By Algis Budrys (Algirdas Jonas Budrys, 1931-2008).
First appearance: Rocket Stories, July 1953.
Collected in Blood on My Jets and Others (for sale HERE; reviewed HERE — WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS in both places).
Short novel (44 pages).
Online at SFFAudio HERE (PDF).
(Parental caution: Violence and very strong language.)
"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!"It's reasonable to expect that, unless there's a radical change in human behavior, on the High Frontier of the distant future we'll have tough guys tangling with low life criminal types, the classic tarnished knights cleaning up the mean streets (with guns, not brooms), even if those streets happen to be on another planet.
In the aftermath of interplanetary war there's a scramble for power, with some bent on being top dog in defiance of the duly constituted central authorities; in such a situation, war veterans, the people with highly refined combat skills, choose up sides—and when they do, old friends can suddenly turn into bitter enemies.
Ash Holcomb is no angel, having been forced to kill many times as a soldier in war and now as a gun for hire in what passes for peace; he's forced to walk a tightrope of suspicion when he's assigned the task of delivering a power source to a research bubble on Titan. Like his fictional noir predecessors, Ash becomes enmeshed in a tangle of doubt about just whom he should trust, and if he makes the wrong choice he probably won't live long enough to regret it—indeed, there are two old acquaintances who, given the chance, would gladly make sure of that.
~ Ash Holcomb, the narrator:
"I was a D.O.—a Detached Operative. It was a crummy job, but it suited me. . . . 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."
"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."
~ Pat McKay:
"I watched her eyes acquiring dangerous highlights. The temper that went with that hair was beginning to stir."
~ Mort Weidmann:
"Mort's attitude hurt. He didn't have any respect for me—he couldn't have, for a man who'd resigned his commission and become a planet-hopper. He stood at the window in his office, his phony arm tucked into a pocket, his moustache moving up and down as he talked to me. 'I don't know why they picked you, Ash,' he said."
~ Lou Foster:
"I found him, curled around a rock, his head and arm supported on a rifle that was leaned against a stone."
~ Harry Thorsten:
"His voice started in the pit of his stomach, and worked its way up. When he chuckled, the sound was almost operatic, deeper than I remembered it.
"'Why shouldn't I kill you, Holcomb?' he said."
"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."
"A gun clattered on cement. I poked my head cautiously around the corner. Silence blanketed Rocket Row, and then was tempered by a scuffing noise. Up the street, a leather belt was being pressed against the side of a building by the weight of a body that was sliding slowly downwards. I spotted a glowing dot that was a tunic smoldering around a Colt burn."
". . . so help me, you wave one of those things at me again, and I'll ram it down your throat catty-cornered!"
"It sounds silly, but the way she held herself reminded me of a thing I'd seen once; a rocket transiting the sun, fire sparkling from the shimmering hull, and the Milky Way behind it. I finally caught what I was trying to phrase; she looked as if she was poised for flight."
"The ship arced over, singing her death-song in snapping stanchions and straining plates, in the angry howl of the converters, in the drumfire of jets that coughed and choked as fuel poured into them, but which opened their throats and bellowed just the same."
"All of a sudden, it had hit me. I'd been asking a lot of questions lately, and getting only partial answers. Now I had all the answers, and I hated every one of them. . . . I stood there—Ash Holcomb, the toughest man in space, maybe. Not the smartest—no, not the smartest. The dumbest, the stupidest chump who'd ever fallen for the oldest gag in history."
Typo: "the Asteriod"
- With very little effort you'll find info about Algis Budrys on Wikipedia HERE, an author interview at the SF Site HERE, the SFE HERE, the ISFDb HERE, and a small collection of his stories on Project Gutenberg HERE.
HERE) and in fact (HERE).
The bottom line: "She was bad. She was dangerous. I wouldn't trust her any farther than I could throw her. But ... she was my kind of woman."
— Rod Reilly