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´╗┐Title: Loot of the Void
Author: Sloat, Edwin K., 1895-1986
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Loot of the Void" ***

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                         Transcriber's Note:

   This etext was produced from Astounding Stories September 1932.
   Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the
   U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.



                           Loot of the Void


                          By Edwin K. Sloat

       *       *       *       *       *



[Sidenote: Into the Trap-Door City of great spiders goes Penrun after
the hidden plunder of the space-pirate Halkon.]


Dick Penrun glanced up incredulously.

"Why, that's impossible; you would have to be two hundred years old!"
he exclaimed.

Lozzo nervously ran a hand through his white mop of hair.

"But it is true, Sirro," he assured his companion. "We Martians
sometimes live three centuries. You should know that I am only a
hundred and seventy-five, and I do not lie when I say I was a cabin
boy under Captain Halkon."

[Illustration: _Down from the pinnacle of rock streaked a gigantic
spider._]

His voice sank to a whisper, and he glanced apprehensively about the
buffet of the _Western Star_ which was due now in three days at the
Martian city of Nurm. Penrun's eyes followed his anxious glances
curiously. The buffet was partly filled with passengers, smoking,
gossiping women, and men at cards, or throwing dice in the Martian
gambling game of _diklo_, which was the universal fad of the moment.
No place could have been safer, Penrun reflected. Doubtless the old
man's caution was a lifelong habit acquired in his youth, if he had
actually served under Halkon.

Before long the old codger would be saying that he knew the hiding
place of Halkon's treasure, about which there were probably more
legends and yarns than anything else in the Universe. A century had
elapsed since the death of the famous pirate who had preyed on the
shipping of the Void with fearless, ruthless audacity and had piled up
a fabulous treasure before that fatal day when the massed battle
spheres of the Interplanetary Council trapped his ships out near
Mercury and blew them to atoms there in the sun-beaten reaches of
space. Some of the men had been captured; old Lozzo might have been
one of them. Penrun knew the history of Halkon from childhood, and for
a very good reason.

The ancient Martian stirred uneasily. His piercing blue eyes turned
again to Penrun's face.

"Every word I have said is true, Sirro," he repeated hurriedly. "I
boarded this ship at New York with the sole intention of discharging
my sworn duty and giving a message to the grandson of Captain Orion
Halkon, his first male descendant."

       *       *       *       *       *

Penrun's eyes widened in startled amazement. He, himself, was the
grandson of the notorious Halkon, a fact that not more than half a
dozen people in the Universe knew--or so he had always believed. His
mother, Halkon's only daughter, good and upright woman that she was,
had hidden that family skeleton far back in the closet and solemnly
warned Dick Penrun and his two sisters to keep it there. Yet this old
man, who had singled him out of the crowd in the buffet not thirty
minutes ago and drew him into conversation, knew the secret. Perhaps
he really had been a cabin boy under Halkon!

"I have been serving out the hundred-year sentence for piracy the
judges imposed on me, a century in your own Earth prison of Sing
Sing," muttered Lozzo. "I have just been released. Quick! My inner
gods tell me my vase of life is toppling. I swore to your grandfather
that I would deliver the message. It is here. Guard well your own
life, for this paper is a thing of evil!"

His hand rested nervously on the edge of the table. The ancient blue
eyes swept the buffet with a lightning glance. Then he slid his hand
forward across the polished wood. Penrun glimpsed a bit of yellow,
folded paper beneath it. Then something tweaked his hair. A deafening
explosion filled the buffet. Lozzo stiffened, his mouth gaped in a
choked scream, and he sprawled across the table, dead.

As he fell, a fat white hand darted over the table toward the oblong
of folded, yellow paper lying unprotected on its surface. Penrun
clutched at it frantically. The fat fingers closed on the paper and
were gone.

Penrun whirled about. The drapes of the doorway framed a heavy, pasty
face with liquid black eyes. The slug gun was aiming again, this time
at Penrun. He hurled himself sideways out of his chair as it roared a
second time. The heavy slug buried itself in the corpse of the old
Martian on the table. The face in the doorway vanished.

       *       *       *       *       *

The next instant Penrun was through the door and racing down the long
promenade deck under the glow of the electric lights, for the
quartering sun was shining on the opposite side of the ship. Far down
the deck ahead fled the slayer.

The killer paused long enough to drop an emergency bulkhead gate. Five
minutes later when Penrun and the other passengers succeeded in
raising it, he had disappeared. One of the emergency space-suits
beside the air-lock was missing. Penrun sprang to a nearby port-hole.

Far back in space he saw the tiny figure shining in the sunlight,
while the long flame of his Sextle rocket-pistol showed that he was
checking his forward momentum as rapidly as possible. Unquestionably
he would be picked up by some craft now trailing the liner, for the
murder and theft of the paper must have been carefully planned. Penrun
turned from the port-hole thoughtfully.

The liner was in an uproar. News of the murder had spread like
wild-fire. Women were screaming hysterically and men shouting as they
rushed about in terror, believing that the ship was in the hands of
pirates. A squad of sailors passed on the double to take charge of the
buffet. There would be an inquest shortly. Penrun started for his
stateroom. He wanted to be alone a few minutes before the inquest took
place.

His room was on the deck above. The sight of the empty passage
relieved him, but he was surprised to discover that he had not locked
the door when he left an hour ago. He stepped into the room.

Instantly his hands shot upward. Something was prodding him in the
back.

"One move or a sound, and I shoot," warned a sharp whisper. "Stand as
you are till I find what I want."

His billfold was opened and dropped with an exclamation of
disappointment. The searcher hurried. Penrun calmly noted that the
fingers seemed to fumble and were not at all deft at this sort of
work. He glanced down, and smiled grimly. A woman! He jerked his body
away from the prodding pistol, gripped the slender hand that was about
to plunge into his coat pocket, and whirled round, catching the
intruder in his arms.

Big, terrified dark eyes stared up at him out of a pale, heart-shaped
face. Then with a sob the girl wrenched free, ran out of the door and
was gone.

       *       *       *       *       *

He did not follow, but instead carefully locked the door and placed a
chair against it. Things had been moving too rapidly for him to feel
sure he was safe even now. Opening his left hand, he gazed down at a
bit of crumpled yellow paper he was holding there. That much he had
saved of the message from his long dead grandfather when the murderer
grabbed the folded paper from the buffet table and fled.

It proved to be the bottom third of a sheet of heavy paper, and on it
was drawn a piece of a map, showing a large semi-circle, which might
have been a lake, and leading off from it were what might be a number
of crooked canals. At the end of one of these was an "X" and the word
"Here."

Below the sketch were some words that had not been torn off. He read
them with growing amazement. "... aves of Titan. I swear this to be the
true and correct place of concealment of ... may he who comes to possess
it do much good and penance, for it is drenched in blood and ... Captain
Orion Halkon."

Penrun sat for a long time in thought. Titan, the sixth moon of
Saturn! Nightmare of killing heat, iron cold, and monstrous spiders!
How many men had died trying to explore it! And who knew it better
than Penrun himself, the only one who had ever escaped from that
hellish cavern of the Living Dead? Old Halkon had hidden his treasure
well indeed.

Penrun had never found the Caves. Legend described them as the one
safe place on the satellite where a man might live without danger of
being attacked by the spiders because the Caves were too cold for
them.

Penrun doubted if there was any place that would be safe from the
monstrous insects.

At any rate old Halkon had hidden his treasure there, and that part of
the map that Penrun had thought was a lake was apparently the main
cavern, and the canals, side passages. Old Halkon believed that he had
hidden his treasure well, but he could not foresee just how well. Two
thirds of the map, showing the location of the entrance to the Caves,
had been taken by the murderer of the Martian, Lozzo. The remaining
third, which showed the location of the treasure inside the Caves, was
in Penrun's possession.

The murderer could find the Caves, but not the treasure inside; and
Penrun could find the treasure inside, but not the Caves.

Penrun folded up the crumpled bit of paper and placed it carefully in
his shoe. Unless his guess was wrong, another attempt to get it would
be made shortly. Undoubtedly the girl had by now reported her failure
to the rest of the gang.

       *       *       *       *       *

The inquest was brief. The white-sheeted body of the Martian lay on
the table where he had been slain. The captain of the liner called
Penrun as the chief witness. He told a straightforward story of a
chance acquaintance with Lozzo who, he said, seemed to be afraid of
something. He had declared, so Penrun testified, that he was being
hounded for a map of some kind and he wanted Penrun to see it. Then
the murder had been committed, the map was stolen, and the murderer
had fled. That was all, Penrun concluded, he knew about the matter.

Other passengers corroborated his story and he was dismissed.

Throughout the inquest Penrun studied the crowd of passengers that
jammed the buffet, hoping he might catch a glimpse of the slender,
dark-eyed girl who had tried to rob him. She was nowhere to be seen.
He thought of telling the captain about her, but decided not to. She
might make another attempt to get the map, and thereby give him the
opportunity of rounding up the whole gang, or at least of learning who
they were. He told himself grimly that if he could lay hold of her
again, she would not escape so easily.

If Penrun didn't realize before that he was a marked man, it was
impressed on him more forcefully three hours later on the lower deck
when two men attacked him in the darkened passage near the stern.
There was no time for pistols. A series of hurried fist-blows. He
slugged his way free and fled to the safety of his stateroom.

Once there he locked the door and sat down to consider his position.
It was obvious now that he would be followed to the outposts of space,
if necessary, in an attempt to get the map from him.

       *       *       *       *       *

After half an hour's hard thinking he tossed away his fourth
cigarette, loosened the pistol in his armpit holster, and slipped out
of the room. He went to the captain.

"You think, then, that your life is in danger because you happened to
be talking to that old Martian when he was murdered?" asked the
captain, when Penrun had finished.

"No question about it," declared Penrun. "Two attempts have been made
already."

"Hmm," said the captain, frowning. "A most remarkably strange
business. I've never had anything like it aboard my ship in the twenty
years I've been traveling the Void."

"I can pay for the space-sphere," urged Penrun. "My certificate of
credit will take care of it with funds to spare. All you have to do is
to let me cast off at once. If any questions are asked, you can say it
was my wish."

"Hmm! Really, Mr. Penrun, this is a most unusual request. I'm not
inclined--"

He stared at the communication board. The meteor warning dial was
fluctuating violently, showing the presence of a rapidly approaching
body--a meteor, or perhaps a flight of them. Gongs throughout the
liner automatically began to sound a warning for the passengers to get
into their space suits. The captain sat as though petrified.

Penrun sprang to the small visi-screen beside the board and snapped on
the current. Swiftly he revolved the periscope aerial. There appeared
on the screen the hull of a long, rakish, cigar-shaped craft which
was overhauling the liner. The stranger was painted dead black and
displayed no emblem.

"There's your meteor, Skipper," he remarked ironically. "And I am the
attraction that is drawing it to your ship for another murder. Do I
get the space-sphere?"

       *       *       *       *       *

The captain sprang to his feet. "You get it, Penrun. You'll have to
hurry. I want no more murders aboard my ship. Here, down this private
stairs to the sphere air-lock. I'll make arrangements by phone. Once
you are free of the liner I'll slow down so that the black ship will
have to slow down, too. That will give you a chance to pull away and
get a good start on them."

Five minutes later Penrun's newly acquired craft was sliding out of
its air-lock in the belly of the monstrous liner. He pulled away and
glanced back.

The liner was already slowing down. The black pursuing craft was
hidden by its vast, curving bulk. Penrun crowded on speed as swiftly
as he dared. By the time the strange craft had made contact with the
_Western Star_ his little sphere had dwindled to a mere point of light
in the black depths of space and vanished.

Penrun leaned over his charts grimly, as he set a new course for the
sphere to follow. He, too, could play at this game. He'd carry the
battle to the enemy's gate. Out to Titan he'd go and match his
familiarity with the little planet against the superior numbers of his
enemies.

       *       *       *       *       *

Ten days later, Earth time, he was circling Titan, while he searched
the grim, forbidden terrain beneath. After days of studying and
speculation he had decided that the Caves must be situated in the
Inferno Range, a place so particularly vicious that no man, so far as
was known, had ever explored it. During the day the heat would boil
eggs, and at night the sub-zero cold cracked great scales off the
granite boulders. And here, too, lay the Trap-Door City of the monster
spiders!

The grim, fantastic range soon appeared over the horizon, stabbing its
saw-tooth peaks far into the sky. Dawn was still lighting the world,
and a great snow-storm, a howling, furious blizzard, concealed the
lower slopes of the mountains. Penrun knew that presently the driving
snow-flakes would change to rain-drops, and the shrieking, moaning
voice of the gale would give way to the crashing, rolling thunder of
the tempest. As the day advanced the storm would die abruptly and the
clouds vanish under the deadly heat.

Then the Trap-Door City, which covered the slopes above the plateau at
the three-thousand-foot level like a checker-board of shimmering,
silken circles, would spring to febrile life as the spider monsters
went streaking and leaping across the barren, distorted granite on the
day's business, the hunt for food in the lowlands, and the opening of
the trap-doors to gather in the heat of the day in the silken tunnel
homes set in the gorges and among the boulders. At sunset the doors
would all be closed, for then the rain and the electrical storm would
return, and at night the blizzard. The storm-and-heat cycle was the
deadly weather routine of the Infernos.

Penrun steered for a tall, cloven peak that towered high above the
Trap-Door City. In its thin air and continuous cold he would be
comparatively safe from marauding spider scouts, and from the peak he
could watch not only the city of the monsters but the better part of
the Inferno Range as well.

He was convinced that before long the mysterious black craft would
put in an appearance somewhere near this spot. Penrun knew it all too
well. There by the cataract of the White River, half a mile across the
plateau from the insect city, he had once been captured.

       *       *       *       *       *

Next morning when he looked down on the plateau just below the
Trap-Door City he laughed triumphantly. There sat the long
black-hulled space craft he had seen overhauling the liner.

But a moment later he shook his head dubiously. Too brazen, that
landing. It was almost in the insect city. Of course, the ship was
large and heavily armed with ray-guns which poked out their sharp
snouts here and there about the hull. None the less, an experienced
explorer of Titan would never have flung such defiance at the spiders.

The city was feverishly alive with the monsters now. They gathered in
groups to stare down at the strange craft, then raced away again,
darting in and out of their trap-door homes and streaking here and
there across the twisted, tortured granite of the mountainside. The
Queen's palace, a vast, raised cocoon of shimmering, silken web, was a
veritable bee-hive. Something was brewing!

Abruptly the trap-door homes vomited forth monstrous insects by the
thousands which spread with prodigious speed along the mountainside.
At an unseen signal they poured down upon the plateau and charged the
space-ship.

The black craft's heavy ray-guns broke into life. Attacking monsters
curled up and died as the rays bit into their onrushing ranks. The
first wave melted, but an instant later the following waves buried the
ship.

Insects in the rear darted here and there, dragging away dead and
dying spiders. Here was food aplenty! The denizens of the Trap-Door
City would live well on their dead for a few days.

Abruptly the attack ceased. The crackling ray-guns were still taking
toll as the monsters scurried back to the safety of their city,
leaving their dead piled high about the hull of the ship.

       *       *       *       *       *

Penrun wondered if the monsters would abandon the heaps of their dead.
He rather expected that frenzied efforts would be made to retrieve
them for food. The problem was solved by those aboard the space-ship,
for presently it rose a score of feet in the air and moved a few
hundred yards nearer the waterfall that marked the headwaters of the
White River.

At once a frantic wave of spiders swept down across the plateau
scouring it clean of the dead monsters.

After that the Trap-Door City seemed deserted. Not a spider could be
seen near the shining, circular doors. Only here and there crouched a
huge, bristly warrior safe behind a jutting rock with his glittering
eight eyes fixed on the motionless black ship below.

Again the weary waiting. Penrun could only hope that it would not be
long before those aboard the black ship gave him some hint of where
the entrance to the Caves might be. Time and again he trained his
glasses on the ship only to drop them resignedly. But when noon had
passed and the heat of the day was scorching the rock he did not drop
his glasses when he looked through them once again. Instead he stood
erect in horror and dismay.

A girl had dashed out of the air-lock of the ship. She seemed to be
familiar. Then he recognized her as the girl who had tried to rob him
aboard the _Western Star_. Her face was drawn with agony in the
stifling, overpowering heat. She had advanced but a few yards, but
she was already staggering uncertainly.

What in Heaven's name possessed her to try to venture out in that
killing heat? She wasn't even dressed in a space-suit, which would
have protected her against heat as well as cold. There was the danger
of the monster spiders! Rescue would have to be quick!

Even as the thought flashed through his mind he knew she was past
saving. Down from the nearest pinnacle of rock streaked a gigantic
spider. The girl saw it, screamed, clutched her throat and fell.
Ray-guns of the ship crackled frenziedly. In vain! The insect swept
the helpless girl up in its powerful mandibles, sprang clear over the
ship and was streaking back up among the rocks in a black blur of
speed before the men inside the ship could train the guns on that
side, even if they had dared to.

       *       *       *       *       *

Penrun watched with fascinated dread. To the cavern of the Living
Dead! The monster carrying the limp girlish form was now running up
through the city toward it, guarded by two other huge insects that had
appeared from nowhere. Through the entrance of the cavern they darted
and disappeared.

Surely those aboard the ship would make an effort to rescue her,
thought Penrun, tense with horror. At least they would retaliate by
raying the city with their heavy artillery. But no! The black ship
only continued to rest there wavering in the heat. Penrun swore
vividly. The cowards! Still, perhaps they were afraid to unlimber
their heavy artillery for fear of killing the girl. Or perhaps, which
was more likely, they thought she was already dead and devoured. Few
persons knew about the Living Death.

Ah, well, he'd forget about her. She was an enemy, she was one of the
group that was trying to rob and perhaps kill him. Perhaps her
companions knew that she wouldn't be killed for two or three days, and
would make an effort to rescue her. And perhaps they wouldn't.

But before an hour had passed Penrun knew that he was going to master
his horror of that cavern and save her himself, or die in the attempt.
He, and he alone, had been in the cavern of the Living Dead and knew
what to expect--the fate that might be his as well as the girl's.

He wondered if that Englishman, that old man with the great beard who
said he had known Shakespeare and Bacon personally, was still lying in
his silken hammock at the far end of the cave. Know Shakespeare
personally? Impossible! Yet was it more impossible than the cavern
itself? The man's English was quaint and nearly unintelligible. His
description of that comical old space-ship of brass and wood was
plausible. Perhaps he had known the Bard of Avon.

       *       *       *       *       *

Night had descended when Penrun finally emerged from his little ship.
The air was bitterly cold, and overhead the stars burned brilliantly.
He paused to marvel a little that the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, and the
other constellations appeared just the same out here hundreds of
millions of miles from Earth as they did at home. It made one feel
infinitely small to realize the pinpoint size of the Solar Universe.
He shivered for the temperature was nearly forty below zero, and
snapped on the current of his Ecklin electro-heater which was
connected with his clothing and would keep him warm even in that cold.

Another suit of slip-on clothes with an Ecklin heater, and his
lounging moccasins were in a pack on his back. If he succeeded in
releasing the girl, she would need them. The spider monsters didn't
leave their Living Dead victims any clothing usually; and little good
would it have done the Living Dead if they had.

Swiftly he descended the peak, leaping easily from rock to rock,
thanks to the small gravity of the planet, and presently entered the
clouds above the insect city. Abruptly the storm broke in all its fury
with the shrieking of the gale and driving snow. In the blackness the
pencil of light from his tiny flash showed only a few yards through
the swirling, driving flakes that bit and numbed his bare face. With
pistol ready he forged slowly ahead toward the cavern of the Living
Dead.

He bumped into the snow-covered rock before he realized he was close
to the place. With every nerve alert and the shrieking, freezing gale
forgotten he slipped the flashlight back into its holder and drew
another pistol. The door, he recalled, opened inward. It was not
fastened, but just inside the entrance crouched a gigantic insect on
guard.

Penrun was tense and ready. He kicked the door so viciously that its
elastic, silken frame sagged inward under the impact of his foot.
Against the glow of the green light inside the cavern he saw a
nightmarish monster rising to its feet. Both pistols stabbed viciously
as the monster thrust forward a thick, bristly leg to shut the door
again.

       *       *       *       *       *

A ray bit off the leg at the second joint. The other ray ripped open
the soft, tumid abdomen. Penrun had barely time to throw himself aside
as the convulsed, dying monster hurled itself tigerishly forward
through the doorway out into the driving storm in a final frenzied
effort to seize and rend his frail human enemy.

Penrun slipped into the cavern. The deathly cold outside would finish
the horrible insect. As he kicked the big door shut he was crouched
and tense, for the ancient gray attendant monster whose poisoned bite
had paralyzed thousands for this living hell was moving forward
curiously.

Both pistols flamed to life. The fearsome head of the monster with its
poisoned mandible shriveled to nothing under the searing rays. Penrun
sprang backward and jerked open the door. Then he closed it again. The
old spider was moving feebly. Instead of the galvanic death of the
guard, the huge gray insect's legs buckled under it and it slumped
down to the floor of the cave where it quivered a few seconds, then
relaxed in death.

As Penrun stepped forward around the carcass the cave filled with
hysterical screams and hoarse insane shouting of joy and terror. He
looked up at the high vaulted roof where the strange diamond-shaped
crystal diffused its green light along the shimmering silken web, then
turned his gaze downward to the rock floor beneath his feet. At last
he gritted his teeth and forced himself to look at the walls.

Again he saw tier upon tier of hammocks, each holding a naked human
being, helpless and paralyzed from the poisoned bite of the attendant
monster spider. Some could weep, some could smile, some could talk,
yet none could move either hand or foot. A few were mercifully
unconscious, but the rest were not. Many were insane. Yet they all lay
alike year after year, century after century, if need be, kept alive
by the rays of the strange green light in the roof. This was the
cavern of the Living Dead!

       *       *       *       *       *

Penrun knew the tragic future of these unfortunates. A few, perhaps,
would go as food for the Queen in times of famine. The remainder
would become living incubators for the larvae of the Queen which would
be planted in their living bodies by the monster attendant to eat away
the vitals until death mercifully ended the victim's life, and the
growing spider emerged to feed on a new victim, or to go its way.

A thousand helpless human beings swung in their silken hammocks
awaiting their fate. Penrun had learned about them during those two
horrible days he had been held prisoner here before he had succeeded
in raying the novice attendant and the monster guard with the pistol
from his armpit holster that the spiders had overlooked when they
captured him. He recalled again how he had dashed frantically from
hammock to hammock trying to rouse some of the Living Dead to escape
with him. Not one of them could respond.

Reports to the Interplanetary Council? He had made them, written and
oral, and had only been laughed at for a half-crazy explorer. The
Council would not even investigate.

Now Penrun did not tarry. He strode swiftly back to the far end of the
cavern.

"The girl who was just brought in, is she safe?" he asked hoarsely.

None seemed to know, but presently he knew she was still unhurt, for
he found her bound hand and foot to the rock wall with heavy silken
webs. Nearly all her clothing had been torn off her. She looked up
hopelessly. A great fear appeared in her eyes.

"You!" she gasped. "Are you responsible for this?"

"I have come for you," he replied in a matter-of-fact tone, swiftly
removing the pack from his back.

She cowered against the wall.

"You--you inhuman beast!" Her face was white with horror.

He cut the silken bonds.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Don't be a fool!" he said roughly. "I have no power over these
monsters. Hurry into those clothes! Do you want to be bitten in the
small of the back and lie paralyzed for years in a hammock like these
other unfortunates, then suffer untold agony for months while spiders'
larvae eat out your vitals? Hurry, I say! We must get out of here at
once!"

He turned away. He wanted to see that old Englishman who said he had
known Shakespeare. His wish was in vain. The old man's sightless eyes
stared up at the silken roof. The long, heavy beard that lay across
the breast stirred. The beady, glittering eyes of an infant spider
peeped out. Penrun uttered a curse of loathing. His pistol stabbed
death into the foul insect.

He felt a touch on his arm. The girl was waiting.

"I am ready," she said quietly. "Oh, let us hurry!"

Dawn was lighting the world outside, and the driving blizzard was
already changing to rain. Penrun seized the girl's hand and ran madly
up the mountainside toward the peak. The spiders usually did not
venture out in the rain, but in the face of danger from the ship they
would be abroad as early as possible this morning.

Penrun suddenly spurted madly. Half a dozen gigantic spiders were
moving cautiously along the lower edge of the city, their bodies
looming up grotesquely in the misty rain. The girl stumbled, struck
her head against a boulder, and lay still. Penrun caught her up in his
arms and sprinted madly up the steep slope.

       *       *       *       *       *

A rock loosened by his flying feet rattled and pounded down the
hillside. Instantly the monsters whirled round, sighted him and
started in pursuit. With a mighty leap he cleared a ten-foot ledge,
carrying his unconscious burden, and plunged into the sheltering mist
of the clouds. Up, up! Thank God for the weak gravity!

A swishing rattle of claws on rock shot by them in the fog, turned and
swept back. Penrun sprang straight upward, rising nearly a dozen feet
in the air as the monsters streaked past underneath.

Only a little farther! Savagely he forced his failing strength to
carry them up the slope. The air was chilling fast and the mist
thinning. He broke into clear air as the fog behind them filled with
the rattle of racing claws on the barren granite and the grating roar
of the baffled monsters, seeking frantically for their intended
victims.

He staggered on another hundred yards before he collapsed with lungs
laboring desperately in the rarefied air.

Below them a bristly monster charged out of the fog, sighted them
lying up among the rocks, and leaped after them. Penrun jerked up a
pistol with trembling fingers and loosed its deadly ray. The huge
spider stumbled and ploughed head-on among the rocks with a flurry of
legs. It rose loggily, for its fierce energy was dwindling rapidly in
the biting cold. Again the pistol crackled. The gigantic insect
toppled over and rolled down the mountainside into the fog and
vanished.

"Are we safe now?"

Penrun turned. The girl was now sitting up somewhat unsteadily, with
an ugly bruise on her forehead.

"I think so," he replied. "Up there in my space-sphere we shall be
quite safe."

       *       *       *       *       *

Together they plodded silently up the sharp incline of the peak, her
hand in his. And as they went he marveled that her eyes could be so
beautiful now that the fear and horror had vanished from their
depths.

The storm clouds below had broken up and dissolved under the
increasing heat, revealing the Trap-Door City, seemingly deserted, and
the motionless black ship still resting on the plateau. Penrun turned
to the girl beside him in the control nest of the space-sphere.

"What are your friends waiting for all this time?" he asked abruptly.

"They're not my friends," she retorted. "And you might have guessed
that they are waiting for you to arrive with the other third of the
map. They are planning to surprise you and rob you of it. The entrance
to the Caves is under the edge of the Cataract over there, and by
waiting here they are sure to be on hand when you arrive. Only"--her
brows puckered in a little frown--"I don't understand why they remain
out there on the open rock after Helgers has picked a hiding-place for
the ship."

"Helgers?"

"He is the leader of the gang, and he is the man who killed that poor
old Martian aboard the _Western Star_ for the map. Helgers learned
about the treasure and the existence of the map through a convict who
was with Lozzo in the prison. Helgers pretends to be an importer in
Chicago--he actually owns a nice little business there--but in reality
he is one of the biggest smugglers in the Universe."

"How do you come to be with him?"

"I was coming to that," she replied. "My parents live on Ganymede."

Penrun nodded. He was familiar with the fourth satellite of Jupiter
and its fertile provinces.

"My father is an American, but my grandfather on my mother's side was
a Medan nobleman. He was ruined by that notorious pirate, Captain
Halkon, who descended with his ships on our city and carried off
everything of value, including the vast amount of scrip credits owned
by the state which were entrusted to my grandfather. You know the
Ganymedan debtor's law?"

He did indeed! It was one of the most infamous laws of the Universe:
ruling that the debts of the father descended to the children and
their children's children until paid.

       *       *       *       *       *

"My family is now poor," she went on. "For a century or more we have
striven to pay off the debt caused by the loss of those state funds.
That's the way matters stood when I received a letter from my brother
Tom in Chicago, who was employed in the office of Helgers' legitimate
importing business, little aware of the smuggling. Tom had somehow got
wind of the near discovery of Halkon's treasure, and I saw a chance to
get a part of it by joining Helgers' party. He might not want us, but
he would be practically forced to take us to keep our mouths shut. I
felt that we were honestly entitled to a part of that treasure which
had been stolen from our family, and with it we could pay off that old
debt that had ridden our family like an Old Man of the Sea for more
than a century.

"Getting into the expedition proved much simpler than I had expected.
When Tom told Helgers about me he was very eager to help us--he is one
of those men who is always anxious to help a girl if he thinks she is
good-looking enough. So you see when I held you up in your stateroom I
was merely performing my part of the scheme, although I didn't know
then that Helgers had already slain the old Martian and leaped out
into space.

"After that the _Osprey_--the ship down there on the
plateau--overhauled the _Western Star_ and took us off, and shortly
afterward I learned most unpleasantly that Helgers had no intention of
giving Tom and me our share unless I gave myself to him in exchange. I
told Tom, and trouble started. It came to a head yesterday and there
was a fight and--and Helgers killed Tom."

She began to weep quietly. Penrun stared grimly down at the black,
motionless ship. Presently the girl resumed her story.

"I managed to get the air-lock open and escaped from the ship. Then
that horrid spider caught me. You know the rest."

Her voice trailed off. Penrun remained silent for a while.

"You haven't even told me your name," he reminded her gently.

"Irma Boardle," she replied with a wan smile.

"I am Dick Penrun, in case you don't already know me. Captain Halkon
was my grandfather. We always tried to keep the knowledge of it a
family secret, since we were ashamed of it. If I--we get our hands on
that treasure, I can promise you that the debt hanging over your
family shall be paid first, Miss Boardle."

"Not Miss Boardle. Call me Irma," she said, the wan smile growing
suddenly warm.

Penrun looked at her thoughtfully.

"But we aren't near the treasure yet," he said. "Between the spider
monsters and the human monsters in the ship, our chances are rather
slim. We'll just have to wait until we get a break."

       *       *       *       *       *

As the day wore on there was a note of menace in the silence that hung
over the Trap-Door City. It was nothing tangible, unless it was the
appearance of two long silvery rods mounted on the top of the huge
cocoon-palace of the Queen aiming down at Helgers' ship. Penrun could
have sworn they were not there yesterday. The sight of them made him
uneasy.

Helgers must have interpreted the silence differently, for presently a
man emerged from the ship, protected against the heat by a clumsy
space-suit. He hesitated, then walked slowly away from the ship, and
paused again, waiting for the spiders to attack. Not a movement was
made in the city. Presently he moved on again toward the cataract
which had dwindled in the heat of the day to a mere trickle of hot
water down to the pool in the gorge more than half a mile below.

After a time the man reached the cataract. He descended the short path
that led down under the lip of rock to another ledge a few feet below
it. The entrance to the Caves opened out onto this lower ledge. Little
wonder, thought Penrun, that no one knew where the Caves were.

Some time later two other men from the ship followed him.

"Fools!" muttered Penrun, following them through his glasses. "They
think the spiders are afraid of their ray artillery. I'll bet the
monsters are either waiting until all the men wander out of the ship,
or else they're getting ready to spring some hellish surprise."

Other men came out of the ship, carrying rock drills, a roll of cable
and a powerful little windlass. Instead of going to the Caves, they
went round the ship to the other side under the doubtful protection of
the ray-guns, and sank two shafts into the granite. Into these they
drove steel posts and anchored the windlass. One end of the cable was
attached to the windlass and the other to the nose of the ship. Then
they slowly dragged the big craft across the plateau on rollers from
the ship's store room.

       *       *       *       *       *

"That's strange!" exclaimed Penrun. "The ship can't rise! I wonder
what's wrong, and why they are pulling it away from instead of toward
the Caves."

"I don't know what's the matter with the ship, but I believe I know
why they are moving it," volunteered Irma. "They're taking it to that
hiding-place I told you Helgers picked out--there behind that upthrust
of rock. You see, they think you know where the Caves are because you
have explored Titan, and they think you will come directly here, so
they want the ship hidden to make sure you land."

Half a hundred men in their space-suits toiled like ants about the big
cylindrical craft until they at last jockeyed it into position behind
the natural screen of rock. Even before it was in place other men were
swarming over the ship with paint machines, coloring it a granite
gray. When they had finished the ship was nearly invisible from the
sky.

Penrun paid little attention to their preparations. His attention was
centered on those two shining rods atop the Queen's silken palace.
They now aimed at the ship in its new position. A strange idea flashed
through his mind. Those rods had in some mysterious way put the
elevating machinery of the _Osprey_ out of commission!

Suppose the spiders turned them next on his own space-sphere up here
on the peak? The thought sent a shudder through him. Visions of the
final flight across the nightmarish, distorted granite, the running
down and capture of himself and Irma, the paralyzing bite of the
monsters in the cavern of the Living Dead flashed across his mind.
Cold sweat stood out on his forehead. Instinctively his hand leaped to
the propulsion control and hovered there.

       *       *       *       *       *

Yet why hadn't the spiders attacked the ship, now that they had it
helpless? It was not their usual tactics to give their victims a
chance to free themselves. Why, why? There could be only one answer.
They were waiting for something! Penrun's eyes glinted suddenly.

"Irma," he said rapidly, "we are in serious danger. The spiders have
obviously put the elevating machinery of the _Osprey_ out of
commission. Helgers and his men are doomed to the Living Death as
surely as though they were already lying in the silken hammocks. If
the monsters choose, they could do the same thing to our sphere and
doom us to the same fate. I believe they are waiting for something.
While they wait we have a chance to get the treasure and escape. Shall
we risk it, or shall we go while we know we are safe?"

She looked up at him evenly.

"If you think we have a fair chance to get the treasure and escape, I
say let's risk it," she said firmly.

"Good!" he exclaimed. "Here we go!"

The little sphere slipped out of its cleft in the peak and dropped
swiftly into the valley on the side opposite the Trap-Door City and
its mysterious menace. Day was swiftly dying, and the lower passes of
the mountains were already hazy with rapidly forming storm-clouds.

"Look!" cried Irma excitedly. "What are those things?"

Far in the distance a long line of wavering red lights snaked swiftly
through the dusky valley toward them. Penrun picked up his binoculars.

"Spiders," he announced. "Scores of them. Each is carrying a sort of
red torch. I have a feeling that those are what the monsters of the
Trap-Door City have been waiting for."

He urged the sphere to swifter flight along the range. Miles from the
Caves, he swept up over the peaks, and dropped down on the lowlands
side. Dusk was deepening rapidly as he raced back toward the White
River cataract under the pall of the gathering storm.

       *       *       *       *       *

Among the boulders on the rough mountainside near the mouth of the
Caves he eased the craft down to a gentle landing.

"Wait here," he told Irma. "I'll investigate and see if it is safe to
enter the Caves."

They had seen the three men return to the ship, but others might have
gone to the Caves after that. Penrun made his way down the slope to
the lip of the cataract and the yawning blackness of the abysmal gorge
below it.

Overhead the storm was gathering swiftly, and the saffron light of the
dying day illuminated the plateau eerily. Half a mile away the
Trap-Door City shimmered fantastically in the uncertain light. Penrun
repressed a shudder. The Devil's own playground! Thank God, he and
Irma would be out of it soon!

He crept down the narrow path that led under the ledge of the
trickling cataract. Outside, a bolt of lightning stabbed down from the
darkened heavens. Its lurid flash revealed the huge figure of a man,
pistol in hand, beside the entrance to the Caves.

Too late to retreat now, even had he wished to. Penrun's weapon
flashed first. A scream of pain and fury answered the flash, and the
man's pistol clattered down on the rock. The next instant Penrun was
helpless in the clutch of a mighty pair of arms that tried to squeeze
the life out of him.

"Burn, me, will ye, ye dirty scum!" roared the giant of a man
tightening his grip. "I'll break your damned back for ye and heave ye
into the gorge!"

Penrun writhed frenziedly, trying to twist his pistol around against
his enemy's back, while they struggled desperately about the ledge
above the dizzy blackness of the gorge. But the pistol struck the wall
beside the entrance and fell under their trampling feet.

Penrun was gasping in agony at the intolerable pain in his spine.
Darting points of light danced before his eyes. Then from the opening
in the rock showed a beam of white light and a man slowly emerged from
the Caves. The grip on Penrun relaxed slightly as the man came toward
the two combatants. Penrun could distinguish him closely now. A heavy,
pasty face with liquid black eyes and a crown of thinning hair.
Helgers! He was staggering and grunting under the weight of a heavy
metal box.

       *       *       *       *       *

"What's the matter, Borgain?" he asked.

"Got this bird, Penrun, we been waitin' for!"

"We don't need him, now that we already have the treasure. Still, it's
a good thing we found him. Just as well to have no tales circulating
about the Universe about our find. Toss him into the gorge, and go
down and watch the other three chests until I get--"

"Dick, Dick!" Irma's excited voice floated down from up among the
boulders. "The spiders with those red cylinder torches have arrived!
They are attacking the _Osprey_!"

Helgers jerked up his head.

"Why, if it isn't the little spitfire!" he exclaimed in pleased
astonishment. "I thought the damned spiders had eaten her long before
this. Rather changes things, Borgain. I'll just go on up and let my
little playmate know I am here. Toss our friend over the edge there,
and bring up another treasure chest."

"What was that she was sayin' about the spiders attackin' the
_Osprey_?" Borgain's voice was anxious.

"Oh, that's nothing the boys can't handle," said Helgers confidently.
"In case they don't, we'll have to feel sorry for them and take our
friend's sphere. Only have to split the treasure two ways, in that
case," he added, moving up the slope.

Borgain's answer was a grunt of surprise, for his captive had squirmed
suddenly out of his clutch. The big man plunged forward recklessly
with arms outstretched in the groping darkness. Penrun, desperately
remembering the sickening drop at their feet to the pool three
thousand feet below, backed against the rock.

A flash of lightning. Borgain's ape-like arms were nearing him. Penrun
lashed out at the darkened features. His knuckles bit deep into the
flesh. He slipped aside as Borgain, mouthing fearful curses, rammed
into the rock wall and rebounded.

       *       *       *       *       *

Again the fumbling search. Another lightning flash. Penrun struck with
frenzied desperation. Borgain took the blow behind the ear and
staggered. He whirled, wild with fury, and charged vainly along the
narrow ledge.

"I'll get ye this time, damn your dirty carcass--ugh!"

Guided by the sound of his voice, Penrun struck with all his strength.
Borgain's nose flattened under the blow. He whirled half around.

"I'll kill ye! I'll kill--help, help--a-ah!"

Lost in the blackness he had plunged over the lip of the rock,
thinking he was charging Penrun. Down into the yawning gorge his body
hurtled, the sound of his frenzied, dwindling screams floating up
eerily out of the black, ominous depths.

Penrun crouched against the wall, sick and trembling. Irma, Helgers!
He must hurry! He fumbled again for the pistols. They were gone.
Crawling forward now, still shaken by his narrow escape from death, he
gained the pathway. The rain was drumming wildly on the barren granite
now, and the pitch-blackness was shattered only by ghastly lightning
bolts.

Guided by the flashes, he clambered up the slope and halted abruptly.
The door of the space-sphere was open, and, silhouetted against the
soft glow of light within it, was Irma, seated dejectedly with bowed
head, heedless of the cold rain beating down upon her. Helgers was
nowhere to be seen. Penrun dashed forward.

"Irma, Irma!" he cried. "What has happened? Where is he?"

She raised her head slowly and stared at him as at one risen from the
dead. Then she burst into tears.

"He said they had killed you--had thrown your body into the gorge,"
she sobbed. "I--I just didn't want to live after that. Are you hurt?"

"Not a bit," he assured her fervently. "But where is Helgers?"

"I pistoled him," she said quietly. "I had no choice. He came at me
after I warned him to keep away. He fell over there among the rocks.
Oh, Dick, let us hurry away from this mad place!"

       *       *       *       *       *

He stared at the rain-swept rocks. The heavy metal treasure chest lay
a few yards away where Helgers had dropped it. Penrun moved cautiously
toward the spot where he had fallen. He was gone. The rain had washed
away any traces of blood that might have remained.

While Penrun hesitated, the roar of the tempest was split by a man's
scream of agony. A lurid flash of lightning an instant later revealed
a gigantic spider down by the cataract with Helgers' struggling body
in his mandible jaws. Returning blackness blotted out the scene.

Irma's pistol stabbed a ray through the driving rain at the hideous
monster. Instantly its grating roar for help rang out, and a group of
red lights from the doomed _Osprey_ across the plateau, detached
themselves from the others and came streaking for the cataract.

Penrun seized the heavy treasure chest and staggered to the sphere.

"Hurry, here they come!" screamed the girl.

He fell through the door with his burden just as the foremost monster
leaped the river. The next instant Irma sent the sphere rocketing
upward. Just before they plunged into the clouds they caught a last
glimpse of the _Osprey_ with her ray guns melted off by the red
cylinder torches, and great holes gaping in her sides through which
the monsters were carrying out the members of the crew to their cavern
of the Living Dead.

As the sphere burst through the storm cloud into the frigid air above
it, Irma gave a cry and pointed at the peak where they had hidden in
the sphere. The peak was now alive with moving red lights of monsters
searching vainly for them. The scene dropped swiftly below as the
sphere gathered speed for its homeward journey.

"We got only a small portion of the treasure, but it will be enough,"
said Penrun. "After we pay your family's debt, I want to spend a
hundred thousand or so for a specially chartered battle-sphere which
will come back here to Titan. If the Interplanetary Council will do
nothing about the Trap-Door City, I shall, independently. Not rays,
but good old primitive bombs such as they used back in the Twentieth
Century. I'll blow the hellish place off the face of the map and with
it the cavern of the Living Dead. I think those lying in the hammocks
would thank me for releasing them in that way."

       *       *       *       *       *





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