Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the copyright on this publication was renewed.
BRIGANDS of the MOON
ACE BOOKS, INC.
23 West 47th Street, New York 36, N. Y.
Copyright, 1931, by Ray Cummings
* * * * *
Our ship, the space-flyer, Planetara, whose home port was Greater New York, carried mail and passenger traffic to and from both Venus and Mars. Of astronomical necessity, our flights were irregular. The spring of 2070, with both planets close to the Earth, we were making two complete round trips. We had just arrived in Greater New York, one May evening, from Grebhar, Venus Free State. With only five hours in port here, we were departing the same night at the zero hour for Ferrok-Shahn, capital of the Martian Union.
We were no sooner at the landing stage than I found a code flash summoning Dan Dean and me to Divisional Detective Headquarters. Dan "Snap" Dean was one of my closest friends. He was electron-radio operator of the Planetara. A small, wiry, red-headed chap, with a quick, ready laugh and the kind of wit that made everyone like him.
The summons to Detective-Colonel Halsey's office surprised us. Dean eyed me.
"You haven't been opening any treasure vaults, have you, Gregg?"
"He wants you, also," I retorted.
He laughed. "Well, he can roar at me like a traffic switch-man and my private life will remain my own."
We could not think why we should be wanted. It was the darkness of mid-evening when we left the Planetara for Halsey's office. It was not a long trip. We went on the upper monorail, descending into the subterranean city at Park Circle 30.
We had never been to Halsey's office before. Now we found it to be a gloomy, vaultlike place in one of the deepest corridors. The door lifted.
"Gregg Haljan and Daniel Dean."
The guard stood aside. "Come in."
I own that my heart was unduly thumping as we entered. The door dropped behind us. It was a small blue-lit apartment—a steel-lined room like a vault.
Colonel Halsey sat at his desk. And the big, heavy-set, florid Captain Carter—our commander on the Planetara—was here. That surprised us: we had not seen him leave the ship.
Halsey smiled at us gravely. Captain Carter spoke with an ominous calmness: "Sit down, lads."
We took the seats. There was an alarming solemnity about this. If I had been guilty of anything that I could think of, it would have been frightening. But Halsey's words reassured me.
"It's about the Grantline Moon Expedition. In spite of our secrecy, the news has gotten out. We want to know how. Can you tell us?"
Captain Carter's huge bulk—he was about as tall as I am—towered over us as we sat before Halsey's desk. "If you lads have told anyone—said anything—let slip the slightest hint about it...."
Snap smiled with relief; but he turned solemn at once. "I haven't. Not a word!"
"Nor have I!" I declared.
The Grantline Moon Expedition! We had not thought of that as a reason for this summons. Johnny Grantline was a close friend of ours. He had organized an exploring expedition to the Moon. Uninhabited, with its bleak, forbidding, airless, waterless surface, the Moon—even though so close to the Earth—was seldom visited. No regular ship ever stopped there. A few exploring parties of recent years had come to grief.
But there was a persistent rumor that upon the Moon, mineral riches of fabulous wealth were awaiting discovery. The thing had already caused some interplanetary complications. The aggressive Martians would be only too glad to explore the Moon. But the United States of the World, which came into being in 2067, definitely warned them away. The Moon was Earth territory, we announced, and we would protect it as such.
There was, nevertheless, a realization by our government, that whatever riches might be upon the Moon should be seized at once and held by some reputable Earth Company. And when John Grantline applied, with his father's wealth and his own scientific record of attainment, the government was glad to grant him its writ.
The Grantline Expedition had started six months ago. The Martian government had acquiesced to our ultimatum, yet brigands have been known to be financed under cover of a government disavowal. And so our expedition was kept secret.
My words need give no offence to any Martian who comes upon them. I refer to the history of our Earth only. The Grantline Expedition was on the Moon now. No word had come from it. One could not flash helios even in code without letting all the universe know that explorers were on the Moon. And why they were there, anyone could easily guess.
And now Colonel Halsey was telling us that the news was abroad! Captain Carter eyed us closely; his flashing eyes under the white bushy brows would pry a secret from anyone.
"You're sure? A girl of Venus, perhaps, with her cursed, seductive lure! A chance word, with you lads befuddled by alcolite?"
We assured him that we had been careful. By the heavens, I know that I had been. Not a whisper, even to Snap, of the name Grantline in six months or more.
Captain Carter added abruptly, "We're insulated here, Halsey?"
"Yes. Talk as freely as you like. An eavesdropping ray will never get through to us."
They questioned us. They were satisfied at last that, though the secret had escaped, we had not given it away. Hearing it discussed, it occurred to me to wonder why Carter was concerned. I was not aware that he knew of Grantline's venture. I learned now the reason why the Planetara, upon each of her last voyages, had managed to pass fairly close to the Moon. It had been arranged with Grantline that if he wanted help or had any important message, he was to flash it locally to our passing ship. And this Snap knew, and had never mentioned it, even to me.
Halsey was saying, "Well, apparently we can't blame you: but the secret is out."
Snap and I regarded each other. What could anyone do? What would anyone dare do?
Captain Carter said abruptly, "Look here, lads, this is my chance now to talk plainly to you. Outside, anywhere outside these walls, an eavesdropping ray may be upon us. You know that? One may never even dare to whisper since that accursed ray was developed."
Snap opened his mouth to speak but decided against it. My heart was pounding.
Captain Carter went on: "I know I can trust you two more than anyone under me on the Planetara."
"What do you mean by that?" I demanded. "What—"
He interrupted me. "Just what I said."
Halsey smiled grimly. "What he means, Haljan, is that things are not always what they seem these days. One cannot always tell a friend from an enemy. The Planetara is a public vessel. You have—how many is it, Carter?—thirty or forty passengers this trip tonight?"
"Thirty-eight," said Carter.
"There are thirty-eight people listed for the flight to Ferrok-Shahn tonight," Halsey said slowly. "And some may not be what they seem." He raised his thin dark hand. "We have information...." He paused. "I confess, we know almost nothing—hardly more than enough to alarm us."
Captain Carter interjected, "I want you and Dean to be on your guard. Once on the Planetara it is difficult for us to talk openly, but be watchful. I will arrange for us to be doubly armed."
Vague, perturbing words! Halsey said, "They tell me George Prince is listed for the voyage. I am suggesting, Haljan, that you keep your eye especially on him. Your duties on the Planetara leave you comparatively free, don't they?"
"Yes," I agreed. With the first and second officers on duty, and the Captain aboard, my routine was more or less that of an understudy.
I said, "George Prince? Who is he?"
"A mechanical engineer," said Halsey. "An underofficial of the Earth Federated Catalyst Corporation. But he associates with bad companions—particularly Martians."
I had never heard of this George Prince, though I was familiar with the Federated Catalyst Corporation, of course. A semigovernment trust, which controlled virtually the entire Earth supply of radiactum, the catalyst mineral which was revolutionizing industry.
"He was in the Automotive Department," Carter put in. "You've heard of the Federated Radiactum Motor?"
We had, of course. It was a recent Earth discovery and invention. An engine of a new type, using radiactum as its fuel.
Snap demanded, "What in the stars has this got to do with Johnny Grantline?"
"Much," said Halsey quietly, "or perhaps nothing. But George Prince some years ago mixed in rather unethical transactions. We had him in custody once. He is known as unusually friendly with several Martians in Greater New York of bad reputation."
"What you don't know," Halsey said, "is that Grantline expects to find radiactum on the Moon."
"Exactly," said Halsey. "The ill-fated Ballon Expedition thought they had found it on the Moon, shortly after its merit was discovered. A new type of ore—a lode of it is there somewhere, without doubt."
He added vehemently, "Do you understand now why we should be suspicious of this George Prince? He has a criminal record. He has a thorough technical knowledge of radium ores. He associates with Martians of bad reputation. A large Martian company has recently developed a radiactum engine to compete with our Earth motor. There is very little radiactum available on Mars, and our government will not allow our own supply to be exported. What do you suppose that company on Mars would pay for a few tons of richly radioactive radiactum such as Grantline may have found on the Moon?"
"But," I objected, "That is a reputable Martian company. It's backed by the government of the Martian Union. The government of Mars would not dare—"
"Of course not!" Captain Carter exclaimed sardonically. "Not openly! But if Martian Brigands had a supply of radiactum I don't imagine where it came from would make much difference. The Martian company would buy it, and you know that as well as I do!"
Halsey added, "And George Prince, my agents inform me, seems to know that Grantline is on the Moon. Put it all together, lads. Little sparks show the hidden current.
"More than that: George Prince knows that we have arranged to have the Planetara stop at the Moon and bring back Grantline's ore.... This is your last voyage this year. You'll hear from Grantline this time, we're convinced. He'll probably give you the signal as you pass the Moon on your way out. Coming back, you'll stop at the Moon and transport whatever radiactum ore Grantline has ready. The Grantline Flyer is too small for ore transportation."
Halsey's voice turned grimly sarcastic. "Doesn't it seem queer that George Prince and a few of his Martian friends happen to be listed as passengers for this voyage?"
In the silence that followed, Snap and I regarded each other. Halsey added abruptly:
"We had George Prince typed that time we arrested him four years ago. I'll show him to you."
He snapped open an alcove, and said to his waiting attendant "Flash on the type of George Prince."
Almost at once, the image glowed on the grids before us. He stood smiling sourly before us as he repeated the official formula:
"My name is George Prince. I was born in Greater New York twenty-five years ago."
I gazed at this televised image of George Prince. He stood somber in the black detention uniform, silhouetted sharply against the regulation backdrop of vivid scarlet. A dark, almost femininely handsome fellow, well below medium height—the rod checking him showed five foot four inches. Slim and slight. Long, wavy black hair, falling about his ears. A pale, clean-cut, really handsome face, almost beardless. I regarded it closely. A face that would have been beautiful without its masculine touch of heavy black brows and firmly set jaw. His voice as he spoke was low and soft; but at the end, with the concluding words, "I am innocent!" it flashed into strong masculinity. His eyes, shaded with long girlish black lashes, by chance met mine. "I am innocent." His curving sensuous lips drew down into a grim sneer....
Halsey snapped a button. He turned back to Snap and me as his attendant drew the curtain, hiding the black grid.
"Well, there he is. We have nothing tangible against him now. But I'll say this: he's a clever fellow, one to be afraid of. I would not blare it from the newscasters' stadium, but if he is hatching any plot, he has been too clever for my agents!"
We talked for another half-hour, and then Captain Carter dismissed us. We left Halsey's office with Carter's final words ringing in our ears. "Whatever comes, lads, remember I trust you...."
* * * * *
Snap and I decided to walk part of the way back to the ship. It was barely more than a mile through this subterranean corridor to where we could get the vertical lift direct to the landing stage.
We started off on the lower level. Once outside the insulation of Halsey's office we did not dare talk of this thing. Not only electrical ears, but every possible eavesdropping device might be upon us. The corridor was two hundred feet or more below the ground level. At this hour of the night the business section was comparatively deserted. The stores and office arcades were all closed.
Our footfall echoed on the metal grids as we hurried along. I felt depressed and oppressed. As though prying eyes were upon me. We walked for a time in silence, each of us busy with memory of what had transpired at Halsey's office.
Suddenly Snap gripped me. "What's that?"
"Where?" I whispered.
We stopped at a corner. An entryway was here. Snap pulled me into it. I could feel him quivering with excitement.
"What is it?" I demanded in a whisper.
"We're being followed. Did you hear anything?"
"No!" Yet I thought now that I could hear something. Vague footfalls. A rustling. And a microscopic whine, as though some device were within range of us.
Snap was fumbling in his pocket. "Wait! I've got a pair of low-scale detectors."
He put the little grids against his ears. I could hear the sharp intake of his breath. Then he seized me, pulled me down to the metal floor of the entryway.
"Back, Gregg! Get back!" I could barely hear his whisper. We crouched as far back into the doorway as we could get. I was armed. My official permit for the carrying of the pencil heat ray allowed me always to have it with me. I drew it now. But there was nothing to shoot at. I felt Snap clamping the grids on my ears. And now I heard something! An intensification of the vague footsteps I had thought I heard before.
There was something following us! Something out in the corridor there now! The corridor was dim, but plainly visible, and as far as I could see it was empty. But there was something there. Something invisible! I could hear it moving. Creeping toward us. I pulled the grids off my ears.
Snap murmured, "You've got a local phone?"
"Yes. I'll get them to give us the street glare!"
I pressed the danger signal, giving our location to the operator. In a second we got the light. The street in all this neighborhood burst into a brilliant actinic glare. The thing menacing us was revealed! A figure in a black cloak, crouching thirty feet away across the corridor.
Snap was unarmed but he flung his hands out menacingly. The figure, which may perhaps not have been aware of our city safeguard, was taken wholly by surprise. A human figure, seven feet tall at the least, and therefore, I judged, a Martian man. The black cloak covered his head. He took a step toward us, hesitated, and then turned in confusion.
Snap's shrill voice was bringing help. The whine of a street guard's alarm whistle nearby sounded. The figure was making off! My pencil ray was in my hand and I pressed its switch. The tiny heat ray stabbed through the air, but I missed. The figure stumbled but did not fall. I saw a bare gray arm come from the cloak, flung up to maintain its balance. Or perhaps my pencil ray had seared his arm. The gray-skinned arm of a Martian.
Snap was shouting, "Give him another!" But the figure passed beyond the actinic glare and vanished.
We were detained in the turmoil of the corridor for ten minutes or more with official explanations. Then a message from Halsey released us. The Martian who had been following us in his invisible cloak was never caught.
We escaped from the crowd at last and made our way back to the Planetara, where the passengers were already assembling for the outward Martian voyage.
I stood on the turret balcony of the Planetara with Captain Carter and Dr. Frank, the ship surgeon, watching the arriving passengers. It was close to the zero hour; the level of the stage was a turmoil of confusion. The escalators, with the last of the freight aboard, were folded back. But the stage was jammed with incoming passenger luggage, the interplanetary customs and tax officials with their x-ray and zed-ray paraphernalia and the passengers themselves, lined up for the export inspection.
At this height, the city lights lay spread in a glare of blue and yellow beneath us. The individual local planes came dropping like birds to our stage. Thirty-eight passengers to Mars for this voyage, but that accursed desire of every friend and relative to speed the departing voyager brought a hundred or more extra people to crowd our girders and add to everybody's troubles.
Carter was too absorbed in his duties to stay with us long. But here in the turret Dr. Frank and I found ourselves at the moment with nothing much to do but watch.
Dr. Frank was a thin, dark, rather smallish man of fifty, trim in his blue and white uniform. I knew him well: we had made several flights together. An American—I fancy of Jewish ancestry. A likable man, and a skillful doctor and surgeon. He and I had always been good friends.
"Crowded," he said. "Johnson says thirty-eight. I hope they're experienced travelers. This pressure sickness is a rotten nuisance—keeps me dashing around all night assuring frightened women they're not going to die. Last voyage, coming out of the Venus atmosphere—"
He plunged into a lugubrious account of his troubles with space sick voyagers. But I was in no mood to listen to him. My gaze was down on the spider incline, up which, over the bend of the ship's sleek, silvery body, the passengers and their friends were coming in little groups. The upper deck was already jammed with them.
The Planetara, as flyers go, was not a large vessel. Cylindrical of body, forty feet maximum beam, and two hundred and seventy-five feet in length. The passenger superstructure—no more than a hundred feet long—was set amidships. A narrow deck, metallically enclosed, and with large bull's-eye windows, encircled the superstructure. Some of the cabins opened directly onto the deck. Others had doors to the interior corridors. There were half a dozen small but luxurious public rooms.
The rest of the vessel was given to freight storage and the mechanism and control compartments. Forward of the passenger structure the deck level continued under the cylindrical dome roof to the bow. The forward watch tower observatory was here, officers' cabins, Captain Carter's navigating rooms and Dr. Frank's office. Similarly, under the stern dome, was the stern watch tower and a series of power compartments.
Above the superstructure a confusion of spider bridges, ladders and balconies were laced like a metal network. The turret in which Dr. Frank and I now stood was perched here. Fifty feet away, like a bird's nest, Snap's instrument room stood clinging to the metal bridge. The dome roof, with the glassite windows rolled back now, rose in a mound peak to cover the highest middle portion of the vessel.
Below, in the main hull, blue lit metal corridors ran the entire length of the ship. Freight storage compartments; gravity control rooms; the air renewal system; heater and ventilators and pressure mechanisms—all were located there. And the kitchens, stewards' compartments, and the living quarters of the crew. We carried a crew of sixteen, this voyage, exclusive of the navigating officers, the purser, Snap Dean, and Dr. Frank.
The passengers coming aboard seemed a fair representation of what we usually had for the outward voyage to Ferrok-Shahn. Most were Earth people—and returning Martians. Dr. Frank pointed out one. A huge Martian in a grey cloak. A seven foot fellow.
"His name is Set Miko," Dr. Frank remarked. "Ever heard of him?"
"No," I said. "Should I?"
"Well—" The doctor suddenly checked himself, as though he were sorry he had spoken.
"I never heard of him," I repeated slowly.
An awkward silence fell between us.
There were a few Venus passengers. I saw one of them presently coming up the incline, and recognized her. A girl traveling alone. We had brought her from Grebhar, last voyage but one. I remembered her. An alluring sort of girl, as most of them are. Her name was Venza. She spoke English well. A singer and dancer who had been imported to Greater New York to fill some theatrical engagement. She'd made quite a hit on the Great White Way.
She came up the incline with the carrier ahead of her. Gazing up, she saw Dr. Frank and me at the turret window, smiled and waved her white arm in greeting.
Dr. Frank laughed. "By the gods of the airways, there's Alta Venza! You saw that look, Gregg? That was for me, not you."
"Reasonable enough," I retorted. "But I doubt it—the Venza is nothing if not impartial."
I wondered what could be taking Venza now to Mars. I was glad to see her. She was diverting. Educated. Well traveled. Spoke English with a colloquial, theatrical manner more characteristic of Greater New York than of Venus. And for all her light banter, I would rather put my trust in her than any Venus girl I had ever met.
The hum of the departing siren was sounding. Friends and relatives of the passengers were crowding the exit incline. The deck was clearing. I had not seen George Prince come aboard. And then I thought I saw him down on the landing stage, just arrived from a private tube car. A small, slight figure. The customs men were around him. I could only see his head and shoulders. Pale, girlishly handsome face; long, black hair to the base of his neck. He was bare-headed, with the hood of his traveling cloak pushed back.
I stared, and I saw that Dr. Frank was also gazing down. But neither of us spoke.
Then I said upon impulse, "Suppose we go down to the deck, Doctor?"
He acquiesced. We descended to the lower room of the turret and clambered down the spider ladder to the upper deck level. The head of the arriving incline was near us. Preceded by two carriers who were littered with hand luggage, George Prince was coming up the incline. He was closer now. I recognized him from the type we had seen in Halsey's office.
And then, with a shock, I saw it was not so. This was a girl coming aboard. An arc light over the incline showed her clearly when she was half way up. A girl with her hood pushed back; her face framed in thick black hair. I saw now it was not a man's cut of hair; but long braids coiled up under the dangling hood.
Dr. Frank must have remarked my amazed expression. "Little beauty, isn't she?"
"Who is she?"
We were standing back against the wall of the superstructure. A passenger was near us—the Martian whom Dr. Frank had called Miko. He was loitering here, quite evidently watching this girl come aboard. But as I glanced at him, he looked away and casually sauntered off.
The girl came up and reached the deck. "I am in A22," she told the carrier. "My brother came aboard a couple of hours ago."
Dr. Frank answered my whisper. "That's Anita Prince."
She was passing quite close to us on the deck, following the carrier, when she stumbled and very nearly fell. I was nearest to her. I leaped forward and caught her as she nearly went down.
With my arm about her, I raised her up and set her upon her feet again. She had twisted her ankle. She balanced herself upon it. The pain of it eased up in a moment.
"I'm all right—thank you!"
In the dimness of the blue lit deck I met her eyes. I was holding her with my encircling arm. She was small and soft against me. Her face, framed in the thick, black hair, smiled up at me. Small, oval face—beautiful—yet firm of chin, and stamped with the mark of its own individuality. No empty-headed beauty, this.
"I'm all right, thank you very much—"
I became conscious that I had not released her. I felt her hands pushing at me. And then it seemed that for an instant she yielded and was clinging. And I met her startled upflung gaze. Eyes like a purple night with the sheen of misty starlight in them.
I heard myself murmuring, "I beg your pardon. Yes, of course!" I released her.
She thanked me again and followed the carriers along the deck. She was limping slightly.
An instant she had clung to me. A brief flash of something, from her eyes to mine—from mine back to hers. The poets write that love can be born of such a glance. The first meeting, across all the barriers of which love springs unsought, unbidden—defiant, sometimes. And the troubadours of old would sing: "A fleeting glance; a touch; two wildly beating hearts—and love was born."
I think, with Anita and me, it must have been like that.
I stood, gazing after her, unconscious of Dr. Frank, who was watching me with his quizzical smile. And presently, no more than a quarter beyond the zero hour, the Planetara got away. With the dome windows battened tightly, we lifted from the landing stage and soared over the glowing city. The phosphorescence of the electronic tubes was like a comet's tail behind us as we slid upward.
At six A.M., Earth Eastern time, which we were still carrying, Snap Dean and I were alone in his instrument room, perched in the network over the Planetara's deck. The bulge of the dome enclosed us; it rounded like a great observatory window some twenty feet above the ceiling of this little metal cubbyhole.
The Planetara was still in Earth's shadow. The firmament—black, interstellar space with its blazing white, red and yellow stars—lay spread around us. The Moon, with nearly all its disc illumined, hung, a great silver ball, over our bow quarter. Behind it, to one side, Mars floated like the red tip of a smoldering cigar in the blackness. The Earth, behind our stern, was dimly, redly visible—a giant sphere, etched with the configurations of its oceans and continents. Upon one limb a touch of sunlight hung on the mountain tops with a crescent red-yellow sheen.
And then we plunged from the cone shadow. The Sun with the leaping corona, burst through the blackness behind us. The Earth lighted into a huge, thin crescent with hooked cusps.
To Snap and me, the glories of the heavens were too familiar to be remarked. And upon this voyage particularly we were in no mood to consider them. I had been in the radio room several hours. When the Planetara started, and my few routine duties were over, I could think of nothing save Halsey's and Carter's admonition: "Be on your guard. And particularly—watch George Prince."
I had not seen George Prince. But I had seen his sister, whom Carter and Halsey had not bothered to mention. My heart was still pounding with the memory.
Dr. Frank evidently was having little trouble with pressure sick passengers. The Planetara's equalizers were fairly efficient. Prowling through the silent metal lounges and passages, I went to the door of A22. It was on the deck level, in a tiny transverse passage just off the main lounging room. Its name-grid glowed with the letters: Anita Prince. I stood in my short white trousers and white silk shirt, like a cabin steward staring. Anita Prince! I had never heard the name until this night. But there was magic music in it now, as I murmured it.
She was here, doubtless asleep, behind this small metal door. It seemed as though that little oval grid were the gateway to a fairyland of my dreams.
I turned away. Thought of the Grantline Moon Expedition stabbed at me. George Prince—Anita's brother—he whom I had been warned to watch. This renegade—associate of dubious Martians, plotting God knows what.
I saw, upon the adjoining door, A20, George Prince. I listened. In the humming stillness of the ship's interior there was no sound from these cabins. A20 was without windows, I knew. But Anita's room had a window and a door which gave upon the deck. I went through the lounge, out its arch and walked the deck length. The deck door and window of A22 were closed and dark.
The deck was dim with white starlight from the side ports. Chairs were here but they were all empty. From the bow windows of the arching dome a flood of moonlight threw long, slanting shadows down the deck. At the corner where the superstructure ended, I thought I saw a figure lurking as though watching me. I went that way, but it vanished.
I turned the corner, went the width of the ship to the other side. There was no one in sight save the observer on his spider bridge, high in the bow network, and the second officer, on duty on the turret balcony almost directly over me.
As I stood and listened, I suddenly heard footsteps. From the direction of the bow a figure came. Purser Johnson.
He greeted me. "Cooling off, Gregg?"
"Yes," I said.
He passed me and went into the smoking room door nearby.
I stood a moment at one of the deck windows, gazing at the stars; and for no reason at all I realized I was tense. Johnson was a great one for his regular sleep—it was wholly unlike him to be roaming about the ship at such an hour. Had he been watching me? I told myself it was nonsense. I was suspicious of everyone, everything, this voyage.
I heard another step. Captain Carter appeared from his chart room which stood in the center of the narrowing open deck space near the bow. I joined him at once.
"Who was that?" he half whispered.
"Oh, yes." He fumbled in his uniform; his gaze swept the moonlit deck. "Gregg—take this." He handed me a small metal box. I stuffed it at once into my shirt.
"An insulator," he added swiftly. "Snap is in his office. Take it to him, Gregg. Stay with him—you'll have a measure of security—and you can help him to make the photographs." He was barely whispering. "I won't be with you—no use making it look as though we were doing anything unusual. If your graphs show anything—or if Snap picks up any message—bring it to me." He added aloud, "Well, it will be cool enough presently, Gregg."
He sauntered away toward his chart room.
"By heavens, what a relief!" Snap murmured as the current went on. We had wired his cubby with the insulator; within its barrage we could at least talk with a degree of freedom.
"You've seen George Prince, Gregg?"
"No. He's assigned A20. But I saw his sister. Snap, no one ever mentioned—"
Snap had heard of her, but he hadn't known that she was listed for this voyage. "A real beauty, so I've heard. Accursed shame for a decent girl to have a brother like that."
I could agree with him there....
It was now six A.M. Snap had been busy all night with routine cosmos-radios from the Earth, following our departure. He had a pile of them beside him.
"Nothing queer looking?" I suggested.
"No. Not a thing."
We were at this time no more than sixty-five thousand miles from the Moon's surface. The Planetara presently would swing upon her direct course for Mars. There was nothing which could cause passenger comment in this close passing of the Moon; normally we used the satellite's attraction to give us additional starting speed.
It was now or never that a message would come from Grantline. He was supposed to be upon the Earthward side of the Moon. While Snap had rushed through with his routine, I searched the Moon's surface with our glass.
But there was nothing. Copernicus and Kepler lay in full sunlight. The heights of the lunar mountains, the depths of the barren, empty seas were etched black and white, clear and clean. Grim, forbidding desolation, this unchanging Moon. In romance, moonlight may shimmer and sparkle to light a lover's smile; but the reality of the Moon is cold and bleak. There was nothing to show my prying eyes where the intrepid Grantline might be.
"Nothing at all, Snap."
And Snap's instruments, attuned for an hour now to pick up the faintest signal, were motionless.
"If he has concentrated any appreciable amount of ore," said Snap. "We should get an impulse from its rays."
But our receiving shield was dark, untouched. Our mirror grid gave the magnified images; the spectro, with its wave length selection, pictured the mountain levels and slowly descended into the deepest seas.
There was nothing.
Yet in those Moon caverns—a million million recesses amid the crags of that tumbled, barren surface—the pin point of movement which might have been Grantline's expedition could so easily be hiding! Could he have the ore insulated, fearing its rays would betray its presence to hostile watchers?
Or might disaster have come to him? He might not be on this hemisphere of the Moon at all....
My imagination, sharpened by fancy of a lurking menace which seemed everywhere about the Planetara this voyage, ran rife with fears for Johnny Grantline. He had promised to communicate this voyage. It was now, or perhaps never.
Six-thirty came and passed. We were well beyond the Earth's shadow now. The firmament blazed with its vivid glories; the Sun behind us was a ball of yellow-red leaping flames. The Earth hung, a huge, dull red half sphere.
We were within forty thousand miles of the Moon. A giant white ball—all of its disc visible to the naked eye. It poised over the bow, and presently, as the Planetara swung upon its course for Mars, it shifted sidewise. The light of it glared white and dazzling in our windows.
Snap, with his habitual red celluloid eyeshade shoved high on his forehead, worked over our instruments.
The receiving shield was glowing a trifle. Rays were bombarding it! It glowed, gleamed phosphorescent, and the audible recorder began sounding its tiny tinkling murmurs.
Gamma rays! Snap sprang to the dials. The direction and strength were soon obvious. A richly radioactive ore body was concentrated upon this hemisphere of the Moon! It was unmistakable.
"He's got it, Gregg! He's—"
The tiny grids began quivering. Snap exclaimed triumphantly, "Here he comes! By God, the message at last!"
Snap decoded it.
Success! Stop for ore on your return voyage. Will give you our location later. Success beyond wildest hopes.
Snap murmured, "That's all. He's got the ore!"
We were sitting in darkness, and abruptly I became aware that across our open window, where the insulation barrage was flung, the air was faintly hissing. An interference there! I saw a tiny swirl of purple sparks. Someone—some hostile ray from the deck beneath us, or from the spider bridge that led to our little room—someone out there was trying to pry in!
Snap impulsively reached for the absorbers to let in the outside light. But I checked him.
"Wait!" I cut off our barrage, opened our door and stepped to the narrow metal bridge.
"You stay there, Snap!" I whispered. Then I added aloud, "Well, Snap, I'm going to bed. Glad you've cleaned up that batch of work."
I banged the door upon him. The lacework of metal bridges seemed empty. I gazed up to the dome, and forward and aft. Twenty feet beneath me was the metal roof of the cabin superstructure. Below it, both sides of the deck showed. All patched with moonlight.
No one visible down there. I descended a ladder. The deck was empty. But in the silence something was moving! Footsteps moving away from me down the deck! I followed; and suddenly I was running. Chasing something I could hear, but could not see. It turned into the smoking room.
I burst in. And a real sound smothered the phantom. Johnson the purser was sitting here alone in the dimness. He was smoking. I noticed that his cigar held a long frail ash. It could not have been him I was chasing. He was sitting there quite calmly. A thick-necked, heavy fellow, easily out of breath. But he was breathing calmly now.
He sat up in amazement at my wild-eyed appearance, and the ash jarred from his cigar.
"Gregg! What in the devil—"
I tried to grin. "I'm on my way to bed—worked all night helping Snap."
I went past him, out the door into the main corridor. It was the only way the invisible prowler could have gone. But I was too late now—I could hear nothing. I dashed forward into the main lounge. It was empty, dim and silent, a silence broken presently by a faint click, a stateroom door hastily closing. I swung and found myself in a tiny transverse passage. The twin doors of A20 and A22 were before me.
The invisible eavesdropper had gone into one of these rooms! I listened at each of the panels, but there was only silence within.
The interior of the ship was suddenly singing with the steward's siren—the call to awaken the passengers. It startled me. I moved swiftly away. But as the siren shut off, in the silence I heard a soft, musical voice:
"Wake up, Anita, I think that's the breakfast call."
And her answer, "All right, George."
I did not appear at that morning meal. I was exhausted and drugged with lack of sleep. I had a moment with Snap to tell him what had occurred. Then I sought out Carter. He had his little chart room insulated. And we were cautious. I told him what Snap and I had learned: the rays from the Moon, proving that Grantline had concentrated a considerable ore body. I also told him of Grantline's message.
"We'll stop on the way back, as he directs, Gregg." He bent closer to me. "At Ferrok-Shahn I'm going to bring back a cordon of Interplanetary Police. The secret will be out, of course, when we stop at the Moon. We have no right, even now, to be flying this vessel as unguarded as it is."
He was very solemn. And he was grim when I told him of the invisible eavesdropper.
"You think he overheard Grantline's message? Who was it? You seem to feel it was George Prince?"
I told him I was convinced the prowler went into A20. When I mentioned the purser, who seemed to have been watching me earlier in the night, and again was sitting in the smoking room when the eavesdropper fled past, Carter looked startled.
"Johnson is all right, Gregg."
"Does he know anything about this Grantline affair?"
"No—no," said Carter hastily. "You haven't mentioned it, have you?"
"Of course I haven't. But why didn't Johnson hear that eavesdropper? And what was he doing there, anyway, at that hour of the morning?"
The Captain ignored my questions. "I'm going to have that Prince suite searched—we can't be too careful.... Go to bed, Gregg, you need rest."
I went to my cabin. It was located aft, on the stern deck, near the stern watch tower. A small metal room with a chair, a desk and a bunk. I made sure no one was in it. I sealed the lattice grill and the door, set the alarm trigger against any opening of them, and went to bed.
The siren for the midday meal awakened me. I had slept heavily. I felt refreshed.
I found the passengers already assembled at my table when I arrived in the dining salon. It was a low vaulted metal room with blue and yellow tube lights. At its sides the oval windows showed the deck, with its ports on the dome side, through which a vista of the starry firmament was visible. We were well on our course to Mars. The Moon had dwindled to a pin point of light beside the crescent Earth. And behind them our Sun blazed, visually the largest orb in the heavens. It was some sixty-eight million miles from the Earth to Mars. A flight, ordinarily, of some ten days.
There were five tables in the dining salon, each with eight seats. Snap and I had one of the tables. We sat at the ends, with the passengers on each of the sides.
Snap was in his seat when I arrived. He eyed me down the length of the table. In a gay mood, he introduced me to the three men already seated:
"This is our third officer, Gregg Haljan. Big, handsome fellow, isn't he? And as pleasant as he is good-looking. Gregg, this is Sero Ob Hahn."
I met the keen, somber gaze of a Venus man of middle age. A small, slim graceful man, with sleek black hair. His pointed face, accentuated by the pointed beard, was pallid. He wore a white and purple robe; upon his breast was a huge platinum ornament, a device like a star and cross entwined.
"I am happy to meet you, sir." His voice was soft and deep.
"Ob Hahn," I repeated. "I should have heard of you, no doubt, but—"
A smile plucked at his thin, gray lips. "That is an error of mine, not yours. My mission is that all the universe shall hear of me."
"He's preaching the religion of the Venus mystics," Snap explained.
"And this enlightened gentleman," said Ob Hahn ironically, nodding to the man, "has just termed it fetishism. The ignorance—"
"Oh, I say!" protested the man at Ob Hahn's side. "I mean, you seem to think I meant something offensive. And as a matter of fact—"
"We've an argument, Gregg," laughed Snap. "This is Sir Arthur Coniston, an English gentleman, lecturer and sky-trotter—that is, he will be a sky-trotter; he tells us he plans a number of voyages."
The tall Englishman, in his white linen suit, bowed acknowledgement. "My compliments, Mr. Haljan. I hope you have no strong religious convictions, else we will make your table here very miserable!"
The third passenger had evidently kept out of the argument. Snap introduced him as Rance Rankin. An American—a quiet, blond fellow of thirty-five or forty.
I ordered my breakfast and let the argument go on.
"Won't make me miserable," said Snap. "I love an argument. You said, Sir Arthur—"
"I mean to say, I think I said too much. Mr. Rankin, you are more diplomatic."
Rankin laughed. "I am a magician," he said to me. "A theatrical entertainer. I deal in tricks—how to fool an audience—" His keen, amused gaze was on Ob Hahn. "This gentleman from Venus and I have too much in common to argue."
"A nasty one!" the Englishman exclaimed. "By Jove! Really, Mr. Rankin, you're a bit too cruel!"
I could see we were doomed to have turbulent meals this voyage. I like to eat in quiet; arguing passengers always annoy me. There were still three seats vacant at our table; I wondered who would occupy them. I soon learned the answer—for one seat at least. Rankin said calmly:
"Where is the little Venus girl this meal?" His glance went to the empty seat at my right hand. "The Venza, isn't that her name? She and I are destined for the same theater in Ferrok-Shahn."
So Venza was to sit beside me. It was good news. Ten days of a religious argument three times a day would be intolerable. But the cheerful Venza would help.
"She never eats the midday meal," said Snap. "She's on the deck, having orange juice. I guess it's the old gag about diet, eh?"
My attention wandered about the salon. Most of the seats were occupied. At the Captain's table I saw the objects of my search: George Prince and his sister, one on each side of the Captain. I saw George Prince in the life now as a man who looked hardly twenty-five. He was at this moment evidently in a gay mood. His clean-cut, handsome profile, with its poetic dark curls, was turned toward me. There seemed little of the villain about him.
And I saw Anita Prince now as a dark-haired, black-eyed little beauty, in feature resembling her brother very strongly. She presently finished her meal. She rose, with him after her. She was dressed in Earth-fashion—white blouse and dark jacket, wide, knee-length trousers of gray, with a red sash her only touch of color. She went past me, flashed me a smile.
My heart was pounding. I answered her greeting, and met George Prince's casual gaze. He, too, smiled, as though to signify that his sister had told him of the service I had done her. Or was his smile an ironical memory of how he had eluded me this morning when I chased him?
I gazed after his small white-suited figure as he followed Anita from the salon. And thinking of her, I prayed that Carter and Halsey might be wrong. Whatever plotting against the Grantline Expedition might be going on, I hoped that George Prince was innocent of it. Yet I knew in my heart it was a futile hope. Prince had been the eavesdropper outside the radio room. I could not doubt it. But that his sister must be ignorant of what he was doing, I was sure.
My attention was brought suddenly back to the reality of our table. I heard Ob Hahn's silky voice. "We passed quite close to the Moon last night, Mr. Dean."
"Yes," said Snap. "We did, didn't we? Always do—it's a technical problem of the exigencies of interstellar navigation. Explain it to them, Gregg. You're an expert."
I waved it away with a laugh. There was a brief silence. I could not help noticing Sir Arthur Coniston's queer look, and I have never seen so keen a glance as Rance Rankin shot at me. Were all three people aware of Grantline's treasure on the Moon? It suddenly seemed so. I wished fervently at that instant that the ten days of this voyage were over. Captain Carter was right. Coming back we should have a cordon of Interplanetary Police aboard.
Sir Arthur broke the awkward silence. "Magnificent sight, the Moon, from so close—though I was too much afraid of pressure sickness to be up to see it."
I had nearly finished my hasty meal when another incident shocked me. The two other passengers at our table came in and took their seats. A Martian girl and man. The girl had the seat at my left, with the man beside her. All Martians are tall. The girl was about my own height. That is, six feet, two inches. The man was seven feet or more. Both wore the Martian outer robe. The girl flung hers back. Her limbs were encased in pseudomail. She looked, as all Martians like to look, a very warlike Amazon. But she was a pretty girl. She smiled at me with a keen-eyed, direct gaze.
"Mr. Dean said at breakfast that you were big and handsome. You are."
They were brother and sister, these Martians. Snap introduced them as Set Miko and Setta Moa—the Martian equivalent of Mr. and Miss.
This Miko was, from our Earth standards, a tremendous, brawny giant. Not spindly, like most Martians, this fellow, for all his seven feet in height was almost heavy set. He wore a plaited leather jerkin beneath his robe and knee pants of leather out of which his lower legs showed as gray, hairy pillars of strength. He had come into the salon with a swagger, his sword ornament clanking.
"A pleasant voyage so far," he said to me as he started his meal. His voice had the heavy, throaty rasp characteristic of the Martian. He spoke perfect English—both Martians and Venus people are by heritage extraordinary linguists. Miko and his sister Moa, had a touch of Martian accent, worn almost away by living for some years in Greater New York.
The shock to me came within a few minutes. Miko, absorbed in attacking his meal, inadvertently pushed back his robe to bare his forearm. An instant only, then it dropped to his wrist. But in that instant I had seen, upon the gray flesh, a thin sear turned red. A very recent burn—as though a pencil ray of heat had caught his arm.
My mind flung back. Only last night in the city corridor, Snap and I had been followed by a Martian. I had shot at him with a heat ray: I thought I had hit him on the arm. Was this the mysterious Martian who had followed us from Halsey's office?
Shortly after that midday meal I encountered Venza sitting on the starlit deck. I had been in the bow observatory; taken my routine castings of our position and worked them out. I was, I think, of the Planetara's officers the most expert handler of the mathematical calculators. The locating of our position and charting the trajectory of our course was, under ordinary circumstances, about all I had to do. And it took only a few minutes every twelve hours.
I had a moment with Carter in the isolation of his chart room.
"This voyage! Gregg, I'm getting like you—too fanciful. We've a normal group of passengers apparently, but I don't like the look of any of them. That Ob Hahn, at your table—"
"Snaky looking fellow," I commented. "He and the Englishman are great on arguments. Did you have Princes' cabin searched?"
My breath hung on his answer.
"Yes. Nothing unusual among his things. We searched both his room and his sister's."
I did not follow that up. Instead I told him about the burn on Miko's thick arm.
He stared. "I wish we were at Ferrok-Shahn. Gregg, tonight when the passengers are asleep, come here to me. Snap will be here, and Dr. Frank. We can trust him."
"He knows about—about the Grantline treasure?"
"Yes. And so do Balch and Blackstone." Balch and Blackstone were our first and second officers.
"We'll all meet here, Gregg—say about the zero hour. We must take some precautions."
Then he dismissed me.
I found Venza seated alone in a starlit corner of the secluded deck. A porthole, with the black heavens and the blazing stars was before her. There was an empty seat nearby.
She greeted me with the Venus form of jocular, intimate greeting:
"Hola-lo, Gregg! Sit here with me. I have been wondering when you would come after me."
I sat down beside her. "Why are you going to Mars, Venza? I'm glad to see you."
"Many thanks. But I am glad to see you, Gregg. So handsome a man. Do you know, from Venus to Earth, and I have no doubt on all of Mars, no man will please me more."
"Glib tongue," I laughed. "Born to flatter the male—every girl of your world." And I added seriously, "You don't answer my question. What takes you to Mars?"
"Contract. By the stars, what else? Of course, a chance to make a voyage with you—"
"Don't be silly, Venza."
I enjoyed her. I gazed at her small, slim figure reclining in the deck chair. Her long, gray robe parted by design, I have no doubt, to display her shapely, satin-sheathed legs. Her black hair was coiled in a heavy knot at the back of her neck; her carmine lips were parted with a mocking, alluring smile. The exotic perfume of her enveloped me.
She glanced at me sidewise from beneath her sweeping black lashes.
"Be serious," I added.
"I am serious. Sober. Intoxicated by you, but sober."
I said, "What sort of a contract?"
"A theater in Ferrok-Shahn. Good money, Gregg. I'll be there a year." She sat up to face me. "There's a fellow here on the Planetara, Rance Rankin, he calls himself. At our table—a big, good-looking blond American. He says he is a magician. Ever hear of him?"
"That's what he told me. No, I never heard of him."
"Nor did I. And I thought I had heard of everyone of importance. He is listed for the same theater I am. Nice sort of fellow." She paused, then added, "If he's a professional entertainer, I'm a motor oiler."
It startled me. "Why do you say that?"
Instinctively my gaze swept the deck. An Earth woman and child and a small Venus man were in sight, but not within earshot.
"Why do you look so furtive?" she retorted. "Gregg, there's something strange about this voyage. I'm no fool, nor you, so you must know it as well as I do."
"Rance Rankin—" I prompted.
She leaned closer toward me. "He could fool you. But not me—I've known too many magicians." She grinned. "I challenged him to trick me. You should have seen him evading!"
"Do you know Ob Hahn?" I interrupted.
She shook her head. "Never heard of him. But he told me plenty at breakfast. By Satan, what a flow of words that devil driver can muster! He and the Englishman don't mesh very well, do they?"
She stared at me. I had not answered her grin; my mind was too busy with queer fancies. Halsey's words: "Things are not always what they seem—" Were these passengers masqueraders? Were they put here by George Prince? And then I thought of Miko the Martian, and the burn upon his arm.
"Come back, Gregg! Don't go wandering off like that!" She dropped her voice to a whisper. "I'll be serious. I want to know what in hell is going on aboard this ship. I'm a woman and I'm curious. You tell me."
"What do you mean?" I parried.
"I mean a lot of things. What we've just been talking about. And what was the excitement you were in just before breakfast this morning?"
"Gregg, you may trust me." For the first time she was wholly serious. Her gaze made sure no one was within hearing. She put her hand on my arm. I could barely hear her whisper: "I know they might have a ray upon us. I'll be careful."
"Anyone. Something's going on. You know it. You are in it. I saw you this morning, Gregg. Wild-eyed, chasing a phantom—"
"And I heard the phantom! A man's footsteps. A magnetic, deflecting, invisible cloak. You couldn't fool an audience with that, it's too commonplace. If Rance Rankin tried—"
I gripped her. "Don't ramble, Venza! You saw me?"
"Yes. My stateroom door was open. I was sitting with a cigarette. I saw the purser in the smoking room. He was visible from—"
"Wait! Venza, that prowler went through the smoking room!"
"I know he did. I could hear him."
"Did the purser hear him?"
"Of course. The purser looked up, followed the sound with his gaze. I thought that was queer. He never made a move. And then you came along and he acted innocent. Why? What's going on, that's what I want to know?"
I held my breath. "Venza, where did the prowler run to? Can you—"
She whispered calmly, "Into A20. I saw the door open and close. I even thought I could see his blurred outline." She added, "Why should George Prince be sneaking around with you after him? And the purser acting innocent? And who is this George Prince, anyway?"
The huge Martian, Miko, with his sister Moa came strolling along the deck. They nodded as they passed us.
I whispered, "I can't explain anything now. But you're right, Venza: there is something going on. Listen! Whatever you learn—whatever you encounter which looks unusual—will you tell me? I ... well, I do trust you. Really I do, but the whole thing isn't mine to tell."
The somber pools of her eyes were shining. "You are very lovable, Gregg. I won't question you." She was trembling with excitement. "Whatever it is, I want to be in on it. Here's something I can tell you now. We've two high class gold leaf gamblers aboard. Do you know that?"
"Who are they?"
"Shac and Dud Ardley. Every detective in Greater New York knows them. They had a wonderful game with that Englishman, Sir Arthur, this morning. Stripped him of half a pound of eight-inch leaves—a neat little stack. A crooked game, of course. Those fellows are more nimble-fingered than Rance Rankin ever dared to be!"
I sat staring at her. She was a mine of information, this girl.
"And Gregg, I tried my charms on Shac and Dud. Nice men, but dumb. Whatever's going on, they're not in it. They wanted to know what kind of a ship this was. Why? Because Shac has a cute little eavesdropping microphone of his own. He had it working last night. He overheard George Prince and that giant Miko arguing about the Moon!"
I gasped, "Venza! Softer—"
Against all propriety of this public deck she pretended to drape herself upon me. Her hair smothered my face as her lips almost touched my ear.
"Something about treasure on the Moon. Shac couldn't understand what. And they mentioned you. Then the purser joined them." Her whispered words tumbled over one another. "A hundred pounds of gold leaf—that's the purser's price. He's with them—whatever it is. He promised to do something or other for them."
She stopped. "Well?" I prompted.
"That's all. Shac's current was interrupted."
"Tell him to try it again, Venza! I'll talk with him. No! I'd better let him alone. Can you get him to keep his mouth shut?"
"I think he might do anything I told him. He's a man!"
"Find out what you can."
She drew away from me abruptly. "There's Anita and George Prince."
They came to the corner of the deck, but turned back. Venza caught my look. And understood it.
"You do love Anita Prince, Gregg?" Venza was smiling. "I wish you.... I wish some man handsome as you would gaze after me like that." She turned solemn. "You may be interested to know, she loves you. I could see it. I knew it when I mentioned you to her this morning."
"Me? Why we've hardly spoken!"
"Is it necessary? I never heard that it was."
I could not see Venza's face; she stood up suddenly. And when I rose beside her, she whispered, "We should not be seen talking so long. I'll find out what I can."
I stared after her slight robed figure as she turned into the lounge archway and vanished.
Captain Carter was grim. "So they've bought him off, have they? Go bring him in here, Gregg. We'll have it out with him now."
Snap, Dr. Frank, Balch, our first officer, and I were in the Captain's chart room. It was four P.M. Earth time. We were sixteen hours upon our voyage.
I found Johnson in his office in the lounge. "Captain wants to see you. Close up."
He closed his window upon an American woman passenger who was demanding the details of Martian currency, and followed me forward. "What is it, Gregg?"
"I don't know."
Captain Carter banged the slide upon us. The chart room was insulated. The hum of the current was obvious. Johnson noticed it. He stared at the hostile faces of the surgeon and Balch. And he tried to bluster.
"What's this? Something wrong?"
Carter wasted no words. "We have information, Johnson, that there's some undercover plot aboard. I want to know what it is. Suppose you tell us."
The purser looked blank. "What do you mean? We've gamblers aboard, if that's—"
"To hell with that," growled Balch. "You had a secret interview with that Martian, Set Miko, and with George Prince!"
Johnson scowled from under his heavy brows, and then raised them in surprise. "Did I? You mean changing their money? I don't like your tone, Balch. I'm not your under-officer!"
"But you're under me!" roared the Captain. "By God, I'm master here!"
"Well, I'm not disputing that," said the purser mildly. "This fellow—"
"We're in no mood for argument," Dr. Frank cut in. "Clouding the issue...."
"I won't let it be clouded," the Captain exclaimed.
I had never seen Carter so choleric. He added:
"Johnson, you've been acting suspiciously. I don't give a damn whether I've proof of it or not. Did you or did you not meet George Prince and that Martian, last night?"
"No, I did not. And I don't mind telling you, Captain Carter, that your tone also is offensive!"
"Is it?" Carter seized him. They were both big men. Johnson's heavy face went purplish red.
"Take your hands—!" They were struggling. Carter's hands were fumbling at the purser's pockets. I leaped, flung an arm around Johnson's neck, pinning him.
"Easy there! We've got you, Johnson!"
Snap tried to help me. "Go on! Bang him on the head, Gregg. Now's your chance!"
We searched him. A heat ray cylinder—that was legitimate. But we found a small battery and eavesdropping device similar to the one Venza had mentioned that Shac the gambler was carrying.
"What are you doing with that?" the Captain demanded.
"None of your business! Is it criminal? Carter, I'll have the line officials dismiss you for this! Take your hands off me—all of you!"
"Look at this!" exclaimed Dr. Frank.
From Johnson's breast pocket the surgeon drew a folded document. It was a scale drawing of the Planetara interior corridors, the lower control rooms and mechanisms. It was always kept in Johnson's safe. And with it, another document: the ship's clearance papers—the secret code passwords for this voyage, to be used if we should be challenged by any Interplanetary Police ship.
Snap gasped, "My God, that was in my radio room strong box! I'm the only one on this vessel except the Captain who's entitled to know those passwords!"
Out of the silence, Balch demanded, "Well, what about it, Johnson?"
The purser was still defiant. "I won't answer your questions, Balch. At the proper time, I'll explain—Gregg Haljan, you're choking me!"
I eased up. But I shook him. "You'd better talk."
He was exasperatingly silent.
"Enough!" exploded Carter. "He can explain when we get to port. Meanwhile I'll put him where he'll do no more harm. Gregg, lock him in the cage."
We ignored his violent protestations. The cage—in the old days of sea vessels on Earth, they called it the brig—was the ship's jail. A steel-lined, windowless room located under the deck in the peak of the bow. I dragged the struggling Johnson there, with the amazed watcher looking down from the observatory window at our lunging starlit forms.
"Shut up, Johnson! If you know what's good for you—"
He was making a fearful commotion. Behind us, where the deck narrowed at the superstructure, half a dozen passengers were gazing in surprise.
"I'll have you thrown out of the service, Gregg Haljan!"
I shut him up finally. And flung him down the ladder into the cage and sealed the deck trap door upon him. I was headed back for the chart room when from the observatory came the lookout's voice:
"An asteroid, Haljan! Officer Blackstone wants you."
I hurried to the turret bridge. An asteroid was in sight. We had nearly attained our maximum speed now. An asteroid was approaching, so dangerously close that our trajectory would have to be altered. I heard Blackstone's signals ringing in the control rooms; and met Carter as he ran to the bridge with me.
"That scoundrel! We'll get more out of him, Gregg. By God, I'll put the chemicals on him—torture him—illegal or not!"
We had no time for further discussion. The asteroid was rapidly approaching. Already, under the glass, it was a magnificent sight. I had never seen this tiny world before—asteroids are not numerous between the Earth and Mars, or in toward Venus.
At a speed of nearly a hundred miles a second the asteroid swept into view. With the naked eye, at first it was a tiny speck of star-dust unnoticeable in the gem-strewn black velvet of space. A speck. Then a gleaming dot, silver white, with the light of our Sun upon it.
I stood with Carter and Blackstone on the turret bridge. It was obvious, that unless we altered our course, the asteroid would pass too close for safety. Already we were feeling its attraction; from the control rooms came the report that our trajectory was disturbed by this new mass so near.
"Better make your calculations now, Gregg," Blackstone urged.
I cast up the rough elements from the observational instruments in the turret. When I had us upon our new course, with the attractive and repulsive plates in the Planetara's hull set in their altered combinations, I went to the bridge again.
The asteroid hung over our bow quarter. No more than twenty or thirty thousand miles away. A giant ball now, filling all that quadrant of the heavens. The configurations of its mountains, its land and water areas, were plainly visible.
"Perfectly habitable," Blackstone said. "But I've searched all over the hemisphere with the glass. No sign of human life—certainly nothing civilized—nothing in the fashion of cities."
A fair little world, by the look of it. A tiny globe, come from the region beyond Neptune. We swept past the asteroid. The passengers were all gathered to view the passing little world. I saw, not far from me, Anita, standing with her brother; and the giant figure of Miko with them. Half an hour since this wandering little world had showed itself, it swiftly passed, began to dwindle behind us. A huge half moon. A thinner, smaller quadrant. A tiny crescent, like a silver barpin to adorn some lady's breast. And then it was a dot, a point of light indistinguishable among the myriad others hovering in this great black void.
The incident of the passing of the asteroid was over. I turned from the deck window. My heart leaped. The moment for which all day I had been subconsciously longing was at hand. Anita was sitting in a deck chair, momentarily alone. Her gaze was on me as I glanced her way, and she smiled an invitation for me to join her.
"But, Miss Prince, why are you and your brother going to Ferrok-Shahn? His business—"
Even as I voiced it, I hated myself for such a question. So nimble in the humble mind that mingled with my rhapsodies of love, was my need for information of George Prince.
"Oh," she said. "This is pleasure, not business, for George." It seemed to me that a shadow crossed her face. But it was gone in an instant, and she smiled. "We have always wanted to travel. We are alone in the world, you know—our parents died when we were children."
I filled in her pause. "You will like Mars. So many interesting things to see."
She nodded. "Yes, I understand so. Our Earth is so much the same all over, cast all in one mould."
"But a hundred or more years ago, it was not, Miss Prince. I have read how the picturesque Orient, differing from ... well, Greater New York or London, for instance—"
"Transportation did that," she interrupted eagerly. "Made everything the same—the people all look alike ... dress alike."
We discussed it. She had an alert, eager mind, childlike with its curiosity, yet strangely matured. And her manner was naively earnest. Yet this was no clinging vine, this Anita Prince. There was a firmness, a hint of masculine strength in her chin and in her manner.
"If I were a man, what wonders I could achieve in this marvelous age!" Her sense of humor made her laugh at herself. "Easy for a girl to say that," she added.
"You have greater wonders to achieve, Miss Prince," I said impulsively.
"Yes? What are they?" She had a very frank and level gaze, devoid of coquetry.
My heart was pounding. "The wonders of the next generation. A little son, cast in your own gentle image—"
What madness, this clumsy, brash talk! I choked it off.
But she took no offense. The dark rose-petals of her cheeks were mantled deeper red, but she laughed.
"That is true." She turned abruptly serious. "I should not laugh. The wonders of the next generation—conquering humans marching on...." Her voice trailed away. My hand went to her arm. Strange tingling something which poets call love! It burned and surged through my trembling fingers into the flesh of her forearm.
The starlight glowed in her eyes. She seemed to be gazing, not at the silver-lit deck, but away into distant reaches of the future.
Our moment. Just a breathless moment given us as we sat there with my hand burning her arm, as though we both might be seeing ourselves joined in a new individual—a little son, cast in his mother's gentle image and with the strength of his father. Our moment, and then it was over. A step sounded. I sat back. The giant gray figure of Miko came past, his great cloak swaying, with his clanking sword ornament beneath it. His bullet head, with its close-clipped hair, was hatless. He gazed at us, swaggering past, and turned the deck corner.
Our moment was gone. Anita said conventionally, "It has been pleasant to talk with you, Mr. Haljan."
"But we'll have many more," I said. "Ten days—"
"You think we'll reach Ferrok-Shahn on schedule?"
"Yes. I think so.... As I was saying, Miss Prince, you'll enjoy Mars. A strange, aggressively forward-looking people."
An oppression seemed on her. She stirred in her chair.
"Yes they are," she said vaguely. "My brother and I know many Martians in Greater New York." She checked herself abruptly. Was she sorry she had said that? It seemed so.
Miko was coming back. He stopped this time. "Your brother would see you, Anita. He sent me to bring you to his room."
The glance he shot me had a touch of insolence. I stood up and he towered a head over me.
Anita said, "Oh yes. I'll come."
I bowed. "I will see you again, Miss Prince. I thank you for a pleasant half-hour."
The Martian led her away. Her little figure was like a child with a giant. It seemed, as they passed the length of the deck, with me staring after them, that he took her arm roughly. And that she shrank from him in fear.
And they did not go inside. As though to show me that he had merely taken her from me, he stopped at a distant deck window and stood talking to her. Once he picked her up as one would pick up a child to show it some distant object through the window.
Was Anita afraid of this Martian's wooing? Yet was held to him by some power he might have over her brother? The vagrant thought struck me.
The rest of that afternoon and evening were a blank confusion to me. Anita's words, the touch of my hand on her arm, that vast realm of what might be for us, like the glimpse of a magic land of happiness which I had seen in her eyes, and perhaps she had seen in mine—all this surged within me.
After wandering about the ship, I had a brief consultation with Captain Carter. He was genuinely apprehensive now. The Planetara carried only a half-dozen of the heat-ray projectors, no long range weapons, a few side arms, and some old-fashioned, practically antiquated weapons of explosives, plus hand projectors with the new Benson curve light.
The weapons were all in Carter's chart room, save the few we officers always carried. Carter was afraid, but of what, he was not sure. He had not thought that our plan to stop at the Moon could affect this outward voyage. He had thought that any danger would occur on the way back, and then the Planetara would have been adequately guarded and manned with police-soldiers.
But now we were practically defenseless. I had a moment with Venza, but she had nothing new to communicate. And for half an hour I chatted with George Prince. He seemed a gay, pleasant young man. I could almost have fancied I liked him. Or was it because he was Anita's brother? He told me how he looked forward to traveling with her on Mars. No, he had never been there before, he said.
He had a measure of Anita's earnest naive personality. Or was he a very clever scoundrel, with irony lurking in his soft voice, and a chuckle that could so befool me?
"Well talk again, Haljan. You interest me—I've enjoyed it."
He sauntered away from me, joining the saturnine Ob Hahn, with whom presently I heard him discussing religion.
The arrest of Johnson had caused considerable discussion among the passengers. A few had seen me drag him forward to the cage. The incident had been the subject of discussion all afternoon. Captain Carter had posted a notice to the effect that Johnson's accounts had been found in serious error, and that Dr. Frank for this voyage would act in his stead.
* * * * *
It was near midnight when Snap and I closed and sealed the radio room and started for the chart room, where we were to meet with Captain Carter and the other officers. The passengers had nearly all retired. A game was in progress in the smoking room, but the deck was almost deserted.
Snap and I were passing along one of the interior corridors. The stateroom doors were all closed. The metal grid of the floor echoed our footsteps. Snap was in advance of me. His body suddenly rose in the air. He went like a balloon to the ceiling, struck it gently, and all in a heap came floating down and landed on the floor!
"What in the infernal—"
He was laughing as he picked himself up. But it was a brief laugh. We knew what had happened: the artificial gravity controls in the base of the ship, which by magnetic force gave us normality aboard, were being tampered with! For just this instant, this particular small section of this corridor had been cut off. The slight bulk of the Planetara, floating in space, had no appreciable gravity pull on Snap's body, and the impulse of his step as he came to the unmagnetized area of the corridor had thrown him to the ceiling. The area was normal now. Snap and I tested it gingerly.
He gripped me. "That never went wrong by accident, Gregg! Someone—"
We rushed to the nearest descending ladder. In the deserted lower room the bank of dials stood neglected. A score of dials and switches were here, governing the magnetism of different areas of the ship. There should have been a night operator, but he was gone.
Than we saw him lying nearby, sprawled, face down on the floor! In the silence and dim, lurid glow of the fluorescent tubes, we stood holding our breaths, peering and listening. No one here.
The guard was not dead. He lay unconscious from a blow on the head. A brawny fellow. We had him revived in a few moments. A broadcast flash of the call buzz brought Dr. Frank from the chart room.
"What's the matter?"
"Someone was here," I said hastily, "experimenting with the magnetic switches. Evidently unfamiliar with them—pulling one or another to test their workings and so see their reactions on the dials."
We told him what had happened to Snap in the corridor; the guard here was no worse off for the episode, save a lump on the head by an invisible assailant. We left him nursing his head, sitting belligerent at his post, alert to any danger and armed now with my heat-ray cylinder.
"Strange doings this voyage," he told us. "All the crew knows it. I'll stick it out now, but when we get back home I'm done with this star travelin'. I belong on the sea anyway."
We hurried back to the upper level. We would indeed have to plan something at this chart room conference. This was the first tangible attack our adversaries had made.
We were on the passenger deck headed for the chart room when all three of us stopped short, frozen with horror. Through the silent passenger quarters a scream rang out! A girl's shuddering, gasping scream. Terror in it. Horror. Or a scream of agony. In the silence of the dully vibrating ship it was utterly horrible.... It lasted an instant—a single long scream; then was abruptly stilled.
And with blood pounding my temples and rushing like ice through my veins, I recognized it.
"Good God, what was that?" Dr. Frank's face had gone white. Snap stood like a statue of horror.
The deck here was patched as always, with silver radiance from the deck ports. The empty deck chairs stood about. The scream was stilled, but now we heard a commotion inside—the rasp of opening cabin doors; questions from frightened passengers.
I found my voice. "Anita! Anita Prince!"
"Come on!" shouted Snap. "In her stateroom, A22!" He was dashing for the lounge archway.
Dr. Frank and I followed. I realized that we passed the deck door and window of A22. But they were dark, and evidently sealed on the inside. The dim lounge was in a turmoil; passengers standing at their cabin doors.
I shouted, "Go back to your rooms! We want order here—keep back!"
We came to the twin doors of A22 and A20. Both were closed. Dr. Frank was in advance of Snap and me now. He paused at the sound of Captain Carter's voice behind us.
"Was it from in there? Wait a moment!"
Carter dashed up. He had a large heat-ray projector in his hand. He shoved us aside. "Let me in first. Is the door sealed? Gregg, keep those passengers back!"
The door was not sealed. Carter burst into the room. I heard him gasp, "Good God!"
Snap and I shoved back three or four passengers. And in that instant Dr. Frank had been in the room and out again.
"There's been an accident! Get back, Gregg! Snap, help me keep the crowd away." He shoved me forcibly.
From within, Carter was shouting, "Keep them out! Where are you, Frank? Come back here! Send a flash for Balch!"
Dr. Frank went back into the room and banged the cabin door upon Snap and me. I was unarmed. Weapon in hand, Snap forced the panic-stricken passengers back to their rooms.
Snap reassured them glibly; but he knew no more about the facts than I. Moa, with a nightrobe drawn tight around her thin, tall figure, edged up to me.
"What has happened, Set Haljan?"
I gazed around for her brother Miko, but did not see him.
"An accident," I said shortly. "Go back to your room. Captain's orders."
She eyed me and then retreated. Snap was threatening everybody with his cylinder. Balch dashed up. "What in hell! Where is Carter?"
"In there." I pounded on A22. It opened cautiously. I could see only Carter, but I heard the murmuring voice of Dr. Frank through the interior connecting door to A20.
The Captain rasped, "Get out, Haljan! Oh, is that you, Balch? Come in." He admitted the older officer and slammed the door upon me again. And immediately reopened it.
"Gregg, keep the passengers quieted. Tell them everything's all right. Miss Prince got frightened—that's all. Then go to the turret. Tell Blackstone what's happened."
"But I don't know what's happened."
Carter was grim and white. He whispered, "I think it may turn out to be murder, Gregg! No, not dead yet.... Dr. Frank is trying ... don't stand there like an ass, man. Get to the turret! Verify our trajectory—no—wait...."
The Captain was almost incoherent. "Wait a minute. I don't mean that! Tell Snap to watch his radio room. Arm yourselves and guard our weapons."
I stammered, "If ... if she dies ... will you flash us word?"
He stared at me strangely. "I'll be there presently, Gregg."
He slammed the door upon me.
I followed his orders but it was like a dream of horror. The turmoil of the ship gradually quieted. Snap went to the radio room; Blackstone and I sat in the tiny chart room; how much time passed, I do not know. I was confused. Anita hurt! She might die ... murdered.... But why? By whom? Had George Prince been in his own room when the attack came? I thought now I recalled hearing the low murmur of his voice in there with Dr. Frank.
Where was Miko? It stabbed at me. I had not seen him among the passengers in the lounge.
Carter came into the chart room. "Gregg, you get to bed. You look like a ghost."
"She's not dead. She may live. Dr. Frank and her brother are with her. They're doing all they can." He told us what had happened. Anita and George Prince had both been asleep, each in his respective room. Someone unknown had opened Anita's corridor door.
"Wasn't it sealed?"
"Yes. But the intruder opened it."
"Burst it? I didn't think it was broken."
"It wasn't broken. The assailant opened it somehow, and assaulted Miss Prince—shot her in the chest with a heat ray. Her left lung."
"Yes. But she did not see who did it. Nor did Prince. Her scream awakened him, but the intruder evidently fled out the corridor door of A22, the way he entered."
I stood weak and shaken at the chart room entrance. Anita—dying, perhaps; and all my dreams were fading into a memory of what might have been.
I was glad enough to get away. I would lie down for an hour and then go to Anita's stateroom. I'd demand that Dr. Frank let me see her.
I went to the stern deck where my cubby was located. My mind was confused but some instinct within me made me verify the seals of my door and window. They were intact. I entered cautiously, switched on the dimmer of the tube lights, and searched the room. It had only a bunk, my tiny desk, a chair and clothes robe. There was no evidence of any intruder here. I set my door and window alarm. Then I audiphoned to the radio room.
I told him about Anita. Carter cut in on us from the chart room. "Stop that, you fools!"
We cut off. Fully dressed, I flung myself on my bed. Anita might die....
I must have fallen into a tortured sleep, I was awakened by the sound of my alarm buzzer. Someone was tampering with my door! Then the buzzer ceased; the marauder outside must have found a way of silencing it. But it had done its work—awakened me.
I had switched off the light; my cubby was Stygian black. A heat cylinder was in the bunk-bracket over my head. I searched for it, pried it loose softly.
I was fully awake. Alert. I could hear a faint sizzling—someone outside trying to unseal the door. In the darkness, cylinder in hand, I crept softly from the bunk. Crouched at the door. This time I would capture or kill this night prowler.
The sizzling was faintly audible. My door seal was breaking. Upon impulse I reached for the door, jerked it open.
No one there! The starlit segment of deck was empty. But I leaped and struck a solid body, crouching in the doorway. A giant man. Miko!
His electronized metallic robe burned my hands. I lunged against him—I was almost as surprised as he. I shot, but the stab of heat evidently missed him. The shock of my encounter, short-circuited his robe; he materialized in the starlight. A brief, savage encounter. He struck the weapon from my hand. He had dropped his hydrogen torch, and tried to grip me. But I twisted away from his hold.
"So it's you!"
"Quiet, Gregg Haljan! I only want to talk."
Without warning, a stab of radiance shot from a weapon in his hand. It caught me. Ran like ice through my veins. Seized and numbed my limbs.
I fell helpless to the deck. Nerves and muscles paralyzed. My tongue was thick and inert. I could not speak, nor move. But I could see Miko bending over me, and hear him:
"I don't want to kill you, Haljan. We need you."
He gathered me up like a bundle in his huge arms; carried me swiftly across the deserted deck.
Snap's radio room in the network under the dome was diagonally overhead. A white actinic light shot from it—caught us, bathed us. Snap had been awake; had heard the commotion of our encounter.
His voice rang shrilly: "Stop! I'll shoot!" His warning siren rang out to alert the ship. His spotlight clung to us.
Miko ran with me a few steps. Then he cursed and dropped me; fled away. I fell like a sack of carbide to the deck. My senses faded into blackness....
"He's all right now."
I was in the chart room with Captain Carter, Snap and Dr. Frank bending over me. The surgeon said,
"Can you speak now, Gregg?"
I tried it. My tongue was thick, but it moved. "Yes." I was soon revived. I sat up, with Dr. Frank vigorously rubbing me.
"I'm all right." I told them what had happened.
Captain Carter said, "Yes, we know that. And it was Miko also who killed Anita Prince. She told us before she died."
"Died!..." I leaped to my feet. "She ... died...."
"Yes, Gregg. An hour ago. Miko got into her stateroom and tried to force his love upon her. She repulsed him. He killed her...."
It struck me blank. And then with a rush came the thought, "He says Miko killed her"....
I heard myself stammering, "Why—why we must get him!" I gathered my wits; a surge of hate swept me; a wild desire for vengeance.
"Why, by God, where is he? Why don't you go get him? I'll get him—I'll kill him!"
"Easy, Gregg!" Dr. Frank gripped me.
The Captain said gently. "We know how you feel, Gregg. She told us before she died."
"I'll bring him in here to you! But I'll kill him, I tell you!"
"No you won't, lad. We don't want him killed, not attacked, even. Not yet. We'll explain later."
They sat me down, calming me....
Anita dead. The door of the shining garden was closed. A brief glimpse given to me and to her of what might have been. And now she was dead....
I had not been able at first to understand why Captain Carter wanted Miko left at liberty. Within me there was that cry of vengeance, as though to strike Miko down would somehow lessen my own grief. Whatever Carter's purpose, Snap had not known it. But Balch and Dr. Frank were in the Captain's confidence—all three of them working on some plan of action.
It was obvious that at least two of our passengers were plotting with Miko and George Prince; trying on this voyage to learn what they could about Grantline's activities on the Moon—scheming doubtless to seize the treasure when the Planetara stopped at the Moon on the return voyage. I thought I could name those masquerading passengers. Ob Hahn, supposedly a Venus mystic. And Rance Rankin, who called himself an American magician. Those two, Snap and I agreed, seemed most suspicious. And there was the purser.
I sat for a time on the deck outside the chart room with Snap. Then Carter summoned us back, and we sat listening while he, Balch and Dr. Frank went on with their conference. Listening to them, I could not but agree that our best plan was to secure evidence which would incriminate all who were concerned in the plot. Miko, we were convinced, had been the Martian who followed Snap and me from Halsey's office in Greater New York. George Prince had doubtless been the invisible eavesdropper outside the radio room. He knew, and had told the others that Grantline had found that priceless metal on the Moon and that the Planetara would stop there on the way home.
But we could not incarcerate George Prince for being an eavesdropper. Nor had we the faintest possible evidence against Ob Hahn or Rankin. And even the purser would probably be released by the Interplanetary Court of Ferrok-Shahn when it heard our evidence.
There was only Miko. We could arrest him for the murder of Anita. But if we did that now, the others would be put on their guard. It was Carter's idea to let Miko remain at liberty for a time and see if we could identify and incriminate his fellows. The murder of Anita obviously had nothing to do with any plot against Grantline Moon treasure.
"Why," exclaimed Balch, "there might be—probably are—huge Martian interests concerned in this thing. These men aboard are only emissaries, making this voyage to learn what they can. When they get to Ferrok-Shahn, they'll make their report, and then we'll have a real danger on our hands. Why, an outlaw ship could be launched from Ferrok-Shahn that would beat us back to the Moon—and Grantline is entirely without warning of any danger!"
It seemed obvious. Unscrupulous criminals in Ferrok-Shahn would be dangerous indeed, once these details of Grantline were given them. So now it was decided that in the remaining nine days of our outward voyage, we would attempt to secure enough evidence to arrest all these plotters.
"I'll have them all in the cage when we land," declared Carter grimly. "They'll make no report to their principals!"
Ah, the futile plans of men!
Yet, at the time, we thought it practical. We were all doubly armed now. Bullet projectors and heat ray cylinders. And we had several eavesdropping microphones which we planned to use whenever occasion offered.
Only twenty-eight hours of this eventful voyage had passed. The Planetara was some six million miles from the Earth; it blazed behind us, a tremendous giant.
The body of Anita was being made ready for burial. George Prince was still in his stateroom. Glutz, effeminate little hairdresser, who waxed rich acting as beauty doctor for the women passengers, and who, in his youth, had been an undertaker, had gone with Dr. Frank to prepare the body.
Gruesome details. I tried not to think of them. I sat, numbed, in the chart room.
An astronomical burial—there was little precedent for it. I dragged myself to the stern deck where, at five A.M., the ceremony took place.
We were a solemn little group, gathered there in the checkered starlight with the great vault of the heavens around us. A dismantled electronic projector—necessary when a long range gun was mounted—had been rigged up in one of the deck ports.
They brought out the body. I stood apart, gazing reluctantly at the small bundle, wrapped like a mummy in a dark metallic screen-cloth. A patch of black silk rested over her face. Four cabin stewards carried her; and beside her walked George Prince. A long black robe covered him, but his head was bare. And suddenly he reminded me of the ancient play-character of Hamlet. His black, wavy hair; his finely chiseled, pallid face, set now in a stern patrician cast. And staring, I realized that however much of the villain this man might be, at this instant, walking beside the body of his dead sister, he was stricken with grief. He loved that sister with whom he had lived since childhood; and to see him now no one could doubt it.
The little procession stopped in a patch of starlight by the port. They rested the body on a bank of chairs. The black-robed chaplain, roused from his bed and still trembling from excitement of this sudden, inexplicable death on board, said a brief, solemn little prayer. An appeal: That the Almighty Ruler of all these blazing worlds might guard the soul of this gentle girl whose mortal remains were now to be returned to Him.