The Winds of Time

by James H. Schmitz

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: He contracted for a charter trip--but the man who hired his spacer wasn't quite a man, it turned out--and he wanted more than service!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Gefty Rammer came along the narrow passages between the Silver Queen’s control compartment and the staterooms, trying to exchange the haggard look on his face for one of competent self-assurance. There was nothing to gain by letting his two passengers suspect that during the past few minutes their pilot, the owner of Rammer Spacelines, had been a bare step away from plain and fancy gibbering.

He opened the door to Mr. Maulbow’s stateroom and went inside. Mr. Maulbow, face very pale, eyes closed, lay on his back on the couch, still unconscious. He’d been knocked out when some unknown forces suddenly started batting the Silver Queen’s turnip-shape around as the Queen had never been batted before in her eighteen years of spacefaring. Kerim Ruse, Maulbow’s secretary, knelt beside her employer, checking his pulse. She looked anxiously up at Gefty.

“What did you find out?” she asked in a voice that was not very steady.

Gefty shrugged. “Nothing definite as yet. The ship hasn’t been damaged--she’s a tough tub. That’s one good point. Otherwise ... well, I climbed into a suit and took a look out the escape hatch. And I saw the same thing there that the screens show. Whatever that is.”

“You’ve no idea then of what’s happened to us, or where we are?” Miss Ruse persisted. She was a rather small girl with large, beautiful gray eyes and thick blue-black hair. At the moment, she was barefoot and in a sleeping outfit which consisted of something soft wrapped around her top, soft and floppy trousers below. The black hair was tousled and she looked around fifteen. She’d been asleep in her stateroom when something smacked the Queen, and she was sensible enough then not to climb out of the bunk’s safety field until the ship finally stopped shuddering and bucking about. That made her the only one of the three persons aboard who had collected no bruises. She was scared, of course, but taking the situation very well.

Gefty said carefully, “There’re a number of possibilities. It’s obvious that the Queen has been knocked out of normspace, and it may take some time to find out how to get her back there. But the main thing is that the ship’s intact. So far, it doesn’t look too bad.”

Miss Ruse seemed somewhat reassured. Gefty could hardly have said the same for himself. He was a qualified normspace and subspace pilot. He had put in a hitch with the Federation Navy, and for the past eight years he’d been ferrying his own two ships about the Hub and not infrequently beyond the Federation’s space territories, but he had never heard of a situation like this. What he saw in the viewscreens when the ship steadied enough to let him pick himself off the instrument room floor, and again, a few minutes later and with much more immediacy, from the escape hatch, made no sense--seemed simply to have no meaning. The pressure meters said there was a vacuum outside the Queen’s skin. That vacuum was dark, even pitch-black but here and there came momentary suggestions of vague light and color. Occasional pinpricks of brightness showed and were gone. And there had been one startling phenomenon like a distant, giant explosion, a sudden pallid glare in the dark, which appeared far ahead of the Queen and, for the instant it remained in sight, seemed to be rushing directly towards them. It had given Gefty the feeling that the ship itself was plowing at high speed through this eerie medium. But he had cut the Queen’s drives to the merest idling pulse as soon as he staggered back to the control console and got his first look at the screens, so it must have been the light that had moved.

But such details were best not discussed with a passenger. Kerim Ruse would be arriving at enough disquieting speculations on her own; the less he told her, the better. There was the matter of the ship’s location instruments. The only set Gefty had been able to obtain any reading on were the direction indicators. And what they appeared to indicate was that the Silver Queen was turning on a new heading something like twenty times a second.

Gefty asked, “Has Mr. Maulbow shown any signs of waking up?”

Kerim shook her head. “His breathing and pulse seem all right, and that bump on his head doesn’t look really bad, but he hasn’t moved at all. Can you think of anything else we might do for him, Gefty?”

“Not at the moment,” Gefty said. “He hasn’t broken any bones. We’ll see how he feels when he comes out of it.” He was wondering about Mr. Maulbow and the fact that this charter had showed some unusual features from the beginning.

Kerim was a friendly sort of girl; they’d got to calling each other by their first names within a day or two after the trip started. But after that, she seemed to be avoiding him; and Gefty guessed that Maulbow had spoken to her, probably to make sure that Kerim didn’t let any of her employer’s secrets slip out.

Maulbow himself was as aloof and taciturn a client as Rammer Spacelines ever had picked up. A lean, blond character of indeterminate age, with pale eyes, hard mouth. Why he had selected a bulky semifreighter like the Queen for a mineralogical survey jaunt to a lifeless little sun system far beyond the outposts of civilization was a point he didn’t discuss. Gefty, needing the charter money, had restrained his curiosity. If Maulbow wanted only a pilot and preferred to do all the rest of the work himself, that was certainly Maulbow’s affair. And if he happened to be up to something illegal--though it was difficult to imagine what--Customs would nail him when they got back to the Hub.

But those facts looked a little different now.


Gefty scratched his chin, inquired, “Do you happen to know where Mr. Maulbow keeps the keys to the storage vault?”

Kerim looked startled. “Why, no! I couldn’t permit you to take the keys anyway while he ... while he’s unconscious! You know that.”

Gefty grunted. “Any idea of what he has locked up in the vault?”

“You shouldn’t ask me--” Her eyes widened. “Why, that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with what’s happened!”

He might, Gefty thought, have reassured her a little too much. He said, “I wouldn’t know. But I don’t want to just sit here and wonder about it until Maulbow wakes up. Until we’re back in normspace, we’d better not miss any bets. Because one thing’s sure--if this has happened to anybody else, they didn’t turn up again to report it. You see?”

Kerim apparently did. She went pale, then said hesitantly, “Well ... the sealed cases Mr. Maulbow brought out from the Hub with him had some very expensive instruments in them. That’s all I know. He’s always trusted me not to pry into his business any more than my secretarial duties required, and of course I haven’t.”

“You don’t know then what it was he brought up from that moon a few hours ago--those two big cases he stowed away in the vault?”

“No, I don’t, Gefty. You see, he hasn’t told me what the purpose of this trip is. I only know that it’s a matter of great importance to him.” Kerim paused, added, “From the careful manner Mr. Maulbow handled the cases with the cranes, I had the impression that whatever was inside them must be quite heavy.”

“I noticed that,” Gefty said. It wasn’t much help. “Well, I’ll tell you something now,” he went on. “I let your boss keep both sets of keys to the storage vault because he insisted on it when he signed the charter. What I didn’t tell him was that I could make up a duplicate set any time in around half an hour.”

“Oh! Have you--?”

“Not yet. But I intend to take a look at what Mr. Maulbow’s got in that vault now, with or without his consent. You’d better run along and get dressed while I take him up to the instrument room.”

“Why move him?” Kerim asked.

“The instrument room’s got an overall safety field. I’ve turned it on now, and if something starts banging us around again, the room will be the safest place on the ship. I’ll bring his personal luggage up too, and you can start looking through it for the keys. You may find them before I get a new set made. Or he may wake up and tell us where they are.”

Kerim Ruse gave her employer a dubious glance, then nodded, said, “I imagine you’re right, Gefty,” and pattered hurriedly out of the stateroom. A few minutes later, she arrived, fully dressed, in the instrument room. Gefty looked around from the table-shelf where he had laid out his tools, and said, “He hasn’t stirred. His suitcases are over there. I’ve unlocked them.”

Kerim gazed at what showed in the screens about the control console and shivered slightly. She said, “I was thinking, Gefty ... isn’t there something they call Space Three?”

[Illustration]

“Sure. Pseudospace. But that isn’t where we are. There’re some special-built Navy tubs that can operate in that stuff if they don’t stay too long. A ship like the Queen ... well, you and I and everything else in here would be frozen solid by now if we’d got sucked somehow into Space Three.”

“I see,” Kerim said uncomfortably. Gefty heard her move over to the suitcases. After a moment, she asked, “What do the vault keys look like?”

“You can’t miss them if he’s just thrown them in there. They’re over six inches long. What kind of a guy is this Maulbow? A scientist?”

“I couldn’t say, Gefty. He’s never referred to himself as a scientist. I’ve had this job a year and a half. Mr. Maulbow is a very considerate employer ... one of the nicest men I’ve known, really. But it was simply understood that I should ask no questions about the business beyond what I actually needed to know for my work.”

“What’s the business called?”

“Maulbow Engineering.”

“Big help,” Gefty observed, somewhat sourly. “Those instruments he brought along ... he build those himself?”

“No, but I think he designed some of them--probably most of them. The companies he had doing the actual work appeared to have a terrible time getting everything exactly the way Mr. Maulbow wanted it--There’s nothing that looks like a set of keys in those first two suitcases, Gefty.”

“Well,” Gefty said, “if you don’t find them in the others, you might start thumping around to see if he’s got secret compartments in his luggage somewhere.”

“I do wish,” Kerim Ruse said uneasily, “that Mr. Maulbow would regain consciousness. It seems so ... so underhanded to be doing these things behind his back!”

Gefty grunted noncommittally. He wasn’t at all certain by now that he wanted his secretive client to wake up before he’d checked on the contents of the Queen’s storage vault.


Fifteen minutes later, Gefty Rammer was climbing down to the storage deck in the Queen’s broad stern, the newly fashioned set of vault keys clanking heavily in his coat pocket. Kerim had remained with her employer who was getting back his color but still hadn’t opened his eyes. She hadn’t found the original keys. Gefty wasn’t sure she’d tried too hard, though she seemed to realize the seriousness of the situation now. But her loyalty to Mr. Maulbow could make no further difference, and she probably felt more comfortable for it.

Lights went on automatically in the wide passage leading from the cargo lock to the vault as Gefty turned into it. His steps echoed between the steel bulkheads on either side. He paused a moment before the big circular vault doors, listening to the purr of the Queen’s idling engines in the next compartment. The familiar sound was somehow reassuring. He inserted the first key, turned it over twice, drew it out again and pressed one of the buttons in the control panel beside the door. The heavy slab of steel moved sideways with a soft, hissing sound, vanished into the wall. Gefty slid the other key into the lock of the inner door. A few seconds later, the vault entrance lay open before him.

He stood still again, wrinkling his nose. The area ahead was only dimly illuminated--the shaking-up the Queen had undergone had disturbed the lighting system here. And what was that odor? Rather sharp, unpleasant; it might have been spilled ammonia. Gefty stepped through the door into the wide, short entrance passage beyond it, turned to the right and peered about in the semidarkness of the vault.

Two great steel cases--the ones Maulbow had taken down to an airless moon surface, loaded up with something and brought back to the Queen--were jammed awkwardly into a corner, in a manner which suggested they’d slid into it when the ship was being knocked around. One of them was open and appeared to be empty. Gefty wasn’t sure of the other. In the dimness beside them lay the loose coils of some very thick, dark cable--And standing near the center of the floor was a thing that at once riveted his attention on it completely. He sucked his breath in softly, feeling chilled.

He realized he hadn’t really believed his own hunch. But, of course, if it hadn’t been an unheard-of outside force that plucked the Queen out of normspace and threw her into this elsewhere, then it must be something Maulbow had put on board. And that something had to be a machine of some kind--

It was.

About it he could make out a thin gleaming of wires--a jury-rigged safety field. Within the flimsy-looking protective cage was a double bank of instruments, some of them alive with the flicker and glow of lights. Those must be the very expensive and difficult-to-build items Maulbow had brought out from the Hub. Beside them stood the machine, squat and ponderous. In the vague light, it looked misshaped and discolored. A piece of equipment that had taken a bad beating of some kind. But it was functioning. As he stared, intermittent bursts of clicking noises rose from it, like the staccato of irregular gunfire.

For a moment, questions raced in disorder through his mind. What was it? Why had it been on that moon? Part of another ship, wrecked now ... a ship that had been at home here? Was it some sort of drive?

Maulbow must know. He’d known enough to design the instruments required to bring the battered monster back to life. On the other hand, he had not foreseen in all detail what could happen once the thing was in operation, because the Queen’s sudden buck-jumping act had surprised him and knocked him out.

The first step, in any event, was to get Maulbow awake now. To tamper with a device like this, before learning as much as one could about it, would be lunatic foolhardiness. It looked like too good a bet that the next serious mistake made by anybody would finish them all--

Perhaps it was only because Gefty’s nerves were on edge that he grew aware at that point in his reflections of two minor signals from his senses. One was that the smell of ammonia, which he had almost stopped noticing, was becoming appreciably stronger. The other was the faintest of sounds--a whispering suggestion of motion somewhere behind him. But here in the storage vault nothing should have moved, and Gefty’s muscles were tensing as his head came around. Almost in the same instant, he flung himself wildly to one side, stumbling and regaining his balance as something big and dark slapped heavily down on the floor at the point where he had stood. Then he was darting up through the entrance passage, turning, and knocking down the lock switches on the outside door panel.

It came flowing around the corner of the passage behind him as the vault doors began to slide together. He was aware mainly of swift, smooth, oiling motion like that of a big snake; then, for a fraction of a second, a strip of brighter light from the outside passage showed a long, heavy wedge of a head, a green metal-glint of staring eyes.

The doors closed silently into their frames and locked. The thing was inside. But it was almost a minute then before Gefty could control his shaking legs enough to start moving back towards the main deck. In the half-dark of the vault, it had looked like a big coiled cable lying next to the packing cases. Like Maulbow, it might have been battered around and knocked out during the recent disturbance; and when it recovered, it had found Gefty in the vault with it. But it might also have been awake all the while, waiting cunningly until Gefty’s attention seemed fixed elsewhere before launching its attack. It was big enough to have flattened him and smashed every bone in his body if the stroke had landed.

Some kind of guard animal--a snakelike watchdog? What other connection could it have with the mystery machine? Perhaps Maulbow had intended to leave it confined in one of the cases, and it had broken loose--

Too many questions by now, Gefty thought. But Maulbow had the answers.


He was hurrying up the main deck’s central passage when Maulbow’s voice addressed him sharply from a door he’d just passed.

“Stop right there, Rammer! Don’t dare to move! I--”

The voice ended on a note of surprise. Gefty’s reaction had not been too rational, but it was prompt. Maulbow’s tone and phrasing implied he was armed. Gefty wasn’t, but he kept a gun in the instrument room for emergencies. He’d been through a whole series of unnerving experiences, winding up with being shagged out of his storage vault by something that stank of ammonia and looked like a giant snake. To have one of the Queen’s passengers order him to stand where he was topped it off. Every other consideration was swept aside by a great urge to get his hands on his gun.

He glanced back, saw Maulbow coming out of the half-opened door, something like a twenty-inch, thin, white rod in one hand. Then Gefty went bounding on along the passage, hunched forward and zigzagging from wall to wall to give Maulbow--if the thing he held was a weapon and he actually intended to use it--as small and erratic a target as possible. Maulbow shouted angrily behind him. Then, as Gefty came up to the next cross-passage, a line of white fire seared through the air across his shoulders and smashed off the passage wall.

With that, he was around the corner, and boiling mad. He had no great liking for gunfire, but it didn’t shake him like the silently attacking beast in the dark storage had done. He reached the deserted instrument room not many seconds later, had his gun out and cocked, and was faced back towards the passage by which he had entered. Maulbow, if he had pursued without hesitation, should be arriving by now. But the passage stayed quiet. Gefty couldn’t see into it from where he stood. He waited, trying to steady his breathing, wondering where Kerim Ruse was and what had got into Maulbow. After a moment, without taking his eyes from the passage entrance, he reached into the wall closet from which he had taken the gun and fished out another souvenir of his active service days, a thin-bladed knife in a slip-sheath. Gefty worked the fastenings of the sheath over his left wrist and up his forearm under his coat, tested the release to make sure it was functioning, and shook his coat sleeve back into place.

The passage was still quiet. Gefty moved softly over to one of the chairs, took a small cushion from it and pitched it out in front of the entrance.

There was a hiss. The cushion turned in midair into a puff of bright white fire. Gefty aimed his gun high at the far passage wall just beyond the entrance and pulled the trigger. It was a projectile gun. He heard the slug screech off the slick plastic bulkhead and go slamming down the passage. Somebody out there made a startled, incoherent noise. But not the kind of a noise a man makes when he’s just been hit.

“If you come in here armed,” Gefty called, “I’ll blow your head off. Want to stop this nonsense now?”

There was a moment’s silence. Then Maulbow’s voice replied shakily from the passage. He seemed to be standing about twenty feet back from the room.

“If you’ll end your thoughtless attempts at interference, Rammer,” he said, “there will be no trouble.” He was speaking with the restraint of a man who is in a state of cold fury. “You’re endangering us all. You must realize that you have no understanding of what you are doing.”

Well, the last could be true enough. “We’ll talk about it,” Gefty said without friendliness. “I haven’t done anything yet, but I’m not just handing the ship over to you. And what have you done with Miss Ruse?”

Maulbow hesitated again. “She’s in the map room,” he said then. “I ... it was necessary to restrict her movements for a while. But you might as well let her out now. We must reach an agreement without loss of time.”

Gefty glanced over his shoulder at the small closed door of the map room. There was no lock on the door, and he had heard no sound from inside; this might be some trick. But it wouldn’t take long to find out. He backed up to the wall, pushed the door open and looked inside.

Kerim was there, sitting on a chair in one corner of the tiny room. The reason she hadn’t made any noise became clear. She and the chair were covered by a rather closely fitting sack of transparent, glistening fabric. She stared out through it despairingly at Gefty, her lips moving urgently. But no sound came from the sack.

Gefty called angrily, “Maulbow--”

“Don’t excite yourself, Rammer.” There was a suggestion of what might be contempt in Maulbow’s tone now. “The girl hasn’t been harmed. She can breathe easily through the restrainer. And you can remove it by pulling at the material from outside.”

Gefty’s mouth tightened. “I’ll keep my gun on the passage while I do it--”

Maulbow didn’t answer. Gefty edged back into the map room, tentatively grasped the transparent stuff above Kerim’s shoulder. To his surprise, it parted like wet tissue. He pulled sharply, and in a moment Kerim came peeling herself out of it, her face tear-stained, working desperately with hands, elbows and shoulders.

“Gefty,” she gasped, “he ... Mr. Maulbow--”

“He’s out in the passage there,” Gefty said. “He can hear you.” His glance shifted for an instant to the wall where a second of the shroudlike transparencies was hanging. And who could that have been intended for, he thought, but Gefty Rammer? He added, “We’ve had a little trouble.”

“Oh!” She looked out of the room towards the passage, then at the gun in Gefty’s hand, then up at his face.

“Maulbow,” Gefty went on, speaking distinctly enough to make sure Maulbow heard, “has a gun, too. He’ll stay there in the passage and we’ll stay in the instrument room until we agree on what should be done. He’s responsible for what’s happened and seems to know where we are.”

He looked at Kerim’s frightened eyes, dropped his voice to a whisper. “Don’t let this worry you too much. I haven’t found out just what he’s up to, but so far his tricks have pretty much backfired. He was counting on taking us both by surprise, for one thing. That didn’t work, so now he’d like us to co-operate.”

“Are you going to?”

Gefty shrugged. “Depends on what he has in mind. I’m just interested in getting us out of this alive. Let’s hear what Maulbow has to say--”


Some minutes later Gefty was trying to decide whether it was taking a worse risk to believe what Maulbow said than to keep things stalled on the chance that he was lying.

Kerim Ruse, perched stiffly erect on the edge of a chair, eyes big and round, face almost colorless, apparently believed Maulbow and was wishing she didn’t. There was, of course, some supporting evidence ... primarily the improbable appearance of their surroundings. The pencil-thin fire-spouter and the sleazy-looking “restrainer” had a sufficiently unfamiliar air to go with Maulbow’s story; but as far as Gefty knew, either of them could have been manufactured in the Hub.

Then there was the janandra--the big, snakish thing in the storage which Maulbow had brought back up from the moon along with the battered machine. It had been, he said, his shipboard companion on another voyage. It wasn’t ordinarily aggressive--Gefty’s sudden appearance in the vault must have startled it into making an attack. It was not exactly a pet. There was a psychological relationship between it and Maulbow which Maulbow would not attempt to explain because Gefty and Kerim would be unable to grasp its significance. The janandra was essential, in this unexplained manner, to his well-being.

That item was almost curious enough to seem to substantiate his other statements; but it didn’t really prove anything. The only point Gefty didn’t question in the least was that they were in a bad spot which might be getting worse rapidly. His gaze shifted back to the screens. What he saw out there, surrounding the ship, was, according to Maulbow, an illusion of space created by the time flow in which they were moving.

Also according to Maulbow, there was a race of the future, human in appearance, with machines to sail the current of time through the universe--to run and tack with the winds of time, dipping in and out of the normspace of distant periods and galaxies as they chose. Maulbow, one of the explorers, had met disaster a million light-years from the home of his kind, centuries behind them, his vehicle wrecked on an airless moon with damaged control unit and shattered instruments. He had made his way to a human civilization to obtain the equipment he needed, and returned at last with the Silver Queen to where the time-sailer lay buried.

Gefty’s lip curled. No, he wasn’t buying all that just yet--but if Maulbow was not lying, then the unseen stars were racing past, the mass of the galaxy beginning to slide by, eventually to be lost forever beyond a black distance no space drive could span. The matter simply had to be settled quickly. But Maulbow was also strained and impatient, and if his impatience could be increased a little more, he might start telling the things that really mattered, the things Gefty had to know. Gefty asked slowly, as if hesitant to commit himself, “Why did you bring us along?”

The voice from the passage snapped, “Because my resources were nearly exhausted, Rammer! I couldn’t obtain a new ship. Therefore I chartered yours; and you came with it. As for Miss Ruse--in spite of every precaution, my activities may have aroused suspicion and curiosity among your people. When I disappeared, Miss Ruse might have been questioned. I couldn’t risk being followed to the wreck of the sailer, so I took her with me. And what does that mean against what I have offered you? The greatest adventure--followed, I give you my solemn word, by a safe return to your own place and time, and the most generous compensations for any inconvenience you may have suffered!”

Kerim, looking up at Gefty, shook her head violently. Gefty said, “We find it difficult to take you on trust now, Maulbow. Why do you want to get into the instrument room?”

Maulbow was silent for some seconds. Then he said, “As I told you, this ship would not have been buffeted about during the moments of transfer if the control unit were operating with complete efficiency. Certain adjustments will have to be made in the unit, and this should be done promptly.”


“Where do the ship instruments come in?” Gefty asked.

“I can determine the nature of the problem from them. When I was ... stranded ... the unit was seriously damaged. My recent repairs were necessarily hasty. I--”

[Illustration]

“What caused the crack-up?”

Maulbow said, tone taut with impatience, “Certain sections of the Great Current are infested with dangerous forces. I shall not attempt to describe them...”

“I wouldn’t get it?”

“I don’t pretend to understand them very well myself, Rammer. They are not life but show characteristics of life--even of intelligent life. If you can imagine radiant energy being capable of conscious hostility...”

There was a chill at the back of Gefty’s neck. “A big, fast-moving light?”

“Yes!” Sharp concern showed suddenly in the voice from the passage. “You ... when did you see that?”

Gefty glanced at the screens. “Twice since you’ve been talking. And once before--immediately after we got tumbled around.”

“Then we can waste no more time, Rammer. Those forces are sensitive to the fluctuations of the control unit. If they were close enough to be seen, they’re aware the ship is here. They were attempting to locate it.”

“What could they do?”

Maulbow said, “A single attack was enough to put the control unit out of operation in my sailer. The Great Current then rejected us instantly. A ship of this size might afford more protection, which is the reason I chose it. But if the control unit is not adjusted immediately to enable it to take us out of this section, the attacks will continue until the ship--and we--have been destroyed.”

Gefty drew a deep breath. “There’s another solution to that problem, Maulbow. Miss Ruse and I prefer it. And if you meant what you said--that you’d see to it we got back eventually--you shouldn’t object either.”

The voice asked sharply, “What do you mean?”

Gefty said, “Shut the control unit off. From what you were saying, that throws us automatically back into normspace, while we’re still close enough to the Hub. You’ll find plenty of people there who’ll stake you to a trip to the future if they can go along and are convinced they’ll return. Miss Ruse and I don’t happen to be that adventurous.”

 
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