7. Out of Control
I didn’t like the way he flew his plane. His hands kept jiggling with the controls, his feet kept adjusting and readjusting the tail-flaps so that the ship was in constant, unnecessary side motion in the air, Murray was nervous.
I looked down at the trees, the tilted mountain slopes, the roads shining in the sun, with little glittering black dots sliding along it that were cars.
“You know you can’t get away with this, Murray,” I said. It was, I think, almost the first thing I had said to him since we took off half an hour ago. After all, there had been little to say. The situation was out of all our hands, as Murray had meant it to be, from the moment he spoke into the telephone.
“I have got away with it, Cortland,” he said, not looking at me.
“De Kalb has connections as powerful as yours,” I told him. “Besides, I think I can prove I’m not responsible for those deaths.”
“I think you are, Cortland. If there’s any truth in what De Kalb was saying, I believe you’re a carrier.”
“But you’re not doing this because you think I’m guilty. You’re doing it to stop De Kalb.”
“Certainly.” He snapped his lips shut. I shrugged. That, of course, was obvious.
We flew on in silence. Murray was uneasy, perhaps from the experience of the Record. I think now that he had entirely shut his mind to that. I think he was denying it had ever happened. But his hands and feet still jittered on the controls until I itched to take the plane away from him and fly it myself.
It was a nice little ship, a six-passenger job that could have flown alone, almost, as any good plane can do in smooth air if the pilot will only let it. I would probably have said just then, if you’d asked me, that I was in plenty of trouble. My troubles hadn’t started. They were about to.
The first intimation was the sound Murray made—a sort of deep, startled, incredulous grunt. I stopped to turn toward him. And then—time stopped.
I had a confused awareness that something was moving through the ship, something dark and frighteningly swift. But this time there was a difference. The thing I had first encountered in a Rio alley had returned. The first pulse of that nova of blinding brilliance burst outward from the core and center of my body. But it did not rise to its climactic explosion of pure violence. The energy suddenly was shut off at the source. The plane was empty of that monstrous intruder.
Beside me Murray hunched over the controls, slowly bending forward. I could not see his face. That instant of relief passed in a flashing time-beat.
Again the pulse throbbed through me. And again it was shut off. There was something terribly wrong with gravity. The earth stood upright in a blurred line that bisected the sky and was slowly, slowly toppling over from left to right. The weight of Murray’s body, slumped heavily forward, was throwing the ship out of control.
I couldn’t move—not while those erratic jumping shocks kept pounding at me.
But I had to move. I had to get hold of the controls. And then, as I put forth all my strength, the explosion channeled into my brain—different, somehow incomplete. I could feel a swiftly-fading ebb-tide draining into the empty void.
Then it was gone altogether.
Another part of my mind must have taken over then. And it must have been efficient. Myself, I seemed to be floating somewhere in a troubled void with the image of Murray’s lolling head and limp arms. Murray—dead. Dead? He must be dead. I knew that nekronic shock too well.
In the mindless void where my awareness floated I knew that I was a bad spot temporally. Jerry Cortland was in a bad spot. Murray’s headquarters must be expecting him in already with a murder suspect in tow. I was the murder suspect and murder had been done again. And Murray and I had been alone in mid-air when it happened.
The efficient part of my mind knew what to do. I left it at that. I had no recollection whatever of fighting the plane out of its power dive or of turning in a long high circle as I got lost altitude back. But that must have happened. Time and distance meant nothing to the half of my mind that floated but the other half very efficiently flew the plane.
“All right now?” De Kalb’s voice inquired.
I sat up shakily. The room was swimming around me but it was a familiar room, I could see Dr. Essen bending above a couch and I could see polished boots and a shoulder with something shiny on it. I must have brought Murray back. Murray—dead?
“It was—it was the nekron,” I said thickly.
“I know, I know,” De Kalb said. “You told us. Don’t you remember?”
“I don’t remember anything except Murray.”
“I don’t think we can save him,” De Kalb said in a flat voice.
“Then he’s alive?”
We both looked automatically toward the couch, where Dr. Essen lifted a worried face.
“The adrenalin’s helping,” she said, “But there’s no real improvement. He’ll sink again as soon as the effect wears off.”
“Can’t we get him to a hospital?” I asked.
“I don’t think medical treatment will help him,” De Kalb said. “Dr. Essen has a medical degree, you know. She’s already done everything the hospitals have tried on the other victims.
“That creature strikes a place that scalpels and oxygen and adrenalin can’t reach. I don’t know what or where, but neither do the doctors.” He moved his shoulders impatiently. “This is the first time the killer hasn’t finished its job. You interrupted it, you know—somehow. Do you know how?”
“It was intermittent,” I said hesitantly. “It kept going away and coming back.” I explained in as much detail as I could. It wasn’t easy.
“The plane was moving fast, eh?” De Kalb murmured. “So. Always before the victims have been practically immobilized. That might explain part of it. If the nekronic creature is vibrating through time it might need a fixed locus in space. And the plane was moving very fast in space. That could explain why the attack was incomplete—but complete enough, after all.”
I nodded. “This is going to be pretty hard to explain to Murray’s headquarters,” I said.
“There’s been one call already,” De Kalb told me. “I didn’t say anything. I had to think.” He struck his fist into his palm impatiently and exclaimed: “I don’t understand it! I saw Murray with us in that cave! I saw him!”
“Has it occurred to you, Ira,” Dr. Essen’s gentle voice interrupted, “that what you may have seen in the time-chamber was Colonel Murray’s dead body, not Colonel Murray asleep?”
He turned to stare at her.
“It seems clear to me,” she went on, “that Mr. Cortland is a sort of catalyst in our affairs. From the moment he entered them things have speeded up rather frighteningly. I suggest it’s time to make a definite forward move. What do you think, Ira?”
De Kalb frowned a little. “How’s Murray?” he asked.
“He’s dying,” she said flatly. “I know of only one thing that could possibly postpone his death.”
“The neo-hypnosis, you mean,” De Kalb said. “Well, yes—if it works. We’ve used it on sleeping subjects, of course, but with a man who is as far gone as Murray, I don’t know.”
“We can try,” Dr. Essen said. “It’s a chance. I don’t think he’d ever have entered the time-axis of his own volition but this way we can take him along. Things are working out, Ira, very surprisingly.”
“Can we keep him alive until we reach the shaft?” De Kalb asked.
“I think so. I can’t promise but—”
“We can’t save him,” De Kalb said. “The People of the Face—maybe. And after all, Murray did go with us. I saw him. Mr. Cortland do you think that plane would carry the four of us as far as the Laurentians?”
“Obviously, Mr. De Kalb,” I said with somewhat hysterical irony, “obviously, if I guess what you have in mind, it did!”
You could see the shaft-mouth from a long way up, dark above the paler slide of dug earth, and shadowed by the thick green of the Canadian mountains.
It was easier to spot from the air than to reach on foot.
We left the plane in a little clearing at the bottom of the slope. It seemed wildly reckless, but what else could we do? And we carried Murray’s body up the mountain with us, De Kalb and I, while Dr. Essen, carrying a square case about two feet through, kept a watchful eye on the unconscious man. Once she had to administer adrenalin to Murray.
I still hadn’t come to any decision. I could simply have walked away but that would have meant shutting the last door of escape behind me. I told myself that I’d think of some other way before the final decision had to be made. Meanwhile I went with the others.
“It wouldn’t be as though I were running away from punishment,” I told De Kalb wryly as we paused to catch our breath on the lip of the shaft. Tree-tops swayed and murmured below us, and the mountains were warm in the late, slanting sunlight of a summer evening.
“If your theories are right I won’t be escaping from anything. The moment I step into your time-trap my alter ego steps out and goes on down the mountain to take his medicine. All I can say is I hope he has a fine alibi ready.”
“He will have—we will have,” De Kalb said. “We’ll have all time at our disposal to think one up in. Remember what our real danger is, Cortland—the nekron. An infection of the mind. An infection of the earth itself and perhaps an infection in our own flesh, yours and mine.
“What it is that I turned loose on the world when I opened that box I don’t yet know but I expect to know when I go down that mountain again—ten minutes from now, a million years from now. Both.” He shook his head.
“Let’s get on with it,” he said.