[Michael Shack wishes to thank Jerry L Burge, without whose help this wouldn't have been possible]

Illustrated by Jim Garrison

     

She drifted in the lightless void, borne by impalpable currents. After a seeming age, a wan light appeared in the infinite and she fought her way toward the light, struggling against the listlessness that weighed down her limbs. The light grew brighter and with it came the pain, shocking her into consciousness...

Groggily, she opened her eyes. A bright spotlight glared overhead. A glance to either side revealed the source of the pain. Heavy metal clamps bit into her upper arms, holding her suspended.

A quick shake of the head was enough to clear away the cobwebs in her mind. Past the dazzling light she could make out a huge cloaked shape and another, smaller shape farther back. “Qultin-Qulcan, the RoboMagician of Mars!” she said. “So this is your hidey-hole.”

“Hid-ey-hole!” stated a flat, mechanical voice. “This-is-my-zzt-im-preg-nable-cast-le, I-will-have-zzt-you-know, Cap-tain-zzt-Shivers.” The massive figure strode forward into the light. His metal frame was draped in a mix of 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century formal dress—an evening suit, complete with dicky and cummerbund, a celluloid collar with bow-tie, a top-hat and cane; and about his shoulders swirled a red-lined opera cloak. Space gauntlets and wide-top space boots together with a low-slung belt holding a heavy-duty blaster completed the sartorial vision. His face was a pasty color, heavily made up with rouge and liner. Below his nose several black wires sprouted. “Im-preg-nable,” he repeated, as if relishing the syllables. “Here-you-are-zzt-be-yond-res-cue. Here-you-will-zzt -die!” With a flourish he flung his cloak back and smoothed his moustache-wires with a gloved finger.

Captain Shivers laughed. “Pardon my giggles, Magician, but you’d be surprised how often I’ve heard those words. Yet here I still am, alive and kicking. Isn’t that so, Captain Cruiser?”

The shape in the shadows started, then stepped forward into the light, an extremely feminine figure wearing a fetchingly revealing Earle K. Bergey lady space pirate’s uniform. “So you guessed it was I behind your capture.”

“No guesswork involved,” said Shivers. “Who else would have arranged the ruse that lured me here to Zbiggy IV where the Space Cops have no jurisdiction and set the trap that I fell into? Certainly not old Rust-Bucket here.”

The Robo-Magician of Mars drew himself up to his not inconsiderable height and bristled, “Was-zzt-that-an-insult? Captain-Cruiser, did-she-just-zzt-insult-me?”

“Of course she did, you dolt!” Cruiser snapped. “Enough talk, Shivers. There is no way your men can penetrate the walls of this castle. This time there will be no last-minute rescue. Too bad, in a way. I shall miss our little tête-à-têtes. Now, Qultin-Qulcan! Kill her!”

The Robo-Magician’s eyes glowed red. Something in their depths swirled avidly. He strode forward heavily, planted himself before her. His gauntleted hands reached toward her.

A tiny line of worry appeared on Captain Shivers’ forehead. Where were her crew? Would this be the day they would fail to reach her in time?

#

“Golly, Unca First Officer Nadir McGuirk, sir!” Urgus said, ducking the half-hearted swat the First Officer aimed at his head, “after crossing twenty miles of waterless desert under two blistering suns, climbing that thousand-foot cliff, and swimming the rancid, slith-infested moat, I’m kinda pooped.” The young space kid ran out of breath and collapsed in the shade of a xkibrth. The giant cabbage dropped a leaf over him and tried to wrap him up in it, and Urgus hastily scrambled out.

“Quit yer frabnagging bellyaching, kid,” the mutant said. “And don’t call me uncle!” He rolled his cigar from one side of his beak to the other. “Getting here was less than half the job. How thick is that wall?” Urgus sat up and plucked a small instrument from his belt. After a moment of pointing and peering, he said, “Golly gee! The depthometer shows it’s twenty feet thick!”

“What?”

“I mean, uh, 6.096 meters.”

“Oh, bummer!” said Thurston. The Smileyfacian was gazing morosely at the wall that towered 500 feet above their heads. “We’ll never burn through it in time. And we can’t climb over. Captain Shivers is probably already dead, anyway. Bummer,” he repeated.

“Hey,” said Grabby Haze, the fourth member of the group. “Whar’s yore spunk? I been in a lot worse fixes than this. Why, I mind me of one time back in ‘87—I was on Cerberus XIII surrounded by angry spider-men bent on doin’ me dirt. Waal, I—”

“You’re right,” McGuirk said hastily. “We’ve got to stop the fragnabbing talking and start doing. Anybody got any ideas?” He glared at each crewman in turn. “Well?”

“Waal, Mr. McGuirk,” said Grabby Haze, “mebbe I got a idea, dependin’.”

“Depending on what? Spit it out, Grabby!”

“Thanks,” said Grabby and spat, causing Urgus to yelp and jump back hastily. “It just come to me, Mister McGuirk, that I ain’t never seen you use yore wings. Waal, mebbe you got yore reasons fer not flyin’. But if you ain’t got nothin’ agin it, couldn’t you fly over thet wall yoreself?”

The mutant glanced down at his feathered “arms” as though he had never seen them before. “Uh, well,” he said, “wings aren’t too practical on board a dagfrazzled spaceship and they’re even more useless in space. I kinda forgot about ’em.” He switched his cigar to the other side of his beak and chewed on it for a moment. “Thurston, break out the line and attach it to my belt. Urgus, you hold my jacket.” He stripped to the waist and flapped his wings once or twice. “Ugh,” he said, “pretty stiff.”

“Golly, Mr. First Officer McGuirk, sir!” Urgus said worriedly, “are you sure you want to try this without an antigravity belt?”

“What if you got halfway up,” Thurston added, “and you got a wing cramp or something. Bummer!”

“Say,” said Grabby, “the young’uns might hev a point at that, Mr. McGuirk. Why, I mind me of one time back on Deneb XVI—I was a depitty in the spaceport city. The sheriff was a winged—”

“Hurry up with that dagfrazzled line, Thurston!” McGuirk interposed quickly. “I’ve got no time to listen to all your belly-aching, you three. Now, give me room to take off.”

The three crewmen ducked and scrambled back as McGuirk began to pump his wings up and down, flailing away at the local atmosphere. Great quantities of dust and dead vegetation rose from the ground and swirled about the officer until he was hidden from sight of the crewmen.

The three of them were looking upward hopefully, when McGuirk came stumbling out of the dust cloud, coughing and gagging and cursing. He snatched the canteen Thurston nervously held out for him, and poured most of its contents into his open beak. Then he glared around at the others. “Whose dragfizzling idea was this, anyway?”

Grabby Haze bristled, his tentacles curling into angry knots. “Hey,” he growled, “don’t put the hull blame on me! Kin I help it if them dust-blowers look like wings? This minds me of that time on Argus IV, when—”

“Quiet!” McGuirk yelled. “Gimme my jacket, Urgus. Now, we’re gonna stop fooling around and do this my way. Urgus, you come with me. We’ll scout around the base of the wall. Maybe there’s a trap door or something. Thurston—you and Grabby see if you can find a weak place in the wall, anything that might let us break through quickly.” Gripping his cigar more tightly in his beak, the mutant stalked off, absent-mindedly dragging the space kid along.

“Criminintlies, Mr. First Officer Nadir McGuirk, sir,” said Urgus, “are we going to have to walk all the way around the wall?”

“I hope not,” McGuirk muttered. “Keep yer eyes on the ground near the wall.”

“Yessir.”

McGuirk moved rapidly, bent almost double and puffing on his cigar, his black brows waggled as he darted his head rapidly from side to side, his keen eyes searching every suspicious-looking indentation and bump in his path. Urgus half-ran to keep up with the mutant’s pace. This went on for some time.

Then with a triumphant cry, the mutant pounced. “I knew it,” he shouted. “Look here, Urgus!”

#

Captain Shivers shuddered as Qultin-Qulcan, the Robo-Magician of Mars, bore down on her. She tried to squirm in her manacles, but she was thoroughly trussed up and suspended in air. Her struggles merely added to her pain.

The robot stopped directly in front of her and thrust clenched metal fists under her nose.

His eyes widened and glowed red. “Guess!” he snapped.

“What?”

“Guess-which-zzt-hand-holds-the-zzt-coin,” the Robo-Magician persisted.

“No, no,” Captain Cruiser groaned, grabbing the robot’s massive arm. “Kill her now!”

The robot elbowed her away. “In-due-time,” he said. “Guess-Cap-zzt-tain-Shivers,” he commanded. “Which-zzt-hand?”

Captain Shivers rolled her eyes and sighed. “I’m in no position to point, right now. The left hand.”

Qultin-Qulcan hesitated. “Uh-your-left-or-zzt-my-left?”

“Your left.”

With a flourish, the robot turned his hands palm upward. On the right palm rested a gold Zolar, slightly bent. From the left, gold fragments pattered over Captain Shivers.

“Showering me with gold will get you nowhere, Qultin-Qulcan,” she said coyly.

“Zzt-Darn!” the robot growled.

“I’ve-got-to-get-my-zzt-sleight-of-hand-zzt-program-fixed.”

“All right,” Captain Cruiser shrilled, “you’ve had your fun. Now kill her!”

Once again, the robot’s eyes glowed red. Once again he advanced on the helpless space captain. Once again he planted himself solidly before her and lifted his arms toward her. Once again, Captain Shivers wondered if this, finally, was to be her fate: to be crushed to death by a monstrous robot on this forsaken little planet far from the busy space lanes she loved. Where was her crew?

#

“What is it, Unca First Officer Nadir McGuirk, sir?” Urgus trotted up beside McGuirk, hastily dodging the officer’s automatic swing at his head. He gazed puzzledly at McGuirk’s discovery, a four-inch metal cylinder embedded in the ground next to the castle wall.

“This is obviously the way in,” said McGuirk. “See, there’s a pushbutton on this side. All we have to do is push that to activate the entrance.”

“Wait!” the space-kid cautioned. “What if it’s a booby trap?”

“Nah,” McGuirk scoffed. “If it was a trap, it would be right out in the open. Not hidden away like this.”

“But,” Urgus said, “it is right out in the–“

“Shaddup! We ain’t got a lotta fragnabbing time to debate it.’ McGuirk touched his finger to the button. “If it worries you, stand back out of the way.” He pressed the button.

As Urgus stepped back, a portal opened in the wall beside him.

“Aha!” shouted McGuirk. “You see? I was right!” He chortled gleefully, clamped his cigar tightly in his beak and strode purposefully toward the opening. “Run tell the others while I–”

With a roar, something large and metallic leapt out of the portal straight at McGuirk, knocked him flat and tried to clamp its metal fangs in his shoulder. Luckily the mutant had very narrow shoulders and the thing was not having much success.

“UncaFirstOfficerNadirMcGuirksir!” Urgus babbled, “It’s a robot tiger!” The space youngster grabbed the metal tail and tried to pull the tiger off the First Officer. Evidently, the tail was a control switch. The robot shut down and at the same time a weed-covered trap door opened underneath. McGuirk and the tiger tumbled through, yanking the tail out of Urgus’s hands. The trap door and the portal in the wall both snapped shut, leaving Urgus sitting on the ground.

The abrupt cessation of violence and the disappearance of his First Officer left the space kid stunned for a moment. Then he crawled over to the trap door and started banging on it and yelling for McGuirk. There was no sound from below. He walked back to the little cylinder and diffidently pushed the button but nothing happened. The thing probably had to be reset or something.

Sadly, he turned his back on the scene and started hurrying back to where the others were. Maybe they had been successful in finding a way over or through the wall. He needed to let them know that there were now two prisoners to be rescued.

#

The Robo-Magician of Mars glared at the helpless Captain Shivers.

“Have-you-zzt-seen-this-one-Captain-zzt-Shivers?” he asked, reaching a hand under his cloak and drawing out a deck of cards. He fanned the cards before her face, losing a dozen or so in the process.

“No!” shouted Captain Cruiser. She stepped up beside him and tried to knock the cards away, but the robot held them in an iron grip. “We just want to kill her, not torture her!”

“She-will-zzt-die-soon-enough, Captain-zzt-Cruiser,” snapped Qultin-Qulcan. “But-before-she- dies-zzt-I-must-con-vince-her-zzt-of-my-mastery-zzt-of-the-art-of-zzt-magic.” He turned back to Captain Shivers. “I-leave-it-up-zzt-to-you-Cap-tain-Shivers,” he said, waving the cards over her head, “Would-you-zzt-rather-I-kill-you-zzt-now, or-after-I-have-zzt -demon-strated-one-or-zzt-two-of-my-clever-zzt-illu-sions?”

Tilting her head to one side, Captain Shivers glanced at the cards in the robot’s hand for an instant then back at his avid eyes. Then tilting her head the other way, she flicked her eyes briefly to Captain Cruiser, then back to the cards. A thoughtful frown appeared on her face as she tilted her head again.

“WELL, CAP-TAIN-SHIVERS?” the robot roared.

Captain Shivers’ eyes flashed. “I’m thinking it over, Qultin-Qulcan!”

#

Staggering out of a thicket, Urgus almost stumbled into a xkibrth. “Yipe!” he said, rolling away from the eagerly grasping leaves, “That’s the one that tried to get me before,” he gasped. “Grabby and Thurston ought not be too far away.” Wearily, he lurched forward again, hoping to overtake his shipmates before his legs gave way altogether.

“Hey!”

It was Grabby’s voice! Urgus stopped and peered around. “Grabby? Where are you?” he called out.

“Look up, yuh blitherin’ idjit!”

Urgus raised his head and swiveled it around. “I still don’t—”

“On the dad-blamed wall—way up!” Urgus turned toward the wall and raised his gaze higher. Sure enough, there was a moving splotch on the wall about fifty feet up. “I see you!” he shouted. “Is that Thurston with you?”

“Shore it is,” shouted Grabby. “How could I ‘uv got here without Thurston?”

“Uh, I’m not sure how you got there with him.”

“Tarnation! Younkers these days must use ir’n filin’s fer brains! I rode him up, o’ course.”

“Rode him up?”

“J’ever notice how flat Thurston is? He’s just the right shape fer a kite.”

Urgus heard a barely audible “Bummer!” from Thurston.

“And thar’s a strong updraft by the wall,” Grabby went on. “Wal, I rigged a line on him and, shore enough, when we got him abaft the wind he took off purty as yuh please. But then, dadburn it all, he got to loopin’ and banged into the ground.”

Urgus could just hear Thurston’s “Double bummer!”

“Wa-al,” Grabby drawled, “I figgered he needed a stab’lizer. So-o I hitched the end o’ the line to a bush and hitched muhself to Thurston with muh ten’acles, figgerin’ to pay out the line slowly as we sailed up’ards.”

“Triple bummer!” came faintly from Thurston.

“Wal, dingbust it, It worked fine at fust. ‘Til we started goin’ up faster’n I could pay out the line. The leetle bush wuz yanked right outta the ground. Then we went inta a loop that banged us smack inta the wall.”

Apparently, all Thurston could manage at this point was a low but heartfelt groan.

“It wuz just lucky fer us thet I had a coupla free ten’acles to grab the wall with, er we’da prob’ly tumbled clear back tuh the ground. I ain’t shore Thurston woulda liked thet much.”

“Wow!” said Urgus. “You guys have been busy! I came back to tell you that Unca Nadir McGuirk fell into a trap, and we’ve gotta rescue him as well as Captain Shivers.”

“Dagnab the luck!” Grabby said. “It allus happens. We git close to rescuing the Cap’n and McGuirk falls inta a hole or sumpin’.”

“I don’t suppose you could climb the rest of the way to the top of the wall?” Urgus said diffidently.

“Yore joshin’ ain’tcha?” Grabby snorted. “Shore I could—if we had a extry week or two. But naow yore here we oughtta be able tuh finish whut Thurston and me started.”

Urgus heard a distant but clearly audible sound of a sob from Thurston.

“What can I do?” Urgus asked.

“The end o’ the line is still tied to the bush that’s flappin’ around at the bottom o’ the wall,” Grabby said. “Fust, unhitch thet line and tie it around yore middle.”

Urgus found the dangling bush and followed Grabby’s instructions. “Now what?” he shouted.

“Our end o’ the line is tied around muh middle,” yelled Grabby. “ Naow I’m gonna drop the rest down to yuh. Coil it up real loose so yuh kin pay it out fast if yuh need tuh.”

The lightweight line began snaking to the ground around Urgus. He started grabbing coils and looping them over one arm. There must have been a couple of hundred feet of line and, though he worked as fast as he could, it started piling up like spaghetti all about his feet.

“Wa-al, are yuh ready?” Grabby called.

“Uh—!” Urgus just managed to utter. Just then several loops of line flapped across his mouth, muffling whatever else he might have said.

“Okay!” said Grabby. “Hang on tight, podner! We’re a-lettin’ go!”

This time Urgus had no difficulty hearing Thurston’s “Oh, bummer, bummer, bummer!”

He spat the line out of his mouth. “Wait!” he yelled. Too late. He felt the section of line attached to Grabby and Thurston go slack. He started to haul the line in hand-over-hand but his shipmates seemed to be in free-fall. He turned to run, hoping to take up the slack by foot-power. But he had run only two or three steps when the loose coils of line caught his feet and he fell flat on his face.

Then the problem was taken out of his hands. The “kite” end of the line tautened with a snap that almost caused Urgus to lose his grip. As it was, the line was slipping through his hands so fast that his space gloves were heating up. “Yipe!” he squeaked. “Whoa! Not so fast!” A loop caught around his arm and he was yanked off the ground. He found himself swinging wildly and gaining altitude rapidly.

“Ya-ha-hoo-ee!” Grabby yodeled. “Now we got ‘er goin’ the way we want ‘er!”

Urgus was unconvinced. Now his foot was caught in the line, and he was yanked sideways and upside down. “Wup!” he said. “Yi! Hold up a minute!” But he and his comrades were moving speedily upward. At least they were headed in the direction they wanted to go.

#

“Well-zzt-Cap-tain-Shivers?” the Robo-Magician repeated. “Shall-I-zzt-demon-strate-my-zzt-magic-al-prowess-zzt-to-you-or-shall-I-zzt-kill-you-here-zzt-and-now?”

Captain Shivers smiled her brightest smile. “I’m afraid it will greatly annoy Captain Cruiser; so of course I would love to see you perform, Qultin-Qulcan.”

“I-thought-zzt-you-would-arr-ive-at-zzt-that-de-cision. But-zzt-I-did-not-think-it-zzt-would-take-zzt-you-so-much-zzt-time,” the robot said reproachfully.

Captain Cruiser rolled her eyes. “Can’t you see, Magician, that she is just playing for time. She’s hoping to delay you long enough for her crew to find a way to rescue her.”

“It-doesn’t-matter,” said the robot.

“No-one-zzt-can-get-through-my-zzt-im-preg-zzt-na-ble-wall.” He turned back to the prisoner and fanned a dog-eared deck of cards in her face.

“We-will-zzt-start-with-some-thing-simple. Pick-a-zzt-card-Cap-tain-zzt-Shivers.”

“I so hate to be a nuisance, Qultin-Qulcan, but being suspended by my arms seriously interferes with my ability to make a card selection.”

Captain Cruiser threw up her hands. “There!” she said. “You see? Now she wants you to release her. Next thing you know, she’ll ask you to lift her up to your control panel so she can see better!”

“Darn!” said Captain Shivers. “I wish I had thought of that.” She smiled. “ But you were always the devious one, Captain Cruiser.”

The Robo-Magician glared at each of them in turn. “Please-be-zzt-quiet, both-of-zzt-you,” he growled. “You-are-zzt-making-my-synap-tic-zzt-connec-tions-spark. And-zzt-that-al-ways-makes-me-zzt-irri-table.” He gazed at Captain Shivers for a moment. “There-is-merit-in-what-you-say, Cap-tain-zzt-Shivers,” He said. “You-must-zzt-have-your-hands-zzt-free-in-order-to-zzt-partici-pate-proper-ly.”

Captain Cruiser spluttered wordlessly for a moment. “You fool!” she said. “You have no idea how dangerous she can be!”

“Non-sense,” the robot scoffed.

“There-is-no-room-any-zzt-where-in-that-cos-tume-for-zzt-the-small-est-weapon. And-you-and-I-made-zzt-doubly-sure-that-she-zzt-had-no-weapons-con-cealed-about-her-zzt-person.”

Captain Shivers glared. “I don’t like the sound of that,” she said. Captain Cruiser shrugged.

“It-was-a-pure-ly-im-per-zzt-son-al-and-scien-tific-zzt-exam-ina-tion-Cap-tain-zzt-Shivers.” The robot’s eyes gleamed momentarily. Then he reached forward and snapped the manacles holding Captain Shivers’ arms.

She gasped, then sank to her knees with a sigh. “Hanging from your arms is not much fun,” she said, “but it sure does feel good when you stop.” She stood up and began stretching exercises to restore circulation.

Captain Cruiser expressed her disgust with a lady-like snort.

The Robo-Magician thrust the fanned cards in Captain Shivers’ face. “Pick-a-zzt-card,” he said. “No, not-zzt-that-one. Pick-a-card-from-the-zzt-middle-of-the-fan, memo-rize-it, and-zzt-return it to the pack.”

Obediently, Captain Shivers picked a card from the specified location, glanced at it, and pushed it back into the pack.

“Watch-care-fully-zzt-now,” the Magician said. He closed the fan and split the deck into two approximately equal halves. He started a quick shuffle and cards began to spray around in all directions. “Wait,” he said. “That-isn’t—”

Captain Shivers leaned forward, her eyes wide. “That was amazing, Magician! Did you see that, Captain Cruiser? My card was the six of clubs, and that’s the card that flew up and perched on the brim of the Magician’s hat. I can’t even imagine how you did that, Qultin-Qulcan.”

“Well,” said the Magician, taking off his top-hat and gazing quizzically at the card, “it-was-zzt—it-was-an-ex-tem-per-aneous-zzt-move. A-magician-must-zzt-be-pre-pared-to-take-zzt-ad-vantage-of-zzt-circum-stances.”

Captain Cruiser was speechless; whether with admiration or exasperation would be hard to say.

“Now,” said the Magician, “we-must-think-of-zzt-another-illu-sion—some-thing-zzt-even-more-challeng-ing.” A little smile touched Captain Cruiser’s lips. “Since she is no longer shackled, perhaps Captain Shivers would enjoy participating in a performance of one of your most famous illusions: Sawing a Woman in Half.”

Captain Shivers eyed her arch-foe without expression. “Darling,” she said, “your words sometimes take quite a nasty direction.”

Captain Cruiser met her look with an equally bland expression. “Dear, I merely wish you to enjoy your final moments. You will find the Magician’s performance with the saw highly entertaining.”

Ignoring them, the Robo-Magician was gazing into space, his eyes whirling like pinwheels. “An-excel-lent-zzt-sug-gestion-Cap-tain-zzt-Crui-ser,” he said. “At-last-you-zzt-are catch-ing-the-zzt-spirit-of-the-zzt-situ-ation. All-the-zzt-equip-ment-is-con-venient-to-zzt-hand, too.”

Captain Cruiser clenched her fists and gnashed her teeth. “I was not making a suggestion! I was taunting my life-long enemy!”

“Oh,” said the robot. “Well, it-was-a-zzt-good-sug-gestion-any-zzt-way.” He pressed several buttons on his belt console.

The room brightened as a heavy curtain rose to the rafters revealing a theatre-sized stage. A large brightly painted box-like table moved forward on gimbals and spun around once before taking its place at center stage. Clanking his heels together, the Robo-Magician grasped Captain Shivers’ hand and conducted her gallantly up the steps and to the center of the stage.

“Ladies-and-zzt-gentlemen,” he began in a stentorian voice, “we-now-come-to-zzt-the-part-of-our-zzt-pro-gram-that-may-not-be-zzt-suit-able-for-the-faint-of-zzt-heart! Those-of-you-with-zzt-hearts-are-warned-that-zzt-you-are-about-to-wit-ness-zzt-one-of-the-most-zzt-terri-fying-illu-sions-in-the-zzt-reper-tory-of-magic!”

Captain Cruiser almost jumped out of her boots. “What are you on about, now?” she said grimly.

“My-pat-ter,” the Magician said defensively. “Every-magi-cian-zzt-knows-that-the-right-zzt-pat-ter-can-im-prove-the-zzt-effect-ive-ness-of-a-zzt-trick.”

“If your intended effect is to drive me mad, your patter is doing its job.” She made an almost unladylike sound. “Just get on with it.”

“And-now,” the Magician continued doggedly, “my-zzt-brave-and-beau-ti-ful-zzt-assis-tant-will-assume-a-zzt-su-pine-posi-tion-on-the-zzt-Bed-of-Pain!”

With a little hop, Captain Shivers sat on the side of the bed, then swung gracefully about to the proper position. She flashed a dazzling smile at Captain Cruiser, who scowled back at her.

“And-to-make-zzt-cer-tain-that-she-zzt-can-not-move, I-will-zzt-lock-the-clamps-on-her-zzt-wrists-and-ankles.” Lurching forward heavily, the Magician accomplished this task. “Now,” he said, “I-will-zzt-close-the-fit-ted-zzt-lid-leav-ing-only-her-zzt-head, hands-and-zzt-feet-visi-ble.” Suiting the action to the words, he lumbered to the head of the bed, grasped the panels on either side and closed them over the supine figure with a loud snap.

“Ouch!” said Captain Shivers.

“Oops—did-I-zzt-pinch-you?

“Pinch me?” Shivers said sharply. “You almost flattened me!”

“That-would-zzt-have-been-zzt-re-gret-table. My-apolo-zzt-gies.” The Magician turned to a table conveniently at hand, and picked up a dangerous-looking object made up of wheels and serrated blades. He held this object high over the imprisoned girl, and with an evil glint in his eyes, activated it. With a growl that rose quickly to a painful squeal, the blades began to move rapidly. Leaning forward, the Magician touched the instrument to the edge of the table, sending a stream of metallic plastic directly toward Captain Cruiser.

Cruiser, who had been chortling over Captain Shivers’ discomfiture, leapt to her feet. “You Oaf!” she shrieked. “Now I’m covered with this clinging dust! My new uniform is ruined!”

“Oops,” said the Magician. “My-zzt-mis-take. There-is-a-zzt-shower-and-laun-zzt-dry-backstage. We-will-be-zzt-happy-to-zzt-hold-the-per-zzt-formance-for-you.”

Captain Cruiser’s hands formed into claws as she glared at the robot. “Just get on with it,” she gritted.

“You-are-zzt-a-won-der-ful-zzt-audience, Cap-tain-zzt-Cruiser,” the Magician said happily. He leaned forward and inserted the saw into the grooves at either side of the table’s center.

At that moment, a loud banging and crashing came from behind the curtain at the back of the stage. The curtain began to billow and swing about as though someone in the dark were trying to find an opening.

“Blagfrabble the dinghootlies!” a grating voice bellowed. The curtain parted then and a weird figure came stumbling out, a figure wearing a shredded space officer’s uniform and covered with mud, dust and grimblie webs. “Is this frizbargling place made entirely of abandoned cellars and dark corridors?” He glared about, blinking in the bright light. “Now where the fragnabble am I?”

“Magician!” Captain Cruiser yelled. “It’s the Starsnipe’s First Officer, McGuirk! Grab him!”

“Taken-zzt-care-of,” the Magician said, touching a button on his chest.

“Oh-oh,” said McGuirk. Before he could turn to dive back through the curtain, a heavy metal cage dropped around him. “Framdazzle the—“ he graveled to a stop. “Where’s Captain Shivers?”

“Oh, she’s just fine, McGuirk,” Captain Cruiser said in her most lilting voice. “The Robo-Magician is attending to her even as we speak.” She turned to the Magician. “Do what you’re going to do right now! The rest of her crew can’t be far behind McGuirk!”

“Very-zzt-well,” said the Magician, starting the saw and leaning over to position it in the table. “By-the-way, Officer-zzt-McGuirk, so-you-may-zzt-appre-ciate-what-zzt-follows, your-Captain-zzt-Shivers-is-inside-this-table. I-am-zzt-about-to-saw-her-in-zzt-half.”

“Omigosh!” said McGuirk. “Captain Shivers? Are you really there?”

“I’m quite comfortable, McGuirk,” said Shivers. “Don’t worry. This may turn out to be a little messy, but there are worse ways to go.”

“An-excel-lent-zzt-philo-sophy,” said the Magician. “Now-if-zzt-every-one-is-ready, we-will-zzt-pro-ceed.”

“Can’t we discuss it a little longer?” said McGuirk, chewing desperately on his stogie.

“Do it now!” cried Captain Cruiser.

“Well,” said Captain Shivers, “I, for one, really can’t think of anything more to say.”

The Magician leaned over and the saw began to chew through the table. As the blade reached the mid-way level, Captain Shivers shrieked and her head dropped. The Magician paused perplexed.

Captain Cruiser squealed joyfully. “Finally!” she cried. “At last I’m rid of her! My worst enemy—gone! The albatross around my—”

Captain Shivers raised her head then, and smiled brightly at Captain Cruiser. “Just funnin’ you, darlin’!” she said.

Cruiser deflated. “Aough! You—you—!” She sputtered wordlessly for a moment. “Magician, finish it, finish it, finish it!” She sank cross-legged to the floor. Still covered with metallic powder, she looked like the statue of a lost waif. From his vantage point on the stage, McGuirk could just hear her muttering under her breath words that made him blush.

“If-every-one-is-zzt-quite-fin-ished-with-their-zzt-per-son-al-mat-ters, I-will-zzt-con-tinue-my-per-zzt-for-mance,” the Magician said acidly.

“Please do,” said Captain Shivers.

“Awrrck!” was all that McGuirk could get out.

Once more the blade was biting through the table. At last the Magician put the saw away and separated the two halves of the table. With a practiced gesture, he spun them around so the head and foot were facing outward.

“Wait,” he said. “Where-is-your-zzt-foot, Cap-tain-zzt-Shivers?”

“I don’t like to tell you your business, Magician,” said Shivers, “but you really need two women to do this trick.”

“Illu-sion!” he said. “It-is-not-a-zzt-trick!” He paused a moment in thought. “But-you-are-zzt-cor-rect, now-that-I-zzt-think-about-it.” He glanced around at Captain Cruiser, who still sat motionless on the floor. “We-zzt-need-an-other-zzt-wo-man.”

“No!” Cruiser leapt to her feet in a small cloud of dust. “Kill her now, I tell you! The rest of her crew are in this building. We must finish her now!”

The Magician made a sound that might have been a sigh. “I-sup-zzt-pose-you-are-zzt-right,” he said. He turned the table halves back to their original alignment.

“What are you doing?” Captain Cruiser said.

“We-must-zzt-re-store-Cap-zzt-tain-Shivers-to-one-zzt-piece-in-or-der-to-zzt-kill-her,” he said.

“Dolt!” said Captain Cruiser. “Just drag her out of that box and take care of her.”

“Oh,” he said. “Well, I-guess-we-zzt-could-do-it-that-zzt-way.”

“Then do it!”

The Magician lifted the top panels and flipped them to the sides.

“I-am-zzt-sor-ry-Cap-tain-Shivers—” he started.

Captain Cruiser, who had been looking around the chamber in search of possible intruders, turned back when the Magician stopped talking. “What now?” she asked.

“She-is-not-in-the-zzt-bed,” he said.

“What?” Cruiser’s eyes were the eyes of a basilisk. “Where is she?” she asked in tones of calm composure. “Find her.”

“Uh,” said the robot, “I’m-not-zzt-cer-tain-where-to-look. This-was-not-zzt-sup-posed-to-be-a-zzt-van-ish-ing-act.” He looked about him in a puzzled manner.

“Then get your minions to search for her,” she said.

“Uh-zzt-minions?”

“Surely you have minions, servants, slaves—someone to do your bidding in this castle.”

“Well,” he said apologetically, “I-had-a-ship-load-of-zzt-min-ions-when-I-zzt-came-here. But-I-kind-of-zzt-used-them-up. Rehearsing. Zzt.”

Captain Cruiser made a sound that somehow combined pain, disgust, fury and severe pique. “Then we’ve got to get busy and find her our—”

At that moment a bloodcurdling sound echoed through the rafters.

“Yippee-ti-yi-yi!” yodeled a cracked voice. “Yee-hee-hooeee!”

A glance upward revealed three figures on thin lines dropping through a ventilator shaft.

A disc-like Smileyfacian was letting himself down gingerly. A young Earthling was descending more rapidly upside-down, his foot tangled in the line. The noisy one, who appeared to be mostly gnarled tentacles, was swinging around in circles while twirling a looped line below.

“It’s the Starsnipe crew!” Captain Cruiser said mournfully. “I told you this would happen!”

“How-could-they-en-ter-my-zzt-im-preg-na-ble-castle?” the robot muttered puzzledly.

“Never mind!” Captain Cruiser snapped. “Kill them before they can rescue Shivers!”

The Magician snatched out his blaster and snapped a shot upward. The bright beam missed the three Starsnipe crewmen, but it burned a six-foot hole in the ceiling and a continuous crashing sound indicated that it had burned ever-larger holes in successive ceilings up to and through the roof.

“You idiot!” Captain Cruiser shrieked. “Another shot like that will bring the whole building down around our ears!” She drew her own little zapgun and drew a bead on the wildly yodeling Grabby Haze.

Before she could fire, a blow to her wrist knocked the gun out of her hand. Strong hands grabbed both wrists from behind and jerked her arms painfully behind her. “Ow!” she said, twisting her head around to see her captor.

“I’m ba-ack,” Captain Shivers said. “Eeyew. Now I’m covered with your dust.”

“Magician!” Captain Cruiser called. “Here she is! Get her!”

But the Robo-Magician who had been puzzling over whether to fire his blaster again, now had a problem of his own.

Urgus had managed to disentangle his foot and tried to slow his descent by climbing up the line hand over hand. This set him to swinging about in wild circles. Just as the Magician decided to try another shot, the squealing space kid swung by just under the uplifted arm. The startled robot dropped his arm quickly in an effort to grab Urgus. He missed the kid, but caught the line and gave it a greater impetus. “Criminintlies!” Urgus squeaked as he found himself spinning around and around the robot, the line slipping through his gloved fingers. In a moment, the Magician was wrapped head to foot in unbreakable filament, and Urgus was sitting at his feet looking dazedly up at the teetering robot.

“Yahoo!” yelled Grabby, still swinging around and twirling his line like a lariat. “By crackies, podner, thet’s th’ neatest bit o’ bull-doggin’ I ever seen.” With a deft gesture, he dropped the line over the robot’s head and jerked it tight under the chin; then he tossed a loop over a rafter and yanked a knot in it. “Yahoo,’ he repeated, and: “Yeee-hawww! Thet’ll hold th’ varmint!” He swung down to the stage, still shouting. “Yowee! I ain’t hed this much fun since thet summer I slinched gribblers on Deneb IV!”

Meanwhile, Thurston had dropped gently to the floor and, at a word from Captain Shivers, he hopped up on the stage and ran to the cage holding McGuirk. Flexing his powerful arms, he lifted the cage off the fuming mutant and tossed it aside.

“Fragnapplies!” said McGuirk. “It’s about time somebody got me outta there! Lookit that! Captain Shivers had to rescue herself!” he mourned. “I didn’t have a chance to do anything!”

“Bummer,” said Thurston.

“Here’s something you can do, McGuirk. Tear a couple of long strips from the Magician’s cloak.” She raised her hand when he opened his mouth to speak. “As Captain Cruiser might say, just do it.”

McGuirk did it.

Captain Shivers took the strips from him, used one to tie Captain Cruiser’s arms behind her and tossed the other strip to Urgus. “Tie her ankles, leaving about a foot of strip between them, so she can walk but not run.”

“Ulp,” said the space kid. “Can’t somebody else do that? You know how a beautiful woman’s legs embarrasses me.”

“I know you always obey my orders,” said Captain Shivers evenly.

With a groan, Urgus sank to his knees and, his face the color of Betelgeuse, gingerly dealt with the lady space pirate’s trim ankles. He quickly averted his gaze and stood up.

“Well done, Urgus,” said Captain Shivers. “Captain Cruiser, I’m surprised you didn’t try to take advantage of the boy while he was in range of your boots.”

“What’s the use?” Captain Cruiser said resignedly.

“That’s the old spirit!” said Captain Shivers. She stepped back, brushing at herself. “Ugh, that plastimetal dust certainly clings. Urgus!”

The space kid blanched. “Yes, Captain Shivers, sir!—uh, ma’am,” he quavered. “No, I’m not going to ask you to brush us off,” she said. “There is a shower chamber backstage. Find it. Captain Cruiser and I desperately need to use it.”

“Yes, sir!—ma’am!” Urgus scurried off happily.

Captain Shivers looked up at the Robo-Magician who was straining mightily at his bonds.

“Qultin-Qulcan, we really should turn you over to the Space Patrol along with Captain Cruiser.”

“You-wouldn’t-zzt-dare!” the robot blustered.

“Actually, we would dare,” Captain Shivers said. “But it would be exhausting to haul you all the way to the Starsnipe and secure you in our brig. You’d probably be acquitted on grounds of diminished capacity or something, anyway. We might as well just leave you here. By the time you work your way out of your bonds, we’ll be long gone.”

“Thank-you, Cap-tain-zzt-Shivers,” The Magician said. “By-the-zzt-way, how-did-zzt-you-dis-ap-zzt-pear?”

“Magic!” she said brightly.

#

Captain Shivers at the helm, the Starsnipe was speeding to rendezvous with a Space Patrol ship to turn over Captain Cruiser.

Nadir McGuirk stood at a viewport, clamping his stogie tightly in his beak and glaring at a delicate veil-like nebula in the field of view. A steady, dark muttering impinged on Captain Shivers’ keen hearing.

“Well, McGuirk?” she said. “Something on your mind?”

He transferred his glare to her. “No!” he said. “Yes!” he continued. “I failed! I got there in plenty of time, and I failed you! I coulda done something to help you, but I was just caught like a ninny! You oughtta just space me right now!”

“But you are wrong, McGuirk,” she said.

“Wrong?” he said, puzzled. “Wrong how?”

“You saved my life,” she said simply.

“Saved—” he swallowed. “When? How?”

“I knew how to get out of the trick table, but I had no clear plan of escape after that.” She paused. “Then you came along muttering about corridors and passages under the building. It struck me at once that the Magician’s stage must have trapdoors opening into passages underneath. Sure enough, there was a trapdoor right under the table.”

McGuirk’s mien brightened considerably. “You mightta been killed if I hadn’t come along when I did!”

“Exactly.”

“Now you know why you need to keep me around, huh?”

“Don’t push it, McGuirk.”

finis