Adam leaned forward a little. At the end of his run he had automatically come to rest with his feet just the right distance apart for balance and quick movement. He could feel the strength ready in his arms, that were hanging loosely in front of him, and he could feel his chest heaving with the exertion of the run and with the build-up of adrenalin.
Alice. And now Merit. Twice in one lifetime. But now he had them in front of him. He watched the short man’s eyes, and smiled at him.
“I mean,” asked the short man, in a new tone, one meant to frighten, “why be a dead hero?”
When nothing happened, he stepped forward, making his voice friendly again. “Let me explain-”
Adam observed the short man’s subtle shift of weight in stride, which meant that the right knee was going to come up for Adam’s groin. The combat computer guided Adam’s sidestep, and launched his right fist in what would have been a clumsy sucker punch if it had not come with almost invisible speed from a standing start. The blow took the short man on the neck under his left ear, and lifted him onto his toes. He fell, rolled over, and lay face down on the deck without moving.
The retchsinger image tore off its shirt, and jittered in its plastic cage. Its mouth opened and noise came out.
“Get him!” ordered the man who had been feeding the retchsinger coins, the lean figure standing close under the noise and light of the machine.
The two who were holding Vito let him drop and came at Adam, spreading out to get him between them. Their faces also were too old for teeners. Adam defended cautiously when they closed in on him, and in the first blurred second of savage motion and impact he knew they were a professional team. It was all he could do to keep himself alive and spin out from between them.
The lean figure in the rear came forward, cursing impartially at them all. “Gethim, I said.”
Adam had two seconds to look at Merit again. Still she had not moved.
The two big men regarded Adam with awe, and paused before coming at him again. One of them was flexing his wrist, where the edge of Adam’s hand had caught it. The man was getting his fingers to work again, but his length of metal pipe had bounced away and was riding the slideway to Stem City.
“Come on!” urged the lean one. “Quick!”
Adam started a move at the biggest man, a subtle feint intended to fool a good fighter. The man jumped back a step as Adam spun round. He caught the lean man moving in, with a side snap kick that hit him in the knee like a swung hammer. One more down.
The giant with the brass knuckles was almost quick enough; Adam felt a scrape across his forehead as he dodged the swing. Then he was stepping in, hitting with backfist, knuckles, elbow. He thought that he had never hit anyone or anything so hard before.
And now the big character who had lost his pipe weapon was the only one besides Adam still on his feet. Still flexing his sore wrist, the big man backed away, no longer a workman going at a job, but a man with the fear in him. Now he was shaking his head a little. This one knew, this one appreciated what was going to happen to him.
The man took a last look into Adam’s face, and turned and ran for the slideway. Just at the edge of the alcove Adam caught him from behind. The two went down, with Adam on top; the man beneath him strained and squealed and then his neck was broken.
Adam turned round in a crouch. The lean opponent had overcome the pain of his knee enough to pull out a gun; and Vito, battered almost to death, had got up to throw himself at the enemy and save Adam from a bullet.
Vito had luckily managed to bang the lean man’s sore knee, and now the two wounded were struggling feebly against their injuries and against each other. Or, they had been struggling, for by now Adam had crossed the intervening space and kicked the lean man in the head. The head on its lean neck bounced through one vibration like a punching bag on its mount, and then was still.
Bloody and gasping, Vito just stayed sitting on the deck, staring ahead of him. Adam, gasping if not bloody, stood beside Vito looking warily around in all directions, ready to meet the next threat when it came. People were still going by on the slideway, passing the alcove scene and looking in at it, then turning away with a desperate blank-ness in their faces, eager to not-involve themselves. Adam eyed the passing people cautiously. But it seemed that none of them were going to turn aside into the alcove and try to hurt Merit any more.
In a few moments he had regained a certain relative sanity, and went to look after her. She was just stunned, he thought, just as in the vision. She was undoubtedly breathing, and now she was even turning her head a little from side to side, and her blood was still pulsing safe inside its warm tender vessels. Adam touched her face with one of his terrible hands. A living face. Yes, Merit had to be alive, because the universe still had to be a place in which a man could live.
The jukebox was still playing. Probably less than two minutes had passed since the start of the fight. But suddenly the voice of the retchsinger was silent. Adam looked up to see the image swallowing, drinking from its bottles of colored liquids, meanwhile twisting its body in time to the throbbing music, its sculptured belly muscles writhing.
Then the image raised its arms and the music crashed toward a climax. The imaged body snapped forward, and with a heaving groan projectile-vomited a streaming rainbow of bright color that splattered and filmed the inside of the plastic cage.
Vito Ling lay looking up from his hospital bed. A hundred thin insulated wires led to the helmet in which his head was cradled, but he was aware of his visitors and perhaps he was trying to smile at them. It was hard to be sure.
Adam kept watching Merit as she sat beside the bed holding Vito’s hand. Her eyes seldom left her husband’s face, and when she spoke to her husband her voice was sometimes not loud enough for Adam to hear it clearly. Vito was unable to speak to answer her, but his eyes kept coming back to her face and he appeared to be listening to what she said.
After a while, Adam got up and left the room.
Ray, his face looking tired, was waiting out in the corridor, where small bubble windows glowed with a wintry dawn.
“Looks like he’s going to make it,” Adam told him.
Ray nodded. “I’ve just been talking to the doctor in charge.” Then he made a gesture of futility. “You saw it coming, fortunately, but I saw nothing. Nothing. Parapsych talent, the undependable. How can we build on it? And yet we must.”
The two of them stood talking there in the corridor for a little while, not really saying much, until Merit, smiling tiredly, came out of Vito’s room. She took an arm of each of them. “He seems to be doing as well as we could hope. He’s going to make it, I’m sure now. Let’s all get some rest.”
Two plainclothes detectives met them just as they were passing the waiting room. “Mr. Mann, we’d like another few minutes with you, if you please.”
Adam shrugged wearily. The small bandage pulled at the slight cut on his forehead.
“We’ll wait downstairs,” said Ray exchanging looks with him. He moved away, with Merit leaning on his arm.
The detectives watched them go, then faced Adam. One said: “We checked up on your Space Force background. I guess it is possible that you laid out those four hoods all by yourself.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I was worried. Mind if I sit down?” He stepped into the waiting room and took a chair. Physically he felt weary. And he felt a little giddy, lightheaded, almost cheerful. Merit was all right. Merit was all right. Nothing else mattered very much.
The other detective asked Adam: “What do you think those four men wanted?”
“Looked to me like they wanted to kill Vito Ling. But you’d better ask them.”
There was a brief pause while the two detectives exchanged glances. “Three of them are dead,” one finally informed Adam. “It’s not certain that the fourth, one is ever going to think straight again. You hammered him pretty good. They say an artery in his brain gave way.”