Bigman felt fully confident of Lucky's ability to handle any overgrown mass of beef, and though he felt a sharp anger at the unsympathetic crowd, he felt no fear.
Summers had approached the lip of the corridor and so had another, a gangling, dark-complexioned fellow who barked out events as they occurred in a raucous voice, as though it were a flight-polo game on the subetherics.
There were cheers when Armand first slammed Lucky against the corridor wall. Bigman discounted those with contempt. Of course that shouting fool would try to make it look good for his own side. Wait till Lucky got the feel of the Agrav technique; he would cut that Armand guy into ribbons. Bigman was sure of it.
But then when the dark fellow yelled, "Armand has him now in a head lock. He's maneuvering for a second fall; feet against the wall; retract and extend and there's the crash, a beauty!" Bigman felt the beginnings of uneasiness.
He edged close to the corridor himself. No one paid any attention to him. It was one advantage of his small size. People who didn't know him tended to discount him as a possible danger, to ignore him.
Bigman looked down and saw Lucky pushing away from the wall, Armand drifting nearby, waiting.
"Lucky!" he yelled shrilly. "Stay away!"
His cry was lost in the hubbub, but the dark man's voice as it was lowered in a conversational aside to Red Summers was not. Bigman caught it.
The dark man said, "Give the snoop some power, Red. There won't be any excitement."
And Summers growled in response, "I don't want excitement. I want Armand to finish the job."
Bigman didn't get the significance of the short exchange for a moment, but only for a moment. And then his eyes darted sharply in the direction of Red Summers, whose hands, held closely against his chest, were manipulating some small object Bigman could not identify.
"Sands of Mars!" Bigman cried breathlessly. He sprang back. "You! Summers! You foul-fighting cobber!"
This was another one of those tunes when Bigman was glad he carried a needle-gun even in the face of Lucky's disapproval. Lucky considered it an unreliable weapon, as it was too hard to focus accurately, but Bigman would sooner doubt the fact that he was as tall as any six-footer as doubt his own skill.
When Summers didn't turn at Bigman's shout, Bigman clenched his fist about the weapon (of which only half-inch of snout, narrowing to a needlepoint, showed between the second and third fingers of his right hand) and squeezed just tightly enough to activate it.
Simultaneously there was a flash of light six inches in front of Summers' nose, and a slight pop. It was not very impressive. Only air molecules were being ionized. Summers jumped, however, and panic, transmitted by the V-frog, rose sharply.
"Everybody," called Bigman. "Freeze! Freeze! You split-head, underlipped miseries." Another needle-gun discharge popped the air, this time over Summers' head where all could see it plainly.
Few people might have handled needle-guns, which were expensive and hard to get licenses for, but everybody knew what a needle-gun discharge looked like, if only from subetheric programs, and everyone knew the damage it could do.
It was as though fifty men had stopped breathing. Bigman was bathed in the cold drizzle of human fear from fifty frightened men. He backed against the wall. He said, "Now listen, all of you. How many of you know that this cobber Summers is gimmicking my friend's Agrav controls? This fight is fixed!"
Summers said desperately, through clenched teeth, "You're wrong. You're wrong."
"Am I? You're a brave man, Summers, when you've got fifty against two. Let's see you stay brave against a needle-gun. They're hard to aim, of course, and I might miss."
He clenched his fist again, and this time the pop of the discharge was sharply ear-splitting and the flash dazzled all the spectators but Bigman, who, of them all, was the only one who knew exactly when to close his eyes for a moment.
Summers emitted a strangled yell. He was untouched except that the top button on his shirt was gone
Bigman said, "Nice aiming if I do say so myself, but I suppose having a run of luck is too much to ask. I'd advise you not to move, Summers. Pretend you're stone, you cobber, because if you do move, I'll miss and feeling a chunk of your skin go will hurt you worse than just losing a button."
Summers closed his eyes. His forehead was glistening with perspiration. Bigman calculated the distance and clenched twice.
Pow! Smack! Two more buttons gone.
"Sands of Mars, my lucky day! Isn't it nice that you've arranged to have no one come around to interfere? Well, one more-for the road."
And this tune Summers yelled in agony. There was a rent in the shirt and reddened skin showed.
"Aw," said Bigman, "not on the nose. Now I'm rattled and I'll probably miss the next by two inches… Unless you're ready to say something, Summers."
"All right," yelled the other. ''I've fixed it."
Bigman said mildly, "Your man was heavier. Your man had experience and still you couldn't leave it a fair fight. You don't take any chances, do you? Drop what you're holding… Don't the rest of you move, though. From here on in, it's a fair fight in the corridor. No one's moving until someone climbs out of the corridor."
He paused and glared as his fist with the needle-gun moved slowly from side to side. "But if it's your ball of gristle that comes back, I'll just be a bit disappointed. And when I'm disappointed, there's no telling what I'll do. I just might be disappointed and mad enough to fire this needle-gun into the crowd, and there isn't a thing in the world any of you can do to stop me from clenching my fist ten times. So if there are ten of you bored with living, just hope that your boy beats Lucky Starr."
Bigman waited there desperately, his right hand holding the needle-gun, his left arm crooked over the V-frog in its container. He longed to order Summers to bring the two men back, to end the fight, but he dared not risk Lucky's anger. He knew Lucky well enough to know that the fight couldn't be allowed to end by default on Lucky's side.
A figure whizzed past the line of sight, then another. There was a crash as of a body hitting a wall, then a second and a third. Then silence.
A figure drifted back, with a second gripped firmly by one ankle.
The person in control came lightly out into the corridor; the person being held followed and dropped like a sack of sand.
Bigman let out a shout. The man standing was Lucky. His cheek was bruised and he limped, but it was Armand who was unconscious.
They brought Armand back to consciousness with some difficulty. He had a lump on his skull resembling a small grapefruit, and one eye was swollen closed. Though his lower lip was bleeding, he managed a painful smile and said, "By Jupiter, this kid's a wildcat."
He got to his feet and threw his arms about Lucky in a bear hug. "It was like tangling with ten men after he got his bearings. He's all right."
Surprisingly, the men were cheering wildly. The V-frog transmitted relief first, swallowed up at once by excitement
Armand's smile widened, and he dabbed at the blood with the back of his hand. "This councilman is all right. Anyone who still doesn't like him has to fight me, too. Where's Red?"
But Red Summers was gone. So was the instrument he had dropped at Bigman's order.
Annand said, "Listen, Mr. Starr, I've got to tell you. This wasn't my idea, but Red said we had to get rid of you or you'd make trouble for all of us."
Lucky raised his hand. "That's a mistake. Listen, all of you. There'll be no trouble for any loyal Earthman. I guarantee it. This fight is off the record. It was a bit of excitement, but we can forget it. Next time we meet, we all meet fresh. Nothing's happened. Right?"
They cheered madly and there were shouts of "He's all right" and "Up the Council!"
Lucky was turning to go when Armand said, "Hey, wait." He drew in a vast breath and pointed a thick finger. "What's this?" He was pointing to the V-frog.
"A Venusian animal," said Lucky. "A pet of ours."
"It's cute." The giant simpered down at it. The others crowded close to stare at it and make appreciative comments, to seize Lucky's hand and assure him that they had been on his side all along.
Bigman, outraged at the shoving, finally yelled, "Let's get to quarters, Lucky, or I swear I'll kill a few of these guys."
There was an instant silence and men squeezed back to make a path for Lucky and Bigman.
Lucky winced as Bigman applied cold water to the bruised cheek in the privacy of their quarters
He said, "Some of the men were saying something about needle-guns in that final crush, but in the confusion I didn't get the story straight. Suppose you tell me, Bigman."
Reluctantly Bigman explained the circumstances.
Lucky said thoughtfully, "I realized that my controls were off, but I assumed mechanical failure particularly since they came back after my second fall. I didn't know you and Red Summers were fighting it out over me."
Bigman grinned. "Space, Lucky, you didn't think I'd let that character pull a trick like that?"
"There might have been some way other than needle-guns."
"Nothing else would have frozen them so," said Bigman, aggrieved. "Did you want me to shake my finger at them and say, 'Naughty, naughty?' Besides, I had to scare the green bejeebies out of them."
"Why?" Lucky said sharply.
"Sands of Mars, Lucky, you spotted the other guy two falls when the fighting was fixed, and I didn't know if you had enough left to make out. I was going to make Summers call the fight off."
"That would have been bad, Bigman. We would have gained nothing. There would have been men convinced the cry of 'foul' was an unsportsmanlike fake."
"I knew you'd figure that, but I was nervous."
"No need to be. After my controls started responding properly, things went fairly well. Armand was certain he had me, and when he found there was still fight in me, the fight seemed to go out of him. That happens sometimes with people who have never had to lose
When they don't win at once, it confuses them, and they don't win at all."
"Yes, Lucky," said Bigman, grinning.
Lucky was silent for a minute or two, then he said, "I don't like that 'Yes, Lucky.' What did you do?"
"Well-" Bigman applied the final touch of flesh tint to hide the bruise and stepped back to consider his handiwork critically-"I couldn't help but hope that you'd win, now could I?"
"No, I suppose not."
"And I told everyone in that place that if Armand won, I would shoot as many of them as I could."
"You weren't serious."
"Maybe I was. Anyway, they thought I was; they were sure I was after they saw me needle four buttons off that cobber's shirt. So there were fifty guys there, even including Summers, who were sweating themselves blind hoping you would win and Armand lose."
Lucky said, "So that's it."
"Well, I couldn't help it if the V-frog was there and transmitted all those thoughts to you too, could I?"
"So all the fight went out of Armand because his mind was blanketed with wishes he would lose." Lucky looked chagrined.
"Remember, Lucky. Two foul falls. It wasn't a fair fight."
"Yes, I know. Well, maybe I needed the help at that."
The door signal flashed at that moment, and Lucky raised his eyebrows. "Who's this, I wonder?" He pressed the button that retracted the door into its slot.
A chunky man, with thinning hair and china-blue eyes that stared at them unblinkingly, stood in the doorway. In one hand he held an oddly shaped piece of gleaming metal, which his limber fingers turned end for end. Occasionally the piece ducked between fingers, traveling from thumb to pinkie and back as though it had a life of its own. Bigman found himself watching it, fascinated.
The man said, "My name is Harry Norrich. I'm your next-door neighbor."
"Good day," said Lucky.
"You're Lucky Starr and Bigman Jones, aren't you? Would you care to come to my place a few minutes? Visit a bit, have a drink?"
"That's kind of you," said Lucky. "We'll be glad to join you."
Norrich turned somewhat stiffly and led the way down the corridor to the next door. One hand touched the corridor wall occasionally. Lucky and Bigman followed, the latter holding the V-frog.
"Won't you come in, gentlemen?" He stood aside to let them enter. "Please sit down. I've heard a great deal about you already."
"Like what?" asked Bigman.
"Like Lucky's fight with Big Armand and Bigman's marksmanship with a needle-gun. It's all over the place. I doubt there's anyone on Jupiter Nine who won't hear of it by morning. It's one of the reasons I asked you in. I wanted to talk to you about it."
He poured a reddish liquor carefully into two small glasses and offered them. For a moment Lucky put his hand some three inches to one side of the glass, waited without result, then reached over and took it from Norrich's hand. Lucky put the drink to one side
"What's that on your worktable?" asked Bigman.
Norrich's room, in addition to the usual furnishings, had something that looked like a worktable running the length of one wall with a bench before it. On the work-table was a series of metal gimmicks spread out loosely, and in the center was an odd structure, six inches high and very uneven hi outline.
"This thing?" Norrich's hand slid delicately along the surface of the table and came to rest on the structure. "It's a threedee."
"A three-dimensional jigsaw. The Japanese had them for thousands of years, but they've never caught on elsewhere. They're puzzles, made up of a number of pieces that fit together to form some sort of structure. This one, for instance, will be the model of an Agrav generator when it's finished. I designed and made this puzzle myself."
He lifted the piece of metal he was holding and placed it carefully in a little slot in the structure. The piece slid in smoothly and held in place.
"Now you take another piece." His left hand moved gently over the structure, while his right felt among the loose pieces, came up with one, and moved it into place.
Bigman, fascinated, moved forward, then jumped back at a sudden animal howl from beneath the table.
A dog came squirming out from beneath the table and put its forefeet on the bench. It was a large German shepherd dog and it stood now looking mildly at Bigman.
Bigman said nervously, "Here, now, I stepped on it by accident."
"It's only Mutt," said Norrich. "He won't hurt anyone without better cause than being stepped on. He's my dog. He's my eyes."
Lucky said softly, "Mr. Norrich is blind, Bigman."