Read CHAPTER IV of The Last Place on Earth , free online book, by James Judson Harmon, on ReadCentral.com.

Collins turned onto the old McHenty blacktop, his foot pressed to the floorboards. Ed Michaels didn’t own a car; he would have to borrow one from somebody. That would take time. Maybe Candle would give him his hearse to use to follow the Black Rachel.

Trees, fences, barns whizzed past the windows of the cab and then the steel link-mesh fence took up, the fence surrounding the New Kansas National Spaceport. Behind it, further from town, some of the concrete had been poured and the horizon was a remote, sterile gray sweep.

The McHenty Road would soon be closed to civilian traffic. But right now the government wanted people to drive along and see that the spaceship was nothing terrible, nothing to fear.

The girl, Nancy Comstock, was alive in the back. He knew that. But he couldn’t stop to prove it or to help her. Candle would make them lynch him first.

Why hadn’t Candle stopped him from getting away?

He had managed to break his control for a second. He had done that before when he deflected Nancy’s aim. But he couldn’t resist Candle for long. Why hadn’t Candle made him turn around and come back?

Candle’s control of him had seemed to stop when he got inside the cab of the truck. Could it be that the metal shield of the cab could protect an Earthling from the strange mental powers of the creature from another planet which was inhabiting the body of Doc Candle?

Collins shook his head.

More likely Candle was doing this just to get his hopes up. He probably would seize control of him any time he wanted to. But Collins decided to go on playing it as if he did have some hope, as if a shield of metal could protect him from Candle’s control. Otherwise ... there was no otherwise.

Collins suddenly saw an opening.

The steel mesh fence was ruptured by a huge semitrailer truck turned on its side. Twenty feet of fence on either side was down. This was restricted government property, but of course spaceships were hardly prime military secrets any longer. Repairs in the fence had not been made instantaneously, and the wreckage was not guarded.

Collins swerved the wheel and drove the old wagon across the waffle-plate obstruction, onto the smooth tarmac beyond.

He raced, raced, raced through the falling night, not sure where he was headed.

Up above he saw the shelter of shadows from a cluster of half-finished buildings. He drove into them and parked.

Collins sat still for a moment, then threw open the door and ran around to the back of the truck, jerking open the handles.

Nancy fell out into his arms.

“What kind of ambulance is this?” she demanded. “It doesn’t look like an ambulance. It doesn’t smell like an ambulance. It looks like looks like

Collins said, “Shut up. Get out of there. We’ve got to hide.”

“Why?”

“They think I murdered you.”

“Murdered me? But I’m alive. Can’t they see I’m alive?”

Collins shook his head. “I doubt it. I don’t know why, but I don’t think it would be that simple. Come with me.”

The blood on her breast had dried, and he could see it was only a shallow groove dug by the bullet. But she flinched in pain as she began to walk, pulling the muscles.

They stopped and leaned against a half-finished metallic shed.

“Where are we? Where are you taking me?”

“This is the spaceport. Now shut up.”

“Let me go.”

“No.”

“I’m not dead,” Nancy insisted. “You know I’m not dead. I won’t press charges against you just let me go free.”

“I told you it wasn’t that simple. He wants them to think you’re dead, and that’s what they’ll think.”

Nancy passed fingers across her eyes. “Who? Who are you talking about?”

“Doc Candle. He won’t let them know you’re alive.”

Nancy rubbed her forehead with both hands. “Sam, you don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. Just let me show myself to someone. They’ll know I’m not dead. Really they will.”

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s find somebody.”

He led her toward a more nearly completed building, showing rectangles of light. They looked through the windows to see several men in uniforms bending over blueprints on a desk jury-rigged of sawhorses and planks.

“Sam,” Nancy said, “one of those men is Terry Elston. He’s a Waraxe boy. I went to school with him. He’ll know me. Let’s go in....”

“No,” Collins said. “We don’t go in.”

“But ” Nancy started to protest, but stopped. “Wait. He’s coming out.”

Collins slid along the wall and stood behind the door. “Tell him who you are when he comes out. I’ll stay here.”

They waited. After a few seconds, the door opened.

Nancy stepped into the rectangle of light thrown on the concrete from the window.

“Terry,” she said. “Terry, it’s me Nancy Comstock.”

The blue-jawed young man in uniform frowned. “Who did you say you were? Have you got clearance from this area?”

“It’s me, Terry. Nancy. Nancy Comstock.”

Terry Elston stepped front and center. “That’s not a very good joke. I knew Nancy. Hell of a way to die, killed by some maniac.”

“Terry, I’m Nancy. Don’t you recognize me?”

Elston squinted. “You look familiar. You look a little like Nancy. But you can’t be her, because she’s dead.”

“I’m here, and I tell you I’m not dead.”

“Nancy’s dead,” Elston repeated mechanically. “Say, what are you trying to pull?”

“Terry, behind you. A maniac!”

“Sure,” Elston said. “Sure. There’s a maniac behind me.”

Collins stepped forward and hit Elston behind the ear. He fell silently.

Nancy stared down at him.

“He refused to recognize me. He acted like I was crazy, pretending to be Nancy Comstock.”

“Come on along,” Collins urged. “They’ll probably shoot us on sight as trespassers.”

She looked around herself without comprehension.

“Which way?”

This way.

Collins did not say those words.

They were said by the man with the gun in the uniform like the one worn by Elston. He motioned impatiently.

“This way, this way.”

“No priority,” Colonel Smith-Boerke said as he paced back and forth, gun in hand.

From time to time he waved it threateningly at Collins and Nancy who sat on the couch in Smith-Boerke’s office. They had been sitting for close to two hours. Collins now knew the Colonel did not intend to turn him over to the authorities. They were being held for reasons of Smith-Boerke’s own.

“They sneak the ship in here, plan for an unscheduled hop from an uncompleted base the strictest security we’ve used in ten or fifteen years and now they cancel it. This is bound to get leaked by somebody! They’ll call it off. It’ll never fly now.”

Collins sat quietly. He had been listening to this all evening. Smith-Boerke had been drinking, although it wasn’t very obvious.

Smith-Boerke turned to Collins.

“I’ve been waiting for somebody like you. Just waiting for you to come along. And here you are, a wanted fugitive, completely in my power! Perfect, perfect.”

Collins nodded to himself. Of course, Colonel Smith-Boerke had been waiting for him. And Doc Candle had driven him right to him. It was inescapable. He had been intended to escape and turn up right here all along.

“What do you want with me?”

Smith-Boerke’s flushed face brightened. “You want to become a hero? A hero so big that all these trumped-up charges against you will be dropped? It’ll be romantic. Back to Lindbergh-to-Paris. Tell me, Collins, how would you like to be the first man to travel faster than light?”

Collins knew there was no way out.

“All right,” he said.

Smith-Boerke wiped a hand across his dry mouth.

“Project Silver has to come off. My whole career depends on it. You don’t have anything to do. Everything’s cybernetic. Just ride along and prove a human being can survive. Nothing to it. No hyperdrives, none of that kind of stuff. We had an engine that could go half lightspeed and now we’ve made it twice as efficient and more. No superstitions about Einstein, I hope? No? Good.”

“I’ll go,” Collins said. “But what if I had said ’no’.”

Smith-Boerke put the gun away in a desk drawer.

“Then you could have walked out of here, straight into the MP’s.”

“Why didn’t they come in here after me?”

“They don’t have security clearance for this building.”

Don’t leave me alone,” Nancy said urgently. “I don’t understand what’s happening. I feel so helpless. I need help.”

“You’re asking the wrong man,” Collins said briefly.

Collins felt safe when the airlock kissed shut its metal lips.

It was not like the house, but yet he felt safe, surrounded by all the complicated, expensive electronic equipment. It was big, solid, sterilely gleaming.

Another thing he had reason to believe that Doc Candle’s power could not reach him through metal.

“But I’m not outside,” Doc Candle said, “I’m in here, with you.”

Collins yelled and cursed, he tried to pull off the acceleration webbing and claw through the airlock. Nobody paid any attention to him. Count downs had been automated. Smith-Boerke was handling this one himself, and he cut off the Audio-In switch from the spaceship. Doc Candle said nothing else for a moment, and the spaceship, almost an entity itself, went on with its work.

The faster-than-light spaceship took off.

At first it was like any other rocket takeoff.

The glow of its exhaust spread over the field of the spaceport, then over the hills and valleys, and then the town of Waraxe, spreading illumination even as far as Sam Collins’ silent house.

After a time of being sick, Collins lay back and accepted this too.

“That’s right, that’s it,” Doc Candle said. “Take it and die with it. That’s the ticket.”

Collins’ eyes settled on a gauge. Three quarters lightspeed. Climbing.

Nothing strange, nothing untoward happened when you reached lightspeed. It was only an arbitrary number. All else was superstition. Forget it, forget it, forget it.

Something was telling him that. At first he thought it was Doc Candle but then he knew it was the ship.

Collins sat back and took it, and what he was taking was death. It was creeping over him, seeping into his feet, filling him like liquid does a sponge.

Not will, but curiosity, caused him to turn his head.

He saw Doc Candle.

The old body was dying. He was in the emergency seat, broken, a ribbon of blood lacing his chin. But Doc Candle continued to laugh triumphantly in Collins’ head.

“Why? Why do you have to kill me?” Collins asked.

“Because I am evil.”

“How do you know you’re evil?”

They told me so!” Candle shouted back in the thundering silence of Death’s approach. “They were always saying I was bad.”

They.

Collins got a picture of something incredibly old and incredibly wise, but long unused to the young, clumsy gods. Something that could mar the molding of a godling and make it mortal.

“But I’m not really so very bad,” Doc Candle went on. “I had to destroy, but I picked someone who really didn’t care if he were destroyed or not. An almost absolutely passive human being, Sam. You.”

Collins nodded.

“And even then,” said the superhuman alien from outer space, “I could not just destroy. I have created a work of art.”

“Work of art?”

“Yes. I have taken your life and turned it into a horror story, Sam! A chilling, demonic, black-hearted horror!”

Collins nodded again.

LIGHTSPEED.

There was finally something human within Sam Collins that he could not deny. He wanted to live. It wasn’t true. He did care what happened.

You do? said somebody.

He does? asked somebody else, surprised, and suddenly he again got the image of wiser, older creatures, a little ashamed because of what they had done to the creature named Doc Candle.

He does, chorused several voices, and Sam Collins cried aloud: “I do! I want to live!” They were just touching lightspeed; he felt it.

This time it was not just a biological response. He really wanted help. He wanted to stay alive.

From the older, wiser voices he got help, though he never knew how; he felt the ship move slipwise under him, and then a crash.

And Doc Candle got help too, the only help even the older, wiser ones could give him.

They pulled him out of the combined wreckage of the spaceship and his house. Both were demolished.

It was strange how the spaceship Sam Collins was on crashed right into his house. Ed Michaels recalled a time in a tornado when Sy Baxter’s car was picked up, lifted across town and dropped into his living room.

When the men from the spaceport lifted away tons of rubble, they found him and said, “He’s dead.”

No, I’m not, Collins thought. I’m alive.

And then they saw that he really was alive, that he had come through it alive somehow, and nobody remembered anything like it since the airliner crash in ’59.

A while later, after they found Doc Candle’s body and court-martialed Smith-Boerke, who took drugs, Nancy was nuzzling him on his hospital bed. It was nice, but he wasn’t paying much attention.

I’m free, Collins thought as the girl hugged him. Free! He kissed her.

Well, he thought while she was kissing him back, as free as I want to be, anyway.