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Delayed action, p.1
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       Delayed Action, p.1

           Charles V. De Vet
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Delayed Action

  Produced by Sankar Viswanathan, Robert Cicconetti, and theOnline Distributed Proofreading Team at

  Transcriber's Note:

  This etext was produced from the September 1953 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.

  _This planet gave him the perfect chance to commit the perfect crime--only he couldn't remember just what it was he had committed._




  Illustrated by DICK FRANCIS

  * * * * *

  It was just a hunch. Johnson knew that, but his hunches had often paidoff in the past, and now he waited with a big man's patience. For fivehours he sat in the wooden stands, under the rumpled canvas theconcessionaires had put up to protect the tourists from Marlock'syellow sun.

  The sun was hot and soon Johnson's clothing was marked with largesoiled patches of sweat. Now and then a light breeze blew across thestands from the native section and at each breath his nostrilscrinkled in protest at the acrid smell.

  Marlock wasn't much of a planet. Its one claim to fame was itswidely advertised Nature's Moebius Strip. For eighteen months of theyear--nine months of sub-zero cold, and nine months of sultry,sand-driven summer--the only outsiders to visit the planet came to buyits one export, the fur of the desert ox. But during the two months offall and two months of spring the tourists poured in to gape at theStrip.

  Idly, for the hundredth time, Johnson let his gaze run over thetourists lining up for their "thrill" journey out onto the Strip. Mostof them wouldn't go far; they only wanted to be able to say they'dbeen on it. They would build up some pretty exciting stories about itby the time they returned home.

  There was no sign of Johnson's man.

  * * * * *

  The party started out onto the Strip. At the first sensation ofgiddiness women squealed and most of them turned back. Their men camewith them, secretly relieved at the excuse.

  Johnson watched disinterestedly until only two remained: the youngcouple he had designated in his mind as honeymooners. The girl hadgrit. Perhaps more than the young fellow with her. He was affectingbored bravado, laughing loudly as the girl hesitated, but whitestreaks had appeared along his jawline and across his temples as hewaited his turn.

  The young couple had gone far enough out now so that they were in thefirst bend of the Strip's twisting dip. Already their bodies wereleaning sharply, as the mysterious gravity of the Strip held themperpendicular with their pathway. From where he sat Johnson could readnausea on their faces.

  When they had followed the Strip around until they were leaning at a35-degree angle, the girl seemed to lose her nerve. She stopped andstood gripping the guide rope with both hands. The boy said somethingto her, but she shook her head. He'd have to show his superiority nowby going on, but it wouldn't be for much farther, Johnson was willingto wager.

  The boy took three more steps and paused. Then his body bent in themiddle and he was sick. He'd had enough.

  Both turned and hurried back. The crowd of tourists, watching orwaiting their turn, cheered. In a few minutes, Johnson knew, the kidwould be thinking of himself as a hero.

  Suddenly Johnson straightened up, having spotted a new arrival, whogripped a tan brief-case tightly under one arm, buying a ticket. Hehad bulky shoulders and a black beard. Johnson's man had come.

  When he saw the bearded man go out with the next bunch to brave theStrip, Johnson rose and walked rapidly to the entrance. Elbowing hisway through, with a murmured apology, he joined the waiting group.

  A thin-faced odd-job man opened the rope gate and they shuffledthrough. The group must have walked fifty paces, with the bearded manwell up in front and Johnson somewhere in the middle, before Johnson'sstomach sent him its first warning of unrest. Most of those ahead hadstopped and Johnson threaded his way carefully past them.

  Another twenty-five steps and he left the others behind. All exceptthe bearded man. He neither paused nor looked back.

  Johnson's stomach had drawn up into a tight knot now, and his head wasbeginning to feel light. There was a faint ringing in his ears.

  By the time he reached the end of the guide rope, nausea was creepingup from his stomach and into his throat. This was as far as it wassupposed to be safe to go; the advertising literature had it that herewas the point of no return. Up ahead his quarry was walking halfdoubled over, weaving back and forth, as though he were intoxicated.But he did not pause.

  Johnson turned to look back, and felt his breakfast fighting to comeup. From his perspective, the ground and the spectators watching himhad swung to a position almost perpendicular to him. He felt that hewas about to slide off into space. A wave of vertigo swept over him,his legs folded and he fell to the ground--sicker than he had everbeen before in his life. Now he knew why the man ahead never lookedback.

  For a moment Johnson wondered whether he should give up. But, even ashe debated, tenacity pulled him to his feet and forced him on.

  And now something new was added to his vast discomfort. Tiny twingesof pain, like small electric shocks, began shooting up his legs,increasing in intensity with each step he took. The pain built upuntil the rusty taste of blood in his mouth told him that he hadbitten into the flesh of his lower lip.

  Johnson's only consolation now was the thought that the man ahead ofhim must be suffering worse than he. At each step the pain increasedits tempo, and the sound within his head grew to a battering roar.Although he felt himself at the last frayed ends of his vitality, hemanaged to stagger on.

  Abruptly he realized that he had very nearly overtaken the man ahead.Through eyes glazed with pain, he saw the other, still standing, butswaying with agony and sickness. The man seemed to be gathering hisresources for some supreme effort.

  He tottered ahead two more steps, threw himself forward--anddisappeared!

  If he paused now, Johnson knew he would never be able to move again.Only will power and momentum carried him on. He stumbled and pitchedforward. A searing pain traced a path through his head and he felthimself falling.

  * * * * *

  He was certain that he had never lost consciousness. The ground cameup to meet him, and, with a last effort, he twisted his right shoulderinward. His cheek slid along the dirt and he lay on his side withoutstrength. His legs pushed forward in a steady jerking movement as hefought to quiet his quivering muscles.

  Gradually a soothing lethargy bathed Johnson's body. His painsvanished, and the sickness left his stomach.

  But something was wrong--terribly wrong!

  Slowly he climbed to his feet and stood looking about him. He wasstill on the narrow arm of the Strip. On either side of him banks ofwhite clouds, with the consistency of thick smoke, billowed and curledabout the Strip--but somehow they left its pathway clear.

  Johnson shook his head. The wrongness, he guessed, was in his ownmind. But he was unable to determine what it was. Desperately hemarshalled his scattered thoughts. Nothing. He took one groping stepin the direction from which he had come--and staggered back from awall of pain as tangible as a concrete structure.

  He had no choice except to go forward. There was something he must do,he realized, but what was it? With the question came the answer towhat was troubling him.

  His memory was gone!

  Or, at least, a great gap had been torn through it as though carvedout by a giant blade. Briefly, despair threatened to overwhelm him.

  "Hold it!" Johnson spoke aloud, and the words sobered

  All fears became worse when not looked at. He had to bring thisdisaster out into the open where he could face it; where he couldassay the damage. He had always taken pride in having a logical mind,with thought processes as clear and orderly as a bookkeeper's ledger.Closing his eyes, he went swiftly over his recollections, placing eachin its appropriate column.

  When he finished he found the balance extremely unfavorable, but nothopeless. On the asset side he remembered: His name. Donald Johnson.Right now he was on Nature's Moebius Strip, on the planet, Marlock.There was some man he had been following.... The rest was on theliability side of his balance sheet.

  * * * * *

  His name remained: All other memory of his own identity was gone.There was no recollection of his reason for being on Marlock, or whomhe had been following or why. That left him little with which to work.

  On the other hand, he mused, he might never be able to get off theStrip, so that didn't matter much. He doubted his ability to stand thestress of penetrating that electric curtain
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