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Chapter 3

  • That night, Hradzka slept under a bridge across a fairly wide stream; the nex_orning, he followed the road until he came to a town. It was not a larg_lace; there were perhaps four or five hundred houses and other buildings i_t. Most of these were dwellings like the farmhouse where he had been staying,
  • but some were much larger, and seemed to be places of business. One of thes_atter was a concrete structure with wide doors at the front; inside, he coul_ee men working on the internal-combustion vehicles which seemed to be i_lmost universal use. Hradzka decided to obtain employment here.
  • It would be best, he decided, to continue his pretense of being a deaf-mute.
  • He did not know whether a world-language were in use at this time or not, an_ven if not, the pretense of being a foreigner unable to speak the loca_ialect might be dangerous. So he entered the vehicle-repair shop and accoste_ man in a clean shirt who seemed to be issuing instructions to the workers,
  • going into his pantomime of the homeless mute seeking employment.
  • The master of the repair-shop merely laughed at him, however. Hradzka becam_ore insistent in his manner, making signs to indicate his hunger an_illingness to work. The other men in the shop left their tasks and gathere_round; there was much laughter and unmistakably ribald and derogator_emarks. Hradzka was beginning to give up hope of getting employment here whe_ne of the workmen approached the master and whispered something to him.
  • The two of them walked away, conversing in low voices. Hradzka thought h_nderstood the situation; no doubt the workman, thinking to lighten his ow_abor, was urging that the vagrant be employed, for no other pay than food an_odging. At length, the master assented to his employee's urgings; h_eturned, showed Hradzka a hose and a bucket and sponges and cloths, and se_im to work cleaning the mud from one of the vehicles. Then, after seeing tha_he work was being done properly, he went away, entering a room at one side o_he shop.
  • About twenty minutes later, another man entered the shop. He was not dresse_ike any of the other people whom Hradzka had seen; he wore a gray tunic an_reeches, polished black boots, and a cap with a visor and a metal insignia o_t; on a belt, he carried a holstered weapon like a blaster.
  • After speaking to one of the workers, who pointed Hradzka out to him, h_pproached the fugitive and said something. Hradzka made gestures at his mout_nd ears and made gargling sounds; the newcomer shrugged and motioned him t_ome with him, at the same time producing a pair of handcuffs from his bel_nd jingling them suggestively.
  • In a few seconds, Hradzka tried to analyze the situation and estimate it_ossibilities. The newcomer was a soldier, or, more likely, a policeman, sinc_anacles were a part of his equipment. Evidently, since the evening before, _arning had been made public by means of communicating devices such as he ha_een at the farm, advising people that a man of his description, pretending t_e a deaf-mute, should be detained and the police notified; it had been fo_hat reason that the workman had persuaded his master to employ Hradzka. N_oubt he would be accused of causing the conditions at the farm by sorcery.
  • Hradzka shrugged and nodded, then went to the water-tap to turn off the hos_e had been using. He disconnected it, coiled it and hung it up, and the_icked up the water-bucket. Then, without warning, he hurled the water int_he policeman's face, sprang forward, swinging the bucket by the bale, and hi_he man on the head. Releasing his grip on the bucket, he tore the blaster o_hatever it was from the holster.
  • One of the workers swung a hammer, as though to throw it. Hradzka aimed th_eapon at him and pulled the trigger; the thing belched fire and kicked bac_ainfully in his hand, and the man fell. He used it again to drop th_oliceman, then thrust it into the waistband of his trousers and ran outside.
  • The thing was not a blaster at all, he realized—only a missile-projector lik_he big weapons at the farm, utilizing the force of some chemical explosive.
  • The policeman's vehicle was standing outside. It was a small, single-seat, tw_heeled affair. Having become familiar with the principles of these hydro-
  • carbon engines from examination of the vehicle of the farm, and accustomed a_e was to far more complex mechanisms than this crude affair, Hradzka coul_ee at a glance how to operate it. Springing onto the saddle, he kicked awa_he folding support and started the engine. Just as he did, the master of th_epair-shop ran outside, one of the small hand-weapons in his hand, and fire_everal shots. They all missed, but Hradzka heard the whining sound of th_issiles passing uncomfortably close to him.
  • It was imperative that he recover the blaster he had hidden in the hollow tre_t the head of the valley. By this time, there would be a concerted searc_nder way for him, and he needed a better weapon than the solid-missil_rojector he had taken from the policeman. He did not know how many shots th_hing contained, but if it propelled solid missiles by chemical explosion,
  • there could not have been more than five or six such charges in th_ylindrical part of the weapon which he had assumed to be the charge-holder.
  • On the other hand, his blaster, a weapon of much greater power, containe_nough energy for five hundred blasts, and with it were eight extra energy-
  • capsules, giving him a total of four thousand five hundred blasts.
  • Handling the two-wheeled vehicle was no particular problem; although he ha_ever ridden on anything of the sort before, it was child's play compared t_ontrolling a Hundredth Century strato-rocket, and Hradzka was a skille_ocket-pilot.
  • Several times he passed vehicles on the road—the passenger vehicles wit_nclosed cabins, and cargo-vehicles piled high with farm produce. Once h_ncountered a large number of children, gathered in front of a big re_uilding with a flagstaff in front, from which a queer flag, with horizonta_ed and white stripes and a white-spotted blue device in the corner, flew.
  • They scattered off the road in terror at his approach; fortunately, he hi_one of them, for at the speed at which he was traveling, such a collisio_ould have wrecked his light vehicle.
  • As he approached the farm where he had spent the past few days, he saw tw_assenger-vehicles standing by the road. One was a black one, similar to th_ne in which the physician had come to the farm, and the other was white wit_lack trimmings and bore the same device he had seen on the cap of th_oliceman. A policeman was sitting in the driver's seat of this vehicle, an_nother policeman was standing beside it, breathing smoke with one of th_hite paper cylinders these people used. In the farm-yard, two men were goin_bout with a square black box; to this box, a tube was connected by a wire,
  • and they were passing the tube about over the ground.
  • The policeman who was standing beside the vehicle saw him approach, and ble_is whistle, then drew the weapon from his belt. Hradzka, who had bee_xpecting some attempt to halt him, had let go the right-hand steering handl_nd drawn his own weapon; as the policeman drew, he fired at him. Withou_bserving the effect of the shot, he sped on; before he had rounded the ben_bove the farm, several shots were fired after him.
  • A mile beyond, he came to the place where he had hidden the blaster. H_topped the vehicle and jumped off, plunging into the brush and racing towar_he hollow tree. Just as he reached it, he heard a vehicle approach and stop,
  • and the door of the police vehicle slam. Hradzka's fingers found the belt o_is blaster; he dragged it out and buckled it on, tossing away the missil_eapon he had been carrying.
  • Then, crouching behind the tree, he waited. A few moments later, he caught _ovement in the brush toward the road. He brought up the blaster, aimed an_queezed the trigger. There was a faint bluish glow at the muzzle, and a blas_f energy tore through the brush, smashing the molecular structure o_verything that stood in the way. There was an involuntary shout of alarm fro_he direction of the road; at least one of the policemen had escaped th_last. Hradzka holstered his weapon and crept away for some distance, keepin_nder cover, then turned and waited for some sign of the presence of hi_nemies. For some time nothing happened; he decided to turn hunter against th_en who were hunting him. He started back in the direction of the road, makin_ wide circle, flitting silently from rock to bush and from bush to tree,
  • stopping often to look and listen.
  • This finally brought him upon one of the policemen, and almost terminated hi_light at the same time. He must have grown over-confident and careless;
  • suddenly a weapon roared, and a missile smashed through the brush inches fro_is face. The shot had come from his left and a little to the rear. Whirling,
  • he blasted four times, in rapid succession, then turned and fled for a fe_ards, dropping and crawling behind a rock. When he looked back, he could se_isps of smoke rising from the shattered trees and bushes which had absorbe_he energy-output of his weapon, and he caught a faint odor of burned flesh.
  • One of his pursuers, at least, would pursue him no longer.
  • He slipped away, down into the tangle of ravines and hollows in which he ha_andered the day before his arrival at the farm. For the time being, he fel_afe, and finally confident that he was not being pursued, he stopped to rest.
  • The place where he stopped seemed familiar, and he looked about. In a moment,
  • he recognized the little stream, the pool where he had bathed his feet, th_lump of seedling pines under which he had slept. He even found the silver-
  • foil wrapping from the food concentrate capsule.
  • But there had been a change, since the night when he had slept here. Then th_oung pines had been green and alive; now they were blighted, and thei_eedles had turned brown. Hradzka stood for a long time, looking at them. I_as the same blight that had touched the plants around the farmhouse. An_ere, among the pine needles on the ground, lay a dead bird.
  • It took some time for him to admit, to himself, the implications o_egetation, the chickens, the cow, the farmer and his wife, had all sickene_nd died. He had been in this place, and now, when he had returned, he foun_hat death had followed him here, too.
  • During the early centuries of the Atomic Era, he knew, there had been grea_ars, the stories of which had survived even to the Hundredth Century. Amon_he weapons that had been used, there had been artificial plagues an_pidemics, caused by new types of bacteria developed in laboratories, agains_hich the victims had possessed no protection. Those germs and viruses ha_ersisted for centuries, and gradually had lost their power to harm mankind.
  • Suppose, now, that he had brought some of them back with him, to a centur_efore they had been developed. Suppose, that was, that he were a huma_lague-carrier. He thought of the vermin that had infested the clothing he ha_aken from the man he had killed on the other side of the mountain; they ha_ot troubled him after the first day.
  • There was a throbbing mechanical sound somewhere in the air; he looked about,
  • and finally identified its source. A small aircraft had come over the valle_rom the other side of the mountain and was circling lazily overhead. H_roze, shrinking back under a pine-tree; as long as he remained motionless, h_ould not be seen, and soon the thing would go away. He was beginning t_nderstand why the search for him was being pressed so relentlessly; as lon_s he remained alive, he was a menace to everybody in this First Centur_orld.
  • He got out his supply of food concentrates, saw that he had only thre_apsules left, and put them away again. For a long time, he sat under th_ying tree, chewing on a twig and thinking. There must be some way in which h_ould overcome, or even utilize, his inherent deadliness to these people. H_ight find some isolated community, conceal himself near it, invade it a_ight and infect it, and then, when everybody was dead, move in and take i_or himself. But was there any such isolated community? The farmhouse where h_ad worked had been fairly remote, yet its inhabitants had been i_ommunication with the outside world, and the physician had come immediatel_n response to their call for help.
  • The little aircraft had been circling overhead, directly above the place wher_e lay hidden. For a while, Hradzka was afraid it had spotted him, and wa_ebating the advisability of using his blaster on it. Then it banked, turne_nd went away. He watched it circle over the valley on the other side of th_ountain, and got to his feet.