His mind sensed it, the scanners confirmed it. The tiny space freighter was less than three minutes away from Starport 59, and its pilot wasn't alone. Somewhere among its labyrinthine, chrome-plated corridors lurked the single human being regarded as the "unstoppable terror" of the spaceways. The Teleporter had selected this ship for his next target.
The pilot unsnapped a cheap laser-pistol from its solitary holder under the main console and plunged randomly into the depths of his ship. The scanners had located the Teleporter in the engine room, but there was no guarantee as to where he would be next. He had to keep away from this lethal man; he had to preserve himself.
The previous decade felt certain that its parapsychology experiments had gotten out of hand with the Project Psi-Gen breeding program. Two experimentals were born to the project — a man and a woman — whose genetic makeup had been engineered to let them disassemble their bodies. From there they could reconstruct themselves in another location as long as there was any convenient mass-energy lying around, including air.
The pair was born full-grown and sparsely educated in a matter of weeks. Eight months after their "birth," they broke through the Psi-Shields of the lab and escaped into the terrestrial night. Four years later, a bulkhead from a scrapped interstellar freighter was sliced open in the process of recycling, revealing a dead woman, two dead children, and a hollow space where a man should have fit.
The pilot set his hand radio to the frequency of the starport. "The Teleporter is aboard my freighter," he began. "My God, the Teleporter is aboard my freighter! He's probably going to do what he always does: wipe out the ship's crew — me! — and set the engines to self-destruct.
"I've set the counter-thrusters to stop this craft short of Starport 59, so if I don't stop him he won't go on and wreck the 'port too. I only hope this weak, defensive hand laser I'm carrying can 'stop the unstoppable' — or at least hurt him — before he can pop out of the way and counterattack from behind or something. If I stay away from him or keep him at bay, he can't get the ship's destruct code from me."
He switched off the handcom, killing the line before he could get back a reply. He'd been living secluded in this freigher, doing safe business, for more than half his life. He wanted to just grow old and retire and die within its chrome- plated walls; but why did the Teleporter have to bring his career to an end right then? There were millions of ships the Teleporter could have raided; he probably wouldn't have hit a tenth of a percent of them in his lifetime. So why was he the condemned target of one-in-a-million odds?
Scanning the area ahead, he began to take a few faltering steps forward, his finger trembling on the laser's trigger. The pilot worked super-cautiously, despite the fact that if the Teleporter was around he'd have heard his transmission and would be ready for him.
"I know you're in there!" boomed an unfamiliar mind over the ether of super-conscious thought. "You're not in the control cabin, but you can't keep running for long! I can move thousands of times faster than you; and this ship has only a finite amount of space, while I have an infinite amount of time. Why don't you just transmit your location to me and give yourself up? You don't have a chance!"
Nervously, he concentrated on shielding his mind from releasing subconscious messages. In that day when psychic powers were developed instead of hindered, telepathy was second-hand to nearly everyone. To transmit anything now, even the fact that he existed, would give away his position to the unwanted listener.
'I wish I could carry a bullet-firing pistol instead of this piece of junk,' he thought inwardly, staring at the laser in his right hand. 'Of course, those things are outlawed on most spacecraft since they can pierce the hull so easily. Like I said, I hope I can hurt him with it.'
On a pure instinct, he followed his nose down the chrome- plated aisle, his cushioned magna-shoes the only things securing him to the floor, and silently banked down the first corridor on the left. What he saw froze him. The Teleporter was standing with his back to him, holding a cylinder that continuously projected a dark red laser beam.
He was dressed in the all-white garb of the fleet, just like the pilot was, though the costume bore the bad fit of a stolen garment. Either it was from never washing or some side-effect of teleporting, but the true color of his hair was hidden under dirt and matted confusion. The pilot could only guess at his face.
He wanted to run away as fast as he could, but some deep drive cut through his anxiety and took control. Taking quick aim at the Teleporter, he pumped the trigger as rapidly as he could. Three successive bursts of pulsed, coherent, barely visible red light sprang from the tapered barrel and flew toward their target at three hundred thousand kilometers per second.
The first beam struck home completely, burning the Teleporter's side; but the second wasn't half-finished before he disassembled in a puff of air. Not even the faintest cry of pain lingered in the corridor through which the third beam traversed.
The curved end of the corridor, engineered for just this purpose, caught the beam's energy, bounced it around so that the corridor's end glowed a dim red, and finally dispersed it; but this feat passed the pilot unnoticed. Why had he done anything so stupid, so sure to call attention to himself? All that brash stunt had proven was that the Teleporter had survived for as long as he had because teleporting was an instinct; that he didn't have to "tell" himself to pop out when he was startled, that it happened on its own accord. Now that fact was sure to bring him down if he didn't do something fast.
He spun around almost too quickly in the zero-gravity, expecting to find the Teleporter about to cut him in half with his high-energy laser emitter. There was nothing but an empty metal corridor, gleaming as usual with fluorescent light. 'I'd better keep moving so he can't find me,' he thought, his mind still actively shielded. Not in complete control, he turned back down the corridor and found himself heading for the engine room.
He passed one corridor, then rounded a corner, then another corridor, then another corner, each mounting the tension on his frightened mind. Finally, with the silence of his catlike gait aided by his magna-shoes' padding, he arrived at the engine room's front doorway. He burst through and fired an array of five pulses in random directions, then glanced around in near- panic, only to find that the Teleporter was nowhere to be seen.
Scanning the rectangular monoliths which were the back ends of the engines, he darted to their far side, hoping to prevent an ambush, but not finding the Teleporter there either. Now, he relaxed a bit while just pondering the engines. They had the power to accelerate him at over five gravities for the length of an interplanetary journey, and had twice accompanied him among the stars while a larger starship escorted him. Yet for all the energy they stored, for all the power they could release, they were useless against just one man who had the power to jump out of your way when he willed it.
Leaving the same way he'd entered, the pilot headed for the Life Support Control Center; if the Teleporter was there, the pilot'd surely die.
Life Support was just as empty as the engine room. The Teleporter might be in one of the places he'd already explored, he figured, but he sure wasn't going to turn back to find out. He sprinted out of the room, nervously running away from Life Support toward the cargo hold.
The Teleporter's mental voice resounded in his head once more. "Okay, I'll give you a hint: I'm not in the engine room. I know you're shielding your thoughts from me, but that won't hide you forever!" The pilot was sweating and breathing heavily. "All I have to do is go to your control room and look at your scanner. Then I go to where it detects you, and voila`! Instant dead pilot! I'd like to destruct this ship on my own, but I can't because you have the destruct code locked up nice and safe in your handcom. I'll find you. Regardless of your thought shielding, regardless of the fact that sound doesn't carry in this space ship at all, I'll find you!"
'Got to keep screening my mental energy,' the pilot worried as he continued. Another corridor went past, then another corner, now with almost unbearable nervous tension. At this rate, the Teleporter could sit back and let the pilot die of anxiety.
An almost silent "whoosh" from behind preceded a loud, evil laugh, which was the first time the pilot heard the Teleporter's physical voice rather than just his mental one. The pilot ducked down instinctively, avoiding a nasty sweep of the Teleporter's laser by centimeters. But the dull red beam that went by was powerful enough to leave heated slash marks in the ship's reflective walls!
Pivoting as he'd practiced in null-gravity countless times before, the pilot fired four instantaneous laser pulses behind himself, only to discover that the Teleporter had already popped away. He spun again and saw the Teleporter ready to cut him up, and fired two beams which both came too late. Turning once more, he fired without even looking, but the Teleporter wasn't there.
He glanced back and forth, seeing only the fluorescent-lit emptiness of the corridor. Now, he chanced relaxing. A yellow light on his pistol caught his attention; he read: "Temperature high — use only in emergency." The gun would cool off, but that took a long time since it was too small to have a cooling system.
He looked absent-mindedly at his distorted reflection in the chrome-plated walls and pondered his situation. There was no doubt now; the Teleporter could find him wherever and whenever he wanted to. His hiding was useless — a frightened ploy that might keep him alive another few minutes. The one-way renegade hunt must end, he decided; he would have to hunt the Teleporter down before the same happened to him.
He wondered, just briefly, if he should scan for the Teleporter's presence with his own mind. The Teleporter was probably doing just that at that moment, though, and by the time he located the unstoppable terror, the Teleporter would already be there. No, the best way to go about this was a systematic search, which he'd in essence already been performing, and his current and closest destination was the cargo hold.
The subtle deceleration of the whole ship had long since ebbed; it was frozen as far as Starport 59 was concerned. But it was by no means still; the pure oxygen atmosphere cycled itself through the corridors and current flooded its electrical system, like the blood of a living being circulating through its veins. And two corpuscles hunted-and-sought each other within its body; a white cell, and a deadly germ.
The cargo hold had a foyer a quarter of its length and its full width, cut off by a metal wall that doubled as two sliding doors. The pilot pushed the red button that opened the wall, cringing with the loud hydraulic hiss the sliding doors made. They flew open, and he looked straight into the Teleporter's piercing eyes.
He almost didn't stop being petrified in time, but still avoided the Teleporter's laser. Rushing in a little ways on magnetic soles, he gave the Teleporter just enough time to avoid a laser pulse volley. He heard hysterical laughter behind him a fraction of a millisecond later, spun, fired, and missed again.
His pistol rapidly beeped four times, then its yellow temperature warning light turned red. The gun was "overheated," but this textbook definition only went as far as locking out the controls; the components could still work. He fumbled for the override switch, and put the pistol in red-zone operation just as the Teleporter appeared four meters off the floor, his beam sweeping straight for him.
The pilot didn't quite duck down fast enough, for the beam sliced off the clothing and the first skin layer of his right shoulder. A countervolley; this time part of the burst singed the Teleporter's chest before he disappeared and reappeared in midair on the far side of the pilot. But by now the pilot had finally gotten used to this tactic of "popping back in on the other side," and he'd already whirled and started pulling the trigger. That would have stopped the Teleporter cold had not his gun chosen that moment to overheat completely.
The mirrors at the ends of the laser's ruby were melted so badly they needed replacing; at least, that's what he'd heard happens when a laser overheats. He grabbed the barrel to use it as a club, but spasmodically cast it away when it burnt his hand. He blew on his hand once, instinctively, and then looked up.
The Teleporter was right in front of him, riveted in place by his customary, but useless, magna-shoes. His laser beamed over his shoulder like a military man's rifle. "Well," he proclaimed in his childish, untrained voice, "You're finally out of ammunition. It's a shame you had to drag this futile farce out until this encounter, because you're still going to die. Don't think I'll 'have mercy on you,' either — I've done this hundreds of times. You did put on an impressive display for a single space ship inhabitant, though."
'This is it,' the pilot thought, letting his thoughts go unshielded as they did at the beginning of that last battle. He'd expected to finish the rest of his life on board this little cargo ship; but to die like this!
He looked at the Teleporter long and hard, wanting to memorize every detail of his killer's appearance. His gaze met the laser cylinder and traced its scarlet beam up to its terminus, where it was silently eating through one of the reflective walls covering the cargo. Then he remembered the load he was carrying: nitroglycerin! An explosive with its own oxidizer built in, powerful enough to blast the whole ship apart instantly if provoked. That's why he'd boxed it in reflective walls. If he didn't warn the Teleporter in time . . .
If he didn't warn him in time, the ship would disintegrate so quickly the Teleporter couldn't possibly get out of there and into Starport 59 in one leap before getting annihilated. He was going to die anyway, so why not stall him until . . . ?
"You'll never get away with this. Someday, you'll try to wreck a big warship and end up surrounded by people armed with automatic rifles that can kill in a single hit. Or you'll destruct a ship that's so far from an inhabitable spot that you won't be able to teleport there. Nobody will let you keep ruining things forever."
"Shut up, dead man! I can ruin anything I damned well please!"
"Your mother should have punished you more ofte—"
"My MOTHER!?!!" the Teleporter screamed. "I don't need no goddamn mother! Only two T-15's ever had a mother, and they were my ki—"
A barely audible hissing cut the Teleporter short. His id had warned him just before he looked over his shoulder at the section of wall about to burst apart.
"OH N—-" he shouted, and an instantaneous flash of fire consumed the cargo ship the pilot had spent half his life in.
A split-millisecond later, the scene reached the disbelieving eyes of Starport 59. The spacecraft burst into fragments right in front of the starport crew, and nothing could have been done to prevent it. This was the first time in months the leader of Starport 59 had come to the forward viewport.
"Well," she said solemnly, "there goes the unstoppable terror's wrath again. It's a good thing there was only one person on board."
"What's good about it?" the radar controller she was standing next to replied.
"Nothing, nothing. It's just that —" She caught on a thought. "Wait a moment . . . didn't that cargo ship have fusion engines?"
The controller scanned a liquid crystal display. "Yeah, it did."
"The Teleporter always goes for engine self-destruction. So why was that a yellow blast? It looked more like . . . like . . . ALL RIGHT!!"
The nearby people were quite alarmed by her sudden outburst.
"That ship was carrying nitroglycerin for the blast mines. It went off in a quick, chemical fireball, completely unlike hydrogen fusion. That means the ship wasn't self-destructed by the Teleporter; the pilot probably set off the stockpile in the hold and caught the Teleporter by surprise!"
"You mean . . . he's gone?"
"Unless he could teleport twenty kilometers in a single jump with less than a tenth of a second to prepare — yes, he's gone!"
She clasped his hand in the fashion which meant triumph; and nearly everyone in the viewport followed her example. The cheering took half a minute to die down.
"Now that the 'unstoppable terror' is finally dead," began the radar controller afterward, "I can really start to ask 'why?' without getting nervous. So, boss, what do you think provoked the Teleporter to destroy all forty-eight of those ships?"
"Oh, I don't know," she replied, "It's probably just his own private rebellion. He was given a power which made him a freak, locked up in a psi-shielded lab, deprived of any childhood at all — which they've demonstrated to have damaging effects — and then his only female companion and both his children were killed when he survived. Come to think of it, I can't actually blame him for having a nervous breakdown."
"I guess you're right," replied the controller. "But I'm sure glad someone finally stopped him!"
A twinge of anxiety flashed across the starport leader's mind. "But what if . . . what if we do it again?"
"We know we can build people who can teleport, or kill by thought, or predict the future; and we know how easy it is to torment those poor souls into insanity with laboratory rearing. Just because Psi-Gen saw disfavor ten years ago doesn't mean somebody won't try to do the same thing in the future. Without the right restraints — without the care deservant of infant life rather than machine — we could engineer a maniac who rips planets apart and let him loose on the universe."
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