He reached out a hand, snapped a control. The screens in Wrail's office went dead.
Wrail reached for a cigar, lit it carefully. He leaned back in his chair, put his feet on the desk.
"By Heaven," he said satisfiedly, "I've never enjoyed anything so much in all my life."
A giant cylindrical hull of finest beryl steel, the ship loomed in the screen. A mighty ship, braced into absolute rigidity by monster cross beams of shining steel. Glowing under the blazing lamps that lighted the scene, it towered into the shadows of the factory, dwarfing the scurrying workmen who swarmed over it.
"She's a beauty," said Russ, puffing at his pipe.
Greg nodded agreement. "They're working on her day and night to get her finished. We may need it some day and need it in a hurry. If Chambers really gets that machine of his to rolling, space will be the only place big enough to hide in."
He chuckled, a grim chuckle, deep in his throat.
"But we won't have to hide long. Just until we get organized and then will come the time when we'll call for the showdown. Chambers will have to spread his cards."
Russ snapped the television switch and the screen went blank. The laboratory suddenly was a place of queer lights and shadows, bulging with grotesque machines, with sprawling apparatus, a place that hinted darkly of vast power and mighty forces.
The scientist sat up in his chair. "We've come a long way, Greg. A long, long way. We have the greatest power man has ever known; we have an almost incomprehensible space drive; we have three-dimensional television."
"And," said Greg dryly, "we took Chambers to the cleaners on the market."
They sat in silence. Greg smelled the smoke from Russ's pipe, mixed with the taint of lubricant and the faint lingering scent of ionized air.
"We mustn't underrate Chambers, however," he declared. "The man made one mistake. He underrated us. We can't repeat his mistake. He is dangerous all the time. He will stop at nothing. Not even murder."
"He's going easy now," said Russ. "He's hoping Craven can find something that will either equal our stuff or beat it. But Craven isn't having any luck. He's still driving himself on the radiation theory, but he doesn't seem to make much headway."
"If he got it, just what would it mean?"
"Plenty. With that he could turn all radiations in space to work. The cosmics, heat, light, everything. Space is full of radiation."
"If it hadn't been for Wilson," Greg said, his voice a snarl, "we wouldn't have to be worrying about Chambers. Chambers wouldn't know until we were ready to let him know."
"Wilson!" ejaculated Russ, suddenly leaning forward. "I had forgotten about Wilson. What do you say we try to find him?"
* * * * *
Harry Wilson sat at his table in the Martian Club and watched the exotic Martian dance, performed by near-nude girls. Smoke trailed up lazily from his drooping cigarette as he watched through squinted eyes. There was something about the dance that got under Wilson's skin.
The music rose, then fell to whispering undertones and suddenly, unexpectedly, crashed and stopped. The girls were running from the floor. A wave of smooth, polite applause rippled around the tables.
Wilson sighed and reached for his wine glass. He crushed the cigarette into a tray and sipped his wine. He glanced around the room, scanning the bobbing, painted faces of the night—the great, the near-great, the near-enough-to-touch-the-great. Brokers and businessmen, artists and writers and actors. There were others, too, queer night-life shadows that no one knew much about, or that one heard too much about ... the playboys and the ladies of family and fortune, correctly attired men, gorgeously, sleekly attired women.
And—Harry Wilson. The waiters called him Mr. Wilson. He heard people whispering about him asking who he was. His soul soaked it in and cried for more. Good food, good drinks, the pastels of the walls, the soft lights and weird, exotic music. The cold but colorful correctness of it all.
Just two months ago he had stood outside the club, a stranger in the city, a mechanic from a little out-of-the-way laboratory, a man who was paid a pittance for his skill. He had stood outside and watched his employers walk up the steps and through the magic doors. He had watched in bitterness....
The orchestra was striking up a tune. A blonde nodded at him from a near-by table. Solemnly, with the buzz of wine in his brain and its hotness in his blood, he returned the nod.
Someone was speaking to him, calling him by name. He looked around, but there was no one looking at him now. And once again, through that flow of music, through the hum of conversation, through the buzzing of his own brain, came the voice, cold and sharp as steel:
It sent a shudder through him. He reached for the wine glass again, but his hand stopped half-way to the stem, paused and trembled at what he saw.
* * * * *
For there was a gray vagueness in front of him, a sort of shimmer of nothingness, and out of that shimmer materialized a pencil.
As he watched, in stricken terror, the point of the pencil dropped to the tablecloth and slowly, precisely, it started to move. He stared, hypnotized, unbelieving, with the fingers of madness probing at his brain. The pencil wrote:
Wilson, you sold me out.
The man at the table tried to speak, tried to shriek, but his tongue and throat were dry and only harsh breath rattled in his mouth.
The pencil moved on mercilessly:
But you will pay. No matter where you go, I will find you. You cannot hide from me.
The pencil slowly lifted its point from the table and suddenly was gone, as if it had never been. Wilson, eyes wide and filled with terrible fear, stared at the black words on the cloth.
Wilson, you sold me out. But you will pay. No matter where you go, I will find you. You cannot hide from me.
The music pulsated in the room, the hum of conversation ran like an undertone, but Wilson did not hear. His entire consciousness was centered on the writing, the letters and the words that filled his soul with dread.
Something seemed to snap within him. The cold wind of terror reached out and struck at him. He staggered from the chair. His hand swept the wine glass from the table and it shattered into chiming shards.
"They can't do this to me!" he shrieked.
There was a silence in the room a silence of terrible accusation. Everyone was staring at him. Eyebrows raised.
* * * * *
A waiter was at his elbow. "Do you feel ill, sir?"
And then, on unsteady feet, he was being led away. Behind him he heard the music once again, heard the rising hum of voices.
Someone set his hat on his head, was holding his coat. The cold air of the night struck his face and the doors sighed closed behind him.
"I'd take it easy going down the step, sir," counseled the doorman.
An aero-taxi driver held open the door of the cab and saluted.
"Where to, sir?"
Wilson stumbled in and stammered out his address. The taxi droned into the traffic lane.
Hands twitching, Wilson fumbled with the key, took minutes to open the door into his apartment. Finally the lock clicked and he pushed open the door. His questing finger found the wall switch. Light flooded the room.
Wilson heaved a sigh of relief. He felt safe here. This place belonged to him. It was his home, his retreat....
A low laugh, hardly more than a chuckle, sounded behind him. He whirled and for a moment, blinking in the light, he saw nothing. Then something stirred by one of the windows, gray and vague, like a sheet of moving fog.
As he watched, shrinking back against the wall, the grayness deepened, took the form of a man. And out of that mistiness a face was etched, a face that had no single line of humor in it, a bleak face with the fire of anger in the eyes.
"Manning!" shrieked Wilson. "Manning!" He wheeled and sprinted for the door, but the gray figure moved, too ... incredibly fast, as if it were wind-blown vapor, and barred his path to the door.
"Why are you running away?" Manning's voice mocked. "Certainly you aren't afraid of me."
"Look," Wilson whimpered, "I didn't think of what it meant. I just was tired of working the way Page made me work. Tired of the little salary I got. I wanted money. I was hungry for money."
"So you sold us out," said Manning.
"No," cried Wilson, "I didn't think of it that way. I didn't stop to think."
"Think now, then," said Manning gravely. "Think of this. No matter where you are, no matter where you go, no matter what you do, I'll always be watching you, I'll never let you rest. I'll never give you a minute's peace."
"Please," pleaded Wilson. "Please, go away and leave me. I'll give you back the money ... there's some of it left."
"You sold out for twenty thousand," said Manning. "You could have gotten twenty million. Chambers would have paid that much to know what you could tell him, because it was worth twenty billion."
Wilson's breath was coming in panting gasps. He dropped his coat and backed away. The back of his knees collided with a chair and he folded up, sat down heavily, still staring at the gray mistiness that was a man.
"Think of that, Wilson," Manning went on sneeringly. "You could have been a millionaire. Maybe even a billionaire. You could have had all the fine things these other people have. But you only got twenty thousand."
"What can I do?" begged Wilson.
The misty face split in a sardonic grin.
"I don't believe there's anything left for you to do."
Before Wilson's eyes the face dissolved, lost its lines, seemed to melt away. Only streaming, swirling mist, then a slight refraction in the air and then nothing.
Slowly Wilson rose to his feet, reached for the bottle of whiskey on the table. His hand shook so that the liquor splashed. When he raised the glass to his mouth, his still-shaking hand poured half the drink over his white shirt front.
Ludwig Stutsman pressed his thin, straight lips together. "So that's the setup," he said.
Across the desk Spencer Chambers studied the man. Stutsman was like a wolf, lean and cruel and vicious. He even looked like a wolf, with his long, thin face, his small, beady eyes, the thin, bloodless lips. But he was the kind of man who didn't always wait for instructions, but went ahead and used his own judgment. And in a ruthless sort of way, his judgment was always right.
"Only as a last resort," cautioned Chambers, "do I want you to use the extreme measures you are so fond of using. If they should prove necessary, we can always use them. But not yet. I want to settle this thing in the quietest way possible. Page and Manning are two men who can't simply disappear. There'd be a hunt, an investigation, an ugly situation."
"I understand," agreed Stutsman. "If something should happen to their notes, if somebody could find them. Perhaps you. If you found them on your desk one morning."
The two men measured one another with their eyes, more like enemies than men working for the same ends.
"Not my desk," snapped Chambers, "Craven's. So that Craven could discover this new energy. Whatever Craven discovers belongs to Interplanetary."
Chambers rose from his chair and walked to the window, looked out. After a moment's time, he turned and walked back again, sat down in his chair. Leaning back, he matched his fingertips, his teeth flashing in a grin under his mustache.
"I don't know anything about what's going on," he said. "I don't even know someone has discovered material energy. That's up to Craven. He has to find it. Both you and Craven work alone. I know nothing about either of you."
Stutsman's jaw closed like a steel trap. "I've always worked alone."
"By the way," said Chambers, the edge suddenly off his voice, "how are things going in the Jovian confederacy? I trust you left everything in good shape."
"As good as could be expected," Stutsman replied. "The people are still uneasy, half angry. They still remember Mallory."
"But Mallory," objected Chambers, "is on a prison ship. In near Mercury now, I believe."
Stutsman shook his head. "They still remember him. We'll have trouble out there one of these days."
"I would hate to have that happen," remarked Chambers softly. "I would regret it very much. I sent you out there to see that nothing happened."
"The trouble out there won't be a flash to this thing you were telling me about," snapped Stutsman.
"I'm leaving that in your hands, too," Chambers told him. "I know you can take care of it."
Stutsman rose. "I can take care of it."
"I'm sure you can," Chambers said.
He remained standing after Stutsman left, looking at the door through which the man had gone. Maybe it had been a mistake to call Stutsman in from Callisto. Maybe it was a mistake to use Stutsman at all. He didn't like a lot of things the man did ... or the way he did them. Brutal things.
* * * * *
Slowly Chambers sat down again and his face grew hard.
He had built an empire of many worlds. That couldn't be done with gentle methods and no sure goal. Fighting every inch from planet to planet, he had used power to gain power. And now that empire was threatened by two men who had found a greater power. That threat had to be smashed! It would be smashed!
Chambers leaned forward and pressed a buzzer.
"Yes, Mr. Chambers?" said a voice in the communicator.
"Send Dr. Craven in," commanded Chambers.
Craven came in, slouchily, his hair standing on end, his eyes peering through the thick-lensed glasses.
"You sent for me," he growled, taking a chair.
"Yes, I did," said Chambers. "Have a drink?"
"No. And no smoke either."
Chambers took a long cigar from the box on his desk, clipped off the end and rolled it in his mouth.
* * * * *
"I'm a busy man," Craven reminded him.
Puckering lines of amusement wrinkled Chambers' eyes as he lit up, watching Craven.
"You do seem to be busy, Doctor," he said. "I only wish you had something concrete to report."
The scientist bristled. "I may have in a few days, if you leave me alone and let me work."
"I presume that you are still working on your radiation collector. Any progress?"
"Not too much. You can't expect a man to turn out discoveries to order. I'm working almost night and day now. If the thing can be solved, I'll solve it."
Chambers glowed. "Keep up the good work. But I wanted to talk to you about something else. You heard, I suppose, that I lost a barrel of money on the Ranthoor exchange."
Craven smiled, a sardonic twisting of his lips. "I heard something about it."
"I thought you had," said Chambers sourly. "If not, you would have been the only one who hadn't heard how Ben Wrail took Chambers for a ride."
"He really took you then," commented Craven. "I thought maybe it was just one of those stories."
"He took me, but that's not what's worrying me. I want to know how he did it. No man, not even the most astute student of the market, could have foretold the trend of the market the way he did. And Wrail isn't the most astute. It isn't natural when a man who has always played the safe side suddenly turns the market upside down. Even less natural when he never makes a mistake."
"Well," demanded Craven, "what do you want me to do about it? I'm a scientist. I've never owned a share of stock in my life."
"There's an angle to it that might interest you," said Chambers smoothly, leaning back, puffing at the cigar. "Wrail is a close friend of Manning. And Wrail himself didn't have the money it took to swing those deals. Somebody furnished that money."
"Manning?" asked Craven.
"What do you think?"
"If Manning's mixed up in it," said Craven acidly, "there isn't anything any of us can do about it. You're bucking money and genius together. This Manning is no slouch of a scientist himself and Page is better. They're a combination."
* * * * *
"You think they're good?" asked Chambers.
"Good? Didn't they discover material energy?" The scientist glowered at his employer. "That ought to be answer enough."
"Yes, I know," Chambers agreed irritably. "But can you tell me how they worked this market deal?"
Craven grimaced. "I can guess. Those boys didn't stop with just finding how to harness material energy. They probably have more things than you can even suspect. They were working with force fields, you remember, when they stumbled onto the energy. Force fields are something we don't know much about. A man monkeying around with them is apt to find almost anything."
"What are you getting at?"
"My guess would be that they have a new kind of television working in the fourth dimension, using time as a factor. It would penetrate anything. Nothing could stop it. It could go anywhere, at a speed many times the speed of light ... almost instantaneously."
Chambers sat upright in his chair. "Are you sure about this?"
Craven shook his head. "Just a guess. I tried to figure out what I would do if I were Page and Manning and had the things they had. That's all."
"And what would you do?"
Craven smiled dourly. "I'd be using that television right in this office," he said. "I'd keep you and me under observation all the time. If what I think is true, Manning is watching us now and has heard every word we said."
Chambers' face was a harsh mask of anger. "I don't believe it could be done!"
"Doctor Craven is right," said a quiet voice.
Chambers swung around in his chair and gasped. Greg Manning stood inside the room, just in front of the desk.
"I hope you don't mind," said Greg. "I've been wanting to have a talk with you."
Craven leaped to his feet, his eyes shining. "Three dimensions!" he whispered. "How did you do it?"
Greg chuckled. "I haven't patented the idea, Doctor. I'd rather not tell you just now."
"You will accept my congratulations, however?" asked Craven.
"That's generous of you. I really hadn't expected this much."
"I mean it," said Craven. "Damned if I don't." Chambers was on his feet, leaning across the desk, with his hand held out. Greg's right hand came out slowly.
"Sorry, I really can't shake hands," he said. "I'm not here, you know. Just my image."
Chambers' hand dropped to the desk. "Stupid of me not to realize that. You looked so natural." He sat back in his chair again, brushed his gray mustache. A smile twisted his lips. "So you've been watching me?"
"Off and on," Greg said.
"And what is the occasion of this visit?" asked Chambers. "You could have held a distinct advantage by remaining unseen. I didn't entirely believe what Craven told me, you know."
"That isn't the point at all," declared Greg. "Maybe we can get to understand one another."
"So you're ready to talk business."
"Not in the sense you mean," Greg said. "I'm not willing to make concessions, but there's no reason why we have to fight one another."
"Why, no," said Chambers, "there's no reason for that. I'll be willing to buy your discovery."
"I wouldn't sell it to you," Greg told him.
"You wouldn't? Why not? I'm prepared to pay for it."
"You'd pay the price, all right. Anything I asked ... even if it bankrupted you. Then you'd mark it down to loss, and scrap material energy. And I'll tell you why."
* * * * *
A terrible silence hung in the room as the two men eyed one another across the table.
"You wouldn't use it," Greg went on, "because it would remove the stranglehold you have on the planets. It would make power too cheap. It would eliminate the necessity of your rented accumulators. The Jovian moons and Mars could stand on their feet without the power you ship to them. You could make billions in legitimate profits selling the apparatus to manufacture the energy ... but you wouldn't want that. You want to be dictator of the Solar System. And that is what I intend to stop."
"Listen, Manning," said Chambers, "you're a reasonable man. Let's talk this thing over without anger. What do you plan to do?"
"I could put my material engines on the market," said Greg. "That would ruin you. You wouldn't move an accumulator after that. Your Interplanetary stock wouldn't be worth the paper it is written on. Material energy would wipe you out."
"You forget I have franchises on those planets," Chambers reminded him. "I'd fight you in the courts until hell froze over."
"I'd prove convenience, economy and necessity. Any court in any land, on any planet, would rule for me."
Chambers shook his head. "Not Martian or Jovian courts. I'd tell them to rule for me and the courts outside of Earth do what I tell them to."
* * * * *
Greg straightened and backed from the desk. "I hate to ruin a man. You've worked hard. You've built a great company. I would be willing, in return for a hands-off policy on your part, to hold up any announcement of my material energy until you had time to get out, to save what you could."
Hard fury masked Chambers' face. "You'll never build a material energy engine outside your laboratory. Don't worry about ruining me. I won't allow you to stand in my way. I hope you understand."
"I understand too well. But even if you are a dictator out on Mars and Venus, even if you do own Mercury and boss the Jovian confederacy, you're just a man to me. A man who stands for things that I don't like."
Greg stopped and his eyes were like ice crystals.
"You talked to Stutsman today," he said. "If I were you, I wouldn't let Stutsman do anything rash. Russ Page and I might have to fight back."
Mockery tinged Chambers' voice. "Am I to take this as a declaration of war, Mr. Manning?"
"Take it any way you like," Greg said. "I came here to give you a proposition, and you tell me you're going to smash me. All I have to say to you, Chambers, is this—when you get ready to smash me, you'd better have a deep, dark hole all picked out for yourself to hide in. Because I'll hand you back just double anything you hand out."
"One of us will have to watch all the time," Greg told Russ. "We can't take any chances. Stutsman will try to reach us sooner or later and we have to be ready for him."
He glanced at the new radar screen they had set up that morning beside the bank of other controls. Any ship coming within a hundred miles of the laboratory would be detected instantly and pinpointed.
The board flashed now. In the screen they saw a huge passenger ship spearing down toward the airport south of them.
"With the port that close," said Russ, "we'll get a lot of signals."
"I ordered the Belgium factory to rush work on the ship," said Greg. "But it will be a couple of weeks yet. We just have to sit tight and wait. As soon as we have the ship we'll start in on Chambers; but until we get the ship, we just have to dig in and stay on the defensive."
He studied the scene in the screen. The ship had leveled off, was banking in to the port. His eyes turned away, took in the laboratory with its crowding mass of machinery.
"We don't want to fool ourselves about Chambers," he said. "He may not have the power here on Earth that he does on the other planets, but he's got plenty. Feeling the way he does, he'll try to finish us off in a hurry now."
Russ reached out to the table that stood beside the bank of controls and picked up a small, complicated mechanism. Its face bore nine dials, with the needles on three of them apparently registering, the other six motionless.
"What is that?" asked Greg.
"A mechanical detective," said Russ. "A sort of mechanical shadow. While you were busy with the stock market stunt, I made several of them. One for Wilson and another for Chambers and still another for Craven." He hoisted and lowered the one in his hand. "This one is for Stutsman."
"A shadow?" asked Greg. "Do you mean that thing will trail Stutsman?"
"Not only trail him," said Russ. "It will find him, wherever he may be. Some object every person wears or carries is made of iron or some other magnetic metal. This 'shadow' contains a tiny bit of that ridiculous military decoration that Stutsman never allows far away from him. Find that decoration and you find Stutsman. In another one I have a chunk of Wilson's belt buckle, that college buckle, you know, that he's so proud of. Chambers has a ring made of a piece of meteoric iron and that's the bait for another machine. Have a tiny piece off Craven's spectacles in his machine. It was easy to get the stuff. The force field enables a man to reach out and take anything he wants to, from a massive machine to a microscopic bit of matter. It was a cinch to get the stuff I needed."
Russ chuckled and put the machine back on the table. He gestured toward it.
"It maintains a tiny field similar to our television field," he explained. "But it's modified along a special derivation with a magnetic result. It can follow and find the original mass of any metallic substance it may contain."
"Clever," commented Greg.
Russ lit his pipe, puffed comfortably. "We needed something like that."
The red light on the board snapped on and blinked. Russ reached out and slammed home the lever, twirled dials. It was only another passenger ship. They relaxed, but not too much.
* * * * *
"I wonder what he's up to," said Russ.
Stutsman's car had stopped in the dock section of New York. Crumbling, rotting piers and old tumbledown warehouses, deserted and unused since the last ship sailed the ocean before giving way to air commerce, loomed darkly, like grim ghosts, in the darkness.
Stutsman had gotten out of the car and said: "Wait here."
"Yes, sir," said the voice of the driver.
Stutsman strode away, down a dark street. The televisor kept pace with him and on the screen he could be seen as a darker shape moving among the shadows of that old, almost forgotten section of the Solar System's greatest city.
Another shadow detached itself from the darkness of the street, shuffled toward Stutsman.
"Sir," said a whining voice, "I haven't eaten ..."
There was a swift movement as Stutsman's stick lashed out, a thud as it connected with the second shadow's head. The shadow crumpled on the pavement. Stutsman strode on.
Greg sucked in his breath. "He isn't very sociable tonight."
Stutsman ducked into an alley where even deeper darkness lay. Russ, with a delicate adjustment, slid the televisor along, closer to Stutsman, determined not to lose sight of him for an instant.
The man suddenly turned into a doorway so black that nothing could be seen. Sounds of sharp, impatient rappings came out of the screen as Stutsman struck the door with his stick.
Brilliant illumination sprang out over the doorway, but Stutsman seemed not to see it, went on knocking. The colors on the screen were peculiarly distorted.
"Ultra-violet," grunted Greg. "Whoever he's calling on wants to have a good look before letting anybody in."
The door creaked open and a shaft of normal light spewed out into the street, turning its murkiness to pallid yellow.
Stutsman stepped inside.
The man at the door jerked his head. "Back room," he said.
* * * * *
The televisor slid through the door into the lighted room behind Stutsman. Dust lay thick on the woodwork and floors. Patches of plaster had broken away. Furrows zigzagged across the floor, marking the path of heavy boxes or furniture which had been pushed along in utter disdain of the flooring. Cheap wall-paper hung in tatters from the walls, streaked with water from some broken pipe.
But the back room was a startling contrast to the first. Rich, comfortable furniture filled it. The floor was covered with a steel-cloth rug and steel-cloth hangings, colorfully painted, hid the walls.
A man sat under a lamp, reading a newspaper. He rose to his feet, like the sudden uncoiling of springs.
Russ gasped. That face was one of the best known faces in the entire Solar System. A ratlike face, with cruel cunning printed on it that had been on front pages and TV screens often, but never for pay.
"Scorio!" whispered Russ.
Greg nodded and his lips were drawn tight.
"Stutsman," said Scorio, surprised. "You're the last person in the world I was expecting. Come in. Have a chair. Make yourself comfortable."
Stutsman snorted. "This isn't a social call."
"I didn't figure it was," replied the gangster, "but sit down anyway."
Gingerly Stutsman sat down on the edge of a chair, hunched forward. Scorio resumed his seat and waited.
"I have a job for you," Stutsman announced bluntly.
"Fine. It isn't often you have one for me. Three-four years ago, wasn't it?"
"We may be watched," warned Stutsman.
The mobster started from his chair, his eyes darting about the room.
Stutsman grunted disgustedly. "If we're watched, there isn't anything we can do about it."
"We can't, huh?" snarled the gangster. "Why not?"
"Because the watcher is on the West Coast. We can't reach him. If he's watching, he can see every move we make, hear every word we say."
"Who is it?"
* * * * *
"Greg Manning or Russ Page," said Stutsman. "You've heard of them?"
"Sure. I heard of them."
"They have a new kind of television," said Stutsman. "They can see and hear everything that's happening on Earth, perhaps in all the Solar System. But I don't think they're watching us now. Craven has a machine that can detect their televisor. It registers certain field effects they use. They weren't watching when I left Craven's laboratory just a few minutes ago. They may have picked me up since, but I don't think so."
"So Craven has made a detector," said Greg calmly. "He can tell when we're watching now."
"He's a clever cuss," agreed Russ.
"Take a look at that machine now," urged Scorio. "See if they're watching. You shouldn't have come here. You should have let me know and I would have met you some place. I can't have people knowing where my hideout is."
"Quiet down," snapped Stutsman. "I haven't got the machine. It weighs half a ton."
Scorio sank deeper into his chair, worried. "Do you want to take a chance and talk business?"
"Certainly. That's why I'm here. This is the proposition. Manning and Page are working in a laboratory out on the West Coast, in the mountains. I'll give you the exact location later. They have some papers we want. We wouldn't mind if something happened to the laboratory. It might, for example blow up. But we want the papers first."
* * * * *
Scorio said nothing. His face was quiet and cunning.
"Give me the papers," said Stutsman, "and I'll see that you get to any planet you want to. And I'll give you two hundred thousand in Interplanetary Credit certificates. Give me proof that the laboratory blew up or melted down or something else happened to it and I'll boost the figure to five hundred thousand."
Scorio did not move a muscle as he asked: "Why don't you have some of your own mob do this job?"
"Because I can't be connected with it in any way," said Stutsman. "If you slip up and something happens, I won't be able to do a thing for you. That's why the price is high."
The gangster's eyes slitted. "If the papers are worth that much to you, why wouldn't they be worth as much to me?"
"They wouldn't be worth a dime to you."
"Because you couldn't read them," said Stutsman.
"I can read," retorted the gangster.
"Not the kind of language on those papers. There aren't more than two dozen people in the Solar System who could read it, perhaps a dozen who could understand it, maybe half a dozen who could follow the directions in the papers." He leaned forward and jabbed a forefinger at the gangster. "And there are only two people in the System who could write it."
"What the hell kind of a language is it that only two dozen people could read?"
"It isn't a language, really. It's mathematics."
"No," Stutsman said. "Mathematics. You see? You don't even know the difference between the two, so what good would the papers do you?"
Scorio nodded. "Yeah, you're right."
The Paris-Berlin express thundered through the night, a gigantic ship that rode high above the Earth. Far below one could see the dim lights of eastern Europe.
Harry Wilson pressed his face against the window, staring down. There was nothing to see but the tiny lights. They were alone, he and the other occupants of the ship ... alone in the dark world that surrounded them.
But Wilson sensed some other presence in the ship, someone besides the pilot and his mechanics up ahead, the hostess and the three stodgy traveling men who were his fellow passengers.
Wilson's hair ruffled at the base of his skull, tingling with an unknown fear that left him shaken.
A voice whispered in his ear: "Harry Wilson. So you are running away!"
Just a tiny voice that seemed hardly a voice at all, it seemed at once to come from far away and yet from very near. The voice, with an edge of coldness on it, was one he never would forget.
He cowered in his seat, whimpering.
The voice came again: "Didn't I tell you that you couldn't run away? That no matter where you went, I'd find you?"
"Go away," Wilson whispered huskily. "Leave me alone. Haven't you hounded me enough?"
"No," answered the voice, "not enough. Not yet. You sold us out. You warned Chambers about our energy and now Chambers is sending men to kill us. But they won't succeed, Wilson."
"You can't hurt me," said Wilson defiantly. "You can't do anything but talk to me. You're trying to drive me mad, but you can't. I won't let you. I'm not going to pay any more attention to you."
The whisper chuckled.
"You can't," argued Wilson wildly. "All you can do is talk to me. You've never done anything but that. You drove me out of New York and out of London and now you're driving me out of Paris. But Berlin is as far as I will go. I won't listen to you any more."
"Wilson," whispered the voice, "look inside your bag. The bag, Wilson, where you are carrying that money. That stack of credit certificates. Almost eleven thousand dollars, what is left of the twenty thousand Chambers paid you."
With a wild cry Wilson clawed at his bag, snapped it open, pawed through it.
* * * * *
The credit certificates were gone!
"You took my money," he shrieked. "You took everything I had. I haven't got a cent. Nothing except a few dollars in my pocket."
"You haven't got that either, Wilson," whispered the voice.
There was a sound of ripping cloth as something like a great, powerful hand flung aside Wilson's coat, tore away the inside pocket. There was a brief flash of a wallet and a bundle of papers, which vanished.
The hostess was hurrying toward him.
"Is there something wrong?"
"They took ..." Wilson began and stopped.
What could he tell her? Could he say that a man half way across the world had robbed him?
The three traveling men were looking at him.
"I'm sorry, miss," he stammered. "I really am. I fell asleep and dreamed."
He sat down again, shaken. Shivering, he huddled back into the corner of his seat. His hands explored the torn coat pocket. He was stranded, high in the air, somewhere between Paris and Berlin ... stranded without money, without a passport, with nothing but the clothes he wore and the few personal effects in his bag.
Fighting to calm himself, he tried to reason out his plight. The plane was entering the Central European Federation and that, definitely, was no place to be without a passport or without visible means of support. A thousand possibilities flashed through his mind. They might think he was a spy. He might be cited for illegal entry. He might be framed by secret police.
Terror perched on his shoulder and whispered to him. He shivered violently and drew farther back into the corner of the seat. He clasped his hands, beat them against his huddled knees.
He would cable friends back in America and have them identify him and vouch for his character. He would borrow some money from them, just enough to get back to America. But whom would he cable? And with aching bitterness in his breast, Harry Wilson came face to face with the horrible realization that nowhere in the world, nowhere in the Solar System, was there a single person who was his friend. There was no one to help him.
He bowed his head in his hands and sobbed, his shoulders jerking spasmodically, the sobs racking his body.
The traveling men stared at him unable to understand. The hostess looked briskly helpless. Wilson knew he looked like a scared fool and he didn't care.
He was scared.
* * * * *
Gregory Manning riffled the sheaf of credit certificates, the wallet, the passport and pile of other papers that lay upon the desk in front of him.
"That closes one little incident," he said grimly. "That takes care of our friend Wilson."
"Maybe you were a bit too harsh with him, Greg," suggested Russell Page.
Greg shook his head. "He was a traitor, the lowest thing alive. He sold the confidence we placed in him. He traded something that was not his to trade. He did it for money and now I've taken that money from him."
He shoved the pile of certificates to one side.
"Now I've got this stuff," he said, "I don't know what to do with it. We don't want to keep it."
"Why not send it to Chambers?" suggested Russ. "He will find the passport and the money on his desk in the morning. Give him something to think about tomorrow."
Scorio snarled at the four men: "I want you to get the thing done right. I don't want bungling. Understand?"
The bulky, flat-faced man with the scar across his cheek shuffled uneasily. "We went over it a dozen times. We know just what to do."
He grinned at Scorio, but the grin was lopsided, more like a sneering grimace. At one time the man had failed to side-step a heat ray and it had left a neat red line drawn across the right cheek, nipped the end of the ear.
"All right, Pete," said Scorio, glaring at the man, "your job is the heavy work, so just keep your mind on it. You've got the two heaters and the kit."
Pete grinned lopsidedly again. "Yeah, my own kit. I can open anything hollow with this rig."
"You got a real job tonight," snarled Scorio. "Two doors and a safe. Sure you can do it?"
"Just leave it to me," Pete growled.
"Chizzy, you're to pilot," Scorio snapped. "Know the coordinates?"
"Sure," said Chizzy, "know them by heart. Do it with my eyes shut."
"Keep your eyes open. We can't have anything go wrong. This is too important. You swoop in at top speed and land on the roof. Stand by the controls and keep a hand on the big heater just in case of trouble. Pete, Max and Reg will go to the lockdoor. Reg will stay there with the buzzer and three drums of ammunition."
He whirled on Reg. "You got that ammunition?"
Reg nodded emphatically. "Four drums of it," he said. "One solid round in the gun. Another drum of solid and two explosive."
"There's a thousand rounds in each drum," snapped Scorio, "but they last only a minute, so do your firing in bursts."
"I ain't handled buzzers all these years without knowing something about them."
"There's only two men there," said Scorio, "and they'll probably be asleep. Come down with your motor dead. The lab roof is thick and the plane landing on those thick tires won't wake them. But be on your guard all the time. Pete and Max will go through the lockdoor into the laboratory and open the safe. Dump all the papers and money and whatever else you find into the bags and then get out fast. Hop into the plane and take off. When you're clear of the building, turn the heaters on it. I want it melted down and the men and stuff inside with it. Don't leave even a button unmelted. Get it?"
* * * * *
"Sure, chief," said Pete. He dusted his hands together.
"Now get going. Beat it."
The four men turned and filed out of the room, through the door leading to the tumbledown warehouse where was hidden the streamlined metal ship. Swiftly they entered it and the ship nosed gently upward, blasting out through a broken, frameless skylight, climbing up and up, over the gleaming spires of New York.
Back in the room hung with steel-cloth curtains, alone, Scorio lit a cigarette and chuckled. "They won't have a chance," he said.
"Who won't?" asked a tiny voice from almost in front of him.
"Why, Manning and Page ..." said Scorio, and then stopped. The fire of the match burned down and scorched his fingers. He dropped it. "Who asked that?" he roared.
"I did," said the piping voice.
Scorio looked down. A three-inch man sat on a matchbox on the desk!
"Who are you?" the gangster shouted.
"I'm Manning," said the little man. "The one you're going to kill. Don't you remember?"
"Damn you!" shrieked Scorio. His hand flipped open a drawer and pulled out a flame pistol. The muzzle of the pistol came up and blasted. Screwed down to its smallest diameter, the gun's aim was deadly. A straight lance of flame, no bigger than a pencil, streamed out, engulfed the little man, bored into the table top. The box of matches exploded with a gush of red that was a dull flash against the blue blaze of the gun.
But the figure of the man stood within the flame! Stood there and waved an arm at Scorio. The piping voice came out of the heart of the gun's breath.
"Maybe I'd better get a bit smaller. Make me harder to hit. More sport that way."
* * * * *
Scorio's finger lifted from the trigger. The flame snapped off. Laboriously climbing out of the still smoking furrow left in the oaken table top was Greg Manning, not more than an inch tall now.
The gangster laid the gun on the table, stepped closer, warily. With the palm of a mighty hand he swatted viciously at the little figure.
"I got you now!"
But the figure seemed to ooze upright between his fingers, calmly stepped off his hand onto the table. And now it began to grow. Watching it, Scorio saw it grow to six inches and there it stopped.
"What are you?" he breathed.
"I told you," said the little image. "I'm Gregory Manning. The man you set out to kill. I've watched every move you've made and known everything you planned."
"But that isn't possible," protested Scorio. "You're out on the West Coast. This is some trick. I'm just seeing things."
"You aren't seeing anything imaginary. I'm really here, in this room with you. I could lift my finger and kill you if I wished ... and maybe I should."
Scorio stepped back a pace.
"But I'm not going to," said Manning. "I have something better saved for you. Something more appropriate."
"You can't touch me!"
"Look," said Manning sternly. He pointed his finger at a chair. It suddenly grew cloudy, became a wisp of trailing smoke, was gone.
The gangster backed away, eyes glued to the spot where the chair had vanished.
"Look here," piped the little voice. Scorio jerked his head around and looked.
The chair was in Manning's hand. A tiny chair, but the very one that had disappeared from the room a moment before.
"Watch out!" warned Manning, and heaved the chair. The tiny chair seemed to float in the air. Then with a rush it gathered speed, grew larger. In a split second it was a full-sized chair and it was hurtling straight at the gangster's head.
With a strangled cry Scorio threw up his arms. The chair crashed into him, bowled him over.
"Now do you believe me?" demanded Manning.
Scrambling to his feet, Scorio gibbered madly, for the six-inch figure was growing. He became as large as the average man, and then much larger. His head cleared the high ceiling by scant inches. His mighty hands reached out for the gangster.
Scorio scuttled away on hands and knees, yelping with terror.
Powerful hands seemed to seize and lift him. The room was blotted out. The Earth was gone. He was in a place where there was nothing. No light, no heat, no gravitation. For one searing, blasting second he seemed to be floating in strangely suspended animation. Then with a jolt he became aware of new surroundings.
He blinked his eyes and looked around. He was in a great laboratory that hummed faintly with the suggestion of terrific power, that smelled of ozone and seemed filled with gigantic apparatus.
Two men stood in front of him.
He staggered back.
"Manning!" he gasped.
Manning grinned savagely at him. "Sit down, Scorio. You won't have long to wait. Your boys will be along any minute now."
* * * * *
Chizzy crouched over the controls, his eyes on the navigation chart. Only the thin screech of parted air disturbed the silence of the ship. The high scream and the slow, precise snack-snack of cards as Reg and Max played a game of double solitaire with a cold, emotionless precision.
The plane was near the stratosphere, well off the traveled air lanes. It was running without lights, but the cabin bulbs were on, carefully shielded.
Pete sat in the co-pilot's chair beside Chizzy. His blank, expressionless eyes stared straight ahead.
"I don't like this job," he complained.
"Why not?" asked Chizzy.
"Page and Manning aren't the kind of guys a fellow had ought to be fooling around with. They ain't just chumps. You fool with characters like them and you got trouble."
Chizzy growled at him disgustedly, bent to his controls.
Straight ahead was a thin sliver of a dying Moon that gave barely enough illumination to make out the great, rugged blocks of the mountains, like dark, shadowy brush-strokes on a newly started canvas.
Pete shuddered. There was something about the thin, watery moonlight, and those brush-stroke hills....
"It seems funny up here," he said.
"Hell," growled Chizzy, "you're going soft in your old age."
Silence fell between the two. The snack-snack of the cards continued.
"You ain't got nothing to be afraid of," Chizzy told Pete. "This tub is the safest place in the world. She's overpowered a dozen times. She can outfly anything in the air. She's rayproof and bulletproof and bombproof. Nothing can hurt us."
But Pete wasn't listening. "That moonlight makes a man see things. Funny things. Like pictures in the night."
"You're balmy," declared Chizzy.
Pete started out of his seat. His voice gurgled in his throat. He pointed with a shaking finger out into the night.
"Look!" he yelled "Look!"
Chizzy rose out of his seat ... and froze in sudden terror.
Straight ahead of the ship, etched in silvery moon-lines against the background of the star-sprinkled sky, was a grim and terrible face.
It was as big and hard as a mountain.
The ship was silent now. Even the whisper of the cards had stopped. Reg and Max were on their feet, startled by the cries of Pete and Chizzy.
"It's Manning!" shrieked Pete. "He's watching us!"
Chizzy's hand whipped out like a striking snake toward the controls and, as he grasped them, his face went deathly white. For the controls were locked! They resisted all the strength he threw against them and the ship still bore on toward that mocking face that hung above the Earth.
"Do something!" screamed Max. "You damn fool, do something!"
"I can't," moaned Chizzy. "The ship is out of control."
It seemed impossible. That ship was fast and tricky and it had reserve power far beyond any possible need. It handled like a dream ... it was tops in aircraft. But there was no doubt that some force more powerful than the engines and controls of the ship itself had taken over.
"Manning's got us!" squealed Pete. "We came out to get him and now he has us instead!"
The craft was gaining speed. The whining shriek of the air against its plates grew thinner and higher. Listening, one could almost feel and hear the sucking of the mighty power that pulled it at an ever greater pace through the tenuous atmosphere.
The face was gone from the sky now. Only the Moon remained, the Moon and the brush-stroke mountains far below.
Then, suddenly, the speed was slowing and the ship glided downward, down into the saw-teeth of the mountains.
"We're falling!" yelled Max, and Chizzy growled at him.
But they weren't falling. The ship leveled off and floated, suspended above a sprawling laboratory upon a mountain top.
"That's Manning's laboratory," whispered Pete in terror-stricken tones.
The levers yielded unexpectedly. Chizzy flung the power control over, drove the power of the accumulator bank, all the reserve, into the engines. The ship lurched, but did not move. The engines whined and screamed in torture. The cabin's interior was filled with a blast of heat, the choking odor of smoke and hot rubber. The heavy girders of the frame creaked under the mighty forward thrust of the engines ... but the ship stood still, frozen above that laboratory in the hills.
Chizzy, hauling back the lever, turned around, pale. His hand began clawing for his heat gun. Then he staggered back. For there were only two men in the cabin with him—Reg and Max. Pete had gone!
"He just disappeared," Max jabbered. "He was standing there in front of us. Then all at once he seemed to fade, as if he was turning into smoke. Then he was gone."
* * * * *
Something had descended about Pete. There was no sound, no light, no heat. He had no sense of weight. It was as if, suddenly, his mind had become disembodied.
Seeing and hearing and awareness came back to him as one might turn on a light. From the blackness and the eventless existence of a split second before, he was catapulted into a world of light and sound.
It was a world that hummed with power, that was ablaze with light, a laboratory that seemed crammed with mighty banks of massive machinery, lighted by great globes of creamy brightness, shedding an illumination white as sunlight, yet shadowless as the light of a cloudy day.
Two men stood in front of him, looking at him, one with a faint smile on his lips, the other with lines of fear etched across his face. The smiling one was Gregory Manning and the one who was afraid was Scorio!
With a start, Pete snatched his pistol from its holster. The sights came up and lined on Manning as he pressed the trigger. But the lancing heat that sprang from the muzzle of the gun never reached Manning. It seemed to strike an obstruction less than a foot away. It mushroomed with a flare of scorching radiance that drove needles of agony into the gangster's body.
His finger released its pressure and the gun dangled limply from his hand. He moaned with the pain of burns upon his unprotected face and hands. He beat feebly at tiny, licking blazes that ran along his clothing.
Manning was still smiling at him.
"You can't reach me, Pete," he said. "You can only hurt yourself. You're enclosed within a solid wall of force that matter cannot penetrate."
A voice came from one corner of the room: "I'll bring Chizzy down next."
Pete whirled around and saw Russell Page for the first time. The scientist sat in front of a great control board, his swift, skillful fingers playing over the banks of keys, his eyes watching the instrument and the screen that slanted upward from the control banks.
Pete felt dizzy as he stared at the screen. He could see the interior of the ship he had been yanked from a moment before. He could see his three companions, talking excitedly, frightened by his disappearance.
* * * * *
His eyes flicked away from the screen, looked up through the skylight above him. Outlined against the sky hung the ship. At the nose and stern, two hemispheres of blue-white radiance fitted over the metal framework, like the jaws of a powerful vise, holding the craft immovable.
His gaze went back to the screen again, just in time to see Chizzy disappear. It was as if the man had been a mere figure chalked upon a board ... and then someone had taken a sponge and wiped him out.
Russ's fingers were flying over the keys. His thumb reached out and tripped a lever. There was a slight hum of power.
And Chizzy stood beside him.
Chizzy did not pull his gun. He whimpered and cowered within the invisible cradle of force.
"You're yellow," Pete snarled at him, but Chizzy only covered his eyes with his arms.
"Look, boss," said Pete, addressing Scorio, "what are you doing here? We left you back in New York."
Scorio did not answer. He merely glared. Pete lapsed into silence, watching.
* * * * *
Manning stood poised before the captives, rocking back and forth on his heels.
"A nice bag for one evening," he told Russ.
Russ grinned and stoked up his pipe.
Manning turned to the gangster chief. "What do you think we ought to do with these fellows? We can't leave them in those force shells too long because they'll die for lack of air. And we can't let them loose because they might use their guns on us."
"Listen, Manning," Scorio rasped hoarsely, "just name your price to let us loose. We'll do anything you want."
Manning drew his mouth down. "I can't think of a thing. We just don't seem to have any use for you."
"Then what in hell," the gangster asked shakily, "are you going to do with us?"
"You know," said Manning, "I may be a bit old-fashioned along some lines. Maybe I am. I just don't like the idea of killing people for money. I don't like people stealing things other people have worked hard to get. I don't like thieves and murderers and thugs corrupting city governments, taking tribute on every man, woman and child in our big cities."
"But look here, Manning," pleaded Scorio, "we'd be good citizens if we just had a chance."
Manning's face hardened. "You sent these men here to kill us tonight, didn't you?"
"Well, not exactly. Stutsman kind of wanted you killed, but I told the boys just to get the stuff in the safe and never mind killing you. I said to them that you were pretty good eggs and I didn't like to bump you off, see?"
"I see," said Manning.
He turned his back on Scorio and started to walk away. The gangster chief came half-way out of his chair, and as he did so, Russ reached out a single finger and tapped a key. Scorio screamed and beat with his fists against the wall of force that had suddenly formed about him. That single tap on the great keyboard had sprung a trap, had been the one factor necessary to bring into being a force shell already spun and waiting for him.
Manning did not even turn around at Scorio's scream. He slowly paced his way down the line of standing gangsters. He stopped in front of Pete and looked at him.
"Pete," he said, "you've sprung a good many prisons, haven't you?"
"There ain't a jug in the System that can hold me," Pete boasted, "and that's a fact."
"I believe there's one that could," Greg told him. "One that no man has ever escaped from, or ever will."
"What's that?" demanded Pete.
"The Vulcan Fleet," said Greg.
Pete looked into the eyes of the man before him and read the purpose in those eyes. "Don't send me there! Send me any place but there!"
Greg turned to Russ and nodded. Russ's fingers played their tune of doom upon the keyboard. His thumb depressed a lever. With a roar five gigantic material energy engines screamed with thrumming power.
The engines roared with thunderous throats, a roar that seemed to drown the laboratory in solid waves of sound. A curious refractive effect developed about the straining hulks as space near them bent under their lashing power.
Months ago Russ and Greg had learned a better way of transmitting power than by metal bars or through conducting beams. Beams of such power as were developing now would have smashed atoms to protons and electrons. Through a window in the side of the near engine, Greg could see the iron ingot used as fuel dwindling under the sucking force.
* * * * *
The droning died and only a hum remained.
"He's in a prison now he'll never get out of," said Greg calmly. "I wonder what they'll think when they find him, dressed in civilian clothes and carrying a heat gun. They'll clap him into a photo-cell and keep him there until they investigate. When they find out who he is, he won't get out—he has enough unfinished prison sentences to last a century or two."
For Pete was on one of the Vulcan Fleet ships, the hell-ships of the prison fleet. There were confined only the most vicious and the most depraved of the Solar System's criminals. He would be forced to work under the flaming whip-lashes of a Sun that hurled such intense radiations that mere spacesuits were no protection at all. The workers on the Vulcan Fleet ships wore suits that were in reality photo-cells which converted the deadly radiations into electric power. For electric power can be disposed of where heat cannot.
Quailing inside his force shell, Scorio saw his men go, one by one. Saw them lifted and whisked away, out through the depths of space by the magic touch upon the keyboards. With terror-widened eyes he watched Russ set up the equations, saw him trip the activating lever, saw the men disappear, listened to the thunderous rumbling of the mighty engines.
Chizzy went to the Outpost, the harsh prison on Neptune's satellite. Reg went to Titan, clear across the Solar System, where men in the infamous penal colony labored in the frigid wastes of that moon of Saturn. Max went to Vesta, the asteroid prison, which long had been the target of reformers, who claimed that on it 50 per cent of the prisoners died of boredom and fear.
Max was gone and only Scorio remained.
"Stutsman's the one who got us into this," wailed the gangster. "He's the man you want to get. Not me. Not the boys. Stutsman."
"I promise you," said Greg, "that we'll take care of Stutsman."
"And Chambers, too," chattered Scorio. "But you can't touch Chambers. You wouldn't dare."
"We're not worrying about Chambers," Greg told him. "We're not worrying about anyone. You're the one who had better start doing some."
"Let me tell you about a place on Venus," said Greg. "It's in the center of a big swamp that stretches for hundreds of miles in every direction. It's a sort of mountain rising out of the swamp. And the swamp is filled with beasts and reptiles of every kind. Ravenous things, lusting for blood. But they don't climb the mountain. A man, if he stayed on the mountain, would be safe. There's food there. Roots and berries and fruits and even small animals one could kill. A man might go hungry for a while, but soon he'd find the things to eat.
"But he'd be alone. No one ever goes near that mountain. I am the only man who ever set foot on it. Perhaps no one ever will again. At night you hear the screaming and the crying of the things down in swamp, but you mustn't pay any attention to them."
* * * * *
Scorio's eyes widened, staring. "You won't send me there!"
"You'll find my campfires," Greg told him, "if the rain hasn't washed them away. It rains a lot. So much and so drearily that you'll want to leave that mountain and walk down into the swamp, of your own free will, and let the monsters finish you."
Scorio sat dully. He did not move. Horror glazed his eyes.
Greg signed to Russ. Russ, pipe clenched between his teeth, reached out his fingers for the keys. The engines droned.
Manning walked slowly to a television control, sat down in the chair and flipped over a lever. A face stared out of the screen. It was strangely filled with anger and a sort of half-fear.
"You watched it, didn't you, Stutsman?" Greg asked.
Stutsman nodded. "I watched. You can't get away with it, Manning. You can't take the law into your own hands that way."
"You and Chambers have been taking the law into your hands for years," said Greg. "All I did tonight was clear the Earth of some vermin. Every one of those men was guilty of murder ... and worse."
"What did you gain by it?" asked Stutsman.
Greg gave a bitter laugh. "I convinced you, Stutsman," he said, "that it isn't so easy to kill me. I think it'll be some time before you try again. Better luck next time."
He flipped the switch and turned about in the chair.
Russ jerked his thumb at the skylight. "Might as well finish the ship now."
An instant later there was a fierce, intolerably blue-white light that lit the mountains for many miles. For just an instant it flared, exploding into millions of brilliant, harmless sparks that died into darkness before they touched the ground. The gangster ship was destroyed beyond all tracing, disintegrated. The metal and quartz of which it was made were simply gone.
Russ brought his glance back from the skylight, looked at his friend. "Stutsman will do everything he can to wipe us out. By tomorrow morning the Interplanetary machine will be rolling. With only one purpose—to crush us."
"That's right," Greg agreed, "but we're ready for them now. Our ship left the Belgium factories several hours ago. The Comet towed it out in space and it's waiting for us now. In a few hours the Comet will be here to pick us up."
"War in space," said Russ, musingly. "That's what it will be."
"Chambers and his gang won't fight according to any rules. There'll be no holds barred, no more feeble attempts like the one they tried tonight. From now on we need a base that simply can't be located."
"The ship," said Russ.
The Invincible hung in space, an empty, airless hull, the largest thing afloat.
Chartered freighters, leaving their ports from distant parts of the Earth, had converged upon her hours before, had unloaded crated apparatus, storing it in the yawning hull. Then they had departed.
Now the sturdy little space-yacht, Comet, was towing the great ship out into space, 500,000 miles beyond the orbit of the Moon. Slowly the hull was being taken farther and farther away from possible discovery.
Work on the installation of the apparatus had started almost as soon as the Comet had first tugged at the ponderous mass. Leaving only a skeleton crew in charge of the Comet, the rest of the selected crew had begun the assembly of the mighty machines which would transform the Invincible into a thing of unimaginable power and speed.
The doors were closed and sealed and the air, already stored in the ship's tanks, was released. The slight acceleration of the Comet's towing served to create artificial weight for easier work, but not enough to handicap the shifting of the heavier pieces of apparatus. An electric cable was run back from the little yacht and the Invincible took her first breath of life.
The work advanced rapidly, for every man was more than a mere engineer or spacebuster. They were a selected crew, the men who had helped to make the name of Gregory Manning famous throughout the Solar System.
First the engines were installed, then the two groups of five massive power plants and the single smaller engine as an auxiliary supply plant for the light, heat, air.
The accumulators of the Comet were drained in a single tremendous surge and the auxiliary generator started. It in turn awoke to life the other power plants, to leave them sleeping, idling, but ready for instant use to develop power such as man never before had dreamed of holding and molding to his will.
Then, with the gigantic tools these engines supplied ... tools of pure force and strange space fields ... the work was rapidly completed. The power boards were set in place, welded in position by a sudden furious blast of white hot metal and as equally sudden freezing, to be followed by careful heating and recooling till the beryl-steel reached its maximum strength. Over the hull swarmed spacesuited men, using that strange new power, heat-treating the stubborn metal in a manner never before possible.
The generators were charging the atoms of the ship's beryl-steel hide with the same hazy force that had trapped and held the gangster ship in a mighty vise. Thus charged, no material thing could penetrate them. The greatest meteor would be crushed to drifting dust without so much as scarring that wall of mighty force ... meteors traveling with a speed and penetrative power that no gun-hurled projectile could ever hope to attain.
Riding under her own power, driven by the concentration of gravitational lines, impregnable to all known forces, containing within her hull the secrets of many strange devices, the Invincible wheeled in space.
* * * * *
Russell Page lounged in a chair before the control manual of the tele-transport machine. He puffed placidly at his pipe and looked out through the great sweep of the vision panel. Out there was the black of space and the glint of stars, the soft glow of distant Jupiter.
Greg Manning was hunched over the navigation controls, sharp eyes watching the panorama of space.
Russ looked at him and grinned. On Greg's face there was a smile, but about his eyes were lines of alert watchfulness and thought. Greg Manning was in his proper role at the controls of a ship such as the Invincible, a man who never stepped backward from danger, whose spirit hungered for the vast stretches of void that lay between the worlds.
Russ leaned back, blowing smoke toward the high-arched control room ceiling.
They had burned their bridges behind them. The laboratory back in the mountains was destroyed. Locked against any possible attack by a sphere of force until the tele-transport had lifted from it certain items of equipment, it had been melted into a mass of molten metal that formed a pool upon the mountain top, that ran in gushing, fiery ribbons down the mountain side, flowing in gleaming curtains over precipices. It would have been easier to have merely disintegrated in one bursting flash of energy, but that would have torn apart the entire mountain range, overwhelmed and toppled cities hundreds of miles away, dealt Earth a staggering blow.
A skeleton crew had taken the Comet back to Earth and landed it on Greg's estate. Once again the tele-transport had reached out, wrapped its fingers around the men who stepped from the little ship. In less than the flash of a strobe light, they had been snatched back to the Invincible, through a million miles of space, through the very walls of the ship itself. One second they had been on Earth, the next second they were in the control room of the Invincible, grinning, saluting Greg Manning, trotting back to their quarters in the engine rooms.
* * * * *
Russ stared out at space, puffed at his pipe, considering.
A thousand years ago men had held what they called tournaments. Armored knights rode out into the jousting grounds and broke their lances to prove which was the better man. Today there was to be another tournament. This ship was to be their charger, and the gauntlet had been flung to Spencer Chambers and Interplanetary Power. And all of space was to be the jousting grounds.
This was war. War without trappings, without fanfare, but bitter war upon which depended the future of the Solar System. A war to break the grip of steel that Interplanetary accumulators had gained upon the planets, to shatter the grim dream of empire held by one man, a war for the right to give to the people of the worlds a source of power that would forever unshackle them.
Back in those days, a thousand years ago, men had built a system of government that historians called the feudal system. By this system certain men were called lords or barons and other titles. They held the power of life and death over the men "under" them.
This was what Spencer Chambers was trying to do with the Solar System ... what he would do if someone did not stop him.
* * * * *
Russ bit viciously on his pipe-stem.
The Earth, the Solar System, never could revert to that ancient way of government. The proud people spawned on the Earth, swarming outward to the other planets, must never have to bow their heads as minions to an overlord.
The thrum of power was beating in his brain, the droning, humming power from the engine rooms that would blast, once and forever, the last threat of dictatorship upon any world. The power that would free a people, that would help them on and up and outward to the great destiny that was theirs.
And this had come because, wondering, groping, curiously, he had sought to heat a slender thread of imperm wire within Force Field 348, because another man had listened and had made available his fortune to continue the experiments. Blind luck and human curiosity ... perhaps even the madness of a human dream ... and from those things had come this great ship, this mighty power, these many bulking pieces of equipment that would perform wonders never guessed at less than a year ago.
Greg Manning swiveled his chair. "Well, Russ, we're ready to begin. Let's get Wrail first."
Russ nodded silently, his mind still half full of fleeting thought. Absent-mindedly he knocked out his pipe and pocketed it, swung around to the manual of the televisor. His fingers reached out and tapped a pattern.
Callisto appeared within the screen, leaped upward at them. Then the surface of the frozen little world seemed to rotate swiftly and a dome appeared.
The televisor dived through the dome, sped through the city, straight for a penthouse apartment.
Ben Wrail sat slumped in a chair. A newspaper was crumpled at his feet. In his lap lay a mangled dead cigar.
"Greg!" yelled Russ. "Greg, there's something wrong!"
Greg leaped forward, stared at the screen. Russ heard his smothered cry of rage.
In Wrail's forehead was a tiny, neatly drilled hole from which a single drop of blood oozed.
"Murdered!" exclaimed Russ.
"Yes, murdered," said Greg, and there was a sudden calmness in his voice.
Russ grasped the televisor control. Ranthoor's streets ran beneath them, curiously silent and deserted. Here and there lay bodies. A few shop windows were smashed. But the only living that stirred was a dog that slunk across the street and into the shadows of an alley.
Swiftly the televisor swung along the streets. Straight into the screen clanked a marching detail of government police, herding before them a half dozen prisoners. The men had their hands bound behind their backs, but they walked with heads held high.
"Revolution," gasped Russ.
"Not a revolution. A purge. Stutsman is clearing the city of all who might be dangerous to him. This will be happening on every other planet where Chambers holds control."
Perspiration ran down Russ's forehead and dripped into his eyes as he manipulated the controls.
"Stutsman is striking first," said Greg, calmly ... far too calmly. "He's consolidating his position, possibly on the pretense that plots have been discovered."
A few buildings were bombed. A line of bodies were crumpled at the foot of a steel wall, marking the spot where men had been lined up and mowed down with one sweeping blast from a heater.
Russ turned the television controls. "Let's see about Venus and Mars."
The scenes in Ranthoor were duplicated in Sandebar on Mars, in New Chicago, the capital of Venus. Everywhere Stutsman had struck ... everywhere the purge was wiping out in blood every person who might revolt against the Chambers-dictated governments. Throughout the Solar System violence was on the march, iron-shod boots trampling the rights of free men to tighten the grip of Interplanetary.
* * * * *
In the control room of the Invincible the two men stared at one another.
"There's one man we need," said Greg. "One man, if he's still alive, and I think he is."
"Who is that?" asked Russ.
"John Moore Mallory," said Greg.
"Where is he?"
"I don't know. He was imprisoned in Ranthoor, but Stutsman transferred him some place else. Possibly to one of the prison fleet."
"If we had the records of the Callisto prison," suggested Russ, "we could find out."
"If we had the records ..."
"We'll get them!" Russ said.
He swung back to the keyboard again.
A moment later the administration offices of the prison were on the screen.
The two men searched the vision plate.
"The records are most likely in that vault," said Russ. "And the vault is locked."
"Don't worry about the lock," snapped Greg. "Just bring the whole damn thing here—vault and records and all."
Russ nodded grimly. His thumb tripped the tele-transport control and from the engine rooms came a drone of power. In Ranthoor Prison, great bands of force wrapped themselves around the vault, clutching it, enfolding it within a sphere of power. Back in the Invincible the engines screamed and the vault was ripped out of the solid steel wall as easily as a man might rip a button from his shirt.
John Moore Mallory sat on the single metal chair within his cell and pressed his face against the tiny vision port. For hours he had sat there, staring out into the blackness of space.
There was bitterness in John Moore Mallory's soul, a terrible and futile bitterness. So long as he had remained within the Ranthoor prison, there had always been a chance of escape. But now, aboard the penal ship, there was no hope. Nothing but the taunting reaches of space, the mocking pinpoints of the stars, the hooting laughter of the engines.
Sometimes he had thought he would go mad. The everlasting routine, the meaningless march of hours. The work period, the sleep period ... the work period, the sleep period ... endless monotony, an existence without a purpose. Men buried alive in space.
"John Moore Mallory," said a voice.
Mallory heard, but he did not stir. An awful thought crossed his mind. Now he was hearing voices calling his name!
"John Mallory," said the voice again.
Mallory slowly turned about and as he turned he started from his chair.
A man stood in the cell! A man he had never seen before, who had come silently, for there had been no screech of opening door.
"You are John Moore Mallory, aren't you?" asked the man.
"Yes, I am Mallory. Who are you?"
"Gregory Manning," said Mallory wonderingly. "I've heard of you. You're the man who rescued the Pluto Expedition. But why are you here? How did you get in?"
"I came to take you away with me," said Greg. "Back to Callisto. Back to any place you want to go."
Mallory flattened himself against the partition, his face white with disbelief. "But I'm in a prison ship. I'm not free to go and come as I please."
Greg chuckled. "You are free to go and come as you please from now on," he said. "Even prison ships can't hold you."
"You're mad," whispered Mallory. "Either you're mad or I am. You're a dream. I'll wake up and find you gone."
Manning stood in silence, looking at the man. Mallory bore the marks of prison on him. His eyes were haunted and his rugged face was pinched and thin.
"Listen closely, Mallory," said Greg softly. "You aren't going mad and I'm not mad. You aren't seeing things. You aren't hearing things. You're actually talking to me."
* * * * *
There was no change in the other's face.
"Mallory," Greg went on, "I have what you've always needed—means of generating almost unlimited energy at almost no cost, the secret of the energy of matter. A secret that will smash Interplanetary, that will free the Solar System from Spencer Chambers. But I can't make that secret available to the people until Chambers is crushed, until I'm sure that he can't take it from me. And to do that I need your help."
Mallory's face lost its expression of bewilderment, suddenly lighted with realization. But his voice was harsh and bitter.
"You came too late. I can't help you. Remember, I'm in a prison ship from which no one can escape. You have to do what you can ... you must do what you can. But I can't be with you."
Manning strode forward. "You don't get the idea at all. I said I'd get you out of here and I'm going to. I could pick up this ship and put it wherever I wanted. But I don't want to. I just want you."
Mallory stared at him.
"Just don't be startled," said Greg. "Something will happen soon. Get ready for it."
Feet drummed on the metal corridor outside.
"Hey, you, pipe down!" yelled the voice of the guard. "You know there's no talking allowed now. Go to sleep."
"That's the guard," Mallory whispered fiercely. "They'll stop us."
Greg grinned viciously. "No, they won't."
* * * * *
The guard came into view through the grilled door.
"So it's you, Mallory ..." he began, stopping in amazement. "Hey, you!" he shouted at Greg. "Who are you? How did you get in that cell?"
Greg flipped a hand in greeting. "Pleasant evening, isn't it?"
The guard grabbed for the door, but he did not reach the bars. Some force stopped him six inches away. It could not be seen, could not be felt, but his straining against it accomplished nothing.
"Mallory and I are leaving," Greg told the guard. "We don't like it here. Too stuffy."
The guard lifted a whistle and blew a blast. Feet pounded outside. A prisoner yelled from one of the cells. Another catcalled. Instantly the ship was in an uproar. The convicts took up the yammering, shaking the bars on their doors.
"Let's get started," Greg said to Mallory. "Hold tight."
Blackness engulfed Mallory. He felt a peculiar twisting wrench. And then he was standing in the control room of a ship and Gregory Manning and another man were smiling at him. White light poured down from a cluster of globes. Somewhere in the ship engines purred with the hum of power. The air was fresh and pure, making him realize how foul and stale the air of the prison ship had been.
Greg held out his hand. "Welcome to our ship."
Mallory gripped his hand, blinking in the light. "Where am I?"
"You are on the Invincible, five million miles off Callisto."
"But were you here all the time?" asked Mallory. "Were you in my cell back there or weren't you?"
"I was really in your cell," Greg assured him. "I could have just thrown my image there, but I went there personally to get you. Russ Page, here, sent me out. When I gave him the signal, he brought both of us back."
"I'm glad you're with us," Russ said. "Perhaps you'd like a cup of coffee, something to eat."
Mallory stammered. "Why, I really would." He laughed. "Rations weren't too good in the prison ship."
They sat down while Russ rang the galley for coffee and sandwiches.
Crisply, Greg informed Mallory of the situation.
"We want to start manufacturing these engines as soon as possible," he explained, "but I haven't even dared to patent them. Chambers would simply buy out the officials if I tried it on Earth, delay the patent for a few days and then send through papers copied from ours. You know what he'd do with it if he got the patent rights. He'd scrap it and the old accumulator business would go on as always. If I tried it on any other world, with any other government, he'd see that laws were passed to block us. He'd probably instruct the courts to rule against the manufacture of the engines on the grounds that they were dangerous."
Mallory's face was grave. "There's only one answer," he said. "With the situation on the worlds, with this purge you told me about, there's only one thing to do. We have to act at once. Every minute we wait gives Stutsman just that much longer to tighten his hold."
"And that answer?" asked Russ.
"Revolution," said Mallory. "Simultaneous revolution in the Jovian confederacy, on Mars and Venus. Once free, the planets will stay free with your material energy engines. Spencer Chambers and his idea of Solar System domination will be too late."
* * * * *
Greg's forehead was wrinkled in thought, his facial muscles tensed.
"First thing to do," he said, "is to contact all the men we can find ... men we can rely on to help us carry out our plans. We'll need more televisor machines, more teleport machines, some for use on Mars and Venus, others for the Jovian moons. We will have to bring the men here to learn to operate them. It'll take a few days. We'll get some men to work on new machines right away."
He started to rise from his chair, but at that moment the coffee and sandwiches arrived.
Greg grinned. "We may as well eat first."
Mallory looked grateful and tried to keep from wolfing the food. The others pretended not to notice.
* * * * *
Grim hours followed, an unrelenting search over two planets and four moons for men whom Mallory considered loyal to his cause—men willing to risk their lives to throw off the yoke of Interplanetary.
They were hard to find. Many of them were dead, victims of the purge. The others were in hiding and word of them was difficult to get.
But slowly, one by one, they were ferreted out, the plan explained to them, and then, by means of the tele-transport, they were brought to the Invincible.
Hour after hour men worked, stripped to their waists, in the glaring inferno of terrible force fields, fashioning new television units. As fast as the sets were constructed, they were placed in operation.
The work went faster than could be expected, yet it was maddeningly slow.
For with the passing of each hour, Stutsman clamped tighter his iron grip on the planets. Concentration camps were filled to overflowing. Buildings were bombed and burned. Murders and executions were becoming too common to be news.
Then suddenly there was a new development.
"Greg, Craven has found something!" Russ cried. "I can't get him!"
Supervising the installation of a new televisor set, Greg spun around. "What's that?"
"Craven! I can't reach him. He's blocking me out!"
Greg helped, but the apparatus was unable to enter the Interplanetary building in New York. Certain other portions of the city adjacent to the building also were blanketed out. In all the Solar System, the Interplanetary building was the only place they could not enter, except the Sun itself.
Craven had developed a field from which their field shied off. The televisor seemed to roll off it like a drop of mercury. That definitely ended all spying on Craven and Chambers.
Russ mopped his brow, sucked at his dead pipe.
"Light penetrates it," he said. "Matter penetrates it, electricity, all ordinary forces. But this field won't. It's ... well, whatever Craven has is similarly dissimilar. The same thing of opposite nature. It repels our field, but doesn't affect anything else. That means he has analyzed our fields. We have Wilson to thank for this."
Greg nodded gravely. "There's just one thing to be thankful for," he declared. "He probably isn't any nearer our energy than he was before. But now we can't watch him. And that field of his shows that he has tremendous power of some sort."
"We can't watch him, but we can follow him," corrected Russ. "He can't shake us. None of them can. The mechanical shadow will take care of that. I have one for Craven with a bit of 'bait' off his spectacles and he'll keep those spectacles, never fear. He's blind as a bat without them. And we can track Chambers with his ring."
"That's right," agreed Greg, "but we've got to speed up. Craven is getting under way now. If he does this, he can do something else. Something that will really hurt us. The man's clever ... too damn clever."
A miracle came to pass in Ranthoor when a man for whom all hope had been abandoned suddenly appeared within the city's streets. But he appeared to be something not quite earthly, for he did not have the solidity of a man. He was pale, like a wraith from out of space, and one could see straight through him, yet he still had all the old mannerisms and tricks.
In frightened, awe-stricken whispers the word was spread ... the spirit of John Moore Mallory had come back to the city once again. He bulked four times the height of a normal man and there was that singular ghostliness about him. From where he had come, or how, or why, no one seemed to know.
But when he reached the steps of the federation's administration building and walked straight through a line of troopers that suddenly massed to bar his way, and when he turned on those steps and spoke to the people who had gathered, there was none to doubt that at last a sign had come. The sign that now, if ever, was the time to avenge the purge. Now the time to take vengeance for the blood that flowed in gutters, for the throaty chortling of the flame guns that had snuffed out lives against a broad steel wall.
Standing on the steps, shadowy but plainly visible, John Moore Mallory talked to the people in the square below, and his voice was the voice they remembered. They saw him toss his black mane of hair, they saw his clenched fist raised in terrible anger, they heard the boom of the words he spoke.
Like a shrilling alarm the words spread through the city, reverberating from the dome, seeking out those who were in hiding. From every corner of the city, from its deepest cellars and its darkest alleys, poured out a mass of humanity that surrounded the capitol and blackened the square and the converging streets with a mob that shrieked its hatred, bellowed its anger.
"Power!" thundered the mighty shadow on the steps. "Power to burn! Power to give away. Power to heat the dome, to work your mines, to drive your spaceships!"
"Power!" answered the voice of the crowd. "Power!" It sounded like a battle cry.
"No more accumulators," roared the towering image. "Never again need you rely on Spencer Chambers for your power. Callisto is yours. Ranthoor is yours."
The black crowd surged forward, reached the steps and started to climb, wild cheers in their throat, the madness of victory in their eyes. Up the steps came men with nothing but bare hands, screaming women, jeering children.
Officers snapped orders at the troops that lined the steps, but the troopers, staring into the awful, raging maw of that oncoming crowd, dropped their guns and fled, back into the capitol building, with the mob behind them, shrilling blood lust and long-awaited vengeance.
* * * * *
Out of the red and yellow wilderness of the deserts, a man came to Sandebar on Mars. He had long been thought dead. The minions of the government had announced that he was dead. But he had been in hiding for six years.
His beard was long and gray, his eyes were curtained by hardship, his white hair hung about his shoulders and he was clothed in the tattered leather trappings of the spaceways.
But men remembered him.
Tom Brown had lead the last revolt against the Martian government, an ill-starred revolt that ended almost before it started when the troopers turned loose the heavy heaters and swept the streets with washing waves of flame.
When he climbed to the base of a statue in Techor Park to address the crowd that gathered, the police shouted for him to come down and he disregarded them. They climbed the statue to reach him and their hands went through him.
Tom Brown stood before the people, in plain view, and spoke, but he wasn't there!
Other things happened in Sandebar that day. A voice spoke out of thin air, a voice that told the people the reign of Interplanetary was over. It told of a mighty new source of power. Power that would cost almost nothing. Power that would make the accumulators unnecessary ... would make them out of date. A voice that said the people need no longer submit to the yoke of Spencer Chambers' government in order to obtain the power they needed.
There was no one there ... no one visible at all. And yet that voice went on and on. A great crowd gathered, listening, cheering. The police tried to break it up and failed. The troops were ordered out and the people fought them until the voice told them to disband peaceably and go to their homes.
Throughout Mars it was the same.
In a dozen places in Sandebar the voice spoke. It spoke in a dozen places, out of empty air, in Malacon and Alexon and Adebron.
Tom Brown, vanishing into the air after his speech was done, reappeared a few minutes later in Adebron and there the police, warned of what had happened in Sandebar, opened fire upon him when he stood on a park bench to address the people. But the flames passed through and did not touch him. Tom Brown, his long white beard covering his chest, his mad eyes flashing, stood in the fiery blast that bellowed from the muzzles of the flame rifles and calmly talked.
* * * * *
The chief of police at New Chicago, Venus, called the police commissioner. "There's a guy out here in the park, just across the street. He's preaching treason. He's telling the people to overthrow the government."
In the ground glass the police commissioner's face grew purple.
"Arrest him," he ordered the chief. "Clap him in the jug. Do you have to call me up every time one of those fiery-eyed boys climbs a soap box? Run him in."
"I can't," said the chief.
The police commissioner seemed ready to explode. "You can't? Why the hell not?"
"Well, you know that hill in the center of the park? Memorial Hill?"
"What has a hill got to do with it?" the commissioner roared.
"He's sitting on top of that hill. He's a thousand feet tall. His head is way up in the sky and his voice is like thunder. How can you arrest anybody like that?"
* * * * *
Everywhere in the System, revolt was flaming. New marching songs rolled out between the worlds, wild marching songs that had the note of anger in them. Weapons were brought out of hiding and polished. New standards were raised in an ever-rising tide against oppression.
Freedom was on the march again. The right of a man to rule himself the way he chose to rule. A new declaration of independence. A Solar Magna Carta.
There were new leaders, led by the old leaders. Led by spirits that marched across the sky. Led by voices that spoke out of the air. Led by signs and symbols and a new-born courage and a great and a deep conviction that right in the end would triumph.
* * * * *
Spencer Chambers glared at Ludwig Stutsman. "This is one time you went too far."
"If you'd given me a free hand before, this wouldn't have been necessary," Stutsman said. "But you were soft. You made me go easy when I should have ground them down. You left the way open for all sorts of plots and schemes and leaders to develop."
The two men faced one another, one the smooth, tawny lion, the other the snarling wolf.
"You've built up hatred, Stutsman," Chambers said. "You are the most hated man in the Solar System. And because of you, they hate me. That wasn't my idea. I needed you because I needed an iron fist, but I needed it to use judiciously. And you have been ruthless. You've used force when conciliation was necessary."
Stutsman sneered openly. "Still that old dream of a benevolent dictatorship. Still figuring yourself a little bronze god to be set up in every household. A dictatorship can't be run that way. You have to let them know you're boss."
Chambers was calm again. "Argument won't do us any good now. The damage is done. Revolt is flaming through all the worlds. We have to do something."
He looked at Craven, who was slouched in a chair beside the desk across which he and Stutsman faced each other.