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Del Rey, Lester - Pursuit

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Del Rey, Lester - Pursuit

PURSUIT

    by LESTER DEL REY

    SPACE SCIENCE FICTION

    MAY, 1952 Vol. 1, No. 1

    Lester Del Rey, Editor

    I

    Fear cut through the unconscious mind of Wilbur Hawkes. With almost physical violence, it tightened his

    throat and knifed at his heart. It darted into his numbed brain, screaming at him.

    He was a soft egg in a vast globe of elastic gelatine. Two creatures swam menacingly through the

    resisting globe toward him. The gelatine fought against them, but they came on. One was near, and made a

    mystic pass. He screamed at it, and the gelatine grew stronger, throwing them back and away. Suddenly, the

    creatures drew back. A door opened, and they were gone. But he couldn't let them go. If they escaped?

    Hawkes jerked upright in his bed, gasping out a hoarse cry, and the sound of his own voice completed the

    awakening. He opened his eyes to a murky darkness that was barely relieved by the little night-light. For a

    second, the nightmare was so strong on his mind that he seemed to see two shadows beyond the door,

    rushing down the steps. He fought off the illusion, and with straining senses jerked his head around the

    room. There was nothing there.

    Sweat was beading his forehead, and he could feel his pulse racing. He had to get out - had to leave - at

    once!

    He forced the idea aside. There was something cloudy in his mind, but he made reason take over and

    shove away some of the heavy fear. His fingers found a cigarette and lighted it automatically. The first

    familiar breath of smoke in his lungs helped. He drew in deeply again, while the tiny sounds in the room

    became meaningful. There was the insistent ticking of a clock and the soft shushing sound of a tape recorder.

    He stared at the machine, running on fast rewind, and reversed it to play. But the tape seemed to be blank, or

    erased.

    He crushed the cigarette out on a table-top where other butts lay in disorder. It looked wrong, and his

    mind leaped up in sudden frantic fear, before he could calm it again. This time. reason echoed his emotional

    unease.

    Hawkes had never smoked before!

    But his fingers were already lighting another by old habit. His thoughts lurched, seeking for an answ er.

    There was only a vague sense of something missing - a period of time seemed to

have passed. It felt like a

    long period, but he had no memory of it. There had been the final fight with Irma, when he'd gone stalking

    out of the house, telling her to get a divorce any way she wanted. He'd opened the mail-box and taken out a

    letter - a letter from a Professor?

    His mind refused to go further. There was only a complete blank after that. But it had been in midwinter,

    and now he could make out the faint outlines of full-leafed trees against the sky through the window!

    Months had gone by - and there was no faintest trace of them in his mind. They'll get you! You can't escape! Hurry, go, GO!?

    The cigarette fell from his shaking hands, and he was half out of the bed before the rational part of his

    mind could cut off the fear thoughts. He flipped on the lights, afraid of the dimness. It didn't help. The room

    was dusty, as if unused for months, and there was a cobweb in one corner by the mirror.

    His own face shocked him. It was the same lean, sharp featured face as ever, under the shock of

    nondescript, sandy hair. His ears still stuck out too much, and his lips were a trifle too thin. It looked no

    more than his thirty years; but it was a strained f ace, now - painted with weeks of fatigue, and grayish with

    fear, sweat-streaked and with nervous tension in every corded tendon of his throat. His somewhat bony,

    average height figure shook visibly as he climbed from the bed. Hawkes stood fighting himself, trying to get back in the bed, but it was a losing battle. Something seemed

    to swing up in the corner of the room, as if a shadow moved. He jerked his head toward it, but there was

    nothing there.

    He heard his breath gasping harshly, and his knuckles whitened. There was the taste of blood in the corner

    of his mouth where he was biting his lips.

    Get out! They'll be here at once! Leave - GO!

    His hands were already fumbling with his underclothing. He drew on briefs jerkily, and grabbed for the

    shirt and suit he had never seen before. He was no longer thinking, now. Blind panic was winning. He thrust

    his feet into shoes, not bothering with socks.

    A slip of paper fell from his coat, with big sprawled Greek letters. He saw only the last line as it fell to the

    floor - some equation that ended with an infinity sign. Then psi and alpha, connected by a dash. The alpha

    sign had been scratched out, and something written over it. He tried to reach it, and more papers spilled from

    his coat pocket. The fear washed up more strongly. He forgot the papers. Even the cigarettes were too far

    away for him to return to them. His wallet lay on the chair, and he barely grabbed it before the urge

    overpowered him completely.

    The doorknob slipped in his sweating hands, but he managed to turn it. The elevator wasn't at his floor,

    and he couldn't stop for it. His feet pounded on the stairs, taking him down the three floors to the street at a

    breakneck pace. The walls of the stairway seemed to be rushing together, as if trying to close the way. He

    screamed at them, until they were behind, and he was charging out of the front door.

    A half-drunken couple was coming in - a fat, older man and a slim girl he barely saw. He hit them,

    throwing them aside. He jerked from the entrance. Cars were streaming down West End Avenue. He dashed

    across, paying no attention to them. His rush carried him onto the opposite sidewalk. Then, finally, the blind

    panic left him, and he was leaning against a building, gasping for breath, and wondering whether his heart

    could endure the next beat.

    Across the street, the fat man he had hit was coming after him. Hawkes gathered himself together to

    apologize, but the words never came. A second, blinding horror hit at him, and his eyes darted up towards

    the windows of his apartment.

    It was only a tiny glow, at first, like a drop from the heart of a sun. Then, before he could more than blink,

    it spread, until the whole apartment seemed to blaze. A gout of smoke poured from the shattering window,

    and a dull concussion struck his ears.

    The infernally bright flame flickered, leaped outward from the window, and died down almost as quickly

    as it had come, leaving twisted, half-molten metal where the window frames had been.

    They'd almost gotten him! Hawkes felt his legs weaken and quiver, while his eyes remained glued to the

    spot that had lighted the whole street a second before. They'd tried - but he'd escaped in time.

    It must have been a thermite bomb - nothing but thermite could be that hot. He had never imagined that

    even such a bomb could give so much heat so quickly. Where? In the tape-recorder?

    He waited numbly, expecting more fire, but the brief flame seemed to have died out completely. He shook

    his head, unbelieving, and started to cross the street again, to survey the damage or to join the crowd that

    was beginning to collect.

    The fear surged up in him again, halting his step as if he'd struck a physical barrier. With it came the

    sound of an auto-horn, the button held down permanently. His eyes darted down the street, to see a long,

    gray sedan with old-fashioned running-boards come around the corner on two wheels. Its brakes screeched,

    and it skidded to a halt beside Hawkes' apartment building.

    A slim young man in gray tweeds leaped out of it and came to a stop. He threw back heavy black hair

    with a toss of his head and ran into the crowd that parted to let him through. Someone began pointing

    towards Hawkes.

    Hawkes tried to slide around the corner without being seen, but a flashlight in the young man's hands

    pinpointed him. A yell went up.

    ?There he goes!?

    His feet sounded hopelessly on the sidewalk as he dashed up toward Broadway, but behind came the

    sound of others in pursuit, and the shouting was becoming a meaningless babble as others took it up. There

    was no longer any doubt. Someone was certainly after him - there'd been no time to turn in an alarm over the

    fire in his apartment. They'd been coming for him before that started. What hideous crime could he have committed during the period he couldn't remember? Or what spy-ring

    had encircled him?

    He had no time to think of the questions, even. He ducked into the thin swarm of a few people leaving a

    theater just as the pursuing group rounded the corner, with the slim young man in the lead.

    Their cries were enough. Hands reached for him from the theater crowd, and a foot stretched out to trip

    him up. Terror lent speed to his legs, but he could never outdistance them, as long as others picked up the

    chase.

    A sudden blast of heat struck down, and the air was golden and hazy above him. He staggered sideways,

    blinded by the glare. The crowd was screaming in fear now, no longer holding him back. He felt the edge of

    a subway entrance. There was no other choice. He ducked down the steps, while his vision slowly returned,

    and risked a glance back at the street - just as the whole entrance came down in a wreck of broken wood and

    metal.

    A clap of thundering noise sounded above him, drowning the hoarse screams of the people. The few

    persons in the station rushed for the fallen entrance, to mill about it crazily, just as a train pulled in. Hawkes

    started toward it, and then realized his pursuers would suspect that. Whatever frightful weapon had been

    used against him had backfired on them - but they'd catch him at the next stop. He found space at the end of the platform and dropped off, skirting behind the train, and avoiding the

    high-voltage rails.

    The uptown platform held only three people, and they seemed to be too busy at the other end, trying to see

    the wreckage, to notice him. He vaulted onto it, and dashed into the men's room. The few contents of his

    coat pocket came out quickly, and he began to stuff them into his trousers. He shoved the coat into a garbage

    can, wet his hair and slicked it back, and opened his shirt collar. The change didn't make much of a disguise,

    but they wouldn't be expecting him to show up so near where he entered.

    His skin prickled as he came out, but he fought down the sickness in his stomach. A few drops of rain

    were beginning to fall, and the crowd around the accident was thinning out. That might help him -or it

    might prove more dangerous. He had to chance it.

    He stopped to buy a paper, maintaining an air of casual interest in the crowd.

     ?What happened?? he asked.

    The newsstand attendant jerked his eyes back from the excitement reluctantly. ?Damned if I know.

    Someone says a ball lightning came down and broke over there. Caved in the entrance. Nobody's hurt

    seriously, they say. I was just stacking up to go home when I heard it go off. Didn't see it. Just saw the

    entrance falling in.?

    Hawkes picked up his change and turned back across Broadway, pretending he was studying the paper.

    The dateline showed it was July 10, just seven months from the beginning of his memory lapse. He couldn't

    believe that there had been time enough for any group to invent a heat-ray, if such a thing could exist. Yet

    nothing else would explain the two sudden bursts of flame he had seen. Even if it could be invented, it

    would hardly be used in public for anything less than a National Emergency. What had happened in the seven blanked-out months?

    II

    The room was smelly and cheap, with dirty walls and no carpet on the floor, but it was a relief after the

    hours of tramping and riding about the city. Hawkes sat on the rickety chair, letting the wetness dry out of

    his clothes. He looked at the bed, trying to convince himself he could strip and warm up there while his

    clothes dried. But something in his head warned him that he couldn't - he'd have to be ready to run again.

    The same urge had made him demand a room on the ground floor, where he could escape through the

    window if they found him. They could never find him here - but they would! Sooner or later, whatever was

    after him would come!

    It had seemed simple enough, before. There had been three friends he could trust. Seven months, he had

    felt, couldn't have killed their faith in him, no matter what he'd done. And perhaps he'd been right, though

    there'd been no chance to test it.

    He'd almost been caught at the first place. The two men outside had seemed to be no more than a couple

    of friends awaiting for a bus. Only the approach of another man who resembled Hawkes had tipped him off,

    by the quick interest they had shown.

    The other places had also been posted - and beyond the third, he'd seen the gray

sedan with the running

    boards, parked back in the shadows, waiting.

    There had been less than ten dollars in his wallet, and most of that had gone for cab fares. He'd barely had

    enough left for this dingy room, the later edition of the newspaper, and the coffee and donuts that lay beside

    him, half-consumed.

    He glanced toward the door, listening with quick fear as steps sounded on the stairs. Then he drew his

    breath in again, and reached for the newspaper. But it told him as little as the first one had.

    This one mentioned the two mysterious explosions of ?ball lightning? in a feature on the first page, but

    only as curiosities. They even gave his address and listed the apartment as being in his name, though

    apparently not currently occupied. But no other reference was made to him, or to the chase.

    He shook his head at that. He couldn't see a newspaper-man refusing to make a story of it, if there was

    any other news about him to which they could tie the burning of his apartment. Apparently it was not the

    police who were after him, and he hadn't been guilty of anything so ordinary as murder.

    Outside the window, a sudden scream sounded, and he jerked from the chair, reaching the door before he

    realized it was only a cat on the prowl. He shuddered, his old hatred of cats coming to the surface. For a

    minute, he thought of shutting the window. But he couldn't cut off his chance to retreat through the

    garbage-littered backyard.

    He returned to his search, beginning an inventory of the few belongings that had been in his pocket. There

    was a notebook, and he scanned it rapidly. A few pages were missing, and most were blank. There was only

    a shopping list. That puzzled him for a minute - he couldn't believe he'd taken to using lipstick as well as

    cigarettes, though both were listed in his handwriting. The notebook contained nothing else.

    He stuffed it back into his pockets, along with his keyring. There were more keys than he'd expected,

    some of which were strange to him, but none held any mark that would identify them. He put a few pennies

    into another pocket - his entire wealth, now, in a world where no more money would be available to him. He

    grimaced, dropping a comb into the same pocket.

    Then there was only his wallet left. His identification card was there, unchanged. Behind it, where his

    wife's picture had always been, there was only a folded clipping. He drew it out, hoping for a clew. It was

    only an announcement of people killed in an airplane crash - and among those found dead was Mrs. Wilbur

    Hawkes, of New York. It seemed that Irma had never reached Reno for the divorce.

    He tried to feel some sorrow at that, but time must have healed whatever hurt there had been, even though

    he couldn't remember. She had hated him ever since she'd found that he really wasn't willing to please his

    father by becoming another of the vice-presidents in the old man's bank, with an unearned but fancy salary.

    He'd preferred teaching mathematics and dabbling with a bit of research into the probable value of the ESP

    work being done at Duke University. He'd explained why he hated banking; Irma had made it clear that she

    really needed the mink coat no assistant professor could afford. It had been stalemate -a bitter, seven-year

    stalemate, until she finally gave up hope and demanded a divorce. He threw the clipping away, and pulled out the final bit of paper. It was a rent receipt for a cold-water

    apartment on the poorer section of West End - from the price of eighteen dollars a month, it had to be a

    cold-water place. He frowned, considering it. Apartment 12. That might explain why his own apartment had

    been unused, though it made little sense to him. It would probably be watched by now, anyway.

    HE jerked to his feet at a sound on the window-sill, but it was only a cat, eyeing the unfinished donut. He

    threw the food out, and the cat dived after it. Hawkes waited for the touch of ice along his backbone to go

    away. It didn't.

    This time, he tried to ignore it. He picked up the paper and began going through it, looking for something

    that might give him some slight clew. But there was nothing there. Only a heading on an inside page that

    stirred his curiosity.

    Scientist Seeks Confinement

    He glanced at it, noting that a Professor Meinzer, formerly of City College, had appeared at Bellevue,

    asking to be put away in a padded cell, preferably with a strait-jacket. The Professor had only explained that

    he considered himself dangerous to society. No other reason was found. Professor Meinzer had been doing

    private work, believed to relate to his theory that?

    The panic was back, thick in Hawkes' throat. He jerked back against the wall, his heart racing, while he

    tried to fight it down. There was no sound from the hall or outside. He forced his eyes back to the paper.

    And the paper was surrounded by a golden haze. It burst into a momentary flame as the haze flickered

    out. Hawkes dropped the ashes from his clammy hands. He hadn't been burned! You can't escape. Run. They'll get you!

    He heard the outside door open, as it had opened a hundred times. But now it could only mean that more

    were coming. He jerked for the open window.

    Something came sailing through the air to hit the sill. Hawkes screamed weakly, far down in his throat,

    before his eyes could register the fact that it was only the cat again.

    Then the cat let out a horrible beginning of a sound, and its poor, half-starved body seemed to turn inside

    out, with a churning motion that Hawkes could barely see. Blood and gore spattered from it, striking his face

    and clothes.

    He froze, unable to move. Either they were outside in the yard, or whatever frightful weapon they used

    could work through a closed door. He tried to move, first one way, then the other. His feet remained frozen.

    Then steps sounded in the hallway, and he waited no longer. His legs came to sudden life, hurling him

    over the carcass of the cat and outside. He went charging through the refuse, and then leaped and clawed his

    way over the fence. The alley was deserted, and he shot down it, to swing right, and into another alley.

    It wasn't until his muscles began to fail that he could control himself enough to stop and stumble into a

    darkened spot among the garbage cans, spent and gasping for breath. There was no sign of anyone following. Hawkes had no idea of how they could trace him - but he was

    beginning to suspect that nothing was impossible, judging by the results of their weapons. For the moment,

    though, he seemed to have shaken off pursuit. And the physical fatigue had apparently eased some of his

    terror.

    What had shocked him into losing seven months out of his memory, and still could drive him into

    absolute terror at the first sign of them?

    He couldn't go back to the room, and his own apartment was out of the question. The rain had stopped,

    mercifully, but he couldn't walk the streets indefinitely, dirty and bedraggled as he was. He tried to think of

    something to do, but all of his schemes took money which he no longer had. Finally, he arose wearily. Maybe the apartment for which he had the rent receipt was watched - but he'd

    have to chance it. There was no place else.

    He'd been accidentally heading toward it, and he continued now, sticking to the alleys until he reached

    West End Avenue. He tried to hurry, but the best his tired muscles could do was a slow shuffle.

    Light was beginning to show faintly in the sky, but it was still too early for more than a few cars and a

    chance pedestrian. At this hour, the avenue was used by only a few cruising cabs, heading toward better

    sections. He shuffled along, trying to look like a man on his way home after too much night out. The cat

    blood on his clothes bothered him, until he tried weaving a little as he walked, imitating the drunks he had

    seen often enough.

    He passed an all night diner, and fished for his pennies. But there were several men inside. He went on,

    past Fifty-ninth Street, heading for the apartment, which should be near Sixty-

seventh.

    He was just reaching the top of the hill near Sixty-fourth when a gray sedan sped along, heading

    downtown. There were running boards on it, and behind the wheel sat the slim young man who'd given chase

    to Hawkes before.

    Hawkes tried to duck, but the sedan was already braking and swinging back. It was beside him before he

    could realize more than the old clamor of his brain, telling him to run, that he couldn't escape.

    The car matched his speed, and the driver leaned far to the right. ?Will Hawkes,? the young man called.

    ?How about a lift??

    The smile was pleasant, and the voice was casual, as if they were old friends. There was no gun in the

    man's hands. It might have been any honest offer of a ride.

    Hawkes braced himself, just as a patrol car turned onto the Avenue ahead. He opened his mouth to

    scream, but his vocal cords were frozen. The young man followed his eyes to the patrol car, and frowned.

    Then the gray sedan lifted smoothly upwards to a height of twenty feet, turned sharply in mid-air, lifted

    again, and seemed to make a smooth landing on top of a huge garage building! There had been no roar of jets and no evidence of any means of propulsion. The patrol car went on down the Avenue, heading for the diner. The officers inside apparently had

    missed. the whole affair.

    Hawkes' cowardly legs suddenly came unfrozen. He was conscious of them churning madly. With an

    effort, he got partial control of himself, managing to focus on the house numbers.

    There were no watchers outside the number he wanted, though they could have been in rooms across the

    street. He had no choice, now. He leaped up the steps and into the hallway. His eyes darted around, spotting

    a door that led out to the side, probably into an alley. He drew himself together, hiding behind the stairs.

    But there was no further pursuit for the moment. The fear that seemed to come before each attack was

    missing. Maybe it meant he was safe for the moment - though it hadn't warned him of the car the young man

    was driving.

    Heat rays! Levitation! Hawkes dropped to his knees as fatigue and reaction caught up with him again, but

    his mind churned over the new evidence. As a mathematician, he was sure such things could not exist. If

    they did, there would have been extension of math well in advance of the perfection of the machines, and

    he'd have known of it as speculative theory, at least. Yet, without such evidence, the devices apparently

existed.

    The police weren't in on it, that much was certain. It was more than a hunt for a criminal. What had been

    going on during the months he had missed?

    His mind shuttled over the spy-thrillers he had seen. If some nation had the secrets, and he had discovered

    them? But the heat ray would never have been used openly, then; they wouldn't tip their hand. Anyhow, the

    cold war was still going on, and that would have been pointless when any nation had such power.

    And if the secret belonged to the United States, the young man would never have levitated to avoid police

    at the greater risk of tipping off anyone who saw that such things could be done.

    Nothing made sense - not even the crazy feeling of fear that had warned him on some occasions and

    failed him this last time. The only explanation that was credible was the totally incredible idea that some life,

    alien to earth and with strange unearthly powers, was after him - or that he was insane.

    He fumbled through a pack of cigarettes until he located the last one, streaked with sweat that was still

    pouring down from his armpit, and lighted it. It was all answerless - just as his sudden need for smoking

    was.

    III

    Hawkes crushed out the cigarette and began climbing the wide stairs slowly. It was probably an ambush

    into which he was heading - but without this place, he had no chance of resting. He stared at the numbers

    painted on the dirty red doors, and went on up a second flight of stairs. The number he wanted was at the end

    of the hall, dimly lighted. He dropped to the keyhole, but found it had been filled long ago, probably when

    the Yale lock was installed.

    He put his ear against the door, and listened. There was no sound from inside except a monotonous noise

    that must be water dripping from a leaky faucet. Finally, he climbed to his feet and reached for his keys. The

    third one he tried fitted, and the door swung open.

    He fumbled about, looking for a light switch, and finally struck a match. The switch was a string hanging

    down from a bare bulb. He pulled it, to find he stood inside one of the old monstrosities with which New

    York is filled -a combination kitchen and bathroom, with a tiny closet for the toilet in one corner. There was

    an ice-box, a dirty stove, a Franklin heater connected to the chimney, a small sink, and a rickety table with

    four folding chairs. In a closet, cheap china showed.

    He went through that, into the seven-by-twelve living room. There was a cheap radio, a worn sofa, two

    more folding chairs and a big typing table. The rug on the floor had been

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