It was a foul night; exactly the sort of night Artemus Gordon hated, especially when required to expose himself to it. Wet and cold and miserable, it seemed he always managed to wind up pulling watch during nature's more disagreeable moods. Take tonight's rainsquall, for instance. It was shaping up to be one hell of a violent storm.
(And who's standing in the middle of it, catching his death?) thought Artemus. (Good old reliable Artie, that's who.)
He huddled beneath an ancient oak and cupped his palms over his mouth to breathe warmth on numb fingers. Above him, the lofty boughs whipped and swayed to the keening of the wind, affording little protection from the driving rain.
(Guard duty, of all things), he grumbled to himself. What was there to guard against, anyway? They were right smack dab in the middle of the Pennsylvania countryside at least two days away from civilization. No one in his or her right mind would be tramping around way out here in such dismal weather.
(Except me, that is.) Artie shivered as cold rain trickled down the collar of his black oilskin poncho. "I'll never be dry again," he murmured, tucking frozen fingers beneath his armpits. "Never, never."
Mud sucked greedily at his boots as he tried to stamp his feet to keep the circulation going. Damn, but it was cold out here! The sky emitted a throaty roar, heralding a flash of lightning that briefly illuminated the prison wagon in its harsh white light. Artie looked at it longingly. If he'd had his way, they'd all be sleeping in a warm, dry bed at the Amish Inn in Lansdowne. Would have, that is, if Jim hadn't suggested a shortcut.
"We'll be in Hartsburg a day early," West had promised as he urged the horses off the main road and onto the barely visible deer track.
The shortcut might actually have lived up to Jim's expectations if the weather had held. By noon, heavy rain had turned the ground into a bog, miring the wagon wheels and causing the two-horse team to stumble in water-filled depressions. In the end, they'd had no choice but to pull up and wait it out.
(This is the last shortcut you'll talk me into), Artie silently assured his partner whom, oblivious, slept soundly within the wagon. (How you manage to talk me into these things I'll never know. I've a good mind to drag you out of there and into this slop along with me.)
The thought of Jim West floundering around in the mud helped cheer Artie's sullen disposition. Two more hours remained of his watch and then it would be West's turn to fight the elements. He tried to smile at the thought but his teeth were chattering too much.
(What was it Jim said earlier? 'A little water never hurt anyone,' wasn't it? Well, James my boy, let's see how you feel when the boot's on the other --)
A sudden sound, soft and indistinct, interrupted his thoughts.
Artie's right hand dropped to his holster, his self-pity evaporating with the sudden introduction of adrenaline. The noise -- whatever it was -- had been close. Cautious, he took a step forward and strained to see through the gloom. Rain stung his face and a chill autumn wind bit through his soggy clothing. Tree branches lashed overhead with mindless fury, pelting him with leaves of gold and red that clung to his poncho like rainbow leeches. Each step forward was a major undertaking in the thick mud. It would be easy to lose oneself in weather like this. Visibility was limited to a few scant feet and any tracks would quickly be washed away by the torrential downpour.
(Not a happy thought), Artemus shivered.
He made slow progress to the next tree; careful to keep the wagon in sight at all times. Pausing, he strained to hear again the sound that had first distracted him. Lightning seared the sky, once more illuminating the clearing and the wagon at its heart. It stood as he had left it, motionless and unmolested. There was nothing he could see that posed a threat to the sleeping occupants.
Artie shook his head and sighed. (Nerves, that's all. Just nerves.) He forced himself to relax. (You're getting jumpy, old son. Hearing things that aren't there. It was probably just the wind or --)
The hair at the nape of his neck prickled as he heard it again; a soft hissing. Not rain. Not thunder. Something foreign.
Artemus warily turned toward the sound and gaped in surprise at what he saw. A hazy ball of blue-white light bobbed in the air less than two yards distant. He blinked at it in disbelief then knuckled his eyes with a damp fist and looked again. It didn't help. It was still there, glowing softly.
(Take it easy, Artemus. There's got to be a logical explanation for this.)
The orb began to drift toward him.
(Marsh gas), he thought fervently. (That's all it is. Marsh gas is a perfectly natural phenomenon...)
...if one happened to be in a marsh.
He cleared his gun of its holster while his mind tried to rationalize the images his eyes were relaying. Could it be a lantern? No; it was suspended too high to be held by a man of anything but gigantic proportions. Besides which, there was no wielder in sight. Ball lightning, then? Doubtful. Ball lightning didn't hover that high from the ground.
The orb drifted toward him through the rain, heavy drops sizzling as they hit the sphere. As it closed the distance between them, Artie began to perceive it more clearly. Bobbing nine feet above the ground, it seemed to be a dense globe of hazy blue light approximately six inches in diameter. The sound that had attracted his attention was the soft crackle of water hitting something incredibly hot.
When it was within three feet of him, he raised his gun. "Hold it right there," he ordered in the most authoritative voice he could muster. It wasn't easy -- he felt absolutely ridiculous.
The ball pulsed a deeper shade of blue at the sound of his voice but did not err from its chosen path. Without taking his eyes from the apparition, Artemus moved to the left and took two steps backward. The globe compensated and continued to drift closer. Suddenly, it dropped like a stone, sweeping forward with startling speed until it completely engulfed his gun and the hand that held it! It flared a brilliant shade of sapphire blue, giving him a jolt that ran the entire length of his arm and through his chest. He dropped the gun with a strangled cry of surprise and pain that was swallowed by a roar of thunder.
Even had he thought of it, there was no time for Artemus to shout a warning to the men in the wagon. The sphere surrounded him with searing white light and imploded.
* * * * *
James West blinked at the sunlight that poured through the wagon's sole window. It was morning. There was something wrong with that realization but at the moment he was hard pressed to decide just what. Sitting up, he stretched the sleep from his limbs then began to knead the kinks from his back with stiff fingers. The interior of the wagon was damp and heavy with the smell of wet leaves and earth but it had remained reasonably dry.
(At least it's stopped raining), he thought, yawning. (Artie's probably overjoyed).
Jim frowned then and glanced around the wagon's interior. Where was Artie, anyway? His watch should have ended hours ago.
Standing, he used his foot to jostle the wagon's other occupant, a portly man snoring fitfully in a corner. "Wake up, Sheriff."
"Huh? Whaa?" Sheriff Hillock snorted and rolled onto his back. "Gaa!" he grunted, one beefy arm falling over his eyes to shield them from the brilliant sunlight. "What time is it?"
"Late." Jim reached for his gunbelt draped across one of the wagon's two benches. "Artie didn't come in last night."
"Maybe he was feelin' charitable and decided to let you sleep in."
"You don't know Artie," replied Jim. "The only water he likes is the kind he has to take his clothes off for." Opening the wagon door, Jim blinked rapidly at the flood of sunlight that greeted him. Leaves rustled overhead, dribbling rain on him like silent laughter. There was no sigh of Artemus.
He jumped down into a puddle, splattering his leather chaps with mud. The saturated ground squelched beneath his boots as he circled the wagon in search of his partner.
(He's probably off sulking somewhere, mad as a wet hen and fit to spit), thought Jim.
Ten minutes later, Hillock appeared in the wagon's doorway, his bulk filling the tiny aperture like a round peg in a rectangular hole. He looked around the small encampment and espied West a few yards away, stooping in the mud beside a gnarled oak.
"Watcha find?" he asked as he watched West lift something from the mud.
With his prize in hand, Jim walked back to the wagon and held out his discovery for the Sheriff to see. It was a gun, covered in mud except where he had wiped clean a section of the stock to expose a pair of initials: A.G.
"It's Gordon's, ain't it?" said Hillock. "What'dya s'pose happened to him?"
Jim was wondering the same thing. The two draft horses and Artie's chestnut were still tethered to the lee side of the wagon beside Jim's own mount; if he'd left the encampment, it had been on foot -- or worse.
Looking down at the initials carved in the gun's stock, Jim was absolutely certain of one thing -- Artie hadn't left it on his own. Jim had had given the gun to Artie three birthdays ago and knew it to be one of his friend's most prized possessions. No matter the reason, Artie would never have voluntarily left camp without this particular weapon nor would he have discarded it except in desperation. That indicated a struggle of some sort. The fury of the storm would have hidden any sounds of distress from the sleeping occupants of the wagon, and the mud and rain would easily obliterate any tracks. That meant that Artie could be just about anywhere, in any direction. Without tracks to follow, finding him would be like playing blind man's bluff with the whole of the Pennsylvania countryside.
"What do you reckon we oughta do?" asked Hillock.
Jim frowned. Another good question, to which there appeared to be only three choices: wait and hope that Artemus returned; pick a direction at random and start searching; or continue on their way.
"We keep heading for Hartsburg," Jim grimly replied. Cleaning off the remainder of the gun with a handkerchief, he set it carefully inside the wagon with the rest of Artie's gear.
"Leave, just like that?" asked Hillock, incredulous. "You mean you're gonna give up on him?"
"Do you have a better suggestion?"
"Well, no, not really," the Sheriff admitted, shifting uncomfortably under the intensity of West's gaze. "But I kinda thought you'd want to go looking for yer friend first."
"Where do you suggest we start?" demanded James, his blue eyes reflecting cold anger.
"Yeah, well ... I guess I see whatcha mean. Uh ... I'll go hitch up the horses ..."
As they prepared to head out, Jim mentally comforted himself with the thought that Artemus could take care of himself. If there was any way to get a message to Jim, he'd find it and soon. At least in Hartsburg, their original destination, Artie would have a destination for such a message.
Jim hoped he was right. He was taking a gamble and the stakes could very well be Artie's life.
* * * * *
They traveled without incident, reaching the main road again around noon. Although it was easier to navigate than the small dirt track they'd been using, the road remained muddy and sodden. There was no sign of wagon ruts or hoof prints; no indication that anyone but themselves were braving the soggy aftermath of the evenings deluge. And still no sign of Artemus.
(Assuming he's still alive.) Jim's expression hardened and his fist clenched reflexively on the reins at the thought.
If anything happened to Artie ... if he was dead ...
"Sweet Mother of Mercy!"
Jim turned in the saddle in time to see Hillock jerk back on the reins, nearly tipping the wagon as the startled team of horses crashed into each other. The Sheriff's round moon-face was suddenly waxen, his brown eyes wide saucers of fear. Jim followed Hillock's frightened gaze and felt a chill tickle his spine. Less than ten yards away hovered a ball of blue light. It pulsed softly, bobbing beneath the low-hanging branches of a maple tree on the side of the road.
"Great horny toads!" breathed Hillock, clinging to the reins with white knuckled fingers. "What in the hell is that?"
"I don't know." Jim nudged his horse toward the phenomenon. It balked, dancing backward with a wicker of protest. A second attempt fared no better, forcing Jim to dismount.
"What do you think you're doin'?" demanded Hillock when West handed over his mount's reins. "Hey, you can't go over there! You don't know what that thing'll do to ya!"
Jim ignored him. Right hand resting lightly on his holster, he cautiously approached the tree. The sphere continued to hover, as if patiently awaiting his arrival.
"You're gonna get yerself killed, ya damned fool!"
Only ten feet away now and Jim could see that it was a compact blue orb of pulsing light no larger than a billiard ball. There were no wires suspending it from the tree, nor any other visible means to explain how it managed to remain hanging at eye level. It might have been little more than an ingenious ornament except ...
Jim shuddered involuntarily as he came within arm's-length of the manifestation. He couldn't seem to shake the feeling that it was watching him. Circling the base of the tree in search of some sign of an operator, a silver glint of metal in the mud attracted his attention. The instant his attention was distracted from the fireball, he heard the Sheriff's shout of alarm. Jim looked up in time to see blue light expand across his entire field of vision.
Hillock stared at the tree in open disbelief. The ball of St. Elmo's fire was gone. So, too, was agent James West.
* * * * *
Jim's disorientation was so great that he was hardly aware he'd been spoken to until the command was followed by a rough prod with the iron-shod toe of a boot. Blinking, he managed to contain the violent vertigo that swung around him long enough to realize he was lying in a very uncomfortable position on a cold stone floor.
"I said, get up."
Ah! Something to orient on.
He lifted himself up onto his elbows, an action not without effort, and located the owner of the voice. The man standing over him looked like a boxer who'd lost every bout in the ring. His face was broad and badly scarred, his nose crooked from too many breaks and his ears torn like those of a battle-prone tomcat. Hard brown eyes gleamed from beneath heavy, puffy lids. Thick in chest and arms, he was wearing a black apron over a white lab coat that seemed two sizes too small for him.
"Up," he growled once more. "Or do I gotta drag you up?"
Shrugging noncommittally, Jim pushed himself off the floor and got to his feet. A quick personal survey told him two important things: except for a lingering dizziness, he was relatively unscathed, and his gunbelt was gone.
"Through there," grunted his captor, indicating an open door.
Intimidating as the man's bulk and height appeared, Jim was confident he could take him on in a fight. But not yet. At the moment he was more interested in discovering the answers to a few very important questions before he started tearing the place apart. Where am I? seemed like a good question to start with. What the hell hit me? was a viable option, too. What was that blue ball and where did it come from? What did it do to him and, most important of all, was it a threat to the national security?
Jim allowed himself to be led along a narrow passage to a gray metallic door set within a stone wall. The floor and ceiling were also stone, giving him the impression that they were somewhere underground. Not a cave; the walls were too smooth and the angles too perfect to have been anything but man-made.
As his escort opened the door, Jim rather suspected he knew what he'd find on the other side. He wasn't disappointed; it was a laboratory. Three short steps led down into a small chamber of stone walls lined in the same gray metal as the door. The substance also coated the floor and ceiling, giving the room a dark, gloomy cast in spite of the plethora of lighting. There were two lab tables cluttered with every imaginable article of scientific paraphernalia, including gas burners, beakers and test tubes filled with a rainbow array of colored liquids bubbling merrily, at least three microscopes, wire and copper tubing, and paper. Lots of paper. It seemed that everywhere West looked there was a sheet of paper with something scrawled across it, as though a madman had taken a book of notes and thrown it into the air like confetti.
Perhaps one had, for the sole occupant of the room was a wild-haired, wide-eyed gnome of a man in a white lab coat and dark lavender trousers with cuffs that barely covered his ankles and his fuzzy red bedroom slippers. Apparently unaware of their presence, he was moving from bench to bench in what appeared to be a high state of agitation, peering at first one microscope then hurrying to another. After every step, he paused to scribble something down on the first paper that availed itself, sometimes writing across the tabletop itself when nothing else came immediately to hand.
"Visitor, Doc," announced West's escort.
"Hmmm?" Squinting from behind a grimy pair of wire-framed glasses, the gnome looked at the door and instantly exploded into activity, bustling across the room to meet them. "Welcome! Welcome!" he cried, grasping Jim's hand and pumping it eagerly. "You must be Mr. West! I've heard quite a bit about you, sir. Quite a bit, heh, heh. Oh, all good, I assure you!" He continued to pump Jim's hand. "It's a pleasure and an absolute honor to meet you!"
"Thank you," said Jim, managing to extract his hand. "And you are?"
"Oh, how rude of me! Dr. Emeric P. Emerson, at your service, sir," said the gnome, bowing. "Please, please come in! We have so much to discuss, you and I!"
"Do we?" Jim followed his bizarre host into the laboratory.
"Why, of course! As I was telling Mr. Gordon --"
"Artemus Gordon?" demanded Jim, eyes narrowing.
"Why, yes. He's quite an intelligent chap, and he's been very helpful, haven't you Mister ... oh, dear, I forgot. He's not here just now. Hugo? Where is that ... oh, there you are! Fetch Mr. Gordon for us, would you? There 's a good chap. Oh, and try not to bruise him this time."
"Sure, Doc. Anything you say," replied the hulk at the door. He paused long enough to glower at West before departing.
"Where was I?" wondered Emerson as he minced back to a microscope in order to change the slide. "Ah, yes, your reputation. It's an impeccable one, I trust?"
"So I've been told," said Jim, glancing at the laboratory door in expectation of Hugo's return.
"You're wondering what I'm up to, aren't you?" asked Emerson, beaming. "Go on, admit it. You're just dying of curiosity, right? Of course you are! But don't you worry, Mr. West, because I have every intention of telling you exactly what I'm doing, and I promise it will positively astonish you! It even impressed ... ah, Hugo! Good boy!"
The lab assistant had returned, one meaty fist maintaining custody of Artemus Gordon's right arm. The agent's trousers were encrusted with dried mud and a leaf or two remained plastered to his boots, but otherwise he seemed none the worse for wear.
"I think I know the way from here," he said as he tugged free of Hugo.
"Hiya, Artie," said Jim casually, managing to keep the relief out of his voice.
"Why, hello James!" came his partner's cheerful reply as he lightly descended the steps into the laboratory. "Fancy meeting you here. Did you take the scenic route or the express?"
"Express. What was that thing, anyway?"
"Ask the professor," said Artie, indicating Emerson with a nod.
"Please do!" exclaimed Emerson eagerly. "I'd be delighted to answer all of your questions."
"All right," agreed Jim. "Let's start with where are we?"
"Oh, dear," sighed the professor, obviously disappointed. "That's such an ordinary sort of question. You're in my laboratory, of course."
"Twenty feet below ground," added Artemus.
"A mine shaft," admitted Emerson, "with some modifications. Now, please, why don't you ask me something really exciting?"
Jim exchanged a questioning glance with Artie, who shrugged. "All right. How did we get here?"
"Wonderful!" cried the professor happily. "A much more interesting question! Do you know the wood in which you camped last evening has a reputation as being haunted?" he asked. "It isn't, of course, but I promote the myth because it suits my need for privacy. It also prevents anything untoward happening to innocents should an experiment get out of hand."
"Like what happened to us," guessed Jim.
"Oh, no, not at all! I meant for my fireballs to pick you up. As a matter of fact, I thought the transference went quite well." Emerson practically clapped his hands with delight. "You should have seen the look on Mr. Gordon 's face when he materialized! How marvelous it was. Of course, he collapsed afterward -- I hadn't anticipated that -- but the effects didn't last long and they don't appear to be lasting. You see, I'd never tried the transference on people before and overestimated the charge necessary, but it turned out quite splendidly. Even better than I anticipated!"
Artemus executed a little bow and said, "Glad to have been your guinea pig."
His sarcasm was lost on the professor. "Exciting, wasn't it? I can't wait to try it myself. You see, I have this idea to miniaturize the mechanism in to something portable -- a belt, perhaps -- so the bearer can pop to and from a destination at will. Why, it will make conventional travel obsolete! Think of it! No more tedious journeys by train; no more uncomfortable, dusty stagecoaches. Just the press of a button and -- whisk! -- you're there! Think of the time it will save." He paused and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "True, there are a few bugs to be worked out. We can't have people fainting the minute they arrive --"
"Does it have a range limit?" asked Jim.
"At the moment, yes," Emerson reluctantly admitted. "I'm afraid I can only generate enough power to transport a man of -- oh, say 250 pounds -- a distance of approximately five miles. But I'm working on --"
"Then we're within five miles of the wood Artie disappeared from?"
"I believe I just said that," replied Emerson, clearly irritated at having a gain been interrupted. "Now, if I were to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, I could --"
"What happens if you accidentally 'transport' someone into a solid object, like a wall?"
"Why?" countered Artemus.
"Because it just is," snapped Emerson. "There's a built-in failsafe -- no, don't ask how or what. It's much too technical for the likes of you, I'm sure..."
Artemus looked over at James, a mischievous glint in his dark eyes as he silently mouthed 'touch'.
"... however, believe me when I say that my fireballs are incapable of materializing the subject to an unsafe environment. That includes solid objects, great heights, and unlivable situations."
"What happens if these fireballs of yours are *instructed* to materialize someone into a solid object?" asked Jim.
"It would kill them, of course. The subject, I mean, not the energy field."
"Then it *is* capable of putting a subject into a dangerous situation."
"Well, yes, it can," said Emerson, impatiently. "The important thing is that it won't. Any such command would be instantly aborted."
"Excuse me for seeming naive," said Artie, "but how, exactly, do these globe s of yours know when to abort?"
"Because they're sentient," he replied, as if this were patently obvious.
"Sentient?" echoed Artie, incredulous. "You mean they can think?"
"In a manner of speaking. They can judge between a good or bad materialization zone. They can also see. You program them for the person and the destination and ..."
"Exactly, Mr. West. Pop. Clever, don't you think?"
"Very," he agreed solemnly. "And just what exactly is it that you plan to do with this invention of yours?"
"Do with it? Isn't it obvious?" Emerson was visibly surprised when both me n shook their heads. "Surely you must have figured it out by now? You've both been participants in the wave of the future. What other reason could I have for such a demonstration than to show its potential? I want to develop it into a transportation system that will serve the entire world! Think of it, gentlemen! Limitless and instant transportation to anywhere on the planet. From Washington to London, just like that!" He snapped his fingers for emphasis. "Instantly!"
"You mean you're going to give it to us, just like that?" asked Artie, dubious.
"Why not? You're trustworthy, aren't you?"
"If you'll pardon my asking, professor," said James dourly. "What's in it for you?"
"Is there an echo in here? Yes, I said funding, dammit! Surely you don't think I can actually enjoy working down here, do you? An abandoned mine, no matter how well modified, is hardly my idea of the perfect laboratory," he said petulantly. "There's still a lot of fine-tuning to be done on my fireballs and I just don't have the right facilities here."
"Why not just sell your invention to the highest bidder?" asked Jim, suspiciously.
"What sort of man do you take me for?" Emerson demanded, insulted by the insinuation. "I am a patriot, sir! I love my country, even if it doesn't have the slightest respect for the scientific profession. There's absolutely no question that this invention will be for the benefit of the United States and eventually the whole of the civilized world."
"I wouldn't be too sure of that," said Hugo as he produced a gun from behind his lab apron. "Come on in, fellas, and join the party," he called, and stepped aside as two men entered the laboratory.
"Uh-oh." Artemus glanced at Jim. "I've got that old deja vu feeling again. "
"What is the meaning of this?" exclaimed Emerson. "Who are these people and what are they doing in my laboratory? This is private property!"
"Take it easy, Doc, and no one'll get hurt. I just want to open up some friendly bargaining, that's all."
"Bargaining?" Emerson looked at West. "What's he babbling about?"
"I think your lab assistant is proposing a bidding war," replied James. "Isn't that right, Hugo?"
"Right as rain, Mr. West." Hugo grinned. "'Course, I don't plan on losing, either."
"I didn't think you did," observed Artemus, casting a critical eye over Hugo 's playmates. One of them, a swarthy-faced Spaniard, was taking great pains to clean the dirt from beneath his fingernails with a very intimidating 9 inch blade. His companion, a slender, ferret-faced man in a red flannel shirt and chaps, seemed perfectly content to lean against a workbench, gun in hand.
"It's not like that at all," said Hugo, his voice registering mock hurt. "This is gonna be fair all 'round. Doc here wants research money; no problem. Me and the boys'll give him a cut of the take; enough to keep him in test tubes for a lifetime, just so long as he works for me. Now that's a fair shake, ain't it?"
"This is preposterous. You can't really be suggesting I hand my transporter over to you for mere monetary gains!"
"See? What did I tell ya?" Hugo asked of his companions. "The Doc here is real smart; doesn't miss a trick. Yeah, Doc, that's exactly what I'm sayin'."
"Well, you can just forget about it," said Emerson, indignant. "It's my invention and I'll decide where it -- Yiiii!" The professor jumped back as a bullet shattered the beaker to his immediate right, spraying shards of glass and steaming brown liquid across the table.
Jim and Artie instinctively closed in on the professor, forming a protective phalanx on either side of him.
"That's my opening bid," announced Hugo. "Let's see if you gentlemen can top it."
Both Jim and Artie weighed their chances; both came up with the same conclusion. They were too far away from Hugo and his men to risk rushing them. They'd be cut down before they covered half the distance.
"I'll take your silence as a no," chuckled Hugo. "See how easy that was?" He looked at Emerson. "Well, Doc, it looks like the shoe's on the other foot. Now you're working for me."
"Never." Emerson folded his arms across his chest and defiantly stuck his chin in the air. "I refuse."
Hugo aimed again, this time shooting a beaker practically at Emerson's elbow and barely missing Artemus in the process. The little man nearly jumped in to West's arms.
"You ain't much use to me dead, Doc. Better play it safe while you still can."
Emerson looked at the remains of the beaker then up at his erstwhile lab assistant. "It doesn't appear I have much of a choice," he said woefully.
"Now you're getting the hang of it," said Hugo, delighted.
"You can't help him, Professor," protested Artemus. "Do you have any idea what he'll do with your invention? How he'll corrupt your work for his own ends?"
"Of course I do. I'm not an idiot, Mr. Gordon." Emerson glowered at Hugo. "I'm just an old man who wants to live and work in peace."
"There won't be any peace from the likes of him," warned West. "We've seen his type before. They just get greedier and greedier as time goes by, until they've outgrown the inventor."
"But not the invention," concluded Artemus.
"All very nobly spoken," agreed the Professor solemnly, "and I agree, but you hardly seem in a position at the moment to contradict him. He has the gun."
Artemus sighed. "You know, James. He has a point."
Hugo stepped down off the steps and motioned for his men to follows. "I think a little demonstration of good faith is in order. Let's see ... I know! Why don't we send Mr. West and Mr. Gordon here on a little trip ... say, to the bottom of the ocean?" Laughing at his own cleverness, he elbowed the Spaniard to join in. "How 'bout it, Doc? Think you can do it?" Before Emerson could protest, Hugo brought his weapon level with the old man's eyes. " You will cooperate, won't you, Doc? I'd hate to terminate a partnership so soon."
"Yes," murmured Emerson, looking away. "I'll help you. Just don't kill me. "
"I'm sorry, Mr. West. I've no choice." Emerson turned and walked toward the back of the laboratory.
"Follow him," ordered Hugo, well out of reach of the two federal agents. "Or you can kiss the Doc good-bye."
"You're bluffing," said Jim. "You need him to operate the device."
"No he doesn't," said Emerson sullenly. "Hugo has been my lab assistant for several months."
"That's right, West. Me and the Doc worked real close on this little toy of his. I can work the gizmo alright; I just need the Doc for some fine tuning, understand?"
"So you can pop in and out of a bank? Or an art gallery?"
"Nah. I'm thinking big, West. Real big. Like the Treasury. How's that for a start?"
"Damn right, it's ambitious, and that'll only be the beginning."
Emerson turned away in disgust. Reaching a corner of the room, he bent down and pulled the dust cover off of a cedar-chest sized object. It was a machine set with several dials and switches and made of the same dark metal material that shielded the walls. West and Gordon joined him a moment later und er the watchful eye of Hugo and his cronies.
The device was a mystery to Jim but Artemus seemed to grasp the purpose of the myriad gauges and switches almost immediately. He stooped down to watch as the professor began to program the device and allowed his hand to drift forward to caress the metal that made up the machine.
"It's lead," said Artie, surprised.
"That's right," grunted Emerson.
Artemus looked up at James, who nodded his understanding. He looked at the walls of the room, at the ceiling and at the floor. "It's all shielded in lead."
"It has to be," said the professor as he worked, nimble fingers flying over the controls. "Too much chance of a backflash."
"Very messy," continued Emerson as if he hadn't heard the question. "Electricity is a very tricky substance. Very tricky."
West frowned, looking once more at the lead walls. There was something wron g with the professor's answer, but at the moment he was hard pressed to think of what.
"All set," announced Emerson a moment later as the box began to thrum softly.
"Good, Doc. You learn fast," nodded Hugo. "Now back up."
Emerson looked at him without comprehension. "What?"
"I said back up. Get away from the box."
"But I have to operate the mechanism ..."
"I'll do it," said Hugo. "After all, practice makes perfect. Now move it."
Emerson reluctantly did as instructed, allowing Hugo to take up his position beside the device. Unfortunately, the gunman was not stupid enough to take his eyes, or his gun, off of West and Gordon. "You two, move over to that corner there. That's the way. Nice and close. Don't want to lose any body parts in the transmission, now do we?" he chuckled.
"No, no, no!" fussed Emerson as West and Gordon took up an awkward stance in the indicated corner. "Closer. No, closer! Must I do everything myself?" He hurried over to them and, catching an arm each, physically attempted to draw them closer together.
"What happens if we move before he throws the switch?" asked Jim quietly.
"One of two things," whispered Emerson. "You will be half in/half out of the energy field and lose body parts, as Hugo has implied, or he will shoot you. Either way, you'll both be dead."
"It's murder no matter how you look at it, Professor."
Emerson gave an exasperated sigh. "Mr. West, either you have a faulty memory or a very short attention span. Really, in your profession it's a wonder you're still alive. My fireballs couldn't transport you to the ocean even if I wanted them too. A puddle, perhaps, but not the ocean."
"The five mile radius!" said Artemus.
"You pass the class, Mr. Gordon," nodded Emerson. He continued to fidget with their positioning. "I'll not have some small-minded bully ruin everything I've worked for. I just won't, that's all!" He stepped back and said aloud, for Hugo's benefit, "Don't worry, gentlemen. I promise this will be as painless as possible."
"Sure," contributed Hugo. "Until it starts getting wet." He chuckled. "Say good-bye to the Doc, fellas. Where you're going, I don't think you'll see him for a long, long time." Grinning, he threw the last switch on the device--
-- and several things happened at once. West and Gordon dived out of the corner, each leaping in opposite directions; Emerson threw himself beneath the nearest table and buried his head under his arms; and Hugo screamed as the device at his feet suddenly turned into a raging fireball of blue-white light, engulfing him.
The Spaniard cried out in horror, gagging from the smell of charred flesh, and stumbled away from the monstrous ball of blue incandescence that started to drift toward him. He turned to run and gasped as Jim's fist caught him squarely in the gut. Retching, he doubled over, unable to offer any resistance to the remainder of West's assault. Not far distant, Hugo's remaining henchman was debating whether to aid the Spaniard or cut his losses and run; he lost either option as Artemus tackled him from behind.
The fireball continued to drift, consuming everything in its path. It crackled and hummed as it swallowed up an entire workbench and grew another foot larger.
"What the hell do we do with that?" demanded Artie as he joined Jim in the center of the room.
"How should I know? Where's Emerson?"
"There!" exclaimed Artie, and pointed to the professor who still huddled beneath a table. Unfortunately, the mammoth fireball was rolling his way.
"Come on!" shouted Jim. The two agents ran forward and dragged the startled scientist out from under the table moments before it was devoured by the fireball.
"Oh my!" exclaimed Emerson as he saw the gigantic proportions of his creation, fully six feet round and growing. "I didn't expect it to do that!"
"How do we stop it?" asked Jim.
"Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, of course."
"Then do it!"
"Oh ... oh, yes, I see what you mean!" Emerson looked for the control box and, seeing it on the other side of the room, began to edge toward it. He made quite certain to give the roving fireball a wide berth.
James and Artemus backed away in the opposite direction.
"I just had an unpleasant thought," said Jim.
"Don't tell me."
"What if it backtracks and eats the professor?"
"I asked you not to tell me!" Artemus looked for something that might serve as a useful weapon, then remembered how thoroughly useless his own gun had been in his first encounter with the glowing orb. "Emerson said the thing's marginally sentient. Maybe we could keep it distracted."
At Jim's clearly skeptical expression, Artie demanded, "Well, do you have a better idea?"
"No. Let's try it."
While Emerson continued to edge around his creation in an attempt to reach the control box, Jim and Artie started to shout taunts at the fireball as if it could understand their insults. Perhaps it did, for it started to drift their way. Jim threw anything and everything that came to hand at the monstrosity, only to see them swallowed with an electric crackle.
"Uh-oh. Now *I've* had an unpleasant thought," said Artie as they inched backward from the advancing orb.
"I know I'm going to regret asking this. What?"
"I think the door's locked."
Jim glanced over his shoulder and realized that the lab door was closed and, as Artie suggested, probably locked. Worse, the fireball was still growing and they were rapidly running out of maneuvering space.
"You know, I think I've got it figured out," continued Artie conversationally as they backed up into the wall.
"Remember when the Doc said the lead was to prevent a backflash?"
"How often have you heard of lead shielding being used to keep something *in *?"
"I see what you mean. Hey, Artie, you don't suppose...?"
"I do," nodded Artemus. "Emerson must have engineered one of his backflashes inside the lab where it wouldn't be able to get out. He worked the damned thing in reverse."
"So whatever that thing touches, instead of transporting it outward, it goes inward."
"Let's hope the Professor knows how to turn it off," said Jim. "Because at the rate it's going, we're going to be ex-federal agents in about two minutes."
The fireball ate another workbench.
"James, my boy, it looks as if it's time for drastic measures."
"I think you're right," agreed West.
"Professor!" they yelled in unison.
"I'm working on it! I can't quite seem to get ... ahhh, here we go!"
There was a loud pop! and a blinding white light. Both agents gave a shout of surprise, shielding their eyes with as they turned away.
Artemus was the first to hazard a peek and nudged Jim with an elbow. "You can come out now, Sydney."
The fireball was gone. So, too, was half of the laboratory. In the center of the ruins, Emerson sat amidst a pile of sodden papers, broken glass, and the smoldering fragments that were all that remained of his transportation device.
"Ruined, all of it," he lamented. "Thirty years of work, gone. Destroyed in a moment."
"Come on, Doc. Up you go." James helped the scientist to his feet.
"My entire academic career, a lifetime of work ... wasted," sighed Emerson, casting about mournfully at the wreckage that was once his laboratory. "My life is over. I'm a failure."
"Now, I wouldn't say that," said Artemus, giving the little man a reassuring pat on the arm. "I think everything's going to be just fine."
"Artie's right," said James. "You can always start over again."
"How? Everything I had is ruined. The machine, the prototype; even my notes. Some of this equipment was over twenty years old; I can't afford to buy more."
"I think we can manage to put in a good word for you in Washington," suggested Jim. "With the right funding --"
"-- I could start all over again!" concluded Emerson, bright blue eyes suddenly gleaming. "Do you really think I could?"
"Sure do," said Artemus. "Under government supervision, of course."
(Where we can keep an eye on you), Jim mentally concluded.
"There, now -- you see?" said Artie. "Everything's not a total loss."
"I see! I see!" exclaimed Emerson, delightedly. "Oh my! I can hardly wait! There's so many things to do ... so many things to pack. I'll need to take my notebooks and my microscopes -- well, what's left of them -- and, oh yes! My longjohns. Goodness only knows what the weather's like in Washington this time of year ... and my spare glasses and ..."
James shook his head, amused, as Emerson ran off to collect his belongings.
"Remind you of another professor?" asked Artie.
"Uh-huh. Why is it that the truly brilliant ones are always so eccentric?"
"I suppose that genius is maddening."
"Maybe so," conceded Artemus. "And speaking of maddening," he continued, suddenly rounding on his partner with righteous indignation, "The next time you decide to take a short cut, leave me out!"
"Artie, you have my word on it," James solemnly promised. "Right after we get to Hartsburg."
"Don't worry! It's absolutely foolproof. There's an Indian trail off the main road about ten miles out that'll cut at least an hour off our time --"
Jim easily ducked the beaker Artie threw his way.
"Maybe it's not such a hot idea," he acquiesced with a grin.
(1) Night of the Human Trigger
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