The Complete Adventures of Lucky Starr

by Isaac Asimov (writing as Paul French)


David Starr, Space Ranger

Isaac Asimov



Preface

Back in the 1950s, I wrote a series of six derring-do novels about David "Lucky" Starr and his battles against malefactors within the Solar System. Each of the six took place in a different region of the system, and in each case I made use of the astronomical facts—as they were then known.

Now, more than a quarter-century later, these novels are being published in new editions; but what a quarter-century it has been! More has been learned about the worlds of our Solar System in this last quarter-century than in all the thousands of years that went before.

DAVID STARR: SPACE RANGER was written in 1951 and at that time, there was still a faint possibility that there were canals on Mars, as had first been reported three-quarters of a century earlier. There was, therefore, a faint possibility that intelligent life existed there, or had existed at one time.

Since then, though, we have sent probes past Mars and around it to take photographs of its surface, and map the entire planet. In 1976, we even landed small laboratories on the Martian surface to test its soil.

There are no canals. There are instead, craters, giant volcanoes and enormous canyons. The atmosphere is only 1 percent as dense as Earth's and is almost entirely carbon dioxide. There is no clear sign of any life at all upon Mars, and the possibility of advanced life upon it, now or ever, seems nil.

If I had written the book today, I would have had to adjust the plot to take all this into account.

I hope my Gentle Readers enjoy the book anyway, as an adventure story, but please don't forget that the advance of science can outdate even the most conscientious science-fiction writer and that my astronomical descriptions are no longer accurate in all respects.

Isaac Asimov


1. The Plum from Mars

David had been waiting patiently for Dr. Henree and, in the meanwhile, enjoying the atmosphere of International City's newest restaurant. This was to be his first real celebration now that he had obtained his degree and qualified for full membership in the Council of Science.

He did not mind waiting. The Cafe Supreme still glistened from the freshly applied chromosilicone paints. The subdued light that spread evenly over the entire dining room had no visible source. At the wall end of David's table was the small, self-glowing cube which contained a tiny three-dimensional replica of the band whose music filled in a soft background. The leader's baton was a half-inch flash of motion and of course the table top itself was of the Sanito type, the ultimate in force-field modernity and, except for the deliberate flicker, quite invisible.

David's calm brown eyes swept the other tables, half-hidden in their alcoves, not out of boredom, but because people interested him more than any of the scientific gadgetry that the Cafe Supreme could gather. Tri-television and force-fields were wonders ten years before, yet were already accepted by all. People, on the other hand, did not change, but even now, ten thousand years after the pyramids were built and five thousand years after the first atom bomb had exploded, they were still the insoluble mystery and the unfaded wonder.

There was a young girl in a pretty gown laughing gently with the man who sat opposite her; a middle-aged man, in uncomfortable holiday clothing, punching the menu combination on the mechanical waiter while his wife and two children watched gravely; two businessmen talking animatedly over their dessert.

And it was as David's glance flicked over the businessmen that it happened. One of them, face congesting with blood, moved convulsively and attempted to rise. The other, crying out, stretched out an arm in a vague gesture of help, but the first had already collapsed in his seat and was beginning to slide under the table.

David had risen to his feet at the first sign of disturbance and now his long legs ate the distance between the tables in three quick strides. He was in the booth and, at a touch of his finger on the electronic contact near the tri-television cube, a violet curtain with fluorescent designs swept across the open end of the alcove. It would attract no attention. Many diners preferred to take advantage of that sort of privacy.

The sick man's companion only now found his voice. He said, "Manning is ill. It's some sort of seizure. Are you a doctor?"

David's voice was calm and level. It carried assurance. He said, "Now sit quietly and make no noise. We will have the manager here and what can be done will be done."

He had his hands on the sick man, lifting him as though he were a rag doll, although the man was heavyset. He pushed the table as far to one side as possible, his fingers separated uncannily by an inch of force-field as he gripped it. He laid the man on the seat, loosening the Magno-seams of his blouse, and began applying artificial respiration.

David had no illusion as to the possibility of recovery. He knew the symptoms: the sudden flushing, the loss of voice and breath, the few minutes' fight for life, and then, the end.

The curtain brushed aside. With admirable dispatch the manager had answered the emergency signal which David had tapped even before he had left his own table. The manager was a short, plump man, dressed in black, tightly fitting clothing of conservative cut. His face was disturbed.

"Did someone in this wing—" He seemed to shrink in upon himself as his eyes took in the sight.

The surviving diner was speaking with hysterical rapidity. "We were having dinner when my friend had this seizure. As for this other man, I don't know who he is."

David abandoned his futile attempts at revival. He brushed his thick brown hair off his forehead. He said, "You are the manager?"

"I am Oliver Gaspere, manager of the Cafe Supreme," said the plump man bewilderedly. "The emergency call from Table 87 sounds and when I come, it is empty. I am told a young man has just run into the booth of Table 94, and I follow and find this." He turned. "I shall call the house doctor."

David said, "One moment. There is no use in that This man is dead."

"What!" cried the other diner. He lunged forward, crying, "Manning!"

David Starr pulled him back, pinning him against the unseeable table top. "Easy, man. You cannot help him and this is no time for noise."

"No, no," Gaspere agreed rapidly. "We must not upset the other diners. But see here, sir, a doctor must still examine this poor man to decide the cause of death. I can allow no irregularities in my restaurant."

"I am sorry, Mr. Gaspere, but I forbid the examination of this man by anyone at the moment."

"What are you talking about? If this man dies of a heart attack—"

"Please. Let us have co-operation and not useless discussion. What is your name, sir?"

The living diner said dully, "Eugene Forester."

"Well, then, Mr. Forester, I want to know exactly what you and your companion ate just now."

"Sir!" The little manager stared at David, with eyes swelling out of their sockets. "Are you suggesting that something in the food caused this?"

"I'm not making suggestions. I'm asking questions."

"You have no right to ask questions. Who are you? You are nobody. I demand that a doctor examine this poor man."

"Mr. Gaspere, this is Council of Science business."

David bared the inner surface of his wrist, curling the flexible Metallite sleeve above it. For a moment it was merely exposed skin, and then an oval spot darkened and turned black. Within it little yellow grains of light danced and flickered in the familiar patterns of the Big Dipper and of Orion.

The manager's lips trembled. The Council of Science was not an official government agency, but its members were nearly above the government

He said, "I am sorry, sir."

"No apologies are necessary. Now, Mr. Forester, will you answer my first question?"

Forester muttered, "We had the special dinner number three."

"Both of you?"

"That's right."

David said, "Were there no substitutions on either part?" He had studied the menu at his own table. The Cafe Supreme featured extraterrestrial delicacies, but the special dinner number three was one of the more ordinary meals native to Earth: vegetable soup, veal chops, baked potato, peas, ice cream, and coffee.

"Yes, there was a substitution." Forester's brows drew together. "Manning ordered stewed marplums for dessert."

"And you didn't?''

"No."

"And where are the marplums now?" David had eaten them himself. They were plums grown in the vast Martian greenhouses, juicy and pitless, with a faint cinnamon flavor superimposed on their fruitiness.

Forester said, "He ate them. What do you suppose?"

"How soon before he collapsed?"

"About five minutes, I think. We hadn't even finished our coffee." The man was turning sickly pale. "Were they poisoned?"

David did not answer. He turned to the manager, "What about the marplums?"

"There was nothing wrong with them. Nothing.'' Gaspere seized the curtains of the alcove and shook them in his passion, but did not forget to speak in the softest of whispers. "They were a fresh shipment from Mars, government tested and approved. We have served hundreds of portions in the last three nights alone. Nothing like this has happened till now."

"Just the same you had better give orders to eliminate marplums from the list of desserts until we can inspect them again. And now, in case it wasn't the marplums at all, please bring me a carton of some sort and we will transfer what is left of the dinner for study."

"Immediately. Immediately."

"And of course speak to no one of this."

The manager returned in a few moments, smearing his brow with a feathery handkerchief. He said, "I cannot understand it. I really cannot."

David stowed the used plastic dishes, with scraps of food still adhering to them, in the carton, added what was left of the toasted rolls, recapped the waxed cups in which the coffee had been served, and put them aside. Gaspere left off rubbing his hands frantically to reach a finger toward the contact at the edge of the table.

David's hand moved quickly, and the manager was startled to find his wrist imprisoned.

"But, sir, the crumbs!"

"I'll take those too." He used his penknife to collect each scrap, its sharp steel sliding easily along the nothingness of the force-field. David himself doubted the worth of force-field table tops. Their sheer transparency was anything but conducive to relaxation. The sight of dishes and cutlery resting on nothing could not help but leave diners tense, so that the field had to be put deliberately out of phase to induce continual interference sparkles that gave rise to an illusion of substance.

In restaurants they were popular since at the conclusion of a meal it was necessary only to extend the force-field a fraction of an inch to destroy whatever adhering crumbs and drops remained. It was only when David had concluded his collection that he allowed Gaspere to perform the extension, removing the safety catch first by a touch of the finger and then permitting Gaspere to use his special key. A new, absolutely clean surface was instantly presented.

"And now, just a moment." David glanced at the metal face of his wrist watch, then flicked a corner of the curtain aside.

He said softly, "Dr. Henree!"

The lanky middle-aged man who was sitting on what had been David's seat fifteen minutes earlier stiffened and looked about him with surprise.

David was smiling. "Here I am!" He put a linger to his lips.

Dr. Henree rose. His clothes hung loosely upon him and his thinning gray hair was combed carefully over a bald spot. He said, "My dear David, are you here already? I had thought you were late. But is anything wrong?"

David's smile had been short-lived. He said, "It's another one."

Dr. Henree stepped within the curtain, looked at the dead man, and muttered, "Dear me."

"That's one way of putting it," said David.

"I think," said Dr. Henree, removing his glasses and playing the mild force-beam of his pencil-cleaner over the lenses before replacing them, "I think we had better close down the restaurant."

Gaspere opened and closed his mouth soundlessly, like a fish. Finally he said in a strangled gasp, "Close the restaurant! It has been open only a week. It will be ruin. Absolute rum!"

"Oh, but only for an hour or so. We will have to remove the body and inspect your kitchens. Surely you want us to remove the stigma of food poisoning if we can, and surely it would be even less convenient for you to have us make arrangements for this in the presence of the diners."

"Very well then. I will see that the restaurant is made available to you, but I must have an hour's grace to allow present diners to finish their meals. I hope there will be no publicity."

"None, I assure you." Dr. Henree's lined face was a mask of worry. "David, will you call Council Hall and ask to speak to Conway? We have a procedure for such cases. He will know what to do."

"Must I stay?" put in Forester suddenly. "I feel sick."

"Who is this, David?" asked Dr. Henree.

"The dead man's dinner companion. His name is Forester."

"Oh. Then I am afraid, Mr. Forester, you will have to be sick here."


The restaurant was cold and repulsive in its emptiness. Silent operatives had come and gone. Efficiently they had gone through the kitchens atom by atom. Now only Dr. Henree and David Starr remained. They sat in an empty alcove. There were no lights, and the tri-televisions on each table were simply dead cubes of glass.

Dr. Henree shook his head. "We will learn nothing. I am sure of that from experience. I am sorry, David. This is not the proper celebration we had planned."

"Plenty of time for celebration later. You mentioned in your letters these cases of food poisoning, so I was prepared. Still, I wasn't aware of this intense secrecy which seems necessary. I might have been more discreet if I had known."

"No. It is no use. We cannot hide this trouble forever. Little by little there are tiny leaks. People see other people die while eating and then hear of still other cases. Always while they're eating. It is bad and will grow worse. Well, we will talk more of this tomorrow when you talk to Conway himself."

"Wait!" David looked deep into the older man's eyes. "There is something that worries you more than the death of a man or the death of a thousand. Something I don't know. What is it?"

Dr. Henree sighed. "I'm afraid, David, that Earth is in great danger. Most of the Council does not believe it and Conway is only half-convinced, but I am certain that this supposed food poisoning is a clever and brutal attempt at seizing control of Earth's economic life and government. And so far, David, there is no hint as to who is behind the threat and exactly how it is being accomplished. The Council of Science is entirely helpless!"


2. The Breadbasket in the Sky

Hector Conway, Chief Counselor of Science, stood at his window in the topmost suite of Science Tower, the slender structure which dominated the northern suburbs of International City. The city was beginning to sparkle in the early twilight. Soon it would turn to streaks of white along the elevated pedestrian promenades. The buildings would light up in jeweled patterns as the windows came to life. Almost centered in his window were the distant domes of the Halls of Congress, with the Executive Mansion snuggled between.

He was alone in his office, and the automatic lock was adjusted to Dr. Henree's fingerprints only. He could feel some of his depression lifting. David Starr was on his way, suddenly and magically grown up, ready to receive his first assignment as a member of the Council. He felt almost as though his son were about to visit him. In a way, that was how it was. David Starr was his son: his and Augustus Henree's.

There had been three of them at first, himself and Gus Henree and Lawrence Starr. How he remembered Lawrence Starr! They had all three gone through school together, qualified for the Council together, done their first investigations together; and then Lawrence Starr had been promoted. It was to be expected; he was by far the most brilliant of the three.

So he had received a semi-permanent station on Venus, and that was the first time the three had not tackled a proposition together. He had gone with his wife and child. The wife was Barbara. Lovely Barbara Starr! Neither Henree nor himself had ever married, and for neither were there any girls to compete with Barbara in memory. When David was born, it was Uncle Gus and Uncle Hector, until he sometimes got confused and called his father Uncle Lawrence.

And then on the trip to Venus there was the pirate attack. It had been a total massacre. Pirate ships took virtually no prisoners in space, and more than a hundred human beings were dead before two hours had passed. Among them were Lawrence and Barbara.

Conway could remember the day, the exact minute, when the news had reached Science Tower. Patrol ships had shot out into space, tracing the pirates; they attacked the asteroid lairs in a fury that was completely unprecedented. Whether they caught the particular villains who had gutted the Venus-bound ship none could ever say, but the pirate power had been broken from that year on.

And the patrol ships found something else: a tiny lifeboat winding a precarious orbit between Venus and Earth, radiating its coldly automatic radio calls for help. Only a child was inside. A frightened, lonely four-year-old, who did not speak for hours except to say stoutly, "Mother said I wasn't to cry."

It was David Starr. His story, seen through childish eyes, was garbled, but interpretation was only too easy. Conway could still see what those last minutes within the gutted ship must have been like: Lawrence Starr, dying in the control room, with the outlaws forcing their way in; Barbara, a blast gun in her hand, desperately thrusting David into the lifeboat, trying to set the controls as best she could, rocketing it into space. And then?

She had a gun in her hand. As long as she could, she must have used it against the enemy, and when that could be no longer, against herself.

Conway ached to think of it. Ached, and once again wished they had allowed him to accompany the patrol ships so that with his own hands he might have helped to turn the asteroid caves into flaming oceans of atomic destruction. But members of the Council of Science, they said, were too valuable to risk in police actions, so he stayed home and read the news bulletins as they rolled out on the ticker tape of his telenews projector.

Between them he and Augustus Henree had adopted David Starr, bent their lives to erase those last horrible memories of space. They were both mother and father to him; they personally supervised his tutoring; they trained him with one thought in mind: to make him what Lawrence Starr had once been.

He had exceeded their expectations. In height he was Lawrence, reaching six feet, rangy and hard, with the cool nerves and quick muscles of an athlete and the sharp, clear brain of a first-class scientist. And beyond that there was something about his brown hair with the suggestion of a wave in it, in his level, wide-set brown eyes, in the trace of a cleft in his chin which vanished when he smiled, that was reminiscent of Barbara.

He had raced through his Academy days leaving a trail of sparks and the dead ash of previous records both on the playing fields and in the classrooms.

Conway had been perturbed. "It's not natural, Gus. He's outdoing his father."

And Henree, who didn't believe in unnecessary speech, had puffed at his pipe and smiled proudly.

"I hate to say this," Conway had continued, "because you'll laugh at me, but there's something not quite normal in it. Remember that the child was stranded in space for two days with just a thin lifeboat hull between himself and solar radiation. He was only seventy million miles from the sun during a period of sunspot maximum."

"All you're saying," said Henree, "is that David should have been burnt to death."

"Well, I don't know," mumbled Conway. "The effect of radiation on living tissue, on human living tissue, has its mysteries."

"Well, naturally. It's not a field in which experimentation is very feasible."

David had finished college with the highest average on record. He had managed to do original work in biophysics on the graduate level. He was the youngest man ever to be accorded full membership in the Council of Science.

To Conway there had been a loss in all this. Four years earlier he had been elected Chief Counselor. It was an honor he would have given his life for, yet he knew that had Lawrence Starr lived, the election would have gone in a worthier direction.

And he had lost all but occasional contact with young David Starr, for to be Chief Counselor meant that one had no life other than the beetling problems of all the Galaxy. Even at graduation exercises he had seen David only from a distance. In the last four years he might have spoken to him four times.

So his heart beat high when he heard the door open. He turned, walking rapidly to meet them as they walked in.

"Gus old man." He held out his hand, wrung the other's. "And David boy!"


An hour passed. It was true night before they could stop speaking of themselves and turn to the universe.

It was David who broke out. He said, "I saw my first poisoning today, Uncle Hector. I knew enough to prevent panic. I wish I knew enough to prevent poisoning."

Conway said soberly, "No one knows that much. I suppose, Gus, it was a Martian product again."

"No way of telling, Hector. But a marplum was involved."

"Suppose," said David Starr, "you let me know anything I'm allowed to know about this."

"It's remarkably simple," said Conway. "Horribly simple. In the last four months something like two hundred people have died immediately after eating some Mars-grown product. It's no known poison, the symptoms are those of no known disease. There is a rapid and complete paralysis of the nerves controlling the diaphragm and the muscles of the chest. It amounts to a paralysis of the lungs, which is fatal in five minutes.

"It goes deeper than that too. In the few cases where we've caught the victims in time, we've tried artificial respiration, as you did, and even iron lungs. They still died in five minutes. The heart is affected as well. Autopsies show us nothing except nerve degeneration that must have been unbelievably rapid."

"What about the food that poisoned them?" asked David.

"Dead end," said Conway. "There is always time for the poisoned item or portion to be completely consumed. Other specimens of the same sort at the table or in the kitchen are harmless. We've fed them to animals and even to human volunteers. The stomach contents of the dead men have yielded uncertain results."

"Then how do you know it's food poisoning at all?"

"Because the coincidence of death after eating a Martian product time after time, without known exception, is more than coincidence."

David said thoughtfully, "And it isn't contagious, obviously."

"No. Thank the stars for that. Even so, it's bad enough. So far we've kept this as quiet as we can, with full co-operation from the Planetary Police. Two hundred deaths in four months over the population of all Earth is still a manageable phenomenon, but the rate may increase. And if the people of Earth become aware that any mouthful of Martian food might be their last, the consequences could be horrible. Even though we were to point out that the death rate is only fifty per month out of a population of five billions, each person would think himself certain to be one of those fifty."

"Yes," said David, "and that would mean that the market for Martian food imports would fall through the floor. It would be too bad for the Martian Farming Syndicates."

"That!" Conway shrugged his shoulders, thrusting aside the problem of the Farming Syndicates as something of no moment. "Do you see nothing else?"

"I see that Earth's own agriculture can't support five billion people."

"That's it exactly. We can't do without food from the colonial planets. There would be starvation on Earth in six weeks. Yet if the people are afraid of Martian food, there will be no preventing that, and I don't know how long it can be staved off. Each new death is a new crisis. Will this be the one that the tele-news will get hold of? Will the truth come out now? And there's Gus's theory on top of everything."

Dr. Henree sat back, tamping tobacco gently into his pipe. "I feel sure, David, that this epidemic of food poisoning is not a natural phenomenon. It is too widespread. It strikes one day in Bengal, the next day in New York, the day after in Zanzibar. There must be intelligence behind it."

"I tell you—" began Conway.

"Let him go on, Uncle Hector," urged David.

"If any group were seeking to control Earth, what better move could they make than to strike at our weakest point, our food supply? Earth is the most populous planet in all the Galaxy. It should be, since it is mankind's original home. But that very fact makes us the weakest world, in a sense, since we're not self-supporting. Our breadbasket is in the sky: on Mars; on Ganymede; on Europa. If you cut the imports in any manner, either by pirate action or by the much more subtle system being used now, we are quickly helpless. That is all."

"But," said David, "if that were the case, wouldn't the responsible group communicate with the government, if only to give an ultimatum?"

"It would seem so, but they may be waiting their time; waiting for ripeness. Or they may be dealing with the farmers of Mars directly. The colonists have minds of their own, mistrust Earth, and, in fact, if they see their livelihood threatened, may throw in with these criminals altogether. Maybe even," he puffed strenuously, "they themselves are—But I'll make no accusations."

"And my part," said David. "What is it you would have me do?"

"Let me tell him," said Conway. "David, we want you to go to Central Laboratories on the Moon. You will be part of the research team investigating the problem. At this moment they are receiving samples of every shipment of food leaving Mars. We are bound to come across some poisoned item. Half of all items are fed to rats; the remaining portions of any fatal pieces are analyzed by all the means at our disposal."

"I see. And if Uncle Gus is right, I suppose you have another team on Mars?"

"Very experienced men. But meanwhile, will you be ready to leave for the Moon tomorrow night?"

"Certainly. But if that's the case, may I leave now to get ready?"

"Of course."

"And would there be any objection to my using my own ship?" "Not at all.''

The two scientists, alone in the room, stared down at the fairy-tale lights of the city for a long time before either spoke.

Finally Conway said, "How like Lawrence he is! But he's still so young. It will be dangerous."

Henree said, "You really think it will work?"

"Certainly!" Conway laughed. "You heard his last question about Mars. He has no intention of going to the Moon. I know him that well. And it's the best way to protect him. The official records will say he is going to the Moon; the men at Central Laboratories are instructed to report his arrival. When he does reach Mars, there will be no reason for your conspirators, if they exist, to take him for a member of the Council, and of course he will maintain an incognito because he will be busy fooling us, he thinks."

Conway added, "He's brilliant. He may be able to do something the rest of us could not do. Fortunately, he's still young and can be maneuvered. In a few years that will be impossible. He would see through us."

Conway's communicator tinkled gently. He flipped it open. "What is it?"

"Personal communication for you, sir."

"For me? Transmit it." He looked wildly at Henree. "It can't be from the conspirators you babble about."

"Open it and see," suggested Henree.

Conway sliced the envelope open. For a moment he stared. Then he laughed a bit wildly, tossed the open sheet to Henree, and slumped back in his chair.

Henree picked it up. There were only two scrawled lines which read, "Have it your way! Mars it is." It was signed, "David."

Henree roared with laughter. "You maneuvered him all right."

And Conway could not help but join.


3. Men for the Farms of Mars

To a native Earthman, Earth meant Earth. It was just the third planet from that sun which was known to the inhabitants of the Galaxy as Sol. In official geography, however, Earth was more: it included all the bodies of the Solar System. Mars was as much Earth as Earth itself was, and the men and women who lived on Mars were as much Earthmen as though they lived on the home planet. Legally, at any rate. They voted for representatives in the All-Earth Congress and for Planetary President.

But that was as far as it went. The Earthmen of Mars considered themselves quite a separate and better breed, and the newcomer had a long way to go to be accepted by the Martian farmboy as anything more than a casual tourist of not much account.

David Starr found that out almost at once when he entered the Farm Employment Building. A little man was at his heels as he walked in. A really little man. He was about five feet two and his nose would have rubbed against David's breastbone if they had stood face to face. He had pale red hair brushed straight back, a wide mouth, and the typical open-collar, double-breasted overall and hip-high, brightly colored boots of the Martian farmboy.

As David headed for the window over which glowed the legend, "Farm Employment," footsteps rattled about him, and a tenor voice cried out, "Hold on. Decelerate your footsteps, fella."

The little man was facing him.

David said, "Is there anything I can do for you?"

The little man carefully inspected him, section by section, then put out one arm and leaned negligently against the Earthman's waistline. "When did you descend the old gangplank?"

"What gangplank?"

"Pretty voluminous for an Earthie at that. Did you get cramped out there?"

"I'm from Earth, yes."

The little man brought his hands down one after the other so that they slapped sharply against his boots. It was the farmboy gesture of self-assertion.

"In that case," he said, "suppose you assume a waiting position and let a native attend to his business."

David said, "As you please."

"And if you have any objection to taking your turn, you can take it up with me when we're through or any time thereafter at your convenience. My name is Bigman. I'm John Bigman Jones, but you can ask for me anywhere in town by the name of Bigman." He paused, then added, "That, Earthie, is my cognomen. Any complaints about it?"

And David said gravely, "None at all."

Bigman said, "Right!" and left for the desk, while David, breaking into a smile as soon as the other's back was safely turned, sat down to wait.

He had been on Mars for less than twelve hours, just long enough to register his ship under an assumed name in the large sub-surface garages outside the city, take a room for the night at one of the hotels, and spend a few hours of the morning walking through the domed city.

There were only three of these cities on Mars, and their fewness was to be expected in view of the expense required to maintain the tremendous domes and to supply the torrents of power necessary to provide the temperature and gravity of Earth. This, Wingrad City, named after Robert Clark Wingrad, the first man to reach Mars, was the largest.

It was not very different from a city on Earth; it was almost a piece of Earth cut out and put on a different planet; it was as though the men on Mars, thirty-five million miles away at the very nearest, had to hide that fact from themselves somehow. In the center of town, where the ellipsoidal dome was a quarter of a mile high, there were even twenty-story buildings.

There was only one thing missing. There was no sun and no blue sky. The dome itself was translucent, and when the sun shone on it, light was uniformly spread over all its ten square miles. The light intensity at any region of the dome was small so that the "sky" to a man in the city was a pale, pale yellow. The total effect, however, was about equivalent to that of a cloudy day on Earth.

When night came, the dome faded and disappeared into starless black. But then the street lights went on, and Wingrad City seemed more than ever like Earth. Within the buildings artificial light was used day and night David Starr looked up at the sudden sound of loud voices.

Bigman was still at the desk, shouting, "I tell you this is a case of blacklist. You've got me blacklisted, by Jupiter."

The man behind the desk seemed flustered. He had fluffy sideburns with which his fingers kept playing.

He said, "We have no blacklists, Mr. Jones—"

"My name is Bigman. What's the matter? Are you afraid to exhibit friendship? You called me Bigman the first few days."

"We have no blacklists, Bigman. Farmhands just aren't in demand."

"What are you talking about? Tim Jenkins got placed day before yesterday in two minutes."

"Jenkins had experience as a rocket man."

"I can handle a rocket as well as Tim any day."

"Well, you're down here as a seeder."

"And I'm a good one. Don't they need seeders?"

"Look, Bigman," said the man behind the desk, "I have your name on the roster. That's all I can do. I'll let you know if anything turns up." He turned a concentrated attention on the record book before him, following up entries with elaborate unconcern.

Bigman turned, then shouted over his shoulder, "All right, but I'm sitting right here, and the next labor requisition you get, I'm being sent out. If they don't want me, I want to hear them say so to me. To me, do you understand? To me, J. Bigman J., personally."

The man behind the desk said nothing. Bigman took a seat, muttering. David Starr rose and approached the desk. No other farmboy had entered to dispute his place in line.

He said, "I'd like a job."

The man looked up, pulled an employment blank and hand printer toward himself. "What kind?"

"Any kind of farm work available."

The man put down his hand printer. "Are you Mars-bred?"

"No, sir. I'm from Earth."

"Sorry. Nothing open."

David said, "Well, look here. I can work, and I need work. Great Galaxy, is there a law against Earthmen working?"

"No, but there isn't much you can do on a farm without experience."

"I still need a job."

"There are lots of jobs in town. Next window over."

"I can't use a job in town."

The man behind the desk looked speculatively at David, and David had no trouble in reading the glance. Men traveled to Mars for many reasons, and one of them was that Earth had become too uncomfortable. When a search call went out for a fugitive, the cities of Mars were combed thoroughly (after all, they were part of Earth), but no one ever found a hunted man on the Mars farms. To the Farming Syndicates, the best farmboy was one who had no other place he dared go. They protected such and took care not to lose them to the Earth authorities they half-resented and more than half-despised.

"Name?" said the clerk, eyes back on the form.

"Dick Williams," said David, giving the name under which he had garaged his ship.

The clerk did not ask for identification. "Where can I get in touch with you?"

"Landis Hotel, Room 212."

"Any low-gravity experience at all?"

The questioning went on and on; most of the blanks had to be left empty. The clerk sighed, put the blank into the slot which automatically microfilmed it, filed it, and thus added it to the permanent records of the office.

He said, "I'll let you know." But he didn't sound hopeful.

David turned away. He had not expected much to come of this, but at least he had established himself as a somewhat legitimate seeker after a farming job.

The next step—

He whirled. Three men were entering the employment office and the little fellow, Bigman, had hopped angrily out of his seat. He was facing them now, arms carried loosely away from his hips although he had no weapons that David could see.

The three who entered stopped, and then one of the two who brought up the rear laughed and said, "Looks as if we have Bigman, the mighty midget, here. Maybe he's looking for a job, boss." The speaker was broad across the shoulders and his nose was flattened against his face. He had a chewed-to-death, unlit cigar of green Martian tobacco in his mouth and he needed a shave badly.

"Quiet, Griswold," said the man in front. He was pudgy, not too tall, and the soft skin on his cheeks and on the back of his neck was sleek and smooth.

His overall was typical Mars, of course, but it was of much finer material than that of any of the other farmboys in the room. His hip-high boots were spiraled in pink and rose.

In all his later travels on Mars, David Starr never saw two pairs of boots of identical design, never saw boots that were other than garish. It was the mark of individuality among the farmboys.

Bigman was approaching the three, his little chest swelling and his face twisted with anger. He said, "I want my papers out of you, Hermes. I've got a right to them."

The pudgy man in front was Hennes. He said quietly, "You're not worth any papers, Bigman."

"I can't get another job without decent papers. I worked for you for two years and did my part."

"You did a blasted lot more than your part. Out of my way." He tramped past Bigman, approached the desk, and said, "I need an experienced seeder-a good one. I want one tall enough to see in order to replace a little boy I had to get rid of."

Bigman felt that. "By Space," he yelled, "you're right I did more than my part. I was on duty when I wasn't supposed to be, you mean. I was on duty long enough to see you go driving wheels-over-sand into the desert at midnight. Only the next morning you knew nothing about it, except that I got heaved for referring to it, and without reference papers—"

Hennes looked over his shoulder, annoyed. "Gris-wold," he said, "throw that fool out."

Bigman did not retreat, although Griswold would have made two of him. He said in his high voice, "All right. One at a time."

But David Starr moved now, his smooth stride deceptively slow.

Griswold said, "You're in my way, friend. I've got some trash to throw out."

From behind David, Bigman cried out, "It's all right, Earthie. Let him at me."

David ignored that. He said to Griswold, "This seems to be a public place, friend. We've all got the right to be here."

Griswold said, "Let's not argue, friend." He put a hand roughly on David's shoulder as though to thrust him to one side.

But David's left hand shot up to catch the wrist of Griswold's outstretched arm, and his right hand straight-armed the other's shoulder. Griswold went whirling backward, slamming hard against the plastic partition that divided the room in two.

"I'd rather argue, friend," said David.

The clerk had come to his feet with a yell. Other desk workers swarmed to the openings in the partition, but made no move to interfere. Bigman was laughing and clapping David on the back. "Pretty good for a fellow from Earth."

For the moment Hennes seemed frozen. The remaining farmboy, short and bearded, with the pasty face of one who had spent too much time under the small sun of Mars and not enough under the artificial sun lamps of the city, had allowed his mouth to drop ridiculously open.

Griswold recovered his breath slowly. He shook his head. His cigar, which had dropped to the ground, he kicked aside. Then he looked up, his eyes popping with fury. He pushed himself away from the wall and there was a momentary glint of steel that was swallowed up in his hand.

But David stepped to one side and brought up his arm. The small, crooked cylinder that ordinarily rested snugly between his upper arm and body shot down the length of his sleeve and into his gripping palm.

Hennes cried out, "Watch your step, Griswold. He's got a blaster."

"Drop your blade," said David.

Griswold swore wildly, but metal clattered against the floor. Bigman darted forward and picked up the blade, chortling at the stubbled one's discomfiture.

David held out his hand for it and spared it a quick glance. "Nice, innocent baby for a farmboy to have," he said. "What's the law in Mars against carrying a force-blade?"

He knew it as the most vicious weapon in the Galaxy. Outwardly, it was merely a short shaft of stainless steel that was a little thicker than the haft of a knife but which could still be held nicely in the palm. Within it was a tiny motor that could generate an invisible nine-inch-long, razor-thin force-field that could cut through anything composed of ordinary matter. Armor was of no use against it, and since it could slice through bone as easily as through flesh, its stab was almost invariably fatal.

Hennes stepped between them. He said, "Where's your license for a blaster, Earthie? Put it away and we'll call it quits. Get back there, Griswold."

"Hold on," said David, as Hennes turned away. "You're looking for a man, aren't you?"

Hennes turned back, his eyebrows lifting in amusement. "I'm looking for a man. Yes."

"All right. I'm looking for a job."

"I'm looking for an experienced seeder. Do you qualify?"

"Well, no."

"Have you ever harvested? Can you handle a sand-car? In short, you're just, if I may judge from your costume"—and he stepped back as though to get a better over-all view—"an Earthman who happens to be handy with a blaster. I can't use you."

"Not even," David's voice fell to a whisper, "if I tell you that I'm interested in food poisoning?"

Hennes's face didn't change; his eyes didn't flicker, He said, "I don't see your point."

"Think harder, then." He was smiling thinly, and there was little humor in that smile.

Hennes said, "Working on a Mars farm isn't easy."

"I'm not the easy type," said David.

The other looked over his rangy frame again. "Well, maybe you're not. All right, we'll lodge and feed you, start you with three changes of clothing and a pair of boots. Fifty dollars the first year, payable at the end of the year. If you don't work out the year, the fifty is forfeited."

"Fair enough. What type of work?"

"The only kind you can do. General helper at the chowhouse. If you learn, you'll move up; if not, that's where you spend the year."

"Done. What about Bigman?"

Bigman, who had been staring from one to the other, squawked, "No, sir. I don't work for that sand-bug, and I wouldn't advise you to, either."

David said over his shoulder. "How about a short stretch in return for papers of reference?"

"Well," said Bigman, "a month, maybe."

Hermes said, "Is he a friend of yours?"

David nodded. "I won't come without him."

"I'll take him too, then. One month, and he's to keep his mouth shut. No pay, except his papers. Let's get out of here. My sand-car's outside."

The five left, David and Bigman bringing up the rear.

Bigman said, "I owe you a favor, friend. You may collect at will."

The sand-car was open just then, but David could see the slots into which panels could slide in order that it might be enclosed against the drifting dust storms of Mars. The wheels were broad to minimize the tendency to sink when crossing the soft drifts. The area of glass was reduced to a minimum and, where it existed, merged into the surrounding metal as though they had been welded together.

The streets were moderately crowded, but no one paid any attention to the very common sight of sand-cars and farmboys.

Hennes said, "We'll sit in front. You and your friend may sit in back, Earthman."

He had moved into the driver's seat as he spoke. The controls were in the middle of the front partition, with the windshield centered above. Griswold took the seat at Hennes's right.

Bigman moved into the rear and David followed him. Someone was behind him. David half turned as Bigman called suddenly, "Watch out!"

It was the second of Hennes's henchmen who was now crouching in the car door, his pasty bearded face snarling and taut. David moved quickly, but it was far too late.

His last sight was that of the gleaming muzzle of a weapon in the henchman's hand, and then he was conscious of a soft purring noise. There was scarcely any sensation to it, and a distant, distant voice said, "All right, Zukis. Get in back and keep watch," in words that seemed to come from the end of a long tunnel. There was a last momentary feeling of motion forward, and then there was complete nothingness.

David Starr slumped forward in his seat, and the last signs of life about him vanished.


4. Alien Life

Ragged patches of light floated past David Starr. Slowly he became aware of a tremendous tingling all about him and a separate pressure on his back. The back pressure resolved itself into the fact that he was lying face up on a hard mattress. The tingling he knew to be the aftermath of a stun-gun, a weapon whose radiation worked upon the nerve centers at the base of the brain.

Before light became coherent, before he was thoroughly aware of his surroundings, he felt his shoulders being shaken and the distant sting of sharp slaps on his cheeks. The light washed into his open eyes and he brought his tingling arm up to ward off the next slap.

It was Bigman leaning over him, his little rabbity face with its round snub nose nearly touching his. He said, "By Ganymede, I thought they finished you for good." '

David brought himself up to an aching elbow. He said, "It almost feels as if they did. Where are we?"

"In the farm lockup. It's no use trying to get out, either. The door's locked; the windows are barred." He looked depressed.

David felt under his arms. They had removed his blasters. Naturally! So much was to be expected. He said, "Did they stun you, too, Bigman?"

Bigman shook his head. "Zukis horizontaled me with the gun butt." He fingered a region of his skull with gingerly distaste. Then he swelled, "But I nearly broke his arm first."

There was the sound of footsteps outside the door. David sat up and waited. Hermes entered, and with him there came an older man, with a long, tired-looking face set off by faded blue eyes under bushy gray eyebrows that seemed fixed in a permanent furrow. He was dressed in city costume, which was much like that of Earth. He even lacked the Martian hip boots.

Hennes spoke to Bigman first. "Get out to the chowhouse and the first time you sneeze without permission you'll be broken in two."

Bigman scowled, waved to David with an "I'll be seeing you, Earthman," and swaggered out with a clattering of boots.

Hennes watched him leave and locked the door behind him. He turned to the man with the gray eyebrows. "This is the one, Mr. Makian. He calls himself Williams."

"You took a chance stunning him, Hennes. If you had killed him, a valuable lead might have gone with the canal-dust."

Hennes shrugged. "He was armed. We could take no chances. In any case, he's here, sir."

They were discussing him, David thought, as though he weren't there or were just another inanimate part of the bed.

Makian turned to him, his eyes hard. "You, there, I own this ranch. Over a hundred miles in any direction is all Makian. I say who is to be free and who is to be in prison; who works and who starves; even who lives and who dies. Do you understand me?"

"Yes," said David.

"Then answer frankly, and you'll have nothing to fear. Try to hide anything and we'll have it out of you one way or another. We may have to kill you. Do you still understand me?"

"Perfectly."

"Is your name Williams?"

"It's the only name I will give on Mars."

"Fair enough. What do you know about food poisoning?"

David swung his feet off the bed. He said, "Look, my sister died over an afternoon snack of bread and jam. She was twelve years old, and lay there dead with the jam still on her face. We called the doctor. He said it was food poisoning and told us not to eat anything in the house till he came back with certain analytical equipment. He never came back.

"Somebody else came instead. Someone with a great deal of authority. He had plain-clothes men to escort him. He had us describe all that had happened. He said to us, 'It was a heart attack.' We told him that was ridiculous because my sister had nothing wrong with her heart, but he wouldn't listen to us. He told us that if we spread ridiculous stories about food poisoning, we would get in trouble. Then he took the jar of jam with him. He was even angry with us for having wiped the jam from my sister's lips.

"I tried to get in touch with our doctor, but his nurse would never admit he was in. I broke into his office and found him there, but all he would say was that he had made a mistaken diagnosis. He seemed afraid to talk about it. I went to the police, but they wouldn't listen.

"The jar of jam the men took away was the only thing in the house my sister ate that day that the rest of the, family hadn't eaten as well. That jar was freshly opened and it was imported from Mars. We're old-fashioned people and like the old food. That was the only Mars product in the house. I tried to find out through the newspapers whether there had been any other cases of food poisoning. It all seemed so suspicious to me. I even went to International City. I quit my job and decided that in one way or another I would find out what had killed my sister and try to nail anyone that might be responsible. Everywhere I hit a blank, and then there came policemen with a warrant for my arrest.

"I was almost expecting that, and got out a step ahead of them. I came to Mars for two reasons. First, it was the only way to keep out of jail (though it doesn't seem so now, does it?), and second, because of one thing I did find out. There were two or three suspicious deaths in the restaurants of International City and in each case they were at restaurants which featured Martian cuisines. So I decided the answer was on Mars."

Makian was running a thick thumb down the long line of his chin. He said, "The yarn hangs together, Hennes. What do you think?"

"I say, get names and dates, and check the story. We don't know who this man is."

Makian sounded almost querulous. "You know we can't do that, Hennes. I don't want to do anything that would spread news of all this mess. It would break the entire Syndicate." He turned to David. "I'm going to send Benson to speak to you; he's our agronomist." Then, again to Hennes, "You stay here till Benson comes."


It was about half an hour before Benson came. During that interval David leaned carelessly back on the cot paying no attention to Hennes, who, for his part, played the same sort of game.

Then the door opened and a voice said, "I'm Benson." It was a gentle, hesitant voice and it belonged to a round-faced individual of about forty, with thinning sandy hair and rimless eyeglasses. His small mouth spread itself in a smile.

Benson went on, "And you, I suppose, are Williams?"

"That's right," said David Starr.

Benson looked carefully at the young Earthman, as though he were analyzing him by eye. He said, "Are you disposed to violence?"

"I'm unarmed," David pointed out, "and surrounded by a farm full of men quite ready to kill me if I step out of line."

"Quite right. Would you leave us, Hennes?"

Hennes jumped to his feet in protest. "That's not safe, Benson."

"Please, Hennes." Benson's mild eyes peered over his spectacles.

Hennes growled, clapped one hand against a boot in disgruntlement, and walked out the door. Benson locked it behind him.

"You see, Williams," he said apologetically, "in the last half-year I've grown to be an important man here. Even Hennes listens to me. I'm still not used to it." He smiled again. "Tell me. Mr. Makian says you actually witnessed a death by this strange food poisoning."

"My sister's."

"Oh!" Benson flushed. "I'm dreadfully sorry. I know it must be a painful subject to you, but might I have the details? It's very important."

David repeated the story he had earlier told Makian.

Benson said, "And it happened as quickly as that."

"It could only have been five to ten minutes after she had eaten."

"Terrible. Terrible. You have no idea how distressing all this is." He was rubbing his hands together nervously. "In any case, Williams, I'd like to fill in the story for you. You've guessed most of it, anyway, and, somehow, I feel responsible to you for what happened to your sister. All of us here on Mars are responsible until such time as we clear up the mystery. You see, this has been going on for months now, these poisonings. Not many, but enough to have us at our wit's end.

"We've traced back the poisoned foodstuffs and we are certain they come from no one farm. But one thing did turn up: all the poisoned food is shipped out of Wingrad City; the other two cities on Mars are clean so far. That would seem to indicate that the source of infection is within the city, and Hennes has been working on the assumption. He has taken to riding to the city, nights, on detective expeditions of his own, but he has turned up nothing."

"I see. That explains Bigman's remarks," said David.

"Eh?" Benson's face twisted in puzzlement, then cleared. "Oh, you mean the little fellow who goes about shouting all the time. Yes, he caught Hennes leaving once, and Hennes had him thrown out. Hennes is a most impulsive man. In any case, I think Hennes is wrong. Naturally all the poison would travel through Wingrad City. It is the shipping point for the entire hemisphere.

"Now Mr. Makian himself believes the infection to be deliberately spread through human agency. At least he and several others of the Syndicate have received messages offering to buy their farms for a ridiculously small sum. There is no mention of the poisoning and no evidence whatsoever of any connection between the offers to buy and this horrible business."

David was listening intently. He said, "And who makes these offers to buy?"

"Why, how should we know? I have seen the letters and they only say that if the offers are accepted, the Syndicate is to broadcast a coded message over a particular sub-etheric waveband. The price offer, the letters say, will decrease by 10 per cent each month."

"And the letters can't be traced?"

"I'm afraid not. They pass through the ordinary mails with an 'Asteroid' postmark. How can one search the Asteroids?"

"Have the Planetary Police been informed?"

Benson laughed softly. "Do you think Mr. Makian, or any of the Syndicate for that matter, would call in the police for a thing like this? This is a declaration of personal war to them. You don't properly appreciate the Martian mentality, Mr. Williams. You don't run to the law when you're in trouble unless you're willing to confess it's something you can't handle yourself. No farmboy is ever willing to do that. I've suggested that the information be submitted to the Council of Science, but Mr. Makian wouldn't even do that. He said the Council was working on the poisoning without success, and if that were the kind of darned fools they were, he would do without them. And that's where I come in."

"You're working on the poisoning too?"

"That's right. I'm the agronomist here."

"That's the title Mr. Makian gave you."

"Uh-huh. Strictly speaking, an agronomist is a person who specializes in scientific agriculture. I've been trained in principles of fertility maintenance, crop rotation, and matters of that sort. I've always specialized in Martian problems. There aren't many of us and so one can get a rather good position, even though the farmboys sometimes lose patience with us and think we're just college idiots without practical experience. Anyway, I've had additional training as well in botany and bacteriology, so I've been put in charge by Mr. Makian of the entire research program on Mars with respect to the poisoning. The other members of the Syndicate are co-operating."

"And what have you found out, Mr. Benson?"

"Actually as little as the Council of Science, which is not surprising considering how little I have in the way of equipment and help in comparison with them. But I have developed certain theories. The poisoning is too rapid for anything but a bacterial toxin. At least if we consider the nerve degeneration that takes place and the other symptoms. I suspect Martian bacteria."

"What!"

"There is Martian life, you know. When Earthmen first arrived, Mars was covered with simple forms of life. There were giant algae whose blue-green color was seen telescopically even before space-travel was invented. There were bacteria-like forms that lived on the algae and even little insect-like creatures that were free-moving, yet manufactured their own food like plants."

"Do they still exist?"

"Why, certainly. We clear them off the land completely before converting areas to our own farms and introduce our own strains of bacteria, the ones that are necessary to plant growth. Out in the uncultivated areas, however, Martian life still flourishes."

"But how can they be affecting our plants, then.''

"That's a good question. You see, Martian farms are not like the Earth farm lands you're used to. On Mars, the farms are not open to sun and air. The sun on Mars doesn't give enough heat for Earth plants and there is no rain. But there is good, fertile soil and there is quite enough carbon dioxide which the plants live on primarily. So crops on Mars are grown under vast sheets of glass. They are seeded, cared for, and harvested by nearly automatic machinery so that our farmboys are machinists more than anything else. The farms are artificially watered by a system of planet-wide piping that carries back to the polar icecaps.

"I tell you this so you will realize that it would be difficult to infect plants ordinarily. The fields are closed and guarded from all directions except from beneath."

"What does that mean?" asked David.

"It means that underneath are the famous Martian caverns and within them there may be intelligent Martians."

"You mean Martian men?"

"Not men. But organisms as intelligent as man. I have reason to believe that there are Martian intelligences that are probably anxious to drive us intruding Earthmen from the face of their planet!"


5. Dinnertime

"What reason?" demanded David.

Benson looked embarrassed. He moved one hand slowly over his head, smoothing the sparse strands of light hair that did not manage to hide the pink streaks of hairless skull that lay between. He said, "None that I could convince the Council of Science with. None that I could even present to Mr. Makian. But I believe I'm right."

"Is it anything you would care to talk about?"

"Well, I don't know. Frankly, it's been a long time since I've spoken to anyone but farmboys. You're a college man obviously. What did you major in?"

"History," said David promptly. "My thesis concerned the international politics of the early atomic age."

"Oh." Benson looked disappointed. "Any courses in science at all?"

"I had a couple in chemistry; one in zoology."

"I see. It occurred to me that I might be able to convince Mr. Makian to let you help me in my laboratory. It wouldn't be much of a job, especially since you have no scientific training, but it would be better than what Hennes will have you doing."

"Thank you, Mr. Benson. But about the Martians?"

"Oh yes. It's simple enough. You may not know it but there are extensive caves under the Martian surface, perhaps several miles under. So much is known from earthquake data, or, rather, Marsquake data. Some investigators claim they are merely the result of natural water action in the days when Mars still had oceans, but then radiation has been picked up that has its source beneath the soil and which can't have a human source but must have some intelligent source. The signals are too orderly to be anything else.

"It makes sense, really, if you stop to think about it. In the youth of the planet there was sufficient water and oxygen to support life, but with a gravity only two fifths that of Earth, both substances leaked slowly away into space. If there were intelligent Martians, they must have been able to foresee that. They might have built huge caverns well underneath their soil, into which they could retire with enough water and air to continue indefinitely, if they kept their population stable. Now suppose these Martians found that their planet's surface was harboring intelligent life once more-life from another planet. Suppose they resented it or feared our eventual interference with them. What we call food poisoning might be bacteriological warfare."

David said thoughtfully, "Yes, I see your point."

"But would the Syndicate? Or the Council of Science? Well, never mind. I'll have you working for me soon, and perhaps we'll be able to convince them yet."

He smiled and held out a soft hand which was swallowed up in David Starr's large one.

"I think they'll be letting you out now," Benson said.

They did let him out, and for the first time David had the chance to observe the heart of a Martian farm. It was domed, of course, as the city had been. David had been sure of that from the instant he had regained consciousness. You couldn't expect to be breathing free air and living under Earth-strength gravity unless you were within a powered dome.

Naturally the dome was much smaller than that of a city. At its highest it was only about one hundred feet, its translucent structure visible in all its details, strings of white fluorescent lights outdoing the translucent glimmer of the sunlight. The whole structure covered about half a square mile.

After the first evening, however, David had little time to extend his observations. The farm dome seemed full of men and they all had to be fed three times a day. In the evenings particularly, with the day's work done, there seemed no end to them. Stolidly he would stand behind the chow table while farmboys with plastic platters moved past him. The platters, David found out eventually, were manufactured especially for Martian farm use. Under the heat of human hands they could be molded and closed about the food at such times as it was necessary to carry meals out to the desert. Molded so, they kept the sand out and the heat in. Within the farm dome they could be flattened out again and used in the usual way.

The farmboys paid David little attention. Only Bigman, whose lithe frame slipped among the tables replacing sauce bottles and spice containers, waved to him. It was a terrible drop in social position for the little fellow, but he was philosophical about it.

"It's only for a month," he had explained one time in the kitchen, when they were preparing the day's stew and the head cook had left on his own business for a few minutes, "and most of the fellows know the score and are making it easy for me. Of course there's Griswold, Zukis, and that bunch: the rats that try to get somewhere by licking Hennes's boots. But what in Space do I care? It's only a few weeks."

Another time he said, "Don't let it bother you about the boys not cottoning to you. They know you're an Earthman, see, and they don't know you're pretty good for an Earthman, like I do. Hennes is always poking about after me, or else Griswold is, to make sure I don't talk to them, or else they would have heard the facts from me. But they'll get wise."

But the process was taking time. For David, it remained the same: a farmboy and his platter; a dollop of mashed potatoes, a ladle of peas, and a small steak (animal food was much scarcer on Mars than plant food, since meat had to be imported from Earth). The farmboy then helped himself to a sliver of cake and a cup of coffee. Then another farmboy with another platter; another dollop of mashed potatoes, another ladle of peas, and so on. To them, it seemed, David Starr was just an Earthman with a ladle in one hand and a large-tined fork in the other. He wasn't even a face; just a ladle and a fork.

The cook stuck his head through the door, his little eyes peering piggily over the sagging pouches" beneath. '"Hey, Williams. Rattle your legs and get some food into the special mess."

Makian, Benson, Hennes, and any others who were considered especially worthy in point of view of position or of length of service dined in a room by themselves. They sat at tables and had the food brought to them. David had been through this before. He prepared special platters and brought them into the room on a wheeled service table.

He threaded his way quietly through the tables, beginning with the one at which Makian, Hennes, and two others sat. At Benson's table he lingered. Benson accepted his platter with a smile and a "How are you?" and proceeded to eat with relish. David, with an air of conscientiousness, brushed at invisible crumbs. His mouth managed to get itself close to Benson's ears and his lips scarcely moved as he said, "Anyone ever get poisoned here at the farm?"

Benson started at the sudden sound of words and looked quickly at David. As quickly he looked away, tried to appear indifferent. He shook his head in a sharp negative.

"The vegetables are Martian, aren't they?" murmured David.

A new voice sounded in the room. It was a rough yell from the other end of the room.

"By Space, you long Earth jackass, get a move on!"

It was Griswold, his face still stubbled. He must shave sometimes, David thought, since the stubble never grew longer, but no one ever seemed to see it shorter, either.

Griswold was at the last table to be visited. He was still mumbling, his anger boiling over.

His lips drew back. "Bring over that platter, dish-jockey. Faster. Faster."

David did so, but without hurry, and Griswold's hand, with the fork in it, jabbed quickly. David moved more quickly, and the fork clanged sharply against the hard plastic of the tray.

Balancing the tray in one hand, David caught Griswold's fist with the other. His grip grew tight. The other three at the table pushed back their chairs and rose.

David's voice, low, icy, and dead level, sounded just high enough to be heard by Griswold. "Drop it and ask for your ration decently, or you'll have it all at once."

Griswold writhed, but David maintained his hold. David's knee in the back of Griswold's chair prevented the farmboy from pushing away from the table.

"Ask nicely," said David. He smiled, deceptively gentle. "Like a man with breeding."

Griswold was panting harshly. The fork dropped from between his numbed fingers. He growled, "Let me have the tray."

"Is that all?"

"Please." He spat it out.

David lowered the tray and released the other's fist from which the blood had been crushed, leaving it white. Griswold massaged it with his other hand and reached for his fork. He looked about him, mad with fury, but there was only amusement or indifference in the eyes that met his. The farms on Mars were hard; each man had to care for himself.

Makian was standing. "Williams," he called.

David approached. "Sir?"

Makian made no direct reference to what had just occurred, but he stood there for a moment, looking carefully at David, as though he were seeing him for the first time and liked what he saw. He said, "Would you like to join the checkup tomorrow?"

"The checkup, sir? What is that?" Unobtrusively he surveyed the table. Makian's steak was gone, but his peas remained behind and the mashed potatoes were scarcely touched. He had not the grit, apparently, of Hennes, who had left a clean platter.

"The checkup is the monthly drive through all the farm to check on the plant rows. It's an old farm custom. We check on possible accidental breaks in the glass, on the condition and workings of the irrigation pipes and farm machinery, also on possible poaching. We need as many good men as possible out on the checkup."

"I'd like to go, sir."

"Good! I think you'll do." Makian turned to Hennes, who had been listening throughout with cold and unemotional eyes. "I like the boy's style, Hennes.

We may be able to make a farmboy out of him.

And, Hennes—" His voice sank and David, moving away, could no longer catch it, but from the quick hooded glance Makian cast in the direction of Griswold's table, it could not have been very complimentary to the veteran farmboy.


David Starr caught the footstep inside his own partitioning and acted even before he was fully awake. He slipped off the far side of the bed and underneath. He caught the glimpse of bare feet glimmering whitely in the pale light of the residual fluorescents shining through the window. The residuals were allowed to burn in the farm dome during the sleeping period to avoid darkness too inconveniently black.

David waited, heard the rustle of the sheets as hands probed uselessly through the bed, then a whisper. "Earthman! Earthman! Where in Space—"

David touched one of the feet and was rewarded by a sudden withdrawal and a sharp intake of breath.

There was a pause and then a head, shapeless in the dusk, was near his. "Earthman? You there?"

"Where else would I be sleeping, Bigman? I like it here under the bed."

The little fellow fumed and whispered peevishly, ''You might have squeezed a yell out of me and then I would have been in the stew to my ears. I've got to talk to you."

"Now's your chance." David chuckled softly and crawled back into bed.

Bigman said, "You're a suspicious space bug for an Earthman."

"You bet," said David. "I intend living a long life."

"If you're not careful, you won't."

"No?"

"No. I'm foolish to be here. If I'm caught, I'll never get my reference papers. It's just that you helped me when I could use it, and it's my turn to pay back. What was it you did to this louse, Griswold?"

"Just a little mixup in the special mess."

"A little mixup? He was raving mad. It was all Hennes could do to hold him back."

"Is this what you came to tell me, Bigman?"

"Part of it. They were behind the garage just after lights-out. They didn't know I was around, and I didn't tell them. Anyway, Hennes was yanking the stuffings out of Griswold; first for starting something with you when the Old Man was watching; and second, for not having the sand to finish once he had started it. Griswold was too mad to talk sense. Near as I could judge, he was just gargling something about how he would have your gizzard. Hennes said—" He broke off. "Listen, didn't you tell me that Hennes was all clear as far as you were concerned?"

"He seems so."

"Those midnight trips—''

"You only saw him once."

"Once is enough. If it was legitimate, why can't you give me the straight stuff?"

"It's not mine to give, Bigman, but it all seems legitimate."

"If that's the case, what's he got against you? Why doesn't he call off his dogs?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, when Griswold finished talking, Hennes said he was to hold off. He said you would be out on checkup tomorrow and that would be the time. So I thought I'd come and warn you, Earthman. Better stay off checkup."

David's voice remained unflurried. "Checkup would be time for what? Did Hennes say?"

"I didn't hear past that. They moved away and I couldn't follow, or I would have been out in the open. But I assume it's pretty plain."

"Maybe. But suppose we try to find out for sure exactly what they're after."

Bigman leaned close, as though he were trying to extract a reading from David's face despite the gloom. "How do you mean?"

David said, "How do you suppose. I'll be at the checkup and give the boys a chance to show me."

"You can't do that," gasped Bigman. "You couldn't handle yourself on a checkup against them. You don't know anything about Mars, you poor Earthman you."

"Then," said David phlegmatically, "it could mean suicide, I suppose. Let's wait and see." He patted Bigman on the shoulder, turned over, and went to sleep again.


6. "Sand Away!"

Checkup excitement began within the farm dome as soon as the main fluorescents were turned on. There was a wild noise and a mad scurry. Sand-cars were brought out in rows, each farmboy tending his own.

Makian was here and there, never too long at any one point. Hennes, in his flat, efficient voice, assigned the parties and set the routes across the farm's vast expanse. He looked up as he passed David and stopped.

"Williams," he said, "are you still of a mind to be on the checkup?"

"I wouldn't miss it."

"All right then. Since you haven't any car of your own, I'll assign you one out of general stock. Once it's assigned, it's yours to take care of and keep in working condition. Any repairs or damage which we consider avoidable will come out of your pay. Understood?"

"Fair enough."

"I'll put you on Griswold's team. I know that you and he don't get along, but he's our best man in the fields and you're an Earthie without experience. I wouldn't care to load you onto a lesser man. Can you drive a sand-car?"

"I think I can handle any moving vehicle with a little practice."

"You can, eh? We'll give you your chance to make good on that." He was about to step away when his eyes caught something. He barked, "And where do you think you're going?"

Bigman had just stepped into the assembly room. He was in a new outfit and his boots had been polished to mirror-shine. His hair was slicked down and his face was scrubbed and pink. He drawled, "On the checkup, Hennes—Mister Hennes. I'm not on detention and I still have my rating as licensed farmboy even though you have put me on chow detail. That means I can go on checkup. It also means I have a right to my old car and my old squad."

Hennes shrugged. "You read the rule books a lot, and that's what they say, I suppose. But one more week, Bigman, one more week. After that, if you ever show your nose anywhere on Makian territory I'll have a real man step on you and squash you."

Bigman made a threatening gesture at Hennes's retreating back and then turned to David. "Ever used a nosepiece, Earthman?"

"Never actually. I've heard about them, of course."

"Hearing isn't using. I've checked an extra one out for you. Look, let me show you how to get it on. No, no, get your thumbs out of there. Now watch how I hold my hands. That's right. Now over the head and make sure the straps aren't twisted in the back of the neck, or you'll end with a headache. Now can you see through them?"

The upper part of David's face was transformed into a plastic-encased monstrosity, and the double hose leading from the oxygen cylinders up each side of his chin subtracted further from any appearance of humanity.

"Do you have trouble breathing?" asked Bigman.

David was struggling, fighting to suck in air. He yanked the nosepiece off. "How do you turn it on? There's no gauge."

Bigman was laughing. "That's the return for the scare you gave me last night. You don't need a gauge. The cylinders automatically feed oxygen as soon as the warmth and pressure of your face trip a contact; and it automatically closes off when you take it off."

"Then there's something wrong with it. I"

"Nothing wrong with it. It feeds at a gas pressure of one fifth normal to match the pressure of the Mars atmosphere, and you can't suck it in out here when you're fighting the pressure of a normal Earth atmosphere. Out there in the desert it will be fine. And it will be enough, too, because even though it's one fifth normal, it's all oxygen. You'll have as much oxygen as you always had. Just remember one thing: breathe in through your nose but breathe out through your mouth. If you breathe out through your nose, you'll fog up your eyepieces, and that won't be good."

He strutted about David's tall, straight body and shook his head. "Don't know what to do about your boots. Black and white! You look like a garbage detail or something." He glanced down at his own chartreuse-and-vermilion creations with more than a little complacency.

David said, "I'll manage. You'd better get to your car. It looks as though they're getting ready to move."

"You're right. Well, take it easy. Watch out for the gravity change. That's hard to take if you're not used to it. And, Earthman—"

"Well."

"Keep your eyes open. You know what I mean."

"Thanks. I shall."

The sand-cars were lining up now in squares of nine. There were more than a hundred all told, each with its farmboy peering over its tires and controls. Each vehicle had its handmade signs intended as humor. The sand-car trundled out for David was speckled with such signs from half-a-dozen previous owners, beginning with a "Watch Out, Girls" circling the bullet-like prow of the car and ending with a "This Ain't No Dust Storm, This Is Me," on the rear bumper.

David climbed in and closed the door. It fit tightly. Not even a seam showed. Immediately above his head there was the filtered and refiltered vent that allowed equalization of air pressure within and without the car. The glass was not quite clear. It had a faint misting that was proof of dozens of dust storms met and weathered. David found the controls familiar enough. They were standard for ground cars, for the most part. The few unfamiliar buttons explained themselves upon manipulation.

Griswold came past, gesturing at him furiously. He opened his door.

Griswold yelled, "Get your front flaps down, you jerk. We're not heading into any storm."

David searched for the proper button and found it on the steering-wheel shaft. The windshields, which looked as though they were welded to metal, disengaged themselves and sank down into sockets. Visibility improved. Of course, he thought. Mars's atmosphere would scarcely, raise wind enough to disturb them, and this was Martian summer. It would not be too cold.

A voice called, "Hey, Earthman!" He looked up. Bigman was waving at him. He was in Griswold's group of nine also. David waved back.

A section of the dome lifted up. Nine cars trundled in, moving sluggishly. The section closed behind them. Minutes passed, then it opened, empty, and nine more moved in.

Griswold's voice sounded suddenly and loudly next to David's ear. David turned and saw the small receiver in the car top just behind his head. The small grilled opening at the head of the steering-wheel shaft was a mouthpiece.

"Squad eight, ready?"

The voices sounded consecutively: "Number one, ready." "Number two, ready." "Number three, ready." There was a pause after number six. Just a few seconds. David then called, "Number seven, ready." There followed "Number eight, ready." Bigman's reedy tones came last. "Number nine, ready."

The dome section was raising again and the cars ahead of David began moving. David slowly stepped on the resistor, cutting the coils, allowing electricity to pour into the motor. His sand-car leaped ahead, all but crashing into the rear of the one in front. He let out the resistor with a jerk and felt the car tremble beneath him. Gently he babied it along. The section enclosed them like a small tunnel, shutting off behind.

He became conscious of the hiss of air being pumped out of the section back into the dome proper. He felt his heart begin to pound, but his hands were steady upon the wheel.

His clothing bellied away from him and the air was seeping out along the cylindrical line where boots met thigh. There was a tingling in his hands and chin, a feeling of puffiness, of distention. He swallowed repeatedly, to relieve the gathering pain in his ears. After five minutes he found himself panting in an effort to gather enough oxygen for his needs.

The others were slipping on their nosepieces. He did the same, and this time oxygen slid smoothly up his nostrils. He breathed deeply, puffing it out through his mouth. His arms and feet still tingled, but the feeling was beginning to die away.

And now the section was opening ahead of them, and the flat, ruddy sands of Mars glittered in the sun's feeble light. There was a yell in unison from eight farmboy throats as the section lifted.

"Sand awa-a-a-ay!" and the first cars in line began to move.

It was the traditional farmboy cry, made thin and almost soprano in the thin air of Mars.

David let in the resistor and crawled across the line that marked the boundary between dome metal and Martian soil.

And it hit him!


The sudden gravity change was like a sharp fall of a thousand feet. One hundred and twenty pounds of his two hundred disappeared as he crossed the line, and it left him by way of the pit of his stomach. He clutched at the wheel as the sensation of fall, fall, fall persisted. The sand-car veered wildly.

There was the sound of Griswold's voice, which maintained its hoarseness even in the incongruous hollowness forced upon it by the thin air which carried sound waves so poorly. "Number seven! Back in line!"

David fought with the wheel, fought with his own sensations, fought to make himself see clearly. He dragged at the oxygen through his nosepiece and slowly the worst passed.

He could see Bigman looking anxiously in his direction. He took one hand away from the wheel momentarily to wave, then concentrated on the road.

The Martian desert was almost flat, flat and bare. Not even a scrub of vegetation existed here. This particular area had been dead and deserted for who knew how many thousands or millions of years. The thought suddenly struck him that perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps the desert sands had been coated with blue-green microorganisms until Earthmen had come and burned them away to make room for their farms.

The cars ahead trailed faint dust that rose slowly, as if it were part of a motion-picture film that had been slowed down. It settled as slowly.

David's car was trailing badly. He added speed and still more speed, and found that something was going wrong. The others, ahead of him, were hugging the ground but he, himself, was bounding like a jackrabbit. At every trifling imperfection in the ground surface, at every projecting line of rock, his car took off. It drifted lazily up into the air, inches high, its wheels whining against nothing. It came down as gently, then lurched forward with a jerk as the straining wheels caught hold.

It caused him to lose ground, and when he poured the juice in to gain again, the jumping grew worse. It was the low gravity that did it, of course, but the others managed to compensate for it. He wondered how.

It was getting cold. Even at Martian summer, he guessed the temperature to be barely above freezing. He could look directly at the sun in the sky. It was a dwarfed sun in a purple sky in which he could make out three or four stars. The air was too thin to blank them out or to scatter light in such a manner as to form the sky-blue of Earth.

Griswold's voice was sounding again: "Cars one, four, and seven to the left. Cars two, five, and eight to the center. Cars three, six, and nine to the right Cars two and three will be in charge of their subsections."

Griswold's car, number, one, was beginning to curl to the left, and David, following it with his eyes, noticed the dark line on the leftward horizon. Number four was following one, and David turned his wheel sharply left to match the angle of veer.

What followed caught him by surprise. His car went into a rapid skid, scarcely allowing him time to realize it. He yanked desperately at the wheel, spinning it in the direction of skid. He shut off all power and felt the wheels rasp as the car whirled onward. The desert circled before him, so that only its redness could make any impression.

And then there was Bigman's thin cry through the receiver, "Stamp on the emergency traction. It's just to the right of the resistors."

David probed desperately for the emergency traction, whatever it was, but his aching feet found nothing. The dark line on the horizon appeared before him and then vanished. It was much sharper now, and broader. Even in that rapid flash, its nature became appallingly evident. It was one of the fissures of Mars, long and straight. Like the far more numerous ones on Earth's Moon, they were cracks in the planetary surface, made as the world dried through millions of years. They were up to a hundred feet across and no man had plumbed their depth.

"It's a pink, stubby button,". yelled Bigman. "Stamp everywhere."

David did so, and there was a sudden slight yielding beneath his toes. The: swift motion of his sand-car became a rebellious grinding that tore at him. The dust came up in clouds, choking him and obscuring everything.

He bent over the wheel and waited. The car was definitely slowing. And then, finally, it stopped.

He sat back and breathed quietly for a moment Then he withdrew his nosepiece, wiped the inner surfaces while the cold air stung at nose and eyes, and replaced it. His clothes were ruddy gray with dust and his chin was caked with it. He could feel its dryness upon his lips, and the interior of his car was filthy with it.

The two other cars of his sub-section had pulled up next to him. Griswold was climbing out of one, his stubbled face made monstrously ugly by the nose-piece. David was suddenly aware of the reason for the popularity of beards and stubble among the farmboys. They were protection against the cold, thin wind of Mars.

Griswold was snarling, showing yellowed and broken teeth. He said, "Earthman, the repairs for this sand-car will come right out of your wages. You had Hennes's warning."

David opened the door and climbed out. From outside, the car was a worse wreck still, if that were possible. The tires were torn and from them projected the huge teeth which were obviously the "emergency traction."

He said, "Not one cent comes out of my wages, Griswold. There was something wrong with the car."

"That's for sure. The driver. A stupid, dumb-lug driver, that's what's wrong with the car."

Another car came squealing up, and Griswold turned to it.

His stubble seemed to bristle. "Get the blast out of here, you cinch-bug. Get on with your job."

Bigman jumped out of his car. "Not till I take a look at the Earthman's car."

Bigman weighed less than fifty pounds on Mars, and in one long, flat leap he was at David's side. He bent for a moment, then straightened. He said, "Where are the weight-rods, Griswold?"

David said, "What are the weight-rods, Bigman?"

The little fellow spoke rapidly. "When you take these sand-cars out into low gravity, you put foot-thick beams over each of the axles. You take them out when you're on high grav. I'm sorry, fella, but I never once thought that this might be what—"

David stopped him. His lips drew back. It would explain why his car had floated upward at each bump while the others were glued to the soil. He turned to Griswold. "Did you know they were gone?"

Griswold swore. "Each man is responsible for his own car. If you didn't notice they were gone, that's your negligence."

All the cars were now on the scene. A circle of hairy men were forming around the three, quiet, attentive, not interfering.

Bigman stormed. "You big hunk of silica, the man's a tenderfoot. He can't be expected to—"

"Quiet, Bigman," said David. "This is my job. I ask you again, Griswold. Did you know about this in advance?"

"And I told you, Earthie. In the desert a man has to watch himself. I'm not going to mother you."

"All right. In that case I'll watch myself right now." David looked about. They were almost at the edge of the fissure. Another ten feet and he would have been a dead man. "However, you'll have to watch yourself, too, because I'm taking your car. You can drive mine back to the farm dome or you can stay here for all I care."

"By Mars!" Griswold's hand shot to his hip and there was a sudden rough cry from, the circle of watching men.

"Fair fight! Fair fight!"

The code of the Martian deserts was a hard one, but it drew the line at advantages considered unfair. That was understood and enforced. Only by such mutual precautions could any man be protected from an eventual force-knife in the back or blast-gun in the belly.

Griswold looked at the hard faces about him. He said, "We'll have it out back in the dome. On your jobs, men."

David said, "I'll see you in the dome if you wish. Meanwhile, step aside."

He walked forward unhurriedly, and Griswold stepped back. "You stupid greenhorn. We can't have a fist-fight with nosepieces on. Do you have anything but bone inside your skull?"

"Take your nosepiece off, then," said David, "and I'll take mine off. Stop me in fair fight, if you can."

"Fair fight!" came the approving shout from the crowd, and Bigman yelled, "Put up or back down, Griswold." He leaped forward, ripping Griswold's blaster from his hip.

David put his hand to his nosepiece. "Ready?"

Bigman called, "I'll count three."

The men yelled confusedly. They were waiting now, in keen anticipation. Griswold glanced wildly about him.

Bigman was counting, "One—"

And at the count of "Three" David quietly removed his nosepiece, and tossed it, with the attached cylinders, to one side. He stood there, unprotected, holding his breath against the unbreathable atmosphere of Mars.


7. Bigman Makes a Discovery

Griswold did not stir, and his nosepiece remained in place. There was a threatening growl from the spectators.

David moved as quickly as he dared, gauging his steps against the light gravity. He lunged clumsily (it was almost as though water were holding him up) and caught Griswold about the shoulder. He twisted sideways, avoiding the farmboy's knee. One hand reached to Griswold's chin, caught the nosepiece and yanked it up and off.

Griswold grabbed for it with the beginning of a thin yell, but caught himself and clamped his mouth shut against the loss of any air. He broke away, staggering a bit. Slowly he circled David.

Nearly a minute had passed since David had drawn his last breath. His lungs felt the strain. Griswold, eyes bloodshot, crouched and sidled toward David. His legs were springy, his motions graceful. He was used to low gravity and could handle himself. David realized grimly that he himself probably could not. One quick, injudicious move and he might find himself sprawling.

Each second took its strain. David kept out of reach and watched the twisting grimace on Griswold's face tauten and grow tortured. He would have to outwait the farmboy. He himself had an athlete's lungs. Griswold ate too much and drank too much to be in proper shape. The fissure caught his eye. It was some four feet behind him now, a sheer cliff, dropping perpendicularly. It was toward it that Griswold was maneuvering him.

He halted his retreat. In ten seconds Griswold would have to charge. He would have to.

And Griswold did.

David let himself drop to one side, and caught the other with his shoulder. He whirled under the impact and allowed the force of the whirl to add itself to his own thrusting fist which caught Griswold's jawbone at its socket.

Griswold staggered blindly. He let out his breath in a huge puff and filled his lungs with a mixture of argon, neon, and carbon dioxide. Slowly, dreadfully she crumpled. With a last effort he tried to raise himself, half succeeded, started falling again, tottered forward in an attempt to maintain his balance—

There was a confused yelling in David's ears. On trembling legs, deaf and blind to everything but his nosepiece on the ground, he walked back to the car. Forcing his tortured, oxygen-craving body to work slowly and with dignity, he buckled on his cylinders with care and adjusted his nosepiece. Then, finally, he took a shuddering drag of oxygen that poured into his lungs like the rush of cold water into a desiccated stomach.

It was a full minute before he could do anything but breathe,his huge chest rising and falling in large, rapid sweeps. He opened his eyes.

"Where's Griswold?"

They were around him, all of them; Bigman in the very fore.

Bigman looked surprised. "Didn't you see?"

"I knocked him down." David looked about sharply. Griswold was nowhere.

Bigman made a down-sweeping motion with his hand. "Into the fissure."

"What?" David frowned beneath the nosepiece. "This is a bad joke."

"No, no." "Over the edge like a diver." "By Space, it was his own fault." "Clear case of self-defense for you, Earthie." They were all talking at once.

David said, "Wait, what happened? Did / throw him over?"

"No, Earthie," Bigman clamored. "It wasn't your doing. You hit him and the bug went down. Then he tried to get up. He started going down again, and when he tried to keep his balance, he sort of hopped forward, too blind to see what lay ahead of him. We tried to get him, but there wasn't enough time, and over he went. If he hadn't been so busy maneuvering you to the edge of the fissure so he could throw you over, it wouldn't have happened."

David looked at the men. They looked at him.

Finally one of the farmboys thrust out a hard hand. "Good show, farmboy."

It was calmly said, but it meant acceptance, and it broke the log jam.

Bigman yelled a triumph, jumped six feet into the air, and sank slowly down, with legs twiddling under him in a maneuver no ballet dancer, however expert, could have duplicated under Earth gravity. The others were crowding close now. Men who had addressed David only as "Earthie" or "You," or not at all, were clapping him on the back and telling him he was a man Mars could be proud of.

Bigman shouted, "Men, let's continue the checkup. Do we need Griswold to show us how?"

They howled back, "No!"

"Then how about it?" He vaulted into his car.

"Come on, farmboy," they yelled at David, who jumped into what had been Griswold's car fifteen minutes before and set it in motion.

Once again the call of "Sand awa-a-a-ay!" shrilled and ululated through the Martian wisps.


The news spread by sand-car radio, leaping across the empty spaces between the glass-enclosed stretches of farm lands. While David maneuvered his vehicle up and down the corridors between the glass walls, word of Griswold's end made its way across all the expanse of the farm.

The eight remaining farmboys of what had been Griswold's sub-section gathered together once again in the dying ruddy light of Mars's sinking sun and retraced the early-morning drive back to the farm dome. When David returned, he found himself already notorious.

There was no formal evening meal that day. It had been eaten out in the desert before the return, so in less than half an hour of the completion of the checkup, men had gathered before the Main House, waiting.

There was no doubt that by now Hennes and the Old Man himself had heard of the fight. There were enough of the "Hennes crowd," that is, men who had been hired since Hennes had become foreman and whose interests were tied thoroughly to those of Hennes, to insure the fact that the news had spread in that direction. So the men waited with pleased anticipation.

It was not that they had any great hate for Hennes. He was efficient and no brute. But he was not liked. He was cold and aloof, lacked the quality of easy mixing which had marked earlier foremen. On Mars, with its lack of social distinctions, that was a serious shortcoming and one which the men could not help but resent. And Griswold himself had been anything but popular.

All in all, it was more excitement than the Makian farm had seen in three Martian years, and a Martian year is just one month short of being two Earth-years long.

When David appeared, a considerable cheer went up and way was made for him, though a small group well to one side looked glum and hostile.

Inside, the cheers must have been heard, for Makian, Hennes, Benson, and a few others stepped out. David walked up the foot of the ramp which led to the doorway and Hennes moved forward to the head of the ramp, where he stood, looking down.

David said, "Sir, I have come to explain today's incident."

Hennes said evenly, "A valuable employee of the Makian farms died today as the result of a quarrel with you. Can your explanation remove that fact?"

"No, sir, but the man Griswold was beaten in fair fight."

A voice called out from the crowd, "Griswold tried to kill the boy. He forgot to have the weight-rods included in the boy's car by accident," There were several scattered squawks of laughter at the final sarcastic word.

Hennes paled. His fist clenched. "Who said that?"

There was silence, and then from the very front of the crowd a small, subdued voice said, "Please, teacher, it wasn't I." Bigman was standing there, hands clasped before him, eyes looking modestly down.

The laughter came again, and this time it was a roar.

Hennes suppressed fury with an effort. He said to David, "Do you claim an attempt on your life?"

David said, "No, sir. I claim only a fair fight, witnessed by seven farmboys. A man who enters a fair fight must be willing to come out as best he can. Do you intend to set up new rules?"

A yell of approval went up from the audience. Hennes looked about him. He cried, "I am sorry that you men are being misled and agitated into actions you will regret. Now get back to your work, all of you, and be assured that your attitude this evening will not be forgotten. As for you, Williams, we will consider the case. This is not the end."

He slammed back into Main House and, after a moment's hesitation, the rest followed him.


David was called to Benson's office early the next day. It had been a long night of celebration, which David could neither avoid nor break away from, and he yawned prodigiously as he stooped to avoid hitting the lintel.

Benson said, "Come in, Williams." He was dressed in a white smock and the air in the office had a characteristic animal odor that came from the cages of rats and hamsters. He smiled. "You look sleepy. Sit down."

"Thanks," said David. "I am sleepy. What can I do for you?"

"It's what I can do for you, Williams. You're in trouble and you could be in worse trouble. I'm afraid you don't know what conditions on Mars are like. Mr. Makian has the full legal authority to order you blasted if he believes the death of Griswold can be considered murder."

"Without a trial?"

"No, but Hennes could find twelve farmboys who would think his way easily enough."

"He'd have trouble with the rest of the farmboys if he tried to do that, wouldn't he?"

"I know. I told Hennes that over and over again last night. Don't think that Hennes and I get along. He's too dictatorial for me; too fond, by far, of his own ideas, such as that private detective work of his which I mentioned to you the other time. And Mr. Makian agreed with me completely. He must let Hennes take charge of all direct dealings with the men, of course, which is why he didn't interfere yesterday, but he told Hennes afterward, to his face, that he wasn't going to sit by and see his farm destroyed over a stupid rascal such as Griswold, and Hennes had to promise to let the matter stew for a while. Just the same, he won't forget this in a hurry, and Hennes is a bad enemy to have here."

"I'll have to risk it, won't I?"

"We can run the risk to a minimum. I've asked Makian if I may use you here. You could be quite useful, you know, even without scientific training. You can help feed the animals and clean the cages. I could teach you how to anesthetize them and make injections. It won't be much, but it will keep you out of Hennes's way and prevent disruption of farm morale which is something we can't afford now, as you should know. Are you willing?"

With the utmost gravity David said, "It would be rather a social comedown for a man who's been told he's an honest-to-goodness farmboy now."

The scientist frowned. "Oh, come now, Williams. Don't take seriously what those fools tell you. Farmboy! Huh! It's a fancy name for a semi-skilled agricultural laborer and nothing more. You'd be silly to listen to their upside-down notions of social status. Look, if you work with me you might be helping to work out the mystery of the poisonings; help avenge your sister. That's why you came to Mars, wasn't it?"

"I'll work for you," said David.

"Good." Benson's round face stretched in a smile of relief.


Bigman looked through the door cautiously. He half whispered, "Hey!"

David turned around and closed the cage door. "Hello, Bigman."

"Is Benson around?"

"No. He's gone for the day."

"Okay." Bigman entered, walking carefully, as though to prevent even an accidental contact between his clothing and any object in the laboratories.

"Don't tell me you have something against Benson."

"Who, me? No. He's just a bit—you know." He tapped his temple a few times. "What kind of a grown man would come to Mars to fool around with little animals? And then he's always telling us how to run the planting and harvesting. What does he know? You can't learn anything about Mars farming in some Earth college. At that, he tries to make himself seem better than we are. You know what I mean? We have to slap him down sometimes."

He looked gloomily at David. "And now look at you. He's got you all spiffed out in a nightgown, too, playing nursemaid to a mouse. Why do you let him?"

"It's just for a while," said David.

"Well." Bigman pondered a moment, then thrust out his hand awkwardly. "I want to say good-by."

David took it. "Leaving?"

"My month's up. I have my papers so now I'll be getting a job somewhere else. I'm glad I met up with you, Earthie. Maybe when your own time's up we can meet again. You won't want to stay under Hennes."

"Hold on." David did not release the little fellow's hand. "You'll be going to Wingrad City now, won't you?"

'Till I find a job. Yes."

"Good. I've been waiting for this for a week. I can't leave the farm, Bigman, so will you do an errand for me?"

"You bet. Just name it."

"It's a little risky. You'd have to come back here."

"All right. I'm not afraid of Hennes. Besides, there are ways for us to meet he doesn't know a thing about. I've been on Makian farms a lot longer than he has."

David forced Bigman into a seat. He squatted next to him, and his voice was a whisper. "Look, there's a library at the corner of Canal and Phobos streets in Wingrad City. I want you to get some book films for me along with a viewer. The information that will get you the proper films is in this sealed—"

Bigman's hand clawed out sharply, seizing David's right sleeve, forcing it upward.

"Here, what are you doing?" demanded David.

"I want to see something," panted Bigman. He had bared David's wrist now, holding it, inner surface upward, watching it breathlessly.

David made no move to withdraw it. He watched his own wrist without concern. "Well, what's the idea?"

"Wrong one," muttered Bigman.

"Really?" David took his wrist away from Bigman's clutch effortlessly and exposed the other wrist. He held them both before him. "What are you looking for?"

"You know what I'm looking for. I thought your face was familiar ever since you came here. Couldn't place it. I could kick myself. What kind of an Earthman would come here and be rated as good as any native farmboy in less than a month? And I have to wait for you to send me to the library at the Council of Science before I tumble."

"I still don't understand you, Bigman."

"I think you do, David Starr." He nearly shouted the name in his triumph.


8. Night Meeting

David said, "Quiet, man!"

Bigman's voice sank. "I've seen you in video reels often enough. But why don't your wrists show the mark? I've heard all the members of the Council were marked."

"Where did you hear this? And who told you the library at Canal and Phobos is the Council of Science?"

Bigman flushed. "Don't look down at the farmboy, mister. I've lived in the city. I've even had schooling."

"My apologies. I didn't mean it that way. Will you still help me?"

"Not until I understand about your wrists."

"That's not hard. It's a colorless tattoo that will turn dark in air, but only if I want it to."

"How's that?"

"It's a matter of emotion. Each human emotion is accompanied by a particular hormone pattern in the blood. One and only one such pattern activates the tattoo. I happen to know the emotion that fits."

David did nothing visibly, but slowly a patch on the inner surface of his right wrist appeared and darkened. The golden dots of the Big Dipper and Orion glowed momentarily and then the whole faded rapidly.

Bigman's face glowed and his hands came down for that automatic smack against his boots. David caught his arms roughly.

"Hey," said Bigman.

"No excitement, please. Are you with me?"

"Sure I'm with you. I'll be back tonight with the stuff you want and I'll tell you where we can meet. There's a place outside, near the Second Section—"

He went on, whispering directions.

David nodded. "Good. Here's the envelope."

Bigman took it and inserted it between his hip boot and thigh. He said, "There's a pocket on the inside top of the better-quality hip boots, Mr. Starr. Do you know that?"

"I do. Don't look down at this farmboy, either. And my name, Bigman, is still Williams. That leaves just one last statement. The Council librarians will be the only ones who will be able to open that envelope safely. If anyone else tries, he'll be hurt."

Bigman drew himself up. "No one else will open it. There are people who are bigger than I am. Maybe you think I don't know that, but I do. Just the same, bigger or not, nobody, and I mean nobody, will take this from me without killing me. What's more, I wasn't thinking of opening it myself, either, if you've given that any thought."

"I have," said David. "I try to give all possibilities some, thought, but I didn't give that one very much."

Bigman smiled, made a mock pass with his fist at David's chin, and was gone.

It was almost dinnertime when Benson returned. He looked unhappy and his plump cheeks were drooping.

He said listlessly, "How are you, Williams?"

David was washing his hands by dipping them into the special detergent solution which was universally used on Mars for this purpose. He withdrew his hands into the stream of warm air for drying, while the wash water flushed away into the tanks where it could be purified and returned to the central supply. Water was expensive on Mars and was used and reused wherever possible.

David said, "You look tired, Mr. Benson."

Benson closed the door carefully behind him. He blurted it out. "Six people died yesterday of the poisoning. That's the highest number yet for a single day. It's getting worse all the time and there's nothing we seem to be able to do."

He glowered at the lines of animal cages. "All alive, I suppose."

"All alive," said David.

"Well, what can I do? Every day Makian asks me if I have discovered anything. Does he think I can find discoveries under my pillow in the morning? I was in the grain bins today, Williams. It was an ocean of wheat, thousands and thousands of tons all set for shipment to Earth. I dipped into it a hundred times. Fifty grains here; fifty grains there. I tried every corner of every bin. I had them dip twenty feet down for samples. But what good is it? Under present conditions it would be a generous estimate to suppose that one out of a billion grains is infected."

He nudged at the suitcase he had brought with him. "Do you think the fifty thousand grains I've got here have the one in a billion among them? One chance in twenty thousand!"

David said, "Mr. Benson, you told me that no one ever died on the farm here, even though we eat Martian food almost exclusively."

"Not as far as I know."

"How about Mars as a whole?"

Benson frowned. "I don't know. I suppose not or I would have heard of it. Of course life isn't as tightly organized here on Mars as it is on Earth. A farmboy dies and usually he is simply buried without formality. There are few questions." Then, sharply, "Why do you ask?"

"I was just thinking that if it were a Martian germ, people on Mars might be more accustomed to it than Earth people. They might be immune."

"Well! Not a bad thought for a non-scientist. In fact, it's a good idea. I'll keep it in mind," He reached up to pat David's shoulder. "You go on and eat. We'll begin feeding the new samples tomorrow."

As David left, Benson turned to his suitcase and was lifting out the carefully labeled little packets, one of which might hold the all-important poisoned kernel. By tomorrow those samples would be ground, each little pile of powder carefully mixed and painstakingly divided into twenty sub-samples, some for feeding and some for testing.

By tomorrow! David smiled tightly to himself. He wondered where he would be tomorrow. He even wondered if he would be alive tomorrow.


The farm dome lay asleep like a giant prehistoric monster curled upon the surface of Mars. The residual fluorescents were pale glimmers against the dome roof. Amid the silence the ordinarily unheard vibrations of the dome's atmospherics, which compressed Martian atmosphere to the normal Earth level and added moisture and oxygen from the quantities supplied by the growing plants of the vast greenhouses, sounded in a low grumble.

David was moving quickly from shadow to shadow with a caution that was, to a large extent, not necessary. There was no one watching. The hard composition of the dome was low overhead, bending rapidly to the ground, when he reached Lock 17. His hair brushed it.

The inner door was open and he stepped inside. His pencil flashlight swept the walls within and found the controls. They weren't labeled, but Bigman's directions had been clear enough. He depressed the yellow button. There was a faint click, a pause, and then the soughing of air. It was much louder than it had been on the day of the checkup, and since the lock was a small one designed for three or four men rather than a giant one designed for nine sand-cars, the air pressure dropped much more quickly.

He adjusted his nosepiece, waited for the hissing to die away, the silence indicating pressure equilibrium. Only then did he depress the red button. The outer section lifted and he stepped out.

This time he was not trying to control a car. He lowered himself to the hard, cold sands and waited for the stomach-turning sensations to pass as he accustomed himself to the gravity change. It took scarcely two minutes for that to happen. A few more gravity-change passages, David thought grimly, and he would have what the farmboys called "gravity legs."

He rose, turned to get his bearings, and then found himself, quite involuntarily, frozen in fascination!

It was the first time he had ever seen the Martian night sky. The stars themselves were the old familiar ones of Earth, arranged in all the familiar constellations. The distance from Mars to Earth, great though it was, was insufficient to alter perceptibly the relative positions of the distant stars. But though the stars were unchanged in position, how vastly they were changed in brilliance.

The thinner air of Mars scarcely softened them, but left them hard and gem-bright. There was no moon, of course, not one such as Earth knew. Mars's two satellites, Phobos and Deimos, were tiny things only five or ten miles across, simply mountains flying loose in space. Even though they were much closer to Mars than the Moon was to Earth, they would show no disk and be only two more stars.

He searched for them, even though he realized they might easily both be on the other side of Mars. Low on the western horizon he caught something else. Slowly he turned to it. It was by far the brightest object in the sky, with a faint blue-green tinge to it that was matched for beauty by nothing else in the heavens he watched. Separated from it by about the width of Mars's shrunken sun was another object, yellower, bright in itself but dwarfed by the much greater brilliance of its neighbor.

David needed no star map to identify the double object. They were the Earth and the Moon, the double "evening star" of Mars.

He tore his eyes away, turned toward the low outcropping of rock visible in the light of his pencil flash, and began walking. Bigman had told him to use those rocks as a guide. It was cold in the Martian night, and David was regretfully aware of the heating powers of even the Martian sun, one hundred and thirty million miles away.

The sand-car was invisible, or nearly so, in the weak starlight, and he heard the low, even purr of its engines long before he saw it.

He called, "Bigman!" and the little fellow popped out of it.

"Space!" said Bigman. "I was beginning to think you were lost."

"Why is the engine running?"

"That's easy. How else do I keep from freezing to death? We won't be heard, though. I know this place."

"Do you have the films?"

"Do I? Listen, I don't know what you had in the message you sent but they had five or six scholars circling me like satellites. It was 'Mr. Jones this' and "Mr. Jones that.' I said, 'My name's Bigman,' I said. And then it was 'Mr. Bigman, if you please.' Anyway"—Bigman ticked items off on his fingers—"before the day was gone, they had four films for me, two viewers, a box as big as myself which I haven't opened, and the loan (or maybe the gift for all I know) of a sand-car to carry it all in."

David smiled but made no answer. He entered Into the welcome warmth of the car and quickly, in a race to outrun the fleet night, adjusted the viewers for projection and inserted a film in each. Direct viewing would have been quicker, more preferable, but even in the warm interior of the sand-car his nosepiece was still a necessity, and the bulbous transparent covering of his eyes made direct viewing impossible.


Slowly the sand-car lurched forward through the night, repeating almost exactly the route of Griswold's subsection on the day of the checkup.

"I don't get it," said Bigman. He had been muttering under his breath uselessly for fifteen minutes and now he had to repeat his louder statement twice before the brooding David would respond.

"Don't get what?"

"What you're doing. Where you're going. I figure this is my business because I'm going to stay with you from here on. I've been thinking today, Mr. St—Williams, thinking a lot. Mr. Makian's been in a kind of biting temper for months now, and he wasn't a bad joe at all before that. Hermes came in at that time, with a new shuffle for all hands. And Schoolboy Benson gets his licks in all of a sudden. Before it all started he was nobody, and now he's real pally with the big shots. Then, to top it off, you're here, with the Council of Science ready to put up anything you want. It's something big, I know, and I want to be in on it"

"Do you?" said David. "Did you see the maps I was viewing?"

"Sure. Just old maps of Mars. I've seen them a million times."

"How about the ones with the crosshatched areas? Do you know what those areas stood for?"

"Any farmboy can tell you that. There are supposed to be caverns underneath, except that I don't believe it. My point is this. How in Space can anyone tell there are holes two miles underneath the ground if no one's been down there to see? Tell me that."

David did not bother to describe the science of seismography to Bigman. Instead, he said, "Ever hear of Martians?"

Bigman began, "Sure. What kind of a question—" and then the sand-car screeched and trembled as the little fellow's hands moved convulsively on the wheels. "You mean real Martians? Mars Martians; not people Martians like us? Martians living here before people came?"

His thin laugh rattled piercingly inside the car and when he caught his breath again (it is difficult to laugh and breathe at the same time with a nosepiece on), he said, "You've been talking to that guy Benson."

David remained gravely unruffled at the other's glee. "Why do you say that, Bigman?"

"We once caught him reading some kind of book about it, and we ribbed the pants off him. Jumping Asteroids, he got sore. He called us all ignorant peasants, and I looked up the word in the dictionary and told the boys what it meant. There was talk of mayhem for a while, and he got shoved around sort of by accident, if you know what I mean, for a while after that. He never mentioned anything about Martians to us after that; wouldn't have had the nerve. I guess, though, he figured you were an Earthman and would fall for that kind of comet gas."

"Are you sure it's comet gas?"

"Sure. What else can it be? People have been on Mars for hundreds and hundreds of years. No one's ever seen Martians."

"Suppose they're down in the caverns two miles underneath."

"No one's seen the caverns either. Besides, how would the Martians get there in the first place? People have been over every inch of Mars and there sure aren't staircases going down anywhere. Or elevators, either."

"Are you certain? I saw one the other day."

"What?" Bigman looked back over his shoulder. He said, "Kidding me?"

"It wasn't a staircase, but it was a hole. And it was at least two miles deep."

"Oh, you mean the fissure. Nuts, that doesn't mean anything. Mars is full of fissures."

"Exactly, Bigman. And I've got detailed maps of the fissures on Mars too. Right here. There's a funny thing about them which, as nearly as I can tell from the geography you brought me, hasn't been noticed before. Not a single fissure crosses a single cavern."

"What does that prove?"

"It makes sense. If you were building airtight caverns, would you want a hole in the roof? And there's another coincidence. Each fissure cuts close to a cavern, but without ever touching, as though the Martians used them as points of entrance into the caverns they were building."

The sand-car stopped suddenly. In the dim light of the viewers, which were still focused on two maps projected simultaneously upon the flat white surface of the built-in screens, Bigman's face blinked somberly at David in the back seat.

He said, "Wait a minute. Wait a jumping minute. Where are we going?"

"To the fissure, Bigman, About two miles past the place where Griswold went over. That's where it gets nearest the cavern under the Makian farms."

"And once we get there?"

David said calmly, "Once we get there, why, I'll climb down into it."


9. Into the Fissure

"Are you serious?" asked Bigman.

"Quite serious," said David.

"You mean"—he tried to smile—"there really are Martians?"

"Would you believe me if I said there were?"

"No. He came to a sudden decision. "But that doesn't matter. I said I wanted to be in this, and I don't back out." Once again the car moved forward.

The feeble dawn of the Martian heavens was beginning to light the grim landscape when the car approached the fissure. It had been creeping for half an hour previous, its powerful headlights probing the darkness, lest, as Bigman had put it, they find the fissure a little too quickly.

David climbed out of the car and approached the giant crack. No light penetrated it as yet. It was a black and ominous hole in the ground, stretching out of sight in either direction, with the opposing lip a featureless gray prominence. He pointed his flash downward and the beam of light faded into nothing.

Bigman came up behind him. "Are you sure this is the right place?"

David looked about him. "According to the maps, this is the closest approach to a cavern. How far are we from the nearest farm section?"

"Two miles easy."

The Earthman nodded. Farmboys were unlikely to touch this spot except possibly during checkup.

He said, "No use waiting then."

Bigman said, "How are you going to do it, anyway?"

David had already lifted the box which Bigman had obtained in Wingrad City out of the car. He tore it open and took out the contents. "Ever see one of these?" he asked.

Bigman shook his head. He twiddled a piece of It between gloved thumb and forefinger. It consisted of a pair of long ropes with a silky sheen connected at twelve-inch intervals by crosspieces.

"It's a rope ladder, I suppose," he said.

"Yes," said David, "but not rope. This is spun silicone, lighter than magnesium, stronger than steel, and barely affected by any temperatures we're likely to meet on Mars. Mostly, it's used on the Moon, where the gravity is really, low and the mountains really high. On Mars, there's not much use for it because it's a rather flat world. In fact, it was a stroke of luck that the Council could locate one in the city."

"What good will this do you?" Bigman was running the length of it through his hands until the ladder ended in a thick bulb of metal.

"Careful," said David. "If the safety catch isn't on, you can damage yourself pretty badly.".

He took it gently out of Bigman's hand, encircled the metal bulb with his own strong hands, and twisted each hand In opposing directions. There was a sharp little click, but when he released his hold, the bulb seemed unchanged.

"Now look." The soil of Mars thinned and vanished at the approaches of the fissure, and the cliff edge was naked rock. David bent and, with a light pressure, touched the bulb end of the ladder to the crag, faintly ruddy in the flushing sky of morning. He took his hand away, and it remained there, balanced at an odd angle.

"Lift it up," he said..

Bigman looked at him, bent, and lifted. For a moment he looked puzzled as the bulb remained where it was; then he yanked with all his might and still nothing happened.

He looked up angrily. "What did you do?"

David smiled. "When the safety is released, any pressure at the tip of the bulb releases a thin force-field about twelve inches long that cuts right into the rock. The end of the field then expands outward in each direction about six inches, to make a 'T' of force. The limits of the field are blunt, not sharp, so you can't loosen it by yanking it from side to side. The only way you can pull out the bulb is to break the rock clean off."

"How do you release it?"

David ran the hundred-foot length of ladder through his hands and came up with a similar bulb at the other end. He twisted it, then pushed it at the rock. It remained there, and after some fifteen seconds the first bulb fell on its side.

"If you activate one bulb," he said, "the other is automatically deactivated. Or, of course, if you adjust the safety catch of an activated bulb"—he bent down and did so—"it is deactivated"—he lifted it up—"and the other remains unaffected."

Bigman squatted. Where the two bulbs had been there were now narrow cuts about four inches long in the living rock. They were too narrow for him to insert his fingernail.

David Star was speaking. He said, "I've got water and food for a week. I'm afraid my oxygen won't last more than two days, but you wait a week anyway. If I'm not back then, this is the letter you're to deliver to the Council headquarters."

"Hold on. You don't really think these fairy-tale Martians—"

"I mean lots of things. I mean I may slip. The rope ladder may be faulty. I may accidentally anchor it to a point at which there is a fault in the rock. Anything. So can I rely on you?"

Bigman looked disappointed. "But that's a fine situation. Am I supposed to sit around up here while you take all the risks?"

"It's the way a team works, Bigman. You know that."

He was stooping at the lip of the fissure. The sun was edging over the horizon before them and the sky had faded from black to purple. The fissure, however, remained a forbidding dusky abyss. The sparse atmosphere of Mars did not scatter light very well, and only when the sun was directly overhead was the eternal night of the fissure dispelled.

Stolidly David tossed the ladder into the fissure. Its fiber made no noise as it swung against the rock, upheld by the knob which held tightly to the stony lip. A hundred feet below they could hear the other knob thump once or twice.

David yanked at the rope to test its hold, then, seizing the topmost rung with his hands, he vaulted into the abyss himself. It was a feathery feeling floating down at less than half the speed one would have on Earth, but there it ended. His actual weight was not far below Earth normal, considering the two oxygen cylinders he carried, each the largest size available at the farm.

His head projected above surface. Bigman was staring at him, wide-eyed. David said, "Now get away and take the car with you. Return the films and viewers to the Council and leave the scooter."

"Right," said Bigman. All cars carried emergency four-wheeled platforms that could travel fifty miles under their own power. They were uncomfortable and no protection at all against cold or, worse still, against dust storms. Still, when a sand-car broke down miles from home, scooters were better than waiting to be found.

David Starr looked downward. It was too dark to see the end of the ladder, the sheen of which glimmered into grayness. Allowing his legs to dangle free, he scrambled down the face of the cliff rung by rung, counting as he did so. At the eightieth rung he reached for the free end of the ladder and reeled it in after hooking an arm about and through a rung, leaving both hands free.

When the lower bulb was in his hand, he reached to the right and thrust it at the face of the cliff. It remained there. He yanked hard at it, and it held. Quickly he swung himself from his previous position to the branch of the rope ladder now dangling from the new anchor. One hand remained on the portion of the ladder he had left, waiting for it to give. When it did so, he swung it outward, so that the bulb from above would swing wide of himself as it fell.

He felt a slight pendulum effect upon himself as the bulb, which had been at the lip of the fissure thirty seconds before, now lashed back and forth some one hundred and eighty feet below the surface of Mars. He looked up. There was a broad swath of purple sky to be seen, but he knew it would get narrower with each rung he descended.

Down he went, and at every eighty rungs he set himself a new anchor, first to the right of the old one and then to the left, maintaining in general a straight passage downward.

Six hours had passed, and once again David paused for a bite of concentrated ration and a swig of water from his canteen. Catching his feet in rungs and relaxing the pressure on his arms was all he could do in the way of resting. Nowhere in all the descent had there been a horizontal ledge large enough for him to catch his breath upon. At least nowhere within the reach of his flashlight.

That was bad in other ways. It meant that the trip upward, supposing that there ever was to be a trip upward, would have to be made by the slow method of jabbing each bulb, in turn, at a spot as high as one could reach. It could be done and had been-on the Moon. On Mars the gravity was more than twice what it was on the Moon, and progress would be horribly slow, far slower than the journey down was. And that, David realized grimly, was slow enough. He could not be much more than a mile below surface.

Downward there was only black. Above, the now narrow streak of sky had brightened. David decided to wait. It was past eleven by his Earth-time watch, and that had fair significance on Mars, where the period of rotation was only half an hour longer than on Earth. The sun would soon be overhead.

He thought soberly that the maps of the Martian caverns were at best only rough approximations from the action of vibration waves under the planet's surface. With very slight errors existing he could be miles away from the true entrance into the caverns.

And then, too, there might be no entrances at all. The caverns might be purely natural phenomena, like the Carlsbad Caverns on Earth. Except, of course, that these Martian caverns were hundreds of miles across.

He waited, almost drowsily, hanging loosely over nothing, in darkness and silence. He flexed his numbed fingers. Even under the gloves, the Martian cold nipped. When he was descending, the activity kept him warm; when he waited, the cold burrowed in.

He had almost decided to renew his climbing to keep from freezing when he caught the first -approach of dim light. He looked up and saw the slowly descending dim yellow of sunlight. Over the lip of the fissure, into the small streak of sky that remained to his vision, the sun came. It took ten minutes for the light to increase to maximum, when the entire burning globe had become visible. Small though it was to an Earthman's eyes, its width was one quarter that of the fissure opening. David knew the light would last half an hour or less and that the darkness would return for twenty-four hours thereafter.

He looked about rapidly, swinging as he did so. The wall of the fissure was by no means straight. It was jagged, but it was everywhere vertical. It was as though a cut had been made into the Martian soil with a badly crimped knife, but one which cut straight down. The opposite wall was considerably closer than it had been at the surface, but David estimated that there would be at least another mile or two of descent before it would be close enough to touch.

Still, it all amounted to nothing. Nothing!

And then he saw the patch of blackness. David's breath whistled sharply. There was considerable blackness elsewhere. Wherever an outcropping of rock cast a shadow, there was blackness. It was just that this particular patch was rectangular. It had perfect, or what seemed to be perfect, right angles. It had to be artificial. It was like a door of some sort set into the rock.

Quickly he caught up the lower knob of the ladder, set it as far out in the direction of the patch as he could reach, gathered in the other knob as it fell, and set it still farther out in the same direction. He alternated them as rapidly as he could, hoping savagely that the sun would hold out, that the patch itself was not, somehow, an illusion.

The sun had crossed the fissure and now touched the lip of the wall from which he dangled. The rock he faced, which had been yellow-red, turned gray again. But there was still light upon the other wall, and he could see well enough. He was less than a hundred feet away, and each alternation of ladder knobs brought him a yard closer.

Glimmering, the sunlight traveled up the opposite wall, and the dusk was closing in when he reached the edge of the patch. His gloved ringers closed upon the edge of a cavity set into the rock. It was smooth. The line had neither fault nor flaw. It had to be made by intelligence.

He needed sunlight no longer. The small beam of the flashlight would be enough. He swung his ladder into the inset, and when he dropped a knob he felt it clunk sharply on rock beneath. A horizontal ledge!

He descended quickly, and in a few minutes found himself standing on rock. For the first time in more than six hours he was standing on something solid. He found the inactive bulb, thrust it into rock at waist level, brought down the ladder, then adjusted the safety latch and pulled out the bulb. For the first time in more than six hours both ends of the ladder were free.

David looped the ladder around his waist and arm and looked about. The cavity in the face of the cliff was about ten feet high and six across. With his flashlight pointing the way, he walked inward and came face to face with a smooth and quite solid stone slab that barred farther progress.

It, too, was the work of intelligence. It had to be. But it remained an effective barrier to further exploration just the same.

There was a sudden pain in his ears, and he spun sharply. There could be only one explanation. Somehow the air pressure about himself was increasing.

He moved back toward the face of the cliff and was not surprised to find that the opening through which he had come was barred by rock which had not previously been there. It had slid into place without a sound.

His heart beat quickly. He was obviously in an air lock of some sort. Carefully he removed his nose-piece and sampled the new air. It felt good in his lungs, and it was warm.

He advanced to the inner slab of rock and waited confidently for it to lift up and away.

It did exactly that, but a full minute before it did so David felt his arms compressed suddenly against his body as though a steel lasso had been thrown about him and tightened. He had time for one startled cry, and then his legs pushed one against the other under similar pressure.

And so it was that when the inner door opened and the way to enter the cavern was clear before him, David Starr could move neither hand nor foot.


10. Birth of the Space Ranger

David waited. There was no use in speaking to empty air. Presumably the entities who had built the caverns and who could so immobilize him in so immaterial a fashion would be perfectly capable of playing all the cards.

He felt himself lift from the ground and slowly tip backward until the line of his body was parallel with the floor. He tried to crane his head upward but found it to be nearly immovable. The bonds were not so strong as those which had tightened about his limbs. It was rather like a harness of velvety rubber that gave, but only so far.

He moved inward smoothly. It was like entering warm, fragrant, breathable water. As his head left the air lock, the last portion of his body to do so, a dreamless sleep closed over him.

David Starr opened his eyes with no sensation of any passage of time but, with the sensation of life near by. Exactly what form that sensation took he could not say. He was first conscious of the heat. It was that of a hot summer day on Earth. Second, there was the dim red light that surrounded him and that scarcely sufficed for vision. By it he could barely make out the walls of a small room as he turned his head. Nowhere was there motion; nowhere life.

And yet somewhere near there must be the working of a powerful intelligence. David felt that in a way he could not explain.

Cautiously he tried to move a hand, and it lifted without hindrance. Wonderingly he sat upright and found himself on a surface that yielded and gave but whose nature he could not make out in the dimness.

The voice came suddenly. "The creature is aware of its surroundings?" The last part of the statement was a jumble of meaningless sound. David could not identify the direction from which the voice came. It was from all directions and no direction.

A second voice sounded. It was different, though the difference was a subtle one. It was gentler, smoother, more feminine, somehow. "Are you well, creature?"

David said, "I cannot see you."

The first voice (David thought of it as a man's) sounded again. "It is then as I told?" Again the jumble. "You are not equipped to see mind."

The last phrase was blurred, but to David it sounded like "see mind."

"I can see matter," he said, "but there is scarcely light to see by."

There was a silence, as though the two were conferring apart, and then there was the gentle thrusting of an object into David's hand. It was his flashlight.

"Has this," came the masculine voice, "any significance to you with regard to light?"

"Why, certainly. Don't you see?" He flashed it on and quickly splashed the light beam about himself.

The room was empty of life, and quite bare. The surface he rested upon was transparent to light and some four feet off the floor.

"It is as I said," said the feminine voice excitedly. "The creature's sight sense is activated by short-wave radiation."

"But most of the radiation of the instrument is in the infrared. It was that I judged by," protested the other. The light was brightening even as the voice sounded, turning first orange, then yellow, and finally white.

David said, "Can you cool the room too?"

"But it has been carefully adjusted to the temperature of your body."

"Nevertheless, I would have it cooler."

They were co-operative, at least. A cool wind swept over David, welcome and refreshing. He let the temperature drop to seventy before he stopped them.

David thought, "I think you are communicating directly with my mind. Presumably that is why I seem to hear you speaking International English."

The masculine voice said, "The last phrase is a jumble, but certainly we are communicating. How else would that be done?"

David nodded to himself. That accounted for the occasional noisy blur. When a proper name was used that had no accompanying picture for his own mind to interpret, it could only be received as a blur. Mental static.

The feminine voice said, "In the early history of our race there are legends that our minds were closed to one another and that we communicated by means of symbols for the eye and ear. From your question I cannot help but wonder if this is the case with your own people, creature."

David said, "That is so. How long is it since I was brought into the cavern?"

The masculine voice said, "Not quite a planetary rotation. We apologize for any inconvenience we caused you, but it was our first opportunity to study one of the new surface creatures alive. We have salvaged several before this, one only a short while ago, but none were functional, and the amount of information obtained from such is, of necessity, limited."

David wondered if Griswold had been the recently salvaged corpse. He said cautiously, "Is your examination of myself over?"

The feminine voice responded quickly. "You fear harm. There is a distinct impression in your mind that we may be so savage as to interfere with your life functions in order to gain knowledge. How horrible!"

"I'm sorry if I have offended you. It is merely that I am unacquainted with your methods."

The masculine voice said, "We know all we need. We are quite capable of making a molecule-by-molecule investigation of your body without the need of physical contact at all. The evidence of our psycho-mechanisms is quite sufficient."

"What are these psycho-mechanisms you mention?"

"Are you acquainted with matter-mind transformations?"

"I am afraid not"

There was a pause, and then the masculine voice said curtly, "I have just investigated your mind. I am afraid, judging by its texture, that your grasp of scientific principles is insufficient for you to understand my explanations."

David felt put in his place. He said, "My apologies."

The masculine voice went on. "I would ask you some questions."

"Proceed, sir."

"What was the last part of your statement?"

"It was merely a manner of honorable address."

A pause. "Oh yes, I see. You complicate your communication symbols in accordance with the person you address. An odd custom. But I delay. Tell me, creature, you radiate an enormous heat. Are you ill or can this be normal?"

"It is quite normal. The dead bodies you examined were undoubtedly at the temperature of their environment, whatever it was. But while functioning, our bodies maintain a constant temperature that best suits us."

"Then you are not natives of this planet?"

David said, "Before I answer this question, may I ask you what your attitude would be toward creatures like myself if we originated from another planet?"

"I assure you that you and your fellow creatures are a matter of indifference to us except in so far as you arouse our curiosity. I see from your mind that you are uneasy with regard to our motives. I see that you fear our hostility. Remove such thoughts."

"Can you not read in my mind, then, the answer to your questions? Why do you question me specifically?"

"I can only read emotions and general attitudes in absence of precise communication. But, then, you are a creature and would not understand. For precise information, communication must involve an effort of will. If it will help to ease your mind, I will inform you that we have every reason to believe you to be a member of a race not native to this planet. For one thing, the composition of your tissues is utterly different from that of any living thing ever known to have existed on the face of the world. Your body heat indicates also that you come from another world, a warmer one."

"You are correct. We come from Earth."

"I do not understand the last word."

"From the planet next nearer the sun than this one."

"So! That is most interesting. At the time our race retired to the caverns some half a million revolutions ago we knew your planet to possess life, though probably not intelligence. Was your race intelligent then?"

"Scarcely," said David. One million Earth-years had passed since the Martians had left the surface of their planet.

"It is indeed interesting. I must carry this report to the Central Mind directly. Come, ⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯."

"Let me remain behind, ⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯. I would like to communicate further with this creature."

"As you please."


The feminine voice said, "Tell me of your world." David spoke freely. He felt a pleasant, almost delicious, languor. Suspicion departed and there was no reason he could not answer truthfully and in full.

These beings were kind and friendly. He bubbled with information.

And then she released her hold on his mind and he stopped abruptly. Angrily he said, "What have I been saying?"

"Nothing of harm," the feminine voice assured him. "I have merely repressed the inhibitions of your mind. It is unlawful to do so, and I would not have dared do it if ⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯ were here. But you are only a creature and I am so curious. I knew that your suspicion was too deep to let you talk without a little help from me and your suspicion is so misplaced. We would never harm you creatures as long as you do not intrude upon us."

"We have already done so, have we not?" asked David. "We occupy your planet from end to end."

"You are still testing me. You mistrust me. The surface of the planet is of no interest to us. This is home. And yet," the feminine voice seemed almost wistful, "there must be a certain thrill in traveling from world to world. We are well aware that there are many planets in space and many suns. To think that creatures like yourself are inheriting all that. It is all so interesting that I am thankful again and again that we sensed you making your clumsy way down toward us in time to make an opening for you."

"What!" David could not help but shout, although he knew that the sound waves his vocal cords created went unheeded and that only the thoughts of his mind were sensed. "You made that opening?"

"Not I alone. ⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯ helped. That is why we were given the chance to investigate you."

"But how did you do it?"

"Why, by willing it."

"I don't understand."

"But it is simple. Can you not see it in my mind? But I forget. You are a creature. You see, when we retired to the caverns we were forced to destroy many thousands of cubic miles of matter to make space for ourselves under the surface. There was nowhere to store the matter as such, so we converted it to energy and ⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯ ⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯."

"No, no, I don't follow you."

"You don't understand? In that case, all I can say Is that the energy was stored in such a way that it could be tapped by an effort of the mind."

"But if all the matter that was once in these vast caverns were converted into energy—"

"There would be a great deal. Certainly. We have lived on that energy for half a million revolutions, and it is calculated that we have enough for twenty million more revolutions. Even before we left the surface we had studied the relation of mind and matter and since we have come to the caverns we have perfected the science to such a degree that we have abandoned matter entirely as far as our personal use is concerned. We are creatures of pure mind and energy, who never die and are no longer born. I am here with you, but since you cannot sense mind, you are not aware of me except with your mind."

"But surely people such as yourselves can make themselves heir to all the universe."

"You fear that we shall contest the universe with poor material creatures such as yourself? That we shall fight for a place among the stars? That is silly.

All the universe is here with us. We are sufficient to ourselves."

David was silent. Then slowly he put his hands to his head as he had the sensation of fine, very fine tendrils gently touching his mind. It was the first time the feeling had come, and he shrank from its intimacy.

She said, "My apologies again. But you are such an interesting creature. Your mind tells me that your fellow creatures are in great danger and you suspect that we might be the cause. I assure you, creature, it is not so."

She said it simply. David had no course but to believe.

He said, "Your companion said my tissue chemistry was entirely different from that of any life on Mars. May I ask how?"

"It is composed of a nitrogenous material."

"Protein," explained David.

"I do not understand that word."

"What are your tissues composed of?"

"Of ⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯. It is entirely different.

There is practically no nitrogen in it."

"You could offer me no food, then?"

"I am afraid not. ⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯ says any organic matter of our planet would be quickly poisonous to you. We could manufacture simple compounds of your life type that you might feed on, but the complex nitrogenous material that forms the bulk of your tissue is quite beyond us without much study. Are you hungry, creature?" There was no mistaking the sympathy and concern in her thoughts. (David persisted in thinking of it as a voice.)

He said, "For the moment I have still my own food."

The feminine voice said, "It seems unpleasant for me to think of you simply as a creature. What is your name?" Then, as though she feared she might not be understood, "How do your fellow creatures identify you?"

"I am called David Starr."

"I do not understand that except that there seems a reference to the suns of the universe. Do they call you that because you are a traveler through space?"

"No. Many of my people travel through space. 'Starr' has no particular meaning at present. It is simply a sound to identify me, as your names are simply sounds. At least they make no picture; I cannot understand them."

"What a pity. You should have a name which would indicate your travels through space; the way in which you range from one end of the universe to the other. If I were a creature such as yourself, it seems to me that it would be fitting I should be called 'Space Ranger.'"

And so it was that from the lips of a living creature he did not see and could never see in its true form David Starr heard, for the first time, the name by which, eventually, all the Galaxy would know him.


11. The Storm

A deeper, slower voice now took form in David's mind. It said gravely, "I greet you, creature. It is a good name ⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯ has just given you."

The feminine voice said, "I make way for you ⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯ ⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯"

By the loss of a faint touch upon his mind David became unmistakably aware that the owner of the feminine voice was no longer in mental contact. He turned warily, laboring once more under the illusion that there was direction to these voices and finding his untried mind still attempting to interpret in the old inadequate ways something with which it had never before come in contact. The voice came from no direction, of course. It was within his mind.

The creature of the deep voice gauged the difficulty. It said, "You are disturbed by the failure of your sense equipment to detect me and I do not wish you to be disturbed. I could adopt the outward physical appearance of a creature such as yourself but that would be a poor and undignified imposture. Will this suffice?"

David Starr watched the glimmer appear in the air before him. It was a soft streak of blue-green light about seven feet high and a foot wide.

He said calmly, "That is quite sufficient."

The deep voice said, "Good! And now let me explain who I am. I am the Administrator of ⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯ ⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯. The report of the capture of a live specimen of the new surface life came to me as a matter of course. I will examine your mind."

The office of the new being had been a jumble of sound, and nothing more, to David, but he had caught the unmistakable sense of dignity and responsibility that accompanied it. Nevertheless he said firmly, "I would much prefer that you remained outside my mind."

"Your modesty," said the deep voice, "is quite understandable and praiseworthy. I should explain that my inspection would be confined most carefully to the outer fringes only. I would avoid very scrupulously any intrusion on your inner privacy."

David tensed his muscles uselessly. For long minutes there was nothing. Even the illusive feathery touch upon his mind, that had been present when the owner of the feminine voice had probed it, was absent from this new and more experienced inspection. And yet David was aware, without knowing how he could possibly be aware, of the compartments of his mind being delicately opened, then closed, without pain or disturbance.

The deep voice said, "I thank you. You will be released very shortly and returned to the surface."

David said defiantly, "What have you found in my mind?"

"Enough to pity your fellows. We of the Inner Life were once like yourselves so we have some comprehension of it. Your people are out of balance with the universe. You have a questioning mind that seeks to understand what it dimly senses, without possessing the truer, deeper senses that alone can reveal reality to you. In your futile seeking after the shadows that encompass you, you drive through space to the outer most limits of the Galaxy. It is as I have said; ⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯ has named you well. You are a race of Space Rangers indeed.

"Yet of what use is your ranging? The true victory is within. To understand the material universe, you must first become divorced from it as we are. We have turned away from the stars and toward ourselves. We have retreated to the caverns of our one world and abandoned our bodies. With us there is no longer death, except when a mind would rest; or birth, except when a mind gone to rest must be replaced."

David said, "Yet you are not all-sufficient to yourselves. Some of you suffer from curiosity. The being who spoke to me before wished to know of Earth."

"⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯ is recently born. Her days are not equal to a hundred revolutions of the planet about the sun.

Her control of thought patterns is imperfect. We who are mature can easily conceive all the various designs into which your Earth history could have been woven.

Few of them would be comprehensible to yourself, and not in an infinity of years could we have exhausted the thoughts possible in the consideration of your one world, and each thought would have been as fascinating and stimulating as the one thought which happens to represent reality. In time ⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯ will learn that this is so."

"Yet you yourself take the trouble to examine my mind."

"In order that I may make certain of that which I previously merely suspected. Your race has the capacity for growth. Under the best circumstances a million revolutions of our planet-a moment in the life of the Galaxy-may see it achieve the Inner Life. That would be good. My race would have a companion in eternity and companionship would benefit us mutually."

"You say we may achieve it," said David cautiously.

"Your species have certain tendencies my people never had. From your mind I can see easily that there are tendencies against the welfare of the whole."

"If you speak of such things as crime and war, then see in my mind that the vast majority of humans fights the anti-social tendencies and that though our progress against them is slow, it is certain."

"I see that. I see more. I see that you yourself are eager for the welfare of the whole. You have a strong and healthy mind, the essence of which I would not be sorry to see made into one of ours. I would like to help you in your strivings."

"How?" demanded David.

"Your mind is full of suspicion again. Relieve your tension. My help would not be through personal interference in the activities of your people, I assure you. Such interference would be incomprehensible to yourselves and undignified for myself. Let me suggest instead the two inadequacies which you are most aware of in yourself.

"First, since you are composed of unstable ingredients, you are a creature of no permanence. Not only will you decompose and dissolve in a few revolutions of the planet, but if before then you are subjected to any of a thousand different stresses, you will die. Secondly, you feel that you can work best in secrecy, yet not long ago a fellow creature recognized your true identity although you had pretended to a different identity altogether. Is what I have said true?"

David said, "It is true. But what can you do about it?"

The deep voice said, "It is already done and in your hand."

And there was a soft-textured something in David Starr's hand. His fingers almost let it drop before they realized they were holding it. It was a nearly weightless strip of—Well, of what?

The deep voice answered the unspoken thought placidly. "It is neither gauze, nor fiber, nor plastic, nor metal. It is not matter at all as your mind under stands matter. It is ⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯⎯. Put it over your eyes."

David did as he was told, and it sprang from his hands as though it had a primitive life of its own, folding softly and warmly against every fold of structure of his forehead, eyes, and nose; yet it did not prevent him from breathing or from blinking his eyes.

"What has been accomplished?" he asked.

Before the words were out of his mouth there was a mirror before him, manufactured out of energy as silently and quickly as thought itself. In it he could see himself but dimly. His farmboy costume, from hip boots to wide lapels, appeared out of focus through a shadowy mist that changed continuously, as though it were a thin smoke that drifted yet never vanished. From his upper lip to the top of his head all was lost in a shimmer of light that blazed without blinding and through which nothing could be seen. As he stared, the mirror vanished, returning to the store of energy from which it had been momentarily withdrawn.

David asked wonderingly, "Is that how I would appear to others?"

"Yes, if those others had only the sensory equipment you yourself have."

"Yet I can see perfectly. That means that light rays enter the shield. Why may they not leave then and reveal my face?"

"They do leave, as you say, but they are changed In the passage and reveal only what you see in the mirror. To explain that properly, I must use concepts lacking in your mind's understanding."

"And the rest?" David's hands moved slowly over the smoke that encircled him. He felt nothing.

The deep voice again answered the voiceless thought. "You feel nothing. Yet what appears to you as smoke is a barrier which is resistant to short-wave radiation and impassable to material objects of larger than molecular size."

"You mean it is a personal force-shield?"

"That is a crude description, yes."

David said, "Great Galaxy, it's impossible! It has been definitely proven that no force-field small enough to protect a man from radiation and from material inertia can be generated by any machine capable of being carried by a man."

"And so it is to any science of which your fellows are capable of evolving. But the mask you wear is not a power source. It is instead a storage device of energy which, for instance, can be derived from a few moments' exposure to a sun radiating as strongly as ours is from the distance of this planet. It is, further, a mechanism for releasing that energy at mental demand. Since your own mind is incapable of controlling the power, it has been adjusted to the characteristics of your mind and will operate automatically as needed. Remove the mask now."

David lifted his hand to his eyes and, again responsive to his will, the mask fell away and was only a strip of gauze in his hand.

The deep voice spoke for a last time. "And now you must leave us, Space Ranger."

And as gently as can be imagined, consciousness left David Starr.

Nor was there any transition in his return to consciousness. It came back in its entirety. There wasn't even a moment's uncertainty as to his whereabouts; none of the "Where am I?" attitude.

He knew with surety that he was standing on his good two legs upon the surface of Mars; that he was wearing the nosepiece again and breathing through it; that behind him was the exact place at the lip of the fissure where he had thrust the rope ladder's anchor for the beginning of the descent; that to his left, half-hidden among the rocks, was the scooter which Bigman had left behind.

He even knew the exact manner in which he had been returned to the surface. It was not memory; it was information deliberately inserted in his mind, probably as a final device to impress him with the power of the Martians over matter-energy interconversions. They had dissolved a runnel to the surface for him. They had lifted him against gravity at almost rocket speed, turning the solid rock to energy before him and congealing the energy to rock once more behind him, until he was standing on the planet's outer skin once more.

There were even words in his mind that he had never consciously heard. They were in the feminine voice of the caverns, and the words were simply these: "Have no fear, Space Ranger!"

He stepped forward and was aware that the warm, Earth-like surroundings that had been prepared for him in the cavern below no longer existed. He felt the cold the more for the contrast and the wind was stronger than any he had felt yet on Mars. The sun was low in the east as it had been when he first descended the fissure. Was that the previous dawn? He had no way of judging the passage of time during his unconscious intervals, but he felt certain his descent had not been more than two dawns before anyway.

There was a difference to the sky. It seemed bluer and the sun was redder. David frowned thoughtfully for a moment, then shrugged. He was becoming accustomed to the Martian landscape, that was all. It was beginning to seem more familiar and, through habit, he was interpreting it in the old Earthly patterns.

Meanwhile it would be better to begin the return to the farm dome immediately. The scooter was by no means so quick as a sand-car nor as comfortable. The less time spent on it the better.

He took approximate sightings among the rock formations and felt like an old hand because of it. The farmboys found their way across what seemed trackless desert by just this method. They would sight along a rock that "looked like a watermelon on a hat," proceed in that direction until level with one that "looked like a spaceship with two off-center jets" and head between it and a farther rock that "looked like a box with its top stove in." It was a crude method but it required no instruments other than a retentive memory and a picturesque imagination, and the farmboys had those in plenty.

David was following the route Bigman had recommended for speediest return with the least chance of going wrong among the less spectacular formations. The scooter jounced along, leaping crazily when it struck ridges and kicking up the dust when it turned, David rode with it, digging his heels firmly into the sockets provided for them and holding a metal steering leash tightly in each hand. He made no effort to cut his speed. Even if the vehicle turned over, there would be little chance for much harm to himself under Martian gravity.

It was another consideration that stopped him: the queer taste in his mouth and the itch along the side of his jawbone and down the line of his backbone. There was a faint grittiness in his mouth, and he looked back with distaste at the plume of dust that jetted out behind him like rocket exhaust. Strange that it should work its way forward and around him to fill his mouth as it did.

Forward and around! Great Galaxy! The thought that came to him at that moment clamped a cold, stifling hand upon his heart and throat.

He slowed the scooter and headed for a rocky ridge where it could stir up no dust. There he stopped it and waited for the air to grow clear. But it didn't. His tongue worked about, tasting the inside of his mouth and shrinking from the increasing roughness that came of fine grit. He looked at the redder sun and bluer sky with new understanding. It was the general dust in the air that was scattering more light, taking the blue from the sun and adding it to the sky in general. His lips were growing dry and the itching was spreading.

There was no longer doubt about it, and with a grim intensity of purpose he flung himself upon his scooter and dashed at top speed across the rocks, gravel, and dust.

Dust!

Dust!

Even on Earth men knew Intimately of, the Martian dust storm, which resembled only in sound the sandstorm of the Earthly deserts. It was the deadliest storm known to the inhabited Solar System. No man, caught as David Starr was now, without a sand-car as protection, miles from the nearest shelter, had ever, in all the history of Mars, survived a dust storm. Men had rolled in death throes within fifty feet of a dome, unable to make the distance while observers within neither dared nor could sally to the rescue without a sand-car.

David Starr knew that only minutes separated him from the same agonizing death. Already the dust was creeping remorselessly between his nosepiece and the skin of his face. He could feel it in his watering, blinking eyes.


12. The Missing Piece

The nature of the Martian dust storm is not well understood. Like Earth's Moon, the surface of Mars is, to a large extent, covered by fine dust. Unlike the Moon, Mars possesses an atmosphere capable of stirring up that dust. Usually this is not a serious matter. The Martian atmosphere is thin and winds are not long-sustained. But occasionally, for reasons unknown, though possibly connected with electron bombardments from space, the dust becomes electrically charged and each particle repels its neighbors. Even without wind they would tend to lift upward. Each step would raise a cloud that would refuse to settle, but would drift and wisp out through the air.

When to this a wind is added, a fully developed dust storm might be said to exist. The dust is never thick enough to obscure vision; that isn't its danger. It is rather the pervasiveness of the dust that kills.

The dust particles are extremely fine and penetrate everywhere. Clothes cannot keep them out; the shelter of a rocky ledge means nothing; even the nosepiece with its broad gasket fitting against the face is helpless to prevent the individual particle from working its way through.

At the height of a storm two minutes would suffice to arouse an unbearable itching, five minutes would virtually blind a man, and fifteen minutes would kill him. Even a mild storm, so gentle that it may not even be noticed by the people exposed, is sufficient to redden exposed skin in what are called dust burns.

David Starr knew all this and more. He knew that his own skin was reddening. He was coughing without its having any effect on clearing his caking throat. He had tried clamping his mouth shut, blowing his breath out during exhalations through the smallest opening he could manage. It didn't help. The dust crept in, working its way past his lips. The scooter was jerking irregularly now as the dust did to its motor what it was doing to David.

His eyes were swollen nearly closed now. The tears that streamed out were accumulating against the gasket at the bottom of the nosepiece and were fogging the eyepieces, through which he could see nothing anyway.

Nothing could stop those tiny dust particles but the elaborately machined seams of a dome or a sand-car. Nothing.

Nothing?

Through the maddening itch and the racking cough he was thinking desperately of the Martians. Would they have known that a dust storm was brewing? Could they have? Would they have sent him to the surface if they had known? From his mind they must have gleaned the information that he had only a scooter to carry him back to the dome. They might have as easily transported him to the surface just outside the farm dome, or, for that matter, even inside the dome.

They must have known conditions were right for a dust storm. He remembered how the being with the deep voice had been so abrupt in his decision to return David to the surface, as though he hurried in order that time might be allowed for David to be caught in the storm.

And yet the last words of the feminine voice, the words he had not consciously heard and which, therefore, he was certain had been inserted in his mind while he was being borne through rock to the surface, were: "Have no fear, Space Ranger."

Even as he thought all this he knew the answer. One hand was fumbling in his pocket, the other at his nosepiece. As the nosepiece lifted off, the partially protected nose and eyes received a fresh surge of dust, burning and irritating

He had the irresistible desire to sneeze, but fought it back. The involuntary intake of breath would fill his lungs with quantities of the dust. That in itself might be fatal.

But he was bringing up the strip of gauze he had taken from his pocket, letting it wrap about his eyes and nose, and then over it he slapped the nosepiece again.

Only then did he sneeze. It meant he drew in vast quantities of Mars's useless atmospheric gases, but no dust was coming. He followed that by force-breathing, gasping in as much oxygen as he could and puffing it out, flinging the dust of his mouth away; alternating that with deliberate inhalations through the mouth to prevent any oncoming of oxygen drunkenness.

Gradually, as the tears washed the dust out of his eyes and no new dust entered, he found he could see again. His limbs and body were obscured by the smokiness of the force-shield that surrounded him,. and he knew the upper part of his head to be invisible in the glow of his mask.

Air molecules could penetrate the shield freely, but, small though they were, the dust particles were large enough to be stopped. David could see the process with the naked eye. As each dust particle struck the shield, it was halted and the energy of its motion converted into light, so that at its point of attempted penetration a tiny sparkle showed. David found his body an ocean of such sparkles crowding one another, all the brighter as the Martian sun, red and smokily dim through the dust, allowed the ground below to remain in semi-darkness.

David slapped and brushed at his clothing. Dust clouds arose, too fine to see even if the cloudiness of the shield had not prevented sight in any case. The dust left but could not return. Gradually he became almost clear of the particles. He looked dubiously at the scooter and attempted to start its motor. He was rewarded only by a short, grating noise and then silence. It was to be expected. Unlike the sand-cars, scooters did not, could not, have enclosed motors.

He would have to walk. The thought was not a particularly frightening one. The farm dome was little more than two miles away and he had plenty of oxygen. His cylinders were full. The Martians had seen to that before sending him back.

He thought he understood them now. They did know the dust storm was coming. They might even have helped it along. It would be strange if, with their long experience with Martian weather and their advanced science, they had not learned the fundamental causes and mechanisms of dust storms. But in sending him out to face the storm, they knew he had the perfect defense in his pocket. They had not warned him of either the ordeal that awaited him or of the defense he carried. It made sense. If he were the man who deserved the gift of the force-shield, he would, or should, think of it himself. If he did not, he was the wrong man for the job.

David smiled grimly even as he winced at the touch of his clothing against inflamed skin as he stretched his legs across the Martian terrain. The Martians were coldly unemotional in risking his life, but he could almost sympathize with them. He had thought quickly enough to save himself, but he denied himself any pride in that. He should have thought of the mask much sooner.

The force-shield that surrounded him was making it easier to travel. He noted that the shield covered the soles of his boots so that they never made contact with the Martian surface but came to rest some quarter inch above it. The repulsion between himself and the planet was an elastic one, as though he were on many steel springs. That, combined with the low gravity, enabled him to devour the distance between himself and the dome in swinging giant strides.

He was in a hurry. More than anything else at the moment he felt the need of a hot bath.


By the time David reached one of the outer locks of the farm dome the worst of the storm was over and the light flashes on his force-shield had thinned to occasional sparks. It was safe to remove the mask from his eyes.

When the locks had opened for him, there were first of all stares, and then cries, as the farmboys on duty swarmed about him.

"Jumping Jupiter, it's Williams!"

"Where've you been, boy?"

"What happened?"

And above the confused cries and simultaneous questioning there came the shrill cry, "How did you get through the dust storm?"

The question penetrated, and there was a short silence.

Someone said, "Look at his face. It's like a peeled tomato."

That was an exaggeration, but there was enough truth to it to impress all who were there. Hands were yanking at his collar which had been tightly bound about his neck in the fight against the Martian cold. They shuffled him into a seat and put in a call for Hennes.

Hennes arrived in ten minutes, hopping off a scooter and approaching with a look that was compounded of annoyance and anger. There were no visible signs of any relief at the safe return of a man in his employ.

He barked, "What's this all about, Williams?"

David lifted his eyes and said coolly, "I was lost."

"Oh, is that what you call it? Gone for two days and you were just lost. How did you manage it?"

"I thought I'd take a walk and I walked too far."

"You thought you needed a breath of air, so you've been walking through two Martian nights? Do you expect me to believe that?"

"Are any sand-cars missing?"

One of the farmboys interposed hastily as Hennes reddened further. "He's knocked out, Mr. Hennes. He was out in the dust storm."

Hennes said, "Don't be a fool. If he were out in the dust storm, he wouldn't be sitting here alive."

"Well, I know," the farmboy said, "but look at him."

Hennes looked at him. The redness of his exposed neck and shoulders was a fact that could not be easily argued away.

He said, "Were you in the storm?"

"I'm afraid so," said David.

"How did you get through?"

"There was a man," said David. "A man in smoke and light. The dust didn't bother him. He called himself the Space Ranger."

The men were gathering close. Hennes turned on them furiously, his plump face working.

"Get the Space out of here!" he yelled. "Back to your work. And you, Jonnitel, get a sand-car out here."

It was nearly an hour before the hot bath he craved was allowed David. Hennes permitted no one else to approach him. Over and over again, as he paced the floor of his private office, he would stop in midstride, whirl in sudden fury, and demand of David, "What about this Space Ranger? Where did you meet him? What did he say? What did he do? What's this smoke and light you speak of?"

To all of which David would only shake his head slightly and say, "I took a walk. I got lost. A man calling himself the Space Ranger brought me back."

Hennes gave up eventually. The dome doctor took charge. David got his hot bath. His body was anointed with creams and injected with the proper hormones. He could not avoid the injection of Soporite as well. He was asleep almost before the needle was withdrawn.


He woke to find himself between clean, cool sheets in the sick bay. The reddening of the skin had subsided considerably. They would be at him again, he knew, but he would have to fight them off but a little while longer.

He was sure he had the answer to the food-poisoning mystery now; almost the whole answer. He needed only a missing piece or two, and, of course, legal proof.

He heard the light footstep beyond the head of his bed and stiffened slightly. Was it going to begin again so soon? But it was only Benson who moved into his line of vision. Benson, with his plump lips pursed, his thin hair in disarray, his whole face a picture of worry. He carried something that looked like an old-fashioned clumsy gun.

He said, "Williams, are you awake?"

David said, "You see I am."

Benson passed the back of his hand across a perspiring forehead. "They don't know I'm here. I shouldn't be, I suppose."

"Why not?"

"Hennes is convinced you're involved with this food poisoning. He's been raving to Makian and myself about It. He claims you've been out somewhere and have nothing to say about it now other than ridiculous stories. Despite anything I can do, I'm afraid you're in terrible trouble."

"Despite anything you can do? You don't believe Hennes's theory about my complicity in all this?"

Benson leaned forward, and David could feel his breath warm on his face as he whispered, "No, I don't. I don't because I think your story is true. That's why I've come here. I must ask you about this creature you speak of, the one you claim was covered with smoke and light. Are you sure it wasn't a hallucination, Williams?"

"I saw him," said David.

"How do you know he was human? Did he speak English?"

"He didn't speak, but he was shaped like a human." David's eyes fastened upon Benson. "Do you think it was a Martian?"

"Ah"—Benson's lips drew back in a spasmodic smile—"you remember my theory. Yes, I think it was a Martian. Think, man, think! They're coming out in the open now and every piece of information may be vital. We have so little time."

"Why so little time?" David raised himself to one elbow.

"Of course you don't know what's happened since you've been gone, but frankly, Williams, we are all of us in despair now." He held up the gun-like affair in his hand and said bitterly, "Do you know what this is?"

"I've seen you with it before."

"It's my sampling harpoon; it's my own invention. I take it with me when I'm at the storage bins in the city. It shoots a little hollow pellet attached to it by a metal-mesh cord into a bin of, let us say, grain. At a certain time after shooting an opening appears in the front of the pellet long enough to allow the hollow within to become packed with grain. After that the pellet closes again. I drag it back and empty out the random sample it has accumulated. By varying the time after shooting in which the pellet opens, samples can be taken at various depths in the bin."

David said, "That's ingenious, but why are you carrying it now?"

"Because I'm wondering if I oughtn't to throw it into the disposal unit after I leave you. It was my only weapon for fighting the poisoners. It has done me no good so far, and can certainly do me no good In the future."

"What has happened?" David seized the other's shoulder and gripped it hard. "Tell me."

Benson winced at the pain. He said, "Every member of the farming syndicates has received a new letter from whoever is behind the poisoning. There's no doubt that the letters and the poisonings are caused by the same men, or rather, entities. The letters admit it now."

"What do they say?"

Benson shrugged. "What difference do the details make? What it amounts to is a demand for complete surrender on our part or the food-poisoning attacks will be multiplied a thousandfold. I believe it can and will be done, and if that happens, Earth and Mars, the whole system, in fact, will panic."

He rose to his feet. ''I've told Makian and Hennes that I believe you, that your Space Ranger is the clue to the whole thing, but they won't believe me. Hennes, 1 think, even suspects that I'm in it with you."

He seemed absorbed in his own wrongs. David said, "How long do we have Benson?"

"Two days. No, that was yesterday. We have thirty-six hours now."

Thirty-six hours!

David would have to work quickly. Very quickly. But maybe there would yet be time. Without knowing it Benson had given him the missing piece to the mystery.


13. The Council Takes Over

Benson left some ten minutes later. Nothing that David told him satisfied him with regard to his theories connecting Martians and poisoning, and his uneasiness grew rapidly.

He said, "I don't want Hennes catching me. We've had—words."

"What about Makian? He's on our side, isn't he?"

"I don't know. He stands to be ruined by day after tomorrow. I don't think he has enough spine left to stand up to the fellow. Look, I'd better go. If you think of anything, anything at all, get it to me somehow, will you?"

He held out a hand. David took it briefly, and then Benson was gone.


David sat up in bed. His own uneasiness had grown since he had awakened. His clothes were thrown over a chair at the other end of the room. His boots stood upright by the side of the bed. He had not dared inspect them in Benson's presence; had scarcely dared look at them.

Perhaps, he thought pessimistically, they had not tampered with them. A farmboy's hip boots are inviolate. Stealing from a farmboy's hip boots, next to stealing his sand-car in the open desert, was the unforgivable crime. Even in death, a farmboy's boots were buried with him, with the contents unremoved.

David groped inside the inner pocket of each boot in turn, and his fingers met nothingness. There had been a handkerchief in one, a few odd coins in the other. Undoubtedly they had gone through his clothing; he had expected that. But apparently they had not drawn the line at his boots. He held his breath as his arm dived into the recesses of one boot. The soft leather reached to his armpit and crumpled down as his fingers stretched out to the toes. A surge of pure gladness filled him as he felt the soft gauze-like material of the Martian mask.

He had hidden it there on general principles before the bath, but he had not anticipated the Soporite. It was luck, purely, that they had not searched the toes of his boots. He would have to be more careful henceforward.

He put the mask into a boot pocket and clipped it shut. He picked up the boots; they had been polished while he slept, which was good of someone, and showed the almost instinctive respect which the farm-boy had for boots, anyone's boots.

His clothes had been put through the Refresher Spray as well. The shining plastic fibers of which they were composed had a brand-new smell about them. The pockets were all empty, of course, but underneath the chair all the contents were in a careless heap. He sorted them out. Nothing seemed to be missing. Even the handkerchief and coins from his boot pockets were there.

He put on underclothes and socks, the one-piece overall, and then the boots. He was buckling his belt when a brown-bearded farmboy stepped in.

David looked up. He said coldly, "What do you want, Zukis?"

The farmboy said, "Where do you think you're going, Earthie?" His little eyes were glaring viciously, and to David the other's expression was much the same as it had been the first day he had laid eyes on him. David could recall Hennes's sand-car outside the Farm Employment Office, himself just settling into the seat, and the bearded angry face glowering at him, while a weapon fired before he could move to defend himself.

"Nowhere," said David, "that I need ask your permission."

"That so? You're wrong, mister, because you're staying right here. Hennes's orders." Zukis blocked the door with his body. Two blasters were conspicuously displayed at either side of his drooping belt.

Zukis waited. Then, his greasy beard splitting in two as he smiled yellowly, he said, "Think maybe you've changed your mind, Earthie?"

"Maybe," said David. He added, "Someone got in to see me just now. How come? Weren't you watching?"

"Shut up," snarled Zukis.

"Or were you paid off to look the other way for a while? Hennes might not like that."

Zukis spat, missing David's boots by half an inch.

David said, "You want to toss out your blasters and try that again?"

Zukis said, "Just watch out if you want any feeding, Earthie."

He closed and locked the door behind him as he left. A few minutes passed and there was the sound of clattering metal against it as it opened again. Zukis carried a tray. There was the yellow of squash on it and the green of something leafy.

"Vegetable salad," said Zukis. "Good enough for you."

A blackened thumb showed over one end of the tray. The other end balanced upon the back of his wrist so that the farmboy's hand was not visible.

David straightened, leaping to one side, bending his legs under him and bringing them down upon the mattress of the bed. Zukis, caught by surprise, turned in alarm, but David, using the springs of the mattress as extra leverage, launched into the air.

He collided heavily with the farmboy, brought down one hand flatly on the tray, ripping it out of the other's grasp and hurling it to the ground while twining his other hand in the farmboy's beard.

Zukis dropped, yelling hoarsely. David's booted foot came down on the farmboy's hand, the one that had been hidden under the tray. The other's yell be came an agonized scream as the smashed fingers flew open, releasing the cocked blaster they had been holding.

David's hand whipped away from the beard and caught the other's unharmed wrist as it groped for the second blaster. He brought it up roughly, across the prone chest, under the head and out again. He pulled.

"Quiet," he said, "or I'll tear your arm loose from its socket."

Zukis subsided, his eyes rolling, his breath puffing out wetly. He said, "What are you after?"

"Why were you hiding the blaster under the tray?"

"I had to protect myself, didn't I? In case you jumped me while my hands were full of tray?"

"Then why didn't you send someone else with the tray and cover him?"

"I didn't think of that," whined Zukis.

David tightened pressure a bit and Zukis's mouth twisted in agony. "Suppose you tell the truth, Zukis."

"I-I was going to kill you."

"And what would you have told Makian?" '

"You were-trying to escape."

"Was that your own idea?"

"No. It was Hennes's. Get Hennes. I'm just following orders."

David released him. He picked up one blaster and flicked the other out of its holster. "Get up."

Zukis rolled over on one side. He groaned as he tried to lift his weight on a mashed right hand and nearly torn left shoulder.

"What are you going to do? You wouldn't shoot an unarmed man, would you?"

"Wouldn't you?" asked David.

A new voice broke in. "Drop those guns, Williams," It said crisply.

David moved his head quickly. Hennes was in the doorway, blaster leveled. Behind him was Makian, face gray and etched with lines. Hennes's eyes showed his intentions plainly enough and his blaster was ready.

David dropped the blasters he had just torn from Zukis.

"Kick them over," said Hermes.

David did so.

"Now. What happened?"

David said, "You know what happened. Zukis tried a little assassination at your orders and I didn't sit still and take it."

Zukis was gabbling. "No, sir, Mr. Hennes. No, sir. It was no such thing. I was bringing in his lunch when he jumped me. My hands were full of tray; I had no chance to defend myself."

"Shut up," said Hennes contemptuously. "We'll have a talk about that later. Get out of here and be back with a couple of pinions in less than no time."

Zukis scrambled out.

Makian said mildly, "Why the pinions, Hennes?"

"Because this man is a dangerous impostor, Mr. Makian. You remember I brought him in because he seemed to know something about the food poisoning."

"Yes. Yes, of course."

"He told us a story about a younger sister being poisoned by Martian jam, remember? I checked on that. There haven't been too many deaths by poisoning that have reached the authorities the way this man claimed his sister's death had. Less than two hundred and fifty, in fact. It was easy to check them all and I had that done. None on record involved a twelve-year-old girl, with a brother of Williams' age, who died over a jar of jam."

Makian was startled. "How long have you known this, Hennes?"

"Almost since he came here. But I let it go. I wanted to see what he was after. I set Griswold to watching him— ''

"To trying to kill me, you mean," interrupted David.

"Yes, you would say that, considering that you killed him because he was fool enough to let you suspect him." He turned back to Makian. "Then he managed to wiggle himself in with that soft-headed sap, Benson, where he could keep close check on our progress in investigating the poisoning. Then, as the last straw, he slipped out of the dome three nights ago for a reason he won't explain. You want to know why? He was reporting to the men who hired him-the ones who are behind all this. It's more than just a coincidence that the ultimatum came while he was gone."

"And where were you?" demanded David suddenly. "Did you stop keeping tabs on me after Griswold died? If you knew I was gone on the kind of deal you suspected, why wasn't a party sent out after me?"

Makian looked puzzled, and began, "Well—"

But David interrupted. "Let me finish, Mr. Makian. I think that maybe Hennes wasn't in the dome the night I left and even the day and night after I left. Where were you, Hennes?"

Hennes stepped forward, his mouth twisting. David's cupped hand was near his face. He did not believe Hennes would shoot, but he was ready to use the shield-mask if he had to.

Makian placed a nervous hand on Hennes's shoulder. "I suggest we leave him for the Council."

David said quickly, "What is this about the Council?"

"None of your business," snarled Hennes.

Zukis was back with the pinions. They were flexible plastic rods that could be bent in any way and then frozen in position. They were infinitely stronger than ropes or even metal handcuffs.

"Hold out your hands," ordered Hennes.

David did so without a word. The pinion was wrapped twice about his wrists. Zukis, leering, drew them savagely tight then drew out the pin, which action resulted in an automatic molecular rearrangement that hardened the plastic. The energy developed in that rearrangement made the plastic warm to the touch. Another pinion went about David's ankles.

David sat quietly down upon the bed. In one hand he still had the shield-mask. Makian's remark about the Council was proof enough to David that he would not remain pinioned long. Meanwhile he was content to allow matters to develop further.

He said again, "What's this about the Council?"

But he need not have asked. There was a yell from outside, and a catapulting figure hurled itself through the door with the cry of, "Where's Williams?"

It was Bigman himself, as large as life, which wasn't very large. He was paying no attention to anything but David's seated figure. He was speaking rapidly and breathlessly. "I didn't hear you were through a dust storm till I landed inside the dome. Sizzling Ceres, you must have been fried. How did you get through it? I— I—"

He noticed David's position for the first time, and turned furiously. "Who in Space has the boy tied up like this?"

Hennes had caught his breath by now. One of his hands shot out and caught Bigman's overall collar in a brutal grip that lifted his slight body "off the floor.

"I told you what would happen, slug, if I caught you here again."

Bigman yelled, "Let go, you pulp-mouth jerk! I've got a right in here. I give you a second and a half to let me go or you'll answer to the Council of Science."

Makian said, "For Mars' sake, Hennes, let him go."

Hennes let him drop. "Get out of here."

"Not on your life. I'm an accredited employee of the Council. I came here with Dr. Silvers. Ask him."

He nodded at the tall, thin man just outside the door. His name suited him. His hair was silver-white and he had a mustache of the same shade.

"If you'll pardon me," said Dr. Silvers, "I would like to take charge of matters. The government at International City on Earth has declared a state of System Emergency and all the farms will be under the control of the Council of Science henceforward. I have been assigned to take over the Makian Farms."

"I expected something like this," muttered Makian unhappily.

"Remove this man's pinions," ordered Dr. Silvers.

Hennes said, "He's dangerous."

"I will take full responsibility."

Bigman jumped and clicked his heels. "On your way, Hennes."

Hennes paled in anger, but no words came.


Three hours had passed when Dr. Silvers met Makian and Hennes again in Makian's private quarters.

He said, "I'll want to go over all the production records of this farm for the last six months. I will have to see your Dr. Benson with regard to whatever advances he has made in connection with solving this food-poisoning problem. We have six weeks to break this matter. No more."

"Six weeks," exploded Hennes. "You mean one day."

"No, sir. If we haven't the answer by the time the ultimatum expires, all exports of food from Mars will be stopped. We will not give in while a single chance remains."

"By Space," said Hennes. "Earth will starve."

"Not for six weeks," said Dr. Silvers. "Food supplies will last that long, with rationing."

"There'll be panic and rioting," said Hennes.

"True," said Dr. Silvers grimly. "It will be most unpleasant."

"You'll ruin the farm syndicates," groaned Makian.

"It will be ruined anyway. Now, I intend to see Dr. Benson this evening. We will have a four-way conference tomorrow at noon. Tomorrow midnight, if nothing breaks anywhere on Mars or at the Moon's Central Laboratories, the embargo goes into effect and arrangements will be made for an all-Mars conference of the various syndicate members."

"Why?" asked Hennes.

"Because," said Dr. Silvers, "there is reason to think that whoever is behind this mad crime must be connected with the farms closely. They know too much about the farms for any other conclusion to be arrived at."

"What about Williams?"

"I've questioned him. He sticks to his story, which is, I'll admit, queer enough. I've sent him to the city, where he'll be questioned further; under hypnosis, if necessary."

The door signal flashed.

Dr. Silvers said, "Open the door, Mr. Makian."

Makian did so, as though he were not owner of one of the largest farms on Mars and, by virtue of that fact, one of the richest and most powerful men in the Solar System.

Bigman stepped in. He looked at Hermes challengingly. He said, "Williams is on a sand-car heading back for the city under guard."

"Good," said Dr. Silvers, his thin lips set tightly.

A mile outside the farm dome the sand-car stopped. David Starr, nosepiece in place, stepped out. He waved to the driver, who leaned out and said, "Remember! Lock 7! We'll have one of our men there to let you in."

David smiled and nodded. He watched the sand-car continue its trip toward the city and then turned back on foot to the farm dome.

The men of the Council co-operated, of course. They had helped him in his desire to leave openly and to return secretly, but none of them, not even Dr. Silvers, knew the purpose of his request.

He had the pieces to the puzzle, but he still needed the proof.


14. 'I Am the Space Ranger!'

Hennes entered his bedroom in a haze compounded equally of weariness and anger. The weariness was simple. It was nearing 3 a.m. He had not had too much rest the last two nights or, for that matter, much relief of tension in the last six months. Yet he had felt it necessary to sit through the session this Dr. Silvers of the Council had had with Benson.

Dr. Silvers had not liked that, and that accounted for one bit of the anger that drenched and drowned him. Dr. Silvers! An old incompetent who came bustling down from the city thinking he could get to the bottom of the trouble in a day and a night when all the science of Earth and Mars had been exerting itself for months to no avail. And Hennes was angry at Makian as well for becoming as limp as well-oiled boots and nothing more than the simple lackey of the white-headed fool. Makian! Two decades ago he had been almost a legend as the toughest owner of the toughest farm on Mars.

There was Benson, too, and his interference with Hennes's plans for settling the interfering greenhorn, this Williams, in the quickest and easiest way. And Griswold and Zukis, who were too stupid to carry through the necessary steps that would have won over the weakness of Makian and the sentimentality of Benson.

He pondered briefly the advisability of a Soporite pill. On this night he wanted rest for the necessary keenness of the next day and yet his anger might keep sleep away.

He shook his head. No. He could not risk drugged helplessness in the event of some crucial turn of events in the night.

He compromised by throwing the toggle switch that magnetically bound the door in place. He even tested the door briefly to make sure the electromagnetic circuits worked. Personal doors, in the totally masculine and informal life of a farm dome, were so frequently locked that it was not uncommon to have insulation wear through, wires fall loose, without anyone being the wiser over the years. His own door had not been locked, to his knowledge, since he had first taken the job.

The circuit was in order. The door did not even tremble as he pulled at it. So much for that.

He sighed heavily, sat down upon the bed, and removed his boots, first one, then the other. He rubbed his feet wearily, sighed again, then stiffened; stiffened so suddenly that he shot off the bed without really being aware of moving.

His stare was one of complete bewilderment. It couldn't be. It couldn't be! It would mean that William's foolish story was true. It would mean that Benson's ridiculous mouthings about Martians might, after all, turn out to be—

No, he refused to believe that. It would be easier to believe that his lack-sleep mind was having a private joke.

Yet the dark of the room was alight with the cold blue-white brilliance that carried no glare with it. By it he could see the bed, the walls, the chair, the dresser, even his boots, standing where he had just placed them. And he could see the man creature with only a blaze of light where a head ought to be and no distinct feature elsewhere; rather a kind of smoke instead.

He felt the wall against his back. He had not been conscious of his retreat backward.

The object spoke, and the words were hollow and booming as though they carried an echo with them.

The object said, "I am the Space Ranger!"

Hennes drew himself up. First surprise over, he forced himself into calmness. In a steady voice he said, "What do you want?"

The Space Ranger did not move or speak, and Hennes found his eyes fastened upon the apparition.

The foreman waited, his chest pumping, and still the thing of smoke and light did not move. It might have been a robot geared to make the one statement of identity. For a moment Hennes wondered if that might be the case, and surrendered the thought as soon as it was born. He was standing next to the chest of drawers, and not all his wonder allowed him to forget that fact. Slowly his hand was moving.

In the light of the thing itself his motion was not invisible, but it paid no attention. Hennes's hand was resting lightly on the surface of the bureau in a pretense of innocent gesture. The robot, Martian, man, whatever it was, Hennes thought, would not know the secret of the bureau. It had hidden in the room, waiting, but it had not searched the room. Or if it had done so, it had been a most skillful job, since even now Hennes's flicking eye could note no single abnormal thing about the room; nothing misplaced; nothing where it should not be, except for the Space Ranger itself.

His fingers touched a little notch in the wood. It was a common mechanism and few farm managers on Mars lacked one. In a way it was old-fashioned, as old-fashioned as the imported wooden bureau itself, a tradition dating back to the lawless old days of the farming pioneers, but tradition dies hard. The little notch moved slightly under his fingernail and a panel in the side of the chest dropped outward. Hennes was ready for it, and the hand was a blur of motion toward the blaster which the moving panel had revealed.

He held the blaster now, aimed dead center, and in all that tune the creature had not moved. What passed for arms dangled emptily,

Hennes found confidence sweeping back. Robot, Martian, or man, the object could not withstand a blaster. It was a small weapon, and the projectile it hurled was almost contemptible in size. The old-fashioned "guns" of ancient days carried metal slugs that were rocks in comparison. But the small projectile of the blaster was far more deadly. Once set in motion, anything that stopped it tripped a tiny atomic trigger that converted a sub-microscopic fraction of its mass into energy, and in that conversion the object that stopped it, whether rock, metal, or human flesh, was consumed to the accompaniment of a tiny noise like the flick of a fingernail against rubber. Hennes said in a tone that borrowed menace from the blaster he held, "Who are you? What do you want?"

Once again the object spoke, and once again it said slowly, "I am the Space Ranger!"

Hennes's lips curved in cold ferocity as he fired.

The projectile left the muzzle, raced squarely at the object of smoke, reached it, and stopped. It stopped instantaneously, without touching the body that was still one quarter of an inch beyond its final penetration. Even the concussion of collision was not carried beyond the force-shield barrier which absorbed all the projectile's momentum, converting it into a flare of light.

That flare of light was never seen. It was drowned out in the intense blaze that was the blaster projectile exploding into energy as it stopped with no surrounding matter to shield the blast of light. It was as though a pin-sized sun existed in the room for a tiny fraction of a second.

Hennes, with a wild yell, threw his hands to his eyes as though to protect them against a physical blow. It was too late. Minutes later, when he dared open his eyelids, his aching, burning eyes could tell him nothing. Open or closed, he saw only red-studded blackness. He could not see the Space Ranger whirl into motion, pounce upon his boots, search their pockets with flying fingers, break the door's magnetic circuit, and slip out of the room seconds before the inevitable crowd of people with their confused cries of alarm had begun to gather.

Hennes's hand still covered his eyes when he heard them. He called, "Get the thing! Get him! He's hi the room. Tackle him, you Mars-forsaken, black-booted cowards."

"There's no one in the room," half-a-dozen voices called, and someone added, "Smells like a blaster, though."

A firmer, more authoritative voice said, "What's wrong, Hennes?" It was Dr. Silvers.

"Intruders," said Hennes, shaking in frustration and wrath. "Doesn't anyone see him? What's the

matter with all of you? Are you—" He couldn't say the word. His blinking eyes were watering and blurred light was just beginning to make its way into them again. He couldn't say "blind."

Silvers asked, "Who was the intruder? Can you describe him?"

And Hennes could only shake his head helplessly. How could he explain? Could he tell them of a nightmare of smoke that could speak and against which a blaster bullet could only explode prematurely and without damage except to the man who sped it on its way?

Dr. James Silvers made his way back to his room in dull gloom. This disturbance that had routed him out of his room before he had completed preparation for bed, this aimless running about of men, the tongue-tied lack of explanation on the part of Hennes, all were to him nothing but a series of pinpricks. His eyes were fixed on tomorrow.

He had no faith in victory, no faith in the efficacy of any embargo. Let the food shipments stop. Let even a few on Earth find out why, or, worse still, invent their own theories therefor, and the results might be more frightful than any mass poisoning.

This young David Starr expressed confidence, but so far his actions inspired none in himself. His story of a Space Ranger was a poorly calculated one, fit only to arouse the suspicions of men such as Hennes and bringing him almost to his death. It was fortunate for the youngster that he, Silvers, had arrived at the proper time. Nor had he explained the reasons for such a story. He had merely expounded his plans for leaving the city and then secretly returning. Yet when Silvers had first received Starr's letter, brought by the little fellow, the one that called himself Bigman in tremendous defiance of the truth, he had quickly checked with Council headquarters on Earth. It had confirmed that David Starr was to be obeyed in all particulars.

Yet how could such a young man—

Dr. Silvers halted. That was strange! The door to his room, which he had left ajar in his haste, was still ajar, but no light shone out into the hall. Yet he had not put it out before leaving. He could remember its glow behind him as he had hastened down the hall toward the stairs.

Had someone put it out for him on some strange impulse toward economy? It seemed hardly likely.

There was no sound within the room. He drew his blaster, threw the door open, and stepped firmly to where he knew the light switch to be located.

A hand dropped over his mouth.

He squirmed, but the arm was a large and muscular one, and the voice in his ear was familiar.

"It's all right, Dr. Silvers. I just didn't want you to give me away by yelling in surprise."

The arm dropped away. Dr. Silvers said, "Starr?''

"Yes. Close the door. It seemed your room would be the best hiding place while the search goes on. In any case, I must speak to you. Did Hennes say what had happened?"

"No, not really. Were you involved in that?"

David's smile was lost in the darkness. "In a way, Dr. Silvers. Hennes was visited by the Space Ranger, and in the confusion I was able to reach your room with no one, I hope, having seen me."

The old scientist's voice rose despite himself. "What are you saying? I am in no mood for jokes."

"I am not joking. The Space Ranger exists."

"That will not do. The story did not impress Hennes and I deserve the truth."

"It impresses Hennes now, I am sure, and you will have the truth when tomorrow is done. Meanwhile, listen to me. The Space Ranger, as I say, exists, and he is our great hope. The game we play is a rickety one and though I know who is behind the poisoning, the knowledge may be useless. It is not a criminal or two, intending to gain a few millions by colossal blackmail, that we face, but rather a well-organized group that intends to gain control of the entire Solar System. It can carry on, I am convinced, even if we pick off the leaders, unless we learn enough of the details of the conspiracy to stop its workings cold."

"Show me the leader," said Dr. Silvers grimly, "and the Council will learn all necessary details."

"Never quickly enough," said David, just as grimly. "We must have the answer, all the answer, in less than twenty-four hours. Victory after that will not stop the death of millions upon Earth."

Dr. Silvers said, "What do you plan then?"

"In theory," said David, "I know who the poisoner is and how the poisoning was accomplished. To be met with anything but a flat denial on the part of the poisoner I need a bit of material proof. That I will have before the evening is over. To gain from him, even then, the necessary information, we must break his morale completely. There we must use the Space Ranger. Indeed, he has begun the process of morale-cracking already."

"The Space Ranger again. You are bewitched by this thing. If he does exist, if this is not a trick of yours in which even I must be a victim, who is he and what is he? How do you know he is not deceiving you?"

"I can tell no one the details of that. I can only tell you that I know him to be on the side of humanity. I trust him 'as I would myself, and I will take full responsibility for him. You must do as I say, Dr. Silvers, in this matter, or I warn you we will have no choice but to proceed without you. The importance of the game is such that even you may not stand in my way."

There was no mistaking the firm resolution of the voice. Dr. Silvers could not see the expression of David's face in the darkness, but somehow he did not have to. "What is it you wish me to do?"

"Tomorrow noon you will meet with Makian, Hennes, and Benson. Bring Bigman with you as a personal bodyguard. He is small, but he is quick and knows no fear. Have the Central Building protected by Council men, and I would advise that you have them armed with repeater blasters and gas pellets just in case. Now remember this, between twelve-fifteen and twelve-thirty leave the rear entrance unguarded and unobserved. I will guarantee its safety. Show no surprise at whatever happens thereafter."

"Will you be there?"

"No. My presence will not be necessary."

"Then?"

"There will be a visit from the Space Ranger. He knows what I know, and from him the accusations will be more shattering to the criminal."

Dr. Silvers felt hope arising in spite of himself. "Do you think, then, that we'll succeed?"

There was a long silence. Then David Starr said, "How can I tell? I can only hope so."

There was a longer silence. Dr. Silvers felt a tiny draft as though the door had opened. He turned to the light switch. The room flooded with light, and he found himself alone.


15. The Space Ranger Takes Over

David Starr worked as quickly as he dared. Not much was left of the night. Some of the excitement and tension were beginning to fade, and the utter weariness that he had been refusing to acknowledge for hours was soaking in just a bit.

His small pencil flash flickered here and there. He hoped earnestly that what he sought for would not be behind still additional locks. If it were, he would have to use force, and he was in no mood to attract attention just then. There was no safe that he could see; nothing equivalent to such an object. That was both good and bad. What he looked for would not be out of reach, but then again it might not be in the room at all.

That would be a pity after the carefully planned manner in which he had obtained the key to this room. Hennes would not recover quickly from the working out of that plan.

David smiled. He himself had been almost as surprised as Hennes at the very first. His words, "I am the Space Ranger," had been the first he had spoken through the force-shield since his emergence from the Martian caverns. He could not remember what his voice had sounded like there. Perhaps he had not truly heard it. Perhaps, under Martian influence, he had simply sensed his own thoughts as he did theirs.

Here on the surface, however, the sound of his own voice had left him thunderstruck. Its hollowness and booming depth had been entirely unexpected. He recovered, of course, and understood almost immediately. Although the shield let air molecules pass, it probably slowed them. Such interference would naturally affect sound waves.

David was not exactly sorry for that. The voice, as it was, would be helpful.

The shield had worked well against the blaster radiation. The flash had not been stopped entirely; he had seen it clearly. At least the effect upon himself had been nothing compared to that upon Hermes.

Methodically, even as his weary mind turned these things over, he was inspecting the contents of shelves and cabinets.

The light beam held steady for a moment. David reached past other gadgets to pick up a small metal object. He turned it over and over in the small light. He wound a little button which set at different positions and observed what happened afterward.

His heart bounded.

It was the final proof. The proof of all his speculations-the speculations that had been so reasonable and so complete and yet had rested upon nothing more than logic. Now the logic had been borne out by something made of molecules, something that could be touched and felt.

He put it in his hip-boot pocket to join his mask and the keys he had taken from Hennes's boots earlier in the night.

He locked the door behind him and stepped out into the open. The dome above was beginning to gray visibly. Soon the main fluorescents would go on and day would officially begin. The last day, either for the poisoners or for Earth civilization as it then was.

Meanwhile there would be a chance for sleep.


The Makian farm dome lay in a frozen quiet. Few of the farmboys could even guess at what was going on. That it was something serious was, of course, obvious, but further than that it was impossible to see. Some few whispered that Makian had been caught in serious financial irregularities, but no one could believe it. It wasn't even logical, since why would they send in an army just for that?

Certainly hard-faced men in uniform circled Central Building with repeater blasters cradled in their arms. On the roof of the building two artillery pieces had been set up. And the area around it was deserted. All farmboys, except those necessary for the maintenance of essential utilities, had been restricted to barracks. Those few excepted were ordered to remain strictly at their jobs.

At 12:15 p.m. exactly, the two men patrolling the rear of the building separated, moved away, leaving that area unguarded. At twelve-thirty they returned and took up their patrols. One of the artillerymen on the roof afterward stated that he had seen someone enter the building in that interval. He admitted he had caught only a brief glimpse and his description did not make very much sense, since he said it seemed to be a man on fire.

Nobody believed him at the time.

Dr. Silvers was not certain of anything. Not at all certain. He scarcely knew how to begin the session. He looked at the other four that sat about the table.

Makian. He looked as if he hadn't slept in a week. Probably hadn't, either. He hadn't spoken a word so far. Silvers wondered if he was completely aware of his surroundings.

Hennes. He was wearing dark glasses. He took them off at one time and his eyes were bloodshot and angry. Now he sat there muttering to himself.

Benson. Quiet and unhappy. Dr. Silvers had spent several hours with him the night before and there was no doubt in his mind that the failures of his investigations were an embarrassment and a grief to him. He had spoken about Martians, native Martians, as causes of the poisonings, but Silvers had known better than to take that seriously.

Bigman. The only happy one of the lot. To be sure he understood only a fragment of the real crisis. He was leaning back in his chair, obviously pleased at being at the same table with important people, savoring his role to the full.

And there was one additional chair that Silvers had brought to the table. It stood there, empty and waiting. No one commented on the fact.

Dr. Silvers kept the conversation going somehow, making insubstantial remarks, trying to mask his own uncertainties. Like the empty chair, he was waiting.

At twelve-sixteen he looked up and rose slowly to his feet. No words came. Bigman pushed his chair back and it went over with a crash. Hennes's head turned sharply and he grasped the table with fingers that became white with strain. Benson looked about and whimpered. Only Makian seemed unmoved. His eyes lifted, then, apparently, took in the sight merely as another incomprehensible element in a world that had grown too large and strange for him.

The figure in the doorway said, "I am the Space Ranger!"

In the bright lights of the room the glow that surrounded his head was somewhat subdued, the smoke that concealed his body somewhat more substantial than Hennes had seen it the night before.

The Space Ranger moved in. Almost automatically the seated men pushed their chairs away, clearing a place at the table, so that the one empty chair stood in lonely isolation.

The Space Ranger sat down, face invisible behind light, smoky arms extended before him, resting on the table, and yet not resting upon it. Between the table and the arms one quarter of an inch of empty space existed.

The Space Ranger said, "I have come to speak to criminals."

It was Hennes who broke the sticky silence that followed. He said, in a voice that dripped with husky venom, "You mean burglars?"

His hand went momentarily to his dark glasses but did not remove them. His fingers shook visibly.

The Space Ranger's voice was a monotone of slow, hollow words. "It is true I am a burglar. Here are the keys I abstracted from your boots. I need them no longer."

Slivers of metal flashed across the table toward Hennes, who did not pick them up.

The Space Ranger went on, "But the burglary took place in order to prevent a greater crime. There is the crime of the trusted foreman, for instance, who periodically spent nights in Wingrad City on a one-man search for poisoners."

Bigman's little face puckered in glee. "Hey, Hennes," he called, "sounds like you're being paged."

But Hennes had eyes and ears only for the apparition across the table. He said, "What is the crime in that?"

"The crime," said the Space Ranger, "of a fast trip out in the direction of the Asteroids."

"Why? What for?"

"Is it not from the Asteroids that the poisoners' ultimata have come?"

"Are you accusing me of being behind the food poisoning? I deny it. I demand your proof. That is, if you think you need any proof. Perhaps you think that your masquerade can force me to admit a lie."

"Where were you the two nights before the final ultimatum was received?"

"I will not answer. I deny your right to question me."

"I will answer the question for you then. The machinery of the vast poisoning combine is located in the Asteroids, where what is left of the old pirate bands have gathered. The brains of the combine is here at Makian Farms."

Here Makian rose unsteadily to his feet, his mouth working.

The Space Ranger waved him down with a firm motion of his smoky arm and continued, "You, Hennes, are the go-between."

Hennes did remove his glasses now. His plump, sleek face, somewhat marred by his red-rimmed eyes, was set into a hard mold.

He said, "You bore me, Space Ranger, or whatever you call yourself. This conference, as I understand it, was for the purpose of discussing means of combating the poisoners. If it is being converted into a forum for the stupid accusations of a play actor, I am leaving."

Dr. Silvers reached across Bigman to grasp Hennes's wrist. "Please stay, Hennes. I want to hear more of this. No one will convict you without ample proof."

Hennes dashed Silvers's hand away and rose from his chair.

Bigman said quietly, "I'd love to see you shot, Hennes, which is exactly what you will be if you go out the door."

"Bigman is right," said Silvers. "There are armed men outside, with instructions to allow no one to leave without orders from me."

Hennes's fists clenched and unclenched. He said, "I will not contribute another word to this illegal procedure. You are all witnesses that I am being detained by force." He sat down again and folded his arms across his chest.

The Space Ranger began again, "And yet Hennes is only the go-between. He is too great a villain to be the real villain."

Benson said faintly, "You speak in contradictions."

"Only apparently. Consider the crime. You can learn a great deal about a criminal from the nature of the crime he commits. First, there is the fact that few people, comparatively, have died so far. Presumably the criminals could have gained what they wanted more quickly by beginning with wholesale poisonings, instead of merely threatening for six months during which they risked capture and gained nothing. What does this mean? It would seem that the leader somehow hesitates to kill. That is certainly not in character for Hermes. I have obtained most of my information from Williams, who is not among us now, and from him I know that after his arrival at the farm Hermes tried several times to arrange his murder."

Hennes forgot his resolve. He shouted, "A lie!" The Space Ranger went on, unheeding, "So Hennes would have no compunction against killing. We would have to find someone of gentler mold. Yet what would force an essentially gentle person to kill people he has never seen, who have done him no harm? After all, though an insignificant percentage of Earth's population has been poisoned, the dead number several hundred. Fifty of them were children. Presumably, then, there is a strong drive for wealth and power which overcomes his gentleness. What lies behind that drive? A life of frustration, perhaps, which has driven him into a morbid hatred of humanity as a whole, a desire to show those who despised him how great a man he really is. We look for a man, then, who might be expected to have an advanced inferiority complex. Where can we find such a one?"

All were watching the Space Ranger now with an intentness that burned in every eye. Something of keenness had returned even to Makian's expression. Benson was frowning in thought, and Bigman had forgotten to grin.

The Space Ranger continued, "Most important as a clue is what followed the arrival of Williams at the farm. He was at once suspected of being a spy. His story of the poisoning of his sister was easily shown to be false. Hermes, as I have said, was for outright murder. The leader, with his softer conscience, would take another method. He tried to neutralize the dangerous Williams by developing a friendship for him and pretending to unfriendliness with Hennes.

"Let us summarize. What do we know about the leader of the poisoners? He is a man with a conscience who has seemed friendly to Williams and unfriendly to Hennes. A man with an inferiority complex resulting from a life of frustration because he was different from others, less of a man, smaller—"

There was a rapid movement. A chair was thrust from the table, and a figure backed rapidly away, a blaster in his hand.

Benson rose to his feet and yelled, "Great Space. Bigman!"

Dr. Silvers cried helplessly, "But—but I was to bring him here as a bodyguard. He's armed."

For a moment Bigman stood there, blaster ready, watching each of them out of his sharp little eyes.


16. Solution

Bigman said, his high voice firm, "Don't let's draw any quick conclusions now. It may sound as if the Space Ranger is describing me, but he hasn't said so yet."

They watched him. No one spoke.

Bigman flipped his blaster suddenly, caught it by the muzzle, and tossed it onto the table where it skimmed noisily across in the direction of the Space Ranger. "I say I'm not the man, and there's my weapon to show I mean it."

The Space Ranger's smoke-obscured fingers reached for it.

"I also say you're not the man," he said, and the blaster skimmed back to Bigman.

Bigman pounced upon it, shoved it back in his holster, and sat down once more. "Now suppose you keep on talking, Space Ranger."

The Space Ranger said, "It might have been Bigman, but there are many reasons why it could not have been. In the first place, the enmity between Bigman and Hennes arose long before Williams appeared on the scene."

Dr. Silvers protested. "But look here. If the leader was pretending to be on the outs with Hennes, it might not have been just for Williams' sake. It might have been a long-standing scheme."

The Space Ranger said, "Your point is well taken, Dr. Silvers. But consider this. The leader, whoever he is, must be in complete control of the gang's tactics. He must be able to enforce his own squeamishness about killing upon a group of what are probably the most desperate outlaws in the system. There is only one way he can do that, and that is by arranging it so that they cannot possibly continue without him. How? By controlling the supply of poison and the method of poisoning. Surely Bigman could do neither."

"How do you know that?" demanded Dr. Silvers.

"Because Bigman doesn't have the training that would enable him to develop and produce a new poison more virulent than any known. He doesn't have the laboratory or the botanical and bacteriological training. He doesn't have access to the food bins at Wingrad City. All of which, however, does apply to Benson."

The agronomist, perspiring profusely, raised his voice in a weak yell. "What are you trying to do? Test me as you tested Bigman just now?"

"I didn't test Bigman," said the Space Ranger. "I never accused him. I do accuse you, Benson. You are the brains and leader of the food-poisoning combine."

"No. You're mad."

"Not at all. Quite sane. Williams first suspected you and passed his suspicions on to me."

"He had no reason to. I was perfectly frank with him."

"Too frank. You made the mistake of telling him that it was your opinion that Martian bacteria growing upon farm products were the source of the poison. As an agronomist, you must have known that was impossible. Martian life is not protein in nature and could no more feed on Earth plants than we could feed on rocks. So you told a deliberate lie, and that made everything else about you suspect. It made Williams wonder if perhaps you had yourself made an extract of Martian bacteria. The extract would be poisonous. Don't you think so?"

Benson cried wildly, "But how could I possibly spread the poison? You don't make sense."

"You had access to the Makian farm shipments. After the first few poisonings you could arrange to obtain samples from the storage bins at the city. You told Williams how you carefully took samples from different bins, from different levels of a single bin. You told him how you used a harpoon-like affair you invented yourself."

"But what is there wrong with that?"

"A good deal. Last night I obtained keys from Hennes. I used them to get into the one place in the farm dome which is consistently kept locked-your laboratory. There I found this." He held the small metal object up to the light.

Dr. Silvers said, "What is it, Space Ranger?"

"It is Benson's sample taker. It fits at the end of his food harpoon. Observe how it works."

The Space Ranger adjusted a small knob at one end. "Firing the harpoon." he said, "trips this safety catch. So! Now watch."

There was the faintest buzzing noise. It ended after five seconds, and the fore end of the sampler gaped open, remained so for a second, then closed.

"That's the way it's supposed to work," cried Benson. "I made no secret of it."

"No, you didn't," said the Space Ranger sternly. "You and Hennes had been quarreling for days over Williams. You hadn't the stomach to have him killed. At the very last you brought the harpoon with you to Williams' bedside to see if the sight of it would surprise him into some action that would give him away. It didn't, but Hennes would wait no longer, anyway. Zukis was sent in to kill him."

"But what's wrong with the sampler?" demanded Benson.

"Let me show its workings again. But this time, Dr. Silvers, please observe the side of the sampler toward yourself now."

Dr. Silvers leaned across the table, watching closely. Bigman, blaster out once more, divided his attention between Benson and Hennes. Makian was on his feet, leathery cheeks flushed.

Once again the sampler was set, once again the little mouth flew open, and this time, as they watched the neutral side indicated, a covering sliver of metal withdrew there as well, revealing a shallow depression that glistened gummily.

"There," said the Space Ranger, "you can see what happened. Each time Benson took a sample, a few grains of wheat, a piece of fruit, a leaf of lettuce was smeared with that colorless gum, a poisonous extract of Martian bacteria. It is a simple poison, no doubt, that is not affected by subsequent food processing and eventually turns up in a loaf of bread, a jar of jam, a can of baby food. It was a clever and diabolical trick."

Benson was beating on the table. "It's all a lie, a rotten lie!"

"Bigman," said the Space Ranger, "gag the man. Stand near him and don't let him move."

"Really," protested Dr. Silvers, "you're making a case, Space Ranger, but you must let the man defend himself."

"There is no time," said the Space Ranger, "and proof that will satisfy even you will be forthcoming quickly."

Bigman used his handkerchief as a gag. Benson struggled and then sat in sweating stillness as the butt of Bigman's blaster collided noisily with his skull.

"The next time," said Bigman, "it will be hard enough to knock you out; maybe fix you up with a concussion."

The Space Ranger rose. "You all suspected, or pretended to suspect, Bigman when I spoke of a man with an inferiority complex because he was small. There are more ways of being small than in size. Bigman compensates for his size by belligerence and loud assertion of his own opinions. The men here respect him because of this. Benson, however, living here on Mars among men of action finds himself despised as a 'college farmer,' ignored as a weakling, and looked down upon by men whom he considers much his inferiors. To be unable to compensate for this except by murder of the most cowardly sort is another and worse kind of smallness.

"But Benson is mentally sick. To get a confession out of him would be difficult; perhaps impossible. However, Hermes would do almost as well as a source of knowledge about the future activities of the poisoners. He could tell us exactly where in the Asteroids we could find his various henchmen. He could tell us where the supply of poison, for use at midnight tonight, is kept. He could tell us many things."

Hennes sneered. "I could tell you nothing, and I will tell you nothing. If you shoot Benson and myself right now, matters will proceed exactly as they would if we were alive. So do your worst."

"Would you talk," said the Space Ranger, "if we guaranteed your personal safety?"

"Who would believe in your guarantee?" said Hennes. "I'll stick to my story. I'm an innocent man. Killing us will do you no good."

"You realize that if you refuse to talk, millions of men, women, and children may die."

Hennes shrugged.

"Very well," said the Space Ranger. "I have been told something about the effects of the Martian poison Benson has developed. Once in the stomach, absorption is very quick; the nerves to the chest muscles are paralyzed; the victim can't breathe. It is painful strangulation stretched over five minutes. Of course that is when the poison has been introduced into the stomach."

The Space Ranger, as he spoke, drew from his pocket a small glass pellet. He opened the sampler and drew it across the gummed surface until the glitter of the glass had been obscured by a sticky coating.

"Now if," he said, "the poison were placed just within the lips, matters would be different. It would be absorbed much more slowly and would take effect much more gradually. Makian," he called suddenly, "there's the man who betrayed you, used your farm to organize the poisoning of men and the ruin of the farm syndicates. Grab his arms and pinion them."

The Space Ranger tossed a pinion upon the table.

Makian, with a cry of long-pent rage, threw himself on Hennes. For a moment wrath restored to him some of the strength of his youth and Hennes struggled in vain against him.

When Makian stepped away, Hennes was strapped to his chair, his arms drawn painfully behind and around its back, his wrists pinioned tightly.

Makian said between rasping pants, "After you talk, It will be my pleasure to take you apart with my ten fingers."

The Space Ranger circled the table now, approach-Ing Hennes slowly, the smeared glass pellet held in two fingers before him. Hennes shrank away. At the other end of the table Benson writhed desperately, and Bigman kicked him into stillness.

The Space Ranger pinched Hennes's lower lip and drew it out, exposing his teeth. Hennes tried to snap his head away, but the Space Ranger's fingers pinched together and Hennes let out a muffled scream.

The Space Ranger dropped the pellet in the space between lip and teeth.

"I believe it will take about ten minutes before you absorb enough poison through the mouth membranes to begin taking noticeable effect," said the Space Ranger. "If you agree to talk before then, we will remove the pellet and let you rinse your mouth. Otherwise, the poison will take effect slowly. Gradually it will become more and more difficult and painful to breathe, and finally, in about an hour, you will die of very slow strangulation. And if you do die, you will have accomplished nothing, because the demonstration will be very educational for Benson and we will proceed to sweat the truth out of him."

The perspiration trickled down Hennes's temples. He made choking noises in the back of his throat.

The Space Ranger waited patiently.

Hennes cried, "I'll talk. I'll talk. Take it out! Take it out!"

The words were muffled through his distorted lips, but their intent and the hideous terror in every line of his face were plain enough.

"Good! You had better take notes, Dr. Silvers."


It was three days before Dr. Silvers met David Starr again. He had had little sleep in that interval and he was tired, but not too tired to greet David gladly. Bigman, who had not left Silvers in all that interval, was equally effusive in his greetings.

"It worked," said Silvers. "You've heard about it, I'm sure. It worked unbelievably well."

"I know," said David, smiling. "The Space Ranger told me all about it."

"Then you've seen him since."

"Only for a moment or two."

"He disappeared almost immediately afterward. I mentioned him in my report; I had to, of course. But it certainly made me feel foolish. In any case, I have Bigman here and old Makian as witnesses."

"And myself," said David.

"Yes, of course. Well, it's over. We located the poison stores and cleaned out the Asteroids. There'll be two dozen men up for life sentences and Benson's work will actually be beneficial in the end. His experiments on Martian life were, in their way, revolutionary. It's possible a whole new series of antibiotics may be the final results of his attempts to poison Earth into submission. If the poor fool had aimed at scientific eminence, he would have ended a great man. Thank Hennes's confession for stopping him."

David said, "That confession was carefully planned for. The Space Ranger had been working on him since the night before."

"Oh, well, I doubt that any human could have withstood the danger of poisoning that Hennes was subject to. In fact, what would have happened if Hennes had been really innocent? The chance the Space Ranger took was a big one."

"Not really. There was no poison involved. Benson knew that. Do you suppose Benson would have left his sampler in his laboratory smeared with poison as evidence against himself? Do you suppose he kept any poison where it might be found by accident?"

"But the poison on the pellet."

"… was simple gelatin, unflavored. Benson would have known it would be something like that. That's why the Space Ranger did not try to get a confession out of him. That's why he had him gagged, to prevent a warning. Hennes might have figured it out for himself, if he hadn't been in blind panic."

"Well, I'll be tossed out into Space," said Dr. Silvers blankly.

He was still rubbing his chin when he finally made his excuses and went off to bed.

David turned to Bigman.

"And what will you be doing now, Bigman?"

Bigman said, "Dr. Silvers has offered me a permanent job with the Council. But I don't think I'll take it."

"Why not?"

"Well, I'll tell you, Mr. Starr. I sort of figure on going with you, wherever you happen to be going after this."

"I'm just going to Earth," said David.

They were alone, yet Bigman looked cautiously over his shoulder before he spoke. "It seems to me you'll be going lots of places besides Earth—Space Ranger."

"What?"

"Sure. I knew that when I first saw you come in with all that light and smoke. That's why I didn't take,you serious when it looked as if you were accusing me of being the poisoner." His face was broken out in a giant grin.

"Do you know what you're talking about?"

"I sure do. I couldn't see your face, or the details of your costume, but you were wearing hip boots and you were the right height and build."

"Coincidence."

"Maybe. I couldn't see the design on the hip boots but I made out a little of them, the colors, for instance. And you're the only farmboy I ever heard of that was willing to wear simple black and white."

David Starr threw his head back and laughed. "You win. Do you really want to join forces with me?"

"I'd be proud to," said Bigman.

David held out his hand and the two shook.

"Together then," said David, "wherever we go."


Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids

Isaac Asimov



Preface

Back in the 1950s, I wrote a series of six derring-do novels about David "Lucky" Starr and his battles against malefactors within the Solar System. Each of the six took place in a different region of the system and in each case I made use of the astronomical facts—as they were then known.

Now, a quarter-century later, Gregg Press is bringing out the novels in new hardcover editions; but what a quarter-century it has been! More has been learned about the worlds of our Solar System in this last quarter-century than in all the thousands of years of earlier observations.

Prior to the 1950s, you see, we could only look from Earth's surface; since then, we have been able to send out rocket probes to take photographs and make studies at close range.

The only one of the six Lucky Starr novels that has remained untouched by this—at least so far—is LUCKY STARR AND THE PIRATES OF THE ASTEROIDS, which was written in 1953. There is evidence that many of the asteroids may be a little darker and just a little larger than had been thought earlier, but that makes very little difference.

Therefore, Lucky can fight the pirates and engage in his deadly duels right now just as he did a quarter-century ago, when this book was written. It I had to write the novel today, I would hardly have to change a word.

Isaac Asimov


DEDICATION

To Frederik Pohl, That contradiction in termsA lovable agent.


1. The Doomed Ship

Fifteen minutes to zero time! The Atlas waited to take off. The sleek, burnished lines of the space-ship glittered in the bright Earthlight that filled the Moon's night sky. Its blunt prow pointed upward into empty space. Vacuum surrounded it and the dead pumice of the Moon's surface was under it. The number of its crew was zero. There wasn't a living person aboard.


* * *


Dr. Hector Conway, Chief Councilor of Science, said, "What time is it, Gus?"

He felt uncomfortable in the Moon offices of the Council. On Earth he would have been at the very top of the stone and steel needle they called Science Tower. He would have been able to look out the window toward International City.

Here on the Moon they did their best. The offices had mock windows with brilliantly designed Earth scenes behind them. They were colored naturally, and lights within them brightened and softened during the day, simulating morning, noon, and evening. During the sleep periods they even shone a dim, dark blue.

It wasn't enough, though, for an Earthman like Conway. He knew that if he broke through the glass of the windows there would be only painted miniatures before his eyes, and if he got behind that, then there would be just another room, or maybe the solid rock of the Moon.

Dr. Augustus Henree, whom Conway had addressed, looked at his wrist. He said, between puffs at his pipe, "There's still fifteen minutes. There's no point in worrying. The Atlas is in perfect shape. I checked it myself yesterday."

"I know that." Conway's hair was pure white and he looked older than the lank, thin-faced Henree, though they were the same age. He said, "It's Lucky I'm worried about."

"Lucky?"

Conway smiled sheepishly. "I'm catching the habit, I'm afraid. I'm talking about David Starr. It's just that everyone calls him Lucky these days. Haven't you heard them?"

"Lucky Starr, eh? The name suits him. But what about him? This is all his idea, after all."

"Exactly. It's the sort of idea he gets. I think he'll tackle the Sirian Consulate on the Moon next."

"I wish he would."

"Don't joke. Sometimes I think you encourage him in his idea that he ought to do everything as a one-man job. It's why I came here to the Moon, to keep an eye on him, not to watch the ship."

"If that's what you came here for, Hector, you're not on the job."

"Oh well, I can't follow him about like a mother hen. But Bigman is with him. I told the little fellow I would skin him alive if Lucky decided to invade the Sirian Consulate singlehanded."

Henree laughed.

"I tell you he'd do it," grumbled Conway. "What's worse, he'd get away with it, of course."

"Well, then."

"It would just encourage him, and then someday he'll take one risk too many, and he's too valuable a man to lose!"


* * *


John Bigman Jones teetered across the packed clay flooring, carrying his stein of beer with the utmost care. They didn't extend the pseudo-gravity fields outside the city itself, so that out here at the space-port you had to do the best you could under the Moon's own gravity field. Fortunately John Bigman Jones had been born and bred on Mars, where the gravity was only two fifths normal anyway, so it wasn't too bad. Bight now he weighed twenty pounds. On Mars he would have weighed fifty, and on the Earth one hundred and twenty.

He got to the sentry, who had been watching him with amused eyes. The sentry was dressed in the uniform of the Lunar National Guard, and he was used to the gravity.

John Bigman Jones said, "Hey. Don't stand there so gloomylike. I brought you a beer. Have it on me."

The sentry looked surprised, then said regretfully, "I can't. Not when I'm on duty, you know."

"Oh well. I can handle it myself, I guess. I'm John Bigman Jones. Call me Bigman." He only came up to the sentry's chin and the sentry wasn't particularly tall, but Bigman held out his hand as though he were reaching down with it.

"I'm Bert Wilson. You from Mars?" The sentry looked at Bigman's scarlet and vermilion hip boots. Nobody but a Martian farm boy would let himself be caught dead in space with them.

Bigman looked down at them proudly. "You bet. I'm stuck here for about a week. Great space, what a rock the Moon is. Don't any of you guys ever go out on the surface?"

"Sometimes. When we have to. There isn't much to see there."

"I sure wish I could go. I hate being cooped up."

"There's a surface lock back there."

Bigman followed the thumb that had been jerked back across the sergeant's shoulder. The corridor (rather poorly lit at this distance from Luna City) narrowed into a recess in the wall.

Bigman said, "I don't have a suit."

"You couldn't go out even if you had one. No one's allowed out without a special pass for a while."

"How come?"

Wilson yawned. "They've got a ship out there that's getting set to go," he looked at his watch, "in about twelve minutes. Maybe the heat will be off after it's gone. I don't know the story on it."

The sentry rocked on the balls of his feet and watched the last of the beer drain down Bigman's throat. He said, "Say, did you get the beer at Patsy's Port Bar? Is it crowded?"

"It's empty. Listen, tell you what. It'll take you fifteen seconds to get in there and have one. I've got nothing to do. I'll stay right here and make sure nothing happens while you're gone."

Wilson looked longingly in the direction of the Port Bar. "I better not."

"It's up to you."

Neither one of them, apparently, was conscious of the figure that drifted past behind them along the corridor and into the recess where the space-locks huge door barred the way to the surface.

Wilson's feet took him a few steps toward the Bar, as though they were dragging the rest of him. Then he said, "Nah! I better not."


* * *


Ten minutes to zero time.

It had been Lucky Starr's idea. He had been in Conway's home office the day the news arrived that the T.S.S. Waltham Zachary had been gutted by pirates, its cargo gone, its officers frozen corpses in space and most of the men captives. The ship itself had put up a pitifully futile fight and had been too damaged to be worth the pirate's salvage. They had taken everything movable though, the instruments, of course, and even the motors.

Lucky said, "It's the asteroid belt that's the enemy. One hundred thousand rocks."

"More than that." Conway spat out his cigarette. "But what can we do? Ever since the Terrestrial Empire has been a going concern, the asteroids have been more than we could handle. A dozen times we've gone in there to clean out nests of them, and each time we've left enough to breed the troubles again. Twenty-five years ago, when—"

The white-haired scientist stopped short. Twenty-five years ago Lucky's parents had been killed in space and he himself, a little boy, had been cast adrift.

Lucky's calm brown eyes showed no emotion. He said, "The trouble is we don't even know where all the asteroids are."

"Naturally not. It would take a hundred ships a hundred years to get the necessary information for the sizable asteroids. And even then the pull of Jupiter would be forever changing asteroidal orbits here and there."

"We might still try. If we sent out one ship, the pirates might not know it was an impossible job and fear the consequences of a real mapping. If the word got out that we had started a mapping survey, the ship would be attacked."

"And then what?"

"Suppose we sent out an automatic ship, completely equipped, but with no human personnel."

"It would be an expensive thing to do."

"It might be worth it. Suppose we equipped it with lifeboats automatically designed to leave the ship when its instruments recorded the energy pattern of an approaching hyperatomic motor. What do you suppose the pirates would do?"

"Shoot the lifeboats into metal drift, board the ship, and take it to their base."

"Or one of their bases. Right. And if they see the lifeboats try to get away, they won't be surprised at finding no crew aboard. After all, it would be an unarmed survey ship. You wouldn't expect the crew to attempt resistance."

"Well, what are you getting at?"

"Suppose further that the ship is wired to explode once its temperature is raised to more than twenty degrees absolute, as it certainly would if it were brought into an asteroid hangar."

"You're proposing a booby trap, then?"

"A gigantic one. It would blow an asteroid apart. It might destroy dozens of pirate ships. Furthermore, the observatories at Ceres, Vesta, Juno, or Pallas might pick up the flash. Then, if we could locate surviving pirates, we might get information that would be very useful indeed."

"I see."

And so they started work on the Atlas.


* * *


The shadowy figure in the recess leading to the Moon's surface worked with sure quickness. The sealed controls of the air-lock gave under the needle beam of a micro-heatgun. The shielding metal disc swung open. Busy, black-gloved fingers flew for a moment. Then the disc was replaced and fused tightly back by a wider and cooler beam from the same heatgun.

The cave door of the lock yawned. The alarm that rang routinely whenever it did so was silent this time, its circuits behind the tampered disc disarranged. The figure entered the lock and the door closed behind him. Before he opened the surface door that faced out into the vacuum, he unrolled the pliant plastic he carried under his arm. He scrambled into it, the material covering him wholly and clinging to him, broken only by a strip of clear silicone plastic across his eyes. A small cylinder of liquid oxygen was clamped to a short hose that lead to the headpiece and was hooked on to the belt. It was a semi-space-suit, designed for the quick trip across an airless surface, not guaranteed to be serviceable for stretches of more than half an hour.


* * *


Bert Wilson, startled, swiveled his head. "Did you hear that?"

Bigman gaped at the sentry. "I didn't hear anything."

"I could swear it was a lock door closing. There isn't any alarm, though."

"Is there supposed to be?"

"Sure. You've got to know when one door is open. It's a bell where there's air and a light where there isn't. Otherwise someone is liable to open the other door and blow all the air out of a ship or corridor."

"All right. If there's no alarm, there's nothing to worry about."

"I'm not so sure." With flat leaps, each one covering twenty feet in the Moon's baby gravity, the sentry passed up the corridor to the air-lock recess. He stopped at a wall panel on the way and activated three separate banks of ceiling Floressoes, turning the area into a noonday of light.

Bigman followed, leaping clumsily and in perpetual danger of overbalancing into a slow nose landing.

Wilson had his blaster out. He inspected the door, then turned to look up the corridor again. "Are you sure you didn't hear anything?"

"Nothing," said Bigman. "Of course, I wasn't listening."


Five minutes to zero time.

Pumice kicked up as the space-suited figure moved slow-motion toward the Atlas. The space-ship glittered in the Earthlight, but on the Moon's airless surface the light did not carry even an inch into the shadow of the ridge that hemmed in the port.

In three long leaps the figure moved across the lighted portion and into the pitchy shadow of the ship itself.

He moved up the ladder hand over hand, flinging himself into an upward drift that carried him ten rungs at a time. He came to the ship's air-lock. A moment at the controls and it yawned open, then closed.

The Atlas had a passenger. One passenger!


* * *


The sentry stood before the corridor air-lock and considered its appearance dubiously.

Bigman was rattling on. He said, "I been here nearly a week. I'm supposed to follow my side-kick around and make sure he doesn't get into trouble. How's that for a space wrangler like me. I haven't had a chance to get away—"

The anguished sentry said, "Give it a rest, friend. Look, you're a nice kid and all that, but let's have it some other time.

For a moment he stared at the control seal. "That's funny," he said.

Bigman was swelling ominously. His little face had reddened. He seized the sentry by the elbow and swung him about, almost overbalancing himself as he did so.

"Hey, bud, who're you calling a kid?"

"Look, go away!"

"Just a minute. Let's get something straight. Don't think I let myself get pushed around because I'm not as tall as the next fellow. Put 'em up. Go ahead. Get your fists up or I'll splatter your nose all over your face."

He was sparring and slipping about.

Wilson looked at him with astonishment. "What's got into you? Stop being foolish."

"Scared?"

"I can't fight on duty. Besides, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I've just got a job to do and I haven't got any time for you."

Bigman lowered his fists. "Hey, I guess the ship's taking off."

There was no sound, of course, since sound would not travel through a vacuum, but the ground under their feet vibrated softly in response to the hammer blows of a rocket exhaust lifting a ship off a planet.

"That's it, all right." Wilson's forehead creased. "Guess there's no use making a report. It's too late anyway." He had forgotten about the control seal.


* * *


Zero time!

The ceramic-lined exhaust pit yawned under the Atlas and the main rockets blasted their fury into it. Slowly and majestically the ship lifted and moved upward ponderously. Its speed increased. It pierced the black sky, shrinking until it was only a star among stars, and then it was gone.


* * *


Dr. Henree looked at his watch for the fifth time and said, "Well, it's gone. It must be gone now." He pointed with the stem of his pipe to the dial.

Conway said, "Let's check with the port authorities."

Five seconds later they were looking at the empty space-port on the visiscreen. The exhaust pit was still open. Even in the near-ultimate frigidity of the Moon's dark side it was still steaming.

Conway shook his head. "It was a beautiful ship."

"Still is."

"I think of it in the past. In a few days it will be a rain of molten metal. It's a doomed ship."

"Let's hope that there's a pirate base somewhere that's also doomed."

Henree nodded somberly.

They both turned as the door opened. It was only Bigman.

He broke into a grin. "Oh, boy, it was sure nice coming in to Luna City. You could feel the pounds going back on with each step you took." He stamped his feet and hopped two or three times. "See," he said, "you try that out where I was and you hit the ceiling and look like one big fool."

Conway frowned. "Where's Lucky?"

Bigman said, "I know where he is. I know where he is every minute. Say, the Atlas has just taken off."

"I know that," said Conway. "And where is Lucky?"

"On the Atlas, of course. Where do you think he'd be?"



2. Vermin Of Space

Dr. Henree dropped his pipe and it bounced on the linolite flooring. He paid it no attention.

"What!"

Conway reddened and his face stood out, plumply pink, against his snowy hair. "Is this a joke?"

"No. He got on five minutes before it blasted. I talked to the sentry, guy called Wilson, and kept him from interfering. I had to pick a fight with the fellow and I would have given him the old bingo-bango," he demonstrated the one-two punch with quick, hard blows at the atmosphere, "but he backed off."

"You let him? You didn't warn us?"

"How could I? I've got to do what Lucky says. He said he had to get on at the last minute and without anyone knowing, or you and Dr. Henree would have stopped him."

Conway groaned. "He did it. By space, Gus, I should have known better than to trust that pint-sized Martian. Bigman, you fool! You know that ship's a booby trap."

"Sure. Lucky knows it too. He says not to send out ships after him or things will be ruined."

"They will, will they? There'll be men after him within the hour just the same."

Henree clutched his friend's sleeve. "Maybe not,Hector. We don't know what he's planning to do, but we can trust him to scramble out safely whatever it is. Let's not interfere."

Conway fell back, trembling with anger and anxiety.

Bigman said, "He says we're to meet him on Ceres, and also, Dr. Conway, he says you're to control your temper."

"You—" began Conway, and Bigman left the room in a hurry.


* * *


The orbit of Mars lay behind and the sun was a shrunken thing.

Lucky Starr loved the silence of space. Since he had graduated and joined the Council of Science, space had been his home, rather than any planetary surface. And the Atlas was a comfortable ship. It had been provisioned for a full crew with only so much omitted as might be explained by consumption before reaching the asteroids. In every way the Atlas was intended to look as though, until the moment of the pirates' appearance, it had been fully manned.

So Lucky ate Syntho-steak from the yeast beds of Venus, Martian pastry, and boneless chicken from Earth.

I'll get fat, he thought, and watched the skies.

He was close enough to make out the larger asteroids. There was Ceres, the largest of all, nearly five hundred miles in diameter. Vesta was on the other side of the sun, but Juno and Pallas were in sight.

If he were to use the ship's telescope, he would have found more, thousands more, maybe tens of thousands. There was no end to them.

Once it had been thought that there had been a planet between Mars and Jupiter and that geologic ages earlier it had exploded into fragments, but that wasn't so. It was Jupiter that was the villain. Its giant gravitational influence had disrupted space for hundreds of millions of miles about it in the eons when the Solar System was being formed. The cosmic gravel between itself and Mars could never coalesce into a single planet with Jupiter pulling and pulling. Instead it coalesced into myriads of little worlds.

There were the four largest, each a hundred or more miles in diameter. There were fifteen hundred more that were ten and a hundred miles in diameter. After that there were thousands (no one knew exactly how many) that were between one and ten miles in diameter and tens of thousands that were less than a mile in diameter but still as large or larger than the Great Pyramid.

They were so plentiful that astronomers called them "the vermin of space."

The asteroids were scattered over the entire region between Mars and Jupiter, each whirling in its own orbit. No other planetary system known to man in all the Galaxy had such an asteroid belt.

In a sense it was good. The asteroids had formed steppingstones out toward the major planets. In a sense it was bad. Any criminal who could escape to the asteroids was safe from capture by all but the most improbable chance. No police force could search every one of those flying mountains.

The smaller asteroids were no man's land. There were well-manned astronomical observatories on the largest, notably on Ceres. There were beryllium mines on Pallas, while Vesta and Juno were important fueling stations. But that still left fifty thousand sizable asteroids over which the Terrestrial Empire had no control whatever. A few were large enough to harbor fleets. Some were too small for more than a single speed-cruiser with additional space, perhaps, for a six-month supply of fuel, food, and water.

And it was impossible to map them. Even in the ancient, preatomic times, before space travel, when only fifteen hundred or so were known, and those the largest, mapping had been impossible. Their orbits had been carefully calculated via telescopic observation and still asteroids were forever being "lost," then "found" again.


* * *


Lucky snapped out of his reverie. The sensitive Ergometer was picking up pulsations from the outer reaches. He was at the control board in a step.

The steady energy outpourings of the sun, whether direct or by way of the relatively tiny reflected dribbles from the planets, were canceled out on the meter. What was coming in now were the characteristically intermittent energy pulses of a hyperatomic motor.

Lucky threw in the Ergograph connection and the energy pattern traced itself out in a series of lines. He followed the graphed paper as it emerged and his jaw muscles hardened.

There had always been a chance that the Atlas might meet an ordinary trading ship or passenger liner, but the energy pattern was none of that. The approaching ship had motors of advanced design, and different from any of the Terrestrial fleet.

Five minutes passed before he had enough spread of measurement to be able to calculate the distance and direction of the energy source.

He adjusted the visiplate for telescopic viewing and the star field speckled enormously. Carefully he searched among the infinitely silent, infinitely distant, infinitely motionless stars until a flicker of movement caught his eyes and the Ergometer's reading dials lined up at multiple zero.

It was a pirate. No doubt! He could make out its outlines by the half that glittered in the sun and by the port lights in the shaded half. It was a thin, graceful vessel, having the look of speed and maneuverability. It had an alien look about it, too.

Sirian design, thought Lucky.

He watched the ship grow slowly larger on the screen. Was it such a ship that his father and mother watched on the last day of their lives?


* * *


He scarcely remembered his father and mother, but he had seen pictures of them and had heard endless stories about Lawrence and Barbara Starr from Henree and Conway. They had been inseparable, the tall, grave Gus Henree, the choleric, persevering Hector Conway, and the quick, laughing Larry Starr. They had gone to school together, graduated simultaneously, entered the Council as one and done all their assignments as a team.

And then Lawrence Starr had been promoted and assigned to a tour of duty on Venus. He, his wife, and his four-year-old son were Venus-bound when the pirate ship attacked.

For years Lucky had unhappily imagined what that last hour upon the dying ship must have been like. First, the crippling of the main power drives at the stern of the ship while pirate and victim were still apart. Then the blasting of the air-locks and the boarding. The crew and passengers scrambling into space-suits against the loss of air when the air-locks caved in. The crew armed and waiting. The passengers huddling in the interior rooms without much hope. Women weeping. Children screaming.

His father wasn't among the hiders. His father was a Council member. He had been armed and fighting. Lucky^was sure of that. He had one memory, a short one that had been burned into his mind. His father, a tall, strong man, was standing with blaster raised and face set in what must have been one of the few moments of cold rage in his life, as the door of the control room crashed inward in a cloud of black smoke. And his mother, face wet and smudged but clearly seen through the space-suit face-plate, was forcing him into a small lifeboat.

"Don't cry, David, it will be all right."

Those were the only words he remembered ever having heard his mother say. Then there was thunder behind him and he was pressed back against a wall.

They found him in the lifeboat two days later, when they followed its coldly automatic radio calls for help.

The government had launched a tremendous campaign against the asteroid pirates immediately afterward and the Council had lent that drive every last ounce of their own effort. For the pirates it turned out that to attack and kill key men of the Council of Science was bad business. Such asteroid hideouts as were located were blasted into dust, and the pirate menace was reduced to the merest flicker for twenty years.

But often Lucky wondered if they had ever located the particular pirate ship that had carried the men who had killed his parents. There was no way of telling.

And now the menace had revived in a less spectacular but far more dangerous fashion. Piracy wasn't a matter of individual jabs any longer. It bore the appearance of an organized attack on Terrestrial commerce. There was more to it. From the nature of the warfare carried on Lucky felt certain that one mind, one strategic direction, lay behind it. That one mind, he knew, he would have to find.


* * *


He lifted his eyes to the Ergometer once more. The energy recordings were strong now. The other vessel was well within the distance at which space courtesy required routine messages of mutual identification. For that matter, it was well within the distance at which a pirate might have made its initial hostile move.

The floor shuddered under Lucky. It wasn't a blaster bolt from the other ship, but rather the recoil of a departing lifeboat. The energy pulses had become strong enough to activate their automatic controls.

Another shudder. And another. Five altogether.

He watched the oncoming ship closely. Often pirates shot up such lifeboats, partly out of the perverted fun of it and partly to prevent escapees from describing the vessel, assuming they had not done so already through the sub-ether.

This time, however, the ship ignored the lifeboats altogether. It approached within locking range. Its magnetic grapples shot out, clamped on the Atlas's hull, and the two vessels were suddenly welded together, their motions through space well matched.

Lucky waited.

He heard the air-lock open, then shut. He heard the clang of feet and the sound of helmets being unclipped, then the sound of voices.

He didn't move.

A figure appeared in the door. Helmet and gauntlets had been removed, but the rest of the man was still swathed in ice-coated space-suit. Space-suits had a habit of doing that when one entered from the near-absolute zero of space into the warm moist air of the interior of a ship. The ice was beginning to melt.

The pirate caught sight of Lucky only when he was two full steps into the control room. He stopped, his face frozen in an almost comical expression of surprise. Lucky had time to note the sparse black hair, the long nose, and the dead white scar that ran from nostril to canine tooth splitting the upper lip into two unequal parts.

Lucky bore the pirate's astonished scrutiny calmly. He had no fear of recognition. Councilmen on active duty always worked without publicity with the very thought that a too-well-known face would diminish their usefulness. His own father's face had appeared over the sub-ether only after his death. With fleeting bitterness Lucky thought that perhaps better publicity during life might have prevented the pirate attack. But that was silly, he knew. By the time the pirates had seen Lawrence Starr the attack had proceeded too far to be stopped.

Lucky said, "I've got a blaster. I'll use it only if you reach for yours. Don't move."

The pirate had opened his mouth. He closed it again.

Lucky said, "If you want to call the rest, go ahead."

The pirate stared suspiciously, then, eyes firmly on Lucky's blaster, yelled, "Blinking Space, there's a ripper with a gat here."

There was laughter at that, and a voice shouted, "Quiet!"

Another man stepped into the room. "Step aside, Dingo," he said.

His space-suit was off entirely and he was an incongruous sight aboard ship. His clothing might have come out of the most fashionable tailor shop in International City, and would have suited better a dinner party back on Earth. His shirt had a silken look you got only out of the best plastex. Its iridescence was subtle rather than garish, and his tight-ankled breeches blended in so well that, but for the ornamented belt, it would have seemed one garment. He wore a wristband that matched his belt and a fluffy, sky-blue neck sash. His crisp brown hair was curly and looked as though it received frequent attention.

He was half a head shorter than Lucky, but from the way he carried himself the young Councilman could see that any assumption of softness he might make on the basis of the man's dude costume would be quite wrong.

The newcomer said pleasantly, "Anton is my name. Would you put down your gun?"

Lucky said, "And be shot?"

"You may be shot eventually, but not at the moment. I would like to question you first."

Lucky held fast.

Anton said, "I keep my word." A tiny flush appeared on his cheekbones. "It is my only virtue as men count virtue, but I hold fast to it."

Lucky put down his blaster and Anton picked it up. He handed it to the other pirate.

"Put it away, Dingo, and get out of here." He turned to Lucky. "The other passengers got away in the lifeboats? Right?"

Lucky said, "That's an obvious trap, Anton—"

"Captain Anton, please." He smiled, but his nostrils flared.

"Well, then, it's a trap, Captain Anton. It was obvious that you knew there were no passengers or crew on this ship. You knew it long before you boarded."

"Indeed? How do you make that out?"

"You approached the ship without signaling and without a warning shot. You made no particular speed. You ignored the lifeboats when they shot out. Your men entered the ship carelessly, as though they expected no resistance. The man who first found me entered this room with his blaster well bolstered. The conclusion follows."

"Very good. And what are you doing on a ship without crew or passengers?"

Lucky said grimly, "I came to see you, Captain Anton."



3. Duel In Word

Anton's expression did not change. "And now you see me."

"But not privately, Captain." Lucky's lips thinned and closed with great deliberation.

Anton looked quickly about. A dozen of his men in every stage of space-suit undress had crowded into the room, watching and listening with gaping interest.

He reddened slightly. His voice rose. "Get on your business, scum. I want a complete report on this ship. And keep your weapons ready. There may be more men on board and if anyone else gets caught as Dingo did, he'll be tossed out an air-lock."

There was slow, shuffling motion outward.

Anton's voice was a sudden scream. "Quickly! Quickly!" One snaking gesture, and a blaster was in his hand. "I'll count three and shoot. One… two…"

They were gone.

He faced Lucky again. His eyes glittered and his breath came and went quickly through pinched white nostrils.

"Discipline is a great thing," he breathed. "They must fear me. They must fear me more than they fear capture by the Terrestrial Navy. Then a ship is one mind and one arm. My mind and arm."

Yes, thought Lucky, one mind and one arm, but whose? Yours?

Anton's smile had returned, boyish, friendly, and open. "Now tell me what you want."

Lucky jerked a thumb toward the other's blaster, still drawn and ready. He matched the other's smile. "Do you intend shooting? If so, get it over with."

Anton was shaken. "Space! You're a cool one. I'll shoot when I please. I like it this way. What's your name?" The blaster held on its line with deadly steadiness.

"Williams, Captain."

"You're a tall man, Williams. You look strong. And yet here I sit and with just a pressure of my thumb you're dead. I think it's very instructive. Two men and one blaster is the whole secret of power. Did you ever think of power, Williams?"

"Sometimes."

"It's the only meaning to life, don't you think?"

"Maybe."

"I see you're anxious to do business. Let's begin. Why are you here?"

"I've heard of pirates."

"We're the men of the asteroids, Williams. No other name."

"That suits me. I've come to join the men of the asteroids."

"You flatter us, but my thumb is still on the blaster contact. Why do you want to join?"

"Life is closed on Earth, Captain. A man like myself could settle down to be an accountant or an engineer. I might even run a factory or sit behind a desk and vote at stockholders' meetings. It doesn't matter. Whatever it is, it would be routine. I would know my life from beginning to end. There would be no adventure, no uncertainty."

"You're a philosopher, Williams. Go on."

"There are the colonies, but I'm not attracted by a life as a farm boy on Mars or as a vat tender on Venus. What does attract me is the Me on the asteroids. You live hard and dangerously. A man can rise to "power as you have. As you say, power gives meaning to life."

"So you stow away on an empty ship?"

"I didn't know it was empty. I had-to stow away somewhere. Legitimate space passage comes high and passports to the asteroids aren't being handed out these days. I knew this ship was part of a mapping expedition. The word had got around. It was headed for the asteroids. So I waited till just before it blasted off. That's when everybody would be busy getting ready for take-off and yet the air-locks would still be open. I had a pal take a sentry out of circulation.

"I figured we'd stop at Ceres. It would be bound to be Prime Base for any asteroid expedition. Once there, it seemed to me I could get off without trouble. The crew would be astronomers and mathematicians. Snatch off their glasses and they'd be blind. Point a blaster at them and they'd die of fright. Once on Ceres I'd contact the pi-The men of the asteroids, somehow. Simple."

"Only you got a surprise when you boarded ship? Is that it?" asked Anton.

"I'll say. No one aboard and before I could get it straight in my mind that there wasn't anyone aboard, it blasted off."

"What's it all about, Williams? How do you figure it?" "I don't. It beats me."

"Well, let's see if we can find out. You and I together." He gestured with his blaster and said sharply, "Come on".

The pirate chief led the way out of the control room into the long central corridor of the ship. A group of men came out of a door up ahead. They rumbled short comments at one another and stilled into silence when they caught Anton's eyes.

Anton said, "Come here."

They approached. One wiped a grizzled mustache with the back of his hand and said, "No one else on board this ship, Captain."

"All right. What do you think of the ship?"

There were four of them. The number increased as more men joined the group.

Anton's voice grew edgy. "What do any of you think of the ship?"

Dingo pushed his way forward. He had got rid of his space-suit and Lucky could see him as a man. It was not altogether a pleasant sight. He was broad and heavy and his arms were slightly bowed as they hung loosely from bulging shoulders. There were tufts of dark hair on the back of his fingers and the scar on his upper lip twitched. His eyes glared at Lucky.

He said, "I don't like it."

"You don't like the ship?" Anton asked sharply.

Dingo hesitated. He straightened his arms, threw back his shoulders. "It stinks."

"Why? Why do you say that?"

"I could take it apart with a can opener. Ask the rest and see if they don't agree with me. This crate is put together with toothpicks. It wouldn't hold together for three months."

There were murmurs of agreement. The man with the gray mustache said, "Beg your pardon, Captain, but the wiring is taped in place. It's a two-bit job. The insulation is almost burnt through already."

"All the welding was done in a real hurry," said another. "The seams stand out like that." He held out a thick and dirty thumb.

"What about repairs?" asked Anton.

Dingo said, "It would take a year and a Sunday. It isn't worth it. Anyway, we couldn't do it here. We'd have to take it to one of the rocks."

Anton turned to Lucky, explaining suavely, "We always refer to the asteroids as 'rocks,' you understand."

Lucky nodded.

Anton said, "Apparently my men feel that they wouldn't care to ride this ship. Why do you suppose the Earth government would send out an empty ship and such a jerry-built job to boot?"

"It keeps getting more and more confusing," said Lucky.

"Let's complete our investigation, then."

Anton walked first. Lucky followed closely. The men tagged behind silently. The back of Lucky's neck prickled. Anton's back was straight and fearless, as though he expected no attack from Lucky. He might well feel so. Ten armed men were on Lucky's heels.

They glanced through the small rooms, each designed for utmost economy in space. There was the computation room, the small observatory, the photographic laboratory, the galley and the bunk rooms.

They slipped down to the lower level through a narrow curving tube within which the pseudo-grav field was neutralized so that either direction could be "up" or "down" at will. Lucky was motioned down first, Anton following so closely that Lucky barely had time to scramble out of the way (his legs buckling slightly with the sudden access of weight) before the pirate chief was upon him. Hard, heavy space-boots missed his face by inches.

Lucky regained his balance and whirled angrily, but Anton was standing there smiling pleasantly, his blaster lined up straight and true at Lucky's heart.

"A thousand apologies," he said. "Fortunately you are quite agile."

"Yes," muttered Lucky.

On the lower level were the engine room and the power plant; the empty berths where the lifeboats had been. There were the fuels store, the food and water stores, the air fresheners, and the atomic shielding.

Anton murmured, "Well, what do you think of it all? Shoddy, perhaps, but I see nothing out of order."

"It's hard to tell like this," said Lucky.

"But you must have lived on this ship for days."

"Sure, but I didn't spend time looking it over. I just waited for it to get somewhere."

"I see. Well, back to upper level."

Lucky was first "down" the travel tube again. This time he landed lightly and sprang six feet to one side with the grace of a cat.

Seconds passed before Anton popped out of the tube. "Jumpy?" he asked.

Lucky flushed.

One by one the pirates appeared. Anton did not wait for all of them, but started down the corridor again.

"You know," he said, "you'd think we'd been all over this ship. Most people would say so. Wouldn't you say so?"

"No," said Lucky calmly, "I wouldn't. We haven't been in the washroom."

Anton scowled and for more than just a moment the pleasantness was gone from his face, and only a tight, white anger flashed in its place.

Then it passed. He adjusted a stray lock of hair on his head, then regarded the back of his hand with interest. "Well, let's look there."

Several of the men whistled and the rest exclaimed in a variety of ways when the appropriate door clicked open.

"Very nice," murmured Anton. "Very nice. Luxurious, I would say."

It was! There was no question of that. There were separate stall showers, three of them, with their plumbing arranged for sudsing water (hike-warm) and rinsing water (hot or cold). There were also half a dozen washbowls in ivory-chrome, with shampoo stands, hair driers and needle-jet skin stimulators. Nothing that was necessary was missing.

"There's certainly nothing shoddy about this," said Anton. "It's like a show on the sub-etherics, eh, Williams? What do you make of this?"

"I'm confused."

Anton's smile vanished like the fleeting flash of a speeding space-ship across a visiplate. "I'm not. Dingo, come in here."

The pirate chief said to Lucky, "It's a simple problem, you. We have a ship here with no one aboard, thrown together in the cheapest possible way, as though it were done in a hurry, but with a washroom that is the last word. Why? I think it's just in order to have as many pipes as possible in the washroom. And why that? So that we'd never suspect that one or two of them were dummies… Dingo, which pipe is it?"

Dingo kicked one.

"Well, don't kick it, you misbegotten fool. Take it apart."

Dingo did so, a micro-heatgun flashing briefly. He yanked out wires.

"What's that, Williams?" demanded Anton.

"Wires," said Lucky briefly.

"I know that, you lump." He was suddenly furious. "What else? I'll tell you what else. Those wires are set to explode every ounce of the atomite on board ship as soon as we take the ship back to base."

Lucky jumped. "How can you tell that?"

"You're surprised? You didn't know this was one big trap? You didn't know we were supposed to take this back to base for repairs? You didn't know we were supposed to explode ourselves and the base, too, into hot dust? Why, you're here as the bait to make sure we were-properly fooled. Only I'm not a fool!"

His men were crowding close. Dingo licked his lips.

With a snap Anton brought up his blaster and there was no mercy, no dream of mercy, in his eyes.

"Wait! Great Galaxy, wait! I know nothing about this. You have no right to shoot me without cause." He tensed for a jump, one last fight before death.

"No right!" Anton, eyes glaring, lowered his blaster suddenly. "How dare you say no right. I have all rights on this ship."

"You can't kill a good man. The men of the asteroids need good men. Don't throw one away for nothing."

A sudden, unexpected murmur came from some of the pirates.

A voice said, "He's got guts, Cap'n. Maybe we could use—"

It died away as Anton turned.

He turned back. "What makes you a good man, Williams? Answer that and I'll consider."

"I'll hold my own against anyone here. Bare fists or any weapon."

"So?" Anton's teeth bared themselves. "You hear that, men?"

There was an affirmative roar.

"It's your challenge, Williams. Any weapon. Good! Come out of this alive and you won't be shot. You'll be considered for membership in my crew."

"I have your word, Captain?"

"You have my word, and I never break my word. The crew hears me. If you come out of this alive."

"Whom do I fight?" demanded Lucky.

"Dingo here. A good man. Anyone who can beat him is a very good man."

Lucky measured the huge lump of gristle and sinew standing before him, its little eyes glittering with anticipation, and glumly agreed with the captain.

But he said firmly, "What weapons? Or is it bare fists?"

"Weapons! Push-tubes, to be exact. Push-tubes in open space."

For a moment Lucky found it difficult to maintain an appropriate stolidity.

Anton smiled. "Are you afraid it won't be a proper test for you? Don't be. Dingo is the best man with a push-gun in our entire fleet."

Lucky's heart plummeted. A push-gun duel required an expert. Notoriously so! Played as he had played it in college days, it was a sport. Fought by professionals, it was deadly!

And he was no professional!



4. Duel In Deed

Pirates crowded the outer skin of the Atlas and of their own Sirian-designed ship. Some were standing, held by the magnetic field of their boots. Others had cast themselves loose for better viewing, maintaining their place by means of a short magnetic cable attached to the ship's hull.

Fifty miles apart two metal-foil goal posts had been set. Not more than three feet square in their collapsed state aboard ship, they opened into a hundred feet either way of thin-beaten beryl-magnesium sheets. Undimmed and undamaged in the great emptiness of space, they were set spinning, and the flickering reflections of the sun on their gleaming surfaces sent beams that were visible for miles.

"You know the rules." Anton's voice was loud in Lucky's ears, and presumably in Dingo's ears as well.

Lucky could make out the other's space-suited shape as a sunlit speck half a mile away. The lifeboat that had brought them here was racing away now, back toward the pirate ship.

"You know the rules," said Anton's voice. "The one who gets pushed back to his own goal post is the loser. If neither gets pushed back, the one whose push-gun expires first is the loser. No time limit. No off-side. You have five minutes to get set. The push-gun can't be used till the word is given."

No off-side, thought Lucky. That was the giveaway. Push duels as a legal sport could not take place more than a hundred miles from an asteroid at least fifty miles in diameter. This would place a definite, though small, gravitational pull on the players. It would not be enough to affect mobility. It would be enough, however, to rescue a contestant who found himself miles out in space with an expired push-gun. Even if not picked up by the rescue boat he had only to remain quiet and in a matter of hours or, at most, one or two days, he would drift back to the asteroid's surface.

Here, on the other hand, there was no sizable asteroid within hundreds of thousands of miles. A real push would continue indefinitely. It would end, as likely as not, in the sun, long after the unlucky contestant had smothered to death when his oxygen gave out. Under such conditions it was usually understood that, when one contestant or another passed outside certain set limits, time was called until their return.

Saying "no off-side" was saying "to the death."

Anton's voice came clear and sharp across the miles of space between himself and the radio receiver in Lucky's helmet. He said, "Two minutes to go. Adjust body signals."

Lucky brought his hand up and closed the switch set into his chest. The colored metal foil which had earlier been magnet-set into his helmet was spinning. It was a miniature goal post. Dingo's figure, a moment before merely a dim dot, now sprang into flickering ruddy hie.

His own signal, Lucky knew, was a flashing green. And the goal posts were pure white.

Even now a fraction of Lucky's mind was far away. He had tried to make one objection at the very beginning. He had said, "Look, this all suits me, you understand. But while we're fooling around, a government patrol ship might—"

Anton barked contemptuously, "Forget it. No patrol ship would have the guts to get this far into the rocks. We've a hundred ships within call, a thousand rocks to hold us if we had to make a getaway. Get into your suit."

A hundred ships! A thousand rocks! If true, the pirates had never yet shown their full hand. What was going on?

"One minute left!" said Anton's voice through space.

Grimly Lucky brought up his two push-guns. They were L-shaped objects connected by springy, gummed-fabric tubing to the doughnutlike gas cylinders (containing carbon dioxide liquid under great pressure) that had been adjusted about his waist. In the old days the connecting tubing had been metal mesh. But that, though stronger, had also been more massive and had added to the momentum and inertia of the guns. In push duels rapid aiming and firing was essential. Once a fluorinated silicone had been invented which could remain a flexible gum at space temperatures and yet not become tacky in the direct rays of the sun, the lighter tubing material was universally used.

"Fire when ready!" cried Anton.

One of Dingo's push-guns triggered for an instant. The liquid carbon dioxide of his gas cylinder bubbled into violent gas and spurted out through the push-gun's needlelike orifice. The gas froze into a line of tiny crystals within six inches of its point of emersion. Even in the half second allowed for release a line of crystals, miles long, had been formed. As they pushed out one way, Dingo was pushed in the other. It was a spaceship and its rocket blast in miniature.

Three times the "crystal line" flashed and faded in the distance. It pointed into space directly away from Lucky, and each time Dingo gained speed toward Lucky. The actual state of affairs was deceptive. The only change visible to the eye was the slow brightening of Dingo's suit signal, but Lucky knew that the distance between them was closing with hurtling velocity.

What Lucky did not know was the proper strategy to expect; the appropriate defense. He waited to let the other's offensive moves unfold.

Dingo was large enough now to see as a humanoid shape with head and four limbs. He was passing to one side, and making no move to adjust his aim. He seemed content to bear far to Lucky's left.

Lucky still waited. The chorus of confused cries that rang in his helmet had died down. They came from the open transmitters of the audience. Though these were too far away to see the contestants, they could still follow the passage of the body signals and the flashes of the carbon dioxide streams. They were expecting something, Lucky thought.

It came suddenly.

A blast of carbon dioxide, then another appeared to Dingo's right, and his line of flight veered toward the young Councilman's position. Lucky brought his push-gun up, ready to flash downward and avoid close quarters. The safest strategy, he thought, was to do just that, and to move as slowly and as little as possible otherwise, in order to conserve carbon dioxide.

But Dingo's flight did not continue toward Lucky. He fired straight ahead of himself, a long streak, and began to recede. Lucky watched him, and only too late the streak of light met his eyes.

The line of carbon dioxide that Dingo had last fired traveled forward, yes, but he had been moving leftward at the time and so it did likewise. The two motions together moved it directly toward Lucky and it struck his left shoulder bull's-eye.

To Lucky it felt like a sharp blow pounding him. The crystals were tiny, but they extended for miles and they were traveling at miles per second. They all hit his suit in the space of what seemed a fraction of an eyelid's flicker. Lucky's suit trembled and the roar of the audience was in his ear.

"You got him, Dingo!"

"What a blast!"

"Straight toward goal post. Look at him!"

"It was beautiful. Beautiful!"

"Look at the joker spin!"

Underneath that there were murmurs that seemed, somehow, less exuberant.

Lucky was spinning or, rather, it seemed to his eyes that the heavens and all the stars in it were spinning. Across the face plate of his helmet the stars were white streaks, as though they were sparkles of trillions of carbon dioxide crystals themselves.

He could see nothing but the numerous blurs. For a moment it was as though the blow had knocked the power of thinking out of him.

A blow in the midriff and one in the back sent him, still spinning, further on his hurtling way through space.

He had to do something or Dingo would make a football of him from one end of the Solar System to the other. The first thing was to stop the spin and get his bearings. He was tumbling diagonally, left shoulder over right hip. He pointed the push-gun in the direction counter to that twist, and in lightning releases pumped out streams of carbon dioxide.

The stars slowed until their turning was a stately march that left them sharply defined points. The sky became the familiar sky of space.

One star flickered and was too bright. Lucky knew it to be his own goal post. Almost diametrically opposed was the angry red of Dingo's body signal. Lucky could not fling himself backward beyond the goal post or the duel would be over and he would have lost. Beyond the goal post and within a mile of it was the standard rule for a goal ending. Nor, on the other hand, could he afford to get closer to his opponent.

He brought his push-gun straight up over his head, closed contact, and held it so. He counted a full minute before he released contact, and through all the sixty seconds he felt the pressure against the top of his helmet as he accelerated downward.

It was a desperate maneuver, for he threw away a half hour's supply of gas in that one minute.

Dingo, in outrage, yelled hoarsely, "You flumstered coward! You yellow mugger!"

The cries of the audience also rose to a crescendo.

"Look at him run."

"He got past Dingo. Dingo, get him."

"Hey, Williams. Put up a fight."

Lucky saw the crimson blur of his enemy again.

He had to keep on the move. There was nothing else he could do. Dingo was an expert and could hit a one-inch meteorite as it flashed by. He himself, Lucky thought ruefully, would do well to hit Ceres at a mile.

He used his push-guns alternately. To the left, to the right; then quickly, to the right, to the left and to the right again.

It made no difference. It was as though Dingo could foretell his moves, cut across the corners, move in inexorably.

Lucky felt the perspiration beading out upon his forehead, and suddenly he was aware of the silence. He could not remember the exact moment it had come, but it had come like the breaking of a thread. One moment there had been the yells and laughter of the pirates, and the next moment only the dead silence of space where sound could never be heard.

Had he passed beyond range of the ships? Impossible! Suit radios, even the simplest type, would carry thousands of miles in space. He pushed the sensitivity dial on his chest to maximum.

"Captain Anton!"

But it was Dingo's rough voice that answered. "Don't yell. I hear you."

Lucky said, "Call time! There's something wrong with my radio."

Dingo was close enough to be made out as a human figure again. A flashing line of crystals and he was closer. Lucky moved away, but the pirate followed on his heels.

"Nothing wrong," said Dingo. "Just a gimmicked radio. I've been waiting. I've been waiting. I could have knocked you past goal long ago, but I've been waiting for the radio to go. It's just a little transistor I gimmicked before you put on your suit. You can still talk to me, though. It'll still carry a mile or two. Or at least you can talk to me for a little while." He relished the joke and barked l^is laughter.

Lucky said, "I don't get it."

Dingo's voice turned harshly cruel. "You caught me on the ship with my blaster in its holster. You trapped me there. You made me look like a fool. No one traps me and I don't let anyone make a fool out of me in front of the captain and live very long after that. I'm not goaling you for someone else to finish. I'm finishing you here! Myself!"

Dingo was much closer. Lucky could almost make out the face behind the thick glassite of the face plate.

Lucky abandoned attempts at bobbing and weaving. That would lead, he decided, to being consistently out-maneuvered. He considered straight flight, pushing outward at increasing velocity as long as his gas held out.

But then afterward? And was he going to be content to die while running away?

He would have to fight back. He aimed the push-gun at Dingo, and Dingo wasn't there when the line of crystals passed through the spot where a moment before he had been. He tried again and again, but Dingo was a flitting demon.

And then Lucky felt the hard impact of the other's push-gun blast and he was spinning again. Desperately he tried to come out of the spin and before he could do so, he felt the clanging force of a body's collision with his.

Dingo held his suit in tight embrace.

Helmet to helmet. Face plate to face plate. Lucky was staring at the white scar splitting Dingo's upper lip. It spread tightly as Dingo smiled.

"Hello, chum," he said. "Pleased to meet you."

For a moment Dingo floated away, or seemed to, as he loosened the grip of his arms. The pirate's thighs held firm about Lucky's knees, their apelike strength immobilizing him. Lucky's own whipcord muscles wrenched this way and that uselessly.

Dingo's partial retreat had only been designed to free his arms. One lifted high, push-gun held butt-first. It came down directly on the face plate and Lucky's head snapped back with the sudden, shattering impact. The relentless arm swung up again, while the other curled about Lucky's neck.

"Hold your head still," the pirate snarled. "I'm finishing this."

Lucky knew that to be the literal truth unless he acted quickly. The glassite was strong and tough, but it would hold out only so long against the battering of metal.

He brought up the heel of his gauntleted hand against Dingo's helmet, straightening his arm and pushing the pirate's head back. Dingo rocked his head to one side, disengaging Lucky's arm. He brought the butt of his push-gun down a second time.

Lucky dropped both push-guns, let them dangle from their connecting tubes, and with a sure movement snatched at the connecting tubes of Dingo's guns. He threaded them between the fingers of his steel gloves. The muscles of his arms lumped and tightened painfully. His jaws clenched and he felt the blood creep to his temples.

Dingo, his mouth twisted in fierce joyful anticipation, disregarded everything but the upturned face of his victim behind the transparent face plate, contorted, as he thought, with fear. Once more the butt came down. A small cracking star appeared where the metal had struck.

Then something else gave and the universe seemed to go mad.

First one and, almost immediately afterward, the other of the connecting tubes of Dingo's two push-guns parted and an uncontrollable stream of carbon dioxide ravened out of each broken tube.

The tubes whipped like insane snakes, and Lucky was slammed against his suit first this way, then that, in violent reaction to the mad and uncontrolled acceleration.

Dingo yelled in jolted surprise and his grip loosened.

The two almost separated, but Lucky held on grimly to one of the pirate's ankles.

The carbon dioxide stream slackened and Lucky went up his opponent's leg hand over hand.

They were apparently motionless now. The chance whippings of the stream had left them even without any perceptible spin. Dingo's push-gun tubes, now dead and flaccid, stretched out in their last position. All seemed still, as still as death.

But that was a delusion. Lucky knew they were traveling at miles per second in whatever direction that last stroke of gas had sent them. They were alone and lost in space, the two of them.



5. The Hermit On The Rock

Lucky was on Dingo's back now and it was his thighs that gripped the other's waist. He spoke softly and grimly. "You can hear me, Dingo, can't you? I don't know where we are or where we're going, but neither do you. So we need each other now, Dingo. Are you ready to make a deal? You can find out where we are because your radio will reach the ships, but you can't get back without carbon dioxide. I have enough for both of us, but I'll need you to guide us back."

"To space with you, you scupper," yelled Dingo. "When I'm done with you, I'll have your push-tubes."

"I don't think you will," said Lucky coolly.

"You think you'll let them loose, too. Go ahead! Go ahead, you loshing ripper! What good will that do? The captain will come for me wherever I am while you're floating around with a busted helmet and frozen blood on your face."

"Not exactly, my friend. There's something in your back, you know. Maybe you can't feel it through the metal, but it's there, I assure you."

"A push-gun. So what. It doesn't mean a thing as long as we're held together." But his arms halted their writhing attempt to seize Lucky.

"I'm not a push-gun duelist." Lucky sounded cheerful about it. "But I still know more than you do about push-guns. Push-gun shots are exchanged miles apart. There's no air resistance to slow and mess up the gas stream, but there's internal resistance. There's always some turbulence in the stream. The crystals knock together, slow up. The line of gas widens. If it misses its mark, it finally spreads out in space and vanishes, but if it finally hits, it still kicks like a mule after miles of travel."

"What in space are you talking about? What are you running off about?" The pirate twisted with bull strength, and Lucky grunted as he forced him back.

Lucky said, "Just this. What do you suppose happens when the carbon dioxide hits at two inches, before turbulence has done anything at all to cut down its velocity or to broaden the beam. Don't guess. I'll tell you. It would cut through your suit as though it were a blowtorch, and through your body, too."

"You're nuts! You're talking crazy!"

Dingo swore madly, but of a sudden he was holding his body stiffly motionless.

"Try it, then," said Lucky. "Move! My push-gun is

hard against your suit and I'm squeezing the trigger. Try.,.» it out.

"You're fouling me," snarled Dingo. "This isn't a clean.» win.

"I've got a crack in my face plate," said Lucky. "The men will know where the foul is. You have half a minute to make up your mind."

The seconds passed in silence. Lucky caught the motion of Dingo's hand.

He said, "Good-by, Dingo!"

Dingo cried thickly, "Wait! Wait! I'm just extending my sending range." Then he called, "Captain Anton… Captain Anton…"

It took an hour and a half to get back to the ships.


* * *


The Atlas was moving through space again in the wake of its pirate captor. Its automatic circuits had been shifted to manual controls wherever necessary, and a prize crew of three controlled its power. As before, it had a passenger list of one—Lucky Starr.

Lucky was confined to a cabin and saw the crew only when they brought him his rations. The Atlas's own rations, thought Lucky. Or, at least, such as were left. Most of the food and such equipment that wasn't necessary for the immediate maneuvering of the ship had already been transferred to the pirate vessel.

All three pirates brought him his first meal. They were lean men, browned by the unsoftened rays of the sun of space.

They gave him his tray in silence, inspected the cabin cautiously, stood by while he opened the cans and let their contents warm up, then carried away the remains.

Lucky said, "Sit down, men. You don't have to stand while I eat."

They did not answer. One, the thinnest and lankest of the three, with a nose that had once been broken and was now bent sideways, and an Adam's-apple that jutted sharply outward, looked at the others as though he felt inclined to accept the invitation. He met with no response, however.

The next meal was brought by Broken Nose alone. He put down the tray, went back to the door, which he opened. He looked up and down the corridor, closed the door again, and said, "I'm Martin Maniu."

Lucky smiled. "I'm Bill Williams. The other two don't talk to me, eh?"

"They're Dingo's friends. But I'm not. Maybe you're a government man like the captain thinks, and maybe you're not. I don't know. But as far as I'm concerned, anyone who does what you did to that scupper, Dingo, is all right. He's a wise guy and he plays rough. He got me into a push fight once when I was new. He nearly pushed me into an asteroid. For no reason, either. He claimed it was a mistake, but listen, he doesn't make any mistakes with a pusher. You made quite a few friends, mister, when you dragged back that hyena by the seat of his pants."

"I'm glad of that, anyway."

"But watch out for him. He'll never forget it. Don't ever be alone with him even twenty years from now. I'm telling you. It isn't just beating him, you see. It's bluffing him with the story about cutting through an inch of metal with the carbon dioxide. Everyone's laughing at him and he's sick about it. Man, I mean sick! It's the best thing that's ever happened. Man, I sure hope the Boss gives you a clean bill."

"The Boss? Captain Anton?"

"No, the Boss. The big fellow. Say, the food you've got on board ship is good. Especially the meat." The pirate smacked his lips loudly. "You get tired of all these yeast mashes, especially when you're in charge of a vat yourself."

Lucky was brushing up the remainder of his meal. "Who is this guy?"

"Who?"

"The Boss."

Maniu shrugged. "Space! I don't know. You don't think a guy like me would ever meet him. Just someone the fellows talk about. It stands to reason someone's boss."

"The organization is pretty complicated."

"Man, you never know till you join. Listen, I was dead broke when I came out here. I didn't know what to do. I thought, well, we'll bang up a few ships and then I'll get mine and it'll be over. You know, it would be better than starving to death like I was doing."

"It wasn't that way?"

"No. I've never been on a raiding expedition. Hardly any of us are. Just a few like Dingo. He goes out all the time. He likes it, the scupper. Mostly we go out and pick up a few women sometimes." The pirate smiled. "I've got a wife and a kid. You wouldn't believe that now, would you? Sure, we've got a little project of our own. Have our own vats. Once in a while I draw space duty, like now, for instance. It's a soft life. You could do all right, if you join up. A good-looking fellow like you could get a wife in no time and settle down. Or there's plenty of excitement if that's what you want.

"Yes, sir, Bill. I hope the Boss takes you."

Lucky followed him to the door. "Where are we going, by the way? One of the bases?"

"Just to one of the rocks, I guess. Whichever is nearest.

You'll stay there till the word comes through. It's what they usually do."

He added as he closed the door, "And don't tell the fellows, or anybody, I've been talking to you. Okay, pal?"

"Sure thing."

Alone again, Lucky pounded a fist slowly and softly into his palm. The Boss! Was that just talk? Scuttlebutt? Or did it mean something? And what about the rest of the conversation?

He had to wait. Galaxy! If only Conway and Henree had the good sense not to interfere for a while longer.


* * *


Lucky did not get a chance to view the "rock" as the Atlas approached. He did not see it until, preceded by Martin Maniu and followed by a second pirate, he stepped out of the air-lock into space and found it a hundred yards below.

The asteroid was quite typical. Lucky judged it to be two miles across the longest way. It was angular and craggy, as though a giant had torn off the top of a mountain and tossed it out into space. Its sunside glimmered gray-brown, and it was turning visibly, shadows shifting and changing.

He pushed downward toward the asteroid as he left the air-lock, flexing his leg muscles against the ship's hull. The crags floated up slowly toward himself. When his hands touched ground, his inertia forced the rest of his body on downward, tumbling him in slowest motion until he could grasp a projection and bring himself to a halt.

He stood up. There was almost the illusion of a planetary surface about the rock. The nearest jags of matter, however, had nothing behind them, nothing but space. The stars, moving visibly as the rock turned, were hard, bright glitters. The ship, which had been put into an orbit about the rock, remained motionless overhead.

A pirate led the way, some fifty feet, to a rise in rock in no way distinguished from its surroundings. He made it in two long steps. As they waited a section of the rise slipped aside, and from the opening a space-suited figure stepped out.

"Okay, Herm," said one of the pirates, gruffly, "here he is. He's in your care now."

The voice that next sounded in Lucky's receiver was gentle and rather weary. "How long will he be with me, gentlemen?"

"Till we come to get him. And don't ask questions."

The pirates turned away and leaped upward. The rock's gravity could do nothing to stop them. They dwindled steadily and after a few minutes, Lucky saw a brief flash of crystals as one of them corrected his direction of travel by means of a push-gun; a small one, routinely used for such purposes, that was part of standard suit equipment. Its gas supply consisted of a built-in carbon dioxide cartridge.

Minutes passed and the ship's rear jets gleamed redly. It, too, began dwindling.

It was useless to try to check the direction in which it was leaving, Lucky knew, without some knowledge of his own location in space. And of that, except that he was somewhere in the asteroid belt, he knew nothing.

So intense was his absorption that he was almost startled at the soft voice of the other man on the asteroid.

He said, "It is beautiful out here. I come out so rarely that sometimes I forget. Look there!"

Lucky turned to his left. The small Sun was just poking above the sharp edge of the asteroid. In a moment it was too bright to look at. It was a gleaming twenty-credit gold piece. The sky, black before, remained black, and the stars shone undiminished. That was the way on an airless world where there was no dust to scatter sunlight and turn the heavens a deep, masking blue.

The man of the asteroid said, "In twenty-five minutes or so it will be setting again. Sometimes, when Jupiter is at its closest, you can see it, too, like a little marble, with its four satellites like sparks lined up in military formation. But that only happens every three and a half years. This isn't the time."

Lucky said bluntly, "Those men called you Herm. Is that your name? Are you one of them?"

"You mean am I a pirate? No. But I'll admit I may be an accessory after the fact. Nor is my name Herm. That's just a term they use for hermits in general. My name, sir, is Joseph Patrick Hansen, and since we are to be companions at close quarters for an indefinite period, I hope we shall be friends."

He held out a metal-sheathed hand, and Lucky grasped it.

"I'm Bill Williams," he said. "You say you're a hermit? Do you mean by that that you live here all the time?"

"That's right."

Lucky looked about the poor splinter of granite and silica and frowned. "It doesn't look very inviting."

"Nevertheless I'll try to do my best to make you comfortable."

The hermit touched a section of the slab of rock out of which he had come and a piece of it wheeled open once again. Lucky noted that the edges had been beveled and lined with lastium or some similar material to insure air tightness.

"Won't you step inside, Mr. Williams?" invited the hermit.

Lucky did so. The rock slab closed behind them. As it closed, a small Fluoro lit up and shone away the obscurity. It revealed a small air-lock, not much larger than was required to hold two men.

A small red signal light flickered, and the hermit said, "You can open your face-plate now. We've got air." He did so himself as he spoke.

Lucky followed suit, dragging in lungfuls of clear, fresh air. Not bad. Better than the air on shipboard. Definitely.

But it was when the inner door of the air-lock opened that the wind went out of Lucky in one big gasp.


6. What The Hermit Knew

Lucky had seen few such luxurious rooms even on Earth. It was thirty feet long, twenty wide, and thirty high. A balcony circled it. Above and below the walls were lined with book films. A wall projector was set on a pedestal, while on another was a gemlike model of the Galaxy. The lighting was entirely indirect.

As soon as he set foot within the room, he felt the tug of pseudo-grav motors. It wasn't set at Earth normal. From the feel of it it seemed somewhere between Earth and Mars normal. There was a delightful sensation of lightness and yet enough pull to allow full muscular co-ordination.

The hermit had removed his space-suit and suspended it over a white plastic trough into which the frost that had collected thickly over it when they stepped out of frozen space and into the warm, moist air of the room might trickle as it melted.

He was tall and straight, his face was pink and un-lined, but his hair was quite white, as were his bushy eyebrows, and the veins stood out on the back of his hands.

He said politely, "May I help you with your suit?"

Lucky came to life. "That's all right." He clambered out quickly. "This is an unusual place you have here."

"You like it?" Hansen smiled. "It took many years to make it look like this. Nor is this all there is to my little

home." He seemed filled with a quiet pride.

"I imagine so," said Lucky. "There must be a power-plant for light and heat as well as to keep the pseudo-grav field alive. You must have an air purifier and re-placer, water supplies, food stores, all that. "That's right." "A hermit's life is not bad."

The hermit was obviously both proud and pleased. "It doesn't have to be," he said. "Sit down, Williams, sit down. Would you like a drink?"

"No, thank you." Lucky lowered himself into an armchair. Its apparently normal seat and back masked a soft diamagnetic field that gave under his weight only so far, then achieved a balance that molded itself to every curve of his body. "Unless you can scare up a cup of coffee?

"Easily!" The old man stepped into an alcove. In seconds he was back with a fragrant and steaming cup, plus a second for himself.

The arm of Lucky's chair unfolded into a narrow ledge at the proper touch of Hansen's toe and the hermit set down one cup into an appropriate recess. As he did so he paused to stare at the younger man. Lucky looked up. "Yes?" Hansen shook his head. "Nothing. Nothing. They faced one another. The lights in the more distant parts of the large room faded until only the area immediately surrounding the two men was clear to vision. "And now if you'll pardon an old man's curiosity, said the hermit, "I'd like to ask you why you've come here."

"I didn't come. I was brought," said Lucky.

"You mean you're not one of—" Hansen paused.

"No, I'm not a pirate. At least, not yet."

Hansen put down his cup and looked troubled. "I don't understand. Perhaps I've said things I shouldn't have."

"Don't worry about it. I'm going to be one of them soon enough."

Lucky finished his coffee and then, choosing his words carefully, began with his boarding of the Atlas on the Moon and carried it through to the moment.

Hansen listened in absorption. "And are you sure this is what you want to do, young man, now that you've seen a little of what the life is like?"

I'm sure.

"Why, for Earth's sake?"

"Exactly. For the sake of Earth and what it did to me. It's no place to live. Why did you come out here?"

"It's a long story, I'm afraid. You needn't look alarmed. I won't tell it. I bought this asteroid long ago as a place for small vacations, and I grew to like it. I kept enlarging the room space, brought furniture and book films from Earth little by little. Eventually I found I had all I needed here. So why not stay here permanently? I asked myself. And I did stay here permanently."

"Sure. Why not? You're smart. Back there it's a mess. Too many people. Too many rut jobs. Next to impossible to get out to the planets, and if you do, it means a job of manual labor. No opportunity for a man any more unless he comes to the asteroids. I'm not old enough to settle down like you. But for a young fellow it's a free life and an exciting one. There's room to be boss."

"The ones who are already boss don't like young fellows with boss notions in their head. Anton, for instance. I've seen him and I know."

"Maybe, but so far he's kept his word," said Lucky. "He said if I came out winner over this Dingo, I'd have my chance to join the men of the asteroids. It looks as though I'm getting the chance."

"It looks as though you're here, that's all. What if he returns with proof, or what he calls proof, that you're a government man."

"He won't."

"And if he does? Just to get rid of you?"

Lucky's face darkened and again Hansen looked at him curiously, frowning a bit.

Lucky said, "He wouldn't. He can use a good man and he knows it. Besides, why are you preaching to me? You're out here yourself playing ball with them."

Hansen looked down. "It's true. I shouldn't interfere with you. It's just that being alone here so long, I'm apt to talk too much when a person does come along, just to hear the sound of voices. Look, it's about time for dinner. I would be glad to have you eat with me in silence, if you'd rather. Or else we'll talk about anything you choose."

"Well, thanks, Mr. Hansen. No hard feelings."

"Good."

Lucky followed Hansen through a door into a small pantry lined with canned food and concentrates of all sorts. None of the brand names familiar to Lucky were represented. Instead the contents of each can were described in brightly colored etchings that were themselves integral parts of the metal.

Hansen said, "I used to keep fresh meat in a special freeze room. You can get the temperature down all the way on an asteroid, you know, but it's been two years since I could get that kind of supplies."

He chose half a dozen cans off the shelves, plus a container of milk concentrate. At his suggestion Lucky took up a sealed gallon container of water from a lower shelf.

The hermit set the table quickly. The cans were of the self-heating type that opened up into dishes with enclosed cutlery.

Hansen said, with some amusement, indicating the cans, "I've got a whole valley on the outside brim-filled with these things. Discarded ones, that is. A twenty years' accumulation."

The food was good, but strange. It was yeast-base material, the kind only the Terrestrial Empire produced. Nowhere else in the Galaxy was the pressure of population so great, the billions of people so numerous, that yeast culture had been developed. On Venus, where most of the yeast products were grown, almost any variety of food imitation could be produced: steaks, nuts, butter, candy. It was as nourishing as the real thing, too. To Lucky, however, the flavor was not quite Venusian. There was a sharper tang to it.

"Pardon me for being nosy," he said, "but all this takes money, doesn't it?"

"Oh yes, and I have some. I have investments on Earth. Quite good ones. My checks are always honored, or at least they were until not quite two years ago."

"What happened then?"

"The supply ships stopped coming. Too risky on account of the pirates. It was a bad blow. I had a good backlog of supplies in most things, but I can imagine how it must have been for the others."

"The others?"

"The other hermits. There are hundreds of us. They're not all as lucky as I am. Very few can afford to make their worlds quite this comfortable, but they can manage the essentials. It's usually old people like myself, with wives dead, children grown up, the world strange and different, who go off by themselves. If they have a little nest egg, they can get a little asteroid started. The government doesn't charge. Any asteroid you want to settle on, if it's less than five miles in diameter, is yours. Then if they want they can invest in a sub-etheric receiver and keep up with the universe. If not, they can have book films, or can arrange to have news transcripts brought in by the supply ships once a year, or they can just eat, rest, sleep, and wait to die if they'd rather. I wish, sometimes, I'd got to know some of them."

"Why haven't you?"

"Sometimes I've felt willing, but they're not easy people to know. After all, they've come here to be alone, and for that matter, so have I."

"Well, what did you do when the supply ships stopped coming?"

"Nothing at first. I thought surely the government would clean up the situation and I had enough supplies for months. In fact, I could have skimped along for a year, maybe. But then the pirate ships came."

"And you threw in with them?"

The hermit shrugged. His eyebrows drew together in a troubled frown and they finished their meal in silence.

At the end he gathered the can plates and cutlery and placed them in a wall container in the alcove that led to the pantry. Lucky heard a dim grating noise of metal on metal that diminished rapidly.

Hansen said, "The pseudo-grav field doesn't extend to the disposal tube. A puff of air and they sail out to the valley I told you of, even though it's nearly a mile away."

"It seems to me," said Lucky, "that if you'd try a little harder puff, you'd get rid of the cans altogether."

"So I would. I think most hermits do that. Maybe they all do. I don't like the idea, though. It's a waste of air, and of metal too. We might reclaim those cans someday. Who knows? Besides even though most of the cans would scatter here and there, I'm sure that some would circle this asteroid like little moons and it's undignified to think of being accompanied on your orbit by your garbage… Care to smoke? No? Mind if I do?"

He lit a cigar and with a contented sigh went on. "The men of the asteroids can't supply tobacco regularly, so this is becoming a rare treat for me."

Lucky said, "Do they furnish you the rest of your supplies?"

"That's right. Water, machine parts and power-pack renewals. It's an arrangement."

"And what do you do for them?"

The hermit studied his cigar's lighted end. "Not much. They use this world. They land their ships on it and I don't report them. They don't come in here and what they do elsewhere on the rock isn't my business. I don't want to know. It's safer that way. Men are left here sometimes, like yourself, and are picked up later. I have an idea they stop for minor repairs sometimes. They bring me supplies in return."

"Do they supply all the hermits?"

"I wouldn't know. Maybe."

"It would take an awful lot of supplies. Where would they get them from?"

"They capture ships."

"Not enough to supply hundreds of hermits and themselves. I mean, it would take an awful lot of ships."

"I wouldn't know."

"Aren't you interested? It's a soft life you have here, but maybe the food we just ate came off a ship whose crew are frozen corpses circling some other asteroid like human garbage. Do you ever think of that?"

The hermit flushed painfully. "You're getting your revenge for my having preached to you earlier. You're right, but what can I do? I didn't abandon or betray the government. They abandoned and betrayed me. My estate on Earth pays taxes. Why am I not protected then? I registered this asteroid with the Terrestrial Outer World Bureau in good faith. It's part of the Terrestrial dominion. I have every right to expect protection against the pirates. If that's not forthcoming; if my source of supply coolly says that they can bring me nothing more at any price, what am I supposed to do?

"You might say I could have returned to Earth, but how could I abandon all this? I have a world of my own here. My book films, the great classics that I love. I even have a copy of Shakespeare; a direct filming of the actual pages of an ancient printed book. I have food, drink, privacy. I could find nowhere as comfortable as this anywhere else in the Universe.

"Don't think it's been an easy choice, though. I have a sub-etheric transmitter. I could communicate with Earth. I've got a little ship that can make the short haul to Ceres. The men of the asteroids know that, but they trust me. They know I have no choice. As I told you when we first met, I'm an accessory after the fact.

"I've helped them. That makes me legally a pirate. It would be jail, execution, probably, if I return. If not, if they free me provided I turn state's evidence, the men of the asteroids won't forget. They would find me no matter where I went, unless I could be guaranteed complete government protection for life."

"It looks like you're in a bad way," said Lucky.

"Am I?" said the hermit. "I might be able to get that complete protection with the proper help."

It was Lucky's turn. "I wouldn't know," he said.

"I think you would."

"I don't get you.

"Look, I'll give you a word of warning in return for help."

"There's nothing I can do. What's your word?"

"Get off the asteroid before Anton and his men come back."

"Not on your life. I came here to join them, not to go home."

"If you don't leave, you'll stay forever. You'll stay as a dead man. They won't let you on any crew. You won't qualify, mister."

Lucky's face twisted in anger. "What in space are you talking about, old-timer?"

"There it is again. When you get angry, I see it plainly. You're not Bill Williams, son. What's your relationship to Lawrence Starr of the Council of Science? Are you Starr's son?"


7. To Ceres

Lucky's eyes narrowed. He felt the muscles of his right arm tense as though to reach for a hip at which no blaster nestled. He made no actual motion.

His voice remained under strict control. He said, "Whose son? What are you talking about?"

"I'm sure of it." The hermit leaned forward, seizing Lucky's wrist earnestly. "I knew Lawrence Starr well. He was my friend. He helped me once when I needed help. And you're his image. I couldn't be wrong."

Lucky pulled his hand away. "You're not making sense."

"Listen, son, it may be important to you not to give away your identity. Maybe you don't trust me. All right, I'm not telling you to trust me. I've been working with the pirates and I've admitted it. But listen to me anyway. The men of the asteroids have a good organization. It may take them weeks, but if Anton suspects you, they won't stop till you're checked from the ground up. No phony story will fool them. They'll get the truth and they'll learn who you are. Be sure of that! They'll get your true identity. Leave, I tell you. Leave!"

Lucky said, "If I were this guy you say I am, old-timer, aren't you getting yourself into trouble? I take it you want me to use your ship."

"Yes."

"And what would you do when the pirates returned?"

"I wouldn't be here. Don't you see? I want to go with you."

"And leave all you have here?"

The old man hesitated. "Yes, it's hard. But I won't have a chance like this again. You're a man of influence; you must be. You're a member of the Council of Science, perhaps. You're here on secret work. They'll believe you. You could protect me, vouch for me. You would prevent prosecution, see that no harm came to me from the pirates. It would pay the Council, young man. I would tell them all I know about the pirates. I would co-operate in every way I could."

Lucky said, "Where do you keep your ship?"

"It's a deal, then?"

"I'm just asking to see your ship."


* * *


The ship was a small one indeed. The two reached it through a narrow corridor, walking single file, their figures grotesque again in space-suits.

Lucky said, "Is Ceres close enough to pick out by ship's telescope?"

"Yes indeed."

"You could recognize it without trouble?"

"Certainly."

"Let's get on board, then."

The fore end of the airless cavern that housed the ship opened outward as soon as the ship's motors were activated.

"Radio control," explained Hansen.

The ship was fueled and provisioned. It worked smoothly, rising out of its berth and into space with the ease and freedom possible only where gravitational forces were virtually lacking. For the first time Lucky saw Hansen's asteroid from space. He caught a glimpse of the valley of the discarded cans, brighter than the surrounding rock, just before it passed into shadow.

Hansen said, "Tell me, now. You are the son of Lawrence Starr, aren't you?"

Lucky had located a well-charged blaster and a holster belt to boot. He was strapping it on as he spoke.

"My name," he said, "is David Starr. Most people call me Lucky."


* * *


Ceres is a monster among the asteroids. It is nearly five hundred miles in diameter, and, standing upon it, the average man actually weighs two full pounds. It is quite spherical in shape, and anyone very close to it in space could easily think it a respectable planet.

Still, if the Earth were hollow, it would be possible to throw into it four thousand bodies the size of Ceres before filling it up.

Bigman stood on the surface of Ceres, his figure bloated in a space-suit which had been loaded to bursting with lead weights and on shoes the soles of which were foot-thick lead clogs. It had been his own idea, but it was quite useless. He still weighed less than four pounds and his every motion threatened to twist him up into space.

He had been on Ceres for days now, since the quick space flight with Conway and Henree from the Moon, waiting for this moment, waiting for Lucky Starr to send in the radio message that he was coming in. Gus Henree and Hector Conway had been nervous about it, fearing Lucky's death, worrying about it. He, Bigman, had known better. Lucky could come through anything. He told them that. When Lucky's message finally came, he told them again.

But just the same, out here on Ceres' frozen soil with nothing between himself and the stars, he admitted a sneaking sensation of relief.

From where he sat he was looking directly at the dome of the Observatory, its lower reaches dipping just a little below the close horizon. It was the largest observatory in the Terrestrial Empire for a very logical reason.

In that part of the Solar System inside the orbit of Jupiter, the planets Venus, Earth, and Mars had atmospheres and were by that very fact poorly suited for astronomic observation. The interfering air, even when it was as thin as that of Mars, blotted out the finer detail. It wavered and flickered star images and spoiled things generally.

The largest airless object inside Jupiter's orbit was Mercury, but that was so close to the Sun that the observatory in its twilight zone specialized in solar observations. Relatively small telescopes sufficed.

The second largest airless object was the Moon. Here again circumstances dictated specialization. Weather forecasts on Earth, for instance, had become an accurate, long-range science, since the appearance of Earth's atmosphere could be viewed as a whole from a distance of a quarter of a million miles.

And the third largest airless object was Ceres, and that was the best of the three. Its almost nonexistent gravity allowed huge lenses and mirrors to be poured without the danger of breakage, without even the question of sag, due to its own weight. The structure of the telescope tube itself needed no particular strength. Ceres was nearly three times as far from the Sun as was the Moon and sunlight was only one eighth as strong. Its rapid revolution kept Ceres' temperature almost constant. In short, Ceres was ideal for observation of the stars and of the outer planets.

Only the day before Bigman had seen Saturn through the thousand-inch reflecting telescope, the grinding of the huge mirror having consumed twenty years of painstaking and continuous labor.

"What do I look through?" he had asked.

They laughed at him. "You don't look through anything," they said.

They worked the controls carefully, three of them, each doing something that co-ordinated with the other two, until all were satisfied. The dim red lights dimmed further and in the pit of black emptiness about which they sat a blob of light sprang into being. A touch at the controls and it focused sharply.

Bigman whistled his astonishment. It was Saturn!

It was Saturn, three feet wide, exactly as he had seen it from space half a dozen times. Its triple rings were bright and he could see three marble-like moons. Behind it was a numerous dusting of stars. Bigman wanted to walk about it to see how it looked with the night shadow cutting it, but the picture didn't change as he moved.

"It's just an image," they told him, "an illusion. You see the same thing no matter where you stand."

Now, from the asteroid's surface, Bigman could spot Saturn with the naked eye. It was just a white dot, but brighter than the other white dots that were the stars. It was twice as bright as it appeared from Earth, since it was two hundred million miles closer here. Earth itself was on the other side of Ceres near the pea-size Sun. Earth wasn't a very impressive sight, since the Sun invariably dwarfed it.

Bigman's helmet suddenly rang with sound as the call flooded his left-open radio receiver.

"Hey, Shortie, get moving. There's a ship coming in."

Bigman jumped at the noise and moved straight upward, limbs flailing. He yelled, "Who're you calling Shortie?"

But the other was laughing. "Hey, how much do you charge for flying lessons, little boy?"

"I'll little boy you," screamed Bigman furiously. He had reached the peak of his parabola and was slowly and hesitatingly beginning to settle downward once more. "What's your name, wise guy? Say your name, and I'll crack your gizzard as soon as I get back and peel the suit.

"Think you can reach my gizzard?" came the mocking rejoinder, and Bigman would have exploded into tiny pieces if he had not caught sight of a ship slanting down from the horizon.

He loped in giant, clumsy strides about the leveled square mile of ground that was the asteroid's space-port, trying to judge the exact spot on which the ship would land.

It dropped down its steaming jets to a feather-touch planetary contact and when the air-locks opened and Lucky's tall, suited figure emerged, Bigman, yelling his joy, made one long leap of it, and they were together.


* * *


Conway and Henree were less effusive in their welcome, but no less joyful. Each wrung Lucky's hand as though to confirm, by sheer muscular pressure, the reality of the flesh and blood they beheld.

Lucky laughed. "Whoa, will you? Give me a chance to breathe. What's the matter? Didn't you think I was coming back?"

"Look here," said Conway, "you'd better consult us before you take off on just any old fool notion."

"Well, now, not if it's too much of a fool notion, please, or you won't let me."

"Never mind that. I can ground you for what you've done. I can have you put under detention right now. I can suspend you. I can throw you off the Council," said Conway.

"Which of them are you going to do?"

"None of them, you darned overgrown young fool. But I may beat your brains out one of these days."

Lucky turned to Augustus Henree. "You won't let him, will you?"

"Frankly, I'll help him."

"Then I give up in advance. Look, there's a gentleman here I'd like to have you meet."

Until now Hansen had remained in the background, obviously amused by the interchange of nonsense. The two older Councilmen had been too full of Lucky Starr even to be aware of his existence.

"Dr. Conway," said Lucky, "Dr. Henree, this is Mr. Joseph P. Hansen, the man whose ship I used to come back. He has been of considerable assistance to me."

The old hermit shook hands with the two scientists.

"I don't suppose you can possibly know Drs. Conway and Henree," said Lucky. The hermit shook his head.

"Well," he went on, "they're important officials in the Council of Science. After you've eaten and had a chance to rest, they'll talk to you and help you, I'm sure."


* * *


An hour later the two Councilmen faced Lucky with somber expressions. Dr. Henree tamped tobacco into his pipe with a little finger, and smoked quietly as he listened to Lucky's accounts of his adventures with the pirates.

"Have you told this to Bigman?" he asked.

"I've just spent some time talking to him," said Lucky.

"And he didn't assault you for not taking him?"

"He wasn't pleased," Lucky admitted.

But Conway's mind was more seriously oriented. "A Sirian-designed ship, eh?" he mused.

"Undoubtedly so," said Lucky. "At least we have that piece of information."

"The information wasn't worth the risk," said Conway, dryly. "I'm much more disturbed over another piece of information we have now. It's obvious that the Sirian organization penetrates into the Council of Science itself."

Henree nodded gravely. "Yes, I saw that, too. Very bad."

Lucky said, "How do you make that out?"

"Galaxy, boy, it's obvious," growled Conway. "I'll admit that we had a large construction crew working on the ship and that even with the best intentions careless slips of information can take place. It remains truth, though, that the fact of the booby-trapping and particularly the exact manner of the fusing were known only to Council members and not too many of those. Somewhere in that small group is a spy, yet I could have sworn that all were faithful." He shook his head. "I still can't believe otherwise."

"You don't have to," said Lucky.

"Oh? And why not?"

"Because the Sirian contact was quite temporary. The Sirian Embassy got their information from me."


8. Bigman Takes Over

"Indirectly, of course, through one of their known spies," he amplified, as the two older men stared at him in shocked astonishment.

"I don't understand you at all," said Henree in a low voice. Conway was obviously speechless.

"It was necessary. I had to introduce myself to the pirates without suspicion. If they found me on what they thought was a mapping ship, they would have shot me out of hand. On the other hand, if they found me on a booby-trapped ship the secret of which they had stumbled on by what seemed a stroke of fortune, they would have taken me at face value as a stowaway. Don't you see? On a mapping ship I'm only a member of the crew that didn't get away in time. On a booby trap, I'm a poor jerk who didn't realize what he was stowing away on."

"They might have shot you anyway. They might have seen through your double-cross and considered you a spy. In fact, they almost did."

"True! They almost did," admitted Lucky.

Conway finally exploded. "And what about the original plan. Were we or were we not going to explode one of their bases? When I consider the months we spent on the construction of the Atlas, the money that went into it—"

"What good would it have done to explode one of their bases? We spoke about a huge hangar of pirate ships, but actually that was only wishful thinking. An organization based upon the asteroids would have to be decentralized. The pirates probably don't have more than three or four ships in any one place. There wouldn't be room for more. Exploding three or four ships would mean very little compared with what would have been accomplished if I had succeeded in penetrating their organization."

"But you didn't succeed," said Conway. "With all your fool risks, you didn't succeed."

"Unfortunately the pirate captain who took the Atlas was too suspicious, or perhaps too intelligent for us. I'll try not to underestimate them again. But it's not all loss. We know for a fact that Sirius is behind them. In addition, we have my hermit friend."

"He won't help us," said Conway. "From what you've said about him, it sounds as though he were only interested in having as little to do with the pirates as possible. So what can he know?"

"He may be able to tell us more than he himself thinks is possible," said Lucky coolly. "For instance, there's one piece of information he can give us that will enable me to continue efforts at working against piracy from the inside."

"You're not going out there again," said Conway hastily.

"I don't intend to," said Lucky.

Conway's eyes narrowed. "Where's Bigman?"

"On Ceres. Don't worry. In fact," and a shadow crossed Lucky's face, "he should be here by now. The delay is beginning to bother me a little."


* * *


John Bigman Jones used his special pass card to get past the guard at the door to the Control Tower. He was muttering to himself as he half-ran along the corridors.

The slight flush on his pug-nosed face dimmed his freckles and his reddish hair stood up in tufts like fence pickets. Lucky had frequently told him he cultivated a vertical hair-do to make himself look taller, but he always denied that vigorously.

The final door to the Tower swung open as he broke the photoelectric beam. He stepped inside and looked about.

Three men were on duty. One with earphones sat at the sub-etheric receiver, another was at the calculating machine and the third was at the curved radarized visiplate.

Bigman said, "Which one of you knotbrains called me Shortie?"

The three turned toward him in unison, their faces startled and scowling.

The man with the earphones pulled one away from his left ear. "Who in space are you? How the dickens did you get in here?"

Bigman stood erect and puffed out his small chest. "My name is John Bigman Jones. My friends call me Bigman. Everyone else calls me Mr. Jones. Nobody calls me Shortie and stays in one piece. I want to know which one of you made that mistake."

The man with the earphones said, "My name is Lem Fisk and you can call me anything you blame please as long as you do it somewhere else. Get out of here, or I'll come down, pick you up by one leg, and toss you out."

The fellow at the calculating machine said, "Hey, Lem, that's the crackpot who was haunting the port a while back. There's no point in wasting time on him. Get the guards to throw him out."

"Nuts," said Lem Fisk, "we don't need guards for that guy." He took off his earphones altogether and set the sub-etherics at automatic signal. He said, "Well, son, you came in here and asked us a nice question in a nice way. I'll give you a nice answer. I called you Shortie, but wait, don't get mad. I had a reason. You see you're such a real tall fellow. You're such a long drink of water. You're such a high-pockets. It makes my friends laugh to hear me call you Shortie."

He reached into his hip pocket and drew out a plastic container of cigarettes. The smile on his face was bland.

"Come down here," yelled Bigman. "Come down here and back up your sense of humor with a couple of fists."

"Temper, temper," said Fisk, clucking his tongue. "Here, boy, have a cigarette. King-size, you know. Almost as long as you are. Liable to create some confusion, though, come to think of it. We won't be able to tell whether you're smoking the cigarette or the cigarette is smoking you."

The other two Tower men laughed vigorously.

Bigman was a passionate red. Words came thickly to his tongue. "You won't fight?"

"I'd rather smoke. Pity you don't join me." Fisk leaned back, chose a cigarette, and held it before his face as though admiring its slim whiteness. "After all, I can't be bothered to fight children."

He grinned, brought his cigarette to his lips, and found them closing on nothingness.

His thumb and first two fingers still held their positions about three eighths of an inch apart, but there was no cigarette between them.

"Watch out, Lem," cried the man at the visiplate. "He has a needle-gun."

"No needle-gun," snarled Bigman. "Just a buzzer."

There was an important difference. A buzzer's projectiles, although needle-like, were fragile and nonexplosive. They were used for target practice and small game. Striking human skin, a buzz needle would do no serious damage, but it would smart like the devil.

Fisk's grin disappeared completely. He yelled, "Watch that, you crazy fool. You can blind a man with that."

Bigman's fist remained clenched at eye level. The thin snout of the buzzer projected between his two middle fingers. He said, "I won't blind you. But I can fix it so you won't sit down for a month. And as you can see, my aim isn't bad. And you," he called over his shoulder to the one at the calculator, "if you move an inch closer to the alarm circuit, you'll have a buzz needle right through your hand."

Fisk said, "What do you want?"

"Come down here and fight."

"Against a buzzer?"

"I'll put it away. Fists. Fair fight. Your buddies can see to that."

"I can't hit a guy smaller than I am."

"Then you shouldn't insult him, either." Bigman brought up the buzzer. "And I'm not smaller than you are. I may look that way on the outside, but inside I'm as big as you. Maybe bigger. I'm counting three." He narrowed one eye as he aimed.

"Galaxy!" swore Fisk. "I'm coming down. Fellas, be my witness that this was forced on me. I'll try not to hurt the crazy idiot too much."

He leaped down from his perch. The man at the calculating machine took his place at the sub-etherics.

Fisk was five feet ten, eight inches taller than Bigman, whose slight figure was more like a boy's than a man's. But Bigman's muscles were steel springs under perfect control. He awaited the other's approach without expression.

Fisk did not bother to put up a guard. He simply extended his right hand as though he were going to lift Bigman by the collar and toss him through the still open door.

Bigman ducked under the arm. His left and right thudded into the larger man's solar plexus in a rapid one-two, and almost in the same instant he danced out of reach.

Fisk turned green and sat down, holding his stomach and groaning.

"Stand up, big boy," said Bigman. "I'll wait for you."

The other two Tower men seemed frozen into immobility by the sudden turn of events.

Slowly Fisk rose to his feet. His face glowed with rage, but he approached more slowly.

Bigman drifted away.

Fisk lunged! Bigman was not there by two inches. Fisk whipped a sharp overhand right. It's thrust ended an inch short of Bigman's jaw.

Bigman bobbed about like a cork on rippling water. His arms lifted occasionally to deflect a blow.

Fisk, yelling incoherently, rushed blindly at his gnat-like opponent. Bigman stepped to one side and his open hand slapped sharply at the other's smooth-shaven cheek. It hit with a sharp report, like a meteor hitting the first layers of dense air above a planet. The marks of four fingers were outlined in red on Fisk's face.

For a moment Fisk stood there, dazed. Like a striking snake, Bigman stepped in again, his fists moving upward to crack against Fisk's jaw. Fisk went down into a half crouch.

Distantly Bigman was suddenly aware of the steady ringing of the alarm.

Without a moment's hesitation he turned on his heel and was out the door. He wove through a startled trio of guards heading up the corridor at a clattering run, and was gone!


* * *


"And why," questioned Conway, "are we waiting for Bigman?"

Lucky said, "Here's the way I see the situation. There is nothing we need so badly as more information about the pirates. I mean inside information. I tried to get it and things didn't quite break the way I hoped they would. I'm a marked man now. They know me. But they don't know Bigman. He has no official connection with the Council. Now it's my idea that if we can trump up a criminal charge against him, for realism, you know, he can hightail it out of Ceres in the hermit's ship—"

"Oh, space," groaned Conway.

"Listen, will you! He'll go back to the hermit's asteroid. If the pirates are there, good! If not, he'll leave the ship in plain view and wait for them inside. It's a very comfortable place to wait in."

"And when they come," said Henree, "they'll shoot him."

"They will not. That's why he's taking the hermit's ship. They'll have to know where Hansen went, to say nothing of myself, where Bigman came from, how he got hold of the ship. They'll have to know. That will give him time to talk."

"And to explain how he picked out Hansen's asteroid out of all the rocks in creation? That would take some tall talking."

"That won't take any talking at all. The hermit's ship was on Ceres, which it is. I've arranged to leave it out there unguarded, so he can take it. He'll find the ship's home asteroid's space-time co-ordinates in the logbook. It would just be an asteroid to him, not too far from Ceres, as good as any other, and he would make a beeline for it in order to wait for the furor on Ceres to die down."

"It's a risk," grumbled Conway.

"Bigman knows it. And I tell you right now, we've got to take risks. Earth is underestimating the pirate menace so badly that—"

He interrupted himself as the signal light of the Com-mum-tube flashed on and off in rapid dots of light.

Conway, with an impatient motion of his hand, cut in the signal analyzer, then sat up straight.

He said, "It's on the Council wave length and, by Ceres, it's one of the Council scramblings."

The small visiplate above the Communi-tube was showing a characteristic rapidly shifting pattern of light and dark.

Conway inserted a sliver of metal, which he took from a group of such in his wallet, into a narrow slot in the Communi-tube. The sliver was a crystallite unscrambler, the active portion of the gadget consisting of a particular pattern of tiny crystals of tungsten embedded in an aluminum matrix. It filtered the sub-etheric signal in a specific way. Slowly Conway adjusted the unscrambler, pushing it in deeper and extracting it again until it matched exactly a scrambler, similar in nature but opposite in function, at the other end of the signal.

The moment of complete adjustment was heralded by the sudden sharp focusing of the visiplate.

Lucky half-rose to his feet. "Bigman!" he said. "Where in space are you?"

Bigman's little face was grinning puckishly out at them. "I'm in space all right. A hundred thousand miles off Ceres. I'm in the hermit's ship."

Conway whispered furiously, "Is this another of your tricks? I thought you said he was on Ceres?"

"I thought he was," Lucky said. Then, "What happened, Bigman?"

"You said we had to act quickly, so I fixed things up myself. One of the wise guys in the Control Tower was giving me the business. So I slammed him around a little and took off." He laughed. "Check the guardhouse and see if they're not on the lookout for a guy like me with a complaint of assault and battery against him."

"That wasn't the brightest thing you could have done," said Lucky gravely. "You'll have a hard time convincing the men of the asteroids that you're the type for assault. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but you look a little small for the job."

"I'll knock down a few," Bigman retorted. "They'll believe me. But that's not why I called."

"Well, why did you?"

"How do I get to this guy's asteroid?"

Lucky frowned. "Have you looked in the logbook?"

"Great Galaxy! I've looked everywhere. I've looked under the mattress even. There's no record anywhere of any kind of co-ordinates."

Lucky's look of uneasiness grew. "That's strange. In fact it's worse than strange. Look, Bigman," he spoke rapidly and incisively, "match Ceres' speed. Give me your co-ordinates with respect to Ceres right now and keep them that way, whatever you do, till I call you. You're too close to Ceres now for any pirates to bother you, but if you drift out further, you may be in a bad way. Do you hear me?"

"Check. Got you. Let me calculate my co-ordinates."

Lucky wrote them down and broke connections. He said, "Space, when will I learn not to make assumptions."

Henree said, "Hadn't you better have Bigman come back? It's a foolhardy setup at best and as long as you haven't the co-ordinates, give the whole thing up."

"Give it up?" said Lucky. "Give up the one asteroid we know to be a pirates' base? Do you know of any other? One single other? We've got to find the asteroid. It's our only clue to the inside of this knot."

Conway said, "He's got a point there, Gus. It is a base."

Lucky jiggled a switch on the intercom briskly and waited.

Hansen's voice, sleep-filled but startled, said, "Hello! Hello!"

Lucky said briskly, "This is Lucky Starr, Mr. Hansen. Sorry to disturb you, but I would like to have you come down here to Dr. Conway's room as fast as you can."

The hermit's voice answered after a pause, "Certainly, but I don't know the way."

"The guard at your door will take you. I'll contact him. Can you make it in two minutes?"

"Two and a half anyway," he said, good-humoredly. He sounded more awake.

"Good enough!"

Hansen was as good as his word. Lucky was waiting for him.

Lucky paused for a moment, holding the door open. He said to the guard, "Has there been any trouble at the base earlier this evening? An assault, perhaps?"

The guard looked surprised. "Yes, sir. The man who got hurt refused to press charges, though. Claimed it was a fair fight."

Lucky closed the door. He said, "That follows. Any normal man would hate to get up in a guardhouse and admit a fellow the size of Bigman had given him a banging. I'll call the authorities later and have them put the charge on paper anyway. For the record..,. Mr. Hansen."

"Yes, Mr. Starr?"

"I have a question the answer to which I did not want floating around the intercom system. Tell me, what are the co-ordinates of your home asteroid. Standard and temporal both, of course."

Hansen stared and his china-blue eyes grew round. "Well, you may find this hard to believe, but do you know, I really couldn't tell you."


9. The Asteroid That Wasn't

Lucky met his eye steadily. "That is hard to believe, Mr. Hansen. I should think you would know your coordinates as well as a planet dweller would know his home address."

The hermit looked at his toes and said mildly, "I suppose so. It is my home address, really. Yet I don't know it."

Conway said, "If this man is deliberately—"

Lucky broke in. "Now wait. Let's force patience on ourselves if we have to. Mr. Hansen must have some explanation."

They waited for the hermit to speak.

Co-ordinates of the various bodies in the Galaxy were the lifeblood of space travel. They fulfilled the same function that lines of latitude and longitude did on the two-dimensional surface of a planet. However, since space is three dimensional, and since the bodies in it move about in every possible way, the necessary coordinates are more complicated.

Basically there is first a standard zero position. In the case of the Solar System, the Sun was the usual standard. Based on that standard, three numbers are necessary. The first number is the distance of an object or a position in space from the Sun. The second and third numbers are two angular measurements indicating the position of the object with reference to an imaginary line connecting the Sun and the center of the Galaxy. If three sets of such co-ordinates are known for three different times, set well apart, the orbit of a moving body could be calculated and its position, relative to the Sun, known for any given time.

Ships could calculate their own co-ordinates with respect to the Sun or, if it were more convenient, with respect to the nearest large body, whatever it was. On the Lunar Lines, for instance, of which vessels traveled from Earth to the Moon and back, Earth was the customary "zero point." The Sun's own co-ordinates could be calculated with respect to the Galactic Center and the Galactic Prime Meridian, but that was only important in traveling between the stars.

Some of all this might have been passing through the hermit's mind as he sat there with the three Councilmen watching him narrowly. It was hard to tell.

Hansen said suddenly, "Yes, I can explain."

"We're waiting," said Lucky.

"I've never had occasion to use the co-ordinates in fifteen years. I haven't left my asteroid at all for two years and before that any trips I made, maybe one or two a year, were short ones to Ceres or Vesta for supplies of one sort or another. When I did that, I used local coordinates which I always calculated out for the moment. I never worked out a table because I didn't have to.

"I'd only be gone a day or two, three at the most, and my own rock wouldn't drift far in that time. It travels with the stream, a little slower than Ceres or Vesta when it's further from the Sun and a little faster when it's nearer. When I'd head back for the position I calculated, my rock might have drifted ten thousand or even a hundred thousand miles off its original spot, but it was always close enough to pick up with the ship's telescope. After that, I could always adjust my course by eye. I never used the solar standard co-ordinates because I never had to, and there it is."

"What you're saying," said Lucky, "is that you couldn't get back to your rock now. Or did you calculate its local co-ordinates before you left?"

"I never thought to," said the hermit sadly."It's been so long since I left it that I never gave the matter a second's attention. Not until the minute you called me in here."

Dr. Henree said, "Wait. Wait." He had lit up a fresh pipeful of tobacco and was puffing strongly. "I may be wrong, Mr. Hansen, but when you first took over ownership of your asteroid, you must have filed a claim with the Terrestrial Outer World Bureau. Is that right?"

"Yes," said Hansen, "but it was only a formality."

"That could be. I'm not arguing that. Still, the coordinates of your asteroid would be on record there."

Hansen thought a bit, then shook his head. "I'm afraid not, Dr. Henree. They took only the standard co-ordinate set for January 1 of that year. That was just to identify the asteroid, like a code number, in case of disputed ownership. They weren't interested in anything more than that and you can't compute an orbit from only one set of numbers."

"But you yourself must have had orbital values. Lucky told us that you first used the asteroid as an annual vacation spot. So you must have been able to find it from year to year."

"That was fifteen years ago, Dr. Henree. I had the values, yes. And those values are somewhere in my record books on the rock, but they're not in my memory."

Lucky, his brown eyes clouded, said, "There's nothing else at the moment, Mr. Hansen. The guard will take you back to the room and we'll let you know when we need you again. And, Mr. Hansen," he added as the hermit rose, "if you should happen to think of the co-ordinates, let us know."

"My word on that, Mr. Starr," said Hansen gravely.

The three were alone again. Lucky's hand shot out to the Communi-tube. "Key me in for transmission," he said.

The voice of the man at Central Communications came back. "Was the previous incoming message for you, sir? I couldn't unscramble it so I thought—"

"You did well. Transmission, please."

Lucky adjusted a scrambler and used Bigman's coordinates to zero in the sub-etheric beam.

"Bigman," he said when the other's face appeared, "open the logbook again."

"Do you have the co-ordinates, Lucky?"

"Not yet. Have you got the logbook open?"

"Yes."

"Is there a sheet of scrap paper somewhere in it? Loose, with calculations all over it?"

"Wait. Yes. Here it is."

"Hold it up in front of your transmitter. I want to see it."

Lucky pulled a sheet of paper before him and copied down the figuring. "All right, Bigman, take it away. Now listen, stay put. Get me? Stay put, no matter what, till you hear from me. Signing off."

He turned to the two older men. "I navigated the ship from the hermit's rock to Ceres by eye. I adjusted course three or four times, using his ship's telescope and vernier instruments for observation and measurements. These are my calculations."

Conway nodded. "Now, I suppose, you intend calculating backwards to find out the rock's co-ordinates."

"It can be done easily enough, particularly if we make use of the Ceres Observatory."

Conway rose heavily. "I can't help but think you make too much of all this, but I'll follow your instinct for a while. Let's go to the Observatory."


* * *


Corridors and elevators took them close to Ceres' surface, one half mile above the Council of Science offices on the asteroid. It was chilly there, since the Observatory made every attempt to keep the temperature as constant as possible and as near surface temperature as the human body could endure.

Slowly and carefully a young technician was unraveling Lucky's calculations, feeding them into the computer and controlling the operations.

Dr. Henree, in a not too comfortable chair, huddled his thin body together and seemed to be trying to extract warmth from his pipe, for his large-knuckled hands hovered closely about its bowl.

He said, "I hope this comes to something."

Lucky said, "It had better." He sat back, his eyes fixed thoughtfully on the opposite wall. "Look, Uncle Hector, you referred to my 'instinct' a while back. It isn't instinct; not any more. This run of piracy is entirely different from that of a quarter century ago."

"Their ships are harder to catch or stop, if that's what you mean," said Conway.

"Yes, but doesn't that make it all the stranger that their raids are confined to the asteroid belt? It's only here in the asteroids that trade has been disrupted."

"They're being cautious. Twenty-five years ago, when their ships ranged all the way to Venus, we were forced to mount an offensive and crush them. Now they stick to the asteroids and the government hesitates to take expensive measures."

"So far, so good," said Lucky, "but how do they support themselves? It's always been the assumption that pirates didn't raid for pure joy of it alone, but to pick up ships, food, water, and supplies. You would think that now more than ever that was a necessity. Captain Anton boasted to me of hundreds of ships and thousands of worlds. That may have been a lie to impress me, but he certainly took time for the push-gun duel, drifting openly in space for hours as though he had no fear whatever of government interference. And Hansen said, moreover, that the pirates had appropriated the various hermit worlds as stopping-off places. There are hundreds of hermit worlds. If the pirates dealt with all of them, or even a good part of them, that also means a large organization.

"Now where do they get the food to support a large organization and at the same time mount fewer raids now than pirates did twenty-five years ago? The pirate crewman, Martin Maniu, spoke to me of wives and families. He was a vat-man, he said. Presumably he cultured yeast. Hansen had yeast foods on his asteroid and they weren't Venus yeast. I know the taste of Venus yeast.

"Put it all together. They grow their own food in small yeast farms distributed among asteroid caverns. They can get carbon dioxide directly from limestone rocks, and water and extra oxygen from the Jovian satellites. Machinery and power units may be imported from Sirius or obtained by an occasional raid. Raids will also supply them with more recruits, both men and women.

"What it amounts to is that Sirius is building an independent government against us. It's making use of discontented people to build a widespread society that will be difficult or impossible to crush if we wait too long. The leaders, the Captain Antons, are after power in the first place and they're perfectly willing to give half the Terrestrial Empire to Sirius if they themselves can keep the other half."

Conway shook his head. "That's an awfully big structure for the small foundation of fact you have. I doubt if we could convince the government. The Council of Science can act by itself only so far, you know. We don't have a fleet of our own, unfortunately."

"I know. That's exactly why we need more information. If, while it is still early in the game, we can find their major bases, capture their leaders, expose their Sirian connections—"

"Well?"

"Why, it's my opinion the movement would be done with. I'm convinced that the average 'man of the asteroids,' to use their own phrase, has no idea he's being made a Sirian puppet. He probably has a grievance against Earth. He may think he's had a raw deal, resent the fact that he couldn't find a job or advancement, that he wasn't getting along as well as he should have. He may have been attracted to what he thought would be a colorful life. All that, maybe. Still, that's a long way from saying he'd be willing to side with Earth's worst enemy. When he finds out that his leaders have been tricking him into doing just that, the pirate menace will fall apart."

Lucky halted his intense whispering as the technician approached, holding a flexible transparent tape with the computer's code prickings upon it.

"Say," he said, "are you sure these figures you gave me were right?"

Lucky said, "I'm sure. Why?"

The technician shook his head. "There's something wrong. The final co-ordinates put your rock inside one of the forbidden zones. That's allowing for proper motion, too. I mean it can't be."

Lucky's eyebrows lifted sharply. The man was certainly right about the forbidden zones. No asteroids could possibly be found within them. Those zones represented portions of the asteroid belt in which asteroids, if they had existed, would have had times of revolution about the Sun that were an even fraction of Jupiter's twelve-year period of revolution. That would have meant that the asteroid and Jupiter would have continually approached, every few years, in the same portion of space. Jupiter's repeated pull would slowly move the asteroid out of that zone. In the two billion years since the planets had been formed Jupiter had cleared every asteroid out of the forbidden zones and that was that.

"Are you sure," Lucky said, "that your calculations are right?"

The technician shrugged as though to say, "I know my business.' But aloud he only said, "We can check it by telescope. The thousand-incher is busy, but that's no good for close work anyway. We'll get one of the smaller ones. Will you follow me, please?"

The Observatory proper was almost like a shrine, with the various telescopes the altars. Men were absorbed in their work and did not pause to look up when the technician and the three Councilmen entered.

The technician led the way to one of the wings into which the huge, cavernous room was divided.

"Charlie," he said to a prematurely balding young man, "can you swing Bertha into action?"

"What for?" Charlie looked up from a series of photographic prints, star-speckled, over which he had been bending.

"I want to check the spot represented by these coordinates." He held out the computer film.

Charlie glanced at it and frowned. "What for? That's forbidden-zone territory."

"Would you focus the point anyway?" asked the technician. "It's Council of Science business."

"Oh? Yes, sir." He was suddenly far more pleasant. "It won't take long."

He closed a switch and a flexible diaphragm sucked inward high above, closing about the shaft of "Bertha," a hundred-twenty-inch telescope used for close work. The diaphragm made an air-tight seal, and above it Lucky could make out the smooth whir of the surface-lock opening. Bertha's large eye lifted upward, the diaphragm clinging, and was exposed to the heavens.

"Mostly," explained Charlie, "we use Bertha for photographic work. Ceres' rotation is too rapid for convenient optical observations. The point you're interested in is over the horizon, which is lucky."

He took his seat near the eyepiece, riding the telescope's shaft as though it were the stiff trunk of a giant elephant. The telescope angled and the young astronomer lifted high. Carefully he adjusted the focus.

He lifted out of his perch then and stepped down the rungs of a wall ladder. At the touch of his finger a partition directly below the telescope moved aside to show a black-lined pit. Into it a series of mirrors and lenses could focus and magnify the telescopic image.

There was only blackness.

Charlie said, "That's it." He used a meter stick as a point. "That little speck is Metis, which is a pretty big rock. It's twenty-five miles across, but it's millions of miles away. Here you have a few specks within a million miles of the point you're interested in, but they're to one side, outside the forbidden zone. We've got the stars blanked out by phase polarization or they'd confuse everything."

"Thank you," said Lucky. He sounded stunned.

"Any time. Glad to help whenever I can."


* * *


They were in the elevator, headed downward, before Lucky spoke again. He said distantly, "It can't be."

"Why not?" said Henree. "Your figures were wrong."

"How could they be? I got to Ceres."

"You may have intended one figure and put down another by mistake, then made a correction by eye and forgot to correct the paper."

Lucky shook his head. "I couldn't have done that. I just don't—Wait. Great Galaxy!" He stared at them wildly.

"What's the matter, Lucky?"

"It works out! Space, it fits in! Look, I was wrong. It's not early in the game at all; it's darned late in the game. It may be too late. I've underestimated them again."

The elevator had reached the proper level. The door opened and Lucky was out with a rapid stride.

Conway ran after, seized his elbow, swung him about. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm going out there. Don't even think of stopping me. And if I don't come back, for Earth's sake, force the government to begin major preparations. Otherwise the pirates may be in control of the entire System within a year. Perhaps sooner."

"Why?" demanded Conway violently. "Because you couldn't find an asteroid?"

"Exactly," said Lucky.


10. The Asteroid That Was

Bigman had brought Conway and Henree to Ceres on Lucky's own ship, the Shooting Starr, and for that Lucky was grateful. It meant he could go out into space with it, feel its deck beneath his feet, hold its controls in his hands.

The Shooting Starr was a two-man cruiser, built this last year after Lucky's exploits among the farm boys of Mars. Its appearance was as deceptive as modern science could make it. It had almost the appearance of a space-yacht in its graceful lines, and its extreme length was not more than twice that of Hansen's little rowboat. No traveler in space, meeting the Shooting Starr, would have estimated it to be anything more than a rich man's plaything, speedy perhaps but thin-skinned and unequal to hard knocks. Certainly it would not have seemed the type of vessel to trust in the dangerous reaches of the asteroid belt.

An investigation of the interior of the vessel might have changed some of those notions, however. The gleaming hyperatomic motors were the equal of those on armored space-cruisers ten times the Shooting Starr's weight. Its energy reserve was tremendous and the capacity of its hysteretic shield was sufficient to stop the largest projectile that could be put out against it by anything short of a dreadnought. Offensively its limited mass prevented it from being first-class, but weight for weight it could outfight any ship.


* * *


It was no wonder that Bigman capered with delight once he had entered the air-lock and thrown off his space-suit.

"Space," Bigman said, "I'm glad to get off that other tub. What do we do with it?"

"I'll have them send up a ship from Ceres to scoop it in."

Ceres was behind them, a hundred thousand miles away. In appearance it was about half the diameter of the Moon as seen from Earth.

Bigman said curiously, "How about letting me in on all this, Lucky? Why the sudden change of plans? I was heading out all by myself, the last I heard."

"There aren't any co-ordinates for you to head to," said Lucky. Grimly he told him the events of the last several hours.

Bigman whistled. "Then where are we going?"

"I'm not sure," said Lucky, "but we begin by aiming at the place where the hermit's rock ought to be now."

He studied the dials, and added, "And we leave here fast, too."

He meant fast. Acceleration on the Shooting Starr went high as velocity built up. Bigman and Lucky were pinned back to their diamagnetically cushioned chairs and the growing pressure spread evenly over their entire body surfaces. The oxygen concentration in the cabin was built up by the acceleration-sensitive air-purifier controls and allowed shallower breathing without oxygen starvation. The g-harness (g being the usual scientific symbol for acceleration) they both wore was light and did not hamper their movements, but under the stress of increasing velocity it stiffened and protected the bones, particularly the spine, from breaking. A nylotex-mesh girdle kept the abdominal viscera from undue harm.

In every respect the cabin accessories had been designed by experts at the Council of Science to allow of twenty to thirty per cent greater acceleration on the Shooting Starr than on even the most advanced vessels of the fleet.

Even on this occasion the acceleration, though high, was less than half of that of which the ship was capable.

When velocity leveled off, the Shooting Starr was five million miles from Ceres, and, if Lucky or Bigman had been interested in looking for it, they would have found it to have become, in appearance, merely a speck of light, dimmer than many of the stars.

Bigman said, "Say, Lucky, I've been wanting to ask you. Do you have your glimmer shield?"

Lucky nodded and Bigman looked grieved.

"Well, you big dumb ox," the little fellow said, "why in space didn't you take it with you when you went out pirate-hunting then?"

"I did have it with me," said Lucky calmly. "I've had it with me since the day the Martians gave it to me."

As Lucky and Bigman (but no one else in the Galaxy) knew, the Martians to whom Lucky referred were not the farm boys and ranchers of Mars. They were rather a race of immaterial creatures who were the direct descendants of the ancient intelligences that once inhabited the surface of Mars in the ages before it had lost its oxygen and water. Excavating huge caverns below Mars' surface by destroying cubic miles of rock, converting the matter so destroyed into energy and storing that energy for future use, they now lived in comfortable isolation. Abandoning their material bodies and living as pure energy, their existence remained unsuspected by Mankind. Only Lucky Starr had penetrated their fastnesses and as the one souvenir of that eerie trip* he had obtained what Bigman called the "glimmer shield."

Bigman's annoyance increased. "Well, if you had it, why didn't you use it? What's wrong with you?"

"You have the wrong idea of the shield, Bigman. It won't do everything. It won't feed me and wipe my lips when I'm through."

"I've seen what it can do. It can do plenty."

"It can, in certain ways. It can soak up all types of energy."

"Like the energy of a blaster bolt. You're not going to kick about that, are you?"

"No, I admit I'd be immune to blasters. The shield would soak up potential energy, too, if the mass of a body weren't too great or too small. For instance, a knife or an ordinary bullet couldn't penetrate, though the bullet might knock me down. A good sledge hammer would swing right through the shield, though, and even if it didn't its momentum would crush me. And what's more, molecules of air can go through the shield as if it weren't there because they're too small to be handled. I'm telling you this so that you'll understand that if I were wearing the shield and Dingo had broken my face-plate when we were both tangled up in space, I would have died anyway. The shield wouldn't have prevented the air in my suit from scattering away in a split second."

"If you had used it in the first place, Lucky, you wouldn't have had any trouble. Don't I remember when you used it on Mars?" Bigman chuckled at the reminiscence. "It glimmered all over you, smoky-like, only luminous, so you could just be seen in a haze. All except your face anyway. That was just a sheet of white light."

"Yes," said Lucky dryly, "I would have scared them. They would have hit at me with blasters and I wouldn't have been hurt. So they would have all high-tailed it off the Atlas, gone off about ten miles, and blasted the ship. I would have been stone dead. Don't forget that the shield is only a shield. It doesn't give me any offensive powers whatever."

"Aren't you ever going to use it again?" asked Bigman.

"When it's necessary. Not till then. If I use it too much, the effect would be lost. Its weaknesses would be found out and I would be just a target for anyone I came up against."

Lucky studied the instruments. Calmly he said, "Ready for acceleration again."

Bigman said, "Hey—"

Then, as he was pushed back into his seat, he found himself fighting for breath and could say nothing more.

The redness was rising to his eyes and he could feel the skin drawing backward as though it were trying to peel off his bones.

This time the Shooting Starr's acceleration was on full.

It lasted fifteen minutes. Toward the end Bigman was scarcely conscious. Then it relaxed and life crept back.

Lucky was shaking his head and panting for breath.

Bigman said, "Hey, that wasn't funny."

"I know," said Lucky.

"What's the idea? Weren't we going fast enough?"

"Not quite. But it's all right now. We've shaken them."

"Shaken whom?"

"Whoever was following us. We were being followed, Bigman, from the minute you stepped foot on the deck of the old Shooter. Look at the Ergometer."

Bigman did so. The Ergometer resembled the one on the Atlas in name only. The one on the Atlas had been a primitive model designed to pick up motor radiation for the purpose of releasing the lifeboats. That had been its only purpose. The Ergometer on the Shooting Starr could pick up the radiation pattern of a hyperatomic motor on ships no larger than an ordinary lifeboat and do it at a distance of better than two million miles.

Even now the inked line on the graphed paper jiggled very faintly, but periodically.

"That isn't anything," said Bigman.

"It was, a while ago. Look for yourself." Lucky unreeled the cylinder of paper that had already passed the needle. The jigglings grew deeper, more characteristic. "See that, Bigman?"

"It could be any ship. It could be a Ceres freighter."

"No. For one thing, it tried to follow us and did a good job of it, too, which means it had a pretty good Ergometer of its own. Besides that, did you ever see an energy pattern like this?"

"Not exactly like this, Lucky."

"I did, you see, in the case of the ship that boarded the Atlas. This Ergometer does a much better job of pattern analysis, but the resemblance is definite. The motor of the ship that's following us is of Sirian design."

"You mean it's Anton's ship."

"That or a similar one. It doesn't matter. We've lost them."


* * *


"At the moment," said Lucky, "we're right where the hermit's rock should be, plus or minus, say, a hundred thousand miles."

"Nothing's here," said Bigman.

"That's right. The gravities register no asteroidal mass anywhere near us. We're in what the astronomers call a forbidden zone."

"Uh-huh," said Bigman wisely, "I see."

Lucky smiled. There was nothing to see. A forbidden zone in the asteroid belt looked no different from a portion of the belt that was thickly strewn with rocks, at least not to the naked eye. Unless an asteroid happened to be within a hundred miles or so, the view was the same. Stars or things that looked like stars filled the heavens. If some of them were asteroids and not stars, there was no way of telling the difference short of watching intently for several hours to see which "stars" changed relative position, or using a telescope to begin with.

Bigman said, "Well, what do we do?"

"Look around the neighborhood. It may take us a few days."

The path of the Shooting Starr grew erratic. It headed outward from the Sun, away from the forbidden zone and into the nearest constellation of asteroids. The gravities jumped their needles at the pull of distant mass.

Tiny world after tiny world slid into the field of the visiplate, was allowed to remain there while it rotated, and was then permitted to slip out. The Shooting Starr's velocity had decelerated to a relative crawl, but the miles still passed by the hundreds of thousands and into the millions. The hours passed. A dozen asteroids came and went.

"You better eat," said Bigman.

But Lucky contented himself with sandwiches and catnaps while he and Bigman watched visiplate, gravities and Ergometer in turn.

Then, with an asteroid in view, Lucky said in a strained voice, "I'm going down."

Bigman was caught by surprise. "Is that the asteroid?" He looked at its angularity. "Do you recognize it?"

"I think I do, Bigman. In any case, it's going to be investigated."

It took half an hour to manipulate the ship into the asteroid's shadow.

"Keep it here," Lucky said. "Someone's got to stay with the ship and you're the one. Don't forget it. It can be detected, but if it's in the shadow, with the lights out and the motors at minimum, it will make it as hard as possible for them. According to the Ergometer, there's no ship in space near us now. Right?"

"Right!"

"The most important thing to remember is this: Don't come down after me for any reason. When I'm through, I'll come up to you. If I'm not back in twelve hours and haven't called, either, back you go to Ceres with a report, after taking photographs of this asteroid at every angle."

Bigman's face grew sullenly stubborn. "No."

"This is the report," said Lucky calmly. He withdrew a personal capsule from an inner pocket. "This capsule is keyed to Dr. Conway. He's the only one who can open it. He's got to get the information, regardless of me. Do you understand?"

"What's in it?" asked Bigman, making no move to take it.

"Just theories, I'm afraid. I've told no one of them, because I've come out here to try to get facts to back them up. If I can't make it, the theories, at least, must get through. Conway may believe them and he may get the government to act upon them."

"I won't do it," said Bigman. "I won't leave you."

"Bigman, if I can't trust you to do what's right regardless of yourself and myself, you won't be much use to me after this if I come through safely."

Bigman held out his hand. The personal capsule was dropped into it.

"All right," he said.


* * *


Lucky dropped through vacuum to the asteroid's surface, hastening the drop by use of the suit's push-gun.

He knew the asteroid to be about the right size. It was roughly the shape he remembered it to be. It was jagged enough and the sunlit portion looked the right color. All that, however, might have held true for any asteroid.

But there was the other item. That was not likely to be duplicated very often.

From his waist pouch he took out a small instrument that looked like a compass. Actually it was a pocket radar unit. Its enclosed emission source could put out radio short waves of almost any range. Certain octaves could be partially reflected by rock and partially transmitted through reasonable distances.

In the presence of a thick layer of rock the reflection of radiation activated a needle on the dial. In the presence of a thin layer of rock, as, for instance, on a surface under which lay a cave or hollow, some radiation was reflected, but some penetrated into the hollow and was reflected from the further wall. In this way a double reflection occurred, one component of which was much weaker than the second. In response to such a double reflection the needle responded with a characteristic double quiver.

Lucky watched the instrument as he leaped easily over the stony peaks. The needle's smooth pulsing gained a quiver, and then a distinct subsidiary movement. Lucky's heart bounded. The asteroid was hollow. Find where the subsidiary movements were strongest and there the hollow would be nearest the surface. There would be the air-lock.

For a few moments all of Lucky's faculties were concentrated on the needle. He was unaware of the magnetic cable snaking its way toward him from the near horizon.

He was unaware of it until it snapped about him in coil after coil, clinging close, its momentum tossing his nearly weightless body first clear of the asteroid and then down to the rock, where he lay helpless.


11. At Close Quarters

Three lights came over the horizon and toward the prostrate Lucky. In the darkness of the asteroid's night he could not see the figures that accompanied the lights.

Then there was a voice in his ear and the voice was the well-known hoarseness of the pirate, Dingo. It said, "Don't call your pal upstairs. I've got a jigger here that can pick up your carrier wave. If you try to, I'll blast you out of your suit right now, nark!"

He spat out the final word; the contemptuous term of all lawbreakers for those they considered to be spies of the law-enforcement agencies.

Lucky kept silent. From the moment he had first felt the tremor of his suit under the lash of the magnetic cable he knew that he had fallen into a trap. To call Bigman before he knew more about the nature of the trap would have been putting the Shooting Starr into danger, and that without helping himself.

Dingo stood over him, a foot on either side. In the light of one of the flashes Lucky caught a quick glimpse of Dingo's face-plate and of the stubby goggles that covered his eyes. Lucky knew those to be infrared translators, capable of converting ordinary heat radiation into visible light. Even without flashes and in the asteroid's

dark night they had been able to watch him by the energy of his own heaters.

Dingo said, "What's the matter, nark? Scared?" He lifted a bulky leg with its bulkier metal swathing and brought his heel down sharply in the direction of Lucky's face-plate. Lucky turned his head swiftly away to let the blow fall on the sturdier metal of the helmet, but Dingo's heel stopped midway. He laughed whoopingly.

"You won't get it that easy, nark," he said.

His voice changed as he spoke to the other two pirates. "Hop over the jag and get the air-lock open."

For a moment they hesitated. One of them said, "But, Dingo, the captain said you were too—"

Dingo said, "Get going, or maybe I'll start with him and finish with you."

In the face of the threat the two hopped away. Dingo said to Lucky, "Now suppose we get you to the air-lock."

He was still holding the butt end of the magnetic cable. With a flick at the switch he turned off its current and momentarily demagnetized it. He stepped away and pulled it sharply toward himself. Lucky dragged along the rocky floor of the asteroid, bounced upward, and rolled partly out of the cable. Dingo touched the switch again and the remaining coils suddenly clung and held.

Dingo flicked the whip upward. Lucky traveled with it, while Dingo maneuvered skillfully to maintain his own balance. Lucky hovered in space and Dingo walked with him as though he were a child's balloon at the end of a string.

The lights of the other two were visible again after five minutes. They were shining into a patch of darkness of which regular boundaries were proof enough that it was an open air-lock.

Dingo called, "Watch out! I've got a package to deliver."

He demagnetized the cable again, and flicked it downward, rising six inches into the air as he did so. Lucky rotated rapidly, spinning completely out of the cable.

Dingo leaped upward and caught him. With the skill of a man long used to weightlessness, he avoided Lucky's attempts to break his hold, and hurled him in the direction of the air-lock. He broke his own backward tumble by a quick double spurt of his suit's push-gun and righted himself in time to see Lucky enter the air-lock cleanly.

What followed was clearly visible in the light of the pirates' flashes. Caught in the pseudo-grav field that existed within the air-lock, Lucky was hurled suddenly downward, hitting the rocky floor with a clatter and force that knocked the breath out of him. Dingo's braying laughter filled his helmet.

The outer door closed, the inner opened. Lucky got to his feet, actually thankful for the normality of gravity.

"Get in, nark." Dingo was holding a blaster.

Lucky paused as he entered the asteroid's interior. His eyes shifted quickly from side to side while the frost gathered at the rims of his face-plate. What he saw was not the soft-lit library of the hermit, Hansen, but a tremendously long hallway, the roof of which was supported by a series of pillars. He could not see to the other end. Openings to rooms pierced the wall of the corridors regularly. Men hurried to and fro and there was the smell of ozone and machine oil in the air. In the distance he could hear the characteristic drum-drum of what must have been gigantic hyperatomic motors.

It was quite obvious that this was no hermit's cell, but a large industrial plant, inside an asteroid.

Lucky bit his lower lip thoughtfully and wondered despondently if all this information would die with him now.

Dingo said, "In there, nark. Get in there."

It was a storeroom he indicated, its shelves and bins well filled, but empty of human beings other than themselves.

"Say, Dingo," said one of the pirates nervously, "why are we showing him all this? I don't think—"

"Then don't talk," said Dingo, and laughed. "Don't worry, he won't tell anyone about anything he sees. I guarantee that. Meanwhile I have a little something to finish with him. Get that suit off him."

He was removing his own suit as he spoke. He stepped out, monstrously bulky. One hand rubbed slowly over the hairy back of the other. He was savoring the moment.

Lucky said firmly, "Captain Anton never gave you orders to kill me. You're trying to finish a private feud and it will only get you into trouble. I'm a valuable man to the captain and he knows it."

Dingo sat down on the edge of a bin of small metal objects, with a grin on his face. "To listen to you, nark, you'd think you had a case. But you didn't fool us, not for one minute. When we left you on the rock with the hermit, what do you think we did? We watched. Captain Anton's no fool. He sent me back. He said, 'Watch that rock and report back.' I saw the hermit's dinghy leave. I could have blasted you out of space then, but the order was to follow.

"I stayed off Ceres for a day and a half and spotted the hermit's dinghy hitting out for space again. I waited some more. Then I caught this other ship coming out to meet it. The man off the dinghy got on to the other ship and I followed you when you took off."

Lucky could not help smiling. "Tried to follow, you mean."

Dingo's face turned a blotchy red. He spat out, "All right. You were faster. Your kind is good at running. What of it? I didn't have to chase you. I just came here and waited. I knew where you were heading. I've got you, haven't I?"

Lucky said, "All right, but what have you got? I was unarmed on the hermit's rock. I didn't have any weapons, while the hermit had a blaster. I had to do what he said. He wanted to get back to Ceres and he forced me along so he could claim he was being kidnapped if the men of the asteroids stopped him. You admit yourself that I got off Ceres as fast as I could and tried to get back here."

"In a nice, shiny government ship?"

"I stole it. So? It just means that you've got another ship for your fleet. And a good one."

Dingo looked at the other pirates. "Doesn't he throw the comet-dust, though?"

Lucky said, "I warn you again. The captain will take anything that happens to me out on you."

"No he won't," snarled Dingo, "because he knows who you are and so do I, Mr. David Lucky Starr. Come on, move out into the middle of the room."

Dingo rose. He said to his two companions, "Get those bins out of the way. Pull them over to one side."

They looked at his staring, blood-congested face once and did as he said. Dingo's bulbously thickset body was slightly stooped, his head sank down into his bulging shoulders, and his thick, somewhat bandy, legs planted themselves firmly. The scar on his upper lip was a vivid white.

He said, "There are easy ways of finishing you and there are nice ways. I don't like a nark and I especially don't like a nark who fouls me in a push-gun fight. So before I finish you, I'm breaking you into little pieces."

Lucky, looking tall and spindly in comparison with the other, said, "Are you man enough to take care of me alone, Dingo, or will your two friends help you?"

"I don't need help, pretty boy." He laughed nastily. "But if you try to run, they'll stop you, and if you keep on trying to run, they've got neuronic whips that will really stop you." He raised his voice. "And use them, you two, if you have to."

Lucky waited for the other to make his move. He knew that the one most nearly fatal tactic would be to try to mix it up at close quarters. Let the pirate enclose his chest in the hug of those enormous arms and broken ribs would be the nearly certain result.

Dingo, right fist drawn back, ran forward. Lucky stood his ground as long as he dared, then stepped quickly to his right, seized his opponent's extended left arm, pulled backward, taking advantage of the other's forward momentum, and caught the other's ankle against his foot.

Dingo went sprawling forward and down heavily. He was up immediately, however, one cheek scraped and little lights of madness dancing in his eyes.

He thundered toward Lucky, who retired nimbly toward one of the bins lining the wall.

Lucky seized the ends of the bin and swung his legs up and out. Dingo caught them in his chest, halted momentarily. Lucky whirled out of the way and was free in the center of the room again.

One of the pirates called out, "Hey, Dingo, let's stop fooling around."

Dingo panted, "I'll kill him. I'll kill him."

But he was more cautious now. His little eyes were nearly buried in the fat and gristle that surrounded his eyeballs. He crept forward, watching Lucky, waiting for the moment he might strike.

Lucky said, "What's the matter, Dingo? Afraid of me? You get afraid very quick for such a big talker."

As Lucky expected, Dingo roared incoherently and dashed heavily and directly at him. Lucky had no trouble in evading the bull rush. The side of his hand came sharply and swiftly down on the back of Dingo's neck.

Lucky had seen any number of men knocked unconscious by that particular blow; he had seen more than one killed. But Dingo merely staggered. He shook it off and turned, snarling.

He walked flat-footedly toward the dancing Lucky. Lucky lashed out with his fist, which landed sharply on Dingo's scraped cheek bone. Blood flowed, but Dingo did not so much as attempt to block the blow, nor did he blink when it landed.

Lucky squirmed away and struck sharply twice more at the pirate. Dingo paid no attention. He came forward, always forward.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, he went down, apparently as a man who had stumbled. But his arms shot out as he fell and one hand closed about Lucky's right ankle. Lucky went down too.

"I've got you now," whispered Dingo.

He reached up to catch Lucky's waist and in a moment, fast-locked, they were rolling across the floor.

Lucky felt the growing, enclosing pressure and pain washed inward like an advancing flame. Dingo's fetid panting was in his ear.

Lucky's right arm was free, but his left was enclosed in the numbing vise of the other's grip about his chest. With the last of his fading strength, Lucky brought his right fist up. The blow traveled no more than four inches, catching the point where Dingo's chin met his neck with a force that sent stabs of pain the length of Lucky's arm.

Dingo's grip loosened for a moment and Lucky, writhing, flung himself out of the deadly embrace and onto his feet.

Dingo got up more slowly. His eyes were glassy, and fresh blood was trickling out the corner of his mouth.

He muttered thickly, "The whip! The whip!"

Unexpectedly he turned upon one of the pirates who had been standing there a frozen onlooker. He wrested the weapon from the other's hand and send him sprawling.

Lucky tried to duck, but the neuronic whip was up and flashing. It caught his right side and stimulated the nerves of the area it struck into a bath of pain. Lucky's body stiffened and went down again.

For a moment his senses recorded only confusion, and with what consciousness he possessed he expected death to be a second off. Dimly he heard a pirate's voice.

"Look, Dingo, the captain said to make it look like an accident. He's a Council of Science man and…"

It was all Lucky heard.

When he swam back to consciousness with an excruciating tingle of pins and needles down the length of his side, he found himself in a space-suit again. They were just about to put on his helmet. Dingo, lips puffed, cheek and jaw bruised, watched malignantly.

There was a voice in the doorway. A man was entering hurriedly, full of talk.

Lucky heard him say, "—for Post 247. It's getting so I can't keep track of all the requisitions. I can't even keep our own orbit straight enough to keep up the co-ordinate corrections of—"

The voice flickered out. Lucky twisted his head and caught sight of a small man with spectacles and gray hair. He was just inside the doorway, looking with mingled astonishment and disbelief at the disorder that met his eyes.

"Get out," roared Dingo.

"But I've got to have a requisition—"

"Later!"

The little man left and the helmet was fitted over Lucky's head.

They took him out again, through the air-lock, to a surface which was now in the feeble blaze of the distant Sun. A catapult waited on a relatively flat table of rock. Its function was no mystery to Lucky. An automatic winch was drawing back a large metal lever which bent more and more slowly till its original slant had strained back into a complete horizontal at the tip. Light straps were attached to the bent lever and then buckled about Lucky's waist.

"Lie still," said Dingo. His voice was dim and scratchy in Lucky's ear. There was something wrong with the helmet receiver, Lucky realized. "You're just wasting your oxygen. Just to make you feel better, we're sending ships up to blast your friend down before he can pick up speed, if he feels like running."

An instant after that Lucky felt the sharp tingling vibration of the lever as it was released. It sprang elastically back into its original position with terrific force. The buckles about him parted smoothly and he was cast off at a speed of a mile a minute or better, with no gravitational field to slow him. There was one glimpse of the asteroid with the pirates looking up at him. The whole was shrinking rapidly even as he watched.

He inspected his suit. He already knew that his helmet radio had been maltreated. Sure enough, the sensitivity knob hung loose. It meant his voice could penetrate no more than a few miles of space. They had left him his space-suit's push-gun. He tried it but nothing happened. Its gas stores had been drained.

He was quite helpless. There were only the contents of one oxygen cylinder between himself and a slow, unpleasant death.


12. Ship Versus Ship

With a clammy constriction of his chest Lucky surveyed the situation. He thought he could guess the pirates' plans. On the one hand, they wished to get rid of him, since he obviously knew far too much. On the other hand, they must want him to be found dead in such a way that the Council of Science would be unable to prove conclusively that his death was by pirate violence.

Once before, pirates had made the mistake of killing an agent of the Council and the resultant fury had been crushing. They would be more cautious this time.

He thought, They'll rush the Shooting Starr, blanket it with interference to keep Bigman from sending out a call for help. Then they can use a cannon blast on its hull. It would make a good imitation of a meteorite collision. They can make that look better by sending their own engineers on board to hocus the shield activators. It would look as though a defect in the mechanism had prevented the shield from going up as the meteorite approached.

They would know his own course through space, Lucky knew. There would be nothing to deflect him from whatever his original angles of flight had been. Later, with him safely dead, they would pick him up and send him whirling in an orbit about the broken Shooting Starr. The discoverers (and perhaps one of their own ships would send in an anonymous report of the find) would reach an obvious conclusion. Bigman at the controls, maneuvering to the last, killed at his post. Lucky, on the other hand, scrambling into a suit, damaging the external sensitivity knob of the suit's radio in the excitement. He would have been unable to call for help. He would have expended his push-gun's gas in a desperate and futile attempt to find a place of safety. And he would have died.

It would not work. Neither Conway nor Henree could possibly believe that Lucky would be concerned only with his own safety while Bigman stuck loyally at the controls. But then, the failure of the scheme, would be small satisfaction to a dead Lucky Starr. Worse yet, it would not only be Lucky Starr who would die, but all the information now locked in Lucky Starr's head.

For a moment he was sick with outrage at himself that he had not forced all his suspicions on Conway and Henree before leaving, that he had waited till he boarded the Shooting Starr before preparing the personal capsule. Then he gained control of himself. No one would have believed him without facts.

For that very reason he would have to get back.

Have to!

But how? What good was "have to" when one was alone and helpless in space with a few hours' worth of oxygen and nothing else?

Oxygen!

Lucky thought, there's my oxygen. Anyone but Dingo would have drained his cylinder of all but dregs, to let death come quickly. But if Lucky knew Dingo, the pirate had sent him on his way with a loaded cylinder simply to prolong the agony.

Good! Then he would reverse that. He would use the oxygen otherwise. And if he failed, death would come the sooner, despite Dingo.

Only he must not fail.

The asteroid had been crossing his line of vision periodically as he spun in space. First, it was a shrinking rock, its sunlit highlights slanting jaggedly across the blackness of space. Then it had been a bright star and a single line of light. The brightness was fading quickly now. Once the asteroid became dim enough to be simply one more in the myriad of stars, it was all over. Not many minutes were left before that would be the case.

His clumsy, metal-covered fingers were already fumbling with the flexible tube that led from the air inlet just under the face-plate to the oxygen cylinder in back. He twisted strenuously at the bolt that held the air tube tightly fixed to the cylinder.

It gave. He paused to fill his helmet and suit with oxygen. Ordinarily oxygen leaked slowly in from the cylinders at about the rate it was used up by human lungs. The carbon dioxide and water formed as the result of respiration were mostly absorbed by the chemicals contained in the valved canisters affixed to the inner surface of the suit's chest plates. The result was that oxygen was kept at a pressure one fifth that of Earth's atmosphere. This was exactly right, since four fifths of Earth's atmosphere is nitrogen anyway, which is useless for breathing.

However, this left room for higher concentrations, up to somewhat more than normal atmospheric pressure, before there was danger of toxic effects. Lucky let the oxygen pour into his suit.

Then, having done so, he closed the valve under his face-plate entirely and removed the cylinder.

The cylinder was itself a sort of push-gun. It was an unusual push-gun, to be sure. For a person marooned in space to use the precious oxygen that stood between himself and death as motive power, to blow it into space, meant desperation. Or else, a firm resolution.

Lucky cracked the reducing valve and let a blast of oxygen issue out. There was no line of crystals this time. Oxygen, unlike carbon dioxide, froze at very low temperatures indeed and before it could lose sufficient heat to freeze, it had diffused out into space. Gas or solid, however, Newton's third law of motion still held. As the gas pushed out one way, Lucky was pushed in the opposite direction by a natural counterpush.

His spinning slowed. Carefully he allowed the asteroid to come into full view before stopping the spin completely.

He was still receding from the rock. It was no longer particularly brighter than the neighboring stars. Conceivably he had already mistaken his target, but he closed his mind against that uncertainty.

He fixed his eyes firmly on the spot of light he assumed to be the asteroid and let the cylinder blast in the opposite direction. He wondered if he would have enough to reverse the direction of his travel. There was no way of telling at the moment.

In any case, he would have to save some gas. He would need it to maneuver about the asteroid, get on its night side, find Bigman and the ship, unless…

Unless the ship had already been driven away, or destroyed, by the pirates.

It seemed to Lucky that the vibration of his hands, due to the escaping oxygen, was lessening. Either the cylinder was running low, or its temperature was dropping. He was holding it away from his suit so it was no longer absorbing heat from it. It was from the suit that oxygen cylinders gained enough heat to be breathable, and the carbon dioxide cylinders of the push-guns gained enough heat to keep their contents gaseous. In the vacuum of space heat could be lost only by radiation, a slow process, but, even so, the oxygen cylinder had had time to drop in temperature.

He encircled the cylinder in his arms, hugged it to his chest, and waited.

It seemed hours, but only fifteen minutes passed before it seemed to him that the asteroid was growing brighter. Was he approaching the rock again? Or was it imagination? Another fifteen minutes passed and it was distinctly brighter. Lucky felt a deep gratitude to the chance that had shot him out on the sunlit side of the rock so that he could see it plainly as a target.

It was getting harder to breathe. There was no question of carbon dioxide asphyxiation. That gas was removed as it was formed. Still, each breath also removed a small fraction of his precious oxygen. He tried to breathe shallowly, close his eyes, rest. After all, he could do nothing more until he had reached and passed the asteroid. There on the night side, Bigman might still be waiting.

Then, if he could get close enough to Bigman, if he could call him on his limping radio before he passed out, there might yet be a chance.


* * *


The hours had passed slowly and torturously for Bigman. He longed to descend, but dared not. He reasoned with himself that, if the enemy existed, he would have shown himself by now. Then he argued it out bitterly and came to the conclusion that the very silence and motionlessness of space meant a trap, and that Lucky was caught.

He put Lucky's personal capsule before him and wondered about its contents. If only there were some way of bursting it, of reading the thin roll of microfilm within. If he could do that, he could radio it to Ceres, get it off his hands, and be free to go slamming down to the rock. He would blast them all, drag Lucky out of whatever mess he was in.

No! In the first place he dared not use the sub-etherics. True, the pirates could not break the code, but they would detect the carrier wave and he had been instructed not to give away the location of the ship.

Besides, what was the use of thinking of breaking into a personal capsule. A solar furnace could melt and destroy it, an atom blast could disintegrate it, but nothing could open it and leave its message intact except the living touch of the person for which it had been "personalized." That was that.

More than half of the twelve-hour period had passed when the gravities gave their entirely distinctive warning.

Bigman roused himself out of his frustrated reverie and stared with shocked surprise at the Ergometer. The pulsations of several ships were blending themselves into complicated curves that melted snakelike from one configuration to another.

The Shooting Starr's shield, which had been glimmering routinely at a strength sufficient to ward off casual "debris" (the usual space term for wandering meteorites an inch or less in diameter) stiffened to maximum. Bigman heard the soft purr of the power output grow strident. One by one, he let the short-range visiplates glow into life, bank on bank of them.

His mind churned. The ships were rising from the asteroid, since none could be detected further away. Lucky must be caught, then; dead, probably. He didn't care now how many ships came at him. He would get them all, every single one of them.

He sobered. The first Sun glint had caught in one of the visiplates. He maneuvered the cross hairs and centered them. He then depressed something that looked like a piano key and, caught in an invisible burst of energy, the pirate ship glowed.

The glow was not due to any action upon its hull, but was rather the result of the energy absorption of the enemy screen. It glowed brightly and more brightly still. Then it dimmed as the enemy turned tail and put distance between them.

A second ship and a third were in view. A projectile was making its way toward the Shooting Starr. In the vacuum of space there was no flash, no sound, but the Sun caught it and it was a little sparking spot of light. It became a little circle in the visiplate, then a larger one, until finally it moved out of the plate's field.

Bigman might have dodged, flashed the Shooter out of the way, but he thought, Let it hit. He wanted them to see what they were playing with. The Shooter might look like a rich man's toy, but they weren't going to put it out of action with a few slingshooters.

The projectile struck and slogged to a halt against the Shooting Starr's hysteretic shields, which, Bigman knew, must have flashed momentarily into brilliance. The ship itself moved smoothly, absorbing the momentum that had leaked past the shield.

"Let's return that," Bigman muttered. The Shooting Starr carried no projectiles, explosive or otherwise, but its store of energy projectors was varied and powerful.

His hand was hovering over the blaster controls when he saw in one of the visiplates something that brought a scowl to his small, determined face, something that looked like a man in a space-suit.

It was strange that the space-ship was more vulnerable to a man in a space-suit than to the best weapons of another ship. An enemy ship could be easily detected by gravities at a distance of miles and by Ergometers at a distance of thousands of miles. A single man in a space-suit could only be detected by a gravitic at a hundred yards and by an Ergometer not at all.

Again, a hysteretic shield worked the more effectively the greater the velocity of the projectile. Huge lumps of metal tearing at miles per second could be stopped cold.

One man, however, drifting along at ten miles an hour was not even aware of the existence of the shield except for a tiny warming of his suit.

Let a dozen men creep toward a ship at once and only great skill could bring them all down. If two or three penetrated and succeeded in blasting open the air-lock with hand weapons, the ship they attacked was seriously crippled.

And now Bigman caught the little speck that could only mean the advance guard of such a suicide squadron. He brought one of the secondaries to bear. The single figure was centered and Bigman was ready to fire when his radio receiver sounded.

For a moment he was startled. The pirates had attacked without warning and had not tried to communicate, to call for surrender, to offer terms, anything. What now?

He hesitated and the sounding became a word, repeated twice, "Bigman… Bigman… Bigman…"

Bigman jumped from his seat, ignoring the suited man, the battle, everything. "Lucky! Is that you?"

"I'm near the ship… Space-suit… Air… nearly gone."

"Great Galaxy!" Bigman, white-faced, maneuvered the Shooting Starr nearer the figure in space, the figure whom he had nearly destroyed.


* * *


Bigman watched over Lucky, who, helmet off, was still gulping air. "You'd better get some rest, Lucky."

"Later," said Lucky. He climbed out of his suit. "Have they attacked yet?"

Bigman nodded. "It doesn't matter. They're just breaking their teeth on the old Shooter."

"They've got stronger teeth than any they've shown," said Lucky. "We've got to get away and fast. They'll be bringing out their heavy craft, and even our energy stores won't last forever."

"Where are they going to get heavy craft from?"

"That's a major pirate base down there! The major base, perhaps."

"You mean it isn't the hermit's rock?"

"I mean we've got to get away."

He took the controls, face still pale from his ordeal. For the first time the rock below them moved from its position on the screens. Even during the attack Bigman had heeded Lucky's parting order to stay put for twelve hours.

The rock grew larger.

Bigman protested. "If we've got to get away, why are we landing?"

"We're not landing." Lucky watched the screen intently, while one hand set the controls of the ship's heavy blaster. Deliberately he widened and softened the focus of the blaster till it could cover a broad area indeed, but at an energy intensity reduced to little more than that of an ordinary heat ray.

He waited, for reasons that the wondering Bigman could not divine, and then fired. There was a startling blazing brightness on the asteroid's surface which subsided almost instantly into a glowing redness that in a further minute or so blackened out.

"Now let's go," said Lucky, and, as new ships spiraled up from the pirate base, acceleration took hold.

Half an hour later, with asteroid gone and any pursuing ships safely lost, he said, "Get Ceres. I want to speak to Conway."

"Okay, Lucky. And listen, I've got the co-ordinates of that asteroid. Shall I send them along? We can send a fleet back and—"

"It won't do any good," said Lucky, "and it isn't necessary."

Bigman's eyes widened. "You don't mean you destroyed the rock with that blaster bolt?"

"Of course not. I hardly touched it," said Lucky. "Have you got Ceres?"

"I'm having trouble," said Bigman pettishly. He knew Lucky was in one of his tight-mouthed moods and would

give no information. "Wait, here it is, but, hey-They're

broadcasting a general alarm!"

There was no need to explain that. The call was strident and uncoded. "General call to all fleet units outside Mars. Ceres under attack by enemy force, presumed pirates… General call to all fleet units…"

Bigman said, "Great Galaxy!"

Lucky said tightly, "They stay one step ahead of us, no matter what we do. We've got to get back! Quickly!"


13. Raid!

The ships came swarming out of space in perfect coordination. An entire wing struck directly at the Observatory. In response to this, almost inevitably, the defending forces on Ceres concentrated their power at that point.

The attack was not pressed full-force. Ship after ship dived downward to launch energy beams at an obviously impregnable shield. None took the risky step of trying to blast the underground power plants, the location of which they must have known. Government ships took to space and ground batteries opened up. In the end two pirate ships were destroyed when their shields broke down and they flared into glowing vapor. Another one, its energy reserves down to a trickle, was almost captured in the eventual pursuit. It was blown up at the last moment, probably by its own crew.

Even during the attack some of the defenders suspected it to be a feint. Later, of course, they knew that for a fact. While the Observatory was engaged, three ships landed on the asteroid a hundred miles away. Pirates disembarked and with hand weapons and portable blasting cannon attacked the residential air-locks from flitting "space-sleds."

The locks were blasted open and space-suited pirates swarmed down the corridors from which air emptied. The upper reaches of the corridors were factories and offices, the occupants of which had evacuated at the first alarm. Their place was taken by space-suited members of the local militia who fought bravely, but were no match for the professionals of the pirate fleet.

In the lower depths, in the peaceful apartments of Ceres, the noise of blasting battle sounded. Calls for help were sent out. Then, almost as suddenly as they came, the pirates retreated.

When they left, the men of Ceres counted their casualties. Fifteen Cereans were dead and many more hurt in one way or another, as against the bodies of five pirates. Damage to property was very high.

"And one man," Conway explained furiously to Lucky when the latter arrived, "is missing. Only he's not on the list of inhabitants and we've been able to keep his name out of the news reports."


* * *


Lucky found Ceres the focus of almost hysterical excitement now that the raid was over. It had been the first attack on an important Terrestrial center by any enemy in a generation. He had had to pass three inspections before being allowed to land.

He sat in the Council office with Conway and Henree and said bitterly, "So Hansen is gone! That's what it boils down to."

"I'll say this for the old hermit," said Henree. "He had guts. When the pirates penetrated, he insisted on getting into a suit, grabbing up a blaster, and going up there with the militia."

"We weren't short on militia," said Lucky. "If he had stayed down here, he would have done us a much greater service. How is it you didn't stop him? Under the circumstances was he a person to be allowed to do such a thing?" Lucky Starr's usually even voice contained a repressed anger.

Conway said patiently, "We weren't with him. The guard we left in charge had to report for militia duty. Hansen insisted on joining him and the guard decided he could do both duties at once that way; fight the pirates and guard the hermit."

"But he didn't guard the hermit."

"Under the circumstances he can scarcely be blamed. The guard saw Hansen last charging a pirate. Next thing he knew there was no one in sight and the pirates were retreating. Hansen's body hasn't been recovered. The pirates must have him alive or dead."

"So they must," said Lucky. "Now let me tell you something. Let me tell you exactly what a bad mistake this was. I'm certain that the whole attack on Ceres was arranged simply to capture Hansen."

Henree reached for his pipe. "You know, Hector," he said to Conway, "I'm almost tempted to go along with Lucky on that. The attack on the Observatory was a miserable one, an obvious false alarm to draw off our defenses. Getting Hansen was the only thing they did accomplish."

Conway snorted. "One possible information leak like the hermit isn't worth risking thirty ships."

"That's the whole point," said Lucky vehemently. "Right now, it may be. I told you about the asteroid I was on, the kind of industrial plant it must have been. Suppose they're almost at the point where they're ready to make the big push? Suppose Hansen knows the exact date for when the push is scheduled? Suppose he knows the exact method?"

"Then why hasn't he told us?" demanded Conway.

"Maybe," said Henree, "he's waiting to use it as material with which to buy his own immunity. We never did have a chance really to discuss that question with him. You've got to admit, Hector, that if he had that kind of key information, any number of ships would have been worth the risk. And you've got to admit Lucky is probably right about their being ready for the big push."

Lucky looked sharply from one to the other. "Why do you say that, Uncle Gus? What's happened?"

"Tell him, Hector," said Henree.

"Why tell him anything," growled Conway. "I'm tired of his one-man trips. He'll be wanting to go to Ganymede."

"What's on Ganymede?" asked Lucky coldly. As far as he knew, there was little or nothing on Ganymede to interest anyone. It was Jupiter's largest moon, but the very nearness of Jupiter made it difficult to maneuver space-ships, so that space travel in its vicinity was unprofitable.

"Tell him," said Henree.

"Look," said Conway. "Here it is. We knew Hansen was important. The reason we didn't have him under tighter observation, the reason Gus and I weren't there ourselves, was that two hours before the pirate attack a report came in from the Council to the effect that there was evidence that Sirian forces had landed on Ganymede."

"What kind of evidence?"

"Tight-beam sub-etheric signals had been penetrated. It's a long story, but the nub of it was that, more by accident than by anything else, a few scraps of code were picked up. The experts say it's a Sirian code and certainly there isn't anything Terrestrial on Ganymede that's capable of putting out signals in a beam tliat tight. Gus and I were going to take Hansen and return to Earth when the pirates attacked, and that's it. Right now we've still got to return to Earth. With Sirius on the scene there may be war at any time."

Lucky said, "I see. Well, before we go to Earth, there's one thing I would like to check on. Do we have motion pictures of the pirate attack? I'm supposing the defenses of Ceres weren't so disorganized that pictures weren't taken?"

"They've been taken. How do you expect them to help?"

"I'll tell you after I've seen them."


* * *


Men in the uniform of the fleet, and wearing high-rank insignia, projected the top-secret motion pictures of what later became known in history as the "Ceres Raid."

"Twenty-seven ships attacked the Observatory. Is that right?" asked Lucky,

"Right," said a commander. "No more than that."

"Good. Now let's see if I have the rest of the facts straight. Two of the ships were accounted for during the fight and a third during the pursuit. The remaining twenty-four got away, but you have one or more shots of each of them in retreat."

The commander smiled. "If you're implying that any of them landed on Ceres and are still hidden here, you're quite wrong."

"As far as those twenty-seven ships are concerned, perhaps. But three more ships did land on Ceres and their crew attacked the Massey Air-lock. Where are the pictures of those?"

"Unfortunately we didn't get many of those," admitted the commander uncomfortably. "It was a case of complete surprise. But we have pictures of them in retreat, too, and we showed you those."

"Yes, you did, and there were only two ships in those pictures. Eyewitnesses reported three as having landed."

The commander said stiffly, "And three took off and retreated. There's eyewitness evidence of that also."

"But you have pictures of only two?"

"Well… yes."

"Thank you."


* * *


Back in the office Conway said, "Now what was that all about, Lucky?"

"I thought Captain Anton's ship might be in an interesting place. The motion pictures proved it was."

"Where was it?"

"Nowhere. That was what was interesting. His ship is the one pirate ship I would recognize, yet no ship faintly similar took part in the raid. This is strange because Anton must be one of their very best men or they wouldn't have sent him out after the Atlas. Or it would be strange if the truth wasn't that thirty ships attacked Ceres and we had pictures of only twenty-nine. The missing thirtieth was Anton!"

"I could figure that out too," said Conway. "What of it?"

Lucky said, "The attack on the Observatory was a feint. That's admitted even by the defending ships, now. It was the three ships that attacked the air-lock that were important and they were under Anton's command. Two of those ships joined the rest of the squadron in their retreat, a feint within a feint. The third ship, Anton's own, the only one we didn't see, continued on with the main business of the day. It left on an entirely different trajectory. People saw it lift into space but it veered off so radically that our own ships, chasing the main body of enemy with all its might, never even caught it on film."

Conway said unhappily, "You're going to say that it's going to Ganymede."

"Doesn't it follow? The pirates, however well organized, can't attack Earth and its dependencies on their own. But they can put up an excellent diversionary fight. They can keep enough Terrestrial ships patrolling the endless asteroid belt to allow Sirian fleets to defeat the remainder. On the other hand, Sirius can't safely conduct a war eight light years away from their own planet unless they can count on major help from the asteroids. After all, eight light years amounts to forty-five trillion miles. Anton's ship is speeding to Ganymede to assure them of that help and to give the word to begin the war. Without warning, of course."

"If only," muttered Conway, "we could have stumbled on their Ganymede base sooner."

"Even with the knowledge of Ganymede," said Henree, "we would not have known the seriousness of the situation without Lucky's two trips into asteroid territory."

"I know. My apologies, Lucky. Meanwhile we have very little time to do anything. We'll have to strike at the heart instantly. A squadron of ships sent to the key asteroid Lucky has told us of—"

"No," said Lucky. "No good."

"Why do you say that?"

"We don't want to start a war, even if it's with a victory. That's what they want to do. Look here, Uncle Hector, the pirate, Dingo, might have burned me down right there on the asteroid. Instead, he had orders to set me adrift in space. For a while I thought that was to make my death look like an accident. Now I feel it was intended to anger the Council. They were going to broadcast the fact they had killed a Councilman, not hide it, goading us into a premature attack. One of the reasons for the Ceres Raid might have been to insure an added provocation."

"And if we do start the war with a victory?"

"Here on this side of the Sun? And leave Earth on the other side stripped of important units of the fleet? With Sirian ships waiting at Ganymede, also on the other side of the Sun? I predict that it would be a very costly victory. Our best bet is not to start a war, but to prevent one."

"How?"

"Nothing will happen until Anton's ship reaches Ganymede. Suppose we intercept him and prevent the meeting—"

"Interception is a long chance," said Conway doubtfully.

"Not if Z go. The Shooting Starr is faster and has better Ergometrics than any ship in the fleet."

"You go?" cried Conway.

"It would be unsafe to send fleet units. The Sirians on Ganymede would have no way of being certain an attack wasn't heading their way. They'd have to take counteraction and that would mean the very war we're trying to avoid. The Shooting Starr would look harmless to them. It would be one ship. They'd stay put."

Henree said, "You're overeager, Lucky. Anton has a twelve-hour head start. Even the Shooting Starr can't make that up."

"You're wrong. It can. And once I catch them, Uncle Gus, I think I can force the asteroids into surrender. Without them Sirius won't attack and there'll be no war."

They stared at him.

Lucky said earnestly, "I've come back twice now."

"Each time by half a miracle," grumbled Conway.

"The other times I didn't know what I was tackling. I had to feel my way. This time I do know. I know exactly. Look, I'll warm up the Shooting Starr and make the necessary arrangements with the Ceres Observatory while that's taking place. You two can get on the sub-ether to Earth. Get the Co-ordinator to—"

Conway said, "I can take care of that, son. I've been dealing with government affairs before you were born. And Lucky, will you take care of yourself?"

"Don't I always, Uncle Hector? Uncle Gus?" He shook hands warmly and whirled away.


* * *


Bigman scuffed the dust of Ceres disconsolately. He said, "I've got my suit on. Everything."

"You can't go, Bigman," said Lucky. "I'm sorry."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm taking a short cut to get to Ganymede."

"So what? What kind of a short cut?"

Lucky smiled tightly. "I'm cutting through the Sun!"

He walked out on to the field toward the Shooting Starr, leaving Bigman standing there, mouth open.


14. To Ganymede Via The Sun

A three-dimensional map of the Solar System would have the appearance of a rather flat plate. In the center would be the Sun, the dominant member of the System. It is really dominant, since it contains 99.8% of all the matter in the Solar System. In other words, it weighs five hundred times as much as everything else in the Solar System put together.

Around the Sun circle the planets. All of them revolve in nearly the same plane, and this plane is called the Ecliptic.

In traveling from planet to planet space-ships usually follow the Ecliptic. In doing so they are within the main sub-etheric beams of planetary communication and can most conveniently make intermediate stops on the way to their destination. Sometimes, when a ship is interested in speed or in escaping detection, it veers away from the Ecliptic, particularly when it must travel to the other side of the Sun.

This, Lucky thought, might be what Anton's ship was intending to do. It would lift up from the "plate" that was the Solar System, make a huge arc or bridge above the Sun, and come down to the "plate" on the other side, in the neighborhood of Ganymede. Certainly Anton must have started in that direction, or the defending forces on Ceres wouldn't have missed filming him. It was almost second nature for men to make all spationautical observations along the Ecliptic first of all. By the time they thought of turning away from the Ecliptic, Anton would have been too far away for observation.

But, thought Lucky, the chances were that Anton would not leave the Ecliptic permanently. He might have started out as though that would be the case, but he would return. The advantages in a return would be many. The asteroid belt extended completely about the Sun, in the sense that asteroids were evenly distributed all the way around. By keeping within the belt Anton could remain among the asteroids all the way to within a hundred million miles or so of Ganymede. This would mean security for him. The Terrestrial government had virtually abdicated its power over the asteroids and, except for the routes to the four large rocks, government ships did not penetrate the area. Moreover, if one did, Anton would always be in the position of being able to call for reinforcements from some nearby asteroidal base.

Yes, thought Lucky, Anton would remain in the belt. Partly because he thought this, and partly because he had his own plans, Lucky lifted the Shooting Starr out of the Ecliptic in a shallow arc.

The Sun was the key. It was the key to the entire System. It was a roadblock and a detour to every ship man could build. To travel from one side of the System to another, a ship had to make a wide curve to avoid the Sun. No passenger ship approached closer than sixty million miles, the distance of Venus from the Sun. Even there, cooling systems were imperative for the comfort of the passengers.

Technical ships could be designed to make the trip to Mercury, the distance of which from the Sun varied from forty-three million miles in some parts of its orbit to twenty-eight million in others. Ships had to hit it at the furthest region of its retirement from the Sun. At closer than thirty million miles various metals melted.

Still more specialized ships were sometimes built for close-by solar observation. Their hulls were permeated by a strong electric field of peculiar nature which induced a phenomenon known as "pseudo-liquefaction" in the outermost molecular skin. Heat reflection from such a skin was almost total, so that only a tiny fraction penetrated into the ship. From outside such ships would appear perfect mirrors. Even so, enough heat penetrated to raise the temperature within the ship above the boiling point of water at distances of five million miles from the Sun, the closest recorded approach. Even if human beings could survive such a temperature, they couldn't survive the short-wave radiation that flooded out of the Sun and into the ship at such distances. It could kill anything living in seconds.

The disadvantage of the Sun's position with respect to space travel was obvious in the present instance, in which Ceres was on one side of the Sun while Earth and Jupiter were almost diametrically opposed on the other side. If one was in the asteroid belt, the distance from Ceres to Ganymede was about one billion miles. If the Sun could be ignored and a ship could cut straight across space through it, the distance would be only six hundred million miles, a saving of about forty per cent.

This, as far as was possible, Lucky intended to do.

He drove the Shooting Starr hard, virtually living in his g-harness, eating and sleeping there, feeling the pressure of acceleration continuously. He gave himself only fifteen minutes respite out of each hour.

He passed high above the orbits of Mars and Earth, but there was nothing to see there, not even with the ship's telescope. Earth was on the other side of the Sun, and Mars was at a position nearly at right angles to his own.

Already the Sun was at its normal size as seen from Earth and he could view it only through the most strongly polarized visiplates. A little more and he would have to use the stroboscopic attachments.

The radioactivity indicators began to chuckle occasionally. Within Earth's orbit the density of short-wave radiation started to reach respectable values. Inside Venus's orbit special precautions would have to be taken, such as the wearing of lead-impregnated semi-space-suits.

I, myself, thought Lucky, would have to do better than lead. At the approach to the Sun that he would have to make, lead would not do. Nothing material would do.

For the first time since his adventure on Mars the previous year Lucky drew out of a special pouch glued to his waist, the flimsy, semitransparent object obtained from the Martian energy beings.

He had long since abandoned any effort at speculation as to the method by which the object worked. It was the development of a science that had continued for a million years longer than the science known to Mankind and along alien paths. It was as incomprehensible to him as a space-ship would be to a cave man, and as impossible to duplicate. But it worked! That was what counted!

He slipped it on over his head. It molded itself to his skull as though it carried a strange life of its own, and as it did so, light gleamed out all over him. Over his body it was a glimmer like a billion fireflies, and it was for that reason that Bigman referred to it as a "glimmer shield." Over his face and head it was a solid sheet of brilliance that covered his features entirely, without, on the other hand, preventing light from reaching his eyes.

It was an energy shield, designed by the alien Martians for Lucky's needs. That is, it was impervious to all forms of energy other than that required by his body, such as a certain intensity of visible light and a certain amount of heat. Gases penetrated freely, so that Lucky could breathe, and heated gases, in passing, were robbed of their heat and came through cool.

When the Shooting Starr passed the orbit of Venus, still heading in toward the Sun, Lucky put on his energy shield permanently. While he wore it, he would not be able to eat or drink, but the enforced fast would not last for more than a day, at the outside.

He was now traveling at a terrific speed, far greater than any he had previously experienced. In addition to the slugging pull of the hyperatomics of the Shooting Starr, there was the unimaginable attraction of the Sun's giant gravitational field. He was traveling at millions of miles an hour now.

He activated the electric field that rendered the outer skin of the ship pseudo-liquid and was grateful, as he did so, for the foresight that had made him insist on that accessory during the building of the Shooting Starr. The thermocouple which had been registering temperatures above one hundred degrees began to show a drop. The visiplates went dark as metal shields passed over the thick glassite to keep them from damage and from softening in the heat of the Sun.

By the time Mercury's orbit was reached the radiation counters had gone completely mad. Their chatter was continuous. Lucky placed a glimmering hand over their windows and their noise stopped. Down to the hardest gamma rays the radiation penetrating and filling the ship was stopped by the resistance of the insubstantial aura that surrounded his body.

The temperature which had reached a low of eighty, was climbing again, despite the mirror skin of the Shooting Starr. It passed one hundred fifty and still went up. The gravimetrics indicated the Sun to be only ten million miles away.

A shallow dish of water, which Lucky had placed upon the table, and which had been steaming for an hour past, was now bubbling outright. The thermocouple reached the boiling point of water, two hundred and twelve degrees.

The Shooting Starr, whipping about the Sun, was now five million miles away. It would approach no closer. Actually it was inside the outermost wisps of the most rarefied portion of the Sun's atmosphere, its corona. Since the Sun was gaseous through and through (though most of it was a gas the like of which could not exist even under the most extreme laboratory conditions on Earth), it had no surface, and its "atmosphere" was part of the very body of the Sun. By going through the corona, then, Lucky was, in a way, going through the Sun, as he had told Bigman he would.

Curiosity tugged at him. No man had ever been this close to the Sun. No man, perhaps, ever would again. Certainly, any man who did, could not look at the Sun with his unaided eyes. The shortest possible glimpse of the Sun's tremendous radiation at that distance would mean instant death.

But he was wearing the Martian energy shield. Could it handle solar radiation at five million miles? He felt he ought not take the chance and yet the impulse tugged desperately at him. The ship's chief visiplate was outfitted with a stroboscopic outlet-series, one which would expose, one by one, each of a series of sixty-four outlets to the Sun, each for a millionth of a second every four seconds. To the eye (or to the camera), it would seem a continuous exposure, but actually any given piece of glass would only get one four millionth of the radiation the Sun was emitting. Even that required specially designed, nearly opaque lenses.

Lucky's fingers moved remorselessly, almost without conscious volition, to the controls. He could not bear the thought of losing the chance. He adjusted the plate direction toward the Sun, using the gravimetrics as indicators.

Then he turned his head away and plunged the contact home. A second passed, then two seconds. He imagined an increase in heat on the back of his neck; he half-waited for radiation death. Nothing happened.

Slowly he turned.

What he saw was to stay with him the rest of his life. A bright surface, puckered and wrinkled, filled the visi-plate. It was a portion of the Sun. He could not see the whole, he knew, in the visiplate, for at his distance, the Sun was twenty times as wide as it seemed from Earth and covered four hundred times as much of the sky.

Caught in the visiplate were a pair of sunspots, black against the brightness. Threads of glowing white curled into it and were lost. They were heaving areas of activity that moved across the plate visibly as he watched. This was not due to the Sun's own motion of rotation, which, even at its equator, was not more than fourteen hundred miles an hour, but rather to the tremendous velocity of the Shooting Starr.

As he watched, gouts of red, naming gas shot up toward him, dim against the blazing background, and turning a smoky black as it receded from the Sun and cooled.

Lucky shifted the plate, catching a portion of the rim of the Sun, and now the flaming gas (which were the so-called "prominences," consisting of gigantic puffs of hydrogen gas) stood out sharply crimson against the black of the sky. They spread outward in slow motion, thinning and taking on fantastic shapes. Lucky knew that each one of them could engulf a dozen planets the size of Earth, and that the Earth could be dropped into the sunspot he saw without even making a respectable splash.

He closed the stroboscopics with a sudden movement. Even though physically safe, no man could stare at the Sun from that distance without becoming oppressed by the insignificance of Earth and all things Earthly.


* * *


The Shooting Starr had whipped half around the Sun and was now receding rapidly past the orbits of Mercury and Venus. It was decelerating now. The ship's prow opposed the direction of its flight and its powerful main engines were acting as brakes.

Once past Venus's orbit, Lucky removed his shield and stowed it away. The ship's cooling system strained to get rid of the excess heat. Drinking water was still uncomfortably hot and the canned foods bulged where liquid within had bubbled into gas.

The Sun was shrinking. Lucky looked at it. It was an even, glowing sphere. Its irregularities, its churning spots, and heaving prominences could no longer be seen. Only its corona, always visible in space, though visible on Earth only during eclipses, thrust out in every direction for millions of miles. Lucky shuddered involuntarily to think that he had passed through it.

He passed within fifteen million miles of Earth, and through his telescope he spied the familiar outlines of the continents peeping through the ragged white masses of cloud banks. He felt a twinge of homesickness and then a new resolve to keep war away from the teeming, busy billions of human beings that inhabited that planet, which was the origin of all the men that now occupied the far-flung star systems of the Galaxy.

Then the Earth, too, receded.

Past Mars and back into the asteroid belt, Lucky still aimed at the Jovian system, that miniature solar system within the greater one. At its center was Jupiter, larger than all the other planets combined. About it swung four giant moons, three of them, lo, Europa, and Callisto, about the size of the Earth's Moon, and the fourth, Ganymede, much larger. Ganymede, in fact, was larger than Mercury, and almost as large as Mars. In addition there were dozens of moonlets, ranging from some hundreds of miles in diameter down to insignificant rocks.

In the ship's telescope Jupiter was a growing yellow globe, marked with faintly orange stripes, one of which bellied out into what was once known as the "Great Red Spot." Three of the main moons, including Ganymede, were on one side, the fourth was on the other.

Lucky had been in guarded communication with the Council's main offices on the Moon for the better part of a day now. His Ergometrics probed space with widely stretching fingers. It detected many ships, but Lucky watched only for the one with the Sirian motor pattern which he would recognize with certainty the instant it appeared.

Nor did he fail. At a distance of twenty million miles, the first quiverings roused his suspicions. He veered in the proper direction, and the characteristic curves grew more pronounced.

At one hundred thousand miles, his telescope showed it as a faint dot. At ten thousand, it had form and shape and was Anton's ship.

At a thousand miles (with Ganymede still fifty million miles away from both ships), Lucky sent out his first message, a demand that Anton turn his ship back toward Earth.

At one hundred miles Lucky received his answer-a blast of energy that made his generators whine and shook the Shooting Starr as though it had collided with another ship.

Lucky's tired face took on a drawn look.

Anton's ship was better-armed than he had expected.


15. Part Of The Answer

For an hour the maneuvers of both ships were indecisive. Lucky had the faster ship and the better, but Captain Anton had a crew. Each of Anton's men could specialize. One could focus and one could release, while a third could control the reactor banks and Anton himself could direct operations.

Lucky, trying to do everything at once and by himself, had to rely heavily on words.

"You can't get to Ganymede, Anton, and your friends won't dare tip their hand by coming out now before they know what's up… You're all through, Anton; we know all your plans… There's no use trying to get a message through to Ganymede, Anton; we're blanketing the sub-ether from you to Jupiter. Nothing can get through… Government ships are coming, Anton. Count your minutes. You don't have many, unless you surrender… Give up, Anton. Give up."

And all this while the Shooting Starr dodged through as concentrated a fire as Lucky had ever seen. Nor were all the blasts successfully dodged. The Shooter's energy stores began to show the strain. Lucky would have liked to believe that Anton's ship was suffering equally, but he himself was aiming few blasts at Anton and landing virtually none.

He dared not take his eyes off the screen. Terrestrial ships, speeding to the scene, would not be there for hours. In those hours, if Anton beat down his energy banks, broke away, and made good head toward Ganymede, while a limping Shooting Starr could only pursue, without catching… Or if a pirate fleet suddenly sparkled on-screen…

Lucky dared not follow those lines of thought further. Perhaps he had been wrong in not entrusting the interception to government ships in the first place. No, he told himself, only the Shooting Starr could have caught Anton still fifty million miles from Ganymede; only the Shooter's speed; more important still, only the Shooter's Ergometers. At this distance from Ganymede it was safe to call in units of the fleet for the kill. Closer to Ganymede and fleet action would have been unsafe.

Lucky's receiver, open all this time, was suddenly activated. Anton's face filled it, smiling and carefree.

"You got away from Dingo again, I see."

Lucky said, "Again? You're admitting he was working under orders in the push duel!"

An energy feeler toward Lucky's ship suddenly hardened into a beam of disruptive force. Lucky moved aside with an acceleration that wrenched him.

Anton laughed. "Don't watch me too closely. We almost caught you then with a lulu. Certainly Dingo was working under orders. We knew what we were doing. Dingo didn't know who you really were, but I did. Nearly from the first."

"Too bad the knowledge didn't help you," said Lucky.

"It's Dingo that it hasn't helped. It may amuse you to know that he has been, shall we say, executed. It's bad to make mistakes. But this kind of talk is out of place here. I'm only plating you to say that this has been fun, but I'll be going now."

"You have nowhere to go," said Lucky.

"I'll try Ganymede."

"You'll be stopped."

"By government ships? I don't see them yet. And there's not one that can catch me in time."

"I can catch you."

"You have caught me. But what can you do with me? From the way you're fighting, you must be the only man on board. If I had known that from the beginning, I wouldn't have bothered with you as long as this. You can't fight a whole crew."

Lucky said in a low, intense voice, "I can ram you. I can smash you completely."

"And yourself. Remember that."

"That wouldn't matter."

"Please. You sound like a space-scout. You'll be reciting the junior scout-patrol oath next."

Lucky raised his voice. "You men aboard the ship, listen! If your captain tries to break away in the direction of Ganymede, I will ram the ship. It is certain death for all of you, unless you surrender. I promise you all a fair trial. I promise all of you the utmost consideration possible if you co-operate with us. Don't let Anton throw your lives away for the sake of his Sirian friends."

"Talk on, government boy, talk on," said Anton. "I'm letting them listen. They know what kind of a trial they can expect and they know what kind of consideration, too. An injection of enzymic poison." His fingers made the quick movements of someone inserting a needle into another's skin. "That's what they'll get. They're not afraid of you. Good-by, government boy."

The needles on Lucky's gravimetrics wavered downward as Anton's ship picked up speed and moved away. Lucky watched his visiplates. Where were the government ships? Blast all space, where were the government ships?

He let acceleration take hold. Gravimetric needles moved upward again.

The miles between the ships were sliced away. Anton's ship put on more speed; so did the Shooting Starr. But the accelerative possibilities of the Shooter were higher.

The smile on Anton's face did not alter. "Fifty miles away," he said. Then, "Forty-five." Another pause. "Forty. Have you said your prayers, government boy?"

Lucky did not answer. For him there was no way out. He would have to ram. Sooner than let Anton get through, sooner than allow war to come to Earth, he would have to stop the pirates by suicide, if there were no other way. The ships were curving toward one another in a long, slow tangent.

"Thirty," said Anton lazily. "You're not frightening anyone. You'll look a fool in the end. Veer off and go home, Starr."

"Twenty-five," retorted Lucky firmly. "You have fifteen minutes to surrender or die." He himself, he reflected, had the same fifteen minutes to win or die.

A face appeared behind Anton's in the visiplate. It held a finger to pale, tight lips. Lucky's eyes might have flickered. He tried to conceal that by looking away, then coming back.

Both ships were at maximum acceleration.

"What's the matter, Starr?" asked Anton. "Scared? Heart beating fast?" His eyes were dancing and his lips were parted.

Lucky had the sudden, sure knowledge that Anton was enjoying this, that he considered it an exciting game, that it was only a device whereby he might demonstrate his power. Lucky knew at that moment that Anton would never surrender, that he would allow himself to be rammed rather than back away. And Lucky knew that there was no escape from death.

"Fifteen miles," Lucky said.

It was Hansen's face behind Anton. The hermit's! And there was something in his hand.

"Ten miles," said Lucky. Then, "Six minutes. I'll ram you. By space, I'll ram you."

It was a blaster! Hansen held a blaster.

Lucky's breath came tightly. If Anton turned…

But Anton was not going to miss a second of Lucky's face if he could help it. He was waiting to see the fright come and grow. To Lucky, that was plain as could be in the pirate's expression. Anton would not have turned for a much noisier event than the careful lifting of a blaster.

Anton caught it in the back. Death came too suddenly for the eager smile to disappear from his face, and though life left it, the look of cruel joy did not. Anton fell forward across the visiplate and for a moment his face remained pressed there, larger than life-size, leering at Lucky out of dead eyes.

Lucky heard Hansen's shout, "Back, all of you. Do you want to die? We're giving up. Come and get us, Starr!"

Lucky veered the direction of acceleration by two degrees. Enough to miss.

His Ergometers were registering the motors of approaching government ships strongly now. They were coming at last.

The screens on Anton's ship were glowing white as a sign of surrender.


* * *


It was almost an axiom that the fleet was never entirely pleased when the Council of Science interfered too much in what they considered to be the province of the military. Especially so when the interference was spectacularly successful. Lucky Starr knew that well. He was quite prepared for the admiral's poorly hidden disapproval.

The admiral said, "Dr. Conway has explained the situation adequately, Starr, and we commend you for your actions. However, you must realize that the fleet has been aware of the Sirian danger for some time now and had a careful program of its own. These independent actions on the part of the Council can be harmful. You might mention that to Dr. Conway. Now I have been requested by the Co-ordinator to co-operate with the Council in the next stages of the fight against the pirates, but," he looked stubborn, "I cannot agree to your suggestion that we delay an attack on Ganymede. I think the fleet is capable of making its own decisions where battle, and victory are concerned."

The admiral was in his fifties and unused to consulting on equal terms with anyone, let alone a youngster of half his age. His square-cut face with its bristly gray mustache showed it.

Lucky was tired. The reaction, now that Anton's ship had been taken in tow and its crew in custody, had set in. He managed, however, to be very respectful. He said, "I think that if we mop up the asteroids first, the Sirians on Ganymede will automatically cease being a problem."

"Good Galaxy, man, how do you mean 'mop up.' We've been trying to do that for twenty-five years without success. Mopping up the asteroids is like chasing feathers. As for the Sirian base, we know where it is, and we have a good notion as to its strength." He smiled briefly. "Oh, it may be hard for the Council to realize this, but the fleet is on its toes as well as they are. Perhaps even more so. For instance, I know that the power at my command is enough to break their strength on Ganymede. We are ready for the battle."

"I have no doubt that you are and that you can defeat the Sirians. But the ones on Ganymede are not all the Sirians there are. You may be ready for a battle, but are you ready for a long and costly war?"

The admiral reddened. "I have been asked to cooperate, but I cannot do so at the risk of Earth's safety. I can under no conditions lend my voice to a plan which involves dispersing our fleet among the asteroids, while a Sirian expedition is in being in the Solar System."

"May I have an hour?" interrupted Lucky. "One hour to speak with Hansen, the Cerean captive I had brought aboard this ship just before you boarded, sir?"

"How will that help?"

"May I have an hour to show you?"

The admiral's lips pressed together. "An hour may be valuable. It may be priceless… Well, begin, but quickly. Let's see how it goes."

"Hansen!" called Lucky without taking his calm eyes from the admiral.

The hermit entered from the bunk room. He looked tired, but managed a smile for Lucky. His stay on the pirate ship had apparently left his spirits unmarked.

He said, "I've been admiring your ship, Mr. Starr. It's quite a piece of metal."

"Look here," said the admiral, "none of that. Get on with it, Starr! Never mind your ship."

Lucky said, "This is the situation, Mr. Hansen. We've stopped Anton, with your invaluable help, for which I thank you. That means we've delayed the start of hostilities with Sirius. However, we need more than delay. We must remove the danger completely, and as the admiral will tell you, our time is very short."

"How can I help?" asked Hansen.

"By answering my questions."

"Gladly, but I've told you all I know. I'm sorry that it turned out to be worth so little."

"Yet the pirates believed you to be a dangerous man. They risked a great deal to get you out of our hands."

"I can't explain that."

"Is it possible that you have a piece of knowledge without being aware of it? Something that could be deadly for them?"

"I don't see how."

"Well, they trusted you. By the information you yourself gave me, you were rich; a man with good investments on Earth. Certainly you were much better off than the average hermit. Yet the pirates treated you well. Or at least they didn't mistreat you. They didn't rifle your belongings. In fact, they left your very luxurious home completely in peace."

"Remember, Mr. Starr, I helped them in return."

"Not very much. You said that you allowed them to land on your rock, to leave people there sometimes and that's about all. If they had simply shot you down, they could have had that and your quarters as well. In addition, they would not have had to worry about your becoming an informer. You eventually did become one, you know."

Hansen's eyes shifted. "That's the way it was, though. I told you the truth."

"Yes, what you told me was true. It wasn't the whole truth, however. I say that there must have been a good reason for the pirates to trust you so completely. They must have known that it meant your life to go to the government."

"I told you that," said Hansen mildly.

"You said that you had incriminated yourself by helping the pirates, but they trusted you when they first arrived, before you had begun helping them. Otherwise they would have blasted you to begin with. Now, let me guess. I'd say that once, before you became a hermit, you were a pirate yourself, Hansen, and that Anton and men like him knew about it. What do you say?"

Hansen's face went white.

Lucky said, "What do you say, Hansen?"

Hansen's voice was very soft. "You are right, Mr. Starr. I was once a member of the crew of a pirate ship. That was a long time ago. I have tried to live it down. I retired to the asteroids and did my best to be dead as far as Earth was concerned. When a new group of pirates arose in the Solar System and entangled me, I had no choice but to play along with them.

"When you landed, I found my first chance to leave; my first chance to take the risk of facing the law. Twenty-five years had passed, after all. And I would have in my favor the fact that I had risked my life to save the life of a Councilman. That was why I was so anxious to fight the pirate raiders on Ceres. I wanted to make another point in my favor. Finally, I killed Anton, saving your life a second time, and giving Earth a breathing space, you tell me, in which a war may be prevented. I was a pirate, Mr. Starr, but that's gone, and I think I've evened the score."

"Good," said Lucky, "as far as it goes. Now do you have any information for us that you didn't mention before?"

Hansen shook his head.

Lucky said, "You didn't tell us you were a pirate."

"That was irrelevant, really. And you found out for yourself. I didn't try to deny it."

"Well, then let's see if we can find anything else which you won't deny. You see, you still haven't told the whole truth."

Hansen looked surprised. "What remains?"

"The fact that you've never stopped being a pirate."

The fact that you are a person that was only mentioned once in my hearing, and that by one of Anton's crewmen; shortly after my push-gun duel with Dingo. The fact I that you are the so-called Boss. You, Mr. Hansen, are the mastermind of the asteroid pirates."


16. All Of The Answer

Hansen jumped out of his seat, and remained standing. His breath whistled harshly through parted lips.

The admiral, scarcely less astonished, cried, "Great Galaxy, man! What is this? Are you serious?"

Lucky said, "Sit down, Hansen, and let's try it on for size. Let's see how it sounds. If I'm wrong, there'll be a contradiction somewhere. It begins with Captain Anton, landing on the Atlas. Anton was an intelligent and capable man, even if his mind was twisted. He mistrusted me and my story. He took a trimensional photograph of me (that wouldn't be hard, even without my noticing) and sent it to the Boss for instructions. The Boss thought he recognized me. Certainly, Hansen, if you were the Boss, that would follow, because as a matter of fact, when you saw me face to face later, you did recognize me.

"The Boss sent back a message to the effect that I was to be killed. It amused Anton to do that by sending me out in a push-gun duel with Dingo. Dingo was given definite instructions to kill me. Anton admitted that in our last conversation. Then, when I returned, with Anton's word that I was to be given a chance to join the organization if I survived, you had to take over yourself. I was sent to your rock."

Hansen burst out, "But this is mad. I did you no harm. I saved you. I brought you back to Ceres."

"So you did, and came along with me, too. Now it had been my idea to get into the pirate organization, learn the facts from within. You got the same idea in reverse and were more successful. You brought me to Ceres and came yourself. You learned how unprepared we were and how we underestimated the pirate organization. It meant you could go ahead at full speed.

"The Ceres Raid makes sense now. I imagine you got word to Anton somehow. Pocket sub-etherics are not unheard of and clever codes can be worked out. You went up the corridors not to fight the pirates but to join them. They didn't kill you, they 'captured' you. That was very queer. If your story were true, you would have been a dangerous informer to them. They should have blasted you the moment you came within range. Instead they did not harm you. Instead, they put you on Anton's flagship and took you with them to Ganymede. You weren't even bound or under surveillance. It was perfectly possible for you to move quietly behind Anton and shoot him down."

Hansen cried, "But I did shoot him. Why in the name of Earth would I have shot him if I were who you say I am?"

"Because he was a maniac. He was ready to let me ram him rather than back down or lose face. You had greater plans and had no intention of dying to soothe his vanity. You knew that even if we stopped Anton from contacting Ganymede, it would mean only a delay. By attacking Ganymede afterward, we would provoke the war anyway. Then by continuing your role as hermit, you would eventually find a chance to escape and take on your real identity. What was Anton's life and the loss of one ship compared with all that?"

Hansen said, "What proof is there to all this? It's guesswork, that's all! Where's the proof?"

The admiral, who had been looking from one to the other through all of this, bestirred himself. "Look here, Starr, this man's mine. We'll get whatever truth is in him."

"No hurry, Admiral. My hour isn't up… Guesswork, Hansen? Let's go on. I tried to get back to your rock, Hansen, but you didn't have the co-ordinates, which was strange, despite your painstaking explanations. I calculated out a set of co-ordinates from the trajectory we had taken going from your rock to Ceres, and those turned out to be in a forbidden zone, where no asteroids could be in the ordinary course of nature. Since I was certain that my calculations were correct, I knew that your rock had been where it was against the ordinary course of nature."

"Eh? What?" said the admiral.

"I mean that a rock need not travel in its orbit if it's small enough. It can be fitted with hyperatomic motors and can move out of its orbit like a space-ship. How else can you explain an asteroid being in a forbidden zone."

Hansen said wildly, "Saying so doesn't make it so. I don't know why you're doing this to me, Starr. Are you testing me? Is it a trick?"

"No trick, Mr. Hansen," said Lucky. "I went back for your rock. I didn't think you'd move it far. An asteroid that can move has certain advantages. No matter how often it is detected, its co-ordinates noted and its orbit calculated, observers or pursuers can always be thrown off by movement out of the orbit. Still, a moving asteroid runs certain risks. An astronomer at a telescope, happening to observe it at the time, might wonder why an asteroid should be moving out of the Ecliptic or into a forbidden zone. Or, if he were close enough, he would wonder why an asteroid should have reactor exhaust glow at one end.

"You had already moved once, I imagine, to meet Anton's ship part way so that I could be landed on your rock. I was certain you would not move very far so soon after. Perhaps just far enough to get into the nearest cluster of asteroids for camouflage purposes. So I returned and searched among the asteroids nearest at hand for one that was the right size and shape. I found it. I found an asteroid that was actually a base, factory, and storehouse all at once, and on it I heard the sound of giant hyperatomics perfectly capable of moving it through space. A Sirian importation, I think."

Hansen said, "But that wasn't my rock."

"No? I found Dingo waiting on it. He boasted that he had had no need to follow me; that he knew where I was heading. The only place to which he knew I was heading was your rock. From that I conclude that one and the same rock had your living quarters at one end and the pirate base at the other."

"No. No," shouted Hansen. "I leave it to the admiral. There are a thousand asteroids the size and shape of mine, and I'm not responsible for some casual remark made by a pirate."

"There's another piece of evidence that may sound better to you," said Lucky. "On the pirate base was a valley between two outcroppings of rock; a valley full of used cans."

"Used cans!" shouted the admiral. "What in the Galaxy has that to do with anything, Starr?"

"Hansen discarded his used cans into a valley on his own rock. He said he didn't like his rock to be accompanied by its own garbage. Actually he probably didn't want it surrounding his rock and advertising it. I saw the valley of the cans when we were leaving his rock. I saw them again when I approached the pirate base. It was the reason I chose that asteroid to reconnoiter and no other. Look at this man, Admiral, and tell me whether you can doubt that I have the truth."

Hansen's face was contorted with fury. He was not the same man. All trace of benevolence was gone. "All right. What of it? What do you want?"

"I want you to call Ganymede. I'm sure you conducted previous negotiations with them. They'll know you. Tell them that the asteroids are surrendering to Earth and will join us against Sirius if necessary."

Hansen laughed. "Why should I? You've got me, but you haven't got the asteroids. You can't clean them out."

"We can, if we capture your rock. It has all necessary records on it, hasn't it?"

"Try and find it," said Hansen, hoarsely. "Try to locate it in a forest of rocks. You say yourself it can move."

"It will be easy to find," said Lucky. "Your valley of cans, you know."

"Go ahead. Look at every rock till you find the valley. It will take you a million years."

"No. Only a day or so. When I left the pirate base, I paused just long enough to burn the valley of cans with a heat beam. I melted them and let them freeze back into a bumpy, angled sheet of fresh, gleaming metal. There was no atmosphere to rust or corrode them, so its surface remains just like the metal-foil goal posts used in a push-gun duel. It catches the Sun and sends reflections glittering back in tight beams. All Ceres Observatory has to do is quarter the heavens, looking for an asteroid about ten times as bright as it should be for its size. I had them begin the search even before I left to intercept Anton."

It s a lie.

"Is it? Long before I reached the Sun, I received a sub-etheric message that included a photograph. Here it is." Lucky drew it out from under the blotter on the desk. "The bright dot with the arrow pointing to it is your rock."

"Do you think you're frightening me?"

"I should be. Council ships landed on it."

"What?" roared the admiral.

"There was no time to waste, sir," said Lucky. "We found Hansen's living quarters at the other end and we found the connecting tunnels between it and the pirate base. I have here some sub-etherized documents containing the co-ordinates of your main subsidiary bases, Hansen, and some photographs of the bases themselves. The real thing, Hansen?"

Hansen collapsed. His mouth opened and hopeless sobbing sounds came out.

Lucky said, "I've gone through all this, Hansen, to convince you that you've lost. You've lost completely and finally. You have nothing left but your life. I make no promises, but if you do as I say, you may end up by at least saving that. Call Ganymede."

Hansen stared helplessly at his fingers.

The admiral said with stunned anguish, "The Council cleaned out the asteroids? They've done the job? They haven't consulted the Admiralty?"

Lucky said, "How about it, Hansen?"

Hansen said, "What's the difference now? I'll do it."

Conway, Henree, and Bigman were at the space-port to greet Lucky when he returned to Earth. They had dinner together in the Glass Room on the highest level of Planet Restaurant. With the room's walls made of curving, clear one-way glass, they could look out over the warm lights of the city, fading off into the level plains beyond.

Henree said, "It's fortunate the Council was able to penetrate the pirate bases before it became a job for the fleet. Military action wouldn't have solved the matter."

Conway nodded. "You're right. It would have left the asteroids vacant for the next pirate gang. Most of those people there had no real knowledge that they were fighting alongside Sirius. They were rather ordinary people looking for a better life than they had been experiencing. I think we can persuade the government to offer amnesty to all but those who had actually participated in raids, and they weren't many."

"As a matter of fact," said Lucky, "by helping them continue the development of the asteroids, by financing the expansion of their yeast farms, and supplying water, air, and power, we're building a defense for the future. The best protection against asteroid criminals is a peaceful and prosperous asteroid community. That way lies peace."

Bigman said belligerently, "Don't kid yourself. It's peace only till Sirius decides to try again."

Lucky put a hand to the little man's frowning face and shoved it playfully. "Bigman, I think you're sorry we're short one nice war. What's the matter with you? Can't you enjoy a little rest?"

Conway said, "You know, Lucky, you might have told us more at the time."

"I would have liked to," said Lucky, "but it was necessary for me to deal with Hansen alone. There were important personal reasons involved."

"But when did you first suspect him, Lucky? What gave him away?" Conway wanted to know. "The fact that his rock had blundered into a forbidden zone?"

"That was the final straw," admitted Lucky, "but I knew he was no mere hermit within an hour after meeting him. I knew from that time on that he was more important to me than anyone else in the Galaxy."

"How about explaining that?" Conway sank his fork into the last of the steak and munched away contentedly.

Lucky said, "Hansen recognized me as the son of Lawrence Starr. He said he had met Father once, and he must have. After all, Councilmen get no publicity and a personal greeting is necessary to explain the fact that he could see the resemblance in my face.

"But there were two queer angles to the recognition. He saw the resemblance most clearly when I grew angry. He said that. Yet from what you tell me, Uncle Hector, and you, Uncle Gus, Father hardly ever got angry. 'Laughing' is the adjective you usually use when you talk about Father. Then, too, when Hansen arrived on Ceres, he recognized neither of you. Even hearing your names meant nothing."

"What's wrong with that?" asked Henree.

"Father and you two were always together, weren't you? How could Hansen have met Father and not you two. Met my father, moreover, at a time when he was angry and under circumstances which fixed his face so firmly in Hansen's mind that he could recognize me from the resemblance twenty-five years later.

"There's only one explanation. My father was separated from you two only on his last flight to Venus, and Hansen had been in at the kill. Nor was he there as an ordinary crewman. Ordinary crewmen don't become rich enough to be able to build a luxurious asteroid and spend twenty-five years after the government's raids on the asteroids building a new and bigger organization from scratch. He must have been the captain of the attacking pirate ship. He would have been thirty years old then; quite old enough to be captain."

"Great space!" said Conway blankly.

Bigman yelled indignantly, "And you never shot him down?"

"How could I? I had bigger affairs at hand than squaring a personal grudge. He killed my father and mother, yes, but I had to be polite to him just the same. At least for a while."

Lucky lifted a cup of coffee to his lips and paused to look down at the city again.

He said, "Hansen will be in the Mercury Prison for the rest of his life, which is better punishment really than a quick, easy death. And the Sirians have left Ganymede, so there'll be peace. That's a better reward for me than his death ten times over; and a better offering to the memory of my parents."


Lucky Starr and the Oceans Of Venus

Isaac Asimov


TO MARGARET LESSER

AND ALL THE GIRLS IN THE DEPARTMENT



Foreword

This book was first published in 1954, and the description of the surface of Venus was in accordance with astronomic beliefs of the period.

Since 1954, however, astronomical knowledge of the inner Solar system has advanced enormously because of the use of radar beams and rockets.

In the late 1950s, the quantity of radio waves received from Venus made it seem that the surface of Venus might be much hotter than had been thought. On August 27, 1962, a rocket probe called "Mariner II" was launched in the direction of Venus. It skimmed by within 21,000 miles of Venus on December 14, 1962. Measuring the radio waves emitted by the planet, it turned out that the surface temperature everywhere was indeed considerably higher than the boiling point of water.

This meant that far from having a worldwide ocean, as described in this book, Venus had no ocean at all. All of Venus's water is in the form of water vapor in its clouds, and the surface is exceedingly hot and is bone-dry. The atmosphere of Venus is, moreover, denser than had been thought and is almost entirely carbon dioxide.

Nor had it been known, in 1954, how long it took Venus to rotate on its axis. In 1964, radar beams bounced off Venus's surface showed that it was turning once in every 243 days (eighteen days longer than its year) and in the "wrong" direction as compared with other planets.

I hope that the readers enjoy this story anyway, but I would not wish them to be misguided into accepting as fact some of the material which was "accurate" in 1954 but which is now outdated.


Isaac Asimov

November, 1970


1. Through The Clouds Of Venus

Lucky Starr and John Bigman Jones kicked themselves up from the gravity-free Space Station No. 2 and drifted toward the planetary coaster that waited for them with its air lock open. Their movements had the grace of long practice under non-gravity conditions, despite the fact that their bodies seemed thick and grotesque in the space suits they wore.

Bigman arched his back as he moved upward and craned his head to stare once again at Venus. His voice sounded loudly in Lucky's ear through the suit's radio. "Space! Look at that rock, will you?" Every inch of Bigman's five-foot-two was tense with the thrill of the sight.

Bigman had been born and bred on Mars and had never in his life been so close to Venus. He was used to ruddy planets and rocky asteroids. He had even visited green and blue Earth. But here, now, was something that was pure gray and white.

Venus filled over half the sky. It was only two thousand miles away from the space station they were on. Another space station was on the opposite side of the planet. These two stations, acting as receiving depots for Venus-bound spaceships, streaked about the planet in a three-hour period of revolution, following one another's tracks like little puppies forever chasing their tails.

Yet from those space stations, close though they were to Venus, nothing could be seen of the planet's surface. No continents showed, no oceans, no deserts or mountains, no green valleys. Whiteness, only brilliant whiteness, interspersed with shifting lines of gray.

The whiteness was the turbulent cloud layer that hovered eternally over all of Venus, and the gray lines marked the boundaries where cloud masses met and clashed. Vapor moved downward at those boundaries, and below those gray lines, on Venus's invisible surface, it rained.

Lucky Starr said, "No use looking at Venus, Bigman. You'll be seeing plenty of it, close up, for a while. It's the sun you ought to be saying good-by to."

Bigman snorted. To his Mars-accustomed eyes, even Earth's sun seemed swollen and overbright. The sun, as seen from Venus's orbit, was a bloated monster. It was two and a quarter times as bright as Earth's sun, four times as bright as the familiar sun on Bigman's Mars. Personally, he was glad that Venus's clouds would hide its sun. He was glad that the space station always arranged its vanes in such a way as to block off the sunlight.

Lucky Starr said, "Well, you crazy Martian, are you getting in?"

Bigman had brought himself to a halt at the lip of the open lock by the casual pressure of one hand. He was still looking at Venus. The visible half was in the full glare of the sun, but at the eastern side the night shadow was creeping in, moving quickly as the space station raced on in its orbit.

Lucky, still moving upward, caught the lip of the lock in his turn and brought his other space-suited hand flat against Bigman's seat. Under the gravity-free conditions, Bigman's little body went tumbling slowly inward, while Lucky's figure bobbed outward.

Lucky's arm muscle contracted, and he floated up and inward with an easy, flowing motion. Lucky had no cause for a light heart at the moment, but he was forced into a smile when he found Bigman spread-eagled in mid-air, with the tip of one gauntleted finger against the inner lock holding him steady.

The outer lock closed as Lucky passed through.

Bigman said, "Listen, you wombug, someday I'm walking out on you and you can get yourself another—"

Air hissed into the small room, and the inner lock opened. Two men floated rapidly through, dodging Bigman's dangling feet. The one in the lead, a stocky fellow with dark hair and a surprisingly large mustache, said, "Is there any trouble, gentlemen?"

The second man, taller, thinner, and with lighter hair but a mustache just as large, said, "Can we help you?"

Bigman said loftily, "You can help us by giving us room and letting us get our suits off." He had flicked himself to the floor and was removing his suit as he spoke. Lucky had already shucked his.

The men went through the inner lock. It, too, closed behind them. The space suits, their outer surface cold with the cold of space, were frosting over as moisture from the warm air of the coaster congealed upon them. Bigman tossed them out of the coaster's warm, moist air on to the tiled racks, where the ice might melt.

The dark-haired man said, "Let's see, now. You two are William Williams and John Jones. Right?"

Lucky said, "I'm Williams." Using that alias under ordinary conditions was second nature to Lucky by now. It was customary for Council of Science members to shun publicity at all times. It was particularly advisable now with the situation on Venus as confused and uncertain as it was.

Lucky went on, "Our papers are in order, I believe, and our luggage is aboard."

"Everything's all right," the dark-haired one said, "I'm George Reval, pilot, and this is Tor Johnson, my co-pilot. We'll be taking off in a few minutes. If there's anything you want, let us know."

The two passengers were shown to their small cabin, and Lucky sighed inwardly. He was never thoroughly comfortable in space except on his own speed cruiser, the Shooting Starr, now at rest in the space station's hangar.

Tor Johnson said in a deep voice, "Let me warn you, by the way, that once we get out of the space station's orbit, we won't be in free fall any more. Gravity will start picking up. If you get space-sick—"

Bigman yelled, "Space-sick! You in-planet goop, I could take gravity changes when I was a baby that you couldn't take right now." He flicked his finger against the wall, turned a slow somersault, touched the wall again, and ended with his feet just a half-inch above the floor. "Try that someday when you feel real manly."

"Say," said the co-pilot, grinning, "you squeeze a lot of brash into half a pint, don't you?"

Bigman flushed instantly. "Half a pint! Why, you soup-straining cobber—" he screamed, but Lucky's hand was on his shoulder and he swallowed the rest of the sentence. "See you on Venus," the little Martian muttered darkly.

Tor was still grinning. He followed his chief into the control room toward the head of the ship.

Bigman, his anger gone at once, said to Lucky curiously, "Say, how about those mustaches? Never saw any so big."

Lucky said, "It's just a Venusian custom, Bigman. I think practically everybody grows them on Venus."

"That so?" Bigman fingered his lip, stroking its bareness. "Wonder how I'd look in one."

"With one that big?" smiled Lucky. "It would drown your whole face."

He dodged the punch Bigman threw at him just as the floor trembled lightly beneath their feet and the Venus Marvel lifted off the space station. The coaster turned its nose into the contracting spiral trajectory that would carry it "down" to Venus.


Lucky Starr felt the beginnings of a long-overdue relaxation flooding him as the coaster picked up speed.

His brown eyes were thoughtful, and his keen, fine-featured face was in repose. He was tall and looked slim, but beneath that deceptive slimness were whip-cord muscles.

Life had already given much to Lucky of both good and evil. He had lost his parents while still a child, lost them in a pirate attack near the very Venus he was now approaching. He had been brought up by his father's dearest friends, Hector Conway, now chief of the Council of Science, and Augustus Henree, section director of the same organization.

Lucky had been educated and trained with but one thought in mind: Someday he was to enter that very Council of Science, whose powers and functions made it the most important and yet least-known body in the galaxy.

It was only a year ago, upon his graduation from the academy, that he had entered into full membership and become dedicated to the advancement of man and the destruction of the enemies of civilization. He was the youngest member of the Council and probably would remain so for years.

Yet already he had won his first battles. On the deserts of Mars and among the dim lit rocks of the asteroid belt, he had met and triumphed over wrong-doing.

But the war against crime and evil is not a short-term conflict, and now it was Venus that was the setting for trouble, a trouble that was particularly disturbing since its details were misty.

Chief of the Council Hector Conway had pinched his lip and said, "I'm not sure whether it's a Sirian con-spiracy against the Solar Confederation, or just petty racketeering. Our local men there tend to view it seriously."

Lucky said, "Have you sent any of our trouble shooters?" He was not long back from the asteroids, and he was listening to this with concern.

Conway said, "Yes: Evans."

"Lou Evans?" asked Lucky, his dark eyes lighting with pleasure. "He was one of my roommates at the academy. He's good."

"Is he? The Venus office of the Council has requested his removal and investigation on the charge of corruption!"

"What?" Lucky was on his feet, horrified. "Uncle Hector, that's impossible."

"Want to go out there and look into it yourself?"

"Do I! Great stars and little asteroids! Bigman and I will take off just as soon as we get the Shooting Starr flight-ready."

And now Lucky watched out the porthole thoughtfully, on the last leg of his flight. The night shadow had crept over Venus, and for an hour there was only blackness to be seen. All the stars were hidden by Venus's huge bulk.

Then they were out in the sunlight again, but now the viewport was only gray. They were too close to see the planet as a whole. They were even too close to see the clouds. They were actually inside the cloudy layer.

Bigman, having just finished a large chicken-salad sandwich, wiped his lips and said, "Space, I'd hate to have to pilot a ship through all this muck."

The coaster's wings had snapped out into extended position to take advantage of the atmosphere, and there was a definite difference in the quality of the ship's motion as a result. The buffeting of the winds could be felt and the plunging and lifting of the drafts that sink and rise.

Ships that navigate space are not suitable for the treachery of thick atmosphere. It is for that reason that planets like Earth and Venus, with deep layers of air enshrouding them, require space stations. To those space stations come the ships of deep space. From the stations planetary coasters with retractable wings ride the tricky air currents to the planet's surface.

Bigman, who could pilot a ship from Pluto to Mercury blindfolded, would have been lost at the first thickening wisp of an atmosphere. Even Lucky, who in his intensive training at the academy had piloted coasters, would not have cared to take on the job in the blanketing clouds that surrounded them now.

"Until the first explorers landed on Venus," Lucky said, "all mankind ever saw of the planet was the outer surface of these clouds. They had weird notions about the planet then."

Bigman didn't reply. He was looking into the celloplex container to make sure there wasn't another chicken-salad sandwich hiding there.

Lucky went on. "They couldn't tell how fast Venus was rotating or whether it was rotating at all. They weren't even sure about the composition of Venus's atmosphere. They knew it had carbon dioxide, but until the late 1900s astronomers thought Venus had no water. When ships began to land, mankind found that wasn't so."

He broke off. Despite himself, Lucky's mind re-turned once again to the coded spacegram he had received in mid-flight, with Earth ten million miles behind. It was from Lou Evans, his old roommate, to whom he had subethered that he was on his way.

The reply was short, blunt, and clear. It was, "Stay away!"

Just that! It was unlike Evans. To Lucky, a message like that meant trouble, big trouble, so he did not "stay away." Instead, he moved the micropile energy output up a notch and increased acceleration to the gasping point.

Bigman was saying, "Gives you a funny feeling, Lucky, when you think that once, long ago, people were all cooped up on Earth. Couldn't get off it no matter what they did. Didn't know anything about Mars or the moon or anywhere. It gives me the shivers."

It was just at that point that they pierced the cloud barrier, and even Lucky's gloomy thoughts vanished at the sight that met their eyes.

It was sudden. One moment they were surrounded by what seemed an eternal milkiness; the next, there was only transparent air about them. Everything below was bathed in a clear, pearly light. Above was the gray undersurface of the clouds.

Bigman said, "Hey, Lucky, look!"

Venus stretched out below them for miles in every direction, and it was a solid carpet of blue-green vegetation. There were no dips or rises in the surface. It was absolutely level, as though it had been planed down by a giant atomic slicer.

Nor was there anything to be seen that would have been normal in an Earthly scene. No roads or houses, no towns or streams. Just blue-green, unvarying, as far as could be seen.

Lucky said, "Carbon dioxide does it. It's the part of the air plants feed on. On Earth there's only three hundredths of one per cent in the air, but here almost ten per cent of the air is carbon dioxide."

Bigman, who had lived for years on the farms of Mars, knew about carbon dioxide. He said, "What makes it so light with all the clouds?"

Lucky smiled. "You're forgetting, Bigman. The sun is over twice as bright here as on earth." Then as he looked out the port again, his smile thinned and vanished.

"Funny," he murmured.

Suddenly, he turned away from the window. "Bigman," he said, "come with me to the pilot room."

In two strides he was out the cabin. In two more, he was at the pilot room. The door wasn't locked. He pulled it open. Both pilots, George Reval and Tor Johnson, were at their places, eyes glued to the controls. Neither turned as they entered.

Lucky said, "Men"

No response.

He touched Johnson's shoulder, and the co-pilot's arm twitched irritably, shaking off Lucky's grip.

The young Councilman seized Johnson by either shoulder and called, "Get the other one, Bigman!"

The little fellow was already at work on that very job, asking no questions, attacking with a bantam's fury.

Lucky hurled Johnson from him. Johnson staggered back, righted himself, and charged forward. Lucky ducked a wild blow and brought a straight-armed right to the side of the other's jaw. Johnson went down, cold. At nearly the same moment, Bigman, with a quick and skillful twist of George Reval's arm, flung him along the floor and knocked him breathless.

Bigman dragged both pilots outside the pilot room and closed the door on them. He came back to find Lucky handling the controls feverishly.

Only then did he ask for an explanation. "What happened?"

"We weren't leveling off," said Lucky grimly. "I watched the surface, and it was coming up too fast. It still is."

He strove desperately to find the particular control for the ailerons, those vanes that controlled the angle of flight. The blue surface of Venus was much closer. It was rushing at them.

Lucky's eyes were on the pressure gauge. It measured the weight of air above them. The higher it rose, the closer they were to the surface. It was climbing less quickly now. Lucky's fist closed more tightly on the duorod, squeezing the forks together. That must be it. He dared not exert force too rapidly or the ailerons might be whipped off altogether by the screaming gale that flung itself past their ship. Yet there was only five hundred feet to spare before zero altitude.

His nostrils flaring, the cords in his neck standing out, Lucky played those ailerons against the wind.

"We're leveling," breathed Bigman. "We're leveling—"

But there wasn't room enough. The blue-green came up and up till it filled all the view in the port. Then, with a speed that was too great and an angle that was also too great, the Venus Marvel, carrying Lucky Starr and Bigman Jones, struck the surface of the planet Venus.


2. Under The Sea Dome

Had the surface of Venus been what it seemed to be at first glance, the Venus Marvel would have smashed to scrap and burned to ash. The career of Lucky Starr would have ended at that moment.

Fortunately, the vegetation that had so thickly met the eye was neither grass nor shrubbery, but seaweed. The flat plain was no surface of soil and rock, but water, the top of an ocean that surrounded and covered all of Venus.

The Venus Marvel, even so, hit the ocean with a thunderous rattle, tore through the ropy weeds, and boiled its way into the depths. Lucky and Bigman were hurled against the walls.

An ordinary vessel might have been smashed, but the Venus Marvel had been designed for entering water at high speed. Its seams were tight; its form, streamlined. Its wings, which Lucky had neither time nor knowledge to retract, were torn loose, and its frame groaned under the shock, but it remained seaworthy.

Down, down it went into the green-black murk of the Venusian ocean. The cloud-diffused light from above was almost totally stopped by the tight weed cover. The ship's artificial lighting did not go on, its workings apparently put out of order by the shock of contact.

Lucky's senses were whirling. "Bigman," he called.

There was no answer, and he stretched out his arms, feeling. His hand touched Bigman's face.

"Bigman!" he called again. He felt the little Martian's chest, and the heart was beating regularly. Relief washed over Lucky.

He had no way of telling what was happening to the ship. He knew he could never find any way of controlling it in the complete darkness that enveloped them. He could only hope that the friction of the water would halt the ship before it struck bottom.

He felt for the pencil flash in his shirt pocket—a little plastic rod some six inches long that, on activation by thumb pressure, became a solid glow of light that streamed out forward, its beam broadening without seeming to weaken appreciably.

Lucky groped for Bigman again and examined him gently. There was a lump on the Martian's temple, but no broken bones so far as Lucky could tell.

Bigman's eyes fluttered. He groaned.

Lucky whispered, "Take it easy, Bigman. We'll be all right." He was far from sure of that as he stepped out into the corridor. The pilots would have to be alive and cooperative if the ship were ever to see home port again.

They were sitting up, blinking at Lucky's flash as he came through the door.

"What happened?" groaned Johnson. "One minute I was at the controls, and then—" There was no hostility, only pain and confusion, in his eyes.


The Venus Marvel was back to partial normality. It was limping badly, but its searchlights, fore and aft, had been restored to operation and the emergency batteries had been rigged up to supply them with all the power they would need for vital operations. The churn-ing of the propeller could be dimly heard, and the planetary coaster was displaying, adequately enough, its third function. It was a vessel that could navigate, not only in space and in air, but under water as well.

George Reval stepped into the control room. He was downcast and obviously embarrassed. He had a gash on his cheek, which Lucky had washed, disinfected, and neatly sprayed with koagulum.

Reval said, "There are a few minor seepages, but I plugged them. The wings are gone, and the main batteries are all junked up. We'll need all sorts of repairs, but I guess we're Lucky at that. You did a good job, Mr. Williams."

Lucky nodded briefly. "Suppose you tell me what happened."

Reval flushed. "I don't know. I hate to say it, but I don't know."

"How about you?" asked Lucky, addressing the other.

Tor Johnson, his large hands nursing the radio back to life, shook his head.

Reval said, "The last clear thoughts I can remember were while we were still inside the cloud layer. I remember nothing after that till I found myself staring at your flash."

Lucky said, "Do you or Johnson use drugs of any kind?"

Johnson looked up angrily. He rumbled, "No. Nothing."

"Then what made you blank out, and both at the same time, too?"

Reval said, "I wish I knew. Look, Mr. Williams, neither one of us is an amateur. Our records as coaster pilots are first class." He groaned. "Or at least we were first-class pilots. We'll probably be grounded after this."

"We'll see," said Lucky.

"Say, look," said Bigman, testily, "what's the use of talking about what's over and gone? Where are we now? That's what I want to know. Where are we going?"

Tor Johnson said, "We're 'way off our course. I can tell you that much. It will be five or six hours before we get out to Aphrodite."

"Fat Jupiter and little satellites!" said Bigman, staring at the blackness outside the port in disgust. "Five or six hours in this black mess?"


Aphrodite is the largest city on Venus, with a population of over a quarter of a million.

With the Venus Marvel still a mile away, the sea about it was lit into green translucence by Aphrodite's lights. In the eerie luminosity the. dark, sleek shapes of the rescue vessels, which had been sent out to meet them after radio contact had been established, could be plainly made out. They slipped along, silent companions.

As for Lucky and Bigman, it was their first sight of one of Venus's underwater domed cities. They almost forgot the unpleasantness they had just passed through, in their amazement at the wonderful object before them.

From a distance it seemed an emerald-green, fairy-land bubble, shimmering and quivering because of the water between them. Dimly they could make out buildings and the structural webbing of the beams that held up the city dome against the weight of water overhead.

It grew larger and glowed more brightly as they approached. The green grew lighter as the distance of water between them grew less. Aphrodite became less unreal, less fairylandish, but even more magnificent.

Finally they slid into a huge air lock, capable of holding a small fleet of freighters or a large battle cruiser, and waited while the water was pumped out. And when that was done, the Venus Marvel was floated out of the lock and into the city on a lift field.

Lucky and Bigman watched as their luggage was re-moved, shook hands gravely with Reval and Johnson, and took a skimmer to the Hotel Bellevue-Aphrodite.

Bigman looked out of the curved window as their skimmer, its gyro-wings revolving with stately dignity, moved lightly among the city's beams and over its roof-tops.

He said, "So this is Venus. Don't know if it's worth going through so much for it, though. I'll never forget that ocean coming up at us!"

Lucky said, "I'm afraid that was just the beginning."

Bigman looked uneasily at his big friend. "You really think so?"

Lucky shrugged. "It depends. Let's see what Evans has to tell us."


The Green Room of the Hotel Bellevue-Aphrodite was just that. The quality of the lighting and the shimmer of it gave the tables and guests the appearance of being suspended beneath the sea. The ceiling was an inverted bowl, below which there turned slowly a large aquarium globe, supported by cunningly placed lift beams. The water in it was laced with strands of Venusian seaweed and in among it writhed colorful "sea ribbons," one of the most beautiful forms of animal life on the planet.

Bigman had come in first, intent on dinner. He was annoyed at the absence of a punch menu, disturbed by the presence of actual human waiters, and resentful over the fact that he was told that diners in the Green Room ate a meal supplied by the management and only that. He was mollified, slightly, when the appetizer turned out to be tasty and the soup, very good.

Then the music started, the domed ceiling gradually came to glowing life, and the aquarium globe began its gentle spinning.

Bigman's mouth fell open; his dinner was forgotten.

"Look at that," he said.

Lucky was looking. The sea ribbons were of different lengths, varying from tiny threads two inches long to broad and sinuous belts that stretched a yard or more from end to end. They were all thin, thin as a sheet of paper. They moved by wriggling their bodies into a series of waves that rippled down their full length.

And each one fluoresced; each one sparkled with colored light. It was a tremendous display. Down the sides of each sea ribbon were little glowing spirals of light: crimson, pink, and orange; a few blues and violets scattered through; and one or two striking whites among the larger specimens. All were overcast with the light-green wash of the external light. As they swam, the lines of color snapped and interlaced.

To the dazzled eye they seemed to be leaving rainbow trails that washed and sparkled in the water, fading out only to be renewed in still brighter tints.

Bigman turned his attention reluctantly to his dessert. The waiter had called it "jelly seeds," and at first the little fellow had regarded the dish suspiciously. The jelly seeds were soft orange ovals, which clung together just a bit but came up readily enough in the spoon. For a moment they felt dry and tasteless to the tongue, but then, suddenly, they melted into a thick, sirupy liquid that was sheer delight.

"Space!" said the astonished Bigman. "Have you tried the dessert?"

"What?" asked Lucky absently.

"Taste the dessert, will you? It's like thick pineapple juice, only a million times better.… What's the matter?"

Lucky said, "We have company."

"Aw, go on." Bigman made a move to turn in his seat as though to inspect the other diners.

Lucky said quietly, "Take it easy," and that froze Bigman.

Bigman heard the soft steps of someone approaching their table. He tried to twist his eyes. His own blaster was in his room, but he had a force knife in his belt pocket. It looked like a watch fob, but it could slice a man in two, if necessary. He fingered it intensely.

A voice behind Bigman said, "May I join you, folks?"

Bigman turned in his seat, force knife palmed and ready for a quick, upward thrust. But the man looked anything but sinister. He was fat, but his clothes fit well. His face was round and his graying hair was carefully combed over the top of his head, though his baldness showed anyway. His eyes were little, blue, and full of what seemed like friendliness. Of course, he had a large, grizzled mustache of the true Venusian fashion.

Lucky said calmly, "Sit down, by all means." His attention seemed entirely centered on the cup of hot coffee that he held cradled in his right hand.

The fat man sat down. His hands rested upon the table. One wrist was exposed, slightly shaded by the palm of the other. For an instant, an oval spot on it darkened and turned black. Within it little yellow grains of light danced and flickered in the familiar patterns of the Big Dipper and of Orion. Then it dis-appeared, and there was only an innocent plump wrist and the smiling, round face of the fat man above it.

That identifying mark of the Council of Science could be neither forged nor imitated. The method of its controlled appearance by the exertion of will was just about the most closely guarded secret of the Council.

The fat man said, "My name is Mel Morriss."

Lucky said, "I rather thought you were. You've been described to me."

Bigman sat back and returned his force knife to its place. Mel Morriss was head of the Venusian section of the Council. Bigman had heard of him. In a way he was relieved, and in another way he was just a little disappointed. He had expected a fight—perhaps a quick dash of coffee into the fat man's face, the table overturned, and from then on, anything.

Lucky said, "Venus seems an unusual and beautiful place."

"You have observed our fluorescent aquarium?"

"It is very spectacular," said Lucky.

The Venusian councilman smiled and raised a finger. The waiter brought him a hot cup of coffee.

Morriss let it cool for a moment, then said softly, "I believe you are disappointed to see me here. You expected other company, I think."

Lucky said coolly, "I had looked forward to an informal conversation with a friend."

"In fact," said Morriss, "you had sent a message to Councilman Evans to meet you here."

"I see you know that."

"Quite. Evans has been under close observation for quite a while. Communications to him are intercepted."

Their voices were low. Even Bigman had trouble hearing them as they faced one another, sipping coffee and allowing no trace of expression in their words.

Lucky said, "You are wrong to do this."

"You speak as his friend?"

"I do."

"And I suppose that, as your friend, he warned you to stay away from Venus."

"You know about that, too, I see?"

"Quite. And you had a near-fatal accident in landing on Venus. Am I right?"

"You are. You're implying that Evans feared some such event?"

"Feared it? Great space, Starr, your friend Evans engineered that accident."


3. Yeast!

Lucky's expression remained impassive. Not by so much as an eye flicker did he betray any concern. "Details, please," he said.

Morriss was smiling again, half his mouth hidden by his preposterous Venusian mustache. "Not here, I'm afraid."

"Name your place, then."

"One moment." Morriss looked at his watch. "In just about a minute, the show will begin. There'll be dancing by sealight."

"Sealight?"

"The globe above will shine dim green. People will get up to dance. We will get up with them and quietly leave."

"You sound as though we are in danger at the moment."

Morriss said gravely, "You are. I assure you that since you entered Aphrodite, our men have never let you out of their sight."

A genial voice rang out suddenly. It seemed to come from the crystal centerpiece on the table. From the direction in which other diners turned their attention, it obviously came from the crystal centerpiece on every table.

It said, "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Green Room. Have you eaten well? For your added pleasure, the management is proud to present the magnetonic rhythms of Tobe Tobias and his—"

As the voice spoke, the lights went out and the remainder of its words were drowned in a rising sigh of wonder that came from the assembled guests, most of whom were fresh from Earth. The aquarium globe in the ceiling was suddenly a luminous emerald green and the sea-ribbon glow was sharply brilliant. The globe assumed a faceted appearance so that, as it turned, drift-ing shadows circled the room in a soft, almost hypnotic fashion. The sound of music, drawn almost entirely from the weird, husky sound boxes of a variety of magnetonic instruments, grew louder. The notes were produced by rods of various shapes being moved in skillful patterns through the magnetic field that surrounded each instrument.

Men and women were rising to dance. There was the rustle of much motion and the sibilance of laughing whispers. A touch on Lucky's sleeve brought first him, and then Bigman, to their feet.

Lucky and Bigman followed Morriss silently. One by one, grim-faced figures fell in behind them. It was almost as though they were materializing out of the draperies. They remained far enough away to look innocent, but each, Lucky felt sure, had his hand near the butt of a blaster. No mistake about it. Mel Morriss of the Venusian section of the Council of Science took the situation very much in earnest.


Lucky looked about Morriss's apartment with approval. It was not lavish, although it was comfortable.

Living in it, one could forget that a hundred yards above was a translucent dome beyond which was a hundred yards of shallow, carbonated ocean, followed by a hundred miles of alien, unbreathable atmosphere.

What actually pleased Lucky most was the collection of book films that overflowed one alcove.

He said, "You're a biophysicist, Dr. Morriss?" Automatically, he used the professional title.

Morriss said, "Yes."

"I did biophysical work myself at the academy," said Lucky.

"I know," said Morriss. "I read your paper. It was good work. May I call you David, by the way?"

"It's my first name," conceded the Earthman, "but everyone calls me Lucky."

Bigman, meanwhile, had opened one of the film holders, unreeled a bit of the film, and held it to the light.

He shuddered and replaced it.

He said belligerently to Morriss, "You sure don't look like a scientist."

"I imagine not," said Morriss, unoffended. "That helps, you know."

Lucky knew what he meant. In these days, when science really permeated all human society and culture, scientists could no longer restrict themselves to their laboratories. It was for that reason that the Council of Science had been born. Originally it was intended only as an advisory body to help the government on matters of galactic importance, where only trained scientists could have sufficient information to make intelligent decisions. More and more it had become a crime-fighting agency, a counterespionage system.

Into its own hands it was drawing more and more of the threads of government. Through its activities there might grow, someday, a great Empire of the Milky Way in which all men might live in peace and harmony.

So it came about that, as members of the Council had to fulfill many duties far removed from pure science, it was better for their success if they didn't look particularly like scientists—as long, that is, as they had the brains of scientists.

Lucky said, "Would you begin, sir, by filling me in on the details of the troubles here?"

"How much were you told on Earth?"

"The barest sketch. I would prefer to trust the man on the scene for the rest."

Morriss smiled with more than a trace of irony. "Trust the man on the scene? That's not the usual attitude of the men in the central office. They send their own trouble shooters, and men such as Evans arrive."

"And myself, too," said Lucky.

"Your case is a little different. We all know of your accomplishments on Mars last year and the good piece of work you've just finished in the asteroids."

Bigman crowed, "You should have been with him if you think you know all about it."

Lucky reddened slightly. He said hastily, "Never mind now, Bigman. Let's not have any of your yarns."

They were all in large armchairs, Earth-manufactured, soft and comfortable. There was something about the reflected sound of their voices that, to Lucky's practiced ear, was good evidence that the apartment was insulated and spy-shielded.

Morriss lit a cigarette and offered one to the others but was refused. "How much do you know about Venus, Lucky?"

Lucky smiled. "The usual things one learns in school. Just to go over a few things quickly, it's the second closest planet to the sun and is about sixty-seven million miles from it. It's the closest world to Earth and can come to within twenty-six million miles of the home planet. It's just a little smaller than Earth, with a gravity about five sixths Earth-normal. It goes around the sun in about seven and a half months and its day is about thirty-six hours long. It's surface temperature is a little higher than Earth's but not much, because of the clouds. Also because of the clouds, it has no seasons to speak of. It is covered by ocean, which is, in turn, covered with seaweed. Its atmosphere is carbon dioxide and nitrogen and is unbreathable. How is that, Dr. Morriss?"

"You pass with high marks," said the biophysicist, "but I was asking about Venusian society rather than about the planet itself."

"Well, now, that's more difficult. I know, of course, that humans live in domed cities in the shallower parts of the ocean, and, as I can see for myself, Venusian city life is quite advanced—far beyond Martian city life, for instance."

Bigman yelled, "Hey!"

Morriss turned his little twinkling eyes on the Martian. "You disagree with your friend?"

Bigman hesitated. "Well, maybe not, but he doesn't have to say so."

Lucky smiled and went on, "Venus is a fairly developed planet. I think there are about fifty cities on it and a total population of six million. Your exports are dried seaweed, which I am told is excellent fertilizer, and dehydrated yeast bricks for animal food."

"Still fairly good," said Morriss. "How was your dinner at the Green Room, gentlemen?"

Lucky paused at the sudden change of topic, then said, "Very good. Why do you ask?"

"You'll see in a moment. What did you have?"

Lucky said, "I couldn't say, exactly. It was the house meal. I should guess we had a kind of beef goulash with a rather interesting sauce and a vegetable I didn't recognize. There was a fruit salad, I believe, before that and a spicy variety of tomato soup."

Bigman broke in. "And jelly seeds for dessert."

Morriss laughed hootingly. "You're all wrong, you know," he said. "You had no beef, no fruit, no tomatoes. Not even coffee. You had only one thing to eat. Only one thing. Yeast!"

"What?" shrieked Bigman.

For a moment Lucky was startled also. His eyes narrowed and he said, "Are you serious?"

"Of course. It's the Green Room's specialty. They never speak of it, or Earthmen would refuse to eat it.

Later on, though, you would have been questioned thoroughly as to how you liked this dish or that, how you thought it might have been improved, and so on. The Green Room is Venus's most valuable experimental station."

Bigman screwed up his small face and yelled vehemently, "I'll have the law on them. I'll make a Council case of it. They can't feed me yeast without telling me, like I was a horse or a cow—or a—"

He ended in a flurry of sputtering.

"I am guessing," said Lucky, "that yeast has some connection with the crime wave on Venus."

"Guessing, are you?" said Morriss, dryly. "Then you haven't read our official reports. I'm not surprised.

Earth thinks we are exaggerating here. I assure you, however, we are not. And it isn't merely a crime wave. Yeast, Lucky, yeast! That is the nub and core of everything on this planet."

A self-propelled tender had rolled into the living room with a bubbling percolator and three cups of steaming coffee upon it. The tender stopped at Lucky first, then Bigman. Morriss took the third cup, put his lips to it, then wiped his large mustache appreciatively.

"It will add cream and sugar if you wish, gentlemen," he said.

Bigman looked and sniffed. He said to Morriss with sharp suspicion, "Yeast?"

"No. Real coffee this time. I swear it."

For a moment they sipped in silence; then Morriss said, "Venus, Lucky, is an expensive world to keep up. Our cities must make oxygen out of water, and that takes huge electrolytic stations. Each city requires tremendous power beams to help support the domes against billions of tons of water. The city of Aphrodite uses as much energy in a year as the entire continent of South America, yet it has only a thousandth the population.

"We've got to earn that energy, naturally. We've got to export to Earth in order to obtain power plants, specialized machinery, atomic fuel, and so on. Venus's only product is seaweed, inexhaustible quantities of it. Some we export as fertilizer, but that is scarcely the answer to the problem. Most of our seaweed, however, we use as culture media for yeast, ten thousand and one varieties of yeast."

Bigman's lip curled. "Changing seaweed to yeast isn't much of an improvement."

"Did you find your last meal satisfactory?" asked Morriss.

"Please go on, Dr. Morriss," said Lucky.

Morriss said, "Of course, Mr. Jones is quite cor—"

"Call me Bigman!"

Morriss looked soberly at the small Martian and said, "If you wish. Bigman is quite correct in his low opinion of yeast in general. Our most important strains are suitable only for animal food. But even so, it's highly useful. Yeast-fed pork is cheaper and better than any other kind. The yeast is high in calories, proteins, minerals, and vitamins.

"We have other strains of higher quality, which are used in cases where food must be stored over long periods and with little available space. On long space journeys, for instance, so-called Y-rations are frequently taken.

"Finally, we have our top-quality strains, extremely expensive and fragile growths that go into the menus of the Green Room and with which we can imitate or improve upon ordinary food. None of these are in quantity production, but they will be someday. I imagine you see the whole point of all this, Lucky."

"I think I do."

"I don't," said Bigman belligerently.

Morriss was quick to explain. "Venus will have a monopoly on these luxury strains. No other world will possess them. Without Venus's experience in zymoculture—"

"In what?" asked Bigman.

"In yeast culture. Without Venus's experience in that, no other world could develop such yeasts or maintain them once they did obtain them. So you see that Venus could build a tremendously profitable trade in yeast strains as luxury items with all the galaxy. That would be important not only to Venus, but to Earth as well— to the entire Solar Confederation. We are the most over-populated system in the Galaxy, being the oldest. If we could exchange a pound of yeast for a ton of grain, things would be well for us."

Lucky had been listening patiently to Morriss's lecture. He said, "For the same reason, it would be to the interest of a foreign power, which was anxious to weaken Earth, to ruin Venus's monopoly of yeast."

"You see that, do you? I wish I could persuade the rest of the Council of this living and ever-present danger. If growing strains of yeast were stolen along with some of the knowledge of our developments in yeast culture, the results could be disastrous."

"Very well," said Lucky, "then we come to the important point: Have such thefts occurred?"

"Not yet," said Morriss grimly. "But for six months now we have had a rash of petty pilfering, odd accidents, and queer incidents. Some are merely annoying, or even funny, like the case of the old man who threw half-credit pieces to children and then went frantically to the police, insisting he had been robbed. When witnesses came forward to show that he had given the money away, he nearly went mad with fury, insisting that he had done no such thing. There are more serious accidents, too, like that in which a freight-roller operator released a half-ton bale of weed at the wrong time and killed two men. He insisted later that he had blacked out."

Bigman squealed excitedly, "Lucky! The pilots on the coaster claimed they blacked out."

Morriss nodded, "Yes, and I'm almost glad it happened as long as the two of you survived. The Council on Earth may be a bit readier to believe there is something behind all this."

"I suppose," said Lucky, "you suspect hypnotism."

Morriss drew his lips into a grim, humorless smile. "Hypnotism is a mild word, Lucky. Do you know of any hypnotist who can exert his influence at a distance over unwilling subjects? I tell you that some person or persons on Venus possesses the power of complete mental domination over others. They are exerting this power, practicing it, growing more adept in its use. With every day it will grow more difficult to fight them. Perhaps it is already too late!"


4. Councilman Accused!

Bigman's eyes sparkled. "It's never too late once Lucky gets going. Where do we start, Lucky?"

Lucky said quietly, "With Lou Evans. I've been waiting for you to mention him, Dr. Morriss."

Morriss's eyebrows drew together; his plump face contracted into a frown. "You're his friend. You want to defend him, I know. It's not a pleasant story. It wouldn't be if it involved any councilman at all—but a friend at that."

Lucky said, "I am not acting out of sentiment only, Dr. Morriss. I knew Lou Evans as well as one man can know another. I know he is incapable of doing anything to harm the Council or Earth."

"Then listen, and judge for yourself. For most of Evans's tour of duty here on Venus, he accomplished nothing. A 'trouble shooter' they called him, which is a pretty word but means nothing."

"No offense, Dr. Morriss, but did you resent his arrival?"

"No, of course not. I just saw no point in it. We here have grown old on Venus. We have the experience. What do they expect a youngster, new from Earth, to accomplish?"

"A fresh approach is helpful sometimes."

"Nonsense. I tell you, Lucky, the trouble is that Earth headquarters don't consider our problem important. Their purpose in sending Evans was to have him give it a quick glance, whitewash it, and return to tell them it was nothing."

"I know the Council on Earth better than that. You do, too."

But the grumbling Venusian went on. "Anyway, three weeks ago, this man Evans asked to see some of the classified data concerning yeast-strain growth. The men in the industry objected."

"Objected?" said Lucky. "It was a councilman's request."

"True, but yeast-strain men are secretive. You don't make requests like that. Even councilmen don't.

They asked Evans why he wanted the information. He refused to tell them. They forwarded his request to me, and I quashed it."

"On what grounds?" demanded Lucky.

"He wouldn't tell me his reasons either, and while I'm senior councilman on Venus, nobody in my organization will have secrets from me. But your friend Lou Evans then did something I had not expected. He stole the data. He used his position as councilman to get inside a restricted area in the yeast-research plants, and he left with microfilms inside his boot."

"Surely he had a good reason."

"He did," said Morriss, "he did. The microfilms dealt with the nutrient formulas required for the nourishment of a new and very tricky strain of yeast. Two days later a workman making up one component of that mixture introduced a trace of mercury salt. The yeast died, and six months' work was ruined. The work-man swore he'd done no such thing, but he had. Our psychiatrists psychoprobed him.

By now, you see, we had a pretty good notion of what to expect. He'd had a blackout period. The enemy still hasn't stolen the strain of yeast, but they're getting closer. Right?"

Lucky's brown eyes were hard. "I can see the obvious theory. Lou Evans had deserted to the enemy, whoever he is."

"Sirians," blurted Morriss. "I'm sure of it."

"Maybe," admitted Lucky. The inhabitants of the planets of Sirius had, for centuries now, been Earth's most fervent enemies. It was easy to blame them. "Maybe. Lou Evans deserted to them, let us say, and agreed to get data for them that would enable them to start trouble inside the yeast factories. Little, troubles at first, which would pave the way for larger troubles."

"Yes, that's my theory. Can you propose any other? "Couldn't Councilman Evans himself be under mental domination?"

"Not likely, Lucky. We have many cases in our files now. No one who has suffered from mental domination has blacked out for longer than half an hour, and all gave clear indication under the psychoprobe of periods of total amnesia. Evans would have had to be under mental domination for two days to have done what he did, and he gave no signs of amnesia."

"He was examined?"

"He certainly was. When a man is found with classified material in his possession—caught in the act, as it were—steps have to be taken. I wouldn't care if he were a hundred times a councilman. He was examined, and I, personally, put him on probation. When he broke it to send some message on his own equipment, we tapped his scrambler and made sure he'd do it no more—or, at least, not without our intercepting what-ever he sent or received. The message he sent you was his last. We're through playing with him. He's under confinement now. I'm preparing my report for central headquarters, a thing I should have done before this, and I'm requesting his removal from office and trial for corruption, or, perhaps, for treason."

"Before you do that—" said Lucky.

"Yes?"

"Let me speak to him."

Morriss rose, smiling ironically. "You wish to? Certainly. I'll take you to him. He's in this building. In fact, I'd like to have you hear his defense."


They passed up a ramp, quiet guards snapping to attention and saluting.

Bigman stared at them curiously. "Is this a prison or what?"

"It's a kind of prison on these levels," said Morriss. "We make buildings serve many purposes on Venus."

They stepped into a small room, and suddenly, quite without warning, Bigman burst into loud laughter.

Lucky, unable to repress a smile, said, "What's the matter, Bigman?"

"No—nothing much," panted the little fellow, his eyes moist. "It's just that you look so funny, Lucky, standing there with your bare upper lip hanging out. After all those mustaches I've been watching, you look deformed. You look as though someone had taken a whiffgun and blown off the mustache you should have had."

Morriss smiled at that and brushed his own grizzled mustache with the back of his hand, self-consciously and a little proudly.

Lucky's smile expanded. "Funny," he said, "I was thinking exactly the same about you, Bigman."

Morriss said, "We'll wait here. They're bringing Evans now." His finger moved away from a small push-button signal.

Lucky looked about the room. It was smaller than Morriss's own room, more impersonal. Its only furniture consisted of several upholstered chairs plus a sofa, a low table in the center of the room, and two higher tables near the false windows. Behind each of the false windows was a cleverly done seascape. On one of the two high tables was an aquarium; on the other, two dishes, one containing small dried peas and the other, a black, greasy substance.

Bigman's eyes automatically started following Lucky's about the room.

He said, suddenly, "Say, Lucky, what's this?

He half-ran to the aquarium, bending low, peering into its depths. "Look at it, will you?"

"It's just one of the pet V-frogs the men keep about here," said Morriss. "It's a rather good specimen. Haven't you ever seen one?"

"No," said Lucky. He joined Bigman at the aquarium, which was two feet square and about three feet deep. The water in it was criss-crossed with feathery fronds of weed.

Bigman said, "It doesn't bite or anything, does it?" He was stirring the water with a forefinger and bending close to peer inside.

Lucky's head came down next to Bigman's. The V-frog stared back at them solemnly. It was a little creature, perhaps eight inches long, with a triangular head into which two bulging black eyes were set. It rested on six little padded feet drawn up close to its body. Each foot had three long toes in front and one behind. Its skin was green and froglike, and there were frilly fins, which vibrated rapidly, running down the center line of its back. In place of a mouth it had a beak, strong, curved and parrotlike.

As Lucky and Bigman watched, the V-frog started rising in the water. Its feet remained on the floor of the aquarium, but its legs stretched out like extendible stilts, as its numerous leg joints straightened. It stopped rising just as its head was about to pierce the surface.

Morriss, who had joined them and was staring fondly at the little beast, said, "It doesn't like to get out of the water. Too much oxygen in the air. They enjoy oxygen, but only in moderation. They're mild, pleasant little things."

Bigman was delighted. There was virtually no native animal life on Mars, and living creatures of this sort were a real novelty to him.

"Where do they live?" he asked.

Morriss put a finger down into the water and stroked the V-frog's head. The V-frog permitted it, closing its dark eyes in spasmodic motions that might have meant delight, for all they could guess.

Morriss said, "They congregate in the seaweed in fairly large numbers. They move around in it as though it were a forest. Their long toes can hold individual stems, and their beaks can tear the toughest fronds.

They could probably make a mean dent in a man's finger, but I've never known one of them to bite. I'm amazed you haven't seen one yet. The hotel has a whole collection of them, real family groups, on display. You haven't seen it?"

"We've scarcely had the chance," said Lucky dryly.

Bigman stepped quickly to the other table, picked up a pea, dipped it into the black grease, and brought it back. He held it out temptingly, and with infinite care the V-frog's beak thrust out of the water and took the morsel from Bigman's fingers. Bigman crowed his delight.

"Did you see that?" he demanded.

Morriss smiled fondly, as though at the tricks of a child. "The little imp. They'll eat that all day. Look at him gobble it."

The V-frog was crunching away. A small black drop-let leaked out of one side of its beak, and at once the little creature's legs folded up again as it moved down through the water. The beak opened and the little black droplet was caught.

"What is the stuff?" asked Lucky.

"Peas dipped in axle grease," said Morriss. "Grease is a great delicacy for them, like sugar for us. They hardly ever find pure hydrocarbon in their natural habitat. They love it so, I wouldn't be surprised if they let themselves be captured just to get it."

"How are they captured, by the way?"

"Why, when the seaweed trawlers gather up their seaweed, there are always V-frogs collected with it. Other animals, too."

Bigman was saying eagerly, "Hey, Lucky, let's you and I get one—"

He was interrupted by a pair of guards, who entered stiffly. Between them stood a lanky, blond young man.

Lucky sprang to his feet. "Lou! Lou, old man!" He held out his hand, smiling.

For a moment it seemed as though the other might respond. A flicker of joy rose to the newcomer's eyes.

It faded quickly. His arms remained stiffly and coldly at his side. He said flatly, "Hello, Starr."

Lucky's hand dropped reluctantly. He said, "I haven't seen you since we graduated." He paused. What could one say next to an old friend?

The blond councilman seemed aware of the incongruity of the situation. Nodding curtly to the flanking guards, he said with macabre humor, "There've been some changes made since then." Then, with a spasmodic tightening of his thin lips, he went on, "Why did you come? Why didn't you stay away? I asked you to."

"I can't stay away when a friend's in trouble, Lou."

"Wait till your help is asked for."

Morriss said, "I think you're wasting your time, Lucky. You're thinking of him as a councilman. I suggest that he's a renegade."

The plump Venusian said the word through clenched teeth, bringing it down like a lash. Evans reddened slowly but said nothing.

Lucky said, "I'll need proof to the last atom before I admit any such word in connection with Councilman Evans." His voice came down hard on the word "councilman."

Lucky sat down. For a long moment he regarded his friend soberly, and Evans looked away.

Lucky said, "Dr. Morriss, ask the guards to leave. I will be responsible for Evans's security."

Morriss lifted an eyebrow at Lucky, then after an instant's thought, gestured to the guards.

Lucky said, "If you don't mind, Bigman, just step into the next room, will you?"

Bigman nodded and left.

Lucky said gently, "Lou, there are only three of us here now. You, I, Dr. Morriss; that's all. Three men of the Council of Science. Suppose we start fresh. Did you remove classified data concerning yeast manufacture from their place in the files?"

Lou Evans said, "I did."

"Then you must have had a reason. What was it?"

"Now look. I stole the papers. I say stole. I admit that much. What more do you want? I had no reason for doing it. I just did it. Now drop it. Get away from me. Leave me alone." His lips were trembling.

Morriss said, "You wanted to hear his defense, Lucky. That's it. He has none."

Lucky said, "I suppose you know that there was an accident inside the yeast plants, shortly after you took those papers, involving just the strain of yeast the papers dealt with."

"I know all that," said Evans.

"How do you explain it?"

"I have no explanation."

Lucky was watching Evans closely, searching for some sign of the good-natured, fun-loving, steel-nerved youth he remembered so well at the academy. Except for a new mustache, grown according to Venusian fashion, the man Lucky saw now resembled the memory as far as mere physical appearance was concerned. The same long-boned limbs, the blond hair cut short, the angular, pointed chin, the flat-bellied, athletic body. But otherwise? Evans's eyes moved restlessly from spot to spot; his lips quivered dryly; his fingernails were bitten and ragged.

Lucky struggled with himself before he could put the next blunt question. It was a friend he was talking to, a man he had known well, a man whose loyalty he never had questioned, and on whose loyalty he would have staked his own life without thought.

He said, "Lou, have you sold out?"

Evans said in a dull, toneless voice, "No comment."

"Lou, I'm asking you again. First, I want you to know that I'm on your side no matter what you've done. If you've failed the Council, there must be a reason. Tell us that reason. If you've been drugged or forced, either physically or mentally, if you've been blackmailed or if someone close to you has been threatened, tell us. For Earth's sake, Lou, even if you've been tempted with offers of money or power, even if it's as crude as that, tell us. There's no error you can have made that can't be at least partially retrieved by frankness now. What about it?"

For a moment, Lou Evans seemed moved. His blue eyes lifted in pain to his friend's face. "Lucky," he began, "I—"

Then the softness in him seemed to die, and he cried, "No comment, Starr, no comment."

Morriss, arms folded, said, "That's it, Lucky. That's his attitude. Only he has information and we want it, and, by Venus, we'll get it one way or another."

Lucky said, "Wait—"

Morriss said, "We can't wait. Get that through your head. There is no tune. No time at all. These so-called accidents have been getting more serious as they get closer to their objective. We need to break this thing now." And his pudgy fist slammed down on the arm of his chair, just as the communo shrilled its signal.

Morriss frowned. "Emergency signal! What in

space"

He flicked the circuit open, put the receiver to his ear.

"Morriss speaking. What is it? … What?… WHAT?"

He let the receiver fall, and his face, as it turned toward Lucky, was a doughy, unhealthy white.

"There's a hypnotized man at lock number twenty-three," he choked out.

Lucky's lithe body tightened like a steel spring. "What do you mean by 'lock'? Are you referring to the dome?"

Morriss nodded and managed to say, "I said the accidents are getting more serious. This time, the sea dome. That man may—at any moment—let the ocean into—Aphrodite!"


5. "Beware Water!"

From the speeding gyrocar, Lucky caught glimpses of the mighty dome overhead. A city built under water, he reflected, requires engineering miracles to be practical.

There were domed cities in many places in the solar system. The oldest and most famous were on Mars.

But on Mars, gravity was only two fifths of Earth normal, and pressing down on the Martian domes was only a rarefied, wispy atmosphere.

Here on Venus, gravity was five sixths Earth normal, and the Venusian domes were topped with water.

Even though the domes were built in shallow sea so that their tops nearly broke surface at low tide, it was still a matter of supporting millions of tons of water.

Lucky, like most Earthmen (and Venusians, too, for that matter), tended to take such achievements of mankind for granted. But now, with Lou Evans returned to confinement and the problem involving him momentarily dismissed, Lucky's agile mind was putting thoughts together and craving knowledge on this new matter.

He said, "How is the dome supported, Dr. Morriss?"

The fat Venusian had recovered some of his composure. The gyrocar he was driving hurtled toward the threatened sector. His words were still tight and grim.

He said, "Diamagnetic force fields in steel housings. It looks as though steel beams are supporting the dome, but that's not so. Steel just isn't strong enough. It's the force fields that do it."

Lucky looked down at the city streets below, filled with people and life. He said, "Have there ever been any accidents of this type before?"

Morriss groaned, "Great space, not like this.… We'll be there in five minutes."

"Are any precautions taken against accidents?" Lucky went on stolidly.

"Of course there are. We have a system of alarms and automatic field adjusters that are as foolproof as we can manage. And the whole city is built in segments. Any local failure in the dome brings down sections of transite, backed by subsidiary fields."

"Then the city won't be destroyed, even if the ocean is let in. Is that right? And this is well known to the populations?"

"Certainly. The people know they're protected, but still, man, a good part of the city will be rained.

There's bound to be some loss of life, and property damage will be terrific. Worse still, if men can be controlled into doing this once, they can be controlled into doing it again."

Bigman, the third man in the gyrocar, stared anxiously at Lucky. The tall Earthman was abstracted, and his brows were knit into a hard frown.

Then Morriss grunted, "Here we are!" The car decelerated rapidly to a jarring halt.

Bigman's watch said two-fifteen, but that meant nothing. Venus's night was eighteen hours long, and here under the dome there was neither day nor night.

Artificial lights blossomed now as they always did. Buildings loomed clearly as always. If the city seemed different in any way, it was in the actions of its in-habitants. They were swirling out of the various sections of the city. News of the crisis had spread by the mysterious magic of word of mouth, and they were flocking to see the sight, morbidly curious, as though going to a show or a circus parade, or as men on Earth would flock for seats at a magnetonic concert.

Police held back the rumbling crowds and beat out a path for Morriss and the two with him. Already a thick partition of cloudy transite had moved down, blocking off the section of the city that was threatened by deluge.

Morriss shepherded Lucky and Bigman through a large door. The noise of the crowd muffled and faded behind them. Inside the building a man stepped hastily toward Morriss.

"Dr. Morriss—" he began.

Morriss looked up and snapped out hasty introductions. "Lyman Turner, chief engineer. David Starr of the Council. Bigman Jones."

Then, at some signal from another part of the room, he dashed off, his heavy body making surprising speed. He called out over his shoulder as he started, "Turner will take care of you two."

Turner yelled,, "Just a minute, Dr. Morriss!" but the yell went unheard.

Lucky gestured to Bigman, and the little Martian raced after the Venusian councilman.

"Is he going to bring Dr. Morriss back?" asked Turner worriedly, stroking a rectangular box he carried suspended from a strap over one shoulder. He had a gaunt face and red-brown hair, a prominently hooked nose, a scattering of freckles, and a wide mouth. There was trouble in his face.

"No," said Lucky. "Morriss may be needed out there. I just gave my friend the high sign to stick closely to him."

"I don't know what good that will do," muttered the engineer. "I don't know what good anything will do."

He put a cigarette to his mouth and absently held one out to Lucky. Lucky's refusal went unnoticed for a few moments, and Turner stood there, holding the plastic container of smokes at arm's length, lost in a thoughtful world of his own.

Lucky said, "They're evacuating the threatened sector, I suppose?"

Turner took back his cigarettes with a start, then puffed strongly at the one between his lips. He dropped it and pressed it out with the sole of his shoe.

"They are," he said, "but I don't know…" and his voice faded out.

Lucky said, "The partition is safely across the city, isn't it?"

"Yes, yes," muttered the engineer.

Lucky waited a moment, then said, "But you're not satisfied. What is it you were trying to tell Dr. Morriss?"

The engineer looked hastily at Lucky, hitched at the black box he carried and said, "Nothing. Forget it."

They were off by themselves in a corner of the room. Men were entering now, dressed in pressure suits with the helmets removed, mopping perspiring foreheads. Parts of sentences drifted to their ears:

"… not more than three thousand people left. We're using all the interlocks now…"

"… can't get to him. Tried everything. His wife is on the etherics now, pleading with him…"

"Darn it, he's got the lever in his hand. All he has to do is pull it and we're…"

"If we could only get close enough to blast him down! If we were only sure he wouldn't see us first and."

Turner seemed to listen to all of it with a grisly fascination, but he remained in the corner. He lit another cigarette and ground it out.

He burst out savagely, "Look at that crowd out there. It's fun to them. Excitement! I don't know what to do. I tell you, I don't." He hitched the black box he carried into a more comfortable position and held it close.

"What is that?" asked Lucky peremptorily. Turner looked down, stared at the box as though he were seeing it for the first time, then said, "It's my computer. A special portable model I designed myself." For a moment pride drowned the worry in his voice. "There's not another one in the galaxy like it. I always carry it around. That's how I know—" And he stopped again.

Lucky said in a hard voice. "All right, Turner, what do you know? I want you to start talking. Now!"

The young councilman's hand came lightly to rest upon the engineer's shoulder, and then his grip began to tighten just a bit.

Turner looked up, startled, and the other's calm, brown eyes held him. "What's your name again?" he said.

"I'm David Starr."

Turner's eyes brightened. "The man they call 'Lucky' Starr?"

"That's right."

"All right, then, I'll tell you, but I can't talk loudly. It's dangerous."

He began whispering, and Lucky's head bent toward him. Both were completely disregarded by the busily hurrying men who entered and left the room.

Turner's low words flooded out now as though he were glad to be able to get rid of them. He said, "The walls of the city dome are double, see. Each wall is made of transite, which is the toughest, strongest silicone plastic known to science. And it's backed by force beams. It can stand immense pressures. It's completely insoluble. It doesn't etch. No form of life will grow on it. It won't change chemically as a result of anything in the Venusian ocean. In between the two parts of the double wall is compressed carbon dioxide. That serves to break the shock wave if the outer wall should give way, and of course the inner wall is strong enough to hold the water by itself. Finally, there's a honeycomb of partitions between the walls so that only small portions of the in-between will be flooded in case of any break."

"It's an elaborate system," said Lucky.

"Too elaborate," said Turner bitterly. "An earthquake, or a Venusquake, rather, might split the dome in two, but nothing else can touch it. And there are no Venus-quakes in this part of the planet." He stopped to light still another cigarette. His hands were trembling. "What's more, every square foot of the dome is wired to instruments that continually measure the humidity between the walls. The slightest crack anywhere and the needles of those instruments jump. Even if the crack is microscopic and completely invisible, they jump. Then bells ring and sirens sound. Everyone yells, 'Beware water!'"

He grinned crookedly. "Beware water! That's a laugh. I've been on the job ten years, and in all that time the instruments registered only five times. In every case repairs took less than an hour. You phi a diving bell on the affected part of the dome, pump out the water, fuse the transite, add another gob of the stuff, let it cool. After that, the dome is stronger than before. Beware water! We've never had even a drop leak through."

Lucky said, "I get the picture. Now get to the point"

"The point is overconfidence, Mr. Starr. We've partitioned off the dangerous sector, but how strong is the partition? We always counted on the outer wall's going gradually, springing a small leak. The water would trickle in, and we always knew that we would have plenty of time to get ready for it. No one ever thought that someday a lock might be opened wide. The water will come in like a fat steel bar moving a mile a second. It will hit the sectional transite barrier like a spaceship at full acceleration."

"You mean it won't hold?"

"I mean no one has ever worked out the problem. No one has ever computed the forces involved—until half an hour ago. Then I did, just to occupy my time while all this is going on. I had my computer. I always have it with me. So I made a few assumptions and went to work."

"And it won't hold?"

"I'm not certain. I don't know how good some of my assumptions are, but I think it won't hold. I think it won't. So what do we do? If the barrier doesn't hold, Aphrodite is done. The whole city. You and I and a quarter of a million people. Everybody. Those crowds outside that are so excited and thrilled are doomed once that man's hand pulls downward on the switch it holds."

Lucky was staring at the man with horror. "How long have you known this?"

The engineer blurted in immediate self-defense,

"Half an hour. But what can I do? We can't put subsea suits on a quarter of a million people! I was thinking of talking to Morriss and maybe getting some of the important people in town protected, or some of the women and children. I wouldn't know how to pick which ones to save, but maybe something should be done. What do you think?"

"I'm not sure."

The engineer went on, harrowed. "I thought maybe I could put on a suit and get out of here. Get out of the city altogether. There won't be proper guards at the exits at a time like this."

Lucky backed away from the quivering engineer, his eyes narrowed. "Great Galaxy! I've been blind!"

And he turned and dashed out of the room, his mind tingled with a desperate thought.


6. Too Late!

Bigman felt dizzily helpless in the confusion. Hanging as closely as he could to the coattails of the restless Morriss, he found himself trotting from group to group, listening to breathless conversations which he did not always understand because of his ignorance about Venus.

Morriss had no opportunity to rest. Each new minute brought a new man, a new report, a new decision.

It was only twenty minutes since Bigman had run off after Morriss, and already a dozen plans had been proposed and discarded.

One man, just returned from the threatened sector, was saying with pounding breath, "They've got the spy rays trained on him, and we can make him out. He's just sitting with the lever in his hand. We beamed his wife's voice in at him through the etherics, then through the public-address system, then through loud-speaker from outside. I don't think he hears her. At least he doesn't move."

Bigman bit his lip. What would Lucky do if he were here? The first thought that had occurred to Bigman was to get behind the man—Poppnoe, his name was—and shoot him down. But that was the first thought everyone had had, and it had been instantly discarded. The man at the lever had closed himself off, and the dome-control chambers were carefully designed to prevent any form of tampering. Each entrance was thoroughly wired, the alarms being internally powered. That precaution was now working in reverse—to Aphrodite's peril rather than its protection.

At the first clang, at the first signal gleam, Bigman was sure, the lever would be driven home and Venus's ocean would charge inward upon Aphrodite. It could not be risked while evacuation was incomplete.

Someone had suggested poison gas, but Morriss had shaken his head without explanations. Bigman thought he knew what the Venusian must be thinking. The man at the lever was not sick or mad or malevolent, but under mental control. That fact meant that there were two enemies. The man at the lever, considered by him-self, might weaken from the gas past the point where he would be physically capable of pulling the lever, but before that the weakening would be reflected in his mind, and the men in control would work their tool's arm muscles quickly enough.

"What are they waiting for, anyway?" growled Morriss under his breath, while the perspiration rolled down his cheeks in streams. "If I could only train an atom cannon at the spot."

Bigman knew why that was impossible, too. An atom cannon trained to hit the man from the closest approach possible would require enough power to go through a quarter mile of architecture and would damage the dome enough to bring on the very danger they were trying to avoid.

He thought, Where is Lucky, anyway? Aloud he said, "If you can't get this fellow, what about the controls?"

"What do you mean?" said Morris.

"I mean, gimmick the lever. It takes power to open the lock, doesn't it? What if the power is cut?"

"Nice thought, Bigman. But each lock has its own emergency power generator on the spot."

"Can't it be closed off from anywhere?"

"How? He's closed off in there, with every cubic foot set off with alarms."

Bigman looked up and, in vision, seemed to see the mighty ocean that covered them. He said, "This is a closed-in city, like on Mars. We've got to pump air all over. Don't you do that, too?"

Morriss brought a handkerchief to his forehead and wiped it slowly. He stared at the little Martian. "The ventilating ducts?"

"Yes. There's got to be one to that place with the lock, doesn't there?"

"Of course."

"And isn't there someplace along the line where a wire can be wrenched loose or cut or something?"

"Wait a while. A microbomb shoved along the duct, instead of the poison gas we were talking about"

"That's not sure enough," said Bigman impatiently. "Send a man. You need big ducts for an underwater city, don't you? Won't they hold a man?"

"They're not as big as all that," said Morriss.

Bigman swallowed painfully. It cost him a great deal to make the next statement. "I'm not as big as all that, either. Maybe I'll fit."

And Morriss, staring down wide-eyed at the pint-size Martian, said, "Venus! You might. You might! Come with me!"


From the appearance of the streets of Aphrodite, it seemed as though not a man or woman or child in the city was sleeping. Just outside the transite partition and surrounding the "rescue headquarters"

building, people choked every avenue and turned them into black masses of chattering humanity. Chains had been set up, and behind them policemen with stunguns paced restlessly.

Lucky, having emerged from rescue headquarters at what amounted to a dead run, was brought up sharply by those chains. A hundred impressions burst in on him. There was the brilliant sign in lucite curlicues, set high in Aphrodite's sky with no visible support. It turned slowly and said: Aphrodite, beauty spot of Venus, welcomes you.

Close by, a line of men were moving on in file. They were carrying odd objects—stuffed brief cases, jewel boxes, clothes slung over their arms. One by one, they were climbing into skimmers. It was obvious who and what they were: escapees from within the threatened zone, passing through the lock with whatever they could carry that seemed most important to them. The evacuation was obviously well under way. There were no women and children in the line.

Lucky shouted to a passing policeman, "Is there a skimmer I can use?"

The policeman looked up. "No, sir, all being used."

Lucky said impatiently, "Council business."

"Can't help it. Every skimmer in town is being used for those guys." His thumb jerked toward the moving file of men in the middle distance.

"It's important. I've got to get out of here."

"Then you'll have to walk," said the policeman.

Lucky gritted his teeth with vexation. There was no way of getting through the crowd on foot or on wheels. It had to be by air and it had to be now.

"Isn't there anything available I can use? Anything?" He was scarcely speaking to the policeman, more to his own impatient self, angry at having been so simply duped by the enemy.

But the policeman answered wryly, "Unless you want to use a hopper."

"A hopper? Where?" Lucky's eyes blazed.

"I was just joking," said the policeman.

"But I'm not. Where's the hopper?"

There were several in the basement of the building they had left. They were disassembled. Four men were impressed to help and the best-looking machine was assembled in the open. The nearest of the crowd watched curiously, and a few shouted jocularly, "Jump it, hopper!"

It was the old cry of the hopper races. Five years ago it had been a fad that had swept the solar system: races over broken, barrier-strewn courses. While the craze lasted, Venus was most enthusiastic.

Probably half the houses in Aphrodite had had hoppers in the basement.

Lucky checked the micropile. It was active. He started the motor arid set the gyroscope spinning. The hopper straightened immediately and stood stiffly upright on its single leg.

Hoppers are probably the most grotesque forms of transportation ever invented. They consist of a curved body, just large enough to hold a man at the controls. There was a four-bladed rotor above and a single metal leg, rubber-tipped, below. It looked like some giant wading bird gone to sleep with one leg folded under its body.

Lucky touched the leap knob and the hopper's leg retracted. Its body sank till it was scarcely seven feet from the ground while the leg moved up into the hollow tube that pierced the hopper just behind the control panel. The leg was released at the moment of maximum retraction with a loud click, and the hopper sprang thirty feet into the air.

The rotating blades above the hopper kept it hovering for long seconds at the top of its jump. For those seconds, Lucky could get a view of the people now immediately below him. The crowd extended outward for half a mile, and that meant several hops. Lucky's lips tightened. Precious minutes would vanish.

The hopper was coming down now, its long leg ex-tended. The crowd beneath the descending hopper tried to scatter, but they didn't have to. Four jets of compressed air blew men aside just sufficiently, and the leg hurtled down harmlessly to the ground.

The foot hit concrete and retracted. For a flash Lucky could see the startled faces of the people about him, and then the hopper was moving up again.

Lucky had to admit the excitement of hopper racing. As a youngster, he'd participated in several. The expert "hop rider" could twist his curious mount in unbelievable patterns, finding leg room where none seemed to exist. Here, in the domed cities of Venus, the races must have been tame compared to the bone-breakers in the vast, open arenas of rocky, broken ground on Earth.

In four hops Lucky had cleared the crowd. He cut the motors, and in a series of small, dribbling jumps the hopper came to a halt. Lucky leaped out. Air travel might still be impossible, but now he could commandeer some form of groundcar. But more time would be lost.


Bigman panted and paused for a moment to get his breath. Things had happened quickly; he had been rushed along in a tide that was still whirling him onward.

Twenty minutes before, he had made his suggestion to Morriss. Now he was enclosed in a tube that tightened about his body and drenched him with darkness.

He inched along on his elbows again, working his way deeper. Momentarily he would stop to use the small flash whose pinpoint illumination showed him milky walls ahead, narrowing to nothing. In one sleeve, against his wrist, he held a hastily scrawled diagram.

Morriss had shaken his hand before Bigman had half-clambered, half-jumped, into the opening at one side of a pumping station. The rotors of the huge fan had been stilled, the air currents stopped.

Morriss had muttered, "I hope that doesn't set him off," and then he had shaken hands.

Bigman had grinned back after a fashion, and then he crawled his way into the darkness while the others left. No one felt it necessary to mention the obvious. Bigman was going to be on the wrong side of the transite barrier, the side from which the others were now retreating. If, at any time, the lever at the dome lock plunged down, the incoming water would crush the duct and the walls through which it ran as though they were all so much cardboard.

Bigman wondered, as he squirmed onward, whether he would hear a roar first, whether the surging water would make any hint of its presence known before striking him. He hoped not. He wanted not even a second of waiting. If the water came in, he wanted its work done quickly.

He felt the wall begin to curve. He stopped to consult his map, his small flash lighting the space about him with a cool gleam. It was the second curve shown in the map they had drawn for him, and now the duct would curve upward.

Bigman worked himself over to his side and bent around the curve to the damage of his temper and the bruising of his flesh.

"Sands of Mars!" he muttered. His thigh muscles ached as he forced his knees against either side of the duct to keep himself from slipping downward again. Inch by inch he clawed his way up the gentle slope.

Morriss had copied the map off the hieroglyphic charts held up before a visiphone transmitter in the Public Works Department of Aphrodite. He had followed the curving colored lines, asked for an interpretation of the markings and symbols.

Bigman reached one of the reinforcing struts that stretched diagonally across the duct. He almost welcomed it as something he could seize, close his hands about, use to take some of the pressure off his aching elbows and knees. He pressed his map back up his sleeve and held the strut with his left hand. His right hand turned his small flash end for end and placed the butt against one end of the strut.

The energy of the enclosed micropile, which ordinarily fed electricity through the small bulb of the flash and turned it into cold light, could also, at another setting of the control, set up a short-range force field through its opposite end. That force field would slice instantaneously through anything composed of mere matter that stood in its way. Bigman set that control and knew that one end of the strut now hung loose.

He switched hands. He worked his slicer to the other end of the strut. Another touch, and it was gone.

The strut was loose in his fingers. Bigman worked it past his body, down to his feet, and let it go. It slid and clattered down the duct.

The water still held off. Bigman, panting and squirming, was distantly aware of that. He passed two more struts, another curve. Then the slope leveled off, and finally he reached a set of baffles plainly marked on the map. In all, the ground he had covered was probably less than two hundred yards, but how much time had it taken him?

And still the water held off.

The baffles, blades jutting alternately from either side of the duct to keep the air stream turbulent, were the last landmark. He sliced off each blade with a rapid sweep of his flash butt, and now he had to measure nine feet from the farthest blade. Again he used his flash. It was six inches long and he would have to lay it along the wall, end over end, eighteen times.

Twice it slipped, and twice he had to turn back to the slightly ragged marking of the last sheared baffle blade, scrambling backward and swearing "Sands of Mars!" in a whisper.

The third time the eighteenth measure landed truly. Bigman kept his finger on the spot. Morriss had said the desired place would be almost directly over his head. Bigman turned on his flash, ran his finger along the curved inner surface of the duct, twisted on to his back.

Using his slicer end and holding it, as nearly as he could judge in the dark, some quarter of an inch from actual contact (the force field must not slice in too far), he made a circle with it. Cleaved metal fell on him, and he pushed it to one side.

He turned his flash on the exposed wiring and studied it. Inches farther in would be the interior of a room not a hundred feet from where the man sat at the lock. Was he still sitting there? Obviously, he had not yet pulled the lever (what was he waiting for?) or Bigman would now be very water-logged, very dead.

Had he been stopped then, somehow? Taken into custody, perhaps?

A wry grin forced itself onto Bigman's face as he thought that perhaps he was squirming through the interior of a metal worm for nothing.

He was following the wiring. Somewhere here should be a relay. Gently he pulled at the wires, first one, then another. One moved and a small, black, double cone came into view. Bigman sighed his relief. He gripped the flash with his teeth, freeing both hands.

Gingerly, very gingerly, he twisted the two halves of the cone in opposite directions. The magnoclasps yielded, and the two halves moved apart, exposing the contents. They consisted of a break relay: two gleaming contacts, one encased in its field selector and separated from the other by a nearly imperceptible gap. At an appropriate stimulus, such as the pulling of a small lever, the field selector set up the energies that would pull down the other contact, send energy streaming across the point of closure, and open a lock in the dome. It would all happen in a millionth of a second.

Bigman, sweating and half-expecting the final moment to come now, now, with his task a second from completion, fumbled in his vest pocket and withdrew a lump of insulating plastic. It was already soft from the warmth of his body. He kneaded it a moment and then brought it down delicately upon the point where the two contacts nearly met. He held it there while he counted three, then withdrew it.

The contacts might close now, but between them there would be a thin film of this plastic, and through it the flow of current could not pass.

The lever could be pulled now: the lock would not open.

Laughing, Bigman scrambled backward, made his way over the remnants of the baffle, passed the struts he had cut away, slid down the slopes.…


Bigman searched desperately for Lucky through the confusion that now flooded all the city. The man at the lever was in custody, the transite barrier had been lifted, and the population was flooding back (angry, for the most part, at the city administration for allowing the whole thing to happen) into the homes they had abandoned. To the crowds who had so ghoulishly waited for disaster, the removal of fear was the signal for a high holiday.

At the end Morriss appeared from nowhere and placed a hand on Bigman's sleeve. "Lucky's calling."

Bigman, startled, said, "Where from?"

"From my room in the Council offices. I've told him what you've done."

Bigman flushed with pleasure. Lucky would be proud! He said, "I want to talk to him."

But Lucky's face on the screen was grim. He said, "Congratulations, Bigman, I hear you were terrific."

"It was nothing," grinned Bigman. "But where've you been?"

Lucky said, "Is Dr. Morriss there? I don't see him."

Morriss squeezed his face into the viewer. "Here I am."

"You've captured the man at the lever, according to the news I hear."

"We did. We absolutely did, thanks to Bigman," said Morriss.

"Then let me make a guess. When you closed in on him, he did not try to pull the lever. He simply gave himself up."

"Yes," said Morriss, frowning. "But what makes you guess that?"

"Because the whole incident at the lock was a smoke screen. The real damage was slated to happen at this end. When I realized that, I left. I tried to come back here. I had to use a hopper to get through the crowd and a groundcar the rest of the way."

"And?" asked Morriss anxiously.

"And I was too late!" said Lucky.


7. Questions

The day was over. The crowd had dispersed. The city had taken on a quiet, almost sleepy atmosphere, with only an occasional knot of two or three still dis-cussing the events of the past several hours.

And Bigman was annoyed.

With Morriss he had left the scene of the recent danger and zoomed out to Council headquarters. There Morriss had had his conference with Lucky, a conference to which Bigman was not allowed entry and from which the Venusian had emerged looking grimly angry. Lucky remained calm but uncommunicative.

Even when they were alone again, Lucky said merely, "Let's get back to the hotel. I need sleep, and so do you after your own little game today."

He hummed the Council March under his breath, as he always did when he was completely abstracted, and signaled a passing tollcar. The car stopped automatically when the sight of his outstretched hand with fingers spread wide registered on its photoelectric scanners.

Lucky pushed Bigman in before him. He turned the dials to indicate the co-ordinate position of the Hotel Bellevue-Aphrodite, put in the proper combination of coins, and let the machine's computer take over.

With his foot he adjusted the speed lever to low.

The tollcar drifted forward with a pleasantly smooth motion. Bigman would have found it both comforting and restful if he had been in a less itchingly curious state of mind.

The little Martian flicked a glance at his large friend. Lucky seemed interested only in rest and thought.

At least he leaned back on the upholstery and closed his eyes, letting the motion rock him while the hotel seemed to approach and then become a large mouth, which swallowed them as the tollcar automatically found the entrance to the receiving dock of the hotel's garage.

Only when they were in their own room did Bigman reach the point of explosion. He cried, "Lucky, what's it all about? I'm going nuts trying to figure it out."

Lucky stripped off his shirt and said, "Actually, it's only a matter of logic. What kind of accidents occurred as a result of men's being mentally dominated before today? What kind did Morriss mention? A man giving away money. A man dropping a bale of weed. A man placing poison in a nutrient mixture for yeast. In each case, the action was a small one, but it was an action. It was something done."

"Well?" said Bigman.

"All right, what did we have today? It wasn't something small at all; it was something big. But it wasn't action. It was exactly the opposite of action: A man put his hand on a dome-lock lever and then did nothing. Nothing!"

Lucky vanished into the bathroom and Bigman could hear the needle shower and Lucky's muffled gasps under its invigorating jets. Bigman followed at last, muttering savagely under his breath.

"Hey," he yelled.

Lucky, his muscled body drying in churning puffs of warm air, said, "Don't you get it?"

"Space, Lucky, don't be mysterious, will you? You know I hate that."

"But there's nothing mysterious. The mentalists have changed their entire style, and there must be a reason. Don't you see the reason for having a man sit at a dome-lock lever and do nothing?"

"I said I didn't."

"Well, what was accomplished by it?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing? Great galaxy! Nothing? They only get half the population of Aphrodite and practically every official' out to the threatened sector in double-speed time. They get me out there and you and Morriss. Most of the city was left bare, including Council headquarters. And I was such a lunk that it was only when Turner, the city's chief engineer, mentioned how easy it would be to get out of the city with the police force disrupted that it occurred to me what was happening."

"I still don't see it. So help me, Lucky, I'm going—”

"Hold it, boy," Lucky seized Bigman's threatening fists in one large palm. "Here it is: I got back to Council headquarters as fast as possible and found that Lou Evans had already gone."

"Where did they take him?"

"If you mean the Council, they didn't take him any-where. He escaped. He knocked down a guard, seized a weapon, used his Council wrist-mark to get a subship and escaped to sea."

"Was that what they were really after?"

"Obviously. The threat to the city was strictly a feint. As soon as Evans was safely out into the ocean, the man at the lock was released from control and, naturally, he surrendered."

Bigman's mouth worked. "Sands of Mars! All that stuff in the ventilating duct was for nothing. I was fifty kinds of cobbered fool."

"No, Bigman, you weren't," said Lucky, gravely. "You did a good job, a terrific job, and the Council is going to hear about it."

The little Martian flushed, and for a moment pride left no room in him for anything else. Lucky took the opportunity to get into bed.

Then Bigman said, "Bat Lucky, that means I mean, if Councilman Evans got away by a trick of the mentalists, then he's guilty, isn't he?"

"No," said Lucky vehemently," he isn't."

Bigman waited, but Lucky had nothing more to say on the subject and instinct told Bigman to let the matter die. It was only after he had burrowed into the cool plastex sheets, having undressed and washed in his turn, that he tried again.

"Lucky?"

"Yes, Bigman."

"What do we do next?"

"Go after Lou Evans."

"We do? What about Morriss?"

"I'm in charge of the project now. I had Chief Councilman Conway put that across all the way from Earth."

Bigman nodded in the darkness. That explained why he himself had not been able to attend the conference. Friend though he might be of Lucky Starr a dozen times over, he was not a member of the Council of Science. And, in a situation where Lucky would have to move in over a fellow councilman's head and call in the authority of Earth and central headquarters to back him, non-councilmen were strictly not wanted as witnesses.

But now the old lust for action was beginning to stir in him. It would be into an ocean now, the vastest, most alien ocean on the inner planets. He said excitedly, "How early do we leave?"

"As soon as the ship they're outfitting is ready. Only first we see Turner."

"The engineer? What for?"

"I have the records on the men involved in the various mentalist incidents in the city up to today, and I want to know about the man at the lock dome, too. Turner is the man who's likely to know most about him. But before we see Turner—"

"Yes?"

"Before that, you Martian peanut, we sleep. Now shut up."


Turner's dwelling place turned out to be a rather large apartment house that seemed suited for people high in the administrative scheme of things. Bigman whistled softly when they passed into the lobby, with its paneled walls and trimensional seascapes. Lucky led the way into a trundle and pressed Turner's apartment number.

The trundle lifted them five floors, then took to the horizontal, skittering along on directed force beams and stopping outside the back entrance to Turner's apartment. They stepped out, and the trundle went off with a whirr, disappearing behind a turn in the corridor.

Bigman watched it wonderingly. "Say, I never saw one of those before."

"It's a Venusian invention," said Lucky. "They're introducing them into new apartment houses on Earth now. You can't do anything about the old apartment houses, though, unless you redesign the building to give each apartment a special trundle-served entrance."

Lucky touched the indicator, which promptly turned red. The door opened, and a woman looked out at them. She was slight of build, young and quite pretty, with blue eyes and blond hair drawn softly backward and over her ears in the Venusian fashion.

"Mr. Starr?"

"That's right, Mrs. Turner," said Lucky. He hesitated a trifle over the title; she was almost too young to be a housewife.

But she smiled at them in friendly fashion. "Won't you come in? My husband's expecting you, but he hasn't had more than two hours' sleep and he's not quite—"

They stepped in, and the door closed behind them.

Lucky said, "Sorry to have to trouble you so early, but it's an emergency, and I doubt that we'll bother Mr. Turner long."

"Oh, that's all right. I understand." She stepped fussily about the room, straightening objects that required no straightening.

Bigman looked about curiously. The apartment was completely feminine—colorful, frilly, almost fragile.

Then, embarrassed to find his hostess's eyes upon him, he said clumsily, "It's a very nice place you have here, miss—uh—ma'am."

She dimpled and said, "Thank you. I don't think Lyman is very fond of the way I have it arranged, but he never objects, and I just love little doodads and whatnots. Don't you?"

Lucky spared Bigman the necessity of answering by saying, "Have you and Mr. Turner been living here very long?"

"Just since we got married. Less than a year. It's a darling apartment house, just about the nicest in Aphrodite. It's got completely independent utilities, its own coaster garage, a central communo. It even has chambers underneath. Imagine! Chambers! Not that anyone ever uses them. Even last night. At least I think no one did, but I can't say, because I just slept right through all the excitement. Can you imagine? I didn't even hear about it till Lyman came home."

"Perhaps that was best," said Lucky. "You missed a fright."

"I missed excitement, you mean," she protested. "Everyone in the apartment was out in the thick of it, and I slept. Slept all through it. No one woke me. I think that was terrible."

"What was terrible?" came a new voice, and Lyman Turner stepped into the room. His hair was rumpled; there were creases on his homely face and sleep in his eyes. He had his precious computer under his arm and put it down under the chair when he sat down.

"My missing the excitement," said his young wife. "How are you, Lyman?"

"All right, considering. And never mind missing the excitement. I'm glad you did.… Hello, Starr. Sorry to delay you."

"I've only been here a few moments," said Lucky.

Mrs. Turner flew to her husband and pecked quickly at his cheek. "I'd better leave you men alone now."

Turner patted his wife's shoulder, and his eyes followed her affectionately as she left. He said, "Well, gentlemen, sorry you find me as you do, but I've had a rough time of it in the last few hours."

"I quite realize that. What's the situation with the dome now?"

Turner rubbed his eyes. "We're doubling the men at each lock, and we're making the controls a little less self-contained. That rather reverses the engineering trend of the last century. We're running power lines to various spots in the city so that we can shut the power off from a distance just in case any such thing ever happens again. And, of course, we will strengthen the transite barriers shielding the different sections of the city.… Does either of you smoke?"

"No," said Lucky, and Bigman shook his head.

Turner said, "Well, would you toss me a smoke from the dispenser, the thing that looks like a fish? That's right. It's one of my wife's notions. There's no holding her back when it comes to getting these ridiculous gadgets, but she enjoys it." He flushed a little. "I haven't been married long, and I still pamper her, I'm afraid."

Lucky looked curiously at the odd fish, carved out of a stonelike, green material, from whose mouth a lighted cigarette had appeared when he pressed its dorsal fin.

Turner seemed to relax as he smoked. His legs crossed, and one foot moved back and forth in slow rhythm over his computer case.

Lucky said, "Anything new on the man who started it all? The man at the lock?"

"He's under observation. A madman, obviously."

"Does he have a record of mental imbalance?"

"Not at all. It was one of the things I checked into. As chief engineer, you know, the dome personnel are under me."

"I know. It's why I came here to you."

"Well, I wish I could help, but the man was just an ordinary employee. He's been on our rolls for some seven months and never gave any trouble before. In fact, he had an excellent record; quiet, unassuming, diligent."

"Only seven months?"

"That's right,"

"Is he an engineer?"

"He has a rating as engineer, but actually his work consisted largely of standing guard at the lock. After all, traffic passes in and out of the city. The lock must be opened and closed, bills of lading checked, records kept. There's a lot more to managing the dome than just engineering."

"Did he have any actual engineering experience?"

"Just an elementary college course. This was his first job. He's quite a young man."

Lucky nodded. He said casually, "I understand there have been a whole series of queer accidents in the city lately."

"Have there?" Turner's weary eyes stared at Lucky, and he shrugged. "I rarely get a chance to look at the news-etheric tapes."

The communo buzzed. Turner lifted it and held it to his ear for a moment. "It's for you, Starr."

Lucky nodded. "I left word I'd be here." He took the communo but did not bother to activate the screen or to raise the sound above the ear-contact stage. He said, "Starr at this end."

Then he put it down and stood up. "We'll be going now, Turner."

Turner rose, too. "All right. If I can help you in the future, call on me any time."

"Thank you. Give our respects to your wife, will you?"

Outside the building Bigman said, "What's up?"

"Our ship is ready," said Lucky, flagging down a groundcar.

They got in, and again Bigman broke the silence. "Did you find out anything from Turner?"

"A thing or two," said Lucky curtly.

Bigman stirred uneasily and changed the subject. "I hope we find Evans."

"I hope so, too."

"Sands of Mars, he's in a spot. The more I think of it, the worse it seems. Guilty or not, it's rough having a request for removal on grounds of corruption sent in by a superior officer."

Lucky's head turned and he looked down at Bigman. "Morriss never sent any report on Evans to central headquarters. I thought you understood that from yesterday's conversation with him."

"He didn't?" said Bigman incredulously. "Then who did?"

"Great Galaxy!" said Lucky. "Surely it's obvious. Lou Evans sent that message himself, using Morriss's name."


8. Councilman Pursued!

Lucky handled the trim subsea craft with growing expertness as he learned the touch of the controls and began to get the feel of the sea about them.

The men who had turned the ship over to them had worriedly suggested a course of instruction as to its management, but Lucky had smiled and confined himself to a few questions while Bigman exclaimed with Bigmanian braggadocio, "There isn't anything that moves that Lucky and I can't handle."

Braggadocio or not, it was very nearly true.

The ship, named the Hilda, drifted now with the engines cut off. It penetrated the inky blackness of the Venusian ocean with smooth ease. They were navigating blind. Not once had the ship's powerful beams been turned on. Radar, instead, plumbed the abyss ahead more delicately and more informatively than light possibly could.

Along with the radar pulses went the selected micro-waves designed to attain maximum reflection from the metal alloy that formed the outer hull of a subship. Their range in the hundreds of miles, the microwaves plunged their probing ringers of energy this direction and that, seeking the particular design of metal that would send them careening back in their tracks.

So far, no reflecting message had come back, and the Hilda settled down in the ooze, half a mile of water above it, and motionless except for a slow rocking with the mighty sway of Venus's globe-girdling oceanic cur-rents.

For the first hour Bigman had been scarcely aware of the microwaves and the object of their search. He had been lost in the spectacle to be seen from the portholes.

Venusian subsea life is phosphorescent, and the black ocean depths were dotted with colored lights thicker than the stars in space, larger, brighter, and most of all, moving. Bigman squashed his nose against the thick glass and stared, fascinated.

Some of the life forms were little round splotches, whose movement was a slow ripple. Others were darting lines. Still others were sea ribbons of the type Lucky and Bigman had seen in the Green Room.

Lucky joined him after a while. He said, "If I remember my xenozoology—"

"Your what?"

"That's the study of extraterrestrial animals, Bigman. I've just been looking through a book on Venusian life. I left it on your bunk in case you want to look at it."

"Never mind. I'll take it second hand from you."

"All right. We can start with those little objects. I think that represents a school of buttons."

"Buttons?" said Bigman. Then, "Sure, I see what you mean."

There were a whole series of yellow ovals of light moving across the black field visible through the port-hole. Each had black markings on it in the form of two short parallel lines. They moved in brief spurts, settled down for a few moments, then moved again. The dozens in view all moved and rested simultaneously, so that Bigman had the queerly swimming sensation that the buttons weren't moving at all, but that every half minute or so the ship itself lurched.

Lucky said, "They're laying eggs, I think." He was silent for a long moment, then said, "Most of these things I can't make out. Wait! That must be a scarlet patch there. See it? The dark red thing with the irregular outline? It feeds on buttons. Watch it."

There was a scurrying among the yellow blotches of light as they became aware of the swooping predator, but a dozen buttons were blotted out by the angry red of the scarlet patch. Then the patch was the only source of light in the porthole's field of vision. On all sides of it, buttons had scattered away.

"The patch is shaped like a large pancake turned down at the edge," said Lucky, "according to the book. It's hardly anything but skin with a small brain in the center. It's only an inch thick. You can tear it through and through in a dozen places without bothering it. See how irregular the one we're watching is? Arrowfish probably chewed it up a bit."

The scarlet patch moved now, drifting out of sight. There was little left where it had been except for one or two faint, dying glimmers of yellow. Little by little, buttons began moving back again.

Lucky said, "The scarlet patch just settles down to the bottom, holding on to the ooze with its edges and digest-ing and absorbing whatever it covers. There's another species called the orange patch which is a lot more aggressive. It can shoot a jet of water with enough force to stagger a man, even though it's only a foot wide and not much more than paper thin. The big ones are a lot worse."

"How big do they get?" asked Bigman.

"I haven't the slightest idea. The book says there are occasional reports of tremendous monsters—arrowfish a mile long, and patches that can cover Aphrodite City. No authentic cases, though."

"A mile long! I'll bet there aren't any authentic cases."

Lucky's eyebrows lifted. "It's not as impossible as all that. These things here are only shallow-water specimens. The Venusian ocean is up to ten miles deep in spots. There's room in it for a lot of things."

Bigman looked at him doubtfully. "Listen, you're trying to sell me a bale of space dust." He turned abruptly and moved away. "I think I'll look at the book after all."


The Hilda moved on and took a new position, while the microwaves shot out, searching and searching.

Then again it moved. And again. Slowly Lucky was screening the underwater plateau on which the city of Aphrodite stood.

He waited grimly at the instruments. Somewhere down here his friend Lou Evans must be. Evans's ship could navigate neither air nor space, nor any ocean depth of more than two miles, so he must be confined to the relatively shallow waters of the Aphrodite plateau.

The first answering flash caught his eye even as he repeated the must to himself for the second time. The microwave feedback froze the direction finder in place, and the return pip was brightening the entire receiving field.

Bigman's hand was on Lucky's shoulder instantly. "That's it! That's it!"

"Maybe," said Lucky. "And maybe it's some other ship, or maybe it's only a wreck."

"Get its position, Lucky. Sands of Mars, get its position!"

"I'm doing it, boy, and we're moving."

Bigman could feel the acceleration, hear the churning of the propeller.

Lucky leaned closely over the radio transmitter and its unscrambler, and his voice was urgent. "Lou! Lou Evans! Lucky Starr at this end! Acknowledge signals! Lou! Lou Evans!"

Over and over again, the words pushed out along the ether. The returning microwave pip grew brighter as the distance between the two ships grew less.

No answer.

Bigman said, "That ship we're pipping isn't moving, Lucky. Maybe it is a wreck. If it were the councilman, he'd either answer or try to get away from us, wouldn't he?"

"Sh!" said Lucky. His words were quiet and urgent as he spoke into the transmitter: "Lou! There's no point in trying to hide. I know the truth. I know why you sent the message to Earth in Morriss's name asking for your own recall. And I know who you think the enemy is. Lou Evans! Acknowledge—"

The receiver crackled, static-ridden. Sounds came through the unscrambler and turned into intelligible words: "Stay away. If you know that, stay away!"

Lucky grinned his relief. Bigman whooped.

"You've got him," shouted the little Martian.

"We're coming in to get you," said Lucky into the transmitter. "Hold on. We'll lick it, you and I."

Words came back slowly, "You don't—understand—I'm trying to" Then, almost in a shriek, "For Earth's sake, Lucky, stay away! Don't get any closer!"

No more came through. The Hilda bored toward the position of Evans's ship relentlessly. Lucky leaned back, frowning. He murmured, "If he's that afraid, why doesn't he run?"

Bigman didn't hear. He was saying jubilantly, "Terrific, Lucky. That was terrific the way you bluffed him into talking."

"I wasn't bluffing, Bigman," said Lucky, grimly. "I know the key fact involved in this whole mess. So would you, if you stopped to think about it."

Bigman said shakily, "What are you getting at?"

"Do you remember when Dr. Morriss and you and I entered the small room to wait for Lou Evans to be brought to us? Do you remember the first thing that happened?"

"No."

"You started laughing. You said I looked queer and deformed without a mustache. And I felt exactly the same way about you. I said so. Remember?"

"Oh, sure. I remember."

"Did it occur to you to wonder why that was? We'd been watching men with mustaches for hours. Why was it that the thought suddenly occurred to both of us at that particular time?"

"I don't know."

"Suppose the thought had occurred to someone else who had telepathic powers. Suppose the sensation of surprise flooded from his mind to ours."

"You mean the mentalist, or one of them, was in the room with us?"

"Wouldn't that explain it?"

"But it's impossible. Dr. Morriss was the only other man—Lucky! You don't mean Dr. Morriss!"

"Morriss had been staring at us for hours. Why should he be suddenly amazed at our not having mustaches?"

"Well, then, was someone hiding?"

"Not hiding," said Lucky. "There was one other living creature in the room, and it was in plain view."

"No," cried Bigman. "Oh, no." He burst into laughter. "Sands of Mars, you can't mean the V-frog?"

"Why not?" said Lucky calmly. "We're probably the first men without mustaches it ever saw. It was surprised."

"But it's impossible."

"Is it? They're all over the city. People collect them, feed them, love them. Now do they really love V-frogs? Or do the V-frogs inspire love by mental control so as to get themselves fed and taken care of?"

"Space, Lucky!" said Bigman. "There's nothing surprising about people liking them. They're cute. People don't have to be hypnotized into thinking that."

"Did you like them spontaneously, Bigman? Nothing made you?"

"I'm sure nothing made me like them. I just liked them."

"You just liked them? Two minutes after you saw your first V-frog, you fed it. Remember that?"

"Nothing wrong with that, is there?"

"Ah, but what did you feed it?"

"What it liked. Peas dipped in axle g—" The little fellow's voice faded out.

"Exactly. That grease swelled like axle grease. There was no mistaking what it was. How did you come to dip the pea in it? Do you always feed axle grease to pet animals? Did you ever know any animal that ate axle grease?"

"Sands of Mars!" said Bigman weakly.

"Isn't it obvious that the V-frog wanted some, and that since you were handy it maneuvered you into delivering some—that you weren't quite your own master?"

Bigman muttered, "I never guessed. But it's so clear when you explain it. I feel terrible."

"Why?"

"It's a hateful thing, having an animal's thoughts roll-ing around inside your head. It seems unsanitary." His puckish little face screwed up in an expression of revulsion.

Lucky said, "Unfortunately, it's worse then unsanitary."

He turned back to the instruments.

The interval between pip and return disclosed the distance between the two ships to be less than half a mile when, with surprising suddenness, the radar screen showed, unmistakably, the shadow of Evans's ship.

Lucky's voice went out over the transmitter. "Evans, you're in sight now. Can you move? Is your ship disabled?"

The answer came back clearly in a voice torn with emotion. "Earth help me, Lucky, I did my best to warn you. You're trapped! Trapped as I'm trapped."

And as though to punctuate the councilman's wail, a blast of force struck the subship Hilda, knocking it to one side and jarring its main motors out of commission!


9. Out Of The Deep

In Bigman's memory afterward, the events of the next hours were as though viewed through the reverse end of a telescope, a faraway nightmare of confused events.

Bigman had been slammed against the wall by the sudden thrust of force. For what seemed long moments, but was probably little more than a second in actuality, he lay spread-eagled and gasping.

Lucky, still at the controls, shouted, "The main generators are out."

Bigman was struggling to his feet against the crazy slope of the deck. "What happened?"

"We were hit. Obviously. But I don't know how badly."

Bigman said, "The lights are on."

"I know. The emergency generators have cut in."

"How about the main drive?"

"I'm not sure. It's what I'm trying to test."

The engines coughed hoarsely somewhere below and behind. The smooth purr was gone, and in its place a consumptive rattle sounded that set Bigman's teeth on edge.

The Hilda shook herself, like a hurt animal, and turned upright. The engines died again.

The radio receiver was echoing mournfully, and now

Bigman gathered his senses sufficiently to try to reach it.

"Starr," it said. "Lucky Starr! Evans at this end. Acknowledge signals."

Lucky got there first. "Lucky speaking. What hit us?"

"It doesn't matter," came the tired voice. "It won't bother you any more. It will be satisfied to let you sit here and die. Why didn't you stay away? I asked you to."

"Is your ship disabled, Evans?"

"It's been stalled for twelve hours. No light, no power—just a little juice I can pump into the radio, and that's fading. Air purifiers are smashed, and the air supply is low. So long, Lucky."

"Can you get out?"

"The lock mechanism isn't working. I've got a subsea suit, but if I try to cut my way out, I'll be smashed."

Bigman knew what Lou Evans meant, and he shuddered. Locks on subsea vessels were designed to let water into the interlock chamber slowly, very slowly. To cut a lock open at the bottom of the sea in an attempt to get out of a ship would mean the entry of water under hundreds of tons of pressure. A human being, even in-side a steel suit, would be crushed like an empty tin can under a pile driver.

Lucky said, "We can still navigate. I'm coming to get you. We'll join locks."

"Thanks, but why? If you move, you'll be hit again; and even if you aren't, what's the difference whether I die quickly here or a little more slowly in your ship?"

Lucky retorted angrily, "We'll die if we have to, but not one second earlier than we have to. Everyone has to die someday; there's no escaping that, but quitting isn't compulsory."

He turned to Bigman. "Get down into the engine room and check the damage. I want to know if it can be repaired."

In the engine room, fumbling with the "hot" micro-pile by means of long-distance manipulators, which luckily were still in order, Bigman could feel the ship inching painfully along the sea bottom and could hear the husky rasping of the motors. Once he heard a distant boom, followed by a groaning rattle through the framework of the Hilda as though a large projectile had hit sea bottom a hundred yards away.

He felt the ship stop, the motor noise drop to a hoarse rumble. In imagination, he could see the Hilda's lock extension bore out and close in on the other hull, weld-ing itself tightly to it. He could sense the water between the ships being pumped out of that tube between them and, in actual fact, he saw the lights in the engine room dim as the energy drain on the emergency generators rose to dangerous heights.

Lou Evans would be able to step from his ship to the Hilda through dry air with no need of artificial protection.


Bigman came up to the control room and found Lou Evans with Lucky. His face was drawn and worn under its blond stubble. He managed a shaky smile in Bigman's direction.

Lucky was saying, "Go on, Lou."

Evans said, "It was the wildest hunch at first, Lucky. I followed up each of the men to whom one of these queer accidents had happened. The one thing I could find in common was that each was a V-frog fancier. Everyone on Venus is, more or less, but each one of these fellows kept a houseful of the creatures. I didn't quite have the nerve to make a fool of myself advancing the theory without some facts.

If I only had.… Any-way, I decided to try to trap the V-frogs into exhibiting knowledge of something that existed in my own mind and in as few others as possible."

Lucky said, "And you decided on the yeast data?"

"It was the obvious thing. I had to have something that wasn't general knowledge or how could I be even reasonably sure they got the information from me? Yeast data was ideal. When I couldn't get any legitimately, I stole some. I borrowed one of the V-frogs at headquarters, put it next to my table, and looked over the papers. I even read some of it aloud. When an accident happened in a yeast plant within two days later involving the exact matter I had read about, I was positive the V-frogs were behind the mess. Only—"

"Only?" prompted Lucky.

"Only I hadn't been so smart," said Evans. "I'd let them into my mind. I'd laid down the red carpet and invited them in, and now I couldn't get them out again. Guards came looking for the papers. I was known to have been in the buildings, so a very polite agent was sent to question me. I returned the papers readily and tried to explain. I couldn't."

"You couldn't? What do you mean by that?"

"I couldn't. I was physically unable to. The proper words wouldn't come out. I was unable to say a word about the V-frogs. I even kept getting impulses to kill myself, but I fought them down. They couldn't get me to do something that far from my nature. I thought then: If I can only get off Venus, if I can only get far enough away from the V-frogs, I'd break their hold. So I did the one thing I thought would get me instantly recalled. I sent an accusation of corruption against myself and put Morriss's name to it."

"Yes," said Lucky grimly, "that much I had guessed."

"How?" Evans looked startled.

"Morriss told us his side of your story shortly after we got to Aphrodite. He ended by saying that he was preparing his report to central headquarters. He didn't say he had sent one—only that he was preparing one. But a message had been sent; I knew that. Who else besides Morriss knew the Council code and the circumstances of the case? Only you yourself."

Evans nodded and said bitterly, "And instead of calling me home, they sent you. Is that it?"

"I insisted, Lou. I couldn't believe any charge of corruption against you."

Evans buried his head in his hands. "It was the worst thing you could have done," Lucky. When you subethered you were coming, I begged you to stay away, didn't I? I couldn't tell you why. I was physically incapable of that. But the V-frogs must have realized from my thoughts what a terrific character you were. They could read my opinion of your abilities and they set about having you killed."

"And nearly succeeded," murmured Lucky.

"And will succeed this time. For that I am heartily sorry, Lucky, but I couldn't help myself. When they paralyzed the man at the dome lock, I was unable to keep myself from following the impulse to escape, to get out to sea. And, of course, you followed. I was the bait and you were the victim. Again, I tried to keep you away, but I couldn't explain, I couldn't explain.…"

He drew a deep, shuddering breath. "I can speak about it now, though. They've lifted the block in my mind. I suppose we're not worth the mental energy they have to expend, because we're trapped, because we're as good as dead and they fear us no longer."

Bigman, having listened this far in increasing confusion, said, "Sands of Mars, what's going on? Why are we as good as dead?"

Evans, face still hidden in his hands, did not answer.

Lucky, frowning and thoughtful, said, "We're under an orange patch, a king-size orange patch out of the Venusian deeps."

"A patch big enough to cover the ship?"

"A patch two miles in diameter!" said Lucky. "Two miles across. What slapped the ship into almost a smashup and what nearly hit us a second time when we were making our way over to Evans's ship was a jet of water. Just that! A jet of water with the force of a depth blast."

"But how could we get under it without seeing it?"

Lucky said, "Evans guesses that it's under V-frog mental control, and I think he's right. It could dim its fluorescence by contracting the photo cells in its skin. It could raise one edge of its cape to let us in; and now, here we sit."

"And if we move or try to blast our way out, the patch will let us have it again, and a patch never misses."

Lucky thought, then said suddenly, "But a patch does miss! It missed us when we were driving the Hilda toward your ship and then we were only going at quarter speed." He turned to Bigman, his eyes narrowed. "Bigman, can the main generators be patched?"

Bigman had almost forgotten the engines. He recovered and said, "Oh—The micropile alignment hasn't been knocked off, so it can be fixed if I can find all the equipment I need."

"How long will it take?" "Hours, probably."

"Then get to work. I'm getting out into the sea." Evans looked up, startled, "What do you mean?" "I'm going after that patch." He was at the sea-suit locker already, checking to make certain the tiny-force-field linings were in order and well powered and that the oxygen cylinders were full.


It was deceptively restful to be out in the absolute dark. Danger seemed far away. Yet Lucky knew well enough that below him was the ocean bottom and that on every other side, up and all around, was a two-mile-wide inverted bowl of rubbery flesh.

His suit's pump jetted water downward, and he rose slowly with his weapon drawn and ready. He could not help but marvel at the subwater blaster he held. Inventive as man was on his home planet of Earth, it seemed that the necessity for adapting to the cruel environment of an alien planet multiplied his ingenuity a hundred-fold.

Once the new continent of America had burst forth into a brilliance that the ancestral European homelands could never duplicate, and now Venus was showing her ability to Earth. There were the city domes, for instance. Nowhere on Earth could force fields have been woven into steel so cleverly. The very suit he wore could not resist the tons of water pressure for a moment without the microfields that webbed its interior braces (always provided those tons were introduced sufficiently slowly). In many other respects that suit was a marvel of engineer-ing. Its jet device for underwater traveling, its efficient oxygen supply, its compact controls, were all admirable.

And the weapon he held!

But immediately his thoughts moved to the monster above. That was a Venusian invention, too. An invention of the planet's evolution. Could such things be on Earth? Not on land, certainly. Living tissue couldn't support the weight of more than forty tons against Earth's gravity. The giant brontosaur of Earth's Mesozoic Age had legs like tree trunks, yet had to remain in the marshes so that water could help buoy them up.

That was the answer: water's buoyancy. In the oceans any size of creature might exist. There were the whales of Earth, larger than any dinosaur that ever lived. But this monstrous patch above them must weigh two hundred million tons, he calculated. Two million large whales put together would scarcely weigh that. Lucky wondered how old it was. How old would a thing have to be to grow as large as two million whales? A hundred years? A thousand years? Who could tell?

But size could be its undoing, too. Even under the ocean. The larger it grew, the slower its reactions.

Nerve impulses took time to travel.

Evans thought the monster refrained from hitting them with another water jet because, having disabled them, it was indifferent to their further fate, or rather the V-frogs who manipulated the giant patch were.

That might not be so! It might be rather that the monster needed time to suck its tremendous water sac full. It needed time to aim.

Furthermore, the monster could scarcely be at its best. It was adapted to the deeps, to layers of water six miles or more high above it. Here its efficiency must necessarily be cut down. It had missed the Hilda on its second try, probably because it had not fully recovered from the previous stroke.

But now it was waiting; its water sac was slowly filling; and as much as it could in the shallow water surrounding it, it was gathering its strength. He, Lucky, 190 pounds of man against two hundred million tons of monster, would have to stop it.

Lucky looked upward. He could see nothing. He pressed a contact on the inner lining in the left middle finger of the sheathed force-field-reinforced mitten that gauntleted his hand, and a jab of pure-white light poured out of the metal fingertip. It penetrated upward hazily and ended in nothingness. Was that the monster's flesh at the far end? Or just the petering out of the light beam?

Three times the monster had jetted water. Once and Evans's ship had been smashed. A second time and Lucky's ship had been mauled. (But not as badly; was the creature getting weaker?) A third time, prematurely, and the stroke had been a miss.

He raised his weapon. It was bulky, with a thick handgrip. Within that grip was a hundred miles of wire and a tiny generator that could put out huge voltages. He pointed it upward and squeezed his fist.

For a moment, nothing—but he knew the hair-thin wire was squirting out and upward through the carbonated ocean water.…

Then it hit and Lucky saw the results. For in the moment that the wire made contact, a flash current of electricity screamed along it at the speed of light and flayed the obstruction with the force of a bolt of lightning. The hairlike wire gleamed brilliantly and vaporized steaming water into murky froth. It was more than steam, for the alien water writhed and bubbled horribly as the dis-solved carbon dioxide gassed out.

Lucky felt himself bobbing in the wild currents set up.

Above all that, above the steaming and bubbling, above the water's churning and the line of thin fire that reached upward, there was a fireball that exploded. Where the wire had touched living flesh there was a blaze of furious energy. It burned a hole ten feet wide and as many feet deep into the living mountain above him.

Lucky smiled grimly. That was only a pin prick in comparison to the monster's vast bulk, but the patch would feel it; or at least in ten minutes or so, it would feel it. The nerve impulses must first travel their slow way along the curve of its flesh. When the pain reached the creature's tiny brain, it would be distracted from the helpless ship on the ocean floor and turn upon its new tormentor.

But, Lucky thought grimly, the monster would not find him. In ten minutes, he would have changed position. In ten minutes, he—. Lucky never completed the thought. Not one minute after his bolt had struck the creature, it struck back.

Not one minute had passed when Lucky's shocked and tortured senses told him that he was being driven down, down, down, in a turbulent jet of madly driving water….


10. The Mountain Of Flesh

The shock sent Lucky's senses reeling. Any suit of ordinary metal would have bent and smashed. Any man of ordinary mettle would have been carried senseless down to the ocean floor, there to be smashed into concussion and death.

But Lucky fought desperately. Struggling against the mighty current, he brought his left arm up to his chest to check the dials that indicated the state of the suit machinery.

He groaned. The indicators were all lifeless things, their delicate workings jarred into uselessness. Still, his oxygen supply seemed unaffected (his lungs would have told him of any drop in pressure), and his suit obviously wasn't leaking. He could only hope that its jet action was still in order There was no use trying blindly to find his way out of the stream by main force. He almost certainly lacked the power. He would have to wait and gamble on one important thing: The stream of water lost velocity rapidly as it penetrated downward. Water against water was a high-friction action. At the rim of the jet, turbulence would grow and eat inward. A cutting stream five hundred feet across as it emerged from the creature's blowpipe might be only fifty feet wide when it hit bottom, depending upon its original velocity and the distance to the ocean floor.

And that original velocity would have slowed, too. That did not mean that the final velocity was anything to deride. Lucky had felt its force against the ship.

It all depended on how far from the center of the water gush he was, on how near a bulls-eye the creature scored.

The longer he waited, the better his chances—provided he did not wait too long. With his metal-gloved hand on the jet controls, Lucky let himself be flung downward, trying to wait calmly, striving to guess how close to solid bottom he was, expecting each moment the one last concussion he would never feel.

And then, when he had counted ten, he flung his suit's jets open. The small, high-speed propellers on either shoulder blade ground in harsh vibration as they threw out water at right angles to the main current.

Lucky could feel his body take on a new direction of fall.

If he was dead center, it wouldn't help. The energy he could pump up would not suffice to overcome the mighty surge downward. If he was well off center, how-ever, his velocity would, by now, have slowed considerably and the growing zone of turbulence might not be far off.

And as he thought that, he felt his body bob and yank with nauseating violence, and he knew he was safe.

He kept his own jets in operation, turning their force downward now and, as he did so, he turned his finger light in the direction of the ocean floor. He was just in time to see the ooze, some fifty feet below, explode and obscure everything with its muck.

He had made his way out of the stream with but seconds to spare.

He was hurrying upward now, as fast as the jet motors of his suit would carry him. He was in desperate haste. In the darkness within his helmet (darkness within darkness within darkness) his lips were pressed into a narrow line and his eyebrows pulled down low.

He was doing his best not to think. He had thought enough in those few seconds in the water spout. He had underestimated the enemy. He had assumed it was the gigantic patch that was aiming at him, and it wasn't. It was the V-frogs on the water's surface that controlled the patch's body through its mind! The V-frogs had aimed. They did not have to follow the patch's sensations in order to know it had been hit.

They needed only to read Lucky's mind, and they needed only to aim at the source of Lucky's thoughts.

So it was no longer a matter of pin-pricking the monster into moving away from the Hilda and lumbering down the long underwater declivity to the deeps/that had spawned it. The monster had to be killed outright.

And quickly!

If the Hilda would not take another direct blow, neither would Lucky's own suit. The indicators were gone already; the controls might go next. Or the liquid-oxygen containers might suffer damage to their tiny force-field generators.

Up and still up went Lucky, up to the only place of safety. Although he had never seen the monster's blow-pipe, it stood to reason that it must be an extensible and flexible tube that could point this way and that. But the monster could scarcely point it at its own undersurface. For one thing, it would do itself damage. For another, the force of the water it expelled would prevent that blowpipe from bending at so great an angle.

Lucky had to move up then, close to the animal's undersurface, to where its weapon of water could not reach; and he had to do it before the monster could fill its water sac for another blow.

Lucky flashed his light upward. He was reluctant to do so, feeling instinctively that the light would make him an easy target. His mind told him his instinct was wrong. The sense that was responsible for the monster's rapid response to his attack was not sight.

Fifty feet or less above, the light ended on a rough, grayish surface, streaked with deep corrugations.

Lucky scarcely attempted to brake his rush. The monster's skin was rubbery and his own suit hard. Even as he thought that, he collided, pressing upward and feeling the alien flesh give.

For a long moment, Lucky drew deep gasps of relief. For the first time since leaving the ship, he felt moderately safe. The relaxation did not last, however. At any time the creature could turn its attack (or the small mind-master that controlled it could) on the ship. That must not be allowed to happen.

Lucky played his finger flash about his surroundings with a mixture of wonder and nausea.

Here and there in the undersurface of the monster were holes some six feet across into which, as Lucky could see by the flow of bubbles and solid particles, water was rushing. At greater intervals were slits, which opened occasionally into ten-foot-long fissures that emitted frothing gushes of water.

Apparently this was the way the monster fed. It poured digestive juices into the portion of the ocean trapped beneath its bulk, then sucked in water by the cubic yard to extract the nutriment it contained, and still later expelled water, debris, and its own wastes.

Obviously, it could not stay too long over any one spot of the ocean or the accumulation of its own waste products would make its environment unhealthy. Of its own account it would not have lingered here so long, but with the V-frogs driving it

Lucky moved jerkily through no action of his own and, in surprise, turned the beam of light on a spot closer to himself. In a moment of stricken horror, he realized the purposes of those deep corrugations he had noticed in the monster's undersurface. One such was forming directly to one side of him and was sucking inward, into the creature's substance. The two sides of the corrugation rubbed against one another, and the whole was obviously a grinding mechanism whereby the monster broke up and shredded particles of food too large to be handled directly by its intake pores.

Lucky did not wait. He could not risk his battered suit against the fantastic strength of the monster's muscles. The walls of his suit might hold, but portions of the delicate working mechanisms might not.

He swung his shoulder so as to turn the suit's jets directly against the flesh of the monster and gave them full energy. He came loose with a sharp smacking sound, then veered round and back.

He did not touch the skin again, but hovered near it and traveled along it, following the direction against gravity, mounting upward, away from the outer edges of the thing, toward its center.

He came suddenly to a point where the creature's undersurface turned down again in a wall of flesh that extended as far as his light would reach on either side. That wall quivered and was obviously composed of thinner tissue.

It was the blowpipe.

Lucky was sure that was what it was—a gigantic cavern a hundred yards across, out of which the fury of rushing water emerged. Cautiously Lucky circled it. Undoubtedly this was the safest place one could be, here at the very base of the blowpipe, and yet he picked his way gingerly.

He knew what' he was looking for, however, and he left the blowpipe. He moved away in the direction in which the monster's flesh mounted still higher, until he was at the peak of the inverted bowl, and there it was!

At first, Lucky was aware only of a long-drawn-out rumble, almost too deep to hear. In fact, it was vibration that attracted his attention, rather than any sound. Then he spied the swelling in the monster's flesh. It writhed and beat; a huge mass, hanging thirty feet downward and perhaps as big around as the blowpipe.

That must be the center of the organism; its heart, or whatever passed for its heart, must be there. That heart must beat in powerful strokes, and Lucky felt dizzy as he tried to picture it. Those heartbeats must last five minutes at a time, during which thousands of cubic yards of blood (or whatever the creature used) must be forced through blood vessels large enough to hold the Hilda. That heartbeat must suffice to drive the blood a mile and back.

What a mechanism it must be, thought Lucky. If one could only capture such a thing alive and study its physiology!

Somewhere in that swelling must also be what brain the monster might have. Brain? Perhaps what passed for its brain was only a small clot of nerve cells without which the monster could live quite well.

Perhaps! But it couldn't live without its heart. The heart had completed one beat. The central swelling had contracted to almost nothing. Now the heart was relaxing for another beat five minutes or more from now, and the swelling was expanding and dilating as blood rushed into it.

Lucky raised his weapon and with his light beam full on that giant heart, he let himself sink down. It might be best not to be too close. On the other hand, he dared not miss.

For a moment a twinge of regret swept him. From a scientific standpoint it was almost a crime to kill this mightiest of nature's creatures.

Was that one of his own thoughts or a thought imposed upon him by the V-frogs on the ocean surface?

He dared wait no longer. He squeezed the handgrip of his weapon. The wire shot out. It made contact, and Lucky's eyes were blinded by the flash of light in which the near wall of the monster's heart was burnt through.

For minutes the water boiled with the death throes of the mountain of flesh. Its entire mass convulsed in its gigantic writhings. Lucky, thrown this way and that, was helpless.

He tried to call the Hilda, but the answer consisted of erratic gasps, and it was quite obvious that the ship, too, was being flung madly about.

But death, when it comes, must finally penetrate the last ounce of even a hundred-million-ton life.

Eventually a stillness came upon the water.

And Lucky moved downward slowly, slowly, weary nearly to death.

He called the Hilda again. "It's dead," he said. "Send out the directional pulse and let me follow it down."


Lucky let Bigman remove his sea suit and managed a smile as the little Martian looked worriedly up at him.

"I never thought I'd see you again, Lucky," said Bigman, gulping noisily.

"If you're going to cry," said Lucky, "turn your head away. I didn't get in out of the ocean just to get all wet in here. How are the main generators coming along?"

"They'll be all right," put in Evans, "but it will still take time. The knocking around just at the end there ruined one of the welding jobs."

"Well," said Lucky, "we'll just have to get on with it." He sat down with a weary sigh. "Things didn't go quite as I expected."

"In what way?" demanded Evans.

"It was my notion," said Lucky, "to pin-prick the monster into moving off us. That didn't work, and I had to kill him. The result is that its dead body has settled down around the Hilda like a collapsed tent."


11. To The Surface?

"You mean we're trapped?" said Bigman, with horror.

"You can put it that way," said Lucky coolly. "You can also say that we're safe, if you want to. Certainly we're safer here than anywhere on Venus. Nobody can do anything to us physically with that mountain of dead meat over us. And when the generators are repaired, we'll just force our way out. Bigman, get at those generators; and Evans, let's pour ourselves some coffee and talk this thing over. There might not be another chance for a quiet chat."

Lucky welcomed this respite, this moment when there was nothing to be done but talk and think.

Evans, however, was upset. His china-blue eyes crinkled at the corners.

Lucky said, "You look worried?"

"I am worried. What in space and time do we do?"

Lucky said, "I've been thinking about that. It seems to me that all we can do is get the V-frog story to some-one who's safe from any mental control by them."

"And who's that?"

"No one on Venus. That's for sure."

Evans stared at his friend. "Are you trying to tell me that everyone on Venus is under control?"

"No, but anyone might be. After all, there are different ways in which the human mind can be manipulated by these creatures." Lucky rested one arm over the back of the pilot swivel and crossed his legs. "In the first place, complete control can be taken for a short period of time over a man's mind. Complete control! During that interval a human being can be made to do things contrary to his own nature, things that endanger his own life and others': the pilots on the coaster, for instance, when Bigman and I first landed on Venus."

Evans said grimly, "That type of thing hasn't been my trouble."

"I know. That's what Morriss failed to realize. He was sure you weren't under control simply because you showed no signs of amnesia. But there's a second type of control that you suffered from. It's less intense, so a person retains his memory. However, just because it's less intense, a person cannot be forced to do anything against his own nature; you couldn't be forced to commit suicide, for instance. Still, the power lasts longer—days rather than hours. The V-frogs make up in time what they lose in intensity. Well, there must be still a third kind of control."

"And that is?"

"A control that is still less intense than the second type. A control that is so mild the victim isn't even aware of it, yet strong enough so that the victim's mind can be rifled and picked of its information. For instance, there's Lyman Turner."

"The chief engineer on Aphrodite?" . "That's right. He's a case in point. Can you see that? Consider that there was a man at the dome lock yesterday who sat there with a lever in his hand, endangering the whole city, yet he was so tightly protected all around, so netted about with alarms that no one could approach him without warning until Bigman forced a passage through a ventilator shaft. Isn't that odd?"

"No. Why is it odd?"

"The man had only been on the job a matter of months He wasn't even a real engineer. His work was more like that of a clerk or an office boy. Where did he get the information to protect himself so? How could he possibly know the force and power system in that section of the dome so thoroughly?"

Evans pursed his lips and whistled soundlessly. "Hey, that is a point."

"The point didn't strike Turner. I interviewed him on just that matter before getting on the Hilda. I didn't tell him what I was after, of course. He himself told me about the fellow's inexperience, but the incongruity of the matter never struck him. Yet who would have the necessary information? Who but the chief engineer? Who better than he?"

"Right. Right."

"Well, then, suppose Turner was under very gentle control. The information could be lifted out of his brain. He could be very gently soothed into not seeing anything out of the way in the situation. Do you see what I mean? And then Morriss—"

"Morriss, too?" said Evans, shocked.

"Possibly, He's convinced it's a matter of Sirians after yeast. He can see it as nothing else. Is that a legitimate misjudgment or is he being subtly persuaded? He was ready to suspect you, Lou—a little too ready; One councilman ought to be a little less prepared to suspect another."

"Space! Then who's safe, Lucky?"

Lucky stared at his empty coffee cup and said, "No one on Venus. That's my point. We've got to get the story and the truth somewhere else."

"And how can we?"

"A good point. How can we?" Lucky Starr brooded over that.

Evans said, "We can't leave physically. The Hilda is designed for nothing but ocean. It can't navigate the air, let alone space. And if we go back to the city to get something more suitable, we'd never leave it again."

"I think you're right," said Lucky, "but we don't have to leave Venus in the flesh. Our information is all that has to leave."

"If you mean ship's radio," said Evans, "that's out, too. The set we've got on this tub is strictly intra-Venus. It's not a subetheric, so it can't reach Earth. Down here, as a matter of fact, the instrument won't reach above the ocean. Its carrier waves are designed to be reflected down from the ocean surface so that they can get distance. Besides that, even if we could transmit straight up, we couldn't reach Earth."

"I don't see that we have to," said Lucky. "There's something between here and Earth that would do just as well."

For a moment, Evans was mystified. Then he said, "You mean the space stations?"

"Surely. Two space stations circle Venus. Earth may be anywhere from thirty to fifty million miles away, but the stations may be as close as two thousand miles to this point. Yet there can't be V-frogs on the stations, I'm sure. Morriss said they dislike free oxygen, and one could scarcely rig up special carbon-dioxide chambers for V-frogs considering the economy with which space stations must be run. Now, if we could get a message out to the stations for relay to central head-quarters on Earth, we'd have it."

"That's it, Lucky," said Evans, excitedly. "It's our way out. Their mental powers can't possibly reach two thousand miles across space to" But then his face turned glum once more. "No, it won't do. The subship radio still can't reach past the ocean surface."

"Maybe not from here. But suppose we go up to the surface and transmit from there directly into the atmosphere."

"Up to the surface?"

"Well?"

"But they are there. The V-frogs."

"I know that."

"We'll be put under control."

"Will we?" said Lucky. "So far they've never tackled anyone who's known about them, known what to expect and made up his mind to resist it. Most of the victims were completely unsuspecting. In your case you actually invited them into your mind, to use your own phrase. Now I am not unsuspecting, and I don't propose to issue any invitations."

"You can't do it, I tell you. You don't know what it's like."

"Can you suggest an alternative?"

Before Evans could answer, Bigman entered, rolling down his sleeves. "All set," he said. "I guarantee the generators."

Lucky nodded and stepped to the controls, while Evans remained in his seat, his eyes clouded with uncertainty.


There was the churning of the motors again, rich and sweet. The muted sound was like a song, and there was that strange feeling of suspension and motion under one's feet that was never felt on a spaceship.

The Hilda moved through the bubble of water that had been trapped under the collapsing body of the giant patch and built up speed.

Bigman said uneasily, "How much room do we have?"

"About half a mile," said Lucky.

"What if we don't make it?" muttered Bigman. "What if we just hit it and stick, like an ax in a tree stump?"

"Then we pull out and try again," said Lucky.

There was silence for a moment, and Evans said in a low voice, "Being closed in under here, under the patch —it's like being in a chamber." He was mumbling, half to himself.

"In a what?" said Lucky.

"In a chamber," said Evans, still abstracted. "They build them on Venus. They're little transite domes under sea-floor level, like cyclone cellars or bomb shelters on Earth. They're supposed to be protection against in-coming water in case of a broken dome, say by Venus-quake. I don't know that a chamber has ever been used, but the better apartment houses always advertise that they have chamber facilities in case of emergency."

Lucky listened to him, but said nothing.

The engine pitch rose higher.

"Hold on!" said Lucky.

Every inch of the Hilda trembled, and the sudden, almost irresistible deceleration forced Lucky hard against the instrument panel. Bigman's and Evans's knuckles went white and their wrists strained as they gripped the guard rails with all their strength.

The ship slowed but did not stop. With the motors straining and the generators protesting in a squeal that made Lucky wince in sympathy, the Hilda plowed through skin and flesh and sinew, through empty blood-vessels and useless nerves that must have resembled two-foot-thick cables. Lucky, jaw set and grim, kept the drive rod nailed at maximum against the tearing resistance.

The long minutes passed and then, in a long churn of triumphant engine, they were through—through the monster and out once more into the open sea.

Silently and smoothly the Hilda rose through the murky, carbon-dioxide-saturated water of Venus's ocean. Silence held the three, a silence that seemed en-forced by the daring with which they were storming the very fortress of Venus's hostile life form. Evans had not said a word since the patch had been left behind. Lucky had locked ship's controls and now sat on the pilot swivel with fingers softly tapping his knee. Even the irrepressible Bigman had drifted glumly to the rear port with its bellying, wide-angle field of vision.

Suddenly Bigman called, "Lucky, look there."

Lucky strode to Bigman's side. Together they gazed in silence. Over half the field of the port there was only the Starry light of small phosphorescent creatures, thick and soft, but in another direction there was a wall, a monstrous wall glowing in smears of shifting color.

"Do you suppose that's the patch, Lucky?" asked Bigman. "It wasn't shining that way when we came down here; and anyway, it wouldn't shine after it was dead, would it?"

Lucky said thoughtfully, "It is the patch in a way, Bigman. I think the whole ocean is gathering for the feast."

Bigman looked again and felt a little ill. Of course! There were hundreds of millions of tons of meat there for the taking, and the light they viewed must be the light of all the small creatures of the shallows feeding on the dead monster.

Creatures darted past the port, moving always in the same direction. They moved sternward, toward the mountainous carcass the Hilda had left behind.

Pre-eminent among them were arrow fish of all sizes. Each had a straight white line of phosphorescence that marked its backbone (it wasn't a backbone really, but merely an unjointed rod of horny substance).

At one end of that white line was a pale yellow V that marked the head. To Bigman it looked indeed as though a countless swarm of animated arrows were swarming past the ship, but in imagination he could see their needle-rimmed jaws, cavernous and ravenous.

"Great Galaxy!" said Lucky.

"Sands of Mars!" murmured Bigman. "The ocean will be empty. Every blasted thing in the ocean is gathering to this one spot."

Lucky said, "At the rate those arrow fish must be gorging themselves, the thing will be gone in twelve hours."

Evans's voice sounded from behind them. "Lucky, I want to speak to you."

Lucky turned. "Sure. What is it, Lou?"

"When you first suggested going to the surface, you asked if I could propose an alternative."

"I know. You didn't answer."

"I can answer now. I'm holding it, in fact, and the answer is that we're going back to the city."

Bigman called, "Hey, what's the idea?"

Lucky had no need to ask that question. His nostrils flared, and inwardly he raged at himself for those minutes he had spent at the porthole when all his heart, mind, and soul should have been concentrated on the business at hand.

For in Evans's clenched fist, as it lifted from his side, was Lucky's own blaster, and in Evans's narrowed eyes, there was hard determination.

"We're going back to the city," repeated Evans.


12. To The City?

Lucky said, "What's wrong, Lou?"

Evans gestured impatiently with his blaster. "Put the engines in reverse, start bottomward, and turn the ship's bow toward the city. Not you, Lucky. You let Bigman go to those controls; then you get in line with him, so I can watch both of you and the controls, too."

Bigman had his hands half-upraised, and his eyes turned to look at Lucky. Lucky kept his hands at his side.

Lucky said flatly, "Suppose you tell me what's biting you?"

"Nothing's biting me," said Evans. "Nothing at all. It's what's biting you. You went out and killed the monster, then came back and started talking about go-ing to the surface. Why?"

"I explained my reasons."

"I don't believe your reasons. If we surface, I know the V-frogs will take over our minds. I've had experience with them, and because of that I know the V-frogs have taken over your mind."

"What?" exploded Bigman. "Are you nuts?"

"I know what I'm doing," said Evans, watching Lucky warily. "If you look at this thing coolly, Bigman, you'll see that Lucky must be under V-frog influence. Don't forget, he's my friend, too. I've known him longer than you have, Bigman, and it bothers me to have to do this, but there's no way out. It must be done."

Bigman stared uncertainly at both men, then said in a low voice, "Lucky, have the V-frogs really got you?"

"No," said Lucky.

"What do you expect him to say?" demanded Evans with heat. "Of course they have him. To kill the monster, he had to jet upward to its top. He must have gone fairly close to the surface where the V-frogs were wait-ing, close enough for them to snatch him. They let him kill the monster. Why not? They would be glad to trade control of the monster for control of Lucky, so Lucky came back babbling of the need to go to the surface, where we'll all be among them, all trapped—the only men who know the truth helpless."

"Lucky?" quavered Bigman, his tone pleading for re-assurance.

Lucky Starr said calmly, "You're quite wrong, Lou. What you're doing now is only the result of your own captivity. You've been under control before, and the V-frogs know your mind. They can enter it at will. Maybe they've never entirely left it. You're doing only what you're being made to do."

Evans's grip on his blaster hardened. "Sorry, Lucky, but it won't do. Let's get the ship back to the city."

Lucky said, "If you're not under control, Lou—if you're mind-free—then you'll blast me down if I try to force us up to the surface, won't you?"

Evans did not answer.

Lucky said, "You'll have to. It will be your duty to the Council and to Mankind to do so. On the other hand, if you are under mental control, you may be forced to threaten me, to try to make me change ship's course, but I doubt that you can be forced to kill me. Actually murdering a friend and fellow councilman would be too much against your basic ways of thought.—So give me your blaster."

Lucky advanced toward the other, hand outstretched.

Bigman stared in horror.

Evans backed away. He said hoarsely, "I'm warning you, Lucky. I'll shoot."

"I say you won't shoot. You'll give me the blaster."

Evans was back against the wall. His voice rose crazily. "I'll shoot. I'll shoot!"

Bigman cried, "Lucky, stop!"

But Lucky had already stopped and was backing away. Slowly, very slowly, he backed.

The life had suddenly gone out of Evans's eyes, and he was standing now, a carved stone image, finger firm on trigger. Evans's voice was cold. "Back to the city."

Lucky said, "Get the ship on the city course, Bigman."

Bigman stepped quickly to the controls. He muttered, "He's really under now, isn't he?"

Lucky said, "I was afraid it might happen. They've shifted him to intense control to make sure he shoots. And he will, too; no question about it. He's in amnesia now. He won't remember this part afterward."

"Can he hear us?" Bigman remembered the pilots on the coaster in which they had landed on Venus and their apparent complete disregard of the external world about them.

"I don't think so," said Lucky, "but he's watching the controls and if we deviate from city-direction, he'll shoot. Make no mistake about that."

"Then what do we do?"

Words again issued from between Evans's pale, cold lips: "Back to the city. Quickly!"

Lucky, motionless, eyes fixed on the unwavering muzzle of his friend's blaster, spoke softly and quickly to Bigman.

Bigman acknowledged the words by the slightest of nods.


The Hilda moved back along the path it had come, back toward the city.

Lou Evans, councilman, stood against the wall, white-faced and stern, his pitiless eyes shifting from Lucky to Bigman to the controls. His body, frozen into utter obedience to those who controlled his mind, did not even feel the need of shifting the blaster from one hand to the other.

Lucky strained his ears to hear the low sound of Aphrodite's carrier beam as it sounded steadily on the Hilda's direction finder. The beam radiated in all directions on a definite wave length from the topmost point of Aphrodite's dome. The route back to the city be-came as obvious as though Aphrodite were in plain sight and a hundred feet away.

Lucky could tell by the exact pitch of the beam's low whine that they were not approaching the city directly. It was a small difference indeed, and one that was not at all obvious to the ear. To Evans's controlled ears, it might pass unnoticed. Fervently, Lucky hoped so.

Lucky tried to follow Evans's blank glare when his eyes rested on the controls. He was certain that it was the depth indicator that those eyes rested upon. It was a large dial, a simple one that measured the water pressure. At the distance Evans stood it was simple enough to tell that the Hilda was not nosing surfaceward.

Lucky felt certain that, should the depth-indicator needle vary in the wrong direction, Evans would blast without a moment's hesitation.

Try as he might to think as little as possible about the situation, to allow as few specific thoughts as possible to be picked up by the waiting V-frogs, he could not help but wonder why Evans did not shoot them out of hand. They had been marked for death under the giant patch, but now they were only being herded back to Aphrodite.

Or would Evans shoot them down just as soon as the V-frogs could overcome some last scruple in the captive's subjected mind?

The carrier beam moved a little further off pitch. Again Lucky's eyes flickered quickly in Evans's direction. Was he imagining it, or did a spark of some-thing (not emotion, exactly, but something) show in Evans's eyes?

A split second later it was obviously more than imagination, for there was a definite tightening of Evans's biceps, a small lifting of his arm.

He was going to shoot!

And even as the thought passed quickly through Lucky's mind and his muscles tensed involuntarily and uselessly for the coming of the blast, the ship crashed. Evans, caught unaware, toppled backward. The blaster slithered from his sprawling fingers.

Lucky acted instantly. The same shock that threw Evans back threw him forward. He rode that shock and came down upon the other, clutching for his wrist and seizing it with steely fingers.

But Evans was anything but a pigmy, and he fought with the unearthly rage that was imposed upon him.

He doubled his knees above him, caught Lucky in the thighs, and heaved. The still rocking ship fortuitously added its roll to the force of Evans's thrust and the captive councilman was on top.

Evans's fist pounded, but Lucky's shoulder fended the blow. He raised his own knees and caught Evans in an iron scissors hold just below the hips.

Evans's face distorted with pain. He twisted, but Lucky writhed with him and was on top once more. He sat up, his legs maintaining their hold, increasing it.

Lucky said, "I don't know if you can hear or understand me, Lou—"

Evans paid no regard. With one last contortion of his body, he flung himself and Lucky into the air, breaking Lucky's hold.

Lucky rolled as he hit the floor and came lithely to his feet. He caught Evans's arm as the latter rose and swung it over his shoulder. A heave and Evans came crashing down on his back. He lay still.

"Bigman!" said Lucky, breathing quickly and brush-ing back his hair with a quick motion of his hand.

"Here I am," said the little fellow, grinning and swinging Turner's blaster lightly. "I was all set, just in case."

"All right. Put that blaster away, Bigman, and look Lou over. Make sure there are no bones broken. Then tie him up."

Lucky was at the controls now, and with infinite caution he backed the Hilda off the remnants of the carcass of the giant patch he had killed hours before.

Lucky's gamble had worked. He had hoped that the V-frogs with their preoccupation with mentalities would have no real conception of the physical size of the patch, that with their lack of experience of subsea travel, they would not realize the significance of the slight off-course route Bigman had taken. The whole gamble had been in the quick phrase which Lucky had spoken to Bigman as the latter had turned the ship back to the city under the threat of Evans's blaster.

"Afoul of the patch," he had said.


Again the Hilda's course changed. Its nose lifted upward.

Evans, bound to his bunk, stared with weary shame-facedness at Lucky. "Sorry."

"We understand, Lou. Don't brood about it," said Lucky lightly. "But we can't let you go for a while. You see that, don't you?"

"Sure. Space, put more knots on me. I deserve it. Believe me, Lucky, most of it I don't even remember."

"Look, you better get some sleep, fella," and Lucky's fist punched Evans lightly in the shoulder. "We'll wake you when we hit surface, if we have to."

To Bigman, a few minutes later, he said quietly, "Round up every blaster on the ship, Bigman, every weapon of every sort. Look through stores, the bunk lockers, everywhere."

"What are you going to do?"

"Dump them," said Lucky succinctly.

"What?"

"You heard me. You might go under. Or I might. If we do, I don't want anything with which we can expect a repetition of what has just happened. Against the V-frogs, physical weapons are useless, anyway."

One by one, two blasters, plus the electric whips from each sea suit, passed through the trash ejector.

The ejector's hinged opening stood flush with the wall just next to the first-aid cupboard, and through it the weapons were puffed through one-way valves into the sea. "It makes me feel naked," muttered Bigman, staring out through the port as though to catch sight of the vanished weapons. A dim phosphorescent streak flashed across, marking the passing of an arrow fish. That was all.

The water pressure needle dropped slowly. They had been twenty-eight hundred feet under to begin with. They were less than two thousand now.

Bigman continued peering intently out the port. Lucky glanced at him. "What are you looking for?" "I thought," said Bigman, "it would get lighter as we got up toward the top."

"I doubt it," said Lucky. "The seaweed blankets the surface tightly. It will stay black till we break through."

"Think we might meet up with a trawler, Lucky?"

"I hope not."

They were fifteen hundred feet under now. Bigman said with an effort at lightness, a visible attempt to change the current of his own thoughts, "Say, Lucky, how come there's so much carbon dioxide in the air on Venus? I mean, with all these plants? Plants are supposed to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, aren't they?"

"On Earth they are. However, if I remember my course in xenobotany, Venusian plant life has a trick all its own. Earth plants liberate their oxygen into the air; Venusian plants store theirs as high-oxygen compounds in their tissues." He talked absently as though he himself was also using speech as a guard against too-deep thinking. "That's why no Venusian animal breathes. They get all the oxygen they need in their food."

"What do you know?" said Bigman in astonishment.

"In fact, their food probably has too much oxygen for them, or they wouldn't be so fond of low-oxygen food, like the axle grease you fed the V-frog. At least, that's my theory."

They were only eight hundred feet from the surface now.

Lucky said, "Good navigation, by the way. I mean the way you rammed the patch, Bigman."

"It's nothing," said Bigman, but he flushed with pleasure at the approval in Lucky's words.

He looked at the pressure dial. It was five hundred feet to the surface.

Silence fell.

And then there came a grating and scraping sound from overhead, a sudden interruption in their smooth climb, a laboring of their engines, and then a quick lightening of the view outside the porthole, together with an eye-blinking vision of cloudy sky and rolling water surface oozing up between shreds and fibers of weed. The water was pockmarked with tiny splashings.

"It's raining," said Lucky. "And now, I'm afraid, we'll have to sit tight and wait till the V-frogs come for us."

Bigman said blankly, "Well—well. Here they are!"

For moving into view just outside the porthole, star-ing solemnly into the ship out of dark, liquid eyes, its long legs folded tightly down and its dexterous toes clasping a seaweed stem in a firm grip, was a V-frog!


13. Minds Meet

The Hilda rode high in the tossing waters of the Venusian ocean. The splatter of strong, steady rain drummed its sound upon the outer hull in what was almost an Earthlike rhythm. To Bigman, with his Martian background, rain and ocean were alien, but to Lucky it brought memories of home.

Bigman said, "Look at the V-frog, Lucky. Look at it!"

"I see it," said Lucky calmly.

Bigman swept the glass with his sleeve and then found himself with his nose pressing against it for a better look.

Suddenly he thought, Hey, I better not get too close.

He sprang back, then deliberately put the little finger of each hand into the corners of his mouth and drew them apart. Sticking his tongue out, he crossed his eyes and wiggled his fingers.

The V-frog stared at him solemnly. It had not budged a muscle since it had first been sighted. It merely swayed solemnly with the wind. It did not seem to mind, or even to be aware of, the water that splashed about it and upon it.

Bigman contorted his face even more horribly and went "A-a-gh" at the creature.

Lucky's voice sounded over his shoulder. "What are you doing, Bigman?"

Bigman jumped, took his hands away, and let his face spring back into its own pixyish appearance. He said, grinning, "I was just showing that V-frog what I thought of it."

"And it was just showing you what it thought of you!"

Bigman's heart skipped a beat. He heard the clear disapproval in Lucky's voice. In such a crisis, at a time of such danger, he, Bigman, was making faces like a fool. Shame came over him.

He quavered, "I don't know what got into me, Lucky."

"They did," said Lucky, harshly. "Understand that. The V-frogs are feeling you out for weak points. However they can do it, they'll crawl into your mind, and once there they may remain past your ability to force them to leave. So don't follow any impulse until you've thought it out."

"Yes, Lucky," muttered Bigman.

"Now, what next?" Lucky looked about the ship. Evans was sleeping, tossing fitfully and breathing with difficulty. Lucky's eyes rested on him for a bare moment, then turned away.

Bigman said almost timidly, "Lucky?"

"Well."

"Aren't you going to call the space station?"

For a moment Lucky stared at his little partner without comprehension. Then slowly the lines between his eyes smoothed away and he whispered, "Great Galaxy! I'd forgotten. Bigman, I'd forgotten! I never once thought of it."

Bigman cocked a thumb over his shoulder, pointing at the port into which the V-frog was still owlishly gazing. "You mean, it——?"

"I mean they. Space, there may be thousands of them out there!"

Half in shame Bigman admitted to himself the nature of his own feelings; he was almost glad that Lucky had been trapped by the creatures as well as he. It relieved him of some of the blame that might otherwise attach to him. In fact, Lucky had no right—

Bigman stopped his thoughts, appalled. He was working himself into a resentment against Lucky. That wasn't he. That was they!

Savagely he forced all thought from his mind and concentrated on Lucky, whose fingers were now on the transmitter, working them into the careful adjustment required to reach finely out into space.

And then Bigman's head snapped back at a sudden new and strange sound.

It was a voice, flat, without intonation. It said, "Do not tamper with your machine of far-reaching sound. We do not wish it."

Bigman turned. His mouth fell open and, for a moment, stayed so. He said, "Who said that? Where is it?"

Lucky said, "Easy, Bigman. It was inside your head."

"Not the V-frog!" said Bigman despairingly.

"Great Galaxy, what else can it be?"

And Bigman turned to stare out the port again, at the clouds, the rain, and the swaying V-frog.


Once before in his life Lucky had felt the minds of alien creatures impressing their thoughts upon him. That had been on the day he had met the immaterial-energy beings that dwelt within the hollow depths of Mars. There his mind had been laid open, but the entry of thought had been painless, even pleasant. He had known his own helplessness, yet he had also been deprived of all fear.

Now he faced something different. The mental fingers inside his skull had forced their way in and he felt them with pain, loathing, and resentment.

Lucky's hand had alien away from the transmitter, and he felt no urge to return to it. He had forgotten it again.

The voice sounded a second time. "Make air vibrations with your mouth."

Lucky said, "You mean, speak? Can you hear our thoughts when we do not speak?"

"Only very dimly and vaguely. It is very difficult unless we have studied your mind well. When you speak, your thoughts are sharper and we can hear."

"We hear you without trouble," said Lucky.

"Yes. We can send our thoughts powerfully and with strength. You cannot."

"Have you heard all I've said so far?"

"Yes."

"What do you wish of me?"

"In your thoughts we have detected an organization of your fellow beings far off, beyond the end, on the other side of the sky. You call it the Council. We wish to know more about it."

Inwardly Lucky felt a small spark of satisfaction. One question, at least, was answered. As long as he represented only himself, as an individual, the enemy was content to kill him. But in recent hours the enemy had discovered he had penetrated too much of the truth, and they were concerned about it.

Would other members of the Council learn as easily? What was the nature of this Council?

Lucky could understand the curiosity of the enemy, the new caution, the sudden desire to learn a little more from Lucky before killing him. No wonder the enemy had forborne forcing Evans to kill him even when the blaster was pointed and Lucky was helpless, forborne just an instant too long.

But Lucky buried further thought on the subject. They might, as they said, be unable to clearly hear unspoken thoughts. Then again, they might be lying.

He said abruptly, "What do you have against my people?"

The flat, emotionless voice said, "We cannot say what is not so."

Lucky's jaw hardened at that. Had they picked up his last thought concerning their lying? He would have to be careful, very careful.

The voice continued. "We do not think well of your people. They end life. They eat meat. It is bad to be intelligent and to eat meat. One who eats meat must end life to live, and an intelligent meat eater does more harm than a mindless one since he can think of more ways to end life. You have little tubes that can end the lives of many at one time."

"But we do not kill V-frogs."

"You would if we let you. You even kill each other in large groups and small."

Lucky avoided comment on the last remark. He said, instead, "What is it you want of my people, then?"

"You grow numerous on Venus," said the voice. "You spread and take up room."

"We can take only so much," reasoned Lucky. "We can build cities only in the shallow waters. The deeps will always remain yours, and they form nine parts of the ocean's ten. Besides that, we can help you. If you have the knowledge of mind, we have the knowledge of matter. You have seen our cities and the machines of shining metal that go through air and water to worlds on the other side of the sky. With this power of ours, think how we can help you."

"There is nothing we need. We live and we think. We are not afraid and we do not hate. What more can we need? What should we do with your cities and your metal and your ships? How can it make life better for us?"

"Well, then, do you intend to kill us all?"

"We do not desire to end life. It is enough for us if we hold your minds so that we will know you will do no harm."

Lucky had a quick vision (his own? implanted?) of a race of men on Venus living and moving under the direction of the dominant natives, gradually being cut off from all connection with Earth, the generations growing more and more into complacent mental slaves.

He said, in words whose confidence he did not entirely feel, "Men cannot allow themselves to be controlled mentally."

"It is the only way, and you must help us."

"We will not."

"You have no choice. You must tell us of these lands beyond the sky, of the organization of your people, of what they will do against us, and how we may guard ourselves."

"There is no way you can make me do that"

"Is there not?" asked the voice. "Consider, then. If you will not speak the information we require, we will then ask you to descend back into the ocean in your ma-chine of shining metal, and there at the bottom you will open your machine to the waters."

"And die?" said Lucky grimly.

"The end of your lives would be necessary. With your knowledge it would not be safe to allow you to mingle with your fellows. You might speak to them and cause them to attempt reprisals. That would not be good."

"Then I have nothing to lose by not telling you."

"You have much to lose. Should you refuse what we ask, we would have to delve into your mind by force. That is not efficient. We might miss much of value. To diminish that danger, we would have to take your mind apart bit by bit, and that would be unpleasant for you. It would be much better for us and for you if you were to help us freely."

"No." Lucky shook his head.

A pause. The voice began again: "Although your people are given to ending life, they fear having their own lives end. We will spare you that fear if you help us. When you descend into the ocean to your life's end, we will remove fear from your mind. If, however, you do not choose to help us, we will force you into life's end anyhow, but we will not remove fear. We will intensify it."

"No," said Lucky, more loudly.

Another pause, a longer one. Then the voice said, "We do not ask your knowledge out of fear for our own safety, but to make it unnecessary for ourselves to take measures of an unpleasant nature. If we are left with but uncertain knowledge as to how to guard ourselves against your people from the other side of the sky, then we will be forced to put an end to the threat by ending life for all your people on this world. We will let the ocean into their cities as we have already almost done to one of them. Life will end for your people like the quenching of a flame. It will be snuffed out, and life will burn no more."

Lucky laughed wildly. "Make me!" he said.

"Make you?"

"Make me speak. Make me dive the ship. Make me do anything."

"You think we cannot?"

"I know you cannot."

"Look about you, then, and see what we have already accomplished. Your fellow creature who is bound is in our hands. Your fellow creature who stood at your side is in our hands."

Lucky whirled. In all this time, through all this conversation, he had not heard Bigman's voice once. It was as though he had completely forgotten Bigman's existence. And now he saw the little Martian lying twisted and crumpled at his feet.

Lucky dropped to his knees, a vast and fearful dismay parching his throat. "You've killed him?"

"No, he lives. He is not even badly hurt. But, you see, you are alone now. You have none to help you now. They could not withstand us, and neither can you."

White-faced, Lucky said, "No. You will not make me do anything."

"One last chance. Make your choice. Do you choose to help us, so that life may end peacefully and quietly for you? Or will you refuse to help us, so that it must end in pain and sorrow, to be followed, perhaps, by life's end for all your people in the cities below the ocean? Which is it to be? Come, your answer!"

The words echoed and re-echoed within Lucky's mind as he prepared to stand, alone and unfriended, against the buffets of a mental power he did not know how to fight save by an unbending stubbornness of will.


14. Minds Battle

How does one set up a barrier against mental attack? Lucky had the desire to resist, but there were no muscles he could flex, no guard he could throw up, no way he could return violence. He must merely remain as he was, resisting all those impulses that flooded his mind which he could not surely tell to be his own.

And how could he tell which were his own? What did he himself wish to do? What did he himself wish most to do?

Nothing entered his mind. It was blank. Surely there had to be something. He had not come up here without a plan.

Up here?

Then he had come up. Originally, he had been down.

Far down in the recesses of his mind, he thought, That's it.

He was in a ship. It had come up from the sea bottom. It was on the surface of the water now. Good.

What next?

Why at the surface? Dimly he could remember it was safer underneath.

He bent his head with great difficulty, closed his eyes and opened them again. His thoughts were very thick.

He had to get word somewhere… somewhere… about something.

He had to get word.

Get word.

And he broke through! It was as though somewhere miles inside of himself he had put a straining shoulder to a door and it had burst open. There was a clear flash of purpose, and he remembered something he had forgotten.

Ship's radio and the space station, of course.

He said, huskily, "You haven't got me. Do you hear that? I remember, and I'll keep on remembering."

There was no answer.

He shouted aloud, incoherently. His mind was faintly occupied with the analogy of a man fighting an overdose of a sleeping drug. Keep the muscles active, he thought. Keep walking. Keep walking.

In his case, he had to keep his mind active, he had to keep the mental fibers working. Do something. Do something. Stop, and they'll get you.

He continued shouting, and sound became words, "I'll do it. I'll do it." Do what? He could feel it slipping from him again.

Feverishly, he repeated to himself, "Radio to station ….radio to station…" but the sounds were becoming meaningless.

He was moving now. His body turned clumsily as though his joints were wood and nailed in place, but it was turning. He faced the radio. He saw it clearly for a moment, then it wavered and became foggy. He bent his mind to the task, and it was clear again. He could see the transmitter, see the range-setting toggle and the frequency condensers. He could recall and understand its workings.

He took a dragging step toward it and a sensation as of red-hot spikes boring into his temples overwhelmed him.

He staggered and fell to his knees, then, in agony, rose again.

Through pain-hazed eyes, he could still make out the radio. First one of his legs moved, then another.

The radio seemed a hundred yards away, hazy, surrounded by a bloody mist. The pounding in Lucky's head increased with each step.

He fought to ignore the pain, to see only the radio, to think only of the radio. He forced his legs to move against a rubbery resistance that was entangling them and dragging him down.

Finally, he put out his arm, and when his fingers were still six inches away from the ultrawave, Lucky knew that his endurance was at an end. Try as he might, he could drive his exhausted body no closer. It was all over. It was ended.

The Hilda was a scene of paralysis. Evans lay unconscious on his cot; Bigman was crumpled on the floor; and though Lucky remained stubbornly upright, his trembling fingertips were the only sign of life in him.

The cold voice in Lucky's mind sounded once again in its even, inexorable monotone: "You are helpless, but you will not lose consciousness as did your companions. You will suffer this pain until you decide to submerge your ship, tell us what we wish to know, and end your life. We can wait patiently. There is no way you can resist us. There is no way you can fight us. No bribe! No threat!"

Lucky, through the endless torture, felt a striving within his sluggish, pain-soaked mind, the stirring of something new.

No bribe? No threat?

No bribe?

Even through the misty semiconsciousness, the spark in his mind caught fire.

He abandoned the radio, turned his thoughts away, and instantly the curtain of pain lifted a fraction.

Lucky took a faltering step away from the radio, and it lifted a bit more. He turned away completely.

Lucky tried not to think. He tried to act automatically and without foreplanning. They were concentrating on preventing his reaching the radio. They must not realize the other danger they faced. The pitiless enemy must not deduce his intentions and try to stop him. He would have to act quickly. They must not stop him.

They must not!

He had reached the first-aid wall chest and flung open its door. He could not see clearly, and he lost precious seconds in fumbling.

The voice said, "What is your decision?" and the fierceness of pain began to clamp down upon the young councilman once more.

Lucky had it—a squat jar of bluish silicone. His fingers groped through what seemed deadening cotton for the little catch that would shut off the paramagnetic microfield that held the jar's lid closed and airtight.

He scarcely felt the little nudge as one fingernail caught the catch. He scarcely saw the lid move to one side and fall off. He scarcely heard it hit the floor with the sound of metastic against metal. Fuzzily, he could see that the jar was open, and hazily, he lifted his arm toward the trash ejector.

The pain had returned in all its fury.

His left arm had lifted the hinged opening of the ejector; his right arm tremblingly raised the precious jar to the six-inch opening.

His arm moved for an eternity. He could no longer see. A red haze covered everything.

He felt his arm and the jar it held strike the wall. He pushed, but it would move no farther. The fingers on his left hand inched down from where they held the opening of the trash ejector, and touched the jar.

He daren't drop it now. If he did, he would never in his life find the strength to pick it up again.

He had it in both hands, and together both hands pulled at it. It inched upward, while Lucky hovered closer and closer to the edge of unconsciousness.

And then the jar was gone!

A million miles away, it seemed, he could hear the whistle of compressed air, and he knew the jar had been ejected into the warm Venusian ocean.

For a moment the pain wavered and then, in one giant stroke, lifted completely.

Lucky righted himself carefully and stepped away from the wall. His face and body were drenched in perspiration, and his mind still reeled.

As fast as his still faltering steps could take him, he moved to the radio transmitter, and this time nothing stopped him.


Evans sat in a chair with his head buried in his arms. He had gulped thirstily at water and kept saying over and over again, "I don't remember a thing. I don't remember a thing."

Bigman, bare to the waist, was mopping at his head and chest with a damp cloth, and a shaky grin carne to his face. "I do. I remember everything. One minute I was standing there listening to you talking to the voice, Lucky, and then with no warning I was flat on the floor. I couldn't feel a thing, I couldn't turn my head, I couldn't even blink my eyes, but I could hear everything that was going on. I could hear the voice and what you said, Lucky. I saw you start for the radio…"

He puffed his breath out and shook his head.

"I never made it that first time, you know," said Lucky quietly.

"I couldn't tell. You passed out of my field of vision, and after that all I could do was lie there and wait to hear you start sending. Nothing happened, and I kept thinking they must have you, too. In my mind, I could see all three of us lying in living death. It was all over, and I couldn't nudge a thumbnail. It was all I could do just to breathe. Then you moved back past my eyes again, and I wanted to laugh and cry and yell all at the same time, but all I could do was lie there. I could just about make you out, Lucky, clawing at the wall. I couldn't tell what on Venus you were doing, but a few minutes later it was all over. Wow!"

Evans said wearily, "And we're really heading back for Aphrodite now, Lucky? No mistake?"

"We're heading back unless the instruments are lying, and I don't think they are," said Lucky. "When we do get back and we can spare the time, we'll all of us get a little medical attention."

"Sleep!" insisted Bigman. "That's all I want. Just two days of solid sleep."

"You'll get that, too," said Lucky.

But Evans, more than the other two, was haunted by the experience. It showed quite plainly in the way he huddled in his own arms and slouched, almost cowered, in his chair. He said, "Aren't they interfering with us in any way at all any more?" There was the lightest emphasis on the word they.

"I can't guarantee that," said Lucky, "but the worst of the affair is over in a way. I reached the space station."

"You're sure? There's no mistake?"

"None at all. They even relayed me to Earth and I spoke to Conway directly. That part is settled."

"Then it's all settled," crowed Bigman joyously. "Earth is prepared. It knows the truth about the V-frogs."

Lucky smiled, but offered no comment.

Bigman said, "Just one thing, Lucky. Tell me what happened. How did you break their hold? Sands of Mars! What did you do?"

Lucky said, "Nothing that I ought not to have thought of long in advance and saved us all a great deal of needless trouble. The voice told us that all they needed in life was to live and to think. You recall that, Bigman? It said later on that we had no way of threatening them and no way of bribing them? It was only at the last moment that I realized you and I knew better."

"I know better?" said Bigman blankly.

"Certainly you do. You found out two minutes after you saw your first V-frog, that life and thought is not all they need. I told you on the way to the surface that Venusian plants stored oxygen so that Venusian animals got their oxygen from their food and didn't have to breathe. In fact, I said, they probably get too much oxygen and that's why they're so fond of low-oxygen food like hydrocarbons. Like axle grease, for instance. Don't you remember?"

Bigman's eyes were widening. "Sure."

"Just think how they must crave hydrocarbon. It must be like the craving of a child for candy."

Bigman said once again, "Sure."

"Now the V-frogs had us under mental control, but to maintain us under such control, they had to concentrate. What I had to do was distract them, at least to distract those that were nearest the ship, and whose power over us was strongest. So I threw out the obvious thing."

"But what? Don't play cute, Lucky."

"I threw out an open jar of petroleum jelly, which I got out of the medicine cabinet. It's pure hydrocarbon, of much higher grade than the axle grease. They couldn't resist. Even with so much at stake, they couldn't resist. Those nearest to the jar dived for it. Others farther away were in mental rapport, and their minds turned instantly to hydrocarbon. They lost control of us, and I was able to put through the call. That was all."

"Well, then," said Evans, "we're through with them."

"If it comes to that," said Lucky, "I'm not at all certain. There are a few things—"

He turned away, frowning, his lips clamped shut, as though he had already spoken too much.


The dome glimmered gorgeously outside the port, and Bigman felt his heart lift at the sight. He had eaten, even napped a bit, and his ebullient spirits bubbled as ever now. Lou Evans had recovered considerably from his own despondency. Only Lucky had not lost his look of wariness.

Bigman said, "I tell you the V-frogs are demoralized, Lucky. Look here, we've come back through a hundred miles of ocean, nearly, and they haven't touched us once. Well, have they?"

Lucky said, "Right now, I'm wondering why we don't get an answer from the dome."

Evans frowned in his turn. "They shouldn't take this long."

Bigman looked from one to the other. "You don't think anything can be wrong inside the city, do you?"

Lucky waved his hand for silence. A voice came in over the receiver, low and rapid.

"Identification, please."

Lucky said, "This is the Council-chartered subship Hilda, out of Aphrodite, returning to Aphrodite. David Starr in charge and speaking."

"You will have to wait."

"For what reason, please?"

"The locks are all in operation in the moment."

Evans frowned and muttered, "That's impossible, Lucky."

Lucky said, "When will one be free? Give me its location, and direct me to its vicinity by ultrasignal."

"You will have to wait."

The connection remained open, but the man at the other end spoke no more.

Bigman said indignantly, "Get Councilman Morriss, Lucky. That'll get some action."

Evans said hesitantly, "Morriss thinks I'm a traitor. Do you suppose he could have decided that you've thrown in with me, Lucky?"

"If so," said Lucky, "he'd be anxious to get us into the city. No, it's my thought that the man we've been speaking to is under mental control."

Evans said, "To stop us from getting in? Are you serious?"

"I'm serious."

"There's no way they can stop us from getting in in the long run unless they—" Evans paled and moved to the porthole in two rapid strides. "Lucky, you're right! They're bringing a cannon blaster to bear! They're going to blow us out of the water!"

Bigman was at the porthole, too. There was no mistake about it. A section of the dome had moved to one side, and through it, somewhat unreal as seen through water, was a squat tube.

Bigman watched the muzzle lower and center upon, them, with fascinated horror. The Hilda was unarmed. It could never gain velocity fast enough to escape being blasted. There seemed no way out of instant death.


15. The Enemy?

But even as Bigman felt his stomach constrict at the prospect of imminent destruction, he could hear Lucky's even voice speaking forcefully into the transmitter:

"Subship Hilda arriving with cargo of petroleum… Subship Hilda arriving with cargo of petroleum… Subship Hilda arriving with cargo of petroleum… Subship Hilda—"

An agitated voice broke through from the other end.

"Clement Heber at lock control at this end. What is wrong? Repeat. What is wrong? Clement Heber—"

Bigman yelled, "They're withdrawing the blaster, Lucky."

Lucky let out his breath in a puff, but only in that way did he show any sign of tension. He said into the transmitter, "Subship Hilda reporting for entrance to Aphrodite. Please assign lock. Repeat. Please assign lock."

"You may have lock number fifteen. Follow directional signal. There seems to be some confusion here."

Lucky rose and said to Evans, "Lou, take the controls and get the ship into the city as fast as you can."

He motioned Bigman to follow him to the other room.

"What—what—" Bigman spluttered like a leaky popgun.

Lucky sighed and said, "I thought the V-frogs would try to arrange to have us kept out, so I was all set with the petroleum trick. But I didn't think things would get so bad they would point a cannon at us. That made it really tough. I wasn't as sure as all that that the petroleum notion would work."

"But how did it?"

"Hydrocarbon again. Petroleum is hydrocarbon. My word came over the open radio and the V-frogs who had the dome guards under control were distracted."

"How come they knew what petroleum was?"

"I pictured it in my mind, Bigman, with every bit of imagination I had. They can read minds when you sharpen the mental pictures by speaking, you know.

"But never mind all that." His voice dropped to a whisper. "If they're ready to blow us out of the ocean, if they're ready for something as crudely violent as that, they're desperate; and we're desperate, too.

We've got to bring this to an end right away, and we've got to do the right thing. One mistake at this stage could be fatal."'

From his shirt pocket Lucky had unclipped a scriber, and he was writing rapidly on a piece of foil.

He held it out to Bigman. "That's what you're to do when I give the word."

Bigman's eyes widened, "But Lucky"

"Sh! Don't refer to any of this in words."

Bigman nodded, "But are you sure you're right?"

"I hope so." Lucky's handsome face was drawn with anxiety. "Earth knows about the V-frogs now, so they'll never win over humanity; but they may still do damage here on Venus. We've got to prevent that somehow. Now do you understand what you're to do?"

"Yes."

"In that case…" Lucky rolled the foil together and kneaded it with his strong fingers. The pellet that remained he returned to his shirt pocket.

Lou Evans called out, "We're in the lock, Lucky. In five minutes we'll be in the city."

Lucky said, "Good. Get Morriss on the radio."


They were in Council headquarters in Aphrodite again, the same room, Bigman thought, in which he had first met Lou Evans; the same room in which he had first seen a V-frog. He shuddered at the thought of those mental tendrils infiltrating his mind for the first time without his knowledge.

That was the one way in which the room was different now. The aquarium was gone; the dishes of peas and of axle grease were gone; the tall tables stood bare at the false window.

Morriss had pointed that out mutely as soon as they entered. His plump cheeks sagged and the lines of strain about his eyes were marked. His pudgy handshake was uncertain.

Carefully Bigman put what he was carrying on top of one of the tables. "Petroleum jelly," he said.

Lou Evans sat down. So did Lucky.

Morriss did not. He said, "I got rid of the V-frogs in this building. That was all I could do. I can't ask people to do away with their pets without a reason. And I couldn't give the reason, obviously."

"It will be enough," said Lucky. "Throughout this discussion, though, I want you to keep your eyes on the hydrocarbon. Keep its existence firmly in your mind."

"You think that will help?" asked Morriss.

"I think it will."

Morriss stopped his pacing immediately before Lucky. His voice was a sudden bluster. "Starr, I can't believe this. The V-frogs have been in the city for years. They've been here almost since the city was built."

"You've got to remember—" began Lucky.

"That I'm under their influence?" Morriss reddened. "That isn't so. I deny it."

''There's nothing to be ashamed of, Dr. Morriss," said Lucky, crisply. "Evans was under their control for days, and Bigman and I have been controlled, too. It is possible to be honestly unaware that your mind has been continuously picked."

"There's no proof of it, but never mind," said Morriss violently. "Suppose you're right. The question is, what can we do? How do we fight them? Sending men against them will be useless. If we bring in a fleet to bombard Venus from space, they may force the dome locks open and drown every city on Venus in revenge. We could never kill every V-frog on Venus anyway. There are eight hundred million cubic miles of ocean for them to hide in, and they can multiply fast if they want to. Now your getting word to Earth was essential, I admit, but it still leaves us with many important problems."

"You're right," admitted Lucky, "but the point is, I didn't tell Earth everything. I couldn't until I was certain I knew the truth. I—"

The intercom signal flashed, and Morriss barked. "What is it?"

"Lyman Turner for his appointment, sir," was the answer.

"One second." The Venusian turned to Lucky and said in a low voice, "Are you sure we want him?"

"You had this appointment about strengthening the transite partitions within the city, didn't you?"

"Yes, but—"

"And Turner is a victim. The evidence would seem to be clear there. He is the one highly-placed official beside ourselves who would definitely seem to be one. We would want to see him, I think."

Morriss said into the intercom, "Send him up."

Turner's gaunt face and hooked nose made up a mask of inquiry as he entered. The silence in the room and the way the others stared at him would have filled even a far less sensitive man with foreboding.

He swung his computer case to the floor and said, "Is anything wrong, gentlemen?"

Slowly, carefully, Lucky gave him the bare outline of the matter.

Turner's thin lips parted. He said, weakly, "You mean, my mind—"

"How else would the man at the lock have known the exact manner in which to keep out intruders? He was unskilled and untrained, yet he barricaded himself in with electronic perfection."

"I never thought of that. I never thought of that." Turner's voice was almost an incoherent mumble. How could I have missed it?"

"They wanted you to miss it," said Lucky.

"It makes me ashamed."

"You have company in that, Turner. Myself, Dr. Morriss, Councilman Evans—"

"Then what do we do about it?"

Lucky said, "Exactly what Dr. Morriss was asking when you arrived.' It will need all our thought. One of the reasons I suggested you be brought into this gathering is that we may require your computer."

"Oceans of Venus, I hope so," said Turner fervently. "If I could do something to make up for—" And he put his hand to his forehead as though half in fear that he had a strange head on his shoulders, one not his own.

He said, "Are we ourselves now?"

Evans put in, "We will be as long as we concentrate on that petroleum jelly."

"I don't get it. Why should that help?"

"It does. Never mind how for the moment," said Lucky. "I want to get on with what I was about to say when you arrived."

Bigman swung back to the wall and perched himself on the table where the aquarium once stood. He stared idly at the open jar on the other table as he listened.

Lucky said, "Are we sure the V-frogs are the real menace?"

"Why, that's your theory," said Morriss with surprise.

"Oh, they're the immediate means of controlling the minds of mankind, granted; but are they the real enemy? They're pitting their minds against the minds of Earthmen and proving formidable opponents, yet individual V-frogs seem quite unintelligent."

"How so?"

"Well, the V-frog you had in this place did not have the good sense to keep out of our minds. He broadcast his surprise at our being without mustaches. He ordered Bigman to get him peas dipped in axle grease. Was that intelligent? He gave himself away immediately."

Morriss shrugged. "Maybe not all V-frogs are intelligent."

"It goes deeper than that. We were helpless in their mental grip out on the ocean surface. Still, because I guessed certain things, I tried a jar of petroleum jelly on them, and it worked. It scattered them. Mind you, their entire campaign was at stake. They had to keep us from informing Earth concerning them. Yet they ruined everything for one jar of petroleum jelly. Again, they almost had us when we were trying to re-enter Aphrodite. The cannon was coming to an aim when the mere mention of petroleum spoiled their plans."

Turner stirred in his seat. "I understand what you mean by the petroleum now, Starr. Everyone knows the V-frogs have a craving for grease of all sorts. The craving is just too strong for them."

"Too strong for beings sufficiently intelligent to battle Earthmen? Would you abandon a vital victory, Turner, for a steak or a wedge of chocolate cake?"

"Of course I wouldn't, but that doesn't prove a V-frog wouldn't."

"It doesn't, I grant you. The V-frog mind is alien to us and we can't suppose that what works with us must work with them. Still, the matter of their being diverted by hydrocarbon is suspicious. It makes me compare V-frogs with dogs rather than with men."

"In what way?" demanded Morriss.

"Think about it," said Lucky. "A dog can be trained to do many seemingly intelligent things. A creature who had never seen or heard of a dog before, watching a seeing-eye dog guide a blind master in the days before Son-O-Taps, would have wondered whether the dog or the man was the more intelligent. But if he passed by them with a meaty bone and noted that the dog's attention was instantly diverted, he would suspect the truth."

Turner said, his pale eyes nearly bulging "Are you trying to say that V-frogs are just the tools of human beings?"

"Doesn't that sound probable, Turner? As Dr. Morriss said just a while ago the V-frogs have been in the city for years, but it's only a matter of the last few months that they've been making trouble. And then the trouble started with trivialities, like a man giving away money in the streets. It is almost as though some men learned how to use the V-frogs' natural capacity for telepathy as tools with which to inflict their thoughts and orders on human minds. It is as though they had to practice at first, learn the nature and limitations of their tools, develop their control, until the time came when they could do big things. Eventually, it would be not the yeast that they were after but something more; perhaps control of the Solar Confederation, even of the entire galaxy."

"I can't believe it," said Morriss.

"Then I'll give you another piece of evidence. When we were out in the ocean, a mental voice—presumably that of a V-frog—spoke to us. It tried to force us to give it some information and then commit suicide."

"Well?"

"The voice arrived via a V-frog, but it did not originate with one. It originated with a human being."

Lou Evans sat bolt upright and stared incredulously at Lucky.

Lucky smiled. "Even Lou doesn't believe that, but it's so. The voice made use of odd concepts such as 'machines of shining metal' instead of 'ships.' We were supposed to think that V-frogs were unfamiliar with such concepts, and the voice had to stimulate our minds into imagining we heard round-about expressions that meant the same thing. But then the voice forgot itself. I remember what I heard it say. I remember it word for word: 'Life will end for your people like the quench-ing of a flame. It will be snuffed out and life will burn no more.'"

Morriss stolidly said again, "Well?"

"You still don't see it? How could the V-frogs use a concept like the 'quenching of a flame' or 'life will burn no more'? If the voice pretends to be that of a V-frog with no concept of such a thing as a ship, how could it have one of fire?"

They all saw it, now, but Lucky drove on furiously. "The atmosphere of Venus is nitrogen and carbon dioxide. There is no oxygen. We all know that. Nothing can burn in Venus's atmosphere. There can be no flame. In a million years no V-frog could possibly have seen a fire, and none of them can know what it is. Even granted that some might have seen fire and flame within the city domes, they could have no understanding of its nature any more than they understood our ships. As I see it, the thoughts we received originated with no V-frog, but with a man who used the V-frog only as a channel to reach from his own mind to ours."

"But how could that be done?" asked Turner.

"I don't know," said Lucky. "I wish I did. Certainly it would take a brilliant mind to find a way. A man would have to know a great deal about the workings of a nervous system and about the electrical phenomena associated with it." Lucky looked coldly at Morriss. "It might take, for instance, a man who specialized in biophysics."

And all eyes turned on the Venusian councilman, from whose round face the blood was draining until his grizzled mustache seemed scarcely visible against his pale skin.


16. The Enemy!

Morriss managed to say, "Are you trying to—" and his voice ground hoarsely to a halt.

"I'm not making any definite statement," said Lucky smoothly. "I have merely made a suggestion."

Morriss looked helplessly about, turning from face to face of the four other men in the room, watching each pair of eyes meet his in fixed fascination.

He choked out, "This is mad, absolutely insane. I was the first to report all this—this—trouble on Venus. Find the original report in Council headquarters. My name is on it. Why should I call in the Council if I were, And my motive? Eh? My motive?"

Councilman Evans seemed uneasy. From the quick glance he shot in Turner's direction, Bigman guessed that this form of inter-Council squabble in front of an outsider was not to his liking.

Still, Evans said, "It would explain the effort Dr. Morriss made to discredit me. I was an outsider, and I might stumble on the truth. I had found half of it, certainly."

Morriss was breathing heavily. "I deny that I ever did such a thing. All this is a conspiracy of some sort against me, and it will go hard in the end for any of you who join in this. I will have justice."

"Are you implying that you wish a Council trial?" asked Lucky. "Do you want to plead your case before a meeting of the assembled Central Committee of the Council?"

What Lucky was referring to, of course, was the procedure ordained for the trial of councilmen accused of high treason against the Council and the Solar Confederation. In all the history of the Council, not one man had ever had to stand such a trial.

At its mention, whatever shreds of control Morriss had used to restrain his feelings vanished. Roaring, he scrambled to his feet and hurtled blindly at Lucky.

Lucky rolled nimbly up and over the arm of the chair he occupied and, at the same time, gestured quickly at Bigman.

It was the signal that Bigman was waiting for. Bigman proceeded to follow the instructions Lucky had given him on board the Hilda when they were passing through the lock of Aphrodite's dome.

A blaster bolt shot out. It was at low intensity but its ionizing radiations produced the pungent odor of ozone in the air.

Matters remained so for a moment. All motion ceased. Morriss, his head against the overturned chair, made no move to get up. Bigman remained standing, like a small statue, with his blaster still held against his hip as though he had been frozen in the act of shooting.

And the target of the blaster bolt lay destroyed and in ruins upon the floor.

Lou Evans found his breath first, but it was only for a sharp exclamation, "What in space—"

Lyman Turner whispered, "What have you done?"

Morriss, panting from his recent effort, could say nothing, but he rolled his eyes mutely at Bigman.

Lucky said, "Nice shot, Bigman," and Bigman grinned.

And in a hundred fragments Lyman Turner's black computer case lay smashed and, for the most part, disintegrated.

Turner's voice rose. "My computer! You idiot! What have you done?"

Lucky said sternly, "Only what he had to do, Turner. Now, everyone quiet."

He turned to Morriss, helped that plump personage to his feet, and said, "All my apologies, Dr. Morriss, but I had to make certain that Turner's attention was completely misdirected. I had to use you for that purpose."

Morriss said, "You mean you don't suspect me of—of—"

"Not for one minute," said Lucky. "I never did."

Morriss moved away, his eyes hot and angry, "Then suppose you explain, Starr."

Lucky said, "Before this conference, I never dared tell anyone that I thought some man was behind the V-frogs. I couldn't even state it in my message to Earth. It seemed obvious to me that if I were to do so, the real enemy might be desperate enough to take some action—such as actually flooding one of the cities—and hold the possibility of a repetition over the heads of all of us as blackmail. As long as he did not know that I went past the V-frog in my suspicions, I hoped he would hold off and play for time or, at most, try to kill only my friends and myself.

"At this conference I could speak of the matter be-cause I believed the man in question to be present. However, I dared not take action against him without proper preparation for fear that he might place us under control despite the presence of the petroleum and for fear that his actions thereafter would be drastic. First I had to distract his attention thoroughly to make sure that, for a few seconds at least, he would be too absorbed in the surface activities of the group to detect, via his V-frog tools, the strong emotions that might be leaking out of Bigman's mind and mine. To be sure, there are no V-frogs in the building, but he might well be able to use the V-frogs in other parts of the city as he was able to use V-frogs out on the ocean's surface miles away from Aphrodite.

"To distract him then, I accused you, Dr. Morriss. I couldn't warn you in advance because I wanted your emotions to be authentic—and they were admirably so. Your attack on me was all that was needed."

Morriss withdrew a large handkerchief from a sleeve pocket and mopped his glistening forehead. "That was pretty drastic, Lucky, but I think I understand. Turner is the man, then?"

"He is," said Lucky.

Turner was on his knees, scrabbling among the fused and shattered shards of his instrument. He looked up with hate-filled eyes, "You've destroyed my computer."

"I doubt that it was a computer," said Lucky. "It was too inseparable a companion of yours. When I first met you, you had it with you. You stated you were using it to compute the strength of the inner barriers of the city against the threatened flood. Right now you have it with you presumably to help you if you should require new computations for your discussions with Dr. Morriss on the strength of those same inner barriers."

Lucky paused, then went on with a hard calmness in his voice. "But I came to see you in your apartment the morning after the threatened flood. I was merely planning to ask you some questions that involved no computing and you knew that. Yet you had your computer with you. You could not bring yourself to leave it in the next room. It had to be with you, at your feet.

Why?"

Turner said desperately. "It was my own construction. I was fond of it. I always carried it with me."

"I should judge it weighed some twenty-five pounds. Rather heavy, even for affection. Could it be that it was the device you used to maintain touch with the V-frogs at all tunes?"

"How do you intend to prove that?" flashed back Turner. "You said I myself was a victim. Everyone here is witness to that."

"Yes," said Lucky, "the man who, despite inexperience, so expertly barricaded himself at the dome lock, got his information from you. But was that information stolen from your mind or did you yourself donate it freely?"

Morriss said angrily, "Let me put the question directly, Lucky. Are you or are you not responsible for the epidemic of mental control, Turner?"

"Of course I'm not," cried Turner. "You can't do anything just on the say-so of a young fool who thinks he can make guesses and have them stick because he's on the Council."

Lucky said, "Tell me, Turner, do you remember that night when a man sat at one of the dome locks with a lever in his hand? Do you remember it well?"

"Quite well."

"Do you remember coming to me and telling me that if the locks were opened the inner transite barrier would not hold and that all of Aphrodite would be flooded? You were quite frightened. Almost panicky."

"All right. I was. I still am. It's something to be panicky about." He added, with his lip curling, "Unless you're the brave Lucky Starr."

Lucky ignored that. "Did you come to me with that information in order to add a little to the already exist-ing confusion, to make sure that we were all disconcerted long enough for you to maneuver Lou Evans out of the city in order that he might be safely killed in the ocean? Evans was hard to handle, and he had learned too much concerning the V-frogs. Perhaps, also, you were trying to frighten me out of Aphrodite and off Venus."

Turner said, "This is all ridiculous. The inner barriers are inadequate. Ask Morriss. He's already seen my figures."

Morriss nodded reluctantly. "I'm afraid Turner is right there."

"No matter," said Lucky. "Let's consider that settled. There was a real danger, and Turner was justifiably panicked.… You are married, Turner."

Turner's eyes flicked uneasily to Lucky's face and away again. "So?"

"Your wife is pretty and considerably younger than yourself. You have been married for not quite a year."

"What is that intended to prove?"

"That you probably have a deep affection for her. Immediately after marriage you move into an expensive apartment to please her; you allow her to decorate it according to her tastes even though your own taste differs. Surely you wouldn't neglect her safety, would you?"

"I don't understand. What are you talking about?"

"I think you know. The one time I met your wife she told toe that she had slept through the entire excitement the night before. She seemed quite disappointed that she had. She also told me what a fine apartment house she lived in. She said it even possessed 'chambers.' Unfortunately, that meant nothing to me at the time, or I might have seen the truth then and there. It was only later, at the bottom of the ocean, that Lou Evans casually mentioned chambers and told me what they were. 'Chambers' is a word used on Venus to denote special shelters built to withstand the full force of the ocean in case a quake breaks a city dome. Now do you know what I'm talking about?"

Turner was silent.

Lucky went on. "If you were so frightened of city-wide catastrophe that night, why didn't you think of your wife? You spoke of rescuing people, of escaping the city. Did you never consider your wife's safety? There were chambers in the basement of her apartment house. Two minutes and she would have been safe. You had only to call her, give her one word of warning. But you didn't. You let her sleep."

Turner mumbled something.

Lucky said, "Don't say you forgot. That's completely unbelievable. You might have forgotten anything, but not your wife's safety. Let me suggest an alternative explanation. You were not worried about your wife because you knew she was in no real danger. You knew she was in no real danger because you knew the lock in the dome would never be opened." Lucky's voice was hard with anger. "You knew the lock in the dome would never be opened because you yourself were in mental control of the man at the lever. It was your very fondness for your wife that betrayed you. You could not bring yourself to disturb her sleep merely in order to make your phony act more plausible."

Turner said suddenly, "I'm not saying anything more without a lawyer. What you have isn't evidence."

Lucky said, "It's enough to warrant a full Council investigation, though. … Dr. Morriss, would you have him taken in custody in preparation for flight under guard to Earth? Bigman and I will go with him. We'll see that he gets there safely."


At the hotel again, Bigman said worriedly, "Sands of Mars, Lucky, I don't see how we're going to get proof against Turner. All your deductions sound convincing and all that, but it isn't legal proof."

Lucky, with a warm yeast dinner inside himself, was able to relax for the first time since he and Bigman had penetrated the cloud barrier that encircles Venus. He said, "I don't think the Council will be mainly interested in legal proof or in getting Turner executed."

"Lucky! Why not? That cobber—"

"I know. He's a murderer several times over. He definitely had dictatorial ambitions, so he's a traitor, too. But more important than either of those things is the fact that he created a work of genius."

Bigman said, "You mean his machine?"

"I certainly do. We destroyed the only one in existence, probably, and we'll need him to build another.

There are many questions we'd like answered. How did Turner control the V-frogs? When he wanted Lou Evans killed, did he instruct the V-frogs in detail, tell them every step of the procedure, order them to bring up the giant patch? Or did he simply say, 'Kill Evans,' and allow the V-frogs to do their jobs like trained dogs in whatever way they thought best?

"Then, too, can you imagine the use to which an instrument such as that can be put? It may offer us an entirely new method of attack on mental diseases, a new way of combating criminal impulses. It may even, conceivably, be used to prevent wars in the future or to defeat the enemies of Earth quickly and bloodlessly if a war is forced upon us. Just as the machine was dangerous in the hands of one ambition-riddled man, it can be very useful and beneficial in the hands of the Council."

Bigman said, "Do you think the Council will argue him into building another machine?"

"I think so, and with proper safeguards, too. If we offer him pardon and rehabilitation, with an alternative of life imprisonment with no chance of ever seeing his wife again, I think he'll agree to help. And, of course, one of the first uses of the machine would be to investigate Turner's own mind, help cure it of his abnormal desire for power, and save for the service of humanity a first-class brain."

The next day they would be leaving Venus, heading once again for Earth. Lucky thought with pleasant nostalgia of the beautiful blue sky of his home planet, the open air, the natural foods, the space and scope of land life. He said, "Remember, Bigman, it is easy to 'protect society' by executing a criminal, but that will not bring back his victims. If one can cure him instead and use him to make life better and brighter for that society, how much more has been accomplished!"


Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury

Isaac Asimov


To Robyn Joan, who did her best to interfere.



Preface

Back in the 1950s, I wrote a series of six derring-do novels about David "Lucky" Starr and his battles against malefactors within the Solar System. Each of the six took place in a different region of the system, and in each case I made use of the astronomical facts – as they were then known.

Now, a quarter-century later, Fawcett is bringing out the novels in new editions; but what a quarter-century it has been! More has been learned about the worlds of our Solar System in this last quarter-century than in all the thousands of years that went before.

LUCKY STARR AND THE BIG SUN OF MERCURY was written in 1955 and at that time, astronomers were convinced that Mercury presented only one face to the Sun, and that it rotated on its axis in 88 days, which was exactly the length of the year. I made that conviction a central part of the plot of the book.

In 1965, however, astronomers studied radar-beam reflections from the surface of Mercury and found, to their surprise, that this was not so. Mercury rotates on its axis in 59 days, so that there is no perpetual day-side or night-side.

Every part of the planet gets both day and night, and the Sun moves in a rather complicated path in Mercury's sky, growing larger and smaller, and backtracking on some occasions. If I were writing this book today, I would take all this into account, I hope my Gentle Readers enjoy this book anyway, as an adventure story, but please don't forget that the advance of science can outdate even the most conscientious science-fiction writer and that my astronomical descriptions are no longer accurate in all respects.


Isaac Asimov


1. The Ghosts of the Sun

Lucky thought: At least things are breaking fast.

He had been on Mercury only an hour. He had had scarcely time to do more than see his ship, the Shooting Starr, safely stowed in the underground hangar. He had met only the technicians who had handled the landing red tape and seen to his ship.

Those technicians, that is, and Scott Mindes, engineer in charge of Project Light. It had been almost as though the young man had been lying in wait. Almost at once he had suggested a trip to the surface.

To see some of the sights, he had explained.

Lucky did not believe that, of course. The engineer's small-chinned face had been haunted with trouble, and his mouth twitched as he spoke. His eyes slid away from Lucky's cool, level glance.

Yet Lucky agreed to visit the surface. As yet, all he knew of the troubles on Mercury was that they posed a ticklish problem for the Council of Science. He was willing to go along with Mindes and see where that led him.

As for Bigman Jones, he was always glad to follow Lucky anywhere and any time, for any reason and no reason.

But it was Bigman whose eyebrows lifted as all three were getting into their suits. He nodded almost unnoticeably toward the holster attachment on Mindes's suit.

Lucky nodded calmly in return. He, too, had noticed that protruding from the holster was the butt of a heavy-caliber blaster.

The young engineer stepped out onto the surface of the planet first. Lucky Starr followed and Bigman came last.

For the moment, they lost contact with one another in the nearly total darkness. Only the stars were visible, bright and hard in the cold airlessness.

Bigman recovered first. The gravity here on Mercury was almost exactly equal to that on his native Mars. The Martian nights were almost as dark. The stars in its night sky were almost as brilliant.

His treble voice sounded brightly in the receivers of the others. "Hey, I'm beginning to make things out."

So was Lucky, and the fact puzzled him. Surely starlight could not be that bright. There was a faint, luminous haze that lay over the fumbled landscape and touched its sharp crags with a pale milkiness.

Lucky had seen something of the sort on the Moon during its two-week-long night. There, also, was the completely barren landscape, rough and broken. Never, in millions of years, either there on the Moon or here on Mercury, had there been the softening touch of wind or rain. The bare rock, colder than imagination could picture, lay without a touch of frost in a waterless world.

And in the Moon's night, too, there had been this milkiness. But there, over half the Moon at least, there had been Earth-light. When Earth was full it shone with sixteen times the brightness of the full Moon as seen from Earth.

Here on Mercury, at the Solar Observatory at the North Pole, there was no near-by planet to account for the light.

"Is that starlight?" he finally asked, knowing it wasn't.

Scott Mindes said wearily, "That's the coronal glimmer."

"Great Galaxy," said Lucky with a light laugh. "The corona! Of course! I should have known!"

''Known what?" cried Bigman. "What's going on? Hey, Mindes, come on, give!"

Mindes said, "Turn around. You've got your back to it."

They all turned. Lucky whistled softly between his teeth; Bigman yelped with surprise. Mindes said nothing.

A section of the horizon was etched sharply against a pearly region of the sky. Every pointed irregularity of that part of the horizon was in keen focus. Above it, the sty was in a soft glow (fading with height) a third of the way to the zenith. The glow consisted of bright, curving streamers of pale light.

"That's the corona, Mr. Jones," said Mindes.

Even in his astonishment Bigman was not forgetful of his own conception of the proprieties. He growled, "Call me Bigman." Then he said, "You mean the corona around the Sun? I didn't think it was that big."

"It's a million miles deep or more," said Mindes, "and we're on Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun. We're only thirty million miles from the Sun right now. You're from Mars, aren't you?"

"Born and bred," said Bigman.

"Well, if you could see the Sun right now, you'd find it was thirty-six times as big as it is when seen from Mars, and so's the corona. And thirty-six times as bright too."

Lucky nodded. Sun and corona would be nine times as large as seen from Earth. And the corona could not be seen at all on Earth, except during periods of total eclipse.

Well, Mindes had not altogether lied. There were sights to be seen on Mercury. He tried to fill out the corona, to imagine the Sun it surrounded which was now hidden just below the horizon. It would be a majestic sight!

Mindes went on, an unmistakable bitterness in his voice. "They call this light 'the white ghost of the Sun.'"

Lucky said, "I like that. A rather good phrase."

"Rather good?" said Mindes savagely. "I don't think so. There's too much talk about ghosts on this planet. This planet's all jinx. Nothing ever goes right on it. The mines failed…" His voice trailed off.

Lucky thought: We'll let that simmer.

Aloud he said, "Where is this phenomenon we were to see, Mindes?"

"Oh yes. We'll have to walk a bit. Not far, considering the gravity, but watch your footing. We don't have roads here, and the coronal glimmer can be awfully confusing. I suggest the helmet lights."

He clicked his on as he spoke, and a shaft of light sprang out from above the face-plate, turning the ground into a rough patchwork of yellow and black. Two other lights flashed on, and the three figures moved forward on their thickly insulated boots. They made no sound in the vacuum, but each could sense the soft vibrations set up by each footfall in the air within their suits.

Mindes seemed to be brooding about the planet as he walked. He said in a low, tense voice, "I hate Mercury. I've been here six months, two Mercurian years, and I'm sick of it. I didn't think I'd be here more than six months to begin with, and here the time's up and nothing's done. Nothing. Everything about this place is wrong. It's the smallest planet. It's the closest to the Sun. Only one side faces the Sun. Over there"—and his arm swung in the direction of the corona's gleam—"is the Sun-side, where it gets hot enough in places to melt lead and boil sulfur. Over there in the other direction"—again his arm swung—"is the one planetary surface in the whole Solar System that never sees the Sun. Everything about the place is miserable."

He paused to jump over a shallow, six-foot-wide rift in the surface, a reminder of some eons-old Mercury-quake, perhaps, which could not heal over without wind and weather. He made the jump clumsily, the picture of an Earthman who, even on Mercury, stayed close to the artificial gravity of the Observatory Dome.

Bigman clicked his tongue disapprovingly at the sight. He and Lucky negotiated the jump with scarcely anything more than a lengthening of stride.

A quarter mile farther on, Mindes said abruptly, "We can see it from here, and just in time too."

He stopped, teetering forward, with arms outflung for balance. Bigman and Lucky halted with a small hop which kicked up a spurt of gravel.

Mindes's helmet flash went out. He was pointing. Lucky and Bigman put out their own lights and there, in the darkness, where Mindes had pointed, was a small, irregular splotch of white.

It was brilliant, a more burning sunshine than Lucky had ever seen on Earth.

"This is the best angle for seeing it," said Mindes. "It's the top of Black and White Mountain."

"Is that its name?" asked Bigman.

"That's right. You see why, don't you? It stands just far enough nightward of the Terminator… That's the boundary between the dark-side and the Sun-side."

"I know that," said Bigman indignantly. "You think I'm ignorant?"

"I'm just explaining. There's this little spot around the North Pole, and another around the South Pole, where the Terminator doesn't move much as Mercury circles the sun. Down at the Equator, now, the Terminator moves seven hundred miles in one direction for forty-four days and then seven hundred miles back in the next forty-four. Here it just moves half or mile or so altogether, which is why this is a good place for an observatory. The Sun and the stars stand still.

"Anyway, Black and White Mountain is just far enough away so that only the top half of it is lit up at most. Then, as the Sun creeps away, the light moves up the mountain slopes."

"And now," interposed Lucky, "only the peak is lit up."

"Only the top foot or two maybe, and that will be gone soon. It will be all dark for an Earth-day or two, and then the light starts coming back."

Even as he spoke the white splotch shrank to a dot that burned like a bright star.

The three men waited.

"Look away," advised Mindes, "so that your eyes get accustomed to darkness."

And after slow minutes he said, "All right, look back."

Lucky and Bigman did so and for a while saw nothing.

And then it was as though the landscape had turned bloody. Or a piece of it had, at any rate. First there was just the sensation of redness. Then it could be made out, a rugged mountain climbing up to a peak. The peak was brightly red now, the red deepening and fading as the eye traveled downward until all was black.

"What is it?" asked Bigman.

"The Sun," said Mindes, "has sunk just low enough now so that, from the mountain peak, all that remains above the horizon is the corona and the prominences. The prominences are jets of hydrogen gas that lift thousand of miles above the Sun's surface, and they're a bright red in color. Their light is there all the time, but ordinary sunlight drowns it out."

Again Lucky nodded. The prominences were again something which on Earth could be seen only during a total eclipse or with special instruments, thanks to the atmosphere.

"In fact," added Mindes in a low voice, "they call this 'the red ghost of the Sun.' "

"That's two ghosts," said Lucky suddenly, "a white one and a red one. Is it because of the ghosts that you carry a blaster, Mr. Mindes?"

Mindes shouted, "What?" Then, wildly, "What are you talking about?"

"I'm saying," said Lucky, "that it's time you told us why you really brought us out here. Not just for the sights, I'm sure, or you wouldn't carry a blaster on an empty, desolate planet."

It took a while for Mindes to answer. When he did, he said, "You're David Starr, aren't you?"

"That's right," said Lucky patiently.

"You're a member of the Council of Science. You're the man they call Lucky Starr."

Members of the Council of Science shunned publicity, and it was with a certain reluctance that Lucky said again, "That's right."

"Then I'm not wrong. You're one of their ace investigators, and you're here to investigate Project Light."

Lucky's lips thinned as they pressed together. He would much rather that were not so easily known. He said, "Maybe that's true, maybe it isn't. Why did you bring me here?"

"I know it's true, and I brought you here"—Mindes was panting—"to tell you the truth before the others could fill you—full of—lies."

"About what?"

"About the failures that have been haunting—I hate that word—the failures in Project Light."

"But you might have told me what you wanted to back at the Dome. Why bring me here?"

"For two reasons," said the engineer. His breathing continued rapid and difficult. "In the first place, they all think it's my fault. They think I can't pull the project through, that I'm wasting tax money. I wanted to get you away from them. Understand? I wanted to keep you from listening to them first."

"Why should they think it's your fault?"

"They think I'm too young."

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-two."

Lucky Starr, who wasn't very much older, said, "And your second reason?"

"I wanted you to get the feeling of Mercury. I wanted you to absorb the-the—" He fell silent.

Lucky's suited figure stood straight and tall on Mercury's forbidding surface, and the metal of one shoulder caught and reflected the milky light of the corona, "the white ghost of the Sun."

He said, "Very well, Mindes, suppose I accept your statement that you are not responsible for failures in the project. Who is?"

The engineer's voice was a vague mutter at first. It coalesced gradually into words. "I don't know—At least… "

"I don't understand you," said Lucky.

"Look," said Mindes desperately, "I've investigated. I spent waking and sleeping periods trying to pinpoint the blame. I watched everybody's movements. I noted times when accidents took place, when there were breaks in the cables or when conversion plates were smashed. And one thing I'm sure of—"

"Which is?"

"That nobody at the Dome can be directly responsible. Nobody. There are only about fifty people in the Dome, fifty-two to be exact, and the last six times something has gone wrong I've been able to account for each one. Nobody was anywhere near the scenes of the accidents." His voice had gone high-pitched.

Lucky said, "Then how do you account for the accidents? Mercury-quakes? Action of the Sun?"

"Ghosts!" cried the engineer wildly, flinging his arms about. "There's a white ghost and a red ghost. You've seen those. But there are two-legged ghosts too. I've seen them, but will anyone believe me?" He was almost incoherent. "I tell you… I tell you… "

Bigman said, "Ghosts! Are you nuts?"

At once Mindes screamed, "You don't believe me either. But I'll prove it. I'll blast the ghost. I'll blast the fools who won't believe me. I'll blast everyone. Everyone!"

With a harsh screech of laughter he had drawn his blaster, and with frenzied speed, before Bigman could move to stop him, he had aimed it at Lucky at point-blank range and squeezed its trigger. Its invisible field of disruption lashed out…


2. Mad or Sane?

It would have been the end of Lucky if he and Mindes had been on Earth.

Lucky had not missed the gathering madness in Mindes's voice. He had been waiting carefully for some break, some action to suit the violence of the engineer's hard-breathed sentences. Yet he had not entirely expected an outright assault with the blaster.

When Mindes's hand flashed to his holster, Lucky leaped to one side. On Earth, that movement would have come too late.

On Mercury, however, matters were different. Mercury's gravity was two fifths that of Earth, and Lucky's contracting muscles threw his abnormally light body (even including the suit he wore) farther to one side. Mindes, unaccustomed to low gravity, stumbled as he turned too quickly in order that his blaster might follow Lucky's motion.

The blaster's energy, therefore, struck bare ground, inches from Lucky's sinking body. It gouged a foot-deep hole into the frigid rock.

Before Mindes could recover and aim again, Bigman had struck him at the end of a long, low tackle carried through with the natural grace of a born Martian accustomed to low gravity.

Mindes went down. He shrieked wordlessly and then was silent, whether unconscious as the result of the fall or as the climax of his fevered emotions could not be told.

Bigman did not believe either possibility. "He's shamming," he cried passionately. "The dirty cobber is playing dead." He had wrenched the blaster from the fallen engineer's unresisting grip, and now he pointed it at the man's head.

Lucky said sharply, "None of that, Bigman."

Bigman hesitated. "He tried to kill you, Lucky." It was obvious that the little Martian would not have been half as angry if it had merely been himself who had been in danger of death. Yet he backed away.

Lucky was on his knees examining Mindes's face through the face-plate, shining his helmet light onto the other's pale, drawn features. He checked the pressure gauge of Mindes's suit, making sure the shock, of the fall had not loosened any of its joints. Then, seizing the fallen figure by a wrist and ankle, he slung it across his shoulders and rose to his feet.

"Back to the Dome," he said, "and, I'm afraid, to a problem that's a little more complicated than the Chief thinks."

Bigman granted and followed Lucky's long stride closely, his own smaller build forcing him into a gravity-lengthened half trot. He kept his blaster ready, maneuvering his position to enable him, in case of need, to strike at Mindes without blasting down Lucky.


The "Chief" was Hector Conway, head of the Council of Science. At more informal times he was called Uncle Hector by Lucky, since it was Hector Conway, along with Augustus Henree, who were the guardians of the young Lucky after the death of Lucky's parents as the result of a pirate attack near the orbit of Venus.

A week earlier Conway had said to Lucky with a casual air, almost as though he were offering him a vacation, "How would you like to go to Mercury, Lucky?"

"What's up, Uncle Hector?" asked Lucky.

"Nothing really," said Conway, frowning, "except some cheap politics. We're supporting a rather expensive project up at Mercury, one of those basic research things that may come to nothing, you know, and, on the other hand, may turn out to be quite revolutionary. It's a gamble. All those things are."

Lucky said, "Is it anything I know about?"

"I don't think so. It's quite recent. Anyway, Senator Swenson has pounced on it as an example of how the Council wastes taxpayers' money. You know the line. He's pressing for an investigation, and one of his boys went out to Mercury some months ago."

"Senator Swenson? I see." Lucky nodded. This was nothing new. The Council of Science over the past decades had slowly come to the fore of the fight against the dangers to Earth from both within and without the Solar System. In this age of Galactic civilization, with humanity spread through all the planets of all the stars in the Milky Way, only scientists could properly cope with mankind's problems. In fact, only the specially trained scientists of the Council were adequate.

Yet there were some men of Earth's government who feared the growing power of this Council of Science and others who used this suspicion to further their own ambitions. Senator Swenson was the foremost of the latter group. His attacks, usually directed against the Council's "wasteful" way of supporting research, were making him famous.

Lucky said, "Who's the man in charge of the project on Mercury? Anyone I know?"

"It's called Project Light, by the way. And the man in charge is an engineer named Scott Mindes. A bright boy, but he's not the man to handle this. The most embarrassing thing is that since Swenson kicked up this fuss all sorts of things have been going wrong with Project Light."

"I'll look into it if you wish, Uncle Hector."

"Good. The accidents and bad breaks are nothing, I'm sure, but we don't want Swenson. to maneuver us into some bad-looking spot. See what he's up to. And watch out for that man of his. Urteil is his name and he has a reputation of being a capable and dangerous fellow."

So that was all it started out as. Just a bit of investigation to forestall political difficulties. Nothing more.

Lucky landed on Mercury's North Pole expecting nothing more, and in two hours found himself at the wrong end of a. blaster bolt.

Lucky thought as he slogged back to the Dome with Mindes over his shoulders: There's more than just a bit of politics here.


Dr. Karl Gardoma stepped out of the small hospital room and faced Lucky and Bigman somberly. He was wiping his strong hands on a pad of fluffy plastosorb, which he tossed into the disposal unit when he finished. His dark-complexioned face, almost brown, was disturbed, his heavy eyebrows lowering. Even his black hair, cut close so that it stood up stiffly in thick array, seemed to accentuate his troubled appearance.

"Well, Doctor?" said Lucky.

Dr. Gardoma said, "I've got him under sedation. He'll be all right when he wakes. I don't know if he'll remember clearly what happened."

"Has he had attacks like this before?"

"Not since he came to Mercury, Mr. Starr. I don't know what happened before then, but these last few months he's been under a great strain."

"Why?"

"He feels responsible for the accidents that have been interfering with the progress of Project Light."

"Is he responsible?"

"No, of course not. But you can see how he feels. He's sure everyone blames him. Project Light is vitally important. A great deal of money and effort has been put into it. Mindes is in charge of ten construction men, all five to ten years older than he is, and of an enormous amount of equipment."

"How does it happen he's so young?"

The doctor smiled grimly, but despite his grimness his white, even teeth made him look pleasant, even charming. He said, "Sub-etheric optics, Mr. Starr, is a completely new branch of science. Only young men, fresh out of school, know enough about it."

"You sound as though you know a bit about it yourself."

"Only what Mindes told me. We arrived in Mercury on the same ship, you know, and he fascinated me, quite won me over with what his project hopes to accomplish. Do you know about it?"

"Not a thing."

"Well, it involves hyperspace, that portion of space that lies outside the ordinary boundary of the space we know. The laws of nature that apply to ordinary space don't apply to hyperspace. For instance, in ordinary space it is impossible to move faster than the speed of light, so that it would take at least four years to reach the nearest star. In going through hyperspace any speed is possible… " The physician broke off with a sudden, apologetic smile. "You know all this, I'm sure."

"I suppose most people know that the discovery of hyperspatial flight made travel to the stars possible," said Lucky, "but what about Project Light?"

"Well," said Dr. Gardoma, "in ordinary space, light travels in straight lines in a vacuum. It can only be bent by large gravitational forces. In hyperspace, on the other hand, it can be bent as easily as if it were a cotton thread. It can be focused, dispersed, bent back upon itself. That's what the theory of hyperoptics says."

"And Scott Mindes, I suppose, is here to test that theory."

"That's right."

"Why here?" asked Lucky. "I mean, why on Mercury?"

"Because there's no other planetary surface in the Solar System where there is such a concentration of light over so large an area. The effects Mindes is looking for can be detected most easily here. It would be a hundred tunes as expensive to set up the project on Earth, and results would be a hundred times as uncertain. So Mindes tells me."

"Only now we're having these accidents."

Dr. Gardoma snorted. "They're no accidents. And, Mr. Starr, they have to be stopped. Do you know what the success of Project Light would mean?" He drove on, caught up in the vision. "Earth would no longer be the slave of the Sun. Space stations circling Earth could intercept sunlight, push it through hyperspace, and spread it evenly over the Earth. The desert heat and the polar cold would vanish. The seasons would be rearranged to our liking. We could control the weather by controlling the distribution of sunlight. We could have eternal sunlight where we wanted it; night of any length where we wanted it. Earth would be an air-conditioned paradise."

"It would take time, I imagine."

"A great deal of it, but this is the beginning… Look, I may be out of order here, but aren't you the David Starr who cleared up the matter of the food poisonings on Mars?"

There was an edge to Lucky's voice as he answered, and his brows contracted slightly. "What makes you think so?"

Dr. Gardoma said, "I am a physician, after all. The poisonings seemed at first to be a disease epidemic, and I was much interested in it at the tune. There were rumors about a young Councilman's having played the chief role in straightening the mystery, and names were mentioned."

Lucky said, "Suppose we let it go at that." He was displeased, as always, at any intimation that he was becoming well known. First Mindes, now Gardoma.

Dr. Gardoma said, "But if you are that Starr, you're here, I hope, to stop these so-called accidents."

Lucky did not seem to hear. He said, "When will I be able to talk to Scott Mindes, Dr. Gardoma?"

"Not for at least twelve hours."

"And will he be rational?"

''I'm certain of that."

A new guttural baritone voice broke in. "Are you, Gardoma? Is that because you know our boy Mindes was never irrational?"

Dr. Gardoma whirled at the sound and made no effort to hide the look of acute dislike on his face. "What are you doing here, Urteil?"

"Keeping my eyes and ears open, though I suppose you'd rather I kept them closed," the newcomer said.

Both Lucky and Bigman were staring at him curiously. He was a large man; not tall, but broad of shoulder and thick-muscled. His cheeks were blue with stubble, and there was a rather unpleasant air of self-assurance about him.

Dr. Gardoma said, "I don't care what you do with your eyes and ears, but not in my office, if you don't mind."

"Why not in your office?" demanded Urteil. "You're a doctor. Patients have a right to come in. Maybe I'm a patient."

"What's your complaint?"

"How about these two? What are their complaints? Hormone deficiency, for one thing, I suppose." His eyes fell lazily on Bigman Jones as he said that.

There was a breathless interlude in which Bigman turned a deathly white and then seemed to swell. Slowly he rose from his seat, his eyes round and staring. His lips moved as though forming the words "hormone deficiency," as though he were trying to convince himself that he had actually heard the words and that it was no illusion.

Then, with the speed of a cobra striking, Bigman's five foot two of cord-whip muscle launched itself at the broad, sneering figure before him.

But Lucky moved faster. His hands shot downward, catching Bigman at each shoulder. "Easy, Bigman."

The small Martian struggled desperately. "You heard him, Lucky. You heard him."

"Not now, Bigman."

Urteil's laugh was a series of sharp barks. "Let him go, fella. I'll smear the little boy over the floor with my finger."

Bigman howled and writhed in Lucky's grip.

Lucky said, "I wouldn't say anything else, Urteil, or you may be in a kind of trouble your senator friend won't be able to get you out of."

His eyes had become brown ice as he spoke and his voice was smooth steel.

Urteil's glance locked with Lucky's for a moment, then fell away. He mumbled something about joking. Bigman's harsh breathing calmed somewhat, and as Lucky slowly released his grip the Martian took his seat, still trembling with almost unbearable fury.

Dr. Gardoma, who had watched the bit of byplay tensely, said, "You know Urteil, Mr. Starr?"

"By reputation. He's Jonathan Urteil, Senator Swenson's roving investigator."

"Well, call it that," muttered the physician.

"And I know you too, David Starr, Lucky Starr, whatever you call yourself," said Urteil. "You're the roving wonder-boy for the Council of Science. Mars poisonings. Asteroid pirates. Venusian telepathy. Do I have the list correct?"

"You have," said Lucky tonelessly.

Urteil grinned triumphantly. "There isn't much the senator's office doesn't know about the Council of Science. And there isn't much I don't know about things happening here. For instance, I know about the attempt on your life, and I've come here to see you about it."

"Why?"

"To give you a little warning. Just a friendly little warning. I suppose the medic here has been telling you what a nice guy Mindes is. Just a momentary splash of unbearable strain, he's been telling you, I suppose. They're great friends, Mindes and he."

"I just said—" began Dr. Gardoma.

"Let me say," said Urteil. "Let me say this, Scott Mindes is about as harmless as a two-ton asteroid heading for a space-ship. He wasn't temporarily insane when he pointed a blaster at you. He knew what he was doing. He tried to kill you in cold blood, Starr, and if you don't watch out, he'll succeed next time. Because you can bet your small friend's Martian hip boots he'll try again."


3. Death Waits in a Room

The silence that followed seemed pleasant for no one but Urteil.

Then Lucky said, "Why? What's his motive?"

Urteil said calmly, "Because he's afraid. He's out here with millions of cash invested, cash that's been given him by a lax Council of Science, and he can't make his experiments work. He's calling his incompetence bad breaks. Eventually he'll go back to Earth and cry about Mercury's jinx. Then he'll get more money out of the Council, or, rather, out of the taxpayers, for some other fool scheme. Now you're coming to Mercury to investigate, and he's afraid that the Council, in

spite of itself, may learn a little of the truth… You

take it from there."

Lucky said, "If this is the truth, you know it already."

"Yes, and I hope to prove it."

"But you're the danger to Mindes, then. By your reasoning, it is you he should try to kill."

Urteil grinned and his plump cheeks broadened until his jowly face looked wider than it was long. He said, "He has tried to kill me. True enough. But I've been through many tough sieges working for the senator. I can handle myself."

"Scott Mindes never tried to kill you or anybody," said Dr. Gardoma, his face pinched and white. "You know it, too."

Urteil made no direct answer. He spoke instead to Lucky. "And keep an eye on the good doctor too. As I said, he's great friends with Mindes. If I were you, I wouldn't let him treat me for as much as a headache. Pills and injections can—" He snapped his fingers with a sharp cracking noise.

Dr. Gardoma, words coming thickly, said, "Some day, someone will kill you for—"

Urteil said carelessly, "Yes? Are you planning on being the one?" He turned to go, then said over his shoulder, "Oh, I forgot. I hear that old man Peverale wants to see you. He's very disturbed at there being no official welcome. He's upset. So go see him and pat his poor old head for him… And, Starr, another hint.

After this, don't use any protective suits of any kind without checking them for leaks. Know what I mean?" With that, finally, he left.

Long moments passed before Gardoma was near normality again, before he could talk without choking. Then he said, "He riles me more every time I see him. He's a mean-mouthed, lying—"

"A mighty shrewd fellow," said Lucky dryly. "It seems obvious that one of his methods of attack is deliberately to say exactly what is calculated most to anger his opponent. An angry opponent is a half-helpless one… And, Bigman, that goes for you. You can't just flail away at anyone who hints you're under sk feet."

"Lucky," wailed the pint-sized Martian, "he said I was hormone-deficient."

"Then learn to wait for the appropriate moment to convince him otherwise."

Bigman grumbled rebelliously, and one clenched fist beat softly against the tough plastic of his silver-and-vermilion hip boots (the colorfully designed hip boots that no one but a Martian farm boy would wear and which no Martian farm boy would be without. Bigman owned a dozen, each more glaring than the last).

Lucky said, "Well, we'll look up Dr. Peverale. He's the head of the Observatory, isn't he?"

"The head of the whole Dome," said the doctor. "Actually, he's getting old and he's lost touch. I'm glad to say that he hates Urteil as much as any of us do, but there's nothing he can do about it. He can't buck the senator. I wonder if the Council of Science can?" he ended gloomily.

Lucky said, "I think so. Now remember, I'll want to see Mindes when he wakes up."

"All right. Take care of yourself.''

Lucky stared at him curiously. "Take care of myself? How do you mean?"

Dr. Gardoma flushed. "Just an expression. I always say it. I don't mean anything by it."

"I see. Well, then, we'll be meeting again. Come along, Bigman, and stop frowning."


Dr. Lance Peverale shook them both by the hand with a vigor that was surprising in a man so old. His dark eyes were lit with concern and appeared the darker for the white eyebrows that topped them. His hair, still abundant, retained a considerable amount of its original color and had not faded past an iron gray. His lined and leathery cheeks, above which sharp cheekbones stood out prominently, did most to give him the appearance of age.

He spoke slowly and gently. "I am sorry, gentlemen, most concerned that you should have had such a distressing experience so soon after arriving at the Observatory. I blame myself."

"You have no reason to, Dr. Peverale," said Lucky.

"The fault is mine, sir. Had I been here to greet you as I ought to have… But there, we were following an important and quite anomalous prominence, and I'm afraid I allowed my profession to tempt me from the proper expression of hospitality."

"In any case, you are forgiven," said Lucky, and he glanced sidewise with some amusement at Bigman, who was listening, open-mouthed, to the old man's stately flow of words.

"I am past forgiveness," said the astronomer, "but it pleases me that you make the attempt. Meanwhile, I have ordered that quarters be placed at your disposal." He linked arms with both of them, urging them along the well-lit but narrow corridors of the Dome. "Our facilities are crowded, particularly since Dr. Mindes and his engineers have arrived and-and others. Still, I imagine you will find it welcome to have an opportunity to refresh yourselves and to sleep, perhaps. You will wish for food, I am sure, and it will be sent to you. Tomorrow will be time enough for you to meet us all socially, and for us to find out your purpose in coming here. For myself, the fact that the Council of Science vouches for you is sufficient. We will have a kind of banquet in your honor."

The corridor level was sinking as they walked, and they were burrowing into Mercury's vitals toward the residential level of the Dome.

Lucky said, "You are very kind. Perhaps I will also have the opportunity to inspect the Observatory."

Peverale seemed delighted at that. "I will be at your service in the matter, and I am sure you will not regret time spent in such an inspection. Our major equipment is mounted on a movable platform designed to move with the advancing or receding Terminator. In that fashion, a particular portion of the Sun can be kept continually in view despite Mercury's motions."

"Wonderful! But now, Dr. Peverale, one question. What is your opinion of Dr. Mindes? I'd appreciate a frank answer without any consideration for such things as diplomacy."

Peverale frowned. "Are you a sub-temporal engineer too?"

"Not quite," said Lucky, "but I was asking about Dr. Mindes."

"Exactly. Well"—and the astronomer looked thoughtful—"he is a pleasant young man, quite competent, I should think, but nervous, very nervous. He is easily offended, too easily offended. It has shown up as time has gone on and things have not been quite right with his project, and it is making him a little difficult to get along with. A pity, for as I say, he is a pleasant young man, otherwise. I am his superior, of course, while he is here at the Dome, but I don't really interfere with him. His project has no connection with our Observatory work."

"And your opinion of Jonathan Urteil?"

The old astronomer stopped walking on the instant. "What about him?"

"How does he get along here?"

"I am not interested in discussing the man," said Peverale.

They walked on in silence for a short while. The astronomer's face was lowering.

Lucky said, "Are there any other outsiders at the Dome? There are you and your men, Mindes and his men, and Urteil. Anyone else?"

"The doctor, of course. Dr. Gardoma."

"You do not consider him one of your own men?"

"Well, he's a doctor and not an astronomer. He supplies the one service the Dome must have and can't use machinery for. He cares for our health. He's new here."

"How new?"

"He replaced our old doctor after the latter's one-year shift. Dr. Gardoma arrived on the same ship that carried Mindes's group, as a matter of fact."

"One-year shift? Is that common for doctors here?"

"And most of the men. It makes it difficult to keep up continuity, and it is hard to train a man and have him leave; but then, Mercury is not an easy place to remain, and our men must be replaced frequently."

"Then in the last six months how many new men have you received here?"

"Perhaps twenty. The exact figures are in our records, but twenty is about it."

"Surely you yourself have been here quite a while."

The astronomer laughed. "Many years. I hate to think how many. And Dr. Cook, my assistant director, has been here for six years. Of course we take vacations frequently… Well, here are your quarters, gentlemen. If there is anything you should wish, do not hesitate to inform me."

Bigman looked about him. The room was a small one, but it held two beds that could fold up into a wall recess when not in use; two chairs of which the same was true; a one-piece desk-chair combination; a small closet; and an adjoining wash room.

"Hey," he said, "a lot better than the ship, anyway, huh?"

"Not bad," said Lucky. "This is probably one of their better rooms."

"Why not?" said Bigman. "I guess he knows who you are."

"I guess not, Bigman," said Lucky. "He thought I might be a sub-temporal engineer. All he knows is that the Council sent me."

"Everyone else knows who you are," said Bigman.

"Not everyone. Mindes, Gardoma, and Urteil… Look, Bigman, why don't you use the washroom? I'll have some food sent up and have them bring in the general utility kit from the Shooting Starr"

"Suits me," said Bigman cheerily.

Bigman sang loudly through the shower. As usual on a waterless world, the bath water was strictly rationed, with stern warnings on the wall as to the amount it was permissible to use. But Bigman had been born and bred on Mars. He had a huge respect for water and would no more think of splashing idly in it than in beef stew. So he used detergent copiously and water carefully and sang loudly.

He stepped in front of the forced-hot-air dryer which tingled his skin with its jets of bone-dry air and slapped his body with his hands to enhance the effect.

"Hey, Lucky," he yelled, "is there food on the table? I'm hungry."

He heard Lucky's voice speaking softly but could make out no words.

"Hey, Lucky," he repeated, and stepped out of the washroom. The desk had two steaming platters of roast beef and potatoes on it. (A slight sharpness in the aroma indicated the meat, at least, to be really a yeast imitation from the sub-sea gardens of Venus.) Lucky, however, was not eating, but sat on the bed and spoke into the room's Talkie.

Dr. Peverale's face was gazing out of the receiving plate.

Lucky said, "Well, then, was it general knowledge that this was to be our room?"

"Not general knowledge, but I gave the order to prepare your room over an open hookup. There was no reason for secrecy as far as I could see. I suppose anyone might have overheard. Furthermore, your room is one of a few such that are reserved for distinguished guests. There is no secret about it."

"I see. Thank you, sir."

"Is anything wrong?"

"Not at all," said Lucky, smiling, and broke connection. His smile disappeared and he looked thoughtful.

"Nothing wrong, my foot," exploded Bigman. "What's up, Lucky? Don't tell me there isn't anything wrong."

"Something is wrong, yes. I've been looking at the equipment here. These are special insulated suits for use on the Sun-side, I imagine."

Bigman lifted one of the suits hanging in a special wall recess. It was amazingly light for its bulk, nor could that be attributed to Mercurian gravity, since gravity here in the Dome was maintained at Earth-normal.

He shook his head. As usual, if he had to use a suit supplied him out of stock rather than one built to specifications, he would have to reduce all fittings to the minimum and even so find it inconvenient to use. He sighed resignedly. It was the penalty he paid for not being exactly tall. He always thought of it that way: "not exactly tall." He never thought of his five foot two as being actually "short."

He said, "Sands of Mars, they've got everything here for us, all set and waiting. Bed. Bath. Food. Suits."

"And something else too," said Lucky gravely. "Death is waiting in this room. See here."

Lucky lifted one arm of the larger suit. The ball joint at the shoulder moved easily, but where it joined the shaft of the shoulder there was a tiny, all but unnoticeable gap. It would have been completely un-noticeable if Lucky's fingers had not spread it apart.

It was a slash! Man-made, obviously! Insulation showed.

"On the inner surface," said Lucky, "There's a similar slash. This suit would have lasted just long enough to get me out on the Sun-side, and then it would have killed me neatly."


4. Over the Banquet Table

"Urteil!" cried Bigman at once, with a ferocity that stiffened every muscle of his small body. "That dirty cobber… "

"Why Urteil?" asked Lucky softly.

"He warned us to watch our suits, Lucky. Remember?"

"Of course. And it's exactly what I did."

"Sure. He set it up for us. We find a slashed suit and we think he's a great guy. Then we're cold meat for him next time around. Don't fall for that, Lucky. He's a… "

"Now wait, Bigman, wait! Don't make your mind up so fast. Look at it this way. Urteil said Mindes had tried to kill him, too. Suppose we believe him. Suppose Mindes had tried to gimmick Urteil's suit and Urteil had spotted it in time. Urteil would warn us to watch out for the same trick. Maybe Mindes did this."

"Sands of Mars, Lucky, that can't be. This guy, Mindes, is ladled full of sleeping pills, and before that he wasn't out of our sight from the minute we got onto this miserable rock."

"All right. How do we know Mindes is asleep and under medication?" asked Lucky.

"Gardoma says… " began Bigman, and fell silent.

"Exactly. Gardoma says! We haven't seen Mindes, though. We only know what Dr. Gardoma said, and Dr. Gardoma is a great friend of Mindes's."

"The two of them are in it together," said Bigman, with instant conviction. "Jumping comets—"

"Wait, wait, don't you jump so. Great Galaxy, Bigman, I'm just trying to straighten out my thoughts, and you take me up on everything." His tone was as disapproving as it could ever be with respect to his small friend. He went on, "Now you've complained a dozen times that I don't tell you everything on my mind until everything's done with. This is why, you blaster-happy nitwit. As soon as I advance a theory, you're off on a charge, all your weapons cocked and ready."

"I'm sorry, Lucky," said Bigman. "Go ahead."

"All right. Now Urteil is easy to suspect. Nobody likes him. Even Dr. Peverale doesn't. You saw how he reacted just to the mention of his name. We've met him only once and you dislike him—"

''I'll say," muttered Bigman.

"—while I don't exactly like him, either. Anyone can slash this suit and hope that suspicion will fall on Urteil if it should happen to be discovered, and it would be surely discovered after it's killed someone, if not before."

"I see all that, Lucky."

"On the other hand," went on Lucky smoothly, "Mindes has already tried to get rid of me with a blaster. If that were a serious attempt, he doesn't seem the type to do anything as indirect as suit-slashing. As for Dr. Gardoma, I don't see him involving himself in the murder of a Councilman just out of friendship for Mindes."

"Then what's the decision?" cried Bigman impatiently.

"There isn't any so far," said Lucky, "except maybe that we go to sleep." He turned down the bed sheets and stepped into the washroom.

Bigman looked after him and shrugged his shoulders.


Scott Mindes was sitting up in bed when Lucky and Bigman entered his quarters the next morning. He was pale and looked tired.

"Hello," he said. "Karl Gardoma told me what happened. You don't know how sorry I am."

Lucky passed it off with a shrug. "How do you feel?"

"Wrung out but all right, if you know what I mean. I'll be at the dinner party old Peverale is giving tonight."

"Is that wise?"

"I won't leave Urteil there holding the fort," said Mindes, hatred suddenly flooding his face with momentary color, "telling everyone I'm crazy. Or Dr. Peverale, either, for that matter."

"Dr. Peverale doubts your sanity?" asked Lucky softly.

"Well… Look, Starr, I've been scouting the Sunside in a small rocket-scooter ever since the accidents started getting bad. I had to do it. It's my project. Twice, now, I—I've seen something."

Mindes paused and Lucky prodded him. "Seen what, Dr. Mindes?"

"I wish I could say for sure. I saw it only from a distance each time. Something moving. Something that looked human. Something in a space-suit. Not one of our inso-suits, our special insulated jobs, you know. It looked more like an ordinary space-suit. Ordinary metal, you know."

"Did you try to get closer?"

"Yes, and I lost it. And the photographs showed nothing either. Just spots of light and dark that might have been something, or nothing. But it was something, all right. Something that moved under the Sun as though it didn't care a thing for the heat and radiation. It would even stand still in the Sun for minutes at a time. That's what got me."

"Is that strange? Standing still, I mean?"

Mindes laughed shortly. "On the Mercury Sun-side? It sure is. Nobody stands still. Insulated suit and all, you go about your business as fast as you can and get out from under as fast as you can. This near the Terminator the heat isn't so bad. It's the radiation, though. It's just good practice to take as little of it as possible. The inso-suits aren't complete protection against gamma rays. If you must stand still, you move into the shade of a rock."

"What's your explanation of it all?"

Mindes's voice fell to an almost shamed whisper. "I don't think it's a man."

"You're not going to say it's a two-legged ghost, are you?" said Bigman suddenly, before Lucky could nudge him into silence.

But Mindes only shook his head. "Did I use that phrase on the surface? I seem to remember— No, I think it's a Mercurian."

"What?" cried Bigman, sounding as if he thought that were worse.

"How else could it endure the Sun's radiation and heat so?"

"Why would it need a space-suit then?" asked Lucky.

"Well, I don't know." Mindes's eyes flashed, and a restless wildness settled upon them. "But it's something. When I got back to the Dome, every man and every suit could be accounted for each time. Dr. Peverale won't authorize an expedition to make a real search. He says we're not equipped for it."

"Have you told him what you told me?"

"He thinks I'm crazy. I'm sure of it. He thinks I'm seeing reflections and building men out of them in my imagination. But that's not so, Starr!"

Lucky said, "Have you contacted the Council of Science?"

"How can I? Dr. Peverale wouldn't back me. Urteil would say I was mad and they would listen to him. Who would listen to me?"

"I would," said Lucky.

Mindes sat up in bed with a jerk. His hand shot out as though it were ready to grasp the other's sleeve but then held back. He said, in a choked voice, "Then you'll investigate it?"

"In my way," promised Lucky, "I will."


The others were already at the banquet table that evening when Lucky and Bigman arrived. Above the hum of greeting that rose as they entered and the beginning of the introductions, there were obvious signs that the gathering was not entirely a pleasant one.

Dr. Peverale sat at the head of the table, his thin lips set and his sunken cheeks quivering, the picture of dignity maintained under difficulty. At his left was the broad-shouldered figure of Urteil, lounging back in his chair, thick fingers playing delicately with the rim of a drinking glass.

Toward the foot of the table was Scott Mindes, looking painfully young and tired as he stared with angry frustration at Urteil. Next to him was Dr. Gardoma, watching with an anxious and thoughtful eye as though ready to interfere in case Mindes grew rash.

The remaining seats, except for two empty ones at Dr. Peverale's right, were occupied by several of the senior men of the Observatory. One in particular, Hanley Cook, second in command at the Dome, leaned his tall, lean body forward and took Lucky's hand firmly in his own.

Lucky and Bigman took their seats and the salads were served.

Urteil said at once in a harsh voice that effectively took over the conversation, "We were wondering just before you came in whether young Mindes ought not to tell you of the great wonders in store for Earth as a result of his experiments."

"No such thing," snapped Mindes, "and I'll do my own talking if you don't mind."

"Oh, come on, Scott," said Urteil, grinning broadly, "don't be bashful. Well, then, look here, I'll tell the man."

Dr. Gardoma's hand fell, as though by accident, on Mindes's shoulder, and the young engineer swallowed a cry of indignation and remained silent.

Urteil said, "Now I warn you, Starr, this is going to be good. It… "

Lucky interrupted, "I know something of the experiments. The grand result of an air-conditioned planet is quite possible, I think."

Urteil scowled. "That so? I'm glad you're optimistic. Poor Scott can't even make the pilot experiment work. Or at least he says he can't, don't you, Scott?"

Mindes half rose, but again Dr. Gardoma's hand was on his shoulder.

Bigman's eyes traveled from speaker to speaker, resting on Urteil with black distaste. He said nothing.

The arrival of the main course stopped the conversation momentarily, and Dr. Peverale tried desperately to turn it into less explosive channels. For a while he succeeded, but then Urteil, with the last of his helping of roast beef impaled on his fork, leaned toward Lucky and said, "So you go for the project Mindes is running, do you?"

"I think it's a reasonable one."

"You have to think that, being a member of the Council of Science. But what if I told you that the experiments here were phony; they could be run on Earth for one per cent of the cost if the Council were only interested enough in the taxpayers' money to save a little of it. What would you say if I told you that?"

"The same thing I would say if you told me anything at all," retorted Lucky composedly. "I would say, Mr. Urteil, that the chances are that you're lying. It's your greatest talent and, I believe, pleasure."

Instantly a great silence fell on the banqueters, even on Urteil. His thick cheeks seemed to sag in surprise and his eyes to bulge. With sudden passion, he leaned directly across Dr. Peverale's place, rising from his seat and bringing his right hand down hard and flat just short of Lucky's platter.

"No Council lackey—" he began in a roar.

And as he did that, Bigman moved, too. No eye at the table saw the details of that move, since it flashed with the speed of a striking snake, but Urteil's roar ended in a shout of dismay.

Urteil's hand, which had come down with such hard finality, now showed the carved metallic haft of a force-knife growing out of it.

Dr. Peverale scraped his chair back suddenly, and there was a cry or an exclamation from every man there but Bigman himself. Even Lucky seemed startled.

Bigman's tenor voice rose in delight. "Spread your fingers, you tub of mineral oil. Spread them and then grease back down into your seat."

Urteil stared at his small tormenter without understanding for a moment and then very slowly spread his fingers. His hand was not hurt, not a sliver of skin had been removed. The force-knife stood quivering in the hard plastic table top, an inch of its waveringly luminescent force-blade (it wasn't matter, merely a thin field of immaterial force) in sight. The knife had entered the table, working its way neatly and unerringly between the second and third finger of Urteil's hand.

Urteil snatched his hand away as though it were suddenly in flames.

Bigman crowed with delight and said, "And next time you reach a hand in Lucky's direction or in mine, you cobber, I chop it right off. What would you say if I told you that? And whatever you say, say it politely." He reached out for the force-knife, deactivating the blade as he seized the haft, and returned it to its inconspicuous holster on his belt.

Lucky said, with a light frown, "I wasn't aware that my friend was armed. I'm sure he's sorry for having disturbed the meal, but I believe Mr. Urteil may take this incident to heart."

Someone laughed and there was a tight smile on Mindes's face.

Urteil looked with hot eyes from face to face. He said, "I won't forget this treatment. It's obvious to me that the senator is receiving little co-operation, and he'll hear of that. And meanwhile, I'm staying right here." He folded his arms as though daring anyone to make him leave.

Little by little the conversation grew general.

Lucky said to Dr. Peverale, "You know, sir, it seems to me that your face is familiar."

"Is it?" The astronomer smiled in a strained fashion. "I don't think I ever met you before."

"Well, were you ever on Ceres?"

"Ceres?" The old astronomer looked at Lucky with some surprise. He had obviously not yet recovered from the force-knife episode. "The largest observatory in the Solar System is on that asteroid. I worked there as a young man, and I frequently visit it even now."

"Then I wonder if I didn't perhaps see you there."

Lucky couldn't help thinking, as he spoke, of those exciting days when the chase was on for Captain Anton and the pirates who were making their lair in the asteroids. And particularly the day when the pirate ships raided the very heart of Council territory, onto the surface of Ceres itself, winning out temporarily by the very daring of their undertaking.

But Dr. Peverale was shaking his head in gentle good humor. "I would have been certain, sir, had I had the pleasure of seeing you there. I am sure I did not."

"Too bad," said Lucky.

"The loss is mine, I assure you. But then it was my season for loss. As a result of an intestinal ailment, I missed all the excitement in connection with the pirate raid. I knew of it only through the conversations I overheard among my nurses."

Dr. Peverale looked about the table now, his good humor restored. The dessert was being served by the mechanical tray-carrier. He said, "Gentlemen, there has been some discussion of Project Light."

He paused to smile benignly, then went on. "It isn't exactly a happy subject under the circumstances, but I have been thinking a good deal about the accidents that have disturbed so many of us. It seems it would be a good time for me to give you all my thoughts on the matter. After all, Dr. Mindes is here. We have had a good meal. And, finally, I have something interesting to say."

Urteil broke a long silence to ask grimly, "You, Dr. Peverale?"

The astronomer said mildly, "Why not? I have had interesting things to say many times in my life. And I will say what's on my mind now." There was a sudden gravity about him. "I believe I know the whole truth, the exact truth. I know who is causing the destruction in connection with Project Light and why."


5. The Direction of Danger

The old astronomer's gentle face seemed pleased as he looked about the table, perhaps at having gained so absolutely the attention of all. Lucky looked about the table too. He caught the expressions that greeted Dr. Peverale's statement. There was contempt on Urteil's broad features, a puzzled frown on Dr. Gardoma's face, a sulkier one on that of Mindes. The others were held in various attitudes of curiosity and interest.

One man caught Lucky's attention particularly. It was Hanley Cook, Dr. Peverale's second in command. He stared at his finger ends, and there was something like weary disgust about him. When he looked up, his expression had changed and settled into a cautious blankness.

Nevertheless Lucky thought: "I'll have to talk to the man."

And then his attention shifted back to Dr. Peverale.

Dr. Peverale was saying, "The saboteur can't be one of us, of course. Dr. Mindes tells me that he has investigated and is sure of that. Even without investigation, I am sure that none of us is capable of such criminal action. Yet the saboteur must be intelligent, since the destruction is too purposeful, too exclusively directed against Project Light, to be the result of chance or of anything nonintelligent. Therefore… "

Bigman interrupted excitedly. "Hey, you mean Mercury has native life? It's Mercurians doing this?"

There was a sudden buzz of confused comment and some laughter, at which Bigman reddened. "Well," said the small Martian, "isn't that what Dr. Peverale is saying?"

"Not quite," said Dr. Peverale gently.

"There is no life of any kind native to Mercury," said one of the astronomers with emphasis. "That's one thing we're sure of."

Lucky interposed, "How sure? Has anyone looked?"

The astronomer who had spoken seemed taken aback. He said, "There have been exploring parties. Certainly."

Lucky smiled. He had met intelligent beings on Mars that no other man knew of. He had discovered semi-intelligent beings on Venus where none had been thought to exist. He, for one, was not ready to admit that any planet lacked life, or even intelligence.

He said, "How many exploring parties? How thorough was each exploration? Has every square mile been searched?"

The astronomer did not answer. He looked away, raising his eyebrows as though to say: What's the use?

Bigman grinned, his little face wrinkling into a caricature of gnomish good humor.

Dr. Peverale said, "My dear Starr, explorations have uncovered nothing. While we grant that the possibility of Mercurian life is not completely excluded, the probability of its existence is very low. Suppose we assume that the only intelligent life in the Galaxy is the human race. Certainly, it's the only one we know of."

With the Martian mind-beings in his memory, Lucky did not agree with that, but he kept silent and let the old man continue.

It was Urteil, little by little having recovered his self-possession, who intervened. "What do you think you're getting at," he asked, and it was characteristic of the man that he could not resist adding, "if anything?"

Dr. Peverale did not answer Urteil directly. He looked from face to face, deliberately ignoring the Congressional investigator. He said, "The point is, there are humans elsewhere than on Earth. There are humans in many star systems." A queer change came across the astronomer's face. It pinched in, grew white, and his nostrils flared as though he were suddenly overpowered with anger. "For instance, there are humans on the planets of Sirius. What if they are the saboteurs?"

"Why should they be?" asked Lucky at once.

"Why not? They have committed aggression against Earth before."

So much was true. Lucky Starr himself had helped, not too long before, to repel a Sirian invasion flotilla that had landed on Ganymede, but in that case they had left the Solar System without pushing matters to a showdown. Yet, on the other hand, it was a common thing for many Earthmen to blame Sirians for anything that went wrong.

Dr. Peverale was saying with energy, "I've been there. I've been to Sirius only five months ago. It took a great deal of red tape because Sirius welcomes neither immigrants nor visitors, but it was a matter of an interstellar astronomical convention, and I managed to get a visa. I was determined to see for myself, and I must say I wasn't disappointed.

"The planets of Sirius are thinly populated and they are extremely decentralized. They live in isolated individual family units, each with its own energy source and services. Each has its group of mechanical slaves -there's no other word possible-slaves in the shape of positronic robots, which do the labor. The Sirian humans maintain themselves as a fighting aristocracy. Every one of them can handle a space-cruiser. They'll never rest till they destroy the Earth."

Bigman shifted restlessly in his seat. "Sands of Mars, let them try. Let them try, is all I say."

"They will when they are quite ready," said Dr. Peverale, "and, unless we do something quickly to meet the danger, they will win. What have we got to oppose them? A population in the billions, true, but how many can handle themselves in space? We are six billion rabbits and they are one million wolves. Earth is helpless and grows more helpless every year. We are fed by grain from Mars and yeast from Venus. We get our minerals from the asteroids, and we used to get them from Mercury, too, when the mines here were working.

"Why, Starr, if Project Light succeeds, Earth will be dependent on space stations for the manner in which it gets its very sunshine. Don't you see how vulnerable that makes us? A Sirian raiding party, by attacking the outposts of the System, could panic and starve Earth without ever having to fight us directly.

"And can we do anything to them in return? No matter how many of them we kill, the remaining Sirians are always self-contained and self-sufficient. Any of them could continue the war."

The old man was almost breathless with passion. There was no questioning his sincerity. It was as though he were getting something out of himself that had been stifling him.

Lucky's eye wandered back to Dr. Peverale's second, Hanley Cook. The man was resting his forehead on the bony knuckles of one large hand. His face was flushed, but to Lucky it did not seem like a flush of either anger or indignation. Rather, it seemed one of embarrassment.

Scott Mindes spoke up skeptically. "What would be the point, Dr. Peverale? If they're getting along on Sirius, why should they come to Earth? What would they get out of us? Even supposing they conquer Earth, they would only have to support us—"

"Nonsense!" rapped out the senior astronomer. "Why should they? They would want Earth's resources, not Earth's population. Get that through your head. They'd let us starve. It would be part of their policy."

"Oh, come," said Gardoma. "That's unbelievable."

"Not out of cruelty," said Dr. Peverale, "out of policy. They despise us. They consider us scarcely more than animals. The Sirians themselves are very race-conscious. Since Earthmen first colonized Sirius, they have been breeding themselves carefully until they are free of diseases and of various characteristics which they consider undesirable.

"They are of uniform appearance, while Earthmen are of all shapes, sizes, colors, varieties. The Sirians consider us inferior. That's why they won't let us emigrate to Sinus. They wouldn't let me attend the convention till the government pulled every string possible. Astronomers from other systems were all welcome but not from Earth.

"And human life, any kind of human life, doesn't mean much to them, anyway. They're machine-centered. I've watched them with their metal men. They're more considerate of a Sirian robot, almost, than of a Sirian man. They would regard a robot as worth a hundred men of Earth. They pamper those robots. They love them. Nothing's too good for them."

Lucky murmured, "Robots are expensive. They have to be treated carefully."

"Maybe so," said Dr. Peverale, "but men who become accustomed to worrying about the needs of machines become callous about the needs of men."

Lucky Starr leaned forward, elbows on the table, dark eyes serious and the smooth vertical lines of his handsome, still subtly boyish face set gravely. He said, "Dr. Peverale, if the Sirians are race-conscious and are breeding themselves into uniformity, they will defeat themselves in the long run. It is variety in the human race that brings about progress. It is Earth and not Sirius that is in the forefront of scientific research. Earthmen settled Sirius in the first place, and it is we, not our Sirian cousins, who are advancing in new directions every year. Even the positronic robots you mention were invented and developed on Earth by Earthmen."

"Yes," said the astronomer, "but Earthmen don't make use of the robot. It would upset our economy, and we place the comfort and security of today above" the safety of tomorrow. We use our scientific advance to make ourselves weaker. Sinus uses its to make itself stronger. That's the difference and that's the danger."

Dr. Peverale threw himself back in his chair, looking grim. The mechanical tray-carrier cleared the table.

Lucky pointed at it. "That's a sort of a robot, if you like," he said.

The mechanical tray-carrier went quietly about its task. It was a flat-surfaced thing moving smoothly on a diamagnetic field, so that its gently curved base never actually touched the floor. Its limber tentacles removed dishes with careful delicacy, placing some on its upper surface, others within a cabinet in its side.

"That's a simple automaton," snorted Dr. Peverale. "It has no positronic brain. It cannot adapt itself to any change in its task."

"Well, then," said Lucky, "are you saying that the Sirians are sabotaging Project Light?"

"Yes. I am."

"Why should they?"

Dr. Peverale shrugged. "Perhaps it's just part of a larger plan. I don't know what trouble there is elsewhere in the Solar System. These may be the first random probings to prepare for ultimate invasion and conquest Project Light in itself means nothing, the Sirian danger everything. I wish I could rouse the Council of Science and the government and the people to that truth."

Hanley Cook coughed, then spoke for the first time. "The Sirians are human like the rest of us. If they're on the planet, where are they?"

Dr. Peverale said coldly, "That's for an exploring expedition to find out. A well-prepared, well-equipped expedition."

"Wait a minute," said Mindes, his eyes glinting with excitement, "I've been out on the Sun-side, and I'll swear… "

"A well-prepared, well-equipped expedition," repeated the old astronomer firmly. "Your one-man flights mean nothing, Mindes."

The engineer stuttered a moment and slumped into an embarrassed silence.

Lucky said suddenly, "You seem to be unhappy about this, Urteil. What is your opinion of Dr. Peverale's view?"

The investigator lifted his eyes and met those of Lucky for a long moment in hatred and open defiance. It was obvious he had not forgotten, nor would forget, the earlier exchange at this table.

He said, "I'm keeping my opinion to myself. But I will say this, I'm not fooled by anything that's going on here tonight."

His mouth clamped shut and Lucky, having waited a moment for further remarks, turned to Peverale and said, "I wonder if we do need a complete expedition, sir. If we suppose that the Sirians are here on Mercury, can we perhaps deduce where they might be?"

"Go ahead, Lucky," crowed Bigman at once. "Show them how."

Dr. Peverale said, "How do you mean?"

"Well, what would be the best for the Sirians? If they've been sabotaging Project Light at frequent intervals over a period of months, it would be most convenient for them to have a base near the project. Yet at the same time, the base must not be easily detected. They've certainly been successful in the second requirement, anyway. Now where could such a handy, but secret, base be?

"Let's divide up Mercury into two parts, Sun-side and dark-side. It seems to me that they would be foolish to set up a base on Sun-side. Too hot, too much radiation, too inhospitable."

Cook grunted. "No more inhospitable than the dark-side."

"No, no," said Lucky at once, "you're wrong there. The Sun-side presents an environment which is quite unusual. Humans aren't accustomed it it at all. The dark-side is something very familiar. It is simply ground which is exposed to space, and the conditions of space are very familiar. The dark-side is cold but no colder than space. It is dark and airless but no darker than any portion of space not in direct sunlight and certainly no more airless. Men have learned to live comfortably in space, and they can live on the dark-side."

"Go on," said Dr. Peverale, his old eyes gleaming with interest. "Go on, Mr. Starr."

"But establishing a base that would serve over a period of months is not a simple thing. They must have a ship or ships to get back to Sirius someday. Or if they're to be picked up by a ship from outside they must still have ample stores of food and water, as well as an energy source. All this takes up room, and yet they must be certain they will not be detected. It leaves only one place where they can be."

"Where, Lucky?" asked Bigman, nearly jumping up and down in his eagerness. He, at least, had no doubts that whatever Lucky said was so. "Where?"

"Well," said Lucky, "when I first arrived here, Dr. Mindes made mention of mines on Mercury which had failed. Just a few moments ago, Dr. Peverale spoke of mines on Mercury that were once working. From that I gather that there must be empty mine shafts and corridors on the planet, and they must be either here or at the South Pole, since the polar regions are the only places where the temperature extremes are not too great. Am I right?"

Cook faltered. "Yes, there are mines here. Before the Observatory was established, the Dome was the mining center."

"Then we're sitting on top of a large empty hole in Mercury. If the Sirians are successfully hiding a large base, where else would it be? There is the direction of danger."

A murmur of appreciation passed around the table, but it was shattered abruptly by Urteil's guttural tones. "All very pretty," he said, "but what does it all come to? What are you going to do about it?"

"Bigman and I," said Lucky, "intend to enter the mines just as soon as we can get ready. If there's anything there, we'll find it."


6. Preparations

Dr. Gardoma said sharply, "Do you intend to go alone?"

"Why not?" interposed Urteil. "The heroics are cheap enough. Of course they'll go alone. There's nothing and nobody there, and they know it."

"Care to join us?" asked Bigman. "If you leave your big mouth behind you can fit into a suit."

"You wouldn't crowd one even with yours," snarled Urteil.

Dr. Gardoma said again, "There's no point in going alone if… "

"A preliminary investigation," said Lucky, "will do no harm. Actually, Urteil may be right. There may be no one there. At the worst, we'll keep in touch with you at the Dome and hope that we can handle any Sirians we meet. Bigman and I are used to handling tight situations."

"Besides which," added Bigman, his gnomish face puckering into a grin, "Lucky and I like tight situations."

Lucky smiled and rose to his feet. "If we may be excused… "

Urteil at once rose, turned, and stamped away. Lucky's eyes followed him thoughtfully.

Lucky stopped Hanley Cook as the latter passed him. He touched his elbow gently.

Cook looked up, his eyes all concern. "Yes. What is it, sir?"

Lucky said quietly, "May I see you in our quarters as soon as possible?"

"I'll be there in fifteen minutes. Is that all right?"

"Fine."


Cook was very little later than that. He stepped into their quarters softly, wearing the look of concern that seemed a constant part of him. He was a man in his late forties with an angular face and light brown hair that was beginning to be touched with gray.

Lucky said, "I had forgotten to tell you where our quarters were. I'm sorry."

Cook looked surprised. "I knew where you were assigned,"

"Well, good. Thank you for coming at our request."

"Oh," Cook paused. Then he said hurriedly, "Glad to. Glad to."

Lucky said, "There's a small matter of the insulation suits in this room. The ones intended for use on the Sun-side."

"The inso-suits? We didn't forget the instruction film, did we?"

"No, no. I viewed that. It's quite another thing."

Cook said, "Something wrong?"

"Something wrong?" crowed Bigman. "Look for yourself." He spread the arms in order to display the slashes.

Cook looked blank, then flushed slowly and grew round-eyed with horror. "I don't see… It's impossible… Here at the Dome!"

Lucky said, "The main thing is to get it replaced."

"But who would do such a thing? We must find out."

"No use disturbing Dr. Peverale."

"No, no," said Cook, at once, as though he had not thought of it before.

"We'll find out the details in due time. Meanwhile I would like to get it replaced."

"Certainly. I'll attend to it promptly. No wonder you wanted to see me. Great Space—" He got to his feet in a kind of speechlessness and made as though to go.

But Lucky stopped him. "Wait, this is a minor thing. There are other things we must discuss. By the way, before we get to that-I take it you did not agree with Dr. Peverale's views on the Sirians."

Cook frowned. "I'd rather not discuss that."

"I watched you as he was speaking. You disapproved, I think."

Cook seat down again. His bony fingers clutched one another in a tight clasp and he said, "He's an old man. He's been all mixed up about the Sirians for years. Psychopathic, almost. He sees them under his bed. He blames them for everything. If our plates are overexposed, he blames them. Since he's been back from Sirius he's worse than ever, because of what he claims he went through."

"What was it he went through?"

"Nothing terrible, I suppose. But they quarantined him. They assigned him a separate building. They were too polite sometimes. They were too rude other times. There was no way of suiting him, I suppose. Then they forced a positronic robot on him to take care of personal services."

"Did he object to that too?"

"He claims it was because they wouldn't come near him themselves. That's what I mean. He took everything as an insult."

"Were you with him?"

Cook shook his head. "Sirius would only accept one man, and he's senior. I ought to have gone. He's too old, really-too old."

Cook was talking in a brooding sort of way. He looked up suddenly. "This is all confidential, by the way."

"Completely," Lucky assured him.

"What about your friend?" said Cook uncertainly. "I mean, I know he's honorable, but he's a little, uh, hotheaded."

"Hey," began Bigman, stiffening.

Lucky's affectionate hand came down on the little fellow's head and brushed his hair down on his forehead. "He's hotheaded, all right," he said, "as you saw at the banquet table. I can't always stop him in time and sometimes, when he's riled, he uses his tongue and his fist instead of his head. That's something I always have to keep in mind. Still, when I ask him specifically to keep quiet about something, he is quiet, and that's all there is to it."

"Thank you," said Cook.

Lucky went on. "To get back to my original question: Do you agree with Dr. Peverale concerning the Sirians in this present case?"

"I don't. How would they know about Project Light, and why should they care? I don't see them sending ships and men and risking trouble with the Solar System just so they can break a few cables. Of course, I tell you this, Dr. Peverale has been feeling hurt for quite a while now… "

"In what way?"

"Well, Mindes and his group were established here while he was at Sirius. He came back and found them here. He knew they were coming eventually. It's been planned for years. Still, coming back and actually finding them here was a shock."

"Has he tried to get rid of Mindes?"

"Oh no, nothing like that. He's even been friendly. It's just that it makes him feel that someday he'll be replaced altogether, maybe someday soon, and I suppose he hates the thought. So it's pleasant for him to take charge and start a big affair about Sirians. That's his baby, you see."

Lucky nodded, then said, "Tell me, have you ever been on Ceres?"

Cook looked surprised at the change in subject but said, "Occasionally. Why?"

"With Dr. Peverale? Alone?"

"With him, usually. He goes more frequently than I do."

Lucky grinned. "Were you there at the time the pirates made their raid on Ceres last year?"

Cook smiled too. "No, but the old man was. We've heard the story several times. He was very angry about it. He's practically never sick, and this one time he was just completely out. He missed everything."

"Well, that's the way it goes… And, now, I think we'd better get to the main business. I didn't like to bother Dr. Peverale. As you say, he's an old man.

You're his second and quite a bit younger… "

Lucky smiled.

"Yes, of course. What can I do?"

"It's about the mines. I assume that somewhere at the Dome there are records, maps, charts, something which will tell us the arrangements of the main shafts and so on. Obviously, we can't wander at random."

"I'm sure there are," agreed Cook.

"And you can get them and perhaps go over them with us?"

"Yes, of course."

"Now as far as you know, Dr. Cook, the mines are in good shape, I hope. I mean, there's no danger of collapse or anything like that?"

"Oh no, I'm sure there's nothing of the sort possible. We're built right over some of the shafts, and we had to look into the engineering when the Observatory was first being set up. The shafts are well-buttressed and completely safe, particularly in Mercury's gravity."

"How come," asked Bigman, "the mines were shut down, if they're in such good shape?"

"A good question," said Cook, and a small smile broke through his expression of settled melancholy. "Do you want the true explanation or the interesting one?"

"Both," said Bigman at once.

Cook offered smokes to the others which were refused, then lit a cigarette after tamping it on the back of one hand in an abstracted manner. "The truth is this. Mercury is quite dense, and there were hopes that it would be a rich source of the heavy metals: lead, silver, mercury, platinum. It was, too; not as rich as might be, perhaps, but rich enough. Unfortunately, it was uneconomic. Supporting the mines here and transporting the ore back to Earth or even the Moon for processing raised the price too high.

"As for the interesting explanation, that's another thing completely. When the Observatory was first set up fifty years ago, the mines were still a going concern, though they were already closing down some of the shafts. The original astronomers heard stories from the miners and passed it on to the newcomers. It's part of the Mercurian legendry."

"What are the stories?" asked Bigman.

"It seems miners died in the shafts."

"Sands of Mars!" cried Bigman testily. "They die anywhere. You think anybody lives forever?"

"These were frozen to death."

"So?"

"It was a mysterious freezing. The shafts were fairly well heated in those days, and their suit power units were in operation. The stories accumulate embroidery, you know, and, eventually miners wouldn't go into the main shafts in anything but gangs, wouldn't go into the side shafts at all, and the mines shut down."

Lucky nodded. He said, "You'll get the plans for the mines?"

"Right off. And replacements for that inso-suit too."

Preparations proceeded as though for a major expedition. A new inso-suit, replacing the one that had been slashed, was brought and tested, then laid to one side. After all, it would be ordinary space-suits for the dark-side.

The charts were brought and studied. Together with Cook, Lucky sketched out a possible route of exploration, following the main shafts.

Lucky left Bigman to take care of packing the adjunct-units with homogenized food and with water (which could be swallowed while still in the suit), make sure of the charge of the power units and the pressure on the oxygen tanks, inspect the working efficiency of the waste disposal unit and the moisture recirculator.

He himself made a short trip to their ship, the Shooting Starr. He made the trip via the surface, carrying a field pack, the contents of which he did not discuss with Bigman. He returned without it but carrying two small objects that looked like thick belt buckles, slightly curved, in dull-steel finish and centered by a rectangle in glassy red.

"What's that?" asked Bigman.

"Microergometers," said Lucky. "Experimental. You know, like the ergometers on board ship except that those are bolted to the floor."

"What can these things detect?"

"Nothing at a couple of hundred thousand miles like a ship's ergometer, but it can detect atomic power sources at ten miles, maybe. Look, Bigman, you activate it here. See?"

Lucky's thumbnail exerted pressure against a small slit in one side of the mechanism. A sliver of metal moved in, then out, and instantly the red patch on the surface glowed brightly. Lucky turned the small ergometer in this direction and that. In one particular position, the red patch glowed with the energy of a nova.

"That," said Lucky, "is probably the direction of the Dome's power plant. We can adjust the mechanism to zero that out. It's a little tricky." He worked painstakingly on the adjustment of two small controls so smoothly inset as nearly to be invisible.

He smiled as he worked, his engagingly youthful face lighting with pleasure. "You know, Bigman, there isn't a time I visit Uncle Hector but that he doesn't load me up with the Council's latest gadgets. He claims that with the chances you and I are always taking (you know the way he talks) we need them. Sometimes, though, I think he just wants us to act as field-testers for the gadgets. This one, though, may be useful."

"How, Lucky?"

"For one thing, Bigman, if there are Sirians in the mines, they'll have a small atomic power plant. They'll have to. They'll need power for heat, for electrolyzing water, and so on. This ergometer should detect that at ample distance. And for another thing—"

He fell silent, and Bigman's lips compressed in chagrin. He knew what that silence meant. Lucky had thoughts which later he would claim had been too vague to talk about

"Is one of the ergometers for me?" he asked.

"You bet," said Lucky, tossing one of the ergometers toward him. Bigman snatched it out of the air.


Hanley Cook was waiting for them when they stepped out of their quarters, wearing their suits but with headpieces tucked under their arms.

He said, "I thought I'd lead you as far as the nearest entrance to the shafts."

"Thank you," said Lucky.

It was the tail end of the sleeping period in the Dome. Human beings always established an Earth-like alternation of waking and sleeping, even where there was no day and night to guide them. Lucky had chosen this time on purpose, since he did not want to enter the mines at the head of a curious procession. In this Dr. Peverale had co-operated.

The corridors of the Dome were empty. The lighting was dimmed. And as they walked, a heavy silence seemed to fall about them while the clank of their footsteps sounded even louder.

Cook stopped. "This is Entry Two."

Lucky nodded. "All right. I hope we'll be seeing one another again soon."

"Right."

Cook operated the lock with his usual gloomy gravity, while Lucky and Bigman put on their headpieces, clamping them firmly along the paramagnetic seams. Lucky took his first breath of canned air with what was almost pleasure, he was so accustomed to it.

Lucky first, then Bigman, stepped into the air lock. The wall closed behind them.

Lucky said, "Ready, Bigman?"

"You bet, Lucky." His words rang in Lucky's radio receiver, and his small form was a shadow in the extremely dim light of the lock.

Then the opposing wall opened. They could feel the puff of air escaping into vacuum, and they stepped forward through the opening once again.

A touch at the outer controls and the wall closed behind them again. This time, light was shut off altogether.

Standing in absolute darkness, they found themselves inside the silent and empty mines of Mercury.


7. The Mines of Mercury

They flicked on their suit-lights and the darkness was alleviated over a little space. They lit a tunnel that stretched out before them, dimly and more dimly and ending in darkness. The light beam had the usual sharp edge inevitable in a vacuum. Everything outside the direct beam remained completely black.

The tall man from Earth and his short companion from Mars faced that darkness and marched forward into the bowels of Mercury.

In the radiance of their suit-lights, Bigman looked curiously about at the tunnel, which resembled those he had seen on the Moon. Rounded out smoothly by the use of blasters and disintegrating procedures, it stretched out straight and even. The walls were curved and merged into the rocky ceiling. The oval cross section, slightly flattened above and quite flattened below, made for the greatest structural strength.

Bigman could hear his own steps through the air in his suit. He could sense Lucky's steps only as a small shock of vibration along rock. It was not quite sound, but to a person who had passed as much of his life in vacuum and near-vacuum as had Bigman it was almost as meaningful. He could "hear" the vibration of solid material much as ordinary Earthmen could hear the vibration of air which is called "sound."

Periodically they passed columns of rock which had been left unblasted and which served as buttresses for the layers of rock between the tunnel and the surface. Again this was like the mines on the Moon, except that the buttresses were both thicker and more numerous here, which was reasonable, since Mercury's gravity, small as it was, was two and a half times that of the Moon.

Tunnels branched off the main shaft along which they traveled. Lucky, who seemed in no hurry, paused at each opening in order to compare matters with the chart he carried.

To Bigman, the most melancholy aspect of the mines was the vestiges of one-time human occupancy: the bolts where illumo-plates must once have been attached to keep the corridors blazing with the light of day, the faint markings where paramagnetic relays must once have afforded traction for ore cars, occasional side pockets where rooms or laboratories must have existed, where miners might pause to eat at field kitchens or where samples of ore might be assayed.

All dismantled now, all torn down, only bare rock left.

But Bigman was not the man to brood overlong on such matters. Rather, he grew concerned at the lack of action. He had not come out here merely for the walk.

He said, "Lucky, the ergometer doesn't show a thing."

"I know, Bigman. Cover."

He said it quietly, with no special emphasis, but Bigman knew what it meant. He shoved his radio control to the particular notch which activated a shield for the carrier wave and scrambled the message. It was not regulation equipment on a space-suit, but it was routine for Lucky and Bigman. Bigman had added the scrambler to the radio controls when preparing the suits almost without giving the matter a conscious thought.

Bigman's heart was beating a little faster. When Lucky called for a tight, scrambled beam between the two of them, danger was near. Nearer, at any rate. He said, "What's up, Lucky?"

"It's time to talk." Lucky's voice had a faintly far-off sound, as though it was coming indeterminately from all directions. That was due to the inevitable lack of perfection of the part of the receiving unscrambler, which always left a small fraction of "noise."

Lucky said, "This is Tunnel 7a, according to the chart. It leads back by a fairly simple route to one of the vertical shafts leading to the surface. I'll be going there."

Bigman said, amazed, "You will? Why, Lucky?"

"To get to the surface," and Lucky laughed lightly. "Why else?"

"What for?"

"In order to travel along the surface to the hangar and the Shooting Starr. When I went to the ship last time, I took the new inso-suit with me."

Bigman chewed that over and said slowly, "Does that mean you'll be heading for Sun-side?"

"Right. I'll be heading for the big Sun. I can't get lost, at least, since I need only follow the coronal glow on the horizon. It makes it very simple."

"Come off it, Lucky, will you? I thought it was the mines that have the Sirians in them. Didn't you prove that at the banquet?"

"No, Bigman, I didn't prove it. I just fast-talked it into sounding as though it were proven."

"Then why didn't you say so to me?"

"Because we've argued this out before, I don't want to go into it. I can't risk your losing your temper at the wrong time. If I had told you our coming down here was part of a deeper plan and if, for any reason, Cook had irritated you, you might have blurted it right out."

"I would not, Lucky. It's just that you hate to say anything at all till you're all ready."

"There's that too," admitted Lucky. "Anyway, that's the situation. I wanted everyone to think I was going into the mines. I wanted everyone to think I hadn't the foggiest notion of heading for Sun-side. The safest way of seeing to it was to make sure nobody, but nobody, not even you, Bigman, thought any differently."

"Can you tell me why, Lucky? Or is that still all a big secret?"

"I can tell you this. I have a strong notion that someone at the Dome is behind the sabotage. I don't believe in the Sirian theory."

Bigman was disappointed. "You mean there's nothing down here in the mines?"

"I could be wrong. But I agree with Dr. Cook. It is just too unlikely that Sirius would put all the effort that would be involved in setting up a secret base on Mercury just to achieve a bit of sabotage. It would be much more likely that, if they wanted to do such a thing, they would bribe an Earthman to do it. After all, who slashed the inso-suit? That, at least, can't be blamed on Sirians. Even Dr. Peverale hasn't suggested there are Sirians inside the Dome."

"Then you're looking for a traitor, Lucky?"

"I'm looking for the saboteur. He may be a traitor in the pay of Sirius, or he may be working for reasons of his own. I hope the answer is on the Sun-side. And I hope, furthermore, that my smoke screen concerning an invasion of the mines will keep the guilty person from having time to cover up or from preparing an uncomfortable reception for me."

"What answer do you expect?"

"I'll know when I find it."

"Okay," said Bigman. "I'm sold, Lucky. On our way. Let's go."

"Hold on, there," cried Lucky in honest perturbation. "Great Galaxy, boy! I said I'm going. There's only one inso-suit. You'll stay here."

For the first time, the significance of the pronouns Lucky had used sank into Bigman's consciousness. Lucky had said "I," "I." Not once had he said "we." And yet Bigman, with the easy confidence of long association, had assumed that "I" meant "we."

"Lucky!" he cried, torn between outrage and dismay. "Why do I have to stay?"

"Because I want the men at the Dome to be sure that we're here. You keep the chart and follow the route we talked about or something like it. Report back to Cook every hour. Tell them where you are, what you see, tell the truth; you don't have to make anything up—except that you say I'm with you."

Bigman considered that. "Well, what if they want to talk to you?"

"Tell them I'm busy. Yell that you think you've just seen a Sirian. Say you've got to cut off. Make up something, but keep them thinking I'm here. See?"

"All right. Sands of Mars, you'll go to Sun-side and have all the fun, and I'll just wander around in the dark playing games on the suit radio."

"Cheer up, Bigman, there may be something in the mines. I'm not always right."

"I'll bet you are this time. There's nothing down here."

Lucky couldn't resist a joke. "There's the freezing death Cook spoke about. You could investigate that."

Bigman didn't see the humor. He said, "Aw, shut up."

There was a short pause. Then Lucky placed his hand on the other's shoulder. "All right, that wasn't funny, Bigman, and I'm sorry. Now cheer up, really. We'll be together again in no time. You know that."

Bigman pushed Lucky's arm to one side. "All right. Drop the soft soap. You say I've got to do it, so I'll do it. Only you'll probably get sunstroke without me there keeping an eye on you, you big ox."

Lucky laughed. "I'll try to be careful." He turned down tunnel 7a but had not taken two steps when Bigman called out.

"Lucky!"

Lucky stopped. "What?"

Bigman cleared his throat. "Listen. Don't take stupid chances, will you? I mean, I'm not going to be around to drag you out of trouble."

Lucky said, "Now you sound like Uncle Hector. Suppose you take some of your own advice, eh?"

It was as close as they ever got to expressing their real affection for one another. Lucky waved his hand and stood glimmering for a moment in Bigman's suit-light. Then he turned and went off.

Bigman looked after him, following his figure as it gradually melted into the surrounding shadows until it turned about a curve in the tunnel and was lost to him.

He felt the silence, and the loneliness doubled. If he had not been John Bigman Jones, he might have weakened with the sense of loss, been overwhelmed at finding himself alone.

But he was John Bigman Jones, and he set his jaw and clamped his teeth and marched farther down the main shaft with unshaken tread.


Bigman made his first call to the Dome fifteen minutes later. He was miserable.

How could he have believed that Lucky seriously expected adventure in the mines? Would Lucky have arranged to make radio calls for the Sirians to pick up and keep tabs on?

Sure, it was a tight beam, but the messages weren't scrambled, and no beam was so tight that it couldn't be tapped with patience.

He wondered why Cook allowed such an arrangement, and almost at once the thought occurred to him that Cook disbelieved in the Sirians too. Only Bigman had believed. Big-brain!

At the moment, he could have chewed through a spaceship hull.

He gathered in Cook and used the agreed-upon signal for all clear.

Cook's voice at once shot back. "All clear?"

"Sands of Mars! Yes. Lucky's up ahead twenty feet, but there's no sign of anything. Look, if I've buzzed all clear, take my word for it next time."

"Let me talk to Lucky Starr."

"What for?" Bigman kept it casual with an effort. "Get him next time."

Cook hesitated, then said, "All right."

Bigman nodded to, himself grimly. There'd be no next tune. He'd buzz all clear and that would be all… Only how long was he supposed to wander about in the darkness before he heard from Lucky? An hour? Two? Six? Suppose six hours went by and there was no word? How long should he stay? How long could he stay?

And what if Cook demanded specific information? Lucky had said to describe things, but what if Bigman accidentally failed to keep up the act? What if he tipped the boat and let slip the fact that Lucky had gone into the Sun-side? Lucky would never trust him again! With anything!

He put the thought aside. It would do him no good to concentrate on it

If there were only something to distract him. Something besides darkness and vacuum, besides the faint vibration of his own footsteps and the sound of his own breath.

He stopped to check his position in the main shaft. The side passages had letters and numbers ground sharply into their walls, and time had done nothing to dull their sharpness. Checking wasn't difficult.

However, the low temperature made the chart brittle and difficult to handle, and that didn't sweeten his mood. He turned his suit-light on his chest controls in order that he might adjust the dehumidifier. The inner surface of his face-plate was beginning to mist over faintly from the moisture in his breath, probably because the temperature within rose with his temper, he told himself.

He had just completed the adjustment when he moved his head sharply to one side as though he were suddenly cocking an ear to listen.

It was exactly what he was doing. He strained to sense the rhythm of faint vibration that he "heard" now only because his own steps had ceased.

He held his breath, remained as motionless as the rocky wall of the tunnel.

"Lucky?" he breathed into the transmitter. "Lucky?" The fingers of his right hand had adjusted the controls. The carrier wave was scrambled. No one else would make sense out of that light whisper. But Lucky would, and soon his voice would come in answer. Bigman was ashamed to admit to himself how welcome that voice would be.

"Lucky?" he said again.

The vibration continued. There was no answer.

Bigman's breathing quickened, first with tension, then with the savage joy born of excitement that always came over him when danger was in the offing.

There was someone else in the mines of Mercury with him. Someone other than Lucky.

Who, then? A Sirian? Had Lucky been right after all though he had thought he was merely putting up a smoke screen?

Maybe.

Bigman drew his blaster and put out his suit-light.

Did they know he was there? Were they coming to get him?

The vibrations weren't the blurred nonrhythmic "sound" of many people, or even two or three. To Bigman's keen ear, the distinctly separated "thrum-thrum" of vibration was the "sound" of one man's legs, rhythmically advancing.

And Bigman would meet any one man, anywhere, under any conditions.

Quietly, he put out his hand, touching the nearer wall. The vibrations sharpened noticeably. The other was in that direction then.

He moved forward quietly in the pitch-dark, his hand keeping a light touch on the wall. The vibrations being set up by the other were too intense, too careless. Either the other believed himself alone in the mines (as Bigman himself had until a moment before) or, if he were following Bigman, he wasn't wise in the ways of the vacuum.

Bigman's own footsteps had died to a murmur as he advanced catlike, yet the other's vibrations showed no change. Again, if the other had been following Bigman by sound, the sudden change in Bigman's progress should have been reflected in a change in the other's. It wasn't. The same conclusion, then as before.

He turned right at the next side-tunnel entrance and continued. His hand on the wall at once kept him along the way and guided him toward the other.

And then there was the blinding flash of a suit-light far ahead in the darkness as the motion of another's body whipped the beam across him. Bigman froze against the wall.

The light vanished. The other had passed across the tunnel Bigman was on. He was not advancing along it. Bigman hurried forward lightly. He would find that cross tunnel and then he would be behind the other.

They would meet then. He, Bigman, representing Earth and the Council of Science, and the enemy representing—whom?


8. The Enemy in the Mines

Bigman had calculated correctly. The other's light was bobbing along ahead of him, as he found the opening. Its owner was unaware of him. He must be.

Bigman's blaster was ready. He might have shot unerringly, but a blaster would not have left much behind. Dead men tell no tales and dead enemies explain no mysteries.

He pursued with catlike patience, cutting down the distance between them, following the light, trying to estimate the nature of the enemy.

His blaster always ready, Bigman moved to make first contact. First, radio! His fingers set the controls quickly for general local transmission. The enemy might have no equipment to receive that on the wave lengths Bigman could deliver. Unlikely, but possible! Very unlikely and barely possible!

Yet it didn't matter. There was always the alternative of a light blaster bolt against the wall. It would make his point clearly enough. A blaster carried authority and had a plain way of speaking that was understood in any language anywhere.

He said, his tenor voice carrying all the force it could muster, "Stop, you! Stop where you are and don't turn around! There's a blaster beaded in on you!"

Bigman flashed on his suit-light, and in its glare the enemy froze. Nor did he make any effort to turn around, which was proof enough for Bigman that he had received the message.

Bigman said, "Now turn around. Slowly!"

The figure turned. Bigman kept his right hand in the path of his suit-light. Its metal sheath was clamped tightly about the large-caliber blaster. In the glow of the light, its outline was comfortingly clear.

Bigman said, "This blaster is fully charged. I've killed men with it before, and I'm a dead shot."

The enemy obviously had radio. He was obviously receiving, for he glanced at the blaster and made a motion as though to raise a hand to block off the blaster's force.

Bigman studied what he could see of the enemy's suit. It looked quite conventional (did the Sirians use such familiar models?).

Bigman said curtly, "Are you keyed in for radio transmission?"

There was sudden sound in his ears and he jumped. The voice was a familiar one, even under the disguising distortion of the radio; it said, "It's Peewee, isn't it?"

Never in his life had Bigman needed greater self-control to keep from using his blaster.

As it was, the weapon leaped convulsively in his hand and the figure facing him leaned quickly to one side.

"Urteil!" yelled Bigman.

His surprise turned to disappointment. No Sirian! Only Urteil!

Then the sharp thought: What was Urteil doing here?

Urteil said, "It's Urteil all right. So put away the bean-shooter."

"That gets put away when I feel like it," said Bigman. "What are you doing here?"

"The mines of Mercury are not your private property, I think."

"While I have the blaster they are, you fat-faced cobber." Bigman was thinking hard and, to a certain extent, futilely. What was there to do with this poisonous skunk? To take him back to the Dome would reveal the fact that Lucky was no longer in the mines. Bigman could tell them that Lucky had lingered behind, but then they would become either suspicious or concerned when Lucky failed to report. And of what crime could he accuse Urteil? The mines were free to all, at that.

On the other hand, he could not remain indefinitely pointing a blaster at the man.

If Lucky were here, he would know—

And as though a telepathic spark had crossed the vacuum between the two men, Urteil suddenly said, "And where's Starr, anyway?"

"That," said Bigman, "is nothing you have to worry about." Then, with sudden conviction, "You were following us, weren't you?" and he shoved his blaster forward a little as though encouraging the other to talk.

In the glare of Bigman's suit-light, the other's glassite-hidden face turned downward slightly as though to follow the blaster. He said, "What if I were?"

Again there was the impasse.

Bigman said, "You were going along a side passage. You were going to swing in behind us."

"I said… What if I were?" Urteil's voice had almost a lazy quality about it, as though its owner were thoroughly relaxed, as though he enjoyed having a blaster pointed at him.

Urteil went on. "But where's your friend? Near here?"

"I know where he is. No need for you to worry."

"I insist on worrying. Call him. Your radio is on local transmission or I wouldn't hear you so well… Do you mind if I turn on my fluid jet? I'm thirsty." His hand moved slowly.

"Careful," said Bigman.

"Just a drink."

Bigman watched tensely. He did not expect a weapon to be activated by chest control, but the suit-light could be suddenly raised to blinding intensity, or—or… Well, anything.

But Urteil's fingers finished their motion while Bigman stood irresolute, and there was only the sound of swallowing.

"Scare you?" asked Urteil calmly.

Bigman could find nothing to say.

Urteil's voice grew sharp. "Well, call the man. Call Starr!"

Under the impact of the order, Bigman's hand began a movement and stopped.

Urteil laughed. "You almost adjusted radio controls, didn't you? You needed distance transmission. He's nowhere near here, is he?"

"No such thing," cried Bigman hotly. He was burning with mortification. The large and poisonous Urteil was clever. There he stood, the target of a blaster, yet winning the battle, proving himself master of the situation, while with every passing second Bigman's own position, in which he could neither shoot nor lower his blaster, leave nor stay, grew more untenable.

Wildly the thought gnawed at him: Why not shoot?

But he knew he could not. He would be able to advance no reason. And even if he could, the violent death of Senator Swenson's man would make tremendous trouble for the Council of Science. And for Lucky!

If only Lucky were here…

Partly because he wished that so ardently, his heart leaped as Urteil's light lifted slightly and focused beyond him, and he heard Urteil say, "No, I'm wrong after all and you're right. Here he comes."

Bigman whirled. "Lucky… "

In his right mind, Bigman would have waited calmly enough for Lucky to reach them, for Lucky's arm to be on his shoulder, but Bigman was not quite in his right mind. His position was impossible, his desire for a way out overwhelming.

He had time only for that one cry of "Lucky" before going down under the impact of a body fully twice as massive as his own.

For a few moments he retained the grip on his blaster, but another arm was tearing at his hand, strong fingers were wrenching and twisting his. Bigman's breath was knocked out of him, his brain was whirling with the suddenness of the attack, and his blaster went flying.

The weight lifted from him, and when he turned to struggle to his feet Urteil was towering over him and Bigman was staring into the muzzle of his own blaster.

"I have one of my own," said Urteil, grimly, "but I think I'd rather use yours. Don't move. Stay that way. On hands and knees. That's right."

Never in his life had Bigman so hated himself. To be tricked and hoodwinked this way. He almost deserved death. He would almost rather die than ever have to face Lucky and say, "He looked behind me and said you were coming so I turned… "

He said in a strangled voice, "Shoot, if you have the nerve for it. Shoot, and Lucky will track you down and see to it that you spend the rest of your life chained to the smallest, coldest asteroid ever used as a prison."

"Lucky will do that? Where is he?"

"Find him."

"I will because you'll tell me where he is. And tell me, too, why he came down to the mines in the first place. What's he doing here?"

"To find Sirians. You heard him."

"To find comet gas," growled Urteil. "That senile fool, Peverale, may talk Sirians, but your friend never believed any of it. Not even if he only has the brains you do. He came down for another reason. You tell me."

"Why should I?"

"To save your miserable life."

"That's not enough reason for me," said Bigman, and he rose to his feet and took a step forward.

Urteil moved backward till he was leaning against the wall of the tunnel. "One more motion and I'll blast you with pleasure. I don't need your information very badly. It will save time, but not much. If I spend more than five minutes with you, it's a waste.

"Now let me tell you exactly what I think. Maybe it will teach you that you and your tin hero, Starr, are fooling nobody. Neither one of you is good for anything more than tricks with force-knives against an unarmed man."

Bigman thought gloomily: That's what's griping the cobber. I made him look like a jackass in front of the boys, and he's waiting for me to crawl.

"If you're going to do all that talking," he said, squeezing as much contempt into his voice as he could manage, "you might as well shoot. I'd rather be blasted than talked to death."

"Don't race for it, little fellow, don't race for it. In the first place, Senator Swenson is breaking the Council of Science. You're just an item, a tiny one. Your friend Starr is just another item, and not a much bigger one. I'm the one who's going to do the breaking. We've got the Council where we want it. The people of Earth know it's riddled with corruption, that its officers waste the taxpayers' money and line their own pockets—"

"That's a filthy lie," broke in Bigman.

"We'll let the people decide that. Once we puncture the phony propaganda the Council puts out, we'll see what the people think."

"You try that. Go ahead and try!"

"We intend to. We'll succeed too. And this will be exhibit number one: you two in the mines. I know why you're here. The Sirians! Huh! Starr either put Peverale up to telling the story, or he just took advantage of it. I'll tell you what you two are doing down here. You're faking the Sirians. You're setting up a Sirian camp to show people.

" 'I chased them off singlehanded,' Starr will say. 'I, Lucky Starr, big hero.' The sub-etherics make a big deal out of it and the Council calls off its Project Light on the sly. They've milked it for all it's worth, and they're getting out with their skins— Except that they won't be because I'll catch Starr in the act and he'll be so much mud under shoe and so will the Council."

Bigman was sick with fury. He longed to tear at the other with his bare hands, but somehow he managed to hold himself in leash. He knew why Urteil was talking as he was. It was because the man didn't know as much as he pretended. He was trying to get more out of Bigman by making him blind-mad.

In a low voice, Bigman tried to turn the tables. "You know, you putrid cobber, if anyone ever punctured you and let out the comet gas, your peanut-sized soul would show itself clear. Once they let the rot out of you, you'd collapse to nothing but a loose sack of dirty skin."

Urteil shouted, "That's enough… "

But Bigman shouted over him, his high-pitched voice ringing. "Shoot, you yellow pirate. You showed yellow at the dinner table. Stand up to me, man to man, with bare fists and you'll show yellow again, bloated as you are."

Bigman was tense now. Let Urteil act in rash haste now. Let Urteil aim on impulse and Bigman would jump. Death was probable, but there would be a chance…

But Urteil seemed only to stiffen and grow colder.

"If you don't talk, I'll kill you. And nothing will happen to me. I'll claim self-defense and make it stick."

"Not with Lucky, you won't."

"He'll have his own troubles. When I'm through with him, his opinions won't mean a thing." The blaster in Urteil's hand was steady. "Are you going to try to run for it?"

"From you?" Bigman said.

"It's up to you," said Urteil coldly.

Bigman waited, waited without saying a word while Urteil's arm grew stiff and Urteil's headpiece dropped slightly as though he were taking aim, though at point-blank range he could not miss.

Bigman counted the moments, trying to choose the one in which to make his desperate jump for life as Lucky had when Mindes had similarity aimed at him. But here there was no second party to tackle Urteil as Bigman had tackled Mindes on that occasion. And Urteil was no panicky, mind-sick Mindes. He would laugh and aim again.

Bigman's muscles tensed for that final jump. He did not expect to live for more than five more seconds, perhaps.


9. Dark and Light

But with his body taut, his leg muscles almost vibrating in the first part-instant of contraction, there was a sudden hoarse cry of utter surprise in Bigman's ears.

They were standing there, both of them, in a gray, dark world in which their beams of light etched one another out. Outside the beams of light, nothing, so that the sudden blob of motion that flashed across the line of sight made no sense at first.

His first reaction, his first thought was: Lucky! Had Lucky returned? Had he somehow mastered the situation, turned the tables?

But there was motion again, and the thought of Lucky faded away.

It was as though a fragment of the rocky wall of the shaft had worked itself loose and was drifting downward in the lazy fall that was characteristic of Mercury's low gravity.

A rope of rock that was somehow flexible, that struck Urteil's shoulder and-clung. One such encircled his waist already. Another moved slowly, bringing itself down and around as though it were part of an unreal world of slowed motion. But as its edge circled Urteil's arm and touched the metal covering Urteil's chest, arm and chest closed upon one another. It was as though the sluggish and seemingly brittle rock contained the irresistible strength of a boa constrictor.

If Urteil's first reaction had been one of surprise, there was now nothing but complete terror in his voice.

"Cold," he croaked harshly. "They're cold."

Bigman's whirling mind was having trouble encompassing the new situation. A piece of that rock had encircled Urteil's lower arm and wrist. The butt of the blaster was clamped in place.

A final rope came floating down. They were so rock-like in appearance that they were invisible until one actually detached itself from the wall.

The ropes were connected one with another as a single organism, but there was no nucleus, no "body." It was like a stony octopus consisting of nothing but tentacles.

Bigman had a kind of explosion of thought.

He thought of rock developing life through the long ages of Mercurian evolution. A completely different form of life from anything Earth knew. A life that lived on scraps of heat alone.

Why not? The tentacles might crawl from place to place, seeking any bit of heat that might exist. Bigman could see them drifting toward Mercury's North Pole when mankind was first established there. First the mines and then the Observatory Dome supplied them with unending trickles of heat.

Man could be their prey too. Why not? A human being was a source of heat. Occasionally an isolated miner might have been trapped. Paralyzed with sudden cold and terror, he would be unable to call for help. Minutes later his power unit would be too low to make a radio call possible in any case. Still later, he would be dead, a frozen relic.

Cook's mad story of the deaths in the mines made sense.

All this passed through Bigman's mind almost in one flash while he remained unmoving, still struggling with a sense of stunned amazement at the sudden new turn of events.

Urteil's voice was somewhere between a moan and a harsh gasp. "I—can't… Help me—help—It's cold—cold… "

Bigman yelled, "Hold on. I'm coming."

Gone in a moment was any thought that this man was an enemy, that moments before he had been on the point of killing Bigman in cold blood. The little Martian recognized but one thing; here was a man, helpless in the grip of something nonhuman.

Since man had first left Earth and ventured into the dangers and mysteries of outer space, there had grown up a stern, unwritten law. Human feuds must be forgotten when man faced the common enemy, the non-human and inhuman forces of the other worlds.

It might be that not everyone adhered to that law, but Bigman did.

He was at Urteil's side in a bound, tearing at his arm.

Urteil mumbled, "Help me… "

Bigman grasped at the blaster Urteil still held, trying to avoid the tentacle that encircled Urteil's clutching fist. Bigman noted absently that the tentacle didn't curve smoothly like a snake would. It bent in sections as though arranged in numerous stiff segments hinged together.

Bigman's other hand, groping for purchase on Urteil's suit, made momentary contact with one of the tentacles and sprang away reflectively. The cold was an icy shaft, penetrating and burning his hand.

Whatever method the creatures had of withdrawing heat, it was like nothing he had ever heard of.

Bigman yanked desperately at the blaster, heaving and wrenching. He did not notice at first the alien touch on his back, then-iciness lay over him and did not go away. When he tried to jump away he found he could not. A tentacle had reached out for him and embraced him.

The two men might have grown together, so firmly were they bound.

The physical pain of the cold grew, and Bigman wrenched at the blaster like a man possessed. Was it giving?

Urteil's voice startled him as it murmured, "No use… "

Urteil staggered and then, slowly, under the weak pull of Mercury's gravity, he toppled over to one side, carrying Bigman with him.

Bigman's body was numb. It was losing sensation. He could scarcely tell whether he was still holding the muzzle of the blaster or not. If he was, was it yielding to his wild, sidewise wrenches, or was it a last gasp of wishful thinking?

His suit-light was dimming as his power-unit drained much of its energy into the voracious power-sucking ropes.

Death by freezing could not be far away.


Lucky, having left Bigman in the mines of Mercury, and having changed to an inso-suit in the quiet of the hangared Shooting Starr, stepped out onto the surface of Mercury and turned his face toward the "white ghost of the Sun."

For long minutes he stood motionless, taking in once again the milky luminescence of the Sun's corona.

Absently, as he watched, he flexed his smoothly-muscled limbs one at a time. The inso-suit worked more smoothly than an ordinary space-suit. That, combined with its lightness, lent it an unusual sensation of not being there altogether. In an environment obviously airless, it was disconcerting, but Lucky brushed aside any feeling of uneasiness he might have had and surveyed the sky.

The stars were as numerous and brilliant as in open space, and he paid them little attention. It was something else he wanted to see. It was two days now, standard Earth time, since he had last seen these skies. In two days, Mercury had moved one forty-fourth of the way along its orbit around the Sun. That meant over eight degrees of sky had appeared in the east and over eight degrees had disappeared in the west. That meant news stars could be seen.

New planets too. Venus and Earth ought both to have risen above the horizon in the interval.

And there they were. Venus was the higher of the two, a diamond-bright bit of white light, much more brilliant than it ever appeared to be on Earth. From Earth, Venus was seen at a disadvantage. It was between Earth and the Sun, so that when Venus was closest, Earth could see only its dark side. On Mercury, Venus could be seen at the full.

At the moment, Venus was thirty-three million miles from Mercury. At the closest, however, it could approach to within almost twenty million miles, and then keen eyes could actually see it as a tiny disk.

Even as it was, its light almost rivaled that of the corona, and, staring at the ground, Lucky thought he could make out a double shadow extending from his feet, one cast by the corona (a fuzzy one) and one by Venus (a sharp one). He wondered if, under ideal circumstances, there might not be a triple shadow, the third being cast by Earth itself.

He found Earth, too, without difficulty. It was quite near the horizon, and, though it was brighter than any star or planet in its own skies, it was pale in comparison to the glorious Venus. It was less brightly lit by its more distant Sun; it was less cloudy and therefore reflected less of the light it did give. Furthermore, it was twice as far from Mercury as Venus was.

Yet in one respect it was incomparably more interesting. Where Venus's light was a pure white, Earth's light was a blue-green glow.

And more than that, there was near it, just skirting the horizon, the smaller yellow light of Earth's Moon. Together, Earth and Moon made a unique sight in the skies of the other planets inside the orbit of Jupiter. A double planet, traveling majestically across the skies in each other's company, the smaller circling the larger in a motion which, against the sky, looked like a slow wobble from side to side.

Lucky stared at the sight perhaps longer than he should have, yet he could not help it. The conditions of his life took him far from his home planet on occasion, and that made it all the dearer to him. All the quadrillions of human beings throughout the Galaxy had originated on Earth. Through almost all of man's history, Earth had been his only home, in fact. What man could look on Earth's speck of light without emotion?

Lucky tore his eyes away, shaking his head. There was work to be done.

He set out with firm stride toward the coronal glow, skimming close to the surface as was proper in low gravity, keeping his suit-light on and his gaze fixed at the ground before him in order to guard against its rough unevenness.

He had an idea of what he might find, but it was purely a notion, backed as yet by no definite fact. Lucky had a horror of discussing such notions, which were sometimes nothing more than intuitions. He even disliked lingering on them in his own mind. There was too great a danger of growing used to the idea, of beginning to depend upon it as truth, of closing the mind unintentionally to alternate possibilities.

He had seen this happen to the ebullient, ready-to-believe, ready-to-act Bigman. He had watched vague possibilities become firm convictions in Bigman's mind more than once…

He smiled gently at the thought of the little bantam. Injudicious he might be, levelheaded never, but he was loyal and ablaze with fearlessness. Lucky would rather have Bigman at his side than a fleet of armored space-cruisers manned by giants.

He missed the gnome-faced Martian now, as he leaped flatly along the Mercurian terrain, and it was partly to wipe out that uncomfortable sensation that Lucky returned to thoughts of the problem at hand.

The trouble was that there were so many crosscurrents.

First, there was Mindes himself, nervous, unstable, unsure of himself. It had never been entirely settled, really, how far his attack on Lucky had been momentary madness and how far settled calculation. There was Gardoma, who was Mindes's friend. Was he a dedicated idealist caught up in the dream of Project Light, or was he with Mindes for purely practical reasons? If so, what were they?

Urteil, himself, was a main focus of disturbance. He was intent on ruining the Council, and the object of his main attack was Mindes. Yet his arrogance naturally spread hate of himself wherever he went. Mindes hated him, of course, and so did Gardoma. Dr. Peverale hated him in a much more restrained fashion. He would not even discuss the man with Lucky.

At the banquet, Cook had seemed to shrink from talking to Urteil, never let his eyes as much as move in his direction. Was this simply because Cook was anxious to avoid the sharp, flailing edge of Urteil's tongue, or were there more specific reasons?

Cook thought little of Peverale too. He was ashamed of the old man's preoccupation with Sirius.

And there was one question that remained to be answered aside from all these things. Who had slashed Lucky's inso-suit?

There were too many factors. Lucky had a line of thought that threaded through them, but as yet that line was weak. Again he avoided concentrating on that line. He must retain an open mind.

The ground was sloping upward and he had adjusted his stride to suit it automatically. So preoccupied was he with his thoughts that the sight that caught his eyes as he topped that rise found him unprepared and struck him with amazement.

The extreme upper edge of the Sun was above the broken horizon, yet not the Sun itself. Only the prominences that edged the Sun showed, a small segment of them.

The prominences were brilliant red in color, and one, in the very center of those visible, was made up of blazing streamers moving upward and outward with inching slowness.

Sharp and bright against the rock of Mercury, un-dimmed by atmosphere, unhazed by dust, it was a sight of incredible beauty. The tongue of flame seemed to be growing out of Mercury's dark crust as though the planet's horizon were on fire or a volcano of more than giant size had suddenly erupted and been trapped in mid-blaze.

Yet those prominences were incomparably more than anything that could have appeared on Mercury. The one he watched, Lucky knew, was large enough to swallow a hundred Earths whole, or five thousand Mercuries. And there it burned in atomic fire, lighting up Lucky and all his surroundings.

He turned off his suit-light to see.

Those surfaces of the rocks that faced directly toward the prominences were awash with ruddy light, all other surfaces were black as coal. It was as though someone had painted a bottomless pit with streaks of red. Truly it was the "red ghost of the Sun."

The shadow of Lucky's hand on his chest made a patch of black. The ground ahead was more treacherous, since the patches of light that caught every fragment of unevenness fooled the eye into a false estimate of the nature of the surface.

Lucky turned on his suit-light once again and moved forward toward the prominences along the curve of Mercury, the Sun rising six minutes of arc for every mile he went.

That meant that in less than a mile, the body of the Sun would be visible and he would be on Mercury's Sun-side.

Lucky had no way of knowing then that at that moment Bigman was facing death by freezing. His thought as he faced the Sun-side was only this: There lies the danger and the crux of the problem, and there lies the solution too.


10. The Sun-Side

More of the prominences were now visible. Their redness brightened. The corona did not vanish (there was no atmosphere to scatter the prominence light and wash out dimmer glows), but it seemed less important now. The stars were still out and would stay out, Lucky knew, even when Mercury's sun was full in the sky, but who could pay attention to them now?

Lucky ran forward eagerly in the steady stride which he could maintain for hours without feeling unduly tired. Under the circumstances, he felt he could have maintained such a stride even under Earth's gravity.

And then, with no warning, no premonitory glow in the sky, no hint from any atmosphere, there was the Sun!

Rather, there was a hairline that was the Sun. It was an unbearable line of light edging a notch of broken rock on the horizon, as though some celestial painter had outlined the gray stone in brilliant white.

Lucky looked backward. Across the uneven ground that lay behind him there were the splotches of prominence-red. But now, just at his feet, there was a wash of white, catching crystal formations in glinting highlights.

He moved onward again, and the line of light became first a small splotch and then a larger one.

The boundary of the Sun was clearly visible, lifting a bit above the horizon in its center, curving gently down on each side. The curve was awesomely flat to one whose eyes were accustomed to the curvature of Earth's Sun.

Nor did the Sun's blaze drown out the prominences which crawled along its edge like flaming red snake-hair. The prominences were all over the Sun, of course, but only at the edge could they be seen. On the Sun's face, they were lost amid the glare below.

And over all was the corona.

Lucky marveled, even as he watched, at the manner in which the inso-suit had been adapted to its purpose.

A glance at the edge of Mercury's Sun would have been blinding to unprotected eyes, blinding forever. The visible light was bad enough in its intensity, but it was the hard ultra-violet, unfiltered by atmosphere, that would have meant death to vision… and to life itself, eventually.

Yet the glass of the inso-suit's face-plate was so arranged molecularly as to grow less transparent in direct proportion to the brightness of the light that fell upon it. Only a small fraction of a percent of the Solar blaze penetrated the plate, and he could stare at the Sun without danger, almost without discomfort. Yet at the same time, the light of the corona and the stars come through undiminished.

The inso-suit protected him in other ways. It was impregnated with lead and bismuth, not enough so as to raise its weight unduly, but enough to block out ultraviolet and x-radiation from the Sun. The suit carried a positive charge to deflect most of the cosmic rays to one side. Mercury's magnetic field was weak, but Mercury was close to the Sun and the cosmic ray density was large. Still, cosmic rays are composed of positively-charged protons, and like charges repel like.

And, of course, the suit protected him against the heat, not only by its insulating composition but by its mirrorlike reflecting surface, a pseudo-liquid molecular layer that could be activated by a touch on the controls.

In fact, Lucky reflected, when the advantages of the inso-suit were considered, it seemed a pity that it was not standard protection under all conditions. Unfortunately, he realized, its structural weakness, as a result of lacking metal in real quantity, made it impractical for use except where protection against heat and radiation were paramount considerations.

Lucky was a mile into the Sun-side now and not conscious of undue heat.

This did not surprise him. To stay-at-homes who confined their knowledge of space to the sub-etheric thriller shows, the Sun-side of any airless planet was simply a solid mass of undeviating heat.

This was an oversimplification. It depended on how high the Sun was in the sky. From this point on Mercury, for instance, with only a portion of the Sun above the horizon, comparatively little heat reached the surface, and that little was spread over a lot of ground as the radiation struck almost horizontally.

The "weather" changed as one went deeper into the Sun-side and finally, when one reached that portion where the Sun was high in the sky, it was everything the sub-etherics said it was.

And besides, there were always the shadows. In the absence of air, light and heat traveled in a straight line. Neither could reach within the shadow except for small fractions which were reflected or radiated into it from neighboring sunlit portions. The shadows were therefore frosty cold and carbon black though the Sun was ever so hot and bright.

Lucky was growing more aware of these shadows. At first, after the upper line of Sun had appeared, the ground had been almost all shadow with only occasional patches of light. Now, as the Sun rose higher and higher, the light spread and coalesced until the shadows were distinct things hovering behind boulders and hills.

At one time Lucky deliberately plunged into the shadow of a rise of rock a hundred yards across, and it was as though for a long minute he were back on the dark-side. The heat of the Sun, which he had scarcely noticed while it beat upon him, became evident by its decrease in the shadow. All around the shadow the ground glimmered brightly in sunlight, but within the shadow his suit-light was necessary to guide his steps.

He could not help noticing the difference in the surfaces that were in the shadow from those in the light. For on the Sun-side, at least, Mercury did have a kind of atmosphere. Not one in the Earthly sense, no nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, or water vapor, nothing like that. On the Sun-side, however, mercury would boil in places. Sulfur would be liquid and so would a number of volatile compounds. Traces of the vapor of such substances would cling to Mercury's superheated surface. These vapors froze out in the shadows.

This was brought forcibly to Lucky's mind when his insulated fingers brushed over the dark surface of one outcropping and came away smeared with a frozen hoar of mercury, glittering in his suit-light. It changed quickly into clinging liquid droplets as he emerged into the Sun and then, more slowly, evaporated away.

Slowly, the Sun seemed to be getting hotter. That did not worry Lucky. Even if it grew uncomfortably hot, he could always dodge into a shadow to cool off when necessary.

Short-wave radiation was perhaps a more important consideration. Lucky doubted even that was serious in this short-term exposure. Workers on Mercury had a horror of radiation, because they were continually exposed to small amounts. Lucky recalled Mindes's emphasis on the fact that the saboteur he had seen had remained standing in the Sun. It was natural that Mindes should be disturbed at that. When exposure was chronic any lengthening of the time of exposure was foolish. In Lucky's own case, however, exposure would be short-term—he hoped.

He ran across patches of blackish ground that stood out somberly against Mercury's more general reddish gray. The reddish gray was familiar enough. It resembled the soil of Mars, a mixture of silicates with the addition of iron oxide, which gave it that ruddy tinge.

The black was more puzzling. Wherever it was, the ground was definitely hotter, since black absorbed more of the Sun's heat.

He bent as he ran and found the black areas crumbly rather than gritty. Some of it came up on the palm of his gauntlet. He looked at it. It might be graphite, it might be iron or copper sulfide. It might be any of a number of things, but he would have bet on its being some variety of impure iron sulfide.

He paused in the shadow of a rock, finally, and took stock. In an hour and a half, he estimated he had traveled some fifteen miles, judging from the fact that the Sun was just about entirely above the horizon now. (At the moment, he was more interested in sipping sparingly at the suit's supply of liquid nutrient mixture than in estimating distance, however.)

Somewhere to the left of him were cables of Mindes's Project Light. Somewhere to the right of him were others. Their exact location did not matter. They covered hundreds of square miles, and to wander aimlessly among them in search of a saboteur would have been foolish.

Mindes had tried it, hit or miss, and had failed. If the object or objects he had seen had indeed been the saboteur, there might have been a warning from inside the Dome. Mindes had made no secret of the fact that he was heading out to Sun-side.

Lucky had, however. There would be no warning, he hoped.

And he had a form of help Mindes had not had. He flipped his small ergometer out of the pouch he had placed it in. He held it before him in cupped palm, his suit-light playing full on it.

Once activated, its red signal-patch blazed with incredible fury when held out in the sunlight. Lucky smiled tightly and adjusted it. There was short-wave radiation from the Sun.

The flame died.

Patiently, then, Lucky stepped out into the sunlight and scanned the horizon in every direction. Where, if anywhere, was there a source of atomic power other than the Sun? He found an indication of the Dome, of course, but the light due to that region increased as he dipped the ergometer downward. The Dome's power plant was nearly a mile underground, and a twenty degree downward dip was required for maximum power where he stood.

He turned slowly, the ergometer held gingerly between the two forefingers of each hand in order that the opaque material of the suit should not block off the telltale radiation. Around a second time and a third.

It seemed to him that in one particular direction there had been the briefest of flashes-scarcely enough to see against the sunlight, really. Perhaps no more than the product of wishful thinking.

He tried again.

No mistake now!

Lucky sighted along the direction in which that glow had appeared and moved in that direction. He did not conceal from himself the fact that he might only be tracking down a patch of radioactive ore.

He caught his first glimpse of one of Mindes's cables nearly a mile farther on.

It was not a single cable at all, rather a web of cables, lying half buried in the ground. He followed it some hundreds of yards and came upon a square metal plate, about four feet on a side and polished to a high gloss. It reflected the stars as though it were a clear pool of water.

No doubt, thought Lucky, if he placed himself in the proper position he would find himself staring into the reflection of the Sun. He became aware that the plate was changing its angle of elevation, becoming less horizontal, more vertical. He looked away to see if it were shifting in such a way as to catch the Sun.

When he looked back he was amazed. The clear square was no longer clear. Instead, it was a dull black, so dull that not all the light of Mercury's Sun seemed to be able to brighten it.

Then, as he watched, that dullness trembled, broke, and fragmented.

It was bright again.

He watched it through three more cycles as the angle of elevation made it more and more vertical. First, incredible reflection; then, complete dullness. During the dullness, Lucky realized, light would be absorbed; during the glossiness, it would be reflected. The alternation in phase might be perfectly regular, or there might be a deliberate, irregular pattern. He could not linger to find out and, if he did, it was doubtful whether his knowledge of hyperoptics would be enough to enable him to understand the purpose of it all.

Presumably hundreds or even thousands of such squares, all connected by a network of cables and all powered from an atomic micropile inside the Dome, were absorbing and reflecting light in a set way at different angles to the Sun. Presumably, this, in some way, could force light energy through hyperspace in a controlled manner.

And, presumably, torn cables and smashed plates prevented the over-all pattern from being properly completed.

Lucky tried his ergometer again. It was much brighter now, and again he followed in the indicated direction.

Brighter, brighter! Whatever it was he was following, it was something that was changing its position. The source of gamma rays was not a fixed point on Mercury's surface.

And that meant it was not merely an outcropping of radioactive ore. It was something portable, and to Lucky that meant it was man or something belonging to man.

Lucky saw the figure first as a moving speck, black against the fire-lit ground. The sight came after a long spell in the open Sun, at a time when he had been about to find himself a shadow in which to let the slowly accumulating heat drain away.

Instead, he accelerated his pace now. He estimated the temperature outside his suit to be at not quite the boiling point of water. Inside, fortunately, it was considerably lower.

He thought grimly: If the Sun were overhead and not at the horizon, even these suits would be of no use.

The figure paid no attention to him. It continued on its own path, its gait showing it far from as expert in handling low gravity as was Lucky. Indeed its motion might almost be described as lumbering. Yet it managed to devour space. It covered the ground.

It wore no inso-suit. Even at long distance, the surface exposed to Lucky's gaze was obviously one of metal.

Lucky paused briefly in the shade of a rock but forced himself into the open again before there was time for much cooling.

The figure seemed unbothered by the heat. At least, in the time Lucky watched him he made no move to enter shadows, though, he passed within a few feet of some.

Lucky nodded thoughtfully. It all fit well. He sped on. The heat was beginning to feel like something he could touch and squeeze. But it would only be a few moments now.

He had abandoned his low-slung lope now. Every bit of his muscular power was being put into giant strides of up to fifteen feet each.

He shouted, "You! You there! Turn around!" He said it peremptorily, with all the authority he could produce, hoping that the other could receive his radio signal and that he would not be reduced to sign language.

Slowly the figure turned, and Ducky's nostrils flared in a kind of cold satisfaction. So far, at least, it was as he thought, for the figure was no man-nothing human at all!


11. Saboteur!

The figure was tall, taller even than Lucky. It was nearly seven feet tall, in fact, and broad in proportion. All of the figure that met the eye was gleaming metal, brilliant where it caught the Sun's rays, black with shadow where it did not.

But underneath that metal was no flesh and blood, only more metal, gears, tubes, a micropile which powered the figure with nuclear energy and produced the gamma rays that Lucky had detected with his pocket ergometer.

The limbs of the creature were monstrous and its legs were straddled far apart as it stood there facing Lucky. What passed for its eyes were two photoelectric cells that gleamed a deep red. Its mouth was a slash across the metal on the lower part of its face.

It was a mechanical man, a robot, and it took Lucky no more than one glance to know that it was no robot of Earth's manufacture. Earth had invented the positronic robot, but it had never built any model like this.

The robot's mouth opened and closed in irregular movements as though it were speaking.

Lucky said, "I cannot hear sound in a vacuum, robot." He said it sternly, knowing that it was essential to establish himself as a man and therefore a master at once. "Switch to radio."

And now the robot's mouth remained motionless but a voice sounded in Lucky's receiver, harsh and uneven, with the words unnaturally spaced. It said, "What is your business, sir? Why are you here?"

"Do not question me," said Lucky. "Why are you here?"

A robot could only be truthful. It said, "I have been instructed to destroy certain objects at intervals."

"By whom?"

"I have been instructed not to answer that question."

"Are you of Sirian manufacture?"

"I was constructed on one of the planets of the Sirian Confederation."

Lucky frowned. The creature's voice was quite unpleasant. The few robots of Earth manufacture that Lucky had had occasion to see in experimental laboratories had been outfitted with voices boxes which, by direct sound or by radio, seemed as pleasant and natural as a well-cultivated human voice. Surely the Sirians would have improved on that.

Lucky's mind shifted to a more immediate problem. He said, "I must find a shadowed area. Come with me."

The robot said at once, "I will direct you to the nearest shade." It set off at a trot, its metal legs moving with a certain irregularity.

Lucky followed the creature. He needed no direction to reach the shade, but he lagged behind to watch the robot's gait.

What had seemed to Lucky, from a distance, to be a lumbering or a clumsy pace, turned out, at close hand, to be a pronounced limp. A limp and a harsh voice. Two imperfections in this robot whose outer appearance was that of a magnificent mechanical marvel.

It struck him forcibly that the robot might not be adjusted to the heat and radiation of Mercury. Exposure had damaged it, probably. Lucky was scientist enough to feel a twinge of regret at that. It was too beautiful to have to endure such damage.

He regarded the machine with admiration. Underneath that massive skull of chrome-steel was a delicate ovoid of sponge platinum-iridium about the size of a human brain. Within it, quadrillions of quadrillions of positrons came into being and vanished in millionths of a second. As they came into being and vanished they traced precalculated paths which duplicated, in a simplified way, the thinking cells of the human brain.

Engineers had calculated out those positronic paths to suit humanity, and into them they had designed the "Three Laws of Robotics."

The First Law was that a robot could not harm a human being or let one come to harm. Nothing came ahead of that. Nothing could substitute for it.

The Second Law was that a robot must obey orders except those that would break the First Law.

The Third Law allowed a robot to protect itself, provided the First and Second Laws weren't broken.

Lucky came out of his short reverie when the robot stumbled and almost fell. There was no unevenness in the ground that Lucky could see, no trifling ridge that might have caught his toe. If there had been, a line of black shadow would have revealed it.

The ground was table-smooth at that point. The robot's stride had simply broken for no reason and thrown him to one side. The robot recovered after threshing about wildly. Having done that, it resumed its stride toward the shade as though nothing had happened.

Lucky thought: It's definitely in poor working order.

They entered the shadow together, and Lucky turned on his suit-light.

He said, "You do wrong to destroy necessary equipment. You are doing harm to men."

There was no emotion in the robot's face; there could be none. Nor was there emotion in its voice. It said, "I am obeying orders."

"That is the Second Law," said Lucky severely. "Still, you may not obey orders that harm human beings. That would be to violate the First Law."

"I have not seen any men. I have harmed no one."

"You have harmed men you did not see. I tell you that."

"I have harmed no man," said the robot stubbornly, and Lucky frowned at the unthinking repetition. Despite its polished appearance, perhaps it was not a very advanced model.

The robot went on. "I have been instructed to avoid men. I have been warned when men were coming, but I was not warned about you."

Lucky stared out past the shadow at the glittering Mercurian landscape, ruddy and gray for the most part but blotched with a large area of the crumbly black material which seemed so common in this part of Mercury. He thought of Mindes spotting the robot twice (his story made sense now) and losing it when he tried to get closer. His own secret invasion of the Sun-side, combined with the use of an ergometer, had turned the trick, fortunately.

He said suddenly and forcefully, "Who warned you to avoid men?"

Lucky didn't really expect to catch the robot. A robot's mind is machinery, he thought. It cannot be tricked or fooled, any more than you can trick a suit-light into going on by jumping at the switch and pretending to close contact.

The robot said, "I have been instructed not to answer that question." Then slowly, creakily, as though the words were coming out against its will, it said, "I do not wish you to ask such questions any longer. They are disturbing."

Lucky thought: To break the First Law would be more disturbing still.

Deliberately he stepped out of the shadow into the sunlight.

He said to the robot, who followed, "What is your serial number?"

"RL-726."

"Very well, RL-726, you understand I am a man?"

"Yes."

"I am not equipped to withstand the heat of Mercury's Sun."

"Nor am I," said the robot.

"I realize that," said Lucky, thinking of the robot's near-fall a few minutes earlier. "Nevertheless, a man is much less equipped for it than is a robot. Do you understand that?"

"Yes."

"Now, then, listen. I want you to stop your destructive activities, and I want you to tell me who ordered you to destroy equipment."

"I am instructed… "

"If you do not obey me," said Lucky loudly, "I will remain here in the Sun until I am killed and you will have broken the First Law, since you would have allowed me to be killed when you could have stopped it."

Lucky waited grimly. A robot's statement could not be accepted as evidence, of course, in any court, but it would assure him that he was on the right track if it were to say what he expected it to.

But the robot said nothing. It swayed. One eye blinked out suddenly (more imperfection!), then came to life. Its voice sounded in a wordless squawk, then it said in an almost drunken mumble, "I will carry you to safety."

"I would resist," said Lucky, "and you would have to harm me. If you answer my question, I will return to the shade of my own accord, and you will have saved my life without any damage to me at all."

Silence.

Lucky said, "Will you tell me who ordered you to destroy equipment?"

And suddenly the robot lunged forward, coming to within two feet of Lucky before stopping. "I told you not to ask that question."

Its hands moved forward as though to seize Lucky but did not complete the motion.

Lucky watched grimly and without concern. A robot could not harm a human being.

But then the robot lifted one of those mighty hands and put it to its head, for all the world as though it were a man with a headache.

Headache!

A sudden thought stabbed at Lucky. Great Galaxy! He'd been blind, stupidly, criminally blind!

It wasn't the robot's legs that were out of order, nor its voice, nor its eyes. How could the heat affect them? It was-it had to be-the positronic brain itself that was affected; the delicate positronic brain subjected to the direct heat and radiation of the Mercurian Sun for how long? Months?

That brain must be partially broken down already.

If the robot had been human, one would say he was in one of the stages of mental breakdown. One might say he was on the road to insanity.

A mad robot! Driven mad by heat and radiation!

How far would the Three Laws hold in a broken-down positronic brain?

And now Lucky Starr stood there, threatening a robot with his own death, while that same robot, nearly mad, advanced toward him, arms outstretched.

The very dilemma in which Lucky had placed the robot might be adding to that madness.

Cautiously, Lucky retreated. He said, "Do you feel well?"

The robot said nothing. Its steps quickened.

Lucky thought: If it's ready to break the First Law, it must be on the point of complete dissolution. A positronic brain would have to be in pieces to be capable of that.

Yet, on the other hand, the robot had endured for months. It might endure for months more.

He talked in a desperate attempt to delay matters and allow time for more thought. He said, "Does your head ache?"

"Ache?" said the robot. "I do not understand the meaning of the word."

Lucky said, "I am growing warm. We had better retire to the shadow."

No more talk of heating himself to death. He retreated at a half-run now.

The robot's voice rumbled. "I have been told to prevent any interference with the orders given me."

Lucky reached for his blaster and he sighed. It would be unfortunate if he were forced to destroy the robot. It was a magnificent work of man, and the Council could investigate its workings with profit. And to destroy it without even having obtained the desired information was repugnant to him. Lucky said, "Stop where you are." The robot's arms moved jerkily as it lunged, and Lucky escaped by a hair as he floated away in a side-wise twist, taking the fullest advantage of Mercury's gravity.

If he could maneuver his way into the shadow; if the robot followed him there…

The coolness might calm those disordered positronic paths. It might become tamer, more reasonable, and Lucky might be spared the necessity of its destruction. Lucky dodged again, and again the robot rushed past, its metal legs kicking up spurts of black grit that settled back to Mercury promptly and cleanly since there was no atmosphere to keep it in suspension. It was an eerie chase, the tread of man and robot hushed and silent in the vacuum.

Lucky's confidence grew somewhat. The robot's movements had grown jerkier. Its control of the gears and relays that manipulated its limbs was imperfect and growing more so.

Yet the robot was making an obvious attempt to head him off from the shadow. It was definitely and beyond any doubt trying to kill him.

And still Lucky could not bring himself to use the blaster.

He stopped short. The robot stopped too. They were face to face, five feet apart, standing on the black patch of iron sulfide. The blackness seemed to make the heat all the greater and Lucky felt a gathering faintness. The robot stood grimly between Lucky and the shade.

Lucky said, "Out of my way." Talking was difficult.

The robot said, "I have been told to prevent any interference with the orders given me. You have been interfering."

Lucky no longer had a choice. He had miscalculated. It had never occurred to him to doubt the validity of the Three Laws under all circumstances. The truth had come to him too late, and his miscalculation had brought him to this: the danger of his own life and the necessity of destroying a robot.

He raised his blaster sadly.

And almost at once he realized that he had made a second miscalculation. He had waited too long, and the accumulation of heat and weariness had made his body as imperfect a machine as was the robot's. His arm lifted sluggishly, and the robot seemed to be twice life-sized to his own reeling mind and sight.

The robot was a blur of motion, and this time Lucky's tired body could not be driven into quick enough movement. The blaster was struck from Lucky's hand and went flying. Lucky's arm was clamped tight in the grip of one metal hand, and his waist was embraced by a metal arm.

Under the best of circumstances, Lucky could not have withstood the steel muscles of the mechanical man. No human being could have. Now he felt all capacity for resistance vanish. He felt only the heat.

The robot tightened its grip, bending Lucky backward as though he were a rag doll. Lucky thought dizzily of the structural weakness of the inso-suit. An ordinary space-suit might have protected him even against a robot's strength. An inso-suit could not. Any moment, a section of it might buckle and give.

Lucky's free arm flailed helplessly, his fingers dragging into the black grit below.

One thought flicked through his mind. Desperately he tried to drive his muscles into one last attempt to fend off what seemed inevitable death at the hands of a mad robot.


12. Prelude to a Duel

Lucky's predicament was a duplicate in reverse of that which had faced Bigman some hours previously. Bigman had been threatened not by heat but by growing cold. He was held in the grip of the stony "ropes" as firmly as Lucky in the grip of the metal robot. In one respect, though, Bigman's position held hope. His numbing grasp held desperately on the blaster pinned in Urteil's hand.

And the blaster was coming loose. In fact, it came free so suddenly that Bigman's numbed fingers nearly dropped it.

"Sands of Mars!" he muttered, and held on.

If he had known where in the tentacles a vulnerable spot might be, if he could have blasted any part of those tentacles without killing either Urteil or himself, his problem would have been simple. As it was, there was only one gamble, not a good one either, open to him.

His thumb worked clumsily on the intensity control, pushing it down and down. He was getting drowsy, which was a bad sign. It had been minutes since he had heard any sign of life from Urteil.

He had intensity at minimum now. One more thing; he must reach the activator with his forefinger without dropping the blaster.

Space! He mustn't drop it.

The forefinger touched the proper spot and pushed against it.

The blaster grew warm. He could see that in the dull red glow of the grid across the muzzle. That was bad for the grid since a blaster was not designed to be used as a heat ray, but to deep Space with that.

With what strength was left him, Bigman tossed the blaster as far as he could.

It seemed to him then as though reality wavered for a moment, as though he were on the edge of unconsciousness.

Then he felt the first glow of warmth, a tiny leakage of heat entering his body from the laboring power-unit, and he shouted in weak joy. That heat was enough to show that power was no longer being drained directly into the voracious bodies of the heat-sucking tentacles. He moved his arms. He lifted a leg. They were free. The tentacles were gone.

His suit-light had brightened, and he could see clearly the spot where the blaster had been thrown. The spot, but not the blaster. Where the blaster should be was a sluggishly moving mass of gray, intertwining tentacles.

With shaky motions, Bigman snatched at Urteil's own blaster, setting it to minimum and tossing it past the position of the first. That would hold the creature if the energy of the first gave out.

Bigman said urgently, "Hey, Urteil. Can you hear me?"

There was no answer.

With what strength he could muster he pulled the space-suited figure away with him. Urteil's suit-light glimmered, and his power-unit gauge showed itself as not quite empty. The temperature inside his suit should return to normal quickly.

Bigman called the Dome. There was no other decision possible now. In their weakened condition, with their power supply low, another encounter with Mercurian life would kill them. And he would manage to protect Lucky's position somehow.

It was remarkable how quickly men reached them.


With two cups of coffee and a hot meal inside him and the Dome's light and heat all about him, Bigman's resilient mind and body put the recent horror into proper perspective. It was already only an unpleasant memory.

Dr. Peverale hovered about him with an air partly like that of an anxious mother, partly like that of a nervous old man. His iron-gray hair was in disarray. "You're sure you're all right, Bigman. No ill effects?"

"I feel fine. Never better," insisted Bigman. "The question is, Doc, how's Urteil?"

"Apparently he'll be all right." The astronomer's voice grew cold. "Dr. Gardoma has examined him and reported favorably on his condition."

"Good," said Bigman almost gloatingly.

Dr. Peverale said with some surprise, "Are you concerned for him?"

"You bet, Doc. I've plans for him."

Dr. Hanley Cook entered now, almost trembling with excitement. "We've sent men into the mines to see if we can round up any of the creatures. They're taking heating pads with them. Like bait to a fish, you know." He turned to Bigman. "Lucky you got away."

Bigman's voice rose in pitch and he looked outraged, "It wasn't luck, it was brains. I figured they were after straight heat most of all. I figured it was their favorite kind of energy. So I gave it to them."

Dr. Peverale left after that, but Cook remained behind, talking of the creatures, walking back and forth, bubbling with speculation. "Imagine! The old stories about the freezing death in the mines were true. Really true! Think of it! Just rocky tentacles acting as heat sponges, absorbing energy wherever they can make contact. You're sure of the description, Bigman?"

"Of course I'm sure. When you catch one, see for yourself."

"What a discovery."

"How come they were never discovered before?" asked Bigman.

"According to you, they blend into their environment. Protective mimicry. Then, too, they attack only isolated men. Maybe," his words grew quicker, more animated, and his long fingers intertwined and twisted with one another, "there is some instinct there, some rudimentary intelligence that kept them hidden and out of sight. I'm sure of it. It's a kind of intelligence that kept them out of our way. They knew their only safety was in obscurity, so they attack only single, isolated men. Then for thirty years or more no men appeared in the mines. Their precious kernels of unusual heat were gone, and yet they never succumbed to the temptation to invade the Dome itself. But when men finally appeared once more in the mines, that temptation was too great and one of the creatures attacked, even though there were two men there and not one. For them, that was fatal. They have been discovered."

"Why don't they go to the Sun-side if they want energy and they're all that intelligent?" demanded Bigman.

"Maybe that's too hot," said Cook at once.

"They took the blaster. It was red hot."

"The Sun-side may be too full of hard radiation. They may not be adapted to that. Or maybe there is another breed of such creature on the Sun-side. How can we know? Maybe the dark-side ones live on radioactive ores and on the coronal glow."

Bigman shrugged. He found such speculation unprofitable.

And Cook's line of thought seemed to change too. He stared speculatively at Bigman, one finger rubbing his chin rhythmically. "So you saved Urteil's life.'

"That's right."

"Well, maybe it's a good thing. If Urteil had died, they would have blamed you. Senator Swenson could have made it darned hot for you and for Starr and for the Council. No matter what explanation you gave, you would have been there when Urteil died, and that would have been enough for Swenson."

"Listen," said Bigman, moving about uneasily, "when do I get to see Urteil?"

"Whenever Dr. Gardoma says you may."

"Get him on the wire and tell him to say I can, then."

Cook's gaze remained fastened thoughtfully on the small Martian. "What's on your mind?"

And because Bigman had to make arrangements about the gravity, he explained some of his plan to Cook.


Dr. Gardoma opened the door and nodded to Bigman to enter. "You can have him, Bigman.," he whispered. "I don't want him."

He stepped out, and Bigman and Urteil were alone with one another once again.

Jonathan Urteil was a little pallid where stubble didn't darken his face, but that was the only sign of his ordeal. He bared his lips to a savage grin. "I'm in one piece, if that's what you've come to see."

"That's what I've come to see. Also to ask you a question. Are you still full of that drivel about Lucky Starr setting up a fake Sirian base in the mines?"

"I intend to prove it."

"Look, you cobber, you know it's a lie, and you're going to fake proof if you can. Fake it! Now I'm not expecting you to get on your knees to thank me for saving your life… "

"Wait!" Slowly Urteil's face flushed. "All I remember is that that thing got me first by surprise. That was accident. After that, I don't know what happened. What you say means nothing to me."

Bigman shrieked with outrage. "You smudge of space dust, you yelled for help."

"Where's your witness? I don't remember a thing."

"How do you suppose you got out?"

"I'm not supposing anything. Maybe the thing crawled away on its own. Maybe there was no thing at all. Maybe a rockfall hit me and knocked me out. Now if you came here expecting me to cry on your shoulders and promise to lay off your grafting friend, you're going to be disappointed. If you have nothing else to say, good-by."

Bigman said, "There's something you're forgetting. You tried to kill me."

"Where's your witness? Now if you don't get out, I'll pucker up and blow you out, midget."

Bigman remained heroically calm. "I'll make a deal with you, Urteil. You've made every threat you can think of because you're half an inch taller than I am and half a pound heavier, but you crawled the only time I made a pass at you."

"With a force-knife and myself unarmed. Don't forget that."

"I say you're yellow. Meet me rough and tumble, now. No weapons. Or are you too weak?"

"Too weak for you? Two years in the hospital and I wouldn't be too weak for you!"

"Then fight. Before witnesses! We can use the space in the power room. I've made arrangements with Hanley Cook."

"Cook must hate you. What about Peverale?"

"Nobody asked him. And Cook doesn't hate me."

"He seems anxious to get you killed. But I don't think I'll give him the satisfaction. Why should I fight a half-pint of skin and wind?"

"Yellow?"

"I said, why? You said you were making a deal."

"Right. You win, I don't say a word about what happened in the mines, what really happened. I win, you lay off the Council."

"Some deal. Why should I worry about anything you can say about me?"

"You're not afraid of losing, are you?"

"Space!" The exclamation was enough.

Bigman said, "Well, then?"

"You must think I'm a fool. If I fight with you before witnesses I'll be indicted for murder. If I lean a finger on you, you're squashed. Go find yourself another way to commit suicide."

"All right. How much do you outweigh me?"

"A hundred pounds," said Urteil contemptuously.

"A hundred pounds of fat," squeaked Bigman, his gnomish face screwed into a ferocious scowl. "Tell you what. Let's fight under Mercurian gravity. That makes your advantage forty pounds. And you keep your inertia advantage. Fair enough?"

Urteil said, "Space, I'd like to give you one smash, just to plaster your big mouth over your miserable little face."

"You've got your chance. Is it a deal?"

"By Earth, it's a deal. I'll try not to kill you, but that's as far as I'll go. You've asked for this, you've begged for it."

"Right. Now let's go. Let's go." And Bigman was so anxious that he hopped about as he talked, sparring a little with rapid birdlike motions of his fists. In fact, such was his eagerness for this duel that not once did he give a specific thought to Lucky nor suffer any presentiment of disaster. He had no way of telling that, some time before, Lucky had fought a more deadly duel than the one Bigman now proposed.


The power-level had its tremendous generators and heavy equipment, but it also had its broad level space suitable for gatherings of personnel. It was the oldest part of the Dome. In the first days, before even a single mine shaft had been blasted into Mercurian soil, the original construction engineers had slept on cots in that space between the generators. Even now it was still occasionally used for trifilm entertainment.

Now it served as a ring, and Cook, together with half a dozen or so technicians, remained dubiously on the side lines.

"Is this all?" demanded Bigman.

Cook said, "Mindes and his men are out Sun-side. There are ten men in the mines looking for your ropes, and the rest are mostly at their instruments." He looked apprehensively at Urteil and said, "Are you sure you know what you're doing, Bigman?"

Urteil was stripped to the waist. He had a thick growth of hair over his chest and shoulders, and he moved his muscles with an athletic joy.

Bigman looked in Urteil's direction indifferently. "All set with the gravity?"

"We'll have it off at the signal. I've rigged the controls so the rest of the Dome won't be affected. Has Urteil agreed?"

"Sure." Bigman smiled. "It's all right, pal."

"I hope so," said Cook fervently.

Urteil called out, "When do we get started?" Then looking about the small group of spectators, he asked, "Anyone care to bet on the monkey?"

One of the technicians looked at Bigman with an uneasy grin. Bigman, now also stripped to his waist, looked surprisingly wiry, but the difference in size gave the match a grotesque appearance.

"No bet here," said the technician.

"Are we ready?" called Cook.

"I am," said Urteil.

Cook licked his pale lips and flicked the master switch. There was a change in the pitch of the subdued droning of the generators.

Bigman swayed with the sudden loss of weight. So did all the rest. Urteil stumbled but recovered rapidly and advanced gingerly into the middle of the clear space. He did not bother to lift his arms but stood waiting in a posture of complete relaxation.

"Start something, bug," he said.


13. Results of a Duel

For his part, Bigman advanced with gentle movements of his legs that translated themselves into slow and graceful steps, almost as though he were on springs.

In a way he was. Mercurian surface gravity was almost precisely equal to Martian surface gravity, and it was something he was at home with thoroughly. His cool, gray eyes, watching sharply, noticed every sway in Urteil's body, every knotting of a sudden muscle as he worked to keep erect.

Small misjudgments even in merely keeping one's balance were inevitable when working in a gravity to which one was unaccustomed.

Bigman moved in suddenly, springing from foot to foot and side to side in a broken motion that was at once amusingly dancelike and completely confusing.

"What is this?" growled Urteil in exasperation. "A Martian waltz?"

"Kind of," said Bigman. His arm lunged outward, and his bare knuckles slammed into Urteil's side with a resounding thwack, staggering the big fellow.

There was a gasp from the audience and one yell of "Hey, boy!"

Bigman stood there, arms akimbo, waiting for Urteil to recover his balance.

Urteil did so in a matter of five seconds, but now there was an angry red splotch on his side and a similar and angrier one on each cheekbone.

His own arm shot out powerfully, his right palm half open as though a slap would be sufficient to fling this stinging insect out of his way forever.

But the blow continued, dragging Urteil about. Bigman had ducked, leaving a fraction of an inch to spare, with the sure judgment of a perfectly co-ordinated body. Urteil's efforts to stop his follow-through left him teetering wildly, back to Bigman.

Bigman placed his foot on the seat of Urteil's pants and shoved gently. The recoil sent him hopping easily backward on the other foot, but Urteil went slowly forward on his face in grotesque slow motion.

There was sudden laughter from the side lines.

One of the spectators called out, "Changed my mind, Urteil. I'm betting."

Urteil made no gesture of hearing this. He was facing Bigman again, and from the corner of his thick lips a viscid drop of saliva made its way down the corner of his chin.

"Up the gravity!" he roared hoarsely. "Get it to normal!"

"What's the matter, tubbo?" mocked Bigman. "Isn't forty pounds in your favor enough?"

"I'll kill you. I'll kill you," Urteil shouted.

"Go ahead!" Bigman spread his arms in mock invitation.

But Urteil was not entirely beyond reason. He circled Bigman, hopping a little in ungainly fashion. He said, "I'll get my gravity legs, bug, and once I grab you anywhere, that piece gets torn off you."

"Grab away."

But there was an uneasy silence among the men who watched now. Urteil was a stooping barrel, his arms sweeping out and wide, his legs spread. He was keeping his balance, catching the rhythm of the gravity.

Bigman was a slender stalk in comparison. He might be as graceful and self-assured as a dancer, yet he looked pitifully small.

Bigman seemed unworried. He hopped forward with a sudden stamp of his feet that sent him shooting high in the air, and when Urteil lunged at the rising figure, Bigman lifted his feet and went down behind his adversary before the other could turn around.

There was loud applause, and Bigman grinned.

He performed what was almost a pirouette as he ducked under one of the great arms that threatened him, reaching out and bringing the side of his hand sharply down against the biceps.

Urteil restrained a cry and whirled again.

Urteil maintained a dreadful calm to all these grandstanding provocations now. Bigman, on the other hand, tried in every way he could to taunt and sting Urteil into a wild motion that would send him shooting off balance.

Forward and away; quick, sharp blows, which for all their flicking qualities carried a sting.

But a new respect for Urteil was growing in the small Martian's mind. The cobber was taking it. He was maintaining his ground like a bear warding off the attack of a hunting dog. And Bigman was the hunting dog which could only hover at the outskirts, snap, snarl, and keep out of the reach of the bear's paws.

Urteil even looked like a bear with his large, hairy body, his small, bloodshot eyes, and his jowly, bristly face.

"Fight, cobber," jeered Bigman. "I'm the only one giving the customers a show."

Urteil shook his head slowly. "Come closer," he said.

"Sure,' said Bigman lightly, dashing in. With flashing movements, he caught Urteil on the side of the jaw and was under his arm and away in almost the same movement.

Urteil's arm half moved, but it was too late and the motion wasn't completed. He swayed a little. "Try it again," he said.

Bigman tried it again, twisting and diving under his other arm this time and finishing with a little bow to accept the roars of approval.

"Try it again," said Urteil thickly.

"Sure," said Bigman. And he dashed.

This time Urteil was thoroughly prepared. He moved neither head nor arms, but his right foot shot forward.

Bigman doubled, or tried to, in mid-air and didn't quite make it. His ankle was caught and pinned brutally for a moment by Urteil's shoe. Bigman yelped at the pressure.

Urteil's rapid movement carried him forward, and Bigman, with a quick, desperate shove at the other's back, accelerated that movement.

This time Urteil, more accustomed to the gravity, was not thrown forward as far and recovered more quickly, while Bigman, with his ankle on fire, moved about with a frightening clumsiness.

With a wild shout Urteil charged and Bigman, pivoting on his good foot, was not fast enough. His right shoulder was caught in one hamlike fist. His right elbow was caught in the other. They went down together.

A groan went up almost in concert from the spectators and Cook, watching ashen-faced, cried out, "Stop the fight" in a croaking voice that went completely unheeded.

Urteil got to his feet, his grip firm on Bigman, lifting the Martian as though he were a feather. Bigman, face twisted in pain, writhed to get a footing of his own.

Urteil muttered into the little fellow's ear. "You thought you were wise, tricking me into fighting under low gravity. Do you still think so?"

Bigman wasted no time in thought. He would have to get at least one foot on the floor… Or on Urteil's kneecap, for his right foot rested momentarily on Urteil's knee and that would have to do.

Bigman pushed down hard and lunged his body backward.

Urteil swayed forward. That was not dangerous for Urteil in itself, but his balancing muscles overshot the mark in the low gravity, and in righting himself he swayed backward, And as he did so, Bigman, expecting that, shifted his weight and pushed hard forward.

Urteil went down so suddenly that the spectators could not see how it was accomplished. Bigman wrenched half free.

He was on his feet like a cat, with his right arm still pinned. Bigman brought his left arm down on Urteil's wrist and brought up his knee sharply against the other's elbow.

Urteil howled and his grip on Bigman loosened as he shifted position to keep his own arm from being broken.

Bigman took his chance with the quickness of a jet's ignition. He wrenched his pinned hand completely loose while maintaining his grip on Urteil's wrist. His freed hand came down upon Urteil's arm above the elbow. He had a two-handed grip now on Urteil's left arm.

Urteil was scrabbling to his feet, and as he did so, Bigman's body bowed and his back muscles went down hard with effort. He lifted along the line of Urteil's own motion of rising.

Bigman's muscles, combined with the action of Urteil's lift, carried that large body free of the ground in a slow motion, impressive display of what could be done in a low gravity field.

With his muscles near to cracking, Bigman whipped Urteil's torso still farther upward, then let go, watching it as it went flailing in a parabolic arc that seemed grotesquely slow by Earth standards.

They all watched and were all caught in the sudden change of gravity. Earth's full gravity snapped on with the force and speed of a blaster bolt, and Bigman went to his knees with a painful wrench on his twisted ankle. The spectators also went down in a chorus of confused cries of pain and astonishment.

Bigman caught only the merest glimpse of what happened to Urteil. The change in gravity had caught him almost at the high point of the parabola, snapping him downward with sharp acceleration. His head struck a protecting stanchion of one of the generators a sharp, cracking blow.

Bigman, rising painfully to his feet, tried to shake sense into his addled brains. He staggered and was aware of Urteil sprawled limply, of Cook kneeling at Urteil's side.

"What happened?" cried Bigman. "What happened to the gravity?"

The others echoed the question. As nearly as Bigman could tell, Cook was the only one on his feet, the only one who seemed to be thinking.

Cook was saying, "Never mind the gravity. It's Urteil."

"Is he hurt?" cried someone.

"Not any more," said Cook, getting up from his kneeling position. "I'm pretty sure he's dead."

They made an uneasy circle about the body.

Bigman said, "Better get Dr. Gardoma." He scarcely heard himself say it. A great thought had come to him.

"There's going to be trouble,' said Cook. "You killed him, Bigman."

"The change in gravity did that," said Bigman.

"That'll be hard to explain. You threw him."

Bigman said, "I'll face any trouble. Don't worry."

Cook licked his lips and looked away. "I'll call Gardoma."


Gardoma arrived five minutes later, and the shortness of his examination was proof enough that Cook had been correct.

The physician rose to his feet, wiping his hands on a pocket handkerchief. He said gravely, "Dead. Fractured skull. How did it happen?"

Several spoke at once, but Cook waved them down.

He said, "A grudge fight between Bigman and Urteil… "

"Between Bigman and Urteil!" exploded Dr. Gardoma. "Who allowed that? Are you crazy, expecting Bigman to stand up… "

"Easy there," said Bigman. "I'm in one piece."

Cook said in angry self-defense, "That's right, Gardoma, it's Urteil that's dead. And it was Bigman who insisted on the fight. You admit that, don't you?"

"I admit it all right," said Bigman. "I also said it was to be under Mercurian gravity."

Dr. Gardoma's eyes opened wide. "Mercurian gravity? Here?" He looked down at his feet as though wondering if his senses were playing him tricks and he were really lighter than he felt.

"It isn't Mercurian gravity any more," said Bigman, "because the pseudo-grav field snapped to full Earth gravity at a crucial time. Bam! Like that! That's what killed Urteil, not yours truly."

"What made the pseudo-grav snap to Earth levels?" asked Gardoma.

There was silence.

Cook said feebly, "It might have been a short… "

"Nuts," said Bigman, "the lever is pulled up. It didn't do that by itself."

There was a new silence and an uneasy one.

One of the technicians cleared his throat and said, "Maybe in the excitement of the fight someone was moving around and shoved it up with his shoulder without even realizing it."

The others agreed eagerly. One of them said, "Space! It just happened!"

Cook said, "I'll have to report the entire incident. Bigman… "

"Well," said the small Martian calmly, "am I under arrest for manslaughter?"

"N-no," said Cook uncertainly. "I won't arrest you, but I have to report, and you may be arrested in the end."

"Uh huh. Well, thanks for the warning." For the first time since returning from the mines, Bigman found himself thinking of Lucky. This, he thought, is a fine peck of trouble for Lucky to find waiting for him when he comes back.

And yet there was an odd stir of excitement in the little Martian, too, for he was sure he could get out of the trouble… and show Lucky a thing or two in the process.

A new voice broke in. "Bigman!"

Everyone looked up. It was Peverale, stepping down the ramp that led from the upper levels. "Great Space, Bigman, are you down there? And Cook?" Then almost pettishly, "What's going on?"

No one seemed to be able to say anything at all. The old astronomer's eyes fell on the prone body of Urteil, and he said with mild surprise, "Is he dead?"

To Bigman's astonishment, Peverale seemed to lose interest in that. He didn't even wait for his question to be answered before turning to Bigman once more.

He said, "Where's Lucky Starr?"

Bigman opened his mouth but nothing came out. Finally, he managed to say weakly, "Why do you ask?"

"Is he still in the mines?"

"Well… "

"Or is he on Sun-side?"

"Well… "

"Great Space, man, is he on Sun-side?"

Bigman said, "I want to know why you're asking."

"Mindes," said Peverale impatiently, "is out in his flitter, patrolling the area covered by his cables. He does that sometimes."

"So?"

"So he's either mad or he's correct in saying he's seen Lucky Starr out there."

"Where?" cried Bigman at once.

Dr. Peverale's mouth compressed in disapproval.

"Then he is out there. That's plain enough. Well, your friend Lucky Starr was apparently in some trouble with a mechanical man, a robot—"

"A robot!"

"And according to Mindes, who has not landed but who is waiting for a party to be sent out, Lucky Starr is dead!"


14. Prelude to a Trial

During the moment in which Lucky lay bent in the inexorable grip of the robot, he expected momentary death, and when it did not come at once a weak hope flared up within him.

Could it be that the robot, having the impossibility of killing a human being ingrained in its tortured mind, found itself incapable of the actual act now that it was face to face with it?

And then he thought that couldn't be, for it seemed to him the pressure of the robot's grip was increasing in smooth stages.

He cried with what force he could muster, "Release me!" and brought up his one free hand from where it had dragged, trailing in the black grime. There was one last chance, one last, miserably weak chance.

He lifted his hand to the robot's head. He could not turn his head to see, crushed as that was against the robot's chest. His hand slipped along the smooth metal surface of the robot's skull two times, three times, four times. He took his hand away.

There was nothing more he could do.

Then—Was it his imagination, or did the robot's grip seem to loosen? Was Mercury's big Sun on his side at last?

"Robot!" he cried.

The robot made a sound, but it was only like gears scraping rustily together.

Its grip was loosening. Now was the time to reinforce events by calling what might be left of the Laws of Robotics into play.

Lucky panted, "You may not hurt a human being."

The robot said, "I may not… " haltingly, and without warning fell to the ground.

Its grip was constant, as though rigid in death.

Lucky said, "Robot! Let go!"

Jerkily, the robot loosened his hold. Not entirely, but Lucky's legs came free and his head could move.

He said, "Who ordered you to destroy equipment?"

He no longer feared the robot's wild reaction to that question. He knew that he himself had brought that positronic mind to full disintegration. But in the last stages before final dissolution, perhaps some ragged remnant of the Second Law might hold. He repeated, "Who ordered you to destroy equipment?"

The robot made a blurred sound. "Er—Er… "

Then, maddeningly, radio contact broke off, and the robot's mouth opened and closed twice as though, in the ultimate extremity, it were trying to talk by ordinary sound.

After that, nothing.

The robot was dead.

Lucky's own mind, now that the immediate emergency of near-death was over, was wavering and blurred. He lacked the strength to unwind the robot's limbs entirely from his body. His radio controls had been smashed in the robot's hug.

He knew that he must first regain his strength. To do that meant he must get out of the direct radiation of Mercury's big Sun and quickly. That meant reaching the shadow of the near-by ridge, the shadow he had failed to reach during the duel with the robot.

Painfully he doubled his feet beneath him. Painfully he inched his body toward the shadow of the ridge, dragging the robot's weight with him. Again. Again. The process seemed to last forever and the universe shimmered about him.

Again. Again.

There seemed to be no strength or feeling in his legs, and the robot seemed to weigh a thousand pounds.

Even with Mercury's low gravity, the task seemed beyond his weakening strength, and it was sheer will that drove him on.

His head entered the shadow first. Light blanked out. He waited, panting, and then, with an effort that seemed to crack his thigh muscles, he pushed himself along the ground once more and even once more.

He was in the shadow. One of the robot's legs was still in the sun, blazing reflections in all directions. Lucky looked over his shoulder and noted that dizzily. Then, almost gratefully, he let go of consciousness.


There were intervals later when sense perception crawled back.

Then, much later, he lay quietly, conscious of a soft bed under him, trying to bring those intervals back to mind. There were fragmentary pictures in his memory of people approaching, a vague impression of motion in a jet vehicle, of Bigman's voice, shrill and anxious. Then, a trifle more clearly, a physician's ministrations.

After that, a blank again, followed by a sharp memory of Dr. Peverale's courtly voice asking him gentle questions. Lucky remembered answering in connected fashion, so the worst of his ordeal must have been over by then. He opened his eyes.

Dr. Gardoma was looking at him.somberly, a hypodermic still in his hand. "How do you feel?" he asked.

Lucky smiled. "How should I feel?"

"Dead, I should think, after what you've gone through. But you have a remarkable constitution, so you'll live."

Bigman, who had been hovering anxiously at the outskirts of Lucky's vision, entered it full now. "No thanks to Mindes for that. Why didn't that mud-brain go down and get Lucky out of there after he spotted the robot's leg? What was he waiting for? He was leaving Lucky to die?"

Dr. Gardoma put away his hypodermic and washed his hands. With his back to Bigman, he said, "Scott Mindes was convinced Lucky was dead. His only thought was to stay away so that no one could accuse him of being the murderer. He knew he had tried to kill Lucky once before and that others would remember that."

"How could he think that this time? The robot… "

"Mindes isn't himself under pressure these days. He called for help; that was the best he could do."

Lucky said, "Take it easy, Bigman. I was in no danger. I was sleeping it off in the shade, and I'm all right now. What about the robot, Gardoma? Was it salvaged?"

"We've got it in the Dome. The brain is gone, though, quite impossible to study."

"Too bad," said Lucky.

The physician raised his voice. "All right, Bigman, come on. Let him sleep."

"Hey… " began Bigman indignantly.

Lucky at once added, "That's all right, Gardoma. As a matter of fact, I want to speak to him privately."

Dr. Gardoma hesitated, then shrugged. "You need sleep, but I'll give you half an hour. Then he must go."

"He'll go."

As soon as they were alone, Bigman seized Lucky's shoulder and shook it violently. He said in a strangled kind of voice, "You stupid ape. If the heat hadn't got that robot in time-like in the sub-etherics… "

Lucky smiled mirthlessly. "It wasn't coincidence, Bigman," he said. "If I had waited for a sub-etheric ending, I'd be dead. I had to gimmick the robot."

"How?"

"Its brain case was highly polished. It reflected a large part of the sun's radiation. That meant the temperature of the positronic brain was high enough to ruin its sanity but not high enough to stop it completely. Fortunately, a good part of Mercurian soil about here is made up of a loose black substance. I managed to smear some on its head."

"What did that do?"

"Black absorbs heat, Bigman. It doesn't reflect it. The temperature of the robot's brain went up quickly and it died almost at once. It was close, though… Still, never mind that. What happened at this end while I was gone? Anything?"

"Anything? Wow! You listen!" And as Bigman talked, Lucky did listen, with an expression that grew continually graver as the story unfolded.

By the time it drew to a conclusion he was frowning angrily. "Why did you fight Urteil, anyway? That was foolish."

"Lucky," said Bigman in outrage, "it was strategy! You always say I just bull right ahead and can't be trusted to do the shrewd thing. This was shrewd. I knew I could lick him at low gravity… "

"It seems as though you almost didn't. Your ankle is taped."

"I slipped. Accident. Besides, I did win. A deal was involved. He could do a lot of damage to the Council with his lies, but if I won he'd get off our backs."

"Could you take his word for that?"

"Well… " began Bigman, troubled.

Lucky drove on. "You saved his life, you said. He must have known that, and yet that didn't persuade him to abandon his purpose. Did you think he was likely to do so as a result of a fist fight?"

"Well… " said Bigman, again.

"Especially if he lost and would therefore be raging at the humiliation of a public beating… I tell you what, Bigman. You did it because you wanted to beat him and get revenge for making fun of you. Your talk about making a deal was just an excuse to give you an opportunity for the beating. Isn't that right?"

"Aw, Lucky! Sands of Mars… "

"Well, am I wrong?''

"I wanted to make the deal… "

"But mainly you wanted to fight, and now look at the mess."

Bigman's eyes dropped. "I'm sorry."

Lucky relented at once. "Oh, Great Galaxy, Bigman, I'm not angry at you. I'm angry at myself, really. I misjudged that robot and nearly got myself killed because I wasn't thinking. I could see it was out of order and never tied it up with the effect of heat on its positronic brain till it was nearly too late… Well, the past has a lesson for the future, but otherwise, let's forget it. The question is what to do about the Urteil situation."

Bigman's spirits bounced back at once. "Anyway," he said, "the cobber is off our backs."

"He is," said Lucky, "but what about Senator Swenson?" "Hmm."

"How do we explain things? The Council of Science is being investigated, and as a result of a fight instigated by someone close to the Council, someone who's almost a member, the investigator dies. That won't look good."

"It was an accident. The pseudo-grav field—"

"That won't help us. I'll have to talk to Peverale and… "

Bigman reddened and said hastily, "He's just an old guy. He's not paying any attention to this."

Lucky hitched himself to one elbow. "What do you mean, he's not paying any attention?"

"He isn't," said Bigman vehemently. "He came in with Urteil lying dead on the ground and thought nothing of it. He said, 'Is he dead?' and that's all."

"That's all?"

"That's all. Then he asked about where you were and said Mindes had called and said a robot had killed you."

Lucky's level glance held Bigman. "That's all?"

"That was all," said Bigman uneasily.

"What's happened since then? Come on, Bigman. You don't want me to talk to Peverale. Why not?"

Bigman looked away.

"Come on, Bigman."

"Well, I'm being tried or something."

"Tried!"

"Peverale says it's murder and it'll raise a smell back on Earth. He says we've got to fix responsibility."

"All right. When is the trial?"

"Aw, Lucky, I didn't want to tell you. Dr. Gardoma said you weren't to be excited."

"Don't act like a mother hen, Bigman. When is the trial?"

"Tomorrow at two P.M., System Standard Time. But there's nothing to worry about, Lucky."

Lucky said, "Call in Gardoma."

"Why?"

"Do as I say."

Bigman stepped to the door, and when he returned, Dr. Gardoma was with him.

Lucky said, "There's no reason I can't get out of bed by two P.M. tomorrow, is there?"

Dr. Gardoma hesitated. "I'd rather you took more time."

"I don't care what you'd rather. It won't kill me, will it?"

"It wouldn't kill you to get out of bed right now, Mr. Starr," said Dr. Gardoma, offended. "But it's not advisable."

"All right, then. Now you tell Dr. Peverale that I'll be at the trial of Bigman. You know about that, I suppose?"

"I do."

"Everyone does except myself. Is that it?"

"You were in no condition… "

"You tell Dr. Peverale I'll be at that trial and it isn't to start without me."

"I'll tell him," said Gardoma, "and you'd better go to sleep now. Come with me, Bigman."

Bigman squealed. "Just one second." He stepped rapidly to the side of Lucky's bed and said, "Look, Lucky, don't get upset. I've got the whole situation under control."

Lucky's eyebrows lifted.

Bigman, almost bursting with self-importance, said, "I wanted to surprise you, darn it. I can prove I had nothing to do with Urteil breaking his neck. I've solved the case." He pounded his chest. "I have. Me! Bigman! I know who's responsible for everything."

Lucky said, "Who?"

But Bigman cried instantly, "No! I'm not saying. I want to show you I have more on my mind than fist fights. I'll run the show this time and you watch me, that's all. You'll find out at the trial."

The little Martian wrinkled his face into a delighted grin, executed a small dance step, and followed Dr. Gardoma out of the room, wearing a look of gay triumph.


15. The Trial

Lucky strode into Dr. Peverale's office shortly before 2 P.M. the next day.

The others had already gathered. Dr. Peverale, sitting behind an old and crowded desk, nodded pleasantly at him, and Lucky responded with a grave, "Good afternoon, sir."

It was much like the evening of the banquet. Cook was there, of course, looking as always, nervous and, somehow, gaunt. He sat in a large armchair at Dr. Peverale's right, and Bigman's small body squirmed and was nearly lost in an equally large armchair at the left.

Mindes was there, his thin face twisted glumly and his intertwining fingers separating occasionally to drum on his pants leg. Dr. Gardoma sat next to him, stolid, his heavy eyelids lifting to glance disapprovingly at Lucky as he entered. The department heads among the astronomers were there.

In fact, the only man who had been present at the banquet but was absent now was Urteil.

Dr. Peverale began at once in his gentle way, "We can start now. And first, a few words for Mr. Starr. I understand that Bigman described this proceeding to you as a trial. Please be assured that it is nothing of the sort. If there is to be a trial, and I hope not, it will take place on Earth with qualified judges and legal counsel. What we are trying to do here is merely to assemble a report for transmission to the Council of Science."

Dr. Peverale arranged some of the helter-skelter of objects on his desk and said, "Let me explain why a full report is necessary. In the first place, as a result of Mr. Starr's daring penetration of the Sun-side, the saboteur who has been upsetting Dr. Mindes's project has been stopped. It turned out to be a robot of Sirian manufacture, which is now no longer functional. Mr.Starr… "

"Yes?" said Lucky.

"The importance of the matter was such that I took the liberty of questioning you when you were first brought in and when your state was one of only half-consciousness."

"I remember that," said Lucky, "quite well."

"Would you confirm some of the answers now, for the record?"

"I will."

"In the first place, are there any other robots involved?"

"The robot did not say, but I do not believe there were others."

"However, it did not say specifically that it was the only robot on Mercury?"

"It did not."

"Then there might be many others."

"I don't think so."

"That's only your own opinion, though. The robot didn't say there were no others."

"It did not."

"Very well, then. How many Sirians were involved?"

"The robot would not say. It had been instructed not to."

"Did it locate the base of the Sirian invaders?"

"It said nothing concerning that. It made no mention of Sirians at all."

"But the robot was of Sirian manufacture, wasn't it?"

"It admitted that."

"Ah." Dr Peverale smiled humorlessly. "Then it is obvious, I think, that there are Sirians on Mercury and that they are active against us. The Council of Science must be made aware of this. There must be an organized search of Mercury and, if the Sirians evade us and leave the planet, there must at least be an increased awareness of the Sirian danger."

Cook interposed uneasily. "There is also the question of the native Mercurian life-forms, Dr. Peverale.

The Council will have to be informed of that, too."

He turned to address the gathering at large. "One of the creatures was captured yesterday and… "

The old astronomer interrupted with some annoyance. "Yes, Dr. Cook, the Council shall assuredly be informed. Nevertheless, the Sirian question is what must be kept foremost. Other matters must be sacrificed to the immediate danger. For instance, I suggest that Dr. Mindes abandon his project until Mercury be made safe for Earthmen."

"Hold on, now," cried Mindes quickly. "There's a lot of money and time and effort invested here… "

"I said, until Mercury was safe. I do not imply permanent abandonment of Project Light. And because it is necessary to put the Mercurian danger foremost, it is necessary to make sure that Urteil's protector, Senator Swenson, be prevented from setting up obstructions over side issues."

Lucky said, "You mean you want to present the senator with a scapegoat in the form of Bigman, neatly ticketed and bound hand and foot. Then while he's worrying and clawing at Bigman, the chase for Sirians can proceed on Mercury without interference."

The astronomer lifted his white eyebrows. "A scapegoat, Mr. Starr? We just want the facts."

"Well, go ahead, then," said Bigman, moving restlessly in his chair. "You'll get the facts."

"Good," said Dr. Peverale. "As the central figure, do you care to begin? Tell everything that occurred between you and Urteil in your own words. Tell it in your own words, but I would appreciate brevity. And remember, these proceedings are being recorded on sound microfilm."

Bigman said, "Do you want me to take my oath?"

Peverale shook his head. "This is not a formal trial."

"Suit yourself." And with surprising dispassion, Bigman told the story. Beginning with Urteil's slurs on his height and continuing through the encounter in the mines, he ended with the duel. He left out only Urteil's threats of action against Lucky Starr and the Council.

Dr. Gardoma followed, verifying what had occurred on the occasion of the first meeting between Urteil and Bigman and also describing, for the record, the scene at the banquet table. He went on to describe his treatment of Urteil after the return from the mines.

He said, "He recovered quickly from the hypothermia. I didn't ask him for details, and he didn't offer any. However, he asked after Bigman, and, from his expression when I said Bigman was entirely well, I should judge that his dislike for Bigman was as great as ever. He didn't act as though Bigman had saved his life. Just the same, I must say that from my observation of the man I should say Urteil was not subject to attacks of gratitude."

"That is only an opinion," interposed Dr. Peverale hastily, "and I recommend that we not confuse the record by such statements."

Dr. Cook came next. He concentrated on the duel. He said, "Bigman insisted on the fight. That's all there was to that. It seemed to me that if I arranged one under low gravity as Bigman suggested, with witnesses, no harm would be done. We could intervene if things grew serious. I was afraid that, if I refused, a fight between them might result without witnesses and that there might be serious results. Of course, the results could scarcely be more serious than they have turned out to be, but I never anticipated that. I ought to have consulted you, Dr. Peverale, I admit that."

Dr. Peverale nodded. "You certainly ought to have. But the fact is now that Bigman insisted on the duel and insisted on low gravity, didn't he?"

"That's right."

"And he assured you that he would kill Urteil under those conditions."

"His exact words were that he would 'murder the cobber.' I think he was only speaking figuratively. I'm sure he didn't plan actual murder."

Dr. Peverale turned to Bigman. "Have you any comments in that connection?"

"Yes, I do. And since Dr. Cook is on the stand, I want to cross-examine."

Dr. Peverale looked surprised. "This isn't a trial."

"Listen," said Bigman heatedly. "Urteil's death was no accident. It was murder, and I want a chance to prove that."

The silence that fell at that statement lasted a moment and no more. It was succeeded by a confused babbling.

Bigman's voice rose to a piercing squeal. "I'm set to cross-examine Dr. Hanley Cook."

Lucky Starr said coldly, "I suggest you allow Bigman to go through with this, Dr. Peverale."

The old astronomer was the picture of confusion.

"Really, I don't… Bigman can't… " He stammered himself into silence.

Bigman said, "First, Dr. Cook, how did Urteil come to know the route Lucky and I were taking in the mines?"

Cook reddened. "I didn't know he knew the route."

"He didn't follow us directly. He took a parallel route as though he were intending to catch up and fall behind us well within the mines, after we had convinced ourselves that we were alone and unfollowed. To do that, he would have to be certain of the route we were planning to take. Now Lucky and I planned that route with you and with no one else. Lucky didn't tell Urteil and neither did I. Who did?"

Cook looked wildly about as though for help. "I don't know."

"Isn't it obvious you did?"

''No. Maybe he overheard."

"He couldn't overhear marks on a map, Dr. Cook.

… Let's pass on, now. I fought Urteil, and if gravity had stayed at Mercurian normal, he would still be alive. But it didn't stay there. It was suddenly hopped up to Earth-levels at just the moment where it helped to kill him. Who did that?"

"I don't know."

"You were the first one at Urteil's side. What were you doing? Making sure he was dead?"

"I resent that. Dr. Peverale… " Cook turned a flaming face toward his chief.

Dr. Peverale said with agitation, "Are you accusing Dr. Cook of having murdered Urteil?"

Bigman said, "Look. The sudden change in gravity pulled me to the ground. When I got to my feet, everyone else was either getting to their feet, too, or was still on the ground. When 75 to 150 pounds fall on your back without warning, you don't get to your feet in a hurry. But Cook had. He was not only on his feet, he had gotten to Urteil's side and was bending over him."

"What does that prove?" demanded Cook.

"It proves you didn't go down when the gravity went up, or you couldn't have gotten there in time. And why didn't you go down when the gravity went up? Because you expected it to go up and were braced for it. And why did you expect it to go up? Because you tripped the lever."

Cook turned to Dr. Peverale. "This is persecution. It's madness."

But Dr. Peverale looked at his second in stricken horror.

Bigman said, "Let me reconstruct the business. Cook was working with Urteil. That's the only way Urteil could have learned our route in the mines. But he was working with Urteil out of fear. Maybe Urteil was blackmailing him. Anyway, the only way Cook could get out from under was to kill Urteil. When I said I could murder the cobber if we fought under low gravity. I must have put an idea into his head, and when we had the fight he stood there waiting at the lever. That's all."

"Wait," cried Cook urgently, almost choked, "this is all—this is all… "

"You don't have to go by me," said Bigman. "If my theory is right, and I'm sure it is, then Urteil must have something in writing or on recording or on film that he can hold over Cook's head. Otherwise, Cook wouldn't have felt trapped to the point of murder. So search Urteil's effects. You'll find something and that will be it."

"I agree with Bigman," said Lucky.

Dr. Peverale said in bewilderment, "I suppose it's the only way of settling the matter, though how… "

And the air seemed to go out of Dr. Hanley Cook, leaving him pale, shaken, and helpless. "Wait," he said weakly, "I'll explain."

And all faces turned toward him.

Hanley Cook's lean cheeks were bathed in perspiration. His hands as he raised them, almost in supplication, trembled badly. He said, "Urteil came to me shortly after he arrived on Mercury. He said he was investigating the Observatory. He said Senator Swenson had evidence of inefficiency and waste. He said it was obvious that Dr. Peverale ought to be retired; that he was an old man and incapable of bearing up under the responsibility. He said I might make a logical replacement."

Dr. Peverale, who listened to this with an air of stunned surprise, cried out. "Cook!"

"I agreed with him," said Cook sullenly. "You are too old. I'm running the place anyway while you occupy yourself with your Sirius mania." He turned again to Lucky. "Urteil said that if I helped him in his investigation he would see to it that I would be the next director. I believed him; everyone knows Senator Swenson is a powerful man.

"I gave him a great deal of information. Some of it was in writing and signed. He said he needed it for legal proceedings afterward.

"And then—and then he began holding that written information over my head. It turned out that he was a lot more interested in Project Light and the Council of Science. He wanted me to use my position to become a kind of personal spy for him. He made it quite plain that he would go to Dr. Peverale with evidence of what I had done if I refused. That would have meant the end of my career, of everything.

"I had to spy for him. I had to give information concerning the route Starr and Bigman were to take in the mines. I kept him up to date on everything Mindes did. Every time I surrendered a bit more to him I was more helplessly in his power. And after a while I knew that someday he would break me, no matter how much I helped him. He was that kind of man. I began to feel that the only way I could escape was to kill him. If only I knew how—

"Then Bigman came to me with his plan to fight Urteil under low gravity. He was so confident that he could toss Urteil about. I thought then I might…

The chances would be one in a hundred, maybe one in a thousand, but I thought, what was there to lose? So I stood at the pseudo-grav controls and waited my chance. It came and Urteil died. It worked perfectly. I thought it would go down as accident. Even if Bigman were in trouble, then the Council could get him out of it. No one would be hurt except Urteil, and he deserved it a hundred times over. Anyway, that's it." In the awed silence that followed, Dr. Peverale said huskily, "Under the circumstances, Cook, you will of course consider yourself relieved of all duty and under arr…"

"Hey, hold it, hold it," cried Bigman. "The confession isn't complete yet. Look here, Cook, that was the second time you tried to kill Urteil, wasn't it?"

"The second time?" Cook's tragic eyes lifted.

"What about the gimmicked inso-suit? Urteil said for us to watch out for one, so he must have had experience with it. He made out Mindes was doing it, but that Urteil was a lying cobber and nothing he says has to be believed. What I say is that you tried to kill Urteil that way, but he caught the suit and forced you to transfer it to our room when we came. Then he warned us about it just to get us thinking he was on our side and make trouble for Mindes. Isn't that so?"

"No," shouted Cook. "No! I had nothing to do with that inso-suit. Nothing."

"Come on," began Bigman. "We're not going to believe… "

But now Lucky Starr got to his feet. "It's all right, Bigman. Cook had nothing to do with the inso-suit. You can believe him. The man responsible for the slashed inso-suit is the man responsible for the robot."

Bigman stared at his tall friend incredulously. "You mean the Sirians, Lucky?"

"No Sirians," said Lucky. "There are no Sirians on Mercury. There never have been."


16. Results of the Trial

Dr. Peverale's deep voice was hoarse with dismay. "No Sirians? Do you know what you're saying, Starr?"

"Perfectly." Lucky Starr moved up to Dr. Peverale's desk, sat down on one corner of it, and faced the assemblage. "Dr. Peverale will bear me out on that, I'm sure, when I've explained the reasoning."

"I'll bear you out? No fear of that, I assure you," huffed the old astronomer, his face set in an attitude of bitter disapproval. "It is scarcely worth discussing… By the way, we'll have to place Cook under arrest." He half rose.

Lucky urged him gently back into his seat. "It's all right, sir. Bigman will make sure that Cook will remain under control."

"I won't make any trouble," said the despairing Cook in a muffled tone. Bigman pulled his armchair close to Cook's nevertheless.

Lucky said, "Think back, Dr. Peverale, on the night of the banquet and of your own words concerning the Sirian robots… By the way, Dr. Peverale, you've known for a long time there was a robot on the planet, haven't you?"

The astronomer said uneasily, "What do you mean?"

"Dr. Mindes came to you with stories of having sighted moving manlike figures in what seemed like metal space-suits who also seemed to endure solar radiation better than one would expect humans to."

"I certainly did," interposed Mindes, "and I should have known I was seeing a robot."

"You didn't have the experience with robots that Dr. Peverale did," said Lucky. He turned to the old astronomer again. "I'm sure that you suspected the existence of Sirian-designed robots on the planet as soon as Mindes reported what he had seen. His description fit them perfectly."

The astronomer nodded slowly.

"I, myself," Lucky went on, "did not suspect robots when Mindes told me his story any more than he himself did. After the banquet, however, when, Dr. Peverale, you discussed Sirius and its robots, the thought occurred to me very forcefully that here was the explanation. You must have thought so too."

Dr. Peverale nodded slowly again. He said, "I realized that we ourselves could do nothing against a Sirian incursion. That is why I discouraged Mindes."

(Mindes turned pale at this point and muttered savagely to himself.)

Lucky said, "You never reported to the Council of Science?"

Dr. Peverale hesitated. "I was afraid they wouldn't believe me and that I would only succeed in getting myself replaced. Frankly, I didn't know what to do. It was obvious that I could make no use of Urteil. He was interested only in his own plans. When you came, Starr," his voice grew deeper, more flowing, "I felt I might have an ally at last, and for the first time I felt able to talk about Sirius, its dangers, and its robots."

"Yes," said Lucky, "and do you remember how you described the Sirian affection for their robots? You used the word 'love.' You said the Sirians pampered their robots; they loved them; nothing was too good for them. You said they would regard a robot as worth a hundred Earthmen."

"Of course," said Dr. Peverale. "That's true."

"Then if they loved their robots so much, would they send one of them to Mercury, uninsulated, un-adapted to Solar radiation? Would they condemn one of their robots to a slow, torturing death by the Sun?"

Dr. Peverale fell silent, his lower lip trembling.

Lucky said, "I, myself, could scarcely think of blasting the robot even though it endangered my life, and I am no Sirian. Could a Sirian have been so cruel to a robot, then?"

"The importance of the mission… " began Dr.

Peverale.

"Granted," said Lucky. "I don't say a Sirian wouldn't send a robot to Mercury for purposes of sabotage, but, Great Galaxy, they would have insulated its brain first. Even leaving their love for robots out of account, it's only good sense. They could get more service out of it."

There was a murmur of approval and agreement from the assemblage.

"But," stammered Dr. Peverale, "if not the Sirians then who… "

"Well," said Lucky, "let's see what leads we have. Number one. Twice Mindes spotted the robot, and twice it vanished when Mindes tried to draw close. The robot later informed me that it had been instructed to avoid people. Obviously, it had been warned that Mindes was out searching for the saboteur. Obviously, too, it must have been warned by someone inside the Dome. It wasn't warned against me, because I announced that I was going into the mines.

"Lead number two. As the robot lay dying, I asked once more who had given it its instructions. It could only say, 'Er—er… ' Then its radio blanked out, but its mouth moved as though it were making two syllables."

Bigman shouted suddenly, his pale red hair standing on end with passion, "Urteil! The robot was trying to say Urteil! That filthy cobber was the saboteur all the time. It fits in! It fits… "

"Maybe," said Lucky, "maybe! We'll see. It struck me as a possibility that the robot was trying to say, 'Earthman.'"

"And maybe," said Peverale dryly, "it was only a vague sound made by a dying robot and it meant nothing at all."

"Maybe," agreed Lucky. "But now we come to lead number three and it is instantly conclusive. That is this: The robot was of Sirian manufacture, and what human here at the Dome could possibly have had a chance to gain possession of a Sirian robot? Have any of us been on the Sirian planets?"

Dr. Peverale's eyes narrowed. "I have."

"Exactly," said Lucky Starr, "and no one else. That's your answer."

Mad confusion followed and Lucky called for silence. His voice was authoritative and his face stern. "As a Councilman of Science," he said, "I declare this observatory to be in my charge from this moment on. Dr. Peverale is replaced as director. I have been in communication with Council Headquarters on Earth, and a ship is on its way now. Appropriate action will be taken."

"I demand to be heard," cried Dr. Peverale.

"You will be," said Lucky, "but first listen to the case against you. You are the only man here who had the opportunity to steal a Sirian robot. Dr. Cook told us that you were awarded a robot for personal service during your stay on Sirius. Is that correct?"

"Yes, but… "

"You directed him into your own ship when you were through with him. Somehow you managed to evade the Sirians. Probably they never dreamed anyone could commit so horrible a crime, to them, as robot-stealing. They took no precautions against it for that reason, perhaps.

"What's more, it makes sense to suppose the robot was trying to say, 'Earthman' when I asked him who had given it instructions. You were the one Earthman on Sirius. You would be spoken of as 'Earthman' when the robot was first placed in your service, probably. It would think of you as 'Earthman.'

"Finally, who would know better when anyone might be exploring the Sun-side? Who would better inform the robot by radio when it might be safe and when it ought to go into hiding?"

"I deny everything," said Dr. Peverale tightly.

"There's no point in denying it," said Lucky. "If you insist on your innocence, the Council will have to send to Sirius for information. The robot gave me its serial number as RL-726. If the Sirian authorities say that the robot assigned to you during your stay on Sirius was RL-726 and that it disappeared about the time you left Sirius, that will condemn you.

"Furthermore, your crime of robot-stealing was committed on Sirius, and because we have an extradition treaty with the Sirian planets we may be forced to release you into their custody. I would advise you, Dr. Peverale, to confess and let Earth's justice take its course, rather than to maintain innocence and risk what Sirius might do for your crime of having stolen one of their beloved robots and tortured it to death."

Dr. Peverale stared pitifully at the assemblage with unseeing eyes. Slowly, joint by joint, he collapsed and dropped to the floor.

Dr. Gardoma rushed to his side and felt for his heart. "He's alive," he said, "but I think he'd better be moved to bed."

Two hours later, with Dr. Gardoma and Lucky Starr at his bedside and with Council Headquarters in sub-etheric contact, Dr. Lance Peverale dictated his confession.


With Mercury falling rapidly behind and the sure knowledge that Council emissaries now had the situation in hand, relieving him of any feeling of responsibility, Lucky still felt tension. His expression was brooding and thoughtful.

Bigman, face puckered anxiously, said, "What's the matter, Lucky?"

"I'm sorry for old Peverale," said Lucky. "He meant well in his way. The Sirians are a danger, if not quite as immediate as he thought."

"The Council wouldn't have turned him over to Sirius, would it?"

"Probably not, but his fears of Sirius were sufficiently great to force his confession. It was a cruel trick, but necessary. However patriotic his motives, he had been forced into attempted murder. Cook, too, was goaded into his crime, yet it was none the less a crime, however little we think of Urteil."

Bigman said, "What did the old guy have against Project Light anyway, Lucky?"

"Peverale made that clear at the banquet," said Lucky grimly. "Everything was made clear that night. You remember, he complained that Earth was weakening itself by depending on imported food and resources. He said Project Light would make Earth dependent on space stations for the very manner in which it got its sunlight. He wanted Earth to be self-sufficient so that it could better resist the Sirian danger.

"In his slightly unbalanced mind, he must have thought he would help that self-sufficiency along by trying to sabotage Project Light. Perhaps he originally brought back the robot just as a dramatic demonstration of Sirian power. Finding Project Light in progress when he returned, he turned the robot into a saboteur instead.

"When Urteil arrived he must have been afraid at first that Urteil was going to investigate the Project Light affair and expose him. So he planted a slashed inso-suit in Urteil's room, but Urteil spotted it. Maybe Urteil really believed Mindes had been responsible."

Bigman said, "Sure, come to think of it. The first time we met the old guy he wouldn't even talk about Urteil, he was so mad about him."

"Exactly," said Lucky, "and there was no obvious reason why that should be, as in Mindes's case, for instance. I thought there might be some reason I knew nothing about."

"Is that what put you on to him first, Lucky?"

"No, it was something else. It was the slashed inso-suit in our own room. The man with the best opportunity to do that was obviously Peverale himself. He also would be in the best position to dispose of the suit after it had killed its man. He best knew our assigned room, and he could assign an inso-suit too. What bothered me, though, was the motive? Why should he want to kill me?

"My name apparently meant nothing to him. He asked if I were a sub-temporal engineer like Mindes the first time we met. Now Mindes had recognized my name and tried to get me to help him. Dr. Gardoma had heard of me in connection with the poisonings on Mars. Urteil knew all about me, of course. I wondered if Dr. Peverale might not have heard of me too.

"There was Ceres, for instance, where you and I stayed a while during the battle against the pirates. The largest observatory in the System is there. Might not Dr. Peverale have been there then? I asked him that, and he denied having met me there. He admitted that he visited Ceres, and Cook later told us the old man visited Ceres frequently. Peverale went on to explain, without any prompting from me, that he had been sick in bed during the pirate raid, and Cook later backed that statement. That was the giveaway. In his anxiety, Peverale had talked too much."

The little Martian stared. "I don't get that."

"It's simple. If Peverale had been on Ceres a number of times, how was it he felt it necessary to alibi that particular time when the pirates had attacked? Why that time and not another? Obviously, he knew on which occasion I had been on Ceres and was trying to alibi that one. Obviously, again, he knew who I was.

"If he knew me, why should he try to kill me, and Urteil too? Both of us suffered from slashed inso-suits, you know. We were both investigators. What was it Peverale feared?

"Then he began to talk about Sirians and robots at the banquet table, and things began to drop into place. Mindes's story suddenly made sense, and I knew at once that the only ones who could have brought a robot to Mercury were either Sirians or Dr. Peverale. To me it seemed that Peverale was the answer, that he was talking about Sirians now as a kind of insurance. If the robot were found and the sabotage stopped, it would serve as a smoke screen to hide his own part and, furthermore, it would make good anti-Sirian propaganda.

"I needed proof. Otherwise, Senator Swenson would shout we were setting up a smoke screen to cover the Council's own incompetence and extravagance. I needed good proof. With Urteil right on the ground, I dared not talk about the matter to anyone, Bigman, not even to you."

Bigman groaned in disgust. "When are you going to trust me, Lucky?"

"When I can count on you to avoid tricks like rough-and-tumbles with men twice your size," said Lucky with a smile that robbed the statement of some of its sting. "Anyway, I set out to capture the robot on the Sun-side and use him as evidence. That failed and I was forced to work a confession out of Peverale."

Lucky shook his head.

Bigman said, "What about Swenson now?"

"It's a draw, I think," said Lucky. "He can't do much with Urteil's death, since we can use Dr. Cook as a witness to show some of Urteil's dirty tactics. We can't do much against him, either, since the two top men at the Mercurian Observatory have had to be relieved of duty for felonies. It's a standoff."

"Sands of Mars!" moaned Bigman, "We'll have that cobber on our necks later on then."

But Lucky shook his head. "No, Senator Swenson is not a real cause for worry. He's ruthless and dangerous, but for that very reason he keeps the Council on its toes, keeps us from getting flabby.

"Besides," he added thoughtfully, "the Council of Science needs its critics, just as Congress and the government do. If ever the Council began to consider itself above criticism, then the time might come when it would establish a dictatorship over the Earth, and certainly I wouldn't want that to happen."

"Well, maybe," said Bigman, unsatisfied, "but I don't like that Swenson."

Lucky laughed and reached out to tousle the Martian's hair. "Nor I, but why worry about that now. Out there are the stars, and who knows where we'll be going next week, or why?"


Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter

Isaac Asimov



Preface

Back in the 1950s, I wrote a series of six derring-do novels about David "Lucky" Starr and his battles against malefactors within the Solar System. Each of the six took place in a different region of the system and in each case I made use of the astronomical facts-as they were then known.

Now more than a quarter-century later, these novels are being published in new editions; but what a quarter-century it has been! More has been learned about the worlds of our Solar System in this last quarter-century than in all the thousands of years that went before.

LUCKY STARR AND THE MOONS OF JUPITER was written in 1956. In late 1973, however, the Jupiter-probe, Pioneer X, passed by Jupiter and recorded an enormous magnetic field containing dense concentrations of charged particles. The large satellites of Jupiter are buried in that field and the intensity of radiation would certainly make it difficult or even impossible for manned ships to maneuver in their neighborhood.

Lucky's trip through the satellite system would have to be adjusted to take the intense radiation into account if I were writing the book today. And in 1974, a 13th satellite of Jupiter, was discovered, a very small one only a few miles across, with an orbit quite similar to that of Jupiter-IX. I'd have mentioned it if I were doing the book now.

I hope my Gentle Readers enjoy the book anyway, as an adventure story, but please don't forget that the advance of science can outdate even the most conscientious science-fiction writer and that my astronomical descriptions are no longer accurate in all respects.


Isaac Asimov


1. Trouble on Jupiter Nine

Jupiter was almost a perfect circle of creamy light, half the apparent diameter of the moon as seen from Earth, but only one seventh as brightly lit because of its great distance from the sun. Even so, it was a beautiful and impressive sight.

Lucky Starr gazed at it thoughtfully. The lights in the control room were out and Jupiter was centered on the visiplate, its dim light making Lucky and his companion something more than mere shadows. Lucky said, "If Jupiter were hollow, Bigman, you could dump thirteen hundred planets the size of Earth into it and still not quite fill it up. It weighs more than all the other planets put together."

John Bigman Jones, who allowed no one to call him anything but Bigman, and who was five feet two inches tall if he stretched a little, disapproved of anything that was big, except Lucky. He said, "And what good is all of it? No one can land on it. No one can come near it."

"We'll never land on it, perhaps," said Lucky, "but we'll be coming close to it once the Agrav ships are developed."

"With the Sirians on the job," said Bigman, scowling in the gloom, "it's going to take us to make sure that happens."

"Well, Bigman, we'll see."

Bigman pounded his small right fist into the open palm of his other hand. "Sands of Mars, Lucky, how long do we have to wait here?"

They were in Lucky's ship, the Shooting Starr, which was in an orbit about Jupiter, having matched velocities with Jupiter Nine, the giant planet's outermost satellite of any size.

That satellite hung stationary a thousand miles away. Officially, its name was Adrastea, but except for the largest and closest, Jupiter's satellites were more popularly known by numbers. Jupiter Nine was only eighty-nine miles in diameter, merely an asteroid, really, but it looked larger than distant Jupiter, fifteen million miles away. The satellite was a craggy rock, gray and forbidding in the sun's weak light, and scarcely worth interest. Both Lucky and Bigman had seen a hundred such sights in the asteroid belt.

In one way, however, it was different. Under its skin a thousand men and billions of dollars labored to produce ships that would be immune to the effects of gravity.

Nevertheless, Lucky preferred watching Jupiter. Even at its present distance from the ship (actually three fifths of the distance of Venus from Earth at then closest approach), Jupiter showed a disc large enough to reveal its colored zones to the naked eye. They showed in fault pink and greenish-blue, as though a child had dipped his fingers in a watery paint and trailed them across Jupiter's image.

Lucky almost forgot the deadliness of Jupiter in its beauty. Bigman had to repeat his question in a louder voice.

"Hey, Lucky, how long do we have to wait here?"

"You know the answer to that, Bigman. Until Commander Donahue comes to pick us up."

"I know that part. What I want to know is why we have to wait for him."

"Because he's asked us to."

"Oh, he has. Who does the cobber think he is?"

"The head of the Agrav project," Lucky said patiently.

"You don't have to do what he says, you know, even if he is."

Bigman had a sharp and deep realization of Lucky's powers. As full member of the Council of Science, that selfless and brilliant organization that fought the enemies of Earth within and without the solar system, Lucky Starr could write his own ticket even against the most high-ranking.

But Lucky was not quite ready to do that. Jupiter was a known danger, a planet of poison and unbearable gravity; but the situation on Jupiter Nine was more dangerous still because the exact points of danger were unknown-and until Lucky could know a bit more, he was picking his way forward carefully.

"Be patient, Bigman," he said.

Bigman grumbled and flipped the lights on. "We're not staring at Jupiter all day, are we?"

He walked over to the small Venusian creature bobbing up and down in its enclosed water-filled cage in the corner of the pilot room. He peered fondly down at it, his wide mouth grinning with pleasure. The V-frog always had that effect on Bigman, or indeed, on anyone.

The V-frog was a native of the Venusian oceans, a tiny thing that seemed, at times, all eyes and feet. Its body was green and froglike and but six inches long. Its two big eyes protruded like gleaming blackberries, and its sharp, strongly curved beak opened and closed at irregular intervals. At the moment its six legs were retracted, so that the V-frog hugged the bottom of its cage, but when Bigman tapped the top cover, they unfolded like a carpenter's rule and became stilts.

It was an ugly little thing but Bigman loved it when he was near it. He couldn't help it. Anyone else would feel the same. The V-frog saw to that.

Carefully Bigman checked the carbon-dioxide cylinder that kept the V-frog's water well saturated and healthful and made sure that the water temperature in the cage was at ninety-five. (The warm oceans of Venus were bathed by and saturated with an atmosphere of nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Free oxygen, nonexistent on Venus except in the man-made domed cities at the bottom of its ocean shallows, would have been most uncomfortable for the V-frog.)

Bigman said, "Do you think the weed supply is enough?" and as though the V-frog heard the remark, its beak snipped a green tendril off the native Venusian weed that spread through the cage, and chewed slowly.

Lucky said, "It will hold till we land on Jupiter Nine," and then both men looked up sharply as the receiving signal sounded its unmistakable rasp.

A stern, aging face was centered on the visiplate after Lucky's fingers had quickly made the necessary adjustments.

"Donahue at this end," said a voice briskly.

"Yes, Commander," said Lucky. "We've been waiting for you."

"Clear locks for tube attachment, then."

On the commander's face, written in an expression as clear as though it consisted of letters the size of Class I meteors, was worry-trouble and worry.

Lucky had grown accustomed to just that expression on men's faces in these past weeks. On Chief Councilman Hector Conway's for instance. To the chief councilman, Lucky was almost a son and the older man felt no need to assume any pretense of confidence.

Conway's rosy face, usually amiable and self-assured under its crown of pure white hair, was set in a troubled frown. ''I've been waiting for a chance to talk to you for months."

'Trouble?" Lucky asked quietly. He had just returned from Mercury less than a month earlier, and the intervening time had been spent in his New York apartment. "I didn't get any calls from you."

"You earned your vacation," Conway said gruffly. "I wish I could afford to let it continue longer."

"Just what is it, Uncle Hector?"

The chief councilman's old eyes stared firmly into those of the tall, lithe youngster before him and seemed to find comfort in those calm, brown ones. "Sirius!" he said.

Lucky felt a stir of excitement within him. Was it the great enemy at last?

It had been centuries since the pioneering expeditions from Earth had colonized the planets of the nearer stars. New societies had grown up on those worlds outside the solar system. Independent societies that scarcely remembered their Earthly origin.

The Sirian planets formed the oldest and strongest of those societies. The society had grown up on new worlds where an advanced science was brought to bear on untapped resources. It was no secret that the Sirians, strong in the belief that they represented the best of mankind, looked forward to the time when they might rule all men everywhere; and that they considered Earth, the old mother world, their greatest enemy.

In the past they had done what they could to support the enemies of Earth at home but never yet had they felt quite strong enough to risk open war.

But now?

"What' s this about Sinus?" asked Lucky.

Conway leaned back. His fingers drummed lightly on the table. He said, "Sirius grows stronger each year. We know that But their worlds are underpopulated; they have only a few millions. We still have more human beings in our solar system than exist in all the galaxy besides. We have more ships and more scientists; we still have the edge. But, by Space, we won't keep that edge if things keep on as they've been going."

"In what way?"

"The Sirians are finding out things. The Council has definite evidence that Sirius is completely up-to-date on our Agrav research."

"What!" Lucky was startled. There were few things more top-secret than the Agrav project. One of the reasons actual construction had been confined to one of the outer satellites of Jupiter had been for the sake of better security. "Great Galaxy, how has that happened?"

Conway smiled bitterly. "That is indeed the question. How has that happened? All sorts of material are leaking out to them, and we don't know how. The Agrav data is most critical. We've tried to stop it. There isn't a man on the project that hasn't been thoroughly checked for loyalty. There isn't a precaution we haven't taken. Yet material still leaks. We've planted false data and that's gone out. We know it has from our own Intelligence information. We've planted data in such ways that it couldn't go out, and yet it has."

"How do you mean couldn't go out?"

"We scattered it so that no one man-in fact, no half dozen men-could possibly be aware of it all. Yet it went. It would mean that a number of men would have to be co-operating in espionage and that's just unbelievable."

"Or that some one man has access everywhere," said Lucky.

"Which is just as impossible. It must be something new, Lucky. Do you see the implication? If Sirius has learned a new way of picking our brains, we're no longer safe. We could never organize a defense against them. We could never make plans against them."

"Hold it, Uncle Hector. Great Galaxy, give yourself a minute. What do you mean when you say they're picking our brains?" Lucky fixed his glance keenly on the older man.

The chief councilman flushed. "Space, Lucky, I'm getting desperate. I can't see how else this can be done. The Sirians must have developed some form of mind reading, of telepathy."

"Why be embarrassed at suggesting that? I suppose it's possible. We know of one practical means of telepathy at least. The Venusian V-frogs."

"All right," said Conway. "I've thought of that, too, but they don't have Venusian V-frogs. I know what's been going on in V-frog research. It takes thousands of them working in combination to make telepathy possible. To keep thousands of them anywhere but on Venus would be awfully difficult, and easily detectable, too. And without V-frogs, there is no way of managing telepathy."

"No way we've worked out," Lucky said softly, "so far. It is possible that the Sirians are ahead of us in telepathy research."

"Without V-frogs?"

"Even without V-frogs."

"I don't believe it," Conway cried violently. "I can't believe that the Sirians can have solved any problem that has left the Council of Science so completely helpless."

Lucky almost smiled at the older man's pride in the organization, but had to admit that there was something more than merely pride there. The Council of Science represented the greatest collection of intellect the galaxy had ever seen, and for a century not one sizable piece of scientific advance anywhere in the Galaxy had come anywhere but from the Council.

Nevertheless Lucky couldn't resist a small dig. He said, "They're ahead of us in robotics."

"Not really," snapped Conway. "Only in its applications. Earthmen invented the positronic brain that made the modern mechanical man possible. Don't forget that. Earth can take the credit for all the basic developments. It's just that Sinus builds more robots and," he hesitated, "has perfected some of the engineering details."

"So I found out on Mercury," Lucky said grimly.

"Yes, I know, Lucky. That was dreadfully close."

"But it's over. Let's consider what's facing us now. The situation is this: Sinus is conducting successful espionage and we can't stop them."

"Yes."

"And the Agrav project is most seriously affected."

"Yes."

"And I suppose, Uncle Hector, that what you want me to do is to go out to Jupiter Nine and see if I can learn something about this."

Conway nodded gloomily. "It's what I'm asking you to do. It's unfair to you. I've gotten into the habit of thinking of you as my ace, my trump card, a man I can give any problem and be sure it will be solved. Yet what can you do here? There's nothing Council hasn't tried and we've located no spy and no method of espionage. What more can we expect of you?"

"Not of myself alone. I'll have help."

"Bigman?" The older man couldn't help smiling.

"Not Bigman alone. Let me ask you a question. To your knowledge, has any information concerning our V-frog research on Venus leaked out to the Sirians?"

"No," said Conway. "None has, to my knowledge."

"Then I'll ask to have a V-frog assigned to me."

"A V-frog! One V-frog?"

"That's right."

"But what good win that do you? The mental field of a single V-frog is terribly weak. You won't be able to read minds."

"True, but I might be able to catch whiffs of strong emotion."

Conway said thoughtfully, "You might do that. But what good would that do?"

''I'm not sure yet. Still, it will be an advantage previous investigators haven't had. An unexpected emotional surge on the part of someone there might help me, might give me grounds for suspicion, might point the direction for further investigation. Then, too—"

"Yes?"

"If someone possesses telepathic power, developed either naturally or by use of artificial aids, I might detect something much stronger than just a whiff of emotion. I might detect an actual thought, some distinct thought, before the individual learns enough from my mind to shield his thoughts. You see what I mean?"

"He could detect your emotions, too."

"Theoretically, yes, but I would be listening for emotion, so to speak. He would not."

Conway 's eyes brightened. "It's a feeble hope, but, by Space, it's a hope! I'll get you your V-frog… But one thing, David," and it was only at moments of deep concern that he used Lucky's real name, the one by which the young councilman had been known all through childhood—"I want you to appreciate the importance of this. If we don't find out what the Sirians are doing, it means they are really ahead of us at last. And that means war can't be delayed much longer. War or peace hangs on this."

"I know," said Lucky softly.


2. The Commander Is Angry

And so it came about that Lucky Starr, Earthman, and his small friend, Bigman Jones, born and bred on Mars, traveled beyond the asteroid belt and into the outer reaches of the solar system. And it was for this reason also that a native of Venus, not a man at all, but a small mind-reading and mind-influencing animal, accompanied them.


They hovered, now, a thousand miles above Jupiter Nine and waited as a flexible conveyer tube was made fast between the Shooting Starr and the commander's ship. The tube linked air lock to air lock and formed a passageway which men could use in going from one ship to the other without having to put on a space suit. The air of both ships mingled, and a man used to space, taking advantage of the absence of gravity, could shoot along the tube after a single initial push and guide himself along those places where the tube curved with the gentle adjusting force of a well-placed elbow.

The commander's hands were the first part of him visible at the lock opening. They gripped the lip of the opening and pushed in such a way that the commander himself leapfrogged out and came down in the Shooting Starr's localized artificial gravity field (or pseudo-grav field, as it was usually termed) with scarcely a stagger. It was neatly done, and Bigman, who had high standards indeed for all forms of spacemen's techniques, nodded in approval.

"Good day, Councilman Starr," said Donahue gruffly. It was always a matter of difficulty whether to say "good morning," "good afternoon," or "good evening" in space, where, strictly speaking, there was neither morning, afternoon, nor evening. "Good day" was the neutral term usually adopted by spacemen.

"Good day, Commander," said Lucky. "Are there any difficulties concerning our landing on Jupiter Nine that account for this delay?"

"Difficulties? Well, that's as you look at it." He looked about and sat down on one of the small pilot's stools. I've been in touch with Council headquarters but they say I must treat with you directly, so I'm here."

Commander Donahue was a wiry man, with an air of tension about him. His face was deeply lined, his hair grayish but showing signs of having once been brown. His hands had prominent blue veins along their backs, and he spoke in an explosive fashion, rapping out his phrases in a quick succession of words.

"Treat with me about what, sir?" asked Lucky.

"Just this, Councilman. I want you to return to Earth."

"Why, sir?"

The commander did not look directly at Lucky as he spoke. "We have a morale problem. Our men have been investigated and investigated and investigated. They've all come through clear each time, and each time a new investigation is started. They don't like it and neither would you. They don't like being under continual suspicion. And I'm completely on their side. Our Agrav ship is almost ready and this is not the time for my men to be disturbed. They talk of going on strike."

Lucky said calmly, "Your men may have been cleared but there is still leakage of information."

Donahue shrugged. "Then it must come from elsewhere. It must…" He broke off and a sudden incongruous note of friendliness entered his voice. "What's that?"

Bigman followed his eyes and said at once, "That's our V-frog, Commander, I'm Bigman."

The commander did not acknowledge the introduction. He approached the V-frog instead, staring into the enclosed water-filled cage. "That's a Venus creature, isn't it?"

"That's right," said Bigman.

"I've heard of them. Never saw one, though. Cute little jigger, isn't it?"

Lucky felt a grim amusement. He did not find it strange that in the midst of a most serious discussion the commander should veer off into an absorbed admiration for a small water creature from Venus. The V-frog itself made that inevitable.

The small creature was looking back at Donahue now out of its black eyes, swaying on its extensible legs and clicking its parrot beak gently. In all the known universe its means of survival was unique. It had no defensive weapons, no armor of any sort. It had no claws or teeth or horns. Its beak might bite, but even that bite could do no harm to any creature larger than itself.

Yet it multiplied freely along the weed-covered surface of the Venusian ocean, and none of the fierce predators of the ocean's deeps disturbed it, simply because the V-frog could control emotion. They instinctively caused all other forms of life to like them, to feel friendly toward them, to have no wish whatever to hurt them. So they survived. They did more than that. They flourished.

Now this particular V-frog was filling Donahue, quite obviously, with a feeling of friendliness, so that the army man pointed a finger at it through the glass of its cage and laughed to see it cock its head and sink down along its collapsing legs, as Donahue moved his finger downward.

"You don't suppose we could get a few of these for Jupiter Nine, do you, Starr?" he asked. "We're great ones for pets here. An animal here and there makes for a breath of home."

"It's not very practical," said Lucky. "V-frogs are difficult to keep. They have to be maintained in a carbon-dioxide-saturated system, you know. Oxygen is mildly poisonous to them. That makes things complicated."

"You mean they can't be kept in an open fish-bowl?"

"They can be at times. They're kept so on Venus, where carbon dioxide is dirt cheap and where they can always be turned loose in the ocean if they seem to be unhappy. On a ship, though, or on an airless world, you don't want to bleed carbon dioxide continuously into the air, so a closed system is best."

"Oh." The commander looked a bit wistful.

"To return to our original subject of discussion," said Lucky briskly, "I must refuse your suggestion that I leave. I have an assignment and I must carry it through."

It seemed to take a few seconds for the commander to emerge from the spell cast by the V-frog. His face darkened. "I'm sure you don't understand the entire situation." He turned suddenly, looking down at Bigman. "Consider your associate, for instance."

The small Martian, with a stiffening of spine, began to redden. "I'm Bigman," he said. "I told you that before."

"Not very big a man, nevertheless," said the commander.

And though Lucky placed a soothing hand on the little fellow's shoulder at once, it didn't help. Bigman cried, "Bigness isn't on the outside, mister. My name is Bigman, and I'm a big man against you or anyone you want to name regardless of what the yardstick says. And if you don't believe it…" He was shrugging his left shoulder vigorously. "Let go of me, Lucky, will you? This cobber here…"

"Will you wait just one minute, Bigman?" Lucky urged. "Let's find out what the commander is trying to say."

Donahue had looked startled at Bigman's sudden verbal assault. He said, "I'm sure I meant no harm in my remark. If I've hurt your feelings, I'm sorry."

"My feelings hurt?" said Bigman, his voice squeaking. "Me? Listen, one thing about me, I never lose my temper and as long as you apologize, we'll forget about it." He hitched at his belt and brought the palms of his hands down with a smart slap against the knee-high orange and vermilion boots that were the heritage of his Martian farm-boy past and without which he would never be seen in public (unless he substituted others with an equally garish color scheme).

"I want to be very plain with you, Councilman," said Donahue, turning to Lucky once more. "I have almost a thousand men here at Jupiter Nine, and they're tough, all of them. They have to be. They're far from home. They do a hard job. They run great risks. They have their own outlook on life now and it's a rough one. For instance, they haze newcomers and not with a light hand, either. Sometimes newcomers can't stand it and go home. Sometimes they're hurt. If they come through, everything's fine."

Lucky said, "Is this officially permitted?"

"No. But it is permitted unofficially. The men have to be kept happy somehow, and we can't afford to alienate them by interfering with their horseplay. Good men are hard to replace out here. Not many people are willing to come to the moons of Jupiter, you know. Then, too, the initiation is helpful in weeding out the misfits. Those that don't pass would probably fail hi other respects eventually. That is why I made mention of your friend."

The commander raised his hands hurriedly. "Now make no mistake. I agree t