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ISFDB.org Magazine Entry



ROCKET STORIES JULY, 1953 Vol. 1, No. 2

BLOOD ON MY JETS

BY ALGIS BUDRYS

They were the hired gun-rabble of the System, engaged in the dirtiest, most thankless racket in all the worlds. But Ash Holcomb was doing all right, until the girl walked out of his past with high stakes in her pockets and murder in her eyes!


Rocket Row is the Joy Street of three planets. It's got neon lights, crummy dives, cheap hotels, and women to match. Every man who's ever rode a ship into space knows about Rocket Row. It runs along the far side of Flushing Spaceport, down toward the Sound.

The New Shanghai was full of dockworkers and crewmen on liberty. It was noisy. I sat on a bar stool and watched the fog trying to infiltrate the open door. It didn't have a chance against the tobacco smoke that rolled out to meet it. Outside, the streets and alleys would be choked with wet, creeping darkness, full of quiet footsteps, and the cops would find empty-pocketed corpses behind the ashcans in the morning.


But none of that was any of my business. I was sick and tired of fog—the real kind, the kind they grow on Venus—and I was sick of the thought of blood. I'd seen too much of it, soaking into the hot mud, and some of it spilled by my guns. I wanted to forget the night, and fog that gave cover to every kind of dirty deal a man could imagine. I wanted to pull the corners of my world together until all that was left was the drink, the bar stool, and me. But it wasn't going to work out that way, because I was in the New Shanghai on business.

And my kind of business was the dirtiest, lousiest, most thankless racket in the world.

The bartender moved up to where I was sitting. "Have another one, Ash?" he asked.

"Yeah, sure, Ming," I said. "You still make the best Stingers in the System. Maybe that's because you don't brew your own gin."

"Could be, Ash, could be," he laughed. He shook up the drink and poured it in my glass. "How'd it go on Venus?"

"It went," I said.

Ming was one of the few people who admitted knowing I was a D. O.—a Detached Operative. It was a crummy job, but it suited me.

We were the hired-gun rabble of the System, thrown together into the damnedest police force there had ever been. Spacial expansion hadn't really gotten underway until after the Terro-Martian War, and after it ended every would-be bigshot there was had realized that all he really needed to set himself up as a pocket-size dictator was some salvaged gear from the mess the war had left, a crew that wasn't too particular, and a good-looking piece of territory in the practically limitless areas of space. Most of them had picked slices of Venus. There were a few in the Asteroids, hooked up with renegade Marties, and one or two that had actually grabbed sections of Mars.

Sending regular law enforcement officers or Marines after each one of these boys would have been physically impossible. Earth government had come up with a cuter idea.

It was a lot more economical to fight one big decisive battle than to endure a series of inconclusive skirmishes. There were a lot of us boys out in space, most of us' just drifting from one port to the next, picking up a living by our wits, and by our skill with a gun, some of us. Earth government had quietly picked out the ones they considered trustworthy, sworn us in, and turned us loose with a few standing orders and a lot of dependence on our discretion.


Whenever something brewed between two of these minor warlords, we'd come flocking in and hire ourselves out to whichever side we felt had slightly more justice. Sometimes we wound up shooting at each other, but you couldn't even be sure of that, since most of us didn't know, beyond a guess or two, who the other D. O.'s were. Usually, though, we had enough brains to pick the right side, and we'd make sure that was the one that came out on top.

It was a process of elimination, actually. The warlords were helped to knock each other off until, eventually, those who remained either proved themselves to be strong leaders, which was what frontier planets needed, or else megalomaniacs, in which case it paid to devote a full-scale military campaign to them.

It was a highly informal system, but it had worked. It was tough on us, but it wasn't any harder than freelance grifting had been. It left an awful lot to personal discretion, and we paid ourselves out of whatever came to hand, but there hadn't been any big totalitarian regimes lately, either.

"Yeah, I did pretty well," I repeated.

Ming puckered his mouth and winked. I used to try and figure out how he did it, standing behind his bar all day, never going out, .never talking much except to a few people like me. But I knew for sure that he could have told me exactly how much I'd made on that Venus job—and the. gimmick I'd pulled to get it past Customs, too.

But that was why I was in here. Something was up—something big, and I wanted to find out what it was before every grifter and chiseler in the System tried to cut a piece of it for himself.

"I got a note in my mailbox today," I said casually.

"Yeah?" he asked, just as quietly.

"Must have been put there as soon as I touched down this morning. Somebody wants me to go to work for them. They're paying high—too high, maybe. Hear anything about a big job coming off somewhere?"

Ming grinned. "If you mean that little letter from Transolar, yeah, I know about that." He got serious, and moved closer.

"But that's all I know, and nobody else knows even that much. Sure, something's cooking, but nobody knows what it is. I—" He broke off. "You've got company. Boy, have you got company!"

I looked in the backbar mirror. A girl had come in the doorway and was walking toward me. Her dress tightened in intriguing places. Her face was as much of a treat. High-cheeked, brown-eyed, with a small, uptilted nose and a full mouth, it was framed by short curly hair the color of new copper wire. I liked it.

So did the spacemen and the dockworkers sitting at the bar. One or two half-rose to invite her to join them, but they sat down again when they saw who she was headed for.

There was something about that hair. I'd seen it before, somewhere.

The guy next to me got up and slid out of the way. I let my eyes stay on the bottles on the back-bar until she sat down beside me. I gave Ming a look. He nodded, and moved down the bar.

"Ash?"

The voice was low, but crisp. It had whispers and murmurs in it, too, and I knew I'd heard it before.

"I'm Pat McKay."

I turned my head and looked at her. Her dress, tight as paint from hem to bodice, was mysteriously loose in the sleeves. Ruffles at each shoulder hid bulges that Mother Nature never put there. They looked more like twin shoulder holsters. They were.


And the last time I'd seen her, she was seventeen—eighteen, maybe—in a ball gown, her hair long then, curling around her shoulders.

And the voice hadn't been as controlled, or as crisp, but she'd been saying, "You're a good dancer, Mr. Holcomb. Not much on the light conversation, but a good leader."

I'd swept her around another couple, and kept my cheek away, from hers. "The Academy is geared to the production of good leaders, Pat. Good conversationalists, on the other hand, are born, not made."

She laughed—a giddy party laugh from a girl who dated Academy boys exclusively, who loved the glitter and pomp of graduation ceremonies, who hung around the Academy all she could, who had been to Graduation Balls before, and would certainly be to a number of them again, before she managed to separate all the black and silver uniforms she'd danced with and found herself a man from inside one of them. An Academy drag—a number in a score of little black books.

"Like Harry—oh, pardon me, it's Graduation Night—like Mr. Thorsten, you mean?" And she looked up at me, raking my face with her green eyes.

"If you will."

"You're jealous, Mr. Holcomb," she said, breaking out her best little tease manner.

"Maybe." I knew she was trying to get me angry. She was getting there fast, too.

"Well, now, if you displayed some of Mr. Thorsten's other gifts, I could forget about the conversation," she said lightly.

"Meaning you'd like me to dance you out on the terrace and make a pass at you?"

"Maybe."

She was daring me.

I danced her out on the terrace, and found a darker corner. She looked up at me, her eyes a little surprised, but her lips were parted.

I tightened my arms and kissed her. It started gently—just a kiss sneaked in between dances—but her arms were growing tighter too, and her fingers were hooking. We held it, while I listened to the blood running in my ears, until we broke apart, both of us dropping our arms, standing and looking at each other, dragging air down our throats.

"Ash! You—"

She started to say something, and broke it. It sounded a little too much like a movie heroine, all of a sudden. She was holding the pose a little too long, too. "Hell, she's a kid—she's doing it the way the grown-ups in the movies do it," I told myself, but I'd danced her out here for a purpose. Maybe she didn't deserve it, but I was sick to death of the little bits of fluff that hung around, drinking in borrowed glamor, getting the big play from boys like Harry Thorsten.

I reached out and grabbed.

"Now comes the part you've really been asking for," I said. I crouched, bent her over my knee, and brought my hand down. Hard. Three times in all, putting everything I had into it.

"Now," I said, letting her get up, "maybe you'll quit bothering guys who worked all their lives to get in a spot where they could go out and be of some help in the only job they ever wanted—the TSN. Do you think you really stack up worth a damn beside the only thing that counts?"

She just stood there, tears of rage in her eyes. I was never sure whether it was what I'd done or what I said that had her so mad, but the last thing I heard her say as I walked away was: "Damn you, Ash Holcomb! Damn you for being such a snobbish stuck-up..."

Well, maybe I was wrong and maybe I wasn't. I didn't know a3 much in those days as I should have, either. But it was too late now—too late by a war and a hundred revolutions, too late by all the men who'd gone down before my guns, too late by years of loneliness and bitterness.

But if it was too late, why did I remember it all now, with Thorsten up in the Asteroids, a little king in his own right, with me in the New Shanghai, a white ray-burn splashed through my hair, with the Academy a dim thing behind both of us, and Pat—

Why was Pat here? What had she done through the years, while I fought my way from one end of the System to the other, and Harry took the easy way out during the war?


"Hello, Pat," I said. "I haven't seen you in a long time." Well, what else was I going to say?

I don't know what she had expected me to say. She kept her face in profile, and didn't let me see what it was showing.

"I'm here on business. I hear you're a good man, these days, for the job I've got." She twisted the words like a knife.

All right, if she wanted it that way, she'd get it.

"So they tell me," I said.

"Fifteen thousand for a month's work."

She said it quietly, without any build-up. Maybe she figured fifteen thousand didn't need one.

I sat . there for a minute, not saying anything, but thinking hard. What kind of a setup was she offering me? Was this the big job that was floating around? There's usually a sure way to find out. When someone offers you a blind deal, argue. Maybe they'll get mad, or scared you won't take it, and spill something.

"No, thanks," I said.

She frowned. "Don't try haggling with me, Ash. I can get somebody just as good for less."

"I don't doubt it. You could probably get three. That's why I don't want any part of it. It's sucker bait."

She looked at me for the first time, mouth twisted.

"Since when does a hired gun like you turn down that kind of money? The job's worth it, believe me."

That hit me. But I couldn't afford to get touchy.

"Probably is. But with standard pay at three thousand a month, plus bounties and commissions, this little errand of yours, whatever it may be, must break so many laws it could land me in a death house," I said, watching her eyes.

It didn't add up. Nothing added up. Why had she picked me, in the first place? I had a reputation as one of the better gunnies, sure, but there were at least twenty guys I'd never draw against, if I could help it, and four or five of them were available. Because she'd known me? And. this job—what kind of hanky-panky was going on at these prices?

I watched her eyes acquiring dangerous highlights. The temper that went with that hair was beginning to stir.

"Do you want to get in on the biggest deal that's ever been pulled off in space or don't you?" she said. "Or are you going to chicken out?" she added contemptuously.

I let it slide off my shoulders.

"I don't know," I said. I wanted "'to get a chance to really talk things out with her, and this wasn't the place for it. "Anyway, this is no place to talk business. Walk out of here as if I'd turned you down, and go up the street. I'll catch up to you."

"Okay." She got up and walked out.

"Sorry, Honey," I called after her, loud enough for everybody to hear. A snicker went up. I cut it off with a look at the characters lined up against the bar, and got back to my drink. I finished it casually, put it down, paid, and walked slowly to the door. I let everybody get a. good look at me turning down the street in the opposite direction from the one Pat had taken.

I ducked into the first cross street and moved swiftly over to the alley that paralleled the street that Pat was on. I was thinking all the way.

Being a D.O. was one thing—getting into something solo was another. I could get kill...

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