The figure hit me. It was small and light in my clutching arms. I recall I saw that Miko was half-way up the staircase. I gripped my assailant. The audiphone contact brought a voice.
"Gregg! Is it you?"
It was Anita clutching at me!
"Gregg, you're safe!"
She had heard the camp corridors resounding with the shouts that Wilks and Haljan were fighting. She had come upon a suit and helmet by the manual emergency lock, had run out through the lock, confused, with her only idea to stop Wilks and me from fighting. Then she had seen one of us killed. Impulsive, barely knowing what she was doing, she mounted the stairs, frantic to find if I were alive.
Miko was coming! She had not seen him: for she had no thought of brigands—only the belief that either Wilks or I had been killed.
But now, as for an instant we stood together on the rocks near the observation platform, I could see the towering figure of Miko nearing the top of the stairs.
"Anita, that's Miko! We must run."
Then I saw my bullet projector. It lay in a bowl-like depression quite near us. I jumped for it. And as I tore loose from Anita, she leaped down after me. It was a broken bowl in the rocks, some six feet deep. It was open on the side facing the staircase—a narrow, ravinelike gully, full of gray, broken, tumbled rock-masses. The little gully was littered with crags and boulders. But I could see out through it.
Miko had come to the head of the staircase. He stopped there, his great figure etched sharply by the Earthlight. I think he must have known that Coniston was the one who had fallen over the cliff, as my helmet and Coniston's were different enough for him to recognize which was which. He did not know who I was, but he did know me for an enemy.
* * * * *
He stood now at the summit, peering to see where we had gone. He was no more than fifty feet from us.
"Anita, lie down."
I pulled her down on the rocks. I took aim with the bullet projector. But I had forgotten our helmet-lights. Miko must have seen them just as I pulled the trigger. The flying bullet missed him as he jumped sidewise. He dropped, but I could see him moving in the shadows to where a jutting rock gave him shelter. I fired again.
I had stood up to take aim. I saw the bullet chip a bit of rock. Anita pulled me sharply down beside her.
"Gregg, he's armed!"
It was his turn to fire. It came—the familiar vague flash of the paralyzing ray. It spat its tint of color on the rocks near us, but could not reach us.
Miko rose a moment later and bounded to another rock. I scrambled up, and shot at him, but missed. Then he crouched and returned my fire from his new angle; but Anita and I had shifted.
Time passed—only a few moments. I could not see Miko momentarily. Perhaps he was crouching; perhaps he had moved away again. He was, or had been, on slightly higher ground than the bottom of our bowl. It was dim down here where we were lying, but I feared that every moment Miko might appear and strike at us. His ray at any short range would penetrate our visor-panes, even though our suits might temporarily resist it.
"Anita—it's too dangerous here."
Had I been alone, I might perhaps have leaped up to lure Miko. But with Anita I did not dare chance it.
"We've got to get back to the camp," I told her. The audiphone brought her comment:
"Perhaps he has gone."
* * * * *
But he had not. We saw him again, out in a distant patch of Earthlight. He was further from us than before, but on still higher ground. We had extinguished our small helmet-lights. But he knew we were here, and possibly he could see us. His projector flashed again. But we had again shifted, and were untouched. He was a hundred feet or more away now. His weapon was of longer range than mine. I did not answer his fire, for I could not hope to hit him at such a distance, and the flash of my weapon would help him with his aim.
I murmured to Anita, "We must get out of here."
Yet how did I dare take Anita from these concealing shadows? Miko could reach us so easily as we bounded away, in plain view in the Earthlight of the open summit! We were caught, at bay in this little bowl.
The camp from here was not visible. But out through the broken gully, beyond the staircase top, a white beam of light suddenly came up from below.
It spelled the signal.
It was coming from the Grantline instrument room, I knew.
I could answer it with my helmet-light, but I did not dare. I hesitated.
"Try it," urged Anita.
* * * * *
We crouched where we thought we might be safe from Miko's fire. My little light-beam shot up from the bowl. It was undoubtedly visible to the camp.
"Yes? I am Haljan."
And I added:
"Help! Send us help."
I did not mention Anita. Miko could doubtless read these signals. And in the camp they must have missed Anita by now. They answered:
I lost the rest of it. There came a flash from Miko's weapon. But it gave us confidence. He could not reach us at the moment.
The Grantline beam repeated:
"Cannot come out. Portes broken. You cannot get in. Stay where you are—an hour or two. We may be able to repair portes."
The portes were broken! Stay here an hour or two! But I could not hold this position against Miko that long! Sooner or later he would find a place from where he could sweep this bowl beyond possibility of our hiding. I saw him running now, well beyond my range, to ferret out another point of vantage.
I extinguished my light. What use was it to tell Grantline anything further? Besides, my light was dangerous.
But the Grantline beam spelled another message:
"The brigand ship is coming! It will be here before we can get out to you! No lights! We will try and hide our location."
And the signal-beam brought a last appeal to me:
"Miko and his men will divulge where we are. Unless you can stop them—"
The beam vanished. The lights of the Grantline camp made a faint glow that showed above the crater-edge. The glow died, as the camp now was plunged into darkness.
We crouched in the shadows, the Earthlight filtering down to us. The skulking figure of Miko had vanished; but he was out there somewhere on the crags I was sure, lurking, maneuvering to where he could strike us with his ray. Anita's metal-gloved hand was on my arm; in my ear diaphragm her voice sounded eager and unmistakable:
"What was the signal, Gregg?"
She could not read the semaphore lights. I told her.
"Oh Gregg, the Martian ship coming!"
Her mind clung to that as the most important thing. But not so myself. To me there was only the realization that Anita was caught out here, almost at the mercy of Miko's ray. Grantline's men could not get out to help us, nor could I get Anita into the camp.
She added, "Where do you suppose the ship is? In telescopic view?"
"Yes—twenty or thirty thousand miles up, probably."
The stars and the Earth were visible over us. Somewhere up there disclosed by Grantline's instrument but not yet discernible to the naked eye, Miko's reinforcements were hovering.
I stood up cautiously to try and locate Miko. Immediately I saw him. He jumped as though fearing my coming bullet, and I dropped back, barely avoiding his flash, which swept across the top of our bowl.
"Gregg—Gregg, don't take such a chance!"
We lay for a moment in silence. It was horribly nerve-straining. Miko could be creeping up on us. Would he dare chance my sudden fire? Creeping—or would he make a swift, unexpected rush?
The feeling that he was upon us abruptly swept me. I jumped to my feet, against Anita's effort to hold me. But again Miko had vanished. Where was he now?
* * * * *
I sank back. "That ship will be here in a few hours."
I told her what Grantline's signal had suggested: the ship was hovering overhead. It must be fairly close; for Grantline's telescope had revealed its identity as a bandit flyer, unmarked by any of the standard code-identification lights. It was doubtless too far away as yet to have located the whereabouts of Grantline's camp. The Martian brigands knew that we were in the vicinity of Archimedes, but no more than that. Searching this glowing Moon surface, our little lights, the tiny local semaphore beams we had momentarily been using, could easily pass unnoticed.
But as the brigand ship approached now—dropping close to Archimedes as it probably would—our danger was that Miko and his men would then signal it, join it, and reveal the camp's location, and the brigand attack would be upon us.
I told this now to Anita. "The signal said, 'Unless you can stop them.'"
It was an appeal to me. But how could I respond to it? What could I do, alone out here with Anita, to cope with this enemy?
Anita made no comment.
I added, "That ship will land near Archimedes I imagine, within an hour or two! If Grantline can repair his portes, and I can get you inside—"
Again she made no comment. Then suddenly she gripped me. "Gregg, look there!"
Out through the gully break in our bowl the figure of Miko showed! He was running. But not at us. Circling the summit, leaping to keep himself behind the upstanding crags. He passed the head of the staircase; he did not descend it, but headed off along the summit of the curving crater-rim.
* * * * *
I stood up to watch him. He was making off. Abandoning us!
I let her stand up beside me; cautiously, at first, for it occurred to me that this might be a ruse to cover some other of Miko's men who might be lurking up here.
But the summit seemed clear. The figure of Miko was a thousand feet away now. We could see the tiny blob of it bobbing over the rocks. Then it plunged down—not into the crater-valley, but out toward the open Moon surface.
Miko had abandoned his attack on us. The reason seemed plain. He had come here from his encampment with Coniston, had sent Coniston ahead to lure and kill Wilks. When this was done, Coniston had flashed his brief signal to Miko, who was hiding nearby.
It was not like the brigand leader to remain in the background. Miko was no coward. But Coniston could impersonate Wilks, whereas Miko's giant stature at once would reveal his identity. Miko had been engaged in smashing the portes. He had looked up and seen me kill Coniston. He had come up to assail me. And then he had read Grantline's signal to me. It was his first knowledge that his ship was at hand. With the camp exits inoperative, Grantline and his men were imprisoned. Miko made an effort to kill me. He did not know my companion was Anita. The effort was taking too long: with the Grantline camp imprisoned and his ship at hand, it was Miko's best move to return to his own camp, rejoin his men, and await their opportunity to signal the ship.
At least, so I reasoned it. Anita and I stood alone. What could we do?
* * * * *
We went to the brink of the cliff. The unlighted Grantline buildings showed vaguely in the Earthlight.
I said, "We'll go down, I'll leave you there. You can wait at the porte. They'll repair it soon, perhaps, and let you in."
"And what will you do?" she demanded.
I was hurrying her down the stairs. But suddenly she stopped. "What are you going to do, Gregg?"
I had not intended to tell her. "Hurry, Anita!"
"Why?" She stood stock still. Through the visors I could see her white face gazing at me rebelliously.
"Why should I hurry, Gregg?"
"Because I want to leave you at the porte. I'm going after Miko—try and locate where he and his men are camping."
I had indeed no specific plan as yet. But it seemed useless for me to sit at the porte waiting to be let in.
"But he's gone, Gregg."
She was right on that. Miko was already a mile or more away, down on the outer surface, making off. He would soon be out of sight. It would be impossible to follow him.
"Gregg, let me go with you."
She jerked away from me and bounded back up the staircase. I caught her on the summit.
"I'm going with you."
"You're going to stay here."
This exasperating controversy! And time was so precious!
"I'll be safer with you than waiting here, Gregg."
* * * * *
It almost decided me. Perhaps she would. It was only my intention to follow Miko at a distance. And with much more of this delay here, he would be lost to me.
And she added, "Besides, I won't stay, and you can't make me."
We ran along the crater-top. At its distant edge the lower plain spread before us. Far down, and far away on the distant broken surface, the leaping figure of Miko showed.
We plunged down the broken outer slope, reached the level. Soon, as we ran, the little Grantline crater faded behind us.
Anita ran more skillfully than I. Ten minutes or so passed. We had seen Miko, and the direction he was taking, but down here on the plain we could no longer see him. It struck me that this was purposeless—and dangerous. Suppose Miko were to see us following? Suppose he stopped and lay in ambush to fire at us as we came leaping heedlessly by?
"Anita, wait," I said, checking her.
I drew her down amid a group of tumbled boulders. And then abruptly she clung to me.
"Gregg, I know what we can do! Gregg, don't tell me you won't let me try it!"
* * * * *
I listened to her plan. Incredible! Incredibly dangerous! Yet, as I pondered it, the very daring of the thing seemed the measure of its possible success. The brigands would never imagine we could be so rash!
"Gregg, you're stupid!" It was her turn to be exasperated. In truth, I was indeed in no mood for daring, for my mind was obsessed with Anita's safety. I had been planning that we might see the glow of Miko's encampment, and then return to Grantline and hope that he would have the portes repaired.
"But Gregg—the safety of the treasure—of all the Grantline men...."
"To the infernal with that! It's you—your safety."
"My safety, then! If you put me in the camp and the brigands attack it and I am killed—what then? But this plan of mine, if we can do it, Gregg ... safety, in the end, for all of us."
And it seemed possible. We crouched, discussing it. So daring a thing!
The brigand ship would come down near Archimedes. That was fifty miles from Grantline. The brigands from Mars would not have seen the dark Grantline buildings hidden in the little crater-pit. They would wait for Miko and his men to make their whereabouts known.
* * * * *
Miko's encampment was ahead of us now, undoubtedly. We had been following him toward the Mare Imbrium; we were at its borders now. Archimedes from here was also about fifty miles.
And Anita proposed that we go to Archimedes, climb in slope and await the coming of the brigand ship. Miko would be off in the Mare Imbrium. Or at least, we hoped so. He would signal his ship. But Anita and I, closer to it, would also signal it—and, posing as brigands, could join it!
"Remember, Gregg, I am Anita Prince, George's sister." Her voice trembled as, she mentioned her dead brother. "They know that George was in Miko's pay, and I am his sister.... It will help convince them."
This daring scheme! If we could join the ship, we might be able to persuade its leader that Miko's distant signals were merely a ruse of Grantline to lure the brigands in that direction. A long-range projector from the ship would kill Miko and his men as they came forward to join it! And then we could falsely direct the brigands, lead them away from Grantline and the treasure.
"Gregg, we must try it."
Heaven help me, I yielded to her persuasion!
We turned at right angles and ran toward where the distant frowning walls of Archimedes loomed against the starlit sky.
The Ascent of Archimedes
The broken shaggy ramparts of the giant crater rose above us. We toiled upward, out of the foothills, clinging now to the crags and pitted terraces of the main ascent. An hour had passed since we turned from the borders of the Mare Imbrium. Or was it two hours? I could not tell. I only know that we ran with desperate frantic haste.
Anita would not admit that she was tired. She was more skilful than I in this leaping over the broken rock masses. Yet I felt that her slight strength must give out. It seemed miles up the undulating slopes of the foothills with the black and white ramparts of the massive crater close before us.
And then the main ascent. There were places where, like smooth black frozen ice, the walls rose sheer. We avoided them, toiling aside, plunging into gullies, crossing pits where sometimes we perforce went downwards, and then up again; or sometimes we stood, hot and breathless, upon ledges, recovering our strength, selecting the best route upward.
This tumbled mass of rock! Honeycombed everywhere with caves and passages leading into darkness impenetrable. There were pits into which we might so easily have fallen; ravines to span, sometimes with a leap, sometimes by a long and arduous detour.
Endless climb! We came to a ledge, with the plains of the Mare Imbrium stretching out beneath us. We might have been upon this main ascent for an hour; the plains were far down, the broken surface down there smoothed now by the perspective of our height. And yet still above us the brooding circular wall went up into the sky. Ten thousand feet still above us—I think it was at least that, or more.
"You're tired, Anita. We'd better stay here."
"No! If we could only get to the top—the ship may land on the other side—they would see us if we were at the top."
* * * * *
There was as yet no sign of the brigand ship. With every stop for rest we searched the starry vault. The Earth hung over us, flattened beyond the full. The stars blazed to mingle with the Earthlight and illumine these massive crags of the Archimedes walls. But no speck appeared to tell us that the ship was up there.
We were on the curving side of the Archimedes wall which fronted the Mare Imbrium to the North. The plains lay like a great frozen sea, congealed ripples shining in the light of the Earth, with dark patches to mark the hollows. Somewhere down there—six or eight thousand feet below us now, or even more than that, for all I could tell—Miko's encampment lay concealed. We searched for lights of it, but could see none.
Or had Miko rejoined his party, left his camp and come here like ourselves to climb Archimedes? Or was our assumption wholly wrong—perhaps the brigand ship would not land near here at all?
Sweeping around from the Mare Imbrium, the plains were less smooth—the shattered, crag-littered, crater-scarred region beyond which the distant Apennines raised their terraced walls. The little crater which concealed the Grantline camp was off that way. There was nothing to mark it from here.
"Gregg, do you see anything up there? There seems to be a blur."
* * * * *
Her sight, sharper than mine, had picked it out. The descending brigand ship! A faintest tiny blur against the stars, a few of them occulted as though strangely an invisible shadow were upon them. A growing shadow, materializing into a blur—a blob, a shape faintly defined. Then sharper until we were sure of what we saw. It was the brigand ship. It came dropping slowly, silently down.
We crouched on the little ledge. A cave-mouth was behind us. A gully was beside us, a break in the ledge; and at our feet the wall dropped sheer.
We had extinguished our little lights. We crouched, silently gazing up into the stars.
The ship, when first we distinguished it was central over Archimedes. We thought for a while that it might descend into the crater. But it did not; it came sailing forward.
I whispered into the audiphone—whispering by instinct, as though out here in all this airless desolation someone might overhear us!
"It's coming over the crater."
Her hand pressed my arm in answer.
I recalled that when, from the Planetara, Miko had forced Snap to signal this brigand band on Mars, Miko's only information as to the whereabouts of the Grantline camp was that it lay between Archimedes and the Apennines. That was Grantline's first message to us, and Miko had relayed it to his men. The brigands from Mars now were following that information.
A tense interval passed. We could see the ship plainly above us now, a gray-black shape among the stars up beyond the shaggy, towering crater-rim. The vessel came upon a level keel, hull-down, slowly circling, looking for Miko's signal, no doubt, or for possible lights of Grantline. They were also picking a landing place.
* * * * *
We saw it soon as a cylindrical, cigarlike shape, rather smaller than the Planetara, but similar of design. It bore lights now. The ports of its hull were tiny rows of illumination, and the glow of light under its rounding upper dome was faintly visible.
A bandit ship, no doubt of that. Its identification keel-plate was empty of official pass-code lights. These brigands had not attempted to secure official sailing lights when leaving Ferrok-Shahn. It was an outlawed ship, unmistakably. And here upon the deserted Moon there was no need for secrecy. Its lights were openly displayed, that Miko might see it and join it.
It went slowly past us, only a few thousand feet higher than our level. We could see the whole outline of its pointed cylinder-hull, with the rounded dome on top. And under the dome was its open deck-space, with a little cabin superstructure in the center.
I thought for a moment that by some fortunate chance it might land quite near us. There was a wide ledge a quarter of a mile away.
But it went past. And then I saw that it was heading for a level, plateau-like surface a few miles further on. It dropped, cautiously floating down.
There was still no sign of Miko. But I realized that haste was necessary. We must be the first to join the brigand ship.
I lifted Anita to her feet. "I don't think we should signal from here."
"No. Miko might see it."
We could not tell where he was. Down on the plains, perhaps? Or up here, somewhere in these miles of towering rocks?
"Are you ready, Anita?"
* * * * *
I stared through the visors at her white, solemn face.
"Yes, I'm ready," she repeated.
Her hand-pressure seemed to me suddenly like a farewell. Were we plunging rashly into what was destined to mean our death? Was this a farewell?
An instinct swept me not to do this thing. Why, in an hour or two I could have Anita back to the comparative safety of the Grantline buildings. The exit portes would doubtless be repaired by now. I could get her inside.
She had bounded away from me, leaped down some thirty feet into the broken gully, to cross it and then up on the other side. I stood for an instant watching her fantastic shape, with the great rounded, goggled, trunked helmet and the lump on her shoulders which held the little Erentz motors. Then I made after her.
It did not take us long—two or three miles of circling along the giant wall. The ship lay only a few hundred feet above our level.
We stood at last on a buttelike pinnacle. The hull-porte lights of the ship were close over us. And there were moving lights up there, tiny moving spots on the adjacent rocks. The brigands had come out, prowling around to investigate their location.
No signal yet from Miko. But it might come at any moment.
"I'll flash now," I whispered.
The brigands had probably not yet seen us. I took the lamp from my helmet. My hand was trembling. Suppose my signal were answered by a shot? A flash from some giant projector mounted on the ship?
Anita crouched behind a rock, as she had promised. I stood with my torch, and flung its switch.
My puny light-beam shot up. I waved it, touched the ship with its faint glowing circle of illumination.
They saw me. There was a sudden movement among the lights up there.
* * * * *
"I am from Miko. Do not fire."
I used the open Universal Code. In Martian first, and then in English.
There was no answer, but no attack. I tried again.
"This is Haljan, once of the Planetara. George Prince's sister is with me. There has been disaster to Miko."
A small light-beam came down from the brink of the overhead cliff beside the ship.
"We read you."
I went steadily on: "Disaster—the Planetara is wrecked. All killed but me and George Prince's sister. We want to join you."
I flashed off my light. The answer came: "Where is the Grantline camp?"
"Near here. The Mare Imbrium."
As though to answer my lie, from down on the Earthlit plains, ten miles or so from the crater-base, a tiny signal-light shot up. Anita saw it and gripped me.
"There is Miko's light!"
It spelled in Martian, "Come down. Land Mare Imbrium."
Miko had seen the signalling up here and was joining it! He repeated, "Land Mare Imbrium."
* * * * *
I flashed a protest up to the ship: "Beware! That is Grantline! Trickery!"
From the ship the summons came: "Come up."
We had won this first encounter! Miko must have realized his disadvantage. His distant light went out.
There was no retreat now. But again I seemed to feel in the pressure of her hand that vague farewell.
Her voice whispered, "We must do our best, act our best to be convincing."
In the white glow of a search-beam we climbed the crags, reached the broad upper ledge. Helmeted figures rushed at us, searched us for weapons, seized our helmet lights. The evil face of a giant Martian peered at me through the visors. Two other monstrous, towering figures seized Anita.
We were shoved toward the port-locks at the base of the ship's hull. Above the hull bulge I could see the grids of projectors mounted in the dome-side, and the figures of men standing on the deck, peering down at us.
We went through the admission locks into a hull corridor, up an incline passage, and reached the lighted deck. Our helmets were taken off. The Martian brigands crowded around us.
On the Brigand Ship
Anita's words echoed in my memory: "We must act our best to be convincing." It was not her ability that I doubted as much as my own. She had played the part of George Prince cleverly, unmasked only by an evil chance.
I steeled myself to face the searching glances of the brigands as they shoved around us. This was a desperate game into which we had plunged! For all our acting, how easy it would be for some small chance thing abruptly to undo us! I realized it, and now, as I gazed into the peering faces of these men from Mars, I cursed my witless rashness which had brought Anita into this!
The brigands—some ten or fifteen of them here on the deck—stood in a ring around us. They were all big men, nearly of a seven-foot average, dressed in leather jerkins and short leather breeches, with bare knees and flaring leatherboots. Piratical swaggering fellows, knife-blades mingled with small hand-projectors fastened to their belts. Gray, heavy faces, some with scraggling, unshaved beard. They plucked at us, jabbering in Martian.
One of them seemed the leader. I said sharply, "Are you the commander here? I speak not Ilton well. You speak the Earth English?"
[Footnote 4: Ilton, the ruling race and official language of the Martian Union.]
"Yes," he said readily, "I am Commander here." He spoke English with the same freedom and accent of Miko. "Is this George Prince's sister?"
"Yes. Her name is Anita Prince. Tell your men to take their hands off her."
He waved his men away. They all seemed more interested in Anita than in me. He added:
"I am Set Potan." He addressed Anita. "George Prince's sister? You are called Anita? I have heard of you. I knew your brother—indeed, you look very much like him."
He swept his plumed hat to the grid with a swaggering gesture of homage. A courtierlike fellow this, debonair as a Venus cavalier!
He accepted us. I realized that Anita's presence was immensely valuable in making us convincing. Yet there was about this Potan—as with Miko—a disturbing suggestion of irony. I could not make him out. I decided that we had fooled him. Then I remarked the steely glitter of his eyes as he turned to me.
"You were an officer of the Planetara?"
* * * * *
The insignia of my rank was visible on my white jacket-collar which showed beneath the Erentz suit, now that my helmet was off.
"Yes, I was supposed to be. But a year ago I embarked upon this adventure with Miko."
He was leading us to his cabin. "The Planetara wrecked? Miko dead?"
"And Hahn and Coniston. George Prince, too—we are the only survivors."
While we divested ourselves of our Erentz suits at his command, I told him briefly of the Planetara's fall. All had been killed on board save Anita and me. We had escaped, awaited his coming. The treasure was here; we had located the Grantline camp, and were ready to lead him to it.
Did he believe me? He listened quietly. He seemed not shocked at the death of his comrades. Nor yet pleased: merely imperturbable.
I added with a sly, sidelong glance, "There were too many of us on the Planetara. The purser had joined us, and many of the crew. And there was Miko's sister, the Setta Moa—too many. The treasure divides better among less."
An amused smile played on his thin gray lips. But he nodded. The fear which had leaped in me was allayed by his next words.
"True enough, Haljan. He was a domineering fellow, Miko. A third of it all was for him alone. But now...."
The third would go to this sub-leader, Potan! The implication was obvious.
I said, "Before we go any further—I can trust you for my share?"
* * * * *
I figured that my very boldness in bargaining so prematurely would convince him. I insisted, "And Miss Prince? She will have her brother's share?"
Clever Anita! She put in swiftly, "I give no information until you promise! We know the location of the Grantline camp, its weapons, its defense, the amount and location of the ore. I warn you, if you do not play us fair...."
He laughed heartily. He seemed to like us. He spread his huge legs as he lounged in his settle, and drank of the bowl which one of his men set before him.
"Little tigress! Fear me not—I play fair!" He pushed two of the bowls across the table. "Drink, Haljan. All is well with us, and I am glad to hear it. Miss Prince, drink my health as your leader."
I waved it away from Anita. "We need all our wits; your strong Martian drinks are dangerous. Look here, I'll tell you just how the situation stands—"
I plunged into a glib account of our supposed wanderings to find the Grantline camp; its location off in the Mare Imbrium—hidden in a cavern there. Potan, with the drink, and under the gaze of Anita's eyes, was in a high good humor. He laughed when I told him that we had dared to invade the Grantline camp, had smashed its exit portes, had even gotten up to have a look at where the ore was piled.
"Well done, Haljan! You're a fellow to my liking!" But his gaze was on Anita. "You dress like a man, or a charming boy."
She still wore the dark clothes of her brother. She said, "I am used to action—man's garb pleases me. You shall treat me like a man, give me my share of the gold-leaf."
* * * * *
He had already demanded of us the meaning of that signal from the Mare Imbrium. Miko's signal! It had not come again, though any moment I feared it. I told him that Grantline had doubtless repaired his damaged portes and sallied out to assail me in reprisal. And seeing the brigand ship landing on Archimedes, had tried to lure it.
I wondered if my explanation were very convincing. It did not sound so. But he was flushed now with the drink. And Anita added:
"Grantline knows the territory near his camp very well. He is equipped only for short-range fighting."
I took it up. "It's like this, Potan: if he could get you to land unsuspectingly near the mouth of his cavern...."
I pictured how Grantline might have figured on a sudden surprise attack upon the ship. It was his only chance to catch it unprepared.
We were all three in friendly, intimate mood now. Potan said, "We'll land down there right enough! But I need a few hours for my assembling."
"He will not dare advance," I said. "For one thing, he can't leave the treasure."
"He knows we have unmasked his lure," Anita put in smilingly. "Haljan and I joining you—that silenced him. His light went out very promptly, didn't it?"
She flashed me a side-gaze. Were we acting convincingly? But if Miko started up his signals again, they might so quickly betray us! Anita's thoughts were upon that, for she added:
"Grantline will not dare show his light! If he does, Set Potan, we can blast him with a ray from here! Can't we?"
"Yes," Potan agreed. "If he comes within ten miles, I have one powerful enough. We are assembling it now."
"And we have thirty men?" Anita persisted. "When we sail down to attack him it should not be very difficult to kill all the Grantline party. Thirty of us—that's enough to share in this treasure. I'm glad Miko is dead."
"By Heaven, Haljan, this girl of yours is small, but very blood-thirsty!"
"That accursed Miko murdered her brother," I explained.
* * * * *
Acting! And never once did we dare relax! If only Miko's signals would hold off and give us time!
We may have talked for half an hour. We were in a small, steel-lined cubby, located in the forward deck-space of the ship. The dome was over it. I could see from where I sat at the table that there was a forward observatory tower under the dome quite near here. The ship was laid out in rather similar fashion to the Planetara, though considerably smaller.
Potan had dismissed his men from his cubby so as to be alone with us. Out on the deck I could see them dragging apparatus about—bringing the mechanisms of giant projectors up from below, beginning to assemble them. Occasionally some of the men would come to our cubby windows to peer in at us curiously.
My mind was roaming as I talked. For all my manner of casualness, I knew that haste was necessary. Whatever Anita and I were to do must be quickly done. But to win this fellow's utter confidence first was necessary, so that we might have the freedom of the ship, might move about unnoticed, unwatched.
I was horribly tense inside. Through the dome windows across the deck from the cubby the rocks of the Lunar landscape were visible. I could see the brink of this ledge upon which the ship lay, the descending crags down the precipitous wall of Archimedes to the Earthlit plains far below. Miko, Moa, and a few of the Planetara's crew were down there somewhere.
* * * * *
Anita and I had a fairly definite plan. We were now in Potan's confidence. With this interview at an end, I felt that our status among the brigands would be established. We would be free to move about the ship, join in its activities. It ought to be possible to locate the signal-room, get friendly with the operator there.
Perhaps we would find a secret opportunity to flash a signal to Earth. This ship, I was confident, would have the power for a long-range signal, if not of too sustained a length. It was a desperate thing to attempt but our whole procedure was desperate! And I felt—if Anita perhaps could cajole the guard or the duty-man from the signal-room—I might send a single flash or two that would reach the Earth. Just a distress call, signed "Grantline." If I could do that and not get caught.
Anita was engaging Potan in talking of his plans. The brigand leader was boasting of his well-equipped ship, the daring of his men, and questioning her about the size of the treasure. My thoughts were free to roam.
A signal to Earth. And while we were making friends with these brigands, the longest range electronic projector was being assembled. Miko then could flash his signal and be damned to him! I would be on the deck with that projector. Its operator, and I would turn it upon Miko—one flash of it and he and his little band would be wiped out.
But there was our escape to be thought of. We could not remain very long with these brigands. We could tell them that the Grantline camp was on the Mare Imbrium. It would delay them for a time, but our lie would soon be discovered. We must escape from them, get away and back to Grantline. With Miko dead—a distress signal to Earth—and Potan in ignorance of Grantline's location, the treasure would be safe until help arrived from Earth.
It all fitted together so nicely! It seemed possible of success.
Our futile plans! Star-crossed always, doomed, fated always to be upset by such unforeseen evil chances!
"By the infernal, little Anita, you look like a dove, but you're a tigress! A comrade after my own heart—blood-thirsty as a fire-worshipper!"
* * * * *
Her laugh rang out to mingle with his. "Oh no, Set Potan! I am treasure-thirsty."
"We'll get the treasure, never fear, little Anita."
"With you to lead us, Potan, I'm sure we will."
A man entered the cubby. Potan looked frowningly around. "What is it, Argle?"
The fellow answered in Martian, leered at Anita and withdrew.
Potan stood up. I noticed that he was unsteady with the drink.
"They want me with the work at the projectors."
"Go ahead," I said.
He nodded. We were comrades now.
"Amuse yourself, Haljan. Or come out on deck if you wish. I will tell my men you are one of us."
"And tell them to keep their hands off Miss Prince."
He stared at me. "I had not thought of that—a woman among so many men."
His own gaze at Anita was as leeringly offensive as any of his men could have given. He said, "Have no fear, little tigress."
Anita laughed. "I am afraid of nothing."
But when he had lurched from the cabin she touched me. Smiled with her mannish swagger, for fear we were still observed, and murmured:
"Oh, Gregg, I am afraid!"
We stayed in the cubby a few moments, whispering—trying to plan.
"You think the signal room is in the tower, Gregg? This tower outside our window here?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Shall we go out and see?"
"Yes. Keep near me always."
"Oh, Gregg. I will!"
We deposited our Erentz suits carefully in a corner of the cubby. We might need them so suddenly! Then we swaggered out to join the brigands working on the deck.
The deck glowed lurid in the queer blue-greenish glare of Martian electro-fuse lights. It was in a bustle of ordered activity. Some twenty of the crew were scattered about, working in little groups. Apparatus was being brought up from below to be assembled. There was a pile of Erentz suits and helmets, of Martian pattern, but still very similar to those with which Grantline's expedition was equipped. There were giant projectors of several kinds, some familiar to me, others of a fashion I had never seen before. It seemed there were six or eight of them, still dismantled, with a litter of their attendant batteries and coils and tube-amplifiers. They were to be mounted here on the deck, I surmised; I saw in the dome-side one or two of them already rolled into position at the necessary pressure portes.
Anita and I stood outside Potan's cubby, gazing around us curiously. The men looked at us, but none of them spoke.
"Let's watch from here a moment," I whispered. She nodded, standing with her hand on my arm. I felt that we were very small, here in the midst of these seven-foot Martian men. I was all in white, the costume used in the warm interior of the Grantline camp. Bareheaded, white silk Planetara uniform jacket, broad belt and tight-laced trousers. Anita was a slim black figure beside me, somber as Hamlet, with her pale boyish face and wavy black hair.
The gravity being maintained here on the ship we had found to be stronger than that of the Moon—rather more like Mars.
"There are the heat-rays, Gregg."
* * * * *
A pile of them was visible down the deck-length. And I saw caskets of fragile glass globes, bombs of different styles; hand-projectors of the paralyzing ray; search-beams of several varieties; the Benson curve-light, and a few side-arms of ancient Earth-design—swords and dirks, and small bullet projectors.
There seemed to be some mining equipment also. Far along the deck, beyond the central cabin in the open space of the stern, steel rails were stacked; half a dozen small-wheeled ore-carts; a tiny motor engine for hauling them—and what looked as though it might be the dismembered sections of an ore-shute.
The whole deck was presently strewn with this mass of equipment.
Potan moved about, directing the different groups of workers. The news had spread that we knew the location of the treasure. The brigands were jubilant. In a few hours the ship's armament would be ready, and it would advance to attack Grantline.
I saw many glances being cast out the dome side-windows toward the distant, far-down plains of the Mare Imbrium. The brigands believed that the Grantline camp lay in that direction.
Anita whispered, "Which is their giant electronic projector, Gregg?"
I could see it amidships of the deck. It was already in place. Potan was there now, superintending the men who were connecting it. The most powerful weapon on the ship, it had, Potan said, an effective range of some ten miles. I wondered what it would do to a Grantline building! The Erentz double walls would withstand it for a time, I was sure. But it would blast an Erentz fabric-suit, no doubt of that. Like a lightning bolt, it would kill—its flashing free-stream of electrons shocking the heart, bringing instant death.
I whispered, "We must smash that before we leave! But first turn it on Miko, if he signals now."
* * * * *
I was tensely watchful for that signal. The electronic projector obviously was not yet ready. But when it was connected, I must be near it, to persuade its duty-man to fire it on Miko. With this done we would have more time to plan our other tasks. I did not think Potan would be ready for his attack before another time of sleep here in the ship's routine. Things would be quieter then—I would watch my chance to send a signal to Earth, and then we would escape.
With my thoughts roving, we had been standing quietly at the cubby door-oval for perhaps fifteen minutes. My hand in my side pouch clutched the little bullet projector. The brigands had taken it from me and given it to Potan. He had placed it on the settle with my Erentz suit; and when we gained his confidence he had forgotten it and left it there. I had it now, and the feel of its cool sleek handle gave me a measure of comfort. Things could go wrong so easily—but if they did, I was determined to sell my life as dearly as possible. And a vague thought was in my mind: I must not use the last bullet. That would be for Anita.
I shook myself free from such sinister fancy.
"That electronic projector is remote-controlled. Look, Anita—that's the signal room over us. The giant projector will be aimed and fired from up there."
It seemed so. A thirty-foot skeleton tower stood on the deck near us, with a spiral ladder leading up to a small square steel cubby at the top. Through the cubby window-ovals I could see instrument panels. A single Martian was up there; he had called down to Potan concerning the electronic projector.
* * * * *
The roof of this little tower room was close under the dome—a space of no more than four feet. A pressure lock-exit in the dome was up there, with a few steps leading up to it from the roof of the tower signal-room. We could escape that way, perhaps. In the event of dire necessity it might be possible. But only as a desperate resort, for it would put us on the top of the glassite dome, with a sheer hundred feet or more down its sleek bulging exterior side, and down the outside bulge of the ship's hull, to the rocks below. There might be a spider ladder outside leading downward, but I saw no evidence of it. If Anita and I were forced to escape that way, I wondered how we could manage a hundred foot jump to the rocks and land safely. Even with the slight gravity of the Moon it would be a dangerous fall.
"You are Gregg Haljan?"
I started as one of the brigands, coming up behind us, addressed me.
"Commander Potan tells me you were chief navigator of the Planetara?"
"You shall pilot us when we advance upon the Grantline camp. I am control-commander here—Brotow, my name."
He smiled. A giant fellow, but spindly. He spoke good English. He seemed anxious to be friendly.
"We are glad to have you and George Prince's sister with us." He shot Anita an admiring glance. "I will show you our controls, Haljan."
"All right," I said. "Whatever I can do to help...."
"But not now. It will be some hours before we are ready."
I nodded, and he wandered away. Anita whispered:
"Did he mean that signal room up here in the tower? Oh, Gregg, maybe it's only the ship's control room!"
"I don't know. But the projector range-finders are up there, and I think it's the signal room."
"Suppose we go up and see? Gregg, Miko's signals might start any minute."
* * * * *
And the electronic projector now seemed about ready. It was time for me to act. But a reluctant instinct was upon me. Our Erentz suits were here close behind us in Potan's cubby. I hated to leave them: if anything happened and we had to make a sudden dash, there would be no time to garb ourselves in the suits. To adjust the helmets was bad enough.
I whispered swiftly, "We must get into our suits—find some pretext." I drew her back through the cubby doorway where we would be more secluded.
"Anita, listen: I've been a fool not to plan our escape more carefully! We're in too great a danger here."
It seemed to me suddenly that we were in desperate plight. Was it premonition?
"Anita, listen: if anything happens and we have to make a dash—"
"Up through that dome-lock, Gregg? It's a manual control; you can see the levers."
"Yes. It's a manual. But up there—how would we get down?"
She was far calmer than I. "There may be an outside ladder, Gregg."
"I don't think so. I haven't seen it."
"Then we can get out the way they brought us in. The hull-porte—it's a manual, too."
"Yes, I think I can find our way down through the hull corridors. I mean, for a quick run. If we have to run, you stay close behind me. I've this bullet projector, and evidently there aren't many men in the lower corridors."
"There are guards outside on the rocks."
We had seen them through the dome windows. But there were not many—only two or three. A surprise rush at them would turn the trick.
* * * * *
We donned our Erentz suits.
"What will we do with the helmets?" Anita demanded. "Leave them here?"
"No—take them with us. I'm not going to get separated from them; it's too dangerous."
"We'll look strange going up to that signal room equipped like this," she commented.
"I can't help it. We'll figure out something to explain it."
She stood before me, a queer-looking little figure in the now deflated, bagging suit with her slim neck and head protruding above the metal circle of its collar.
"Carry your helmet, Anita. I'll take mine."
We could adjust the helmets and start the Erentz motors all within a few seconds.
"I'm ready, Gregg."
"Come on, then. Let me go first."
I had the bullet projector in an outer pouch of the suit where I could instantly reach it. This was more rational: we had a fighting chance now. The fear which had swept me so suddenly began to recede. I was calm.
"We'll climb the tower to the signal room," I whispered. "Do it boldly."
We stepped from the cubby. Potan was not in sight; he was on the further deck beyond the central cabin structure perhaps, or had gone below.
On the deck, we were immediately accosted. This was different—our appearance in the Erentz suits!
"Where are you going?"
This fellow spoke in Martian. I answered in English.
* * * * *
He stood before us, towering over me. I saw a group of nearby workers stop to regard us. In a moment we would be causing a commotion, and it was the last thing I desired.
I said in Martian, "Commander Potan told me, what I wish I can do. From the dome we look around—see where is the Grantline camp—I am pilot of this ship to go there."
The man who had called himself Brotow passed near us. I appealed to him.
"We put on our suits. I thought we might go up on the dome for a minute and look around. If I'm to pilot the ship...."
He hesitated, his glance sweeping the deck as though to ask Potan. Someone said in Martian:
"The commander is down in the stern storeroom."
It decided Brotow. He waved away the Martian who had stopped me.
"Let them alone."
Anita and I gave him our most friendly smiles.
He bowed to Anita with a sweeping gesture. "I will show you over the control room presently."
His gaze went to the peak of the bow. The little hooded cubby there was the control room. Satisfaction swept me. Then this, above us in the tower, must surely be the signal room. Would Brotow follow us up? I hoped not. I wanted to be alone with the duty-man up there, giving me a chance to get at the projector controls if Miko's signal should come.
I drew Anita past Brotow, who had stood aside. "Thanks," I repeated. "We won't be long."
We mounted the little ladder.
In the Tower Cubby
I feared that Potan might come up from the hull at any moment and stop us. The duty-man over us gazed down, his huge head and shoulders blocking the small signal room window. Brotow called up in Martian, telling him to let us come. He scowled, but when we reached the trap in the room floor-grid, we found him standing aside to admit us.
I flung a swift glance around. It was a metallic cubby, not much over fifteen feet square, with an eight-foot arched ceiling. There were instrument panels. The range-finder for the giant projector was here; its little telescope with the trajectory apparatus and the firing switch were unmistakable. And the signalling apparatus was here! Not a Martian set, but a fully powerful Botz ultra-violet helio sender with its attendant receiving mirrors. The Planetara had used the Botz system, so I was thoroughly familiar with it. I saw, too, what seemed to be weapons: a row of small fragile glass globes, hanging on clips along the wall—bombs, each the size of a man's fist. And a broad belt with bombs in its padded compartments.
My heart was pounding as my first quick glance took in these details. I saw also that the room had four small oval window openings. They were breast-high above the floor; from the deck below I knew that the angle of vision was such that the men down there could not see into this room except to glimpse its upper portion near the ceiling. And the helio set was banked on a low table near the floor.
In a corner of the room a small ladder led through a ceiling trap to the cubby roof. This upper trap was open. Four feet above the room-roof was the arch of the dome, with the entrance to the upper exit-lock directly above us. The weapons and the belt of bombs were near this ascending ladder, evidently placed here as equipment for use from the top of the dome.
* * * * *
I turned to the solitary duty-man. I must gain his confidence at once. Anita had laid her helmet aside. She spoke first.
"We were with Set Miko," she said smilingly, "in the wreck of the Planetara. You heard of it? We know where the treasure is."
This duty-man was a full seven feet tall, and the most heavy-set Martian I had ever seen. A tremendous, beetling-browed, scowling fellow. He stood with hands on his hips, his leather-garbed legs spread wide; and as I fronted him I felt like a child. He was silent, glaring down at me as I drew his attention from Anita.
"You speak English? We are not skilled with Martian."
I wondered if at the next time of sleep this fellow would be on duty here. I hoped not; it would not be easy to trick him and find an opportunity to flash a signal. But that task was some hours away as yet; I would worry about it when the time came. Just now I was concerned with Miko and his little band, who at any moment might arrive in sight. If we could persuade this scowling duty-man to turn the projector on them....
He answered me in ready English:
"You are the man Gregg Haljan? And this is the sister of George Prince—what do you want up here?"
"I am a navigator. Brotow wants me to pilot the ship when we advance to attack Grantline."
"This is not the control room."
"No, I know it isn't."
I put my helmet carefully on the floor-grid beside Anita's. I straightened to find the brigand gazing at her. He did not speak; he was still scowling. But in the dim blue glow of the cubby I caught the look in his eyes.
* * * * *
I said hastily, "Grantline knows your ship has landed here on Archimedes. His camp is off there on the Mare Imbrium. He sent up a signal—you saw it, didn't you?—just before Miss Prince and I came aboard. He was trying to pretend that he was your Earth-party, Miko and Coniston."
The fellow turned his scowl on me, but Anita brought his gaze back to her. She put in quickly:
"Grantline, as Brother always said, has no great cunning. I believe he's planning now to creep up on us, catch us unaware by pretending that he is Miko."
"If he does that," I said, "we will turn this electronic projector on him and annihilate him. You have its firing mechanism here."
"Who told you so?" he shot at me.
I gestured. "I see it here. It's obvious. I'm skilled at trajectory-firing. If Grantline appears down there now, I'll help you—"
"Is it connected?" Anita demanded boldly.
"Yes," he said. "You have on your Erentz suits: are you going to the dome-roof? Then go."
But that was what we did not want to do. Anita's glance seemed to tell me to let her handle this. I turned toward one of the cubby windows; she said sweetly:
"Are you in charge of this room? Show me how that projector is operated; it will be invincible against the Grantline camp."
* * * * *
I had my back to them for a moment. Through the breast-high oval I could see down across the deck-space and out through the side dome windows. And my heart suddenly leaped into my throat. It seemed that down there in the Earthlit shadows, where the spreading base of the giant crater joined the plains, a light was bobbing. I gazed, stricken. Miko's lights? Was he advancing, preparing to signal? I tried to gauge the distance; it was not over two miles from here.
Or was it not a light at all? With the naked eye, I could not be sure. Perhaps there was a telescopic finder here in the cubby....
I was subconsciously aware of the voices of Anita and the duty-man behind me. Then abruptly I heard Anita's low cry. I whirled around.
The giant Martian had gathered her into his huge arms, his heavy-jowled gray face with a leering grin close to hers!
He saw me coming. He held her with one arm: his other flung at me, caught me, knocked me backward. He rasped:
"Get out of here! Go up to the dome, leave us."
Anita was silently struggling with her little hands at his thick throat. His blow flung me against a settle. But I held my feet. I was partly behind him. I leaped again, and as he tried to disengage himself from Anita to front me, her clutching fingers impeded him.
My bullet projector was in my hand. But in that second as I leaped, I had the sense to realize I should not fire it and with its noise alarm the ship. I grasped its barrel, reached upward and struck with its heavy metal butt. The blow caught the Martian on the skull, and simultaneously my body struck him.
We went down together, falling partly upon Anita. But the giant had not cried out, and as I gripped him now, I felt his body limp. I lay panting. Anita squirmed silently from under us. Blood from the giant's head was welling out, hot and sticky against my face as I lay sprawled on him.
* * * * *
I cast him off. He was dead, his fragile Martian skull split open by my blow.
There had been no alarm. The slight noise we made had not been heard down on the busy deck. Anita and I crouched by the floor. From the deck all this part of the room could not be seen.
It forced our hand. I could not wait now for Miko to come. But I could flash the Earth signal now, and then we would have to make our run to escape.
Abruptly I remembered that light down at the crater-base! I kept Anita out of sight on the floor and went cautiously to a window. The deck was in turmoil with brigands moving about excitedly. Not because of what had happened in our tower signal room; they were unaware of that.
Miko's signals were showing! I could see them now plainly, down at the crater-base. A group of hand-lights and a small waving helio-beam.
And they were being answered from the ship! Potan was on the deck—a babble of voices, above which his rose with roars of command. At one of the dome windows a brigand with a hand search-beam was sending its answering light. And I saw that Potan was working over a deck telescope-finder.
It had all come so suddenly that I was stunned. But I did not wait to read the signals. I swung back at Anita.
"It's Miko! And they are answering him! Get your helmet; I'll try firing the projector."
Or would I instead try to send a brief flash-signal to Earth? There would be no time to do both: we must escape out of here. The route up through the dome was the only feasible one now.
This range mechanism of the projector was reasonably familiar, and I felt that I could operate it. The range-finder and switch were on a ledge at one of the windows. I rushed to it. As I swung the little telescope, training it down on Miko's lights, I could see the huge projector on the deck swinging similarly. Its movement surprised the men who were attending it. One of them called up to me, but I ignored him.
* * * * *
Then Potan looked up and saw me. He shouted in Martian at the duty-man, whom he doubtless thought was behind me: "Be ready! We may fire on them, whoever they are. I'll give you the word."
The signals were proceeding. It had only been a moment. I caught something like, "Haljan is impostor."
I was aiming the projector. I was aware of Anita at my elbow. I pushed her back.
"Put on your helmet!"
I had the range. I flung the firing switch.
At the deck window the giant projector spat its deadly electronic stream. The men down there leaped away from it with surprise. I heard Potan's voice, his shout of protest and anger.
But down in the Earthglow at the crater-base, Miko's lights had not vanished! I had missed! An error in the range? Abruptly I knew it was not that. Miko's lights were still there. His signals still coming. And I remarked now a faint distortion about them, the glow of his little group of hand-lights faintly distorted and vaguely shot with a greenish cast. Benson curve-lights! I realized it.
My thoughts whirled in the few seconds while I stood there at the tower window. Miko had feared he might summarily be fired upon. He had gone back to his camp, equipped all his lights with the Benson curve. He was somewhere at the crater-base now. But not where I thought I saw him! The Benson curve-light changed the path of the light-rays traveling from him to me—I could not even approximate his true position!
Anita was plucking at me. "Gregg, come."
"I can't hit him!" I gasped.
Should I try the flash-signal to Earth? Did we dare linger here? I stood another few seconds fascinated at the window. I saw Potan down in the confusion of the deck, training a telescope. He had shouted up violently at his duty-man here not to fire again.
And now he suddenly let out a roar. "I can see them! It's Miko! By the Almighty—his giant stature—Brotow, look! That's not an Earthman!"
He flung aside his little telescope finder. "Disconnect that projector! It's Miko down there! This Haljan is a trickster! Where is he? Braile—Braile, you accursed fool! Are Haljan and the girl up there with you?"
But the duty-man lay weltering in his blood at our feet.
I had dropped back from the window. Anita and I crouched for an instant in confusion, fumbling with our helmets.
The ship rang with the alarm. And amid the turmoil we could hear the shouts of the infuriated brigands swarming up the tower ladder after us!
A Speck Amid the Stars
I was only inactive a moment. I had thought Anita would have on her helmet. But she was reluctant, or confused.
"We've got to get out of here! Up through the overhead locks to the dome."
"Yes—" She fumbled with the helmet. Under the floor-grid the climbing men on the ladder were audible. They were already nearing the top. The trap door was closed: Anita and I were crouching on it. There was a thick metal bar set in a depressed groove of the grid. I slid it in place—it would seal the trap for a time, at any rate.
A degree of confidence came to me. We had a few moments before there could be any hand-to-hand conflict. That giant electronic projector would eventually be used against Grantline: it was the brigands' most powerful weapon. Its controls were here—by Heaven, I would smash them! That at least I could do!
I jumped for the window. Miko's signals had stopped, but I caught a glimpse of his distant moving curve-lights.
A flash came up at me, as in the window I became visible to the brigands on the ship's deck. It was a small hand-projector, hastily fired, for it went wide of the window. It was followed by a rain of small beams, but I was warned and I dropped my head beneath the high sill. The rays flashed diagonally upward through the oval opening, hissed against our vaulted roof. The air snapped and tingled with a shower of blue-red sparks, and the acrid odor of the released gases settled down upon me.
* * * * *
The trajectory controls of the projector were beside me. I seized them, ripped and tore at them. There was a roar down on the deck. The projector had exploded. A man's agonized scream split the confusion of sounds.
It silenced the brigands on the deck. Under our floor-grid those on the ladder had been pounding at the trap-door. They stopped, evidently to see what had happened. The bombardment of our windows ceased momentarily.
I cautiously peered out the window again. In the wreck of the projector three men were lying. One of them was screaming horribly. The dome-side was damaged. Potan and other men were frantically investigating to see if the ship's air were hissing out.
A triumph swept me. They had not found me so meek and inoffensive as they might have thought!
Anita clutched at me. She still had not donned her helmet.
"Put it on!"
"Put it on!"
"I—I don't want to put it on until you put yours on."
"I've smashed the projector! We've stopped them coming up for a while."
But they were still on the ladder under our floor. They heard our voices; they began thumping again. Then pounding. They seemed now to have some heavy implement. They rammed with it against the trap.
But the floor seemed holding. The square of metal grid trembled, yielded a little. But it was good for a few minutes longer.
I called down, "The first one who comes through will be shot." My words mingled with their oaths. There was a moment's pause, then the ramming went on. The dying man on the deck was still screaming.
* * * * *
I whispered, "I'll try an Earth-signal."
She nodded. Pale, tense, but calm. "Yes, Gregg. And I was thinking—"
"It won't take a minute. Have your helmet ready."
"I was thinking—"
She hurried across the room. I swung on the Botz signaling apparatus. It was connected. Within a moment I had it humming. The fluorescent tubes lighted with their lurid glare; they painted purple the body of the giant duty-man who lay sprawled at my feet. I drew on all the ship's power. The tube-lights in the room quivered and went dim.
I would have to hurry. Potan could shut this off from the main hull control room. I could see, through the room's upper trap, the primary sending mirror mounted in the peak of the dome. It was quivering, radiant with its light-energy. I sent the flash.
The flattened, past-full Earth was up there. I knew that the western hemisphere faced the Moon at this hour. I flashed in English, with the open Universal Earth-code:
And again: "Send help! Archimedes region near Apennines. Attacked by brigands. Send help at once! Grantline!"
If only it would be received! I flung off the current. Anita stood watching me intently. "Gregg, look!"
She had taken some of the glass globe-bombs which lay by the foot of the ascending ladder. She held some of them now.
"Gregg. I threw some."
* * * * *
At the window we gazed down. The globes she flung had shattered on the deck. They were occulting darkness bombs.
[Footnote 5: Filled with an odorless, harmless gas, these bombs were used in warfare, taking the place of the old-fashioned smoke screens. The diffusing gas was of such a nature that, when released, it absorbed within itself all the color inherent to the light-rays striking it, thus creating a temporary darkness.]
Through the blackness of the deck, the shouts of the brigands came up. They were stumbling about. But the ramming of our trap went on, and I saw that it was beginning to yield. One corner of it was bent up.
"We've got to go, Anita!"
From out of the darkness which hung like a shroud over the deck an occasional flash came up, unaimed—wide of our windows. But the darkness was dissipating. I could see now the dim glow of the deck lights, blurred as through a heavy fog.
I dropped another of the bombs.
"Put on your helmet."
"Yes—yes, I will. You put on yours."
We had them adjusted in a moment. Our Erentz motors were pumping.
I gripped her. "Put out your helmet-light."
She extinguished it. I handed her my bullet projector.
"Hold it a moment. I'm going to take that belt of bombs."
The trap-door was all but broken under the ramming blows of the men on the ladder. I leaped over the body of the duty-man, seized the belt of bombs and strapped it about my waist.
Anita stood with me.
"Give me the projector."
She handed it to me. The trap-door burst upward! A man's head and shoulders appeared. I fired a bullet into him—the little leaden pellet singing down through the yellow powder-flash that spat from the projector's muzzle.
* * * * *
The brigand screamed, and dropped back out of sight. There was confusion at the ladder-top. I flung a bomb at the broken trap. A tiny heat-ray came wavering up through the opening, but went wide of us.
The instrument room was in darkness. I clung to Anita.
"Hold on to me! You go first—here is the ladder."
We found it in the blackness, mounted it and went through the cubby's roof-trap.
I took a hasty look and dropped another bomb beside us. The four-foot space up here between the cubby roof and the overhead dome went black. We were momentarily concealed.
Anita located the manual levers of the lock-entrance.
I shoved at them. Fear leaped in me that they would not operate. But they swung. The tiny porte opened wide to receive us. We clambered into the small air-chamber; the door slid closed, just as a flash from below struck at it. The brigands had seen our little cloud of darkness and were firing up through it.
We were through the locks in a moment, out on the open dome-top. A sleek, rounded spread of glassite, with broad aluminite girders. There were cross-ribs which gave us footing, and occasional projections—streamline fin-tips, the casings of the upper rudder shafts, and the upstanding stubby funnels into which the helicopters were folded.
We moved along the central footpath and crouched by a six-foot casing. The stars and the glowing Earth were over us. The curving dome-top—a hundred feet or so in length, and bulging thirty feet wide beneath us—glistened in the Earthlight. It was a sheer drop down these curving sides past the ship's hull, a hundred feet to the rocks on which the vessel rested. The towering wall of Archimedes was beside us; and beyond the brink of the ledge the thousands of feet down to the plains.
* * * * *
I saw the lights of Miko's band down there. He had stopped signaling. His little lights were spread out, bobbing as he and his men advanced up the crater's foothills, coming to join their ship.
I had an instant's glimpse. Anita and I could not stay here. The brigands would follow us up in a moment. I saw no exterior ladder. We would have to take our chances and jump.
There were brigands down there on the rocks. I saw three or four skulking helmeted figures, and they saw us! A bullet whizzed by us, and then came the flash of a hand-ray.
I touched Anita. "Can you make the leap? Anita, dear...."
Again it seemed that this must be farewell.
"Gregg, dear one—oh, we've got to do it!"
Those waiting figures would pounce on us.
"Anita, lie here a moment."
I jumped up and ran twenty feet toward the bow; then back, toward the stern, flinging down the last of my bombs. The darkness was like a cloud down there, enveloping the outer brigands. But up here we were above it, etched by the starlight and Earthglow.
I came back to Anita.
"We'll have to chance it now."
"Good-by, dear. I'll jump first, down this side—you follow."
To leap into that black patch, with the rocks under it....
She was trying to tell me to look overhead. She gestured. "Gregg, see!"
I saw it out over the plains—a little speck amid the stars. A moving speck, coming toward us!
"Gregg, what is it?"
* * * * *
I gazed, held my breath. A moving speck out there. A blob now.
And then I realized that it was not a large object, far away, but small, and already very close—only a few hundred feet off, dropping toward the top of our dome. A narrow, flat, ten-foot object, like a wingless volplane. There were no lights on it, but in the Earthlight I could see two crouching, helmeted figures riding it.
"Anita! Don't you remember!"
I was swept with dawning comprehension. Back in the Grantline camp Snap and I had discussed how to use the Planetara's gravity plates. We had gone to the wreck and secured them, had rigged this little volplane flyer....
The brigands on the rocks saw it now. A flash went up at it. One of the figures crouching on it opened a flexible fabric like a wing over its side. I saw another flash from below, harmlessly striking the insulated shield.
I gasped to Anita, "Light your helmet! It's from Grantline! Let them see us!"
I stood erect. The little flying platform went over us, fifty feet up, circling, dropping to the dome-top.
I waved my helmet-light. The exit-lock from below—up which we had come—was near us. The advancing brigands were already in it! I had forgotten to demolish the manuals. And I saw that the darkness down on the rocks was almost gone now, dissipating in the airless night. The brigands down there began firing up at us.
It was a confusion of flashing lights. I clutched at Anita.
"Come this way—run!"
The platform barely missed our heads. It sailed lengthwise of the dome-top, and crashed silently on the central runway near the stern-tip. Anita and I ran to it.
The two helmeted figures seized us, shoved us prone on the metal platform. It was barely four feet wide: a low railing, handles with which to cling, and a tiny hooded cubby in front, with banks of controls.
It was Snap and Venza. She seized Anita, held her crouching in place. Snap flung himself face down at the controls.
The brigands in the lock were out on the dome now. I took a last shot as we lifted. My bullet punctured one of them; he fell, slid scrambling off the rounded dome and dropped out of sight.
Light-rays and silent flashes seemed to envelop us. Venra held the side-shields higher.
We tilted, swayed crazily, and then steadied.
The ship's dome dropped away beneath us. The rocks of the open ledge were under us. Then the abyss, with the moving climbing specks of Miko's lights far down.
I saw, over the side-shield, the already distant brigand ship resting on the ledge with the massive Archimedes' wall behind it. A confusion back there of futile flashing rays.
It all faded into a remote glow as we sailed smoothly up into the starlight and away, heading for the Grantline camp.
"Wake up, Gregg! They're coming!"
I forced myself to consciousness. "Coming—"
"Yes. Wake up!"
I leaped from my bunk, followed Snap with a rush into the corridor. We had returned safely to the Grantline Camp. Anita and I found ourselves exhausted from lack of sleep, our arduous climb of Archimedes and that tense time on the brigand ship. On the flight back Snap had explained how the landing of the ship on Archimedes was observed through the Grantline telescope, using but little of its power for this local range. They had read with amazement my signals to the brigands. Snap had rushed to completion the first of our contemplated flying platforms. Then he had seen Miko's signals from the crater-base, seen the lights of the fight to capture Anita and me in the cubby, and had come to rescue us.
Back at the camp we were given food, and Grantline forced me to try and sleep.
"They'll be on us in a few hours, Gregg. Miko will have joined them by now. He'll lead them to us. You must rest, for we need everyone at his best."
And surprisingly, in the midst of the camp's turmoil of last minute activities, I slept soundly, until Snap called me that the ship was coming.
The corridor echoed with the tramp of Grantline's busy crew. But there was no confusion now; a grim calmness had settled upon everyone.
Anita and Venra rushed up to join us. "It's in sight!"
* * * * *
There was no need of going to the instrument room. From the windows fronting the brink of the cliff the brigand ship was plainly visible. It came sailing from Archimedes, a dark shape blurring the stars. All its lights were extinguished save a single white search-beam in the bow-peak, slanting diagonally down.
The beam presently caught our little group of buildings; its glare shone in the windows as it clung for a moment. I could envisage the triumphant curiosity, of Potan and his fellows up there, gazing along the beam.
Then it swung away. The ship was at an altitude of no more than three thousand feet when I first saw it, coming upon a level keel. Would it circle over us, firing at us? Or sail past, after inspecting us? Or land, perhaps, boldly crowded upon our little ledge?
We were ready—as ready as we could be with our meager equipment. The camp was in a state of siege. The cliff-lights were extinguished: the interior lights were dim, save in the workshops of the main building, where the final assembling of Snap's other flying platforms and their insulated protective shields was still in progress.
We had dimmed the lights to conserve our power, and to enable the Erentz motors to run at full capacity. Our buildings would have to withstand the brigand rays which soon would be upon us.
Outside on our dim, Earthlit cliff, the tiny lights showed where our few guards were lurking. As I stood at the window watching the oncoming ship, Grantline's voice sounded:
"Call in those men! Ring the call-lights, Franck!"
The siren buzzed over the camp's interior; the warning call-lights on the roof brought in the outer guards. They came running to the admission portes, which had been repaired after Miko disabled them.
* * * * *
The guards came in. We dimmed our lights further. The treasure sheds were black against the cliff behind us. No need for guards there—the bulk of the ore was such that we reasoned the brigands would not attempt to move it until our buildings were captured. But, if they should try it, we were prepared to sally out with our hand-weapons and defend it.
In the dim lights we crouched. A silence was upon us, save for the clanging in the workshop down the corridor. Most of us wore our Erentz suits, with helmets ready, though I am sure there was not a man of us but who prayed he might not have to go out. At many of the windows—our weakest points to withstand the rays—insulated fabric shields were hung like curtains.
The brigand ship slowly advanced. It was soon over the opposite rim of our little crater. Its search-beam swung about the rim and down into the valley.
My thoughts ran like a turgid stream as I stood tensely watching.
Four hours ago I had sent that flash-signal to Earth. If it were received, a patrol-ship could come to our rescue and arrive here in another eight hours—or perhaps even less.
Ah, that "if!" If the signal were received! If the patrol-ship were immediately available! If it started at once....
Eight hours at the very least. I tried to assure myself that we could hold out that long....
The brigand ship crossed the opposite crater-rim. It dropped lower. It seemed poised over the crater-valley, almost at our own level and less than two miles from us. Its search-beam vanished. For a moment it hung, a sleek, cylindrical silver shape, gleaming in the Earthlight.
Snap looked at me and murmured, "It's descending."
It slowly settled, cautiously picked its landing-place amid the crags and pits of the tumbled scarred valley floor. It came to rest, a vague silver menacing shape lurking in the lower shadows, close at the foot of the inner opposite crater-wall.
A few moments of tense waiting passed. Soon tiny lights were moving down there, some out on the rocks near the ship, others up under its deck-dome.
A stab of searchlight shot across the valley, swung along our ledge and clung with its glaring ten-foot circle to the front of our main building. Then a ray flashed.
The assault had begun!
(To be concluded)
The Jovian Jest
By Lilith Lorraine
[Sidenote: There came to our pigmy planet a radiant wanderer with a message—and a jest—from the vasty universe.]
Consternation reigned in Elsnore village when the Nameless Thing was discovered in Farmer Burns' corn-patch. When the rumor began to gain credence that it was some sort of meteor from inter-stellar space, reporters, scientists and college professors flocked to the scene, desirous of prying off particles for analysis. But they soon discovered that the Thing was no ordinary meteor, for it glowed at night with a peculiar luminescence. They also observed that it was practically weightless, since it had embedded itself in the soft sand scarcely more than a few inches.
By the time the first group of newspapermen and scientists had reached the farm, another phenomenon was plainly observable. The Thing was growing!
Farmer Burns, with an eye to profit, had already built a picket fence around his starry visitor and was charging admission. He also flatly refused to permit the chipping off of specimens or even the touching of the object. His attitude was severely criticized, but he stubbornly clung to the theory that possession is nine points in law.
* * * * *
It was Professor Ralston of Princewell who, on the third day after the fall of the meteor, remarked upon its growth. His colleagues crowded around him as he pointed out this peculiarity, and soon they discovered another factor—pulsation!
Larger than a small balloon, and gradually, almost imperceptibly expanding, with its viscid transparency shot through with opalescent lights, the Thing lay there in the deepening twilight and palpably shivered. As darkness descended, a sort of hellish radiance began to ooze from it. I say hellish, because there is no other word to describe that spectral, sulphurous emanation.
As the hangers-on around the pickets shudderingly shrank away from the weird light that was streaming out to them and tinting their faces with a ghastly, greenish pallor, Farmer Burns' small boy, moved by some imp of perversity, did a characteristically childish thing. He picked up a good-sized stone and flung it straight at the nameless mass!
* * * * *
Instead of veering off and falling to the ground as from an impact with metal, the stone sank right through the surface of the Thing as into a pool of protoplastic slime. When it reached the central core of the object, a more abundant life suddenly leaped and pulsed from center to circumference. Visible waves of sentient color circled round the solid stone. Stabbing swords of light leaped forth from them, piercing the stone, crumbling it, absorbing it. When it was gone, only a red spot, like a bloodshot eye, throbbed eerily where it had been.
Before the now thoroughly mystified crowd had time to remark upon this inexplicable disintegration, a more horrible manifestation occurred. The Thing, as though thoroughly awakened and vitalized by its unusual fare, was putting forth a tentacle. Right from the top of the shivering globe it pushed, sluggishly weaving and prescient of doom. Wavering, it hung for a moment, turning, twisting, groping. Finally it shot straight outward swift as a rattler's strike!
Before the closely packed crowd could give room for escape, it had circled the neck of the nearest bystander, Bill Jones, a cattleman, and jerked him, writhing and screaming, into the reddish core. Stupefied with soul-chilling terror, with their mass-consciousness practically annihilated before a deed with which their minds could make no association, the crowd could only gasp in sobbing unison and await the outcome.
* * * * *
The absorption of the stone had taught them what to expect, and for a moment it seemed that their worst anticipations were to be realised. The sluggish currents circled through the Thing, swirling the victim's body to the center. The giant tentacle drew back into the globe and became itself a current. The concentric circles merged—tightened—became one gleaming cord that encircled the helpless prey. From the inner circumference of this cord shot forth, not the swords of light that had powdered the stone to atoms, but myriads of radiant tentacles that gripped and cupped the body in a thousand places.
Suddenly the tentacles withdrew themselves, all save the ones that grasped the head. These seemed to tighten their pressure—to swell and pulse with a grayish substance that was flowing from the cups into the cord and from the cord into the body of the mass. Yes, it was a grayish something, a smokelike Essence that was being drawn from the cranial cavity. Bill Jones was no longer screaming and gibbering, but was stiff with the rigidity of stone. Notwithstanding, there was no visible mark upon his body; his flesh seemed unharmed.
Swiftly came the awful climax. The waving tentacles withdrew themselves, the body of Bill Jones lost its rigidity, a heaving motion from the center of the Thing propelled its cargo to the surface—and Bill Jones stepped out!
Yes, he stepped out and stood for a moment staring straight ahead, staring at nothing, glassily. Every person in the shivering, paralysed group knew instinctively that something unthinkable had happened to him. Something had transpired, something hitherto possible only in the abysmal spaces of the Other Side of Things. Finally he turned and faced the nameless object, raising his arm stiffly, automatically, as in a military salute. Then he turned and walked jerkily, mindlessly, round and round the globe like a wooden soldier marching. Meanwhile the Thing lay quiescent—gorged!
* * * * *
Professor Ralston was the first to find his voice. In fact, Professor Ralston was always finding his voice in the most unexpected places. But this time it had caught a chill. It was trembling.
"Gentlemen," he began, looking down academically upon the motley crowd as though doubting the aptitude of his salutation. "Fellow-citizens," he corrected, "the phenomenon we have just witnessed is, to the lay mind, inexplicable. To me—and to my honorable colleagues (added as an afterthought) it is quite clear. Quite clear, indeed. We have before us a specimen, a perfect specimen, I might say, of a—of a—"