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The Wishbone Express - Chapter 13

 
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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Mon Jan 26, 2015 1:02 am    Post subject: The Wishbone Express - Chapter 13 Reply with quote



Chapter 13

Despite his flattened lungs, Randy struggled to his feet and hastily unfolded the insulation sack. The camera, still attached to the sack, didn’t look damaged by Randy’s crash landing.

“Hey, Randy? You okay?” Bill started bleating at him. Randy still hadn’t managed to re-inflate his lungs. “What’s happening over there? Randy, answer me!”

“Shut up,” Randy managed to croak.

“What?”

Randy didn’t waste any more breath trying to answer. Ignoring Bill’s repeated and increasingly frantic questions, Randy stepped into the barrel-shaped sack and tugged it up around him like a loose pair of pants. When he had the top of the sack pulled up to his waist, he reached out and hit the cycle button on the airlock control panel. The buttons weren’t labeled in English, but the tiny pictograms were easy to figure out. The outer door closed, and air began flooding the enclosure. The insulation sack was a foot shorter than Randy, and he had to bend his knees before he could flip the zippered lid into place and seal the bag closed.

That was a mistake. As the pressure rose in the airlock, the airless sack collapsed around him until the thick material was molded to the contours of his crouching body. Randy could barely move, but he managed to unzip the sack a fraction of an inch so that air could enter the sack while he shoved and pushed at the inside. Once he had it pushed back into the shape of the sack and not the shape of his body, he sealed the zipper.

Squatting down in the pitch-black confines of the insulation sack, Randy breathed a sigh of relief when the small red letters of the radiation warning faded from his faceplate. The beeping alarm ceased, but Bill’s frantic voice was louder than ever. Randy finally took pity on his friend.

“Relax, mother. I’m fine.”

There was a long pause, then Bill spoke with great indignation, enunciating each word with brittle perfection.

“Don’t ever do that . . . to me . . . again!”

Randy’s voice was ragged with tension, but he managed to say, “Aw, maw, lemme alone. I kin take ker of ma-self.”

Randy activated the small camera that was glued to the outside of the sack. Instantly his faceplate became a view screen, and he found himself looking down at one corner of the airlock. He grabbed the upper of the two T-pins glued to the inside of the sack and tilted it down, causing the camera on the outside to tilt upward. He panned the camera around until he found the control panel, then he hopped over to it. Hopping while inside a five-foot sack made of stiff material was awkward and difficult, especially with the added weight of the space suit and equipment pack. And the artificial gravity seemed to be about five percent above Earth normal.

This is not going to be easy, thought Randy.

When he got closer to the control panel, he took hold of the lower T-pin and used it to direct the one on the outside of the barrel-shaped sack. With this steel finger, he pushed the button that opened the inner airlock door.

The interior of the ship was in chaos. The entire lighting system was strobing as a warning to the absent crew, trying to tell them that the radiation level was killing them. Even though Randy was inside an insulation sack and a spacesuit, he could hear a recorded warning blasting out in an alien language, a screeching series of cat-like sounds, repeating the same “words” over and over. Even though the camera was trying to adjust to the changing light level, the image on Randy’s faceplate was fluctuating in brightness.

Randy knew the ship’s bridge was somewhere to his left, and he started hopping toward it. It was strenuous and frustrating work. Every time he hopped a little too high, his head socked against the top of the bag while his feet were still pushing at the bottom.

Randy made six good hops, then two bad ones, then one very bad one, after which he fell flat on his face. Somehow he managed to keep the T-pins on the inside of the sack from smashing his faceplate. Getting up wasn’t easy. He had to draw himself up into a ball and then roll back and forth until his knees were beneath him. The video camera miraculously continued to function, but it was taking a beating as Randy thrashed around on the floor. He was panting and cursing when Bill’s anxious voice interrupted him.

“I can’t stand the suspense! Transmit your video so I can see what’s going on!”

Against his better judgment, Randy turned on his helmet lamp long enough to find the button on his left forearm keyboard that transmitted the camera’s video. The video image from the camera was suddenly visible to Bill on one of the Wishbone’s display screens.

“Uh-oh,” said Bill when he saw the strobing image. “The camera must have busted when you fell.”

Randy didn’t bother to set Bill straight. He struggled to his feet and again started hopping toward the ship’s bridge — which he was beginning to think was about two miles away. Randy knew that time was running out, but he had to make each hop carefully, otherwise he would end up right back on his face. And just to make matters worse, the view through the camera was being violently jolted by each hop, giving him a bouncing picture that made him dizzy. Add to this the fact that the lights were still strobing. It was, therefore, no surprise that he fell down again.

“My goodness, such language!” said Bill after Randy’s verbal reaction quieted down. But even while Randy had been cursing, he was hastily regaining his feet.

Hop, hop, hop, hop, hop — the muscles in Randy’s thighs were aching from the strain. He had to begin each hop from a low crouch because the five-foot sack imposed such a low limit on the height of each jump. He had only covered a dozen meters since leaving the airlock, but the time it had taken was time he just couldn’t spare. He finally made it across the room and started down a short corridor. His hops were getting slower and weaker as his legs began to tire.

In the cockpit of the Wishbone, Bill watched the display that carried the bouncing image from Randy’s camera. The com system’s speakers were delivering the sound of Randy’s ragged breathing. Bill didn’t bother to tell his friend that the unmanned ship was very close to pushing its way through the Wishbone’s shield. Randy couldn’t go any faster than he already was.

In fact, Randy was barely able to move at all. The muscles in his legs were in agony, and their strength was being leeched away by the terrible exertion. He made it down the corridor and turned the corner — only to stop dead at the foot of a short stairway. The camera on the insulation sack panned up and down the stairs while the poor sack just stood there, too dumfounded to move.

Bill, watching the display screen in the Wishbone’s cockpit, moaned in sympathy. “Oooow, you poor thing.” It sounded ridiculous, but it was absolutely sincere.

Randy took no notice of the comment. He was too busy glaring at the six steps of the stairway, hating every one of them. They were obviously not built for humans. Each step was unusually broad, measuring about a foot and a half from front to back. But the bad news for Randy was the height of each step: twelve inches and not an inch less. He wondered if he had the strength left to jump that high. Or the time. He was running out of time, and his keen awareness of this was eating at his nerves like tiny termites.

Clenching his teeth and emitting a low growl, Randy crouched low and then jumped up to the first step. He landed badly and almost lost his balance, hopping forward until his feet struck the next step. He managed to stay upright only because he was able to brace his knees against the step above. When he found his balance again, he backed up a few inches and made his next jump. The bottom of the radiation-proof sack grazed the top of the step, but he landed better this time. The fact that he had to judge his movements by the camera’s image made the task even more difficult. By the time he reached the fourth step, he had to rest for thirty seconds before making the next jump. His thigh muscles burned with a fire that went right to the bone. When he tried to jump up to the fifth step, the bottom of the shield sack caught for an instant on the lip. Desperately, Randy tried to get his feet under him as he came down on the fifth step. He was badly off balance, tilted too far forward. He made one hopeless hop in an effort to keep from falling, but all he succeeded in doing was to send himself flying toward the sixth step. The edge of the step caught him on the shin and his body slammed down onto the deck at the top of the stairs. The lower of the two T-pins that were glued to the inside of the sack poked him hard in the chest, sending an explosion of pain through his body.

In the cockpit of the Wishbone, Bill fully expected the screen to go blank when Randy’s camera crashed down onto the hard deck, but somehow it continued to function. Bill opened his mouth to ask Randy if he was okay, but he decided it was a stupid question, so he wisely elected to hold his peace.

The pain in Randy’s chest was excruciating, but he made himself roll and wiggle and squirm until he had gotten to his feet again. He felt a rising panic because of the slowness of his progress. When he finally stood, he wasn’t sure which way he was facing, so he panned the camera around quickly, looking for the stairway, afraid that the next hop he made might send him tumbling right back down to the bottom.

Frantically he panned the camera left and right — and there was the starship’s bridge.

It was a fairly large room, with eight separate control panels at each of the duty stations for the absent crew, all facing a wall-sized display screen at the front of the room. Unlike the rest of the ship, the lights here on the bridge were not strobing, but every console was filled with flashing lights and messages, probably all pertaining to the ship’s rapidly failing systems. The big display screen on the front wall showed the Wishbone’s stern, just five hundred meters away, the distance between the Wishbone and it’s innermost shield.



Randy lunged forward and started hopping toward what he hoped was the helmsman’s station. He was hopping so fast that he lost his balance again and couldn’t stop. He crashed into the console and almost slid right over the top of it. The consoles were low, no more than a half meter from the deck, obviously not built for anything remotely human in shape or size. The “chairs” in front of each one were actually low padded benches with one end pointing toward the consoles.

Randy wiggled himself backward until he got his feet back down on the floor, then he pointed the camera at the console, but as soon as he saw it, he realized that his carefully thought-out plan was cursed with one terrible flaw.

“Bill! Damn, look at it!” he said in an anguished voice. “I can’t read this fool thing!”

The keyboard and all the labels on the console were in a language Randy had no knowledge of. There was no way he could change the nav computer’s programming.

Bill saw it too as he studied the image being transmitted by Randy’s camera. He managed to stay a little calmer than Randy, and he did some quick typing on his own keyboard.

On the unmanned ship, Randy was frantically studying the switches on the console, trying to figure out if one of them would disengage the autopilot. He knew that if he started flipping switches at random he would risk fouling up the safety systems, causing the console to freeze until it was properly reset — which he couldn’t do without being able to read the console.

On the other hand, any chance — no matter how slim — would be better than just squatting inside a sack until the Wishbone was rammed. So Randy picked a switch purely at random and started lining up the T-pin glued to the outside of the sack. He had a sudden urge to make some sort of farewell speech to Bill, but he ignored it. He touched the T-pin to the switch and was about to flip it when all the cryptic labels on the console suddenly changed to English!

“Hey, what the hell did I just do?”

“Much better, eh?” said Bill’s voice. “I’m feeding your video image through the Wishbone’s computer. It has data on that language, so it’s able to translate the symbols and then transmit a computer-generated image back to you.”

Randy felt like the state governor had just granted him a reprieve. “That’s great!” said Randy gleefully, but then his good cheer vanished. “Whoa, wait a second. Something’s wrong. It isn’t translating any of the symbols on the keyboard.”

“Of course not, dummy. A written language can’t be translated letter for letter. You have to stick to words and concepts.”

Randy could hear the sound of Bill typing at his own keyboard. After a few seconds, Bill spoke again.

“Listen carefully. Punch the buttons that light up. Got that? Just punch the buttons that light up.”

Randy was confused and he opened his mouth to say so, but he stopped himself when he saw one of the buttons on the keyboard start to glow like a firefly. Randy didn’t exactly understand, but he grabbed the T-pin on the inside of the sack and directed the tip of the one on the outside to the glowing button. As soon as he tapped it, the glow went away. Another button started glowing. Randy tapped it and the glow went out.

Tap, tap, tap — Randy hit each button as it lit up, and after a few seconds, he figured out what he was doing. The Wishbone’s computer was spelling out the program for him, letter by letter in the alien language. But he wondered how long it was going to take. The process seemed to be incredibly slow.

“You’re almost done,” Bill’s voice said, answering Randy’s unspoken question. “The helm will switch over to manual control and the engines will shut down, which means the ship will drift outward from the — ”

It was too late. Time had run out. The unmanned ship squeezed the last of itself through the Wishbone’s force shield and surged forward. On the big display screen in front of Randy, the Wishbone’s stern rushed toward him. He was still tapping like mad at the buttons as they lit up. Without even knowing it, he finished the instructions to the nav computer just an instant after the unmanned ship broke through the Wishbone’s force shields. But it was too late to prevent a collision.

When the unmanned ship’s engines shut down, its maneuvering thrusters were no longer holding the ship in a forced orbit. As it rushed toward the Wishbone, it was pulled upward by tidal force. The belly of the unmanned ship struck the Wishbone a glancing blow as it slid across the top, crushing the rear quarter of the hull inward. Then the unmanned ship drifted out ahead of the Wishbone, still moving upward as it fell away from the planet.

Inside the Wishbone the artificial gravity did a heroic job of canceling most of the shock from the impact, but the noise was deafening. The crystalsteel hull rang like Quasimodo’s bells. In their cabins all the passengers thought the end had finally come.

“Randy!” Bill shouted into his headset mike. “Get out of there, fast! The Wishbone’s power systems are failing. She barely answers the helm.”

Randy wanted nothing better than to get out of there fast, and he knew just how to do it. The camera on the insulation sack panned around the helmsman’s control panel until Randy found a large button with a locked safety cover over it. The English translation of the button’s label read: EMERGENCY EVAC.

Emergency atmosphere evacuation was a drastic, last-ditch procedure which was used to fight on-board fires, toxic gas contamination, hazardous bacterial/viral infestation, and a variety of other emergencies aboard ship. It was an extremely effective procedure — but it did have one little drawback. It killed the crew. Unless of course they had the good sense (and the time) to prepare for it by suiting up and strapping down.

Randy inserted the narrow tip of the T-pin beneath the safety cover of the emergency evac button. The cover was a hinged metal flap with a key lock set into it. Only the ship’s captain and executive officer had keys to that lock. But Randy had his own kind of key, and he applied it with a vengeance. Rather than use the T-pin glued to the inside of the sack, Randy folded the stiff fabric of the insulation sack around the horizontal part of the T-pin on the outside and then gripped it with both hands. He slid the chisel-like tip of the T-pin beneath the beveled lip of the safety cover, then he braced his feet as best he could inside the sack. He twisted the T-pin with all his might, straining until the blood roared in his ears and the veins in his temples pounded and his teeth creaked. At first it seemed as if the tough little metal cover wouldn’t budge, but slowly it began to yield to the pressure. It twisted and warped and finally popped off. The emergency evac button lay exposed.

The unmanned ship was rapidly drifting away from the Wishbone. If Randy didn’t get out of there in the next few seconds, he wouldn’t have time to get inside the Wishbone before the unmanned ship’s reactor melted down and flooded the area with lethal radiation.

Randy directed the tip of the T-pin to the emergency evac button and shoved it down. The image on the big screen at the front of the bridge vanished and was replaced by a row of symbols. The computer-generated view on the inside of Randy’s faceplate translated these symbols into numbers, a countdown that started at 6.23 seconds and raced down to zero while the ship was filled with an amplified voice in an alien language, warning the absent crew that emergency evac was about to commence.

Two . . . one . . . zero. Chaos. The inner and outer doors of every airlock on the ship slid open, sending the ship’s atmosphere screaming out into space. As the air was sucked from the bridge area, Randy’s insulation sack was inflated to a bulging cylinder by the trapped air inside the sack and the dwindling pressure outside it. The howling hurricane picked up Randy’s ballooned sack and sent it flying out the door. The glued-on camera and T-pin were snapped off when the bag slammed into the wall at the top of the stairs. The bag bounced off the wall, rolled down the stairs, bounced off the wall at the bottom, and was picked up again by the roaring wind. It sailed across the room, surrounded by a cloud of miscellaneous objects that were being plucked from all parts of the ship by the escaping air. Everything, including Randy in the sack, was being funneled toward the nearest airlock. It was all gushing out into space, fountains of random objects that spewed out of a half-dozen airlocks that studded the spacecraft’s hull.

The wind was so strong at the airlock where escaping air rushed in from all directions that Randy’s sack made a right-hand turn and shot through the opening without even grazing the walls. As it streaked out into space, it was enveloped by a cloud of ice crystals and miscellaneous litter that fanned out away from the ship.



Inside the sack Randy, was only half-conscious. He had taken a brutal beating when the sack slammed its way out of the ship. His left arm was broken and several ribs were cracked. Sluggishly he started feeling around with his only good hand for the zipper that would open the sack.

“Randy!” Bill’s voice blared in his ears. “Randy, say something! Are you all right?”

“No,” Randy moaned as the clumsy fingers of his right hand fumbled with the sack’s zipper.

“What? Is your suit punctured?”

“No. It’s okay.”

“Randy, listen to me,” Bill said sharply. “You’ve got to use your suit thrusters to slow down so that the Wishbone can catch up with you. I’m scared to try to maneuver the ship closer because it’s handling so erratically. If I tried for a rendezvous, I’d be more likely to ram you.”

Randy got the zipper started, and the air rushed out of the deflating bag. Working the zipper one-handed was difficult and frustrating. He was gritting his teeth against the pain from his broken arm, and he hoped there were no shattered bones poking out of his skin that could puncture the fabric of this suit.

His voice sounded hoarse and strained when he spoke. “Call one of those stellacruisers. Tell ‘em to pick me up.”

“I already tried that. They won’t come anywhere near that unmanned ship because they say its reactor is about to do a total meltdown and spray radiation all over the place. We’ve got to get far enough away from that ship so our shields will give us some protection. But you’re too far away from the Wishbone and too far to starboard for the grappling beam to get you.”

“All right,” Randy said wearily. In his opinion this was a poor way to treat a hero. “I’ll try.”

Randy finally got the insulation sack open and started kicking downward, pushing himself up out of it. The sack drifted away while Randy began to gently push the buttons on his left forearm, hissing through clenched teeth at the pain caused by even the lightest pressure. It seemed to take forever to program the suit thrusters, but he had to give the computer some very complex instructions, because he could not use the manual controls. They required both hands.

“Hey, what’s the hold up?” said Bill’s voice. “Fire up those thrusters, boy.”

“Doing that right now,” Randy grunted as he finished the program. The suit thruster folded out at the corners of his backpack and then roared to life. They twisted him around so that he was being pushed down toward the planet. His broken arm sent out such a wave of pain that he screamed inside his helmet with deafening volume. Bill’s voice started bleating at him before he could even stop.

“What’s wrong? Hey, Randy! What happened!”

Randy clamped his teeth together so hard they ached, and he was making an animal-like grunt with each rapid breath. Finally he managed to groan out a fragmented sentence.

“I’ve . . . got . . . a . . . broken . . . arm.”

“Oh crap,” Bill muttered. Then he let out a weary sigh of resignation. “Okay. I’ll come get you, buddy. Just sit tight and I’ll — ”

“No! Absolutely not, Bill.”

“What is this, heroics? I’m certainly not going to just leave you out there!”

“Shut up, will ya? Lemme talk. Aaagh!” A groan slipped out from between his clenched teeth, but he made himself keep on talking before Bill could interrupt him. “We’ve got to get away from that ship before the reactor does a meltdown.” Randy glanced up at the unmanned ship, now several kilometers away, still drifting outward from the planet. “And that means I’ve got to come to you, not the other way around — especially if you only have limited control of the ship.”

“Well . . . okay,” Bill said reluctantly. “I’ll catch you with the grappling beam as soon as I can.”

“Do it gently, if you don’t mind.”

“Right. Gotcha. Not to worry,” Bill was trying to sound chipper and optimistic. Randy wasn’t fooled.

Using built-in sensors, the computer in Randy’s spacesuit was homing in on the Wishbone, directing the suit thrusters to bring Randy down into the same forced orbit as his ship. The suit thrusters were also slowing Randy’s forward motion as he orbited Philcani-tu, making it possible for the Wishbone to catch up. Randy studied the Wishbone as he descended toward it. It was a pitiful sight. His pride and joy, his home, and his livelihood was now a battered ruin, barely flyable, a depressing sight. The maneuvering thrusters along the topside of the hull were sputtering every few seconds because the power systems were rapidly failing.

The pain in Randy’s arm continued unabated, and he didn’t look forward to being yanked around by the grappling beam. On the other hand, he was worried that there might not be a grappling beam if the ship’s power systems continued to deteriorate.

Randy tried to keep his voice normal when he said, “How’s she handling?”

“Like a wheelbarrow with a square tire. After we get clear of that ship, I guess we better let one of the stellacruisers pick us up. I’d hate to have to land this thing the way it’s — ” Bill stopped abruptly, then he shouted, “Randy! The radiation level from that ship just shot way up! I think the meltdown has started!”

“Get out of here, then! Decelerate with all the power she’s got left!”

“No, listen to me, you’re already in — ”

“Bill, do it! Don’t kill yourself and the passengers — ”

“You’re already in range of the grappling beam, you moron!”

There was a pause, then Randy said, “Wait, say that last part again.”

Bill’s answer was a Technicolor beam of energy that shot up from the starboard side of the Wishbone and grabbed Randy. It hauled him down toward the ship, and Randy yelled hoarsely when his broken arm was jolted. The beam reeled him in at a dizzying speed, and within seconds he was being pulled up next to the freight hatch. The suit thrusters shut down when his suit’s computer determined he had reached it’s programmed destination. With Randy being held against the hull by the grappling beam, Bill rolled the ship halfway over so that Randy was on the opposite side from the unmanned ship and its lethal radiation.

“Secure your safety line to a hull ring,” Bill said sharply. “We’ve got to decelerate right now, and I need the power being used by the grappling beam!”

Randy’s hand was shaking as he secured the clip of his safety line to a small recessed ring on the hull designed for exactly that purpose. He felt weak and groggy.

“You secure?” said Bill. Randy was just about to push the switch on his chest that would lock the safety line and prevent it from reeling out any further.

At the same moment he said, “Yes. I just need to lock the — ”

Bill didn’t wait to hear anything but yes. “Good! Hang on.”

The grappling beam vanished just as the maneuvering thrusters at the front of the ship roared to life and started slowing the Wishbone. Randy was thrown forward, and his safety line started spinning out of its holder while he raced along parallel to the hull, toward the Wishbone’s prow. Randy almost fainted from the pain in his arm, but after several seconds, he managed to press the button that locked off the safety line. The lock was designed to prevent the line from being snapped, so it served as a brake, bringing Randy to a relatively gentle stop. But it was abrupt enough to deliver another painful jolt to his broken arm. He passed out from the pain.

As the Wishbone decelerated, Randy hung by the taunt safety line, sixty feet from the cargo hatch, dangerously close to one of the blazing maneuvering thrusters near the ship’s nose.

Two full minutes went by. In the cockpit, Bill was beginning to think that the radiation level from the unmanned ship had already peaked. He wished he could be certain, because the unmanned ship had not yet cleared the outermost of the Wishbone’s five shields, and the Wishbone had already lost so much velocity that its orbit was beginning to drop toward the planet below. The maneuvering thrusters were sputtering like candles in a breeze. Bill was amazed that ship’s power systems were still maintaining the shields.

Bill climbed out of his chair and started opening the access panels along the walls at the rear of the cockpit, exposing row after row of modular microcircuits. He mumbled to himself as he consulted the schematic diagrams on the insides of the access panels, trying to decide which of the modules he could pull out, thereby shutting down certain nonessential functions and reducing the load on the Wishbone’s power systems. But he found it difficult to concentrate because he kept glancing over at the display screen that showed the radiation being emitted by the unmanned ship. Two minutes had gone by, and poor Randy was still outside, hanging by his safety line, enduring a two-gravity deceleration maneuver with a broken arm.

Finally the unmanned ship passed through the Wishbone’s outer shield. When it did, Bill spoke into his headset mike. “Partner, I’m beginning to think the fireworks display has been called off. If you’re getting tired of hanging around out there, maybe we could — ”

A blinding flash interrupted Bill and the cockpit dome turned black to shield itself from the radiation. Still hanging next to the hull just below the cockpit dome, Randy was on the opposite side and was protected by the Wishbone’s hull from radiation that got through the force shields.

“Disregard the former half of that comment,” Bill said cheerfully. “We just won the game by a final score of three to zero. Yeah, Wishbone!”

Randy took so long to answer that Bill began to worry that his safety line had snapped during the deceleration. When Randy finally spoke, his voice sounded alarming weak.

“You’re gonna . . . have to . . . come get me . . . Bill.”

“Hey, what’s wrong with you, buddy? You don’t sound so good.”

“I think I passed out for a few minutes. This arm is killing me, Bill. It bends in too many places. I’m . . . not sure which bend is the elbow. And did I mention the broken ribs?”

Bill was scrambling out of his chair as he answered. “Holy Hannah! I’m on the way. Hang on!”

Bill dashed out of the cockpit and hurried across the lounge toward Clawron’s cabin. He hoped the woman wouldn’t put up a fuss when he told her he had to have his spacesuit. If she did put up a fuss . . . hmmm.

Bill unlocked the weapons locker, yanked out a pistol, slammed the locker shut, and relocked it. He checked the level in the plasma canister and then headed for Clawron’s cabin. Bill was perfectly willing to blow her head off if she didn’t scramble out of the suit as if it was filled with ants.

When he got to the door of the woman’s cabin, he didn’t waste time knocking, he just hit the touch plate and charged right in. He found his spacesuit still lying on the bed, but Clawron had already vacated it. She was not in the cabin, so Bill tossed his pistol on the bed and started hastily getting into the spacesuit. He heard the door to Mr. Aganto’s cabin open behind him.

Something slammed into Bill and knocked him sprawling across the bed. He twisted around quickly — and looked up into the snarling face of the wajinda. Never in his wildest nightmares had Bill Jenkins seen so many sharp teeth. He stared up at the animal with big round eyes while he waited to die.



The wajinda only paused for a second to deliver one hideous growl, six inches from Bill’s nose, then it rolled off of Bill and whirled around to face the door, drawing its paws up tightly beneath it so it could leap at the person who stood in the corridor. Bill glimpsed Clawron for an instant before she dodged sideways toward the cargo hold. The wajinda’s reaching claws missed her by inches as the animal sailed across the corridor. Aganto was staggering toward the door of his cabin, and the wajinda collided with him forcefully, knocking him back into the room. The wajinda scrambled up from Aganto’s motionless body, leapt out into the hallway again, and bolted toward the cargo hold.

What the hell is going on here? Bill thought to himself. Grabbing his pistol, he jumped up from the bed and rushed to the door. Aganto was struggling to sit up, one hand held against the back of his head where it had struck the floor. The front of his shirt was ripped open and there were four parallel claw marks that ran diagonally across his blood-smeared chest. Aganto’s face was twisted with pain as he fixed his half-focused eyes on Bill and gasped two words.

“Paid assassin . . .”

“What?”

“Assassin . . . trying to . . . kill us all!”

Bill was thunderstruck by the sudden realization that he’d been very, very stupid. He’d let a dangerous animal come aboard his ship, and he had not insisted on the elementary precaution of locking it up. And now, too late, he was finding out that the animal possessed something that made it even more dangerous: intelligence.

With gun in hand, Bill headed for the cargo hold. He knew that Clawron might already be dead, the wajinda’s fangs buried in her throat. But when Bill burst into the cargo hold, the two combatants were circling each other warily. Clawron’s body was positioned in that lethal stance he’d watched her practicing. The wajinda’s fighting technique appeared to be pure animal savagery, giving no outward indication of intelligence or training. It was a technique perfected by nature, an awesome thing to see.

Bill raised his gun, taking careful aim at the animal — and suddenly the lights went out.

The Wishbone’s artificial gravity shut down at the same instant. In the corridor behind him, Bill heard Aganto cry out reflexively at the sudden feeling of falling. The Wishbone’s artificial gravity came on for an instant and then was gone again. Bill was thrown to the floor briefly. The weightless pistol was knocked from his hand and went spinning off in the dark. A half-second later, the dim glow of the emergency lights came on. They revealed a weird scene. Both Clawron and the Wajinda were floating in mid-air about eight feet apart, both thrashing wildly in their vain efforts to get a handhold on something. The pistol was floating across the room toward the wajinda, and Bill wondered if the non-human would snatch it out of the air and use it on Clawron. But the pistol passed behind the still-thrashing wajinda, who didn’t even notice it.

The Wishbone began to shudder violently as its hull grazed the upper atmosphere of Philcani-tu. The ship’s velocity had been so diminished by the deceleration maneuver that it was now falling toward the planet. Soon the hull would begin to heat up from air friction — and Randy Henson, still clinging to his safety line, would fry like a moth on a skillet.

Bill was close enough to the floor to kick downward and send himself up toward the ceiling, then he pushed against the ceiling with his hands, angling toward the corridor. He came down at the mouth of the corridor, put his hands against the walls on both sides, and pulled himself into it. Aganto floated in the corridor twelve feet away, his eyes large and full of fear, his face unnaturally white. He tried to say something to Bill, but a sudden nausea from the weightlessness made his stomach and throat begin to spasm.

“You’ve got to stop — ulp — to stop — ulp!”

Bill pulled himself forward and sailed into Aganto. They both floated back to the open door of Aganto’s cabin, and then Bill braced himself with his feet against the wall while he shoved Aganto through the door so that the man could be sick in the privacy of his own room, without worrying about killer creatures that would eat his face.

“Close the door manually, lock it, and strap yourself in,” Bill said quickly. “Our landing is going to be a little rough.”

Bill launched himself toward the cockpit. He was trying very hard to remain calm, but his breathing was quick and shallow. After entering the cockpit, he went to the open access panels and started checking the modular microcircuit boards. The cockpit was hazy with smoke. He found a half-dozen circuit boards that had been scorched by a sudden power surge. He yanked the scorched modules out of their slots and tossed them behind him. He pulled replacement modules from the spare parts locker in the opposite bulkhead. He was trying to work fast, but in his haste, he was fumbling around badly.

Mumbling and cursing to himself, Bill shoved the replacement modules into the appropriate slots. As he did, the ship came back to life by degrees. Control panel displays, sensors, com system, computer, air circulation, lights, artificial gravity. All the control panel displays came to life with a flood of warnings about the ship’s condition and the deteriorating nature of its orbit.

Randy’s voice blasted with ear-piercing volume from the headset Bill still wore. “Answer me, dammit! I need help out here! I can’t pull myself in with one arm!”

As soon as power was restored, Bill turned off the artificial gravity again, hoping to make it difficult for the wajinda to get to Clawron. He strapped himself into the left-hand seat and then bruised his fingertips on the computer keyboard, giving fast instructions to the autopilot while he answered Randy in a preoccupied-sounding voice.

“Are you sure? I mean, ummm . . . have you tried?”

The answer was so totally different from what Randy expected that he was silent for a few seconds. Then he said, “What?”

Bill finished his instructions to the computer, then he said, “Hang on, partner, we’re going to have to decelerate again. The air friction is getting so bad that you might be — ”

“Whoa! Wait! Don’t activate the thrusters yet! I’m floating at the end of thirty feet of slack line, and if you start decelerating now, I’ll go flying forward like the end of a bullwhip. Gimme a chance to reel in this line first, okay?”

“Sweet Molly Malloy!” exclaimed Bill. “How did you let that happen? No, save your breath, you can tell me later. Haul in that line, fast!”

Randy had already touched the button that released the lock on the safety line. The weak pull of the automatic retractor was reeling in the slack, and when this was gone and the line was taut, Randy was still eighteen feet from the ship. The thin upper atmosphere of Philcani-tu was buffeting him around, but he managed to take hold of the line with his good hand and start tugging on it, pulling himself toward the ship, letting the retractor take up the new slack. Despite the damage to the Wishbone, it was still more aerodynamically streamlined than Randy’s body, and so the tenuous wind started dragging him toward the Wishbone’s stern. The safety line caused him to swing inward toward the hull until he hit it fifteen feet behind the cargo hatch, jarring his broken arm yet again. It became harder and harder for him to pull in the safety line. As the Wishbone went deeper into the planet’s atmosphere, picking up speed as it fell, the wind pressure increased until Randy could no longer haul himself in.

“Bill,” he said in a strained voice. “I need for you to decelerate a little. Just a little. Okay?”

“Right.” Bill grabbed the manual controls. A moment later the forward thrusters spurted feebly, reducing the Wishbone’s speed a tiny fraction. When the Wishbone slowed, Randy surged forward and the safety line started reeling in. An instant before he reached the tethered end of the line, Randy locked off the retractor. He was still traveling forward, and when he passed the point where the line was tethered to the ship, it swung him around and slammed him into the hull, sandwiching his broken left arm between himself and the ship. He almost fainted again from the pain.

His teeth were clenched too tightly for him to speak, so Randy had to listen to Bill’s repeated questions about his condition. When he was finally able to answer, he sounded pitifully weak.

“Now you can decelerate. But bring the thrust up gradually.”

Bill told the computer to initiate the deceleration maneuver. Randy wrapped his good arm around his bad one, holding it firmly against his body, then he set his jaw and tried not to cry out when the Wishbone’s thrusters sputtered to life. As the thrust increased, Randy hung by the short length of safety line, his face contorted by pain. He prayed that the line wouldn’t break from the force of his weight multiplied by a three-gravity deceleration.

In the cockpit, Bill had his seat turned around backward so that he was being pressed into it by the deceleration.

In his cabin, Mr. Aganto had complied with the instructions Bill had given him a few seconds ago on the PA. Aganto was standing against the cabin’s forward wall, his back pressed against it by the ship’s deceleration.

In the cargo hold, both Clawron and the wajinda were pressed firmly against the forward wall, separated by the doorway to the corridor, staring across the gap at each other with hate-filled eyes.

With its forward thrusters blazing out ahead of it, the Wishbone plummeted down toward Philcani-tu, its velocity steadily diminishing. As it went deeper into the atmosphere, the thickening air tossed Randy around violently, pulling him out away from the hull and slamming him back. He let out a couple of healthy yells, and Bill had to resist the urge to keep asking him if he was all right. It was painfully obvious that Randy wasn’t.

Finally the forward thrusters shut down and the belly thrusters were activated, turning the Wishbone’s fall into a controlled descent. No longer in free fall, Philcani-tu’s gravity took hold of the Wishbone’s occupants.

The computer was having a tough time controlling the ship because of the damaged power systems. The maneuvering thrusters were ragged and choppy. Because of this and the turbulent wind, Randy was being shaken like a rag doll, but he consoled himself with the knowledge that the Wishbone’s speed was now well below three hundred kilometers an hour. If he could just keep from fainting for a few more minutes.

In the cockpit Bill spoke into his mike. “Randy? Listen, I can’t depressurize the cargo hold because Clawron is in there with — ”

There was a loud thud behind Bill, and he whirled his seat around. The wajinda stood at the top of the stairs, its back to Bill. Clawron stood in the lounge at the foot of the stairs, crouched in her fighting stance. The front of her shirt was torn at the belly and soaked with blood. The right leg of her pants was cut to ribbons above the knee — and judging by the amount of blood, so was her thigh.

The wajinda leapt straight at Clawron’s face, its long claws reaching out for her. Clawron pitched herself backward and fell to the floor. She kicked upward with both feet at the wajinda’s belly as it sailed overhead. Her feet plowed into its stomach, but the wajinda’s claws raked her right shin, opening a long cut. Clawron’s kick added altitude and a slight twist to the wajinda’s leap. It landed on its side several feet beyond the woman, sliding on the carpet while it squirmed to get its paws beneath it. The floor of the lounge was littered with loose items that had been dislodged from the galley. The wajinda plowed through the scattered mess.

Clawron jumped up and ran to the weapons locker. She yanked at the door, but it was locked, which didn’t surprise her.

The wajinda regained its feet and came scuttling toward Clawron, its face twisted into a savage snarl, its white fangs gleaming in the light. Clawron backed up hurriedly until she almost ran into the forward wall. As the wajinda gathered itself to leap, Clawron kept her eyes on it while she reached slowly toward a rectangular serving tray that lay on the floor. The wajinda sprang forward, and Clawron snatched the tray up and held it between them. When the wajinda’s head collided with the tray, Clawron brought her knee up into the non-human’s chest. It let out a hiss of pain and fell heavily to the floor. Clawron’s hand flashed up and struck downward with inhuman speed and force. It was aimed at the wajinda’s neck, but the creature twisted around and brought one paw up to block the blow. When Clawron yanked her hand back, the wajinda’s paw lashed up and opened a cut in her forearm. Clawron still held the tray in her left hand, and she slammed it down atop the wajinda’s writhing body and then vaulted over it. She sprinted toward the cargo hold while the wajinda kicked the tray aside and bounded after her.

During all this, Aganto had appeared at the door of his cabin, staring with horrified eyes at the savage battle. When Clawron charged toward him, he dove back into his cabin while the woman sprinted down the corridor toward the cargo hold. The wajinda was close on her heels.

Maybe she’s going to try to find the gun I dropped, Bill thought. For a moment Bill debated grabbing a gun from the weapons locker and finishing off the wajinda. But Randy’s tortured voice erupted in Bill’s headset, punctuated by loud thuds as Randy’s helmet was bashed against the hull by the turbulent wind.

“Dammit, Bill! Get me inside!”

Bill Jenkins had to make a choice: save Randy or save Clawron.

No debate. To hell with ethics. Bill bolted from his chair and closed the cockpit door to protect himself from the wajinda when it came after him next. Then he switched the Wishbone over to manual control and took hold of the control yoke. The helm was wildly erratic, but Bill could no longer rely on the computer because the ship’s systems were too far gone. They were deteriorating so rapidly that Bill wasn’t even sure he had enough time to crash land the crippled ship.

He tried to activate the monitor cameras in the cargo hold to see what was happening back there, but the monitor system was dead. Bill could smell smoke coming from the banks of microcircuit modules behind him. The ISY Wishbone was in the midst of her death throes.

“Randy? Uh, partner . . . it don’t look too good.” Bill hands yanked the control yoke back and forth as he fought to control the ship. “I hate to do this to you, but . . . I’m afraid you’re going to have to get inside without my assistance.”

There was a pause, then Randy spoke in a sad voice. “She’s falling apart isn’t she, Bill?”

“I’m afraid so. Her re-sale value is right down to pocket change.”

Another pause, then Randy said, “Well, she gave it her best shot.”

“She did indeed,” Bill said reverently.

Randy waited a few seconds for Bill to say more, but then he realized Bill was finished, so he said, “Now, if you’ll just coax the old girl into hovering for a few minutes, I’ll be able to — ”

“I can’t even do that, Randy. There isn’t enough power left to hover. In fact, there might not be enough left to land.”

“If the landing is going to be that rough, I’ll never live through it hanging out here, Bill. What can I do?”

“I don’t know. Hey! Maybe you could land yourself with the suit thrusters.”

“No good. I thought of that, but I can’t operate the thrusters manually with just one hand, and I’m getting slammed around so much by the wind I can’t program the suit’s computer.”

“Our luck has run plumb out, pal. Okay, we’re almost down to a low enough altitude for me to open the cargo hatch without sucking Clawron out. Think you could get yourself inside? I re-pressurized it after you left.”

“Maybe,” said Randy. Every time he talked, Bill could hear the bang and thud of Randy’s helmet being slammed against the hull by the hurricane-force wind.

“You won’t believe this, Randy, but if you come inside, you might actually be going from the frying pan into the fire. The wajinda has gone berserk and it’s back there in the cargo hold cutting Clawron up into little bite-sized bits.”

“What? Are you joking?” said Randy’s amazed voice.

“Does it strike you as funny?” Bill said in a high-pitched voice.

“No, I guess not. But I don’t get it — ”

“Surprise, surprise, the wajinda is intelligent, and it’s a paid assassin,” said Bill. Randy didn’t answer, so Bill said, “Do you still want to come inside?”

Bump, thud, clunk. “Yes. But not as much.”

“Oooo-kay, buddy. Here goes nothin’.”

Bill hit the switch that opened the cargo hatch.

Clawron and the wajinda were still going at it. Clawron was covered with blood and visibly weakened, but the wajinda had injuries of its own. Its left front leg was broken, dangling loosely.

Bill’s lost gun was behind a lashed-down container in one corner. Clawron knew it was there, but if she tried to reach for it, the wajinda would be on her back in an instant. The wajinda showed no interest in the gun because the weapon was designed for human hands. The wajinda would need two paws to hold it steady and pull the trigger — but it’s left front leg was broken.

So, the two of them battled on and on — Clawron with her lethal fists and feet, the wajinda with its fangs and claws.

Aganto was moving around the edges of the battle, trying to get his hands on the gun behind the containers. He was obviously terrified, but he didn’t let that stop him from trying to help. Mr. Alphonse Aganto did not lack courage.

He and the two combatants were violently startled when there was a loud hissing sound and the big cargo hatch started swinging outward on its hinged upper edge. The air pressure in the cargo hold dropped sharply, sending needles of pain into the ears of the two humans and the wajinda. Clawron and the wajinda were trying to watch each other while watching the door, both wondering how this new development would affect the battle.

The door swung slowly outward until there was a three-foot gap. A howling wind tore through the hatch and violently churned the air around in the cargo hold. The boots of Randy’s spacesuit appeared along the right side of the opening. Then his legs came into view. His body appeared inch by inch, pushed across the opening hatch by the wind. Randy clung one-handed to the safety line attached to the hull outside, several feet forward of the hatch. As soon as his helmeted head cleared the edge of the door, the door started closing, pushing Randy into the ship. A moment later the cargo hatch was sealed shut, and Randy leaned wearily against the door while he cradled his broken left arm against his body. Clawron, Aganto, and the wajinda watched him for a moment, and through his helmet’s faceplate, they saw his lips moving when he told Bill that he had made it inside. But they couldn’t hear Randy’s voice or Bill’s.

In the cockpit, Bill spoke into his headset. “Good Is the wajinda in there?”

“Yes.”

“Is, uh . . . Clawron there?” said Bill, fearing the worst.

“Yes. She’s alive. But she looks like she’s been hugging a chain saw.”

“Bad shape, eh?”

“Yeah — but Bill, you should see the wajinda! Clawron broke the critter’s leg, and I think she busted up its insides, too!”

“Well, bless her heart. Is the beast down for the count?”

The beast definitely was not, and to prove it, the wajinda leapt at Clawron. The broken front leg was slowing it down, and despite Clawron’s weakened condition, she managed to lunge to one side and avoid the reaching claws.



The wajinda landed awkwardly and sprawled out on the smooth metal floor, sliding for several feet. When it came to rest, it lay there trembling from the pain caused by its broken leg. Randy, hugging his own broken arm, wondered how the wajinda had managed such a leap at all.

Clawron stumbled toward the creature, hoping to deliver a killing blow while her adversary was down. But at the last moment, the wajinda struggled to its feet and scuttled backward, dragging its broken leg as it went. Clawron actually managed to back her adversary away from the area where the gun was located, but she seemed convinced she could finish the wajinda barehanded in its present condition, so she kept advancing on it. The wajinda was backing toward Randy, and he tried to get out of its way, but something held him fast when he tried to move.

His safety line was caught in the closed cargo hatch.

With no way to cut the line and no way to release the end attached inside the suit’s built-in retractor, Randy had no choice but to let the line reel out as he hobbled along ahead of the retreating wajinda. Aganto was shouting something at Randy and waving him back, but the helmet blocked out most of the sound and Randy couldn’t understand a word the lawyer said. The meaning wasn’t hard to guess, however; Get out of the way! That beast is dangerous!

Randy agreed.

Clawron seemed determined to press her momentary advantage, and she kept advancing on the wajinda until she had backed it (and Randy) all the way to the mouth of the corridor leading to the lounge. Randy kept reeling out the safety line as he retreated, trying to keep the wajinda from running over him. Randy backed into the corridor, and the wajinda went past the door.

“Bill!” Randy said into his mike. “Is the weapons locker unlocked?”

“No, of course not. What’s happening back there?’

Randy didn’t answer. He was weak and barely able to walk as he stumbled backward down the corridor, letting the safety line out as he went. His spacesuit seemed to weigh a thousand pounds. He kept ricocheting off the corridor walls, and each jolt to his broken arm resulted in a wave of pain. He couldn’t even take his helmet off because it required two hands to twist the helmet.

“Randy? What going on?” Bill said again.

Randy backed across the lounge until he reached the closed cockpit door. He turned around and hit the touch plate, but the door just ignored him. He started shouting at Bill.

“Open up! Come on, open up!”

A few seconds later the door slid open. Bill was already scrambling back up the stairs and into the left-hand seat so he could grab the yoke and bring the Wishbone back under control.

Still reeling out the taut safety line, Randy plodded up the stairs, stumbled into the cockpit, and stood behind Bill’s chair, panting for breath. Randy was shocked by how close the ground was beneath them. The Wishbone’s altitude was down to less than six hundred meters and falling fast. Even though he was standing right behind Bill, Randy still had to speak through the com system because of the helmet he wore.

“Gimme your key to the weapons locker.”

“Where are your keys?” Bill said irritably as he wrestled with the control yoke. The ship was starting to shake violently.

“They’re in my pocket — inside my spacesuit, you moron! Come on, come on, the woman is bleeding to death back there!”

Hastily Bill jammed one hand down into his pocket and yanked out his keys. Randy snatched them out of Bill’s hand and started stumbling back toward the weapons locker, allowing the safety line to rewind as he went. Bill’s voice came to him through the com system as he crossed the lounge.

“Whatever you happen to be doing one minute from now, be sure you’re lying down to do it. This is not going to be the best landing I ever made.”

Randy stabbed the key into the weapons locker, twisted it hard, flung the door open, snatched a pistol out of its mounts, and headed for the cargo hold. He was breathing noisily through clenched teeth, grunting with each step. As he went past the galley booth, he debated getting a knife and cutting the safety line, but he decided not to waste the time. He wanted desperately to hurry, but he was too weak to go any faster. Through the door ahead of him, he could see Clawron on the far side of the cargo hold. She was lying on her side against one of the containers along the back wall, one arm draped across the containers as she tried to pull herself up. Randy was astounded by the amount of blood that covered her body. There were smeared puddles of it on the deck. She was so weak she couldn’t even pull herself to her feet, much less get the pistol behind the containers.

Aganto lay on the deck near the door. The lower part of his face was covered with blood. He seemed to be half-conscious, struggling to get up.

The wajinda was twelve feet from Clawron, limping toward her with slow, mindless determination. Its broken front leg was bent at a sickening angle, dragging the deck as it moved. After a few hops the wajinda would stop and just stand there for a moment, trembling all over, waiting for the pain to subside. It was positioned right between Randy and Clawron, and for that reason, Randy had to get closer before he fired so he wouldn’t miss the wajinda and hit the woman. Randy’s hands were shaking and his vision was blurred.

By the time Randy entered the cargo hold, the wajinda was almost at Clawron’s feet. Clawron glanced up at Randy, and he saw fear in her eyes. Clinging to the container, she used the last of her strength to pull herself slowly up, first to her knees, then to her feet. She left bloody smears on everything she touched.

The Wishbone shuddered violently, bucking the deck beneath Clawron’s feet. Too weak to stand, she fell backward onto the container, her head and shoulders against the wall. One hand dropped down into the gap behind the container. Her fingers closed on the butt of the gun.

The wajinda gathered its paws beneath it to spring.



Randy took a step to his right so that the wajinda wouldn’t be directly in front of Clawron when he fired. He raised the gun.

The wajinda leapt. Clawron swung the gun up, but the wajinda landed squarely atop her, its heavy body knocking her weak arm aside. The gun clattered to the deck as the wajinda closed its gaping jaws on her throat and sank its white fangs into the soft skin. Blood bubbled out on both sides of her neck, and her eyes bulged as her body began to spasm with such surprising strength that it almost dislodged the beast. Her arms and legs began to shake wildly as the closing jaws squeezed in on the spinal cord in her neck.

In a murderous rage, Randy roared inside his helmet as he leveled the gun at the wajinda’s back. But just as he pulled the trigger, something knocked his arm upward, causing the plasma bolt to plow into the wall a few feet above the dying woman’s head. Randy looked down to find Aganto kneeling at his feet. The expression on Aganto’s blood-smeared face was wild-eyed and lunatic. He reached up and grabbed Randy’s right arm, pulling the gun down. Randy yanked it away and again took aim at the wajinda. Aganto’s left arm was stretched upward, reaching for the gun. In an effort to pull himself higher, Aganto used his other hand to grasp Randy’s broken left arm.

Randy let out a shrill scream, and the gun tumbled out of his hand as his legs buckled and he fell to his knees. Aganto snatched up the gun and tossed it across the cargo hold. He started shouting something at Randy, but then he realized Randy couldn’t hear him through the helmet. Aganto found the release latches on the collar ring and popped them open. He struggled to his feet and wrapped both arms around the helmet, hugging it against his stomach. He twisted the helmet, yanked it off, and tossed it aside. Then he dropped to his knees next to Randy.

The wajinda raised its blood-coated head from Clawron Uquay’s lifeless body and turned to watch the two men.

Randy’s face was contorted with pain, his eyes squeezed closed, his lips peeled back from his clenched teeth. He was shaking all over as he knelt on the deck, hunched forward, hugging the broken arm against his chest.

“Listen to me!” Aganto shouted in a desperate pleading voice. “You don’t understand! The wajinda was acting in self-defense. It had to kill her. Do you hear me? It had to kill her! She was a paid assassin who would have murdered us all when the ship landed. Clawron Uquay was a paid assassin. Understand?”

No, Randy did not understand at all. His mind was filled with pain, terrible pain, and he couldn’t even shake his head no, much less tell Aganto he was crazy.

The ship was bucking and bouncing because the maneuvering thrusters were sputtering erratically. As the Wishbone pitched and rolled, Randy’s helmet tumbled across the floor toward him and bumped his knee. From the built-in headset came Bill’s tinny voice.

“Hang on, Randy! We’re gonna crash!”



Randy pitched himself backward onto the deck and tried to hold his arm against his chest. He knocked Aganto over in the process, and the lawyer sprawled out on the deck just as the Wishbone was rocked by a violent shock.


______________________________________________________________________



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Is there no man on Earth who has the wisdom and innocence of a child?
~ The Space Children (1958)
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