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Ross stood cautiously against the wall of his darkened room, his head turned toward the slightly open door. A slight shuffling sound had awakened him, and he was now poised like a cat before her spring. But he did not hurl himself at the figure now easing the door farther open. He waited until the visitor was approaching the bunk before he slid along the wall, closing the door and putting his shoulders against it.
"What's the pitch?" Ross demanded in a whisper.
There was a ragged breath, maybe two, then a little laugh out of the dark. "You are ready?" The visitor's accent left no doubt as to his identity. Kurt was paying him the promised visit.
"Did you think that I wouldn't be?"
"No." The dim figure sat without invitation on the edge of the bunk. "I would not be here otherwise, Murdock. You are plenty . . . have plenty on the ball. You see, I have heard things about you. Like me, you were tricked into this game. Tell me, is it not true that you saw Hardy tonight."
"You hear a lot, don't you?" Ross was noncommittal.
"I hear, I see, I learn more than these big mouths, like the major with his do's and don'ts. That I can tell you! You see Hardy. Do you want to be a Hardy?"
"Is there any danger of that?"
"Danger!" Kurt snorted. "Dangeryou have not yet known the meaning of danger, little man. Not until now. I ask you again, do you want to end like Hardy? They have not yet looped you in with all their big talk. That is why I came here tonight. If you know what is good for you, Murdock, you will make a break before they tape you"
Kurt's laugh was full of anger, not amusement. "Oh, yes. They have many tricks here. They are big brains, eggheads, all of them with their favorite gadgets. They put you through a machine to get you registered on tape. Then, my boy, you cannot get outside the base without ringing all the alarms! Neat, eh? So if you want to make a break, you must try it before they tape you."
Ross did not trust Kurt, but he was listening to him attentively. The other's argument sounded convincing to one whose general ignorance of science led him to believe that all kinds of weird inventions were entirely possible and probableusually in some dim future, but perhaps today.
"They must have you taped," Ross pointed out.
Kurt laughed again, but this time he was amused. "They believe that they have. Only they are not as smart as they believe, the major and the rest, including Millaird! No, I have a fighting chance to get out of this place, only I cannot do it alone. That is why I have been waiting for them to bring in a new guy I could get to before they had him pinned down for good. You are tough, Murdock. I saw your record, and I'm betting that you did not come here with the intention of staying. Sohere is your chance to go along with one who knows the ropes. You will not have such a good one again."
The longer Kurt talked, the more convincing he was. Ross lost a few of his suspicions. It was true that he had come prepared to run at the first possible opportunity, and if Kurt had everything planned, so much the better. Of course, it was possible that Kurt was a stool pigeon, leading him on as a test. But that was a chance Ross would have to take.
"Look here, Murdock, maybe you think it's easy to break out of here. Do you know where we are, boy? We're near enough to the North Pole as makes no difference! Are you going to leg it back some hundreds of miles through thick ice and snow? A nice jaunt if you make it. I do not think that you cannot without plans and a partner who knows what he is about."
"And how do we go? Steal one of those planes? I'm not a pilotare you?"
"They have other things besides planes here. This place is strictly hush-hush. Even the aircraft do not set down too often for fear they will be tracked. Where have you been, boy? Don't you know the Russians are circling around up here? These fellows watch for Russian activity, and the Russians watch them. They play it under the table on both sides. We get our supplies overland by cats"
"Snow sleds, like tractors," the other answered impatiently. "Our stuff is dumped miles to the south, and the cats go down once a month to bring it back. There's no trick to driving a cat, and they tear off the miles"
"How many miles to the south?" asked Ross skeptically. Granted Kurt was speaking the truth, travel over an arctic wilderness in a stolen machine was risky, to say the least. Ross had only a very vague idea of the polar regions, but he was sure that they could easily swallow up the unwary forever.
"Maybe only a hundred or so, boy. But I have more than one plan, and I'm willing to risk my neck. Do you think I intend to start out blind?"
There was that, of course. Ross had early sized up his visitor as one who was first of all interested in his own welfare. He wouldn't risk his neck without a definite plan in mind.
"Well, what do you say, Murdock? Are you with me or not?"
"I'll take some time to chew it over"
"Time is what you do not have, boy. Tomorrow they will tape you. Thenno over the wall for you."
"Suppose you tell me your trick for fooling the tape," Ross countered.
"That I cannot do, seeing as how it lies in the way my brain is put together. Do you think I can break open my skull and hand you a piece of what is inside? No, you jump with me tonight or else I must wait to grab the next one who lands here."
Kurt stood up. His last words were spoken matter-of-factly, and Ross believed he meant exactly what he said. But Ross hesitated. He wanted to try for freedom, a desire fed by his suspicions of what was going on here. He neither liked nor trusted Kurt. But he thought he understood himbetter than he understood Ashe or the others. Also, with Kurt he was sure he could hold his own; it would be the kind of struggle he had experienced before.
"Tonight . . ." he repeated slowly.
"Yes, tonight!" There was new eagerness in Kurt's voice, for he sensed that the other was wavering. "I have been preparing for a long time, but there must be two of us. We have to take turns driving the cat. There can be no rest until we are far to the south. I tell you it will be easy. There are food caches arranged along the route for emergencies. I have a map marked to show where they are. Are you coming?"
When Ross did not answer at once the other moved closer to him.
"Remember Hardy? He was not the first, and he will not be the last. They use us up fast here. That is why they brought you so quickly. I tell you, it is better to take your chance with me than on a run."
"And what is a run?"
"So they have not briefed you? Well, a run is a little jaunt back into historynot nice comfortable history such as you learned out of a book when you were a little kid. No, you are dropped back into some savage time before history"
"Yes? You saw those two big blond boys tonight, did you not? Why do you suppose they sport those braids? Because they are taking a little trip into the time when he-men wore braids, and carried axes big enough to crack a man open! And Hodaki and his partner . . . Ever hear of the Tartars? Maybe you have not, but once they nearly overran most of Europe."
Ross swallowed. He now knew where he had seen braids pictured on warriorsthe Vikings! And Tartars, yes, that movie about someone named Khan, Genghis Khan! But to return into the past was impossible.
Yet, he remembered the images he had watched today with the wolf slayer and the shaggy-haired man who wore skins. Neither of these was of his own world! Could Kurt be telling the truth? Ross's vivid memory of the scene he had witnessed made Kurt's story more convincing.
"Suppose you get sent back to a time where they do not like strangers," Kurt continued. "Then you are in for it. That is what happened to Hardy. And it is not goodnot good at all!"
Kurt snorted. "That they do not tell you until just before you take your first run. I do not want to know why. But I do know that I am not going to be sent into any wilderness where a savage may run a spear through me just to prove something or other for Major John Kelgarries, or for Millaird either. I will try my plan first."
The urgency in Kurt's protest carried Ross past the wavering point. He, too, would try the cat. He was only familiar with this time and world; he had no desire to be sent into another one.
Once Ross had made his decision, Kurt hurried him into action. Kurt's knowledge of the secret procedures at the base proved excellent. Twice they were halted by locked doors, but only momentarily, for Kurt had a tiny gadget, concealed in the palm of his hand, which had only to be held over a latch to open it.
There was enough light in the corridors to give them easy passage, but the rooms were dark, and twice Kurt had to lead Ross by the hand, avoiding furniture or installations with the sureness of one who had practiced that same route often. Murdock's opinion of his companion's ability notched upward during that tour. He began to believe that he was really in luck to have found such a partner.
In the last room, Ross willingly followed Kurt's orders to put on the fur clothing Kurt passed to him. The fit was not exact, but he assumed that Kurt had chosen as well as possible. A final door opened, and they stepped out into the polar night of winter. Kurt's mittened hand grasped Ross's, pulling him along. Together, they pushed back the door of a hangar shed to get at their escape vehicle.
The cat was new to him, but Ross was given no time to study it. Kurt shoved him into the cockpit and tossed him a pair of night vision goggles.
A plastic hatch locked down over them and the engine came to life under Kurt's urging. The cat must be traveling at its best pace, Ross thought. Yet the moonlit crawl which took them away from the mounded snow covering the base seemed hardly better than the pace of a man afoot.
For a short time Kurt headed straight away from the starting point, but Ross soon heard him counting slowly to himself as if he were timing something. At the count of twenty the cat swung to the right and made a wide half circle which was copied at the next count of twenty by a similar sweep in the opposite direction. After this pattern had been repeated for six turns, Ross found it difficult to guess whether they had ever returned to their first course. When Kurt stopped counting he asked, "Why the dance pattern?"
"Would you rather be scattered in little pieces all over the landscape?" the other snapped. "The base doesn't need fences two miles high to keep us in, or others out; they take other precautions. You should thank fortune we got through that first mine field without blowing up."
Ross swallowed, but he refused to let Kurt know that he was rattled. "So it isn't as easy to get away as you said?"
"Shut up!" Kurt began counting again, and Ross had some cold apprehensive moments in which to reflect upon the folly of quick decisions. He wondered bleakly why he had not thought things through before he leaped.
Again they sketched a weaving pattern in the snow, but this time the arcs formed acute angles. Ross glanced now and then at the intent man at the wheel. How had Kurt managed to memorize this route? His urge to escape the base must certainly be a strong one.
Back and forth they crawled, gaining only a few yards in each of those angled strikes to right or left.
"Good thing cats carry extra fuel," Kurt commented during one of the intervals between mine fields. "We'd run out otherwise."
Ross fought down the impulse to shiver. Luckily, Kurt was now back to a straight track, with no more weaving.
"We are out!" Kurt said with exultation. But he added no more reassurance.
The cat crawled on. To Ross's eyes there was no trail to follow, no guideposts in the darkness, yet Kurt steered ahead with confidence. A little later he pulled to a stop and said to Ross, "We have to drive turn and turn aboutyour turn."
Ross was dubious. "Well, I can drive a carbut this"
"Is foolproof." Kurt caught him up. "The worst was getting through the mine fields, and we are out of that now. See here" his hand made a shadow on the lighted instrument panel, "this will keep you straight. If you can steer a car, you can steer this. Watch!" He started up again and once more he swung the cat to the left.
A light on the panel began to blink at a rate which increased rapidly as they veered farther away from their original course.
"See? You keep that light steady, and you are on course. If it begins to blink, you cast about until it steadies again. Simple enough for a baby. Take over and see."
It was hard to change places in the sealed cabin of the cat, but they succeeded, and Ross took the wheel gingerly. Following Kurt's directions, he started ahead, his eyes focused on the light rather than the dark expanse before him. And after a few minutes of strain he caught the hang of it. As Kurt had promised, it was very simple. After watching him for a while, his instructor gave a grunt of satisfaction and settled down for a nap.
Once the first excitement of driving the cat wore off, the operation tended to become monotonous. Ross caught himself yawning, but he kept at his post with dogged stubbornness. This had been Kurt's game all the way throughso farand he was certainly not going to resign his first chance to show that he could be of use also. If there had only been some break in the eternal snow, some passing light or goal to be seen ahead, it would not have been so bad. Finally, every now and then, Ross had to jiggle off course just enough so that the warning blink of light would alert him and keep him from falling asleep. He was unaware that Kurt had awakened during one of those maneuvers until the other spoke. "Your own private alarm clock, Murdock? Okay, I do not quarrel with anyone who uses his head. But you had better get some shut-eye, or we will not keep rolling."
Ross was too tired to protest. They changed places, and he curled up as best he could on his small share of the seat. Only now that he was free to sleep, he realized he no longer wanted to. Kurt must have thought Ross had fallen asleep, for after perhaps two miles of steady grinding along, he moved cautiously behind the wheel. Ross saw by the trace of light from the instrument panel that his companion was digging into the breast of his parka to bring out a small object which he held against the wheel of the cat with one hand, while with the other he tapped out an irregular rhythm.
To Ross the action made no sense. But he did not miss the other's sigh of relief as he restored his treasure to hiding once more, as if some difficult task was now behind him. Shortly afterward the cat ground to a stop, and Ross sat up, rubbing his eyes. "What's the matter? Engine trouble?"
Kurt had folded his arms across the wheel. "No. It is just that we are to wait here"
"Wait? For what? Kelgarries to come along and pick us up?"
Kurt laughed. "The major? How I wish that he would arrive presently. What a surprise he would receive! Not two little mice to be put back into their cages, but the tiger cat, all claws and fangs!"
Ross sat up straighter. This now had the bad smell of a frame, a frame with himself planted right in the middle. He figured out the possibilities and came up with an answer which would smear Ross Murdock all over any map. If Kurt were waiting to meet friends out here, they could only be one kind.
For most of his short life Ross had been engaged in a private war against the restrictions imposed upon him by laws to which something within him would not conform. And he had, during those same years filled with attacks, retreats, and strategic maneuvering, formulated a code by which to play his dangerous game. He had not murdered, and he would never follow the path Kurt took. To one who was supremely impatient of restraint, the methods and aims of Kurt's employers were not only impossibly fantastic and illogicalthey were to be opposed to the last ounce of any man's energy.
"Your friends late?" He tried to sound casual.
"Not yet, and if you now plan to play the hero, Murdock, think better of it!" Kurt's tone held the crack of an orderthat note Ross had so much disliked in the major's voice. "This is an operation which has been most carefully planned and upon which a great deal depends. No one shall spoil it for us now"
"The Russians planted you on the project, eh?" Ross wanted to keep the other talking to give himself a chance to think. And this was one time he had to think, clearly and fast.
"There is no need for me to tell you the sad tale of my life, Murdock. And you would doubtless find much of it boring. If you wish to continue to livefor a while, at leastyou will remain quiet and do as you are told."
Kurt must be armed, for he would not be so confident unless he had a weapon he could now turn on Ross. On the other hand, if what Ross guessed were true, this was the time to play the herowhen there was only Kurt to handle. Better to be a dead hero than a live captive in the hands of Kurt's dear friends across the pole.
Without warning, Ross threw his body to the left, striving to pin Kurt against the driver's side of the cabin. His hands clawed at the fur ruff bordering the other's hood, trying for a throat hold. Perhaps Kurt's over-confidence betrayed him and left him open to a surprise attack. He struggled hard to bring up his arm, but both his weight and Ross's held him tight. Ross caught at his wrist, noticing a gleam of metal.
They threshed about, hampered by the bulkiness of the fur clothing. Ross wondered fleetingly why the other had not made sure of him earlier. As it was he fought with all his might to keep Kurt immobile, to try and knock him out with a lucky blow.
In the end Kurt aided his own defeat. When Ross relaxed somewhat, the other pushed against him, only to have Ross flinch to one side. Kurt could not stop himself, and his head cracked against the wheel of the cat. He went limp.
Ross made the most of the next few moments. He brought his belt from under his parka, twisting it around Kurt's wrists with no gentleness. Then he wriggled about, changing places with the unconscious man.
He had no idea of where to go, but he was sure he was going to get awayat the cat's top speedfrom that point. And with that in mind and only a limited knowledge of how to manage the machine, Ross started up and turned in a wide circle until he was sure the cat was headed in the opposite direction.
The light which had guided them was still on. Would reversing its process take him back to the base? Lost in the immensity of the frozen wilderness, he made the only choice possible and gunned the cat again.
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