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The hunted heroes, p.1
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       The Hunted Heroes, p.1

           Robert Silverberg
 
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The Hunted Heroes


  Produced by Greg Weeks, Stephen Blundell and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net

  THE HUNTED HEROES

  By ROBERT SILVERBERG

  _The planet itself was tough enough--barren, desolate, forbidding; enough to stop the most adventurous and dedicated. But they had to run head-on against a mad genius who had a motto:_

  _Death to all Terrans!_

  "Let's keep moving," I told Val. "The surest way to die out here on Marsis to give up." I reached over and turned up the pressure on her oxymaskto make things a little easier for her. Through the glassite of themask, I could see her face contorted in an agony of fatigue.

  And she probably thought the failure of the sandcat was all my fault,too. Val's usually about the best wife a guy could ask for, but when shewants to be she can be a real flying bother.

  It was beyond her to see that some grease monkey back at the Dome was atfault--whoever it was who had failed to fasten down the engine hood.Nothing but what had stopped us _could_ stop a sandcat: sand in thedelicate mechanism of the atomic engine.

  But no; she blamed it all on me somehow: So we were out walking on thespongy sand of the Martian desert. We'd been walking a good eight hours.

  "Can't we turn back now, Ron?" Val pleaded. "Maybe there isn't anyuranium in this sector at all. I think we're crazy to keep on searchingout here!"

  I started to tell her that the UranCo chief had assured me we'd hitsomething out this way, but changed my mind. When Val's tired andoverwrought there's no sense in arguing with her.

  I stared ahead at the bleak, desolate wastes of the Martian landscape.Behind us somewhere was the comfort of the Dome, ahead nothing but themazes and gullies of this dead world.

  He was a cripple in a wheelchair--helpless as arattlesnake.]

  "Try to keep going, Val." My gloved hand reached out and clumsilyenfolded hers. "Come on, kid. Remember--we're doing this for Earth.We're heroes."

  She glared at me. "Heroes, hell!" she muttered. "That's the way itlooked back home, but, out there it doesn't seem so glorious. AndUranCo's pay is stinking."

  "We didn't come out here for the pay, Val."

  "I know, I know, but just the same--"

  It must have been hell for her. We had wandered fruitlessly over the redsands all day, both of us listening for the clicks of the counter. Andthe geigers had been obstinately hushed all day, except for theirconstant undercurrent of meaningless noises.

  Even though the Martian gravity was only a fraction of Earth's, I wasstarting to tire, and I knew it must have been really rough on Val withher lovely but unrugged legs.

  "Heroes," she said bitterly. "We're not heroes--we're suckers! Why did Iever let you volunteer for the Geig Corps and drag me along?"

  Which wasn't anywhere close to the truth. Now I knew she was at thebreaking point, because Val didn't lie unless she was so exhausted shedidn't know what she was doing. She had been just as much inflamed bythe idea of coming to Mars to help in the search for uranium as I was.We knew the pay was poor, but we had felt it a sort of obligation,something we could do as individuals to keep the industries ofradioactives-starved Earth going. And we'd always had a roving foot,both of us.

  No, we had decided together to come to Mars--the way we decided togetheron everything. Now she was turning against me.

  * * * * *

  I tried to jolly her. "Buck up, kid," I said. I didn't dare turn up heroxy pressure any higher, but it was obvious she couldn't keep going. Shewas almost sleep-walking now.

  We pressed on over the barren terrain. The geiger kept up a fairlysteady click-pattern, but never broke into that sudden explosive tumultthat meant we had found pay-dirt. I started to feel tired myself,terribly tired. I longed to lie down on the soft, spongy Martian sandand bury myself.

  I looked at Val. She was dragging along with her eyes half-shut. I feltalmost guilty for having dragged her out to Mars, until I recalled thatI hadn't. In fact, she had come up with the idea before I did. I wishedthere was some way of turning the weary, bedraggled girl at my side backinto the Val who had so enthusiastically suggested we join the Geigs.

  Twelve steps later, I decided this was about as far as we could go.

  I stopped, slipped out of the geiger harness, and lowered myselfponderously to the ground. "What'samatter, Ron?" Val asked sleepily."Something wrong?"

  "No, baby," I said, putting out a hand and taking hers. "I think weought to rest a little before we go any further. It's been a long, hardday."

  It didn't take much to persuade her. She slid down beside me, curled up,and in a moment she was fast asleep, sprawled out on the sands.

  _Poor kid_, I thought. Maybe we shouldn't have come to Mars after all.But, I reminded myself, _someone_ had to do the job.

  A second thought appeared, but I squelched it:

  Why the hell me?

  I looked down at Valerie's sleeping form, and thought of our warm,comfortable little home on Earth. It wasn't much, but people in lovedon't need very fancy surroundings.

  I watched her, sleeping peacefully, a wayward lock of her soft blondehair trailing down over one eyebrow, and it seemed hard to believe thatwe'd exchanged Earth and all it held for us for the raw, untamedstruggle that was Mars. But I knew I'd do it again, if I had the chance.It's because we wanted to keep what we had. Heroes? Hell, no. We justliked our comforts, and wanted to keep them. Which took a little work.

  * * * * *

  _Time to get moving._ But then Val stirred and rolled over in her sleep,and I didn't have the heart to wake her. I sat there, holding her,staring out over the desert, watching the wind whip the sand up intoweird shapes.

  The Geig Corps preferred married couples, working in teams. That's whathad finally decided it for us--we were a good team. We had no ties onEarth that couldn't be broken without much difficulty. So wevolunteered.

  _And here we are._ Heroes. The wind blasted a mass of sand into my face,and I felt it tinkle against the oxymask.

  I glanced at the suit-chronometer. Getting late. I decided once again towake Val. But she was tired. And I was tired too, tired from ourwearying journey across the empty desert.

  I started to shake Val. But I never finished. It would be _so_ nice justto lean back and nuzzle up to her, down in the sand. So nice. I yawned,and stretched back.

  * * * * *

  I awoke with a sudden startled shiver, and realized angrily I had letmyself doze off. "Come on, Val," I said savagely, and started to rise tomy feet.

  I couldn't.

  I looked down. I was neatly bound in thin, tough, plastic tangle-cord,swathed from chin to boot-bottoms, my arms imprisoned, my feet caught.And tangle-cord is about as easy to get out of as a spider's web is fora trapped fly.

  It wasn't Martians that had done it. There weren't any Martians, hadn'tbeen for a million years. It was some Earthman who had bound us.

  I rolled my eyes toward Val, and saw that she was similarly trussed inthe sticky stuff. The tangle-cord was still fresh, giving off a faint,repugnant odor like that of drying fish. It had been spun on us only ashort time ago, I realized.

  "Ron--"

  "Don't try to move, baby. This stuff can break your neck if you twist itwrong." She continued for a moment to struggle futilely, and I had tosnap, "Lie still, Val!"

  "A very wise statement," said a brittle, harsh voice from above me. Ilooked up and saw a helmeted figure above us. He wasn't wearing thecustomary skin-tight pliable oxysuits we had. He wore an outmoded, bulkyspacesuit and a fishbowl helmet, all but the face area opaque. Theoxygen cannisters weren't attached to his back as expected, though. Theywere strapped to the b
ack of the wheelchair in which he sat.

  Through the fishbowl I could see hard little eyes, a yellowed,parchment-like face, a grim-set jaw. I didn't recognize him, and thisstruck me odd. I thought I knew everyone on sparsely-settled Mars.Somehow I'd missed him.

  What shocked me most was that he had no legs. The spacesuit ended neatlyat the thighs.

  He was holding in his left hand the tanglegun with which he hadentrapped us, and a very efficient-looking blaster was in his right.

  "I didn't want to disturb your sleep," he said coldly. "So I've beenwaiting here for you to wake up."

  I could just see it. He might have been sitting there for hours,complacently waiting to see how we'd wake up. That was when I realizedhe must be totally insane. I could feel
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