The Finding of Haldgren
Chapter 2: A Dirty Red Freighter...
Chet Bullard was more at home among the air-lanes of Earth than he was on solid ground. But he oriented himself in an instant; knew he was on a cross street in the three hundred zone; and saw ahead of him, not a hundred feet away, the green, glowing ring that marked a subway escalator.
In the passing throng there were those who looked curiously at him. Chet checked his first headlong flight and dropped to an unhurried walk.
About him, as he well knew, the air was filled with silent radio waves that were sounding the alarm in every sentry box of the great city. They would reach the aircraft terminals and the control room of every ship within a fixed radius. He had dared the wrath of one of the most powerful officials of Earth; no effort would be spared to run him down; his picture would be flashing within ten minutes on every television screen of the Air Patrol. And Chet Bullard knew only one way to go.
Of course they would be watching for him at the airports, yet he knew he must get away somehow; escape quickly--and find some corner of the world where he could hide.
He was in the escalator, and wild plans were flashing through his mind as he watched the levels go past. “First Level; Trains North and South; Local Service. Second Level; Express Stop for North-shore Lines. Third Level; Airport Loop Lines; Transatlantic Terminals--”
Chet Bullard, his hair still tangled on his hatless head, his blouse torn where a hand had ripped off the Master Pilot’s emblem, stepped from the escalator to a platform, then to a cylindrical car that slid silently in before him and whose flashing announcement-board proclaimed: “Hoover Airport Express. No Intermediate Stops.”
Would they be watching for him at the great Hoover Terminal on the tip of Long Island? Chet assured himself silently that he would tell the world they would be. But even a fugitive may have friends--if he has been a master pilot and has a lean, likable face with a most disarming grin.
Where would he go? He did not know; he had been bluffing a bit and the Commander had called him when his hand was weak; he had no least idea where he could find their ship. If only he had had a chance for a word with Walt Harkness: Walt had been flying it; he had left it apparently in a storage hangar.
But where? And what was it that Walt had called out? Chet was racking his brains to remember.
“The ship is yours,” Walt had shouted ... and something about “storage.” But why should he have laid up the ship; why should he have stored it?
Chet saw the lights of subterranean stations flashing past as the car that held him rode silently through a tube that it touched not at all. He knew that magnetic rails made a grillwork that surrounded the car and that drew it on at terrific speed while suspending it in air. But he would infinitely have preferred the freedom of the high levels, and his own hand on a ship’s controls.
A ship!--any ship!--but preferably his ship and Walt’s. And Walt had said something of “storage--cold storage.” The words seemed written before him in fiery lines. It was a moment before he knew what he had recalled. Then a slow smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, and he turned and stared through a window that showed only blackness.
“Cold storage!” That was good work on Walt’s part. He had been forced to shout the directions before them all, yet tell none of those others about him where the ship was hidden. Chet was picturing that place of “cold storage” as he smiled. The fact that it was some thousands of miles away troubled him not at all.
The great Hoover Terminal was a place where night never came. Its daylight tubes wove a network of light about the stupendous enclosure, their almost silent hissing merged to an unceasing rush of sound, so soft as to be unheard through the scuffing feet and chattering voices of the ever-hurrying crowds.
From subways the impatient people came and went, and from highway stations where busses and private cars drove in and away. The clock in the squat tower swung its electrically driven hands toward the figure 22; there lacked but two hours of midnight, and a steady stream of aircraft came dropping down the shaft of green light that reached to and through the clouds. There would be many liners leaving on the hour; these that were coming in were private craft that spun their flashing helicopters like giant emeralds in the green descending light, while the noise of their beating blades filled the air with a rush of sound.
Outside the entrance to the Passenger Station, Chet Bullard withdrew himself from the surging press of hurrying men and women and slipped into a shadowed alcove. Two passing figures in the gray and gold of the Air Patrol scanned the crowd closely; Chet drew himself into the deeper shadows and waited until they were by before he emerged and followed the shelter of a coffee-house that extended toward another entrance to the field, where pilots and mechanics passed in and out.
A bulletin board showed in changing letters of light the official assignment of landing space. And, though every passing eye was turned toward it, Chet knew that each man was intent upon the board and not on the shadowed niche in the building behind it. He watched his chance and slipped into that shadow.
Unseen, he could see them as they approached: men in the multicolored uniforms of many lines, who paused to read, to exchange bantering shop-talk--and to pass on.
Many voices: “Storm area, over the South-shore up to Level Six. You birds on the local runs had better watch your step”... “--coming down at Calcutta. Yeah, a dirty, red-bottomed freighter that rammed him. I saw it take off two of his fans, but Shorty set the old girl down like a feather on the lift of the four fans he had left. You said it--Shorty’s a real pilot...”
Another pause; then a growling voice that proclaimed complainingly: “Lord, but I’m tired! All right, Spud; grin, you damned Irishman! But if you had been hauling the Commander all over Alaska to-day and then got ordered out again just as you were set for a good sleep, you’d be sore. What in thunder does he want his ship for to-night, I ask you?”
Chet, crouching still lower in the little retreat, stiffened to attention at the reference to the Commander. So the “big boss” had ordered out his own cruiser again! He listened still more intently to the voice that replied.
“Sure, and it’s thankful you sh’u’d be to be holdin’ the controls on a fine, big cruiser like that; though, betwixt you and me, ‘tis myself that don’t envy you your job. Me and my old freighter, we go wallowin’ along. And to-night I’m takin’ her home for repairs--back to the fact’ry in Rooshia where they made her; and the devil of a job it will be, for she handles with all the grace of a pig in a puddle.”
Chet risked a glance when the sound of heavy footsteps indicated that one of the two speakers had gone on alone to the pilots’ gate. Before the huge bulletin board, in pilot’s uniform and with the markings of a low-level man on his sleeve, stood the sturdy figure of the man called Spud. He started back at sight of the face peering out at him, but Chet whispered a command, and the man moved closer to the hiding place behind the board.
There were others coming in a laughing group up the walk; daylight tubes illuminated the approach. Chet spoke hurriedly.
“I’m in a devil of a mess, Spud. Will you lend a hand? Will you stand by for rescue work?”
And Spud studied the bulletin board as he growled:
“Lend a hand?--yes, and the arm with it, Mr. Bullard. You stud by me once whin I needed help; and now you ask will I stand by for rescue work. Till we crash--that’s all, me bhoy!”