Chapter 28: THE Iron Foundry
The largest of the four helmeted men ordered Zip to take out his laser pistol and drop it. Slowly Zip scanned the crowd that was forming around the four officers. All the faces were angry, some distorted with fury. Many were shouting insults or booing the Starman and raised fists at him. Their words came together in a cacophony of hatred.
All four men had their powerful laser rifles pointed directly at him. Shocked and deeply hurt by the fickleness of the citizens of Mars, Zip’s face flushed and he could feel angry tears filling his eyes.
“I ordered you to drop your weapon, you repugnant scum!” shouted the menacing figure as he thrust his rifle forward. Zip blinked the tears away and instinctively stepped back against the ancient stone wall. Slowly he drew his pistol, making certain that the officers could see that he was holding it by the top, with his fingers far from the trigger. He held it out between his thumb and forefinger and tossed it in front of him. As he swung it away, with his middle finger he pressed the button that opened the power cells for recharging. He hoped fervently that the malfunction wouldn’t spoil his plan. When the gun hit the pavement, all the energy that hadn’t been used yet was liberated in an intense flash of white light.
Momentarily blinded, all the people stepped back and covered their eyes. Almost as one, the four officers fired their lasers even though they couldn’t see their target. When their vision cleared, they realized that Zip was gone.
In the instant his pistol hit the ground Zip closed his eyes to avoid the flash. He opened them up immediately afterward and leaped straight up. In Mars’ light gravity, he reached the top of the wall easily and looked over the other side. As expected, he saw oozing swampland with its oily surface glinting in the starlight. A strong breeze was blowing from the west and such light as there was showed in ripples and pocks. Twenty feet directly below him, at the foot of the wall, the ground rose slightly out of the muck and showed tangled creepers and black weeds, with an occasional soggy log or fungus-covered rock. In the darkness of night, he could see no details. He dropped down and splattered into the dripping mess and began to push through the filth back toward the mainland.
“Where did he go?” shouted the crowd.
“Over the wall, you fools! Where else could he have gone!” answered the chief officer with a voice like a bludgeon. “Go after him!” he commanded his men. They leaped to the top of the wall.
In the excitement, no one noticed that the truck slowly moved down the street, away from the crowd. It turned a corner and rolled quietly away into the darkness.
“There he is!” shouted two of the officers at once, and fired their rifles toward the disturbance in the quagmire.
Zip could hear them shouting through his radio set. He had adjusted his set so that he could hear but not be heard. The leader’s next order froze his blood.
“Get the infrared detector! Bring the heat-seekers!”
Not lasers now, but heat-seeking projectiles. In the swamp he was sure he could elude the lasers, but he couldn’t avoid the heat-seekers. He had only one option, only one chance for safety. With a sob, he dropped to his knees in the clutching black ooze so that he was covered almost up to his neck. He reached for his suit’s control mechanism, imbedded on the inside of his left sleeve, and quickly found the program that would shut down its life-support system. He pressed the button that deactivated it.
“WARNING!” The letters screamed out in danger yellow. “Air temperature is 35.1° Fahrenheit. Deactivating this system under current conditions will cause death in approximately 47 minutes. Do you wish to continue?” Dreading the result but knowing he had no choice, Zip pressed “Yes.” His suit shut down.
Almost at once it felt as if he had walked into a huge freezer. It would only get worse. Move. He had to move to maintain warmth as best he could. He rose slowly from the filthy, clinging water and edged back over to the wall.
They’ll never guess I’ve gone back to the wall, he thought.
Not far away the barrier ran into a century-old aqueduct that connected the town with a long-abandoned iron foundry on the eastern bank of the river. The gradual terraformation of the planet had widened the river and turned its shore at this point into a reeking swamp. Zip sneaked along the base of the wall until he could see the branches of a large tree reaching over the top from some yard on the inhabited side. He jumped, caught a chipped place on the cornice, and slid to the top where he lay flat, facing away from the searchers.
Freezing. Painfully cold and getting worse. He felt as if he were lying on a slab of ice.
“Where is he?” The man’s shout stood out from the scrabble of angry voices behind him. Zip raised his head and looked back over his shoulder. Just about thirty yards away he saw the four officers standing in a line, peering down into the swamp. The captain held a large rifle with a display panel on it.
“There!” shouted one of the men and fired a shot at some movement in the swamp. The men were silhouettes with the pale yellow light of the buildings behind them.
The captain quickly turned the viewscreen toward the man’s target. “That’s not the Starman,” he snorted. “There’s nothing warm there!” He continued to sweep the swampland with the heat detector.
Zip raised up on all fours. His teeth were chattering badly and already his air was getting stale. He crawled into the branches that overhung the wall, and pressed through them to the far side of the tree. With the breeze blowing as it was, he wasn’t anxious about the officers’ using motion detectors. On the other side of the tree branches, he stood up and, bending low, came to the place where the wall intersected with the aqueduct in a wide angle. He stepped up four feet to the old watercourse, turned toward the shore, and began to trot.
His breath was coming in short gasps now and made a fog that began to obscure the inside of his helmet. Staying calm, Zip tried not to breathe too strongly in a vain hope of keeping his helmet clear longer. He had to be able to see the old, broken stonework to ensure that he wouldn’t miss a step. His teeth chattered violently and his body shuddered in the cold. He began to moan with the pain, but he kept moving forward.
“Check the wall! Check the aqueduct!” came the captain’s order. Zip’s heart skipped a beat when he heard the command. Through the fog on the inside of his helmet he could discern that the shore was still about forty yards away. To the right was a drop of about fifty feet into the slowly moving water, to the left the aqueduct sloped outward and down into a dense tangle of vines and creepers that filled the watercourse.
If I fall into that, he thought, it’d be the end for sure. I’d never get out before either freezing or getting shot.
“I think I saw him!” shouted one of the officers. “A shape ran along the top of the aqueduct! I could see it outlined in the starlight!”
At that moment Zip reached the end of the crumbling stone causeway. There was a gap of about five feet between the last cornice stone and the nearest wall of the old iron foundry. Over the decades, the aqueduct had slowly sunk into the riverbed and pulled away from the building.
Zip leaped across the gap and upward to the top of the foundry enclosure. A projectile slammed into the stone parapet beyond him, shattering the old mortared work. Another followed, searing a screaming path in front of his helmet and missing it by only a few inches. The Starman dropped down behind the wall. Frantic now almost to the point of recklessness, he scuttled across the roof like a crab until he found an iron ladder that dropped through an opening into the dark interior of the structure. He knew the officers would be running along the wall at that moment.
Less than a minute, he thought. Less than a minute until they get here.
Gripping the outside of the framework with his hands and insoles, the fugitive slid down the ladder, plummeting thirty feet into a cavernous room, gutted of all machinery. He slammed into the ground and fell down hard. Immediately he leaped to his feet and looked around. The walls were made of poured concrete, long weathered. Huge blank windows on one side showed the broad streak of the river, its murky water reflecting pinpoints of light that flickered in the smooth current. On the opposite side of the great vacant shell were a window and a dark empty doorspace.
To his left were three huge round openings with iron doorways like hatches. The first two were shut tight, but in the last was a circular inner hatch about a foot and a half in diameter. Its cover was missing.
Here, thought the fleeing Starman. I’ll squeeze through here and they’ll assume I escaped through the doorway.
He jumped onto a narrow shelf in front of the opening, put his legs through first, and wriggled his way through. On the other side was a small concrete platform that faced an iron-lined pit about ten feet across. Through the fog in his helmet he could barely make out a twisted and broken rusted ladder that angled out of it. A dank tree grew in black, muddy soil next to the pit. Both tree and pit were at the bottom of a windowless concrete tower about twenty feet square. High above, the stars shone in their brilliance.
No way out, thought Zip. He could hear his pursuers talking to one another and knew they had discovered the ladder that dropped down into the great room.
Too late to change my mind now, he thought. He dropped to the floor of the tower, dashed to the side of the pit and took hold of the misshapen ladder. It shifted and turned as the fleeing Starman descended. The cold was piercing his bones now. He felt that there was no warmth left inside him anywhere. He was moving sluggishly and couldn’t see much at all. The hunted man could sense that his body temperature was dropping.
Step by step, he carefully climbed down the ladder to the bottom of the pit, fifteen feet below. He stepped away from the ladder and crumpled into a small ball behind some refuse. The bottom was thick, chilled mud.
“He must have gone through the door,” shouted one man.
“Couldn’t have,” said another a few seconds later. “It’s a thick web of brambles out there that no one could get through. No one’s passed that way.”
“Then he must have gone out one of the windows into the river,” said the first man with disappointment in his voice. Zip winced. Why hadn’t he done that very thing? With the fog in his helmet he hadn’t had a clear view of the foundry’s far wall.
“He might have gone through here,” said someone else. “Through this hatch.”
“Nah,” returned the first voice. “There’s nothing behind that wall, and no way out. He wouldn’t go in there.”
“Check it,” ordered the voice of the captain.
Zip slumped even farther down. He was trapped, weaponless, and shivering violently and uncontrollably with deathly cold. Through the last clear portion of his helmet he saw a feeble light. He only noticed it because his surroundings were as black as pitch. He bent down to look, and then lay flat.
Under one side of the iron pit there was a passageway. Its top was a broad brick arch, and a channel of black water extended outward to the river about fifty feet away. The crystal cold light of stars was reflected on the still surface. There was at most about a foot of clearance at the topmost part of the arch, and the passage was strewn with wreckage.
If I could only get through there, Zip thought, if only the mud isn’t too clingy, I could get to the river. Then I could put my life-support system back on and let the current take me away.
He recoiled from the thought, for the water was so cold and so filthy. But it was his only chance to escape. Above him an armed man was scrambling through the small aperture in the iron hatch.With a gasp, Zip began to crawl under the arch.
© 2011 by David Baumann, Jonathan Cooper, Mike Dodd. All rights reserved.