by John Knouse


Note: This story was intended to be the first part of a novel. But since it was never purchased as a story, I never got around to writing the rest of it.

Chapter One

Only one other here knows my real name. She is in the ship's sickbay and may not live. The Cyclops experimented with her. If she recovers, it will be a miracle.

I am monitoring the energy conversion pumps. It is a job nobody wants. They did not ask many questions when I signed on. If they knew my real name, they would hold me in the brig until the nearest spaceport and I would be turned over to the Cyclops.

Rhonda signed on easily, too. She is an astronavigator. Only a select talented few can become one. Astronavigators are too hard to find--especially now--to question them too much; you cannot pretend to be one if you're not. If the astronavigation computers accept you in a sort of symbiotic relationship, then you are one. Enabling this sort of relationship takes both huge talent and years of training.

When we reach Sirius 4, they will know who we are. The information will await the ship's emergence from hyperspace. We must escape before we get there. But Rhonda is too sick to go anywhere, or even to find anywhere. Her collapse was just after hyperspace transition, so she was not essential until near the end of the voyage. But her abilities are essential for our survival.

Our only hope is escape. Rhonda must get well and she must be able to find a habitable planet. We must find a way to steal a lifeboat. And we must steal it when in a drive transition window. Otherwise, we die, or fare even worse, at the hands of the Cyclops.

As it is, our ship is cutting short its tour because of her condition, choosing the default destination of Sirius 4 instead of the planned destination of R4G01. No one else but a qualified astronavigator is able to find our exotic destinations; we would wind up permanent residents of hyperspace if someone else tried. The ship must arrive at a major space hub in order to have a chance of finding another astronavigator or of getting back to Earth on a default run. Either way, it wouldn't matter to the Cyclops. They will find us either there or on Earth.

For now I am sweating and reeling in the energy conversion pumps. I rescued Rhonda from the Cyclops but I cannot rescue her from what they did to her in their medical experiments. I can only hope that a miracle happens.

Chapter Two

Everyone on Earth and on the outpost planets thinks the Cyclops are as gods. The Cyclops have come to help humanity, to raise them to an exalted level of existence, they think. They think they can become just like the Cyclops.

I know better. It took a long time to figure it out; my discoveries were accidental. There were a thousand little hints but I knew for certain that something was wrong when I prepared to go on.

The Cyclops always told us that we could communicate with, but not visit, relatives who moved into the Cyclops' domain. They said it was not possible to accommodate visitors and that they could not give everyone the necessary preparation. So they said. Everyone who had someone who went into the Cyclops' domain at first received vidmail and letters. They seemed genuine. They all raved about the new life. But the vidmail and letters only came once every six months or so. After a few years, they would stop coming.

It was curious, too, that the Cyclops took only took the most brilliant, the ones with the worst impairments, and the ones who insisted on choosing their own way of life. The brilliant ones were ready to transcend the human way of life, they said. They could best grow and learn to be like the Cyclops, they said. And the ones with mental and physical impairments must be made better, they said. Only we, the Cyclops, can perform the necessary procedures to give them full health and function, they said. And those individuals who chose to try to create their own world independent of the flow of society--they were the most valuable for enriching their culture, they said, because they were the most creative.

Except for Rhonda, I never again saw anyone I knew who went to the Cyclops. Maybe one fourth of Earth's population was already gone, as well as maybe ten percent of the people on the outlying worlds. Most of the people left on Earth, it seemed, were plain, ordinary people. People who only did what they were told. People who mechanically went through their daily routines. It occurred to me that the only people left would make dull, obedient, healthy slaves.

They overlooked me, somehow, for a long time. I did not volunteer. I tried to conform. I worked as an electronics technician rather than as the electronics researcher I was. I had not doubted the Cyclops too much then, but I had someone better. Rhonda. The beautiful woman that I loved. The astronavigator who went to the stars for six months, then stayed with me for only two. I wanted to be there whenever Rhonda came back.

But I started to have my suspicion that something was odd. My brother’s vidmail had much to do with it. He had gone on with rapture. Then the vidmail came, and it was wrong. I knew without a doubt that the words in the vidmail were not my brother’s. The voice was perfect, the image was perfect, but the words were wrong.

Then they took Rhonda. They had not taken her earlier because of her work as astronavigator. But she volunteered. She was ecstatic, sure that they would take me soon as well. She did not listen when I told her about my brother's vidmail. She had not listened when I had told her all my other suspicions. She was happy to be going on; she had new stars in her eyes. She would ask the Cyclops to let me join her.

I was despondent; I was desperate. I had learned to live for the love of this woman and I knew that she loved me deeply. But she had gotten the idea that this way of "becoming" was her highest calling in life. I had no choice but to go into the lions' den.

So I applied to go on. And they came for me. They sent a notice first, a letter full of flowery prose, full of hope. Full of their promise of enlightenment. But I could not forget my brother's vidmail. Then they came to my house. I was afraid but knew I had to go with them. I masked my feelings.

We walked out to the curb, out to their aircar. Their iridescent blue skins gleamed in the brilliance of the autumn sun. Their gossamer clothing shimmered over their bodies like a new kind of cloud. They were wonderful to behold. They were awesome but, at the same time, awful.

We rode to the local portal, chatting. Oh, yes, they told me. Rhonda and I would be reunited soon. We would have a wonderful reunion of a kind made possible only by the Cyclops. We reached the portal building. We entered and went to a well-furnished room. I would stay in the room for two days and three nights, they told me. They must properly evaluate me before sending me on.

The portal building seemed pleasant and luxurious. The atmosphere was relaxed. I could not go outside, but could go many places inside. It was full of happy people looking forward to their new way of life. They were in the café, talking happily as they sipped their drinks. In the game room they chatted about the wonderful accommodations as they played. And I found something else wrong.

Henry, down the street, had gone the day before me. I had seen the Cyclops escort him from home. Henry, the iconoclast, the writer of pamphlets, had gone to the Cyclops' domain. I had thought it strange because the last pamphlet from him railed against going to the Cyclops.

The only way to go was through the portal. And everyone, so they told me, was evaluated first. Yet here I was and here he wasn't, in the regional portal building. No one there had seen him or heard of him, except one old man who knew him. No, he had not seen him in the portal building; he had undoubtedly gone on. Henry had been taken in seventeen hours before me. He still should be here. Evaluation took two full days after arrival. Where was Henry?

I began to look critically at the decor. Every room, no matter how distinctive, had a similar wall panel in it. A panel that looked like a modified solid state video screen. Surely I was not the first to see this. No one else cared. They were all happy to be going on.

The next day, they began testing. They were very pleasant. The tests were painless. The explanations were useless. I sensed that they were not telling me the true purpose of the tests.

The tests continued the next day. They used mysterious devices that produced strange sensations. As the day wore on, the Cyclops' began to treat me differently. They looked at me warily and they began to guard me, it seemed. They tried to hide it, but it was obvious when, the evening of the third night, they restricted me to my room. Routine procedure, they said. They lied. I had talked to other second-day people on the previous evenings. I was a prisoner.

Rumor had it that the Cyclops could read minds. I no longer doubted the rumors. Because I had doubted the Cyclops' when they were using their machines, I was now a prisoner. My suspicions were confirmed. I knew I must escape.

There was no way out of my room. I tried everything. It was locked and the materials used and the craftsmanship was impeccable. I could not escape. I could only hope to escape tomorrow, after they came for me.

If they had read my mind, I reasoned, they needed a machine to do it. Otherwise, they would have been on to me from the beginning. And they could only read my mind when they used the machines. But it was there in the portal building that they had the machines. Any plans for escape would have to be on the spur of the moment.

Chapter Three

They came for me the next morning. They told me it was time to escort me to the portal. We walked through corridors and down vertical shafts. I saw fleeting glimpses of other Cyclops' on the way down, but no people.

"You are just the kind of person we're looking for," they said. They told me that few people left on Earth could fulfill their strict requirements for going into higher plane training. They wondered that I was so long in going on. I did not wonder. I had awaited Rhonda. I was careful to act like the others, like all the people not taken by the Cyclops: average, dull, obedient, and conforming. I had wanted Rhonda more than I had wanted the Cyclops' way of life.

We reached a door which slid open, and we passed into a room of people and Cyclops. The people were all in lines, chatting and smiling. The Cyclops were moving here and there, looking the room over, acting like security guards, and tending the machines. The people seemed oblivious to the ominousness of the Cyclops' presence. I wondered what was wrong with them.

There were five lines. They escorted me to the shortest of them. Wait here in line, they told me, for your turn. I waited and scrutinized the situation. They were watching me closely, I could see. I acted nonchalant as the metal door at the head of the line slid open and the next person stepped inside. Inside the door, I could glimpse a small room with few furnishings, staffed by two Cyclops. Then, only one person was in the line ahead of me. I was watching the metal doorway intently.

Earth never had gained portal technology. It came with the Cyclops and stayed with the Cyclops. They refused to give it to the people of Earth. We were not ready to use it properly, they said. That should have been another giveaway. In the meantime, we were tied to our energy conversion drives and our starships. We were not allowed to use the instantaneous transport of the portals except to go on.

But I had studied what little we could learn of portals as an electronics researcher before I went incognito. And I had worked in close proximity to one as a technician. Once the Cyclops' own technician was not available for some reason; they were forced to use an earthling to repair some electronic equipment in their own quarters, next to their portal. By chance, I was that earthling. I was not allowed to work on the portal, but I had learned the sound a portal should make. It was a very soft hum, followed by the inrush of just enough air to refill the chamber after the door was opened.

My palms went cold when I noticed what I had not noticed before. This chamber sounded different. I could hear the one ahead of me and the two to my right. The one ahead of me had a sound of circulating air, of air being blown through after the doors closed. I never knew of any portal with such a circulating system. I knew the proper sound was the one made by the next two portals.

Then the man at the head of my line, I saw, stepped into the antechamber just as the "portal" door on the far side of the chamber opened prematurely. He saw something. He stopped and vomited as the door ahead of me was sliding shut. He flung his arm out behind him and it caught in the door, which opened again. One of the Cyclops in the chamber grabbed him and pulled him back in, and the other hurriedly pushed buttons on the control panel. I realized that I was hearing ventilating fans clearing the portal chamber after each use. I reasoned that it must be a sort of instant crematorium for those troublemakers that they did not wish to deal with further. It probably was much cheaper to destroy people on the spot than to transport them first. What contempt the Cyclops had for us. I began to sweat profusely.

I was next in line and the door opened. "NO!" I said, forcefully. "NO! I'm not going to my death!" Two Cyclops rushed forward. The doors leading out of the large room slid shut. A woman screamed. I began hitting the Cyclops. It seemed to have little effect. They grabbed at me and I ran. In the confusion, I reached the third door, the one that I was betting to be the real portal, as it opened. I dove through into the antechamber. I managed to dodge one Cyclops as it lunged, and I turned and helped it out the door. The other one grabbed me and I fell backward. Its hand was on my neck. I had once seen a Cyclops put its hand on the neck of a man who went berserk in a shopping center. A moment later the man had become unconscious. I gave a violent push and was free for a moment. I reached out to the control panel and began slamming my hand against it. The door to the inner portal chamber opened and I fell through it as the Cyclops grabbed my leg. I braced myself against the inside of the chamber and pulled.

I managed to pull my whole body inside with the Cyclops gripping my legs in a terrible, vise-like grasp. It was too intent on holding on to me to brace itself against the outside and ended up lying in the doorway. The door started closing. Too late, it turned and saw the door coming. Its eyes went wide with terror, and then I saw a Cyclops crushed in half. Purple blood squirted out. I threw up.

And then I was in a different place. I was on a sort of platform, sitting by the crushed upper half of the Cyclops. Several other Cyclops were standing there. They gaped for a split second, then grabbed me. They clamped a restraining device on me that immobilized me. They obviously weren't expecting a human with half a Cyclops. But they obviously were expecting to use the device on whomever came through the portal.

I was dumped in a cell. It was featureless: no windows, no openings in the walls of any kind other than the door. The door seam was barely visible. When they threw me in, they threw me out of the restraining device, so I was "free". Free in a three-meter-square space, three meters high. I was in a cube of metal that a nuclear missile probably couldn't pierce.

I lay on the floor for perhaps an hour, trying to recuperate from the trauma of the previous ten minutes. I sat up and tried to think of a way out of my situation. I tried to think my way out of a featureless steel cube. It didn't work. I had agonizing thoughts of what Rhonda must be going through. I felt like killing myself. I felt like killing every Cyclops around.

Then, a buzzing started. There was no audible noise, just a subtle buzzing in the base of my brain. It was a feeling I had never felt before.

I regained partial consciousness lying flat on my back. I was firmly clamped to a steel table. Several Cyclops' around me were conversing in an unintelligible language. I dared not move nor open my eyes.

A cold, smooth hand gripped my face. "Hairball," the voice behind the hand hissed, "you're awake, aren't you?" It was not the kindly tones I had heard uttered by Cyclops in times past. "I know you can hear me. You're going to be used here for some biochemical experimentation. Then you're going to be sent to our planet to be used for live fishing bait."

The prospect did not appeal to me. The hand withdraw, and I again heard the voices talking in the background. I opened my eyes. I could not move my head more than an inch, but I could barely see three Cyclops working at a table against the wall. I was naked, and the table I was on was in the center of the room. Several pieces of equipment of unknown purpose were suspended from the ceiling or towering over the table. Some trays of smaller instruments were suspended by the table.

The Cyclops turned towards the table. They approached and loomed over me. "Now we start," one hissed. It gripped a large sphere hanging from the ceiling and positioned it directly over my face. The pain hit me like a tsunami. A nuclear bomb detonated inside my skull and my right leg was melting. I lost consciousness.

Chapter Four

I awoke back in my cell. Rather, I awoke back in a cell. There was nothing to distinguish it, except for three changes: three metal bowls extended from the walls. On one wall, a large bowl extended at about knee level, with a broad rim apparently made for sitting. On the opposite wall, one bowl contained water and one contained small nuggets that resembled dog food. I was in no mood for eating. My head reeled, and it was painful to move or walk on my right leg. It was covered with bright red blotches. I wondered how my face looked. The walls with their flat finish did not reflect.

After an hour or two, I drank some water. I was suddenly hungry and I sampled a nugget. It tasted faintly of pizza. It also tasted faintly of dead animal that had lain in the road too long. I ate several of the nuggets and drank some more water, then lay down on the floor. I tried not to think. I tried to totally blank out my thoughts. It was easy to blank out my mind of everything--except the pain.

I finally slept for a while; it was impossible to tell how long. The dim light in the cell never varied, nor revealed its source. It just was. When I awoke, I almost felt like I would live. I looked at my leg again. Small black patches were appearing on it.

I decided to try eating agin. I picked up some of the nuggets from the food bowl, spilling several in the process. A painful buzzing hit me in the base of my brain, different from before. The pain was new, and this sensation did not cause unconsciousness. The buzzing stopped when I picked up the nuggets I had spilled. I put them all back in the bowl. I no longer felt like eating.

After another hour or so of sitting around the cell in agonizing expectation, I felt the first kind of buzzing in the base of my brain again. When I awoke this time, I was still in the restraint, being carried on a cart through a hallway. I did not move. I could hear two Cyclops talking as they escorted me. I could not make out the language, but I found I recognized a difference in sound. These Cyclops appeared to have a slightly different inflection in their speech. I wondered if it might be a class difference amongst themselves; these were the workers, the others the elite.

We reached the operating room and they tossed me onto the table. It was difficult to feign sleep while being handled like a beanbag. I managed to stay still, though, until the Cyclops from the previous day came over and repeated his admonition. I opened my eyes. Before it turned away, I croaked, "What are you doing to me?"

The Cyclops opened its mouth in a sort of grin. "What does it matter? You'll die soon enough. Enjoy our experiments while you have the opportunity. Then you'll go on. Yes, in the stomach of a Kraatz in the oceans of Haastair. It will swallow you whole and alive. That’s when your fun really starts."

They repeated the same procedures as the previous day. I again blacked out and reawakened in a cell. My pain was worse than the previous day. After some time, I managed to eat some, then achieved some fitful sleep. When I awoke again and looked at my leg, it was a mass of blisters, black blotches and crusty skin. I felt my face. It felt like my leg looked. I would not survive this much longer. Or perhaps I was soon for the oceans of Haastair.

I finally resolved on a desperate plan. I grabbed two handfuls of food nuggets and sat and waited until I once again felt the now-familiar knockout buzz in my brain. When the buzzing began, I painfully stood up and simultaneously dropped several of the nuggets. The knockout buzz was replaced by a punishing buzz so painful that it rivaled the sensation of the operating room. But I did not black out. I slumped against the wall, slowly dropping the nuggets one by one.

The door opened and two Cyclops came in with a restraint. I could see the cart in the hallway beyond them. They stood there for a moment gaping at what must have been, to them, totally new human behavior from someone who was supposed to be unconscious. One pointed what appeared to be a weapon at me. Through the pain of the buzz, I threw the remainder of my nuggets at the Cyclops. As it dodged, I lunged and somehow caught hold of the weapon. I turned it toward the Cyclops just as he pushed the button. His left chest turned into a charred mass. I grabbed the weapon; it was simple to use. I killed the other one before he could react. I was lucky that they were orderlies, not trained warriors, and only used to absolute routine. I was lucky that their astonishment and lack of preparation compensated for my pain and weakness.

I stood there for a moment. I stood there naked, with a dying leg and oozing face and two dead Cyclops in the doorway. The door started closing. I dove through, trying to ignore the pain--but the pain would not ignore me. As I hit the hallway, the buzzing stopped. The door repeated the gruesome crushing act performed previously by the portal door.

I looked around and saw no other Cyclops. I desperately pulled the clothing off the pieces of the guards that lay in the hallway. I used the purple-bloodstained scraps of cloth to make a makeshift covering for my body, then tried to walk. I almost screamed from the pain of my leg, abused both by torture and by the gymnastics of my escape from the cell. I slumped back against the wall and noticed a small device I had overlooked, lying under one of the bodies. I picked it up. It was a sort of small control unit with a grid marked on it. When I could concentrate again, I randomly touched the squares. Other doors in the hallway started opening. I pulled myself up by grasping the cart and used it to carefully maneuver myself to the first open door. I looked in. On the floor was a mangled human body that should have been a corpse, but I saw an arm twitch. I felt ill, but was far past vomiting at such sights.

I managed to look in the other doors on the hall. All the other inhabitants but one were beyond hope. The last one looked totally undamaged. He just sat in his room until I looked in.

"Is it lunch yet?" he asked mildly. "The marine communists must return all my skin or the rabbit will grind its ax."

"Can you understand me?" I asked.

"Where?" he replied, "Why do you spin without paper cuts?"

"You need to come with me," I told him, "or the Cyclops will kill you."

"Thank you for the refund," he prattled. "Oh, God, the vertex of Mommy's toe is Silicon Valley."

I gave up on him. His body may have been intact, but his mind was gone. I recoiled as he lunged forward and began convulsing on the floor.

No other guards had come yet. I couldn't understand why. But I had to try to escape, even if I was ambushed at the corner.

I began pushing on, using the cart for support until I almost reached the corner of the corridor. Lights belatedly and suddenly began flashing and a loud buzzing began, this time outside my head. I turned my head at a flash of movement behind me. It was the occupant of the last cell, who had ambled into the hallway and in doing so had triggered the alarm. That's why they haven't already come to kill me, I thought. My doorway sensor was programmed for my leaving the room (with the orderlies) but his wasn't. The Cyclops are definitely coming now, I thought.

I leaned forward onto the cart, gripping it with both hands and pushed furiously with my good leg. I slid around the corner. No Cyclops there yet. I continued down the hall to a door. I fumbled with the control box until the door opened. I moved through, hearing footsteps behind me. I desperately lunged forward, only to be passed by the lunatic. He was running in a stylized way, like a pacing horse.

As the door closed behind me, I heard noises of Cyclops coming down the hall I had just left. I dimly heard shouts as they discovered the carnage.

I rolled down the hallway, then into another hallway, through another door, then down another hallway and another. I continued through a maze of hallways, gasping for breath. I continued for an eternity. I then came into a hallway that seemed to be a dead end. I fumbled with the control box again, trying to open all the doors. Most opened.

A head cautiously poked out from a doorway. The look on the woman's chubby face as she saw me was a mixture of revulsion and fear. My face and leg were not pretty.

"Who are you?" she demanded. "What are you doing? Why am I in this little room?"

"You're an experimental animal and live bait," I snapped, "The Cyclops think people are lab rats, not pals. Look at my face and leg for proof. If you doubt me, look in one of these rooms. But make it quick. We don't have time. Maybe you can help us both get out of here."

She stepped out and the hallway alarm went off. She jumped in fright, then looked quickly in the adjacent room. She said, "Oh, my God," then retched.

"Quick!" I shouted, "We've got to move on! Help me! It's our only chance! Push me!"

I must admit that she was quick. She sized up the situation in short order. She grabbed the cart with me on it and ran.

At the end of the hall, the door to the right led into another room, an empty one, but the door to the left remained close. Desperately, I tried punching new combinations. We could hear footsteps, shouts and hisses in the distance, getting closer. The door at the other end of the corridor hissed open and I found the proper combination to the door in front of us. At last it opened and the doorway gaped into a blackness. We plunged in. As we did, the lights came on. We found ourselves suspended in mid-air, at least a hundred feet from any solid floor.

"Oh, God," she said, "We're going to fall and die."

"I don't think so," I said, "It's gotta be some kind of elevator."

The door was making a loud humming noise. I looked around desperately and noticed a control panel mounted on the wall similar to the one in my hand, except that it had two vertical rows of buttons.

"Come here and grab my arm!" I shouted at her. As her hands closed, I pushed the two topmost buttons with full force. We rose in the shaft quickly. The cart rose with us and I held onto it.

The door below us burst open and guards spilled in, firing energy beams upwards. We maneuvered the cart beneath us as a shield and I began firing back desperately. Somehow, the woman managed to maneuver us so that we stayed close to the platforms on one side, barely brushing past them. Still, the guards were aiming well. Energy beams sprayed around the edges of the cart, gradually burning away the metal.

Then a shot grazed her left hand that gripped the cart and she involuntarily released it. That gave them the only opening they needed as the cart slid to one side. Another shot hit the woman's arm, then a shot grazed my left arm, then one hit her full in the face. Her grip on me loosened and I caught a terrifying glimpse of her blackened head. In rage, I turned my weapon on a control panel and fired on it. The force propelling me upward ceased. As I began to fall, I caught the edge of the nearest platform with my elbow and deflected my fall so that I slammed onto the next platform down. I heard screams and thuds below me through my haze of intense pain. I barely hung onto consciousness while I lay there for an eternity. As I became more aware, I made a supreme effort and examined my injured arm. The skin was badly blistered and oozing, but the arm was still usable. Any more body parts damaged and I might as well give it up.

No more shots came from below. Struggling, I cautiously peered over the edge. A beam narrowly missed my ear. I jerked my head back in and blindly fired my weapon over the edge. I jabbed at my control box until the shaft door moved.

The door began to open but stuck halfway, making humming, straining noises. I held my finger on the button, but the door would budge no further. I squeezed through and the door closed as I let up on the button. Nothing happened when I pushed buttons again, no matter what the combination. In a rage, I realized that they must have turned off the power to the doors, used a security override, or else jammed my particular control box. I almost threw the box against the wall, but thought better of it and slung it back around my neck.

I weakly rose to my feet and limped down the hallway, leaning against the wall. The hall continued for a long distance, past many closed doors. I did not know whether this was another prisoner floor. After a bend in the hallway, a large door blocked the way. It did not respond to the control box. It took five minutes of high power on my weapon to burn a hole through it. The weapon was hot in my hand by the time I finished.

I stepped through into a sort of anteroom, with several doors in the walls. The room was sparsely furnished with a sort of desk, several chairs, and what I knew to be a Cyclopean computer terminal. I was alone in the room.

A less heavy door on the far side of the room also refused to open. Another two minutes was lost burning through it. The weapon was almost burning my hand by the time I finished.

Then I was in another hallway, with more elevator shafts nearby. I hoped that stairs would be nearby; not even Cyclopean technology could be so perfect that stairs would be superfluous. I was right. A doorway near the elevators opened when I pressed the door control on the wall and it led into a stairway. I figured this area's power supply was separate from the other part of the building.

I leaned heavily on the handrail to climb the steps. I heard sounds coming from the floor I'd just left as I painfully mounted each step. I crept up two flights before I was too exhausted to continue upwards. I examined the door in front of me. There was no control on this side and the door ignored my control box.

So I burned my way through another door, wasting valuable minutes. The process took longer this time and my weapon got even hotter, though this door looked much like the last one. I finally crawled through into another hallway.

This hall was more decorated. It was lined with some sort of iridescent material, shifting from gray to green to blue and back again. I lurched around the corner and came upon a closed door, which did not respond to the box. I burned through one more door. It seemed an eternity; I figured this would be the last door opening with this weapon. I was forced to wrap the weapon in one of my rags to hold it.

As I completed the cut, I heard noises behind me. By now I was almost fainting from exhaustion and pain, but I half dove, half fell through the door. As I did, I pointed the weapon behind me and fired. I saw the top of a Cyclops head smolder as it fell and my beam caught the one behind it full in the face. I knew my weapon was almost exhausted but I held onto it just in case. I dared not retrace my steps to grab one of their weapons.

I crawled down the hall, almost screaming from the pain in my leg. I opened another door that responded to a wall control. Before me was a kind of lobby with a Cyclops seated at a desk. It looked up in horror. I pointed my weapon at it and it froze. I lurched past it, to the fanciest door behind it. It lunged toward me behind my back and I turned and tried the weapon again. A weak beam flickered, hitting the Cyclops in the leg. It tripped and fell, hitting its head on the wall. It fell unconscious to the floor.

The door opened easily when I tapped the wall panel. I was in an inner secretarial office, just like an Earth office. The Cyclops in there was already getting up from its desk and moving towards a door in the far wall. I pointed the weapon and pressed the button and nothing happened. The Cyclops changed direction and lunged towards me. My hand slipped and I fell, sliding down the wall heavily as it barely missed me with a flying tackle that would have put me out of commission. I had just enough time to crack it in the head with the weapon as it started turning. It hesitated and my adrenalin was pumping hard and I hit it again and again and again. Only the insanity of the moment gave me strength to keep hitting it. It took what seemed like a thousand hits before its eye rolled down and it fell back on the floor. I slumped back on the floor as well, the room spinning in front of me.

After a few moments, I gathered enough energy to creep towards the other door. I just reached it when I heard shouts coming down the hall outside the office suite. I slapped the wall panel desperately and the door opened after a hesitation. I heard a Cyclops hissing something in anger inside as I lurched through the door. The room must have been soundproofed for it not to have known that I was outside its door. It slammed its hand on its desk and the door threw itself shut behind me. It barely missed the flesh of my leg but ripped off a rag as it shut.

My head was reeling and my hand wavered as I pointed the weapon at the fat Cyclops behind the desk. It already had a weapon in its hand which it was taking out of a compartment.

By this time, I almost didn't care. But I tried bluffing anyway. "I'll take you with me," I said, not expecting it to understand.

"Damn hairball," it hissed. It understood. It also didn't know my weapon was wasted.

"You help me get out, I won't kill you," I told it through gritted teeth. "Otherwise, we both die."

It looked angry but dropped the weapon.

"Drop the weapon on the floor and push it over this way," I commanded. It complied, hostile but determined to live. I picked it up but kept the spent weapon.

There was a faint pounding on the door behind me. "Keep that door shut or you're gone," I growled. I painfully moved across the room, away from the door.

"Damn you, hairball," it said. "We didn't know you'd made it up to this level." Its hands clutched at air. "You still can't get anywhere from here. We'll get you, hairball."

"Yeah, well, any chance is worth taking right now," I told it, "and I'll take it. Actually, it's been pretty easy so far."

"Easy? You're the first damn hairball to ever escape from a cell," it hissed. "And you look like a Zleister has played with you for a few hours. We should never have put you in a terminal wing. We just figured you wouldn't last long."

"I want to know how to get out," I demanded.

"The same way you came in," it hissed. "Or perhaps in a coffin."

I glanced around the office. There were three doors in addition to the entryway. One would be a private washroom, I figured. One might be a closet or another private chamber, as might the third. But the third was near a window and might possibly lead outside. I glanced back at the entry door. A red glow where a weapon was about to burn through decided me.

I was grateful for adrenalin as I limped the three miles it seemed across to that door. I never took the weapon off the Cyclops as I pushed the wall control. The door opened and beyond it sat an aircar basking in bright sunshine.

"How nice," I said, backing out the door. "An aircar."

"You can't use it without the activator," the Cyclops said.

"Give me the activator," I ordered. I knew what one looked like; I'd seen them used on Earth.

It glowered at me. "I don't have it."

"Give me the activator," I screamed.

"I don't have it," it growled.

The weapon's energy beam broke through the door and the hole was about to be breached. I stumbled over to the aircar and looked in, keeping my weapon pointed at the Cyclops the whole time. The activator was in place. The Cyclops had lied.

I climbed in, torturously. I then clumsily copied the actions of the Cyclops driver on Earth who had driven me to the portal building. The aircar closed up and lifted off.

Several Cyclops burst out the door onto the roof. They fired wildly as I took off. The aircar lurched and smelled of burning metal from the energy beams. I made it away from the building, out of range, and kicked in full speed to anywhere.

The aircar steered by foot pressure. Throttle and all other controls were by hand, all computerized with flat-surface displays. I was sure that course could be locked in, though. My head reeling, I played with the steering, right and left, up and down, and watched which displays changed. I had to assist my burnt leg with my hand, painful though it was. I played with adjacent controls to find out how to lock course and altitude.

The grisly processing complex that I had just escaped from was in a wild area. It was the only sign of habitation visible among thick forested hills. I saw high mountains on the horizon at a distance, and I locked in course to them, at high altitude, and top speed.

I slumped back and felt consciousness drain away.

Chapter Five

I was being held by dozens of grinning Cyclops, all hissing imprecations at me: "You're bait, hairball. . .Damn hairball Tlaaritz dung. . .We're going to make you into a pot roast, hairball. . ."

I more or less woke up. I was drenched with sweat, my head reeled and ached, my face stung and pulsed with pain, and my leg was on fire and dully throbbing simultaneously. My mouth felt like glue, my ears were ringing, and my fingers on my right hand had difficulty grasping. My left arm lay unresponsive and useless. The sun had been low in the sky when I had taken off in the aircar; now it was high in the sky.

I could feel that something was not right with the aircar. It was slowing and turning, jerking slightly, as if being subjected to a great force. Through a haze of pain, exhaustion and gummed eyelids, I looked out the windows. Two other aircars were visible some hundred meters away, to either side of me and above me. I realized that they were controlling me with tractor devices.

I wasn't going to give up now. I could steer with one foot and one hand pushing the other foot and do everything else with the other hand. I turned hard to the top, against the tractor device. I let the nose of the aircar slip to the side. Since the aircar was still at full power, this had the effect of a slingshot. As soon as the nose came around, the tractor beam force plus my propulsive force shot me back explosively.

I steered hard to one side. My momentum was so great that I broke free of the tractor beams. I saw one of the other aircars directly in front of me. I steered hard up. My hull barely ground against the top of the other aircar. It was still enough to rip a half-meter long gash in my floorboard. I had to fight to keep the veering craft under control. The contact had shattered the top of the other aircar, which fell out of control. It slammed into a cliff face and exploded.

I was operating on full adrenalin recharge now. I continued at top speed, the wind screaming through the gash in the floor, and saw the other aircar veer behind me. I headed for a dense bank of fog over a mountain ridge and prayed that the mountain might stay where I thought it was. When I entered the fog, I pulled hard right and straight up at the same time. It seemed that I couldn't lose the other aircar. But I could buy time and that was what I was going to do.

I flipped and dove straight down and leveled out just in time to avoid the ridge. I skimmed the barely-visible mountain side for what seemed an eternity, then found myself in the clear between two mountains. The other aircar was temporarily not in sight.

Cursing to myself, I frantically searched the cabin and found the homing beacon that I knew must be there. That was the only way that the others could track me so easily. With the aid of a piece of steel, my right arm and a left arm that was only barely functional, I ripped out the homing beacon and pushed it through the gash in the floor. Then I dove as low as I dared down the mountainside and grimly began steering between mountains. I followed a steep, deep valley until it opened up on forested hills.

I skimmed the hills for several hours. The other aircar never appeared. Its pilot seemed to have fallen for my ejected homing beacon trick. I was tormented by hunger and thirst and deadening fatigue, but had to keep going. I came to the edge of a plateau, dissected by canyons, and descended into a large canyon system.

After cruising the canyon for some time I noticed a large rock shelter, or shallow cave, under a massive cliff. It was some fifty meters long and ten meters high. I nervously guided the aircar into it at float speed and forced it as far back inside the cliffside as I could. The bottom ground against the rock surface as it wedged back in until the top scraped rock, too. I got it in some fifteen meters from the open air. I parked the aircar and turned it off. I again collapsed for an unknown period of time.

Chapter Six

Coming back to consciousness, I managed to clear some of the haze from my head and turned off everything in the aircar that I could find except the central power generator. I turned it down and disconnected it, but left it on at trickle. I knew that to turn it off could mean not being able to restart it, or at least taking an hour to warm up, and that was time that I might not have.

I grabbed my weapon and two weapons that were in the aircar and climbed out. I sat behind the aircar, my leg, arm and face throbbing. I waited and watched, barely clinging to consciousness. I hoped that I was deep enough into the cave space that their heat and vibration sensors could not pick me up.

An occasional aircar buzzed over the canyon, undoubtedly looking for me, but none entered or came close. After an hour, I was convinced that I had lost them for now. If they had tracked me on radar or some equivalent, they had lost me.

I was filthy, starving, passing out from pain and exhausted past the point of fully rational thought. By rights, I realized, I should be dead from the condition I was in; only anger, determination and adrenalin had kept me going. My last act for the time being was to pull out a floor mat from the aircar and to lay on it. I again passed out.

I awoke. The sun was again low in the sky. I surmised that it was evening. The pain was reduced to intolerable and my fatigue was lessened to unbearable. My hunger was worse than ever and thirst filled my head with cotton.

Time to get going, I thought. I tried to stand up. My head reeled and my leg refused to work. I examined the leg. It was totally encrusted in scabs and dead flesh which formed a sort of hard shell around it. The knee was locked. I looked at my arm. The place where it had been grazed were blackened and oozing. I felt my face. It felt like my leg. I could barely open my mouth a crack.

An aircar passed over the canyon. Perhaps it isn't really a good time to get going yet, I thought. As if I could anyway.

Using my good leg and arms, I crawled to the aircar. I painfully, awkwardly searched it. I found what seemed to be a container of water. Desperately, I dribbled it in through my crusted lips. It tasted unpleasant but was in fact water. It was a blessing to my rigid, sore mouth.

I found a small box filled with vials and tubes of what appeared to be medicines--either that or something far worse, like poisons. They were labeled with the Cyclops’ incomprehensible language, in their strange alphabet.

If they were medicines, they were intended for alien physiologies. But I tried them anyway. Even if they weren't medicines, I figured I had nothing to lose. I was likely to die here in any case.

I tried smearing a little of everything smearable onto my leg. Some substances burned, even through the crusted dead flesh. Most seemed to have no effect.

I sat in the aircar for a few more minutes. I was still dizzy and light-headed. I forced down some more of the water. I thought about my situation. I realized that I could hardly move. I couldn't move on foot from the rock shelter. Sheer cliffs and narrow ledges were non-negotiable with my body in its pitiable condition, possibly impassable even if I were in perfect condition. I could not consider leaving in the aircar with a horde of Cyclops vying for the honor of roasting me to a crisp.

I slid back out of the aircar, carrying the other floor mats and the water. I laid the mats down with the first one. I lay back down and drifted back off to sleep.

I awoke again in the dark, two small moons barely illumining the ghostly landscape. I drank more water. I heard another aircar pass over the canyon. I fell back asleep.

I awoke again as light began to fill the canyon. Hunger gnawed at my stomach. I lay on my mats until my eyes would more or less focus, then examined my leg. There was little change from the previous day except for some of the medicine smears. Three places were even more disgusting colors than before and two of them were oozing. One spot had softened and had become less painful.

I dragged myself back to the aircar and found the medicine I'd used on the fourth spot. I smeared my leg with it. One more test before I tried it on my face.

I still couldn't stand. I knew I had to find food in order to regain strength and to heal. Holding a weapon, I waited until an aircar passed over the canyon, then crawled to the edge of the opening.

At the entrance were some cactus-like plants with some leathery but fruit-like appendages. I crawled back to my mats and tried a tiny piece of one. After ten minutes, I felt sick enough to die. Another hour passed before the nausea passed enough that I could function.

I desperately searched the aircar again. I found a cargo compartment that I'd overlooked before. Another five minutes of searching and I found the control to open it. Inside was a bag of food similar to that I'd eaten in the cell. On the bag was Cyclops lettering and a hologram of a smooth-skinned animal. It was pet food. I pulled it back to my mats and tasted a pellet with my tongue through my stiffened lips and ate it. It tasted identical to the food in the cell.

After half an hour, I felt no worse. I managed to grind some pellets into a sort of meal and forced it through my lips, alternating with water, until I was too exhausted to eat any more.

My leg was beginning to bend slightly as the crust softened, and I could feel the pulse of my blood in it. I threw caution to the winds and smeared the ointment liberally on my face and arm. I lay back and again slept.

Over the next few days, which were somewhat longer than Earth days, I rested and healed. My face, arm and leg progressively softened and became less painful. By the fifth day in the cliff shelter, my water was gone, half the pet food was gone, and I could barely walk with a terrible limp. I knew I stank; if Rhonda had been there, she would carefully have stayed twenty paces upwind.

Oh, my Rhonda. I could not wait any longer. She was probably dead by now or at least reduced to a subhuman piece of meat, but I still had to try to find her. I still heard aircars over the canyon, but they were less frequent. I decided that I must try to find her.

I made one final search of the aircar. In the cargo compartment I had found a good tool kit as well as some Cyclops clothing. I had found two weapons in the aircar in addition to the pet food, medical kit and water. I found a map to that area of Cyclops land and was able to orient myself to it. I at least knew that I knew the way back. I also found an elaborate radio but could only pick up static on it because of its depth in my rocky den.

By accident, I found something else. Trying to jiggle something loose, something did indeed come loose--a weapon control. I narrowly missed vaporizing some body parts but lightly toasted some exposed skin as a concealed energy cannon doubled the size of my rock shelter. After that, I felt much better about my chances. I studied the concealed controls and finally felt that I had a pretty good idea of how they worked.

I took apart the door opening control. The technology of the door control and of the weapon controls were not far different from much that I'd used on Earth, although far more complex. I was able to rig the door control to remotely trigger the weapon control. I cannibalized the door control for some of the parts in the weapon control trigger as well as using some non-essential components of the aircar controls. There was a part to the weapons control I could not figure out, and I was careful to bypass it.

I loaded up the aircar and readied it. I lay all the floor mats over the gash in the floor to block it. Fifteen minutes after an aircar passed over my canyon, I slowly drifted it out under hover speed. The aircar worked well for having suffered from its previous abuse. I cautiously emerged from the canyon and saw no other aircars.

Chapter Seven

I flew low, as close to the treetops as I could, in the direction of the complex. I kept the radio on and kept playing with it in hopes of intercepting some of their communications. Although I could see two aircars dimly in the distance, they seemed unaware of my presence for the time being.

The bliss of their ignorance did not last long. About when the complex appeared on the horizon, I also appeared in the aircar operators' awareness. They came after me. I kicked in full speed for the complex.

I nearly reached the complex before they reached me. Diving at me, they started firing wildly. Desperately, I rose, flipped, and circled and got one in my sights. I vaporized it with my weapon. When the second Cyclops aircar saw its companion become gaseous effusion, it abruptly banked away. I guessed that they had been unaware of my energy weapon.

I was wrong to think that the complex itself may have been undefended. The other aircar operator just figured that they would take care of me. Although I was dodging as hard as I could, potshots from the complex were grazing me. The aircar was bucking badly. I figured there was no escaping. If I turned tail, they would have a clear target and plenty of reaction time while I banked. I was certainly dead meat if I tried fleeing. I was almost certainly dead meat if I tried to hang in there. I took the almost.

I dove straight toward the point where most of the firing was coming from. A shot disintegrated half my windshield and almost took my head with it. Another melted a huge hole in the side.

When I was close enough that I thought my weapon could be effective, I reached to punch the fire control. I abruptly banked at the same time to miss a barrage of energy beams directed at me. Because of the change in force, I did not just push the control button. I jammed it so hard I thought I broke my finger. An entire ten percent of the huge complex disappeared before my eyes. That explained the extra control components.

The heat and wind from the reaction blew into my open aircar. I gagged, trying to breathe but couldn't. The aircar was wildly flipping out of control. I fought with it to save myself and regained control with only tens of meters to spare. My lungs were seared from the hot gas and I felt nauseous, but I went back full speed up and ahead. I punched the broadcast button on the radio.

"If you want the rest of your complex to remain," I said, gasping out the words, "You'd better stop shooting."

All was quiet for a few moments, then a voice hissed on the radio. "We know who you are, hairball. And you're dead meat. You don't have a chance. Land and surrender that aircar."

"Yeah, right," I wheezed. "I must look crazy if you think I'll go for that. You'd probably blow yourself up as well up if you tried blowing me away, considering the little energy cannon I have. You know about its potential, don't you? I'm in charge here and I want someone."

"Look, you reeking hairball. You're in charge nowhere. We've known who you wanted all along. And we have her. We've been waiting for you."

"So you expected me to get back through," I snapped.

"We expected nothing, only that you'd do the unexpected. You should not have gotten to my office alive, much less away from it. But you did, so we are taking no chances."

"Seems to me you were pretty careless, leaving this aircar lying around with the energy weapon."

The radio hissed loudly at me. "We didn't know about that, hairball. It was my predecessor's vehicle. He kept a few things to himself until he died."

"And you probably did him in, you cold-blooded snake. Like you probably did in Rhonda. Prove that you have her," I ordered.

A few moments later, three figures emerged from a tower door. "There she is, hairball," the voice on the radio said. "Up on the tower in front of you. Fire again and she dies."

I eased closer and realized that one of the figures was indeed human. Not just any human, but Rhonda. I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and, at the same time, a sickening thud in my insides. A weapon was pressed into her back as she stood there, terror on her face.

"You will have to give up that vehicle to get her back."

"Right!" I screamed. "Like I can trust you. You'll just let me walk away, huh? My finger's still on the trigger button, lizard."

"We'll have to work out a deal," the voice hissed, more hostile than ever. "It is shame for one of us to have to negotiate with humans but you leave me no choice. Think about it if you like. But the only way you'll get her is to surrender the aircar."

I thought a few moments. "All right. Here's my deal. You come out if you're the senior high potentate I saw before. You're my hostage. I land on the deck above the balcony they're standing on, and only you and Rhonda are there. You have your arms in the air. Rhonda holds a weapon on you."

"I don't like that deal," the voice informed me.

"Tough," I replied.

The voice paused a moment, then replied. "We hold your ace card, hairball. We have your woman. We can kill her at any moment. If you use your weapon again, you'll kill her. You have no chance anyway. You may as well surrender if you want to be with her again."

"If I surrender, I'm dead," I said through clenched teeth. "She'll probably die anyway from whatever you've done to her. Take my deal or lose your country castle here. We humans have a history of suicide if nothing else works."

They went for it. They had no choice. The bigwig and Rhonda stood out on the landing deck. I landed but kept my finger over the trigger button. I pointed a weapon out the aircar door at the Cyclops. I keyed the radio again. I sensed a strong possibility of an ambush.

"Oh," I said, "and something else. This weapon triggers by remote control. See how it's pointed at that wing wall, there?"

I eased out of the car and gingerly set down on the deck. I activated the conventional energy weapon by remote and the wing wall vaporized. I reached back in and keyed the radio again. "Any more trouble and another large chunk of your complex vanishes."

The hostility in the Cyclops' faces was extreme. I had certainly come to recognize that as an expression of theirs. I thought it inadvisable to let them know that the remote would not operate the higher-powered firepower. Let them believe.

I leaned back out of the aircar and straightened up. I walked towards the three figures and for the first time looked directly at Rhonda. Her eyes were fixed on me. She looked upset.

When I drew near, she choked, "Oh, Cowboy, is that really you? What did they do to you?"

"Some little lab experiments. Oh, God, it's good to see you. I'll get better. What did they do to you?" It was difficult to not focus my eyes on her. Only great willpower kept me watching around me.

"I don't know. Something about my liver, I think. It really hurts. I thought I'd never see you again. Can we get out alive?" She was crying.

"Sure, sweets. We've got all the aces now." I hoped I sounded surer than I looked.

The Cyclops in charge hissed at me. "So what do you want, human? How may we accommodate you?" They were masters of sarcasm, it seemed.

"Get back against the wall," I ordered. "Back where nobody's gonna see us. Or hear us, hopefully."

"If you kill me, you're dead meat anyway," the Cyclops said, "Even if you melt down the whole place."

"I'm not so sure about that," I replied, "But I know you're our ticket out of here. You're gonna live for a while."

I pointed the spent weapon at it and pushed the button. It flinched. "This was the weapon I had when I entered your office, but I still have firepower," I said. I used another weapon to vaporize a stray leaf on the deck. "You guys put a lot of stock into being in control and saving face, don't you? And you really want to save your skin, don't you? I'll walk between you and Rhonda. You point this spent gun at me like you've taken over. I'll point the good one back at you under the robes here where they can't see it. Rhonda will have another one pointed at you. You take us down to the transporter. You send us back to Earth and you can tell your people that we're dealt with."

"You will be dealt with," it hissed. "As soon as you emerge on Earth, they will fry you, human."

"No," I mused, "I don't think so. You are going to communicate only in English so that I can hear you. Any Cyclops talk and a big, essential chunk of you disappears. Now let's get going."

The Cyclops talked in English on a portable radio. He gave orders, I gave Rhonda a weapon and we started.

We walked grimly down through halls and elevators. It was tense. Several Cyclops guards offered to accompany us but Bigshot waved them away. We finally reached a transporter room. One of my captive's flunkies was there awaiting us at the control panel. The two Cyclops exchanged glances but said nothing.

"We're ready," the flunky croaked. So they didn't all naturally hiss after all. "Step onto the platform."

"Wait," I commanded. "Now, Bigeye, you get on the platform with us. We're all going."

It hesitated. If looks could kill. . . It got on the platform with us. As we stood there, the two Cyclops exchanged glances again. The flunky reached for the controls. The bigwig dove off the platform. I threw my weapon up and roasted the flunky before it could touch a control. I also lightly broiled the bigshot's leg.

"It was a fake, wasn't it?" I screamed at the Cyclops. "I don't know how you set it up, but it was a setup, wasn't it? Now you get back up here, you son of an octopus or you die a slow death right now!"

It writhed in pain. I stepped down and pulled Bigshot up roughly.

Rhonda exuded quiet desperation. "We can't get out of here without someone to push the buttons."

"Keep covering the Cyclops and make believe that it's a pork roast if it twitches," I told her. "I'll find a way to do this."

I walked over to the control panel. Too many controls. It was hopeless. Except, perhaps. . .

I walked over to the door and carefully welded it shut. I dragged the Cylops over to the panel. "Set it up for Earth," I commanded. "Remember you're going too. This time you have no outs."

It glowered at me with fear and pain but did as it was told. "You push this button now to activate," it said, "But someone must stay here to do it."

"I'll take care of that," I replied. I got him back on the platform. Using materials salvaged from the room, I rigged up a bar resting on its end on the chair as a fulcrum. Fasted to its upper end was a writing implement poised to press the button. A wire tied up the weight to a fixture on the ceiling. Two more wires insured that the contraption would fall straight.

Down lower, out of the Cyclops' line of sight, was fastened another short bar. Positioned beneath it was the control box. When I triggered my hammer, it would also activate the aircar's weapon. I hoped it could do much damage.

There was also another control box identical to my door box. I picked it up so that the Cyclops would think it was the same one.

A faint glow on the door showed us that they were burning through. I mounted the platform again and got out my weapon. I turned to Rhonda. "When we go through, sweets, be ready to shoot. We might not last long but we're going to do maximum damage."

"All right, Cowboy," she said tenderly. She poked her weapon into the Cyclops neck and leaned over and kissed me gently. She closed her eyes to do it. I don't blame her. I looked like hell. "It's been worth a lifetime to see you again, Cowboy," she whispered.

I gazed in her eyes for a moment, then turned. I suddenly realized something. I'd been too stupid to see it before. "Okay," I said, "On the count of ten." I started counting very slowly and simultaneously searched the Cyclops. I found the wire on the count of three. I threw it out and vaporized it on the count of four. I burned through the trigger wire for the portal control on the count of five.

Chapter Eight

There was a tweak in our reality and we were in a small steel portal chamber. With the three of us, there was hardly room to move. I immediately began jamming likely buttons on the control box. After a few seconds the door began to open. It stopped partway and began to close.

"Fire," I gasped at Rhonda, pulling her back behind the door. We began burning with our weapons and welded the door in place as return beams played around the inside of the chamber. A hand stuck in the doorway with a weapon and I melted it off. A humming started. They were trying to send us somewhere. I fired upwards into the portal controls and the humming stopped.

All was quiet for a few moments. "We're coming out," I said. "Put down your weapons!" All was still quiet. I kept my weapon on the doorway and stood behind bigshot with Rhonda behind me. A figure leaped into the doorway and I vaporized it as an energy beam shot past my ear.

I glanced out quickly. The other figure was on the floor, twitching, out of commission.

I pushed Rhonda out through the crack and then followed with bigshot. It was barely able to move from the worsening pain in its leg.

I tried pushing button combinations on my box but nothing worked. A hissing started.

Gas was coming in through the vent. "Hold your breath," I ordered. I began firing on the vent at low power and carefully welded it shut.

"This is a heavy gas," I whispered. "Stay standing up as tall as you can and breathe shallow." The tiny bit that had gotten in was already burning my eyes where it had settled on the way down.

"Burn through the door and stay to the side," I told her. I grabbed another weapon from the dying Cyclops technician and began burning with two weapons through the back wall of the anteroom next to the portal chamber. I wasn't sure we'd make it with the oxygen burning up in the little chamber, but we did, our sides heaving with relief at the influx of fresh air.

At the same time, Rhonda breached the doorway and some twenty energy beams shot in that way. They started burning out the rest of the doorway as well. "They think they have us," I whispered, as we stepped out furtively through our hole. No Cyclops were back there. I pulled out bigshot.

We started edged cautiously around the chamber. I saw a figure try to lurch past us. Bigshot was trying to escape with only one usable leg. I roasted the other leg lightly. It fell, face clenched in intense pain.

We crept around the chamber. The Cyclops were still trying to roast us through the door. We were able to roast all them before they could react.

There were no other Cyclops in the room, but there were plenty of humans. They were all cowering on the far side of the main portal chamber.

"Damn it," I screamed to them, "If you go through you go to your death! Don't do it. Look at what they did to me! We need your help."

They all sat there unmoving. I threw more words at them but they would not respond. Most looked terrified; many looked unbelieving and a few looked sullen.

The PA system came to life. "Human," a voice said, "Surrender. You are surrounded."

"I got your bigshot warden here," I yelled back. "We're taking it out with us."

"He is now immaterial to us," the voice said. "He has failed and will die. You must surrender."

I screamed an obscenity. There was no response from the Cyclops. Rhonda stood guard. I grabbed a wheelchair from against the wall and retrieved Bigshot in it. We went to the door and faced it.

I suddenly felt that feeling of someone behind me. I whirled around. There were. Three men were trying to sneak up on us. I waved a weapon at them. They stopped. "You guys want a hot time?" I asked.

"You don't know what you're doing," one yelled. "You're destroying our chances at going on."

"Going on?" I screamed. "To your death! They want you for human guinea pigs. I'm one of the lucky ones!"

I waved the weapon again. They shrank back. I yelled to the PA system, "Hey, you damn blueskinned lizards, open the door! We got your leader."

There was no response. "Same ploy as before," I whispered to Rhonda. I remembered that a wall section near the door adjoined something other than the main hall. I started melting it with four weapons, two in each hand as Rhonda worked on the door. She went slowly to give me time.

I burned out a hole big enough for the wheelchair into a darkened room. Rhonda stepped in. I came through with Bigshot. We were in a utility room.

I recognized the main power supplies to the portals and destroyed them. Then we opened the door from the wall panel and walked out into an empty corridor. Devious as they were, the Cyclops were apparently not able to understand the human capacity for trickery.

We walked straight to a side entrance. I roasted a lone unsuspecting guard and we walked out unimpeded. It was late evening. We expropriated an aircar with the activator left in it and took off. Bigshot was quietly compliant all the time. It had no choice. It was barely conscious from its injuries.

Chapter Nine

We traveled at street level until we reached the city's old slums, now almost empty. We broke into a closed used-clothing store and Rhonda and I dressed ourselves properly. The water was still on in the restroom, so we were able to wash off the worst of our stink, but we were still far from clean. Bigshot just sat with a glazed look as we dressed.

We snuck out the back way and ducked through alleys until we came to a street with several parked cars. I waited until no aircars were in sight and then hotwired an ancient groundcar model. We drove off down the street, hoping they wouldn't look for us in a groundcar.

Despite police aircars passing overhead, we continued to an electronics store. We parked out of sight. I went in.

"I hate to do this," I told the clerk, "but this is a stickup." I secured a box full of electronic supplies and tools.

We drove to a different area of the slums and ditched the car. We went through several more alleys to reach a deserted building. We broke in. Rhonda turned on a portable TV set to look at news while covering our hostage. A reference was made to renegades and described us but said nothing about the Cyclops connection. I tuned another radio to a Cyclops band, but could understand nothing. Bigshot refused to translate.

It did tell us, "I will yet see you destroyed!"

"If you get in touch with the rest of your kind," I said, "they'll destroy you!"

"I'm dead anyway," it said, "but I can die gladly knowing that I'm taking you with me."

I worked all night to assemble my equipment. The last thing I did was to take the charge pack from the least-used weapon and wire it into a contraption. We were ready to move.

After a night, ol' Blue Hide was more fully conscious though still in much pain. It was feigning sleep with its eyes closed. I wrote Rhonda a short note and we whispered to each other within earshot of Bigshot. We discussed plans to return through the Cyclops' private portal to rescue prisoners. I specified the portal's exact location. I hoped we would be believed.

I wish we could have gone back on a rescue mission. But we were too close to death as it was. We could never survive another encounter. We had only come this far because we had always done the unexpected. Perhaps the Cyclops had not realized the depth of human resourcefulness, but they weren't stupid. They had seen and noted all my tricks so far.

We sloppily tied up Bigshot. We were leaving it behind, sitting on the wired charge pack, operable by remote control. It did not know what it was sitting on. We also left the radio behind as well as a concealed listening device.

We left the Cyclops with cheery goodbyes. It glowered. We went to a nearby street and stole a different car. Rhonda drove to an intersection near the spaceport gate.

On the way to the spaceport, we listened. Bigshot managed to untie itself as we expected and began started screaming into the radio. It attracted a lot of attention from the Cyclops. We had destroyed the wheelchair so Bigshot couldn't go anywhere. I figured they could focus on interrogating Bigshot about our fake rescue plans for a while.

We were approaching the spaceport when we heard aircars nearing. Rhonda whipped the wheel over and pulled into the open double garage of an abandoned house on a corner. We disappeared from aerial view just before an aircar passed overhead. We guessed that the Cyclops were covering the approaches to the spaceport.

After the aircars passed, we heard several more Cyclops come into Bigshot's space. When it appeared they were about to leave, I detonated the bomb. Our receiver went dead.

Chapter Ten

We changed into new clothing and waited and listened and watched out windows on two sides of the house. We determined a consistent patrol pattern.

Just after the next aircar passed over, a groundcar stopped at the traffic light. I ran out with a weapon, my face covered, and commanded the driver to open the door.

"Going to the spaceport?" I demanded. He nodded dumbly. His companion looked terrified. The back seat was full of luggage. I forced them to move over at gunpoint and drove the car into the garage.

"Now, we aren't going to hurt you," Rhonda told them. Her face was covered as well. "We're just borrowing your car for a while and taking your trip."

We took their tickets and passports. I tied them up with torn bed sheets. After the next aircar passed overhead, we backed the car out of the garage and Rhonda drove away.

While she drove, I pulled a hat over my eyes and clumsily glued on a fake beard that I fashioned out of what was left of my hair. I also threw the weapons out the window. We knew we wouldn't get through the spaceport gate with them. Modern detectors were very sophisticated. But by now I felt naked without some hard defense.

We reached the spaceport gate. I turned my face to the side and let Rhonda do the talking. She still looked good, and was convincing. The human guard waved us through and we parked in the long-term lot.

People gave us curious looks as we walked in. I knew we did not look good, especially with my face looking as it did, but I hoped the clothes covered us well enough. The spaceport and ship personnel were too preoccupied with boarding procedures to give us any attention, fortunately. It was a large liner with many passengers. We boarded without problem.

We found our tiny cabin, locked the door, and sat and waited. If they had any idea we might be on the ship, we had no hope. But the spaceport could communicate with the ship for only a few minutes before landing and after launch. The energy conversion drives prevented communication the rest of the time. If they didn't know by departure time that we were on board, they wouldn't know for another three days until we docked at the Jupiter orbital station. We hoped we could also pass that hurdle unscathed.

At last, we felt the faint, faraway clunk of the disengagement. The captain's voice over the ship's speaker system told us that we were underway. We strapped in and felt the force of acceleration, then felt the hum of full engine power.

During the next three days we rested and cleaned up and ate and talked. We dared not go to the cafeteria, where my face would be scrutinized, but ate in our room. My face and leg by now were peeling, leaving shocking pink skin behind. Cracks appeared from the tender skin drying. I used up the little bit of lotion in the courtesy bottle, but it wasn’t enough. It was better than nothing. Rhonda was feeling better.

Rhonda told me how they'd worked on her liver. Her tormentors delighted in telling her that. She was really lucky that they'd wanted to keep the rest of her healthy so they could play in that major organ. But what they did to it might be fatal, after all. She was better now, but had lapses that scared me. She would double over in pain and go into what seemed to be mild shock, but we could not risk her going to sickbay.

Chapter Eleven

When we reached the orbital station, we walked out in the crowd. At the exit doors we found the crowd stopped. Security was performing an exit check. Two Cyclops were among the security officials. They had apparently gotten word on us just before docking in.

Just our luck. So far we'd come and yet so far to go. I knew we couldn't get through that check with my face and the wrong passports. Not to mention no weapons. We held back and faded into the background.

Rhonda whispered, "We'll never get through like this, and they're bound to do a ship search after the disembarking passengers have all left. But look, they're just waving the crew through."

We retreated to our cabin and rang room service. The servers were surprised that we ordered enough food to require two of them to bring it. Especially in dock. When they came to our cabin, we jumped them. Almost nobody was on the ship, so nobody would hear a little commotion.

We put on the servers' uniforms, which mercifully almost fit. We strolled back through the crowd and out the door. I walked slightly behind and to the side of Rhonda to make my face less obvious. The security was too busy checking passports to even look at us. They just waved us through. One of the Cyclops was not so careless. I did not recognize it, but it scrutinized us suspiciously.

We heard the Cyclops say something to the other and start after us. We hurried around a corner and ducked into a storage room. We put on the clothing we'd carried out in a bag and ditched the uniforms. Coming out, we found that the Cyclops had apparently gone on down the corridor. We put distance between us and the ship we'd just left. Then we went shopping for a ship.

We found a cargo ship that was seven hours behind schedule. It couldn't leave because they were missing an astronavigator. Their astronavigator had informed the captain, at the last minute, that he'd suddenly decided to go on to the Cyclops' domain. Before the Cyclops, there was always a backup astronavigator on board. That was no longer an option, so they were desperate for just one, any one.

We decided to go in separately so they wouldn’t know we were together. I went first. I knew they'd be glad to have a new astronavigator, no questions asked, other than the standard certification of her abilities. But I didn't know that they would take me for certain. If Rhonda had gone first, they might have taken off with her and without me.

I was fortunate. They were short an energy conversion pump monitor. They were happy to get another one to fill out their shifts. In the old days, a ship would carry five who would rotate shifts. Now they were lucky to get three, and I would be the third. When they looked at my face, I told them that it had been burned by a malfunctioning converter unit two months before and this was the first I'd been able to work since then. I told them I was restless and needed to be back in space where I belonged. They swallowed it; I sounded like a genuine spacer – I had known several spacers in the old days, and knew how they talked. I had made it so far. With my work papers, I disembarked to tell Rhonda the good news.

I rounded the corner to our meeting place. There she stood, nobody near her, looking terrified. When she saw me, she said "No, Cowboy! Run!" And I saw it: the Cyclops off to the side, trying to look unobtrusive. It saw me, and started toward me.

"Come with me, Earthling," it said. I was having none of that. "Screw you, lizard!" I screamed and backed away. It kept coming towards me. I turned and ran, looking back to make sure it was following me.

I didn't know what I was going to do. I only knew I had to get it away from Rhonda, and hope that it was the only one. I ran through corridors and tunnels, ever dodging, trying to lose it, but it was no use. It was fast and it was tenacious.

I ducked into an alcove off a deserted passageway, my chest heaving. I was desperate. I glanced around and my eyes lit on a welcome sight. Many things have changed over the last couple of hundred years, but good old AC wiring is still in use. There, beside me, was an electrical bus that should have live wires in it.

I froze as the Cyclops hurtled past, momentarily missing me in my hideout. I pulled out an electrician's knife I'd stolen from the store. I used it to unscrew the screws from the bus cover, pull out two wires--a hot and neutral--and cut them and strip the ends. Just as I finished, I heard the Cyclops searching up the hallway.

I stuck out the wires in front of me just as it stepped into my alcove. One caught it on the neck, the other on its side. I didn't know Cyclops anatomy--other than what I'd seen crushed in the two doors--but the contacts seemed to do the job. It froze in literal shock and began twitching and jerking. The weapon in its hand fired harmlessly beyond me. I held the wires on it for what seemed an eternity until it fell over backward to the floor. I pulled it the rest of the way into the alcove, then grabbed the weapon and killed it and ran.

I made it back to Rhonda. She was hiding in a corner near where I'd started running.

"Oh, Cowboy, are you all right?" she asked, clutching me tightly.

"Yes, but we'd better hurry," I told her. "Get on that ship quickly. I'll follow right away. They're gonna take you because they have no choice."

She boarded, and I followed five minutes later. With my crew pass, I wasn't subject to a search, so I kept the weapon. I loitered in the crew lounge until I saw her pass by. She gave me a secret high sign we'd pre-arranged. Feeling relieved, I went to my quarters.

Some ten minutes later, I felt the ship disengage. I was sweating with relief that the Cyclops' hadn't figured out that we were on the ship. They probably hadn't even found the body yet, or no ship would have been allowed to leave. We made it into hyperspace with no further incidents.

Chapter Twelve

So here we are, now, five days out from the station, still in hyperspace. Rhonda went into her liver crisis two hours ago and I'm monitoring the energy conversion pumps. Again, to come so far and have yet so far to go.

We can do nothing but wait. The ship is on a default setting to Sirius 4. Programming for figuring emergency destinations takes a lot of computer space, but is required in case of a situation like this one. This ship has four default destinations. Sirius 4 is the nearest. We're three days away.

It's the next "day" now. I awake and go to sickbay. It is four hours until my next shift. My face is healing pretty well, as are my leg and arm. I think I'll always have a bad limp, but I'll live with it – if I live. I am ready to face whatever I have to.

I walk into sickbay, and there Rhonda lays, apparently unconscious. I ask permission to sit by her bed. The technician looks at me in surprise; no one knows we're associated at all. I ask her about Rhonda's condition. She tells me that her liver had simply stopped working for a while and that there was nothing they could do. The liver is working now but Rhonda is still unconscious. Either she just recovers by herself or she dies.

After a few minutes, the technician walks on out of the room on some errand. Rhonda's eyes open slightly. "I think I'm okay now," she whispers, "I've been playing possum until I could talk with you. I've had no pain since last night. And, you know, the liver does have amazing regenerative powers."

"Thank God," I whisper. I feel relief and hope beyond measure. But I know they would not allow her to return to her post unless they could land and certify her health at a full-fledged hospital.

Now it's late evening after my shift. We've planned our escape for a few minutes from now. I'm waiting for her to come to my bunk.

She appears in the doorway. She's walking carefully and slowly, like she's afraid of jarring some body part, but I know that at last she's okay. We change out of our ship uniforms and into civvies. Then we sneak out of my cabin and hope we aren't seen.

We reach lifeboat deck and I pull out a device I'd made from some electronics that I filched from backup circuits over the past five days. I plug the device into a nearby alarm terminal and press a button.

The alarm sounds and we run for the lifeboats. There are two guards for the six lifeboats, but their job during an alarm is to make sure that everybody gets on the lifeboat. They are our unwitting accomplices for boarding.

We enter a lifeboat. As I knew we would be, we are the first on it. The guard waves to us to sit down. We do so and he turns to look for other people coming up the hallway. I take another device out of my pocket and use it to jam the ship's control overrides and free up the lifeboat controls. The guard turns at the unexpected noise. The two layers of door close in the surprised guard's face and we blast away. Away into the blackest black of hyperspace.

We strap ourselves in. I know that my device back in the mother ship has turned off the alarm and sounded the all-clear signal by now. Rhonda sets the controls for space transition and we reenter normal space with a tearing jolt. It stuns us for a few minutes. When we open our eyes, the viewscreen is filled with stars.

"Where to, Cowboy?" she asks.

"You're the guide," I tell her, "I'll follow you anywhere."

She smiles. We have enough power to reach one of the habitable planets that are logged into the lifeboat's data banks.

And when we get there, the lifeboat has plenty of tools and supplies for two people to survive. The Cyclops won't know where we are until they can locate our beacon. The way we ripped out of hyperspace, we could be anywhere within fifty parsecs.

But they won't locate our beacon. I'm already disabling it.

I look at Rhonda again. My lovely Rhonda. I smile. "I think we're gonna be okay."

"As long as I'm with you, Cowboy," she says.