light of the lamp. He knew little of the psychology of salesmanship, but with what might be called Platonic shrewdness, he sensed that once the prospect had experienced the joys of using the magic articles, he would never give them up.
The method worked. And soon Plato was richer by fifteen credits, instead of the ten or twelve he had hoped for.
He had a few other odds and ends, which he sold for as much as they would bring. After all, once he was out in space, he wouldn’t need them any more.
In the middle of the next day, when the bell sounded the end of the class on Planetary Geography and it was time to go to the class on Animal Physiology, Plato picked himself up and walked out. One of the ‘copter custodians looked at him suspiciously, but Plato didn’t dignify the man by paying him direct attention.
He muttered to himself, “Always picking on me. I don’t see why he can’t send somebody else on his errands.” It was better than the forged pass signed with the headmaster’s name.
The pass itself came in handy when he bought a flight ticket. The ticket agent also stared at him suspiciously, but Plato was ready for him. He had prepared the slip of paper beforehand, tracing the headmaster’s name laboriously from one of the lists of regulations attached to the wall.
To make pursuit as difficult as possible for any one who tried to trail him, Plato asked for a ticket not to Space Junction, where he was going, but to Venusberg, in the opposite direction. Both tickets cost about the same; the ticket to Venusberg, in fact, cost three decicredits more. Once on the plane-drawn glider, he could explain to the conductor that the agent had made a mistake and offer the ticket he had. Since the company would lose nothing by the transaction, there was no reason why the conductor should object.
Plato was proud of this bit of trickery, and he flattered himself that by means of it he had entirely thrown off pursuit. It must be remembered that he was only ten years old.
On the glider-flight, he found himself sitting next to a middle-aged woman who wore glasses and was surrounded by packages. She beamed at him, as she did at every one else around her, and Plato shrank back into his seat. If there was anything he didn’t want on this trip, it was to be mothered.
But he couldn’t escape her. She said, “My, my, you’re awfully young to be traveling alone. This the first time?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Plato nervously, afraid of the embarrassing questions he could read on her face.
Hastily he stared out over the side and gasped, “Gee, how small everything is!”
Imagine anyone who had traveled vicariously through space with Comets Carter being awed by a flight in a plane-drawn glider! But the ruse worked.
She said, “Yes, it is frightening, isn’t it? Even worse than space travel.”
“You’ve been in space, ma’am?”
“Bless your heart, I’ve been in space more times than you could shake a stick at. The takeoff isn’t so nice, I’ll admit, but after that you’re just sailing free. What are you going to be when you grow up?”
They had his future all planned for him, but he knew that he wasn’t going to be any of the things they wanted him to be.
He said boldly, “A space explorer.”
She laughed. “You youngsters are all alike inside, no matter how different you seem. My boy was the same way when he was young. But he got over it. A space explorer, no less!”
Plato didn’t answer. It was only a half hour’s trip, and the conductor was walking down the aisle. Plato found it difficult to take his eyes off him. He was afraid that the man would take a look at his ticket, say, “Wrong plane, son,” and turn him over to the stationmaster at Space Junction, to be shipped back.
In his nervousness, Plato had difficulty getting his ticket out of his pocket. As he had expected, the conductor said, “You’re on the wrong flight.”
The motherly woman exclaimed, “Oh, isn’t that a shame! Are they waiting for you in Venusberg?”
Plato said tearfully, “Yes, ma’am.” The tearfulness wasn’t hard to manage; he’d learned the trick at school.
“That’s too bad. How are you going to get there?”
“I don’t know. I had just enough money to pay for this ticket.”
“Doesn’t the company correct mistakes, Conductor?”
“Not mistakes the passengers make,” said the conductor sourly. “I’m sorry, boy, I’ll have to take that ticket.”
The woman’s eyes flashed and, as the conductor moved on, she said, “The nasty thing. They have no consideration at all. Look, child.” For a moment Plato thought she was going to offer him flight fare from Space Junction to Venusberg, but she was not, he discovered, as motherly as that. “You know what you’ll do when you get off? Send a ‘gram, collect, to your people in Venusberg. They’ll wire you your fare. And you’ll reach them in a couple of hours.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said, not feeling thankful at all. So it was all right to be sympathetic, he thought indignantly, up to the point where sympathy might cost her money. Like most people, she was free-handed only with advice.
Who wanted advice?
At Space Junction he waved her a shy farewell, and then turned and disappeared into the station crowd.
At the takeoff grounds, his heart sank. As he might have expected, the entrance to the space tarmac was well guarded. How was he going to become a stowaway on a spaceship if he couldn’t even get close to it?
He wandered around outside, staring through the charged wire fence at the crowds, the spacemen, the ships inside. They were gigantic shining things, those wonderful ships, each so long that he realized for the first time how far away they must have been and how rapidly they must have traveled, for those he saw had seemed to him like shooting stars. They were pointed almost straight up. Near the stern of each ship was a vacuum-pit to absorb the radioactive exhaust gases.
His eye caught an old tub, its shininess dulled, its hull faintly scarred. Just such a ship, he thought with a thrill, as the one on which Comets Carter had been shanghaied on that momentous occasion when...
The old freighter swung a great circle, its torsion jets blasting desperately in an effort to keep it on an even keel. This, thought Comets Carter, was it. This was the foul revenge that Rogue Rogan had planned, the evil death he had plotted with his unhuman companions. In a moment the pulsating radiations of electroid rays would set off the cargo of ghoulite, and when the interplanetary echoes of the explosion died away, Comets Carter would be no more than a series of photon packets, his body torn apart, his very atoms converted into radiation that was hurtling with the speed of light to the far corners of the universe...