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.